Chapter 3 — Jen
“Long day, West?”
“This shit was awful. Give me good news, Portman. What’s the verdict?”
“We’ll be taking the Svartholm case.”
“...Goddamnit. Do we have anything to go on, at least?”
“Not yet. The first twenty-four hours are the most important in an abduction though. We should get going.”
“You think it was a kidnapping?”
“We can’t rule out anything yet.”
Thank every single star in the sky and the realms beyond for texting. No, seriously, text messages on cell phones are the bomb. Might seem obvious to you, but being able to talk silently and quickly, and without all that mess of face-to-face expressions and emotions? That can be really wonderful sometimes. More to the point, it’s all recorded.
I spent the entire morning combing back through old text messages one-handed, while I chowed through a few pieces of toast. Sure, I still remembered (most of) my friends. I was never like Matt, I actually liked talking to people around me. But it was good to center my memory on where everything was at right now. Kersey was going through her “I hate all men” phase, Jane was going out with Steve, who Kari had a crush on (not that I’d ever tell him). Mitch’s band was breaking up over some stupid fight. My best friend Sara had been texting me all night and even now about some guy she met, and Aivallei Syldarei was getting married to—
Wait. That one didn’t fit. Aivallei didn’t go to my high school. For one, she was something like eighty years too old. Even if she still looked gorgeous. She insisted I was prettier, but we all knew that was an outright lie. I couldn’t possibly measure up to a Sylf princess. I couldn’t even measure up to half the girls in my grade. Pity she had to marry such a slob. But hey, nobody ever said political marriages were easy.
But that wasn’t my business anymore.
“Hey, Jen,” my brother’s voice echoed from the front hallway.
“I’m heading out early. Can you wake Mom up?” I could hear him slipping on his shoes, squeaking against the wooden floor by the door.
“Okay. What’s up?”
“Told someone I’d meet up with them before school today.”
“Oooh, got a girlfriend?” I teased, still scrolling through my old texts.
“None of your business.”
“Aww,” I pouted. I got up and leaned around the corner to give him a look. “Won’t you tell me, duralav-hila?”
“You know that means you do, right? You’re just making it obvious,” I snickered.
“If you say so. And Jen?”
Matt stood up straight, bundled up in his favorite jacket and with a backpack slung over his shoulder. He reached forward and pulled me into a hug. I stiffened, discomfort quickly rising. I pushed it away, even as the nausea clawed up through my chest, urging me to free myself from his arms. I consciously reminded myself he was just trying to be comforting and kind—that he was my brother, that he would never hurt me, that he was on my side—but the feelings remained. Not that I could ever tell him.
I leaned into his hug, putting my arms awkwardly around him in return. After a few seconds, he let go, and my anxiety slowly ebbed away.
“You know I never stopped looking for you, right?”
“Selnou,” I whispered.
He smiled, but it was in a sad, lonely way. It echoed my own feelings so exactly, I almost burst into tears on the spot. I’d gotten pretty good at hiding my emotions though, a vital tool of my profession. Emotions weren’t coming anywhere near my face. For now.
“Remember,” Matt intoned, in his calm and careful voice, “Etoline doesn’t exist here either. I know it’s harder for you, but stick to English, yeah?”
I nodded. He opened the door and stepped outside, the world beyond waiting for us both to finally re-emerge after so many years gone. “Don’t forget about Mom!” he called, as he reached the sidewalk and vanished around the fence border.
He was right: it was harder for me. Let me be clear, I don’t mean that resentfully in any way. But after all those years, English just didn’t feel like my native tongue anymore. Being surrounded by this now foreign language was the weirdest feeling after being plunged back into this world.
Yeah, I could understand things written down, words people said, whatever. Mostly, anyway. But I hadn’t spoken it much in nearly seven years. I had a harder time getting to the meaning sometimes. English might have been my birth language, but Etoline was the language of my heart. And more importantly, my brain. Even now, I was mentally translating those text messages into Etoline. It was just automatic.
Nothing like getting dropped into a place where not only does no one speak the same language as you, but where they’re actively hostile to Linguen. It was like the worst immersion learning possible. Or the best, I guess, since I did learn pretty quickly. I had a good teacher. English disappeared for me practically overnight and didn’t return for a very long time.
