Price of Return
by Marsha Steed
The wind picked up to an angry gale and the rain spattered on
the tinted window panes. Adalia leaned back and heaved a heavy sigh.
The world seemingly was acting upon the turmoil and confusion within her.
All around lay the collections of a lifetime. They surrounded, burdened
and lifted her all at the same time. "Some things are best forgotten,"
she whispered to no one. The porch light from a single hanging
bulb sprinkled like fingertips against the glass, begging to enter, yet
She lifted one document to peer at. Her thumb caressed it,
as if the action could bring back the moment it recorded. "Adalia
Butterfield. In recognition of . . . "
It went on, as did the piles of other papers and certificates,
trophies and paper accolades from a life that seemed no more a part of
her than the rain that pressed on the window outside.
Her blue-grey eyes turned to the once familiar setting of the
old family homestead. Cracked plaster and peeling paint felt much
like she did in her childhood surroundings. Adalia felt like something
once glorious and worthwhile, yet now little more than the abject remains
of societal rejection.
The pounding on the door called her to attention and she turned
to stare at the sound. Her finger moved to the switch and the low
whirring sound urged her chair forward. She reached the door just
as the pounding died down. Footsteps could be heard retreating down
the stone steps. Adalia sighed, not even struggling with the door
knob this time. Her useless legs got in the way of the time worn
sofa, and caused her to stick rather uncomfortably in the small entry way
as she tried to maneuver back around.
"Blasted ugly couch anyway. I always disliked it.
Why didn't you get rid of this long ago?!" Her wails to the nonexistent
listener went unanswered. A sob clutched at her throat and she angrily
pressed it down with a curse. Putting the chair in reverse, she managed
to make it back to the piles of childhood and young adult memories.
With one angry sweep of her arm, most of it fell helter skelter into the
large wastebasket below. One small porcelain figurine went crashing
to the ground, splintering into a dozen pieces. The small head of
a lamb hit her lap with a slight thud. She picked it up, turning
the piece around as tears bristled in her eyes. Sticking out from
the decapitated neck was a slip of paper no wider than a finger.
Adalia pulled the scrolled slip out, dropping the last shard of
memory into the waste can. The head of the little lamb clattered against
the metal. The piece of paper was about two inches by four inches with
the most curious handwriting she had ever seen. Rows upon rows of
tiny scrolling characters covered the slip of paper till the spaces were
almost more legible than the ink.
"What on Earth?" The question came out voiced even with
no one around to answer it. She looked around the floor carefully
for any other bits of paper or other hints but found none. Smoothing out
the thin strip revealed that it was doubled and probably made of vellum
She had taken an ancient history class, and recognized the writing
style as historical, but somehow not a true representation. Something
mixed with a hieroglyphic pattern which almost seemed to be Egyptian in
Her own memories forgotten, and for the moment, even the hopelessness
that usually clung to her like mistletoe on a host, was nonexistent.
She inspected the paper more closely. Adalia tried to remember where
that particular figurine had come from, but it was difficult for that was
probably the trinket she had possessed the longest. All of her youth
and her childhood days back she could remember it watched over her.
The little dark-haired shepherd woman cradling a lamb. Now
the figurine was smashed; the base and the head of the lamb broken off
completely, the legs shattered in a hundred pieces.
Belian, where did you get this?" Once again speaking as if the dead
could answer her inquiry. "Mom always said you were the one with
wanderlust . . . moving from place to place and never setting down
any kind of roots."
She looked down at the paper again. With a confused shrug,
she refolded it, but the patterns it made required a second examination.
When the paper was folded, the letters of her uncle's name came into view
vertically down the seam. One half of each letter on each side of
the paper. Intrigued further, she turned the paper over, and the same phenomena
was evidenced on the other side, though the word was unfamiliar. -Nruter-
"Nruter? What is a nruter? Belian you are just a crazy
old man, making me wonder about all sorts of impractical things."
She began to crumple up the slip of paper, but couldn't bring herself to
actually do it. She put it instead in the front pocket of her handbag
and set about with somewhat heightened spirits as she went through the
earthly possessions of her home.
The sorting took exactly a week. As the last garage sale
shopper paid her his money and turned away, Adalia looked at what remained.
Considering what to do with it, she took a last look amongst the wares
and possessions of the two people she had loved more than life.
