The following is a commissioned mini-interlude that takes place several days before the current events in this arc. It is unconnected from what is going on right now in the story.
“Saaaaaraaaaaah! Come out, Sarah. Please. Please, Sarah. Please, baby, please. Don’t you love Mommy anymore? Why do you hate me, Sarah? Why do you hate Mommy? Why do you want to hurt Mommy? Please stop hiding. He’s going to kill me. He’s going to kill Mommy if you don’t come out. All you have to do is come out. Don’t you care? Why don’t you care about Mommy? Why don’t you love me? I’m scared, Sarah. I’m so scared. Please, he’s going to kill me. All you have to do is come out and then we’ll be safe. Please, Sarah. Sarah, please. Please, he’s going to kill me. Please. I love you, baby.”
A horrible squishing, ugly sound of organs being pierced turned the desperate pleading into a scream of agony and loss. That same scream tore its way out of Scout Mason’s throat as she jerked herself upward, half-flailing. A brief sensation of falling came then, before she hit the floor with a grunt.
Scout opened her eyes. Her floor. The floor of her dorm. She’d fallen out of bed again. From her place on the ground, she breathed in, then out. In. Then out. Again. Breathe. She wasn’t on the boat. She wasn’t back there, hiding under that cot, in the corner behind the extra propane. She wasn’t curled up into that corner while her mother’s voice begged her to come out, pleaded to know why Sarah didn’t love her anymore, why she wanted her to get hurt, why she wanted her to die. All those things and more, they weren’t just a bad dream, not an invention of her psyche. They were things her mother’s voice had said in between her screams while the Stranger had been stalking Sarah through the boat.
She wasn’t there. She wasn’t back there. Closing her eyes briefly, Scout pushed herself to her feet. Her head tilted to one side to pop her neck, then to the other side while she pushed her hands up over her face. They came away wet from her tears, and the small, petite brunette shuddered before wiping them on her red pajama pants.
Her head turned to the nearby clock, and Scout sighed inwardly. It was only two in the morning. She should go back to bed. But it wouldn’t help. More sleep wasn’t going to happen. Not tonight. Not after she’d had the nightmare again, the memory again. Sometimes it was more vivid than others. This had been one of those times. Her mother’s voice, pleading for her so desperately, was still right there in her mind. All she had to do was climb out, show herself, and her mother would be saved. How selfish could she be? What kind of selfish, stupid, hateful little girl could hide while their mother was hurt?
No. She shoved the thought away. If she had shown herself, she’d be gone too, leaving Sands and their father even more alone. No. As awful as the dreams were, as horrifying as the memories remained, she had done the right thing. That hadn’t been her mother. Her mother wouldn’t have wanted her to show herself. It had to be the monster imitating her voice. It had to be. Her mother loved her. She wouldn’t have said those things at the end, the things about Sarah being evil, selfish, ugly… it wasn’t her.
Still, those were the last things that Scout had heard her mother’s voice say. The desperate, ugly pleading for help, and the reprimands, the vicious insults. That and the screaming. The awful, terrifying screams of agony.
Those, Scout was pretty sure, had not been fake.
Despite the fact that the twins didn’t sleep with their privacy screens on, Sands was still asleep somehow. Scout’s scream and subsequent fall to the floor had failed to rouse her. Sometimes the girl wondered if her sister would be able to sleep through an actual alarm.
Some very small part of her wanted to resent her twin for being sound asleep and perfectly content. It wasn’t a loud voice, but it was there, a whisper in the back of her mind that she guiltily shoved away. Let Sands sleep. There was no reason she needed to be up just because Scout’s memory kept reminding her… kept making her think about…
Shaking off the thought, the girl moved to the closet. Carefully sliding open the door, she reached into the corner before tugging out a simple-looking blue backpack that was clearly fairly full.
After slipping the pack onto her shoulders, Scout made her way to the nearby window. Glancing over the the other side of the room to make sure her sister was still sound asleep, she slid it open as quietly as possible. Sound sleeper or not, she didn’t want to wake Sands up.
Once she was certain the other girl hadn’t been disturbed, Scout slipped through the open window. Stepping onto the grass, still in her pajamas and bare feet, she paused to look around. The grounds were dark and empty at that time of night, though she could see figures moving in the distance. A couple security guards were walking away from her, barely visible through the darkness. Thanks to the enhanced hearing she’d picked up from the prevenkuat, she could hear their conversation as they went on about Professor Kohaku rearranging the security patrols.
