an odd collection of tales about learning to do the impossible

c3

This page contains a short description of the book c3 followed by the first six chapters.

Teddie’s life as a sixteen year old hasn’t always been easy, but nothing has prepared her for the unexpected dangers she encounters as an exchange student in Darjeeling. A frightening world in which young girls are bartered and sold stretches its icy fingers into the beautiful resort town and touches her friends one by one.

Terrified, Teddie finds that her own mind develops a unique ability for locating her friends and that an ancient group of mind travelers is willing to train her to use her new skill to save these girls. It will require trust in ideas she barely believes, and more courage than has ever been expected of her. When it becomes clear that the alternative is her friends’ deaths and the unchecked growth of an evil crime lord’s empire, Teddie accepts the challenge and shows those guilty of unspeakable crimes just how powerful a young woman can be.

For the rest of this novel, please visit Amazon.com.

Teddie

Before

1. December 31, 1999: Being Brave

“Where’s your little sister? If she sees you, she’ll tell on us.”

“Relax.” Thirteen-year-old Zane Zeitman held the portable phone between his neck and his shoulder while he fumbled with the cork on the exotic bottle of liqueur he had slipped out of his parents’ liquor cabinet days before. As the top came loose, it smelled vaguely like coffee and paint, neither of which Zane would ever drink. He hoped silently that it tasted better than it smelled.

“She’s been asleep for two hours now, and she knows better than to come into my room.”

His best friend Bhadra was an only child, making her naturally suspicious of siblings. She sat alone five miles away in her family’s upstairs game room, talking to Zane on the phone as she stared at the unopened can of cold beer. She wished that she had been able to get a hold of something more appealing, but her parents weren’t much for partying and her dad barely kept a few brews in the refrigerator. Knowing them, they’d be home within thirty minutes of the stroke of midnight, even on such a special New Year’s Eve. And that meant that she and Zane had better get this little party going.

“I can’t believe that they made me stay home by myself on the biggest night of the whole world’s life,” Bhadra complained into the phone one last time as she bravely popped open the can. “I’m going to remember this forever.”

“Yeah, well I’m here watching my little sister,” Zane replied, “protecting her in case the Y2K bug completely collapses civilization.” He laughed. “So here’s to outsmarting them all. Adults don’t get that you don’t have to be together to party together. Happy New Year, Bhadra.” He raised the glass of noxious brown liquid high.

“Yeah. Here’s to a millennium filled with freedom for both of us,” Bhadra toasted, before she closed her eyes and made herself take a big swallow.

Zane coughed, and Bhadra gagged, but neither complained.

“I say the year two thousand deserves at least a second sip,” Zane suggested.

“At least,” Bhadra agreed. The second and third gulps weren’t quite as awful.

“You know, there’s a lot of cool shit that is gonna happen in this next century,” Zane said, starting to feel more adult and philosophical. “I bet that we’re going to see things that are amazing.”

“Yeah, this next thousand years, who knows what the human race is gonna do,” Bhadra agreed, then giggled when a giant burp escaped her.

Zane giggled too. This whole party-by-phone thing was pretty damn clever. The fourth gulp was easier, and by the fifth one Zane was starting to think that maybe he would take up drinking coffee. Maybe even paint wouldn’t be so bad.

After the next giant swallow the mental image of him chugging a can of paint had him laughing out loud and that made the normally serious Bhadra start to giggle uncontrollably. Then they were drinking more and laughing louder and talking and drinking and feeling very grown up and very much like, well, actually the truth of the matter was that Zane was starting to feel very much like he was about to throw up.

******

At the extreme eastern edge of the mighty Himalayas lies a place removed from modern civilization. Called the land of the dawn-lit mountains, the Mishmi Hills are hidden from satellite view by constant cloud cover, barred from tourism due to ongoing border problems with China and Burma, and sparsely inhabited by fiercely independent nomadic tribes frequently at war with each other. Here, at the furthest corner of India’s Arunachal Pradesh district, the peaks rise only to about sixteen-thousand feet, classing them as mere hills by comparison with their more westerly Himalayan neighbors.

Za huddled with her four-year-old twins under fur blankets as the December winds howled off of the nearby peaks. She neither knew nor would have cared that she happened to be sitting on the man-made border of the giant nation of China, the eastern edge of India and the northwestern piece of Burma, a nation that now preferred to call itself Myanmar. Her people gave no heed to the politics or religions of the others, any of the others. She cared only that these children, her first, had grown strong and healthy in spite of coming into the world a month too soon.

A winter storm had stopped the small group of foragers yesterday, but that pause had given Za and the children welcome time for rest. In a day or two, Za knew that she would bundle the little boy and girl against her strong body and ride with her family to a lower elevation and a more protected valley. Her husband and his brother stood guard outside against the many random thieves from other tribes who would not hesitate to prey upon such a small and helpless group if they were found.

Za looked down at the sleeping faces of her two firstborn and thought that she had never seen features so perfect or faces that were so beautiful. She brushed each little cheek in turn, wondering what sort of future the spirits had in mind for these perfect little twins.

Her soft speculations were interrupted by a harsh war yell, and Za felt the chill of fear and the nausea of dread, as she knew they had been discovered.

******

Four-year-old Teddie Zeitman was a light sleeper, doubly cursed by an overactive imagination that saw creatures in the laundry basket and heard moans in the air vents. Her big sister Ariel had convinced her that her bed was a fortress, impermeable to any monsters as long as she stayed in it. She trusted Ariel, who was a wise eleven-year-old and very sure of how the world worked. Big brother Zane had laughed at Ariel’s theory, but that didn’t matter because lately Zane laughed at everything she said. Turning thirteen had changed him. He wouldn’t play games anymore and he treated Teddie like she didn’t matter, so Teddie was sure that Zane was wrong about the bed fortress thing.

She’d been woken by the sound of Zane talking loudly to one of his friends on the phone. It annoyed daddy that Zane talked on the phone so much and Teddie knew that was because he wanted Zane to be practicing basketball instead, so that he’d make the school team. Teddie also knew that Zane hated basketball and had no plan to ever be on any team that played it. This could not end well. How come the grown-ups couldn’t see that?

As she snuggled her head full of pretty black curls deeper into her pillow, she pulled the soft green quilt her mother had bought her tight around her body. She wanted to go sit with Zane in his room. Teddie hated having her own room. Not long ago Zane would let her come in and doze on his bed while he played video games or whispered on the phone with his friends. She always felt safe when Zane let her do that. But now, he wanted his “privacy.” Teddie wasn’t sure what “privacy” was, but she wasn’t a big fan of it.

She had just about worked up the courage to go knock on Zane’s door when a shadow flickered across her floor. She cringed. It was something outside the window. Bird monsters? Oh no, not bird monsters again. So much for getting out of bed and going down the hall.

She pulled the covers higher over her head. “Please be right, Ariel. Please be right.” She muttered it over and over until she felt herself relax and start to doze. And then she heard the unmistakable sound of Zane throwing up.

I should make sure he is okay, she thought groggily. Mommy and Daddy aren’t here. Ariel is at a slumber party. What if Zane’s dying? But the bird monster is waiting for me to get out of bed. He always waits for me. I’m pretty sure that bird monsters peck your eyes out.

Teddie huddled into an even tinier ball under her covers, not knowing what to do. She was tired and her bed was warm. She began to drift back to sleep, hoping that Zane wasn’t so sick that he needed her to call somebody for help. Then she heard Zane start retching horribly again.

While her tightly curled body stayed safely under the covers, Teddie rolled over towards the side of the bed. It was weird. She didn’t exactly stand up because she didn’t exactly have to. She sort of floated up, actually, without really thinking much about it and then she floated through the opening in her bedroom door and down the hall. Worried for Zane, Teddie didn’t even hesitate when she came to his closed bedroom door. She floated on through it and felt a funny fuzzy sensation as she passed right through the wood. It tickled and made her giggle.

She moved to a vantage point just below his ceiling fan, and she watched him through his open bathroom door as he pushed himself away from the toilet and stood up weakly. He looked awful as he wobbled toward his sink and washed his face.

Then he picked up his toothbrush and swirled it around his mouth a little and Teddie felt her worry ebb. She didn’t think that people who were dying bothered to brush their teeth, so he was going to be okay.

And then it hit her. She was here in Zane’s room and her body wasn’t. What should she do? She tried to move but she didn’t seem to know how. As she turned to the door in panic, she saw a thin sparkly green cord running from her floating self back down the hall to her room. That hadn’t been there a minute ago.

She reached for the pretty cord and with an alarming pop she felt herself snap back into her body, no floating required. Just, zap. She was back safe inside of Teddie, who was under the covers safe inside of her fortress bed. She hugged herself tighter as she pulled the soft green quilt up all the way over her head.

Now that was a scary trip. She promised herself that she would never, ever do that again. Unless, of course, it was another real emergency like this one had been. Then, well, maybe.

******

It had been easy to kill the two poorly armed men guarding the three tents and to slit the throats of the two useless elders in their sleep. The two young women had died trying to defend the children and themselves. Foolish women. They would have lived and been of some use if they had allowed themselves to be captured.

The problem now was what to do with the young ones. One howling baby had been killed with its mother, but the two children in the other tent were older. Had they looked sickly they would have been left to die, crying to the wind. But these two looked rosy and strong. They would likely survive the rough ride back to the village, and there, women could be found to care for them. They would have some value before too long.

“Keep them?” the younger brother asked.

“Of course,” his elder barked. “They are our property now. We train the boy to fight and he helps us. If he’s weak, we kill him or we sell him. The girl’s better. In a few years she’ll have value. More if she turns out to be pretty.”

