A Story Well-Travelled

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Chapter 17: Emerson

The first impression I have of the Council house is this: huge, grayish-white under the dark cover of a thunderstorm, and foreboding. Lightning streaks across the sky above the gargantuan house, a bad omen if I’ve ever seen one.

We’re stopped abruptly at the front gate, a tall structure with spikes on the top to prevent intruders. Aspen holds the umbrella close to her body, making me burrow into her side to stay under its cover.

A tall guard stands by the gate, seemingly immune to the rain. He’s soaking wet but shows no signs of discomfort. His bug eyes flick over us before landing and staying on me. It’s disconcerting, to say the least, but I’m now familiar with the sensation of being mistaken for Adelyn. I know all the signs of recognition: his demeanor changing to irritated, his eyes narrowing.

“Here again so soon, Miss Josephs?” The guard asks. His voice is deeper than I’d have thought, much too stern for me to go up against.

Luckily, the girl next to me just oozes confidence out of every pore. “We’re here to see Grayson Prescott.” Aspen says.

The guard hesitantly peels his eyes off of me to look at Aspen. One of his eyebrows is raised curiously at this new girl with charisma to spare. “Is that so?” He asks. “Mr. Prescott is taking visitors?”

“We’re old friends!” Aspen shouts to be heard over the rain pounding down. Every slight break in the rain is met with an even stronger revival. We’re in an all-out downpour for the moment. “He invited us! Really!”

The guard takes a small device out of his jacket pocket. It’s black with a short antenna. While I’m stuck on this peculiar device, one look at Aspen tells me not to worry about it. She seems comfortable with the piece of technology, so I suppose it’s normal.

The guard presses a button on the device and starts speaking. “Two girls are here to see Grayson Prescott. One of them is Adelyn Josephs.”

Aspen and I exchange a look but say nothing. A low hum of static comes from the small device before a nasally voice cuts through the air. “Opening the gates now.” It says. “Let them in.”

The gates before us squeak and squeal as they slowly open up through the middle. The guard steps back and gestures with a hand for us to enter. “No escort?” Aspen asks him. “You just assume we know where we’re going?”

The guard scoffs. “Miss Josephs has always made herself at home here before. I don’t see why today would be any different.”

Aspen looks at me with an alarmed expression but takes it in stride. In a split second, she’s grabbed my arm and is leading me towards the towering house of white columns and abundant windows.

She pushes open the main door, a tall wooden one with elaborate molding, and we rush inside. Aspen throws the umbrella outside last second and the door thuds closed behind us. The rain goes from immensely loud to a subtle thumping on the windows. I don’t even remember how it feels to not exist under the roaring thunder and insistent lightning, and I’m so caught up in this that I can’t even absorb my surroundings properly.

The foyer is huge. A wide staircase with velvet carpet cuts through the middle of the room, leaving a hallway on each side. The walls are the color of blood. A massive glass chandelier hangs down from the ceiling, lighting up the room and compensating for the lack of natural light outside.

I’ve been handling the sudden onset of electricity in my life very well, but somehow it strikes me as magnificent only here and now. It’s all but pitch-black outside, yet it’s still bright and everything is visible inside. We’re defying the basic laws of nature, it seems. The world wants it to be dark, yet we’re bombarding it with all this light.

And I can tell the light is artificial. It almost feels different on my skin. Much more synthetic than the refreshing illuminance of the sun and its glorious rays.

“I’m here, I’m here.” A voice says as a boy walks down the hallway on the right of the stairs. His pace is brisk and purposeful, but he stops short when he catches sight of Aspen and I. The boy’s eyes flick over Aspen but come to a slight pause on me. It’s as if he can’t believe what’s right in front of him. He’s seeing the ghost of Adelyn. He’s seeing me.

Until Aspen steps right in front of his line of sight and slaps him hard in the face. The sound is loud and sharp. The boy’s face is flung to the side and by the time he turns back, the pale skin is already turning red.