"No use thinking about that any longer. They are gone Addy;
they aren't coming back, girl. Get a grip on reality and do what
needs to be done."
The odd habit of talking to herself since her parents' death was becoming
second nature. She hardly even noticed it anymore. Ever since the
strange occurrences of a month ago . . . had it really been a month?
She had been feeling that there was something not only strange about her
parents' exit from this world, but something sinister as well. Until
now, she had been able to chalk it up to the effects of a grief stricken
and fevered mind. However, as things were being taken care of and
burdens laid to rest, she found the thought-filled impressions multiplied
instead of diminished and being put aside.
Adalia tucked the last few dollars into her pocketbook, and the
odd slip of paper fluttered toward the cement. She leaned down to
retrieve it from the center of an old Atlas that had been passed over by
the garage sale junkies. Her fingertips brushed along the paper.
A country name jumped off the page at her. If she wasn't a sane individual,
she would have sworn the words were audible. There it was, as big
as life. In the old yellowed atlas, in the city by the Nile, was
the word Nruter.
"My heavens . . . it is a real place!" She quickly grabbed
up the book and examined the map. As she did so, the page slipped
and she found that it was folded, much like the slip of paper. On
one side, was Ancient Egypt, and a city named Nrubeth and the other . .
. right here, her hometown of Morter, Idaho. The page falling
as it did, made the word Nru-ter.
"What sort of tomfoolery is this uncle? Half notes with
letters, now books with folded pages, are we in some odd Alice in Wonderland
mood here?" Slamming the book shut, she attempted to put it out of
The word continued to move through her thoughts as she cleaned
up and offered the remaining possessions to the Goodwill truck driver.
A chill went down her spine at the sight of the truck, and she winced at
the irony of it. In the brief moment that her eyes closed, she could
again see the ominous round headlights bearing down on her. She felt
again the helplessness of that moment right before the accident that had
eventually taken her parents, and her mobility.
"Is this all, Miss?" The ruddy faced man with the paunch
stopped laughing long enough to address her.
Adaila found herself a bit annoyed at his private joke and ended
up being a bit shorter with him than she intended.
"Yes, yes . . . now please be quick about it. The
house goes up for sell tomorrow and there is still much to be done."
Adalia was somewhat more brusque than she had intended and the driver quickly
went about his business. She felt his eyes on her from time to time
until he walked over to take the atlas. She put her hand on top of
his, startling him somewhat. Even that brief contact with another
human was somehow satisfying. Odd how quickly you can crave something
that once seemed so commonplace.
"I'm sorry Miss, you said everything. I thought you meant
the books too." He gave her a consternate expression, as if he was
trying to do his job as quickly as possible and to get out of there because
he had someplace to be. Probably a loving wife and family. Something
she longed for, but would certainly never have now. He seemed too
uncomfortable and the nervous laugh returned as he removed his hand.
She wondered when was the last time she was hugged . . . or when
was the last time anyone had even touched her at all ? Her body almost
ached for it, but she would never ask. Why was it that people always seemed
to offer an abundance of what you did not need?
"Oh yes, I did, just not this one please." With a sigh,
she hefted the book onto her lap and then raised it to the table.
On the small stand lay the atlas; the slip of paper with writing, a page
of hieroglyphics and the broken pieces of the shepherd woman she had gathered
up out of the garbage the day after they fell.
"Now what?" Adalia muttered to herself. She realized
that this was not going to go away. She had tried to cast it off
as only so much nonsense, but found that it only mulled over and over in
her mind like some great cement mixer, ever turning and yet never solidifying.
Her eyes fell on the statuette. The girl's face was intact, as was the
bottom of the figurine. Adalia lifted up the flat oval stand and
turned over in her hand. She was in luck at least here. There
was a maker's mark on the bottom. Clearly a circle with two vertical
lines running through. Then the signature ‘Abdimin Jerusiphat. ‘
She repeated the name aloud, running her finger over it.
"Well Mr. Jerusiphat, if you are amongst the living, what will
you tell me? If I can find you at all."
A dog barking from the neighbor's yard called her back from her
sleuthing. Feeling somewhat sheepish for her interest and how focused
she had been in the task, she closed the atlas with a snap and lay it back
on the makeshift table.
The driver of the ‘Goodwill' truck finished, shaking his head
slightly. She imagined his pity at the poor crippled woman who sat
amidst the remains of a lifetime of collecting, muttering to herself.
