Chapter 8 – Caged

“Guess what we’re doing now?” Davey skipped along the sidewalk in front of Carly after they’d left the bakery.

“What?” Carly wouldn’t play the game, but she looked less anxious than she had the previous day. Maybe non-school days were easier on her. She’d even eaten half of her petit-four. It felt like progress.

“What has lots of people and marching and music and candy?”

“A Halloween football game?”

“A parade, silly.” Davey grinned and danced around her friend. “There’s one starting in ten minutes.”

“Crap.” Carly rubbed her forehead, “I didn’t realize that was today.”

“What? The parade?” Davey twirled around, feeling her skirt twisting around her legs.

“You’ve noticed the posters and banners and stuff around town?” Carly pointed to the long burgundy and grey banner hanging from the lamppost. Davey had noticed the added decoration, but assumed it was just part of the parade.

“Does that mean somethign?”

“It’s Dedication Day.” Carly chewed on her lower lip.

“What’s that?”

“It’s the day the town celebrates the Fenton. Well, the Parks celebrate the Fenton. Dries are allowed, but this celebration isn’t about us.” Carly followed Davey to a patch of grass under a row of trees. They settled into a sitting position and watched as people gathered along the sides of the main road. “I don’t think this is the type of parade you’re expecting.”

“Parades are happy. You just don’t know it yet, Carly!” Davey leaned back against the tree and patted her friend’s knee “Just wait. You’ve never been to a parade with me before.”

The atmosphere in the crowd surrounding them was excited. People were congregating together. Groups of girls stood giggled and gossiped. Groups of teenage boys teased them and dashed away. From here, Davey could see Joy and her friends gathering near the corner across from the bakery. Each held a stick with a golden brown ball stuck in the end.

“What the hell are they eating?” She squinted.

“Carmel apples.” Carly looked at her skeptically. “You’ve never had one? But you eat everything.”

“Everything tastes so delicious! What’s a caramel apple?”

“It’s an apple and it’s covered in caramel.” Carly said slowly, almost smirking.

“I have to try that! Where would I find one?”

“There’s a cart over there that sells them.” Carly nodded towards a small-wheeled cart set up on the corner a block away.

“I’m totally going to get one. Are you okay to stay here or do you want to come with?”

“I’ll stay here. I don’t want to get any closer to Joy than I have to.”

“I’ll be right back.” Davey jumped up and skipped down the street, ducking between happy smiling people. In less than a minute, she was standing in the ridiculously long line for the cart. She waited impatiently, bouncing on her toes until she was standing in front of a man wearing a crimson and black striped uniform. His long black mustache was waxed into a curl that made his smile seem even wider. His white teeth glowed.

“Hello, pretty girl. What can I get you?” His voice was full of laughter.

“Oh my…” Davey stared at the row of apples behind the glass. Some were just caramel, others had coloured toppings or tiny marshmallows embedded in the thick toffee. “I’ve never had one before. Which one is the very best one?”

“You’ve never tried a caramel apple? Oh you poor, poor girl. You need to try a plain one to get the full experience. The other ones are good,” He leaned forward conspiratorially, “and they cost more money, but, the plain ones are the best ones. It’s their simplicity that makes them perfect.”

“Thank you!” Davey took the end of the stick and the stack of napkins he handed her. She placed a few coins in his palm and stared at the glistening coating that surrounded the round orb. She couldn’t wait to bite into it. When she skipped back to the spot where she’d left Carly, she found the grass clearing empty.

“Carly?” She called, looking at the crowd beginning to gather just down the street. “Carly?”

“Over here.” She heard a small voice call from behind a tree a few feet away.

“What are you doing?” Davey sauntered over to find Carly hidden behind the tree. Cowering behind the thick trunk, she looked like a kid trying to get out of trouble. Like the last thing she wanted was be surrounded by people.

“Jett’s over there.” Carly jutted her chin. “Hiding seemed like the thing to do.” Davey glanced over to see Jett and his friends showing off on the other side of the street. Joy and her girls pretending to be annoyed from their position further down the street. Jett swung away from the group and grabbed Joy by the waist. He pulled her into a laughing embrace.

“I guess Joy got what she wanted, didn’t she?” Davey crinkled her nose in disgust. “Now, get out from behind that tree. You’re not allowed to hide. You’ll miss the parade.” Davey finally sunk her teeth into the caramel apple, surprised by the resistance of the sticky coating.

“Yeah, that would be a shame.” Carly sighed, chewing on her thumb.

As if cued by their conversation, a deep, thundering rumble began. The strong, rhythmic thrumming seemed to echo off everything, emanating from speakers hidden in the tree branches.

“What is that?” Davey looked down the street, mimicking the expectant expressions of the other Parks residents.

“Just wait.” Carly slumped back against the tree. Curling into herself. The happy moments from earlier in the day washed away.

The thumping grew louder. And closer. Soon the sounds from the speakers changed to a low drumbeat and an underlying series of brass instruments. The music accompanied the stamping. People in the crowd began to cheer. Everyone was clapping and jumping. Everyone except Carly and Davey.

A row of men appeared around a bend in the road. Five across in the matching uniforms of the Fenton guards exactly like the one Davey had seen the night before, except grey. Their feet slammed against the pavement in perfectly synchronous movements. Their arms swung at their sides. As they advanced, another row appeared behind them. And another. And another. Davey watched as more and more rows of soldiers appeared, marching in perfect unison. Their masks covered their faces, but Davey doubted there would be any emotions present even if they were visible. The uniformity of it should have bothered her, but once again she was reminded of how similar these soldiers were to her natural form. The grey uniforms eventually gave way to burgundy ones. They looked the same, but the soldiers stood taller and carried long black stalks that rested on their shoulders.

“What are they carrying?” Davey muttered absentmindedly, squinting at the sticks as she pulled another bite from the apple, feeling the caramel drip down her throat. She stepped closer to the curb looking at the soldiers. The sticks were about three inches around and completely smooth except for two small stubs sticking out each end.

“Shockwaves.” Carly’s mumbled from where she’d slumped to the ground, back against the tree, digging at her cuticles.

“What’s that?” Davey knew she was letting her curiosity get the better of her, but she couldn’t help it. The Masters’ directive to stay away from the Fenton just made her want to know more. She kneeled down to hear her friend better.

“When people really disobey,” Carly kept her voice low, covered by the thumping boots, “Or when the soldiers can’t get a situation under control, The Waves get involved. Those sticks stop people in their tracks. The little knobs press into your skin and send a wave akin to a sonic boom through your body. It’s like having your soul shoved out of your body. It immobilizes you for days. All it take is one little touch and you’re out.” Carly glanced towards the street. “Oh, you won’t want to miss this. It’s the grand finale.”

Davey stood up and watched as a large, black platform rolled around the corner. In the middle of it stood a large, round glass case. It looked like a giant bird cage. The top was made of a black metal sculpture. The inside of the case was full of a thick swirling mist. The crowd’s cheers increased as the float came into full view. The cries were almost frenzied. Davey could feel herself staring at the mist as it swirled. Feel herself being pulled towards it. A warmth filled her body. A warmth and a feeling of power. She felt like everything in her life was right. Was perfect. And that it was all thanks to the people in this parade.

When she finally blinked and shook herself out of the unexpected stupor, she found herself clapping along with the rest of the crowd. Her apple bobbing at the end of its stick with the rhythmic motion of her hands. The mist was doing something, she was sure of it. It continued to pull at her. She allowed her gaze to focus on the swirling again, but this time, D shook herself out of Davey’s head, out of the persona she was living, and put herself back into her own thoughts. She was used to looking into smoke like this. Used to looking below the surface to get the hidden message when she received her engagements.

She squinted and looked deeply into the mist, ignoring the way it pulled at her psyche. And then she saw it, what no one else seemed to be able to see. Hanging in the middle of the cage, was the slack, terrifying body of the boy she’d seen in the basement yesterday. His arms above his head, holding him in place. The bones of his ribcage pushed against the thin, weakened skin. The mist seemed to be coming from his body. Like it was being pulled from beneath his skin.

“Carly. Do you see that?”

“Yes, it’s magnificent. It’s the hub of all things holy and good. We thank the universe for the gift of the Fenton. Ooo, awe, pretty, pretty smoke.” Carly replied stone faced.

“No, beyond the mist.” Davey pulled her friend to her feet. “Can’t you see it?”

“See what, Davey? It looks like this every year. It’s a big swirling tub of nothingness.” Carly pushed Davey’s hand down. “And don’t point like that. Don’t draw anyone’s attention.”

“You honestly don’t see him?”

“See who? Davey, what are you talking about?”

“In the middle of the mist,” Davey lowered her voice and inched closer to Carly, “if you can look beyond it. You’ll see him. The kid from the basement.”

“Morrison?” Carly looked closer. Her eyes began to glaze the longer she stared. Her focus was completely engrossed on the glass pillar. As it moved in front of them, Davey stared at the crowd. Morrison was so clear to her. His emaciated, horrifying body fueling the mist. But no one else seemed to notice it. They all just watched and cheered and festered in anticipation. Even Carly was starting to lean forward, more than the other attendees. They were cheering. She was fading.

As the float pulled ahead of them and started to move away, a large black chair attached to the back of the platform came into view. The chair butted against the glass. The figure sitting in it was large. Wearing the uniform of the soldiers, but in a deeper burgundy with black piping, the body filled the entire chair, head resting peacefully against the towering headrest. The crowd went insane. The cheering became revelry. People rushing into the street to follow, crying cheers of reverence and adoration. The person in the chair lifted a hand in recognition. A fine white dust flew from the ends of the gloves and settled over the crowd. No one seemed to notice.

Davey glanced around, pulling Carly back from the stupor she’s fallen into. The sticky, half eaten orb of candy fell from Davey’s fingers, forgotten. Carly’s body yielded easily and lost its muscle tension as it was pulled away from the grip of the surreal parade. The head of the figure tilted slightly, like it was watching her. Davey settled back into the flow of the parade, remembering Carly’s warning not to make herself a target. She moved along with the fluid motion of the crowd, carrying Carly with her, slowly falling further and further behind as the crowd pushed forward.

