I grin. I hadn’t thought I would get to see the stuff from Proxima Centauri b, even with Dad as the main mission scientist. But that was the thing about the Earth-Universe Alliance (stupid name, I know). They didn’t do what you expected. Thirty years ago, nobody would have dreamed of sending a probe out of the solar system to take pictures of a possible life-sustaining planet. But the EUA had taken that risk. And now, people would finally understand why. We would be able to see photos from a different solar system.
Dad smiles weakly. “We did it, Ash. Do you want to see?” Pulling back from a hug, I give him my standard do-you- really-need-to-ask face, and he pulls a bunch of sheets from his pocket like a magician. Part of me is expecting Rivendell, but in reality — this was reality— Proxima Centauri b was closer to Mercury than Middle Earth. Mostly dry, but with a few vibrant oases scattered around like stars in the night sky.
“Bragi came back with them,” Dad says from his chair.
I had been so absorbed in Proxima I hadn’t noticed how tired he was. “The probe? Was it supposed to?”
“I don’t know. Maybe? But I have no idea.” He fiddles with something in his pocket, but I can’t see it. From the way he’s fiddling, it might be a rock, or just an oddly shaped object. His eyes keep darting to the tech around our home, like they have eyes.
I paused. “Was it safe?” I know some parts of what Dad does, and examining stuff from space is his main job. Including, probes like Bragi, and possibly whatever’s in his pocket.
“Probably. I don’t think they would have let the team study if it wasn’t. I….I can’t talk about it, Ember. But it’s something…big,” he says. He’s oddly quiet. Hesitant. Like how he sounded when mom left. He pauses, looking troubled. It’s weird. He never refuses to share the stories of his work.
“Big good?” I ask.
He doesn’t answer right away. “I hope so.” Phew. Then his dad voice slides back in. “But Ember, you should go to bed. School’s tomorrow.”
“All right. But, Dad? Can you please not call me Ember? I don’t know if I like it.”
“If you want. I love you, Ash.”
“Love you too, Dad.”
Something makes me turn around as I reach my room, and I see Dad, pulling something small and dark discreetly out of his pocket. He massages his forehead, like it hurts to think. A glance at our computers has him putting it back lightning-quick, and has me tiptoe-running into my room. I hear him murmuring unintelligibly.
The next day was a normal day, one to forget. I was halfway through science when the teacher came up to me. She told me in a low voice to ‘go to the principal’s office, please.’ And bring my things. Uh oh. “Please” was a word that my homophobic teacher used absolutely never with me. She never actually misgendered me, but I could tell that if science wasn’t my best class, she would have failed me. I packed my bag, and practically ran to the principal’s office. An EUA official was there, looking solemn and grim in her uniform. “Ash? I’m Admiral Vikamoe.”
Woah. The Admiral of the entire Canadian EUA coming to see me! But … something’s not right.
“I’m sorry, but we have bad news…”
That was the last thing I remember. Somehow, I got home, but I couldn’t remember. And honestly, I couldn’t care less.
I must be in shock. Nothing matters anymore. But my mind won’t stop overthinking. Why did this happen? How? Dad is —was— always extra careful. Even if he hadn’t been cautious, what even would have done it? Radiation kills people slowly. But — he had been tired last night. More so than usual. Was that a symptom of radiation? Or could it have been something else entirely? It could have been something brought back by Bragi. God. I clutch my stomach. How can I be rationalizing this? My hands feel clammy, and there’s a lump in my throat.
Even though I read a lot, I hadn’t thought my life would turn into a book so quickly. But I guess that’s how all books start. The hero has no idea that anything out of the ordinary could happen to them, and then it does. Wait. If Dad is —dead— then what do I do? My mother will never take me. Neither will her entire side of the family. Dad never said it, but I always knew that she left him because of me being non-binary. Maybe she could’ve gotten over that, though, if I hadn’t been aromantic and asexual as well. She just couldn’t fathom it, not wanting to fall in love. And Dad never wanted me to know his side. The only thing I can think of is the government putting me in an orphanage. But those stories are terrifying. Kids put to work in tech factories for the rich. When they’re teens, paid in ‘basic needs’ so they can’t leave without turning 18. The chance of me surviving three years in a place like that is slim to none. But there is no way around it, without a miracle.
