A Story Well-Travelled

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Chapter 24: Adelyn

“Not everyone deserves redemption.” Soren says softly. We’re still in the Council meeting room, and I can feel the risk of time creeping in on us. It’s a noose tightening around my neck and threatening to cut off air flow. We need to get moving.

I can’t argue with Soren’s declaration, but I do know for a fact that she was only referring to herself. “I didn’t ask if you thought you personally deserved redemption.” I put my hands on my hips. “I just asked if you believed in it.”

The lightning strikes outside and I’m once again reminded of the urgency here. Still, Soren takes her precious time in answering. She silently contemplates my questions before weakly saying, “Yes.”

“Well then who’s to say you aren’t deserving?” I ask. “You do seem a little biased.”

Soren smiles weakly, and I know I’m getting through to her. She turns to look fully at me and her gaze is the strongest it’s been since I’ve been in this room with her. “And what do you suggest?”

“That we get moving.” I don’t have time to explain the full plan to her right now. It’s a waste of our precious seconds. Each one is a gift I’m not willing to waste. “But what you need to do now is sound the alarms to bring everyone to the Square and then grab the cell keys. We need to get Grayson and Aspen.”

“Sound the alarms?” Soren looks bewildered, but she stands up regardless and crosses the room to the lamp farthest from the door I stand in front of. Behind it, she pulls away a small panel of wood and pushes down a big red button. I’m always stunned to find out new things about this Council house. I had always assumed the siren controls had to be in some underground room with immense security, but I’ve been within feet of the button multiple times in my life before and never known it.

Outside, I can hear the sirens begin. They’ll wake up everyone in Resdon, prompting a bunch of bitter citizens to leave their warm beds and walk through the torrential rain to the Square. They’ll be furious, but since I’m saving their lives, I reason they’ll thank me in time.

“The keys?” I ask Soren. She digs in her pantsuit pocket and comes up a moment later with a thick key ring. How she hid it in her slim fitting uniform is beyond me, but Soren has always functioned with more magic than the rest of her fellow Council members. And that’s saying something.

We rush to the prisons together, passing no one on the way down. Soren leads me to a small elevator that we take underground. Inside, the elevator has bright blue walls and stark lighting that makes my eyes water. I’m grateful for the lack of insulting music though because I probably couldn’t handle it in my adrenaline-plagued state.

My foot taps impatiently for the entire ten seconds it takes the elevator to stop again. The doors inch open and then I run out into an unfamiliar part of the tunnels. I’m forced to halt my progress and wait for Soren to walk out ahead of me. She walks briskly, at a pace that most Resdonites would find themselves breathing laboriously, but it’s far too slow for the circumstances.

“Soren—”

“Hush.” She says, and a second later I recognize where we are. Sensing my next move, Soren hands me the keys and I grab at them hungrily. Once the exchange is complete and a jangling key ring swings from my hand, I run the rest of the way to their cells.

Aspen and Grayson are both sitting on the floors of their cells. Aspen’s head is in her hands. I can see the grease starting to make her silver hair turn dark. If there is anything on the planet Aspen hates worse than prison life, it has to be greasy hair.

Loyalty makes me unlock her door first. My hands are shaky as they fit the key in its hole and twist. She’s standing by the door now, watching my hands with eager eyes and her customary hint of a smile. How I’ve missed her perpetual grin.

The lock finally admits defeat and I throw the door open. Aspen jumps into my arms and the hug is so much better than the one we shared earlier through the obstacle of prison bars. I’ve missed her more than I ever thought possible. If there’s such thing as a platonic sole mate, Aspen is mine.

Soren is there a moment later. She picks up the keys I seemingly dropped on the floor and walks over to Grayson’s cell. He’s freed a moment later. We look at each other from three feet away for only a brief moment before I hug him as well. Our embrace is much shorter lived than mine and Aspen’s, but it’s filled with all the things I want to say to him. You’re still one of my best friends. I forgive you for working with the Council.

When I pull away, I can see it in his smiling, freckled face that he senses my forgiveness. And I can feel his apology as well. Whatever barrier was built between us, it’s breaking down. I’m only sad that we don’t have time to cement our newly resolved friendship with a much needed heartfelt conversation.

“So, what next?” Soren asks me. Aspen watches the Council member reluctantly. She doesn’t trust her, but this is to be expected.

“We get to the Square.” I lead the way through the tunnels. I’m not going back up through the Council house, as Soren probably wants to do, but I’m going straight to the escape exit I came in through. When I glance back at Soren about halfway there, I can see that she knows where I’m going. The realization dawns on her face as she realizes that this is how I got in.

In the unlikely event that she governs a body of people ever again, I doubt she’ll make the same mistake of revealing so many of her secrets to some kids she’ll eventually dump on the side of the road.

“Why are we going to the Square?” Grayson asks. He’s at the back of our neat, tidy line of people, but his voice echoes in the hallway around us. It’s always felt to me that in the tunnels, the air is so closed in and dense that sound carries better.

Soren starts to talk, but I cut her off. “Everyone in Resdon will be meeting there. We have to lead them out of here to the lake. This dimension is collapsing.”

Grayson lets out a noise that sounds suspiciously like a cry, but Aspen just heaves in a giant breath.

Soren is the only one that talks. “Why the lake?” She asks.

“Um, because that’s the portal out of here?” I can’t keep the annoyance out of my voice.

“Not the only one.” Soren says.

Despite the time crunch and despite my hasty pace, I come to a stop right at the bottom of the staircase leading out of here. I turn around slowly and face the Council member. “What are you talking about?”

