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V4 Epilogue: Peace Accords
Topic Started: Oct 5 2012, 10:00 PM (4,858 Views)
MurderWeasel
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July 15, 2008

As Kimberly hopped down from her grandfather's car and headed towards the Ayers' house, she wondered once again what the fuck she was doing. Dutchy's family had agreed to see her. She wasn't quite sure why, wasn't sure what they knew, what they'd seen. Dutchy was complicated, in so many more ways than his sunny exterior had led her to believe. She'd combed the tapes, nightmares and stress and doctor's orders be damned.

It wasn't hard to get information online. The terrorists had seen to that.

She'd watched clips, the times when Dutchy did things, the times when he didn't. She'd tried to find out the truth, now that that was an option. She'd tried to puzzle out just why he'd not been on those boats with Sarah and Bridget.

The time for blame on that front was gone. What she had seen was a boy she'd barely known, a boy she had judged based on his school persona. He'd been a faker, in his own way, just like she had.

Kimberly had been wrong when she'd thought he was weak. She'd underestimated him when she'd marked him as nothing more than someone else's responsibility. She had this vague feeling that maybe an apology was in order for that, but Dutchy was dead, so apologies wouldn't help him much.

She didn't know if his family knew that she had traveled with him. She didn't know if they knew that she had threatened him, had traumatized him. She didn't know if they knew that she had held him while he died. She didn't know, but she was willing to bet that they did. Maybe some families had stayed strong, had held themselves away from the internet and the news during those horrible weeks, but they had to be in the minority. Kimberly was a little bit surprised that Dutchy's family had agreed to have her, and, knowing nothing about them, she was prepared for bitter recriminations, hatred, and blame.

That was okay. She could deal with that, could let it roll off her back. Maybe there would even be something there to take to heart. Maybe it would help her figure herself out.

She walked up to the door, listening to her grandfather's car pulling away behind her. He wouldn't go far. He never did. She had her cell phone, was all ready to call him as soon as they were done, whenever that ended up being.

With just a hint of a sigh, Kimberly raised her hand and rapped her knuckles against the door.





It had been quiet in the Ayers' house for a long time. The once brightly lit hallways were now bathed in a shallow gloom, a depressing, dull color that only served to sharpen the pain. Markus and Tinna rarely spoke about it. They were adrift at sea, with no end in sight. They didn't know where to begin.

During the week he'd been away, neither had entered Örn's room. After his death, Markus had locked it. Reporters had come by, but the Ayers weren't nearly as talkative as their son, and the story wasn't there. The boy known as Dutchy had done little heroics for all his trying. He'd cried, and he'd died.

But he hadn't died alone. There was a sharp knock at the door, and Markus tensed. His hair was greying prematurely, the "crisis" doing little to help with it. Tinna had refused to call it anything else. Dutchy had been involved in, and had lost his life in, the "crisis". Markus tried his best to understand. Tinna had always been aloof, pessimistic, and more than a bit reclusive. Dutchy had meant the world to her and had served to brighten her life. Now, with him gone, Markus was witnessing all his work unravel firsthand, in a matter of days, a series of news reports.

"One of the students—identified as Örn Ayers—seen here holding a map of the supposed location—"

"Individual known as Danya—kidnapping over two hundred students—"

"—death toll standing at—"

"—Release of footage showing the last moments of Örn Ayers life, comforted by—"

"Kimberly," Markus said, his voice scratching and his accent thick. The girl stood on the front porch, looking like she'd been holding her breath out of fear or uncertainty. Markus felt his heart burrow deep down inside him at the sight of her. All the survivors held scars. Some ran deeper than others. Kimberly had the eyes of a woman twice her age.

Hurt inside, enough for all of St. Paul. Let alone that class...

Gesturing for her to enter, Markus tried his best to force a cracked smile onto his face at the sight of the girl.

"Please, come in," Markus said. Kimberly entered, and he shut the door, hurrying toward the small kitchen, flicking the light on as he went. In the back of his mind, Markus' brain was busy churning. Kimberly Nguyen. The winner. The fittest, so to speak. She was just a girl, and his heart was pounding. Markus closed his eyes, cycling through his memories of the past four years, the boys and girls who'd come to his door, who'd asked him where "Dutchy" was.

Had Kim ever visited before, unaware of the fate that would await her? Did it matter?

"May I offer you a drink?" Markus said, grabbing a cup from the cupboard. "Please, feel free to ask for whatever you want. It's the least I can do."

You're my last connection to him.

Markus cleared his throat, trying his best to compose himself before turning back toward Kimberly.

"I suppose ah, you would like to talk about Örn."





"Yeah," Kimberly said. "And, uh, just some water, please."

She didn't plan on drinking anything here, at least not until she was sure there wouldn't be any resentment or awkwardness, but since the man who must have been Dutchy's father had already grabbed a glass, refusing seemed impolite. She didn't want to hurt him, to put him off in any way. This house looked like it had seen enough pain of late. Seeing a place that so clearly had once known joy fallen into despair made Kimberly a little edgy. It was too much like the island, like the houses she had entered there.

That happy observation aside, she wasn't entirely sure what to do now that she was here. She'd had plans, maybe, but they all involved being given a good opening, and Kimberly wasn't the sort to wait for that. She had no idea where she stood, and there was no way to proceed until she had more of a clue. Hoping for a chance to figure things out, she followed Dutchy's father to a small coffee table in a corner of the kitchen and, when invited, sat across from him on a wooden chair, eying the glass of water he placed in front of her. After a moment, she said, "He was a good person."

It wasn't how she'd planned it, but that was alright. It was something, and it was true.





Markus nodded his head slowly, letting the words hang in the air between them for a moment.

"Yes. A nice boy, a good person. He tried his hardest."

But you always knew that his hardest wouldn't be good enough. You always knew what kind of darkness was out there, and you always knew you were going to get the call, see his name on the news report...

Markus took a breath before continuing, squaring his shoulders and speaking calmly, trying to remove any hint of vulnerability from his voice.

"I'm... not sure if you've watched the footage. But, after you left, Örn's behaviour grew increasingly erratic. He hurt himself on a window. For most of the second day, he slept..."

Markus cleared his throat. "Whenever an announcement went out... It was obvious it caused him pain, regardless of who was listed. Örn was bullied when he was a little boy. But it only made him more... calm. Caring. He didn't want that, for anyone. And with such a great group of friends, I think Örn truly believed that Survival of the Fittest wasn't possible. That no one in Bayview would succumb."

He had to stop for a moment. Taking a long drink of water, Markus composed himself.

"When Örn came across Liam... I saw how scared he was. All of it had come to a boiling point. He couldn't move. If you hadn't come along when you did..."

Marcus looked at Kimberly, hesitating for only a moment. "I... I hope you don't blame yourself, for what happened there. From what I understand, Liam Brooks couldn't have been stopped."





"Maybe," Kimberly said. In truth, she had her doubts. She'd been weak, at the time, unwilling to become a murderer twice over even to protect those she cared about. Had what had happened with Dutchy given her the push she'd needed when she met Kris later? Hard to say. Whatever the case, she'd chosen to shove Brook out of the way. She'd still had her knife. Little separated Brook from Kris. She'd had even less reason to hesitate. Maybe she could have slid the blade between his ribs, saved a few lives. Maybe she could have stayed with Dutchy, met back up with Sarah and Bridget, and caught a ride off the island.

Maybe Brook would've pulled the trigger on Dutchy before she could prevent it, and then maybe he would've turned around, disarmed her, and cut her apart. Maybe he would've won and come home and done what John Rizzolo had. It was impossible to say.

It also wasn't that important. Kimberly did not blame herself, not entirely. Most of the blame lay at Brook's feet, and, beyond that, at the feet of the terrorists who had started the whole fucking game. Kimberly felt guilty to some degree, about Dutchy and much more, but she didn't really blame herself, at least for that incident.

There was more, though. Dutchy had been naïve, had thought their class above the barbarism to which it sank. The revelation was more surprising than it should have been. Kimberly had assumed that her initial wishful ignorance had somehow been unique, that nobody else could possibly think nothing would go wrong. Certainly, after she'd been shot, she'd figured no one could possibly question the dire nature of their situation. Hearing that Dutchy had been trapped in the same fantasies she had made Kimberly try to figure out something, anything she could've done to help Dutchy understand, to toughen him up just a little, to help him hold out just a few days more.

Nothing was really coming. That didn't mean she'd made all the right choices.

"I shouldn't have left," she said. It was true, and it was also a pointless statement. Nothing short of physical restraint could have kept Kimberly in the group once she'd figured out the differences in their goals.

That didn't mean she couldn't wish.





Markus took a deep breath, holding it in his lungs.

I shouldn't have left.

He closed his eyes for a moment in thought. Regret—that was only to be expected. Questions. That had been Kimberly's purpose in the first place. Answers. Closure, for a scared boy, naïve and dying on a blood-soaked island. Some closure, some definitive end. But the world wasn't like that. It didn't start and stop at clean intervals, devoid of loose ends, devoid of bitter resentment and pain. There was a hole in his heart, where once a smiling boy had resided, reading a comic book and wishing he could fly away.

Ironically, Markus only knew one sure thing. Kimberly was broken. Kimberly was hurting, in ways he could relate to but never fully understand. Her horrors and fears were too deep to contemplate, and it was foolish of him to even attempt to delve into them, selfish and pretentious to think his words could heal the scars.

This girl was manufactured. She didn't set out to kill. She didn't set out on that first day, prepared to harbour this guilt, to feel these questions.

Markus looked toward Kimberly's neck. Even now, he could see the faint outline, a tan line around her neck, fading slowly. He wondered if Kimberly still could feel the cold weight of the collar around her neck, still feel the degradation and terror it instilled in its victims.

"I... Kimberly," he began, coughing and clearing his throat. His eyes were watering. Very carefully Markus spoke; calm and cautious of every word he uttered in the gloomy kitchen.

"I can't begin to imagine what it was like for you. I'm not immune to tragedy. Through my life I've reached points where... where rivers split into streams, branching out in all directions. What if Örn had caught a cold that day? What if he'd made it to the boats? And, yes, even that. What if you'd stayed with him, protected him until the boats..."

Markus' voice trailed away, and he took a momentary sip of his drink.

"Kimberly, Örn loved you dearly. This I know. But his way was not yours. His path couldn't walk in step with yours. If Örn saw what you did to Kris, what you had to overcome to win... I don't know what Örn would do. What he would think of you. He was already hurting so much..."

Markus shrugged his shoulders, blowing air from his nostrils and sagging down slightly in his chair.

"You're not a stupid girl, and I'm certainly not condemning you for anything. You deserve life, and Örn would agree with me wholeheartedly. But Örn? The Island would have broken him, no matter what. In some of his actions... I think he saw that. I think he knew that even if he survived until the end, he'd never be the same. Dying then, he saw you as a guardian angel, nothing more. It pains me... But maybe it was mercy. For that, we should be glad."

Markus stared down into his drink, smiling and crinkling his eyes to stem the tears. He traced a calloused hand across the tabletop, feeling the smooth wood on the end of his fingertips, letting the weight of his words sink in. Not just for Kimberly. For him.

A merciful end. Was it merciful, dying in her arms? How am I to know...

"Kimberly. If it's not too much pain for you..." Markus cleared his throat, keeping his eyes on his hands. He couldn't break down. Willing himself forward, Markus spoke as best as his frayed voice would allow. "I'd like to know what Örn said to you, at the end. Hearing it from you... Would that be asking for too much?"





Hearing what Dutchy's father said, it wasn't so hard for Kimberly to read between the lines. Part of the message was that Dutchy wouldn't have approved of the path she'd taken, wouldn't have understood why she'd done all she had. She didn't doubt that assessment. Dutchy had been a peaceful boy. He'd been the one to want to help everyone, the one torn up by the sight of blood, the one who'd been so hurt when she'd threatened him, who, so far as she knew, hadn't betrayed her confidence, even after that. Of course he would never have understood what the island had turned everyone into. Kimberly herself could barely understand it now, or at least that was what she wanted to believe. Sometimes, though, the recollections were all too clear. Sometimes, it was all too easy to remember how good it had felt, kicking the knife out of Polanski's hand or screaming at Steven to shut the fuck up or smirking at Rhory while pressing the blade to her throat.

That was not what Kimberly wanted to be dwelling on right now. This was not the time or place for it. She tried to force her thoughts onto other tracks, to focus on the present or imagine some other way she could've done things, anything to stop focusing on what had really happened, what she had really done.

It was almost a relief when she was asked to recall Dutchy's last words. They'd lingered with her, had resonated somehow. She wasn't sure that she could remember them verbatim, but she knew the gist.

"He said he didn't want to die afraid," she said. "Then he... a little later, he said I'd love the place where he was. That was all."





Slowly, Markus nodded his head. He would have liked to say that a great weight had been lifted, that the revelation of Örn's last words had cleared his mind, had allowed him some semblance of peace. But all it did was empty his heart all the more. The part once filled by a desperate longing for the truth was now a cold void, and Markus felt nothing but an alien silence seeping through him, dulling his senses all the more.

"It fits him. Örn was always an idealist—he would imagine a better world, even as he lay dying."

Should he feel proud at that? His son had dared to dream of a better world. Should it matter at all? A part of Markus wanted to say yes. The silence within his heart only wanted to reject the naïve idealism.

"Thank you, Kim. It means the world to us."

It did. Despite all the pain, it was a conclusion. For that, Markus could only be thankful.

"Is there anything you wish to know? Anything... anything I could help you with?"





Kimberly paused, considered. Was there anything she wanted to know? Was there any way she could be helped?

No. Not really. Nothing meaningful, at least. She'd wanted to talk, just a little. She'd wanted, in some weird way, to make up for what she'd done to Dutchy by seeing if she could help his family in any way. She'd wanted to do something for him, something more than what she'd already done or tried to do. She'd wanted to feel better, and maybe she did feel better now. Maybe she could almost forget that night or early morning, sneaking back to camp, getting caught. Maybe she could almost forget the words she'd hissed at him, the grin she'd worn.

It had been the first time she'd lashed out at an innocent. Maybe it was where everything had started to go wrong, where she'd started to lose herself. Probably not. She suspected that everything she'd done, everything she'd become, had always been lurking inside her. She suspected it was all still there, just waiting for the right circumstances to show itself again. To say she had lost herself was to disclaim responsibility, to wimp out and take the easy path. It was to throw away her honesty. Perhaps it was more accurate to say she'd found herself, had found parts of herself that were integral portions of her identity, whether she appreciated them now or not. After all, they'd kept her going, had brought her through to this point.

