Learning To Give

Hello once again, on this fine Friday (If it’s Friday when your reading this) and not so coincidentally, on this fine Christmas (if it’s still Christmas). Since I figured why not, I decided for these past days to write based on the theme of Christmas, and thus have produced a few Christmas-ey stories, although, I would digress, I almost never stick to my plans. So as you will read on this story, this supposed “Christmas” story, it may not actually have much relevance and only a small connection. But still, what’s done is done and hey I like what I write so that’s why I write it, right? But less on that, this little short story actually was not supposed to be like this, as in, have this ulterior world and can actually branch into a full on story all on it’s own, but lately I have been trying to make short stories that are more than it is, so that they have in a sense full fledged worlds. Which is something I’ll probably experiment more on. But yeah, Merry Christmas If you celebrate it, if you don’t well, hey, try riding the holiday wave, you may find something you haven’t before. Here you go, “Learning To Give”.

 

Sounds of pottery breaking and fruits smashing resounded throughout the market stalls as a band of children raced down the streets. There were two girls, and two boys, all holding bags of food and water. They ran as fast as they could, with some of their coin pouches spilling in the process.

“Damn it!” One of the boys exclaimed.

“No time! Keep moving!” One of the girls yelled over. They ignored the loss of money and kept running forward, tipping over food stalls, and making irregular turns and jumps so that their pursuers would not catch them.  They were being chased by two uniformed men who had been at the scene when the theft happened. They were big, scruffy, but considerably slower than the children.

“Come on! We’ll never catch them at this rate!” The older one yelled out to his partner. The older one had been on the job ever since the chain thefts had sprung up, and had always been given the slip. His partner had just recently been assigned, and he wasn’t fairing well either.

“They’re too fast!” He cried. The men stopped in their tracks, and sighed as they watched the band of children make off with stolen goods. The older of the two planted his feet into the ground with force and took out a small notepad.

“They gave me the slip again.”

“If they keep this up, then the union will have to station more guards, right?”

“Not likely. They aren’t stealing diamonds or crests. Something like this is considered as petty theft,” the older one said as he began scrawling on his notepad.

“Petty theft is petty crime. At least to them.”

“But it’s still troublesome, isn’t it?”

“It is. It makes cleaning up after them hell,” the older one said as he looked back and inspected the chaos that the band of children brought with them.

“Brings jobs though. Keeps hands busy, and keeps people too busy to do anything else. Almost too busy. And makes people more alert.”

“So that more serious crimes won’t happen?”

“Exactly,” the older one said, smiling at his partners grasp of the situation.

“Well, we’ve got work to do.” Once the band of children had ascertained their safety, they began slowing down, allowing some of them to catch what little breath they still had.

“We’re almost there guys, come on!” Sallie said. She was the oldest of the group. She tried to wear her blonde hair down, but it didn’t manage to be much other than a pointy mess behind her. She never had the time to really manage it, at least, not by herself. Her frame was average, but some would say that she was not getting enough every day. Her face was tired, evidently tired from the dark lines underneath her eyes. She tried her best to mask it, at least, Winter did.

“We’re here!” Winter said as she raced to a house in the middle of the streets. It was a well kept house, and it served as their base of operations. She worked on her complicated lock, which Sallie complimented her on. It made their base that much more reliable, Sallie thought. Winter was the second oldest of the group. She had short light blue hair, and despite the days worth of sweat pouring down her face, she still managed to somehow keep her cheeks reddened and her lips bright. Sallie often enjoyed teasing her for her cleverness.

“Alright! Huddle in!” Winter said as she finished her lock. They all gathered inside the home and gave Winter a moment to lock the door again. Once she was done, she crouched down, and moved a carpet under a table in the living room they were in. The living room served as just that, but to them, it was more of a guise. The house was two floors, one above that served as an extra storage, and the current one that served as an entrance to their real hideout. The kitchen in the back of the house was less than functioning, and again served as a means of storage. However, it did look its part, and it would serve well to stray wary eyes.

“Caeden! We’re coming in now!” Winter said as she handled another one of her complicated locks and opened the hidden cellar door. The rest of the children descended the cellar slowly, with Winter being last. The cellar of the house was much more spacious than one would think, compromising of at least three room spaces underground: one kitchen, one living, and one bedroom. The boy named Caeden, who had been resting by the living room, reading a stolen book, looked up as they all came down. He was the youngest, but also the one with the most potential, Sallie thought. He had dark orange hair, and could come off as Royal, Winter thought.

“All those coins!” Adrian exclaimed. He was the third youngest, and had red hair with tints of brown. He was the thinnest of them all, but he was well fed. His build was just simply that, and his height would soon threaten Sallie’s. He was often praised for his agility, and is renowned amongst them for his sleight of hand.  Allowing his pouch of stolen coins dump in front of him created a damper to his mood.

“You always have next time, Adrian.”

“I know, but still…”

“Don’t let it get you too down! At least we’ve got a week’s worth of food here!” Sallie showed her two bags to the band of children. They all carried two bags, and upon this realization, Adrian smiled, “Yeah. I guess you’re right.”

“Garent!”

“Yes ma’am!” Garent replied quite amiably, which always seemed to please Sallie. Garent was only a bit younger than Adrian, but was still considered the second youngest. However, out of all of them, he probably boasted the most physical strength, and thus was ordered by Sallie to help her carry the bags to the kitchen area. Garent had pitch black hair, and was often teased by Adrian because of it.

“Hey, Sallie?” Caeden asked. They had long been done their packing, and Winter and Garent was preparing dinner. Sallie was looking intently at a map she had scrawled on the table in the middle of their living room, while Adrian was sitting nearby, fiddling away at a stolen deck of cards. Their living room was quite normal, and served well to keep them within reaches of humanity as their stolen home is a deterioration of that.

“What’s up Caeden?” Sallie kept her eyes fixed on her map.

“We have a calendar now, right?” It took Sallie a few moments to think, but Adrian had answered before she could, “We do.”

“And it’s December now, right?” Sallie took a few more moments to think, and again, Adrian had answered before she could, “Yeah. December second today. Yesterday was the first.”

“Why the questions?” Sallie finally asked.

“I was reading in this book,” Caeden made a motion to stick his book out in front of him. Sallie looked up for only a second to glance at the cover. Adrian played with his deck of cards while he looked at the cover, trying his best to read it.

“Traditions And Events.” Sallie managed to answer before Adrian this time, leaving her record one to two. She smiled at that thought. A one lead wasn’t too bad, she thought.

“If I remember correctly,” Sallie began, “December was the month for Christmas.”

“Christmas?” Adrian asked.

“Something about a man on a stake, I think,” Sallie meekly replied.

“Christmas is on the twenty fifth day of December. It says here that it is common for people on that day to exchange gifts with their friends and family,” Caeden said as he traced the book with his eyes.

“You exchange gifts? You mean like, you give someone something, and they give you something back?” Adrian said in confusion.

“Yeah!”

“What makes that Christmas day any different than trade day? That happens at the beginning and end of each week, but this day is only once a year. Makes no sense.”

“It says that Christmas is filled with joy. People you wouldn’t normally see doing nice things start being nice! It’s a day filled with happiness in the air.” Sallie marked a few locations on her map before finally looking up at Caeden.

“Right. I know about this day,” Sallie began, “Used to do it in the old regime. Not so much anymore. Can’t say we’ll even get any snow.”

“Snow?” Adrian asked. Caeden seemed to have already read about the concept of snow, and wasn’t as surprised as Adrian.

“Old news,” Sallie simply replied, “A phenomena caused by weather.”

“A special weather pattern only for Christmas?” Adrian said skeptically.

“Used to be like that. The whole month would turn white, and the air would be chillingly cold. You would begin seeing your breath and every step you take would be heavy.”

“Sounds like a dose of Cloud,” Adrian nonchalantly replied.

“It does. But back then, when it was Christmas day, that’s how it would be.”

“How do you know all this anyway?” Adrian asked.

“We only got this book recently, and I don’t remember you reading it,” Caeden added. He was in charge of the books, so whenever someone did ask, Caeden knew. There was no secrets within their group, that was what kept them together. It was what little shred of humanity they could still muster, and they took it for everything it was.

“When you’re out there,” Sallie started, and then looked at her map once again. She traced the marks she made, and lined her fingers across different routes and streets. She always had a plan, and she was always sure to stick to it. She hated surprises, but she knew that on the job, anything could happen. She understood that the people she worked with, the people she stole from, were just that, people. And she knew that people were unpredictable.

“When you’re out there,” Salle repeated, “You hear all sorts of things. Good or bad, you hear things. That’s that.”

“But those are all rumors, aren’t they?” Adrian asked.

“Some are. Some aren’t. It’s up to the broker to figure out what’s what, and even then, they still won’t care.” Sallie looked down at her map, her eyes were filled with grief and Adrian noticed. Caeden was quiet along the way as well, and was worried for Sallie. They knew that she had went through many things that they would never come to understand. She had brought them together upon a single roof, and she had every right to be bitter, they both thought. That was Sallie.

“Dinner’s ready!” Winter shouted from the kitchen. Everyone in the living room looked instinctively at that direction, and they all had small smiles on their faces.

“Empty stomachs lead to empty minds,” Caeden said as he got up.

“Where’d you learn that?” Adrian asked.

“From a book.”

“Is there anything you don’t know?”

“I don’t know things that aren’t from books, I guess.” Caeden smiled at Adrian, and as Adrian got up, he smiled back, “Fair enough,” Adrian said, “But take a look at this.” Adrian stuck out his deck of cards in front of Caeden as they began walking towards the kitchen, preparing some kind of trick. Sallie was the last to get up and walk, her legs were weak, and her entire being was tired. She was tired.

“Where you going?” Adrian asked as Sallie got up from the living room. They were done eating, and they were all meddling around. Caeden was reading. Winter was mixing some powder together. Garent had fallen asleep, and Adrian was playing with a few loose coins. Sallie packed up her map, and had left it in a corner of the room. She wasn’t planning to leave on a mission, Adrian concluded.

“Out,” Sallie blandly replied. They didn’t have a clock or a watch to tell time, but they all had a basic grasp of time. Adrian knew that it was nighttime now, and that going out would be dangerous.

“I’ll come with you,” Adrian said. Sallie looked towards Adrian, who looked back with determined eyes. The market was still open, but the stalls were different from daytime. New and exotic goods sprung up, and there was a greater amount of guard activity during this time. They couldn’t afford to let children wander about at nighttime.

“Fine.” Sallie gave in. They both ascended the cellar, and left the house as Winter followed them to lock the doors. Sallie had told her that she would only be gone for about an hour, and to have everything unlocked by then. The nighttime air was cold, Adrian thought. It was chillingly cold, and the darkness of it all made it seem almost dream like. Adrian knew the streets very well, but from not seeing it, it made him shutter. He knew what was there, but could not see what was there. It was truly frightening for him. Adrian thought that the darkness was a disease. He thought that nighttime was a contagion. They were taught from a young age never to go out at night. And here he was, with Sallie, who didn’t seem to be at all afraid of this disease. This made it slightly more comforting.

“You can’t see, right?” Sallie asked.

“Yeah. Completely blind here,” Adrian lightly added. The thought of it was strange. The question was obvious, Adrian thought.

“We’re going to head to the market now, stay low.”

“The market?”

“Yeah. I have business there.” Adrian wanted to ask why, but before he could, he felt Sallie motion for him to stay quiet. She did, she placed one finger on her lips and urged him to save the questions with her eyes, although, she knew that he couldn’t see. They made their way to the market, with Sallie guiding them with her voice.

“We’re here, but careful. The guards like to make rounds in deprived streets.” Adrian looked up at the market. There were many lights on, and it seemed almost like the festivals that he read about in Caeden’s books. However, he didn’t see any guards stationed.

“They’re down there.” Sallie pointed out behind them, the direction they came from, to what seemed to be complete darkness to Adrian. Sallie could see two uniformed men making their way back up towards the market, but Adrian could not. After a few moments, the men appeared before Adrian in the low light, almost like a magic act, he thought.

“Okay, let’s get out of cover and move to the other side,” Sallie urged Adrian to move as quickly as he could. They scuttled to the other side of the market, with Sallie motioning for Adrian to follow her closely. They scaled stalls and store fronts until Sallie had finally found what she was looking for. It was a store that had two entrances, one in the front for those who were allowed, and one at the back, the one where Sallie was, for those who were not.

“What is this place?” Adrian asked.

“A place for misfits,” Sallie answered. She knocked on the door, and then waited. A slit on the door opened, and a pair of eyes fell on Sallie. The door opened shortly after, and they both entered. It was a common style pub, Adrian thought. However, the people who sat at the chairs and the people who drank the drinks were less than common. He wanted to ask what exactly and who exactly these people were, but restrained himself. He was in a different environment now. Sallie led Adrian to the main counter, where a bartender stood idly. His eyes were closed, and Adrian wondered if he was sleeping while standing.

“Regular dose; Rhodopsin.” The bartender, with his eyes still closed, reached down under the counter, and brought out a bag containing pills. Adrian had a plethora of questions, but remained silent, which was much to Sallie’s relief.

“If it isn’t miss Sallie,” a voice resounded behind them. Adrian didn’t know who to put that voice to, but Sallie instantly knew who she was. It was Mrs. Snnow, a compatriot to Sallie. They were good friends, and she was the one who introduced Sallie to this pub.

“Those drugs do you good?” Mrs. Snnow asked, pointing at the bag in front of Sallie.

“Yeah. I’m supposed to go see Mr. Flaake soon. He said that if I continue taking these, then I’ll soon be able to see the deprived without their help.”

“That’s good. Most adults can’t. But if you can, you’ll have the upper hand,” Mrs. Snnow shook Sallies head with a bright smile. She looked over to Adrian, and gave Sallie a questioning look.

“He’s with me. Don’t worry.”

“Part of your little band?” Sallie nodded. Adrian’s eyes widened, but Sallie gave him a reassuring look. They were to be trusted, Sallie tried to convey. Each and every one of the people in the pub were to be trusted. Adrian couldn’t grasp this world, nor could he grasp what Sallie was involved in. It was always like this, Adrian thought.

“They say Christmas cheer is in the air,” Mrs. Snnow said, as she took a seat at the counter. She pointed one finger up, which prompted the  bartender to grab a glass and pour a pure white liquid into it.

“You mean, like in the books?” Adrian asked meekly.

“Like in the books?” Mrs. Snnow repeated mockingly. She laughed and called out to a man with one arm and one leg who was sitting at the back of the pub, “Hear that? Like in the books!” The pub resounded with laughter. Adrian immediately felt enclosed, and his every being shrunk. Sallie whispered to him, “It’s okay. They’re always like this.” Adrian swallowed his spit and took her word for it.

“That’s a good one kid, I like you. You got a name?”

“Adrian,” he answered.

“Adrian. Never heard of you. You from the slums?” Adrian nodded.

“Got no books in the slums though. Only for Royals.” Adrian didn’t answer, which prompted Mrs. Snnow to continue, “I jest. Anyway, Christmas is among us, kid. Can’t you see?” Mrs. Snnow howled in the pub, and the people roared again. Glasses collided with one another, and chairs turned and hands raised in the air. The atmosphere was so uplifting  that Adrian thought he was at another pub.

“It’s Christmas, guys! Hah!” Mrs. Snnow raised her glass this time, with a big cheery smile on her face. Sallie couldn’t help but smile along with the notion, and even Adrian felt more at ease now. If in another world, Adrian truly thought that this feeling was what Christmas was. It was a feeling of joy and a feeling that everything in the world didn’t matter. Adrian was truly in the moment now, and he had been swept up in the airs of the pub.

“Is this what Christmas is like?” Adrian asked.

“Of course, Adrian! This is what Christmas is like! This is joy! This month is joyous! Be proud!”

“Can you tell me more about Christmas?” Adrian asked. Mrs. Snnow ruffled Adrian’s hair as he asked, and for the rest of the time, she told stories of Christmas. She told stories of Santa, of reindeers, and of her own encounters in Christmas. Her stories dated to a time long past, and of a time where traditions had long been passed. But they had all seemed so entrancing to Adrian. He would never forget her stories.

“Are we really going with this?” A few weeks had passed, and it was now the week of Christmas. Adrian and Sallie were on a mission together. They had stockpiled on food the week prior, and were simply out for extras. Sallie knew that it was always good to have Adrian with her. She would usually go about these extra runs by herself, but having Adrian was too much of an asset to let down.

“Don’t think you can do it?” Sallie replied back.

“No. I can do it.” They quietly watched a child, who was standing alone at the edge of a jewellery stand. He was a child of a Royal, who’s guardian was busy talking to the stand owner. The child was asked to hold onto the purse, and Sallie saw that as the perfect opportunity to snag away at some extra goods.

“But,” Adrian continued, “It’s the week of giving, isn’t it?” Sallie was brought aback by Adrian’s words. She would have never thought that the thought of compassion would spring about in Adrian when he so brazenly stole from others. The idea perplexed Sallie, and she couldn’t help but ask why.

“It’s Christmas time, isn’t it? It’s not the time to be doing these kinds of things.”

“Right. And this one day, this one week is going to atone for every other kid and every other time you’ve stolen and made someone else’s life miserable?”

“It won’t. I know that. It won’t. Whatever I do won’t ever make up for how much I’ve taken, Sallie, I know that!” Adrian’s voice threatened their position, and he knew that. He quickly calmed himself, and spoke back in his whisper.

“Nothing I ever do anymore will ever make up for what I’ve done, Sallie, but please…. allow me this one time, to at least feel like I can make this world a better place. Just this once.” Sallie looked at Adrian with sullen eyes. She got the answer she wanted, and she knew that Adrian had resolve. Above all else, that was all Adrian had. He had resolve. He was a trickster, a magician, a thief. But he had resolve. Sallie sighed, and answered, “Fine. Do what you want.”

“Thank you.”

“No. No thanks. It’s Christmas, right?”

“Yeah.” Adrian gave a warm smile to Sallie, who couldn’t help but return it.  Adrian pulled out a small coin, it was a gold coin, quite a commodity around the market. He shifted forward towards the child, making sure not to make too much sound, and making sure not to fix his gaze on him. Once he was within reach, Adrian quickly shuffled towards the child, dropping the coin and a small note into the child’s pocket, while acting as if he had lost his step. He promptly apologized, and walked forward, with Sallie lagging behind.

“Royals like him don’t need compassion,” Sallie said with disgust, “But, I won’t judge. It is Christmas. The time of giving, huh?” Sallie gave Adrian a small smile and sighed.

“Except, we don’t have any friends or families to give us gifts. Only us, and only ourselves,” Sallie added.

“Even then, it’s still nice, right?” Sallie considered his words, and couldn’t help but agree. She followed Adrian to a small gift stall.

“Traditions may die hard, but, it’s up to people to relive them.”

Inspiration

All I have to say is, here you go.

We live through inspiration, all of us, whether we want to or not. Our lives are based on inspiration. You can try and argue but even then, that’s caused by an inspiration in of itself. When we wake up, we’re inspired. When we do work, we’re inspired, even down to the most miscellaneous things we do, we’re inspired. Face it, we live by inspiration. New things come from inspiration, our survival is from inspiration, our words are from inspiration. Even when you say you’re living for another person, when your protecting another person, when your whole world becomes another person’s, is that not inspiration? Everything we do is based on our selfish inspiration and is that really so bad? Inspiration brings innovation, inspiration brings happiness and even when inspiration brings sadness, it is up to us to inspire, perspire and raise the bar so that it won’t ever happen again. Our inspiration can only bring us so far, so let’s raise it to the stars.

Friend-Friends

Hello once again, with this very late update, late as in late in time, but less on that. Today is something a little different, this is a non-fiction story type thing (More like a narrative essay) that I did a few days ago for a contest, but decided to scrap the idea because of reasons and here we are. I still like what I’ve written so here it is, in all it’s glory. The title is pronounced “Friend to Friends”, so yeah, here you go, “Friend-Friends”.

 

You know sometimes things just aren’t what they seem. You think you have everything you ever want, but the truth is no one ever has everything they want. It’s sad to think about it, but that’s just fact. However, there is reprise in that; you’ll never have everything you want, because you’ll never realize what you want. That’s fact; that’s life.

I have always been, and will always be an introvert, but I’m a rare case. You see, an introvert quite simply is one who likes to live on the inside. They are self contained, and it isn’t that they don’t like people, they just prefer to be by  themselves. I’m an introvert, and at the same time, I derive my energy, and my livelihood from being surrounded by my friends. I’m an introvert and an extravert, an entravert.

Everyday without fail, I would go to my usual circle of friends. This group was expansive, with reoccurring characters and cameos, but I chose to stick with them nonetheless. In a nutshell, this group was like a bag of trail mix. I knew what I was getting when I reach my hand into the bag, but every once in a while, I get something I didn’t expect. Though, it wasn’t that surprising, I can tell you that. This group wasn’t that full of surprises. It’s why I decided to stay. I hate surprises. I also hate trail mix.

I never thought that everything in my norm could have changed, though, I never thought I wanted it to change. Change is scary. It’s so scary. It’s really scary, but I like change. I hate surprises, but I like change. Change occurs when something in your norm is altered. My norm is a bag of trail mix, but I also like to play Frisbee. That’s probably the only sport I can play effectively, and despite that fact, I never bothered to join a team. That’s my introvert showing.

I was always a “casual” player. I played Frisbee for fun, not competition, and because of this, I made many friends in the world of Frisbee-ing. However, they weren’t in my main circle, so I wouldn’t consider them in the same bag of nuts, they were like a box of Smarties. I only ever had them when the occasion served, and usually not for long periods of time. Having too many chocolates is bad for you. Even if it’s on Halloween. I liked it though, I liked the company, and I liked playing with them. They were always tons of fun, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. They gave me the drive to keep playing and I wasn’t shy around them. That’s my extravert showing.

A culmination of all these began piling up before I knew it, and it all happened on one fateful day. One fateful day, a string of coincidences, and a whole load of new nuts. Salted, actually. They were very salty. That’s a good thing, I like my nuts salted. It’s just not very good if you eat too many. You start losing sight of things if you do. You see, my friend is a very good, and a very humble Frisbee player. He’s like, the go-to guy when you talk about Frisbee among my group of friends. He’s really good. Like, the top of the top (Sometimes). As thus, whenever he plays, and because we are good friends, I usually join in without question. This includes the fact that on this fateful day, I see him playing with a group of completely new people. People who are new to this high school. In short, first years. A brand new bag of trail mix.

I joined in on my friend’s playing, rather subtly, but I joined in. With the beautiful powers of association, I was able to not be that one-awkward-guy when we played, and because I could actually play, it basically broke the ice for many of them. I was able to talk to them naturally and I had fun with them. I had so much fun. And I got to meet new people. I think that was the most important part for me. I got to meet new people. Following that fateful day where I broke into their norm and broke into their circle of friends, I came back for another taste of that new brand of trail mix. I hate trail mix, but I wanted to see if this new kind could hook me. It did. And like the previous day, we played, we played again. We laughed, we had fun, and for the first time in the seventeen years that I have lived on this earth, I finally realized what was missing in my life.

What I wanted was change, but I would never come to know that until I had it. I would never come to realize that the circle of friends that I encroached my every being for, was just a false deity. I thought that coming into this new world of high school life would be trodden with bumpy hills and forks in roads that I would never even fathom. When I found my original circle of friends, I was relieved. I was overly relieved, and it was because of this relief that I had grown to be spoiled. I never broke out of my shell, and I would never realize this until I had met them, the first years. Despite being four year younger than me, they taught me something I would carry with the rest of my life. They taught me that if I wanted change, then I had to find it. After all, I would never come to realize it until I have it. I had so much fun playing with them, and when I was tired, I would plant my back onto the grass and stare up into the blue sky, wondering if the clouds had always seemed like sweet cotton candy. Never have I been this thankful and this happy to have met these people who accepted me so quickly and have become an integral part of my life. Never have I been so thankful for meeting new friends, and I’ll always remember them. Even if I may not be able to play Frisbee with them every day, I’ll still carry on what they gave me. I’ll carry on the smiles, and the laughs.

I may be an introvert, and I may be an extravert, but after meeting my second circle of friends, I’ve come to learn to embrace that. I’m lonely, excited, playful, and overall, just a bit scared, but I’ll keep moving on, and I’ll keep trying my best to meet new people. I like meeting new people now. I like talking to strangers so much now. I still hate trail mix though.

Home For The Unwanted

The titular post containing all of Home For The Unwanted, as always, filtered by Chapter followed by a number, up to 30 (For ease of access)

Chapter 1

The day grew old, and there wasn’t much activity, at least not for Ryan. His days went by just as quickly as he realized how much he cared; he didn’t. Every single day, Ryan Anderson trudged through the pavement to walk to school. The sun engulfed his entire being, and the wind made imaginary cuts on his soft skin. His legs grew tired of the same routine, but he knew that he couldn’t break the mold. The norm was his life now, no matter how mundane, Ryan had to live on.

The bells rang throughout the hallway, and the clock had struck a satisfying click. Ryan turned his head towards the circular device with the same amity as everything else in the school. His eyes were weighed down by his sleepless nights, but he did a good job of compensating during this time.

“Hey, Ryan!” A boy called out to Ryan, and interrupted his sacred slumber. Ryan lifted his head and noticed a dark haired boy at his desk. His height towered over him, but only due to the slouched position that Ryan had gave himself. The boy had never really made an impression on Ryan, and because of that, he never remembered his name. However, Ryan played along, realizing that the boy knew of him, and that he didn’t want to come off as rude.

“What’s up?”

“It’s lunch, you know that right?”

“Yeah, and this is when I sleep. If you don’t need anything, I’ll be off now.” Ryan bit his tongue at the end of his sentence, realizing he had came off as rude anyway. But nevertheless, he lowered his head back on his desk, and tuned out.

“You can’t survive on sleep alone, you need to eat. Aren’t you eating?” The boy asked. Ryan didn’t lift his head this time, and simply shook while facing his desk. Ryan wanted the boy to leave, he wanted to have his peace. In other words, Ryan didn’t want to associate with this boy. Nor did he care to associate with this boy, all he wanted was to stay in his own world. The world that he had deemed as normal. The world that he sees as nothing but a reflection of his own self. Except, he didn’t have mirrors.

“Fine. Have it your way, but you know…the class is saying things about you. If  you keep this up, won’t you be bothered by it?” Ryan shook off the meddling inquiry of the boy and tried his best to fall asleep. Soon enough, he heard the footsteps of the boy leave the classroom. They were quite loud. Unbearably loud for Ryan, but he understood that it only meant the world around him was growing quiet. The bass of the steps meant that everything else subjugated to nothingness. With his eyes closed shut, and his back slouched down, Ryan knew that he was alone. The darkness enveloped his mind, and his entire body was soon being devoured, and no one would care. No one was left to care. No one was left, and Ryan was happy.

As the  class bell rang again, Ryan quickly jolted his head and rubbed his eyes to adjust. The class was filling once again, and Ryan felt indifferent about the occasion. Students flooding into a classroom meant one of two things to him; either they were being shepherded by a man with a silver gun or class was starting. Ryan preferred the former, it would mean he could sleep through it and not have to worry about being shot. Criminals love obedient hostages, he thought.

“Alright class, settle down.” The teacher was very much like Ryan, very indifferent about his job, and very indifferent about coming here every single day in the morning to torture himself. They got along, only in spirit. Ryan soon found himself growing ever so tired from the antics of the class, and just like he would, Ryan found himself delving into his own fictitious stupor.

The world around him grayed out. His peers soon turned into blackened silhouettes, and all sounds that came to him turned into a deep buzzing. The sound of pen to paper, of chalk to board, and of the low tone of the teacher were all but mechanical rambling. Then, his body grew light. The chair he was sitting on soon faded, and he was simply amidst an airborne throne. His hands on the desk grew elated, and the weightlessness o f it made him queasy. Ryan licked his lips, but the moisture came off as unrecognizable, he continued, but could not feel. Even the air from the windows could not wake him from his mindless state. He was in complete sanction of his own world, and while he was stuck in his, the others were breaking away. The silhouettes faded one by one, until he was alone in absolute darkness. No one cared to notice, and Ryan simple sat staring at nothingness until his time was done. This was an average day for him, a day without care, and a day all to himself. This also made Ryan happy.

When the bell struck again, it was time for Ryan to leave. He noticed that all his classmates were concentrated  into small packets in the room. They had their own conclaves, their own agendas, and their own incandescent chatter. Ryan couldn’t close his ears, but he could ignore the words by simply letting them in and out the same. Ryan wanted to scoff  at his peers, but couldn’t find himself to it, nor did he want to be branded more than he already was. He pushed past them and found himself out of the classroom where he made a bee-line for the nearest exit.

Overtime, Ryan grew accustomed to this. He had walked alone throughout the hallways for as long as he could remember; he ignored everyone, and they ignored him. However, on this day, he noticed things. From walking on these hallways so much, Ryan’s learned how to zone in on his hearing. Aside from his classroom, Ryan has never really sought the need to focus and indulge himself in his own world; perhaps once or twice outside, but he doesn’t get out much. When Ryan is in his stupor, his hearing turns into buzzing. From walking on these hallways he’s learned  to selectively choose what he wants and what he doesn’t.  In other words, when the halls are too loud, he does what he does with his classmates; he lets the words bounce right off.  He can’t escape from every word, however, since he is walking, and walking and closing are two very strenuous tasks for Ryan. Thus, he lets some words in, and from this, he learns just a bit more about the students he walks by every day.

“Do you see that guy?”

“Yeah. They say he’s always alone.”

“Has no friends.”

“Creep.”

“Scary.”

“Freak.”

“Depressed.”

“He has no family, right?” Ryan grew agitated by all the words he had to let in, all the slander, and all the garbage that roamed the halls were too potent. Rumors had spread across the grade, and people were extremely wary of the boy named Ryan. Sometimes, after crossing these halls, even Ryan starts to think the same, but he doesn’t call them out. He doesn’t bat an eye. He doesn’t falter. Ryan continues to walk down the same hall, and he continues to listen in on the darkened whispers, and he continues to come to school. For that, is the norm, and Ryan lives the norm.

Once Ryan steps out of the school building, a waft of air greets him. It pushes his hair back a bit, and causes his eyes to squint. Students begin swarming out behind him, and Ryan makes quick work to get out of their way. There are multiple paths for Ryan to take to walk home, but he always chooses the one with the least traffic. The walkway lies at the base of a forest, but Ryan knows not to venture too far off the road. He has never once stepped foot in the forest, nor does he want to. The greenery and pricks would be too much for him, that kind of life is aside from the norm. And besides, Ryan knows that if he were to get lost in the forest, no one would look for him. That kind of life seems not too far from appealing, however, he can’t cause trouble for his benefactor. If he did, even the afterlife wouldn’t be safe. The last thing Ryan wanted, was to get yelled at after death. Even he couldn’t ignore his benefactor. Despite all this, Ryan still managed to forget one important fact. Life doesn’t wait for anyone. It doesn’t wait for him, nor did it wait for his parents. Life is a stream of self-indulgence, and Ryan will soon find himself in the middle of all its chaos. Before he realizes it, Ryan will find himself following the threads of fate, and be swept up in life; that is, the norm will be broken.

“Wait up!” A voice resounded within Ryan’s ears, a voice that he had not been familiar with. A voice of a child’s.

“Come on! Get me if you can!” Another voice resounded, a voice of a child’s, but this one, was male. Suddenly, a small figure jumped out of the forest and crashed onto the pavement in front of Ryan. The boy picked himself up without regards to Ryan and brushed off his clothes. He then turned around back into the forest and yelled, “I’m alright! Don’t worry!” The boy then sprinted back into the forest, all without regard to the bewildered person who he had stumbled upon. Ryan blinked twice to revitalize his senses, and once he did, he noticed a small rectangular card in front of him. He picked it up, and noticed it was cut from a notebook. The edges were rough, but the handwriting was fairly legible. If it was left for the wind, it would probably rip, he thought. Ryan read the words on the card twice before thinking about it.

“Lorna’s Orphanage; for the unneeded, unwanted, and unattended.” Ryan quickly realized it belonged to the boy, and realized even faster that he had disappeared in the thick of the woods.  Ryan folded the card and carefully placed it in his pocket. He sighed heavily and thought about coming back tomorrow to catch the boy again. However, just for today, something within him thought otherwise. Something within him told him to follow the boy. It broke his norm, and Ryan hesitated before taking his first step, perhaps it was the words.

“Unneeded, unwanted, and unattended.” Those words resonated within Ryan. They were something that he could relate to, something that he could care for, and something that he could call his own. Ryan didn’t have much of those, and so, he took his first step. His legs slowed almost to a halt at first, but once his foot had planted into the dirt in front of him, he couldn’t stop.

Chapter 2

For the first time, something had intrigued Ryan. Much like his peers, he was very uncaring. Every step that Ryan had took felt heavier and heavier. The sound of dirt and leaves crunching beneath him was a calming change of pace. Ryan didn’t feel the need to tune out those natural sounds, and he even found himself growing quite fond of them. The brisk wind that blew across his face even felt comforting, and the smell of pine and wild flowers gave him something to smile at. Ryan had never felt this way before, perhaps he had vividly entered one of his fictitious stupors, he thought. But even that thought, couldn’t make him stop moving. Even that thought, couldn’t stir him back into his norm.

Ryan didn’t know how long he had been walking, but he knew for certain that he was completely alone now. Ryan had followed a trail of broken branches and leaves to track the boy that had ran from him, but even then, the trail seemed to shrink. The further he entered, the further it seemed he was from his natural life. This obvious revelation came off as outlandish to Ryan.  However, Ryan pressed forward. Whether he knew why or why not, Ryan kept walking. Soon enough, his legs grew tired. His head began ringing, and he realized that his lack of physical activity had taken a toll on him. He was nearly panting when just before he was completely fine.

“Are you sure?” Without warning, a sound resounded within the woods. It was the voice of a young girl, the same voice that he had heard on the streets. Ryan stood still, and waited for a reply. If he could follow the voice, then surely he would be able to return the paper to its owner, he thought.

“Yeah! I dropped it back there. I can’t lose that, Lorna will kill me!” Suddenly, the sound of sprinting came closer and closer towards Ryan. A young boy pushed through the woods and before Ryan could react, had bumped straight into him, causing him to effectively yell out in distress as they both fell to the ground.

“Are you okay?” The voice of the girl called out.

“Yeah! I’m fine!” Ryan was still flabbergasted by the situation, and took a moment to process the turn of events.

“Runner! Are you hurt!?” The young girl had rushed into the scene and nearly crashed into Ryan. It took her a moment to catch her breath before speaking, “Don’t run off like that! It’s dangerous.”

“Come on. I’m fine, aren’t I?” The young girl gave the boy named Runner a hard stare. After a few moments, Runner had finally gave in and sighed.

“Fine, whatever. I don’t want Spear to yell at me again.”

“That’s not the problem…” The young girl began fidgeting and staring at the ground in front of her. Her light blue eyes traced the cracked branches, and her small fingers curled into a ball. Her soft gold hair was tied neatly behind her in a ponytail, and seemed to flutter with the wind.  Runner looked at her with a questioning stare. His short brown hair was surprisingly kept despite his occasional heavy panting. His hands were covered in dirt, and his pants had become too tattered to distinguish.

“What’s wrong, Sunflower?” Ryan had quietly watched the conversation in complete awe. They were acting as if he was never there, and despite what his usual bantering may involve, this made him quite uncomfortable.  Perhaps it was because they were young children, or perhaps it was because they had crashed into Ryan and had not apologized yet, but Ryan felt the need to intervene. Or perhaps it was because of the casual exchange that made Ryan felt unbearable. After all, he didn’t know anyone legally named Sunflower, or Runner. Ryan understood the concept of nicknames, but he never understood having one aside from slander.

“Uh…” Ryan was barely audible in the midst of their conversation.

“I just… don’t want to see you hurt,” Sunflower said softly.

“What?” Runner leaned in towards Sunflower.

“Just forget it!” Sunflower pouted and turned around in anger. Her face was bright red, and she left Runner with an increased curiosity. Runner scratched his head and thought about what he had said. After he had made the conclusion that it must be a girl issue and that he would never understand, he continued,  “Well, let’s get back before Hailstone gets angry.”

“You just don’t want to get hit again.”

“You don’t understand! She’s scary! I don’t understand how you two can be sisters. You’re so…. not her.”

“What does that mean?” Sunflower began giggling at Runner’s description of her.

“Um…” Ryan tried to speak out, but couldn’t quite find the tone or volume to attract any attention. Just as Sunflower and Runner began heading back, Ryan cleared his throat and then said in a very static tone, “I’m still here.” His voice cracked near the end, but neither Sunflower or Runner caught it. However, they did turn their heads to inquire the person that had seemingly appeared.

“I was… over there…. and you bumped into me…. and–”

“Oh! Sorry! You were the guy on the road earlier right?” Ryan nodded his head obediently to Runner, not realizing the quaintness of his remark.

“What did you want, mister?” Ryan almost choked at Runner’s last word. The idea of being called mister when he wasn’t all that old felt odd, even to Ryan. Nevertheless, Ryan pulled out the card from his pockets and waved it in front of Runner.

“You dropped this.” Runner grabbed the paper without regard to Ryan and examined it. Once he had realized what it was, he began gleefully jumping up and down, “The card!” When his excitement had died down, he sighed and gave a breath of relief, “Thanks mister! If I lost this, Lorna really would kill me.”

“Come on, Runner. We have to go. Now.” Sunflower began tugging on the hem of Runner’s shirt with urgency. She looked dangerously at Ryan and didn’t seem to want to let him out of her sight, despite his feigned presence a few moments earlier.

“But he found our card, shouldn’t we bring him along?”

“You know what would happen if they found us, right? Spear told us all about it. Even Walker warned us about it. We have to go Runner.” Sunflower’s voice grew increasingly worried the more Ryan stuck around. Her eyes were dead set on Ryan, but her body trembled, and she could barely hold onto Runner.

“Think about it. If he read our card and followed us here. Wouldn’t we already be in trouble?” Runner never faltered, and kept his optimistic view points. His eyes gleamed in the shadow of the woods, and despite Sunflower’s warnings, he stood strong.

“But–”

“Forget what Walker and Spear said. If I say he’s a good guy, then he’s a good guy!”

“Lorna won’t be happy if you bring him there you know. It was her that told Walker and Spear in the first place, and I think Winter might know as well. You’re going to be in a lot of trouble.”

“I don’t care about the bad guys Lorna keeps talking about. They won’t be able to take me away! I’ll fight them and win, like a real hero! Then we can all be together!” Runner put on the biggest smile he could along with a victory sign. Sunflower’s expression lowered, and for a brief moment, she felt relieved by Runner’s claim.

“If you’re so worried about Lorna, then why don’t we bring him there, and then let her decide?” Sunflower  unlocked her eyes from Ryan and looked down on the ground. She thought about Runner’s suggestion, but before she could give him a logical answer, he grabbed her hand and began dragging her, “Come on, mister, follow us!”

“Hey!” Sunflower said to Runner’s sudden outburst. Runner didn’t seem to care about Sunflower’s protest, and continued to drag her along while Ryan followed quietly behind them.

“Jeez, at least say something before you grab my hand like that,” Sunflower said in an almost whisper like tone. Her face had grown red from Runner’s hand, and before she realized it, she had a small smile on her face. From behind, Ryan noticed but didn’t think much of it. To him, that was their norm, and their actions and reactions are all just part of a norm that he didn’t exist in. He was an outsider, but despite that, and before he could realize it, he had broke into their norm. And without knowing, his norm, had now slowly taken shape.

Chapter 3

It wasn’t long before Ryan had arrived at the decrepit building. It was well hidden in the midst of the forest. To any passerby, it might have came off as an abandoned building. It might have given off the vibe of adventure, but despite that, to Ryan it felt warm. The walls were almost all covered in moss and vines, but the windows and door were well kept. Curtains veiled over the building, and not a single peep was made from the inside. The clearing that Ryan had arrived to was far too quiet, he thought. It might have been because of how deep in the forest he was, but for some reason, Ryan could understand how well hidden the building was. It barely stood over the trees, but it was wide enough that it would catch an odd pair of eyes.

“We’re here, mister,” Runner said, “We’re home,” Sunflower added. Runner began walking forward, his hand had long detached from Sunflower’s. His strides were weak, but at the same time Ryan could sense a feeling of relief. Sunflower lagged behind him, but she gave off the same feeling. It was like coming back from a long day of work. However, to Ryan, it merely seemed like a feeling of longing. As they came to the front door of the building, Runner stopped Ryan.

