The Centre: 1940’s

Catherine stared ahead at two people sitting down. Two grown women. They looked identical. She felt a connection to both of them. Was that her grandparent?

“Hello,” she and one of the woman said at the same time. “My name’s Catherine.”

“Excellent. Good job,” the doctor observed them said. “I am going to hold a card up-”

“Five stars.” All three of them already knew.

Catherine stared at the two women again. To one, she felt more distant, while to the other? She felt. Like she was watching some future of herself. She reached out to her.

“Don’t touch her, Cathy,” the woman said. “She’s dirty. She’s not real.”

Not real? The young Catherine didn’t understand. She could feel, eat, taste and smell. She had affection for others. Why was she not real?

Catherine looked at all of the counterpart children around her. There were four more, staring at her in just the same way. Like they were all mirrors of her. “Hello,” they all said at the same time. “My name’s Catherine.” They each pursed their mouth slightly, then they each held up their hands and waved at each other. Then they all looked out toward a window at a man making notes uttering ‘brilliant’.

Catherine didn’t see it as brilliant. She smiled, as they all did, and they all spoke again.

“Catherine 1, when I give the word, I want everything that is blue that you can think of. Catherine 2, I want the same thing except with the color red. Catherine 3, the same thing except with purple. Catherine 5, the same thing except with yellow.”

Oh. Catherine could think of some things. The sky. Water.

Blueberries.

She heard that. She smiled at the Catherine that somehow shared that. That Catherine had the color red, so she would help her too. Roses. As they went, each of them seemed to share with each other their thoughts and ideas without ever uttering a word. By the time the doctor asked for the objects, they each had over fifty in a space of thirty seconds, each rattling off their lists.

“Big lists.” The doctor wrote down information. “Did you . . . find a way to exchange information among your . . . kind?” They all shook their heads. “Brilliant. It really was passed along.”

Catherine struggled as she was taken to medical. They told her that she had grown up enough to leave The Centre, but The Centre was her home! The doctor took care of her and her soul sisters. Not sisters, but clones, and so closely bonded that soul sisters seemed to fit. She didn’t want to forget them. She didn’t want to leave!

1962

Catherine approached her soul sister. Although forced to forget each other, when she had cried out in the largest anguish any of them had ever felt, they had all reconnected through her emotion. Her soul sister was in a terrible state. Her husband was now gone at work. She approached her, playing with her child. Only she was not her child. She reached for her to hug her. “We are all here. Together, we will all get through this.” It wasn’t needed to say out loud but it sounded even more reassuring.

For at birth, Catherine had lost her son to The Centre’s ways at birth, but even worse. Her second child was now gone. The little toddler girl strolling around fell slightly. “What have you called her?”

“Miss Parker. I will call any of them Miss Parker. It’s fitting.” She hugged her tighter. “We had Catherine’s name. Everyone needs a name, and any they make will be my child. I don’t know how to get out. I can’t believe I was drawn back. I can’t leave.”

“I know.”

“They have my daughters. They are still my daughters. I can’t leave without them.”

“I know.” Of course they were. They understood that connection better than anyone. “We will help you. As long as a Catherine is here, that’s all they will know. We will share the physical burden. No matter what.”

1971

Each Catherine held each other, mourning the loss of the feeling. They would never be the same. They had been tricked into being helped by Raines, and one of the Catherine’s died giving birth. At least, that is what they had to assume for the one who died could no longer be in their shared memories. She could have been killed too. It was risky to assume either way.

The one who had birthed the original Miss Parker needed the most help to keep it together. To her, it should have been her fate. Each Catherine had shared the duty of taking place over the other at The Centre, so that responsibilities could be taken to rescue the children. Those kidnapped by The Centre. Those made by The Centre.

Now there was no way, the current Centre Insider Catherine was dead, and Raines was aware of their schemes. To go after the child would put all the others in danger. This was not a simple task to undergo, it was simply too much for them. They did comfort the new baby as they could, with their own connections to him.

But there was nothing more they could do. The daughters would have to stay in The Centre, to corrupt the plan would send every one of them into danger. They could not risk a rescue of more than 200 lives safely.

They would keep an eye out for each other, and an eye out for their children. But they would never interact.”

Back to 2002

“Unless it became so bad,” Catherine admitted. “So bad, that we didn’t have a choice.” She looked straight at Jarod. “Inner sense Pretender clones. They’ve achieved each separately, but never together. This is their goal, and now that one of mine has got in their way. I am afraid all of my daughters are in danger.”

Jarod stared at Catherine for a time as she had explained. “This is bad.” They needed computer access right away. “Sydney, contact Broots again. Make sure he isn’t doing anything stupid.” Jarod had to think.

Miss Parker’s clones were all in the average range of intelligence. Average testing could be performed. But Pretenders? Experimenting was risking genius. The Centre most likely kept the PK’s safer after what happened with Gemini. It had taken so long to get Gemini though. If Miss Parker’s cloning had been perfected.

There was probably more than one of him out there too. It was likely that a clone or two might be next to hers. Cluelessly being studied still too. He rubbed his face.

“Jarod.” He watched Sydney come back toward him. “Broots was called in at five this morning. He said they had multiple ideas of where she had been kidnapped too.”

“Kidnapped?”

“Yes. The Centre put out the word you kidnapped the children and her,” Sydney stated. “So that a standard search and rescue Centre process would begin.”

Jarod felt himself sinking. “No.”

“Yes. Broots put in all the data.” Sydney rubbed his forehead. “All 234 locations. He says he sent what information he could. I need to get computer access.”

“What?!” That many? Jarod went back toward Catherine. “You only had five, how many clones of your daughter are there?”

“Oh, I was early work for The Centre,” Catherine reminded Jarod. “Very early. While the world was discovering computers, The Centre had already gone so much further, and I’m sorry.” She nodded toward him. “I tried. I tried to act like I didn’t know, but at the same time, I tried to stop the Gemini Projects.”

“You?” Jarod asked while Sydney went inside to use the computer. “Or another Catherine that you connected with?”

She almost glared at him. “What she felt, I felt. What she knew, I knew. When one of us died, we all felt the loss, rushing through us! What we experience is no different. Don’t talk to me like I’m an imposter. I was there, at The Centre. Yes, physically too. We all were.”

Jarod didn’t know what to say to that. “234?”

“They perfected it as well as they could so as not to waste as much with the next goal. The Gemini Project,” she reminded him. “I’m afraid the clone you found is only one of you. But you already guessed that, didn’t you?”

It made sense. At least it wasn’t hundreds.”They are right next to the clones of Parker, aren’t they?”

“It would save observation space.”

“How many of me?” Jarod asked.

“I think they had plans for five successes, but to say they are you is a stretch. I believe they were chimeras. Considering how close they kept Gemini, he is probably your only true clone.” She shrugged. “Either way after they lost him, those out in the field can’t be recollected as easily. They weren’t groomed in the same way. They didn’t want them groomed, they wanted to see them raised in different ways too. You . . . are different than us. Than the Catherine’s and the Misses. You stayed separate from their minds. There was no twinning they were cloned from?”

“Wait,” Sydney stopped her as he came out with a piece of paper. “Are you saying these pretender children all have twins?”

“Yes, and The Centre has already called them in,” she confirmed.

Hundreds of those pretender kids. They were coming. “Hundreds of pretender children.”

“Considering the technology advancement of the normal world outside The Centre, I am guessing more in the thousands,” Catherine corrected him. “Designed to think together, just like Centre twins. It doesn’t matter still though, you want to know where the Miss Parkers are that you knew? Physically? Don’t you?”

“There are 234.” Jarod didn’t want to say it that way. “Did they die and get replaced?” He had to know. Did every Miss Parker he really know, just . . .

“No, no. The ones that were the right ages would get ‘called in’, and then sent back,” Catherine said. “Watching them grow, progress, go through different events, have children, study their children, study addictions that sprang up, feelings that sprang up, it was worth all the data to The Centre.”

“I’ll save everyone I can,” Jarod said. “Rene?”

“She knows what she’s doing now and what’s at stake. You can let her go. She might not have the memories of Miss Parker, but she is still essentially trained to be Miss Parker. She will take care of her family. We need to help others, if we can. Not only that, we need to help Maggie.”

Maggie? “Who’s Maggie, is she another clone of Parker?”

“No. She’s a clone of Catherine Parker’s sister,” she admitted. “We are close to her. She is the mother of the PK’s. She is in an instituation, under Centre control.”

Great, another person to help. “I will do what I can.” He already had way more than he could take care of, he knew that.

“I have the list,” Sydney said coming toward Jarod. “Broots could only stay on for so long to type. Lyle is hanging around him mostly, he gave me what he could.”

Jarod looked at the list. Hundreds of different names. Different places. Which one did he grow up with? Which one was on the island? Which one did he give the flu too? “All over the country.” He could get some. “My dad could try to help.” But he doubted it would be all.

“A good idea,” Sydney agreed. “I’ll try and get in touch with Broots again.”

“Sydney.” Maybe it did offend that Catherine but he’d say it anyhow. “Find her.”

“Too many hers.” He heard the stigma in ‘Catherine’s’ voice. “Is Rene not her? Weren’t you shocked with how much time you spent with her, not knowing she was not her?”

“Whose physical body was at The Centre as your daughter?” Sydney said it for Jarod.

“Many,” she said again. “They liked bringing them in and out, to see if the adaption to the main role was completely accepted. Especially as children.” She covered her bottom lip with her top lightly.

“Who had the ruptured ulcer?” Jarod asked more clearly. Moving into physical ailments.

Catherine took a deep breath. “I don’t know. I love 234 people, but I don’t know who was who and where at what time.”

Jarod shook his finger at her. “But you are confident you need to save Maggie.”

“She connects with my daughters,” Catherine admitted. “I hate to say it, but? The. The reasons they are going after them, it may be less of just the kids. Their minds. She is changing that connection, making them a burden to The Centre.” She breathed deeply. “She is sacrificing them to give her children time to escape The Centre.”

What? “You want to me concentrate on saving a woman, who is making everyone lose their cover?” Now it made sense. Rene was fine as Miss Parker, but then she started to become like Rene Grossberg. She wanted her old life back before becoming Rene Grossberg. Interference in however they worked.”

“She had her children taken,” Catherine said again. “She isn’t all there. She’s been trapped for years by The Centre. You need to save her eventually, she’ll know more. You’ll need her access later on. Don’t forget her.”

“I don’t buy this, this isn’t right! Miss Parker cried for you all the time, and you were never there! No one heard her cries. No one soothed her. You soothed Ethan but not her? Not her, not Rene, not any of your so-called daughters, but the sister who is responsible for all of this? Oh don’t leave her behind!” Jarod was angry, he was seeing right through to her. This was not the clone that had Miss Parker. This was just the nearest one to intercept. She cared more about keeping this Maggie safe than any of the Parkers.

She traveled all that way, for this Maggie. Not Parker.

“Jarod, there were four Miss Parker’s at The Centre during the time of chasing you,” Sydney said toward him. He was on the phone again, getting more details. Broots was looking into it as deep as he could. All things even, they wanted to save the women they knew. Everyone deserved to be saved, but if there was only certain options. If everything was even. They wanted to make sure Miss Parker was saved.

Good. “Four.” Okay, it was a start. “Name and location?” Jarod asked.

“To go after them, even if they are far away?” Catherine responded. “Will you honestly play favorites?”

“Oh, I honestly will!” Jarod was getting tired of it. “I don’t really know if you yourself were at The Centre taking turns as Catherine. I don’t know who the woman was that I talked to personally last night like Parker! And I don’t know how connected everyone is, but I do know, that I am going to rescue the women I knew all those years as Miss Parker!” That was a damn fact. “Name and locations, Sydney!”

“Then you forsake any of the young dears you could have saved around here,” Catherine reminded him. “The young dears at school? All the Little Misses, still so innocent out there?”

“Rene Grossberg of course,” Sydney said to Jarod, “she was changed to her right after the incident with Mister Parker and the Scrolls. The note Broots found said the other was having a mental break as Parker and should take time off.”

Mental break. More like coming to terms with her soul after that time together with him. “She always wore the world on her shoulders.” How she ever survived. Not alone.

“Jarod.” Sydney laid his hand on his shoulder. “I know this is difficult. For now, let’s just focus on what’s important. The Centre may be snatching or perhaps eliminating these women that are clones of Miss Parker. I don’t know what they will choose or do. We should do what we can and not waste time, but all things even, we should grab the Miss Parkers we know.”

“And Maggie,” Catherine added.

Jarod glared at her, trying to keep his feelings in check. “Address of where Maggie is, Sydney can watch over it.” Maggie was safe inside of a building, Sydney could watch people come in and out. Most likely since she wasn’t even Miss Parker, she would stay safe. “I’ll have my dad and Gemini help. Wherever they are right now, they can get the closest ones to them.” Jarod tried to think logically with his mind instead of just his heart too. “Catherine said they were all capable of defending themselves, so let’s concentrate on the younger versions a little more.”

They couldn’t save them all. There was no chance they could.

But they would save who they could from whatever fate The Centre was planning.

And Jarod sure as hell was saving the Miss Parkers he knew. “Keep your eyes open on Rene too.”

He just hoped The Centre wasn’t moving too fast. If it was set for a quick elimination with a reward? Fast. Efficient. Enticing.

Even trying to save just one . . .

It Begins . . .
———————
Fran checked her fare. She waited for the next person to come in. “Where-”
—————-
“Seriously? You just called me for dinner!” Clarissa whined. Her parents were interrupting her game again. At least it was only one more year of high school and-
———————
“Whoah there, that is not how much I pay for groceries,” Jillian complained as she looked at her grocery ticket. “What is this, highway robbery? What in my groceries cost-”
———————–
Florence stared at her wallet as she waited for her friends to arrive. Hopefully none of them asked for extra money. She heard the man yell ‘tickets’ and she went up to the ticket man. “Three for-”
—————————–
Seattle, Washington

“Hi there,” Mabel welcomed the teenagers coming to her Ice Cream Truck. “What would you like?” They didn’t look happy. “What is it?”

“Where’s the sexy one with the legs?” One of them asked. “The hot one’s always working at this time. Not you.”

Oh. Her nose wrinkled only a minute. “Not everyone is gifted with Kimberly Davis’ looks.”

“Yeah, you’re telling me. One snowcone, Tigers Blood.”

Oh, Kimberly so owed her! Mabel bent down to get the cup ready for the snowcone. When she looked back up-

———————————————–

Kimberly Davis took off her tennis shoes for some softer shoes when she came into the diner she worked in. It was so stupid, one of those teenage punks she worked with decided to flake on her. So who had to come in? Her, and that was bullshit. It was late and kids were out playing around. Those brats needed cold treats. The kids and the teen boys that came around to stare. She usually charged their butts double since they were only there to linger at her. She was an attractive woman but looks weren’t enough to get by in the world. Well, unless you wanted to do something unscrupulous with those looks. At least she got Mabel to cover for her.

She rested in the back room for a little while before her shift began. The TV was on a special report. Probably weather. The weather always sucked. She looked toward it, eyewitnesses to whatever local weather problem was going on. People overreacting too, downright crying.

“The ages are all different, yet the synchronicity of this horror can’t be ignored. These victims with what families say all share the same kind of features so much with each other, they practically look-”

“Hey!” Kimberly complained as her ‘mini-boss’ came in. Manager’s favorite pet. “I was watching that.”

“You’re on duty,” he said. “Get out there.”

“I had two minutes and you should be thankful,” Kimberly said as she tied her softer shoes. “I should be making money off brats and leering teens.”

“You know as much as you hate people, you’d think you’d find something else different,” the Manager’s pet neighed to her.

“I take these stupid people jobs so I can make enough to . . . find something else.” To get the hell out of there, but she couldn’t go too far. She’d get fired, and she didn’t want that again. Her last job reference swore she left and never came back. That didn’t rub her employers the right way. Proven hospital stay records of an accident? Oh no, she just left with no excuse. Stupid bastards. She went out toward the front, waiting for the orders to come in.

Tallahassee, Tennessee

Clarice ignored the notes being passed by her in school, trying to concentrate. She moved her feet back and forth by her desk. There was nothing more horrifying than geography. She felt a note landing on her chin, bouncing to her table. She rolled her eyes and looked at who did that.

“Clarice? Are you passing notes?”

“What?” The teacher was blaming her. “No, it was Terrence.” She gestured toward Terrence.

