Chapter Six

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The energetic shouts surrounding me start to dwindle as time drags onwards. I watch with muted interest as groups of people say goodbye to their companions before parting ways and trudging up the metallic staircase towards their respective hallways. There are no windows since we are underground, so I can't tell what time it is. I guess there is a collective curfew for the residents here. After all of today's excitement, I hadn't managed to realize how exhausted I was myself. I can already feel my eyelids drooping like little weights are dangling from them.

"What's taking him so long?" Luke complains from the floor. Minutes ago, he and Leah sat down on the ground because their legs grew weary from waiting, while I remained leaning against the stone wall so I could watch all of the people walking in and out of the tunnels. Somewhere in my sub-consciousness an old fantasy is stirred, a fantasy in which a group of people with similar goals gather together, united against a great evil. I don't know about that, but I do know that we have not been captured by enemies. Our family members were right in leading us to this place, even if we might not actually get to thank them in person. We are safe: at least for now. I'm enfolded in a warm contentment, like an embrace, and I smile for the second time today.

"What are you grinning about?" Leah asks up to me. She seems depressed. I want to assure her that everything will be alright and that we weren't caught by Them, but I am uncomfortably wary of Luke's presence so I just shrug and wipe the grin from my face. It's quite easy.

All at once, I am puzzled by the thought of who "They" actually is. Since birth, everyone is taught to love Them, to revere Them, to obey Them... But why? Why have I come to fear and reject Them? I've always pictured Them as a dark army, clouded in mystery and fulfilling their evil motives by striking terror into the people. Never did I think of Them as a structured, organized group that works to systematically close off human minds. Just the thought alone sounds impossibly ridiculous.

"Hey!" I hear a call across from me, and I squint my eyes to see Alex through the dispersing throng. He trudges towards us, flanked by two women. Luke and Leah nimbly get to their feet.

"What on Earth took you so long?" Luke exclaims, punching Alex's arm. It looked playful to me, but--judging by the way Alex bit his lip--I bet it hurt. "I'm gonna have to work overtime tomorrow to make up for all this." Alex apologizes to Luke then, with an expression of anticipation on his face, steps aside to let the two women stand in front of Leah and I. I stand there awkwardly, not knowing what to expect. One of the women is tall and old-looking, with short gray hair and so many wrinkles that I could accurately compare her face to a raisin.

The other is about my height with long, thinning brown hair and a narrow face dominated by her eyes. Both of them are unusually skinny and wear comfortable-looking clothes in soft tones. I watch the older woman stare at Leah in awe. Leah stares back at her, eyes watering. Then I glance at the other woman, who stares at me the same as the old woman. Suddenly, she falls to her knees and starts sobbing, roping her thin arms around her own body. The older woman runs towards Leah and hugs her. They both start crying. Startled and still awkward, I bend down next to the younger woman.

"Um... Are you okay, Miss?" She nods her head while she sobs. "Do you need... help?" After my offer meets no response I begin to stand, but then the woman grips my wrist and pulls me towards her, slowly gaining control over her speech.

"I've missed you so, so much," she whispers. My hands begin to tremble when I realize that I recognize something in her face.

Her green eyes... They're my green eyes.

"Mom." I whisper the word so softly that only she can hear it. She nods and I continue to stare at her; my gaze soaks up every small detail of her face. But I don't cry. I can't cry. I'm not weak. I help my mother to her feet, glancing over at Leah and her grandmother. They've stopped sobbing but they latch onto each other as if they are in danger of being pulled apart. Leah smiles at me tearfully and I nod at her, lifting the corner of my mouth. We are no longer alone and unguided in our struggles against Them.

I'm no longer alone.

* * *

After thanking and dismissing Luke and Alex, Leah's grandmother and my mom lead us up a staircase and down a long hallway containing many rooms. My mind is completely numb; it's a struggle to put one foot in front of the other.

"We are bringing you to an empty dorm so you can sleep: you two look terrible!" Leah's grandmother says. Leah opens her mouth to retort, but I interrupt her before she says something she'll regret.

"Thank you very much." My mom takes my hand in her own and squeezes it. I think I can feel it shaking-or is that mine? We make two left turns and one right turn before stopping in front of an unmarked door.

"Everything will be explained tomorrow. I promise," my mother soothes, letting go of my hand. I nod and turn to Leah. She hugs her grandmother, who says, "We will fetch you in the morning. It's easy to get lost when you don't know your way around." After we say our hesitant goodbyes and they leave, Leah and I enter the small dormitory. It is reminiscent of my old room at the Academy of Global Doctrines, except that there are no cameras hanging from the ceiling and it doesn't smell eerily sterile. In fact, the room feels mildly cozy. Leah claims her bed and bounces back on the mattress, staring at the ceiling.

"Everything's changed," she says after a moment. I agree with her silently and climb into my own bed, clicking off the light between us.



"Is this a dream? Or is this real?"

I laugh softly. Just today I was busy waging an internal battle between my ethics and my instruction. Could it be that I actually stood up for myself, discovered an underground rebel group, and reunited with my mother today? It's all happening so fast, just whirls of color and groups of words that mean nothing until you slow down to examine them.

"Yes," I answer. And then I close my eyes and let sleep carry me into sweet unconsciousness.

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