School Shootings. Can we deal with them yet?

Oh, my goodness. I just can't. This whole walking out thing has really instigated an either/or that doesn't need to exist.

 There's been real concern that younger generations aren't involved in government/politics and now they're doing it, but because it goes against what people agree with, it's a bad thing. At least they're doing something (emphasis on the something).

 If kids decided not to walk out that's fine, too, because they're choosing to stay in SCHOOL. Why get mad at that.

 If they chose to be a little kinder to their peers and "walk up," good on them. We could use more kindness in the world.

 If they walked out just because they wanted to get out of class for a few minutes, maybe they learned or experienced something of importance in the process. Maybe the mental break was just helpful. School is stressful and hard. I'm not too old to forget that.

 If they were doing the Tide Pod Challenge a month ago, and are now walking out as part of a movement, I'd say this is some kind of improvement. (BTW there were 86 reports of misuse of pods by teens in January, source TIME, let's round up to 100 for the month and assume that number stayed the same for February and March, that's 300. Compare that to the ONE MILLION estimated kids who walked out, source The Wall Street Journal. The number of kids doing the challenge is just a small fraction of the demographic, so I move that we all stop using that to undermine teens speaking up.)

 Please just take a beat, and find the teaching moment in this movement — instead of searching for the negative. If kids walked out without school sanction, they learned about consequences. If they walked out and the school organized it, they learned that their voices can be heard — so make it count. If they walked out to take a moment of silence for other murdered kids, they learned reflection. If they walked out because they want gun control changes, they learned about the Bill of Rights. If they didn't walk out because they don't want to see gun control changes, they learned about the Bill of Rights. If they walked out because they want the adults of this country to figure out some way that they don't have to be afraid of getting shot while in school, regardless of how it's ultimately handled, they learned to stand up for themselves.

 If they learned nothing, that's on us, adults. If we're too busy arguing about whether or not they should be walking out or if they're qualified to be dealing with gun issues, then we missed the fact that many did walk out. One million children and teens. We missed the students who chose not to stay in the classroom. We missed the kids who decided to spread kindness. No matter what they decided to do or not do, there was a teaching opportunity at that moment, and we missed it.

 I'm not a parent. I'm not a teacher. I'm also not a politician or a government official. But if I was any of those things, I'd like to think my response would be, "I hear you. I want you to be safe, too. We will figure this out. Far too many kids have died this way."

 That said, I am a voter and they are my fellow citizens, and I want them to know that I'm glad they're involved. Don't stop being involved. Keep going. Educate yourself. Question everything. Talk to people from all backgrounds. Develop your own opinions and empower yourself with knowledge, understanding, and empathy. Just keep learning. It is a lifelong pursuit after all.


A Garden Variety Contract

Well, that was an embarrassing fall. Stella looked at her feet. Nope, definitely still have a left and a right one — not two left feet. At least Aunt Genevieve can reasonably make that excuse. She actually does have two left feet. Ever since her simp of a fairy godmother misunderstood her request to have her right foot look more like her left because she wanted a bunion removed. NOT that she literally wanted them to look the same, which is exactly how said fairy godmother understood the request.

Regardless Stella just lived up to her nickname everyone in this pit-hole of a hamlet gave her, Unstable Stella, by unceremoniously tripping and falling over the embankment that bordered the deep forest. They could’ve at least gone with Unsteady Stella. It’d be more accurate and a better use of literary devices. But because she wouldn’t put her fellow residents in the category of those terribly concerned with semantics, she tried not to waste the energy thinking too long about it.

But hey, the bright side is she landed on a cushy patch of moss. Turning her head, the sweet smell of decaying leaves shrouded in mud wafted around her, which was punctuated by a pungent stink of mold that caused her to bolt straight up. There, sitting directly at her feet, was the source of the regrettable stench. A frog that she could only describe as voluminous boldly stared back at her.

“You know you nearly took my life by falling so carelessly,” the frog indignantly fired the accusation at her.

“That seems a little dramatic, but I am sorry if I hurt you.” Stella returned with equal indignation. Frogs could be so touchy.

“Women.” The frog huffed under his breath.

“What?!” she demanded appalled.

“Your type is always either kissing us or shrieking at us. A simple ‘how do you do’ would go a long way, you know,” the frog offered back.

Stella sighed, softened her gaze and asked, “ Well, how do you do?”

“Not so well, thank you very much,” the frog countered. “An uninvited stranger just tried to kill me and in MY garden no less!”

