Tarash and Yibey finally let me go to Fort Indiantown Gap a day after we went into the Pool tunnels to check out the modifications that the nothlits had done to it. The two of them stayed behind in the temporary National Guard FOB in the local ballpark to… I don't know, to be honest. Probably sort out some more stuff between the Peace Movement and the National Guard. Don't ask me; I'm not the expert. But me and the rest of "Yibey's Army" was brought back to the Gap in a truck, with Uncle Earl volunteering to lead the squad taking us back.
I sat at the end of the truck, staring silently outside as we drove down empty country roads and passed by the occasional Army checkpoint. My arms were once again wrapped around my backpack like it was the life preserver keeping me from drowning in the maelstrom of my thoughts. Yemra was, of course, right in the middle of all this seeing as she was connected to every single neuron in my brain and therefore able to see every single thought passing through my head. Usually she would have a comment or a wisecrack ready for every other thing she would see me thinking about, but right now she kept quiet. Yemra knew not to say anything to me while I was in this deep contemplative mood. Besides, it allowed her to enjoy the sights while I stewed in my own thoughts.
We eventually arrived at Fort Indiantown Gap after fifty minutes, maybe an hour. It was totally and completely nothing like anything that I had seen before. I don't know what I was expecting though, really. I mean, when you say "fort", the mind conjures up images of these great big stone things meant to keep invaders and angry natives out of your hard-fought castles and colonies. Fort Indiantown Gap was nothing like that at all. In fact, it looked much more like a golf course than any sort of military installation. If I remember correctly, tanks used to train here by fighting in mock battles, and in the 80s, the government used FITG to house hundreds of Cuban refugees who had sailed or even swum their way from their country to Florida until they could all be processed. Now the Gap was once again being used to house refugees, except this time they came from much, much closer to home.
The National Guard had erected a lot of the same barracks-like tents that they had used in their ballpark FOB to house the thousands of people who had been displaced from the city by the Nothlit State. After we got off the truck, Uncle Earl went with me and took me to where my parents had been assigned. "At least they should still be there," he said as we walked past rows upon rows of tents. "Unless they've been relocated by the camp commander so he can stage out more troops."
We passed by dozens upon dozens of tents which all looked the same that had been erected on a low grassy hill. People were coming and going from the tents, and it was difficult to make out familiar faces, if there were any. Campfires burned all around, and the snatches of conversation that I managed to overhear ranged from missing home and hoping that we could all come back soon to people saying that they would personally kick the nothlits out of the city even though the Nothlit State had already surrendered a few days ago, but these people didn't know that yet. The mood in the fort wasn't the happiest, obviously, but then again it wasn't all doom and gloom either. Like I said, the word of the nothlits' surrender most probably hadn't gotten through to the people yet, but I was pretty sure that it only had to be a matter of time.
"Yup, I think that's it," Uncle Earl said, pointing at a row of tents which looked like just about every other row of tents in the fort. Like there was literally nothing that could differentiate it from all other rows of tents in the Gap, and yet Uncle Early looked sure that he had found the right place. And as we got closer, I finally saw them, my parents. God, I've never been so happy to see Mom and Dad before. Maybe that time that I finally graduated from college, but really, nothing comes close to this. I'm just so glad to see them again. I am so close to finally being home.
My parents looked up and saw me at right around the same time that I saw them. Mom and Dad stood up and watched as Uncle Earl walked me towards them. I couldn't even wait that long. I ran for my folks like a kid running up to their mommy and daddy after their first day in kindergarten. I was crying even before I had even reached them. I hugged both Mom and Dad at the same time, and God knows that I didn't want to let go of them. "Oh, God, thank you so much! Thank you so much for bringing her back. And thank you, Earl," Mom said through her own tears.
"Just looking out for family, that's all," Earl nodded.
I had no words. I literally just have no words at all. I was just so happy to be with my parents again, and to be around normal regular people. Not that I would ever be part of the regular boring people unless I did the unthinkable and gave up Yemra, but then again I never really wanted to be regular and boring anyway. I just wanted to be around normal and boring people again.
