Hello and happy Monday! Without any further adieu, here is the next chapter in my debut novel, On Mountain High.
The Order of the Departed Daily Gazette
One Year Earlier
Human remains were discovered in the Whispering Mountains today. The Order of the Departed issued a work crew to enter into the infamous grounds of The Hunt, notorious in accidental death and disappearances, to clean The Order’s Checkpoints, which are distributed throughout the land where the treasure is widely believed to be located.
The crew encountered the crumbled remains of what appeared to be human bones on their path. One shin bone was said to be stuck under a large boulder, the other bones scattered nearby in various states of decay. No positive identification has yet been made to determine the bones’ owner.
The discovery remains under investigation.
Chapter 9 – Iona
Two Weeks Earlier
The shrieking whistle jolts me to attention from my place on the worn and faded couch. I set aside my copy of the Daily Gazette and hurry to remove the boiling kettle before its loud wail wakes my mother, who is sleeping in the tiny bedroom next to me.
“Iona?” I am too late. My mother’s voice drifts sleepily across our tiny apartment. “What is that noise?”
“I’m sorry Mother.” I remove the dingy kettle from the stovetop and pour the boiling water into a chipped mug holding a chamomile tea bag. I let the tea steep and cool before I carry it in to her. Tea is one of the small luxuries in which we are able to indulge, and I am thankful to the gods for even it – though tea may not seem much, it is my mother’s favorite. I like seeing her happy.
“You napped for a long time, how are you feeling?” I ask.
“I feel good now.” My mother smiles at me.
Our friends and our neighbors tell me I have my mother’s smile. It is my favorite thing about myself. My mother was at one time a beautiful woman. Besides her smile, I have her freckles and soft-spoken nature. We used to share the same satiny dark auburn – almost brown – hair, before the medicine caused all of hers to fall out.
“Good,” I reply, handing her the mug. “Do you want me to cancel your appointment at the Pearl then? We could spend the day together, reading some of your favorite old books.” I point to her collection that sits on the dresser.
“No, I should go. It will do me good to get out of the house.”
An hour later I help her carefully settle into her wheelchair and we set off down our neighborhood street. There are hundreds of government-issued apartments in my neighborhood. They are plain, cramped and crumbling, but they provide enough to meet our needs. That is one of the only things the government has done to care for its people, I think. I swallow the indignant disdain welling up inside me.
Our unit houses seven other families. We all live in one-bedroom apartments, no matter the size of the family. The Johnsons upstairs have it worse than us; there are four children and two adults living in the small space. We are lucky; we have the entire apartment to ourselves, just my mother and me.
I wave to Ms. Spalding across the street. Her husband died four years ago, so I make it a point to check in on her every so often. She is a kind woman, the way I picture the grandmother I never knew. Occasionally we have enough left from our weekly food allowance that I can give her a few baked potatoes, or occasionally a piece of chicken. My mother waves goodbye to her as we continue down the street.
Twenty minutes later we arrive at the free clinic. Its location marks the center of our city, right in the middle of the workers’ district. The large collection of buildings used to be called the 16th Street Mall, but now it’s just called the Pearl. Because of my mother’s sickness, I’ve been excused from the job I’ve had for four years, working in our community’s kitchen and serving food to those who need it. At 23 years old I should be independent – living on my own, providing for myself. But instead I am living with my mother, watching her slowly get sicker and sicker, accepting money from The Order to provide for us both. The thought fills my heart with heavy burden and my eyes with tears. I help my mother up the front steps and open the door for her. She shuffles carefully inside, and collapses into the closest available chair, exhausted from the short trip. I go up to the receptionist’s desk to sign her in.
“Hi, my name is Iona Keene. My mother, Jessamine Keene, has a three o’clock appointment.” The clock on the wall beats menacingly at me. It is 2:54.
