Chapter 62: Ansel

Hello, dear readers. Today we rejoin Ansel as she’s exploring Outland 4 with her new friend, Ashley. Read Ansel’s third and final point of view chapter in Dividing by Ø right here, and don’t forget to join us next week for the concluding chapter of book three out of four of the Infinite Limits series. Enjoy.

< LXI. Chelsea     [Table of Contents]     LXIII. Mr. Walker >

LXII. Ansel

The claws never came. Nor the jaws. Only the laughter of Ashley who couldn’t even speak he was so doubled over. Ansel crawled to her feet, picking up her rucksack and brushing herself off, and the huge cat was no longer in front of her. She turned to find it inside another clearing behind her, across the dirt path they had come in on, looking out the other way and ready to pounce on some unseen thing.

“Oh. Oh ho ho!” Ashley laughed, trying to get control of himself. “Don’t worry. He can’t get you. Ho ho ho!”

Ansel reached out toward the cat and her hand disappeared in a straight line at the wrist, just like it had done when she had tried to open Anna and Rosa’s door what seemed like ages ago.

“You see,” Ashley said behind her, and Ansel turned to see her disembodied hand floating on the other side of the dirt path. “We can’t get to it, either. The only difference is that we can see the jaguar’s side of the wall and the jaguar can’t see ours. It’s kind of like a one-way mirror in that sense.”

Ansel waved her arm and the floating hand waved in unison. What kind of world was she living in?

“Pretty nifty, isn’t it?” Ashley asked

“I thought it was going to kill you,” Ansel said, pulling her arm out of the—whatever it was in—so it looked like her body was all in one piece again. “I don’t really find that funny.”

Ashley grinned, laughter trying to burst out of him again. “Well, I did. And there was no danger, anyway. And you acted heroically, trying to push me out of the way like that.” He giggled. “My saviour.”

“Alright,” Ansel said, walking down the path the way they had been going before Ashley stopped her to see the big cat. She wondered what other animals she might see on the way. “Enough funny business. Why’d you bring me here, anyway?”

Ashley followed along behind her, keeping good pace and walking more quietly than Pidgeon would have ever been able to. “Well, a few reasons,” he said. “First, to show you that my chemistry homework is far from the coolest thing in this world.”

Ansel nodded, not really hearing what Ashley was saying. Out in a clearing to the right of her was a giant hairy human-like thing with bigger muscles and a bigger head than she had ever seen—except for maybe on those fat tuxedoed babies at the dinner party. The hairy human thing was scratching itself in the sun and chewing on a pile of fruits. Ansel’s knees shook a little. She would have bolted out of there already if she hadn’t experienced the embarrassment of the giant cat incident earlier. Why was everything so much bigger and scarier here? “What is that?” she asked.

Ashley had to look again, as if he hadn’t noticed the thing the first time because it was an everyday occurrence to him. “Oh, a gorilla,” he said. “A rather big one, too. They’ve been bred to be larger and more ferocious for the show value. Thank our Holy Mother for the Walker-Haley fields between us or this guy here would be more dangerous than that jaguar we saw earlier.”

“A gorilla,” Ansel said, mesmerized by its huge bulging muscles and chomping jaws. “These things just live out in the wild?”

Ho ho ho, not anymore.” Ashley chuckled. “A long long time ago this guy’s great, great, great times a bunch ancestors lived in the wild, but like I said, they were a lot smaller back then. Now they’re an endangered species. Pretty much completely extinct, actually. Like most of the animals in here, they only exist in captivity.”

Here came that word again: endangered. “So that’s what makes them endangered?” Ansel asked. “Because they only live in captivity?” She had been held captive her entire life, kept ignorant of these worlds and the many others she had discovered in so little time since finding the first new one. Maybe she was endangered, too.

“Well, not exactly,” Ashley said. “But yes. We hold them here because they’re endangered, they’re not endangered because we hold them here.”

Pshh. What’s the difference?”

Ashley had to think long and hard about that. Ansel just let him. She was happy enough to stare at the magnificent gorilla as it ate. Who would endanger such a beautiful beast?

“You know,” Ashley said after some time of silence, breaking Ansel away from her reverie. “I’m not entirely sure there is a difference anymore, the more I think about it. It’s like, in the beginning we built walls to keep everything out for our own protection, and now we have to build walls that keep them in for their protection. I’m not sure when that changed, but when it did, it rendered any differences there might have once been entirely meaningless.”

Ansel didn’t know exactly what he was saying. She wasn’t sure she cared, either. She didn’t respond. Instead she just walked on along the dirt path in search of whatever new creature she might find in the next clearing. Ashley followed behind her, seemingly content to explore his own thoughts in silence while Ansel explored the real world.

It was a long walk before she came to the next animal, but Ansel didn’t mind. The anticipation was part of the fun, and there were plenty of exotic plants everywhere—not to mention birds of various bright colors flying around. But then the giant towered over her with its long yellow and brown spotted neck, chewing leaves it ripped from the trees with a finger-like tongue. Ansel didn’t ask what this one was, it didn’t need a name. She just stared up at its towering figure, plucking leaves from the trees, and tried to imagine what it saw through its elevated eyes.

“That’s a giraffe,” Ashley said, giving Ansel a name for the beast anyway. “It’s my favorite 3D animal, personally. They’re so tall and graceful, and such perfect pieces of evidence in support of evolution by natural selection. The way their laryngeal nerve goes all the way down and back up the neck again instead of taking the short route…”

Ashley kept going but Ansel didn’t hear a word he said beyond giraffe. She kept repeating it in her head. Giraffe, giraffe, giraffe. Who would endanger the giraffe? How could you trap such a strong looking gorilla? What kind of person would hurt a big black jaguar? She wasn’t sure she could take any more of this zoo if it meant seeing more caged and endangered beauties like this one.

Alright, enough.” Ansel snapped, cutting off Ashley’s lecture on giraffes which was still going on despite her ignoring it. “Why did you bring me here? Tell me.”

“I—uh… I thought you might like to see it. I don’t know. And I thought it might help explain where you are. I just— I, uh…” He shrugged.

“How is this supposed to help? Just tell me where we are.”

Uh, well, it’s—you know—like a model, really. Or maybe a metaphor. It’s meant to illuminate—”

“Get to the point.”

“Okay. Well. You know how the jaguar couldn’t pounce on you, right?”

“Of course.”

“Well, we couldn’t really touch it and it couldn’t eat us, right. I mean, the cat couldn’t even see us, okay. So you could essentially say that we are in two separate worlds, right? Us and the jaguar, I mean. The jaguar in their own world, and they can’t see into ours, but we can see into their world even if we can’t physically go there. Right? Not by walking off the path here where it looks like the jaguar’s world should be, at least.”

“Okay,” Ansel said still having a hard time following him. “So what?”

“Well essentially, the wider world—or worlds you might say—are split up the same way. Okay. They’re all right next each other like we are with the jaguar, but there’s no line of sight going either way. It would be more like if we couldn’t see into the jaguar’s habitat either, just like it couldn’t see out to us.”

“We wouldn’t even know they were there,” Ansel said, starting to understand now.

“Exactly.” Ashley smiled. “But those other worlds would be there, with all those people in them, living their own lives, oblivious to everything going on in our world, acting as if we didn’t exist either. Do you see where I’m going?”

Ansel nodded. She saw exactly where he was going. She wasn’t quite sure if she could believe what he was saying, but he had given her plenty of evidence to support his story with the way this zoo worked, and what he said seemed to explain some of the stranger experiences she had been going through ever since she moved to the Belt and beyond. “You’re saying that the world works exactly like this zoo,” she said. “You’re telling me that humans live in these same sort of cages that y’all have endangered all these animals with.”

“Yes, well, I’m not sure I would call the worlds cages,” Ashley said with a chuckle. “I’m not even sure I’d call what these animals are in cages, either. I mean, besides there being no bars, this is all the wilderness any of their ancestors have known for generations. These…protected habitats, let’s call them, make up the entire universe that these animals can ever experience, sure, but they’re not caged in, really, and they don’t know any better anyway.”

“Because they can’t know any better,” Ansel said. “They’re just animals. But you’re trying to say that humans are caged up like this, too. Would that be okay with you as long as the humans didn’t know any better?”

“First of all, they’re not cages,” Ashley said. “Habitats.”

“Whatever.”

“And second of all, you don’t give enough credit to these animals—or maybe you give too much credit to humans, I’m not sure. But take the gorillas, okay. They started out smart, of course, but you should see how intelligent they are now that they’ve been bred for it.” He nodded over at the long necked giant that was still munching on leaves. “That giraffe over there can figure out a lot more about the worlds than you might think. I promise you.”

“Wait, I don’t understand,” Ansel said. “Are you saying you would be okay with humans being caged, or put in habitats, or whatever you want to call it, as long as they didn’t know any better?”

“I’m not saying that exactly,” Ashley said, tapping his chin. “How can I communicate this in a way that you’ll understand? I could see how it might be for the best. That’s it. Just like the reserve here—let’s get that nasty word zoo out of our mind for the sake of objectivity. Without this reserve, where else could these animals go?”

“To the wilderness,” Ansel said. “Where they would be free to roam wherever they want to without being sent back to the beginning every time they finally get to the end.”

“What wilderness?” Ashley scoffed. “You’re looking at all the wilderness there is left that isn’t already owned and in use. And if there was any more, that would only broaden their playing field. The animals would still be sent to the beginning every time they got to the end because that’s how a round planet works.”

“And the humans?” Ansel asked, feeling her control over her temper loosen. “It’s best for them, too? You think it was best for me to be caged in the Streets, surrounded by cement and concrete, without any source of food or support of any kind for as far as I could possibly go in my little world? What kind of habitat is that? What was I being protected from?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Ashley said, looking like he was getting a little angry himself. “You’ve given me no information about where you’re from so I can’t speculate as to whether it was for your best or not. I can see how it’s for the animals’ best because I’ve studied them thoroughly, but I have yet to come to a conclusion on humans. If you were a little more cooperative in answering my questions, maybe I could figure out how I felt about your situation sooner than later.”

“I—uh…” He was right even if he was being an ass about it. Ansel had been too harsh on him herself, though. He probably knew as little about her world as she knew about his. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m just— I’m a long way from home, I think, and I’ve been through a whole lot of Hell to get here. I miss my family and friends, and I never should have come all the way out here on my own in the first place.” She shook her head, fighting tears. “We do nothing alone.”

“It’s okay,” Ashley said, looking terrified at the prospect that Ansel might start crying—which made her chuckle a little. “You’re— You’re not alone, okay. I want to help you, you know. I will help you.”

“You don’t just want to study me?” Ansel smiled.

“Oh, I could study you all day.” Ashley held a hand to his mouth, blushing. “I mean— You know what I mean. But that’s not the only thing I want to do. I want to help you, too. We can help each other, I think.”

Psssh. Yeah right. How could I help you? You don’t need any hunting done, do you?”

“Well, no.” He shook his head.

“Then I prolly won’t be much help. Sorry.” Ansel shrugged.

“I doubt that.” Ashley chuckled. “The mere fact that you’ve brought my attention to the possibility of worlds beyond those that are known and mapped has been help enough. I always knew there were way more lines of tunnel than the maps showed us, and now I might just understand why.”

“Wait, so you didn’t know about the other worlds either?”

“I knew of one,” Ashley said. “We call it Never Never Land. It’s where all the celebrities live. But I imagine it’s not the world you come from, is it?”

Ansel shook her head. “I’m not really sure what a celebrity is.”

Exactly. Pointing further to the fact that you hail from a third, separate world and implying the possibility of further worlds after that.”

“All because I don’t know what a celebrity is?”

“All because you came through the seams,” Ashley said, smiling. “Now come on. Let’s get to my lab so we can try to find your world.” He grabbed her by the hand and pulled her running back the way they had come from.

Ansel forgot herself in the wind whipping against her face and the flying branches all around her. The giraffe, gorilla, and jaguar were nothing more than blurs in her peripheral vision, along with the long smudge of dark jungle green. It wasn’t until the world stopped moving again and the elevator doors slid closed behind them that either of them spoke.

“They still weren’t as cool as chemistry,” Ansel said at the same time that Ashley said, “I think I know how to find your world.”

“Oh, sorry,” they said at the same time.

“And chemistry? You’re way off,” Ashley said while Ansel said, “Oh, cool.”

“Animals are much cooler than chemistry,” Ashley said when they were done apologizing for talking over each other.

“But those animals were so far away,” Ansel said.

“Luckily for us. Lab.”

The elevator fell into motion.

“Well, I’d still like to know more about chemistry,” Ansel said.

“Maybe I’ll show you after we search for your world.”

Ansel shrugged. She didn’t really care about finding her world, more so she just wanted to find a new one to live in. The elevator stopped, the doors slid open, and she stepped into a long hall but Ashley didn’t follow. Ansel turned to look at him and found him shaking his head, looking afraid. “What’s wrong?” she asked.

“Th—This isn’t my lab,” Ashely said, still shaking his head. “This is wrong. We should go. Come here. Get back in the elevator.” He waved to hurry her up.

Before Ansel could respond, though, the door at the other end of the hall opened and in came Rosalind, followed by Popeye. Ansel groaned. She knew she recognized this hall, but she had thought it was because all those white-coated people’s buildings looked the same.

So,” Rosalind said with a grin, “the prodigal child returns.”

Popeye waved emphatically, like the tail of a dog who was happy to see its owner, but Popeye was all tail and no dog.

“I didn’t return,” Ansel said, crossing her arms. “This isn’t where we were trying to go.”

“Oh, then what are you doing here?” Rosalind laughed a cackling laugh.

Um, I’m sorry, ma’am,” Ashley said, finally coming out of the elevator and putting a hand on Ansel’s shoulder—which she shrugged away. “It was some sort of malfunction in the elevator. We were supposed to go to my lab. We’ll just be leaving now.” He tried to pull Ansel back into the elevator but she wouldn’t budge.

“It was no malfunction,” Ansel said. “She did it on purpose. Didn’t you?”

Ha ha ha.” Rosalind laughed. “Who’s the bumbling new child you’ve brought with you this time, girl? Have you found yourself a new boyfriend already? Pidgeon’ll be sad to hear it. Ha ha ha!”

“He’s not my boyfriend,” Ansel said, stomping a foot. She could see Ashley blushing out of her peripheral vision and tried hard not to look at him.

“I—It was an accident,” Ashley stammered.

“It was not an accident, boy,” Rosalind snapped. “You’re girlfriend here is right about that. The Scientist wants to see you and she couldn’t wait until you two split up so here you both are. Now come on in. Right this way.” She made a gracious wave of her arm then shoved Ansel and Ashley down the hall toward the door at the end of it where Popeye was waving them on.

“I—I don’t—” Ashley stammered, gripping tight to Ansel’s shirt.

“She’s never gonna convince me to stay,” Ansel said, trying to shrug him away in vain. “I don’t know what she would have to talk to me about.”

Rosalind grinned, still pushing them along. “You’ll just have to go in and see for yourself, then. Won’t you, girl?”

Ansel didn’t let the word cut her like she knew it was meant to. She didn’t respond to it at all. She just gave up fighting and went in through the door, pulling Ashley along in her wake.

The Scientist was sitting in a puffy chair, under the view of the endless mountain that could never again impress Ansel, indicating for them to take their seats across from her. Ashley hesitated but Ansel had been through all this before. She strode right up and took a chair without having to struggle into it, despite its height. Seeing her confidence gave Ashley some of his own, and soon he struggled into the chair between Ansel’s and the Scientist’s. When he was finally up and seated, he stared in slack jawed awe at the Scientist who smiled—suspiciously Ansel thought—right back at him.

“I— You’re— You can’t be,” Ashley said.

The Scientist nodded, still grinning. “Yes, child. I can be,” she said. “And I am.”

“Why did you send for me?” Ansel demanded, ignoring Ashley’s fanboy reaction. She didn’t care who he thought the Scientist was or how impressed he was by her, Ansel just wanted to get out of there as soon as they could.

“Ansel,” Ashley said, “she didn’t want to see you. She’s too important. She probably doesn’t even know who you are. She’s—”

Actually, I did want to see Ansel,” the Scientist said. “I needed to see her, in fact.”

“But you’re—” Ashley said.

“The Scientist,” Ansel cut him off. “I know.”

“Well I was going to say Dr. Haley Walker,” Ashley said, “but she is pretty much the epitome of a scientist. You’re right about that.”

“Haley Walker?” Ansel said.

“My true name.” The Scientist nodded.

Why had she hidden the name for so long if this kid knew it by the sight of her? “Well what do you want?” Ansel demanded.

“I want to know how your trip has gone, dear.” The Scientist smiled—Ansel still couldn’t think of her as Dr. Walker, she had been the Scientist for too long. “I want to know if you’ve changed your mind.” Then quickly, as if to prevent the answer she knew was coming, the Scientist added, “I want to know what you want now. I’m sure you have a better idea for yourself after your little adventure in Four, don’t you?”

“What do you know about my adventure?” Ansel asked, wondering who was slipping the Scientist information.

“Not much, child.” The Scientist laughed. “Which is why I need you to tell me all about it. Starting with the name of your little friend who you’ve brought along with you.”

“I— I’m Ashley Tyson,” Ashley said, squirming in his seat. “I’m a topological physicist myself, ma’am. Can I say that I admire you more than any scientist who has ever lived. Like, for real. You’re my hero.”

The Scientist chuckled. “You can, but you wouldn’t be the first.” She winked. “And that’s about enough said. Let’s talk about something interesting for a change. Where did you and my dear Ansel meet?”

Ansel resented being called “her dear” by the Scientist, but she didn’t get a chance to respond because Ashley was too eager to speak. “Well I was down in the Labyrinth, ma’am—forgive the colloquialism—but I was monitoring Walker-Haley field function for class credit when she appeared out of nowhere and ran right into me. I thought she was my replacement, you know, but then she said she had come through the seams of Sisyphus’s Mountain without the protection of a transport shield or radiation suit, and I wouldn’t believe her. I mean, I thought that was impossible. It is impossible, isn’t it? She didn’t really go through the fields naked. Did she?”

The Scientist was chuckling for most of his long rant, shaking her head, and she continued on after he stopped. “I don’t know,” she said, looking at Ansel for confirmation. “Did you?”

Ansel shrugged. “I found an escape from your mountain wilderness and I took the opportunity, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“By the elevator?” the Scientist asked.

Ansel nodded. Of course the Scientist knew about the seam already. Getting Ansel  to tell the story out loud was just some sick power trip.

“It’s always tricky keeping the fields contained in such tight spots,” the Scientist said, more to herself than either of them. “I’ll have to take a closer look at that in the morning.”

“So she did go through naked,” Ashley said, glancing wide eyed between the Scientist and Ansel. “You weren’t lying?”

“Of course I wasn’t.” Ansel scoffed. “I wouldn’t.”

“And there are worlds we haven’t been told about,” Ashley said to the Scientist. “Aren’t there?”

“Beyond your imagination.” The Scientist nodded.

Ashley seemed to fall into his own mind, lost trying to determine the possibilities created by the new information he had just been given. Ansel wasn’t impressed, though. “Is this all you brought me here for?” She scoffed. “To impress some white coated flower from another planet? Can I leave now?”

“Not in the least,” the Scientist said, getting serious now. “But the rest, I’m afraid, the reason I really brought you here, that has to be taken care of in private. Ashley, friend, you’ll have to wait in the other room with Rosalind. I’m sorry.”

“I—but—” Ashley complained as the office door opened and in came Rosalind. “I have so many questions to ask you.”

“C’mon, kid,” Rosalind said, jerking a thumb toward the door. “You heard the lady. Let’s go.”

“In due time,” the Scientist said, standing to help Rosalind guide him out of the room. “All your questions will be answered in due time.”

Ansel heaved a sigh of relief when he was gone. The sooner they were alone, the sooner she could leave, and that was the only thing Ansel wanted. “So,” she said expectantly as the Scientist retook her seat.

“So, my dear.” The Scientist smiled. “Your trip. How did it go?”

“Ashley already told you most of it.”

The Scientist chuckled. “He told me nothing, how you met. I want more. I want to know everything that happened after, everything that happened before. I want to know everything. Did you climb the mountain?”

Ansel nodded.

“And what did you see?”

“Myself,” Ansel said without hesitation. She had thought about that view so many times since she had seen it that she could respond by reflex. “My future, my past…me.” She shrugged.

The Scientist nodded. “Sure,” she said. “Sure it was. It was almost like that, at least. You can never get over the mountain, though, so it’s only ever your present, really.”

“But I did get over it,” Ansel said defiantly, puffing out her chest. “Three times.”

The Scientist chuckled. “And how many more mountains were there after that?”

Ansel shook her head. “Is this all you brought me here for? To toy with me? I’m pretty sure by now that it’s the only reason you let me go out there in that wilderness in the first place.”

“No, dear. Settle down, now.” The Scientist tried to calm her. “We can move on if that’s what you want. I’d still like to know what happened after you met Ashley, though. Did you enjoy your time in Four?”

“What’s Four?”

“The world you were in, my dear. You understand how these things work, now, don’t you? I’m told you visited a zoo. That had to be illuminating.”

“The whole world’s like a zoo, isn’t it?” Ansel demanded, searching the Scientist’s eyes for some deeper meaning beyond her words.

“I think that’s always been true,” the Scientist said with a smile. “It has been for as long as I can remember, anyway. And that’s a long time, mind you.”

“No, I mean we’re all caged up like those animals I saw. We have no means of escape. Though I did escape, somehow.” Because the Scientist had plucked her out of her world, but the Scientist knew that and Ansel wasn’t ready to give her the credit. “But everyone else is stuck where they are.”

“My previous comment still holds true.” The Scientist nodded. “It’s been like this pretty much forever. Though I know what you mean. And yes, at one time we were using the Walker-Haley fields to fence things in, but now the entire universe consists of fences and walls, making it all but indistinguishable whether we’re in the wilderness or the reserve. There’s no separation anymore. You don’t even have to say we’re like the animals kept in the zoo that you visited. In essence, all the worlds of Earth are a part of the same network of habitats making one total zoo.”

“And you’re the zoo guard,” Ansel said, shaking her head. “You make sure everyone stays in their places and the walls stand tall and strong.”

“I brought you out of the Streets, didn’t I?” the Scientist said. “I didn’t force you to live in Six forever, the lowest of the low.”

“My parents got me out of the Streets,” Ansel snapped. “That wasn’t you. That was our own hard work, and if they hadn’t been killed, I could have gotten out of Six—or whatever you want to call it—myself.”