A deep breath dispelled those thoughts, at least for the time being, and returned her focus.

"Thank you," she said. "You've already helped me. And... and I hope that things get better. I hope that, somehow, things get better."

It was a nice thought. It would have to do.





Markus nodded his head. It was odd, to say the least. For the past few days he'd had conflicted feelings about the meeting. Dread, uncertainty, confusion. Why was he doing this? Was it for Kim, or for him? How would he hold it together? Would Kim be the girl he thought, or was he dealing with a monster, a relic from that dreadful island?

And now, there was once more little to say, little to feel. Markus felt his emotions dull within him, lulled to calm by Kimberly's words.

"Things will get better," Markus said with a nod of his head. "You're right on that."

Örn was right on that.

Markus tried his best, and managed to force a small smile across his face. "Thank you, Kimberly. Truly, and from the bottom of my heart."





She wasn't sure what to say. Maybe there was nothing more. That seemed probable. She'd given what she could, and just maybe it had eased her conscience a little. Perhaps she was a little bit closer to finding some peace with Dutchy, with what she'd done to him and with what she'd failed to save him from. Nothing would ever be perfect. She would never be entirely okay. Still, this was a start.

She didn't want to rush away. It seemed rude. She didn't really think that lingering too much longer would be polite either, though, so she simply finished her water, exchanged a few more inconsequential pleasantries, and then found herself outside, cell phone in hand, calling her grandfather to come pick her up.

It had gone well. Something had gone right.

That was a pleasant turn of events. It was something she could hold onto, a positive feeling that might be able to carry her through the trying times ahead, because however lucky she had been here, there would be other visits that nothing short of a miracle would be able to make okay. But, at least today, the world seemed almost alright.
V7:
Juliette Sargent
Alton Gerow
Lavender Ripley
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MurderWeasel
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Between Days Nine and Ten, Survival of the Fittest Version Four

It is night on the island, the night before the rescue, and Kimberly is shivering, alone, in the woods. Somewhere, there's gunfire, or maybe she's just so used to it now that she assumes there is always gunfire. Here, among the trees, it is almost peaceful. It is not possible to forget that everyone is killing and dying. It is not possible to forget that Dutchy is dead. It is not possible to forget that a kid, a normal kid, a nice enough guy, has created some kind of shrine out of the corpses of other normal kids, other nice enough people.

Kimberly wants, more than anything else, to go home. She's ready to forget everything, the bullet in her arm and the pain of everyone dying and the rage she feels towards everyone, if only she can go home. She's willing to shake Kris' hand if that'll get her freedom.

But that's not an option, and she can't sleep, so she keeps moving, heading towards the town. She'll sleep after she deals with the people she's looking for, or she'll sleep once it becomes clear she can't find them.

The little difficulties of travelling make it easy enough for her to forget that she wants to go home. The small irritations make it easy enough to rekindle her fury. The announcement, when it comes, makes it easy to seethe. Liz, Will, Steven, all gone. As the sun comes up and she sees the town in the distance, it's more than enough to keep her going, to prepare her for what is to come. Sleep can wait, just a few hours longer.
V7:
Juliette Sargent
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MurderWeasel
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July 17, 2008

Another day, another visit, another uncertainty. Kimberly had not known Roland and Lillian well before the trip. She had not, in fact, even realized that they were related until afterwards, and it had come as quite a shock. She could now remember her discussion with Lily in the alleys behind the Promenade so long ago, could recall the girl mentioning a brother. The rest of the conversation she couldn't even bring back vague impressions of. Had she known that that same brother was going to be part of a group saving her life, she'd have listened a bit more closely, in all likelihood.

As it was, she was preparing to meet someone else who was connected with the two about whom she knew almost nothing. Michael Hayes was a man Kimberly had never met, had never spoken to in any real capacity beyond asking permission to come talk today, had maybe seen in person once or twice at school events, though that was nothing but conjecture.

What she did know about him was that he had written a post to Roland's blog, a blog she had quickly found once she had returned home, once she had begun digging around on the internet. She'd read more, too, had read the older posts, and it was only now that she felt she was starting to understand who Roland had been and what being placed in the game must have represented to him. She wondered if he'd felt vindicated in any way.

It didn't matter now. Roland had become separated from those of his friends who'd made it to the rescue boats. He'd tried to protect those who hadn't. Kimberly couldn't really make herself hold anyone responsible anymore, not for everything that had gone wrong, but she still felt confident enough saying that some people had done a damn good job, had tried their hardest at every turn.

Roland was one of those people.

And so, as she knocked on the door, she didn't worry too much. She just had a few things to talk about here, a few little things she wanted to say.

Seconds later, the door opened, revealing Michael Hayes on the other side. Since returning home, Kimberly had only had the barest glimpse at a single photograph of him, taken before the abduction, somewhere online or in an old copy of the school paper. The few details she remembered from the photograph, of a clean-shaven, fresh-faced African-American man beaming like a child, had been swept away in the past few months. Michael had grown a full, curly beard since that photo was taken, thick enough to practically cover his mouth. His face looked weathered, his lower eyelids discolored from lack of sleep.

It took her a second to compose herself, to begin to consider how to approach this. She was not good at planning, at figuring out how to begin when she was trying to make a good impression.

"I, uh, hello," she said. "Thanks for agreeing to meet me."

"Not at all, not at all," he said, stepping aside and letting her in. "Gotta let this go. Gotta work it out."

Kimberly moved into the house, trying not to feel like she was intruding. It was hard to guess how Michael would be feeling. Losing one child to the game was bad enough, but two? That he was still holding himself together at all was evidence that he was tough. She hoped that she wasn't causing him needless pain with her presence, hoped that she wasn't going to make things any worse for him than they already were. She hoped she could maybe even be of some help or comfort, though at the moment she couldn't begin to imagine how.

Inside, she followed him into a sitting room, where a laptop lay open in front of a chair. Seating himself, Michael resumed whatever it was he was working on. Kimberly paused for a moment, unsure again what to do or say, feeling more than a little like she was intruding. She quickly opted for simplicity.

"I, uh, I just wanted to say that... that I wish everything that happened didn't," she said, feeling unusually self-conscious and wondering if her voice sounded as small to him as it did to her own ears. Although she was standing, Michael did not seem to mind—or even notice—the slight awkwardness she was conveying through her posture.

"Doesn't everyone?" Michael said. He appeared engrossed in his work, not making eye contact. "That's always the way it's been. Everybody says that all they want is peace, but as long as some key people really want war, there'll be war."

He sighed, then continued. "I don't know what to say, what they wanted, why it happened. Let's just skip to what we do know, alright?"

Kimberly was thrown by that. Being the blunt, direct one was always something she enjoyed, but being on the receiving end, especially in a situation like this, was a bit hard to deal with. Nevertheless, she appreciated the sentiment. It was always better to avoid mincing words.

"I, uh, yeah. Yeah, okay. Thanks," she said.

There was a pause, the room silent except for the quiet clacking of keys as Michael typed away on his laptop. Kimberly took a moment to look at him more closely. The man seemed restless.

She'd almost thought that was as far as things were going to go, when he said, "I'm guessing you're here about Roland, aren't you?"

Kimberly glanced away. This wasn't going to be easy. Maybe this whole thing had been a mistake. She'd been lucky before. She hadn't yet met anyone totally destroyed. She hadn't yet been blamed, hadn't yet been hated.

It was probably only a matter of time.

"Yeah," she said. "Yeah, I just... I wanted to say that he was a good person. I didn't know that then, but I saw what he wrote and what you wrote, and... and I wish I'd known him more."

This provoked a frown from Michael.

"Doubt he'd say the same of you," he said.

Kimberly's first reaction was anger, just a quick, hot, irrational flash. The feeling subsided almost instantly, leaving her a bit ashamed of herself. All that had been said was the truth. She'd seen what Roland had thought of her, had heard his recorded words when she'd tried to find out what had happened to the group after she'd left it.

"Fuck Kimmy, we don't need someone like that with us." Those words hadn't hurt when she'd heard them from her computer, but they were stinging now.

It was enough to prompt a little chuckle from her. She'd missed the various insults Roland had shouted after her while he was still alive, but he'd scored a hit just the same.

"Yeah. Yeah, fair enough," she said. "Maybe things—never mind. I wanted to say that he was right, and you were right."

She'd almost fallen into the trap of considering what could have gone differently there. That would have been a bad, bad choice, for both her and Michael. It was one of the things she had to force herself away from nearly constantly.

"Right about what?" Michael's voice was beginning to hold an edge of boredom verging on irritation. Kimberly wondered if it might just be better to go, to let him return to his project, but she decided to give it one more go.

"About SOTF," she said, then paused for a second to gather her thoughts before going on. "It's horrible, and it needs to be stopped. Speaking out against that, even before it affected him, that was... that was special. And... and if there's anything you're doing with it now, if there's any way that you're trying to keep working against it, then maybe... maybe I can do something to help."

She wasn't sure what she was expecting. Maybe she hoped that Michael would smile, would warm up and tell her that, yes, he'd love her help, that together they would bring justice to the world, that she could be a huge assistance because everyone was interested in her at the moment and they'd listen if she said something.

What she got was quite different. Michael stopped typing, stared at the screen for a second, then turned his eyes to Kimberly, staring at her in much the same way he'd looked at the computer, except perhaps with a bit less interest.

"I'm just as unsure as you are," he said. "How my son found all of these articles and organizations and shit, I can't even begin to guess. I'm just sticking with what I know right now."

He tapped the side of his laptop. Kimberly blinked, feeling the confusion flooding into her, probably showing clearly on her face.

"Oh. Oh, yeah, of course," she said. "Um, I mean, is there... is there any way that... um, what exactly are you doing?"

Michael resumed typing, the bulk of his attention once more on his laptop.

"Ever read The Jungle?" he asked. "How about Silent Spring?"

Kimberly took a breath, trying to bring back loose memories of tenth grade history class.

"No, but... The Jungle, that was the one with the meat factories, right? The one that led to health standards and sh-uh, yeah."

She recalled a little bit more, something about rats in the sausages and severed fingers on the floors of factories, but there was a decent chance she was getting confused. The lecture had been a long time ago.

Michael nodded.

"Yeah. Hearts and minds," he said. "Get the people going. I used to really hate this kind of manipulation, but if it works, it works."

Kimberly nodded as well, though she doubted Michael noticed.

"Yeah," she said. "Yeah, I can see that. Sometimes, you have to do things that are tough, you know, to get the right result."

Maybe that was a little bit too loaded, a bit too self-congratulatory. Kimberly was about to apologize, when Michael said, "What about you? What's your plan?"

Kimberly shrugged. Funny, how little she'd thought about her own future, beyond these visits at least. Hope still seemed a questionable choice. Having a life again, it was something that took time to get used to. It was something she couldn't afford to count on, not yet.

"I'm trying to... to be a bit better, to fix some of the stuff I fucked up," she said. "And... and after that, I don't know. I just want to do the right thing, you know?"

"Fix things? What is it that you think you can fix about this situation, exactly?" Michael asked.

Once again, Kimberly was taken aback, and once again her gut told her to take offense, to shout or something, but hadn't she just said she wanted to do the right thing? Picking a fight, assuming the worst, those were definitely the wrong choices here.

So, instead of getting angry, she stumbled her way through a reply.

"I guess, I guess maybe, maybe I can help a few people feel better. I hurt people, and I can't undo that, but maybe I can do something good."

That didn't sound quite right. Way too self indulgent. She wasn't communicating properly, so she hurriedly added, "I'm not looking to redeem myself. I know I can't change the past."

That, at least, was true. Kimberly had almost come to terms with the fact that she was probably pretty justly hated by a good number of people. She certainly knew she'd fucked up rather spectacularly on the island.

Michael looked pretty pessimistic.

"Doubt you'll get much help there," he said. You're lucky my wife isn't around, or she'd throw you out in ten seconds flat."

It didn't take as long for Kimberly to think about this one.

"Maybe," she said. "But I can try. I want to try."

Michael seemed to think about that for a long time. All the while, he kept on typing, working on his project, whatever form it was actually taking. Eventually, he seemed to decide he didn't really have much to add.

"Anything else?" he asked.

"I, uh... I'm not sure. Thank you for... for talking with me," Kimberly said.

Michael nodded, but it was clear that he was back to work. Kimberly waited a few seconds more, then mumbled a goodbye and an apology for her intrusion and let herself out. She wasn't sure what to think, what to make of this. As she walked down the street, she found herself struggling with an irrational urge to break down and cry.

It wasn't right. It was very, very clear that Michael was not doing well, that the death of his children had fucked up his life beyond hope of repair. She'd had some romantic vision of making peace, of helping Roland's family to make up for what she'd done to the group, of having a touching little moment and getting thanked, like with Dutchy's family, but that hadn't happened at all. She hadn't accomplished anything, hadn't helped anyone here.

Worse, it was so very easy to see the potential implications, to imagine a Michael for every one of her dead classmates. It was easy to imagine her own grandfather hunched over late at night, scribbling in a notebook, muttering to himself, rising only to use the restroom or to get a drink when he couldn't ignore his thirst anymore.

She called her grandfather once she was a block from the Hayes residence, partially to tell him she was ready to be picked up, but mostly just to hear his voice.
V7:
Juliette Sargent
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Lavender Ripley
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July 3, 2008

Returning to her room is a strange experience for Kimberly. Unlike so many other families, her grandparents did not see the need to leave it an untouched shrine. In fact, some of Kimberly's belongings are boxed away. Her grandmother has already explained that they started packing everything up when they heard she'd been shot. Kimberly hasn't bothered to ask if they'd stopped when they'd found out she was still alive. She doesn't need to know. Assuming her death had been a fair enough bet, certainly nothing to hold against the people she loves.

Now, she picks her spare glasses off the nightstand and puts them on, bringing the world into focus for the first time in close to a month. She surveys the boxes, full of her novels and clothes, and decides that they can wait.

Under her bed are drawers, containing school supplies, letters, guitar picks, CDs. She digs through the drawer at the foot of the bed, lips pursed, feeling around the back until she finds it. She withdraws a shoebox, brown, nondescript. It's her stash, the special place where she's put secret things for a few years now.

