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Chapter 17

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

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

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

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

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

My eyes flash in anger.

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

“Beep. Guess again.”

“The school?”

“Not likely.”

“My past?”

“You’re getting warmer.”

I roll my eyes then proceed to stand.

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

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

“You!”

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

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

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

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

“Obviously, I do.” I retort angrily.

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

“Same to you.” I respond.

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

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

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

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

“Yes. What’s it to you?”

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

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

He rolls his eyes while I speak.

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

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

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

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

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

“No, I was toying with him.”

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

“Does the Instructor know?”

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

“Like you.”

Kurt laughs.

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

I consider then nod.

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

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

“Aronade?”

“Yes, of course.”

He smiles smugly.

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

He looks anxiously towards the door.

“All right, but make it quick.”

“My foot. Did you try to cut it off?”

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

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

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

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

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

My eyes narrow with skepticism.

“Anything else?” he asks.

“Where’s Mark?” I demand.

“How should I know?”

I glare at him.

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

“Katie …” I mutter.

“Yeah, whatever.” he mouths.

Then, Mark really is gone, I think.

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

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

“No!” he declares.

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

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

“Yes.” I state coldly.

He finally backs off and smiles.

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

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

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

“Working together?” I repeat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She glares at me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

End of Book One

Copyright © Jennifer Alice Chandler 2020

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Chapter 16

It takes a moment for that to sink in.

“Then, you would die for a game?” I utter in astonishment.

The Instructor sits once more upon his chair. He presses his fingertips together again then sighs.

“What’s death?” He lets his eyes roll off to the side. “It could happen, I suppose. But I’m not going to be tied down by the fear of it. Then, they’ll have control over me. But because they fear death more than I do, I have control over them. You see, they’re not as concerned about death through aging now. And before your disease, they no longer had any fear of illness. They felt they were on their way to immortality … hardly, but as the years dragged on that’s how it must have felt. And as a digression, I think that’s why they’ve been getting involved in so many social sidelines now — it’s from boredom. Nothing but murder — violence of all kinds but particularly murder — will stimulate them now. But you’ll be seeing that firsthand soon enough.”

“I will?”

He bangs the palms of his hands upon the arms of his chair.

“And that’s the beauty of it! You are now ready to mingle with the world without falling for its trappings. I’ve prepared you well, and you have proved yourself.”

 “How so?” I utter.

 “You managed to get out of here on your own without permission, and, therefore, you have proved you aren’t dependant on approval anymore.”

I have to wonder whether he truly believes what he’s saying about my proving myself, or whether he is just moving me out of necessity and is trying to save face. I also question why he acts as though I escaped from the complex on my own initiative. He had led me to the bombed-out city. Or, had he? It occurs to me that he doesn’t seem to be aware of the last scenario. And if that’s the case, what could that mean?

“There really is only so long I can hide you here before they catch on. I have taken measures to obscure your presence, but how long can that last …?”

“What measures?” I ask breathlessly.

I realize almost right away that I have made the mistake of not waiting for him to finish his sentence. He looks at me quizzically as though trying to figure out whether he should punish me for that offense or just let my insolence go unchecked.

He swallows hard then looks out toward the window. I can see his hand shaking. He clenches his fist to steady it. I just sit there, passively waiting to see what he will decide to do next. Nothing I can do will help matters at this point.

Then, when he breathes out slowly, I have the feeling that I am in the clear. He has decided to let it go after all.

“I kidnapped some people.” he then tells me in a low tone. “Or, I should say I had them kidnapped. I would leave an item at the scene as a mark that I had been there.” he reflects.

The Instructor then looks at me, eagerly anticipating a reaction. Mark had been right about him — that is what I am thinking. There is no visible reaction from Kurt. Did he already know about it?

“They were like you … superficially. I had them around. The elite couldn’t know which one was you. Still, eventually, they will stumble upon you if I leave things the way they are now.”

I wait for him to finish this time. Actually, I wait to speak for quite a few seconds after he has finished. I find I don’t really want to talk with him anymore. Finally, I force myself to speak as calmly and as disinterestedly as I can manage. I try not to think about how I seem to be dependant on this man for my survival or how his actions and my knowing about them may affect the rest of my life.

“Were?” I repeat. “Are they still alive?”

He smirks.

“Does it matter?” he asks.

I freeze under his gaze. I feel my face flush as I grip the arms of my chair with my hands. He seems amused by my reaction.

“Most.” he says.

“Most? Some are dead?”

“Some have died.” he responds flippantly. “Accidents happen. Plus, the ones that the elites took … I don’t know what happened to them. They were probably tested for the virus, and then … who knows …”

“Did you try to find out?” I ask, further reddening with anger.

“Now, Puppet, it wouldn’t do me or you any good to act as though I care. And you have to look at the big picture. Your existence gives them pause.”

“Pause about what?”

He doesn’t respond at first. I know the Instructor has no idealism. There is no way he’d stick his neck out to prevent evil from being done, especially since he is doing evil himself.

“We’ve covered this!” he groans. “Since they haven’t accomplished finding you at this point, they have to sit on their own biological weapons and put their eugenics dream on hold.”

He laughs.

“At any rate, my journeys lately have given me pause. I’ve come to the conclusion you’re in danger here. They have trained a team of people to track you down. They’ve discovered some of my … decoys. They’ll find you eventually. Of course, we can’t have that.”

“How do you know the people who found them are the same ones who wish me harm?”

“It’s possible that not all the decoys are being tracked down in order to kill you, but I have information that in some cases they are.”

“They’re dead in those cases, aren’t they?”

He sighs.

“All right, Puppet. More than one escaped, I think, but some are dead — were killed. And it was at the hands of the elites. Satisfied, Puppet?”

“No.” I reply, tears streaming from my eyes. “I’ll probably never be satisfied again.”

He laughs at me again.

“Don’t be so melodramatic!” he admonishes. “It doesn’t suit you, and it’s annoying to me. Plus, it won’t help you survive.”

“I didn’t think that my survival depended on the death of other people.” I speak lowly, without lifting my eyes to meet his.

“It doesn’t.” he replies indifferently. “But as I said, things happen. They didn’t have to happen, but not everything can be anticipated. The elite trying to search you out I anticipated; their succeeding in finding some of my plants and then killing them — not so much. I myself didn’t kill anyone. I mean, someone may have fallen while trying to escape, but I didn’t arrange to have anyone killed. It wouldn’t suit my purposes to have them think you’re dead.”

“And you’re helping me because?”

“Helping you?” he repeats. “Oh, yeah.”

He grips the chair arms in his hands then stands.

“As I’ve said, I like games. And this is a doozy of one.”

“Even if you die?”

“Really, why is it so difficult for you to believe that? I will die eventually anyway. At least I’m having fun in the meantime. Let’s see whether they can beat my logic! They’ve killed some girls without knowing whom it was they were killing … but as I said I’m sure they’ve tested their victims since then and know they aren’t you.”

My stomach churns. I look down.

“Don’t approve?” he asks me. Then, he shrugs.

“And what is your endgame exactly?”

“That’s really none of your business, Puppet. Just be glad I have a vested interest in your survival. If I didn’t … well, I can’t imagine you’d be alive now. The fact that I’m not solely motivated to protect you — well, I can see why that may upset you seeing how emotional you can be, but I’m not beholden to you in any way. I’m doing you a favor because our interests coincide — nothing more. I don’t want your judgment of my motives. Just be glad you have an ally and leave it at that.” His voice is cold and so are his words.

I sit there stunned, unsure of what to say next.

“What does this mean … for me?” I finally manage.

“That’s better!” he approves with a smile. “I’ll get to that in a moment. But first, I’m assuming that’s all of your questions for now?”

I can’t think of any that he’d want me to ask. There are other questions — questions about Mark … about the incident in the vent. And yet, I hesitate to bring up anything to this man. In fact, I suddenly feel fortunate that he wants to bring this conversation to an abrupt end. I nod distractedly. He yawns.

“Very well.” he sounds — surprisingly — a bit disappointed, which makes me wonder whether I have forgotten something. But then, I remember that I’m not supposed to care what he thinks about me or my performance anymore. Still, I can’t help but be troubled by his reaction. And yet, as he proceeds to walk away from his chair, I realize that it is already too late for me to question him any further. That had been my opportunity — perhaps the only opportunity I would ever have to get answers out of him. If I had indeed forgotten something, then I blew it.

But I have to let it go at this point. Nothing can be gained by pushing it now. There is no way he will answer anything more. In fact, that may have been his way of letting me know that he is done answering questions.

“I’ll have Nan give you an itinerary for your trip.”

“Trip?” I repeat in a daze. I am still smarting from what I now know of him — what he has done to others and the mind games he has played on me.

“Yes, pay attention, Puppet. I told you I think you’re ready to leave this place.”

I look at Kurt, who is standing next to him. He doesn’t react.

“Who is this kid to him?” I wonder.

“Yes, you’re ready.” the Instructor repeats in a mumble to himself. “I think it’s time to start the integration process.” he informs me. “From now on you’ll be living as one of us. Hiding in plain sight as it were.” the Instructor laughs until he begins to cough. Kurt looks on disapprovingly.

“You’ll be entering the world … going to the capital. Kurt will be accompanying you. You will be attending the same school that Kurt now attends.” He pauses. “I just better be right about your being ready.” he adds. “It would be … disappointing if I weren’t.”

With that, the Instructor heads for the door. I know at that moment things have changed — none of my time will be my own any longer.

Copyright © Jennifer Alice Chandler 2020

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Chapter 15

I leave Mark in the abandoned building with the lights flickering on and off disjointedly. There isn’t any rhyme or reason to the flickering — just like my everyday life. It is fitting I guess that I think on that scene in a state of abject distraction. What does it all mean? What does any of it mean? I suppose I am depressed. Yes, I am. I allowed myself to hope there was something more than this unreal reality I am stuck in. The world I had begun to envision seemed a lot more genuine and explicable to me than the world I was taught to believe was true. I prefer that other world, and yet I am trapped in this one. And it has become clear they aren’t going to allow me to just leave it.

Why do they care so much? Not about me, mind you, but in keeping control over me. I wish I could convince them that there really isn’t any point to it — how am I worth it to them? And yet, I know it has more to do with them than with me. And I can’t possibly fix what is broken. My mere existence just sticks in their craw so much that they just can’t or won’t let me go.

At any rate, I can only hope that Mark is safe and that he has found his sister. I had given him a chance to escape at my own expense. As I said, I would have been risking him and his sister if I had tried to get past the blonde boy.

And I did notice that Mark let me sacrifice myself. I had worried briefly that he would come charging up the stairs after me. Then, I worried that he had been rendered incapable of doing so. Eventually though, I accepted that he had purposefully done nothing. I’m not a priority for him — his sister, Katie, is. I try to make myself understand that, but it still hurts all the same.

Of course, that really isn’t relevant. What I have come to realize is that my escaping had been an impossibility all along. Even though Mark and I hadn’t been aware of it before, the Instructor would never have permitted me to vanish without a trace …

I follow mutely behind the boy as we trace our way back to the complex. I take the time to look around me at the scenery — or what I can see of it as it has already grown quite dark. Though, as it turns out, it isn’t as late as I had thought it was when I was in that abandoned building.

We are also, surprisingly, not far from the complex. The last building we were in was nearer to the complex than I had thought. Mark and I must have gone past it without noticing the first time we entered the city. It amazes me … going so far only to wind up close to the beginning in the end.

And yet, I find it is the space right behind me that I am most interested in now. I feel a compulsion to turn back to see whether Mark is following me. I can still feel his presence there … though it does seem to be fading. But I don’t look, for I can also sense that the blonde boy is keeping a watchful eye on me with his peripheral vision. Then again, maybe it is just an excuse when I tell myself that I am not looking back only to protect Mark. Maybe I am just afraid of confirming what I already know — that he isn’t there …

We enter the complex grounds through the main gate. The unknown boy appears to have far greater freedom and far greater access to the complex than I do. He certainly doesn’t seem to feel the need to sneak around. And he appears to take pleasure in demonstrating this fact to me, too.

Of course, it is hard for me not to realize as I step over the threshold of the main building that I am, once again, trapped. I now feel desperate to cast my eyes backwards to see whether Mark is running up behind me to stop me, but I brace myself against the impulse to look. My heart sinks when the big door is shut behind me and secured. It seems too late for anyone to rescue me now. I breathe in an unsatisfying breath.

“Kurt.” I hear Nan’s voice say his name as she shuts the door behind us.

“See, I brought her back!” Kurt declares.

I look at Nan and see her nod at him. Her eyes, when she looks at me, appear wary and detached.

“I can see that she’s here.” Nan responds stiffly.

“I suppose the Instructor is going to want to see us, then?” Kurt pursues.

I stiffen at the suggestion.

“I don’t know.” Nan replies moodily. “I’ll have to tell him what I know and find out what he thinks.”

Kurt brazenly follows after Nan as she walks down the hall. It is as though he is the heir apparent of some imaginary kingdom. I am tempted to find a way to track back to my room, but I am too afraid of what Kurt may say to the Instructor to let Kurt go see him alone. So, I trail at a distance behind the two of them. It is a good thing I followed, as it turns out, for it isn’t long before Kurt turns around, seemingly checking to see whether I am still there. I just stare at him coldly. He seems amused by this and smiles as he turns sharply back around. Nan, for her part, turns an annoyed look upon Kurt, yet says nothing to dissuade him from following her. I note that their relationship is markedly different from the one I have with Nan. I wonder why I’ve never heard of Kurt before. How long has he been here? Is he like me — a ward of the Instructor?

Kurt had accused me of being arrogant. That is ironic under the circumstances. His arrogance is downright palpable. If it weren’t for Kurt’s obvious adoration for the Instructor, I wouldn’t be able to think of a reason as to why the Instructor would tolerate his presence.

Then, I get to thinking about whether Kurt and I are going to end up being made into rivals for the Instructor’s favor. I hate the thought of that. Chances are also good that I would lose. The Instructor and I obviously aren’t on the best of terms, especially now. And I’m not good at faking it. The Instructor would see right through me if I attempted to ingratiate myself with him. No, it would never work — which could mean that I may soon find I do not have a place to live after all.

Eventually, our awkward procession finds its way to an unfamiliar door — at which Nan knocks solidly.

“Come in!” a familiar voice rings out … the Instructor’s voice.

He is seated in a regal-looking, high-back chair at an angle, so that he is partially facing a window and partially turned towards a small, stone fireplace. The room is filled with light, which surprises me since I have only associated him with dimly lit and spooky places.

He doesn’t turn when we enter. Such is his way. Though he can’t possibly be aware of everything that goes on around him, he always takes pains to make it appear as though he is aware.

“You may have a seat.” he directs, still not looking at us.

But to whom is he speaking? I look over at Kurt, who seems hesitant to step forward lest it turn out to be me the Instructor is addressing. Apparently, no one knows whom he was speaking to. Is he really aware that we are all there? Only Nan seems to recognize that he is not addressing her. Finally, I can see the Instructor tense one of his hands. Then, he turns sharply towards us with irritation creasing his face.

I can’t tell whether his look is that of surprise or not when he sees all three of us; it may have been.

“Aronade, take a seat.” he commands.

I look at him skeptically.

I can tell without looking at him directly that Kurt isn’t pleased by this turn of events. I imagine it is embarrassing for him that the Instructor’s attention is directed at me rather than him given how much he seems to admire the Instructor. It doesn’t help that the Instructor then turns a cold stare onto Kurt.

It feels as though I wait to sit for a long time, but in actuality it is probably just a few seconds. Really, I fear I cave rather quickly. I keep my eyes fixed on the Instructor, daring him to speak, as I sit down.

Kurt crosses in front of me and stands between me and the Instructor. But Kurt’s gesture doesn’t appear to be to shield me from the Instructor’s intense glare, but rather it seems to stem from a desire on Kurt’s part to be the focal point of the Instructor’s attention. Why he is so desperate for this man’s approval, I can’t fathom.

“I brought her back!” Kurt suddenly declares. “She left …”

“I know, Kurt.” the Instructor admonishes him coolly. “You did well.”

That seems to be enough for Kurt. He finally steps off to the side. He stands behind the Instructor then — behind him and to his right. It occurs to me that Kurt seems to like to lurk around the fringes of the room … listening. He stares at me for a moment. At first there is an odd smirk on his face. But then, he has a sudden look of disinterest. It is odd the way this guy’s mood changes. And yet, he seems to be taking his cues from the Instructor. I have serious doubts, however, that real approval from the Instructor will ever be forthcoming … for him or for anyone else.

“I knew it had to happen sometime.” the Instructor suddenly breaks the awkward silence.

I don’t respond. The Instructor sits back in his chair. “I would rather it be Kurt who discovered you than someone else.”

My face flushes, but I try not to noticeably react to this proclamation.

“Are you saying you set it up?” I finally ask him.

“No, I’ve been busy managing other things.” he admits. “So, Aronade, I suspect you’ve had a pretty long night of it.”

I am instantly on guard. I don’t know how much the Instructor knows. He told me many times, “Don’t assume anything.” That is good advice at this moment, for I want to shield Mark and his sister as much as I can. By now, I have given up on Mark coming to my rescue. But he and his sister still have a chance to escape from the vicinity if I don’t blow it.

