|Publisher:||Morgan James Publishing|
|Product dimensions:||5.98(w) x 9.02(h) x 0.64(d)|
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It is said that long ago people were happy. Stories of children laughing in the street. Stories of families who lived together. Stories of peace. In the world I live in, they are just that ... stories.
Staring out the window, I wonder what life was like in our little village before the war. Did families walk through the Novi Sad square on Sundays? Were there street vendors selling hot dogs or street musicians filling the air with their melodies? For a moment, I imagine what it would have been like riding down the street on my dad's shoulders feeling the cold flakes of snow as they hit my face.
Did the boys and girls throw snowballs at each other in the town square? Would they bury their siblings in the snowbanks? Did people have smiles on their faces while they walked from here to there? I wonder if the shop keepers were friendlier and happy when customers came through their door. All these images dance in my mind ...
"May — ah! You're going to be late for class again if you don't get your shoes on."
Ugh. Leave it to my brother to pop my happy bubble. Since we were little, he has always been the voice of reason bringing me back down to Earth. When he enunciates my name in his drawn-out, "I'm your bigger brother way," then I know he is already impatient with me, so I better get going. If I hear my full name "Amaya" from him, well then, I better hide.
"I'm coming, I'm coming."
Our life has not been easy. Tolmaó has been my protector through a lot of pain and hardship. When I was little, I couldn't pronounce his name right, so it became Toma. He's my best friend and the biggest pain in the butt I know.
Momma called him her little lion cub when he was a baby. The nickname was pretty accurate as he was nine pounds at birth. Fast forward sixteen years and he is one of the smallest kids in his grade. Momma knew something, because he is the smartest in his class, has the heart of a lion, and everyone likes him. I miss her so much ...
Our days are not very exciting. The orphanage is one of the larger buildings in town, and there are about 150 of us who live and learn here. Despite its large size, the classrooms seem like closets. Our desks are very small with attached chairs. In an effort to make the room feel even smaller, they attempt to cram as many desks in each room as they can, barely leaving room for the bookshelves and teachers' desks.
The orphanage has been around for a very long time. The windows have the yellow, dingy look from years of age that time and neglect bring. I'm not even really sure what color the building is because the entire exterior of the building is covered in ivy. The hallways are not as high as I first remember but, as hard as the taller kids may try, no one has ever been able to jump up and touch them.
In the morning we study English and math. Verbs, nouns, and participles melt into absolute values and squares until we finally are able to eat. Lunch time at the orphanage is a controlled chaos that only Miss Bradley could control. If you ask the older kids, they would say she is so old that she probably helped start the Great War. If you ask the younger kids, she is the daughter of the fabled Yeti.
Her stare chills you to the bone. You don't dare look her in the eyes for fear you may turn to stone. As you receive your portion, you just wait for her raspy voice to growl out, "Next." A polite "yes ma'am" and you have survived another day. The food always contains the same formula: a green, a white, a meat.
Since we were much smaller, we have played the "what is that?" game. The usual prize is the honor of knowing you guess correctly — though few people really know if we are ever right. It always tastes the same, and the only way we know it is different each day is the texture. A few kids who came to the orphanage later in their lives help us decipher the tastes from their experiences, but the game is fun, none the less.
In the afternoon, we study my favorite subject: history. Most of my classmates hate history. They get bored to death by the endless dates, names, and locations, but not me. As our teacher explains each story, I am taken to the events.
The date is just an insignificant piece of the story for me. It is the people and places of history that get my mind energized. I imagine I am Julius Caesar standing on the steps speaking to thousands of Romans, or Napoleon leading his armies into battle. The spears and bullets whizzing by my head from my enemies and the triumph of victory. To hear the stories, Napoleon had to be eight feet tall and the strongest man ever to live.
Today my imagination is not interested in the lesson. We are learning about the second dark ages. My mind doesn't like sad stories. All the pain, anguish, and sadness that they are filled with makes my heart heavy, and I don't like it.
The second dark ages were no different. The endless stories of how humanity grew so violent makes my blood grow cold and my heart ache. What was it about that time that the world grew so dark? How could humanity exchange all the happiness and joy for war?
For two decades, the world fought. Country against country, state against state, brother against brother; countless casualties and families torn apart. Fear and death were all humanity knew until ... Sebastian Crystal. No one is really sure where he came from. All history knows is he made it all stop. Humanity was decimated. Less than one hundred million people were left on the planet when Crystal rose to power.
"Class dismissed," Ms. Wimbley says. Rats. Guess I'll have to wait until tomorrow to finish the lesson.
