Chapter Three: The Fires
My tongue circles to the left on the roof of my mouth: Off. I slide off the couch in a fog and walk toward my son’s room. His door is cracked just enough to allow the thinnest sliver of sunlight to leak through onto the old wood floors. I can feel my heart pounding in my throat as I become aware of my heavy steps. My body slows to a tiptoe while my mind argues with it.
Don’t panic. There’s nothing to be afraid of. He’s fine. He’s sleeping in.
Just as I am reaching for the doorknob, it turns and opens with a creak, revealing my beautiful sleepy child, clutching his Teddy, still wearing yesterday’s clothes. The warmth of his smile eases my heart from my throat and lowers it back into my chest, and I give him a big hug. He seems to have forgotten all about yesterday.
“Can I go see Tok? Pleeeeease? I wanna work on my robot.”
The Maker Lab is his favorite place in the Commune, and Tok has been his second favorite person in the world since the day they met. Watching my son learn in that space with such an inspiring teacher quieted every doubt I had about the decision to move here with him.
We make a quick breakfast and clean up before heading downstairs. I love these kinds of mornings with my son, watching him reanimate from sleep, wide-eyed with all the possibilities of his dreams. As he hops down the stairs two at a time, my bones tremor with his excitement, almost making me forget about the little girl for a moment. We turn the corner to the Maker Lab to find it open and buzzing with little minds and hands, excited to return to the projects they put on hold for the summer in the Circle. My son runs to his table and immediately begins tinkering with his latest invention, oblivious to the chaos surrounding him.
We have had two incredible school years in the Commune, and will soon begin our third. Though it was something we all discussed at length before moving in, we never had to make an official list of rules or even guidelines for school and life here. After several proposed lists, we decided to just wait and see what issues actually arose in the first month or so and meet to address them then. We all agreed that it was fascinating how organically a culture had emerged without us really trying to impose one at all. We all noticed ourselves adapting to the examples set by those around us who we admired; we made each other better people. We decided that our success was due at least in part to our desire for it to work, and our belief that it could. So instead of rules, we made affirmations, and our children became superheroes, willing things into existence we never imagined. This room is alive and pulsing with the belief that anything is possible here. It is an energy shift you can feel as soon as the door opens, and walking through this room today, I can hear it, too.
This is going to be amazing…I am going to make something beautiful…I can’t wait to show you when I’m finished…I know this is going to work…I’m going to figure it out.
I am scanning the room for Tok when I notice the silhouettes of adults behind the huge window of his personal lab. His door is usually wide open while the children work, his mutterings harmonizing with theirs as they tinker away. I don’t like it closed. A painful old place awakens in me as I watch the adults whisper behind the door. I want to open it and remind them that honesty with our children is something we value, but I quickly realize that the children are all happily preoccupied. Even if they noticed, I doubt they would think anything of it. I forget sometimes that these kids are different. They didn’t grow up the way I did.
I was raised in a family that tended to shy away from (or even outright deny) things that are unpleasant or scary, especially in the presence of children. If I noticed people avoiding an uncomfortable topic, I would know everything there was to know about it by the next day. I thought I wanted the truth at all cost, but looking back I may have just been bored. Maybe I was hoping to find some magic under the stones my family used to cover up the painful parts of life. Whatever my reasons were, I spent a lot of my youth investigating topics deemed too heavy or upsetting for children. As I stand outside Tok’s office door willing my hands to stop shaking and my heart to settle, it occurs to me that those investigations may have come with a lifelong price.
I stare through the glass at a familiar tangled red ponytail as I collect myself.
Be still. Breathe.
The owner of this ponytail is my unlikely friend Veda, a twenty-year-old dance and meditation teacher whose intelligence and kindness could carry her anywhere she chooses to go, and she chooses to stay right here, teaching our children and helping raise her five younger siblings. She lives on the fourth floor in a huge apartment with all five of them, right across from the tiny apartment shared by their parents, James and Agni, who own this building. As I reach up to knock on the door, the first words I ever heard Veda speak echo in my head.
Life is horrifying.