I think about what he just said. I figure that the Instructor calling me Aronade rather than Puppet is a good sign. It probably means that he isn’t currently mad at me or toying with me. It probably also means that he doesn’t want to put me on edge. That last part may be good or bad, however, as it could mean that he is trying to lull me into complacency, so that I will let my guard down. I am determined not to let that happen.

Then, the Instructor cups his ear with his hand, in an apparently sarcastic gesture, to indicate that he is waiting for me to talk. I notice Kurt grin.

I clear my throat.

“It was eventful.” I manage.

The Instructor grips the arms of his massive chair with his hands, seemingly filled with anticipation.

“Come now.” he cajoles. “Don’t be disingenuous. I have a witness here who says you’ve been out.”

Kurt’s eyes are hard as steel as he stares at me. His look seems to challenge me to contradict him. I decide to take the opposite tack.

“Kurt would be right.” I state, allowing the familiarity that comes with using Kurt’s name to make it appear as though I have nothing to hide. Kurt seems suspicious of me suddenly.

“And why would you do that?” the Instructor challenges me.

His interest seems piqued. People’s motivations always seem to interest him. It’s the one area he can never quite master — without a test subject such as myself anyway.

I have to consider what to say without looking as though I am considering it. I look at Kurt in order to avoid eye contact with the Instructor. I notice then that Kurt has grown distinctly pale. There is something to that, I figure. But what? It is Mark he wants hidden surely …what other reason could there be … the music box! So it had been Kurt! And if I am right, I conclude, Kurt doesn’t want the Instructor to know what he has done … that he has mimicked him … or does he? Is he trying to fool me with a fake reaction? I can’t tell with Kurt. So, I decide to focus on something else instead.

“I wanted out of here.” I say. “I stayed away because I don’t want to be here anymore. There’s nothing left for me here.”

It is a gamble … but it is true. It isn’t as though I could risk an obvious deception. Then, the Instructor presses the fingertips of his hands together right in front of his face and says, “I couldn’t agree more.”

This surprises me to my core. A chill goes through me despite myself. I hadn’t wanted to react to him, especially after our last interaction. My pride wants me to beat him at this game. And yet, beating him may be the worst, most dangerous thing I could do. I do want answers, though. And if he intends to kick me out anyway, I might as well try to get those answers. Plus, the more time I waste the greater the chance Mark and his sister have of getting away from here. And yet, I know there is a possibility the Instructor has already captured them and is waiting to spring that information on me at any moment. But as difficult as it is to wait to find out what the Instructor knows, I can’t risk letting him get any more information out of me than is necessary.

“I suppose you’re angry with me?” I ask him.

He raises an eyebrow. He apparently wasn’t expecting that question.

“On the contrary, I’m pleased … I’m very pleased with your progress.” the Instructor insists.

My eyebrows furrow; so do Kurt’s. My reaction is from confusion; Kurt’s seems to be from anger. Yet, he dares not question the Instructor’s reaction and neither do I. Actually, I am at a loss as to what to say. Still, just as every time in the past, putting me off-balance seems to please the Instructor immensely.

“You seem confused, Aronade.” he schools me. “Permit me, if you will, to explain my reasoning, for I have come to conclude you are ready at last to hear the truth. Your actions tell me you are no longer dependant on my approval. That is a good thing for our purposes.”

I just wait and listen … sure that he will go on with “the truth” without my needing to prompt him.

The truth, ha! What a foreign concept that is around here. The Instructor has done everything to make the truth seem as intangible and abstract a concept as he could since I arrived at this place. And now he wants me believe whatever he is about to tell me? There seems to be slim chance of that happening. I figure that what he is about to say may be true … or it may not. Maybe I will find out one way or another in time.

“You used to live in a research community.” he begins. “I understand you were there recently.”

I nod. So far he sounds believable, and quite frankly it scares me a little. Suddenly, the Instructor stands, his hands grasping one another behind his back. He gazes ponderously out the window. He begins speaking at a swift pace.

“As you now know, it’s near here — a stone’s throw really. I have many houses. I came to live here after the town was destroyed.”

He casts a look back at me, presumably to see my reaction. I don’t give him one.

“No one has ever gone back there.” he says, reverting his gaze back toward the window. “You see, I made sure to know whether anyone went back. And I also left things exactly as they were before … as I reminder.”

“A reminder?” I think. “A reminder for whom?”

“I don’t go there much at all, but I know it’s there. And they know it’s there. And they know you exist, too. Only they don’t know where you exist, you see. So far it’s worked well to hide you here. And I have managed to keep you occupied, so you wouldn’t venture out or ask too many questions. Haven’t I, Puppet?”

I bristle inside at the mention of that moniker. But I think I managed not to react outwardly. I merely listen. I figure eventually things will become clear.

The Instructor seems to be disappointed that I am not peppering him with questions. And yet, I know if I ask him the wrong thing, he will more than likely break off the conversation entirely. I figure my best chance of getting information out of him is to hold my tongue — to say nothing. Still, he may be goading me to ask questions by bringing up the nickname — who knows? I don’t.

“You have a disease.” the Instructor blurts out suddenly.

“What?!”

My eyes dart to and fro.

“Ah! So that got your attention!” His voice is at an even higher pitch than it had been before, and it comes at an even faster clip as well. “You are a carrier of a curious disease. It was manufactured by scientists to be used as leverage against the elites. You see, the elites made their own virus, one that they were immune from because of their genetic alterations but that could easily kill off large swaths of the general population. So, the scientists, composed of members of the common man, created a virus of their own that would kill the elites and not them. Therefore, they threatened the elites with exposure should the elites try to unleash their pandemic. I’m actually one of those people, Aronade, an elite. You could actually kill me — though not just by sitting there. Your blood contains a pathogen that could kill the elite of this world. And as I’ve mentioned, we’ve been genetically altered to outlast the rest of you. And, ironically, it is that alteration that is vulnerable to attack by the virus in question.”

I look between him and Kurt, trying to see whether the Instructor is serious. Kurt shows no reaction; yet, he doesn’t seem surprised. Wait a minute! Does that mean he knew about this? What am I thinking?! That’s irrelevant at this point! What matters is that this strange kid knows about me now!

“You just told Kurt about me!” I blurt out. “How could you do that?!” I gasp.

The Instructor’s expression is bleak; the color has drained from his face. I know I have gone too far.

“You’re going to need him as an ally.” the Instructor suddenly growls at me.

“Don’t you understand? You’ve given him power over me!” I can’t seem to stop myself from exclaiming.

The Instructor glares at me, for what seems like the longest time.

“And who do you think has power over him?” he asks me with a quavering in his voice.

It takes him a long time to recompose himself. But he is apparently invested in finishing his tale, for he eventually continues on with it.

“You are probably wondering what effect this disease will have on you. But you are merely a carrier of the disease. It shouldn’t make you sick. But, as I said, it could kill a bunch of others, you see.” He begins to pace … to and fro … to and fro. “Anyway, let’s speed this up … the elites found out where the research was taking place and firebombed the city. Unfortunately for them, not everyone died. You survived.”

“And my brother?” I interrupt.

He waves his hand dismissively.

“He apparently left before he was exposed. He’s irrelevant in this.” the Instructor informs me with impatience in his voice. “Should I go on?”

“Yes.”

“Since they don’t know your identity, they can’t unleash their virus, for if they kill you without quarantining you first the virus that you’re carrying will be unleashed on them. Therefore, they have to find you first in order to neutralize the threat you pose to them.”

“Neutralize?”

“Yes … kill you.” He pauses. “Don’t you see, you’re the one they want to find. You’re the threat to them, not your brother. It’s you, Aronade. It’s you I’ve been hiding.”

“But why? Why have you done this?”

“It’s simple.” he states proudly. “I like games.”

Copyright © Jennifer Alice Chandler 2020

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Chapter 14

We begin looking from room to room. Most of the rooms look as though they haven’t been disturbed in a long time. I can’t help but be on edge. I keep expecting to discover a body or bodies in each room … but there, thankfully, aren’t any. If anyone had died here, it appears that their remains had indeed been removed from the premises long ago. I am truly grateful for that at least. On the other hand, the large accumulation of dust appears to be commonplace. All of the windows had been blown out, but only some had been boarded up again. Consequently, the rooms that have no boards are filled with much more dust than the others. When the wind eerily begins to blow through the open holes, it becomes hard to breathe. Unfortunately, it reminds me of the vent.

As time passes, it grows a bit more frustrating. There doesn’t appear to be anything here that will give us any answers — only more questions. Though it would be unlikely that someone would have laid out a letter in plain sight detailing what had happened here, that kind of thing is, in fact, what I had been hoping for.

I can feel the self-imposed pressure to remember what had happened here mounting within me. Am I the only one with answers? Is there no other source of information to be found? Does whoever set this situation up want those answers, too, and is trying to force me to remember them?

“Maybe we should take a break.” Mark suddenly suggests.

I am a little unnerved by this change in his attitude actually. Has he come to the same conclusion I have? That the answers lie not in our surroundings but only in me? I am at a loss as to how to convey to him my frustration with the situation.

“Come. Have a seat.” he persists.

He brushes the dust off a chair and offers it to me. I reluctantly take a seat while he pulls up another chair. I have to admit, it is nice to be able to get the weight off my feet for a while.

I watch as he sits down. He seems tired. I sigh and look around me. Yes, it is nice to have a break for a bit. The anxiety from running around directionless has been getting to me. Eventually, I get sick of looking around me and look back at Mark instead.

This time he appears nervous. He is even rubbing his legs with his hands.

“Why is he so nervous?” I wonder silently.

“I know you’re upset about what happened here.” he begins.

I brace myself. I fear where this is going. He wants me to remember, but I can’t … I just can’t. I tense.

“I don’t know whether this has anything to do with my sister.” he continues. “This here may just be about you. Perhaps, he really hasn’t figured out we’re together. Perhaps, he believes I took off somewhere by myself. That may be the only thing that he would view as the smart thing to do under the circumstances — I don’t know. And I don’t know why he’s doing this to you either. But I think maybe we should look around for my sister rather than pursue this place any further. You obviously aren’t up for remembering now anyway.”

I am surprised, relieved, and grateful. Maybe he does care how I feel. That isn’t something I am used to anymore.

“Maybe you’re right.” I offer. There are whole new possibilities of avenues to explore running through my mind. Maybe Mark could stay around here and look for his sister, and I could go back to the complex before the Instructor finds out that I left. And I could let Mark back into the complex if need be. Perhaps, Mark is right. Perhaps, they don’t know he is still here after all.

Some of my apprehension goes away. There is still time to plan our next move — still time to do a thorough search. Mark notices my shift in mood and seems surprised by it.

“What’s up with you all of a sudden?” he asks me.

“I was just … I had been worried about the time, but I guess it doesn’t matter now.”

“How so?” he asks me in all seriousness.

I frown.

“Well, since they may not know you’re with me, you could stay here and search while I go back …” I start to explain.

“I don’t think so.” he interrupts.

“Really?” I say, surprised. “Why not?” I question.

“I think you should stay with me. If you go back, you might never be able to leave.”

I blink several times. I hadn’t had the time to consider all that. It is true that if I go back there I could be trapped there permanently. It is also true that I haven’t been as free from that place as I am at this moment — not since I stepped foot inside there —whenever that was. But it is also true that if I don’t go back and my clandestine activities with Mark are discovered that everything may change for the worse. Mark could end up back in that coffin — whereas I would no doubt be trapped behind those walls indefinitely anyway.

No, there is no course of action that is without risk. And there is no way to know for sure which path will lead to the happier ending. What do I want in the end? I still don’t know. I think part of me is afraid that I really don’t have a choice, so what is the point of getting my hopes up?

As we venture outside the building and renew our trek through the dust, I feel there is a piece of information I need before I can feel that my staying with Mark is the right decision. What I need to know is why he is so insistent on my accompanying him. Perhaps, if I know his thought process it will make my decision clear.

“Mark …?” I venture.

He turns his face back and looks at me briefly.

“Yeah?” he returns.

“Why do you need me to go with you?” I ask him.

He stops short. Then, he turns completely around to face me.

“I told you about those other girls.” he reminds me. “And how you were quite possibly abducted by this Instructor, too. It wouldn’t be right if I just left you behind here.”

So, it is obligation, I think.

“What? You really want to go back there that badly?” he questions me.

I shake my head sullenly.

“No.” I reply. “But I’m afraid of what will happen if I don’t.”

He nods.

“I mean, you were almost killed. Not that I’m afraid they’ll kill me.” I quickly add.

Then, I remember the incident where I nearly lost my foot, and I shudder. Then, suddenly, Mark’s arms are around me. I hold my breath. We stand there for what seems like quite awhile. And yet, somehow, at the same time, it only seems to last a moment. It occurs to me that someday I will probably wish I had that moment back.

I don’t know what to say after he releases me. He appears to be awkward as well. Finally, he puts forth with his usual self-assurance, “So, you see now why you can’t go back?”

I just look at him without responding. I feel sad all of a sudden. It is as though I am aware on some level that things aren’t going to work out the way that Mark is hoping. And yet, I lack the strength to tell him that. I want to believe in his version of a happy ending. I want to think it will be that simple for me. Still, I know that it won’t be. Too much has happened for things to just come out that way now. And even though I can’t exactly remember what had happened in this place, I can sense the weight of something upon me. It seems clear that it will need to be dealt with eventually, and I doubt that the answers are going to be easy ones. They rarely ever are.

Mark, for his part, seems disturbed by my sad expression. And yet, he is determined in his course to find his sister. So, we search on. I can’t help but notice that the sun is moving steadily along as we do — keeping a silent marker that time is ticking by — reminding me that things are about to change whether we want them to or not.

“How did you come to be here?” he asks me as we walk on.

I’m really not sure.

“I don’t really remember.” I admit. “It was so long ago. I think I remember driving up to a courtyard in a big black car. I was wearing a nice winter coat someone had given me. It was blue with fake fur trim.” I breathe. “Then, I was brought in to meet Nan and later the Instructor, I think. But I can’t recall them telling me anything about why I was there or how I came to be there. Before then, I can only recall that I had an older brother who left for some place else, and I had two parents. I haven’t seen anyone from back then since before I came here. Nor have I heard any word from them. I simply came here and never left.” I hesitate. “This is the first time I’ve been outside those walls since that day. I don’t know why.”

Mark looks sorry for me. I turn my gaze away from his. I don’t like pity.

“So, do you know anything more about the missing girls?” I venture as we walk.

“Yes.” he replies, though he doesn’t turn to look at me this time.

“Who are they?” I ask him.

“Various people … from different towns. I didn’t know he took them at first. I didn’t know any of them personally. It was just one day they were gone. People would look for them but couldn’t find them. It wasn’t until Katie went missing and I started looking for her that I realized he had taken them all.”

“He? You mean the Instructor?” I put forth, though I am pretty sure what his response will be.

“Yes.” he confirms.

“How do you know it was him?” I ponder.

He looks at me squarely then.

“He leaves clues behind — sort of a game. They were subtle at first, but they kept repeating. You see, I came to the conclusion that the disappearances were related. There were always items left behind: letters, riddles, keepsake boxes. I found two of the girls …”

“You did?” I echo incredulously.

“Yes, three … if you’re one.”

“Where are they?”

“They went back home, but I doubt they stayed there. I hope they took off with their families. The threat is still out there … still real. It could happen again.”

“They must have been relieved to be found.”

“Yes.”

“What are they like?”

“They’re a lot like you actually: same age, same general description. But you are different. You’re the only one who met him — who lives with him. You’re not related to him, are you?”

“Not that I know of.”

He shrugs then turns around again.

“Puzzling.” he shoots back over his shoulder.

And indeed it is puzzling. But I am embarrassed that he pointed out that fact to me. What a fool I am for never having questioned the circumstances I had been living under! True, I would ask about my parents and brother, but eventually I gave up asking. Why had I accepted living here?

“It’s not as though I had a choice!” I blurt out.

When Mark stops and turns around towards me, he finds my face fully red. Even though I think I look angry, I can feel my eyes welling.

“I didn’t say that you did.” he responds softly. He considers me for a moment. “That’s why I think you’re a victim, too.”

I look down.

“But not like the others.” I breathe.

“No, not like the others. A lot longer … maybe the first.”

I glance up at him. There is weight to his words. There is something to what he said. If I had been abducted, I must have been one of the first … if not the first.

“Then, I’m partly responsible … somehow.” I utter.

His brow furrows, and a quizzical expression crosses his face.

“How so?” he questions me. It isn’t an accusation; there is real confusion in his voice.

I then look off to the side to avoid his eye contact.

“Whatever the Instructor did … perhaps it has something to do with me. And to think not everyone’s been recovered yet …” my voice trails off.

“You’re taking on too much.” he tells me. “If the man’s a freak, it has nothing to do with you.”

I am grateful for the certainty in his words … but still. I reach my hand out to his and take it. He looks at my hand for a moment.

“I wish we could find your sister.” I inform him earnestly.

He looks at me with determination.

“I still think we will.” he responds. “I haven’t given up.”

I nod. Then, I let go of his hand.

“I didn’t think you would give up.” I return, smiling.

We proceed on. It is about halfway through the daylight hours at this point. My nervous tension over the passing of time has given way to numbness. There is nothing that can be done now. It is too late to hide the fact that I left. There is no taking it back; things are definitely going to change.

