"I'm not a mute," Syl whispered, her voice tiny.
Van raised an eyebrow. "Oh, so you can talk after all." A small smile formed over Syl's lips and Van smirked. "So take some," she said, still holding out the gum. Syl slowly took a piece and popped it into her mouth, chewing silently while she stared up at her sister.
"So Zack tells me you're going to be living with him for a while," she said. Syl nodded. "That's cool with you?" Again, she nodded. Van brushed a stray hair behind her ear. "Because you know, if you wanted to you could come and live with me."
Syl looked into Van's eyes, her own full of questions.
"Well," Van continued. "You're about to go through a lot of stuff and I just thought you might want a girl around to help you through it."
"Did you ever go through what I went through?" Syl whispered.
Syl smiled a little. "Then I think I'll be going into unfamiliar territory no matter who I live with."
"It's your choice," Van agreed.
Syl gazed at her hands for a few minutes, "I love you," she said. "But I want to stay with Zack."
Van nodded. "I figured that. You've sorted bonded yourself to him or whatever." She touched the end of Syl's nose lightly, affectionately. "Don't forget, I'll always be around if you need me."
Syl nodded. "I know." She smiled and put her arms around Van's shoulders and held her close. "I won't forget."
Syl opened her eyes at dawn, surprised she'd fallen asleep at all. She rolled over to look at Van across the short aisle between their beds. The motel room was just starting to lighten from the rising sun, and Van was fast asleep.
"Van," Syl whispered. Nothing. "Van," she said, a little louder. When her sister still didn't stir she frowned, reaching back to grab a pillow. It sailed toward Van's face but just before it hit her, her hand snapped up and grabbed it out of the air, throwing it back to Syl's side of the room.
"I heard you the first fucking time," she said. "What?"
"I thought you were asleep."
"But you heard me anywhere?" Syl smiled.
"I sleep lightly. What the fuck do you want at-" Opening her eyes for the first time, she grabbed the clock on the bedside table between them and spun it around to face her, "- 5:43 am?" she finished, her eyes already closed again.
"I can't sleep."
"Good for you. I can, so stop throwing shit at me."
Syl grinned. "I love you."
"Yeah, yeah. Fuck you too, punk-ass."
"No, seriously… I changed my mind."
Van opened an eye. "No you didn't, you're just scared."
"What am I supposed to say to her?"
Resigning herself to the fact that this was going to turn into a conversation, Van opened her other eye and propped herself up on her elbow. "Well... you could start with hello."
"After this long I feel like I don't have a right to even say that," Syl admitted quietly.
"Maybe you don't," Van answered. "But why don't you let her decide that?"
There was a silence as Syl considered this. Then she said softly, "Part of me wishes she'd run to me and give me a big hug and call me Mommy. Part of me expects her to be a baby when I see her." She brushed away a tear, laughing a little. "And part of me still doesn't quite believe I ever had one in the first place."
"And part of you thinks she'll hate you?" Van asked, finishing Syl's thought easily. They locked eyes. "Yeah."
Van considered that for a few moments. "If you met your surrogate right now, would you hate her?"
Syl frowned. "No..."
"And she has even less a claim on you than you have on this girl," she pointed out. A slow smile spread across Syl's face and Van smiled as well. "So get some sleep, punk-ass," she said, settling back into her own bed. "That way when you meet her you won't look like shit."
"Fuck you," Syl said, laughing as she threw her remaining pillow at her sister. Van grabbed it and held it under her arm. "Now what are you going to do?" Syl rolled away from Van and fished out the first pillow from the other side of her bed. "So there," she said. Van shrugged and closed her eyes; Syl watched her for a few moments and then got out of bed, hopped across the small aisle, and curled in beside her sister.
"Van?" she whispered.
"You're welcome," Van answered, already anticipating her next words. Syl slipped her arm around Van's waist and gave her a squeeze.
"I love you."
"Sleep," Van answered, nudging backward a little at her. Syl chuckled softly and closed her eyes.
Five hours later they were pulling into the driveway of a light green split-level house in suburban Omaha. Van cut the engine of the car and turned to Syl. "You ready?" Syl looked at her. "Yeah right."
"Well, you're probably as ready as you'll ever be," Van answered. "So go on."