"You have a good day there." He waved to her hurriedly,
got in the truck and drove away. Adalia looked up at the start of
the engine, just catching his wave, almost surprised to see he was still
around. She set down the bit of broken glass and picked up the slip
of paper once again as the truck disappeared.
"Why am I even bothering? It isn't as if this is going to
bring me some great treasure or restore what is lost. I am a fool's
fool, that is for certain. Then again, it isn't as if I have anything else
that requires my time and attention."
With a shrug, she looked back to the writing. Unfolding
the paper, she tried something else. Turning the fold back the other
way against itself, she looked at the combination of shapes to see if more
clues were imbedded into the text. Sure enough, written longways
down the seam were the combinations of letters that were easily distinguishable.
"Bureau Ribbon?" What was that supposed to mean? There
was an ancient Bureau in Uncle Belian's old room, but it didn't have any
sort of ribbons attached. This was getting worse the more she found
out. Anxious to find out more, she tried refolding the slip of paper
different ways, but to no avail. Unless the lettering meant something
independent of that on the opposite side, there was nothing else the rolled
paper had to offer her. She lay it carefully beside the first piece.
Drawing her hand over the atlas, she noticed that one of the tiny rivers
was labeled Ribonia. She kept that as obscure information that could
be important, or completely frivolous.
The next morning dawned cool and crisp. Adalia was glad
that the whole mess was almost at a conclusion. The phones and electricity
were to be turned off today, and the buyers to take possession tomorrow.
She had a cleaning service, the movers and a yard service scheduled for
later in the afternoon. As she lay in the bed she had slept
in as a child, the memories tumbled out as a last ditch effort to purge
her past. She remembered lying there many times thinking about her
life, and planning for the millions her talented legs would bring her.
Ever since she could remember, running had been a part of her. The
hair flying out behind her; that was, until she decided it weighed her
down and she cut it short. The wind that blew against her face, and
made her feel more alive than even eating or speaking.
Then all the trophies, the medals, the accolades and the thrill
of being the first. The first to touch that red ribbon across her
chest. The first to hear the cheers of the crowd and reach a new
"Oh stop it!" She angrily smacked the pillow, as if the
action would shoo the thoughts out of her head and make the pain go away.
"I guess I simply need to get away from here. Close this chapter
and start anew, with new players and new scenery."
She struggled out of bed, hating this part of the day more than
any other. The loss of the use of her legs had changed every single
part of her life. Nothing remained the same. She pulled over
the chair with the device her one remaining friend had conjured up from
his engineering mind. It was a hook that was attatched to her bed,
and with the press of a button, extended out towards anything that she
set it in the direction of. It had enough strenght to pull her chair,
or the dexdeity to clasp a book.
The morning ritual took well over two hours every day. Getting
up, cleaning her teeth and dressing; making herself something to eat and
even making her bed were all things that she was often grateful for, but
unfortunately all the more often, things she took for granted. It
was difficult, and exhausting, but she was grateful for small miracles.
Her association with Gregory made it possible for her to at least function
by herself. His gadgets and ideas were time consuming, but they at
least enabled her to do what she could not otherwise. The long stick,
that worked almost like a second pair of hands, allowed her to even tie
her own shoe laces.
After she was dressed and had eaten something, she made a checklist
of what the hours had in store for her. The day went fairly much
according to plan, until the cleaning service showed up. The tall
thin man kept complaining about a place in the carpet that wouldn't lay
straight. Finally exasperated, she went in to investigate.
It was the spare bedroom and the large bureau had been taken from it and
placed into the moving truck. For the first time in probably fifteen
years, the carpet was exposed. It was an entirely different color than
the rest of the room. The hollow-eyed man kept tugging and
tucking, but it simply would not seem to lay straight. Finally she
suggested that they pull it up, as it looked awful anyway.
Under the carpet, it was easy to see the difficulty. The
floorboards were uneven just where the bureau had rested. Three
were crossways, but the other two were different widths altogether and
lay the opposite direction. The carpet man looked at her strangely
and then shrugged. "You can't leave it this way, miss, unless you
would care for me to adjust it."
"Fine, whatever you need to do." Adalia was getting less
and less patient with all the things that seemed to continue to go wrong.