As I look up, I can see we are heading for the outskirts of the city. I assume we are going to be turning back around at any moment. So, when we don’t, I am surprised. I look up at Mark questioningly.

“I see something.” he tells me.

“What?”

“Well, for one there is something reflective … maybe a lake.”

“A lake?” I repeat without interest.

It is indeed a lake, which is next to a desolate field with ruined houses and stone fences. While it seems a bit unusual for a lake to be so close to a city … actually it doesn’t seem all that unusual to me. I wonder what Mark’s fascination with the lake could be stemming from. If anything, I feel that going near it will make us more vulnerable — easier to spot. Then, I see something else — something that is indeed unusual. There is a lone fire burning in a fire pit by the lakeside! This fire points to someone having been in the vicinity recently.

Mark suddenly turns toward me.

“I think I see a building beside it.”

I step around Mark then in order to get a look at what he is looking at. Sure enough, I can see the outline of white building next to the lake.

“It’s the same design as the building you reacted to.” he tells me.

I look back on it with a more critical eye. I feel my stomach churn. It is the same type of building … only smaller.

“Something happened here.” I say. My face flushes when Mark looks at me. “Or, at the other place that looks like it … or both.”

“Well, I know we decided not to pursue your past … but we don’t seem to have any other leads to follow. Also, the other place didn’t have any information left behind. Perhaps, this place does.”

There is a note of optimism in Mark’s voice. I am just trying to keep the overwhelming feeling of dread from surfacing. Finally, I nod in agreement, and we proceed on.

As we walk by it, I cast my eyes at the lake. It doesn’t stir any memories in me. It seems pretty large, though it doesn’t appear all that deep. The occasional gust of wind stirs the top of the water. Eventually, I notice that some greenish substance has deposited itself on the surface of the lake in patches. I can smell the sick smell of algae from where I am — walking on the gravel path that weaves around the lake’s edge.

I just keep staring at the lake blankly until I realize I am looking at it to avoid looking at the white building. Mark is walking on the side of me opposite the lake, so for all I know he probably thinks I am avoiding eye contact with him. Then again, maybe he knows, or at least figures he knows, why I am looking the other way.

I sigh. Then, my eyes begin to trace the edge of the dock that is jutted out over the water. It is as though my eyes are compelled to follow the line of it. And when they do, it leads them straight to the shoreline and the building that sits upon it. It reminds me of an old abandoned log cabin that was worn down by the elements. There doesn’t seem to be any way to avoid it. It is just lurking there. I can’t think of a rational reason not to investigate it or of a better lead to pursue. And then, Mark says something that just cinches the decision entirely.

“Look! Those dust prints are here again! They lead up to the building!”

Mark turns a look of excitement onto me. Then, when he sees the look on my face, he frowns. He seems conflicted suddenly. I don’t want him to even consider not going in because of me, so I quickly put on a brave face.

“Let’s go!” I suggest with as much enthusiasm as I can muster.

He nods but with more reserve.

“Sure.” he remarks. “You’re probably right. Though, we ought to be careful.”

He seems to have interpreted my reaction to be one of fear over the danger we are in. That is certainly part of it, I suppose. Most of it, though, is sheer dread over having something in my past I don’t want to relive. Either way, I have to force myself to go forward despite my anxiety.

Just as at the other building, these footprints appear to have been purposefully placed for us to find. But why? And why the break in the trail from there to here? Whoever it is that is doing these things must have thought we would be determined to find the next area to search … or that person is just lazy. Maybe they hadn’t had the time to lay the footprints between there and here.

Speaking of the time, I know I am just stalling. It doesn’t matter why they had made this building so hard to find initially — for if it weren’t for the fire, and I am convinced the fire wasn’t here before, we could have easily overlooked this building entirely. The point is it is here, and we are here — like it or not.

At first, when Mark has trouble opening the door, I think that it is locked. Before I have the time to really consider how odd it is that we have been led all this way only to be turned away by a lock — the door suddenly gives.

It seems the hinges had been loosened. That loosening has made the opening and shutting of the door difficult. I suspect that this had been done on purpose, though I can’t be sure as to why. Is someone lurking in the shadows and using the sound the door makes when it opens with difficulty as a signal that we have arrived? I think about the circumstances of Mark’s near-drowning. It seems to me the same type of mind could be behind both occurrences. The funny thing is I still can’t fully wrap my mind around the possibility that that someone is the Instructor.

I know it isn’t affection that keeps me from believing it. Is it pride? That I hadn’t seen it coming? Yet, I hadn’t really struggled to believe he could have almost cut off my foot. But that, as stupid and careless as it was, would have been more than likely an accident. Then again, he had cut it so close … too close. But with him, it still seems like a game — a cruel game, a game that could turn lethal — but a game, nonetheless. But the premeditated, cold-blooded murder bit is new. That doesn’t seem consistent. Then again, none of this does.

The front room of the building is pitch-dark. The whole city seems to have been deprived of electricity long ago; this building appears to be no exception. There is also a lot of dust in the air. Once again, all of this seems to suggest that the door hasn’t been opened often and that probably the interior is well-sealed. It is hard to believe, but this building seems darker and better closed off than its larger twin had been.

I worry about being trapped inside this building much more than I had the other. There is something suffocating about this place; it almost seems like a tomb. I look around for something I can wedge under the door — something that could prevent the wind from shutting it — something that would hopefully alert us if someone tries to shut us inside.

If the door had been rigged to alert someone to our approach, we could do the same to them! Finally, I find a stone that seems flat enough to wedge under the door. Mark just watches me as I begin kicking the rock into place, though he does seem pleased with my idea. I smile at him when I feel I have finished, and we head inside.

It is hard to get used to the darkness. The light shining in from the outside helps somewhat, but it only goes so far. Even that light won’t be lasting much longer. The day had reached its peak hours long before, and its strength is now fading. There won’t be too much time left before we are left in total darkness.

The first room is as silent as a grave. It is as though any sound from the outside has stopped dead at the doorway. I can hear my heart beating in my ears; it is that quiet.

“I don’t know.” Mark voices frustration. “We can’t really see whether any more markings were left behind without a light.”

He probably wishes, as do I, that we still had that torch or at least my flashlight. There is no way to correct that now regardless. The only way that this scenario will work is that the one who had arranged for us to be here had anticipated that we would need a light.

“We could feel along the walls.” I suggest, coming up with no other ideas. “I doubt the footprints would be of much use to us anymore anyway.”

“And still, we could miss something that would have been in plain sight … such as a key or a piece of paper.”

“We can only do what we can do. There’s clearly, by the sound of it, no electricity running through this place.” I advise him.

I could hear Mark sigh.

“Yeah.” he agrees. “You make a good point, Aronade.”

I realize that I liked it when he said my name.

“This building doesn’t seem too big.” Mark reasons. “I suppose it really shouldn’t take too long to search it, even in the dark.”

“Let’s get to work.”

We begin a grid search. We hold hands and scrape our feet along the floor. When we get to something our own height, such as a wall or a table, we search it with our hands.

We work our way along … slowly. All the while the light is fading from the cracks of the boards covering the windows. The light from the doorway had already disappeared from our view when we left the main room and ventured into the one next to it. Eventually, we are done with that second room as well, and Mark manages to find yet another door. He slips through it first, which he has a habit of doing.

Then, to my horror, within seconds of his entering the next room, I hear him scream out. I gasp as the sound of a couple of loud thuds cuts through the air.

“Mark!!” I shriek aloud.

It takes a few anxious moments for him to answer me. At first, he just groans.

“What’s wrong?” I persist. “What’s happened?”

“Stay back!” he calls out to me. “I fell down some stairs. I’ll be all right, but there’s literally no light down here.”

“What should I do?” I ask him.

“Just stay there for now.” he insists. “I’ll try to make my way back up to where you are. It was insane to try this without a light; we’re wasting too much time. It would probably take us less time in the scheme of things to just find a light or maybe even go back for the torch than to do this!”

I smile at his rant. It seems to suggest that he is all right after all.

I can hear him shuffling his feet, coming back up toward me. And then, I hear something else. It is a female’s voice.

“Mark!” it calls out from the darkness.

Mark stops coming towards me and instead freezes in place.

“Katie?” I hear him mutter.

I can hear his feet retreating in the other direction. Could it possibly be? Could Katie be here after all? What are the odds of that? But there had clearly been a voice; I had heard it. And Mark seemed to recognize it, too, as being Katie’s. Only time would tell whether it is her or whether Mark has fooled himself into thinking that it is.

There are so many unanswered questions really. It all seems awfully staged to me. I want to call out to Mark and ask him whether he’s found anything, but I figure it would probably be too soon for him to know. I don’t want to delay his finding his sister; I will be patient and wait. Still, I kind of wonder how much progress he can possibly make in discovering her in the dark. If there was only something I could do to help him, I would.

I can hear something down below. It sounds as though someone is working on prying a door loose. Things are really happening now, I think. Then, shortly after I hear the sound of the door, I hear another noise. This one comes from below as well. It sounds like something mechanical is starting up … it sounds like an engine of some kind … it sounds like a generator!

“Mark!” I cry out.

“Just a minute.” is his response.

Then, I look behind me as I hear something there. The lights in the room I am in are flickering on. Is this a trap of some kind? I can’t help but remember a similar noise occurring right before I almost lost my foot.

I am just about to call out to Mark again when I realize the lights from the stairwell have also been illuminated. Down below, I can see Mark’s eyes staring up at me. I smile with relief. At least he is all right! I ponder whether to call out to him to ask how things are going down there or just head down there and find out for myself.

But then, I shudder. I turn back — away from Mark and toward the center of the room I have been standing in. There, I find a blonde boy around my age. He is tall — tall enough that you would think he was older if you didn’t get a good look at his face. He is just standing there staring at me; it is unnerving. I look at him blankly for a moment. Eventually, he gets to smiling — or is it smirking — at me. Obviously he thinks something is funny, but I can’t imagine what that something could be.

My brow furrows. I start to turn back around towards Mark, but then I think better of it. I can sense that the boy is still staring at me. And the way that he is staring at me leads me to think that I ought to pay attention. So, instead of looking back toward Mark, I turn myself toward the blonde boy until I am squarely facing him.

“What is it you want?” I ask him coldly.

He isn’t smiling anymore.

“Shouldn’t you ask who I am first?” he shoots back.

“Why?” I counter with a condescending edge to my voice. “Who are you to me?”

He laughs but in an angry way.

“I guess being the Instructor’s pet has made you arrogant.” he announces.

My eyebrows lower. I had learned one thing from the Instructor — how to get under someone’s skin enough that they let their guard down and reveal more than they should. It doesn’t work on the Instructor, obviously, but it did on this guy. I now know that he knows the Instructor … but not well enough apparently.

“What is it that you want?” I ask him again. “I’m assuming you’re the one who left the footprints.”

The boy winces slightly. He doesn’t seem to appreciate the accusation.

“Why would you say that?” he questions. “Why couldn’t it have been the Instructor?”

I look at him questioningly. I want to think the situation through before I commit to a response, but I just can’t seem to think with that boy staring at me like that.

“It doesn’t seem like him.” I inform him.

The boy looks disappointed and perhaps a bit insulted. It occurs to me that he actually admires the Instructor. Who is this kid?

“Why did you do all of this? Why did you lure me here?” I persist.

“I like games?” he states, but it sounds more like a question than a statement.

It is obvious that he isn’t going to admit to anything. I roll my eyes.

“So, this was all just a waste of my time. You don’t know anything about my past, do you?”

“I know someone who does know a lot. You do, too. Why don’t we go see him?”

I know he is talking about the Instructor. That is clear. He starts to turn away.

“Are you coming?” he taunts me.

I hesitate and almost turn back toward where I had last seen Mark.

“Or, do you have some reason not to go with me? Are you up to something?”

I freeze. I had forgotten about Katie being here. It could be no coincidence. More than likely, the boy is behind her being here, too. I hold my breath. If this boy does know about Katie, does he also know that Mark is here? Does he know Mark is just about to rescue her? This boy may be trying to lure me away, so I won’t discover Katie. This may be Mark’s one chance to retrieve his sister. I hesitate … but only for a moment. How can I expose Mark and his sister? And what would happen to them if I did?

There is no point in pondering further. I can’t leave with Mark because I can’t think of a way to prevent the boy from getting to the Instructor first. And I can’t let the Instructor find out Mark and Katie are here … just in case he doesn’t already know.

So, now I know that my chance to escape with Mark is gone. Still, my going back to the complex is the right thing to do. Maybe escaping was just a dream anyway. Only what will happen to Mark and Katie after I leave … will I ever know?

“Let’s go.” I state brusquely.

The boy nods.

Copyright © Jennifer Alice Chandler 2020

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Chapter 13

It is nice to get out from behind those massive walls for once. As I walk away from the complex, I cast my eyes backward and take in the enormity of the opposing structure. I shiver — partly from the cold but also from the sight of what does look in the growing daylight to be a prison. Mark had been right. It really is a prison! Now, from this side of the walls, the full impact of that realization strikes me. I turn back around. I really don’t want to go back in there. My mood becomes solemn.

We trudge on. I can see that we are coming to a large stone wall with a wrought iron gate. The gate is breaking up the seemingly endless expanse of stone. Every once in awhile, I look up and see that we are making slow but steady progress towards it. Then, we are there. And the music, such as it is, suddenly stops.

Mark and I turn alarmed looks toward the box. Then, we look at the gate.

“I guess this is where we’re supposed to be.” Mark concludes.

“Who is luring us here, and for what purpose?” I wonder to myself. I had never been driven to leave the complex before. What of importance is on the other side of this gate? I reflect on how many strange things have occurred since the day I found Mark nearly drowned in that coffin. My already strange life has become disturbingly bizarre. I don’t trust it — even more so than usual. Something is off. And yet, what choice do we have but to continue on? This quest can’t end — can’t be ignored — until we find the missing person we are looking for.

Mark, for his part, seems excited about the gate. I can’t tell whether he has hope that answers will be forthcoming or whether he’s just eager to get beyond the bounds of the complex. Perhaps, it is both.

He shifts the box, so that he can hold it underneath his left arm and then proceeds toward the gate. Apparently, he still intends to take the box with us. He pushes on the metal bars, and slowly they give way with a low screech. I am surprised the gate was left unlocked. So much in the complex had been locked. I shudder slightly then step forward.

“Is something wrong?” Mark asks me.

I hadn’t noticed that he was looking at me when I shuddered. I had hoped my continuing on would hide the fact that I am again having doubts about the whole endeavor. I look up at him hesitatingly. What should I say? Would it make any difference anyway? I sigh.

“It’s just …” I start. “… it seems too easy.”

“You think this has been easy?” he asks in disbelief.

I shrug off his retort.

“Not all of it has been … but this, yes. Compared to what I’m used to going through it is. Once I was kept in a cell for days until I learned the lesson that I shouldn’t have let my curiosity get the better of me. You see, I had gone through a hole in the floor he had made in the kitchen. Then again, I forgot that lesson when I entered the vent … Still … the point is … this doesn’t seem like the Instructor to me. And truthfully, in a variety of ways nothing has for a while now.” I admit.

Mark looks from me back to the gate.

“What are you suggesting we do?” he asks me dismally.

“What can we do?” I reply. “Whoever it is has got us. We have to see this through. We won’t get answers otherwise.”

Mark seems pleasantly surprised by my response. I can tell he thought I was going to back out. That would be disastrous at this point. I still couldn’t stand the thought of what it would do to Mark if that happened. He’d never know whether his sister were here or not.

Plus, looking at the gate slightly shifting in the wind, I realize that I haven’t been so tantalizingly close to freedom in such a very long time. It seems worth the risk of walking into a trap just to get a taste of freedom again.

There isn’t much on the other side of the gate. Still, I am expecting something to happen when I step across the threshold. But instead, it is eerily silent. The only sounds are the wind and the slight squeaking noise from the gate. All I can see in front of us is a path … a dirt path that winds around a dense forest of barren trees. Leaves scatter to and fro among its twists and turns. Later, much later, the path acquires some gravel … then some stones. It is at this point that I realize we are heading toward something. We aren’t just taking a stroll … we are being led to a specific place. Though, for what purpose, I don’t know; I can’t even guess.

Mark notices too when the road begins to take on a more solid form. At first, the gravel is a bit of a nuisance. It isn’t enough to offset the mud that has accumulated along the roadway; and yet, on occasion, I can feel the stones pressing against the soles of my shoes. My shoes also don’t have the best traction, and they begin to slide out from under me when they encounter the loose rocks. And still, even the loose gravel is better than having the path be buried in snow — a few days before it probably would have been completely covered. Still, when I see pavement begin to form ahead of me, I am relieved. Now I am sure we must be heading somewhere that is better developed than where we have been. Is there some sort of a town ahead of us?

I strain my eyes to see in front of me. The melting snow has created a fog so dense that the visibility has become slight. Yet, I can vaguely make out a large pale structure beyond the fog. It meets us at a angle perpendicular to the path we are on. Is it some sort of a fence? If it is, it is much taller and thicker than the last one. As we near the wall of the structure, I can make out that there is no gate. If there ever had been a gate, it is gone now. Instead, there is just a large open space with an arch overhead. The space is huge. It towers over fifty feet above our heads, and it is wide enough to pass two semitrucks through. I enter underneath it in a kind of daze, so it takes me a moment to register that the music box has begun playing again. Only this time, it isn’t playing the scratchy tune from before. Eerily, it is now playing a dirge instead.

