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V5 Epilogue: Desiderium;
Topic Started: Jul 4 2015, 01:41 AM (1,874 Views)
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Mara took a step forward, but the footfall was silent. The picture became clearer after a moment, like an old television turning on. Sitting there, eating and chatting, were her friends. She couldn’t hear them; it was as if the scene were on mute. There was Naomi having an intense discussion with that Owen boy who’d helped her. Naomi thought he was a good guy, not like that other Owen. Summer was nodding enthusiastically at whatever Finn was saying and Stacy was twirling a piece of blonde hair around her finger while Kat gesticulated wildly.

At the very end of the table was Miranda, the only one who noticed Mara’s presence. She appeared to excuse herself and walked to where she stood, taking both of Mara’s hands in hers. She looked gorgeous in all her red-lipped, winged liner, pin-up luster.

“R-randa Panda.”

Mara held onto her hands, but they didn’t feel right, not quite solid.

“Please say something, Miranda,” she begged.

But the other girl said nothing, gazing sadly.

“I miss you all so much,” she said as the tears started to well up. “I just need you to talk to me so I can hear your voice. I- I’m starting to forget what it sounded like.”

She threw her arms up around Miranda and hugged her as tight as possible, but it wasn’t the satisfying hug she’d imagined. It wasn’t warm.


Mara looked up at an unfamiliar ceiling, sterile and white. She reached up to wipe her face and found her hands were expertly wrapped in clean bandages. She looked at her hands, touched her face and felt her hair. She was all clean without a trace of the blood and dirt she’d been caked in when she was knocked out. Gingerly, she sat up, hissing from the pain as she moved. Her torso was mostly bandages with a flesh colored band across her chest, probably for modesty’s sake.

“Welcome back, sleeping beauty.”

Sonia, the laughing woman from the beach, was sitting on her bed. She reached to something on the floor and handed it to Mara.

“Don’t push yourself. Normally we’d give you some of your own clothes, but all of yours are ashes. New clothes, compliments of Danya,” she explained as Mara inspected the package, turning it around in her hands and shaking it like a Christmas present.

“Is this going to explode?”

Sonia smiled. “Probably not.”

Mara opened it and held up a yellow sundress with wide straps and a squared neckline. The fabric felt thick and of good quality.

“What? No shoes?”

“You’ll live.”
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Mara stood in front of the door, studying the unremarkable wood. Her eyes shifted to Sonia who nodded a fraction of an inch. She put her hand on the doorknob, slowly turned it and pulled. Before she could get the door open there was the sound of hurried footsteps and the door snapped shut.

To her right stood the blonde woman, Cecily, palm flat against the door.

“He doesn’t want you,” she hissed.

Mara blinked slowly at Cecily, confused but silent.

“He’ll say he’s so happy you’re here. That’s what he does. He makes everyone believe he wants them around, but he doesn’t. He never wanted you to win," she said in a frantic, rushed way.

“Cecily,” Sonia warned.

“He’s pissed. He was hoping that Hansel would finish you off when he had the chance-”

Cecily,” came a sharp voice from inside the room.

She looked at Mara for another moment before reluctantly backing down and allowing the door to open. Mara took a deep breath. She stepped inside, leaving both women in the hall and heard the door shut behind her.
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“‘Immortal Amaranth, a flower which once in paradise, fast by the tree of life began to bloom,” he recited quickly, as if trying not to forget the passage. “Paradise Lost is one of my favorites. It makes mention of these mythical amaranth flowers that never die. That’s a very lucky name you have.” He looked at her expectantly. She stared dumbly at him and after some silence he cleared his throat.

"Please, sit down."

There were two men in the room. Mara carefully looked at the second man sitting on the side, then back up to the one offering her a seat. She slowly lowered herself into the chair and he pushed it in gently. Mara smoothed her dress out while he walked around to sit behind the desk.

"Are you thirsty? We have tea, coffee, milk, water, some sodas somewhere if you prefer that."

"Tea is fine, thank you," she responded lightly.

He stood again and briskly poured a cup of tea from a tea service on the table. She pulled the drink close and cupped her hand around it, peering down into the shiny, honey colored liquid. The man sitting on the side had already started in a platter of sandwiches also on the desk, grabbing them in his meaty fists. Mara lifted the cup to her lips, but was stopped by the man behind the desk.

"Ah ah....it's hot. Wait for it to cool." It was said sternly, like a warning one would give a child. She acquiesced and he smiled.

"My name is Tracen Danya and I am more than happy to finally speak with you, Miss Montalvo. I've waited quite a long time to meet you."

“You’ve waited a long time,” she echoed. She tilted her head. He looked so normal. He looked like someone who would be working at a bookstore or someone who would fix your computer, maybe even a doctor. She squinted, trying to see if there was anything physical that hinted at cruelty or insanity. He was tall, graceful with stylishly messy black hair and a dimple square in the middle of his chin. The only thing amiss was the eyes. They looked just like hers, black.

“I was afraid you would never wake up. You were out cold when you arrived and you stayed that way for nearly two weeks."

“Two weeks?!” she gasped. “Are you serious?”

“No, I’m not,” he said with a laugh. “It’s been two days. I read that jokes can help break the ice in awkward situations. Did it work?”

That was still a very long time. It probably wasn't healthy, either. She thought about how it seemed like she’d just been on the island. Days were years in island-time. That was the only sort of time that had mattered.

"Oh,” he said and flattened down his hair self consciously. “It’s grown a bit since we saw each other last. I would say that it's rude to stare, but I think in this case an exception can be made." She snapped out of her thoughts and looked instead at the polished desk. "You've been through a lot, so a few manners can be dismissed. I hope it doesn't bother you if I say that I'd been studying you as well. I didn’t notice you in particular when this all started in the auditorium, so it’s like I’m meeting you for the first time. You're much more beautiful in person"

"Thank you," she said hoarsely and somewhat bewildered.

Tracen turned to the man who was eating. "I thought you said these talks were unpleasant," he said jovially.

"Give it time."
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“This is Jim Greynolds,” he said quickly, tilting his head towards the second man. ”So what would you like to talk about? Dad always said the weather is a good place to start.”

“Whatever you want to talk about, I guess,” was her dumbstruck reply.

“Wonderful. Thank you for making this easy. I have a bit of stage fright in front of big groups, but now that we're alone I’m feeling much more relaxed.”

