A Girl of the Future -- Page 2

Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3
Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6
Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9
Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12
Chapter 13 Chapter 14 Chapter 15
Chapter 16 Chapter 17 Chapter 18
Chapter 19 Chapter 20 Chapter 21

Chapter 6 -- A Dream and a Miracle

I am dreaming again. This is good this time because Reverend Lucia, who is now officially my mother according to the laws of Muscogee County, is not singing about wheels on a bus going round and round. Instead she is listening to classical music and I am thinking of the women at the main house who spin, weave, and sew. I saw them after I died. I never saw the main house before because it was not on the island where I lived my whole life. The main house rose like a white castle above the mound of a green hill. It had black shutters and a wide porch. In later it was painted a sickly yellow and its shutters were white instead. I remember it both ways.

The women who sewed and wove and spun had a little room off the back porch. They had lived to be quite old and their eyes were scrunchy and myopic from years of close work. Many were stout and slow moving. When they talked they often laughed but they might as well have been talking another language. They were too busy with their gossiping and laughter to see a spirit like me.

It was different this afternoon. Reverend Lucia took me in the big van of a car way out into the country. The woman we met was as stout as the seamstresses of my memory, and like me she had dark brown skin. "So what can I do for a crazy one eyed priest who was born in a tank?" she asks Lucia.

"I want you to make a flattering long robe for this child," and Reverend Lucia means me. The material we have brought with us is a cranberry red and gren plaid cotton in small tasteful squares. Tailored, Lucia calls it. We have white bric-a-brac for trim. My robe is to be long but not so long I trip over it. I am to wear rubber soled brown or black sandals and no socks. Reverend Lucia will even polish my toe nails. I am to have handsome toenails

Saturday I am to be shown off at the kickoff banquet where Marco, the high priest who runs the contest will meet each of us kids who are competing. It is just a brief interview, but it is at a grand banquet and ball to be held in one of the royal houses of Columbus. I think of that as the semstress sticks me with pins and how she says that Lucia should just leave the whole corrupt tank-born society if she is a good Christian. "You have a soul because it awakened inside you," she declares of my mother.

I have a soul because I remember being without a body. We have the robe now, and the big feast is just days away. Everyone in the house is nervous. Lucia has been teaching me how to courtsey and reminding me not to beg for oranges. I can have all the oranges I want when I get home. This one should be easy even though it will be televised to entertainment centers all over Georgia. The later ones are going to be real hard. I think of the twelve labors of Hercules whom I read about when I was in school long ago, in the time after I died. My mother back then had her forgotten gods. I had my books. Now I am going to the big house body andn all.

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Chapter 7 -- An Old Lily Blossom

Does it help that the house where we go to eat the kick-off banquet does not look at all like Charles' house on the mainland, a house that now lies beneath a pile of kudzu? It does but it perplexes me. The banquet house, as I come to think of it is very tall and very austere with great square white columns covered in a pearly white plastic, and great tall windows. The columns and windows and high ceilings dwarf the great pile of flowers set at the entrance to the banqueting hall. The flowers are mostly white and have little fragrance. When I look at them closely I realize they were delivered last night or even the day before and they look like they are on the way out, or perhaps the florist chose older blooms knowing no one would look at the big pile carefully.

Reverend Lucia and I walk past the great pile of flowers and into the banqueting hall. We are new royalty so sit at one of the lower tables. At the banquet we are treated to a choir singing boring music and then Reverend Marco makes a speech. This is the first time I have seen Marco. He is tall like Reverend Adam but he is totally bald and he has small sharp eyes like black marbles. I try not to look at his eyes. I think he is very ugly. I am scaird of him.

I keep all this to myself. When the speech is over, a TV commentator gets up on the stage and announces that now the audience is going to meet the potential "promising children." I guess I am no more a reject child. I am a "promising child." I find this rather amusing.