When the parade turned a corner ahead of them, and the super soldier and tortured Morrison disappeared from view, Davey pulled Carly out of the crowd and onto a side street. The shadows of the alley hid them as the rest of the celebrating crowd passed by. Davey hurried Carly down the alley until they escaped out the other end. The sounds of the festival still hung in the air, but not as loud and encompassing as when they were in the crowd.

They rushed down the street, well Davey rushed, Carly dragged, even more unaware than normal. The hotel was only a few blocks away. She carried Carly most of the way. When they got to the corner beside the hotel, she shook her friend, trying to bring her back to reality.

“Carly. Carly, come on.” She shook her friend’s shoulders.

“Hmmm? What?” Carly glanced at her vacantly.

“Snap out of it. What’s wrong with you?”

“Where are we?”

“We’re at the hotel. Can you at least pretend to act normal until we get in the elevator?”

“I can try.” Carly shook her head to wake herself up, “I feel weird, Davey.”

“I know. I know you do, but we can’t let anyone know that something wrong. You have to try.”

“I can do it.” Carly rubbed her hands against her arms. “I’m so cold.”

“Let’s get inside and get you warmed up.”

The two girls nodded to the doorman as he opened the large double doors for them. Carly stiffened her back and looked almost normal as she made her way to the elevators. She even maintained her composure through the ride and into the room, but as soon as the door closed behind them, she collapsed against the wall.

“What the hell happened, Carly?” Davey took her arm and led her towards the bed. She grabbed the blanket still thrown over the chair from the day before and draped it over the small girl’s body.

“I don’t know, Davey. I’ve experienced some pretty horrible stuff before, but nothing like this. It felt… I felt like every particle of my being was tearing apart. Like I was being deconstructed molecule by molecule. Not like I was just losing my happiness, but like I was losing everything. Every memory and thought that had ever been my own. Like I was becoming nothing. It was worse than the Cage.”

“How come it didn’t affect anyone else the same way it affected you? Everyone else seemed to be so excited.”

“I don’t know,” Carly pulled the covers under her chin, tucking into herself. “I’ve never heard anyone talk about anything like this before, but Dries don’t normally come to the parade. We have nothing to celebrate about the Fenton.”

“That must be it then.” Davey mumbled to herself, beginning to form a theory but nothing substantial enough to put into words. Something was very, very wrong on this planet. She turned to Carly to ask her more questions, but the girl’s eyes were closed. Asleep, she looked peaceful for the first time ever.

Chapter 7 – Sleep Interrupted

Davey flopped onto her bed, stomach delightfully full. A wave of warmth washed over her as she crawled further onto the bed, her eyes closing before she could make it to the pillow. She knew that she should probably be making a plan to deal with what was happening with Carly, but there was still so much she didn’t know, and this body was so tired. She didn’t even bother getting undressed before she let herself drift off into a surprisingly peaceful sleep.

When she woke, the room was still lit by the glow of the chandelier. The numbers on the clock indicated it was not nearly time to wake up. Her first couple trips into a human body, she’d just allowed herself to get up if she woke during the night, not understanding the toll it would take on her body later in the day. Now, she allowed her bodies to sleep as long as they would allow. Sleep and hunger were the two sensations that made her feel the most human. She stumbled over to the wall, eyes barely open, and jammed down the switch to turn off the lights. She slipped down the zipper of her dress and let it fall to the floor. Her boots were too much trouble so she kept them on as she climbed back onto the bed. Sleep was just about to overtake her, when a bright white light broke through the fog.

She pulled the covers up around her eyes, blocking it out. She was sure that she’d turned off the light, but maybe that had been a dream. A really boring, mundane dream. She curled herself into a ball and pulled the blankets tighter. The skin of her arm brushed against the skin of her stomach. The fabric of her dress was gone, so that part hadn’t been a dream. As much as she wanted to just keep sleeping, a niggling at the back of her mind told her to the source of the light. She kept her eyes closed and tried to just drift away, but that no longer appeared to be an option. Davey slowly opened her eyes; the room was dark except for a glow coming from the end of the bed. Not overly bright, but in the darkness, it shone like a beacon.

“What the hell?” She muttered, crawling over to pull her purse from the bench at the end of the bed. When she pulled the top open, the light brightened noticeably. She blinked as she scrounged around inside the bag. There it was. The source of her sleep disruption. Her totem. The white cube glowed a steady, even white. It had never done this before. She quickly opened the case and pulled out the pulsing crystal. Settling it into her palm, she stared at the centre, where the light was brightest. This had never happened on an engagement before. She had no idea what to do. What she was supposed to be trying to access.

The longer she stared, the more the room around her began to fade. She felt the pull of the transport cocoon beginning to form around her. Her instincts were to pull away; she wasn’t ready to return yet. The job wasn’t done. She wasn’t even sure when or how Carly was supposed to die. She’d never been pulled from an assignment before. But in the end, she did the only thing she knew how to do and allowed herself to be drawn back to The Commune.

When she opened her eyes, she found herself seated in an assignment chair, but instead of her real body, she was still in Davey’s form. It felt foreign and wrong to be in this place in this body. She reached up a hand to brush back her hair, but her fingers dissolved into mist.

“You’re here only in projection.” A voice spoke from across the room. D looked up to see two people standing across the room from her. Their gold uniforms and eyes signaled the rank of Master Veil. D’s breath caught, or at least it would have if her body had been substantial. She’d never seen the Masters before. As they moved towards her, their gender neutral bodies seemed to slink across the room, rhythmic and purposeful, almost predatory.

“Why am I…? What is happening?” D’s voice was shaky. No one went before the Masters. No one.

“We need to speak to you regarding your engagement.” Their mouths didn’t move when they spoke, it felt more telepathic, but the one on the left crossed its arms over its chest, so D assumed that was who was speaking.

“Your interference has been detected.” The other chimed in as it paced slowly from one corner to the other.

“What do you mean, detected? There’s no way Carly could have figured this out. She would never jump to magical time traveling being.” D had no idea what they were trying to tell her.

“The Provenance have found you. Your assignment is more important than originally anticipated.” Neither Master looked at her when they spoke

“This world is no longer the same world to which you previously traveled. Your previous presence caused a ripple in the fabric of the future.” Its voice drifted.

“What are the Provenance?” D tried to catch up with their floaty musings. “And you’re damned right this world is different. What the hell are the Fenton and what are they doing to this planet?”

“The Fenton are not your concern. Your assignment does not include their involvement with the planet.”

“But they’re involved with what is supposed to happen to Carly. I don’t know exactly how, but they are.” D felt emotions beginning to overwhelm her. She wasn’t used to expressing herself like this in The Commune. Normally, her assignments were in and out, emotionless, without question. She did what she was assigned to do. When she returned home, all the human emotions were stripped away. That was how it worked, but right now, she was so confused she couldn’t seem to pull her emotions together.

“You will not interfere with the Fenton. You will complete your mission as quickly as possible, and extract yourself before the Provenance finds you.”

“What are you talking about!?” D’s astral figure stood. She wound her hands over her almost naked body, suddenly realizing that she was in the bra and panties and boots she crawled into bed in. “What the hell is the Provenance?”

“The Provenance is the opponent of The Commune. They ensure the path of Fate stays true. If they figure out who you are, they will try to inject themselves into your assignment. They will try to destroy you.”

“Why haven’t we encountered them before? Our job is to derail theirs.”

“Your assignments have short timelines to avoid detection. You need to be in and out before the Provenance realize what we are doing.” One of the gold suits responded.

“We have been at odds for centuries.” The other mused.

“Why don’t the Veils know about them?” D could not wrap her head around the idea of an entire collective of people meant to do exactly the opposite of what she was doing. “Why aren’t we taught about them from the beginning so we can look out for them?”

“Your role is to complete your engagement. You are not meant to contradict the Masters. We ensure that you have the tools you need to complete your assignments as quickly as possible.” The pacing Master continued to move back and forth across the room.

“Your previous involvement with the Perkins girl was completed with efficiency. We believed you could perform an extended stay for this task without drawing their attention.” The other’s voice continued the thought as if they were the same person.

“But it is not to be. You have already raised alarm bells.”

“You must accelerate your current pace.”

“How am I supposed to do that? Carly is supposed to die, and I’m supposed to save her. How can I do that before her life is in danger?”

“Your old friend is sad and lonely and devoid of emotion. Her life is at risk not from external factors, but internal.”

“She’s going to kill herself?” D felt her chest tighten.

“You must deflect her from her current path. Convince her that taking her own life is not a viable solution. That she will only cause more suffering if she chooses that path.”

“You must do this before the Provenance ensures her death.”

“Can they cause her death through other means? Can they make it accidental?”

“Accidental death changes the future as distinctly as living.”

“Her death must proceed by her own hands for the Provenance to achieve their goals.”

“When you return, use your skills to change her mind about her future.”

“And if you cannot,” The Master rubbed a gold finger along the expanse of its arm, “You will ensure that she dies by accidental means. She must not be allowed to take her own life.”

D attempted to speak, but the room was fading as the blanket of transport settled over her again. The Masters were done with her. She was no longer welcome in their presence. When she roused herself from the return to her body, she found herself standing beside her bed, hand held out in front of her, holding the now clear snowflake.

She slipped it back into its box. Fully awake, she unlaced the tall boots and pulled them from her feet. The release from the binding leather was like a wave of relief. She took the moment to savour the simple feeling and wandered across the room to hang her purse from the hook on the wall. The information about Carly and the Provenance battled for control, weaving and overlapping and creating havoc where normally she felt only complete calm and rationality.

She stepped to the window and pulled back the curtain. Nighttime had fallen over the Parks. The streetlights dimmed to a mere flicker. Ropes of twinkling lights wound through trees and bushes. Not a soul walked the streets, but Davey had no doubt that there were more soldiers like the guard at the gate hidden in the shadows in case anyone stepped out of line. Just beyond the lights of the Parks was the dull grey light of the Dry Zone. Dim and uninviting. Even the colour of the sky seemed to change at the borderline. Davey leaned against the window, her forehead resting on the glass. She had no idea how to begin to convince Carly not to kill herself. She felt unsettled like she’d never experienced before.

