Monday, 25 September 2023 19:00

Smile! (Part 1)

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Warning: There is self-harm and mental illness in this story.

A Whateley Academy Tale

SMILE!

by Domoviye

 

Part 1

 

London, Ontario
March 3rd, 2007

Amber Ashton always loved hearing the sound of music and people playing in her family's arcade. It made people happy, and she got to play a part in it. What could be better than that?

But now the sounds were horrifying. Cold blood seeped into her clothes, flies buzzed by her ears and crawled on her face, lapping up the blood on her cheek and hair, unable to get off the surgical table thanks to the stained, greasy, leather straps holding her down. She smelled the crap, blood and organs of the dead person who had been in her position less than hour ago, she was terrified.

She'd stopped screaming a while ago, no one could hear her. The only reason she could hear the arcade was because her parents had set up speakers around the room. It made it seem like rescue was so close, if only you could scream loud enough, but it was all a lie. She'd only found the room because her mother hadn't closed the door properly. Even then it had been almost impossible to find in the old supply closet, with the broken light that no one ever got around to fixing.

How could her parents have done this?

Her eyes went to the power tools and surgical equipment that lined the walls. They were stained a rusty red. A large sink with industrial size soap bottles, was beside the door, clear plastic suits hung beside it. Metal rings jutted out of the sterile, tiled walls. She'd seen a drain in the centre of the floor when she'd gone in, wondering what the whimpering sound was.

She closed her eyes as hard as she could, trying not to remember the quivering, screaming lump of flesh that had once been a person.

Instead she recalled her parents running in at the sound of her shrieking. They'd been so angry. She'd never seen them like that before. When she wouldn't stop screaming, her dad threw her to the ground right into a puddle of blood. She could still taste it. Her mother killed the person on the table, making room for her. She'd been too stunned to fight as they strapped her down on the gore covered table.

“We'll deal with you after we close,” her mom had told her in a voice she'd never heard before.

“Please,” she whimpered to anyone who might be listening. “Please don't let me die here.”

A feeling of love washed over her. She could feel a tiny hand stroking her cheek, lips kissed her forehead. It didn't use words, but it let her know that everything was going to be all right. Her body tingled pleasantly. The blood caking her skin and hair fell away. She was hovering over the table, which was now so much larger than it had been.

Looking down at herself she was wearing a poofy silver dress, like she used to wear for dressup when she was three. In her hand was a long magic wand with a star on the end. It looked fragile, but somehow she knew it was very tough. Something fluttered on her back. Twisting her head, she saw glittering dragonfly wings. They moved too slowly to be keeping her up, yet somehow she was flying.

Looking at the door, she knew she had to get out. Leaning towards it, she began flying. She didn't want to grab the bloodstained handle, but it was the only way to escape. Closing her eyes, she tried to push it open, only to find it locked.

She couldn't wait for her parents to come back. She had to get out now.

Holding her wand like a baseball bat, she struck the door, screaming as she did. The metal dented. She hit it again, and again, and again. Finally the lock broke. Shoving it open, she flew out. Her body ached. It felt like she'd run ten laps at gym.

Shaking her head, she kept going, she couldn't stay there. She had to find her brother. She had to get him and get away. She had to get the police. She couldn't let them hurt Gregory.

Flying into the hallway, she saw her mom come running. The look on her twisted face was murderous. Screaming, she flew out an old window, shattering the glass with her body. In an unthinking panic, she flew away into the cold night.

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Amber didn't remember when she turned human again. Everything was a blur. She was staggering down an unknown street, sobbing, covered in blood and scratches, too frightened to look behind her. Terrified of seeing her parents coming after her. She just wanted to lie down, but she couldn't stop moving. If she did, her parents would catch her.

A cop car, it's lights flashing, pulled up beside her.

The officer got out, his hand on his gun, looking around to see if there was anyone else there.

“Are you all right?” he asked.

She fell to her knees too tired to stay up. She was safe now. Through her sobs, she said, “My parents. Franky's Arcade and Pizzeria. Please don't let them get me. Don't let them hurt my brother!”

Having gotten the message out, she curled up into a ball and wailed.

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London's Children Hospital,
London, Ontario,
Morning, March 4th

Amber woke up in a hospital bed, her skin well scrubbed, the cuts were stitched and bandaged, wearing a clean pink hospital gown. She vaguely recalled waking up several times at night from half remembered nightmares. Each time a calm, loving sensation had filled her, soothing her, helping her go back to sleep. The presence was still there, but now it was faint, just letting her know she was cared for.

She wasn't hooked up to anything, so she got out of bed and went to the bathroom. Even though someone had washed her already, she took extra time scrubbing her hands and arms, remembering the feeling of blood on them.

Going back to bed, she wrapped herself up in the blanket, desperately trying not to think of the night before.

There was a knock on the door, it opened up a moment later. A nurse walked in, behind her was a cop with his back to the door.

“Hi, you're Amber Ashton, right?” the nurse asked. Her voice was soft, but it sounded almost like a hissing snake.

She shivered as the woman got closer to the bed. The presence inside of her reached out, embracing her, protecting her. “Yes.”

“How do you feel?” The woman's eyes narrowed, making her look angry.

How was she supposed to answer that? It was getting hard to breathe. Her chest felt too tight. “I don't know,” she whispered.

“That's fine. Do you hurt anywhere?” Her lips curled into a snarl.

“No,” Amber said, almost whimpering.

The nurse reached out to grab her hand. Panic welled up in her chest. She threw herself across the bed to get away. Images of her mother strapping her onto the bloody table flashed through her mind.

“STAY AWAY!” she screamed.

The woman backed off, holding her hands up. “OK. It's OK. No one's going to hurt you.”

With tears streaming down her face and gasping for breath, Amber cowered, holding the blanket in front of her like a shield. The presence tried to calm her down, pushing feelings that everything would be OK. It was lost in the panic that filled her mind.

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Amber hungrily ate her breakfast.

The nurse had brought in the food and left the cart by the door for her to get it herself. She hadn't realized how hungry she'd been until she smelled the food. But even hunger wouldn't allow her to let an adult get close to her. She knew the nurses and doctors wouldn't hurt her, but she couldn't stop thinking of her parents whenever they came close.

The presence in her mind hadn't left. It was still there, mentally holding her, trying it's best to soothe her fear. It was the only reason she wasn't hiding under the blankets screaming in terror.

Finishing her meal, she wheeled it back to the closed door and knocked once. Hurrying back to bed, she hopped in and brought the blanket up to her chin, watching the door like a hawk. It opened a few minutes later. A nurse leaned in, looked at her sadly, then took the cart away.

A half hour later there was a knock on the door. “Can I come in?” a man asked.

The voice sounded familiar. “OK,” she said.

The cop who had helped her last night came in. He looked tired, but he was smiling and had his hands held out to his side. She could see there was nothing in them. “Hi, Amber. I'm Officer Fritz Smith, do you remember me?”

She nodded. Her chest was tight, but not as bad as it went with the nurses and doctors.

A question forced it's way out. “Did you get my brother?”

“I'll tell you in a bit, OK? First I need to talk to you about what happened last night. Can you do that?” He was talking to her slowly, like she was a scared animal or baby. She found it kind of soothing.

“I'll try.”

“Thanks, that's very brave of you. I'm going to go to the door and get a report, a pen, and a chair, OK. I'll stay over here, and you can stay over there. Does that sound good?”

She nodded again.

He did as he said, and sat down beside the door. He held the pen in his hand and tapped it against his chin.

Amber shrieked. In her eyes her father was standing over her tapping a bloody knife against his chin. The tingling feeling she'd felt the night before washed over her. Holding out her star tipped wand, she felt energy move from her chest along her arm and through the wand.

Officer Moore yelled in shock. He dropped the pen, his arm fell limply to his side. Lunging to his feet, she hit him again, his legs went out from under him. The door opened, people looked in, their jaws dropping with shock.

She flew to the furthest corner of the room, holding her wand out like a weapon, screaming and crying. The adults grabbed the officer and dragged him out. The door slammed shut and she heard it lock.

Sinking to the floor, Amber drowned in the waves of panic that washed over her.

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It was several hours later when there was another knock on the door.

The door unlocked and a teenager who looked to be maybe sixteen or seventeen years old, stepped inside. She had lightly tanned skin, and shoulder length dusky blonde hair. She was skinny, but well built, and pretty tall for a woman. She didn't look like a doctor or a cop, wearing well worn jeans and a flannel shirt over a white t-shirt.

“Hi, Amber,” she said, smiling in a friendly way.

“Go away,” Amber said, wrapping the blankets more tightly around herself.

“Sorry, but I can't. You need help, and I'm about the only person who can offer it. I'm Aria King, a mutant like you.”

“Did I hurt him?”

“No. Whatever you hit the officer with didn't do much other than make him go numb for about twenty minutes. I'm not going to lie, it gave everyone a scare, but that's it.”

That did make her feel a bit better. “Why are you here?”

“Like I said I'm about the only one who can help you. I need your honest answer, am I scaring you?”

Looking at the teen, Amber didn't feel any tightening in her chest. It wasn't hard to breathe, and she wasn't about to scream in terror. She shook her head.

Slowly, Aria walked over to the bed. “You still good?”

“Yeah.”

Very slowly and carefully the teen stretched out her hand. When Amber didn't react, she patted her knee. It felt all right.