“Maybe she can be of use to us,” the younger brother suggested hopefully.

“Idiot. There’re girls for that, and this little thing is years away from that kind of use. But I know of a man that buys them very young, and for good money. This one will bring us plenty of food and supplies for our trouble.”

And so each brother bundled up a softly sobbing child and placed it in front of him as he mounted his horse.

******

January 1, 2000, wasn’t really the start of a new millennium. Everyone knew it and nobody cared. This was the day that all the nines rolled into zeroes on the odometer of time. It was the day on which the world might end. It was the day on which it was exciting to be alive.

The Pacific Island nation of Kiribati was the first nation on earth to greet the year 2000. So on New Year’s morning, over a billion folks, including the Zeitmans, turned on their television sets to watch a recording of the I-Kiribati welcoming the dawn with a conch shell and singing a song asking for love and peace. Viewers the world over learned with relief there had been no bombs and no apocalypse while they slept, and that the open beaches of Kiribati had remained devoid of aliens, computer bugs and vengeful angels throughout the night.

Teddie sat with her brother eating cereal, and she watched, puzzled, as Zane ate slowly and without much appetite. Daddy had turned on the TV and they were watching dancers in beautiful gold hats with flaming torches.

“Way to go, humanity,” one reporter gushed. “Amazingly, this day has dawned peacefully the world over, and for just one night humans have managed to do each other no harm.”

2. April 2009: Being Helpful

Teddie sometimes felt that her parents treated her too much like an adult. True, most other thirteen-year-olds would die to have that problem and she knew it, but Teddie figured other kids didn’t understand much about what adulthood really was. It wasn’t freedom to do whatever you wanted. It was about being responsible for getting your own homework done and then for sometimes making dinner too. It was being expected to be as considerate of your parents as they were of you. It was more “have to” and less “get to” than most kids realized. Frankly, Teddie was all for being treated like a kid.

But the problem with having your two siblings seven and nine years older than you was that your parents tended to forget how young you were. Teddie had learned there was no Santa years too soon. It wasn’t Zane or Ariel’s fault—they would have kept the charade up for years. Why not? More presents. No, good old mom and dad had decided that it was time for the family to move on, and develop more realistic and adult traditions. That was fine, unless you were seven.

And now, once again, her dad was asking her to act like an adult.

“Your mom could really use some play time of her own, Teddie. She works hard. She doesn’t get spring breaks and summers off like you and I do. I’ve got a chance to take her on a canoe adventure that she is going to love, but sweetie I need to know that you are safe somewhere for the weekend.”

“I don’t see why I can’t just stay here at the house by myself.”

“Teddie, you won’t be able to call us while we’re on the river. We’re not taking expensive cell phones in a canoe. We have to know that you are okay. Come on. Shawna’s family has invited you out to their lake cabin for the weekend. Surely you can put your differences with Shawna aside for a couple of days so I can do something nice for your mother.”

Shawna had been a childhood friend and there were a dozen good reasons why Teddie no longer wanted anything to do with her, but unfortunately none of them were things any right-minded teenager would ever tell her parents.

“We were friends in fourth grade, dad. We’ve seriously grown apart.”

“So, grow back together for a couple of days. I talked to Shawna’s dad and he said that they’d be so happy to have you come along. He said he missed your pretty face around his house and wished you girls still played together.”

Yeah, I bet. Teddie thought. Shawna’s creepy dad was one of those dozen reasons she couldn’t begin to mention.

“Sure. Fine. It’s just for a weekend. I’ll go.”

“That a girl. Thanks Teddie. Your mom and I owe you one.”

******

Amy Levitt had nothing to run away from. Her father had been caring, her mother supportive. She couldn’t explain why, all her life, she had been driven to help women in need, but she was thankful that her fervor had not come from trauma or abuse. Amy’s passion for giving hope to her sisters who had suffered rape or violence from the types of monsters she had never personally encountered was fueled by some strong internal sense of justice that she simply could not explain.

It was true that her master’s degree in social work had given her parents pause. “Maybe hospital administration would be a little more useful? Maybe more lucrative?” her mother had pushed. But no. Twenty-two-year-old Amy knew exactly what she wanted to do, and it did not involve administration of anything.

Twenty-three-year-old Amy had the academic credentials to become a player in the world of aiding abused women and twenty-five-year-old Amy had spent two years working at a hotline encouraging desperate women to get help. At twenty-six, after an only slightly less depressing year in the stateside office of an international NGO dedicated to stopping human trafficking, friends and family kept asking her if she was burnt out yet. Burnt out? No, as far as Amy was concerned, she was just getting started.

And now, twenty-eight- year-old Amy was leaving that stateside office, accepting a promotion, and packing her bags. She was an odd young woman who liked to dress in flowing foreign-looking clothes and bright tropical prints and who spoke her mind with surprising directness. She was already something of an expert in the field of helping trafficking victims. True, some of her seniority came from the fact that so many of her compatriots had left the field to take jobs with more money and less emotional demands. But still, in spite of her colorful wardrobe and wild mane of unruly brown curls, she was capable and eager to help. So they had made her an administrator. Her mother had laughed a little at the news.

“You’re going to be running a whole office?”

“Well, there’s only six of us there, mom, and three are local volunteers. It’s not like I have a giant staff or a big budget to manage.”

“You’ll do great dear. I know you will.”

Amy hoped so. Right now Darjeeling, India seemed ridiculously far away, and the human trafficking problems of the two radically different cultures of the Northern India Hindu and the Himalaya Buddhist seemed impossibly difficult to understand.

******

Jampa walked up to his favorite rock to meditate. No, it wasn’t his favorite rock. He wasn’t supposed to have a favorite rock. All rocks were fine. If this rock were occupied, he did not want to risk disappointment and worse yet irritation with its occupant. He chose this rock today because it was an effective place for his meditation, and as a young monk in training, Jampa knew that meditation was important.

As he slowed his breathing and concentrated on the Eight-Fold Path, he felt himself slipping into the deep trance for which he was known. Those far older than he marveled at the discipline with which Jampa could let go of the chatter in his mind and the speed with which he could move into the intense contemplation that was the realm of the dedicated Buddhist monk. The truth was, no one had ever taught him the technique. He had been doing it for as long as he could remember.

Jampa had little memory of living with the traveling caravan that had dumped him at the monastery door, but he thanked them every day for the mercy that they had shown him. He was told that he was six or seven years old at the time, and had been purchased by the caravan months earlier to fetch water and do chores.

The men complained to the monks that once they started their journey westward they discovered that the little boy was often useless because he would unexpectedly go into these deep trances. They wished to make a gift of him to the monastery.

The monks had, of course, accepted the gift and made the little boy one of their own. Thus, Jampa had received his name, and had become a devout Buddhist and a citizen of Bhutan before he was eight. For over five years now he had successfully hid the real secret behind his meditative abilities from the men who taught him, and who luckily thought that his going into such a deep trance was a powerful religious thing.

******

Vanida curled up into her sleeping palette and hoped that finally tonight she would get to see her friend again. She had known him since before she could remember, since before Pim and Noi had become her mothers and her owners.

Vanida had little memory of the man who had sold her to Pim and Noi when she was little, but she remembered the two women announcing sternly to her that they preferred older girls who could take care of themselves and would not cry at night for their mothers. Even though Pim and Noi were strict, they fed her well enough and gave her a soft place to sleep, and that made them kinder than the man who had sold her. Vanida tried hard right from the start to act older so that Pim and Noi would not send her back.

She and her seven new sisters lived in a camp outside of a marvelous city called Bangkok. She had never seen Bangkok, but she was told over and over by Pim and Noi that it was full of wonders and that one day she would get to live there.

In the meantime, in order to have the fine life that Pim and Noi promised her, she had to work very hard. Soon after they bought her, the women had done something quick and painful to her between her legs. The pain had gone away fast enough. After she stopped bleeding she was told that she could now practice with the other girls. Vanida was taught how to insert small things inside and use her muscles to control them. She and the other younger girls worked at using straws to blow out birthday candles, and at lying on their backs and shooting darts up in the air at balloons. They sucked in glasses of water, practiced dancing with the water inside, and then practiced spewing the water back out on command. They got very good at all of it, because those who could not do the exercises well did not get fed.

Vanida turned out to be especially talented at inserting the special pen into her private parts and holding it tight while she squatted over a table and wrote. Most of the girls being trained at the camp only managed a barely legible scrawl, but Vanida had a knack for the writing trick. She was told that she would make lots of money in tips if she worked hard and got even better at it.

She liked having this special talent because she had been able to use it to persuade Pim and Noi to also let her practice writing with her hand, and to practice her reading as well. Otherwise, how could she compose notes that would make the men want to tip her more?

Then, Vanida managed to get the women to let her start to practice words in English and French and Japanese. She moved on to phrases in each language, her eager young mind learning all three with a speed that surprised her owners. They considered that perhaps she was providing herself with too much education, but Vanida was smart enough to suggest otherwise. She only wanted to be a better entertainer. Knowing more words would make her worth more money. After all, how many of her customers were going to be Thai?

Noi finally began to give her old paperback books in all four languages, just so she could learn more phrases to practice. The books were almost always about handsome confident men who ravished beautiful women who secretly wanted them. She loved reading the books, and the more she read the better she got in each tongue. By the time she was thirteen, she could read and write well in Thai, English, Japanese and French. Even Pim, the sterner of her two owners, admitted that she could see how Vanida was going to bring a very high price once a buyer grasped the value of having an exotic dancer who could write personal notes to clients in four languages with her pussy.