The Scientist chuckled. “And how do you think they got their hands on those printers that got them their promotions, huh? I got you out of the streets, I got you out of Six entirely, and I want to give you more than that. I want to give you all the worlds on a platinum platter.”

Ansel scoffed. “Yeah, right. To do what with them? Tinker and toy like you do? No thanks.”

Ba ha ha.” The Scientist shook her head, waving a finger at Ansel. It reminded her of the same gesture her mom used to make. She didn’t know whether to be endeared or angry at the reminder. “Not so fast, Ansel. You’ll want to consider this offer and consider it well.”

“Well…” Ansel said.

“Well, dear.” The Scientist smiled. “Before I give you the offer, you must first answer me one question. What is it that you want most in life?”

Ansel groaned. She had had enough of the Scientist’s pseudo-spiritual mumbo jumbo. “What if I don’t want to answer that question?” she asked, playing the Scientist at her own games.

“Then you’d be answering my question.” The Scientist grinned. “You want not to answer the question. Though I figured you’d want a little more out of life than that. Not answering one question isn’t a lot to work with.” She chuckled, pleased with herself for some stupid reason.

“What does it matter anyway?” Ansel asked.

“What could it hurt to tell me? You’re only wasting time. I know you want to hear my offer. Your curiosity’s been piqued. And I won’t tell you what the offer is until you answer my one simple question, easy as that. So what do you say? What do you want most in life?”

Ansel sighed. The Scientist was right. The worst that could happen would be that the Scientist didn’t offer her what she said she wanted. Who cares if the Scientist learns what that is? “My parents to be alive again,” she said.

“Oh, well…” A tear came to the Scientist’s eye and she quickly wiped it away with the long white sleeve of her coat, trying to be discreet. “I knew this would be your first request but I didn’t think it would hit me so hard. I’m sorry.” She wiped her eyes again. “I’m afraid resurrection’s not possible, though. Where would we be if it was? Do you have any other desires?”

Ansel shook her head. “You asked for what I wanted most in the world and I told you. Now what’s your offer?”

“My offer pales in comparison to your need for a family, Ansel. I’ve already offered you what family I can and you rejected it. Instead I’m here to offer you independence. You’re on your own now—though my offer a family still stands, mind you—but with that in mind, and resurrection off the table, what do you want?”

“Nothing! I don’t want anything else. I want everything to go back to the way it was before you killed my family!”

“What next then? What are you going to do when you leave here? Where will you go? Where do you want to go?”

Ansel worked to calm herself down, taking deep, heaving breaths. She wasn’t quite sure. She could go back to the Streets, try to hook up with Katie again, relive the life she used to live before everyone started trying to turn her into a garden flower. Or she could try to convince Pidgeon to live out in the endless mountain with her. She could teach him a few things about hunting, and he would be close enough to the elevator that he could get whatever his heart desired to eat from the Scientist’s 3D printer. Or she could go do chemistry and stare at bizarre animals with Ashley, maybe even get a white coat of her own some day. She didn’t really want to do any of those things, though, and she kind of wanted to do them all at the same time. What could she say? She couldn’t decide. “I don’t know,” she finally did say after too long thinking about it. “I want to do a lot of things.”

The Scientist smiled. “Name a few.”

“Maybe I want to go back to the Streets to find my old friends. I haven’t seen them since I moved to the Belt.”

“But you wouldn’t want to live there again, would you? Not after everything you’ve seen out here. Not now that you know how you could be living otherwise.”

“Well maybe I want to go back out to the wilderness, then. I bet I could convince Pidgeon to come with me.”

“Out there on Sisyphus’s Mountain? You think that wilderness is big enough for you?”

“No, well… I would like to do chemistry, too. Ooh, and free those animals in the zoo. They deserve a bigger wilderness as much as I do.”

The Scientist chuckled. “Well, you do want a lot of things. Don’t you?”

“Yeah, so?” Ansel crossed her arms, self-conscious and regretting that she had told the Scientist anything.

“So do you think it’s possible for you to do all of them at once?” the Scientist asked. “Do you think you can get everything you want? How likely do you think it is that you could even get one of them?”

Ansel shook her head, not saying anything. She had said too much already.

“Well, I’m here to tell you that I can give you all of them, everything you want. You won’t have to choose. I’ll give you more than that on top of it. In fact, I’ll give you everything, period. All of this. All of my power, my knowledge, my walls. I’ll teach you chemistry, show you how to control the elevators so you can get to the Streets, or the wilderness, or wherever you want to go whenever you want to be there. I’ll give you control over all the walls in existence, even the walls of the zoo where you’ll one day be the zookeeper who has the power to expand or detract the habitats as you see fit. I’ll give you all of it.”

“That’s ridiculous.” Ansel scoffed. “You would never—”

“I will, dear. I am. I’ve been building up to this all along. You were chosen from the beginning, ever since I gave your parents the printers that helped pluck you out of the streets. This has been the plan all along. Rosalind will tell you.”

Ansel looked up and Rosalind was in the room with them, hovering by the doorway. How long had she been there?

“If you’re ready to learn, girl.” Rosalind smiled.

“And if I’m not?” Ansel demanded. “What if I don’t want any of this?”

“But you just told me you did.” The Scientist stood from her chair, reminding Ansel of how tall she was. “This is everything you want. Come with me. I’ll show you.”

She took Ansel’s hand and led her out past Rosalind through the door, but they didn’t emerge into the hall. They were somewhere else, in another world entirely. A world in which reality seemed to morph and change around them. There were others there, too. Anna and Rosa, some fat guy like the babies she had seen crying at the dinner party, and a couple of people who she didn’t recognize. Ansel didn’t know what to do. She tried to turn and run but the Scientist grabbed her by the rucksack, trying to stop her. After a short tug of war and a tussle, Ansel’s bag fell to the ground between them and the tent that Rosalind had given her opened up inside, expanding until the rucksack burst, pushing the Scientist deeper into the patchwork nonsense world they had stepped into and Ansel in the opposite direction, back into the office they had come from, where she landed, stunned, at Rosalind’s feet.

“What the fuck was that?” Rosalind demanded, rushing to the door which wouldn’t open now. “Where’d you go?”

“I— I don’t know. There were people” What had she seen? It couldn’t have been real. Who was that girl among them?

The door finally opened, but only to the hall. Rosalind burst out through it then back in again. “She’s gone,” she said. “The Scientist. Come on. I need your help.”

Rosalind ran out toward the elevator and Ansel was left stammering, “I— I don’t— I—” before she forced herself to stand up and follow.

#     #     #

< LXI. Chelsea     [Table of Contents]     LXIII. Mr. Walker >

There it is, dear readers. Ansel’s next chapter. Only one more left in this novel, but if you can’t wait until next Saturday, go ahead and pick up a copy of this one, and all of them in the Infinite Limits series, through this link. Thanks again for following along this far. We do nothing alone.

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Chapter 55: Ansel

Hello, dear readers. Today we return to Ansel’s story. She’s found a way off of Sisyphus’s mountain through the seams of reality and now she’s forced to face another brand new world entirely. Discover what she finds there in this next chapter of the Infinite Limits saga, and please do think about picking up a full copy of this and any of the other novels in the series through this link.

Thanks again for reading along, dear readers. Enjoy the story.

< LIV. Chelsea     [Table of Contents]     LVI. Mr. Walker >

LV. Ansel

“I asked you first,” the boy said, standing from where he had been knocked down by Ansel and brushing himself off. She could see that he was a boy now and that he was wearing a long white coat just like the Scientist’s.

“So,” Ansel said, picking up her rucksack and wishing she had come up with a better response than “So”.

“So?” The boy scoffed. “So you should answer first, that’s what. It’s common courtesy.”

“And what if I don’t answer you at all?” Ansel asked, crossing her arms, stuck in this ridiculous line of reasoning because of her earlier one word response. “What if I don’t trust that you’ll answer my question in return?”

The boy laughed now, but when Ansel gave him a look he stopped. “Wait,” he said. “You’re serious? Why wouldn’t I? Sharing information costs me nothing and maybe you could do something useful with the knowledge. As to why you wouldn’t give me your name, I don’t see any good reason for you not to. I mean, our conversation would certainly be more productive if we knew each other’s names. Don’t you think?”

Ansel couldn’t argue with that. She wasn’t quite sure why she was arguing in the first place. Maybe she just didn’t want to trust anybody anymore. “I’m Ansel,” she said with a shrug.

“Hello, Ansel,” the boy said, holding out a gloved hand for her to shake. “I’m Ashley.”

Ansel scoffed. “Ashley?”

“Yes, well, I answered your question, didn’t I? That’s my name. So what’s the problem?”

“Well, that’s a…” Ansel didn’t know how to else to say it so she just put it bluntly. “That’s a girl’s name and you’re a boy.”

“I’m not a boy!” Ashley insisted, crossing his arms and tapping one foot.

Ansel couldn’t argue with that, either. She knew how much she hated it when people tried to tell her she was a girl when she knew she wasn’t one, and now here she was doing the same exact thing to this bo—eher—Ashley. “I’m—uh—I’m sorry,” she stuttered. “I didn’t mean to… I’m just sorry.”

“Good,” Ashley said, nodding and uncrossing his arms. “And in the future don’t go around assuming things when you only have limited evidence. You’ll end up making a bigger fool of yourself than you already have.” He picked up a heavy bag and strapped it over one shoulder, making to lug it away and leave Ansel behind without another word.

Uh, wait,” Ansel said, stopping him. He looked pretty irritated to be standing there with the heavy bag over his shoulder. “Where are you going?” she asked. “Where are we now?” She hadn’t taken the time to look around before, but now that she did, she was a little unsettled by the place. They were standing in a long, dark, slightly curved tunnel with cement walls and metal grating for a floor. Maybe going through that seam wasn’t such a good idea after all. It didn’t look like she’d be able to find food or water anywhere near this tunneled labyrinth of caves, and her minimal supplies were only enough to last a day or so at most.

“I’m going home,” Ashley said, his voice straining against the weight on his shoulder. “My shift’s over and you’re here to relieve me. So on that note, goodbye.” He started to walk again, his feet clanging on the metal grating with every heavy step.

“Wait, relieve you?” Ansel said, rushing over and taking his bag off his shoulder to let it fall with an echoing bang on the metal floor. “What are you talking about?”

Ashley groaned. “You’ve got to be kidding me. You have been through training, haven’t you? Let me guess, you don’t even have your own interface.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Ansel shrugged. “I don’t even know what an interface is.”

Great.” Ashley sighed, bending over to open his bag and fish a big heavy computer tablet out of it. “Just what I needed. You know, I don’t get enough credit to waste my time training newbies. I have other shit to do.”

“I don’t need any—”

“Look. It’s okay. You can use mine this once, but you have to bring it back to me right after your shift. You got it?”

“Would you listen to me?” Ansel said, stomping her foot with a loud clang. “I don’t have any shift. I don’t need any training. And I’m not here to relieve you. I just need you to tell me where I am and how I can get out of this stupid tunnel.”

Ashley stared at her, blank faced, taken aback by Ansel’s aggressiveness and finally at a loss for words.

“Well…” Ansel said. “You had answers for everything else. Why not this?”

“I—uh— Who are you now?” Ashley asked, taking a step back from her.

“I’m Ansel. I already told you that. Now it’s your turn. Where am I?”

“How did you get here if you don’t know where you are?” Ashley asked, taking another step back. “Who are you?”

I’m Ansel,” Ansel repeated. “How many times do I have to tell you? I came through the seams the elevators travel through and now I’m here. Where is here, and how do I get out of this stupid cement tunnel?”

The seams.” Ashley said, excited, stepping forward now and apparently over his initial fears. “What seams? What are you talking about?”

“I don’t know how to explain it,” Ansel said. “The seams between the edges of the worlds. I think it’s the same sort of way an elevator travels between them.”

“But you didn’t take the elevator?” He was putting the interface, or whatever, into his bag now and fishing some other foreign tool out of it. “You walked through the fields without any protection?” He waved a little beeping and flashing wand in front of her, apparently communicating some meaning to Ashley who was staring at it rather than Ansel as he spoke.

“No elevator,” Ansel said. “Not this time. I hate those things. And besides, do you see any elevator doors around here?”

“Of course not,” Ashley said, still scanning her with the wand. “But you could have ridden an elevator near here then walked the rest of the way.”

“Hey, cut that out!” Ansel pushed the wand away and stepped back from Ashley now. “All I need to know is how to get out of these stupid tunnels, alright. Leave your little beeping scanner doohickies for someone else.”

Ashley chuckled. “Doohickies? Hardly. If you came through the fields unprotected, there’s no telling what you passed through—or for that matter, what passed through you. This here little doohickey might just save your life. Now, can you read this?” He held the wand too close to her face for her to see anything.

Ansel snatched it out of his hand to get a better look. “Sonic Scanner,” she read.

“Good. Very good,” Ashley said, snatching the scanner back. “That means you have no spatial distortions. You came out facing the same way as you were when you went in. Getting flipped around’s not a fatal outcome, of course, but it would be rather annoying to deal with if you ask me.”

“Whatever.” Ansel sighed. “I’ve had about enough of this examination. If you’re not going to show me which way is out, I’ll just find it on my own. Good bye and good riddance.” She stomped loudly down the dark tunnel, picking a direction at random.

Uh, I wouldn’t go that way,” Ashley said, re-packing his bag and hefting it up over his shoulder. “The security bots will stop you if you try. I’m surprised they haven’t noticed you yet as it is. Come on. Let’s go this way. I’ll show you.”

Ansel hesitated, not sure if she wanted to trust this guy just yet—she had made plenty of judgement errors in deciding who to trust lately and she didn’t need to add another mistake to that list—but in the end she didn’t really have a choice either way.

“We’ll get something to eat, too,” Ashley said, starting his slow trudge up the tunnel and limping from the weight of his bag over one shoulder. “Come on. We have so much to talk about.”

Ansel hesitated again but only for show this time. She knew he was her best bet in finding out where she was, whether she trusted him or not. After a moment’s wait to let him think she wasn’t too eager to join him, she jogged to catch up and followed him to an elevator.

“I hate these things,” Ansel said as the doors slid closed.

“I love them,” Ashley said, dropping his bag with a thud. “Dorms, please.”

“Dorms?” Ansel said, and her stomach grumbled—she wasn’t sure if it was out of hunger or because the floor falling out from underneath her made the butterflies in her stomach scatter.

“Don’t worry,” Ashley said. “It’s not like I’m inviting you up to my room or anything. You can wait in the lobby. I just have to drop this bag off. It’s too—ugh—heavy.” He lifted it up on his shoulders with a huff as the doors slid open.

Ansel tried to say that she could take care of herself whether it was in the lobby, in his bedroom, or anywhere else in all the worlds, but she couldn’t form words when she saw what the elevator doors opened onto. This was no lobby. It couldn’t be. It was outside. It looked like the wilderness with the endless mountains she had just escaped from, like a tiny patch of the green belt without the skyscraper walls closing it in on either side.

“Well, come on,” Ashley said, already on his way through the grass. “There’s a bench by the bubble. You can wait for me there if you don’t want to come up to my room. Let’s go.”

Ansel forced her jaw shut and hurried to catch up. “This is the lobby?” she asked, stupidly, regretting it instantly.

“That it is. Pretty lame, huh? But it could be worse.”

“Worse?” What was this guy talking about? He didn’t know how good he had it. “Are there any animals?”

Ugh. Yes. Tons of squirrels and rabbits. And beware, they will charge at you for any little crumb of food. They’ve gotten pretty mean lately, but they usually stick by the pond so as long you stay away from there, you should be safe.”

“There’s a pond?”

“Well, duh,” Ashley chuckled, setting his bag on a little bench under a huge oak tree that was hung with ivy. “This isn’t Pennbrook. We have some class here. Though—what am I saying?—there’s no telling where you come from. You probably have no idea at all what I’m blathering on about, do you? Here. You wait right here and I’ll be right back.” He hefted up his bag one more time and carried it into a little glass bubble near the bench. The doors of the bubble slid closed and the translucent thing carried Ashley up into the sky to disappear behind the fluffy white clouds.

Ansel set her rucksack on the bench then sat beside it to take in this new wilderness. It seemed larger than the one she had come from, but maybe that was only because there was no mountain to give her perspective. There were no hills at all, in fact, only flat ground and trees too thick to see through in every direction. It didn’t really seem like a forest, though. It was more like a bunch of trees.

Ansel stood and paced in front of the bench, getting anxious. What was taking this kid so long and when was someone going to figure out that she didn’t belong there? There weren’t many people around, sure, and plenty of space for them to spread out into, but the few that Ansel did see were all wearing the same long white coat that Ashley was—like it was some kind of uniform or something. It made Ansel feel self-conscious about the new jeans and t-shirt that had so shortly ago made her feel more comfortable than she’d ever felt wearing clothes.

Where was she anyway? Ugh.

Maybe she shouldn’t wait for this Ashley kid to come back, after all. She had promised herself to be more careful about trusting strangers, and here she was waiting for one to come and take her who knows where. Maybe she should just go find that pond he was talking about and hunt those squirrels and rabbits, whatever they were. They probably tasted good. Why else would someone stock this wilderness with them?

She had gathered her rucksack and decided to go do just that when the bubble came back down out of the sky, carrying Ashley in his long white coat. “You’re not planning on ditching me, are you?” he asked as the pod doors slid open. “I’ve got so many questions I need to ask you before you go.”

Well, she was planning on ditching him, but it was too late for that now. “Nah,” she lied. “I saw you coming. I was just getting ready.”

“Let’s go, then,” Ashley said. “You said you were hungry, right? Well come on.” He waved her on back toward the elevator they had ridden in on. Getting into it after him, Ansel noticed the elevator was in a wooden shack just like the elevator in the wilderness outside of the Scientist’s window. In fact, the shack looked like an exact replica. “Dining Hall,” Ashley said as the doors closed, and his stomach grumbled while the elevator fell into motion. “I guess I’m pretty hungry myself,” he said with a blush.

The elevator stopped and the doors opened onto a huge dining room filled with long tables that were half empty. The floor was white vinyl, the tables and chairs were silvery and metallic, and every single person besides Ansel was wearing a long white coat.

“Well, come on,” Ashley said after some time of Ansel staring at the scene from the safety of the elevator. “Let’s get some food, then we can talk.”

“I don’t know,” Ansel said, hesitating, still standing in the elevator door and preventing it from closing. “I don’t feel right. I wish I had one of those white coats. I look like a Street orphan trying to pass herself off as a Day Schooler.”

Ashley looked at her as if he hadn’t even known she were wearing clothes until she mentioned them. “Well, I don’t know,” he said. “I didn’t even notice they were different.” But now that she had pointed it out, Ansel could tell that he couldn’t stop noticing.

“Well, someone will notice,” Ansel said. “And when they do, it won’t be hard to figure out that I don’t belong here. Then what would they do with me? I don’t need any protectors ruining my plans.”

“Protectors?” Ashley chuckled. “Protectors haven’t existed since 3D printers were invented. There’s no need for them anymore. They’re ancient history. I promise. You don’t have anything to worry about. Now come on out of that elevator, someone’s probably trying to use it.”

Ansel scoffed. “Then the 3D printer hasn’t been invented yet,” she said. “I’ve seen protectors and I know they exist. You can fuck with them if you want to, but I’m getting out of here so I don’t get caught. Doors close.”

The elevator doors tried to close but Ashley stuck his arm inside to stop them before they could. “Wait,” he said. “Hold on a second. You see, that kind of information is exactly what I want to talk to you about. You can’t leave.”

“Well I’m not going in there looking like this,” Ansel said, crossing her arms. “I won’t do it. That would be stupid and dangerous.”

Hmmm.” Ashley thought about it for a moment. “Okay, well, here.” He started to take off his jacket. “Take mine. You’ll look like you belong here so no one will mess with you, and I actually do so it won’t matter if they try messing with me.” He held out the jacket with a smile.

Ansel hesitated. She wasn’t sure his logic was sound, but she was getting pretty hungry and she still had no idea where she was or where she was trying to get to. “Alright. I guess,” she said, begrudgingly taking the coat and slipping it on. It fit her perfectly and smelled like something attached to a distant memory she couldn’t quite put her finger on. “But if anyone starts acting suspicious, I’m out of here.”

“And I won’t stop you,” Ashley said with a big smile. “You say the word and I’ll show you back to the seam where I found you—or you found me—whatever.”

Ansel nodded. “Good. Let’s go get some food then.”

He led her between the tables, and at first Ansel was still worried that she was going to be found out, but she came to recognize that no one there was paying any attention to her. They were all too busy with their own lives, doing their own things. Some were arguing with one another—across tables and up and down them—about a subject matter that must have been important from the tones of their voices. Peppered among the debaters, sitting at tables all alone even if sitting right next to one another in body, were others who furiously clicked and typed on tiny computer screens, working on something equally as important as the debates going on around them. None of them from either group were really even eating, it seemed, and those who were only did it with one hand or through a mouth full of words, more worried about subjects far beyond basic human needs for nourishment.

The line they waited in for food was short and quick. Each person ordered the same thing without thinking, and the printer dashed it off, no questions asked. When it was their turn to order, Ashley said, “One special, and a—uh…” and he looked to Ansel.

She froze. She didn’t know what she wanted to eat. She never knew. There were always way too many things to choose from, and she had no way of knowing what this Ashley might think was weird food to order. Before she went into full meltdown mode, agonizing over the decision, Ansel went with the only thing she could think of, the same choice she usually made during anxiety breakdowns, following the crowd. “Same,” she said.

“And one special,” Ashley said with a grin. The printer hummed into motion and soon Ashley was handing Ansel a tray and leading the way to a table. He started to sit at one that was already filled with people until Ansel urged him to move to a more secluded area. Even with the jacket she didn’t really feel comfortable being out there in the open like that.

“So,” Ashley said through a bite of his sandwich, the same sandwich Ansel was chewing on. The special was apparently the same meal she had gotten for lunch when she let the 3D printer order for her in the Scientist’s kitchen: soup and a sandwich. “I have so much to ask you I don’t even know where to start.”

Ansel scoffed, poking at her sandwich. She should have ordered wild game, that was what she really wanted to eat, not this sliced, pre-made cold sandwich. “How about you start by answering some of my questions,” she said.

“Splendid idea,” Ashley said, spitting a little half-chewed bit of food across the table in his excitement. “Your questions should be as informative as my answers. Even more so, probably.”

“Well, okay,” Ansel said, stirring her soup. She didn’t really believe what he said, but she didn’t mind the flattery. “So where am I?”

“Where are you? Hmmm.” Ashley dropped his sandwich, really thinking about the question. “That all depends on how you mean.”