“Uh huh.” The teacher didn’t believe her. “Why don’t you give us an interesting state fact of anywhere other than Tennessee, hmm?”

“Um.”

“Stand up and speak loud and clear,” the teacher insisted.

Clarice looked at the geography map. She didn’t know the world that well at all. Somewhere besides Tennessee. Her eyes went over toward Delaware. It was always an interesting state to her. “Delaware gets a lot of rain each year.” She watched her teacher. She wasn’t impressed, but not denying it either.

“Sit down, Clarice and pay attention.” The teacher went back to teaching.

What a crone. Geez. She didn’t even do anything. Clarice looked toward the door though. A boy was lingering out the door. Staring at her. He looked familiar. He looked a lot like the boy Brandon she knew from science, but his hair was different. Brandon had cool different colored hair. Different colored eyes too. No, he was clearly someone different.

Her eyes drifted to the clock. It’s where everyone’s eyes were settling. Almost time for school to get out.

Gemini moved away from the schoolroom door and dialed on his cellphone. “I found her. What should we do, Major?”

“Hope we are extremely lucky. I’m coming. Watch out for anything suspicious. You sure you are up to this?”

“Yeah. She’s a clone, like me,” Gemini admitted. “There’s no way I can just leave her out here to be killed off. Not this time, we have to make this one.” He was taking some heat and some chances. Gemini knew it. The attempts were moving fast, and no one cared about the ages of anyone involved. Major Charles and him had found the nearest clone of Miss Parker and she was taken out. So was the second. The third was a teen, like the one now. She was already gone too.

He didn’t want to mess around again! The names on the list were getting shorter, and the news were doing their fair share of the name dropping too. This wasn’t just The Centre, it was like a bunch of groups assigned to kill asap! They’d be lucky if any of them saved just one. Even Jarod hadn’t managed it yet.

He kept his eyes on the empty hallway. At the end of school, it would probably happen. They didn’t want a big commotion in the way, they were wanting just their target. While the older ladies were being warned by the media now, there were significantly less younger ones. The last ones to be born. Only four according to the full list so there was no warning for them at all. When the bells rung, everyone started to pour out. He watched as she came out and walked to the left. He quickly tried to catch up. Schools were huge, people really poured out of them once it was over.

He wouldn’t lose her though. He moved, twisted and bent around everyone trying to catch up with her. She was heading out the front doors. He picked up the pace, practically dashing. Please! They could be anywhere. “Wait up!” He called.

She was moving along the sidewalk, looking at it as she walked.

He finally caught up to her, out of breath. “Wait.”

She stared at him, but didn’t stop walking. “You look familiar. Have we met?”

Wow. Even not being triggered to be a ‘Miss Parker’ she recognized him as Jarod. “My name’s . . .” Catch up on his breathing. Crossing the street didn’t help.

“Jarod.” She said it like it was a certainty. “I mean, I think it’s Jarod? You look like a Jarod. That was horrible of me. Sorry.” She shrugged. “Your related to Brandon, right?”

“Gemini,” he spoke. “My name’s Gemini. How do you do.”

“Oh. Hi.” She gestured to the road. “Do you walk home this way too?”

No. She needed to get out of such an easy spot. “You shouldn’t walk home by yourself right now.”

“I live like four blocks away,” she said. “My mom and dad come to pick me up, but most times they are so late. It takes less time to just walk home. Oh, wait.” She smiled and waved at a car. “There they are.”

Gemini watched the car come close to the road and park. She tried to get in. “No, don’t go.”

“Don’t talk that way to my daughter,” the driver said. Clearly her dad.

“Don’t talk that way to the nice boy,” the passenger said. Most likely her mother. “He just wanted to talk longer.”

“She doesn’t need to be talking to boys,” her father said. “Get in, Clarice.”

Gemini would have protested again, but he saw it. Coming up from behind. He grabbed and pushed her down to the ground. Shots rang out above them. He held on tightly to her, she was trying to get up on instinct to get away to safety. “Don’t move!” From the angle and the speed it was an attempt at a drive-by. That should give them just enough time before they could pull back and try again. She screamed, scared and traumatized. Hopefully he made her duck down fast enough to miss her family’s end. Gemini pulled her up slightly and moved to the right as the Major’s car came careening around the side. As it stopped, he got the door opened and kept her ducked down still.

The Major pulled away just in time as shots rang out again. Gemini made her duck her head.

“Sonsofbitches!” The Major yelled. “You get her, she okay? You okay too?”

“Yeah.” He got her. She was crying, emotional, and screaming.

But alive.

Kidnapped Miss Parker

The Centre

“Just can’t find it Mister Parker,” the security camera man said, pointing to the doors that were involved in the break in with the offspring potential pretenders. “The intruder was there during their last meeting, but nothing was broken in.” A person in rags was going through all the security without anything needed. “It’s still the same thing. Nothing new has been found.”

“She had the codes,” Raines said, staring at the video footage. Nothing new. No new developments. Nothing had changed. Same video! All they knew was from the slim looking hand, it was most likely a woman breaking in. Most likely, Miss Parker. “How could someone have all the codes?”

“How could someone survive? There were even lasers she had somehow passed, knowing the sequence to break it.” The security camera man scratched his head.

Raines stared at the figure on the footage again. “It has to be her. She’s been missing six months.” He watched Lyle finally stroll in. “What took you? I called you earlier. You should have been here.”

“Sorry, Mister Parker,” Lyle said honorably. “Just going through the steps of my own cases. Anything helpful?”

“Nothing anymore helpful. Potentials are gone.”

“Still think it was Miss Parker?” Lyle adjusted his tie. “Our mom was a big believer in rescuing children. Maybe she came down with the same disease?”

“Now?” Raines answered. “She gives a damn now?” He watched the videos once again. “She wouldn’t just give a damn now.” Hmm. He didn’t want to believe it. Not her. Not like this. I hate to do it but progress won’t stop to keep my top soldiers. I can’t provide any more time.“Did you look into the other incident more carefully?”

“Sure did.” Lyle gave Raines a folder. “Thorough search. I couldn’t find a thing about my sister trying to break out the clone from The Centre back when Jarod took him. Everything was done on Jarod and Major Charles’ end. No involvement.” Lyle looked back at the footage too. “You really think she was secretly trying to rescue the clone?”

“No. She didn’t lift a finger.” He looked back at Lyle and rubbed his mouth. If Parker’s will started being traitorous, it would have started beforehand. Get it over with. “Send out an official statement to the Triumvirate, signed by Mister Parker.” Him. “Upon further investigations, The Centre believes five potential pretenders were taken along with my daughter, possibly by Jarod or Major Charles.”

“Wait, we are saying she was taken now?” Lyle asked confused. “I thought we were pegging this all on her? So far all the evidence points to-”

“I don’t pay you to think, Boy,” Raines said, putting him back into his place. “This is bigger than you know. Just do your job.”
————————

Broots Office Space

Sydney entered the office. “Good morning, Broots.”

“Six months.” Broots sat down. “Morning, Sydney.” He got behind the computer. “Man, finding houses for cats is hard. I thought tracking Jarod down was tough.” As he dug into his computer though? “Sydney? Do you think Miss Parker is with Jarod? And?”

Sydney scooted toward the computer to read what Broots received. “They think either Jarod or Major Charles took Miss Parker and five potential pretenders?” He feigned ignorance. “Odd indeed.”

“The Centre sent it straight to the Triumvirate not long ago.” Broots glanced at Sydney. “The ages of the potential pretenders?” He shook his head. “Man, there’s no way Miss Parker would survive hanging out with four kids.”

“She does fine with Debbie,” Sydney pointed out.

“Debbie’s one kid and mature for her age. That would be four, and at those ages?” Broots stared at the computer. “Still? More pretenders? I can’t believe more were hiding in here and Jarod didn’t know about it. Especially kids. Ugh. Anyway. Why would anyone steal Miss Parker with a bunch of kids? Did they find footage of her being kidnapped?” He fidgeted. “This isn’t good, Sydney. Why did they wait six months to reach this conclusion?”

Sydney shrugged. “We won’t know the truth of anything until she comes back. Until then, Broots. Just do your job.”

———————————————-

The Centre Playroom

Raines moved toward a special room in The Centre and slipped in his card. He opened the door and went in, seeing the others there. Lucas. Ronald. Lucy. Stephanie. While it was good to have backups, it wasn’t as good as the originals. At least they were all still too young to carry on their inner sense yet. He looked down to look at the kids. “Enjoying The Centre’s toys?”

Ronald smiled. “Yes!”

“Where’s my mom?” Stephanie asked Raines. “My mom and dad should have been here by now.”

“The Centre’s been working out arrangements with them,” Raines answered. “They’ll come soon, Sweetie.” He took a deep breath while the kids all stared at him. Not used to seeing oxygen tanks in their suburban life. If I don’t get the others back, then they’ll have to remain backups. Destroying The Centre’s research. He looked toward Lucas, staring at him. He still had the same kind of cold eyes his twin brother had. Still great potential. “Lucas. Why don’t you come for a walk with me? We’ll get to know each other better.”

“Only if you stop the song in the background,” Lucas said as he grabbed Raines hand. “That damn Kangaroo song is driving me crazy.”

“I like the Kangaroo song,” Lucy piped up. “I wish I could see Kangaroos.”

Raines went over to the small tape recorder and turned it off. “There we go. Now let’s go enjoy a nice walk, Lucas. You can tell me what your dad does for a living.”

“Listen to mom,” Lucas answered.

Raines smirked. Yes. He’d be a good one to try. Smart alecs were the easiest to break.

————————————————-

June 6, 2002. The Centre. 5:30 AM

Raines approached the office Broots and Lyle were working in, tracking Jarod. “Broots. Lyle. Where’s Sydney?”

“No idea,” Lyle said.

“Uh? I don’t know,” Broots said weakly. He didn’t. It was earlier than usual. “I was told to come in at 5:00. I don’t know if Sydney had been.” For some reason, that seemed to please Mister Raines instead.

“What are you finding for data on our lost Miss Parker, Lyle?” Mister Raines asked. “The Centre needs her. She needs to be found.”

Lyle was just staring at Raines. Broots ignored the tension and went back to his work. No doubt he’d find out what that was about soon. Sibling rivalry at massacre levels again?

————————-

Lyle got up from the office and went down the hallway, leaving Broots behind. “Lots of calls coming in from our sources. I don’t know how we got this many this fast, for one technically lost person?”

Ah. “Some bitterness in your voice?” Raines asked. “Better reel it in. Feel fortunate you were taken care of.”

“What do we do with all these reports?” Lyle asked him.

“Go the deepest you can,” Raines insisted. “How far do you have?”

Lyle still seemed to have a slight bitter edge as he brought the folders. “This far.”

“Yeah. That’d be about right,” Raines said. “How many?”

“234.”

“That’s good. Tell the sources it’s feeding time,” Raines said to Lyle. “As I am sure you are guessing? We are eliminating them.”

“Elimination? All of them?” It seemed like such a waste and a hassle.

“Hm. We were going to bring them in, cool them down and get answers about which one had the kids,” Raines said. “Change of plans. More than one confidential source has claimed they are awakening memories without instruction to do so. Experiments don’t run themselves. Something went wrong. We’ll take care of this and then lay low awhile. Besides. This project is old, it’s not needed anymore.”

Soon, they’d have a much better group to watch. They learned all they could from those clones, and he’d have one on reserve if he needed them again anyhow. They’d have to stay below the radar for a little while, but the kids were still small. The only shame was The Centre would be on an extreme lockdown of all their usual Centre business for quite some time. “Tell them there’s five million on the table. Send all data you’ve accumulated out to each source. Collect one object per kill, no bystanders shot or no payment. It will all be divided like a Sunday potluck dinner.” Lyle seemed almost frozen. “You have a problem with that?”

“No.” Lyle looked at the folder again. “There’s no way Broots will do that without question.”

“Everyone has a price for their soul,” Raines said. “Some are more expensive than others. Some are cheap. Yours is cheaper. Get it done.”

“Yes, Mister Raines. I know where it hurts,” Lyle said. “This is still a bad idea.”

“Cold feet?” Raines asked. “Never got rid of this many so fast?” It was the Parkers. It had to be swift and quick or they’d be on guard.

“No, I’ll do it, Mister Raines.”

“One more thing.” Raines smirked. “There’s also a pool on who’ll live longest. If you want in, you’ve got thirty minutes.”

Oh? “Not like shooting fish in a barrel?”

“Not all of them are the same. Memories or not.”

———————————-

Lyle came into the office room behind Broots again. “Possible places she could be hiding.” He kept the top identifiers on the top. He had given Broots only the basics of a standard missing person job so he wasn’t any wiser.

Broots had been doing fine, his Centre computer skills sewing the destruction of Miss Parker with each click, unknowingly. File after file, the computer kept lighting up his visage. Click by click by click. Then, he started to slow down lightly. Getting a little suspicious of Lyle. Meanwhile, Lyle kept his phone handy. They met each other’s eyes briefly, before Broots looked back at the paper. He looked back toward Lyle.

“There a problem, Broots?” Lyle questioned. “Clickety clack it up.”

Broots picked up the file and started to look at it closer. “I don’t think she’d ever be there. Would she?”

“I don’t know? She did steal kids,” Lyle said. “I mean, the Pretender probably stole her with the kids. Seems reasonable. Back to work.”

“Jarod wouldn’t put them into a public school.” Broots was hesitating. “Who saw her?” He looked at another file.

Lyle knew that would happen. “We are The Centre, Broots. We cover all possible ways of escape.” He shrugged. “Probably a long shot, but it’s still a shot. Especially if it’s a short time. Hell, Jarod fakes surgeon papers like nothing, that shouldn’t be a big deal. I mean? Was it tough for you when you put your daughter, Debbie Broots, into public school? Trusting place, isn’t it?” Yeah. Broots was starting to eye him more. “Lots of friends. Open area. I believe it actually is, what, your daughter’s lunch time soon?” He had a small calendar on him. “Ooh, yes. Chicken nuggets today. That sounds great. Lunch time, yet. In about fifteen minutes. Hm.”

Yeah. Broots looked back at the computer slowly, looked toward the folder and started typing again.

That’s right. Don’t question The Centre. He had no chance to rebel, and with every keystroke? Wow. Amazing how exciting, how exhilarating the sounds of clacks on a keyboard sounded when you knew what would happen because of them.

————————————

Georgia, Nowhere.

Jarod had planned on getting up and preparing some decent breakfast for the kids, but he woke up instead to bad news. Miss Parker?

Was not Miss Parker. When he went to talk to her, she was frightened. Scared. She wanted to fight him, but the kids talked her out of believing he was bad. She said her name was Rene Grossberg, she was married with three kids, and was from Peyton, Colorado.

Internet access was not as strong so far away, so Jarod called Sydney to check it out. When he checked on the information, Sydney found her and called Jarod back.

The real deal. Rene Grossberg looked just like Miss Parker and had been missing for seven months.”I don’t believe it, how could she know so much about Miss Parker?” Jarod questioned Sydney. “She knew everything. She knew about you. She knew about Broots.”

“Jarod, I am on my way to you already,” Sydney revealed. “I will be there in one hour.”

Sydney was coming there? “How?”

“Because. I was on my way before I even looked this up for you,” Sydney admitted. “I left late last night.”

“In the middle of the night.” What was going on?

“Someone wants to rendezvous. It’s not going to be done over the internet, and it’s not going to be done over the phone either,” Sydney revealed.

Sydney was meeting someone, out there, with him, at the private hiding spot of Miss Parker and the potential pretender kids? “You better be damn sure about this, Sydney.”

“I am very sure, Jarod. She has forbidden me to say her name over any communications device.”

Top secret. Could it be?

—————————————

Sydney arrived soon after. He came inside the house and helped to settle Rene Grossberg down as well. When he arrived, he finally told Jarod face to face who would be coming.

Catherine Parker.

Catherine. Parker. “How did she even know?” Jarod questioned.

“She only contacted me once, but I got a good enough look to know she is not lying. It is her,” Sydney answered. “Be ready for anything, Jarod. If she has willingly been hiding away for all this time, and just now intercepts after all these years? I fear nothing good will happen.”

Jarod warned the kids to be quiet, trying to stay polite and nice. He was trying to keep Rene Grossberg calm. He was trying to watch out for a car coming up the road, and making sure it was Catherine Parker’s car. He was trying to do all of this while inside he felt panicked, worried, dread, and desperation.