“What is that?” Mark queries incredulously.

“A dirge.” I respond matter-of-factly.

“Well,” he begins. “If we’re going to die, we might as well get it over with.”

There is laughter in his voice. He thinks he is funny. I don’t find it funny.

“We’ll be all right.” His voice is suddenly reassuring.

I sigh. Again, what choice do we really have?

It is like another world as we start to step underneath the thick arch. Snow has begun to fall again, though it is the kind of snow that begins to melt shortly upon hitting the ground. Still, the snowflakes in the air are big and beautiful and give the environment a dreamlike quality.

And yet, it only takes me a moment to realize that something is off. The snowflakes that are merely feet in front of me are indeed melting when they come in contact with the ground, but strangely farther ahead there appears to be a fine white powder layering the ground. I focus my eyes upon the ground as I approach the transition line between the stone floor of the arch and the upcoming path.

Then, when I get close enough, I realize that it isn’t snow there at all but some sort of dust.

“What …?” Mark utters.

Mark is walking in front of me, and I almost bump into him when he stops abruptly.

“Mark?”

I look up at the back of his head. Then, I step to the side of him. What I behold beyond the threshold of the arch astonishes me. Spreading out even beyond the scope of my vision … in all its vastness … is a city — a city of ruins.

It takes me a moment to take it all in. The buildings have the appearance of towering skeletons. It feels as though they were built of sandstone — eroding sandstone transitioning to dust right in front of us. It seems as though a stiff wind could knock the whole scene over. So, when a breeze does cause the snowflakes to swirl around me, I shudder involuntarily. Still, fortunately, nothing happens. Apparently, the structures are sturdier than they look. And yet, in the past, the buildings must have melted in on themselves … collapsing into dust upon their foundations. And then, a pillar of dust must have been unleashed into the air, dusting the entire landscape. Merely imagining the rumbling that preceded that devastation shakes me to my foundation. But is it just my imagination or something more? Something I remember? There is a pervasive silence at this moment, and it haunts me.

“What happened here?” I stammer, hoping Mark will have a good theory.

He doesn’t … it would seem. He shakes his head.

“I don’t know.” he finally responds with words. “But it seems as though it happened a long time ago.”

“Then, where has all this dust come from?” I ponder. “Surely it should have washed away a long time ago in the rain.”

“I don’t know.” he repeats. “The only thing I’m fairly certain of is that someone bombed this place out. It seems doubtful by the look of the area that there would have been any survivors either.”

I shiver again.

“Oh, you’re probably cold.” Mark observes.

While I appreciate his concern, it isn’t just the temperature that is making me feel cold. The scene has left me cold — emotionally.

“Maybe we should find some place to get out of the wind.” he suggests.

I nod.

“We can start our search inside the buildings. So, where do you think we should look first?” Mark queries.

Mark turns while he speaks and seems to be taking in the scene. While he appears motivated by what he sees, I am once again reticent. The area doesn’t look stable to me. As I think through the situation, I begin to stir the ground with my foot. This is something I occasionally do when I get nervous. As I look down indifferently at my foot, I notice for the first time that I am shifting the dust around. My eyebrows furrow. Then, I look up.

“Mark.” I say.

“Yeah?” he utters before turning towards me.

“If someone else has been around here recently, their footprints would be left behind in the dust.”

A light seems to glow behind Mark’s eyes. He looks around him. But when he reports on what he sees, there is disappointment in his voice.

“I don’t see anything.” he admits. “But it’s certainly something to look for. After all, we don’t know how long this particular dust has been here. It could have covered some older tracks.”

He turns back to me with a reassuring smile.

“Good thought, Aronade.” he states approvingly.

I smile back.

“Well, we’d better get looking.” I tell him, my confidence having received a jolt by the encouragement.

We proceed. The light of the day manages to trick my mind into having fresh enthusiasm about our mission. It almost makes me forget that I am in such desperate need of sleep … almost. I do have a crick in my neck that is bothering me — partly from the cold, partly from my lack of rest, and partly from the heaviness of the box I had been carrying earlier. I run my hand upon the back of my neck, hoping to ease the tension from my muscles, but it proves to be of limited benefit.

So instead, I decide to distract myself by focusing on something else. My something else is trying to find a trace of some kind that someone else has been around the area recently. It was, after all, my brilliant idea. I meticulously scan the ground all around us, searching for a disturbance in the dust. I am particularly concerned with making sure that the area is looked over before we step on it. It is a little disappointing that we hadn’t seen anything at the outset, but perhaps someone had entered the city from a different direction. Or, as Mark suggested, the footprints may have been covered, or at least partially covered, by the dust. If that is the case, it will make what I am trying to do all the more important. Maybe I will spot something that isn’t altogether obvious. What an accomplishment that would be!

As I go on, I am mainly focused on my task at hand. I rarely look up to see what is going on around me. But once I do, I happen to look up at a long white building we are approaching. It looks much like a box and has sterile-looking, symmetrical windows along its sides. I freeze inside.

I can’t seem to catch my breath. It is as though something has smacked me straight in the face. And the image that is presented before me is etched into my mind’s eye.

“Why?” I utter, though I don’t know the reason for the utterance. Mark turns around towards me, then. I look of concern crosses his face.

“Aronade?”

“I know this place.” I stammer. Though, I had no idea why I said that either. But it is true. On some level, I know that it is true. I start to shiver, and it feels as though I won’t be able to stop.

Mark looks from me then back to the building. I can tell that he wants to go inside but is too afraid to bring it up to me. My reaction could be a clue, which could lead to some answers. I could have been set on this path, so that some sort of distant memory would be triggered. How could we not see where it goes? What else can we do? Go everywhere but here until we invariably come back to the beginning, having realized that there is no other avenue but this one? That, for the first time in a long time, seems like a lesson that the Instructor would present.

To even consider moving forward is hard, though. I feel paralyzed. My feet feel cemented to the ground. I wish Mark could pick me up and carry me inside, so I won’t have to move myself. But I do have to move. I do have to face this — whatever it is.

“Okay.” I mumble.

Mark looks upon me with surprise … and possibly admiration — I hope anyway — as I step forward.

The building reminds me of an institution or a very utilitarian grammar school. Mark forces the large, wooden double doors open without much difficulty. The chains that hang limply from the door handles come apart with ease. Inside, there are particles of dust that are revealed by the day’s light. They had been suspended idly in the air and now fly about as a result of the movement of the door.

Particles of dust also cling to the cold ceramic floor — much as the dust surrounding the exterior of the building does. Only unlike the outside, where there appears to be an almost uniform covering of dust, inside there is mostly bare floor and comparatively small sections of dust. Those small patches of dust are shaped like footprints! Strangely, I had been looking for the opposite. I had thought I would find footprints within the dust outside. Instead, there are tracks from the dust on the outside brought in and smeared upon the barren floor inside.

“These must have been here awhile, or at least they were made before the last layer of dust was deposited outside.” Mark concludes.

I could see Mark’s point. After all, there are no visible footprints leading up to the building. Therefore, it stands to reason that those footprints must have been covered up. How else could one explain it?

We stand at the threshold of the door. Light manages to penetrate through the boarded-up windows allowing us to see the interior somewhat. I peer inside, but there is nothing much here. Also, everything is eerily silent. The dust isn’t the only thing that is suspended. Time itself seems to be suspended.

“You still think you know this place?” Mark asks me.

I nod but do not speak. He looks around.

“Well, I think we should follow these tracks. They’re old, but they’re the freshest ones we’ve got.”

I agree with him, and I follow him as he sets forth after the trail. We both instinctively avoid stepping directly on the makeshift path left by the dirty feet. Sometimes it looks as though the trail was left carelessly; while other times it appears to have been purposefully placed. What I find most peculiar is that at one point the dust that composes the trail appears to be getting fainter — as though it is running out of substance. But then, moments later, it appears to have been replenished by a fresh supply of particles.

“Odd.” Mark remarks, as though I had spoken my thoughts out loud.

The prints seem to be leading us into one room in particular. This room is situated in the middle of a really long corridor. Mark slides back the double sliding doors. The footprints stop abruptly a couple of feet from the door’s threshold.

I am afraid to look up to see what is inside, but I eventually force myself to do just that. The room is vast — cafeteria-size. Poorly boarded-up windows run down the length of its walls. There are desks, and there are tables, and there are single beds arranged in neat rows.

“I know this place.” I utter. “I just wish I knew why.”

“Or maybe you don’t want to know.” Mark puts forth.

He is right, of course. The room had been set up as a makeshift hospital. And the effect is downright bone-chilling.

Upon closer inspection, it looks as though the beds had been left in a hurry. Most of them are unmade. A couple of IV poles had fallen down upon the ground. Thankfully, the room isn’t particularly bloody, but there are some bandages strewn about.

“The windows must have been boarded up before the room was abandoned.” I comment. “I can’t imagine someone would have come back to board them up afterward.”

Mark looks at me for a moment then back at the scene.

“What’s up with the dust?” he mentions. “There’s hardly any where we’re standing, but farther in the whole place is covered with the stuff.”

He is correct. I hadn’t put it together before. What could that mean? Then, a strong wind comes into the room from the cracks on the boards, and I have my answer. The glass is apparently gone from the windows, but the boards appear undamaged. That suggested the explosion had occurred first, and then the boards had been placed. Perhaps I had been wrong. But why does it matter really? I guess the real question that is nagging at me is why they had felt the need to board up the windows after the explosion. Wouldn’t they have just fled the scene and not returned?

The answer to that question may shed some light on what this place was used for and what had happened here. The truth is I would rather figure out the past the way Mark, a comparatively disinterested third party, would rather than through the seemingly unpleasant memories I feel are lurking just at the fringes of my mind. If I could piece together what had happened here by merely observing what is around me, then I would not have to remember at all. Yes, that is definitely what I want.

But Mark keeps looking over at me. I can tell that he is wondering whether I have remembered something. I redden. Finally, I look upon him with irritation.

“Sorry.” he mumbles, apparently realizing he was staring.

“It’s fine.” I mutter. “Maybe I don’t want to remember after all.” I announce.

Mark looks surprised and a bit dismayed.

“Do you suppose it matters whether you want to?” he puts forth. “You either can or you can’t.”

I look at him questioningly, thrown off by his response.

“If whoever set up the scenario is trying to get you to remember, I guess he only half-succeeded.” Mark added.

“I hope that’s not all this was for.” I admit. “As you said, I probably couldn’t force the memories to return, even if I wanted to.”

“It seems something traumatic happened here.” Mark observes. “And then, the place was abandoned. Maybe you were here that day then evacuated to the Instructor’s place.”

I shiver. It sounds true.

“I wish there were some sort of record.” I bemoan. “But I don’t suppose there would be if people fled from here in a hurry.”

Mark looks on me with pity in his eyes. I don’t know what to make of that, and it disturbs me.

“You don’t think there were any survivors, do you?” I ask him.

“Well … you.” he says.

“Then, where are the bodies?” I question.

“It’s true they aren’t here.” he acknowledges. “But this happened a long time ago, and no one came back.”

“Well, there was whoever left those footprints.”

“Yes.” Mark responds. “But that was probably the Instructor … or someone like him.”

“Someone like him …” I repeat, processing the words.

“The people from here must have left, or their bodies were removed afterward. But I doubt there are many survivors because no one came back for you.”

“There is my brother.” I say. “But he was away the last I remember.”

Mark nods.

“Could he have come looking for me and left those prints?” I wonder.

“I don’t know. I don’t know anything about him. But where is he now?” Mark questions.

“I don’t know. I wonder whether I really know this place even. Maybe I’m just letting my imagination run wild.”

“I sincerely doubt that.” Mark replies. “Nobody put the idea into your mind. You just reacted.”

“I guess you’re right. Where would I have come up with a connection to this place if it weren’t true?”

Mark scans the area.

“Well, we could search the place — if you’re up for it — see whether we can find any records or anything.”

“I guess.” I reluctantly respond. My enthusiasm has waned again. Or, maybe I’m just tired. I remind myself I can’t just go back to my room at this point. What are the odds we would be able to get back here? And yet, I know the clock is ticking on our little adventure here all the same. Nan will come looking for me soon if she hasn’t already. Then, when her search for me proves fruitless, she will inevitably bring my absence to the attention of the Instructor — assuming he is still around. And that is, of course, if he doesn’t already know where I am, I remind myself.

Why am I so convinced that he doesn’t know? What is it about this situation that doesn’t seem like him? And if this is my past, why hadn’t he told me about it before now? And why spring it on me like this? It seems as though it has been kept a secret all this time — shuttered up from the light like the room with boarded-up windows.

But obviously someone wants me to know about it — that much is certain. Of course, I have no idea who that person could be. Chances are they’ll reveal themselves eventually. In the meantime, I have to rouse myself again; time is of the essence. We have to make more progress in finding answers before it is too late.

Copyright © Jennifer Alice Chandler 2020

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Chapter 12

I’m not sure when I wake up, but I am sure it is still the dead of night. I know right away something is off. I hear the hum of a cheery, though rather kitschy, tune playing. It sounds like the kind of music one may hear at a circus. The sound kept getting louder until it interrupted my sleep.

“What the …” I hear Mark groan from the sofa.

The music is coming from the hall, I determine. And its source is definitely getting closer. It could only be one thing, I decide: a scenario. I should have guessed this would happen, I chastise myself. There is no way the Instructor would have gotten over our last encounter so easily. And, of course, he would choose to have the retributive scenario occur in the middle of the night and thereby deprive me of sleep.

I breathe in the darkness. Mark is here. I feel frozen. How will I explain this to him? And what will I do with him while I am busy contending with the scenario? There is a knock at the door. I still can’t seem to move. Then, the hollow, slow knock rings again. Somehow I force myself to switch on the light.

Mark is facing towards me when the light comes on; so, his eyes are temporarily stunned by the brightness.

“What is that?” he mumbles.

“A scenario.” I respond, without giving any further explanation.

I quickly throw off my blankets and jump out of bed before he has the opportunity to ask any more questions. I am grateful that I had remained in my jogging outfit when I went to bed rather than changing into my nightgown. Because of this, I am able to go straight to the door before whoever it is knocks again.

I am careful to open the door just enough to be able to peer out into the hall. That way I am able to block the view of Mark from the hallway. Only to my surprise, as I open the door, I find there is no one out there waiting for me. Yet, the music is still playing as loudly as ever.

I look down at the ground in front of my feet and find a medium-sized wooden box there. Then, another thing occurs that surprises me. Mark comes up from behind me and uses his hand to open the door the rest of the way. I look back up at him wordlessly. He, in turn, looks at the box. He doesn’t seem surprised, but there is a certain look of disbelief on his face all the same.

“What is that?” he asks with incredulity in his voice.

“I don’t know.” I respond.

Without much in the way of hesitation, he reaches down and picks up the box. Then, he looks about the hall presumably to see whether he can see anyone else around. Once he seems satisfied that the hallway is deserted, he heads into my room with the box. I look around the hall again before following him back into the room. I watch as Mark lays the box upon a table. It is still making its strange tune.

“Odd.” Mark says. “There doesn’t seem to be a way to open it … or to stop that dreadful music.”

“Maybe we’re not supposed to stop it.” I suggest.

He looks at me questioningly. Then, he laughs.

“Maybe we should put it outside of the dining room, and he can listen to it all night long.”

“It is tempting.” I smile. “But what would they do if I refuse to play along with the scenario?”

Mark looks at me quizzically.

“Scenario?” he repeats. “What is a scenario anyway?”

I sit down in a nearby chair. I figure this will probably end up being a long conversation. I choose my words carefully.

“The Instructor creates scenarios to teach me what he believes are important life lessons. I’ve been thinking about it. I guess you could say I’m his ward.”

“His ward?” Mark sounds surprised.

“Yes.” I confirm.

Mark thinks for a moment.

“These scenarios … in order for him to teach you a lesson you have to see him at the end of the scenario, right?”

My eyes are evasive. He reads my reaction.

“Then, I’m going with you.” he announces.

I am pretty sure I don’t want to go myself — let alone have him accompany me. I am actually pretty intrigued by the thought that I could just blow off the whole thing. Plus, his insisting on going with me reminds me of the earlier, and thankfully fruitless, search for the Instructor in the dining room. If Mark keeps running around looking to confront the Instructor, how long will it be before he gets his wish? And what would happen to him — and to me — if that occurs. I shudder to think of that. And still, I can empathize with his position. I think of my brother — though it has been a long time since I have seen him. I was told he had been taken in by a family who had no room for me. At first, I asked to visit him. Then, I asked to write to him. I received neither permission nor encouragement for either, so I eventually gave up.

Maybe that is what is bothering me the most about Mark. He is determined not to give up on his sibling. What does it say about me that I had? And I wasn’t even almost drowned in a coffin to dissuade me from trying. Of course, it’s very possible they had just wanted Mark dead — whoever it was who had tried to drown him. But what a bizarre and disturbing way to murder someone! It chills the bones. Could the Instructor have really been behind that attempt? It is scary to even contemplate that.

I have to wonder whether Mark really has thought things through completely. What is he planning on doing to get the Instructor to talk? From what I know of the Instructor, I figure getting him to disclose information would be no easy task. I suspect the Instructor would rather die than give in to someone else’s will.

