III. The Hellhound

Kathy and Sky stepped into the room. It was bigger than Sky expected. Several large paintings were mounted on the wall. Bookshelves were filled with tattered books and documents. Other artifacts were organized throughout the room. One item caught his eye. Sky picked up a sword and held it up in the air. It was lighter than he expected. The sword was old and unusable. Sky read over the paper that rested next to sword. It read: "Forged 1439 AD for Rowan Blackwell (1424-1451), wielded by Rowan Blackwell and Wren Blackwell (1432-1522)." He put the sword back down. Sky was taken aback that the families would hold on to items so old. "How did Alan get this?" "I bought it." Kathy said. She touched the rusty sword. "I bought many of the items in this room. I wanted to keep pace with Moone & Wolfe and Aurora. The family didn't start collecting items like this until the tail end of the nineteenth century. Most of it was done in the twentieth century, long after the family had split in two. They both became obsessed with preserving proof of their status." "Is something this old really of value to them?" Sky asked. "Well, not anymore. The Summerfields won. They don't need these things now. But these used to be important. They collected even further back than this, before the two owners of this sword were born...back to the one Aurora maintains is the original source of power, Christopher Blackwell." Kathy walked over to one of the paintings. Sky followed her. He looked at the painting. It was a family portrait. Nine children sat arranged in front of a man and a woman. All the members of the family had dark brown hair and brown eyes, except the adult woman and one of the boys, who both had green eyes. Sky read the names listed below the portrait. The mother was listed as Abigail Blackwell, born 1371, died 1424. Next to her, the father was listed as Christopher Blackwell, born 1366 and died 1424. The bottom row were all of the daughters. He read off their names in his head. Aerowen Yew (1392-1422), Calanthia Yew (1392-1422), Samantha Blackwell (1397-1422), Columbia Lakes (1401-1422), Branwen Blackwell (1403-1422). Sky reread their information. All five died the same year. He looked up at the middle row, the sons. Sky read their names next. Gale Blackwell (1387-1423), Senan Blackwell (1389-1423), Valentine Blackwell (1394-1423), Argus Blackwell (1398-1471). Sky looked back at the parents' death years. The girls all died 1422, all but one boy died in 1423, and the parents both died in 1424. He looked over at Kathy, eyes wide. "You know what happened, don't you?" Kathy asked. "He killed them all. Why?" Sky asked her. "For power. He was the youngest male in his family. He wanted to be king. So he got rid of every person who could get in his way. This is what caused, what Aurora claims, is the first pact." Kathy explained. She pointed to the green eyed boy, Valentine. "Valentine was the last sibling Argus killed. According to a diary kept by Christopher Blackwell, after losing Valentine on Halloween night, he made a deal with an old god. So long as the family's home stayed within the borders of their land, no more bloodshed would ever occur between the members of the Blackwell family. In exchange, he claimed, he traded away half of what remained of his life. That is the claim, but there was debate on whether the diary was real or a forgery. Obviously, even if it is real, there's no way to verify any of that actually happened." "Is there a copy of that here?" "No, copies of Christopher Blackwell's diary are some of the most well guarded documents in the family on both sides, almost as guarded as Leon Blackwell and Delilah Blackwell's diaries. I've only seen snippets of those." Kathy said. She sighed. "I had a lot of information transcribed through Aurora when I briefly worked with them, but we lost so many things. I haven't gotten around to retranscibing what's left in this room." "How did you save all of this?" Sky asked. "Alan contacted me before it started. He was looking to form a coalition of people who knew about the inner working of Moone & Wolfe to fight back when it happened. I moved everything to the original building we used, but they destroyed that one. This is what's left." Sky narrowed his eyes. "Old gods, what nonsense. They've fabricated everything else. I bet everything of Christopher's is fake too. Why wouldn't it be?" "Who knows what happened then." Kathy passed by the portrait. "I do know Christopher Blackwell's own brother, Brin, was taking the same path as Argus. He killed his sisters and their parents. He plotted to kill Christopher, but Christopher killed him once he discovered his plot. Other records suggest bloodshed like this has happened across several older generations of the Blackwell family. While there likely was no pact, the bloodshed does end with Argus's sons. Neither boy killed the other, and the two appear to have been close. You read what the sword's description read. After his brother's death in battle, Wren Blackwell chose to wield his brother's sword instead of his father's or one of his own when he reigned as king." "Kings...Were we really that powerful once?" Sky asked. "It was a small kingdom, but there were kings in the Blackwell family a long time ago. The family gradually lost power over several generations and a portion of the family came to America looking to gain new wealth in 1675. Leon Blackwell left with his wife across the sea, and the bloodshed began again. It does look as though there was a pact, but if it's fictional, that was likely made to fit those details." Sky stopped in front of another large painting. This one appeared to be a family portrait as well. He looked it over and stared at the members of the family. He pointed to a black haired young man dressed in red. "This man looks Asian...and this woman, she's definitely...and the little boy..." "Yes. Records suggest Argus Blackwell married an Asian woman named Ran. We haven't been able to sort out exactly what country she came from." Kathy said. Sky stared at the painting. "You mean to tell me they're obsessed with racial purity when..." Kathy crossed her arms and shook her head. "That wasn't always a concern of the family. Though they are more racially 'pure' at this point, by intention. But yes, the line that the Blackwells who founded Aurora and Moone & Wolfe descend from included Asian people, which is why the Blackwells chose Christopher Blackwell as the source of Delilah's magic. It would be one generation before the blood was 'contaminated' in their eyes. And that is one of the reasons those with Moone & Wolfe claim the Summerfield name and Primrose Blackwell as the source of their magic, because her line appeared to have never been 'contaminated'. Disgusting logic, but there it is." "Does Aurora care about racial purity too?" Sky asked. "No, at least, they didn't after a certain point. But when the group was founded, they did. All this discussion around Primrose and Christopher is about preserving an idea of purity. Moone & Wolfe claims Primrose was naturally blessed with magic, but provide no proof at all as to why." Sky looked at the family. He read over the names on the description. The brown haired man was Argus Blackwell. The only woman in the painting was listed as Ran Blackwell, with both her birth and death dates being unknown. A blond man dressed in blue with seals embroidered on his tabard stood close beside Ran, closer to her than her husband. The description listed him as Ronan Maenki, born in 1403 and died 1445. He assumed the man must have been someone important. The young man with black haired was listed Rowan Blackwell and the younger black haired boy was Wren Blackwell, the two owners of the sword behind him. Standing close beside Rowan was another blond man dressed in blue, though his clothing was decorated with a hound and he appeared to be slightly older than Rowan. His face was very different from Ronan's. Sky presumed they weren't blood related. For him, the description read Robin Ó Rinn (1422-1451). Ó Rinn was one of the twenty family names. Sky recognized that right away. "Ó Rinn...This far back?" Sky muttered under his breath. "He's the connecting thread." Kathy said. "Not by blood, but he adopted the man who all those tied to the original pact who carry that name are related to. This man had no children of his own. His two brothers didn't have any known children either." Sky's attention turned to one of the bookshelves. "You said they guarded some of the diaries...do we have any?" "It's only these two rows right here." Kathy pointed to the top two shelves on the bookshelf Sky was standing in front of. "That's it?" "Everything else we only have fragments of, or text copies, and we're not sure how much of the text is accurate. Aurora's are more accurate than Moone & Wolfe's, and what we have came mostly through Moone & Wolfe." Kathy said. "Why is Aurora's more accurate?" Sky asked. "Moone & Wolfe still maintains certain beliefs that Aurora has abandoned, and Aurora benefits from preserving the older parts of the family history when propping up their version of the origin of Delilah's power. This one here, it belonged to this man." Kathy pointed to the blond young man in the painting of the Blackwell family Sky had just passed. "He didn't have any children, but he's an important figure in the history of the families at that point in time. His diaries and his lover's are, from what I've seen and read, the most censored documents that both sides have." "Why were they censored?" Sky took the diary off the shelf to examine it. The pages were tattered. Some were loose. "Because everything about the family needs to be pure and perfect. His lover...complicates the narrative." Kathy said. "Why would that be if he's not blood related to anyone?" "It's a matter of who his lover is." Kathy pointed to the young man with black hair, Rowan. "This one. You're a descendant of his brother. He didn't have any children of his own, though his younger brother did at some point claim his wife's first child was actually his brother's. When the older brother died, the younger brother married her not long after his death. The timing of her first pregnancy is...well, it's ambiguous, but I think it's unlikely it's him. It seems more likely the older brother's engagement to her was done for political reasons. There was nothing between them. But you descend from the other brother, Wren Blackwell, through his second son." "So, that's it. They already had to try and hide his mom. They needed to hide this lover of his too, but they couldn't completely hide him because he's technically part of the twenty families by name. All this effort, for what? It all seems like a waste of time." Sky rolled his eyes. How could they push their strange agenda, Sky thought, when they themselves had so much to hide? "What was in those diaries that they wanted to censor so badly?" "From what I've read, there is some...racy content in his diaries, but about what you'd expect you might find mixed in the pages of someone's inner thoughts. It's nothing all that shocking. Some might consider it tame by today's standards. A lot of it's written very metaphorically, of the ones I've seen. But look at the diary in your hands. We know many pages are missing. Aurora kept multiple versions of his many diaries, in varying levels of uncensoredness. I wasn't allowed to see the fully uncensored copies, but most uncensored copies I saw were much thicker volumes than this." Kathy touched one of the loose pages. "This version has also lost pages from age. We've lost the other diaries of his that I had since we were attacked. This is the only one of his that is left. Most of what remains in this copy are complaints and venting, and rambling on about whatever was happening that day. See for yourself. It's pretty boring, but even something like this is too 'inappropriate' for the eyes of the moon's followers." Kathy took the diary and flipped through the pages to find a passage for Sky to read, then handed the diary to him. Sky read from the top of the page: 'That fool thinks that I'll do his bidding because he's a king. I respect the authority of no mortal man, other than my beloved and my master. He can choke on a chicken leg for all I care. I'm not doing a damn thing for him unless I am ordered to by someone who actually matters. He had the nerve to tell me to stand farther away from my love yesterday because the crowd might think something of it. If you didn't want me standing so close to him, you didn't have to require me to be there in the first place! Fuck him. Miserable old piece of filth. Speaking of that, my dearest is still very shy about certain matters. I must endure containing my longings, and cherish the moments our hands brush against each other with care and carelessness before the crowds whose eyes are always fixated upon our backs. Our secret meetings in the forest before training and at night, when the rest of the world is dreaming, those are our sanctuaries. I can kiss him then without fear. The shadows have always been my allies. I wish the sun could also be part of our love, but this place would never allow it. Another reason to curse that arrogant little man. I'm going to drop him from a window one day. Ronan urged me to eat meat again. I refused, of course, but it seems it was everyone's purpose today to attack me. Even Rowan complained to me earlier. It's not my fault training in this heat makes me sweat so much. It's not as if I want to smell. I bathe more than most men do. I wouldn't say it to him, but he doesn't smell like roses and lavender after training either. Tomorrow, we have to go to church. I'm being required to go for some ceremony. Curse this entire span of days.' "Curse this entire span of days. I think I like him. How old was he when he was writing this?" Sky asked, laughing as he read that last part. Kathy looked on the back of the diary. "Let's see... It says he was seventeen to twenty years old when writing that diary." "So, he wasn't that much older than me." Sky flipped through several more pages and read a random chunk. 'There's not enough time in the day to explain everything that is wrong with this world, so I shall spare myself and say this. I hate humans. I hate shoes. I hate pants. And I'm not going to church tomorrow.' The entry after that one simply read, in letters taking up the rest of the page and the next, "FUCK TODAY". Sky skipped further into the diary. He read from the top of the page. 'Rowan looks so innocent when he sleeps. I don't want to wake him, but I want to torment him a little. He's defenseless now. All his weak spots are open. I must resist tickling him. I'll catch him later on our way to training. His fool of a father had some guests from another kingdom visit us yesterday. Their little prince and his band of leeches had the audacity to be rude to Rowan to his face. They called Ran all sorts of infuriating things and made fun of Rowan's eyes. I grabbed that piece of shit by the hair and dragged him out of the castle to the moat. Rowan made me stop, but I should have dropped him in. No good will come of that man ever ruling over anything. The king yelled at me, so I yelled back at him. What's he going to do? I have no deep connection to that man who caused my birth, but I know the king fears him greatly. He won't harm me so long as that man is alive. No one can prove anything, but the drinks last night might have had an added ingredient for some. Ronan lectured me about it later, but I don't regret it. They deserved to be punished for hurting him. Why should he have to sit quietly and take all of their cruelty? Fair is fair. I'll be a beast if that's what they want. Egret stopped by with his son. Eider never ceases not to smell like a bin of rotting onions and dead birds. Someone should accidentally shove him into a river for a cleanse. That someone should be me. He tells me I smell, and I will admit to smelling a bit myself after training, but he is something different. It is as if rotten flesh is hidden in his pants. Where is it coming from? How does any woman stand to kiss him? His breath is like sour milk and beer with something indistinguishable and rancid mixed in. I cannot describe it. It makes me want to vomit. Does he not clean his teeth and mouth in the morning? Disgusting. I can't imagine how any woman can sleep with him. If he's not keeping up his teeth and face, what must the rest of him be like unclothed? I shutter to think. If not for him being a father already, I wouldn't believe he'd ever gotten close to any woman. He farts at the table so much. Go to the hall at least. Today is set to be very busy. A knighting and a wedding. I don't care for anyone involved, but I'm required to attend. At least there will be dancing afterwards. I've been forbidden by the king from singing. How rude. I sing better than anyone he employs to perform. It's not as though I'm going to cause a storm. Perhaps I might out of vengeance for that. I won't, but I hate most of them. The girl being wed today is who I'll spare them for. I'm sure she wanted no part in this either. I've never met her before. I hear she's fifteen. The groom is twenty. His father wants to hurry up and get a new batch of heirs lined up. That's all these old men ever think about, making someone else have children for their goals. If there is one positive thing about that man who caused my birth, it is that he never meddles in my affairs. I don't think I ever cross his mind. He spent more time with Luke than me. If he were to push for that, it'll go to Luke, but I doubt even that. If we both died tomorrow, I doubt he'd notice. Of course, because we are bound by blood, the king thinks he will care, and that suits me just fine. His blindness to the truth only shields me. The bells are ringing now. It's time for me to get ready.' A strange feeling was building up inside Sky, but he couldn't place why. He didn't like it. Sky pushed it down and tried to imagine if this Robin person was actually a good singer or if he only thought he was. The strange feeling kept bubbling up. Sky couldn't stop it. He searched for comfort in the words. Sky did like the phase "the man who caused my birth" as a replacement for father. It felt more accurate, as clumsy as it was to say, than "father" or "dad" when Sky thought about his own father. He skipped a few more pages in and kept reading. 'Mother sent me some berries from home. I had them made into tarts. Rowan thought they were a little bitter, but he's not used to eating them. There was no training today. Ronan's away seeing his family, and a certain someone won't let Rowan travel anywhere right now. So, I am here. We spent some time in the library rather than among the trees. Rowan picked out a book for us to read together. I would have preferred something more romantic, but he likes those stories with long journeys and giant beasts. Few people come to the library most of the time. We were able to spend the day alone and close. He was worried about us getting caught, but I held a book up in front of us when I kissed him before we left. No one was there to see anyway. Sometimes, when we are lying in bed and he is sleeping, I think of the rumors the people in the castle are spreading around. My proximity to him propels them to gossip over matters of my body. To them, they have always seen me as dirty, and he as well in a different way. They view him as inferior and strange, but I am perverse and dangerous. What they think of me, what they think I've done and when, it disgusts me. I feel like a river being clouded with ash, for what they assume I do and for how it tears at my mind. I know I would not be wicked if I were doing any of the things they say about me, but their whispers, just loud enough to ensure he hears them, prick my heart with each word. A thousand small cuts, unseen and deliberate--I feel every one of them. The longer I stay here, the more I feel something in me is dying. I cannot see what it is, or how much is gone, but I know something is already missing. I hate myself for feeling this. I haven't done anything. And if I were to do what they think I do, I still wouldn't have done anything wrong. That will not taint my soul, but their cruelty already has. He's scared. I know that's why he keeps that last barrier between us. I can tell him with every breath that everything will be fine, but he hears them. They make sure of it. I know he's afraid of what crossing over that last line could mean. 'If we're caught, he'll take you away from me.' He tells me this when we're here like this and I'm holding him close. I must endure this prison for him. He won't leave this place, and this place wants neither of us. While I wish for more, I've come to accept this barrier may stay. If this is how it must be for me to be with him, then so be it. Unlike those whispering monsters, I know it is not a difficult thing to endure, much as I want it. What angers me is not that I cannot do that with him, but that they have forced us into this quiet dance of terror. Every part of me is bound by expectations I want nothing to do with, and he is bound far more than I am. I see his eyes dull when they speak. If it continues on like this, I may have to betray him and steal him away. I can allow myself to die, but I won't let them kill his spirit before my eyes. I would set the world on fire to keep the light in his eyes burning bright.' Sky reread the words. He could feel Robin's pain and rage in them, seeing some of himself in the angry, terrified teenager. Sky knew very well what it was like to live underneath a microscope and be bound by someone else's cruel expectations with implied threats. He could never know these two, but he wanted Robin to run off with Rowan. Sky remembered the numbers on the descriptions. They both were listed as dying in 1451. A heavy weight hung in his chest. Sky closed the diary. "What happened to these two? Did he ever run away with his lover?" "No one really knows. Supposedly, they both died together in a battle, but no bodies were found either. Many think they ran off in the middle of the battle." Kathy said. "I don't know much history, but I guess a lot of people haven't liked gay people for a long time, huh?" Sky clutched the diary tightly against his chest. "It's fluctuated with time and place. Humans are good at finding differences and then hurting each other based on them." "Are there any records like this from his lover?" Sky asked. "We have pieces. This diary is missing several pages. It was damaged over time. This is from several years after the one you have." Kathy pulled another diary off the shelf. She handed it to Sky. This one was more damaged than the one Sky was holding. Sky put Robin's diary back on the shelf. He opened up Rowan's diary about halfway in. 'Today, I found a grey hair. Robin laughed at me, but he has at least three. I counted. I bet he has more. Tomorrow's Robin's birthday. I plan on giving him the usual gift. Father's been complaining to both of us about hurrying up and getting married. I delayed again. I'll marry after the war, I told him. I don't want to cause anymore death, but at the same time, I don't want this war to end. Wren's been more obnoxious than usual lately. I suppose it's my fault. Mother has always been good to us, and Father only graces us with his presence when he wants something. If anyone made him like this, it must have been me. He's still only a child. I shouldn't forget that eight years separate us. He's only fourteen. If anything, he might be less obnoxious than I was then. But I will be grateful for the day when he matures out of...what ever it is he is currently going through. I shouldn't have gotten so mad at him. I'll apologize tomorrow morning. It's too late now. My head is full of thoughts. I think I'll take a walk before I turn in.' Rowan seemed calmer than his lover, Sky thought. He jumped a good ways into the diary. 'Yesterday was the anniversary of Ronan's death. Robin didn't leave the bed until nightfall. We walked with Father David down to the river and reminisced about our good memories of him. Mother stayed in her room as well. Father was angry with her over that. I don't see why he cares. He never pays any attention to her anymore. We're all discarded until he needs something. I must hold Robin back when he fights with my father. I fear for his life should my father decide he is willing to risk Faolán at our door, but I don't hate that he says those words. No one else says them. I cannot say them for myself. The best I can do is protect my brother from hearing most of it, just as my mother did for me when I was young. If Ronan were here, he would be the one getting between them and with far more grace than me. He had a way of convincing others of the goodness within him. Father only looks at me with disdain now. He used to praise me when I was small and first picked up a sword, but he sees me now as a mistake. I see how he looks at my bastard half-brothers and wishes for a replacement. Ronan, did you have to leave us so soon? I cannot protect him the way you did, nor can he defend me the way you could. We all loved you dearly. It's not fair. I still need you. You should have been my father instead. You should be here now. I'm too young for you to be gone. Every day that you are gone, this world is darker.' Sky paused at that entry. His hands shook lightly. His eyes lingered on one sentence. 'He used to praise me when I was small and first picked up a sword, but he sees me now as a mistake.' Those words set off something inside him. He felt like his father was standing behind him again. Sky was certain his father would see him as a mistake. He'd want a replacement. Sky was already a replacement for Crystal. Sky thought about Rowan's words in the other entry about his much younger brother, Wren. Crystal often seemed annoyed with Sky when he came to visit her. He sometimes thought she hated him. She probably didn't think anything like that, Sky thought. He likely did annoy her without meaning to. What did Crystal do when he was out of the room? Did she defend him in the hours before she went to bed when he was already dreaming? He never considered that might happen. Did she defend their mother? Sky always assumed the reason that his father hated Crystal is she had no interest in the things he wanted her to care about. What if there was more and he never knew? He could never know. He skipped forward to another entry several months later. Sky read over it. 'These long nights, sleepless under cold air, I've long forgotten to keep any distance between us here. Some have seen us together like this. I no longer care. No one cares what anyone does here. We could all die tomorrow. It matters not. Camp gossip spreads around, but it comes to nothing. We are all lonely here. I should send him from me, but I cannot. If I cannot have him with me, I can't bring myself to raise my sword. Even if I could love another, I could never love anyone as deeply as I love him. When I look in his eyes, I know I am complete. Yet, here I am, in this place of sorrow and death, staining his skin with red. What good am I to him so long as I hold him here? If I weren't a selfish man, I would have sent him far from me. I am a burden he cannot escape so long as he stays near. I am the anchor dragging him to the depths of the sea. May the sky and earth forgive me for my wickedness. Without Ronan here, I've managed to at least hold him back many days. He hates it, but he obeys my commands for now. Father is getting impatient. He wants me to have him drenched in blood, whether it be the other side's or his. I know he would be happy to see my love lifeless in the field. But I cannot run away with him. If I run, this burden falls to my brother. He is far too gentle for this wretched place. I have to end this, at the very least, before I could even think of such a thing. I won't allow his innocent hands to be stained with blood the way mine have. Lately, I beg my love nightly. It's the only thing that keeps my mind off of this for a moment. When I am entangled in his arms, his warmth against my bare skin, I think of nothing. His yellow hair through my fingers, for a moment I touch the sun. I want him to consume me, eclipse me, and blind me. His touch shows me the stars. In his eyes, I am bound. I bind him with the night. There, under the cover of darkness, I am free for fleeting minutes that slip away too quickly into nightmares of dawn. I am never this desperate at home. I don't want to think. When I am home, I drag shackles tied to my ankles, one to him and one to the other who binds me. Here, the air chokes me. I cannot smell anything anymore. The scent of death, blood, and metal are too familiar for me to notice. I taste nothing here. The colors blur with the days and hours. I don't know anymore how often I sleep or how long I dream. My stomach doesn't ache when it's empty. My heart doesn't race when a man swings his blade at me or an arrow passes by my face. I don't feel anything until it hits me, and then I forget it all when the scars replace the wounds. I cannot allow myself to think when I see his golden hair painted with the sunset's darkest red. The blue and white is soiled in brilliant crimson until it turns to a shade that near matches his eyes. I cannot allow the comparison. His eyes are meant to mimic the beauty of the earth and the bark of trees, not that. Midday is the only time that suits him. Tomorrow, we fight again. I wish for the mists to turn to fog so that I may not see the stains, but we always find each other as the red in the grey. Nothing masks it. My innocent self, worried over marriage arrangements far off in time and my father catching me kissing my love underneath the archways--would that I could return to those days, when I was fifteen wandering the forest and fields under summer skies, to down by the river...would that I could start again, all the regrets I would undo and the promises I would never break, the words I would say and the ones I would keep inside...When I look at my reflection, I don't recognize my face without the red. My clean self is a stranger to me. I want to free myself from this cage, but I cannot fly. My love, forgive me.' Sky's eyes watered. He blinked several times to disguise it. "Is this the only way my family can be? How many generations of pain? Why are there so many monsters connected to me?" "All family trees have monsters in them. The truth is most won't talk about them." Kathy put her hand to his face. "What was this war about?" He asked. She shrugged. "Nothing important. Old men fighting over land and resources to gain more power, the same reason most wars are started." "Why did he send his son out to fight?" "That was common back then." Sky looked down at the nearly destroyed diary in his hands. "Do you think they ran away in the end?" "I don't know." "It's just...it wouldn't be fair if they went through all that, and never got away." "Many never get to free themselves from their suffering, but perhaps they did." Kathy added the last part to give him hope. Sky thought of all the innocent people his father caused to die. Whether it was in the fifteenth century or the twenty-first, nothing had changed, he thought. "Why is this world like this? So many people wouldn't need to be saved from pain if other people weren't so awful. What's wrong with us?" "That's just the way it is. We all are free to make our own choices. Some of us make evil ones." "It's not...it's not fair. All people like that, people who don't care who they hurt, they should be destroyed." Sky's body was overcome with anger and sadness. He didn't know what to do with it all. Sky looked over at the sword. "The younger brother...do you have any records about him? Was he a bad person?" "No wars were waged under Wren Blackwell. Both families consider him a weak ruler who set the Blackwell family off course. We don't have any of his diaries anymore, but we have a few of his poems." Kathy pulled out several envelopes from the middle shelf. She found the paper she was looking for. Kathy handed the paper to Sky. "Wren was most known as a writer. He fought a few small battles, but they were against invaders to protect his land. This one was written about his older brother some time after his death." Sky put the diary back. He read over the poem. The poem was titled Raven Haired Knight, Under Mist and Moon.
'knight, dressed in darkness and white moonlight the castle walls speak of the silent you left behind blue cast to the sea, i drench myself in your red your crown adorns my head instead of his your sword guards my side the way you once did when i am dreaming of pain, i find you in the fog dissipating, our secrets exposed only to us in the mists of red and grey we meet again and again, under night and sun but the mist always moves on and in your place the pain of your absence stays here, embedded into our crown every dawn, a little of your scent fades from the bedroom the two of you once shared i search the threads for signs of you this place is cold my protector, my knight, my king i serve only you, only your moonlight shields me on starless nights and foggy days'