Soren glances longingly at the top of the stairs but eventually brings herself to meet my eyes. “The lake is only one of the portals to a different dimension from Resdon.”

“And the other one is…?”

“A big hole, abyss type thing in the woods.” She says. “It leads to the dimension with the United States of America. Well, one of them. Some Resdon citizens have pen-pals there. That’s where the other Council members are going.”

I look over her shoulder to my friends. Grayson looks like he wants to start laughing, and there’s a slight blush to his pale skin. His big ears look incredibly dorky. Aspen looks disbelieving. She glances back and forth between me and Grayson with big eyes.

“Are you guys believing this?” Aspen asks us. “All this time.”

I’m remembering the same thing she is: the stories we used to make up about the chasm leading to another world. The chasm people and the beautiful lives they lived. Sometimes, imagination tells us more about the real world than logic and reason ever will.

“Okay, so we’ll give the people of Resdon a choice.” I decide, turning around and finally walking up the staircase. This seems ideal, like it’s a good thing. Everyone will have a choice, which will benefit everyone but me.

Because my family will be in the lake dimension, but I know Aspen will go to the chasm dimension. She won’t want to live with no electricity and with my sister who abandoned her for her own freedom.

Which means that I’ll have to choose between them.

All of Resdon crowds into the streets with the sirens still blaring in the background. I’m so disoriented, I’m not even sure where the sirens are coming from. They seem to be part of the air itself almost.

Every citizen is here tonight, despite the rain that still falls in sheets and the lightning still streaking the sky overhead. As predicted, the people of Resdon look angry. Still, while Soren leads us through the crowd and to the middle of the Square, everyone makes a path for her to walk down. They squirm away like fish trying to avoid a shark.

What’s created is a long, wide path with people crowding in on both sides. This seems to go on for miles and miles down the main streets. I’ve never realized how populated Resdon really is, and I’m reminded that even the surplus of people I see here everyday only constitutes a portion of the total population. There’s also the guards and even the factory workers who work in the wastelands and slave away so everyone can have their eccentric clothes and products.

The resulting mixture is of people from all walks of life. We’ve woken everyone up from what might’ve been a restful slumber, lulled to sleep by the rain, or a restless sleep if they were woken by the thunder. Still, no one wants to leave their house in the night while it’s storming. The upper-class citizens wear silky pajamas soaked through or robes over them; their arms hug their bodies tightly around the midsection. The lower class and the factory workers wear more raggedy, normal pajamas. None of them hide their bodies from the weather, but I suppose some people are more used to arduous circumstances.

By the time we finally reach the center of the Square, hundreds of people have watched me pass them by as I stood behind their last remaining Council member. I feel more exposed than I ever have. My skin tingles as if it’s been touched, but the only thing connecting with my skin tonight is the persistent rain and the steady gazes of an incensed crowd.

Soren steps up on the half-wall surrounding the fountain. This is the first time I’ve ever seen the fountain empty. No letters spit up from its depths in the middle of the night, though morning is sneaking up us by the second. Already the sky has traded its relentless black for a dark gray-blue, though the storm clouds block most of my view of it.

“People of Resdon!” Soren shouts from her perch. The crowd—surprisingly—quiets at her beckon. There’s no possible way the people in the back of the crowd can hear her. They’re just too far away, but I have a feeling the news will spread like a plague. There’s no faster epidemic than one of information.

“I’ve pulled you from your houses on this dark and stormy night for a reason.” She goes on. For such an old lady, she stands strong in the rain. It slips down her body like a river, but I hope it washes away all her self-doubt in the process. There’s nothing like a new beginning, and I now feel invested in giving Soren hers.

“There better be a reason!” Someone shouts from the crowd. I’m standing in front of the fountain beneath Soren, but I tilt my head to see the man standing at the front of the wall of people. Cropped hair and a bitter glare.

I fix him with a glare of my own before glancing up at Soren, waiting for her to continue. She clears her throat in a way that lets the man know who is in charge. It certainly isn’t him in his soaking wet robe and slippers shaped like moose heads.

“The dimension that we all know and love is coming to an end.” Soren says. “Soon, Resdon will cease to exist.” Gasps and muttered conversations rise up from the once quiet crowd. Soren projects her voice to be heard over it. “We need to get out of this dimension before it all collapses.”

“But where will we go?” Shouts a concerned mother from the crowd. Her bony hands rest on the shoulders of a tired looking boy. His eyes blink blearily and his head leans down towards the ground. He’ll fall asleep standing up, like a horse, momentarily.

Soren looks at the mother with much more pity than she allowed the tumultuous man. “There are portals in the woods.” Soren says. “They will take us to other dimensions. Ones not in danger of falling apart.”

“But what happened to this dimension?” The mother asks. Her eyes plead for something—anything—to make sense. This announcement is affecting people so much more than I ever thought it would. In my head, it sounded simple: move an entire body of people to another dimension and go from there. In real life, it’s much more complicated. The consequences are so much more immense and widespread than I anticipated. Each and every one of these people will have their lives uprooted. And what if we can’t assimilate easily into another life? Another culture?

I can see from the pained look on Soren’s face that she doesn’t want to answer. And why would she? It’s her fault in more ways than one—not her fault alone, but her fault nonetheless. Her compadres didn’t stick around to bear the consequences of their actions, and Soren is being punished for doing the right thing. Morality is hurting her so much more than it ever should.

