A Story Well-Travelled

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Chapter 19: Emerson

It has to be night by now. We’ve been sitting in silence for what’s felt like years, even though I’m sure it’s only been a matter of hours. My stomach angrily alerts me that it’s time to eat—the rumbling is the only sound in this god forsaken prison.

Every time it rumbles, Mom looks across the hallway and into my cell, a look of sorrow on her face. No mother wants to see her child go hungry. I imagine it is even worse when said child is also in prison…

“We have to escape.” I tell her once the silence is too much to bear.

She sighs forlornly as she leans on the wall of her cell and peers into the hallway. “It’s not that simple.”

“What do you mean it’s not that simple? We get out, get Aspen, and get the heck out of here.”

“Who’s Aspen?” Mom asks, turning her head to face me.

“A friend.” I say. “Now let’s go save her.”

“Emerson, I can’t leave.” Mom’s voice is apologetic. Her face seems to crumple, quadrupling the amount of wrinkles lining her eyes and forehead. She swipes her matted hair out of her face. “I made a deal with the Council.”

“Well, deal is off.” I push myself to a standing position, ignoring the aches and pains in my unaccustomed legs. I’m stiff and hungry and probably smelly, but I’m determined. It seems to be my only redeeming quality in the company of plenty unimpressive ones. “Let’s go. Get up.”

“Emerson, no.” Mom is firmer now. Her voice takes on a hard edge. It almost makes me flinch; “stern” is not a characteristic I associate with my mother. Though it’s not a humorous situation, I can’t help but think, man, prison changed her. “I can’t leave or they’ll just find other kids to take for their magic. It would be my life for theirs. I won’t do it.”

“Now is not the time to be self-righteous!” I shout. I immediately realize my mistake and push closer to the bars of my cell, glancing back and forth down the hallway to make sure no guards heard me. But the hallway made of steel is surprisingly empty. There’s not a guard in sight.

I’m more frustrated than I should be, but now that I’ve had time to think, I’m realizing that this just isn’t my problem. This dimension is completely different from my own. How did I get caught up in its immoral power-dealings? Mom and I should be back at home, curled up in the living room with blankets or warming up by a bonfire. We should not be in a prison waiting to be punished or, in her case, used up and drained of magic and life. And as much as I hate my next thought, it creeps up anyways. I wish Mom had never seen Adelyn here. I wish she had never come back to save her.

But I know that Mom won’t go home and simply forget her time here. She’ll want to be the hero, sacrificing herself for the sake for four kids, three of which she’d never met. She grew up in this dimension, where it’s easy to make the right decision and life is about more than just self-preservation. I grew up in a harsher environment. Survival is my only priority. Truthfully, I don’t even owe anything to Aspen, but I care enough about my friend of two days that I won’t leave her behind unless I absolutely have to.

If I play my cards right, I can get Mom to come with me, but if we stay here, we’ll surely die. I take care to make my voice sympathetic and persuading. “Mom, we can get out of here and go home—”

“Emerson—”

“But…” I continue over her protests. “We’ll be safe at home instead of in prison cells. Then we’ll make a plan to take the Council down for good and we can come back and do it.” I can see that she’s considering my words, tossing them around in her head with careful deliberation. To drive my point home, I add softly, “You’re no good to this world if you’re dead.” And because I’m feeling manipulative, I bring tears to my eyes and play the role of a daughter who’s just terrified of losing her Mom.

And I love my Mom, but years apart have driven a wedge between us, one I’m not sure we’ll ever recover from. Whether she decides to join me or not, I’m leaving tonight.

“Fine.” Mom lowers her head in defeat. “But we have to come back. We have to defeat them before anyone else gets hurt.”

“Okay.” I say, even though at home I’ll convince her otherwise. I love my mother for all her heroics and selflessness, but it’s one trait that she did not pass down to me.

Mom shoots down all of my ideas on how to escape. Granted, most of them don’t even have a logical foundation. The most logical one is my suggestion that she uses her magic to “poof” us out of the prison, which earns a hard, scolding look from my mother. Wishing upon a star is out considering we’re underground and this dimension is terribly lacking in visible stars anyways. Being whisked away by a unicorn is out because unicorns aren’t real—or so my Mom says, but I choose to believe otherwise. I harbor one idea—one wish—close to my heart, even though I know it could never happen.

