The Hunt for Humanity: Chapter I

Bern Image

08-May-2466

The day I discovered I’d be leaving the only home I ever knew is a day I will never forget.

It was a slow and quiet day, where morning eased into afternoon at the speed of a ship traveling through a frictionWell. I had spent the early morning peeling a medley of root vegetables—potatoes, carrots, and the not so popular ginger radish. My mother hovered over me the entire time, making sure I held the rusty knife away from me as I cut. The vegetables were to be donations to Sunday’s Feast, but they were tired, withered things, and by the time I rid them of the inedible mold sprouting in their bellies, there was barely enough to fill the palms of my hands. Once free of my chores, I returned to where I had left of the night before: my corner of the tiny house amidst my hoard of books. I picked up my latest read and started flipping through the colorful pages of Interstellar Worlds and Their Fauna.

Midday came and went, and the living room of my windowless house remained cold and damp. There was a constant dripping sound coming from just beyond the low-rise ceiling made of reclaimed timber and iron beams. On days when the surface temperature reached over 150 degrees, condensation would form on the limestone and the chilly water would run off the stalactites hanging over the township. I liked to imagine it was rain, though no one alive knew firsthand the sound of an Earth-made shower.

The furniture inside my house was scarce, with little more than a loveseat, its leather dry and cracked with age, and a tarnished wooden table with seating for three. A single light burned inside a glass container, the result of a contained, stable reaction of potassium permanganate and glycerin fumes. From its spot on the table, the lightbox cast a pinkish hue onto the shabby string of cabinets on the nearby kitchen wall. My mother sat at the table, alone, back facing me with her head bent and hands folded in prayer. She prayed every chance she had. But on that day, as she held a knobby cross made of old walnut timber to her lips, she muttered a hopeful prayer for my father’s safe return.

            I prayed for his return, also, just not in the same way my mother did. While she wished for his safety, I wished him to come home, so he could tell me of his adventures on the surface world and teach me about his findings.

            I had nearly used the entire sheet of paper I had been gifted for the week as I lay sprawled out on a thin blanket of wool cast upon the stone floor. There was only a tiny patch of white left, in the upper right corner, and my charcoal pencil was worn to a nub. I must have squeezed in over two dozen renderings of plants on that one page, images I had memorized from the fat old books in my father’s workroom, down to the very last leaf.

           I was finishing up a near-perfect rendition of an Epiphyllum oxypetalum, commonly known as the queen of night cactus. I had ten more petals to draw on the blossom. But before I could finish, there was a knock on the door that stole my attention. I quickly scrambled to my feet and watched impatiently as my mother unlocked the door.

            Standing in the doorway was a tall, robust man. A man I hadn’t seen in three long and agonizing months. He was more ragged than I remembered, older and more stern. His wavy salt and peppered hair was so long it nearly reached the top of his shoulders, and his skin had a leathery look. I felt a smile spread across my face when his chapped lips parted for a grin.

I wanted to run over and hug him and scream, but my mother beat me to it. She threw her arms around my father, pulling him in close and saying, “Oh, Anthony! You’re home! You’re finally home.” Then she cried.

            He allowed her to cry in his arms for some time before grabbing her by the shoulders, gently pushing her back, and saying, “I’ve got some great news, Martha.”

            She didn’t seem to want to hear it. But knowing how important my father’s work was to him, she sucked down her tears with a loud sniffle and said, “Do tell me.”

            “I will. But first . . .” My father’s eyes scanned over the room before settling on to me. A smile illuminated his scruffy, worn out face. “Where’s my hug?”

            I bolted over to him, laughing, and allowed myself to be scooped up into his arms. I took in his scent, the smell of salt and sweat and outside air, as he showered me with kisses and ran his knotted fingers through my frizzy auburn hair. Too soon, he was putting me down and leading both my mother and me over to the table.

            “So what is the good news, Anthony?” Mother asked, her fingers intertwining with his. I remember her skin to be scores lighter than Father’s, as her ventures to the outside world were limited. My own skin paled in comparison. She held his hand tightly, as if he’d disappear if she were to let go.

            “You won’t believe it when I show you,” he said with a handsome grin. He kissed my mother on the hand, then released it to reach inside the leather satchel strung over his shoulder. He removed a tablet, no larger than my hand, and placed it on the table. “Replay the message,” he said to the device.