“So, what do we do now?” Mark’s voice interrupts my thoughts. “How do we start this thing — this scenario?”

“It’s already begun.” I reply with a slight edge to my voice.

I wish Mark had supported me in ignoring the scenario altogether. Instead, he is pushing me to begin my participation in it right away. Once again, on some level I understand where he is coming from. But mostly I am wary of the whole situation — not only for Mark’s sake but also because the Instructor and I hadn’t exactly parted on the best of terms. I have the sneaking suspicion this could be his revenge. And if the Instructor did have a hand in the air vent episode where I almost lost my foot, I would hate to see what he has in store for me if he has gotten really angry. Actually, he’d never been mad at me as he was last night before. And, quite frankly, I still can’t guess what exactly had brought that on. I sigh. There is no point waiting around my room while Mark stares at me impatiently, I think. Better to get whatever this is over with.

“We should probably go back into the hall and have a look around.” I conclude. “If the scenario involved my room, I think something more would have happened by now.”

Mark nods in agreement, and we head for the hallway.

The hallway is as deserted as it had been when we left it earlier. An eerie silence pervades its recesses. The chirpy tune, which continues to play, only seems to make the contrast between silence and noise more marked. I don’t like how it seems to draw unnecessary attention to us. I figure anywhere Mark and I go with this box anyone around will surely take notice. Certainly, Mark and I noticed when we heard it from my room.

Mark looks over at me. The look on his face seems to ask me what we should do now.

“I guess we walk around …” I say. “… and see what happens.”

Mark doesn’t appear to be overly enthusiastic about this response, but it’s the best I can come up with. It isn’t as though the box came with any instructions or anything. Though, at this point, I have to admit I have begun to wish I had checked the box more thoroughly than I had.

We walk and walk. I keep an eye on my surroundings as we go, but I see no one lurking around. Unfortunately, the box seems to be getting heavier the longer we walk. I am about to ask Mark whether he wouldn’t mind carrying it for a while when he remarks, “Does that thing seem to be getting louder?”

I laugh. It seems we are both imagining that the properties of the box are changing. Mark seems to sense my disbelief.

“No, I’m serious, Aronade. That dreadful tune is getting louder.”

I listen for a moment then realize he is right; it is getting louder. I take a few steps forward; and, though it is barely perceptible, the music does get louder. I look over at Mark with a grin on my face. The first piece of the puzzle appears to be solved. The volume of the music will tell us where to go. More than likely, the louder it gets the closer we are to where we are supposed to end up. It is a relief in a way. I’m not comfortable roaming around the complex aimlessly with Mark. The chances of discovery are too great. And yet, I know that arriving at the scenario location will bring risks of its own. If someone else, an actor for example, is involved they will let the Instructor know about Mark. That is if the Instructor isn’t already at the scenario location himself. While Mark seems to relish a confrontation with the Instructor, I do not.

But I also conclude that a confrontation seems inevitable. How else will we know whether Mark’s sister is here with any certainty? And I doubt Mark would ever consent to leave here until he feels positive she isn’t around. Actually, I’m not even sure at this point he can be convinced that she isn’t here. Someone would have to give Mark a solid lead as to where she is in order to get him to move on. Once again, I find myself admiring his steadfastness, though I still can’t help but fear where it may lead.

“It seems the volume of the music will give us an idea where to go.” I tell Mark, in case he hadn’t already figured it out. After all, he isn’t as used to these games as I am. Mark simply nods.

Of course, the frustrating part becomes obvious soon after. For it takes quite a few steps to notice any difference at all in the volume of the music, and by then it is easy to convince yourself that you have just imagined the change entirely. Mark and I have to check back with each other frequently in order to ensure we are on the right track.

If Mark weren’t with me, I have a feeling I would have given up — not out of despair but because I am sick of the whole thing. I begin to wonder why I have even played along with all these scenarios as long as I have. Then again, I have to cut myself some slack. After all, it isn’t as though I am consulted about it or anything. Most scenarios just come out of nowhere during the course of my daily life. I am simply caught up in them without warning. The only means to escape, therefore, is to complete the scenario. This one ironically is one of the few — or maybe even the only one — that I could have just ignored.

“I think it’s starting to fade.” Mark tells me.

“When?” I utter.

I had let my mind wander and quickly become embarrassed by the oversight. Fortunately, Mark has been paying attention.

“Just a little while ago the music started getting softer. Doesn’t that mean we’ve passed a turnoff or something?”

I look behind us and can see that there is another hallway that branches off this one. I smile up at Mark with satisfaction. He smiles back.

“Here. Let me take that box for you.” he offers. “You’ve had to carry it long enough.”

“Thank you.” I reply.

He smiles again briefly then takes the box. In a way, I think it is a relief for him. I can tell he longs to lead the way. And I am relieved because I am tired — bone tired. Plus, at least this way I can keep a better watch on my surroundings. Somehow, I can’t shake the feeling we are being observed. Then again, of course we are. It wouldn’t make sense if we weren’t. What would be the point of a scenario if they didn’t keep watch over my performance? Which means whoever is watching us has to know about Mark. Though, they may not know why he is here.

I had been so tired when the scenario started that I hadn’t thought about the significance of having Mark go with me. I could feel guilty that I hadn’t thought it through, or I could just admit to myself that Mark probably wouldn’t have listened to me even if I had insisted he stay behind.

Either way, what is done is done. It just makes it all the more important for us to determine once and for all whether Mark’s sister is here as this may be our last chance to do so. And if she isn’t here, where else could she be? And what will happen, especially to me, after we sort all of that out we will have to see. But first thing is first …

Mark is already heading with the box down the passageway we had skipped. Once again, the music grows louder. Mark seems pleased.

I cast a look backwards. It is too bad we can’t lie in wait and catch whoever it is that is probably trailing us. He may have some answers to some of our questions. But whoever it is, if there is indeed someone, seems to be keeping himself purposefully just out of reach.

That thought causes me to shudder slightly. The feeling of being watched is creepy.

“You okay?” Mark asks, glancing at me from the side.

“Yeah, I guess.”

He stops suddenly.

“I’m fine.” I insist. “Let’s just get this over with.”

Then, as though on cue, the music that has been playing stops.

“What is this?” Mark wonders aloud. “So, do you suppose this box has some sort of timer, or do you think the music stopped because of our location?”

“I don’t know, but I’d guess it’s the latter.”

That response seems to satisfy Mark.

“Me, too.” he confirms. “It seems tuned in to our location. But then, the question remains, what now?”

But just as that conversation reaches its conclusion, another sound takes its place. It is the sound of a portion of the wall moving. It slides open, revealing a passageway. Mark seems excited to have a new avenue for us to explore and progress through. But I know better — it is a trap. For once we enter, I know as sure as I am standing here it will be next to impossible to get back out.

Mark seems to recognize my hesitation.

“What’s the matter?” he asks me.

I look up at him in disbelief. Is he serious? Isn’t it obvious how foreboding this whole situation is? I sigh.

“What if we can’t get back out?” I finally ask him.

He looks at the darkened space then back at me. Finally, he seems to understand.

“Maybe we can find something to wedge the door open with.” he suggests.

Then suddenly, and much to my horror, the door’s movement begins to reverse itself. It is sliding shut! There is no more time to contemplate what to do next. The music, for whatever reason, has stopped, and there is no way of knowing whether we can ever get it started up again. And without the music, can we reopen the door? We have to act now or give up on the scenario. It occurs to me how elusive this scenario is in comparison to most of the others. It seems to be challenging me not to complete it. I am used to feeling forced to do the scenarios. It is odd.

Then, before I have the chance to think through what this all means, Mark is already through the gap. I hesitate just long enough to realize I don’t have a good choice. Then, I follow behind him.

I look back and see the door close, eclipsing the light from the hall. Now on the other side of the door, we are faced with the same dilemma we had had before. How will we get the door to open again?

“There could be another exit up ahead.” Mark puts forth.

I am relieved to hear him suggest that possibility, and I nod in agreement.

“We should probably keep the box with us.” he mentions. “Who knows whether we might need it again.”

It is kind of heavy, but I agree with him. I have no desire to retrace my steps and come back for it later. It would be just like the Instructor to have us need it. He could also have it disappear by the time we could get back here.

I always wonder at the beginning of every scenario whether this will be a scenario that won’t end — that I will be imprisoned within it just for being foolish enough to have started it in the first place. There are never any rules in these things that make complete sense to me. And there is always an inconsistency to the lessons I am forced to learn.

The hallway we begin to walk through is surprisingly barren and dark. It seems an odd place for a scenario. Usually, there is something of interest or of note to draw one’s attention. Instead, this corridor has a distinct feeling of being unused, maybe even forgotten. The cobwebs that occasionally cling to the walls are actually real rather than simply placed for dramatic effect. If it weren’t for the fact that the door had opened because of the music box, I would have concluded that we had wandered down the wrong path. After walking toward seemingly nowhere for a while, I can sense that Mark’s frustration is growing.

Eventually, he turns to me.

“What do you think this means?” he asks me. “There doesn’t seem to be anything here.”

I ponder that for a moment. It does seem that someone has led us astray. But if so, why?

Suddenly, music begins to emanate from the box again. It is a slow melody that seems to unnaturally drag on. It sounds as though it is coming from a broken record player. It begins to be hard to listen to as it screeches and sputters along. It is clearly out of tune.

“What is up with that?” Mark questions with agitation in his voice. “That’s about as bad as nails on a chalkboard. Then again, maybe it’s worse.”

“Should we go back and see whether the music box can reopen the door we entered?” I ask him, though I can tell by the look of disappointment on his face what the answer will be. I rather wish I hadn’t brought it up. After all, even if we did leave now, what would be resolved? Perhaps, somehow we are close to reaching the resolution of his sister’s disappearance. Where would we be if we went back to my room now? It is at this moment that I determine to see this scenario through. It is time to face this thing — whatever it is.

“Never mind.” I say, “Let’s keep going.”

He nods with approval.

“I got to thinking —” he starts. “where we are — we seem to be headed toward that unused corridor you pointed out to me. You know, the one that doesn’t seem able to be reached — by usual methods anyway.”

“You kept track of our path …”

That surprises me; I hadn’t thought to do that. It probably hadn’t occurred to me because that section had never made much of an impression on me before Mark arrived. It makes sense that Mark would be very interested in a place that seems to be intentionally cordoned off and not readily accessible. But me? I hadn’t really had a reason to care before. That thought gets me to wondering. Why would the Instructor believe I would have the motivation to leave my room in the middle of the night and go exploring these spaces? Unlike Mark, I’m not searching for anything, and I am too distracted by all the other places and unexpected events in my daily life to be invested in this area. Actually, at this point, I would rather avoid intrigue whenever possible. To be honest, I’m not sure what even compelled me to go into that vent the other day. Certainly, I am loath to try that again. So, I conclude, it doesn’t make sense to me that the Instructor would be counting on my having an interest in this area and, therefore, the motivation to explore it. Unless, of course, he was counting on Mark to persuade me …

But then, I remember something I had put from my mind about this place. It is near to where Mark almost died. This, of course, is another good reason to avoid this area altogether.

However, I know that there will be no talking Mark out of exploring it. It is a logical place to search, after all. And what if there is something interesting hidden within this unknown space?

“We’d better be on guard.” I advise him suddenly. “The last time you were in this area … it didn’t go so well for you.”

“Yeah.” He looks off to the side.

He seems to actually be taking what I said seriously. I am relieved. The last thing we need to do is to act rashly and let our guard down. Convinced now that Mark and I are on the same page, I am willing to proceed on without any more hesitation.

The creepy and screechy music continues. Only this time, the volume doesn’t seem to change. Then again, it really doesn’t seem to matter; there is only one way to go. The corridor appears to head forever in a straight line. I wonder how this can be. There has to be an end point. As it is, we must have bypassed the mysterious section by now and have jutted out past the main part of the building.

“How big is this place?” Mark remarks.

He sounds tired; I know I am. The doors, as few as there are, won’t open. They seem to be sealed shut from the inside. The whole place has a feeling of abandonment, as though it had been closed off long ago and was never intended to be revisited. Finally, we hit a wall — literally — the hallway just runs into a brick wall. Mark puts the music box down and checks the obstruction over. But it is no use — it is a brick wall, and there is no discernible way of getting past it. I am at a loss as to what to do now. The only thing I can think of to do is to head back to where we came from, but I know that Mark won’t take that well. Still, what else can we do?

Mark places his hand against the wall and leans upon it.

“Do you suppose we missed something?” Mark postulates. “Maybe we should recheck those doors we passed by.”

I readily agree. After all, it will get us heading back the way we came. I really don’t believe that rechecking the doors will do us any good; I think we did an adequate job of inspecting them already. It turns out I am wrong. At the third door we come to on our way back, Mark does an exhaustive examination — as he had the two doors preceding it. He runs his hands along every edge and curve.

“What’s this?” he utters, which surprises me.

“What? Did you find something?” I wonder in disbelief.

“There’s some sort of latch here.” he informs me.

Mark continues to mess with the latch. I shift on my weary feet. Then suddenly, the door begins to move, though this time not on its own. Mark’s actions have freed the structure, and now Mark is able to slide the door from its place. There goes my hope of getting back to bed before morning, I think. Mark, on the other hand, seems thrilled by this new discovery. I smile wanly when he looks at me.

When the door is fully opened, a burst of dust assails us. I begin to cough. Whatever space is on the other side of this door, it had obviously been closed off for a while — hence, it has the feel of a tomb.

“There is a stairwell in here.” Mark announces for my benefit.

“Great!” I think sarcastically. “Now we get to descend into the tomb!”

So much for my not hesitating again! I should have known that was far too optimistic an expectation to place on myself. And yet, I am not the only one who is far too optimistic.

“It looks like the type of place where they could keep prisoners.” Mark announces.

I don’t know what to do when he looks at me. Should I nod in agreement, even though I don’t know that I, in fact, agree with him? I just stand there, and his face falls as a result.

“Well, come on.” he states in a cooled voice. Apparently, he is not going to be dissuaded by my lack of enthusiasm. I, for one, am glad to distance myself from this awkward moment. Still …

“How will we see?” I ask him.

I had unfortunately allowed the momentum of the moment to carry me into this scenario without thinking things through first. It hadn’t even occurred to me to retrieve my flashlight from my room before heading out. For some reason, I hadn’t thought this scenario would take long or take us out of the brightly lit corridors we were in at the beginning. In other words, I hadn’t thought. Perhaps, I had been too tired to think.

He looks back at me for a moment then considers. Finally, he goes back into the hall.

“Make sure the door doesn’t shut.” he instructs me after I step inside the doorframe in order to secure it. I can hear noises in the hall as though something is being torn apart. Mark eventually reappears with a torch in his hand.

“Good thinking, by the way.” he tells me approvingly.

Mark then looks towards the music box, which he had placed by my feet when he had left earlier. It is still churning out that dreadful music.

“I can’t carry both.” he informs me. “Do you want the torch or the box?”

Since I am not sure that a spark may not fall from the torch, or that I may not accidentally drop the torch and extinguish the flame, I say, “I’ll take the box.”

Mark looks surprised. After all, the box is heavy. Not to mention, it is making the most dreadful noise. It sounds like someone is beating a player piano to death. Still, I take up the box without a word of explanation. I don’t really want to admit I am afraid of the fire.

We head down the wet, stone staircase then. I look behind us a couple of times to see whether the door we are leaving behind is closing on us; it isn’t. Still, as the exit escapes from view, I know that that may not be true forever. Everywhere we venture, every step we take forward seems designed to just entangle us further and further into a trap. Still, what choice is there? If we are to find answers from the person who has them, we have to do it on his terms. As we progress, I do begin to wonder what we will do should the flame burn out. I think that it wouldn’t be so hard to retrace our way back to where we had come from … so long as the path remains so straight. Of course, it doesn’t.

“Which way?” Mark asks, turning to me.

I shrug. I have no idea. Though, I know instinctively that I should make a mental note of whichever way we do end up going. With or without the light, it probably isn’t going to be as easy to get back as I had hoped.

Mark looks back at the fork in the path. He seems to be analyzing something.

“I think I feel a breeze to the left.” he announces.

“What does that mean?” I ask him.

The significance of this observation eludes me. Don’t get me wrong, it seems to mean something, but what? I step forward and get a taste of the air that is wafting towards us, and it is cold. It seems to be too strong of a current to be coming from a window. Could it be an open door … to the outside? I realize I haven’t actually been outside the complex since I had arrived here years ago. I’ve only been in the enclosed outdoor space of the garden I had left Mark in. It is strange to think that stepping outside of the confines of this place hasn’t occurred to me in so long. Suddenly, I am filled with the desire to leave. Yet, at the same time, I know I am in no way dressed for cold weather. And there is no going back to my room for a sweater either.

Still, maybe if I could just step outside for a moment …

“All right.” I say. “Let’s go that way.”

It is bound to be better than the other direction, which is emanating a musty smell.

Mark smiles then nods. Then, we both head onward. I can feel the weight of the music box begin to weigh down my arms as we carry on. The chill in the air also isn’t helping my muscles any.