“There’s...no need to be nervous,” she said trying to navigate the surreal situation. It was absurd. She was comforting this man who was evil, but her brain wasn’t processing the information.

“I have some questions if you’ll indulge me. I think you might guess the first one.”

She was silent for a moment before answering slowly. “Why did I kiss Cecily?”

“Why did you kiss Cecily?” he repeated, resting his head on his interlaced hands.

“I….” she started, then faltered. It was the first time she’d properly tried to remember what had happened. Mara stared into her tea as she pieced the moment back together.

“I saw her,” she said more to herself than to Tracen. “She was looking down at me- like- like I was, a rat or something. I saw this...bovarism in her that it- it reminded me of…”

“Of you?” he urged gently.

“Yes, of me. And you,” she said looking up at him suddenly. “She was so haughty, so sure. I wanted to bring her down to my level and feel some of what I felt. I wanted to get her dirty with my blood and filth. For whatever little I could do, I wanted her to know that just because it hadn’t happened to her, that doesn’t mean she’s untouchable. Does that make any sense?”

Tracen nodded. “It does. I understand it wholly. Who would more than me? I run this game and one of the reasons is to show what people are at their core, stripped away of niceties imposed on them by society. Society told you that you were spoiled and shallow, but you’re much more than that.”

She was getting mixed up now, shaking her head with eyebrows furrowed. “No, that’s- I mean yes, but that’s not-.”

“What was Finn really? Selfish and petty. What was Zubin really? A bumbling narcissist. And Summer, your cherished friend. She was so desperate for love that she would kill you for a kind word.”

Mara felt her blood boil. The heat was spreading over her cheeks and down her neck. In an instant she was standing with the teapot in hand, leaning forward.

“You asshole. If you say her name again, if you mock me, I’ll throw this whole pot of boiling tea right in your goddamn face!”

Tracen arched an eyebrow and looked slightly to her right. Mara followed his eyeline and saw the barrel of a gun near her temple, before glaring at Tracen again.

“You did that to her. You killed her. And for what?!” she spat. “Just shoot me, I don’t care anymore.”

Tracen sighed deeply. It was the first time since she’d entered that he’d looked anything less than a kind host.

“It’s important for us to keep you alive and return you home. However...” The man by her side, Jim, moved the gun barrel down to her shoulder.

“‘Alive’ leaves a lot of room for interpretation.”

He stood and for the first time she realized how much taller he was than her. Tracen leaned across the desk to meet her. With one hand he grabbed her chin and with the other he took hold of her wrist, twisting it painfully and making it difficult to hold up the teapot. She squeaked and tried to wrench out of his grip, but he was deceptively strong. He seemed totally undisturbed by her squirming.

“This is my office. I will say what I like and mention any person I wish," he whispered, looking straight on at her. "I have been generous until now. You are a guest and if you don’t behave as such you will see how loose my interpretation can be."

Mara looked up at him, eyes shining with tears of rage and fear as his grip tightened. He moved his head near her ear.

Now, drop it.”
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She squeezed her eyes shut and tried to turn away. Tears rolled down her face and her fingers slowly unfurled and extended. The teapot hit the hardwood floor with a crunch and cracked down the side. Liquid pooled around it.

He held on an additional moment. It seemed like he might say something else while he had her, but instead he released her with a shove as if he was disgusted having touched her. He brushed the palms of his hands against his shirt. Mara fell roughly back into her seat and hit the back of her chair. A flash of white pain sparked from her numerous injuries from the sudden rough treatment. She wheezed pathetically as she cradled her freshly sprained wrist close to her chest.

“I don’t mean to be harsh, really. If you behave nicely I’ll return it in kind,” he said, handing her a handkerchief. She was pale as soap, but took it in her shaking, uninjured hand.

“There we go. No tears,” he reassured softly. “I’ve always liked your ingenuity. I think that’s why you won,” he mused as he straightened his shirt out and sat down. “The snow globe, the glass, the rock, even the hook sword. I don’t think in all of our years of doing this anyone has ever threatened my father with boiling tea. You evolve and that is exactly what makes you the fittest.”

“Is what Cecily said true?” she asked through gritted teeth. “You wanted Hansel to win?”

Tracen picked up one of the uneaten sandwich triangles and took a bite while he considered the question.

“I think Hansel would have been a good winner. He would have been a perfect winner in terms of ideology. He is someone who stripped themselves of everything to win. It’s a perfect illustration of how people are willing to compromise themselves for themselves. People do it all the time in the normal world, selling off pieces of their soul little by little for things. His transformation was particularly interesting. However, you are the much better conversationalist,” he said, running his hand over the side of his jaw.

She stared in shock, mouth slightly agape.

“I still have a few more questions,” he said quietly.

“I eagerly await them,” she grumbled.

“Do you know anything about the other winners?”

Mara had never thought about it much. She’d never watched the other Survival of the Fittest incidents and she only knew that an Asian girl named Kimberly had survived along with some other kids who had been rescued.


“Then this will be a history lesson. Our first winner, Adam Dodd was quite tenacious. So much so in fact that he came back a second time. Regrettably, he died during his second round with us. It was very tragic. Second winner, Mr. Bryan Calvert, went home and was never seen or heard from again. Our third winner was killed not too long after his victory and our fourth winner, Kimberly, survives to this day along with about 30 of her classmates who escaped in a bit of a….bookkeeping oversight. Now, do you know what that means for you?”

She looked around the room, trying to think what the right answer might be.

“That life expectancy for winners isn’t very good?” she ventured.

“I suppose so, but that wasn’t really the point. It means that you are the only winner alive who is completely alone. There is no one for you to stand with. It’s going to be so interesting to watch you go back,” he said, squinting his eyes at her and resting his head in his hand. “That is, if do you go back.”

Mara’s breath caught in her throat and her eyes widened.

“What do you mean? You said I had to go back alive. You said it was important,” she sputtered. Maybe he would kill her after all.

“Now comes the most important question,” he said, folding his hands in front of him. Danya seemed very official now, like she was here for college interviews and he was on the board of admissions. “It is customary to invite the winner to stay here. We’ve never had anyone accept, but really I don’t think that my father and the team would have wanted any of the past winners to stay. It was more for tradition’s sake. For you though, it might be a good fit.”