Catherine Parker had been in hiding. Deeply. This was so bad, she was coming out of hiding to meet them. Even Sydney was now right beside him.

When she arrived, she was in a low key cheap car. She opened the door. Her clothes were low in status, but her expression was still the same. She was more mature looking than her seventies self he had last seen. Alive and well. “Catherine Parker.”

“Jarod,” she responded in kind.

He had a million questions his mind wanted her to answer, but his heart was set on one. “Where is your daughter, Miss Parker?”

“Straight and to the point. She meant a great deal to you,” Catherine said. “Hello, Sydney.”

Meant? “Is she . . .?”

“She is and she isn’t,” Catherine said. “Just like I am, and I am not.”

No. “I don’t have time for games right now,” Jarod said desperately. He glanced at Rene. “Is Rene Grossberg, Miss Parker?” He should have that answer, but he needed to hear it from Catherine Parker.

“None of them are Miss Parker, Jarod, and all of them are. Give me a few minutes to share my story, and you’ll understand.”

——————————————

Georgia. Nowhere.

“No. N. O.”

Jarod just grabbed three boxes of macaroni as he looked around the place. while she continued to fuss. “We need to go shopping.” He wasn’t surprised she lacked cooking skills. Instant food was all she had. “Relax, Parker. I’ll take care of it.”

“What are you even doing?”

Fixing good food. “Everybody’s getting full bellies tonight.” Heh. Life. It was never dull outside of The Centre. Who knew he’d be ending the evening cooking at ‘Aunt Bar’s’ with Miss Parker and a ton of interesting kids. “It’s great to be free. Never know what will happen.” He noticed a sidestep of Miss Parker. Yeah. Well. She better get used to it. He wasn’t leaving her presence until every kid there was safe and sound with a new life. “Did you tell them to frog up my chili?”

“Distraction, I needed real food,” she complained.

Yeah, and the weight gain she didn’t want to admit to? It wasn’t pregnancy, it was the rapid change in her diet. Some nights fat enriching cheap foods, others when she couldn’t get away, scraping by on ravioli’s. Without a proper diet, she was changing. She was doing what she could though, with what she had. Jarod stole a quick look around. The property was decent, but it would never have lived up to Parker’s standards. None of it, she liked luxury city. Six months out there. Even looking at her? It all took a toll on her. She hid and stayed out of the way, yet played doctor to the Bar woman and nanny to the kids.

It wasn’t her element. Getting out into the thick of the problem. She did it for the kids though. The PK’s, and the kids left behind with Aunt Bar, who couldn’t really even take care of herself well. “How did you survive this?”

“I’m just . . . good with kids.”

No she wasn’t. She could be, but she didn’t strive to spend time with kids. Strange statement. “Do you have better clothes?”

“It’s best to stay out of the way and unseen,” she answered back. “I like watching things from behind the pretty stage.” Something in her voice again. She walked away toward the couch.

“Well, food, soon,” Jarod said. He’d left his attention strictly on Parker during their conversation but now it was time to open it back up to all of the kids that were and had been making their presences known. Hungry bellies of PK’s and non-PK’s were the same. Some had been badgering him to cook faster, thanking him for having cooking skills, some still asking to go out and eat somewhere, and some just stating how much he shouldn’t have shown up. All dancing around him like monkeys needing attention. “Hey, hey?” He spied the girl last time that was around earlier that day. “No frogging the macaroni or nobody eats it tonight.”

“I’d still eat it!”

Ah. “Nobody eats raw frog tonight.”

“The french do it!”

Prepared correctly, fine. Out of the thick of the wilderness with the mud and water, hopping through who knew what and into the chili? Not fine. “I’d have to fix more food,” Jarod said, spying Alex’s boy who said both comments. “It would just take longer.” Name. Tip of tongue. “Lucas.”

“Jarod?” He felt Stephanie, Damien’s daughter, pulling at the hem of his shirt. “You’re a pretender.”

Not surprising Parker warned them about him. “Yes,” Jarod said as he started to fix the simple macaroni. Parker could have done it, but she’d already done a lot. She needed a break.

“Did you know my dad?” she asked him.

Oh. I killed your dad. He sighed. “Little.”

“What was he like?” Stephanie asked.

“What was my dad like?” Eddie’s daughter Lucy said, bouncing over toward him. “What was he like?”

“What was mine like too?” Ronald asked Jarod.

“Aunt Parker said that our dads were a mix of terrible and awesome,” Stephanie asked, still pulling at his shirt’s hem. “She wouldn’t tell us who was who. Who was who?”

Hm. “That’s . . . .that’s because it doesn’t matter,” Jarod told her. “It doesn’t really matter. You are all different individuals.”

“You express too much emotion for a simple question,” Lucas said, staring at Jarod.

Ah. He definitely had some of Alex in him. Jarod nodded toward him. “True. Some of your dads I’ve had experiences with. Good and bad, but it doesn’t matter.” He looked at the four potential pretenders again. “What made you biologically is not going to make you the same to your parents completely.”

“What about mine?” Ronald still insisted. “Do I look like him at all? Do we look like what our dads looked like?”

“I wouldn’t if I were you,” he heard Miss Parker utter.

Jarod glanced behind him at Parker sitting on the couch. He knew what she meant. He couldn’t lie though. It wouldn’t be right. Ronald was Angelo’s son. “You do look like your dad does.” Subtle but enough.

“Does?” Ronald asked. “I thought he was dead? All of the dads are dead.”

“Your dad . . . he isn’t dead.” Jarod couldn’t bend the truth as much as it hurt. “Everyone’s is, except yours. Your dad isn’t . . . ready for society,” he settled on.

“He’s crazy?”

“He’s been changed by The Centre in a way that makes him different from whom he should have been,” Jarod said, knowing the truth always hurt. “His name is Angelo, and he’s still at The Centre.”

“Did you know mine too? Do I look like him?” Stephanie kept a hold of the hem on his shirt tightening it. “Jarod?”

“Do you know anything about our moms?” Lucas, Alex’s boy asked.

“Is it almost ready?” One of the regular kids that actually belonged there interrupted.

Good. Jarod could deal with that kind of disruption. “Food takes time, and I am making more than one box.”

“Aunt Parker makes one box at a time,” Judith said judgingly. “The most hungriest eats faster. She’s better at cooking than you.”

Jarod heard a small chuckle from Parker in the background. Or she doesn’t know how to cook away from the directions on the box. That was way more likely. “Not everyone does everything the same.” He eyed her extra close too. She was also one of the kids that had been around when the chili got frogged. “Definitely not a good idea to do anything to the food since there’s a large portion of it.” Jarod looked through the cupboards above and beneath him too for stuff to add to it. “Green beans.”

“I hate green beans!” One of the kids yelled from behind.

“I love green beans!” Another one yelled.

Optional side dish. Check. He looked deeper for things to add that Parker wouldn’t have outright eaten, but since she didn’t cook, wouldn’t be going after. Beans as a side dish? Okay. There wasn’t anything to mix with the mac that well. Most of it was bare except for all the different quick ravioli’s and mac and cheese. Never going to get far in the world if she doesn’t learn how to cook.

Same Time. Seattle, Washington.

“How does this place even run when food comes out like this?”

Kimberly heard another complaint about her cooking. Complain all they want, they are the ones who come by for the damn food. What do they expect, star quality at a buck fifty a burger?

“Even the toast is burnt.”

So was the tip probably now, but usually she didn’t get it anyhow. No decent cook was taking the job in that place on the salary it gave out. She flipped a burger. A little burnt. Edible, whatever. A little bit of ketchup would fix it up. She added the cheese. Shit, that was supposed to be added on the grill. She felt distracted today. In fact, she felt like she was getting sick. The flu? Just what she needed.

She plated the cheese, the bun, and the burger. She added extra ketchup and onions and pickles to make up for the mistake. Damn. It didn’t look too burnt, but her head. Her head was downright feeling dizzy. This always happens to me when Cuyler finds me. The dread of what he would pull her into.

He didn’t find that hole in the wall yet. He wasn’t involved yet, he just found the ice cream truck. It’d be fine.

Back to Georgia

As the kids ate, relaxed, and found their place in the strange house, Jarod came over toward Miss Parker. She was on the couch, currently a willing/unwilling pillow to Alex’s kid. Jarod did manage to find some tea, and remembering Carthis, decided trying to take her some wouldn’t be a bad start. “Everyone’s asleep.”

She looked at the tea a moment and took it. “Guess so.”

“A lot of children here. They won’t be able to stay together,” Jarod admitted. “They’ll have better lives though. Thanks to you. Aunt Bar couldn’t watch them in her condition. I never knew where they went to, Jack wouldn’t tell me. I’m glad it was somewhere safe.”

“I am not safe.” She had a distant look in her eye. “I am far from safe. I am the definition of witch.”

Jarod shook his head. “It couldn’t have been easy when you first arrived.”

She stared at the tea. “I had the PK’s with me. I thought it would be a cinch to hide out since I was paying off Jack. When I arrived at his brother’s house, the cupboards were empty. Cans on the floor. Empty. Trash piling up, but no kids. Remembering he mentioned his sister, it didn’t take long to find the house. When I got here? It was infested with the cats and those kids were starving. They had only brought a couple cans to their Aunt Bar too. Trying to take care of her.” She shook her head. “I got the place in order, got them good, and explained who I had been. What had happened to their parents.”

She wasn’t going to reveal it all yet, but Jarod knew what that must have looked like. The dirt hiding beneath the world. “Thank you for helping those people.”

“I didn’t do anything, Jarod.”

“No. You helped those kids.” She couldn’t deny that.

“I didn’t help you,” she muttered. “You spent your life behind glass. I never lifted a finger.”

“I don’t think I was on your list of things to be worried about.” Jarod grabbed his own cup of tea. “You couldn’t have broken me out anyhow.”

“Yes, I could’ve.” She held on tighter to her tea. “Everything’s made to be broken.”

Jarod just lingered on her. The way she said it. It was almost like a fact. “It took a genius, and it took me a very long time. Mister Parker’s daughter or not, I knew that.” He never could have even asked. “You’d just get yourself killed.”

“Yeah. I chose to not free you and live a comfy life.”

Still. There it was again. “It’s not your fault, Parker.”

“Things trigger things. Plans trigger things that can’t be changed.” Her tongue rubbed across her teeth, almost like a regret. “Sometimes, even when you find the good, you can’t escape the bad.”

“I’d never blame you for not getting me out.” It would be too dangerous.

“I paid a very big price for it happening.” Her voice slightly shivered. “Fate won’t let me escape. The fact that I have done everything I could to make you stay away from me and still? I end up stuck with you. Is proof of that.” She yawned. “You were like my mother, Jarod. I couldn’t save you anymore than I could save her.”

“I know.” Of course he knew that. “Just, forget it. Have some tea. It’s a new beginning, right? No more Centre. After this, do you need help finding a place?” She didn’t answer. There was no reason for her to still be so distant. “Do you need help after this?”

“You can’t help. No one can help me,” she openly admitted. “I just go round and round and round.”

“Like a record, Baby?” he teased, having had heard the song.

“I owed them, those kids aren’t justification of helping to be a good person. It was dues.” She looked away. “No, I don’t need help. I’ll be going back to The Centre.”

What?! “You’re kidding. You just freed yourself.” Ugh! “Parker, it’s too dangerous. Look what you just did. What if they catch you?”

“Then they kill me, no big deal.” She sipped her tea like he just said it was raining. It completely bypassed her like it was nothing.

“No Centre. Stay.” This time. He’d been refused before, but he had to ask. “I can get you out. I can keep you safe. The Centre will never find you.”

“I have to go.” She wasn’t budging. “Once the PK’s are OK.”

No way. “Your father isn’t even there anymore. Raines rules. Why do you have to go back?” He sneered, not content with her answer. “You would not go back to him of all people. He killed your mother, and you want to go to back to working for that man?”

“He did a lot more than that!” Her voice went off the scale. “You have no idea what he’s done! And you never will.” Alex’s kid woke up and it was clear she wanted to move.

“Then why stay?” What was he missing? Why did she want to serve the man who hurt her this much? She should be trying to get rid of him. It was Miss Parker, all she ever wanted to do was find who killed her mother and kill them. Why was she letting him go and control her? “Do you feel like your mind is your own?” Maybe they had messed with her brain surgically.

“That’s a loaded question,” she answered back. “I know that staying away from The Centre.” She seemed to roll her tongue around in her mouth. “It’s a break, at most. The Centre is my future. The . . .” She was hesitant about something. “Broots stays, I stay.”

Broots? “Broots? Broots staying at The Centre is keeping you there?” Why? “Is something wrong with his daughter?” She would care about that, she cared for Broots’ daughter. She was right there to pick her up that day at school when Broots got pegged as a mole. “I can help his daughter.”

“It’s not that.” Fidgety. “I don’t like it.” She moved around slightly on the couch. “Fate. I hate fate. I try to stay near The Centre, and you are running from The Centre, and we still get pulled together like this?” She rubbed her chin.

Jarod got up and went over toward the couch. He moved Alex’s kid slightly, putting him at the other end. He sat down next to Parker. Something was seriously wrong and she was hiding it. “What is it? You can tell me. You know you can tell me.”

“I need to start dating Broots.”

Dating Broots? “There’s nothing wrong with dating anyone.” He glanced at her. “It doesn’t sound like you want to though.”

“I don’t but . . .” She got an odd look on her face. “He’s nice though, real nice and I want . . . children. I really want children of my own. I wonder if I could convince him I want to be a mom and he was a good dad so it’d work?”

Jarod blinked a couple of times oddly. “That’s . . . a weird request, Parker.” What? She wanted children just like that?

“Why not? I could want a baby.” She pushed him slightly. “Why couldn’t I? Look at me. At my age, if I want one, I should go for it. He’s got a daughter. Seems reasonable. He’d be a good father.” She bit her lip. “I feel like I should have children. My biological clock is ticking out of control, and Broots seems . . . the best option. Maybe.”

“That’s not how it works and you know it.” Jarod shook his head. “Plus, you’re not itching for Broots.” A kid, she’s wanting a kid? Jarod looked around himself and scratched his back. Just about anyone hanging around the places he’d been in for a month might be lining up for a vasectomy by now. There was helping kids and doing the right thing, and then there was staying with a bunch of them forever. That even chilled him.

Of course, he’d never say that. He just needed to figure out why she was saying that. “You know a bunch of kids that need family now. Why would you want to actually get pregnant and have one?”

She rubbed her arm. “I don’t know. I just feel like, like I should have some.” She looked beside her. “I should want to scratch my own uterus out in the mess I’ve put myself in, but I don’t. There’s something inside. I want children. Lots of them.” She smiled. “Three. Two boys and a girl. It’ll help toughen the girl up while she still gets to be the one called the prettiest in the house. The boys will be real hardy boys, they’ll want to go out for every sport. I’ll drive them them to all the games, and I’ll attend the concerts she has. Ballerina recitals. Maybe she’ll be into sports when she gets older too like her brothers.”

Jarod just found himself staring at her. Right then and there, it felt like she was a total stranger. Miss Parker wouldn’t say any of that. Where was that line of thinking coming from? “You know I can’t believe you’re saying that.”

“It doesn’t matter. I’m not proving anything to you.” Standoffish. “I can do what I want. You just wanted to know why I couldn’t leave The Centre. That’s why. Enough said.”

Mmhm. She was up to something. “Maybe I should convince Broots to get out with you? Then, no more Centre.” That would get rid of her excuse.

“Okay . . . okay.” She nodded toward him. “Get Broots out and I’ll go with him. That’ll be fine. Somewhere kind of cold though. Mountainous. Small though, like this area. I like smaller areas, not real big.”

That. That wasn’t what she was supposed to say. Smaller areas? Miss Parker lived for the cities, she hated going to small areas. What is going on with you? He couldn’t even guess, and that was really saying something for him. He calculated and used his logical reasoning all the time to figure out the answer to so many things.

He tried to hold her hand but she let it go. “Is there any way I can take you out of this crazy idea?”

“I just need a baby.” She glanced toward him. “I imagine you’d be good.”

“Good what?”

“Material.”

