Monday, February 1, 2010

Book One in The Harrowbethian Saga





Buy it in PAPERBACK or E-BOOK
KINDLE    NOOK    KOBO    iTUNES




Life is a valuable and unique opportunity
to discover who you are.
But it seems as soon as you near
 answering that age-old question,
something unexpected always happens
to alter your course.
And who it is you thought you were
suddenly changes.
Then comes the frustrating realization
that no matter how long life endures,
no matter how many experiences
are muddled through in this existence,
you may never really be able
to answer the question….
Who am I?
Because the answer, like the seasons,
constantly, subtly, inevitably changes.
And who it is you are today,
 is not the same person you will be tomorrow.

-Sha Eena
87th Queen of Harrowbeth
Copyright 2012 Richelle E. Goodrich











Prologue

The final red tinge of another sunset was fading, sinking behind a distant sagebrush-dotted horizon.  In a matter of minutes the sky would be filled with the soft lights of a million stars.  Sevenah watched the performance as faithfully as she did every night from her grassy seat beneath the old weeping willow tree where she could see across her father’s cornfields and beyond.  This hill was her favorite place to be, evenings her favorite time of day, almost always spent with her very best friend, Ian. 
The two usually rode her horse, Paka, up the hill to watch the sunset, but her beloved pet had been fitted with new shoes and was struggling to adjust to them.  Her mother had suggested leaving him in the barn. 
Sevenah glanced at the silhouette of Ian seated beside her—tall, lean, and slightly slouched.  He was staring up at the first star of the evening which wasn’t really a star at all but the bright reflection of the sun off the nearby planet, Venus.
“Do you think people will live there someday?” she asked him.
Ian turned his head to find her staring at the same celestial light he’d been contemplating.  His fingers brushed away the dusty-brown bangs that hung in his eyes.
“You mean Venus?  Doubtful.  I can’t imagine the atmosphere ever changing enough to sustain life—at least not our kind of life.”
She laughed.  “What other kind is there?”
“Oh, species that require alternative atmospheres to survive,” he said matter-of-factly.
She laughed even more. 
“You disagree?”
“I think you read too many sci-fi books,” she smiled.  It was true, he usually had a book or two in his possession he thumbed through when there wasn’t something else demanding his attention.  Even homework didn’t take priority when it came to an off-world adventure story.
“I’m still right,” he insisted.
Sevenah resumed staring up at the darkness.  The sun had set entirely, giving way for the appearance of a speckled night’s sky.  It seemed the more she stared, the greater the number of stars.  She pondered the immensity of the universe and how it resembled an artist’s black canvas peppered with a haphazard splattering of white paint.
“I think there probably is life out there a lot like our own.  I can’t imagine so many suns—so many planets—and not at least one of them being something like ours.”
She could sense Ian nod in agreement beside her.
Her eyes searched for the big dipper, one of the few constellations she easily recognized.  It wasn’t within view.  She twirled around and pulled her long, red-brown hair over one shoulder before lying back on the grassy slope to see past the droopy limbs of the willow tree.  It was only a matter of seconds before Ian copied her move, a habit of his.  As soon as his head lay beside hers, she pointed directly up.
“There it is,” she announced, “the Big Dip.”
Ian pointed off to the right.  “And there’s Arcturus and Virgo and Leo…”
“Show off,” she muttered, slapping him lightly on the shoulder.  Her head turned sideways to catch a twinkle in his green eyes as he chuckled.  They were a shade darker than her own.  He smiled his usual warm smile when she stared at him a little too long.
“What?” he asked.
“Nothing.”  She rolled her eyes to divert attention from her blushing cheeks.
Ian’s lips slipped crookedly to one side.  “Maybe someday you and I will visit another world.”
Sevenah laughed out loud, causing a frown to erase his grin.  Apparently he was serious.  To spare his feelings she chose to play along. 
“Okay, okay, how about I’ll fly to Orks Nation while you go visit the little green men on Zeeksville?”
“Oh come on!”
She turned up a questioning palm.  “What?  You’re the one who believes in aliens.” 
“Yes, I do, but that’s not what I’m groaning about.  Orks Nation?  Zeeksville?  Those are horrible names!  Could you at least try to be creative with your planets?”
Her body rolled sideways to face him, elbow bent, hand cupping her cheek.  Lengths of reddish hair fell straight behind her shoulder. 
“I suppose you have better names?” she challenged.
“Oh, definitely yes,” he insisted.  He rotated to face her, copying her move again.
“Lay ’em on me then.”
Ian glanced up at the darkness for a moment.  “Okay, how about….Rapador of the Paegus Solar System.  Or even better—Moccobatra of the Alaheron System.”
“Did you pull those out of one of your sci-fi books?” she asked suspiciously.
“No.”
“You just made them up?”  Her eyebrows lifted, a little surprised and impressed.
“Well…..no.”
The same eyebrows scrunched together in confusion.  “Then where’d they come from?”
“Okay, I got them from a book,” he admitted.
“I thought so,” she smirked.  “You’re not so terribly clever either.” 
Ian sighed as he watched Sevenah’s pink lips curl into a wide, triumphant grin.  “No fooling you, is there,” he muttered.
“No—but nice try.”
Sevenah fell on her back again and stared at the heavens silently for a while.  Ian remained on his side, watching her scan the universe with wonder.  They listened to the remote chorus of crickets and tree frogs until Sevenah’s arm shot up, tracing an arc overhead. 
“Did you see that?” she chirped.  Her eyes glimmered with excitement.  “A falling star!  Did you make a wish?”
Ian dropped onto his back and looked up.  “No—no wishes.  I don’t believe in superstitions.” 
She laughed.  “But aliens you do believe in.  You’re so weird.” 
“What did you wish for?” he asked, ignoring the playful insult.
She grinned big.  “I wished for all your wishes to come true.”
“Really?  You wasted a wish on me?”
“Of course.  You’re my best friend.”  Her hand reached to squeeze his.
“But I thought if you told your wish it wouldn’t come true.”
“I thought you didn’t believe in superstitions,” she retorted.
“Okay, okay.”
Their conversation was interrupted by the muted beep of a cell phone.  Sevenah reached into the pocket of her Levis and pulled out a small, pink, touchscreen device.
“Your mom?” Ian asked, seeing her frown at a glowing text message.
“Ugh, yes.  Who else would it be?”  Her eyes flickered over at Ian before returning to the text she was quickly typing in response.  “You’re so lucky no one hounds you like this.”
He grinned, amused.  “What are you telling her?”
“That I’ll be home as soon as you’re done molesting me.”
Ian quickly reached for the phone.  “Sevenah, don’t you dare…” 
It dinged—message sent—as she avoided him, shrugging innocently.  “Ooops, too late.”
“You are so rude to your mother,” he chided.  “Ruth is going to hate me now.”
It was always strange to hear Ian refer to her mother by name.  Sevenah sighed, complaining.  “Well, if she wasn’t so darn overprotective.  It’s annoying.”
“She cares about you.”
“I know.”
“Which is a good thing.”
“I know.”
The phone was shoved back into her front pocket before she sat up and crossed her legs.  Ian did the same, slumping a bit.
“I guess it’s time for you to go,” she announced.  “Walk me home?”
“Don’t I always?”
Ian shed his J.D. jean jacket and tossed it over Sevenah’s shoulders as she started down the hill in front of him.  They skirted the browning cornstalks at the bottom before heading for a distant white fence that encircled her house.  He would drop her off by the gate tonight instead of going in to visit with her parents as usual.
“I might not see you in the morning, Sevenah.  My uncle’s got plans.”
“Really?”
That was odd.  Ian hardly ever mentioned his uncle, let alone did anything with the grumpy, old guy.  She’d never actually met the man but had heard about his ornery character on occasion.
“Yes, but it shouldn’t take all day.  I’ll be here as soon as I can be.”
“Okay,” she shrugged.  It was the weekend, so they would still have plenty of time to hang out even if he wasn’t there first thing in the morning.  She’d have to remember to tell her mom not to make any breakfast for him.
“Hey, Ian.  Jackie mentioned at school today something about the whole group going back to Sun Lakes one last time before winter sets in.  Maybe you could join us there when you’re done with your uncle.”
“It’s a little chilly for swimming isn’t it?”
“Oh, we’re not planning to swim.  Just a barbeque-picnic sort of thing.”
She caught the disapproving look on his face when he glanced at her.  “I’d rather you wait for me.”
“Why?”
“Actually, I’d rather not go at all if you don’t mind.  I had other plans.”
“For us?”
“Yes.  Is that so hard to believe?”
“Well, um…uh, no,” she stammered, “I guess not.”  Truthfully it did surprise her.  She was used to him going along with her plans and her friends.  Very seldom did he suggest an alternate activity.  Curious, she asked, “So, what did you have in mind?”
He lifted both shoulders undecidedly.
“I thought you said…” she started.  Then her eyes pulsed wide and she poked at his arm accusingly.  “You just don’t want me hanging around Erik!”
His head shook in denial.  “That’s not it.”
“Don’t tell me you’re going all ‘Ruthy’ on me.  Are you getting my mother’s overprotective gene?”
Ian laughed with amusement.  “I’m not going ‘Ruthy’ on you, but I could probably one-up her if I wanted.”  His laughter halted when he turned a serious face on his friend.  “Just promise you’ll wait for me.  I’ll take you to the lake if that’s where you really want to go, but wait for me, alright?”
Her hand batted at the air.  “Whatever.”
“Promise me,” he insisted.
She looked up to see if his expression was as stern as his voice.  It was.
“Fine,” she agreed, her brow creasing with puzzlement.  “I promise.”  She crossed her heart as if swearing it.
“Thank you.” 
Sevenah wondered at his sigh of relief.
Surprisingly, they had made it to the main gate, just outside the reach of a porch light.  Ian held the wooden entry open for her. 
“I’ll see you tomorrow then,” he said.
She handed back his jacket before starting down the cement path for the front door.  “Okay, but don’t be too late.  I’m not going to sit around and waste my entire Saturday.”
“Hey!” he called out behind her.  “You promised you’d wait for me.”
     "Yeah, yeah, yeah."  She grinned impishly, glancing back at his troubled face.  Great.  He was going 'Ruthy' on her.  