I answer the crowd for her. “We don’t have time to explain!” I shout. “Not now. But you will get your explanation in time. Right now, we need to get out of here before it’s too late.”

I wipe the rainwater off of my face so I can see the people better. The man to first shout out now looks horrified. The mother looks down on her child with what can only be described as devastation. And I see so many other reactions as well. Shock. Eagerness. Stress.

Beside me, Aspen reaches out and grabs my hand. Grayson stands on my other side, not touching me but comforting in that I can feel his presence reverberating in the air. It’s the awareness of him that reminds me I’m not alone.

The thunder rolls on in the background. The rain has become a part of me. I no longer notice my squishy, soggy shoes or my clingy clothes. Without anyone telling me to, I start walking through the path that we came from; the people have left it unobstructed. Behind me, I hear Aspen and Grayson’s reassuring footsteps.

“Please, follow these children.” I hear Soren say. “They’ll show you the way to go.”

People rush to get in line behind us. I’m sure there will be fights and bruises tonight, but it’s not my job to break up their bickering. It’s my job to lead them to their new lives, and that I can do. The people lining the path on either side of me look on in bewilderment. They don’t know what is happening; we’re too far back for them to have heard Soren’s announcement, but they’ll catch on soon enough. Word will spread and they’ll fight their way into the line with the others.

Through it all, I walk on. The cobblestone streets are familiar beneath my feet, but it’s the last time I’ll see them again. The orbs lighting the roads flicker at intervals, but if it’s because of the storm or their lack of magic, I couldn’t say. I just hope we have enough time to get everybody out. And because this is my idea and because I’m as involved in this as anyone, I know I’ll be one of the last ones through. Soren’s right. The captain goes down with her ship.

We reach the fork in the path in the woods. Somewhere along the way, the people of Resdon figured out that only so many people can walk on the trail at one time. There’s only so much space on the narrow strip of relatively-level dirt. But they’ve figured it out and we’ve gotten here with only one or two severe altercations.

At the fork, there’s a large body all scrunched up on the ground, arms holding bent knees and a head ducked in there somewhere. The head lifts when we approach; my lungs release a long-held breath when I realize that it’s Wesley. But it’s not me who gets to hug him first—it’s Aspen.

She launches herself forward as soon as he’s off the ground. They’re tangled in a hug before I’ve thought to blink. She’s whispering something. If I know anything about Aspen, it’s probably something along the lines of: Why the heck did you leave me for three years with no word at all? It’s a valid question considering she hasn’t yet been informed of the dismaying answer.

I feel immense guilt for forgetting to meet him here and delaying him so long by having everybody meet in the Square. But we’re all here now and the past can’t be undone. Grayson goes to stand by his side in between the two trailheads, where Aspen is still clutching her long lost friend’s arm like he’s property.

The sky is brightening overhead. While the storm still rages, it is undeniably easier to see. Walking in the woods wasn’t a challenge, even with the stray branches and obstacles along the way. The sky is gray, but it isn’t black. The sun might not be visible, but I know it’s risen. That might be the last sunrise Resdon ever gets.

The people have a choice now. They can go right, or they can go left. From this direction, the right turn will take them to the chasm and the left will take them to the lake. I come to a stop at the intersection and turn to face the first of those in line behind me. I overlook Aspen and Grayson, who stand at the head, and focus on those behind them.

“The trail on the right will take you to a hole in the ground.” I shout to be heard. “You’ll have to jump through, but it should take you to the United States of America.” Murmurs rise up out of the anxious crowd. I continue on anyways. “The trail on the left will take you to a lake. You’ll have to go underwater completely, but when you come up, you should surface in a dimension with no electricity and few people. There are buildings, but most are abandoned and resources are scarce. It seems like an easy decision, but at least you have a choice. I’ll stand back now and let you make it.”

Once all the words have left my mouth, I step aside so that I’m in between the two trails and not in anybody’s way, joining the rest of my friends. It’s an unspoken rule that all of us are going through at the same time or nobody is going through. Soren should be somewhere behind us, but she hasn’t materialized yet.

“So, I have no idea what’s going on.” Wesley says. “Why the heck is all of Resdon behind you?”

“Long story.” Aspen whispers.

Most of the people choose the trail on the right, obviously. Electricity in general beats not having electricity, though I’ll be the first to admit that a simplistic, minimalistic life has its perks.

But a few people go towards the lake. I admire their bravery. These people have never experienced what they’re about to experience, but those adverse to change will never evolve in life. They’ll never learn and grow because they’ll never go outside the scopes of what they already know. It’s something to think about for when I make my decision.

Every once in a while, I repeat my speech for the next group of people who were too far back to hear me. They listen attentively before making their choice. If you have one second to make a life-altering decision, you simply can’t put in the necessary amount of thought to make an educated one. Instinct alone is driving most of the people here today.

It takes forever for everyone to go through. I wonder briefly if the world is even really ending or if Soren was just being dramatic. But at the end of the day, I know she wouldn’t lie about something like that. The end of Resdon will come in time, but it appears we might just all escape death together.

I also think about the small population of stubborn people who probably stayed in their homes and ignored the sirens in the night. They’ll likely die, but it’s something I can’t dwell on. That was their decision, and I can’t go door to door and look for people. There’s not enough time left in our fading world.

The sky is a ghostly green color now as the sky changes with the light. It’s extremely uncomfortable to see a sky that’s not blue, but at least it’s further evidence to me that something isn’t right and we need to get out of here.