The man pried open the two planks and looked down. Instead of concrete,
there was a black space that extended under the house. His eyes returned
to her, and they seemed as empty and passionless as the hole he had uncovered.
"Miss, if I am going to fix this, I'm going to need some supplies,
and it's going to cost you more than the original estimate."
"I don't care. Just, please, do what you need to do." Adalia
waved her hand dismissively. The repairman left her sitting there
to contemplate the mess. Addy noticed he had a slight limp when he
walked and his shoulders sagged in abject hopelessness.
She rolled her chair forward to see better, but was dissatisfied.
She leaned over the hole and thought that she could see something further
down. Reaching did no good, and she looked around for something to
help her. The carpet stretcher bar was on the other side of the hole.
She rolled over to snatch it, closing her fingers around the handle.
Poking it into the blackness, she felt a tug as if it had caught on something.
Nudging her way closer, she peered downwards. A slight glimmer was
the only thing visible. She pulled back on the bar, but found it
impossibly lodged in or under something. With her strength, she yanked,
but instead of it coming free, she found herself toppling headlong into
the three feet wide hole.
It seemed that she had only blinked, and yet the next moment
found her looking very close into the face of a tall, dark skinned man.
His hair was hidden by the rather stiff material that draped over his forehead
and shoulders. His chest was bare, save three gold chains in graduating
length, that swayed just barely above her chin. She blinked several
times to clear her eyes and regain her sanity, but found that nothing changed.
"Who are you?" Her voice startled even herself. The
man drew quickly back, motioning to a companion. "Good grief, this
is like some bad movie. What's going on?" She attempted to
rise, but found her head thudding dully and her body feeling like a lead
weight had been attached to each limb. She could feel the fear and
confusion grasping vice-like at her throat already, she struggled not to
Addy distracted herself by watching the figure before her.
The man had deliciously dark features, black sparkling eyes and a strong
square chin. He returned to her, slipping a makeshift pillow of folded
clothing under her head with one hand, as the other pressed a finger against
her lips, urging her to (be) quiet. His manner was almost tender
and she shivered, though she was not cold. His touch at once tantalized
and made her uneasy.
"I'll not be quiet, until you tell me where I am, and how I got
here and who you are." Adalia muttered against the finger that did
not move away. Lifting her arm, she attempted to bat it from her.
He didn't seem threatening, exactly, but she was certain that this man
knew what he wanted, and how to obtain it. The companion, a much
shorter and more wiry fellow, moved around doing goodness knows what.
He seemed quite intent upon doing whatever it was, his head only appearing
within her view from time to time when he muttered something incoherent
to the first man. The taller of the two, (-,) kept his finger
pressed to her lips until the urge to bite him began to drift into her
Her knee itched mercilessly, and she started to sit up to scratch
it. Suddenly a wave of consciousness came over her. Her knee
itched! That meant she could feel it. Whatever had happened,
she wasn't at all sure she wanted to know. The only thing that mattered
now was to find out exactly what that meant. Could she use her legs?
No, the thought seemed too cruel to even imagine. The man refused
to allow her to sit up. Her arms and legs felt weighted, but sure
as she was alive . . . which she wasn't entirely sure at this point
. . . she could feel the tingle of an itch in her knee.
She had heard of odd occurrences like this, missing limbs itching,
or hurting, yet she had always written it off as only so much sensationalism.
When it was you, it seemed a great deal more important however, and completely
within the scope of reality. After she had lain quiet for some few minutes,
she lost patience and was just about to push away the hand from her to
see about getting away from here. The man removed the gentle pressure
from her just then, and moved away. She heard the click of a door
or something, and the room went silent.
Moving only her eyes at first, unsure of what to do, Adalia looked
all around herself. This was like some surealistic painting, at any
moment, she expected to awaken slumped in her chair, waiting for the return
of the carpet man. The ceiling, for she was in some sort of
room or enclosure, was high and stark white. There were variations
in the wood that made patterns of squares and rectangles intertwined with
triangles radiating outward from four points. Hearing nothing, she
attempted once more to sit up. She was covered with a heavy blanket
that seemed to be made of a rough linen. The patterns on it were
colored in rich dyes, magenta and ecru with hints of gold here and there
almost playfully darting haphazardly through the weave.