The knock makes the ball in my throat larger, and smaller. I must have opened it, though, because the Admiral is looking down at me — she’s tall; it’s impressive, imposing — and touching my arm. She says something, and I say something acceptable back. One part jerks me out of my stupor. “Sorry, what?”
“I asked if you would like to come and live with me and my daughter instead of going to an orphanage. Calissa is a very respectful girl.”
This was my miracle. “Um, with respect, Admiral… you actually want someone like me around your daughter?”
“A non-binary person, you mean?” She raises her eyebrows and smiles a little. “Ivan” —Dad— “was very fond of you. Any child of his is welcome in my house. Besides, Calissa is openly transgender, so there is nothing to worry about.” I hadn’t known that. It always gives me a little thrill when LGBTQIA+ people are acknowledged in good ways. But wait.
My gut clenches as my mind races to the worst things she could say.
“What is it?” I choke out the words.
“If word gets out that Ivan Bythman died because of his work in the EUA, people will riot. I need your help in convincing the public that he died of an innocent cause. As well, anything he might have taught you about his work will be integral until somebody—” she closes her eyes briefly, like she’s in pain, so I finish the sentence, though it breaks part of me.
“Until somebody replaces him.”
I pause. “I’ll do it. Um, thank you.”
“You’re welcome. I’ll leave you to pack anything you would like to bring, but if you need anything, call me. I believe Ivan has my phone number on your home phone?”
“Um, yeah. Thanks again, Admiral. But— what’ll happen to the house? The stuff I can’t bring?”
“We can keep the house until you can come back when you’re self-sufficient. If you want.”
“Would you really? Thank you, so so much.”
“Of course. I’ll see myself out, and will be back here at…” she glances at her wrist “four o’clock.”
I have to restrain myself from saluting as she walks out.
I spend most of the time on Dad’s bed, remembering. It still doesn’t seem real that he won’t walk in and tell me all about his day, before we struggle through cooking something decent to eat.
Jerking into this universe again is hard, but the doorbell helps. I slog through my thoughts towards the door, and open it to find a rather pretty girl. She smiles. “Hi, I’m Calissa. My mom sent me. Admiral Vikamoe? She’s waiting in the driveway, but thought it would be less overwhelming if it was just me. Oh, I’m sorry. I’m rambling, aren’t I? It’s a bad habit, and– okay, I’m going to stop talking now.” She clamps her jaw shut, and gives me a sheepish smile.
I grin. “No, you’re fine. I’m Ash. Do you… um, do you want to come in? I’m ready, but I need to get my bag.” I move aside as she steps in.
“Oh, sure. Did you say your name was Ash?” I mentally brace myself for the next thing out of her mouth. I’ve heard it all, believe me. “That’s a really cool name. And I love your eyes. Um, but, are they dark green or black or just really dark brown? Sorry, I can’t tell. I wish I had eyes like that.” Okay, that was a first. ‘Cool’ isn’t normally the first thing people say when I tell them my name. More like ‘weird’ and ‘unnatural’.
This feels wrong, being anything but sad when it’s just starting to hit me now that Dad isn’t coming back. But I have to keep a happy face, or Calissa will pity me, and if there’s anything I loathe most in the world, it’s pity. So I choke out a laugh that hopefully sounds more natural than it is. “My eyes are dark green. And you’re the lucky one. All the stares I get are bad enough, people trying to figure me out, without my eyes being different. I wish mine were brown like yours.”
“Maybe we can trade for a day! Somehow.” Ok, this girl is amazing. I really hope we can be friends. She says just the right thing, but it doesn’t feel fake or manufactured. She cares. “And, um, your pronouns are they and them, right? Because Mom said you were non-binary, and I know about neopronouns, but I don’t know how to pronounce them properly. So…” she trails off.