Incredulous, Stella snapped, “Well, this was fun. I’m out of here. Bye.” She pulled her knees toward her and began to stand. “What garden are you talking about anyway? This isn’t…”

Her voice trailed off as she glanced up and beyond the frog’s sizable head. It WAS a garden. How had she never come across it before? She hadn’t lived here long, but surely she would’ve seen it by now.

Yellow roses peaked and glowed over poppies of every color dotting a labyrinth of pathways. A stonewall as old as time itself held the tranquil scene together with a large nurturing oak tree sheltering a red gate at the far right corner of the wall.

“What is this place…” Stella wondered aloud in hushed awe.

“Well you could be here then suddenly here isn’t here anymore and here becomes there,” the frog puzzled.

Rolling her eyes, Stella retorted, “You're talking in utter nonsense, frog. What’s your name anyway?”

“Rude, girl. But it's Lewis if you're really asking.”

“I asked, didn’t I?”

“It appears you have,” Lewis sighed in agreement. “Though tomorrow that name may no longer fit me for sometimes the me I am isn’t the me I want to be and I have to become another me.”

“Well, I’m Stella. Although the longer we talk the more I wonder if I shouldn’t be Alice,” she wryly joked.

And with that, Stella turned around to climb back up the embankment she had fallen down. However, instead of the embankment behind her, she only saw the same stonewall that stretched out in front of her.

“You can’t go backward — only forward when time is involved.” Lewis chastised. “But I can hel—”

Stella cut him off, “Nope. I can help myself thank you very much.” She turned on her heel, leaving the frog of great volume — along with his ridiculous commentary — behind her. She didn’t know it then, but she was headed on a fruitless journey. Walking through the yellow roses on the paths dotted with every color of poppy while white daisies waved at her, she arrived at the red gate and pushed it open. Walking through it, she found herself right back in front of Lewis.

Without making eye contact with Lewis, Stella kept walking like she'd meant to do that all along. So she continued on her path with bold, albeit false, confidence.

Time and time again, after walking through the red gate, Stella continued to find herself in front of that insufferable frog. He just kept sitting there not in mockery but seemingly in anticipation.

Before long it was day after day, and that turned into a full week. She tried different combinations  — walking backward, on one foot and with her eyes closed, climbing over the gate, rolling under it and leaving it open — all to no avail. So giving up, she threw herself down in a huff in front of the ever-present frog whose darting eyes shifted along either side of his enormous head.

“You win. I can’t do it. How in the world do I get out of here,” Stella exclaimed exasperated and defeated.

Lewis repeated what he’d said no fewer than seven days before, “You can’t go backward — only forward when time is involved, but I can help.” He paused, “There’s simply the little issue of our agreement.”

“You got it. Whatever. Just get me home.”

“So many of your kind have kissed me. And without my consent, you should know. As retribution and if I help you get out, you must agree to become my wife.”

Stella looked at him with disgust. “You’re gross. You literally have an infestation of mold thriving on your back. Nope. No way. Not going to happen.”

“Of course you can continue walking in circles for all eternity...” Lewis offered up.

“Well, if kissing you without your consent is so bad, this is way worse,” Stella hissed at him. “It’s blackmail, extortion, it’s words I don’t even know!”

“I’m giving you an option. It’s just a contract. You get out of here. I get a wife to fetch me flies and take care of this mold issue you so indelicately called to attention. What will it be.” Lewis simply stated with a hint of bored expectation.

While Stella's response was once again a hard no, 542 more times of walking through that red door right back to Lewis’ stupid face decided it, especially since it seemed she would find herself coming back to him for all eternity regardless. At least this way, she’d be out of this forsaken place and back home.

So on the 543rd time, Stella signed the contract.


On Sleep

Sleep awaits me
But I know not where.
He beckons come hither
But do I dare.

Once... I... 
Beneath the sandman's spell, 
The place where I know Sleep awaits.

But Sleep is a fickle friend—frequent foe 
It's why I'm here and how I know
That with eyes wide open 
He'll stop waiting. 
He will find me. 
My avoidance of him grating.

But irksome for me...
To seek him out. 
To find him, Sleep. 
Then to have him mock me. 
Through restless dreams
Clenched, tired jaws 
Grinding teeth
The toss and turn of the sea lives well beneath my sheets.
For there is no comfort,
All rest falls short 
Of what I need. 
So on this one thing I will concede:

Despite his lies,
Despite his bait, 
I'll return to where he waits. 
And again I'll try to find the Sleep I need—
The Sleep I dream of when I'm awake. 
But some day eventually my life, our lives, he'll surely take. 
The appeal of Sleep 
Is far greater than the promise he can keep. 


