Last time we saw MICA… (click for recap)
After being caught by Ben and discovered as the arsonist, Mica and the rest prepare to leave West Six for the Unseen City. They are too late, and a Watcher spies on them through Mica’s eyes. After Cassandra gets rid of the Watcher with a Shock Stick, Anda is discovered missing. Peter and Cassandra leave Ben and Mica to find Anda in West Six, but will they make it in time…
The last time the Watchers had come, she had also been engulfed in darkness. Mica stared out the open door into the sunlight, but darkness filled her mind. In that place between light and darkness, that place of white fear and sunlight and cold, time stood still. The Watchers had come to West Six years ago when she was only seven, but those cold days still haunted her.
Mica squeezed her eyes shut and remembered. Her mother standing on the back porch, hammer in her hand, her hair lifting in the breeze like the branches of a willow tree. Anda crying as Ben had pulled her and Mica through the field. Ben limping past the little graveyard, and into the woods to hide them from the golden glowing eyes.
Out in the woods, staring into the chaos of shadow and bright blinking animal eyes and slimy wet leaves, they had hidden from the Watchers for three hungry days.
And now the Watchers were back.
During those hidden days in the woods, Ben had limped through the underbrush, his crutch catching on roots and stones, and found them nuts and berries and water from the small stream. Mica didn’t visit that stream anymore. The scent of cold sweat and wind and rotting berries still smelled like fear and her too red mouth. Mica had pretended to be asleep that night, her breathing had been easy and regular, but she had seen Ben’s eyes light up gold in the dark.
She had seen the Watcher staring out of Ben’s own eyes, searching for a landmark, for their location. It had jumped to Anda, who sat staring up into the black and shifting treetops. Her twin’s eyes had glimmer for a moment and then grown dark.
Something wasn’t right, but she didn’t know what, so she squeezed her own eyes shut against the violation sure to come. The memory of that night and seeing her first Watcher had haunted her dreams for years. Now, almost ten years later, one of them had found its way back into her mind, and this time it was all her fault.
A tear rolled down her cheek. It felt larger and hotter than it was, like a drop of hot grease creeping down her face, and she gripped the edge of the wooden bench to keep herself from reeling. The electrical shock Cassandra had given her to jolt the Watcher out of her head had left her muscles aching and her nerves fizzling. But the pain was fading. And the Watcher was gone.
Peter and Cassandra had run off to West Six to save Anda from soldiers and Burning, and Ben had just now limped after them to help—the help of a damaged. She didn’t really remember when Ben had broken his leg, but she remembered his fever and her mother crying when no one was watching. Later, after Ben’s temperature had gone, his leg wouldn’t grow right. Her mother had told her that she had to take care of Ben and Anda now. She was the strong one. They both needed her like she needed them.
Like sunshine and shadow.
Outside, the grass shifted and rustled in the wind. Right now everyone she loved was either in or running to or limping towards West Six as it Burned, while she was sitting at breakfast. All she could think about was how much she wanted her mother, but her mother had been gone for almost ten years. She’d disappeared when the Watchers had come. Maybe that was somehow Mica’s fault too. Probably.
Mica realized her chest was burning. She was breathing shallow and too fast. She took a deep breath, her heart pounded, and adrenaline rushed through her veins as she realized with a sudden pulse of fear that they had left her alone.
She was alone.
Not alone. Shame materialized beside her, small and skinny and crouching, and pointed at her. This was all her fault. If she hadn’t stolen that communicator and set those fires, maybe the soldiers wouldn’t have come to destroy West Six. Shame slid closer. Perhaps if she hadn’t been so selfish and angry, then Anda would still be here, safe.
Voices yelling out in the field in the white.
Mica couldn’t catch what they were saying. She heard Ben and a strange voice.
Speaking. Yelling. Silence.
Morning sunlight streamed through the open door, and Mica stared in terror. Then she remembered Anda and flushed at the selfishness of her own thoughts. Here she was, scared to be alone when her sister was facing Watchers and Burning and…. nothing.
Mica couldn’t imagine an existence with no past or future. Sometimes she lay awake at night wondering what was left of someone after being Burned? What’s left of you after your memories and history and everything you are gets wiped away? Even without the Burn, memories are unreliable.
Her own memories change and shift right under her nose, as reminiscence and her light and nimble fingers work through her past and thoughts, deftly manipulating her yesterdays. Sometimes Mica even wondered if her own memories were true or just colored by emotion and light and the whims of reminiscence, that glimmering girl with bare and dusty feet.