“Wait here. I’ll go get Lorna. You stay with him, Sunflower.”

“Wait–” But before Sunflower could finish, Runner had already entered the building. Sunflower sighed, and then looked dangerously at Ryan.  After a few moments, she lowered her stare, and sat on the doorsteps. Sunflower looked indifferent as Ryan continued to stand by the door. Eventually she gave in and spoke to Ryan, “The reason why you can’t go in is because the inside is being watched.”

“Watched?” Ryan responded methodically, almost too quickly for his own comfort, but he was interested in the topic.

“The lock is broken, so that’s why it’s always open. When you open the door, a bell rings on the inside, and unless you say the secret password, we all think you’re a bad guy.”

“He said that before, about the bad guys. Who are the bad guys?” Ryan’s own curiosity surprised him. His uncaring attitude had became construed into a nest of sticks. With every word he spoke and with every continued interaction he had, Ryan felt increasingly uncomfortable. The norm he had broken into, and the norm that he had abandoned were all too striking. But Ryan knew that if he were to ever stride back on his path of normality, that he would have to walk away. Ryan would have to feign ignorance, however, he could never bring himself to it. The words that stuck at the back of his mind circled around him in a mist of uncertainty. They came back before he knew it, and they chained his fate to the building’s.

“Unneeded, unwanted, and unattended.” Those three words continually appeared and disappeared from Ryan’s mind, seeming to want Ryan to engage in a cat-and-mouse.

“The bad guys are people who will take us away.” Before Ryan realized it, Sunflower had spoken again. His mindful stupor had taken freeze, and he made sure to leave it for the cold.  If Ryan wanted to satiate his running mind filled with words of similarity, he had to act natural; as natural as he can.

“Did this Lorna tell you that?”

“Yeah. We all trust Lorna. She would never lie to us. She won’t let the bad guys take us away. She promised.”

“Who is…. Lorna?”

“She’s all of our big sister!”  It took Ryan a few moments to process what Sunflower had said. He ran the words over and over in his mind, until finally he came to the conclusion that she was simply mistaken.

“She’s all of your big sister? That can’t be.”

“No, mister. Not sister-sister, but sister!” Ryan gave Sunflower an even more confused stare. Sunflower couldn’t quite understand Ryan’s denying statement, but neither could she understand that it was genuine doubt.

“She’s your sister? And Runner’s sister?”

“Yeah! And Hailstone, and Walker, and Spark! She’s all of our big sister!” Ryan never realized it, but Sunflower’s tone had considerably gone up. When the topic of Lorna was concerned, Sunflower seemed to radiate brightness. She seemed cheerful, loud, but uplifting.

“Sometimes Lorna would even bake us cookies! She even made cake too! And there was one time when Runner got in an accident and Lorna looked everywhere for him. Lorna is always here for us. She would never leave us. She will protect us from the bad guys!”

“You seem to like her a lot. She sounds reliable.”

“Everyone loves Lorna. She was the one who brought us all together. We’re all a family now. And I don’t want anyone to leave.” Ryan didn’t respond. The system known as a family didn’t sit well with Ryan. He knew of it, but was not familiar with it. Siblings, parents, love. Those were words that Ryan could not relate to. Those were words that he felt uncaring for. Those were words apart from the norm. Whether he wanted it to be or not, those were all words that Ryan lost. However, Ryan had forgotten one important fact. This was not a family, it was an orphanage, and even the least cynical of people would have came to realize this. Ryan did not.

“So you all live here?” Ryan asked.

“Yeah!  This is our home. We all play, eat, and sleep here. It’s always fun!” Before Ryan could respond, the door opened again. In the doorway was Runner, and a girl who Ryan had never saw before. She was much older than Runner and Sunflower, and Ryan had even considered her to be the same age as him. She could pass off as a student much like him, but there was something strange about her. Ryan felt off about seeing her. She had bright golden hair, much like Sunflower, however, due to her stature, it was much more refined. It reached below her shoulders, and seemed very well kept.  Her eyes were a deep hazel, and they were quite shaped to be alluring. Her lips bore a soft red that settled in with her rosy cheeks and she was a bit taller than Ryan. Everything about her was warm, Ryan thought. However, he didn’t understand how he came to that conclusion, nor why he did. She was just a figure of long lost family, something Ryan would never know until it was too late.

“So you’re the ‘mister’ that Runner found, huh?”

“Yeah. My name is–” Before Ryan could respond, Lorna stopped him by placing her hand out.

“No names.”

“But–”

“No buts. I’m Lorna. You know Runner and Sunflower, but we have  a bunch of kids here. Eight to be exact. Nine if you include me. And ten if we have you now.” Ryan couldn’t find a logical answer in Lorna excluding his name when the rest of the kids and Lorna herself did have a name. However, that was the least of his worries. The last part of Lorna’s sentence was what drew him in the most.

“What… is this place?”

“Glad you asked, mister.” The thought of hearing someone that was possibly the same age as him call him “mister” felt extremely uncomfortable, albeit, a bit satisfying; Ryan couldn’t understand it himself.

“This place is the home for the unneeded. The unwanted. And the unattended. You read the card. It’s as simple as that.” Lorna made a point to gesture her hands out towards the building to further emphasize the point. But even that notion didn’t stop Ryan from sensing a discrepancy. Ryan spoke out towards Lorna, not feeling much but curiosity.

“That card, it was ripped from a notebook. Why did you make it?”

“That card is old news. Runner carries it along wherever he goes because it’s an old keepsake. There’s nothing to it. Don’t get many kids as we used to. Now we’re all tightly knit.”

“Stopped accepting?”

“For many reasons. But, I didn’t expect Runner to bring you in.”

“He seems like a good guy! He picked up my card and brought it back to me!” Runner chimed in. Sunflower remained indifferent, but Lorna seemed to have already made her decision.

“Look–” Lorna leaned in so that only Ryan could hear, “What we have here is a secret. This isn’t any ordinary orphanage. We have a family now, and if you want to destroy that family, I swear I’ll make you pay.”

“Runner mentioned ‘bad guys’, but I don’t think I’m one of them.” Ryan whispered back.

“No. You’re not, the bad guys I’m looking for are wearing blue uniforms. You’re just an ordinary kid, much like I am, and much like they are. But if you’re here, then you’re here for a reason. You don’t look like a runaway, or a stowaway, or a depressed addict. You’re here because you want to be here. You have a family, or what’s supposed to be a family, but you came anyway.” Ryan stepped back from Lorna and looked at her in complete awe. She saw right through him, and what made Ryan surprised was the fact that they had only just met. Lorna remained calm, and put on a cool smile in front of the kids. Ryan didn’t know how to respond, but the last thing he wanted to do was run. The last thing Ryan wanted was to break from this norm.

“If you’re here now, you’re here to stay. I welcome you, to Lorna’s orphanage.” Without further warning, and without indication, Lorna had declared Ryan’s acceptance out loud. Ryan’s surprise was slowly fading and at this moment, nothing could surprise him. Lorna was a walking bundle of surprises, and he had to prepare for that. Ryan didn’t question her sudden revelation, nor did he feel the need to. For some reason, Ryan accepted it with open arms, and without realizing it, he had finally found his puzzle pieces.

 

 

Chapter 4

Fortunately for Ryan, Runner had escorted him out of the forest that fateful day. He was sprung into their norm, and he didn’t know how to respond. However, Ryan did understand one thing; that he would never be satisfied if he left now.  On the next day after school, Ryan decided to wait at the road he had found Runner at. He didn’t expect an escort, but he got one anyway. It made him feel indifferent. To have someone meet with him, and have someone bring him along after school was weird for Ryan. It was almost like he had friends.

“Oh look, it’s our newest member. Glad you showed up,” Lorna said with a small smug smile.

“Didn’t expect the entourage.”

“Didn’t get one. I’m just out to get some supplies. The route should be clear. I broke some branches for you.”

“Supplies?”

“Food, water, shelter, you know, things we need to live. Except, not the latter. We have the latter.”

“If you need help, I can go with you.” Ryan didn’t understand why he offered his assistance.  His words came off as shallow, something out of courtesy, not common concern. It felt weird for Ryan. Since when did he ever care so much for a stranger, he thought. Never, he concluded.

“No. I’m fine. I told them that you were coming today, so I can’t let you be killed out there.”

“Thought you were just out to shop.”

“Exactly. You don’t look like you get out much, can’t have you growing out of your shell that quickly. Adapt. Learn. At your own pace.”  Ryan could sense a strange sense of hesitation in Lorna’s voice. He could also tell that Lorna was a bit wary, and perhaps was trying to keep something secret from Ryan. However, Ryan didn’t press on, and went into the forest.

“In that case, I’ll be going now.”

“I’ll be back. I don’t know if you’ll still be here when I’m back, but, I’ll be back.”

Ryan followed a path of broken branches just as Lorna had said. He still wasn’t quite familiar with the area, nor did he ever think that he would come accustomed to it. Nevertheless, he followed the path of broken sticks, and thought about the new norm that he had broken into. It was something, that he could get used to, he thought. However, the nature of learning a new path, especially one that is meant to be hidden, didn’t bode well with Ryan. He was horrible with directions.

“Hey!” Before Ryan could even finish walking to the building, he heard a voice. It was Runner. Ryan turned around to greet him.

“You came! Just like Lorna said.”

“Yeah. I had nothing better to do anyway.”

“Lorna said that you were a temporary worker. But I don’t get it.” Ryan didn’t understand it either, but he had a vague idea of what she could have meant, and it gave Ryan a sudden chill. The thought did appear to Ryan that coming to Lorna’s building was wrong. It was a home first and foremost, and Ryan did have his own home; no matter how much he hated it. Ryan couldn’t leave his home to join another’s for he carried a burden, and knew not to trouble his benefactors. Ryan understood the simple concept of give and take, and his way of life had nothing but the latter. Even so, Ryan couldn’t call it disgust, but necessity.

“Let’s go and play!” Runner’s energetic spiel turned Ryan’s attention back into reality, and he quickly found himself being dragged along to Runner’s antics.

“Where are we going?” Ryan asked.

“Towards the fields! Where Sunflower is.”

“The fields?” Runner didn’t answer and simple continued along. Ryan couldn’t do anything but follow him. The area was all new to him, and if he lost Runner, then he would be short of a guide. Luckily for Ryan, the run wasn’t that long, although he did find himself heavily panting at the end of it. Runner yelled out in the distance as they entered the clearing.

“Sunflower!” Sunflower was crouched down on the clearing a little ways away from where they had entered. Ryan couldn’t tell what she was doing, but as they walked closer towards her, Ryan noticed that it wasn’t just a grass filled clearing that they had entered.

“Runner!” Sunflower seemed to have completely ignored the fact that Ryan was trudging along behind him.

“What’s that?” Runner asked.

“This is for mister.” As Sunflower said that, she looked over and noticed Ryan staring directly at her hands; which had a small interwoven circle of flowers. Sunflower immediately tucked the ornament behind her in embarrassment, but Ryan didn’t give up, and gave her a questioning look.

“Fine.” Sunflower finally gave up and took out her hands, revealing the ornament once again. Ryan walked over and crouched down so that he was the same height as Sunflower.

“It’s supposed to be a crown.” Sunflower placed it on top of Ryan’s head. Although Ryan couldn’t see what he looked like, he could get a good sense by the way Runner and  Sunflower had began giggling at him.

“Didn’t you hate me before?” Ryan asked Sunflower.

“Lorna said that you weren’t a bad guy. She said that you were our newest family member. I didn’t like you at first, but I think you’re okay, mister.” For some reason, that made Ryan smile.

“Thanks,” Ryan said.

“Let’s go and play now! Lorna said that you would play with us too!” Sunflower suddenly began sprinting away from the clearing.

“Come on, let’s go!” Runner began following Sunflower, and to Ryan’s disapproval, he had to follow as well.

“Where are you going?” Ryan yelled out.

“Over there!” Sunflower replied while running and laughing.

“That’s not helping! Why don’t we play something that doesn’t require me having to relapse my asthma!?”

“What does that mean?” Runner replied.

“I’m getting tired!” Ryan retorted back with half as much breath as he did moments before.  Despite the situation, and despite Ryan’s physical deterioration, he surprisingly found himself to be smiling and laughing along with them.

“I found it!” Suddenly, Sunflower, Runner, and Ryan all stopped. Ryan nearly toppled over with the sudden loss of acceleration, but he was glad that he was given a moments rest. Sunflower walked on ahead, and picked up a peculiar stone from the ground.

“Oh! That’s what Lorna dropped the other day, right?” Runner asked.

“Yeah! She said it was a small blue rock. I wanted to look for it.” Lorna held the small gem in her hands and brought it towards her eyes. It gave off a small gleam, and Ryan was certain that Sunflower had just dragged him along to physically torture him. As Ryan had finally stopped panting, he walked up towards Sunflower and inspected the gem closer.

“Did Lorna say what it was for?”

“I think she said that it was a heirloom. But I didn’t get it.”

“Mind if I hold it?” Sunflower handed Ryan the gem. Ryan held it towards the sun, and watched as the gem began glowing vibrantly in his hands. It was a beautiful gem, however, Ryan couldn’t quite believe the story that it was a heirloom. For some reason, Ryan thought that if it was anyone else, he might have believed them. Lorna was just too elusive and aloof for Ryan to let his guard down, he thought.

For the remainder of the day, Sunflower, Runner and Ryan all played in the forest. Ryan had successfully convinced them to play less active games, and in the midst of all the energy and fun they had, Ryan had slowly realized that he had never even made it to the building that day. He got caught up in the pace of Sunflower and Runner, and his original goal had been altered. His norm had been shattered yet again, but this time, Ryan felt relieved. The norm that he had been adjusted to didn’t quite feel like an anomaly or a change. Ryan understood this norm as interchangeable; a variable.

“Hey! Looks like you stayed,” Lorna said as she crept up on Ryan as he began leaving the forest.

“It was more fun than I expected. I give you that.”

“Glad to hear. Would hate to see you go that quickly when you hadn’t even gotten comfortable yet.”

“I think I’m getting there.”

“Good. Good. ”

“Is that all?”

“Quite ready to run from me now are you?” Ryan couldn’t quite respond to her claim, but he didn’t need to as Lorna laughed and added, “Kidding.” Ryan sighed a breath of relief, and continued walking back towards his home.

“But, I do want you to know something. And, I should have told you this before, but, I do run an orphanage. That kind of responsibility entails looking after kids that have nowhere else to go. I harbor those that are unneeded, unwanted, and unattended. But really, that’s just a fancy way of saying those that were abandoned. You, on the other hand, are not fit for any of those categories.” Ryan stopped to listen to Lorna, but he couldn’t quite find the right words to respond to her. She was just too abrasive for him. Lorna was a person that despite being in the norm, was still very much in charge of her own rules, and worked at her own pace, Ryan thought. She was a person who not only created norms, but was also separate from them. Lorna’s norm, was Lorna, Ryan concluded.

“The reason why I welcomed you wasn’t to keep a blackmail on you either. But it’s because I know you’re special. And special people tend to do special things. For one, you picked up the card, and you gave it back. Two, you didn’t rip the paper. And three, you believed in us. I think that’s why you even bothered coming into the forest, and that’s why I can trust you. You may not be an abandoned child, but you can come by anytime. This is your second home, and you can treat it as such.”

“I don’t quite understand it myself but…. I think I’ll follow you up on that. It was fun, really, and…. I think I might come to enjoy myself here. It’s a feeling that…. I never had in a long time.”  It was a feeling that Ryan never realized that he had lost. The feeling of joy, and the feeling of being able to interact with people he just met; to not have to brand them as annoying or overly pretentious. Without any words, Lorna understood Ryan’s gratitude towards her, for bringing him in, and for trusting him. Ryan himself understood that gratitude as well, however, for him, it was stuck in the back of his mind.

As Ryan got home that evening, the only thing on his mind was what Lorna had said. The idea of a second home was appealing to him, even more so appealing than trying to please his benefactor. However, Ryan himself couldn’t find it in him to break from this norm that he still held close. It was a norm that needed more time, and it was a norm that Ryan didn’t think he needed to break from.  Nonetheless, aside from all of these thoughts, Ryan did realize one thing that night. The crown Sunflower had made for him, was still stuck on his head.

Chapter 5

“Did you watch that show on T.V yesterday?”

“Which one?”

“The one with the famous pop star!” As Ryan walked past the crowd of people in seek of his new found norm, he began noticing things. Ryan would find himself often closing his ears, however, he began hearing discrepancies.

“It’s him again. He’s always so depressed.”

“Don’t you think he’s different lately?”

“Different?”

“Like he’s not that out of it anymore.” Ryan began noticing many things, one of which, is the fact that he had begun smiling more. Sometimes he would smile to the smallest things. Sometimes he would smile to the dumbest things. But the fact stands that he smiled. He began enjoying the small things that he never noticed before, and he accepted that as part of his new norm.

As Ryan made his way to the forest, he noticed a preplaced path of branches in his way. He followed it zealously and quickly found himself in front of the decrepit building. Ryan stuck his hand out to reach for the door knob, but stopped right before turning it.  He remembered Sunflower’s words, and didn’t know the password. Ryan hadn’t actually entered the building since he joined it, however, he couldn’t realize the quaintness of that fact either. Ryan waited at the door, but soon realized that he still didn’t know much of the area. He figured that he had some free time now, and decided to check out the surrounding landscape.

Ryan turned around, and began circling the building. He didn’t expect much, but as he arrived at the back of the building, he noticed a child all by herself. There was a little porch area near the back, with a door leading to the inside. The young girl was sitting on the porch, tending to what seemed to be a small flower growing at the base of the steps. She had long light blue hair that seemed like it was dyed right in the sky. Her hands were small, and they seemed fragile. Her small attentive eyes were completely focused, and her legs were neatly placed beside each other. Ryan noticed a small smile form on her face as she caressed the petals of the flower.

Ryan slowly walked up to her, but before he could make much distance, he heard a voice call out from inside the building.

“Winter?” It was Lorna. She walked out with her hands in her pockets, and as she noticed Ryan, gave him a questioning look.

“What’s up? Lost?” Lorna asked.

“No, I just didn’t know the password.”

“Oh! Right. Right. Just say….. uh…. what was it again?” Lorna began scratching her head in an attempt to remember the password.

“Apples,” the girl named Winter said. Her voice was very low, and if it wasn’t for the silent winds, Ryan would never have heard her.

“Ah! Right, it was apples this week.” Lorna placed her finger up as if she had made a revelation.

“I had a craving this week. But that’s beside the point. Apples is the password.” After Lorna finished, she looked straight at Ryan. Her eyes were fixated, and Ryan failed to see that they weren’t looking at him, but that she was spacing out. Ryan grew uncomfortable with the passing silence of Lorna’s stare, and as she snapped out of it, she said, “Right. Right. No apples. No apples. Anyways….Winter!”

“It’s about Hailstone, right?” As Winter responded, she stopped playing with the flower. Her hands curled into a ball at her laps, and she looked down at the ground in front of her.

“Look. I don’t know why you guys fought again. I was sleeping at the time.” Lorna made a point to make the last bit of her sentence less audible than the rest, because of this, Ryan was unable to follow her. Lorna looked worryingly at Winter while she spoke; her eyes were filled with concern, and her legs couldn’t stop bouncing. Lorna placed one hand on her knees to prevent the constant up and down, however, it didn’t do much to stop it. In a word, Ryan described her current state; distressed.

“But, you guys can’t keep this up, you know?” Lorna continued from her last thought. Winter didn’t respond, and instead continued to look down at the ground, her feet was now tracing a circle in the dirt.

“I’m happy that you guys didn’t hurt each other. It’s a big improvement from before, but, you guys have to get along sometimes. You might think it’s your own problem, but everyone else is worried, you know.”

“I know.”

“You don’t. That’s why you’re still here sulking. And that’s why you guys can’t get along.” Winter’s grip grew tighter and tighter, and Ryan noticed her hands growing red.

“Look, I understand that not everyone can get along, and that having fights every once in a while is good, but, do you want that?” Winter shook her head.

“You guys will eventually come to understand one another. I believe so. I know so. So just try harder, okay?” Winter nodded her head.

“I’m going to head back inside. Once you cool your head, be sure to talk to Hailstone again, okay?” Winter nodded her head.

“I’m sorry to drag you into this–” Lorna looked at Ryan, who stood quietly as the conversation unraveled. Ryan nodded without Lorna having to finish, understanding full well what she wanted. As Lorna entered the building, Ryan was left with Winter, who was still staring at the ground looking at the circle she had drawn. Ryan walked over, and crouched in front of Winter, however, he didn’t make eye contact. Instead, he asked her a question.

“Hailstone… Sunflower’s sister, if I remember. You hate her?” Winter didn’t answer. Ryan sighed, and then went over to the steps and sat beside her.

“Hailstone, huh? I remember Runner saying that she was scary. Sunflower is so cheerful all the time, however, she is a bit shy around strangers. A bit wary maybe, but I can’t see someone related to her to not be like that.” Winter looked over to face Ryan, however, Ryan was looking ahead into forest.

“What did you guys fight about?” There was silence yet again, but that didn’t bother Ryan. In fact, this felt all too natural for him, and thus, he could relate.

“About boys?”

“No!” Winter responded immediately, which startled both Ryan and herself. She covered her mouth in embarrassment, but slowly lowered her hands. She looked at the ground again, and began erasing the circle with the sole of her shoes.

“It’s… All my fault.” Winter paused, stopped her legs, and then thought.  Ryan noticed the series of actions, and figured that all she needed was some sort of push.

“Did you say something to her?” Winter nodded her head.

“What did you say?”

“I told her that she could have the last cookie.” Ryan almost choked at what Winter had said, but he let her continue.

“We were having breakfast. Runner, Sunflower, Walker, and Hailstone were there. Usually, we would let Lorna decide, but she wasn’t up yet. So we all went around and asked.”

“Let me guess, you and Hailstone were the last two who still wanted it?”

“I told her that she could have it, but before I could hand it to her, she turned away. I didn’t understand why she did it, but when she got up, she started yelling at me.”

“What did she say?”

“She said that if I gave her the cookie, that Lorna would give one to me anyway. She started saying that I was trying to be her favorite, and that I was really arrogant. I didn’t know why, so I started yelling back. I told her that she was wrong, and that she didn’t know anything.” Winter stopped, and her hands began trembling. Ryan noticed, and also noticed that the tone of her voice had begun fluctuating.

“I told her that she was angry because Lorna didn’t like her. I told her that she would always get in trouble, and because of that, Lorna wanted to throw her out. She then told me that I–” Winter cut herself off. It looked like it was hard for her to continue,  and just before Ryan could tell her to stop, she pressed on.

“She told me that I should just go and die. She said that I was a kiss up, and that the only reason why people liked me was because I act cute and girly to get on their good side.  She told me that people like me are making the world wrong, and that I was the reason why Lorna had to take her in.” Winter’s breathing began increasing, and Ryan immediately jumped in to stop her, “That’s enough. I think I’ve heard enough.”

“That’s when I ran out. I still don’t know why…. she said that to…. m–”

“Stop!” Ryan had yelled, to both Winter and his own surprise.

“Do you think anything you said was true? That Lorna didn’t like her? That she would  get thrown out?”

“No! I don’t. I know Lorna likes everyone, and that she would never hate any of us. But I…. I just–”

“Do you think anything Hailstone said was true?”

“I don’t know why she said that. I’m just acting like myself. I don’t try to act cute or anything. I’m just…. I just don’t know how else to be.” Ryan looked up into the midday sky, and sighed. For once, he understood, and for once, he cared. Ryan didn’t know why he cared, but he did. He cared about the norm and he cared about these people. Perhaps it was because Ryan saw something within Winter that made him want to care. Perhaps Ryan saw a lonely misunderstood kid. Perhaps Ryan didn’t know what he was doing, but nonetheless, he talked.

“What you guys are doing, is misunderstanding each other. Do you want to make up with her?”

“Of course!”

“Then go and talk to her. Just say what you told me, that you didn’t mean it. And just make sure she understands that you’re just you, and that you can’t change who you are.”

“What if she doesn’t want to talk?”

“She will, trust me.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“Because she never said that she hated you, did she? She was just fed up. She was just angry. When you’re angry, you say a lot of things. To me, Hailstone is just a person who is really expressive.”

“Expressive?”

“Yeah. Like she really knows how to say what she thinks, you know. But people just don’t think the nicest of things, and when you say it, you regret it, right?” Winter considered Ryan’s words, and finally got up.

“You’re right. I’ll talk to her. Thank you, mister.”

“No problem.” Winter turned around and entered the building. At this point, Ryan didn’t feel like getting up, nor did he feel like doing much of anything other than staring up at the midday sky. For some reason, Ryan felt proud. Ryan felt happy. But most of all, Ryan had finally felt part of the norm. Ryan wasn’t just a piece of it anymore, he wasn’t just a doll in a collection of  everything. Ryan felt at home, he felt like he mattered. He had finally realized what joy it was to help someone. He was a part of their family now. Whether he knew it or not.

Chapter 6

“Apples,” Ryan said as he entered the old building. The door creaked silently and the sound of the resonating bell gave him a warm welcome. Ryan was greeted with a large wooden stair case. The building was unsurprisingly two floors. As Ryan turned his head, he noticed that he was surrounded on both sides by a thick hallway. Doors lined each side, and Ryan felt overwhelmed by the gradating presence of the unknown. This was a new addition to the norm, and it was something that he could come to get used to. Ryan could laugh, have fun, and find a place to call his own. This norm was finding shape, Ryan thought. However, he couldn’t realize what that would mean for him, nor why it happened.  To Ryan, it was all apples and oranges; both of which he didn’t find quite appealing.

One impeding factor that Ryan would never come to understand was that the building was complex. Paths were winding, hallways caved in, and rooms were hidden. The building was truly large, he thought. Perhaps too large for him to even get a grasp over it. After all, the only thing that would never change about Ryan, was his sense of direction; or misdirection.

As Ryan began wandering the first floor of the building, he heard a voice. It was more of a whisper than an actual audible sound, but Ryan followed it nonetheless. Every step was heavy, as each step came with the great burden of echoing wood and creaks. Aside from this, the building was quiet, in fact, it was deathly quiet, and Ryan took it as so. Without realizing it, he had slowly slipped into his stupor. His vision had narrowed. The wood of the panels, the wood of the door, and the glint of the glassed windows all began fading. The hallway converged into a tunnel of black nothingness. The smell of old wood began fading and was replaced by a sharp metallic rust. Every step slowly faded and the sole of his shoes to the grain of the planks felt like a stroll among clouds. The aftertaste of wood shavings and flour escaped the air, and soon enough even his own footsteps became like water. Ryan continued towards this nothingness which he was so accustomed to.

“Mister! Hey!” Ryan was lost within his own world, but soon found himself back with the incandescent chatter that he was subjected to.

“Hey!”

“Hmm?” Ryan snapped out of his stupor, and found that color began filling his world. Ryan was surprised to see a small child in front of him, even more so that there were two. The first child had sharp eyes. His light brown hair contrasted with the rot of the wood around him. He was physically smaller than Runner, but Ryan concluded that he was a bit older than him. The second boy stood by the walls slightly behind the first. He was staring at the window, minding his own business, almost wistfully; as if he was searching for something, however, Ryan didn’t notice this.  His eyes looked tired, but his posture was refined. His hair was dark and scruffy, but it didn’t seem to bother him.

“You’re the new kid, right? You don’t look like a kid,” the first child said.

“The name’s Spear.” The boy used one hand to point to himself, and with the other, pointed to the child behind him, “That’s walker.”

“You alright? You looked pretty spooked to me,” Spear asked.

“Yeah, I was just….Spacing out.”

“Lorna does that often, but she usually trips. I wouldn’t call it safe.”

“Duly noted. So what are you guys up to?

“We were just talking when we noticed you.” Ryan figured that the whispers he heard must have been from Spear and Walker.

“About?” Ryan asked.

“About how someone like Hailstone could be related to Sunflower.” Ryan was suddenly hit with a weird sense of déjà vu.

“Your conclusion?”

“Aliens.”

“Aliens?”

“Aliens. There is no way they can be related. They act so differently. And they don’t even…They don’t even look the same.”

“I wouldn’t know. What’s so different?” Ryan was unfamiliar with the concept of family or siblings. He understood a basic premise, but he himself had never really grasped what it was to have a sibling, nor why one would be confused or seen as a sibling to another.

“Well, they have the same hair. However, Hailstone has her’s a bit shorter.”

“Shorter?”

“Like ours.” Ryan slowly began piecing together an image of Hailstone. However, it was a bit construed and the only thing he could see was a male Sunflower; a bit of a playboy, he thought.

“Her eyes are different as well. And if I squint my ears I can hear a slight resemblance in their voices.” Ryan ignored the notion of Spear squinting his ears.

“So her hair, and her eyes are different. That it?”

“From what we can tell, that’s it.”

“And from that, you conclude that she’s an alien?” Spear nodded at the summary of his brilliant revelation. Ryan decided to place the revelation at the back of his mind, in case he ever needed to bring it up again.

“By the way –” Walker spoke up, seeming to have broken from his trance. His voice was very crisp, unlike Spear who always spoke in a very urgent manner.

“You don’t have a name yet, do you?”

“No. I don’t. Lorna said that I didn’t need to say it.”

“Right. It’s because you’re an old kid.”

“Old kid?”

“Yeah. Look at us. And look at you. Even Lorna is an old kid, she just doesn’t admit it.” It took  Ryan a few moments to realize what Walker could have been implying when he said “old kid”.

“If Lorna is an old kid like I am, then why can she use her name, and I can’t?”

“She’s an exception. She’s an old kid, but she makes the rules as well.”

“So I can’t say my name because I’m an old kid?”

“Yeah. When we all came here, she made us all say our names first, and then gave us nicknames.” Ryan found it strange that she would only find out the names of the younger children. This implied that there are people around Ryan’s age that could be staying here, or did stay here, Ryan thought. However, Ryan couldn’t satisfy his curiosity until he knew why Lorna picked up the names of the younger children in the first place. If Lorna calls them by their nicknames anyway, then why the need for their real name, Ryan thought. Although he was used to the nicknames that these children had, he was still very unfamiliar with the concept. To him, it was a thing that had long been lost in his norm, but now that he has found a new norm, he was willing to learn more.

“So  Lorna won’t let me say my name. Will that mean she’ll give me a new name?”

“She might. It’s all up to her whether you get a name or not. If you do, it’ll be easier than referring to you as ‘mister’ all the time.” The thought of being called mister wasn’t so bad to Ryan, however, he did want to receive a name. After all, Ryan still found it awkward whenever Lorna called him that.

“How did it go with your names?”

“She gave mines after  a day,” Walker replied.

“She named me on the spot,” Spear said nonchalantly.

“What’s the longest time she’s ever given a name?”

“I think the longest was Winter. It took her two days.” Ryan grew slightly agitated by the fact that Lorna could have possibly been messing with him. Ryan didn’t see it all too difficult to believe that Lorna just wanted to tease Ryan; the thought of her just simply forgetting was also not too farfetched.

“But don’t worry too hard about your name. Your name is earned, I think. And it’s an important and special thing to receive your name. Lorna’s probably just…. thinking really hard about it.” For some reason, Ryan couldn’t quite believe in Walker’s words.

“Oh yeah! Didn’t we say we would go help out Spark today?” Spear suddenly intervened.

“Right. I was wondering when you were going to remember. We’ll catch you later, just remember to bring up the topic with Lorna, or she’ll never give you a name.” As Walker and Spear walked towards the entrance of the building, Ryan was left to wander about once again. Even if Ryan wanted to find Lorna, it would be impossible with the sheer size of the building he was in. The only thing Ryan could do at this moment was let the dice play themselves. In his case, he had already expanded his list of acquaintances and met two new kids. If anything, meeting more of the children in this building was also a prospect that Ryan saw as rewarding. His norm was constantly expanding, whether Ryan knew it or not, and it wouldn’t stop for him, nor did he stop for it.

“Looking for a name, I see.” Suddenly, Lorna appeared behind Ryan. The door behind her was still open, and as Ryan turned, she stuck out a finger pointing at him. Ryan gave her an uncomfortable stare, which prompted her to continue, “Well look no more, because you’re looking at just the right person.” Ryan didn’t respond.

“Tough crowd. Tough crowd. Well, if you really are looking for a name, I’m the one to determine that. After all, this is my orphanage.”

“Right. And you’re going to give me a name?”

“No. Of course not. Why would I?”

“Then why–”

“Because! Because you will receive a name. Just not now. There’s a reason behind my names. You’ll soon realize it. I just haven’t found yours. You’re a tough cookie, you know. A tough one.”

“Is there some kind of test behind your names?” Ryan replied sarcastically.

“Actually, there is. It’s a bit of a naming ceremony.”

“A ceremony?”

“It’s already happening.”

“It’s happening?”

“Just know that I’m always watching you. Even when you don’t want me to. I’ll watch. Even when you watch me watch you, I’ll watch.” Ryan ignored her bantering, as is his best countermeasure towards Lorna.

“But don’t worry yourself over it. You will get a name. I promise you. If you’re ever going to get comfortable around here, you will need one. I know that. So trust me.” Lorna’s tone had shifted to be much more serious and mellow. Ryan had noticed that she can change her tone and mood without hesitation, and that when she did, she spoke much more clear and slower. At this point, Ryan couldn’t do anything but nod and agree. After all, it was up to Lorna to decide.  Ryan had no say in it, and it gave Ryan relapses of his previous norm. Ryan had always been one to take. He believed that when given, if given, you take.  No questions asked, you do what you do, and you get through. His benefactor drove this fact to the very core. For Ryan, it’s always been up to another person to decide. For Ryan, his life had been another’s, even now, even then. He couldn’t do much. However, he gave his trust to Lorna, and hoped that it was well placed.

Chapter 7:

“Rock. Paper. Scissor!” Ryan looked at the hands in play. Sunflower had rock, Runner had paper, and Ryan played paper.

“Alright! Let’s go, mister!” Runner said as he jumped up and down preparing himself for the final round.

“Rock. Paper. Scissor!” Ryan opened his hands to reveal a pair of scissors’ while Runner played a rock.

“Yes! That means I’m the king!” Ryan sighed in dejection, and the players huddled around the circle all braced themselves for the kings rule. Sunflower, Spear, Lorna, and Winter all looked at each other with ease. Ryan was the only one who wasn’t aware of what a kingdom ruled by Runner would be like. He was prepared for the worst. He was prepared for tyranny. He was prepared to run.

“Mister! I demand…. a cookie!” Ryan gasped in complete agony. And once he realized what his order was, he sighed in relief.

“That it?”

“That’s completely it! I demand a cookie. You can get it from the kitchen.” Ryan got up from the circle and walked over towards the door. As he opened the door from the room and peered out, he realized that he didn’t know where the kitchen was. They were playing in a living room at the end of the right wing, however, the kitchen could have been in any of the many doors that lined the building. Ryan turned back towards the room and called out, “One of you guys mind showing me to the kitchen?” Runner stared back at Ryan with great swagger and great posture; despite his height, and spoke out, “The king demands only one servant! Sorry, you know the rules, I would help you if I could.” Runner’s words became more of his near the end of his sentence. Ryan sighed once again and left the room with his head held down. He was going to have to check every room, he thought.  Ryan cursed silently at Lorna for not placing name plates on any of the doors. And more so, he was surprised that the kids could remember every room in the building.

Ryan began systematically opening doors from the right wing. One door led to a bathroom. One door led to a bed room. One door led to a storage room. Strangely enough, Ryan even found a class room.  The list of strange and misplaced rooms were endless for Ryan, but the fact stood that he couldn’t find the kitchen. Once Ryan finished opening the doors from the right wing, he walked over to the left side. Ryan tried his best to make a mental note of every door he opened, however, he quickly figured out that those notes were very flimsy.

The first door that Ryan had entered had greeted him with four desks. The room itself was very wide, with a chalk board on one side, and chairs and desks stacked all around the base of the room. In the middle, there were four desks positioned in a row near the center.  What caught Ryan’s attention even more was the girl that stood by one of the desks.  She was a person that Ryan had never saw before, but, Ryan knew instantly who she was. She had short soft golden hair, and her eyes were dead focused on the notebook that she was reading. Her height was just about the same as well, and Ryan only knew of one more girl that he had never met yet in the building. It was no surprise to Ryan that the young girl who dressed brazenly like a boy was Hailstone.  Ryan refrained from speaking to Hailstone as she was focused on reading, however, it was to little avail as Hailstone noticed Ryan.

“What do you want?” Hailstone spoke in a brisk and assertive manner. It was even more intimidating to Ryan as Hailstone didn’t look up from her notebook, and simply spoke to him as if he was a nuisance.

“I got lost. I was looking for the kitchen.”

“The kitchen? Why are you here then? The kitchen is at the back of the stairs.”

“Well, no one told me, and–”

“And what? You couldn’t ask? You come all the way here just to interrupt my reading? I’m not the only one here.” Ryan felt like hitting Hailstone, but realized that he shouldn’t. It was true to some extent that he did walk into Hailstone, but he knew that he couldn’t help it.

“What are you reading?” Ryan decided to drop the topic, and instead ask Hailstone a question. If anything, she would either ignore Ryan and he would go to the kitchen, or she would answer and Ryan could salvage his first impression status. Although at this point, Ryan was a little dry of patience and couldn’t care either way for Hailstone’s abrasive remark.

“What am I reading? What’s it to you? You’re just an outsider.” Ryan had no comeback, as for Ryan, it was true. He was an outsider, he didn’t even have a name, nor was he a person who could reside within this building. To him, this was a norm that he had broken into recently, and even then, it was his second norm.

“But…. Lorna did say that you were family now. A second cousin or something.” Ryan’s ears perked up at Hailstone’s ending remarks. For just a brief moment, Ryan’s image of Lorna had improved, albeit by a miniscule fraction.

“Wait, no, it wasn’t a second cousin. I think she said you were a temp worker.” Ryan took back  the minuscule fraction and threw it into a dark corner in his mind so that it would never be found again. What made it even stranger was how Hailstone could even confuse cousin with a temp worker, Ryan thought. Perhaps she was just messing with him, and that thought wasn’t too farfetched for Ryan to believe.

“Temp worker or not, if you don’t want to talk about it, I won’t pry,” Ryan said.

“Nah, it’s cool. If Lorna says you’re okay, then you’re okay. Hopefully. And if not, I’ll punch you. Lorna said if you did anything bad I could punch you. I’ll really punch you.” Ryan grew ever more worried by Hailstone’s obsession with punching him.

“This is an exchange diary.” Ryan didn’t understand the concept of an exchange diary. He had heard of it before, but he had never participated in one. Nor did he really know why one would be made.

“An exchange diary?”

“Yeah. You know, one person writes in it, then the other reads it and replies. It’s kind of like sending mail. Except, since we’re all here, this way is much faster than mail. I hate mail.”

“So who’s the other person?”

“It’s not my sister, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

“Wouldn’t have guessed it.”

“I don’t need your smart remarks.” Ryan was taken aback as he was genuinely answering Hailstone. However, since Ryan was unaware of his tone, and of how he should reply to not be misunderstood, he didn’t let that criticism get to him.

“It’s Winter, okay. It’s Winter. Everybody’s been talking about us. God, they just need to shut up before I break their arms.” Ryan full heartedly believed in the last sentiment.

“Or I’ll break their legs.” Ryan believed in Hailstone’s added sentiment as well.

“Or maybe I’ll just send them packing. I’ll give them a good one and then they’ll stop running their mouths.”

“If you’re mad, why don’t you just tell them?”

“Because of Lorna, okay. Lorna’s…. I can’t cause trouble for Lorna. You know…It’s Lorna. I hate Lorna. But I love Lorna. But I hate her.”

“So which is it?” Hailstone gave Ryan a dangerous look that Ryan took with great caution. Without words, he knew exactly what she wanted to say, and took it to heart, making more than just a mental note to not make Hailstone angry.

“Well, last I heard, you guys were fighting. But it seems that you and Winter are okay now. That’s good.”

“Yeah. It was stupid. I’m stupid. I didn’t realize it, but Winter isn’t that bad of a girl. From reading this, I can even see how much she really cares. She’s a really cool person. And I hate myself for not realizing that.” Ryan smiled at Hailstone, he was happy that Winter really did make up with Hailstone, and that they were on good terms now. For some reason, he was joyous that he was able to make a difference in their lives.