CHAPTER ONE





Buy it in PAPERBACK or E-BOOK
KINDLE    NOOK    KOBO    iTUNES





Chapter One

Who Are You


What on earth am I still doing here? she wondered.  Why is this taking so darn long?
Sevenah had been sitting in the doctor’s office for hours, slouched on the edge of a cold examination table.  This was the second time they had recalled her to the clinic for tests.  That alone was enough to make her stomach ache.  She hadn’t expected to combine the anxiety with an entire day of fasting.
“What time is it now?” she muttered to herself.
Not having developed the habit of wearing a watch, Sevenah pulled a glossy, pink cell phone from the front pocket of her faded Levis and glanced at the digital display again. 
5:38pm, it read.  Only ten minutes past the last time she had checked. 
Her arrival at the clinic had been just after 11:30 that morning at Dr. Tracy’s request, with his assurances it was nothing more than a follow-up appointment.  But the way those worry lines had deepened around his white eyebrows made her wonder.  Even more disconcerting was his agitated and distant behavior, so uncharacteristic of the warm and friendly doctor she’d come to rely on over the years.
The old man was an icon in Royal City, having practiced medicine in their small, desert town for over three decades.  He’d been the Williams’ family doctor since before Sevenah could recall.  Her mother had brought her to see him as a child, and still the young lady was a loyal patient at seventeen years of age, able to drive herself to the clinic.  Growing up, Dr. Tracy had treated her numerous bouts of strep throat and given her several sports exams, never forgetting a lollipop on the way out.  She trusted him.  She liked him—especially the way he welcomed her with a friendly pat on the shoulder and the kindest smile.  Today, however, those affable gestures were missing. 
Sevenah tried to convince herself the anxiety she felt was nothing more than the product of an overactive imagination.  She had even spoken to her father about it that afternoon, seeking his common-sense reassurance there was nothing to worry about—advice reliably offered over the phone.  ‘Relax, honey, the lab’s probably busy.  Doc said it’s just follow up tests.  Results take time; be patient.’  But six hours in a sterile room enduring ultrasounds and blood draws and repeated x-rays was torturing her tendency to fret over imagined what-ifs. 
“I thought this place closed at five,” she groaned.
Alone, listening to the grumbling complaints of an empty stomach, her fingers found their habitual place coiling lengths of her hair into ringlets.  She was blessed with her mother’s thick strands that draped over her shoulders like copper corn silk.  Her other hand tapped on the metal table in an attempt to calm agitated nerves.  The pattered rhythm proved somewhat hypnotic.  Her hazel eyes disappeared beneath apricot eyelids as she breathed out a long, heavy sigh, releasing a portion of the built-up tension in her chest.  A shiver traveled down her spine, and her muscles stiffened in response. 
It was chilly in the clinic, despite the unusually warm autumn breeze that blew across irrigated farmland outside.  Sevenah rubbed her arms briskly, wishing she had thrown on more than a t-shirt and jeans that morning.  A sweatshirt would’ve been wise; she almost never felt warm enough.  Why she didn’t carry a jacket with her more often was a puzzle, especially with the days growing shorter.  Just absentminded perhaps.  If her best friend, Ian, had been there, he would have offered his by now.  She smiled, realizing he was probably the reason she never brought her own.  Ian routinely looked out for her.  He was always in her company, always prepared like a boy scout. 
Except for today.
Sevenah had assumed he would eventually meet up with her at the clinic.  He would have gone to her house when finished with whatever responsibilities were his at home.  Then her mother should’ve directed him to town—explained that Dr. Tracy had called, personally requesting her presence that morning for follow-up tests.  She had texted her other friends a dozen times already, but no one had admitted to seeing head-nor-tail of her best friend.  Four calls to her mom had received no answer.  That was typical.  Her mother’s phone usually sat buried in a purse or a pocket if it wasn’t just plain lost altogether, a fact that proved a constant irritation to Sevenah.  She couldn’t understand why a person bothered owning a cell phone with no intention of ever answering it. 
Admittedly, a portion of her agitation was due to Ian’s absence.  It was rare for the pair to spend one day apart.  They had become attached at the hip after first meeting a little over a year ago when the young man had moved to town.  He’d seemed shy and quiet at first, but had opened up to Sevenah with little effort.  Since then, they were nearly inseparable. 
Their initial meeting had occurred shortly after her first excruciating attack—the one Dr. Tracy now claimed required a second follow-up.  The chest pain had been debilitating, radiating throughout her upper body and across her back.  Her mother had rushed her to the clinic on that cold autumn day in a worried frenzy. 
Sevenah recalled crying nonstop, arms folded over her chest, squeezing against the agonizing internal pressure.  It had mattered little what position she assumed—lying, sitting, or standing—each had been equally insufferable.  Dr. Tracy had ordered x-rays, but after a while the pain had subsided as quickly as it had come on—miraculously vanished.  It was bizarre…….and embarrassing.  Her mother had taken her home, feeling both relieved and confused, before any diagnosis was rendered.  Sevenah had insisted.
A couple months later, Dr. Tracy had called requesting another set of x-rays and additional tests.  “Just a follow up,” he’d explained.  Ian had accompanied her that day, only weeks after meeting him.  Everything had tested ‘hunky-dory,’ as the old doctor liked to say.  So why another call back more than a year after the fact?  Had something critical been discovered?
Sevenah fidgeted on the elevated medical bed, her feet dangling over one side.  She stared down at her white Nikes, now a worn and faded vanilla color.  Trying to pass the time, she examined how the side seams had begun to unravel.
“Note to self—I need new shoes.” 
She hopped off the table and raised both arms toward the ceiling, reaching to stretch out her spine.  Waiting was one of her stronger points, usually.  Biding time was merely a fact of life in Sevenah’s world.  She expected delays; to say, ‘no problem,’ even when it was inconvenient; to compromise; to wait her turn; to calmly keep the peace.  She found it difficult to complain under normal circumstances, but this was getting ridiculous.  Couldn’t the nurse just call with test results?
Her brow tightened trying to decide whether to track someone down or just quietly slip out and head for home.  After all, they did know where to reach her.  A squeak sounded from her sneakers with every swivel on the linoleum as she paced indecisively, searching for the courage to defy authority.  No doubt her father would hear about it if Dr. Tracy found her missing.
“That’s it, I’m leaving,” she finally announced to herself.  Enough was enough.
Headed for the door, her fingers reached for the knob.  It twisted beneath her touch, and she quickly withdrew her hand.
“It’s about time,” she breathed.
Through an opening, she spied an angry face on Dr. Tracy.  His white eyebrows were pulled low, creating a deep vertical furrow in his forehead.  The frown he wore couldn’t have appeared grimmer.
“Sevenah!” he gasped, clearly shocked by her nearness.  The door closed to only a small crack through which he spoke. 
“I uh….I apologize for the wait, but I need you to be patient—just for a while longer.  Not much longer, I promise.  Just, please…..stay here.” 
“But, Dr. Tracy,” she began.  She leaned forward meaning to speak through the opening, but he hurriedly shut the door in her face.  She heard the click of a locking mechanism.  No, no—he couldn’t have.  She tried the knob to confirm what her ears had told her.  The door was locked!  But why?
“Dr. Tracy?” she called out, twisting uselessly at the handle.  “Wait!  Wait, come back!”
A surge of fear chilled her to the bone as she slipped into fretful overdrive.  What possible, sane reason could there be for locking her inside a room?  The question was valid.  The answers, frightening.
Her mind sifted through every potential ‘what if,’ taking only seconds to imagine a variety of rare diseases and excruciating ends she might face in the near future.  It had to be an illness—a highly contagious one.  Why else would her kind, old doctor try to quarantine her?  But she had experienced no further pain!  No other attacks!  No additional symptoms!
Sevenah dug out her phone, wishing she could call Ian.  Unfortunately, his uncle didn’t allow him to have a cell phone, and she didn’t know his home number.  There had never been any need to call him before, seeing how he was always at her house. 
“Mom.”  She muttered the word while her fingers tapped a habitual three-button sequence that led to her mother’s number.  It rang once…twice……….five times.
“Hi there!  You’ve reached the phone of Ruth Williams.  Most likely I’m screening my calls, so if you’re feeling lucky today leave your name and number and…”
“Darn it, mom!  Where are you?”
Sevenah cut off the message and then immediately tapped another memorized sequence.  It rang and rang.
“You’ve reached the phone of Roger Williams.  I’m sorry I can’t answer your call right now, but if you leave your name and number I’ll get back to you as soon as harvest ends.  Maybe sooner, provided I don’t plant another cell phone with my tractor…………..Beep!”
“Dad!  Pick up will you?  Why don’t you guys ever answer your stupid phones!  I mean what good is having a cell phone if you never keep it with you!”  She realized she sounded frantic, probably too much so, and tried to calm herself.  “Okay, Dad, I tried to call mom, but, um…….look, I’m at the clinic still.  I…I’m a little worried.  I know, I know, you’ll probably tell me there’s nothing to worry about, but I’ve been here for six hours now, Dad.  Six hours!  And, well, um……Dr. Tracy has locked me in one of the examining rooms.  Dad, that’s not normal procedure……is it?  Am I okay?  Um…….please, call me.  I love you, bye.”
She stared at the black screen on her phone, concerned that her message might either cause a great deal of unnecessary worry or not excite quite enough.  She could see her father laughing at her, figuring she was overreacting again much like her mom did on occasion.  But this whole thing certainly didn’t feel right.
She wandered over to the furthest corner and leaned against the wall.  Sliding all the way down to the floor, she curled up below a large diagram of the inner ear.  One free arm hugged both knees to her chest as she redialed her mother’s number.  Again no answer.  She didn’t leave a message, knowing how her mom would certainly panic.  It would be better for her father to say something.  He seemed to take things more evenly.  Why she hadn’t been born with his genes rather than her mother’s….
Sevenah laid her head on her knees, resigned to the fact that all she could do now was wait.  And worry.  More than ever, she craved the comforting presence of her best friend, Ian.  Anxious for his company, she recalled the first day their paths had crossed. 
Ian was a handsome boy.  His build—tall and skinny yet muscular.  His dusty-brown hair he wore short, except for long bangs that framed the most striking green eyes to ever reflect sunlight.  He was quiet, his shyness emphasized by the way his shoulders slouched forward.    