And let's face it, Jen, Yemra said when I happened to tell her about this particular observation one day. You would never be able to live normally without me, by choice or not.
((True that, true that,)) I nodded mentally, and Yemra flashed me a mental smile of her own.
Speaking of living normal lives, when are we going to go back? Yemra asked me, and from her tone I now knew that this was a serious conversation. If the nothlits had already surrendered then why are we still here? I've been looking forward getting back to your room and sleeping in your bed ever since we found out about the surrender.
((Yemra, how many times do I have to tell you? It's our room and our bed.))
So you keep telling me, Comrade Carson.
((Anyway, I don't know why they still haven't let us back,)) I answered seriously. ((Maybe there are still some nothlits out there who don't know about the surrender or refuse to surrender altogether. We don't know where they are; we don't know where they've gone, so maybe the National Guard and the cops are just checking every nook and cranny in the place to make sure that they're all gone before they let us back.))
Okay, I get that, Yemra said. It just feels so, I don't know… argh! We're so close yet so far! It's like we're downloading this huge file and we're already at 95 percent, and then suddenly the Wi-Fi cuts out! It's just so frustrating! I hate waiting for this!
((We're in the same boat, girl; don't worry,)) I reassured my Yeerk, giving her my own mental smile.
Finally, after five days in the Gap, the announcement that we were all waiting for came: the city was now free of all enemy combatants. We were all free to go back to our homes. Of course, there were caveats: people who lived in the city center (an area defined as being to the west of Route 222 and north of Spring Street) still had to stay behind at the Gap while their homes and businesses were being fixed of the damage that had been incurred during the fighting. But the farther away from the city center you lived, the bigger chance you had of being able to go back home. And for the Carsons, who lived in the literal suburbs, we were free to go back home ASAP.
I remember crying with joy as Dad pulled the SUV into the driveway of our garage. I've never been so happy to see the house again. It was just your average suburban cookie cutter bungalow and looked identical to every other house on the street (except for the roof, which had been repainted green because Dad somehow wrecked the gutters cleaning out three years' worth of autumn leaf litter), but damn it, it was my home, and that's what matters.
I immediately headed for my room as soon as Dad had unlocked the main door. Everything looked untouched ever since that day that I left with Yibey to take part in his "guerrilla army" against the Nothlit State. I dropped my backpack on the floor and plopped down onto my bed, coughing and sneezing at the dust that I had stirred up from my plopping.
Hey, Jen, remember that 95 percent download we were talking about before? Yemra asked suddenly.
((What was that again?)) I asked back.
That big file download? The one where the Wi-Fi suddenly cut out? Well, the Wi-Fi just went back up, and the download's complete, Yems explained.
((Oh, yeah. That. Yeah, I guess you're right, Yems. It's finally done. We're finally home,)) I acknowledged.
After wallowing a little bit in my dusty and musty bedroom, I went back to the house to help Mom and Dad make sure that our valuables were still where we had left them. My old coin collection was still underneath my feminine care products and other such unmentionables, and Mom and Dad's valuables were still right where they had left them. Oh, you thought I was going to tell you where we kept our valuables? Well, tough luck. You won't get a single word out of me. We then cleaned up the house as much as we could, wiping off the dust that had settled over everything inside and turning it back into a place where a family of three could live. You have no idea how even just a light layer of dust could turn a house into an asthmatic's nightmare.
You could say that we were lucky. We lived in the suburbs, quite a ways away from the city center and the airport where much of the fighting between the National Guard and the nothlits had taken place, so everything stayed very much the same during our time away. And we the Carsons were also one of the first ones allowed back into the city, and we were the first family on our street to be allowed back. Our neighbors did start slowly trickling back over the next few days, usually in ones and twos but there were days where three families would move back in on the same day. Yeah, what's up with that? Yemra asked as we watched the Tates, the Obafemis, and the Bergmanns all pull into their respective driveways three days after we came back. Can someone please explain to me why this is happening because I have no idea why this is happening?
((Hey, man, I'm in the same boat as you are,)) I replied. ((I'm just like Jon Snow: I know nothing.)) Not that I can claim to be following Game of Thrones as religiously as some of my friends. ((Maybe it has something to do with traffic and not trying to congest the interstates with all these refugees—excuse me, internally displaced people—coming back to their homes.))