Aria smiled at her sadly. “OK, that confirms it.”

“Confirms what?”

“You're terrified of adults. It makes sense considering what was found at your parent's arcade. Can you tell me about it?”

The presence was back, wrapping her up in invisible arms, silently promising to keep her safe. “It was an ordinary night. I had to get some cups from the back. I heard something in an old closet and went to look. I thought it might be people making out.”

She fought to stay calm, resisting the panic rising in her mind. She needed to tell them what her parents had done. “There was a crack in the wall. I opened it and there was a room that shouldn't be there. There was- there was a person, strapped down. They didn't have any arms or legs.”

Her breathing sped up, she couldn't get enough air. “Their eyes were gone. I don't know if they were a man or woman. There was blood on the floor, on the table.”

Tears poured down her cheeks. “They heard me scream. They came in. Mom killed the-the person right in front of me. Dad knocked me down into the blood. It got in my mouth. They strapped me to the table. They told me they'd deal with me later. They laughed at me. Dad, he- he ran a knife over my cheek.”

She couldn't continue. Sobbing, she rocked back and forth, hugging herself. Distantly she felt Aria hug her. The teen didn't feel right, too cold, too hard, but she was someone who wasn't hurting or scaring her. Leaning into the embrace, she cried at everything that she'd lost.

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Some time later Amber was able to stop crying. Aria brought her a sandwich, a bag of chips and a drink for lunch. She slowly ate, knowing she needed food even if she didn't feel hungry. She didn't really feel anything anymore, just drained.

“Is Gregory OK?”

“Gregory is your little brother, right?”

She nodded.

Aria put an arm over her shoulder. “I'm sorry, we don't know. Your parents fled with your brother last night. But every cop in Canada, Michigan and New York is looking for them.”

The tears started again at the realization that her brother was with murderers who would kill their own daughter.

Her new friend, or was that caretaker, held her until the tears stopped. “Amber, I know you're not in great shape right now, but I need you to make a decision. It's not a permanent one, you can change your mind whenever you want, but we have to figure out what to do with you.”

“I'm a nut case with psycho parents. I freak out when near adults, where can I go?”

“I have a group farm for teens like you. Mutants who have emotional problems, and those who can't live at home. There are some adults there, but I'll make sure you mostly deal with me until you're comfortable. No pressure on you.”

“How old are you?” she asked, feeling her chest begin to tighten.

“I'd rather not say. But I'm not like anyone you've ever met.”

Before Amber could ask what she meant by that, the teen held up her hand. One minute it looked like ordinary skin, then it was smooth greyish plastic. The fingers, hand and wrist were clearly artificial. Then the skin returned.

Smiling, Aria looked her in the eye. “Can you handle living with a person who is 70% machine?”

The growing tightness began to fade. Whatever was in her mind that said 'adults equal danger' didn't click on. “I think I can.”

That got a warm smile and a pat on the shoulder. “Good. I run Riverside Rescue Farm along with my partner Theo, just outside of Guelph. We're both retired heroes, and we will protect you, even if we have to protect you from yourself. There are four other mutant teens, boys and girls, who live there full time. We have a few more come on weekends and after school to help out. You'll have chores to do around the farm, tutoring sessions, and therapy of different kinds. Usually you'd work with several of the therapists and helpers that come in the evening and weekend, but until you're comfortable, you're my special project.”

Looking around the hospital room, Amber nodded. “It doesn't seem like I have much of a choice.”

“Don't worry,” Aria said, leaning in to give her a hug. “We'll make sure you feel welcome.”

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It took almost two hours to reach the farm, and it was well into the evening. It had taken a few hours to sign all the necessary forms before they let Amber leave. She couldn't really recall much of the drive. She'd been given some pretty strong anti-anxiety medicine to avoid panicking as she was wheeled out of the hospital by Aria.

Even with the drugs and hiding her face in a big stuffed bear that her new friend had picked up from the hospital gift shop, it had been difficult making it to the car. She knew she was being watched by the adults, and her brain wouldn't stop imagining them attacking her with knives, throwing blood on her, and worse. By keeping her eyes closed, hugging the bear, and the presence in her mind giving off waves of peace and love, she hadn't panicked.

“We're here,” Aria said.

They pulled off the back road onto a gravel one. There was a sign that read 'private property' in big bold letters, a solid looking gate automatically opened up for them. It was another minute or two of trees then it opened up onto a sprawling farmhouse with a big barn behind it. Three dogs came running over barking loudly.

“Don't mind the dogs, they're friendly and well trained,” Aria told her.

Coming to a stop beside a large van, they both got out. The dogs jump on Aria, licking and sniffing her face. Then they looked at Amber, bouncing and excited but not jumping or crowding her.

“These are Spot, Daisy, and Sir Rupert Magnus the Third. We let the kids name them,” Aria said with a grin. “Anytime you need a hug or company, try to find one of them. They're big babies, and love the attention. Just hold out your hand and let them get to know you.”

Tentatively, Amber held her hand out, which the dogs eagerly began to sniff. Spot gave her fingers a big sloppy lick. Then they surrounded her, poking her with their noses, begging to be petted. For the first time that day she got a tiny smile.

A bell rang the house. The dogs immediately forgot about her and ran barking back to the farm. “That's the warning bell for food. When you hear it, you have thirty minutes to finish whatever work you're doing, or at least put your tools away, wash up, change if you need to, and get to the table. Come on, I'll show you your room, and we can find some clothes for you in the gift box. Supper is the perfect time to introduce you to everyone.”

Looking down at her tracksuit that had come from the hospital gift shop, Amber nodded shyly. Having normal clothes would be nice. Gripping her caretaker's hand she walked into the farmhouse, taking her shoes off at the large entrance.

There was a huge living room just off the entrance. It had a big TV and several consoles, along with plenty of seating. A door to the kitchen was opposite the living room. A girl who looked to be about fifteen or so was cutting vegetables. A massive man with long green hair came into view, holding an oversize steaming pot in one bare hand.

Amber looked away, clutching Aria's hand so hard it hurt.

They hurried past the kitchen and down one of two hallways. Aria showed her the main bathroom, the games room, one of the therapy rooms, and finally the girl's rooms and extra large bathroom.

“The boys rooms are on the other end of the building,” Aria said. “While we want you to talk and interact with the boys, we'd appreciate it if you keep it friendly only. You're here to heal, not get a date. But if you need some birth control for any reason, just ask. We want you to be safe.”

“OK,” Amber said. Sex and dating was the furthest thing from her mind.

“And here's your room. You have a roommate, Cassidy . We've already told her about you, and she's happy to have you.”

They stepped into a medium size room with two bunk beds on each side of the room. There were four small desks with little round mirrors that could be moved around, and matching wardrobes. It was a little cramped, but Amber figured beggars couldn't be choosers. One bed was clearly in use, and a desk had makeup, books, and a laptop on it.

“You are expected to keep your part of the room clean. That's one of the big rules here. If you do all of your chores without being asked, you get a sticker. When you have ten stickers you can get one prize, that can be going into town, a special meal, more TV or game time, and a few other things.”

“Can I get stickers some other way?”

“Yep. We'll give you goals for therapy, reach your goals and you get a sticker. Help someone and you might earn a sticker depending on what it was. Go above and beyond, we'll give you one too. And you can trade stickers with the others. If you really don't want to do a chore, you can give them a sticker if they'll do it and vice versa. Don't do it too often, but once in a while is fine,” she explained.

Looking around the room, Amber began to tear up. She didn't have anything except the big bear and the clothes she was wearing. Her room back home, all of her pictures, clothes, books and keepsakes were gone. The past twenty-four hours hit her, and she fell to her knees sobbing. There wasn't the panic of earlier, just the realization that her entire life was gone.

Aria knelt down and held her as she cried. The presence inside of her did as well. The tears stopped after a few minutes. She was too tired, thirsty and worn out to keep going.

“Wait here. I'll get a few things for you from the gift box, so you can wear something more comfortable. And as soon as we get the go ahead from the detectives we can get your things. It won't all fit in here, but we have a storage unit we can keep some extra stuff for you.”

Sitting on the free bottom bunk, Amber existed. She didn't think or even really feel anything. She was drained of everything, good and bad. An old grey cat came into the room and rubbed it's head against her leg. Unthinkingly she reached down to pet it. The soft fur and the loud purr felt good on her fingers.

“I see you've met Mr. Mistoffelees. We call her Mist to save time,” Aria said, placing a small pile of clothes topped off with a pair of yellow slippers, on the bed. “I got your measurements at the hospital, so these should fit. You've got some warm pyjamas, five sets of underwear, work clothes for chores, and some comfy things for around the house. We can get you a few more outfits when you're up to it.”

“Thanks,” Amber whispered.

Patting her on the leg, Aria smiled again. “Hurry up and get dressed, I'll be waiting for you in the hall. Supper is in five minutes.”

Four minutes later, Amber stepped out of the room wearing the pyjamas and slippers. The pink fuzzy cotton was warm and comfy, not as good as a blanket, but close enough. Aria put an arm over her shoulder and gently led her to the dining room.

“Will Theo be there?” she asked, remembering her fear at just seeing his back.

“He's eating in the office. I sent him your file earlier, so he decided to give you some space.”

“Oh,” was all Amber could say. She felt bad about making someone eat by themselves, but she knew for a fact that she wouldn't be able to be in the same room as him. The presence in her mind seemed to caress her back, causing a wave of happiness to rush through her.

