Chapter 3: Betrayal
Nearly a month had gone by since the second batch of kids had arrived at the old neighborhood. Kiersten was spending much of her time with the newcomers, as were her original circle of friends, everyone getting to know everyone else. There were in-jokes to be shared, tales told, personality quirks to get used to, and, naturally, more food likes and dislikes to worry about. Lauren in particular struck a chord with Kiersten none of the others of Jenn’s group did. Kindred spirit, as she put it. Not spirits, mind you; Kiersten tended to measure people by the amount of spunk they had in ‘em. She and Lauren were on the same wavelength 90% of the time. They would blurt out the same thing at the same time so often it was scary. Their food cravings were usually mutual as well, though coupled with both of their indecisiveness, it was a miracle anyone got anything to eat when going out for dinner. Lauren figured that Kiersten was the coolest person in the world to look up to, and swore with her little eight-year-old heart that she would follow Kiersten to the ends of the earth and back. She was the greatest role-model a kid could hope for. Kiersten, while not giving Lauren any special treatment, had a special spot in her heart for her, seeing her as an odd, hyper sort of sidekick. From the vibes Kiersten was getting, though, it was bugging the hell out of Jenn.
Jenn and Lisa, meanwhile, had compiled their time slots, trading around to get a five- or six-hour combined shift. The watch tower had practically become their palace. Kiersten was glad they’d bonded so well, but something about them being bolted hip to hip was bothering her deep down. There was a growing coolness between the two of them and the rest of the… colony.
Yes, that’s what it was, a colony. It looked like the place was going to remain permanent, and thus was in need of a permanent name. She herself kinda liked the sound of "Hope Colony." It was easy enough to say, easy enough to remember, didn’t sound nearly as dumb as ‘Hakuna Matata Colony’… She would bring it up with the others at dinner. Maybe someone else could come up with something better. Kiersten wasn’t much on good names, but ‘Hope’ would be suitable enough.
The money supply, as can be imagined, was still fine, though the group spent over $300 on groceries every week… but for thirteen growing kids, that was doing pretty good. Kiersten had worked out a budget that would keep them going until even Will was old enough to get a job. And of course, they would have plenty left over for spending on themselves. Nothing major, nothing that had to be delivered by mail, but enough to keep themselves clothed and entertained. If their surplus ever got over-spent, they could go out and earn some cash doing odd jobs for people… cutting lawns, washing cars, cleaning out gutters, anything outside of their previous neighborhoods, where someone or other would recognize them. Coupled with Devon’s mechanical mending magic, they’d be set for life.
Lisa was beginning to get.. well… odd. She would watch every move Kiersten made. Kiersten began getting uncomfortable around her one-time best friend. Lisa would just stare when she thought no one was looking, but Kiersten could sense those cold eyes on her. For all she tried to pass it off as her own imagination, she couldn’t help sense something going on…
Jenn carried the same demeanor as Lisa most of the time… or was it the other way around? Kiersten was beginning to wonder. There couldn’t be any harm in the two of them eating off by themselves unless it was their turn to cook, could there? What was she going to do, force them to come eat with the rest? It got to the point where the two girls would spend whole days and nights together, not showing their faces outside until their combined watch-block, after which they would disappear again. Kiersten considered pursuing the matter, but after a period of being gone, they would show up again, cordial and ready to take part in a few street games or such with the rest of the colonists. But there was still that something there. When she hailed them on the street they would do their best to ignore her, subtle as always, or give a subdued wave or pained smile, wearing expressions that said they wished she’d go away.
Eventually, it was hard to deny they were excluding Kiersten. Kiersten was the only one to really notice, being the excluded one. The duo would invite Paige or Devon or Manda to come with them on a walk. One such incident Kiersten happened to be watching.
"Paige, you wanna come for a walk with us? We’re going up around the lake."
"No thanks, guys," Paige replied, intent on nailing her little sister in a game of frisbee kill.
At this point, Jenn grabbed her throwing arm. "We need to talk about something," she said, jerking her head in Kiersten’s direction. That motion in itself gave Kiersten chills. Paige tossed the frisbee to Stephen and strolled casually away with Jenn and Lisa. Whatever it was they had to talk about, it involved her, and it sure wasn’t a surprise party.
There had to be something up. There was no other reason they would do this to her. Was she doing something wrong? Surely they would’ve just pointed it out.
Kiersten was beginning to feel the factions rising against her. No one had come to her for anything they wanted or needed, so it wasn’t that. They knew full well they could have it if they asked. Maybe it was just Jenn missing her position as leader. Tia and Mandy, who had fully supported Kiersten when they had joined groups, were fading off. Jenn and Lisa’s group was accumulating more members. Most of Jenn’s tribe had gone back to her side, for whatever reason. All save Lauren and Will, in fact. She was even getting some coldness from Krystal from time to time, possibly rubbed off from the rest of the group, though she couldn’t be sure. Kiersten was getting to be a nervous wreck inside, though she wasn’t letting it show through. No one noticed, or bothered to, except for Lauren.
"Kiersten, what’s wrong?"
