Crucible

Crucible

“Dear God,” Adrien Miller printed carefully, making sure all his letters were the same height. “I’m sorry we ruined your planet. I know you made it to be a really nice planet, so that we could have everything we needed. I’m sorry we tried to make perfect things better, and ended up making things worse. I know you’re punishing everyone by making us deal with the mess we made. I deserve to be punished as much as anyone else. And I don’t like to ask you to change your plan. But could you maybe punish me some other way? Could you let me see my parents again, please, and maybe go and live with them? I would really, really appreciate it. Thank you for your consideration. Love, Adrien.”

He put the letter in an envelope and then tossed it into the fireplace.

“Adrien!” Anica yelled, rushing to pull him away from the fire. “Sweetheart, how many times do I have to tell you? Don’t throw things into the fire!”

He peered over her shoulder and breathed a sigh of relief. The carbon paper had seamlessly gone up in smoke. “I’m sorry,” he said, gazing at Anica.

She took his face in her hands and checked him over for the third time in ten minutes. His tie was still perfect, his white shirt was stain-free, and his hair had not escaped the gel. Anica sighed in relief, shook her head admonishingly, and kissed him on the forehead. And exclaimed in horror when she saw the red lipstick stain.

“I just need you to stay clean for one more hour!” she pleaded. “Adrien, go wash up and help the little ones with their shoes. Monica!” The ten-year-old materialized. “You can take Henri and Kira and start setting out the snacks.”

There was only one hour left before the official grand opening of Memorial Children’s Centre: Orphanage, Foster Home, and Daycare. Of course, there were still a million things to do. The sponsors had only given Anica a year to get set up and plan this public debut. Her sister Haille, and their cousins, along with her brother-in-law and his grown children, would be here in about thirty minutes to help with last-minute stuff. Lighting candles, cooking, assigning the children their duties for the evening, setting the large dining room table, making sure the pets were fed and quiet…Suddenly dizzy, she wobbled into the recreation room for a glass of water.

Her husband, Rayne, was finishing up the Welcome banner with Nicki, Veronica, and Sophia. He bounced to his feet when she appeared in the doorway, and took her in his arms.

“We’re almost ready in here!” He kissed her reassuringly, as he had been doing since they got up this morning. It did nothing to calm her nerves, though. She had never been one for planning public events, and although Rayne had a lot of enthusiasm, he had about as much knowledge as she did. His brother and Anica’s sister had been making most of the executive decisions. The old building was finally ready for guests, but Anica couldn’t shake the feeling that something would go wrong. Her sister’s repeated words didn’t help: “Of course something is going to go wrong. That’s not the point. It’s important to have fun, and then everyone will too, no matter what calamity besets us.”

Rayne pressed his hand to her stomach, probing lightly with his fingers. She laughed and slapped his hand away. “Stop that! You’re not going to feel anything besides my belly fat for at least another month.”

He touched her stomach again. “I’m just saying hello,” he said softly, his smile crooked.

She tried not to let him see her melting. It was never a good idea to let a guy know what he could do to your heart. “Okay, whatever, Romeo. Now, how’s that banner coming?”

He made a grand gesture toward the almost-finished product. “See for yourself! What do you think?”

Eagerly she stepped around him to take a look. She had designed the lettering, and of course Rayne had wanted to colour it with the kids.

Her smile froze on her face, though, when she saw it. “Ummm…”

“What’s the matter?” asked Sophia, dark eyes worried when she glanced up from her furious colouring.

“Oh, nothing, sweetheart. You’re doing such a remarkable job!” She smiled encouragingly. Tossing the crayon she was using onto the carpet, Sophia skipped out of the room. Nicki and Veronica followed. “Rayne, don’t you think the colours are a little off?”

He examined his handiwork for a moment. “No, I think it’s perfect!”

She was getting a headache looking at the banner. “I think there’s too much white! And why would you make ‘Memorial’ grey?”

“Artistic freedom!” he declared.

“‘Children’, at least, should be red. So should ‘Day’.”

He considered this. “No, I think grey is good. And yellow is more cheerful!”

