This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, events, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
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Chapter One: Choices
Norma stared into the darkness with no hope of rescue. Her head throbbed with pain. She felt cold pavement against her cheek as sweat dripped down her face. She was lying flat on her stomach on a dirty cement floor. Norma’s hands were tied behind her back with a coarse piece of what felt like a rope. She winced as another piece tied her feet and dug into her ankles. She couldn’t move. There was only one thing Norma knew for sure: She would die in this place. Fresh panic gripped her all of a sudden, and her heart pounded with fury in her chest.
She tried to calm herself. Panic wasn’t going to help. What was the last thing she could remember? She wrinkled her eyebrows and bit her lip as she tried to think. She couldn’t see anything. If she held her palm to her face, she wouldn’t be able to see her hand. Her last memory came back and gripped Norma with terror: she was in an attic of a house outside town, where she held hands with Adam. A shaman said they’d be safe there. She remembered the crash as the floor ripped from under them, and they fell into the debris. A dark boot covered in grime moved toward her face before blackness settled in front of her eyes.
The silence deafened her panic. She couldn’t hear water dripping or wind blowing. She knew that wherever she was, she was alone. Norma heard no breathing or shuffling from anyone other than herself. Her stomach growled with demand against the pavement, breaking the silence. Her head throbbed in pain as she shifted into a seated position. That’s when Norma realized the wet substance on her head wasn’t sweat: it was blood. Blood from a head wound, no doubt given to her by the owner of the black boot. She almost laughed, but instead, it came out a whimper.
They had been so careful. Norma paid the shaman well, and he swore his ‘shield’ would protect them. But The Order swarmed them as if they had been standing in an empty field. The shaman probably sold them out the moment they left.
She couldn’t stand the Variants or the war. Why was she alive during this time in history? Her parents never stopped talking about the last recession before the war. Norma wished she could go through that instead. Her mind snapped to them. What happened to her parents? She tried to remain calm. Norma would be fine. She was innocent. She wasn’t part of the war and hadn’t chosen sides. That had to count for something. Maybe she could cut a deal, and they would let her go. She tried not the think about the mass grave sites found a few weeks ago across town. All those people couldn’t have been soldiers.
She shivered with cold and fright, realizing she was almost naked. Norma wore what felt like a worn-out hospital gown or a thin potato sack with holes to put her arms through. She wore jeans and a T-shirt when she was captured. Thankfully, the sack went down over her knees. She was glad they hadn’t left her naked, however filthy and horrible the thing smelled. Maybe it wasn’t the rag that smelled horrible.
Perhaps it was her.
She scooted back until she felt cold brick against her back. Her head throbbed as she rested it on the wall, and the coolness seemed to numb the pain. She felt dizzy. The room smelled stale of something she couldn’t put her finger on. Something metallic. More blood, she realized. Norma had never smelled so much in her life. She leaned to the side as she threw up bile, adding a new smell to her surroundings. She wondered how many prisoners had been locked in this place. How many spent their last moments alive here? How many bled to death on the floors?
She sat up as straight as possible, wishing she could wipe her mouth and head. Or at least be able to push her hair out of her face. She also wished she could’ve said goodbye to her family. They had gone into hiding in haste. She and Adam just grabbed a couple of backpacks and left. She ached for him and hoped he was okay. She hoped he was thinking of a way out of this. Adam had always been good at coming up with ideas. Then again, maybe it was better they finally got caught. It would end the running, the hiding in basements, and living in barns. Norma tired of traveling during the night and sleeping during the day. Maybe being caught would be for the better. Life on the run was no life for her.
Then, light blinded her as a door opened. It materialized from nowhere. She blinked her eyes, trying to force them to adjust as a silhouette in the doorway began gliding toward her. She couldn’t hear its footsteps, and before she could look around, the light disappeared, and the door closed. She heard it shut behind the figure, bringing her back into darkness. The figure was inside, waiting.
She sat for a moment, waiting for the person to say something. It seemed like an eternity. What were they waiting for, and why would they stand there, torturing her in this way? Wouldn’t taking her life be enough?
“Who are you?” Her voice cracked, and she realized how thirsty she was. How long had she been there? Had it been days? Hours? Had she been lying there for even longer than that?