“Yeah, I’m they/them. Nothing else.” I have to be firm with this, but something tells me Calissa will respect me and my choices.
“Ugh, right? Like, I had a friend online who uses it/its, and it used to get so mad when people referred to it as ‘them’. I know it’s not really the same, but misgendering people is so, so wrong. And, well, I’m trans, so people I knew before transitioning always had to tell me that I was him, not her. Puberty was the worst. So I just called them the opposite pronouns that they used. It might be bad, but I find it satisfying when I make a transphobe mad using their logic.”
I agree so much I could explode. “I had to switch schools because of the homophobia in my old one. The misgendering was bad…the teachers quote unquote subtly with marks. I just remember thinking, well, why does it matter to them how I choose to live my life? They’re not the ones affected by my choices. People make me so angry sometimes.”
“I know! At least I had myself figured out when I was pretty young, so Mom could help me stay safe. But let me tell you, my grandfather was livid. I think he was mad that he didn’t have a grandson, but it’s not like I have to ever see him again unless I actually want to. He lives in America, anyway.”
Whoa. I don’t think she took more than five breaths in those sentences. “Are you sure you aren’t Hermione? Because I think not even she can talk that fast.”
“I wish I was her! But nope, I’m very much a Muggle. Besides, I’m Hufflepuff through and through.” I must’ve said the right thing. She’s beaming.
“Cool. I’m in Ravenclaw, probably because of the books and the science.” The science Dad teaches me. Taught me.
“That’s really neat! I’d ask you to pick a favourite book, but I know that’d be impossible. Um, are you cool with me talking so much? ’Cause I can stop if you want.”
“No, you’re okay. I just haven’t talked this much with a person in a while.” I don’t know why I said that. I shouldn’t have said that, she’s going to pity me now. She’ll think I don’t have any friends. While that’s sort of true, I don’t like people’s reactions, so I quickly add, “I don’t really like spilling my soul.”
“Okay. If you do want me to stop, please please tell me. I hate it when people are putting up with me to be polite, but they don’t actually want me there. Maybe it’s just me, but I can tell.” She opens the trunk to the car, and I hoist my bag in. “You can take shotgun, if you want. Or you could sit in the back with me. I’m good with either.”
I get in the back. Sitting with Calissa is a good thing. I drown out the part of me groaning, because it’ll be important to befriend her, even if my emotional battery drains.
After all, this is my life now.
The trip was mostly quiet. Calissa asked a few questions, but she must’ve read my mood, since she stayed in her own head. Now, the Admiral’s wife, whose name I didn’t catch, shows me the room that I’ll sleep in. I put my things in their equivalent spots, but this is like a hotel. With a nightmare for a vacation.