“Thank you. You helped Winter out. She wrote that. If it wasn’t for you, I don’t think I could smile like this. Thank you.” Hailstone smiled back at Ryan, which to Ryan, was the strangest thing he could ever see. The notion of a smiling Hailstone that wasn’t smiling deviously with violent intent gave Ryan chills even stronger than when Hailstone was threatening him. It was awkward, out of place, but most of all, Ryan saw it as sweet.

“But if you ever tell anyone about this, I’ll definitely send you packing.” Hailstone said with her usual tone. It was at this point that Ryan realized why her smile was still chilling.

“Don’t worry. Your secret is safe with me.”

“And by the way, thanks for playing with my sister. She seems more cheery recently.”

“More cheery? She seems pretty normal to me.”

“It’s because you don’t live with her. Trust me, I’m her sister. I notice these things.” Ryan couldn’t help but mentally agree with her. It was true to Ryan, who was an outsider, and a person who had no familial ties to anyone, he couldn’t relate. The feeling of being able to spend enough time, or having a sibling and just being able to understand another on that kind of level was new to him. Ryan had never been in a situation where he could notice the small things, or the big things. To Ryan, they were all a norm that he just had to figure out; they were all a puzzle that he had to solve.

“You make things a bit more interesting around here, you know. We haven’t had a new kid in a while. I hate boring things. So stick around. If you don’t, I’ll make you regret it.”

“I’ll make sure I do then. Wouldn’t want you to punch me.” Ryan ended off with a sarcastic tone, much to his purpose, as Hailstone gave him another dangerous stare. Ryan left the room, and headed around the stairs, and finally opened the door to his prize; the kitchen. It was a standard kitchen, and Ryan was easily able to locate the jar of cookies and made his way back with his objective in hand.  As Ryan opened the door back to the living room they were in, he was instantly taken aback as the only one remaining in the room was Winter.

“Where is everybody?”

“They went to play tag.”

“They what!?” Ryan felt completely betrayed.

“Why!?” Ryan demanded.

“Lorna won the last game, and when she became king, she demanded a game of tag,” Winter replied softly with great caution as Ryan leaned in towards her with anger seeping through his eyes on the mention of Lorna.

“Wait, so who’s it?” Ryan suddenly realized.

“Lorna said that whoever leaves the room last is it.”

“So why are you here?”

“I felt bad and wanted to tell you.” Winter got up and quickly left the room behind Ryan before he could realize what was going on.

“Oh, and Runner still wants his cookie,” Winter then ran off, leaving Ryan behind. The cookie in Ryan’s hand began crumbling as his hands tried to form a fist. Ryan slowly calmed himself however, and then cursed once again at Lorna. Ryan knew full well that Lorna was messing with him. There was no other way, he thought.

“No other way,” Ryan said out loud.

“Lorna!” Ryan said out loud, knowing full well that Lorna was hiding somewhere that Ryan could never find and was laughing at him. As Ryan sighed, he made another mental note to go along with the one he made earlier. In fact, he had about three that day, three notes to make for his norm. One; there were a staggering amount of rooms in the building. Two; never make Hailstone angry, unless you can escape. Three; always assume Lorna is out to get you, if she hasn’t made fun of you for one day, then be ready for even more torment the next day. However, despite all of this, Ryan was still able to laugh and smile at the end of the day. And he was still able to curse at Lorna the next time he saw her. The latter was the most important part for Ryan.

Chapter 8

“One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six,” Ryan said to himself as he placed out his fingers in synchrony of his counting.

“Six kids out of eight, and that’s assuming Lorna wasn’t messing with me.” Ryan quickly thought about it again and figured that Lorna probably wouldn’t lie about a topic like that.

“Two more kids to meet huh? If I remember correctly….It’s Carrier, and Spark.” Ryan was alone at the back of the building, tending to a bed of flowers that Winter had recently made. She spent a whole day working on it, and now she was inside sleeping. Ryan promised her that he would look after the flowers while she was sleeping, and thus, he sat basking in the midday sun, quietly admiring the small buds. Ryan was unsure of where the other kids were, or where Lorna was. That was the most important part; knowing where Lorna was. Ryan had declared that the only way to counter against Lorna was to know where she was at any given time. And if you still can’t figure out where Lorna is, then you best be ready for a whole load of Lorna. As Ryan thought that, he shivered, and a grasping chill went up his spine. Ryan looked to the right, to the left, and behind him in search for Lorna. Once he had finalized that she was nowhere to be found, he sighed and let his head drop.

“Hey lover boy! What you up to?” Ryan should have been confused and surprised, he thought, but with Lorna, anything was possible.

“Oh cool! Cool. Winter made this, right?” Lorna pointed at the flower bed, and Ryan nodded.

“Just–” Lorna went over to the small flower bed before finishing her sentence.

“Like–” She then stood at the base, and begun stretching down.

“She–” Lorna then stretched out one of her fingers and glazed over a small bud.

“Said.” Lorna then got up and jumped ecstatically with great energy; energy that Ryan wasn’t sure where she even got.

“It’s good that she’s keeping her promises?” Ryan asked, without much reason behind his words.

“It wasn’t a promise,” Lorna crouched down to the dirt of the flower bed, and traced one finger over. Her eyes were solemn, and her body calmed. Her expression was still, and for a moment, Ryan thought that he was looking at a painting. His mind slowly started fading the colors out, the brown of the dirt, the green of the grass, the yellow of her hair; they were all fading.

“It was a goal. An agreement. She said that she wanted to do it. So she did. She did.” Lorna’s words drew Ryan back into reality before he could fully slip into a stupor.

“I’ve been wondering about this, but…. the kids really respect you, don’t they?” Ryan asked brazenly, not really wondering or knowing if his words were insensitive or not. He was just simply curious.

“I don’t know if its respect, or if its sovereignty.”

“Sovereignty?”

“I’m Lorna. Lorna. The person who brought these kids together to form one big happy family. A family where they can finally belong in. A family that they can finally reside in.”

“A family where anyone can call their own, if their condition so allows it. Is that it?”

“That’s it. That’s it. And you know what?”

“You were the only one brave enough to bring them together?” Ryan answered with great fluidity, to his mild surprise.

“I was the only one dumb enough to bring them together,” Lorna corrected.

“Dumb? Do you think what you did was dumb?”

“It’s not up to me whether I think what I did was dumb. It just is. It just is.”

“If it’s not up to you. Then who are you basing it off of? Who’s saying its dumb?”

“The world, lover boy. The world. Everybody and their goddamn world. It’s all so choking, don’t you think?” Ryan didn’t respond, for he had no understanding of how to respond to Lorna’s philosophical ramblings. Ryan was a person who never thought of the world that deeply. It was just a norm, and he was simply placed in it. Whether it did good, or bad, was not up to him, nor did he care for it. He was simply a star in a sea, and the sea to a waterfall.

“Sometimes, I feel like I’m in a haze. You know?”

“A haze?”

“Everything becomes fuzzy. My vision, my hearing, my smell. It all just, becomes like a mist. You can’t distinguish anything and you feel like you’re in a high. ”

“A high?”

“Yeah. Elated. Like you’re free falling. Almost wistfully at that.” Lorna got up and stretched. Her hands reached for the sky, and her time stood still. Lorna wanted the clouds, however, her hands were too short. She was too short. Lorna couldn’t touch the clouds, and this notion made her sad. Her voice was solemn, but to Ryan, it felt almost lofty. It was almost as if Lorna was speaking to herself.

“Why…. are you telling me this?”

“Because your you. And I’m me. I don’t get many visitors, if you haven’t already noticed.”

“I wouldn’t think you get visitors out here, more like lost souls, and deprived bodies.”

“Quite the poet.” Lorna smiled, much to Ryan’s surprise, as he didn’t think through what he said, he just said it.

“But no. I don’t really get much people my age. Sunflower is Sunflower. Winter is Winter. And even Spear is Spear. But you….. you’re you. And that’s why I can trust you.” Ryan didn’t reply, but simply adhered to the facts that Lorna had stated.

“I’ve told you that before, haven’t I.”

“Yeah.” Lorna walked up towards  the building and stood at the porch. Her eyes were distant, and the only thing that she had on her mind was the everlasting foolishness of her actions. To Lorna, that foolishness was all self assigned; something she believed, and something she trusts.

“And…. I hope I can talk to you, about these things. And I hope that you can talk to me about these things. We’re friends after all….We’re family.” Lorna’s tone had shifted dramatically, Ryan noticed. She was softer, and there wasn’t a single shred of her playful attitude. She was sincere, and her lips slowly turned into a weak smile.

“Yeah. Whenever you need to talk about something, feel free to swing it my way. And…. If I have something I want to say…. I’ll talk to you about it. You can count on it,” Ryan replied, however, his reply was filled with uncertainty. Ryan was still very much stuck in a norm that wasn’t even his, nor was it Lorna’s. It was a norm that Ryan wasn’t sure if he could ever talk about. It was a norm that he had locked away, but, Ryan wanted to believe. He ensured Lorna that he would, and hopefully, he ensured himself that he would.

“After all, I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you,” Ryan added.

“Oh my, what a bold one you are.” Lorna said with her usual playful demeanor. However, Ryan couldn’t pick up on why Lorna had made that remark, or why he should be worried about being bold.

“You know what?”

“What is it this time?” Ryan replied while rolling his eyes.

“I have a name for you.” Ryan almost choked on air upon hearing Lorna’s words. Lorna jumped down from the porch and landed in front of the flower bed. She crouched down once again and placed her fingers on the dirt, all the while with a big smile on her face.

“R,” Lorna said as she finished tracing on letter.

“A,” Lorna stopped after tracing the ‘a’, but then continued shortly after.

“Y.” After tracing the ‘y’, Lorna got up, and with a big show of arms, revealed Ryan’s new name.

“Ray. That will be your name. Ray.”

“Ray?”

“Ray. Like it?”

“I…. Don’t know,” Ryan answered. To Ryan, getting a name like this was strange. It was the first time he had ever received a nickname, although, it would be the first name that the children and even Lorna would recognize him by. As Ryan thought of it like this, he slowly started growing calm. He was able to place it comfortably in his norm. This was no less than a name, and no more than a nickname. It was his name. Ryan was Ray. And Ryan accepted this. It was a nice name, Ryan thought. It was really nice. And for some reason, Ryan felt extremely happy. In fact, Ryan felt so happy that he began smiling without realizing it.

“Oh? So you do like it!” Ryan quickly realized his smiling face and  looked away in embarrassment. What made Ryan even more surprised, was that he was able to feel embarrassment. Ryan had never once saw anything he did as embarrassing or shameful. Ryan did the things he did because that was what he had to do. There was no choice, Ryan was Ryan. But just for today, and, as Ryan quickly put it together in his head, just for the rest of his time together with his new family, he will be Ray. Ryan was Ray.

“That settles it!”

“You weren’t planning to go back on your word anyway, right?” Ryan said as he looked at Lorna indifferently as she paced back and forth with excitement.

“Exactly! Exactly. My names are final! I have never gone back on a name before.”

“Because you think long and hard about them?”

“Oh? Do I sense a little bit of sarcasm?”

“No. I don’t know what you mean,” Ryan said trying to conceal his sarcasm.

“Well, whether you really do like it or not…. It doesn’t matter! I’m going to tell everyone now!” Lorna suddenly jumped back onto the porch. Her balance was shifted as she landed, and she swung back with her arms flailing wildly. However, she got her footing in the end, and ran straight inside the building. Without having to move or focus, Ryan could hear Lorna’s voice boom from the inside. Ryan sighed and rolled his eyes.

“Congratulations on your name.” Ryan didn’t turn his head to greet Winter, and simply nodded, “Thanks. Were you listening the entire time?” Winter nodded, and walked over to the flower bed, “Thanks for taking care of it.”

“No problem. After all, you worked hard.” What Ryan didn’t realize that day, was that the same could have been said to Ryan. Lorna saw that, and that was why Lorna had named him. To Lorna, every single moment is important, and every single action done is another that she reads into one’s character. Ryan was a simple person, and he was simply in the norm that he had found himself in. His puzzle pieces were coming together, but he failed to see one thing. Every picture has a name, every painting has a name, and every piece had a name. Even the puzzle that Ryan so desperately wanted to put together had a name. However, that name was not for Ryan to decide. That name had been founded by Lorna. That name was not his, but he embraced it as his. That name was special. Ryan was Ray.

Chapter 9

“Lorna!” Ryan was suddenly brought aback as he heard a voice call for Lorna. It was a voice of a child that he had never heard before. What made it even stranger was that it was a voice calling for Lorna, which Ryan thought was something no child would ever want. Or perhaps, it was his own scared conscious that told him he didn’t want to be teased around with by Lorna. Although, his image of her has lightened, and he wouldn’t mind talking with Lorna, as long as she stays relatively calm.

“Lorna!” The voice called out again.

“Quick! Spark’s in trouble!” Ryan began processing the names in his head and came to the conclusion that the one currently yelling out for Lorna was Carrier. Ryan was the only one in the living room at the end of the right wing, which prompted the panicked child to be in surprise.

“Where’s Lorna?” Ryan lifted his shoulder in complete ignorance, as he did not know the whereabouts of where Lorna was.  The young boy that had ran in had short light brown hair. His large black eyes seemed to stand out, and his clothes were very tattered.  The child seemed bigger than someone like Runner, and it prompted Ryan to wonder whether he really was older than Runner, who had a relatively slim build.

“You’re Ray, right?”

“Yeah.”

“I’m Carrier. Have you seen Spark around anywhere?” Ryan shook his head. He was the only one in the living room when he opened the door, and he was the only one to still be there as he worked. Ryan was curious as to what was going on, but more than that, he wanted to finally meet Spark. To Ryan, meeting each child of the building was an important piece for him. It was a milestone that would inevitably help make this norm more comfortable. It was something that Ryan couldn’t turn away from.

“I’ll help you find Spark.”

“Really? I mean…. this is kind of an emergency.”

“If it’s an emergency then all the more to help, right?”

“Yeah, but–” Carrier spoke in a very meek manner. Ryan wasn’t sure whether it was because of the situation that he was very mild, or if it was his actual nature. What made Ryan even more confused is what kind of situation Carrier and Spark had found themselves in if he was hesitating help during an emergency. More so if the first person he needed help from was Lorna.

“I don’t know where Lorna is. But then again, who really knows, right? If it’s urgent, I’m sure I can help.”

“Alright.” After much hesitation, Carrier agreed.

“It has to do with Spark!”

“Spark?”

“Yeah! I was hoping he found his way back, but if you haven’t seen him then he’s still out there!”

“Out in the forest?” Carrier shook his head.

“Then what?”

“It was a dumb dare. I told Spark not to do it, but…. he wouldn’t listen.”

“A dare?”

“It was Hailstone. She started fighting with Spark after she lost in an arm wrestle.” Ryan nodded his head, in complete belief of that situation. Hailstone would be angry if she lost an arm wrestle, Ryan thought. Even more so that she would want to prove her better strength by resorting to a tactic such as daring Spark. However, Ryan couldn’t figure out what kind of dare Hailstone would make that would cause such a ruckus.

“What was the dare?”

“She told Spark to go–”

“To go?”

“To go into town and buy her some bread.” Ryan almost gasped at the horrifying dare that Hailstone had contrived with her evil mind.

“Buy some bread?” Ryan soon realized that it was more chore duty than dare duty.

“Yeah!”

“So….What’s the emergency? Not enough money? Wrong bread? What?” Ryan was utterly confused. It was the most confused Ryan had ever been in a single day, he thought.

“You don’t understand!”

“Please make me.”

“Spark–”

“Spark?”

“Spark is horrible with directions!” Ryan’s confusion soon faded into empathy.

“Alright, I think I get it. The dare was to have him go alone into town and buy Hailstone some bread. But he still hasn’t come back, right?”

“Exactly! He could be anywhere!” Ryan wondered how far a lost child could go in the town, and the possible dangerous implications of that notion. Most lost children would have learned to stay put, Ryan thought. But there were many things that Ryan had realized were wrong, many things that he himself had to find through his new norm. Ryan was trying to find his own understandings with the world, and through those understandings, find his own norm. There can’t be too many places that Spark would have wandered off to, Ryan thought.

“Well, let’s think about it first. If Spark is looking for a convenience store, then he shouldn’t be too hard to find, right? He might be lost at the shopping district.”

“That’s the problem. Spark has never been to the shopping district.”

“He’s never been to the shopping district?” Carrier didn’t seem to want to talk about the topic, and so Ryan didn’t press on.

“No use talking about it here. Let’s head into town and see if we can’t find him.”

“And if we can’t?”

“If we can’t…. I guess we’ll need more help. You were asking for Lorna right? Why is that?”

“Because Lorna said that she always knows where we are.” Ryan could believe that Lorna had the special ability to instantly go to where each child was, however, Lorna was nowhere to be found.

“Lorna aside, let’s try our best to find Spark. I’m sure he’s fine. And I’m sure we can find him.”

“Okay. Thanks, Ray.”

“Save the thanks for later.” Ryan and Carrier both headed into town. At this point, Ryan had memorized how to get back to his school path and back. He wasn’t too proud of his groundbreaking revelation however as most of the memorization came from muscle work. Ryan had simply remembered the trees and the shape of the ground beneath him to guide him along. Quite literally, Ryan felt his way towards his destination.

“Are you and Spark good friends?”

“I’m more like his big brother than a friend. He’s always up to no good.  Always messing around, always up in the mud. But that’s why he’s so fun to hang around.”

“I think I get it,” Ryan replied as he gave a small chuckle. It was like Lorna. No matter how much she teased and infuriated Ryan, she was still fun to be around. And without Lorna, his norm wouldn’t be as interesting.

“I don’t want to ask if you don’t want to answer, but do you guys not go into town much?” The idea of not knowing the shopping district was astounding for Ryan. Even he understood the basic layout of the town that he lived in. That much was common knowledge, Ryan thought.

“We don’t tend to go into town, no. Lorna says that we shouldn’t. But sometimes we go anyway. Then Lorna yells at us, because–”

“Because she always knows where you guys are.”

“Yeah.” Carrier still upheld his mild attitude. Ryan figured that he wasn’t soft spoken in nature, but he couldn’t figure why Carrier was acting so meek. Perhaps it was the topic, or the fact that they were in town now. Carrier didn’t seem like the quiet type to Ryan.

“First order of business is to find some kind of footing. We can ask around to see if anyone has seen Spark, then we can get a pretty good idea. Although, I’ve never seen him before.”

“Lorna told us not to talk to strangers. She said not to draw attention from outsiders.” Ryan thought back to when he first met Runner, and figured that what Runner did was completely breaking that rule. He probably got a mouthful from Lorna, Ryan thought.

“If we can’t ask anyone, then I guess we’re just going to have to split up to cover more ground.”

“How will we find each other if we do find Spark?”

“We’ll meet back here in an hour. How about that?” Ryan looked around him. They were standing in a fairly open area in the middle of the streets. There was a lamppost, a bench, and a trash bin nearby. The shopping district wasn’t too far from where they were standing.

“I’ll head into the shopping district and see if he actually made it. You look around and see if you can find him still wandering around.”

“Okay. Good luck.”

“Yeah. You too. We’ll find him, I’m sure.” Ryan set off towards the shopping district. It was a long street that had stores lined up on every side. Book stores, clothing stores, arcades, restaurants, there were all kinds of things to buy and do in the shopping district. It was probably one of the most visited places in town, which made it even more strange if a person didn’t know where it was, Ryan thought.

“Lost child. Lost child.” Ryan repeated to himself as he walked along the district. Ryan didn’t know what Spark looked like, so he risked getting confused with children that weren’t lost. Ryan wanted to get the job done with as few complications possible, he knew that if a person asking around for a lost child blew up, then their silent guise would be more than gone. Ryan focused hard to make sure he didn’t let any face go by as he walked down the district. Although he wasn’t particularly looking inside the stores unless it was a convenience store, Ryan couldn’t help but notice that there were a few of them that he couldn’t recognize. Ryan thought it was because the district had changed and left Ryan behind. But what he failed to see, was that walking down the district wasn’t something he usually did.  It was never part of the norm that he abandoned. Walking down the shopping district with friends afterschool was a normalcy that never shot behind anyone’s head; except Ryan. Something like that was rare, an anomaly. To Ryan who had never stepped into the shopping district on his own time, everything slowly started becoming bigger. Ryan could praise the shopping district for its traffic, claim its normalcy, and state that he had walked down those aisles; but not in his current norm. In his current norm, none of what he can say held true. Ryan wasn’t swept behind times, he just wasn’t seeing it.

“Looking for something?” A voice loomed over Ryan,  a voice that he had never heard before. It was very crisp, very authoritative, and very stern. It was the voice of an adult woman, and probably one of great status or power, Ryan thought. Ryan turned around, and saw a towering woman in front of him. She was quite tall, taller than Ryan, no less. She wore a blue long sleeved uniform. It had buttons arrayed in the middle, and two breast pockets, with a symbol patched above one. On the side of the sleeve, was another patched symbol.

“I’m–” Ryan thought about his words, and knew that if he were to slip up now, it would all be over. Ryan remembered what Lorna had said about the ‘bad guys’, about the blue uniformed people. She was referring to people like the one Ryan now faced.

“Just walking.”

“Just walking? It didn’t seem like that to me.”

“What makes you say that?”

“You were eyeing everybody anxiously. Almost like you were looking for something.”

“Well, I’m fine. Thank you.” Ryan tried his best to avoid further interactions with the woman, lest he be caught.

“You know what they call that?” Before Ryan could walk off, the woman had walked in front of him, blocking his path before finishing her sentence.

“Dodging the law.”

“And what laws am I breaking?”

“None. But, I do have a job to do. And I think you need help. Either that, or you’re going to break the law. Eyes like yours aren’t normal eyes.”

“My eyes aren’t normal? But they aren’t special either.” Ryan spoke brazenly towards the person in front of him. He tried his best not to spill any important information, and simply played to the woman’s tune; except, he used his own instruments.

“That’s not what I meant. You know what I meant.”

“And what did you mean?”

“That you had wandering eyes.”

“My eyes, are here. They have never wandered.”

“Perhaps not now, but you were looking at every single person you passed quite prudently. You even eyed people from across the street, at the other side of the district.”

“Have I now? That’s strange. I’ve just been admiring the stores, admiring the wares. I haven’t been here in a while, you see. Everything is quite new to me.” Ryan wasn’t lying.

“Oh? The shopping district of all places. I find that hard to believe.”

“You would find many things hard to believe.”

“Perhaps. This….Not so much.”

“Well, have an open mind. Anything is possible.” Before the woman could answer, the walkie-talkie on her belt begun buzzing in. She answered while keeping an eye on Ryan.

“Yeah?”

“Amanda! We need some help at the fourth district. It’s a closed box, setting sun, pellet!” The voice from the walkie-talkie was very fragmented. Whoever was speaking seemed unsure of what he wanted to say.  Either he was being very urgent and was tripping up on his words, or he was scared of who was on the receiving end.

“Copy that.” The woman named Amanda stepped aside, “You’re off the hook for now. But I’ll remember you. Don’t cause any trouble now, you hear?”

“Wouldn’t dream of it.” Ryan went on with his way, not looking back towards Amanda. It was a close call, Ryan thought. However, Ryan had no time to revel in his supposed victory, and continued on his way in search of Spark. Although Ryan dismissed his encounter with Amanda, he would come to regret it. Ryan would soon realize that the things he did and the people he met were all under one big norm; the norm of fate.

Chapter 10:

“Spark…” Ryan said to himself as he came to the end of the district.

“Where are you?” As Ryan arrived at the last few stores, he turned to look left and right. Another street connected the district to his right, and a little ways over his left was the town river. A bridge connected the two halves of the town between the river, although Ryan never really found the need to cross.

“Damn,” Ryan said to himself. Ryan sighed and turned back towards his meeting spot with Carrier. If anything, he would need to tell Lorna and have her be involved. If anything, that idea entailed inconveniences and a load of loud yelling, Ryan thought.

“Hey lover boy!” Too late, Ryan thought. Lorna never seemed to fail to amaze him, and at the same time, Ryan never gave much heed to the sudden appearance of Lorna. It was to be expected, and Ryan would find it even stranger if Lorna hadn’t showed up out of nowhere when he was thinking of her.

“What you up to? Strolling down memory lane?” Ryan ignored her last remark, and paid no heed to her apparent masterful intuition.

“S–”

“Hold on. Hold on. Look!” Lorna pointed to a store behind Ryan. It was a toy store that landed between being antiqued and modern. The front window featured rusted music boxes and old Victorian style dolls, while on the side it advertised new models and editions.

“Want to check it out? Looks interesting.” Ryan cycled in his mind the odds of Lorna already realizing the truth. It was quite high. Despite this, Ryan still found the need to inform Lorna and not get side tracked by her antics.

“Not right now. Look. Lorna, listen.” Although the promise of spending time in a toy store that Ryan had never noticed in a part of town where he never visited with a beautiful girl like Lorna did seem promising, Ryan had other plans to attend to.

“Come on. No skin off your back. Let’s go!”

“It’s urgent!” Before Ryan could make his point, Lorna grabbed Ryan’s hand and dragged him inside the store.

“Hey! Hold on!”

“Hello!” Lorna boomed out as they entered the store. The owner was an old grayed man who was reading a newspaper behind the counter. He didn’t look up towards Lorna or Ryan, but simply shifted in his seat as the door bell rang.

“Explore, Ray. Explore.” Lorna ran through the aisles with her hands out. Ryan sighed, and his patience had dried. Even if he did leave now, he would still need to find help. With Lorna in front of him, Ryan couldn’t afford to leave, he thought. He had to put up with her indecipherable bantering.

“Lorna!” Ryan walked through the aisles, dodging toys that had stuck out towards him. Some were misplaced, and others seemed to have the color drawn from them.

“Lorna!” Ryan called out again towards Lorna, who had just passed by and entered another aisle. Her hair hung loosely behind her as she playfully traced the shelves of toys. It was like chasing a golden lady bug, Ryan thought.

“Ray! Look! Look.” Lorna stopped in the middle of an aisle and picked up a wooden rectangular box. Ryan peered over her shoulder as she opened the box. There was a checkered board and toppled porcelain pieces inside.

“Chess?” Ryan said.

“I used to play. Mom said I was good…. But not anymore. Not anymore.” Lorna looked down with heavy eyes, her expression loosened, and her hands began shaking.

“It was fun. Fun,” Lorna said as she recovered quickly and placed the chess set back on the shelf

“Hey–”

“Oh!”  Before Ryan could utilize the brief opening, Lorna had already dabbled  onto another bauble.

“Sunflower would like this,” Lorna said as she held up a makeshift necklace. Each bead had a different color. It wasn’t something Lorna would wear, but Ryan agreed with her notion. It was perfect for Sunflower.

“And this is for Runner!” Lorna walked over to pick up a whistle.

“Runner likes exploring the forest, but sometimes he does get lost. It’s a big place, and I know more than once I’ve had to bail him out. With this, he won’t ever have to feel scared when going out.” Ryan wasn’t sure whether the whistle was a gift, or insurance. However, Ryan could see an energetic running Runner using the whistle for more than just calling for help.

“And a watering pot for Winter!” Lorna picked up a small plastic watering pot from a shelf.

“And….A doll for Hailstone.”

“A doll!?” The idea of Hailstone playing with dolls was not within Ryan’s realm of freethinking.

“For Walker….. Oh! I know, he’ll love this.” Lorna grabbed a set of binoculars from a shelf. They looked in good condition, and at this point, Ryan was simply falling into Lorna’s pace, not really questioning her decisions. After all, Lorna had been in this norm far longer than Ryan has, and the things she knew about the children would inevitably be more than what Ryan knew. He was still adjusting to the norm. He was still finding it’s pieces.

“Spear would want…. this!” Lorna grabbed a kaleidoscope.

“Carrier is a worrywart, but he’s a good guy. He’s always looking out for people, and he never gives up. Sometimes though, he can get really worked up, but he isn’t afraid to ask others for help. That’s what makes him reliable, he’ll always be there when you need it, and when you don’t expect it.” Lorna grabbed what seemed to be an empty wooden box from one of the shelves.

“And at last, we have Spark. He’s a go-getter. He’s always up in the air, always looking for excitement and he always seems to get people in the weirdest situations.”

“Lorna, we have to–” Before Ryan could finish Lorna walked ahead and over to the counter.

“Listen! Please, it’s important.”

“So is this.” Lorna grabbed a few bills from her pocket and placed it over the counter. After the transaction was done, Lorna took the bag of gifts and left the store without much regard to Ryan.

“Lorna!” Ryan yelled as he left the store. His voice was loud enough to catch the attention of a few passer-bys. Ryan was genuinely angry at Lorna, which showed in his eyes and clenched fists. Ryan couldn’t think of anything else, and thus he didn’t find his sudden outburst as strange. Rather, at this moment, that was the only right decision that Ryan could think of.

“I’m sorry, Ray.” Lorna said as she turned to face the angered Ryan.

“Look, I didn’t mean to play you around on a goose chase, okay? I was just buying some time.”

“Buying some time?”

“I know Spark got lost.”

“You did?” Although at this point, Ryan wasn’t very surprised.

“And I bumped into Carrier on my way here. He already found him. He somehow got lost and wandered to the next part of town.”

“Over the bridge?”

“Yeah.”

“What were you doing over there then?”

“I had an errand to do. Just came back, and saw you here. I heard everything from Carrier and told him to go ahead. Actually, he should still be just around the corner.” Lorna walked to the edge of the shopping district and peered off into the distance. Ryan slowly walked over as well, and began making sense of everything Lorna said.

“See what I mean?” Lorna said as she pointed at Carrier. He was limping over as he carried a young child on his back.  Ryan didn’t need any introductions to realize that it was Spark he was carrying. Spark had long black hair that looped over his eyes. He was a bit shorter than Carrier, but Ryan could tell that he was about the same age as Runner. One distinguishing feature that Ryan could immediately make out was that one of Spark’s hands had been bandaged. It wrapped around the middle of Spark’s hand and seemed to have been put on rather recently.

“I found Carrier holding Spark. Apparently, Spark was crying his eyes out when Carrier found him. He must be exhausted after wandering around town like that. Even though Spark would jump at adventure, something like that just wasn’t for him. He was scared. And so was Carrier. And I know Hailstone must be worried to death by now. But she won’t show it.” Lorna looked wistfully at Carrier and Spark. Her breathing had slowed, and despite the cold winds brushing up against Lorna’s cheeks, she didn’t falter. Ryan had noticed as well. Ryan got good at noticing these things with Lorna. It was probably due to all the exposure that he begun doing it subconsciously, he thought.

“Why didn’t you get Spark anything?” Ryan had finally realized that Lorna left the shop without getting Spark a gift.

“Because he would lose it the moment I gave it to him.”

“No faith?”

“It’s not an issue of faith. Spark doesn’t wait for anyone. Spark is the type of person to show off, to make sure that there is always something exciting going on. He just isn’t suited for something like a gift. He’ll out do it the next day for sure. For sure.”

“And you’re certain he won’t get jealous from everyone else?”

“Consider who you have. The only one that’s going to give him a hard time is Hailstone. But she does that with everyone else.”

“So it’ll be fine either way?”

“Yeah. It’ll all be fine.”

“Should we go help him?”

“No. This is Carrier’s job. Let’s let kids be kids, and children be children.” Lorna smiled sweetly at Ryan, who sighed in response. As they headed back to the building, Ryan had one last inquiry that he forgot to ask.

“By the way, Lorna?”

“Shoot away, Ray.”

“Why did you buy all that stuff? I’m sure it wasn’t just a coincidence that you came back from your errand and just stumbled on the store. I’m sure none of what you do is ever coincidence.”

“You seem to think really badly of me don’t you.”

“No!” Ryan refuted her statement quickly. Almost too quickly for Ryan to really continue his sentence.  Ryan was surprised at himself, but to Lorna, it was merely an amusing sentiment as she began giggling.

“I mean, no. I don’t think of you like that. I just think that you plan everything out. it’s not necessarily a bad thing,” Ryan added to explain himself.

“You might be right though. I might be planning everything I do. But who really knows, right? Right.” Lorna paused before continuing. She looked at the old bark of the trees and sighed in tune with the low winds. Her hair fluttered ever so slightly with every step she made, and her hands swung back and forth with the bag of gifts she held.

“Why do you think I bought these?”

“Me? Well, to be honest, I think you bought them on a whim.”

“Even though you said I plan everything?”

“You planned the errand. You planned to meet me. And you planned to buy the gifts. Even though that plan was made on a whim, it was still a plan.”

“Would you still call it a plan?”

“Would you?”

“Maybe. Maybe.” Lorna smiled softly to her side, which was out of Ryan’s vision.

“So what’s the real reason?”

“The real reason? Hmm…..” Lorna placed one finger on her cheeks. The notion was strange, but Ryan didn’t catch up on it. Once Lorna was finished thinking, she turned around in a big motion and placed her finger out.

“The real reason…..”

“The real reason…..” Ryan repeated.

“The real reason that I bought all those things, was because I wanted to spend time with you!” Lorna leaned in flirtatiously towards Ryan and winked at him. Ryan was unfazed, and unamused. Ryan couldn’t take much of what Lorna said seriously, especially when her tone was so uppity and off.

“Right, so what’s the real reason?” Ryan said.

“Aw, you didn’t find my confession cute?”

“No,” Ryan said without emotion. Rather, if it really was a confession, Ryan would have been completely left aback.  Something like that would have shattered every norm he had ever came to know and enter. Something like that wasn’t just a norm on its own, but it was an experience that he would never know of, he thought. It was something that he didn’t even dream of. It was oblique chalk.

“Well. Let’s leave the reason why I bought these a secret between you and me.”

“But I don’t kn–”

“It’s so much of secret, that even you don’t know what it is. Now that’s authentic, don’t you think?” Ryan sighed and finally dropped the topic. He concluded that he would never get the answer he wanted if he continued a back and forth with Lorna. Although the day ended on a good note, there was still something lingering within Ryan’s mind. And it was a topic that Ryan was surprised he never thought of. Perhaps he was so absorbed within his new norm that he never got the chance to rest and think about the details, or perhaps he just didn’t want to think about it, for it would make his pieces even further. Ryan wondered how Lorna had money.

Chapter 11

“And who do we have here?” Ryan turned around in complete disposition as he recognized the voice calling behind him. Earlier that day, when Ryan had arrived, Hailstone and Spark were having a heated argument. In the fray of it all, Hailstone had expressed her concerns over the bread Spark had promised he would buy. Apparently, everybody had forgotten about the bread and Hailstone ended up pretty angry that she wasn’t able to eat bread that day. Ryan had managed to calm the situation and offer to buy the bread instead, but Spark ended up tagging along, saying he wanted to know the town better and that now would be the best time for that.

“If it isn’t Ms. Amanda,” Ryan said as he turned towards the blue uniformed woman known as Amanda.

“Jones. Ms. Jones to you, but I’ll let it slide.”

“Amanda Jones. So, what’s the occasion for today?” Amanda ignored Ryan’s ignorant remarks for honoring his elders and simply looked down to the young boy that had scuttled behind Ryan. Ryan himself was quite unaware of what it meant to properly greet a person of presumably higher status than him. To Ryan, each person had a name, and that name was to be called if one wants to speak to them. There was no real meaning behind mister or missus unless one did not know of a person’s name, Ryan thought. To use Ms. or Mr. to Ryan was all in a way his own admittance to ignorance, once that ignorance is shattered, he shall call them by their actual first name. Nothing less, nothing more. That was a norm Ryan could follow.

“I think the occasion is behind you.” Amanda pointed to Spark. Ryan kept his legs still, and had a grasp of why Spark would want to hide behind Amanda. After all, no one would want to get a mouthful from Lorna about rules on over exposure. Lorna had a strict no-yell policy, but, if the yell is chasing them, then what choice did they have, Ryan thought.

“Oh? There isn’t anyone behind me.” As usual, Ryan played a strange tune towards Amanda.

“Perhaps not so. But there is a strange person under you.”

“Under me? The dirt lay the dead, so the dead lay under me?”

“Not under. There is a person on your legs, to your right.” Spark winced when Amanda pointed at him. Ryan needed to find a way to derive from his current situation, or buy enough time so that she would get called again.

“A person? You mean my nephew?” Ryan gave Spark a wide eyed expression to play along with. Spark did a small nod, and slowly began calming down. If they were going to get out of this, they both needed to be on the same page, and they both needed to trust each other. Ryan and Spark had one shot at fooling Amanda, and that shot was quite slim, Ryan thought.

“Your nephew, huh?” Amanda peered at Spark, trying to find a crack within his armor, and eventually settled on the obvious.

“What’s up with his hand?”

“The bandage?” Ryan never did ask about the white wrap that covered much of Spark’s hand, nor did he have the time now. Spark gave Ryan an urgent look to tell him to say anything.

“He got it while playing sports. He fell on his hand and scrapped it pretty bad.”

“A sports injury?” Amanda  reached over towards Spark’s hand, but before she could, Spark immediately jolted back. His entire body moved back, and he nearly jumped to avoid Amanda. Ryan noticed that Spark was shaking, and his eyes widened in what seemed to be fear.

“He’s shy with strangers. Sorry. If he’s not comfortable with someone, he becomes like that.” Ryan quickly explained Spark’s sudden actions, however, in reality Ryan didn’t understand the notion himself. If it was simply to dissuade Amanda from realizing that it wasn’t a sports injury, Spark wouldn’t have reacted like that, Ryan thought.

“I won’t pry then.”

“Well, if that’s all, then we really have to go. Busy schedule today, so I’ll see you around Amanda.” Ryan quickly motioned for Spark and began walking away from Amanda. He still hadn’t bought the bread yet, and he would rather get this errand done then possibly spill the secret.

“Have you heard of unregistered orphanages?” Amanda wasted no time in trying to pull Ryan back into the fray of her notepad. However, Ryan knew that if he simply ignored it and went on with his way, he wouldn’t have to be dragged back in, and simply replied, “Can’t say I have.”

“Well they’re big. They house the homeless, and they care for brigands. Random strangers find random buildings for them, and they go completely under the radar.” Amanda’s previous authoritative tone turned to a more suave voice. She wanted to catch Ryan’s attention, and Ryan had tried his best to avoid the hook, and continued with his way.

“They even say, one resides within this very town.” Ryan tried his best to filter out the words he wanted to hear. He wanted to focus only on one thing, and that was the errand at hand. Ryan’s eyes slowly became jaded, and his vision began blurring in an attempt to wash away Amanda’s statements.

“If the authorities find this place. It’s over.” Spark looked up towards Ryan, and whispered, “Lorna said that if the ‘bad guys’ find us, it will all be over, and everyone will be separated. Is she a ‘bad guy’?” There was a certain glow of excitement within Spark’s eyes that Ryan could catch, and that worried Ryan. Whatever Spark had in mind, it wouldn’t have led to a good result. Perhaps it would even worsen their situation, Ryan thought. There were heroes among the children, and Ryan knew this. Spark was one of them.

“What exactly would the authorities do?” Ryan replied to Amanda, who at this point, was far enough that Ryan had to almost yell to her. Ryan kept Spark behind him and gave him a shake implying to stay out of the conversation.

“Oh, they would do everything in their way to see this unregistered orphanage burn to the ground.” Amanda began walking towards Ryan to close the gap.

“Burn to the ground?” Ryan tried his best to refocus on the situation, and seem as calm as possible.

“I don’t mean that literally, but you do know that underground orphanage’s are illegal, right? If my superiors ever find an underground orphanage, that place would be shut down before you know it.”

“What’s the issue with underground orphanages?”

“The same issue with human trafficking.”

“The government thinks these places are trafficking humans?” Even Ryan had morals on human life and would rather not see to it that people would be traded off for slave labour.

“These places have the potential to traffic humans. After all, if it’s unregistered, then no one will know where these people are going, or who is entering these places.”

“So it serves as a perfect guise to lure in people with the promise of a safe home and then exploit them?”

“You catch on fast. The government won’t stand for these orphanages, and has commissioned my division to stop them.”

“What if the orphanage isn’t doing any illicit business?”

“We have an order to abolish underground orphanages using any means necessary.”

“Even if they aren’t doing anything wrong?”

“Simply being there is already illegal.”

“Legal matters has nothing to do with this, does it? I mean, if it’s doing more good than harm, then shouldn’t you guys turn a blind eye to it?”

“That means turning a blind eye to every other exception. We simply can’t do that. And besides, more often than naught, things that are away from the radar, are usually taken to the extreme.” Ryan knew that Amanda was trying to entice a reaction from him, and tried his best not to rebuke her statement.

“Now knowing this. I’ll ask you again. Have you heard of any unregistered orphanages?”