” . . .” Jarod scratched the top of his head. Well? No, no, long distance thinking. “I . . .” He looked around them, some tiny part of him still having to contemplate. Number of isolated rooms in this place, stop it, Jarod. “It doesn’t happen the first time.” He shouldn’t have to point that out. “I think . . .” What did he think about it? ” . . . I mean, if you stayed and we got to know each other-”

“-Not sex with you, Moron,” she answered him. “Material already in The Centre.”

What? “What?”

“Permission. If I find some.”

“To be pregnant with my child?” That’s it. Jarod reached over and started to touch her forehead. Warm. “I think I brought an emergency doctor’s kit in the car.” It should have some fever reducer.

“Forget it. Broots will jump.”

“You want him or me to artificially . . .” Feverish, but there must be a degree of truth to it. What was she trying to say? “If I thought that is what you wanted? If it was what you wanted?” Jarod said seriously. “You could do that at any time. There are several places to go to for that kind of thing.”

“No. Only those I trust.”

Trust?

“I mean.” She realized her mistake. “Nothing. Just forget what I just said.”

“You trust me.” She said it. She doesn’t trust just anyone to get near her body. She wants someone in particular, not just a random person from a night. She was more than capable enough to get it done any way she wanted to. She wanted to know. That the dad was a good man?

Was it that simple? Was she just looking for a good soul she trusted to be the father of her child? Mister Parker. Lack of compassion. Raines as her real father. Yeah, maybe he could see it. She wanted her daughter or son to have a good biological father.

“I’m tired. I can’t think straight. I need to go to bed. Move.”

“I’ll go get you a fever reducer.” Jarod moved for her and watched her lie down. He watched Stephanie, Damien’s daughter, move over toward her feet and slide in to sleep. Alex was drooling on the couch on the other side of the arm. “No, No, Stephanie.” He moved the tired girl away. “You can’t sleep on her right now.” He then moved Lucas. A slight groan but the boy didn’t put up much of a fight. Too tired.

Jarod wouldn’t agree to it, even if she wasn’t feverish. He would never just leave his child for someone to raise, and he couldn’t stay with them. Plus, it wasn’t coming from a place of love, it was coming from a place of trust. Broots had feelings for her, but that might complicate things. She should be with someone for love, not because they would make a good father. If this is what she wanted though, he’d find a way.

He’d find her another love, like he found Thomas Gates for her.

Although after the island, it wouldn’t be quite as easy this time.

——————————-

Seattle, Washington. Night. Chester Street.

Over for the day. Kimberly took off her shoes as soon as she walked in the house. “What I wouldn’t give for something nice to drink.” She couldn’t afford it. She moved to her fridge and grabbed a cheap beer. Anything helped. If she was getting sick and she was the cook, they were going to make her stay home if she got a customer sick. “Damn it.” She still had rent to pay that month too.

She strutted elegantly along the ground in front of her, like she was wearing high heels. “If I had enough money, I wouldn’t have to kiss any of their butts.” She pulled out her key chain with the beer capper and took the cap off. She looked at it, imagining it was something nicer. Richer. “If I could just imagine you were a high class whiskey, life would be better.” Fat chance. She took a swig and went over by the window, looking out briefly to see some red lights go by. Average.

She turned on TV, looking for something to relax to before bed. I wish I could get out of this town. Go somewhere. Do something. She craved it. She craved any kind of adventure right now. Except what Cuyler brought, she wasn’t interested in that. “Maybe visit a museum?” No. It wasn’t good enough. She was salivating for something. She didn’t know what besides get out.

It’s all she wanted. She wanted out of Seattle. No, that isn’t all she wanted. “Dear Genie.” She looked at her cheap beer. “Bring me good whiskey, a beautiful house, no, an expensive beautiful huge house, and enough money to live in the lifestyle I dream. I want to be bathed in products as beautiful as me.” She laughed. “Think highly of yourself enough, Kimberly?” She was talking to herself now as she took another drink.

No, but seriously. If she could just have one drink of Maker’s Mark, it’d make her entire year.

 

June 2002-Morning. Seattle, Washington.

 

“What flavor?” Kathleen asked the kids who came up to the ice cream stand. She tried to be cheery. She wasn’t a real people kind of person, but she had to put on a display to keep the job. She needed it along with her other minimum wage job as a cook at a local establishment. Not a fine establishment, just a hole in the ground that people come to eat at when they get lost in the city and need something to eat that’s halfway decent. She used to be on a better track when she was younger, but misfortune dealt her a hell of a hand in life. Every time she started to climb the corporate ladder, she’d have some kind of accident, and then fire. Squished. Her resume basically read hard worker who flakes out sometimes.

She even lost her restaurant job cooking pizzas.

“Chocolate, please.”

Kathleen’s nose wrinkled. Though she had lost her jobs, she never lost him. How she hoped she could. Cuyler. A greasy two-faced asshole who thought he was funny. He had a brilliant mind, but he never used it. He was a bum that never applied himself, and he tended to tag along behind her. She glared at him and made him an ice cream.

His look of dismay was worth it. “You fixed pistachio, not chocolate. You know I’m allergic to pistachio, Kitty Katty.”

“Don’t call me Kitty Katty!” Such a jerk. Her name was Kathleen. Solid Kath, Solid Leen. Kathleen! “Life is going decent for me, I don’t need you here ruining everything.”

“Oh, it’s not me that ruins it,” Cuyler smiled at her. “It’s just your terrible accidents. Chocolate please.” He handed his ice cream back.

Kathleen served the other customer first. He had been waiting. After she dealt with him, she grabbed a chocolate ice cream and gave it to him so he could leave.

“So you found a new job, huh?” He started to make conversation instead. “Where are you working?”

“So you can stalk me there too?” Ugh. “None of your business. Go away.”

“You’ve got to learn to be nicer to your customers,” he said once more before ending it. “Even the ones you have a secret crush on.”

Kathleen swallowed deeply and looked away. Disgusting. There were girls who treated the guys they really liked like crap sometimes. They were called school aged teenagers. If she liked someone, she would tell them, or at least be kind to them. There was no hidden crush on Cuyler. He was a burden on her, in the worst ways. Seeing his face sometimes was hard to bear. When she lost a job or a direction, she had to start from the ground up, except with him. He always found out her new place of worked, found time to visit her, and eventually he found a way to work where she worked.

That was not flirting. He was a stalker, but she couldn’t prove it. He never made the move right away. Never acted threatening. The most he could get away with was ‘I was worried about my friend’. He knew exactly how far to go to never get caught. She was convinced he was a genius. A genius hiding in trash.

His taste. His lazy attitude. She even swore, she knew that he had put her life in danger more than once. He never admitted it, but when she had someone after her (again), she cornered one of them and they swore to her. They swore.

She was ‘co-loaner’ on some nasty shit. And why would he do that? For fun. If it was fun, if it made life interesting, he did it, and he dragged her along.

So his comment about flirting? Was not welcome at all. “I think I just threw up in my own mouth a little, excuse me.”

Ignore him. Just ignore him. She caught him wink at her as he took a bite of his ice cream and finally walked away.

 

————————————–

 

June 2002- Same Day. Lincoln, Nebraska.

 

“Well this is interesting. Seems we won something. Honey?”

Miss Parker overheard her dad say those words at the table. She looked up from her homework. Jarod? His name instantly popped in her head. It was unlikely her family won anything big. Maybe it was a small thing, like a discount at their store and it was one of her dad’s favorites? She watched her mom come over and make a fuss too. “What is it?”

“Oh, wow. I won this?” He chuckled at Miss Parker and showed her a paper that was too far away to see. “This is the yearly vacation raffle the company throws before the summertime.” He looked at the dates. “Whoah, this is cutting it close. This is less than five days away.”

“So is it like Hawaii?” Miss Parker asked.

“Oh no, they wouldn’t raffle something that big,” her father replied, “This is a nice hotel in Florida. I think the boss has some connections to the owner.”

“Well, they have to give you the time off,” her mother said excitedly. “This is exciting! We never win anything.”

Jarod. His name popped into her head again. Jarod wouldn’t randomly just set her up to win something, unless he wanted to talk somewhere specific? Or maybe. Did The Centre find us? It was the last couple of days of her high school. She was finishing her last homework of the year. She listened to her parents talking about it. Jarod.

When she was twelve years old, she had gotten away from The Centre with Jarod. He helped her find a new family and a new life. He had popped in on her a time or two, but he couldn’t come back often. He had his own family, but he always swore he’d watch out for her. He said last time they met, he’d try to leave her to her own life. Let her enjoy her family and her own life, but if anything happened, he would emerge and get her out.

Was it Jarod?

 

————————————–

 

Georgia. Nowhere.

Family. It was a tricky block there. Besides the kids, Jarod had the residents themselves that could take a lesson in decency. His employer, his employer’s ex-wife but mother to two kids, and his employer’s current wife and mother to the other two kids were sitting down for dinner. The air tightened in the room, again, Jarod could feel the tension. The lies in that household reminded him of the shadows of The Centre.

Jarod’s employer’s ex-wife was showing signs of being pregnant again and it wasn’t going to be denied much longer.

“So, Natalie,” the current wife said to the ex-wife. “Looks like you’re getting a might bit fat? Maybe you should slow down on the food.” Natalie just gave her a nasty look.

“Well, dig in,” Jarod said politely. They lived in the middle of the country with no other property nearby except Jack’s brother and wife, and Jack’s sister. There were only two men at any of the properties old enough to get a woman pregnant, and it definitely wasn’t Jarod.

“I think we can actually scarf this down,” his employer Jack said as he looked at the chili. “Don’t you usually make tons to cover the rest of the hooligans?”

“I did,” Jarod said, “except that it got ‘frogged’ yesterday.” An entire crockpot of chili. The nearest town was far and he calculated a certain amount of food for the shopping. His chili would have lasted two days along with the rest of the meal of today. Now he had no leftover chili and just some small side dishes for the main family.

“Those kids.” Jack shook his head. “My brother never did raise them right.”

As misbehaved as the other kids were, Jarod hated the thought of them going hungry through the night. It’s not their fault they weren’t showed attention. Any love. It isn’t their fault they can’t get food.

Sydney had been the one to hand Jarod the slip on Jack’s caretaker job. Jarod knew there must be something there he wasn’t seeing, and he hadn’t made a move until he could see it. So far, all he did see was that Jack was getting a nice little paycheck from The Centre each month. Nothing big, just a quiet down kind of extra cash. No idea why, except that maybe his brother and sister had something to do with it.

Like it or not though, Centre or not, those kids couldn’t be living out there alone much longer. Jarod scraped his dinner, and looked out the window. The wind is heavier, but nothing said for the amount of dirt I see on my truck. He exited the house and went over toward his truck. As he approached, he saw two of the kids near it, bail. “Damn.” He ran toward his truck to check it. He looked back at the others. None of them were old enough to reach the pedals, right?

The dirt on it said otherwise.

——————-

 

“He didn’t make extra Aunt Par,” Judith said as she entered the door. “I checked. Michael and Vince say so too.”

“Good. He needs to concentrate on his own job, not us.” Aunt Par served Judith. “To the table. I have to see your Aunt Bar.” She moved up toward the stairs. She knew Sydney would eventually do something, but sending Jarod himself? Ridiculous. Couldn’t he offer just a little help without turning traitor on her? She opened the door with a smile to the woman in the middle of the room. The one the kids affectionately called Aunt Bar. She kept her name relatively similar that way if the kids overspoke, someone would assume the P and B were just misplaced. Kids growing. Getting confused. That kind of thing. “Good evening, Miss Bar.”

Bar looked over toward her. “Hello, Miss Parker. How are you?”

“I’m fine, but it’s not that. It’s Par.” Damn Sydney for writing Parker on the prescriptions too. She got out the pills. “Here you go.” She had needed medicine badly. Bar wasn’t quite on the ball, but she wasn’t dangerous. Her biggest problem was moving away from the chair. She had to go to Sydney to seek some medicine for the woman. She was looking better every day, even getting up every once in awhile to move.

“Is Denise and Arnold back yet?” she asked Miss Parker. “It’s been days since we’ve seen them.”

Months, actually. Poor woman. “No, not yet. Still looking.” She patted her hand. “Kids have been fed. House is still nice. Everything’s fine.”

“The cats, all the stray cats? They are fine?” She asked. “All of them, even Mittens new ones? Oh, I miss when I could take care of them.”

“They are all fine.” She once again had to use a connection, this time Broots, to put the word out about the cats. She was down to three now. At least Broots didn’t turn on me.

 “Jack and Natalie haven’t visited for a long time. They must be real busy. Can we go visit them soon? The kids getting better at taking care of it you think? Have you heard from Denise and Arnold yet either?”

“No, Miss Bar. Eventually maybe we can go visit everybody.” Fat chance.  She gave her some water for the pills she needed.

 

—————–

Jarod looked at the leftovers. Not much. He went to his assigned room and called Sydney.

 “Sydney.”

“I don’t see what I need to do,” Jarod said to Sydney. “These kids, I’m trying to get them help. Is that all I’m doing here though?” he asked Sydney. “Are you going to tell me anything else? Why is The Centre paying Jack off? What happened to his brother and sister?”

“I can’t tell you, Jarod. Just open your eyes and look everywhere,” Sydney insisted. “Everywhere.”

“Looking everywhere is tough when you’re feeding eight people, Sydney, but know that when you fail making ‘extra’, others starve for the night.” What was he going to do? “Maybe I should make some quick sandwiches. Something. Mayonnaise. Real small amount of tuna but spread on them? Maybe pickles over the top. “I am almost out of here, Sydney, I should have enough for those kids to get real care soon.”

Jarod heard a small knock on his door. He looked over and saw Stephanie. Not one of the resident’s kids. “I gotta go.” He hung up the phone. “I don’t have any extra tonight.” He hated saying that. “I can make you a sandwich. I can make you a plate of sandwiches and you could go take them to your brothers and sisters?” He would have to go shopping again to get through the week, but if she was coming for food, he couldn’t leave her to go hungry.

“Aunt Par’s getting fat,” she said. She held out her tummy. “Not like fat fat. Bouncy fat, like she swallowed a ball. Like how momma looked before she disappeared with daddy.”

A ball? Jarod had never seen the Aunt, just that Jack called her a trouble maker. “You think your Aunt Bar is pregnant?”

“I told Jack. He thinks I’m nuts ‘cause no one messes with her.”

Hm. It might not be pregnancy, it could be something else health related. It was high time he met this mysterious Aunt. “Let me make some sandwiches real quick and I’ll go check over on her before we go to your house. Travel in the car with me and you can show me the way?”

———————-

 

When Jarod got out of his car, he saw another girl, Judith, right by the door scolding Stephanie. Well? Sydney said look everywhere. As he approached the house, he saw most of the kids around the table. With food and plates and clean forks. “Your parents came back?” Jarod asked. They all shook their heads. Why were they eating at their Aunt Bar’s house?

“Stephanie brought him!” Judith yelled, glaring at him. “You shouldn’t be here.”

“All of you are lining up to eat at your aunt’s house.” Something was wrong here. He set the sandwiches down. “Where is your Aunt Bar?” Stephanie pointed upward. Jarod went upstairs. There was only one room and one bathroom up there. He knocked on the door and heard her voice. She invited him in. Instantly, he knew this couldn’t be the same figure he’d spotted on the property before. “Hello, Bar. My name is Jarod. I work at Jack’s. How are you?”

“Hi there.” She waved. “Have you seen Denise and Arnold yet?”

“No. Do you need some food or help?” He moved closer to look at her. She didn’t exhibit any signs of pregnancy that he could see, let alone a child. “How are you feeling?”

“Wonderful,” she said. “I don’t need any food. My doctor just fed me. She takes real good care of us. You should meet her.”

 “You have a doctor?”

“Oh yes. She’s been here for a week or so now. Or longer? She is much better than the last one.”

“That’s Aunt Bar,” Stephanie said from the door. “What do you want with Aunt Bar?”

“Do you know her doctor?” Jarod asked Stephanie. He looked back at the woman. “What’s the name of your doctor?”

“Doctor Par. She goes by Aunt Par since she helps so much around here.” She scratched her head. “I don’t remember your name?”

Well? “Jack didn’t say you had a doctor.” Jack didn’t mention the state of his sister at all. She couldn’t be the one coming back and forth. Why was he lying?

“Ah? She’s shy. She didn’t want me to mention her,” Bar answered back.

Jarod heard the front door open downstairs. Someone was hiding as a doctor. There’s someone here that shouldn’t be here. He’d be meeting this doctor soon. He looked around Bar. “Where’s your medication?”