The dining room was enormous, with a table to that could easily fit twelve people. A second table was placed against the wall and loaded down with food and dishes. There was a big bowl of spaghetti, surrounded by four different types of sauces, cheese buns, garlic buns, Caesar salad, meatballs, and homemade bread that was still steaming with a dish of butter beside it. Finally there were two pitchers, one of water and another of some red stuff, with several glasses.

A pair of girls were already at the table. The nearest one was the girl she'd seen in the kitchen. She had short black hair, and looked pretty normal in a baggy long sleeve shirt and yoga pants, except for her eyes. Those were pitch black and shiny. A tablet sat on the table in front of her. The other girl was striking, being supermodel beautiful with flaming red hair and big green eyes. But there was something about her that seemed off. Her cheeks were a little hollow and there was a hungry look about her.

Before she could say anything two boys came running in, and almost threw themselves into their chairs.

“I WON!” the larger boy shouted. He was huge, with long messy brown hair, wearing an old bright red t-shirt and jeans that just barely fit. Despite his muscles he made her think of a young boy, especially with his big grin. It looked like he had Downs syndrome.

“You won this time, Gabriel . But next time I'm gonna win,” the other boy said. He looked to be around seventeen or eighteen, and seemed to be completely normal, with a light brown buzz cut, a long sleeve shirt and running pants.

“And you're all on time, very good,” Aria said. She put her hands on Amber's shoulders. “Before we start eating, this is our newest guest, Amber Ashton. Theo should have told you about her this afternoon. Let's take it easy on her for the next little while, and try to help her out if we can.”

“Hello,” Amber said, looking down at her shoes.

Aria pointed at the black haired girl, “Amber, this is Cassidy . She doesn't talk much, so she uses her tablet when she has something to say, and she's an excellent cook. Then we have Elizabeth, if you have any questions about the goats and chickens she's your girl.”

Cassidy waved at her. Elizabeth gave her a tiny smile, revealing perfect teeth.

“Gabriel is our resident sweetheart and strong man. He's always willing to help lift things.”

“Hi!” the muscular boy said, sounding a lot like an eager to please five year old.

“And Micheal is really good with machines. He's helped me rewire the entire farmhouse, so it isn't running solely on devises. And thanks to him, we get TV channels from all over the world now.”

“I even programmed an instant translator and caption program, so we can watch anime from Japan without having to wait for it to be translated,” Micheal said.

“OK, let's get our plates ready, we can talk as we eat.”

Everyone except Elizabeth stood up and formed a line. Aria was first putting a bit of spaghetti, one piece of garlic bread, and a small bowl of salad onto a plate. She topped the spaghetti off with three meatballs and some basic spaghetti sauce. Taking a glass of water, she put it in front of Elizabeth. “I used the low fat sauce,” she told the girl so softly Amber barely heard it.

Aria then moved to Micheal's spot and put down a tiny paper cup with what looked to be pills in it. No one else paid any attention to it, so she just waited for her turn at the food. There seemed to be a lot for just six people, until she saw the massive portions Gabriel took. Even with his size it seemed like far too much.

She finally got her food, going with the cheese buns and meat sauce for her pasta, and a big salad. She was starving after her long day. She took a seat beside Aria who had a single piece of garlic bread with some meatballs and cheese sauce on top.

No one was eating yet, so she sat there not sure what to do.

“Everyone, let's have a moment of silence in thanks for the food,” Aria said, closing her eyes and bowing her head.

Copying them, Amber wondered if they did this with every meal. Her parents had always just said, 'Dig in,' if they said anything at all.

“Let's begin.”

Gabriel immediately started talking about his day, which seemed to mostly involve helping Theo repair a fence and cut some firewood. Micheal quickly took his pills and shoved the paper cup in his pocket. Cassidy smiled a lot, but didn't say anything while she ate. Elizabeth stared at her plate with a look of disgust, taking tiny bites and chewing the food for a long time before swallowing. And Aria cut her food with very precise swipes of the blade, placed it in her mouth, but didn't chew. Then she cut another piece and put it in her empty mouth.

Amber sat hunched up in her chair, not sure what to say as she ate. The food was really good, but it wasn't like home. No one was talking about an interesting or funny customer to the arcade. There were no plans for new games or events. Gregory wasn't there to make some stupid joke he'd heard at school. She couldn't talk about her day. It was so different, and now it was her life.

“Amber's crying,” Elizabeth said.

It took her a moment to realize the girl was telling the truth. Tears were pouring down her face and landing on her plate. The realization made her cry harder. Painful sobs ripped their way out of her throat.

“I've got this. You guys finish up, and then you can have dessert,” Aria said. Wrapping her arms around Amber, she lifted her to her feet and walked them out of room.

They ended up in a small colourful room, with art supplies, lots of pillows, brightly painted walls, and well used furniture. Aria set her down on a couch with cushions that almost enveloped her, and sat down right next her.

No words were spoken. Amber just clung to the woman, crying her heart out.

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Riverside Rescue Farm
March 5th, 2007

It was too early to be awake. Amber didn't even get up this early for school. But she hadn't been given a choice, Aria had woken her up and told her to make her bed, wash up, and do pre-breakfast chores. Sharing a bathroom with Cassidy and Elizabeth was a new experience she'd rather have done without. At least they let her have the first shower, since she was the newbie.

It was also too cold. The snow was mostly gone, but it was still right around freezing. The second hand gloves, winter coat and long underwear kept her from shivering, but only just.

“The chickens are free range, so we don't have to give them much food once it warms up enough,” Elizabeth explained. “But there still aren't enough bugs and seeds for them right now. Today we need to give them exactly five scoops of feed. There's a screen in here that Aria keeps updated. It will tell you how much feed they need as the weather changes. If we don't give them enough, they get hungry and don't lay many eggs. Too much, it goes to waste and attracts pests.”

Nodding, she followed the girl to the shed that held all the things they needed for chickens. Right above the bags of chicken feed was a digital counter that read five. The birds were just peeking their heads out of their coop. When they heard the shed door creak open, they hurried out, clucking wildly.

Grinning, Elizabeth turned her head to look at the chickens while she filled the bucket. “Hey girls! You're excited this morning aren't ya. This is Amber, she'll be feeding you sometimes, so be nice.”

The birds didn't react to the words. They just circled the two girls, clucking, stretching their wings and pecking at the ground. Reaching into bucket, Elizabeth took out a handful of feed and scattered it over the grass. The chickens began pecking at the food, and their clucking got even louder.

“You can feed them too,” Elizabeth said.

Scooping up some of the feed, Amber threw the seed in a wide arc. The chickens near the edge of the flock jumped and ran to get it. A feeling of joy that didn't come from her but the presence in her mind, filled her. Between watching the chickens and the joyful presence, Amber found herself grinning.

“Every Sunday we clean out the coop. It's a one person job, and everyone has to do it at least once, unless you find someone willing to trade for it. Since you're shovelling chicken shit, not many people want to do it.”

When the bucket was empty, Elizabeth set up the hose to rinse out and refill a wide bucket that the chickens used for drinking. Even with the bucket half full of water, the girl lifted it one-handed, like it was an awkwardly shaped box and not heavy at all.

“If there's a cold snap, we'll turn on a heater for this. Probably won't need it now, the weather has been nice for a while. And in bad weather there's a tank attached to the coop that keeps a water basin filled with warm, clean water for them.” Wiping her hands off on her pants, Elizabeth headed back to the shed with the hose. “Now we get to collect the eggs.”

Carrying two big baskets to the coop which was the size of a large shed, Elizabeth unlatched a door in the side, and stepped inside. There were dozens of little cubby holes with straw nests full of eggs. “This is usually a one person job. It's a bit cramped for both of us. You want to do this after you feed the chickens so they don't try to stop you. Just take them one or two at a time and put them carefully in the basket.”

“Do we eat all of them?” Amber asked, looking at the dozens of eggs.

“Nah. We use a lot of eggs. But we have regular customers that buy whatever we don't use. They split the profits between us kids.”

“So... what is this place like?”

The older teen bit her lip and didn't answer right away. “It's different,” she finally said. “Getting used to all the rules was tough. And if they decide you need to do something for your safety, they'll make sure you do it. But the animals are great, and Theo and Aria really do try to make you feel comfortable.

“Why are you here?”

Elizabeth scowled. “Same reason you are. Needed help.”

Amber blushed, she'd clearly hit a sore spot.

The scowl turned into a little half smile. “I have anorexia. Nearly starved myself to death before anyone noticed.”

“But you look great!”

The teen closed her eyes, her lips moved like she was talking to herself. Then she said softly, “That's what everyone tells me. Because I'm an exemplar no one realized I had a problem. They all thought I looked perfect until I collapsed from starving myself. If I was baseline, they'd have seen me losing weight and might have gotten me help. Instead I looked healthy right up until I was practically dead.”

Unsure of what to say to that, Amber just took one of the baskets full of eggs and carried them back to the house with Elizabeth.

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Putting the filthy shovel and gloves away, Amber wiped her face on her arm. The sun had been up for a while, and while it wasn't hot, it was pretty warm in the barn. Especially after shovelling out all the old hay from the cow stalls. Cassidy handed her a bottle of water, which was very welcome.