Ian had moved to Royal City just over a year ago.  It seemed he just fell from the clouds one day.  The boy behaved like an orphan—no curfew, no one to report to, never in a hurry for home, and nothing much to say. 
Sevenah had noticed him at school, leaning against a gold brick wall, watching her.  The minute their eyes had met, his gaze had dropped to the ground.  After that, she spotted him numerous times during and after school.  He was never with anyone—just hanging solo, staring in her direction.  He showed up in most of her classes aside from phys. ed. and art, and he made an appearance at the library the same time she normally studied there—probably a coincidence—seated three tables away.  After catching him looking at her from behind a copy of ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ her friendly smile had caused him to bury his head in the pages. 
That brisk, autumn evening her horse, Paka, nearly trampled him on the edge of her father’s cornfield.  She feared she’d scared the new kid plumb to death.
“Oh my gosh!  Are you alright?”
Sevenah slid down from her saddle, offering a helping hand to the long-legged fellow on the ground.  He had stumbled and fallen backwards when her horse had cleared the cornstalks.  As soon as he managed to scramble to his feet, his eyes dropped.  He froze in a slumped pose, looking as guilty as a child caught where he was told not to be.  She recognized the boy at once.
“It’s you,” she said.  Her gaze traveled up and down, giving him a good once-over.  He stood well above her; she guessed over six feet tall.  “You’re new here, aren’t you?”
The young man said nothing, continuing to stare at the soil around his shoes.  He seemed afraid to speak.
Sevenah tried a different approach, offering her hand for a friendly handshake. 
“Hello, my name’s Sevenah.  What’s yours?” 
He looked at her palm for a moment, hesitant, stealing a glimpse at her face before finally speaking.  His answer was scarcely audible. 
“Ian.”
“What was that?” she asked. 
“My name—it’s uh…Ian,” he mumbled again.
She could hardly hear him.  “Spell it out for me.”
His shoulders appeared to droop even more as if he was unsure how to perform her simple request.  She thought it curious.  He seemed to sound it out. 
“Uh…..I…A…N.” 
Ee-un?” she asked, pronouncing the name as most would read it.
He shook his head.  “No, I-un.” 
“Oh, with a long I.” 
He nodded and glanced at her again, this time for more than a brief second.  It struck her how evergreen his eyes were up close, like a mesh of pine needles. 
“I like your eyes.” 
He lowered his face, hiding behind long bangs.
Sevenah reached to take his hand and slipped her fingers between his.  She shook it firmly.  “I’m very pleased to meet you, I-un.” 
He looked up tentatively and smiled the nicest, warmest, most enchanting smile back.  She was endeared to him from that moment on.  Not like a boyfriend, but a good friend.  A best friend.  For some reason he felt like a long-lost companion—comfortable to be around and easy to talk to.  It didn’t take much time for him to warm up to her, and the two became near inseparable.  They were buddies, confidants, study partners, teammates, periodic accomplices in spontaneous practical jokes, and always one another’s convenient and reliable alibi.
Sevenah recalled the day she had asked to see where Ian lived.  She was growing strongly attached to him; though, he was still very much a mystery. 
“I’d sure like to meet your parents.  Would you introduce me to them?”  Ian never offered personal news voluntarily, so a visit to his house seemed like a good way to learn more about him. 
Ian didn’t respond right away.  He seemed busy concentrating on lining up a pebble at the toe of his boot.  When he kicked it, they watched it travel down the dirt road leading home from school.
“My parents aren’t around,” he finally muttered.  He hopped and struck the same pebble another yard.  “I live with my uncle right now, but he’s not all that friendly.  I don’t think you want to meet him.” 
His tone had been so somber that Sevenah never again suggested a visit to his house, figuring it was a personal hardship he didn’t care to share.  Not yet anyway.  She always wondered if he actually had a home.  Or parents.  Had they abandoned him?  Were they even alive?  She never asked these questions; it was like an unspoken agreement between them.  But she felt confident he would reveal his secrets to her one day. 
Whenever school wasn’t in session, the pair usually hung out at the Williams’ farm.  Ian hardly ever left Sevenah’s side.  He never mentioned a curfew, which meant she had to tell him when it was time to go.  It was obvious he didn’t care for his own home, a fact that earned her sympathy.  Every now and then she would ask her parents to allow Ian to sleep on their couch, especially if the evening had grown late.  Of course it was a habit her mother was wary of encouraging.  It just seemed to her the young man was constantly shadowing their daughter.  Not that they minded; he was a well-mannered, helpful, and kind soul.  But the fact was…..he was a boy.  A handsome, hormone-driven, teenage boy spending the night in their house while their only daughter lie in bed just a few silent tiptoes down the hallway.  Sevenah recalled her father advocating the very first sleepover.
“Sweetheart, they’re clearly just friends.  Even I can see that.” 
“Exactly how it starts out, honey, but the next thing you know they’re kissing under the mistletoe!”  Sevenah groaned at her mother’s exaggeration.  She was sure where her overactive imagination came from. 
“Come on, Ruthy.  Ian’s never given us reason to question his intentions.  He’s a perfect gentleman.  It’s late; let the poor boy crash on the couch.”
“Even so, what about appearances?  What will the neighbors say?”
“Appearances?  Seriously?  Our closest neighbors are a mile away!”
“Alright,” her mother sighed, giving in to her husband’s judgment.  “But mark my words, Roger, this is not going to become a regular occurrence.  Understand?”
 However, the more Ian won them over, the less resistance Sevenah’s mother gave.  Soon, his periodic sleepovers became a normal part of life.  The boy was quick to lend a helping hand with farm chores in appreciation for their kindness.
Every weekday Ian walked Sevenah to and from the goldbrick high school.  On the nights he slept at his own house, he would show up at the Williams’ front gate bright and early.  He hung out on their farm on the weekends and assisted with the cows, goats, and chickens.  Mr. Williams even convinced him to drive a combine during harvest since Ian was ‘practically living there anyway.’
Nightfall was the best part of everyday.  When the sun began to sink behind a rolling horizon, everything came to a halt.  If Ian didn’t ride up the hill with Sevenah and Paka, he’d be there waiting when she arrived.  There they sat and watched the sunset, a ritual shared faithfully every night, settled side-by-side below the drooping branches of her favorite weeping willow tree.  Sometimes they discussed the day.  Sometimes they simply stared out at a fiery sky and said nothing at all.  Regardless, Ian was always at her side. 
Always.
Except for today. 
“Where are you, Ian?  I could really use you now.”
It had grown quiet in the clinic, enough that every little hum and click sounded amplified.  The murmur of conversing voices had completely ceased, leaving a sense of exile in its place.  Sevenah lifted her head to glance at the phone in her hand, wondering perhaps if the lack of return calls was due to an inconvenient dead battery.  Not so.  Her fingers started into the same sequence to dial her mother, but stopped short at the echo of footsteps down the hallway.  They seemed to be drawing nearer. 
She got to her feet and remained pressed against the wall, troubled by a churning in her gut.  Dr. Tracy had never been one to fear, but the sound of his approach was filling her with dread nonetheless.  What sort of bad news would he deliver?  When the lock released with a click, she swallowed hard.  Maybe the doctor had contacted her parents.  Maybe they were with him now and she wouldn’t have to bear the awful news alone.
Sevenah jumped when the door swung wide open and two strangers looked in.  It wasn’t anyone she expected, but a couple of tall, burly men with tight eyes and tangled scowls.  They scanned the room before focusing in on her. 
The first man to step inside was baldheaded and dressed entirely in black from his broad shoulders to the polished shoes sticking out from beneath a pair of slacks.  His partner, sporting an airman’s jacket, ducked in next.  He had a full head of raven hair so heavily oiled it glistened under the ceiling lights.  Both were intimidating characters who headed straight for Sevenah.
“Stop!” she shrieked, thrusting out a halting palm.  “Stay back!”
The men froze in their tracks as if they shared a concern she might be a legitimate threat.  Sevenah took advantage of their hesitation and darted sideways, putting the examining table between them.  The scowlers exchanged a chary glance before continuing toward her. 
On her phone she pressed a redial button and prayed someone would answer.
“Get that bloody cell phone from her!” the bald man barked.
His partner swiped at her hand over the table, just missing the mark.  Terrified of his clawing, she tossed the device across the room, making a perfect basket in a small garbage can beside the sink.  The baldheaded scoundrel scooped it up and shoved it in his pocket, grinning slyly.  Meanwhile, his companion managed to reach across the examining table and catch his victim by the wrist.  Sevenah fought to pull away, using her body weight like a sinking anchor, but her captor held on tight, squeezing to the point of bruising.
“Ouch!  You’re hurting me!  Let go!”
He struggled to climb over the table, but Sevenah twisted her arm like a water valve, freeing herself and tumbling to the floor in the process.  She scrambled to her feet and ran to an unguarded wall, pressing her back against it.  The exit was blocked.  There was no way around these thugs.
The frightened girl demanded to know what was going on.  “Who are you?  Where’s Dr. Tracy?  What have you done with him?”
No information was volunteered.  The men spoke only to each other.
“Grab the little monster.  Braxton’s waiting.”
“No!  Stay away from me!”  Sevenah tried to appear brave despite the trembling in her voice.  She took a step away from the wall and fisted her hands as if she would fight.  “I demand to see Dr. Tracy!”
For a second she bravely stood her ground, but soon enough she was hoisted off the floor and sandwiched between one man’s bare muscular bicep and the other’s cold leather jacket.  Adrenaline coursed through her small frame, and she kicked at her abductors, screaming at the top of her lungs until a large hand covered her mouth.
With arms restrained, she flailed her legs in self-defense.  A successful dig into the bald man’s ribs had her ankles constrained as well, snatched up by another, thick arm.  The men carried her down the hall in this manner until they reached a back door marked EXIT.
It was opened from the outside.  Sevenah spied the culprit as soon as they stepped into the alley—none other than her trusted family doctor.  Her mind flooded with incredulity.  How could he be helping these two thugs?  Why?
She bit down hard on the calloused fingers covering her mouth.  When the big man pulled his hand away, cussing her for the deed, she begged Dr. Tracy to rescue her.
“Help me!  Stop them!  Please, help me!”
But he was already gesturing denial of his assistance.
