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Ryker and Max walk into the kitchen at the same time that Marion does. “Doc is spending the night so that he can be close to Sam. He’ll be in the room right next to Sam, and I want you girls to take the empty bedroom at the end of the hall. I don’t want you to have to deal with Molly for a while.” Marion shakes her head. “I don’t know what has gotten into her lately.”
“Is Sam going to be alright?” Sally asks.
“Hard to tell, Doc says if he can’t get rid of the infection, he may lose his leg… He might not even make it.” She looks at me. I lower my eyes and stare at my hands. “From what I understand, Kiah, you didn’t have any choice.” She pats my hand. “Now, I think you kids should get to bed. You’ve had a rough two days. Ryker, I’ll want a complete rundown on what happened, first thing in the morning.”
Ryker takes my hand and walks me to the bedroom door. “This isn’t your fault, Kiah, so stop beating yourself up, okay?” He pulls me into his arms.
“He’s a kid just like us, Ryker, and he might die because of me.”
“You just need some rest. Everything will be better tomorrow.” He kisses me and opens the bedroom door. “Will you be okay?”
I squeeze his hand. “I’m okay. You get some rest too.” I close the door and walk over to my bed. Sally is already asleep.
I am exhausted, but sleep evades me. Thoughts of Sam keep running through my mind. Mom told me that there were four troopers, why didn’t I think about that, before I shot Sam? After tossing and turning for thirty minutes, I get up and put on my robe.
Quietly I slip out of the room and proceed down the hall. When I reach Sam’s room, I stop and open the door. He is thrashing around on his bed. “Sam,” I whisper. “Sam, you have to be still, or you’ll open up your wound.” I touch his forehead, and I suck in a breath. The fever has brought his body temperature to a dangerous height. I run downstairs to get another bowl of ice water and tiptoe back into his room.
“Sam, it’s okay.” I wipe his face with the cold cloth. He is delirious from the fever. He says things that don’t make any sense.
“Macy, no Macy, I’m sorry, no!” he wails.
I continue to wipe his face. “Sam, it’s okay. I’m sorry, Sam. I’m sorry for doing this to you.” Tears roll down my cheeks.
He continues to speak of things I don’t understand, but after a while, he settles down. I continue to keep him cool with ice water throughout the night. At some point, I must have fallen asleep, because soon I am floating above Sam’s bed. He is finally sleeping peacefully.
Suddenly, I am floating backwards with no control again. I stop at an unfamiliar place. I am in a barn that is much bigger than our barn. There are about sixty kids around the age of sixteen who are sitting in a half-circle. A familiar boy is standing in front of them… Sam?
“Listen up,” Sam says. “We have to make our move soon.”
“This is ludicrous!” A young girl says. “We can’t fight all the quadrant troops no matter how well we fight.”
“Macy, be quiet! We all know how you feel about this,” Sam says nastily.
I float a little closer to get a better look at Macy. She is a small girl with an angelic face. She has long, blonde hair with big brown eyes. After Sam’s nasty remark, she has crossed her arms in front of her and has her bottom lip stuck out in a cute, little pout. I feel a connection to her, maybe because she feels the same way I do about fighting the quadrant troops. As I look at the faces of these teenagers, I realize that they are living in an orphanage just like us. They are wearing standard, baggy work-clothes provided by the orphanage. That means Sam grew up in an orphanage just like us. Also, just like Ryker, he has a small group of freedom fighters of his own that he is leading.
I see a tall boy burst into the barn. “They are here! The troopers are here!”
Before the group of teenagers can even stand up, several troopers with machine guns storm into the barn. “Listen up, young people, you are being recruited to fight for the Southern Quadrant.”
“No!” Macy shouts, “I won’t fight for something I don’t believe in.”
Without a second thought or even a warning, the trooper points his machine gun at Macy and rips her small body full of holes.
“No!” Sam cries as he falls to her side. He throws himself over her body. “No! Macy, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” Then he sits up, covered in her blood and looks at me, as though he can see me. “You’re the only one left that can help us now.” Is he talking to me? Can he see me?