Sky's anger turned to sadness. His shoulders sunk down. The kind love between the siblings was mutual. If their father had been someone else, they might not have suffered as much. Sky couldn't understand how a man who could write something like this about his deceased brother could produce children who would eventually, down the line, create monsters. It didn't make sense. Where did the evil come from? Why were the brothers so different from their father? Why was he different from his own father? Sky handed the poem back. "Show me Leon Blackwell and Delilah. I don't want to see any more about the pain from this part of the family." "They're over there." Kathy pointed to the other side of the room. She put the poem away and led him to the back of the room. She stood in front of the biggest painting in the room. The family portrait showed two adults, four girls, and a hound dog. Sky recognized their faces. In the dream he had about the pact, the man was Leon, the woman was someone he called mother, one of the girls was the ghost, one was the other dead girl, and one was the girl Leon presented as Delilah. He didn't know who the fourth girl was. She wasn't in his dream. Sky didn't want to believe his eyes nor his thoughts. He looked for small details that might disprove his recollection of the dream. The girls wore the same aprons, down to the flowers. One girl's apron had roses embroidered on it, one had dogwood flowers, and one had heather flowers. The fourth girl, the one who was the spirit in his dream, had no design on hers and her clothes were much plainer in appearance. "This is...this one is Delilah, right?" Sky pointed to the girl with the dogwood flowers on her apron. "Yes, that's her, the original Delilah." Kathy nodded. Sky checked the information beside the painting. He saw the names he expected. Leon, Primrose, Heather, Rose, and Delilah. What he wanted to know was the name of the other girl, the one who was the spirit in his dream. She was simply listed as "servant girl". "Kathy, what's this girl's name?" Sky asked. "I don't know. Her name was scratched off the backside of the painting. All we know is she was probably a servant of the Blackwell family. The family had several servants employed. Why?" "She's the spirit. Or, well, she was in my dream." Sky said. He was certain of her face. "Why would he kill his own servant?" "You're sure she's the girl you saw in your dream?" Kathy asked. "I don't want to believe it, but I recognize everyone but this girl and the dog." Sky felt a chill down his spine. "How can that be? I've never seen these people before...maybe...maybe my father had shown me a painting of them before and I forgot? How would I know what they look like? It must be something like that." "Do you remember anything else from that dream? You said the girls were switched...is Rose the one you saw Leon claim is Delilah?" Kathy asked, as shocked as he was. Sky nodded. "That's definitely the girl. Look at the aprons. Remember, I told you about the flowers being wrong on the pockets." "What does this mean...? Why would he switch them?" Kathy sat down in a chair. "It can't be real. It was only a dream. Just because they look like the people from my dream doesn't mean what happened in my dream was really what happened back then." Sky said. There had to be a logical reason behind this, he thought. He tried to convince himself he was making what he saw in front of him fit his memory of the dream. "Are there any other paintings of Delilah and Rose?" Kathy nodded. She pointed to a section of another wall. "There's a few over there." Sky walked over to that side of the room in a hurried pace. He read over the descriptions beside each painting. One was of the three sisters as younger children. The girls had the same flowers as before embroidered on their bonnets and aprons. Sky looked at one of them at the ages they were when the pact would have been made. The same flowers again on the same girls. Then he looked at the one to the far end of only Delilah. Sky stared carefully at every detail. Her clothes had details of dogwood flowers on them like in all the other paintings, but her face looked different. Sky looked back at Rose's face in the other painting. Sky told himself he was seeing things. Siblings typically looked similar anyway, and faces looked slightly different as people aged. Sky noticed something else, a small detail that confirmed the deception. All the paintings of Rose showed her having a small birthmark underneath the right side of her lips. Delilah didn't have any birthmarks on her face at all, except in the painting of her after the pact. The girl in the painting of adult Delilah was definitely Rose. "Kathy...they did switch them. Come look." Sky said. Kathy walked over. "What did you find?" "This is Rose." He said. He pointed to the birthmark. "None of the other paintings of Delilah have her having a birthmark right here. Only Rose does. Look at her face too. This doesn't look like Delilah's face shape." Kathy stared at the paintings. Her mouth hung open. "Sky...your dream...may have been more than a dream after all." "But how? How could I know that?" Sky asked. "This doesn't make sense." "I don't know." "Maybe...I have seen paintings of them before, and my mind picked up on the differences...then created a narrative around it in my dream. That's got to be it. That's the only thing that makes sense." Sky said. "Whatever the reason, you've definitely found something that I've never come across before. I don't think I've ever found anything suggesting they switched the girls. But who knows, Edith and your father might have known about this. If we had access to Leon's diaries...ugh, but we'll never get to those. They'd hand us Edith's head on a platter before giving up those." Kathy sighed. "I'm going to need to reevaluate everything. I...what am I doing? It's too late for that. They've already won. It doesn't matter anymore." "No, it does." Sky said. "I'm going to expose everything...and that includes this. I want to show every single lie of theirs to the world. I'll find a way to get those diaries one day. I swear it." Kathy stared at Sky and gave him a pitying smile. "I'm sure you can, but you know, you don't need to do all that." "But I do. I will." Sky said. He looked back at the paintings. "Heather Blackwell, Delilah's sister, what happened to her?" "Heather died in childbirth. She died the same year as the pact, but a couple months before it." Kathy pointed to one of the paintings of the sisters. "That painting right there was one of the last done of Heather before she died." "And the dog? I'm surprised they didn't make the dog part of the story with all they've made up." Sky jokingly said. "Oh, but they did." Kathy said. "What?" "The Hellhound, that's what they call him. The dog servant of the devil. Delilah Blackwell's pet dog, Hound, was said to have been possessed by another spirit when the pact was made." Kathy crossed her arms. She sat back down in the chair. "According to the legend they tell, after Leon had all twenty children sacrificed and Delilah rose back up from the pile of bodies, her pet dog ran into the field. The old hound dog sniffed each and every child. At the last child, the slave boy, John, that the Beaumont family offered up, the dog went into a mad rage and attacked Leon Blackwell. Leon set the field on fire after that, with the dog trapped behind the flames. He told the twenty families that Delilah said it was the devil come to interfere in the ritual. Hound was the last, unintended, sacrifice. They say he howled on inside the wall of fire until his last breath. Since then, no one in the twenty families has ever owned a dog, for fear the dog will be possessed and their power will be challenged." "They burned the dog because he smelled the blood on their hands. He knew they murdered the children." Sky said. "There was no possession." "Oh, I doubt anyone was possessed that day. The dog was looking for who attacked his playmates. What little records I've been able to see from that time period say that Hound was very friendly with children. He would play with all the kids in the town." Kathy said. "What kind of dog is that?" Sky asked. He pointed to the dog in the painting of the family. "It's an early basset hound, before there were any breed standards yet. How ironic. They use the symbol of the wolf, but they're afraid of a dog." Sky sat down beside Kathy in another chair. "This is all so stupid. Why did anyone ever believe of any of this?" "Some people like being lied to, I suppose." Kathy shook her head. She played with the necklace she always wore. "Over time, the family mythology twisted the dog in with their purity standards. Dogs were modified wolves, altered, impure, inferior. The wolf was elevated higher, but I can tell you not a damn one of them would ever set foot in front of a real coyote, much less a wolf." Sky stared at Kathy's necklace. "I've never understood why they chose something as trivial as race, and yet they had so many educated people trapped in their cult--biologist and historians, people who would know better. It doesn't make sense." "You're trying to think about it logically, Sky, from a scientific perspective. But that's a mistake. None of this is about science or history, as much as they claim it is. Their ideas of history are half-truths at best. They cling tightly to the parts cobbled together across time and borders, a Frankenstein's monster of achievements they had nothing to do with. The nasty parts, the parts that don't align with whatever modern, pseudo-traditional ideals they promote, the successes of others and cruelties of the past...all of that is kept buried. Those journals, a simple record of another person's inner thoughts who's long dead, were desecrated to paint those people as someone they weren't." Kathy held the necklace tightly. She looked over at the bookshelf. "The people who obsess over and cry the loudest about historical accuracy are often the ones most likely to cover it up or distort it. But they'll tell you to your face they aren't, because they are not motivated by truth. It is their goal to convince you they are, and they may have convinced themselves, but it is a lie nonetheless." "But what is all this for? What's the goal? I still don't understand." Sky said. "Power, the same as it's always been." Kathy said. She elaborated, twisting the chain of her necklace around her fingers. "Kings and Pharaohs, Emperors, Presidents, everyone rewrites history to fit their own narrative. The Blackwells and Summerfields see themselves as little kings, and they need a story to justify that, but they aren't different from many other movements that have come up again and again." "What do you mean?" Sky asked. Kathy nodded. "This country was full of corruption long before the moon took over. The elites used many tactics to make people fight amongst themselves. Using an innate trait is easy for cults, con artists, and corrupt officials. It gives someone a sense of superiority without having to actually do anything; and gives them an enemy who is incapable of changing to something 'good', because the negative trait is also from birth. The enemy then is easy to dehumanize, because they are incapable of ever being 'good'. Race, gender, sexuality, and so on. You can pick anything, it doesn't matter. They don't explicitly state it, as they have their pair--the doctor and the goddess, but the doctor is always the one in charge. The doctor is supposed to be male. Edith playing the role of the doctor is seen as temporary, even after all these years. A man is supposed to control the child-like goddess. But there's nothing particularly special about Moone & Wolfe. There have been many groups who brainwashed people to take advantage of them for power using things like that." "I don't understand any of this. I'm a human, I'm an animal. My brain has the same potential as all other humans. I have almost the same DNA as a chimpanzee. You and I right now, have nearly identical DNA. Our bodies are mostly the same. Our brains are mostly the same." Sky said, confused. "I know that. On a purely biological level, there are very few differences between us that matter. But those handful of differences have been used across time by many people as weapons. It doesn't matter what's flowing in your veins and in your soul. People look with their eyes instead of their hearts, and make monsters out of the shadows of misunderstandings." Kathy said. She let go of her necklace, the chain falling back against her chest. "And you are no different. Since you've come here, I'm sure you've made many assumptions about people, haven't you? How much of your father's words have you carried with you in your thoughts as you judged the intentions of others?" "I...I didn't mean to." Sky said. "Everyone does this without thinking. We come into everything looking with only our eyes and hearing with only our ears. To listen properly and see well, you have to train yourself to do it. You must shift yourself from the center of the universe to being one star among many in the river of night." "Doesn't the company already tell people that everything is for the collective good of everyone? Are people really thinking of themselves then?" Sky asked. "It may seem that way, but the company organizing everyone by categories and dangles the idea of moving up through that hierarchy they've created. Doing things for the good of the company becomes a ladder to climb higher rather than being about the community. If you're good enough, you might even see the goddess." Kathy explained. "You're thinking again logically, but cults are full of contradictions and half-truths. What they say is never what they mean, unless they are telling you they are going to hurt you. There is another element you are missing as well." "What's that?" "That they know a secret." "What?" Sky tilted his head. "It's another recruitment technique. They come to you telling you they know things no one else knows, then gradually 'reveal' their secrets the deeper one gets involved. People feel superior feeling like they know things others don't, and enlightened. From the coded language the company uses to their ideas of world order to Delilah's origins, all of these are secrets to learn. Those who learn the 'secrets' in turn become part of the 'legacy' of the Summerfields, Blackwells, and the rest of the twenty families. And through that association, greatness in the supposed accomplishments of those before them. But as with all these sorts, whatever true accomplishments any of the long dead members of the twenty families there may have been, their accomplishments are not yours or anyone else's to claim." Kathy's gaze shifted from the bookshelf back to the painting of Delilah alone. "Delilah is the end result of these sorts of ideals; of the past wealth, of misrepresented biology, and made up sorcery and legends. Look at her there, and remember what Heather Smith looks like. Remember why Edith could never be fully accepted as Delilah without a disguise. They reduced their goddess to a skin tone, a hair color, an eye color, and a gender. Everything else about Delilah is irrelevant. She has no identity at all. Anyone can be Delilah with the right costume, and that's exactly what appeals to them." Sky sat up straighter in the chair. Something occurred to him. "All the great accomplishments of the past...of the family...but I was never taught the name of the kingdom my actual ancestors ruled. I've only seen the family crest in records. I don't know what they were known for. All I've been told is my family is important, that I'm important, but I don't know what really makes me so. Why was I chosen to be the next doctor?" "Because you are Tom Summerfield's son. There is no deeper reason than that." Kathy stared at Delilah longer. "If your sister had been what your father wanted, I'm sure they would have changed her to Delilah at some point. They don't really want someone as unstable as Heather. I'm sure that's how he thought things would play out. Then, you would take over the company and control her. You would be Delilah, the real Delilah." "So because of some family tree, full of people I can't name, I'm supposed to be important. But I'm out here. What's Edith going to do? She can't play the doctor forever." Sky asked. "I'm sure she knows that, and will likely find a puppet for that as well. So long as she's alive, Edith will play the role of the doctor and Delilah through whoever she chooses. If you were there now, she'd be working on morphing you into whatever she wanted to use you too." Kathy said. "I'm not going to let that happen." Sky said, full of angry. He looked back at the sword behind them. "Something else is bothering me. I can see how they convinced people they put at the top levels of their hierarchy of all this stuff, but what about the other people? How did they convince the people who the company thinks of as inferior to go along with everything?" "There's a number of reasons why those people stayed with them. The mystical angle of Delilah convinced some. They felt a disconnect with modern Christianity and other religions, but still wanted a spiritual purpose to fulfill. Others were more easily convinced by the ideas of superiority. Asian people are seen as even more intelligent than white people in the cult's eyes, but physically weaker. Some of this was used to justify anyone looking back and seeing her over there on the tree. With powerful connections, that one was easier. Sadly, many were convinced of their inferiority by the cult. The cult's propaganda uses all kinds of ways to turn a person's insecurities into even deeper ones. One full of self-hatred and shame is easy for them to destroy. They also have the ability to manipulate people's memories and emotions now. Pair that with round the clock propaganda, and most would be convinced of anything." Kathy crossed her legs. She said. "Of course, as you know, there was one group excluded." "Native Americans, right? I read in the notes they're considered by the family to be outside of social order altogether. They're not placed anywhere." Sky said. "That's right." Kathy said. "They're the only group that isn't taken into their facilities. Some slipped through initially, but none were there by intention. Everyone else was placed somewhere and their worth determined based on the racial characteristics they've decided they should have. For Moone & Wolfe, Native Americans are a relic of a past they want to cover up existing. They planned on letting all of them die out here. The reservations were the first places they tried to contaminate." Sky asked the most obvious question. "Is anyone left?" Kathy laughed under her breath. "None of them died." "What? How?" Sky asked in shock. "Infected animals won't go near the reservations." Kathy said. "People, animals, whatever stays within those lands or was in the lands when the barriers came down...none of them get infected with either virus." "But how could that be?" "We don't know. We tested their blood, the land, the water, everything. Nothing was out of the ordinary." Kathy explained. "You know how when someone infected with one virus can't stand to be around something contaminated with the other? It's like that, no matter which virus it is. Anyone infected will run away from them. Moone & Wolfe has spread around they used some sort of magical ritual, because of course they would spread such a stereotypical rumor like that, but no one really knows. Since they were first, we thought it may be something about the first waves that came through had something different about them from the others, but even people who lived off the reservations who have indigenous blood have this happen to them. We just don't know the reason yet." "That's so strange...it sounds like it should be the land itself...but if people off of it can still have that effect who were never there, that would sound like it was genetic...but then what about the animals? None of that makes any sense." Sky couldn't find a solution that made sense to him. How could both things be true at the same time? "Wait...what about anyone who wasn't Native American who happened to be on a reservation at the time it came down? Are they safe too?" "Yes, but only if they were there at the time." "Even if they leave?" "Yes, even if they leave." Kathy said. "How? How could that be possible? The animals too?" Sky asked. "Yes, at least of the ones we were able to tag and track." She confirmed. "What if you go to that land...are you safe while you're there?" "Yes, you should be. No one infected will go near it, so you wouldn't need to worry about it. If you mean can you get infected there if something did come in...we don't know because no one infected will go there." Kathy said. "That's so strange...why would the company want it to be like that? That couldn't have been on purpose. If they've really made up some mystical rumor explaining it away, then that absolutely was not their intention for that to happen." Sky said. "There are some things Moone & Wolfe don't know too, you know. They've always messed around with things they don't understand." Kathy got up and went back over to the bookshelf. She pulled a large box off the bottom shelf and brought it over to Sky. Kathy opened the box. It was filled with a large, folded paper. "What is this?" Sky asked. Kathy opened up part of the paper. "It's the Blackwell family tree, going back to Christopher Blackwell." Sky stared down at it. Kathy pointed to a spot near the bottom. "And here's you." "May I see it?" Sky asked. Kathy passed the box to him. Sky pulled out the entire sheet and unfolded the massive tree onto the floor. He sat in the middle of it and looked over all the names of people he never knew. "Who are they all?" "Couldn't tell you." Kathy said. "I have some diaries and letters from a few people, and there should be some details about certain key family members, but I really don't know anything about any of them. That's how it is with most families. Eventually, people forget you. Sky, do you know why I brought this out for you to see?" "To help me understand my family?" Sky asked. "Yes and no." Kathy said. "Your family, since the pact, has been obsessed with their lineage. That's why collecting all of this was important, but it shouldn't be important to you. You asked me who are these people. At the end of the day, they're no one to you, the same as their flaws and victories aren't yours. Will your legacy be that of creating props out of your ancestors or something else?" Sky sat quietly. He looked around the room at the faces of all these strangers he was related to, then to the rusted sword. Sky went over to it and picked it up. "This will be it." "Bloodshed?" Kathy asked. Sky shook his head. "No, I don't want any of that. This belonged to those brothers who loved each other so much. If I have to be connected to these families, I'll keep those parts, my mom, my sister, you...Um, is it alright if I think of you as family too?" Kathy was surprised by Sky's words. She smiled at him. "Of course you may." Sky blushed. "Well, you were the one who was supposed to really be with my mom, so it's kind of like...you're supposed to be my mom too. I'm sorry...I'm being weird." "You're not being weird." Kathy said. Sky felt over the rusted blade. "But I am going to get revenge. I'm going to get rid of everyone who's hurting people. Those people aren't my family." Kathy stared at Sky with weary eyes. "I think we should leave for now. We've talked about a lot." "Alright. I told Alex I'd eat lunch with him anyway." Sky said. "Do you think Alan would let me come up here by myself to research sometimes?" "Probably. He mostly trusts you at this point." Kathy said. "Mostly?" She laughed. "You can't blame him. From what I heard, when you two met, you were pointing a gun at everybody and making demands." Sky's face went red. "I didn't know if I could trust anyone here." Kathy patted him on the head. "It's in the past. Why don't we head out for now?" "Okay." Kathy and Sky put everything in the room back as it was. There is was still some time before lunch. Sky went back to his room to think over what he and Kathy talked about. He had a lot to analyze. No matter how much he learned, there was always another layer underneath for him to discover. The pursuit of power and having a special identity didn't interest Sky. Kathy explained it to him, but he couldn't wrap his head around it. It made no sense to him from a logical standpoint. She was right. Whatever his ancestors may have done, he had no claim to their accomplishments. That didn't make him special. It made them special, at best. Delilah's spiritual aspects didn't interest him either nor the cult's pseudo-scientific logic. He was planned to take over the company by his father, and yet nothing about the company and the family's beliefs were of any interest to him whatsoever. Sky wagered the only thing that tied his father and Edith to the company was power. He couldn't see either of them as believing in any of that. Sky thought about the two pacts, the one the Blackwells claimed happened and the one both the Blackwells and the Summerfields believed in. They were mirrors of each other. Christopher Blackwell's pact was in response to the death of his family by one of his own children, pleading for no more deaths to occur. Leon Blackwell's pact relied on sacrificing children across multiple families. How could Aurora justify these two contradicting ideas? And the Summerfields, Sky thought, they had the audacity to claim magical abilities through Primrose Summerfield based on pure air. There was nothing to it, and Moone & Wolfe's cult fully accepted it. Sky wanted to beat his head against a wall. None of this made any sense. He wanted to read the rest of the diaries. There weren't many, but he hoped one of them might give him some deeper insight into how the family was in the past. Sky was getting frustrated thinking about all of it. He needed to take his mind off everything. Sky's mind wandered to Robin's journal entries. He planned on going back and reading the rest of that diary. The main thing that stuck in Sky's head was something that completely opposed Sky's own father--the insistence that anything Robin might end up doing with his lover wasn't wrong, that it meant nothing at all. Sky knew that to be true. Alex had already told him as much, but Sky's father's words always pinned themselves to anything positive Sky learned. A few of those pins had been knocked off by reading that old journal, written straight from the mind of another teenager long ago. "Nothing, huh?" Sky said. "Then nothing I do to myself is wrong either." Sky tried thinking of Alex. His mind couldn't focus. Instead of Alex, he kept seeing Eric in his mind. Eventually, Sky stopped fighting it and let his mind create whatever it wanted. The end result wasn't any less satisfying. He felt better afterwards. He took a walk around the building and went to the supply room to see what was available. Sky got a new pocket knife, then stopped in the library to get a few books. He read for a while in the hall. A girl walked down the same hall. Sky looked up to see who was passing by. It was the girl he was rude to in the cafeteria. Sky considered apologizing to her. The girl looked at him for a moment, then walked right past him. Sky wasn't good with reading faces. He wasn't sure what signals she was trying to give off. He shrugged and read until it was time to meet with Alex. Sky waited for him near the entrance of the cafeteria. "Hey." "Hey, how'd things go today? Did you learn anything?" Alex asked. "Yeah, but I don't know what to make of it yet." Sky said. He asked. "Is Eric eating with us?" "Yeah. We're gonna eat on the roof. Are you okay with that?" "I'd rather eat there than in the cafeteria." "I figured you'd say that." Alex said. Sky followed Alex around the cafeteria, getting whatever Alex did. He wanted to get out of the cafeteria quickly. At the salad bar, Eric caught up to them. "Hey, sorry I'm late. I had to fix something. I'll meet you guys up there. Go ahead." Eric said to them. He kissed Alex on the cheek. "Kay." Alex said. He turned to Sky. "I've got everything I'm gonna get. You ready?" Sky nodded. They went out to the roof. Sky hadn't been up there in a while. He sat down on the bench. "It's a nice day out." Alex said. He took a sip of coffee. "So, did you decide if you wanted to try an exercise today?" Sky shook his head. "Not today. Earlier was kind of...I don't think I should." "That's fine. We can try a different day. But you know, if looking into that stuff drains you so much, you should probably not do it so often." Alex said. "But I still haven't gotten though all the information yet." "That's okay. I don't think I've read it all myself. Take your time." Sky said. "There's no time for me to do that." "Sky, you're thirteen." Alex said to him. "Besides, even when you finish it all, that doesn't mean you'll suddenly know how to take them down. If you're feeling well again, I think you should go back to work in the lab for a while. Or better yet, you could attend some of the school lessons and play." "I don't want to play. And I've had enough of lessons. I'll go back to work." Sky grumbled. He shoved some of the food in his mouth. "You don't have to do anything." "But you said..." "What I mean is, you should do something other than focusing on Moone & Wolfe for a while. It's clearly affecting you." Alex said. He looked up at the clouds. "There's a lot of dark things in those documents. Racing through all of that would take a toll on anyone's mind." "I've been here for months now. I should be done." Alex sighed deeply. "Sky...you've been wandering around alone for years just surviving. Now, you're spending all your time searching through that mess. Please, be a kid for five minutes." "But I..." Sky started to say. "I'm here." Eric ran up the stairs with a tray in hand. He caught his breath at the top of the stairs. "What'd I miss?" "Nothing. Damn, you got out of there fast." Alex said. "Easy to do when there ain't much to choose from." Eric sat down on the bench in the open spot beside Sky. "Hey, Sky. Are you feeling better today?" Sky scooted over a little. He blushed. "Yeah. Um, you look really nice today." "Oh, uh, thank you. Alex cut my hair yesterday." Eric said. "It l-looks really good." Sky fumbled through his words. He heard his heart ringing in his ears. Alex leaned forward and looked at Sky. He gave him a funny look and laughed. "Thanks." "Why are you laughing?" Sky asked. "Thank you for doing what I asked you to do." Alex said. "What?" Sky asked, confused. Alex smirked. "But next time, pick someone younger." Sky's face went a deeper red. He turned away from them both. "I just complimented him. I didn't know that meant something." "Sure." Alex laughed again. Eric didn't say anything to tease him. His attention was somewhere else. He lowered his voice. "Both of you be quiet for a sec." Alex whispered. "What is it?" Eric pointed above them. A large, bloated bird flew above them, descending down. Eric dropped his food and stood up. "Let's go. Now." Alex and Sky abandoned their food and ran down the stairs. Eric was right behind them. He closed the door behind them. Alex pressed a button near the door. A pane of glass came up from the floor a few inches in front of the door. "What's that for?" Sky asked. The building shook for a moment. A loud shrieking noise echoed through the hall. Sky covered his ears. The door moved forward slightly, as if something hit against it hard on the other side. Blood pooled in through the cracks between the door and the door frame until all Sky saw on the other side of the glass was red and black. The worms swam around chaotically in the red liquid. "That." Alex said. Sky stepped back. "What happened?" "Birds like landing on the cage, but the top of the cage is covered in spikes. It cuts their skin open and everything comes out. We got tired of having this hall contaminated all the time, so we put this in." Alex said. He tapped on the glass. The blood was drained down the floor. Water and a soapy substance gushed in from the sides of the wall. "This sterilizes it." "What if we weren't here?" Sky asked. "Usually someone else would close it up, but we're short-staffed at the moment. There's more than one button to do this." Alex said. "Yesterday, we had several people cut and bitten by an infected pack of animals. They're all under supervision right now." "I thought you said the outside area is usually safe. How often does stuff like this happen?" Sky asked. "It was safe. New information suggests more places like this are getting hit with waves of them. We're not sure why yet." Alex explained. "That's why there were so many that time we went out. This isn't normal." "What about the bird?" Sky asked. "No, the birds are always like that, but there aren't many birds left." Alex said. He led them down the hall. "Someone will come up later to check for damage." "Damn, my food." Eric said. "Guess I gotta go back to the cafeteria." "I'll get something else later." Sky said. "But you barely ate." Alex said. Sky looked back at the glass. "I'm not hungry anymore." "Alright. Do you want to sit with us in the cafeteria?" Alex asked. He didn't want to hang around the cafeteria, but Sky wanted to spend more time with them. "Guess I could get a drink or something." Sky followed Alex around the cafeteria again, not wanting to sit alone and wait for them. They talked about progress in the lab, but Sky didn't absorb most of the information. He couldn't stop staring at Eric. It was strange, he thought. Eric wasn't this interesting to him yesterday. The following day, Sky went back to work. Working around Eric was difficult. His mind kept wandering. Sky cursed his body for getting older. He didn't have this sort of inconvenience to deal with before. In the evenings, he sometimes went to the room Kathy showed him to read through more of the diaries. Alan got tired of him asking for the key and gave him a copy. "Are you sure you want me to have this?" Sky asked. "For now. If you get caught stealing anything, I won't hesitate to throw you out. Nothing leaves that room." Alan said. "Don't disappoint Kathy. She spoke very highly of you." "Is that why you're letting me have a key?" "I trust her judgement more than most people here." Alan said. "Don't make me regret this." "I won't." Sky promised, not for Alan, but for Kathy. One afternoon, while looking through the diaries, he came across one by a man named Roibín Winter. The name caught his attention. Winter was one of the current twenty families, but that was also the one Sarah specifically belonged to. Sky got out the family tree to sort out where the Winter line connected with the Blackwell family. There had been several instances over the years of members of the two families marrying one another. This particular person was not someone who any current Winter descended from. The man never married and had no children. Sky found that odd for the time period, as the siblings listed beside him all did. "Roibín Winter, born July 7th, 1451. Huh, you have the same birthday as me." Sky said. He lay on his back against the large paper and flipped through the diary. Sky looked at the dates in the journal. The entries were written in 1476, when the writer of the journal would have been twenty-four to twenty-five. He read over an entry. 'These days apart are unbearable. I count the hours until we can be together again. Summer can't come soon enough. I send letters daily, and wait for the messenger to deliver my response to each, but it's not enough. Before, when we were friends and quiet about our feelings, the weeks apart were already agony. Now that we've affirmed our feelings for one another, the pain when we are apart has only deepened. It's not fair. Some day, we will be separated further by marriages our fathers will begrudgingly expect out of us to appease the public who couldn't care less about what we feel as we always have for reasons no one remembers anymore. What absurdity. My soul belongs only to one. I leave in early June and will be staying until September, but it's not enough. I want to stay forever in those arms, from dusk till dawn. Finn laughed at my complaints. He told me all young people are like this. 