“Dr. Tracy!” she implored further, unwilling to believe what the scene suggested.  “Don’t let them hurt me, please!  Come on, you know me!”
The once kind and caring old man scrunched his eyes into a hard, unfeeling stare.  His reply was saturated with revulsion; it nearly stopped her heart.
“I don’t know who you are, and I don’t care.  But I do hope you get exactly what you deserve.” 
He turned his back on an act of abduction and shut the door behind him, leaving her in the hands of two aggressive strangers. 
Her eyes pooled with moisture as she felt her will to fight dissolve.  Did she deserve this treatment?  Why would he say that? 
Her captors forced her into the back seat of a long, black limousine and then climbed in the front.  The vehicle started forward.  She blinked back rising tears as the car moved from the shadowed alleyway into a sunlit street.  With tinted windows, Sevenah assumed no one could see in to recognize her.
The sound of shuffling papers made her aware of others in the car.  Twisting her neck, she found a big, grizzled character in a dark overcoat sitting on the other end of her seat.  He bore no real expression, but his gaze was as fixed on her as the gun he held aimed at her chest.  On the bench directly across the way, a short, stout man in a white lab coat was concentrating on a clipboard gripped within his stubby fingers.  Sevenah noted his irritated countenance, magnified by thick spectacles that rested partway down his nose.  Though his smaller stature seemed less of a threat, there was something about him that reeked of authority.  Eventually he spoke, his eyes never shifting from his paperwork.
“Don’t even think about doing something stupid or I assure you, my friend here will not hesitate to shoot.  He’s done so on several other occasions without much provocation at all.  With that said, would you mind telling me exactly who you are?” 
Still grappling with the reality of her doctor’s betrayal, it took a minute for Sevenah to register the stranger’s words.  All she could manage was a timid, “Excuse me?”
Her peep was enough to grab the man’s full attention.  His fierce gaze shifted to study her through thick spectacles.  The look communicated both impatience and disgust.  Sevenah instantly loathed the man.
“I am not playing games,” he growled, sounding much like her father at the very moment you knew to come forward with the truth or pay severe consequences.  
She glanced nervously sideways at the barrel of a gun.  “My name is Sevenah.  Sevenah Williams.”
The little man narrowed his stare as if attempting to read her mind.  It was hot and stuffy inside the car and his rudeness only made it more unpleasant.  During the long moment of silence, she began to wonder if maybe he could read her thoughts.  At length, he spoke up again.
“So, Sevenah Williams—who are you?”
His persistence frightened her.  She wondered who he thought she was—who they all thought she was.  A sidelong glance passed the question to the large man beside her, hoping he might have an answer.  It seemed preposterous for anyone to feel a need to point a gun at her.  What kind of threat could they possibly imagine her to be?  Who in their right minds would consider her a danger?  Her musings were rudely interrupted.
“It would seriously benefit you to answer the question.  We have unpleasant ways of drawing out information if you choose not to cooperate.”
“I am cooperating!” she gasped, shocked he would threaten her.  “I…I don’t know what you want to hear!”
He leaned forward as if expecting her to divulge some great secret.  His voice escalated.  “I want to know exactly who you are and what you’re doing here!” 
She began again, afraid she might cry.  “I already told you, my name is Sevenah.  I live here in Royal City, on a farm with my parents.  I go to school here.  I’m seventeen, I’m a junior and…” 
He’d stopped listening. 
Ah-hmmm,” he interrupted, “I know you’re lying.” 
Sevenah closed her eyes, aware that tears were spilling over, running down her cheeks. I’m not crazy, she told herself.  Everyone else has gone mad.
“We’ve been watching you for months now, ever since the first set of unusual x-rays.” 
Her eyes flashed open, stunned.  The man kept right on talking. 
“I have to admit, the second set was rather convincing.  You had Dr. Tracy fooled, that’s for certain.  He was sure it was all a curious mistake.  But I’m not so easily deceived.  We’ve monitored your activities very closely since then, and I daresay you’ve done an excellent job of hiding out among us.  You’ve managed to copy our routines perfectly.  I’m surprised you let your guard down today.  Or did we catch you at a bad time perhaps?  Did we step in before you had a chance to alter your medical results like in the past?  Or were you relying on accomplices who failed to come through?”
“What?  What are you talking about?”  She was trying to follow, but it was all nonsense he was spouting.
She flinched when his clipboard slapped against the seat.  Her eyes followed his stubby hands down to a leather briefcase where he pulled out a folder of thin, gray sheets and what looked like prints of ultrasounds. 
“These are yours,” he informed her.  He held up a series of ultrasounds, adjusting his glasses as he spoke.  “These are the images we took this afternoon.”
Sevenah scrutinized the man’s face more closely.  That’s when she realized she had seen him before—in the lab with Dr. Tracy when her x-rays had been repeated.  She hadn’t paid attention to him then, figuring he was just another technician.
A thick finger pointed to the first picture.  “This is your heart.  From what we can tell, this here is a second heart.”
“Wha—what?”  Sevenah squinted at the ultrasound.  Had she heard him say second heart?
He continued his outlandish allegations, holding up an x-ray sheet this time.
“This is your ribcage, but you can plainly see how its form is unlike any normal human ribcage.  The upper section appears to rap around the first heart while the lower portion bends slightly beneath, protecting the other organ, the one I’m sure acts as a conjoining heart.  These ribs are designed like a partially-woven shield to surround both vital organs.  I find it interesting that both hearts have two chambers and beat at exactly the same rate—totally in sync.  It sounds like one strong, steady pulse.  That’s probably why it was difficult to detect more than one.”
He immediately held up another image. 
“Your lungs are unusually formed as well.  From what I can tell, they’re layered to some extent, maybe three or four walls thick, increasing the surface area greatly.  I can imagine advantages to these differences in your anatomy, but what I don’t see is how you could possibly be who you say you are.  You are definitely not human.  So, in light of this information, would you now like to come forward with the truth?”
Sevenah’s mouth gaped.  Her head shook in tiny, quick jerks as she stared in bewilderment at the pictures.  His declaration echoed in her mind……‘You are definitely not human.’
“No, no, this is crazy.  That….that can’t be me.”  Her words were barely breathed, but overheard. 
“Make no mistake this is you.  I’m sure the next set of tests will support and clarify these findings.”
“Next tests?” she squeaked.  Once again her thoughts turned to Ian, wishing he were there.  How would he know what had happened to her?  And her parents—what would her mom think when she didn’t come home?
“Mom…” she panicked.
“That’s being handled.  I’ve plenty of questions for your parents as well.”
Sevenah’s eyes bulged wide.  Was her family in danger too?
A complaint from her stomach lingered audibly in the car.  It had been irritable for a while—grumbling, empty, and nervous.  Strangely, she no longer felt any hunger pains.  In fact, everything was numb.  She was certain her body had gone into shock.  Her fingers had no sensation, yet she was aware of how they balled into fists.  It was a purposeful action, an attempt to tighten her muscles and stop the shivers caused by a sudden onset of paralysis. 
Her eyelids closed, and her head fell back against the leather seat.  There was no sane way this could be happening.
Breathe in.  Breathe out. 
The man asked no further questions, perhaps allowing her to think it over.  Regardless of his claims, Sevenah kept coming to the same reasonable conclusion: he was wrong.  This was all a huge, ridiculous mistake.  It had to be!
They drove in silence for minutes on end.  It was difficult to measure the passing of time.  Maybe an hour had transpired.  Maybe more.  A muted conversation traveled from the front seat—the two thugs joking about personal matters.  Sevenah didn’t pay attention to what was said, preoccupied with mulling over every detail of this living nightmare.  It was preposterous!  Unreal!  An invented fantasy!  That didn’t stop genuine tears from flowing.  She didn’t bother wiping them away.  Reacting to their existence meant facing a reality she refused to accept.
When the limousine finally came to a stop, Sevenah remained still—eyes closed, head resting on the back of the seat.  She tried to convince herself that at any minute daylight would shine upon her face and draw her back into consciousness.  Everything would return to normal.  Ian would be waiting at the front gate to walk her to school, and they would share a laugh over her crazy dream.
The company waited in the parked car for five minutes.  Maybe ten.  Again, it was hard to say.  Eventually, the door creaked on its hinges beside her, causing her eyelids to flutter open. 
Nothing had changed. 
The baldheaded man who had originally carted her to the limousine was standing just outside the vehicle.  The white coat who seemed in charge of the operation grabbed his clipboard and briefcase before exiting the car.  The other backseat occupant waved his gun once in Sevenah’s direction, motioning for her to get out as well.  She slowly slid to the seat’s edge.  As she stood up next to the man in black, she whispered a word of warning. 
“Don’t touch me.  I will walk myself this time, thank you.” 
He cracked a wry grin. 
When all five occupants had exited the limo, the men escorted Sevenah across an extensive stretch of blacktop toward a large jetliner with no visible markings.  A small group had congregated beneath the plane—men and women apparently waiting their arrival.  It was obvious by the way arms flailed in the air, hands animating every word, that an intense conversation was taking place.  The debate was distracting enough to keep participants from noticing Sevenah’s approach.  It didn’t take long, however, for someone in the company to finally spot her.  One by one, heads turned until all eyes rested on the young woman. An eerie hush accompanied their curious stares. 
A cold breeze whipped at Sevenah’s hair and caused her to shiver.  It was hard to tell if the reaction was due to the chill or her circumstances.  She was prevented from continuing forward at a few strides from the small assemblage.
No one said a word until the man in charge introduced himself.
“Good evening, colleagues.  I am Dr. Braxton.  I’m looking forward to briefing you further on our unique situation.”  He gestured to Sevenah with his clipboard.  “This is the subject.  She calls herself Sevenah Williams and so far has been unwilling to cooperate.” 
“I am cooperating,” she objected out loud.
Someone from behind struck the back of her shoulder. 
Dr. Braxton went on, but his words drowned out for her.  She wondered what in the world she could do to convince them she was who she knew she was—a normal, regular teenager.  A simple, ordinary girl.  A human being!
As the briefing continued, someone reached across Sevenah’s shoulder from behind and held a rag firmly over her nose.  There was no time to squeal or struggle.  She passed out instantly.