But resting is bad. It gives me too much time to think. Now that I’m alone, without Calissa or the shock, I see red. Why couldn’t Dad have been more careful? Being tired is no excuse; in fact, he should have been extra careful because his reflexes were down. Why couldn’t the EUA be more attentive to the alien objects coming to Earth? For all Admiral Vikamoe’s condolences and apparent grief, she didn’t do anything to stop whatever it was from killing Dad. Calissa might be sad, but she couldn’t have known him at all. She doesn’t deserve to grieve. I try to pull out my favourite book, the one that never fails to cheer me up, but I can’t focus on Hobbiton. Sitting on my bed, I get as far as Bilbo’s eleventy-one birthday, and give up. God. What is happening to me? I’ve always, always been able to focus on the Lord of the Rings, even with everything happening in life. I sink my head in my hands and my thoughts in the book. Merry and Pippin were just as important to Frodo as Sam …
I blink awake. I must have fallen asleep, because someone put a blanket over me and turned off the lights. The Fellowship of the Ring waits for me on the nightstand. That was nice of Dad. He probably even marked my page. The bleariness of sleep leaves me in a whoosh. Dad. It wasn’t Dad. It was Calissa, or Admiral Vikamoe. They must have crept in and taken care of me… like I failed to do for Dad. The feeling sets over me, the opposite of the warm blanket I just kicked off. This blanket is one of misery, of anguish. My head droops and I wish myself anywhere but here. I look around the room, and find a clock. Of course. Admiral Vikamoe must get paid a lot. The lack of tech shows. Normal families would have technology scattered around their houses because they can’t afford the real thing. Dad and I didn’t have any analog clocks in the house, but I’m glad I learned to read them, because this clock reads about 6:40, and judging by the light coming from the window — or lack thereof — it’s morning. For barely a moment, I consider trying to get back to sleep, but they say sleeping in a cold room makes for nightmares, and if that’s true for sleeping with cold feelings too, then I’d rather not. I slept in my clothes, so I’m pretty much ready to go downstairs for breakfast. Ugh, but I keep forgetting Dad isn’t here, and I have no clue what time Calissa and her mom usually wake up on… Saturdays. Yesterday was Friday, the day my life became a book. I never really thought about what happens to the characters that don’t adapt to their new circumstances, but I guess I’ll find out.
There is no way that I can get used to Dad being gone.
It’s unfathomable, traumatizing, and, well, terrifying. I don’t even know why or how he died! The butterflies in my stomach turn into raccoons and jump up to my head, digging around for any possible information. I swallow, and grip the windowsill as the worst possible idea occurs to me. Could I have prevented this? Worse, could I have caused it? I stagger back, clutching my head like I can rip out my brain as my imagination works against me, hyper-analyzing everything Dad had done when he got home, and leaping over gaping holes in logic to find the ‘reasons’ he died.
By the time Calissa finds me, I’m a shell. My soul is in the Gray Havens with Dad. Where I should be. I don’t even bother convincing her that I’m okay. She wraps an arm around me, and I think I lean into her, as we walk downstairs for breakfast. All of a sudden, I’m sitting at a table, pecking at a bagel. Admiral Vikamoe looks like she wants to speak, but I couldn’t reply even if my mouth wasn’t full. Her lips move, Calissa nods and slips out. The Admiral comes over to me, and her face — with pity all over it– is the only thing I see. Red seeps in on the black corners of my vision, and I want to destroy something. She must sense something’s wrong, because she’s grabbing for me, pulling me towards her in — a hug?
Better than I expected, better than I deserve. I regain the feeling in my body, but it betrays me as I go limp in her arms. It’s been so long, I realize, since a mother held me like I was her own. Evidently, some part of me still knows how to react. I sniffle to hold back the tears threatening to gush out; if I start bawling I don’t think I’ll be able to stop. I shift in her arms, pondering what I should do. Most of the time, I break at the edges only when I’m alone. Letting my guard down, being vulnerable, is something I wouldn’t do even in front of Dad. And the Admiral hasn’t really done anything small to make me want to change that. She probably only took me in because of ‘duty’.
I step back from the embrace, and feel part of me fall into the void of my mind. I try for a smile, and mumble something about staying in my room for the day to adjust. The Admiral purses her lips but doesn’t argue. How could she? She didn’t lose her father when she was fifteen. She has no idea what I’m going through. I climb up the stairs, holding tight to the railing. Stairs, again, are something rich people have. My school is full of escalators. I remember where my room is, luckily. I have a feeling that in my current state, I could wander for at least an hour and not find my room.
Collapsing on a stranger’s bed has never felt so good. I have no intention of letting my imagination turn into nightmares, so I drag myself onto my feet. There’s an empty bookshelf, where I put all my physical books and belongings. My e-reader on the nightstand, my clothes in the closet. When I’m organized, I decide to start working on homework, just to have something to do with my mind. After all, I need to keep busy. But the work can’t keep my focus. I pull up an email to my teachers, asking if I missed anything in the last three periods. When I’m almost finished, it occurs to me that I might not even stay at this school. The commute would be grueling. But I really value my routine, and I don’t know what I’ll do without it.