Slightly panicked, Syl looked from the house to her sister and back to the house. "Okay... are you coming?"
"Do you want me to?"
Syl was quiet for a moment. "I don't want to go alone but I feel like I should."
"It's your choice," Van answered. "I can come in the house, wait in the driveway, or pick you up later."
"Come with me... and then if I'm okay..."
Van nodded. "Alright." She got out of the car and Syl forced herself to follow. The walk to the front door was worse than any march through Manticore's halls had ever been. Syl reached for the doorbell, a glowing circle of orange light, and pushed. Inside, a series of melodious bells rang, and they waited. Syl surveyed the small porch, casting her eyes over a swing and a few potted plants. She reached past Van's shoulder to pull the cord of a brass wind-chime, then closed her eyes at the sound, a perfectly-pitched harmony of chimes.
The door opened. A woman at least a decade older than Van, her eyes a motley of green and brown, like a forest inside her eyes, her light brown hair pulled into a loose ponytail. Bits of dough clung to her hands, which she wiped with the edge of a flowered apron as she smiled at them. "Can I help you?"
Syl swallowed. She was tempted to say they were collecting donations for a local charity, but Van's form beside her forced her to tell the truth. "My name is Syl," she said, seeing recognition flicker through the woman's eyes, a change in her stance as she realized the gravity of these people on her doorstep. "I guess Zack told you about me..."
"Yes," the woman said, finally regaining her voice. She stepped back a little, holding the door open. "Please, come in." Van entered the house first, removing her sunglasses.
Syl took a breath and stepped over the threshold. Such a simple action for such a huge change in her life. She saw a grandfather clock, saw stairs with clean off-white carpet leading to the second floor, roses carved into the banister. She saw plants, a sunny kitchen in the back, a display case with a set of china dolls, their lips painted rosy pink. The sofa on which she was invited to sit was mauve, the carpet dusky lavender with sprays of burgundies and blues.
"Zack told us when we adopted that this day would likely come," the woman was saying as Van took a seat in an armchair off to the side. "I'll admit I had thought the time had likely come and passed." She smiled. "I'm Jeanette." Syl quickly stood to shake her hand, feeling a little awkward here in this woman's house. Like an invader.
"This is my sister Van," Syl told Jeanette.
"We're big on adoption in this family," Van said, shaking her hand and giving one of her famous half-smiles. She and Syl sat back down as Jeanette smiled at Van.
"I remember you," she said. "You've certainly grown." At Van's smirk she continued, "Tea? Coffee? Anything to eat? I was just making bread but it's not quite ready."
"Tea would be great if you're making it," Syl answered, wanting something to hold in her hands, hoping it would help her calm down. Inside she was wondering where the girl was, realizing she could be just upstairs, around the corner, down the hall.
"I'll have coffee," Van said. "Black."
"Okay, I'll be back in a moment. Please make yourselves at home." Jeanette left the room and Syl turned to Van, suddenly panicked.
"I don't know her name," she blurted, suddenly realizing this alarming fact. She'd never let Zack tell her and now that this moment was here she regretted it, bitterly.
"Relax," Van said, with the hint of an order in her voice. "Her name's Nacolle, but everybody calls her Nicki."
"Nicki," Syl repeated. It's not what she would have chosen, but it was pretty and because it belonged to her daughter, Syl thought it was beautiful. She smiled at Van.
"You're doing good," she told her. Syl nodded her thanks as Jeanette re-entered the room with a tray bearing milk, sugar, a cup of coffee, and a teapot covered by a cozy decorated with cats and dogs. She handed the coffee to Van and took a seat on the side of the sofa opposite Syl.
"Nicki's at school," she said. "But she should be home in about twenty minutes. She's very bright. And she's on the soccer team at school. Goalie." As she spoke, a slightly faraway look entered her eyes and a smile formed over her lips. Belatedly, Syl realized she was witnessing the look of a proud parent. She averted her eyes and removed the cozy from the teapot, pouring out cups for both herself and the mother of her child. "Zack used to visit every year around her birthday," Jeanette continued. "Until a couple of years ago, he stopped coming and he never called... we wondered what had happened to him."
Syl studied her hands and opened her mouth to explain.