Search of Silence

Most others she knew listened to music. They listened to it everywhere they went - providing their lives with a soundtrack. She had no soundtrack. She rarely listened to music because there was not a fashion in which it spoke to her that necessitated the dependency on it.

That's what she liked to think.

The truth was that her constant inner dialogue wouldn't shut up long enough to appreciate it. It was loud, incessant and rather opinionated. Giving her little opportunity, she rarely listened to the world around her - only that what was inside of her.

This morning, however, she stopped. She shut up. She listened to the quiet.

Listening closely, silence was not actually silent at all. Perhaps a fact that she knew once but long ago forgot. In the quiet, she found the hum of Earth. She could hear it and was quite certain even in the absence of electronics, cars and the wind, she would hear it vibrating in her ears. Thinking the noise of silence is what the science community calls "Earth's Chorus," she could only call it "company."

They say that darkness is the absence of light. Logically, silence is the absence of sound. Endlessly hearing Earth's Chorus in the quiet, she wondered... where could she find it? Certainly not here, not on Earth. If she couldn't find it, she'd bring it to her. Her ears. Without them, she could find silence.

Her hands would not block the sound. Pillows wouldn't either.

Van Gogh came to mind. Cutting off one's ear didn't seem so outrageous. But that surely wouldn't keep out the sound. Her eardrums held the key. There she could find silence. One's ears. They are not so necessary.

"No, no. I don't think I need them."

Aloud. She heard. I don't need my ears.

Where did this stream of consciousness come from?! This inner dialogue just will not stop. Even in the quiet it goes on. Perhaps this narrative; this ambling narrative is her soundtrack.


Night Story

Tonight, it returned. On the summer air, the evening beckoned me to explore the night wind. My white cotton sheets gathered around me as I sat up to peek out of my curtains to the wonderland before me.  A shimmering full moon above the nearby forest made everything glow with an ethereal illumination. The air became thick with the anticipation of my participation in the awaiting world.

Slipping out of bed, I followed the dim glow of moonlight flooding my bedroom window. The moon hung high and full in the sky – plopped amidst a sea of silvery stars. They seemed to ripple in endless circles around it. My arms reached to lift the heavy wooden frame. My fingers slipped on it bringing peels of white crackling paint with them. My lavender nail polish chipped on the aged wood. Sighing and grasping firmer, I heaved the stubborn frame up until it came to a grinding halt.

A gust of cool breeze rushed in, encircling me in the center of the bedroom. Twirling at the center it, I raised my arms, tilted my head toward the ceiling and contentedly inhaled its sweet splendor. I was entranced, helpless at its beckoning.

A soft glimmer glided past the open window, followed by a sparkling parade of light. The trickling stream began to swirl in figure eights around my tiny, enchanted bedroom. The glimmering orbs quickly fell into the revolving current of air gently twisting around me. It was a fanfare of fireflies, and I was the delighted core. My milky white nightgown spun around me like a Victorian party dress in my clandestine dance. Then a whisper softly floated to my ear.

Photo by me, 2010. Please request permission before using.

“Come and stay with us,” a firefly quietly coaxed.

“Not tonight,” I returned.

On cue, the firefly parade floated to various places amidst the darkening room as though they were always there like white Christmas lights hiding beneath a freshly fallen snow. They led a path back to my lonely bed. Hovering along my window sill, headboard, shelves and ceiling, the creatures stayed, magically suspending themselves in air and time.

“I will though,” I promised, and soon, I did.


Apple Dates: Part III

“Where should we go on our Apple Date today, Lil Bit?”

“Umm… I like the meadow! Can we go to the meadow today, Mommy?”

I nod and smile. The meadow is one of my favorite Apple Date spots.

“Really? We can go to the meadow! Yay!” Collin grins with his wide eyes.

The meadow is special. It’s the setting of so many of my childhood drawings – rolling hills, fluffy clouds, trees full of apples and of course, always, two familiar people.

I don’t have to draw my meadow anymore though. Dad and I found this one, and planted our apple trees here together. They’re all fully grown now – much like me. Dad and I planted these so that we’ll always have Apple Dates and so will Collin. He’ll find out about that today.

“Are you ready, Collin? It’s a green apple day.”


Apple Dates: Part II

Apple Dates (part two)

Dad can’t go outside anymore. He stays at the hospital a lot. The doctors want to see him all the time now. But I make sure to go on an Apple Date each day.

I don’t go to the bench in the park. It’s made for two people. I wasn’t going to go back till he comes with me. But I thought I’d just walk by it today.

