March 17th, 2012 (Just Under Six Years Ago)
“Flick, are you sure they’re gonna come?” twelve-year-old Miranda Wallbern asked her best friend while glancing across the food court table that the two of them were sharing. Right beside them was a railing that overlooked the first floor of the mall below, where they could see people walking.
The blonde girl bobbed her head up and down quickly, eyes centered on that lower area while she absently sipped her soda. “Uh huh,” she murmured under her breath. “They’ll be here, trust me.”
“Duh, always,” Miranda retorted. “It’s just, we’ve been waiting here for two hours already and we haven’t seen ‘em. We’ve gotta get on the four o’clock bus if we’re gonna make it home before six.”
Saturday or not, six o’clock was dinner, and Miranda had to make it home in time. Unfortunately, the mall they were in wasn’t actually in Laramie Falls, the girls’ hometown. Instead, it was in a larger town about an hour and a half away. If they missed the bus getting back, they’d have to call one of their parents for a ride. And if that happened, they were going to have to explain not just why they weren’t where they were supposed to be, but why they were in a whole different city.
“We’ll make it,” Flick insisted, still not turning her gaze away from the lower level. “Kendall’s gonna be here. That’s her favorite store.” She nodded toward the front of the shop that could barely be seen down there from where they were sitting. “And that sale ends after today. She’ll be here.”
Giving her little blue flip phone a nervous look to check the time once more, Miranda nodded. “Okay, but we’ve gotta leave in an hour if we’re gonna make it to the bus, Kendall or no Kendall.”
Flick opened her mouth, then stopped. Slowly, a smile formed and she gave a little nod. “See?”
Sure enough, looking that way, Miranda saw the girl in question. Kendall Harver was walking right below them, accompanied by two of her friends/cronies. The trio were pretty much the most popular girls in the eighth grade, two years above where Miranda and Flick were. In their middle school, Kendall didn’t even know that the two of them existed. They were invisible sixth graders.
But after this… well, they wouldn’t be invisible to the girl anymore. That was for sure.
From their seats up on that second floor, Miranda and Flick watched. They caught glimpses of the girls moving back and forth through the store, picking up various clothes here and there. But mostly, they just waited. Eventually, Kendall and her sidekicks brought a stack of their selections to the checkout counter, which was perfectly framed in view from where the girls were sitting.
“Here we go,” Flick announced while holding her hand out. “How long do we have left?”
Digging into the bag at her side, Miranda came out with a camera, handing it to her friend before checking her phone again. “Fifteen minutes,” she announced. “If we run all the way to the bus.”
Flick smiled. “See? Plenty of time.” She took the camera, focusing it on the scene through the store window below. There was a rapid clicking sound as she took several pictures in quick succession, then paused before taking a few more. “Wait… wait…” the blonde murmured, clearly talking to herself as she held off from taking any more for a moment. “Wait for the money shot.”
She didn’t have to wait long. As the clerk in the store totaled up the older girls’ purchases, Kendall reached into her purse and came out with a white envelope full of cash. The second the envelope was opened, Flick started taking pictures again. She took pictures of the cash in the envelope, being taken out of it, being handed to the clerk, and of the clerk carefully counting all of it.
Finally, it was over. Kendall and her friends were handed their purchases, and Flick took a couple more quick photos of the three walking out of the store. Then she straightened and nodded to Miranda. “Time to run?” she asked, smiling brightly from the exhilaration of success.
Returning the other girl’s grin, Miranda’s head bobbed. “Yup,” she replied before adding, “All those pictures, that means we’ve got ‘em, right? And we’re not gonna get in trouble this time?”
“Randi,” Flick replied, standing up from the table. “I promise, we are not gonna get in trouble.”
“You two girls are in so much trouble.”
Two days later, Miranda and Flick sat in the principal’s office at their school. Principal Augustine Bonnelly was an older, severe-faced woman who had been the head of the middle school pretty much forever, according to anyone Miranda had asked. She had dark gray hair with flecks of white in it, almost like paint splotches. Her glasses were thick, and she always wore a dark red turtleneck that looked like it was so tight that it should’ve been choking her. Her expression at the best of times was optimistically put as ‘unhappy.’ And right now definitely wasn’t the best of times.
But if she expected Flick to be cowed by her words, the woman clearly didn’t know her at all. Beside Miranda, the blonde lifted her chin stubbornly. “I think you mean Kendall’s in trouble.”