I am still vaguely amused when Reverend Lucia nudges me to my feet and I join the long line of kids born in the last three months. We are going to walk across the stage and meet Reverend Marco. I think of the time I pulled Reverend Adam's braid. I wish Reverend Marcos had a braid and at the same time I am glad he doesn't. Reverend Marco wears glistening white robes instead of tan ones. I think his robes are made of satin. Most of the other children are wearing white robes. A few have on ornate gowns of silk, velvet, and brocade. One little girl even has golden leather slip on shoes.

I am near the end of the line. I am watching the other kids as each one makes his or her way across the big stage. The acoustics are set up so I can't hear what Reverend Marco says to each kid or what he or she says to the preacher. Reverend Lucia has told me only to be polite.

That is how I see the kid pass out on Reverend Marco's lap. The kid just lays there half asleep. Two priests lift the child off and carry him back stage. This happens a couple of other times. I see the boy who is behind me shift back and forth on his feet. He looks uncomfortable in a white robe worn over a plaid shirt and grey trousers. "Those kids just died," he whispers to me. I don't believe him but I think back to the room with the tanks. I wonder if Reverend Marco gave the kids poison or used something more sophisticated. I resolve that I won't die.

"I'm not letting a shit like that kill me," says the boy.

"You're not supposed to say shit," I reply.

Finally it's my turn. I climb the stairs to the stage. The announcer has trouble with my name. I keep going. The stage is huge. Reverend Marco is sitting on a big chair that could just as easily be a throne. I have to get on his lap. I remember in the long time between my last life and this one, visiting a shopping mall where kids had their pictures taken on Santa Claus' red lap. I think of this now but there are no flash cameras. There are video cameras. I stare out over the audience and then I look at Marco.

I am relieved that Reverend Marco does not stink. "And you are..." he asks me. "I'm Najya Wagstaffe" I say.

"And what do you want?&auot; Reverend Marcos asks me. I glance at his chest. If he is wearing one of those thought-reading medallions he has it tucked under his robes. They are thick robes. I wonder about the person underneath. Then I answer.

"I want one of those flowers from out front, please." A moment later I am flying through the air. I wonder if I have been thrown but if I had been thrown there is no way I could be sailing across that whole banqueting hall. I am also gaining altitude. I wonder what will happen when whatever is keeping me up in the air drops me. Fortunately I fly clear out of the banqueting hall and crash right into that pyramid of flowers.

That is when someone turns out the lights or rather I find myself inside the pyramid falling through the stems and blooms. I grab the stems and the pyramid's wire frame. I break my fall and land in the water at the pyramid's bottom. I wonder if there is a way out. I splash around and sure enough find a hole on the side that I can squeeze through, but first, I want a souvenir. I pull loose a big white lilly blossom that doesn't look half bad though I think it could be fresher.

I squeeze out of the flower arrangement and jump to the floor. Then I go running back through the hall. The line of kids is just about done. I don't know what happened to the boy who was behind me. I do know that somehow I am considered as dead as those other kids only I have been humiliated because Reverend Marcos doesn't like Christians which is what Reverend Lucia is. I run straight down the tables, straight toward the stage. Reverend Lucia is on her feet by now and following me. She must have started running toward me when I came back into the hall. I leap over wires and I can't climb to the stage.

I turn around to face Reverend Lucia. I expect her to be angry but her face has no expression. She grabs me and sets me on the stage. Then she climbs up herself. "Wave," she tells me. "We're on TV."

"Well it looks like all decorum has flown to the winds," says the announcer who then asks Lucia if I am still in the promising child competition. She says I am and we head back to our table. There are a few more songs by the choir and by then they serve the food.

"I can't believe we're not getting out of here," says Larry as we get up to go through the buffet.

"Didn't Reverned Adam explain. If Najya doesn't stick it out, she has no status. Besides that was a cheap trick." Lucia whispers. I eat pepper steak and roast potatoes that Lucia cuts for me. Up at the other end of the hall I hear somebody crying. It's a grown woman. I wonder if she is one of the parents of the kids who died. I try not to think about this. I am hungry. I do have my flower. I just wonder what Marco does next time.

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Chapter 8 -- A Visit or Reverend Wagstaffe

"If I were a different kind of man," Larry tells my mother, "I would go out and get smashed. All it would take is the right kind of bar. You realize that."