“What the heck, Penni?” He asks, sounding more incredulous than angry.

“Why did you push Adelyn into another dimension?” Aspen puts her hands on her hips and glares at the boy, who I’m now assuming is Grayson.

Grayson looks around Aspen and back at me. “But she’s right—oh. That’s not Adelyn.”

“Darn right it’s not Adelyn.” Aspen says. “Because you pushed her. Into another dimension.”

“Wait—” I cut off their argument with a question of my own. “How do you know I’m not Adelyn? Who do you think I am?”

Aspen looks like she wants to slap Grayson around some more, but my question gives her a pause. She, too, looks to the boy with unruly brown curls and an astonished look on his face. “Well?” Aspen prompts.

“You’re Emerson, right?” Grayson asks, hazel eyes on me. “My friend Wesley told me about you. Well, I guess he’s Lee in your dimension, but we’re still pen-pals.”

Lee. The mention of him takes my breath away. What does he have to do with this conversation? How does the boy back home with beautiful eyes and a constant, deceitful grin have to do with any of this?

And why is he telling Grayson about me?

“Wesley?” Aspen beats me to any of my questions. Her voice is whispered, her eyes unseeing. I step away so I can see her face better. All her features have gone slack as she fights to understand what is happening. “You know where Wesley is?”

Grayson looks like he’s made a monumental mistake. His cheeks are a deep red, one more so than the other one due to Aspen’s slap. “I—”

Before he has time to think, Aspen slaps him again on the same cheek as last time. “You knew where Wesley was this whole time and you didn’t tell me!” She shouts. “I thought for sure he was dead! I thought something happened to him!”

“I’m sorry.” Grayson begs her to understand. “He made me promise not to tell anyone.” Grayson and Aspen look at each other for a long moment. It’s a moment I feel that I’m awkwardly intruding on, so I take another step away. This is a moment for two childhood friends to dig out a giant chasm between them. Aspen has learned something she’s spent years worrying about, and Grayson feels awful for not telling her. That much I can insinuate, but the backstory is so far beyond me. I’m struck once again by just how little I know about these people. Even Aspen, who I know consider a close friend, has a life that’s completely unknown to me.

The moment is interrupted by another group walking into the foyer. Three guards flank a tall man with a bald head and eyes so dark they’re almost black. Grayson whips around and nods his respect at the man. “Sullivan,” He greets. “How can I help you?”

“I—” Sullivan’s eyes catch on me, and something flickers in them. Surprise? Distrust? “Miss Josephs,” He observes. “You’re here sooner than we thought. I had assumed our meeting in three weeks would mean peace and quiet in the meantime. Best not to assume with you though, apparently.”

I have no idea what to say. Adelyn has met and associated with far too many people for me to adequately pretend to be her. How am I supposed to know how Adelyn would address this person who is obviously an authority figure? I’m her pen-pal, not her stalker.

“Nice to see you?” I say, an accidental question mark thrown in on the end.

“For once, it’s actually nice to see you, too.” Sullivan says. “I was actually going to call and push up our meeting. Now I don’t have to.” He gestures to the men behind him. “Guards, please arrest Miss Josephs and show her to our prisons.”

The guards rush forward obediently and grab my arms tightly before I can even think to protest. One guard holds each of my arms, but the third guard stands behind uncertainly. “And her friend?” He asks Sullivan.

Sullivan’s dark eyes land on Aspen. Her eyes are wide and she’s looking at me with a sorry expression. She doesn’t know what to do. We’re completely overwhelmed here.

Sullivan waves a bored hand in the air. “Arrest her, too.”

“Wait—” Grayson steps forward to reason with Sullivan, but Aspen and I are dragged away before he can make any progress whatsoever. His indignant cries fade as we leave the room.