“I would appreciate it if you didn’t correct me, Miss Chambers,” Principal Bonnelly retorted. “We’re dealing with your issue right now. Would either of you care to explain what this is?” Reaching down to her desk, she picked up a piece of paper. Both the front and back were covered with text and a couple pictures, while the title across the top of the front read: ‘FESTIVAL OF FRAUD’.
“It’s a newspaper,” Miranda informed the woman while shifting a little in her seat with a quick glance toward the other girl. “Well, um, sort of. It’s more of a flier, I guess. Cuz we couldn’t make a real newspaper, so we just printed out a bunch of those from the computer in the lab.”
“A newspaper,” Principal Bonnelly echoed, her voice incredulous. “This is the very same… newspaper, as you call it, that the two of you distributed into every classroom of this school?”
“And every locker,” Flick reminded her. “Every classroom and every locker. Oh, and we put some up on the bulletin board by the trophy case and in the teacher’s lounge too. And there was one left over, so we put that one in that room the janitors hide in so they can smoke. Just in case.”
The woman took a visible breath at that before letting it out. “The two of you plastered these accusations across the entire school, without a single thought about the potential consequences.”
Flick’s head shook. “Nuh uh,” the twelve-year-old insisted with an even more stubborn look. “We thought about the consequences a lot. Mostly consequences for Kendall. You know, for stealing.”
“Be careful, Miss Chambers.” Principal Bonnelly’s eyes narrowed. “You may be able to write whatever unproven accusations you want to in that ‘newspaper’, but when you’re talking to–”
To Miranda’s horror, Flick interrupted. “It’s not unproven. We have evidence and witnesses. Kendall and her friends took a bunch of money from the carnival and spent it on clothes.”
Sounding like she was really lamenting the fact that corporal punishment had been outlawed, Bonnelly retorted, “Are you referring to the carnival that was meant to raise money for our end-of-year field trip? The one that succeeded? We have the money, Miss Chambers.”
To Miranda’s own surprise, she was the one who spoke then. “Of course it did. They didn’t take all the money. That’d be stupid. As long as they left just enough for the trip, people wouldn’t look too close. If they didn’t, there’d be questions and stuff. People might talk about how much they spent.”
Flick added, “Kendall was the one with the cash box. All she did was walk around once an hour to get the money from all the games and refreshments, and they put the cash in the box.”
“A box,” the principal cut in to add with a note of obvious impatience, “which was padlocked. And Miss Harver didn’t have the key. Are you suggesting that all of the people, many of them adults, who were running those games were in on this scheme, Miss Chambers?”
“Didn’t you read the–” The sound of Flick’s incredulousness that the woman hadn’t even bothered to read through their entire article made Miranda flinch, and she quickly elbowed the other girl.
“Um,” she hurriedly put in, “in case you missed it, we answered that in the story. Kendall was the only one carrying the lock box around, so she knew exactly how much was in there all the time.”
Flick’s head bobbed, and she added on the heels of Miranda’s words. “So when she knew that there was enough in there for the trip, she switched boxes. She had another box, just like that one. She hid the real one and walked around with the fake one so that people would put money in it. At the end of the day, she switched back and gave you guys the first one, the real one. You opened it up, counted the money, and saw it was enough. Then she took the fake box and everything in it. And bought clothes, and other stuff.”
“And your evidence of this is…” Principal Bonnelly prompted, waving a hand impatiently.
Miranda answered first. “We talked to Mr. Jenkins at the store. He said that Kendall bought a box just like the one that was used at the carnival, and a padlock too. Except Mr. Thomas,” she named the eighth grade chemistry teacher, “already bought the box himself. So she bought an extra.”
Flick nodded. “And we talked to everybody that was running booths that day. Jackie Townsend’s dad said that he thought the box was lighter in the afternoon, but Kendall told him that you guys emptied it after lunch. And Tricia Comess said that the padlock was on backwards the first time she saw the box, with the key part facing in. But when she saw it later, the lock was facing out. Oh, and we added up the amounts that people could remember putting in the box, and it’s almost enough to make the field trip by itself, even though a lot of them couldn’t remember. So it should be way over the goal, not just a little bit over.”
“Plus,” Miranda finished while tapping the paper, “We’ve got pictures of them paying for all that stuff at the mall in cash.”
“There’s more pictures,” Flick helpfully added while reaching out to point at the bottom of the page. “See? You just have to go to this website right there and you’ll find them all.”
Heaving a long, annoyed sigh, Bonnelly started, “If you had come to me or a teacher first-”
“You would’ve tried to deal with it quietly,” Flick interrupted. “Just because Kendall’s the star of the soccer team. The one that’s supposed to be going to state. They’ll lose without Kendall, and she definitely can’t play with something like this. Whoever we talked to might try to keep it quiet.” She shrugged then. “So we made sure they couldn’t. You know, by making sure everyone saw it.”