"I'm sure the right kind of bar exists. Go if it makes you feel better," answers an exasperated Lucia.

Larry growls and looks at us children who have gathered to see my "triumphant" return. "What happens next?" asks Larry.

"It's in God's hands," answers Lucia.

"You'll be fine! I'll be fine but the rest of you!" Larry addresses the rest of the chidren.

"If Mom doesn't stick up for this place, it will be OK to leave kids who are rejected to die," says Snowflake. "There are a lot of evil grownups out there. Some pretend to be doctors. Some are sisters. Some are priests. Each soul that is born starts out as innocent even if they were gangsters and such in a past life. They are innocent because they get a fresh chance. It is the adults who are corrupt. We have to make a stand. I just wish it was me." Snwoflake comes forward and embraces me.

"When they tell you that your a piece of shit
You know what you can say
Tell them to just fuck off
That's FUCK F-U-C-K

"We aren't innocent we're the bottom
They tell us we're the worst
But they're so full of shit they're lucky
They're assholes do not burst.

' "While dear old Reverend Lucia
Prays it turns out well....
We know that Heaven helps itself
If Najya gives' em hell.

"And if you tell me to 'sing something nice,' Lucia I will tell you to "fuck off," finishes Rio, my sister.

I have decided we need a poet when the doorbell rings. I fear it will be Reverend Marco but instead it is a lady I have never seen before. She wears a long white robe with this incredible scalloped and embroidered border and a huge feather boa. Her skin is wonderfully pink and her snow white hair is piled up in a mound of curls like the pile of lillies only the hair is not on the way out.

With the woman is a boy in blue jeans and a grey t-shirt. He is plump with an impassive square face. He glances around suspiciously. "You run quite a tight ship here," the woman greets Lucia, my mother. The big glamorous woman's name is Luna. She is Luna Banks of the Banks family, the youngest sibling, the one with the lazy husband and the business sense. If times were different she might have adopted a smart orphan she tells Lucia, but she never had much interest in children. She owns half a dozen assorted entertainment clubs and this empire is her children. Business is fun. The boy whose name is Odin, of all things, is a necessary evil. He is from the mall and he was chosen for toughtness and high IQ over looks and grace. So far he has survived the first ordeal. A dozen other childrenn out of one hundred and two were not so lucky. Next time will be harder.

To put it simply Luna thinks I have something to teach Odin. I have nerve and am resourceful and put even more bluntly Odin and I will make great partners. Lucia replies by asking Luna if she's on the zoning board and about credits for adopting orphans. Politics bores Odin and it bores Rio and me. The three of us head for the sunroom. "Let's watch Real Talk," suggests Odin. "Oh..." he says catching the look on my face. "The preacher has it pasworded."

"She's a priest," I say "and anyway, the password is hidden."

"We can find it," counters Rio.

Rio starts going through the desk drawers and finds a black notebook. It is full of handwritten notes. I don't read longhand well, but the password will be on the last pages since I only discovered the old one recently. It now has twelve characters but my skills are growing.

I turn to Odin. "I'll do this on one condition," I say. "I get to visit your house and we get your mother's chauffeur to take us out and I get to pick the place."

Odin shrugs but he agrees so I key in the passcode and then go find something else to do. Adults act stupid enough in real life. I don't have to watch on TV. I go to find the picture books, big coffee table books of world wonders, gardens, art, geography. Real Talk goes on for half an hour and then Odin asks me to key in the passcode again. I am not sure how to do this but I figure it out after six or seven tries. "Where are we going to go when you come to visit?" Odin asks. "I'll figure it out," I answer.

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Chapter 9 Pay Back

I get my visit to Odin's house three days later. Luna calls Lucia and the chauffeur comes and gets us this afternoon. Lucia it appears won't let me out of her sight but I don't have to keep secrets from her. I have decided that despite the broken promise which no mother can keep of me not getting hurt that I rather like her.

We don't say much as the chauffeur takes us across town and up into a part of Columbus where the houses are big like castles. These houses are a mix of early and late and of course imitation early and late twentieth century/twenty-first century architecture. The early twentieth century styles ape Tudor and Stewart castles in England. It pays to read up on many things.

