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Cat's Cradle

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Helena adjusts the rifle on her shoulder as she crests the hill.

It’s been almost ten years since the bombs dropped, and the sky has been dark with smoke and ash ever since. No day goes by without the sound of gunfire or explosives, off in the distance if it’s a good day.

Helena presses the binoculars to her eyes. Most of the city has been reduced to rubble, but every inch of what’s left has been imprinted in her mind. Immediately, she spots a group of scavengers in the shell of an old office building. A threat in desperate circumstances, but unlikely to attack if they can avoid it. It’s the enemy soldiers she has to look out for.

This wasn’t the world Helena was born into, but it’s her world now. She had hope once, a belief that she’d one day be able to find her way back, but she had to give that up a long time ago. Children here have two options: grow up or die. And Helena isn’t dead yet.

 


 

Sarah slowly paces the room as she rocks little Kira in her arms. She’s been crying for the last fifteen minutes and shows no sign of stopping. Sarah wishes she could join her. 

“Please, baby,” she says. “Please just go to sleep.”

Kira doesn’t like the way Sarah holds her. She doesn’t like her singing voice. She doesn’t like the bottle, but it’s not as though Sarah can breastfeed.

She’s trying. She’s trying so hard, but she doesn’t know how to be a mother.

Still, she has no choice. She won’t let Kira end up like her, passed along between a series of abusive guardians. She was lucky to finally find a mother. Kira might not be so lucky.

So she cradles Kira to her chest and puts on the most soothing voice she can. The night wears on.

 


 

“Not too far, Monkey,” Sarah calls after Kira. “And watch out for poison ivy!”

Kira is nine now. With a lot of determination and even more tears, Sarah made it to see her daughter turn nine. The even more miraculous part is that Kira turned out as well as she did: bright, warm, full of love. She’s everything young Sarah wasn’t.

Not that Sarah hadn’t had help along the way. Even with her foster mother’s confounding refusal to see Kira, Felix and Cal have both done a lot to ease the burden. Cal in particular has been the closest thing Kira has to a father, and it’s become something of a fall tradition for the three of them to stay a few weeks at his cabin up in the mountains.

He assures Sarah the woods are safe, but it doesn’t stop her from worrying when Kira takes off into the trees. 

“Kira!”

And when she doesn’t respond to Sarah’s voice, that’s when she begins to panic. Something is very wrong, she can feel it. She sprints into the forest, calling her daughter’s name.

 


 

Kira has been missing for almost a week now. All of it is a horrible blur, six sleepless days of agony. Sarah has run out of things she can do. She’s searched the forest up and down several times over, screamed impotently at Cal, phoned the police for updates more times than she can count. She knows she needs to rest, but doing so means giving up. So she paces by the window and waits.

When she hears someone at the front steps, she rushes to the door and pulls it open. Just the mailman. He looks up at her with a startled expression, then hands her a small stack of letters. With a pained sigh, she takes them and shuts the door. She tosses them onto the coffee table as she heads to the kitchen to distract herself with another cup of tea.

She stops. The corner of the bottom envelope peeks out from the others, and she spots her foster mother’s name in the return address. Sarah hasn’t been able to get a hold of her since Kira went missing. Maybe this holds some kind of explanation. She picks it up and rips it open, then pulls out the handwritten letter inside.

Sarah,

I’m sorry.

There are many truths I had to keep from you, but now it is important that you hear them. And it is important that you believe what I am going to tell you.

Kira is alive. Not here, but many years from now. I know that this sounds impossible, but I have seen it myself. I have lived it.

In 1984, two baby girls were born from one mother. Twins. One of them was you, Sarah. The other one was me. We were separated, torn across time. 

Our story is an embroidery with many beginnings and no end. The threads of time weave us together.

I found you again, Sarah. And you can find Kira again. But you must do what I say.

 


 

Sarah doesn’t believe any of it, of course. How could she? She was separated at birth from her twin sister, who then traveled through time and became her foster mother? It’s ridiculous. She’s gone senile since the last time Sarah spoke to her. It’s the only reasonable explanation.