Dad says that memories are the most important thing we have because they’re our seeds. They take root in us. Who and what we become is because of them – like apple trees. That bench is a good memory, and my one day there changed me. I dreamed of my first apple field there.

I start walking down the path that goes to the bench. From a distance, it looks different. The bench isn’t new anymore. The wood is worn from the rain, sun and cold winters. That isn’t what I notice first though. What I see first are the two trees growing beside the bench.

Inside I start to smile, and it quickly starts to spread from my face to my toes. I run to the bench and the trees. There is a plaque underneath each tree.

The first one says “Everything starts with a seed.”

“What will you be?” reads the second plaque. Beneath that line, reads “For my Lizzy Girl.”

Today was a hard day. This doesn’t make it easier, but it makes it better. Dad didn’t forget. I won’t forget.

I curl up on the bench with my apple. Red today. I choose red a lot. Green is for special days. Green is for Apple Dates with Dad. I pull out my journal, too. I keep it in my backpack for times like this - times when my words are more important out than in.

Life can be a lot like apples. Once you get past the shiny peel, you find out what the apple is really made of. And it’s there that the fruit can be transformed. I have my seeds, and now I’m finding out how to grow.

Who will I be? My mind drifts. As usual, I start doodling apple fields. I guess Mom is still right. I let my imagination run away with me.

My pictures are always the same. Rolling hills littered with rows of apple trees and two people in the middle – two people that aren’t unlike Dad and me.

Mom gave me a cell phone for my birthday last year for emergencies and so that I can have my Apple Dates with Dad. My phone rings now. It’s Dad.

“How’s my Lizzy Girl today?” I never get used to his voice. It’s different than it used to sound.

“Fine, Dad.” It’s been a hard day, but I know my days are never as hard as his. “How is your day?”

“It’s a good day. Today was a green apple day.”

“But why?” I ask with worry and excitement.

“I’m coming home today, Lizzy.”


A Perspective by Observation

Nothing strikes me quite so much as the young Maple tree. Alone in a meadow where no other trees dare grow.

At the very tip top is a branch that reaches with all its might. It soaks in all of my warmth with one leaf high above the others beginning its bloom.

Day after day it uncurls just a bit. Green gleams through. In a very short time, it is broad and welcoming. A conduit of health for the maturing tree.

As breezes come and go, it waves at me. I smile back. Warming the air in which it sways. Alone. At the top. Doing all that’s expected of it. Joined by many other leaves, it looks down at them and up at me.

The thickened breeze carries with it inevitably long days, which I come to treasure. The Earth displays her proverbial feathers to show me all of the good she grows with me. Like the diva she is, bathing in my spotlight.

But as the endless cycle goes so must she. The days shorten. Spring’s glory melts in the heat of summer, which now slows on the brink of fall. But then there’s the young Maple. The one in the meadow where no other trees dare grow.

Atop the tree’s tallest branch is the leaf that long ago became a familiar friend. Still it sways on the chilled currents of autumn. For in its youth, it reveled in crowds of friends – never really being part. And as they went their ways, it stayed.

For what, you ask.

Cold nights. Gray days. Harsh survival. I watched as it curled. I winced as it browned.

But come tomorrow.

It will still be there because it knows no other place to be.

Photo by me, 2010. Please request permission before using.


And Now an Important Message From our Sponsor

For those of you who have been following Jule's story for awhile, you rock. And I also owe you an explanation for her AWOL-ness. I've been working on a couple of other writing projects that have taken me away from that story, and I think it's time to share one of them with you.

Apple Dates

This is a project that's very close to my heart. I wrote it for a friend who's dealing with cancer. His story inspired me, and I wrote Apple Dates with parents in mind. What does that conversation look like - telling your child that you have a very serious illness? Honestly. I don't have a clue. But this story came to me while I was at work one day too strong to ignore.

So here it is.

It's written in three parts. Please keep in mind that this is very much so a work-in-progress, and I am completely open to any feedback you have. So please feel free to share it.

Here's Part I.

I eat apples with my daddy. He said if you put an apple in the ground, it grows into a tree that makes more apples.

So we eat apples. Then we bury them.

After school, every day, we go some place new and plant our apples. He calls it our Apple Date. Sometimes we have red apples. Today they are green.

Green ones are my favorite. They make me laugh because they remind me of the tennis balls that Checkers, our dog, chases. I like to imagine him digging up our green apples after we bury them. His white face all dirty and an apple in his mouth.