The other girls practiced the common, well-known Thai barroom tricks like shooting Ping-Pong balls across the room and cracking eggs inside and spitting out the contents. The older girls who already had sex with men could do more tricks with bananas, and the oldest sister in the group, who had been pregnant and given birth, could even cram all manner of living things up inside like squirming frogs and live birds.

Pim and Noi said that in other camps girls were forced to learn dangerous tricks like placing razor blades inside themselves and pulling them out. Pim and Noi did not believe in taking those kinds of risks with a woman’s chief way of making money in this world. They were good to their girls that way.

At one point Pim decided that Vanida should also train with a cigarette in a long elegant holder, because it was good to have a variety of talents. But Noi, who seemed to like Vanida better, took her aside and told her to avoid doing the pussy-smoking trick. “It will make you dry and stink inside,” Noi said. So Vanida developed uncontrollable coughing fits whenever Pim tried to make her do it. After a while Pim gave up, and both mothers let her focus solely on her penmanship.

******

Amy’s first impression of India was the airport in Delhi. The smells and sounds were intense, but it was the colors that overtook her. Clothing, signs, foods, people—everything had a brightness to it, a passion that made Amy blink in happy surprise. She looked down at her own neon-colored clothes and smiled. She had always stood out in a world that had seemed far too tastefully beige to her. Perhaps here she could find a home.

Amy noticed that the younger people were dressed more like young people from Chicago, and it was those in her parents’ generation who were wearing clothes less familiar to her. Many older males wore turbans. A few women wore the shadowy hijabs of the Middle East, and a fair number wore the bright saris of India. Some of both genders sported simple Buddhist robes, many of plain cotton, but others of more ornate brocades.

She found herself standing at the luggage carousel next to a tall, very muscular man in one such basic Buddhist robe, and she could not help but admire both his well-toned physique and its contrast with the simple clothes that he wore. He noticed her attention and smiled back as he studied her lime green, orange and fuchsia paisley top with its exaggerated batwing sleeves. There was amusement in his eyes.

His shaven head and eastern Asian features made it likely that he came from nearby Nepal or Bhutan. Amy was trying to think of something to ask him, a way to greet him and make conversation, when he reached past her for his bag, and then he turned and was gone. Amy watched as the paleness of his robe was swallowed up by the cacophony of color around him.

I really have traveled halfway around the world, she thought as she made her way into the line for customs. And I really do have very little idea of what I am doing.

3. April 2009: Being Quiet

Friday morning after she was dropped off, Teddie wasn’t particularly surprised to learn that Shawna’s family had decided not to head out to the nearby lake cabin until Sunday, and that she was expected to just stay at their house until then. She remembered a lot of plans falling through at the last minute with these people. But it was okay. Teddie wasn’t all that fond of lakes and cabins anyway.

Shawna was nice enough to her as the day wore on, and the two of them spent most of the time watching movies from Shawna’s fairly impressive collection of chick flicks. Teddie’s parents weren’t terribly strict about what she watched, and PG-13 movies were common in the Zeitman house, but even Teddie was a little surprised at the content of the R-rated movies that Shawna selected. “I get a lot of them from my brother and his friends. He’s a senior. Remember him?”

“He and his friends like chick flicks?” Teddie recalled a shy fourteen-year-old boy with bad acne who kept looking at her chest and had been almost too embarrassed to even talk to her.

“No,” Shawna giggled, “but his friends like to buy me things. I do know how to be appreciative.”

Shawna blinked her eyes seductively. Teddie didn’t reply.

Saturday morning Teddie learned that Shawna had persuaded her parents to let her have one of her frequent slumber parties out at the cabin Saturday night before her parents joined them on Sunday. Shawna’s dad had agreed to drive Teddie and Shawna out there and drop them off. Okay. Teddie listened to the guest list as Shawna excitedly called friends and helped them arrange for rides to a place about forty-five minutes out of town. By mid-afternoon it looked like pretty much every girl in the eighth-grade class who drank, smoked weed or otherwise partied was going to be there. Some “slumber party.”

So. She could do this if she had to. Smoking made her cough and alcohol tasted gross but she could surely walk around with a drink in her hand and look cool. It would probably enhance her reputation at school some. And she was just doing her folks a favor. You know, no problem, dad. You pleaded with me to go with these people so mom could have a good time, remember?

******

The girl did not always join him when he entered his trance, but more often than not she did. Sometimes Jampa left his body and arrived first, and then he called out to her with his mind. Other times, he felt a tug he could not explain. Those were the times when he dropped into a trance without meaning to, the times when he found her waiting for him. Every once in a while, they simply arrived together.

They never spoke. Sounds would not form in this world of their second bodies, and so Jampa had no idea what the girl’s name was. All he knew was that they had played together since before he could remember. As children they had chased birds and butterflies through the air and played hide and seek in the trees. These second bodies were so much more versatile. They could float and fly and move straight through solid matter if they chose. These bodies never got injured or tired or cold or had any other problems. Jampa and the girl always met in their second bodies only, but he guessed that she must have a regular one that she also left behind, the way he left his back at the monastery.

Jampa thought that when they were little, they had played together without clothes. He had never paid much attention, but it must have been so because the last time they met he had unexpectedly noticed his nakedness. Embarrassed, he snapped back into his real body.

Now, he was afraid that he might not see her again. The last couple of times that he found himself in his special body, she was not there and she did not come when he called. He was sad, thinking that his nakedness had scared her away and wishing that he had been aware of it sooner.

As he sat doing his evening meditation on the rock that was like any other, he found his special body traveling into a clearing in the woods. He thought that it was high up in the mountains because there was snow on the ground. He looked down in the twilight and saw that he was now dressed in a lightweight black robe that fit him comfortably and clung to him effortlessly during his every move.

She was in the clearing, kneeling in the snow below, naked and shivering. He saw that she was crying and he didn’t understand. She had never been cold, or anything other than happy when they had met.

Then he realized that he held a second robe in his hands. It was the first time that he had ever held or moved anything physically in this special world, so he reasoned that the robe must be made of the same substance as his floating body.

Carefully, he stood beside her and placed the robe around her shoulders. She accepted it, and pulled it tight as the robe gathered itself around her body, fitting her perfectly and covering her completely. She looked up at him and smiled in gratitude. He hugged her and he was sure then that she was not the female that the monks had warned him he would crave someday and would need to resist. Rather, he knew that somehow she was of him. Like him.

The two of them went back to playing together then, exploring the snow-filled valley in the dusk and racing along the top of the nearly frozen little mountain stream that sparked in the evening’s glow. It was only later when he returned to his first body that he found a name for the feeling she evoked in him and he knew what he must call her. Noom. She was his sister.

******

Shawna’s older brother Blake had cured his acne in the last four years, and it looked like he had acquired a nasty attitude to go with his clearer complexion. He was still every bit as scrawny, but a certain belligerence now made him seem larger. He also seemed to have acquired a group of older friends that Teddie was pretty sure weren’t in high school any more.

Two- or three-dozen girls and almost as many boys from the junior high had been showing up for an hour or so now for the “slumber party.” Most had been driven out to the cabin by older siblings and friends, some of whom stayed as well. A little beer had come with them, but clearly the group did not have the makings for a real party. Not, that is, until Blake showed up in his four-door pickup truck with three other guys and the back filled with alcohol. They were greeted with a cheer, as the young would be partygoers started to eagerly unload beer and the ample sweet wine coolers that most of the girls preferred.

“We’ve made a very generous contribution to your party,” one of Blake’s friends said meaningfully to Shawna. “So get your girlfriends out here and get them lined up. Gonna take two of them to pay for tonight’s generosity.”

Shawna rolled her eyes. “You always want two.” Then yelling out towards the crowd. “Okay ladies. Who is it gonna be tonight? Somebody’s got to pay for the booze. Let’s go here. Everybody out. Let our benefactors take a look at you.”

Most of the girls came forward, giggling and laughing like they understood exactly what was happening. A few hung back. One seemed shy, a couple of girls looked confused. A few were giving helpless what-else-can-I-do shrugs toward their boyfriends.

“No,” Teddie thought. “Surely this isn’t as bad as it looks.” Still, she backed slowly toward the cabin door just in case, thinking that this might be a very good time to remain out of sight. But she tripped when the back of her ankle hit a log, and twigs snapped under her feet as she regained her balance. Blake looked right at her.

“Teddie Zeitman. You had breasts when you were only in fourth grade, girl. I used to fantasize about touching those little titties of yours. Looks like tonight I’m going to get to after all.”

“No.” Shawna spoke up sharply. “Teddie’s off limits, Blake. She didn’t even want to be here. Pick somebody who’s part of this. You know.”

“No, I don’t know,” Blake said, mimicking his sister’s voice.

“Take three girls tonight,” Shawna said evenly

“No, but because I am a reasonable guy, we’ll take just one. That one.” And he pointed straight at Teddie. At Shawna’s defiant look, he added, “We can have cops all over this place in minutes while you and your little friends here without wheels try to hide and explain exactly what you are doing here with all this alcohol. How does getting kicked off the cheerleading squad sound? You guys want off the football team?” he said as he turned to the eighth-grade boys. “I didn’t think so. Come on Teddie. Me and my friends here are going to show you how real women have a good time. Aren’t we?” he laughed to his friends.

And Teddie felt her entire body go ice cold. She was dizzy and as she started to move towards the cabin door, she wasn’t sure whether she was trying to run or going to acquiesce, but it felt like her legs weighed a million pounds. And then, she didn’t remember anything more.

******

When Vanida had seen the three men waiting for her when she came out of the camp shower two weeks ago, she knew very well what was going to happen. It happened to all of the girls in the camp around her age. She had heard that Pim usually arranged the rape, so that her girls would not be inexperienced in the ways of the world. As far as Vanida knew, the other girls accepted the inevitable stoically and pretended indifference to the experience.