In the moments of defeat when I pace in my tiny cell, I allow myself to imagine that Lee comes running through the hall with the key to our cells. He’ll unlock us and kiss me and—

Footsteps coming down the hall interrupt my dreaming. For a moment, I almost call out for Lee, but as I rest my cheek on the cold bars to get a better look, I see that it is Grayson instead. Trailing behind him is an older lady with silver hair who keeps glancing nervously behind them.

“Grayson!” I yell angrily. He got me locked in this cell. He told the Council. He…is unlocking the door to my cell. “What are you doing?”

Grayson glances up at me from his bent position holding the huge lock on my door. His hazel eyes are set in fierce determination. “Saving you?” He suggests.

I don’t have time for his sarcasm. “What about Aspen?”

“We’ll get her, too, but we don’t have much time.”

My eyes land on the lady who now stands behind Grayson, peering over his shoulder. She feels my gaze and lifts her eyes to meet mine. “Hello, dear.” The lady says, her voice pleasant. “My, don’t you look just like your sister? Grayson told me you did, but…I had to see it for myself.”

“Who are you?” I ask.

From across the hall, Mom jumps to an upright position. “Don’t talk to her, Emerson.” Mom says, her eyes narrowed in barely concealed anger. “Soren’s a member of the Council.”

My eyes flick to Mom for one second before finding the lady again—the Council member named Soren. She looks at me as well, and together, we size the other up. She’s seeing the mirror image of Adelyn, but I’m seeing a new person completely. Her silver hair is severely straight, hanging just beyond her shoulder before it cuts off abruptly with no layers or variation. She wears a pantsuit, something I’ve seen in closets of abandoned houses but never really believed people wore them. But on her, it works. She gives off an aura of power, despite the fact that she still radiates with nervous energy.

“Why are you helping us?” I ask.

The moment stretches on until it almost becomes elastic. Grayson still stands by my door, working tirelessly at the lock. Mom hovers in the background, frozen in a cell of her own. Only Soren and I seem to be suspended in the moment. It stretches so long, I’m sure she’s not going to answer, then her melodic voice fills the hallway.

“The methods of the Council used to maintain their power is immoral.” She says. “Perhaps I’d like to make amends if that’s okay with you?” I nod my consent. “And I think I’ll start by helping free you and your friend. Aspen, is it?”

“And my Mom.” I glance behind Soren at the lady in question. Her hair is still a mess of tangles plastered to her head with sweat. Tattered rags hang from her thinning body. “You have to let her go too.”

Soren turns around and looks at my mother for the first time. Apparently not liking what she sees, the Council member turns back around a moment later. “But the other Council members—”

“Can screw themselves.” I finish for her. “You say you want to make amends? Why not start with the lady you’ve kept locked in an underground cell for three years.”

Soren looks like she wants to protest and say something on behalf of the Council, but she nods a brief second later. There’s a loud clang of metal on metal and my cell door swings open. Grayson looks pleased with himself, a self-satisfied grin on his face, but if you ask me, he took entirely too long to complete the simple task of unlocking a door.

“And now my mom.” I instruct, waving a hand towards her cell.

Mom steps back and waits for Grayson to work. He glances at Soren for confirmation, who only gives a slight nod before Grayson bends down and starts the process all over again. Standing in this hall, exposed and vulnerable, is giving me crippling anxiety. A guard could come out and see us any second, and while I’d like to believe Soren and Grayson have a plan in place, the only person I trust is me.

“You’re taking too long, Grayson.” I’m impatiently tapping my foot on the steel ground. The sound becomes too loud for my attentive ears and I stop.

Grayson gives me an annoyed look. “Trying my best.” He spits out.

Well, your best isn’t good enough. “Can you give me the key to Aspen’s cell then?” I ask. “I’ll go free her. It’ll be quicker if we work at the same time.”

The huge key ring in his hand, outfitted in what must be hundreds of keys, taunts me. I want to grab it and take it for my own, but Grayson’s hands grip it so hard they’re turning white. Taking it from his grasp will be like ripping a tree from the ground, roots and all.

“What cell number is Aspen in?” Grayson asks, turning around to face Soren.

Her brows furrow before she says, “Three-thirteen?” Her floundering confidence is about as reassuring as a dark storm on the horizon. But Grayson fumbles with the keys before pulling one off and handing it to me. The key is cool in my hands.