"Some things came up and he wasn't able to make it out here anymore," Van cut in for Syl. "I came in his place but it was strictly just to keep an eye on her, not to make any contact. She didn't know me, so I didn't see the need."
Jeanette nodded. "Well... I hope he's alright." When nobody said anything to that, she turned to Syl. "I can't believe I didn't see the resemblance right away," she said. "You look just like her." She gazed at Syl for a long moment. "I can understand why you gave her up," she said, her voice gentle. "You're so young."
Syl felt uncomfortable, but she nodded. "I was only twelve when I got pregnant."
"Zack didn't talk about you very much to me and David when he was here, and we only have the one picture of you. It was hard to decide how old you were. I guessed fifteen or sixteen, but twelve..." She shook her head, then gazed at Syl. "It's your eyes. They make you look older."
Syl glanced at Van, then back to Jeanette. "Do you think Nicki will want to meet me?" she asked finally, bracing herself.
Jeanette smiled. "I think she'll be thrilled," she said. "She used to talk about it a lot when she was little… When Zack stopped visiting she didn't understand why, and of course we didn't really know what to tell her about it except that we were sure he'd come when he could. But she used to tell me she wanted to meet you all the time, especially after one of his visits. I think he told her things about you, what you were like and what you might do together once you were ready to meet her."
Syl's eyes widened slightly and she turned her head to Van just in time to see her sister start to chuckle. Subconsciously, Van reached up to push her sunglasses up on her nose, but she'd forgotten they weren't there. She scratched the bridge of her nose lightly instead, stifling a smile of 'I told you so.' Syl turned back to Jeanette. "That's..." She trailed off, gathering her thoughts. "That's good to hear. I was scared that she wouldn't want to see me… or that she'd be mad at me."
"No," Jeanette said firmly. "We always made sure to tell her that you gave her up because you loved her, not because you didn't. Zack only reinforced that idea. I think she has the normal confusion of any adopted child as to why she wasn't kept, and maybe a little bit of resentment, but nothing like what you're worried about." She smiled. "I think this is going to be one of the most exciting days of her life."
"I hope I live up to her expectations," Syl answered, swallowing. She jumped slightly as Jeanette's hand covered her own.
"You're her mother," she said gently. "You don't have to."
"No," Syl answered firmly. "You're her mother."
Jeanette smiled, her eyes suddenly moist. "Thank you," she said softly. She opened her mouth to add something, but before she could the front door opened.
"Mom!" a girl's voice called. "Whose car is that?" Jeanette stood as Syl heard the sound of shoes being kicked off, a schoolbag being dropped. Then she was standing in the doorway, a younger version of Syl with subtle differences- a red tint to her hair, eyes dancing with light, cheeks a little rosy from running up the driveway. Her eyes saw Van first and she frowned.
"I know you."
"Smart kid," Van said under her breath as Jeanette put a hand behind her daughter's shoulders. The girl's smile faded with the realization that something very important was about to happen. She was guided into the living room by her mother as Syl stood up. Syl could tell that Nicki knew immediately who she was looking at.
Unable to think of anything else, Syl said, "Hello."
"You came," Nicki answered. She turned her head to look up at her mother, smiling like a child who has just been given a new toy for no reason. "She came."
Jeanette smiled down at her. "Why don't you take her up to your room so the two of you can talk?"
"Okay," Nicki said. She reached out and took Syl's hand. The touch of her daughter's skin to her own was powerful enough to cause a lump to immediately form in Syl's throat. She swallowed it down, the moment gone almost as soon as it came, this first touch of a human being who used to be a part of Syl's own body. Then she was being pulled up the stairs and into a room larger than any bedroom she had ever called her own. The bed had a frilly pink skirt, some type of cartoon character running across the sheets in rows. There was a rug of pastels spread over the cherry-wood floor, toys scattered around, a bookshelf, dresser, mirror, and a little desk with some papers that looked like poems written in a child's hand. Nicki sat on the bed, watching Syl, as though waiting for her to approve the room.
She said, "It's nice," and the girl beamed. Syl couldn't help but smile back. "So you mom told me you have a picture of me."
"Yeah." Nicki turned to her bedside table and opened the drawer. From inside a notebook she pulled out a photograph, lined and wrinkled from age and much handling. She gave it to Syl and she laughed, could remember Zack taking this picture. One of the few he ever took at all.