It was odd working in a place so quiet. She was used to music, the sound of games, people cheering, shouting, and talking. But on the farm it was quiet except for the animals. She couldn't even talk to Cassidy , the girl was utterly silent. And frankly the girl's pitch black eyes were unnerving.

While Amber drank her water, the girl spread fresh hay in the stalls for the cows and horses. She did it with well practised ease, and had it done pretty quickly. Then she went into the barnyard where the three milk cows were enjoying the sun.

Amber followed along, curious what was going to happen next. Cassidy clapped her hands, getting the animals attention, and whistled twice while walking to some new grass nearby. The cows lazily walked over to her and a black one laid down in the sun.

Cassidy sat down beside the black cow, resting her back against it's side. The cow twisted a little, almost looking like it was curling up around the girl, putting it's head on her lap. Amber stood back, not sure what she was seeing.

The girl pointed at another cow, than at Amber.

Looking at the large brown and white animal, Amber wasn't sure if she wanted to trust getting that close to it. Smiling, Cassidy patted her cow on the head, then, in an exaggerated way, stretched and got comfy. She patted the grass beside her.

The presence in Amber's mind filled her with peace. Taking a chance, she went beside Cassidy and sat down, resting her back against the warm, furry cow. She could feel it's heart beat through her skin, it was deep and slow. The rise and fall of it's body with every breath reminded her of being on a boat. Combined with the warmth it put out, it gave her a feeling of calmness she so desperately needed. Shutting her eyes, she tried to hold onto the feeling.

Something came walking up to them. Opening her eyes, she saw Spot looking at her, his long tongue stuck out, making it look like he was grinning. The black, white and brown mutt laid down between her and Cassidy, his head perfectly placed for scratching. Smiling, she put her hand between the dog's ears and started to scratch.

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Aria and Amber were eating lunch in the art room. Theo and one of the therapists were in the dining room with the other teens, so it had been decided that the pair would do some one on one therapy to avoid the adults.

“How do you like the farm so far, Amber?” Aria asked.

“It's nice. I like the animals,” she replied.

“This afternoon would you like to try horseback riding with Micheal and I?”

“I've never been on a horse.”

“Than you should definitely try it,” Aria said, smiling as she did.

“OK.” She took a bite of her sandwich so she wouldn't have to say anything else.

Aria gave her a few minutes of peace before asking, “What do you most want to get out of therapy?”

“I don't know,” she answered without thinking. Then she put some thought into it. “It's not like it will get my family back.”

“That's true. But having goals will help you get your life back under your control.”

“I- I don't want to be scared.”

“That's a good goal. We're going to try two therapies to help deal with your fear of adults, and your memories of the other night.”

“Can you make me forget about it?”

Her friend shook her head. “I'm sorry, I can't. It wouldn't be a healthy way of dealing with it. Things like that usually go catastrophically wrong after a while. Instead we'll try exposure therapy for your phobia.”

“What's that?”

“Exposure therapy is where you are gradually exposed to what you fear over several sessions to overcome it. We'll start by thinking and talking about adults, then I'll show you pictures and videos, then seeing adults at a distance, and working up to actually interacting with them.”

Just the thought of doing all of that made Amber's heart race. She hunched her shoulders, and brought her knees up, wishing she could disappear. She didn't want to think about it at all.

“We'll combine the exposure with animal therapy and regular, healthy interactions with the others teens. That should have you back on your feet fairly soon.”

“And what do I do then?”

“Social services is talking with your maternal grandparents about taking you in. That is likely the best solution.”

“I don't know them,” Amber said. “My parents said they died in a car accident before I was born.”

That made Aria pause. “Ah. Well if they can't take you in, there are boarding schools in Ontario you can go to for most of the school year. You could come back here for school holidays. But since you're a mutant, Whateley, a private school in the US, is likely the second best option after your grandparents.”

“I know I'm a mutant, but what- what does it mean? I know I can turn into something like a fairy, and you said I made the officer go numb. But I don't know how I did it. And what will I... how will it change things for me?”

“That's a big question. We don't know much about your power yet. We only have a bit of information from witnesses and the crime scene. You managed to destroy the lock to a solid metal door, so you have some super strength. According to witnesses, you can fly, change shape, and as you said make people feel numb. That's a rather odd power set. Do you feel differently from before?”

The presence was interested in what was going on. It was only a tiny feeling at the back of her skull at the moment, but it was very focused. “It's like I have someone in my head. It- she, it feels like a she. She keeps trying to make me happy and stay calm. When I was strapped down, I felt her come to me. I knew I'd be all right, and it felt like she kissed me on the forehead. Ever since then, when I get really scared or sad, she's there to hold me.”

“Hm. It seems like you're an avatar. You have a spirit inside of you, and it's clearly a loving one. You're a lucky girl to get her.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, many spirits wouldn't be very helpful to you. They wouldn't have given you the power you needed to escape. Or they'd be fairly inhuman and not really capable of giving you the emotional support you need right now.”

“Could I get a bad spirit?”

Aria shifted a little, not answering immediately. “There have been cases where people got violent spirits, or ones that were unhelpful in daily life. I read of one young man that got a spirit of... well farts. He can live normally, but he isn't the most pleasant smelling person to be around.”

She tried to imagine what having a spirit like that would be like, and quickly gave up, grimacing in disgust. “What's Whateley like?”

“It's a large school for mutants. Quite a few Canadian mutants go there, especially if they can't pass for a baseline, or have particularly strong powers. I've visited it several times with teens who improved enough to leave here. And Theo was a student there back in the early '80's. When you're up to it, you can talk to him about the school. Even if your grandparents can act as your guardian, going to Whateley for the school year could be a good idea.”

“OK.” She wiped at her nose. The thought of going to a new school was making her want to cry again. She hated crying so much, but she couldn't seem to stop herself.

Aria got to her feet, stacking the empty plates and glasses on top of each other. “Now, would you like to go meet the horses? I think Cinnamon would be perfect for you. She's an older pony, who is great for new riders.”

“OK,” Amber said. She didn't really want to do that, but it was better than staying inside.

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“Loosen up a little,” Aria said. “Cinnamon won't do anything to make you fall off. And being stiff like that is uncomfortable for you and her.”

Amber tried to relax some more. She'd been riding the pony for an hour, but sitting on top of a living animal that was bigger than she was, wasn't exactly relaxing. She did find it kind of cool to be riding, still that was a long way off from being comfortable. Looking at the actual horses Aria and Micheal were riding, she was glad to just be on a pony. The horses towered over her when she stood close to them, especially the monster Aria had. At least the pony was just a little taller than her.

The brown pony walked peacefully, and more importantly, slowly across the field towards a forest trail. In the distance she saw Theo, Gabriel and Elizabeth doing some work on a tractor. Gabriel was holding it up by the front, and Elizabeth was holding something that looked like an engine in two hands. They were far enough away, that the sight of Theo, who was a large man with long green hair, didn't set her off.

Micheal circled around to get beside her. “Straighten your back, you're hunched over and unbalancing yourself. Cinnamon doesn't know what you want to do, so she's focusing too much on you.”

Closing her eyes, she felt her spirit give her a hug. The fairy wouldn't let anything bad happen to her. Slowly but surely she sat straighter in the saddle.

“There ya go. You should feel a difference in how she moves now.”

It did seem like Cinnamon was less tense. “Thanks,” she said.

“Welcome. Just let Cinnamon do her thing while you relax and enjoy yourself the first few times you ride. Once you get the hang of things, then you can take control.”

“How long have you been riding?”

“I used to ride a lot when I was younger. Stopped when I was twelve and my parents divorced. Picked it back up when I came here a year ago.”

She nodded, not sure if she should ask why he was at the farm. She decided to ask a safe question. “What's your power?”

“Gadgeteer. I'm pretty good with electronics and writing up programs. I can do things like fixing a car without a manual, but it's a pain in the ass. What about you?”

“Apparently I'm an avatar with a fairy spirit. I can't exactly get tested yet, so I'm just going with what Aria thinks.”

He nodded, then looked at his hands, biting his lip as he did. “Right. I need to let Chief work off some energy. Um, enjoy the ride.”

Micheal tapped his horse with his heels and said a command she didn't understand. The white horse started to speed up and was soon running across the field.

Aria slowed her horse, so they were walking side by side. The dusty brown horse, a Clydesdale if Amber remembered correctly, loomed over her. “Enjoying yourself?”

“Yeah. It's still scary, but it's nice too.”

“I felt the same way the first time I rode a horse. As you get comfortable the scary part goes away.”

“Can I ask you something?” Amber asked.

“Yeah.”

“Why did you and Theo stop being superheroes?”

A sad smile came to Aria's face. “I got hurt. Not just the regular broken bones and bruises that happen in that line of work, but well beyond that. So I had to turn my power armour into a body and life support system. It wasn't easy, and relearning how to move and live was painful. When I was finally done, I realized that I couldn't do heroing anymore. So I went back to school, learned how to be a therapist, and decided to help teenagers who didn't have the support they needed.”

“And Theo?”

“You'll have to ask him for the details. But I can say that in his time he was at the front of a lot of battles with supervillains, criminals and worse. Eventually he decided he needed to stop for his health. So I offered him a job. He's gone from being a helper learning on the job, to a certified therapist and nurse, and finally my second in command.”

“You don't really seem like a therapist.”

Smiling, Aria asked, “And what do you think a therapist should be like?”

“I don't know. Wearing a suit, working an office with a couch, writing a lot of notes.”