She was starting to feel dizzy. Her heart started pounding in her chest and Mara suddenly felt she couldn't control her breathing. Her chest was rising up and down quickly and she gasped in a large breath of air to try and get it under control. Part of her felt she might pass out soon, another part felt that she should pass out, but the strongest part willed her to stay sitting upright in her seat. "What are you talking about? Stay here?" she asked as evenly as she could manage.
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“You will be an outcast because your society hates facing ugly truths about themselves. You are now a walking reminder of everything people fear,” he said as he rose from his chair and wandered to a bookshelf. “Those who don’t fear you, will pity you. And to some more creative individuals you’ll be something else, a symbol of whatever they want to project on you, but you’ll never be treated like a person again. I think the pitying might be the worst,” he said darkly to himself.

“We understand and we don’t judge,” he resumed addressing her now. He spoke in soft, hushed tones. “You can have a new life here.”

It was another thing that she hadn’t given a lot of thought to. Other kids must have fantasized about home. They dreamt of rushing back to their parents’ arms and petting Fido. All she had thought of was how hollow everything in her old life really was. The game had pulled the curtain away and showed her how trivial and meaningless her life had been. What would they think of her? She looked up and Tracen Danya was at her side with one hand on the chair, behind her neck.

“B-but. I…” she turned to look at Greynolds. He looked bored, shrugged at her and kept eating sandwiches.


“You don’t what?” Tracen placed a reassuring hand on her shoulder. His long fingers rested on her collar bone.

He made it sound very good and even though he’d threatened to torture her just moments ago, the offer was compelling. Mara tapped her finger to her lip while she thought. It would be easier to stay. Mara had no doubt she could learn to become a permanent part of the game, this time with control.

“Is this some kind of Last Temptation test?” she said in a distracted manner.

“Oh, one of my favorite-” began Danya, but Mara held a hand up to stop him. She’d done it because she didn’t want him to start going on about another movie or book or something that was supposed to impress her. Honestly, she was mildly surprised it had worked at all, and then was more surprised, thinking that his response was the same one she would have had before the game.

She felt him squeeze her shoulder slightly. If someone offered her an out from Survival of the Fittest at the start in exchange for having to work with the terrorists would she had taken it? Two weeks ago, undoubtedly. Now, unsure. If she worked with them, how was she supposed to view her time on the island? Mara and Hansel had formed an unspoken agreement at the end to stay together as friends rather than fight and fall the last inch down to the level of the terrorists.

Before she knew it, tears were trickling down her cheeks.

“Tell me what you’re thinking,” he murmured like a concerned loved one.

Staying was the easy thing to do, the quitter’s way out. If she stayed, what would that say about the game as a whole to everyone at home? A complete victory for the terrorists, but did she even care if they won or not? She shifted and her bare foot dipped into a puddle of tea. What was it that Finn told her? As he lay dying he told her that she had to win.

“I can’t...I can’t lose,” she whispered.

“You’ve already won.”

Mara decided that she did care. The only thing that had ever been honest about her old life were how much her friends cared for her and how much she cared for them. Staying and killing more would be a betrayal and even if the remainder of her life was very short and fairly miserable, at least she could remember them in peace.

“I would like to be sent home,” she said with a wavering voice, but head held high.

Slowly, Danya trailed his hand from her collar bone down her bare arm, breaking the contact at her elbow.

“It’s your choice” he said with shrug.“Stubbornness is sometimes admirable, sometimes foolish. I hope you think about that decision, you’ll have plenty of time. In any case, thank you very much for indulging me and taking the time to chat.”

Mara looked up at him, then looked to the other man who made an upward nod with his head. Tracen pulled her chair out. He went to take her hand to help her up, but she jumped up on her own, ignoring the gesture. He held out his hand.

“It was a pleasure meeting you. You’ll be staying with us for a little while as we wait for the broadcast to finish, people back home are only finding out now that you weren’t killed in a plane crash."

“So….we were doomed from the very start. No one would have ever rescued us.” she thought out loud, remembering her first day, being so sure someone would come.

“I’m afraid so,” he nodded. “If you have any more pressing questions or concerns, feel free to ask for me.”

“Alright,” she said simply. Mara didn’t move to take his hand. After a few more seconds he cleared his throat, hand still out.

“We can hug if that would suit you better,” he said, contracting his fingers twice.

Mara grimaced. Her hand shot out and clasped his, shaking it once before letting go.

“Father would have loved you,” he said, amused by her reaction.

Sonia opened the door as if on cue and led Mara out. As she looked back one last time, Tracen Danya waved cheerfully.
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Mara was seated on a cold metal table in a sterile room. She was about halfway done counting the number of cotton balls in a jar on the desk when an older man with wavy blond hair and a white coat walked in.

“Hello Miss Montalvo. I’m Doctor Kelley,” he said as he flipped over some pages attached to a clipboard. “I’ll be your primary physician while you’re here. If you could go ahead and slip off your shirt, we’ll get right to work. How are we feeling today?" he said as he studied whatever was written on the pages.

Mara pulled the t-shirt she’d been sleeping in over her head and hugged herself. His manner and the room was familiar enough that it could have been a check up back home, except for her considerable injuries. The doctor tipped her chin up with his pen and inspected her bruised neck.

This was the first time she’d left her cell since she’d spoken with Danya. She spent her time sleeping, waking up with a start, thinking about their talk, wondering about her decision, sleeping and then doing it all again.

The terrorists had given her a little room with a bed, a bench and a bathroom. There were all of the amenities of a bathroom with toilet, shower and a mirror. She had soap and shampoo and a nail file but no clippers, no razor, nothing sharp.

“I get woozy. I feel tired all the time,” she replied while he unraveled the bandages on both of her hands. The doctor took a look at her right hand, turned it over, then re-wrapped it.

“Not too deep,” he mumbled. He looked at her left hand for longer, running his fingers near the new stitches. “You’re lucky you didn’t get an infection in this one. Wasn’t the best stitching I’d ever seen, but your sewing held up. Did you do needlepoint back home?

“No….my sister did.”

The doctor moved down her hand and bent her wrist forward. Mara yelped and he looked at the wrist more closely.

“Bruised and sprained wrist,” he observed.

“From the island,” she mumbled. Though she didn’t want to admit it, she was terrified of Tracen. This doctor was on his payroll, he likely wouldn’t care that he’d injured her, but there was still a fear he’d be unhappy she told on him.