“No. I haven’t.” Amanda eyed Ryan suspiciously but couldn’t catch a falter. Ryan stood his ground, and wanted to leak out as much information as he could out of Amanda. However, Amanda had her own plans. Amanda had a weird feeling behind Ryan, and behind Spark. She knew that Ryan was hiding something, and that he knew something that would help her investigation. It was an ominous feeling that Amanda had felt when she first saw Ryan, but it was a feeling strong enough to illicit her continued prying. Amanda had always used her intuition for cases, and her intuition had never failed her since. What she wasn’t good at, however, was knowing when her intuition turned into self pride and baseless accusations. Amanda wanted to believe that she was head-strong, but she was merely obstinate in the eyes of others.

“You haven’t? Really?”

“If I ever find an underground orphanage, I’ll be sure to find you.”

“I’ll take your word on it.” Amanda dropped the topic and turned. She knew that continuing her current state would not do much for Ryan, who was holding off pretty well. Ryan turned and left for the store with Spark, while Amanda thought about her next move. Amanda knew that she only had one of two options for this case. She could either search every nook and cranny to find the orphanage, or she could fish enough information to save her from sending out baseless search parties. For now, Amanda took the latter. She had already sent out other personnel to do searches, but she had very little faith that anything would show up. It was just her partner that was doing ground investigations, and she knew that he was still new, and that something like this might not be what he expected. If anything, Amanda found that she needed to focus her energy on information gathering. There was a peculiar rumor spreading around town of children wandering in and about the perimeter. There were even more rumors about children found playing in the forest. Amanda’s first real task was to start memorizing the people who frequented the town, and be able to distinguish oddities. Ryan and Spark was one such oddity. She had never seen them around that part of town before, but what she needed was for one of them to slip up and give Amanda an incentive to attack. Amanda thought of following Ryan to see where he would take Spark, but she still had her own job to do, and she knew that they were still under the light of innocence. Amanda couldn’t take any rash steps in solving this case. All she needed to do was take it slowly and play her cards right, she thought. Those cards would eventually turn into a hand of fate. And Ryan would eventually fall deeper and deeper into a hole too large for him to climb out of. Even Lorna couldn’t beat absolute power. Amanda just needed to wait.

Chapter 12

Amanda walked over to the bench that had been placed at the side of the road. She looked at the cup in her hand and blew through the steam that rose. The steam dissipated into a cloud of nothingness in the air, while Amanda stared solemnly at the rounded top.  She gave a small sigh, and then brought the cup to her lips, tipping it over and letting the warm black liquid drain into her mouth.

“Black?” Amanda turned towards the familiar voice. It was the voice of a young woman with bright golden hair. Her red lips were accentuated by her rosy cheeks, while her eyes were shaped alluringly. Amanda had one word to describe the young woman speaking to her, and that was beautiful.

“Black,” Amanda replied with a soft tone.

“You don’t change, do you?”

“It takes time to change, especially for people. You on the other hand, have changed.”

“Have I?”

“Considerably. I mean, just a few years ago you were working for us, one of the youngest we’ve had. You did great. People called you a prodigy.”

“People called me many things: a brat, a kid, naive.”

“Those people–”

“Those people were my supposed superiors. People who have gone through training, and people who have faced death.”

“You’re not still on that, are you? That whole incident was a load of crap, and you know it.”

“Right. I know. I know.” Lorna knew very well what Amanda had meant. Lorna went over and took a seat beside Amanda. Her breath seemed to radiate tiredness as her eyes became increasingly difficult to open. Lorna’s hands were snuff in her pocket and her hair was still on the bench seat.  Amanda took another sip from her cup, and looked slowly over to Lorna.

“You can always come back whenever you want.” Lorna didn’t move, and stood still, looking over the empty road.

“I can come back whenever I want. But, that doesn’t meant that the others would want that.”

“The others know that you’re more of an asset than any of them. You can’t let that get to your head. You’re a huge help, even now.” Lorna looked over to Amanda and gave her a weak smile, “You could have gathered those rumors yourself.”

“Perhaps so, but, you do it much quicker.”

“Doesn’t mean it’s better.” Amanda looked down at her cup. Steam was slowly rising again, and before she could take another sip, Lorna got up and stretched.

“You’re really not coming back, huh?”

“I’m not. I can’t go back.” Lorna’s tone slowed, and she became very articulate. She began pacing back and forth beside the bench.

“You never did tell us a reason, did you?”

“No. No.”

“I’m guessing my asking won’t make a difference.”

“I’m sorry.”

“You were never the type to open up. It’s always been like this. Even after you agreed to help me on this investigation. You’re always so elusive.”

“Do you think that’s a bad thing?”

“Can’t say. People won’t understand you, that’s for sure.”

“You never know,” Lorna said to herself. To Lorna, there were all kinds of people in the world. People who walked by without even taking a glance. People who walked by and only gave a small nod. People who walked by, and stopped to talk. Lorna knew about all these kinds of people. She was aware of each and every person’s clique, and she could easily manipulate that to her advantage. However, Ryan was a rare case. Lorna could tease and make fun of Ryan, but she understood that he was a fundamentally broken person. Lorna even found it comfortable to talk with Ryan, and was even able to open up to him a little about her problems. Lorna had always found it difficult to talk to people. She used them, and because of this, at a young age, she developed great anxiety towards companionship. Lorna found that people were just a means for her to get what she wanted, and nothing else. Emotions of happiness, sadness, and anger were all things that Lorna could tell at any instance. Just by analyzing a person’s facial expression, Lorna was able to tell dissect everything, and if she went further, she would have them in strings. It wasn’t until she found out that people could be brought together, and that people could illicit certain emotions that she started realizing just how detrimental her ability was. Lorna vowed to never use her pseudo-quant tendencies against people, and that she would only use her ability to understand.

“By the way, any new updates?” Amanda looked over to Lorna, who had settled down and was now staring at a nearby building.

“No. Sorry, I know you want to get rid of this underground orphanage as soon as possible.”

“It’s fine. After all, I’ve never been one to rush to the job. Something like this does take time, and I’ve taken my own precautions towards it as well.”

“Oh?”

“Found two people the other day wandering about in the shopping district. Couldn’t catch their names, but, they looked quite suspicious.”

“Describe them for me.”

“One of them was a little boy, had a bandage on his hand. And the other….Well he was a special case. Didn’t seem like much of anybody.” Lorna knew exactly who she was talking about, and gave herself a mental note to go and yell at Ryan and Spark when she found them later. It’s strange, Lorna thought. Being able to yell and being able to care about people other than herself was something she never thought she could do. Lorna never really was good at reading children, and that might have played into why she decided to rally them up under one roof. In a way, they made her feel leveled; they were her linchpin. Lorna slowly found herself being more and more disconnected with the world while working with Amanda. Everything was losing its color, and the incidents surrounding her didn’t make it any better.  It came to no surprise that Lorna’s next course of action was to cut all ties with the world, and simply let the world wash her away.

“You’re going to investigate them?”

“That’s the plan. They’re an odd bunch, but, really they could just be anybody. Maybe they did tell me the truth.  But I have a bad feeling about them. Something tells me otherwise.”

“When you get like that, nothing stops you.” Lorna gave a small chuckle

“I’m just as stubborn as you.”

“Perhaps so, but that’s what makes you good at your job. You always get the job done. No matter how long or how much you have to do to achieve it.”

“But at the end of the day, most of the credit goes to the people who matter. And I’m just a small pawn.” Amanda sipped her cup once again, and left her lips to linger at the top. Her eyes narrowed, and her breathing slowed. There were many reasons why Lorna came to hate the job that Amanda was doing. There were many reasons why Lorna ended up riding the wave of fate and finding her own compromise. There were many reasons why Lorna couldn’t tell Amanda what she was really doing. However, Lorna still found solace within Amanda. She was the first person who really tried to open up to Lorna and really stuck it out for her. Even if Amanda was her enemy now, Lorna still found it in her to talk to her, and treat her as an ally. Little does she know, those feelings of fleeting friendship is what will cause Lorna everything she has, and is what would really test her.  Lorna doesn’t tend to forget much, however, she doesn’t tend to forgive much either. A friend of the past, will always be that, and she can never do anything about it.

“Aren’t we all just pawns in a bigger system?” Lorna answered.

“That’s out of character. Leave that kind of cynical talk to people like me.”

“Leaving cynical ramble to old people is no fun.  Youth is long, so I’ll have plenty of time to be cynical now so I’ll be burnt out later.”

“You’re right, but that’s no way to treat one’s youth. You may be young, but you have a bright future. I believe in you, Lorna.”

“I wish I could say the same.”

“Hopefully you won’t have to.”

“Because it’s lonely?”

“Yeah.”

“You never change.” Amanda laughed at Lorna’s remark. Once Amanda finished her drink, she got up, and went over to the nearest trash bin.

“I’ve got to go meet my partner now. He’s a load of work, but he’s got potential. I’ll see you later, Lorna.”

“Alright. Later, Amanda.” Lorna waved her off, and once Amanda had left, Lorna began walking back to the building. Lorna’s expression was self contained, and she urgently tried to lift her spirits up. Lorna hated frowning, and she hated the serious atmosphere that surrounded her casual attire.

“Cat and mouse. Cat and mouse,” Lorna whispered to herself.

“Cat and mouse. Cat and mouse,” Lorna quickly said while adding a skip to her steps.

“Cat and mouse. Cat and mouse,” Lorna recited in a singsong manner. Her expression changed, she was back to what people like Ryan would call her “usual self”. To people like Ryan, and to the children, this was the Lorna that they looked up to. Lorna was a figure of unity, and a person who upheld that no matter what. She hated the  ‘bad guys’ and wanted to do everything in her way to stay under the radar and keep the family that she has spent so hard working on. Lorna is playful, but can be very serious at times. However, one fact that no one could say about her, was that Lorna was just as broken as them. Lorna was human. Lorna was not any better than any of them. Lorna was weak. Lorna was very weak.

Chapter 13

 “Ray!” Runner ran circles around the breath-deprived Ryan.

“Come and get me!”

“You know I can’t!” Ryan answered with barely a breath to spare. Runner and Ryan were playing a short game of tag outside the building. Sunflower was sitting at the entrance, fiddling away at a few beads she had on a necklace. Lorna watched from an open window on the second floor. The day was quite cold, but Lorna didn’t mind the cool winds caressing her face.

“Break! Let’s take a break!” Ryan nearly collapsed. Runner began laughing circles around Ryan. Even Sunflower who was working away on her necklace started giggling.

“Hey! Lorna!” Runner noticed Lorna watching from the window and called out to her with wide arms and energetic jumping. Ryan tried his best to jerk his head up towards the window and gave off a tired smile. Lorna couldn’t help but smile as well.

“Let’s play, Lorna!” Runner began yelling. Lorna didn’t have much plans, however, she didn’t really have any reason to refuse Runner’s request either. Unlike Ryan, Lorna had a decent constitution, and would fare more than a few minutes of running.

“Sure!” Lorna yelled back and began heading down the stairs. Lorna raced down the steps, creaking and banging on the old wood. At the base of the steps on the first floor, she noticed Walker quietly making his way across to the other hallway. Lorna had to pull the brakes and slowed her pace to a more manageable step as to not crash into Walker. Lorna noticed that Walker was engrossed in his own mind again; he was simply staring outside, not really looking at much, but swept up in his own fantasy. It reminded Lorna of Ryan, however, Lorna knew that Walker was still very much in tune with the reality that he was in, and thus reacted to the quiet steps of Lorna that crept up on him.

“Yes?”

“Aw. Caught me?” Lorna said in a playfully questioning manner.

“I heard you a mile away. You know Hailstone is still sleeping, right?” Walker emphasized Hailstone’s name, and even more so the fact that she had probably been disturbed by Lorna’s loud descent.

“Don’t worry about Hailstone. She doesn’t have energy in the mornings!” Lorna proudly said.

“You are right. But she does have a mean morning glow.” Lorna couldn’t help but agree with Walker’s last statement, and prayed that Hailstone was still snug in her bed. However, her assumption had long been shattered, and Winter, who was nearby Hailstone as she woke up, would have to pay for it. In the off chance that she was wrong, Lorna apologized in advance to anyone who might have to face Hailstone’s morning wrath.

“What did you want?” Walker asked quietly as his eyes slowly narrowed from the outside.

“Just wanted to say hello. Hello.”

“You’re worried about something, aren’t you.”

“In your dreams!” Lorna rebutted with a bright smile on her face, which prompted Walker to turn and look straight into Lorna’s eyes. It only took a few moments for Walker to realize something and then looked back towards the window. His breathing slowed, and he walked over to the window sill to lean over it. His eyes were wistful, and his feet couldn’t stop swinging.

“I don’t know what’s bothering you. But I don’t think I can help you with it.” Walker was  honest, which was due to his current standing on the topic. Walker understood many things; to stay away from strangers, as instructed by Lorna. And that if Lorna had a problem, it was probably due to her being hungry, or from the very ‘bad guys’ that she so wanted to stay away from. If Lorna was hungry, Walker wouldn’t have even been added into the equation. She would have just made something, Walker concluded.

“If it’s about Runner, then I can tell you that I warn him every time he goes out.” Walker’s tone shifted from  quiet, to violently annoyed.

“I want to stay here with everyone too. It’s fun here. And I like everyone. I don’t want to lose you guys.” Walker spoke wistfully, and turned from the windowsill to face Lorna, who was listening quietly with tired eyes. Those were the eyes that Walker seldom saw, but Walker could guess as to what emotion Lorna was feeling from them. It was a feeling that Walker understood as strange, and uncharacteristic to Lorna.

“Wait, are you actually hungry?” Walker thought for a second that the problem could actually have resulted from her stomach. This caused Lorna to smile, and laugh at Walker’s remark. Walker was confused by the notion, but was glad to see Lorna’s spirits back to normal.

“I’m not hungry. But thank you. Thank you.”

“Whatever you say. I’m not going to yell at you or anything, but… I know you can beat those bad guys. You’ll protect everybody. I trust you.”

“Yeah. Yeah.” Lorna said as she reached over and grabbed Walker into a hug. She then began swinging Walker back and forth as she lifted him into the air.

“Lorna!” Lorna ignored Walker’s panicked cries and continued to laugh and spin.

“Lorna?” As the spinning slowed, and as Lorna placed Walker back down, Walker noticed her expression lower.

“Yeah. Yeah.” Lorna repeated.

“I’ll try my best,” Lorna said to herself. Lorna wanted to reaffirm her position, and she wanted to reaffirm the safety of the norm that she worked hard on. However, Lorna knew that she couldn’t uphold that norm for very long. Lorna knew that her past would come to creep up on that norm and break it away. Lorna knew, but she didn’t know how to alleviate her troubles. That much was too much for Lorna alone. She wasn’t well equipped, but she was well trusted. And that much was enough for Lorna. After all those years of stringing people along, Lorna saw this norm as a cheap reprieve.

“Chocolate chip cookies!” Ryan had yelled out the password, which prompted Lorna to remember the reason as to why she ran down the stairs. She waved off Walker and ran back towards the door.

“There you are. We’d thought you gone missing,” Ryan said sarcastically, and ironically, as he was sure that he would be the only one to get lost in the building.

“Ready to play?” Lorna cleared her throat, and gave a deep breath before replying. Once she had calmed down, she jumped up and ran out the door with energy enough to wake the dead.

“Let’s go!” Lorna yelled as soon as she jumped out the door and onto the base of the steps.

“Not so energetic, please,” Ryan pleaded as he slowly followed her back out. Sunflower was still at the steps, fiddling away at the beads. She was grossly interested in them, but Ryan didn’t pay much heed to it. Ryan slowly found out things about the children at the building. Every day he spent with them, he would learn more, and more. His norm was always growing, and he would never be a day without knowing.

“Alright, let’s play–”

“Anything that doesn’t require me pumping my lungs.” Ryan was still nearly out of breath, and Runner gave it more thought before answering. Lorna slowly tuned out as her stomach began growling. She had barely ate when she got up, and she knew that her stomach wouldn’t let her go if she didn’t have a proper meal. Lorna began thinking of chocolate chip cookies; the same as the password, and subconsciously began walking back towards the building, disregarding the fact that there were steps to climb.

“Lorna?” Sunflower called just as Lorna tripped on the first step of the stairs and planted her face straight into the floor boards. Lorna snapped out of our hunger induced trance and cried out in pain as her mouth tasted wood.

“You alright, Lorna?” Ryan said in a playfully worrying manner.

“I only heard rumors, but, I guess it’s true.” Ryan stuck out his hands towards Lorna, who had flopped onto her back, and stared back at Ryan.

“I’m not okay. I’m starving here.” She grabbed Ryan’s hands and propped herself back up. Her stomach growled even louder, and her face slowly reddened.

“I need food!” Lorna cried.

“Food. Food!” Lorna begged.

“Alright, I’ll go get you some food. What do you want?”

“Cookies! Cookies!”

“Cookies it is.” Ryan trudged his way up the stairs.

“I’ll come too!” Runner ran in front of Ryan and entered the building first. Sunflower, who was sitting at the steps the entire time, decided to get up and enter the building as well, “I’ll make sure Runner doesn’t take more than he can chew.” Although, much to Ryan’s unknowing, she herself was ready to take a mouthful of cookies back with her. Lorna was left behind with her growling stomach. The cold winds passed her face, and now that she was outside, it blew against her body. It didn’t cause her to shiver, but it didn’t stop her from thinking again. Lorna couldn’t stop thinking about the people she met, and the people she brought together. She was very happy, and at the same time, very scared. She didn’t want to lose anyone. But she knew she didn’t have the right to hold onto so much people.

“Lorna?” Lorna looked behind her to see Carrier at the doorway.

“Lorna!?” Carrier ran out towards Lorna in a frenzy as he noticed her contorted face. Lorna cursed  herself for letting herself be so weak in front of Carrier. Lorna knew that Carrier would overreact, and knew that he would do anything in his way to help, but she also knew that her problems were her own. She couldn’t let someone else help her, she wouldn’t. Lorna gave Carrier a forced smile and said in the most joyful tone she could currently muster, “I was just hungry, don’t worry!”

“Lorna….” Lorna cleared her throat and once she was able to regain her posture, she put on her usual smile and spoke in her playful tone, “There’s nothing to be worried about!

“If you say so. Just….. Take care of yourself, okay? You have to be there for everybody.”

“I will. I’ll always be there, right?” Carrier nodded with a more relieved smile on his face. Lorna knew that Carrier looked up to Lorna. To Carrier, Lorna was a figure of strength and empathy, she was always there for people, and she always knew how to cheer people up. To see such a figure in despair, was greatly frightening to him.

“Hey! Runner! Not so fast!” Sunflower yelled out from the building as Runner came out with a cookie in his mouth and three more in his hands. Carrier had luckily been able to dodge him at the last second, but was left surprised as to what was going on.

“Here you go, Lorna!” Runner said, barely understandable with the cookie in his mouth. Lorna took one and smiled. She brought the cookie to her mouth, and bit down.

“It’s good.” Lorna felt like crying. But she knew she couldn’t. If she did, it would be the third time she would let the others be worried for her; and she couldn’t bring herself to it. Lorna knew that the norm that she had created was all a self absorbed shell. It was something Lorna had to do to escape. But she couldn’t just leave it at that. The orphanage had gone from just being a place for the unwanted, the unneeded and the unattended, to a warm comforting home. Lorna had never been so at home than here, she thought. This wasn’t just Lorna’s home, however, it was now her life. And these children weren’t just a part of her life to fill in the holes in her heart, but they were a part of her life almost as much as she is. Lorna couldn’t perfectly hide the fact that she was a torn machine; a broken marionette, trying to play with other puppets. However, what she could do, was lose her strings, and lose her gears to become a person that could help and bring others together. That’s what Lorna wanted to do. That’s what she had decided to do to amend for her being. And that’s what will keep Lorna smiling in the face of a storm, and in the face of the people she’s lovingly brought together.

 

 

Chapter 14

“Bang.” Lorna turned towards the familiar yet nostalgic voice of the young man who stood before her. He was quite tall, taller than Lorna. He had dark blonde hair that was slicked back, and wore sunglasses despite the fact that the sky was grayed.  His build was slim, and it was made more apparent with the loose casual clothing that he had on. Lorna knew the person who stood in front of her, which made it less strange for her to see that he had two fingers pointed out at her like a gun.

“Glad to see you’re doing well, Shooter.”

“Glad to see you still up and at it. How many you have now?” The man named Shooter spoke in a very casual tone. His words rolled off with great ease, and it was evident that speaking was very natural to him. Lorna also managed to catch onto the subtle smugness that came with his words, although, she knew he had no real harm.

“Nine. Well…Eight.”

“Nine, or eight? You’re as mysterious as always, aren’t you.”

“We’ve got a weird case, that’s for sure. But what about you? You left because you had something to purse.”

“I left because I wanted to leave.”

“Because they were still after you. And you needed to fly?”

“Even despite that. I just….. Needed to go. Couldn’t stay with you any longer. It’d be bad, people would talk, you know.” Shooter played off the serious topic with a poorly tasted joke, which to Lorna, was exactly that.

“People wouldn’t talk. They would yell,” Lorna answered back with a devilish tone.

“Do you know what they would yell?” Shooter said, trying to play the attack back at her.

“They would yell slander. A dirty old man’s got his hands on a young beautiful girl. That’s a real crime.” Lorna showed great conceit, and knew exactly what she wanted to say.

“Except the former’s a lie.” Shooter was indeed no old man, Lorna thought.

“So the latter’s true?” Lorna had known that Shooter would fall for it.

“Can’t argue with that.”

“So you stayed for little old me. But because I was too glaring and too shining for you, you had to leave? You had to pursue gems that were less bright, and less prominent as one such as myself?” Lorna was simply rambling on, but she had fun. That was all that mattered, and it showed as Shooter simply folded, “You caught me. Whatever will I do?” Shooter said with sarcasm as he pulled his arms out in the air. It was mindless fun and mindless harm, but Lorna knew exactly why Shooter had left the orphanage. It was a topic that despite Shooter’s attitude, would still make him sour. Lorna didn’t want to poke fun at him for his own problems, but wanted both of them to laugh along and poke fun at the world.

“So anything interesting happen? Explore the world? Meet girls? Get shot?” The truth was that Lorna was happy to see Shooter again. Back when Lorna was still rallying up her gang of misfits, Shooter was among the first. Despite this, Shooter still doesn’t know much of Lorna, and that was because Lorna was still in a very contained space. She still acted very bubbly, and very playful, but never really hammered down her serious attitude. It was only Ryan that she really did that. An oddity, she thought. An oddity brings about more oddities. That’s the nature of an apparition.

“What was that last one?”

“Meet girls?”

“After that?”

“Explore the world?” Lorna feigned ignorance to her desire of knowing whether Shooter had been shot in his journey.

“Yes. No. No. No.” Shooter answered seemingly to have heard every point of Lorna’s question.

“Tell me about it.”

“You wouldn’t believe it.”

“Try me.”

“I found another one.” Shooter made sure that he had thoroughly emphasized the word ‘one’. It took Lorna a brief moment to decipher Shooters meaning, but she had completely understood his statement. Shooter gave himself a prideful smile, but Lorna remained indifferent.

“Where was it?”

“Two towns away from here. Milling. It’s well hidden. Well supplied. And well on its way of being shut down.”

“How did you find it?”

“A stroke of bad luck.”

“Bad luck?” Shooter took off his sunglasses, and peered off into the grayed sky. The clouds moved methodological, and if Lorna was hungry, it was sure to make her fall asleep, she thought.

“Some things aren’t meant to be. You know this.”

“Right. Right.” Shooter handed his sunglasses to Lorna, who accepted them with caution. Shooter then reached over to the back of his pants and produced a small note. Lorna could tell that it was written in relative time, and that it was well kept by Shooter. Shooter opened the note, and handed it to Lorna.

“Melbourne. Hansway. Northern.” Lorna read the note out loud, and knew exactly what Shooter had written on it. She handed him his sunglasses and the note, while lowering her tone.

“Orphanages that have been shut down?”

“Yeah. Milling’s the next one on the list. I’ll give it a few more weeks, but I don’t think it has much time left.”

“You’re monitoring it?”

“I’m a satellite. I shadow these places because I want to. I get to know the people. I write down notes about the children there. And once it’s time, I leave.”

“But you only leave, if it’s convenient for you?”

“If you put it that way. Then I’m the worst kind of person there is.” Shooter’s tone didn’t falter, but Lorna knew that even he had trouble speaking about the topic. Lorna was fairly underground in the realm of criminal institutions, but she did understand more than the average person. From Lorna’s gathering with Amanda, she knew that underground orphanages in other towns have been popping up, and many of them have been getting shut down by officials. The amount of labor being put into the force has increased, and many old veterans are being reassigned to deal with this arising issue. What Shooter had just shown Lorna, wasn’t just a hit list of orphanages, it was his list of past homes. Shooter was very much a wanderer, as he was a journalist. Lorna understood that what Shooter was doing, wasn’t just couch-hoping, but he was tracking down history.

“Do you feel obliged to keep history, because I found you?” Lorna was very direct with her question, and looked straight into Shooter’s darkened eyes.

“It’s better than what I was doing before, I tell you that. This way, I can make sure that I remember all of them. You know. These people aren’t lonely for the sake of it, but–” Shooter paused, and thought about his words. It was clear that he was at odds with his past, but Shooter had determination, Lorna thought. He could see what he wanted to do, and do it. He was the type of person to channel tunnel vision, and plow through everything in his way, Lorna concluded.

“But, these people are lonely, because they are afraid of not being remembered. These children, these students, and these workers, are all just small. They don’t think that their names, and what they do, are important.”

“So you help them out. You give them a sense of belonging. You write. Write?” Lorna finished, much to Shooter’s approval, as it was completely true.

“I make sure that they know that their lives mattered. I remember every since name, and I remember every since day. I write about it in hopes of showing them, and in hopes of showing other people, so that their stories will never be forgotten.”

“You’ve changed, Shooter. You’ve changed.”

“I have changed. I’ll admit that. I’ve changed, and it’s pathetic.” Shooter spoke with a bitter aftertaste

“Pathetic?”

“I do this, because I need to, Lorna. I’ve done things that I regret.”

“Haven’t we all, Shooter?” Lorna knew it all too well, the things that she has done, and the things that she hasn’t done, has all came to haunt her in the present. Lorna wants to do whatever she can to amend those mistakes, but she knows that it isn’t that simple. Her starting of the orphanage is her atonement, and even then, she knows it’s all for naught.  The orphanage has become her life, and her life is fundamentally broken. Lorna knows that Shooter has done things that he would rather not remember. And much like Lorna, she would rather not see him do these things because of those past trifles. Lorna does what she does now because that’s what she enjoys. It’s become her norm. She doesn’t want it to become a sinful reprieve. That’s far from the point, Lorna concluded.

“We have, Lorna. We’ve all done things we regret–”

“So don’t let this be one of them,” Lorna quickly added. Lorna’s tone was serious, and she didn’t look away from Shooter for even a second. Shooter could barely stand the cold stare of Lorna, but stood his ground, trying to read and trying to understand Lorna’s point.

“Don’t let it eat at you, Shooter. You’re doing this, because you want to.” Lorna waited for Shooter before continuing.

“You’re helping these people find their own happiness. You’re helping these people have hope even after their home is shut down. You’re doing this, because you’re you, Shooter. Not because of anything else.”  Shooter didn’t respond, but Lorna could tell that he wanted to cry. He wanted to cry, and he wanted to scream out. But all he did, was put on his sunglasses, and turn away from Lorna. Lorna smiled at his notion, and patted him on the back.

“These children, wherever they may be after this, will be happy. They won’t be forgotten. It’s because of you Shooter. Have pride. And keep shooting. Keep shooting.” Shooter laughed at Lorna’s horrible play-on-words, but it seemed to have lightened his mood.

“You named me Shooter just so you could say that to me, didn’t you,” Shooter said with his recovered casual tone.

“Don’t count on it. I named you that because I named you that. Nothing more. Nothing less.”

“You never did tell us how you named us.”

“I haven’t?” Lorna mockingly replied.

“No, you haven’t. Sleight, Wolf, Tinder. We’ve all been wondering. Even after we’ve left, it’s still on our minds.”

“Hah! Still on your minds? That’s good. Good.”

“Is it?”

“It is. It means that you still recognize me. It means that you still recognize the times we’ve spent together.”

“I don’t think we’ll ever forget about the times we spent together, and about the lives you gave us. We’ll always be in your debt, Lorna.” Lorna smiled, and her tone and expression changed back to her usual playful bantering. She smiled brightly, and her breathing accelerated with energy.

“It’s been good, Shooter. It’s been really good, seeing you, and seeing you doing well. You’ve become a decent human being,” Lorna jokingly said the last part of her sentence.

“Well, I’ll make sure I continue to be a decent human being. And if I see the others, I’ll be sure to tell them you’re doing well too.”

“Yeah. For sure, if they’re around, tell them to visit. It’ll be nice. And maybe they can even meet the new kids. ”

“Maybe I should visit,” Shooter suavely suggested.

“But you have places to go, and people to see, don’t you.” Shooter smiled at her statement.

“What I wanted to hear was your pleading for me to come visit,” Lorna smiled back.

“But I’ll take it. I’ll catch you later.” Shooter turned and began walking towards the bridge. Lorna didn’t need to see his face, to know what kind of expression and to know how he was feeling. Lorna gave off one last remark before he had made too much distance, “Stay safe. Stay safe.” Shooter waved back in response, and gave off his own words of grace, “Make sure you’re not on my list.” As Shooter left Lorna’s field of view, she smiled. She smiled, and ran. She ran back towards the orphanage, with her golden hair flowing reverently behind her. She ran, and ran, and didn’t stop until she made it. Lorna was feeling extremely elated, and didn’t want that feeling to end. She wanted to see the rest of the children, she wanted to spend time with them. She wanted to make memories, and she wanted them to grow up knowing that their lives mattered. She wanted to use the limited time she had to make it all worthwhile. Lorna was relieved.  But most of all, she was happy. The happiest she’s been in a while.

Chapter 15

Ryan trudged slowly towards his home. It was a long day of school, and an even longer day playing with everyone at the building. His legs were sore, but his breathing had became stable. Ryan was unsure of why he kept agreeing to let Runner choose all the games. His lungs couldn’t handle it. As Ryan made it to his home, he sighed. It was a large house, too large for him, too large for anyone. But Ryan made it there anyway, and he braced himself for it. He took out the key he was given, and pushed it into the harrowing lock. He opened the door with a slight creak and then stepped inside the house; a draft of cold air rushed behind him. The house itself was very quiet, and the only noise that Ryan could hear was the sounds of his own footsteps. Ryan knew the house very well, surprisingly. He knew where his room was. He knew where the kitchen was. He knew where the storage room was. What he didn’t know, was the hidden compartment in his basement, but neither did his benefactor. He also knew where his benefactor’s room was. That was important. That was very important.

Ryan made his way across the kitchen, where there was a plate of food on the table. There was no note, or person there to accompany it. It was just a lone plate of food, which Ryan understood as his dinner. The only time he’s remembered to have eaten together with someone else in this home was when he first arrived. Shortly thereafter, most of his meals were by himself, sitting on the cold table, and listening to the silverware cling with the plate.  Ryan was unsure of what his benefactor did in his room. He was curious, but never bothered to bring that curiosity much further than outside his door. Ryan was glad that he was even given a place to stay. This home, no matter how decrepit and lonely, was a place that allowed Ryan to form and join new norms. Every day without fail, Ryan would wake up, and walk to school. He would attend school, and walk back, all the while in his own self contained world. Ryan seldom spoke, even in his own home. But it was because of this home, that he was able to meet so much new people, and so quickly. It was because of this home that he made real friends, people he could hold dear. And it was because of this home, that he found another place to call home; his second home. Ryan was happy, for the first time in a while, Ryan was truly happy. And he could thank it all for the home he resided in.

“Out late again?” His benefactor had a scruffy beard, and an even scruffier voice. It was harsh, and brash, but Ryan got used to it fairly quickly. His hair was in a dark mess, but he dressed relatively normal. Ryan’s frequent outings have caused quite a stirring within the norm of this house, and he’s noticed that his benefactor has been awfully inquisitive as of late.  What it meant for Ryan, was more talking; which he didn’t mind at all.

“I was just with some friends.” Ryan stretched the use of the word friends as his benefactor didn’t quite know who his friends were.

“You’ve been with friends for a while now,” Ryan’s benefactor waited for a response, but harbored none from Ryan, which prompted him to speak again.

“It’s a sound change, I’ll tell you that.”

“It’s a good change, uncle.”

“Right. It must be. You even seem different lately.”

“Different?” Ryan’s uncle didn’t think hard about it, nor did he hesitate to answer.

“Normal. You seem more normal. Everything about you just radiates that.”

“Is that a good thing?”

“It is.” Ryan’s uncle paused again, not looking for an answer, but gathered his thoughts. Ryan never took his uncle as much of a talkative type. He was more of a listener than anything, Ryan thought, however, Ryan has learned over the past few weeks that his uncle is more than what he initially thought. Ryan saw the man as cold and uncaring, which Ryan still thinks holds true to some extent. However, his uncle’s tough exterior is very easily a facade, and Ryan has been able to notice that facade more frequently. Whether that facade is a good or a bad thing, Ryan has yet to figure out.

“It’s a good thing, because you always seemed so down before.” Ryan could contest this point. It wasn’t a means of being depressed or trying to look depressed, but it was his own norm, and that’s how he seemed in it. Ryan was just being Ryan. And now, Ryan was being Ryan, and Ray. And in some other part of the timeline, Ryan, would just be a norm.

“You always looked like you were in a daze. Always in your own world, and uncaring for everything around you.” It was only recently that Ryan had begun thinking of what others were thinking of him. He knew that before his new norm, he was a very unsociable person, and despite all the times he had blocked off the world and ignored the slander, he still knew. Ryan still heard, and some words were still able to linger in his mind. The only difference now, was that those words were turning from a cold wind, to a block of ice.

“To be honest, that kind of life, isn’t so bad.” Ryan’s uncle seemed to be speaking with a glint of mysticism, and load of wistful reprise.

“You would know?” Ryan answered quietly brashly. Ryan wasn’t surprised that he was able to answer with such intent now, nor was it surprising that he felt indifferent about his possible insensitive question. To Ryan, it was just a matter of perspective, and a matter of person. Ryan found himself to be odd in both.

“I would. Once upon a time, in fact.” Ryan’s uncle gave off a small chuckle to his reminiscence. His sharp eyes then lowered into a focus, and he added, “Perhaps now even so.” Ryan would argue that his uncle truly was in his own world. He was always in his room during the day when Ryan was around, and never seemed to leave unless necessary. Ryan couldn’t account for when he was at the building, but his uncle always seemed to be in the house whenever he got back. Ryan didn’t know exactly how his uncle did what he did, but Ryan knew that it was able to sustain his way of life, and for that he didn’t question it. He embraced it, and if it truly was his uncle’s way of life, to be stuck in his own perplexing world, then Ryan would come to appreciate that norm.

“It’s true–” Before Ryan continued, he took a deep breath, and looked around the hallway he was standing in. It was nice, and bright, too bright for a person like him. Too bright for only the two of them. It was large, it was welcoming, and at the same time, it was a closed off room. It was a locked room, and Ryan couldn’t find the key. He was stuck in a world of nothingness, and he was stuck in a world filled with choking norms. Everything eventually evaporated into a mist of substantial matter, and Ryan was slowly losing himself into a fictitious stupor, however, his mind fought. Ryan didn’t succumb to his mindful lust, he hadn’t in a while.

“That I used to live like that.” Ryan finished.

“I lived in a world where I was the only person. I blocked what others said, and I ignored everyone else. But–” Ryan smiled, he thought back to all the things that happened, all because of a simple slip of paper, all because of a broken rule. Ryan smiled because it all happened before he knew it. It was fast, frightening, and fervorous, and Ryan couldn’t help but be swept up in all of it.

“After finding friends, I’ve realized things. I’ve realized how fun life can be. I’ve realized how to cherish life. And I’ve realized things about myself.” Ryan paused. It wasn’t hard for him to quickly think of the things that he’s realized about himself, and the things that he has gained through the children and through Lorna.

“I’ve realized many things. And it’s all because I was able to break out of my own world, and find others.” However, Ryan was still unsure of whether he was ready to talk about the things he’s realized, and whether those things are important or not. All Ryan knew was that he’s changed, and that change enough was already a good start. He wasn’t sure whether the details were needed, but, he wasn’t scared. Ryan was still very much confused, and very much stuck in a realm of two norms.

“That’s good. That’s very good. Living in one’s own world shouldn’t ever be a lifestyle. It’s a compromise,” Ryan’s uncle talked softly towards Ryan. His voice was rough, but Ryan could also hear a soft gentle touch to it. Ryan couldn’t understand what word to put towards that feeling however, and Ryan couldn’t figure out what he would attribute that tone to. All Ryan understood, was that his uncle was more than just a cold man who lived secluded in his own world. He had more to him, but it seemed like he can’t leave, and that he’s stuck for his own reasons, Ryan thought.

“People like you, people with youth, should spend their youth accordingly. Living in your own room and only knowing yourself as a friend is something for old people and cynical theorists. You’re not any of the two.”

“But I will become old.”

“You will. For sure. But now that you’re still young, you should play. It’s fine to mess up, and it’s fine to do things you’ve never tried before. After all, when are you going to get that kind of leeway later?” Ryan’s uncle walked around Ryan, and headed to the kitchen.

“Play now. Eat later.”

“I won’t be getting any seconds if I eat later.”

“Exactly.” Ryan’s uncle smiled, but Ryan couldn’t quite catch it. Ryan headed back to his room. He only ever ate when he was free from school obligations, which Ryan saw as chains toward norms. Although, Ryan wouldn’t have it any other way. It kept him occupied, and he’s learned that learning is quite fun in its own right. However, he did have trouble in math. Logic and numbers just didn’t seem all that logical to Ryan. Those numbers aren’t having fun, nor are they crying, nor are they getting angry. Those numbers are following a straight pattern, and are all part of a norm known as equation. Ryan has long retired from this norm, and is moving into a norm known as variable. Ironically enough, variables do exist in math, and Ryan is getting better each day. His own puzzle pieces are being found, and he’s found a meaning for them in his norm, hopefully he’ll be able to apply this to his work. The only thing Ryan still can’t figure out, however, is how those pieces will fit into other norms. Ryan needs to figure out why the things he’s learned now is important, and why it’ll be of use to him later, but he’ll take all of that one step at a time.

Chapter 16

“And then I saw it!” Spear opened his arms in a dramatic motion, appearing as if he was about to embrace someone.  The entire building was gathered under a single room; the mess room, they dubbed it, and sat around a large round table. The lights were dimly lit, and the door and windows were shut and curtained off to give the room a prevailing sense of darkness. Although, Ryan wasn’t sure why they just didn’t do this on the second floor’s storage room; a room that he had wandered in to by accident which had no windows and was spacious and dark enough to simulate the experience.

“It was!” Spear made a dramatic pause before the big reveal, holding his breath and watching the indifferent, suspenseful, and sleep-deprived faces of the people gathered.

“A ghost!” Spear waited, silence fell across the room, and the faces of each person remained the same. Spear kept a wide eyed expression to further emphasize the point that he had indeed met a ghost. A cough broke into the silence, and Spear was left standing in the middle of a room filled with eyes that screamed fallacy.

“Spear. You know….. Ghosts don’t exist, right?” Walker said, seeming to have just recently joined in on the fiasco and has grasped Spear’s delusions.

“Yeah. Even, I don’t believe in that stuff,” Hailstone added with a distinct hesitation and stiffness in her voice.

“That kind of stuff is for kids,” Hailstone ironically added with the same stiffened tone that was on the verge of breaking. Ryan looked over and noticed Hailstone had begun grabbing her arms and was slightly shaking, however, Ryan could have been mistaken in the lowlight. Ryan preferred this, as if he did catch Hailstone in the act of being afraid of Ghosts, he would surely not hear the end of it, he thought.

“I’d like to see this ghost to believe it.” Carrier added with great disdain.

“I think I’d like to meet Mr. Ghost as well,” Winter added with a soft tone. Ryan found the sentiment as quite amusing, but he couldn’t figure out why.  At this point, Ryan had never really thought about the afterlife, nor did he think much of the topic. He saw death as death, and people came and went by in a flash. Ryan never gave it a second thought. Ryan experienced death quite closely to him, but perhaps it was because of his age, and perhaps it was because that he’s never really cared much for it before that the topic doesn’t affect him. The afterlife is not a norm, nor is it a part of a norm. At this point, Ryan thought that the afterlife, was the epitome of emptiness. Nothing happened, nor, was it any fun. After all, Ryan has realized that the nothingness he used to embraced, was anything but warm.