I am regretting going this way already. The wind is awful and growing worse by the second. I can feel the thin fabric of my outfit begin to give way as the wind intensifies. I can sense the cold air sailing through the invisible holes in the cloth. I know it won’t be long before it becomes too much for me to bear. Then, I will have to turn back, and Mark will be disappointed. Of course, he doesn’t have to turn back with me. He could go on without me. But do I want him to? For one, there is only the one torch. Secondly, I don’t really want to stand here alone waiting for him. And lastly, what if something happens to him while we are separated? That old familiar worry comes back over me. I would never know what happened to him then …

So, I trudge on. If Mark can stand the cold, so can I, I tell myself. After all, Mark also doesn’t have a coat — I can only assume it was taken from him when he was placed in that coffin.

In any event, I can’t focus on how much I wished I had brought something warm along with me. I had had the opportunity to be prepared for this venture, and I hadn’t taken it. I could only imagine what the Instructor would say now if he were here.

Eventually, the cutting wind begins to subside, and the noise it created becomes a dull hum. I can even see the dimmest of lights straight ahead. I had been right; there is an opening to the outside after all. And it appears that dawn is just beginning to break on the morning.

“It should get warmer once the sun comes out.” Mark says with some satisfaction.

I can tell that the sense of freedom from the fresh air is doing him some good. I hate to think of him going back inside the confines of the complex after this. But I know that is exactly what he’ll do if he has to. The truth is I hate the thought of going back in there myself. I shake off the thought; it is pointless.

“Hey,” I suddenly notice.

I look down at the box I am holding. It is still making noise, but it is much more muted than it was before. I can’t say what that means. It could be a sign, I figure, that we are on the right track. Or, it may mean that whatever is powering the music box is winding down. Either way, it has to mean something. The look on Mark’s face suggests he thinks so, too.

“Well, I guess we should look around.” Mark suggests. “Are you up for that?”

“Yeah, sounds good to me.” I reply.

There is still some snow on the ground. On top of the snow is a glossy sheen. That either means ice or that the snow is slowly melting. As my foot falls upon the snow, it crunches, but it also gives way pretty easily under my weight. I take this as a sign that the snow is probably weakening. Perhaps, Mark is right that the temperature will continue to rise as the day progresses. Already I can tell that fog is beginning to settle in. That surely means the snow is thawing! Perhaps, we are heading into a warm spell. In the very least, it will hopefully be a warmer than usual day.

“Should we leave the box or take it with us?” I ask Mark.

Part of me is thinking about how heavy it is. Though, I still realize there is a possibility we may end up needing it again.

“Here. I’ll take it.” he offers.

It surprises me when he blows out the torch and places it on the ground. I recognize that we don’t need it with the sun, and that it would eventually burn out anyway if we kept it alight. Still, I wonder how we will relight the thing when we head back into the complex. Surely we will still need light to see by. Or, is he not planning on going back inside there at all?

I look on him with curiosity as he takes the box from me, but he does not return my gaze at first. Instead, he starts to walk off into the open courtyard with the box in hand. Finally, he seems to notice that I’m not following along behind him, and he casts a look my way. His look is one of, “Are you coming?”

I step forward, casting my eyes at the torch as I pass it. There will be time to determine what he is thinking later, I figure, even though we don’t know what to expect from the coming day yet.

Copyright © Jennifer Alice Chandler 2020

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Chapter 11

I am unnerved by this turn of events. I am grateful when I don’t run into Nan as I exit the room. For a moment, I am afraid she’ll be waiting for me when I emerge. I don’t need that. No matter how she would have reacted, it wouldn’t have been helpful under the circumstances. I don’t need any more fear than I already have, and I certainly don’t need another rebuke.

I can’t for the life of me figure out what went wrong. True, I had been dreading this encounter from the moment I heard about it earlier in the day. But surely his animosity wasn’t caused by my aversion to seeing him. It isn’t as though I set out to make it obvious or anything. I wasn’t any more reluctant to see him than I usually was. And if he was honest with himself, he’d have to admit how unnerving he could be. He set out to be that way it would seem to me.

No, I couldn’t let him rattle me this way. I couldn’t seek to blame myself for this disastrous evening. Whatever is going on with the Instructor is his problem. And he obviously isn’t going to confide the reason for his foul mood to me. It does make me less inclined to want to see him again — if not seeing him again is even possible. After all, how awkward will seeing him next time be? The Instructor never apologizes … and I’m not about to. Not only don’t I see myself as being in the wrong, but I know it would just be viewed as a sign of weakness by him, which would invariably lead to the same conflict we had just had. Still, I hope it will be a long time before he requests to see me again.

I head back to my room in a kind of daze. It is hard to shake the anxiety I feel. I had stood up to the Instructor, which is something I never saw myself doing. Well, I can’t say the thought had never occurred to me as a possibility, but I had always quickly dismissed the idea as foolhardy once it had entered my mind. Now that it has happened, I am struck by how pointless it had all been. In the very least, I would have liked for it to have meant something. Instead, it was a stupid, nonsensical argument. I should have at least brought up my almost amputated foot if I was going to get into trouble anyway. No, on second thought, I am glad I hadn’t done that, for that would have brought Mark into question. And I am still not sure what the Instructor knows or doesn’t know about him.

Mark! Somehow in all of my preoccupation I had forgotten that I was planning on visiting him with food. I quickly head to my stash of food. I am relieved when I find the food undisturbed. I know that doesn’t prove that no one is aware it is there, but it makes me feel better, nonetheless.

I am a bit torn about whether I should head directly to Mark. The Instructor made me nervous. Would he be less likely to find out about Mark if I wait to go? I have no idea. I decide to just go. After all, I only have so long before Mark is tempted to head out of his room for the night to look for his sister.

I make good time in getting to Mark’s hiding spot. Mark, in turn, was hidden once again in the wardrobe. It isn’t until I see the odd look on his face when he gazes at me that I realize I had forgotten to change out of the Instructor’s bizarre ensemble. Though it appears he tries to stifle it, Mark suddenly lets out a laugh.

“What’s this?!” he begs to know.

I feel myself redden shamelessly. After what had happened with the Instructor that night, the last thing I need is more ridicule. I feel like taking the food I had gathered for him and stalking off in a huff. That would surely teach him!

As my face crinkles in offense, Mark suddenly has a change of heart.

“I’m sorry.” he insists, though he is still laughing. “No, really, I am sorry.”

He reaches his hand out and touches my arm. I look down at his hand with curiosity.

“Aronade.” he speaks.

I look up at him.

“You have to admit it’s a pretty ridiculous costume.”

I force myself to acknowledge his words with a nod, but I say nothing. I am too embarrassed, and I still feel like fleeing from the room. But I do have a mission I need to complete. Mark still needs to be fed. Without giving him any more eye contact, I proceed to the table and begin to lay out dinner. Mark goes and sits in one of the chairs. He watches me set the table. Under the circumstances, I really don’t appreciate his gaze upon me. So, once or twice I shoot him a look that conveys my displeasure. Eventually, he takes the hint.

Of course, then I feel bad. It isn’t as though the outfit isn’t ridiculous. If I had been in a better mood, I would have thought so as well. I certainly don’t want him thinking that I am being defensive because I actually like this getup — that maybe I had even picked it out myself! No, it was the Instructor who put me in such a foul mood, not Mark. It isn’t fair to take it out on Mark. Besides, he is going through a lot with his sister being missing and all. I look up at him regretfully.

“I’m sorry. It’s not really you.” I confide. “It’s the Instructor …”

“The Instructor?” Mark interjects.

“Yeah,” I confirm. How does one explain the Instructor to someone who has never met him? “He made me wear this outfit. I don’t know why. He likes for me to dress up like this for some reason.”

Boy, does that sound creepy, I think. Then, I conclude it is, in fact, creepy. I look up as my eyes had wandered again. Suddenly, I notice that Mark’s eyes have grown dark. Fortunately, his anger doesn’t seem to be directed at me but rather the person I had mentioned. It is a surprise to me that he would know the Instructor … or at least suspect that he does.

“How do you know him?” I ponder aloud.

Mark considers for a moment.

“The question is how well do you know him?” he returns.

“No one really knows him.” I conclude lowly.

I grow uncomfortable. I am not used to talking this way. I’m not sure I can even trust Mark. But the strange thing is now he is looking at me as though he doesn’t trust me!

“What?” I ask him defensively.

“I just can’t get over how different your situation is in comparison to the other girls.” he speaks suddenly. “The others were kept in a cell. They certainly didn’t wander around the way you do … and they weren’t allowed to leave either. And then, there is the familiarity you seem to have with this ‘Instructor.’ I don’t know what to make of it.”

“I’m not allowed to leave.” I mutter. I haven’t had the time to process all of what he had just said. “He said I can’t leave the boundary.” I sigh. “And it’s not as though we get along either. During dinner he was particularly rude to me …”

“Dinner? You had dinner with him … tonight?”

My eyes dart around. I find myself surprised by the intensity of Mark’s reaction.

“Yes …” I start. “That’s why I’m in such a bad mood.”

Mark looks off to the side. Then, out of nowhere, he turns a severe look back on me. It takes me by utter surprise when he says, “I want to see him. Can you take me to where he is?!”

For all this time and with all this effort I have worked to conceal Mark from the Instructor’s prying eyes, and now Mark is demanding to see him? Could this be real?

“Are you joking?!” I stammer.

“No!” he replies adamantly.

I can tell by Mark’s tone that he is serious … and angry. Is he now angry with me?

“Why on earth?!” I question.

“He probably has my sister!” he declares.

I, however, am in disbelief. Is Mark delusional? Where is this coming from?

“Your sister … whoa … wait a minute. Why would you think that? I haven’t seen anyone with him besides Nan. And obviously she couldn’t be your sister.”

“Why can’t I see him?” Mark suddenly demands of me. “Why are you protecting him?”

“I’m not!” I object.

And I’m not. Certainly, I have no cause to do that. But there are still things that aren’t done in this world that I occupy and bringing in an outsider to confront the Instructor is one of them.

“I never go to see him unless I’m sent for. I have never requested to see him.” I explain. “I can’t even be sure how long it’s going to be before he asks to see me again. It didn’t go well this last time.”

Mark shoots me a look of annoyance.

“Seriously, how could I have fathomed that you were going to want to talk to him — that you thought he had something to do with your sister’s disappearance? Honestly, I’m not sure how you came to that conclusion. Anything is possible around here, I suppose. But what are you basing that on? What about that other guy? The one who put you in that coffin?”

Mark sighs in frustration.

“Can you at least show me where he last was, so I can have a look around?” he implores me.

My eyebrows furrow. Is he even considering what position he is putting me in? Does he not care? I am the one who has nowhere else to go. Could he and his family afford another mouth to feed … really? It seems doubtful to me; very few have that type of wealth. I feel I am on shaky ground around here as it is. What would become of me if I started running around barging in on the Instructor in his personal spaces? I turn my face away from Mark and become absorbed in my own thoughts for a moment. I honestly don’t know what to do at this point. As much as I want to help Mark … I can feel Mark staring at me. When he sighs again, I turn and look at him once more. Then, I abruptly counter.

“Do you want my help or not? I really don’t know you all that well. I’m not comfortable with you expecting me to trust you. Or, having you question me as though I’ve done something wrong.”

He stares at me for a moment then slowly nods.

“All right.” I agree. “I’ll take you to where I last saw him, but you can’t make any kind of disturbance. Our goal has to be that no one finds out we were there. Agreed?”

“Agreed.” Mark responds, though he would have probably agreed to anything right then to get me to take him to where he wanted to go.

He smiles at me, but I don’t return the gesture. I am too annoyed with him. I feel as though he is asking too much of me and is putting me in an untenable position. More than anything, I feel that I am being used, and I don’t like that feeling at all. All I keep hoping for at this point is that we will find his sister safe and sound, and then he will leave. My life has become chaotic enough as it is. I don’t need his problems on top of my own. Whether I can fix the turmoil that has entered into my life, I don’t know. But I now feel that Mark is a distraction from my finding a solution to my ordeal.

In other words, I am angry with him. And I feel hurt enough at this moment that I believe I no longer want anything more to do with him … after I help him find his sister, of course.

We find the hall empty. You can just feel that there is no one around. And yet, I know I should be cautious. I use the word should because I recognize that I am probably not being cautious enough. I am too angry about the way I’ve been treated today to be prudent. I usually would have tentatively peered around corners, careful to spy out any person who may be lurking around nearby. Instead, I walk from hall to hall at such a clip that Mark has to put forth an effort to keep pace with me. And he is quite a bit taller than I am, I might add. This gives me a certain sense of satisfaction.

Given the speed in which I am moving, it doesn’t take me all that long to retrace my way back to the Instructor’s dining room. It is then that a sense of trepidation begins to creep in. It had occurred to me before that I may get caught with Mark, but I found I didn’t particularly care at that point. After all, this was Mark’s idea. If he has to suffer the consequences for it, so be it. But something about this place unnerves me. The Instructor has done too good of a job making his lair uninviting. I have no desire to burst into it unannounced. Still, it is unlikely that I will find the door unlocked, I tell myself. I am wrong; the door opens easefully in my hand. I can’t help but gasp.

But I don’t have much time to consider the meaning of its being left unlocked, for Mark is coming up behind me then. I look back up at him in bewilderment. He probably doesn’t get the significance of this discovery. As I’ve said, even I’m not sure what it means. Is the Instructor anticipating our coming? Is he waiting inside? Maybe he knows everything and is about to show us the conclusion to his latest game.

I am sure that Mark has no idea what I am thinking about, for I can’t seem to get any words to come out. Instead, I am horrified to see Mark walk past me and into the room. Startled, I follow right behind him. Only it isn’t the Instructor I see on the other side of the door — it is an even more dimly lit and empty room. The tables have been cleared, the candles extinguished, and the auxiliary lights set on. It looks as though Nan may have set the room straight. Perhaps she may have been the one who left the door unlocked. I look around the room, trying to find some trace of the Instructor, but thankfully I find none. If the Instructor is indeed here somewhere, he is hiding.

Mark breathes frustration. Apparently, he has come to the same conclusion that I have — that the Instructor isn’t here. He turns and looks at me. Even in this dim light, I can tell he is geared up. He apparently still has his mind set on confronting the Instructor after all. Or, at least, he had been hoping it would turn out he would have the opportunity to confront him. Only the fact remains that the Instructor is gone. And even if I did think that confronting the Instructor would be a wise move, I literally have no idea where to begin looking for him. Surely, Mark can see that as easily as I can. He seems to be able to read the expression on my face anyway, for he turns from me again and begins searching the room — presumably for clues to the Instructor’s whereabouts.

He seems to be carefully assessing all of the Instructor’s knickknacks, which contribute to the dreary ambiance of the place. I grow tired just watching him, so I elect to sit down in the chair I had occupied when the Instructor was still around. I lean back in the high-back chair. I brace the wooden chair arms with the grip of my hands. If only I felt powerful enough to face him, I think, to really face him about something important. But I never do … I always blink first.

I watch Mark. He seems so sure of himself, so determined. What it must be like to be him — seemingly unencumbered by self-doubt. I had assumed that all of the Instructor’s games had made me stronger. But have they … really? Am I really less likely to be manipulated than I had been before? It bothers me … Nan’s scapegoating does bother me. I am not immune to those feelings. Was that why the Instructor was so nasty to me that evening? Is he disappointed by how reliant I am on the approval of others? Or, is his intention to prevent me from ever being freed from that need for human approval? In some sick twist is his intent, in fact, to make me dependent on his approval? Am I to be worn down emotionally to a nub, and his nastiness is merely a part of that strategy? It is possible. Perhaps, my display of attitude made him feel it wasn’t working — at least not fast enough. Or, maybe I am on schedule, and this was the game plan all along. Maybe he always planned to turn on me one day — he and Nan both. I have no power here; that is for sure. If that evening’s dinner was meant to show me that, it certainly succeeded.

What to do with that realization now is the question. What options do I have? Mark has offered me a way out, but what is it really based upon? What can he do to help me? Still, the mere fact that I know he wants to help me makes me feel positively towards him again.

“Well, there’s no sign of an exit from the room other than the one we entered.” he informs me. He turns and looks at me. “So, he must have left before we arrived. That means he probably doesn’t know that we came here.” he tries to reassure me.

I know the Instructor too well to assume that either one of those two conclusions are necessarily true. In fact, I am pretty sure there has to be a second way out of this room, even if it isn’t obvious. There is just no reason I can conceive of why the Instructor would willingly trap himself inside this room. As to the other, that is a question that always bothers me. How much does the Instructor know about my movements?

I decide not to tell Mark of my suspicions that the Instructor must have an escape route. For one, I seriously doubt that the Instructor had just been in the room and fled at our approach. But more importantly, I want to get out of here before we are caught. The longer I stay here, the greater the feeling grows within me that our being discovered would be disastrous. If I tell Mark my suspicions, it will only encourage him to continue looking for a second exit. And what good would that do? Even if the Instructor had used it, he’s probably long gone by now. Still, I do feel a bit conflicted; maybe I shouldn’t keep things from Mark.

“I’m sorry to drag you all the way down here for nothing.” Mark allows.

“I’m not upset it came to nothing.” I return.

Mark eyes me with resentment.

“Not because of your sister, but because I don’t see what good it would have done. In fact, I think it would have done more harm than good.”

Mark looks off to the side then finally nods in agreement.

“I just can’t help but think that if I could run into him then I could get him to tell me where she is.”