“I’m not saying it’s not cheerful. I’m just saying that your colour scheme is way off the mark.”

Irritation flashed in his eyes. “So you don’t like any of it? It’s kind of late to change now.”

Forcing herself to look at the horribly miscoloured words, she lamented that it wasn’t all bad. “I suppose ‘Center’ is fine. So is ‘Opening’. But can you at least make ‘Home’ green?”

“How about brown?”

“Actually, yes, I think that would be fine.”

Smiling widely, he kissed her again. “Whew! I thought we were going to have a problem there.”

She just hoped the banner didn’t kick anybody else in the eye.

A sound like thunder came from upstairs. Rayne and Anica, with barely a thought, raced back out into the lobby. Anica ran halfway up the first landing. “Kids?” she called as she ran. “What was that?”

Michelle poked her head over the railing. “Nothing, madame, Adrien just pushed over a highboy.”

“What?” Anica shrieked, sweeping Michelle up into her arms and charging into the storage room where the sound had come from. Sure enough, the highboy was face down on the floor, someone’s shoe trapped beneath it. “Is everyone alright?” she asked of the frozen, staring children.

“Yes, I was just trying to get my kitten.” Caroline, one of the daycare – or in this case, evening care – children, clutched the arm of her friend Sadie.

“Where is the kitten?” Anica asked in horror, unable to look away from the highboy. “And whose shoe is that?”

“It’s mine!” Adrien said. Anica breathed a sigh of relief when she saw the tiny white ball of fur in his arms. “I took them off so I could climb the highboy.”

Anica wanted to tear out all her hair. Or better yet, go to bed until this hellish night was over. “Okay, I want everybody downstairs, right now. Upstairs is off limits, do you understand?” Meekly, the children nodded and began to file out of the room. “As a matter of fact, the basement floors too. Everyone needs to be helping in the lobby or the dining room!”

She willed her heart to stay in her chest. Sometimes she wondered what had possessed her to take on such a project as trying to keep thirty-five children from killing themselves, or each other. She rubbed her stomach, convinced her baby was frowning at her. Was she even fit to be a parent?

Someone tugged on her arm. Remi. His family had abandoned him on La Rue Seine only last year. He was twelve, but sometimes Anica swore he was three. “Look, madame, I found this under the highboy. What does ” – he tried to sound out the words on the pamphlet – “Cha-ristmas mean?”

Anica took him by the wrist and pulled him out of the room, checking three times to make sure the door was locked. She would ask Rayne and Sean to put the poor highboy back in place later. “I don’t know, sweetie. That’s a really old word. It has something to do with trees, I think. Monsieur might know.”

Remi held on to her belt as they marched back down the stairs. In his other hand he clutched the pamphlet. When Anica took a better look at it, she saw that it was a crinkled program for something called a Christmas Pageant. When she was a teenager, she had heard her grandmother speak of something called Christmas. From what Anica could gather, it was some sort of competition, held once per year, to see who could impress their family and friends with the best presents and baking. Or maybe it was something about a groundhog. She was too frazzled to remember which olden day holiday was which.

Anica refused to look at her watch until she saw what progress had been made in the dining room. Henri, a pretentious nineteen-year-old, was instructing Monica and Kira on which side of the plate the forks and knives should go, and how many inches away the wineglasses should be from the water glasses. When Kira dropped one of the forks, Henri put on a haughty air and picked it up, handed her another and patiently told her to try again. Kira stuck her tongue out at him.

“Looking great, everyone!” Anica said from the doorway.

“Thank you, madame,” said Henri. “My parents taught me well on how to set a table.” She rarely knew if he was being sarcastic or not. He was one year away from becoming an adult and leaving the center, and he had been counting down the days for the past few months now.

Anica smiled again and left quickly. She never knew how the children could talk about parents who had died or abandoned them so easily, without the resentment and heartache Anica felt at the mere thought of her parents.

Rayne was in the lobby, hanging the banner with Patricia, who was seventeen. The banner had not changed at all. Drawing her temper in with a deep breath, she started toward him. But there was another heart-stopping boom. Rayne caught her eye.