Even if they had always shared an uncanny resemblance. 

It was only out of sheer desperation that Sarah followed the instructions in the letter, but now she’s back here, in the woods where Kira went missing. She stands before a massive hole in the earth, so deep that light doesn’t reach the bottom. It’s exactly like the letter described.

If Kira fell here…

Sarah doesn’t waste time thinking. She crouches and slides her legs over the edge, then begins inching downward, finding a grip with her hands where she can. She doesn’t know what she’ll do once she’s down there, but she doesn’t care. She can’t bear another second not knowing where her daughter is.

The rock under her feet snaps. She reaches out for something to catch, but finds only empty space. She falls.

She hits the ground and feels her arm crack underneath her.  She howls in pain and curls in on herself, tightly holding her arm until she can stand to open her eyes.

She’s… in an alleyway? Confusion pushes the pain to the back of Sarah’s mind. She stands up.

On her left and right, two brick buildings rise up above her. She steps out onto the sidewalk just as a car speeds by.

How is this possible? Just a minute ago, she was deep in the woods, and now…

“Miss? Are you alright?”

A middle-aged woman has pulled up to the curb in an ancient-looking station wagon and stepped out to check on Sarah. She has no idea how to answer the question.

“Are you hurt?” the woman asks.

With a jolt of pain, Sarah remembers the arm she’s been holding to her chest.

“I think I broke my arm,” she says in a daze.

“Oh god,” the woman groans. She brings her hand to Sarah’s back and gently guides her to the passenger seat. “Come on. I’ll take you to the hospital.”

“I’ll be fine,” Sarah says.

“Don’t be ridiculous!”

Sarah is too stunned and in too much pain to protest any further, so she accepts the ride. As they drive, she’s finally able to take in her surroundings. 

Something is off. Every car on the road is just as old as this one. A shop window has a wood-paneled CRT on display. Huey Lewis is playing on the radio.

Her foster mother’s words flash before her eyes. She feels like she knows exactly what’s happening here, though it’s just as likely that she’s finally lost her mind.

“Have you seen a little girl around?” Sarah tries. If Kira came here the same way she did, it’s possible she’s nearby. “Nine years old. Hair like mine.”

“Sorry, no,” the woman says. “Is she—”

“It’s nothing, never mind.”

Sarah wouldn’t even know how to begin to explain the situation. She slumps into her seat and closes her eyes, desperately holding on to what’s left of her sanity.

 


 

Though the arm sling and painkillers seem to work well enough, the outdated equipment at the hospital only confirms Sarah’s suspicions. She doesn’t especially feel like going through any more medical tests, so she waits until the doctor is out of earshot before turning to another patient in the waiting area.

“What year is it?”

The man’s brow wrinkles in confusion, but he soon buckles at the serious look on Sarah’s face.

“1984.”

Sarah laughs in disbelief. So she’s done it. She’s gone back in time. Of bloody course she has.

She locates the exit sign at the end of the hall and begins walking toward it. She has no idea where to start, but she’s not going to find Kira by standing around here.

A baby’s cry stops her in her tracks. The sound of it pulls at something deep inside her. 

“Kira?” she says instinctively. No, that doesn’t make sense. But...

She follows the voice, pushing through a set of double doors. 

A large window is set into the left-hand wall leading to the nursery. Three rows of newborns are sleeping in their makeshift cribs.

Sarah watches as a couple of nurses walk to the window and gingerly lay down the babies they’re holding, side by side. She hears the cry again and realizes it’s the baby on the right. The nurses exit the room and offer Sarah a smile as they pass.

She doesn’t know what possesses her, but she manages to stick a foot in the door before it closes. She slides inside and walks toward the voice. 

When she peeks her head over the cradle, the baby immediately stops crying, gazing up at her with wide-eyed curiosity.

For the first time in a week, Sarah smiles.