Perhaps all the reading Vanida had done over the years affected her, filling her with ideas that the other girls did not have. She thought that the men who ravished her would be handsome and charming and would secretly care deeply for her, and that their breath would not stink. Whatever the reason, she surprised herself with how much she hated every second of what the men did to her. She marched off angrily when they were done with her, and she stayed furious the rest of the day.

That night, she had been so comforted to find herself in her special flying body. She expected to escape all the awful feelings that the men had left her with, only to meet the boy she played with and gasp with horror. He was naked. Had he always been that way? With her gasp he looked down at his own maleness and saw it with equal surprise. Then he had vanished. And after that Vanida refused to join him, even though she could feel the tug of him almost every day.

She’d been raped for the second time this afternoon, only this time it was just two men and they had obviously been told to be gentler and take their time. It didn’t matter. Afterwards, Vanida curled up in her bed and cried and would not get up even for dinner.

She dozed while the other girls ate. Too tired and discouraged to fight it any longer, she found herself in her special body again, this time in a clearing in the woods. She thought that it must be high up in the mountains because there was snow on the ground. She was kneeling in the snow and she was crying and naked. She felt freezing cold, which she didn’t understand. In this body she had never been uncomfortable before in any way.

Then she realized that the boy stood next to her, wearing a robe and holding a second robe out to her in his hands. Carefully, he placed the garment around her shoulders. She put her arms through and pulled it tighter and the soft robe gathered itself around her body, fitting her perfectly and covering her completely. Vanida looked up at him and smiled in gratitude. He hugged her and she was sure then that he would never hurt her, and that there were others like him of whom she need not be afraid.

The two of them went back to playing together, exploring the snow-filled valley and racing along the top of the nearly frozen little mountain stream that sparked in the approaching evening’s glow. It was only later when she returned to her first body that she found a name for the feeling he evoked in her and she knew what she must call him. Pêe chaai. He was her brother.

After that, she was never attacked in the camp again. She learned much later that Noi had insisted to Pim that she be left alone until she was older, lest she come to hate men too much and become a bad prostitute.

******

Teddie was in the woods, watching tiny, bright blue bird’s eggs in a nest. She vaguely remembered seeing chicks born at a science museum.  These eggs looked like they were about to hatch. She found it odd that she had never seen this before and then realized that it was because the nest was high up in a tree. They probably were high up in trees most of the time, right? Keep the little birds safe and all that. But she was higher than the nest, which was kind of odd. She wasn’t usually floating up in the sky like this.

All four of the eggs were covered with tiny fissures, and Teddie watched with fascination as the point of a little beak poked through one of the cracks. As the tiny new life struggled to be free Teddie cheered the little bird on. Two more of the eggs were starting to shatter.

The process took longer than she would have guessed but she watched, transfixed, while the little creatures each labored until, one by one, they managed to break the shell around them and emerge, each one shaking its damp little body as it tried to stand.

“You can do it. You can,” Teddie whispered her encouragement to each little bird. She felt herself grin when the last baby bird of the group stood, finally free and getting stronger by the second.

Then she looked down and saw the ground twenty feet below her and gasped. And with a snap she was back in the cabin, shivering under a blanket feeling nauseous and incredibly cold.

“Teddie?” Shawna was at the door and no one else was in the bedroom with her. “Are you okay?”

“I, I don’t know.”

“Blake said you, like, passed out. Worse than passed out. He said your body was freezing cold and they couldn’t revive you and you were breathing but otherwise it was like you were dead or something. Did they, did they…?”

“I don’t know what they did.” Teddie’s voice became shrill as her strength slowly came back to her. “I have no idea what happened. What the hell were you thinking bringing me here?”

“Hey, this wasn’t my idea.” Shawna was defensive now. “My dad insisted on doing your dad a favor. I was just trying to be nice and go along.”

“Well you could have warned me.”

“Right. Like this is a little arrangement I want to go explaining to people. I figured you’d lay low and they’d go with a couple of their favorites and no harm done. You know. Some of these girls enjoy getting chosen. I figured you’d either be cool with that or you’d be oblivious, and either one would be fine. Leave it to Blake to be a creep and pick you.”

Then a question occurred to Teddie that she did want an answer to. “How often do you have these kinds of parties, Shawna?”

“Once or twice a month,” Shawna shrugged. “Blake brings different friends sometimes.” She hesitated. “Sometimes, my dad’s friends get the liquor instead, and, you know.”

At Teddie’s unabashed look of disgust, Shawna added quickly “Hey, don’t worry, they don’t ever choose me, unless it’s for like a one-on-one with a new guy or something. I’m not a perv.”

“Well that’s good to know.” Teddie tried to keep the sarcasm out of her voice but she knew she didn’t do a very good job of it. “Whatever.”

Teddie just wanted to go home. She wanted to curl up in her own bed under her soft green blanket that she’d had forever and she wanted everything be okay.

******

It didn’t go that way. Teddie got taken home early the next morning by Shawna’s mom once the mom learned that Teddie had become ill. Shawna’s mom went on and on in the car about how worried she was about Teddie, but Teddie hardly listened. Instead, she kept thinking about how stupid and oblivious the woman was not to be a lot more worried about Shawna’s frequent slumber parties at the cabin.

No way a kid is supposed to tell on another kid, but Teddie had to admit that she was considering it. It would clearly destroy her social life for years. Would it do anyone any good? Probably not, she thought sadly. Parties would go on. Girls and boys and even grown men would keep on doing what they were going to do.

With a sigh, Teddie stared out the window and said nothing. She could barely manage the thanks for the ride as she got out of the car.

And then that night, Teddie found out that her own mom hadn’t even had the glorious outdoor adventure that Teddie’s dad had hoped for. Instead, she’d gotten thrown from the canoe and trapped under it and almost drowned. That first night home her mom seemed haunted, like she was still half under water. As the days wore on, she appeared to not even notice Teddie’s attempts to talk to her.

Soon, Teddie’s mom spent her evenings and weekends planting flowers in pots on the porch. Every time Teddie came out and tried to start a conversation, Mom was drinking wine and the smell just made Teddie think of that horrible party. In fact, Teddie could hardly stand the odor of alcohol at all now, and her mother’s distracted greetings and never-ending wine smell went from annoying to infuriating.

As the school year neared its end, Teddie found that she preferred to not think about or talk to Shawna. She started avoiding her own friends as well, and she frankly didn’t have much to say to her dad, who had put her into the awful situation in the first place. But most of her fury ended up directed at her mother.

This was her mother’s fault. She shouldn’t have needed to go on “a little adventure.” Not while she still had kids at home, kids of her own who needed her protection and shouldn’t have been packed off for the weekend with dangerous people. The woman should have realized that Shawna’s family was untrustworthy at best. She’d spent time around them. And she should have been there for Teddie afterwards. Acting like a mom, holding her daughter and comforting her instead of being a zombie who cringed every time she heard running water. She hadn’t drowned, so what was the problem?

Sometimes Teddie’s dad would go out on the porch with chips and guacamole and he’d drink a beer as he sat next to his wife on the porch swing. The smell of the beer and the wine together was even worse than the smell of the wine alone. Teddie stayed far away when that happened. Other times, her dad would fall asleep on the couch waiting for her mom to come inside, and Teddie would get even madder that the woman was so wrapped up in herself that she couldn’t even be there for the people that needed her.

Luckily, Zane was coming home for a visit in a week and Ariel, who had just finished her junior year at college, would be home for the whole summer. So soon there would be normal people around who cared about her, and Teddie couldn’t wait.

4. May 2011: Marching Forward

Teddie did not want to go the graduation ceremony. She was finishing her sophomore year in high school, and she didn’t want to have anything to do with the place right now. Frankly, she couldn’t understand why her dad didn’t feel the same way. Mr. Zeitman was a physics teacher at the school and over the past year he had led an effort to curb increasingly overt racism on the part of the school’s administration. Teddie sided firmly with her dad on that issue of course, and she was proud of the part he had played, but so much about this last school year was embarrassing beyond belief.

There was the skinhead boy who had fallen in love with her, and the abandoned Latino kid, Xuha, who had ended up living with them after people at her school behaved so horribly. Most humiliating of all was the Civil War re-enactment that had gone viral on the internet, thereby turning her school into a nationwide joke. Come to think of it, there probably would be a few reporters at the graduation ceremony today, doing their little follow-up pieces. Four months later and all that. Great. Another thing to look forward to.

If it wasn’t for the fact that Xuha would be giving a short speech and walking across the stage, and that he would have no other family there to cheer him on, Teddie would absolutely not be going. As it was, she was going to clap as loud as she could for Xuha, and pretty much just stare firmly at the floor for the rest of the ceremony and pretend that she was somewhere else. Anywhere else. As long as it was far, far away.

******

While Amy’s organization attempted to help women and girls experiencing any type of physical or sexual abuse, its primary focus was on aiding former victims of human trafficking. Obviously, prevention of human trafficking was part of the mission statement as well, but Amy was realistic about how little the small local office of an international organization could do against a world-wide cash cow for those with no moral scruples.

She did work occasionally with safety education for local girls and their parents, and when she got calls asking her to help locate a missing daughter or friend, she usually referred the desperate callers to both local authorities and other groups more suited to finding missing people. Every once in awhile, though, she found herself more involved than she probably should have been.

Twice in the past two years she had charged out of her office with mace and a Taser after girls had called begging for her help to prevent someone from literally driving off with them. One of those times harsh words and threats had worked until the police arrived. The other time she’d ended up using the Taser on a boyfriend, and driving the beat-up girl to a local emergency room.