“The doctor holds it. She keeps it and brings it to me only when I need it so I don’t get confused.” She smiled.

Jarod moved downstairs but heard the kids almost yelling in unison, “Jarod’s here, Aunt Par!” He went by the front door first, making sure she couldn’t back out.

Someone was here. Good or bad. The Centre was involved. He needed to see this through.

“Go away, she doesn’t want to see you!” Judith yelled at him. “Go away, you don’t belong here, go away!”

“It’s all Stephanie’s fault!”

“But she’s so big!” Stephanie complained back as she came from downstairs. “And we don’t have diapers or a crib!”

“Is not, Stephanie, you promised!” Judith yelled back at her.

“Hey, hey, hey!” Jarod made them all quiet down. “Where is this Aunt Par?”

“Hiding,” one of the littlest said at the table. “It’s what she does.”

“Hides.” The kids clearly cared about her. A nice person. It looked like she was taking care of everything. Maybe? Is it my mom? Is that why Sydney . . . No, she’s big like she is pregnant. She could also have something else wrong with her. Not to mention, she’s scared or doesn’t want to see me. He couldn’t rule anything out. “Stephanie.” Stephanie was now crying in the corner, isolated from the others who were angry. Jarod always knew there was a reason those kids didn’t like him. He moved closer to Stephanie. “Where would she hide at?” She didn’t answer. “You were worried, right? I can’t help her if I can’t find her. I won’t hurt her, I promise.”

She gestured to the room on the other side. “Her room.”

Jarod moved over slowly to the other side. Friend or foe, he didn’t know. He had to be careful, play both sides. Be prepared to fight or hug at a moment’s notice. He opened the door and looked in. Then he heard movement on the other side. Oh, I don’t think so. He knew someone trying to get away from him would try to get out. He tried to come out over the other side, but she already scooted by the kitchen. “Damn.” At least she was near. “Stephanie thinks you might be pregnant,” he called to her. “If you are, running around from me shouldn’t be something you’re doing.” He tried to move steadily closer. “If this is about The Centre, I am not with them. I am here to help.”  What else? “Do you know Sydney?” Still no reply. “This gets us nowhere. You can’t leave these kids behind, it’s obvious you care. I can’t just leave them here with someone that I don’t know either. Just, reveal yourself.”

He heard another sound, but it was too light. It was a cat. Then? He heard it. He really heard it.

“Get the hell out of my spot, Jarod! I never asked for you to show up, Sydney did! You hate me, I hate you, get the hell out!”

Parker. Aunt Par, of course. “By all means.” He took several steps back. “Are you pregnant, Parker?”

“Get out, get out, get out!”

She was, and she was finally running from The Centre. Not fair. That I have to. “Come out,” he muttered. “I already know you are, come out.” She didn’t. “Have you been looked at?” No answer. “I’m not leaving.”

She gave one cold laugh. “I’ve got eight reasons you will, unless you plan on fighting off kids?”

Jarod looked behind at him. Everyone from the six year old to the twelve year old were glaring at him. Everyone but Stephanie. Her eyes were just pleading.

“You are all just going to leave your Aunt Par in that condition?” he asked them directly. “Stephanie’s the only one around here with the most sense and bravery.” He looked toward her voice. “Some need more bravery. When they’ve been undeniably hurt, or have undeniably hurt others. Some need to have the bravery to ask for help. Sydney knew I would not be happy to hear about you, but he still got me here, Parker. I haven’t ran off.” He sighed. “Just ask for some help. Be the next brave one.”

He gave it a minute and then saw her starting to emerge. She no longer had her fancy business suits or style. She had no makeup, no hair style, and she was as plain as she could be. Her stomach was bigger but definitely not pregnant. “You aren’t pregnant.”

“No,” she muttered. “I’ve been out six months. I’d be a blimp by now.”

“They why are you hiding?” Great. Now he really just wanted to get out.

“I told you. Momma’s unfinished business.” She whistled loudly. “Everybody assemble, front room, on the double, PK up front!”

Jarod watched as more kids headed in.

“I betrayed trust, everyone’s trust. Even Broots’ trust, only for one thing, and I wouldn’t change it.” She moved forward and picked up about a two year old with red hair. She gave him to Jarod. “Meet Ronald. First Pretender kid. He’s Angelo’s son.”

What? Jarod stared at the little boy. He did have some traits.

“And Stephanie, who is supposed to stay here but does run off to the other side.” Parker picked her up. “And fibs.”

“I wanted him to help,” she said. “He’s supposed to be the best one. You are getting fat.”

“Mph.” She looked toward Jarod. “Here’s a blast from the past. Look at her eyes. Cute little girl? Damien’s,” she muttered setting her down.

Damien? “The ex-pretender?” That he killed to save Broots? Converted Pretender turned Cleaner for The Centre.“ . . . okay.”

“Genes don’t change just because jobs do,” Parker groaned as she bent over for another one. “This is Lucas, he’s Alex’s boy. Say hello Lucas.”

“I don’t like him,” Lucas said.

“Sure you don’t. Back down you go.” She looked around. “And Eddie’s girl. She’s the last one so breathe, you don’t have one.”

Jarod exhaled heavily. “Showing kids left and right suddenly, you could have started with that.” He looked out at them. “What about um?” Kyle. “Did he have one?” Did he have a niece or a nephew from his passed on brother?

“No, sorry.” Quick but simple. No relatives. She picked up Eddie’s girl. “Eddie’s girl, Lucy.” She put her back down. “Mom knew I wouldn’t be old enough to do anything for the other files, but she knew I could be around to stop a second generation. That’s what she expected of me.” She motioned to the other kids. “Nobody counts kids on isolated farms. I made a deal with his brother to keep quiet. That’s why you saw the PK kids playing around too.”

“So Jack’s brother and sister-in-law only had four.” Jack kept quiet about the pretender kids. “The other children’s parents?” Jarod asked. “Denise and Arnold?”

“They were in the wrong place at the wrong time. They aren’t coming back, and it’s not because they didn’t love their children.” She looked toward the others. “They’re okay. I’ve been here six months with them to get them through the truth too.”

“Taking care of twelve kids and one sick woman.” Jarod couldn’t believe it. “You should’ve told someone.”

“Ah, ah, ah. How to commit the perfect murder is about the same to committing the perfect crime,” she said. “The more that knew, the worse the chances I could steal them away. I involved Sydney for the medication she needed. I involved Broots because I had to get these cats out to better homes. I didn’t want you involved, period. The Centre sniffs your scent like dog to meat.”

“I took a period of rest.” Still. “You betrayed everyone you cared about, to rescue children.” He chuckled. “I approve.”

“Pardon me if I don’t jump up with pride.”

“I kept trying to get social services to go to their home and see them alone, but you didn’t keep anyone there.” Jarod smirked. “You kept them here. Tricky, Miss Parker.” Aww. “You saved Pretender kids. All of them. I really want to hug you?” He held out his arms. Wishing but knowing.

“No. Down. Away.” She backed away.

He looked at the little Pretenders. “They all have the gift?”

“Potential,” she uttered. “You can tell with some. Either way, they all need taken care of.”

He gestured to her. “You took my truck out, didn’t you?”

“Your truck was better on the highway. I kept the PK and the others fed on decent food. Mostly. I don’t cook, it was worth the drive.” Her nose wrinkled a second. “Did it twice before too, just didn’t kick up much dust. You, I said no hugs!”

Jarod stole a little hug. He was so proud of her. She did it. She kicked The Centre out of her life. “I want to help.”

“Of course you do,” she said. “I’ll get the others to the other home.” She saw their faces. “They are being expected.”

“They need taken care of,” Jarod assured her. “We’ll take care of the PK’s too. All Sydney had to say was children from The Centre were involved, I would have been right here to help.”

“He doesn’t know,” she revealed. “He just knew I was hiding out in a strange area for nothing to be wrong. None of you know anything.”

“I know that you’re finally ready to get past The Centre. That’s all I need to know.” He tried to hold her hand but she resisted. “Same Miss Parker.”

“Shut up. I told you, no one knows anything.” She gave him a look of cold, hard steel back. She wasn’t playing. She was serious. “None of you know anything. About anything. I wasn’t kidding. Help me place these kids somehow, but don’t expect any kind of friendship.”

Well, she wasn’t going to change overnight. “I got sandwiches.”

“I don’t want a sandwich.”

“You didn’t sneak away in my truck today. It’s getting later,” Jarod suggested. “Kids will need sandwiches.”

“Don’t you still have a job to perform?” she reminded him.

“Nope, just quit. Just ran away in the middle of the night, couldn’t take it anymore.” There was a husband and two wives watching their own kids. They did it all those years without his help. They could watch them again until they found someone else to fill the position. There were a ton of kids there, some that had lost their mom and dad, and more who never even knew them. At least Kyle never had one. At least he never had one either. The Centre were more interested in cloning him. “Do you have a spare bedroom?”

 

————————————-

 

June 2002- Same Day. Night. Tennessee.

 

Miss Parker answered her door, seeing Broots at it. “Yes, Broots?” She smiled as she listened to him. It wasn’t good news. “I’m sure things will be okay. Right?”

“I don’t know,” Broots admitted with a sniff. “I don’t know. I just got the call that security clearance is moving higher. I know that means something is coming. I used to be a cleaner in my younger days.”

“I know,” she said. “I’m sure you were excellent at your job. I trust your judgment. But? What about food?”

“Don’t leave for anything,” Broots warned her. “Nothing. Your father wants you safe and sound, he called me himself. Bastard,” he muttered.

Oh. He must have been threatened by her father again. “I’m so sorry.”

“It’s fine. It’s just words now,” Broots told her. “Everyone I cared for hasn’t been in Centre hands for a long time.”

“Did you eat supper?” She asked cautiously. “You said you didn’t eat supper last night. Did you eat supper?”

“No. I don’t need to,” he insisted.

“You should eat,” she insisted more. “When things get bad, you don’t eat as much Broots. Please?”

He sighed. “Pack me a sandwich if you have to. It’s going to be a long night while I get answers from your father.” He shook his head. “I don’t get along with Raines.”

“I know,” she admitted. “I know. What’s he doing exactly? Do you know?”

“No,” he confessed. “I have nothing but threats and warnings that I better do my job. Stay inside for the next several days, don’t go out.”

She smiled. “Yes, Broots.” She promised that. She would never go against Broots. He was her life saver. Without him? It wouldn’t even be worth it to keep going.

In the process of rescuing the past pretenders children from The Centre, Jarod will fight the darkest nights of his life. The children will be saved, but at what cost to who?
Hearing the click of her fraud stiletto heels, Miss Parker will say what they want. Smirk when they want. Act the way they want. To protect those that Jarod can no longer protect.
Chapter 1: Kimberly Davis and Parker x 3/ Chapter 2: The PK’s/ Chapter 3: Kidnapped Miss Parker/ Chapter 4: The Power of Keys on A Computer.

It wasn’t the first time they’d met since Calamity Ganon. He had come by a few times randomly. He hadn’t said or done much, like he was just trying to watch her, to remember. This time, the birthday was a good excuse. He was holding something in a small burlap sack. “For me? Thank you.” He was more than a good guard in the past. He was a good friend back then, memory or not, so she gave him what he wanted.

She didn’t pretend with him. He was the only person who saw every side of her personality, royally uncouth or not. “Today isn’t going the way it was supposed to, Link,” she admitted as she took the little sack gift. “I know everyone wanted me to have a wonderful day, to remember that we’ve made such progress in the last year, but it’s very hard to do.” She watched him take a seat at the table. “Perhaps I shouldn’t have rejected an actual celebration for it, but it felt like it was too much. For not doing that, I feel like today I am being punished.” She looked at his gift that was wiggling around in the burlap and opened it. “A frog and a recipe.” She smiled as she grabbed the frog in one hand with the recipe in the other. He remembered the frog! He found a memory. “My theory was correct.” She looked at the recipe. “Cooking it released the abilities.” She glanced toward Link. “I guess you were right not to eat it raw.” She laughed, a little beside herself he finally remembered that. “Thank you for the gift, Link. It truly makes me feel better.”

It did. It was a small step, but it was a step. She had no idea how many memories he had retrieved specifically of her, but at least she knew he had one.

Then? The Nutcake woman was back. Not again. “I have no time for grievances for you to air, I am busy. Leave.”

“Make me.” She slammed her palms on the small table. “You can’t reject me forever, the world deserves to know the truth.”

“There is no truth and only pain in what you want from me,” Zelda insisted, but then the crude woman tried to take her frog. Zelda pulled it away, but she kept reaching for it. Link stepped in and made her keep her hands back.

“What are you holding, and what’s that in your other hand?” the nosy woman demanded.

“It is a frog and a recipe.” Easily revealed.

“So you can answer that but nothing else I asked?” she demanded. “Do you feel 18 or do you feel 118, did you feel like you and Calamity Ganon were the same creature, did you feel its evil inside of you?”

She didn’t answer, staying silent. Trouble, Zelda, she’s trouble. Be careful.

Link took it upon himself to escort her out. Speaking about the calamity probably didn’t make him feel better either.

“I don’t understand,” Zelda said as he came back. “Why today of all days has someone chose to ask me those questions? Do I really have to answer them before she leaves me be?” She covered her nose and mouth with her hands. She glanced at Link who just shook his head. His eyes. There was something else to them. He hadn’t just remembered the frog incident. Could it be? Did he . . . remember everything? Maybe. Until he said it, she wouldn’t assume. “You’re right. I shouldn’t say anything that I don’t want to. I simply remember the gossip mongers. I fear that she won’t bring any more good than they did.” She looked on the other side of her. “Right about now, Urbosa would be saying something to me about it. She can’t though.” She wiped her eye briefly. “She never can again. None of them can. Sometimes I think ‘what would father think of what happened to our kingdom’? Then I remember it doesn’t matter. He could do nothing.” Memories were being driven hard back into her mind. Oh great, the woman was coming back. Now what was she going to say?

“Is that what you do with the hero that defeated Calamity Ganon? Talk his ear off about your problems, really?” she criticized Zelda. “Like he doesn’t have any problems and just wants to hear about you bawling about everyone being dead?” Then she left.

Thank the goddesses, she was finally gone. Now Zelda could focus on more important-

“Hello there!” A Zora came into the room. “I am Prince Sidon! Do you remember me?”

She had met him more than once. The Zoras lived a long time. She had met him both before fighting Calamity Ganon, and afterwards again about a year ago. “Yes. Hello, Prince Sidon.”

“Ah, Link!” Sidon flexed toward him. “Still keeping up strong being the hero of the world?” Of course, Link didn’t answer. Prince Sidon turned back to Zelda. “The Zoras need some extra help in our building.materials. As you know we are building outwardly now to make the kingdom easier to access over the mountains, and we are in need of vast amounts of luminous stones.”

“Yes.” Good, something she could help with. “I am sure we can assist you in finding luminous stones.” Even she knew where some had been at.

“We have some too,” A different Goron said as he came in. “Hello!”

“Hello, Yunobo.” Daruk’s son. Such a long way to travel. “It’s lovely to see you again.”

“I came for your birthday. Boss says I was excused for your birthday.” He gave her a diamond. “Hylian’s really like these.”

“Thank you.” He could have given her anything and she’d still be-

“Unless you want this instead?” Yunobo held out rock salt. He also held out topaz and a luminous stone.

“Oh, could I have that?” Prince Sidon asked him. “We need those.”

“They are all over. Um?” Yunobo looked toward Zelda.

“Consider giving it to him as the gift to me,” she said to him. She watched as Yunobo gave it to him. It was good to keep associations between everyone strong. “I need to visit Gerudo soon.” The Zoras and Gorons were decent allies, but she should keep in touch with the Gerudos too. They were also bound to have problems, and their own leader was quite young. Younger than her.

Zelda glanced as Link laid a veil down on the table. He was warning her of the dangers. “I have traveled there before, I know its temperature dangers, Link.”

He picked the veil back up, but not gently. Did she misinterpret him wrong? Without his memories and experience away from each other, she may have messed up something. Did she belittle him? Oh, she hoped she didn’t do that. She had tried to watch for that kind of thing.

“I can go to make you feel better!” Yunobo said. “Gorons can go into Gerudo.”

“No, that’s quite alright,” Zelda told him. Gerudo was not close to Goron City at all, it was far out of the way. She didn’t want Daruk’s son to get into trouble.

