Nanna Audrey had always been a great collector.
Not of stamps or of china sets or even teddies. Oh no. Nanna was a collector of memories.
As a child, every time I stayed with her I used to run around the house discovering hidden boxes that I pretended were chests filled to the brim with pirate treasure. They were beneath the stairs, piled in the back of cupboards and even behind the sofa where her turtle, Ray, used to live. When I grew older, she would let me open a few of these boxes and show me the medals or the baby teeth or the sea shell from Brighton Beach that they contained.
One day, Nanna asked me to help her in the attic. She hadn’t been up there in about twenty years but, as my sister was having a baby, the first baby in the family since I was born, she wanted to get down some goodies that she’d stored up there for future generations.
I jumped at the opportunity. We were bound to find some hidden treasures in the attic!
Propping the ladder at the bottom of the trapdoor, we climbed into the forgotten space. I went up first so I could help her find her way in the dark and dingy room but, in true Nanna Audrey fashion, she marched up the ladder as though she were still in her twenties. She straightened up and brushed off her dress. She seemed so short in this space – she was standing up tall and yet her head was barely brushing the ceiling.
Instinctively she reached for the light switch and I was able to make out some of the random objects scattered around: a birdcage that had belonged to her old budgie, Blue; an old accordion from a summer in the ‘70s when Granddad had decided he needed to take up a new hobby; and a box of old jewelry that she had let my mother wear around the house as a toddler.
“There they are,” she said, pointing towards the furthest side of the attic.
Following her finger, I noticed a series of trunks that were neatly lined up in front of the small circular window that looked out onto the back garden, or would have if it wasn’t for the thick layer of dirt and dust that covered the glass.
“Your baby things should be in one of those.”
I made my way towards them, kneeling down in a spot I was bound to get a good view of the contents from. I pulled at the lid of the first trunk as hard as I could until it finally gave way and opened, releasing a giant cloud of dust in my face. Coughing, I covered my eyes, waiting patiently to explore the treasures inside.
It caught my eyes as soon as I had opened them. Sitting there, right on the top of what appeared to be a beautiful folded blanket woven from expensive blue, red and golden thread, was a snake. It curled up and hissed as the ball bounced by it again. Tabitha recoiled and dodged just in time as the snake launched at her, its fangs bared. Tabitha was ready for its second strike. She needed that blanket it was guarding.
Bending her knees she jumped sideways as it struck. Rolling from the impact on the sandy ground, she snatched the blue, red and golden blanket off the top of the woven basket. The merchant yelled at her as she smirked.
She was up and running again before the toothless merchant could even get around his table. Her knees throbbed, but she pushed on. Dodging through the river of people filling the marketplace. Time wasn’t on her side, she had to be back at home tucked safely in her bed, before her parents noticed she was missing.
The sun crested the tops of the derelict awnings that dominated this end of the marketplace. She froze in mid-step. It was wrong. Something was wrong. She’d taken a wrong turn somewhere.
“Whatcha got there, pretty? Whatcha got fer me?”
The voice sliced through her panic, and Tabitha turned. Her fear fell into her stomach like a brick in the fish pond back behind the palace walls. A ratty cowl covered most of the speaker’s face. Dirt and filth from the streets coated the once silvery material in grime.
“I asked you a question, pretty. Whatcha got fer me?”
Tabitha’s fingers clenched the edging of her grandmother’s blanket. She hadn’t meant for the servant to actually sell it, but she sure couldn’t ask for the money to buy it back. Her parents would kill her. She tried to swallow but couldn’t. Her chest constricted making her heart thud against her ribcage so hard it hurt to breathe.
“N-n-n-nothing. This is mine.”
“Yours is it, pretty?” The cowled head’s voice dropped dangerously.
“Y-yeah. Yeah. Mine.”
It laughed. “Oh dear me, pretty. Are you lost?"
Tabitha’s mind raced. Yes, technically she was, but she was positive that it was a horrible idea to admit that to this cold cowled thing.
“Who are you?” This Tabitha said with more force than she meant to, and immediately her face flared with heat.
The cowl recoiled, reminding her terribly of the basket snake from before. “The questions are mine to ask pretty. Not yours. This place is sacred only to us.”
Tabitha’s mouth fell open. She was the princess of the region. Everywhere belonged to her father, Emperor Troyen, but she halted. The thing had said, ‘us.’ Was there more of the cowled things?
“No more words from you, pretty?”
The sound of tinkling wind chimes erupted. Tabitha jerked her head in every direction. The chiming grew steadier and louder, and Tabitha looked back at the grimey thing in front of her. The noise was coming from it.
She started backing away. There was something evil about the cowled figure; something sinister.
The tinkling died. “Oh no, pretty. You shall not leave us. Only just met, we have.”
“S-s-someone is waiting for me,” Tabitha stuttered, ashamed that her braveness was gone.
“Oh yes, pretty, we have been waiting for you.” The cowl slipped down revealing a wisened face with pale silver eyes that pierced into your soul. The eyes were the first thing I noticed, but then I quickly wished she would pull the cowl back over her face, as the lower part of her head was gashed with a huge scar, cutting her face into a grotesque smile like an evil Jack Skellington. I looked away briefly and saw from the corner of my eye that two other hooded figures had slipped into the chamber behind me, blocking my exit. I could try to defeat all three of them, or I could play along for a bit and wait for the proper moment. I went into this assuming there was a chance I would be captured. Who knows, it might even work to my advantage. As long as they don’t take away my hairpins, I ought to be able to manage. But what did she mean about “waiting for me?”
When I turned back to the old lady, I noticed she had been staring at me, maybe even through me. I stood my ground and stared back. I wanted to show her she couldn’t intimidate me. None of them could.