“If he likes to play games, then call him over!” Runner enthusiastically said, seemingly ignoring any negative connotations that a ghost would usually bring.

“What if he doesn’t want to play games? He could be dangerous.” Sunflower warned.

“Who says this ghost is a guy? What if it’s a cute girl? I want a cute girl,” Lorna added without much regards to the current topic, and with much disappointment as she felt sad over the fact that she did not have a “cute girl”. Winter looked up to Lorna as she said this, and Lorna smiled and patted her head with affection, “Aw. I have the cutest girls I could ever ask for.” Ryan was left wondering how the discussion derailed from a horror story, and so did Spear as he lost his patience.

“This is not the time to be playing games!” Spear’s voice boomed out in the darkness of the mess room. Everybody stopped and looked at him like he had just begun a speech.

“You don’t understand what I saw. It was a monster. A humanoid white figure that had fangs and claws, and red eyes!”

“Is that how ghosts look?” Winter asked quietly.

“I was lucky that I had a flashlight, but if it saw me in the dark, it would have devoured me!” Spear was getting quite worked up about the topic, and so was Lorna once she tuned in, “Wait, where did you get a flashlight?” She asked.

“I found it in the trunk room.”

“So that’s where I left it….” Lorna replied dejectedly with pride. It seemed that she was more interested in the whereabouts of her belongings than the actual ghost, Ryan thought.

“Does it only eat you in the dark?” Runner asked. Ryan figured that the concept of a ghost only eating during the dark sounded like a fun game to Runner. Although, Ryan wasn’t sure what to think of Runner finding possibly being maimed to be a fun game. Ryan hasn’t tried out a game like that either, so he couldn’t say much about the matter.

“I heard ghosts haunt people. They latch onto a person and drain their energy,” Carrier added before Spear could speak again.

“Drain their energy? Like a vampire?” Winter added, albeit with her usual tone, she had a bit more flair once the topic of a vampire arose.

“I don’t know. Seems pretty hard to me, but I think if you can endure it, they’ll eventually leave you alone. They’ll see that you aren’t fun anymore and find someone else.”

“A vampire….” Winter slowly began getting wistful eyes, which no one picked up in the dim light.

“Monsters aren’t scary! Bring it on!” Spark added with as much enthusiasm as Spear had. Ryan truly did believe that Spark would be able to lead a charge against a blood ravaging monster if he so wanted to.

“Hah! Don’t be ridiculous. Monsters don’t exist. There are only us and animals!” Hailstone added, with a much more frantic  tone. Ryan noticed that Hailstone began rubbing her hands together and looked across the room in search of something. Thankfully, Hailstone didn’t notice that Ryan noticed her, he thought.

“Guys!” Spear yelled out again, breaking up all the discussion. He was losing his breath, and once he had rallied everyone’s attention again, cleared his throat.

“This is a serious matter. Don’t you guys get it? If it remains here, we’re all in trouble!” Spear insisted again upon the dangers of the ghost. However, only Spark and Hailstone seemed to have radiated enough excitement to match Spear’s. Ryan was still rather quiet in the whole round table.

“We have to get rid of it!”

“And how do we do that?” Walker asked, as he tuned back into the conversation.

“We ask it to leave!” The room slowly turned into silence again. The roundabout method that Spear had thought was too normal, many of the children thought. For a spectacle such as a ghost, there must have been a more flashier way of eradicating it, Ryan thought. Surely asking a ghost that is haunting a place to leave wouldn’t be enough.

“And if it doesn’t work?” Hailstone quickly added.

“Then we–”

“We have to fight it! We drive it away!” Spark suddenly proclaimed, with his arms out and a wide grin hidden in the low light.

“Enough!” Lorna suddenly got up, and went over to the door. With one big motion, she swung the door open, letting in a ray of light that unexpectedly blinded Ryan for a brief moment. Lorna made a big scene as she stretched her arms out and grunted loudly.

“All this ghost talk is making me hungry!” Lorna yelled back into the room. Her stomach began growling as she did, and once she realized that she could no longer hold it in, she turned with a sad expression and limped off to the kitchen.

“I’ll make sure she’s fine,” Ryan said as he got up and walked towards the door. Ryan thought the situation in the room was quite choking in its own right, and that the atmosphere of it all was hard to follow for Ryan. His norm usually had interactions between a recognized group of speakers, but it wasn’t until quite recently that his norm had branched out to much harder to follow conversations. At least for Ryan, having to listen to multiple people and run different ideas through his head for each person was taxing. Ryan couldn’t find a right place to interject his own ideas, to refute, to joke, or to have fun. Ryan was simply an observer. And that feeling made him relapse. That feeling made Ryan slip into a realm not of his own, and to a norm that he did not wish to visit.

“Slow down, will you?” Ryan said as he walked into the kitchen and saw that Lorna had been stuffing her face with a chicken sandwich. The speed at which the morsel of food in her hand had disappeared baffled Ryan, and Ryan knew that eating at such speeds was surely not good.

“You hungry too?” Lorna asked with lettuce hanging from her mouth. Ryan looked over to the table where an assortment of bread, ham, and vegetables were spread across the table. Ryan was unsure of how Lorna was able to take out each of the items in the short time that had passed, but didn’t question it for long.

“On second thought, this is all mine.” Lorna added as he noticed Ryan looking over the table. Lorna’s tone was different when she was hungry, Ryan thought. She wasn’t exactly playful, nor was she exactly serious and mellow. In a strange sense of it, Ryan thought that Lorna sounded over protective.

“Don’t worry. I’m not hungry.”

“Then why did you follow me?” Lorna said barely understandable as she stuffed her mouth with another sandwich.

“Needed some fresh air.”

“Fresh air?” Lorna swallowed the food in her mouth before continuing, “Could have went outside. ”

“Could have. But, then I wouldn’t get the company.” Lorna smiled to Ryan’s unknowing boldness.

“What’s on your mind? Other than me, of course.” Lorna asked, with a sarcastic tone to emphasize her snide remark.

“Nothing–” Ryan paused, and thought again about what he wanted to say. He knew that Lorna would want him to be open to her about what was on his mind, and Ryan knew he had nothing to lose if he was honest.

“Actually, yeah. Something’s been on my mind.”

“Let me hear it, lover boy.”

“When Spear started talking about ghosts, I started thinking–”

“Actually, half the time, you shouldn’t take Spear seriously. He’s a smart kid, but can’t get his words exactly the way he wants them. He notices things, more than the other kids. He’s just awkward, sometimes. Sometimes.” Lorna motioned for Ryan to continue, acknowledging that she had cut him off.

“Right. And Spear might be just seeing things. Spear might just be saying things and we’ve lost the meaning somewhere in all the fantasy. But, one thing does hold true about what he said.”

“Oh?” Lorna’s tone lowered, and she noticed Ryan looking down onto the floor. His eyes slowly rose, but they looked down casted.

“Ghosts come from the dead. And, I’ve seen death. Maybe not seen, but I’ve experienced it. I know people who have died, but I don’t feel much for it. Not now, not even then.” Ryan’s voice seemed to have trailed off, and Lorna’s own breathing seemed to have steadied.

“So you’re worried?” Lorna spoke softly, and clearly.

“I don’t know if I’m worried or not. But I’m just….. Not sure about it.”

“What aren’t you sure about?”

“I…. Don’t know.”

“What don’t you know?”

“Look!” Ryan yelled out unexpectedly. Lorna was indifferent, and had spoken to warrant a response from Ryan. Ryan slowly calmed himself, and as he did, Lorna grabbed a cup and poured water into it. Before Ryan spoke again, Lorna took a quick sip.

“I really don’t know, okay?” Lorna left the cup to her lips, and let her eyes sink into the edge of the cup.

“I just, can’t think of anything. When I hear death, images of my–” Ryan stopped.

“When I hear death,” Lorna interrupted Ryan’s line of thought, and brought the cup down. She swirled the water inside. The notion seemed less suave to Ryan, as it wasn’t coffee, he concluded.

“I see friends. I see workers. And I see lost time.” Lorna placed the cup onto the table, and looked into Ryan’s eyes. She had a weak smile on, and her hair, which was ever so bright in the light of the day, seemed dark and full of rot in the darkness of the kitchen. However, it wasn’t so much as it was rot, Ryan thought, but that it was lifeless. It didn’t glow, much like Lorna’s current state.

“When I hear death, I remember things that I would rather not. I remember my past. I remember the things that I could never bring back.” Lorna paused, and gathered her thoughts. She weighed whether telling Ryan about her past, and about her current talks with Amanda was a smart decision or not.

“I used to have people in my life that I pushed away,” Lorna found it fine to stretch the truth to get Ryan started. All she needed to do, was keep Amanda and any business with blue uniforms a closed canon case.

“I had people that I was unknowingly close to. And once they had passed, I had come to realize how much they meant to me. I couldn’t understand them, but once the time had come, and once I had learned, I realize how much I missed them. That’s what death is to me. A missed opportunity. And unless you can take all you can, death will always be meek and morbid.” Lorna felt like crying. She felt like screaming out and chasing her past away, but she knew it would mean nothing. Lorna played with strings, but once those strings were cut, and once the wood that brought it together had grown moss, Lorna changed. That’s what Lorna wanted Ryan to understand, and he did, to some extent.

“But don’t let it bother you,” Lorna added for insurance.

“Just let it all out. What does death mean to you? What do you see?” Lorna asked, while looking straight into Ryan’s tired eyes.

“Death…..When I think of death images of my family appear.” Lorna didn’t expect the revelation that she received, however, the possibility had been on her mind.

“Images of my father, and images of me.”

“Your father’s dead?” Lorna asked bluntly, with a pained expression.

“Yeah. He’s dead. He died when I was still young. Younger than I am now.” Ryan gave off a small secluded chuckle.

“I never gave it much thought. I was so stuck in my own world that I didn’t–” Ryan quickly stopped, and corrected himself, “I couldn’t think of anything or anyone else. But, I’ve changed. I’ve changed Lorna. I’ve really changed.”

“Yeah, you have Ray. You have.”

“And now that I can think of these things, I think I miss him.” Ryan’s eyes began watering. It was a strange sensation for Ryan. Ryan was never the person to cry, nor did he think he was. It wasn’t a part of his norm, no. It was a norm all on its own, Ryan thought. Ryan could cry.

“Lorna, you–” Ryan stopped, and cleared his throat, “Thank you. Lorna.”

“For what?” Lorna added, with her usual playful tone.

“For–”

“Nope. Don’t want to hear it.” Lorna skipped across the kitchen and to the door.

“The only person to thank is yourself.” Lorna left the kitchen with her energy, but shortly poked her head back in to add a remark, “Spear’s probably going to have us ghost hunting all night. If you want, stay and have some fun.” Ryan considered it, and thought that the idea of hunting a being that might not actually exist would not be fun, but the idea of staying overnight with everyone was. Ryan smiled to that thought, and smiled again once he realized that he had to clean up after Lorna. Although, he didn’t mind.  Lorna skipped her way back to the mess room, and despite having said her feelings and having heard Ryan’s, there was still one fact that she was wondering about. Lorna could guess as to what the answer would be, but she didn’t want to. Nor could she make an accurate assumption, after all, it was Ryan. Lorna wondered where Ryan’s mother was.

Chapter 17

“So, where exactly is this ghost of yours?” Walker asked, quite uninterested in the subject, but saw that solving Spear’s dilemma would save him a load of trouble later. Ryan trudged slowly behind the group of people in front of him, which consisted of the entire building in a line formation. The only person missing was Lorna, who told him she had to go out to get supplies. Ryan didn’t mind the party size, but found it odd that Lorna went shopping in the middle of the night. Ryan even saw her actions as a method of escape, and Ryan would be able to believe that Lorna just wanted an excuse to not dabble in exorcism.

“Just a bit more,” Spear said as he pressed on, edging the group of children behind him.

“You guys better be ready.” Spear looked behind him to inspect the team he had assembled. Hailstone and Spark was directly behind him, the former shaking and hiding behind the latter, although, Ryan chose to ignore that fact. Runner and Sunflower were next, and looked quite indifferent, with Runner just wanting to play a game with the specter, and Sunflower worried about the wellbeing of him. Carrier and Winter were next. Carrier walked with great steps and remained calm through the dangers Spear advocated. Winter seemed to be lost in her world, Ryan noticed. Her eyes were wistful and she didn’t seem like she was keeping track of where she walked.  At last, was Walker, who was lagging behind the rest, and was in the same boat as Winter, although, his was probably more inquisitive, Ryan concluded.

“Do you think he’s strong?” Spark said with excitement as he skipped across the wooden floor. The creak of the building seemed louder than usual, Ryan thought. He wasn’t sure whether it was his own imagination, or whether it was the guise of night that made everything seem louder. Roaming around in the night was a part of a norm that he didn’t realize would be a piece in. It was something new for Ryan, but at the same time, it was something he could come to appreciate. Ryan enjoyed the low light of the moon’s shine, and the cold winds that seemed even cooler at these hours.

“Of course he’s strong! He can eat us all in ten seconds!” Spear replied frantically back to Spark, although Ryan was unsure of where he got his statistics from.

 

“What happens when it eats us?” Hailstone asked, still visibly shaking, and still curiously darting her head back and forth.

“When it does, it’ll chew your bones,” Spear said, with a menacing glow and growl in his voice. Hailstone shuttered, but listened closely to the scholarly words of Spear.

“After that, it’ll swallow your flesh, and digest it with stomach acid and turn you into ash!” Spear closed in on Hailstone with wide eyes, edging her to jump out in panic.

“It’ll turn you into ash? After you get dissolved in acid?” Walker asked Spear, questioning his logic. This made Hailstone calm, albeit, only for a brief period.

“Look! This is no time to be fooling around. It’s going to get us!” Spear lowered his head, “It was around here.” Spear motioned for everyone to lower their heads. Hailstone remained wide eyed, while Spark seemed like he was ready for a running start. Everyone remained silent, and waited for Spear’s delusions to take shape. Winter had broken out of her world and joined the party in its ghost hunting antics, although, her mind was hoping for another kind of monster to appear. Sunflower held onto the hem of Runner’s shirt, although Runner didn’t notice. Walker remained stuck in his own world, however, he did take a slight interest in Spear’s rambling, and glued his eyes to the corridor that Spear fixated on.

“Is it coming?” Winter asked as she couldn’t quite see from her position.

“I don’t see anything,” Carrier responded. At this point, Ryan’s eyes had begun adjusting to the dark, and he was sure that the other’s were also getting used to it. They waited, but after a minute of waiting, they had all concluded that Spear was out of it.

“I saw it here yesterday at the exact same time!” Spear whispered out to everyone.

“Clearly it’s not coming,” Walker said sarcastically, “Ghost’s don’t exist, Spear.”

“Wait, what’s that?” Winter said as she stretched her head for a better view.  Ryan looked over and saw a white opaque figure in the distance. It had the shape of a human, but moved very slowly towards the group.

“There it is!” Spear yelled out.

“Quiet!” Hailstone urged. The figure didn’t have any visible facial features, nor did it seem like it was taking any steps. To Ryan, the figure was simply sliding across the wooden floor.

“That’s not a vampire….” Winter whispered to herself disappointingly.

“We can jump it! It’ll be easy!” Spark suggested.

“Let’s wait and see what it does first,” Carrier added.

“Doesn’t seem like a monster.” Sunflower noticed. Ryan wondered about the white apparition that appeared before them as well. Ryan noticed that there was something strange about the way it moved. Ryan had never encountered a ghost in real life before, but he has seen them in books. Most of the books and pictures of ghost depictions were far from the ghost that had apparently appeared before them. The ghost in front of them was more like fabric, Ryan thought. As the ghost slid across the floor, it almost seemed to Ryan that there were irregular ridges appearing on the ghost’s legs. Even the arms of the ghost was disproportional, with bumps and ridges reminiscent of wearing a shirt. It was almost like looking at a bed sheet, Ryan concluded. Ryan looked over to Walker, who was staring at it expressionlessly. Ryan figured that he had noticed the irregularities as well.

“Hey, Walker. That’s not actually a ghost, right?” Ryan asked.

“As far as I can tell. That thing looks more like a costume. And I’ve seen pretty bad ghost costumes before,” Walker answered casually. Walker soon delved back into his own world as his eyes grew narrow. The situation at hand was a finished book for Walker, and he didn’t seem to need to know what was behind the mystery that surrounded them. Perhaps Walker knew all along, Ryan thought.

“Lorna?”  Ryan thought to himself. There was no other explanation for the sudden occurrence, Ryan thought. The clues all lead to it, and Ryan was sure that it was one of her pranks, although to execute it like so, was more reckless than anything, Ryan concluded. Ryan got up, and shuffled his way through the children.

“Ray! Careful! That thing could eat you!” Hailstone warned as she trembled behind Spark, who looked excitingly at Ryan and got up to follow him.

“If you’re going, then so am I!”

“You guys are crazy! Get down!” Spear warned, his patience running out.  The ghost didn’t falter with the two people walking towards it. Ryan didn’t show any emotion as he made a straight path for the ghost.

“Don’t think you’re fooling anyone,” Ryan said as he got closer. There was no response, and the ghost simply continued to slide forward towards him. Ryan was sure it was Lorna’s way of feigning ignorance. Ryan thought the notion was quite amusing, and put on a small smile just before grabbing it. Just as Ryan thought, his hands grasped the bed sheet and with one motion, pulled it all off.

“What?” Ryan said out loud as he noticed that there indeed was no one under the bed sheet.

“A bed sheet?” Spark said as he watched it all unravel. The children got up, and all crowded around Ryan after seeing the spectacle.

“A bed sheet? So someone made this?” Carrier asked.

“Probably. Although I don’t know how they managed to make it stand,” Ryan wondered. If Lorna wasn’t behind the sheet, and if there wasn’t a pole to make it appear like it was floating, then how did it manage to glide across the floor, Ryan thought. Ryan knew of magic tricks that had a similar principle, of making something appear like it’s floating in mid air. Ryan always figured that  it was due to strings or magnets, or another exterior floatation method. Ryan was sure that there were no magnets hidden under the floor boards, but he didn’t exactly see any strings when he pulled the sheet either.

“Ray. Look.” Walker pulled on Ryan’s shirt and pointed up. Ryan looked up and noticed a peculiar contraption hidden in the ceiling. It was almost like a conveyer belt, Ryan noted. There was a thin silver string on the top of the ceiling that seemed to stretch across the hallway.

“It goes into that room.” Walker said to Ryan. There was a room at the end of the hallway, although, Ryan didn’t know what was in the room, he did know that whoever was behind this was inside. And his guess still held true as to who could have been behind everything. Ryan edged the children to follow him and they made their way to the end of the hallway.

“Spear. I don’t think your ghost, is much of a ghost. More like a prank,” Ryan said. Carrier and Winter soon realized what was going on, while Hailstone was simply relieved that she didn’t have an encounter with a monster. Ryan placed his hands on the door knob, and opened it without hesitation. In front of him, was an empty class room. The windows were closed, and curtains covered them. The chairs and desks were all unmoved, and there were no signs of life ever passing. Ryan walked in, and took a good look across the room. There were no signs of oddity, except for scrawling on the chalkboard that was too small to make out.  Ryan walked towards the chalkboard, with the children behind him all wondering exactly what was going on.

“What does it say?” Spark said as he ran towards the chalk board.

“Look–” Ryan bent down to read the rest of the sentence.

“Behind you.” Just as Ryan had finished reading, the door behind them had slammed shut. Hailstone gave off a small scream and jumped towards Ryan, who became even more fearful of Hailstone than the current situation.

“It’s after us! I told you!” Spear said, trying to validate his point once again, “The ghost had used the sheet to trick us to walk into this room!” There was a collective non-verbal agreement that Spear was clearly not understanding the current situation. Ryan sighed, and walked over to the door. If anything, Ryan gave Lorna more points for putting all the effort into making such an elaborate set up. At this point, there was no doubt that it was her just messing with them, Ryan concluded. The writing on the chalkboard couldn’t fool him.

“Lorna!” Ryan said as he opened the door.

“Is she there?” Carrier asked from behind. Ryan peered off into the hallway, but didn’t notice anyone. Ryan turned back into the room and replied, “I don’t see anyone.”

“Ray!” Carrier suddenly called out, “Behind you!” All the children looked flabbergasted behind Ryan. Ryan turned around with a bored expression on his face, which quickly turned into one filled with fear and surprise as he saw a ghastly figure before him. She had dark unkempt hair, and her clothes were ragged and barely fit onto her. She looked up at Ryan with pale eyes and a dark devilish smile. Ryan’s state of mind couldn’t register the face of the person in front of him, and he simply let it overwhelm him. Her hands had large nails that reached for Ryan, and once he had realized that her hand was reaching for him, she jumped out with her mouth open and made Ryan crash onto the classroom floor. A large bang then occurred at the opposite end of the classroom that derived the children’s attention. Ryan and the rest of the children had their breathing increase rapidly, and for the first time, Ryan was truly scared.  Ryan had never thought that he would ever be able to experience the emotion of fear. Ryan thought it was a cryptic feeling that had no place in his old norm, or his new norm. The norm that he walked into everyday had welcomed him with open arms, and there was no fear in his mind.

Ryan looked back up towards the door, but the figure had long passed.  Ryan got up and calmed himself before looking back out into the hallway. There wasn’t a single trace of anyone there, which caused him to sigh out in relief.

“Hey!” Ryan jumped back and onto the floor as Lorna excitingly called out to him from behind. Ryan felt his heart jump, but he soon settled down, and put on an angry expression towards Lorna.

“What’s the matter, Ray? Looks like you had a good scare.”

“I did. From a certain someone, no less.”

“Oh? Who did it? Couldn’t have been any of you, right?” Lorna said addressing the children huddled in the classroom. Ryan tried to read into Lorna’s expression, but couldn’t get much rather than her usual joyful demeanor.

“Anyway, if you guys had enough screaming out here, let’s get started!” Lorna waved off Ryan’s anger and pulled out her arms and two bags filled with fireworks. Ryan felt like yelling out and punching Lorna, but restrained himself. After all, it was fun, Ryan thought. It was fun to get scared and to get his blood pumping. It was a new experience for him, and it was fun to experience that with everybody else, Ryan thought. It was fun to share, and it was fun to get angry. Being with everybody, was so much fun, Ryan concluded. It was enough fun, to have him forget all his troubles, and have him believe that the norm he had now, was always his norm. It was a warm feeling, and for the first time, Ryan felt family, although he never realized it at the time.

“It’s nice, isn’t it?” Lorna said to Ryan as she watched over the children play with firework sparklers.

“Not joining in?” Ryan asked Lorna.

“Let the kids have some fun. It’s not every day I get something like this, right? Right.” Ryan was still very wary of how Lorna was able to buy the fireworks, especially at night. They had walked quite a distance away from the building, and was at the river beneath the bridge. Ryan was setting up the rocket, while the rest of the children were off playing and running around with sparklers. Hailstone looked at hers excitingly, seeming to have forgotten about the incident from before. Runner and Sunflower were chasing each other by the river bed. Spark was half asleep on the grassy hills, exhausted from the day’s worth of adrenaline, Ryan thought, and Carrier was looking at a dying sparkler a few feet away from him. Spear and Walker seemed to be getting into a heated argument with sparklers dangling between them. Winter had long but fallen asleep, off to dream into a world all of her own, filled with the creatures she wished for, although, with all the commotion, it became increasingly hard for her to keep shut eyes.

“Thank you,” Ryan said to Lorna.

“Thank you for–”

“Being there, for them.” Lorna finished, with a mischievous grin on her face. Ryan felt defeated, and simply smiled back. He could never keep up with Lorna, Ryan thought, but it was fine, that was the norm.

“Ready to blow it all away?” Lorna said.

“What’s being blown?”

“The world,” As Lorna said this, she grabbed the lighter, and pressed it towards the ignition. They both stepped back, and waited. Once the rocket had gone off, a large buzzing sound resided within the river side, alerting everyone present as they turned their heads up and watched the explosion of colors dot the sky.  This was also the first time that Ryan had gone to see fireworks with friends. Unknowingly, this was also the first time that Ryan had  gone to see fireworks with his family. This was also the first time that Ryan smiled so brightly and so vibrantly that it almost matched Lorna’s playful flow.

“Let the world be blown,” Ryan remarked.

“And let our troubles flow! Flow…” Lorna added.

“By the way. Nice prank. You really had us going.” Ryan looked over to Lorna, who stared back in utter confusion.

“Don’t try to play dumb, I know it was you. The cloth hanger ghost, the chalkboard message, even the wigged woman.” Ryan gave nicknames to each situation, which was unexpectedly the first time Ryan had given nicknames. Lorna looked away as the colors from the rocket dissipated, and hid a smile from Ryan.

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“You know exactly what I mean.” Lorna giggled to herself, and looked back up at Ryan, and playfully stuck her tongue out. A cold gust of wind blew across the river side as she did that, which fluttered her hair in the breeze. Lorna closed one eye as the wind passed, and gave a gentle smile to Ryan, who brought his arm up to block the wind.

“I want these days, to last forever. Forever.”

“Yeah. Me too.” However, Lorna knew that it would never be this way. Her family, and her home, and her place in this norm would be broken. It was flawed, and it was her own creation. Lorna had to take responsibility for it, and she was ready. Lorna didn’t think she would ever be ready to let everything go, but after meeting Ryan, and after seeing his problems, and how he changed, Lorna figured that it was time for her to realize as well, that fate doesn’t wait for anyone. Lorna had a past, she had things she wanted to do, and things she repents, but the present, and the future hadn’t waited for her. The present was her doing, and the future, would be her end result. Lorna just had to play it right, like Ryan, and find her own place, where she didn’t have to worry about past strings. Lorna looked up to Ryan because of this. Lorna saw a swamp within Ryan’s eyes the first time she met him. But that swamp, has turned into a beautiful glistening river, Lorna concluded. Amanda was closing in, and Lorna, had to be ready. She had to persevere, she had  to create her own norm, she had to find the things she truly held close, and protect them. Like Ryan, Lorna had to call out towards the things she wanted, and the place she wanted to be. Like Ryan, Lorna had to be strong, and face adversity with open arms. Until she does, Lorna will always be stuck within her own fictitious stupor.

Chapter 18

“Where’s the flashlight?” Ryan asked, unable to comfortably make his way through the dark veil of the forest.

“Flashlight? When did I ever have a flashlight?” Lorna answered with great pride. Lorna raced ahead of Ryan and made a great motion to wave her arms in front of Ryan. Ryan wasn’t amused by the notion, as his eyes had slowly begun adjusting to the darkness of the forest, and could clearly see Lorna mocking him.

“What happened to the flashlight you had the other day?” Ryan asked.

“You mean when Spear brought you guys ghost hunting?”

“Yeah.”

“Lost it,” Lorna said with her playful demeanor, which made the statement even more infuriating for Ryan.

“Lost it?” Ryan was unsure of how Lorna could lose the flashlight that she could have grabbed from Spear when they were done with the fireworks, Ryan thought. The idea of Lorna possibly misplacing it flashed across Ryan’s head, although he would give her no excuse, as Lorna should have known every room in the building. And placing a flashlight in an empty classroom or kitchen didn’t make much sense to Ryan. To Ryan, there were only so many places a misplaced flashlight could be placed in.

“Lost it. Gone, unused, lonely. Lonely.” The description of the flashlight made it seem like a sad case of forgotten children, Ryan thought. However, that thought was no more than a fleeting breeze, and didn’t give much compromise as Lorna had stated it with a joyful jump in her voice.

“Remind me why I agreed to go with you,” Ryan asked, his patience more than running out.

“You agreed–” Lorna paused before continuing, and circled around a tree. Ryan looked at her with confusion, and noticed that Lorna was hiding behind the tree, seeming to expect something. Ryan walked over, not knowing what she was planning, and once he was a few steps away from Lorna, Lorna jumped out of the tree and landed herself inches away from Ryan’s face.

“Because you wanted to hang out with me,” Lorna said boastfully.

“Right. So please tell me why I want to hang out with you,” Ryan didn’t let Lorna play him into her pace, although, he knew that she would eventually find a crack in his armor anyway.

“You–” Lorna raced around another tree, setting up the same play, and Ryan had no choice but to follow along. Ryan walked over to the tree which only barely hid away Lorna’s bright golden hair, and stepped up. Once he was at the right distance, Lorna jumped out at him again. “Know that hanging out with a beautiful young woman such as myself will let you–” Lorna gave another pause, and then ran towards another tree. Ryan wasn’t sure where Lorna was going with her playful banter, but it did make the rather bland trek through the night trodden forest more interesting.

“Have the time of your life,” Lorna continued as she spun around another tree.  Ryan gave her a questioning look, and ran through the implications of “having the time of his life”. That term was not common in his old norm, nor was it really common in his current norm. It was a line that meant many things, and at the same time, meant nothing. What made the statement even more perplexing to Ryan, was how a simple walk through a nighttime forest could equate to a life worth of elation. That thought, was something Ryan was sure to bring up with Walker at another time.

“Not biting?” Lorna said with a slightly disappointed face. She frowned playfully at Ryan, but Ryan continued to stare at her with indifferent expectations. The whole situation that Ryan had found himself in had lost itself within the conclaves of Ryan’s mind. Once upon a time Ryan may have considered the reasoning behind Lorna’s invitation, and may have weighed why he would like to join her on a nightly venture. That time has indeed long been lost, Ryan thought.

“Fine. No fun. No fun.” Lorna pouted at Ryan and raced ahead. She skipped branches, jumped large stones and circled around tree trunks. The natural silence of the forest had intermingled with the insistent laughter of Lorna’s antics, and Ryan couldn’t help but feel conscious about the whole situation.

“I just needed some fresh air, you know?” Lorna answered as she slowed her pace and looked towards the star filled sky. She placed her arms behind her as she took small steps. Her golden hair bounced with each step, and Ryan could almost feel his own breathing slow by watching her.

“Right.”

“And you needed to cool your head as well.”

“Did I?”

“Now you do!” Lorna turned around and leaned forward towards Ryan. Ryan’s eyes had since adjusted, and he could clearly see her playfully devilish smile.

“So is your head clear now?”

“Nope!” Lorna had no hesitation in her answer, and spoke proudly of the fact.  Ryan had no choice but to simply adhere to Lorna’s flow. After all, Ryan did agree to go out with Lorna, although, Ryan’s train of thought was more on the lines of a late night shopping trip then a late night stroll. Ryan knew that Lorna went out to buy things at night, it was the only time when she could leave the children unattended, she said. Ryan didn’t quite understand the norm of a night life. Ryan had always thought that the nighttime was meant for sleeping. Ryan had never really experienced such a vibrant thrill, and he was lucky that his uncle had allowed him to stay up so late. Ryan found it even stranger that he didn’t really question his whereabouts or who he was hanging out with.  Those kinds of facts seemed urgent to Ryan, almost a necessity. Although, Ryan wouldn’t know.

“Say, Ray–” Lorna paused, and waited so that she knew she had Ryan’s attention.

“Do you know who I am?” Ryan stopped, and considered his answer. The question came off as more than strange. It was elusive, and it was endearing to Ryan. Ryan wasn’t sure whether Lorna was playing him or not, and he couldn’t ask her to repeat the question. Ryan just simply had to answer it, and there was only one answer he could give.

“No. I don’t,” Ryan chose to play his cards through a tune even stranger than the one Lorna had played. In all honesty, Lorna was still a mystery, she may have opened up a few times, and may have talked about herself, but she was still a stranger, Ryan thought.  The entity known as Lorna, who had created and broken into Ryan’s new norm was still someone Ryan felt far from. Lorna was a figure of hope for Ryan. Lorna to Ryan was someone who he could never replace, and because of Lorna, Ryan has learned  many things, and has been through many experiences. To Ryan, Lorna is irreplaceable, and it’s because of this, that Ryan doesn’t know exactly who Lorna is.

“Good answer. Good answer,” Lorna said, looking wistfully up into the star filled sky. Her breathing had slowed, and Ryan could tell that her tone was dropping, without needing to see, he also knew that her eyes drooped down, and that the glow of it slowly faded.

“I don’t know myself, either.”

“You don’t know who you are?”

“No. I don’t know. The only thing I do know, is that my name is Lorna. And that this person named Lorna, is in the present, with nine wonderful children.” Ryan smiled, even more so to the fact that Lorna had lumped him into the category known as “children”.

“I don’t know, and you don’t know. So, what’s the real answer to your question?” Ryan asked.

“The person named Lorna, is a person filled with grief, joy, anger, and pride.”

“And her hobbies?”

“The person named Lorna used to take part in puppetry, but now, she likes watching over children, she’s a babysitter.” Ryan couldn’t help but chuckle at her sentiment.

“And what does this person look like?”

“The person named Lorna, has flowing bright hair, colored like a kid’s sun, and her cheeks and lips are bright red, just like a kid’s blood.” Ryan wasn’t so surprised at her choice of word when describing the color of red.  Although, Ryan felt like there was a piece missing in her statement, but couldn’t figure out what it was.

“And where is she now?”

“The person named Lorna, is stuck within a world of everything. She has friends, she has family, and she has happiness. The person named Lorna is in a world all too good for her.”

“And what is this person doing?”

“The person named Lorna, is doing her best to clean up cut strings and chipped wood. ”

“And how is this person doing this?”

“The person named Lorna, is doing this by creating a space where she can cultivate all of her worries, and cultivate all of her regrets. For this person named Lorna, is doing everything she can to make a future, for the people she cares about, and for herself.”

“And is this person, happy?” Lorna paused. Her tone had slowed Ryan’s pace to a mellow tune, and Ryan was lost drowning in the normalcy of Lorna’s speech and mannerism. Lorna was alluring and captivating, no matter how playful, or how serious she was. Lorna would always be a figure of beauty, Ryan thought.

“The person named Lorna–” Before finishing, Lorna had made a verbal identification of surprise; Lorna gasped, and drew in Ryan’s attention. With two wide arms out and a big smile, she ran out towards a clearing in the forest, and dropped onto the grass without a second thought. Ryan wasn’t sure how far they walked, or where exactly they were, but once he saw Lorna dive back first into the grass, he couldn’t help but feel like he was exactly where he wanted to be.  Lorna stretched her hands out in the grass, and breathed in and out the cold night air. Ryan sat down beside her, and lifted his head up into the night sky.

“Is extremely happy. The person named Lorna, couldn’t have been happier in her life. Despite everything, the person named Lorna is so happy that she could die.” Ryan couldn’t tell in the lowlight, but Lorna felt like crying, her eyes watered, and her pulse fluctuated.  However, Lorna was smiling, she was smiling at the bitterness of everything around her.

“The person named Lorna, is really happy,” Lorna repeated.

“The person named Lorna, couldn’t have been any happier,” Lorna repeated.

“The person named Lorna, knows that this happiness can never last, and can never be the same.”

“But the person named Lorna–” Ryan interrupted Lorna’s train of thought. Before finishing his sentence, Ryan let his body fall onto the grass, and stretched his arms out, his hand nearly touching Lorna’s. Ryan took a deep breath in and let it all out in one motion. The stars were bright, and Ryan couldn’t help but lift his hand and trace the shining bulbs that lined the darkened sea. He counted as he went along, connecting dots with lines, and created a game with string. Ryan didn’t know the constellations, but he did know what a star was. That fact made him slightly sad. It made the stars lose their sense of mysticism, but Ryan had long been away from that kind of norm, and didn’t mind either way.

“Will always be the person that has brought smiles and hope to so many. The person named Lorna, will always be the same at the end of the day, because no matter what, the person named Lorna, is Lorna.” Lorna smiled, speechless, and simply adhered to Ryan’s statement.

“So why did you ask this question, Lorna?”

“Why indeed. Why indeed.” Ryan could hear a tint of wistful cohesion in Lorna’s voice. Lorna was lost in as much thought as Ryan, but it was strange, to him. It was strange that Lorna would ask such a question. It was utterly strange, and at the same time, Ryan couldn’t help but feel it was absolutely fine.

“Maybe, it’s because I needed to find myself.”

“In that–”

“Or maybe, I just wanted confirmation.”

“Did you get confirmation?” Ryan asked meekly.

“I did. I really did. Thank–”

“Nope. No thanks.” Lorna turned her heard towards Ryan’s playful remark, clearly mimicking her own actions. Lorna couldn’t help but have a big smile on her face, and laugh, and Ryan couldn’t help but laugh as well. They both laughed, and laughed, and laughed under the starry sky. It was almost as if the whole world had stopped for them. They were kids out in the dust, swept up by a storm.

“You really are a ray.” Ryan wasn’t sure what Lorna had meant by her words.

“You’re my ray, a ray of hope.” The wind blew across the fields as Lorna finished her sentence, leaving Ryan unable to hear her description.  Lorna had never really spoken to anyone about her naming sense, nor did she ever plan to. She was glad that the wind had blown to cover her voice, and to cover her record. Lorna was never one to open up, but she could try, and unexpectedly, she did. She did so, not knowing, and she didn’t mind at all. Ray, was Ryan, who was a ray of hope. Ray was a ray of hope, not only to Lorna, but to the people around him. However, all rays must fade, whenever there is light, there is dark. Ryan, Lorna, Sunflower, Runner, Winter, Hailstone, Spear, Walker, Carrier, Spark. Where there is light, there is dark. And that dark, will become a shadow so large, that not even the brightest of light can escape. In that case, the only thing left to do is conform, and trace darkness with darkness.

Chapter 19

“Underground orphanage?” The young girl asked.

“Are there really any?”

“Of course. It’s a state problem. If you know anything, then please tell me.” The girl gave Amanda a strange look, indicating her ignorance about the subject at hand. Amanda traced her eyes and waited for a response, “Sorry.” The girl gave off a weak smile and scuttled away, seeming to be nervous about the situation. Amanda sighed and stared at her notepad. Scrawls and scratches were littered on it, which made the man beside her stare at her in confusion.

“Leads,” Amanda said.

“Right. And your leads….” James stammered near the end of his sentence, and felt small towards his superior. James was only recently assigned to the unit, but he had been given a multitude of assignments and was well worn.

“My leads are all we have, until you get results from your ground work,” Amanda closed the notepad and placed two fingers on the bridge of her nose to concentrate. Amanda knew for certain that an underground orphanage was located in the town. She had interrogated most of the well-known stores and had gathered enough information to know that it wasn’t an internal issue, but that the town was simply a guise for a larger external issue.

“I’ve traced the perimeter of the town, and I’ve even followed the riverbed,” James said.

“Right. And you’ve turned up nothing?”

“No stones unturned. I can ensure you that no stone would surprise me now,” Amanda was less than amused at James’ analogy, but knew that he had merit in his words. The town was dried of clues, and there was only one place left for Amanda to look. However, that area was far from Amanda’s jurisdiction, and once she stepped out, she knew she had no way to rule her authority. Although the government may have wanted to crack down on the problem as soon as possible, she knew that anything she said outside of the town wasn’t as valid anymore. Amanda needed more power, but without any results, she would never obtain that.  Nevertheless, Amanda had to risk everything if she wanted to move with the case, and that was something she was willingly to risk. To Amanda, simply solving the case, and simply getting the right justice meted out was enough of a compromise.

“What about that guy? And the kid? The one with the bandages,” James meekly said. Amanda knew that if she wanted to track Ryan, she had to keep taps on every section of the town. Amanda simply did not have that kind of a network, and even if she did, it would raise too much attention towards the case. If Amanda’s guess that Ryan did know about the orphanage was true, than knowing that he was being tracked by her in that kind of fashion would not bode well with her.

“The problem is timing. He’s never around when I am. Neither is he around you, apparently,” Amanda gave off a sharp jab towards James, although James took it far more than she intended and shrank in his spot. Amanda sighed and brought out her notepad again.

“Not enough clues,” Amanda whispered to herself. Amanda wasn’t sure how Ryan could have slipped past James, who was on ground duty during the duration of the case. However, it was only recently that she learned of a few other profiles of kids that had seemingly appeared and disappeared from the town. Anything was possible, Amanda thought. Kids appearing, and kids disappearing, it all seemed like a fantasy to Amanda. The entire case was all a mist in her head, and the only thing she wanted was a night filled with sleep.

“Not enough clues,” Amanda repeated.

“Maybe, we’re just not tackling it in the right direction,“ James meekly added.

“Then how should we go about it?” Amanda asked blandly.