Turning back to her room, Scout carefully closed the window so that it wouldn’t stand out if anyone came by. That done, the girl hurriedly made her way around the back of the building, where there was a ladder that ran all the way up the side of the building. She quickly and quietly climbed it, passing several windows where the lights were still on, particularly the higher she went. In a couple of the rooms, she could hear voices talking. She tried, however, not to pay attention. Especially when it came to the far more private moments.
Reaching the roof, Scout was surprised to find that it wasn’t empty. There was a familiar blonde figure sitting there, poring over a thick book as intently as she always did in the library.
Her arrival must have made some noise, because Vanessa jolted, scrambling up and turning with a gasp. “O-oh. Oh. Um. Uh. Scout?” The blonde breathed out. “Sorry, you scared me. I was just… I was umm…” She trailed off before shrugging awkwardly. “I’m not really that good at lying like this, so can I just say that I don’t want to tell you what I was doing, but that it wasn’t anything bad?”
Scout paused to consider that before nodding.
“Oh, thanks.” Vanessa gave an obviously relieved sigh before hesitating. “Um, you’re not doing anything bad either, right?” When Scout shook her head, the other girl smiled. “Great. So um, I’ll go sit over there and keep doing my… not bad thing. Let me know if you need me to move?”
Scout nodded again, watching as the blonde moved to the corner of the roof. Then she slid the backpack off her shoulders and unzipped it before setting down the bag. Then she knelt to reach inside. Her hands found a familiar old wooden box that was a couple feet across, its edges well worn by time and use. Tugging it out, the girl ran her fingers over the logo painted on the top. The logo was of an old Bystander professional baseball team. The Minnesota Twins.
Sands didn’t remember much about the time they had gone in to visit the Bystander city for some shopping and sight seeing. The girls had been too young. But Scout remembered. Specifically, she remembered seeing that logo on a shirt and being ecstatic. Sarah called to their mother, excitedly telling her that there was a shirt for them. Twins. It said Twins, Mommy. It was their shirt. Could she have it, please? Please, Mommy, could she have their shirt? It said Twins.
Even once her mother had explained what the logo was, that it was just a team name, Sarah had still wanted it. After all, a team named the Twins? It was perfect. So they bought it, and her mother taught her about baseball.
Sands had never been that interested. But Sarah had spent ages listening to their mother talk about the game, about the great people that had played it. Her mother had taught her how to use a bat, how to catch a ball, and most of all, how to pitch.
Sarah… before the loss of her mother, had wanted to be a pitcher for the Minnesota Twins. Nothing would stop her. The silly ‘boys only’ rule wouldn’t be a problem. Not for Sarah. She’d worked long and hard, practicing night after night while Sands was playing. Her mother worked with her. She never discouraged Sarah, never told her she couldn’t do it or that it was impossible. She just worked with her, helped and guided her.
Then the boat had happened, and baseball disappeared. It didn’t seem to matter anymore. Nothing had seemed to matter for a long time. She’d picked up the ball again eventually, but… it wasn’t the same. It had never been the same.
Sliding the lid off the box after running her hand over the logo, Scout reached inside. Her mother had made it, so the box was bigger on the inside than it was on the outside. Her grasping fingers found one object after another, and she tugged them out. There was an old, worn wooden bat. There were two mitts. There were a couple shirts, including the one that had started her entire fascination with the sport. And there were about a dozen baseballs.
Turning the box over to dump them out, Scout carefully arranged the balls along the length of the bat, using it and the extra mitt to stop them from rolling away. Then she picked up the empty box and walked over to the opposite end of the roof where there was a waist-high wall. Turning the box onto its side with the lid open, she positioned it carefully before walking back to where she had left everything else.
From the corner of the roof where she had moved to read, Vanessa spoke up. “Baseball?”
Nodding, Scout looked to her and managed to, after some effort, find her voice. “Bother?”
Thankfully, Vanessa realized what she meant after that single word and shook her head. “No, it won’t bother me. I mean, the security people might object, but um, I don’t think they tend to pay much attention up here.”
Scout gave another silent nod. Ignoring the baseball supplies for the moment, the girl reached into the backpack once more, coming out with a pair of earbuds attached to an MP3 player. It, like everything else in the bag, had belonged to her mother.
Slipping the earbuds in, Scout hit the button to make it play. What came wasn’t music, but a boisterous announcer hyping people up for the very start of the first game that the actual Minnesota Twins had played after Sarah had made her interest known. Her mother had recorded every game they played for the rest of that year and the next, and had put them all on that MP3 player.
When she listened to the games, which she had memorized by that point, Scout liked to imagine her mother listening through the same earbuds, carefully transferring and checking the recordings after each game.
With the game playing in her ears, Scout finally reached for the equipment. Slipping her hand into one of the mitts, she bent to pick up the first ball.