And then Ezra shows up, Sebastian placing a steadying arm on his trembling wife. The air is stolen out of me. Aspen taps my arm and points to my so-called parents, as if I hadn’t seen them already. Ezra and Sebastian walk right up to me.

“Which path leads to America again?” Ezra asks, a slight smile on her face. Not seeing her with a broom is startling. I clear my throat and point to the trail on her right. She nods slowly but keeps her eyes on mine. Just when I think the exchange is over, Ezra says, “I’m proud of you, Adelyn. Maybe we’ll see you on the other side?”

I can hear the hopefulness in her voice, but I don’t feel as though I can match it myself. We’re two people who were forced to coexist in the same house, but Ezra and I will never be family. I’ll have to forgive her for not being my mother, but forgiveness comes in time. Some part of me might always be the little girl bitter that she was forced to have a family instead of a life in the Council house, and that isn’t Ezra’s fault.

“Yeah,” I drag up a light and airy tone, but it’s manufactured, not natural. “Maybe I’ll see you there.” Ezra nods and Sebastian leads her away. I haven’t seen my “father” in days, but his stomach bulges out more than it used to. There’s more gray than black in his hair now. I watch them until they disappear around a bend.

Towards the end of the line, after what has had to be multiple hours of directing people to either path, Soren shows up. She’s flanked by one of her off-duty guards that I recognize from my many adventures at the Council house.

I’m delighted to see that it’s the guard with protruding eyes and a deep voice from the last time I went to the Council to beg to join them. It’s not my proudest moment now that I know some of the truth behind the Council, but a familiar face is never something to take for granted. Wesley flinches at the sight of Soren and the guard, but I’m determined to keep on a good face.

“Hey!” I greet the guard. “Long time no see.”

“Not long enough, if you ask me.” The guard says dryly. I roll my eyes—something he did towards me last time I saw the guy.

“Well, trail to your right will take you to America. And the trail on the left will—”

“Take me to no electricity.” The guard finishes for me. Even though he wears flannel pajamas instead of his uniform, I still can’t forget his official title. “Yeah, I know. Thanks for the info.”

“No problem.” I give him a wide smile, then wipe it off my face faster than the lightning strikes we’ve seen all night. “Now please leave so I can get the heck out of here myself.”

Aspen lets out a sharp laugh beside me. Grayson mutters, “I have wanted to say that to him for so long…” Wesley still looks incredibly uncomfortable.

The guard frowns but takes the path towards the chasm. We all watch him go, but Soren stays with us. “So I guess it’s time to make our own decisions, huh?” Soren finally asks.

The air feels contemplative, if that’s even possible. It feels like there is less air and more wisdom, or maybe lack of air is the first sign of dimensional collapse. Either way, she’s right. The decision has to be made.

“But I’m not going with you all.” Soren says. We all rear back to look at her, but Soren’s eyes hold a resolve that I know we’ll never break through. “This is my disaster and I think I should go through with it. This is what I want,” There are tears in her eyes. “But I’m so glad I got to know you kids again. I’m so sorry for all the pain that we’ve caused you.”

None of us know what to say to this. It’s a unique situation that the four children she planned to drain of magic and consequentially kill have teamed up with her to save the people of Resdon. But I can’t change her mind, and I can’t make her feel any better about her decision.

Aspen takes a small step away from our little group and turns around to face us. She looks as disastrous as I’ve ever seen her look, but I learned long ago that Aspen can’t help but look gorgeous. As always, the corners of her lips tilt up in a grin, but it’s a sad one. “So…your family will be in the lake dimension. Right, Addy?”

She knows that the answer is yes, but she wants me to tell her that I’ll go with her to America anyways. And I’m torn. After this night, my mind feels like it has been ripped to shreds. It’s raw and broken and tired. I’m everything and I’m nothing.

And how do I make this decision? There is so much to consider, so much that I’ve learned to help guide me on the right path.

My mind is an arsenal of lessons learned and memories stored. But we don’t get to choose these memories. I don’t remember the exact details of the first time I laid eyes on the old swing set, but I wish I did. I don’t remember the brief time I spent living in Emerson’s dimension as a baby, but I wish I did.

We have little choice in the memories we retain, unfortunately. This seems unfair and backwards, but Grayson once told me that the world never gives you what you expect and will rarely give you what you want. This is both a blessing and a curse, I suppose. For me, it’s neither of those; it’s a promise instead.

The unpredictability of the world is a promise that while I might not get what I want or what I expect, I’ll always get what I need. I didn’t want or expect my world to disappear. I didn’t want or expect my friends to go to prison. But did I need those things to occur? Decidedly not.

So maybe it’s all completely random and I’m looking for philosophy in a place where there is none, but it does remind me that I do have a choice in some things. I can choose to stay behind and go down with Resdon, like Soren. I can choose to go to a dimension with no electricity just to be with the family I never had.

Or I can go somewhere completely new with the friends I can’t live without. I’ll be sorry to say goodbye to Emerson. I’ll be even more sorry to never have the chance to properly say hello to my Mom, but I’m not sorry about my choice that prevents it. I’m going to America not because I hate them—though I detest their decision to leave my friends behind. I’m going to America because I love my friends.

Wesley and Grayson and Aspen all look at me with expectant eyes. While I’ve been contemplating my decision, they’ve all moved infinitesimally towards the chasm path. I guess even Wesley is ready for a change, or maybe he’s come to the same conclusion I have.