“Should be right down the hall.” Grayson tells me. “Just follow the cell numbers.”

I nod my head and take off deeper into the prison. I pass cell after cell, some empty and some not. Hands reach out to grab at me periodically. Each time, my heart stops.

But I’m making progress and counting off the cell numbers as they go by. Small plaques hung on the wall beside each cell tell me I’m getting closer. 309. 311.

In the next cell on the left, Aspen is huddled in the back corner. “Aspen!” I hiss out in a whispered tone. “Aspen! Let’s go!”

She lifts her head to look at me. Her eyes get wide and Aspen crawls over the floor to get closer to the bars. “What? How? When?”

“We’re escaping.” I answer her first question. “Grayson is helping us. And this is happening now.” I fit the key in her heavy lock and try to turn it. The key gets stuck and my heart stops, but I remember Grayson’s labored attempts at my door. “Hold on. I’ll get this.”

For far too many seconds, I fumble with the key and try repeatedly to free Aspen. She watches me with worried eyes, occasionally glancing down the hall and acting as the world’s most unreliable lookout. I can’t help but notice that she looks much more disheveled than when we first got here. The top layer of her hair—the same silver as Soren’s—has begun to tangle, and stray underlying strands of teal and purple stick out at random. Her sundress is rumpled.

Finally, the lock clicked and I throw open the door. Aspen squeals and launches herself into my arms. She savors her first breath of freedom. “Let’s go.” She says when we finally peel apart. Her thick eyebrows then furrow. “Wait—you said Grayson was helping. Where is he?”

“Freeing my Mom.” With that, I grab her hand and run down the hallway back towards them. I can see the group in the distance—they aren’t that far—but it feels like forever until I’m back in front of Mom’s cell and she’s stepping outside of it.

While Aspen and I have been locked up for a matter of hours, Mom’s been locked up for years. Her first taste of freedom has to be overwhelming. She chokes on the tears cascading down her cheeks. Her hands shake with the sudden storm of emotions. I have to say, liberty might even taste better than pancakes.

We let her have her moment, but the time is closing in on us. I can feel it pressing in on my back—we’re on a time crunch. Everybody looks to me to get Mom moving again. I reach out a delicate hand and lay it on her shoulder. Mom flinches with what is probably the only human contact she’s had in ages.

“Mom…” I begin, my voice quiet. “We have to go now.”

She sniffles again but nods her head. We wait for her to take the first monumental step. Before starting to walk, she turns around and closes the door of her cell. It bangs shut with a sound of finality. It’s the end of her torment and the beginning of her future.

And then the guards come from some hidden corner, running full-speed at us, guns in their hands.

Grayson is the first to jump to action. His eyes are wider than the moon. “Run.” He says.

We all take off, making the first right turn we can so they can’t shoot us down. Soren takes the lead because of her knowledge of the layout. For an older woman, she is surprisingly fit. Her legs take long strides and her arms pump out momentum.

We take a staircase up to the first floor. Our footsteps pound on the metal stairs loud enough for everyone in the Council house to hear us, but I allow the thick door at the top of the staircase to give me hope.

It’s locked, of course, but Soren already has the key out. She shoves it in the lock and gets the door open in record time, accomplishing what Grayson and I couldn’t. We surface into one of the wide, crimson hallways of the first floor.

Two guards at the nearest door startle when they see us. Their hands clench tighter on their guns, but Soren steps forward. “Sorry to scare you, boys.” She is the face of serenity. “Nothing to see here. Return to your post.”

The guards exchange a disbelieving glance, but I suppose you can’t disobey a member of the Council. They loosen their grips on the guns and settle down. Soren shoves the door closed behind us, hopefully locking out our pursuers, and walks briskly away. We all follow, awestruck that we just got away with something.

Aspen steps up and walks to my right. Her eyes are huge and gray. The edge of her lip tilts up in what appears to be a grin, but I now know this is just her usual face. “Can you believe she can run that fast?” Aspen glances at the Council member we’re following. “I guess you could say she was soarin’.”

I try and hide my grin. In front of me, Grayson glances back with a scowl.

“Get it?” Aspen whispers. “Because it sounds like Soren?”