The receptionist looks up at me, her eyes glazed over with boredom. “Ma’am, all of our doctors are with patients right now, your mother will have to wait for the next available time.” Even with an appointment, it is difficult to see a doctor. There are so many other people who need to see them. Sometimes we have to wait for several hours to get the medicine.
I retreat to the seat next to my mother. I steal glances at the other patients in the tired waiting room, which is crowded with people who share the same look of exhaustion, of sickness. The same look of defeat. I gaze sidelong at my mother, with her bald scalp and her hollow cheekbones. I hate how the pills make her so tired-looking. But I hate even more the sickness that threatens to steal her away from me.
Out of the corner of my eye, I notice someone across the room is reading the same newspaper I was reading at home. The gaudy headline “Calling All Fortune-Seekers: The Hunt Returns” is splashed along the front cover. I know what the article says, or at least what the first half of it says. Also on the front page, a little further down and in a right-side column, reads a different article on the latest string of crimes attributed to Havok, deemed an underground terrorist organization by The Order of the Departed. They’re infamous for spreading vicious lies about corruption within The Order, alleging horrible stories about sins of every imaginable kind being committed by even the high-ranking officials. No one believes those stories, of course, the High Overseer is the very epitome of honor and holiness. He’s far beyond reproach. The Order has been after them for years, though Havok always seems one step ahead. Of course to voice this observation out loud would be to break the second Decree, “Obey The Order.” A crime punishable by death.
This time Havok has loosed a bomb in The Order’s outpost within the Pearl. Luckily it was late at night, so no one was hurt. Unfortunately that also means that likely no one saw the rebels responsible for the crime. I say a silent prayer for the rebels’ souls, that the gods would mercifully forgive their misdoings.
Finally, close to two hours later, we are escorted back to see a doctor. He checks my mother’s heart rate, takes a sample of her blood and asks a seemingly unending barrage of questions regarding her overall feeling of health. He leaves to run tests on her blood, and she falls into a soft sleep while I wait anxiously.
This is taking too long. Something must not be right. A horrible, sinking feeling crawls into my stomach. Finally the doctor returns. Is that a frown I see on his face? No. I must have misread the expression. He looks up and, seeing my sleeping mother, gestures for me to follow him into the hallway, softly closing the door behind us. The horrible, sinking feeling has given way to full-blown internal panic.
“Miss Keene,” he begins gently. “I’m afraid your mother’s blood work showed… undesirable results.”
I don’t understand. “What do you mean ‘undesirable?’”
He sighs deeply, as though speaking to me is the most exhausting thing he’s ever done. “It seems that her body is no longer responding to her medication.”
I must stare blankly, because he continues as if I haven’t heard him.
“Her medicine, Miss Keene. It is no longer working.”
This can’t be possible. She’s been feeling better the past few weeks. “No, I’m sorry. You must have misread the results. Can you go back and run the test again, please? Just to be sure?”
He shakes his head no. “I’m sorry Miss Keene, I’m quite sure.”
The panic rises in my throat, thick as bile. “Well then there must be something else, some new medicine you can put her on. Please, what else can you do?”
“Miss Keene, the only other medication available is quite expensive.”
My heart sinks into my stomach when he speaks the price. I feel as if he has kicked me in the gut. There is no way we can afford that, The Order’s meager financial allocation has barely covered her less expensive medication for the past year.
“What happens if she doesn’t take the other medication? There’s a chance her body could heal itself, right? She could still get better without it?” I don’t recognize the shrill desperation in my own voice.
His brows furrow, and he inhales slowly, like people do to buy time to figure out how best to deliver bad news. “Her case doesn’t look good,” he finally says.
I begin to cry. “But I can’t, we can’t affor–”
“I’m sorry Miss Keene. I’m afraid there’s nothing else I can do to help your mother other than that medicine.” He cuts me off, then turns and walks away, as if he didn’t just shatter my entire world.
I wipe angrily at my tears. She can’t die, I won’t let her. Seventeen is way too young to lose your mother, your best friend. I set my jaw decisively. I’ll just have to think of a way to come up with that money.