Odin and his family live in one of the fake Tudor houses to which a variety of more modern additions have been added like the arms of an octopus. Lucia is not impressed but I am. I can't tally up the square feet now but this puts the old plantation that got eaten by kudzu to shame. Well it's been a good three hundred years or more so why shouldn't houses have gotten bigger. The place seems even bigger inside.

"My son asked for your daughter to be brought here," Luna, Odin's mother greets Lucia. Luna seems perplexed and none too happy. I take Odin off into the study which is a big formal room with old leather books on the wall that look like the kind of books nobody touches. Odin sits in a wing chair. It seems really comical that his feet don't come anywhere near the floor. He is wearing brown leather shoes and brown woolen pants and what looks like a very tailored cream colored shirt. He rests his chin on one hand. His hair is sandy and his face already turning from a cute kind of round to a less than cute square.

"So what's the plan?" he asks rather impatiently.

"How about a train trip to Atlanta. I want to visit the Historical Museum."

Odin wasn't expecting this but it's late afternoon now and after the museum there will be a restaurant in a flower-bedecked mall where we'll eat dinner. If we are going to be feted and tested and killed like sheep, we may as well enjoy ourselves. "I figure we ought to get out. We're all future promising children," I give the obvious explanation.

"That's a load of crap!" growls Odin.

"You think it's rigged?" I ask. That's a distinct possibility but I don't want to think about it costing my life, not yet. I have the sense not to.

"Oh yeah...maybe....It's just a pain," Odin growls. "I wanted to get born into a good family and I got it, better than I bargained for. Do you know what the people in this house run. Do you know even if they weren't royal how rich they would be?"

I pretend not to care. "Yeah but we're still just little kids even if we remember everything," I remind Odin.

"Yes, but we've got an edge. These families need us to stay on top. My mother will give me everything I want," Odin's eyes twinkle. Has he forgotten the stage a few weeks ago, the long line to meet that evil priest, Marco. "And don't play little innocent with me," Odin adds. " Look at this trip you're arranging. You're in it to get yours."

I'll only get mine so long as I stay alive and as for the rest, that is going to take some work, work I'm physically and perhaps mentally not capable of -- yet. Atlanta will be a dry run.

A few minutes later, the chauffeur is taking Lucia, a rather irritated Luna, a compliant Odin who has said his piece, and me down to the high speed rail depot. A half hour after that, we are in Atlanta.

"How'd you hear about the train?" Luna asks me as we watch the scenery wizz by.

"On TV" I tell her. This is true. Though I also remember it. I did a lot of studying of this area. I wanted to know exactly how things changed. Some things I see. Some I remember and the rest I will need to find and need to learn.

The museum is pretty good. I walk past the old plantation exhibits and look at the Indian pottery. I know what was done to the Indians in this part of the country. I stare at the spear heads and arrow points and bits of bone and faded glass.

Odin and Luna are bored. Lucia is less bored. Finally, Odin asks "You really like this stuff!"

"It's real," I answer.

"It's dead," answers Odin. So were we, I think until very recently.

We get our mall dinner. It's in a sit down restaurant overlooking an atrium where kids younger than us, probably newly born play. Parents or potential parents can take them home for a small charge.

"Can I tell you a secret?" Luna says to Lucia forgetting we kids are listening. "I got Odin in a mall just like this, a bigger one just North of Columbus. I decided that I wanted to see kids already born so I could judge. There's more to a child than genes, especially a promising one."

"Najya is from the government center at Gwinn County," Lucia tells Luna.

Odin plays with his food which is really not to his liking. I like my food but I need to think. I think of the arrow heads and spear points and the pottery and the mockups which are recreations because no photographs of the Indians survive and very few good sketches probably do. Indians in Georgia either walked the Trail of tears if they were lucky. If they weren't they were killed and their skins used like leather and their scalps collected. They were hunted like animals. That was in the early 1800's. I was born on the island in the 1830's the last time around. The Indians who were slaughtered and I were contemporaries. I tell myself to focus on the Indians whenever I think that I am safe. It is easier to think of the Indians than Marco, the priest, in his white robes.

