(Start here.) (Or just go backwards.)
“You know, I get that you want to experience the world, but it’s not really in such great shape,” I offered as we walked.
“Yes, that is due to humans.”
“Well, yes,” I admitted. “But it’s not going to be here forever either. I mean, the sun is a star and all. It’s going to burn out or explode sooner or later.”
“We’ve accounted for that.” The corridor seemed to stretch on and on. The shadow-Ernesto walked with this easy confident stride, much smoother than the last time we were there, and I reminded myself that I didn’t even have the thing to give them, that I couldn’t betray anyone: I had nothing left to give.
And with no warning, no special announcement or anything, my mother was there. Well not there, exactly. She was sitting inside a see-through box, tucked away in a corner of the tunnel like Snow White in her glass coffin. She wasn’t silver at all. Her eyes were open and she was facing me but her expression didn’t change. I tried not to look to the sides, where there were rows and rows of empty boxes just like the one she was in, because I knew it meant something bad and I didn’t want to think about what that was.
“Mom!” It was her! Except somehow it wasn’t. She kept looking at me. She didn’t smile, she just looked. Something inside my chest felt like it broke.
“Mom?” Her curly brown hair was pulled behind her in her old silver clasp. She had the roadrunner bandaid on her finger. She was looking at me with a pinched awful look—it wasn’t her at all. “There’s something wrong,” I told Ernesto. “That’s not my mother.”
“This is your mother,” he said. “Now you must give me what you have.”
My breath got short in my chest, like my lungs couldn’t expand. “No, I won’t, because that’s not my mother.”
“That is exactly like a human,” he said. “You don’t like the outcome, so you try to deny its truth.”
“Alyssa,” the thing that looked like my mother said flatly, “I am your mother.”
“You’re lying!” I cried at her. “You’re not my mother!”
“Give it to me,” Ernesto said, except he didn’t seem upset, he seemed—relaxed, happy, like everything was going just how he wanted it to, like none of this surprised him.
“What did you do with her?” I shrieked at the fake mother. “Give her back!”
Ernesto, watching me scream at the thing that looked like my mother, smiled. My arms and legs got buzzy and weak. “She is just in the process of transformation, that is all.”
“You CANNOT use her body,” I hissed at him. “Take me to my mother, my real mother.”
“This is your real mother. We can do a DNA analysis to prove—”
“That’s not what I mean!”
“Give me what you have,” he said with that half smile.
“Never! Never. And I couldn’t anyway,” I spit at him. “You know why? Because I don’t even have it! I never had it, you stupid thing! Phoebe has it, and it’s somewhere else, and she’s going to use and she’s going to make you disappear!”
And instead of recoiling in horror, he smiled this satisfied smile, like I’d given him the best news, just what he’d been waiting for. “So,” he said. “You betrayed them all for nothing. With nothing.”
I stepped back, trembling. “I didn’t betray anyone.”
“Because you couldn’t,” he said. “But you would have. And you did—in words, in intention, in thought.” He put his hand on the glass box next to hers. “I think this is the right place for you.”
He slid open the glass door, while my mother’s sharp eyes followed him. A waft of cold, dead air came out of the box. “Go in. Betrayer.”
“No! I’m not a betrayer. And I won’t go in!” I tried to make my voice sound strong, but my legs felt weirdly weak. I looked down and saw my bones through my skin.
“Get in,” he said. The door was open and the inside was smooth and gleaming. It looked like it would be cool to the touch. And why not go in anyway, I wondered. Because he was right: I would have done it, wouldn’t I? I mean, I didn’t say, “Never!” when they asked. I said—well, I’d said OK, I knew I had. And saying OK seemed like it had given them the extra power they needed. I took one small step. My legs felt heavy and sleepy. He looked at me. “Get in.”
I looked back at him. I never realized before how much you end up looking at people to see what they’re thinking, and how weird it is when looking at them you have no idea. I looked at what used to be my mother. I didn’t even know why I’d screamed at it—it wasn’t her fault she was gone. There was nothing connecting me to anyone anymore. “Get in,” he said. And I did.