When she sat up a gasp escaped her immediately. Instead
of being in a room all alone, as she had thought after it went silent,
there were at least ten others in a circle around her. All of them
were dark skinned with painted eyes that watched every movement as if she
was a lab rat. She could not decipher if they were male or female.
It seemed that they were paper-dolls, all connected at the wrist and toes,
staring straight at her. For a moment she wondered if they were alive
at all, so still and silent did they remain. Their attire was identical
from one to the next. Bare-armed and from the thigh down, a short
paneled skirt-like bit of apparel ended at the waist. From there
upwards was a thick collar made from rows and rows of colored beads.
The midriff's (-') were bared and she doubted if anything beside
flesh lay beneath the long collar. It extended to the end of their
rib cages, laying against their chests.
Adalia only then noticed her own clothing. Gone were the
blue jeans and the soft cotton T-shirt. She was covered in the same
beaded thing that made a hollow sound when she moved. The door opened
with a second click, and her eyes were quickly captive there. Into
the room moved the most singularly interesting sight she believed she had
ever witnessed. Every one of the paper-doll people fell instantly
to their knees as one. The door frame was filled with the largest
man she had ever seen. His girth could have easily made three of
her own. His head scraped the door post even as he ducked.
The skin was darker than any of the others, a rich chocolate brown that
seemed to have come from baking in the sun daily for a hundred years.
He wore no expression on his face other than a slightly arched eyebrow.
She could see after a moment the arch was due to a battle scar that ran
the length of his eye and along his nose, giving it a pointed appearance.
Behind the Rhinoceros man was the first man she had seen leaning
over her. His expression was the same as she recalled, peaceful and
full of answers that she didn't even think she knew the questions for.
One of this odd pair stood on either side of her. The large man at
her feet, and the familiar one at her head. A small woman next walked
through the door. For the ceremony of it, she was expecting far more,
but she was only disappointed for a hair's breadth, before she recognized
the figure before her. The hair was long and dark, and in her arms
was a tiny lamp. The same robin's egg blue robe wound around the
woman and she felt as if she was a friend, beloved and dear and familiar.
Her mouth gaped open as she looked at the embodiment of the very
same shepherdess that had overseen her sleep for all of her childhood.
This one, in living color.
"Hello my dear, you seem to have awakened." The voice of the woman
as she calmly petted the fur of the lamb, was stirring and would have been,
even under mundane circumstances. "I see you have found Nruter."
Adalia blinked, "Nruter? What are you talking about? Who
are you? How did I get here and what am I doing here!?" The questions flooded
out as if the woman's speaking had given her permission to voice all that
her thoughts had been processing.
"Now, now Adalia, you needn't get into a tizzy about it.
I assure you everything is quite as it should be. Belian said that
you would be following him shortly." The woman smiled a matronly
smile. Her hand continued to lull and pet the wool of the tiny lamb
in her arms.
"Uncle Belian? He's been dead for fifteen years! I don't
understand any of this." She put her face in her hands, shaking her
head in confusion.
A soft laugh met her from the woman, then the other two men joined
and next the ten seemed to come to animation, adding their voices to the
sound. Each head had black hair lying against their scalp curled
under around their jaw on each side, with the remaining locks pulled severely
back in a tail against their necks that bobbed as they laughed. They
all seemed to be having quite a time at her expense.
"It isn't funny. When do I get answers?" Adalia was
bordering on hysteria as her senses moved into overload. She gathered
up the blanket in her fists, pulling her knees up into a ball. The
laughter faded and stopped as she buried her face in her knees.
"Oh my heavens!" Adalia exclaimed as her hands moved over
her legs, and she kicked off the covering. Her feet were bare, and
she . . . she could feel them. Her hands moved over and over
her legs, savoring each sensation from the ankles to the knees all the
way up to her thighs. They moved and kicked and felt. She was
giddy with joy. Swinging them over the edge of the table, she jumped
off. No one moved to stop her; in fact they all seemed to be
some odd audience in a theater in the round. Taking first one step and
then another, she made herself walk around the flat cot she had been laying
"I can walk. I can walk!" She threw her arms around
the large man impulsively, before anyone thought to stop her. As
she touched him, his flesh seemed to sear and to age. Wrinkles appeared
in the circular pattern of her embrace. The entire front of his body,
where she had made contact, grew loose and flabby, much like it had aged
years with the contact. Too much was happening at once.