She heard the sounds of the master sword being picked up and drug against the wood of the table before Link simply left. 

Or so she thought. Looking out the stable later, she had seen him. Guarding. Guarding the stable? Link. How much do you remember?

 

——————————————————

When the sun rose, she saw Link up and beside her bed. That was highly unusual. He often gave more space. “What is it?” He held up an article. Rito village was used as a central source for journalists to spread news quickly. It was happening more and more. At first it was the weather, then it was inventions, then it was unique people and interests. Her own volunteer watcher was from Rito. If it held Links interest, it couldn’t be good. I don’t even need to look. “I remember the gossip mongers of the past, Link. I assume it’s terrible. After all.” Father had warned me what the kingdom thought of me back then. I was not fit to rule. She still didn’t feel fit to rule, but as she was the last of the royalty, there was little choice.

Link laid it next to her. It must be something terrible that wouldn’t go away easily. It probably spoke of all the terrible things the woman mentioned yesterday. Trying to make her look cruel and unjust.

Nope! It didn’t even look like it was written by the Nutcake woman. “What?” The article heading was Best Choices for the Next Hyrule King, Part 1! She already placed it down. Just turned eighteen and this muck had to begin? “I am going to need something to eat.” Link was already ready with some hearty bass and rice. “That’s kind of you, Link.” Zelda moved from the bed with the food and sat at the same table with it. Link joined her as she ate.

She only scanned the beginning, knowing it would be a full list of reasons why she wasn’t capable of ruling Hyrule alone.

Prince Sidon was considerably a good guess in their gossip since Zelda led ‘unaided help of a gift for her turned to him’. Since he was also the Prince of Zora’s Domain, joining a Hylian and the Zora’s domain would strengthen their alliance with each other, each being ruled together. Sidon was also kind, women adored him, and Zora’s Domain and Hyrule were not far from each other. They also shared a past time that Zelda remembered, which would be a strength to their bond. Part 2 would come out tomorrow. “I’m fine, Link. It’s nothing I haven’t heard before.” Link gestured toward the top of the article. “Oh. You want to know that?” She had not told anyone but Impa those details but she wanted to keep a connection with him. If he felt he should know? “If you close your eyes, and simply hear your voice. That’s what it was like,” she told him. “I felt his darkness next to me, trying to press over me, to take over the light I was holding him down with. I felt it like a hot, radiating sun trying to burn me. Although, there was no skin. I was . . . bodiless, feeling more like a spirit than a person. Time existing and not existing, passing and yet standing still.” She looked back at the table. “It changed me. I’m not the same anymore.” She held her fork. That was a good enough explanation for him. “So much is missing now. You must know what I mean.”

“Hyah!”

Zelda moved as she watched the table being split in two. Link was beside himself. Are you kidding?! She could not even feel the difference between Link and a Yiga clan member in disguise? Even the most basic spirit power was gone now. He was disappearing and fighting Link, but Zelda’s heart felt so heavy after that. They tricked her into revealing her innermost thoughts. Link came back but the damage was already done. Her personal words were now fodder for the gossip mongers. The only thing she could be happy about is that she didn’t reveal too much, only her feelings.

Still? It irritated her! Those were her feelings. “I am going for a ride.” She went toward the front and retrieved her steed, Endura. Link quickly followed beside her, getting his horse as well.

She rode her horse for some time at almost max power, stopping to give it a break and an endura carrot to feel better. “You want this? Of course you do, and you deserve it too.” She patted her horse to show it some affection. Her horse loved those carrots so much she had called her Endura. Link got off his horse and came over to see her. “She knows when to ride like the wind for me. She deserves a treat. Does your horse want a carrot too?” She felt Link’s hand gently touch her shoulder. He did retrieve more memories, he was developing a softer spot for her. More personal than just ‘she was princess’. “I will be okay. I must be okay. If I’m not, the kingdom will insist I marry someone that fits their likings. Like my own feelings don’t count for anything, just like father . . .” She shook her head. “No, I won’t do that. I loved him.” Her eyes started to water again. “I loved them all.” Birthdays, blasted birthdays! Only useful to stir her heart and hurt. She looked toward a second carrot. “I don’t feel fit to rule Hyrule.” She stared at his eyes. “I never have been, even before this. I’ve tried for so long. I am just an ambassador trying to keep peace. Hyrule hasn’t had royalty and it survived just fine. Can’t I just be Ambassador Zelda?”

He moved back toward his horse and his hands slid slightly against the reigns.

She sighed and looked at her horse. “It’s not the same. None of it.” She brought out the article again. “Even a Yiga member can fool me now.” He moved closer with his horse. That’s right, he hadn’t seen the article. She gave it to him.

Link looked at the article and his eyes grew wide as he was shaking his head back and forth.

“Mipha’s brother as King of Hyrule,” she said. “I just don’t see it.”

“No.” It was rare he spoke up like that when he could have just shook his head. Link often picked a non-verbal cue when he could.

“I know. A choice by best facts and opinions of people. Not me.” She looked toward Link. “I do not plan on mounting any kind of husband right now anymore than I did then.” She smiled at her horse. “I much prefer her.” She watched Link drop the article. “I suppose I should head back.”

 

Link followed her back at the slower trot. Hiring a Yiga to get Zelda’s thoughts out loud. If Link could have tracked him down, he would have taken him out. In the morning, the words he overheard while he was getting ingredients for breakfast would be shared with the world against her will.

When he first fought Calamity Ganon, his focus was on getting rid of the evil. He got strength from the monks in the shrines and pulled the divine beasts to him. He couldn’t remember his past, and the more he learned, the more tragic it seemed to be. All of that would only distract him from what was important. Getting rid of Calamity Ganon for good. He’d seen the destruction of Fort Hateno and even read several stories. Yet, he should have been doing something else in his quests.  Something personal.

Tell me, Link . . . do you really remember me?

He should have been finding those painful memories, regardless of how much they would have distracted him. When she first came back, he could see it there, in her. Eyes of welcoming he should have known. He was honest with her though. He didn’t remember her, and so the former Princess Zelda had left to Zora’s Domain on her own.

When he finally saw her, face to face though, he knew it was time to deal with his own memories. Calamity Ganon was gone, the Princess of Hyrule was saved as he promised King Rhoam, and it was time to discover himself. He’d had a few memories that hit him like a rock as he was helping to get rid of the divine beasts. Bits and pieces of the other Champions, with tiny nuances of her involvement. It was time to know more though, time to stop ignoring the bright areas of his memories.

Using his sheikah slate, he had to roam all over as he did with the shrines. From Gerudo to Tingle island. It only took discovering a couple of memories before he was going everywhere, looking for any sign or clue to find in those pictures. Pikango had been a traveler and he helped Link as he could.

Now, he was only one memory short. He didn’t know if everything would be complete when he retrieved the last memory so he stayed silent on the subject. Princess Zelda had enough to worry about.

Dilapidated and torn down, he’d been there at the castle after the fact for more memories. There was a small area of sleeping bags and a table placed in the front entrance. Everything else still looked the same as when he went to find Calamity Ganon. Staying there couldn’t have been easy, so he understood why she wouldn’t stay there long. While she often stayed within Hyrule, she was always moving, and staying around in stables or small villages.

It took forever to run into her the first time he wanted to find her.

Link had known it hadn’t been easy for Zelda. The day he was assigned to her in the past, he just did his best to stay up with her. Even if she didn’t want his help. Back then, she spoke out loud to herself and less to him.

She had been his complete opposite. While he hated to speak, she chose to speak in the quiet all the time. After she started to see him as the knight he truly had been, she didn’t talk as much. Before, when she hadn’t cared, she had felt free to express herself. According to her own diary though, he had told her why he was so quiet. Most likely, he had to share something to make her share in that same carefree-

“Ooh, hang on!” She stopped her horse and got off, running away into the distant grass.

Link stopped his thinking, got off his horse and ran after her. The actions felt familiar, so familiar.

“Perfect! I was hoping I could get a hold of some of these soon.” She was picking the most common type of mushroom in the region, the Hylian mushroom from the ground. “Now if I just had some hearty bass. I do have a hearty radish.” She smiled at Link. “That’s a meal in itself.” She tucked the mushrooms away. “I want to cook plenty for my journey. When I don’t have it I end up eating apples or simply mushrooms and it doesn’t last very long.”

She placed plenty of mushrooms in her satchel but what she just did was a dead giveaway too. He reached his horse, also taking plenty of mushrooms. When she got on hers, he kept looking back at her.

“What, the mushrooms? I will be leaving for Faron first before Gerudo. I’ll stop at a small village for a day, and then I’ll proceed through the stables and make my way to Gerudo.”

He knew it. Faron. Lurelin. She wasn’t putting Gerudo off and she would have been gone before he found her again. He’d go straight to Gerudo and she would have taken a detour out of the way. He shook his head as he trotted behind her horse.

Link had to deal with amnesia. He used his instincts and what people told him to keep going. That feeling? While he felt loss, the sensation of not knowing the loss-

“Rushrooms!”

Link watched her head off of her horse and count the big purple mushrooms on the side of the mountain. Just like before, it felt so familiar. She must have done that frequently. He got off as she started to climb up. “Aye,” he warned her.

“I am quite capable of getting my own rushrooms,” she insisted as she climbed.

Of course, she felt like she was capable of everything it seemed. Was she? No, but she strived to be. Link left the smaller one to her, but quickly climbed to get the rest. Seeing some ore up above, he went ahead and took a whack at it with his sledgehammer. Rock salt was prevalent, but sometimes the most common ingredients weren’t found when you wanted food. Link learned a long time ago to scour everything in each direction. Some of the best items to get for an area were from a different one.

While he was picking up his rock salt though, he started to hear a traveler stop to talk to Zelda. He seemed friendly, introducing himself, but Link wasted no time in paragliding back down. When he was back on the ground, Zelda was still traveling down from picking her rushroom.

“It’s nice to meet you.” Zelda placed her rushroom away and acted as polite as she could to the stranger. The traveler smiled, just wanted to say hi, and then he was on his way. After he was properly gone, Link gave her his rushrooms. “I have one,” she insisted. “You got six? How did you do that?” He tried to give them to her again. “Fine, we can share.” She smelled them. “Oh, it smells so good.” She looked toward Dueling Peaks stable, and then on the other side. “I wonder if Impa has had some in awhile. Maybe I should go share a meal with her. Half a day away, but it won’t be bad by horse.”

Yes. Impa.

And he would eat with them.

 

Outside Dueling Peaks Stable

 

She was going to do it. For years, Traysi had traveled the world and become reknown in Rumor Mill, and what she saw . . . but there was so much more she wanted. Higher pay for one. Her name known as the resource that wasn’t afraid of anything. The brave new world now didn’t work the same anymore. While she had traveled, more areas were coming together. People here and there were starting to connect easier. Even the sales of things like Goron Spice was being communicated to even Lakeside stable. When Hyrule had got itself together again, and there was no more Ganon. When the Princess’ Knight woke up and she finished off Ganon, it was the end of her.

 

People were starting to get better news than her. Much better. The ones around Hyrule especially, surveying and asking around areas that so many stayed out of due to the ancient guardians that had been there. There were no bounds around the kingdoms or areas anymore. News on how pretty something had been, or unique stars in the sky falling . . .

 

She was going to do it. Absolutely. This was her chance. The Queen Zelda would be caught off-guard today. Heh. Queen. She kept herself firm as she approached. Since the catastrophe of Ganon, the world was so complacent. So open. She would be an easy target. I will be ridiculed publicly but have endless opportunities for the good stuff! I will go down in history as the toughest journalist.

She knew rumors. She knew when something stank. Zelda, she stank. She staaaank. There was something there. Although her knight hadn’t remember her, she hadn’t tried to stay around to help with any memories. Hardly saw him at all. Tip one. Guy goes to save girl, girl leaves. Nuh uh, stank. Tip two, Traysi had followed her trails more than once. Talked to some Hylians and Zoras and found out she was visiting the goddess springs during any downtime she had instead of resting up. She spent like all day inside of them, naked according to one guard, praying constantly for hours. Oh yes, she stank like Staminoka Fish with Keese eye balls and field greens. She had a secret that she was trying to hide.

Traysi was going to find out what it had been, today.

 

Today was Zelda’s eighteenth . . . well, 118th birthday party. It was almost one year ago today that she had defeated the almighty Calamity Ganon with Link. Zelda did not want to celebrate the day, but many towns wanted her to. That day was now a day of celebration instead of accursed misery. Still, she continued to answer questions of those who wished or needed to speak to her. Some were humbled to meet her. Some thought she was nice. Others thought her regal, while others thought her not regal enough. As her father had once said- No, Zelda. She would not go there. The past would not stir her today.

 

It would be a good day. She watched as some Gorons came, introduced themselves and placed some plans in front of her. She looked at it. “Quite adequate.” She stamped them with approval. “You’ve no need of any Hylians to help?”

“No, Ma’am!” The Goron on the left said. “We just wanted to make sure it was okay with you. We haven’t had . . . well, just thanks!”

 

Yes. She smiled politely, knowing what he wanted to say. “Thank you. Our plans are doing well too.” It had been a year and still so much of their world was left shattered in pieces. Most of the monsters had been taken out, some were still claimed to be hiding somewhere, but with no more blood moon from Ganon, the monsters had stopped coming. People were free to roam the world, trade was being better established, and each day she had a crew of Hylians and associated members of other domains help. The ancients were being taken out of the ground they had been rotting in for so long. They were being demolished and their resources melted or recycled into other resources. While they all agreed to leave an area of ancients for future generations, to show how weary one should be of the ancient technology being only supreme, they didn’t need reminders everywhere anymore.

 

The same with the ruins. Each day over the past year, they had been taken down too. Subtle reminders is what they needed, but the world wouldn’t be marked with them all over either. One day, new building and new places would be established over them. Hylians could prosper again.

 

“Nutcake!” A woman of her twenties perhaps offered to Zelda. “Tabantha wheat, goat butter, sugar cane, and an acorn made this terrific treat for your birthday.”

 

The way people spoke too. Zelda had been focused on using resources on the lands to change abilities, but the whole world had gone that way after the Kingdom was gone. There just wasn’t any big shops anymore. Not enough people. Not enough trade. “Thank you very much for the Nutcake.” Gracious and kind. “I am busy right now, but I will look at it later, I promise. Thank you very much for your generous time and attention.”

 

“Oh, I don’t need any thanks, I just wanted to ask you something.”

Oh. “Yes?”

“Did you live and endure inside of Ganon for a hundred years, or did you just wake up before the end?”

What? Zelda blinked.

“Do you feel like you turned 18 or do you feel 118?” The woman continued. There was no sorrow in her eyes or voice, she was just staring. Examining her. “Do you feel any more confident of running this torn down Kingdom? People did fine for a hundred years, can you do anything else for us?”

Her questions.

“If you were joined, like a part of Ganon, were you a part of the Malice or were you incorporeal? Could you feel his power? Did it scare you or excite you?”

Her. Questions.

“No one trusts you. You are a figment, an icon of something that gives hope, but that’s all you are. Even in the past, you could do nothing. You let everyone down. Did you witness your father dying?”

“That’s enough!” Forget regal politeness. “You will remove yourself from my sight!”

“Why? Because you think you are better than me? You’re a hundred years too late, Princess. Sorry. If you had succeeded your name would have been Queen Zelda. Since your weakness couldn’t beat Calamity Ganon, you’re just a relic. You haven’t answered a single question. Are you going to push me? Are you going to do anything? Hey!”

“You need to stop being so mean to Zelda!” One of the Gorons held her hand. “It’s best to go away. Gorons have a lot of strength and I don’t want to hurt you.”

“So scared to answer a single question, you sick a Goron on me?” Yes, that was going into Traysi’s paper. Sure, she didn’t get a single answer but the silence still gave her so much to work with. “You shouldn’t be running this kingdom, you never did anything but hold back something you couldn’t stop, and I know you are hiding something! Ow!”

“Sorry,” The Goron apologized who squeezed too tight. “You were not moving, you won’t move, move! I’d hate to hurt you again.” He looked toward the other Goron. “What do we do? Risk breaking an arm to get her to move?”

Zelda walked away not wanting them to break the Nutcake woman’s arm. The woman struggled to follow, but Zelda continued to walk away.

She continued to follow again? Unheard of. Zelda turned around. “What is wrong with you, woman?”