Her eyes flickered as she began to lose the fight with the sleep her body so desperately needed. She crawled back into the bed and pulled the covers up to her chin. She’d deal with the specifics in the morning. It was pointless to panic until she had more time to think about the details.

*****       *****    *****

Davey stood before the plain, grey door, her hand poised in the air. She took a deep breath and let her knuckles fall against the metal in rapid succession. Her vibrant blue dress with its white petticoats and smock looked so out of place in this neighbourhood. She waited a few seconds before knocking again.

The knob turned and Carly pulled open the door. She wore essentially the same outfit she’d had on the day before, except this sweater was white and less raggedy, and her skirt skimmed her knees instead of the floor. The legs that stuck out from the bottom of the fabric were so thin they didn’t look like they could hold her up for long.

“Davey? What are you doing here?” Carly sighed, her lips twitching into something resembling a smile.

“When are you allowed back in the Parks? You’re allowed in at certain times of day, right? You were there with me yesterday, so it must work somehow.”

“From noon to sunset when accompanied by a Parks’ resident. Or working. Dries are allows to work in the Parks. Someone has to clean up their crap.”

“Good!” Davey grabbed her friend’s hand and pulled her through the door. “Let’s go.”

“Go where?” Carly reached behind her to grab her satchel before allowing Davey to drag her down the walkway.

“We’re going to go experience something good. You’re far too sad for my liking, my friend.”

The two girls headed down the thoroughfare. Davey skipping. Carly meandering. She looked like the saddest girl on the planet. Her steps were short and dragging. Her hair hung just as lank and heavy as it had the previous day. But, her head was lifted just a little bit higher. Just a tiny smidge. They reached the same entrance into the downtown area that Davey had entered through the night before. She glanced to the side and immediately noticed the booth hidden amongst the trees, so well camouflaged that only those looking for it would notice it. If there was someone inside, they didn’t make themselves known.

“What are we doing, Davey?” Carly followed along, one hand picking at the other.

“You’ll see. It’s going to be delicious.” She took her friend’s hand in her own, forcing her to stop the nervous habit. They walked until they reached the big windows looking into the bakery. Inside, she could see Sinder’s fluffy white head bent over as she filled the display case. “Have you ever been here?” Davey glanced at Carly, who simply shot back a skeptical glance. “Okay, stupid question, but you never know.”

“This place hasn’t been here long. I think it opened like a week or two ago. I briefly thought about getting a job here.”

“You should totally work here. Wait until you taste this stuff. And the girl that works here is really nice.”

“How do you know all of this? You’ve been here one day.” Cary raised an eyebrow and crossed her arms to hug herself.

“I had a lot of hours last night with no one to hang out with and other people to avoid.” Davey pushed open the door and the wave of scent rushed out to meet them. “You have to promise me you’ll eat something while we’re in here.”

“I don’t know, Davey. Maybe. It does smell good.” Carly smiled a tiny grin and followed her friend into the bakery. “But I can’t afford anything in this place.” She said quietly.

“Don’t be ridiculous. This is my treat.”

Sinder looked up from behind the counter and smiled at Davey. Her grin faltered when she saw the girl standing in the doorway. But she quickly wiped the expression from her face and replaced it with a happy grin. Today, her dress was a beautiful deep green. It made the yellow apron look like the flowers dotting the gardens across the Parks.

“Didn’t get enough of this yesterday?” Sinder placed two mugs on the machine behind the counter and filled them with the thick black liquid. Davey pulled Carly over to the glass so they could inspect the delicious goodies inside.

“What would you ladies like?” Sinder clicked her tongs together expectantly.

“I’d just like something small, please.” Carly glanced towards the case. “Maybe one of those squares on the top shelf.” Sinder picked up the delicate pastry, making sure not to knock off any of the pulled sugar vines curling around the outside. She placed it on a delicate yellow plate and handed it and the mug to Carly.

“There’s a free table over there.” Sinder smiled and nodded towards the far wall. There were other tables, but Carly made no objection.

“Give me one of those, one of those and two of those amazing cookies, Sinder.” Davey pointed out the items she wanted. “I’d also like to sit closer to the windows.”

“And I’d love to let you,” Sinder began stacking plates with Davey’s food, “But there are rules, and while I’m allowed to let Dries in, I’m not allowed to let them near the windows. It drives away business.”

“And that’s the big concern? The other customers?” Davey picked up her tray.

“If they implement a punishment, it’s not just you and I that will have to endure it, Davey.” She tilted her head towards where Carly was sitting in the corner. “And that girl doesn’t look like she can take much more.”

Davey sighed with resignation and headed to the table at the back. She couldn’t afford to put Carly in any more danger. To make her feel any worse. She settled into the chair across from her friend and took a bite out of a large fluffy dough ball dripping with chocolate sauce.

Chapter 6 – In Hiding

Davey stood in the laneway where she had dropped off Carly, staring at the house at the end of the sidewalk. It was not the same house Davey remembered from her first assignment. They used to live in a quaint little cottage with colourful rocks along the walkway and a rolling field stretching out behind it. Now, they lived in the area known as the Dry Zone. The area designated for those not up to expected standards. The house wasn’t small or ramshackled or rundown in anyway, but the dull grey paint that covered every inch of the home, including the roof, was bursting with sadness. Just like every other house along the street. The grass of all the lawns was cut uniformly short and smooth. There were none of the trees or gardens that coloured the lawns of the Parks Zone residences. Everything here stank of sameness.

The buildings in this part of town looked utilitarian, meant for nothing more than shelter. These were houses; they were not homes. The lights behind the windows of the Perkins’ house were a simple, pale yellow. Just bright enough to highlight the dull, awful colour of the house. Carly had refused to let Davey walk her to the door. The red-head watched her friend slumped down the concrete slabs, her heavy boots weighing down each step. The rocks crunched beneath her feet, echoing back to where Davey stood.

The Dry Zone was smaller than she’d expected. In a town with the expectations as high as this one, she had thought that there would be more that didn’t, or couldn’t, conform. But two-thirds of the town fell within the Parks, where the grass seemed to glow an unnatural green and the gardens were peppered with multitudes of colours. The houses there shone with bright, inviting lights hinting at the perfection that lay inside.

When the door closed behind Carly with an ominous thunk, Davey made her way back towards the hotel at the centre of town. An icon of all things desirable. Her new home was more than just a pretty building; she recognized now that this was a place people strived to live. She couldn’t figure out why the Master Veils would put her there, somewhere that Carly would feel so out of place. Was it to force D to see the discrepancies in this town? Who were the Fenton? How did they keep the town under their thumb? Why hadn’t the Masters prepped her better for this engagement? Questions were distracting her from her mission.

“Identification.” A voice sounded as Davey reached the sidewalk surrounding the Parks Zone.

“Excuse me?” Davey felt her ire beginning to rise again, but she forced it down. She never wanted to find out what The Cage was. Never.

“Identification is required to enter the Parks Zone after sunset.” The voice sounded again from Davey’s right. She glanced around, looking for a speaker like the one she’d seen at the school.

“Um, let me see what I have with me.” Davey dug through her purse and pulled out the wallet she hadn’t needed to use yet. With no idea what kind of ID was inside, she snapped open the flap and looked through the assorted cards. She found a green card in one of flaps with her picture and name across the front, the words Parks Zone, Class C listed underneath. “Will this work?” She held the card up to the air, feeling slightly foolish.

“Over here.” The voice sounded again as a yellow light illuminated a small booth sheltered within the shadow of the trees.

Davey stepped up to the window and placed the card on the ledge across the top of the half door. A man sat inside, dressed in a dark blue suit covering almost every inch of skin from head to toe. Only his eyes and mouth were visible through the openings in the facemask. The suit was so restrictive that the only indication that it was a man was the hint of beard surrounding his lips. For a moment, Davey thought about the sexless form she inhabited at The Commune and wondered if these soldiers felt the same detachment from the people around them. If they were just doing a job. If they liked it as much as she normally did.

“Thank you, Damhnait.” He glanced at the card, pronouncing her name correctly on the first try.

“You got my name right.” She couldn’t hide her surprise. “That’s only happened… that’s never happened before.” She grinned as his lip twitched behind the mask.

“My mother was Gaelic. I grew up in the Ceilidh Flatlands.” His voice vibrated across the darkness with a deep, reassuring timbre. “You’re new in town. Staying at the Horizon Suites?”

“Yes…” Davey crossed her arms over her chest, hugging herself, even though she wasn’t cold. “How did you know that?”

“Green Class C.” He handed back her ID like that explained everything. “You’re cutting your restriction close. Ten more minutes and you would have spent your night in the Dry Zone.”

“I’m sorry. Like you said, I’m new. I don’t really understand how things work around here. Maybe you could fill me in on some of the rules.”

“I’m not allowed to chat with the people that pass the gate.” His voice lowered “I could already get in trouble for the amount of time you’ve spent here. I’m off shift tomorrow at 6:00. If you happened to be in the hotel restaurant…” He paused.

“I’m usually hungry around 6.” Davey slid her card back into her purse and walked away, unsure if she’d just made an ally or gotten herself deeper into an already complicated situation. The moment she stepped onto the laneway on the Parks side of town, the streetlights began to hum with energy, bright enough that you almost forgot it was evening. People flitted about, visiting and running errands. Laughter sounded from a group of girls gathered at the corner in front of the soda shop. Davey could tell from this distance that they were all very attractive. Each dressed in different coloured versions of identical outfits. Outfits very similar to the one Davey was wearing. The Commune had done a good job with the styling for this world, if nothing else.

“Hello, Davey.” A voice called. As Davey approached, a tall, dark skinned girl with long, chestnut brown curls stepped from the centre of the gaggle of girls.

“Hello, Joy.” Davey recognized her from their childhood. The deep brown eyes were the same now as they had been that day in the barn. Just as conniving and calculating as they’d been when she convinced Carly to walk across that wooden beam.

“What brought you back to town?” Joy leaned casually against one of the trees lining the street.

“Just felt like the right time.” Davey shrugged and started to walk forward. “There’s nowhere quite like Faulery Valley, right?”