“We’re converging around the idea of networking and social stability.” James’s voice had gone deeper, and his posture and eyes had focused. Amanda had figured out that James became like this only after getting an idea, or when he’s passionate about a topic. Amanda knew that James was usually shy and bumbling, but when it came down to it, there was no one scarier than James.

“We want too much from too many, and we don’t have enough time.” Amanda didn’t interrupt James, for she knew that if she did, he would lose his flow in an instant.

“What we need to do is expand our repertoire. You know as much as I do what place we haven’t checked yet.”

“And you plan to do this despite our orders?”

“Do you see any other way?” Amanda knew that James was right, and that the only thing left for them to do is venture outside their boundary. Amanda had to take the chance, and even if she hadn’t gotten James’s output on the situation, is what she would have opted for anyway. It was the only obvious answer, however, that answer had no leads, and was left in the air. Amanda played by the rules, and she knew by procedure. Ground work was something she didn’t specialize in. Amanda was a speaker, and a thinker. Getting perimeter and digging graves was what she left for her partners to do. And there was no one better suited for the job than James, Amanda concluded.

“The first thing we need to do is stakeout the outskirts, and make sure we know all the movements that happen at the base of the forest.”

“Right.”

“Once we get a good understanding of whose entering and whose leaving, we can then dig deeper.”

“Right.”

“If anything, we can even catch one of the kids and follow them back to the orphanage–”

“James!” Amanda suddenly called out to stop James. Amanda knew well what her next steps were, and what she needed to do to finish the case. Amanda didn’t need James to tell it to her, but it was a good reassurance that James had known as well. The only problem that James failed to see, was that there were certain sanctions that fell under their operations. Someone like Amanda gravely worried about these sanctions, and at the same time, had to juggle that worry with her desire to solve the case. Amanda’s own personal take on the subject was that these orphanages posed too much of a potential threat, and that leaving them be did not send a great example. Amanda thought back to Lorna, and how she was able to integrate herself and still manage well long after she had left without the real need for such an institution. Although, Amanda did understand that Lorna was a special case, and that treating her as a norm was wrong in of itself. Amanda missed Lorna, and missed working with her. Amanda was happy that she was fine and had even agreed to help her with some of her investigative work, and that much was enough for Amanda. The kind of relationship Amanda had with Lorna was something she couldn’t easily break from. At least, that’s what Amanda had came to believe.

“Look. I agree. The only place left for us is to go is the forest. But I want you to know that whatever may happen afterwards is beyond my control.” Amanda paused. She thought back to Lorna, and how much trouble she used to get in when they had went beyond their boundaries and stepped into an area where they weren’t supposed to be. Amanda wanted to smile at the notion, but knew that the time wasn’t right, and that she had more pressing matters.

“We have orders. And those orders are final. My superiors will never let us hear the end of it if they figure out we broke those orders. Do you know what that entails?” James had shrunk in his place again. His bravado had broken, and his usual timid nature had surfaced. Unlike Amanda, James had just started his career. Amanda couldn’t stand to see a subordinate be punished alongside her own selfish desires, and wasn’t ready to accept such a responsibility. What made the situation worse for James was that Amanda naturally spoke in an authoritarian manner, and made it seem like a rash scolding than rational thinking.

“I know you just started your job. And I know you love your job. I did, and I still do–” Amanda paused, and sighed. She reached over towards her back pocket and took out a case of cigarettes. Amanda hadn’t smoked since her last case, and that one was frustrating, she thought. Amanda didn’t like to smoke, but it did calm her nerves, and it did get her mind off of things. Amanda pushed out a single cigarette from the pack, and simply looked at it before continuing.

“But know that disobeying, and that breaking rules isn’t the best way to get superiors to like you. I can’t always be there to bail you out in a tough situation, or to bend the rules. I’ve done things in my past–” Amanda paused, and took out the cigarette. She realized she didn’t have a lighter, but began circling the cigarette in her hands anyway.

“That I can’t really say I’m proud of. And despite where I am, my superiors want any chance they can get to nail me. It’s my own retribution, and I have to work knowing that.”

“Does it have to do with Lorna?” Amanda had told James about Lorna, and about her old division when he moved in. It was required of Amanda to disclose such information, but, Amanda personally wanted to tell him as well. It was something like a chip on her shoulder that she needed to get off. And even then, it still didn’t make her feel any better.

“I told you about the old division I was in, and the people in it, but I never did tell you about the things we did, and about the experiences we shared.”

“That much is your own, I would never dare to pry if you don’t want to.” James spoke with a certain familiarity with Amanda now. Although they were still on the job, James seemed comfortable speaking about things such as the past, and about Amanda’s affairs. For some reason, it made James warm and put him at ease.

“You’ve got your head in the right place, James. I can tell you that. And I would hate to see that head served to the court officials.”

“So we’re really aborting the plan? If we do, we’ve got no choice but to leave the case opened.” What Amanda wanted the least was to leave a case opened. That would be far worse than getting yelled at by a bunch of old men in suits, Amanda thought.

“No. We’re going through with it.”

“Even if we have to break rules?”

“Even if I have to break rules.” Amanda corrected.

“What do you mean?”

“What I mean is that I should be the only one to go through with it.”

“So you–”

“I’m not taking you off of the case. You’re just not going to be held responsible for anything that happens in that forest.”

“But–”

“I will be giving you the orders. I’ll be the one who had suggested everything, and I’ll be the one taking the blame.”

“Amanda…” James’s head sunk down, and Amanda knew that he was conflicted by her decision, so was Amanda. Amanda had decided long ago that she was done. She had served a good service, and she had done what she thought needed to be done.  Amanda was a person who lived by her morals, acted upon her morals, and died with her morals. Amanda did well, and she’ll always know that. Despite what her superiors may say, Amanda will know that she did good. But she’s tired. Amanda was tired, and she was done. Much like her close colleagues, and her close friends who had served alongside her, Amanda was worn out. Her job meant losing people every day. She was prepared for that, but once it happened, it hit her more than she thought. Amanda can’t count how many people she’s already lost, and how many bonds she’s broken, but that feeling eats away at her. No matter how many times Amanda experiences it, it still feels brand new with each reiteration. Amanda is done with that. Maybe she’ll go and live with Lorna, she thought. Lorna was like a sister to Amanda.

“I’ll make sure that I’m the only one to blame. And besides, what more can they do to me? They’ve already got my head on their hit list. It’s fine. ”

“Are you sure?”

“James. You still have a future. My time has run and gone. I’m growing old, James. I need a break. From everything. After this case, I’ll take that break. So let’s go all out, and let’s solve this thing. Okay?” James couldn’t look at Amanda in the eyes, and simply nodded. In the short time that James had been Amanda’s partner, James learned many things. In the short time that James had known Amanda, James had grown fond of her. She was a good superior, James thought, a good person. Seeing her take the fall now, made James devastated.

“Okay.”

“In that case. I’ll give you your first orders,” Amanda said with a bitter smile.

“Let’s solve this case. And let’s go home, okay?”

“Roger!” Amanda wanted to find Lorna, and Amanda wanted to be with Lorna again. Lorna was like a sister to Amanda. Perhaps, she still is. A sister. Although, only Lorna would never realize that.

Chapter 20

“And you have nowhere else to go?” Ryan asked as he dragged the child through the empty streets.

“No.” The child shook his head as he answered. He had short black hair, but his height and mannerism implied that he was much older than the children of the building. Although, Ryan wasn’t confident in his inherent ability to distinguish the age of children. Ryan had been making his way to the building when he spotted a particularly odd  child wandering about. His eyes had a strange glow to them, almost as if he had been recently woken up, Ryan thought. It felt fresh, and it gave Ryan an unexplainable aftertaste. What made it worse, was that the child’s clothes looked relatively new, like he had just put them on. His hair was well kept, and his hands looked smooth as well. There was a sense of fidelity to him, Ryan thought.

“How long have you been this way?” Ryan knew that there were only a few questions he could ask to get what he wanted. What Ryan wanted wasn’t sympathy, or even empathy, but forewarning. Ryan needed a way to ensure that he wouldn’t be stepping on landmines. Lorna would have his head if he did; she would shovel it out of his grave. Although, even if Ryan didn’t step on any landmines, Lorna would still have his head on a plate, Ryan concluded. There was no escaping her grasp.

“Been this way?” The boy repeated, seeming to be confused about the severity of the situation.

“How long have you had no place to go?” The boy looked at Ryan with confusion. Ryan knew that he was getting his question across, but what he didn’t know, was that the boy was in essence an invader.

“Then, where do you want to go?” Ryan had to take another approach to the issue. Ryan found that shooting at a target with a bulletproof vest didn’t prove to be  effective.  Ryan looked at the boy with an analyzing glare. If anything, Ryan would have to leave the boy to his own antics, although that thought did not bode well with Ryan.

“Do you know where you are?”

“Yes.” The boy nodded as he answered. From here on, Ryan would begin noticing discrepancies. The boy spoke when he was confident, and when he wasn’t, he simply moved his head.

“Do you want to go anywhere?” The boy shook his head.

“Do you have money?”

“No.” The boy shook his head as he answered.

“Do you have friends?”

“Yes.” The boy nodded his head as he answered, but spoke in a more assertive manner. It was almost as if he was offended, or annoyed of the prying, Ryan thought. However,  Ryan couldn’t back off, and despite how the boy may come to dislike Ryan, he still had a strange sense of duty towards the child.

“Do you want to play with your friends?” The boy shook his head.

“Do you need to go home?” The boy shook his head. His eyes began darting around the streets, almost as if he was looking for something, Ryan thought. Ryan was sure that the child was just getting nervous, and that he was trying to find something to ease his mind. After all, Ryan would be nervous if someone he didn’t know began interrogating him the same way.

“Are you happy?” The boy stopped walking. He looked up towards Ryan, and stopped at his eyes. The boy’s eyes didn’t falter, and simply locked onto Ryan’s. Ryan thought the notion was quite strange, but then noticed that the boy began biting his lips, and brought his arms behind him.  Ryan couldn’t read much into the boy, but knew that this meant one of two things. He was either fabricating a story, or had suddenly been possessed by a ghost. The former seemed likely, but Ryan had to hold his word and give a third suggestion; Lorna was behind him. Thankfully for Ryan, that wasn’t the case.

“I don’t know,” the boy gave a vague answer. Ryan noted this and attributed it to a third set of answers that the boy now seemed to give; lies.

“Do you want happiness?” The boy stopped again, but this time scrunched his hands into  fists. His hands then turned red and he looked towards the ground.

“I don’t know,” the boy said meekly. Ryan figured out a fourth set of answers that should be named for the boy. Ryan called this set, thought.

“Do you know what happiness is?”

“Yes.” The boy nodded as he answered.

“Do you want a place to rest?” The boy looked up towards Ryan’s eyes and paused. Ryan knew what this notion meant, and knew it was a clever guise. The boy began biting his lips, and he brought his arms behind him.

“Not sure.” Ryan knew even less about the boy now but he could form a decent opinion. The boy had nowhere to go, and he might want to go somewhere. The boy had friends, although, it was up in the air whether they were good friends. The boy needed to go back to his home, wherever that may be, but because of his circumstances, was forced to wander about on the streets. The boy doesn’t know if he’s happy or not, but he probably does, and he’s probably not very fond of it. He’s probably too scared to really think about being happy. The boy probably wants a place to rest for the night, or at least some place away from the cold. There was a single rule that Lorna had tried her best to instill in Ryan, and that was to stay away from strangers, especially the ‘bad guys’. Ryan wasn’t quite sure why the rule should have applied to Ryan when even Lorna had said that Ryan was merely a temporary member of the building. There was precautions to be made, which Ryan understood, but he was merely a guest. This norm was his second home, and his situation at home, his home with his uncle, had recently been feeling more warm to Ryan. It was strange, but, for the first time, Ryan could really come to appreciate coming back and making his small exchanges with his uncle. Ryan had family, as much as he had family with Lorna and the children, and this made Ryan uneasy. It felt sinful, Ryan thought, it just wasn’t right.

“Hey lover boy!” Ryan didn’t need to turn to know who’s playful voice had just crawled up behind him. This is quite possibly the worst time for Lorna to show up, Ryan thought.

“Who’s the punk?” Ryan wasn’t sure whether to be worried that the boy might be offended by the use of the term punk, or whether he should tell Lorna not to call any kids she didn’t know as punks.

“I found him,” Ryan whispered to Lorna, which prompted Lorna to give him a questioning look.

“Why so quiet?” Lorna said out loud, with more volume than usual. Ryan wasn’t quite sure why he felt the need to lower his voice either, but felt that it was the right measure.

“Is he lost?” Ryan could tell why Lorna was asking these kinds of questions, and made sure to say his words carefully.

“I found him wandering about when I was making my way. I don’t think he’s lost.” Ryan made sure to emphasize the last bit of his sentence.  That was the clue that Ryan really needed Lorna to understand, however, Lorna had understood the situation from the moment she saw them. What Lorna was debating, was whether to take the child in or not. Lorna didn’t need to know much about the child to get a grasp of his situation. The vibe that he was giving off gave Lorna red flags, and although she could identify him as an invader, she still needed solid evidence. She wasn’t completely against the idea of bringing in more children, but she knew that the decision did not lie solely on her. She knew that her time, and that her children’s time would soon come to an abrupt end, and she had to prepare for that. Lorna had to be ready for when her norm would be broken, and for her future to be centralized towards her new norm. Lorna wanted to spend the rest of her time with her children, creating memories and experiences for both of them. Lorna had realized that she couldn’t keep these feelings to herself anymore, and that her world would be broken. These feelings aren’t new to Lorna, but these feelings are causing conflict within her. She cannot openly accept any more children, especially not the one that Ryan had stumbled upon.

“Lost or not, we better take him to the right people. Right? Right.” Although Lorna spoke in her usual playful demeanor, she leaned in towards Ryan, and gave him a sharp stare. It was the kind of stare that Lorna gave Ryan after he took the last cookie. It was the kind of stare that Lorna gave Ryan after  he lost a bet to Runner and had to grab Hailstone bread. It was the kind of stare that Lorna gave Ryan after she wanted him to bail her out of one of Spear’s long rants about aliens and cows. Ryan quickly came to realize that he did not know what the stare meant after all.

“What’s your name?” Lorna leaned over towards the boy. The boy looked back at Lorna, and locked onto her eyes. The boy then bit his lips, and brought his arms behind his back.

“Kyle,” the boy answered. Ryan wasn’t sure if Kyle had really lied about his name being Kyle. It felt strange to Ryan, as the name did seem awfully normally. Perhaps it was the name of the friend that he didn’t really know if he wanted to play with, Ryan thought.

“Do you know where your parents are, Kyle?”

“Yes.” Kyle nodded as he answered.

“Do you love your parents?” Kyle looked down, and formed his hands into fists. His hands became red, and as he did this, Lorna began realizing the same things Ryan did.

“I’m not sure,” Kyle answered.

“Are you not sure about loving your parents? Or are you not sure if you don’t love your parents?”  Ryan thought that both questions had meant the same thing. If he loved his parents, then he loved them. If he wasn’t sure about loving his parents, then he would not love them. Instead of splitting the question, Ryan figured that Lorna should have repeated her first question.

“I don’t know,” Kyle answered, with his head still turned towards the ground.

“Which one?”

“The second one.”

“Do you want to get away from your parents?”

“Yes.” Kyle looked back up and nodded as he answered.

“Do you want parents?” Kyle looked back down, but didn’t answer at all. He simply stood there, with his head held low and his hands gripping themselves into a fist. Lorna leaned back, and smiled. Ryan didn’t understand the sentiment, but figured that Lorna had made her decision. What Lorna found in Kyle, was that Kyle was very much a sapling. Lorna didn’t have the responsibility now to take care of a tree, but she did understand his statements to an extent, and she had already figured out her own story for Kyle.

“Do you need a place to stay?”

“I don’t know,” Kyle said as he bit his lips. Although, he was still looking down at the ground, and he was still making fists from his hands.

“Why don’t you stay with us for the night?” Kyle looked up toward Lorna with wide eyes. Ryan was surprised that Lorna let Kyle in so quickly. Ryan thought that she would say no, after all, there was a certain triplet of qualifications that Lorna had set herself for. Ryan could barely stand facts for two of them. Either way, Ryan respected Lorna’s decision, and wouldn’t mind a new face in the family. His norm stood strong, and proved to be ever growing. What Ryan didn’t know, was that his norm was inherently linked to Lorna’s, and Lorna’s norm was fragile.  The changes that happen, and the feelings that are created from here on out would only be short lived, Lorna thought. She wanted to tell Ryan. She really did want to tell Ryan about Amanda, and about who she was, and about how everything isn’t what it seemed, and how her bubble and her world was going to break. However, now was not the time. And until Lorna figured something out, she wasn’t going to say anything. This was her issue, and her issue alone. Although, this kind of thinking is why Lorna failed to realize the slow poison that was eating away at her.

“Okay,” Kyle finally said. Lorna grabbed Kyle’s hands and began dragging him along towards the building. Lorna planned to give Kyle to Amanda tomorrow, and would arrange for the meeting after she dropped off Kyle. It was mean, Lorna thought. It was the meanest thing that she could ever think of doing, but Lorna had to do it. This was her second mistake.

Chapter 21

“Sleep well?” Ryan asked as he walked into Kyle’s room just as he had gotten up. Kyle looked up at Ryan with tired eyes, and as he had finally adjusted to the tide of the morning, he was suddenly taken aback.

“Kyle?” Ryan asked, worried about the actions Kyle had just done.

“Where am I?”

“Lorna’s orphanage. She brought you here yesterday, remember?” Kyle looked dumbfounded at Ryan, but as he began jogging his memory, he looked down. Kyle remembered his encounter with Ryan, and with Lorna. Kyle remembered why he was even on the streets, and how he ended up far from his real home. Kyle didn’t want to remember.

“Want something to eat?” Kyle stopped and waited. He didn’t know whether it was morning or night, as the room he was in was covered in blinds. What Kyle wanted was a sign.

“What time is it?” Kyle asked.

“If I’m here, sometime in the afternoon.” Kyle looked around the room but couldn’t see a clock. In fact, the room looked like someone else’s, Kyle thought, there was furniture, a cabinet, even a scrawled painting that was crocked on the wall. Ryan noticed Kyle’s wandering eyes, and added,  “This is a spare room. One of many, actually. The other children all have their own rooms, so don’t worry about it.” Kyle’s eyes rested upon the bed that he laid in. He knew that he had someplace to be, and that someone was looking for him. He didn’t want to worry them, but Kyle knew that the thrill of the run was from knowing imminent danger, although, that was only a small subconscious thought that had been planted in his head.  In reality Kyle was scared, but, he was also sad. However, seeing Lorna, and seeing where he was, his fear slowly began losing itself. What drained over Kyle now, was worry. And his stomach.

“Sure you don’t want anything to eat?” Ryan said as he listened to Kyle’s stomach grumble in the dark of the room.

“I don’t know.” Kyle said as he looked into Ryan’s eyes and began biting his lips. Kyle’s stomach growled in the darkness once again, this time, much louder. Ryan gave him a staunch smile, and wondered about Kyle’s gesture to bite his lips.

“Yes.” Kyle corrected himself as he nodded his head.

“Then let’s head down.” Ryan walked over to the door way, and waited for Kyle. Kyle got up slowly, scuffling away the bed sheets that covered him. Kyle began swaying back and forth once his feet had touched the wooden floor. It took him a few moments to regain a sense of balance, and once he did, he began following Ryan. Judging from the windows and the scenery below, Kyle figured that he wasn’t on the ground floor.

“It’s the spy!” Spear suddenly appeared behind Kyle and Ryan, giving Kyle a big surprise, and leaving Ryan to sigh at his statement.

“Stop calling Kyle a spy. You know he’s not a spy.”

“That’s what he wants you to think!”

“And he doesn’t want you to think that?”

“No. He does, he really does, but I can see through his cloak!” Spear made a big gesture with his arms, although Ryan didn’t really understand what it meant.

“So why would Kyle be a spy?”

“To spy on us! He’s part of the blue aliens!”

“The blue aliens?”

“He wants to gather our information and then tell it to the ‘bad guys’!”

“The bad guys are aliens?”

“They could be.”

“And what if Kyle isn’t a spy?”

“No. He is a spy. There’s no mistaking it. You can’t see it, because you don’t have the right eyes!”

“What kind of eyes do I need?” Spear stopped, and thought. Once Spear had the right words in his head, he pointed at Ryan’s eyes and said with great pride, “Spy eyes!”

“So you have spy eyes?”

“I don’t. But I can tell when someone has them. Only spies can detect other spies after all!” Spear gave out a big smile acting as if he had just made a revelation.

“How can you tell he has spy eyes?”

“Because he’s a spy!” Ryan sighed and knew that if he continued to argue with Spear, he would only be leading himself into a tiring circle. Ryan decided to ignore Spear and move on with getting to the kitchen, “Well, I’ll keep a good eye on Kyle, so don’t worry about any spy activities.”

“Alright, you better not let him tell the ‘bad guys’!” As Ryan and Kyle descended the stairs, Ryan remembered that Kyle hadn’t been introduced to any of the kids. He only knew of Ryan as Ray, and Lorna as Lorna.

“That was Spear by the way. He’s a strange one, but he can be awfully acute about things.” Kyle didn’t respond, nor did he even nod his head. His eyes seemed to be planted on the ground, but Ryan knew that his stomach must have been killing him as his hands gripped it. Ryan wondered when Kyle had his last meal, but refrained from asking. Right now, what Kyle needed wasn’t another interrogation, but a place to feel at ease. At least, that’s what Lorna had told Ryan. Ryan still didn’t know much about Kyle, nor was he able to come up with a decent alibi. Ryan would have asked Lorna, if she was still in the building. It appeared that she left early to run an errand, as she wasn’t home when Ryan arrived, he thought.

“Oh, so he’s awake.” Just as the pair suggested, Walker was the one who had appeared behind them this time. His tone was very indifferent about the situation, almost as if he was bored, but Ryan thought it was strange that Walker was the one to find an interest in Kyle. They turned to face him, they were now at the base of the stairs, and Walker’s eyes were strangely fixated on Kyle. However, it wasn’t long for Walker to lose interest and falter back into his own world as his eyes turned towards the windows.

“This is Walker,” Ryan said.

“And this is–”

“Kyle,” Walker said, interrupting Ryan.

“The new guy, Lorna told me,” Walker paused.

“Well, not a new guy. But he’s new here,” Walker added.

“Lorna probably won’t let him stay for long. She’ll be back later.”

“Where did she go?”

“Don’t know.”

“She told me that she was out to buy more bread.” Winter suddenly appeared behind Walker and jumped in.

“Bread for Hailstone?” Ryan jokingly added. Winter shook her head. As she noticed Kyle, she gave him a quiet smile, although Kyle wasn’t paying attention.

“I’m going to watch the flowers now,” Winter said as she left the building. Walker had already begun making his way across as well, leaving Ryan and Kyle to finally make their way to the kitchen. As Ryan opened the door, he was suddenly greeted by Runner, “Hey Ray!” As Runner noticed Kyle, he added, “Oh! Kyle!” Ryan found it strange for them to be using proper names. Ryan was so used to the nicknames that they all had. It was a vital part of the norm that existed, and although Lorna wasn’t quite a nickname, it still stuck into the crowd as one. Before Ryan could say anything, Runner jolted off with a cookie in his mouth, leaving Ryan to give a small chuckle. Ryan didn’t bother saying anything, as Kyle wasn’t really paying attention. However, Kyle was more than attentive, and was simply trying to suppress his stomach from howling.

“Feeling better?” Ryan said as Kyle finished his food.

“Yes.” Kyle nodded as he answered.

“What do you want to do now? I bet Runner and Sunflower are probably playing right now. Walker and Spear might be having an argument somewhere. Carrier and Spark might be doing something exciting, and Winter is taking care of the flowers.” Although Ryan knew that Kyle hadn’t met most of the children he mentioned, he still left enough options for Kyle. The only one he excluded was Hailstone. Ryan didn’t think Kyle’s first impression of the children here should be tied down to Hailstone. And knowing Hailstone, she would probably challenge Kyle to a game, lose, and get mad. Hailstone was good at losing games and getting mad, Ryan thought.

“Or maybe, you want to go back?”

“Go back?” Kyle repeated as he gave Ryan a questioning look.

“Back to town. Back to the streets,” Although, that would heighten the chances of bumping into Lorna, Ryan thought. It wasn’t such a bad thought, but if it did happen, Lorna would probably let Kyle go then and there, Ryan concluded. He had no belongings, after all.

“I don’t know.” Kyle said after a long pause and after looking at the ground.

“Do you know where you want to go?” Ryan thought about his question, and quickly rephrased, “Do you want to go anywhere?”

“I don’t know,” Kyle said, with the same expression as the last.

“Do you want to leave?” Kyle looked up towards Ryan, and began biting his lips.

“I don’t know.”

‘”Oh.” Hailstone suddenly came into the kitchen as they were talking, catching both Kyle and Ryan’s attention. Hailstone didn’t pay much heed and simply walked in and grabbed what she needed; milk.

“You know if he’s good at anything, Ray?” Hailstone asked, confirming Ryan’s suspicions.

“You can’t play him,” Ryan said.

“Unless he wants to,” Ryan added. Hailstone and Ryan both looked at Kyle, but he didn’t harbor a response.

“Boring,” Hailstone said with a long stretch.

“How about you Ray?” Ryan considered it, but didn’t think he had the time to spare to amuse Hailstone, although, it would be a fun time, he concluded.

“A quick game! Come on! I just woke up.” Ryan was suddenly given chills as Hailstone revealed that she had just woken up. Ryan knew that Hailstone was not a force to be taken lightly in her morning state. If Hailstone could speak with such enthusiasm in the morning, then the reality of it was that she was really ticked off, Ryan thought. If Ryan had decided to run from the situation, he may very well cause it to be even worse than it is, Ryan thought.

“Fine. A quick game. What do you want to play?” Hailstone gave off a dangerous smile, and her eyes seemed to gleam a dangerous gleam. Hailstone went over to the kitchen table, got up on the chair, and placed her arm over it.

“Any one of you fools shall be my opponent!” Hailstone declared as she brought her arm up, in position for a timely game of arm wrestling. Hailstone had a certain brashness to her voice, that made Ryan worry if Kyle were to accept her challenge; he didn’t. Ryan grabbed Hailstone’s hand on the table, and as they were in position, Hailstone gave another harrowing command.

“Kyle! Count us off!” Kyle was watching intently at the turn of events, but had no interest in being an arm wrestling attendant. Instead, Kyle spoke his mind.

“Outside…” Kyle said.

“Outside?” Ryan asked.

“Go. Outside.”

“Oh.” Ryan let go of Hailstone’s grip and grabbed Kyle. Ryan rushed outside, and let Hailstone’s anger explode behind him, “Hey! Get back here!” As Ryan and Kyle rushed out of the building, Hailstone was left disappointed. Her fists scrunched up, and she slammed the table. Unfortunately, as Winter walked into the kitchen to refill her water, Hailstone put on a devious smile.

“Where do you want to go, that’s outside?” Ryan asked.

“River.” Kyle simply stated. Kyle remembered something, some that he should have remembered. Kyle remembered that when he was young, much younger than he is now, he would always find comfort in the river. There was a certain person associated with the river that sparked Kyle’s memories. The only reason why it was hard for Kyle, was because of the way he had been raised since then. Kyle wanted to see the river. He had something he had to do there. He just didn’t know what.

“Sure. Let’s go.” Although, Ryan was sure that the moment he would step out of the forest, he would encounter Lorna, and that would be that. Despite that, Ryan could feel longing from Kyle. Kyle’s eyes had narrowed and he had a certain strange determination within him. Ryan wanted to see that, Ryan wanted to see where it would take them. And so he did. Ryan led Kyle back into town, and as they got out, he nervously checked both roads before making his way to the bridge, where the river resided.

“Why do you want to go to the river?” Ryan asked, not really expecting any answer.

“I–” Kyle paused. He gathered his thoughts, and tried his best to remember what made the river so important to him. There was someone there, someone who made his world better. She would bring him away from the conclave of the world. But Kyle couldn’t remember who she was. Perhaps, she wasn’t even family, or friend. Just a stranger. Even then, Kyle still wanted to see the river. He liked the river.

“Like it.” Kyle finished, as he nodded.

“What do you like about it?”

“I don’t know.” Kyle smiled at Ryan. He was telling the truth.

“How’s it going, Ray?” Lorna suddenly appeared behind them as they were making their way to the river. Her voice had a small tinge of annoyance in it, which masked very well behind her playful exterior.  Ryan considered ignoring her, but knew that there was no point in it. There was something about the situation that made him want to press on. Even if Lorna wanted him to leave Kyle as he is, Ryan didn’t want that. He wanted to bring him to the river. Ryan still doesn’t know why.

“Nothing, why?”

“Sure doesn’t seem like nothing. Where is Kyle going?”

“Nowhere.”

“Good. Good. Bring him nowhere. Because, I’m sure you know that he can’t stay.” Lorna was serious, dreadfully serious, Ryan thought. Her voice seemed to trail off, however, she was really intense about the situation.

“Right.”

“So if you’re not bringing him anywhere, mind if I take him?” Lorna had plans, she had already asked Amanda, and Amanda had already known who Kyle was. She was worried.

“Well, can you?” Ryan suddenly grabbed Kyle’s hands and ran off towards the bridge. Ryan ran as fast as he could, dragging Kyle along, but Kyle was keeping up. Kyle understood the situation, to an extent.

“I’m not letting Lorna take you until you see that river, okay?” Kyle didn’t answer.

“Because you want to see that river, right?”

“I do. I want to see the river,” Kyle repeated. That much was enough for Ryan, somehow. Somehow, Ryan didn’t need to know. Somehow, Ryan was okay with the norm. Somehow, Ryan ran, and he ran away from Lorna, who didn’t chase him, but simply watched. Lorna already knew where they would go, Amanda had tipped her off. Lorna also knew why Kyle was so attached with the river. Lorna knew everything, and she simply waited. She simply watched them run. It was fine. Kyle was going to leave either way. Lorna made no mistakes.

Chapter 22

Ryan and Kyle ran, and they ran. They ran with the wind caressing their face, and they ran with their heads held high. Ryan didn’t know why he wanted Kyle’s wish to be granted so fervently. Kyle wanted to see the river, Ryan wanted to see Kyle see the river. It was a norm that he had no relations to. It was a norm that was entirely out of his grasp. But it was a norm that he would want to risk getting to. Perhaps even Ryan had grown an attachment to the river as well.

“Here it is,” Ryan said as they arrived at the river. Despite Ryan’s lack of constitution, and despite the fact that Ryan was left having to almost lie on the grassy hill to catch his breath, he was happy.  Kyle walked ahead of Ryan and down the hill to the base of the river. The bridge connecting both parts of town loomed overhead, but it didn’t seem to bother Kyle. Once Ryan could breathe, he walked down to Kyle and noticed that in the midday sun, the river glistened. There was a sense of certainty as Ryan listened to the mechanical flow of the river, and the direction that the water poured in. It was as if this norm had always existed, and was always unchanging. However, the sparkling surface of the river was something that didn’t always exist, but would always come to this norm whenever it could.

“It’s nice, right?” Ryan asked.

“Yeah.” Kyle nodded as he answered. What Kyle wanted from the river had already been answered.  Kyle remembered why he was attached to the river. It was an important part of him, it was a place he could go to vent out all his problems, and it was a place he could go to feel better. The river made him feel at ease, and despite the dysfunctional systems within his own norm, Kyle could relax now.

“Someone–” Kyle said to himself.

“Someone?” Ryan asked.

“There was someone here, when I came,” Kyle spoke in a wistful manner. It wasn’t that there was someone there when they had arrived, but there was someone there when Kyle had arrived a long time ago. Perhaps not so long ago, but Ryan would never know that. However, Ryan did figure out that Kyle meant the past, and it was the past that was chasing him now, something Ryan has long left in his own norm.

“Someone from before?” Ryan asked, hoping that Kyle understood what he implied; he did.

“Yeah.”

“What were they like?”

“I don’t remember,” Kyle said after a long pause. His eyes were locked onto the river below him, and his voice seemed to trail along with the river in front of them.

“Did you know them?”

“I don’t think so.” Kyle’s hands were forming fists, and his hands began reddening. It was hard for Kyle to remember, but he did want to remember, and he tried his best, Ryan concluded.

“Were they older than you?”

“Yes.” Kyle nodded as he answered. Ryan was trying his best to come to his own conclusion, but thought that Lorna would be a better candidate for such a task. However, Ryan also thought that Lorna must have already came to her own conclusions, and had already known who Kyle was, and why Kyle was doing what he was doing. After all, Ryan has come to learn that not much can escape from Lorna. Spear would acclimate this to being a psychic. Lorna was a good psychic; every other psychic was bad, according to Spear.

“Want to head back to Lorna now?” Kyle didn’t answer, but simply looked at the glistening water. That much was enough of an answer for Ryan, and so he sat down at the grassy hill and watched the flowing water shine ever so brightly down. Time seemed to stop for Ryan as he watched the water flow, his eyes began to narrow, and everything around him seemed to lose color. Ryan was slipping into a stupor, and he tried his best to snap out of it. The world around him deformed, the sound of the river became clear. The smell of the grass around him heightened, the blade of the wind that blew past him felt smooth, and Ryan could even taste the glistening water that faced him.  Ryan was worried, but once his eyes had adjusted, and once he had realized what was going on, he determined that it wasn’t a stupor that he was falling into. The world around him hadn’t deformed, it had grown, everything had a distinct sheen to it, everything became bright. The world around Ryan had simply came to life. Without realizing it, Ryan’s norm had became simple. Ryan’s norm was everywhere; it wasn’t just a puzzle that needed to be solved. It was the small things he noticed, the big things he wanted to experience, and everything in-between that made it all worthwhile.

“Had enough?” Amanda’s voice resounded behind Ryan. Amanda was the last person Ryan expected to show up here, but knowing Amanda’s status, Ryan could trust Kyle to her.

“You have more business with me?” Ryan decided to ask, wondering if in fact Amanda was here to chase Ryan again. Quite recently, Ryan has seen less and less of Amanda, Ryan thought. It was strange, Amanda had always given him the impression that she was suspecting Ryan, but that had froze, and Ryan couldn’t figure out why. What Ryan couldn’t figure out, nor what even Lorna didn’t know about, was that Amanda and James had been slowly tracing their way into the forest. They were hiding it very well, and didn’t want to get their superiors or even their division involved until they had a concrete answer. Despite the limited time they had to work on their case, and having to juggle with any new cases they may have been assigned, they were still making good progress. Lorna knew of their advancements, but what Lorna didn’t know was whether that advancement would come sooner or later. And what Lorna feared the most was the inevitable former.

“Actually, I don’t. You’re off the hook for today,” Amanda didn’t have much going on for Ryan. He was still a suspicious figure in the case, but right now, what they needed wasn’t vocal information but a map to their prize.

“I’m here for him.” Amanda pointed at Kyle. Ryan didn’t find it too strange if Amanda were to patrol town and so happened to stumble upon them, but there was something off, Ryan thought. It seemed set up, almost too well.

“I’ll be taking him to where he should be.” Amanda walked over to Kyle, who was looking at Amanda with a wide eyed expression.  She put out one hand towards Kyle, and with a gentle smile, said, “Let’s go, Kyle. Your mom’s waiting, okay?”

“You–” Kyle paused, looking for words in his mind, and most of all, gathering his thoughts.

“Were there.”

“Yes. I was there.” Amanda seemed to understand Kyle’s words, despite the apparent vagueness of his speech to Ryan. There seemed to be some kind of history behind Amanda and Kyle, but it wasn’t one of familial ties, Ryan concluded.

“You brought me here.”

“Yes. I brought you here. Remember?” Kyle looked at Amanda with a nostalgic glow in his eyes. Ryan didn’t understand what was going on, but he knew that Amanda was an important person to Kyle.

“I knew you would be here,” Amanda said.

“This place is warm, right?” Amanda asked.

“Yeah.”

“Let’s bring you back home, then, okay?”

“Okay.” Kyle nodded as he answered. Amanda took Kyle and walked up the grassy hills.

“Thanks for your hard work,” Amanda said as she began walking Kyle. Ryan understood that the sentiment was targeted towards him. Although, Ryan debated whether what he did should have been considered as hard work or not. What Ryan did felt natural, it was what anyone would have done, he thought. Ryan wasn’t as much heroic as he was normal, and even Ryan gained something out of the venture in the end.

“You alright?” Lorna said as she scuffled her way towards Ryan.

“Yeah. Kyle got taken away, he’s going back home.”

“Right. Right.” Lorna paused, and gave off a short smile before finishing, “He’s going back to where he belongs.”

“You knew, right? About Kyle, and about the river, and about who would come to get him. You knew all along.”

“Perhaps I did. Perhaps I didn’t.” Lorna extended her hand over to Ryan, who accepted. Lorna leaned back to pull Ryan over. In the midday light, Lorna’s hair seemed to glow ever so brightly to Ryan. Her red lips and red cheeks blended in the orange hues of strife, and Ryan truly did believe that the spectacle in front of him was something out of this world.

“But I’m proud of you.” Ryan gave Lorna a questioning look. Lorna’s tone had slowed, and even as they began heading back to the building, Ryan noticed that her stride was weak.

“You’ve come a long way, haven’t you. From when you first came to us, you were so–” Lorna considered her words before continuing.

“Frozen. Stuck in time, and desperately looking for a way out. Whether you realized it or not.”

“I don’t think I did.”

“Even so. You’ve changed. I don’t know if I’ve told you this, and I’m sure I have–” Lorna smiled to herself, it was a weak smile.

“But you’ve changed. For the better, or for the worst, that’s up to you, but you’ve changed.” At that moment, Ryan wasn’t sure whether he had already been told that, but it didn’t matter. Ryan knew that he had changed, and he knew that the new norms he had found himself in was for the better, and Ryan knew that he would never give away the feelings and experiences he’s found. Ryan knew that he would never take anything back.

“Ray. There’s a reason why I trusted you, and there’s a reason why I wanted you to trust us as well.” Lorna paused. She turned around towards Ryan and gave him a sad smile, her eyes were down casted, and her hands seemed to tremble.

“The time we have together, the time we have at the orphanage, is coming to an end.” Lorna turned before looking at Ryan’s surprised expression. There was relief in Lorna’s words, and she had felt like she had given away a certain trudging burden that’s been weighing on her mind.

“What do you mean?” Ryan asked, unsure of the severity of what was truly going on.

“I don’t know what to say, in fact, I don’t think I even have a plan, but I wanted to let you know.”

“Let me know what? That everything is going to end soon? Why?” Ryan’s voice had turned almost into a yell, and before he knew it he had begun getting angry. Lorna simply smiled pitifully at herself.

“I wanted to let everyone know once I had a plan, but I realize now that I may not even get the chance to.”

“What’s going on, Lorna?”

“I’ve kept you all in my world. I’ve kept you all to myself–”

“Lorna!” Ryan yelled this time. He could feel his face heating up.

“I’ve locked myself in a world that I’ve made. In a place that I’ve created for my selfish desires.” Lorna didn’t mind Ryan, and simply continued.

“The strings were cut, and the wood began to rot, and I soon realized that you were all my family, and that I’ve become attached to everyone.” Lorna felt like crying, but she didn’t. She didn’t want to, she didn’t have the right to, she concluded.

“What is going on?” Ryan asked again.

“I–”

“Ryan?” Without warning, suddenly cutting off Lorna, and bringing both of their attention towards her, a voice called. Ryan turned towards the voice, and once he had realized who the woman was, he froze. Ryan’s expression gleamed with absolute surprise. It was impossible, Ryan thought. The woman now in front of them had long silky black hair that had appeared to be very well kept, almost obsessively, as if wanting to be shown off each day. Her eyes were sharp, and colored a deep hazel. Her stare was cold, but very analytical, and to Ryan, it felt warm. She was clearly much taller than the both of them, and much older. Her black suit showed much about her status, and it was unknowingly true; she was a government worker. Her voice was warm, and it had the impression of professionalism, almost as if she was trained to talk to people.

“I thought you left.”

“I did. I moved far away–” The woman paused, her eyes wistfully attached to Ryan, and her face making a loving smile.

“But I came back. I got assigned here, to work for the region.”

“You said–”

“I know I’ve done things in the past that I can’t amend.” Ryan looked down,  he was confused, but most of all, he was angry. He was so angry that he wanted to scream, but he knew that he couldn’t. He wanted to push away the woman in front of him and he wanted to run as fast as he could back to the building. He wanted the whole world to stop and he wanted to run back into his own norm.