The ten began to murmur in a low humming sound and her head began to spin.
The familiar man suddenly put his arms around her, keeping her from touching
anyone else. His embrace was strong and insistent though not painful.
He lifted her up as if she was a doll, onto the cot. Black eyes looked
at her, instructing without a word that she should not venture from the
cot again at present.
"What have I done?" Adalia whispered and looked around to
each face, searching for one with an answer to anything. All she
was met with were blank stares, until she looked into the eyes of the large
man she had touched. Excruciating pain registered in his eyes like
a dying man who seeks the comfort of the living. He stumbled backwards,
reaching out for anything to break his fall. The circle of ten parted
and his great hulking body collapsed into a heap of shuddering flesh.
"Sometimes the price is high, Adalia, for what you wish."
The Shepherdess spoke quietly, but with an authority born of her evident
position in this strange place. Even though Addy didn't know the
man, a tear choked her at the sorrow of being the cause of what she had
seen in his eyes.
"What price, what is this place?" Addy looked at the shepherdess
with tears streaming down her cheeks. She hadn't even noticed she
was crying until the voice that came from her was choked with sobs for
someone she didn't even know.
"You wished for your past back; that was not possible. However
another life is. Welcome to Nruter, Adalia. Here you have the
chance to do what you feel you have missed the opportunity of doing.
There is a race tomorrow. Abdimin will train you. However,
as you witnessed," she motioned then to the huge corpse as if he was merely
an inconvenience. ". . . if you touch anyone, they will instantly revert
to their chronological age. If that is beyond their mortal capabilities,
they will die."
She was so matter-of-fact. How could anyone dismiss such
a tragedy with a wave of a hand, and a simple statement of ‘they will die'?
What sort of place was this? No matter Addy thought, I will run again.
She wasn't altogether sure this wasn't a dream, so she determined to enjoy
it to the fullest, figuring that it would all be simply a vague memory
when she awoke.
"Abdimin, take the lady to her chambers. Away, all of you!"
The woman waved her hand and the ten figures scattered like ants.
Several of them hoisted up the body and carried it out with them through
a large door.
The dark-eyed man lifted Addy up in his arms and turned from the
chambers. He still had not made a sound, but she could feel the warmth
of his body against her and hear the beating of his heart in the silence
of the corridors as they walked. When they had reached a fork in
the hallway, he turned to the right and a servant opened a heavy looking
metal door. He brought her into the room and set her on her feet.
Addy looked around her surroundings briefly, too fascinated by this dark
man to consider them yet. She wanted some answers, and he seemed
to be the only one who was somewhat normal, except for the fact that he
"Can you talk?" She inquired curiously as he stood before
her, unmoving. He seemed to have no intention of leaving.
"Of course I can speak. As you were informed, I am Abdimin
Jerusiphat. I am to be your companion and trainer, Adalia.
This may be a strange place for you, but you are not without assistance.
There is to be a race on the morrow. We have all of the day to ready
for it. If you win, the prizes are great. If you fail . . .
" His voice trailed off as he turned and began getting out some weights
and bottles of some sort.
"No, wait, you said if I fail . . . If I fail . . . What?"
Addy wasn't content to have her answers nebulous. He turned slowly,
his eyes piercing her own. The words were offered simply, as everything
around her seemed to be taken for emotionless fact.
"We will both die." (who's making the rules in this place,
She blinked and looked at him incredulously. "We‘ll die?
This race is that important?"
"Of course it is. It is the race for your life, Adalia.
Perhaps I should explain."
"Yes, perhaps you should!" Addy stood stubbornly, refusing
to go any further until she had some inkling of what was happening to her.
Dream or not, she did not want to go into this blindly.
"Your uncle, Belian Butterfield, came to us through much the same
fashion as you did. When he asked for what he could not find in your
world, he was given it . . ." Abdimin gestured to the room around them.
". . . here. However, as Lothira said, everything has its price."
He continued, "It is a very long and involved story, Adalia, and
you have much work to do before tomorrow. We will speak later."
His tone was dismissive, and left her without even the hope of continuance.
She sighed and nodded resolutely, intending fully to find out everything
and more, before she stepped foot into a race track, promise or no.
The next few hours were filled with all the things she remembered.
The training was different from what she was used to, but Abdimin seemed
quite suited to his task, and adept at the workings of muscles and joints.