Steepling her fingers, the principal rested her forehead against her thumbs briefly before straightening. “I will be calling the police. Unfortunately, there’s no choice now. But no, Miss Chambers. My thought was that if you had come to me first, I could have ensured that your identities were kept secret. As it is, several students saw you putting up these papers, which means that now everyone is aware of where and who they came from. In your eagerness to spread the truth, you have made targets of yourselves.” Pausing then, she added, “I’ll also be calling your parents to help handle this. Miss Chambers, please wait outside for a moment. I’d like to talk to Miss Wallbern alone.”
Miranda gave her friend a nod of encouragement when the girl looked at her, then waited as Flick left the room to wait in the receptionist’s office.
Once they were alone, Principal Bonnelly took a breath. “Miss Wallbern, I understand that you and Miss Chambers are close friends. But you may wish to… reconsider just how much time you spend with her. She is a… troubled girl, lashing out at authority. It’s understandable, after what her mother did. Yet… it’s also something that she will find a way out of much easier than you will.”
“You mean cuz I’m black,” Miranda finished for her while folding her arms over her chest. “You think Flick’s gonna get us both in trouble, only she’ll get out of it and I won’t because she’s white and I’m black.”
It wasn’t anything all that new for her to hear. Miranda had been the only black girl in their grade ever since her family moved to Wyoming several years earlier. And the rest of the town wasn’t exactly swimming in them. She was used to people staring a bit, was accustomed to those that tried to ‘help’ when the best thing they could’ve done was leave well enough alone.
“The facts are the facts, Miss Wallbern,” the woman informed her. “Unfair though they may be. Miss Chambers’ mother was the sheriff before she… left. She still has friends on the force. Her father is a respected reporter. If things go wrong, you are the one who will bear the brunt of any punishment should someone need to be made an example of.”
“Principal Bonnelly,” Miranda started, “How come you’re acting like Flick and me did something wrong, just cuz we told the truth and found out about someone stealing?”
The woman sighed at that. “Sometimes things are more complicated than we want them to be,” she replied flatly. “I’m not saying that you didn’t… have the right intentions or accomplish something positive. I’m saying that the effects of those actions may come back to haunt you in ways that you didn’t foresee. And that it is you who will most likely bear those effects, Miss Wallbern. Fair or not, that is what will happen. So, for your own sake, you may wish to think about just how much trouble you’re willing to let Miss Chambers drag you into.”
“Drag me into?” Miranda echoed. “Principal Bonnelly, Flick doesn’t drag me anywhere.
“We run into it together.”
The stares weren’t subtle. As Miranda made her way through her assigned chores for the day, she felt the eyes on her, heard the whispers, felt the people who made a point of bumping into her as they passed, despite having plenty of room. Over the course of the day, the stares stopped looking away when she glanced in that direction, the whispers grew louder, and the bumps were more forceful. There were a lot of words, but traitor was the one she heard most often.
She knew why. Flick had already let her know what happened, just in case someone from Doxer and Trice’s tribe tried to go for a little revenge. Unfortunately, she had the feeling that Flick had been picturing a lone, fringe element, a single person or small group that would take offense. This was more than that. Most of the worst of it was from Lost Scar people, but not all, by any means.
Everywhere she went, there were people muttering thinly veiled insults and threats. Not everyone by any means, but enough. And most of the ones who didn’t actually say or do anything still simply walked away without intervening. Even some from her own tribe made a point of disappearing.
Things has just been pushed too far. First Hannah (Now Avalon) had killed Torv before escaping from any kind of trial by being taken under the protection of the Crossroads headmistress. Then Abigail Fellows had been brought on and given one of the precious few Eden Apples despite a lot of people saying that she was too old to learn how to fight or do anything productive. And to make things even more tense, Hisao had taken what he called a ‘leave-of-absence’ to teach at Crossroads. Her own mentor had left Garden to teach at the school of their rivals, a school that happened to be attended by her friend. More than a few people had made that connection, and Miranda had found herself pointed at more than once as the reason that Hisao had left.
So not only was she left temporarily mentorless, but all the people at Garden who were pissed off that the man was gone to teach their rivals were pointing at her as the reason behind it. That had been going on for weeks, though she didn’t tell Flick or Hisao anything about it when they talked. There were enough problems going on for them to deal with, serious problems. She could take care of herself.