Ugh.” This wasn’t getting anywhere fast. “What do you mean how I mean? I mean where am I?”

“Well, you’re sitting right there aren’t you? But that isn’t a very useful answer.”

“No. It’s not. It’s a little too obvious.”

Exactly,” Ashley said, clapping his hands. “Too specific. Already known. I could say you’re in the dining hall of Tulane Advanced STEM Academy, too, but that would be equally useless for you.”

“What’s the Tulane Advanced Stem Academy?”

“You hit the nail on the head again.” Ashley laughed. “Though technically true, the statement relies on knowledge inaccessible to you, rendering the truth it holds once again moot.”

“Oh my God,” Ansel said, putting her head down on the table, almost in her soup. “Can you tell me anything useful?”

“God?” Ashley grinned. “Now that’s an archaic term. And finally we find some small illumination of the matter at hand. May I ask you a question now? Have you ever heard the word of Sic bo?”

Ansel groaned, raising her head to look at him and actually spilling some of her soup with the motion. “I don’t know. Is it something useful?”

Ashley chuckled. “About as useful as God most of the time, if you ask me, but in this instance rather useful as it appears to be a key to your origins.”

“My origins?”

“Your origins. From the Latin oriri meaning to rise, become visible, or appear, sometimes used to mean zero on the Cartesian coordinate plane. Your origin is thus the center or your world, where you came from. So, have you ever heard of Sic bo?”

Ansel shook her head.

“And Mother Maria, ruler of fate?”

“What does this have to do with anything?” Ansel complained. “I thought I was supposed to be asking the questions.”

“I’ll take that as a no, and I’m not surprised by the fact, either. It’s further evidence in support of the hypothesis that you, Ansel, are not from this world at all—maybe not even from this country or time period for all I know, but more evidence is required before making further inferences.”

“I’m from the Streets,” Ansel said, fighting back unexpected tears from the memory of them. “I don’t know what world you’re from, and I don’t know what a country is, but I do know that I’m from the Streets.”

“The streets? You see? I mean, is that even in America?”

“What’s America?”

Ashley made to speak then stopped. He put a hand to his chin and shook his head. “I— Well, it’s— You know… our country.”

“Whose country?”

Us. The people who live here. The people who think and create here, moving America’s technology forward. Who else is there?”

Ansel chuckled. She had no idea what this guy was talking about anymore, and the only way she could respond without lashing out or crying was with laughter. “Who are you even?” she asked.

Ashley had to think about that one, too. “You know,” he said after some time. “I’ve never really pondered that one, either. You ask a lot of questions I’ve never even thought of. This is amazing.”

“Well while you do ponder it, maybe you can figure out how to tell me where I am, then more importantly, how to get out of here. I think I’m done with this place.”

No,” Ashley said without hesitation. “You can’t go yet. I have so much to learn.”

“Well I’m not learning anything, Ash. So what’s the point?”

He smiled wide. “I know how I can explain where you are and maybe find out where you’re from at the same time.”

Ansel shook her head, not believing him. “And what about where I want to go?”

“That, too. All of it.” He stood fast from his seat, knocking it over with a clang. “Come on. I’ll show you.” He grabbed Ansel’s hand and pulled her to the elevator, leaving her just enough time to grab her rucksack in the process. “Lab,” he said when the doors closed behind them.

“Lab?” Ansel said. “No, I’m not going back there.”

“Back?” Ashley scoffed. “You’ve never been to my lab before.”

Ansel calmed down, blushing. All this time she had thought that there was only the one lab, the Scientist’s Lab, she had no idea it was a general word like kitchen or bedroom.

The elevator doors opened onto a short hall that looked just like the Scientist’s. Ansel fought her urge to push Ashley out of the elevator and ride it back to the wilderness lobby where she could live in peace and instead followed him through the hall to the door at the other end.

“Are you ready?” he asked, holding his hand on the doorknob.

Ansel nodded

Ashley opened the door to reveal a room that looked exactly like the Scientist’s office—the smaller one Ansel had only been in a few times—but instead of looking out onto a line of assembly line workers, the window here looked out onto the same scene as the window in Rosalind’s giant office—the wilderness scene with the endless mountains which Ansel had climbed over and over and over before travelling through the seams to literally run into Ashley.

“So what do you think?” Ashley asked, scurrying to the desk where he flipped on the big bank of monitors—just like the Scientist’s only a little smaller.

“I’ve seen better,” Ansel said, casually strolling to stand behind him and drop her bag. “That view’s kind of played out, isn’t it?”

“I like the mountain,” Ashley said, defensively, still typing and clicking at the computer. “It reminds me of Sisyphus. I could only imagine what it would look like to stand atop that mountain.”

Ansel scoffed. “I don’t know what Sisyphus is, but it’s not that great of a view up there. It’s kind of annoying, really, to see all those mountains and know that you’ll never be able to climb them all. And I’m telling you that from experience.”

Ashley stopped typing to turn and stare at her. “No,” he said, jaw dropped. “You haven’t. You couldn’t have. That would mean that you—”

I did,” Ansel said, smiling and nodding, proud of herself. “That’s where I came from when I ran into you.” She pointed out the window. “I stood on that mountaintop before I traveled unprotected through the elevator seams into your tunnels.”

“No way. Uh uh. Impossible,” Ashley said, clicking and typing away again. “Look at this.” A complicated diagram came up on the bank of screens. Ansel wasn’t sure, but it looked kind of like a three dimensional map. “There’s only one way into that sector and it’s too heavily guarded for anyone to get into or out of, much less both.”

“Well I did,” Ansel said, beaming—and blushing a little bit, becoming a little full of herself for some reason. “Now how do I get back?”

“You don’t.” Ashley scoffed. “I don’t even know how you claim to have gotten in there in the first place, but it’s out of the question to go back.”

“That’s shit,” Ansel complained. “You told me you could help me find where I wanted to go. I want to go back there, to where I can at least hunt for my own food. So are you going to help me do it or what?”

“Hunt for food? Now you’re really crazy.”

“I am not, and I don’t care what you think. I’m leaving.” Ansel stormed out of the room but she didn’t emerge into the hallway. She would have complained about how hard those stupid doors were to operate, but she was distracted by what she saw. The room she had gone into was filled with the same type of glassware she had seen in the Scientist’s big lab, these vials and beakers filled with variously colored chemicals in different states of matter—Rosalind had already taught Ansel a little bit about chemistry in her short stay with them. Ansel rushed over to get a closer look at a particularly bright red concoction that was boiling, steaming, and mixing with a colorless gas to form a new green liquid, when Ashley rushed up and pulled her back from the table. “Be careful,” he said. “I’ve been working on that set up for weeks. Don’t mess it up.”

“What is it?”

“Chemistry homework. I hate chemistry.” He grimaced. “I don’t see how it’s ever supposed to be useful for a spatial physics major, but they make us all take the basic science classes and that includes the worst of them, chemistry.”

Ansel scoffed. “This is basic?”

Ashley blushed. “Yeah, well, I got held back in my first few attempts. None of those being my fault, of course.

“But what are you doing?” Ansel asked, ignoring his embarrassment.

“Making some inorganic something or other. Ugh. I can’t even remember anymore. Does it matter?”

UhYeah,” Ansel said. “It’s pretty much the coolest thing you’ve shown me since I’ve been here.”

“My homework? Wow. You know, there’s a lot cooler stuff around here. You should see the zoo. We have actual four dimensional animals, though all you can really see are their projections on our 3D space, of course.”

“Zoo?”

Ashley laughed. “Yeah, you know, a place where they keep animals to look at. It’s much better than stupid chemistry, and it’ll help me explain where you are. Come on. It’s not going to make sense until I show you.”

Ansel didn’t want to leave the shimmering colorful glass paradise, but she would like to see some strange new animals—and maybe even figure out what that long eared rat she had eaten in the shade of the endless mountain was. She followed Ashley down the hall and into the elevator where he said, “Zoo.”

“So you just keep the animals caged up or something?” Ansel asked. “Is it so they’re easier to eat?”

“Eat?” Ashley chuckled. “Mother Maria, no. Of course not. It’s so we can study them. And preserve most of them, really. There aren’t many species that aren’t endangered these days.”

Ansel nodded, not entirely sure what he meant, but at the same time not wanting to make a fool of herself. She thought she could understand the word species from context clues—it was a type of animal—but endangered was a little more difficult. Ansel knew what danger was—probably a lot more so than this white coated kid would ever understand it—but she still had no idea what it meant to be endangered. Was she endangered every time she was in danger? It was better she didn’t ask so she could save herself from sounding like an idiot. She’d try to pick up more clues as to what the word meant when they got to this zoo.

The elevator doors slid open to reveal another wilderness scene but this one packed denser with dark leaved trees all hung with vines. Ansel stepped out onto the soft soil of a dirt path and stared up at the canopy where the sun burst through in tiny clumps of rays, giving the canopy the appearance of a green night sky similar to the black one she had seen twinkling over the endless mountain.

“They always bring you to Africa first,” Ashley said, leading Ansel along the tiny dirt path that seemed to go on forever in front them. “Every zoo I’ve ever been to, I swear. They want to hit you with the big stuff right when you enter so you’ll be hooked from the start for the rest of a mediocre ride to the grand finale.”

“Africa?” Ansel asked, not really interested in his response because she was too distracted by the endless trees and echoing noises which must have belonged to some strange creatures.

Ashley chuckled, stopping in Ansel’s way and pointing out to guide her vision through a small clearing in the trees. “Africa,” he said. “Another country, one with animals like you’ve never seen before.”

There in the clearing was a black cat that looked almost exactly the same as that Mr. Kitty that Ansel had chased ages ago, but this cat was twenty times Mr. Kitty’s size. It stood in a hunter’s stance, muscles tense and twitching, ears pointed backward, long black tail held flat, and green eyes staring through Ansel’s skin to the meat and bones it so wanted to taste underneath. Ansel’s muscles tensed up along with the big black cat’s, her own hunter’s reflexes kicking in, while Ashley didn’t seem to care that the thing was staring at them, ready to pounce, when it did.

Ansel let out a shrill scream that didn’t make sense—she had meant to yell “Look out!” but the words came out jumbled and unintelligible—and dove to push Ashley out of the hungry beast’s way, dreading those sharp, deadly claws which were angling for her jugular.

 

#     #     #

< LIV. Chelsea     [Table of Contents]     LVI. Mr. Walker >

And so ends another chapter in the Infinite Limits series. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading the story as much as I have writing it. Do join us again next week for the next chapter. Until then, have a great weekend and a great week after that. And always remember: We do nothing alone.

Chapter 39: Ansel

Dear readers, this Saturday, for chapter 39 in the Infinite Limits tetralogy, we join Ansel for her third and final point of view chapter in An Almost Tangent. All she wanted to do is save her dad from the protectors, but instead, she finds herself caught and held by them just the same. Read on to find out what the protectors do to her and how she tries to escape, and don’t forget to pick up a full copy of the novel right here or sign up for the email newsletter subscription list to continue your support of future works in the Infinite Limits series and beyond.

Enjoy.

< XXXVIII. Rosa     [Table of Contents]     XL. Jonah >

XXXIX. Ansel

Ansel awoke suddenly and thrashed against the straps holding her arms, legs, and head tight to a cold metal board. Her feet were raised a little above her head, and the blood was rushing up her body, into her brain. She felt like, without the straps, she might slip right off the face of Earth. Her heart beat faster at the thought of it.

There was a cloth or something laid over eyes. She flinched to try to shake it off, but her head strap was so tight she couldn’t move. She could feel herself starting to cry, but she tried to hold it back. She took a few deep breaths to calm herself. Rosalind would find some way to get her out of this. She knew it. She wiggled her hand and the bracelet was still there. She tried to bend her wrist around to press the button but only ended up hurting herself with the effort. She resorted to trying to use the strap holding her wrist down to press it, squirming frantically and getting nowhere, when the door whined open and more than one pair of boots stomped in. She couldn’t see with the cloth over her eyes, but she could hear their heavy footsteps.

“Do you care yet?” the voice of the protector who had questioned her before asked.

Ansel spit at the protector, but the saliva only ended up landing in her own nose—and probably on her face, but she couldn’t see or feel for the rag.

The protector laughed. “You are a feisty one, aren’t you,” she said. “Though that will only work to your detriment in here.”

“Fuck you!” Ansel yelled. She figured she was already so deep into it that there was no making things worse now, so why not?

“Oh, child,” the protector said. “Watch your mouth. At least until we really get started with you. Then you can get as dirty as you’d like. I know we won’t hold back.”

Ansel didn’t answer. She struggled against her restraints, and the protector laughed.

“Well, girl,” the protector said. “You get one last chance, now. So tell us: What were you doing going into the holding cells?”

“I’ll never tell you!”

“We already know, though, child. We found out where your dad’s been hiding. He might be strapped up in a room close to here. What do y’all think?” The protector laughed.

“You took him!?” Ansel cried.

“Why were you at the feast?” the protector demanded. “Who sent you?”

“No one sent me!”

“Then how did you get there?” The protector sounded short on temper.

“I—I don’t know,” Ansel said, struggling against her straps. “I just did. Let me go!”

“You know more than you’re telling me, little girl,” the protector said. “And we’re going to find out. Your chances have all run dry.”

Ansel felt a cool stream of water wetting the cloth that covered her forehead, weighing it down tighter on her face. She tried to shake it away again, but the restraints seemed to tighten with her effort.

Now,” the protector said, the cloth slowly lowering over Ansel’s nose and mouth, “let’s see if this helps remind you of what we need to know.”

The spout of water moved down to her mouth, and Ansel held her breath against it. The weight of the water held the rag flat against her face. It kept pouring and pouring and pouring, and she couldn’t hold her breath any longer. She tried to suck in air, but all she inhaled was clothwater, filling her throat and nostrils. She gagged and tried to hold down her vomit. She was dying. She couldn’t hold her breath anymore. They were killing her. She was about to gag again when the liquidrag lifted from her nose and mouth. She coughed up water and bile and insides and sucked in three quick breaths of air before the rag came down again and the water poured and poured.

Her body jostled and rolled against inevitable death. She felt shooting pain through all of her extremities, but that didn’t stop her from fighting against the restraints that held her down. They gave her a few more breaths of air before lowering the rag and pouring more water on. When they had done the same thing five, or seven, or infinite times, Ansel couldn’t hold her vomit in anymore. Someone had to stick their fingers into her throat to dig it out and prevent her from drowning on the insides of her own stomach. After that she blacked out.

She woke to the protector saying, “Little giiiirl, do you care now?”

“Fuck—cuh cuh—you,” Ansel spit out before puking and passing out again. She was still unconscious when the rain of death continued. She had given up. She was dead. They were killing her, sure, but they hadn’t gotten anything out of her. Even if there was nothing left in her to get. And there was still a chance that her dad was alive. That was all she cared about in the end. She smiled at the thought of it, lost control of her breath, and vomited into the damp cloth.

She was retching and losing consciousness again when the stream of ragwater abruptly stopped. A fighting commotion sounded around her. She wanted to believe that she was being saved, but all she could do was spew the last acidic contents of her stomach into the rag, only for the rag to force them back down her throat for her to choke on again. She was certain she was dead when a new set of fingers cleared her airways for her.

The rag was ripped away from her eyes, and Ansel saw her father’s face. She blinked a few times, not sure if she was dreaming or dead, when he pulled her close and hugged her. “I never thought I’d see you again,” he said, kissing her all over her face, over and over.

Ansel coughed and shook her head as the restraints were removed from her legs. She still wasn’t sure this was real. “Dad?” she said.

Yes, sweety.” He was crying. “It’s me, and I’m never leaving your side again.”

“I came to save you,” Ansel said, her head pounding. She still wasn’t sure if this was real, but she didn’t care anymore.

Her dad chuckled, whether he was real or not. “You shouldn’t have done that,” he said. “It’s my job to—” He slouched down on top of her, limp.

Ansel tried to lift herself up to do something, but his weight was too much. She heard a scuffle and a yelp, then her dad’s limp body fell off of her and Rosalind lifted her off the bed.

“I—uh—you…” Ansel said.

Yep,” Rosalind said. “I told you I’d make sure you got home safely.”

“But my dad,” Ansel said.

“And I told you you should have waited,” Rosalind added, hefting Ansel up onto her shoulder like a sack of potatoes. “But now we have to get out of here.”

“But I—” Ansel protested, but she was still so weak and disoriented that she passed out.

#     #     #

She woke with a start, but this time, she wasn’t tied down. She lashed out anyway and tossed the blanket off her body to the floor before she realized where she was, surrounded by beakers, vials, and Bunsen burners, she was back in the lab. Rosalind had saved her from the protectors after all. But did that mean that her dad was dead, too?

She pushed herself up—still exhausted though most of the pain had gone—and had to catch her breath before jumping off the high table. As she did, the door opened and in came Pidgeon. He ran over to hug her and help her stand. “Ansel, are you alright?” he asked.

“I—uh—” She didn’t know what to say.

“You should have told me where you were going. I could have helped you. I could have…” He played with the hem of his shirt. “I don’t know. Something.”

“Where’s my dad?” Ansel asked.

Pidgeon blushed and looked like he was trying to hide it. “I—uh—I don’t know,” he said.

“Pidgeon! Tell me. Did I see what I think I saw?”

“I—uh—”

The door opened and in came Rosalind, the Scientist, and Haley. Rosalind walked right up to Ansel while Haley stayed back with the Scientist, looking at the floor.

“My dad?” Ansel asked.

“I told you you should have waited,” Rosalind said.

“What did you think you were doing, child?” the Scientist demanded.

“W—Was that him?” Ansel asked, holding back her tears.

“We got him out of his cell before we went to save you, but he insisted on helping us get your sorry self out,” Rosalind said. “He didn’t make it back, though.” She shook her head.

Ansel couldn’t hold back her tears anymore. She tried to swing at Rosalind, and the Scientist, and anyone in reach, but they were all too far away, and she was just too weak to do anything right. She buried her face in her hands and cried. “No!” she said. “It’s not real.”

“I’m afraid so, kiddo,” Rosalind said.

“You shouldn’t have been over there in the first place,” the Scientist said. “Then maybe this wouldn’t have happened.”

“Mom!” Haley said, crossing to Ansel to rub her back.

Ansel stopped crying and looked at the Scientist with a sneer. “If you would have gotten him out sooner—like you had promised—then this wouldn’t have happened,” she said.

“I never said I’d do it soon,” the Scientist said. “I said I’d do it when the time was right. You need to learn patience, dear.”

“Patience?” Ansel scoffed. “This coming from the woman who can go anywhere or get anything she wants on demand. What do you know about patience?”

“More than you can imagine, child,” the Scientist said. “Do you see these wrinkles on my face? You thought I was too old to be Haley’s mother. Well, how old do you think she is? How old does that make me? I waited for a quarter of a millennium to get my daughter back. Don’t you try to tell me about patience.”

Ansel blushed. She was embarrassed but still angry, and she didn’t know how to show it without her voice cracking or her starting to cry again. She swallowed down her tears, and was about to say she didn’t know what to say, when Haley saved her from having to answer.

Mom,” she said. “Go easy on her. She’s just a little girl, and she just lost her dad.”

“I—uh…” the Scientist mumbled.

Mother,” Rosalind said, “why don’t you go out and check on some of our other refugees. Let Haley and I take care of Ansel.”

“But—” the Scientist said, and Haley took her hand in one hand and that elbow in the other to lead the Scientist out the door before coming back to stand in front of Ansel.

Sorry,” Haley said. “She doesn’t really know how to interact with humans. Sometimes it’s like she’s more of an android than any of us.”

“It’s her fault my dad’s d—my dad’s not here,” Ansel said.

He’s dead,” Rosalind said. “And it’s not her fault any more than it’s yours. If anything, it’s your dad’s fault for following us instead of coming back here to wait like we told him to do.”

“But she—” Ansel protested.

“She was keeping him alive in there,” Rosalind said, “hidden in plain view. He wasn’t in danger until you got caught. After that, it was only a matter of time before they got it out of you that you were looking for him, and that information would let them know he hadn’t been executed yet—despite what their computers told them. So we had to jump the gun in getting him out, and even that would have been successful, but your dad couldn’t leave without making sure you got out first.”

“I wouldn’t have told them why I was there,” Ansel said, sniffing and wiping her nose.

“You were telling them when we got there,” Rosalind said. “You told us until we got you back here and sedated you, then you kept muttering about it in your sleep. You were already broken, Ansel. No human can resist torture like that.”

“I don’t believe you,” Ansel said.

“It’s true, dear,” Haley said, patting her back. “I sat by you while you slept. You kept saying that you had come for your dad, that’s all you wanted, no one had to send you. It was sad to hear.”

Ansel shrugged her off. “I don’t care,” she said. “It wasn’t my fault.” Though she was saying that to convince herself more than anyone.

No. It’s not,” Rosalind said. “I’m not saying it is. Trying to lay fault on someone is useless. We know who pulled the trigger that ended his life, and maybe that’s not even enough. Not even your father is to blame. It’s the protectors who are responsible for this, and the system that props them up.”

“Well fuck the protectors,” Ansel said.

Creator.” Haley gasped, putting her hand to her mouth.

“That’s exactly our mission here,” Rosalind said. “To fuck the entire system. The protectors and the owners who tell them what to do. We are your only avenue to getting the revenge you want. You’ll have to join us for your best chance at that.”

“Revenge?” Ansel asked. “What good is revenge? That won’t bring my parents back. If I wanted that, I would have killed Tom in the alley and been done with it.”

“No,” Rosalind said. “What about justice then? What about protecting others from facing the same wrath that you’ve faced at the hands of the protectors?”

Pssssh.” Ansel laughed. She knew that no one cared about anyone but themselves. All her experiences had proven that, including those with Rosalind and the Scientist. There was no one out there looking out for Ansel, and she had no reason to look out for anyone else. “No one stopped them before they killed my family,” she said. “Or Pidgeon’s family.” She nodded at him, hiding behind a table piled high with glassware, his face shaded with different colors from the chemicals in the flasks in front of him. Ansel had almost forgotten he was there. He ducked under the table at the mention of his name.

“Nope,” Rosalind said. “And no one will ever stop them if everyone else in the worlds takes the same attitude you are right now.”

Ansel jumped to her feet. “So what am I supposed to do then?” she asked. “Just sit here and wait until the Scientist thinks the time’s right for me to do something?”

“Yep,” Rosalind said, nodding. “Pretty much. And learn everything you can to make yourself useful in the meantime.”

“Oh, great,” Ansel said. “School.” She sighed, crossing her arms.