“Hey there,” she says.

When she raises her eyes, her heart stops.

Attached to the crib is a small card. She runs her eyes over the writing at the top.

Name: Manning, ______

Date of Birth: March 15, 1984

She takes a step back. No. It can’t be true.

She turns to the card on the next crib over. 

Name: Manning, ______

Date of Birth: March 15, 1984

Her stomach churns. She can’t breathe.

In 1984, two baby girls were born from one mother. Twins. One of them was you, Sarah. The other one was me.

She takes a deep breath, centering herself. Then another.

“Are you…” she starts. Tears stream down her cheeks. “Are you who I think you are?”

The baby blinks up at her.

“What am I supposed to do?”

She asks, but she feels she already knows the answer. She feels she understands why she’s here.

We were separated, torn across time. 

The baby reaches a hand up toward Sarah.

It’s enough.

She picks up the baby and cradles her to her chest, wincing at the pressure on her arm. After a glance down the hall, she pulls the door open and steps outside.

 


 

With some difficulty, Sarah manages to find her way back to the woods where this all started. Unfortunately, a 15-foot tall fence now surrounds her destination, large ‘NO TRESPASSING’ signs hung up every few yards.

She eyes the baby lying fast asleep in the carrier around her chest. She’s come too far to turn back now. There were surveillance cameras in the hospital. Eventually, the police would find her. Unless, of course, she were to disappear off the face of the earth.

She manages to find a pair of bolt cutters in the second cabin she breaks into. After a minute or two of work, she’s through to the other side of the fence.

She soon comes across a large slanted iron door installed into the side of a small hill. She recognizes this spot. It’s exactly where the sinkhole once was, or… will be.

She reaches for the heavy padlock, then hesitates. She recognizes the large yellow and black symbol emblazoned on the door. A radiation warning.

She shuts her eyes and draws a deep breath, then snaps the lock open.

The door leads to a set of concrete stairs, descending into darkness. Hugging the wall, she takes a step down. Then another. 

Down. 

Down.

Down.

The world is pitch black, silent. She takes another step.

She blinks. Light fills her eyes.

She’s back in the alleyway, thankfully on her feet this time. The baby is still sound asleep in her carrier.

She steps out onto the sidewalk, startling a young woman passing by.

“What year is it?” Sarah chokes out.

Somehow, she feels as though she already knows the answer. But she needs to hear it for herself.

The woman shoots her a weird look, not breaking her stride.

“2010,” she says.

 


 

As Sarah makes her way down the familiar street, she feels her chest start to tighten. Back in the hospital, when she looked into the little girl’s eyes, it all became clear to her. Everything that her mother’s letter meant. Everything that Sarah would have to do.

But now, faced with the reality of it… Will she really be able to go through with it?

She stops in the shade of a large oak tree. Through the front window of the house across the street, she can just make out the shape of a dark-haired woman.

The baby is awake now, babbling softly to herself.

“Hey,” Sarah says, because any other words would hurt too much. “Hey there, little one.”

She draws a deep breath. Tears trickle down onto the pavement.

“I have to go away for a while,” she says, voice breaking. “But this isn’t goodbye. Not really. You won’t even know I’m gone, will you?”

The baby smiles up at her and she manages a smile back.

“Thought so.”

She lets out a painful sob, then wipes away her tears, for whatever good it will do.

“I never knew I could love anyone like I love you.”

She leans forward, planting a kiss on her forehead.

“I’ll see you again someday, Monkey.”

Before she can change her mind, she steps out from under the tree and across the street, into the house’s front yard. Gently, she lays the baby girl on the doorstep.

She runs.

 


 

The door shuts behind Helena with a loud clang. She lets out a long breath.

It’s never a good idea to let your guard down in this place, but base camp is where she feels the most safe. For better or worse, it’s home.

“Helena!”

Helena squints, her eyes not yet adjusted to the dim lighting. She sees the dark shape of her brother running up to her.