“Of course I’m coming with you guys.” I say. Aspen lets out a breath of relief, and Grayson cracks a wide smile. Wesley meets my eyes with an expression that lets me know he feels the same way I do. “As far as I’m concerned, you guys are my family. And I won’t let you get rid of me that easily.”

We walk down the path while the rain continues its assault on the land. There’s a line starting about halfway down the trail. I’m assuming that the reluctance of the people ahead of us to jump into a giant hole in the ground is the root of the holdup, and I can understand that, but I’m getting antsy. How much time do we have left to waste with their hesitation?

“Are we doing the right thing?” Aspen whispers in my ear. I turn towards her but glance around to make sure no one else heard her. Aspen’s gray eyes bore into mine; her lips are pursed.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, what if Soren is wrong?”

I shake my head. “She can’t be wrong. Why else would the rest of the Council members leave?”

“Aren’t they going to America too?” She asks. “What are we going to do about them?”

I glance around us. Grayson and Wesley are having some conversation. It’s whispered between them, but I see them laugh every once in a while. Everyone ahead of us in line looks anxiously at the people in front of them, dreading their turn to leave and yearning for it at the same time. Each and every person here was affected by the Council and their actions tonight. Everyone has to leave their home tonight because of them.

And they deserve to be punished, but how am I supposed to find four people in a new dimension where I’m unfamiliar with practically everything. And it’s not like they can do any harm in America, right? They have no political power in that dimension at least.

The line starts to move up. With every step I take, I’m more and more apprehensive.

“I don’t know if there’s anything we can do about the Council.” I admit.

Aspen sighs and crosses her arms. She’s not fond of the plan of letting the Council get away with anything, and I’m not either, but I see few other viable options. The best we can hope for is to move past this.

“Are you sad to leave your family behind?” Aspen asks eventually. Up ahead, I can see where people are bending their legs and crouching down on the forest floor. They flip into the chasm, their screams echoing up and then cutting off abruptly as they cross over.

Am I sad to leave my family behind? “Of course.” I whisper. This is a topic I don’t want to think about. I want to forget about the moment at the lake where I saw my mother for the first time. Saw her sadness about me leaving her behind. I want to forget all the letters I sent Emerson. They’re now to painful to remember. I had thought she was honorable and just, but she left my friends behind without a second thought. Anyone willing to do that is no sister of mine. But as I discovered earlier, you can’t choose your memories.

And there’s only one thing getting me through this night. I’m bone-tired, soaking wet, and sore from hours of activity with no respite. So I have to repeat mantras in my mind, a broken record but one that’s a necessity in this difficult hour. One more step. Keep moving forward. Let go of the pain.

The loudest roar of thunder yet rumbles through the air. Everyone still in this dying dimension throw their hands over their ears, including me. It’s louder than anything I’ve ever heard. It’s louder than the sirens and the bustling Resdon center on a weekend combined. My ears ring and my face scrunches up, but it’s over soon and only the ceaseless rain remains.

I look around to make sure everyone is okay. People are getting into the chasm at an alarmingly fast rate now. Behind me, Grayson meets my eyes. He looks like he wants to talk, and though it’s the worst possible moment to do so, I need his answers.

So I leave Aspen and walk over to where Grayson and Wesley stand under the partial cover of a tree branch with big, fat leaves to catch the water. “Hey, guys.” I greet them before turning to Wesley in specific. “Can I talk to Grayson real quick?”

I have to raise my voice now to be heard over the rain, but Wesley hears me. He glances between Grayson and me before nodding his head and going to join Aspen.

“You wanted to talk to me?” I ask Grayson.

He raises an eyebrow. “Did I say that?”

“No.” I shrug my shoulders. “I just thought you looked like you wanted to.” We stand side by side, watching the rest of the Resdon citizens flee their home. Some of them look like they’re crying, but it’s impossible to tell where the rain stops and their tears begin. “Why did you push me into the lake the first time?”

Beside me, Grayson nods his head slowly, as if he was anticipating this question. “You said you had a meeting with the Council.” He begins. “And that was really bad news. I knew what had happened to Wesley—we were pen-pals and I was the one to help him escape—and I couldn’t let it happen to you to.”

“But why didn’t you just tell me the truth?” I ask. “It would’ve been a whole lot easier.”

Grayson shrugs. “Would you have listened?”

That’s a question I can’t answer. Would I have listened? Truthfully, I don’t think I would’ve. I was blinded by my need to be on the Council. Back then, my grudge against Grayson was still at full capacity, and I might’ve even met with the Council just to spite him.

But something about his confession irks me. “But if you knew what the Council was doing, why did you stay with them for so long?” He knew what malevolent things the Council did to his best friend, yet he stayed with them voluntarily? How has Wesley forgiven him for such actions?

Grayson’s face blushes. I can tell I’ve hit a topic he’s not fond of. “I think I was just too weak.” Grayson says. “I thought I needed the Council. I couldn’t get away, but things are different now.”

“How so?”

He turns his head to look at me. All this time, I think I’ve been seeing the child-version of Grayson for the most part. And he still has the big ears, the freckles, and the innocence, but he’s changed so much. I can see the wisdom in his hazel eyes, the deep-rooted intelligence that cannot be ignored.

He’s taller than me, so I have to look up to fully face him. Looking into his eyes, I know the answer to my own question. Things are different now because he has me and Aspen and even Wesley back. We’ve always been stronger together, and if he needs to feed off of my encouragement and support in order to do the right thing, I’ll let him.

His eyes are endless, a galaxy of their own. I have to look away before getting pulled into the intimacy of it all, because I can feel it in the air around us. For a moment, I wasn’t even noticing the rain.