Apparently, her grandparents didn't get to her drawers in their cleaning. This is for the best. The box's contents are unchanged: half a dozen packs of cigarettes, fifty dollars, a small bag of marijuana, a half-empty box of condoms. She takes the money, closes the box, finds some tape, and seals the lid shut, then tosses it into the trash.

There's nothing there she'll need anytime soon, and it's too much a reminder of who she used to be, of habits and choices that she can't see herself making anymore. Life's just too precious these days.

Besides, she doesn't want her grandparents to know about it all.
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July 18, 2008

Kimberly ran her fingers through her hair as she walked towards the house. Once again, she was pretty damn uncertain of what she was doing. She hadn't called ahead this time. She'd considered it, had picked up the phone, but the fact of the matter was that she needed to know how Erik's family was doing. She cared. The others, she'd been okay with the idea that maybe they'd tell her to fuck off and die without looking her in the face. It's not like she'd lost any sleep wondering what the Hayes family thought of her. Mr. Hayes' statement of his wife's feelings, that had slid straight off her back.

With Erik's family, it wasn't that simple. Erik was one of the only people she'd met on the island and never held any anger or resentment towards. He was someone who'd been there for her, and who, in a very real way, she credited for her survival. He was someone who'd never done anything to deserve the fate he'd met. He was someone she wished had made it, didn't matter how. If anyone had deserved to get out of there, to go back to the real world and laugh along with their friends and just recover and get over all the horrible shit, it was Erik. Instead, he'd been gunned down.

She still didn't know quite what had happened.

Kimberly had not been shy about delving into the recordings of the game when she needed answers. She'd seen people die, had watched her classmates struggle and change and fight and murder, had learned a lot about who they were. She'd spent maybe an hour or two every day poking around on her computer, pretending she was playing Tetris or something so her family wouldn't freak out about her emotional health and stability and all that. She loved them, and she knew they wanted the best for her, but they still didn't know what that entailed. It was far too late for them to protect Kimberly from anything.

Even with a couple weeks' worth of spare time spent reviewing what all had happened, she'd barely scratched the surface of what was there. As it was, she wasn't sleeping well, still waking with half-remembered fears and dreams on the edge of her mind. She kept a nightlight on, like she was three again, and she kept a hammer she'd stolen from the garage between her bed and the wall, within easy reach. She got nervous sometimes, worried that it had all been a lie, that they would come for her again just like they had come for Dodd, that someone would murder her in her home like what had happened to Rizzolo.

Maybe that was why it was so imperative that she see people, that she figure things out quickly. Maybe she still hadn't kicked all of her old impatience. Maybe she was still fleeing possible regrets.

For all her research, however, she had respected her promise to Erik. She hadn't watched him die. In fact, she'd never gone looking for the tapes of their time together. She hadn't looked him up at all. It felt disrespectful, like she'd be overwriting his real self, the him that she'd known, like she'd be replacing his reality with false memories and conjecture. Fuck that. She was content to leave things between them where they'd ended, only she wanted to do right by him. More than anyone else, Erik deserved a happy ending, and if there was any way she could help make things less fucked up, she was going to do her best.

Maybe that was part of why she hadn't called.

It didn't really matter. She was at the door, and she was raising her hand and knocking, and she didn't have a clue what was going to come of it, but she was pretty sure she was ready.

It was a teenager who opened the door. Short and slender with medium-length reddish hair curled around her ears and a face reminiscent of Erik's, with high, sharp cheekbones and large blue eyes, She had an apple in one hand and looked vaguely put-out, as though coming to the door had interrupted something. There was a massive black mutt standing behind her and looking idly curious, his face heavily streaked with the grey hairs of old age.

The girl opened her mouth, probably to ask what Kimberly was doing there, but even as she did so, recognition began to sweep across her features. Her eyes narrowed as color drained from her face, leaving only two high rosettes of red in her cheeks. Her fingers tightened on the apple.

Her mouth worked for a moment without any sound. The dog moved forwards to press himself against her legs, nudging at her fingers. She didn't appear to notice.

Finally, voice shaking in what was unmistakably anger, she said, "What are you doing here?"

It wasn't what Kimberly had expected. She hadn't even realized Erik had siblings. Had he mentioned it? Hard to say. And now, she was here, and she knew that this girl in front of her knew who she was, had maybe watched what had happened, and who knew what was running through her head? Kimberly knew that she'd tried to help Erik, that'd she'd done her best, but had that come through on the screen? Had she come off, perhaps, as a manipulator? Had it looked like she'd played Erik to her own ends, then discarded him?

"I, uh, I thought," Kimberly started, stumbling for a second before sliding into, "I wanted to talk."

"Fuck you." The girl's voice snapped out like a whip. Her fingernails were digging into the soft skin of the apple. Her other hand was clenched just as tight into a fist, knuckles white. Her eyes blazed contempt. "I know who you are. You think this is some kind of fucking—you think you can just come into our life, my life, because you knew my brother? What the fuck do you even want to talk about?" Her eyes flicked up and down Kimberly just once. Sizing her up, maybe. Her mouth twisted. Her voice, when she spoke again, was a mocking parody of a whine. "'Oh, I'm soooo sorry for your loss.' If that's what you wanna say then you can just get the fuck out of here because I don't give a shit."

Her voice half-cracked on the last word, shook for a moment. Not just her voice: her hands, locked as they were, still trembled by her sides. "You're here and he's not. Fine. That's how it happened. But I don't fucking have to like it."

There were tears now, running messily down her face. Her words were half-choked in her mouth.

"And I don't fucking have to listen to you try and make yourself feel better about the fact that you lived and he didn't because you know what? He never did anything wrong. He never killed anyone. He never even hurt anyone. And then he met you and I saw what you did, I saw what happened, and he died and it should have been you!"

The apple didn't hit Kimberly's shoulder. Instead it flew wide, bouncing off the driveway and rolling to a halt in the gutter. The girl stared at her for a long moment, face crumpled and red and wet with tears, choking on sobs in the back of her throat, then spat at Kimberly's feet.

"My brother should be alive. Erik should be alive. Not you."

When she turned and retreated down the hall, she left the door open. The dog still lay by the threshold, but now he whined and looked uneasily between Kimberly and the rest of the house. For a few seconds, there was nothing but the soft, everyday noises of the neighborhood, and then a male voice from inside the house rang out.

"Kimberly?"

A pause. Kimberly wasn't sure what to do. She hadn't been prepared for that level of anger, not here, not from Erik's family. One of the others, perhaps, but not Erik's family. Even so, she didn't feel personally slighted. It helped that the girl was mostly wrong, that she was speaking from anger and grief instead of knowledge. It helped more that, on some level, the girl was right. Erik should have been alive. There was no denying it, no backing away. Kimberly had thought about it on her own, had mused over how things could have gone, had tried to figure some way she could have, perhaps, traded herself for him. There was nothing. Eventually, she'd given up. The past wasn't going to change.

But now, now she was faced with another complication. A voice had called her name, a man's voice, and she wondered just what the fuck was going on, whether she'd been expected, whether she should take the reception she'd already had as a warning and flee. Just what did they think she was here for? What did they have in store for her?

No. Erik was enough to vouch for these people. There was no way a family that could produce him could give her cause to worry.

"Hello?" she called. "It's me."

There were indistinct voices from inside the house, a muffled conversation not quite audible from outside, and a moment or two passed before a man came down the hall.

He was quite tall—probably at least six-foot-four—and had an angular look to him, his age showing in distinct crow's feet framing his blue eyes and smile lines engraved into his cheeks. His hair was gray and flopped over his forehead; as he approached Kimberly he swiped it absent-mindedly away and used the same hand to push a pair of black-rimmed spectacles a little further up his nose.

He might have seemed intimidating if it weren't for the faint, slightly awkward smile on his face and the fact that the first words out of his mouth were apologies. "Ah—I am so sorry for my daughter's behavior." He cast a quick glance over his shoulder and into the house, then looked back at Kimberly. "She is just not... Kim and Erik were very close. It has been a difficult time, I'm sure she didn't mean offense."

There was a faint accent to his words. Quebecois. He proffered a large hand speckled with burn marks and old knife-scars, still smiling rather anxiously.

"My name is Vincent, by the way. Vincent Laurin. You... knew my son."

"I did," Kimberly said. Apparently, the girl's name was Kim too. Fuck.

"I'm Kimberly Nguyen," she added, as if he didn't know that already. It just seemed polite, as did taking his hand and shaking. These were the things she was getting used to again now, shaking hands and introducing herself. They still felt rather artificial.

"I was hoping to talk," she continued, "but if you want, I'll leave." She didn't want to leave, not at all, not now, not when all she'd done was hurt someone else, but she would if that was best. The time for selfishness was long past, now.

"No, please." Vincent backed up a couple of steps and nudged the dog gently with his toe, muttering a command in French under his breath. The dog obediently stood, stretched, and padded stiffly away down the hall, leaving Vincent to turn back and gesture at Kimberly. "Come in."

He led the way through the hallway and into a bright and spacious kitchen, voice floating back to Kimberly over his shoulder. "It is very kind of you to visit. I'm afraid Annie—my wife—she is out right now, and the twins, but I would be happy to talk."

Sliding glass doors led from the kitchen to a small patio and an even smaller garden, just a little patch of grasses and what looked like someone's attempt at a vegetable garden. There were wooden seats and a small table, though, and Vincent gestured towards them. "Please, have a seat. Can I get you anything?"

Kimberly took a second before sitting down, just glancing around and wondering how she could have been nervous mere minutes ago. Then she sat, allowing her shoulders to relax and taking a deep breath.

"I'm fine," she said. "Thanks. I can leave if I'm bothering your d—Kim."

Meeting other people who shared her name had always been a strange experience, and Kimberly sometimes wished her mother hadn't been quite so thoroughly Americanized. A more traditional name would've been a pain in many ways, but it would have made this sort of situation rarer.

That was not the most pressing thing on her mind right now, of course. She had so much she wanted to say to Vincent, but she couldn't guess how much he wanted to hear, how much would be too much. She did not want to hurt him. In many ways, he reminded her of Erik. This house and patio felt right for them, felt like a home, and, while she had barely known Erik before everything, she could imagine him here easily. She did not want to presume to think she could feel his absence.

Vincent sat as well, folding his long body into the rough wooden seat. "It's fine. Kim... she is having a difficult time. She is so sad for Erik, and so angry, and—it is hard, sometimes, to know what to do. She is not interested in talking about it. But I think talking is good. It... clears the air, yes?"

He smiled quietly, leaning forward until his chin rested on his hands, elbows resting in turn on his knees. He moved like someone beginning to feel the aches of age, rather like the dog in the hall, eyes deep in his face and darker than Erik's ever had been as he waited for her to speak.

"Yes." This time, it didn't take so long for Kimberly to decide to respond. It was nice, being understood like this without having to work so hard. Understanding was in short supply these days.

"And... I guess that's why I came. I just wanted to say I'm sorry."

She could've continued, could've explained at length, but she was getting a bit choked up just sitting here, across from a man who had to be hurting way more than she was. She wanted to cry or something, just let go and get it over with and regain her dignity, but nothing was happening. It was just a bit hard to speak. There was a pressure, a point of pain in her throat, but that was all.

For a long moment, no one said anything. Birds called softly in the garden. A car drove past. There was a burst of laughter from next door. The world went on, in its quiet way. Vincent steepled his fingers and watched Kimberly, expression unreadable.

Then he reached out. The large, calloused hand settled on top of her own, warm and rough, steady and unmoving. He opened his mouth once, as though to speak, and then hesitated, looked away. After another moment he met her eyes. "Why? Why are you sorry, Ms. Nguyen? What would you have to be sorry for, to me? I have seen—I watched my son. In that place. I watched my son die."

Silence stretched, thin and empty. Vincent dropped his gaze and swallowed once, twice, blinking in the brightness of summer or on the tears he wouldn't show her. It was a long moment before he could look at her again but when he did, he was smiling—faint and unsteady, but smiling all the same. Voice slightly hoarse, he spoke again.

"My wife, when Erik was young, she had cancer. It was very hard, for everyone. For Erik. After she recovered, he was very... afraid. Of death. Of things happening. It was very bad for a while. We took him to therapy, so he could talk. And she told him to do more sports, so he joined the running team. He was very good. Very fast." Vincent was still looking at Kimberly, but for a moment his gaze was far away. "And I would watch him run and I would think... he runs away from everything. He runs like he will run away from the bad thoughts. Even when he was better, he would run like that."

He paused, a shadow twisting his face for the barest moment. "On the island, he ran. For so long. And then he met you, and he did not run any more, and—I think that is good. And at the end. You were with him." His eyes focused on Kimberly's once more, hand squeezing hers lightly. "My son did not die alone, Ms. Nguyen. He died peacefully, because you were with him. You have nothing to be sorry for. Nothing."

There were tears on his cheeks now, silently overflowing, but still he smiled and squeezed her hand, and if his voice trembled a little more than before, well, that was just how it was.

"Thank you. Thank you. Je vous remercie de tout coeur."

It had been enough to push Kimberly over the edge, and she was crying too now, not even bothering trying to wipe her eyes. She took deep breaths, letting the air fill her lungs and allowing the concentration of that act to bring back her focus, to clear her head just enough that she could manage words again. Her thoughts were not coherent, but she had a few things she had to say, now that she knew she could say them.

"I just, I, I wish it had been different," she said. "I just wanted to make sure that you—all of you—that Erik's family was alright. He was a good person."

Here, she did pause, and wiped the tears from her eyes with her free hand, then wiped it on the leg of her jeans. The pain was gone from her throat, released along with the pressure and the tears.

"He was a great person," she continued. "He saved me. I don't—everything happened, and I don't what I would've done if we hadn't met. He let me remember who I was. I just wanted to... to help, somehow, or say thank you, or..." but she had started crying again, had trailed off, and couldn't find words to continue.

Vincent was silent as well. The words that had needed to be said had been offered, and now they sat together on the tiny patio overlooking a garden more weeds and stakes than actual plants, the shrieks and giggles from next door drifting over the fence, and they cried.

It was Vincent who broke the silence again. One hand still lay gently over Kimberly's, light enough that she could remove it if she wanted but still fundamentally there. He swiped his own hand roughly along his cheekbones and under the lenses of his glasses, pinching the bridge of his nose for a moment as he took a long and shuddering breath.