Helena was only a child when she came to this world. It was the Soroka family that found her, terrified and alone, hiding in the ruins of her mother’s house. She knows now how lucky she was; no one in this world would take pity on her like they did. They taught her how to survive. They taught her how to fight. They taught her to forget. Searching for a way back would only get her killed. With their help, she left her old self behind, and was reborn as Helena.

“What is it?” she asks, now able to see the panicked look on his face.

“We captured someone.”

Helena tilts her head. A soldier? No, they all have trackers embedded in their skin. Even Marko wouldn’t be stupid enough to bring one of them here.

“She says she’s looking for…” Marko pauses, swallowing. “She used your old name.”

Helena’s skin goes cold. She shoves Marko out of her way and runs out into the hall. The door to the storage room is closed. She dashes over to it and throws it open.

A woman is tied to a chair in the center of the room. She’s slumped over, bone white hair cascading down over her knees. Helena can’t make out her face.

“Who are you?” she chokes out.

The woman raises her head. Helena gasps and takes a step back.

“Monkey?” the woman says.

Her skin is pale, marked with deep wrinkles, but Helena sees through it all.

“Mum?”

She steps forward, her mother’s face a blur through her tears. She reaches out and presses a hand to her cheek.

“I found you,” Sarah breathes. “I found you.”

“I thought that I would never see you again,” Helena cries.

Guilt hits her like a gunshot. She should never have stopped looking. She should have gone to the ends of the earth to find her way back.

“It’s okay,” Sarah says, like she knows. “Everything’s okay now.”

Kira falls to her knees and lowers her head onto her mother’s lap. She cries so hard that her chest hurts.

“Kira,” Sarah says, and she raises her head to look at her. “I know the way back. I know how to bring you home.”

 


 

Sarah takes a deep breath, centering herself. Then another.

“Are you…” she starts. Tears stream down her cheeks. “Are you who I think you are?”

The baby blinks up at her.

“What am I supposed to do?”

She asks, but she feels she already knows the answer. She feels she understands why she’s here.

“Don’t move.”

Sarah freezes at the woman’s voice behind her. She raises her hands, feigning innocence.

“Sorry. I know I’m not supposed to be in here, I just—”

“I have to break the cycle,” the woman says gravely. She speaks with Sarah’s accent, but her voice is hoarse with age. “This is the only way.”

Sarah can just make out the shape behind her in the nursery window’s reflection. A hood hangs over her face, obscuring it from view. She watches the woman raise her arm to the back of Sarah’s head. There’s something dark in her hand, but she can’t quite make it out.

“I’m sorry.”

 


 

“Ready to talk about tomorrow, chicken?”

Sarah groans into her plate of eggs and toast. She isn’t. Tomorrow is her fifteenth birthday, an occasion she refuses to celebrate. Mrs. S knows this, of course, as they’ve already gone through this routine the year before. And the year before. And the year before.

S clicks her tongue as she pulls the whistling kettle off the stove.

“Wherever she is, she’ll want you to be happy.”

Sarah forces a bite of egg down her throat. She doesn’t like to think about her sister, but she’s always always there in the back of her mind. They were six years old when they were separated, pulled apart by the foster system. Sarah hasn’t seen her since.

The doorbell rings, providing a welcome distraction from the conversation.

“Would you mind getting that, love?” S asks with what looks to Sarah like a knowing smirk.

Sarah thinks to point out that S is closer to the door and perfectly capable of answering it herself, but decides against it. She stands with a grumble, walks to the front door, and pulls it open.

It’s been years since she’s seen him, but she instantly recognizes the man as Carlton, one of S’s old acquaintances and the man who helped bring her and Sarah together. 

It takes her a second longer to recognize the girl with the long blonde curls standing behind him.

“H-Helena?”

The word is barely out of her mouth when the girl leaps forward and pulls her into an embrace.

“Sarah.”

Sarah reaches her arms around her sister and holds her tight. Her vision blurs. 

Helena laughs, giddy with happiness.

“I found you.”