“Does anyone else not want to join our troops?” The trooper asks while holding up his gun.
Suddenly, I am floating back to the present, in Sam’s room. He seems to be sleeping, and I am sitting in the chair with my head lying on my folded arms on the edge of his bed. I focus and pop back into my body and sit up. He looks at me and smiles. “Where did you go?” he says.
“What do you mean? I was sleeping.” I try to steady my shaky hands. How could he know I went anywhere?
I stand up but he grabs my wrist. “What did you see, Kiah?”
I sit back down in the chair. “Why do you talk in riddles? No one can ever understand what you are talking about.”
“They don’t understand, but you do, don’t you?”
“There you go, talking in riddles again. I have to go. I guess you are feeling better?”
“Yes, thank you for the ice water and kind words.” He reaches for my hand. “Kiah, if you need to talk to someone who understands, I’m here.”
When I step into the hall, many of the kids are on their way down to breakfast. I close the door to Sam’s room and turn around to see Molly staring at me. I try moving past her, but she steps in front of me.
“Well, well, what do ya think Ryker will do when he finds out his brain-dead girlfriend spent the night with someone else?”
I’m not sure what came over me, but without thinking, I double my fist and pop her in the nose as hard as I can. She stumbles backwards, and I see blood gushing out of her nose. Before she can recover from the blow, I stomp toward her. I grab her by the throat and push her to the wall. Still holding her throat hard enough that she can’t get away but soft enough that she can still breathe, I get right in her face. “If you ever call me brain-dead again, I will serve your brains on a platter for breakfast!” I push her away and spin around. Everyone is looking at me, including Ryker.
I push past him and run down the stairs. When I am outside, I race past the barn, over the fence, and through the pasture to my “tree of solitude” Then I cry. When I finally quit crying, I notice Ryker standing by the tree. I wipe the tears from my face. “How long have you been standing there?”
“Awhile. I thought you might be out here.” He squats down and gives me one of his intense looks.
“I guess I looked pretty silly getting into a fistfight with her.”
He smiles and tucks my hair behind my ear. “I thought it was pretty entertaining.”
I take his hand and touch it to my face. “Ryker, do you trust me?”
“And do you know that I would never do anything to betray you or to hurt you?”
“Yes,” he whispers.
“And you know why I was in Sam’s room?”
“Yes, but you shouldn’t feel guilty for shooting him, Kiah. We don’t even know that he was aiming at the trooper. Maybe, he is a lousy shot and was aiming at you.”
He puts his finger under my chin and lifts my face. “Do you know that I love you?”
My heart surges, like it has been struck by lightning. Then, fear overwhelms me.
“Kiah,” he whispers. Somehow, he's reading the emotions that are tormenting my soul. “I know it’s hard to love when everyone you have loved is gone.”
“They aren’t gone, Ryker, they are dead, and if that were to happen to you…”
“It won’t,” he whispers, brushing my lips with his lips. “I will never leave you, I promise.” His lips move to my neck and then to my shoulder.
My heart is pounding as I wrap my arms around his neck, and I get lost in his kisses. “Ryker…” I breathe.
“I know,” he whispers.
We lay quietly under the tree with his arm under my head. “So, why did you punch her?”
“Well, I was tired of being called brain-dead…”
“Okay, I was tired of her putting her hands all over you and trying to turn you against me.”
He laughs. “You know, you have to trust me too. There isn’t anything she could do or say that would turn me against you.”
“I do trust you. You know that, right?”
He doesn’t answer, but he kisses me. “I guess you know that everyone is aware that you have found your voice now.”
“Yeah, I guess I am going to have to speak when spoken to now.” I roll my eyes.
Ryker laughs. “Maybe Sam was right. Maybe, one day you will speak to the masses.”
“What does that even mean?”
He looks at me intensely, like he wants to say something, but he kisses me instead. “We should get back. I think Marion wants to talk to you,”
I look at him, and he shrugs. “I told her what happened the first day and about Sam. I think she just wants to make sure you’re okay.”
We walk into the dining room holding hands. I’m taken by complete surprise when Sally and Max stand up and start chanting “Ki..ah, Ki…ah.” Soon, everyone at our table is chanting and cheering.