She wrinkled her nose. “I hate suits. Give me a pair of coveralls, or comfortable denim any day. I have an office, but I try to keep it from being stuffy and boring. And I do take notes, they're just in my head, I transfer them to the computer at night.”

“What type of notes do you have for me?” Amber asked.

“All kinds of things that will help me better understand you, so I can help you. How you interact with others. What questions you ask. What you avoid. What makes you happy or sad. What chores you like doing. All of it adds up so I have a better idea of what you need.”

The thought of what she needed to get better crushed her little bit of happiness. “I don't know if I can be helped.”

“Don't think like that. You got knocked down in a way no one should ever have to deal with, but you are doing remarkably well. You're not self destructive or hurting others. Your fear of adults is understandable, and even natural for your situation. And I would honestly be worried if you didn't cry sometimes.”

She bent down to put a hand on Amber's shoulder. “You've only had a day and a half to come to terms with your parents betrayal. You need to think of this like a physical injury, it takes time to heal. Eventually, given time and help, you'll be left with a scar. But for now, it's still open and bleeding.”

“Everyone else here seems to be doing OK.”

Aria nodded. “Because they've had time to heal. Give yourself a few months, and new guests will think the same thing when they see you. And if you want, you can help them, like we're trying to help you.”

She snorted in disbelief.

“I know it's hard to believe,” her friend said, “but no matter how bad things seem right now, as long as you keep moving forward, it will get better. Like Winston Churchill once said, 'if you're going through hell, keep going.'”

Looking at the path ahead of her, Amber didn't know if she could make it to the end.

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Lying in bed staring up at the darkness, Amber tried to sleep.

She should have been able to sleep. Her legs felt like overcooked noodles from riding that afternoon. The long hot shower she'd taken before going to bed had almost made her fall asleep standing up. And her body was completely exhausted from the work, yet her mind wouldn't let her.

She kept trying to find something familiar to hold on to in the dark room. But nothing was hers. Not even the pyjamas she wore or the stuffed bear she was clutching.

The tiny bit of relief she'd felt during the day had vanished as soon as the lights turned off. Her life was over. Her brother was probably dead. If her parents weren't caught, they'd probably come after her again. She couldn't go near any adults without screaming. She was all alone.

A tiny voice whispered in her mind, saying she should have died in the torture chamber. At least she'd stop hurting.

Loud, painful sobs, wrenched their way out of her.

Cassidy turned on the bedside lamp and got out of bed. Through her tears, Amber watched the girl type something on her tablet.

Walking over, Cassidy held the tablet up. 'Want help?'

“Yes,” she wheezed, before more tears overwhelmed her.

The black eyed girl knelt down, almost touching Amber's ear with her lips. “It will get better,” she said in a barely audible whisper.

The crushing despair seemed to vanished. A sense of hope filled her mind. It wasn't going to be easy, she had a long way to go, but now she believed she could make it.

“Thank you,” Amber said, her voice hoarse and broken.

Through rapidly closing eyes, she saw Cassidy smile.

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Morning
March 10th, 2007

Shortly after breakfast Amber was in the barn brushing down Cinnamon's coat. It was very different from her former Saturday routine when she'd had a home and seemingly sane parents. It wasn't even like her usual farm routine. Aria had specifically given her chores away from the farmhouse to avoid the parents and caretakers who were dropping off teens either for the day or the whole weekend.

So far, by very careful scheduling, and her phobia of adults being known to everyone working on the farm, she'd avoided any major panic attacks. There'd been a few close calls, but either she or the adult had left the room as quickly as possible, preventing any disasters. Everyone, especially Amber, wanted to keep it that way.

“Excuse me,” a woman said from the barn door. “Do you know where Ms. King is? I heard she was out back somewhere.”

It was hard to breathe. Sweat erupted from her skin, and her mouth became bone dry. “I-I-I-I d-don't know,” she managed to get out.

The woman tsked and looked around curiously. “Is this what my son will be doing?”

Amber moved to put Cinnamon between her and the adult. A strong iron taste filled her mouth. “Aria is probably back at the farmhouse now. Or you can talk to Theo.”

A smile came to the woman's face, it looked too wide, her teeth too sharp. She started walking closer. “That's a beautiful pony. I used to ride when I was younger. What's her name?”

Trapped in the stall, she couldn't get away. Her spirit was holding her, sending feelings of safety and care. She tried in vain to remember the anti-anxiety exercises Aria had been teaching her. Her back hit the wooden wall of the barn. She couldn't breathe.

“What's wrong?!” the woman asked, rushing over. “Do you need me to call someone for you?”

The terror took control. Shrieking hysterically, she transformed and flew up to the ceiling. Pointing her wand at the woman, she started shooting. When her wings bashed against the wooden roof, she spun around and hit it with her wand, again, and again, and again, until there was a hole big enough for her to crawl out of. Then she flew towards the forest, there was no plan, she just needed to get away.

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Amber didn't know where she was. She didn't care.

When she'd calmed down enough to actually think, she'd found herself in a wooded area close to a river. She'd started walking.

She wanted everything to go away.

All the fear, the sadness, everyone who hurt and scared her. Maybe if she walked far enough it would all just end.

Trying to stay in the trees as much as possible, she passed farms and walking trails, taking turns as needed to avoid people. She even ignored the spirit who was trying in vain to make her stop.

“Amber, do you want to talk?” Aria asked from behind her.

“GO AWAY!” she shouted back, refusing to look at the woman.

Aria didn't say anything else. Amber started to wonder if the woman was even there, or if she'd imagined it. She could look back and find out, but she didn't want to. If she ignored her, maybe she'd go away.

The sun was starting to go down when Amber finally stopped. She couldn't go any farther, she was completely and utterly exhausted. Worst of all she was still there. Why couldn't it all just go away?

A tanned hand held out a bottle of water for her. Condensation covered the outside of the bottle, letting her know it was deliciously cold. Looking up she saw Aria there, smiling a weird little smile.

She shoved the woman as hard as she could. “Get away from me!”

Somehow Amber found the energy to start running. Her muscles burned, every breath was a struggle, she could barely stay on her feet, but she ran as fast as she could.

It wasn't fast enough.

For the first time she actively tried to transform into a fairy. She felt her body tingle. Then it stopped. She tried to reach for it again, only for nothing to happen.

She felt the spirit wrapping it's arms around her soul. For once it wasn't putting out feelings of love and protection. It was scared. She realized it was scared for her. Afraid she'd do something to hurt herself.

It was too much. She fell to the ground, scraping her arms and legs on the dirt and roots. Aria slid to a stop beside her.

“Amber, just sit down and let your body rest. You've been walking a long time, and you need a drink and some food,” Aria said.

“Just leave me alone. I don't want your help. I don't want anyone's help!” she screamed.

Aria didn't go away.

She made a fist and swung at the woman as hard as she could. An impossibly fast hand came up and gently pushed her arm to the side. She tried again. Once more it was deflected.

“Amber, if you punch me, you're going to hurt yourself.”

Keeping her fists balled up, Amber punched herself in the jaw. It hurt, but felt good. She'd done something wrong. If she'd been a better daughter, her parents wouldn't have turned evil.

She went to punch herself again. Somehow Aria caught her wrist and held on. Then the woman grabbed her other arm. Amber tried to wrench herself free, she might as well have tried to move the Earth.

If she'd paid attention, she would have caught her parents sooner. They had murdered people in the arcade. She'd grown up there. She spent more time there than at home. How could she have missed that? This was all her fault!

She leaned forward, mouth open and bit her arm as hard as she could. Blood filled her mouth. She needed to be punished. She deserved it.

Aria let her go. For a moment Amber was happy. With her free hand she went to punch herself again. Then Aria was on top of her, pulling her mouth open, forcing her to stop biting herself.

Amber clawed at her, kicked at her, tried to elbow her, whipped her head around trying to headbutt the woman, she even bit into the hard plastic skin. Nothing worked. In a matter of seconds she was wrapped up in Aria's arms and legs, unable to move, snarling, cursing, crying, and screaming uselessly.

“Calm down,” Aria said softly. “I told you I'd protect you from anything, even yourself. As soon as you stop fighting, I'll let you go. Everything is going to be all right. Scream and cry as much as you need to, it's OK. You haven't done anything wrong. I just need you to calm down.”

Slowly Amber tired herself out. Eventually as the sun set, she was empty. There was no more anger, no energy, no emotions at all, just emptiness. Finally Aria let her go.

Sitting there, slumped down, barely able to move, she let Aria patch up her scraps, bruises and the nasty bite on her forearm. Neither of them said anything. Amber was out of words, and her friend seemed to realize it.

When the last bandage was put on, Aria picked her up like a baby. Wrapping her arms around her friend's neck, Amber went in and out of consciousness, utterly exhausted. It came as a bit of a shock when they reached a road.

The farm van pulled up a few minutes later. A sheet had been hung right behind the drivers seat, hiding them from the rest of the van. Somehow Aria got inside without letting her go. Putting Amber in a seat, she buckled her in like a toddler, then sat beside her, holding her hand, while making her drink two protein drinks.

When they finally reached the farmhouse, Amber was able to climb out on her own. Aria walked with her to the bathroom, going inside to watch as she used the facilities and cleaned herself up. The razors had vanished, and the glass toothbrush cups had been replaced with plastic ones. She was too tired to question it.