“If you think that you can come back here, stay friends with that girl and still fit in, you’re wrong.” Joy stepped into her path. With a nod of her head, Marisa and Voula stepped up to her flank.

“Joy,” Davey took a calming breath, “I’m not here to make waves or get into anyone’s business. I’m just here to finish my last year of high school. Carly is one of my oldest friends, but we’re not the same anymore.” The lie rolled of her tongue easily. It was nice to feel like she as back in her natural groove for a minute.

“Well that’s a relief. I heard what you said to Jett today and I was worried. You seem like someone I could maneuver into the group.”

“It’s been a very tiring day, Joy. I’m just trying to get my bearings. If you don’t mind, I’d just like to go home and get some sleep.” Davey swallowed her disgust. All she wanted to do was get back to her room to check the profile again. See if it made more sense now that she had some idea what was going on in this town.

“Watch yourself, Davey. You wouldn’t want to end up like your former friend.” Joy smirked and skipped away with her friends.

Davey watched them disappear into a building with music pumping from inside. Shaking her head, she continued down a street full of charming storefronts. Shops invited patrons in for ice cream, clothing, wine, or anything else they could possibly want. It was actually pleasant. If she hadn’t experienced that dungeon room, she would really like this town. Davey was only a few blocks away from the hotel when Jett and his friends rounded a corner, heading in her direction. Not wanting to deal with him for the third time in one day, Davey slipped through the first available door.

Bells tinkled as the door swung shut behind her. The smell of the building was so inviting her stomach twisted with hunger. All she’d eaten tonight was that plate of bacon, and now, she was famished. She pushed against the wall as Jett traipsed past the window, not even glancing her way.

“Can I help you?” A delicate voice fluttered from behind her.

Davey turned to see a woman in her mid twenties standing behind a large counter displaying rows and rows of pastries. The fresh bread behind her threw up ribbons of steam, creating a halo around the girl. Her pale blue dress, covered by a buttercup yellow apron, seemed entirely inappropriate for a baker, but fit in perfectly with the fashion of the town. Her fluffy white hair was tied back with a yellow ribbon that perfectly matched her apron.

“I would love…” Davey stared into the display case, looking at round swirls covered in sticky, brown sauce; rectangular loaves yellow with lemons; round, perfect cookies with chunks of strawberries and white chocolate. “It all looks so amazing. I’ll take one of everything.”

“It tastes pretty amazing, but that much will make you sick.” The girl chuckled again, her laugh a delicate, glass-like tinkle that made Davey smile. This was the first person she’d spoken to today who seemed as unbound to this place as she was. She fit, but with a lightness no one else portrayed. Davey made a note to come here as often as possible. “Try one of these first and we’ll go from there.” The baker placed one of the golden brown swirls on the plate and handed it across the counter to Davey’s waiting hands.

“Thank you. I am famished.” Davey took a seat on one of the stools at the long, gleaming counter.

“Who were you avoiding?” The blonde wiped away tiny traces of crumbs from the counter and moved the loaves of bread into a large piece of machinery with rows of sharpened blades.

“This guy from my class.” Davey grinned, “He’s supposed to be top dog or something, but he just seems a little smarmy to me.”

“Ah yes, the golden children.” The girl smiled as she lowered the blades through a loaf of bread, separating it into slices.

“That’s not the answer I expected.” Davey cut the soft dough of the pastry on her plate and raised a bite to her lips. The sweet, sticky sauce melted in her mouth, running down her throat. “Oh my god, this is so delicious.”

“Thanks, I just made them.” The girl slid the bread into a bag and wound it shut. “I haven’t been in town long. I don’t’ really understand how all these rules work. Or why those obnoxious children are glorified.”

“Me either.” She reached a hand across the counter, “I’m Davey.”

Davey was sure the girl paused for a moment before she shook her hand. “Sinder.”

“What brought you to Faulery Valley?” Davey folded the last bite into her mouth and pushed the empty plate away. “Something new please. I’m starving.”

“Work.” Sinder shrugged and scooped a piece of braided, crispy pastry onto a new plate. She sprinkled a fine white powder along the top before she slid it back across the counter. “You?”

“An old friend who needed some help.” Davey pushed her fork through the pastry and released a flood raspberries. “Will you be my new best friend? I’ll pay you to cook for me.” Davey laughed.

“I get paid to do it here.” Sinder smiled her delicate smile, laughter bubbling past her lips. “It’s just something I’ve always been able to do. Business is slow tonight. Normally, there are a few more people in here by now.”

“The pastry business picks up when the sun goes down?”

“You’d be surprised. The people of this community do like to gorge themselves.” Sinder pulled up a stool from behind the cupboard and sat across from Davey.

“I know I’ll be back. And back. And back.”

“I’d like that very much.” Sinder smiled, “Tell me about your friend. Does she need some healing through food?”

“If she was allowed in this section of town, I would go get her right now.” Davey wiped away a stray crumb from her lap. Sinder reached behind the counter and pulled out a ceramic mug that she placed in a machine behind her. A dark, frothy liquid dripped into the cup.

“She’s a Dry Zone kid?” Sinder slid a new cup under the spout and passed the full one to Davey.

“She’s had some bad luck over the last couple years. I wish there was something I could do to help her.” Davey sipped from the cup, the piping hot liquid coating her mouth. “Everything in here tastes like perfection.”

Sinder smiled and took a sip from her own cup.

“I just wish I could make Carly realizes that she matters, regardless of what this town says.”

“Would you like to take her some snacks?”

“I’m not allowed to leave the Parks after sunset, but I’ll definitely pick some up tomorrow.” Davey pointed to the rack of cookies, “I’d eat them all if I took them now.”

“Everything’s better when it’s fresh.” Sinder placed a cookie on the plate, “Bring her here during the day. I’ll make her something special.”

“I’m so very glad I stumbled in here, Sinder.” Davey polished off the cookie and drink. “I’ll take a few more things to go, and get out of your hair.”

Sinder packed up a yellow box with an assortment of treats. Davey pulled several bills from her wallet and slid them across the counter, not concerned about the excessive amounts of money she was handing out. If she ran out, it would be refilled. She grinned as she stepped back out onto the street, the box warming her hands. The pleasant sensation in her stomach almost overshadowed the pain of colour everything else.

Chapter 5 – Birdsong

“I always wanted to fit in.” Carly sank into her memories, her eyes unfocusing as she remembered. “But you know that. That’s what led to that horrible day in that horrible barn.”

Davey nodded, nibbling on the end of a crispy piece of bacon.

“My greatest wish was to be one of the popular kids. I would have sold my soul for the privilege. I would have done anything, including walking along that beam, and falling, and shattering my pelvis. Even after they ran away and left me there. Even with their laughter haunting me. I still believed that they would be my friends. I had done what they wanted.” Carly picked at the edge of the blanket incessantly, almost angrily. “I did what they wanted! And even if I couldn’t have them. If they didn’t accept me. I’d always have you, Davey. My very best friend. The one person who’d never questioned me. Even though we hadn’t known each other that long, you’d loved me for who I was. I never doubted that. But then I was in the hospital, and you just disappeared. I kept waiting for you, but you never came. Day after day I waited. Watching that door. Watching for you. Then, about a week after I was put in that stupid bed, my mom came in and said that you were gone. Your parents were gone. Your house was empty. You’d just vanished. Without even trying to say goodbye.” Carly brushed away a rogue tear with the back of her hand. The movement more resignation than anger or sadness. This was the best she expected for herself.

“I was in the hospital for almost two months. The bones took so long to heal. My parents would visit me, but no one else. The school sent a card, but not a single student from my class came to see if I was okay. Not one of those people I longed to be deemed me worthy of could bother to give me even five minutes of their time. I was so lonely. When my parents saw that no one was coming to visit me, they wanted to know why. To know where all my friends were. They had no idea how hard it was for me at school. How lonely it was to eat lunch alone every day. To be teased for being chubby. Then, about a week before I was released, something changed. My parents, my loving, adoring parents, started to suggest things. Like maybe it was my fault that no one was visiting me. Maybe it was my fault I had no friends. Maybe I wasn’t trying hard enough. That I had to do better.”

“That’s not fair! Carly, I wish I’d known…” Davey started, but Carly waved a hand to silence her.

“You wanted to know, Davey, so you need to understand it all. You need to understand what happened after you left. There was this one nurse; she was always so nice to me. She would read to me at night when I was too weak to hold my book. She would braid my hair and talk to me about how things would get easier when I was older. She kept me sane in those long hard weeks. She overheard my mother accusing me of being unwelcoming and snuck in to my room after visiting hours. It was only a few days before I was scheduled to go home. She woke me up from a boredom induced sleep and explained to me that some things in town had changed while I was in the hospital. That I was going to have to try even harder to fit in, or it could get very, very bad. Worse than being completely alone for two months. She said that I would need to be quiet and calm and just blend. To do what I was told and become a background person. I didn’t know what she meant. How could I try harder than I already was? How much more could I do?

“When I finally got to go home, I still wasn’t allowed to go back to school. I was confined to my bed for most of the day. So, I did my school work at home for the remainder of the semester and caught up on what I had missed. Even when I was better, I spent most of my time indoors and studied until I couldn’t study anymore. Without the intrusion of anything resembling a social life, I was back to being an A student by the time I was ready to return to school. Mom bought me an entirely new wardrobe. She changed the way we were eating. And within a month, I’d dropped two clothing sizes and was looking more and more like the girls I wanted to impress. I was actually excited the day I got to pack my bag and head out to school. I remember every detail of that outfit. My long brown skirt flowed around my knees with these tiny white eyelets along the hem. The silk of my blouse was soft against my skin, the fabric flowy and perfect. My favourite part was the boots. Dark red leather with a small heel and punched designed. They were beautiful. I wanted to wear them every day.

“I took that nurse’s advice. I was quiet and stayed on the fringes. I hardly looked like my old self. If I was quiet enough, maybe they wouldn’t notice that I was trying to be one of them. As soon as I got to school, I knew things were different. Even more so than they were in the rest of the town. The adults were all trying harder to be better, to be perfect, but the students… It was like nothing I’d seen before. You remember what the school was like before. There were different groups of friends. Different social circles. Everyone had a place, even if it was a small place where they were almost alone. But that morning, when I stepped into the school, everything had changed. Everyone looked the same. Everyone. The girls all wore the same style skirt as me. The same peasant style blouse that I was wearing. The boots. My pretty, perfect boots, were just one in a sea of beautiful footwear. Everyone wore what Joy and Marisa declared the hot item. The boys followed Marco and Jett. The Fenton had moved in and established a seat of power over the entire town, but their focus, their home base, was the school.