You should have seen my first interpreting session between the Sylves and the Cellman ambassadors. That was a hoot. First time I’d spoken or even heard English in nearly six years.
It didn’t end well.
My phone buzzed again, bringing me back down to reality. If I didn’t get a move on, I might end up late. I hurried upstairs to my mother’s room, pressing my ear to the door. No sounds. She must still be asleep. Ugh.
I rapped on the door with my knuckles lightly.
I rolled my eyes. “Mom, you gotta get up.”
“Wha times it?”
“Time for breakfast. Come on.” I smelled coffee beginning to waft up the stairs, and wrinkled my nose. I’d never liked coffee, and even less so now. It messed with my head too much. “I’m coming in, okay?”
I pushed the door open, with more force than I’d intended. It swung wide and bounced off the wall audibly. My mother twisted around under the covers, raising a hand to shield her eyes from the sunlight that streamed in behind me.
“Jenny, let me sleep.”
I brushed aside my irritation at the wrong name. I’d been called much worse. “Mom, if I do that, you’ll sleep past work. Come on.”
I sat down next to her and helped her sit up. She leaned heavily on my shoulder, blinking through the fatigue. “Did you forget to set your alarm again?” The question bounced through my mouth unbidden, but it felt instantly familiar. It was a weird feeling, like I was acting out a play I’d performed a hundred times, but never read the script for. I just knew what was supposed to come next, although I was playing the part normally meant for my brother.
“All right,” she said, her eyes finally opening properly. “Go on, let me get dressed at least.”
“Nuh-uh. Up you get.” I took an arm over my shoulders and helped lift her out of bed. She wobbled slightly, but steadied herself quickly enough. Now that she was standing, she was way less likely to fall back asleep. “Look on the bright side. You only have to go to one job today, right?”
“...Yeah.” She smiled. “Go on then. I’m up.”
“I’m going to go heat up your breakfast. If you want it warm, you’d better be down soon.” I went back downstairs and found the plate Matt had prepared, and tossed it in the microwave.
By the way, microwaves? Pretty awesome. Even if it usually tasted worse, convenience trumps that a lot.
Refrigerators too. I’d learned how to live without one, how to preserve meat and live off the land, but hell if I wasn’t about to use it now.
I heard my mom thumping down down the stairs just as the microwave dinged. I pulled the plate out and set it at the table for her with silverware. I was weirdly proud that I remembered where the silverware drawer was. Made me feel comfortable and warm inside. The little successes were adding up, okay? I was feeling almost like I was back at home, so much so that I forgot what planet I was on.
“Vei pol nara susvyla ta nara bylar, selaval,” I said, gathering up my own dishes and rinsing them in the sink.
“Huh?” I glanced up to see my mother looking very confused. Whoops. I mentally slapped myself a dozen times. English, dammit.
“I’m just practicing. Your food’s on the table.” I gestured, where the steam was rising off her food. It was bothering me that I couldn’t remember the English name of her meal. I could give its Etoline name (kelbasal, for anyone playing along at home), but that didn’t really help much. I began pouring her coffee into a mug as she sat down and dug in. I set the mug next to her and gave her a peck on the cheek.
“I didn’t know you were taking a foreign language,” she said, picking up the newspaper Matt had left. Having now dealt with a lot of high level politics myself, I suddenly found Matt’s habit of keeping up with the world at large a lot less strange.
“Well, why not? Might be useful.” To my undying relief, she didn’t ask what language, just returned to her food. I pulled my bag off the table and onto my back. It felt balanced, but it didn’t hold a candle to the quiver I usually wore around my shoulder. It was a light but remarkably sturdy material, hand-made by Tethevallen Sylnanden for my twenty-first birthday.
My throat choked up a bit. My heart sank at the memory that bubbled up to the surface. I missed him dearly.
“Are you okay?” Mom’s voice punched through the veil that had suddenly fallen over my eyes. I looked at her with a smile at the ready.
“Of course,” I replied, very deliberately in English this time.
“You’ve been acting weird.”
“You’re just tired. I’ll see you tonight, okay? Matt’s making dinner.”