It had given her a bit of a reputation around town—the crazy American lady who charged in to save abused girls. Apparently you didn’t have to do it often for people to notice.

But this third time was different. This time a desperate mother had called Amy early in the morning, sobbing and asking for help. The woman claimed that a man had marched in her front door, walked upstairs and picked up her unconscious fourteen-year-old daughter from her bed and walked off with her.

It was an incredible story, and Amy was skeptical, but she went to the address thinking that she could at least calm the woman down. She was surprised to find a large, well-protected home with a lavish yard, an ample fence and a perfectly good security gate.

“My husband is out of town,” the woman explained. “We just have one child. She was still asleep. It’s the maid’s day off so I was in the kitchen making coffee and this man drove up. Big guy with muscles. He knew the security code, came right through our gate, I watched him punch in the code through the window. Then he got out of his car and just walked into the house without even knocking.” The woman was clearly outraged at this insult.

“He never said a word. Walked upstairs like he knew just what he was doing. Picked my daughter up out of her bed—he had to have given her something because she just lay unconscious in his arms. She never even stirred even though I started to scream at him to put her down. He walked right by me like I didn’t even exist and laid her in his back seat and drove off. I grabbed at him, but he swatted me away like a fly. What could I do?”

Amy hardly knew what to say. “That’s incredible.” She tried to think of something useful to ask. “How, how did the man seem to you? Like he was just doing a job or like he knew your daughter? Was he rough or gentle with her? Did you get any feeling from him at all?”

The woman thought. “I suppose that he seemed angry. But not at my daughter. He handled her with care.”

“My guess, to be honest, is that this is likely a kidnapping for money. Maybe he was angry because it is money he thinks that he is owed?” Amy suggested. The woman said nothing.

“This isn’t really my area of expertise at all,” she went on. “You have got to call the police. But if it would help, I’ll stay here until they come. They may have some leads, and once a ransom demand arrives they can work with you as you go through the exchange process.”

“Yes.” The woman seemed relieved just to have someone with her. “If you stay that would help.”

“Can you describe anything more about the man?” Amy asked.

“I can do better than that. Let me pull up the security footage. We have a camera on the front of the house.”

“Oh,” Amy had to laugh. “Well, that’s going to go a long way to help the police identify the man. Let’s take a look.”

The woman knew how to operate her own security system quite well, Amy noticed, and soon she had a good view of a tall muscular man with a shaved head and features she had come to recognize as Bhutanese. He got out of a non-descript car wearing the simplest of robes. Amy had a sinking feeling that she had encountered this kidnapper before.

The first time she saw him was two years ago, when she had ignorantly considered making conversation with him at the luggage carousel after she first arrived in India. That memory stuck so well because her innocent bad judgment still made her cringe.

A few months later a photo had been circulated to her office, and in fact all of the offices in Asia. It showed the same man standing with a young girl in a Muslim headdress. The girl looked to be barely a teenager. Amy’s organization said that the photo had been taken as the two checked into a hotel in Jakarta together. All workers were advised that this man had not only been seen at the same hotel with the same girl once a week for weeks, but he had also been observed with under-aged girls and even under-aged boys in compromising locations throughout Asia. He was presumed to either be a fervent consumer of children for sale or to be part of the machinery that turned them into products.

“Why would that man kidnap my daughter?”

Odd as the break-in had seemed, Amy was afraid that she now knew the answer.

It saddened but did not surprise her to learn that a ransom note never came and that the girl was never heard from again. Authorities searched for the kidnapper, but when he wasn’t found they moved on to other, more pressing, matters.

******

Once she got to the graduation ceremony, Teddie found herself helping her mom to get a decent picture of Xuha that he could show his foster parents once he found them again. She gave Xuha a wave when he marched in, while the school band played that song they always play when people graduate, and she made a thumbs up when he took his place up on the stage. She wished he hadn’t decided to go to college all the way over in El Paso. Having him around the house had been nice.

Teddie thought that she’d gotten the short end of the stick as far as siblings went. Not the siblings themselves, of course. Hers were fine. The problem was that Zane was nine years older and hadn’t had much use for her in years, if ever. Ariel, at seven years older, had been sort of in-and-out as a big sister. What could she say? Some years they had been closer than others. Xuha, only two years older, had filled sibling shoes pretty nicely for the past several months.

The school usually let a few of the graduating seniors speak for a minute or two, and, much to her parents delight, Xuha had been chosen as one of them. Teddie figured that the school was just trying to make up for ways the boy had been wronged. He was pretty good at speaking and hadn’t seemed nearly as scared about it as Teddie thought he should be, but she was nervous for him. As he stood up she squirmed in her seat with apprehension.

“My name is Xuha Santos and I am a time traveler,” the boy began. It was a good start, and Teddie knew it. She’d help him write it. Much of the crowd stopped whispering and listened more closely. “I began my time travels on February twenty-first, nineteen-ninety-three while crossing the border from Mexico, and ever since then I have been moving forward through time.”

Teddie’s mind wandered as Xuha went on with the words she knew by heart.

“For with time travel comes change, change every single second, whether I like it or not.”

And it does, Teddie thought to herself. It really does.

She thought about how her world had changed when at four and half years old she had done something remarkable, something magical that she had never forgotten. Watching her big brother brush his teeth seemed so comical now, but little scared Teddie had been very seriously trying to help. And in spite of her fears, she had found a way to make sure that her brother was okay. Teddie still had no clue how she had done what she did, but the important thing was that she had found a way.

Then had come that horrible party two years ago. Teddie still felt the anger. At her parents for sending her there, for not seeing her plight after it was all over. At the girls who had been involved. And finally at the horrible boys who she realized now were the ones who deserved her fury most of all.

She had come a long way since then. She’d made new and better friends in high school. She’d learned to forgive herself for blacking out and not remembering anything. She’d convinced herself that it was okay to have fun and sometimes to trust people. That night had changed her—not in good ways—but she thought that she had finally moved on.

That was part of why she had told her best friend Michelle that she would consider joining her as a foreign exchange student for the first semester of their junior year. The idea of being in a new school, in a different country, far away from her home, sounded frankly pretty terrifying. But this exchange student thing would only be for four months. Michelle really wanted to go bad and had begged her to come along. Teddie had even noticed a slight desperation in Michelle’s pleas.

When Teddie’s parents had not said absolutely no, she had humored Michelle by filling out all of the paper work and writing essays while hoping that one of her parents would put a stop to this nonsense. But instead they had helped set her up for the video interviews, coughed up the money for the deposit and then told her how proud they were of her.

Xuha’s voice intruded on Teddie’s thoughts. “We must keep moving. We don’t know what kind of world we are marching into. But we do know that if we are alive, we are going into the future. And there, together, we will all find out what happens.”

The warm applause seemed like a sign to Teddie, a sign that she needed to march bravely into her own tomorrow. Fine. She’d gotten her assignment in the mail that morning, and put it aside only so it wouldn’t take away from Xuha’s big moment. He deserved the attention today.

Tomorrow, she’d share the news with her parents. It looked like she was going to march forward, all the way to Darjeeling, India, at the foot of the Himalayas. It was supposed to be a beautiful place, and what could possibly be safer than a high school that was actually named The Lord Peartree International Academy for Exceptional Students.

She was exceptional. She was going to live at a boarding school. She was going to go trekking with kids from around the world, some of whom would have delightful British accents, while birds sang and mountains sparkled in the background.

She added a rainbow to the mental image she was making in her head. Then she giggled. Okay. Maybe the rainbow was over the top. She’d be okay with just the singing birds and the sparkling mountains.

Part 1. Leaving the Nest to Touch the Sky

5. August 2011: Traveling

Teddie had been to Ireland, to France and to Hawaii, so she had some idea of how miserable a long flight was on a full plane. Still. Two crying babies, one on each side? Come on. There ought to be a law.

Michelle, who clearly was far more excited than Teddie was about this adventure, as everyone else kept insisting on calling it, had slept through three out of the four major bouts of wailing. Now, she was wide awake and eager to explore the Frankfurt airport for a few hours before the girls boarded the second plane on to Delhi and then yet a third on to some town Teddie couldn’t even begin to pronounce. And then that would be followed by a three-hour car ride. Teddie, for her part, just wanted to sleep in a bed, preferably her own soft and cozy bed, but at this point any real bed would do.

Wandering around the Frankfurt airport in a daze, the girls paused to watch what looked like a photo shoot of some sort in the central shopping area of the airport. The model, a tall girl with long honey-blonde hair, couldn’t have been much older than they were, and she looked to be every bit as tired and irritable as Teddie felt. An older woman kept trying to coax the girl into donning various backpacks and holding hiking gear while two men passed a giant camera back and forth while they discussed angles and light. Teddie felt sorry for the girl and hoped that she got to go home soon and get some rest. And speaking of getting to go home… Teddie felt the tightening in her chest that happened every time it occurred to her that it would be months, four freakin’ months, before that happened.

The flight to Delhi was full too, of course, and Teddie had already been warned, many times, that from this point forward she should expect large crowds of people crammed into less space than she was used to or would like. India, only about one-third the size of the United States, had over three times as many people. It was going to be part of the cultural adjustment that was going to make “this adventure” so enriching.

As Teddie stood up and tried to arrange her things to get comfortable for another eight hours in the air, she noticed the honey-blonde model doing the same about eight rows ahead. Interesting. Teddie had hardly expected to find this girl flying coach to the back roads of India. The oddest thing, though, was the change in the girl’s face. All trace of irritation was gone, and she was smiling in delight. Teddie glanced up and the down the plane. The prop lady and two photographers were nowhere to be seen. Maybe the girl was grinning because she had escaped her handlers?