"That you came," he said quietly, "it helps. That you came to see us. Erik had... a partner, a boyfriend. He was a good boy. They went to the prom together. Erik talked about him." He laughed, covered his face for a moment, brushed new moisture off his cheeks. "All the time, he would talk about him." He smiled fondly. "Kimberly would say she would tape his mouth shut."

The smile became something quiet, turned inward. "He was on the island too, the boyfriend. He escaped, was rescued, on the boats. I don't know if he came back to the city. But never... perhaps it is asking too much. That he would come and see us, I don't know. I'm not angry."

He shrugged one shoulder. "But Erik was looking for him, on the island, and found you instead, and you are here now. So that is good, I think. It helps."

That was something else, more news that Kimberly wasn't entirely sure what to make of. Her tears had mostly subsided, but another feeling was building now, one that scared her.

She'd known. Erik had told her in there, somewhere between the mountain and the sawmill. They hadn't said much, but he'd told her about Brendan, had told her that they had met, that Brendan had left. It hadn't made much sense then, and it sure as fuck didn't now, but nothing about the island made sense these days. It was a different reality, a dream world, a place in the back of her mind that only came out to haunt her when she thought too hard about people she'd never see again or when she sliced a grapefruit and had to run to her room to cry because stabbing and cutting with a knife had physical memories attached to it, ones she never wanted to confront again. Even her shoulder seemed like it could have another explanation now, something that wasn't so sinister, like there could be some silly, everyday reason she could only reach the top shelf in the pantry right-handed.

But what bothered her now was that she was being reminded that she wasn't the only one who'd made it. Brendan was out there, somewhere, living out his own life and his own issues, and Erik had died without him. Brendan, he was part of that special group that had lucked out. Kimberly knew about the rescue now, knew what all had happened. She'd looked Brendan up a bit, to see if Greynolds had been telling the truth.

He had. Brendan had shot Steven with Kimberly's old gun.

And now, she felt her old anger coming back, and the island, it was starting to make a little sense again. Hurting people was starting to make a little sense again, and it was terrifying, and this wasn't the place or time for it, not here with Erik's father, not when things were going so well. Later. She could work out her feelings towards Brendan later. She wasn't helping anyone now, not even herself.

"I'm glad he found me," she said. Her voice was a little bit flat now, but it beat letting her emotions leak into it. She tried to intone more properly as she continued. "He saved my life. If I... if there's ever any way I can help you, any of you, I mean... let me know."

Vincent nodded, made a small gesture with his free hand. "Of course. And you, Ms. Nguyen. If you should ever need anything, please. Ask. My wife would feel the same, and my daughter—she will learn. She needs to be sad, for a time, but it will pass. As with my other children."

His smile turned wry. "We try to raise them well. With five, maybe, it was not as easy. But they are good people. I am glad my son could be with you. That he could do what he did. He was always very... mm, he would go to those who needed him. He would get in trouble for it, sometimes. But he tried very hard to do the right thing. He would be happy, that you lived. That he helped with that. I think he would be happy."

He hesitated for a moment before leaning forwards slightly, fingers curling gently around her hand. "And you, Ms. Nguyen? It would be wrong, maybe, to ask if you are okay but—would you like to talk?"

The answer to that one was easy: she did. Kimberly wanted, needed maybe, to share, and this was one of the few relatively safe environments left to her. This was someone expressing concern for her because they cared, not because they were under any obligation to. This was someone she could speak to without repercussions for the other parts of her life. More than that, this was Erik's father. It was eerily reminiscent of how things had gone back on the mountain, back when she'd told Erik just how far from fine she was, back when she'd explained that she wanted to change, to learn from her mistakes, to break out of her cycle. Maybe she'd managed that. After all, she had, in her way, left the violence behind.

"I'm scared," she said. "I don't know what's going to happen. I don't... I don't want this. I just want to go back to my life. I wish that—fuck, I'm sorry, I don't mean to be self-indulgent. I just... I'm just trying to be a better person, to take care of things, to make up for things, and there's so much, and..." and here, she took a deep breath, tried to force her thoughts into order a little bit more.

"I just don't want this to be my life. I don't want it to define me, but there's still so much I need to do."

Vincent nodded. Heavy eyebrows were drawn down over his eyes as he thought, still absent-mindedly squeezing Kimberly's hand in his own. It took a short time before he spoke again, eyes far away as he thought over the words.

Finally, he sighed and shook his head. "I wish... I wish I have more answers for you. I can only give what I think. But I think... this is a part of you now, what has happened. It will not stop being a part of you. But we are all made up of parts. We are born and they are not so many, but every day we grow and there are more. And this thing, which is a big part of you now, the more you grow and the more time passes it will become smaller, and less important."

He frowned. "I am not explaining this very well. It is like... when you cook. You will add ingredients at the beginning which will not taste good on their own, or which will make everything taste bad, but the more you add and the longer you cook it the tastes change, and blend, and they become good again. This is so new still, it is overpowering everything else. But in time it will change. It will not become good, I think, ever, but it will blend—and you will be stronger for it. Better."

He offered up a half smile, shrugged. "It is little comfort now. I know. I do understand. But it will not be this way forever. And I think... I do not think you need to make up for anything. It is good to want to be a better person. That is how we become better. Yes, you did bad things, on the island. I think maybe everyone did. But that is in the past, and you have learned from it."

He dropped his gaze, suddenly awkward. "This is just what I think. It may not mean anything. But I think... do what you need to do because you want to, not because you think you must."

It wasn't what she'd been expecting to hear, insofar as she had expectations, but perhaps that was why Vincent's words actually provided comfort. She wasn't sure what to do with his advice—after all, hadn't following her own desires landed her in this predicament in the first place? Could she trust herself with that sort of responsibility again, after all the pain she had caused?—but the rest of it helped tremendously. She couldn't see what the future might hold, how long her road might be, but she had left the island and now she had a future again, had the ability to take the time necessary to heal. Maybe, given long enough, she would recover, just like her arm was recovering.

Of course, she'd always have the scars.

"Thanks," she said, and her smile was genuine. She wanted to say more, to share her gratitude for everything this man and his family had done for her, but she couldn't find the proper words, so she just smiled a little more widely.

Vincent dropped one shoulder in a half-shrug and let go of her hand, patting it gently before he withdrew.

"Old words, old advice from an old man." He didn't look like he was much past fifty, and the words had an edge of wry humor to them.

Checking his watch, he made a soft tsking noise deep in his throat. "My wife will be home soon. And my other children. Would you stay to dinner, Ms. Nguyen? You are always welcome in our family."

It was a tempting offer, and Kimberly nearly accepted. She was thankful for the acceptance, thankful for the advice and the ability to talk with someone who cared, but Erik's sister's reaction to her presence was still in the back of her mind. She didn't want to hurt the girl more, didn't want to surprise the rest of the family before they were warned.

Besides, what Vincent had said gave her a little more hope for her life to come. Just maybe, she would be back here again, from time to time. She had a future again. She could involve people she wanted to see more of in it. She could now put off meetings with less fear that she would never get the chance to make good. Yeah, there was always some uncertainty. It seemed so insignificant by comparison to what had come before.

Still, Kimberly had never liked leaving things unsaid.

"Thanks," she said, "but another night might be better for me, if, uh, if it's okay. I really appreciate it, though. Thank you so much. For everything."

Vincent smiled. It was a real smile, even if it didn't quite reach his eyes, even if there was still the exhaustion of grief behind it.

"Of course." He pushed himself out of his chair and stretched, twisting his back to the soft crackle of joint and vertebrae... and hesitated. His hands went to the back of his chair, squeezing the wood. He stared over Kimberly's shoulder at the door into the kitchen, and his voice when it came was distant.

"After the news... Kimberly, after it happened, she would wake up at night with the dreams. And my other son, Pierre—he is a good boy, but he would fight in school because of what people say, about what happened. Morgan, Charlotte, my girls, my twins, they were so sad. And it is easier now, as time passes. We are still a family. I have four children still, and I love them so much. I am so grateful for what I have."

His knuckles were white on the chair. His words were soft.

"But I miss him. I miss him so much, sometimes, that it hurts." A hand came up, pressed to his chest. "I miss him so much that I don't know what to do."

He let out a long, shuddering breath, and tears he didn't seem to notice were tracing down his cheeks. For a long moment, he just breathed.

Finally, he shook his head and raised his eyes to Kimberly. "But we go on, you and I. We miss them. We are so sad and angry and lost, with what has happened. But we still live and so we must go on, and in time, it will get better. It must." The expression on his face wasn't quite a smile, too bitter to be called something like that.

"I miss my son, Ms. Nguyen. But he is dead, and I am not, and you are not, and it is for us to live for those who are gone. It hurts—you know that. But I will not allow what has happened to take my family away from me."

Vincent held out a hand to Kimberly, a silent offer of assistance in getting up. A usually meaningless gesture, common courtesy. But his eyes held her own.

"Please, Kimberly. Do not let them take your life from you. For Erik. For a silly old man who misses his son. Enough children died on that island."

His lips twitched momentarily. A real smile, this time.

"Do not be one of them."

Kimberly smiled too, and she took his hand and allowed herself to be helped up. As she left the house, she felt a little pang of sadness. She almost regretted turning down Vincent's invitation. After all, she couldn't be entirely sure she'd be able to make it at a later date. Leaving now felt like leaving something that mattered behind.

She took deep breaths to clear her head, and swallowed as silently as she could. Her throat was aching a bit again, and she knew that tears were threatening, but she was determined to be strong until she was out of sight. She parted ways with Vincent at the door, with a smile and a promise to return before too long, and then she was off down the block, sniffling and wiping her eyes and trying to feel angry at herself for breaking down or something but not really making much headway.

She wanted to take the advice to heart, to keep going and not let what had happened destroy her. Still, she almost wished she could just sink into it. There was something very appealing about the idea of being the last victim of Survival of the Fittest.

But of course, she wouldn't be the last. There would be more next year, and the year after, and so on until somebody finally got their shit together and tore the whole damn organization down, and no way was Kimberly going to let herself be just another casualty, not after everything that had happened.

Certainly not without a good reason.
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April, 2008

A girl with a video camera stands in the halls, facing Kimberly. The girl is indistinct— probably someone in her year, maybe Sarah Atwell, maybe Violet Druce. It doesn't matter. Neither will make it off the island.

They're standing off to the side, in a quiet little nook, sheltered from the pre-lunch din of passing students.

"What's your best memory of life at Bayview?" the girl asks. Kimberly doesn't bother taking the time to think through a politic reply, just launches straight into it. Better that way. More honest.

"I don't think there were a lot of fucking good memories," she says. "Oh, sorry, school video, right. What was I saying? Well, yeah, I guess there were some good times. Maybe. Hanging out with friends was always fun. Watching the sad excuse for fashion around here was always fun." A pause, just enough time to adjust her fedora. "I guess nothing really specific stands out, though. There's no one bright, shining moment, or anything like that. Yeah. That's all you need, right?"

It is. Kimberly hurries off to the lunch room after that, and doesn't think of it again. School films don't really matter in the long run.
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July 20, 2008

That Brendan had agreed to meet with Kimberly spoke to something, though she couldn't quite figure out what. Kimberly expected most of the rescued kids would have found her too potent and immediate a reminder of their own losses, too close to comfort to embodying what, had they been a little slower or a little meaner, their own fates could have been. She was pretty sure a good number of them viewed her as nothing more than the wrong survivor, the girl who stood in the place that should have been reserved for some friend or lover. It was understandable. She'd faced those feelings herself, with regards to the rescued kids.

As a matter of fact, it was roughly how she felt about Brendan. She hadn't mentioned this when she requested this meeting. It had seemed impolitic.

Kimberly was sitting in a park, on a bench, at about seven in the evening, an untouched paper cup full of root beer beside her. She'd picked this park because it was small, in disrepair, but across the street from a couple fast food joints. She couldn't imagine that Brendan would be violent, but she barely knew the boy and she had way too many things to do to get beaten to death for pissing someone off. If she ended up screaming, she wanted people in a position to come running. She had a can of pepper spray in her pocket, but she wasn't about to count on it for protection. She hoped that the knowledge that people were nearby would defuse any danger.

That was paranoia talking, of course. She knew a bit about what Brendan had faced. She hadn't watched everything, hadn't had the time or inclination, but she didn't really think there was any risk. She was just being careful. She didn't want more violence in her life, never again.

She checked the clock on her cell phone for maybe the fifth time, though she knew she was still early. A few seconds later, however, she saw what she vaguely expected to see. She spotted a figure she was almost sure was the boy she was here to meet, striding down the path under the dim glow of the setting sun, walking along an unknown road. Every so often, his head would twitch to the side, looking over each shoulder. His posture and seeming discomfort made it look as though he'd never walked through a city park in his life.

"Brendan?" she called. He looked to his right, straight at her. His expression was easily readable. She was an unknown ghost from his past, and he wasn't all too pleased to unbury such a relic. Either way, she gestured towards him. "Have a seat."

He seemed rather hesitant, but he came over and slunk down onto the wooden seat regardless.

No telling why he was nervous, how much he'd guessed and how much was just the flashbacks and all the other awful shit she was no doubt reminding him of. No way to know if he'd looked up the videos, if he knew the ways in which their lives had twisted around each other. It didn't matter. He'd probably know soon enough.

"Thanks for coming," Kimberly said. "I was afraid you'd be too busy. How're you doing?"

He seemed to mull over his response for a while. Eventually, he cleared his throat.

"I've been better."

"Yeah," Kimberly said. "Me too. Losing people's a bitch, huh?"

Was that getting ahead of herself? Maybe. Best to dial it back a little, calm down a bit. She didn't want to scare him away, not when she still had things to say.

"I heard you met Polanski," she said, because Brendan didn't seem like he was going to say anything in reply to her comment. "What'd you think?"

Once again, silence for a time. Was he afraid the wrong word would crack some proverbial ice?

"I think... I was so desperate to get off of there I was willing to do anything."

He paused momentarily. His lower lip curled into his mouth.

"I... I dunno if she helped get those boats in, or if it was just random luck, but... I wish she was still alive to see what happened."

That made Kimberly think for a little. She'd seen stuff a little bit differently, maybe because of the circumstances in which she'd met Liz. She'd never even considered that the other girl might have stood a chance of surviving. As far as she knew, Liz hadn't expected that either. She'd been resigned to her fate, and ready to take it on her terms.