“What are the odds of that?” I ask him.

“I don’t know.” He looks at me again.

“Assuming he does know where she is … taking him unawares seems unlikely to me. And even if he told you the truth, she could be moved before you could reach her.” I inform him.

“Unless I … tied him up or something.”

I look at him blankly.

“I’m not giving up.” he tells me.

“I’m not suggesting that you do.”

He sighs.

“I guess I’ll have to keep searching around on my own, then.” he tells me. “Still, if you do hear from him again …”

“I guess I’ll have to let you know. It wouldn’t be fair otherwise.”

“We can come up with a plan.” he tries to convince me.

I have this feeling that I will end up a bigger part of that plan than I would like. Still, at this point, I am dead tired. I want the day to be over. I want out of this outfit — out of this room. We could talk about the rest some other time. I hope that by the time the Instructor summons me again Mark’s sister will be found and maybe she and Mark … and maybe even I will be long gone from here.

“Let’s get out of here.” I insist. “This place sends chills up my spine.”

He agrees.

I stop short on my way back to my room. In fact, I stop right in front of my bedroom. Mark turns and looks back at me quizzically.

“I think I’ll be going to sleep for the night after all.” I inform him. “I’m not up for helping you search anymore tonight.”

Mark relaxes his stance a moment later.

“That’s fine.” he assures me.

“If you want to talk to me for a few minutes … that’s fine.” I let him know. “Otherwise …”

“Sure.” he accedes.

I am a bit surprised by his response actually. I made the offer without thinking it through and instantly began questioning my sanity after having done so. Now he’s accepted. If I was confused as to why I had offered to speak with him, I am even more confused by his acceptance. Still … I guess it is better to deal with issues rather than just burying them. What good could come from holding on to hurt feelings? Plus, I figure I need someone to talk with about my living situation. Mark isn’t ideal, and he certainly isn’t unbiased, but I have no one else. And I trust him more than anyone else around here. And that, quite frankly, is a bit sad.

But first things first, I will go into the bathroom and change out of this ghastly outfit. I head to my dresser straightaway then into the bathroom. I choose the most casual and comfortable outfit I can find. I don’t want to look like a freak anymore, but beyond that I couldn’t care less what I look like.

I quickly undo my hair and let it flow down my back. It is freeing actually — to not be judged by appearances. If only all of my day could have been like this! I sigh.

I re-enter my bedroom. I find Mark standing at the window looking out. I come up to him.

“It looks like a prison yard.” he comments, much to my surprise.

“A prison yard?” I remark.

“What’s over there?” he asks.

“Where?”

“There.” He points at the corridor over to the left — the one I realized I had never been to before my journey through the air vent.

“I think that’s where I found you.” I tell him. “I had never been there before that day. But it seems to be — given the direction I think I took — that same corridor.”

“Hmm … so, maybe I should take another look around there.”

I gaze at him with an incredulous look.

“Seriously?” I stammer. “What if what happened before happens again? Do you even know how you wound up in that coffin?”

“I was knocked unconscious from behind.”

I give him a knowing look.

“What?” he asks me. “I was in there a long time before he actually tried to drown me. The fact that I’m willing to risk having that happen again should tell you how desperate I am to find her.”

And it does … only it also makes me question his judgment.

As long as I have lived here, I am still not quite sure what I am up against. The rules are constantly changing on me. I admire Mark’s courage on some level, but his bravado also scares me. After all, he is the one who was stuck in a watery grave — literally! Why doesn’t he seem to care how closely he had come to death?

I walk away from the window.

“I really am sorry for laughing at you before.” he tells me to my turned back.

I look back at him. He seems sincere.

“Just realize that this place is more complicated than it seems.” I advise him.

“And I’m making your life a whole lot more complicated, too.” he acknowledges.

I nod. I figure there would be no point in denying it, for it is true. Actually, it is an understatement.

“I wish there were some way to make it up to you.” he informs me.

His face is in shadow, but there is a certain warmth to his voice.

“I realize that your situation is worse than mine.” I put forth. “And, of course, your sister’s is worse.”

“I don’t see how.” he counters.

Then, he looks back toward the window, seemingly referencing the “prison yard” as he called it. He thinks I am trapped here. Am I? I have never tried to leave. Maybe that is because on some level I realize I am trapped — that they won’t let me go. I shudder. Mark steps toward me.

“You all right?” he asks me.

It seems as though he wants to comfort me. I feel myself redden. I’m not prepared for that.

“I’ll be fine.” I croak. “It’s just been a really bad day.”

He nods. I can see that he is easing a bit away from me, and I am relieved. I’m not used to being hugged anymore. And if he did it … it would be overwhelming for me emotionally. I am not ready for that — not even ready to think about that.

“Wouldn’t it be great if we could just look around and not have to worry about anyone finding out?” I mumble. “I don’t know for sure what would happen if they did find out, but it wouldn’t be good, especially for you.”

“Yeah.”

“Really … I can’t be sure they don’t know you’re still here — that you didn’t escape. I have no idea what they know or don’t know. I routinely check the room for listening devices, but who knows. Is my room bugged? Are all the rooms bugged? The Instructor hadn’t seemed aware of my meeting you, but really I can’t read him well.”

I almost say that I have had my doubts from time to time that Mark isn’t just an actor in some scenario, but I stop myself. I don’t want him to think that I don’t trust him. I trust him as much as I can.

“Maybe I should stay here tonight.” he suddenly suggests.

I look at him skeptically. Where had that come from? I thought he was so eager to continue his search. Then again, maybe it wouldn’t be the worst idea ever. There is more of a possibility he might do something foolish if he goes out on his own tonight. Yes, it would be better to let time pass and get a good night’s sleep. His agitation about the Instructor may wane in the meantime. So, even though I don’t know what is motivating his offer to stay with me, I decide to take him up on it.

“Sure.” I agree. “That would be good.”

Mark smiles briefly then readies himself on my sofa as he had the last time he was in my room. I go and lie down on my bed. It feels good to lie down again. Still, there is a sort of tension in the air because of his sleeping here. I decide to turn off the light on my nightstand. It takes a moment for my eyes to adjust to the darkness, but eventually the dark outlines of the furniture separate themselves from the shadows. I stare up at the tiles on the ceiling.

“Goodnight.” I speak softly.

“Goodnight.” Mark responds.

Copyright © Jennifer Alice Chandler 2020

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Chapter 10

I remember the first time I lost everything I had in my possession. I don’t even recall where my scant possessions came from, but one day they were gone. I simply left them in my room that day. That was all I needed to do to set the lesson in motion. I was summoned to have breakfast with the Instructor that morning. When I returned, I found that the room I had been occupying at that time had disappeared; it was just gone. I searched for it in vain. Was the lesson, “Don’t take things for granted?” No, the lesson was, “Don’t get attached.”

The following morning, as I finish up my breakfast, the part I hadn’t set aside for Mark, I decide to take the initiative of cleaning up after myself. But what then? Should I ask Nan whether she has anything for me to do today? I decide against that. I can’t leave until I am dismissed, but asking her whether I can go or lingering around looking as though I want to be released right away could be seen by her as vindictive and could set her off. I decide to just clear my place then act as though I am in no hurry to leave. I hope she won’t see through me and realize how much I want to go.

Strangely enough, I soon catch on that Nan doesn’t appear all that interested in me today. I should just be relieved, but, as with most of the unexpected changes around here, I find myself unnerved by it. Perhaps, it is merely another mind game she is playing, but I am convinced it is something more. If I am right, what could have changed between yesterday and today?

As I take my plates to the sink, I no longer feel hesitant to ask what plans Nan has in store for me today. My curiosity has simply grown too strong for me not to ask.

“So, is there anything you need me to do today?” I ask her.

“No,” she states coolly. She doesn’t show much interest in the question.

I am perplexed. I can see her steal a glance at me from the side. I imagine it gives her pleasure to confuse me. I wish I had done a better job hiding my emotions.

“Then, can I go back to my room?”

“For now.” she replies cryptically. “But you may be needed later … so don’t wander off.”

My eyebrows furrow. I am so sick of these games. And yet, I say nothing more. I have been given permission to leave, which is what I wanted. Unfortunately, that permission has strings attached. If someone comes looking for me and finds I’m not in my room, I’ll get into trouble. I’ll have questions to answer. Yet, it can’t be helped. I have no intention of just staying in my room.

I don’t linger in my room for long, but I do go in. I figure that I’ll stay long enough to bore anyone who may be watching me. I, of course, don’t see anyone. But Nan could come around just to make sure I am there. At first, I actually wish she would come. Then, I can get her visit over with and continue on my way. But then, the thought occurs to me that Nan could come around with a list of tasks for me to do, which could take up the rest of my day. Perhaps, it is better to make myself scarce. Yes, I would be punished, but at least I would have the day first. Plus, Nan could come back and catch me gone later anyway. Yes, it is best to just go — so long as I don’t get caught leaving, of course.

I peer out into the hallway; I had only opened the door a crack. I figure if Nan catches me looking out, she won’t be able to prove I am up to something. I could have an innocent reason for looking out. But there is nothing and no one that I can see. Then again, someone could be hiding around a corner or in a room.

“I’m getting paranoid.” I mutter to myself.

Yeah right, paranoid. Is that even possible in a place such as this? There is plenty to be wary about, I think. But thinking too much isn’t going to get me anywhere. I want to get to Mark, so we can coordinate our day. He could still be wandering around the complex, or he could be asleep for all I know. I just hope he hasn’t disappeared … Once again, I have been fretting over the possibility I won’t see him again and will never know what happened to him. That fear has been causing me to toss and turn at night.

But at this point, I am just happy to be going to him. No longer will I have to just sit around worrying. In the very least, I am determined to find him or at least to find out what happened to him. As I near the door to the room he is hiding in, I hesitate. What if someone is watching me after all? Eventually, I work up the nerve to head back into the room I left Mark in. Once again, I take him some food, and he appears to be grateful.

“Let’s go look for your sister … after you’re done eating.” I suggest.

Mark looks at me quizzically for a moment right after he takes a bite out of his sandwich.

“I really hadn’t expected you to be here this morning …” he begins.

“Yeah. Nan let me go. But she made it clear she intends to keep tabs on me … or at least try to. I’m not sure what she’s up to. Maybe she’s just messing with my head.”

“Well … the thing of it is I just finished searching for the day.” he says. “Besides, I almost ran into someone after the sun came up. I think it’s less risky at night.”

“Oh, yeah …” I acknowledge.

I am a bit disappointed, even though I can see his point.

“You probably need some sleep.” I confirm. “I guess I could come back after dinner.”

“Yeah, that would probably be best.” he agrees.

I half-smile. I had really been looking forward to helping out. I’m actually not sure how I will spend the time between now and when I can come back. Waiting always seems to make time slow down. But it makes no sense for me to linger around here. I know I wouldn’t have appreciated it if Mark had kept me up before when I had needed sleep. Instead, he had eventually let me go, so that I could rest. I decide to do the same for him. Without another awkward word, I leave.

Not surprisingly, I am a bit wired when I return to my room. When I had started the day, I had assumed I would be working with Nan most of the time. Then, the remainder would belong to Mark. But since that didn’t happen, I decide it is best to catch up on my reading. Though, I know that there is a chance that my nervous energy may make anything that requires concentration difficult. How will I be able to concentrate with so much going on?

I end up spending a lot more time staring out the large bay window in my room than I do looking at the pages of any book. It is a bright morning — so bright that the light stings my eyes a bit. Still, I can see large, puffy snowflakes descending past the window in front of me.

From the window you can also see the exterior wall of an adjacent hallway. I suspect that I must have gotten to that section through the ventilation shaft. I look at the light shining from the little attached section. Inside the hallway, activity seems to be taking place. That is strange, I think.

Far below my window lies the ground. The four walls of the surrounding buildings create a sort of enclosure down below. It is a pretty large enclosure actually. I can’t see beyond the walls of the four corners that jut out from the ground like pillars.

The vastness of the complex has always captured my interest — and it still does to some degree. But at this moment, my attention has become partially split. I will continue to explore inside the confines of the complex, but I will also seek out what is beyond its walls. After all, Mark has been out there recently. Why shouldn’t I go out there, too? Someday?

I wonder what is beyond my view — on the other side of the walls. Maybe there are large fields or even mountains. Mark mentioned there were all sorts of landscapes out there. The windows in the kitchen are all stained glass and, therefore, opaque. So, I really don’t have a clear view of the outside world. There must be a way out of here, I think. But how? All I know is I am now determined to find a way.

It isn’t long after these reflections that Nan comes around. I assume it’s to fetch me for lunch. Maybe it is my imagination, but she seems disappointed when she finds me there waiting for her.

She just stares at me for a moment, seemingly unable to speak. Finally, I can see her force the words to come out of her mouth.

“It’s good you’re here.” she admits. “The Instructor is back.”

“Back?” I repeat. The word hits my mind hard with meaning, but at that moment I don’t know why.

“Yes.” she responds.

She sounds annoyed. She seems to hate it when I question her about anything that has to do with the Instructor. It is as though she thinks I am being impudent.

“The Instructor sent me to look for you. You have been requested. You are to prepare for dinner with him.”

My eyebrows furrow. I am still confused and try to wrap my mind around my reasoning for this confusion. Nan, however, takes offense at my bewilderment and seems to view it as another act of disrespect.

“What?!” she calls out angrily.

“Nothing.” I say, shaking my head. I decide that I will think on it later. I will probably think better outside of her presence anyway.

“I’ll be ready.” I assure her.

“See that you are.” she insists. “Oh, and I’ll bring your lunch tray to you today. I don’t need you around the kitchen; I have enough to do.”

As though Nan has to babysit me! Still, at least a tray will make setting aside food for Mark easier. This is especially important since I dare not even try to sneak food past the Instructor. Chances are he would notice, and that would be disastrous.

I really want Nan to leave, so that I can process the information she has given me. But she seems to be in no hurry to go. Instead, she seems to be poking around in my room as though she is looking for something. While I want to believe she is just trying to annoy me — which she is — I grow concerned she suspects I am up to something. I rack my brain trying to remember whether there is anything incriminating that she could find. Fortunately, I had taken all of Mark’s things and any food stuffs of his to him after he had left.

Nan frowns after awhile, and I realize she hasn’t found what she is looking for.

“Well, I’ll go get your food.” she states awkwardly.

Nan finally leaves. I turn and look back out the window. I have to regain control over my nerves. I can’t afford to draw any more of Nan’s suspicions onto me. If I let her know that she is able to unnerve me … I have to wait to figure out what the Instructor is up to until later; this isn’t the time for figuring that out. Nan will be right back, and, given the mood she is in, it is doubtless that she will be analyzing me when she returns. It is hard to fathom what she is up to. Why has she taken so intensely to these mind games? Is the Instructor’s preoccupation spreading to those around him?

Nan returns shortly thereafter. Fortunately, this time she doesn’t plan on staying long. Maybe it finally occurs to her just how difficult a task she has in front of her in preparing a dinner for the Instructor. While Nan is surely not intimidated by me, she is obviously intimidated by him. And the Instructor is always very particular about his dinners.

“See that you’re ready promptly at 5:00 pm. I’ll be here to fetch you then. I don’t want any excuses.” Nan informs me.

I nod. Apparently, that isn’t a convincing enough of a response, for she gives me a nasty look as she leaves. One thing sticks in my mind as Nan leaves. It was the comment that she made implying that the Instructor hasn’t been around recently. It is hard to imagine where he could have gone, or even why the realization that he had departed has struck me as being so strange. What difference does it make? But then, it occurs to me that I had assumed the Instructor had been here for it all — here for the incident in the air vent; here for the episode with Mark.

Had he really not been here? I begin to pace. Had those things happened without his knowledge and direction?

“How can this be? With everything that’s been going on? How can it be true? And where has he been?”

I stop walking. There is still no good reason to assume that the Instructor hasn’t been here for a while. He may have been back here for at least these last few days. Then I ask myself, would it be better if the Instructor was involved in what happened or not? It has been troubling me to think he’d set up the vent incident that nearly cost me my foot. And if he isn’t aware of Mark, that would be best for Mark, too. But what does it mean if he is unaware of the vent and what happened to Mark? Yet, as I said before, I still have no reason to doubt the Instructor had been behind what happened to Mark. He’s been behind every scenario I have ever known … even if he just took advantage of Mark having stumbled upon this place.

And yet, what would it say about him if he did that to Mark? And what about my foot? And how do I feel about not having the answers to these questions given that I am scheduled to meet with him this evening? It is hard enough usually; it will be worse now. I sigh.

Nan returns briefly with the food. I look over at the tray of food. I wonder how long Mark is going to be asleep … probably awhile. He doesn’t think he will have much to do until nightfall, after all. Though I would have really loved having someone to talk to, it wouldn’t be right to wake him up just to entertain me. I decide the best thing to do is to wait to take him his food until after the dinner. I figure I will be less likely to be watched or to be visited by Nan after the dinner is done than before.

Still, there is going to be a period of anxiety to look forward to in the interim. I decide to go ahead and eat a little something. I had considered giving all of my lunch to Mark, but I decide against it now. Going to the Instructor’s dinner on an empty stomach wouldn’t be a wise move. I need to be as calm and composed as possible. Plus, eating more than I usually do may draw suspicion onto me.