“What are the Fenton?” Davey found herself leaning forward, hanging on every word. Something was wrong in this town. Something her engagement profile hadn’t explained to her. Something she wasn’t even sure the Veil leaders knew about.

“Patience. I’d gotten my wish. I didn’t stick out. I looked like everyone else. People just assumed I belonged, because I looked like I did. Things were perfect. I kept my mouth shut and blended. I was slowly absorbed into the fold. From time to time, people would step out of line, would buck the rules set out by the top students. They would go to detention and come back looking a lot worse for the wear. No one really knew what was happening, but we all learned the lesson – follow the rules.

“Then the disappearances started. It was in my second year back. I was thirteen, and everything was perfect for me. I finally fit in, Davey. I finally had friends. People would invite me over. Girls would come over to my house. I’ve never been as happy as I was then. But then, Frances started acting up. She was one of the girls on the fringes with me. We weren’t popular, but we made our social standing work for us. Until the month when Joy declared the dress code would be tight leather pants and tiny little shirts that ended well above the belly button. Frannie hated those shirts, and she refused to wear them. Refused to have her stomach hanging out for everyone to see. So she wore something else. She got in a little trouble for that. Nothing serious. No detention or anything, just a warning.

“That’s when she decided that she’d had enough of the rules. She wasn’t going to follow them anymore. She started with her clothes. She wore whatever she wanted. Not the uniform. She got a couple detentions. I noticed that she started losing weight when those started. For a while, I thought that they must make you work out down there. But then she started to change. She stopped caring about the social order. She no longer tried to fit, but it wasn’t because she was rebelling. It was like she no longer had the emotional strength to rebel. Or to try to fit in. She didn’t do anything. She just came to school, disappeared from time to time, and came back looking greyer and thinner than before. Then one day… one day she was just gone. I tried to figure out where she was, but I was also trying to fit in, so I couldn’t look like I was with her. Like I was still friends with her. I had to act like I’d dropped her, or I would be in just as much trouble. I had spent so much energy getting to this point. I couldn’t stop now. I looked for her. I tried to find her parents, but they were gone too. It was almost like when you left. I felt abandoned all over again, but at least I was still flying under the radar. Just popular enough to not be noticed. It stayed like that for another two years. Until Jett decided that I was worth noticing.

“Jett? Like the guy from earlier?” Davey couldn’t help interrupting.

“The very same.” Carly nodded. “It started slowly. He would say hi to me in the hallway, or we’d bump into one another at the store. Random events where he was nice to me. A boy had never paid attention to me before that. Ever. For months, it was nothing more than hellos. Then I started finding gifts in my locker. Little things, like a flower, or a book, or a scarf. In the winter, I found this adorable pair of purple mittens, just like the pair Joy had started wearing. I loved them so much. I had no idea where they were coming from or how they were getting into my locker, but I did know that I didn’t want it to stop. Then I caught him one day, as he was dropping off a small, wrapped box on the top shelf. I was so excited to find out that it was him. This was more than I could ever have dreamt of. If Jett liked me, then maybe, just maybe, I could be like Joy or Marisa. Maybe I could be one of the inner circle. I was so far away from where I was when you were here. Honestly, I hardly remembered you then. Things were perfect. The fall was a blessing. It gave me the opportunity I needed to become the person I had tried to be.

“He gave me this,” Carly reached into her sweater and pulled out long chain with a brass canary dangling from the end. She rubbed it between her fingers before tucking it back under her shirt. “I love canaries. I have no idea how he knew, but he’d gone to the trouble to find this for me, and I was touched. So extremely touched. Joy came around the corner just as I pulled him into a big hug. And he was returning the embrace. We were pressed against one another when she interrupted us. Wanting to know what was going on. We tried to brush it off, but she was having none of that. I tucked the necklace in my bag. I didn’t want her to know about. To make some rule that I couldn’t wear it. But we couldn’t hide it any longer. Or Jett couldn’t. He told Joy that he liked me and that he wanted to go on a date with me. I remember blushing so hard I could feel the heat radiating from my skin. He wanted to go on a date with me. With me, Davey! This was the greatest thing that had ever happened in my life.

“Joy was happy for us. She told Jett it was about time that he found a girl and brought her up in the ranks. She hugged me before she skipped away. It wasn’t long before all the girls in our grade knew that Jett and Charlotte were the new item. That Carly was moving up. That I was making a play for Joy’s position as head girl. The rumours ran rampant, but that’s what happens when people are jealous of you, so I paid them little attention. Joy had been there when Jett asked me out. She knew that I wasn’t wrangling for position. So, we went on our first date. A lunchtime picnic under the tree behind the school. All dates under the age of sixteen have to take place during school hours. I was so excited. I wore my best outfit that day. It was a cowboy phase, so my options were limited. A long denim skirt, a blue suede sweater, and yellow cowboy boots with these brown bird silhouettes. I tucked that necklace under my sweater and glowed every time it touched my skin. It was a late fall day with a chill in the air, so Jett wrapped his arm around me as we sat under that tree and shared our lunch. I can still remember that feeling. That last good thing before everything changed. His hand was right here.” Carly placed her hand on her arm, about three inches below her shoulder.

“I thought that this was the moment when everything went right, but Joy hadn’t been telling the truth. She didn’t want me to be one of them. The social order may shift a little in the lower ranks, but the families at the top never changed. In the years since my accident, Joy, Marisa, Marco and Jett had been the power kids. There were popular kids in other grades, but no one came up to the level of those four. I don’t know why I thought this might change. Joy hated that Jett was interested in me. She wanted him. She thought that he was the only person worthy of her time. Marco was already paired with Marisa, so Jett with his thick black hair and bright white smile, was meant to be hers. He was charming and endearing and everything a girl like her deserved. He was too good for me. Honestly, I thought the same thing, but I was so happy, I let myself believe that things were finally turning around for me. It was a perfect first date. It would have been better if Jett had kissed me, but that’s not allowed on school grounds, so I couldn’t expect more than I got. We had physical education that afternoon. So, like everyone else, I changed into my athletic gear and left my belongings in the change room. My necklace was tucked into the pocket of my skirt. When I returned to change at the end of class, my clothes were gone, all of them, including my beautiful necklace.

“I was forced to leave the change room in my shorts and t-shirt. To go to class that way. I knew I was going to get in trouble, but I hoped that someone would be kind enough to return my clothes. No one did though. We were less than five minutes into class when I was called to the office. It was the first time I’d been to the basement. No one goes down there is they don’t have to. Even from the top of the stairs, you can feel how awful it is down there. That was the day I met the toad. She looked exactly the same that day as she does now. And I don’t mean she hasn’t changed much. I mean she looked exactly the same. Her clothes, her hair, her body, her skin. Everything is exactly the same. She rolls in and out of that back room like she lives there. I’ve never seen her outside that room. Out of that chair. I swear she exists solely for the purpose of handing out punishments. That first detention was short, just until the end of class. I remember walking down that hall for the first time. It was Jerome that led me to the room the same way Morrison led you there today. He’s just one more student that people have forgotten existed.

“It’s weird for me, but I remember that first detention so clearly. It should just blend into the fog of punishments I’ve received since then, but it doesn’t. Sitting in that cold, barren room with that constant wind and sad, oppressive air. It was horrible. I hadn’t felt that alone since the days in the hospital. I’d almost forgotten how horrible it was. It felt like I was in there for a year. So completely alone. And cold, so very cold in just shorts and a thin little shirt. I thought they’d forgotten me there. But finally I was allowed to leave. The relief of getting out of that room was, and still is, indescribable, Davey. I made it to the main level just as everyone was preparing to go home. Joy and her cronies were joking around in the hallway, Joy was twirling something around her finger. Something that glittered in the hallway lighting. When I got closer, I realized it was my necklace that she was swinging. The little canary buzzing speedily around her finger.

“When I got close enough, I grabbed it off her finger. Anger blurring my common sense. I should have just let her keep it. I should have realized that my entire future hinged on that one moment in time. I wish you’d been here then, Davey. That you’d pulled your great reappearing act on that day. It would have changed everything. Before I knew what I was doing, I hauled back and slammed her right in the face with my fist. It’s the only time I’ve ever hit anyone, and I wish I could take it back. I had just enough time to shove the necklace in my bra before the Fenton officers appeared from the basement. They hauled me downstairs as I continued to yell at Joy for ruining everything. I didn’t even have my feet under me; they just drug me down there with the tips of my shoes skimming against the surface. I expected to be thrown back into the detention room, but it was so much worse.

“The Cage resides on a level below the detention floor. A level where the depression you felt today feels like sunshine and roses. The air there is thick and feels like it could choke you. The frigid air from the floor above was gone. The air there is so hot you begin to sweat the second it touches your skin. The officers wear special uniforms that protect them from the heat and the sulfurous smell that colours the air. They ripped my clothes from me. Not gently. Not allowing me to do it myself. They simply pulled at the fabric until it gave way and I was in just my underwear. Their gloves are covered with a thick, abrasive fabric that assists in the removal of clothing, and whatever skin it happens to touch. The heat makes your body feel like it’s imploding. And then they…” Carly’s face twisted, but she could not get out the words. Her lips pursed and gaped, but no words passed them.

“Carly!” Davey dropped to her knees on the floor in front of her friend. “Carly, what’s wrong.” The girl looked anguished, like she was in physical pain.

“We’re not allowed to talk about The Cage.” Carly’s face was still pinched. “If we get caught… it’s worse. It’s so much worse. I know they probably can’t hear me in here, but I just can’t do it, Davey. I can’t break that rule. Just in case.” Her voice dropped to a low whisper, “Just in case.”

“It’s okay, Charlotte. It’s okay.” Davey brushed back the scraggly hair behind the other girl’s ear. “You don’t have to tell me.”