Going to her room, Aria again stayed in the room while she got into pyjamas and crawled into bed. Her friend was still there as she fell asleep.

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Early evening
March 11th, 2007

Amber tidied up the living room while supper was being prepared in the kitchen. It was supposed to be her turn to help cook, but thanks to the bandage on her arm where she'd bit herself, she wasn't allowed near anything sharp. So she and Micheal had traded chores.

Aria was with her helping out because it was a bit of a mess after the weekend. There'd been twelve teens on the farm, and four of them had stayed the night. Amber hadn't really met any of them. She'd been gone practically all of Saturday, and only Cassidy , Micheal, Elizabeth and Aria had spent a lot of time with her during the day, since she was most used to them. According to Aria, pushing her to interact with new people while she was so fragile could be a bad thing.

She hadn't said much all day, she was so emotionally drained that just opening her mouth was a chore. But either the anti-anxiety medicine she'd taken at lunch was finally working, or she was just sick of silence. So she asked something that had been nibbling at her brain all day. “Aria, how did you know where I went yesterday?”

“You know how we have cameras in most of the house,” her friend said.

Nodding, she instinctively looked at the cameras that covered the entire living room. Similar ones watched all the rooms except the bathrooms and bedrooms, it was one of the rules for running a group home.

“I also keep them all the around the property. A very basic AI constantly watches the videos, and warns me if something dangerous or risky is happening. As soon it saw you were alone with an adult in the barn, every helper got a red alert. Then you flew away, so I sent a drone to follow you until I could catch up.”

“Oh.” It was a little surprising to hear just how much effort they put into trying to keep her safe. “Why didn't you just stop me instead of walking behind me for so long?”

That earned a sad smile. “You're far from the first kid who needed to let off steam. Having you go for a long walk is safer than a lot of other things you could try. And even exhausted you put up quite a fight, how would you have acted if I'd tried to stop you right away?”

Her cheeks heated up as she remembered what she'd done. “Sorry for trying to hit you.”

Walking over to her, Aria wrapped her up in a hug. “You didn't hurt me, and you've been through a lot. I understand why you did it, and was expecting something like it soon enough, your panic attack just threw my calculations off by about a week. However, I would like you to promise not to purposefully hurt yourself again. And when you start to get angry, come talk to me. There are healthy ways to let it out.”

“I'll try.”

“Thank you. When you're up to it, you should take some self-defence lessons from Theo. One of your problems is not feeling safe or in control. Learning how to defend yourself is a good way to help overcome both of those feelings. It also lets you work out some aggression and anger.”

Her breathing quickened briefly at the idea of fighting with Theo. She closed her eyes, and forced herself to take deep, slow breaths. When she was calm, she asked, “Can't I learn from you?”

“Sorry, no,” Aria said, she seemed to look off into the distance. “I haven't even made a fist in twelve years. The only type of fighting I do now, is to make sure no one in my care gets hurt.”

Biting her lip, Amber looked around to see if there was anything else to do. “I think we're done.”

“Yeah, it looks like it. Go take a break until supper, and remember we'll be eating in the therapy room with Cassidy .”

“You're not going to watch me pee this time?” Losing her privacy due to being on self-harm watch, had hurt. She understood why Aria had to do it, but it drove home that this place wasn't... well home.

“I think you're good,” Aria said with a smile. “But we'll still wait a few more days before you get to use knives or razors.”

“All right. Thanks.”

Going to the bathroom, Amber grabbed a washcloth and began washing her face. It wasn't really dirty, but she'd cried a few times during the day, and she still felt a bit sweaty from working outside. As she looked in the mirror, feeling a little refreshed, she realized her eyes were a glittery shade of blue.

Panic washed over her only to be cut short as she realized the colour change was probably from being a mutant. She'd learned a lot about mutants in the last week, including GSD and changes to hair and eyes.

“Did you do this?” she asked her spirit.

There was a tired sense of comfort from the spirit, like she was happy it happened. Even with the comfort, the tiredness worried Amber. The spirit had never seemed tired before, she was always there offering support. But all day it had seemed distant.

“Are you OK?” she asked.

Her spirit responded with a feeling of drowsiness. It almost felt like her spirit was snuggling into a blanket and pulling it over her head.

“Did stopping me from turning into a fairy yesterday tire you out?”

Now she could feel pride, as if her spirit was proud of her figuring it out.

“I'm sorry. I didn't want to hurt you.”

That got a mental pat on the head, along with a sense of relief that she was OK. It was followed by another wave of tiredness.

“OK. I think I understand,” Amber said. “You get some sleep, I'm going to be OK.”

She would swear someone kissed her on the cheek. And then the spirit seemed to fade away, until she could just barely feel her in the very back of her mind.

“I need to think of a name for her,” Amber told herself.

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Midday,
March 15th, 2007

Amber stood outside with Aria by her side, holding her hand.

That wasn't so strange. Aria had spent most of the week with her, talking and comforting her, and helping her work through exercises to deal with her phobia and memories. Although now instead of appearing as an older teenager, her friend looked to be around twenty or so. That was about the limit of Amber's comfort zone.

What was strange about the situation was how close they were to Theo.

The large, green haired man was working with Gabriel doing some repairs on the wooden tables and chairs that surrounded a massive fire pit and BBQ area. Usually Amber wouldn't get within twenty meters of him if she could see him, and even then it would just be to hurry past. Now she was standing ten meters away, just watching him work. And Theo was completely ignoring her.

This was part of the exposure therapy. He was aware she was there, but was trying to keep her calm by pretending she wasn't. If things went well, they'd do the same thing tomorrow, but he'd wave to her and even talk a bit.

The fear was there. She kept expecting him to turn and glare at her with murderous eyes. Or have a knife and rush at her. Or to grab her with blood soaked hands. She didn't let it take control. When her throat tightened, she closed her eyes and forcefully controlled her breathing. Aria was with her. She'd protect her. And Theo hadn't done anything bad since she'd arrived.

With her eyes still closed, she got closer to the man.

Opening her eyes, a whimper worked its way out of her mouth. He looked so much bigger than her. His back was still to her. His green hair was done up in a ponytail, it looked to be as long as she was tall, and it didn't even reach his waist. He picked up a two-by-four with a hand that could crush her in an instant.

Biting her lip, she forced herself to stay there.

The fear built up. She squeezed Aria's hand so tightly it hurt. Her spirit was there providing as much comfort as it could. As the fear became nearly overwhelming, she looked around. There was a bush with a small brown bird sitting in it. A tool box was open by the tractor. Gabriel was wearing a blue shirt. Elizabeth had her red hair in a high ponytail.

With her focus off of Theo, the panic receded back to a level she could control. She started watching Theo again.

She stood there five minutes before saying, “I need to go.”

“OK, you did very well,” Aria said, wrapping an arm over her shoulder as they walked away.

A thought struck her. Turning around, she waved at Theo, who had turned his head slightly to watch them go. “Thanks, Theo!” she shouted.

She shoved her face into Aria's shoulder so quickly, she didn't see if he reacted or not. Her heart raced faster than it had when she'd been watching him, but the rational part of her brain was jumping for joy at being able to do that.”

“Good work, Amber!” her friend said, giving her a hug. “That deserves a sticker. And unless you traded one without telling me, you have ten of them. Any idea what you would like?”

“Are the police done looking over my house?"

“I believe so.”

“Can I go and get my things this week?”

“I think so. I'll need to make some calls. Since your parents are on the run, and they haven't given anyone control of the possessions and properties, it's a bit of a grey area about what to do with it as long as they keep paying their property tax. But I don't think anyone will deny you the chance to get your clothes and some other things.”

“Thanks.” She knew going back home was going to be very tough, but she wanted to get a few things. The clothes would be nice, but also photos, her diary, some of her stuffies and jewellery, and things like that. Just to help her remember who she was.

“But that's not a special privilege,” Aria told her. “You'll have to pick something else to do with your ten stickers.”

“Ok. I'll think about it.”

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Sitting at the table doing schoolwork was odd. Cassidy, Elizabeth, and Micheal, sat around her, each of them focusing on their own books or laptops. She'd never been home schooled before, and back home she'd usually done her homework all alone, only asking her parents for help when she got stuck.

Staring at the math problem, she tossed her pencil down. She couldn't figure out if she was just being stupid, if she was too distracted with everything going on, or what, but the numbers just weren't making sense.

“What's wrong?” Elizabeth asked.

“Stupid math,” she mumbled.

Micheal looked up from his laptop. “Need help?”

“Sure.”

He went around to her side of the table, and leaned over see her work. “Beginning algebra, that's not too tough.”

“Tell it to my brain.”

“Pencil,” he said, holding out his hand, while reaching for some scrap paper.

His long sleeve was pulled back as he moved. For just a second, Amber saw three large scars running horizontally along his wrist, they looked deep. She bit her tongue to keep from gasping at the sight. Micheal was always cheerful and helpful, when he wasn't helping he got really nervous or awkward, but he never seemed upset.

She tried to push the image of his wrist out of her mind, as he began explaining how to do the equations.

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Mid-Morning
March 16th, 2007

Sitting on the grass, with a little baby goat on her lap, and the dogs Daisy and Sir Rupert around her, Amber ran through her exercises. Theo was not going to hurt her. He was a former superhero, she'd lived in the same house with him for over a week, and Aria was there to protect her if something went wrong. She went through her breathing exercise. Breathe in deeply and gently through the nose, while counting to five. Then breathe out through the mouth in the same way to the count of five.