            There was a moment’s pause before the screen flickered on to emit a holographic image into the air above it. It was a man. Or at least, a three-dimensional, pixelated version of a man from the shoulders up. It was my first time seeing a holo of a person not born on Earth. He was beautiful. His golden hair was neatly groomed and he wore a sharp black suit made of a material finer than anything I had ever seen. His face was pale, even more so than mine. But more noticeably, his skin was free from wrinkles and scars from disease. He didn’t even have pores.

            “This message is for Anthony Harris,” the man said in a voice so clear it sounded as if he was standing in the room with us. “I, President Michael Conrad, and the rest of Azylo’s Board, would like to congratulate you on your latest achievement in plant sciences. It has been brought to our attention that you have discovered a way to successfully grow crops and other plant species on Earth, where the soil has been unable to sustain life since before the invasion. Each member of the Board has reviewed your research and, as a whole, has deemed you worthy of leading our biotechnology department here on Azylo. As you may know, we hope to one day call Earth our home again. And with your incredible discovery and valuable guidance, we believe that day will be soon. Three seats have been reserved for you and your family onboard my personal transport ship, which is currently stationed at McKellar’s Palace. It will be departing in three weeks’ time. I hope you will accept this lucrative offer. I look forward to meeting you, and your family, soon. Farewell for now.” The holo evaporated into thin air as the tablet’s screen turned black.

            Silence hung in the room. I could sense my father’s eyes drifting slowly back and forth between my mother and me as he eagerly awaited our reaction. “Martha?” he asked, hopeful. “Myzer?”

            I looked at him, trying everything I could to keep a straight face. I didn’t want to jump to conclusions, to assume we’d be going to the one place I’d dreamt of all my life. But I couldn’t resist. Immediately, I started jumping up and down, hollering with excitement. “We’re going to Azylo! We’re going to Azylo!” Finally, I was going to the place of my dreams! Azylo, a world of shimmering glass skies and infinite possibilities.

            My father bent down to embrace me. He pressed his lips to the top of my head. “Yes, my darling. We’re finally leaving. I promised I would take you there, didn’t I?”

            “I knew you’d keep your word, Daddy,” I said, beaming. Promising to bring one’s child to Azylo was something all Earthkin mothers and fathers did. Very few, however, could actually keep that promise.

            “I always do.” He gave me one last squeeze before standing to face my mother. His knees moaned as he straightened his back. My mother hadn’t moved since the video first started to play. Her eyes remained fixed to the device on the table, as if the holo were still there. “Martha, what’s wrong? I thought you’d be happy. We’re finally leaving this god-forsaken place.”

            “I . . . I am happy,” she said with a broken smile as she reached for her cross sitting on the table. “It’s just . . . I wasn’t expecting we’d be leaving so soon.” I sensed a fear rising in her, something primal and irrepressible. I couldn’t understand where it came from, her sudden surge of terror. But that is because I knew nothing of the outside world. I had been sheltered my whole life. I had been made to believe a lie.

            Father frowned. The simple downturn of his mouth made him look ten years older. “I know you’re worried about leaving, but Martha, this is an opportunity we cannot allow to pass us by. Think of the life you want your daughter to live. We may never get the chance to leave Earth again. Besides”—he placed his hand on her shoulder and gave it a tender squeeze—“we won’t be travelling alone. We’ll have an escort. Bern’s finest men, at that.”

            Though I was only eight years old, I had half a mind to know that a life on Earth was not an easy one. Living in the underground townships was a struggle. Food and water came to us by means of supply crates, which were delivered once a month by ship. The location of the crates always changed, to keep the supplies safe from bandits. Whenever the crates were about to arrive, their coordinates were sent to each of the townships, who would then send a team of men up to the toxic surface to retrieve the month’s supplies. Once the goods were brought to town, they were distributed amongst the people in predetermined shares based on gender, weight, age, and disability.

            Portions were meant to last the month. Whatever was left over by the month’s end was given up as tribute for the Feast. Because I was still growing, I received a much larger ration than both my parents. Many times, I tried to refuse to eat or drink when they could not. But my parents were too kind. I’d fill my belly every night and their ribs would show just a little bit more.

            It was common knowledge that the men who ventured to the surface to retrieve the supplies necessary for our survival did not always return. And when they didn’t, a township starved. I used to think it was bandits that killed them, or maybe the noxious air. Now I know better.

            “I know,” Mother said with a solemn look on her face.

            “We’re still gonna go, right?” I asked, desperate to get to Azylo.