“But I’ve changed. I’ve changed after all these years, Ryan.” Ryan knew that accepting his own past and moving forward from the life he once lived has brought him to where he is now. And Ryan also knew that the same could have applied to anyone, and it did. It applied to Lorna, even if Ryan didn’t know too much about Lorna’s past, he could figure out that the past that she once dredged on, has made her who she is now. The past can never be forgotten, but the past can be embraced, and it can be used to lead, Ryan concluded.

“I want to make up for everything I’ve done. For everything I lost…” Ryan knew that if he didn’t give her a chance, he would be denying her the ability to amend her past and drown in the present. That’s not what happened to Ryan, that’s not what happened at all, and Ryan knew that embracing his past and moving forward from it has changed him. It’s changed him so much that he could never come to recognize who he was before. The Ryan of the past was nothing more than dust in a desert, Ryan concluded.

“Please, give me another chance,” the woman pleaded to Ryan. Everything was happening so fast, and it made Ryan uneasy. Things that he never thought would come back, had came to haunt him. Ideas of the present norm being destroyed and his way of life shattered had presented itself. And with both of them intertwining, Ryan felt like he had found himself in the middle of a raging storm. Ryan had no idea what to do, and he just wanted everything to end. He wanted everyone to stop talking and everything to make sense again. It didn’t happen. Ryan had to make a decision, he had to do something. His norm was cracking, his pieces were falling, but Ryan struggled to make it all whole again; he was going to struggle. Ryan lifted his head, and faced his mother. The world was crumbling.

Chapter 23

The room was still, the clock tricked in the distance, and Ryan would never have expected the room to ever feel so stagnant again. Ryan would never have expected the house to ever feel so stagnant again. It felt like he was arriving to this home for the first time. It felt completely different.

“Doing well?” Ryan’s mother asked. The question was directed towards his uncle.

“Almost as well as you, surprisingly.” Ryan’s uncle looked over to Ryan’s mother, and examined her profile. Ryan’s uncle was surprised by her sudden appearance as well. Apparently, her presence had been long forgotten within Ryan’s family, for good reason, he thought.

“Haven’t seen you in a century, Ann,” Ryan’s uncle said.

“It’s already been a century,” Ryan’s mother repeated.

“So, why are you here?” Ryan’s uncle didn’t waste time in small talk. That’s not why Ryan’s mother was here, nor was it why his uncle was here either.

“You know me, Len.”

“Always up and around?” Ryan’s uncle paused, and placed two fingers on the bridge of his nose. He then lowered his hands and sighed.

“Never telling us much–” Ryan’s mother shrugged and gave him a shrill smile

“And then showing up in the middle of the thicket.” Ryan’s uncle had started slipping into an accent. It was a worn accent, one that showed his previous life on the fields. Ryan’s uncle had also started speaking in an assertive manner, almost towering over Ryan’s mother; who was much taller in retrospect. This was a strange prospect for Ryan, as his uncle never really came off as a strong man, he seemed to be more reserved, Ryan thought.

“Anna,” Ryan’s uncle paused, and took a deep breath. He looked between Ryan and his mother, and finally sighed. Ryan’s uncle was happy that Ryan was changing. He was happy that Ryan could open up to him about the things he did at school. He was happy that he could see color in his eyes again. He was happy that he could see him smile.

“You have the nerve to show your face again. You’re lucky I’m not bringing this up with ma and pa.” Ryan’s uncle paused; almost flinching at the thought of their parents, Ryan thought.

“And boy would they be proud,” Anna replied sarcastically

“And boy would they drive you in the barrels.”

“They can’t touch me anymore, Lenny.”

“Oh you watch. If they catch wind of you, you’re being hunted faster than wolves on herding day.”

“Your country is showing.”

“Anna!” Lenny raised his voice in an annoyed manner, but quickly eased his expression. He took another deep breath, and closed his eyes to gather his thoughts.

“Look. I don’t know what you have going for you.” Lenny made a gesture to point out her suit and hair.

“But whatever you want now, is only going to get increasingly difficult to ask for.”

“I know.”

“I don’t think you do.”

“I know–” Anna paused, looked over to Ryan and continued.

“That what I’ve done is horrible,” Anna fixed her gaze back to Lenny.

“And let’s face it. You’ve done worse.”

“This is about you. Not me,” Lenny defended.

“Oh, but this is just as important to you as it is me After all, which one of us herded the lost lamb, shepherd?” Anna’s mother gave Lenny a devious smile.

“Let’s not forget who broke the pen,” Lenny growled back, which made Anna give off a playful frown.

“And I know that I’m only going to get one chance at this.”

“You’ve already lost it.” Lenny seemed to have already grasped the situation, and had a good guess as to what Anna wanted. It was something that Lenny knew wouldn’t make either of them proud to say, and it was something that Lenny knew he would disapprove of. Anna knew this as well. Ryan only had a small grasp of the situation, although, he did have an array of theories pertaining to what Anna could have wanted. One of which involved his norm changing forever, and involved his norm being shaped by a factor not his. It involved someone else’s decisions and it involved leaving everything he ever knew. That situation, was one that Ryan feared, but knew would be asked. It was a situation where Ryan thought impossible, a situation where Ryan thought he left in the enclaves of his past. Apparently, those enclaves were not very well hidden.  If Lorna was here, Ryan thought, then she surely would have already known her answer, even before coming over to his home to talk. Just a simple glance would have been all Lorna needed, Ryan concluded. Unfortunately, Lorna had to be left. Whatever she needed to say, Ryan would have to hear it later, and whatever that may be, Ryan figured was important, urgent even. Ryan didn’t want to leave Lorna alone, Ryan didn’t want to leave Lorna to walk by herself back to the building.

“I’ll see you tomorrow, okay?” Lorna had said to Ryan before she left him with his mother. For some reason, those words still lingered within Ryan’s mind, and before he knew it, they had stung him more than anything he can remember.

“Okay,” Ryan replied, but even Ryan wasn’t sure whether those words had made it to her. Lorna had simply trailed off, her head held low, her expression completely drained. Lorna was down, she was sad, and she was devastated. What Lorna wanted to do was tell Ryan everything she knew, and to prepare him for what was to come, but as Anna came into the picture, she slowly realized how much Ryan wasn’t involved in her case. Ryan was in a norm all his own, and he had no real reason to stick around and see to any of her problems. Lorna had to do what she needed to do alone. Lorna had made up her mind. As Lorna walked back to the building, she told the kids to prepare. She told the kids that their time was ending, and that they needed to be ready for the worst. She told them that the ‘bad guys’ were closing in on them. Lorna wasn’t wrong, but what she didn’t know, was that there was still one more person at the orphanage who wasn’t present.  That one person, is a person who has become integral to the orphanage, whether he realizes it or not. His second home, and his new norm will all come to an end, and he won’t stand to see it go like that. Not after all the work he’s done, at least, that’s what Ryan concluded.

“Lenny,” Anna dragged Ryan back to his current reality. He had much more problems than just the orphanage dissolving, he had to deal with his mother.

“I want you to listen to me.”

“I am.”

“Listen without yelling.” Lenny leaned back.

“I want to take Ryan back.” No one in the room was surprised, not even Ryan. The only emotions stirring up within the two were anger, and confusion.

“I work for the government. I have a job now. Can you believe it?” Anna gave off a weak smile to Lenny, who only looked at her with pity and understanding. Anna’s voice became starched and even she couldn’t hide away from her watery eyes.

“This old ditch has a job now, aren’t you happy, ma, pa?” Anna spoke as if they were in the room, as if they had ears skies away, and were watching her, judging her.

“I can make money now. I can buy clothes, food, I can even be warm during the nights. Isn’t that amazing?” Anna gave off a weak smile to herself, it was a smile filled with grief and a smile filled with angst. It was a smile that she had been saving up for years, it was a smile she wanted to show her parents, and even as they were not there, she acted as if they were. Anna couldn’t help but feel like they were, and even Lenny thought the same. Ryan was the only one left out of the loop, and the only one found bordering the edge of the norm these two were involved in.

“I have a place to stay. I can provide Ryan a place to stay. I can take care of him now.” Anna pleaded to the air, to Lenny, to Ryan.

“I won’t make the same mistake twice. I need–” Anna paused, and reconsidered her words,  “I have to do this. I have to do this in place of him. I won’t let you down. Please. I’ll stay, I won’t go off. I won’t–” Anna suppressed tears from rolling from her eyes, which made it even harder for her to speak. Lenny was already squinting his eyes as he couldn’t stand to see Anna the way she was. Lenny didn’t know much about government affairs, and that played a crucial part for Anna. What made it even worse, was that Ryan didn’t know either, and the only person in the room who would figure out Anna’s real intentions would have been Lorna. After all, Lorna has protected them before, and has even been paid by them before. If anyone, Lorna would be able to help Ryan make his decision, and would be able to turn Anna down without a hitch.

“I won’t break again. I won’t fall into shambles. After all, I can’t anymore.”

“Anna. That’s enough. Talking about it won’t change the past–” Lenny paused, and waited for Anna to wipe her eyes.

“What you want right now is a huge burden. But it’s not only a burden, it’s an unpayable debt. You know that, right?”

“Yes. I know, Lenny. I really do. But even if I can’t amend for what I’ve done, I still want to make a better future.” Lenny sighed. It seemed like he had enough of the situation, and couldn’t stand to see Anna grovel anymore. Lenny’s mind had already been made, and his answer still stood firm. Anna knew that cracking Lenny wasn’t easy, and no amount of sympathy could change his unwavering attitude.

“Making a better future, amending your past, all of that, is up to you. In my opinion, you’ve already made up for all the stupid things you did–” Lenny paused, and a pained look came on his face before he finished.

“But ma and pa will never forgive you. They’ll have your head off faster than you can realize it. No matter how much you beg them, they’ll just have you eating dirt.”

“I know. And this is why I came to you.” Lenny sighed again. Out of all the relatives, and out of all the people, it was Lenny, Ryan’s uncle, who took him in. That spoke leagues about him, Anna thought. It was the unthinkable, and it was a debt that Lenny will carry with him to his grave, Anna thought. Ryan felt confused about the situation. He knew that he needed to let his mother try, and he knew that he needed to at least hear her out, to let her have this chance. But Ryan had long but disconnected himself with his past. Ryan has moved on, and he’s found new family, new friends, and even a new home. All of that, and all of the things he’s come throughout his time with Lorna and the children, slowly devoured him. They threatened to collapse, and Ryan wanted to stop it. Ryan wanted to run and to talk to Lorna, to figure out what she was saying. And at the same time, Ryan needed to give his mother an answer.

“Well Ann. Even if you give me a penny, I won’t have much to do with anything, do I?”

“But I would still give you a penny.”

“Right. And that wouldn’t dissuade you at all, would it?”

“It wouldn’t. Because after all–”

“It’s all up to him.” Lenny and Anna turned towards Ryan, the former looking at him with blank eyes, and the latter looking at him with wanting eyes. Ryan stood in the middle of chaos. Without knowing why, and without given much compromise, he has been thrown in the middle of the streets. Cars pass him by without much regard, and the only thing Ryan can do is cross without being run over. However, Ryan is too jaded, and too strung on everything around him that he can’t even move his legs. And when he does, he can’t feel them. Ryan is stuck between worlds, between norms crashing into themselves. All Ryan wants to do is run.

“Know that no one is forcing you,” Lenny adds.

“You’re doing this because you want to. You have a choice now. Just remember that whatever choice you make, we’ll be supportive of it. Especially this one.” Ryan couldn’t make a decision. He didn’t want to. He wanted his days to go by as they always did. He wanted to laugh, cry, run until his lungs gave out. He wanted to see Lorna, he wanted to see her ecstatic playful smile. He wanted to see her get hungry, he wanted to see her get sad. He wanted to see everyone grow up. He wanted this norm. It was crashing. The world was crumbling. Ryan ran. Ryan got up from the table, no words, and not a single look to either Anna or Lenny. Ryan simply walked away, washing away the words that followed behind him. The world was crumbling.

Chapter 24

The world was crumbling. Ryan was running. Everything he once knew slowly turned fragile, and it all threatened to shatter like glass. The norms he had worked so hard to keep, and the norms he found himself in were all breaking away, and Ryan had only one chance to stave it off. Ryan only had one chance to make sure that he would be able to live in a norm he could proudly call his own. Ryan was scared. He knew what fear was, and he had already felt it with his friends, his family. However, the type of fear he was experiencing now, was something he never thought he would ever feel. It was the type of fear that made his stomach want to turn into itself. It was the type of fear that churned and ran across his mind without warning. It was the type of fear when everything that was once normal and fine was slowly turning to dust. It was the fear of loss.

“Ryan?” Amanda called out towards the running Ryan, who ignored the words and ignored the world around him. Amanda had been informed of his name by Lorna, but to Amanda, his cooperation in the case was less vital. Amanda and James were on the verge of cracking a major case, and they were on the verge of having to break laws; section laws.

“Hold on!” Amanda grabbed Ryan as he ran past her, his vision narrowed, and his ears closed off everything but his own thoughts. Before Ryan realized it, he had slipped into a small stupor, he had ignored everything that didn’t concern him, and he was fixated on his own ideals. He was fixated on keeping his norms, and keeping his family and friends, and experiences.

“What’s the matter with you?” Amanda said as she held Ryan into place. Ryan hadn’t fully realized what was going on until a few moments had passed. His breathing fluctuated and his face turned beet red. His hands were shaking, and he could barely stand. Surprisingly, his weak constitution paid him no heed, and he didn’t find himself having to gasp for air.

“You okay?” Amanda asked. Ryan had slowly calmed down, his world was crumbling. His breathing steadied, and his eyes widened, surprised as to where he was, his world was crumbling. His feet slowly gave in, the rush of the run kicking in, and his lungs felt like they would collapse at any moment, his world was crumbling. Ryan was scared, he was scared, but he wasn’t scared because of Amanda, nor was he scared because of how he ignored his mother, or his uncle, he was scared because of what Lorna had said, he was scared because of what everyone had said. His world was crumbling.

“Ryan?” Amanda asked, quite persistent in trying to get Ryan to speak. Ryan simply gave Amanda a blank stare, which prompted Amanda to reply with her own confused stare. Amanda had no idea what was going on, and at this moment, had no obligation to continue her search. Her work had long past, and she was simply on a normal patrol. James was out at the moment as well, and if anything, Amanda just wanted to help him. Ryan seemed frantic, Amanda thought; he was like a frightened sheep after a herd of wolves had passed. However, Ryan wasn’t a sheep, he was a farmhand.

“Where am I?” Ryan asked, his voice shaking, and his expression implying his ignorance of the marathon he just ran.

“What time is it?” Ryan’s speech heightened, he spoke quickly, less clear, and with no regards to accentuating.

“Where are they!?” Ryan was almost yelling at this point, his eyes widened greatly in a frenzy, and he was shaking Amanda, thinking she had the answers to all his vague questions; she did.

“Are you okay? What happened?” Amanda ignored his questions and simply inquired about his own state. Amanda has learned that simply answering their questions wouldn’t do much. If you need a witness, and if you need compliance, then you need to understand where they come from. It makes a world of difference if you can come to a mutual agreement then if you simply abide, Amanda concluded. Ryan wasn’t fine, he was far from fine, and what he needed right now wasn’t his answers, it was time to catch his breath, Amanda thought.  Albeit, to Ryan, the only thing he needed right now were answers, and he would stop for no questions.

“They–” Ryan paused. His eyes darted to the ground. It didn’t seem to Amanda like he was talking to her. Amanda was more like a mist, an afterthought to Ryan, she was simply there, watching.

“Are breaking,” Ryan said, speaking only to himself and only bringing it into context with what he knew.  What Ryan knew was breaking was his norms and his way of life. Perhaps it was too early to say, or perhaps it was an exaggeration, but Ryan’s mind flooded with these thoughts nevertheless.

“What’s breaking?” Amanda played on with Ryan’s tune, simply trying to get him to understand where he is and to explain the issue to Amanda. After all, she was still obliged.

“They’re leaving. They’re talking,” Ryan said.

“Who’s leaving? Who’s talking?” Amanda tried to get through to Ryan, but her attempts turned to cinder. She wasn’t what Ryan needed, she thought. Somehow, one way or another, Ryan was searching for someone, someone who was far away, someone who was misplaced, Amanda concluded. What made the situation so quaint was that Amanda had every right to be involved in his situation, and she was the direct cause of it all.

“I need to go. I need to find them!” Ryan attempted to run off, but was quickly stopped by Amanda, who grabbed onto his shoulder and stopped him from lifting his leg.

“Calm down,” Amanda whispered.

“Everything will be alright. Just talk.” Amanda’s voice had slipped into her assertive and commanding tone. What she needed to be now was the adult, and what she needed to be now was a clear source of justification.

“I have to go!” Ryan simply flailed in her grasp and attempted to break free, his path dead set on the building.

“You’re leaving me with no choice, calm down, now!” Amanda didn’t ask, she demanded. And as Ryan continued to ignore her, and continued his grovel, her patience had run out. Amanda moved her arm towards Ryan’s shoulder, and pressed down, she then used her left leg to sweep Ryan’s feet and quickly brought him to the ground. Amanda then brought Ryan’s arm behind him, and pressed her body weight into his back. Ryan didn’t show any signs of pain, and simply struggled to break free from her hold. The sight of it all made Amanda feel pity for him, he was clearly out of his mind, she thought.

“Willing to talk?” Amanda said as she held Ryan down, her face contorting into a small weak smile. Amanda hasn’t done any recent takedowns, and the change of pace has definitely changed her mood. It was exhilarating, although, to a target like Ryan, it was still rather bland, which made Amanda rather disappointed. Each time Ryan would try to break free, Amanda would only tighten her grip. What Amanda wanted to do wasn’t physically restrict Ryan, but to push him to talk. The only way a person like Ryan, in his state of mind would comply, would be physical exertion, Amanda concluded.

“We can do this all day,” Amanda said, as she continued to press down onto Ryan’s back. After a few moments, Ryan’s breathing had slowed once again. This time however, his mind had also been set back, and his stupor had completely dissipated. He realized where he was, and how he got there, and he realized why he was being physically detained. He also realized how much it hurt.

“Alright. I get it. I’m calm now. Let go of me,” Ryan said in annoyance. Amanda let go of her grip, but remained in position in case Ryan had another sudden outburst. Ryan got up, brushed off the dirt from his clothes, and sat at the curb of the sidewalk.

“Didn’t need to be so rough you know?” Ryan said with a suave tone.

“Didn’t want to.”

“Sometimes your wants and needs are construed, huh?”

“Following protocol, and following my own intuition.”

“Your procedures are full of it,” Ryan said, frustrated with the magnitude of the situation. Although Ryan didn’t know what was going on with Lorna, Ryan could figure that it had to do with the bad guys. It had to do with Amanda, and it had to do with them and them not liking their norm. It had to do with them not liking his way of life, and them not liking the things he’s worked so hard to build. It made Ryan angry, but he contained himself, he breathed in and out and tried his best to sit still. Ryan still didn’t have concise answers, and he knew he couldn’t act on pure speculation. That wouldn’t sit right with him.

“What the hell’s your problem, Ryan?” Amanda briskly asked.

“My problem?” Ryan considered his words, he wasn’t thinking straight. His mind was clouded with emotions and his mind was clouded with the chaos of everything. He couldn’t think, and he didn’t want to. The only thing Ryan wanted to do was break free and run to Lorna, to run to his norm and question. And in the off chance that he would get answers, he would fight.

“My problem is this goddamn world,” Ryan couldn’t hear the words coming out of his mouth. However, the words appeared in his mind, and they raced around him. What he had just said, felt nostalgic. It wasn’t his words. They were words of someone who was more attentive then him. They were words of someone who was playful, someone who always seemed to know, and always seemed to know where you were. They were the words of a person who started it all.

“It’s filled with aliens, and agents!” Ryan said, his voice turning into that of a sales person. It was assertive in nature, but not intrinsically implied. If listened to long enough, it was probably annoying, Ryan thought. It wasn’t his voice. It was the voice of a boy who was very strange in nature, but good at heart. It was the voice of a boy who was sharp but just couldn’t put his thoughts to words.

“It’s cold. The world is so cold, and at the same time, so warm.” Ryan spoke in relation to someone he had in mind. It was the voice of a person with a quiet tone, but a loud sense of morality. She was reserved, and that was her nature. She cared, and that was her nature. She was cold, but warm, and that was her nature.

“That’s not fair. It just isn’t fair. It makes my blood boil. It makes life exciting. It makes me want to go out and do everything,” Ryan spoke with the mindset of someone with an abrasive attitude. He was a daredevil, always out for adventure, and always out for excitement. He didn’t turn down a challenge and was always ahead.

“And your problem?” Amanda asked again.

“I want to be there for them. I want to be strong,” Ryan continued his soliloquy. His mind was now projecting a certain strength that he’s witnessed. It was the strength of a friend. It was the strength of a friend who could protect others. It was the strength of a friend who despite all odds, will continue to fight.

“Ryan….”

“But, it will be alright. Everything will be okay. I don’t want anyone to get hurt, so I’ll run with them,” Ryan had run Amanda’s patience dry. What Ryan needed was not reason, but assurance. Ryan had spoken with the intention of exhibiting affection and care. It was a borrowed ideal, something he agreed on, but knew wasn’t his. It was far too cheery for Ryan to have known on his own, especially in his old state.

“Even so, the reality of my problem is still scary.”

“Are you scared?”

“I am. I really am.”

“Why are you scared.”

“Because I know that they aren’t bad guys.”

“They?”

“They’re not bad guys, because I said they aren’t.” Ryan circled around Amanda’s question. He had remembered words of a time long past, of a time when he had only realized the norms he wanted, and he altered them, he made them his own. They were words that stuck with Ryan, and they were words that could never escape him. There was a certain sense of mysticism in that thought. A longing held tight only with verbal context. Ryan was sure to bring that up with Walker later.

“And I hate it all. I hate everything. I just wish they would all disappear,” Ryan’s nature had shifted to one of lightheartedness, to one of aggression. However, even that shift in nature, wasn’t Ryan’s. It was the nature of a girl who was afraid of ghosts, and despite this, still held strong and still holds her pride straight. It was the nature of a girl who despite caring about her friends, has a tough time expressing it.

“My problem–” Ryan calmed down, his breathing had slowed, and he gathered his own words in his head. Not the words he came to know, not the tone and the natures of the people he was surrounded by, but his own words. Ryan had to make his own norm, and he had to protect his own norm. It was Ryan’s job alone, and he knew that he was the only one who could do it. He couldn’t ask for help, he couldn’t be someone else, he had to be himself. Ryan was Ray, who was Ryan.

“Is that my worlds are ending.”

“What do you mean?”

“The norms I used to live by are falling apart. They’re becoming fragile. I can’t keep going on like this.” Ryan got up from his spot. Amanda tensed her guard, but noticed that Ryan wasn’t giving off any violent intent. Ryan was rather apathetic, and simply turned back towards his path. He didn’t show any intention to run, but rather slowly groveled his way. Ryan had long been past the panic and emergency of the situation. Ryan’s head was more than clear, and Ryan’s goal had still remained the same. Ryan needed to get to the orphanage, and Ryan needed to have a talk with Lorna, to figure out exactly what was going on, and what they were going to do. Ryan had no intention of giving an answer without this norm being fixed, Ryan concluded. Despite what Ryan may feel, he just can’t bring himself to move on when one of his norms are being crushed. If Ryan were to never see Lorna and the children again without saying a proper goodbye, then Ryan was sure that he would never progress. Ryan was sure that he would revert back to his previous self. Ryan was sure that his second home, his new family, and his new friends would all be left in a trail of miasmic toxin.  Ryan didn’t want that. Ryan walked, and as he walked, he picked up speed. And as he picked up speed, he began running. He began running again, and he trailed off into the forest. Amanda was left no answers, but her own answers would soon come to fruition in due time. Amanda simply stood there, watching Ryan run off, and sighed.  He reminded her of a close friend, of someone who also ran, and also chased after a norm that they wanted to create, and that they wanted to protect. He reminded her of the time when her own friend had sought out a life all on their own, and had made her proud. He reminded her of Lorna.

Chapter 25

“Ray!” Runner called out towards Ryan, who was desperately trying to catch his breath. Ryan’s face was covered in red, and his legs were barely able to hold a stand. It took Ryan quite a while to catch his breath, and even then, he had to grab onto Runner to speak.

“Lorna!” Ryan paused. His breath had ran, and he needed another moment to speak again.

“Where is she?” Ryan felt like collapsing, his lungs wanted to give in, his legs were stinging, and he wanted to fall and seep into a deep sleep. Ryan wanted the world to stop, he wanted the crumbling to stop. He wanted his norm to last.

“Ray?” Sunflower appeared behind Runner. She looked frantic. Her eyes widened at the sight of Ryan, and her breathing began fluctuating. It was the first time Ryan had ever seen Sunflower in such a state. Usually she was more worried, more caring and more reserved, even if Runner was off doing dangerous things. What she was now, was jumbled, Ryan thought.

“Lorna said that the ‘bad guys’ are coming!” Ryan wasn’t surprised. He had a sense of it before Lorna had even finished. What Ryan didn’t understand was why Lorna had kept it to herself all this time. After all, Ryan didn’t believe that this problem had only became relevant now. There must have been some sort of build up, some sort of sign that told Lorna that the end was coming, and that sign was kept hidden from everyone else, Ryan concluded.

“Where is she?” Ryan asked again.

“She’s not here, she left!”Sunflower exclaimed. Ryan felt like screaming, but he held it in. Ryan knew that if Lorna had left, that she had a good reason for it. There was no way that Lorna would tell everyone about the impending danger and simply leave, Ryan thought. Lorna was still here, she was still with them, and she was still planning. Ryan didn’t know what Lorna had in mind, but he knew that she wouldn’t have just left like that.

“Where’s everyone else?” Ryan asked. Ryan had faith in Lorna, and placed his hope and his trust in her, much like she did. If Ryan couldn’t get his answers now, then he would simply have to wait.

“They’re all inside. Lorna told us not to leave unless we see ‘bad guys’,” Sunflower said.

“Then what about you two?”

“Lorna told us that if you showed up, that you had to leave and stay home. We came out to tell you that.”

“Lorna said that?” Sunflower and Runner both nodded their heads. Something wasn’t right, Ryan thought, the norm that he was in, the people and experiences that he had, they were all real. However, Lorna was telling Ryan to stay out of it. Lorna was telling Ryan that he didn’t need to be with his family, to be in his second home as it was on the verge of breaking. Lorna told Ryan that he wasn’t responsible, and that he shouldn’t be. Lorna was telling Ryan that she had it all under control; she didn’t. Lorna was just as lost and just as scared as Ryan. Lorna wasn’t doing any better, and the only thing Lorna wanted to do was to curl up and let the world around her fall apart. Lorna knew that Amanda was coming, she didn’t know when, and that made her even more scared. She had told the children to stay put until she came back. It didn’t matter to Lorna how long Amanda took to come to them, but all Lorna wanted was everyone to feel safe, and for everyone to know that things were going to be okay. Lorna wanted everyone to be together, and once the time had come, wanted everyone to move on with smiles on their faces. Lorna didn’t want anyone to regret the time they had spent. After all, she didn’t regret it, neither would Ryan. Lorna just wanted the whole world to crumble around her, and for her own norms to be enacted. She just wanted everything to make sense again.

“Shooter!” Lorna yelled as she ran for the bridge. Shooter often made rounds across the towns with underground orphanages that he was aware of. He didn’t want to arrive in those towns to listen to bad news, or to harbor bad news either.  However, Shooter felt like he had an obligation.

“Lorna? Fancy seeing you here. Came to hang out with little old me?” Shooter had his sunglasses on despite the midday clouds that blanketed the riverside. His posture and casual tone had contrasted with the urgency of Lorna, and he could tell that something was wrong.

“Shooter. Bad news. Bad news.” Lorna was trying to catch her breath despite her good constitution. It was strange, Lorna thought. She grew tired, restless, from the situation at hand.

“You look like you’ve gone through hell.”

“Shooter. I want you to listen.”

“I’m listening.”

“This town. Cadence. Mark it.” Shooter’s eyes had dropped. Through the vagueness of Lorna’s words, Shooter had fully understood the scope of the dilemma that Lorna had found herself in. The last thing he wanted to know, was that Lorna and her home was shutting down. The last thing he wanted to know was that the home he once resided in, the home that nurtured him to where he is now, was shutting down.

“Right now?” Shooter asked.

“No. I don’t know when. But it will happen.” Shooter sighed.  Lorna couldn’t see Shooter’s eyes, but she knew that he was disappointed. Shooter and Lorna had both shared memories in that orphanage, so did Lorna and Ryan, and Ryan and the rest of the children. These were all precious memories.

“Lorna–”

“Stop! Stop.” Lorna looked down. Her eyes were on the verge of tears, but she knew that she couldn’t cry. Not now, at least not now, Lorna concluded.

“I have to go now.” Lorna turned around, but Shooter grabbed onto her arm before she could make much distance. Lorna turned around in a flurry with watery eyes, which made Shooter surprised. Lorna was suppressing her tears, and she was suppressing her screams, Shooter thought.

“Crying ruins your pretty face.”

“Shut up.” Lorna hit Shooter on the side with her free hand.

“I’m not crying,” Lorna added.

“I’m not crying,” Lorna repeated.

“I’m not crying,” Lorna concluded.

“Look–” Shooter paused, took off his sunglasses, and looked into Lorna’s eyes.

“I don’t know what you may have with your current kids,” Shooter considered his words. He let go of his grasp, and he looked into the river. It was dark, it was very dark, Shooter thought. The gray clouds that hung above his head and the bitter winds that blew across the riverside made Shooter sad.

“But if you want to get through this, you have to be calm,” Shooter spoke from his past experiences. Shooter had seen many homes come and go, many families come and go, and many memories fade at the blink of an eye.  Shooter wrote it all. Shooter collected the memories and the experiences that these people had felt and gone through. Shooter didn’t want to do the same for Lorna. It would be hard for both of them, but he also knew that the business Lorna ran, came with such a cost.

“What the kids want most from a situation like yours, is assurance.” Shooter looked behind Lorna, to the grass fields that were swaying ever so slightly in the bitter winds.

“They want to know that everything is going to be alright, and they don’t want to see their guardian flustered. That’ll just scare them, and you don’t want that. You want everyone to feel connected, and you want everyone to get through it together. ” Shooter sighed.

“I’ve seen many things, many people, and many families. I’ll tell you this now, because you’re my friend, and because you’ve done so much for me. Seeing your family break apart is the worst feeling you can ever get, but seeing the person who brought the family together break apart, makes you want to burn the world.” Shooter had a bitter after taste in his mouth, and his expression turned sour. He was remembering things he would rather not, but he knew that if he were to ever relay the feelings he’s obtained on his travels, that he should be able to handle those emotions. He needed to stand by the memories he’s vowed to record, and stand by them with a smile.

“Losing your family like this shouldn’t be bitter. It’s a stepping stone, Lorna. I can’t say that for certain, but I know that for a person like you, Lorna, losing your family like this, is something you can do with a smile.”

“You don’t know anything, Shooter. You only know–”

“I only know what others know. I know that I can’t really speak for those that have to go through that kind of experience, but I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it Lorna, I’ve seen it so many times. I’ve been to so many places. I had to leave on my own, but, I’m not any different, right?” Lorna knew that Shooter had seen many orphanages. Lorna hadn’t personally taken a look at his notebooks, but she knew that he had enough of them to warrant a novel.

“You can tell me all about it later.”

“Shooter…”

“If you comply, they’ll probably just detain you for a few days.”

“But that’s not the worst of it.”

“They have the right to place those found in institutions. I…. don’t know much other than that. After all, once an underground orphanage has been busted, those that were in it usually never see me again.”

“Because once that happens, you’ve already moved on?”

“Yeah. Plus, with a person like you, I’m sure you can just convince them to let you out anyway.”

“Why’s that?”

“Keeping a pretty face like yours all to themselves is a crime; word will get out quick.” Shooter smiled, and even Lorna couldn’t help but smile along with his banter. Lorna hadn’t been around when the issue of underground orphanages became a vital topic, so she didn’t know much about the procedures. The little information she was able to gather from Amanda didn’t tell her much either, but she could tell that it was more than just shutting down the orphanage and giving a new home to its kids. There was much more, and Lorna didn’t want to wait around and see what being caught entailed.

“So, come back.” Shooter grabbed his sunglasses and put them back on before finishing.

“Once this all blows over, come see me. I’d love to hear your story and I’ve love to record it.” Shooter took out a small note and a blue pen. With a few quick motions, he had scrawled something on the note and handed it to Lorna.

“May your history and family ever be trusted in my services, and may their story be kept safe in the memories of whomever may come across them.”

“Fancy lines you have.”

“It brings business,” Shooter said sarcastically.

“Now go. You have some place to be, right?” Lorna nodded, and turned towards the orphanage. She needed to go back and ensure that everyone there was safe, and that everyone wasn’t scared. She had an obligation to see to it that this process doesn’t end in tears. At least not bitter tears, Lorna thought.  Lorna opened the note that Shooter had scrawled on, and read it. It made her smile, and at the same time, made her angry, sad even. Lorna had no right to grieve, nor did she have a right to talk to Shooter. What Lorna wanted to do went against everything she knew. It went against her norm, and it went against her ideals. What Lorna wanted to do would inevitably create a norm filled with  misconstrued ideals. This would be the last mistake Lorna would make. Lorna hoped the best for the children, and hoped that they would respect her decision. What Lorna wanted to do was dangerous, and at the same time, was the only thing Lorna could think to do. It was why Lorna wanted Ryan to stay away from the orphanage, and to keep to his own norms, and to make his own home, and to make his own family. Lorna didn’t want Ryan to be involved anymore. He had done enough, and his presence was  merely an oddity to her.  He was an aberration, and Lorna wanted those who were unwanted in the home for the unwanted, to be wanted. Ryan had that chance. He had to fight his own battles. Lorna knew that. However, what Lorna didn’t know was that Ryan had already intertwined himself in the norms she had created.  Ryan was just as involved as Lorna, and Ryan had his own responsibilities, and Ryan had his own ideals about the whole situation. Ryan was going to stay, and he was going to fight for what he held true. Ryan had changed, even more then Lorna could think of. Ryan was here to stay. Or at least, he would die trying.

Chapter 26

“Lorna?” Ryan said as she opened the door of the building. Lorna had more or less simmered down, and was trying her best to appear calm and composed despite the severity of the situation.

“Ray?” Lorna refused to call Ryan by his name. Ryan would only be known as Ray to her. Nothing more, nothing less.

“Didn’t I–”

“You did.” Ryan was anxious. The answers he wanted were right in front of him, and all he needed to do was ask. Ryan only wanted the truth, and it would be this truth that would drive him. Ryan was tired of running from the truth, and he was tired of chasing it. Ryan wanted answers. He wanted to know.

“But I stayed.”

“Ray, you have to–”

“I’m staying.” Ryan stood his ground. He was just as involved as she was, Ryan thought. Ryan was attached, he wanted these norms to last. For once, Ryan felt wanted, but he failed to see the implications of having those feelings.  He failed to see that if he stayed to protect his norm, and to protect his family and friends, that he would be staying in a home for the unwanted.

“Ry–” Lorna stopped. Her voice had gotten louder, and she was getting unconsciously  frantic over the situation. Lorna knew that she had to remain calm, and she knew that the children would be affected by her if she were to have an outburst. Lorna didn’t want to involve Ryan, but the more she sees him, the more that feeling dissipates. The more she sees him, the more she wants her norm to last. Ryan was an integral part of her life, he had shown her just how much she could do if she focused and had a goal in mind. Ryan was Ray, and to Lorna, he was a ray of hope. Ryan’s norms and experiences were all culminating, and Lorna was left with only a small portion. She only had one slice of the pie, but that slice was important. That slice was the opener, and that slice was an investment. Lorna saw a sky of muddied clouds, but once time had eroded, it became pitch perfect. It became a beautiful blue, and it became clear enough for Lorna to see the sun. It was almost blinding.

“Ray,” Lorna said.

“I can’t have you here anymore,” Lorna was speaking in a rather somber tone. Her voice was low and concise, but her eyes were locked straight on Ryan. The others were huddled in a nearby room. They were listening, but most of all, they were waiting. They all had answers they wanted. However, they may never get to hear them. That fact scared them. The children didn’t want to leave or be separated, but they knew that it was inevitable. What the children wanted to know, was if they were going to get closure, whether Lorna was coming with them, or if Lorna was going to fight the ‘bad guys’. And if so, will she win?

“Go back. There are people waiting for you, right?” Lorna wanted to say more, but her voice began trailing.

“I’m staying,” Ryan paused, and before Lorna could give a response, Ryan stretched out his arms in a big motion and walked forward towards the stairs. Ryan looked up towards the second floor, and then turned his head towards both ends of the hallway before continuing.

“This place has become my home now, Lorna. It’s my second home. And I want to protect that feeling.” Ryan lowered his arms and stepped to the window.

“I don’t care about what’s happening in my home unless I know that this place, this feeling, is safe.” Ryan paused.

“This building, this home, means so much to me, Lorna.”

“Ray–”

“I’ve changed because of you, because of everyone here.”

“Look–”

“If this norm is ending, then I want to fight. I want to be here with everyone else.”

“Everything–”

“You can’t tell me to leave when I’ve become so attached. You can’t tell me to leave when I’ve poured my new life into this experience. You can’t tell me to leave when my friends and family are in danger!” Ryan was shouting at this point. Words were spewing from his mouth, but the only thing he wanted to say was accomplished in merely six. His emotions ran across his mind, and his mind was filled with gray. Everything he wanted to say slowly started mixing. Ryan was changing, yet to him, he was merely adapting.

“Calm down, Ray.” Lorna waited for Ryan.

“Everything will be fine. No one is in danger,” Lorna’s eyes wandered across the wooden tiles until they locked with Ryan’s.

“But, I can’t involve you anymore,”

“I’m–”

“No!” Lorna shouted over Ryan. Her calm and collected voice had risen a storm. Lorna was torn by her decisions, and by her mistakes. Just as much as Ryan, Lorna wanted the whole world to stop. She wanted everyone to stop talking, and she wanted a sense of assurance; she got neither.

“I know how important this is to you. Trust me, Ray–” Lorna stopped and allowed her voice to settle before finishing.

“But you have somewhere to be. We both know this. Your mom is waiting, right?” The sound of the word  ‘mom’ made Ryan feel a burst of disgust. Ryan had made up his mind. Years of longing wasn’t what he had. It was years of self-indulgence. Ryan’s condition wasn’t a result of his own insolent attitude, but it was built up through the shattered puzzle pieces that Anna had left.

“So go back. You need to be with her, right?” Ryan’s temper began rising, and he slowly realized that his hands were scrunching up into fists.

“Rebuild while you can, this is your only chance.” Lorna had deciphered Ryan’s situation. Lorna knew that  Ryan was missing something. He was missing a real family. However, Lorna was often pretentious, and she often jumped into untrodden territories. She often did this when she was still playing with wood and strings. However, Lorna allowed herself to read into Ryan more than usual, and allowed herself to create a stigma. Lorna didn’t care, all she wanted was for Ryan to be safe, and for Ryan to be casted away from the norm that he had entertained.

“It’s for the better, so go and–”

“No!” Ryan yelled at Lorna.

“Stop!” Ryan’s face contorted into one of pure anger.

“Stop. Please,” Ryan’s tone quickly shifted from one of anger, to one of sincerity. His face mellowed, and he looked like he wanted to cry, Lorna thought. Ryan was pleading to Lorna, pleading for her to stop and pleading for her to allow Ryan to be with them. Lorna had no words.

“I won’t go back.”

“Even–”

“Even if my mom is waiting. Even if my uncle is waiting. I’ll stay here. I’ll stay here with everyone else!” Ryan seemed desperate, Lorna thought.  Lorna didn’t understand it, and neither did Ryan. Ryan wanted to give his mom a chance to prove to him that she would stay by him, but his norm, and his feelings had overwhelmed him. Ryan was intoxicated by Lorna, and by the children. Ryan couldn’t leave, he couldn’t go back if it meant that his second home was going to disappear.

“Ryan,” Lorna said with her somber tone. Her voice was clear as ice, and it tinged with the aftertaste of steel. Lorna continued to stare into Ryan’s eyes. Ryan was at a loss for words. Lorna’s alluring eyes had captivated Ryan, and the calm and melancholic expression on Lorna’s face  had fixated him.