When she was as calm as she could possibly be, she nodded to Aria.

“We're ready,” Aria called out.

Theo came out of the barn and slowly walked to the wooden fence that marked off the goat enclosure. He was wearing a pair of new jeans, not his usual stained ones that she'd seen in passing. He also had a ridiculous looking pink t-shirt with a silly blue fairy on it, and 'SMILE' printed in silvery glitter in the shape of a rainbow. He placed his enormous hands on the wood and gave a lopsided smile.

A voice in her brain started screaming in fear, but her eyes were drawn to the t-shirt, focusing on 'Smile'. The frankly, terrifying look man just didn't match the shirt, her mind couldn't quite seem to put the two images together.

No one said anything. Aria sat quietly beside her, ready to help if needed. Theo just stood there, the smile never wavering.

Stroking the goat who was quite happy to sit on her lap, she studied the man's face. It seemed like someone had broken it and badly glued it back together. A scar going from the left corner of his mouth up to his eye forced his smile to be lopsided. The scar tissue was so dark it was almost black. His right eye was gone, leaving a wrinkly bit of skin over the hole. His ears were oddly shaped pieces of flesh, being almost flat on top, And his high forehead was unnaturally flat and smooth. A beard covered most of the lower half of his face, it looked like it was hiding more scars.

Looking away from his face before the panic built up too much, she spent another minute staring at his shirt. Once she was comfortable again, her eyes drifted to his arms, both of which had a tattoo sleeve. The tattoos weren't of any one thing, there were mythical creatures, predators, people, odd patterns, vines, and bones. As she examined them, she could make out words and names around the pictures. There was a picture on his bicep of a scarred, dark haired woman surrounded by black flames, 'Salamander' was written beneath it. A roaring lion had 'Leo' coming from it's mouth. There seemed to be more, but she'd need to get up close to see them.

An odd, plastic-like device seemed to be coming out of his wrist. It was blank and almost flush with his skin, nothing seemed to be holding in place.

Turning her attention back to the animals around her, she did her breathing exercises and tried to forget that Theo was standing just a few meters away. It took a few minutes before she risked looking back up. He was stills standing there, seemingly as patient and immovable as a mountain.

“Hi, Theo,” she said. The words were so quiet she was afraid he wouldn't hear her.

“Hi, Amber,” he replied. His voice was low and deep, it didn't sound quite real.

She almost ran away. The dogs seemed to sense her discomfort and wiggled in closer, almost trapping her between them. Her spirit stroked her back, pushing feelings of safety.

Her eyes went to the goat on her lap. It was brown and tiny. It looked up at her with it's weird goat eyes, wondering if she was going to get rid of its comfy seat. She looked at Sir Rupert Magnus the Third and his long yellow coat. Then it was Daisy's turn, she had an oddly blue eye and short, chocolate brown fur, her tail thumped the ground like a drum.

“That's a cute shirt,” she said, looking in his direction but focusing on the shirt.

“Thank you,” he replied. “When I heard you have a fairy spirit, I specially ordered it. Thought it was appropriate.”

There was silence as she tried to think of something to say. Finally, she said, “I don't know what I should do.”

“What do you want to do? This is your time, you can do anything you want.”

What did she want to do?

She wanted to stop being afraid. She wanted to be able to act like someone sane. She wanted to be stronger.

Holding the tiny, baby goat in her arms, she got to her feet. Shaking like a leaf in a gale, she took slow, tiny steps towards Theo. The goat bleated at how tight she was holding it, Amber forced herself to loosen her grip a little. Her cheek caressed it's head. Tears poured down her cheeks.

Her eyes locked onto the words 'SMILE'. If she looked anywhere else, she knew she'd run.

Stopping at the fence, she realized the top of her head barely reached his chest. The shaking got worse. Freeing an arm, Amber reached out. It took everything she had to make her hand touch his.

They both stood there, unmoving, not saying a word. Tears soaked her face, and it looked like she was having a seizure from how much she was shaking, but she didn't run away, scream, or panic.

The baby goat started squirming, uncomfortable from being awkwardly held. Closing her eyes, Amber turned and scurried back to Aria. Only when she was safely at her friends side, did she let the goat go. Gasping for air, she cried into Aria's shoulder.

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London, Ontario
March 18th, 2007

Aria and Amber pulled to a stop outside of her old home. A cop car was in the driveway, with an officer leaning on the hood looking bored. Some windows were boarded up, and there was graffiti on the walls.

“We have one hour to get your things. Can you handle this?” Aria asked.

“I don't have much of a choice,” Amber said.

Aria got out first and talked with the officer, showing him some forms, and pointing back at her. The man nodded and got into his car. Aria came back and got two suitcases from the trunk.

Amber hopped out and just looked around almost in disbelief. This had been her home, they'd had plenty of people come over for parties. Their neighbours were always invited to huge summer BBQ's, and it was a big event.

Now the house had 'Killers!', 'Burn in hell', 'Murder house', and worse spray painted on the walls. Looking at the neighbouring houses, she saw some people watching her from the windows. They didn't wave or come out to offer her support. Not that she expected them too. She was the daughter of murderers. For all they knew she had tortured some of the victims as well.

Ducking her head, she went inside.

Glass covered the living room floor, a large rock sat near the middle of the room. That explained why the window was boarded up. The place was a mess. Cushions had been taken off furniture and opened up, the couch was tipped over, pictures were off the wall and photo albums were spread out in a heap on the coffee table. Part of the wall had been ripped open revealing a small empty shelf.

“What happened?” she whispered.

“The police searched the place for evidence. They weren't careful about it because of your parents crimes. I'm sorry, there's not much we can do about it,” Aria said.

She went to the pictures and albums, picking through them for anything she might want. Pictures of just her and her brother went into a big brown envelope. She could barely look at the ones with her parents, they felt sticky, like dried blood. Then she saw one of her entire family. It was from last summer, a group photo of them at Canada's Wonderland. They looked so happy, so normal. Her little brother was grinning ear from ear, and she was acting goofy for the camera. Her parents looked so proud of them. She slipped that in with the rest she wanted.

The rest of the pictures with her parents could burn for all she cared.

Going to her room, she burst into tears.

It had been ransacked. Clothes covered the floor, where they'd been stepped on. All of her stuffies and dolls had been thrown into a pile like trash. Her pictures were torn from the wall and her books had been thrown off the shelves. The dresser had the drawers taken out and dumped. She didn't know where to begin looking for her things.

Aria hugged her tightly to her chest. “Go sit in the hallway. I'll see what can be saved. I have an idea of what you want.”

She sank to the floor, covering her head with her arms. This was the final proof she needed that her life was over. There was nothing left for her. She was the daughter of sadistic murderers. That was the only way people would ever see her now. Freakish. Insane. Dangerous.

A while later, Aria was still in her room trying to sort things out. Amber got up and went to Gregory's room. It was as bad as the rest.

Stepping over the debris that had once been her brother's life, she sifted through the piles looking for something that would remind her of him. And if by some miracle he was found safe, something that he would want.

Digging through a pile of clothes a blue ribbon appeared. Gregory had won first place at the school science fair, he'd been so proud of it. Clutching it to her chest, she started looking for more of his things. Ther had to be more of her brother. She couldn't just let him disappear.

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“Amber?” Aria called from the doorway.

She looked up from her search. There was a small pile of objects beside the door. A medal from his grade 5 soccer team, pictures of Gregory and his friends. His favourite shirt. Some rocks he'd saved from the beach. Toy cars that he'd kept even after he'd stopped playing with them. A handful of comic books that hadn't been destroyed.

“I tried to find some things for Gregory. This was all I could find,” she sobbed. “It's not enough. This isn't- there- there should be more! This can't just be all that's left of him!”

Once again her friend hugged her tight. “Gregory hasn't been found yet. There's hope. And when he's found, both of you can make new memories. You have to have hope. This isn't the end, and things will get better.”

Aria kept talking to her until she was under control. Sniffling, Amber helped put the small pile into a bag. Then they went to hallway where her luggage waited for her. Going through everything, Aria had gotten most of her salvageable clothes and books. There were more pictures, some jewellery, perfume, some of her stuffies, including her favourite cat, and her diary.

The lock on the diary was broken, someone had read it. She felt violated at having her personal thoughts read. But there wasn't anything she could do about it. At least she had it back.

Looking at her room, she thought about going and doing one last search. Shaking her head, Amber realized it would be a mistake. There were too many memories there, they'd overwhelm her. She had what she needed, and she'd cried enough that day.

It was time to let that part of her life die.

Carrying the bag for Gregory, she followed Aria to the front door.

“Stop,” Aria said.

Peering around her friend, she saw several people with cameras taking pictures of them. Jerking back out of sight, she wondered what they were doing.

“Go away. Miss Ashton is not going to talk to you and she doesn't want her picture taken,” Aria said.

There were shouts from the reporters.

“Miss Ashton did her part notifying the police when she found the crime scene. She has nothing to say to you, and as a minor you should respect her privacy.”

More shouted questions.

Popping sounds filled the air. There were shouts of surprise and fear from the crowd. Amber was hunched against the wall when Aria turned and held her hand out for her.

“Come on. They can't bother you, be we need to leave,” her friend said.