But we don’t bring Checkers with us ever – or even Mommy. This is mine and Daddy’s time.

Daddy and I go to the park today. He takes me to a bench that sits in a field surrounded by trees. It is new because we used to ride bicycles here so I know.

Two shovels, two apples and two bottles of water. Daddy always brings those things on our Apple Dates. He hands me an apple. I can’t wait so I bite it right away – crunch – just how I like it.

“How do apples turn into trees, Daddy?”

He thinks about it and says, “Well, apples have seeds in them. They are in the middle part that you don’t like. See them in the core?” He takes a big bite of his apple and shows me the seeds. “If you plant them and everything is just right, roots start to grow. Then the tree will start growing. First, it’s real small, but with lots of water and sunshine, it can become a big tree that makes more apples.”

“I want a whole field of apple trees! Red ones and green ones so that everyone can eat apples with their daddies.”

Mommy says my imagination runs away with me sometimes. I guess it does.

I imagine a big meadow on a hill with lots of trees and red and green spots on them. There are so many apples it smells sweet everywhere.

The sky is big and blue. Sometimes puffy white clouds of all shapes go in front of the sun and make shadows in the meadow. But mostly it’s sunny. There are little girls and daddies on benches and picnic blankets in my meadow. Just eating apples and talking about silly things.

Daddy pokes my arm. “You still with me, kiddo?”

“Yeah. Just thinking about my apple field.”

“You have good ideas, Lizzy Girl.” He likes to call me that sometimes. I know I am in trouble when he says my full name.

“Don’t stop having good ideas. It’s how you make your dreams come true, you know? If you don’t have ideas, you can’t have dreams.”

“Like what dreams, Daddy? Do you have dreams?”

“I did. I guess I still do. For you. I dream that you’ll always be my apple blossom, and that maybe one day you can have apple dates with your kids.”

“Will we always have apple dates, Daddy?”

“If you want to.”

“Good. I want to.”

“They might not always be like this though, Lizzy Girl. They might be different.”

“That’s ok, Daddy.”

“I’m glad that’s ok. We might have to have our apple dates inside sometimes – like when it rains – even if it’s not raining.”

Daddy stops. I put down my apple. He looks sad.

“Sometimes I might not be able to have our apple date. Promise me you’ll still go though? You can take Checkers. Then you’ll tell me all about it. Ok?”

“But why, Daddy?”

He looks really sad now, and I start to feel sad.

“Do you remember when Emily Collins was out of school for a long time?”

“Yeah, she was really sick, but she is back at school now.”

‘Well, I’m kind of like Emily was. I’m sick, Lizzy Girl. I might get sicker, and I might not be able to go outside if I do.”

Daddy never gets sick.

“It’s not like when you have a cold. But I might get really tired and won’t be able to do a whole lot.”

“Will I get sick, too? Can I catch it?”

He chuckles, “No, you won’t get sick – especially if you keep eating your apples!”

“Ok, Daddy. I will always go on an apple date, and I promise to tell you all about it if you have to stay inside. But you have to promise you’ll eat an apple too if I’m not with you. That way we both have apple dates.”

“I promise.”


Chapter 16: Show Your Hand

Inside Jule was reeling, unable to identify the source of her brazen confidence. She called out Gray Man - she'll see his true colors with nowhere to go.

He just stands there. Saying nothing. Saying everything. His eyes dance - move from rage to disgust to anger to... sorrow, grief and regret? They're distant not focused on Jule. His emotions have no attachment to her.

"What has happened?" She gasps out to him. To console him. To detract her attack.

"Draeden happened. Years before you were here. And will be after. BUT - not before we try."

Gray Man was speaking abruptly but not linearly. Stringing together profound anecdotes that Jule had never questioned or considered. "Good people thrown into hard labor. No different than livestock."

"Our town was left behind. For so long, they forgot us. Left us to die. To disappear. But we didn't. We survived - and lived as well as we could provide."

"Then she came. She gave us hope for a different future. We infiltrated into the other communities. Spoke to people. Rallied them."

"The Consortium killed her. They found her. They left her body alive of course. They took her power. Manipulated it. Twisted it. They killed who she had become. The change she sparked went out as fast as it started."

Questions, questions, questions. Jule couldn't begin to formulate them. When did this all happen? She? Who's she? Why would The Consortium leave her town to die? They went to other communities? How is that even possible under the constant monitoring of The Consortium?

"You have questions. Ask later."

Jule's wondering eyes narrowed at Gray Man. Then darted to Gabe. She imagined her face holding a similar expression of earnest awe, concern and exhaustion.