Deep down Mica hoped that there was something left after the Burn, no matter how innocent and naive, but she didn’t know for sure. It must be so lonely to be Burned…
And now she was alone.
“Wait, don’t leave me!” she screamed, but her voice was hoarse. She got to her feet, swayed, then stepped for the sunshine to fight for her family.
A figure appeared in the doorway, white in the sunshine.
“Mica?” the figure asked.
She squinted into the light and struggled to recognize the voice, then she realized. Aaron. Cassandra’s friend from the other day—the one looking for Perseus. She wondered if he’d found him.
“What are you doing here?” she asked. The last time she had seen Aaron, he had stepped out alone into the night to journey to Windrose City still searching for Perseus.
“I came back to get Cassandra and to warn you. Loraine has sent soldiers to Burn West Six. I came as soon as I could.” He stepped inside out of the light, and closed the door behind him, shutting out the glittering wind. Then he turned and eyed her thoughtfully. “You look terrible.”
Mica stood up straighter, but it hurt. “Cassandra shocked me. A Watcher….”
Aaron blinked behind his glasses. “Huh. I have a transport out back. We’ll leave in thirty minutes.”
“Like hell we will. Not without the others,” Mica said. Aaron did not respond. “Leave and go where?” she asked despite herself.
“The White Mountains.”
Just like Cassandra had said. Normally, Mica would have thrilled at the thought of traveling to the White Mountains, but thoughts of Anda and flames and Burning distracted her. As she looked out the bright window, Mica silently prayed that Ben would reach Anda in time and that Peter would be safe.
She remembered the exact moment she fell in love with Peter. She and Anda had dragged Peter into the house while Ben limped along behind, directing them and ordering them not to drop him or get too much mud on the floor. They had dumped him onto the bench by the fire, unable to carry the bulky stranger any farther.
He wasn’t what she would call attractive. His face was too… sharp. His chin was too big, his cheekbones too prominent, his forehead broad and furrowed. But inky images, flames and eyes and foxes, poked out from under Peter’s collar and cuffs, and scars crossed his palms. It was as if he had held fire in his hands.
In the firelight, she rolled his sleeve up to see if he was hurt but found tattoos and scars instead of wounds. They were strong arms. That was the moment she loved him, this stone-faced man who didn’t need her to protect him. Maybe he would protect her. But now he was running with Cassandra into danger because she had been too stupid and careless and angry not to get caught.
While Cassandra was still a stranger to them, she had been a childhood friend of Peter’s, and Peter trusted her completely. While Mica had done her best to distrust this strange, young, cat-eyed woman with dark dreads, Peter’s total faith in her had sparked trust. But also sour jealousy.
Aaron had seated himself on the edge of a chair by the window and peered out through the yellow curtains ignoring her. Mica sank back down on the bench, relieved to have another presence in the house, and studied Aaron as discretely as possible.
He was not a large man, although he was tall. His gray-streaked hair was pulled back into a low braid, and his glasses glinted like water in the sunlight. She wondered how old he was. He moved like a young man, but his face was hard and lined, and yet too smooth. It was a face like water, shifting and rippling and changing. Mica watched Aaron watch the road, and together they waited silently.
As she sat, the pain inflicted by the shock lessened and faded. Mica wondered if her legs were strong enough to carry her to West Six and if she could help find Anda, but something kept her rooted to the bench.
Shame nudged her to go, her little fingers dirty and grasping. But something else kept its meaty hand on her shoulder holding her down. Mica did not move.
Aaron suddenly jumped to his feet, knocking his chair over and startling Mica. “Let’s go. Now. Out the back.” He strode towards the back door and grabbed Mica’s arm as he walked by, hauling her up off of the bench.
“Let go of me.” Mica twisted her arm out of his grasp. “We can’t leave—they’re not back yet.”
Aaron stopped and looked at her, his water-face smooth on the surface, but she could see the throbbing veins pulsing like currents. His eyes were large and gray and alert behind his glasses. Mica caught her breath as he stared down at her, standing close enough to feel his breath on her cheek.
“Soldiers,” he whispered. “We can’t wait, and we can’t take the transport. Outside. Into the woods, quick.”
“But they’re not back yet—we can’t leave them!” Mica said.
“Yes, you can.”
“You want to get Burned? Because if you stay here, you will be Burned.”
Mica opened her mouth to protest, but a low rumble caught her attention. Transports. A cold feeling settled in her stomach. Fear smiled, her red lips wide and parted over too-white teeth.
Aaron’s eyes widened behind his glasses. “Run!” He shoved her towards the back door, and Mica ran.