"He told me you'd visit when you were ready."
Syl nodded. "I'm sorry it took so long."
"Where did he go?" she asked, ignoring Syl's apology.
She hesitated. "There was an accident, and some things he had to take care of. He was very busy."
"He looked after other people too," Nicki said. "He told me that."
Syl smiled. "Yes."
"He never said goodbye."
"He didn't know he wouldn't be coming back."
"Is he dead?" she asked, her eyes serious.
Just as serious, Syl told her, "We don't know."
Nicki considered this as Syl started to relax. This wasn't as hard as she'd thought it was going to be. "I have a lot of questions," she said.
"I'll try to answer them," Syl promised.
"You're not as tall as I thought you were going to be."
Syl made a face. "Why does everybody say that?" They smiled at each other, matching grins, though Nicki's looked more natural on her face than Syl's did.
"Who's that lady downstairs?"
After Syl got over the fact that someone had called Van a lady she said, "Her name's Van… she's my sister."
"She doesn't look like you."
"There's more to family than blood," Syl pointed out. "You know that."
Nicki smiled, accepting this. "So was Zack your real brother?"
"Just as much as Van is my real sister, or your parents are your real parents."
Nicki smiled and laid down on her bed. She reached for a stuffed animal, a lion with one bent whisker and a soft mane. She hugged it to her chest. "Tell me about the day I was born."
"I went to the doctor's early in the morning. Zack took me. You were trying to come out before we even got there, you were so excited to see everything outside me." Syl saw the girl smile and continued, "We managed to get there in time, and they took me into a room. They delivered you and Zack told me you were a girl. Then they checked to make sure that you were healthy and you were okay, and then they gave you to your parents so they could take you home."
"Did you see me?"
"Today is the first day I've seen you," Syl answered quietly.
"Why didn't you want to hold me?"
"I was afraid I'd want to keep you if I held you."
Nicki's brow furrowed just like Syl's did when she was concerned about something. "Why didn't you want to keep me?"
"Because I was very young," Syl told her. "And I wanted you to have a better life than the one I could give you."
"Is that why you haven't come to visit me until now?"
"Partly," Syl admitted. "I was also scared that you wouldn't want to see me."
Nicki smiled. "Didn't Zack tell you I did?"
"Yes... but sometimes I thought he was saying it to make me feel better."
"He told me you loved me and you wanted to see me but that you had things to do before you could come."
Syl smiled. "I did. I had to grow up."
"So do you want to keep me now?" Nicki asked.
"Part of me does," Syl answered, a little surprised by the question. "But I'm also happy to see how nice your mother is and what a good house you're in."
"Maybe I could visit you," Nicki said. "I know lots of kids with two sets of parents."
Syl smiled. "I'm sure we could arrange that," she said, liking the idea so much that it scared her a little. Nicki put her lion down and crawled forward on the bed. She put her little arms around Syl and hugged her tightly. With a lump rising in her throat, Syl held the child close to her. She had a sudden pang of desire for Zack to be here with her now and witness this, but it was soon overshadowed by her happiness at having her daughter in her arms. She closed her eyes and enjoyed the hug, not wanting to let go. Tears spilled down her cheeks and into Nicki's hair, but the girl said nothing about them, just content to hold onto the mother she'd dreamed about for as long as she could remember. And for once in her life, Syl was gaining something as she cried, instead of losing it.
When they finally released each other, Nicki allowed Syl to brush away her tears without comment, understanding the overwhelming significance of this moment for her birth mother. They sat in silence for a short while as Syl collected herself enough to speak.
"I'm sorry I couldn't keep you. We weren't safe at the time, there were people looking for us who would have wanted you too, and we couldn't let that happen."
"It has something to do with the barcode, doesn't it?" Nicki asked. Syl looked over at her in surprise. "Zack told me the barcode on his neck was a special mark and that even if I didn't have one on the outside, I had one on the inside because I was like you."
Syl closed her eyes. "Did he say what he meant by that?"
"No," she said. "But he always said it when he was talking about being careful telling people how fast I can run or doing too well in school. He talked about people looking for him too, sometimes." Swallowing, Syl gathered her hair up in her hands and piled it on top of her head, turning.