She smiled creepily. “Legend said it always took two to stop Calamity Ganon. The blood of the Princess and her Knight. Forget all the tech, it was you two. You didn’t keep your end of the deal”

Rambling and she spoke of nothing new. Zelda turned away so fast her hair whipped in front of her. She had a thousand other things to do. A day of celebration, not this. Not regret.

“It’s logical! It’s always been logical, but the royalty thought they were above everyone. Even in this time, you think you are above everyone. Well you aren’t, you are hiding something! I know it and I am going to find out what it is.”

 “I do not look down upon others,” Zelda insisted but she couldn’t go much more. She knew she should be walking away and not dealing with her. Her father would have had guards pull her away by now. People like the Nutcake woman, they never brought good things. Often Zelda had been told not to speak to those like that woman, unless her father agreed to it. She was just bothering her so much, saying such terrible things. Zelda wouldn’t lose it though. Snark all she wanted, she wasn’t getting Zelda’s secret.

 

Inside Dueling Peaks Stable

 

“It makes sense that it be this one,” A Hylian representative from Fort Hateno said to Zelda. “This was the place of the last stand.”

“I know it was the place of the last stand,” Zelda said a little more standoffishly than she meant. Her peaceful day was fading away fast. “I was there.”

“Then this should be it,” the representative insisted. “Reconstruction should be halted in here. Fort Hateno already has a reputation with what happened, it would only make sense future generations see it there.”

Fort Hateno’s ancient graveyard. “We will talk more of this. There is more than I that will decide.” Oh please, someone else come with a better problem. She gestured for another person to come toward her. She looked like a presentable nice woman, however appearances were still deceiving. Especially from the Yiga Clan. To get this far, she would have been well tested though, and The Gorons were still hanging around. Besides, she’d dealt with one Yiga and this was not a place to pull anything off with her. “Hello? How may I help you?”

“I need these.” She gave a drawing of a pair of glasses to Zelda. “My son has very bad vision. He won’t be able to support his future family if he can’t even aim a bow.”

Oh. Glasses. Such a small thing it used to be. Such a small token in the Kingdom. Father would have been able to snap his fingers and someone would bring a lovely pair. How things used to be. “I will do what I can to see if I can help find some glasses. How hard is it to see?” How thick would they need to be? Oh, she couldn’t answer. She only knew it was blurry but in that time, she had nothing else to compare it too. Assume the worst. “How old is he?”

“Fifteen.”

“And was he born with bad vision?”

“No, of course not. He lost his eye while running from a monster.”

“Lost his eye?” Oh dear. “Then his other eye?”

“Is blurry.”

“Oh. Glasses may help, but that might be too much to ask of them,” Zelda admitted. Hunting with one eye could be dangerous if he wasn’t well trained already.

“The glasses would make him see, right?”

“It may help one eye, but if the other is gone, it might still be hard to hunt.” What to do? “If he has problems with his family in the future, he is invited to come see me.” That didn’t seem to appease her. “I’m sorry.”

“Then can you do anything for him?” The woman asked. “You have magical powers, can you restore his vision? The gods have blessed you.”

Oh. “I don’t think so,” she said. It wasn’t a magical wand she waved around to restore everything. After the battle of a hundred years, it felt like most of it was gone. She had used the last against Ganon. “I’m sorry.” The woman turned and walked away. She didn’t leave even her name with Zelda. Still. Glasses, she would see if she could find a pair of glasses.

She heard movement behind her and turned.

Link.

Link searched for shrines and freeing the divine beasts before taking on Calamity Ganon, but didn’t search out his painful memories. To Zelda, this was a blessing once she discovered a terrible secret. Now that he is silently demanding to have his spot back, she will have to reveal that painful secret. A secret that will force Link to make a choice: Zelda’s safety or Hyrule’s loyalty.

Before Breath of the Wild 2. I have no idea how that would change things so I’ll just mention it. In this story, Link met Impa, Purah, Robbie, freed the Divine beasts, got his master sword, and did most of the shrines, but not all of them. He collected all but two memories, and he never had the final talk with Kass in Rito Village.

Chapter 1: Nutcake Girl/ Chapter 2: What Does He Remember?

Jarod came into the office. He’d been wearing a friendly smile since he came up. Sydney wasn’t far, he wasn’t supposed to be. Light shined through the windows of The Centre. Real light from the sun. He saw one of his ‘team mates’ clacking away on the computer. Balding, very focused, his work area was messy, he had a picture of a young girl, probably talented and not there as a cleaner or sweeper. Good.

“Uh?” He turned around. Bright eyes. Seemed friendly. “Can I help you?”

“I’ve been sent by Mister Parker to join the case on Alex.” Ooh. What was that? Sparkling. Different food in the corner. Not wheat grass. He could smell the aroma coming from an open box. He went over to the box and took one.

“Oh. Take all  the donuts you want,” the man said to him. “There’s soda in the fridge if you are thirsty. So, you are the new one on the case? Are you helping on the computers or, or sweeper?”

Hm. Not very perceptive. Stuttering. Shy. Not Centre material. Maybe side job, part job, or part of a job that didn’t involve skill in serious Centre business. Jarod took a couple more donuts and went for the ‘soda’ in the fridge. He definitely wanted to try that. “Computer.” Not a lie, he wasn’t a sweeper. “Is that your little girl in the picture?” Ooh. Colorful cans. Aluminim. Big and bold lettering, flashy, advertising. He grabbed one and opened it up. Pull the tab and it popped open. “It pops open. It’s nickname is pop.”

The guy just chuckled politely. “Yeah, never about that. Uh? Yeah, that’s Debbie. My daughter.”

“And your name?” Jarod asked as he started to drink down the pop intermittently with eating the donuts. This is what freedom tastes like. Limited freedom but freedom nonetheless, until he could find a real way out.

“Broots.”

Typical. One name in the Centre. He’d test it. “Nice to meet you, Mister Broots, I’m Jarod. What are you working on?”

“The latest downloads of the latest victims by Alex.”

Said just so casually. Jarod went over by the computer and continued eating his donuts over Broots’ shoulder. He wasn’t giving them up. They were his. He pointed to the computer. “That, check that closer.” Addressal. “His mom and dad. Anyone else?”

“I think, um, no so far,” Broots said.

That he knew of. “Do you have the address book of the victims?”

“There was no matching cross references,” Broots answered back. “They didn’t really keep a lot of names in there though. I haven’t checked through the photo albums yet. This is just from this morning.”

“Damn.” Jarod looked at the faces on screen. I just wanted freed. They wanted freed. I thought they would run and hide. Find their families. That’s what he would have done. Instead, he set a killer loose. Every person Alex killed, Jarod was responsible for in a way. He helped him escape. They were all supposed to escape.

“If you want something small to work on, here’s a small purchase traced to Eddie,” Broots said handing him another file. “You can put that in the computer system. It’s underneath all the paper over there. Sorry, it’s a mess.”

Heh. “Thanks.” Jarod knocked all the papers backward and turned the computer on, while also turning the shredder on. He started to shred the files. He would help them catch Alex, but he’d help them miss Eddie.

“What are you shredding?” Broots asked still glued to his computer screen.

“Oh just some old expired files of mine. The Centre hates messy footprints,” Jarod said as he continued to shred Alex’ information up. “It’s a strict place to work. Sometimes I don’t know how I got here. What about you, Mister Broots?”

So far, Broots still hadn’t corrected him. Broots must have been his last name. That meant his daughter would be Debbie Broots. How many Broots lived in that town? Something to check into. For his freedom, Jarod would use any scrap he could.

Even better though, Broots actually answered. “Feels like you just fell on a snowflake in the wrong direction. I lost my last job due to lay offs. I’m in the middle of custody with my daughter, I have to have a job especially if I want to keep her one day, so? Here I am. You?”

“Roped in,” Jarod settled on. “These donuts are okay, but do you have anything else around here?” Broots looked back at him and then gestured toward the next office. 

“There’s some coffee and cookies in the next room over. There’s some juice too,” Broots answered.

Jarod left a second to check it out. He’d heard of cookies before. Miss Parker talked about those when they were younger. He already had juice, but the juice was orange. He took some of it and the cookies. He walked back over and sat down. He got behind the computer. It was booted up finally.

First thing Jarod did wasn’t anything to do with Alex. He just smiled and continued to make small talk as he dug up anything and everything he ever wanted to know.

That was, until she came in. She about choked on her drink as she saw him hammering away on the computer. “Good Morning, Miss Parker. Did you talk to your Daddy today?”

She yelled for Sydney and Broots, and demanded to know what the hell was going on. Sydney gave her the skinny, but when she pointed out where he was, that was the end of that. Sydney turned off the computer and scolded him like a child.

“Jarod. The deal was-“

“Mister Broots asked for some help,” Jarod said, using him as an excuse. “He’s a team mate. I couldn’t refuse.”

“And what did Broots ask you to do?” Miss Parker was glaring at Broots who still had no idea what was going on.

“Input files for Eddie,” Jarod answered.

“Then where are they?” Oh, she already knew.

Jarod shrugged. “Somewhere in all this paper mess I think. Unless I got confused.”

“Broots!” She was practically barking now. “Did you let him shred files?!”

“N-no? Yes? He shredded something,” Broots said confused. “Not the files. He shredded some messy footprint files on him.” He just stared at her. “What’s wrong?”

“Jarod is a special team mate,” Sydney said specifically not trying to step on any toes. That was Sydney. “He is a Pretender.”

“He’s one of the idiots that tried to run away, but didn’t make it.” Miss Parker’s eyes didn’t lift from his. “There has to be a damn good explanation you are in here right now.”

“Run and talk to your Daddy,” Jarod informed her. “If he’ll bother to listen to you.” He leaned over in the computer chair. “Which he never did.”

“Jarod doesn’t want to willingly work on a computer and give information like Broots does to catch Alex,” Sydney informed her. “He made a deal last night with your father. One of his inventions he made a long time ago is on his leg. Originally created for felons, he can’t leave very far from me without creating a terrible shock to himself.”

“Like a dog collar?” Miss Parker looked impressed. “You leashed yourself to The Centre.”

“Yeah. Just like you,” Jarod said removing the small smile she had for half a second.

“As long as he doesn’t leave too far from me, he’ll be fine,” Sydney said. “He will be able to track Alex.”

“While stuffing down donuts and juice,” she said, noticing probably all the sugar on him. Not like he cared. He liked sugar. A lot, and he was going to get a lot more of it. “Fine. Did you discover anything?”

“You bet,” Jarod smiled. “Donuts taste very good. So does juice. Soda too.”

“Sydney, when did you start to get even more vindictive than me?” She criticized him. “If he gets away far enough, he could get that thing off.”

“The Centre thought of that,” Sydney said, “but they also agreed that Jarod’s caring personality would probably not kill me in an attempt to escape.” Sydney lifted his own pant leg. “It goes both ways.”

“You’ll get shocked too, Sydney?” Mister Broots sounded worried. “Oh. That’s kind of far.”

“The Centre doesn’t know the meaning of too far,” Jarod argued. “Anyhow? I guess, this is my chance to be free, in a way.” He gestured to the donuts. “I want more of those kinds of things. Cookies. Good tasting things.”

“You need a thing called money, and I doubt you are getting a paycheck,” Parker harped on him.

“Miss Parker,” Sydney said. “Mister Parker has exclusively given instructions for you to take care of him. A small daily allowance.”

“A thousand dollars.” Jarod held out his hand. “Daily. I’d like cash please.”

“Are we really going with this?” She looked like she was trapped in a different dimension. “I have to give Jarod a thousand dollars a day? For what?”

“Anything he likes or needs,” Sydney said. “Mister Parker seemed . . . avidly fond of how much Jarod wished to pursue Alex. He also liked the idea of Jarod using his Pretending skills in real life situations to track him down. It could be worthwhile research to The Centre.”

A small stiletto click. “I don’t carry cash.”

“Then you better get some,” Jarod said as her phone began to ring. “Ooh. Do you think it’s finally Daddy ready to tell you something about me?”

 

 

Freedom was sweet and bittersweet. Real freedom would have been different. Here, he was still limited. He could eat different things, he could leave The Centre, and he could even go outside. As long as Sydney was in a decent approximation, he could go there. But? He wasn’t allowed to be on the computers without someone watching over him with approved activity. He wasn’t allowed on any Pretend ideas he couldn’t figure Sydney into. If Mister Parker hadn’t pushed so hard for a way to track Sydney next to him also like a criminal, he could have been out in day one.

Jarod could still do some things though. He could have fun. Sydney didn’t have to be extremely close, he could go shopping by himself. Talking to people by himself. He would only fall into trouble if he reached over 200 yards away, then they’d both be in for a shock. It would start small but get worse as the distance increased. Not only that, Jarod could never say it was true freedom. The only reason he was out there was to get Alex under control, and then he’d be placed back in The Centre as before. Unless The Centre approved of his methods.

He said that. Mister Parker said that and Jarod could barely keep himself from glaring. Like they thought it might be possible to teach him how to be a cleaner. How to Pretend for them. How to get them what they want? Alex only, and only because Jarod was correcting his own mistake. Alex was killing good people who did no wrong, and if Jarod didn’t help, there was no telling how long it would take before he was captured.

In the meantime though? The sun felt nice through the shades. “I want to go outside.”

“Of course, Jarod. Let’s go outside.”

 

 

People came in and out of the door that led to freedom. Jarod walked along the halls, making sure Sydney wasn’t too far behind or too close. He didn’t want him being extremely close all the time too. He reached the doors, pushed them open and felt the sun on his skin. Sydney gave him a bogus reminder about staring into the sun like he might forget as he came out. He stood there, eyes closed, feeling the sun on him. He observed everything with new eyes, all of the new objects that were in brilliant displays of color that the florescence inside could never match. He moved toward the ‘cars’ Miss Parker used to tell him about. He could see all the trees and grass. All the natural beauty of the forest ahead of them, past the parking lot full of the cars.

Jarod heard Sydney warn him not to go into the parking lot with the cars without watching in all directions. Cars moved fast and could be unpredictable sometimes. Only for those not watching, but Jarod could see how it could be hazardous. A person would have to watch the shadows in every car and notice all the subtlety of starting if they gave no outward light symbols.

 

 

Miss Parker kept her head down as she worked. Working with Jarod of all people. A big kid, a bigger annoyance, and someone she was deemed not to have much contact with as she grew older. And now, that same priority was putting her right back in the saddle. Right next to him. She tried to work in her own office to get away, but there wasn’t much to get away from. Sydney was charitable to him, and he did let Jarod go almost anywhere he wanted to. He haunted the lounges, probably tasted every piece of already made breakfast everywhere, visited the toilet (because a diet doesn’t change that quick), and visited outside more than once. At least that was some relief.

When it came to lunchtime, Broots ordered sandwiches for him and Sydney. When he asked Jarod what he wanted, of course he wanted to try the entire menu. In fact, now he wanted Sydney to take him to the restaurant to pick them up. At least more solo time. Jarod’s curiosity was not an easy thing to take. She could do it as a child, but not as an adult. Since she was under her Daddy’s orders, and Jarod wasn’t a trivial annoyance from her past but someone she needed to work with, she was silent. She couldn’t pick on him, curse at him, or show any unwanted favor. Her Daddy told her to treat her as she would someone from The Triumvirate visiting. That meant utter respect and mostly no talking. Her father never wanted her speaking up to The Triumvirate.

Just a new typical day at work, with a boy that became a man that never experienced the outside world. Hm. Typical day at The Centre, never knew what it would bring.  She was trying to find one of the leads they had had on Eddie now too. Jarod was supposed to find both of them, but she knew he’d never catch Eddie. He would be working to destroy their hard work on finding Eddie. Just like he probably shredded those files. Eddie was small time, so was Alex, but because one of them might be holding onto Jarod’s DSA’s for him, each of them were given higher priority to find. The Centre couldn’t have proof of it’s existence out there with those DSA’s.

At least she wasn’t the only one in culture shock. Broots didn’t quite know how to take it either. He’d experience The Centre before, and he’d met Angelo, Raines little sidekick that helped with the investigations too, but side by side. With not an empathic mushhead, but a man that made his brain probably look like swiss cheese that was technically owned by the place he worked at? Yes. He had a couple of moments too.

“I don’t get it, I don’t see the reasoning,” Broots said as he stared at the computer. “If the Pretender was separated his whole life, wouldn’t he want to be reaching his family, not killing them? They’re innocent, they didn’t do anything.”