A knock at my door. I’ve come to dread that sound, with its intrusions into my peace of mind. But I say, “Come in,” to the Admiral. She steps in, looking awkward and uncomfortable. “We need— can we talk about your school?”
“Yeah. Am I still going there, or will you have me do something else?”
My question seems to have startled her, because she raises her eyebrows. “That’s very astute of you. And I came to ask you what you would prefer. Calissa is homeschooled, by my wife. You could go to the school you go to now, or you could learn with her. If you think of something better for your mental health, please tell me.”
A flower of hope buds inside of me. “I’d actually enjoy learning with Calissa and your wife, Admiral. Um, what’s her name?” Even if learning with Calissa is draining, anything is better than going back there.
“Her name is Amilia, and please, call me Thea. You are part of our family now.” My first real, unguarded, genuine smile dawns on me. This is permanent. I’ll never get used to Dad being gone, but hopefully I’ll be able to sleep deeply tonight. “Thank you so, so much. I can never repay you, A— er, Thea.”
“You don’t need to repay me.” She goes to hug me, and this time I hug her back with all my might. She doesn’t say anything, even though it must hurt, but instead she hugs me fiercely. Not like I’m breakable, but like I could destroy the world and she would still like — love me the same. I press my face into her shoulder and finally let the tears come. Leaking eyes turn rapidly to full blown bawling, but she doesn’t comment. She doesn’t try to comfort me. She doesn’t say that it’s all going to be okay, because it’s not. How could it be? Dad is gone. She holds me, and as I clutch her I feel her swaying gently. I screw my eyes shut and try to match her rhythm. When it doesn’t work, a laughing sob wracks its way through my body. I give it one last time to stop the crying, but the tears only fall faster. Giving in, I retreat into myself and watch the situation, it feels like I’m watching a movie. Thea holds me, just standing there with me. I’ve never felt so alone in somebody’s arms before. I pull away, trying to put myself back together.
But I can’t. I can’t. I can’t. It’s like using a bailer to empty a lake. Impossible. I dimly notice Thea stepping out, leaving me to my misery. The analogy helps, though. Healing will take me so long it may as well be achievable, but if I keep on emptying the lake it’ll be empty — someday. For now, I’ll be homeschooled with Calissa and counting down until I’m eighteen. If today is March 3rd, and my birthday is August 15th. I’m fifteen now, which means I have… 1261 days in this house. Wow. Okay. That’s a lot. But maybe something will happen. Not that I’m counting on it. My miracle is already used up being here in the first place. But at some point, the day has disappeared. The day is over; however, not wasted. I put a mark in my workbook labelled March, for the first day. 1260 days to go.
Days pass in blurs. I keep myself busy excelling at homeschool, pushing Calissa and myself to do our absolute best. Thea doesn’t say anything about the condition she mentioned when she offered me a place here, about finding an alternate reason for Dad to have died. An article was in the paper about him, but I couldn’t bring myself to read it. On the 1245 day until my eighteenth birthday, Thea comes into my room and sits on the edge of my bed. We’ve slowly lost that formality around each other, and now I feel somewhat comfortable around her, and I think she’s become more comfortable with me. But today, she won’t meet my eyes. That’s the only tell I have, before she says that we should talk about Dad. Of course, i know what she’ll say. She’ll say that I need to make up a reason he died, that I have to be the one to decide ‘why’ he died when her organization was the real reason.
“I’ve been thinking…” she says, and pauses. She’s waiting for me to say something, but in this case I have no clue what to say. There’s nothing I could say. “Ivan could have died in his sleep.” She puts her hand on my leg, but removes it as I tense up.
That is so not Dad that I restrain a scoff in my clenched jaw. “He was 48. Wasn’t that in your logs?”
“Oh.” She ignores my jab, which might be good or bad. “He… had a heart attack?”