Mom perked up at that. Matt was definitely the best cook in the family, on top of saving us a bunch of money. He managed to make even the cheapest ingredients taste pretty great, and he’d picked up a lot of new tricks while hiding from the Cellman legions. I was looking forward to that grocery trip after school, weird as that might sound. It’d help me out in more ways than one.
“I gotta go now. You good?”
“I’m fine, Jenny. Have a good day at school.” She threw me a little wave, before returning to her kelbasal.
I gave her my best smile, before I pulled on a dark coat and headed out the door.
The world opened up around me, and it was good to see the sky again (even if it was mostly covered by layers of puffy gray clouds, rolling steadily in with an angry look that predicted an imminent downpour), but all of that was completely ignored in favor of the girl waiting impatiently on the sidewalk. Her name was Sara, and she was my best friend in this world.
She was also the reason my phone hadn’t stopped buzzing all morning.
“Jenny, what took you so long?” she called out. I practically skipped my way down the sidewalk. I was so happy to see her I almost glazed over the fact she’d called me Jenny.
Sidebar: I stopped going by Jenny a long time ago. In the other world anyway. And if you’re wondering if I used some fancy Etoline name, the answer’s no. Tethevallen translated my last name directly for royal meetings and formal occasions, but mostly I just went by Jen. For one, it sounded cooler, but really it just felt more like me. Stronger, I guess? I dunno, it’s just how I felt. Sorry I can’t give some sort of profound explanation that digs into my identity or soul or whatever. I used to be Jenny, now I’m Jen. It was a thing.
I decided I might as well start trying to change that now. I really didn’t like ‘Jenny’.
“Hi, Sara.” We started walking toward school, which was only a few blocks away. Our house was pretty close, so I’d never had to walk far, and it meant my friends usually gathered in front of our place whenever we decided to walk together. Normally there were at least three or four of us, but today it seemed like it was just Sara. I was a little glad. I was worried about dealing with too many at once right now. I wanted to ease back in, so to speak. “This is gonna sound weird, but can you call me Jen?”
“I dunno, I just feel like Jen now.”
Sara looked at me funny. “Did you have an epiphany overnight?”
“Sure.” I wasn’t quite sure what ‘epiphany’ meant, but I figured it’d do.
“All right. Jen.” She nodded. “Okay, remember how I was hanging out with a guy online?”
“Well he’s pretty cool. I talked to him a few times in person too, if you’re wondering, so this isn’t a chatroom romance or anything. Anyway, you don’t need to hear me go on about him, so I’ll get right to it. I was thinking about asking him out, ‘cause I don’t think he’s ever going to ask me.”
My eyes were glazing over just a little. I only vaguely understood what she meant by ‘chatroom romance.’ I felt so tired from everything I’d just been through, and my mind was wandering away to memories of nights in the deep woods. Sitting around the fire wrapped in furs, watching a blanket of stars envelope the sky, listening to Ruvalei play us a gentle tune as we drifted off to sleep.
“—your permission, because it’s your brother.”
I snapped back into reality. “Dov?”
Dammit, not again. “You want to go out with my brother?”
“Yeah.” Sara bit her lip nervously, waiting for my reply.
I pondered for a minute. I understood why she was asking me, since my brother and I had always been pretty close even before all of this. We’d grown up taking care of one another, since Mom didn’t have a whole lot of time, and we got pretty protective of each other. More than once, I’m pretty sure I deliberately got in the way of people trying to hang out with my brother, if I thought they were a threat or something. Now, it just seemed all so silly. He was plenty capable of making his own decisions and taking care of himself. I’d seen that first hand.
“That’s up to you,” I replied. “I’m just a bystander.”
“I’m sure.” I affixed a smile to my face. “Just so long as nothing changes between us, right?”
“Right.” Sara smiled too. Hers looked genuine.
I wasn’t lying to her. She and Matt could be totally happy together. Who knows? They didn’t seem like a bad couple. I didn’t really dwell on it. Like I said, it wasn’t my business. I had plenty of other concerns to deal with once school started, as Sara was about to demonstrate.
She’d just said something I didn’t comprehend at all. I knew every word, and it wasn’t exactly a long sentence, but the the meaning was completely lost to me. I felt panic rising in my chest, sending shivers through my limbs. I tried to steady myself mentally. Maybe I hadn’t been listening close enough.
