My mother rushed into my room when she heard the noises. I’m ashamed to say that I shouted before a hand was clamped over my mouth. Six large men dressed in dark blue robes lined the room from the door to the bed, poised to spring as one if she gave them any trouble. Her body seemed to sag when she realized who they were, and she turned and walked back to her room without a second glance in my direction. I knew she was proud that she had been chosen as the vessel to facilitate the return of so many important people to the world. If my father hadn’t gone mad who knows how many more might have come after me.
The man leaning over me reached into a pocket and pulled out a folded and worn sheet of paper. “Do you know what this is?”
I nodded as well as I could while his hand still covered my mouth, pushing my head hard into my thin pillow. I didn’t need to see the writing. I knew exactly what it would say. I found out many years later that actually there isn’t anything on the sheet of paper they show you, at least not anything important. More often than not it was just a random piece of paper they found lying around before leaving the facility, meaning it could be anything from a death warrant to a grocery list. No one ever asked to read it.
The man took his hand off my face. “Get up. Strip.”
I had never been naked in front of anyone before. I felt their eyes on me as I slowly took off my night gown. I hesitated before pulling down my underwear, which earned me a hard slap across the face. I laid my clothes carefully in a pile on the bed and turned around. The men looked at me for what seemed like ages. I wanted to cover myself with my hands and my arms twitched at my side as I fought my natural instinct. I felt small and scared. I started to shake. Finally one of the men reached into a bag he was carrying and threw what looked like a bundle of rags at my feet. I glance around nervously, unsure whether I was supposed to pick them up or leave them. I started shaking harder, terrified of making the wrong decision. But the men towered over me like stone statues, giving no indication of what I was supposed to do next.
Eventually I couldn’t take it anymore. I reached down, quickly as I could, and grabbed the rags. It was now obvious that was what they were: a few pieces of dirty cloth badly sewn together, with holes for at least three heads and half a dozen arms. I put mine in what were, as far as I could figure out, the ones actually intended for that purpose. While I was barely any more covered than before, the threadbare cloth felt like steel-plated armor between me and the men.
The largest one stepped forward and, grabbing my arm in a vice-like grip that left deep purple bruises, dragged me out of the room. Officially we are not supposed to care about our childhoods. Somehow it’s easy to clear my family from my memories at will, but the last thing I saw as I craned my neck around and looked back at my room before leaving forever was the bright pink blanket on my bed. To this day an unexpected flash of pink brings memories and emotions flooding back. My handler can always tell when this happens; he says I should be able to control it by now. He’s right.
It was almost pitch black outside. There was no moon and the one streetlight that usually flickered all night, often keeping me up into the early hours, seemed to have given up the fight. The grass felt good under my bare feet but in our hurry I stubbed my toe on the sidewalk, drawing blood. I was dragged about a hundred yards down the street before we reached a dark van. One of the men pulled out a key and opened the back; a sudden light blinded me momentarily. Through the black spots now marring my vision the harsh overhead lighting revealed a padded area with metal benches against each wall. Half a dozen shackles were evenly spaced under the chairs. One pair in the back corner grasped the thin ankles of another girl a little older than me. She too was dressed in rags, although hers seemed significantly cleaner than mine, and the dim outline of a handprint stood out on her cheek. As I was lifted into the van she looked at me with large watery eyes, but when I opened my mouth to say something to her, a voice behind me barked, “Either of you says a word and we’ll kill you both.”
Then the door slammed shut. The engine started and the van pulled away quickly, throwing me to the floor. It was only then I realized that they hadn’t shackled my legs. The girl stared at me as I raised myself up onto the other bench. She seemed so sad. I had to look away.
I was terrified but as the minutes ticked by my rational brain took control of me once again. Deep down I knew I was going to be okay. After all, we were the important ones. Those men in the front might knock us around a bit if we fell out of line but they were certainly only hired muscle. This girl and I, my brother and my sister, we were the ones who were going to change the world. Still, I did not want to get hit again and it was always better to be prepared.