Maybe, maybe, Yemra nodded mentally. Oh, and another thing: how are we doing on those Kandrona rays? I know, I don't need them as much as my brother and sister Yeerks, but I still need them all the same. Good thing Yibey gave us that portable generator, but I'm craving for some time in the Pool to soak up. Is there any chance we'll be able to get back to the Pool anytime soon?
((Yeah, Yems, about that,)) I said. ((I don't think we're coming back to that Pool ever again. I heard Tarash and Yibey talking about relocating the Kandrona generator someplace else because rebuilding the city center is obviously going to take some time, and your brother and sister Yeerks won't be able to go without Kandrona rays as long as you can.))
Well, taraka. Hopefully they relocate somewhere where there's an easy commute.
((True that,)) I nodded.
I also made contact with my friends as soon as cell coverage and Internet services were restored to the city. Most of the girls, like Julia, Sonia, and Haley were all back in their old places, but Carina and her family were still unfortunately stuck at the Gap because their house and restaurant were inside the "red zone", the place in the city marked as unsafe by the cops and National Guard. After all that time I spent alone in Nothlit State captivity with only my Yeerk for company, it was nice to be able to talk to my friends once again and shoot the breeze with them. I hadn't been able to get in touch with any of them back at the Gap because I had both completely forgotten about them, and even if I did try to look for them there, I would probably get lost in all those similar-looking tents.
"The feds still haven't let Carina and her folks back, have you heard?" Jules asked me a week after we'd been allowed to go back.
"Yeah, she sounds absolutely bummed about it all," I replied as I sat down on one of the chairs on our front porch. I held a can of Coke in my right hand, and the pocket-sized Kandrona generator and a glass containing Yemra in some water in my left. My cellphone was tucked between my ear and my shoulder. Mom and Dad were away at the bank dealing with some issues about some unpaid dues or some such stuff, so I was stuck with the duty of watching the house and making sure nothing bad happened, either to the house or to me. "I mean, her Twitter has been a running commentary of everything her folks have been doing to let them back to their place. You would think that looters are running rampant all over the place with how desperate they want to get back. And let me guess," I continued as I sipped on my Coke, "Carina's calling out a certain someone for not letting them bunk with her, isn't she?"
"Like you wouldn't believe," Jules replied, and I could imagine her rolling her eyes as she spoke. "Basically the gist of it is that the rich bitch has more than enough room for all of us to stay in there while Mr. and Mrs. Russolini talked with the city to let them back to their place."
"Yeah, Haley would've ridden everything out in luxury if only her house wasn't inside the city limits, right?" I muttered. "Has she said anything about Carina calling her out?"
"Not really. What did you expect?" Jules asked. "Besides, you know Haley's got no filter on her mouth. She says what she thinks. And it's probably for the best she's keeping quiet; otherwise she and Carina probably wouldn't be friends anymore. In any case, how did we end up being friends with Haley again?"
"I don't know. Soccer, probably," I said jokingly. "But in all seriousness, I'm pretty sure I'm the reason why we're all friends," I added. "I was the first person Haley met at school when she and her folks had moved here. I told her how to get to her classroom, which turned out to be our classroom as well, and I guess that's how we all met each other."
"Dude, seriously?" Jules asked. "Haley's first day? You're the first person she met? Wait a minute, isn't that the same day that you went to school with Yemra for the first time?"
"Yup. One and the same," I nodded. "It was also the day I got my first period, but you didn't need to know that."
"Oh, wow. Really a day of firsts for you, huh?" Julia muttered. "So how's the old brain slug doing? She in there with you right now?"
"Nah, not really. I'm watching Yems swim around in a glass of water soaking up Kandrona rays while I'm drinking some Coke," I said as I did exactly those things.
"Well, tell her I said hi. I mean, I know that she's gonna know that I told you to tell her that I said hi as soon as she gets back in your head… You know, this is confusing as balls," Jules said, and I could imagine her shaking her head at the other end. "I know Yems is one of the good Yeerks, but still, better you than me."