“That was my first trip to The Cage, but it wasn’t my last. Detention is a regular part of my school day. I choose to break the dress code and wear a sweater every day. It means that I’ll spend a half an hour after class in that room, but I’d rather guarantee doing it in a thick, warm sweater than risk getting thrown in there in anything less.” Carly rubbed her hands against her eyes. “It’s exhausting, Davey. This life is exhausting, and I’m not sure how much longer I can take it.”

“You don’t have to tell me anymore today, Carly.” Davey hugged her frail friend close and tried to warm the cool body. “How about I walk you home?”

“I’d like that.” Carly smiled and drained the rest of the water glass. The two girls got up and left the room, both heavily weighed down by the events of the afternoon.

Chapter 4 – Don’t Fight

“It’s way worse than drat, but if you swear in here, you’ll get another detention.” A voice sounded from the corner behind her. Davey swung around to see Carly curled up on a small metal bench in the corner.

“Carly!” Davey ran across the room, dropping to the ground in front of her friend. “What the hell is going on here? Detention is in a dungeon?”

“There’s no point fighting it, Davey. This is what happens when you don’t conform.”

“What do you mean? Don’t conform?”

“If you don’t fit in. If you talk back. If you break the rules. You’re sent down here. You serve your detention. You learn not to make waves.”

“Why are you down here?” Davey sank to the ground at Carly’s feet, suddenly exhausted.

“We were talking in class this morning. I’m serving my sentence.”

“You’ve been here since this morning? In this horrible little room? That’s completely unfair. You didn’t do anything. I was talking to you and they didn’t punish me.” Davey called into the air. “Let her out of here!” A wave of frigid air rolled over the room.

“Don’t fight it, Davey. The more you fight it, the worse it gets. I’m used to it. I’m down here all the time.”

“What? Why?” Davey felt heat rise in her cheeks.

“I don’t fit in. You can tell. I don’t look like the other students. I don’t act like them. I don’t follow the attire regulations. No one likes me. At least down here, no one laughs at me.” Carly sunk further into herself. Her pale skin seemed even greyer than it had earlier in the day. She picked at her finger again.

“Carly, you can’t let them do this to you.” Davey pushed herself to her feet and ran to the door. There was no handle on the inside of the flat metal. “You can’t do this! Let us out of here!” She yelled, banging her palm on the door. “This is unfair!”

There was no response from beyond the metal door. No hint of human life outside this room. Davey rubbed her arms against the cold. Nothing about the lacey top of the dress provided any kind of protection. She wished for a sweater more than anything. She would deal with the two hours in this room just to have a tiny cardigan. She returned to the spot on the floor beside her friend. Maybe sitting together would help warm them both up.

“What are you doing here, Davey?” Carly’s voice seemed disconnected from her body.

“I tried to skip last class. It seemed pretty pointless to go when you weren’t there.”

“Never skip. You’re lucky you’re in here and not in the… never mind.” Carly’s cuticle found its way to her mouth.

“In what, Carly?”

“Not important. But what I meant was, what are you doing in Faulery Valley? Why did you come back here? It’s been six years. You left without a word. Without a goodbye. And now you come back, looking all sunshine and roses and expect to just pick up right where we left off.” For the first time all day, Carly’s voice contained a trace of actual emotion. Not much, but a little.

“It wasn’t my fault I left.” Davey took the other girl’s hand in her own, “I was a little girl. My parents moved. I had to go with them. I couldn’t stay here without them.”

“You could have said goodbye.” Carly wiped her nose with the end of her sleeve. “I was in the hospital and you just left me there. I was humiliated and broken and no one, not one single person, came to visit me. Do you know what that did to me?”

Davey watched her friend closely. This should have been a really emotional moment. Carly should have been yelling at her, or screaming, or crying, or anything, but the most she could muster was a slightly less vacant look. Her eyes swam with the hint of emotion, like she was trying to get there but couldn’t. Davey felt so sad for her. Emotions piled on emotions that suddenly felt like they were burying her. She needed to clear her head. She needed a moment of clarity. She reached for her remote communicator before remembering that her purse was somewhere that she was not.

“This is ridiculous.” She sighed and rubbed her forehead.

“Here,” Carly reached forward and opened her hand. A small yellow pill sat in the centre of her palm.

“What’s that?”

“It helps with the depression. It gets a little unbearable.” Carly dropped the pill into Davey’s hand, “It also makes you warmer.”

“I could use some heat.” Davey dropped the pill into her mouth and swallowed. A tiny wave of heat traveled through her body. Not much, just enough to remind her that they would eventually get out of this room. She curled up next to Carly and wrapped her arms around her. “I’m going to make this better, Charlotte. I’m here to help you.” She let herself drift on a wave of sadness, unable to maintain her strength any longer.

It felt like only a few minutes and several days all at once when the door finally cracked open from the outside. Davey could no longer feel the tips of her fingers or the end of her nose. Carly shivered under her arm as the two girls made their way out of the room. Their bags lay on the ground outside the door. Not a sole wandered the poorly lit hallway. Once out of the room, Davey began to feel the weight that had pressed against her in the detention room lifting. The hallway felt almost warm after the frigid temperature they’re endured for the last two hours. She rifled through her bag quickly, pulled out her sweater, and tucked it around her friend’s shoulders. Carly needed it so much more than she did.

When they got to the top of the stairs, Davey felt her mood change instantly. Warmth flooded over her body and the depression and sadness rushed away. She adjusted the bag on her shoulder and turned to Carly. Her friend was still shaking, but not as violently as she had been down below. The hollows beneath her eyes were deeper than before, a more predominant purple.

“Do you want to come back to my place? We can talk somewhere where I don’t feel like killing myself.” Davey joked.

“That place exists?” Carly mumbled, half under her breath.

“Carly! Are you serious?” Davey took the girls tiny shoulders in her hands and forced her to look up.

“Of course not, Davey.” Carly shook off the hands. “It’s just… it’s harder after a sentencing. Especially a long one.”

“Come over to my place. We’ll eat supper and catch up on the last several years. You have to tell me everything.”

“I’m not really hungry. Are you?” Carly rubbed her concave stomach through the double layer of sweaters.

“Now that you mention it, I’m not.” Davey realized that for the first time since she’d morphed into this body, she wasn’t starving. The hunger was still underlying, but not with its same fiery passion. “But you have got to eat something. You’re skin and bones.”

“I eat when I’m hungry.” Carly shrugged. “Let’s go to your place.”

“Do you need to call your parents or anything?”

“Like my parents care what I do. They haven’t really been that interested in me in the last couple years.”

The girls walked in silence. Davey no longer felt the drag of the lower level corridors, but Carly’s depression waved off her like a poison. They were a few blocks from the school when a familiar looking boy sauntered out of a bright, green house on the corner. His smile was visible even from this distance. He glanced up and down the street, and when he saw them, he quickly turned in their direction. His swagger was full of purpose. He wanted to make an impression. Wanted them to be impressed by what they saw.

“Oh great,” both girls cursed. Carly glanced over at Davey.

“You met Jett, I take it?” Carly hugged her arms around her body.

“At lunch. He’s a giant piece of…”

“Llama dung?”

“Yes. Llama dung. That’s exactly what he is.”

“Ladies!” He sauntered up to them. “What are you two doing in this part of town?”

“We’re going to Davey’s, Jett. No need to get worked up. We’ll be out of your hair in no time.”

“What does it matter to you where we are?” Davey quickened her pace to keep up with Davey. Jett slipped between them, throwing an arm over either shoulder.

“This is a restricted area. Only the highest caliber need enter the Park Zone. Just because there are times you’re allowed to be here, doesn’t mean we want you. You belong in the Dry Zone. Why don’t you run along home?” His face was covered in a wide, bright smile, but his eyes were full of loathing.

“Davey shouldn’t be rejected just because she used to know me.” Carly looked like the touch of his arm was about to make her vomit, but she did nothing to get away from it.

“Damhnait here is classified by her own actions. She rejected me at lunch. She chose you over us. Therefore, she too is a restricted from the Parks.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Davey slipped out from under his arm, swatting his hand away when he tried to grab her back. She was finally feeling like herself again. “But I’m going to my home, whether it’s in the Parks or that other place, or wherever. Leave us alone, Jett.” Davey tossed her red hair over her shoulder and grabbed Carly’s arm. Her anger at the boy almost made her miss how tiny that wrist was in her hand. She pulled her friend away and marched down the street without looking back.

“This town is messed up, Carly. What happened here? It wasn’t like this the last time I was here.”

“I’ll explain everything once we get inside.” Carly glanced over her shoulder, “Let’s go quickly though. Jett is going to be angry, and he has… he can just make things difficult for both of you.” The two girls hurried down the street. The hot sun beat down on them with relentless abandon. The heat drove away the remaining tendrils of the hours in the dungeon room. Davey led the way to the hotel at the end of the city’s main street. Carly’s eyes widened when she saw where they were going.

The front of the building was gilded in gold. The engravings in the façade were intricate. You could spend hours staring at them and never find all the twists and turns. The entrance doors were two large panels of glass with the hotel’s name emblazoned across them. The doorman pulled open the doors as they approached. His nose wrinkled when he saw Carly approaching, but the stack of small silver coins Davey slipped into his palm wiped the expression from his face.

“Welcome home, Ms. Nesbitt.”

“Thanks.” Davey smiled. She wasn’t sure of his name. She’d have to ask. He wouldn’t be in her assignment files. “Can you have housekeeping send up a couple extra blankets?”

“Yes, ma’am.” He nodded and the two girls hurried across the lobby. The carpet under their feet was plush. Not as luxurious as the carpet in The Commune but close. Davey watched as Carly took a moment to feel it squish under her feet. The doors to the elevators were hidden behind a brass lattice gate. The bellhop pulled it open for them and set their arrival floor before closing the door. The quiet bustle of the lobby cut off as the door latched. The low hum of music filled the elevator with a warm pleasantness. The thrumming sound was the same one Davey had heard that morning while she was getting her bearings.

“This is the nicest hotel in town, Davey. It’s right in the middle of the Parks.” Carly leaned against the wall, her ashy skin taking on a pinkish tone for the first time all day.