The figure stood silently. She couldn’t see, but Norma knew it was staring at her. She could feel its eyes. She couldn’t stand the silence, but she wouldn’t beg for her life. Norma would take whatever they did to her, but she wouldn’t. She owed her family that. She waited for a response, realizing the figure had ignored her.
“WHO ARE YOU!” she screamed with all the rage she could muster. It came out as a whisper.
A soft light floated from the figure to the ceiling and hovered there. Norma could finally see the walls of the square room. It was bigger than she anticipated. It was a black box theater, and all the doors were cemented shut. The black walls and floor were covered in grime and a dark liquid. She could see a faint outline of where the sound and light studio used to be. The door the person entered was the only unblocked entrance into the room. She noticed it had a small slit in the bottom to give food to prisoners, yet she knew she hadn’t received any. Then she noticed a small dirty mat lying a few feet away. It was barely more than a towel. She looked for a toilet of some sort but saw none. The sack she wore was filthy and blood splattered. Some of it was hers; some were someone else’s. It took everything for her not to throw up again at the sight of it.
In front of her stood a tall woman wearing the uniform of The Order. She had black boots that went up to her knees, dark charcoal cargo pants, and a tight red T-shirt under a worn brown leather jacket. “S.O.” was sewn on the left shoulder in scarlet. She had brown skin and dark brown eyes that saw everything. Her chestnut hair sat in soft curls on her shoulders. Her plump lips wore a solemn expression that seemed permanent. She looked as though she had never smiled a day in her life. It may have been true. She stood straight as her arms hung loose by her tiny hips. She was gorgeous. She was also someone Norma knew.
Norma felt a wave of relief. She had been preparing to die all this time, but she had been delivered. She had lost hope too soon. No one knew what happened to her savior last year, but Norma was happy to see her now. She was glad that she came to free her from certain death. She couldn’t have picked anyone better.
“It’s so good to see you, Aazar,” Norma croaked with joy, wishing she could hug her.
Aazar looked Norma up and down, appraising the situation. The pain of watching a friend suffer was evident.
Aazar glanced around the dreary room. “Such a strange place for us to meet again, wouldn’t you say?”
“No kidding,” Norma said with a quick smile, although she was uncomfortable with Aazar’s tone.
“How did they catch you?” Aazar asked. “I figured they’d be years before finding someone as esteemed as you. With all your friends and influence…” She trailed off.
Aazar seemed different to her. She couldn’t figure out what it was. She appeared calm, yet malice dripped from every word she spoke. Norma didn’t understand how someone could change so drastically.
“Trusted a Shaman,” Norma said as she sucked her teeth. “A horrible mistake.”
“A mistake indeed,” Aazar said in a soft tone.
Norma tried to wriggle herself free. “Come on, untie me, and let’s get out of here.”
Aazar blinked. “Leave?” Her head cocked to the left. “Norma, you can’t leave. You are a prisoner. Surely, you’ve gathered that?”
Norma stared at her from the floor. She glanced at the floating light on the ceiling: it was a ball of fire. It was strange how accustomed Norma became to witnessing these abilities. She hadn’t even registered that Aazar used them. Norma glanced at the uniform again. Of course, she wasn’t here to help her. She must have lost more blood than she had thought.
“You’re one of them? A…Variant?” Norma’s face flushed with rage. She calmed herself again and tried to reason with Aazar, “You can’t possibly be saying you won’t help me. We’re friends.”
“The time for ‘help’ is long gone,” Aazar said, waving the statement away as she pushed some thick brown hair away from her face. “You knew your choices.” Aazar smiled in humor. “But friends…are we, really?”
Norma’s ties were so tight they were cutting off the circulation in her wrists. She could feel them chaffing. “What choices are you talking about?” she spat as her eyes flickered. “To live underneath the rule of monsters and freaks? To fight on the losing side of a war?”
Aazar threw her head back and laughed. Then her eyes narrowed dangerously as she hissed, “You chose to live a lie!”
Norma blinked, surprised. What was she talking about?
“To live a lie?” she repeated with her eyebrows furrowed.
Aazar’s eyes softened again as she bent down to her. She pushed the matted blonde hair from Norma’s face and looked into her eyes. She put a knowing smile on her lips.
“It’s not your fault, really,” Aazar said in a soft tone. “Just about everyone believed the same. When you’re raised to hate, you will hate.” Her eyes narrowed again. “Until someone teaches you differently.”