            But as my father’s gaze darkened and deep lines formed around his mouth, I knew my question would go unanswered. He gave my mother a look of concern. I could tell he was worried for her well-being. He had a knack for noticing her sadness, for sensing the weight cast upon her heart. And he would do everything in his power to mend it. Always, he was the stronger of the two. The one to never be discouraged. Tenderly, he took my mother by the hand and slowly drew her into his arms. He kissed her softly on the neck as he stroked his fingers through her red hair that draped down the length of her back.  

            My mother melted in his embrace, the troubles and despair bottled up inside her gone in an instant. Her hands found the dip of his back with ease, fingers groping at his sweat-soaked shirt as she pulled him in closer.

            “Myzer,” Father said with his lips still grazing my mother’s flesh, “why don’t you go play outside for a while? We’ll have dinner ready when you return.”

            I hesitated, wanting nothing more than to get an answer to my question. I wanted to know if we were leaving, and when. I wanted to know if we would live like kings in space. But instead, I nodded, scooped up my pencil and paper, and reluctantly headed out the door.

            The dark orange lights burning inside the lightboxes hanging from high on the cavern walls told me it was late afternoon. My shoes were waiting outside, a beaten pair of once-white sneakers with purple laces, beside my father’s unkempt boots. I took a seat on one of the stone steps leading to the house and slid the shoes onto my feet. I didn’t have socks. Then I rolled up the paper, slid it into my pocket, along with the tiny nub of pencil, and descended into town.

            Our house sat at the top of a winding staircase carved into the cavern’s porous limestone. There were other homes built up higher than ours, on salvaged wooden stilts, but they were few and far between. Most of the town’s folk lived on the cavern floor, hundreds of feet down, in smaller, single-room homes that encompassed the township’s lively Square. Down there, the houses were so tightly packed between the shops and stands that there was little room to breathe. My parents chose the spot for our house because they liked their privacy, and because, although I was born in Bern, they were still newcomers in the closely-knit community.

            Though the people of Bern were kind and courteous, they were also very skeptical of newcomers. It could take years, decades even, for someone to feel like were welcome there. Most of the underground townships on Earth were like this though. With so little food and water and shelter to go around, it was no wonder people turned their noses up to strangers. They saw them as competition, more mouths to feed.

            As a child, I was used to leaving the house on a whim. Whenever my mother would get into one of her dour moods, as she so often did, it was my father’s job to reinvigorate her spirits. Whatever they did while I was away seemed to work quite nicely, because by the time I returned, my mother was glowing with a radiance I rarely saw in her elsewise.

            She could have benefited from medication. The Happy Pill and the Forget Me spirits would have saved her from countless hours of self-pitying and wallowing in her despair. But those were considered items of luxury, and reserved only for the wealthy on Azylo. If I could have stolen some for her back then, I would have done it in a heartbeat. She deserved to smile more than she did.

            Often, my favorite place to wander to was my father’s place of work—his greenhouse. Located on the opposite side of the township, it was hidden behind the butcher shop, past the dirty pig pens and the chicken coops with their crooked white roofs, alongside a small patch of root vegetables growing in overcrowded buckets of clay soil. Though the greenhouse wasn’t very big in size, it contained an impressive array of plants that never ceased to stop expanding. In the back of the greenhouse sat my father’s workroom, with an old rusty workbench and a plethora of weathered books.

            That afternoon, the township was bustling. It was the third Saturday of the month, the day before Feast day, and everyone was hurrying to finish their chores before entering the day of church, food, and celebration.

            There was a time when religion took a backseat to the explorations of science, right after man discovered we weren’t the only intelligent lifeforms in the universe. But after the invasion, and after the rest of humanity—the wealthy and well-connected—fled into space and left us for dead, those who were stuck on Earth returned to God. It gave them solace and comfort during otherwise trying times. Feast day came about as a celebration of our connection to God, and to welcome a new influx of supplies with the following day’s shipment. Stories were shared, songs were sung, and a great feast was had in the township’s Square, at long rows of tables set in front of the stone statue of David and Goliath. Though now that I think about it, Goliath had sharp fangs and unfurled wings, and David had a strange resemblance to humanity’s hero, Albert Hartmann.

            “Hey Myzer!” someone called to me as passed by the Hard (and Soft) Wars shop, halfway through town. I stopped in my tracks, sliding on the slippery stone and nearly bumping into a woman carrying an overstuffed basket of eggs. She gave me an unpleasant look as she fixed her skirts and stomped away. Osaze called my name again as he stood in the doorway of his parent’s store, waving to me.