“Didn’t he check himself into the hospital?” An elementary kid could do better than this.
“Well. it’s not uncommon for people to feel a murmur and check themselves in. But if you think we should say something else…?”
“No. Nothing. That’s the best one.”
“Okay. I can work with that. I’ll let you know if I need anything else.”
She leaves, and doesn’t come back.
That’s the last I hear of the Condition for a good 49 days. 1196 days before the birthday, she gives me a red pen and asks me to read the official EUA document ‘regarding the death of Ivan Carl Bythman.’ I brace myself to slip part of the way down, and start skimming. The parts that give me shivers, I cross out, star, and edit. When I’m through, I hand it back to her. She blinks several times, whether because of emotions or because my red pen fills the entire page, I can’t tell. “We can certainly incorporate some of these, but if it sounds too personal–”
Oh, she did not. She did not. “So you’d rather it wasn’t personal? You’d rather it treated Dad like a number instead of a name? Because I can do personal. But I can’t — won’t — act like I never knew my own father. I won’t help you with anything that degrades him to a statistic.” It takes an effort to unclench my fists, and I swallow hard.
Instead of snapping back, she softens. “Oh, honey, I didn’t mean that. Of course we’ll make it personal, but we need the facts –well, the fake facts– in there too. As much as I loathe it, I have to release a report, not an obituary.” She smiles sadly, with glassy eyes. She should’ve matched my energy, because now I regret being so frosty.
“Oh. Um, should I redo that?” I reach for the paper, but she doesn’t give it back to me.
Instead, she shakes her head and sighs. “We’ll use as much of this as we can, and I’ll give you a copy to edit again before making it public.” Phew. My invisible wall cracks, and I choke out a thank you before sprinting to the bathroom.
I wish I was as strong as Frodo. Being selfless like that was never my thing. But now I have to be. I have to. I’m about to enter the living room, but something instinctual deep inside of me tells me to stop. As if I’m in a movie, I press my ear to the door, wishing for Legolas’s ears. My wish seems to be granted, because I hear part of the conversation:
“I won’t lie to them.”
“I’m not asking you to. Just…”A pause, or maybe not, because I can’t hear all of it. “I’ll tell them in my own time, once the initial grief is over.”
“So never? Because that’s what you did when I said I wanted to find my biological parents. You said it was for my own good, but I’d rather have a bad, ugly truth than a good quote unquote white lie. Ash would too. And you of all people should know that grief doesn’t end. Ever.”
I break away from the door, as if it burned me. What– lie about what? It doesn’t make sense, but one thing is clear. Thea had something to do with Dad’s death, and Calissa knows. How can they lie like that? I crash into my room. How many days, how many more days?? I need to know how long I have to act like nothing’s wrong for. My tally… oh. 1184 days until freedom. Still.
That night, it’s all I can do to smile and relax my body at the dinner table. If Thea smiles a bit more stiffly, or if Calissa’s chatter seems forced, I pretend not to notice. And if they notice that I’m hiding something, they don’t say anything.
The days drag on, each a worse version of the last. I hide in my room everyday with Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin; but I can’t help feeling that if they knew me, they’d be ashamed. Why am I hiding? Why aren’t I trying to find out the truth, why aren’t I being brave? Even Merry and Pippin chose fight over flight, when they could have stayed safe in the Shire. This room is as stifling for me as Hobbiton was for them. As though Gandalf and Aragorn are pushing me out the door, I walk downstairs.
Thea went to a meeting this morning, but I don’t know when she’ll be back. Calissa is deep in Percy Jackson and the Olympians, after I introduced it to her yesterday. Amilia is gone, for probably another hour. So I have to move fast. After I check on Calissa to make sure she’s still in the Riordanverse, I tiptoe-run to the Admiral’s office. I try the handle. It’s unlocked, luckily. Stepping in, I head straight to the filing cabinet. Rifling through the papers, I skim their contents. I don’t know what I’m looking for– some damning piece of evidence that I can use against her, something I can use to put my mind to rest. But there’s nothing. Nothing. Nothing, nothing, nothing –wait. This is — what? A rock? I don’t know. I pocket it, just in case. I remember Dad had some sort of object, about the size and shape of this. I pull out a piece of paper from beside it. Just what I was looking for.