"I'll see you after school," Toma says. He has just had his sixteenth birthday, which means he is now able to participate in afternoon athletics. I, however, will have to wait two more years so I'm sentenced, once again, to an afternoon of homework at the library.
"Okay. See you at dinner."
He is super-fast, only two weeks on the team and he is already the third fastest in his events. A lot of the boys on the team get very jealous. Most of them stand six to ten inches taller than him, but they cannot hold a candle to his speed.
I also think they are jealous of his beautiful blue eyes and bleached blonde hair. That is one of the many reasons why all the girls think he cute. If only all the girls knew what a pest he was, they might think differently.
According to the rules set by the Mir City Administrators, no citizens are to participate in any physical activities until they are old enough for their bodies to handle it. Through many studies of the human body, their scientists decided that age was sixteen. They say that if we exercise before that age, our body can become permanently damaged and our growth will be abnormal. How they got that number is beyond me, but who am I to argue ... they are scientists.
Here at the orphanage in Novi Sad Village, I am just another number. Toma won't admit it, but I think he has been secretly doing pushups and jumping jacks since he was little. We all have our secrets, and if that is the worst thing he ever hides from me, then I guess that is not so bad.
As long as I can remember, he has wanted to run and compete. More than once I have caught him in his room doing sit-ups. If I come into our room while he is exercising, he will just say he is resting on the floor. His usual pool of sweat lets us both know it is a lie, but as long as the adults don't find out, it's not a big deal.
When Toma was eight years old, he raced a ten-year-old classmate down the hall. He won, and they both got two days of detention for doing it. I could tell that day that Toma was built to run. Secretly, I think he wants to qualify for the Great Games in Mir City. I wouldn't mind because he would get to take an equipment manager. Just so happens I am an excellent equipment manager, even if Toma doesn't know it yet.
The walk from the classrooms to the library is a long one. The library is on the far side of the building — which makes little sense to me — but I don't mind the walk. I love the library. In my closed off little world, it is the one place that allows me to escape to new worlds. I can chase the giant whale or lead an army into battle. The stories give me hope that there is more to life than my tiny village, though I'm just a little girl and we do what we are told.
The library is so large (with so many books) that I could hide away for the rest of my life and actually be happy. Many afternoons and evenings I have been lost in books ... but not today. I have math homework that has to be done. Oh well, once again the real world invades my fun.
"Hey Maya, whatcha up to?"
"Oh, hey Marcus. Just doing my homework."
Marcus is my best friend. He came to the orphanage last year. Most of the kids rejected him because he was different. During the dark times, the various ethnic groups rose up against each other and self-segregated themselves into their own regions. Our town is in a region that was mostly Caucasian, so it is very rare to see anyone who has dark skin.
Unlike the other children, I didn't find him scary or strange. I found him witty and funny, and we became fast friends. He is kind of a dork, and I am pretty sure he likes me. Toma is always telling me to watch out for boys, but he never seems to have a good reason. It really doesn't matter because we are just friends.
"What are you doing here? The library isn't exactly your usual hangout."
"I was looking for you. I don't understand the algebra assignment," Marcus says as he winks at me.
Yeah ... that's why you were looking for me, I think. He is ten times smarter than I am. "What part confuses you?"
"Uh ... all of it."
"Ha!" As soon as I laugh, I realize I have committed the ultimate no-no ... having fun in the library. The dirty looks all around us pretty much confirm my suspicion. A sharp, icy look from the head librarian screams loudly, QUIET!
"Hey, let's go to my room," I suggest. "I can help you better there."
I figured that was Marcus's plan all along. He is not really a book person. He is more of a conversational, do-it-together person, which makes me his perfect tutor. I learn it from the book and we discuss it. It is not a very efficient system because we spend more time talking about other stuff than our homework, but I value his friendship. After a few hours of tutoring and laughing with Marcus, we head back to survive another meal with Miss Bradley and meet up with Toma.
"How was practice?"
"Awesome, I have qualified to compete in the regional meet. It's in Szeged township in three weeks. Imagine it, I will get to leave our little town for the first time in my life. Of course I will need an equipment manager. I wonder if Sammy would do it —"
"Tol — mah — o!" I yell in disgust. Two can play the name enunciation game. If Toma thinks his wannabe girlfriend is going instead of me, he has another thing coming.
Sammy came to the orphanage around the same time we did. Sammy and Toma have known each other since the first grade. She has loved him since the day they met. Every year she manages to get the desk right behind Toma to be close to him.
Toma, on the other hand, only likes her as a friend. Many times he has run into our room, begging me to tell her he was at the library. Even if he did like her, I frankly don't think he has time for a girlfriend. He has one focus ... running.