Copyright 2012 Richelle E. Goodrich


CHAPTER TWO





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Chapter Two

Friends or Foes



The room was cold and dark when Sevenah awoke.  It was most likely her mother’s fault for leaving a window cracked open in the house again.  The nights were getting too chilly to do that anymore.  Her head felt heavy trying to raise up.  She let it fall back, swirling with muddled thoughts indicative of oversleeping.  It was a strange sensation, like emerging from a ghostly pit of disconnected dreams.  She was eager to shake it off and head outside to exercise Paka.  Then, after a quick breakfast, Ian would meet her at the front gate for school. 
As the grogginess started to dissipate, strange and frightful images took clearer shape in the forefront of her mind.  “What a nightmare,” she yawned, assuming it could be nothing more.
Her hand went to brush stray hairs from her eyes, but failed.  It seemed oddly unwilling, as if weighed down with numbness from lack of circulation during the night.  No, no, that wasn’t right.  She tried again, able to wiggle her elbow, but her wrist remained fixed.  Panic set in as she struggled unsuccessfully to lift either arm—something snug and abrasive held her wrists firmly beside her.  She tugged defiantly against the restraints, discovering both ankles secured as well.  Her legs fought fiercely, tugging and yanking, unable to break free.  This didn’t make any sense, unless….
The nightmare was real. 
An avalanche of events rushed back to her memory: Dr. Tracy’s betrayal, the lying x-rays, the frightful abduction, Dr. Braxton’s implausible claims, the unmarked jet….
She couldn’t recall getting on the plane or how she had ended up wherever she was now.  Her final memory played out as a moment of terror—a strong hand pressed over her nose and mouth, smothering her.  They must have knocked her out with something.  A drug or chemical fumes. 
Her body shivered uncomfortably in the dark.  There was little she hated more than the cold, and it was goose-bump chilly in this place.  Silence permeated the room, excepting a low and steady mechanical hum that murmured in the blackness.  A dim light flashed tiny, red numbers, blinking on and off and on in a constant rhythm.  More than one line flashed its scarlet readings on the wall, their faint glow providing the only source of light. 
Sevenah continued to fight her restraints, desperate to slip free.  Friction marked her skin where it rubbed repeatedly against abrasive bands, and soon both wrists stung as if chafed by rug burns.  She gave up, deterred by the pain.  Despair wet her cheeks in the form of tears.
“I can’t even scratch my stupid nose!” she bawled into the darkness.  “Where are you Ian?  Where are you?”  Why had he not come to meet up with her at the clinic?  He was always with her—always!  Why not this time? 
Moisture streamed along her temples, damping her hair and the cushion beneath.  She couldn’t wipe her eyes and thus had to suffer the swamping moisture.  Each shallow gasp that escaped her throat echoed off the surrounding walls, every sob sounding forlorn and miserable.  No one responded to the weeping.  Perhaps she’d been abandoned.  Perhaps her misery was simply being ignored.  Eventually, the grieving waned and she slipped back into calm unconsciousness.
It was impossible to tell the duration of her sleep when murmuring voices woke her.  This time the restraints and the darkness came as no shock.  Crying had done some good, easing earlier feelings of distress and despair.  Such devastating emotions were now replaced by determination to escape her situation.  She was her father’s girl, and he had never been one to give up without a fight.  Neither would she.
The buzz of conversation grew increasingly louder outside the room.  It was easy to pick out two distinct tones in the dialogue.  One was female, loud and prominent with a troubled quality about it.  The other she recognized as Dr. Braxton’s smug responses.  Bits of the conversation were audible from Sevenah’s location, and she strained to hear what they were saying.
“You have no idea what effect……..you’re not being reasonable….”
Too much competing noise from humming machines drowned out every lowly-spoken word.  Sevenah strained harder to listen as the discussion drew progressively closer.  It seemed to stop and linger just beyond the door.
“I know they want answers; I’m aware of their pressure tactics.  But to take unnecessary risks simply to appease a self-serving mob of paranoid politicians is foolish!  The procedure you’re proposing has never been tolerably tested, not to mention the fact that we don’t know enough about her biology to safely attempt this.”
It was Dr. Braxton’s voice to contend.  “We’ve performed sufficient examinations and gathered analyses that suggests it’s worth the relatively minor risks.”
“Minor!” exclaimed the female.
“We have six highly-competent doctors on staff ready to jump in at the slightest sign of a problem, Stefanie, and I have full confidence…”
“What if you kill her?  Tell me, what good will her death do our research?”
This last comment hit Sevenah hard.  Intuitively, she understood their argument was about her.  Mention of some risky procedure conjured up awful imagery; still, Dr. Braxton’s next remark was even more terrifying. 
“Quite frankly, an autopsy might prove enlightening.”
“I cannot believe you just said that!” 
Sevenah felt the blood drain from her face as she sided whole-heartedly with the woman.
“She’s not human, Stefanie.  Keep your perspective here.”
“She’s no lab rat either.”
The door swung open and Sevenah twisted her neck to stare into the blue eyes of her lady advocate.  Dr. Braxton appeared from behind.  The two were identically dressed in white lab coats with identification badges clipped to their front pockets.  They stopped and gawked at the young woman as though shocked to find her awake.  Sevenah wondered exactly how long she’d been unconscious.  Apparently, long enough for some extensive exams to take place.  Luckily, her body still seemed to be in one piece.
The woman approached, and Sevenah read the badge on her jacket: Dr. Stefanie Mikiska, M.D.  The lady smiled—a genuinely warm gesture.  She was tall and as thin as a twig, with long dark hair clipped in a loose bun behind her head.  Her blue eyes were the color of forget-me-nots framed by rectangular glasses that slipped gradually down her gently-sloped nose.  An index finger pushed the frames back into place every so often.  Olive-toned features were naturally highlighted with very little makeup.  Sevenah caught the subtle scent of vanilla perfume.  It was enough to stir her empty stomach.
Dr. Mikiska greeted her patient with a cheerful “Good morning.”
“Morning,” Sevenah rasped.  It was shocking how weak her voice sounded.  She swallowed at the rawness in her throat.
“I’m actually glad to find you awake.  I’ve been anxious to talk to you.”  The doctor pulled up a metal stool and retrieved a pen and a small notebook from the inside pocket of her lab coat.
“I’m thirsty,” Sevenah complained.  She tried to clear her throat, but the dryness burned.  “I’m hungry too.”
Dr. Mikiska smiled pleasantly, resituating her glasses.  “I understand you’re hungry, and I promise you’ll get something to eat and drink soon.  But first, I want to ask you a few questions, okay?”
Sevenah gave a whispered consent.  It was impossible not to like this woman; her presence was naturally pacifying.  Perhaps it was her gentle voice, or the warm and friendly smile, or possibly the sweet smell of vanilla that lingered in her presence.  Or maybe it was just the fact that she had acted so protectively while contending with Dr. Braxton. 
“Good, good.  Alright, let’s begin.  Will you tell me why you’re here?” 
“Because you won’t let me go.”  The obvious reply was less sarcastic than honest. 
“No, no, I mean, why are you here on our planet?  Are there others living among us like you?” 
Sevenah screwed up her face, confused by the question.
The doctor tried again.  “How did you get here?  Did you come to Earth alone?    Are you the last of your kind?” 
“I was born here.  I’m the same as you—only I’m starving.”  She swallowed again, wishing for something to soothe her irritated throat.
The lady doctor pursed her lips.  “Look, Sevenah, we know you’re not like the rest of us.  You do realize your anatomy differs from that of any human being.”  Dr. Mikiska raised one eyebrow and held her palm open as if everyone in the world understood this.
“I was born here,” Sevenah insisted.  “Ask Dr. Tracy, he knows.”  She was still clinging to the reasonable conclusion this was a dreadful mistake.  How could she possibly be what they were suggesting without being aware of it herself?
“Okay, okay.  Let’s try something else.”  The tip of a pen tapped against the doctor’s lips as she stared out over the rim of her glasses, thinking.  “Alright, Sevenah.  What is the earliest thing you can recall from childhood?  Think hard.  How far back do you remember?”
That was easy.  She was often haunted by a frightening incident from her youth.  It was a recurring nightmare that seemed to evolve over the years. 
“I was little,” Sevenah started.  “I remember sitting on the ground, in the dirt.  There were trees all around…..and snakes.”
“Snakes?”
“Um-hm.”  She cleared her throat before continuing.  “I was scared of the snakes.  They covered the ground.  I don’t know where they came from, but I couldn’t get away from them.  I called for my mom, but she never….”  Her eyebrows pulled tight, straining to bring the past to mind.  “I don’t know why my mother never came.  I can’t remember anything else.”  Then she quickly added, “No, no, wait—there was a boy.  He was young, but older than me.  I think he was with me, trying to help me.”
The doctor’s face tangled up uncertainly.  “Are you sure this is a memory?”
Sevenah nodded.
“Could it have been a dream?  Or a story you heard as a child?”
She shook her head.  “I’m sure it happened; I know it did.”
“Huh.  Can you recall how old you were?”
“I think I was five or six.”
“Okay, then.  Try to remember something before that.  Can you recall an event when you were four?  Or even three?”
Sevenah sighed heavily, “No.”
“Try.”
The interrogation was getting annoying.  What did memories have to do with anything?  “I can’t.  I was a baby, I don’t remember that.”
“You can at least try.  People recall events as far back as two years of age, sometimes even earlier.  I remember the songs my mother use to sing to me when I was a toddler.  I have fond recollections of a yellow blanket I took naps with when I was two, three, four years old.  It’s common to have simple memories of younger experiences.  Now think.  Concentrate.  Can you recall anything at all?  Even a trivial piece of information—like a color?  A familiar smell?  A favorite toy?”
“No, nothing!  Why are you doing this to me?  Why won’t you let me go home?”  She’d had enough of the pointless questioning.  Her stomach was in knots, not only queasy with hunger, but tight with anxiety.
Silence took over for a long moment. 
“I’m so thirsty,” the girl whispered.
The ink pen went back to resting on Dr. Mikiska’s lips, her blue eyes lost in thought.  Sevenah wondered what the woman was thinking.
A glance in the background found Dr. Braxton planted at a corner desk ignoring the interrogation.  A writing utensil in his stubby fingers bobbed back and forth, scribbling on the clipboard that seemed his constant companion.  Sevenah felt a sickly stir of hatred towards the man.  She wished for a fat venomous rattler from her nightmare to slither over and sink its fangs into his calf. 
Dr. Mikiska finally gave in.  “I’ll go get you some breakfast.  Please, concentrate on your childhood while I’m gone.  Maybe you’ll remember something more.  I’ll be right back.”
“Thank you.”