I hear Calissa talking — someone’s home. I dither between taking the papers and putting them back, but in two seconds I decide on a compromise. Pulling out my phone for the first time since money, I flick to the camera and impatiently wait for the lens to focus. As soon as it does, I take the picture and scramble to put everything back in the place it was when I found it. I run out, shutting the door with barely a click. Instincts freeze me in place when I realize someone’s around the corner. But my mind lets me dart away, fast and silent as a hobbit.
Up in my room, I realize that there’s a second page, one I didn’t get. The document ends mid sentence. But it was just what I needed. It talks about the Proxima Centauri B pictures, it doesn’t actually show them. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. It says… “Proxima Centauri B probe (Bragi I) examined by Dr. Ivan Bythman. Subject terminated for confidentiality 03/03/2144. Authorized by Admiral Theadosia Vikamoe. Contents of Bragi to be examined by Admiral Theadosia Vikamoe. Enquiry: what will be revealed to the public? Enquiry two: Ivan Bythman had a child: Ash Jordan Bythman–” It cuts off there. But I guess it’s all I need to know.
My father was killed.
I can’t stay here. I can’t stay here, in the house of my father’s killer. That’d be like Frodo wanting to stay in Mordor, and just as crazy. But I can’t exactly leave, either, can I? I’m not even eighteen yet. What else could I do, though? Is there anything I could do? It doesn’t feel like there is. Well, I suppose I could come out and ask the Admiral. That might lead to death, but I could do it. There’s nothing to it. I tell myself that, and force my legs to cooperate as I walk downstairs. My heart feels like the One Ring is pulling it down, but I keep going. As I knock on the Admiral’s office door — wow, this seems to happen a lot — she opens it. I stand in the doorway, keep my mouth shut, and show her the (carefully cropped) photo. It occurs to me that if she’s Saruman, I must be Merry, destroying Isengard with the Ents.
She goes pale. “Ash?” My name is a question in her mouth. “What–who gave you this?”
“That’s none of your business. It’s true, isn’t it.” I don’t bother asking, I already know.
“Of course it’s my business to know who’s feeding you lies! You’re under my protection.”
“The same way Dad was under your protection? If that’s what you reward people with, I’d rather not be.”
“Ash. I don’t know how to tell you this…”
I cut her off. “How about starting and ending with the truth? So. What really happened to my father?”
There’s a pause, and I am this far — this far — from snapping. “What. Happened. To. My. Father.”
“He… I… he consented. But… he was killed.”
“You mean you killed him.”
“Well — I didn’t kill him, exactly–”
“You gave the order! If not for you, Dad would still be alive and I wouldn’t have to be in this corpse of a house!”
Her eyes mist over, but I’m done with that. I’m not falling for it again. “I know. And I’m sorry. But he knew what was happening, and why it needed to happen.”
“Needed to happen? Needed to happen?!” All of a sudden I realize I’m shouting, but I don’t lower my voice. “I’m leaving.”
“Save it. I’ll figure something out on my own, not with my father’s murderer.”
She tries to reach for me, but I don’t let her touch me. I turn on my heel.
Calissa’s in the hallway, but she doesn’t try to stop me. I grab my money, my bag, and my photo of Dad from the room I was sleeping in.
Part of me thinks I shouldn’t do this, but I silence it. I am not going to stay here, I’d rather be in the Gray Havens with Dad than in Mordor with Admiral Vikamoe.
No one tries to stop me as I walk out, stone faced. The space rock –egg?– weighs heavy in my pocket. Frodo didn’t leave that ring behind. I won’t leave the rock behind, either.
Ready to do battle against any and all evil.
Ready to do whatever needs to be done.