Then the ground shakes. I’ve never felt an earthquake, but it must be something like this. The earth itself is trembling. I’m unsteady on my feet. The taut muscles of my legs are the only thing keeping me upright, but the less-fit and healthy Resdons have fallen to the ground. They cry out and scream, raw fear from the depths of their being. It’s a horrible cacophony when coupled with the thunder in the background.

It sounds like the end.

The ground shakes again and everyone runs and crawls for the hole at once. There can’t be more than twenty of us now, but that’s far too many to leave the dimension at once.

People push in around me. Grayson is to my right, but I can’t catch sight of Wesley and Aspen. I try to yell for them, but the words get caught on my lips.

I’m getting closer to the hole now. Between the gaps in the bodies in front of me, I can see the black gorge that’s to be my savior. People are no longer sitting on the ground and sliding in; they’re jumping and falling and stepping in without hesitation. Urgency makes people braver, it seems.

There’s only one row of people between me and the chasm. I see a black head of cropped hair in front of me, but then the man has jumped into the hole. I’m left to look at the oblivion in front of me.

With this jump, I’m leaving Resdon behind. With this jump, I’ll be cut off from my family. With this jump, I’ll enter my third dimension.

Fear may be a natural human disposition that keeps us safe, but so is instinct. My fear and my instinct are pitted against one another right now, but I choose instinct. I jump.

It’s a unique feeling—having nothing underneath your feet. We rely on the solid ground we stand on to remind us that the world is one dense, reliable thing. Without it, there’s uncertainty and the feeling not that I’m falling and not that I’m flying but that I’m floating.

There’s wind and there’s the sound of air rushing by me and then all I can see is black.

Oblivion is a nice place. It’s dark and relaxing and I feel as if I could stay here forever. Unbidden, my eyes flutter open like the wings of a butterfly.

The lighting is harsh and fluorescent. When the white spots disappear from my vision, I can see steel walls and for a fleeting moment, I think I’m in the tunnels. Logically, I know that I left the tunnels long ago. It’s a memory imprinted in my mind but no more. Then again, every present is a continuation of our past.

“Adelyn?” I recognize the concerned voice even before the speaker leans over my face. Grayson.

I’m laying on the floor of this steel room, chilled to the bone. Metal rooms just aren’t capable of inspiring warmth. What I would do for the summer sun or even the bonfire in the lake dimension. It seems like ages ago I sat there with Kenzi, the air smelling of smoke and confessions.

“Addy, are you okay?” Grayson asks. His hazel eyes are wide. A million of his freckles would fit inside of them.

“I’m fine.” I say, lifting my head up off the floor. “Just help me stand.”

“Why don’t you try sitting first?”

“Why don’t you try shutting up?”

“Ouch.” Grayson puts a hand over his heart to feign being wounded. Waking up on the floor apparently puts me in an irritable mood, but I can’t find the morality to feel guilty about it. Grayson knows me well enough to know that I meant no real harm. It’s just words spit from the bottom of my fatigue.

He reaches out a hand and pulls me to my foot. The world sways beneath me, but it is infinitely better than the trembling shake of the earth back in Resdon. Besides, at least it’s all in my head right now. I’m in no real danger. Except—

“Where are we?” I ask. As I look around, I see that we’re not alone in the metal room. About twenty other Resdonites gather here, all in varying states of distress. There’s the customary hugging and crying I’ve grown used to over the course of the night, but there’s also stoicism and exhaustion. Some of the Resdonites stare into space with unseeing eyes and windblown hair.

Grayson raises an eyebrow. “America?” He says. “Wasn’t that the whole point?”

I scowl at him. “Very funny. Anything more specific?”

“We’re at a CDT facility.” Grayson finally takes my question seriously. I search my brain for information concerning the CDT, but the abbreviation is completely foreign to me. Whatever it is, we don’t have it in Resdon.

“What’s the CDT?”

“Center for Dimensional Travel.” Grayson says, his voice solemn.

I want to ask what that means, but more than anything, I just want to get out of here. The walls seem to close in on me. I’ve been trapped one too many times lately. Grayson must feel infinitely worse than I do after his brief stint in a prison cell.

I move to push around him, but Grayson’s arm shoots out and stops me dead. He saves me in the process. Not ten inches away from my feet is a cavernous hole in the ground that I somehow hadn’t noticed. My mind puts it together quickly—that must be the portal we came through. It looks exactly like the chasm back home, albeit much less nature surrounds it.

My heart pounds in my chest. Grayson lets me stand and take in the hole for a moment before the door to the room swings open. My eyes rise from the hole and land on a tall man with thick blond hair. His eyes are narrowed in concentration, pulling to a halt when they land on me. “Adelyn Josephs?” He asks.

For some reason, this man terrifies me. I’m a caged animal. My location is a mystery, my escape plan nonexistent. I’ve woken up in a safer dimension, but I’d never really thought through what that entailed. Did I ever stop to think what might be waiting for me on the other side?

The man’s eyebrow is raised now—his eyebrows are two straight black lines cutting starkly across tan skin. He’s still waiting for his answer.

“Who is asking?” I finally force some words to materialize. Everyone in the room is looking at me, but I can’t find it in me to care. The only gazes I’m aware of are those of Grayson in front of me and the questioning man.

“Me.” The man deadpans. “I’m asking. Would you like to answer?”