Sevenah watched the woman leave, observing how her I.D. badge was swiped through a scanner beside the exit before the lock released.  It appeared the badges were literal keys to getting around the facility.  Most likely it was the same procedure coming and going.  She noticed how the door never completely closed but pushed open again, allowing another white coat to enter the room.  This one was worn by a short, wiry female carting a box of medical supplies.  The woman stopped at a table to rummage through the contents of the box.  It made Sevenah nervous.
“I’ve got to get out of here soon,” she worried. 
Her attention returned to Dr. Braxton who continued to pay her no mind.  And why would he when in his opinion she ranked lower than the animals?  Sevenah took note of how he disregarded the new attendant, not even casting a glance in her direction.  It crossed Sevenah’s mind that if by some fantastical chance she was actually……not human……then at least she wouldn’t be related to that rude, heartless excuse for a person.  Thank goodness for Dr. Mikiska and her civility. 
Recollecting Dr. Braxton’s earlier remarks sparked a sense of urgency for Sevenah to find a way out of her predicament.  Her parents and Ian were probably worried sick, having no idea what had happened—why a simple trip to the clinic had resulted in her complete disappearance.  Unless………unless Dr. Braxton had fed them some convincing lie, like a horror story of her demise.
Oh crud!  If such was the case, then no one would be looking for her! 
She needed to call home; there had to be a way.  If her parents were to hear her voice over the phone for even a second they would know the truth, that she was alive and in trouble.  Then they would search for her!
Twisting her neck to look over her shoulder, Sevenah scanned what was visible within the room.  No windows divided the walls, and nothing resembling a telephone stood out.  Large cardboard boxes, canisters of medical instruments, plastic containers marked with supplies, and a collection of cylindrical tanks stacked the shelves behind her.  White, printed labels were too small to read clearly.  Nothing but noisy electronics lined the adjacent wall.
Preoccupied with her task, Sevenah didn’t notice when the new visitor approached her bedside.  It was startling sensing a looming presence.  With wide eyes Sevenah gasped, but the lady calmly shushed her. 
“It’s okay, it’s okay.  I’m just here to check your vitals.”
Sevenah exhaled raggedly, and her jarred pulse settled.  She didn’t resist a blood pressure cuff tucked beneath her arm.  Glancing at a pocket badge, she read the printed name: Leisha Morroway, LPN.  The woman was a nurse.  That explained Dr. Braxton ignoring her presence.  He was the kind of conceited jerk who wouldn’t give anyone the time of day unless he considered the person an equal. 
The nurse went about her task, swabbing a cold, clear liquid over the natural crease in her patient’s arm.  Short, black waves fringed her high cheekbones, framing brown eyes that sparkled with unfitting enthusiasm.  Her tomboy mannerisms had been evident upon entering the room, but those rough and confident gestures didn’t diminish her natural beauty in the least. 
Sevenah envisioned the woman as a Roman warrior with strong, pronounced facial features and an athletic body.  She wasn’t as tall as Dr. Mikiska, but stood sturdy and confident nonetheless.  It seemed a sure bet that Nurse Morroway could hold her own with any condescending doctor. 
A hushed question interrupted Sevenah’s thoughts.  “Are you feeling alright?”
Noticing how the nurse had her back turned to Dr. Braxton, the girl whispered a reply in case they weren’t supposed to be talking.
“I feel weak.  My throat hurts.”
“I know.  I’m so sorry.”  Leisha’s brown eyes expressed their own apology as she moved in a little closer to Sevenah’s ear.  “This wasn’t supposed to happen to you.  I promise you won’t be here much longer.  We’ll have you out soon.”  She winked, and that sparkle of enthusiasm flashed again. 
Sevenah was stunned by both the nurse’s behavior and her words.  Had she heard correctly?  Her heart pounded a little faster, hopeful yet puzzled.
“Who are you?”
Leisha smiled, a sign of reassurance.  “Don’t worry, we’re taking you home.  You’ll be fine, and you’ll feel better soon.”  Then she grabbed her gear and headed for the door.
“Wait!” Sevenah called out wanting to know more.
This outburst caused Dr. Braxton to finally look up from his paperwork.  He watched the nurse step toward the exit.  Then his beady gaze shifted to Sevenah. 
Thinking quickly, she announced aloud, “No one listens to me.”
Dr. Braxton returned to his work without a hint of concern. 
Sevenah let her head fall back as thoughts of the whispered conversation consumed her.  Was this too good to hope for?  Someone was actually on her side and plotting to help her escape!  There was nothing she wanted more than to shed the immobilizing bands—to be free and headed home.  Her pulse thundered at the prospect of evading the arrogant and pitiless Dr. Braxton who couldn’t care less if she lived or died.
As hope swelled in her heart despite no known motive, it occurred to her she was already experiencing renewed vigor—a substantial wave of strength and wellbeing that was more than the result of good news.  Nurse Morroway had never taken her blood pressure, having left the cuff on the bed, unused, as a cold liquid was rubbed on Sevenah’s inner arm.  This had all transpired during their brief verbal exchange.  Whatever drug the liquid consisted of, it was working wonders on her aches and nausea.
Breakfast arrived moments later with Dr. Mikiska.  A warm serving tray was set on Sevenah’s lap before the constrictive wrist bands were unlatched.  It was hard to decide which was better, the chance to feed her griping stomach or the simple opportunity to freely move her arms once again. 
The food smelled heavenly: eggs, toast, bacon, a small carton of milk, and a cup of water.  She went for the paper cup first, discarding the provided straw to gulp down every last drop of soothing liquid.  Under her present circumstances she had expected a meager offering of bread and water—rations for which she would have been grateful. 
“Thank you,” she uttered at the end of what seemed like the tastiest meal of her life.
“You’re welcome,” Dr. Mikiska replied.  The woman had patiently sat by, watching every crumb disappear.
Sevenah brought both hands up to her cold nose and cheeks, taking advantage of the chance to warm her face.  It was humbling to feel gratitude for such a small thing. 
“Would you like to take a walk, Sevenah?”  The question received an immediate answer.
“Yes!  Yes, please!”
Dr. Mikiska stood up from her stool, grinning at such eagerness.  “Well then, let me get your legs down.  One……and two… and here we go.”  Repositioning her glasses, Dr. Mikiska moved toward the door, gesturing for her patient to follow. 
This irregularity in protocol grabbed Dr. Braxton’s full attention.  The man with no real expression other than sheer disgust appeared baffled for the first time. 
“What in the world do you think you’re doing, Stefanie?” he asked.
“Don’t worry, we won’t go far.  It’s healthy to get a little exercise—keeps the muscles from wasting away.”  With perked eyebrows she extended her colleague an invitation.  “Feel free to accompany us if you’re concerned.”
Dr. Braxton’s features contorted with skepticism.  “You ought to have her on a tight leash.”  He shook his stubby finger in warning.  “If it were anyone else, I’d never allow this.”
“Well then, shall we?”  Dr. Mikiska swung open the door and waited for her patient to step outside.  She flashed a big grin at Dr. Braxton before exiting. 
It seemed unwise to attempt an escape without a plan.  Chances of success were minimal, and any consequences might prove disastrous.  It was a blessing in and of itself to simply be on her feet, free to maneuver.  Sevenah decided to concentrate on scoping out the place, or at least every inch she could observe on this impromptu stroll. 
The hallway was nothing much—rectangular and bare and seemingly endless in length.  Dim lighting fell from above in a florescent blue that turned their skin and the white walls a dingy gray.  It didn’t feel as if the halls were heated.
Keeping in step with her guide, Sevenah’s thoughts naturally returned to the curious encounter with Nurse Morroway.  It seemed possible that Dr. Mikiska might be a collaborator with the nurse.  She did come across as a caring enough person.  Sevenah dared imagine the possibility, but wouldn’t mention it at the risk of giving away a potential rescuer.  With the tomboy nurse dominating her thoughts, she asked a vague enough question.
“Do you know everyone who works at this place?”
The doctor shook her head.  “No.  I’m familiar with a number of people here, mostly physicians.  But too many others come and go.”
“What about the nursing staff?  Are you acquainted with them?”
The doctor shrugged.  “Only a handful.”
Sevenah tempted her with a name.  “Leisha Morroway?”
Dr. Mikiska looked sideways at the young enquirer.  Her blue eyes squinted as she considered the name.  “No, I don’t believe I’ve met a Ms. Morroway.  Why do you ask?”
“No reason.”  Sevenah tried to dismiss the matter, but the doctor pressed for a better answer. 
“Where did you pick up that name?” 
“Oh….the nurse took my vitals earlier.  She reminded me of you…..very kind.  And she smelled good.”
Dr. Mikiska appeared flattered.
Sevenah quickly asked a personal question to change the subject.  “How did you end up here—working in a place like this?” 
“Oh…..well, I suppose you could say it was my reward for years of hard study and persistence.  I was actually a student of Dr. Braxton’s for several years.  As a graduate student, he challenged me with a variety of difficult and strange medical puzzles to solve.  I spent a great deal of time assisting him, but never made much sense of the things we were doing.  Of course I asked questions; he didn’t readily offer information.  I was intrigued with the work, though, so I struggled to solve the mysteries he presented to me.  Finally, one day, my hard work paid off.  Dr. Braxton brought me here.”  Dr. Mikiska held up her hand gesturing at the facility they were in.  “I was astounded by the things accomplished here—incredible breakthroughs in science, technology, and medicine.  It’s remarkable the advancements that have come to light in this place.  Wonders I never dreamt I’d see.  Few people are aware of this facility and what goes on inside these walls.  It’s highly confidential and tightly monitored.  I’m fortunate to be a part of it all.”
“It sounds like you and Dr. Braxton spend a lot of time together.”  Sevenah dared a very personal question.  “Are you a couple?”
“Oh dear, no!” the doctor chuckled.  Her cheeks flushed a rosy shade of red.  “No, no, we’re just colleagues.  We’ve worked together for years, yes, but there could never be anything between us.”  She smiled at an amusing thought.  “I’d hate to have to compete with that precious clipboard of his.  I don’t think I’d win.” 
Sevenah grinned at that.  “What exactly do you do?”
“I can’t tell you—top secret, you know.”  The doctor looked over the rim of her glasses, a slight smirk on her lips.  “I will say that you are the most interesting subject I’ve yet encountered.  I sure wish I knew your purpose for being here.”
Sevenah dropped her gaze to the floor.  What good would it do to repeat the same answers?  No one believed her. 
The appearance of larger vents caught her attention while looking downward, and she wondered if a smaller person might manage to squeeze through an opening.  The complete absence of windows was also noted, leaving no means to glimpse at the outdoors, not that there was any sign the world outside even existed.  An eerie absence of familiar sounds—no patter of raindrops, no whistling wind, no chirping birds, not even the hum of traffic or the roar of passing planes—made the silence palpable.  She wondered how far from civilization they were or if the facility was buried underground. 