"Explaining will take time we don't have. Your Caretakers. You're worried about them? They're waiting for you."

Jule realizes that he knows what she's been thinking - leaving her to dwell. The familiar burn of tears threaten the corners of her eyes.

"Keep those to yourself. We're here. People will want to see you."


Chapter 15: A Fury of Words

Jule stopped. She stood straight. Her shoulders squared. "I don't want to walk anymore."

Gray Man froze. His head cocked, and he leered over his shoulder. Slowly his shoulders and body swiveled to match the position of his head - facing Jule.

"I'm not moving. Not till I know why."

"Oh?" Gray Man's expression was unreadable. His tone was not angry but firm and challenging. He paused. Then continued, "Well. Good luck then."

Gabe stood beside Jule - holding her arm tightly. He took a step to follow Gray Man. Jule did not.

"Tell me why you took me. Why." Jule didn't ask. She demanded. Her emotions had been careening into each other for endless hours now leaving her exhausted and apathetic. The fatigue of her endless internal questioning had driven her to unflinchingly confront her captor. There was no regret - she no longer had anything to lose.


Chapter 14: Catalyst of Thought

Fear hadn't stopped threatening Gray Man's eyes since the day he took Jule from her caretakers.

Her caretakers. Jule's mind suddenly and frantically started asking the questions that she had avoided confronting since her capture.

Had her caretakers filed a missing resident report for her? Had the Restraints from Draeden come to take her for her new role? Would the Restraints believe her caretakers story that she was taken? If they doubted their story... their ruthlessness to insubordinates was demonstrated to the residents on a daily basis. She had witnessed the nightmare of it on a handful of occasions.

Worse than the demonstrations, Jule had heard stories of town residents who had been charged with critical offenses against Draeden. They were sent to the industries outside the city boundaries. Most didn't return. Those who did wouldn't speak of their experiences, but they were forever altered by whatever had happened during their time in the industries - physically and mentally.

Shuddering at the thought of her caretakers being taken there because of her disappearance stirred alarm and anger within Jule. Anger with Gray Man, anger with herself at not fighting him, and alarm at this striking new thought of the well-being of her caretakers.

The need for the truth was too much for Jule. It eclipsed her fear of the burly old man.


Chapter 13: Glinting Fear

Time had no place beneath the ground amidst these halls. There was no sun to mark how much time had passed since Gray Man first led Jule away from the town.

The town. What all had transpired in such a short time? Because this trek was starting to feel endless, Jule let herself get lost in her thoughts.

Where had she been just a few short days ago?

Learning her caretakers' discipline.

For the first time, they had left her to bundle the grains bound for Draeden. As harvesters, they share the discipline of most of the town's population. There are few exceptions such as the librarian, mayor and the town officer.

In addition to them, there is always the constantly changing Restraint Corps sent by Draeden to ensure town adherence to citizen model guidelines. The Restraints (members of the Corps) are also in charge of replenishing town supplies - most of which they keep for themselves.

Adding to the in-flux population are the Groomers who come in monthly to ensure the health of those in the community. In charge of health monitoring and hygiene care of residents, the groomers had just performed this month's female grooming. It would be another month before the male grooming would happen again.

It was right after Jule's grooming day that Gray Man came for her. She occasionally saw him at her dwelling and at town assemblies, but he was quiet and generally mean driving her to avoid him whenever possible. He had never actually addressed her. That was before he took her from her caretakers' property.

While waiting for her caretakers to return from their daily inspection of the harvest, Gray Man came for her. The look in his eyes scared her. Not only because of the determination that shone in them but because of the fear that threatened clouding them. This man had no fear, and seeing it in his eyes shook Jule.


Chapter 12: Trial By Fire Commence

The height of the latch opening was just above Jule's stomach. Not yet trusting her legs, she crawled through it. Gabe followed and ducked through the entrance. Gray Man followed, locking the latch behind him and pulling a lever next to it.

A crushing rumble sounded from the hole they had just left. Glad she hadn't stood, Jule cast a look of confusion and fright toward Gray Man. The still and silent winter above wouldn't be able to conceal a roar of that magnitude.

"They aren't following us yet," Gray Man interrupted her thoughts as he pushed through Jule and Gabe. He began leading them down the narrow hallway.

The hall started low. Gray Man barely stood straight. There was no fire to illuminate this new world - but light emanated from everywhere. It came from the ceiling and on the walls shifting and glowing like bejeweled embers - sometimes green, sometimes yellow and others blue. It was magnificent. The walls were straight, smooth and cool to the touch. Jule slowed in awe of the beauty. Gabe tugged her arm to keep up with the aged figure moving briskly ahead of them.