That was all tangential to Brendan, though, and Brendan was what held Kimberly's attention at the moment. He'd said some other things that had Kimberly's focus, some things that needed addressing. He'd said he'd been willing to do anything to get off the island. Kimberly believed him. It was probably why she couldn't much relate to the boy.

"Lots of people should have seen it," she said. "Lots of people should've been there. Some people I was with at the start, they made it. Some others didn't. It got me wondering, thinking, you know? About how many more people could have made it, if their friends had just stuck with them."

"...I know what you mean."

"I'm sure you do," Kimberly said, and now it was getting a little hard to keep her feelings from seeping into her voice. She'd come here planning to keep calm, to have a level head, to be fair. That had been foremost on her mind. She hadn't reviewed all the tapes, but she'd asked around, and she knew the strange ways in which her path and Brendan's had intertwined. She knew, now, that he had run away when she'd been lying on the beach, bleeding and screaming. That didn't matter. It wasn't personal. She wasn't anyone to Brendan, so why the fuck should he have cared if she died?

Brendan had run away more than once, though.

"Why'd you leave him?" Kimberly asked. Fuck patience. It was better to cut to the chase.

She was met with yet more silence. It was territory that was clearly just waiting to be unearthed, it just needed a little push in the right direction.

But like always, he eventually responded.

"Because it was at that point where I kind of thought I'd actually see him again."

Brendan took the liberty of facing Kimberly now. His expressions were distant, somewhere not on his face.

"I was an idiot out there. A real fucking idiot. I've... I've dealt with this stuff all my life, you know? Death and stuff? I always just had this idea that, well, it was a small island, y'know, three hundred teenagers? We're gonna bump into each other again eventually, y'know? I never... never really kinda thought that—that that last time I'd see any of these people would be... y'know, the last? I..."

His eyes darted away.

"...never really got that concept until I actually went back and saw what the hell I was doing to all these people for myself."

"You never got the concept?" Kimberly's voice was rapidly losing any hint of neutrality. "What, you thought maybe nobody'd die in Survival of the Fittest? Or just nobody important?"

This was not exactly the fight she'd figured she'd first pick.

"Did you think the whole island was, fuck, that it was just going to work like you wanted because you were just that important? Did you even think that you might die?"

This was not important. If anything, Kimberly was getting sidetracked, getting stuck drawing the differences between them into the light to force the similarities back into the shadows. The difference was, she'd come by her selfish egotism honestly. She'd chosen to spit in the faces of everyone who'd ever loved her. She'd chosen to hurt others, and now that urge was rising once again, and for the first time since she'd been back, she didn't really feel the need to rein herself in.

He looked up at her.

"Yes. That's exactly what I thought. And that was months ago now. If you feel the compulsive need to prosecute me based on the fact that months ago, on an island in the middle of the ocean, a scared teenager thought with misplaced optimism that things might turn out okay, then go ahead, you've got your chance."

Brendan didn't give her the chance to respond to that, and instead kept on rambling.

"The funny—" Brendan started, before catching his words and repeating, "—the thing is, a lot of people I knew and loved died. I get that now. Erik, he died. Dutchy, he died. Heaps of other people I met out there, and grew to love and care for out there, they all died. But the same amount of people made it out of there, that's the thing. I can look back at everything that happened out there, and not think that I was an idiot for being optimistic about my chances. Because I made it out. And so did many, many other people who I prayed until my knees were down to the bone that they would be at least okay until I got to be with them. They made it out too."

Kimberly wasn't quite sure at what point in there her hands had started shaking. Maybe it'd been the names. Maybe it'd been sooner. Didn't matter. Maybe this was what she'd wanted from this conversation. Maybe it'd been exactly what she needed. A lot of people walked on eggshells around her, no matter what she screamed at them. It was almost nice to have someone go after her, to have something to respond to without guilt.

"Erik and Dutchy died in my lap," she said. "Both of them. What a fucked up world, huh? And you know what? I'm real happy for you and everyone else who got to go home. I'm sure you're all great people and shit, since as far as I understand they turned down the rest, but are you even fucking listening to what you're saying? You prayed for people to be okay until you got to be with them? That's real fucking nice for you. And you know what? Maybe you're not an idiot for being optimistic about your chances.

"You're an idiot for abandoning your friends."

He seemed ready to respond to that, mouth agape at this girl crushing him down with his own personal problems, but after another short pause, he just shut his mouth for a second. It didn't last long.

"And you're the idiot here if you think you're the only one out of all of us who has demons to face, you stupid—"

Almost alarmed at what he was about to say, he stopped. Brendan shook his head and got up, beginning to walk away. Instead, he turned around again to face Kimberly.

"I'm sick of this. I didn't want this, and you're not gonna have the self-satisfaction of acting better than me. I've got my own problems now."

With that, he turned his back and started walking away into the dark of the park.

"Who's acting?" Kimberly called after him. He didn't turn back.

Kimberly's smile grew wider and wider. It was hard, so very hard, not to spring up and follow after him. It was hard to restrain herself, to leave well enough alone, to not burst out laughing and shout at him that, hey, telling her that he had his own issues, that he didn't want to be yelled at, that he was done, well, none of those things were exactly smashing down her impressions about what a self centered little fuck he was. It was very hard not to take a shot at him for running away yet again, to not ask him if it was like the last time he'd fled when stuff got tough.

What stopped her was not any regard for Brendan's emotional wellbeing. It certainly wasn't sympathy. Kimberly could feel herself slipping, could feel herself getting back into the frame of mind that had led her to so many actions she'd regretted. She could remember how good it had felt to hold Liz at gunpoint, to scream at Steven. She could remember very clearly how wonderful it felt to completely disassemble some sad piece of shit.

She was pretty sure she could escalate things. Thing was, she was in the real world again now. That meant that there was a time to quit. She might be able to goad Brendan into hitting her or something, might be able to get him in trouble with the cops, but to what end? She was no longer in a game of life and death. Winning didn't mean grinding her foes into the dirt until they begged her to stop.

No, she had said her piece, she had made him listen, and he would get to live with that, and with himself. They were done, and as far as Kimberly was concerned, they could stay that way forever. She didn't feel bad about what had transpired, and that meant it was time to call it quits while she was ahead.

After all, she'd gotten everything she'd really wanted out of the meeting. Erik probably wouldn't have approved, and she felt a bit guilty about that, but his father had been right.

Sometimes, it was still important to do things for herself.
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July 14, 2008

To all my loyal readers,

As you have no doubt been made aware, either through this paper or the news on TV, a girl named Kimberly Nguyen has "won" Survival of the Fittest. She, like the three students who preceded her, was able to survive the despicable actions of the group responsible for the so-called SOTF program. This news, coupled with the earlier rescue of twenty-nine other students and teacher Kwong Lei, should be cause for the entire city to celebrate. The efforts made by those who enacted the rescue were nothing short of heroic. Were it not for them, the tragedy of this event would be much worse.

And yet, I find myself sitting here today, writing about what should be a happy event, and finding no joy. In truth, I turned off the broadcast much earlier than others—a whole day, in fact. I could not watch anymore, because I knew my daughter, Tabitha Gweneth, was dead.

The day that I discovered that my daughter was taken by the kidnappers, was, until recently, the most horrific day of my life. Realizing that the most precious thing you have ever had in your life had been stolen away, likely to never be seen again, is soul-destroying. I have heard claims that this is like the thousands of families that watch their relatives go to fight for freedom overseas, and perhaps that is the closest parallel that can be drawn. At the same time, it is nothing like that, because the war is not shown 24/7 to the entire world. The war doesn't force you to look on as your daughter is trapped with people who wish her dead. The war doesn't force you to watch your children die in front of you. No, there is nothing that can come close, nothing at all. As such, coming to terms with what had happened was impossible.

So, with great fear, I watched the television screen, hoping and praying to God that there would be a miracle, a way for my daughter to escape and come back home. I watched as she trekked across swampland in an attempt to find someone, anyone. I watched the brutal murders she witnessed. I watched her narrowly escape death at the hands of her own classmates. And, yes, I watched when she too killed someone. When it happened, she said that she thought we would hate her.

My husband and I were shocked. Hate her? How could we possibly hate her for protecting herself? She was our daughter, and we just wanted her back! I think the same can be said for every person who has lost a child to SOTF. We just wanted our children home.

So when that day came, that wonderful day when the unnamed heroes launched a rescue, we were ecstatic. We thought our life could go back to a semblance of reality. Our daughter was coming home! Only, it never happened. Just as soon as they came, they left. They had rescued twenty-nine students, but they couldn't wait for everyone. For a time, the game continued, but then, so close to the end, the blackout hit.

It was painful to just sit and wait, with no knowledge if they had come back to rescue our little girl, no knowledge if she was even still alive. There was nothing we could do. When SOTF reappeared on our televisions, we became glued once more. Tabi was alive. There had been no second rescue, and everything had stayed the same, save for one detail.

It was oddly calming to see our daughter fall in love. In such a hellish situation, she had fallen in love with Ivan Kuznetsov. I found myself hoping more than ever that there would be another rescue. Maybe if the two of them returned I could write of happier things, like my daughter's wedding.

But as time went on, it became ever clearer that our prayers would not be answered, that there was only one way that she was coming home. It is a terrible feeling, when you become relieved that children are dying and your daughter still lives. I am ashamed to admit it, but I was even hoping that Ivan would die, just so that my daughter could live. My husband and I hated ourselves for it, especially when we watched their love grow along with our desire for our Tabitha to win and come home.

Then I watched as my daughter was shot. There was nothing we could do, no ambulance to call, no way for us to comfort her. All we could do was watch. She was so happy, even though she was clearly in pain. She was smiling, trying to console Ivan. She even thought of us, asking him to return a memento. When she died, we turned off the TV. We could watch no more.

The first phone call came minutes later, and they haven't stopped since. Our e-mail was instantly flooded with apologies and sympathy from friends and—horrifyingly—complete strangers. They said things like, "I just saw on TV. I'm sorry for your loss," as if that was what I wanted to hear from strangers mere minutes after Tabi's death! Instead of easing our pain, it only drew our anger. It left us asking, why? Why did they not try to rescue our little girl? Why didn't Ivan take the bullet for her? Why did we let her go on that trip? Why did it have to be our daughter to die?

The next day, the game was over.

I want to feel happy that at least someone survived. We read that almost 300 people were taken hostage, and they were able to rescue 10% of them, and news has surfaced about the demise of the terrorist leader. I want to feel happy about these things, but I can't.

In the end, it doesn't matter. Those thirty people aren't my daughter. I think, even if it had been Ivan that had come out alive, I would feel the same as I do now. My apologies to all the survivors and their families; I wish I could muster some sort of relief that you are safe, but right now I can't.

In fact, the aftermath of this tragedy has left my family in a difficult spot. I am now living in the home that Tabi once played in, the home that Tabi was raised in, the home where I said my last words to Tabi, wishing her a safe trip. This house has too many memories. This town has too many memories. I don't know if I'll be able to stay. I most definitely cannot write for this paper any more, at least for now. As such, I will be taking a hiatus, at the very least. If I do decide to leave this town, I will be sure the editors inform you of my departure.

In closing, I desperately request that everyone please stop contacting us. I know that I ask the impossible in the end, but, please, we just want time to grieve. We just wish to remember our daughter, Tabitha Gweneth.

-Dana Gweneth
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July 22, 2008

Kimberly had read the article from last week's paper in the morning, with her cup of orange juice and her bagel, and it had fucked up her appetite something fierce. It was supposed to be a happy day. Every day was supposed to be happy now. Then again, Kimberly really wasn't supposed to be following the news about SOTF and the survivors and everything else related to it. She'd been to a couple therapy sessions now. They hadn't worked out too well. She didn't need therapy, not from someone just out of grad school, some woman only a little older than her who'd lived a normal life and who'd never had a gun to her head.

More and more, Kimberly was finding that she didn't have much to talk to people about. They said they were sorry, and maybe they were, or they said they understood, and they definitely didn't. Only family provided much consistent support. She had her grandparents, and she had her real parents, in a way she'd never had them before.

That was nice.

She also had her little project, her secret mission. She had her visits. Bit by bit, she was filling things in, finding her closure, and bit by bit she thought she was becoming slightly saner. She was starting to maybe get a good idea of what all had happened while she was gone, and where she stood, and—just maybe—where she was going. It was more than a little frightening.

Didn't matter. What mattered today was that she'd been focusing on herself and a few others lately, but hadn't really been taking a broad perspective. She'd lost track of a few things, and, without even realizing it, she'd made decisions that weren't hers. She'd internalized what Ilario had said, perhaps, had assumed that a family wouldn't want a token of their child back, not in place of the real person. She'd left the scrunchie in her backpack, off in a corner of her room, untouched since the day of her return. She'd thought about it now and then, but, until today, hadn't really worked herself up to fulfilling Ivan's request. Maybe it was that she still remembered him sometimes, in the only way she'd known him, however briefly. She wished the context had been different, wished they'd met under better circumstances. It would have made thinking of him now less awkward, because she knew he hadn't been a bad person.

Then there were other things to discuss. She wondered how much she had to say to the Gweneths. She could remember Tabitha now, just a little bit, flashes of a smile and hints of a friendly demeanor. It was hard to imagine someone like that alive and unchanged so close to the end, and Kimberly wondered just what had happened, to her and to Ivan. She hadn't looked, this time. Her grandparents had caught her on the computer the night after her incident with Brendan, and now she didn't have internet access. She hadn't really protested, even though she was pretty sure she'd've been able to convince them to let her handle things her way. She was pretty sure they were right. Forcing herself back into it all so soon wasn't healthy at all.

One way to find out about what she hadn't known, then.

She went looking for her school directory and her grandfather.





That was a few hours ago. Now, Kimberly was standing in front of the Gweneths' door, raising her hand to ring the doorbell. Her grandfather had taken the car again, off to a coffee shop or cafe. He wouldn't be too far away, that was for sure. Kimberly hadn't been able to reach the Gweneths over the phone. There was a chance that they weren't home or that they'd want nothing to do with her, in which case a quick pickup would be least awkward. It was lucky for her that her grandfather worked only part time now, that he'd saved up his vacation days and was willing to help her out. She didn't know what she'd have done without him, since her grandmother preferred not to drive whenever she could avoid it.