“What are you going to do with me?” I seethed.
“Can’t spoil the surprise,” she responded, sardonically. “You’ll see soon enough. Kenshei, Azarin, take this prisoner to cell D. Don’t forget to empty her pockets...and take out her hairpins.”
Damn! Did that old woman read my mind or was she just as conniving as I tried to be? In any case, that was the least of my worries at the moment.
I tried to memorize the twisted route down to the cells. Ever since I had started using my damned GPS, my directional skills had gone to Hell, and underground here it was practically impossible to keep all the directions straight, but I counted rights and lefts as best I could. Finally, the two hooded figures stopped in front of a heavy iron door. One of them frisked me and took the small satchel with my phone and a print out of the documents I had scanned at the library in Budapest. The other one took my hair pins: an intricate comb with a fake jewel in the top (which hid a bit of sleeping powder) and two other smaller pins whose teeth could function as lock picks.
My dark braids fell down my back as the cloaked figure pulled out the hair pins that had held them. He made a sound of approval which made me feel dirty. It took all I could do not to give him a good roundhouse kick and take off running right then, but if I did, it would be that much harder to save the other prisoners, if there were any. His partner unlocked the iron door and shoved me into a long narrow room built of stone and dirt. I was alone-- in this room, anyway. But I knew from my research that there had to be others down here.
“Others? Like me?” My heart pounds at the thought. So many years of being alone, and they were right underground the entire time.
He nods, causing the beam of the flashlight mounted on his helmet to bounce around the cave walls. “I’m guessing there are anywhere from ten to twenty.”
My mind races with the new information. I was in solitary for so long, before my escape, I’d started to think the world was empty except for me and my captors. The thrill of reaching Manhattan to find it filled with eight million people still hasn’t left me.
The old man’s voice jerks me back to the present. “Of course there’s no way we can take them with us.”
“What?” What’s the point of a rescue mission if you leave some of them behind?
“They’ve been in here for years. Precautions have been put in place to bring the cave down if an escape is attempted. No, we can’t take them. We’re here to observe.”
Observe? That’s no better than not coming down here at all. I look around the cave, at the blackness on all sides of us. The only light comes from the beam on his helmet.
“If you attempt to help them, you’ll get us killed.” The old man stops, reaching out to put a hand on my shoulder. “There’s nothing we can do for them.”
I wonder if he gave that spiel to himself all those times he saw me in captivity and never stopped to help. He was always kind to me, but kindness only means so much when someone has the ability to help and they won’t.
I shrug his arm off and keep walking. I have to see them. Meet these people who look like me and can do the things I can. We’re only research and subjects to some people, but I like to think there’s some humanity in me. In all of us. However many are down here.
My skin prickles from the cold as we move further into the cave. When we reach a fork at the end of the path, the old man turns right without hesitation. I wonder if his research has taken him down here before. If he’s already visited these “others” he’s claimed never to have seen before.
I follow him down the twisting tunnel as it narrows to a point where we have to turn sideways to get through. Our arms brush more than once in the tight space and I’m sure he feels the clamminess of my skin.
When we reach the opening, he turns to the left, illuminating the wall with his flashlight. They’re not what I expected. They don’t look like me; their skin isn’t human like mine. From their jumbled words, I don’t think they can even talk. “They’re monsters. All of them, they’re nothing like me.”
“Yes, they are,” he replies. “And you’re just as much a monster as they are."
I smirked. So that is what he thought of me. A monster. A freak. The truth was out now; no going back. A sense of freedom enveloped my limbs, and my chest expanded.
“While we’re on the topic of monsters, where exactly do you come off calling names? I’m proud of who I am and what I’ve accomplished. Unlike the hobbit-like existence you’ve led.”
His scowl darkened. “What do you mean?”
“Hiding away with your spies, scheming. At least I’ve stood for what I believed was right. You’ve hopped the fence so many times, your trousers must have snags in them.”
He turned and strolled away. Good. Now I could focus. I hit the button on my remote, and the giant screen in the room lit up with a blinding glare. I swiped my fingers in the air and retracting my decision, watching the pieces of the virtual game glide back to their original places with my hesitancy. Genius swam in my mind, like a solar system swinging at a speed faster than light. I tapped my fingers a few times on my soft robe. If I didn’t make my move soon, many would die. I couldn’t prove him right just as my victory in argument had been declared.
“Gah,” I shouted at no one in particular. This task flooded me with remorse. Us monsters had much to decide.
“Is it that difficult?” Sharzy asked, her lithe figure gliding toward me from our secret door.
“Yes,” I huffed. Her feline features always seemed to toy with me. Right now, I wanted to slice them off and toss them down the refuse chute.
A soft pout protruded from her face, a comical twist on how vile her nature truly is. Though my youngest sibling, she stood a hand higher, her shiny hair not adding any height. Now, she all but purred as she stalked toward me and flicked her own fingers through the air.
“Don’t touch anything!” I shouted, hitting a button on the remote to shut off the screen again.
“What’s wrong big brother? The monster in you is a bit scared of the bigger ones out there?”
“No,” I growled. “Just leave the leadership deck.”
“Ask nicely,” she cooed, her head weaving like the fanged reptiles of lessor planets.
“Please,” I growled again.
“See that wasn’t so hard was it?” She pranced toward the secret door, this time more canine than cat. I sighed, turning back to the screen and starting it up again in one sinuous motion. I needed to focus if I didn’t want to lose anyone else, if I wanted to prove that all my decisions would be best.
A giggle flitted toward me, and a piece of the war screen flashed red to signal a completion of a move, a horrible move that would destroy my empire. I glanced back at Sharzy, my throat clogged with rage.
She pointed a talon at me, eyes sharp, and declared, “Check mate.”