And now it seemed like this was the tipping point. Doxer was dead. Trice was missing, ostensibly hiding out somewhere to avoid answering for what happened. Two more promising and powerful Garden students were gone, at least one permanently. In less than a year, Torv, Trice, and Doxer had all been lost, with the blame for it falling onto Avalon and Flick, both of whom were under Gaia Sinclaire’s protection. And Hisao, one of Gardens’ best Vigiles, was off teaching for her.
Hisao was gone. Avalon/Hannah was gone. Flick was out of their reach. All of them were protected by Gaia and the rest of Crossroads. The people who were upset couldn’t get near them.
But they could get near Miranda. They could whisper threats and insults, bump into her, and glare. Which would have been fine. She understood their anger, their frustration. She could deal with it if it stayed like that. But it wouldn’t. She knew that. They knew that. The only real question was how long it would take. And the answer was… not very long.
They waited until Miranda wasn’t on her tribe’s branch. She was down on the ground, feeding some of the animals that had to be penned up there, when she heard people approaching. Turning, the girl found herself facing half a dozen figures. Adult Heretics, most of whom had only graduated within the past few years.
All of them were from the Lost Scar tribe.
They had already formed a semicircle, one lifting his chin. “Hey, Wallbern, got a name for you when your birthday comes around. How about Traitor?”
Another boy shook his head. “Crossroads’ Bitch is better. Isn’t that what you are now? Just a little bitch for those other bitches they’ve got. Your mentor went over there, plus you’re like… super-duper-best friends with one of them. A friend who–uhh, what’d she do again?” he prompted, clearly already knowing the answer.
“Killed Doxer,” one of the other boys answered. “Bitch killed Doxer. Probably killed Trice too, they just won’t say so.”
The first boy shook his head. “Nah, I bet Tits McGee killed Trice. That’s why they’re trying to say he got away, cuz killing two guys in the same family… that’s bad news.”
Miranda took a breath, letting it out as she replied, “If Doxer didn’t wanna die, he shouldn’t have picked a fight he couldn’t win.” Pausing, she added, “again. And Trice ran away like a coward.”
“You fucking watch your mouth,” one of the boys snapped, taking a step that way. “Doxer and Trice were out there to get justice from the cunt that killed Torv. Now Doxer’s dead, and Trice is missing. So maybe we’ve just gotta get justice some other way.”
“Maybe,” another guy put in, “we let ‘em know that we’ve got the bitch’s friend right here. See if they’ll pop over for a visit then.”
“Nah,” another one replied, “I’ve got a better idea. We’ll invoke the Right of Reparation.”
Miranda knew what that was. Essentially, it was a way for various individual Garden Heretics to take payment either in monetary goods or blood from another Garden Heretic without getting in trouble for any damages done. When one Heretic invoked the Right of Reparation, they named a price. Sometimes it would be a flat amount, while other times it would be an amount of time that the person they were invoking it against would have to serve as essentially their slave for all intents and purposes. As long as the Right was upheld by one of the Vigiles, the Heretic that they challenged had to either pay that cost/serve them for the allotted time, or choose to face them in a one-on-one arena fight. If they lost the fight, the assigned penalty of either serving time or cost was doubled.
“Yeah,” one of the boys announced, his eyes on her. “We’ll invoke Right of Reparation. All of us, one at a time. Think your friend’ll show up if she finds out you’re getting your ass kicked up and down the arena?”
“Last time I checked,” Miranda retorted, “Right of Reparation means you’ve gotta get a Vigile to sign off on it.”
To that, the assembled Lost Scar boys chuckled. The one who had spoken first reached into his pocket and produced a small golden pin that looked like a spear piercing an apple. “Promoted last week,” he announced. “Looks like I can accept all the Reparation trials I want to.”
“You think anyone else is gonna step in and stop it?” another boy asked. “Look around. Your own tribe ain’t even here. They left you alone on purpose, bitch. After everything that happened, they ain’t gonna step in for you. Not now. Someone’s gotta pay, and you’re the only one here. No one else is gonna throw themselves in the crosshairs just to help you out.”
“So which is it gonna be?” one of them asked. “You gonna call your little friend and get her over here so she can pay for Doxer, or are we just gonna have to start kicking your ass all around the arena over and over again until you change your mind?”
“Actually,” a voice started from nearby, “there’s a few problems with that.”
Miranda and the boys assembled around her all looked that way, only to see Abigail Fellows. The thin, older woman stood there with her arms folded across her chest as she stared them down.