“It looks fresh.”

Mara grabbed her hand back from him.“So you remember every single injury I came in with?” she snapped.

“That would be my job, yes.”

He looked at her, but she wouldn’t meet his gaze. He sighed, took the hand back and re-bandaged it. “Have you been eating and drinking water since waking up?”

He moved her hair out of the way off her face and gently prodded a bruise on her temple near her right eye.

“Mmhmm. They give me soup and bland stuff that’s not hard on my stomach, but it’s a lot better than those calorie bricks,” she responded, flinching when he hit a tender spot.

The doctor smiled at the answer and moved now to the large bandage spanning across her chest. With nimble fingers, he unrolled the gauze from around her small frame. He looked over the wound and then quickly replaced the bandage with a new one. She pulled her shirt back on over her head while he fixed a blood pressure cuff around her arm.

“Let me know if the dizziness persists. All things considered, you’re in good shape. I’ll let the kitchen know they can start transferring you over into a greater variety of food. You’ll make a full recovery on your wounds as long as you rest. In the meantime I’m going to prescribe TV.”

“TV? Like, television?”

“You’ve been moping in that little room for two days," he said, pumping air into the cuff and studying the dial.

“Two days…” she repeated. She checked to see if it was another unfunny joke, but this man seemed sincere.

“Medicine is my primary function here, but I know a thing or two about head shrinking,” continued the doctor, removing the device from her arm. “Stewing isn’t good for you. Go out into the common room, eat some candy and watch TV.”

Mara’s mouth set into a frown and she crossed her arms. “I kind of want to be alone. In my room.”

“Well, if you don’t want to go out and watch TV with the others then we can always arrange for you to go on a movie date with Mr. Danya instead. I've heard he's very fond of musicals,” the doctor retorted while scribbling on the clipboard.

She felt her face go cold and she hopped off the chair. Dr. Kelley chuckled deeply and opened the door.

“It’s the same threat I give everyone here when they don’t want to follow my advice. They all react exactly like you. Go down the hall and take the second left.”

She followed the doctor’s directions and shortly found herself in a rec room. There were a few tables, some shelves with cards and games and a couch facing a large television. Seeing only one other person in the room, Mara decided to sit on the opposite end of the sofa and flopped onto the sinking cushions. That one other person was a man with long blonde hair and a bit of stubble. He looked over at her when she plopped down, looked to NCIS on the screen, then looked back. He held out his hand to her containing a few apple slices and cleared his throat.

Mara sat up and looked over. She saw the offering, but hesitated. He nodded. She put her hand in his, feeling deja vu creeping in. She took a slice and nodded back.

“You’re that SWAT guy?” she said cautiously.

He took back the apple slices and began munching on one while watching TV.

“You woke me and helped me stand up didn’t you?”

The man looked back at her and for a moment it seemed he would say something else to her. Instead he folded his arms and put his feet on a table in front of them and returned to the show. She wasn’t sure what to make of that.

“I’m Baines.”

An introduction. A short one, but the first person she’d encountered who seemed equally at a loss as to what to do in the situation, which was oddly comforting.


She sighed, feeling slightly more at ease and leaned into the couch where she spent the rest of the day watching procedural dramas with Baines in silence. At 10pm she stood up, yawned and stretched.

“Same time tomorrow?" he asked abruptly.

Mara stopped mid-yawn when she registered he’d spoken to her. The afternoon hadn’t been so bad and it was the first authentic person she’d spoken to, even if it was just a few words. She studied Baines. The memory of him helping her to her feet softened her judgement.

“Mmm, I don’t have other plans,” she said, rubbing her eyes. “Night.”
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It wasn’t very long before she fell into some kind of routine. She would wake up, eat what was left for her on her bedside table, then go to the doctor to get examined. A second man, surly looking, was present now whenever she went for her daily checkup. The doctor said he was an apprentice or something and asked if she minded his being there the first time she'd seen him, but it made no difference to her. Returning to the room, she would find a clean white tank top and a pair of gray running shorts. Who knew what happened to the clothes from the day before? She couldn’t explain why, but she had an idea that they burned the old outfits and they had some unending supply of white tank tops and gray shorts.

After the daily check up, she was free to wander as she eventually made her way down to the cafeteria for lunch. There wasn’t much to look at. Doors to sensitive areas were locked. Occasionally she would catch someone looking at her. When she did, they looked away. Besides Baines and the doctor, it was rare for anyone to speak to her.

There was a room of confiscated materials she would amuse herself for the first half of the day after the doctor's visit and before lunch. In it were three bookshelves full of books and a few that appeared to be diaries. The diaries were mostly mundane, some of the books were alright. One tattered black notebooks had some names in it towards the end. Mara had turned to the first page and saw “Pandora” written in a childish, curly font.

Mara headed down to the cafeteria on this day, a special day, for lunch as she always did. By her estimations she'd been with the terrorists for a week or so. After mostly dining on mild rice dishes and porridge, she had finally gotten the OK to start having calorie dense, complex foods.

A man wearing an apron and a woman had emerged from the back of the kitchen as she waited. Both smiled and watched her. “Go ahead and tell us if you have any requests,” he said.

This reminded her of the on-call chef at home. At home, she wasn't given much choice though; it was low calorie salads mostly.

"Ahhh....eggs benedict."

She thought they might have told her that wasn't a lunch food item, but they went to work and came back presently with a dish with two portions of eggs benedict.

She cut a piece and stuck it in her mouth. The flavor was a shock, but presently she settled into a glowing happiness. Mara sucked down the entire plate and with a slightly distended stomach, slowly walked to the rec room where she watched television every afternoon with Baines.

“Why do you always pick police dramas?” she mumbled, draped across the sofa. She was sleepier than usual, probably from the extra workload her digestive system had picked up. The lights were dimming in preparation for night. Criminal Minds was crackling in the background.

“Why do you fall asleep on the couch?” Baines asked back.

Mara hugged the couch and shifted her legs. “It’s the noise,” she said with her eyes closed. “I can’t fall asleep in my cell without any noise. The sound of talking makes me feel like I’m not alone.”

“Are you the one who carries me to bed every night?” she asked quietly with one eye opened slightly.

“No,” he answered firmly.