            “Whatchu’ up to?” he asked with a cheeky grin. A new pair of goggles sat atop his shaved head. He looked more mod than usual, with the flashing goggles, the swag tilt of his hips, and the strange, yet intriguing, way he layered his clothes. I think he used the goggles to hide his scars caused by the Radia Lem, a disease many children contracted in Bern but not too many survived. I was one of the few to have been left untouched by the disease.

            “Going to gather some more research,” I said, flashing him the end of the rolled-up paper in my pant’s pocket. “Wanna come?”

            “Sure. But first . . .” He snatched the paper from my pocket and unrolled it with a swift flick of his wrist. He frowned when he discovered the page was already full. “You’re gonna need more than this,” he said. “Let me go ask my mom if we’ve got any. Be right back!”

            “No, it’s—” I tried to stop him, but he was already dashing inside the store before my words could reach his ears. Moments later, he waltzed out of the shop with an entire notebook full of paper. I felt my jaw go slack with surprise.

            “Impressive, I know,” he said smugly. “My pops won it in a game of Skraps last night. You can make it up to me later.”

            “I will!” I said, eagerly reaching for the notebook in his hands.

            I expected to get to the greenhouse with plenty of time to spare, but my friends had other plans for me. Upon seeing us, they did everything they could to coax us into playing a game of Kill the Turpis. We tried our best to decline. I’d recently grown to despise that game, as I hardly ever won. And it wasn’t that I lost because I wasn’t good or skilled, but because I believed I could win the game with little help from my friends. Time and time again, I was proved wrong. But my friends barred our path and refused to let us pass until we helped them capture and slay the mighty beast. Apparently, they’d forgiven my sins of previous matches. With discarded rods we gathered from the waste pile behind the metallurgy stand, we hunted for our friend, Fritz, who was hiding somewhere in the township with a potato sack fitted over his clothes, the word “alien” spray-painted in red across the chest.

            We spent over an hour looking for Fritz. During the hunt, we talked into our fists as if we were communicating through com units, like the famous Maker pilots did during the War. When all was said and done, we lost the game. Go figure. The reason for our loss was no different, either. I had unknowing walked us straight into a trap. I told the others to sit tight and wait outside, but trusting my bravado, my friends followed me blindly. Fritz ambushed us inside the cramped bakery and used his crooked rod to give us all the loser’s mark—giant purple welts on our shins.

            When I grew tired of listening to my friends complain about our loss, Osaze and I made our escape to the far side of town. The air grew thicker by the minute as we squeezed through the damp alleyways winding between the houses, stomachs pressing against splintering wood as we shuffled along sideways.

            “When are you gonna learn that the only way to win that game is by strategizing?” Osaze asked as we cleared the last cluster of buildings. He adjusted his goggles to rest on his forehead. His scars were itching badly; I could tell by the way his fingers twitched at his sides.

            “When you hook me up with a pair of these,” I said, tugging at his goggles so they smacked against his skin with a sharp slapping sound. I’d had my eye on a pair of his holoGloves for quite some time, but the goggles—the way they hummed and flashed bright colors—seemed like a more valuable prize. They were beyond mod.

            Though most of his gadgets never did as he intended, Osaze was constantly coming up with new ideas for tech gear. His parents were the town’s devOps, the ones who found old, broken machines and transformed them into working equipment. But they made practical things, like radio coms, air ventilation units for the cavern’s conduits, and lightbox containers. Osaze, on the other hand, was always reaching for the stars with his inventions.

            We bickered back and forth as we hurried past the butcher shop with its bloodstained doorstep and display of skinless meat sacks in the windows. Noses plugged, we raced by the depleted pig pens that reeked of slaughter and decay, and the quiet chicken coops painted white from feces.

            As we turned the corner of the last coop, I noticed the door to the tarp-covered greenhouse was ajar. “That’s weird,” Osaze said as if reading my mind. He eyed the door with suspicion. “Your dad never forgets to lock up.”

            “He must’ve been in a hurry to get home,” I said in an attempt to assuage the feeling that something was amiss. But I couldn’t shake the fact that my father had only just returned from a months’ long expedition. My steps faltered as my pace slowed. The sound of my breathing intensified.

            We could hear something stirring inside as we inched closer to the greenhouse. Osaze took my hand and hurried me over to the side of the building, behind a small wooden shed. We got on our knees and crawled closer to the tarp wall, pressing our ears to the blue plastic casing. There were people whispering inside.