And as the first pitch of the game was announced, she reared back and let the ball launch from her hand. It curved just the way her mother had taught her, before arcing back into the strike zone to fly straight into the open box that she had set up.
“Strike one,” she whispered before bending to pick up the second ball. On the recording, the umpire called the same. Not that she needed to hear the call, or even the announcements themselves. Or any of it. She had listened to each of these games so much, especially the first ones, that she knew how they went.
Steadying herself for the second throw, Scout listened, waited for the announcement to come, then let it fly once more.
She continued that until there was only one ball left. Then she squinted down at the last one. Normally, she would throw it, then go over and pick up the box to bring the balls back over before doing the whole thing over again. Instead, this time, she hesitated. Biting her lip, the girl looked over toward her fellow roof occupant. Vanessa was studiously staring at the book, mouth moving silently as she ran her finger along the page.
Coming to a decision, Scout took the earbuds out, turned off the MP3 player, and set it aside. Then she picked up the second mitt and walked across the roof. Reaching Vanessa, she carefully poked the other girl with the mitt.
Vanessa jumped, blinking up in surprise. “Huh?” She looked at the offered glove before flushing. “Oh, um, I don’t really… play.”
Scout shrugged at that. Her voice was a whisper, a single word once more. “Catch.” She demonstrated by throwing the ball up and then catching it in her own mitt before offering the other one to the blonde once more.
Again, Vanessa hesitated. “But I don’t… umm, that is, I should probably… umm…” She blinked up at Scout, biting her lip before slowly taking the glove. “I guess it wouldn’t hurt. My brother used to play baseball.”
Scout’s head turned quizzically, though she didn’t speak. She didn’t know Vanessa had a brother.
“Yeah, he umm, he’s not here.” Vanessa murmured, looking at the mitt in her hand before standing up. “But he liked to play catch and stuff, with our dad.”
Liked. Scout caught the past tense, but said nothing. She simply held the ball out until the other girl took it. Then she turned and walked back to the other side of the roof.
Vanessa was looking at the ball in her hand. Her eventual throw was awkward and stiff, the genius girl’s nerves and uncertainty working against her so that it fell far short. Still, Scout took a few steps forward and bent to catch the ball as it rolled. Saying nothing, she threw it back as easily as possible.
Vanessa fumbled slightly, but caught the ball. That time, her throw was a little better. Scout only had to move a couple steps and bend slightly to catch it.
Again, she threw it back. They continued that way, Vanessa getting better each time until they were throwing the ball back and forth in a smooth rhythm.
Scout didn’t have her mother anymore. She had been taken away from her. But she still had this. And she could share it with other people. Like Vanessa. The other girl might not want to talk about why she was on the roof, or what had happened to her brother. But Scout was good at not talking. They didn’t need to talk. They could just… act. And maybe, eventually Vanessa would feel safe enough to explain what was wrong, what obvious secret she was keeping. It would just take time.
Even if she couldn’t actually be a real baseball player, Scout could keep practicing. She could keep listening to the games that her mother had recorded for her. These were memories that no one, Stranger, Heretic, or anything else, was going to take away from her.
But they did attack memories, didn’t they? Not only Strangers, but Heretics too. How many lives had been uprooted, how many entire personalities had been rewritten and changed, how many families were now living lies all because of the choices that the adult Heretics had made?
Joselyn Atherby’s war had gone on for decades after she was captured. To erase that was to rewrite more than half a century of actions. It was clearly impossible to do that without completely, fundamentally changing who people were and what route their lives had taken.
She didn’t think the others thought about that too often, about just how different the world must have been before that spell was done. Or about how many people would be changed if it went away.
And it should go away. She was sure of that. She treasured her memories of her mother, and abhorred the thought of someone tampering with them. The thought of entire decades disappearing from her memory, of her fundamental self being changed against her will, made Scout sick to her stomach.
No. As she threw the ball in a lazy arc toward Vanessa and waited for it to come back, Scout knew it had to be done. Whatever else happened, that memory spell had to be undone. It was for the good of… everything. If that restarted the war, if it broke up people, if it brought back old violence, it was worth it.
Because to take away people’s memories, to actually physically change their minds and force them to be the people you wanted them to be was wrong. It was wrong on a fundamental level. The truth had to come out. And, as quiet as she always was, as nervous as the idea of simply talking to anyone made her, this was different. This was far more important than her own shyness. Scout want to scream at the top of her lungs in the middle of the school grounds until everyone knew everything. She wanted to get it all out in the open and let people make their own decisions. She wanted them to know the truth.
They deserved that. They all deserved to know the truth. No matter what happened.