We get back to Columbus late that night and Luna's chauffeur takes us home. Larry and Snowflake have been handling the house so it is chaos. Lucia does not get to talk to me at all but I don't think she's happy. " When you get up tomorrow morning we are going to have a long talk," she announces as she watches me bathe. I sense trouble but I am not sure why. A trip to a historical museum was harmless. If anything it will help me keep focused in the weeks ahead. I can't figure out why it bothers Lucia.

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Chapter 10 Atop the Wall

I see beautiful woven cloths and women with fantastic braided coifs such as I have never worn. My hair which has been nappy for centuries is always cut close to my scalp and then just left be. It is nice what there is of it. The braids are fanciful things like gold and jewels and the cloth, a beautiful symphony of geometrics. I watch the crowd come and go in the market place. I must be in my teens. I am thoroughly comfortable as an invisible observer even though I know that not far away, human beings, perhaps even relatives of my mother are for sale, though since the US forbade the importation of slaves in 1808 there are far fewer of them.

Something causes a ripple in the patterns. The dream dissolves. I open my eyes to see a Lucia whose one eye looks none too happy. She gets to the point as soon as I am awake. "You wasted a whole day yesterday!" she tells me. " I thought you could do better but you're too busy playing games. This trip was just a fancier version of the games that Rio and you play with the entertainment center. That's not going to get you anywhere."

She's using a euphemism, I think. "Najya, you are fighting for not only your own survival but that of everyone in this house!" My doesn't that sound dramatic but telling a little kid she might die fighting a battle she shouldn't be fighting even if she is a little kid who can remember back centuries is not something for which there are ever good words.

"I wasn't wasting a day!" I answer.

"OK what were you doing?"

"The Indian stuff keeps me sharp. It reminds me that Marco is like the whites who slaughtered the Indians. People can be evil and Marco has let evil get him."

"According to Adam," says Lucia with a sly smile "you've seen enough evil that you need no more inspiration. Luna is right having a partner will help. Too bad she doesn't know thing one about training you two."

"And you know?" I inquire.

"What we need to do," Lucia explains "is get you so far ahead of the curve that nothing can stop you. You have three hundred years of memories."

"Try fifteen hundred," I tell her.

"OK even better, and you can walk and talk and you even have managed to read a bit early. Odin for his part seems pert and smart and a fast developer too. I think we can get you to recover your skills a bit faster. Also since you are going to be challenged to stay alive physically, mentally, maybe morally, we can work on survival skills."

All I can think of is boot camp. "Will you be teaching Odin too?" I ask.

"I'll be teaching Odin, Rio, Jason, and you. There's still over a hundred surviving children so working in a group is a good idea." I don't have a choice in this. I am not sure what Lucia intends.

I can only watch and wait. For several days nothing happens. Lucia and I make several trips to the library. I get books with big print and pictures in them because I like to read and I practice night and day. Lucia even makes me put an envelope piece in my mouth so I can read silently. This doesn't feel very much like training.

Then the stuff starts to arrive. It's mostly climbing toys, but they are larger than toys. Lucia and Larry assemble these in the back yard. Larry grumbles and curses. He calls Lucia crazy.

I don't see it when Lucia calls Luna but one morning she delivers Odin and the classes begin. There are four of us as promised. Rio sits restlessly. Jason looks bored. We all need to know how to be able to read. The word Lucia uses is functional literacy.

"That's easy!" says Rio. "Then you do it," prompts Lucia. "I don't mean for me," answers Rio. "I mean Najya can whip our butts."

"Najya's got a head start that's all," says Lucia. I get excused to read silently during most of the class. I watch out of the corner of my eye as Lucia teaches the letters and numbers and then starts Rio and Jason out with alphabet blocks and a magnetic letter board and fuzzy letters. Odin can read a little so he gets words on flashcards and sometimes one of my books. Sometimes Odin or I teach the others.