“You’re going to have to explain a lot of stuff to me, darling. I have no idea what these zones are or why I should care. I just picked a place to live. And I want to know felt like dying in that room. And why you look like a walking skeleton.” Davey raised an eyebrow as the elevator came to a smooth stop.

Inside Davey’s suite, Carly climbed into the chair in the sitting room. Her fingers danced gently along the soft fabric of the arm of the chair. In the golden light of the room, she looked even sicklier, even with the deeper colour in her skin.

“Why did you come back here, Davey? You should have stayed away. It would have been better for you. This place destroys.”

“What do you mean, Carly? What happened to you?” Davey’s hunger was back. Her stomach released an almighty growl. She wandered over to the fridge in the corner and pulled open the door. The shelves were stocked with food. “Do you want something to eat?”

“No, thank you.” Carly pulled her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them. The chair seemed to swallow her small frame. Her limp hair hung next to her face, as lifeless and uninspired as the body it grew from.

“Remember when we were little girls and used to play together in that field behind your house?” Davey placed a frying pan on the stove and set strips of bacon onto the hot metal. The sizzle made her smile. “We used to run along that fence hidden in the grass and see if we could catch our shadows.”

“Yeah,” Carly smiled a distant smile, “That’s one of the few good memories I have left.”

“What happened after you fell, Carly? What brought you to this?” She waved a hand towards her friend.

“You left me.” Carly sighed, resigned, “You left me and I had no one. I was broken and wrecked and no one loved me the way you did.”

“That’s not true. Your parents loved you. Those girls. They were so mean. But you were better than them.” Davey knew that to be true. That’s why she had been sent to interfere with fate. She had been sure she was meant to allow Carly to live so that she could grow into a powerhouse. That her friend was meant to be a great leader. But now, D was having a hard time believing that this girl could ever lead anything. And now she was on the brink of death again. Once again she needed saving.

“Never let anyone hear you say that. Those girls are revered. They are the image of perfection we are all told to strive for. If anyone heard you talk down about them, you’d spend days in the cage. It’s so much worse there than detention.” Carly shivered.

Davey turned as a knock sounded at the door. Were they listening to her in her room? Did they know what she’d said? Was this someone coming to take her to Carly’s cage? She stepped up to the door and peaked through the spy hole. A woman stood in the hallway in the white garments of hotel.

“Hello?” Davey called through the ornate door.

“Housekeeping. I have the extra blankets you requested.”

Davey pulled open the door as the woman leaned over to the cart against the wall and picked up a stack of blankets. “Thank you.” Davey took the pile and handed the woman a few silver coins in return. She returned to the room, tucked the soft blue fabric around Carly’s body and poured her a glass of water.

“Okay, let’s go back.” Davey settled into the other chair, her legs curled up under her, the plate of bacon in her lap. “Tell me about what happened when you got out of the hospital.”

Chapter 3 – Out With the Old

“Class, I’d like to introduce our new student.” The teacher glanced down at the paper in front of her. “Dam…Damni…?”

“It’s pronounced Dav-net.” Damhnait grinned at the older woman, “But everyone calls me Davey.” The head that popped up at the back of the room did not escape her attention. The girl was thin, scarily thin, her cheekbones straining against her skin. The sweater, too heavy for the weather, hung from the girl’s shoulders, sticking out in a classroom full of people in gothic style clothing similar to Davey’s. The brunette was the only girl in the class with something covering the ruffles of her dress.

“Welcome to Faulery Valley. You’ll fit right in.” The teacher took in Davey’s outfit before gesturing to the rows of desks. “There are some empty seats near the back.”

Davey casually scanned the room before sauntering to the desk beside the thin girl with the stringy hair. She slid into the seat and glanced at the other girl. Up close, she appeared even thinner and unhealthier than she had from the front of the room. But even without the extra weight and nervous determination Davey had known her. It was obvious that this was Carly.

“Hey, Carly.” She whispered.

“Davey? Is that really you?” Carly’s voice had deepened to a soft, buttery sound. From another body, it would have been seductive, but out of this sad excuse for a person, it was unsettling.

“Sure is.” Davey smiled at her old friend and reached over to squeeze her hand. The fingers were bony and sharp in her grip. Carly pulled her hand away and clutched her fingers together in her lap.

“What are you doing here?” Carly kept her voice low as the teacher began the lesson.

“Long story. Come over tonight and I’ll tell you all about it?” Davey pulled a notebook out of the bag, pretending to be paying attention.

“I have a thing right after school.” Carly muttered, still facing the front of the room. “Write down your address and I’ll come over around 6:30. Will your parents be okay with that?”

“Charlotte. Davey. Would you like to share with the rest of the class?” Their teacher asked without turning from the chalkboard where she was scrawling equations Davey didn’t recognize.

“No, ma’am.” Davey replied with resignation.

“You seem to be having quite the conversation back there, and it doesn’t appear to have anything to do with vortex theorem.”

“Sorry, Mrs. Falcone. Davey lived here a long time ago. We’re just excited to see each other again.” Carly’s voice was quiet, barely loud enough to carry past the end of the desk, but the teacher heard every word.

“You got excited about something?” Mrs. Falcone glanced over her shoulder at Carly before scanning the rest of the students. “I find that hard to believe.”

Carly’s face turned red as many of the students snickered. She stared into her lap. Her fingers picked at her cuticles. A crust of blood had formed on the rim of her third nail. The class chuckled along with the teacher, ignoring the pain clearly written across Carly’s face. Davey felt a rush of rage, but she pushed it down. She’d been here for less than an hour. It wasn’t time to rock the boat yet. Not until she knew what was going on.

Carly’s pen swirled across a piece of paper that she slid across the desk to Davey. ‘address?’. Davey scrawled her hotel and room number below the question. ‘What the hell is going on, Carly?’. She slid the paper back to the other desk. Carly folded the paper and slipped it into her pocket. She shrugged, keeping her gaze locked on the front of the room. They were silent for the rest of class. When the chimes rang, Carly disappeared from the classroom before Davey had even put her book away.

Carly did not appear in any of Davey’s other morning classes. She made a mental note to talk to the engagement coordinator to get her classes swapped. What was the purpose of being placed somewhere if she wasn’t able to interact with her charge? She found her way to the cafeteria and looked for her friend.

“Where the hell are you, Carly?” Davey mumbled to herself as she looked around the room. Filled with long, grey stone tables, the room was teeming with voices. The school was small enough that everyone had the same lunch period. “You have to be in here somewhere.”

Davey made her way through the line up, filling her tray with food. They never ate in The Commune. Their bodies didn’t need it. When she was on assignment, her hunger raged. All the time. Davey made her way to a half empty table where she could keep an eye on the door, planning to wave Carly down when she got here. She picked up the cornmeal muffin, a staple on this planet, and bit through the soft bread. Each chew released a new wave of flavour sensation in her mouth. She closed her eyes, savouring the taste. Good food was just something could not be simulated. And it was definitely not guaranteed on every assignment.

When she opened her eyes, she found herself staring at a teenage boy sitting across the table from her. Startling, she choked on the muffin. She had excellent senses; the idea that he could sneak up on her was unthinkable.

“Hello?” She tilted her head to the side, pushing the long, red hair behind her before it landed on her food tray.

“Hello to you.” His smile was wide and thick and slightly offputting.

“Can I help you?”

“You’re new.”

“You’re observant.” Davey glanced around his head at the entrance.

“It’s wrong for a girl as pretty as you to be all alone.” He reached a hand across the table, “I’m Jett.”

“I’m waiting for someone.”

“Is that someone me?” He leered.

“It’s Carly Perkins.”

Jett’s laugh was so immediate and raucous that it actually forced Davey to pay attention to him.

“Is that funny?”

“Carly? Like Charlotte? You’re waiting for her? Here?”

“Again, is that funny?”

“Carly doesn’t lunch. Everyone know that. She hasn’t set foot in the cafeteria in like two years.” He was now laughing hard enough for tears to seep from the corner of his eye.

“Where does she eat?” Davey moved to pick up her tray and leave.

“Dear, dear Davey, let me fill you in on a little secret. You might as well put that tray down and eat with me and mine. Your little friend Charlotte doesn’t eat anywhere. The girl doesn’t eat. It’s a side effect.” Jett pushed himself away from the table, and stood looking down at her, “And it’s a good thing. She was a real tubbo before. Your friend’s a failure.”

Davey simply stared up at him, unsure how to respond. She didn’t understand how anyone could go without eating. These human forms required so much energy. It was no wonder that Carly had looked like a walking skeleton. Davey continued to stare at Jett, lost in her own thoughts, unaware that her behaviour was creepy and weird. She failed to notice that people were starting to stare at her.

“I thought you’d be cool because you’re gorgeous, but you’re just a weird as your little friend. There are rules here, and if you’re not careful, you’ll end up just like that pathetic excuse.” Jett pushed away from the table and walked back to a table full of staring students.

“Hey, you,” Davey called towards his retreating back, “Where can I find her?”

“How the hell would I know? She’s a loser. I’m not.” Jett called back without turning around,

Davey grabbed two of the muffins from her tray and hurried out of the cafeteria. A quick search of the school, didn’t locate Carly before she had to head back to class. This was not going the way she expected. Normally, she would have been well into her interference a half day in. This engagement was becoming very frustrating.

A full afternoon without another sighting of Carly made Davey think that the other girl was avoiding her. When the last class of the day started and Carly still hadn’t appeared, Davey had had enough. She hiked her bag over her shoulder and headed to the exit. She wasn’t worried about getting in trouble. She was going to be here long.

“Ms. Nesbitt, where exactly are you going?” A voice sound as her fingers touched the cool metal of the exit door. Davey glanced around but saw no one.

“What the hell?” She reached forward to push open the door again. The lever slid in, but the door itself refused to budge.

“Please report to the office on the lower level.” The voice sounded again. This time Davey saw the small speaker mounted beside a camera above the door. “Immediately.”

“Drat.” Davey mumbled, spinning on her heal. The stairs leading to the lower level of the school were located at the end of the hallway. She took them quickly, her thick-soled boots clomping against the painted cement. “Carly, where the heck are you?”