Walking through the elaborate hallways, I finally come to my senses, kicking and elbowing and trying to fight for my freedom. The guards on either side only hold me tighter, their hands digging into my wrists and twisting. “No—please.” We’re going deeper and deeper into the Council house. The chandeliers give way to overhead lights built into the ceiling. The lighting is now fluorescent and harsh. After so many years with just the sun on my arms, the fluorescence almost seems to burn my skin. “Please.”

Somewhere behind me, I can hear Aspen fighting against her guard as well. “You can’t do this!” She shrieks. “We didn’t do anything!”

Our fighting is in vain, and we both realize that eventually. Even if we were to somehow take down the guards, neither of us could find our way out of here again. We’re far too deep inside. Down multiple hallways. Down a rickety elevator and into an underground hallway composed entirely of some sort of steel.

The air is cold underground. After a short walk down the hallway, the walls on either side start to break up and reveal prison cells with thick bars and big locks on the doors. I see skinny men huddled in corners. I see women looking out with hollow eyes.

And then I’m thrown into a cell on the right while Aspen continues on without me. The cell door swings shut behind me and one of my guards—who has a nice long scratch on his face courtesy of me—locks the door angrily.

And then he leaves. I’m alone in a prison cell in a dimension that is not my own. Well, not completely alone. There is the woman in the cell across the hallway from my own. Her hair hangs in long, dirty dreads, a similar color to my own. When she brushes the dark hair out of her face, I can see her better, leaning up against the bars of her cell. Pale eyes. Full lips.

She looks familiar. Older and grimier with years of abuse etched across her face, but I’d recognize her anywhere.

“Mom?”

Steel turns out to be very, very cold. I’m chilled to my bones, driven to intense shivering that makes my whole body shake and tremble. Or maybe it’s just the air that’s cold, but either way, I feel as though I’ll never be warm again. What I would give to be sitting around the fire with Kenzi and the rest of my family right about now.

It’s funny how I’ve always been hesitant to call them my family. Lately, now that I’m away from them, I’ve been doing it more and more. Because they are my family, aren’t they? Maybe we don’t share blood, but our bonds are far too strong to break with a little tug or even a full-size hurricane. We’re a family in all the ways that count. I’d give my life without hesitation for any of them. I’d kill if it meant saving them in return.

But now that I’m sitting in a cold prison cell across from my Mom, my real family, I’m not sure I can say the same goes for her. She left me four years ago without a goodbye, only leaving behind a short note saying there was somewhere she needed to go and she hoped to be back soon.

Realistically, I know I should forgive her for the abandonment with what I know now. She probably couldn’t get back to me even if she wanted to due to her untimely imprisonment. But abandonment is a scar across my heart that will never fully heal. For years, I’d felt the sting of a mother’s betrayal.

“Emerson?” Mom’s voice is gravel after so long without use. She forces the words up her throat.

It’s refreshing being recognized as me, Emerson, after a few days of being an Adelyn impersonator. We take our own identities for granted until we can no longer rely on them. I miss being the Emerson who sits at home with her family and listens to Zofia complain or helps Kenzi start a fire. Some part of me wonders how she recognizes me after the makeover that left me identical to Adelyn, but I suppose a mother’s intuition actually does exist.

Mom holds onto the prison bars with all her might, trying to push them into submission and get closer to me, but the bars won’t budge. I glance at Mom for short intervals before I have to look away. She’s a sorry sight. Her hair is a tangled mess, plastered to her head by sweat, grease, and grime. Her eyes are pained, both from years of captivity and the pain of seeing her daughter in the prison as well. Her clothes are ragged—a torn gray t-shirt and sweatpants that hang loosely from her deteriorating body. She’s far more wrinkled than I remember, but I suppose the stress of an unbearable life can do that to a person.

“Emerson, what are you doing here?” She asks.

“What are you doing here?” My voice comes out sounding much more hurt than I’d intended.

Mom swallows hard against a throat I imagine is quite dry. There’s no source of water in her enclosure, only a thin mattress on the floor and a bucket in the corner that can only be for her bodily fluids.