Kimberly pressed the button, heard the ringing inside, and waited. Soon enough, she'd be meeting these people she'd never known, these people whose daughter had come so close to being in her shoes. She hoped she was ready for this one.

She didn't have long to muse. The door soon opened, revealing an older woman, maybe in her late forties, her blonde hair greying. There were bags under her green eyes, and she looked thin, not in a healthy way. Kimberly had learned a lot about what people looked like when they didn't eat for a while, and she was seeing evidence of that here. Still, the woman's face was alert, and less than a second passed before recognition flashed over her features, despite the fact that Kimberly was not dressed in her old style.

"Can we talk?" Kimberly asked. It seemed only polite to provide something of a statement of intent.

"Come in," the woman said, the emotion in her voice difficult to discern. "Would you like anything to drink?"

"No thanks," Kimberly said. The woman (Dana, it must have been—this could only have been the woman who wrote the article) nodded and turned, walking into the house. Kimberly followed, glancing around to cover her unease. It looked like the household was wrapped in uncertainty. There were empty cardboard boxes against some of the walls, and a few newspapers lay on a coffee table, opened to the real estate section, displaying rows of pictures of houses. There was also, however, a steadfast stubbornness about it. Nothing was actually packed, and the space looked very clearly lived in, with furniture still set up and decorations still in place. Whether or not a move was impending, the Gweneth household still felt very much like a home.

The one thing that stood out most to Kimberly was the telephones. She likely would have missed it had she not attempted to call, however, now she saw that the phones—and there were several in sight during the quick relocation; presumably it came with working in the news and needing to keep in contact—were all unplugged, cords dangling loosely.

Kimberly tried to mask her interest, a task made easier as they arrived at a small coffee table with three chairs around it. Dana took one, and Kimberly sat at a right angle to her. She wasn't feeling quite prepared to face Dana directly, not when she had no idea where she stood with the woman. She couldn't begin to guess what anger and resentment might remain. After all, the woman's daughter had been within sight of finding herself in Kimberly's position. The boy she had traveled with and cared about had found himself in direct opposition to Kimberly, had been taunted by her, had been killed by the same boy who had decided that she would survive.

Avoiding eye contact, Kimberly found her gaze drawn to the object occupying most of the coffee table: a three picture frame, displaying photographs of Tabi.

The smallest was her graduation picture. They'd taken them in advance. Kimberly had hers somewhere at home. It was an awful little reminder of the futures they'd all been heading towards.

Slightly larger was a picture of a younger Tabi building a sand castle with her parents. They were on a beach somewhere, and they all looked happy, smiling and laughing.

The largest picture was one of Tabi in skating gear, looking just like she did in the memories Kimberly had of her, passionate and brimming with energy, as if happy simply to be alive. That was what caused Kimberly's gaze to linger on that photo. She had always been interested in people who were so in touch with their emotions, so willing to share with the world, so fearless about themselves. It was what she'd always pretended to be, though at the other end of the spectrum.

"She loved to skate," Dana said.

Those were the first words in maybe two minutes, the first meaningful communication of the visit, and they took Kimberly by surprise. And, now that she thought about it, she could remember that, could remember maybe hearing about Tabi hanging out with that crowd, with Kris and her friends. It wasn't anything to hold against her. If anything, it just opened up more questions, more possible connections. It showed Kimberly just how little she had known about this girl, this classmate of hers who had lost her life.

"When did she start?" Kimberly asked. It was something to say, to keep the conversation moving, and it seemed to be the right choice, because Dana smiled a little wistfully.

"She was seven," she said. "They were really inexpensive. Not a brand name or anything. Michael and I used to skate at the roller rink or in the parks when we were younger. We didn't know if she would like it, but we figured we'd give it a try. Her birthday came. And she was just so happy. We started skating again, Michael and I, and we would take Tabi along with us. She took to it like a natural."

Kimberly considered that. It wasn't what was said specifically that caught her attention, more the general feel of it all. It was so clear that this had been an involved, loving family, one that neared friendship as well as familial bonds. It was not something Kimberly could exactly understand or relate to. Her grandparents loved her, but there was always a bit of distance. Her parents, well, there was even more distance there.

"When she was 15, the only thing she said she really wanted was a set of Firefly inline skates," Dana continued. "So we got them for her on her birthday. She had used them ever since. In fact I think they are still u-"

And then she paused, went completely silent. Kimberly could see the hurt on her face, but no tears threatened. Kimberly tried to figure out something to say, some way to help, to break the silence and end the awkwardness and cheer this woman up, but nothing came. It wasn't her place to provide support right now.

In time, Dana collected herself enough to speak again.

"Some days she wouldn't come back till late in the evening," she said. "She was sometimes absent minded and wouldn't call us. We knew where she was, of course, but we still got worried from time to time. But she was self-sufficient enough to get some sort of dinner at least. As much as I got mad at her for letting a well-cooked meal go to waste."

"You ate together a lot?" Kimberly asked. It wasn't considered, just the first thing that came to mind. It was another way in which this family was unfathomable to her. She'd eaten with her grandparents maybe once a week during high school, just to mollify them. The atmosphere at those dinners had always been warm but detached. For the most part, she'd been happier eating on her own or with friends. Most of her friends had wanted as little to do with the adults in their lives as possible.

"Yeah, we did," Dana said. "Michael and I work at home, which made it really easy for us to prepare some sort of meal. Roast beef, stew, Italian food, tacos, chili, even some more exotic foods if we really wanted. It was a good way to just talk about events that had happened during the day. How was school? Anything new in our lives. It can be quite hectic in my line of work, and Michael's as well, so it was important to stay connected."

Once again, the words struck home. It was impossible for Kimberly to imagine how much life must have changed for the Gweneths. She wondered if the couple still ate together now. She wondered what they talked about, what they avoided saying.

She took a breath, almost said something to that effect, but reconsidered and instead returned to a safer conversational path.

"She liked school?"

This was something Kimberly couldn't guess. So many people were dishonest when it came to school. So many of the popular, successful kids privately hated it. Kimberly was sure she wasn't the only outsider who'd taken a good bit of secret pleasure in her education.

"She loved school," Dana said. "Though, I think it was more the stuff in between and after school that she enjoyed most. She didn't mind classes, mind you. But, she was always more of a social butterfly then a studious bookworm. She always wanted to just go out and meet people. She always had a spark to her, this kind of magnetism that allowed her the chance to befriend people easily."

The woman let out a sort of half chuckle before continuing. "Or, I suppose in some cases it was merely an acquaintance that she considered a friend. I suppose you might know better than I would. Wouldn't you?"

Was that supposed to be pointed? Kimberly couldn't say. She couldn't begin to guess what, if anything, Tabi had said about her to her parents. She'd seen the girl around, had nodded at her and had ignored her efforts to become acquainted. Kimberly's social group had been pretty defined. It had consisted almost exclusively of the slackers, the stoners, the punks. Tabi had been too cheerful to fit in.

It was funny, in a way. A large number of Kimberly's friends had flunked their way to safety.

Still, Dana's voice sounded more nostalgic than anything, so Kimberly chose to interpret it as nothing beyond musing.

"I think I know what you mean," she said, leaving things open just in case she'd guessed wrong.

Just then, a loud noise sounded from somewhere nearby. Kimberly jerked before realizing it was just a cell phone ringing. Dana moved to pick it up, took a look at the display, and instead set it back down and waited for it to quiet.

"I keep telling him to turn it off if he's not at work..." she said.

"Are people bothering you a lot?" Kimberly asked. She knew that some families were getting it worse than others. The press was still after her a good deal, even after the somewhat chilly reception she'd given them.

Dana's reply came quickly.

"It has been nonstop," she said. "Ever since... Ever since the day it happened. It wasn't just family or friends, though. It was the news, it was people who babysat her, it was her daycare center. It was people from Salem. It was people from Newark. I even got a call from England...

"Total strangers... People I've never met, telling me... 'I am sorry for your loss.'"

She wiped her eyes. Kimberly stayed silent. She knew how Dana felt, knew how hollow sympathy could feel when it was coming from those who hadn't experienced any trauma of their own.

After a time, Dana took a deep breath, and when she spoke she seemed composed again.

"So, we decided to do everything we could to end this. Name and address removed from the phone book, canceling cell phones, creating new e-mail addresses, the works. Michael still works though...so..."

A pause.

"I don't even know how they got his number..."

Kimberly considered for a second, then said, "I think, when something like this happens, people sometimes don't think about what effects their actions might have."

"I know," Dana said.

That ended the conversation for a spell. Kimberly wasn't sure where to take things, wasn't sure what she'd communicated, whether it had been at all what she'd meant. Finally, she decided that it didn't matter. This lull was as good a time as any to complete the purpose of her visit. There was no point hiding from it any longer.

Without a word, she withdrew the scrunchie from her pocket and placed it on the table. She'd cleaned it, finally, figuring it was better to do that than to deliver it still soaked in blood. She hoped she'd chosen correctly in attempting to spare the Gweneths that ghoulish surprise.

Dana's eyes immediately fell on the scrunchie, clearly recognizing it, but her face was blank. She seemed somewhat stunned, and Kimberly felt an urge to speak but could think of nothing to say. Dana stepped forward, reached towards it, and then pulled back before making contact. Kimberly flinched at the unexpected movement, but remained silent. She saw that Dana's hands were shaking. Another few seconds passed before Dana finally touched the scrunchie, then took it in her hand, wrapping it tightly in her fingers. Her hands still shook.

"When did you get this?" she asked. Her voice was not angry. Instead, it sounded almost shocked.

It took Kimberly a moment to get her voice working again.

"Right at the end," she said.

"This was why you came, wasn't it?" Dana asked. Her voice was beginning to sound on the verge of cracking. Her eyes were not focused on anything, seemingly lost in memory, no doubt reliving the end of her daughter's life.

This caught Kimberly off guard. She wasn't sure how to deal with this, so she fell back on the truth.

"Yeah, it was," she said. She tried to keep her voice level, calm, polite, though even to her it sounded a little bit tentative. Dana said nothing, merely sighed as she straightened and moved back to the armchair. She sat and looked at the scrunchie for a while.

Suddenly, almost out of nowhere, she spoke.

"Even when she lay there... knowing that she was... about to die," Dana said, "all she wanted was that this be brought home to us."

She then covered her mouth, finally allowing herself to cry openly. Kimberly sat, waited. She felt that it was not her place to interfere, to attempt to offer comfort. There wasn't really anything she could say in this situation.

The crying went on for what felt like a long time, eventually diminishing a bit. Dana spoke again, around her tears, saying, "You'd think after everything that had happened to her, she would be the most bitter person in the world, cursing those that had taken her life away. But, in the end..."

She trailed off, and this time, Kimberly felt that she should say something, should try to offer some sort of comfort, her place be damned.

"I think, maybe, it's, um, it's best to be happy, at the end," she said, not really sure she had any right to be saying it. It had been her desire, but here she was, alive in no small part due to her eventual unhappiness with how things had gone.

Her words seemed to have their desired effect, at least. Dana wiped her eyes and said, "Perhaps you're right."

Kimberly nodded, hoping her uncertainty was not too apparent. The silence stretched. Dana seemed lost in thought, though she managed to take a sip of coffee, seemingly steadying a bit after that. She appeared to be mulling something over, so Kimberly waited, sure that more words would be coming soon enough.

She was right.

"I suppose you think that we hate you, don't you?" Dana asked.

It was an interesting question. Kimberly had encountered far less venom since her return than she'd expected. Part of her was always waiting for everything to go to pieces.

"I wouldn't blame you if you did," she said, and she meant it. Hate was a familiar emotion to her now, one she understood well. She knew that it was at times illogical, that it often helped get people through the day.

Still, she was not prepared for Dana to smile.

"I suppose you have read my column. Right?" Dana said.

"Yeah," Kimberly replied.

"Then I suppose you could say that the belief you have would be well founded," Dana said. "The aftermath of the kidnapping was just too much for me. However, as the days have passed, it has been increasingly hard to really hate you or any of the other survivors.

"No matter how much I hated those that were able to get away, would hating them ever bring Tabitha back? Of course not. What happened on the island was beyond any of our control.

"Will any of the survivors be my daughter? No; how could you be? But, I can't hold that against anyone. Not Mr. Kwong. Not Harun Kemal. Not Isabel Gurerra, and not you.

"So I suppose, when it comes down to it, I may have once hated you. But not now. No, I think it is quite impossible for me to hate you."

It was interesting, and it was a lot to think about. Kimberly had talked with other families, and had met different reactions. She had never been in a situation quite like this, though. No one else had seen their loved one get so close to the end, just to fall short. She hadn't been involved in such a way with any of the others, hadn't been in a position to provoke such potential resentment. As she'd said, though, she couldn't have blamed Dana for hating her. If anything, what was most pleasantly surprising was that the woman had thought things through so fully. It was good, Kimberly thought, to hear that she was not hated from someone who understood the implications of that statement.

"Thanks," she said. Her voice sounded foreign to herself. Still, Dana smiled.

"No," she said, "thank you, Kimberly. For bringing this. It means a lot for you to have come here."

This time, it took only a second for Kimberly to reply.

"It was the right thing to do," she said.

"But probably the toughest," Dana said, nodding. "And for that, I still give you my thanks."

And, just like that, Kimberly felt pretty sure her business was done. There was no need to linger, to infringe upon any private mourning this last little piece of closure might provoke. She stood, smiled, and was surprised when Dana stood too and gave her a hug. The woman then jotted a number onto a scrap of paper, presumably the number for the cell phone that had rung earlier.

"If you ever want to talk again, you can get hold of us by leaving a message," Dana said. "I have no idea if we are to be staying here much longer, but if you would like, we'll let you know."

Kimberly accepted the paper, smiled, and said, "Thanks."

After that, she made her way to the door, giving Dana a quick goodbye before she slipped away to call her grandfather for a ride home. She had a good deal to think about.
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July 3, 2008

"Ms. Kimberly," the reporter says. It is her second attempt; the first time she addressed Kimberly, she bastardized the pronunciation of "Nguyen" and Kimberly scowled at her. "Is there anything you'd like to say to the world regarding the fourth version of Survival of the Fittest?"

It takes a moment for Kimberly to consider that. She's standing on the sidewalk in front of her house, mail in hand. This is the first press van to turn up. It will not be the last.