"Yeah, that's all right. I'm so used to having Yemra in my head that not having her in there is gonna be weird at the least and unthinkable at the worst."
"I feel ya, sister, I feel ya. Except I don't really, but I still do. You know what I mean, right?" Jules asked.
"Yeah, sure, sure," I said, rolling my eyes this time. There was a lull of a few moments before we resumed our conversation. "So, I heard that you didn't go to the Gap with your folks," Julia said in a tone that made it more like a question.
"Hmm. Mom told you about that one, huh?" I asked.
"She didn't have to tell me anything," Jules retorted. "She was telling anyone who would listen that you had run off with the other Controllers to fight the nothlits and that she hasn't heard from you since."
I sighed and rubbed my forehead with my free hand. "Sounds like something Mom would do, all right," I quipped. And I knew that had Yemra been in my head that time, she would have said the same.
"But what's up with that though?" Jules asked me. "I know that you like to shoot a few rounds downrange in your spare time, but did you really go out there to fight against the nothlits?"
"It's a long story," I said. "But no, I didn't go out there to shoot bad guys. I mean, that's not why I got dragged off there in the first place." I then explained to Jules everything that I could tell her about Yibey's Army and everything that we did up to the moment that I got captured.
"And then…" Jules paused as she tried to find the words to say. "Or can I not talk to you about that? Can I talk to you about that?"
"Yeah, it's probably fine," I nodded. "I mean, it's not like I'm getting any Vietnam War flashbacks yet, you know what I mean?"
"Come on, Jen, don't say 'yet'," Jules said. "It's like you're actually planning on getting some flashbacks yourself. It doesn't sound good, girl."
"Don't worry, girl, I get your point," I agreed. My phone then began to vibrate and I had to take it away from my ear before the alarm deafened me. "And that's the signal that Yemra's Kandrona bath is over," I said to Jules once I had turned off the alarm. "Oh, yeah, that reminds me. I gotta ask the other Yeerks where the Pool is going to be while the feds are rebuilding the red zone."
"Mm-hmm," Jules nodded. I then heard her talking to someone else away from her phone, and then she came back and said, "Looks like I gotta go, Jen. Dad needs some help in the kitchen, again. Say hey to Yems for me, will you?"
"Don't worry, I will," I said even as I took Yemra out of the glass and put her right next to my ear.
"Bye!" Jules said, and I said goodbye as well just as Yemra shot out of my fingers and into my ear canal. I sat still for a few minutes as my Yeerk made her way back to my brain and reestablished her connections. So, what did I miss? Yemra asked once she was fully reconnected. I drank my Coke while she sifted through my latest memories. She laughed when she settled upon the memory of me saying that Mom telling anyone and everyone who would listen that I had run off to fight the Nothlit State, quipping, Yeah, that definitely sounds like something your mother would do.
((I know it's harsh on her,)) I shrugged. ((But it's also true. Harsh, but true. I guess that sums up Mom pretty well.))
Yems then got to the part about Jules saying hi. Do you think I should text her back, say hi to her as well? she asked me. Maybe even a call or a Facetime?
((Sure, maybe sometime. But I think she's busy at the moment, so now would probably be a bad time to call her. Oh, speaking of calling someone…)) I picked up my phone again, scrolled through my contacts, and found Ken Fuchs' number, which I dialed. I waited for a few moments before he picked up. "Hey there, Jen, Yemra," he said. "What's up?"
"Yeah, we just wanted to ask about where the new Pool's going to be," I said. "We'd heard about the reconstruction project for the area around the original Pool and community center and how that means the old Pool's going to be closed, and we just wanted to know."
"Oh, yeah, that," Ken replied. "Yeah, Yibey and I were just about to call you about it. The Visser and I were able to find a new place over in Whitfield to serve the Controllers in the area. Thank God for that, or else we all would've had to go all the way to Allentown if we don't want our friends to starve. You can never be sure you'll get there in time with the traffic, you know."
"Oh, yeah, definitely," I nodded. "Okay, Ken, Yibey, thanks for that. Yems and I owe you two one."
"Oh, it's nothing. Just helping out our alien friends."