Then in the afternoon it is time for outdoor survival class. Our job is to get over the climbing wall. It has no hand holds and only a rope dangles down. The walk is a good eight feet tall. Odin walks around it and Lucia laughs. It's a "smart" solution, but not the one that Lucia wants.

"We nee' laddah," Jason suggests. It's not a bad suggestion.

"We don't have a ladder you retard!" answers Rio.

"We fin laddah!" Jason lisps.

"We can't fin laddah retahd" Rio imitates.

Lucia says nothing. "In garage! I seen it!" Jason's small face is red with the frustration of getting the words out. He stands bow legged and clumsy, tears beginning to well up in his eyes.

I head for the garage and hope the others follow. Odin comes with me out of curiosity and Jason stumbles along which give Rio time to realize she's odd girl out this time around. There is a ladder in the garage and it is not on a high shelf but it may be too heavy for me to lift. Of course it is too heavy for me to lift and Jason who tries to grab it, sort of misses it and can't even get it off the ground.

"OK let's make Lucia happy and try," Odin suggests. He gets the front of the ladder. Rio and I get the rear and the near rear. Jason who is really useless gets somewhere in the middle and then just stares. We drag the ladder more than lift it. It takes five or six tries and a lot of arguing to get it balanced against the wall. Then up we go. Jason is the last to climb and takes the longest. More than once he ends up hanging by his arms while his legs dangle. He kicks to find his footing. By the time he is at the top of the wall with the rest of us, his face is beet red. I stare at him and wonder why he has such trouble.

I feel the cold spring wind blow along the top of the wall. There is no way we can get the ladder over to the other side to come down unless the grownups help us. I look at Jason who is staring down. His face is usually expressionless and unreadable yet of all of us he remembered the ladder. He had trouble lfiting it and climbing it. His speech is barely intelligible.

I don't like what I am thinking. It can't be true. Jason was born in the tanks like the rest of us. What used to happen in the old days when a birth went very roughly doesn't happen any more or does it. I feel my sadness turn to anger.

I barely hear Jason say "We use wope." Odin is the first to grasp what Jason means. He grabs the rope and hauls it up and lets it drop over the other side of the wall. Then Odin begins to slide down. He lets him drop slowly and carefully by increments. Rio goes next. She goes fast, probably burning her hands. That leaves me and then that will leave Jason.

"Lucia! Lucia!" I cry out.

"What's the matter Najya?" she asks.

"You're going to have to help Jason"

Lucia doesn't reply and I curse her in my mind. I hate her. I know Jason's affliction. It was my own once. He simply can not climb down a rope. His body will never fully obey what is probably a very fine mind.

"Lucia!" I scream. "I'm going to quit being promising child and you're whole house is going to get killed!"

I feel something tug at the sleeve of my shirt. It's Jason. "Stop Najeea," he commands. "We make knot."

"How?" I ask. I have visions of Jason falling from this height and dying. Do you want to die Jason. I was worse off than you and I did not want to die.

"Pick up rope" Jason points. I haul up the rope. It is heavy but I can handle it. I do it slowly. Jason, I notice does not mind waiting. I remember that I learned to talk to adults in slurred speech and point and let them know what I want. I wanted food, warmth, even pretty dresses. I could dream as well as any healthy child. Had adults been able to teach me to read, I might have learned.

Jason clumsily points to me where to put the end of the rope and how to loop it around his shoulders and stomach and how to draw a loop in and out. Mostly he shakes his head. Occasionally when I get it right, he nods. I have forgotten Jason carries a store of memories as rich or richer than my own. I trown down the rest of the rope and Jason carefully lets himself over the side. The knot slides but does not break and down he goes.

At the bottom. Lucia undoes the magical knot and then it is my turn to come down. I almost lose touch with the rope and slide out of control but in the end I make it. I collapse in the grass. I am crying but not making any sound. I am past rage and not even sure if I am sad.

"You were amazing!" Lucia congratulates me.

"Leave me the fuck alone!" I answer her and run into the house.

"Sore loser!" Rio castigates me.