Addy was amazed that her legs seemed to be as strong as ever, as if the
truck that had hit their car and taken both her parents and her future
had never even crossed her path.
Abdimin made her sweat and lift weights, stretch and sprint over
and over until she thought she would drop from exhaustion. He seemed
just as intent on her success as she was, and it was no wonder, she mused,
if what he had said about both their lives being at stake was true.
Sweat dripped from her body as she stood, with her palms on her thighs,
bent over the smooth sand track for the tenth time in an hour. She
panted as her whole body tingled, trying to regain a bit of strength for
the next lap that Abdimin demanded.
"Come now, there shall be time for rest later. Two more
and we will clean up for the meal." Strong hands were on her shoulders,
massaging out the kinks and strains that screamed for rest. She was
too out of breath to answer, and merely shook her head. She could
not fathom where she would get the energy to even walk to the building,
let alone run one more lap around the great oval track.
"Please, can't we finish later? I'm exhausted!"
"Sometime the price is high for what we want, " Abdimin spoke
softly in her ear, his voice tickling both her flesh and her senses.
His thumb grazed along her cheek, and she felt a tightening in the root
of her belly.
Adalia moved away from him then. He reached out and closed
his fingers around her upper arm. She looked to the restraint and
then back to him. "What do you want of me?"
"Only what you want of yourself. Nothing more, but nothing
less." Abdimin let go and turned abruptly away. He walked back
to the large marble building as his sandaled feet made prints in the sand.
Addy turned around to look about her. She had hardly noticed
anything that wasn't directly related to her training in the last six hours.
Now she took the moment's peace to cast her eyes about. It was a
beautiful place. Rich earth colors were everywhere. The sun
was just beginning to descend, casting a coral glow over everything.
Seated in the stands was the figure of a man. He was dressed similarly
to the others that wandered in and out of her view, but somehow struck
a different chord in her. He seemed to be watching the whole scene
between her and Abdimin. Addy walked toward him.
The man shook back some of the long hair that hung on either side
of his face, and smiled at her.
"Belian? Uncle Belian? I don't . . ."
He smiled and stood up. Taking her hands within his own
for a brief squeeze and then a release. "Yes Addy, it's me.
I'm . . . I'm sorry."
She reached out to take him into her embrace, her fingers extended
as she longed for the human contact of a family member. His hand
quickly came up to stop her, and a soft shake of his head reminded her
what may happen if she selfishly filled her own needs at the expense of
"You are sorry? Sorry for what? That you're alive?
What happened? I don't understand any of this!" Addy recoiled,
and crossed her aching arms over her own breasts to keep them from reaching
out to him again.
"No, I suppose you wouldn't understand this place. Have
you enjoyed your stay so far? It is a beautiful place, isn't it?
Nruter has a hundred, no, a thousand gifts for you, Addy, for me, for anyone
daring enough to seek the best in themselves. Have you been to the
river yet? Ribonia is amazing. It is as if you could
see every fear within her waters, and yet you are not afraid. I simply
must take you there."
"That is all well and good Uncle B, but what I want to know is
how long I'll be here, and what exactly I am supposed to be doing!
Abdimin said that if I don't beat my best time ever . . . He and
I will both die. It makes no sense." Her eyes implored her
uncle's for enlightenment.
"Well, you see, not all worlds are chronological. Here,
you move forward only in the ability you have to progress in a talent or
intelligence. If you go backwards, lose ground, you die. It
is a very different place Addy. Where progression and winning aren't
merely goals, but everything. You see, if you do not beat your best
time ever tomorrow, you will die. That is the end of things.
There is no such thing as failure here. No second chances beyond
the one you are given upon entrance. You can prove yourself . . .
but you only get one shot. Each day, each hour, you have to surpass
your last accomplishment. If you are not learning, you are
going backwards. There is no standing still."
Adalia looked at her uncle, wide-eyed at what she was hearing.
Her anxiety rose as she considered the weight of his words. "What
about you? What are you accomplishing? How can you stay here?"
Belian Butterfield looked at his niece. He opened his mouth
to speak, but Abdimin appeared at her elbow just then. Cupping it,
he urged her towards the building. She looked back over her shoulder
in protest, but Abdimin would have none of it. He propelled her forward,
letting the information gleaned simmer in her potpourri of information.