“No.” Rosalind shook her head. “We don’t have any teachers so I don’t think it can rightly be called school. You would have to pursue what you wanted to learn on your own. No one has time to direct you.”

“I can—” Haley started, but Rosalind shot her a look and shushed her.

“What do you say?” Rosalind asked.

“I don’t know what you’re asking me,” Ansel said. “You want me to sit here and do whatever I want until the Scientist finds me useful?”

Rosalind nodded.

“I don’t know if I can,” Ansel said, tapping her foot.

“But—” Pidgeon called out, tipping over the table he was hiding under and knocking a few flasks to the floor—which Popeye came out of nowhere to clean up.

“And you, too, boy,” Rosalind said. “I didn’t forget you were there.”

Pidgeon came around to stand next to Ansel, blushing. “You mean it?” he asked, playing with the hem of his shirt.

“Of course I do,” Rosalind said. “We wouldn’t send you back to that orphanage. We know what’s going on there.”

Pidgeon nudged Ansel. “C’mon,” he said. “Why not?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “I need time to think about it.”

“Take all the time you need,” Rosalind said. “Staying here to think and saying yes to my proposal are the same thing.”

Uh, yeah. Okay,” Ansel said, grabbing Pidgeon’s arm and dragging him with her. “We’re gonna go discuss this. We’ll talk to you tomorrow or something.” She waved as she closed the hall door behind her.

“What are you doing?” Pidgeon asked, breaking away from her grip.

“Just follow me,” Ansel said. “Bedroom.” She opened the door to the room she and Pidgeon had been sleeping in. It was bigger than any of the houses she had ever lived in, and had two beds on opposite walls, each with their own dresser and mirror combo. Ansel went to her dresser, thinking to change her clothes, then changed her mind. The jeans and t-shirt she was already wearing were comfortable and non-restricting, exactly what she needed. She did grab her floral dress, though, the one her parents had given her when they still lived on the Green Belt, and she bundled it up in a ball to stuff in her rucksack—which still contained most of the rest of her belongings. She checked her back pocket but the protectors had taken her slingshot. They did leave her bracelet, though. She thought about dumping it but was distracted when Pidgeon asked, “What are you doing?”

Ansel looked at him. “Pidgeon,” she said, “do you trust me?”

“I—uh—yeah,” he said. “I guess. But why?”

“I don’t want to stay here anymore,” she said. “I don’t know why, but I feel restricted here, trapped.”

“But we can go anywhere with the elevators,” he said.

“Not really,” Ansel said. “We can go anywhere the Scientist lets us go. That’s not everywhere, though. Is it?”

Pidgeon shook his head. “Well, no, but…” He played with the hem of his shirt.

“Don’t you want to see the worlds, Pidgeon?” Ansel asked. “There’s so much out there beyond everything we’ve ever known.”

“I don’t know,” Pidgeon said. “I’ve seen a lot of what the world has to offer.”

“But you haven’t seen everything,” she pled with him. She could feel that she was losing him. “I went to another world entirely, Pidgeon, the one where the protectors come from. I met these kids who lived there, and they were no different from you or me. How am I supposed to fight against them, huh? They don’t know what they’re doing. They have no more control over their lives than we do. And they tried to help me.”

“Yeah. So?” Pidgeon said. “That doesn’t mean we should leave. We can stay here without fighting those kids.”

“But don’t you see?” Ansel said. “All the protectors were those kids at some point in their lives. They were funneled into it, and now, they can’t do anything else but what they’re told.”

“Then we won’t fight any protectors,” Pidgeon said. “I still don’t want to leave.”

“Do you really think they’ll let you stay here and do nothing for their cause?”

I do,” Pidgeon snapped. “That was the deal, wasn’t it?”

“The deal was for them to get my dad back, too,” Ansel said. “But we can see how that turned out.”

“No, but—”

No, Pidgeon,” she stopped him. “I’m sorry. I know I dragged you into this in the first place, but I have to live by my standards. I have to be self-sufficient. I know you don’t understand that, which is why I’m not making you come with me.”

Pidgeon looked hurt. He avoided eye contact with her.

“Pidgeon,” Ansel said. “I’d rather you came than that you stayed here, but I’m leaving tonight. What time is it? I’m leaving now. I’m gonna get as far away from here as I can before they notice I’m gone, and to do that, I have to be quick. So you don’t have time to think about this. It’s now or never.”

“But they’ve taken such good care of us,” Pidgeon said, groaning. “We can eat all the food we want, and we each get our own bed. What more could we ask for?”

Independence,” Ansel said. “I told you I knew you wouldn’t understand.”

I don’t,” Pidgeon said, shaking his head. “And neither do you. You don’t understand what it’s like to have nothing and no one, Ansel. We have a good thing here.”

“I’ve had nothing all my life,” Ansel said. “Don’t tell me I don’t know what it’s like.”

“Right,” Pidgeon said. “Nothing. Except for a mom and dad to provide food and shelter for you. Now that is nothing.”

“I had to provide my own food most nights,” Ansel said.

“And yet still you knew that they’d always be there to give up their food if you couldn’t find anything. You knew that they’d always have a warm bed waiting for you afterwards. You never had nothing, Ansel. You always had them.”

“Not anymore,” Ansel said. She could feel the tears coming back. “Now I have nothing.”

“But you still don’t,” Pidgeon said. “You have me. And if you would stay here, you’ll have Haley and Rosalind and the Scientist and this bed to sleep in.” He jumped up onto her bed, bouncing up and down. “We have everything we need here.”

No,” Ansel said. “We don’t. I told you, Pidgeon. I need my independence. That’s that. You don’t have to come with me if you don’t want to.” She grabbed her rucksack and made for the door, but Pidgeon jumped off the bed to stop her.

“Where do you even plan on going?” he asked.

“I don’t know.” Ansel shrugged. “Away. Anywhere I want to. I’ll never see the end of the Belt so maybe I’ll go try to see the end of the wilderness here instead. You did want to do that with me once. Remember?”

He looked away from her, blushing. “Yeah, I wouldn’t make it out there, though,” he said. “I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I’d probably just get you killed.”

“And as I’ve said before, I’ll teach you everything I know,” Ansel said. “I know what I’m doing out there, Pidgeon. And you can, too.”

“But do you really?” he asked. “It’s not the Belt out there, Ansel. This is something you’ve never experienced before.”

“Yeah it’s not the Belt,” Ansel said. “There are more animals here and they’re less afraid of humans. They’ll be easier to catch because of it. If anything, this should be easier than living on the Belt. And we won’t have to worry about protectors out there.”

“We don’t have to worry about them in here, either,” he said. “And what if there’s something out there that’s worse than a protector?”

Psssh. Worse than a protector?” Ansel laughed. “I doubt that.”

“What about that big animal with the horns that you couldn’t kill?”

“That thing runs away every time it hears us. And it only ever eats grass.”

“What if there’s something else that won’t run?” Pidgeon said. “Something that taught that thing to run? God. You just don’t get it. There are some things out there that you don’t know about, Ansel. You know what. Whatever. Go.” He went and sat on his own bed, with his back to her, in a huff.

“I will, Pidgeon,” Ansel snapped. “You just stay here in your cozy, safe jail. I always knew you would leave me behind in the end.” She slammed the door behind her before he could respond.

She took a few deep breaths in the hall, bracing herself on the door jamb. Stupid Pidgeon. She should never have trusted him to begin with. He was, and had always been, a fresh faced flower from the Garden of Eden. No wonder he was too scared to leave this…whatever it was. She had enough trouble convincing him to leave the orphanage he said had treated him so poorly, there was no way she was going to convince him to leave a place where he had printer access whenever he wanted it and no one to abuse him or call him names. One day that would all run out, though. Then he’d wish he’d come and learned how to be self-sufficient with her. She chuckled to herself at the thought of it.

“Kitchen,” she said and opened the door. The step-stool was already in front of the printer. She stepped up, trying not to stare at the line of slip, snap, clickers through the sink window, and pressed the button to say, “Slingshot.” First thing was first. She had to be able to hunt.

The slingshot that came out was made of metal where her old one was made of wood. The sling was tighter, too, harder to pull back, but she could get used to that. She would have to or die trying. She stuffed it in her back pocket, ordered a pouch to keep rocks in, a few cans of beans—it came out in bowls at first, before she specified cans—and some string to help make traps. She brought it all down to the table and packed her rucksack full, then she stared at the printer, trying to think of anything else that might be useful.

The kitchen door opened and in came Rosalind. She took a look at the full rucksack then said, “Planning on going somewhere?”

Ansel shrugged. “What’s it matter to you?”

“I was being sincere when I spoke earlier,” Rosalind said. “I meant every word.”

“I know how much your words mean,” Ansel said.

Rosalind looked offended. “I haven’t lied to you once,” she said.

“You didn’t get my dad back.”

“I did,” Rosalind said. “You talked to him. He was free.”

“But not anymore.”

“Maybe now more than ever, dear.” She shook her head.

Pffft.” Ansel scoffed. “Well I plan on freeing myself.” She picked up the rucksack and threw it over her shoulder.

“So you’ll be joining our cause then?” Rosalind smiled.

“Does it look like I will?” Ansel asked, hefting the bag further up on her shoulders to emphasize the sarcasm.

“It looks like you’re going camping,” Rosalind said.

“Camping?” What was she talking about now?

“Yes, camping,” Rosalind said, crossing to the printer. “You know: sleeping outdoors in the wilderness, under the stars, among the other animals.”

“Uh, yeah. Sure.” Ansel shrugged. “You can call it that if you want to.”

“Well, dear,” Rosalind said. “Let me give you some supplies before you go, then.” She pressed the printer’s voice activation button and said, “Pop-up tent, lighter, and Swiss Army knife, please.”

“What are those?” Ansel asked, dropping the heavy sack.

“Well, this is a lighter. You just—”

“Yeah, yeah. I know that one,” Ansel said, snatching it out of Rosalind’s hand.

“And this is a pop-up tent.” Rosalind handed her a small rectangular something that fit in the palm of her hand. “Don’t press the button until you’re outside, and be ready to get out of the way when you do. You got that?”

“What is it?” Ansel asked, turning the thing over in her hand.

Rosalind flinched and took it away, ordering a case to put the tent in before handing it back. “It’s for you to sleep in.”

“Sleep in that?”

“It gets bigger,” Rosalind said. “Trust me.”

“Okay, what about the Swiss knife or whatever?” Ansel asked.

“This is your general all-purpose tool,” Rosalind said, pulling out all the little gadgets. “You have here your can opener, knife, compass—”

“Right right,” Ansel took it and had some trouble folding everything back into place. Rosalind chuckled and helped her, and it only made Ansel angrier. She stuffed her gifts into the rucksack, forcing a smile, and said, “Well, thanks. See you never.”

“Be safe,” Rosalind said. “We’ll be eagerly awaiting your return.”

Ugh.” Ansel stomped out of the room, slamming the door behind her. She didn’t stop until she was in the elevator, waiting for the floor to fall out from underneath her.

It was as if Rosalind didn’t listen. Or she did listen and didn’t care what Ansel said. Ansel would show her. If Rosalind thought Ansel was going to be going back to that little jail anytime soon, she had another thing coming. Ansel was never going back there ever again, and Rosalind and Pidgeon would just have to deal with it.

The elevator doors opened to reveal the pine trees and other evergreens whose names Ansel had not yet come to know. She stepped out onto the grass and took a deep breath of the fresh cool air. This was right for her. This was exactly what she needed. No more Scientist. No more protectors. No more Pidgeon or Rosalind. She was free to do whatever she wanted, and right now, she wanted some food. So she set off to get exactly that.

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< XXXVIII. Rosa     [Table of Contents]     XL. Jonah >

And there you have it, dear readers, Ansel’s final point of view chapter for book two in the Infinite Limits series. Only three more weeks until An Almost Tangent is completely posted on this blog here, and in the meantime I’m working toward finishing the final edits of book three, Dividing by 0, so I can get that published, hopefully in time to continue the Infinite Limits story here on the blog with no empty Saturdays in between. We’ll see. I’m working hard to make it happen, but only time can tell.

Thanks again for joining us, dear readers. Have a great weekend.

 

Chapter 25: Ansel

Today, chapter four of An Almost Tangent brings us back to the story of Ansel, the only point of view character who carries over from the first book of the Infinite Limits tetralogy, The Asymptote’s Tail.

When we last left her, Ansel was with the Scientist, mourning her mother and still eager to search for her father. Let’s find out where the worlds take her now, and if you want to find out the entire story, pick up a copy of the full novel through here. Thanks for joining us, readers, and enjoy.

< XXIV. Rosa     [Table of Contents]     XXVI. Jonah >

XXV. Ansel

After three days now of it being no more than an elevator ride away, Ansel still wanted to brush her fingers through the cool grass she was kneeling in, but even the slightest movement would send her prey running. How long would that urge last?

She could hear Pidgeon’s breathing behind her. In those same short days he had become a much better hunter. He only sounded like a human when he walked now, not a lumbering giant who was intentionally breaking every branch it walked by. His aim with the slingshot was getting better, too—he could take out a target set up on a branch, at least, even if he still couldn’t sneak up close enough to anything living for him to be able to hit it—but that aim still wasn’t anywhere near good enough to hit the target she had in sight.

She raised up the slingshot, arm muscles flexed solid with the effort of pulling the elastic band, and sighted along it to the eye of the giant, horned, four-legged beast, eating grass in the clearing in front of them. She heard Pidgeon hold his breath with her while she aimed, and when she thought he couldn’t hold it any longer, she let go of the heavy rock, allowing the sling to hurl it toward her target.

The beast made a shrill bleating sound, shook its multi-pronged head, and ran in the opposite direction through the trees.

“Shit!” Ansel yelled, hitting the soft ground with a closed fist then taking the chance to ruffle the grass. “Shit, shit, shit.”

“I thought you had it,” Pidgeon said.

“Shut up, Pidgeon. What would you know?” She stood up and Pidgeon did the same. They were out in the woods they had first seen through the Scientist’s office window. Surrounded by grass, trees, animals, and sky it would be easy to assume that Ansel had nothing in the world to worry about, but no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t enjoy herself. “You can’t hit a pine cone from five feet away,” she went on, taking her frustration out on Pidgeon.

“Well, I was just saying, I think you hit it.” He plucked a needle off a nearby tree and tore it to bits. “I mean, didn’t you see the way it shook its head and screamed like that?”

“Yes, Pidgeon.” Ansel groaned. “Of course I did. I was the one who shot it. Did you think I had my eyes closed?”

“No. Well, of course not. But you did hit it, then. Didn’t you?”

“I’m about to hit you if you don’t shut up.” She reared her hand up like she was going to do it.

“You don’t have to be mean,” Pidgeon said, tearing another needle to pieces. “I just thought that you might—”

“I know, I know,” she said. “I need a bigger weapon. It was worth a shot, anyway. Wasn’t it? Now c’mon. I’m getting hungry and it’s about time for the Scientist to get off work. Let’s go.” She stuffed the slingshot in her back pocket and started the hike back to the elevator.

“I’m getting hungry, too,” Pidgeon said, hurrying to keep up and getting back to his normal volume of walking.

One day, Ansel was going to run ahead of him and hide behind some bush to see if Pidgeon could find his own way back to the elevator—which was surprisingly difficult even for Ansel sometimes—or if he would get lost and cry alone in the forest. But right now, she didn’t have the time. She had more important business to tend to. She chuckled aloud about the idea anyway.

“What?” Pidgeon asked through a huff of breath, tired from all the hiking.

“Nothing, Pidg. Watch your step on the root, though, we’re almost there.” As she said it, he tripped and fell into the grass, face-first. Ansel laughed. “I tried to warn ya.”

“Yeah, whatever,” Pidgeon said, brushing his knees off, red-faced. “Let’s just get something to eat.”

The elevator was hidden behind bushes and trees with vines growing all over it. Except for the metal doors, it looked like an old one-room wooden shack which had been left out to rot. When she had first gone out there with Rosalind and Huey, Rosalind laughed while Ansel tried to find some way to open those doors, prying at the crack between them with her fingers.

“Elevator open,” Ansel said this time. She felt strange talking to an elevator, though, even if it did respond to her. The doors slid open to reveal a mirror-lined cube. Ansel and Pidgeon stepped in, and Ansel said, “Office. Or—er—the lab. Whatever.” The doors closed, and the floor fell out from underneath them, forcing a surprised gasp out of Ansel. She still hadn’t gotten used to elevator travel.

“This is so cool,” Pidgeon said, unphased by the unnatural motion. “I still can’t believe we’re actually riding in one. It’s just like the protectors’ transport bays!”

Ansel shrugged. “It gets us from here to there,” she said.

“Yes, well, how far is it between here and there though?” Pidgeon asked as the doors opened, revealing a short hall with a door at the end of it. “And look, we’re already here. Amazing.”

Ansel huffed and stomped down the hall. She pushed the door open to reveal an empty kitchen. “No!” she complained, stepping back into the hall and slamming the door. “How does this stupid thing work?”

“You just have to think about the room you want before you open it,” Pidgeon said. “Here, like this.” He opened the door and there was the kitchen again.

“I wanted the office,” she said.

“Oh.” Pidgeon closed the door and opened it to reveal the office. “Or you can just say the room out loud if that helps.” He smiled.

Ugh. Whatever.” Ansel stomped past him, bumping his shoulder with hers as she did, into the spacious, high-ceilinged office. It was bigger than any house Ansel had ever lived in and lined with a soft carpet on top of which sat a desk and a few puffy chairs and side tables around a larger table. Sitting in two of the puffy chairs, looking out the ceiling-high, wall-length window onto the rolling hills and greenery that Ansel and Pidgeon had just come from, were Rosalind and Huey.

“Having more trouble, girl?” Rosalind asked, laughing, as Ansel struggled up onto one of the tall puffy chairs. Everything was made to Rosalind and Huey’s size, and they were giants compared to anyone that Ansel had ever met. Well, except for Tom, of course, but she wasn’t thinking about Tom anymore.

“I’m not a girl!” Ansel said when she had positioned herself comfortably on the seat.

“That’s not what your boyfriend says.” Rosalind laughed some more.

“I’m not her boyfriend!” Pidgeon said. He had chosen to sit on the floor with his back to everyone, leaning on one of the chairs to get the perfect view of the world outside the window.

“I say you’re both in denial,” Rosalind said. “Or at least one of you is.”

I’m not a girl!” Ansel repeated.

“Leave them alone, Roz,” Huey said. “They’re just children. Let them decide for themselves. They have plenty of time for it.”

“Don’t you Roz me, Mr. Douglas,” Rosalind snapped, standing from her chair. “You really are getting to be too good at your job, you know. You won’t even let me have the least bit of fun when we’re at home. You’re just like an owner these days.” She stomped from the room.

“I apologize, children,” Huey said, wiping his monocle with his handkerchief. “You shouldn’t have to see that. It really is my fault, though. She’s right, you know. I find it hard to come out of my character sometimes.”

“Oh, no,” Pidgeon said from behind his chair. “You’ve always been great to me. You brought me food that one time, remember? Speaking of which…”

“What do you do as an owner?” Ansel asked, scrunching up her nose. All she knew was that he wore tuxedos, top hats, and bow ties to go to Feasts—which she understood from experience to be a bunch of fat guys huddling up together in a giant circle and crying like babies.

“Oh, well, dear… That’s a hard question to answer. I… Honestly, I don’t do much but order Rosalind around, to tell you the truth. I think that’s why she hates it so much.”

“Well, no wonder,” Ansel said.

“Yes, well, we can’t change the roles we were given now, can we? It was easier for Rosalind to get close to Haley than it would have been for me, anyway. If the roles had been reversed, we might not have Haley with us today.”

“That doesn’t mean you have to treat Rosalind like you own her,” Ansel said.

“Yes, well…” Huey thought about it for a second. “No. You’re right about that. But I do have to treat her like I own her when I’m at work. That’s why they call me an owner.”

“Yeah, well, this isn’t work. Is it?” Ansel said.

“No. You’re right about that, too. But—”

“Then don’t treat her like you own her,” Ansel said. “Simple as that.”

“I guess you’re right, dear.” Huey chuckled. “You’re so wise for such a young gir—er—child.”

“Yeah, well, I’m old for my age.” Ansel crossed her arms. “Now where’s the Scientist? We have some business to tend to.”

“Oh, well.” Huey shook his head, frowning. “I’m sure she’s off with Haley somewhere, you know. You understand why, don’t you?”

Ansel nodded. She understood that the Scientist was supposed to be Haley’s mom, but she still didn’t understand how someone so old could have given birth to someone so much younger and larger in comparison. “Family stuff,” she said.

“Yes, but more than that dear,” Huey said. “Haley was the Scientist’s first born daughter. Those two have been separated for longer than you could imagine. So of course they’re spending every second together.”

“Right.” Ansel shrugged. She still thought it was creepy that such an old lady was supposed to be Haley’s mom, though. But they could believe whatever it was they wanted to believe. It was their life, after all, not hers. “So, do you know when they’ll be back?” she asked.

“Oh, there’s no telling,” Huey said, shaking his head and frowning some more. “They left hours ago, but who knows how long they’ll be gone for. Like I said, they’ve been separated for longer than you could imagine.”

Ugh.” Ansel sighed. Maybe she shouldn’t be trusting this Scientist after all. Ansel really had no idea who the woman was. She was probably lying like everyone else. Ansel knew that the Scientist was too sure of herself, and it was probably to hide the fact that she had no way of actually getting Ansel’s dad back. But if she didn’t, then who did? Pidgeon was still trying to get her to go back to Anna and Rosa for help, but Ansel trusted them less than anyone, so that wasn’t an option at all. Which only left Tom. Who was God knows where. And even if Ansel knew where he was, how was she supposed to get to him? No, Tom was a last resort at best. She had to count on the Scientist to be true to her word for now and hope it didn’t come to the Hail Mary after all.

“You know what we should do while we wait,” Pidgeon said, standing up from the view. “We should get something to eat.”

“You always want to eat, Pidgeon.”

“Hey, you just said you were hungry, too.”

“Yeah, well, I guess…” She looked at Huey.

“Oh, no,” he said, waving his hands. “You two go ahead. Order anything you want. You know how it works, right?”

Oh, yeah,” Pidgeon cheered, jumping up from his seat on the floor and looking to Ansel for confirmation.

Ansel shrugged. “Whatever.”