“I got it.” Why the girl had to always explain her jokes was beyond me. Now that we’re out of immediate danger—well, relatively out of it—a milder form of anxiety creeps up on me. It makes no logical sense, but I still worry that Soren is leading us into a trap. Yet I follow her anyways, past elaborate paintings of five figures I assume to be the Council members. Soren is one of them, and I recognize Sullivan from earlier, but the other three are strangers wearing confident smiles and expensive clothing.

In the distance, I can see the foyer. My heart picks up as we walk into it—an empty room that feels like a milestone in my departure from this wretched place. The chandelier hangs above my head. The massive staircase is behind me, a thing of the past.

It isn’t Soren who opens the massive front door, but my Mom. She strokes the metal handles once before turning them and pushing the door open. The rain has let up, leaving a cloudy night in its place. There are still no stars to be seen, but puffs of clouds cover the dark blue sky.

There’s a wide-open field of green grass in front of us, dark in the moonlight. A formidable gate in the distance. And then freedom. Soren leads us down the path and towards the front gates. The crickets sing their song around us. It still smells of rain and the ground is wet beneath our feet.

“Why was it so easy to get out of there?” I ask Soren. She’s still in the lead. Grayson trails her, followed by my Mom, Aspen, and then me.

“No one questions a Council member.” She says. “But we’re not in the clear yet.” She nods ahead at the looming gate.

A small brick hut sits by the doors of the front gate. A bored guard slumps over in his chair, his gun resting in his lap. Soren knocks gently on the glass window of the hut and the guard jumps into position. “Yes, ma’am?” He asks. “I was just—”

“Sleeping.” Soren sounds unamused. “You were just sleeping. Now open up the gates.”

The guard glances at the rest of us once, then eyes the little communication device sitting on the counter of his hut. “I…”

“Are you questioning me?” Soren asks, her voice taking on a disbelieving tone. I remember her words from only moments before. No one questions a Council member. Yet here we are. I’m sweating nervous buckets, but I hope the guard can’t see through my mask of innocence. I hope none of my companions look as guilty as I feel.

“Maybe if I can just call up real quick and verify this—”

“Who is your superior officer?” Soren asks. “Should we get him involved?”

“No!” The guard shakes his head vehemently. He reaches over and presses a big red button. A moment later, the gates swing open on their hinges.

I can see a foot of open space between the two opening doors. Two feet. Three…

A siren suddenly goes off, loud enough to wake the dead. We all subconsciously cower over and cover our ears. By the time I’ve righted myself and my companions are doing the same, the guards are on us.

“No!” Aspen screams. I whirl my head around to see two dark-uniformed guards grabbing her arms and pinning her on the ground. To my right, Grayson is battling his own pair of guards. Multiple more are rushing up to join the pursuit.

I don’t have time to count them. I barely have time to take my mother’s arm and push her out the still-opening gates. “Let’s go.” I say to her. Mom’s terrified eyes meet mine. She looks at me like she’s never seen me before, and I know what she’s thinking. How can Emerson leave behind these people so easily? Is she really this callous?

I don’t want the answer to be yes. In fact, the guilt already building in the pit of my stomach tells me that it doesn’t have to be this way. I want to stay here and help them, but I can’t. Aspen is screaming and crying and kicking. My heart is lurching. Guards materialize out of the shadows, dark figures who wish to imprison me.

And I can’t let that happen.

I grab Mom’s arm and decide not to give her a choice. We take for granted the freedom we have to make choices each and every day, but it’s so easy to take them away. I’m making a traitor out of my own mother and she has no say in it.

“EMERSON!” Aspen’s screaming pierces the air. I flinch at the raw fear coming from her voice. She was so good to me, so kind, but I’ll leave her in a heartbeat if it means I get to go back home again. I’ve had enough of this world, enough to know that life is better without so many people crowding in around you.

We run through the darkness. I jump around shadows of bushes and trees where I can’t see the pavement beneath me. This road isn’t used often, I can tell, but it’s serving its purpose now. More sirens pop up behind me, though these sound like they’re getting closer by the minute.

I lead Mom off of the road and into the shadows then, even though I’ve always been scared of the dark. Some form of a plan is forming in my mind: get to a convenience store and get a flashlight—the forest will be too dark to see in—then run for the lake. I don’t have money to buy a flashlight, but I have pockets to steal one in. And I’m not exactly sure where the lake is from here, but I’ll find it. We’re getting out of here, one mother and her traitorous daughter.

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