She repeated herself, a little slower. I listened carefully. It didn’t help one bit. My brain struggled to process the words into something, fatigued as I was.
Full confession: I didn’t actually sleep last night. Might have dozed off a couple times, but I was too scared to actually let myself fall asleep. Between that and the hectic events of the past few days (weeks, really), I was seriously running on empty.
I desperately tried to decipher Sara’s words. Context didn’t help at all, she was switching topics. How much of it was idiom, and how much was literal? It wasn’t a question. Maybe I could just brush it off. No… Sara was waiting for an answer.
“Sure,” I ventured hopefully.
“Do you need help with it?”
Crap. Crap crap crap. What did that mean? I was too afraid to answer incorrectly. That question could go anywhere. I wracked my brain, but the best I could come up with was that she was talking about something to do with technology. Computers, probably. I never used them much in the first place. That was her thing.
“Hello?” Sara waved a hand in front of my eyes.
“Vack. Vackal daphut vack,” I swore under my breath. My face was heating up. I suppressed it with every ounce of will I could muster. I wasn’t about to look embarrassed, not right now. I might have felt it, but damned if I was going to look so stupid in front of my best friend.
Not that I had any other options at this point. I sighed.
“Look, this is gonna sound weird again… but I have no idea what you just said.”
Sara raised an eyebrow. “Uhh, what? And why are you talking like that?”
I realized I had stopped trying to correct my accent. Sara was way too attentive. Usually something I loved about her, but right now it was really problematic. I tried to affect the more plain Pacific Northwest speech again. “Don’t make fun, okay?”
“I’m not,” Sara replied. “But we were just talking about this yesterday, and the day before…” She trailed off.
“...Can you keep a secret?” No, I’m not about to tell her. Don’t be stupid. But I have to come up with something.
“Of course.” Sara leaned close, expectant.
“I’m not so great with memory right now. Forgetting little things a lot.” Sara looked really concerned now. “Don’t worry, I’m fine. I went to the healers, they checked me out. Nothing wrong with me.” I might not have been lying earlier, but I can play the deception game when I have to. Like I said, former diplomat.
“Healers?” Sara pointed out dryly.
“Like I said, forgetting things.” And looking like an idiot while I did. Doctors. That’s the word. Doctors, nurses, surgery, hospitals. Ambulances and nine-one-one. Not healers and rituals and magic. “So anyway, what were you saying?”
“Your laptop. You know, your computer?”
“Right, what about it? You said something about sound and broken records?”
Sara shook her head. “What on earth happened to you? Did you have an aneurysm or something?”
“Assume yes, okay?” If I weren’t feeling so awful, I’d have laughed at her choice of words. This definitely didn’t happen on Earth.
“Fine, whatever.” She took a deep breath. “What I said was: I’m sorry if I’m repeating myself a lot, but uhh… you need to improve your laptop’s… protection.” She sighed. “Did you get that?”
“Yes.” I winced. I felt like I was being spoon-fed by her. It was mortifying. But I had no idea what a record was, or a laptop until she’d just explained it a moment ago. And a ‘firewall’ meant something very different in my book. I looked away as my face really did light up red. I felt a hand on my shoulder. Sara was taller than me, which only added to the effect. She was older, taller, smarter, everything-er. I was just… inferior.
“Jen, are you okay? Seriously?”
I nodded. “Yeah, I’ll be fine.” I put a smile back on my face, and turned around to meet her concerned expression. “Just feeling wonky today.”
Sara frowned. “Text me if anything else happens, okay? I’ll see you at lunch?”
“Yeah. Wait, no.”
“I promised Matt I’d have lunch with him today. He needed to talk about something.”
“Oh.” Sara looked relieved. “Okay, that’s fine.”
A car buzzed by us, breaking up the conversation for a moment. It startled me—the first moving car I’d seen in nearly a decade. I managed to hide my surprise, thankfully, or else Sara would have probably gone to full emergency mode.
“Hey, Sara,” I added quietly. “Don’t mention any of this to Matt?”
Now she looked even more worried. “Jenny, what’s going on?”
“Promise me, all right?”
“I promise.” I could tell she meant it. Good old Sara, always reliable. I felt a rush of affection for my best friend.
I’d missed her a lot too.
“I’ll see you in Journalism,” I said, trying to reassure her.