Broots was like that. Open mouthed and sincere. Miss Parker waited for it. The angry shutting of a folder.

“Yes, one would think that,” Jarod came back on Broots. “Especially one that suffered the same fate as him, but didn’t get access to see any past violence because they were also deemed a Pretender.”

Yep, there it was.

“I? I-I didn’t mean anything by it,” Broots apologized.

“Of course you didn’t. You’re just hunting Pretenders like animals, and forgot you have to work with one.”

Oh the love these two expressed. “Broots gets on everyone’s nerves,” she said to Jarod. Less to save Broots, more to annoy Jarod without seeming like she did.

“Like you’re any better,” Jarod came back on her. “At least he realizes his mistakes. You? You still think of me as property.”

“I sure do.” She wouldn’t let up right there. “Technically that’s not being rude, that is a simple fact. You belong to The Centre, Pretender. So do they.” She wouldn’t go into apology mode. She didn’t apologize. This was her job. If it wasn’t her job, she wouldn’t be there.

“I think everyone needs to settle down,” Sydney said. “This situation is new to everyone. Let’s relax and we’ll adapt to it. Jarod? We can go to the restaurant but you shouldn’t order everything on the menu. You’ll be wasting food. Broots often picks the same place, you can get something different next time.” Jarod seemed okay with that and left the office with Sydney.

“Oh whoah,” Broots sighed in relief. “I-I didn’t meant to offend. It’s just that, well, he’s here. We’re chasing what he is. Which? I mean, he is still a person, but The Centre. I mean it’s our job.”

“Stop questioning morals, they only get in the way,” she reminded him. “Concentrate on finding Alex. Don’t apologize for doing your job. The Centre pays you to work for it. That simple.”

“Yeah, I know, but . . . i-it’s just different when one of them, I mean, a Pretender that was trapped here. Just like them. That’s still technically trapped, that he’s . . . I-I-I just have to watch my mouth.”

“Good start,” she muttered. Jarod was touchy, he’d lay into Broots more than once, but that was Jarod. Anyone having anything to do with The Centre would eventually get criticized. Broots was probably on his good side better than he thought though. Jarod had a weakness for things like children and Broots didn’t exactly spell out Centre tough. He wouldn’t push him too far, but he better watch it. Broots was also the head computer guy. The last thing The Centre needed was for him to start getting a moral conscience and bail.

Morality. It just got in the way of business.

 

 

Addresses. Connections. Albums. Pictures. Jarod tried to decipher what the connection were to the new victims. If Alex had a vendetta against his family, then these latest victims should be relation. Some kind of connection, but no one in any of the photo albums The Centre had confiscated had been them. He watched as Broots packed up. He was going to go home to his daughter. His family. Family. It’d be nice to go home to family. Sydney had an extra room he could sleep in. In fact, Sydney said his place was so big, that he could have any of the backrooms for any of his projects. He didn’t go back there. Jarod would find out the story to that later.

He could have got so much farther if he wasn’t tethered to ‘being watched’ and restricted on the computer. Miss Parker was still in the corner, going over useless data she’d already went over. “Trying to make those hours count so it never looks like you go home early to have a life,” he said to her. “Nice job. Daddy must be proud.” So far, she’d ignored him most of the day. Besides that small interlude with Broots she hadn’t said much of anything directly to him. Mister Parker must have ordered her to be nice in some way. “I get to go home with Sydney soon.”

“Ooh, what a dream come true,” she said as she flipped the paper over she was looking at.

It was, when he was a kid. All he ever wanted to do was leave his room and go home with Sydney. She’d be able to get away with that comment. “Look at us. Me still doing your bidding, and you still in charge. It’s just like when we were kids,” he said. “Except you used to be a lot nicer.”

“I haven’t done or said anything wrong.” Jilted. Staccato.  She yawned. “Any connections?”

“None that I could find,” Jarod said, “with these restrictions on me.” Come on. She knew he wasn’t going to hurt Sydney. He watched her as she flipped through the paper again. Waiting.

“Look up anything you know you shouldn’t and I’ll shoot you in the foot,” she warned him.

Yes. He knew it. She wanted to get Alex off the streets too. Jarod started to crack into different systems he wasn’t supposed to be cracking into. He didn’t have much time, Miss Parker wouldn’t defend him if Sydney walked in. It only took a few minutes before he found the connection. It wasn’t family. “The man worked for an electric company. Alex’s parents had called the electric company to take care of their heater problems the day of the murder.”

“He’s still in the vicinity?” she questioned. “Was the man a witness.”

“No.” No he wasn’t there at the time of the murder.

“Then why bother killing him?”

Alex. I can’t believe this. “He’s playing with The Centre.” Toying with whoever was supposed to hunt him. Leading them right to him. “This man’s life was nothing but a calling card.” Alex. “We have to stop him, Parker. He’s going to keep killing as hello messages to The Centre.”

She didn’t answer at first, but he noticed a thoughtful look in her eyes. A caring look she’d never reveal to anyone as she put the papers down. “We’ll visit that town again first thing in the morning.”

Jarod’s first trip out of town. Out of Delaware. From a restaurant now to out of Delaware. Limited freedom was still a form of freedom. As Sydney came over, it was time to go home.

Tomorrow. Jarod would visit a town Parker, Sydney and Mister Broots had already visited. Hopefully, he could find something they missed that would lead them to Alex.

 

Relaxing in her recliner, enjoying her Maker’s Mark and the tranquility of the night, Miss Parker was disturbed with the sound of a phone call. It wasn’t the typical phone call and she already knew what it would be. A part of her wanted to ignore it, but he would only bring it up tomorrow. She picked up the phone and answered it. “Parker.”

“Miss Parker? I know I am asking a lot. I am asking for you to look into the depths of your soul.”

“Whether I have one of those,” she said to him, “what is it?”

“Jarod. They want to ship him to the Triumvirate. I don’t know anything about the Triumvirate, but considering how your father acts? I fear what they will do to him.”

“Your Pretender should have thought of that before he tried to escape The Centre.” She looked at her whiskey. Did he have any idea what he was asking from her? “Daddy rules.”

“Jarod is a good man, you know that he is good,” Sydney continued to remind her. “You knew him when he was younger. A good boy. A good man. Will you help him?”

She sat her Maker’s Mark down next to her. Daddy’s word was final. Sydney was asking her to disobey her Daddy. She stopped to think of Jarod. He knew nothing of the world. He knew it was evil, but he was a trusting fool. Sydney had already shared events with her, letting her see how he had been exposed to the world. The Centre, due to his age, was using him in more advanced ways Sydney hated. Still, there was nothing to do for the lab rat. Life went on. “I can’t Sydney. I already told you, Daddy’s rules are law.” It was the reason she was there right now. Called back to capture Alex and Eddie. Then again. “If he knows something about where his cronies went to, maybe I could twist Daddy’s ear.”

“He doesn’t know. They wouldn’t even know,” Sydney said. “There must be something else.”

What did he want from her, to move the world? She hadn’t even seen Jarod since their early teens. “Considering how deep your boy got himself into trouble, I would think it’s a fair deal.”

“He wouldn’t know,” Sydney said. “Even if he did, he wouldn’t roll on them.”

Of course he wouldn’t, Jarod was a good boy. Very example of a good boy. “Look, Sydney? I’m going to give you a great big hint, okay?” she said. “I don’t know what to do with it, but this is the way it works in the real world. Make Jarod useful to The Centre and The Triumvirate won’t take him away from you. That’s it, that’s all, and I can’t help anymore than that.” She hung up the phone. Sydney would have to think quick if he wanted to save Jarod.

Even if she had the gall to walk into her father’s double doors with her best smile and ‘Daddy’, he would shoot her down so fast. She couldn’t reverse his decisions. Even trying would make him disrespect her and put Jarod in even more trouble.

 

 

Jarod tapped his pencil as Sydney asked him once again about where the others went. Sydney was trying to keep him from being transferred to the Triumvirate. “Trapped here. Trapped there.” No difference. America. Africa. No difference. He would find another way to escape whether it was there or in Africa with the Triumvirate. Sydney was still concerned, citing how much Mister Parker and even Mrs. Parker acted whenever they were in the room. Jarod didn’t like what Sydney said. More than the usual amount of respectful. Even Miss Parker. “You’re wasting your time.” Jarod stopped tapping the pencil. “She wouldn’t help. If I had escaped, she’d just be chasing me down too.”

Sydney couldn’t protect him. Sydney just couldn’t see it yet. He didn’t need Sydney anymore, he had been ready to get out. Get out for good. Visit the graves of his parents. See if there was anyone else out there. Triumvirate or The Centre, he wasn’t helping either one anymore. People died because of what he could do. All those years, he’d been ending so many lives.

Free or not. He was still free to pick that. If The Centre wanted to kill him because he refused, then that was just it.

 

“Sydney, you and freaking memory lane.” Miss Parker put down her whiskey and dialed him up. He’d be at home, relaxing in the same way she did. The stress of the day gone. Not face to face. That would make it seem like she cared way too much. A favor. Make him think about it. Try not to make him mad. “Hi, Daddy,” she said brightly when he picked up the phone.

“Ah, Angel. Nice to hear from you. How’s everything going?”

Of course, the current chase with Alex and Eddie. “Fine.” Not a shred of anything yet. “Sydney called.” Yes, his name would be brought into it. “He said you are sending Jarod to The Triumvirate?”

“What about it?”

Oh yeah, already gruffy. Ease him into it. “Seems like a waste, Daddy. Jarod was supposed to be smarter than both Eddie and Alex combined. There must be something we can do with him.”

“You already have technical help. It won’t be that hard,” her Daddy insisted. “A couple of Pretenders, they’ll be back in no time, and Jarod will be in The Triumvirate. He won’t get away again.”

Not even the slightest budge. Why did that Moron have to go and try and break out? No one escaped The Centre for long. Second choice. “Hopefully. We’ve never seen them in the real world. The more they learn, the harder it will be. If it does take awhile, it won’t look good on The Centre.” Pause. “Could we delay the decision? It doesn’t do any good to send him away to just want him back later. It’s like throwing away an antique dish set and realizing it was worth way more than you thought.” Maybe. That’s all she could give.

“Fine, we’ll postpone moving him. You’re right, Pumpkin, he might just be an antique set we don’t know the value of,” he admitted. “But if The Centre doesn’t have a good enough reason within the week to keep him, he is going to The Triumvirate. Case closed.”

“Smart decision, Daddy,” she said.

“Get some rest. I need you at your best to find those Pretenders. No one can have proof The Centre exists.”

“Of course, Daddy,” she said. “Good-“ He hung up. “Goodnight.” She hung up too. “Softie of a Witch.” A postponement. Jarod would have to use his own brain to get out of that one.

 

 

Postpone. Hm. Jarod looked at the papers in front of him he refused to mess around with. “Looks like there’s an itty bitty bit of warmth in her icy heart, huh?” It didn’t make Sydney smile.

“One week. You need to find a way to be useful to The Centre enough to avoid the Triumvirate,” Sydney warned him. “I doubt we can get this to happen again.”

Sydney still didn’t get it. “Become useful? I should think of a way to make myself useful to The Centre?” Jarod took the paper in front of him and started to make it into an origami shape. The Centre still hadn’t caught on and apparently neither did Sydney. Jarod’s simulations were responsible for killing thousands of people. He was either going to escape, or die, but he wasn’t taking another life. He wasn’t doing another simulation again. No matter what. “Why don’t you do it, Sydney? I mean, aren’t you supposed to be the one that protects me in The Centre?” Sydney didn’t respond that fast.

“Jarod,” he said slowly. “There are some thing that I can do and there are some things that I can’t. When you take the initiative to leave home-“

“The Centre is not a home!” Jarod interrupted him.

“Then I can’t protect you!” Sydney came back on him. “Jarod.”

“Then you can’t protect me. I’d rather die than have my work kill another person.” No more. They could starve him. Strip him. Torture him. Never again.

 

 

That would be decent. Miss Parker was out looking at new clothes when her Daddy called her again. “Yes, Daddy?”

“The thing about antique dishes, Angel?” Her father started. Oh no, this wasn’t going to be good. “Is that at least they don’t fracture and break in your hand! Jarod does nothing, he refuses to do any sims! He just sits in his apartment making origami angels all day long! Not a single thought about how he should become helpful, not a single thank you for the extension, nothing!”

Oh. Damn.

“I feel like an absolute fool for letting you talk me into this!”

“Daddy-“

“No! You are going to go down there and see him. You are going to come up with something for him before you leave, or he is going straight to the Triumvirate! No more time and no more excuses!”

“Well, but I-“ Hung up. Shoot. No choice. He just pissed Daddy off. This is not going to end well for anyone. She quickly left the shopping. She would need to get down there right away.

 

She marched down near Jarod’s apartment where Sydney waited. “Open up.”

“He won’t cooperate,” Sydney told her. “Jarod is tired of his work hurting others.”

“I really shouldn’t be sharing this with him, but he has pushed too far.” Her Daddy was upset with her! “I covered for him, for you,” she warned him. “I am not happy.” She pulled out an envelope. “We’ll see what your boy thinks of these. Open up.”

“What are they?” Sydney asked.

“Something to make him think. Make him wonder,” she answered. “Open the door.”

When Sydney opened up, she walked straight in.

There he’d been. Grown up. Just like the pictures showed. It’d been many years since she’d seen him, but memory lane was not something she coasted on in The Centre. She waited there in her stilettos. Not moving.

He eventually looked up from his little spoiled spot on the ground. “Miss Parker. Well, did Daddy send you down personally to come see me? I should be honored.” He looked back down at his origami. “Should.”

“You got a one week extension due to Sydney’s groveling on your behalf,” Miss Parker not wanting to sound like she was eagerly giving it to him. “All you’ve done is ignore your work and play with origami.”

Jarod just glared at her. “I didn’t ask for Sydney to say anything, and it doesn’t matter what you do,” Jarod said. “I won’t work for The Centre anymore.”

Damn. One more chance. That’s all he was getting before she did it. Mercy was not her highest quality. “Fine then, maybe you could get a longer extension if you tell us where you hid the DSA’s.” He didn’t get off Centre property. They had to still be on Centre property, but nobody could find them. He tucked them away somewhere securely. Otherwise? The only real reason they were supposed to be going after Eddie and Alex was to make sure they didn’t take it for Jarod.

“They aren’t on Centre property,” Jarod said not even looking at her as he continued.

 

“Did you give them to Eddie or Alex?” She asked. Once again, he didn’t even look up. “Have it your way. What constitutes killing someone, Jarod?” She began slowly. “I’m eager to know. Clearly you don’t think it’s just being behind a gun.”

“My mind was used against my wishes.” He barely looked up at her.

“Secondhand, like signing off on a paper. You weren’t behind a gun,” she kept going.

“I didn’t have to be behind a gun, my actions killed people!” Ooh, he was starting to get a temper.

Perfect. She bent down toward him. “They still are.” She dropped the folder. “As long as you don’t want to help? More people will die, thanks to you.”

Jarod grabbed the folder and opened it up. He looked at the pictures. “Centre lies.”

“You think so? Okay? Um. Sydney. Why don’t you go ahead and check your internet extensions?” Miss Parker asked him. “You know what? Better yet? Give Jarod access to the internet. Free reign. Make sure he doesn’t do anything stupid. I’ll just wait over by the couch.” She sat down as Sydney turned on access to the internet. Jarod started digging. She tried to give him a little leeway. He just wouldn’t take it. And now?

“Alex.” A whisper. Jarod looked back at the photos. “Why?”

“What, Jarod?” Sydney had asked. “Who are those people?”

“Alex’s family.” A hard gulp was seen from him. “Alex killed his family.”

“What?” Sydney couldn’t believe it either. “For what reason?” He looked toward Miss Parker.

“Either he’s not all there,” Jarod said as he glanced toward Miss Parker, “or The Centre’s trying to set him up. To make me go after him.” He stared at her.

Miss Parker knew what he was doing. If she was lying or hiding something, he’d see it. There was no dodging him. Even if she wanted to act like The Centre did something, he would spot the lie in it too. Instead she just sighed and waited. He would reach his conclusion soon. It didn’t matter if she even tried to go eye to eye with him. She knew him better than she wanted to know him.

Jarod looked back at the computer. He looked back at the photos. “Sydney. I want to talk to Mister Parker.”