“You may ask us questions now, Riley. But like I said, we may be unable to answer some of them.”
She allowed silence to fall and they all hunched towards her a little, waiting for some kind of inquisition. She did not want to disappoint them, or the smiling dogs, but her mind was pretty blank.
Except for one, that is. The whole reason for this quest.
“Where is Katie?”
The room exhaled.
“She isn’t here,” Sierrah tentatively answered. “We did meet her. She came to us. But she’s no longer here.”
Riley expected there to be more to that explanation, but that seemed to be all they were going to offer.
“You—you people,” Riley said uncertainly, looking around at each of them, “you’re not alive, are you? I mean, you can’t be…”
Her eyes landed on Anthony, and he spoke next. Quickly. “We were once, Riley. But those lives have left us now. This is what we have become. We came here, and—”
Aaron made a loud coughing noise in the back of his throat and cut Anthony off.
Riley’s eyes were on Anthony as she slowly repeated, “You came here,” and then shifted her head towards Aaron, “and … you died?”
No words, just frowns followed by silence.
“Does that mean I will die, too?”
In unison, they all shouted, “No!”
Riley leaned back in her chair, slightly relieved. “Well, alright then. You guys really had me going there.” She let out a nervous laugh. “Okay, let’s go in a little lighter direction. I assume you all are from one family?”
“Actually, no,” said Josie. “None of us are related. We didn’t arrive here together.”
“Oh,” Riley nodded, trying not to say anything stupid that would further Josie’s disliking of her. “Who was the first one to come here?”
Evelyn answered her in a slow, calm voice, as though giving a highly rehearsed speech. “There was no first. We each have lives and deaths—those things, we can remember. But arriving here, we cannot. It’s as though we have always been here, and the lives we remember weren’t really lives at all. They just simply occurred.”
If they were trying to make sense, they were failing, because Riley was thoroughly confused.
“I know it can be difficult to understand,” Sierrah jauntily chimed in, “but don’t worry, Riley. It’s a lot all at once, but you’ll be able to learn about us one step at a time.”
“What you need to focus on,” Aaron concluded, “is that you’ve stepped into a group of people who see each other as family, and see you as a guest. You won’t be harmed by any of us. And if you feel up to it, I encourage you to be able to trust us.”
Riley felt like this conversation was going nowhere. She had too many questions that couldn’t possibly be answered all at once, even if they were willing to give the answers. But she wanted to know everything right then—she wanted to understand. Mostly, she wanted to ask something that Bryan would have to answer, because his presence and the chance of hearing his voice again were the only redeeming qualities about this cold-stricken, decaying room.
To be honest, she wanted more than anything to be able to trust them, but everything about the situation screamed out with red flags and caution tape. They seemed nice, but she barely knew them, after all…anyone could put on an act for a little while. Only time would reveal their true selves, and she didn’t know how much of that she had. Was she destined to be here forever, like a prisoner? She couldn’t be a captive—Aaron had called her a guest, and had questioned her about the duration of her stay. And as long as Bryan was there, she didn’t even care about being able to leave, anyway.
“If I wanted to leave,” she began, “would you let me?”
A male voice to the right spoke and Riley shifted her eyes to follow, knowing instantly that it belonged to Bryan. Her heart leapt.
“Of course we would,” he said, the ends of his mouth curving up in a sweet, brilliant smile that gave her goose bumps. “It isn’t our intention to hold you here behind bars. You may go whenever you wish—whenever you are ready. You just have to be sure that you’re ready.”But his words did not matter—Riley knew, just by listening to him speak to her, that being here was exactly where she wanted to be. There was nothing outside these walls that could entice or lure her away. Everything was here.