“I—”

“Have you been in this dimension all along?” I cut her off. “Is this where you came when you left me?”

Mom hesitates, a silent battle seeming to rage behind her haunted eyes, but I think she finally settles on the truth. “Yes.”

“Why?” I ask. “Why did you come to this dimension?”

“Emerson, you have a sister.” She says in lieu of an answer.

I roll my eyes. “Yeah, I know. Her name is Adelyn.” It’s the only thing that makes sense—why we look exactly alike and are around the same age.

“You…you know her?” Mom’s voice crackles with emotion. She sounds like she wants to cry, but dehydration prevents her tears. “Have you met?”

“Well, no…” How do I explain that I know so much about my sister even though I’ve never spoken to her face-to-face? “We were sort of pen-pals. But enough about that. Tell me why you came to this dimension!” Again, the last part of my message turns sad and bitter. I might have the time for useless banter, but I don’t have nearly enough patience.

Mom looks away from me and leans against the wall of her cell. I shiver just watching—that wall must be so cold. She bends her knees and wraps her thin, bony arms around them. For a moment she’s quiet, and I let her get her thoughts together. It gives me the chance to take her in once more. She doesn’t look anything like the vibrant, happy mom of my memories. This woman is worn down and defeated, a shadow of the woman she once was.

“This dimension is my home dimension.” Mom begins her story. I settle in and burrow against the wall as well; it’s cold on my shoulder. “Your Dad and I…well, I got pregnant…” I assume that she’s gathering the rest of her story, but when Mom turns to look at me, there are tears in her eyes. “I was going to have to give you girls up and I just couldn’t do that.” She shakes her head back and forth. “I couldn’t. So your Dad and I went to the dimension you grew up in.”

“But how did you know how to get there?” I ask. “Inter-dimensional travel? Really? Is that common knowledge here?”

Mom shakes her head again. “No, but your Dad and I were different. We were…” Mom looks away from me, then back at me with a new expression on her face…wistful. “Did you know there is magic in every dimension? I mean, not a lot or anything. Just…something that some people have. You see, if there is no magic, there is no world. There would be no miracles or beauty or faith.”

“But what does that have to do with any of this?”

Mom gives a short laugh. “It does,” She says. “I promise. Anyway, so some people in the world have this magic, and others don’t. And every world has a portal to another world. It’s powered by the magic of the people who live there.”

“And the lake is a portal…” The pieces start to fit together in my brain before more questions come tumbling in. “So the lake doesn’t just take you to the place you long for the most?” It was a beautiful story. I’ll be sad to have it ripped away just like that—the magic gone.

“No.” Mom says. “Every world has portals to the dimensions closest to it.”

“But…if you brought Adelyn and me to a different dimension, how did Adelyn end up back here?”

Mom takes a deep breath and leans her head back against the steel wall. “So I took you girls to the other dimension so that I wouldn’t have to give you away—” Mom recaps. “And I gave birth to you two and everything was wonderful. Then Adelyn got sick.”

I let out a hard breath and close my eyes, knowing where this story is going to go.

“She was getting worse and I was scared she was going to die.” Mom says. “Your Dad and I loved that dimension, but it didn’t have any modern medicine. Adelyn didn’t have any hope for survival there.”

“So you took her here to get help?” I ask.

Mom nods her head. “We came over—just me and Adelyn—and I took her to the hospital. And they told me that she died.”

What?” The word is ripped out of me. My eyes snap open and I lean closer to the bars of my cage. Mom is only five feet away now—the closest our prisons allow. “But she isn’t dead.”

“Obviously.” Mom says. “I guess I was naïve. I believed them because what reason did I have not to?” Mom takes a deep, steadying breath. Her voice is starting to shake. “And I came back to this dimension every once in a while just to see how it was doing.” She glances at me. “This is my home, you know.”