The hallway remained empty as their footfall tapped lightly against shiny, gray tiles arranged like crossword puzzles.  Periodically, a fire extinguisher appeared at waist height, hung behind glass.  These red canisters provided the only color.  Every metal door was positioned yards away from the next and had a matching I.D. scanner mounted beside it.  Sevenah suspected no room ever remained unlocked. 
Eventually, their path came to a ‘T’ and Dr. Mikiska turned left.  A set of stairs led further down another dreary hallway. 
“How big is this place?” Sevenah asked. 
“Oh, it’s sizable.  You’d get lost rather quickly if you didn’t know your way around.  Every hallway resembles the next one.”
Sevenah frowned at this news.  Curious about their distance from civilization, she asked, “Do you live here or do you go home every night?”
“I stay for weeks, if not months, at a time.  Usually, I’m so preoccupied with a project there’s really no sense in leaving.  Besides, I haven’t much to go home to anyway.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be.  I enjoy my work immensely.  You can’t imagine the things I’ve seen or the brilliant people I’ve been privileged to work with.  I’m spoiled actually.  I’ve had access to the greatest technologies and the most interesting projects you could dream of.” 
The slightly condescending manner in which Dr. Mikiska spoke caused Sevenah to glance up, catching a hint of defensiveness in the doctor’s eyes.  She wondered if the woman considered her anything more than an interesting project.
Their walk came to a halt beside a gray door that looked exactly like a dozen other metal doors they had passed.  Dr. Mikiska swiped her I.D. badge through the scanner.  As the latch gave, Sevenah took an anxious step backwards.  Her instincts warned against placing much trust in anyone, despite a show of kindness.  Entering another locked room just seemed like a bad idea. 
“Why have we stopped?  What’s in there?  I thought we were just going for a walk.” 
Dr. Mikiska continued to hold open the door, smiling pleasantly enough.  She motioned for her patient to step inside.  “It’s fine.  Go on in; we won’t be staying long.”
Believing she had no choice, Sevenah followed the doctor’s orders and entered.  What she found inside made her want to turn and run, but the click of a locked door resounded behind her, declaring it was too late.
“What’s going on?  What are they doing here?”
Sevenah pointed a nervous finger at the same two thugs who had not-so-gently carted her out of Dr. Tracy’s office at the onset of what was now her living nightmare.  She backed away from everyone, keeping a close eye on the men positioned against the far wall.
This new room was half the size of the other.  Cupboards lined one end, mounted above a double sink.  A computer, a large flat-screen monitor, and a variety of plastic boxes were scattered across a low counter.  The longest wall held the same kind of machines that hummed in the previous room, only fewer.  Center floor stood a medical chair, a stool, and a silver sliding table that supported a handful of instruments.  Sevenah noticed an item in particular—a needle.  The sight of it made her shudder.  Whatever they had planned, she would not cooperate.
Dr. Mikiska didn’t act surprised by the observed reaction.  “I suppose you could call these fellows my ‘tight leash.’”
The frightened girl narrowed her eyes.  “You’re no better than Dr. Braxton.  I should never have thought otherwise.”
“Now, now, Sevenah.  You may not believe me, but I’m doing this for your benefit.”
A nervous laugh echoed in the room.  “Forgive me if I don’t appear grateful!”
The doctor acted earnest as she tried to explain.  “Listen to me.  Dr. Braxton has far worse plans in store for you.  What I’m attempting to do is prove that those other measures aren’t necessary.  I’m doing this for you.” 
“None of this is for me!  If you want to help me, let me go home!”  Sevenah made her desires known keeping as far from everyone as possible.  “I want to go back to my parents and my friends!  I want my normal, regular, human life again!  Let me go home!  Please, just let me go home!”
“You know I can’t do that.  I’m sorry, but there’s no way to be certain you’re not a threat to humanity.”
The girl’s eyes widened with disbelief.  She pointed down at herself as though visual proof should suffice.  “Do you honestly believe I could be any sort of threat?”
“Are you?” the doctor asked, poising her eyebrows in question.
“No!” Sevenah shrieked. 
Dr. Mikiska looked like she wanted to believe the girl, but faith alone wasn’t enough. 
A pair of latex gloves slid easily over the doctor’s thin fingers before she picked up a syringe filled with clear liquid.  Sevenah stared at the tip of a needle, terrified. 
“What is it you people think I’m going to do?” she asked.  Her voice shook with fear, growing increasingly defensive.  “I’ve lived here for seventeen years!  I haven’t caused any problems—not one!  If I were a real threat to humanity, don’t you think I would have done something by now?”  Her whole being wanted to explode—to shake someone until they believed she was telling the truth. 
Fueled by a desire for self-preservation, she made a desperate attempt at escape.  In one swift move, she lunged at Dr. Mikiska and ripped the badge from her front pocket.  The needle fell to the floor.  Sevenah hit the scanner, swiped the badge, and jerked the metal door open.  Ducking through the opening, her skinny body was yanked back in, arms grasped by the men who had reacted as quickly as she had.  Once again, her feet were lifted off the floor as they carried her to an empty, waiting chair. 
Nooooo!” Sevenah screamed.  “Let me go!  Don’t do this!  LET ME GO!”
She kicked and fought with every ounce of strength, but her captors were too powerful.  The baldheaded man grabbed her by the waist, slamming her down in the chair.  The other man kept a secure hold on her arms, attempting to prevent any scratching.  Her limbs were secured within a couple minutes, but not before she dug a heel into someone.  She noticed how the bald man rubbed at his hip when he backed away. 
Sevenah twisted her wrists, tugging against cuffs she knew were impossible to escape.  Her only option now was to plead.
“Stefanie, please, please don’t do this to me, please!”
“That’s Dr. Mikiska to you,” the woman huffed, pushing her rectangular frames back into place.  “You’ve left me no choice, Sevenah.  Our government wants answers that you haven’t provided.  They want to know who you are, where you came from, if there are more like you roaming about our world.  They want to know what kind of threat your race poses.  You’ve told us nothing.  And, if you are a threat to humanity I would expect you to tell us nothing.”
“I’ve told you the truth, I swear!  I’ve always lived here just like everyone else!  I don’t know what you’re talking about!”
“Then apparently, you need these answers as much as we do, which is all the more reason to continue.  I can help you remember who you are.”
“There’s nothing to remember!” Sevenah insisted.
“On the contrary, there are five early years you don’t seem to recall, aside from one unclear, nightmarish incident.  Whatever we can dig up before that might give us the answers we’re all seeking.”
Sevenah eyed the syringe being tapped by the doctor’s finger.  “And how are you planning to do this?”
“It’s painless, I assure you.  I’ll put you to sleep with a light sedative and then…”
“No!” Sevenah objected.  “No needles; I hate needles.  Can’t I stay awake?”
“The process works much better if you’re asleep.  You’ll be fine.  Do you see the screen over there to your left?”
Sevenah turned her head.  There was a flat-screen monitor powered up, but the display showed only pepper and fuzz. 
Dr. Mikiska went into an explanation.  “I’ll be using a memory marker to unbury subconscious memories.”  She held up a C-shaped metallic device and turned it over.  “This is an amazingly useful apparatus.  I’ll place it over your ear and it will adhere to the side of your head.  A few thin needles extend from this device and slowly push their way through to the brain where a chemical is released that stimulates memories.  These memories as you see them will be displayed on that monitor, transferred from this device to the computer.  Basically, we see what you picture in your mind’s eye.  It’s absolutely incredible.  The only difficult part is piecing the random images together to make reasonable sense of them.  But despite the drawbacks, we’ve been able to attain a great deal of useful information using this procedure on a few other individuals.”
“But you claim I’m not like you.  How do you know this will work on me?”
“It’s true your chemistry is somewhat different, but so far the tests we’ve performed show that you have a high tolerance for our medicines.  I’m ninety-nine percent sure this will be a walk in the park for you.”
“What if you’re wrong?  What if something bad happens?  What then?” 
“Listen, Sevenah.  The procedure Dr. Braxton has proposed is much riskier, and it’s still in its theoretical stages—never having been tested on a living subject.  He plans to perform open-brain surgery, probing for information using electric shock and chemical treatment to rouse your memories.  You’ll be conscious for the entire operation.  He believes he can activate the parts of your brain that will force truthfulness.  Plus, the memories will show up on his monitor, transferred by the device he’ll be probing with.  Basically, he’ll steal your memories, and under his influence you’ll answer his questions with complete and total honesty.  He believes this process will guarantee the answers we seek.”
“I swear I’ve told you the truth,” Sevenah whined, desperate for someone to believe her. 
“Perhaps,” the doctor sighed, “but Dr. Braxton doesn’t think so.  He’s determined to go through with this.  I personally feel he wants to test his procedure on you specifically for a couple of reasons.  First, to find his answers without having to decipher memory images, and secondly, he knows that since you aren’t human, you have no legal rights.  Using you as a test subject won’t interfere with ethical guidelines.  If it doesn’t work, he’s lost nothing.  But you, on the other hand, will be awake for the whole painful operation.  If something goes awry, you run the risk of suffering brain damage or worse……death.  Not to mention the fact that you’ll lose all your pretty red hair.  I’ve tried to tell him it’s risky and unnecessary, but I can’t get him to listen to me.”
Sevenah felt cold and numb.  The weight of utter helplessness pressed on her chest as she realized how dire her situation was.  Her eyes fell closed wishing the nightmare would end and her world would return to normal.  All she wanted was to sit beneath her willow tree and watch the sunset with Paka and Ian again.  She’d never asked for any of this.  She’d never wished to be different. 
“Sevenah.  I’m honestly trying to help you, please believe me.  If I can piece together how you came here, why you’re here, then perhaps I can convince the rest of the board that further, riskier procedures aren’t necessary.”
Sevenah lifted her lids and stared into Dr. Mikiska’s blue eyes.  She nodded as if her permission were required.  Maybe, she thought, there were memories she had forgotten.  Maybe this would work.  Exhaling nervously, she tried to relax.
“You’ll feel a little sting, but that should be all you feel.  Now count with me……ten, nine, eight….”
Sevenah let her head fall back.  Her eyelids dropped.  She was out by seven. 