"Okay, I'll let you two get back to your work." I ended the call and reclined into my seat. ((So, Whitfield, huh?)) I said to Yemra. ((That's going to be a tough commute, what with it being on the other side of the interstate.))
But like Ken and Yibey said, it's still better than going all the way to Allentown, Yemra said. Remember the last time we had to go there? Ugh! Never again!
"Tell me about it," I said out loud, shaking my head as I drained my Coke.
That night, I dreamed. I don't usually remember my dreams, but when I do, it's usually because they're vivid and strange, to say the least. Not to mention that they cover a very wide range of subjects ranging from reliving a certain day to strange and fantastic circumstances. They're also usually linear, kind of like a movie. This time though, things were a bit different.
It started with me sitting by myself inside of an airplane. I could feel Yemra in my head wrapped around my brain, but aside from her there was nobody else inside the plane. Literally there was no other sign of life inside. The plane appeared to be flying, but the engines were weirdly quiet, not making any noise. Suddenly, the airplane split apart right in front of me, and my seat broke off from the rest of the aircraft and fell to the ground with me still strapped in it. I screamed as I twisted around, alternating between facing the sky and the ground. The ground rushed towards me awfully fast, but at the last minute my seat turned around so that I was facing the sky when I hit the ground.
Except there was no sudden impact, no deceleration or sensation of organs flying through my bones and skin. It's like one minute I was hurtling towards the ground at speed, and then the next I was already on the ground, having somehow broken away from my seat. I couldn't feel anything at all… well, that wasn't entirely true. I could feel the wind blowing over me; I could feel my hands and feet, but I couldn't make them move. It was like I had been paralyzed, or that a Yeerk had taken over complete control of my body, but it wasn't like Yemra to take control right after such a traumatic event. And I could still move my eyes around and draw air into my lungs, so my paralysis was definitely not the work of a Yeerk.
I tried to call for help, but my mouth wouldn't move or open. I couldn't even moan or groan or make any other sort of sound. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a lone figure walking across the field towards me. The figure appeared blurry at first; I couldn't tell if it was a man or a woman. But then the figure got closer and I recognized it to be Charegh, Cherry the nothlit mole. Her skin was ghostly pale; even paler than it had been when she was still alive. Blood trickled from her mouth and the wounds on her body, and her stark blonde hair fluttered in matted strands around her face. I struggled to speak as Cherry walked closer to me, but only once she was close enough to look into my eyes did I finally find my voice. "What… what's going on?" I asked her. "What's happening? Why is this happening? Why are you here?"
"You think you're a survivor, don't you, Jen?" Cherry asked me back. "Is that what you think of yourself? Well, I'll tell you what: you're not. You think you know how to survive, Jen? You don't. You've just been lucky. But the thing is, you're still alive. So now what are you going to do about it?"
"What? What are you talking about?" I asked, but in the blink of an eye Charegh had been replaced by Amanda Barzaglio. Like Cherry, Amanda appeared to me as she had in death, with blood and gray matter streaming from a fist-sized hole on the side of her head. I didn't want to look anywhere near there, and yet my eyes were drawn, compelled to settle there and stare. I thought I could see her brain through the wound, along with some kind of lighter gray band with brown striations on it.
"Look at you now," she sneered. "Jennifer Carson, the survivor, the Controller. Remember what you told me, what you promised me before the nothlits shot me?" she asked. "You said that you were going to tell my story, and Charegh's story, to everyone. But now look at you, lying there unable to move a muscle. Empty words, like your promise to help me find a new Yeerk. Great lot of help you are to me now."
"Amanda, please," I begged. "You know that I had nothing to do with all of this. And you know that I didn't want any of this. I didn't want for you or Charegh to die. You know that if there was a way for me to save you both, I would do it."
"Well, it's too late for that now, don't you think?" Amanda said ruefully. "Besides, I've taken care of myself before. Why should now be any different from that? Thank you, Jennifer Carson, for absolutely nothing at all."