“Let’s do it!” Pidgeon rushed to the door and ran out into the hall. Ansel took her time getting there, though, and when she was, Pidgeon closed the door and opened it right up to the kitchen. Pidgeon ran to put the stepstool the Scientist had made for them under the 3D printer then stood back and said, “So what you gonna get?” He was smiling and looking back and forth between Ansel and the machine. He looked like he was going to burst into laughter, or cry, or both at the same time. But Ansel could only stare past him, out the window above the sink, looking out onto those lines and lines of people doing who knows what. It was so weird to have that in a kitchen, she thought, but no one else even seemed to notice.

“Well?” Pidgeon asked again, proving her point and breaking her away from the strange view out the sink window.

“Uh, I don’t know.” Ansel shrugged. In the few days that they had been there, Pidgeon had ordered more kinds of food than Ansel knew existed, but every time she stood in front of the printer, Ansel had trouble deciding what she wanted. Her mind kept going back to the one thing it seemed to want to think about: how to get her dad back, but the printer couldn’t give her that.

“Well, you have to pick something,” Pidgeon said. “You can choose anything you want, Ansel. Anything. But it won’t give it to you until you ask.”

“I don’t care,” she said, stepping up onto the stool and pressing the 3D printer’s little red voice activation button. “Lunch,” she said, and again she cringed at talking to a robot.

Lunch?” Pidgeon groaned as a sandwich and a bowl of soup popped out of the printer’s big hatch.

“A sliced meat sandwich and soup,” Ansel said, taking it to the shorter table they had set up in the kitchen for the kids to eat at. “Now that’s a meal.” She took a big bite of the sandwich—turkey—and savored the taste.

Boring,” Pidgeon said, stepping up onto the stool. “You have anything you can imagine at your fingertips, and you ask for lunch, you let the printer decide for you. Well, not me, you see. I hold my fate in my own hands. And I choose…”

He tapped his chin as Ansel dipped the sandwich in the soup and took a soggy bite. “This is good,” she said. “You should try some.”

“No. No… I want…” He pressed the voice activation button. “Chicken! And spaghetti. No, chicken spaghetti. And cheesecake with ice cream. The ice cream on top!”

The food kept coming as he talked. By the time the machine was done printing, he was carrying a tray of chicken, spaghetti, chicken spaghetti, cheesecake, ice cream, and cheesecake with ice cream on top to the table. Ansel thought he should have taken two trips, and he almost lost the tray on the way, but he made it to the table with everything intact, breathing heavily and eyes wide at the piles of food. “You’re gonna have to help me with this,” he said as he set to eating.

“No I’m not,” Ansel said, finishing her own meal. “But I will anyway.” She took the ice cream and started in on it.

Pidgeon was still eating, and Ansel was staring in awe at how much he could put down, when Haley came into the kitchen.

“Oh, hello,” Haley said, curtsying with a smile then walking over to the printer. “How was your day?”

Ansel stood from the table as soon as she heard Haley’s voice. “You’re home,” she said.

“We just got back. We were going to eat some lunch. Do you two want anything?”

“Where’s the Scientist?” Ansel demanded.

“She’s in the office. I was jus—”

“Thanks.” Ansel rushed out of the kitchen into the hall. She closed the door and opened it but still got the kitchen. “Shit,” she said, closing it and opening it to the kitchen a second time. “Shit shit shit.” After a few more tries, she finally said, “Office.” and the door opened to the room she wanted.

The Scientist was sitting on one of the puffy chairs, looking out onto the view. “I love this view,” she said, turning around. “Oh. It’s you. I thought you were Haley.”

“Yeah,” Ansel said, climbing into a chair. “It’s me. Don’t sound so let down.”

“Oh, no, dear. I didn’t mean to—”

“When are we going to get my dad out?”

“Yes, well… About that, dear.” The Scientist looked out the window again, avoiding eye contact with Ansel. “It’s only been a few days, you know. These things take time.”

“Every day we waste is another day closer to them taking him from me, just like they did with my mom. I don’t have time.”

“Yes, dear.” The Scientist shook her head. “I mean, no. Well, that would be true if it wasn’t. You see, we’ve got their computers confused. They’re not sure if he’s in prison or not right now. That buys us the time we need to determine the most efficient method of breaking him out.”

“But what happens when they realize he is there? What then?”

“By then we’ll have him out, you see. I assure you, dear. These things take time to be put properly into motion, but the balls are rolling and it’s picking up steam. I promise you that.”

“I don’t know,” Ansel said, shaking her head. “That’s hard to believe with what I’ve been through.”

“I know it is, dear. But you have to believe we’re doing everything we—”

The door opened and in came Haley, pushing a cart stacked high with more food than Ansel had ever seen in one place.

“Oh, dear,” the Scientist said. “You didn’t have to go through all that. A sandwich and some soup would have done just fine.”

“Yes, well,” Haley said, stacking the food on the table until Ansel couldn’t see the Scientist’s face anymore. “I couldn’t decide what I wanted so I ordered a little bit of everything. The printer doesn’t do a little bit of anything, though, so here we are.” She sat down and started in on some of the food.

“So when do you think we will get him?” Ansel asked. “My dad.”

“What’s that?” Haley asked, chewing on some food Ansel didn’t recognize.

“Oh, nothing, dear,” the Scientist said. “And soon,” she added for Ansel. “Within the week. I promise.”

“Within the week what?” Haley asked.

“Within the week your mom,” Ansel said, “will finally get my dad back—like she promised.”

“Oh, right,” Haley said. “On Christmas Feast Day. Where is he anyway?”

“The protectors took him,” Ansel said.

“Oh, well, that’s easy. Just tell them to—oh wait… I don’t work for Lord Walker anymore.” She frowned.

“No,” the Scientist said. “You don’t. And you should be glad for that. And we’ll get your father out in due time, Ansel dear. Without asking the protectors for permission. I promise you that. You just have to wait until the time is right. Your dad’s not the only political prisoner we’ll want to free if we’re going in there, so we want to make sure we have everything planned to the last detail.”

“Yeah, but—” Ansel started, but Haley cut her off.

“Here, Mom. Try this,” she said, holding out a plate to the Scientist, and it was still odd for Ansel to hear her call the old lady Mom.

Ansel huffed and stomped out of the room. They weren’t going to listen to her. The Scientist had her daughter and she didn’t care about anything else anymore. She was going to be no help in getting Ansel’s dad back, and that was clearer than ever. All she had been doing was distracting Ansel, and Ansel had lost too many days because of it.

She slammed the hall door closed behind her, and when she opened it again, she got the kitchen on the first try. The lines of workers were still doing whatever it is they did through the sink window, and Pidgeon was still eating at the table, though the pile of food in front of him had gotten considerably smaller.

“Oh, Ansel,” he groaned when she walked in and sat at the table across from him. “You have to help me with this. I can’t bring myself to throw any of it away.”

Ansel looked at what he had left on the table. It was mostly chicken and spaghetti or chicken spaghetti. “No,” she said, shaking her head and crinkling up her nose. “I have more important things to discuss.”

Oghmnoghmugh. What could be more important than this right now?”

“My dad, Pidgeon. The only thing I care about. Remember.”

“Yeah, well.” He set his fork on the plate with a clank and leaned back in his chair, unbuttoning his pants. “What are you gonna do about it?”

“I don’t know. But I have to do something, don’t I? I can’t sit here and wait anymore.”

“Okay, but what are you going to do? I mean, unless you plan on taking the elevator to wherever the protectors are, but that would be stupid. You know what they’re like now, don’t you?”

“There has to be something I can do, Pidgeon. I know there does.”

“What about Rosa and—”

“No! I told you. I won’t work with them. You weren’t there, Pidgeon. They convinced Tom to kill someone in my name. I never asked anyone to kill anyone, okay. And I won’t ask anyone who has for help.”

“Yeah, well, I know they can help you, Ansel. They can do the same thing the Scientist can but without elevators. How else do you think you’re gonna get him out?”

“I don’t know. But I think I have a plan.”

“Oh yeah?” Pidgeon took a slow, groggy bite from the pile of chicken spaghetti in front of him. It must have been a third or fourth wind for him by now. “And what’s that?” he asked through a full mouth.

Tom.”

Pidgeon dropped his fork. “You can’t be serious.”

Ansel nodded. “He’s the only other person I know who can get through.”

“Ansel, he killed your mom. He killed that person at the Feast. I mean, you won’t work with Rosa and Anna when they asked him to do it, why will you work with him when he literally did it?”

“It’s not the same,” Ansel said. “They made him do it. It wasn’t his idea. He wanted to protect me. They’re the ones that twisted it.”

“I keep trying to tell you, they’re the ones that have the ability to help you. Not Tom. He admitted as much.”

“Well, I have to try, don’t I? I have to do something. I’m not going to sit here and wait for the Scientist to decide when the time’s right.”

“Yeah, well, I don’t think it’s a good idea.”

“Yeah, well, I don’t care what you think.” She stood and stomped out of the kitchen into the hallway. Who was Pidgeon to say anything? He had no idea what she was going through. She would find a way to get her dad back no matter what.

She opened the hall door to find Rosalind, sitting behind a lab table, surrounded by glassware that was filled with various colored liquids. She was playing cards at an emptied table with the big mechanical arm they called Popeye.

“I see you creepin’, girl,” Rosalind said. “Come on in or get on out.”

Ansel walked up to the table and watched as Rosalind and Popeye pick up cards and laid them down at what looked to be random.

“Alright, girl,” Rosalind said. “Spit it out. What do you want?”

“I’m not a girl.”

“Whatever. Tell me what you want or leave. Popeye and I were enjoying ourselves before you came along to interrupt us.”

Ansel looked at the mechanical arm, who was still intent on the card game she could somehow tell. “How does it know what cards it has without any eyes?” she asked.

“Is that what you came here for?” Rosalind replied. “A lesson on the anatomy of Popeye?”

The metal arm waved at Ansel as if it were excited for the prospect.

“No—I—No…” Ansel shook her head, shuddering.

“I didn’t think so. So spit it out then.”

Ansel hesitated. This was a Hail Mary if there ever was one, and she wasn’t sure it was time to throw it up just yet, but she really had no other choice except for doing nothing, and that wasn’t a choice at all.

“It’s about my dad,” she said.

You don’t say.” Rosalind chuckled. “Is the Scientist taking a little too long for your liking?”

“Yeah, well, I have my own plan.”

“Your own plan, huh?” Rosalind laughed, laying a card on the table. “Did you hear that, Popeye? Her own plan. Well then. Out with it. What is this plan of yours?”

Ansel blushed. She was afraid to share it now, but she wasn’t about to let that stop her. “I want to see Tom,” she said

“Tom?” Rosalind set all her cards on the table, finally intent on what Ansel was saying.

“Tom,” Ansel repeated. “You know who I’m talking about. The protector who I gave you information on. I want to talk to him.”

Ohhh. Tom,” Rosalind said, nodding. “You mean the man who shot my sister?”

“Your sister?”

Haley.”

“Oh, yeah. Well… I know he—”

“And why would you want see this Tom?”

“I don’t know. I just… I think he can help me get my dad back.”

“And you don’t think the Scientist is going to do that?”

“I—I just can’t sit here and do nothing anymore.”

“And you’re sure this is what you want to do instead of nothing?”

“I—I don’t know. I think so. Yes.”

“There might be something I can do for you, then.”

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< XXIV. Rosa     [Table of Contents]     XXVI. Jonah >

Thanks again for joining us, and thanks for keeping up for so long. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading the story as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it. Please do think about picking up a full copy of the novel right here, and we’ll see you again next Saturday for another chapter in An Almost Tangent.

 

Chapter 16: Ansel

Another day another chapter. And just a short intro because I have some moving to do. Enjoy.

< XV. Haley     [Table of Contents]    XVII. Russ >

XVI. Ansel

“I never should have trusted you, Pidgeon! I knew it.” Ansel wanted to hit him, but he was too far away.

“No, Ansel,” Pidgeon said, shaking his head. “That’s not true. I helped you!”

“Helped me? You think knocking my friend out and kidnapping me is helping me?”

“No.” Pidgeon shook his head. “We didn’t kidnap you. We rescued you. And he’s not your friend. He’s a protector.”

“He was a better friend than you ever were. He gave me jerky, and he didn’t run away at the first sign of danger.”

“He was the first sign of danger!”

“He wasn’t dangerous! He said he could find my dad. He was trying to help me!”

Ha! Yeah right.” Pidgeon scoffed. “More like he was lying to you so he could arrest you.”

“Arrest me for what? You saw that gun he had. You said they kill whoever they want, whenever they want. If I was in danger, I would have been dead already. And now I’m never going to meet anyone with a better chance of getting my dad back. You took that away from me, Pidgeon. You and your stupid friends.”

“I—I didn—I’m sorry,” Pidgeon said, almost too low for Ansel to hear. “I was trying to help.”

Rosa came out of the room where they were holding Tom. She had a big smile on her face. “Whatever you said to him did the trick,” she said. “He’s actually listening to what we have to say, at least. He may end up doing what’s best for you after all.”

“What are you making him do?” Ansel asked. “He should be getting my dad back!”

“We told you, girl,” Rosa said. “It’s not in his power to do that. He can aim a gun, though. And thanks to you, we might be able convince him that doing just that is his best way of protecting you. So you did well, child. I appreciate that. Now you and little Richie here are going to have to leave until we’re done with him. Come back tomorrow morning, and he’ll be waiting for you. You got it?”

“But, she doesn—” Pidgeon protested.

“I’m not going anywhere!” Ansel stomped her foot.

“Now I mean it!” Rosa stomped hers back. “You have no investment in that protector, girl. He’s no use to you. We thank you both for leading him our way, and you have our food in your stomachs to show that gratitude, but we’ll be doing business with Mr. Pardy overnight. He’ll be in one piece tomorrow morning if you still want him, but until then, I’m going to have to ask you to leave. Thank you.”

“No, but you sai—” Pidgeon was going to go on, but Ansel grabbed his arm.

“You won’t get away with this,” she said, looking Rosa in the eyes.

“Oh, ho ho, girl.” Rosa laughed. “Get away with what?”

“Whatever you’re making him do. Whoever you’re trying to kill.”

“That, girl, is far enough,” Rosa said. “I’ll have you leave now, and I hope not to see your face again. If you do decide to come collect your friend tomorrow, make sure I don’t see you when you do it. Do you understand me?”

“I understand better than you might think, ma’am,” Ansel said, nodding. “Thank you for the soup. Let’s go Pidgeon.”

Pidgeon tried to protest, but Ansel dragged him out under the stern gaze of Rosa. Neither of them said a word until they had burst out into the open air.

“What was that Ansel?” Pidgeon said, tearing away from her grip. “You can’t treat them like that.”

“And why not?” Ansel asked, grabbing him again and dragging him into the first alley they passed. She let go of his arm and peeked around the corner.

“Because they’re—they’re—old,” Pidgeon said, scrunching up his nose. “And they gave us food, they helped us. And they’re my—my fri—”

“Helped us?” Ansel snapped. “You mean kidnapped.”

“I told you. That was—”

To protect me. Yeah. I know. But did you ever stop to think that maybe I don’t need protecting?”

“I didn’t—I wasn’t—I just wanted to help,” Pidgeon said, lowering his eyes. “We do nothing alone. Remember.”

Shhhh. Of course I remember,” Ansel whispered. “But shut up.” She pulled him behind a dumpster and sat on the dirty ground, leaning her back against the cold metal trash can.

“Wh—What are y—” Pidgeon tried to say.

Shhhhh!” Ansel put her finger to her mouth.

“What are—”

Shhh.”

She waited a few more heartbeats then started to breath.

“What are you doing?” Pidgeon whispered.

“I’m finding out what they’re making him do.”

“But how?” Pidgeon said, shaking his head. “And why? They told you to—”

“Whatever they want him to do, they can’t do it from in there, right? So I’m gonna wait until they come out then follow them to wherever it is they are going do it. That’s how.”

“No. But Ansel. You don’t understand—”

“Pidgeon. If you don’t shut up right now—you know—I’m glad you ditched me. You would suck at hunting. You’d scare all the prey away.”

“But—”

No buts. Okay. That protector was my last chance, Pidgeon. Even if he couldn’t get my dad out, he might be able to get me in. Or—I don’t know—get a message in or something. I have to try. You know that don’t you? You would do the same thing if you were in my situation.”

“Of course I would. That’s why—”

“That’s why I need you to shut up. So we can follow them without being noticed. That’s how hunting works, Pidgeon. Or I guess you already said you didn’t know anything about hunting. Well this is lesson one. Shut up so the prey doesn’t run away.”

“If you would just shut u—”

“Wait.” Ansel held up a hand. “Look,” she said, pointing down the alley. “It’s the cat!”

Back toward Anna and Rosa’s place was the black cat licking itself on the sidewalk.

“No way,” Pidgeon said.

“Let’s get it,” Ansel said.

“But what abou—”

She was already gone, and he had to sprint to catch up. The cat bounded down the street straight toward the building they had just come out of. Ansel thought she had it when it stopped right in front of Anna and Rosa’s apartment, but it jumped into the door and disappeared. Ansel stomped to a stop, and Pidgeon ran into the back of her.

“Where’d he go?” he said.

“Did you see that?”

“What?” Pidgeon said, looking around for the cat. “What happened?”

“It went through the door.”

“Did they see you?”

“No. I mean it went through the door. The door wasn’t open. The cat just disappeared.”

“Like in the alley?”

When you ditched me.

“He disappeared then, too,” Pidgeon said, ignoring her.

“I’m going in.”

She had already reached out to touch the doorknob, but her hand disappeared before she felt it, cut off in a straight line along her wrist like the clouds behind the invisibility screen in the sky. She pulled her hand out and laughed when it reappeared.

“Ansel,” Pidgeon said, taking a step back. “I don’t think you should do that. You don’t know how it’s going to—I don’t know—affect you.”

“Pidgeon,” Ansel said with a grin. “The Curious Cat just jumped through there. You know what that means.”

“No, Ansel. I don’t think that’s the Curious Cat. I think—”

She didn’t hear the rest of what he had to say, because she jumped through the door into a big, dark closet with clothes piled up all around her. The cat sat on a particularly high mound of clothes in front of her, licking itself.

“I found you,” she said.

The cat meowed.

She took it as a challenge. “Oh, yeah? Well I will then.” She pounced toward it, but it ran out of the open door which provided the only source of light in the room. She chased it and lost all her senses in the blinding white lights that she ran into. She was defenseless, and the cat was gone for sure. When her eyes finally adjusted, she saw a giant in a white uniform, pointing a gun at someone behind the lights. Her first instinct was to flee, but then she heard what the giant was yelling, she recognized the voice. He was telling them that he was doing this for her. She never asked him to do that.

“Don’t!” she screamed as the gun went off. She tackled him to try to stop him before he fired again, and they landed in a tangle on the floor.

“What are you doing?” Tom pushed her up off of him and pointed his gun at her, the gun he had just used to shoot someone in what he claimed was protection of her. She had never seen a gun until she met him, and she had certainly never had one pointed at her. She put her trembling hands in the air and saw his finger flinch, but he didn’t pull the trigger. Instead he pulled off his helmet and looked at her wide-eyed. “Ansel,” he said. “I…”

She didn’t want to hear it. She didn’t care anymore. She squirmed away and ran toward the costume closet in the hope that it would let her pass back through the other way.

“Ansel!” Pidgeon grabbed her and hugged her on the other side. She broke away from him and ran down the alley to sit behind a dumpster and cry into her hands.

“Ansel!” Tom called.

When she heard his bootsteps getting closer, she swung her fists towards his face, but only got high enough to hit him in his padded stomach. “Get away from me!” she cried as she swung at him again.

“No, Ansel,” Tom said, holding her at arm’s length. “You don’t understand.”

You don’t understand! You pointed a gun at me. A gun!”

“I didn’t know it was you. Why’d you stop me? How’d you even get there?”

“You said you were doing it for me.”

“I was doing what you asked me to do.”

“I never asked you to shoot anyone.” Ansel scoffed. “Who’d you kill anyway? You fired two shots.”

“I don’t—”

“You don’t even know?” Ansel shook her head. “Then how could you know you were doing it for me?”

“I don’t know if I hit him, because you interrupted me. I was shooting at the person who owns the protectors. They have to do what he says, so ultimately, he’s responsible. Right?”

You have to do what he says,” Ansel reminded him. “He owns you.”

“I—No.” Tom shook his head. “I tried to kill him, to free us.”

“Like you freed my mother”

“No. I didn—”

“But you did. You did, and nothing you can do will ever change that!”

“No. But I—”

“No!” Ansel stomped her foot. “Leave me alone!”

She sprinted out of the alley and down the street, grabbing Pidgeon along the way. He protested a little, but not much, and soon they were running as fast as their feet could take them down the Green Belt. Pidgeon begged to stop not far along, but Haley wasn’t going to stop ever. She didn’t care if he did. She didn’t care if he left her like everyone else. He had already done it once, and he would probably do it again: lie to her just like Tom did and disappear when she needed him the most. She was stupid to trust either of them in the first place. She would get to the end of the Belt by herself if that was what it took.

She heard his footsteps drop out from behind her, but she kept on running anyway. She would run far and fast enough to leave it all behind, Pidgeon and the stupid Concierges that he said were after her, Anna and Rosa and whatever plans they had to kill more people, and especially Tom with his attempts to put responsibility for murders he had committed on her. There was no one left in the world who cared about her. No one at all except for her…dad.

She slowed to a jog, then a walk, then fell to her knees in the middle of the sidewalk. Her dad was the only thing she had left in the world, but how was she supposed to get him back? How could she do it when she was all alone? We do nothing alone.

She caught her breath and wiped her eyes, then turned to see if Pidgeon was still chasing after her. Her heart dropped into her stomach when he wasn’t there. She had run too fast. She had gotten too far ahead of him. He hadn’t ditched her this time, she had ditched him.

The tears came back at the thought of it. Now she really was alone. Before, with him chasing after her, there was still someone driving her on, there was still someone who would be there if she tripped up or lagged behind. But now she had gotten so far ahead that he had given up on her. Now she had less hope than ever of finding her dad. She didn’t even know where to go anymore. She didn’t know where she was. She found herself turning this way and that with tears in her eyes, and the people walking around her couldn’t even spare a second glance.

Then she thought she heard her name. She wiped her nose—and sniffled and coughed—and it came again. It was her name. It was Pidgeon’s voice. He hadn’t given up yet!

“Ansel!” he called. “Ansel, wait up!” He was jogging and out of breath when he finally caught up to her to sit on the ground in a huff. “I thought—I lost you,” he said through deep breaths.

Ansel chuckled a little, her eyes watering again, and said, “You lost me?”

“Yeah.” Pidgeon shrugged, still breathing heavily. “You’re fast.”