It wasn’t the answer she was expecting, but she didn’t press further. The television chatter about "unsubs" filled in the gaps and switched from background noise to the foreground.

“I think people here are getting used to me. It seemed like they were afraid of me.”

Baines snorted derisively. “No one here is afraid of you, girl. Hardly anyone talked to the winners before we started the tape delays. They don’t know what to do, though, you earned a touch of goodwill from messing up Cecily. Folks actually think that was pretty funny. The girl we held last time was tight lipped. She didn’t want anything to do with us and that was just fine.”

“I wanted to be that way, but I can’t.” she yawned.

“Why’s that?”

“It’s the same reason I need the TV to fall asleep.”

Mara meant to ask him how he happened to end up doing this job, but before she could remember she'd fallen asleep.
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Two weeks. Maybe. Possibly. It was hard to keep track of the passage of time in the terrorists’ stronghold. There were no windows, so all there was to go on was the word of the clocks on the walls. No mirrors disassociated herself from her image. She knew the image of herself she had before no longer existed. She existed in a state of invisibility to herself; a blank slate.

The last time Mara saw the sun was when she watched it set over the island. In her dreams she saw her friends, went to school, and saw sunshine. Efflorescing red carnations and swirling black lilies lined her way to school every day until she woke up surrounded by concrete again, questioning which was real.

She always felt drowsy no matter how much she slept. There was a Discworld book she found in the shelves that she tried to read now and then. Even when she wasn’t reading it she lugged it around like a pet. Mara began to think that this would just be her life from now on.

On the fourteenth day Mara sat on the couch in the common room with Christina, joined by Lourvey and Baines in two of the arm chair. She slurped down penne with blue cheese sauce and watched Pan’s Labyrinth while Abby plaited her hair.

“When I was little my parents told me about the pale man. They said that if we weren’t quiet after dark we’d disturb his dinner and eat us. I used to stand by my little sister’s bed and tell her to be quiet when she was noisy or he’d come eat us,” said Mara.

Abby nodded. Baines made a face that seemed to communicate disbelief.

“Nice parents,” muttered Christina.

Mara fished around with her fork for more pasta. Abby pulled her hair back sharply and forced her to sit up straighter.

“Hey, where did you get that?” said Lourvey, eying the bowl.

“Kitchen staff,” replied Mara between gulps. “I talked to them about it and they made it for me. You could try it too, you know.” Lourvey huffed.

“Hey,” Mara piped up with her eyes glued to the screen. “You don’t have to tell me, but what do you think of Tracen?”

“Of Danya?” asked Christina in surprise.

“Mmm. He’s the only one I haven’t seen since the first day that I woke up," Mara replied. "Everyone else is around doing, I don’t know, downtime things or working. I never saw him again though, so I guess he doesn’t hang out with you?”

The room was quiet and everyone save for Lourvey and Mara cast their glances askance.

“I like him.” declared Lourvey, breaking the silence. “He thinks I’m funny and we get along so what’s not to like? Seems like a cool guy to me.”

“I’m not sure.” said Christina quietly. “It’s difficult to say. He has sort of an outward appearance-” Christina moved her hand over her face. “-where it’s difficult to tell what he’s really like. With the elder Danya all of the cards were on the table. It makes him hard to predict. He gives you this feeling like he can read your mind.”

“If that’s true then I guess you’re fired.”

Mara turned and saw that she was so concentrated on Christina she never noticed Sonia enter the room. Sonia looked at Mara and nodded in the direction of the others.

“Time to say goodbye.”
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Mara was flanked by a pair of guards marching her down a long corridor. She was brought back to the door to Danya's office, but rather than having a quiet moment to breathe or Cecily yelling at her, the men opened the door without ceremony. One put his hand on the small of her back and guided her inside as if she would have tried to run away. Again, Danya was behind the desk. She wondered to herself if maybe he just lived at the desk and never left. Maybe he was a robot they built just to scare people and this office was his storage space.

“Oh you’re here. Well, this is it.”

He walked around and stood in front of her with a red package, complete with silver bow, in his right hand.

“I have a gift for you, Mara. First, I need you to swallow this.”

In one hand the package, in the other a pill. She put it in her mouth and gulped it down without question or comment. With both hands she took the present.

“Thank you,” she croaked.

“There are those manners your family spent so much money on," he sneered. "I hope you enjoy this keepsake. I retrieved it especially for you.”

She blinked as he warped before her eyes. The room was starting to tilt under her feet. Danya grabbed hold of the other end of the present,which stabilized her.

“Good luck.”

Everything went dark and she collapsed into the arms of one of the men on the side. He lifted her up bridal style with the present in her lap.

Greynolds and Danya watched while she was carried away.

“What do you think?” Greynolds asked Danya.

“A month, maybe."
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She woke up in someplace gray, cement, empty. Her moan echoed when she sat up and the only objects near her were a black bag and an envelope. Her black hair was splayed out in all direction on the ground and she was still in her terrorist issued outfit, white tank top and gray running shorts. She was alone again in a strange place. Bright white light flooded in from a skylight and the broken windows around her.

A flash of anxiety cut through her groggy fog and she suddenly felt very cold. This wasn’t the first time she’d been drugged and left in a strange abandoned place with a pack. Her heart raced and she felt like she’d faint. What if it was another game? Mara swallowed hard. If it was, she would kill herself. It was decided.

I won't do this again.

Wasn't that was Joey was so afraid of?

She reached for the bag to see what was inside.

She yanked up the bag and saw that there was an envelope underneath. Mara looked at it for a moment, and once her brain caught up to her eyes she dove for it and it tore it open.

Hello Amara, I hope you are doing well-

Her face flushed with heat and her fingers dug into the letter, crumpling the paper at the edges. She imagined everything Tracen touched was poisonous. There was a chance it had important information, though. She tempered her nausea and kept reading.

A taxi will be arriving at your location. He has been paid and will take you to wherever you please, within reason. We will always remember you and you us. Sincerely, Tracen Danya.

It was safe. Her muscles relaxed and she slumped, taking deep breaths. The black bag was still there. If there were any nasty surprises, it would be best to get it out of the way now. Mara slammed down the zipper and pulled out the contents. All she found was the gift he’d given her in his office. For awhile she just looked at the box, wondering what horrible thing might be inside. She ripped apart the wrapping and opened it. Inside was the yellow dress she’d worn during her meeting with Danya and a smaller box.