The elder girl jerked up from her blank stare. "Huh? Oh, it’s nothing…"
"No, it’s not nothing. You look sad. Something’s going on."
"Yeah, something’s definitely going on." Kiersten glanced absently over at Lisa’s house.
"With them?" Lauren queried. "Everyone’s acting weird lately."
"Yup, them. We’re friends, right?"
"What kind of question is that? Of course we are!"
"It’s a good question if you think there’s a conspiracy going on. Which there may be. I can’t put my finger on what it is they want, or why they’re ganging up on me, but it’s THERE… and it’ll happen soon, whatever it is. Or at least I hope so… I’d rather just have this thing done and over with, whatever it is." Kiersten would regret saying those words for the rest of her life. "I haven’t done anything to get Lise and Jenn mad at me, have I?"
"No, not that I can think of…"
"So why would they keep me out of all their plans and stuff? They glare at me when they think I’m not paying attention, they avoid conversation at any cost, but what’s worrying me the most is that they’re involving all the others. Shoot, they’ve got Jenn to convince all of you guys, and Lisa to get mine. I don’t know who the good guys are anymore… I mean, the other day Stephen and I were playing frisbee in his backyard, and it went over the fence. I asked Manda to toss it back, because she was over there reading a book. Know what she said? ‘Come get it yourself, you’ve got legs.’ Am I really that lazy or something? So I went over to get it, and it’s laying like three feet away from her! She could’ve stretched out an arm and chucked it back, but NOOooo, I had to come GET it! She didn’t even try to toss it back.. I would’ve gotten it without a second thought if it didn’t make it that far or something…" She paused and sighed. "They haven’t been coming to nightgames. Not a one of ‘em. We didn’t even have enough for foursquare that night you stayed in… it’s like they’re all brainwashed or something… I’ve been deserted…"
"I’m still here for ya. Kiers? Kiersten?"
Waving a hand in front of her face did nothing to get Kiersten’s attention. Lost in deep thought, she wasn’t seeing anything save her own impending doom.
In the street, Lauren, Krystal and Will were playing keepaway with an old (and half flat, but that made it all the more challenging to catch) four-square ball. Kiersten sat watching from a rock in her front yard, giggling as the ball ricocheted wildly off Krystal’s fingers and smacked into Will’s head. The six year old was a bit dazed, and got the ball snatched from him as he recovered, but otherwise, he was fine.
Devon cautiously approached, trying to come up with some kind of tactful phrasing for what she had to say. Her expression was worried, but she smiled in an effort to cover it. Kiersten waved eagerly when she saw her friend coming and motioned her over to the large rocks that landscaped her yard. As Dev tripped up and nervously sat next to her, she knew the ominous conspiracy against her was about to be unveiled. And Kiersten knew it was going to be bad news. Real bad.
"Yeah, Dev?" she answered, a bit on edge.
"Have you ever considered… er, no… Uhm.. maybe you should… or shouldn’t… ahem…"
"Dev, spit it out and get it over with."
Devon gulped. "Okay, this is going to sound really bad at first, but we think after you’ve been exposed to it a little while, you’ll be okay… We’ve been discussing it, me and the others, and, well, we’ve decided… you don’t really act how a leader should act. Face it, Kiers, you’re no figurehead. The way you dress, little things in your mannerisms, this whole ‘free-system’ thing… it’s all getting way out of hand… and it’s starting to kinda bug everyone…"
Kiersten just gawped at her. "Bug everyone…?" More words tried to form in her throat but never quite made it out. She was on the brink of tears. Lisa and Jenn strode up, standing next to Devon, both smiling pridefully. Kiersten’s stomach turned. Devon refused to make any more eye contact with anyone.
"Kiersten, we think you need a bit of an attitude adjustment. You can’t go around making these pet-names for everyone…"
"And the t-shirt and jeans every day, it’s just not… flattering. Especially on a leader, or ruler, of her own community."
"…And insisting on having everything done your way all the time. Ordering people on what to do and where to be when… Kiers, that’s really bothering us. Do you think you could try things our way for a change?"
Everything in the street froze in place. A large crowd—everyone in the colony, in fact—had gathered around, circling Kiersten and giving her sympathetic looks. Not even a breeze dared to rattle through the trees. There it was. Out in the open at last. And she could have killed them all. Not only do they ignore her for a solid month, but then they insult her and all of her personal values, everything her mother had taught her, to her face, even! How dare they? Were they trying to destroy everything she had left to live for?
"Kiersten, I’m sorry…" started Devon somewhere off to her right. The air around her had just gotten overwhelmingly hot and cloying. Her hands, just the opposite, went cold and clammy. The already huge lump in her throat got bigger. Bodies crowded around her on all sides, crushing inward. Her eyes began burning with unshed tears.
"Kiers? You okay?" asked Libbi, sounding a little unsure of herself. Dead silence ensued once again, throwing a wet blanket over the once beautiful clear day. Glancing around her, Kiersten saw that Lisa and Jenn still had those gut-wrenching smiles plastered to their faces. And that made her all the more furious.