'If your love is as deep as you claim, you'll find ways to meet each other.' He told me. That's easy for him to say. He works for the person he's devoted his heart too. Quite convenient indeed! I suppose he meant for me to think on that. I am a prince, but I'm not the crown prince or anywhere close to being next in line. Perhaps there could be a way for me to stay near my love through some political or professional reason. I'll write about that in my next letter and see if we can get any plans going about that.' Sky thought about how the family tree showed this man didn't marry. Sky wondered if he found a way to stay near whoever his lover was and get out of marrying someone else. The more Sky thought about that sort of thing, the more it bothered him. Moone & Wolfe looked down on marriages by love, as they saw the only purpose for marriage being to produce a "good" child and have them receive "proper" parenting for the sake of society. The world this man lived in was not that far off from that mentality, though it was more clearly about keeping wealth back then. Sky was harsh towards Alex before about getting married when their little world had already fallen apart. Some of that was jealousy and misunderstanding how relationships were supposed to work, but another part of him was angry that Alex was doing something that seemed so ordinary when nothing else was. The more Sky read through the old diaries, the more he saw the value in doing those ordinary things in chaos. So many people were denied so many simple things before, for one reason or another, that if everyone waited to do those things until there wasn't chaos, no one ever could. People would die miserable. If no one tried to make the world better, a better world would never come. To live, people needed to find happiness in the now and hope in the future. Sky tried to envision what would make him happy, but he struggled to. He wanted to see his mother and sister again, but there was no fixing that. He couldn't undo what his father's side of the family caused. Everyone had no choice but to start over. He couldn't fix all the families destroyed or the destruction to the natural world. If a species was wiped out from one of the viruses, that was the end of them. Sky tried to think of how to make himself happy, but his heart was only full of sadness and anger. Sky read the rest of Roibín's diary, of the parts that were still there. Pages were ripped out in some places, while others were too damaged by fire to read anything from. He seemed a nice man, but nothing from his diary really gave Sky a broader perspective on the families nor about Sarah's family specifically. He put the diary back and picked up the next one on the shelf. Sky read over the name several times. Leon Blackwell. 'But I thought Kathy said we didn't have this...' Sky flipped through and noticed the dates. They didn't match with the time period Leon Blackwell should have lived in. Sky checked over the family tree again. This man was a different Leon Blackwell, from much further back in time than Delilah Blackwell's father. "How many Leon Blackwells are on the family tree?!" Sky remembered he was told that the families had always used a lot of the same names over and over. He rolled his eyes. According to the family tree, this Leon was the son of Wren Blackwell. The entries were dated to the year 1482. This Leon Blackwell married twice, according to the tree, and had seven children in total, with a set of twin boys from each wife and three girls from the second wife. Sky noticed that his older brother, Rowan, who Sky assumed must have been named after their uncle, had no children, and Leon's sister, Robin, had an adopted daughter but no biological children. Leon seemed to have made up the difference for both of them. "Rowan, Robin, Leon, couldn't any of you come up with different names? This is giving me a headache." Sky read an entry near the beginning of the journal. 'A day does not pass without my thoughts turning to her. Our twin boys are five now. Five years it's been since I said goodbye to her. My mind has stopped in that moment. Ten years from now, it will still feel like it happened only a moment ago. I died that day, the same as she did. The world goes on, as if she were never here at all. I know we will all die someday. So many die every day for no good reason, but my heart refuses to acknowledge that her death should be like any other. I want time itself to break. But I know I am only speaking out of sadness. No one else should endure the pain I feel, no matter how great it is. Roísín, my love, my other half, few things hold me here. I want to join you in death, but I cannot. I would be betraying all the pain you endured to ensure our sons were born. They're so healthy. They never get sick. Did you give them all of your strength? In the time you've been gone, so many people I know have lost children younger than ours. I have other children now, with your sister, and for them and her I must also live. I swore to your sister I would take care of her and your family after the two of us became widow and widower the same month. I do not love your sister the way I love you. She is a good wife, a good mother, and a good friend, but she doesn't set my soul on fire the way looking into your eyes did. I love her, and I will protect and care for her until Death separates us, but it is you I will seek in the end. I know she will be searching for her first husband when the time comes. I know not what lies beyond this life, if anything does, but I hope with every part of my being that I will be allowed to hold you at least once more in the end. I don't care if it's a dream or an illusion. In the night, I see your face often, but I cannot touch you. I want nothing more. I don't care if our bodies are cold, so long as I can feel you there at all. Your body is gone from me, but I am the corpse lingering, searching for your shadow. I don't know how long I can endure this pain. Please wait for me. Forgive me for not following you, and forgive me for thinking such a thing.' Sky's eyes dulled. Sky had just seen on the tree that Leon's first wife died young, but it didn't mean anything to him then. Nearly every person on that tree was dead anyway. Disconnecting from that way easy until he read that. Sky was grateful to see that the second wife's death couldn't be in the journal. She hadn't given birth to all of the children they had together yet, and she would live to see all of them reach adulthood. The next entry read: 'There's an important meeting tomorrow. Rosita's had a bad cough these last few days. I asked Robin to take my place at the meeting. I'll be watching her daughter tomorrow. Father's prepared an herbal mixture for Rosita to drink tonight from the old book. Ella's worried, as am I. Rosita's eating well, but Death is a strange man. He comes when you least expect him. I plan on staying up later tonight to keep an eye on her. Abel, Seth, and Nora are fine as far as I can tell, but I'm going to give them the remedy too to be safe. Ro will be at the meeting tomorrow. He's coming with Roibín, of course. They're going to stay for a few weeks. I know he hasn't been away that long, but I've missed my brother. It's strange for his bedroom to be empty. I hear he's quite happy in his new home. My new responsibilities weigh heavily on my mind, but seeing him happy makes it worth it. We all knew he never wanted to be king. It was never a matter of if he'd ask me to switch places with him, but when. I'll gladly free him from any burden he can't bear. He's protected me so many times in my life. It's only right that I protect him this time. The public believed all too easily the story we made up. How ridiculous to think that they really believed my uncle and my mother had a child together. Absurd. My uncle was very good at giving people the illusion of whatever he needed them to believe he was. I bet he's laughing about that now. Father asked me to try on his crown today, to see how it fit on me. It fit well, but it was strange seeing it on my own head in the mirror. I asked him if it'd be alright if I wore his cloak when the time comes or if he wanted to take it with him. He said I could have it. As he put it, 'a dead man has no use for fine things'. But he also told me he was considering stepping down before his death and having me crowned king early, if I felt ready. He told me the day to day responsibilities of being a king are starting to wear him down as he gets on in age. 'I'm not as strong as I used to be.' He said. 'But if you want to wait, it's fine. Think it over and let me know what you want to do.' I don't think I'm ready quite yet, but I may take him up on his offer soon. I'd do it now, but I need more time to prepare myself for the role. Father's worked hard to keep the peace in our lands. I don't want all his efforts to go to waste by my foolishness. I'm thinking I'll tell him I want to take over when I'm thirty. That's less than two years from now. That gives us time to make sure the transition will be smooth and prepare for everything that needs to be done, both publicly and privately. Another matter we discussed was my sons. For now, Ella and I only have daughters. Abel is my current heir, as he was born before Seth, but there's already the matter of them being twins. And if I have a boy with Ella, technically, as she is my current wife, that boy would become my heir. I'm not sure how I want to handle this. Should I have it kept at Abel or follow ordinary procedure? I don't know. I suppose I'll sort that out when the time comes, if it does at all. Father laughed and said, 'You know, I have a feeling you'll have another pair of boys eventually. Then you'll really be in trouble.' I hope not, but he gave me that look when he said that. Whenever Father has that look in his eyes, whatever he says is certain to come true. I can feel my hair greying already.' Sky looked back at the family tree. Leon did have another pair of male twins, by his second wife. The tree couldn't tell him who Leon chose in the end, but Sky's branch of the Blackwell family descended from the first born of the second set of twins, Anan Blackwell. Several generations down from there eventually came the other Leon Blackwell and Delilah. Sky got up for a moment to check over the bookshelf again. If Anan ever had a diary, it wasn't on the shelf. There was a large gap in the years before the next diary holder on the shelf, Allen Wolfe, born 1676. Sky was curious what might be in that diary. That man would have lived in the same time frame as Delilah and Leon Blackwell, and he had one of the two family names in the company name, Moone & Wolfe. Sky made a note he would read that one next. Sky continued reading through Leon Blackwell's diary. Most of the entries were about ordinary things. This Leon seemed far more benign than the Leon that came later. He mentioned small skirmishes at the borders of his father's lands that he participated in, but from what Sky gathered, these were defensive on their end. Some entries were difficult to read. Leon seemed kind, but sad most days. His words often returned to his first wife. Her death seemed to have greatly affected him. Every now and then, Sky encountered a painful entry about guilt and suicidal ideation. One stood out to him more than others. 'I visited her grave again today. How can her body truly be there under the earth? Her soul is not there. That shell contains nothing and I know it, but here, I return again and again. When she died in my arms, I felt it then. I felt that moment when that body I had held a thousand times before became only that, a body. She left me. The light left, the air changed, and that body went limp in my arms. When I looked in her eyes, she wasn't there. There was nothing. I dream about it often, holding that body and looking into those empty eyes. Everything is cold. And when I wake, the nightmare never ends. She is still gone. I am told I will eventually be able to move on. I've tried. I remarried quickly, had more children. I've done my best to raise her children and her sister's. I do what I can for Ro and Binnie, for my parents, whatever I can do to make everyone's life peaceful. But I can do nothing to appease my own pain, and I want no one to know of it. They sense my sadness. My sister, she knows it most. She can always see through me. I lie to her anyway. I don't want them to think I am in any pain, because I know it will spread my pain to them. They love me too much to know. Some days, I confess my sorrows to Roibín, since he is not my blood, but I worry of overburdening him or him letting it slip to my brother how I feel. He swears to me he will not, but I could never fault him if it does. It's too much of me to ask that he should keep secrets from Ro. But I have never told him how much I want to leave this world. Ella has gotten those words out of me on dreadful nights. I dare not say how. I dare not shame her by writing down anything about that. They all know. Even my children know. How horrid I am that they know I wish for death. I do my best to show them how much I love them. I don't want my sons to ever think they've brought me this sadness by being born. Death is a cruel man. It is not from them my pain comes. Around my daughters, I am careful to never say words that could make them think that I love them less because they are born to my second wife. They are all precious to me, as all my family is. But I fear they will come to think these untrue things one day, because my mind always returns to her and her leaving and that body. I fear they will think I never cared for them if I leave here. I do love them so. I love them so much, but there is nothing that ends my pain. What a shameful man I am, to think of running to Death so I can run past him to my love's embrace. I have so many I must care for, I must protect, I must guide, yet here I am in these thoughts again tonight. In my dreams or in the night, I always see her face. But when I reach out to her, I can touch nothing. If I touch anything, she is not there. Death haunts me so. Every accident, every cold, I fear him coming back to take another from me. Father and Mother are getting on in age. I know my time with them is limited, but I pray every night that they live to old age. Some call me strange for that. Many seek to snatch power from their father. I will accept what he wishes to give, when he wishes for it. He is my king, and he will be my king when the crown is on my head. I pray that he lives as close to a century as Death will allow and that he and my mother leave this world not long from one another, so neither may know my loneliness for long. I pray for my brother and sister to live longer than me, and live happily with the ones they love. I pray for my children to always be healthy and live long and happy lives. But for me, I pray for the end to come soon. If it were not by my hands, they couldn't come to think I didn't love them. I would simply vanish from them. I know I am telling myself sweet lies. Whether by my own will or fate itself, when I leave, I will leave behind pain. No one who is ever loved leaves without gifting sorrow to the survivors. As much as I wish for death, I know too that I am loved by all of them and I know they pray for the same things I do. This world is cruel. Why must we all suffer this pain? Why must we part against our wills? I know this pain so well, and shamefully, I think on spreading it by leaving. I don't understand myself. No matter the words I tell myself or how much they make sense, my heart stays broken. To all those who love me, forgive me for being like that. I don't know how to make the pain or madness stop.' Sky thought about Leon's words. There was pain in being alone, and pain in being loved. It didn't consume him the way Leon's pain for his wife's death had, but some days, out of nowhere, a rush of sadness would overcome Sky and he'd think about his mother and his sister again. Crystal's face and voice were becoming hazier in his mind. He barely remembered her now. That he was forgetting her hurt him more than thinking about her death. Sky found some comfort in Leon's entries. He made a copy of Leon's diary before making copies of the others. He reread it a few times before moving on to the next diary. Something about the diary spoke to him in a way the others hadn't. After a third reread, Sky returned the diary. He read through Allen Wolfe's diary the day after he returned Leon's. The diary was written in the year 1691, when Allen would have been fifteen. Most of the pages were ripped out. Sky quickly sorted out why. From the pieces remaining, Sky realized that Allen was the boyfriend of Delilah's sister, Heather Blackwell, who died at seventeen in childbirth the year after the diary was written. According to the tree, the girl they claimed as Delilah went on to have three children, but Delilah's line was not who Sky descended from. The tree made it very clear Heather Blackwell was the one, but the tree listed the father of her sole child as "unknown". Sky supposed it was possible someone else could have been the father, but with him being her boyfriend for all of the year before she gave birth, it was very likely Allen was the father. "Born out of wedlock...but if the Wolfe family is so important, why didn't they claim you as the father? That would tie the families together even more." Sky wondered aloud. He found a few pages near the end of the diary that were still fully intact. Sky read through one of the entries. 'Heather won't leave here. I want to run away with her, so we can finally get married. Her father will never approve of me. I don't understand why he hates me so. My father has more money than he does. Is that it? He won't be satisfied with his daughter marrying into a wealthier family? He wants to be the one who's the wealthiest. What a fool. I'll try and convince Heather again tomorrow. She says I'm the foolish one. I'm fifteen, she's sixteen. She says we're too young to make it on our own, but I say if we're old enough to have children, we're old enough to survive without our families. Plenty get married young in situations like ours. If she doesn't marry, her father will only bring her more misery. I suspect he plans on handing her off to some widower with lots of children in another town where no one knows her and everyone here can forget her. Why should we hide it here? Everyone already knows. Let us live our lives. They act like the order really matters. Most are already expecting before they marry. The difference is that most fathers wouldn't have stopped their daughters from marry a man eager to make everything right. Perhaps he wants to keep her to himself. I know the sort of things he's gotten up to. He's not one to chase an older lady, that's for certain. He has so many young maidservants. That's not enough to satisfy you? Disgusting bastard. Is he angry I touched what he thought of as his? Heather would never tell me if such things were happening, nor her little sisters. They're all sweet girls, but they listen too closely to their father. It drives Primrose mad. You can see the fury in her eyes when he dots on them and never looks her way or when he's got his arm around the waist of some pretty young girl. He's the shameless one. Debbie would tell me, but she's gone now. She used to tell me so many horrid things. Father doesn't care about what I tell him Leon does. He says Leon's a good business man and comes from a prestigious bloodline. It's my duty to keep my mouth shut and play nice. I'm tired of playing nice. If anything ever happens to Heather, I'm leaving this place. I don't care about my father's money. There's other towns out there. There's the woods and mountains. I can be anywhere. The natives here would likely be kinder to me than the inhabitants of this godforsaken town. I've learned of some good hunting spots from them. My father doesn't even know how to hunt. That's what servants are for. Sloth and greed are his only virtues. What a sluggard he has made himself. Father and Leon make me want to bring as much dishonor to this place as I can.' Sky's mouth hung open. He laughed. "So that's it. Another person they need to cover up. This whole tree is a mess of lies. Did you run away when she died?" He skimmed through the next few entries to see what happened next. Allen got into a big argument with Leon, and then left town. The pages after that were damaged by fire. Sky couldn't read more than a few sentences per page for most of the rest of it. Sky sighed. He carefully placed the damaged book back on the shelf and sat back down in the middle of the room. Heather Blackwell's son was named Allen too. Did she name the baby before she died? Did Allen ever learn of this after he left the town? Whatever happened leading up to and the day of the pact between the twenty families was still a mystery to him. His files and the journals didn't provide him with much information. The next set of journals down were from later generations in the other twenty families. Sky flipped through them briefly, and found little of value. Only one diary left was tied to his family directly. Kathy had managed to get a hold of a diary kept by Sky's great-aunt, Maria Summerfield. He had been putting that one off. Reading about long dead, distant relatives was one thing. He could mentally separate himself from those people. Sky never met Maria, but she was too close for comfort. He decided to read her diary the next day after work. Sky had a lot on his mind that night. Why was he descended from Allen Blackwell and not any of the children the woman who was supposedly Delilah had? Sky opened up a notebook he used to take notes on while he was reading through the diaries. He copied parts of the family tree down for reference. The woman who went by Delilah, who was likely Rose Blackwell, married Jacob Thomas, a man from one of the twenty families. They had three children together: James, who married a girl from the Lobo family; a son named after Leon, who died young before ever marrying; and a girl named after Delilah, who married a man from the Ó Rinn family. Sky scratched his head. He knew he was missing something. Then, it hit him. Whether it was Delilah or Rose, tradition meant she had to change her last name upon getting married. Power would then shift to the Thomas family through Delilah's, or rather, Rose's marriage. If Leon didn't allow her to get married or have children, he could keep that power from the other families, but it would end there. Leon had no male children, only daughters. However, one of his daughters had a son and never married. Through Heather's son, he could keep the family in charge of the pact. Sky imagined Leon must have come up with some nonsense reason why Heather's child was more important than Delilah's. Thinking about how much his family cared about preserving things and names, it sickened him. His own name was one of the twenty given names the twenty families used, the girl the Ó Rinn family sacrificed. He hated it. He saw all of it as meaningless. Sky went into work angry the next day. Eric asked him if he was alright before lunch. "Everything okay, Sky?" Eric asked. "Yeah." Sky said. "Okay. I thought something might be bothering you." Eric sat down beside him at the bench. Sky looked over at Eric. "I think I just realized something." "Hmm?" "When we first met and you told me you changed your last name to Linwood, I thought that was dumb. What's the point of changing that now, especially as a guy? But I think I get it now. It wasn't about taking on Alex's last name, was it? It was getting rid of Thomas. I don't think I got why you cared so much about that until now." Sky said. Eric laughed under his breath. "Well, it's a mix of both, but you're right in the latter being the bigger reason. Even before I knew everything they did with Moone & Wolfe, my parents were always awful. When Alex proposed to me, I couldn't wait to toss that name aside forever. What's got you thinking about that suddenly? Planning on doing the same thing one day?" Sky shook his head. "I wasn't really thinking about that...I don't think I want to get married. I was looking into some family stuff last night, and thinking about all the name switching and stuff. It's all so stupid, but you know, your reason actually makes sense." "You can change your name without getting married. You can call yourself whatever you want. Used to be you'd have to go get your name legally changed, but there's no need for that now. If you don't want to be Sky Summerfield anymore, you can choose a different name. Just tell everyone that's who you are, and that's that." Eric said. "A new name..." Sky thought it over. He didn't like his name, except the part his mother picked, but he did feel some strange attachment to it. If he wasn't Sky Summerfield, who would he be? Sky couldn't see himself tossing aside the name so easily, as much as he hated. "I don't know..." "You don't have to, but you can if you want to." Eric said. He looked up at the clock and got back up from the bench. "Gotta check on something before we head out to lunch. Are you eating with us today?" "Like you and Alex?" "Yeah. We're gonna eat on the roof." Eric said. "Is that a good idea with what's been going on lately?" Sky asked. Eric shrugged. "I'm sure it'll be fine. We're back at full staff outside." Sky agreed to go. Alex got there first. Sky sat in between Eric and Alex on the bench outside. The sky was clear that day. Sky's earlier agitation faded away. When he was with Eric and Alex, it was easier to get distracted by trivial things. Right then, his mind focused on how much he didn't like the taste of catfish or kudzu. Sky picked at the fish. "Not much selection today, huh?" "Nope. We're supposed to get some more food in tomorrow." Alex said. He sipped some of his coffee. "From what Zack told me, we'll be getting some flour this time. I heard someone brought back a whole lot of crawdads right before lunch." "Bet those will gone as soon as they put them out." Eric said. Sky ate some of the preserved peaches off his plate. His eyes wandered to Eric. Sky couldn't help himself from staring at his face, and noticing that Eric's eyes were on Alex. He didn't care. Sky played through several fantasies in his head. Alex interrupted his train of thoughts. "Oh, Sky, I'll be back in the lab soon." Sky blinked and looked over at him. "Huh? Starting when?" "Next week. My paternity leave ends then. Then, Eric's going to be off for a few weeks." Alex said. "What?" Sky already knew that was coming, but he forgot about it. He looked over at Eric, disappointed he wouldn't get to see him daily for a while. "For how long?" Eric smiled. "Not as long as Alex was gone. Noelle's pretty much got things covered at this point. I'm staying out three weeks." "That's almost a month." Sky complained. "It'll pass by pretty quickly. Three weeks isn't that long. Besides, you'll still see me outside of work." Eric said. Alex leaned closer to Sky. "You could always use this time to socialize with actual teenagers." "Not interested." Sky groaned. Alex laughed. "What's wrong? Afraid someone might like you back for once?" Sky's face flushed. "I'm not interested in the kind of things they are. They only care about dumb stuff." "Yeah, like kissing and stuff." Alex mocked him. Eric joined in. "Going on dates and holding hands." "I don't need any of that. I have more important things to worry about than finding a boyfriend." "Huh, so have you come to a conclusion on that?" Alex asked. "What do you mean?" Sky asked back. "You said boyfriend, and only boyfriend. So, I guess you sorted that out then?" Alex explained what he meant. "I didn't mean it like that. I don't know yet. I only said that because right now I..." Sky raised his voice. He glanced over at Eric. His face went a deep shade of red. Sky stood up and walked over to the fence. "Anyway, I'm not interested in that kind of stuff. Between work and going through all the notes and records, I don't have time to date anyone or go around making friends or whatever. Stuff like that will only distract me." "But you seem to do just fine at work." Eric said. "What does that have to do with anything?" Sky turned around. Eric gave Sky a silly look. He decided not to state the obvious. "I think you'd be able to manage just fine with a friend or going on dates. It's not as distracting as you're making it out to be. I get the feeling it's not really being distracted that you're actually worried about." Sky looked away. "It doesn't matter. I don't need that." "You don't?" Alex asked. "You don't really believe that. You don't need to lie to us." "I don't need any of that to survive." Sky said. He stared out at the crumbling city. A city in a forest, now a cemetery, Sky thought. If he kept more people around him, he would need to remember the locations of more graves. Getting close to Kathy, Alex, and Eric was dangerous. The only thing it could lead to, Sky told himself, was more pain. "If you say so." Alex said. Sky wanted Alex to tell him he was wrong, but he didn't know why he wanted that. Disappointment set in when Alex let it go. After work, Sky went back to read the last diary, the diary of Maria Summerfield. It was a thin, small notebook. The cover and pages were stained with dried blood. Some pages had been so soaked with blood that nothing else remained on it. The ink was gone. Sky was able to make out the words on the entries she had written in pencil. Before he read anything, he sat with his thoughts about the blood on the pages and the story Kathy told him. Sky reasoned Maria must have been carrying the diary on her the day she was murdered. This blood was either hers, her lover's, or both. He wondered how Kathy acquired such an item. Sky thought her diary would be one the family would guard heavily, but he remembered what Kathy said before. She told him the family would sooner forfeit Edith's life before letting go of Leon Blackwell's diaries. Edith was currently running the company and leading the families loyal to the Summerfields. If she was of less value than an item like that, Maria's diary was probably even more worthless in their eyes. Sky's surprise then changed to the fact that they didn't bother destroying the diary. He considered asking Kathy later how she got it, but it didn't really matter. He probably wouldn't want to know the rest of it. He was certain it would make him hate his family more. "Great-aunt Maria, I never met you. You shouldn't have died the way you did. I'll make them pay for this too." Sky ran his hands over the bloodied cover. He looked through the diary more. The entries stopped two thirds of the way into the notebook. He read the first entry in pencil. 'Daddy's in one of his moods again. I took Alexi with me to the park for a while. I don't know if we'll go back tonight or not. If we stay out too late, he might get angrier, but he wasn't angry with us to start with. It was one of the Thomas boys who made him angry. It might be safe to return in a few hours. I don't know what I will do about Logan. He proposed to me, but how can we marry? Daddy will never allow it. He doesn't know about Logan and me at all. Daddy still forbids me from seeing anyone. He wants me to marry a nice man chosen by him from one of the good families. He was leaning toward one of the Thomas men, but I don't know about that now...Oh, I can't go through with it. I don't want to be his little dollie forever. I don't want to marry any of those men. Logan wants me to leave them all behind and run away with him. I must find the courage. It's the only way to gain my freedom from them. But as much as I'm afraid of staying here, I I'm even more afraid of what will happen to Alexi if I leave. Who will protect him when I am gone? He's too young to protect himself or run away. Should I take him with us? But how would I hide him? What about schooling? I don't know what I should do. Alexi, would you forgive me if I ran? Am I wrong to run away without you? Delilah has abandoned us. She rejected all the girls. Daddy gets angrier every year that he can't bring us a new Delilah. I was never good enough to be Delilah's chosen one. Alexi can't fulfill the role. Daddy needs him to take over the company from him one day. If we can't find a body for Delilah, the responsibility of that will be on Alexi to find one. If I take him with me, Daddy will definitely track us down. He might let me go. I'm unimportant beyond having babies for the families. Yesterday, Daddy told me if I wasn't his daughter, I'd be one of the first people he got rid of to create a perfect world because he didn't know anyone dumber. I know I'm not very bright, but it wasn't like I didn't know how to do what he wanted. I got distracted for a moment. That was all. But to him, I can do no good. He'll see Logan as another reason I'm no good. He'll always see me as no good. I'm not Delilah. I'm not good for research. I'm nothing. I'm sorry, Alexi. I need to run.' "This really is from just before she died. Alexi? Is that my grandfather Alexander?" Sky asked aloud to himself. He read through more of the entries. 'Logan and I have planned a date for when we're going to run away together. I have to be on my best behavior until then so Daddy doesn't suspect a thing. He's on good terms with the Thomas family again. I don't know what happened between them. I want to get a wedding dress already, but I'll have to wait to get a dress until the day of the wedding. If I keep it here, someone will find it. I can't let anything give away my plans. I'm scared what will happen if he finds out. I know he'll hurt him. I don't know what will happen to me, but I know he'll kill Logan. Should I call it off and let him go? I love him so much, but if I make a mistake... Is it right for me to risk his life? If Daddy hurts him, I could never forgive myself. But if I let Logan go, and I stay here, I'll be a prisoner forever. If we can get away from here...I know it'll still be hard for us, but Logan's been putting away a lot of money for us to move abroad. We're going to live quietly until we get everything in order, and then leave America behind. He says it'll be safer if we go elsewhere. I hope so. Daddy has connections in many countries, but I plan on choosing a place where Aurora has more influence. The Blackwells won't hurt me if they know I've left the company. I don't know if I'll join Aurora. Daddy always told me they were awful people, but I don't know. They might be the same as him. They always come on time when we go to meet Delilah in the field, and they always bring the same number of girls. I don't know what to do. Maybe where they have power isn't safe either. Where should I go? I just want to be left alone.' Sky turned a few pages, as the next ones were entries Maria had originally written in ink. Maria's entries were always full of fear and guilt. She debated with herself over her own freedom on and on, but continued to see Logan in secret. Their secret meeting place was at the train tracks in the woods. He would meet her there when her father sent her out to run errands. Maria hurried through all her tasks, then ran straight to the woods to meet with her lover. Their relationship, from what Maria wrote down, suggested they were both very innocent and reserved individuals. Maria mentioned being a virgin, waiting for her wedding night. Logan was the same, from what he told her. They planned on meeting at the tracks on the night they were going to elope, heading to a neighboring town for a quick wedding ceremony done by someone who would never reveal them, and hopping on a bus out of state after that. Logan had family on the west coast they could stay with for a while. Sky's stomach turned the more entries he read, knowing the awful fate awaiting the young couple. When Sky reached the last entry, his hands were shaking. The words before him were his great-aunt's last recorded thoughts before her murder. He took a deep breath and read the final entry. 