"I have one too," she said. She felt cool, tiny fingers graze the black lines and shivered slightly.
"Yours is different than his was."
"You remember it that well?" Syl asked, turning back around.
"I remember everything," Nicki answered. The two of them gazed at each other for a long moment, their expressions equally serious. "Van has one too?"
"Yes," Syl answered.
"Where did you get them?"
"We were born with them."
Nicki frowned. "Where were you born?"
Syl smiled a little. "Not too far from here," she said.
"But where?" Nicki asked impatiently.
Syl reached over and touched the edge of her daughter's cheek lightly. "I can't tell you everything right now. It's too hard to explain. But I promise you'll know everything when you're older."
"You were all born in the same place, though?"
"Yes. We left when we were little."
"Did you ever know your parents?"
Nicki smiled. "And Zack looked after you too?"
"He made sure I wasn't in bad situations," Syl agreed with a small smile.
"Was where you were born a bad situation?"
"How many brothers and sisters do you have?" Nicki asked.
"What are their names?"
Syl smiled. "Well... there's me, Zack, and Van who you know. And then I have five more sisters- Tinga, Brin, Max, Jondy, and Grix. And four more brothers. Tosh, Krit, Ben, and Zane."
"I like their names."
"Me too," Syl answered with a wide smile.
"And they all have barcodes too?"
"Can I meet them?"
"Eventually, yes. And you have a cousin too. His name's Case, he's Tinga's son. He's a bit younger than you."
Nicki smiled. "I want to meet him too."
"Someday," Syl answered.
"Tell me about your brothers and sisters," Nicki said, leaning back against her pillows. Syl crawled up beside her and put her arm around the girl's shoulders.
"Who do you want to hear about first?"
"The one with the little boy," Nicki said. "Tinga."
Syl smiled. "Okay. Well, Tinga had-"
"You have to start with 'once upon a time,'" Nicki interrupted.
"Okay," Syl answered, chuckling softly. She cuddled her daughter a little closer. "Once upon a time there was a beautiful girl with long brown hair and calm dark eyes. She was really patient, and she had an amazing laugh that was very special because she hardly ever laughed."
"Because she saved it for special occasions," Syl answered. "She was good with her hands and she liked classical music. And out of all my sisters she took the most time in front of the mirror every day." Syl chuckled.
"Tell me a story about you," Nicki said. Syl smiled at her, but before she could say anything more there was a soft knock on the door and Syl turned her head toward the sliver of light that slowly cut through the room as Van entered. Syl smiled at her sister and Van leaned against the inside of the doorway, holding her cell phone in her right hand. Syl could see it was on with an active line, and she gave Van a questioning look.
"Tosh," Van explained in a soft voice. Syl's heart started beating faster. Now that she was looking for it, there was anticipatin, even excitement in Van's eyes. "He's found Zack," she said. Syl turned back to Nicki, who was looking between Van and Syl.
"You found Zack?" she asked calmly. She smiled at Van's nod. "And he's okay?"
"Mostly," Van answered. She glanced at Syl. "And once she gets through with him, he'll be fine."
"When can I see him again?" Nicki asked excitedly.
Van chuckled. "Give it a couple of months," she said. The girl's face fell disappointedly so Van added, "Then I'm sure he'll be just as anxious to see you." Nicki brightened a bit and Syl smiled at her, then turned back to Van. She glanced at the cell.
"Is Tosh still there?" she asked.
Van followed her gaze to the phone. "Actually, no... it's Krit. He called not too long after Tosh. I thought maybe you'd want to talk to him."
Slowly, Syl reached out and took the phone. She looked up into Van's dark eyes and nodded. As she left the room, she heard Nicki ask, "Who's Krit?" Syl glanced back to see Van flop down on Nicki's bed beside her. The girl giggled as Van pursed her lips at her. "I like you're scrunchy face," she said, and Van rolled her eyes. "Who's Krit?" Nicki repeated.
"Someone you'll get to meet in good time," Van answered. "Someone who's close to Syl."
"Like a boyfriend?" Nicki asked.