“Pidgeon,” Ansel said, working hard to keep her voice from breaking. “Why’d you keep chasing after me?”

“Well.” Pidgeon shrugged. “Because. Besides…You needed me, right? I mean, you need me.” He nodded hopefully at her.

“But you don’t need me, Pidgeon,” Ansel said, scrunching up her eyebrows and wrinkling her forehead.

Pidgeon looked hurt, sitting on the sidewalk, searching for a piece of grass to tear to pieces. “I do though,” he said. “Unless you don’t want to take me along anymore.”

“Take you along?” Ansel frowned.

“Yeah, well.” Pidgeon stood up and brushed himself off. “I guess that was a prank or something. I’ll—uh—I’ll just get back to the orphanage then.”

“No!” Ansel cried a little too desperately. She composed herself and went on. “I mean, you still want to do that? You still want to come with me?”

“Of course I do. I wasn’t lying when I told you what they did to me. I have to get out of there, and I need your help to do it.”

“But Pidgeon,” Ansel said, crossing her arms and looking away from him. “I can’t leave yet. I have to try to get my dad back. Tom may not be able to get him, but I believe him when he says my dad’s still alive.”

“Tom?”

“The protector.”

Ansel. He killed your mom. He admitted to that. How could you trust him?”

“I don’t trust him,” Ansel said, turning back to Pidgeon and shaking her head. “I believe what he’s saying. There’s a difference.”

“How can you believe him, then?”

“Because he wouldn’t admit to killing my mom and lie to me about my dad being alive.”

“Unless he wanted to arrest you.”

Then he would have already.” Ansel sighed. “You saw how big he was. He could have picked me up with one hand and carried me away. Haven’t we been through this already?”

“Yeah, well…”

“Well I’m not negotiating. I’m gonna get my dad back whether you help me or not.”

“But how?”

“I don’t know.”

“So what are you going to do next?”

“I don’t know.”

“So you want me to agree to nothing, then.” Pidgeon scoffed. “What’s the point?”

“I just want you to know that’s what my goal is, that’s all I care about. I’m getting my dad back and nothing else matters.”

“Well, let’s do it, then,” Pidgeon said, finally standing from the sidewalk and looking ready to go.

Ansel rubbed her forehead. “Pidgeon,” she said. “You do understand what this means, don’t you.”

He didn’t answer. Ansel could tell he wanted another blade of grass to tear apart.

“He was taken by the protectors, he’s being held by them, so we have to go to them to figure out how to get him back.”

“Ansel, we can’t,” Pidgeon said. “You don’t—”

“You don’t have to come with me. That’s why I’m telling you now.”

“But how are you going to get to him? Anna and Rosa. They can—”

“I’m not asking them for help,” Ansel said, crossing her arms. “You weren’t there, Pidgeon. There were people there that were bigger than the protectors, but they were a different kind of big, wide, too. And Tom tried to kill one of them, but I stopped him.”

“What are you talking about Ansel?” Pidgeon shook his head, confused.

“I’m saying Anna and Rosa aren’t my friends. You can go back to them if you want, and I’ll just find my own way to get my dad back.”

“But they can get him. When you disappeared I tried to tell you. That was them. They transported you. They can get your dad the same way.”

“I don’t care, Pidgeon.” Ansel shook her head. “I can’t work with them. It may be asking too much, but I’m asking it. Like I said, you don’t have to come with me.”

“I just don’t know how you’re going to get him without them.”

“I don’t either, Richard. But I will.”

“Well…” Pidgeon thought about it for a second. “If you’ll take me with you, I’ll still come, then.”

“You don’t have to.”

“Then if you’ll take me with you, I still want to come. I can’t go back to the orphanage. I won’t.”

She realized how selfish she had been. She realized that they were standing in the middle of the street with people walking all around them. She realized how vulnerable they were. “You’re right, Pidgeon,” she said. “I’m sorry.”

“You don—”

“We need to get out of here, though. We’re not hunters anymore, we’re prey. What road are we on?”

“I don’t know,” Pidgeon said, looking around for any indication. “Roman or something.”

“Roman and what?”

I don’t know,” he repeated. “I was trying to keep up with you, I wasn’t taking the time to read every sign I passed.”

“Fine,” Ansel said. “Okay. Just follow me.” She went down the closest alley she could find in an attempt to set her bearings. She could almost see the street sign across the way when it disappeared along with Pidgeon and the rest of the city around him. She turned and made to go back to find him when someone grabbed her from behind, lifted her off her feet, and carried her back the other way. “Put me down!” she demanded, kicking and struggling to get away, but whoever it was didn’t respond.

They carried her through a short hall into a big room that had a lot of metal tables covered with glass tubes and jars which were filled with different colored chemicals. There were little flames coming out of metal tubes, heating some of the glasses of color, and the chemicals were bubbling and boiling with their essences all mixing together. It was the most interesting thing Ansel had ever seen. She stopped struggling, too busy gawking at the place to fight. She was still staring in awe at her surroundings when the person dropped her on the floor in front of a tall chair which was turned with its back facing her.

“Let me go,” Ansel said, standing and turning to find a big mechanical arm with its hand open and waving. “Who—What are you?”

It kept waving.

“You won’t get anything out of that one,” a voice said behind her.

She turned to see a woman sitting in the chair which was now facing her. “Who are you?” Ansel said. “Let me go.”

“Settle down, girl,” the woman said.

“I’m not a girl!” Ansel said, crossing her arms.

“We’re here to help you,” the woman said.

“Who are you?”

“I’m someone trying to get back what they took from me. Just like you.”

“You don’t know anything about me,” Ansel said.

“I know more than you think, girl. I know you were there at the Feast with that protector. I know you’re running away from home. I know you’re looking for something and we can give it to you.”

“You would have started with that if it was true.” Ansel scoffed.

The woman laughed. “You’re a sly little one, aren’t you? It’s partially true. We can get it for you, but we don’t know what it is.”

“Then how do you know you can get it?”

“We can get it,” the woman said with a grin. “Don’t you worry about that. Whatever it is, we can get it.”

“I want Pidgeon to be here, first,” Ansel said. “Can you get that?”

“You want a pigeon?”

“No.” Ansel sighed. “Pidgeon. Richard. He was following me, but he won’t come through the portal or whatever. He never does.”

“You’ve been through one before?” The woman raised an eyebrow.

Pidgeon,” Ansel said. “Bring him here. Prove you can get what I want when it’s simple, then I’ll bargain with you.”

“I swear,” the woman said. “You Sixers are more miserly than the owners. Fine. Popeye, you heard the girl. Go get Pidgeon and bring him in. What does he look like?”

“I don’t know,” Ansel said, shrugging. “A kid. Dirty clothes. Dark hair. Pimply face. He’ll probably be standing exactly where I disappeared, wondering if he should follow me or not. That is if he hasn’t run off already. You’re losing time.”

“Go on Popeye,” the woman said. The metal arm rolled out through the door they had come in. “There. Popeye’s fetching your pigeon. Now how did you get into the Feast?”

“How did you know I was there?”

“I’m not here to play games with you, girl. You interrupted an important operation. Tell me how you got there.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I just saw a bunch of really fat people acting like babies. I don’t know how that could be important.”

The woman laughed again. “No,” she said, shaking her head and trying to suppress a grin. “That wasn’t the important part, you’re right about that, but I still need to know how you got there.”

“I’m not saying anything until I see—”

“Hey! Let me down!” Pidgeon’s voice cut her off. The big metal arm dropped him on the floor next to her. “Ansel,” he said. “How did you get here?”

“Alright,” the woman said. “Your boyfriend’s here. How did you get to the Feast?”

I don’t know,” Ansel said. “I tried to open a door, and I ended up in a costume closet.”

“The closet,” the woman said, more to herself than to Ansel. “Of course. I should have known.”

“So you already know about the closet,” Ansel said.

“Ansel,” Pidgeon said. “Anna and Ro—”

Shhhh!” Ansel elbowed him.

“Girl,” the woman said. “We’re going to find out one way or another. You might as well let your boyfriend tell us now. We’ll be more likely to help you if you cooperate.”

“I’m not her boyfriend,” Pidgeon said, crossing his arms.

“That doesn’t matter, boy,” the woman said. “Shut up. Now, your Pidgeon is here. I held up my end of the bargain. So tell me, how did you get into the feast?”

“I told you!” Ansel stomped her foot.

“Where did it happen?”

“I don’t know,” Ansel said. “Pidgeon?”

“St. Roch and St. Claude,” he said. “That’s where it—”

“You heard him,” Ansel said. “Now how are you going to get my dad for me?”

“And you say you tried to open the door, but you went through into a costume closet?” the woman asked.

“Am I here all alone?” Ansel said. “Yes. Then I heard the protector say he was doing what he was doing for me, so I tried to stop him. I never asked him to shoot anyone. He was supposed to help me get my dad back just like you are now. Right?”

“Right,” the woman said. “But you’ll have to wait for the Scientist for that.”

“Wait for the what?” Ansel said, losing her temper. “Listen lady. Tell me how you plan on getting my dad back, or we’re leaving.”

Pidgeon didn’t look as sure of himself as Ansel was. He was still staring at the mechanical arm, afraid it might grab him again. The arm didn’t seem to be paying any attention to him, though. It was sweeping up something on the floor. The woman laughed and turned her chair around so Ansel could only see the back of it. “Well leave then, girl,” she said. “See if I care. We already have what we want. You should have held your cards closer to your chest if you wanted to negotiate.”

“You’re lying!” Ansel rushed at her, but Pidgeon grabbed her arm and turned her around.

Uh…Ansel,” he said, staring at the door they had come in.

A dark-faced man that was even taller than Tom walked into the room. He was wearing a black suit, with a black piece of cloth tied in a bow around his neck, and a tall, black hat on his head. He looked down at them, took the single gold-rimmed lens out of his eye, and said, “Ahem. Rosalind. You didn’t tell me our visitor—or should I say visitors—were here. Hello, ma’am. Sir.” He took off his hat and did a little bow. “My name’s Huey. It’s so nice to finally meet you.” He held out his hand and bent over at the waist so Ansel could shake it.

She looked at it, not sure what to do. She didn’t know what to think of this giant. Why was he being so nice? And was that woman in the chair as big as he was? It was probably a good thing that Pidgeon had stopped her before she could hit the jerk.

“Go ahead,” the giant said. “I won’t bite.”

She put her hand in his, and when he closed it around hers, her hand disappeared. She drew it away as soon as she could, and he extended his hand to Pidgeon.

“You, too, sir,” he said. “Even though I know less about you than I do about our mutual acquaintance whose name I don’t even know.”

Pidgeon took his hand. “Hi, sir,” he said. “I’m Pidg—er—Richard. And this here’s Ansel—Ow!”

Ansel elbowed him. “I can speak for myself.”

“Well.” The giant looked between the two of them, studying their appearance. It made Ansel feel self-conscious so she started kicking at nothing. “Ansel and Richard. As I said, I’m Huey. And you’ve already met my sister, Rosalind.”

“Sister?” Pidgeon said.

“She said you could get my dad back,” Ansel said.

“Rosalind,” Huey said. “The lab? Really. We couldn’t find a more comfortable place for our guests to wait?”

“I’m plenty comfortable here, Mr. Douglas,” the woman in the chair said. “Thank you.”

“I’m sure you are,” Huey said. “But I imagine our guests would prefer a soft seat and a nice view.”

“Then why don’t you take them to a more comfortable location,” the woman said. “Popeye and I here need to get some work done anyway.”

“Work?” Huey scoffed. “If ever there was a time to take a break, it was now.”

“A break?” The woman scoffed back. “You always want to take a break, brother. And, like always, you will. So go ahead. I’ll get my break when my work’s done.”

Huey sighed and shook his head. He turned back to Ansel and Pidgeon. “Her position is so much more difficult than mine,” he whispered to them. “It’s a shame she can’t enjoy these small victories like I do. Anyway. Let’s go then. The Scientist has a little more business to tend to, but she’ll be right with you. Let’s go somewhere more comfortable to wait. Shall we?”

He led them to a door, opened it, and showed them through. They walked out into the little hall she had come in through, and Pidgeon kept walking for a bit, but Huey said, “Uh—ahh—Richard. This way, please.” He reopened the door they had just come out of, but the lab was gone, and in its place was a room with a big desk and a table surrounded by several tall, puffy chairs which Ansel forgot all about when she saw the view out the window making up the opposite wall. Pidgeon ran up to it and put his face against the glass to get a closer look. Ansel looked up at Huey first.

He nodded. “Go ahead.”

She ran after Pidgeon and put her face on the glass, too. There was more green grass and blue skies than could be found in the entire Belt. There were hills, and trees she had never seen before, and she couldn’t count the number of animals that were standing out in the open for anyone’s taking.

“What is that?” Pidgeon asked.

“How do we get there?” Ansel asked.

Huey sat on one of the puffy chairs, putting his hat and lens on the side table. “That’s a wilderness reserve,” he said. “And getting there isn’t hard, if that’s what you decide you want.”

Pidgeon kept staring. Ansel took her attention away from the view and sat in the chair across from Huey. She had to jump and struggle to climb up into it. Huey smiled as he watched her. When she was comfortable, she said, “That woman said you could get my dad. Can you?”

“Oh ho. No, Ansel,” Huey said, shaking his head. “Not me. But the Scientist can. I have no doubt about that.”

“The Scientist?”

“Yes,” he said with a smile. “You’ll meet her soon. She…She can give you anything you desire. Or at least she can tell you how to get it yourself.”

“Whatever I want?”

“Within the bounds of reality, of course,” Huey said with a nod.

“And you’re sure she’ll help?”

“Certainly, child. Just you wait and see.”

#     #     #

< XV. Haley     [Table of Contents]    XVII. Russ >

Thanks for reading. I gotta get back to work. Peace.

Chapter 09: Ansel

Here’s Ansel’s second chapter for y’all to enjoy. Don’t forget to pick up a copy of the full novel on Amazon here.

< VIII. Haley             [Table of Contents]             X. Russ >

IX. Ansel

She should never have agreed to take the first watch. It was her idea, after all, so she really had no choice—but still. Her parents were probably worrying about her, wondering where she was. No, they probably knew she was enjoying the grass and trees—where else would she be?—but still they always worried, even if they knew she could take care of herself.

Pidgeon had left right away, because he had to go see his parents or something. She wasn’t listening. He didn’t think the cat would come back until lunch, anyway. Without him there to tease, the time went by almost as slowly as it did when she was sitting in class, listening to stupid Mrs. Liar go on and on about this family usurping that and then another merging into those and yadda yadda yadda.

She caught herself staring off into the foliage and shook her head to get rid of the boring daydream. She reminded herself that this wasn’t a school lesson or a game, this was real life, a hunt. She set her gaze on where she thought she remembered seeing the cat disappear at lunch and pictured it climbing through the leaves to her, willing it into existence.

Him. Willing him into existence. She wondered if Pidgeon really believed that this could be the Curious Cat, or if he was pulling a prank on her to get her to sit up in a tree for hours. She almost climbed down at the thought of it, but before she did, she remembered that she had definitely seen a cat at lunch, and whether it was the Curious Cat or not, she would be trying to catch it. The joke was on him. She was doing exactly what she would be doing whether he told her it was the Curious Cat or not.

She moved up the tree a little and sat in a knot between two branches, resting her back on the trunk of the tree. There. A perfect cat blind. And now she was comfortable, too. Another strike against Pidgeon’s stupid ploy.

But then, what if it wasn’t a ploy? What if he really did believe that it was the Curious Cat? What if it really was the Curious Cat? What would she do when she got to Prosperity? She laughed at the thought of it.

Sure there were stories of people who had seen the cat—and the stories all said it knew the way to Prosperity—but none of them ever really explained what Prosperity was. Most of them ended with something bad happening to the people who were chasing the cat before they could ever find it. But her mom had told her one once where the little girl actually caught the cat, and it did show her the way to Prosperity, but when the little girl got there and saw what Prosperity really was, she turned around, went back home, and never chased that cat again.

Ansel laughed a little too loud for someone who was supposed to be on a hunt, but that was the most ridiculous Curious Cat story of them all. To turn down Prosperity for this? That girl in the story didn’t even live in the Green Belt, she lived in the Streets. Someone who had never experienced what the Streets were like must have written that one. No one else would make up a story so stupid that someone turns down a chance to get out of them.

She heard a rustling in the tree below her and jumped up to see Pidgeon’s big head climbing toward her. “Bombs away,” she said, dropping a nut from a branch near her down onto him.

Ow! Jerk,” he said, climbing up to her and sitting on a slightly lower branch, rubbing his head. Just another sign of his weakness.

“Pidgeon,” Ansel said. “You can’t tell me that you haven’t lived on the Belt for long. You wouldn’t last a day in the Streets.”

“I never said I didn’t live on the Belt for long. And thanks.”

“Hey,” Ansel said, shrugging. “I just call it like I see it. And you did say you haven’t lived here long.”

“Yeah, here. But the Belt’s pretty long, in case you hadn’t noticed.”

“Yeah yeah,” Ansel said, shaking her head. “I get it.” She was kind of proud of him for finally sticking up for himself. It was about time.

They sat in silence for too long to count, staring at the leaves, waiting for the cat to come back, before Ansel said, “You ever been out in the Streets Pidgeon?”

“It’s Richard,” Pidgeon said. “And yeah, you know, I’ve been a few—a few blocks in there. I haven’t spent all my life on the Belt.”

“A few blocks?” Ansel scoffed. “Pft! That’s still one day’s travel to the Belt. That isn’t the Streets, Pidgeon. That’s the Garden of Eden.”

“Yeah,” Pidgeon said, getting heated. “So what? I guess you’re some big sho—” He turned his head and raised his eyebrows. “Did you hear that?”

“What? The cat?” Ansel stood up and looked down the tree for it.

“No.” Pidgeon shook his head. “It sounded like gunshots. Pow. Pow pow. Pow.”

Ansel laughed. “C’mon Pidgeon,” she said. “That was a hammer. If that was a gun, it couldn’t scratch a baby it was so small. You see, that’s exactly what I’m talking about. Where I come from it’s completely streets. That’s where the name the Streets comes from. Don’t they teach you that in the Kinder Garden? We can’t walk a couple of blocks to get to green grass, blue skies, and cat-infested trees, you know. Shit. We can’t walk thirty blocks, three hundred blocks, I don’t know how many blocks. I had never seen this much grass since yesterday, and you’re sitting here crying about a few gunshots off in the distance. That’s a lullaby to me, Pidgeon. I’m about to lean back here in this beautiful green tree and take a nap to the sound of it. Watch me.” She leaned back and put her hands behind her head to prove her point.

“Well,” Pidgeon said. “I’m sorry I didn’t live on the Streets like you did, but what can I do abou—” He turned his head again. “That was another one.”

Ansel shook her head, chuckling. “Alright,” she said. “Alright, Pidgeon. I’ll stay out here a little longer to protect you. My parents’ll just have to wait to hear how sucky my first day of school was. They’re probably still at work, anyway.”

“Yeah, well.” Pidgeon grabbed a leaf from the tree and tore it to bits. “I don’t need your protection. No one will find me up here anyway.”

“Yeah,” Ansel said, giving him a thumbs up. “Right. Because they’re prolly looking for you. Aren’t they?” She tried to hold a straight face but couldn’t help chuckling.

“You’re a jerk,” Pidgeon said, ripping another leaf off the tree and tearing it to pieces.

“So you spent all your life on the Belt, huh, Pidgeon.” Ansel smiled, crossing her legs. “That’s gotta be nice.”

“You’d think. But it’s not as great as they make it out to be.”

“Oh, no? Cat trees—trees period—grass and sky. I don’t see where the problems are.”

“Give it some time. You’ll see.”

Pfffft.” Ansel chuckled. “So far all I see is blue skies and green leaves.”

“Yeah? Well look down there. Look at the street right now. What do you see?”

“I don’t know,” Ansel said, cocking her head to look but unable to see through the leaves. “Looks pretty empty to me.”

“That’s because it is. Everyone’s gone into hiding. Do you know why?”

“That’s ridiculous.” Ansel chuckled. “What would they have to hide from?”

“Look closer,” Pidgeon said. “There’s a few of them down there, I’m sure. And there’ll be more soon. It’s probably best for you to stay in the tree with me for a while anyway. You don’t want to run into one of them. They’d take you down and lock you up for crossing in front of them.”

Ansel tried harder to see through the leaves. She climbed out onto the thickest branch she could find and went almost to the end of it before she thought it would break underneath her weight. The wind whipped across her face and it felt like she was flying. She had never been this high out in the open before. Being out on a limb like this felt so much more freeing than being on the roof of a skyscraper. She looked up at the sky and thought it was strange that the clouds ended in such a straight line like that. It was almost as if they were being blown behind a huge, straight-edged invisibility screen in the sky.

“Do you see them?” Pidgeon asked from behind her.

She looked down again. There weren’t too many people, but she could see more coming from up the street. They were all dressed in white, wearing helmets, carrying guns, and marching in pairs behind their leaders. A couple of them pulled someone out of a building and dragged them along the Green Belt. They seemed like giants compared to the person they were lugging behind them, even from so high in the air.

“Who are they?” Ansel asked, sitting back in the tree when they had dragged the person out of sight.

“Protectors.” Pidgeon chuckled. “That’s what they call themselves. Can you believe that? Protectors.” He shook his head.

“Protectors?”

“Something the Street kid has never heard of before?” Pidgeon said with a smug grin. “They don’t get too far from the Belt, I guess. Who needs protecting now?”

Ansel blushed. “Pshh. I can handle myself,” she said. “I was just looking for information.” She made like she was going to climb down the tree.

“No,” Pidgeon said. “No, wait.” He grabbed her arm to stop her.

She protested a little, but relented and sat back in her nook. “So, who are these protectors?”

“Assholes,” Pidgeon said, managing to spit it out without looking disgusted. He must have really had something against them. “That’s who. Pigs. They’re not here to protect any of us. That’s why they never go out into the Streets. No, they’re here to protect other people from us. They just come and round up all the printers every now and then, and they usually kill a few people in the process.”

“No,” Ansel said, shaking her head. “I would have heard of them before.”

“If you’ve got a 3D printer, that’s a ticket to the Belt. They know where to find them, and that’s all they care about. If you’ve never had printer access, you’ve never had a reason to learn about them.”

“That’s shit. That’s how I got here, you know. My parents got some printers and then we moved here. And what? These protectors are here to flash their guns and take them all away?”

“That’s pretty much how it works,” Pidgeon said, shrugging.

“No.” Ansel shook her head. “Someone would stop them.”