She weighed the second box in her hands. Mara held her breath, but the box did not make any noise. It was too small to be a human head, so that was a small comfort. She opened it, felt something smooth inside and removed the object.

Immediately Mara started shaking. It was a memory. She nearly dropped the object out of shock, but caught it before it hit the ground. She tasted blood.

It was one of the snow globes from the island’s lighthouse museum. Mara wrapped her arms around the cold glass and curled her body around the snow globe tightly.

She thought about a number of places while she waited outside the warehouse for the taxi, but ended up telling the cab driver to take her home. Mara felt like she was hopped up on adrenaline as the car sped back through increasingly familiar territory. Looking out the window, she wondered if anyone would see her and start screaming or something, but no one noticed the cab.

As soon as she was out of the car, it took off. The front door of her home yielded easily. In their wealthy neighborhood locked doors weren’t common. Mara put the black bag down in the foyer and stepped inside.

The marble was freezing against her bare feet. She didn’t make any noise to alert anyone of her presence, nor did she hear anyone else. Mara grabbed a candlestick off a table and made her way to the kitchen. In the kitchen she saw a sandwich on a plate and the trusty rack of cooking knives. She threw the candle stick behind her with a clatter.

"I don't feel better. I thought I would feel better." she thought, drooling over the bread. It was as if there was something she still had to do, some last final foe to face.

Moments later a maid was scared half to death seeing Mara crouched on a counter, ravenously eating the sandwich with one hand and holding a meat cleaver in the other.

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A curtain of straight glossy hair fell around both sides of Mara's face and pooled on a metal table in front of her. Her fingers curled around the edges of the metal chair she was seated in. She breathed deeply. She felt the air prick at her uncovered arms and legs. She was still wearing her terrorist-issued clothes.

"Are you thirsty? You want something to drink?"

She sat straight up with her eyes wide with fear. She breathed faster and the man drew back.

"It's ok." He looked to two other men in the room.

"I'm Agent Mayer. Your parents were in Ellensberg when they got the call, but they're on their way. There's going to be a press conference as soon as they get in, probably about 3 hours from now. We're just going to ask you a few questions. We know you've been through a lot, but we need your help here. We need you to tell us as much as you know while it's still fresh."

Mara contracted into herself, pulling her knees up onto the chair. There was a knock at the door. She eyed the door attentively as a man came in with a cell phone held in one hand.

"We're going to have to hit pause. Her lawyer is on the phone."

"Does a lawyer ring a bell?" Mayer asked her.

Her legs slowly lowered and she gazed at the phone that was held out to her, one eyebrow up.

"It's for you."

Mara took it from the man offering it and put it up to her ear.

“Mari, Don't worry. I'm close by and I'll be there in a minute."

She felt her heart ache. A familiar voice, someone treating her like his own daughter although his was gone. Memories of him asking good-naturedly about school. A pause from the other end of the phone.

"Consider this and any legal necessities in the future a repayment for what you did.”

It took a short moment for her to understand what he was referring to.

"See you soon, Mr. Bell," she croaked.
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Jasmine stretched out at her desk. She cracked her neck to both sides, moved the mouse to “properties”, selected “send to: edit” and then clicked “ok.”

“Hey, you want to see the pictures?” called the photographer from a few desks away. Jasmine nodded and walked up to Julia’s much larger Macbook.

“Looks great. I feel bad for her though,” she said. "She looks so unhappy."

Julia shrugged. “She’s set for life. Don’t feel that bad. Oh, we can’t use this one,” she said squinting at the picture. “You can see her dad’s hand around the back of her neck. This one! Just the two girls holding hands is perfect,” she said, clicking over to the next picture.

“Is that the cover?” asked Jordan, an editor. Julia nodded.

“It looks fantastic. Look at this girl. She’s going to sell a truck-load of magazines. People eat this stuff up. Hot ass-kicker,” said the editor. “I bet we’ll sell extra just for college kids who want to pin her up on the wall. We’re fucking lucky she won and not one of the other three. I don’t think half-face and moustache would sell.”

Survival of the Fittest Sole Survivor Speaks Out

(Photo caption: Amaranta Montalvo with sister Rebeca Montalvo)

Jasmine Cohen

Survival of the Fittest terrorism survivor Amaranta Montalvo spoke publicly with family hours after being found in Seattle following the kidnapping of the senior class of Aurora High School.

Montalvo, 17-years-old, looked to be in good health when speaking at a short press conference this morning accompanied by her mother, father, Antonio Montalvo and sister. According to her, she is in the process of working with police to document any useful information about the organization responsible for the deaths of over 100 of her classmates.

“We’re so happy to have her back and proud of the way that she handled herself in this extremely trying situation. The police are doing all they can to apprehend the people responsible,” said Antonio Montalvo.

Survival of the Fittest has claimed the lives of hundreds of high school students. This is the fifth incident documented and came as a shock to many who believed the group had been taken out in 2008 during the fourth kidnapping which saw many survivors escape.

When asked about recovery, her family said that she was in remarkably good spirits. “Therapy is for people who aren’t strong enough to deal with issues on their own and I think she’s proved that’s not her,” said Antonio Montalvo.

“I’m fine and I’m grateful that so many people have shown their support. Thank you for your kind words,” added Amaranta Montalvo.

A general memorial for the class of Aurora High School will be held at the school’s gymnasium on August 15th.
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Mara sat at the kitchen table staring at her iPad while Rebeca sat nearby sketching. It was afternoon about one month after her return.

The two girls had been sitting like that in complete silence for 2 hours, engaged in their own activities without acknowledging each other. Rebeca’s eyes would flicker up from her drawing towards her sister and then flit quickly back down, but her glances were infrequent.

Mara was dressed in a clean cut, body-hugging, white Tom Ford mini dress with shoulder cut outs outlined in thick black bands and a thick black band encircling her neck. A silver ornament pulled back the hair on the right side of her face while the left half, and her scar, were semi-obscured. Rebeca wore nearly the opposite in color and silhouette. She was dressed in a modest, black, 1950’s inspired belted Ralph Lauren dress. Mara sighed deeply and shook her head with her eyes closed as if suddenly jolted by electricity.

“Are we getting ready to go?” asked their mother walking in briskly.

Rebeca put down her pencil and opened her mouth to respond.