The floor was made of small cemented pebbles. Not like the rocks Jule was used to though. These glinted of iridescent blues and silver. Beneath her feet, Jule could feel the cool smoothness of the path similar to the seemingly smoldering walls.

As the hall twisted and turned in an endless erratic pattern, it grew in height and width expanding so that now Jule and Gabe could walk side-by-side. They could only move forward. Their entrance no longer existed. It would seem their past had disappeared with it.


Chapter 11: Rock Bottom Depth

The smell of earth was heavy and moist. Light was dim and without consistency. Jule's awareness of her surroundings came slowly and without linear observations. Straw laid beneath her. The scent of mud hung onto every inhale. Behind her eyelids, Jule sensed she was not alone as a figure blocked pieces of the flickering light. Her hand was locked in the hand of another. Tightly, fearfully clenched in a small smooth hand not unlike her own.

Urging her eyes open, she saw him. Sitting by her on the ground, knees bent into his chest and head wearily buried in them, Gabe held her hand willing her back to consciousness. So focused on all that she heard about HER last night, she had forgotten that his future now seemingly interlaced with hers.

"Good. We must move on." Gray Man gruffed somewhere in the distance. He must've seen her eyes flicker with consciousness. Gabe stirred, and Jule knew she had to force herself to fully open her eyes and adjust to this hole.

However, upon opening her eyes, this was not just a hole. Sure, where she sat was a deeply dug hole. The latch that had revealed the hole from above ground was now a seamlessly towering ceiling. The ancient ladder laid at her feet. Straw covered the floor beneath her, but next to her, a latch similar to the one that had revealed the hole led to an expansive hallway winding its way to infinity. Gray Man was standing by the latch expectantly watching Gabe and Jule.

Gabe nudged Jule, defeatedly shrugging.

Her exit - blocked. Freewill - denied. Ability to make a sound decision - wholly lacking. Fighting chance - obliterated.

This was not the time. But she would escape again. Successfully.


Chapter 10: Pierced

Jule stared at Gray Man with silent objection. The piercing cold, lack of sleep, endless hours in the woods, all of the developments of the prior evening, being chased and captured by Gray Man, being taken from her home.... it was too much. Without warning, Jule collapsed.

Surrounded by a swirl of the ice gray of winter and deep green of the surrounding pines, Jule crumpled to the ground. Her air was shoved out of her by the impact. And for the third time in two days, she was gone.


Chapter 9: Hidden Exposure

Jule's stomach compacted beneath the pressure of the thick, surrounding silence that held a tangible warning of certain peril with the decision Gray Man had made for both of them.

Lost in the maze of barren trees, Gray Man led Jule into a thick grove of evergreens. Wasn't this obvious cover? Whoever would be looking for them would certainly search here. The fog that once covered them had lifted as the daylight hours moved forward. Catching a glimpse of the sky through a break in the dense tree canopy, Jule saw thick gray clouds covering any sign of the sun.

Tredding farther into the ancient forest, Jule lost count of the hours. Thankfully, the combination of snow and pine needles covering the ground padded any noise that would reveal them. Still, Jule carefully avoided broken branches and pine cones occasionally interrupting her path. Intently cautious with each of her steps, she nearly collided with Gray Man as he came to an abrupt stop.

Feeling Jule brush him, Gray Man turned his head to give her a scathing glare. Turning back, he exhaled and bent toward a pile of brush laying in front of them.

Stopping was not good. The cold air penetrated Jule's thin outer layers. With each inhale, she felt the cold consume more of her thin body. Her shivering evolved into rapid convulsions fatiguing her muscles.

"Here it is," Gray Man gruffly mumbled to himself.

With his arm deep in the brush, Gray Man slid a previously invisible panel to reveal a deep hole. An aged ladder clung just below the space where the panel had been.

"Go. Now."


Chapter 8: Gray is Black with Age


...a shoe narrowly missed Jule's ear. Her head jerked in the opposite direction of the shoe and her eyes snapped and locked with Gray Man's.

"Time to leave. I don't intend to repeat anything else today," commanded Gray Man.

Jule watched him intently. His back turned against her. This was the first time she really paid attention to this man who seemed to be holding her captive. The adrenaline flowing through her body from the shoe attack was intensely focusing her attention.