“Okay.” I wasn’t sure if it had worked, but she looked a bit better now. Meanwhile, I just felt awful. I felt guilty hiding myself from my best friend. Maybe Sara ought to know at least a few things. I couldn’t possibly tell her everything, even if I wanted to—but if she just knew a few details, it might make our lives a whole lot easier. I was sure I could get her to believe me.
I just had to get Matt to agree.
After that long detour head-pounding panic, our conversation swapped back into safer topics. Things I had a way better handle on. By the time we reached the school, I was back to my normal self. Or as close as I could be, anyway.
I waved goodbye to Sara, who had a class on the opposite end of the school. My first class, something-something-Algebra, was only a few steps inside. Funny how I couldn’t remember the name of the class, teacher, or more than two students, but I knew exactly what room it was in and when it landed in my schedule.
Things you appreciate when you aren’t as comfortable in a language: Math is pretty much universal. Different symbols, but everything else carries over. I could breeze through this class without a sweat. Meanwhile, as more English filtered through my brain from snatches of conversation around me, the memory of the language flowed back in as well. It still didn’t feel right, but at least I wasn’t going to look like an idiot again, as I had in front of Sara.
I’m not a huge math nerd or anything, but I don’t have trouble with it. And with the day I was having so far, it was almost relaxing to deal solely with symbols and logic puzzles. Of course, my satisfaction only lasted a few minutes before I remembered this was still work, and I was still stuck in a class full of people I mostly didn’t care for. The class seemed to drag on forever after that. I probably fell asleep three or four times, little micro-naps that nobody noticed. Coming out of the last one though, I was instantly awake again.
My vision seemed to flash slightly, and suddenly everyone looked… different. I couldn’t say why. Nothing had changed. Physically, everybody was exactly the same as the moment before. But everyone seemed just a little off-putting. Hostile, even.
Their faces were blank masks. They could be hiding anything. Planning anything. They outnumbered me twenty to one. They could take me, if they wanted.
My chair was up against one of the walls. I turned slowly, as subtly as I could manage, orienting myself toward the crowd.
If one of them made a move, I was ready.
I might not be armed, but I knew dozens of ways to escape a hold, or quickly knock someone down larger than me, and I felt confident I could outrun most of them.
They wouldn’t ever take me again.
What the hell am I doing?
The moment passed. Nobody in the room was looking at me. No one had any designs on me. My mind was playing tricks. Relief ebbed back into my brain, but it was still tinged with lingering dread. I’d been completely gone for a minute, sunk back into the corner of my mind where I’d never wanted to go again.
The moment the bell rung, I was out the door. Second period was Journalism, that one I remembered for sure. Again, not a huge journalism nerd, but this class had a lot of my friends—and most importantly, Sara was there. Friendly faces. I needed some friendly faces. People I could relate to, of my own age.
Relatively speaking. Naeflin was way older than me by any sane measurement. But that didn’t matter right now. She was a world away, and I had to get to the journalism room.
The crowd of students pouring into the hallway formed a teeming maze, seemingly impossible to navigate. I hugged the wall, avoiding the main body and sticking near the banks of lockers on the edges. It meant running into more individual students, but I could get around them more easily than trying to move through the constantly shifting pattern in the center of the hall.
Why was this suddenly so difficult for me?
Oh, right. I haven’t been to high school in over seven years and I’m suddenly in the body of a sixteen year old again. That sort of thing would probably throw anyone off balance. Literally, actually. More than once. My brain expected me to be just a little bit taller, a little bit stronger. I’d nearly tripped over my feet a few times.
There. The doorway to the journalism room was in reach. I was inside, and in the corner we usually hung out in, long before the class bell rang. Consequently, I was one of the only kids in there. A few of the normal early-comers shot me odd looks, but I was mostly left alone. We were a tight-knit group back here, the ace reporters, the cream of the crop. Or something like that.
Let’s be honest. It was high school journalism. We mostly just hung out and screwed around.
I felt exhausted from my trek across the school to get here. Not physically exhausted, apart from lack of sleep; I might not be in peak shape anymore, but sixteen-year-old me still kept herself fit. I was mentally drained. I closed my eyes and laid my head down on the countertop, carefully orienting myself so the corner was behind me. I could still pick out the sounds in the room, the slight currents in the air from people moving around.