A devious grin comes over his face. "Just kidding sissy. I know you want a chance to explore the world. I've already told coach Bardy you are coming as my equipment manager."
"Good. I wouldn't want to have to fight your girlfriend for it."
"She is not my girlfriend!" he complains. It is so much fun to pick on Toma about it.
Szeged. The thought creates an excitement that I can't control. The idea of a new town and a new adventure creates a warmth in me. It is like the daydreams I have about riding on my Daddy's shoulders.
Daddy. I really only know him through stories and a few pictures. He died when I was just a baby. Though I never knew him in person, I still miss him. How proud he would be of Toma and his dedication. If only he could be there to cheer him on.
"Hey Maya, I snuck you some strawberry ice cream."
How does he do that?! How does Toma always know when the sadness of losing Daddy is on my mind?
Is it on my face?
Is he psychic?
"Thanks bro. The day Bradley catches you, you know you're a dead man, right?"
"I don't think she could catch me if she tried."
As always, Toma can make me laugh and forget my pain.
"Let's head to our rooms and get some sleep."CHAPTER 2
The air is crisp as the snow falls on my face. I can feel the sun trying to break through as a small beam of warmth on my nose. All the fresh snow crunches under me as I twirl. I have an amazing feeling of exhilaration as the world spins in circles.
Even though I usually get dizzy, today I feel totally clear in my head. I can feel the warmth grow as the crowd encircles me to watch. I hear gasps, laughing, and murmuring from the crowd, but I don't care. This freedom is so peaceful to me that I don't want to stop. That's when I hear her scream.
"Maya! What are you doing?! You have to stop before they see you!"
"NOOOOO!!!!" I scream.
"Maya, wake up!" The fog of my nightmare is broken through by Toma's voice. "You're having that nightmare again."
I lay my head in his lap as he sits on the end of my bed. I can feel my pajamas cling to the sweat on my skin. A few small drops slowly roll down my forehead and meet the tears. With everything in me, I cannot stop trembling.
"It's ok, I'm here," he says as I weep.
The pain of that day haunts me. It revisits me constantly in dreams and robs me of sleep. As Toma slowly strokes my hair, I'm able to drift back to sleep.
"I love you Sis."
Morning comes and Toma is asleep. He is leaned up against the wall with me on his chest. The fog of the night begins to clear in the warmth of the new day's sunlight.
"Toma, it's time to wake up. Thank you for last night."
"No problem. Love you, Sissy."
Today is an exciting day. We get to finish learning about Sebastian Chrystal and how he saved humanity. Curiosity is my weakness. I hate surprises, and I especially hate a cliffhanger. Not knowing the whole story is just not acceptable for me. If I don't know the whole story, I get mad and make it my quest to learn all of it.
Toma and Marcus have both been the victims of this. Once, Toma was reading the Shakespeare play King Lear to me. Half way through he was getting tired and tried to stop. I told him he was not allowed to sleep until he had finished. I had to wake him up five times!
"Don't forget to come to the gym after history class today," Toma reminds me.
I forgot that today is my first official day as his equipment manager. My new adventure starts today. How could I forget? That is the hardest part of my nightmares. They constantly make me lose track of what week or day it is. It can take days to refocus.
"What? Did you think I forgot? Of course I'll be there."
Just because I forgot doesn't mean Toma needs to know about it.
"Cool. I'll see you then."
As I walk into History class, I notice Ms. Wimbley has a timeline written on the board. Dark ages. Chrystal elected. Peace. How exciting! Today my cliffhanger will be resolved. My brain can be at rest once more.
"Good morning class. Today we are going to learn about the savior of our world."
Something about Ms. Wimbley's statement seems weird to me. I cannot tell if it is a hint of sarcasm or reverence in her voice. Either way Chrystal did bring peace to the world ...
Ms. Wimbley gives her lecture and, despite the heaviness of it all, I am enthralled. At the lowest point of the second dark ages, close to seven billion people had died from war and starvation.
Seven billion people.
Can we even count that many? Where did they all get buried? The thought of that much death is baffling to me. It is much more than my mind can really handle. The world had become so selfish and greedy that most countries fell apart under the weight of their governments. For some countries, it was greed. For some it was corruption or debt. For others, zealots incited revolution.
The people began rising up. Rather than a world war breaking out, something entirely different happened. The world fell into massive civil war. Countries began to fight internally. The Eurozone, African Zone, and Eastern Zone all fell into disarray. As many as a dozen major conflicts rose up. Thousands were dying daily as the fighting raged across the world. Then, something amazing happened.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Freedom Dance"
Copyright © 2019 Eric Falkner.
Excerpted by permission of Morgan James Publishing.
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