Grayson takes my icy silence and deliberately squashes it like a bug. “That’s Adelyn Josephs.” He confirms. I fix him with my best glare, which he shrugs away with an exaggerated rise of his shoulders.

The man—who wears a black suit and a purple tie—nods his head. “As I assumed.” He says. “I’m Detective Grendal. Could you follow me, Miss?”

“Where?” The question is instinctive, out of my mouth as quick as a whip.

The man—Detective Grendal—sighs and looks to Grayson. “Is she always like this?”

I want to spit out a snarky remark, but something else catches my attention first. “Where are Aspen Aaron and Wesley Oliver?”

Detective Grendal glowers at me. “They’re here, Miss. They’re safe.”

“Can I see them?”

“After you answer some questions for me.”

I furrow my brows and look to Grayson for help. He was awake earlier than I was, as it appears everyone else was too, so maybe he’s less confused. Grayson slowly nods his head at me, a silent way of saying, do what Grendal wants. There’s nothing I want to do less than that, but I trust Grayson, and Grendal is promising that I can see Aspen and Wesley as soon as I’ve talked to him.

“Lead the way.” I say.

Grendal leads me down more hallways that resemble the tunnel back at the Council house. An uneasy feeling spreads through me as I note every similarity, including my distinct disadvantage.

“Where are we going?” I ask.

“A meeting room.” Grendal says, sounding much more accommodating than before. “This compound isn’t that big. We’ll be there in a second.”

When he says “a second,” Detective Grendal means five minutes. By the time we finally reach a wooden door reading in blocky print, “Meeting Room 5,” I’ve long since lost grip on the mental map I was making in my head.

Grendal pushes open the door and gestures with an arm for me to enter first. I step into the room hesitantly, my heart in my throat. Meeting Room 5 is actually quite small. There’s a miniscule wooden desk and an unimpressive chair on either side of it. The walls are still steel and the lighting is still harsh, but the carpet is a dingy brown and for some reason, this makes me feel more comfortable.

Grendal walks around to the far side of the table and takes a seat. I sit in the other chair before he can even tell me to. The chair is so much smaller than I’d previously thought. I fit on it about as well as a sumo wrestler would fit in a child’s car seat.

“So, I’ve been told by numerous people that you’re in charge of the Resdonites?” Grendal says. It’s staged like a question, but I get the feeling that he’s pretty confident in the answer. The irony hits me hard. For years, all I’ve wanted was to rule the Resdonites, and here I am. It’s a much different set of circumstances than I’d expected, and a whole different dimension, but I’ve finally got my wish.

I shrug and try to remain nonchalant. “I could be.”

Grendal sighs and leans back in his chair. Considering the size of the chairs, I’m surprised it doesn’t tip over. “Miss Josephs,” He begins. “This would be a whole lot simpler if we could just be civil with each other.”

“And if you would actually tell me what this is about.”

Grendal nods his head. “Very well.” On the table, his hands fold and refold. He seems to yearn for some papers to shuffle, but the table is bare of all supplies and décor. “Miss Josephs, we don’t keep personnel at this compound at all times.” Grendal says, his dark eyes searching mine. “It wouldn’t be logical. People rarely come through from your dimension.”

“So?”

So, it caught us by surprise when four members of your Council came through earlier in the evening.”

“And no one was here?” I ask.

“No one was here.” Grendal confirms. “Needless to say, the Council members escaped our compound…” I roll my eyes at his incompetence. Grendal keeps his eyes on my face. “…and with them, an older woman and a girl that looked just like you.”

My eyes pop open wide. My attention isn’t just sparked; it’s set aflame. “Emerson and my Mom are here?” I ask.

“So you do know them?”

“No.” I deadpan. “We’re just two teenage girls who are the same age and look like carbon copies of each other.”

“Your sarcasm is noted.”

“Your idiotic question is acknowledged.”

Grendal tilts his head to the side, a questioning look on his face. “You don’t like me?”

I consider the question. “I don’t like being treated like a prisoner here.” I say. “I don’t like that you won’t allow me to see my best friends. And I don’t like that you won’t cut to the chase.”

“You want to know the chase?” Grendal aks. “Well, the chase is this: we need to catch the members of your Council, and we need your help to do it.”

“Why do you need to catch them?” I ask. Part of me was hoping for the situation I outlined to Aspen: we let the Council do as they desire as we start our lives anew. And while that plan was about as practical as having two left feet, I still wanted to hold onto hope.

“Because we know what happened in your dimension.” Grendal says. “The Council destroyed it. Here in this dimension, we have measures in place to prevent something like this from happening. The CDT regulates it all in secret.”

“And you’re worried they’ll go against your rules?”

“Oh, we’re certain that they will.” Grendal says. At my skeptical expression, he adds, “The Council will need magic quickly if they hope to escape the consequences of age once again. Magic is a delicate balance, and they’ll disturb that. It’s imperative we don’t let this happen.”

“So what do you want me to do?” I’m starting to get the idea of where this is going, but confirmation can never hurt.

“We want you to find the Council and eliminate them.”

“Kill them?” I ask. “Why can’t you do it?”

“Limited resources, ethical concerns, all sorts of reasons.” Grendal says with a shrug. I want to point out that from the looks of this compound—one that they hardly even use—they aren’t lacking resources. But my mouth instinctively stays shut to let him finish. “If you accept this task, we’ll take care of the rest of the Resdonites and help them integrate into society and become productive citizens.”

“And if I don’t accept?” I raise an eyebrow. “What then? You kick us all out?”