I am not a sore loser. I don't care if Jason figured out how to scale a wall when he could not do it physically. I do care....Maybe Jason would understand. Maybe Jason will be as angry as I am some day.

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Chapter 11 Paddle Kick Splash!

Jason is not angry. Do not ask me why. Do not ask me about fine souls. Ask me about training. From Rio we learn to pick locks and break in houses. From me, the others learn to read maps, bus, and train schedules. Odin teaches about the best families in town and business. Why we should know that, I have no idea.

We keep reading and we keep up with our outdoor survival exercises. Lucia locks us out of the house. Lucia blindfolds us and leaves us individually in strange locations. Lucia blindfolds us and leaves us in the country outside of Columbus.

Lucia even takes us to the YWCA to learn to swim. She holds each of us until we float on our stomachs and then on our backs. We learn to kick and paddle. She even makes us learn to jump into the water and take off all our clothes and how to climb to the top of a flippd over boat or cling to the seats underneath. Jason nearly drowns during one of these exercises, but Lucia merely makes him try it again.

Weeks go by and then months and then it is time for the next "Gathering" as challenges are called. This is at a huge theme park in Warm Springs several highway exits outside Columbus. It begins with a garden party on a big cement pier. Below and to either side of the pier are woods. They have big oak trees in them and tall west Georgia pines.

There is music and a food buffet. I wish I could relax and eat and listen to the music but I can't. I wish Jason and Rio were here, but they aren't. Odin doesn't care for most of the food. He is munching miniature pizza. I walk as close to the end of the pier as possible. There is an iron fence at the end of the pier. It is fancy wrought iron painted carnation pink.

There is a gate in the fence that leads to a narrow concrete flight of steps that leads to a small concrete platform against which are moored eight row boats. I can hear the music starts. It is a band this time, not a temple choir. It is actually interesting. Reverend Marco is sitting on stage with the musicians.

When the music grows quiet, I know there is going to be trouble. I find Odin. By the way, neither Lucia nor Luna are allowed on to the pier. No parents are. I listen as Marco takes the microphone and tests the audio. In three centuries not all that much changes.

He announces the challenge. He points out into the water. In the middle of the channel is an island. On that island is a palace. Enter the palace courtyard and you will pass the challenge. With that, two attendants open the wrought iron gate and the children line up. Odin and I are near the end of the line. I can see that Odin is nervous. I remember the boats. Eight boats, a dozen seats per boat, two or three adults to row each boat. That means nine or ten of us will just plain not make it and we may be among the nine or ten.

"Look!" Odin commands me. I crane my neck to see a crying girl turned away at the gate. The adult attendants are deciding who gets on the boats. She who does not get on the boats, does not go to the island. She who does not go to the island, loses the challenge. It is that simple.

Odin and I watch two or three children get turned away. I look at Odin. He has a chance but I know my chances. "You think they'll take you?" I ask. Odin stares at the ground. "I barely ade it last time?&qut; he answers.

We need to find another way to get to the island. It is too far to swim. Then I remember the woods. "Save my place in line," I tell Odin and I walk to the edge of the left side of the pier. I can see a few logs stuck in the water. I remember the crying girl. She is alredy gone but two or three other kids are staggering away. I grab one of them. "There's another way to the island" I tell him.

Then I walk up and down the line and announce it. "Any body who thinks they can't get through the gate, come with us. We are going go a different way!" Odin looks stunned but we have a dozen kids following us off the pier and through prickly bushes into the woods and then through more bushes and past more rocks to the mud at the water's edge.

Odin and I wade into the river. The waters are placid but the bottom is uneven and rocky. We dislodge three logs and set them floating. Odin hangs on to them as I help lead the kids who can't swim out and on to the logs. We go four kids to a log. Odin is on one log. I am on the second and a tall red headed girl seems like the one who is best suited to lead the group on log number three.

"OK everyone," I order "Paddle as hard as you can and last one to the island is a rotten egg!" We're off. We can see the boats. They are ahead of us but not by much. Odin slides off his log and kicks to give the log more power. I slip into the water and do the same. This leaves log number three a bit behind but they paddle up a good splash and don't lag too much.