******

Sometimes Usha pinched herself, gently of course, just to make sure that she was awake. She had read somewhere that it was a true test of reality, and she could not bear the thought that this might be a dream. When her English teacher last year had encouraged her to apply for the scholarship to the English boarding school, she had hesitated. Her father was ill, and her mother needed her help with the younger children. But the teacher had been so insistent.

It was her teary-eyed mother, Ashmita, however, who had made the final call. “Please Usha. The doctors will not say it but I know in my heart that it does not look well for your father. Next year, I may not be able to send you to school. And you are so smart, that would break my heart. Apply now for this scholarship. Do everything they ask. Darjeeling is not nearby, but it is also not so far away. You can take the bus home on weekends and help me then. We will manage. You, and your future, they are my hope.”

And so Usha had not only applied, she had worked harder than she had ever worked, to get into this very modern international academy for exceptional students. Exceptional. To think that someone from her family could be considered exceptional. After she had been awarded the scholarship she was so proud that some days she could hardly sit still.

Her mother had been right of course about her father. He had only lived months more, into the summer, and then her mother found herself faced with horrible bills, depleted savings and no income. Usha knew that her father had managed all of the household money himself. Although he was a loving husband and father, he had failed to prepare her mother for just how very dire her situation would be.

Usha’s maternal relatives were a thousand miles away in Mumbai. More traditional Hindus frowned on a widow living alone or taking a job, and in Patna, India, there were plenty who still held these more traditional beliefs. So late in the summer of 2011, Ashmita had been persuaded to move herself and her five children into the home of her husband’s wealthier older brother who lived nearby.

The man made the offer kindly enough, which was odd, because in Usha’s memory her Uncle Jeet had never been a particularly kind man. He had surprised Usha and her mother by insisting that he would now not only care for his departed brother’s family, but that he would assume their debts as well.

Usha worried that Uncle Jeet was not acting completely out of compassion. He and her father Chakor had never been close. Usha suspected that her father’s marriage had been part of the problem, because Uncle Jeet and Aunt Riddhi had always been particularly cold to her mother. So she wasn’t all that surprised when, after they moved in, the uncle wasted no time in locating her mother and the younger children out into his servants’ quarters, and informed Usha sternly that she would now join her mother in working to pay back her father’s debts.

Her mother would serve as a maid in the brother’s household in order to cover the cost of food for her and the other four children. Usha was to live and work as a servant for a nearby family. She would be given room and board there, and her salary, meager as it was, would be sent directly to Uncle Jeet. Usha would be free to return to school once her uncle had been repaid for his generosity in full.

And then something incredible had happened. Usha’s mother, who had never before stood up to anyone, much less to someone as her overbearing as her brother-in-law, simply said no. Usha would do no such thing. Usha would honor her dead father best by using the scholarship she had been awarded, by attending the school in Darjeeling and doing well there. She had the capacity to be a doctor or a teacher. At this comment the uncle had laughed aloud. Her mother ignored the laugh.

“I will work in both households. I can do both and the younger children will help me. You will see—you will loose nothing by letting her go. And perhaps you too will gain honor one day from her accomplishments. “

Something about the firmness in her mother’s soft tone convinced her uncle that he was better off not arguing. “Very well, foolish sister, we will see. Show me that you can keep both my house clean and my neighbor’s house as well. Show me that your daughter can do well in her classes when placed in an environment so much above her. We will try this. But if any of this fails, be warned that I will want interest on the money I have lost while waiting for you to regain your senses.”

Usha’s mother had only nodded, like she was agreeing meekly to a plan the brother-in-law had suggested all along. That night Ashmita dug deep into a jar and gave Usha her very last rupees.

“Use this to take the bus to the school first thing tomorrow. You will arrive a few days early, but tell them you had to come now, that you could not wait. You don’t have money for uniforms and supplies but pretend like you thought the scholarship covered it all and they will help you, or let you work there to earn it. I think that they are good people at this school and they will not send you back here. Plead with them if they try. Work hard, Usha. Please.”

Usha looked at her mother sadly because she guessed what the woman was going to say next, and she did not want to hear the words.

“Usha. Don’t come back here. No matter what. Some day you will be with me and your sisters and little brother and we will be a family again, I promise. But not now. If you cannot stay at the school for some reason, Usha, do not be where your uncle can find you. Do you understand me?”

Her mother gave her a long, serious look, the look she got whenever she talked to Usha about her body and about female things. Usha understood. This uncle could consider himself justified to sink to lows worse than forcing Usha to clean houses. She nodded with as much adult understanding as she could and then gave her mother the longest hug of her life. Usha left at dawn the next morning, with a bag of clothes slung over her shoulder, almost one hundred rupees in her pocket and tears in her eyes.

But once she was on the bus the sheer joy of what she was being allowed to do returned to her. She pinched herself gently. Yes, this was real. She would work very hard at this school. She would do chores to pay for what she needed. She would do so well that someday she would come back and she would get her mother and sisters and little brother and they’d have all that they needed. Her mother could spit in the eye of her uncle if she wanted to. Usha rather hoped that her mother would.

******

Vanida liked it best when her brother Pêe chaai called to her first, because then they got to play somewhere that was covered in the cold white fluffy snow that he seemed to take for granted. The amazing soft white dust came with the frozen water that made lakes and rivers glisten in the light. She guessed that the boy held no such preference. He had always seemed equally happy to find himself near her home, as intrigued by the ferns and the birds of her rainforest as she was by the cold sparkle of his world.

It had been years now since Pêe chaai had given her the wonderful robe. It was still every bit as soft and warm. It had never stopped following her every move while she romped in the snow, and it had never once constrained her or got in her way. Every time she met Pêe chaai she was wearing her robe.

But soon Vanida’s other life was going to change. Pim and Noi had many new little girls that they now needed to train. Noi told Vanida that she and several of her sisters were more than ready to leave, that they would be taken from the camp soon. They had been good girls, and they had trained well. They would be sold to gentlemen, very nice gentlemen, who would take good care of them and give them fine lives as the girls performed for audiences that would appreciate the rare talents that these young women had worked so hard to develop.

Vanida was excited to know that her grown-up life in glorious Bangkok would begin soon, but she was also sad to leave Pim and especially Noi. The women had raised her, and the camp had been her home since she was younger than she could remember. And what would become of her relationship with Pee chaai?” Would he now come see her in the city? Would they play in the streets instead of the forest? Would she still get to visit him in his abode of snow?

Vanida found herself wishing desperately that she could talk to him, to tell him about the ways in which her life would be different once she traveled to beautiful Bangkok, about how much she hoped that he would still come see her and be her friend once she became a rich and famous performer.

******

Teddie and Michelle’s parents had hired a car to take them to their school. After walking down the tarmac to get inside the airport, a man carrying a sign with their names met them and they relaxed a little. Teddie was ready for a nap during the three-hour drive, but she could tell that Michelle wanted to talk.

“You’re probably wondering why I pushed you so hard to come with me, Teddie. I haven’t been a very good friend. I should have told you what was going on long ago.”

“Are you okay, Michelle?” No matter how sleepy she was, Teddie couldn’t ignore a pal who was in trouble.

“Sort of. It’s more complicated,” Michelle said. “You know that my older sister is leaving for college in a week. Well, I decided that there was no way I was staying home alone with my mom and dad. I didn’t want to involve you in this while we were around my parents. No offense, but you don’t exactly have a poker face, Teddie. I knew that they’d figure out right away that I told you something, and then maybe they wouldn’t even let me go.” Michelle looked at her friend for understanding. ”It is time I tell you what is going on. Please don’t hate me.”

“Of course I’m not going to hate you,” Teddie said impatiently. “Your parents fight a lot?” she guessed. She’d already gotten that impression.

“Sometimes,” Michelle shrugged. “Actually my mom tries very hard not to piss my dad off about anything. But no matter how careful she is, sooner or later she does some little random thing and it just infuriates him.”

“He beats her?” Teddie asked in surprise.

“No. You’d have heard about that, believe me. No, my dad just goes into this ‘I’ve been wronged’ sulk, and he won’t speak to her or us for days. When she asks for his forgiveness he ignores her. He won’t eat with us or help anyone in the family with anything. She used to cry and beg him to at least talk to his daughters, but now she just says she’s sorry a few times and then she ignores him too. After a day or two, he gets over it. Sometimes he pretends like it never happened and sometimes he makes a big show of forgiving her.”

“I hope she tells him to shove it then,” Teddie muttered.

“She doesn’t dare. Once that happens she knows that she has to be twice as careful.”

“What kind of offenses are we talking about?” Teddie asked. “Is he jealous?”

“Oh no. And mom doesn’t give him reason to be. He’s, I don’t know, he’s proud. Like, he can’t handle it if she checks on any piece of information that he gives her. If he says, ‘There’s no more milk in the refrigerator,’ and she looks just in case he missed it, he’s furious. And he’s even madder if she does find milk, which of course some of the time she does because people don’t always see things. Even him. Anything she does or says that means that he could ever be wrong or fallible insults his pride.”

“That’s weird.”

“Yeah,” Michelle said, “and it would pretty much just be their problem except that after he forgives her, he generally punishes her. He insists that isn’t what he is doing, but every time they have one of these incidents, which is like every couple of months or so, he finds some ridiculous thing to get upset with me or my sister about and then disciplines one of us. He knows, that will hurt her worse and that she won’t dare intervene.”

“So he beats you guys?” Now Teddie looked angry.

“No, no, nothing that socially unacceptable. He, I don’t know, does things like ground us for no reason, or takes away things that really matter to us. One year he threw my birthday cake on the floor and stomped on it.”

“Anger control issues,” Teddie muttered. “What was your crime?”