"I think so," Kimberly says. "Just give me a second to think."

She takes a deep breath, considers her phrasing.

"Okay," she says, "how's this?

"All you voyeuristic bastards should fuck off and die. Are you outraged by what happened? Fine. Do something about it. Don't sit on your asses and watch it happen again and again. Vote out the assholes who let it happen. Protest. Make it known that you will not fucking stand for this. If you can't do that, at least turn off the damn television. It's the least you can do, you know? Basic fucking respect."

She's turned a little bit red. The reporter looks slightly horrified.

"We can't broadcast that," she says.

"Then go talk to one of my classmates who'll say something you can," Kimberly says, turning and starting back to the house. "I hear a few of 'em are tripping over each other to whore our story out to the press."
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July 22, 2008

How long had it been since everything had ended and Kimberly had returned home? Two weeks? Three? Somewhere in between, almost certainly. Keeping track of time was still somewhat challenging, still a little strange. It was hard to adjust to the fact that each new day was unlikely to be her last.

The exact span of time didn't really matter. It had been, in many ways, a long while. Long enough, certainly, that it was time to start thinking about doing some of the tougher things, the things she'd been putting off. It was time to pull herself together and confront the situations that were going to hurt a little bit more. The visit with Dana earlier in the day had been a good start, but it was time for the even trickier stuff.

It was time to ask for advice.

Kimberly had thought long and hard about who to go to. She didn't have a lot of respect for most of the rescued kids, and she was sure a lot of them wouldn't want anything to do with her. She was a reminder of what had happened, an uncomfortable look at what their fates might have been had they been asleep at the wrong time or run just a bit too slowly. More than that, most of them wouldn't be of any use to her. The rescuers had refused to take anyone who'd done much in the way of killing. So far as Kimberly knew, only three of the rescued kids had multiple bodies to their names.

She wasn't about to go to Felicia now, not after what she'd heard, and Simon left her a little uncomfortable for reasons she couldn't quite place. That left Samantha Ridley, who had apparently killed three people by their request, leaving her, oddly enough, with the highest body count of any of the Bayview survivors. Samantha was a girl Kimberly didn't really know so well. She was an athlete, always into competition, not so much into academics. There really wasn't a lot of common ground, besides the fact that both girls had killed people who otherwise could've gone home.

All that left Kimberly a bit nervous as she dialed Samantha's home number into her cell phone and listened to the ringing. The phone rang three times before someone picked up. The voice was male, young-sounding, and that sparked another memory. Hadn't Samantha had a step-brother in their grade? Had he been on the trip? Kimberly didn't worry too much about it at the moment. No need to provoke any unpleasantness by guessing wrong. She just explained that she was a classmate who wanted to talk to Samantha. That was enough.

Half a minute later, Samantha's voice sounded through the phone.

"Hello?" she said. It was clear that she was trying to sound confident and just as clear that it was faked. Kimberly had a lot of experience with feigning surety.

"Hey. Samantha? This is, uh, this is Kimberly. From school." It was a decent way to start off, polite without diving straight into things. If Samantha was catching half the shit from random people that Kimberly was having to put up with, the girl probably wouldn't want to talk to strangers on the phone. She might not want to talk to anyone at all.

"Uh... yeah. I think I've heard of you, you..." Samantha said, trailing off and leaving the thought unfinished. "What is this about?"

Kimberly took a second to prepare. She was pretty sure she'd only get one shot at this.

"I, uh," Kimberly said, cringing at the edge of uncertainty in her voice, "I was wondering if I could ask you for some advice."

"About what, exactly?" Samantha's tone was a little bit hesitant. Kimberly hoped she wasn't making the girl defensive. She'd chosen the phone to avoid intruding into the life of someone she shared little connection with, but it was working against her now. It was much easier for her to tell how people were feeling by reading their body language than by guessing at the inflection of their voices. As a result, Kimberly's reply didn't sound that sure either.

"I've been having some... some trouble figuring out how I feel about some things that happened—some things I did. Most of the people who got rescued wouldn't understand."

Kimberly hoped that was enough. She had some serious things to discuss, but she didn't want to start the conversation off with them. She certainly didn't want to spring them on Samantha, in case the other girl wasn't emotionally composed enough to take them. She wasn't trying to hurt anybody, not this time.

"...I don't know how much help I can be," Samantha said. "To be honest, our situations are very different, and I haven't exactly been adjusting back well myself, anyway."

"That's okay," Kimberly replied, and to her surprise, she found that it was. "I... maybe I just want to talk a little. I mean, only if it's okay. I just... I don't quite know what to do."

"Okay," Samantha said. "I guess I know what you mean."

Kimberly thought she didn't sound quite convinced, but it was all the opening she needed. Maybe, just maybe, there was a chance that Samantha would be able to help after all. If not, well, it was at least worth a shot. She wouldn't have to wonder what could have happened. Taking opportunities was important to Kimberly. She suspected she'd regret missing a chance more than she would fucking up by pushing too hard.

That wasn't to say she wanted to mess up. Kimberly sighed, crossed her fingers that she wasn't making a mistake, and then spoke.

"Basically, I was... if this isn't too personal, I was wondering how you deal with it? With having... with making it so people, so they didn't get to come home. It's been tough for me."

She didn't want to say killing people, and certainly not murdering. What Samantha had done, it was really questionable. She'd killed, yes, but she'd killed people who had asked her to do it. They'd assumed there was no escape, and so they'd asked Samantha to play Dr. Kavorkian for them, and, out of the goodness of her heart or to better her chances or just because she was confused and emotionally fucked up by the whole thing and didn't have any idea what else to do, she'd obliged. Then there'd been a rescue, and all of a sudden euthanizing people seemed like a much dicier moral choice. Kimberly wasn't about to blame her for what she'd done, not with two bodies to her own name, one in a situation that left Samantha smelling pretty rosy by comparison. Using harsh words would accomplish nothing except alienating the girl. She didn't seem the sort to appreciate blunt directness.

"I know what you mean, but I haven't really been dealing with it. At least, not well," Samantha said.

Kimberly chuckled a little. Well, there went the hope of sorting her own shit out here. Didn't matter. It didn't mean there was nothing to talk about.

"Alright," she said. "And, you know, that makes sense. All this, this was really awful shit." A pause. "I hope people haven't been bothering you about it."

"Actually," Samantha said, and it sounded as if Kimebrly had maybe touched a nerve, though the fire in the girl's voice died down before she continued, "yeah, they have. Look, I have sh-stuff to do, and I don't think I've been as big a help as you wanted, so, bye."

"Bye," Kimberly said, though she wasn't sure it even got through before the click of the phone being hung up put an end to the conversation. The message was pretty clear: Kimberly was just the latest in a long line of people to bother Samantha, and dealing with her shit was the last thing the girl wanted to do.

Kimberly wanted to be angry, or at least annoyed, but she found that she understood the girl's position. After all, she hadn't wanted the news around, hadn't wanted anything to do with the people who wanted to talk except for the ones she specifically approached.

And, in the end, she hadn't needed much from Samantha after all. Maybe she'd just been looking for someone to tell her they understood, someone to share her pain. She'd just have to suck it up and keep going, because she knew what she had to do next. It was going to be terrible, but it was the right thing, or close enough to it that right now Kimberly couldn't see the difference.

She sighed, and stared at the phone for a while, before dialing in a new number.
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July 23, 2008

It is Kimberly's eighteenth birthday, and she doesn't quite know what to make of that. She is now a legal adult in the eyes of the world. She's felt pretty fucking adult for a few weeks now, but she is still too young to buy a beer, not that she wants to. She's avoided alcohol since her return. Hiding from reality feels like a betrayal, of herself and the others.

And, still, she is struck by the absurdity of the world only now announcing her capable of deciding her future for herself. What was it Barry McGuire sang? "You're old enough to kill, but not for voting"? That sounds right. She wonders how many of her classmates lived through their eighteenth birthdays. She wonders how many enjoyed them. She wonders after those last happy moments.

Everyone has a last birthday.

It's not a thought she wants to dwell on too long. She blows out the candles, and her family smiles and laughs and asks her if she made any wishes.

She says no, she doesn't need any wishes. Save the wishes for someone else.
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July 24, 2008

It took Kimberly a few minutes to realize that she was actually being followed rather than suffering a paranoid episode.

She'd first become aware of the figure behind her as she left the Promenade. This was not a major outing. It had taken a lot to convince her grandparents she would be safe on her own for two hours. They knew when to expect her back. She was dressed in plain clothes, with her hair tied back. She should have been hard to recognize. When she'd set out, the precautions had seemed silly. She'd not wanted to let her life be controlled by fear, but now it seemed as though she had perhaps been a little bit premature in her decision to attempt any sort of return to normalcy.

Her biggest mistake had been heading into the back alley. She'd wanted to return to a place familiar to her, one that was hers in a more personal way than the more normal parts of Saint Paul. This alley held many memories, of days spent with classmates, of cigarettes and smuggled beer, of friends left behind. The studio where Hermione had worked was near here. This was where she'd stumbled across Lillian Hayes. Those things tugged at her, but they were minor. There were other things that this place held for her. She had always been a bit of a poser. She'd wedged herself in somewhere between the emos and the goths, fascinated with people and their emotions and fully willing to embrace a somewhat macabre sense of humor, but there'd always been an edge of falseness to it. She'd never had to fake finding places like this beautiful, though. It was a part of civilization many people never saw, the innards of a city.

It was not where she wanted to die.

The man had been behind her in the mall. She'd noticed. He had not been subtle. This was what had made her suspect that he was not actually following her. He hadn't seemed interested in her, but he'd paced her perfectly, always moving in the same direction. Most people did not recognize her easily, not when she dressed in brighter colors and tied her hair back, not when she wasn't wearing her hat. She'd assumed that it was no more than a strange, somewhat disconcerting coincidence. As soon as she'd entered the alley, though, he'd picked up his pace. Now, he was gaining on her.

Kimberly's instincts were screaming at her to go into full on fight or flight mode. Her right hand was already clasped around her pepper spray. Her muscles were tensed, ready for use. She didn't want this. She wanted this less than anything. Life wasn't supposed to be like this now. These were concerns of the island, not of Minnesota.

She stopped walking, making sure she was in the center of the alley. It was important that she not get pinned against a wall. She wasn't about to let her escape routes get cut off. It wasn't far to the main street. She might be able to get enough of a head start to escape any pursuit.

Her thumb ran up and down the side of the can of pepper spray. A knife would have felt better.

The man did not speed up or alter his stride until he reached her, at which point he paused and glanced both ways. He was standing within arm's reach of Kimberly, but he seemed distracted. He did not notice the can of pepper spray until Kimberly pointed it straight at his face. When he saw it, he paled a little bit.

"Whoa," he said. "Whoa, hang on. I think we're starting this off on the wrong foot, Kim."

Apparently, her expression was not a welcoming one, perhaps conveying how little she appreciated his uninvited familiarity, because he quickly added, "Do you know who I am?"

That made her pause. He was a young man, probably somewhere in his early twenties. He had long, light brown, slightly curly hair. His face seemed rather simple, but his eyes were more astute than she liked. She could tell he was sizing her up, just like she was doing to him.

She also did recognize him. It took a moment, but his face clicked from the tapes, not the ones from the island, but the news from when the lucky ones had come home. It had only been a brief glimpse, but it had stuck in her memory.

She did not lower the pepper spray.

"Jaxon Jeremiah," she said. "You're with the group who got people off the island."

"Yeah," he said, relaxing a little. He was a fit man, she saw, and even at ease he gave off a sense of readiness. He did not seem like someone to drop her guard around.

"You can trust me," he continued. "I hate the game as much as you do."

"Good for you," Kimberly said. Jaxon frowned. He'd probably had a script written out in his mind for this. Most people seemed to go into conversations that way, and they got downright pissy when things veered off course.

"I wanted to talk to you," he said.

"You are," she replied.

He took a deep breath, ran his hand over his forehead, and closed his eyes for a second. When he reopened them, he seemed to have decided on a new course of action. He also seemed a whole lot more composed. He was good at self-control. Something to remember.

"Alright," he said. "Listen, I understand you may be upset. I wish we could have gotten you too. I wish we could have saved everyone. I wanted to go back. I wanted to try everything I could, but it was too risky. We might have lost everyone. If you're mad about leaving the players behind, well, there's nothing I can do about that, but will you at least hear me out for a moment?"

Far off in the distance, brakes screeched. Kimberly glanced around. The alley was empty. It was too late for employees to be taking smoke breaks. She lowered her pepper spray to her side, but kept it in hand.

"It's not that," she said. "Go ahead."

Again, Jaxon looked a little uncomfortable, but he relaxed a bit more.

"Okay," he said. "I'll be quick and direct. My group, my friends and I, we don't think the game is done. It took a lot of our resources to do what we did, and we accomplished a lot, but you know better than anyone that it didn't end there. We need to know everything we can about the terrorists. We need to be ready for next time.

"That's where you come in. We know you hate the game. How could you not? You've also got something we need. You know what happened afterwards. You're the only person alive who saw the fallout. We could use that information."

Kimberly looked at him in disbelief. Jaxon continued undeterred.

"More than that," he said, "we can help you too. You could come with us. You could be a part of this, make sure it never happens again, pay them back for what they did to you and your friends. We'll help you get some closure."

He looked a little surprised when Kimberly started to laugh. It was almost a manic laugh, unhinged and uncontrolled. Still, he waited until she had calmed down a little.

"Well?" he asked.

"Fuck you," Kimberly said. Before he could add anything, she pushed on, the words coming easily.

"Fuck you. You come here, you come here and chase me through the fucking mall and you ask me to help you, to tell you everything I know, and in return you say I can help you tilt at your fucking windmills? Who are you kidding?"

Jaxon's expression had darkened from concerned confusion to barely-restrained anger.

"What's wrong with you?" he said, and she thought that maybe his self control wasn't so perfect after all. His tone was cordial, but his words didn't match it. "You don't think saving lives is worth it? You think it's just wishful thinking? You can't seriously believe everyone will be as lucky as you were. You lost friends, and you just want to walk away?"

"Pretty much," Kimberly said. It was enough to shut Jaxon up for a moment, during which Kimberly took a deep breath, forced down her own rage, and formulated the start of a reply.

"Listen," she said. "I don't know who you or your friends are. I don't give a damn. You saved some lives, and that's great. You hurt some bad people, and I can get behind that.