“Not out of the dimension.” Grendal allows. He reaches up to straighten out his tie, but I recognize the gesture for what it is: an excuse not to meet my eyes. “But we will kick you all out of the CDT assimilation program. All the Resdonites will be on their own in a new world. Do you really think that would work out so well?”

“You wouldn’t do that.” I reason. “Because then we’d disrupt society with all our problems.” I say this because I’m mostly terrified that he’ll make good on the threat. The Resdonites couldn’t easily integrate into society—not without help. We need what Grendal is offering, but can I really find the Council? If not, it seems I’m the leader and the fate of the Resdonites is up to me. Day one of being in charge and I’m already struggling.

“Oh, I didn’t say we’d let you do into our society.” Grendal says. “There are plenty of other countries.” Grendal claps his hands together. It’s abrupt enough to make me jump in my tiny seat. “Now! Do we have a deal?”

The CDT compound is much more widespread and vast than Grendal led me to believe. After about an hour of wandering aimlessly, I find a door that leads to a wooden deck outside. The deck overlooks a small lake and I can’t imagine what the purpose serves. Maybe when the CDT detectives are here, they need somewhere to relax and unwind. Lord knows I do.

The sky is the kind of blue that I associate with summer days on the abandoned swing set or the walls of Under the Sun. Of all the downsides of coming here, I’m irrationally upset about leaving behind Aspen’s abundance of syrup flavors. It’s been far too long since we’ve had one of our syrup tasting days.

As if I’ve conjured her from my mind, the door opens behind me a moment later and out walks Aspen. She sits down beside me on the edge of the deck. The grass tickles my bare feet below. Further on, the grass gives way to a small beach before the water claims the land.

“Hey, Addy.” Aspen says. She wears one of the gray t-shirts and pairs of cargo pants that the CDT gave everyone. We’re matching, as we are with most of the Resdonites. But Aspen in cargo pants is only slightly less explosive than Aspen in not-cargo pants, both in looks and in attitude. She’s still her, but she’s mildly subdued. A choice of clothing can make or break any day.

“Hey, Penni.”

We sit in silence for a few minutes. Just looking out over the water, I can almost imagine we’re at our lake at home. It’s surrounded by trees, after all, on all sides but the one hindered by the giant, monstrous metal building behind me.

“So I need to ask you a serious question.” Aspen says.

I glance over at her to try and gauge her mental state. Serious questions go with Aspen like tofu goes with whipped cream. “And what’s that?”

Aspen twists a lock of purple hair around her finger. The top, silver layer is thrown in a bun on top of her head, leaving only the teal and purple to cascade down her back. “What color do you think I should dye my hair next?” She asks. I let out a long, relieved breath. All serious pretense has now been abandoned and Aspen looks electrified. “Because I was thinking about crimson. Something to say, ‘Screw you, Council. I refuse to live in fear of your crimson walls and pretentious décor.’ You know?”

I can’t help but to laugh. The sound comes so easily with Aspen. Happiness is almost a dizzying sensation after so long under pressure and stress. And there is still plenty of that, but I’d like to keep it buried under the surface for now.

“I love it.” I tell her.

“Really?” Aspen asks, her nose scrunched slightly. “Because Grayson says it is further evidence about the dangers of Aspsanity.”

“Aspsanity?”

“Insanity that’s made even more severe by the addition of having to relate with all-things-Aspen.”

I laugh again. “So there’s a full definition?”

“Apparently.”

“So what else falls into this subcategory of madness?” I ask. The lake has been forgotten. Aspen and I now sit cross legged, looking only at each other.

Aspen puts a thoughtful hand on her chin and considers. “Um…maple syrup on ice cream. Fuzzy socks with flip flops in the winter. Believing that dinosaurs still exist in some dimension near us…”

“Dressing like George Washington for Halloween?” I suggest.

“Precisely.”

“He has somewhat of a point on that one, though.” I say. Aspen gives me a scolding look. “Well, he does! I mean, George Washington isn’t even from our dimension. What were you thinking?”

“Shakespeare isn’t from our dimension and yet we still had to study his stinkin’ poems in English class,” Aspen points out.

“Touché.”

We fall back into an easy silence. The lake water splashes against the tiny beach. I want to dig my toes into the sand, but I’m far too content where I am to stand up and walk over there.

After a moment, Aspen says, “So what are you going to do about the Council?” She sounds more hesitant and quiet than I’ve ever heard her, but I know it’s only because she is trying to gauge my reaction.

I heave out a long breath. “I guess I’m going to find them.” I say. My eyes look out over the lake, but I can feel Aspen’s gaze on me. I turn to face her. “You know Emerson and my Mom are with them?”

Aspen nods her head. “I heard.”

“And now Grayson and Wesley have filled in the blanks about how my Mom gave me up and where I was born and the entire, unabridged version of that story.”

“Should’ve read the SparkNotes.” Aspen mutters.

I grin a little, but this conversation has taken the serious twist that Aspen originally asked for. “So I know that she loves me, but why is she with the Council then? Are they being forced to stay with them?”

“There’s only one way to find out.” Aspen says.

“Yep. We have to find them.”

America isn’t the safe haven I thought it would be, but that’s okay. I don’t have to see it as a disappointment; I can see it as an opportunity. The story will play out, as all stories do. I’ve been across three dimensions. My story is a story well-travelled, but it is far from over. So more than anything, I’ll see America as the setting in the next chapter in my life. What happens next is a mystery, but Grayson has taught me enough about stories that I’m not scared to turn the next page.

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