"Amanda, please, don't do this to me," I pleaded once again, but once again Amanda vanished, and this time she had been replaced by Immib Two-Seven-One, who was now standing over me with his MP5. "No, please! Don't kill me, please!" I begged him, but this time I was truly powerless to stop him. I couldn't raise my arms to protect myself from the burst of gunfire I was sure was coming from him, not that they would have made any difference at all. I couldn't even close my eyes; I could only brace myself and watch as the ghost of the man I had killed made to take my own life in return. Immib raised his weapon to his shoulder and pulled the trigger.
"Fuck!" I cried out, but now I was back in my bed, safe and sound and in no danger at all. Sunlight streamed down from my windows, and I could see traces of white clouds and blue sky outside. Everything was peaceful in the real world, a very far cry from the dream world from which I had just awoken. I reached out for my phone and looked at the time. Exactly 7:30 in the morning.
"Oh, my God," I muttered as I took in my surroundings. What the fuck just happened? That was a fucked-up dream, if you'll pardon my French. But no, seriously. What the fuck was that dream all about? What in the world was its message for me? Did it even have a message in the first place? Am I just overreacting or overanalyzing once again?
Hmm, morning, Jen, Yemra said as she stirred awake in my head. You're up awfully early today. What's up? And then she hooked up to my most recent memories, and I could imagine her jaw dropping open in surprise, if she had one. You're goddamn right it would have dropped if I had one, she said once she had recovered from what she had just seen. And I have to agree with you. What in the name of the Beloved Kandrona was that dream? What was it all about?
((I don't know, Yems, to be honest,)) I replied. ((I think it's trying to tell me something. I just don't know what it is.))
Are you going back to sleep?
((After that dream? Hell no. I'll just have to find a way to catch some Zs somehow.))
I got out of bed and walked towards my desk. I sat down, and then I stared at the wooden grain on my desk while I tried to forget about this dream, or nightmare, or whatever. I tried thinking of the most random things like the number of Lester Ivory's shoes; how Carina Russolini's family had relatives in both Syracuse, New York and Syracuse, Italy; and Giorgio Tsoukalos, the Ancient Aliens guy. But the dream would keep intruding into my thoughts every time, so I decided that the only other way that I could forget about it was to write it down. That usually works in my case more times than not. I would write down a particularly interesting dream right after I woke up, and then immediately afterward I would already forget about it, and I would have to read my dream journals to even remember what had happened.
I looked around for my latest dream journal and put it down on the desk. I flipped to the first available page, hovered my pen over the paper, and then I paused. How was I supposed to begin this? Usually I would just put down the very first thing that I could remember had occurred as near to the start of the dream as I recalled it and then work from there. But this time I was at a loss for words. I didn't know how to start this entry. Where should I even start? Should I even write this dream down? Doubts and questions crept into my brain once again.
And then, seemingly on its own, my hand began to move. It began to write on the page slowly, and it wrote down five words that would soon become the core of everything that followed it. I read those five words as my hand wrote them down: My name is Jennifer Carson.
((All right, Yems, I know that's you,)) I said. ((But why that? Why did you write that?))
I don't know, Yemra admitted. It just seemed, you know, right. It seemed like the right way to start it off.
"Huh," I said out loud. I read the first line a few times, and then I began to follow it up with a description of myself, and at that moment, everything finally clicked into place. ((OMG, Yems,)) I told her. ((I think I now know why I had that dream.))
Oh, yeah? Why?
((Someone needs to tell the story of what happened here, Yems,)) I replied. ((And, I think, I should be the one to do that.))
Sure, okay. Whatever you say, Jen, Yemra nodded.
And that story is this one that you are reading right now. It took me many months to put all of this together just so you can read about it. I know that I will inevitably forget some things, and that some things will inevitably be cut from the manuscript and thrown away, but I am pretty sure that the really important things that I wanted to be published will be published. And to think that it all started with five simple words:
My name is Jennifer Carson.
A/N: And that is it. My first ever completed work of fanfiction. It took me many years and tons of drafts and ideas to make all this possible, but here it finally is. It's been an incredible journey, and I cannot thank everyone who has been with me for all of those years enough for their support. And don't worry; Jen Carson and Yemra 640 will return. I don't really know when or where, but they will return. Once again, thank you for sticking with me for this long, and I hope to see you all again soon. – GR