"Traitors…" she managed to gasp out of her dry mouth, barely able to meet their awful gaze. "TRAITORS!!" she screamed at full volume, breaking through the wall of the encompassing circle, knocking Tia and Krystal down in the process. Running for her only possible safe haven, her own house, she almost fell herself, scraping a shoulder painfully on the cinder blocks that lined the garage as she thrashed her way inside.
The door slammed and locked behind her. Erica reached it first and tried the knob, which didn’t gain her much. The door didn’t budge. Devon and Lauren joined her and began banging loudly and calling for her.
Kiersten, meanwhile, ignoring their pleas to come out, sprinted into her bedroom and slammed the door shut there as well. She nearly tore the shades off the wall, trying to close them. She grabbed things off her table and threw them violently at the door, making atrocious dents and scrapes in the wood, then threw herself to the floor, crying loudly and inconsolably. The pounding from outside increased in volume as more of the kids pounded on her doors and windows. "Kiersten!" they called. "Kiersten, come out! We’re sorry! Open the door! Kiersten!"
They couldn’t help. They couldn’t even know what they’d done. Their pity wouldn’t help her.. it only made her feel worse about herself. But how could they know that? They couldn’t. They had no idea that they were all she’d had to live for since her mother passed away. To lead the colony… that was what made her forget the pain… to see all of them happy, that was her dream. And now that wonderful life had been dashed to pieces like an old flower pot.
*It was my fault, wasn’t it? All mine. The whole colony knew I was failing.. why didn’t they tell me? WHY? What’s wrong with me?* Kiersten’s thoughts ran rabid through her mind. She had never been so miserable in her life, even when her mother died.
Then a new train of thoughts came, furious, but of a more sensible strain. *If they don’t like me, I’ll just leave. They apparently don’t need me here, so I’ll go. They can do things any way they god-damn want to. They won’t even miss me.* She snatched a knapsack off the cluttered floor and began jamming necessities into it… mini-lantern, boom box, tapes, batteries, food, clothing, an extra jacket, socks. Tossing on her best tennies, she slung the pack over her shoulder and headed full-tilt out the back door, still crying. She’d hopped the fence and got a pretty good lead before Manda and Paige happened to spot her.
"There she goes!" Manda shouted and started after her by way of the gate. Erica sprinted around from the other side of the house to join her.
Kiersten, realizing she was in pursuit, pumped her legs harder, gaining a few extra inches with every stride. She was too out of breath and too desperate to run to cry any more. She had to concentrate her energy on running, or chances were, they’d try to bring her back. Scowling back over her shoulder at them, the pack bouncing hard against her spine, her thoughts ran as fast as her feet, trying to come up with some way to elude them.
Kiersten sprinted through the hot summer streets, trying her best to avoid bumping into the numerous shoulders on all sides, and not really caring if she did hit them. Just so long as she could get away. If they wanted her gone so badly, why did they insist on chasing her down? Now and then, she could hear a yelled plea, indicating they were still behind her. "Kiers! Come back!" *Nope,* she thought. *Not if I’m just gonna get more of that.*
She rounded a corner, swinging wide to miss a large black man and nearly colliding with him anyway. Her mind wasn’t on him or anyone else, though… it was on trying to figure out some maneuver to get rid of Manda and Erica. Looking around her, she didn’t see anything of use…
Passing under a fire escape, it suddenly came to her. That was it! Pouring the remains of her energy into her legs, she turned into a blind alley next to an apartment complex and gave a flying leap, aided by all her speed, up and onto the rickety ladder. She was up and over the top before Manda and Erica could realize where she’d gone.
Manda was exhausted. She slammed her heels down and stood panting for a minute, glaring up at the empty fire escape. It was no use calling after her any more; she wasn’t coming back for their sake. With a grunt, she boosted Erica up to the ladder, then climbed up it herself. The landlords usually kept the top-floor doors locked. With any luck, they could trap her on the roof and convince her…
Erica stopped about two floors from the top, pulling an inhaler out of her pocket. *She shouldn’t have come,* Manda thought. *Not with her athsma…* With the colony now depending on her alone, she kept going. "I am gonna be so sore after this…" she muttered aloud as she made it to the last ladder. "Kiers, ya better show some appreciation…" Peering over the ledge, Kiersten was nowhere in sight. "Oh, God, no.. she didn’t!" She bolted to the opposing edge of the building with strength and speed she didn’t know was left in her person, peeking over the edge very much afraid of what she would see. Instead, she saw Kiersten hopping off the fire escape and accelerating back into her determined run. Half out of relief and half out of exhaustion, Mandy collapsed where she was on the apartment rooftop as Kiersten headed for the edge of the city.
"Be careful, Kiers. There’s a lot worse things than clique rebellion out there…." she said as Erica finally caught up to her.
Kiersten looked back over her shoulder, smiling, sure that she’d lost them this time. She’d made it to the city dump. Just a bit further and she’d be out of the city limits and away from that horrible group forever… except a scraggly, misshapen tree growing up out of the piles of trash had other plans for her. She didn’t see the offending branch until it was too late and her own forward momentum knocked her out cold.