“I’m not going,” said Mara firmly, without looking away from her tablet.

“We are all going. We always go to the Robin’s dinner and I don’t see why this year should be any different,” replied their father, walking past the table while working on tying a necktie.

“I don’t want to, alright?” said Mara, speaking slightly louder. Being with large groups was pretty much the last thing she wanted. Everyone reacted to her in a way that made her very self-conscious since her return. From people she knew before, it was usually pity or some grotesque false compassion as if how much sympathy they could show was directly tied to how good of a person one was. From strangers it was sometimes like people were seeing a tiger being walked on a leash. She was constantly reminded of her experiences wherever she went and she had barely the capacity to deal with her own issues. To Mara, people stopped treating her as a person and treated her as the experience. With the nightmares and occasional flashbacks that left her crying and shaking, huddled against a wall, maybe they were right and that’s what she was.

“I am staying here,” said Mara.

Her mother put her hands on her hips and seemed to be thinking the situation over. “Well…” she wondered aloud.

“Well what? That’s not fair!” yelped Rebeca, shooting out of her seat.

“Shut up,” grumbled Mara.

“Rebeca stop it,” warned their mother.

“See? She just told me to shut up and all you did was yell at me. It’s been like this since she’s been back! And don’t tell me that we need to be ‘understanding’ or something because she was like this before, only now no one says anything!” shouted Rebeca. “So what, two weeks erases being a bitch for her whole life? You’ve always been a bitch, but now people don’t say anything!”

“You’re a sniveling idiot and people have been tolerating you your whole life,” spat Mara, standing up as well.

“Did I hurt your feelings? Do you even have feelings? I guess I just can’t understand what it’s like to be you, Mara,” said Rebeca in a mock-concerned tone.

“Shut the fuck up.”

“Or what? You’ll kill me? Are you going to kill me?”

A sharp crack rang out in the kitchen. Mara slapped her sister as hard as she could. Rebeca lunged at her and within seconds the two girls were on the cold, stone floor of the kitchen. The sisters were quickly a tangle of arms pulling at fabric and hair. The bottom drawer of cabinet of kitchen tools flung open and spilled measuring cups, graters and whisks onto the pair. Mara caught Rebeca’s hand as she stabbed at her with a vegetable peeler that ended in a pointed edge. For a moment they struggled with the tool until Mara overpowered her, slapping the peeler away. Mara wrapped her hands around her sister's throat and began to squeeze. Her face flushed red and her mind was blank.

The next thing she felt was being lifted up and away from Rebeca though the first attempt was only partially successful while her sister still had a handful of her hair. Her father and a cook had been summoned to the scene and separated them. Mara leaned over, panting. Rebeca looked so much like her, it was like looking at herself cough and sputter.

Guilt and horror rose up from her stomach. Survival of the Fittest had an end. On the island she always knew that within a matter of days or perhaps moments, it would be over. Life in the real world had no end and stretched out as an infinity of suffering before her. She wrapped her arms around herself and screamed a guttural half scream, half sob from the back of her throat. Mara elbowed the cook. She ran past everyone, grabbing a bottle of whiskey from a shelf in the living room on the way out. Mara sprinted up to her parents’ bedroom, locking the door behind her and collapsing in their bathroom. She opened the bottle and chugged. Her eyes watered.

I can’t hack it out here. Danya was right. I’m a freak.

Mara thought about running away, but where would she even go? She had no idea.

She pulled herself using the sink and opened the medicine cabinet. Her mother’s sleep medication.

She took a drink.

Maybe I should just-

She took a pill.

Maybe I should-

She took several more. The pill label began to blur.

I should have shot myself after Joey died, They would have been able to get to Hansel in time, they would have saved him and he would have won. How could I have been so wrong about myself all that time? I’m stupid and weak and….what have I done? What did I do…?

Her head began to swim and she felt warm. She hugged the bottle and lay on her side, curled around it. She stopped crying.
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A young woman tapped a manicured finger against her mouth as she looked at a rack of sweaters. She chewed her lip, mulled over the decision and tapped her foot with her hand placed firmly on her waist. Eventually she selected four--nearly all the sweaters on display-- and headed to the register.

“Hi, did you find everything you were looking for?”

She smiled, raised her eyebrows and nodded. The cost of the outing appeared in luminescent green and she swiped a credit card.


The girl shook her head while her purchases were bagged.

“Have a great day and thanks for shopping!”

She smoothly exited from the store back into the stream of foot traffic going back and forth in front of the store.

Mara removed the delicate nametag pinned to her chest reading “Amy” and then swept a strand of hair over her ear.

“Hey Mel, I have to leave early today. I told you about it last week?” She was dressed in light grey leggings, camel ankle boots and an oversized, powder blue knit sweater. Mara tilted her head to sling her bag across her chest. Her pin-straight black hair was cut in an asymmetrical bob with the shorter side reaching her chin and the longer side, the left, reaching about two inches longer.

“I remember. You’re good. Go ahead and take off.”

Mara hustled out of the mall and down to the street just in time to catch the bus. She fished around for her student ID and then settled in the back, watching the streets streak by. She pulled out a book and read for awhile until her stop came up. Mara looked up and the person across from her, he looked to be maybe a few years younger, was staring at her. She narrowed her eyes and he looked away.

Mara crossed her legs, uncrossed them and crossed them again sitting in the waiting room. Most people didn’t recognize her just off the street, but sometimes someone did. Things had quieted down a little in the past three years, but it still struck her a bit when she got mentioned, particularly in pop culture. For awhile she was a popular name-drop in hip hop and rap songs. The character of a snobby, vicious, pretty girl resonated with some people like she was a B-movie heroine instead of a real person. People were fine to airbrush her high school self on a poster, but no one bothered her in person for the most part. She suspected that it was too awkward for all but those with the most tenuous hold on reality to deal with someone who had lived through things people hope to never live through.

She snapped out of her thoughts and uncrossed her arms and legs when her name was called. She stood with her small green purse that had once been an army satchel and walked to the office she was called from. After struggling slightly with a heavy, wooden door she slipped in and let it slam behind her.

Mara took a seat and likewise, the older gentleman took his place behind a very expensive looking wood desk. The inside of the office reminded her of a ship somewhat. There was a lot of dark wood that made the room feel small and kind of stuffy. Behind the desk was several wall-to-floor bookshelves holding heavy law tomes. To the sides the walls were cluttered with tastefully framed diplomas. The only part of the room that hinted to a sense of humor was a globe that had a hinge on the side-- no doubt containing a bit of alcohol.