The light in the basement level was dim. The floors and walls a beaten, flat grey. There were no classrooms down here. No people. The atmosphere had none of the charm or airiness of the above ground levels. Davey felt a wave of sadness wash over her. Getting worse the further she moved down the hall. Closed doors peppered the walls sporadically, but no sounds came from any of the hidden rooms.

“You wanted me down here. Where the hell am I supposed to go?” She muttered, reaching into her bag for the map of the school. There was no basement shown on the paper, let alone a breakdown of the rooms.

“This way, Ms. Nesbitt.” A voice sounded from further down the hall. A door swung open about twenty feet in front of her. Davey shivered as a cool breeze drifted down the hall. When she reached the threshold, she peaked around the corner nervously. This unsettled feeling was so unfamiliar.

A large industrial desk stood centered in the room with a robust, elderly woman seated behind it. Her eyes the same colour as the hard grey walls. Her skin seemed to bleed into the depressing surroundings. She looked like she’d been born from the room. A natural extension of its depression. The cold draft from the hallway was stronger here. Davey’s body felt tired in a way she’d never experienced before. When it was this difficult to adapt to a new body, it didn’t seem worth the effort. Could her assignment really be that important? If it wasn’t for Carly, she would have asked to be switched out.

“Hello?” Davey looked at the woman behind the desk, who still hadn’t spoken a word. “Why am I here?”

“You broke the rules.” The voice that left her frog-like lips was as one-note as the colour scheme in the room.

“It was just one class.”

“The rules are to be obeyed at all times. Do as you are told and the societal order is maintained.” Her tone never changed, not a hint of inflection on any word. She simply stared at Davey and spewed her mantra, not even blinking.

“Okay…” Davey replied, her brow wrinkling in confusion.

“You will report to the detention room at once.”

“Detention? I don’t deserve a detention. What happened to a warning?” Davey spat. The cool breeze from somewhere behind the desk rushed through the room again. Her skin prickled with goosebumps and her anger began to wane.

“Morrison will escort you to the detention room.” The woman continued to stare forward. Davey heard a sound behind her and turned to see a boy her age, skin pale and ashy, almost as thin as Carly, standing in the entrance. “You will remain there until 5:00. You will be released when your sentence is complete.” The woman and her chair turned, drifted away from the desk and through a door in the back of the room. The entire action was self propelled. Davey glanced at the floor to see if there was some kind of track.

“Follow me.” The boy’s voice interrupted her investigation.

Davey followed Morrison further down the hallway. The air seemed to get thicker the further they walked, becoming almost heavy on her lungs.

“How did you get roped into this?” She asked Morrison, hoping to strike up some kind of conversation. Anything to lift the depression that seemed to be settling over her body. The feeling was similar to her transport cocoon, only painful and sad rather than light and powerful. The boy said nothing; he simply walked, leading her to her punishment. “Come on, guy. This is my first day here. Can’t you cut a girl a little slack.”

“The rules are to be obeyed at all times. Do as you are told and the societal order is maintained. Disobey and disorder rules. We must all obey the rules.” He replied, shooting her a quick look. A look that wasn’t blank and vacant, but closer to a warning. It lasted just seconds, but long enough for Davey to be certain she’d seen it.

“What happens if you don’t? How bad can it be?” Davey didn’t believe that she’d been sent here to waste her time sitting in detention. She had to figure out a way to get out and find Carly. But she couldn’t seem to make herself fight. The drive that made her such an excellent Veil felt stifled and lazy.

“This is the detention room. You will be released when you have served your sentence.” Morrison pushed the door open and let her in to the room. In a swift movement, he pulled the bag from her shoulder and swung the door shut behind her.

“Double drat.” Davey muttered to herself as she heard the sound of metal locks sliding into place.

Chapter 2 – D is for Davie

She took a deep breath and listened carefully. D always established her first impression of a planet with her eyes closed, using her other senses. First by sound. Then by touch. You could sense so much more about your surroundings if you couldn’t see them. To her left, she heard a distant musical chirping. Birds. Birds singing were always a good sign. They indicated clean air. And there was a dull thrumming somewhere closer than the birds. Vibrations traveling through the air. Rhythmic. Soothing. But not entirely consistent. She couldn’t place it.

Her fingers found the soft fabric around her body. A bed. It would be hers. The engagements were always very thorough. She would need a home for this one, so they had created one for her. Her fingers travelled up to touch her head, exploring her favourite sensation in any placement. Gone was the smooth surface of her scalp. Replaced with long, thick strands of hair. She traced the strands down until her hand came to rest just below her breasts. She loved when they gave her long hair.

Her fingers danced across the skin of her face. Down along the curves of her body. The feeling was so different from the smooth, uniform bodies they inhabited in The Commune. This was the first time she’d ever returned to the same persona, but now she was six years older. The body had changed.

From beyond her room, she heard the sound of footsteps, a rattle of glass, laughing voices. She let her eyes flicker open and take in the room. The walls were covered in a dark wood paneling, the ceiling an intricately patterned tin. She pushed herself into a sitting position. A television set sat at the end of the bed. An open door at the end of the room led to another room. A small kitchen area was visible through the opening. The room was more opulent than she expected. The blankets were soft and plush. The light filtering through the floaty curtains was gentle and inviting.

Faulery Valley was located on Blosher, a fairly average planet by all accounts. She’d been to several like it, so she knew what to expect. There were easier planets, but there were definitely more difficult places to have to work. D pushed off the bed and walked over to the mirror. She smiled as she took in the long, straight strands of orangey-red hair. The same hair as before, but longer. Her eyes were no longer that flat white. Now they were a brilliant amber. A colour she remembered vividly from her earlier assignment. Her skin was still pale, but not the see-through transparency of Traveler skin. Freckles dotted the bridge of her nose and her lips were a pale shade of pink. The bow of the upper lip straightened as her mouth stretched out into a wide smile.

She walked towards the closet and pushed open the doors to reveal a row of dresses. Along the floor were a line of thick-soled shoes and boots in pastel colours. She pulled a lacey white dress from the closet and ran her fingers along the complicated fabric. The grooves of the designs played against the skin on her finger tips. The feeling wasn’t as intense as she had imagined it would be. Bringing her fingers to her face, she took note of the tips of her fingers. The skin was thicker than normal, covered in calluses. She glanced around the room, wondering what could have caused the delicate skin to solidify in such a way. There, against the far wall, a guitar. That would cause this kind of damage.

Details like that helped her understand who she was in this world, much more than the description provided on the assignment sheets. She didn’t know why the Masters didn’t realize that there was more to an engagement than just the surface details. She always wanted more information. But this life felt different, different from anything else she’d encountered. She already knew this girl. To have a real understanding of this body as a child and an adult was something she’d never experienced before. it changed everything. D remembered that shy eleven year old she’d inhabited on her last visit. Remembered the way the body used to feel, how foreign it was, but familiar at the same time. Remembered the moments that had formed this girl’s experiences.

D stepped into her dress, and began pulling up the long white sleeves. Along the inside of her forearms were lines of thin white scars. She scanned the embedded identity profile and found the information she needed. Her lovable child had grown up to cut herself. D closed her eyes and swallowed. She hated personas that required this kind of emotional motivation. She didn’t know how it could be useful for saving Carly. She quickly pulled the sleeves into place and slid the zipper shut. The dress cinched at the waist and flared out in the skirt, ending just above her knees. She’d worn dresses like this before, on other planets, but those had been long, confining dresses of proper, stoic woman. This dress was fun and cute. She spun in a circle and watched the lacy skirt billow around her. The long hair spun around her face, coming to rest around her neck and across her face.

She smiled to herself and grabbed the big gingham bag sitting on the table beside the door. A quick look around the room confirmed a piece of information that had been unclear in the profile. She was alone. Normally, engagements involving minor-aged personas were accompanied by other Travelers to act as parents or guardians. This body was seventeen years old, but this place was some kind of hotel or rooming house. It was a self-contained living space. She mentally flipped through the quick facts profile she’d been given, but the back story for why she was living on her own wasn’t listed. She needed that information before she saw Carly again.

Flopping onto the end of the bed, she reached into the bag and pulled out the small white cube. It had no discernable opening, but when D ran her fingers along the right side, a small latch materialized on the front. She touched the cube to her lips and the top popped open. Inside was her crystal leaf. D pulled the totem from the box and released a slow cool breath onto the surface of the crystal.

She felt the energy of The Commune pulse into her skin. She closed her eyes and watched the images of this persona’s life flash across her eyelids. Unlike normal assignments, where they could access all the information from childhood forward, she could only access images from after her last involvement with Carly. This was the information she would need to be able to relay to explain why she’d disappeared and why she was back. She watched it all. Her fictional life played out before her eyes. There were the awkward years of puberty. The teenage angst she’d played out in so many other assignments. Then there were the images of her sitting in a closet, back pressed against the wall, listening to voices shouting from another room. The pain and anguish of another bout of fighting. The sounds of violence. A sharp piece of metal across her skin. The bubbles of blood rose to the surface. The feeling of relief flooded the image and D suddenly understood why this had happened.

The image changed to a girl on the cusp of adulthood, confident and self assured, unwilling to put up with her parents any longer. Moving out of the house where all the pain resided. Setting out on her own. Moving back across the country to the last place she’d had good memories. To Faulery Valley. To complete her last year of high school. To find the only friend that had ever meant anything to her. D opened her eyes, feeling exactly like the girl she was supposed to be.

It was time to go find Carly, the only girl she carried with her outside an assignment. D knew that she was here on a job, but it already felt different. She felt immersed in the role as she never had before. She didn’t imagine that this engagement would be that difficult, and that made her sad. She liked Carly, saving her life would be a pleasure. Besides, she’d already done it once. She’d probably be here for only a couple days.

She pushed herself off the bed and straightened, shaking off D. Now she was Davey Nesbitt, seventeen-year-old girl, guitar player, former cutter, and aspiring best friend.

She placed the talisman back into the box. The cube deactivated and closed as she threw it into the large purse. As her only connection to home, it would be carried with her at all times, just in case. Now, she needed to get to work and figure out what had gone wrong in Carly’s life and how she was supposed to save her life. Again.