I think back to the mini-trips my Mom used to take. She’d take off for two days at a time and come back with some eccentric food item that I’d assumed she’d found in some abandoned house. Now, I had to believe that she got the food from Resdon. If only she’d brought back some pancakes…

“And on one of my trips back…I saw Adelyn.” Mom continues. “She looked exactly like you. Well, a little more put together, but exactly like you in every other way. And I knew she was my daughter.”

“What did you do?” My voice is quiet, a gentle plea for her to go on.

“She was around the age that the interviews were starting.” Mom says. “Adoptive families were going to start talking to her and then she was going to be taken forever, so I tried to get my own appointment to interview her.”

A big red light went off in my head. Adelyn wasn’t adopted at the age everyone else was—how did my Mom get an interview?

Mom sees my confusion. “Of course, I was told that I couldn’t interview her.” She says. “It took me years to track her down to one group home. I was sure my opportunity had passed and that she’d already been adopted. But she wasn’t yet. The lady at the group home told me Adelyn was being saved to be on the Council, but I knew that wasn’t the whole story.” Her voice is tremulous. “They were going to drain her of her magic and probably kill her in the process.”

My heart stops beating. How could the Council do such a thing? Why? I think of Baby Adelyn and how it could’ve been me to get sick. It could’ve been me who called this dimension a home. Only destiny prevented it.

“So I went home and formed a plan.” Mom says. “Your father was dead by that point and I was terrified of leaving you without a mother, but…”

“But you couldn’t leave Adelyn to die.”

Mom shakes her head. “I had to save her.”

“So what did you do?” I look at Mom through the bars of our cells and realize how inconvenient a situation this is. I’ve finally found my Mom and it just so happens that we’re locked in an underground prison. The urge to hug her belatedly kicks in, but the distance between us in unsurmountable.

“I left a note for you and then came here.” Mom says. “I found out that the Council had four children being reserved for their own personal needs.”

A voice in my head counts off the childhood group I’ve come to intrude upon. Adelyn. Aspen. Grayson. And Wesley, who apparently is the boy who makes my heart beat faster back home.

“The Council needed those children because they were the special ones. They were the ones with magic.”

“But what did they need them for?” I ask.

Mom sends me a sad, defeated smile and I’m struck again by how this experience has changed her. “They needed their magic to stay immortal.”

My blood runs cold. I hadn’t known the Council was immortal. This just seemed to go against nature and all I was taught. Life is a cycle: you live and you die. You don’t, however, extract the magic out of children in order to prolong your own miserable existence.

“Children have less magic than adults.” Mom explains. “They needed all four of them in order to stay alive longer. The Council was going to hold them in a group home until they turned eighteen. The kids would have stronger magic, but not strong enough to fight back.”

“Is that why they don’t take the adults with magic?” I ask. “Because they’re too strong to fight back?”

Mom tilts her head side to side. “I have some theories about that.” She says. “If the Council starts taking adults at intervals, people might notice. If they take children with no families, the story might slip through the cracks.”

“So what did you do then?”

“I offered a trade.” Mom says. “I asked the Council to let those four kids go, and in return, I’d give them my magic.”

My shoulders slump as the story nears its end. I can’t fault my mother for saving four children, but I also can’t forgive her for leaving me behind and never telling me the truth. But I’m not completely out of questions—I’m not sure I’ll ever be. “So why are you here now? I thought they would take your magic and you’d be dead?”

“They don’t need it yet.” Mom says. “But soon, I’m sure. Now that I’m seeing how old you are…it has to be soon.”

“How do you know all this?” I ask. Mom spent years in my dimension, so how does she know so much about the workings of the Council in this one? Sure, she grew up here, but the information she’s handing me now sounds fresh. It sounds like someone with firsthand experience.

Sure enough, Mom gives me another of her small, reluctant smiles. “Because I was on the Council. Your Dad and I were the missing sixth and seventh members.”

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