            “What are they doing in there?” I muttered, furious that someone would break into my father’s greenhouse. “They shouldn’t be in there.” I was about to jump to my feet when Osaze grabbed my hand and squeezed.

            “Quiet,” he said, pressing his finger to his lips. His fingers creeped along the bottom of the wall until finding an untethered end of tarp. Then carefully, he lifted it. Because the plastic was fixed to the wooden structure further up, he could only raise it a few inches from the ground. But it was enough to give us a view of the infiltrators’ shoes pacing the aisles between the rows of potted plants.

            “He’s found it,” one of them said. He sounded young, his voice silky smooth like warm honey. “I know he has. How else could he have . . .”

            “Don’t panic,” the other said, his voice much more gruff and tired sounding. There was a heavy clunk, like a planter’s pot being put down. “I doubt that’s the case. It isn’t exactly an easy thing to find. But if he has, then imagine how much trouble he’s saved you. How many years of looking you can scratch off your to-do list. If it’s been found, we’ll just take it. Simple as that.”

            There was a pause, a rustle of branches and leaves, then, “He did take the Board up on their offer, did he not?” the first stranger asked.

            “Not yet,” the other answered.

            The first man came to an immediate stop. His glossy black boots kicked up some of the sandy soil from the floor and onto a nearby pot. “Why not? I need him to—”

            “Don’t worry, he will. He must. If he doesn’t then his research will amount to nothing, and his family will . . .”

            Their voices faded beneath a scratching sound coming from my left. Osaze was clawing furiously at his leg, where two red bumps had risen on his dark skin. I felt a pinch on my hand, followed by a terrible burning sensation. A pain worse than scalding water. I looked down to see inch-long ants sprouting from an open sack of potting clay and climbing onto whatever they could find. I crushed one as it crawled up my ankle, then another as it wriggled its way onto my shoe.

            “Ow ow ow,” Osaze whimpered, scuttling away from the building on his hands and knees. Big brown ants blanketed his back. Without a moment’s hesitation, I stood and ran over to aid him, swatting away the ants as quickly as I could.

            By the time I managed to rid my friend of ants, he was shirtless, his torso covered in throbbing red bites. We wasted no time in returning to Osaze’s shop. He was bitten over twenty times, and each bite packed a toxic amount of cyanide that, when en masse, could lead to respiratory failure.

            Osaze leaned on me for support, eyes fluttering, chest heaving, as I pounded my fist on his parents’ door. “Help!”

            The door flew open. Osaze’s sister stood in the doorway, her brown eyes enlarged from the augGoggles resting on her face. She had her thick, braided hair pulled back. “What’s all the fuss for?” she asked before her eyes settled on her younger brother. Urgently, she ushered us inside the shop, through the mess of wires and motherboards and half-repaired tablets, and into the back room. I’d never been in the back of their shop before, and only then did I realize how lucky my family was. Besides the stained mattress sprawled across the floor, there was little room for the stove burner, sink, and two chairs crammed against the far wall. My heart sank a little in my chest at the thought of four people sharing such a tiny living space.

            “Lay him on the bed carefully,” his sister said, not once losing her stride.

            I did as she instructed while she went to dig through the crowded cabinet beneath the sink. Soon, she was at my side, a loaded syringe in hand. Gently, she rolled Osaze onto his back and emptied the contents of the needle into his chest, right above his heart. She traced a cross over her body with her right hand, then did the same to her brother before quietly counting under her breath to thirty. As the antidote spread through Osaze’s bloodstream, I stole glances of his older sister, wondering how she could possibly remain so calm and brave in the face of such danger. She was the definition of mod. My own hands wouldn’t stop shaking, and my heart beat thunderously in my chest. I didn’t think my friend would survive.

            When it was all over, and Osaze’s sister had assured me for the dozenth time that he would live, I left to return home. Rather than going straight there, I took a detour and headed back to the greenhouse. I wanted to know if the men were still there, I needed to know what it was they were looking for.

            The lightboxes strung about the stalagmites and stalactites in the township had dimmed three shades darker by that hour; evening had come. But even in the growing darkness, I could see the door to the greenhouse had been shut. The men were gone.

            Still, I approached the door with quaking knees. Fingers wrapped around the rusted door handle, I pulled slowly, the hinges creaking in protest. A plethora of fragrant smells leaked out of the greenhouse: lilacs, jasmine, citrus, and lotus. I breathed in the fresh scent of blooming life as my eyes adjusted to scour the depths of the building, searching for signs of the intruders. With a portable lightbox from my father’s workroom, I paced down each of the aisles, hoping for a clue. A remnant, maybe, that there were people here. But the men left behind no trace, not even a footprint in the filthy floor.