'I told Alexi I was leaving. He promised he wouldn't tell. I couldn't leave without letting him know what I was planning. I'm so scared for him. But as much as I love him, I'm scared for myself even more. Alexi is a good boy, and I'm afraid that means he might tell Daddy before I leave. Tonight, I'm going to see Logan, get my dress, and leave this city. I'm not taking anything with me except this diary. Daddy's never discovered it after all this time. I hid the secret compartment I sewed into my purse well, and this notebook is too thin to be noticed from the outside. He never found it. Tonight is the most important night of my life. I won't sleep well tonight, or the night after that, but I hope one day I can. I don't want to live like this anymore. I'm sorry I couldn't take you with me, Alexi. I'll always remember you.' Sky sat with the journal for a while in silence. A tear slid down his face. The hopeful bride would never marry her groom. She never saw tomorrow nor did he. That night may have been the night that pushed his grandfather over the edge and onto the wicked path he walked as an adult, but Sky didn't understand it. Sky watched horrible things happen to his sister and his mother, because of his father and people his father associated with. Seeing that didn't make him want to affiliate with his father. He wanted to destroy everything his father helped create. Why did his grandfather do all of those things after all that? At the very least, Sky thought, he could have run away. "I wouldn't..." Sky started to say. His mind brought him back to the hazy time after his family died, when he stayed alone in the house. Sky decided back then he would learn the truth about everything and expose it, but he didn't leave immediately. Would he have left at all if his father survived? What if only his sister died? Would Sky have continued on doing everything his father wanted until the day came for him to take over the company? He wanted to tell himself he would never. Thinking otherwise sickened him. But he could never know for sure. Sky put the diary back on the shelf. He left the room weary and strange. Without thinking about it, his body took him to the room where Kathy always played her piano. Kathy was in the middle of performing a song. Sky watched her from the door as she performed the evening program for the next few hours. When she was done, Kathy called him over to sit with her. "How have you been, Sky?" Kathy asked. Sky's eyes were heavy. He said. "I don't know. Are you leaving now? I wanted to play on the piano for a while." Kathy waved him over. "You can play. I'm a little tired from playing. Why don't you practice and I'll watch you?" Sky walked over to the piano. He sat down and pressed down on the heavy keys. The more he touched them, the more he was amazed that out of all the things that were destroyed, something like this survived. He couldn't think of a song to play. Sky listened to the sounds of the keys, looking for notes he liked together. Sky played around, humming along as he found combinations that sounded nice to him. Kathy watched him curiously. A light rain came down outside. Sky let the rhythm of the rain affect the melody he made. He wanted to forget about everything he read earlier. He wanted to forget who he was and what was outside beyond the rain. Sky closed his eyes as he played and let his mind paint him a different world. He saw the rain in his mind and the oak tree in the field. He couldn't have really felt it, but Sky swore he could feel the wind and water on his skin, cold rain against a warm summer breeze. The air smelled like rich earth, grass, something floral, and rain. His chest filled with warmth w hile his mind emptied to only this scene and the sound of rain and music. Tall blades of grass brushed against him, and then someone's hand. He held it, though he did not know who it was the hand belonged to. In his mind, he was certain the person was someone he needed to stand beside. The person's skin was a slightly different shade than his, with hues his didn't have. Whoever it was had hands a little smaller than his. It was warm like the wind and his heart. Sky's humming turned to wordless singing. The rain outside picked up, as it did in his mind. Sky looked beside him. The other person was looking in the same direction as him. The other person's frame was feminine. Long, dark brown hair was caught in the breeze. She wore a white dress stained by grass and dirt. He heard her singing with him in his head. Sky's concentration started to break as she added words. The wind picked up. The girl pulled her hand away from his and turned around to face him. Her face was kept mostly obscured by her hair as the wind danced around the two of them. He couldn't make out most of the words she sang, but one part was clear. "Take me home..." Lightning outside broke Sky from his daydream. He opened his eyes to see the lights in the room flickering. The warm breeze and the smell of earth disappeared. He was left with the dusty scent of the room and the still air that always hovered at a temperature a little higher than outside. The walls in the room, dingy and brown, crowded around him. He let his hands slip from the keys. Sky stared out at the window to watch the rain. "It's getting really bad outside." He said. "Might be a tornado tonight." Kathy sat down beside him. She hummed the melody Sky came up with. "What was that? Is that a song you're working on?" "Huh? Oh, I don't know. It was something that just...felt right at the time. I don't know if I'm going to do anything with it." Sky said. His cheeks burned. "Was it bad?" "No. I was enjoying it. It's not often I get to sit back and listen to someone else's performance." Kathy said. "I showed you how to read music. You could write down what you came up with for later. When I was young, I used to always be coming up with little pieces of music and storing it away. Most of it didn't become anything, but I did end up with quite a few albums worth of music eventually." "I don't know if I want to make it a full song or not. Is it okay to just make music for the moment?" Sky asked. "Sure. Some people only play that way, for their feelings in the moment. If you don't want to hold onto it, you can let it go." Kathy said. "I don't know...I don't think I'll forget it." Sky said. He looked out at the window. "I read Maria's diary today." "Did you want to talk about it?" Kathy asked. Sky shook his head. "No, I wanted to forget that for right now. Alex told me that I'm doing too much too fast. I don't want him to be right, but I don't think I'm strong enough to do this nonstop yet. There's so many things going on. I think I need to stop looking into that for a while and focus on something else. If we get the vaccine finished, that would make a lot of people happy." "I think that's a good idea. And if we do get at least one vaccine done, that will help us all get a little edge against them. That could be one step in helping you achieve your goal overall." Kathy said. "Yeah." Sky slouched down. "Am I a coward?" "No, you're a child. What you've been looking at all this time would destroy many adults." Kathy hugged him. "When I was young, I used to spend days upon days looking into them. It filled me up with anger, but that wasn't the only thing. It would destroy me through and through. I'd have nightmares constantly. I'd think about killing myself. You can't look away from it, because once you know what they've done, you see it everywhere. You have to stand up and keep going, but you have to protect yourself too. If you destroy your spirit, you won't have the will left to fight. Be careful with yourself. Your mind needs care as much as your body." "What if I'm not strong enough to do this?" Sky asked. "You aren't the only one fighting. Remember that. Alex and Eric are fighting back too. By working on the vaccine, they're opposing the fate Moone & Wolfe has dictated to us. You may not be the one who destroys them in the end. Maybe you can't do that by yourself, but that doesn't mean there's nothing you can do to fight back either. Do your best to do whatever you can, and don't give up." Kathy said. Sky hugged her back. "I was so certain of myself when I got here. Right now, I don't feel anything." "Take a break from looking. It's alright." Sky wanted to believe her, but inside, all he felt was guilt at even thinking such a thing. Later that night, when Sky had turned in, he tortured himself over his own weakness. He needed to do more, he told himself, but when he thought about everything he knew, he was paralyzed with pain and hopelessness. When he finally fell asleep, Sky had a nightmare about his great-aunt Maria. In his dream, he was a young Alexander watching his older sister be tortured and killed. His dream focused most on when she was tied to the tracks. Maria called out to him. 'Alexi...Alexi, help me...please!' Sky felt the ground shake as the train approached. All the men who came to punish the lovers stood around watching and laughing while the young bride screamed from the tracks. Sky couldn't close his eyes. He watched the train pass over and so easily snap off her legs with a big, quick splash of blood hitting against the train, the tracks, and her dress. Maria's upper half fell down from the tracks, blood gushing out from where her legs had been severed. Sky watched Maria drag herself across the grass to Sky's great-grandfather and plead for his help. Then, she crawled over to him. A trail of blood smeared from the tracks to his great-grandfather to Sky seeped into the earth. Where her dress was ripped, Sky could see the exposed parts of what remained of her legs. The pure white bone peeked out through the deep, dark red. Maria grabbed at his pants. She begged him. 'Alexi...Alexi...please...' Sky saw in her eyes the unmistakable look of death. He didn't understand how she was moving at all. He was certain she was already dead. Sky couldn't call out to her or reach down to help her. His body wouldn't move. Maria's face changed to his sister's. 'Did you see?' She asked. Sky's great-grandfather turned into his father. He grabbed Crystal and threw her aside. Her body burst open, all the blood turning black. Her skin rotted away before him, and everything inside until all that remain was white in a pool of black. Sky looked over at his father. 'You're going to disappoint me. I knew you would, you worthless boy.' His father's skin rotted off half of his face. One of his eyeballs fell out. Tom held up a gun and pointed it at Sky. 'I can make another one.' The side of his face that was intact changed to his aunt Edith's face. 'We can always make more.' Sky couldn't move from where he stood. He was no longer his grandfather as a child, but himself again. Then, his formed changed to that of Delilah Blackwell. Edith shifted into Leon Blackwell. Body falling apart, Leon walked over to him. He put his bony hand on Sky's face. 'Don't you tell a soul.' Leon put his mostly skeletal face closer to Sky's. He dug his fingers into Sky's cheek. 'Begone, you wretched thing.' A voice said from behind Sky. The skeletal figure fell into a pile of bones. Sky looked back at person behind him. The man wore clothing similar to what he saw Wren and Rowan Blackwell wearing in the old family paintings. His eyes were brown and his hair was long and dark. His skin was a light olive shade. From head to toe, he wore red and black. Sky recognized the cloak the man wore as the one he saw the older brother, Rowan Blackwell, wearing in the painting by the ravens on the clasps. His crown was the same as Rowan's too, but the man was not Rowan Blackwell. 'Who are you?' Sky asked. 'What a silly question.' The man said. A door frame appeared between them, but there was no door. Sky tried to walk through it. He couldn't pass through. A pane of glass was there instead of a door. Sky pressed his hands against the glass. The man did the same. Somehow, Sky's hands were the same size as his. Sky looked up to where the man's face should have been. He saw himself as an adult instead. The doorway became a mirror. Then, his reflection vanished. Through the glass, he saw the field. A storm raged outside over the field. Sky pressed hard against the glass until his body slipped through. He tumbled through the glass into the grass and rain. Sky woke up when he hit the floor after falling out of his bed. Disoriented, it took him a couple of minutes to realize he wasn't dreaming anymore. Sky got back in bed. He tried not to recall most of the dream, but he couldn't stop thinking about the end. "Who was that guy?" Sky wondered. He turned over to go back to sleep as his alarm went off. Sky looked back at the alarm clock. "Damn it. Whatever. I'll forget about this after breakfast." Sky grabbed breakfast and ate in the hall before heading to the lab. Eric was already there. Sky greeted him and got to work. Later in the day, Eric asked Sky to help him in the room they kept the animal test subjects in. Sky hadn't been in there before. "What did you need my help with?" Sky asked. "We're short another person today. Could you help me feed the animals?" Eric asked. "Okay...um, what should I do?" Sky asked. Eric showed him how to change the water and food for the animals in the room. Most of the animals were mice and rats, with a few opossums. Eric tended to a opossum while Sky changed out the water at each cage. The opossum sat calmly in Eric's lap while Eric collected a blood sample from the animal. He then put the animal back in its cage and fed it himself. "Thank you. You've been really well behaved today." Eric said to the opossum. Sky watched him from the other side of the room. He said. "I read in the files you did something like this when you were working in a Moone & Wolfe facility." "I did. They evaluated me and determined that was the task I was best suited to. I hate them, but they weren't wrong." Eric said. He petted the opossum, then closed the door of the cage. "I'd never worked with animals before everything happened. Back then, I didn't care what kind of job I did. A paycheck was a paycheck. But I am good at this, and I'd rather it was me doing this than someone else. Some of the other researchers don't handle the animals carefully enough." "Some of these have been given an early vaccine, right?" Sky asked. "Which ones have been given the vaccine?" Eric walked over to a set of cages. "These three cages. The doors on them are different, see?" Sky noticed they were different from the other. Inside the three cages were mice. The mice didn't look infected to Sky. "Do you think it'll work?" "I hope so. If they make it, we'll test more with that version. So far, they've been doing well. They don't have any symptoms yet." Eric looked into their cages. He said to the mice. "I'm sorry, my friends. I don't want to have to put you through this." "If it works out, how long do you think it'll be before we can get a vaccine for humans?" Sky asked. "Maybe next year." Eric said. He opened a door on the side of one of the cages. Curious, one of the mice walked through the opening into a side compartment. Eric closed the door back down to trap the mouse inside. He got ready to collect another sample of blood. Eric put on very thick, long gloves and opened up a small door at the top of the compartment. He reached in and took the mouse out. Eric stuck a needle in the mouse and drew blood. He put the mouse back into the compartment, then opened up the compartment door to let the mouse out and another in. "What are you doing?" Sky asked. "I'm getting a blood sample. I want to see how this little guy's blood compares to a typical sample for a mouse infected for six days." Eric said. He trapped another mouse in and got ready to collect another sample. "They're six days in and no symptoms?" Sky asked. "Yeah, but we have to be careful. Past versions we made put off when the symptoms appeared instead of curing them. They might still be able to infect me if they bite." Eric said. He took a sample from the next mouse. "Then, should you really be leaving them all in cages like this? Shouldn't you isolate them?" Sky asked. Eric sighed. "I'd love to, but we don't have the space. This is all we can do." "How do you know if you're not drawing from the same mouse more than once?" "I know them. They don't look the same." Eric said. Sky looked at the mice. They were all white with red eyes. "Um...they look the same to me." "You don't know them. Besides, they have completely different personalities from each other." Eric said. "If you say so." Sky raised an eyebrow. He couldn't see how Eric was telling them apart. Sky watched him. "Should I do anything else? I'm done with everything." "You can go back to what you were working on, if you want. I'm going to be in here a while." Eric got another mouse ready. "Is it okay if I stay and watch?" Sky asked. "Sure, that's fine." Eric said. Sky watched Eric work. He was curious about the animals and how the vaccine was coming along, but he also wanted to be around Eric alone. He could hear Alex in his head telling him how pointless it was. Eric was too old for him and married. But Sky didn't plan on making a move on Eric. Looking was good enough for him. "I'm sorry I used to not really like you." Sky said. "Huh?" Eric looked up at him. "I used to think you were a bad person." "Oh, I didn't know that. Did I do something to offend you?" Eric asked. "No, I...um, well, I had a lot of weird assumptions about you and Alex, and...I, um, I was a little jealous that you were with Alex, so I...um..." Sky stared at the ground. "Oh, I see." Eric laughed. "But I guess you're not into Alex anymore, huh?" "N-no, not really." Sky's face lit up. Eric smiled at him. "Sorry, I can't like you back. I'm sure you'll find someone who can one day. You should really try hanging out with some kids your own age." "Don't want to." "Well, whenever you're ready." "Hey, Eric, can I ask you something?" Sky asked. "When did you fall in love with Alex?" "Huh. I don't really know. That's kinda hard to answer." Eric said. He rubbed his chin. "I was in denial about liking him for a long time. I think I had a crush on him since elementary school. But love...I don't think I was actually really in love with him until high school." "What's the difference?" Sky asked. "Hmmm...I don't know how to explain it. When you like someone, it doesn't need to be deep. It can just be about how they look or something else trivial. Love is...more than that. It's about all the stuff you can't see. I don't know exactly when it happened, but I'm pretty sure I fell in love with him somewhere around the time he was helping me out with school and my family situation. That's when it wasn't just attraction anymore." Eric said to him. He thought over his next words. "To love someone is to know and accept someone, all the rough parts included. I would probably give my life to protect someone else in danger. For Alex, I would give up the world itself to keep him safe. I don't fear my own death. There's nothing I fear more than losing him, and I know for him, it's the same." Sky thought about what Eric said. "You know, I don't think my father ever felt like that about anyone." "He probably didn't. I don't think my parents did either. My mom felt guilt sometimes, but she didn't love me or anyone else in our family." Eric was calm as he said that. "You don't look like you care." "I don't." Eric said. "I don't need to beg for the love of people who hurt me." Sky let that idea settle in his mind. "You're not angry at them?" Eric sat down at the table by Sky. He checked over that each sample was properly labeled. "Oh, I hate them and I'm never going to forgive them for anything, but I don't get angry about that stuff anymore. They're dead, and they're never going to be in my life again. Honestly, it's one of the few silver linings for me about all of this." "They helped make all of this happen though." "Yeah, and that killed them. I'm still alive." Eric said. "I get why you're angry. I really do, but it doesn't weigh on my mind now. I don't think about who caused what. I've got a job to do right now. You can't live in the past. I used to get caught up in all of that, but it's too much. So I don't." Sky leaned forward across the table. "You don't have things happen that make you remember bad stuff about them?" "That happens sometimes." Eric said. "I'm better at handling those times now than I was before, and it happens less often now." Sky looked over at Eric. His gaze lingered on Eric's face. When Eric looked over at him, Sky averted his eyes. "Um, hey. Alex keeps telling me I should see the therapist here, but I don't really want to go. Did you go? Is that why you're okay?" "I went for a while after we escaped, but I don't go anymore." Eric glanced at the clock on the wall. "Why'd you stop? Was that all you needed?" "No, it's not that. I have a lot of negative memories about places like that, because of my parents, and none of the therapies typically used for PTSD really helped me. I learned some useful things from each of them, but overall, I ended up getting worse the longer I went. I had some big issues with certain parts of the therapies I tried. So, I quit. I don't know. It works great for Alex. He's happy to go, but it didn't work out for me. He won't say this, because he wanted to work in that field, but you can't fix everybody with a small box of tools no matter how great they are. We argued about it at first, but he's accepted my decision now. I had to get him to understand I really did try my best, and him telling me to 'try harder' was only hurting me. But you can't know what will work if you try nothing. Something might work for you and not work for me. Therapy is a form of medicine, and no form of medicine works perfectly for every single person all of the time." Eric explained. "Why did he argue so much with you about it?" "They mean well, but a lot of medical professionals sometimes take you saying the standard treatment not working as you just being difficult because of your illness or ignorance. But every major treatment that helps a lot of people was new at some point, and there were always people not getting what they needed before its creation. Sometimes, the kind of treatment you need may not have been created or studied enough yet to be accepted, and you have to manage on your own with what parts of others that you can find work. Sometimes you're just the unlucky one." Eric turned in his chair to face his body toward Sky. "But I think you should give it your best try at least. It might work out great for you, it might not. If it doesn't, maybe we can brainstorm together some ideas. Just because that doesn't work doesn't mean you give up. I'm still trying to work on my symptoms the best I can." "I don't know if I can go. My family was so tied up in that kind of stuff..." Eric put his hand on Sky's shoulder. He leaned forward slightly and looked Sky in the eyes. "That's okay. You might have to work up to trying it. The waiting room here looks nothing like the ones I've been in before, but just being in a waiting room to see a therapist terrified me the first time. I had a panic attack before my session." "Really?" Eric nodded. "Yeah. Don't push yourself too hard. If you try to push yourself beyond what you can handle, you'll end up hurting yourself instead. I didn't think being in that place would affect me like that, even though I was getting more anxious the closer it got to my appointment. I wasn't ready to be there yet." "I don't think I'm ready." Sky said. He sighed. "What's wrong with me? Since I've come here, it's like I'm always about to fall apart." "You probably didn't have time to before." Eric said. "When you're in a scary situation for a long time, sometimes you only feel the effects once you're safer. You'd been running for a long time. I'm amazed you survived all that time alone." "I hate this. It's like getting older. It's just another weakness holding me back." Sky complained. "You're not weak, Sky." Eric said, eyes full of sorrow. "This is the price of survival. Your mind changed to keep you alive. Now, you have to undo that." "If I'm like this because it helped me survive everything, would it really help me to change then? When I go back out there, it'll be like it was." "This isn't the only way to survive. This is because you had no one to care for you and support you. When you go back out again, that won't be the case." Eric said. Sky faced the ground. "You say that, but you won't be traveling with me. I'll be alone most of the time." "I don't mean in person." Eric said. "You'll have a home to come back to when you need it. You'll have a family to come back to who love you." Sky's eyes widened. He looked up at Eric in bewilderment. "Love me?" Eric smiled at him. "Of course. We all love you. Didn't you know that?" "I...Why would I think that?" Sky asked. He looked away. "Why would you think we didn't?" "I don't know. I've never...What love is wasn't something I really saw in my family. I don't know." Sky didn't want to look at Eric. He didn't want to see what face Eric was making at him. "I knew about it, but I just...always thought it was something I wouldn't ever have." "Sky, remember when you had that bad night after watching that video? And you stayed overnight and we pretended we were camping? Why do you think we did that with you?" Eric asked. "I don't know. Because you're nice." "Because we care about you." Sky's chest tightened. "Is that really what it looks like?" "When you play music with Kathy and broadcast the weather together, that's love too. When we eat lunch together on the roof, it's because we love you." Eric's voice was soft and kind. "But why? You don't really know me." "I know you pretty well, even though you try to keep us all at a distance." Eric said. "It's okay. I understand it. I used to be like that too." Sky didn't respond to that. He asked. "Hey, um, when my mom would tell me about her dreams when my dad wasn't home, or when she held me close when she watched TV, was that love?" "Yeah, definitely." "And when my sister hugged me because I was crying, was that?" Eric nodded. "See, there was love there too. There was just so much fear you didn't see anything else." "I thought...that at least my mom probably loved us, but...I never knew if that was the real her or the fake her. Kathy's told me she must have loved me, but...Kathy's a kind person and I know she loved my mom. I don't think she could ever think badly of her." Sky said. Eric looked up. He leaned back in his chair. "Well, you're right that she probably wouldn't say to you something like that, but I don't think it's because she couldn't be critical of your mom. If you actually love someone, you can see their faults. If you can't, you're just deluded. No, if she were to lie to you, it would probably be to spare your feelings more than to protect your mom." "But she didn't lie to me about my dad." "Your dad was an abuser. Lying about that would hurt you more than telling the truth. Your mom's situation is more complicated." Eric went quiet for a second, then rubbed his eyes. "Sorry, I'm having trouble concentrating. Anyway, you don't need to worry about that. You've given me proof she cared yourself. You shouldn't dwell long on debating whether it was real or not. If she had been able to fully remember herself and escape, do you really think she would leave her children behind, regardless of how they came to be?" "I don't think she would." "Then, that's all the proof you need." Eric sat forward in his chair. He got up from the table. "You don't need to add negativity where there likely wasn't when you already have to carry the weight of so many other bad memories. It's probably better if you ask Kathy for stories about your mom, so you can take her happy memories and add them to yours. Then, you'll get two good memories for every story she tells you." "What do you mean?" Sky asked. "Because her telling you the story can become another one of your good memories." Eric said. "Huh, I didn't think about that." Sky said. Eric went over to a cork board near one of the two fridges in the room. He waved Sky over. "Come here. I want to show you something." Sky walked over to Eric. He looked at the board. It was covered in old photos. Sky recognized Alex and Eric in them, though they were much younger looking and their ages varied in the photos. They looked elementary school aged in a couple of them. Noelle and Zack were also in some of the photos. Sky didn't recognize anyone else. "What's this?" "Old photos from Alex's house. Alex and his mom were both really into photography. They had a lot of photos printed. A few months after we reunited, Zack, Alex, and I went back to our old homes to see if we could find anything of ours worth keeping. Alex mostly took photos back. We have more in our room." Eric said. He took the one where they looked the youngest off of the wall. "This one...this is from the year we started going to the same school. We were already friends before Christmas break. I can't remember if he was going by Alex or Alexis then. That was so long ago." Sky looked more closely at the photo. "Huh. I almost forgot that was his real name. Does anyone ever call him that?" "I do sometimes, but don't. He hates when other people call him that. Only I'm allowed to." Eric laughed under his breath. He put the photo back on the board. "I remember this photo was taken on Alex's birthday. We went out to Stone Mountain. I kept wanting to play on the tracks like a dumbass and ended up scraping my knee and scaring the hell out of his mom, but it was a pretty good day overall. There were a whole lot of bad times, but I don't think about that much anymore. I try to remember these memories. They still hurt, because nothing we planned ever happened and it can't happen now, but we were happy then. I don't want the pain to block me from seeing the good parts. When we were deciding on photos to put up, we only put up the ones where everyone was happy." "What are these gowns?" Sky asked, pointing to one of the group photos from when Alex and Eric were teenagers. "Oh, that." Eric stared at the photo. He forced a smile. "That was from our high school graduation. Haha, those cheap ass purple gowns and all that tacky gold. I hated how it fit on me, but I almost didn't make it to that day. I knew when I walked across that stage, that was the last time I would see all those people I went to school with, but I never thought for a moment it would be like that. We were all supposed to go off to jobs and colleges and apprenticeships, manage our bills, and all that boring adult stuff we all thought was such a big deal. I saw half the people in this photo die." "I'm sorry. Who were these people?" Sky asked. "This one here, that's Tamara. She was a close friend of Noelle's. Alex and Nathan managed to bury her after a group of runners killed her. They wouldn't let us look at the body. Alex was different after that. Noelle went into shock. She didn't speak for days." Eric pointed to the only other girl in the photo. Eric then pointed to the man standing at the edge of the group on the left. "And this is Nathan. He was gunned down by soldiers sent out after Moone & Wolfe's takeover. He was distracting them so those of us who were left by then could keep running." Sky pointed to the only man in the photo who he didn't know the name of, the man standing just behind Alex. "And who's this?" "That's Juan. Alex and I were both really good friends with him, but he was closer to Alex than me. He was always into those conspiracy theories and supernatural stuff. He was fun to hang out with, but I always thought he might be a little nuts. Guess he wasn't that nuts after all. We couldn't bury him or Nathan. We couldn't go back for Nathan. We had to keep running. And Juan...even if we could have gotten all of the rumble away to get to him, he...we'd have to..." Eric looked away from the photo. He couldn't get any words out. "Alex told me what happened. You don't need to say it." Sky said. "But I was confused about it. Why didn't they attack him and escape? How did he trap them?" Eric took a moment to regain his composure. "That should be obvious from the photo. Both Juan and Nathan had indigenous blood in them. A lot of Latinos do." "Kathy told me they wouldn't be targeted by those who are infected, but I assumed that only applied to those whose ancestry comes from within the United States' region of North America." "Why would you assume that?" Eric asked. "Europeans were the ones who came and put down all the country borders to start with, and shifted it several times over the centuries. Every time that happened, nations were split in two, people were forced to move around, and then their travel was limited right after. Before any Europeans came here, those people were all free to travel where ever they wanted and marry whoever. Your father didn't see them as different groups either. Moone & Wolfe does not allow anyone who they think might have Native American ancestry into their facilities, Latinos included. The few that have slipped through were by accident." "So...they would go around him because of that...Then, does that mean you all were mostly attacked when you were farther away from the two of them?" Sky asked. "Yeah, that's how it always went. We didn't realize it at first, but it became obvious to us eventually. We used that to our advantage, but once we lost both Juan and Nathan, the world got a whole lot more terrifying. I got bit not long after Nathan died. We were already heading to the original Sanctuary then and we had heard they knew some way to possibly save someone infected with RM. I don't know how fast we ran, but we were beyond exhausted when we got there." "Why did Nathan sacrifice himself if he made the group safer?" Sky asked. "Shouldn't he have been the last person to do that?" "It was his choice. He told Alex his plan before doing it. Alex tried to talk him out of it and wanted to sacrifice himself instead, but Nathan wouldn't let him. He told him, 'You can't. They all need you more than me to lead them. They'll fall apart if it's you.' Alex still tried to stop him after that. Then Nathan said to him, 'Look, my whole life, I knew I'd never amount to anything. Nothing good's ever happened to me. Let my death at least mean something. Get them somewhere safe.' That's when Alex let him go. We all knew by then we could die any day. It wasn't Alex's place to tell Nathan he couldn't meet that end on his own terms." Eric let out a deep breath. "There's a break in my mind at that point in time. There was life before it and life after it. Most of my life was before this, but the older I get, the further away all that was. It almost feels like a dream." Sky watched Eric's face. He could see the pain Eric was desperately trying to hide. "Hey, what do you miss about the way things used to be? I was a little kid back then. I don't remember a lot of then, and my dad rarely let me go anywhere. What did people used to like?" Eric looked down at Sky, then back at the photos. "Everybody's different, but Alex and I used to ride our bikes a lot together, around the neighborhood and on nature trails. We spent a lot of time on the Silver Comet Trail and Lucille Creek Trail. If people could afford it, people took vacations from school and work to beaches, mountains, all kinds of places. On special occasions, Alex would take me out to eat. Sometimes, we had parties or had friends stay overnight and we'd get up to all kinds of dumb things, like trying to spook each other or play video games all night long. We don't really do holidays anymore, and a lot of it was commercial bullshit anyway, but I do miss the feeling I got when I sat with Alex's family at Christmas dinner and drank apple cider with the same old