She was dreaming again.  It was the same nightmare she’d had all her life.  Sometimes it altered slightly, but it always started out the same. 
She was five.  Her reddish-brown hair was long for a five-year-old, braided and secured with a pink ribbon.  A spirit of dread accompanied the dream, looming over her childish form.  Naturally, she wished for her mother, but she wasn’t alone.  Someone else was with her, an unclear personage off to the side.  He was a boy; she was certain of that.  A young boy, maybe ten or eleven.  She couldn’t make out his face but accepted him as a friend.  He’d been with her entering the forest.  Yes, that’s right—the boy had brought her with him. 
They were running and had already traveled deep into the woods, sprinting long and hard.  The little girl began to drag her feet, wishing to rest.  The boy allowed it.  She sat on the forest floor while he backtracked to check on something.  In his absence, a circle of crooked trees appeared to hunch over, huddling around the girl, darkening an already gloomy environment.  It was eerie the way their limbs reached, some dropping low to the ground, disturbed by every gust.  The wind flitted the spindliest twigs, giving the illusion of grabbing fingers.
That’s when the snakes came.  From every direction they pushed up through the soil, slithering and writhing as they made their way toward the girl.  She cried out for help.
“Mommy!  Mommy!”
The snakes slid across her skin, wrapping around her arms, around her legs.  They were too strong to deter. 
“Mommy!  Mommy!” she cried.  But her mother didn’t come.  Only the boy responded.  She reached for him, and his fingers grasped tightly around hers, tugging against the pull of coiled snakes. 
She screamed as the creatures ripped her fingers from the boy. 
That’s when she blacked out.

Copyright 2012 Richelle E. Goodrich

CHAPTER THREE





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