            Who were those men? What were they searching for? And why did they think that whatever it was they were after would be in my father’s care? They were not from Bern, I knew that much for sure. No one in Bern would have dared entered another man’s territory without an invitation. The people of Bern were a considerate, honest folk. Those men were trespassers, snoops. And something in my gut told me that, whatever their reason was for breaking into my father’s greenhouse, it was not good.

            Later that evening, during the month’s most meager dinner, I decided to tell my father about the men.

            “Two men you say?” He scratched at his freshly shaven chin, frowning. Mother paused before taking a bite of beans, her gaze nervously drifting to Father. “What did these men look like?”

            “I’m not sure,” I admitted before taking a small bite of potato. “But one of them was wearing black boots.”

            “Hmm . . .” Father poked at the chicken leg on his plate. With his fork, he picked apart the skin and piled it onto my dish. He seemed intrigued by my deposition, amused even, as he restrained a grin. His carefree attitude did nothing to help my suspicions.

            “This is serious, Daddy,” I said, stabbing my fork into the hunk of chicken skin and giving him my most potent glare. For an eight-year-old, my hazel eyes burned fire at all the right moments. “People shouldn’t be trespassing like that! Especially in your greenhouse.”

            Mother leaned forward in her chair. “Myzer’s right, Anthony. They could be trying to steal your research.”

            The thought of someone stealing my father’s research sent the blood rushing to my head. My throat tightened, and my jaw clenched. Eight long years I waited to get to the place of my dreams. I was not about to let a couple of strangers take that from me.

            I was about to spit fire when my father looked at me and said, “Martha, Myzer, relax. Please. You’re both working yourselves up over nothing. I’ve had an open-door policy on my greenhouse for years, whether you’ve realized it or not. Besides”—he flashed my mother a toothy smile—“there’s only one person I know who would have any interest in meddling in my work.”

            My mother’s grim face seemed to relax almost instantly. “You don’t think—”

            “I do,” he said with a wink. Whatever the joke was, I apparently had missed it.

             Mother’s eyes radiated joy. Then she stood, as if suddenly remembering something of importance. “Did you tell Myzer about the thing?”

            “Oh, I forgot!” Father pushed his chair back from the table and took three long strides into the back room. He returned moments later, a lump under his clean linen shirt. “Don’t worry about the men for now. I’ll handle it. But I did find something of tremendous value while I was away.”

            “What is it?” I asked skeptically, reluctant to let go of the issue about the greenhouse. Maybe my father was fine with letting strange men waltz around his life’s work, touching and groping and smelling things that took him years to grow, but I sure wasn’t. I knew how hard he’d worked to get each and every one of those plants to live and to thrive on their own, in soil that was lacking in everything but dust. More than half my life he had spent away, searching for the perfect composition of soil and sand to get life to grow on a barren and lifeless planet once more.

            “Close your eyes,” my father said in a tone that was not to be disobeyed.

            I did as he said. My heart thrummed in my chest as I heard him approach. The last time he did this, he had surprised me with a handful of fresh, plump berries. Blackberries, raspberries, and my favorite: blueberries. The juices danced across my tongue like a beautiful melody. Never in my life had I tasted something so delightfully sweet.

            There was a soft plop on the table in front of me. “Okay, you can open them.”

            My eyes flew open. Sitting on the table was a stuffed dog, yellow in color with two beady black eyes and a large, knitted nose. “Mr. Snifflesworth!” I snatched the dog off the table and hugged it close. “Where did you find him?” I asked, a sparkle in my eyes as I looked up at my father. The dog’s fur was softer than ever and smelt as if he’d been cleaned.

            “Wouldn’t you like to know,” Father said, implying he would spill no secrets on the earlier whereabouts of my long-lost friend. “Your mother made sure I found him before we left.”

            My ears perked up. “Wait, so we are going?” Suddenly, the events from earlier vanished from my mind, replaced by overwhelming ecstasy.

            “We leave in the morning,” Mother said with a sureness I know she did not feel. Her smile was false, a mask she had bestowed upon her face to hide the one of sorrow and fear. “After church.”

            My father goes to stand behind her chair, resting his hands atop her bony shoulders. It was his way of reassuring her she was making the right decision in letting us go. “So finish your dinner and go pack your bags. We’re finally leaving for Azylo.”

 

Original work by Ashley Danielle LeTourneau