stupid songs playing on the radio and that same old lady that's been on air since before I was born who got on my nerves. I didn't like the songs or Christmas and I can't remember that lady's name anymore, but I didn't have school then and I had Alex all to myself. I'd find excuses to kiss him under the mistletoe. God, how did we carry on like we weren't gay and into each other for so long? It's ridiculous." Sky tried to take in all of the information Eric was telling him, but he had no point of reference for any of it. All he could tell is that it was all clearly important to Eric by the way Eric's eyes lit up. He asked. "What's mistletoe? I've never heard of that." "It's a plant. It was a Christmas tradition. You'd hang it up somewhere and if two people were caught together under it, they were supposed to kiss each other." Eric explained. He laughed. "We weren't dating at the time and I was too chickenshit to ask him out. It was a convenient, ambiguous way to get to kiss him without committing to anything. I was always looking for excuses like that." "No one celebrates that stuff anymore?" "Some people do, on their own, but it's hard. A lot of people aren't good at keeping track of time anymore, and there's not a lot of organization. Few people are Christian these days anyway. I asked Alex before if he wanted to put up something in our room for it, but it reminds him too much of his family. Even though the memories are happy, it's too painful to think about. Winter is a really rough time for Alex. They did a lot of things together as a family in November and December." "Alex must have had a happy family then." Sky said. "Yeah, I miss them." Eric pointed to a photo near the top of Alex as a child with two adults. "This is Alex's mom and his stepdad. They were good people." Sky looked at the happy family. He wished he had something like that. There was never a time in his childhood where everyone in his family would be happy around each other like that. "I wish I had something like that, even for a little while." "You can." Eric said. "Make a new family. You don't have to be related by blood. Alex wasn't related to his stepdad, but they were a happy family anyway. You can choose your own family, one not bound by blood." Sky thought about Kathy. He would want her in his family. Sky turned to Eric. "Do you think...I could think of you as family?" Eric smiled at him. "I'd be honored. When you're older, maybe you can get married one day too." "I don't know about that..." "Well, you don't have to get married, but I think a long term relationship with someone around your age would make you happy no matter what kind it was. A best friend is definitely needed." Eric said. "Why's that important? Who's your best friend?" "Alex." Eric grinned. "He's my best friend before he's my husband. Even if we weren't dating, we'd still be best friends. I think it's best for you to have at least one person you can always count on, especially now with how things are." Sky looked back at the graduation photo. "But if I care that much about someone...what if I lose them? Wouldn't the pain of that be worse than anything else? You said Alex wasn't the same after what happened with Tamara, and he told me he has nightmares about Juan dying. If you died, what would happen to him?" "I don't know what would happen then. If it happened at a different time, I don't think he'd be around all that long after that. I don't know. Maybe Zack and Noelle could keep him safe. I think they could at this point. It doesn't seem like much progress, but how things are now is so much more stable than back then." Eric turned toward Sky. He looked down at him, nothing the differences in their heights had decreased significantly since Sky arrived. "Love is always a risk, and it doesn't always last. Nothing lasts. That doesn't mean you shouldn't enjoy it while it's there. That's all the more reason you should. It can keep you going when everything around you is broken. When it's gone, it hurts, but you can love another and you'll still have the memories." "If I'm allowed to keep them." Sky retorted. "My mom wasn't allowed that." "But didn't she remember things sometimes? When they did the treatment on me, they couldn't really block out all my memories. They'd come back. Our minds refuse to let us forget certain things. If it really mattered, it'd get through eventually." Eric said. "I know you don't actually hate the idea of relationships and love. You're always visiting Kathy and hanging around Alex and me. You're scared, aren't you? You don't want to feel what you felt the day you lost your mom and sister. But your father's gone now. You have the chance to make new connections without him there. You have, but you're telling yourself you haven't. You should keep doing it. It's okay. Don't think about losing people. Think about making happy memories." Sky looked back at the board. When he listened to his mother sing on Kathy's recording, he was happy to hear her voice again, and yet, he only ended up crying. He was alright with the people he currently had in his life, but he told himself he absolutely would never date anyone. Sky spent a lot of time with Eric for the rest of the week. He didn't go back to that room with all the records. Instead, he played music with Kathy and tried to somewhat do what Eric told him to. Sky didn't touch his computer during any of those days. One morning, Sky came into the lab and found Alex instead of Eric. He forgot it was the day they were switching off. Disappointment hit him hard. "Hey, Sky." Alex greeted him. "Hey." Sky barely managed to say. He quickly got to work sanitizing the area he usually worked at. "Are you that unhappy to see me?" Alex joked. "Ah, no. It's not you. Is Eric eating lunch with us?" Sky asked. Alex laughed. "Yeah." Sky sighed. "Three weeks is so long." Two weeks passed by in a blur. In the afternoons, after seeing Kathy, Sky made a habit of visiting Eric and Alex in their room. Sky did some mental health exercises with Alex and Eric a few times. Most of the time he visited, he came to talk about books he got from the library and the weather. Near the end of the third week, Sky was feeling better than he had in a long time. He was feeling so good he decided to stop by the health clinic to schedule himself an appointment with a therapist. Sky realized too late this was a mistake. He was bothered by the appearance of the waiting room, the cheery slogans written on posters, and the way the pen at the front desk was the same brand his father always wrote up paperwork with. The clipboard his paperwork was handed to him on looked the same as the one his father had at home. Sky asked if they had a different one. He didn't want to explain himself, nor did he know how to. He managed to give a vague reason. "Could...could I have a different looking pen and clipboard? Um...this one...reminds me of...bad stuff." The lady at the front desk saw the fear in his eyes. She took them back and found him different ones. "Here. Is this okay?" "Thank you." Sky said. He took the clipboard with him to one of the old chairs. The texture of the chair reminded him of the old chair in the living room at his father's desk. That chair used to be in one of the buildings his father owned in a waiting room. His father took it home after the building was remodeled. It wasn't the same chair. It wasn't even the same design, but the way the fabric felt on his skin was the same and it had the same kind of smell. The smell was so overwhelming Sky couldn't smell anything else. Sky's body tensed up. He looked down at the forms he was asked to fill out. The questions popped out at him. He recognized them. These were the same questions Moone & Wolfe asked their patients upon their first visit. He remembered the documents being something his father always had on hand somewhere on or near his desk. The words on the page were blindingly dark against the white, so much so the words looked like they were floating forward. His hands seemed like foreign objects. The world moved away from him. Sky went back to the front desk and returned the papers. "I'm sorry...I don't think I can do this today." "That's okay. Please, come again when you can." She said. The lady handed him a card for the clinic. "Our services close in a few hours, but the emergency services are open twenty-four hours. If you need help right away, please come here. We'll deal with the paperwork afterwards. If you don't feel like you can make it, give this card to someone. It has instructions for how another person can help get you to us safely." "Thank you. I'll keep it on me. I'm sorry." Sky bowed his head slightly and ran out of the waiting room. His hands were shaking. Sky tried to ignore what he was feeling. He tucked the card away and walked to his room. Sky locked the door and wrapped his blankets around himself. He wanted to shut out the world, but he kept seeing the pen and those papers in his head. He could still smell the chair. Sky was sitting in that chair one of the times his parents were arguing. The details of the argument and the exact words escaped him. Crystal was in the kitchen, frozen in place, a bowl in one hand and a banana in the other. The banana was too yellow to be real and the bowl, he saw the cracks in it even though Crystal should have been in his peripheral vision. There was a stain in one of the arms of the chair from coffee. Someone else was to blame for that, but he couldn't remember who got yelled at for that. Sky was only thinking about that stain then. He tried to see in his mind what it was his parents were fighting about, but he couldn't focus on that. One of his father's pens was on the floor that day. Sky felt his father's presence in the room. He told himself no one was there, but out of the corner of his eyes, he saw darting shadows that vanished whenever he stared at them closely. Sky opened his laptop. He turned on the computer and searched for a set of files Alex told him to delete. Alex forgot to check that he did. Sky kept the files. No matter what was on them, he couldn't bring himself to delete any bit of evidence about the company and what they had done. He wanted to see his father's face again. He didn't want to see him at all. Beyond reason, he was compelled to search out his father's face and voice. Sky knew it would hurt. His mind told him to make himself hurt, and there was no one around him to tell him to stop. Sky played one of the adult films the company made, skipping ahead to find the scenes of his father. Seeing that man before him prevented Sky from moving. His hands slipped from the keys, and he became distant with himself. He watched the scenes with his father, and then replayed them again. The room around him became fuzzy, morphing into some other familiar place he didn't want to look at. The floor and walls changed first. He recognized them as his living room. Then his bed became the chair he hated the smell of. He saw that pen there on the floor. Sky didn't want to look up from his laptop. He stared down until he heard his father's voice loud and clear in his mind and all around him. The words were hard to understand despite how loud the voice was. Sky covered his ears and looked up. Before the window, in the shadow of the blinding sunlight, he saw the silhouettes of his parents. His father slapped hard across his mother's face, then grabbed her by the wrist and did it again. Then, his father looked over past him. Sky couldn't move. He was paralyzed with fear. The shadowy figure of his father stomped over to him, and then past him to what should have been the kitchen. Broken pieces of a bowl were scattered on the floor now. Sky looked back. He saw blood on the counter, but he couldn't see anything else. He took out his pocket knife and felt over the blade. He cut across his skin, a practice cut not deep enough to pierce the skin. He cut again, deeper and closer to his wrists. The blood dripped onto his pants. The small blade went down again, deeper still. The bloodied kitchen counter was before him now. He couldn't tell whose blood was whose. The shadow figure, his father, stood before him. He clutched long strands of brown hair in his hand. The figure leaned down. "Did you get my chair dirty?" Sky threw the knife at the shadow. It went through the shadow. Sky tried to get up. His laptop fell to the ground when he stumbled off the bed. Sky looked back down at it. The strange, familiar place seeped away from him through the cracks in the walls and the floor. He was in his room again. Sky ran out the door. He looked both ways down the hall. It was the hall he was used to seeing every day, but it felt like it was moving around him and that it could transport him to somewhere else at any time. He wanted to escape the building itself. Sky tried to run again, but his legs were suddenly weak. He struggled to stay up. Sky collapsed to the ground and leaned against the moving wall beside him. His body shook, but he couldn't feel it. The floor filled with tall grass and the walls moved farther away from each other, opening up to his backyard. His legs sunk down into the earth. "Are you okay? Hey, hello?" Sky heard a girl's voice. He looked over. The walls and the yard shifted around the girl. She was the girl who talked to him that one day in the cafeteria. He was rude to her the last time they spoke, but he didn't know what else to do. Sky took the card the lady at the desk gave him and held it up to her. "I need help." He managed to say. The girl looked at the card, noticing blood on it. Her eyes widened. "Um, can you get up? Will you stay here?" "Alex. Get me Alex Linwood. I don't need to see the doctor. I need to see him." Sky gave her the card. "Are you sure? The emergency place is..." "Please get Alex. Please." Sky was crying then, but he didn't know it. "I'll stay here." The girl nodded and ran down the hall. Sky didn't think to ask if she actually knew who Alex was or not. He pulled his knees in and cried into them. When he closed his eyes, he still saw his backyard. Sky lost track of time. It felt like he was sitting there for hours, but Alex was there in ten minutes. "Sky. What's wrong?" Alex asked him. He knelt down before him. "I keep seeing...places..." Sky said. He opened his eyes. Alex was in front of him, but he looked farther away than he really was. Alex hugged him. "It's going to be okay. It's not real." "But it won't stop." "It will. We'll get through it, okay? Just hold on." Alex said. "Will you come with me to the doctor? We have medicine we could give you. Please." "I can't go in there." Sky cried harder. "I can't...that was when...it started there..." "That area triggered you?" Alex asked. He thought it over. "I shouldn't be surprised. Of course it could. Okay, you're going to have to stay put for now. I've already asked for someone from the emergency clinic to come down here to help. They might give you some medicine. It's perfectly safe. Please, take whatever the doctor gives you, okay?" Sky didn't answer him. He didn't like the sound of that. He didn't want to see a doctor or take any medication. "Sky. It's safe. I promise you." Alex reassured him. He accidentally touched the place where Sky cut himself. Alex looked at the blood on his hand, then at Sky's wounds. Fear filled his face. Alex used the bottom of his shirt and pressed it over where Sky was bleeding at. "I'm sorry. When the doctor gets here, you may have to go to the emergency clinic. If we can treat you here, we will, but if they say we have to go, we'll have to go." "I don't want to." "I know, but I don't know how deep this is." Alex said. A young man in scrubs approached them. He was carrying a big bag with him. "Is this the patient?" "Yes. He's injured here. I haven't been able to get him to see anyone yet, but it's very likely he has PTSD or another serious mental illness. He told me he was seeing things when I got here." Alex explained to the man. The young man checked over Sky's cuts and bandaged him up. He determined it wasn't bad enough for Sky to need to get more treatment for it than that. Sky had seen himself as cutting deeper down than he actually did. He was given medication to deal with his immediate symptoms, then given a prescription for something to take for the next few weeks. Sky was reluctant to take the pills, but Alex reassured him he would be safe. Alex took him back to his and Eric's room, as Sky refused to stay in the emergency clinic. Alex agreed to monitor him personally for the next few days. Sky rested on the bed. The walls were normal again, but he kept seeing strange shadows moving here and there. Alex did a breathing exercise with him, then an exercise to help ground him in the present. Sky's arm stung badly. He knew the next time he showered would hurt. After a few hours, the shadows went away. Sky sat up. "I think it stopped." "What stopped?" Alex asked. "I'm not seeing any more stuff that isn't really there." He said. "That's good. Looks like that medicine kicked in pretty quickly. That, or it went away on its own. You should take what he gave you anyway for now, just to be safe." Alex said. "What did he give me?" Sky asked. "It's supposed to stop hallucinations and lower anxiety." "Is that what happened?" "I don't know. You said it started after you went somewhere. What exactly happened?" Alex sat across from Sky at his desk. Sky looked away. He covered the bandages on his arm with his other hand. "I messed up...a lot." "Do you want to tell me about it?" "I don't know...where I went wrong. I went to go make an appointment to see the therapist...and then..." Sky started to say. "Did something happen there?" "It looked...familiar. The stuff in the waiting room. It reminded me of stuff my dad had at his desk. The pens, the clipboards, the chairs, the paperwork...it all looked like his stuff. I couldn't do it. The questions even looked the same." Sky said. "Like...how it looked on the page? That...can't be possible. That was designed by our people." Alex said. "But it...it felt like it was. The pen definitely was, and the chair was...well, the fabric was the same type of fabric...Maybe the design was different? I can't remember." Sky put his hand to his head. "Am I crazy?" "We've had this talk before. You probably have a mental illness. It sounds like something about that waiting room set you off, but it may not be all the things you mentioned. They may have only seemed like they were the same, but they really weren't the exact same thing. I know it might be hard to remember, but can you recall when you first felt like something was off?" Alex asked. "I don't know. I didn't really feel great about the trip once I went inside. But I don't know why." "And then what happened?" Alex asked. "I asked the lady at the front for a different pen and clipboard, but the chairs all bothered me and the paperwork looked wrong. So I left. Wait...the lady gave me that card before I left. Then I went back to my room and I felt really weird. I wanted to see my father." Sky tried to retrace his steps, but his memory of the day's events was hazy. "You wanted to see your father?" "I don't know. I wanted to see him. I knew it would make things worse, but I really wanted to. Like I couldn't stop myself from doing it. And I...I'm sorry. I disobeyed you." Sky turned further away from Alex. "What do you mean?" Alex asked. "I didn't delete those videos you told me to delete. I'm sorry...I...am I still allowed to be here?" Sky asked in a quiet voice. Alex sighed. "Sky, I'm not mad at you. It's okay." "But I didn't do what you told me to." "I know, and I didn't check that you did it either. I should have done that. That's my mistake." Alex remained calm. He asked. "Why didn't you do it?" "I know you said I shouldn't have stuff like that, but...it's data. I didn't want to delete anything I might need to reference later." Sky said. "I figured it was something like that. Sky, you know why I told you to delete those videos, right?" "Because they're for adults?" "Well, that is one of the reasons you shouldn't have those, but there's a bigger reason. You specifically shouldn't be looking at those films, at any age, because of how it affects you. Look at what happened both times you did it. You shouldn't look at that. It hurts you more than other people, and I've seen what's on those before. That stuff would mess with most people." Alex explained to him. "I'm sorry." Sky apologized again. Alex moved from the chair to sit beside Sky on the edge of the bed. "Sky, I may not technically be your family, but when I tell you to do something, please, do what I say. I know you've had really bad experiences with parental figures in the past. I know that's why you were afraid of telling me you didn't do what I said. But you don't need to be afraid of me and I'm not telling you to do things just to control you. If I tell you to do something, it's because I want to protect you." "How do I know that?" Sky let his insecurities come out to the surface. "How do I know you're not the same as him? I wanted to do anything for him, and he..." "I understand you're scared. Relearning to trust people is a hard thing to do. I don't take it personally that you have trouble trusting me sometimes. I've already been through this with Eric. You don't have to trust me entirely. Take as long as you need." Alex put his hand over Sky's. "You're really not going to punish me? You're not mad?" "No. I'm not." Alex said. "I'm worried more than anything. You hurt your arm pretty badly." "I don't remember doing that very clearly." Sky looked down at his arm. That part of the day was foggy in his mind. The things he thought he saw before him earlier were both clearer and harder to recall than hours ago. He was still shaken by the experience. Everything was jumbled in his mind. "Have you done stuff like this before?" Alex asked. "I don't think about the past much. I don't think I've hurt myself like that before." Sky said. "But I think something like this...I think it happened before once or twice. I'm not sure. When I was alone, and I was always thinking about dying, sometimes, out of nowhere, I'd feel like I was stuck back there again. It wouldn't specifically be that memory from earlier, but other ones from when my father was alive. And it'd be hard to tell...if I was there or somewhere else." "So, you have had this happen a couple of times before?" Alex asked. "Yeah." "Did it happen when you were watching the video?" "Yeah, I saw...it was back when I was a little kid and my parents were arguing about something. I don't know what. I just kept thinking about how weird everything looked and I...there was blood, my sister's blood. He ripped some of her hair out, but I wasn't really watching that part. And then...he was standing in front of me. That's when I left the room. I saw my backyard. Something, like something happened out there after that. I was four then, I think...four or five?" Sky put his face in his hands. Now that he was calmer, he recalled the last part. He sat up straight. "Oh, that's right. I know what happened." "You remembered?" Sky's body went cold, some of the fear from earlier building up back inside him. "Yeah...I don't know why I forgot the rest earlier. It's not like I really forgot it happened, but I haven't thought about this in a really long time. I was so scared earlier, I couldn't think straight. That day, that was the first time he beat me. Because I got scared and ran outside. He was mad that someone stained his chair, but it wasn't me. I think he did it. He wasn't even mad about that to start with. I don't remember why he was mad at my mom or my sister, but he was just so mad, it's like he found something to be mad at me about too." "Like he was just raging at everyone?" Alex asked. "Yeah, sometimes he'd come home like that, just angry. And he'd find reasons to hurt someone. Usually, it was Crystal, then my mom. I always tried to be whatever he wanted me to be, so it wouldn't be me. But that day...he was so mad there was nothing I could do to make him happy." Sky said. He pushed the fear back and started to relax more as he talked with Alex. Sky thought through the memory more. After he ran outside when his father scared him, he tripped. His father caught him in the field behind the house and beat him until his arms and legs were bruised. He left red marks on Sky's face. "I thought he was going to kill me. It's really clear to me now...more than earlier, even though I was seeing it. I felt so confused earlier. Like I didn't know where I was ...but why did that suddenly come up? I've never exactly forgot he did that. I just...I just don't think about that much. I try not to think about that. There's so many things from then I try so hard to forget, but they won't ever really go away." "Traumatic and painful memories are, unfortunately, extremely difficult to forget. We're really good at keeping up with bad things in our minds. Way back when, decades ago, they used to think people would repress bad memories and then they'd suddenly pop back up, but it turns out that just isn't real. I wish it was. That'd make this easier, honestly. Traumatic memories are recorded unusually, but they are recorded in your brain pretty vividly. You never forget it happened, and sometimes, it finds a way to override everything else and hit you over the head with its awfulness." Alex explained to him. "You encountered a bunch of things that made you think of that time period. That's why. That's why it all came back suddenly." "Does this happen to you?" Alex nodded. "Sometimes. Not as much as before, but yeah. Mostly, I get nightmares more than flashbacks. I've never had one quite as vivid as what you described earlier though, but there's a pretty wide range of how this can happen." "A flashback?" "That's what you described. You had a flashback." Alex said. "Flashbacks happen with really bad memories. Sometimes they just creep up on you. Some soldiers would come home from war and be fine for years, and then something would remind them of some awful day, something insignificant like a butterfly or a scent, and then suddenly all the pain hits for no logical reason." "Really?" "Uh huh. I can find you some scientific research on it. This is an area where I can't give you fiction at all, because most of the media we had before everything fell apart was written by people who bought into a lot of bad science and fear-mongering about made up stuff." Alex explained. "Bad science?" "Like I said, repressed memories nonsense. But we can talk about that another time. The Satanic Panic and medical abuse is too lengthy a topic for one sitting, and pretty off-topic anyway. The main thing I want you to understand is what you experienced is a pretty well known phenomena, and it's pretty common with a lot of people these days. We've all been through hell, and our brains have been affected by that. It did what it had to to keep you alive, but that came with costs." Alex said. "Sky, I'm not a psychiatrist, but I'm pretty sure you have PTSD." "Are you sure?" Alex nodded and hugged him again. "I know you said before you didn't want to go, but would you reconsider about seeing the therapist if I went with you? I think it would be a good idea for you to go." "I can't." "We don't have to go through the waiting room. I can set up a special visit in your room for you." Alex suggested. "I don't know that person. I can't tell them anything like that." Sky shook his head. "I'm already...I can't believe I cried in front of you again. I'm so stupid!" "Sky, it's okay." Alex reassured him. "I won't tell anyone." "That man saw me crying too." "He won't tell either. We'll keep it a secret." Alex said. "Any therapist or psychiatrist you see will keep everything you say a secret too. That's part of the job." "The ones that worked for my dad weren't like that." Sky said. "There's bad people in every profession. But I know you can trust the one who's working here. I can sit in the session with you, if that would make you feel better." Alex tried again to persuade him. "I don't...I don't think I can do that right now." Sky rejected his idea. "Can I stay here tonight?" "I was planning on that. But we're getting a cot this time." Alex said. "Is that okay?" Sky asked. "Of course it is. You could have another episode like earlier again. It's better if you stay with us tonight, so we can keep you safe if something does happen. Do you want to come with me to get it or do you want to stay here?" Alex asked. "Do I look like I cried?" "It's pretty late now. No one will see you but the staff working the supply room." "I can't." Sky said. "I'm sorry." "Okay. Eric should be here soon. I'll go get it then." Alex said. Eric arrived twenty minutes later. Alex took him into the bathroom and closed the door to explain some things to him, not wanting Sky to hear parts of the conversation. While they were talking, Sky thought back to those days when he was little. There was a lot of pain there, a lot of fear, and a lot of violence. When he was living through that, he couldn't recognize how awful it was. The harsh conditions of living alone around desperate people didn't make it easier either. As he thought on the past and compared it to his life now, the little world he knew inside that house looked very different. He understood everyone's actions somewhat better, most importantly his own. Shouting, beatings, hair pulling, spilling blood, he'd seen it all. Back then, he convinced himself his father was right and his reasons were too adult for him to know. Sky wasn't quite an adult yet. He was barely a teenager, but he knew enough now to know what his father did back then was not for "good reasons" he would suddenly grasp as an adult. The man was simply abusive and cruel. Everyone in the house rotated around him, well aware of the gravity he held over their lives. He recalled an evening when his father dragged Crystal out of the house at sunset and locked the doors. His father forbid his mother from unlocking them at threat that he would have to make Sky "learn a lesson about his mother" by having Sky locked out too. His mother backed down. Then, his father forbid them all from leaving the house until morning. His mother watched Crystal from the window. Crystal told her mother through the glass she'd be fine, and that she might even prefer it. That night, he snuck out of his room through his window to look for his older sister. The moon was full. Sky made sure to be as quiet as he could. He didn't want to wake his father. He found Crystal dancing in the field, the wind catching in her clothes and hair. Above her, the moon and stars shone brightly. Crystal stopped dancing when she noticed him there. She ran over to him. 'Sky, what are you doing out here?' She had asked him. He told her he wanted to stay with her. Crystal let him stay. At the time, he thought she seemed annoyed with him for interrupting her. That was in the latter half of May. The cicadas were out by then. Sky remembered how loud they were. He fell asleep to that sound. As dawn approached, Sky awoke to Crystal carrying him back to the house so their father wouldn't know he had left. She helped him in through the window, then had Sky close it back with her on the outside. Their father tried to taunt her when he went to let her back in that morning, but she taunted him back. 'Just throw me away already.' Crystal said back then. Sky remembered what his father said. 'You can't survive without me.' Sky thought to himself. 