I closed my eyes and tried to relax. As the van bumped along I thought back, attempting to bring up memories I knew I must have. The place we were headed to would certainly feel like home when I arrived, my real, spiritual home, not the mere family home I had been trapped in until then. But I wanted to recognize it, to know exactly where to go and which room to enter. I tried to remember. I slowed my heart beat and concentrated on my breathing. After a long time the visions finally came.
In my mind, a palatial building loomed in front of me. It would be bright white, covered in stones that almost glowed. After walking through a marble atrium, where the largest chandelier imaginable illuminated the paintings of past presidents hung on the walls, we would enter a large rectangular inner courtyard. It would smell heavenly, and wide benches would circle a flowing fountain. In the very center would be a large statue of the Founder.
We’d go through a side door and down a long hallway lined with dark wood and tapestries illustrating important events in the Century of the Great Takeover. Behind hundreds of doors we would find our individual bedrooms and I would be shown to mine, still looking just as I had left it: shelves full of scripture, a small shrine to the Founder, and a large, comfortable bed. Behind thick curtains that blocked all outside light would be a window overlooking a small grove of trees. That would be my favorite study spot, just as it had been all those years ago. At dinner on the first night I would meet a girl I had known in lifetimes past. We would share a joke and eventually I would invite her to my special spot to discuss scripture. I tried to imagine what her face would look like, but of course I had no way of knowing that.
I opened my eyes and looked at the girl sitting across from me. Maybe it was her. That would be a perfect story, if we had been transported in the same van and had recognized each other immediately. People would laugh as we told them we had been bursting to catch up with each other after decades apart but couldn’t on pain of death.
I smiled shyly wondering how I would know if I knew her. The girl’s eyes opened wider and she shrank further back into the corner of the van. Suddenly, I was angry. What did she have to be afraid of? Hadn’t she hoped for this her whole life? My skin felt hot as my hatred for this girl grew inside me. How dare she, how DARE she act scared. How dare she sit there, tempting me to talk to her, to say something, anything, knowing full well it would result in horrible punishment for both of us. Why couldn’t she control herself? Why was she still looking at me!
I stood up, prepared to strike her, but my foot hit one of the shackles and the noise distracted me momentarily. I stared at the metal band for a minute and then at the ones around her ankles. Of course, I thought, how silly of me. I sat back down and willed my heart rate to return to normal. She was not going to the same place I was, obviously. She had transgressed, that was why she was shackled. The mark on her cheek indicated she had been slapped. I had been slapped as well but that was different. I was expected to act a certain way because of my rank and had failed to live up to those high standards for a brief moment. It would not happen again. She, on the other hand, had been beaten because she deserved it. Still, it seemed odd that they would transport me in the same van as her. Perhaps there had been some mistake.
I stood up again, and then hesitated. They had threatened to kill us after all, and even though I didn’t believe they would go that far they obviously had the authority to hurt us. Still, I was an important person now, and they were nothing. I wanted answers. No, I was entitled to them.
I stepped forward and knocked on the small square of glass through which I could see some of the men crammed into the front cab. One of them spun around and slid the window open but before he could speak I said, in what I hoped was a powerful tone of voice, “I demand to know where you are taking this other passenger!” The man glared at me.
“What are you, stupid? I though you lot were supposed to be the cream-day-la-cream, as they say. You’re going to headquarters, of course, for training.” And with that he slammed the window shut.
I sat back down, my head swimming with a thousand different thoughts. I grabbed on to one and kept repeating it to myself. I don’t understand. I don’t understand. I just don’t understand.
I didn’t have much time to wonder. A minute later we slowed to a stop. The back doors were thrown open and one of the men jumped inside and unlocked the girl’s shackles. We climbed down onto a loose gravel driveway and turned to face a man and woman dressed in the light grey robes of our faith. They stood in front of a nondescript one-story building surrounded on either side by high walls topped with barbed wire, which I could see because the whole area was lit up almost as bright as day by floodlights. The man stepped forward and held out his hand.
“Hello, girls,” he said. “Welcome home.”