Norma felt as though someone had poured ice water down her back. As Aazar stood, she looked off into a distance, much farther than the black box walls. “I know why you chose what you did. I remember the day. It was the funeral. I know you don’t realize that was when you chose at all, but nevertheless, you did.”
Norma couldn’t understand what that had to do with anything. Why she would bring up such a hurtful topic made Norma even more furious.
Aazar turned her back to Norma as she went on. “You were upset that day,” she said softly, remembering. “So was I…”
Her voice trailed off as silence filled the room with shared grief.
Aazar gathered herself, and when she turned around, a menacing air came from her, overriding her pain. The violence was evident in her eyes. “And I sat next to Adam.”
Cold fear swiped through Norma at the mention of her boyfriend. Aazar had always loathed Adam for no reason. Norma knew that Adam wouldn’t last very long under the care of this new Aazar. “Where is Adam, Aazar? Where is he?”
She stared at her. “I’ve been to better funerals,” Aazar said in a mocking and flippant tone.
Appalled and confused, Norma gulped. “Excuse me?”
“That’s what he said while he was at the funeral,” Aazar said, remembering, “‘I’ve been to better funerals. Much bigger, much more people. I mean, this is nice, but I’ve been to better.’ So disrespectful. So disgusting.” Aazar glared at Norma. “Not that this was different behavior for someone so self-absorbed. Why would he show respect? He had never shown respect to anyone before. It was his nature. But you sided with him anyway.” Aazar’s eyes narrowed even more. “You slept with him anyway.”
“At least he was there for the wake. You disappeared. He held me when I cried in his arms,” Norma said as she tried to push out her chest in defiance. “He cared for me.”
“He cared about looking good to the public,” Aazar said. “Tell me, did he still marry you after the money was gone? Or were you still waiting for him to love you?”
Norma was silent, so Aazar continued, “He wanted the title of ‘nurturer’ that day, so he nurtured when he knew it was opportune. He didn’t care about you. He cared about his self-image.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Of course not, and so,” Aazar said and gestured around the room. “Here we are.”
Norma stared in stunned silence. She couldn’t believe how angry Aazar was. The woman had always been so kind to Norma. How could she have thought so ill of her and never shown it? To let Norma be a prisoner to these people. But Norma realized that these Variants were Aazar’s people.
Aazar watched her. She tilted her head, suddenly curious, and asked, “Would you die for him?”
“What?” Norma asked, coming out of her deep thought.
“Would you be willing to die for Adam?” Aazar smirked. “Your dear, sweet Adam? Your ‘nurturer’?”
Norma lowered her eyes and muttered, “What a morbid thing to ask.”
Aazar almost laughed. “He wasn’t willing to die for you.” She allowed that thought to settle in before her eyes glazed with menace as she continued, “But he died all the same.”
Alarmed rang through Norma’s blood vessels. Sweat poured from her head, mixing with the blood from her wound as tears sprang to her eyes. Adam was gone, and she was next.
“Are you going to kill me?”
Aazar stared at her, masking her emotions. She tilted her head again as if trying to understand.
“ANSWER ME, GOD DAMN IT,” Norma hollered.
Aazar looked at her, smiling. “Finally, you show some spine. Where was this when you allowed yourself to be manipulated by liars and cheats? Where was this when you allowed yourself to be walked over by people who didn’t even care about you?” Her smile melted away from her face as her eyes hardened. “You chose your side. You chose the side of your friends and family instead of the truth.” She lowered her eyes to the floor. “Most do.”
A deathly moment of silence passed as Aazar glanced at the ceiling, lost in thought. “There was an old saying that said you should never surround yourself with people you wouldn’t want to die with.” She turned to Norma. “Do you think you were successful in this?”
Norma blinked away tears as she closed her eyes. How could things have gone so wrong? How could all her friends and family members be dead? She thought about her family just then. If they were killed, she wanted death too. If Adam was gone, she wanted to join him. She hated the war, The Order, and everything else about this new world the Variants were building. Aazar was right. She had made her choice a long time ago.
“Yes,” she squeaked. “Yes, I was.”
Aazar offered a small smile. Norma watched as a small dagger slid from Aazar’s sleeve into her open palm. “Then you are where you should be.”
©2023 by Tiger House Publications, LLC.