Van's eyes locked with Syl's and then she looked back to the girl and said, "Nah, something more than that," she said. Then she looked around the bedroom and raised an eyebrow at Nicki. "Nice digs." The girl grinned at Van, reminding Syl of herself at that age, when everything Van did and said was fascinating to her. She smiled as Van started making faces at Nicki that made the child burst into loud giggles, and then Syl closed the door softly and took a breath. She put the phone to her ear.
"Hello?" she said, swallowing.
"Hey, Syl," Krit's voice came back like it had been ten minutes since she'd heard it last, not almost ten months. She found herself smiling.
"How are you doing?"
"Better. Did you hear about Zack?"
"Yeah," he answered. "Tosh called everybody about it."
"I'm scared," Syl admitted.
"I know. You'll do great. If anybody can make him remember it's you."
"What if I can't do it?"
She heard Krit's smile on the other end of the line. "You will." There was a hesitation. "Syl... I was going to ask you this in person but..." His voice dropped in volume, becoming cautious. "I was wondering if we could try again." Syl didn't know what to say for a long moment. There was a nervous laugh on the other end of the line. "Nevermind," he said, almost choking on the effort to make his voice sound upbeat. "Stupid question, I'm sorry I even-"
"No," Syl blurted, interrupting him. "No."
There was a pause. Then Krit's hopeful voice, "No?"
Syl tried to sort out her thoughts. "This thing with Zack... it's going to take a lot of time and energy."
"I know," Krit answered.
"But after... we could."
"Try again." She smiled a little. "I never stopped being in love with you."
"I never stopped being in love with you either," Krit answered softly. There was a comfortable pause, then Krit asked, "Where are you?"
"I'm in Nebraska," Syl answered. "With Van. Krit... we have a lot to talk about." She took a deep breath and forced herself to say the words she knew she wanted to. "I want to tell you everything."
There was stunned silence on the other end of the line. "Everything Zack knew?" His voice was soft, as though the moment would break if he spoke too loud.
A heavy weight lifted from Syl's chest as she said, "Yes."
"I want to know," Krit answered. "Where in Nebraska are you? I want to see you."
"Omaha," Syl answered. "Call when you get close and we can meet somewhere."
"Okay," Krit said, sounding as excited as Nicki had when she found out Zack had been found. "I'll call you later then. I'm going to hit the road right now."
"Okay, Krit," she said with a wide smile. "I'll see you soon."
"I love you Syl."
There was no hesitation. "I love you too."
"Bye, Krit," she said, and clicked off the phone. She turned to see Van standing behind her, and she handed her sister back the cell. They stood there for a moment, then Van opened her arms.
"Come here, punk-ass," she said, rolling her eyes. Syl smirked at her and stepped into the hug, looking over her sister's shoulder to see Nicki standing in the doorway, watching the two of them. The girl gave her a soft smile, full of love. Van's hand stroked through Syl's hair soothingly. "It's going to be okay, chiqueta," she murmured softly. "Everything's going to work out now." For the first time since the mission on Manticore, Syl felt the truth of those words, and she let out a long, contented sigh, her body relaxing incredibly.
"Syl?" Nicki asked tentatively. "Could you tell me that story now?"
Van let go of Syl and nudged her toward the door. "Go ahead. I'm going to head downstairs and catch up with Jeanette. I haven't really talked to her since we asked them to take the kid."
Syl nodded and watched Van go, then she turned back to her daughter. They returned to Nicki's bed and the girl climbed under the blankets. Syl sat next to her and ran a hand through her soft hair, so like Syl's own at that age, but there was so much more of it.
"I don't tell a lot of stories," she informed Nicki.
"That's okay," the child answered. "I haven't heard any of them so I won't have any negative point of reference."
Syl gave her a smirk and said, "Well, that settles that," she joked. "You really are my kid."
Nicki giggled. "And my face didn't give that away?"
Syl laughed. "Yeah… just a little." She winked at her daughter and tried to decide where to start with the story. "So... once upon a time..." Faltering, she fell back on the template Tinga had used. "... there was a princess. She came from a dark place, full of scary things and people who were cruel and mean. She thought that this place was the only one in the world where she could belong, and she didn't realize that the world was a huge place, with lots of opportunities and possibilities."
"Nobody told her there was anything else," Nicki said helpfully. "Nobody told her there were other things to see and do."