“We’ve spent time together, with everyone. I can’t ever say that I would want to take that time back, because the time we spent was ethereal.” Lorna gave off a smile small. It was a self contained smile, that was filled with pity, and regret. It was a smile that deserved more malice than rejoice, and even Lorna felt bad for giving Ryan that smile.

“But, that time, can’t last forever. We all have to move on, Ryan. I have to move on. You have to move on. And…. I’ll make sure that the kids can move on as well. After all, they’re my responsibility.” Lorna paused again, walked over to the door, and slowly opened it.

“I did this, because I needed to,” Lorna took one step onto the porch.

“But it slowly turned into want. It turned into a poisoning want.” Lorna jumped from the porch and into the dirt, which prompted Ryan to walk to the open doorway, and stand by the ledge.

“I realized, Ryan, that the time I had, and the time I was going to get, were all wrong. I loved the time I had, and the time I was able to get. But it was all wrong. I was wrong. The world is wrong.” Ryan remained quiet. For some reason, Ryan wasn’t able to talk. He was simply awestruck. He was simply listening.

“I want this to last, Ryan. Please trust me when I say this. Please.” Lorna turned towards Ryan, and smiled again. This time, it was a bitter smile. It was a smile filled with all of her sadness, and all of her happiness. Ryan had to look away, Ryan had to focus his eyes. Ryan couldn’t bear to see Lorna in that state.

“I trust you,” Ryan said.

“Thank you.”

“But, my feelings are real too. And the time that we spent, and the time that we had, is something irreplaceable to me. I want this to last. So please, let me–”

“Ryan. You can’t do this anymore. You know this. You’re wanted. There are people other than us, that need you. You will be attended to. You’re not an orphan. You’re just a lonely kid.” Ryan wanted to yell out at Lorna, but knew that doing so would simply lead them into a cycle of cynicism. Ryan was done. His world had stopped crumbling, and he made it so. He didn’t care anymore. Ryan was going to stay. He was going to see to it that the norm he was in, wasn’t going to be left unattended to. Ryan didn’t care that he had a family, Ryan didn’t care that he was given a chance for bloodied love anymore.

“But I guess, you’re not leaving, no matter how much I tell you,” Lorna said.

“That’s right.”

“And I guess, that no matter how dangerous this may get, you’ll still stay?”

“You just said that it wouldn’t be dangerous,” Ryan remarked suavely.

“I said that no one was in danger. But, that could all change. I can’t say for certain what will happen from here on out.”

“And I don’t need you to. Simply being here is enough. And simply getting through this is enough.”

“Have it your way.” Lorna gave up. She jumped back onto the porch, and walked inside.

“I’ll tell you more about our situation. The kids already have a gist of it.” Lorna walked up to the second floor. Ryan followed suit, and walked back inside the building, closing the door behind him. Ryan was relieved, and he was happy. Despite the situation, Ryan was happy. The day wasn’t going to get longer, and Amanda and James weren’t going to find them yet. However, they were close, and they were dangerously close. Their days were going to end. Lorna knew this for a fact. What Lorna also knew, was the truth. And that truth, was going to be stretched for Ryan. He would learn of the  ‘bad guys’ but what he wouldn’t know, was what Lorna had planned.  Lorna didn’t make any mistakes. She had her plan. And she was going to adhere to it. Lorna was leaving.

Chapter 27

“Morning,” Winter said as she stood over Ryan. He stayed overnight at the orphanage. He was given a guest room on the second floor. However, every room was practically a guest room, he thought. The building was convoluted,  but it wasn’t a bad feeling, Ryan concluded.

“Do you want something to eat, Ry–” Winter stopped. Her face soured and she made a notion not to look into Ryan’s eyes. Everyone in the building had heard the loud shouting Ryan and Lorna had done. One point that stirred their minds was the inclusion of Ryan’s name. Ryan was Ray, who was Ryan. The kids had only ever operated on a strict no-name policy. Runner was Runner. Spear was Spear. And Winter was Winter. Lorna was Lorna, but Ryan was Ray, and Ray was Ryan.

“It’s fine. Just call me what you want.” Ryan shrugged it off. To Ryan, the concept of a nickname was foreign. Ryan had a sense of it. However, that sense was fleeting.

“Okay,” Winter meekly said. Winter took a moment to think, but It didn’t require much strain for her to know her answer. The norm set out by Lorna, and the norm that Winter has straddled for herself had already found its place in Winter. She had no qualms about the happenings of the world, nor did she confront the travesties that unveiled themselves.

“Then–” Winter paused. She looked up at Ryan and smiled. It was a smile filled with warmth. It was a smile that despite the cold winds that blew across the morning fields, was warm.

“Would you like to eat, Ray?”

“Yeah,” Ryan smiled back. They made their way towards the stairs and towards the kitchen. As Ryan opened the door, he was immediately greeted by the turning of seven heads. The only one missing, was the one that mattered the most, Ryan thought.

“Lorna’s out,” Walker said with a monotone expression. Walker was sitting in a corner of the room, eating indifferently by himself. He was trapped in his own world. but not in the same vein as someone like Ryan. He was gleefully trapped, Ryan thought.

“In case you’re wondering, she was really mad at you,” Walker added.

“She spent all night pacing back and forth in the break room,” Carrier said.

“She was fending off spirits! I heard her mumbling!” Spear insisted.

“Aren’t you worried?” Hailstone said. Her usual brash nature was missing from her tone. It was strange, Ryan thought, It felt too warm. Things were too warm. For some reason, Ryan was uncomfortable.

“I am,” Ryan said, “I’m worried.”

“Don’t worry, Ry-” Sunflower paused. But once her thoughts had gathered, and once her words had lined, she continued.

“Ray. Lorna will be back. She’s worried about you, too.”

“The ‘bad guys’ are coming over, right?” Spark jumped in with his usual go-getting attitude. The room felt the shift as Spark was still valid. The issue of those in power who can end their norm was still looming on their heads. Ryan was curious. Amanda was coming. Lorna was gone.

“The ‘bad guys’ can’t hurt us,” Carrier said. His voice was reassuring to some as Carrier was often strong and reliable. However, even Carrier’s strength was not everlasting. Carrier couldn’t stop the tree from growing. He could cut the branches that sprouted, and he could rip the roots, but the tree had sprouted

“Lorna told us to leave if they came. We’ll be safe,” Carrier added.

“She gave us a note, right?” Runner asked; Lorna did. Lorna had written the note in front of Ryan. However, he couldn’t catch onto what was written. Lorna had placed the note in front of the door. It faced forward, and she had instructed only to open it in case they came.

“Directions,” Walker said, “She gave us directions. To where we should go.” Walker was the first to stand. He walked to the kitchen door and left. Walker wanted to stand by the windowsill and keep watch. However, he forgot to mention it.

“Ah!” Hailstone suddenly exclaimed, causing every person in the room to turn their heads.

“I’ve had enough! I’m heading out,” Hailstone jumped from her seat and walked out.

“Wait! Lorna said not to leave.” Winter stepped in front of Hailstone with her arms outstretched. She gave Hailstone a strong stare and tried her best to puff out her chest. Winter wasn’t scared. Winter didn’t want her friends to be in danger, but Winter knew she was small.

“Winter…” Hailstone was torn. She was angry at the stifling atmosphere of the room, but she didn’t want to worry her friends either.

“Fine,” Hailstone said with a breath of resignation. Hailstone turned and began heading to her room, with Winter following suit.

“I’m going to go scout!” Spark said as he ran out and climbed the stairs.

“Guess I’m going to watch him,” Carrier added.

“Lorna told us to pack our things, right?” Sunflower asked Runner. Runner nodded, and then a glow of realization had sprung across his face, “I still need to pack!” Runner made a beeline for his room, which prompted Sunflower to follow shortly thereafter. Sunflower had already packed, but seeing Runner’s nonchalant attitude made her feel at ease.

“I’m going to go investigate,” Spark said as he frantically ran out. Ryan was alone now. He was alone in a room filled with norms, and he was alone in a room filled with memories. That was all going to break soon, Ryan thought. That was all going to crumble, and all Ryan could do was hope that he could do anything. Ryan was lonely. Even surrounded by his friends, and by his new family, Ryan was lonely. Ryan was lonely, and Ryan was sleepy. His eyes started drooping down, and before Ryan could do anything, he had fallen asleep on the kitchen table.

“Hey!” Hailstone began shaking Ryan, but elicited no reaction.

“Ray?” Hailstone continued to shake Ryan. His eyes were closed shut, and Hailstone had to resort to her sure-fire method of waking somebody up.

“Alright. You asked for it.” Hailstone went over to the sink, and filled a cup with water. She then walked back over to Ryan, and began shaking him one last time, “If you’re not awake in the next ten seconds, you’re getting a face full of it!” Hailstone began counting down as she shook Ryan’s sleep filled frame.

“Is he awake yet?” Winter asked impatiently at the kitchen door.

“No. But he will be now!” Hailstone dumped the cup onto Ryan’s head, immediately causing him to stiffen up and take in his surroundings. Water dripped from his face to his clothes, and he soon began feeling a cold shiver down his body.

“What’s going on?” Ryan asked.

“Figured you needed something to do,” Hailstone said. Hailstone grabbed Ryan’s arm and dragged him out of his chair and towards the door way. Winter walked in front of them and they began heading to the second floor.

“Is Lorna back?”

“No.” As they arrived at the second floor, Ryan noticed that it was dusk. They were still safe, Ryan thought.

“Where are we headed?” Neither Hailstone nor Winter answered.

“Where is everyone?” Neither Hailstone nor Winter answered. At the end of the right wing on the second floor was an empty classroom. Much of the desks and chairs were all stacked towards the chalkboard, but the children had moved one particular desk and chair in the middle of the room. The windows were covered in curtains, and as Ryan walked into this room, he noticed a palisade of people. They were all lined up in front of the desk, each taking turns writing inside a notebook.

“What is this?” Ryan asked out loud.

“Oh! You’re here, good!” Runner said from the side of the classroom. He was situated a few steps away from the door.

“We’re all taking turns writing in the diary now.”

“The diary?”

“Yeah. We’ve kept a big diary for everyone.”

“We’ve been writing in it for quite some time,” Walker said, somewhere in the line.

“And you want me to–”

“Yeah,” Winter said, interrupting Ryan.

“Why?” Winter gave Ryan a warm smile, and said with a quiet tone, “Because you’re a part of the family.”

“Why else?” Hailstone added. Everyone in the room seemed to agree, and all nodded. Ryan was attended to. Ryan was needed. Ryan was wanted. Ryan had no place in the home for the unwanted, but that didn’t stop him. Ryan would remain there, with everyone. Ryan would care for his friends. Ryan would cry for his friends. Ryan would laugh for his friends. Ryan felt like crying, his eyes were watering, and his heart began aching. The only thing that boggled Ryan’s mind, was where Lorna was. Likewise, Anna and Lenny had begun their search and had filed the authorities about Ryan’s whereabouts. Amanda knew now that Ryan was running away, and Amanda knew that she had let him go. Amanda was angry for herself for letting that by. However, she had more matters at hand to attend to. James was in the forest, scoping out every last branch, and scribbling down every  patch of dirt. He was drawing ever so close.

“Thank you,” Ryan said with a weak voice. The only looming shadow over Ryan, was the fact that Lorna was gone. Lorna was missing. Shooter waited. And time seemed to stop for Ryan. Everything around him slowly became clear, and he could clearly see what he needed to see. He could see what he always wanted to see. He could see his feelings erupt from the wooden floor tiles that lined the classroom. He could see his despair, his anger, his happiness, his nostalgia, his jealousy, his kindness, his sympathy, and his loneliness. They all circled across the room, and they all resided within the residents of the building. His feelings were bursting from the seams, and they were wrapping themselves on the neck of each child. Time seemed to stop for Ryan. However, he was suddenly brought aback as his feeling all raged on a storm of dust, and his vision began clouding. Ryan didn’t want to slip back into his fanciful days, Ryan didn’t need to. His stupor wasn’t needed. His fantasy wasn’t needed. Lorna was missing.

“Ryan?” Spark called out as he got out of the seat. Ryan was the last one left. Ryan walked his way over to the desk, and sat down. There would be one empty seat in school today, Ryan thought. And that thought, made him smile. Ryan grabbed the pencil in front of him, and looked at the open notebook. There were eight different excerpts from the page he was looking at. Eight different feelings, and eight different memories. They were all precious, Ryan thought.

“Lorna said we might be leaving soon. But I want to still play games with everyone! Even if we leave, we’ll still have lots of fun! Every day will be filled with fun! I hope everyone can still have fun. I hope everyone will still play with me. I don’t want to play by myself. But I know Sunflower will play with me! Sunflower is always with me. I want to always have Sunflower with me. She always plays games with me.”

“If we do have to leave, I hope we all stay safe. Runner might get too excited and want to start playing games with everyone. He might get hurt. I hate seeing him get hurt. But sometimes, when he’s running around and having so much fun, I can’t help but join him. I’m worried about everyone, and sometimes I worry that I might seem too sad. I want to always be happy, and I want everyone to always be happy. Lorna said that I’m really bright sometimes. Lorna is always happy. I want to be like her.”

“If the bad guys come, I’ll fight them! They won’t see what’s coming!…… Lorna, please, I don’t want to leave everyone. I want to stay with everyone. I want to protect my sister. I want to protect Laina. I won’t let them touch her. Or anyone. I’ll fight. I’ll keep on fighting. I’ll break everything they have, and I’ll keep everyone safe. Spark will help me. Spark’s brave. Spark will lead the charge, and then Carrier will be there to help everyone. But we can’t do it alone. Lorna, you told me that we can’t do it alone. You told me this. That we can’t be alone. Lorna, you can’t leave us.”

“Henry here. You know, I don’t usually like talking to people, unless they can keep up. You see, I sometimes tend to trail on, or I zone out. I’m always in my own world, they say. That’s not true. That’s not true at all. You told me this, Lorna. Please, come back. We believe in you. I believe in you. That’s rare. For me to believe in something. I think. Sometimes I say I do, but then I think that it’s not true.”

“Even if aliens come, and even if you do have to fight spirits, I hope you can win. Everyone here is my friend, and every day I can feel at home. Every day is fun, and I have people to talk to. I’ve never had people to talk to. Never. Ever. Had. At all. It’s funny, right? Ha. Ha. Ha. It’s funny. It really is. What a life.”

“Sometimes when I feel cold, I like to think about everyone here. Runner is so energetic, and Sunflower follows him to keep him safe. Hailstone is mean, but she’s really kind. Walker and Spear always talk about complicated things, but they’re really nice too. Carrier and Spark are always up to something fun, but that’s because Spark keeps doing bad things. Carrier is really nice. Even Ray is really kind too. He helped me out when I met him. Lorna sometimes tells me that Ray is learning new things, and that he’s like a baby. I don’t get it. But Lorna seemed to really enjoy it, and she laughed. I like Lorna. She’s warm. Whenever I feel too cold, I like to go to Lorna. She’s really warm.”

“We have to leave this place. I know it. I can feel it. But I’ll still try my best to protect my friends. Especially Spark. All my friends are precious. I like them all. They’ve all helped me become who I am. I can help them. I will help them. I don’t have anywhere else to go, after all. Really, all I can do is follow them, and help them. I will pick them back up, and in turn, they will give me their friendship. I want strength, and they sometimes tell me I have strength. I don’t think I do. That’s why I want it.”

“Hello! Jordan here! You know! Hey, if I keep writing like this, I might end up like Spear. Spear’s a cool guy. My name is cool too. Spark. I like it. I shouldn’t be here. No. I shouldn’t be here. But Lorna let me in. She let me stay. She knows my secret. I shouldn’t be here. That’s why I act so excited all the time. That’s why I try to make everyone follow me. That’s why I’m always the first to go. I want to make the most of the time I have here. I shouldn’t be here. I’m lying. I lied. I’m scared. Please. Lorna.”

“My name is Ryan. No, that’s weird, right? Is that how you start a diary entry? No. Right? Well, either way, I’m writing here. I don’t know what to say, but I’ll just write. Ever since I came here, ever since Runner found me, my life has changed. You know, it’s like winning the lottery. Everything changes. I met people, I had new and fun experiences, and I felt emotions that I never thought I could. Before I came here, to this building, I was broken. I think. I was so contained in my own space that I never bothered to break from it. It was scary how I could have lived like that. But something drew me in here, and I kept coming back. I gained so much. I don’t want to see any of that go. Lorna, you don’t either, right? You told me. You’ll come back, right? Please, let’s go through this together. I know I don’t belong here, but let’s try our best. I’ll try my best. I’ve forsaken my mother, and my uncle, but I know that my family, and my home lies with everyone here. I have to be here. Please, trust me. Like I trusted you. Out of all the new emotions I’ve obtained, I don’t think I’ve ever felt love before. Well, I love you all as family and friends, but I mean love more than that. The kind of love that makes you want to marry. Though, I think, if anything, you’ve come the closet to giving me that. ”

Chapter 28

Ryan woke up with a strange feeling. He looked around him in his guest room. Everything was there. The small table. The small lamp. The scrawled poster. Ryan shifted in his bed sheets and closed his eyes to fall asleep. Seconds ticked by, minutes, but Ryan couldn’t slip into the realm of slumber. Ryan abruptly kicked his bed sheets off and turned his body towards the door. There was a strange feeling. Ryan couldn’t quite think what that feeling was. However, it ate at him, and Ryan desperately wanted to figure out what it was that woke him.

Ryan opened the door to his room, and peered out slowly, wondering if it may indeed be a specter; it wasn’t. Ryan stepped lightly into the second floor hallway, knowing full well by the moon’s light that he had not slept long in the night. Ryan walked over to the window, and took a peek to the fields. The glittering moonlight on the low grass made it seem almost unreal, combined with the low cold winds of nightfall, there was a strange sense of happening. Scheming was among them, Ryan thought. Amanda was near. She had told James to rest, but she had decided to partake in extra groundwork; something she never thought she would suggest. Amanda shuffled through the branches of trees, the outstretches of lush green bushes and broken acorns. She made sure to note every turn and every interesting trunk and every irregular patch she stumbled upon. Amanda was near, she was very near. She knew not of what to tell her superiors or even her division, but she knew she wanted this job done. She knew she wanted to go through and settle on it. Amanda was done.

“Well look at this,” Amanda said to herself. Amanda had stumbled upon a large building in a clearing. It was the same building that Ryan resided in, and it was the same building where Ryan had been peering out from. Ryan had spotted Amanda in the distance, she was small, and in the lowlight of the moon, couldn’t quite make out much. But Ryan knew it was no one good. There was a certain sense of it, she seemed surprised, Ryan thought. It was not Lorna. Lorna was missing. The person Ryan saw, Amanda, was tense, and inquisitive as she walked up towards the building. For a few moments as Amanda marched on, Ryan was frozen still, almost as if he thought she had saw him in the second floor window. Almost as if she was only marching on to investigate the figure. Ryan had planned to be a statue, but Ryan soon realized that it wasn’t the case. Ryan had to move, but he was frozen. He was stuck in place. He had become what he didn’t want to become. An observer. Ryan couldn’t move. He couldn’t do anything. Someone was coming, someone was closing in. It wasn’t Lorna. Lorna was missing.

“Damn it!” Ryan cursed at himself. The figure came closer. She was still a whiles away, and it was evident that she was very cautious. Amanda took note of everything that she saw from the building, how large it was, and how it seemed to be ancient. How it seemed to be ethereal, and how it seemed to be the perfect place for such a crime; Lorna would digress. As the figure came closer, Ryan could see her much more clearly, Ryan could see Amanda. Ryan knew that her arrival meant nothing but trouble. Ryan was stuck in his own frozen intrude, and Ryan didn’t know why. His norm, his feelings were all hinged on a tight rope, but Ryan couldn’t move. Ryan cursed, and he wanted to scream, but he feared that Amanda would hear. Soon enough, something flashed in Ryan’s mind. His feelings rushed across him in a flurry of blurs and whips. His face flourished in pain and  his hands shivered in a frigid cold. His body traversed in a valley of complete solitude.  Amanda was nearing. The low moonlight reflected off her face, and off her blue. Ryan was unable to move.

“Hello?” Amanda said as she knocked on the door of the orphanage.

“Anyone home?” Amanda sarcastically said, her hand hinged on her sidearm. Amanda wasn’t scared. She was surprised. She was happy. She was, indifferent. But Amanda wasn’t scared. She had partook in missions pertaining to the cloak of the night. She had been shot, she had been wounded, and she had been taken captive. Amanda wasn’t scared. She was relieved. She wanted to go home. She wanted to find Lorna. Amanda had paged James, wherever he may be, and told him that she had found their prize. The division will surely know about this if they down the mission now. This will be on their report. Their travesties. Amanda didn’t care. She would protect James, and she would move on.

“I’m coming in,” Amanda said, to no one in particular. As Amanda opened the door, the bell resounded, and rung loudly in the thick of the otherwise dead of the night. Amanda wasn’t alarmed, she kept quiet, she kept calm. Everyone in the building was suddenly alerted, and Ryan could finally move, as if broken from a spell. Doors opened, and children walked out. As some of the children soon realized, the person who had opened the door, was not Lorna. It was Amanda, and some of them stood in their doorways, terrified by the guest. Ryan ran down as fast as he could, explaining to those he could about who was at the door.

“Oh? Funny seeing you here,” Amanda said as Ryan rushed down the stairs. Everyone had gathered at the front of the building. Kids lined the top of the stairs, and both ends of the hallways. Some had already realized what was going on, and had grabbed their belongings. Spark and Hailstone shuttered at the sight of Amanda, but their hands tensed, and they were ready to pounce.

“You know, you’ve caused quite a bit of trouble, Ryan.”

“Have I?”

“Anna and Lenny, your mother and your uncle, are looking for you.”

“Are they?” Ryan played a strange tune, much like what Amanda was used to. However, she didn’t have time to play games.

“I have the right to detain you, and to bring you back.”

“You do?”

“And I have the right to abolish this building and to restrain everyone residing here,” Amanda said with her most authoritative voice. Amanda was lying. However, she knew that no one would know, and she knew that it was the only way to get them to comply. At least, that’s what she had hoped.

“Restrain?” Ryan asked.

“Yes. You will all come with me. Especially you, Ryan. You have someplace to be.”

“Where are you bringing us?” Winter spoke out. Everyone looked at her. It was odd, very odd, Ryan thought. He would never have expected Winter to speak out. But, through her words, and through her notion, it was quite clear to all the residents of the building that the situation was serious. Winter was strong, unbelievably warm, and strong, Ryan thought. Winter was strong, and cold. Her words brought a strange sense of relief. It was like looking at a kid standing up to a bully, Ryan thought. Except the matter was much more than a school trifle.

“Don’t worry. I won’t hurt anyone,” Amanda said. Her statement was weak if one knew of what entailed. Amanda didn’t, and she was simply told to bring them in. She was simply told, to leave matters to those in the proper division, and that no harm will be done. She was simply told to abide.

“Come quietly, and we won’t have any problems.” Hailstone and Spark were ready to leap at Amanda, but Ryan shook his head towards them, urging them not to go, and urging them to wait. Ryan didn’t know what to do now. Ryan really didn’t know what he  needed to do. The one person Ryan needed to see, the one person Ryan needed to conference, was missing. Everyone knew that the note was on the door, and that if they wanted to reach the door, they needed to head towards Amanda. Everyone was scared. No one wanted to talk. They knew they had lost. They knew their norm was ending.

“I can’t let you do that,” Ryan said with great bravado. His words resounded as much as Winter’s did, and they were a source of assurance. Ryan needed to be strong. He needed to be stronger. Stronger than everyone here. He needed to make sure that they were safe, and that they didn’t feel scared.

“There’s no need to be scared.”

“Lorna–” Spear suddenly jumped in. His voice was clear, and it wasn’t tinged with what Ryan would expect to be fear. It was tinged with surprise, and most of all, curiosity.

“Told me that if we ever go to the ‘bad guys’ that they will bring us to a place worse than prison.” Amanda was brought back by the inclusion of Lorna’s name. She was confused, but she casted it off, feigning it was someone else, hoping that she hadn’t been involved. Amanda didn’t want to believe that she was involved. It was impossible, Amanda concluded.

“I know what prison is, so I asked Lorna what she meant. She said she didn’t know, but she told me that it was like a training camp. And they told us that people will know about us and how to use us. She said that the system is very dirty and that government officials are not who they seem to be.” Spear finished, and despite his words sounding very solid, it was clear that Spear only had half of the truth behind those words. Even Amanda didn’t know what to say in response. Amanda understood Spear’s sentiments, and knew that what he said, and what he heard might have been true. For all Amanda knows, the people she worked for, are all corrupt and are all hiding a dark secret. If Spear’s words had come from Lorna, the same Lorna Amanda knew, then she would be inclined not to question it.

“Is that true, miss?” Spear asked, still with his questioning tone. It was strange, Ryan thought, it was almost like a child asking their mother about a murder they had just witnessed. It was filled with questions and strange things they learned from even stranger people.

“I-” Suddenly, a loud bang resounded outside. It was a gunshot. It made the birds cry, and it rumbled across the forest. Everyone suddenly closed their ears, and Amanda ran out, frantic. Some of the children used this chance to take their belongings, and once Ryan had saw that everyone was gathered, he reached out for the door and took the note.

“Everyone! Let’s go!” Suddenly, all the children poured out of the building and followed Ryan. Amanda noticed this, but couldn’t do much as they ran far too quickly for her to react. Another gunshot had resounded in the distance, and Amanda quickly turned in the direction, her sidearm now brandished. Amanda’s arm was shaking as she turned back towards the children. Amanda cursed, and quickly paged her division and James. She knew she was done now. Everyone would know, but it was the only thing she could do. She didn’t want to shoot. She couldn’t. Ryan and the children poured into the forest, and headed for the location written on Lorna’s note. The bridge. Shooter was waiting. After Amanda had finished paging everyone about the current events, she sighed, and lowered her gun. Lorna sighed in the distance, watching Amanda stand on the open grass fields, her head held high and her breath blowing beneath her. Lorna pulled down the sidearm in her hand, and dropped it in a bush. She removed the gloves on her hands, and placed them in her pocket, along with Shooter’s note. Lorna took a deep breath in, and then stepped into the moonlight, revealing herself, and calling out to Amanda. Shooter was waiting. Ryan and the children all ran, and they pushed past the forest. They were all thinking the same thing, and they were all worried. Lorna was missing.

Chapter 29

Ryan and the children ran among the night’s veil, none worrying about the noise that they were creating. The only thing they had in mind, was the destination. Ryan fluttered the note as he was running, and soon placed it in his pocket. There was a single word written on the note, and it was a place that Ryan and the children had to place their trust in. After all, Lorna had placed her trust in it as well, and that much was enough for them.

“Where are we going?” Winter asked.

“The bridge!” Ryan couldn’t help but shout as he ran, his breath was waning, but he had to endure it.

“This is fun!” Runner exclaimed. The situation was quite dire, but despite this, Runner still had a level head, he was still himself, and this made Ryan happy.

“Don’t count on it,” Walker said as he lagged behind. Walker never seemed to be the type to be able to run fast, or long, Ryan thought. He seemed to be having a harder time than Ryan, and this made him slightly happy, although, Walker was younger than him.

“We could have taken her on!” Spark said, trying to race ahead of Ryan.

“Yeah right!” Carrier added, “You would have been cleaned.”

“Hah! I can take you on any day, you can even bring Hailstone!”

“I’ll wipe the floor with both of you!”

“Guys….” Sunflower said at their playful bantering. Although their talk was nothing more than running noise for Ryan, it still made him quite happy, and made the other children relaxed. The energy and the feelings that these children had were all special, Ryan thought. They were all so endearing, and they were all precious. Lorna had a good family. Ryan had a good family. His norm was slowly piecing together. His norm was slowly forming again. His heart ached, but his face gleamed a big smile. Ryan couldn’t have been any happier in such a harrowing state.

“If we keep this up, ghosts will come and get us!” Spear said, being the loudest of all the children.

“Forget about the ghosts, my legs are killing me!” Ryan started shouting. Everyone began laughing, and as their voices filled the dead of the night, they all couldn’t help but smile. Their worries were slowly fading, and the weight on their hearts had slowly started draining. What seemed to be the end of their world, and the end of the norm they had all resided in, was gone.

“You better not die on us!” Hailstone said cheerfully with a toothy grin. Ryan’s legs were giving in, but Ryan pressed on. He knew that he needed to bring them to the bridge. He knew that he needed to trust in Lorna. He knew that his norm was coming back together. Ryan didn’t want that feeling to end again. He didn’t want to betray his norm. Ryan pressed on. Ryan continued to run, and he continued to lead.

“We’re here!” Runner said as he pressed ahead. Once Ryan had arrived at the bridge, he moved towards the grassy hills and laid facing the starry night sky.  His eyes began tiring, and he felt the energy from the run drain quickly out of his body. Ryan wanted to fall into a deep sleep, and Ryan wanted the whole world to be enveloped in a shroud of darkness. The stars ahead were bright, and they gave way for nice company. Ryan wanted to sleep.

“She did tell me there would be eight of you–” A voice resounded beneath the hills, it was Shooter, who Ryan didn’t recognize. Despite the cloak of the night, Shooter still opted to wear sunglasses. He made his way up the hill and examined each of the children with one hand on his chin.

“I see. Well, she found a good bunch,” Shooter concluded.

“And–” Shooter turned towards Ryan, who was still lying on the grassy hills.

“You must be Ryan Ray.”

“I am. Are you Lorna’s plan?” Shooter laughed. Ryan wondered who Shooter was, and wondered his relations to Lorna. Ryan wondered if he was a friend, or a person who used to be under the care of Lorna, and had found his own home. If that was the case, Ryan wondered where he would be bringing them, or if he was going to bring them anywhere. And if that was the case, Ryan wondered if he was an ally, or if he was an enemy. And if that was the case, Ryan wondered what Lorna had done in her past; the same past that Ryan knew so little about.

“I don’t know if I’m Lorna’s plan. But I am here to bring you kids to a safer place.”

“A safer place?” Ryan asked.

“Yeah. If you guys are here, I’m assuming you guys finally got caught, right?”

“Right.”

“And I don’t think that you guys would like the kind of things they have in store.”

“They bring us to a place worse than prison, right?” Spear asked.

“According to Lorna.”

“How much do you know?” Ryan asked.

“I only know as much as Lorna knows. She’s the one gathering the info. I’m the recorder.” Shooter looked towards the sky, his eyes still blocked off with his sunglasses, and his expression was lax. Ryan got up from his position, and stood beside Shooter, who was much taller than he was.

“How do you know Lorna?” Ryan suddenly asked. The question itself had no real pertinence towards the situation. However, there was an urging feeling in Ryan that made him want to ask that question. Ryan wasn’t sure if it was jealously, or simple curiosity that he wanted to know his relations toward Lorna. Shooter found the question amusing.

“The same way you know her.”

“She took you in?”

“You’re looking at a first generation,” Shooter proudly proclaimed.

“That’s means that you lot are her second generation.” Ryan quickly understood what he meant, and realized that Lorna must have been taking care of people for quite some time. To have multiple generations, means that she must have gone through multiple families, Ryan thought.

“Were you caught, as well?” Ryan asked to Shooters better amusement.

“No. None of us were caught. None of the first generation. We all left on our own accords.” The thought of Lorna’s family leaving her made Ryan sad, but at the same time, it seemed she was very stoic. Lorna never talked about this first family she had. She never seemed to bat an eye towards them, and to Ryan, that seemed like she had moved on. She had finished her job, and she had no more obligations towards those who are now wanted, to those who are now unfit for the home for the unwanted. Ryan was such a person, and now Ryan was trying his best to cling to that norm. Ryan wondered what that made him, and wondered if in doing so, he was heading into un trodden territories. After all, his mother, and his uncle were waiting for him.

“But enough of me. I heard that you guys all keep a diary, right?” Ryan didn’t, but the other children did, and they all took their diaries out.

“Good.” The sentiment was quite strange to Ryan, and he wondered why that was important.

“Where’s Lorna?” Winter asked.

“I wish I knew.”

“You mean she won’t be coming with us?” Runner asked.

“No. She told me to wait before I left, and to bring you along so I could drop you off to some place safe.”

“With all of us, we can take on the ‘bad guys’ and save Lorna!” Spark excitingly added.

“I don’t think Lorna’s in any trouble. She would want us to leave. She would want you to leave.” Shooter’s voice seemed to go quiet. His comfortable causal tone had dropped, and it seemed the thought of Lorna had made him sad. Shooter remembered something, or rather, Shooter knew something, Ryan thought. Throughout the time Lorna had devised her plan, she had decided to tell Shooter about her past. Lorna told him everything, and about why she wanted to do what she wanted to do. It made Shooter angry at first, but he soon came to terms with it. He had no choice, it was the only thing he could do now to repay the debt he owed, Shooter concluded. And even then,  Shooter didn’t want to comply. Shooter knew what Lorna was going to do, and Shooter knew that it meant going against everything she wanted. Lorna was facing her past; she had never forgotten. Lorna didn’t want to, she knew that her past made up who she was, and she knew that her past was important, but she didn’t want to go back to it. She wanted to move on, with her new family, with her new experiences. It was only until she met her recent kids that she felt this way. Her feelings had changed. She wasn’t obliged to her chains anymore, she wanted to take care of them, because that was what she deemed as right and as her own mantra.

“Lorna’s strong. She’s really strong. You guys had a good guardian.” Shooter’s voice trailed off, and despite the sunglasses that blocked his eyes, Ryan could tell that he was on the verge of tears. Lorna wanted to cry as well, but she didn’t. Lorna knew she couldn’t cry, not now at least. Lorna walked back with Amanda, while the rest of her division scattered across the forest and some in the town to look for Ryan and the children. Lorna wanted everyone to be safe, and wanted everyone to leave. And most of all, she wanted Ryan to stay, and to live his life with the people he has. That was all Lorna could do for Ryan. It was all she could do after she’s learned so much from him. She’s learned to fly, and she’s learned to fight. Lorna would be living another life, and she would be accustomed to new norms once again. That was enough for Lorna. That was her plan. She made no mistakes.

“Why wouldn’t Lorna want to come with us?” Carrier asked.

“She has reasons. She has many reasons, and I think you guys will come to appreciate that when you get older.”

“You appreciate them because you’re older?” Walker added.

“Exactly.”

“Don’t give me that! Lorna needs to be here!” Hailstone suddenly interjected, yelling and rushing towards Shooter; who towered over her, “Don’t tell me that Lorna has reasons for leaving us! She has to come!”

“Hailstone….” Sunflower said, “It’s okay, Hailstone. It’s fine, if–”

“No! No, you don’t understand!”

“But I do, and it–”

“It’s all a load of crap! Lorna can’t leave us like this. She promised. She promised us that she would always be with us! That she’ll protect us…” Shooter had no words to quell her. Shooter couldn’t quell her. It wasn’t his job, nor did he know enough to be able to calm the situation. Shooter was just a transporter.

“I won’t leave without Lorna!” Hailstone exclaimed. The other children all looked towards the floor, their feelings mixed. Some wanted Lorna to stay, but some understood that she needed to be where she was.

“Come on, guys!” Hailstone looked up towards everyone, her face slowly contorting to anger, and just before she could yell out at them, Sunflower stopped her, “Reina!” Everyone suddenly jolted up towards Sunflower, who called Hailstone by her real name. Just like with Ryan, the thought of it was surprising, and more powerful then she would have wanted.

“Let’s go, okay?” Sunflower looked towards Hailstone with teary eyes and a sweet smile. It gave Hailstone a bitter aftertaste, and she swallowed her pride, “Fine.”

“We can always come back to find Lorna, right?” Sunflower asked Shooter.

“Right.”

“See? It’s going to be fine, okay?” Hailstone nodded her head. The rest of the children remained indifferent, and all looked towards Shooter. Ryan sighed, and asked, “So, we should head out now right?”

“Yeah. We should.” Shooter made a distinct emphasis towards the word “we”.

“Look. Ryan, I know this might be hard on you, but I have to–” Ryan gave Shooter a questioning look. Shooter took his sunglasses off, which revealed to Ryan that his eyes were locked towards the hills. He made a notion not to make eye contact with him. Shooter circled around to where the children couldn’t see and pulled out a small needle. It took Ryan a few moments to realize what was going on, but before he could do much, the needle had already been injected into Ryan. He slowly lost consciousness, and as he leaned forward, Shooter caught him. The kids were all visibly shocked, but Shooter casually laid him on the grassy hills and explained, “It looks like Ryan was a bit sleepy. Why don’t we all go ahead?” Shooter began herding the kids towards the bridge, with some protesting, and others saying how they should leave together.

“Don’t worry. I told him where we would be, okay? He needs rest. He’ll come when he can, okay?” Shooter brought the kids to the bridge, and was trying his best to herd them across. He needed to go now if he wanted to catch public transport. If he ever wanted to fulfill the promise he made to Lorna, he needed them to go now.

“Lorna told me about this. And Lorna said she would come watch over Ryan. Ryan has been really exhausted, so he has to sleep. Let Lorna handle, it, okay?”

“What about the ‘bad guys’?” One of the children asked.

“Lorna said that when we leave, she would have already beat the bad guys. She will take care of Ryan, but after that, she needs to stay to make sure they don’t follow us.” Those words seemed to have quieted the kids. Only one seemed to inquire about that statement, and only a few of them were entirely fine with the current events. To satisfy their doubts about Shooter, Shooter produced a handwritten note by Lorna, which seemed to be enough for them. Lorna’s handwriting was really distinct, and each of them knew of it very well. Lorna had written a simple message. It was a message that was enough to convince them that everything in their norm was going to be fine. Shooter hated himself for doing this, but knew that it was the only way. Lorna made no mistakes. Ryan was left sleeping while his parents and some of Amanda’s division had spotted him. Shooter was bitter. Their norms would never be the same again. Shooter took the note and read it again. It made him want to cry.

“Stay safe, and follow my friend, okay? I’ll come find everyone once I’m done with the bad guys!” Lorna made no mistakes. But Lorna, had lied. Shooter had lied. Their lives will never be the same. They could never go back to their home for the unwanted. And they could never go back to what they used to have. That was the bitter resolve that Lorna sought out to achieve. That was her plan. And if any of them were to ever come back, seeking her out, seeking the norm they once had, Lorna had another plan. She left a message scrawled on a notebook that would be placed at the front of the building. Lorna made sure that Amanda and her division wouldn’t demolish the building altogether. Lorna’s message was simple, and would be the only word she would ever want to say to them now that they have left with Shooter.

“Sorry”

Chapter 30

“Black?”

“You know me well.”

“You don’t change.”

“Perhaps so.” Amanda gave a sly smile and brought her cup to her lips, allowing the black liquid to drain into her mouth.

“Any new jobs?” Amanda looked at the file in her hand and skimmed through the yellow pages.

“Can’t say there are.”

“Loose leafs?” Amanda nodded her head and placed her cup on the table.

“Dry air?” Amanda gave another sly smile and walked over to the window and peered through the blinds, seeming to be searching for air.

“Cold winds?”

“Enough!” Amanda waved her off and gave a causal smile. She turned towards her and leaned on the window.

“Too formal, it’s not like you.” Amanda went over to pat her on the head. She smiled and went over to peer out of the window.

“It’s not. But it’s fine, right?” Amanda gave it some thought, and then scuttled over to her desk. A folder of white paper was spilled on the desk. Amanda reached over and tidied the pile.

“It’s fine.”

“Long work day?” Amanda picked up the folder and grabbed her coat.

“To make amends? Yeah.” She walked over to the door and opened it slowly, her white shirt being brushed aside.

“James is going to laugh at us again.”

“Right. But he knows we saved his sorry self.” She nodded vehemently, and came to Amanda’s side.

“Ever hear from them?”

“It hasn’t even been a year.”

“Right,” Amanda said wistfully, “Right,” Amanda said with a sigh of relief.

“But–” She paused, “It would be sad if I did, I think.”

“Really?” Amanda said, only understanding one part of her story.

“Yeah. After all, I lied to them.” Amanda didn’t reply, but as they began heading for the exit of the building, she perked up.

“But you did apologize, right?” Amanda only knew one part of the story. And even that was a lie.

“Yeah. I did,” She replied, lying once more. Although, she would digress, and she would say that anyone looking for apologies would find them in the right place. Anyone looking for retribution would find what she had left, and anyone looking to seek out right from wrong, would be able to find her. Although, finding her now was a question of pure morals, not smarts, she thought. Finding her now, wouldn’t be quite as good as it was back then. But she lived with it. She had to. That was her resolution. She made no mistakes.