"Thing is, maybe you don't quite understand what it's like for me. I lost friends. I got shot. My life got turned upside down and I spent a long while convinced I was going to die. Somehow, like you said, I got lucky and didn't. I got really fucking lucky and got to come back home. I got to see my family again. I got something every one of my classmates deserved.

"Now, you come here and you offer me the chance to follow you off to go wage war on the people who hurt me. I've got a lot of reasons to hate them. You probably do too. I don't why, but I'm gonna say it's a safe bet you want revenge for something or someone.

"I know revenge. Maybe you don't yet. It's not worth it. It eats you up, takes over your life, twists you."

She sighed, rolled her shoulders, and thought for a second, trying to figure out how to phrase this next bit. She was a little surprised that he didn't interrupt.

"I survived," she said. "I'm still alive, and now you're offering me a chance to throw my life away by running off to pretend to be Batman or some shit like that. I don't want to hold a gun again. I don't want to fight anymore. I wish you all the luck in the world taking those fuckers down, but that's not my place. If I run away with you, if I give up everything I have, everything I can be, the game's killed me just as much as everyone else. That's not closure; it's obsession. It's solving problems with violence. It's refusing to grow up. I'll do what I can, speak out against the game, but I'm not giving up my life for it.

"Oh, and I doubt I know anything you could use. Greynolds was pretty much running things. A woman called Sonia was working with him. They kept me away from anything important and I was too tired and drugged up to catch anything that might mean anything. That's it."

As she'd spoken, Jaxon's expression had initially darkened further still, but had then taken on something more of an inquisitive tone. By the end, he seemed to have regained his composure completely.

"I disagree with your assessment," he said. He sounded a little defensive.

"That's your right," Kimberly replied.

He looked at her for a moment, then said, "Well, thanks for the information. If you change your mind—"

"I won't." Kimberly turned and started walking, then glanced backwards just long enough to say, "Oh, and don't follow me again. I don't want anything to do with you or your friends. Good luck and all, but stay the fuck out of my life. Closure, you know."

She didn't wait to see if he had anything else to say, walking out of the alley as quickly as she could while still appearing somewhat casual. Jaxon did not follow her.

To her relief, he didn't come to talk with her again.
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July 25, 2008

While the restaurant is fancy, it is not nice. The food is uninspiring. The service is ambivalent. The only saving grace is that Kimberly has not yet been recognized. All around her, people are talking, laughing, stuffing their faces with bread rolls and pasta. Kimberly has been picking at a dish of lasagna for twenty minutes now. Her grandmother is watching her closely. She seems rather concerned. Kimberly suspects that it's because she requested that they come here, to this somewhat expensive restaurant they've never been to before, and now she is sulking her way through dinner.

Still, because she is traumatized and shit, her grandparents humor her. They have as normal a conversation as they can, and they try to draw Kimberly into it, and eventually they succeed. The evening is saved. She overlooks the fact that the food is bad, and they manage to have a pretty good time.

On the way out, she lags behind, just a step, just enough to surreptitiously snatch a box of matches from the front counter. With a practiced movement, she flicks the box open just a crack and glances inside.

Blue heads. Real wooden matches.

By the time they reach the car, she's lost interest in speaking again.
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July 27, 2008

As it turned out, people weren't always straightforward about what they wanted. Maybe it was that they didn't know. Maybe they changed their minds. Either way, Erik and Amilie Hartmann had agreed to see Kimberly after she connected with them through the magic of her school directory. It had taken her several days to work herself up to it, even after her talk with Samantha. The first time she'd tried to call, she'd hung up with only half the numbers dialed. Her grandfather had asked her maybe half a dozen times if she was sure she wanted to do it, but had finally driven her without complaint.

Approaching Kris' house had been a trial in its own right, because it didn't look out of place. It was almost painfully normal, perhaps a little bit nicer than average, though in a way that fit with the neighborhood. It certainly didn't offer any external explanation for what had happened to Kris, what she had chosen to do. If anything, it drove home what Kimberly had known all along: Kris was just another scared girl in a horrible situation. She hadn't deserved death, just like Kimberly hadn't deserved to get shot. They'd all just found themselves in a fucked up mess and tried to make the best of it, and some of them hadn't done so well, and everyone had suffered for it.

Kris' parents hadn't seemed twisted or evil or monstrous either. They'd been normal, caring people, and Kimberly had found that, while she had initiated the conversation, she had no clue what to say to them. "It's too bad I had to kill your daughter," wasn't a good conversation starter, and, "Just so you know, I wasn't mad at her when I did it," was worse, as well as self-righteous in a way Kimberly couldn't bring herself to be anymore. It was probably for the best, then, that the Hartmanns had realized almost as soon as greetings had been exchanged that they really weren't up to talking with their daughter's victim and killer after all, and had asked Kimberly to leave.

The meeting had been devoid of malice, blame, and meaning. Kimberly was walking away from the house now, fishing in the pocket of her jeans for her cell phone, ready to call her grandfather for a pickup. He'd be nearby somewhere, waiting in case something like this happened, even though all the other meetings had gone passably smoothly. Kimberly was still amazed by how supportive her family had been, how willing to forgive and help and indulge. It made her insides twist a little, made her wonder what had gotten fucked up in the genetic lottery.

Before she could get the phone free, when she'd just barely made it to the sidewalk in front of the Hartmanns' house, Kimberly was distracted by the sound of footsteps. She tensed. So far, none of her visits had gotten violent, and she hoped not to break that streak here. She had the bottle of pepper spray in her sweater's handwarmer, way easier to get to than her phone, but she didn't want things to go that way. No, more than that—it was vital that things go well. The Hartmanns were good people. The visit couldn't go wrong. Kimberly turned with forced calm, to see who had followed her.

She nearly panicked. The figure was wiry, blond-headed, a bit androgynous, and Kimberly thought for just one moment that Kris had returned, that she had somehow survived or maybe her vengeful spirit had risen from the grave for one last little bit of action.

The expression on the face was not malice, though, and Kimberly saw, after that first second of gut-level fear, that the features were ever-so-slightly different, that the build was ever-so-slightly more masculine.

Her brother, then. Kimberly felt a spike of guilt as she realized that. She hadn't much considered siblings, maybe because she'd never understood that bond. What would it be like to grow up without an older sister where once there had been one? What would it be like to lose that sort of role model and friend? Pretty damn bad, if Erik's sister was anything to go by.

She didn't speak, just loosened herself up a bit and waited a moment. Better not to take the initiative on this one. Better to let him talk, to see what he needed. That was why she'd come, more or less.

"Hi," he said. His voice was level, calm. It also sounded a lot like Kris's had, just lacking that note of stress Kimberly had come to expect in it. Maybe he sounded like Kris once had.

"I'm Alex." A pause. "My parents weren't ready for you... probably they never will be." Alex's eyes gleamed intently. "I am. Let's talk."

And here was another thing she wasn't expecting, a twist in her plans. Kimberly stopped fishing for her phone, withdrew her hand from her pocket.

"Yeah," she said. "That sounds like a good idea."

Once again, her plans deserted her. All that awkwardness came pouring down once more. How to start this?

"Here?" she asked.

This didn't seem like the place to talk, not right in front of the house, with his parents still watching, not unless Alex was afraid they were going to think she'd spirited him away to slit his throat.

Alex shook his head. "They won't want you hanging around. They already told me not to talk to you." He shrugged, smiled crookedly. "I guess even the well-behaved one can't be a good kid all the time."

He took a step forward, then hesitated. "Are you okay to walk somewhere? It's close by, but I figure people are watching for you like a hawk right now... for a lot of reasons."

That was an understatement. Kimberly had been pretty proactive in telling the press to piss off. She was pretty sure the cops were surreptitiously checking by her house after what had gone down with Rizzolo, but she wasn't so worried, and they kept to themselves. She'd taken to watching her back, making sure she wasn't followed. So far, aside from the incident at the mall, everything had been alright. She'd been nervous a few times, but it was rare that she was on the streets by herself for more than about five minutes at a time. She hated having to worry, but there wasn't that much she could do about it short of staying inside for the rest of her life, and she wasn't about to let her life be destroyed more than it had already been.

She weighed her options, considered calling her grandfather for a ride. No. Fuck that. What the fuck good was being alive if she couldn't walk around? It wasn't like anyone would be expecting her, not here of all places. She'd kept the fact that she was paying some visits pretty secret.

"It'll be fine," she said. No need to ask where they were going. She didn't sense any reason to worry, so she was ready to follow Alex wherever he wanted to take her.

"Alright," Alex made no further comment as he set off down the sidewalk, casting only occasional glances back to see if Kimberly was still there.

Alex's emotions were practically unreadable. He didn't seem mad or somber, or even particularly tense. He was just... there. That was a little bit unnerving. Kimberly was used to knowing exactly where she stood with people, to being reviled or in their good graces. She stayed quiet and guarded herself, trusting that everything would become clear in time. Kimberly had learned a lot about patience in her time in the care of the terrorists, or maybe time just didn't seem as interminable after three weeks in the same room. It didn't really matter.

It wasn't long, perhaps a ten minute walk, before Alex pulled up. "We're here."

He pointed, and Kimberly blinked before she realized just where "here" was.

They were standing outside Saint Paul's nearest skate park.

That brought flashes of memory, memories of school, sure, of Kris and her skateboard, always that skateboard, but also of darker things. It was easy for Kimberly to remember now, walking through that dim, claustrophobic tunnel with a wounded girl leaning on her, helping her captive along just until they came to the body in the pool of blood. She'd shoved Liz forward, had forced her to look at the body of Daisuke Nagazawa, the boy who had died for her crimes. She'd rubbed Liz's face in it, had made her confront the consequences of her actions.

As Kimberly saw a couple of kids laughing and messing with their boards at the other end of the park, she thought she maybe understood now how Liz might have felt. Alex's face did not hold any cruelty, though, and Kimberly took a deep breath so that her voice was almost steady when she spoke.

"What do you want to talk about?" she asked.

Alex said nothing, just walked on ahead, opened the park's gate and stepped inside, leaving the entrance open for her. Making his way over to a half-pipe, Alex climbed up, sat down, and looked back at her.

He made a beckoning gesture, and she followed.

As she reached him, Alex looked up into the sky. "My sister shot you. I've seen the speculation and the theory and the justifications, and all that time I've wondered..." his gaze dropped to Kimberly's, staring her dead in the eyes. "Why'd she do it? I don't mean all the rest. You're not the right person to ask and I don't even think I'd want to know even if you could tell me. Why did she shoot you? What happened on that beach?"

Kimberly took a deep breath, but she didn't wait long to respond. No time for practice, no prettying this up. It wouldn't be fair to either of them, not after she'd spent so long mulling that question over herself, not when she had a pretty good idea of the answer. She made sure to keep eye contact as she replied, to not glance away. He deserved at least that.

"I've got no clue," she said, rolling her shoulders a little, only realizing that the memory had triggered the action a second later. Her left arm was still healing well. Most days now, it was just a constant dull ache, one she could pretty much forget about unless something aggravated it. "I mean—fuck, that's not quite—we all messed up. She said to stay back, and I thought she was just nervous. I thought the way to calm her down was to just walk up and tell her to stop messing around, and maybe I moved wrong or something, but I think she was scared. I think she was just scared."

"Scared," Alex repeated thoughtfully. "Yeah... yeah, I can see that.

"It would..." his voice faltered for the first time, and for the first time he looked like a fifteen-year-old boy. "It would be so much easier if I could blame you. It would be easier if I could blame h-her, even. But I can't. People, they... they want to call Kris psychotic, or say she was a serial killer waiting to happen, b-but she is—was my sister. I hate what she did, but I can't hate her.

"I kind've feel the same way about you."

That merited some consideration. Kimberly's immediate, gut instinct was to say she understood, say that she completely got what this boy in front of her was saying, say that it was how she'd felt as well. That would have been the easy choice, but it didn't feel like the right one.

"That's probably good," she said. "Hating doesn't help anyone."

She wasn't sure how true that was. Hate had seen her through a lot.

"I can't hate anyone for what they did on the island. Not now. No one wanted any of that to happen." She hoped that what she was saying was clear. She'd spent a lot of time hating Kris, detesting her, fantasizing about revenge, but that hadn't been important in the end. It hadn't been what moved her hand.

Alex stared into space for a long time after that, nearly an entire minute.

Then, just as it seemed he might have finished talking altogether, he spoke.

"Did you... did you know her? Like... before?"

It gave Kimberly pause once again. She'd known of Kris, sure, maybe seen her with her skateboard or something, but they'd never sat down and had a good conversation. That was true of so many in her class. It was what came of judgement and self-satisfaction.

"Not really," Kimberly said.

"Yeah... yeah, I figured." Alex shrugged, still not looking at Kimberly. "It wouldn't have happened, if you had."

That was hard to read. Some level of blame, perhaps, in contradiction to what Alex had said minutes ago? It would have been understandable. After all, he had grown up with Kris, had seen her at her best, most likely. But, no, it seemed more likely to be nothing more than a thought, perhaps as he tried to make sense of all that had happened for himself. Kimberly wanted to help him find his peace with events somehow, but at the same time wasn't sure she could wish understanding of what they'd all gone through on anyone.

In the end, she just nodded. There wasn't much else to say on that front. No way to change the past. No way to bring Kris back, no matter what the two of them wanted. After a bit longer, she said, "Is, uh, is there anything else you want to ask me?"

It was a clumsy as fuck transition, but right now, that was fine.

Alex was silent for a few seconds, then spoke.

"Nothing that would help, not right now. It's... better that I don't say anything," Alex picked himself up. "I... hope that we can meet again sometime. You're a good person. Better than most, anyway. Take care of yourself."

Kimberly mulled that over, waiting until Alex had stood to follow suit. She wasn't quite sure how she felt about everything. She hadn't really been expecting to be told she was an alright person, not by a boy whose sister she had killed. She didn't really believe it. She was trying, but, fuck, that didn't erase any of what she'd done.

"If you ever want to talk again, we can," Kimberly said, forcing a bit of a smile. She tried to think of something else, some other way to leave things, but, in the end, she didn't have it in her to offer any sort of flippant parting comment. Things had gone well, almost too well, and she was satisfied leaving things there.

So, with a small wave, she headed out of the skate park at the side opposite the one where they'd entered, searching in her pocket for her cell phone.
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