'You're the reason she didn't survive.' Eric broke his train of thought. "Hey, did you want to get something to eat?" Sky rubbed his eyes. "Huh?" "Are you hungry? I haven't eaten anything since lunch." Eric said. Sky shook his head. He looked around. Alex had already left, and he didn't notice. He was so caught up thinking back he wasn't paying attention to anything else. "Don't really want to eat anything. Where were you earlier? You were gone a long time." "Noelle had to have something checked with a doctor. They ended up doing some tests. She was there for a few hours, and the only time they could get her in was pretty late." Eric said. "Is she okay?" Sky asked. "She should be okay." "Was it related to the baby?" "No, it was unrelated to that. She'll be alright. She's already back in her room now." Eric said. "I heard you had a pretty hard day today too. Are you feeling better?" "Better than earlier." Sky looked over at the desk. The bottle of pills he was given were sitting right near Eric. "I'm supposed to take those." Eric picked it up and read the bottle. "Oh, this is the same one Alex's is on, but your dose is a lot lower. I tried this one. Didn't work out. But you look like you're doing better. Let's hope it works better for you than it did for me." "I really don't want to be on anything." Sky said. "Well, maybe you won't need them after a few weeks." "So, Alex is on that too..." Sky said. "I didn't know people here could make something like this. I thought we just had stuff like aspirin." "There's a lot of medication we can't make here, but if we can, we will. Some of the other places we work with supply us with medication too." Eric said. "Huh, so that's traded too." Sky thought back to earlier. "Um, you have the same thing as Alex, right? Do you ever see stuff?" "Me? Um, sometimes I do. If I'm having a really bad flashback, I'll see the whole thing like it's really there, but most of the time, it's just flashes in my head and feelings that don't match up with what's actually happening. Alex usually hears and smells things. He's really not a big fan of fireworks and loud noises." Eric said. He put the bottle down. "Did you see something?" "I saw parts of a memory, and...some other stuff that wasn't." Sky said. He tried to remember what the flickering shadows were shaped like, but he couldn't describe them as anything in particular. "I saw some shadowy things...not really anything...but it wasn't part of the memory." "Do you see stuff like that a lot? It might be an eye problem." Eric suggested. Sky lay out on the bed. "No, I don't usually see stuff like that. I don't know if it's happened before. I don't think so." "So it was pretty tied to the time frame around when you were seeing the memory, but not part of the memory? Hmm...might be a hallucination brought on by stress." Eric said. He rubbed his chin. "You'd need to see a doctor to discuss that with if you're really worried about it." "Why would I hallucinate? Do you do that?" Eric shook his head. "No, I haven't, but flashbacks are kind of similar to hallucinations and if you have the same thing as me, you can have a psychotic break with reality. You could have a hallucination then. If that did happen, you should definitely keep taking the medication. At least for now." "It's just so strange. All I did was go into a waiting room, and the memory wasn't that bad. I've see and felt worse." Eric shrugged his shoulder. "Just because something wasn't worse doesn't mean your emotions at the time weren't really intense. It could be that you're really stressed right now. Has anything been bothering you lately? If I'm really stressed, my symptoms get worse." "I don't know...Does anything else cause hallucinations? What if I start having them all the time? What would that be?" "Schizophrenia, maybe? But I don't know if it's that. It sounds like it was tied to whatever caused the other thing to happen." Eric looked through the stack of books by the desk. He grabbed an old psychology book and flipped through it. "I can give you some other ideas, but I wouldn't worry too much about it if it's not a regular thing. It was probably just related to the flashback you had. Did it scare you?" "I don't know. Not really? After I took those pills, I've been feeling calmer, but it took longer for the shadows to go away." "Did you know they weren't real?" Sky nodded his head. "Those I was pretty sure weren't real from the start, but I wasn't really scared of them as much as the memory. It's like I was expected something was going to get me, and then there something was. But it wasn't really related to the memory itself? I don't know if that makes sense." "I think it does. To me, it sounds like the two things were definitely related to whatever caused all that." Eric said to him. "Do you think I'm crazy? That's really weird, isn't it?" Sky's stomach turned. He didn't want Eric to think he was strange. "Hmm...I don't think that's a good way to frame it. You have a condition of some kind, and it's causing those things to happen. It doesn't mean anything bad about you. It's not different than someone with pneumonia or someone having cancer. You're dealing with being ill." Eric put the book down on the desk. "You like reading, right? Since you're staying over tonight, why don't you read this book? I had a hard time learning about this stuff because of my past experiences with Moone & Wolfe and I didn't do well with the standard treatments or medications. But I think at least learning about mental illness will help you get a better idea of what you can do to help yourself, even if you can't see someone yet." "No one from the company was involved in writing it, right?" Sky asked. "Nah, just normal people. No family cult stuff in here." Eric handed him the book. Sky took the book. It was a textbook. He skimmed through the book to get a feel for the tone. "Why'd you pick a textbook?" "You seem to prefer straight forward explanations. I figured you'd rather have a book like that than watch a documentary or read a novel." "You're right." Sky was already engrossing himself in the introduction. "I should be able to finish this tonight." "That's a long book. You don't have to rush through it." Eric said. Sky peeked at him from behind the book. "It's only four hundred pages. I'm not a baby." Eric laughed awkwardly. "I wouldn't be able to finish it in a night." "Oh, uh...well...I'm probably just a fast reader..." Sky hid his face back behind the book, embarrassed at accidentally insulting Eric. "Sorry." "It's okay. I've never been great at reading fast." Eric laughed it off. "You're getting better at that." "At what?" "Manners." Eric said. "Not that it's your fault. You were by yourself a long time." Sky rested the book against his chest. He thought about the time he spent wandering around. Most of it was a blur. He rarely spoke to anyone during that time. "Sometimes, I think I didn't really grow any from when I left home until I got here. Like I'd been five for seven years straight. Now, my brain's trying to catch up, but my body already wants to be an adult." "That sounds overwhelming." Eric said. He looked at the clock. "You're probably tired. You can go ahead and go to sleep, if you want. We'll move you to the cot when Alex gets back." "I'm fine." Sky said. He was sleepy, but he wanted to talk to Alex again before going to bed. Sky closed the book and put it beside himself. "What's in this stuff? I don't think I've ever felt this calm before. I'm not sure if I'm okay with that." Eric laughed. "You're not happy that you're calm?" "It's not right." Sky sat up. "The world around me is destroyed. How can I be calm right now?" "Drugs, uh, can do a lot." Eric shrugged. "Better to be calm than panicking, right? You can make better decisions when you're calm." "I guess..." The door opened. Alex carried a cot into the room. He dropped it down and closed the door. Alex caught his breath. "I'm...back..." Sky got up from the bed. He stared at the cot. It looked really heavy. "I'm sorry." "Don't worry about it." Alex took a deep breath. "Oh, I hope you don't mind, but I got some stuff from your room. Your toothbrush, some clothes for tomorrow, stuff like that." "Oh, thank you." Sky said. He noticed the bag of items on the cot. Sky sifted through it. "I didn't think about any of that. Um...is it okay if I use your shower before bed?" "Sure. Go ahead." Alex said. He sat down on his bed. "How are you feeling?" "Pretty calm. I don't know why, but I feel okay." Sky answered. He grabbed his toothbrush from the bag, the acne cream he was using, an undershirt, and clean underwear. Sky felt a little embarrassed Alex brought the cream. He didn't want Eric to see it. With the items in hand, he went into the bathroom. Sky showered first. As he expected, the water hurt his arm. Sky gritted his teeth as he washed off the cuts. Whatever the reason he did that, Sky thought, he didn't want to go through this again. The pain was awful. It was a foolish thing to do. Any cut was a target for either virus to get into his body. With him working in the lab, if something were to go wrong, it would be much easier for him to get infected now. He wished he could go back in time and stop himself from doing that. He tried to think logically about everything that happened earlier, but he couldn't understand his own thinking at the time. It was distorted, strange. His mind was somewhere it hadn't been in a long time. Sky didn't want his mind to become like that again. He didn't like the idea of being reliant on the medication, but if it stopped whatever that was from happening, he'd have to put up with it. 'Why am I like this? What's wrong with me?' Sky turned around to wash his back. His mind replayed those moments when Alex and the doctor arrived. Alex looked terrified. When he brought the cot in, he was exhausted. He made sure to bring Sky everything he needed for the night. Sky could only think calming right now because Alex coaxed him into taking the medication the doctor offered. A tear slid down Sky's face. He wiped it away and got out of the shower. Sky got ready for bed. When he left the bathroom, he saw the blankets on the cot were made for him. The book Eric handed him earlier was now in the bag of Sky's things. Sky got underneath the blanket. Alex came over to the side of the cot and sat on the floor. He had a first aid kit in his hand. "Hey, let me see your arm. I'm gonna put new bandages on it, okay?" Sky extended his arm out to Alex. When he first arrived, Sky would have never let anyone see a scratch on his body, much less touch one. He felt no fear letting Alex. "Do I need to take more medicine tonight?" Sky asked. "Not tonight. You'll take it in the morning tomorrow, then again before bed. Try to take it at around the same time every time." Alex finished up the bandages. "I can't let you go back into the lab until this heals. It's for your own safety. Do you want me to stay out for a few days with you?" "I can't ask you to do that. You were already out a lot of time." Sky said. "Eric's going back to work tomorrow. It'll be okay. I want you to stay with someone at least for the next couple of days. If you want to stay with Kathy, that's fine. I just need to know." "Is it okay if I stay with you?" Sky asked. "Yeah." Alex zipped up the kit. "It isn't too tight, is it?" Sky moved his arm around. "It's fine." "Alright. Get some rest." Sky fell asleep quickly. Eric and Alex's voices carried over into his sleep. He heard their concerns for him in his dreams. Their voices faded out. Sky saw his living room ceiling above him. The fan spun around above him, humming. Sky got up and reached for the cord to turn it off. The cord made a loud bang when he pulled it. Red splattered out from each blade of the fan. The fan sped up instead of turning off, soaking the room in blood. It was all over Sky. He tried again. The fan went faster. Below him, the blood started to fill up the floor. Sky ran out of the house. He saw his father standing there. Behind him were his mother and sister's dead bodies. Black and red covered the ground. His father put his gun to his head and said to Sky. 'You'll have to do the rest. You're destined for greatness.' 'Don't you dare leave me here!' Sky yelled at him. He reached for the gun. 'You don't get to do this! You don't get to take everything from me and leave like this!' 'Be a good boy now.' His father pulled the trigger. The blood hit against Sky. It covered up the few clean spots left after the fan soaked everything. His father's limp body fell to the ground. What remained of his head gushed out more blood. Sky stared at his father's corpse. A moment ago, this man was talking to him. Sky was angry. He could see inside his father's skull. Bits and pieces of his brain were here and there. Sky couldn't muster a single word to yell at the body before him. He could only scream. Sky fell to his knees and cried. He wasn't left alone for long. Coyotes, their ribs bare, slunk along past him. He called out to them to stay away, but they were already far ahead of him. He didn't want to see what he knew was coming. Everything was scattered in the yard, pulled apart. The beasts, starving and sick, made off with the parts they could carry, unconcerned with what was hidden inside the blood they consumed. He wanted to stop them, but he couldn't move. The same as before, he only watched helplessly as his family's bodies were torn apart. Unlike then, this time he cried. The first time, he only stared blankly as if he were watching the wind. 'Give them back...' Sky begged the animals. But they were gone by then. What remained was unrecognizable. He couldn't distinguish one arm from another, one bone from the next, the blood from the red clay. Sky wanted to chase after the poor animals running from him, but he could not cross through the field of bone and flesh. Sky backed away, whimpering at the sight before him. His arm stung. He looked down at it. Small, black worms covered the cuts on his arm. Frantically, he brushed them off, but many had already sunk down underneath his skin. He felt them moving deep inside him, biting away at him. He screamed in agony as they burrowed deeper. Sky took out a knife and stabbed at his arm, trying to cut it of his body. He tumbled backward to the ground, stabbing harder. As he lie there, the coyotes returned. They surrounded him and watched him hurt himself. He watched them back. The one standing above his head drooled a black oozing mess from its mouth onto the ground. Small worms burst out from the saliva, struggling to crawl over to Sky's head. Sky sat up and tried to get away, but he was surrounded by the coyotes. One of them carried a half decayed arm in its mouth. Another carried a leg. The ones with empty mouths all expelled black worms from their bodies. Sky pushed passed two of them. They did not attack him. Their eyes only followed his movements. Past the beast he found himself facing his family's mixed grave again. Sky couldn't go anywhere. Before him and behind, the reminders and remains of his broken family trapped him. Inside, he was being devoured. He felt one of the worms crawl underneath the skin on his face, upward toward his brain. He could do nothing to stop it. Once more, he screamed. Sky woke from his dream in tears and soaked in sweat. His body shook uncontrollably. Alex was sitting beside the cot. The light on the desk had been turned on. Alex hugged him. "Shh...It's gonna be okay. You're safe. Nothing bad is going to happen here." Still under the influence of his dream's emotions, Sky clung tightly to Alex. He cried into Alex's shirt. "You can't prove that to me. You can't say that. No one's safe. Nobody's safe ever." "I'm sorry." Alex said softly. "I'll kill them all. They all deserve to die." Sky said, full of rage and fear. "I hate them all. I hate him. I hate him!" Alex stayed quietly with him until Sky had cried all his tears. He wiped off Sky's face. Sky rested against his pillow. He stared at the ceiling. "I don't want to go back to sleep." "You can't stay up forever. You have to sleep." Alex said. "I want to cut my eyes out. I don't want to see anything." Sky said in anger. Alex held his hand. "Sky, you know that won't help." "I want to die." Sky said. "What's the point?" "Please, don't give up." Alex held his hand tighter. "I know it's hard, but please don't give up yet." Sky looked over at Alex. "I can't even sleep." "You're worried you'll have another nightmare?" Sky nodded. "I'll be here if you do. I'll stay up all night if I have to." Alex reassured him. "But why?" "You already know why." Alex said. He got back in bed and reached back out for Sky's hand. He held it. "I won't let go. I can't promise you that I can make the world change, but tonight, right now, I'll give you everything I can." If he could have, he would've cried again, but his eyes were empty. Sky held Alex's hand back. He nestled down in the cot and closed his eyes. Sky didn't have another nightmare that night. The next morning, Sky woke a little later than Eric and Alex. He heard them getting ready for the day. Sky didn't bother getting out of the cot. He rested there, wanting to sleep in. Eric and Alex discussed their plans for later. The room had a warm feeling to it. It was different than the heat of a summer morning in his old home when his parents got up early. Back then, the morning chatter was laced with tension and fear. This was different. There was no terror or animosity in the air. It wasn't like the strange, unpredictable noises he'd hear when he was alone, never knowing what each day might bring. The space around him was cozy. He heard frogs and bugs chirping outside the building through the thick walls. The animal sounds mixed with the voices in the room. Sky buried himself under the blankets. He heard Eric leave the room for work and the shower turn on in the bathroom. Sky finally got out of the cot. He stretched, then picked up the medicine bottle on the desk. Sky read the instructions on the back. Uncertain about it, Sky went into the bathroom. Alex was still in the shower. Sky addressed him from the other side of the shower curtain. "Hey Alex." Sky said. "Oh, you're awake. Did you need something?" Alex asked. "Um, it says I should take two of the pills with a glass of water. Do I need to do anything else?" "No, that's fine. You can take it after you eat breakfast, if you want." Alex said. Sky read some more of the information on the label. "This says to avoid alcohol and caffeine." "Yeah." "Don't you drink coffee and wine?" The shower turned off. Alex reached from within the shower for a towel. "Yeah, but it's not enough to make a big difference for me. The alcohol is the bigger concern. I only drink a little every once in a while." Sky went over to the sink. He filled up a glass and took two pills from the bottle. Sky downed them, then brushed his teeth and hair. Alex joined him by the sink, dressed in his underwear and a shirt. He got his toothbrush ready. "Did you take it?" Sky put the brush down. "Yeah." "Good. Why don't you get ready? I'm heading to the cafeteria as soon I'm dressed." "Okay." Sky left the bathroom. He put on the clothes Alex brought for him. Alex was ready a few minutes later. They ate breakfast in the cafeteria. At this time, it was mostly children and some of their parents eating. A lot of the adults were already working. Sky looked around at all the kids, some of them sitting with children that were clearly their siblings and others by adults Sky assumed were their moms and dads. He was a little jealous. He wanted to call Kathy 'mom', but he didn't have family the way those other children did. "Something wrong?" Alex asked him. Sky shook his head. He turned his attention to Alex. To someone watching them, Alex might be mistaken for his dad or older brother. He didn't mind the idea, though he couldn't decide which role he'd prefer Alex to be in. He imagined for a moment what his life might look like in another life, one where he lived with Alex and Eric from early on and got to do all the things his father never let him do. He didn't understand the appeal of balancing on that wooden beam before, but he did now. He pictured himself as a small child, holding hands with each of them, balancing careful on some old, fallen tree. The daydream didn't last long. As cheery as the image was, it hurt. He couldn't go back in time and change what his childhood had been like, and he didn't want to replace his mom and sister with another family either. He couldn't deny who his father really was. Sky felt the heavy weight of his name as he looked across the room, wondering which children were missing a parent and which had none. He couldn't erase that. Eric told him he could change his name. If he did, he could be Sky Linwood and no one would know of those five years he spent before the takeover. He could stop looking at the research. He could stay inside and be Alex's assistant and carry no other importance. Alex would let him go to school with other kids if he wanted to. That was a tempting thought. After all, no one from the company had come to get him. How would they find him here? Could he let it all go and forget about it? All the adults in his life seemed to want that. But could he really do that? Guilt washed over him. His father caused all this. Did he have any right to throw away his name and forget the past? "Hey, since we're both out of work today, why don't I take you by the school?" Alex asked. "Huh?" Sky lost his train of thought. "Mm...I don't really want to go to school." "We won't go in the classrooms. I just thought you should see what it's like." Alex said. Sky returned to his daydream again. He decided to go. School was held in a specific part of the building, down a hallway. Each room held all the students for each grade. The doors had windows on them. Sky peeked in at the classes. Students sat around in various different sized chairs and on cushions, using whatever was available from the old businesses in the city. The teachers stood before white boards, large sheets of paper, or chalkboards. Drawings decorated the walls, on paper and from children drawing on the walls themselves. The children wrote on notebooks by pencil or pen. Some of the children wrote with crayons, colored pencils, or markers amongst the younger ones. It seemed peaceful inside the rooms. Halfway through the hall, a door opened up behind them. The girl from yesterday came out. Sky locked eyes with her for a moment, then averted his gaze. The girl walked over to Alex. She said. "Mr. Linwood, um, are you going back to the lab?" "I'm off work today, but I can stop by. Did you need me to relay a message to your mom?" Alex asked. "I'm going to miss lunch today. I have to make up something." She said. "I'll let her know." Alex said. Sky and the girl stared at each other awkwardly. He approached her, face red. "Um, hey, thank you for helping me yesterday." "Um, no problem. Are you okay?" She asked. "Yeah, I'm okay now." Sky said. He glanced away. "Um, I'm sorry for being rude to you a while back too." "Oh, don't worry about that. My ex-boyfriend and his sister wanted to play a prank on you. We were kinda planning on being jerks to you anyway. Sorry." She apologized back. "We were being dumb. Anyway, I gotta get back to class. Are you gonna start coming to class too?" "Uh...no. I work right now." Sky said. "Oh, that's neat. I guess I'll see you around then." The girl waved and went back to her classroom. Sky waved back at her. Alex laughed under his breath. "Wow, didn't expect that out of you." "Did I do that wrong?" "No, that was good." Alex said. "Her name's May, if you were wondering." "May? So, does her mom work in the lab?" Sky asked. "Her mom is Carrie." Alex said. "May's about fourteen, I think. Around your age. Sounds like she might be single too." Sky rolled his eyes. "I'm not interested in her." "Just putting that out there. You could try to be her friend." Sky stared at the classroom window as they walked on. "I don't think I can do that." "Guess we better stop by the lab after this. You'll have to stay outside while I talk to her mom." Alex said. "How did they get here? Do you know?" Sky asked. "Carrie and May? They were here before I got here. They've never been in one of the facilities. Carrie used to work an office job before and was studying to be a nurse at night a long time ago. She was a single mom when everything went down. Her husband had just divorced her. She had two children then. May's younger sister didn't make it past that year. Carrie had another baby before she came here. A group attacked them for supplies and one of the men in the group...well...I think you know what happened." Alex recounted. "That's awful." Sky said. "Where is that child?" "That one didn't survive either. The baby got sick and died. When they finally made it here, it was only Carrie and May." Sky said. "I've never really thought about how everyone else got here." "You don't really socialize with many people." Alex said. "But asking about that stuff...it's probably better if you don't. Some people can only hold it together because they don't think about the past anymore. It's a touchy subject for a lot of people. But if you wanted to talk about that sort of stuff with other people, there are some people who'll sit around and go on about it for hours." "Really? It doesn't bother them?" "For some people, telling their story gives them as much comfort as not telling it does for other people." Alex said. "Like Evan. You get Evan talking, and he'll never shut up." "Evan? Who's that?" Sky asked. "Oh, he doesn't work in the lab. I've talked with him a lot before. He used to be one of the company's test subjects, one of the few who managed to survive." Alex said. Sky remembered where he had heard that name before. The company had labeled him as GH43. He had meant to ask Alex about that man before, but he ended up forgetting to. "Do you know where he is right now? Do you think I could talk to him?" "Um, he's probably working, but I'm sure he wouldn't mind talking to you while he works. We can go see him after I talk to Carrie." Alex said. They stopped by the lab shortly after that, then went to the guarded greenhouse behind the main building. Sky knew of it. He saw it from the roof, but he hadn't been inside it before. A few people were working inside it. Alex walked over to two men sitting at a table in the back. "Hey, Evan, are you busy right now?" Alex asked. "Not really. Why?" Evan replied. "Got someone here with me who wants to hear some of your stories." Alex said. He introduced Sky. "This is Sky Summerfield, Tom Summerfield's son and Edith Summerfield's nephew." The man sitting beside Evan raised an eyebrow. "A Summerfield? What're you doing out here?" "I don't want to be associated with them." Sky said. "I feel that." The man laughed. "Who are you?" Sky asked. "I'm Adam, Adam Winter. You could say I don't want to associate with my family either." Adam said, a smug look on his face. "Winter...Did you know Sarah Winter?" Sky asked. "Sarah? She was my cousin. I didn't really know her. My mom didn't let me interact with that part of my family very often. I heard she died pretty young. I don't know much more than that." Adam said. "Oh, I see." Sky's shoulders dropped. He hoped Adam might know more about the girl who's memory he always carried in that photo. He'd have to find someone else to ask about her instead. Sky turned back to Evan. "So...you were one of the children Moone & Wolfe did research on. I read a little about it in the files on you. It was aging, right? Do you think you could tell me about it...if you don't mind?" "I don't mind." Evan said. He was surprisingly cheery about the matter. "I'll tell you everything they did, and everything that happened after. Why don't you sit down?" Evan motioned to the empty chair nearby. Sky looked over at Alex for reassurance. Alex nodded at him. Sky sat down. "If y'all don't mind, can I take a look around for a while?" Alex lowered his voice. "How's the wine coming along?" Adam laughed. "Pretty good. The kudzu will be in bloom soon. We'll be making a batch from that. Last year's batch should be ready soon. There's some muscadine wine in the fridge." "Think I'll...examine that. For research. Yeah." Alex walked away. Sky tensed. He could see where Alex was, but he didn't like being around strangers without him nearby. "So, where should I start?" Evan asked Sky. Sky's heart raced. "Um, at the beginning...what went on in the lab you were in?" "Everyone in the lab I came from was made there, and our bodies were made to age at abnormal rates. They wanted to know how to speed up, slow down, and stop aging altogether. By the time I was five years old, I had the body of someone in their early twenties. That included my brain developing rapidly too. I aged normally after that point." Evan said. He continued. "They suspended us in these tanks filled with liquid. We were hooked up to this device that gave us oxygen and transmitted information directly into our brains." "What?" "Yeah, they would use this program to send things to our brains. That's how I learned everything while I was in the lab. I could communicate back to them with my thoughts, but I couldn't really speak. We always stayed suspended inside that tank. The machine they put on us blocked out all noise and light. Everything I saw was in my mind, sent by the machine. They only took us out of the tanks for tests occasionally or if one of us was getting really sick." Evan leaned back in his chair. "A lot of them died once they were taken out of the tank. None of us could walk. We couldn't speak. We couldn't handle the light in the room. Before I was released permanently, I'd only been out of my tank five times." Sky's stomach turned. "What they did to your body...did it hurt?" "It did. Bodies aren't supposed to grow like that. When the pain would get really bad, they released something into the water that sedated me. I asked Dr. Winter about it once. He told me if they didn't, I might die. Apparently, that happened with a few of the other children." Evan said. Sky looked over at Adam. He asked. "Were you involved in the research at all?" "No, my mom divorced my dad when I was a little kid. I rarely saw him after that." Adam said. Sky asked the both of them. "How did you two end up meeting?" "My father 'left' him to me in his will. He wanted one of the children to live a normal life outside of the lab, and expected me to take on that." Adam crossed his arms. "Not that I minded helping Evan, but my father was a very self-centered guy." "Why do you think he did that?" Sky asked. "Probably guilt. The few times I did see him, he always went on about how much great research he was doing for mankind or whatever, but I think he knew on some level what he was doing was wrong." Adam suggested. "I don't know when he wrote his will up. He may have felt more guilty about it as he got older, but I don't know really know what his intentions were." Sky asked Evan. "Did they do anything else to you? Some of the test subjects had unusual abilities." Evan shook his head. "They didn't do anything like that with us. The research was only about aging. After five years from when I was born, Dr. Winter ended up dying and that project ended. I was taken out of my tank in 2003. That's when I met Adam. He gave me my name and a home. That's when I really started to live." "They just let you go like that?" Sky asked. Evan shrugged. "Moone & Wolfe doesn't always make decisions that make any sense. From what Alan told me, they place a very high value on the wishes of the dead, even if it might be to their disadvantage to uphold them." Sky was surprised by that answer. He reasoned if that was the case, it must be to keep up the illusion for those lower in the hierarchy of the cult to keep believing in the supernatural nonsense. If the cult revolved around a ghost's demands, it would make sense they would have to uphold the wills of the deceased to a high regard. "The company never came after you?" "They monitored us for years." Adam said. "They explicitly told me they would when I took him in, but they stopped contacting me around 2010. I don't know why." "So...what happened after you left the lab? You seem...really happy?" Sky asked. "Leaving the lab was the scariest and best day of my life. I couldn't really see good for a while. I had to wear really dark sunglasses, but I was out. I could smell things. I could taste things. Before, the food just went straight down my throat. I never really tasted anything." Evan touched the sides of his face. "I couldn't chew at first, so I could only eat stuff like mashed potatoes and apple sauce, but I didn't care. It tasted amazing to me." Sky unconsciously smiled a little while listening to Evan. The smile quickly vanished. "But...everything ended up getting destroyed in the end." Evan's tone didn't change. "They've destroyed a lot, sure. But I won't let that stop me from finding happiness. I help grow a lot of the food we all eat. Every day I come to work, I help make sure someone else lives another day. No matter what they do to the world, until we're all dead, they can't take away things like that. My birth wasn't natural, and I never had a childhood, but I am still human and this is one thing I'm certain of. No matter how bad things get, you can always find something to hope for and some good to do. That's part of our nature. I won't let them reduce my humanity no matter what they do." Sky couldn't think of anything to say in response. He admired the way Evan could find hope like that. Sky wanted to make a better world too, but it was anger that drove him, not hope. He managed to say, "Does it hurt, thinking about those first few years? When you were in the lab?" "Those were sad, scary times, but I'm not afraid of my memories. And there was a positive to that. My senses are a little mixed up because of what they did to me, but I like it that way." Evan said. "What do you mean by 'mixed up'?" Sky asked. "I see sound." Evan smiled widely. "You...you what?" Sky tilted his head. "What does that mean?" "Exactly what it sounds like. I can see your voice right now. It's in greyish-green color range." Evan said. He motioned with his hands. "It moves a little like this, up and down, when you talk. The color shifts slightly with your tone." "How can you do that? I thought you said you didn't have any special abilities." Sky said. Evan stretched. "It's not special...well, not like that. It's not something they intentionally did to me, and it's something normal in humans anyway. It's called synesthesia. The version I have is chromesthesia. Certain sounds trigger me to see different colors. When people talk or sing, I see colors in front of me. It changes a little depending on how you say or sing something, or how high or low your pitch is, but most people's voices stay around the same-ish colors when they talk normally. Adam's voice is usually a deep blue when he's talking. Alex's voice is typically some shade of light purple." "And mine is grey-green? Um...could you show me the color?" Sky asked. He was intrigued by the concept. That wasn't something he had ever heard of before. Evan got up. He walked around, then stopped a little ways over from the table. He waved Sky over. Sky went to where he was. Evan pointed at a plant with silver-green leaves and yellow flowers. "Your voice is around this color when you talk. It's about the same color as a steady, light rain." "You can see the sound of rain too?" Sky asked. Evan nodded. "The color changes, like people's voices. It looks this color sometimes, when the rain is really steady, but not really strong. In July, when we get the most rain here, it looks like this a lot. A big, heavy storm is so grey it's almost black, and a light drizzle is mostly pale green." Sky stared at the plant. He found the color very beautiful. It didn't seem like his voice could look like something so elegant. "What is this plant?" "It's wormwood. We use it for stuff...that's not for you." Evan quickly changed the subject. "What do you think of the color?" "It's pretty." Sky said. "What about Alex's voice?" "You've seen kudzu flowers, right? It's about like that, the lighter petals on the plant anyway." Evan said. He leaned away from the plants. He looked out through the glass. "Those should be in bloom very soon." Sky looked at where Evan was facing. He could see kudzu vines dangling from an old building. "When do they bloom?" "Typically, July through September, but plants don't work off our calendars. There's a lot of factors that go into that. It'll be soon though. I can tell." Evan walked with Sky back to the table. "Are you interested in plants?" "I don't know. I don't know much about them." Sky said. "They're very fussy things sometimes." Evan said. Sky looked ahead. Alex was talking with Adam. He had a small glass in his hand. Sky sat beside Alex. Evan sat on the other side of Adam. Sky shifted uncomfortably in his seat. "I guess it wasn't that bad after you left, but when everything happened, how did you survive then?" Adam answered him. "Alan contacted me in 2015 about what his father told him was coming. He offered for us to stay with him. Given the things I knew my own father did, I saw no reason to think he was lying. We started living with him not long after that while he worked on getting things set up at the original Sanctuary." "So, how are you and Alan related?" Sky asked. "We're cousins." Adam said. He leaned back in his chair. "One of the few from that side of the family I actually talked to. His mom divorced his dad too, and avoided most of the Winter family. We've hung out here and there over the years." Alex took a sip from his glass. "Wish I knew you guys then. I would've loved a heads up." "Sorry. It's not like we could tell many people then, or had the resources to support much either." Adam apologized. "Yeah, I know. Honestly, I'm surprised they haven't bombed us at this point." Alex drank the rest of the liquid in the glass. Sky looked over Evan again. He looked completely ordinary. He didn't know why he expected anything else. The children created by the company now likely looked just as ordinary. He didn't want to admit it, but Sky wanted Evan to be angry about everything. He didn't expect Evan would be so happy. Sky didn't expect Eric would have moved on so much from his past either. Rather than find hope in that, Sky felt more alone than before. Alex's proximity to him offered no comfort. He wondered if he belonged here at all. He wished he had gone to see Kathy instead. Would the other surviving children even care about this anymore? Did he have any right to demand they open up about that at all? If they moved on, how could he dare to drag them back to the past for his own wants? 