"Yes," Syl agreed with a soft smile. "And there were things she did there that she didn't realize were bad, because she was encouraged to do them. There was only one thing she ever did that she got in big trouble for."
"What?" Nicki asked, brow knitted in concern.
Syl hesitated, but she forced the words. "She killed someone," she said finally. "Her brother." Their eyes locked, a youthful mirror of Syl's own brown gaze looking back at her, no judgement in them, only curiosity. Acceptance. She found herself continuing, "She was given a gun when her hands were very small, and when she was still afraid of things she didn't understand. She saw a bird and it scared her. She tried to shoot it but she shot Bram instead."
"Why did they think you could do those things and not be hurt?" she asked, her voice full of disbelief and sympathy. Syl allowed it in, took the compassion at face value because it was form such an innocent. She couldn't convince herself that Nicki had any ulterior motives.
"I don't know," she said honestly.
Nicki reached up and swept her hand down Syl's face, stroking her skin lightly. "Go on," she said gently.
Syl took a deep breath. "She was sent to an even worse place after that… a dark place that was a lot scarier than she'd ever imagined. They wanted to make sure it was an accident, see how it had affected her… study how she was feeling."
"How long was she there?"
"A while," Syl said quietly. "Time was hard to measure there."
Nicki considered this for a while, and then asked, "But she was okay after?"
"Yes," Syl answered. "She was very scared in the dark place, but when she was back with her brothers and sisters, she felt better."
"Is that when you all ran away?" Nicki asked.
Syl smiled at her, dropping uses of third person tense. "No... not quite. We ran away because a lot of us got seizures. And we knew that wouldn't be tolerated. We hid them for a long time, but eventually they found out. One of my brothers, Jack, seized pretty hard one morning, and they took him away." She hesitated. "He never came back."
Nicki looked concerned. "And then they came after the rest of you?"
"They were going to," Syl answered. "We knew they would, it was only a matter of time. A few months after Jack went away, one of my other sisters, Max, started seizing badly. The guards came to take her away. So Zack made a decision. He got us all out of there." Her voice broke slightly, and her daughter picked up on it.
"Did some of them get hurt when they ran?"
"Yes," Syl answered. Two sets of deep brown eyes looked levelly at each other. "Some of them died. Twelve of us made it past the fence and out into the world. We got split up..." She trailed, but Nicki listened attentively. She couldn't help but stumble over the details. "And by the time I was found, I was a few months pregnant with you."
But Nicki wouldn't accept that. "Where's my dad?" she asked. Syl had prepared herself for this question but it was still a shock, almost like a tangible pain.
"As far as I know, he's dead," she answered honestly.
"What was his name?"
"Joel," she said quietly.
"Zack never talked about him," she said. "I figured he was dead. Did you love him?"
"No," Syl answered firmly. "He wasn't a nice person, Nicki."
"Why did you have a baby with him if he wasn't nice?"
"Sometimes you don't get to choose who you have a baby with," Syl answered uncertainly as they lost eye contact.
"I'm going to choose somebody nice," Nicki answered importantly.
Syl looked back to her daughter and smiled at the child. "Yes. You will."
Nicki curled into Syl's arms and closed her eyes against her birth mother's chest. "We don't have to talk about everything right now," she said. "We have lots of time."
Syl smiled down and started stroking her hand through Nicki's hair, until until her daughter finally drifted off to sleep. Syl carefully eased herself down from her sitting position and laid down next to Nicki, laying next to her and closing her eyes. She went over the conversation they'd just had, looking for something she might have done wrong or said wrong. Surprisingly, she didn't find anything- she'd actually done alright. She had envisioned the conversation with her daughter about Joel a thousand times, and and every time it had ended in disaster, or at least with her breaking down or somehow emotionally scarring the child.
But that wasn't what had happened at all. She had just answered the girl's
questions, without detail or prejudice. One day, she knew, when Nicki was older
and knew more about the injustices of the world, the girl would look back on
this conversation and understand. Syl didn't have to spell it out, she realized.
She just had to supply the information which would one day allow Nicki to spell
it out for herself. In the meantime, she would work to form a relationship with
this beautiful child who had once been a part of her own body. And at the same
time, she would find Zack, and she would bring back to Nicki the only birth
father who ever really mattered.