“He asked for my help moving a bookcase and I didn’t jump right up because I was on the phone with you. I asked if we could please do it when I got off the phone and apparently that showed insufficient respect. I knew something was coming because he hadn’t spoken to mom since she reminded him to pick up my birthday cake. He is not an idiot, you see, who needs reminding, and he had just forgiven her for forgetting that. After he got done with his little outburst, I didn’t want a cake or a birthday. I know that this all sounds silly, I mean, I do know that there are people out there really getting hurt by their parents and worse yet by strangers too. But it was hard living there, always waiting for that shoe to drop.”

“That was your fourteenth birthday, wasn’t it?” Teddie asked, the light dawning. “I knew something was wrong that day. I asked you and asked you and you said nothing. Why didn’t you tell me?”

“It was just a dumb cake,” Michelle shrugged with embarrassment. “My dad was such a creep and then you had me over and your family was so nice to me. I just wanted to pretend that my family was that way too. I knew that once I started to complain about my parents to you, there was no going back. You’d never see them as good people again.”

“Your mom’s a sweetheart,” Teddie said firmly.

“Yeah, well the night she didn’t stand up to him when he burned my sister’s prom dress and my sister had to stay home from her senior prom and cried all night—that was the night I lost respect for my mom too.”

“I thought your sister got sick?”

“Yeah, well that’s what we told everybody. Two days earlier my mom made the mistake of downloading a different kind of anti-virus software than the kind my dad told her was best, and suddenly my sister’s gorgeous dress that she and mom had spent weeks finding was far too promiscuous and she needed to be taught a lesson. Mom backed him. Said he was our dad and had the right. So I decided that I would be halfway around the world come fall, and find some way not to be living with a family that might be every bit as bad as my own. Family dynamics scare me these days, you know. And so here we are,” Michelle finished with a weak smile.

“How did you ever get him to agree to let you come here?” Teddie asked.

“I worked that one hard. I saw to it that he got a lot of praise for my getting admitted into this program. Lots of public attention. It’s so impressive that your daughter is going to do this. Only I wasn’t quite brave enough to do it alone. Teddie, please don’t be mad. I’m so glad that you’re here.”

“I’m not mad,” Teddie said gently. “I understand your wanting to run away, but I don’t think that this solves your problem for very long Michelle.”

“It might. You’re going to go home in December, Teddie, and what I haven’t told you is that I’m not. I’ll going to tell my parents that I love it here so much that I want to finish the year here. Then, maybe, after that long of a time without me, my dad will behave better. Or, without having kids to protect, maybe my mom will wake up and demand that he does. Either way is an improvement.”

“You really think you are going to be able to handle staying here for a whole school year?” Teddie asked.

“I hope so,” Michelle laughed a little at herself. “I guess I’ll know more when we see what the school looks like.”

 6. August 2011: Arriving

Pictures had not prepared Teddie. Most things look more normal in a photograph, she decided, because one tends to fill in the edges with what one expects to see. The area around the rather oddly painted blue and burgundy-trimmed yellow school buildings should have been filled with glass-sided offices, or maybe neat brick homes, or perhaps even open fields. In any of these settings the school would have had a quaint odd charm that even a teenager from Texas could embrace. Look at me, I go to that very interesting looking school there.

However, being surrounded by a cluttered jumble of buildings more oddly painted and shaped than the school itself was another matter. Teddie stood out front of the chaos that surrounded the school for a long moment and all she could think was, What have I done?

Michelle reached over and gave her hand a squeeze. “I’ll say thank you as many times as you need me to.”

“It’s okay.” Teddie tried to mean it.

“I appreciate this more than you know.” Michelle gave the cluttered dissonance of the school’s street a long hard look. “I don’t know if that helps, but it’s true.”

“Yeah, it helps,” Teddie assured her friend, as she picked up her backpack and followed the porters inside with her luggage.

“I arrived a few days early so I had to pick a bed. I hope this is okay with you?” The Indian girl who was one of their other two roommates greeted Teddie, speaking slowly and carefully, with a strong accent that was both British and something else. She had a long glossy dark ponytail, big solemn eyes and a very serious face. Teddie couldn’t help but notice that the girl had almost no possessions in the room, and few clothes in the shared door-less armoire except for her two school uniforms.

“Hey, all these beds are pretty much the same. No big deal,” Teddie shrugged, as she eyed the four small, brightly painted wooden beds, each one crammed against a different wall. She tried to loosen the girl up with her warmest smile, but the girl continued to gaze somberly at Teddie.

“It’s going to take me awhile to get used to things here,” Teddie tried. “This school has fourth grade on up, so if you’ve been going here you know a lot more than I do. Maybe you can show me around.”

“Oh no. I cannot do that,” the girl said.

“Oh. Okay.” Teddie wasn’t sure how else to respond.

“I have just arrived here myself. I have never been to a school this magnificent before. I am Usha. I am the top winner of the Central Board of Secondary Education Scholarship for the most deserving girl from a surrounding district. Who are you?”

Teddie tried not to laugh at the seriousness of the introduction. “I’m Teddie. I’m a high school student from Texas who clearly let’s people talk her into things much too easily.”

She said it without really thinking, but at her openness Usha finally gave her a bit of a smile back. “Then we are much alike, Teddie from Texas. I let people talk me into things much too easily also.”

“You are never going to guess who our other roommate is,” Michelle, who had been dawdling outside, said as she finally poked her head around the door.

“We know her?” Teddie was puzzled.

“Her private car got her here just a little bit ahead of ours,” Michelle said as the honey-blonde model from the Frankfurt airport followed her into the room.

“What?! We thought that you were some sort of supermodel,” Teddie said.

“No, but how my mother wishes I was,” the girl laughed. Teddie noticed that she had an unusually large mouth, made all the wider by her big smile, which now seemed to dominate her face. “I’m Haley, I’m from Denver. My parents set this school thing up for me while they drum up more sponsors and publicity for my climb next spring.”

“Wait. You’re going to climb a mountain?” Michelle asked.

“A very big one, I hope, and do it while being photographed,” Haley confirmed.

“Do you wish to do this?” Usha asked.

“Yes. And no. I love to climb—it’s my whole life—and I’ve been doing it since before I can remember. I do, however, hate having my picture taken.”

Hmmm. That and the overnight flight from the US explained the girl’s bad humor at the airport in Germany.

“So how many other exchange students are here?” Teddie asked.

“I got told that I was being put into this quad with three American girls, because all the other girls in our grade were returning from last year, and they all had selected to room with their best friends and previous roommates,” Usha said.

Teddie gave Michelle a wary look. “I thought this place was part of an accredited exchange program.”

“It’s part of a much larger legitimate program that places interested American students for a semester in English-speaking boarding schools the world over,” Michelle insisted. “I knew that you and I needed English because we don’t speak anything else, and I wanted a boarding school because I really didn’t want to live with a host family.”

“Maybe this school is hoping to bring in more foreign students like you and is just getting started in this program?” Usha suggested.

“No,” Michelle said. “They definitely already have some students from nearby countries. But, we might be their first Americans.”

“That should make this whole thing double the fun,” Teddie muttered. “Not only do we get to wonder what we are doing here, but we get to watch everyone else who goes here wonder the same thing. Great.”

******

After more than two years in India, Amy now knew that Darjeeling had become her home. The preponderance of spoken English certainly helped, as did enough variety of ancestry in the area for her to blend in and not always appear the outsider. But it also helped that she had embraced much of the region’s culture, dress, cuisine and style. It wasn’t that she didn’t love her original home in Chicago; she did. And she relished the ease of being back in the states when she had taken her two extended trips back.

She supposed that some of it was that she felt like this was where she was meant to be, making a difference in a way that she was hard pressed to explain. It didn’t hurt, of course, that the city boasted a thriving artistic community, and that the climate was wonderful and the view of the mountains astounding.

There was only one noticeable lack in her life, and her mother had delicately pointed it out to her on last visit in a way Amy could not ignore. She was, after all, almost thirty now. Amy had explained that it was hard to have a relationship being so married to her job, but they both knew that was only half the story. The other half was that she lived in a culture where dating opportunities for older single women were slim to begin with, and Amy was far too much of a free spirit to make good marriage material for any traditional local male of any background. She couldn’t help but notice that no matter how free their thinking was on other matters, the local men she had met so far were, in the end, all looking for that more traditional woman. That, or, occasionally, a one-night stand. There wasn’t much middle ground.

Maybe she’d move back home in a couple of years, she assured her mother, try to get a desk job that didn’t have her occasionally charging out the door to rescue scared young girls, armed only with mace and her own fury. She’d settle down, buy some more normal-looking clothes, develop habits that other women had, whatever they were. Pilates? Baking? Antique shopping? Whatever. She could do conventional and she could make somebody a regular girlfriend. Someday. She just wasn’t quite ready yet.

Besides, the trade in virgins in the area was on the rise again, and local girls lured into prostitution were now being shipped as far away as Thailand just to provide variety in the brothels. Just yesterday Amy had caught a glimpse of a man she could have sworn was the kidnapper at the house she had gone to last May. There was a chance that she could actually be part of apprehending this creep. Everywhere she looked there was so much to do. Amy felt like she had not even gotten started.

******

The very first night there it was clear that dinners at school were considerably more formal than anything Teddie was used to. In fairness, though, she supposed that it would be hard to find a more relaxed setting than her folks’ recent habit of grabbing take-out or leftovers in front of the television. Back when Ariel had lived at home they had made an effort to have a sit-down dinner at least a few nights a week, but the last year or two it seemed that they had both grown tired of domestic arrangements.