They ran down the porch and into the dry and shivering grass. Her limbs were still weak from her shock, but she ran. The scent of smoke and ash and blood drifted in on a slow breeze, and she ran towards the trees with terror, that white and hairless creature, shrieking and nipping at her heels.
They ran past the barn, past the little family graveyard with the seven unmarked gravestones. Mica ran for Aaron’s transport, but he pushed her towards the woods.
“Too late–they’ll hear the transport. Into the woods.”
So they plunged into the red and green woods and blue shadows. They tore through the underbrush and splashed through piles of leaves swirling in the wind like tongues of flame.
“No, this way!” Aaron said. His words barely registered through the veil of fear, but Mica sprinted after him through the trees.
They ran for miles through the forest and over barren fields without stopping. She blindly followed Aaron as they sprinted through the tree, over foreign meadows, and down strange paths. They ran until the landscape shifted under her feet, transforming to unfamiliar places that Mica had never been before.
Finally, Aaron slowed and stopped. He bent over his knees and struggled to breathe. Mica collapsed to the ground. Dirt and dead leaves and rocks bit into the palms of her hands. Pain shot through her limbs, hot and aching and seizing. The realization that she had left Ben and Anda and Peter behind welled up inside her.
In a heartbeat, shame was at her side, crouching on her haunches, looking up at her like a dog hearing a strange sound. Mica vomited into a pile of leaves. The gritty acid burned her throat and nose.
A hot and crackling feeling sparked in her chest. “We have to go back,” she said, wiping her mouth. She got to her feet and took a few weary steps back the way they had come, but realized that she did not know where she was.
They had run blindly for miles and miles without stopping, and the trees now stood in unfamiliar clusters and knots. It was like walking into a crowd and realizing the faces were all strangers, staring and sneering and gawking. Even the light sliced through the leaves in strange new directions and angles. Everything was unfamiliar. Shame peeped out from behind slender trees, a dark form with white eyes, her pale and dirty fingers clutching at the branches.
“Which way?” Mica asked.
“You can’t go back,” Aaron said. A bead of sweat dripped down his glasses.
“I left them behind.”
“You saved yourself. There was nothing you could have done for them.”
“I should have—”
“What, Mica? What were you going to do? How could you have helped them?” Aaron asked. He straightened up and stared at her. “Are you going to save West Six? Are you going to take on an army of soldiers with Burn darts and Watchers all on your own?”
Mica flushed under his gaze. “I could have done something.”
Shame nodded solemnly.
Aaron blinked at her. “No. You couldn’t have.”
She looked back into the sunny woods. Insects buzzed, and birds chirped like nothing in the world was wrong, but they were mistaken, everything was wrong, and nothing would ever be the same again.
Aaron extended his hand to her. “Mica, we have to go.”
She looked down at his hand. Sweat and dirt streaked his palm.
“But… I left them.”
“You couldn’t have saved them.”
But she knew that wasn’t true. She could have saved them by not striking the match that started this whole thing. If she hadn’t stolen and burned the soldiers’ supplies, then none of this would have happened.
That fiery feeling settled into her chest like a slow and steady burn, like something pulling her down and into herself, hollowing out her insides with heat and ash.
“Ben asked me to keep you safe, so that’s what I’m going to do,” Aaron said between deep breaths.
Mica shook her head and began walking. She didn’t know the way home, but she would find it.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“You can go to your city if you want, but I have to go back for them.”
“I don’t know your brother well. But I know he wanted you safe. And I know Peter would agree,” he called after her.
Mica stopped and blinked back tears. Strange trees and wild brambles blocked her way home. A warm light shimmered and flickered against the dying leaves, turning them red and brown and blazing gold. Their underbellies pale with shadows of faded color.
“Please, Mica. Come with me, for Ben and Anda’s sake. They must be remembered.”
“Remembering isn’t good enough.”
“You’ll never find them. You have to know that. They make sure you can
never find your Burner. Remembering them is all you can do right now. That and save yourself.”
Remembering wasn’t good enough, but she knew that he was right about one thing, she wouldn’t be able to find them, at least, not on her own. But the Unseen had found Peter.
The thought was like waking up to find that it had snowed overnight and seeing the world all white and clean and bright. The Unseen could find her Burned family. If she could just get to the Unseen, they would help her find her family.
Hope, a small woman with bright eyes and strong hands, nodded to her and pointed back towards Aaron and the distant mountains hidden beneath the horizon.
Mica gave a shuddering sigh, and something in her mind opened just a crack, barely anything to notice at all, but light streamed into her mind.
Then she allowed herself to be led down a new path into a strange wood, towards the sunset and the mountains and the Unseen.
But shame followed.