The freshly minted Vigile pointed at the woman. “This doesn’t concern you. Just be glad you get to walk around our tree pretending to be a real Heretic, and keep your ugly nose out of other people’s business.”
If she was cowed, the woman didn’t show it. Instead, she walked right up to put herself beside Miranda. “You can’t challenge her like that.”
Rolling his eyes, one of the boys snapped, “It’s called Right of Reparation. Just cuz you’re a clueless little Bystander bitch who doesn’t know what she’s–”
“Section Seventeen, paragraph forty-two of the Garden Rules and Standards,” Abigail interrupted. “Unless the accused party can be conclusively demonstrated to have harmed Eden’s Garden in some way themselves, they cannot be held accountable for the actions of those outside of the Garden. Also, section three, paragraph twelve: any connection, familial or otherwise, with members of Crossroads cannot be solely used to hold judgement against any Garden Heretic unless there is some other evidence of wrongdoing. In other words, if Miranda is found guilty of some kind of crime, then you can use her connection to Crossroads against her. But until then, she can’t be judged just because she has a friend who lives there.”
For a moment, the boys just stared. Then one of them sputtered, “That one was–that was written back when we first split from Crossroads. It was just supposed to stop all the infighting about who still had friends there, whose family didn’t come with them, and that kinda shit.”
“Funny, it’s still on the books,” Abigail informed them. “Which means it’s still the law. And Vigiles don’t get to change it. You need the Victors to do that.
“Oh, and speaking of which,” she added pointedly, “page forty-four of the Vigile Regulation Handbook says that they cannot preside over any Reparation trial that they have a personal stake in. And page forty-six says that a single Heretic can’t be challenged more than once for the same thing.”
Still not quite done, the woman pressed on. “Also, on October 29th, 1974, a trial that was brought before the Victors ended with them concluding that any Garden Heretic who is under the age of twenty may pass any challenge made against them to their mentor.”
“Yeah?” one of the boys snapped, “Well her mentor’s not exactly here, is h–”
Abigail cut him off. “Page eighty-two of the Vigile Regulation Handbook states that whenever a Vigile’s duties take him away from Garden for an extended time, he may pass all responsibility for his charge to another adult Heretic.”
“And that,” another voice put in as Seller revealed himself, stepping into view on the other side of Miranda, “would be me. Hi, mentee.” He laid a hand on her shoulder.
“You can’t do that,” a boy blurted. “You’re not even in the same tribe!”
Seller shrugged at that. “Funny, it doesn’t actually say anything about that. I mean, maybe they assumed that tribes would just stick to their own without it being written down, but the fact remains that it’s not specifically said.”
“So basically,” Abigail summed up for them, “you can’t challenge her because of something that someone outside of Garden did. She can’t be taken to trial just because she has a friend who lives at Crossroads, until she’s tried for some actual crime. You can’t invoke Right of Reparation more than once for the same thing. The Vigile who accepts and presides over the Reparation can’t have a personal stake in it, which you do. And even if you do get past all of that, you can’t challenge her directly, because she’s a minor. You’ll face her surrogate mentor instead.”
“Me,” Seller added. “And I’ll tell you what, I’d be willing to dismiss all those other things if you boys want. We’ll find another Vigile, grease his palms a little so he’ll accept the trial, then see what happens. Which one of you wants to be the first one to give it a shot?”
The answer, apparently, was none of them. They made a few noises about it not being over, and about how they’d make her pay for being a traitor before slinking away.
“You okay?” Abigail asked. “Felicity called. She said you might need a little help dealing with some of the fallout from what happened, so we’ve been trying to keep an eye on you.”
Miranda bit her lip, head nodding. “I’m fine. You didn’t have to do that. Now you’re a target too. They don’t care that much about the rules. If they can’t come at us straight on, they’ll find a quieter way to do it.”
“We’ll deal with that when the time comes,” Seller informed her. “For now, they’ll back off. Keep your eyes open and don’t let yourself be alone again. Because you’re right: next time, I doubt they’ll announce themselves like that.”
Hesitantly, Miranda glanced to the woman beside her. “How’d you know all that stuff? You only got here a couple months ago and even I’ve never read most of the stuff you were talking about. And I’ve never heard of someone from another tribe being able to step in and be a temporary mentor for someone from another tribe. I don’t think anyone’s ever done it.”
“Oh sweetie,” Abigail replied with a little smile. “I may be a terrible Heretic as far as all the fighting and killing goes. But this wasn’t about that. This was about rules and laws. It wasn’t about being a Heretic, it was about being a lawyer.
“And when it comes to that, as far as I’m concerned, they’re the Bystanders.”