I knew when I heard her say it that we would become good friends. I like people who don’t shy away from the truth.
I knock and am greeted by Veda’s ponytail as she reaches behind her to open it without tearing her eyes from the story unfolding in mid-air above Tok’s desk. He is projecting the news all over this room to a captive audience, and the air is uncomfortably heavy. Hovering in it are five different news stations, all set up at different points outside the Center, where the footage of the little girl was leaked. Their reporters are nearly screaming to talk over the sirens, and the sound of their words crashing together in the air is making me nauseous. I can feel the blood leave my face, and my mind takes off without me, scolding me for being weak as it runs away, splattering bright lights and dark spots in my eyes like a cruel painter. I stumble back into the lab to find a place to sit until this feeling passes.
My entire body jerks, startling me out of a dream when I feel someone sit behind me on the Maker Lab couch. I don’t remember falling asleep, or even lying down, but I have been here for hours. I roll over to find the entire lab empty except for Tok, who is patiently waiting for me to focus. I open my mouth to speak, but am relieved when he starts talking first.
“He’s in the library with the others. Veda made them a scavenger hunt to welcome them home. You can stay here and rest.”
My muscles relax a little with his words.
“Would you like me to tell you what is happening?”
“There have been riots all day, really violent stuff. Some people think the Center knows why it’s happening and is covering it up. That video was leaked by an employee who was found dead this afternoon.”
Tok’s words are coming slower. He’s looking at me carefully to see if he should continue. I am trying not to stare at the dark circles under his eyes, wondering how long it has been since he has slept, when it occurs to me that Tok’s daughter was three when she died, like the little girl from the video. She had the same pale skin and blonde hair. I can’t swallow.
“There were 154 more burnouts reported. Just today. It’s chaos. People are losing their shit.”
He pauses, staring out across the room. I want to escape. Tears are welling in my eyes and my heart has left my chest again, traveling it’s worn path into my throat.
“They made an announcement an hour ago. Mandatory treatment starts in the morning, the one they’ve been testing. Everyone, not just kids. The entire country. They’ve already started.”
Tok is reading my mind.
“I’m scheduled for it in four days. We all are, they’re doing it by district. It’s illegal to run. If they catch you, they’ll take your kids and throw you in prison. I can’t leave... Some of the others are staying.”
I know Tok is staying to watch after the children whose parents decided to stay. And I know without him saying a word that some of them have already decided to run to the Circle. We used to sit by the campfire at summer retreats after the kids fell asleep dreaming up scenarios that would end with us all living in those woods full time. There is something magical and peaceful about the Circle that makes it difficult to leave.
We talk on the couch for over an hour. When I am get up to leave, Tok tells me to hold on and disappears into his office, returning with a worn folded piece of paper that I recognize right away. It’s a Commune floor plan I drew while daydreaming with the others during our first summer retreat at the Circle. The following year’s retreat is where I met Tok, his wife Dabria, and their baby daughter, Rupa. Everyone immediately loved them and I added their names to the drawing. I gave it to Tok at the end of the retreat-something to remember us by in case they decided not to come back. Just a month later, James and Agni bought this building and we all moved in.
Tok places the folded paper in my hand. I can’t believe he kept it all this time.
“I highlighted all the people who are going to the woods. Just take a look at it, think about it. They’re planning to leave the day before we’re scheduled for treatment, so you have two days to pack if you want to go with them.”
I walk up to the library to find my son reading, tucked away in the corner in a book fort. He raises a finger to his lips.
He points to the center of the room, where Veda is meditating. She seems completely unaware of my presence, and I am surprised I didn’t see her when I came in. Three candles surround her in the floor. I turn back to my son, who is smiling peacefully at her. He can feel her calm, and I can feel his. I squat down beside him.
“I love you”, I whisper to him, as I pick him up, carrying him, his books, and his Teddy quietly out of the room. “I love you, I love you, I love you.”
After tucking him in at the apartment, I sit on the couch and open the paper Tok gave me. My mind is focused and calm. I am still. I am breathing.
I have a decision to make.