“Thanks for coming down,” said Robert Rosen, attorney.

She smiled. “It’s usually best to do what lawyers say.”

He returned a grin and adjusted his light blue tie.

“Let me first offer my condolences, not just for your father now, but for your mother last year.”

Mara shrugged. “He never listened to anyone, least of all about cutting down on artery clogging foods. To be very honest,” she said, putting a hand up to her chest for emphasis, “I haven’t seen any of my family since three years ago. I feel like this is a waste of time, they clearly didn’t consider me part of the family anymore and haven’t given me anything since so I you can mail me whatever - I don’t know - bottle cap or stamp collection they left to me.” She stood up to leave.

The last time she saw them was burned into her mind. Everything was white. She was in the hospital and she was alive, but they didn’t come to offer sympathies. They came to tell her she’d taken one step too far and it was a goodbye. It was difficult and she was sad and angry for a long time, but it was the best thing that had ever happened to her in the end. She had no obligationsto anyone or anything and become whatever she wanted with only herself in mind. She’d done everything from that moment on her own and she was incredibly proud of herself. She was proud of her grades and of her retail job. It was often difficult, but it was the closest to happy Mara had ever been in her life.

“Please, sit,” he said gently.

The clear empathy from this person, a lawyer even, made her hesitate. She sat back down. The attorney took a file from the corner of the desk and offered it to her, leaning over the desk a bit. Squinting her eyes and staring him down with suspicion, she snatched the file from him and opened it. Mara’s eyes widened and she threw the file back at him.

“Is this a joke?”

“We’re very professional,” he said, scrambling the papers back together and attempting once again to give it to her.

She began studying the paperwork, looking for some cruel trick or exception or stupid demand that would make her eligible to the money. Finding non, her mouth dropped open a little and her eyebrows knit together.

“What about my sister?”

“The instructions were clear. Everything goes to you.”

Mara began to speak, lost her words and then tried again.

“That’s- it’s not right.

What was he thinking?

Mara debated asking the lawyer to open up that bar globe to give her some of whatever was inside. She put her hand to her mouth and took a deep breath. She was still staring at the papers, but no longer reading them.

Split everything between us. Half and half.”

The lawyer nodded and made a note on a pad next to his elbow.

“We’ll draft up the paperwork—if you’re sure—and send it over.”

Mara nodded picked up her bag and left the office. Three seconds later she poked her head back in.

“Actually, 60/40. I’m the 60 of course.”

“Of course,” he said with a wry smile.

Mara flopped facedown on her bed on the bottom bunk. Her roommates weren’t home yet and she was frankly glad not to have to talk to anyone else. It wasn’t that she didn’t like the other girls, she did. Life in Hedrick Hall was pretty good, but it was hard to talk really deeply with anyone outside of the campus therapist.

In a matter of a day she was wealthy again.

Mara turned over onto her back. What was her father thinking? Was this his one last joke on everyone? Why leave her everything?

She wondered how Rebeca was taking the news. Rebeca had always been his favorite even though Mara was always more like him. Maybe in the end he thought Mara was strong like he’d always wanted her to be.

There was no real way to tell how he decided. Maybe he flipped a coin. Mara put a pillow over her face and sighed.

What would she do with her piles of money?

Obviously the first steps would be to pay her student loans and maybe get a place to live, definitely a car. Then what?

Mara stayed there wondering until she fell asleep, pillow still over her head. In the dark purple of the room she moved her head to the side and threw her arm so that her left hand landed face up. A few bandaged fingers touched the palm of her hand. Without opening her eyes she grabbed the fingers tightly and they warmly squeezed back. She felt like she’d been stabbed in the heart, but it was equal parts painful and happy. There was a feeling of wanting to stay in this warm, excruciating pain forever. Another hand touched her lips and swept up her cheek, tracing the scar on her face until it moved the hair off her face affectionately.

Suddenly she sat bolt upright, clutching her chest and sniffling. She swallowed and wiped her eyes. It was night now and the stars shone dimly out her window, held back from their true brilliance by the city lights.

Survival of the Fittest. It was bad-- the understatement of the century-- and a lame statement if there ever was one. However, she felt guilty to admit to herself that it shaped her tremendously into who she had become as a person in a way that wasn’t entirely negative. Without it, she might be completely different right now. There wasn’t a day where she didn’t think about it.

Mara scrambled over the edge of her bed and pulled out a box. It was her memory box. She opened the lid and began digging around. There were old pageant ribbons, newspaper clippings and a pile of birthday cards. Every year on her birthday she received a card with no return address on it that only said “Happy birthday, Miss Montalvo” in a familiar curly font. She only had three cards at the moment, but she would find an identical card every year and she would keep them all. Finally Mara pulled out a flimsy, laminated panoramic picture. It was the senior class photo. Everyone crammed into the gym on the bleachers and tried to get a spot near their friends for the picture. Some people even coordinated outfits. She held the photo above her with arms outstretched. She felt lonely at first, but after a moment of being able to pick out individual faces, she felt a painful, but slightly warm, sting of nostalgia.

Mara smiled as tears slowly traveled over the side of her face. She would set up something for them. A singing camp for girls who wanted to sing, a fashion scholarship for kids who wanted to study fashion, a prize to benefit high schoolers who wanted to work with farm animals. The money could be invested and continue to fund the programs and years from then she would visit and see her friends preserved forever in the hopes of other kids.

She rolled over, holding on to the picture and started falling back asleep. It was a good idea. It was a good thing to do. That’s why she’d do it.

It’s not like she missed them or anything.


Thanks everyone. I wanted to say thanks to everyone who participated in v5 or read v5. Thank you to my two endgame and first part of the epilogue editors Burned Handler and Murder Weasel. Thanks to handler Kilmarnock for putting up with me generally in life. Thanks to Dan and Decoy for being in the endgame with me, working with me and generally being very cool. Lastly extra special thanks to handler NotAFlyingToy/ Brandon for editing the last part of the epilogue and being really cool, being awesome to work with as the final 2 and making stuff people like to read. I could say a lot more but v5 lasted long enough already. Thanks to everyone on the board.
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