'Why isn't anyone as angry as me?' Sky wondered to himself. Evan smiled at him. "Did you want to ask me anything else?" "Uh, no. Thank you for talking to me." Sky said. He looked over at Alex. "Um, were we going anywhere else today?" Alex put the glass on the table. "Well, I don't have anything I need to do. What'd you want to do?" "I don't know." Sky said. "You could check out the greenhouse more. I don't think you've been in here before." Alex got up from the chair and stretched. "Mm...I could teach you to drive." "What?" Sky looked up. "Am I allowed to take one of the cars?" "Sure, if I'm with you." Alex said. "Do you wanna? Might be good for you to know if you go back out alone. I can show you how to get into their cars too." Adam laughed. "Is that really something you should be teaching a kid?" Alex laughed along with him. "Why not? Those are valuable life skills." Sky got up from the chair and stood in front of Alex. "How long do you think it'll take?" "Dunno. That really depends on you. But you'll be out a few days at least anyway. I'm sure you'll get the hang of it pretty quickly." Alex said. Evan waved at Sky. Sky waved back at him. As they walked out of the greenhouse, Alex asked. "Did you get the answers you were looking for?" Sky sighed. "No." Alex looked at him like he could see what was inside him. He didn't say anything to Sky until they got in the car. Alex started up the car. Sky asked. "Where are we going?" "A little ways away. I'm taking you somewhere we'll have a lot of room." Alex said. "Is that safe?" "Yeah, we'll be fine. You know how to use the flamethrower, right?" Alex asked. "Uh, I think?" "We'll practice that too." Alex said. He pointed to the back seat. "We've got a couple of guns in the backseat too. You brought your gun, right?" Sky nodded. "Yeah. Um...hey, how much alcohol did you drink?" "Not a lot. Don't worry. I'm not remotely drunk. That's not enough to effect me. I only got enough to taste the flavor." Alex said. "You don't need to worry. I'm fine. I wouldn't take you out if I thought I couldn't drive." They drove for a while, much longer than Sky expected they would. Alex pulled into an empty parking lot. Sky looked out. The place was dirty and full of trash. "What was this?" "Used to be parking for Lennox Square a long time ago." Alex parked the car. "What was that?" "A tacky mall that mostly sold overpriced garbage, even by mall standards." Alex said. He looked over at the big empty building nearby. "I used to shop at malls sometimes as a teenager. I had a pretty small waist compared to most people who lived in Paulding and that was the only way I could buy pants. But this place wasn't Arbor Place, that's for sure. My mom took me here a couple of times. Definitely not for me." "Huh. I've never been in a mall." Sky said. "They would have a bunch of stores in them, right?" "Yeah." Alex unbuckled his seat and opened the car door. "Whelp, let's get started." "Right now?! But we just got here..." Sky's heart sped up. "Yeah, right now. Come on. Get in the driver's seat." Alex grinned. Sky gulped. He got out of the car and switched seats with Alex. Alex checked over Sky. "At your height, you should be able to reach the pedals just fine." "I can." Sky put his hands on the steering wheel. "Um...should we really do this today?" "Too nervous?" "Am I old enough for this?" "Sure. I learned to drive when I was fifteen. You're almost fourteen. You'll be fine." Alex put his seatbelt on. He turned the radio on. "This should help you calm down." Sky heard piano playing through the speakers. He recognized the music immediately. "That's Kathy. We can pick up that from here?" "Yeah. We're not that far away." Alex turned up the volume. Sky listened to Kathy's playing. He did feel calmer after hearing the music. Sky took a deep breath. "Okay, let's do this." Alex smiled at him. "Alright. Pay close attention to everything I tell you." Sky got the hang of driving pretty quickly, but he was still nervous the entire time he drove. Later in the day, Alex had him stop and he showed Sky how to break into cars. As the sun started to sink in the sky, Alex ended their lesson. "That's all for today. We need to head back before it gets dark. Do you wanna drive back?" Alex asked. "Um...I wasn't really paying attention to how we got here." Sky said. "That's okay. I can give you directions." Alex said. Sky ran his fingers over the door handle of the driver's side door. ""I'll do it." Alex got in the car on the other side. "We'll practice some more another day. I can get you approved for clearance to drive by yourself when you're ready." Sky started the car up. "Hey Alex, how did people learn to drive before?" "You could take driving classes, but a lot of people were taught by their parents." Alex said. "Really? What about now?" "We have a driving course people can take. A lot people still learn from an older relative though if they can get a hold of a car." Alex pointed to the right. "Go out that way." "Okay." Sky drove out of the lot. He caught himself smiling, then tried to push away the happiness bubbling to the surface. He was supposed to be mad. Sky wanted to be angry. He didn't want to let anything go. He wanted revenge on his father and the cult. Sky looked over at Alex, who's hand was on the volume. "You wanna listen?" Sky nodded. Kathy's voice came through loud and clear. Without thinking, Sky hummed along with her. "Alex...why did you take me out here?" "What do you mean?" Alex asked. "You could've told me about those classes before taking me out here." "Would you have really gone?" Alex said. "Besides, I wanted to. Did you have fun?" "Yeah." Sky said. He felt something catch in his throat. He hummed along with the music to distract himself from whatever it was that was coming to the surface. Alex sung along to the song. Sky was surprised to hear his voice. He glanced over at him. Alex stopped. "That bad?" "No, you don't sing bad. I've never heard you sing before." Sky said. "Come on. Sing with me. I've heard you plenty of times on the radio. How about a private concert?" Alex suggested. Sky's face flushed. "Um...okay..." Sky sang along. Alex joined him. Their voiced blended with Kathy's, no voice distinguishable from the next. A light rain accompanied their voices on the drive back. Sky wondered if it sounded the same as his own voice. What shades of green and grey would Evan say it was? He wished he could see something like that, but the sounds he could hear were enough. They got back just before dark. Without thinking about it, Sky went straight to Alex and Eric's room instead of going back to his own. Eric was already there. Sky collapsed down on the cot. "How was today?" Eric asked. "Alex taught me how to drive and steal cars." Sky said. Eric opened his mouth. He took a moment to say anything. "Okay...Busy day, huh?" Sky tossed his shoes off and got under the blankets. His mind was free of thoughts. "You taught him what?" Eric asked Alex. "You know, in case he goes back out on his own." Alex smiled and shrugged. Eric shook his head. "We'll talk about that later. Is he asleep already?" "Looks like it." Alex said. Sky couldn't make out what they were saying. His eyes were too heavy. He fell into a deep sleep, one deeper than he had ever fallen into before. There were no nightmares that night. In the morning, he didn't remember his dreams at all. He woke to the same sounds as the previous morning, Eric and Alex getting ready and talking about nothing. Sky felt more refreshed when he woke up than he usually did. "Good morning, Sky." Eric said to him. "Morning." Sky stretched and hopped out of bed. "Are you about to leave?" "Yeah. I'll see you later." Eric said. He walked over to Alex and kissed him. "You two have fun, and be careful." "We will." Alex said. Eric went on to work. Alex went into the bathroom and turned on the shower. Sky followed him into the bathroom. "Can I join you? We can leave quicker that way." Sky said. "Thought you didn't like the public showers?" Alex asked. "I don't. I don't trust those people. It's fine if it's you. You're safe." Sky said. Alex felt the temperature of the water. "If you want. These aren't really designed to share, so you might not get as warm with us both in there." "I don't mind. I don't take long showers anyway. I'll be out in five minutes." Sky threw his shirt onto the floor. His underwear went next. "Is the water ready?" "Yeah." Alex said. He undressed. Sky got in right away. He washed his arm off. It still stung. Alex got in. He took hold of Sky's injured arm and looked it over. "How's your arm?" "It hurts, but it looks like it's healing up, right?" Sky said. "Uh huh. Looks like it's healing up. We'll have to keep an eye on it until it's fully healed, just to be safe. You don't have any pain in your hand, do you?" Alex let go. Sky shook his head. He moved his fingers to show Alex. "Alright. If anything feels strange, let me know right away." "Will I have to go see a doctor?" Sky asked. "I'll request a doctor come to our room." Alex washed his face off. "But you will have to see one." "Okay..." "Sorry, but we can't take any chances." He glanced over at Sky, then stared at Sky's face. "Damn, are you almost my height?!" Sky compared him and Alex. "Yeah, guess so." Alex was taken aback. "I know you've been getting a lot taller, but damn, you're maybe an inch shorter than me now." "I don't think I'm any bigger than yesterday." Sky said. "I know, but...guess I haven't been paying attention. You might end up being taller than me." Alex said. He laughed. He raised one hand up to a little under halfway down his chest. "When you first got here, you were like this big and squeaky." "Squeaky?!" Alex laughed loudly. "Your voice was so high. You came in with your gun, acting all big and bad, barely able to sit at the table while you threatened us with your little hamster voice." "I did not sound like a hamster!" Sky's cheeks burned. Alex laughed more. "I sounded like that at that age too. You're gonna be all grown up in no time." "Will I finally not have all this damn acne then?" Sky touched his own face. "You might have less, but...I still get pimples sometimes." Alex put his hand on the shower knob. "Are you done?" "Yeah." Sky said. "So that's forever then? Getting older is bullshit." Alex grabbed two towels. He handed one to Sky. Alex dried himself off and got dressed. "Enjoy your youth while it lasts." "You're not that old yet yourself. You're not even thirty." Sky did the same. Alex sighed. "Tell that to the crow's feet around my eyes and the grey hair on my head." Sky searched for the grey. He noticed a few strands here and there. "Huh. I never noticed you had any." "There's been a lot more this year. I think I'm aging faster than I should." Sky went over to the sink to brush his hair. "How could that happen?" "I've got a lot of things to deal with. Don't worry about it." Alex said. He joined him by the sink to brush his teeth. "Won't be long before I hit thirty. Ugh, am I really twenty-seven?" "Don't humans usually live to their seventies? It still seems like you're young to me." Alex took the hair brush from Sky. "Doesn't matter. It was seventy before. I don't know what our life expectancy will be now." "Kathy's a lot older than you." Sky said. Alex chuckled. "Yeah, she is. She's fifty-one now. Don't think anything will kill her. The Grim Reaper will have to show up and take her one day." "What's that?" "What? The Grim Reaper? Oh, that's some old folk tale. He's a personification of death. He's usually described as being a skeleton carrying a big scythe around who wears a black cloak. He comes and gathers up the souls of the dead." Alex told him. He went into the main part of the room to get his shoes. "You don't believe in that, right?" "I've seen a lot of death, but I've never seen anything like that. It's just old stories." Alex put his shoes on. Sky grabbed his own shoes. "What's the point of stories like that?" "It's comforting to some people." Alex said. "How is a skeleton carrying around a big blade comforting?" Sky asked. "He's not scary, unless you're afraid of where you're going. The thing about the Grim Reaper is he's a fair man. Everyone gets a turn, no one's special, and he only takes you exactly where you belong. It also means you won't be alone at the end. Someone will be waiting for you even if you die alone." Alex tightened his laces. "Have you ever heard of gargoyles?" Sky shook his head. "Churches used to put them out. They looked like monsters, but they were supposed to scare away real monsters. The Grim Reaper looks scary, but he's not really who you'd need to be worried about. In a way, he's a guardian. No one's snatching any souls from him." Alex stood up. Sky imagined the spectre in his head. "I think...I think I get it, but what's the point if it's not real?" "Some people believe he is, or something like him. He'd be comforting to those people." Sky leaned back on the cot. "But why would they believe that if they've never seen him? I don't get it. It's like Delilah. How can people so easily believe things they have no proof of?" Alex walked over toward the door. "I can't answer that. I can give you a guess, but I really don't know." "That's it? I don't know is your answer?" Sky asked. Alex opened the door. "Sometimes that's the only answer you can give without being dishonest. Are you ready to practice again?" Sky nodded. He went over to the door and left with Alex. Alex led him around a different part of Atlanta than the previous day. Sky was getting less nervous the longer he drove. "Hey Alex," Sky asked. "How do we have running cars? What're these running on?" "We had to come up with some alternatives from what we've got out here. Moone & Wolfe is using oil, which means they're either drilling or they're trading with someone outside. We don't know which it is." Alex said. "Why oil? My father always preferred renewal energy for everything." "Your aunt has different opinions than your father did." Alex said. "It could be they wanted to limit us. If they went with something electrical, they'd need charging stations everywhere. They'd have to have someone guarding all the places they put them too. Or it could've been about getting someone on their side, some rich ally. You'd have to ask Edith herself to find out why." "Are there any plans to switch to anything renewal for us?" Sky asked. "For cars? Not right now. We have other things we need to prioritize first, but there are plans for the future." Alex said. "You know, we have a committee for that sort of thing. There's a meeting once a month to discuss plans for future development. When you're eighteen, you'll be allowed to join in the discussion." "Why at eighteen?" "It's part of the rules. At fifteen, you're allowed to start training for a job, but you can't work solo. When you turn eighteen, you're allowed to do work unsupervised. The reasoning was if you're old enough to work responsibly by yourself, you're old enough to contribute to discussions about work to come." Alex explained. "Could I sit in on one of those meetings before then?" "At fifteen, you can. Prior to that, no. Only people old enough to start doing work can come to the meetings. But you could go to the education meetings instead. Anyone old enough to start school lessons can go to those." Alex gave him an alternative. "I'm not going to school." Sky rejected the idea. "Just a thought." Sky asked. "Any ideas on who might be trading with them?" "We don't know anything about that. We don't know, if they are communicating with people outside the country, what they're telling everyone happened here. That first month, it was spread around that something was making everyone sick and that it was an attack on us. It was an attack alright, but it came from within. They may have told the outside world we have to be kept in place for everyone's safety." Alex rolled down the window. Sky sped up a little. "I don't buy that. From what I've read, even if that was the official story, there's no way any major world power's leaders wouldn't know what was really going on. Everyone spies on everyone." "I'm sure they know, but they may not have told their citizens. That's the part that actually matters. For things to get done, the public has to demand it." Alex said. "Are you still thinking about going back out there?" Sky sat quietly for a moment. "Yeah." "Have you decided when you'll leave?" Alex stared on ahead. "I haven't." "You don't have to, you know." Alex said. "You can already do a lot right here. It's not your burden." "My family caused this." "You aren't them." Alex said. "But if you go, I won't stop you." Sky glanced over. "You won't?" Alex rested his elbow against the bottom of the window. "You're not my kid. I can't force you to do anything you don't want to, unless you're breaking the rules. I don't have that power unless you give it to me." Sky shifted his gaze between Alex and the road. "I don't want to give you that power yet." "Yet?" Sky tightened his grip on the wheel. "I don't think I'm ready to make that decision yet." "I understand." Alex said. "But you know, Eric wants it too. We already talked about it." "You did?" "We're ready whenever you are." "Then my last name changes to Linwood?" Sky asked. "It doesn't have to. That's up to you. I never changed my last name from my mom's maiden name. I wanted to keep it, because that's what I always went by. I never called my stepdad "Dad" either, but that doesn't mean I didn't think of him that way. It felt more natural for me to call him 'Eddie' by the time I thought of him like that. All of that is personal, and up to you to decide on." Alex said. Sky turned the car around. It started to rain. He rolled up the windows. "Huh. I didn't think about that...would it offend you if I didn't want to change my last name?" "No. It's your name. You've been Sky Summerfield this long. That was part of why I didn't want to change mine. That was already how I identified myself. Eric couldn't wait to get rid of his last name when we got married. It's really up to you." "If I said yes, would you stop me from going back out?" Sky asked. "Until you're eighteen, yes." Alex said. "And what happens if I don't want that...what happens when I turn eighteen?" Sky asked. The sky darkened above them. Thunder rolled behind them. "Damn. We need to get home. It's really about to come down." Alex said, looking back at the dark clouds. He looked back over at Sky. "At eighteen...are you asking if I could still adopt you? Of course I can." "But I'll be an adult then. My childhood would be over." "A parent's role doesn't end at eighteen. You don't toss aside family at adulthood. The roles and expectations change. That's all." "So then...you'd wait till I'm eighteen, if that's what I wanted?" Sky asked. The storm worsened. Sky could barely see. "Pull over." Alex said. "Trade places with me. I'll drive us back." Sky stopped the car. "I think I can do it." "You might be able to, but let me do it. I have a lot of experience driving in severe weather. You can work on driving in the rain on a lighter rainy day." Alex said. Sky and Alex traded places. Rain came down heavier than before. Lightning illuminated the sky in flashes. Sky struggled to see anything at all. "Should we wait out the storm?" "I know the way back. I'll see how far we can get. If it gets so bad that I can't drive, I'll find us somewhere safe until it passes." Alex drove forward. Sky stared out the window. He saw pairs of red eyes in the distance. "I see something out there." "How many?" "At least five pairs...but they look small." Alex focused on the road ahead. He sped up. "Let me know if they get any closer. They shouldn't be able to keep up with the car." "Okay." Alex drove a little faster. "Sky, I can't stop you right now if you want to leave. But please, reconsider. You're still a child. You survived out there for years. What you're wanting to do is something far more dangerous than just living out there. I know you're strong enough to survive out here, but you don't need to go on this revenge mission alone." "I've already made my decision." Alex sighed. "There's no getting through to you, huh? Then...if you won't stay, let me train you properly." "Train?" "Gun training. First aid. Picking locks. Survival skills. If you won't stay here, at least let me better prepare you." Alex said. Sky asked again. "Will you really make me part of your family if I asked you after I'm eighteen?" "If I'm alive, I'll want that even if you're forty." "Then, I accept your offer to train me." Sky said. He saw more red eyes inside of buildings. "They're everywhere now." "Damn it. Sky, get the box out of the glove compartment. I'm going to tell you a series of number to put in." Alex said. Sky took the device out. Alex told him a string of numbers. Sky put the code in. He asked. "What does that do?" "I told the people monitoring the area that there's infected animals in this zone. Keep that out. If I tell you another set of numbers, put it in. I'm not sending out a distress call yet. Nothing's coming after us." Alex said. "Why're there so many in this area?" "Don't know. I came out here specifically because our current data showed that there hadn't been many observed here." Alex said. Red droplets hit against the windshield. Sky leaned back against the seat. "What is that?" Ahead of them, all the rain turned red. Alex turned the headlights off. He slowed the car down, then parked off the side of the road. Alex took his seatbelt off. "Get down." "Why?" "Just do it. Keep quiet." Alex knelt down slightly in his seat. Sky got down. "What did you see?" "There's a car ahead. It's got the company logo. They must be transporting Delilah." Alex said. "How do you know that?" Sky asked. "This rain is Heather's doing. I've seen her do this before. She's definitely nearby." Alex pushed Sky's head down farther. He got out his gun. Sky looked through his window to see what was out there. A runner looked down through the glass at them, mouth dripping with thick saliva. Its long fingers scratched down against the window. Sky covered his ears. "Keep your eyes closed, Sky." Alex said. Sky did as he was told. He waited for a gunshot, but it never came. Alex lowered himself more. "What is it?" Sky asked. "It left. Something got its attention." Sky and Alex both watched through the window. They heard the shrieking of multiple runners. The red rain came down heavier. Sky could barely see anything at all outside. The red liquid oozed down the windows, thick and dark. Through the streaks of crimson, Sky and Alex saw a figure in black and white walk passed the car. Sky's eyes widened. He recognized her face immediately. He got out his gun. Alex pushed his hand down and shook his head. Another wave of infected creatures rushed over to her. Sky watched them rip apart into pieces without Delilah ever touching them. A van followed behind her. It stopped. Two young women rushed out of the van to her side. They met the same end as the animals. After them, three people came out. One held an umbrella open for the person in the middle. Sky recognized her too. It was his aunt Edith. She walked over to Delilah and brought her back into the van. The van drove off, and the red rain followed them. Alex waited until he could no longer see their van before turning the car back on. "Let's go. I'm gonna floor it." Sky quickly got back up and buckled up. "Why didn't you let me shoot her? That was Delilah!" "If you'd have done that, we'd both be dead right now. That wasn't the time." Alex drove away quickly. "What did she do?" "She killed them." "But why? She killed her own people." "I don't know." Alex said. "There's no telling with her." "How did she do that?" Alex glanced in the rearview mirror to see if anything was following them. "I don't want to know. I have another set of numbers I need you to put in." "What for?" "Reporting on Delilah." Alex said. They made it back without anyone coming after them. No one was allowed to leave the building after they returned and no new people were allowed in the building for a while. The top floors were cleared out for the rest of the day. Alex told Sky later it was for safety reasons. More guards were put out than usual. Sky stayed with Alex and Eric again for the night. He felt fine, but he didn't want to go back to his old room. He needed to at some point. There was no reason for him to stay there, and he needed to get his laptop anyway. The laptop was a problem. He couldn't remember if he left it on with that video open. If his computer was left on, it'd probably be off by now, but the thought of walking in and there being any chance that video was up made going that way difficult. He decided to worry about it the next day and got ready for bed. Eric brought Sky more of his things. Sky rested in bed and read through the textbook Eric lent him while the adults talked about Delilah. The rain lasted into the night. Sky noticed a bottle of wine under the desk that hadn't been there before. He reached over and picked it up. "More wine?" Sky asked. "Finished off the last bottle recently." Alex said. "No, I'm not going to drink anymore today, if that's what you're wondering." Sky opened it and sniffed it. The smell was sweeter than the last one he smelled, but he couldn't get over the scent of the alcohol itself. "Ugh, how can you drink this?" "It's an acquired taste." Alex shrugged. "Are you sure you're not drinking too much?" Sky said. "No, I'm fine. I really don't drink much. It took me a long time to finish off the last bottle." Alex said. "How much do you know about alcohol, Sky?" "Um, you can get drunk if you drink it, and it smells bad." Sky said. "That's about it. My father's lessons on that said it was for weak minded people and to avoid it." Alex laughed. "He would say something like that. Hmm...maybe I should give you a lesson on that myself. When did we learn about blood alcohol levels and all that stuff in school?" Eric rubbed his chin. "Um, a couple of times, I think? Like, there was that time in DARE." Alex laughed loudly. "Oh god, DARE." Eric laughed with him. "I think we covered it in health in middle and high school too. Remember the drunk goggles?" "And Juan walked into a trash can and fell in it." Alex said. "I don't know how he managed to do that." "I don't remember that. Was that in middle school? I had health a different year than you." "Oh, yeah. That's right. I had it in sixth grade. You had it in eighth, right?" "Yeah." Sky listened to them, having no idea what they were talking about. "Well, guess he's old enough for the topic then. Sky would be about to enter high school in the fall if things were like how they used to be." Alex said. "It's about time he learns about it, in case he does consider drinking at some point." "But I don't want to. Why do I need to learn about that?" Sky asked. He closed his book. "Just in case. We can talk about some drugs that are still around and medical interactions too." Alex went through everything he could think of off the top of his head about alcohol and drugs. Sky found the information interesting, despite his earlier protests. With one of the means of suppression and control within the facilities being a pharmaceutical drug, Sky wondered if there was something benign that could disrupt the effect of that drug. He ended up taking notes down on a notepad from the desk for recording down in his laptop later. Alex got to a topic Sky was somewhat familiar with. His intrigue receded quickly. "And then there's the matter of date rape and sexual assaults caused by incapacitating a person in other ways. There are people who slip drugs into people's drinks to make them unable to escape them. More likely than that would be someone either misleading or outright lying about how much alcohol is in a drink they gave you." "How would you know that happened?" Sky asked. "Well, if it's not supposed to be an alcoholic drink, and you taste or smell alcohol, that's a pretty obvious way." Alex said. "But you might not always be able to taste it. Do you know what alcohol tastes like?" Sky shook his head. "I can't remember. I tasted a little before, but I don't really remember that night clearly." Alex grabbed a glass and poured a small amount of wine into it. He handed the glass to Sky. "Here. You don't need to swallow it. You can spit it back out after you taste it." "Is this necessary?" "It's a good idea for you to taste it now and know what it tastes like in a safe environment before you run into someone doing something shady later." Alex said. Sky sipped from the glass. He winced and spit it back out. He coughed. "Ugh...it tastes as bad as it smells." Eric snickered. "Great. He hates it." "Now you know if you taste that when you aren't expecting it, something is definitely wrong." Alex took the glass back. "But that flavor can be disguised. And it's even harder to tell if you're already drinking alcohol and someone gave you more than they said they did. Unless it's water, or you really trust someone, I wouldn't take any drinks from someone on the outside." Sky gave the glass back. "Why would someone do something like that? I don't get how some people are so evil." Alex took the glass and put it on the desk. "Some people are really messed up. Even if they don't intend to hurt you, someone might do that to steal your supplies. I can understand that a little more. It's not right, but I get why they'd do it." "Just shoot me at that point. Why go through all that manipulation to get my shit? I hate people like that." Sky said. He collapsed back on the bed. Sky hated the taste lingering on his tongue. "I'm never gonna drink. If it can mess with my mind, then it's not worth learning to like the taste." "I don't have a problem with that." Alex said. "A lot of people around your age start experimenting with it and do some dumb stuff. You not drinking is one less thing I need to worry about." "Did you drink a lot at my age?" Sky asked. Alex shook his head. "Nah. I mostly drank herbal teas and water back then. I didn't drink much alcohol or coffee until later. The coffee's definitely a habit I picked up from working at Moone & Wolfe. Real coffee was a luxury. Wine was an even bigger one. We were rewarded with that. I really need to get back to drinking more water." "What about you?" Sky asked Eric. "When I was a teenager, I usually only drank if other people were drinking around me. It wasn't something I sought out on my own or cared about, but yeah, I got drunk a few times. I don't drink very much now either. For me, it's mostly coffee and juice." Eric answered him. "How do teenagers get it here? Aren't their rules on who can have it?" Sky asked. Alex shrugged. "Teenagers will be teenagers. If you make something forbidden, they'll find a way to get it. Our rules are you have to be at least eighteen to have any. That's the age at which we allow someone to work unsupervised, so that's why it's set to that. There are exceptions. A parent can give alcohol to a minor. Technically...I don't think I was supposed to give you that since we haven't adopted you yet, but well, we are listed as your guardians. Not sure what the exact rules are in that situation, but I think it's counted the same. I should probably look into that...But I am already allowed to make medical decisions for you, so the rules on that should be the same too." "Hey, um, does that mean if I ever did see a psychologist or psychiatrist, you'd get to see all my records?" "That depends on the situation. Normally, no, it would still be private for that. There are situations where they can tell me private things about you without your consent, if the situation you're at danger to yourself and others. When they gave you your medicine, I filled out some paperwork on your behalf. I can't control you staying or leaving here, because you aren't adopted yet and you're thirteen now, but so long as you are here, I'm in charge of your medical stuff and whether you can work or go to school." "How come you haven't forced me to go to school?" Sky asked. "You don't really need those kinds of lessons at this point. Sending you would be purely for the social interaction, and while I think you need it, you don't seem like you can handle that yet. At work, you're still having to socialize, but there's less people. I'd like for you to go to school though." "I never thought about needing you to fill out anything for me. If I got hurt really badly, you two would be the ones talking to the doctors while I'm in the hospital, right?" Sky asked. "Yeah, that's right. The other day, you weren't in any condition to make decisions for yourself and some of those decisions aren't really ones someone your age should be making for themselves anyway. So, I made them for you. But you're still free to leave here, per the rules, unless we adopt you." "Why is it I can leave on my own now, but when you adopt me, I can't?" Sky asked. "I told you before. It's because we have rules that children of a certain age who have no blood relatives here are allowed to leave to search for their living relatives. But once you're adopted, you are declaring that those people are now your family. Parents get the final say. Eric and I fill most of the same roles as a parent, but we don't have that power." "Earlier...you said you would adopt me, if I wanted you to." Sky turned from Alex to Eric. "Would you really adopt me?" Eric smiled at Sky. "Of course we would." Sky rolled over on the cot. "Hey, about that...um, when I decide on that...where would I live? Would I move into this room?" Eric responded to him. "No, we'll get a new room altogether. Families have their own type of space. Since it's just the three of us, it'll have two bedrooms and a small living room in the middle." "So, I'll have my own room, but we'll be in the same unit together?" "Yeah. And all the new units have a shared bathroom. So, that'll be there too." Eric said. "What would happen if I married someone? Do I leave?" Sky asked. His face went red. "Not that I'm planning on doing that ever. I was just wondering." "You'll have a few options." Alex said. He sat on the bed and leaned against the wall. "You can stay and have the other person move in with us, you can move in with their family, or you can get a different unit for the two of you and we'd switch back to a smaller unit." "I think I'd rather stay together." Sky listened to the soft rain coming down outside the building. Alex and Eric smiled at each other, but Sky didn't notice. Sky spent the remainder of the evening reading through the textbook. At night, after Eric and Alex had gone to sleep, Sky's mind turned to something else. He thought about Delilah again. He'd seen her before on film, but seeing her in person was different. She had a presence about her that unnerved him. Somehow, he thought, she seemed dead inside, like those red-eyed beasts that wandered around until their bodies fell apart. He fell asleep with her face in his mind. In his dream, he was sleeping on the front porch of a very nice looking house. He wasn't himself in the dream, but the other Delilah, Delilah Blackwell. Beside him, the old dog Hound was curled up and sleeping too. Heather Blackwell sat beside him, knitting. The girl who had been the spirit in his other dream was alive, sweeping the porch. Heather said. 'Debbie, bring us some drinks when you're done, dear.' 'Yes, ma'am.' Debbie nodded her head and bowed slightly. 'Lilah, wake up. You're going to sleep the day away.' Heather tapped Sky on the shoulder. He sat up. His voice was Delilah's voice when he spoke. 'But I'm tired. I didn't sleep last night. Hound was howling all night.' 'You'll have to try. Father will be angry if you sleep through supper.' Heather said. Her eyes shifted to the yard. She stood up. A young man approached them. He smiled at her. 'Good afternoon, ladies.' 