Missed part 1? Read it here!
“What’s your name?” Ms. Y asked, but her voice was faint, like an echo.
More pressing were the words resounding painfully in my head. They were in that language—the one I somehow understood, the one from my dream. Don’t say anything. Never say anything to anyone.
Everyone was waiting. Some were snickering; others sending me pitying looks. I forced my heavy tongue to move. “Stephanie,” I whispered.
The moment the word escaped my lips, a huge pain hit me behind the eyebrows, as if someone was pinching the inside of my temple. I sat down before I could collapse—that would have been even more embarrassing.
The teacher spoke, probably assuring me that everyone at the school was very nice and that there was no need to be shy, but I wasn’t listening; I was too busy trying not to cry out in pain.
Eventually, the headache wore off. Classmates approached to introduce themselves. I nodded and smiled, but didn’t venture a single word, every time I tried the words would pound into my skull. All would ultimately drift away and talk with someone more responsive.
Watching would-be friends walk away was torture. Seeing teachers conclude I was socially impaired was torture. Sitting by myself at lunch was torture. In short, the whole day was torture.
What a relief when school ended. Bolting like a rabbit let out of a cage, I raced to the curb where parents’ cars were lined up to pick their children up. I searched for Mom’s white minivan. There! I sped over to the car and yanked the passenger door open. But it wasn’t Mom driving.
“Can I help you, dear?” the woman asked, turning down the radio.
My cheeks burned as I shook my head and quickly backed away to the curb. Scanning the cars again, I spotted at least five white minivans. I swallowed back tears. It would all work out, I told myself.
“Are you okay?” an 8th grader tapped me on the shoulder.
No, I can’t find my mom. I wanted to say, but my tongue had frozen once more and the words from my dream had returned. Don’t say anything. Never say anything to anyone. Wincing, I pressed my hand to my temple. I shook my head to answer the guy and hurried away, glancing at each of the drivers of the minivans. Mom wasn’t in any of them. I stood on the curb, waiting. Eyes downturned, mouth closed, shoulders hunched, hands in pocket.
When I saw Mom, the tears nearly fell, but I managed to hold them in. If Mom thought the day had gone anything but great, she would storm the school and talk to the principal and all my teachers. Then they would treat me differently, my classmates would hate me.
“How was your first day?” Mom asked cheerily.
I tested my tongue to see if I had control over it, before I mumbled. “Fine.” It felt strange to hear my voice after a whole day of silence.
“Fine?” Mom took her eyes off the road to examine my face. “What happened? Were the kids mean?”
“No, they were actually really nice.”
“So, what’s the problem?”
Something’s wrong with me. It was on the tip of my tongue. Mom’s phone stopped me as it began playing an instrumental version of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
“Oh, that’s your dad. Answer it, will you, honey?”
I put the phone to my ear. “Hi, Dad.”
“Princess!” my dad’s deep voice rumbled. I smiled, immediately feeling soothed despite myself. “How was your first day of school?”
My smile faltered. “It was, um, a great new experience.”
“Tell me all about it when I get home, ok?”
“Sure,” I said. Hopefully, by the time he returned from his deployment, he wouldn’t even remember this conversation.
“Talk to you later, Princess. Oh, and tell your mother not to make dinner.”
“It’s a surprise.”
“Wait, does that mean…are you here already?”
Mom jerked, swerving the car. She righted it, but turned her gaze away from the road to look at me with hopeful eyes.
“Darn, I can never keep these things secret!” Dad exclaimed. I could picture him: high and tight black hair, hand slapping his forehead. “Yes, I’m home and I’m taking my two princesses to a celebratory first day of school dinner.”
This made up for everything! For the humiliation, for the awkwardness, for the loneliness, for the whole school day. I whooped and punched the air. “Dad’s home!”
Mom’s grin was radiant. She stepped on the accelerator, urging the car to a velocity well above the speed limit.
Sure enough, Dad’s gray Camry was in the driveway. I was out of the car and running before we had come to a complete stop. Mom, neglecting to turn the ignition off, wasn’t far behind. Dad stepped out to catch me in his arms. He set me down to hug Mom. Then pulled us both into his embrace. He smelled of forest, like he always did.
“How do you two feel about Italian food?”
“So long as we’re with you, anything is fabulous, Johnny,” Mom said, leaning her face close to his.
They were about to go all mushy. I turned away in pretend disgust and let out a not pretend scream. Our car was going on a drive through our neighbors’ yards.
“Son of Nefron!” Dad cursed. At least, that’s what I heard. He sprinted after the car.
“Oops,” Mom muttered.
Disaster averted, we were on our way to Olive Garden. The dreaded question came up sooner than I had anticipated. “Any new friends you want to invite?” Dad asked, looking at me through the rearview mirror.
“Dad it’s only the first day; I haven’t made any friends yet.”
We had a lovely time, eating our pasta at the outdoor tables. For a moment, I forgot all about my difficulties and I was happy…Except, that moment ended and I had to go back to school.
The days progressed just as the first, except that I gave up trying to speak. People either thought me shy or rude, until they seemed to forget I existed at all. Which was just as well; it saved me the trouble of being mortified when people found themselves in a one-sided conversation with me.
Mom and Dad thought my best friend was this super successful girl named Jessica who had so many extracurricular activities she never had time to hang out. As for the nightmares, I learned to suppress the screams. Waking up in the middle of the night, sweating and panting, became the norm. Mom and Dad were never disturbed from their sleep.
The worst one came in December. I, as Tabitha, was sitting on some marble steps, playing with my dolls. They were alive, moving and talking like little people. My mother was on the throne, conferring with some men in that language I didn’t know.
“Are you certain?” she asked.
“Yes, your majesty.”
“We cannot let them find her!” The distress in my mother’s voice was enough to distract me from my games. She stared down at me for a long time. Then she called out. “Johnathon!”
One of the guards hurried to kneel at her feet. I saw only his pointy ears. “Yes, my queen?”
“I am prepared to give my blessing.”
The man’s shoulder’s tensed in surprise. He raised his head to look at my mother’s face. “My queen?”
“On the condition that, should anything happen to me, you, my sister, and Tabitha will escape to America.”
I jumped to my feet. “America?”
My mother gestured for me to come closer. She took me into her arms. “I know, darling, but you must trust me. And you must trust Robert.”
I turned my gaze towards the kneeling man. The part of me that remembered I was Stephanie, not Tabitha, gasped. The man was my dad.
A tornado suddenly whirled everything away. The scene changed. It was the city. Everything was on fire. Dad was running through the streets, dragging me with him. But our legs didn’t seem to work. The harder we pushed, the slower we moved. People screamed. The masked men were behind us, shooting guns. Dad yelled words not at all suitable for a toddler’s ears, but even these came out in slow motion.
We weren’t the only ones being attacked. The masked men burst into homes, dragging people out and proceeding to steal their valuables. I felt their pain in my chest; heard their sobs in my head. I couldn’t abandon them. There was a heavy sense of responsibility within me. Energy built up inside me. Dad dropped my hand with a yelp, as if it was burning, it was burning. I threw my arms into the air and yelled at the top of my lungs. Everything froze, as if the pause button had been pressed. Even the flames stood still.
Only one person kept moving—the black-eyed man.
His arms grabbed me.