My years of training for moments like this overrode my confusion and I rushed forward to kneel and kiss his outstretched palm. The gravel dug into my knees but I waited to get up until I was told to. Mercifully he cut my obsequious display short after only a minute. I stepped back, waiting for the other girl to rush forward. She stayed in the same spot she had been deposited outside the van, visibly shaking from head to toe. One of the robed men stepped forward and whispered into the man’s ear. He nodded and then glanced quickly at the woman next to him. Their eyes locked for a moment and she reached out for my hand.
“You must be cold.” Her voice was like liquid silver, her touch was the warmest and most reassuring thing I had ever felt. “My name is Belle. Come with me. I’ll get you settled.”
I went gladly, happy to be away from that evil girl. She had ruined the whole experience for me. I knew everything would have gone smoother, everything would make sense, if she hadn’t been a part of this important transition. If I got the chance I knew I would hurt her.
The nice woman took me through the front doors and down a small, dingy hallway. The lights flickered but the place had an almost clinical feel. I had been to a hospital once, when my father started becoming ill. It had been the scariest experience of my life and it felt fitting that this new terror was occurring in a similar place.
Suddenly a scream echoed down the empty hallway. A naked man, bruises and sores covering his emaciated body, turned a corner ahead of us. His eyes were crazed and he opened his mouth to scream again. I braced myself for the sound.
But none came. The man was gone, the hall empty. The air felt stiff, as if it moved at a slightly slower speed than it should. A different man seemed to materialize out of nothing at my elbow.
“Everything okay here?” He towered over Belle. His eyes seemed to penetrate deep inside of her. He waited for her to answer but something in his manner seemed off. His body relaxed before she spoke.
“Perfect, as always. We have been blessed tonight. One of our own has returned.”
“Yes, just one.”
He turned his face to me for the first time. An almost invisible look of surprise flashed across it. Then I felt my anger at the girl welling up again. I wanted to look at this man, to learn his face, but all I could concentrate on was the anger that had consumed me a minute before. I heard the scream start again, further away this time.
Then it was all over, the anger, the scream. The air returned to normal. I now know that I had experience a reading for the first time. While our religion’s official position is that all truly devout people can achieve perfect control of telepathy, in truth very few people have even a basic grasp of it. Those who show any talent usually become handlers. This handler had just read my anger towards the girl and removed the screaming man from my reality. But he couldn’t do both at the same time.
Belle smiled at him and motioned for me to keep going. We walked down seemingly endless empty grey corridors lined with doors. Everything looked the same to me. I had no idea how I was ever going to find my way around.
Finally we stopped before a metal door that looked exactly like all the others. There was no number or name plate to identify it as mine. Belle took a ring of keys out of her robe and opened the door.
The room, like everything else so far, was nothing like I expected. It was much smaller than my room in my family home. A thin mattress covered a metal frame. There was a small shelf high up on the wall above the bed, too high for me to see what was on it. A tiny table next to the bed held a glass of water and one of our advanced books of scripture. I had memorized it years ago.
There was a knock at the door and without waiting for a reply it opened. A boy only slightly older than me entered. He wore long robes and had a proud air about him. He handed Belle a dark brown folder and a piece of paper. Without a word from either of them he turned and left, shutting the door a bit harder than necessary. He had not so much as glanced at me.
“He’s such a good boy. You’ll be just like him one day soon. You are assigned to the same handler so…” Her voice trailed off as she read the piece of paper in front of her. “Oh! Well, never mind, there has been a change. Vincent has requested that he be your handler.” She looked at me excitedly and I knew I was supposed to feel something, I just wasn’t sure what or why.
“Is that a good thing?”
“Of course it is! Personal requests are rare and almost never accepted. He must have gone off to see John right after he met us in the hallway. He must be quite taken with you and your potential.”
“I’m sorry, who is John?”
“He is the head of this facility; the man who greeted you when you arrived. He’s one of the best, even if I am a little biased. Never lets anyone fall out of line. You are very lucky to be here.”