'Good afternoon, Allen.' Heather curtsied, her cheeks burning red. 'I've finished my work for the day. Would you like to go on a walk with me in the field?' Allen asked. 'Yes, but...I have to ask...' Heather's voice trailed off. An older man came through the front door. Sky recognized him as Leon Blackwell. Leon stomped over to the couple and got between them. 'What are you doing here, boy?' 'I came to ask Heather if she'd like to go on a walk with me this evening.' Allen said. Sky could hear the irritation in his voice, though he spoke politely. 'I told you I don't want you seeing my daughter. Go on your way.' Leon got in his face. Allen did not budge. 'Why do you hate me so? I've done nothing to your daughter. No man treats her better than I.' 'You are no man. You are a boy, and I know very well what ideas are in your filthy mind. Take my daughter to the field and do what with her? If you touch her, then...' Leon raised his voice. Allen sneered at him. 'You'll what? Blame me for what you know is lacking?' Leon threw the first punch. Allen swung right back at him. Heather tried to pull them apart, but couldn't. Debbie grabbed at Sky's arm. 'Miss Lilah, please, let's go inside.' As Sky went inside the home, Rose passed him and ran out to Leon. She pushed aside Heather and yelled at Allen. Hound stayed on the front porch, whimpering and pacing in circles with his tail between his legs. Debbie closed the door and took hold of Sky's hand. She led them up a flight of stairs to a bedroom. Debbie locked the door. She held Sky close. Sky was crying. 'Stay in here. Stay. We'll be safe here.' Debbie whispered. Sky rested against her chest. He noticed bruises on her arms. A little blood stained her knit stockings. The end of her dress was frayed. Sky thought the stockings looked too thick to be worn in that weather. The smell of the wooden floor boards lingered in his nose, heavy and sickening. Sky woke up before Alex and Eric did. He took a shower right away. He turned the heat on higher than usual. Sky recounted the dream to himself, searching for a logical meaning to it. He couldn't be seeing Delilah's memories. That was impossible. His mind must have created that based on what he had read about her and her sisters. "Debbie...where did that name come from?" Sky wondered aloud. As irrational as it was, Sky couldn't shake that there was something more to the dream. He got out and got ready for the day. Alex woke. He asked. "Going somewhere?" "I'm going to see Kathy today. You don't need to stay out of work for me." Sky said. He put his shoes on. "Kay. Are you staying over tonight?" Alex asked. "Haven't decided yet." Sky said. He walked toward the door. His hands lingered on the knob. "Um, thanks for taking care of me the last few days. I think I'm okay now." "It's nothing. If you need to stay a little longer, that's okay. We don't mind." Alex said. "I know. See you later." Sky waved and left. He hurried on his way to the room where Kathy always played. She was by the window with a cup of coffee in her hand. Sky ran over to her. "Good morning, Kathy." Kathy turned around. "Hello, Sky. You haven't been by in a while." "Sorry...um, some stuff happened and I've been with Alex mostly." Sky said. Kathy touched his arm. "What happened to your arm? Are you alright?" Sky looked away. "I'm fine. The doctor said it'll heal up on its own." Kathy kept her eyes focused on him. He could tell she was running ideas in her head about what might have happened. "You said you were with Alex. What were you doing?" Sky was too embarrassed to admit to Kathy what he'd done to himself. He didn't want to her to know about that moment of weakness. He kept it in and told her about everything else. "Alex has been teaching me to drive, and we talked about...um, adoption." "Adoption?" Kathy asked. "Yeah, they want to adopt me." Sky fidgeted with his hands. "I haven't said yes yet. We're still talking about it." "Oh, is that so? Why don't we talk over there? It's about time for me to do the morning news and weather." Kathy said. Sky followed her. He saw the papers with the announcements on it. "Can I do it today?" Kathy smiled. "Of course." Sky read off the information into a microphone. He'd done this before, and knew everyone in the building could hear him, but he didn't realize before how far out people would be able to hear him. He never asked Alex exactly what the full distance was. Sky and Kathy played several songs together after he finished the news announcements. When they were done, Kathy and Sky continued their conversation. Kathy started it back up. "So, adoption, huh? Are you excited?" "I mean...I haven't...said yes yet. I don't know if I'm ready." Sky said. "There's plenty of time to think it over." Kathy said. "Do you think I should say yes?" Sky asked. "That's up to you. I know they love you. I think it'd be good for you to have a family again." Kathy said. Sky played with the keys on the piano. "I don't know. If I have a family, would I be able to...Oh, I almost forgot. I had another dream about Delilah." "You did?" "Yeah, actually...yesterday, I saw Delilah too. The fake one. But the one in my dream was the real one." Sky said. "You saw Heather Smith?" Sky nodded. "She didn't see us, but I saw her when we were out driving yesterday. Something about her...bothers me, but I don't know why or what it is. She killed some of her own staff." "She might have been AA98 then. Heather's personality isn't stable. She may have been switched to or reverted to that personality. She's very dangerous then. Few can control her when she's like that. She'll kill anything in her way." Kathy suggested as an explanation. "That must've been it. The rain...it was raining red." Sky recalled. "Then it was definitely AA98 you saw." Sky leaned forward slightly. "AA98. So that's what she's like. Hey, the original Delilah, did she know anyone named Debbie?" "I don't think I've heard that name tied to the family. Was that a name you heard in your dream?" Kathy asked. "That was the name of the servant girl...the ghost. Her name was Debbie in my dream. She looked beat up." Sky said. "Debbie...wait..." Kathy got up from the piano. "Sky, will you come with me to the artifact room?" "Okay. Did you remember something?" Sky asked, followed her. "I'm not sure. I might be wrong, but I need to check." Kathy said. Sky and Kathy went to the artifact room. Kathy opened a box of old records. "What are you looking for?" Sky asked. "We lost a lot of the journals, but I recorded some information elsewhere about them. The name of the ghost was never recorded, but her initials were. The townspeople only ever used her initials when referring to her." Kathy flipped through several pieces of paper. She stopped at one. Her eyes widened. "There it is. That's what it is was. D.D. She could have been named Debbie." "What if that's just a coincidence? There's only twenty-six letters in the alphabet, and I didn't hear a last name." Sky said. Kathy opened up another box. "There's only one way to find out. We don't have paintings or sketches of most of the servant, but we do have a record of the names of every servant the Blackwell family had before the pact. I need to know if there's a Debbie or Deborah in there." She scanned through the list of names. Sky watched her. Kathy pointed to one name. "There she is. Deborah Daughtrey. She was here all along." Sky looked at the paper. "What if that's not the servant girl? That could be someone else." "There's one way to found out." Kathy pulled out another piece of paper. "This is their list of servants from after the pack was made. If Deborah isn't here, it's got to be her." Sky and Kathy looked through the list together. There was no Deborah Daughtrey on the second sheet. "She's not there." Sky stared at Kathy. "Then...is she really that girl? But why did no one figure this out before?" Kathy glanced over at the painting. "They might know. I didn't know where to look, or if her name mattered. The old diaries never gave any clues about who D.D. was. I had nothing to go off of. She's been here, right in front of me. Debbie Daughtrey. A servant of the Blackwell family was the ghost supposedly terrorizing the town...why were they so afraid to say her name?" "She didn't look scary in my dream. She looked hurt. She had bruises on her arms and blood on her stockings." Sky said. "But that was just a dream." Kathy looked deep into Sky's eyes. She glanced over at a painting of Delilah Blackwell. "Sky, what else happened in your dream?" "Allen Wolfe and Leon Blackwell were fighting about Heather Blackwell. Allen said...I didn't understand exactly what he meant. Leon didn't want Allen to take Heather on a walk in the field because he was saying something would happen. Allen said something about being blamed for something Leon already knew was lacking...? I don't know what that means." Sky tried to remember his exact words. Kathy had a disgusted look on her face. "Did Allen say who might have taken this thing that was lacking?" "He didn't say any names, but he was looking at Leon, like Leon already knew who he was referring to." Kathy asked. "And Debbie's stockings...do you remember where you saw the blood at?" Sky pointed to partway up his thigh. "Around here. When we were sitting on the floor in the room upstairs, her dress moved up some. That's where it was, on both sides on the inner part. I think there was more further up, but I couldn't really see. Her dress was messed up too. Why? What do you think it means?" "It means Leon Blackwell is a more disturbed man than I knew." Kathy said. "But why would you see all that?" "I don't know. It's only dreams. How can it mean anything?" Sky asked. Kathy fixed her gaze on Sky. "Your birthday...your eyes, your hair..." "What?" Kathy looked out the window. "It's raining." "So?" "It's supposed to be clear today." Kathy's eyes stared deep into him. She couldn't look away. "What does that mean?" Sky asked. The door opened. Alan entered the room. "Oh, Kathy, you're here. I have some new records to add about Aurora." Kathy and Sky looked over at Alan. Kathy blinked, then took a deep breath. "Oh, thank you. Put them with the rest. I'll look at them later." "Kathy, is something wrong?" Sky asked. Kathy shook her head. "It's nothing." Alan carried the papers to a different box. "Hey Sky. Haven't seen you in a while. You're not plotting on destroying us, right?" "Not unless you give me a reason to." Sky snapped. "Still as moody as ever. I'm kidding." Alan put the papers away. Sky watched him. "I know why Kathy's keeping up all of this, but what about you?" "Because someone needs to. My father left me a lot of resources. That was his singular act of kindness to me." Alan said. "He left me the first building. We didn't get to use it for long before they attacked us there. I've wondered why they've waited so long to come after us here, but I don't think they care about us. We're not a threat to them, not yet." "But what about all the places you all have raided or destroyed?" Sky asked. "They don't care about those people. So long as they're a few steps ahead of us, they don't care. Only the higher ups matter to them. Everyone else is disposable and easy to replace." Alan sat down in a chair. "This stuff in here helps us get to them. I don't know if we'll ever destroy them, but at least we can try to stay ahead of them and protect ourselves." "Where did these come from?" Sky asked. "A facility we broke into. It's not much, but it's something." Alan said. He spoke to Kathy next. "What's with you, Kathy? You look spooked. See a ghost?" Kathy laughed nervously. "Something like that." Sky and Kathy went back to the other room not long after that. They played more songs, but Sky noticed her mood stayed strange for the rest of the day. Sky went back to his room that night. He wanted to delete those video files off his computer, but he couldn't get himself to open the folder. Sky left the files alone and recorded the notes he'd taken from yesterday. It wasn't long before Sky was back in the lab. He was happy to work with Alex and Eric again, but being in the lab didn't excite him. His mind kept wandering. Sky had stayed a long time in this place. His mind debated with itself over when he should leave, if ever. Sky's thoughts kept wandering like that for days, until everything derailed at once. Early one morning, one of the new lab assistants grabbed Sky from behind and put an arm tightly around his neck. The assistant, who was much younger than Alex, pulled out a gun and pointed it at Eric. Eric reached for his own gun. "What the hell are you doing?" The young assistant used his elbow to knock off several vials of the vaccine they were testing onto the floor. He dragged Sky across the room and knocked more bottles, vials, and lots of glass down. Sky tried to free himself. He could barely breathe. Eric pointed his gun at the man. The man pointed his gun at Sky's head. "For the goddess, beautiful and true, my dearest and most perfect Miss Delilah, I will bring you the true doctor. Doctor Summerfield will lead with Miss Delilah. I will return him to our gracious goddess's arms from you thieves, unworthy of his wise sight." The man rambled on. Sky struggled harder. "Do not fear, my good doctor. I am taking you home." The man said. After a loud bang, his head opened up and blood gushed out over everything. His grip on Sky loosened. Body limp, he fell to the ground. Sky stumbled away from him, heart pounding and gasping for air. Alex entered the room from the supply closet behind where the man was standing. He lowered his gun. "Anyone else want to try that?" No one moved. Alex put the gun away. "Sky, are you okay?" Covered in blood, Sky froze. Alex led him outside. He had Sky stand under the emergency shower and turned it on. The blood washed off his skin, but Sky couldn't move to undress himself. Shaking, Sky looked to Alex for comfort. Alex stood under the water with him and hugged him. "It's gonna be okay. I won't let anyone hurt you in here." Alex helped him change clothes. Sky was too out of it to do it by himself. The lab was cleaned up, the body removed, and everyone in the lab tested for the viruses. All results were negative. Sky was deeply disturbed up by the incident. He was prepared people from the company might come to try and kill him and anyone else outside, or that he could be killed by someone infected. He didn't expect anyone would try to kidnap him to brainwash him and force him to lead the company. A more disturbing realization came over Sky. The man was clearly sent there. Someone knew he was here. Sky was unable to eat his lunch or dinner. Alex had him drink water throughout the day and gave him some medicine to settle his stomach. Sky decided to stay over again. He couldn't see how he'd sleep tonight. Sky took his other meds before bed like always, but he doubted he'd feel any better. Sometime after eleven, someone knocked at the door. Alex answered the door. It was Alan. "Hey, is Eric still awake? Someone wants to try to see if her daughter's still here." Eric got up from the bed. "I'm awake. Where is she?" "We're going to do it in the cafeteria. Can you do it tonight?" Alan asked. "Yeah. I'm off tomorrow." Eric went with him. Alex went back to the bed. Sky sat up. "What's he going to do?" "Oh, that. I guess you've never seen him do that, huh?" Alex said. "Do what?" "You read about Idris's abilities, didn't you?" Alex asked. "The blue lights? Yeah, what about them?" Sky asked. "Wait, can Eric do that too?! I thought his files said he wasn't experimented on in that way." "He wasn't. He acquired that ability later without any experimentation being done. We don't know why." Alex said. "Did you want to watch?" "Why didn't you tell me about this before?" "It never came up." Alex got out of bed again. "If you want to see, we should go now to catch up with them." Sky didn't bother changing out of his pajamas. He put his shoes on and followed Alex to the cafeteria. Eric and Alan were already there talking with a woman who appeared to be in her thirties. She was crying. Eric sat down at a table in the center of the room. Alan came over to the door where Sky and Alex were. "Come to watch?" "Sky's never seen this." Alex said. "Surprised he hasn't since he's been staying with you two a lot." Alan turned off the light. Sky didn't know what to expect next. He waited. A tiny blue speck flickered in the dark, then another. Slowly, the room filled with small specks before larger blue shapes appeared. Some were shaped like animals, others were shaped like people. Everything floated. The people were only a few inches off the ground. A little girl moved toward the woman. The woman tried to embrace her, but her hands went through her. The girl put her hands on the woman's hands, then vanished. "I think she's moved on now." Eric said to the woman. The woman wiped away tears. "Thank you for letting me see her one last time." "I'm sorry for your loss. I hope this gave you some peace of mind." Eric said. The woman thanked him again, then thanked Alan before leaving. Sky walked toward Eric, watching the blue lights move around them like fireflies in a field. The small specks stuck to Sky's skin, making him glow slightly himself. "What is this?" Sky asked Eric. "Ghosts...that's what a lot of people think they are." Eric said. "How can ghosts be real? Couldn't this be some kind of illusion?" Sky said. He reached out to touch a floating dog. Rather than go through it, Sky felt some slight resistance from the other side. He couldn't feel the dog in the way he normally could feel things, but something was there. It tingled on his skin. Whatever this was, Sky suspected, was likely what those working for the company also saw when they spoke about seeing spirits. "It might be. I don't know." Eric said. "I saw Sarah once, like this, a long time ago. She was dead by that point, but I didn't know that yet. I only knew I didn't get to see her anymore. When I was eighteen, I saw Idris like this. It wasn't long after this all started. I couldn't hear his voice, but he was speaking to me. Then, he left to wherever the lights go." "You believe in ghosts? But you're a researcher." "Moone & Wolfe believes in ghosts too, or some kind of event that appears to be like ghosts. I'm sure you've encountered it in your research." Eric said. "I think that's what they might be. I don't know for sure. I can't explain it." "When did this start happening to you?" Sky asked. "When I was eighteen. This started. And then this..." Eric made a fist, then opened up his hand. Inside of his hand rested a blue rose in full bloom. "It was suppressed when I was captured, but now that I'm not being drugged anymore and my memories came back, this returned to." "But this...this is Sarah's ability...I can see you getting Idris's ability somehow, but why do you have Sarah's?" Sky asked. He hadn't asked Eric about Idris and Sarah. Sky had always wanted to, but he could never get himself to bring up the topic with Sky. Now, it had tumbled right out of him without him planning it. "Because their blood is in me, in a way." Eric created another rose in his other hand. "I'd forgotten so much about them for so long and I was depressed most of my childhood. When I started getting better, more memories came out. Then this started. I remembered everything eventually. They both gave me a vaccine made from their blood, one for each virus. I think that's the link as to why I can do this. This was never something I could do as a child." "Why would the vaccines do that to you?" Sky asked. "They were very early, experimental version. It's not what the company has to have by now. Both of them were short on time. They gave me what they could steal." The flowers in Eric's hand grew vines and draped over the sides of his hands, more roses springing forth from them until the vines hit the floor. "That's why RM doesn't affect me the way it does other people. I might be able to survive the Rust too, but I don't want to risk testing it. The strains they worked with back then were less deadly than what we have now, but it does offer me some protection. The Red Madness and its counter vaccines were made with the research done on Sarah, and the Rust and its vaccine were studied on my brother, Idris." "One for each...Then you..." "My body is perfect to be used at making our versions of those vaccines." Eric said. "Their final acts of rebellion exist on in my blood." More lights hovered around Sky, as if they were drawn to him. "Eric...can you tell me...do you remember what Sarah was like?" "You want to know about Sarah?" Eric asked. He let the flowers grow more. "I didn't know her for very long. She was my older brother's girlfriend. They would sneak out a lot together, and when my parents were at work, some days it was just the three of us." "I thought Sarah and Idris were mostly kept in the lab." "No, they were allowed out. There were times of the day mine and Sarah's parents experimented on them, but they could go home after that. They had nowhere to run away to. Your father knew he could keep them trapped without having to lock them up. They could go outside until they were permanently put in the tanks. The last time I saw Sarah alive, I got the feeling I wouldn't see her again." "Do you know anything about a photo of one of Sarah's memories? My father kept a copy of a specific one for some reason. Do you know anything about that?" Sky asked. Eric let the flowers fall to the floor. The lights clung to the flowers the way they stuck to Sky. Eric reached in his pocket and handed Sky a photograph. "Is it this one?" Though the only light in the room was from the blue around him, Sky recognized the photo in the dark. "Why do you have one too?" "Idris left me that after he erased my memories the day before they put him permanently in the tank." Eric said. "It's the place they used to sneak off to all the time. It's a field with an old oak tree in..." "Rome, Georgia." Sky said. "Yeah, how did you know?" Eric asked. Sky avoided answered Eric's question. Instead, he asked one of his own. "Why was this place so important? Why is it raining?" "Sarah liked rain, but I don't know why this specific memory was so important. Only Sarah would know that. Idris never told me anything about it." Eric said. He stared down at the flowers. "Maybe rainy days were different for her. If her powers were the exact same as mine, she could probably hear the plants. They're more excited on rainy days." "You can...hear plants?" Sky asked. Eric nodded. "It's not really sound or words. It's more I can sense and smell their moods. Like when they're happy or afraid." "When would a plant be afraid?" Eric laughed. "When people cut their limbs. When one's cut, I can feel the pain and them calling out. Then the plants nearby will call out to more plants. They're all screaming without making any noise. Sarah could probably hear all that too." "The voices of those who cannot speak..." Sky muttered under his breath. Eric reached up and touched Sky's face. He stared at Sky strangely. "Your eyes are glowing..." "What?" Sky backed away. Alex walked over to them. "Is something wrong?" "His eyes. Look." Eric pointed to Sky's face. Alex looked at him. "Why are your eyes blue?!" Alan came over to them. "What's going on?" "The lights are sticking to you too." Alex touched Sky's arm. The blue lights there moved away from Alex's hand and gathered farther up along Sky's body. Alan and Alex looked to Eric. Eric stood up. When he did, the blue lights fled and settled into a single form on the the floor behind Sky. A blue shadow in the darkness extended out from the back of Sky's shoes in the form of an adult man with long hair. Alex muttered under his breath. "What the hell is this?" A strange, throbbing pain shot down the back of Sky's head. He held his head. The floor moved back and forth. He saw a field trading places with a garden, both in blue, but this sight appeared to no one else in the room. A loud chorus filled the room. Sky slid his hands down his face as the pain numbed his thoughts. Where his fingers touched, blue illuminated his skin. Spots of blue glowed across his body, blooming out like flowers and burning bright enough to light up his clothes. Disoriented, Sky asked. "What is that noise?" "What noise?" Eric asked him. "The humming. It sounds like cicadas." Sky said. In the distance, above the humming, he heard another noise rumbling closer. "I don't hear anything." Alex said. "No, I hear them. They're all singing. It sounds like..." Sky hummed along with the noise. The blue lights moved. Every shape, from the dust to the human like forms, dissipated into mist and floated up. Then, all at once, the lights descended down as untouchable drops to the floor. Alex opened his palm to try and catch the lights. They fell through his skin. "Gather water in the field, in the deep earth, in July, under the dark of night when the moon is high, and to the north, where the lights dance..." Kathy entered the room. The blue rain stuck to her skin and pooled at her feet. She walked toward Sky. "Drink it now against the branches broken by the sea, black water, poisoned sweetly by a child's laughter. Drink in her words, drink in her power. Once golden, the old crowns adorned with rowan and holly, by the lion's shield, we scattered the berries, red, in the field and declared ourselves little kings." "Kathy?" Alex said, confused by her presence. Sky turned around. The blue shadow behind him changed shaped. Rather than a man, the form of a young girl was cast on the floor. Kathy continued, the pool of blue behind her beginning to take its own shape. "Drink up the words, red and black, let them spill from your lips to the earth and wait, beneath the night sky, for the birth. Again and again, join hands and bow. Drink the red against the black, bathe in the storm that comes when the moon and the lights vanish. Then, if you are lucky, the crown is yours." A soft chime came from the clock hanging on the wall in the cafeteria, signaling the changing of the hour. Alan approached her. "Kathy...do you know something?" She put her hands on Sky's shoulders. "Behold, Delilah, child of the rain and sky, returned to us." "Delilah? Kathy, what are you talking about?" Alan asked. "You have returned. What for?" Kathy asked. Sky shook his head. "I don't understand what you're talking about. Delilah Blackwell is dead." "And yet, here you are, the real thing, born the sacred day with the voice that calls the rain." Kathy said. "You have been the only one that is real, and no blood was required to call you here." "Kathy, are you okay? Sky can't be Delilah. Delilah's supposed resurrections are just nonsense the cult uses to brainwash people with." Alex objected. "Sky, sing. Sing as loud as you can." Kathy said. "Show them the truth." "But I'm not..." Sky started to say. "Don't worry on it. Just sing." She said sweetly. Sky trusted her, though he couldn't understand why she would say such a thing to him. He took a deep breath and sang along with the thunder and humming he alone heard. Outside, it started to rain. In minutes, it shifted from a drizzle to a heavy downpour. Thunder echoed inside the building, and the cracking of lightning lit up the few rooms with windows. The blue lights matched the intensity of the storm outside. The three men watched on, in awe and terror. As it sunk in what Kathy told him, tears slid down his face. He stopped and fell to his knees. He covered his face and screamed. Kathy knelt down in front of him. She touched one of his hands. "Sky, don't be afraid." "I'm not afraid." Sky said through his tears. "I hate..." "Hate?" Kathy asked. "I hate them all." Sky uncovered his face. He saw the shadow behind Kathy. His eyes then fixated on the way the lights stuck to the necklace she always wore. "Why are you here?" "I don't know. Why are you?" She asked him back. Sky wiped his face off. He stood up. "If I am Delilah, then I have only one wish. To kill all of them." "Is that really what you want?" Alex stood behind him. "I don't know if any of this is real or not, but say you are Delilah...you came back just to kill? Why didn't you come back sooner then? They've been killing for centuries." "I don't know." Sky said. "What else would be the reason? This doesn't make sense at all. Ghosts can't be real. People can't be reborn. No one can control the rain." Eric approached Sky. "But you did it anyway, didn't you? It's raining now." "That's...that's a coincidence. I don't know why it's raining." Sky averted his eyes. "It...it rained when we sang in the car...Was that you?" Alex asked. "It always rains when we sing together." Kathy said. "That wasn't me! I can't control that!" Sky yelled at them. "I'm not Delilah! I can't be...If I am, then they're right about..." "Nothing." Kathy said. "Absolutely nothing." "But..." "Sky, don't you remember? You were the one who confirmed it to me that they've never followed the will of Delilah Blackwell. That day when the pact was made, Rose Blackwell stood beside her father dressed as Delilah." Kathy said. "Wait, what? What are you talking about?" Alan raised an eyebrow. "Just because you are her doesn't mean any of what they did had any meaning. You saw it--Delilah Blackwell was dead before the pact and unrelated to what happened that day. You being here doesn't mean anything they did worked. There was no powerful spirit that came to possess Rose. The ghost they saw was only the servant girl, a victim of her master, unable to move on. Whatever happened then had nothing to do with her. Everything they've done has been the will of her father, Leon Blackwell." Kathy said. She put her hand to Sky's face. "And you are not that man. Since you arrived, you've wanted revenge on them, but I don't think that girl you told me of would've come back for that. Something else has returned you here, and perhaps, you don't yet know what that is. Revenge can be achieved. If you succeed, is that the end of your story? What's beyond that?" Sky knew the answer to that. He'd seen it earlier in Eric's hands. "The rainstorm in July, in the field. I need to see it then." "Sarah's memory?" Kathy asked. "But what would that have to do with Delilah's wishes in death? I know the pact was made in a field, but that wasn't in Georgia. The field in that photograph is definitely in Rome." Eric interjected. "Do you know why you need to see this place, Sky?" Kathy asked. "I don't. I feel drawn there...someone..." Sky could see himself holding a woman's hand in his mind. "There's someone I should be there with. Someone I need to find." "Who is this person?" She asked. "I don't know. A woman." Sky said. "I always see a woman in a white dress." "Then maybe she's the reason you're here, and maybe it has nothing to do with the families at all." Kathy suggested. "Hold on. If he's Delilah...and it has nothing to do with any of the bullshit the cult's been spewing, then why did they get all the information right? Other than the gender part, they still got the physical appearance, birthday, and the rain thing right." Alan scratched his head. He looked at Sky. "You are a boy, right? Or are you a girl?" "I'm not a girl." Sky rolled his eyes. "We don't know everything they knew back then. We know Delilah had dark hair and dark eyes, and her birthday was July 7th. Them choosing that information is nothing special. They expected a girl because Delilah was a girl. As for the rain, it rained the day of the pact, but there may have been some other reason they connected Delilah with rain that we don't know about." Kathy said. "Moone & Wolfe and Aurora have the most important records kept hidden." Alex let out a deep breath. "Okay, so, if he is Delilah, what do we do know? Do they know he's Delilah?" "Possibly, but I don't think so." Kathy said. "Sky was chosen to be the next leader of the cult playing the role of their doctor leader, the other half of their pair. They want Delilah to be a girl, and I highly doubt any of them want the real Delilah. They only want a puppet. If they knew he was really her, they wouldn't have allowed Sky to wander outside this long." "But they still want me as the doctor. Someone tried to take me today." Sky said. "Why did they leave me out here this long?" "Because they had Alex before." Kathy answered. "Your aunt may have assumed you were dead at this point, and shifted to the new goal being using Alex until another child could be chosen for the role. Then Alex got out, and something must have tipped them off that you were still alive too. They may come after either of you now." "I won't let them get me. I don't know what any of this means, or if it's real, but I know I want to stop them." Sky said. He looked over at Eric and Alex. "I can't stay here for now. I have to get my revenge." "Sky, you don't need to do that...Please, we can keep you safe." Alex pleaded with him. "You promised me you would wait for me even if I turn forty. Are you going back on that?" Sky asked. "No." Alex said. "I'm leaving at sunrise." Sky said. "What are you going to do?" Alan asked. "I'm going to find every secret I can, and kill every last one of them that's at the top." Sky said. The lights vanished. Eric turned on the light shortly after that. "What happened to the lights?" Sky asked. "It's controlled by my emotional state. I've stopped it for now." Eric said. He looked at Sky with sad eyes. "Are you really sure you want to do this?" "You can't convince me to stay." Sky said. He glanced at Kathy, then stared at the floor. "None of you can. I'm going." "It's dangerous out there." Eric said. "You could get yourself killed." "They won't kill me. I'm certain of it." Sky said. Alex was clearly hurt by Sky's words. He kept those emotions from slipping out further in his voice. "If you're leaving, let me at least pack your backpack." A deep pain stung inside Sky. "Okay." Sky didn't sleep well that night. Alex packed Sky's bag with a first aid kit, energy bars, water, and other supplies. Alex didn't sleep at all. Sky saw him in the morning with a cup of coffee in his hand shortly before dawn. Eric was awake too. "Morning." Alex said. Sky could see Alex's eyes were irritated. "Morning." Sky looked at the stuffed backpack. Something caught in his throat. He noticed something sitting beside it. It was a small cake. "What's that?" Alex carried it over to him. "It's your birthday." Sky took the plate of cake. He looked down at it and back up at Alex. "Oh, right." "You're fourteen now. Congratulations." Alex said. Eric put a small candle on it. He lit the candle. Sky asked. "What's the candle for?" "Blow it out and make a wish. It's a tradition." Eric said. "A wish?" Sky didn't want to believe in anything like that. It was childish and illogical, he thought. Everything that he learned since coming here was illogical. Yet, he couldn't help himself from hesitating at deciding on a wish. Sky blew the candle out, and hoped more than he knew he should. He cut the piece of cake into three pieces and shared them. Within the hour, he threw away that hope and walked out the front of the building. Kathy, Eric, and Alex all said their goodbyes to him. He expected Kathy would tell him again that this wasn't his burden. Alex would say he shouldn't go so he could protect him. Eric would tell him to move on and be happy with them. Nothing followed the goodbyes. They let him go.
IV. June Fireflies