“I think you have a fan club.” Ryker grins at my embarrassment.”
Marion walks in and everyone quickly sits down and continues eating. “Kiah, could I have a few words with you?”
Ryker thinks she wants to talk to me about our two-day trip. I’m not so sure that I’m not about to be punished for punching Molly.
Marion leads me into her office and motions for me to sit down. “Kiah, Ryker told me about… the trooper that attacked…”
“He didn’t do anything. I pretended that I was dead, and he left me alone,” I blurt, not really wanting to talk about this.
“It had to be frightening,” She touches my hand. “I just want you to know if you need to talk, I am here for you. Ryker said you had to kill the man?”
“I know it sounds bad, but I don’t feel bad. He was an animal, and I believe he or the others would have killed us all.”
“I’m sure you’re right, and you shouldn’t feel bad…”
“I do feel horrible about shooting Sam though. I didn’t know there was anyone behind me. I thought he was shooting at me, but he was saving my life. He is just a kid like us.”
“Doc Henderson says that Sam is going to be fine, partly because you tended to him all night. I’m very proud of you, Kiah.”
“You… have heard about this morning, right?” I wonder how she could be proud of me if she knew I had punched Molly.
Marion smiles. “Molly? Yes, that is the talk of the halls. You know that I don’t like violence among you kids, but if anyone had it coming, she did. She will be nursing her broken nose for a few days.” She waits for my reaction.
I suck in a breath and look at her. “I broke her nose? I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to do that.”
“Well, maybe after she gets to feeling better, you can tell her that.”
I look at her and decide to be honest. “I think the best thing is for us to stay away from each other.” I drop my gaze to my hands in my lap. “I don’t think she would accept my apology, anyway.”
“Maybe, but your apology would be more to make you feel better, don’t you think?”
I look at her thinking she really has me pegged wrong in this situation because I don’t feel bad, and I don’t care to give Molly an apology anymore than I care if she accepted it. I say nothing and just shrug my shoulders.
She smiles like she knows what I am thinking. “Well at any rate, I will leave that up to you. I think we are finished here.”
I get up to leave then I sit back down. “Marion, are there other orphanages in the Southern Quadrant?”
She looks shocked by my question. “Of course, there are. There are at least fifteen that I know of. The battles have taken so many parents.” Marion has sadness in her eyes.
“And there are just as many in the other quadrants?”
“Of course. Why do you ask?”
“Just curious, I guess. Is there anyway of knowing exactly where the orphanages are located?”
“Every time an orphanage is opened, the record-keeper at The Southern Quadrant War Headquarters is notified, and they have to be updated with a current count of sixteen-year-olds each year. I’m sure it’s handled the same in all of the quadrants’ war headquarters.”
I look at her. “How do they keep the records from getting blown-up if they are kept at War Headquarters?”
She smiles, and I think she almost laughs. “Kiah dear, War Headquarters is not in the war zone. It’s usually in one of the larger towns close, but not too close, to the border, if you know what I mean.”
I don’t know what she means by close, but not too close, but I pretend like I do. “So, where is The Southern Quadrant War Headquarters located?”
“It’s in Grove, which is about two-hundred miles this side of the Southern Quadrant and Northern Quadrant border.”
“I’m curious about one more thing.” I try to act like a curious kid. “How do the troops recruit so many kids? It seems strange to me that so many kids would want to go fight in the same war that took their parents and probably killed them.”
Marion’s reaction shocks me. She loses all color in her face and tears roll down her cheeks. “I can’t lie to you, Kiah. I have grown too close to all of you kids, and this breaks my heart. You kids won’t have a choice. They set a date and send troops to collect all of the kids who have turned sixteen. The animals come and put you in uniforms, put a gun in your hand, and you have no choice.” she sobs so hard that her whole body is shaking.
I am in shock and close to tears too, but I get up and put my arms around her shoulders. “Have they set a date?” I whisper.
“The second day of the month, three months from now…” She takes a tissue from her pocket and blows her nose. “I’m sorry, Kiah.”
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