“I don’t think that was from in here,” he said, with false cheer. Anica returned the smile, all thoughts of the banner flying from her head. Surely it was fireworks or something. Their fears could simply not be founded.

Anica glanced at her watch. Her and Rayne’s families should be here any minute now.

Remi appeared from a closet, clutching the pamphlet. “Monsieur, look what I found!” he said with much more enthusiasm than when he had asked Anica. Rayne had a much better way with kids than she ever did. Haille always told horror stories of being babysat by Anica.

Beaming at the kid, Rayne took the pamphlet from him. “What have you got there? Oh, Christmas! That’s a wonderful film. Have you ever seen it?”

Patricia almost lost her half of the banner. “Oh, Slayer, that’s wrong and you know it. Christmas is more than just a movie. It’s a book, too.”

There was a knock at the door. “Oh, that must be Haille and the others!” Anica skipped over to the door, filled with new energy. Her sister was good with kids too. They just might get through the night without any casualties.

It was not Haille. The door admitted a chaotic cacophony of sirens and honking horns and above all that, a bomb shelter warning, wailing like it had lost its love. And in the doorway, pressed against a backdrop of smoke and ash, was a young man in a uniform similar to the soldiers that had been patrolling the streets these past few weeks. A precaution, they said. It was unlikely the Reformists would strike France, Anica had been told, but they could never be too certain about their motives. And now, here stood a soldier, with a pamphlet and a clipboard clutched in his gloved hand.

“Anica Slayer?” he said, consulting the clipboard..

“Yes?” she replied after a terrified pause.

“I am Officer Festus Schlaun of La Garde Paris-Genève.  Am I correct to identify you as the husband of Rayne Slayer, who owns this building as of February of last year?”

Anica felt hands clutching her arms, her belt, her legs, but she couldn’t turn around. She couldn’t even block their view of the horror outside. “Yes,” she answered woodenly. How could she not have heard all this chaos? She knew the old building’s walls were thick, but surely she should have suspected something. She folded her hands over her stomach, and realized that Rayne’s hands were already there.

“I am Rayne,” he said, all trace of humour gone, holding her – and their rice-sized child – protectively against him.

The officer handed them the pamphlet. “Emergency procedures,” he explained. “Potential bio-hazard warning level 3A.1. Nobody is to leave or enter this building until further notice. I am putting this on your door handle when I leave, to mark your house as informed.” He held up a thick, fluorescent nylon strap. “Algeria has invaded , and though they are not here yet, we must contain the chaos in the streets.”

Anica breathed a sigh of relief. So, it wasn’t Reformists setting fire to La Rue Prince. They were her own stupid neighbors. “We understand, officer. Thank you.”

“Children, it is important that you listen to your guardians. Remember the wartime procedures that were taught in school last week.”

As silent as they had ever been, the children nodded their heads.

“I must be going. Remember, stay inside, no matter what.”

For a moment after the officer closed the door, nobody moved. They simply clung to one another.

“So what do we do now?” Henri finally asked.

Rayne’s hands finally relaxed from around Anica. “What do you think?” he replied with forced cheer. “We’ve got a party to get started!”

Everyone cheered and ran into the dining room, but Anica pushed aside one of the heavy drapes in the lobby and peered outside. People in uniforms and in their shorts darted through the street like busy squirrels, clutching clubs and guns and torches. It was like a new-aged barbarian festival.

How oblivious she had been to the disaster right outside her walls. She was chilled as she watched a woman walk out her front door, yelling at someone across the street. An officer pushed her back inside, and she tried to fight him, screaming as she stared wildly over his shoulder. A young man, a teenager really, tried to get inside of the house, but he was holding a gun and the officer turned a stick on him. Moving on, the officer left the boy on the steps, and a moment later, the woman dragged him inside. A mistaken enemy.

“Madame,” said a small voice. Violet, aged nine. “Monsieur said we could cut the cake. Now, but he said you have to do it.”

Anica smiled tightly and followed the little girl, letting the drapes cover her window once again.

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