Teddie wondered with a sharp pang whether they were enjoying the new freedom of being childfree. Maybe they didn’t miss her at all. She dismissed it as not a worthy thought. Her mom had hugged her for a full five minutes at Bush Airport before letting her pass through security, and she’d seen the tears in the corner of her dad’s eye when he said his goodbyes. No, they missed her.

The three new American students were introduced to the rest of the school before the meal began, and Teddie was relieved to find that these particular boys and girls of India were friendly and curious. Clearly she had some adjusting to do regarding personal space, direct questions and overall style, but while her new classmates were different, they weren’t unlikable.

Some were, however, unintelligible. Teddie was fast discovering that just because someone spoke the English language did not mean that she, Teddie Zeitman, could necessarily understand them. She had been told that her ear would acclimate to the accent and to give it time. Teddie just hoped that she wasn’t flunking all her classes before this magic acclimation occurred.

The first night Teddie mostly ate the rice and a few little pieces of chicken and left the other, harder-to-identify items to try another day. Nodding and smiling, she pretended she understood what was being said around her. Judging from the blank smiles she got back when she talked, she guessed that her new classmates were having just as much trouble understanding her. Would they acclimate to her speech too over time? She hoped so. The idea of being essentially mute for months was a frightening one.

She decided to try to finish unpacking while she could have a few minutes alone, but Usha was in the room already. She politely pretended to read while Teddie unpacked.

“Why do Americans have so many clothes?” she finally looked up from her book and asked.

“I was asking myself the same thing,” Teddie said, “and also why I brought them. Especially since it looks like I’m going to be wearing a stupid uniform most of the time. No offense.”

“None taken. I did not pick the uniforms. But don’t you wear uniforms in the USA?” Usha asked, surprised.

“Actually, some schools do. Just not the public school where I go.”

“You, a rich American, do not go to a private school?” Usha seemed crushed to learn this news.

“I’m not rich, not for where I live, Usha. And I think more kids from all kinds of families go to public schools around Houston. Maybe not—I don’t really know. My dad is a teacher at a public school, so of course I go where he teaches.”

“He could not find a job at a private school?” Usha persisted.

“He did not want one. He says he likes teaching all kinds of kids.” Then, looking for something positive to say about her school. “It’s out in the country.”

“Oh. “ Usha didn’t say anything for a few minutes while Teddie set up a few pictures on the small dresser by her bed. Usha studied the pictures.

“I think that your father must be a very noble man, one who wants to educate the children of all people, no matter how poor.”

“I don’t know if I’d go quite as far as noble,” Teddie laughed. “But he’s a good guy. I’m sure your father is too.”

“My father is dead,” Usha said matter-of-factly, and she turned away and went back to reading.

The girls huddled together on Michelle’s bed after lights out, ready to share their stories in the way that teenage girls do the world over. They were unsure how strict the rules were here, but guessed that newcomers would be granted some slack at least on the first night. Teddie’s pale skin glowed in the bluish light of her flashlight, and her thick head of black curls disappeared into the darkness around her as she spoke. “Last year at my school there were some problems, and a boy who was, I don’t know, who ran around with a kind of violent and hateful group decided he liked me. A lot.”

“A gang member?” Haley asked incredulously.

“No, just more of a self-styled skinhead. He’s gone now, but this seemed like a pretty good semester to be somewhere else.”

“Did your family like him?” Usha asked worriedly.

“Thankfully, no. They hated him worse than I did.”

Usha nodded with relief. “So do you have a real boyfriend now?”

“No,” Teddie shook her head. “I’ve dated some, but, I don’t know, I just seem to attract the jerks.”

“I’m the other half of the reason she’s here,” Michelle offered, the olive tones of her face and the straight black hair that Michelle had inherited from her Vietnamese ancestors both blending into the shadows as she set the farthest from the light.

“I had this perfectly nice boyfriend freshmen and part of sophomore year and then, well, it ended kind of messy.”

“He dumped you?” Haley asked sympathetically.

“The opposite. He decided he owned me. By last spring I thought I was going to have to get a restraining order to keep the guy away from me,” Michelle winced.

“So you actually came all the way to India to get away from him?” Usha sounded impressed.

“Well, him and few other things,” Michelle answered.

“Well, I’m not trying to get away from any kind of boyfriend,” Haley shook her head. “Something about being a climber seems to scare off all the serious contenders. Hopefully that changes as I get older? Meanwhile I’ve got a dad who has taught me all I know about climbing, and I’ve got a mom who thinks I’ve got the looks and body for a supermodel and am wasting my time on mountains.”

“She’s kind of right, Haley. You really do.” Haley’s tall, slim, yet athletic, stature was a world away from both Teddie’s ample soft curves and Michelle’s petite slender body. Only Usha seemed to have an average girls’ shape that split the difference between the other three extremes.

“Too bad my mom didn’t get another daughter more like her,” Haley said, “but I’m an only child. She carted me off to little beauty contests, but I just pulled the bows out of my hair and cried. I guess that she would still be a frustrated stage mom if my Uncle Steve hadn’t gotten involved.”

“What’s your uncle got to do with anything?”

“Oh, he’s always working on ways to get rich, and I’m his latest. He’s decided that my mom and my dad are both right and he can prove it. He talked a pretty good-sized cosmetic company into sponsoring my climb if I get to do it. Dad’s got me on a short list to be considered for a team ascending Kanchenjunga in May.

“Ascending Con Shen what?” Teddie asked. Usha laughed.

“Con shen JUNG ah,” Usha said slowly. “Look out the window tomorrow, silly. Remember those beautiful mountains you couldn’t stop marveling about at dinner?”

Yes, Teddie thought. She had gushed on a bit about the gorgeous mountain range visible from everywhere in town. She’d been trying to make conversation.

“Kanchenjunga is the highest peak in the range,” Haley offered. “Over twenty-eight thousand feet. It’s the third highest mountain in the world.”

“Can I just call it Junga?” Teddie asked.

“If you feel you must. The name means ‘five treasures of snow,’” Usha explained. “The five peaks are sacred. Hardly any groups are allowed to climb it, and it is very hard for a foreigner to be included.” She looked at Haley dubiously.

“That’s why I am at this school,” Hayley explained. “My dad has contacts with lots of climbers here and thinks that if I acquire some regional goodwill—by studying at the local climbing school in town and showing them what I can already do—then my chances of getting a spot on this expedition are good. I’ve already climbed thirty peaks over fourteen-thousand feet,” she added proudly, “and I’m only sixteen.”

“And if you do get a spot?” Teddie asked.

“Then I get to be the youngest person ever to climb Kanchenjunga.” Haley had pride in her voice at even the possibility.

“Wow,” the three other young women said in unison.

“I do not have such adventure in store for me,” Usha said meekly, “but I need you to know that I too have to work very hard over the next year, and I am hoping that you, my roommates, will support me in this.”

The girls listened sympathetically as Usha told of her father’s lengthy illness and her mother’s plight. The three young women nodded as one as Usha talked of how sad she and her siblings had been, and how scared at moving into her uncle’s home. The outrage at her uncle’s stinginess and the praise for her mother’s courage were unanimous. “Can your mom do this?” Michelle asked. “Can she take care of four kids and clean two houses?”

“My closest sister is eleven, and she will help clean, but probably she will not get to go to school anymore, which is sad because my father believed so strongly in education. Neither will my seven-year-old sister because she will be watching the five- and three-year-olds while the other two clean. So you see, many have given up much for me to be here. I have to work hard and then get them out of there before too many years pass, so that all of my little sisters can go back to school.”

The weight of the responsibility made for a harsh expression on Usha’s face. “If my mother fails, I pay a high price. My uncle will come take me from this school and put me back to work too.”

“Usha, that’s ridiculous. No one will let him do that.” Even as Teddie said it, she realized that she had no idea if she was right. Maybe everybody would be perfectly happy to send Usha home to pay off her father’s debts. What did she know?

“But that’s not the worst possibility. I can clean houses. My mother is afraid that the money from that will come too slowly for my uncle’s tastes. She is worried he will seek out those who can find ways for me to pay the bills faster.”

No one wanted to say it, but when Usha would not say more, Teddie did.

“Usha, do you mean that your own uncle would really expect you to, like, turn tricks to pay your father’s medical bills?”

“He would probably sell my virginity first. That would bring a higher price,” Usha said matter-of-factly. “That is not so uncommon here. He has no fondness for me, and considers my mother to be his inferior and me to be the result of my father’s worst mistake ever. It is perhaps to his credit that he did not turn to that option right away. Then again, perhaps he feared that my mother’s family might interfere from afar.”

“You need to be careful when you go home to visit,” Michelle declared matter-of-factly.

“No. My mother has asked that I not ever come back home.” Usha sighed with resignation. “And if my grades are not high enough my uncle has said already that he will pull me out of the school anyway.”

“Is your eleven-year-old sister in danger?”

“Not yet I think. But my mother told me that she will find a way to send my sister away soon, before she is viewed as having earning potential.”

The girls sat in silence for a minute. Teddie had the impression that one’s junior year in high school was supposed to be a fun time. This wasn’t quite what she envisioned. Deep in her soul, Teddie Zeitman couldn’t help wishing that she could just go home, crawl into her very safe bed and pull the covers high up over her head. Once you turned sixteen, were you too big to still do that?

The conversation died down and the girls each crawled into their own beds. As she pulled the sheet around her, Teddie felt the oddest tingling sensation pass through her body. She’d had that sensation twice before. Once right before she made a mysterious trip down the hall to check on her brother. And once right before she passed out at a party she should never had been attending.

Surely her own body wasn’t going to now add to the general weirdness of this situation. Teddie couldn’t imagine anything that she needed less. Luckily the sensation passed as she fell into a restless sleep.

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