Hurrying out, There was a corridor made of two black walls. She could just barely make out shapes behind them. Following Aria, they reached the car which was also surrounded by the walls. Jumping in, Aria started the engine, and the walls disappeared. The reporters and cameramen weren't ready, and could only snap a few pictures as they drove away.

“What did you do?” Amber asked.

“An old trick that was good for capturing baselines and weaker supervillains. I've found it's also useful for dealing with people who need a timeout,” Aria explained. “I wasn't about to let the vultures bother you.”

“Will you get in trouble?"

“For what? Putting up some temporary energy walls and protecting someone in my care? They're perfectly harmless. Even hitting them won't do anything except maybe hurt your fist.”

Staring out the window as her old neighbourhood went by, Amber wished all her problems were so easy to fix.

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Toronto, Ontario,
March 20th, 2007

“I'm not ready for this,” Amber said, looking at the modest little house in the suburbs of Toronto. She clutched her beloved cat stuffie to her chest, and was wearing her favourite pink blouse and blue skirt. The familiar objects helped keep her from shaking at the thought of what was going to happen.

Aria, who looked to be about twenty-five years old now, put a hand on her shoulder. “I know. I tried to tell them, but they're demanding to see you and they've gotten a lawyer. I can't put it off any longer.”

“They're really my grandparents?”

“Yes. Everything has been confirmed and triple checked. You also have an uncle who is married with some kids. If this goes well, you'll get to see them. Wait here, I'll go talk to them.”

Amber watched her friend walk up to the house and knock on the door. It was quickly answered by a stern looking man in an old grey suit. He was balding, and seemed to have a permanent scowl. She couldn't hear what they were talking about with her window rolled up, both of them were gesturing at the car and seemed to be speaking loudly to each other. Finally, Aria nodded and headed back for the car, scowling with her hands balled up into fists.

It would be better if she got out and met Aria. It would help her have some control over the situation. But she couldn't move her hand. Her brain kept telling her body to open the door, and her body refused. She might as well be paralyzed.

Her friend opened the door for her, and held out a hand. “I'm sorry Amber, you have to come in. But I'll be right beside you the entire time. The only way I'll leave is if you tell me to.”

Taking the hand, Amber held onto it as if it were a life line on a stormy sea. She walked so close to Aria that they stumbled once or twice on the short walk to the house where the grandfather she never knew was waiting for them.

“So this is her,” he said. “No one told me she dyed her hair.”

Amber looked at her feet. Her hair had started coming in a brilliant blue. It was still just coloured at the roots, but the contrast with her brown hair was very noticeable.

“As I explained Mr. Emily, she is a mutant. An avatar to be exact. Her spirit is changing her appearance a little, so far it seems limited to her blue eyes and hair.”

“No mutants run in my family. My son and his family don't have any. Must have gotten it from her father.”

She wasn't looking at her grandfather, so she couldn't tell what his expression was. He didn't sound particularly happy or unhappy, just annoyed. To keep calm she looked at what was around her. There was the cement step she was standing on. A pink flower grew from a little flowerbed. A ladybug crawled over a red brick beside the flower. Her black shoes were polished and reflected the sun.

“Can't she look at me? Or is she too ashamed?” her grandfather demanded.

“Amber has a fear of adults after what her parents did to her. I sent you the videos showing how she reacts. She is doing well with her therapy, but she needs a few more weeks to be able to interact with strangers. Right now I suspect she's following the first step of the 5,4,3,2,1 exercise to avoid panicking. She's looking at five different things so her mind is redirected and she doesn't overreact,” Aria explained.

He snorted. “Well come inside, Charlotte is waiting in the living room.”

Aria led her into the house, allowing Amber to focus entirely on keeping herself under control. She looked up briefly and saw an old woman with long white hair sitting on a spotless white couch. There were four glasses of water sitting on the coffee table. She quickly took a seat on the love seat beside her friend, keeping her eyes on lap.

“Hello Amber, it's nice to finally meet you,” her grandmother said.

Her throat tightened up when she tried to speak. Taking a sip of water, she was able to whisper, “It's nice to meet you too.”

“So Vanny has left another mess for us to deal with,” her grandfather said.

Wincing, Amber looked around, carefully avoiding the adults. The light brown hardwood floor. A clear glass of water. Her blue skirt that went to her knees. The hard white cushion of the love seat. The gold coloured coaster that protected the glass coffee table.

“Mr. Emily, I realize that this is hard for you, but Amber is not to blame for her parents actions. She was the one who brought their crimes to light,” Aria said.

“Then why is she too embarrassed to look at us?”

“Did either of you look at the video I sent of her reacting to the woman in the barn? Or the one of her interacting with my partner, Theo Gerard?”

Her grandmother spoke up, “Surely it can't be that bad. Whose ever heard of a phobia like that.”

“Her parents threatened to kill her and strapped her down to a blood soaked table after murdering a person in front of her. While it's uncommon for a child to develop a fear of all adults, it's not hard to see why she would have it happen.”

Snorting, her grandfather snapped, “Look at us, Amber.”

Jumping in fright, Amber shoved herself into the back of her seat while grabbing Aria's hand in both of hers. Looking at the pair, her grandfather was glaring at her, his lips a thin line, his eyes dark. Her grandmother was watching her with disbelief. Neither one was welcoming.

She lowered her eyes. Her spirit wrapped her in a hug as she began to shake. Aria was wearing black wide legged trousers. Her own pink blouse had two black buttons sewn on the front. The glass coffee table was spotless. A dust bunny peeked out from under the love seat. Her toes were curled up inside her white cotton stocking.

“She looks just like Vanny,” her grandmother said.

“Mr. And Mrs. Emily,” Aria said, “this is extremely hard on Amber. Can we please have a few minutes alone for her to calm down. Or better yet, stop for the day. She can talk to you over the phone, become comfortable with you, and in a month she will be ready to meet you without risking a panic attack.”

“And you get more money for caring for her. I know what group homes are like, just thinking about children as paychecks,” her grandfather said. “We've got reservations for a restaurant, she can meet her aunt and uncle there, along with their kids. They've got great pizza, and afterwards she can play some games.”

Amber was back in her family arcade, strapped to the table as sounds of the arcade filled the ears. An ear piercing scream ripped its way out of her throat. She transformed and tried to fly away only to hit an invisible wall. Turning she hit another wall. It felt like she was trapped in a ball, unable to escape.

“Her mother was a demon and so is she! The best thing Vanny ever did was leave home!”

A haze surrounded her. She slumped to the bottom of the invisible ball, her body weighed a ton. She couldn't move. Her eyes started to close.

“How dare you hurt her like this! Social services will hear about this,” Aria shouted.

The last thing Amber heard was her grandfather roaring, “Good! We don't want her.”

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March 21st, 2007

Lying in her bed, Amber didn't want to get out from under her blankets. She wasn't scared or anything. The room was safe and she'd been given some anti-anxiety medicine at lunch when she'd been forced to eat with Aria and Cassidy.

She just didn't want to do anything. What was the point?

Her parents had tried to kill her. Her grandparents hated her and so did everyone else apparently. She couldn't protect her brother. She couldn't stop panicking. She couldn't do anything.

She was all alone and always would be.

Her spirit rubbed her back, letting her know she wasn't quite alone.

Maybe she should be alone. Her grandmother said it herself, she looked just like her mother. Her grandparents wanted nothing to do with her parents, they'd even called their daughter a demon. Maybe she would turn out just as bad as them.

She'd used her powers against the police officer who had helped her, and the mother who just wanted to see if she was all right. She hadn't known if her powers would hurt someone or not, she'd just used them without thinking.

What made her different from her mother?

The question had been eating away at her since leaving Toronto. It was why she hadn't gotten out of bed until ordered to by Aria.

Then the answer came to her.

She'd never killed anyone.

She'd hurt people in a panic. But she'd never planned on hurting anyone. She still woke up from nightmares of seeing the poor person in the torture chamber.

“I'm not my parents,” she whispered.

A feeling of joy and love filled her.

“I won't be like my parents.”

She was in a bad place, there was no denying that. And she was sitting there, not moving. What had Aria said? When in hell keep walking. That seemed right. This was hell, she couldn't stop and burn like her parents and grandparents wanted. She had to keep walking until she was out of it. She couldn't stop again. Giving up wasn't an option. That would be letting her parents win.

“No matter how bad things seem, if I keep moving forward trying to get better, things will eventually improve,” she told herself.

The first thing she needed to do was to stop panicking. And she had to make sure she didn't hurt anyone because of her phobia. If she could do that, she'd prove to herself that she wasn't her mother or her father. Getting out of bed, she got dressed and went to the kitchen. Theo and Elizabeth were preparing supper there.

Looking at the floor, she tried to speak. Nothing came out. She tapped the door frame.

“Ye-” Theo started to say, only to cut it off when he saw her.

“Are you OK, Amber?” Elizabeth asked.

“I-I-I.” She stopped, worked some spit around her mouth, and forced herself to continue. “Theo, I want to help. Is-is there something I can do?”

In a soft voice, Theo asked, “Can you wash ten good size potatoes?”

“OK,” she whispered. She forced herself to not run past him to the pantry. She might not be able to look at him, but she wasn't going to run away.

Silently she got to work.

 

To Be Continued
Read 3949 times Last modified on Tuesday, 03 October 2023 01:36
Dan Formerly Domoviye

Check out some of my original stories on Royal Road.

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