Gray Man did, in fact, seem very gray... the faded intensity of black very well described him in more than just color terms. Jule was sure he was fearsome before the years had rendered him gray. His thick shoulders, once squared, now rounded at their points as they sloped with the weight of an invisible load. He wore his hair longer. Without the aid of a comb, it waved and tangled to greasy tips.

His overgrown hair wasn't unlike many of those in the community. Grooming was scheduled once quarterly for the men and twice quarterly for the women. Children under 14 were not groomed. There were some residents who had fashioned cutting devices to groom themselves. Men like Gray Man didn't care about their appearance. The wisdom of their years seemed to teach them that "caring" was a luxury that would end a person as swiftly as any other weakness.

But Gray Man had actually cared last night. The realization was sudden and startled Jule. Was he not her captor? Why would he ever care about what The Consortium wanted with her? So if Gray Man cared - where was he taking her now? She physically recoiled at the idea of being taken to Draeden. She now knew what awaited her there.

Outside and dressed, the fog laid heavily across the fields and glowed with the ethereal light of a brimming dawn. Gray Man started moving toward the woods he had pulled Jule out of just hours ago. The snow was thinner today, but the ice of the air pierced Jule's lungs. Afraid to break the silence, afraid to question, afraid for her future - Jule desperately wanted to know why he was leading her into the woods when he should be transporting her to Draeden.


Chapter 7: Hold Life

Eliminated? Wiped out, no longer here. Jule needed to explain it to herself to understand what Ms. Polts was saying. I'm a girl - just a girl. Why would I be so important?


Gray Man's fist came down hard on the table, "I will not subject Jule to the cruel torture that is our way of repopulating Draeden. I won't... I can't lose another girl to those tyrants."

The table of adults began shaking their heads in what seemed experienced remorseful defeat.

"We are more than work horses. We are humans," Gray Man went on in an abnormal display of dictation. "I'm too old to keep standing by the atrocities continuously inflicted upon us. They've already taken away everything I had to lose. There's little use left in my life. I have to make of it what I can, and if it's this stand, then so be it."

Officer Samuels had been quiet till now. A determined look turned his ice blue eyes a dark, formidable gray. "James, sit down. I've heard enough. From you as well as Polts. We do not have the liberty of debate. Jule is of age. Gabe is of age. It is time for them to fulfill their roles for Draeden. We have received the assignment from The Consortium. You know as well as I that they will force her into captivity in Draeden if we resist - only after killing us for resisting. She is better off here. There, she will be no more than a breeder, worked until death. We have no choice."

Gray Man's countenance quieted. He then gave his final remarks. "This was not to be Jule's purpose. She is more than a laboreur. But to save her, Jule must bear children for Draeden." He resignedly sighed, "it is her position."

"NO!" Jule shrilled through a whispered shout.

The noise was enough to catch the unwanted attention of those filling the hazed room. Narrowed eyes quickly shifted toward the wall where she had been. Gabe leaped to his feet sending the shelf concealing him tumbling to the floor. Officer Samuels grabbed his arm before he could decide what to do next with his distraction. Gray Man pushed through the shed's door from where he caught a glance of a red figure disappearing into the looming trees.

The full moon watched from above, regretfully illuminating the scene below.


Chapter 6: Her Role

Her eyes slowly adjusted - letting her take in the scene before her. The candlelight and dust created a swirling haze around the people inside. Sweeping her eyes across the room, she saw them all. There stood Gray Man, Mayor Groveston, Ms. Polts (librarian), Ms. Lariatta (teacher) and Officer Samuels. Then, there, in the corner she spotted Gabe. One of the few in the town near her age. He was cowering beneath a shelf. Puzzled at the scene unfolding before her, Jule, centered her attention on the adults.

Numb from the cold, she statically watched the leaders of town before her join together and discuss something she didn't fully comprehend.

"She's reaching an age when she should know about her place. Her town," clicked Ms. Polts in a stern, chastising tone. "Jule will accept her new role. She is no longer a child. If we don't continue our way of life in this place, we'll all face..."

Polts may have continued, but Jule was too lost in thought on this point. Intently considering how she could possibly help in maintaining the town. What did that mean? Thoughts in her mind swirled, and she couldn't imagine this role.

Interrupting the plausible possibilities that flowed through Jule's mind, Gray Man spoke gruffly as in his usual manner. "Maintain life. They have other communities for this, Lettice."

"You know just as well as I do that if we do not continue playing an active role - a CRITICAL role...," her voice hit a shrill that shrank Jule back into her heels as she realized that sitting on her haunches had caused her knees to go numb. "...we'll be eliminated. If we do not fulfill their needs, another community will.