I go to the tray and begin to eat slowly. At first, I don’t have much of an appetite, but I begin to relax as time passes. I realize pretty quickly that I will have to stop eating before I am full if I am going to be able to leave any substantial amount for Mark. Then, the thought occurs to me: where will I hide the food while I am gone from the room for dinner? I can’t just leave it out and risk it being thrown away. But if I hide it, and Nan searches the room while I am gone and discovers the food — well, that wouldn’t be good either. I can’t imagine what she would think if she discovers I am hoarding food. Certainly, that would be the last time I will be able to squirrel away food for Mark. Nan would have me on an even tighter leash. She may even cut down on the amount of food that she gives me as punishment.

Then again, maybe I am just looking for an excuse to go see Mark again — an excuse to wake him up. After all, there is a risk to my going back there this time of day, I remind myself. No, I will stick to my original plan. I will simply wrap up the extra food and stash it in the air vent. Then, I will hope for the best. It’s not as though the thought that I was saving the food for someone else would be first thing that would cross Nan’s mind if she does find the food.

After I secure the food in the vent, I still find myself with time on my hands — too much time. I don’t want the time. I know it will merely serve to rattle my nerves. Ironically, I even think about helping out Nan in the kitchen just so that I will have something to do! But it turns out I’m not quite that desperate.

I’ve been doing a lot of waiting around lately, I conclude. With the Instructor, it is always about his timing; there is no getting around that. I do a lot of pacing. But eventually, thankfully, time does pass, and it is time to get ready for dinner.

As I mentioned before, not all of my meetings with the Instructor are dinners. But when the meetings are dinners, there is a protocol to follow. For one, dinners with the Instructor are always formal. I don’t wear a ball gown — but it is a fancy dress, nonetheless. My straight hair is to be meticulously set. I am still too young for makeup. My shoes have to be polished; my tights can have no snags. I first take a bath. I pay careful attention to my nails to make sure no dirt has clung to them. I retrieve the blue satin dress with light green sashes. It has been hanging in a bag in my closet. It had been pressed before it was hung, but I decide to press it again before I put it on. Nan will be inspecting my appearance before I can leave the room, after all.

I find I am ready before the appointed time. That is a good thing. I feel a sense of relief when I tie the ribbon in my hair, perfectly set. It took me a long time to learn how to tie a ribbon exactly even and with no visible creases, but I had learned. Now I look like some porcelain doll freshly removed from a china cabinet. All of this attention to detail certainly sets the mood for the evening. It allows me to feel the gravity and the oddity of these occasions with the Instructor. It is as though I am going into some battle, and this is my uniform — as peculiar a uniform as it is. As I look into the mirror, I do wonder how many years I will be forced to don an outfit as this one. After all, by all accounts I will soon be a teenager. At that point, the getup will go from mildly strange to downright bizarre. It seems to me that the costumes have long since lost their point … whatever that point had been.

As far as the dresses go, I have a seamstress who comes to the complex to fit me for them. She designs every one. Though, I suspect that the Instructor gives her quite a bit of input into each design. Given his temperament, there’s no way he doesn’t. He is always complimentary of the designs when he sees them as well. Yet, it seems as though he is really fishing for a compliment for himself.

Given that my relationship with Nan deteriorated as I grew older, I do wonder whether the Instructor will turn on me, too, once I grow to be an adult. On an emotional level, I really don’t care. Still, the thought does scare me; it scares me a lot.

That’s why I didn’t say anything negative the last time I was fitted for my doll-clothes wardrobe; I figured it was a good thing he still viewed me as a child. Plus, at least I don’t have to dress up like this most of the time. My regular clothes are actually quite normal.

Still, trying to get through these oddball meetings with the Instructor is stressful no matter how infrequently they occur. The dinners are very disruptive to me emotionally and usually they portend that another scenario is about to begin. I really don’t want that. I have my hands full trying to help Mark find his sister. And it is hard enough having to deal with Nan and whatever issues she is having. Not to mention what had happened with my foot …

But it is getting close to that time. I will soon find out exactly what the Instructor wants from me — or at least learn enough to be able to make a new strategy as to how to work around him.

Nan comes to see me about thirty minutes before the dinner is set to begin. A peculiar feature of the Instructor’s is that he not only doesn’t like people to be late, he seems to hate them being early just as much. I figure it must be a control thing. But just as with most things involving the Instructor, I never know for sure. I don’t feel comfortable enough to ask him; there is no way I could imagine doing that.

It turns out that Nan came earlier than was needed because she didn’t trust me to assemble my outfit correctly — but I had done it correctly. So, we are left with time on our hands. Nan opts to wait in my room until it gets to be the time when we need to depart for the dining hall. She sits on one of my sofas, though she is far from relaxed. Instead, she is constantly checking her watch. This annoys me to no end. I resist rolling my eyes, though … barely.

I am under enough stress. Nan is making it worse. Not that she cares. Actually, it probably gives her pleasure to cause me grief. I sigh. Eventually, this will be over, I remind myself.

“It’s about that time.” Nan suddenly announces with a sudden high pitch to her voice. She glances up from her watch to look at me. “I hope sitting down hasn’t wrinkled your dress!”

This coming from the woman who insisted I get ready a half hour early! Had she really expected me to just stand around that long? Apparently so.

Nan, of course, checks me over again. She doesn’t seem as relieved as I thought she would as she announces that I am wrinkle free. Perhaps, she was hoping that I’d get into some kind of trouble.

“Time to go!” she informs me hurriedly.

I hesitate.

“Well …” the woman begins.

“What?”

“I told you the Instructor is waiting for you.”

I nod.

We walk out of the room. Since she hasn’t told me any differently, I head for the last place I’d seen the Instructor — down the familiar route to the Instructor’s dining room.

Nan walks ahead of me, setting a pretty brisk pace. Surely, she hadn’t caused us to leave later than we should have, I think. Is she forgetting how much the Instructor hates it when we are early? I am tempted to remind her, but I really have no idea what time it is. I hadn’t checked the clock before we left, and I’m not allowed to wear a watch with this ensemble even if I had one.

Even though we are walking at a pretty fast clip, I had been in more of a hurry the last time I was here. I, therefore, do have more time to consider the gloomy environment we are heading into. The Instructor has a solid appreciation for the dramatic. The room he has allotted for our meetings is surrounded by some of the most unwelcoming and downright creepiest corridors I have ever seen. They are all dimly lit by lanterns strung up along the walls. The ceilings are so tall, though, that the light evaporates before it reaches the rafters. All of the wood is dark and thick. You’d think that after all of these years I would have gotten used to this ambience, but I never have … just as I have never really gotten used to being summoned to see the Instructor.

Eventually, we get to the massive main door, which is the only thing located at the end of this particular, equally massive hall.

“Wait here.” Nan informs me, some trepidation in her voice.

She always says that. Nan goes to the door and raps on it with the iron knocker. It is the only interior door knocker I have ever seen. It strikes me as funny all of a sudden — all of this pretense. I have to hold myself back from laughing. Perhaps Nan is right about one thing; perhaps I am getting more insolent as I get older.

I know I have to quell my newfound attitude. It is bad enough when Nan sees it. With the Instructor, there would be payback — even though his dramatic displays are downright absurd.

Suddenly, I hear a muffled voice emanating from the other side of the door, though I can’t make out what it said. Nan looks back at me momentarily. Then, she carefully pulls the door open. Finally, she slips inside. I just stand there waiting. Chances are my waiting there is part of the plan. It is meant to unnerve me, but I feel numb instead. I do wonder how long I’ll be kept standing there. Really, I feel I have better things to do. I am shocked that that thought had entered my mind. It is a dangerous thought to have. I have to get my mind straightened out before I go in there. I just know the Instructor will be able to tell that my mood is bad; there is no way I can adequately hide it. If Nan, who seems mostly oblivious to my feelings, can tell then surely the Instructor, who is more astute, can figure it out.

“What is wrong with me?” I mutter. Why can’t I play the game anymore?

And then, it dawns on me that I am angry. I am angry about what happened to Mark — angry over what almost happened to me. I am even angry about the way Nan has been treating me. Why should I have to put up with any of this? Plus, I am sick of being afraid and of being taken off-balance all the time.

“Aronade.” Nan has emerged from the room.

The use of my name draws my attention right away. Hearing her use it in a pleasant tone of voice is such a rarity these days that it penetrates the fog of my mind. Nan sounds a bit sheepish. Had the Instructor given her a lecture after all? Or, maybe he is merely in one of his moods, and I am about to get the brunt of it as well.

It is nice to see Nan humbler — as I used to remember her being. But I know it won’t last; it never does.

“He’s ready for you now.” she informs me.

I nod and proceed towards the door. I cast one more look at Nan before I enter. She looks down towards the floor. There was a time when I would have felt sorry for her; now, I just feel sorry for myself … and for Mark.

The room inside is surprisingly vast. There are lots of candles on candlesticks of various shapes and sizes, but they do a surprisingly inadequate job of lighting the space. The Instructor had recently taken to gothic architecture with large, open spaces and the before-mentioned dramatic flair. It is probably no wonder why he decides to reuse this room for meetings. But even I have to admit, the detailing of the woodwork is exquisite.

At the end of the very long, rectangular table is an ornate, high-back chair. Within it sits the pale, seemingly frail figure of the Instructor. His face is thin, his hair white. He sits with his arms on the chair’s armrests, his hands seemingly poised to move at a moment’s notice. His eyes are surprisingly dark — as are his angled eyebrows that arch over them. He wears a dark red robe today. He always seems to dress as though he was a king.

I wait, as I usually do, for permission to sit. Only the first time had I made the mistake of sitting before I was asked to. Nothing horrible happened; I had just been yelled at.

“Aronade, you may sit.”

I take the chair facing him at the other end of the table — the one closest to where I am standing. I am careful not to look upon him too directly … it tends to unnerve him.

“So, how is your day?” he asks me.

His eyes have that same penetrating look they always do.

“Fine.” I respond as blankly as possible. I always try to betray as little emotion as I can … he likes it that way.

“Nan has prepared us a solid meal.” he tells me. “We are very fortunate to have her.” he admonishes.

I nod.

“So what have you been up to since I’ve been gone?” he questions me.

“I don’t know. How long have you been gone?” I hear myself asking.

I flush immediately. I can’t believe that I actually asked that! Of him! He just stares at me for a moment.

“You didn’t realize I was gone?” he concludes with a stilted laugh. “Don’t I remember telling you that I was leaving? Perhaps you are meaning that you were solely not aware of the length of my trip?”

He wasn’t angry?

“Hmm … I would have thought that Nan would have informed you.” he ponders.

The Instructor reaches for a pitcher and begins to pour out a drink for himself. I realize he has no intention of answering my question, nor does it seem as though he is going to push for me to answer the one he had asked me. The fact is he really doesn’t care. If he knew what I have been up to recently, he would care, I think. But he has probably assumed I have been doing what I usually do. It is ironic really that one of his lessons had been never to assume anything.

Still, I am grateful that he seems to consider my response to his question logical rather than rude and evasive — which it really was. Then again, he may end up being offended later. It isn’t unusual for him to work himself into a fury over time.

“I did have to clean the kitchen.” I complain to him.

“Uh-huh.” he responds, shooting me a disapproving look.

He hates it when I complain, but I figure that it will probably distract him from stewing over my earlier snarky response.

“Calm down, Puppet.” he consoles. “Such is life.”

I look on him with a flash of disgust. He always calls me “Puppet” eventually. I deplore it; he is well aware. But now that he has gotten his dig in, hopefully that will be the end of it … at least maybe for a while. I know there will always be another time.

Still, I find myself wishing that he would answer my question. Though I dare not challenge him further, I am dying to know where he has been and for how long. Would Nan tell me? Could I trick it out of her? Probably not. She is suspicious enough of me already.

I do suddenly wonder about the Instructor’s comment. He had sounded surprised that Nan hadn’t told me he was gone. Had he been surprised, really? Or, was he merely trying to confirm whether Nan had told me his business or not? It could very easily be that he hadn’t wanted me to know and was, therefore, pleased to confirm that Nan hadn’t disclosed it.

My relationship with Nan has certainly soured. Surely the Instructor must be aware of that — if he weren’t behind it altogether. I wouldn’t put it past him. He certainly hadn’t taken my side about the kitchen cleaning. Is Nan afraid of him truly? Is that why she was so mean to me now? Or, am I just grasping at some sort of excuse to explain away her change of heart — one that wouldn’t hurt so much on a personal level?

“You seem deep in thought, Puppet.”

I look up at him.

“I’m just trying to sort some stuff out.” I say.

The Instructor presses the tips of his fingers together into a triangle.

“Pray tell.” he pursues with interest.

“The timing of things …” I hesitate. Do I really want to ask him about the air duct? It could disclose my new hiding place. It could also point to the fact that I’d been in the old corridor. But what if he already knows? What if he is just testing me? If so, does he want me to be honest or cunning?

“My light went out the other day.” I tell him, remembering the separate incident. Though, the two incidents are linked in my mind. For one, it gave someone an excuse to enter my room to change the bulb. The light going out also raised in my mind the possibility that there is a glitch in the electrical system — one that could explain away what had happened in the air vent. But there is another reason: I want to try to see whether he shows any particular interest in what has been going on with me lately. In other words, does he know about Mark? But when I raise my eyes again, the Instructor is as inscrutable as ever.

I am now glad I hadn’t brought up the vent directly. No, it is much safer to just discuss the light. Who knows, maybe he will be impressed by how inquisitive and observant I have become! That, or he’ll just figure he has finally driven me insane.

“A light?” he repeats.

He leans back in his chair. He suddenly seems less interested than he had been before.

“Yes, it didn’t appear to be burnt out, but it went out in my room.”

He yawns.

“I thought maybe the electricity to my room had been turned off … for some reason.”

Now he looks downright bored.

“And why does this matter to me?” he asks with some irritation.

“I thought maybe you were behind it.”

He laughs at me.

“And why would I bother with that, Puppet?” he mocks. “Don’t you think I have better things to do?”

“I thought maybe it was a test.”

He is unimpressed by that thought — I can tell.

“And if it was, would I admit it?” he points out.

I am beginning to feel stupid, which is probably his intent. Just then, Nan enters the room with a tray of food.

“Ah, Nan. You’ve saved us from a tedious conversation!” he scoffs.

I flush with embarrassment. Usually the Instructor isn’t this hostile towards me. What could be setting him off to this extent? I look over at Nan, figuring she must be enjoying the show. But instead, she appears peaked to me and seems to be holding her food tray overly tightly. I guess she noticed the Instructor is in a particularly bad mood as well. Part of me, I admit, is tempted to seek out a way to get back on his … well, “good side” isn’t the right phrase. I was never on his good side. But even with that, I realize it just wouldn’t do. Begging for his approval would just make things worse with him. He would lose all respect for me, and then the abuse would never stop.

No, I can’t do that. I have to remain indifferent. He may have the power, but I won’t give him the satisfaction. And I don’t feel guilty about it either. He is the one being unreasonable, after all.

So, I decide to look off into space and appear bored. I will eat my food, wait to be excused, and then leave. Let him come up with something to talk about — something less “tedious.” I wish him well on that one, I think. In the mood I am in at this point, not much he could say could impress me. Why am I even here anyway? Why had he summoned me? To tear me down? To bore me to death? Contrary to his opinion, I do have somewhere else I’d rather be.

It is working. I am working myself into anger, which I know will be my best defense against his relentless criticism.

“What now, the silent treatment?” he chides. “My! How predictable, Puppet.”

I cast him a scornful look. Now he has done it! Now I am fuming mad! I am so mad at this moment that it casts away any fear that I have of him. On some level, I know it isn’t wise to react to his obvious goading, but as Nan exits the room I realize that I’ve had enough. If he wants anger, I’ll show him anger!

“What am I even doing here?!” I demand, my face flushed. “Do you think I enjoy these evenings?! I DO NOT!!”

On the surface, it doesn’t seem as though it is too controversial a statement, but with this audience it most certainly is.

The Instructor just stares at me in silence, but his eyes do seem particularly dark all of a sudden.

“I’m sick of you picking at me. I can’t read your mind. I’m just trying to get through this as pleasantly as possible, but you seem determined to harass me.” I continue.

I am about to begin another round of words — probably just to distract myself from the ensuing silence. But then, he waves my thoughts off with his hand.

“You may leave.” he tells me.

When I’m about to utter something more — I don’t know what exactly — he adds, “NOW!!”

I slowly stand then head straight for the door. Fortunately, it is unbolted.

Copyright © Jennifer Alice Chandler 2020

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Chapter 9

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

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

“Nan?!” I called out. “Nan?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” Mark wonders.

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

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

I shudder once more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © Jennifer Alice Chandler 2020

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Chapter 8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” I utter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Am I?” I question blankly.

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

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

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

We arrive at the kitchen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And, Aronade …” she calls after me.

I turn to look at her.

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

“Of course.” I reply blankly.

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

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

“Can I have a break?” I think to ask.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I look up and over at her.

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

She starts to head for the exit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I look back at the shut door in confusion.

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

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

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

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

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

“Good. I needed some.” he tells me.

“Have you made any progress?”

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

“Yes.”

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

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

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

I nod.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t you have any family?”

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

I look away.

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

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

I shrug.

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

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

Copyright © Jennifer Alice Chandler 2020

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