Ha!” Pidgeon laughed. “Stop them? How? You’ve only seen them from far away. They’re giants. And they wear armor. No weapon you can get from a printer can get through that armor. Then there’s the guns they have. The weapons that wait behind those. You don’t want to know what they’re capable of, Ansel.”

“H—How do you even know this?”

Pidgeon shook his head. “It’s just something you learn living on the Belt, something you experience. You wouldn’t know, Street kid.”

“But—I…I do. I—”

“No. Ansel, look. It doesn’t matter. They’re gone now. You can go back home to your parents. I’ll finish with this shift and see you in the morning, okay.”

“But. They—”

Okay?”

Ansel shook her head. “Fine,” she said, waving her hands. “Whatever. But you better stay here for your entire shift.”

“Yeah, yeah. Just watch out for the protectors on your way home.”

Ansel nodded and made her way down the tree.

She wondered what had happened to Pidgeon to make him hate the protectors so much. She wondered what they could have done. They didn’t look as scary as he was making them out to be, but then why was he so frightened by the gunshots? As far as Ansel knew that was the sound of someone getting what they deserved. At least that’s how it was in the Streets.

She heard the sound of shuffling feet down the alley she was passing and jumped. She sighed a breath of relief when she saw it was just a grubby kid, younger than her, digging through the trash. He was probably an orphan looking for something to eat.

“Hey, you!” Ansel called.

The kid turned and stared at her with wide eyes like an animal. He froze in place, but Ansel could see the tension in his muscles. They were ready to spring into action at any moment.

“Get out of here, kid!” she yelled at him. “This is the Belt, you belong in the Streets!” She stomped a few steps toward him like she was going to chase him, and he scampered away. Ansel laughed to herself and turned toward home.

What a poor sap, dirty and starving and digging through dumpsters. He probably didn’t even know how to hunt or trap. That’s the only reason to dumpster dive. If this was the Streets, there wouldn’t even be anything worth eating to dig for. At least she knew she would never be as helpless as that.

The hall and the stairway up to her apartment seemed emptier than they should be. Maybe they were always that way at this time of day, but she hadn’t lived there long enough to know. Still, she felt like something was strange about the echoing of her footsteps up the stairs. She shrugged off the feeling and shoved the door to the apartment open, calling, “I’m hoooome! Hellooo?”

She walked into the kitchen, then her parents room, then out to the balcony. They must have still been at work. She shrugged and went back to her room to change out of that stupid dress and into something more comfortable. She looked at the dress—noting the tree bark tears and dirt on the back—before she crumpled it up and threw it in the corner. At least they couldn’t make her wear it because it was new anymore.

After she had put on her jeans and t-shirt—and shoved her slingshot in her back pocket—she went back into the kitchen and looked in the fridge to find it empty as usual. There was a little bit of jelly and an onion, but that was it. There was some bread, too. She could make a disgusting jelly sandwich. Or she could wait until her parents got home, and they would probably bring something worth eating from their lunch at work. Especially with their first day at their new jobs. They had to get something good. That or she could go outside and get some food for herself, just like she told the Street kid to do. She went out to the balcony to look over the Belt and see if there was anything worth climbing down to catch.

The sun was almost down over the horizon, eaten between the skyline on opposite sides of the Belt. The sky was turning from blue, to red, to purple, then finally black. Ansel wondered if Pidgeon was still sitting up in the tree, if he would sit out the shift or give up. He was probably there now—he didn’t look like he was going anywhere anytime soon when she had left him—but he might not stay the whole time. She would never know, though, unless she went out to spy on him, because neither of them could cover the whole night.

Where were her parents anyway? They usually didn’t take this long. But this was a new job. There was no telling how long they would be out. They might even stay out for the entire night. They had done it before. More food, better house, perfect location, they more than likely had to do more work to get all that. But then she would be left with a jelly sandwich for dinner. Or they could be stuck working for a few days and not come home the entire time. Then she would have to ration her food, she would have to save the bread and jelly for when she couldn’t go out to get something fresh. If that was the case, going out to hunt would be the best option. She was about to set out and catch dinner when she heard the front door open.

“Mom? Dad?” she called. “I’m out here!”

She almost jumped off the balcony when a white-haired woman came outside instead of her parents.

“Wh—who are you?” Ansel said, cowering in the corner of the balcony railing.

“Settle down, dear,” the old woman said. “Imma friend. Ya name’s Ansel, right?”

“Who’s askin?”

“Who’s askin?” The woman frowned. “Me, dear. Who else? I live downstairs.”

Ansel shook her head. The old woman looked familiar but not familiar enough.

“It doesn’t matter, child. Ya gotta git outta here tonight. Ya’re in danger.”

“Get out of my house! Who are you? My parents’ll be home soon!”

“Oh, child.” The woman shook her head. “Afraid they won’t. S’why I’m here ya see. Well…ya parents—they—they won’t be coming home.”

“What did you do to them?” Ansel demanded.

“No no no,” the woman said, shaking her head. “Not me, child. Not me at all. I’m here to protect ya. It’s them protectors that did this. Not me.”

“Did what?” Ansel said, stomping her foot.

“Child.” The woman shook her head. Her eyes grew teary. “They’re—They’ve gone. D—Dead. Maybe worse. But they ain’t comin back. Now, I’m sorry.”

“No!” Ansel rushed at her and tried to hit the woman with her little sad fists, but she wrapped Ansel up in a tight warm hug and whispered, “I know, child. I know. But we don’t have no time. The protectors prolly won’t come lookin for the likes of ya—bein so young—but still, there’re the landlords to worry about. This apartment was for ya parents.”

Ansel pushed herself away from the woman’s embrace. She wiped her eyes and sniffled. “What am I supposed to do? Where am I supposed to go?”

“I don’t know, dear. Can’t answer that. I’ll tell ya this, though—and it’s the last time, cause if they find me here I’m in the same boilin pot as ya’re—but ya’ll be better off leavin now. Ya can come with me to get a start, but ya’ll leave tonight. I ain’t takin no boarders.”

If the woman was offering a longer stay, Ansel would have trusted her less, but the fact that she was so anxious to leave the apartment and wanted to get rid of Ansel as soon as possible made her more believable. “Fine,” Ansel said. “One second.” She ran to her room to grab the drawing of her and Katie, and even that stupid dress her parents had gotten her, and pack them both in her rucksack. She went back into the kitchen to pack the jelly, onion, and bread in, too, then said, “Okay. I’m ready.”

“Good.” The woman took her free hand. “Ya just might make it, yet, child. Now c’mon.”

They left the apartment and climbed down a couple of flights of stairs, but not all the way to the ground floor. They went down the hall and into an apartment on the Street side of the building. It had a kitchen and a bathroom but no balcony, and the bed was in the kitchen. It looked like her house in the Streets, only without Ansel’s bedroom. The woman dragged her in, locked the door, and set to rummaging through the drawers and cabinets without another word. Ansel walked to the remotest corner of the room and dropped her bag.

“No need to unpack,” the woman said as she worked. “Ya’ll be outta here soon anyway. Ya’re already burden enough as it is.”

“I didn’t ask for no help!” Ansel protested.

“And I bet ya won’t deny none either.”

“I’ll leave right now if you want.” Ansel made to grab her bag.

“No ya won’t. Ya’ll be happy to have some food in ya stomach. This might be the last meal ya get for a while now.”

Ansel knew she was right. She set her bag back down and paced the small room.

“Ya know how to cook?” the woman asked.

“Not in the kitchen, but I can follow directions.”

“Chop that onion,” the woman told her. “Ya say ya can’t in the kitchen, but otherwise?”

“I can cook what I catch if I have a lighter and a garbage can,” Ansel said, trying not to cry—from the fumes she convinced herself, she still didn’t believe the old woman was right about her parents. “Depending on the trash I might not need the lighter.”

“Ya can hunt, too, then.”

“I caught dinner most nights in the Streets. I’d say I know what I’m doing.”

“That sorta knowledge’ll do ya good, dear. Now toss the onion in. Ya’ll appreciate that in a few days.”

Ansel tossed the chopped up bits in. The smell and sound of them sizzling reminded her of her parents, her parents who this woman said were dead. They weren’t, though. This senile, old lady had no idea what she was talking about. The tears welled up again even though Ansel was done chopping. “What’s your name?” Ansel asked to distract herself as the woman portioned out two bowls of beans and rice, handing one to her.

“Don’t matter. What matters is that ya eat this up and get ready for the road aheada ya, girl.”

“I’m not a girl,” Ansel said through a full mouth. “This is good, though,” she added, trying not to sound too ungrateful.

“Thank ya, dear. But ya don’t have to lie. It’s just beans and rice and onion. It don’t taste like much, but it fills the stomach. That’s what matters for ya right now, anyway.”

Ansel went on eating in answer. They didn’t talk while they ate, which was typical of every meal Ansel had ever eaten. As soon as she finished her bowl and licked it clean, she set it in the sink.

“Ya’ll be kind to wash that, ma’am,” the woman said.

“Oh, I—” Ansel went to wash the bowl and spoon with an old soggy sponge that was resting on the edge of the sink. She almost gagged touching it.

“Very good,” the woman said. “Now, I have some advice for ya. First, get outta the Concierge’s territory as soon as ya can, child. It goes further west than east but ya’d be best goin south where they care the least. Ya know which way south is, don’t ya?”

Ansel nodded. She had come from the south. That was her home. Of course she knew which way was south.

“Good,” the woman said. “If ya think ya can hunt for food down there, then that’s yar best bet. And I suggest ya go quick, too. The Concierges’ll be lookin for ya, and the protectors’ll be out again soon.”

Ansel nodded. She was surprised to see that this woman was as afraid of the protectors as Pidgeon was. She didn’t understand it, but she knew that now wasn’t the time for questions.

“Good. Very good, dear,” the woman said. “Then I’m afraid that’s all I can do for ya. The Concierges’ll search every apartment. Ya’re property now, so ya best get going before they think I stole ya.”

Ansel nodded again. “Thank you.” She grabbed her rucksack and made to leave, but the woman grasped her in a hug before she could.

“Good luck, child,” she said, sniffling. “I did what I could. Ya gotta do the rest now.”

Ansel squeezed her tight one last time then slipped out the door and down the stairs as quietly as she could.

It was dark outside. There was no sun, and the moon was hidden by the skyscrapers. The only light to guide her was that little which came from the windows and doors of the buildings around her. She knew the woman had told her to go south, but she also knew better than that. The Concierges might look further west than south, but that’s because the better territory was in the west. She had to stay close to the Belt. Now that she had experienced it, there was no way she was getting any further away from that source of food. She didn’t want to be like that Street kid without a hope in the world.

She stopped in her tracks when she realized that she was exactly like that Street kid. She couldn’t believe it. She wanted to run back to her house and find her parents there to realize it was all a joke, or a bad dream, or something. Then she heard the sound of movement and saw a flash of white out of the corner of her eye. She scurried out into the Belt to hide behind a tree.

Catching her breath, she peeked around the edge of the trunk. Two of the tallest, whitest, biggest people she had ever seen carried huge guns down the street, wearing plated vests and helmets with facemasks that were shaped to look like laughing—or screaming, she couldn’t tell in the light—faces with dark tinted eyes. No wonder everyone was so afraid of them.

When they had disappeared from view and Ansel’s muscles relaxed, she heard a whisper from above her. She looked up to find Pidgeon in the tree, beckoning her to climb up. She didn’t even realize this was that tree. She climbed up, and he climbed higher, too, until they were both at the cat blind. He had kept his post after all.

“What are you doing here?” Pidgeon whispered. “I thought you couldn’t come out this late. You shouldn’t have. Those protectors are dangerous.”

Uh. Yeah.” Ansel shook her head. “Plans changed.”

“Well, I haven’t seen Mr. Kitty all night.”

“Yeah.” Ansel shrugged. “It probably won’t be back until lunch tomorrow, huh?”

Pidgeon stared at her, and she turned to look away down the tree. “Is there something wrong with you?” he said. “You don’t sound as interested in finding him as you did when you set up this system.”

Ansel shook her head. “Yeah. I’m fine,” she said absently.

“Ansel. He’s not coming tonight. Why don’t you go home and get some rest. The protectors are gone now.”

“No—I mean, Pidg—Richard. What did the protectors do to you?”

“What?” Pidgeon looked away from her now.

“The protectors. Why do you hate them so much?”

“Everyone hates them. It’s not just me.”

“So is that why you hate them, then?” Ansel scoffed. “Because everyone else does?”

“No.” Pidgeon shook his head. “I have my reasons.”

“Well what are they?”

“I don’t—That’s personal. I barely even know you, okay. I don’t have to talk about this. Just leave it.”

Alright. Sorry. God. It was just a question. You don’t have to be a baby about it.”

“Yeah? A baby? Funny you use that word. You have no idea what those people are capable of, Ansel. No clue. And you’re gonna sit here and call me a baby. My brother was a baby, you know. He was crying for his mom—his mom who they took from him—and you know what they did to him? No. You have no clue. Just like I thought, Street kid.” He spit down the tree and grabbed another handful of leaves to tear to pieces.

Ansel felt her eyes moisten. “I’m sorry,” she whispered in a shaky voice.

“What was that?” Pidgeon snapped.

“I said I’m sorry! Alright. I’m sorry. I didn’t know. I just—”

“You just had to keep pushing, even though I told you I didn’t want to talk about it.”

“No, I—”

“You thought you knew better than me. You thought that, because you were from the Streets, you knew how the world worked better than a fluffy flower from the Belt. Well, I’ve seen things, too, Ansel. I’ve lived through things. I watched them kill my brother, then I was forced into the Concierge orphanage system. So don’t talk to me about what you’ve been through. Okay!”

“Pidgeon!” Ansel said. “I think they killed my parents.”

He looked at her then climbed out on a limb to see if anyone had heard their argument. He sat back in the tree and tried to scoot a little closer to her. “I’m—uh—I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t know.”

“Yeah, well, let’s call it even.”

“I didn’t mean—”

“And I don’t know either. Okay. They could still be alive. That woman could have been lying to me. I never—I never saw their bodies or anything.”

“What woman? What did she look like?”

“I don’t know.” Ansel shrugged. “She looked like an old lady. What does it matter?”

“Well she was right.”

“You don’t know that,” Ansel said, hitting him on his arm. “My parents wouldn’t go down that easily.”

Ow!” Pidgeon rubbed where she had hit him. “I didn’t mean that. I meant that if they were dead, you would be better off not staying in the apartment. The Concierges will want it for someone else. And if they find you there, they’ll want to use you for something else, too. Trust me, Ansel. You don’t want that.”

“Is that what happened to you?” Ansel said. “When they…”

Pidgeon nodded. “When they killed my mom and brother and brought me to their orphanage. I know you don’t want that, Ansel. The things they make me—The things they would make you do. I can’t even—I…” He shook his head, staring down the tree at nothing.

“Don’t worry, Richard,” Ansel said, putting her hand on his back. “I won’t let them get me.”

He smiled. “You better not.”

“I won’t,” she said, smiling and perking up. “And I won’t accept the fact that they—that my parents are gone, either. I’m gonna stake the apartment out for the night before I leave. And you’re coming with me when I do.”

“Ansel, no.” Pidgeon shook his head. “I can’t. If they found me, it would be worse than it already is. I can’t risk that.”

“Risk?” Ansel scoffed. “Your life is so bad that you can’t even tell me about it, Pidgeon. You think leaving that is a risk? Sure, there’s no risk in staying here. You know your life is going to be terrible. But with leaving the only risk you take is living a better life.”

“Yeah? Well, what would I do if I left, huh? How would I eat? Where would I sleep? At least there are meals and a bed here, and school as an escape. If I left, I would have nothing.”

“That’s not true.” Ansel shook her head. “Just look around you. We’re in a tree in the Belt, Pidgeon. This is the best place in the world to find food, to scavenge, to hunt. We can sleep in the trees and move up and down the Belt. Maybe we’ll even make it all the way to the end of the thing. Or maybe we’ll come all the way around the other side and end up right back where we started. What do you think?”

Ha!” Pidgeon shook his head. “Don’t make me laugh.” He scoffed. “You can hunt. You can scavenge. I don’t know how to do any of that, and I would only hold you back. I bet you’d leave me behind the first time it looked profitable to you.”

“That’s not true. I wouldn’t have asked you to come if I was going to leave you behind. I’m not like that. It’s just—Nevermind. It’s stupid anyway.” She looked away, shaking her head.

Pidgeon shrugged. “Yeah. Right,” he said. He waited a while for her to respond, but when she didn’t, he swallowed his pride and said, “It’s just what?”

“No,” Ansel said, shaking her head. “It’s nothing. Don’t worry about it. You can stay at your stupid orphanage, and I’ll find my parents alone.”

“That woman, Ansel. The one who told you your parents were…dead. Did she live a few floors below you? Did she have dreaded up white hair and serve you red beans?”

Ansel shook her head but didn’t answer.

“Ansel, if she did, if that was her, then your parents are gone. She was trying to protect you. I know her. I found her place after they brought me here, after it happened to me. She told me the same things she told you, that I should get out of here as soon as I can, that I was in danger, but I didn’t trust her just like you don’t, and that’s why I’m still stuck at that stupid orphanage, because I didn’t listen. I stayed around here where I knew how to get food and a place to sleep, and they caught me and brought me to the orphanage where they haven’t taken their eyes off me since. They will find you, Ansel.”

“That’s not true! You said it yourself. You don’t know how to hunt, but I do. I know what I’m doing. I can do it without getting caught, and they won’t be looking for me, anyway, because my parents aren’t dead!”

Ansel,” Pidgeon said, shaking his head and avoiding her eyes. “They are. The sooner you accept that fact, the better off you’ll be.”

“Fine.” Ansel sighed. “Whatever. Even if they are—which they aren’t—I’m still leaving this place. I’m going to the end of the Belt with or without you, Pidgeon. In fact, I might as well get going now. No use putting it off any longer. Have fun in school and good luck finding your stupid cat.” She made to climb down, but he stopped her again.

“Wait!” he said. “Wait. Just wait.”

She sat down as he collected himself.

“Wait,” he repeated. “Okay. I just—I—You said something earlier. Or, you were going to say it. The reason why you wouldn’t leave me behind if I went with you. What was it?”

“Nothing.” Ansel shook her head. “But I wouldn’t leave you behind. I swear. I’d teach you how to hunt so you wouldn’t even have to worry about it.”

“They killed her in front of me,” Pidgeon said, staring at something which Ansel couldn’t see out beyond the leaves of the tree. “My mom. I’m not sure if that’s worse, or not knowing like you, but they killed her right in front of me. My—my brother, too. He was crying because of the sound of the gun. I was, too, but I was a little older so I held it in better. He—he was just a baby. So he was crying. And the protectors—the pigs—they yelled at him to shut up, but he wouldn’t. Of course he wouldn’t, you know. He was just a baby. One of them took my brother out of his crib, set him on the ground, then lifted his boot up and hovered it over my baby brother, daring me to cry out against it. But I choked back my need to cry out, and the protector let his foot drop anyway. I did cry out then. And they laughed. Then they said they weren’t letting me off that easily. One of them pointed a gun at me while another said that if I didn’t take his gun and…shoot my brother.” He turned away, obviously crying, then sniffled and gathered himself. “If I didn’t do…it, they said they would kill him then kill me after I watched them do it. So I—I didn’t have a choice, you see.” He shook his head, tears falling freely from his eyes now. “And I’ve been living in that Hell ever since.” His shaky voice finally broke, and he sobbed uncontrollably.

Ansel scooted as close to him as she could. She patted his back as it rose up and down with his sobs. “When my mom—” She choked back tears of her own. “When my mom brought me to class this morning—or—uh—yesterday—I don’t know anymore, it doesn’t matter. But when she brought me to class, she said to me—she gave me a lot of advice, but one thing that she said that really stuck with me was—she said, we do nothing alone, Ansel. And she’s right, Pidgeon. And you can’t get away from your orphanage alone. Just like I can’t get to the end of the Belt alone.” She couldn’t help but chuckle even though she was still crying. Pidgeon let out a short laugh of his own.

That’s why I want you to come with me, Pidgeon,” she said, sniffling and wiping her nose. “That’s why I won’t leave you. Because we do nothing alone. And we’re not alone anymore. What do you say?”

Pidgeon sniffled and wiped his nose, too. He said, “Do you really think we can—” but he couldn’t finish the question because the black cat jumped onto his lap.

#       #       #

< VIII. Haley             [Table of Contents]             X. Russ >

I hope you enjoyed it. Come back next Saturday for the next chapter or order a full copy here.

Chapter 02: Ansel

Today brings us week three and chapter two with Ansel. Not only that, the print version of the novel is up and ready for sale right through here, and the ebook version is up for pre-sale, to be fully released on May 30th.

Here’s a little drawing I did of Ansel to get you started. Enjoy chapter two and think about picking up a copy if you can’t wait to see how the story finishes.

Ansel Server

 < I. Haley             [Table of Contents]             III. Russ >

II. Ansel

Ansel jumped out of bed at the first sight of light and ran to the balcony to watch the sun rise over the Green Belt. In all her years on this planet she had never seen such a beautiful sight. Never before had the sky been so big and blue or the world around her so green and alive. Not even her first day of school could ruin it.

School. Ugh. She shuddered at the thought of it. Maybe school could ruin it.

She heard a creak behind her and turned to find her dad—dark eyes puffy from sleep and still in his pajamas—standing in the balcony door.

Yyyyuuuuuaaaahhh—Isn’t it beautiful?” he said through a yawn, stretching his arms way up over his head.

“It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” Ansel said, not taking her eyes off the shimmering blue and green.

“Just wait until recess,” her dad said, smiling and nodding. “Then you’ll get to run and play in it with the other children.”

She shuddered at the thought of them, too. “Do I have to, Dad? I could just go play in it now.”

“No, no, Ansel. The schooling is one of the main benefits of living here. Life is more than blue skies and green trees. You should know that as well as anyone coming from where we come from.”

“I know, Dad. But there are blue skies and green trees here. Why can’t I take advantage of that now?”

“Because you need an education. How do you think your mother and I got to where we are now? Hard work and learning everything we could to make ourselves more valuable.”

And stealing printers,” Ansel mumbled under her breath.

“Excuse me, ma’am.”

“I said what can they teach me that I don’t already know?”

“And just what is it that you think you know?” Her dad smiled.

“Well, I can count… And add. Read most things. And I trap a mean rat. Not to mention I can hit a pigeon from a mile away with my slingshot.” She patted it in her back pocket.

“And I guess that’s everything there is to know.”