I knew I was. No matter how confusing everything had been up until now, I knew I was one of the luckiest people in the universe. I had been taken from the world of average people and brought here to change history. How I was going to do that exactly was something I had always wondered, but soon I was going to find out.
“Belle, when will everything be explained to me?”
“Vincent will go over some basics with you tomorrow at your first session. You’ll also get a tour of the facility. Believe me, in less than a day you are going to understand everything about the world and your place in it.” Her eyes sparkled at me mischievously. “Of course, we can always get started with the most basic thing now. Like who you are for example. What name did your parents give you?”
“Right now I am called Michelle. But it has never felt right. I know the chances of them getting it right are slim but I think they were very off.”
“Well, I have your file here. Are you ready?”
I nodded emphatically. I had been waiting 13 years for this. As children we always made guesses about who we might have been in past lives. Everyone was always positive they had been someone important, someone at the right hand of the Founder as our people vanquished the governments. But only those of us where were special would ever find out. I realized I was holding my breath, and my hands were clenched so tightly my nails were digging into my palms.
Belle made a grand gesture of unsealing the file. Then she opened it up and scanned the first page. The light in her eyes dimmed slightly. I knew something was wrong. I tried to wait. After a minute I couldn’t take it anymore.
“So, who am I?”
“You…your name is Lisa.” She kept reading to herself, her brow furrowed slightly.
Lisa. I’d never heard that name before. I certainly did not know of any famous or important Lisa’s in our history.
“Is there a problem?”
Belle smiled again, and it shone with the same light as when I first saw her. “Of course not, this file says you were a dedicated follower of the religion over several lifetimes. It seems you have a pattern of giving your life for your beliefs.”
“You mean I died for the religion?”
“What? Oh, no, of course not. I meant giving your life to your beliefs. Just a slip of the tongue, don’t worry about it sweetie.” She patted my head.
“Is that all? I thought, that is they told us in kirche, that if we were special then we would know all the details of our past lives one day.”
“Did they? Well we will need that person’s name. I think they need to be educated on the truth.”
“Your name is Lisa and it is time for you to go to bed. You have a busy day tomorrow! You meet your handler. Well, meet him officially, anyway. Sleep well, darling.” Belle took the file and opened the door. A large man, his face hooded, loomed into the frame. “This nice gentleman will be outside all night. You just let him know if you need anything, anything at all.” She walked back to the bed and kissed me. “I’m so happy you have returned to us, Lisa. Goodnight.”
The guard stepped aside to let her pass. Then he reached into the room and grabbed to door handle, his shoulders almost scraping both sides of the frame. The door slammed, the lock clicked, and I was alone.
As my eyes slowly adjusted to the dark my thoughts bubbled up. I thought I knew what to expect once I returned. I thought I had been prepared. Belle said the head of our kirche had lied to us; why would he do that? What else had he lied about? No wonder I was so confused. I was lucky they were accepting me back into my regiment if my training had been so poor.
I could hear a clock ticking but could not see it in the darkness. The noise was comforting. I slowed my breathing and concentrated on sleep. I knew it must be close to sunrise. I hoped they understood and would let me sleep in. I started to remove the rag that barely covered me, and wondered why Belle had not offered me better clothes. I stubbed my toe against the bed, reopening the earlier wound. I looked at the slight red glow emanating from the panel by the door. I put the rags back over my head and waited. Finally I got up the courage and knocked.
The man’s voice was muffled by the closed door. “What?”
“I’m sorry to disturb you, but how do I make the lights work?”
“I’m sorry; I don’t understand what you mean.”
“You earn the right to lights.”
I felt my way back to the bed. I was delirious from lack of sleep. Thoughts drifted in and out, each one crazier than the next. Maybe this was all a lie, I thought. I was obviously being punished for something. Maybe this was all part of my punishment, being made to think I was special and have it taken away. The thought was crushing. I pulled the thin blanket over me and cried.
Just before sleep finally came over me, Belle’s comment in the hall flashed through my mind. “Yes, just one.”