At least that hadn’t been taken from me. I’d trained myself to pick up every clue I could, from every sense my body had. I could keep a perfect mental picture of the room and everyone in it, and even keep it up to date with my eyes closed. It was very, very hard to sneak up on me—as Sara was about to find out.
“Shasi, vis hila,” I said, throwing my hand up to catch hers. She’d been about to tap me on the shoulder to wake me up. “What do you totev dou to tolal? Dov litev dou seddeka evel naland vei.”
I opened my eyes, grinning. I expected to see her frustrated, maybe make fun of her a bit before we got back to class, but all I got was confusion. In my sleep-deprived state, it took me a few seconds to realize I’d dropped the ball on English again.
“My turn, I guess,” she said slowly. “I have no idea what you just said.” Sara’s worried expression from the morning crept back into place, like an annoying pest that just wouldn’t leave us alone.
Not that I think Sara’s annoying. That was poorly worded. I just really wasn’t doing well in general.
“Oh, uhh…” I scrambled around for a moment, picking the first thing I could come up with that sounded halfway believable. “It’s a fake language I made up.”
“Huh,” Sara replied, clearly unconvinced. I flinched. My best friend was not having it. I really, really didn’t want to lie to her.
Matt would understand. I hoped.
I sighed, mostly to myself, and took a deep breath. “Okay, Sara. Look. Something did happen. I can’t tell you what. Not yet.”
Sara raised an eyebrow, as the final bell rang and students started to filter in. She glanced toward the classroom door. I could tell we both had the same thought. The other two members of our little group in this class would arrive soon. I liked them both plenty, but Sara was my best friend all the way back to when we were four. That sort of friend, you know? The only person I could even consider telling my story to.
“I assume you’ve got a good reason?” she asked quietly, edging closer so we wouldn’t be overheard.
“I promise I’ll tell you. I just can’t yet.”
“Are you okay, though?”
“Yeah,” I replied. I took a few seconds before I spoke again. I had to compose exactly what I wanted to say in English, make sure I got everything across. “Honestly, I’m fine. Not dying or anything, and I’m not in any trouble. But my head’s gonna be in a weird place for a while. I’m having trouble remembering a lot of things. I’m sorry to dump all this on you, but I’m going to need a lot of help for a bit, and you’re the only one I can really trust.”
I waited, impatiently, as she appeared to consider my words. Her face was an unreadable mask. I was never that great at reading other people, I was just good at hiding my own emotions. Finally, she spoke up again.
“Okay.” She nodded. “I believe you. But I do want that explanation.”
“I promised, didn’t I?”
“Still waiting on that pony you promised,” she added, with a forced giggle. It worked, though, despite being an ancient joke that neither of us even thought was funny at the time. I started to laugh too, and soon we were both doubled over even as Kersey and Mirai showed up, eager to hear a joke neither of us could explain.
But finally, things were starting to feel normal again. We settled into class, and broke into groups, and everything was going okay. Kersey and Mirai were still calling me Jenny, though.
I’d have to fix that.
It wasn’t long before I started feeling it again. Discomfort, and the inklings of adrenaline pumping into my system. I felt like I was getting overwhelmed by something I couldn’t actually see. There were too many unfamiliar faces in the room. They shouldn’t have been unfamiliar. Seven years ago I would have known the name and face of every single person here. Today… they may as well be complete strangers.
This time though, I had an out.
I poked Sara. “Hey. Let’s go out for a walk?”
Two minutes later, we were wandering the grounds behind the school, supposedly to go interview a staff member with a free period right now—but really just to get outside for a while. Press passes, aren’t they the best?
Even better, I didn’t have to explain it to Sara. This was totally normal. We used this excuse to head out all the time. We were talking about nothing in particular, joking and laughing like usual. Luckily, the rain I’d expected had already rolled right on by. Patches of sunlight swam across the well-kept rain-soaked lawn, growing larger as the clouds were swept away. A few birds were swirling above the trees at the end of the field. It looked like it might be a beautiful day after all.
I was so busy watching the sky as we walked that as we rounded the corner behind the portable classrooms, I almost missed Carl, sitting in the shadows with his face in his hands.