“It’s served me just fine.” Ansel crossed her arms.

Ansel’s mom poked her puffy-haired head out of the balcony door. “What’s all the racket out here so early?” she said, coming outside. She looked like she had been up for a while because she was already wearing a purple, flowery dress which Ansel had never seen before.

“Your daughter was just explaining to me how she knows everything there is to know,” her dad said with a smile. “She doesn’t think she needs to go to school because they can’t teach her anything.”

“Is that right?” Her mom looked at Ansel for confirmation.

“Well, not everything,” Ansel said, kicking nothing with her feet. “But I still don’t need school.”

“I beg to differ, ma’am,” her mom said. “Now go put on that new dress of yours, and I’ll walk you down there myself. You should meet some of the kids in the neighborhood, anyway. You’ll need some new friends”

I want my old friends,” Ansel mumbled.

“Excuse me, ma’am,” her mom said.

“I don’t want to wear a stupid dress!” Ansel stomped her foot. “I want to play in the grass and climb trees.”

“You will wear that dress,” her mom said. “You don’t know the trouble it cost us to get you something so clean and new.”

“But it doesn’t even have pockets,” Ansel complained. “How am I supposed to carry my slingshot without pockets?”

“You aren’t, dear,” her mom said. “You won’t be needing your slingshot at school. I’ll ask you to leave it in your room, please.”

“Bu—”

“Go!” Her mom stomped her foot.

Ansel looked to her dad for help, but he avoided eye contact with her by pretending to be enjoying the view of the Belt. With no more lines of defense, she stomped to her room to get dressed.

Her new bedroom was smaller than her bedroom back home, but it didn’t make a difference, it still fit her bed and dresser with the mirror on top. She looked at herself in the mirror. She was from the Green Belt now, but she didn’t feel any different. A pencil drawing of two girls holding hands was stuck in the corner of the frame. Looking at it made her miss Katie back home. Katie would probably wake up today and go out trapping rats or hunting pigeons. She definitely wouldn’t be going to any stupid school. But at least there was the Green Belt to look forward to. There was no green grass or blue sky in Katie’s future. Not anytime soon, at least. Just the concrete, tar, and steel of completely streets and the oppressive skyline of rows and rows of skyscrapers.

Ansel’s mom called in to see if she was ready, and Ansel called back to say almost. She got the dress out of her dresser and rubbed the blue floral cloth between her fingers. It was soft and clean and new, she had to give her mom that much. Ansel wasn’t sure if she had ever seen clothes made from anything but recycled rags, and now she was holding just that in her hands. But it was still a dress, and a dress was no good for playing in an open field or climbing trees. She had never played in an open field or climbed a tree in her life, and even she knew that. She also knew that she wouldn’t get out of the house without the dress on, though, so she relented. When she slipped it on over her head, it was so soft and smooth, she felt like she wasn’t wearing anything at all, a second skin. She almost blushed when she walked out to show her parents.

“Now that is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” her dad said.

Her mom said nothing. She just stared with a little moisture in her eyes.

“Are you alright mom?” Ansel asked when she noticed.

“Yes, dear,” she said. “I—You’re lovely, dear. Just lovely.” She smiled.

“Thanks, ma,” Ansel said, although she thought she would look just as good with a new pair of pants and t-shirt on, it was just the fact that the dress was new that made them like it.

“Alright,” her mom said. “Let’s go on then. Say goodbye to your father.”

Her dad squatted down and gave her a big hug. “Remember that you always have something to learn, Ansel,” he said. “And everyone knows something you don’t know. But most of all remember to have fun out there. Okay.”

Ansel nodded.

He kissed her on the head. “I love you, sweetheart,” he said. “See you after class. You’ll have to tell me all about it.”

“I will.”

He gave her one last hug and let her go.

“Alright, sweetheart. Let’s go.” Her mom held out a hand and Ansel grabbed it.

Their apartment was on the fifth floor of a nine floor walk up. The sound of their steps echoed through the stairwell as they made their descent. Walking out the front door of the building was like walking into Ansel’s old neighborhood. The apartment opened up onto the Street side of the building and all they could see were the lines and lines of skyscrapers towering over either side of them. It felt like a comforting embrace to Ansel.

They walked around their apartment building toward the Green Belt which was called that because it was exactly a green belt: a long skinny strip of green grass and trees in the middle of a sea of tall balconied buildings. It was two blocks wide and as long as the eye could see. For all Ansel knew it went on forever and ever without end. The school was right on the edge of the Belt, and only families who lived right on the edge themselves could send their children there. Graduates of the Green Belt Day School went on to hold top positions in all the most important families.

“Ansel, dear,” her mom said as they walked along the grass, holding hands. “There’s something I need to say to you.”

But Ansel couldn’t keep her eyes off the trees and the bugs and the sky. She wanted to study and understand all of it. If only she didn’t have to go to stupid school.

“Are you listening to me, Ansel?” her mom said.

“Yeah, ma,” Ansel said, not listening.

“Ansel.” Her mom stopped dead in her tracks. Ansel’s arm yanked back and she stopped, too. “Ansel. I’m serious.”

“Yes, mother,” she said. “I’m listening.” And she really was this time. She stared at the silver necklace her mom was wearing so she wouldn’t be distracted from her words.

“Ansel,” her mom said. “I know you don’t want to go to school—and I don’t blame you, really, because, honestly, they won’t be able to teach you much you don’t already know—but you have to understand that school is about more than that. You have to put up with the teachers while you teach yourself how to interact with your classmates. Do you understand?”

Ansel nodded. “I think so.”

Her mom looked deep into her eyes and smiled. “Of course you don’t, kiddo,” she said, shaking her head. “Its nonsense. To tell you the truth, I don’t really know what I’m saying. But let me say something else. We do nothing alone. You got that? Can you repeat it for me?”

“We do nothing alone,” Ansel said with a nod.

“That’s right, sweetheart,” her mom said with a smile. “Now, there’s one more thing that’s even more important for you to remember, more important than anything in the whole entire world. Do you want to know what it is?”

Ansel nodded.

“I love you, Ansel. I always will.” She kissed Ansel on the top of the head.

“I love you too, mom.”

Her mom brought her in for a hug. She was wiping her eyes when she let go, but Ansel didn’t notice because a bug with big colorful wings fluttered by and distracted her.

“What’s that, ma?” she asked, running to catch it.

“A butterfly, dear,” her mom said. “Like my necklace.”

“I thought your necklace was silver,” Ansel said, getting further into the grass. “That thing was colorful.”

“My necklace is silver but butterflies aren’t,” her mom said. “Now let’s get going.”

The school was on the first floor of a squat grey building. There were two women standing at the doorway, and Ansel’s mom had to literally drag her away from the grass to meet them.

“Ah, this must be Ansel,” the older of the two—with white hair—said. “We were expecting you.”

Ansel tried one last time to run off to the grass but her mom held strong.

“You’d rather be playing in the field,” the other woman said. She was younger and had darker hair.

Ansel didn’t respond. She kicked dust at her feet.

“Me, too,” the younger woman said with a smile. “That’s why I’m having class outside today.”

Ansel beamed.

“Did you hear that?” her mom said.

“Am I in your class?” Ansel asked.

The younger woman looked over at the white-haired woman who nodded with a solemn face. “It seems you are.”

Ansel dropped her mom’s hand and grabbed the younger woman’s. “Alright. Come on, then. Let’s go,” she said, trying to pull the woman out to the Belt.

“Slow down, child. You have to meet the rest of the class, first. Go on inside. Room two. I’d like to have a word with your mother before I follow.”

“Oh, alright,” Ansel said with a sigh, dropping the woman’s hand and stomping inside. Her mom called out that she loved her as she did.

Behind the glass door of the school was a long hall with speckled vinyl floors and faded teal walls. The rooms were numbered with signs that had foreign dots under them. Ansel studied the little formation of dots under the one sign, wondering what they meant, then she remembered that she was supposed to go to room two and walked that way. She held her breath for a second, trying to imagine the worst thing that could be on the other side of the door before she opened it, and what she found was so much worse.

There was a chalkboard with a name written on it: Mrs. Lerner. Ansel assumed it was the teacher’s name. There were also rows of desks, each with kids, mostly light-skinned, sitting behind them, and all in shiny, new, clean clothes. She felt for a second like she was standing naked in front of them, then she remembered her own shiny new dress and felt even more embarrassed than she would have been if she actually was naked. She felt her face flush, making her mad at herself for being embarrassed, and clenched her fists, not sure if she should sit down or wait for Mrs. Lerner since they were going outside anyway.

“Don’t you know how to sit, girl?” came a mocking voice from a back corner of the room.

The class erupted in laughter.

“I can teach you if that’s what you’re asking,” Ansel yelled back at the room in general.

Ooooh!” came a lonely voice from the other corner of the room. Everyone in the class turned to see who it was.

“Shut up, Pidgeon!” a large boy yelled, chucking a wadded up piece of paper at the boy who had Ooooh!ed.

“You shut up!” Pidgeon yelled back just as Mrs. Lerner walked in the door.

“Richard Maid. You apologize right now,” she said before the door closed. “We do not tell people to shut up in this class. Do you understand me? You’re setting a bad example for our new student.”

“But Mrs. Lerner,” Pidgeon said. “I—”

“No, sir,” Mrs. Lerner said. “I don’t want to hear it. Apologize.”

The class Ooooh!ed together.

“Class!” Mrs. Lerner quieted them.

“It wasn’t his fault, ma’am,” Ansel said, looking at the floor.

“I’m sorry, child?” Mrs. Lerner said. “You’ll have to speak up.”

Ansel looked over at Pidgeon. He waved his hands and shook his head, trying to communicate something Ansel couldn’t understand. “Don’t blame Pidgeon, ma’am,” she said. “I started it. It’s my fault.”

“Oh…Well.” Mrs. Lerner looked from Ansel to Pidgeon and back again. “If that’s so, you’re not making a very productive start to your first day here, Miss Server.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Ansel said, shaking her head and still looking at the floor. “I’m sorry, ma’am.”

“I’ll let it slide this once,” Mrs. Lerner said. “Now, class, this is our new student Ansel.”

“Good morning, Ansel,” the class sang in unison.

“Please take a seat so we can get started, Miss Server.”

“I—but—” Ansel protested. “I thought you said we were going outside.”

The class laughed.

“We will, child,” Mrs. Lerner said. “But first we have to take care of business. All play and no work. You know. Now please, Miss Server, take a seat. There’s one…”

“There’s one right here, Mrs. Lerner,” Pidgeon said.

The class Ooooh!ed again.

“Mr. Maid,” Mrs. Lerner said. “That’s strike two. If you act out one more time today, I’m reporting you to the principal.”

“Strike two?” Pidgeon complained. “But I—”

Richard.” Mrs. Lerner said.

“Yes, ma’am.” Pidgeon put his head down on his desk.

“Now, Miss Server,” Mrs. Lerner said. “Please take your seat and we’ll get started.”

Ansel hesitated but knew protesting was futile. She was under Mrs. Lerner’s control now, she had no say in the matter. She took as long as she could to walk back to her seat, though, her small act of defiance.

“Okay,” Mrs. Lerner said. “Where did we leave off yesterday? Ah yes. I remember. The history of the ownership of the Green Belt. Now, no one knows the history of the entire Belt. That would be impossible. No, let us not concern ourselves with that big of a picture for now. What concerns us is the local familial relationships in our immediate area of the Belt. If we start here with the Concierge sector—owned, of course, by the Concierge family and subsidiaries…”

Ansel lost all power of concentration at that. She couldn’t get her mind over one little speed bump, one sentence that Mrs. Lerner stated as a matter of fact then breezed right over. No one knows the history of the entire Belt. How could that be? Someone had to know. Didn’t they? Or could it go on for ever and ever like everyone always said it did? Before she realized it, Ansel blurted out, “But how?”

“Excuse me, Ansel,” Mrs. Lerner said. “Please raise your hand the next time you would like to speak. But how did the McCannick’s usurp the original Union? That’s a good question, and the explanation goes back to before the—”

“No,” Ansel said, shaking her head. “How does no one know the history of the entire Belt?”

“Again, Miss Server,” Mrs. Lerner said. “Raise your hand if you would like to speak.”

Ansel raised her hand.

“Yes, Ansel?”

“How does no one know the history of the entire Belt?”

“Well, that, too, is a very good question, child,” Mrs. Lerner said. “I would say that it’s a result of the fact that—”

A loud, metallic, clanging bell drowned out her voice. Ansel jumped in her seat—knocking her desk over—at the sound of it. The class laughed at her reaction as they filed out of the room.

“The cafeteria’s just down the hall, miss Server,” Mrs. Lerner said after everyone else had left the room. “Would you like me to show you the way?”

“I can find it myself,” Ansel said, setting her desk up again.

“Very good,” Mrs. Lerner said. “Just see to it that you’re back in your seat promptly after the bell.”

The door to room two clicked closed behind her. Ansel ignored the growling in her stomach, and instead of dealing with the inevitable insults from the class—and possibly other classes—in the cafeteria, she decided to take this time to explore the Belt. She hadn’t had a chance to play in the green grass since they moved there and it didn’t look like any sort of outside time was actually on Mrs. Lerner’s agenda.

Ansel opened the door and glared out into the sunlight. The sun was exactly overhead, so the belt was spotted with patches of inviting shade under each tree. Ansel couldn’t help herself but to run over to one of them and try to climb it. First she did a few circles around the trunk, looking for a good place to grip it, and when she thought she had planned a course, she went to work, hand over hand, one step at a time, up the tree. She was ten feet off the ground when she heard a familiar voice from above say, “Hey! What are you doing in my tree?”

She looked up to see who it was but couldn’t make the person out through the thick foliage. “I don’t see your name on it!” she called up anyway. Her time in the Streets had taught her that letting too many insults slide was dangerous, and one was too many.

“Technically, my name is on it,” the voice came back. “I’ve carved it in all over the place.”

“Pidgeon, is that you?” Ansel said, starting up the tree again.

“Who’d you think it was?” he called back down.

“You know,” she said, she could see him now, petting a little, black, furry creature on the branch next to him. “You didn’t have to let me take all the heat this morning.”

“I didn’t ask you to take any of it,” he said.

“Well, part of it was mine, wasn’t it?” She sat on a branch a little higher than his in case he tried anything funny. He still didn’t have to look up to see her, though. Ansel thought he looked a few years older than her, but she couldn’t tell how many. “And I wasn’t going to let the class think I was a snitch and tell her it was really that asshole’s fault,” she added.

“Jimmy?” Pidgeon chuckled. “He is a—an ass hole isn’t he?” The way he said it, it looked like it tasted about how it sounded.

“If that’s his name,” Ansel said. “Then yes.”

“It is,” Pidgeon said. “And mine’s Richard.”

“I like Pidgeon.”

“I don’t.” He shook his head, petting the cat.

“Pidgeon,” Ansel said. “Who’s your friend?”

Pidgeon grimaced. He pet the furry little beast a few times before deciding the battle wasn’t worth fighting, exposing a fatal weakness. One was too many.

“This is Mr. Kitty,” he said.

“Mr. Kitty?”

“Yeah. He’s always hanging out in this tree at lunch. That’s why I came up here. I wanted to see if he would be here again.”

Ansel didn’t know why someone would skip lunch just to pet a cat, but she did want to touch it. It sat there licking itself, letting Pidgeon scratch its back as it did.

“You can pet him if he’ll let you,” Pidgeon said. “He won’t bite.”

“I know!” she yelled, which caused the cat jump.

“You scared him!” Pidgeon yelled back, scaring it more.

“Now you did!” Ansel said, and the cat jumped off the branch and down the tree where it seemed to disappear.

“Look what you did now,” Pidgeon said. “Now I have to wait until tomorrow to try again.”

“Try what?” Ansel asked, but Pidgeon wasn’t paying any attention. His ears were perked up and he was listening to a far off sound that Ansel couldn’t hear.

“That’s the bell, anyway,” he said. “We better go. Come on.” He started his quick, monkey-like descent down the tree.

“Wait,” Ansel called after him. “Try what?” But it was too late, he was gone. She hurried down the tree after him, but by the time she caught up, they were both sitting in their desks and Mrs. Lerner had already gone on talking about which families controlled which local sectors of the Green Belt and how they got that way.

“What were you trying to do up there?” Ansel whispered to Pidgeon who pretended to be listening to Mrs. Lerner so he could ignore her.

Psst. Pidgeon,” Ansel said. “Listen to me.”

Shhh,” he shushed her.

“Mr. Maid,” Mrs. Lerner said. “Quiet down please.”

“But—”

“No, sir,” she said. “I said quiet. Now, where was I…”

After she went on for a while Ansel whispered, “Pidgeon. Tell me.”

“Tomorrow, okay,” he whispered back. “Or after class.”

“Now!” she said too loudly.

“Miss Server,” Mrs. Lerner said. “You, too, child. Do I have to separate you two on your first day of class?”

The class Ooooh!ed, and Ansel decided she could wait until Mrs. Lerner was done droning on. It seemed like an eternity. When the final bell rang and everyone scrambled out of their seats, Ansel was ready and up as fast as anyone, but Mrs. Lerner had them all sit down again before they could leave.

“Alright, children,” she said. “You did very well today. Your parents would be proud. Now, I want you all to look forward to tomorrow because we’ll be holding class outside.” She paused for a reaction but no one responded. “For homework tonight,” she went on. “I want you all to think about how your family got to where they are today and to compare that to what we’ve learned about the families who came to own the Green Belt throughout its history. Very good now, children. Have a nice day. See you tomorrow.”

By the time she said “history” half the class had already left. Pidgeon got up and out before Ansel, but she ran to catch up with him outside and grabbed him by the arm to stop him.

“What were you doing up there?” she demanded.

“I told you already,” he said, shrugging her off. “What do you want?”

“You were just petting a cat? That’s it?”

“Is there something wrong with that?”

“I just—” Ansel looked out at the sprawling green of the Belt, at the tree they had climbed and the blue sky above. “No. I just thought there had to be more to it than that. Where’d that cat come from, anyway?”

“That’s exactly what I was trying to find out!” He smiled.

“Is that why they call you Pidgeon? Because you spend your lunch in the tree?”

The smile faded. He looked at the ground and shook his head. “No. No one even knows I come out here for lunch. We’re not supposed to. If they knew I did, there would be no way I could.”

Ansel wanted to know more about how he got his name, but she could tell it was a sore subject, and she didn’t want their already rocky start to get any worse. We do nothing alone.

“So what’s with that teacher?” she asked to change the subject. “I thought we were supposed to have class outside today. And what about recess? I was told there would be recess.”

Ha!” Pidgeon chuckled. “Recess is a lie. Mrs. Lerner’s a liar. The sooner you learn that the better.”

“And that cat…” Ansel said.

“Mr. Kitty?”

“Mr. Kitty, yeah. You only see it when—”

“Him,” Pidgeon said, cutting her off. “He’s not an it.”

“Okay,” Ansel said. “You only see him at lunch. Have you ever seen him any other time?”

“Nope,” Pidgeon said, shaking his head. “Just in the tree at lunch. It was pure luck I found him the first time, too. I was out here, playing with some bugs in the grass, when Mrs. Lerner and Mrs. Grover came out and walked right up to the tree I was sitting under. I had no choice but to climb up it, and I found him sitting up there all alone.” He smiled and shrugged.

“Do you see a lot of cats around the Belt?” Ansel asked.

“Well, it’s the first cat I’ve ever seen. I haven’t lived here all that long, but that’s why I wanted to find him. Have you ever seen one before?”

Ansel shook her head. “Heard of em. And I’ve eaten some—so I’ve been told—but I’ve never seen a live one.”

“Where do you think it came from?” Pidgeon asked.

“I don’t know.” Ansel shrugged. “But I know how to find out.”

She didn’t wait for a response, setting out for the tree at full speed. Pidgeon did his best to keep up, but even with his climbing ability, Ansel was sitting on the same branch she sat on for lunch, with her breath back, before he got there.

“What—” Pidgeon tried to say through his huffing and puffing. “Way—is—that?”

“Well, this way,” Ansel said.

Pidgeon clearly didn’t understand, but he was too out of breath to argue.

“You’ve only ever seen the cat here, right?”

He nodded.

“Then we have to wait here until it—until he comes back. Once we see him again, we follow him. Simple as that.”

“That’s what I was trying to do when you interrupted me at lunch,” Pidgeon said.

“Then why’d it take you so long to understand the plan?”

“Besides, I already know when he’s coming back. Lunchtime tomorrow. Like always.”

“Yeah, but do you know he doesn’t come around at other times?”

“I know he comes at lunch and leaves after,”

“Have you ever sat out here any other time? Does he come every lunch?”

Pidgeon didn’t answer. He looked down at his feet and played with the hem of his shirt.

“I thought so,” she said. “Now I’m gonna stay out here and wait for him. You can do whatever you want.” She turned away from Pidgeon to look up at the branches of the tree.

After a long silence he said, “Why are you interested in this cat, anyway?”

Ansel shrugged. “I dunno,” she said. “I haven’t thought about it. I just like to hunt, I guess.”

“I don’t know,” Pidgeon said. He broke a twig off of the branch next to him and tore it to tiny pieces. “I think its more than that.”

“You don’t even know me.”

Pidgeon shrugged. “I guess.” He tossed the little bits of branch down into the foliage where they disappeared into the tree, indistinguishable. “Have you ever heard of the legend of the Curious Cat?”

“Of course I have,” Ansel said. “So what?”

“I don’t know.” He shrugged. “Do you—Do you think it’s real?”

Ansel turned slowly to look at him. She couldn’t tell if he was being sincere or looking for a weakness. His eyes were averted, like he was a little embarrassed to even bring it up. He either wasn’t looking for a weakness, or he was a really good actor. “Why do you ask?”

“Do you think—” he said. “I mean—I don’t know. Do you think this could be him?”

Ansel laughed. Pidgeon didn’t, though. “You’re saying to me that you think this is the mythical Curious Cat who knows the way to Prosperity.”

“I—I don’t know,” Pidgeon said. “I’m sayin—I’m saying that I think he could be.”

“And you’re trying to find out where it comes from so you can follow it there?”

“I mean—Well, yeah. Wouldn’t you? Don’t you believe it’s true?”

She looked him up and down, sizing him up. She still wasn’t sure if she trusted what she saw. Finally she said, “We should take the tree in shifts if we want to cover the most time.”

 #     #     #

< I. Haley             [Table of Contents]             III. Russ >

Thanks again for joining us. If you don’t want to wait another week to read the rest of the story, order a print version of the book now or pre-order the ebook version, available next Saturday, May 30th.