Paddle, kick, splash, paddle, kick. On we go. Our lives depend on this so we don't hurt and don't feel tired or at least I don't. Paddle, kick, splash, paddle, kick. The first boats are reaching the island dock. We keep pushing. Odin's log comes in at the same tiem as boat number six. My log comes in right after Odin's and the red headed girl's log is last but she gets it parked by a series of metal rungs so her log's crew is the first up. Odin's log debarks next and my log is last.

"Run!" Odin orders all of us, as we intercept the priviledged ones on the white shell path that leads to the palace. Water flies from our sodden clothes and leaves rainbow puddles in the sun. The courtyard gates are wide open. The red headed girl runs ahead of most of the priviledged kids. I realize if they slam the gate against her, they slam the gate against their favorites. I press on. My throat is raw. "Faster, Faster!" I call out as I urge our crews through the gate.

Marco sits on a throne in the courtyard. Odin walks up to Marco and kneels at his feet making obeisence. I stand there winded. The red headed girl stands beside me. Everyone else from the logs straggles in. "Get on your knees," Odin orders. "That's a high priest." I don't kneel before murderers. By my own wits and the grace of God I live. Given another chance, I may live again.

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The Leanest Times

I am dreaming of swimming in the ocean. The waves are rough and blue. I must be dead already because I could not have done this alive. Somewhere behind the beaches is the village of little wooden houses that had been home how many years ago....I wish I knew what age I was in this dream.

I am trying to figure this out when a woman's harsh voice intrudes. "Fool! Idiot!" she shouts. "Everyone else' children were offered a graceful out of the contest and most of them took it but we weren't offered this. No, my Odin still has to risk his life."

Reverend Lucia remains unruffled. "We saved thirty lives. Isn't that something?"

"We didn't save Odin or Najya. Don't you care about your daughter or is she one more kid in this....orphanage....you run." Luna spits out the word orphanage as if it is something dirty.

"One thing at a time. We are part way there," Reverend Lucia answers. " We keep fighting."

"I fight alongside people who are sane, people who look after their own interest! Good day!" With that, Odin's mother, Luna, stomps out of the house slamming the door loud enough to arouse Jason, the only one of us who hasn't been awake and overhearing the fracas.

"You don't need Odin,"" Reverend Lucia tells me. I can train with Jason and Rio, and the training goes on. A lot of it has to do with traveling around the county and state on my own. I don't have a lot of trouble with bus or train or super fast train schedules. Jason is good at reading road maps and he helps me. I also learn about computers and networks, how they work, how they are put together. I remember going to this server farm where a man named Edwin gives me private lessons. Of course the swimming and rapelling lessons continue. I am too busy to worry about what might happen next and in a way that is a good thing.

It is at least six months until the next challenge and now there are only twelve of us. This includes Odin who has grown both taller and wider. He will be large like the twentieth century football players. It will not be an attractive kind of large, more like a brick wall.

I wonder if Odin and I can still work together. I wonder this as the band sends us off. We ride in a big open backed truck to a house at the top of a hill. We are way out in the country, somewhere near Pine Mountain, in the wilderness between Altanta and Columbus. I recognized most of the roads on the way out and even some of the county roads on the way in.

The house is bare. We each have big staffs with crystal spheres on the end that look as if they were made of cracked and crazed glass. To get food, furniture, clothing etc... we tap the sphere and think of what we want. We got lessons in this before coming out here. I already know with that sickening feeling in the bottom of my gut that my sphere doesn't work. I watch Odin try his staff. He tries it away from the others.

He is not happy when I come upon him in his frustration. "Go away!" he snarls. "You can't help me. You're useless."

"The hell I am," I answer.

"We're stranded up here," answers Odin. "No food, and did you try the faucets in the bathroom. You need your sphere to turn on the water. And if we walk out without the others...the challenge is finished. And don't bother asking the others for help. They're just as out for themselves as most normal people..." Odin sighs.

"It's not as hopeless as it looks," I tell Odin....

"Yeah....what you going to do pray?"

"Follow me....."

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