Quarantime to Read. . . Counting Stars: The Conclusion


***

Lena slept most of the journey to the port. When she woke, she reached again for Max and held him close, tight, as if he might disappear. She watched the scenery as it glided past the window, trees, hedges, buildings, roads stretching to the horizon.

The port was in the centre of a town, down a narrow street, past people walking, carrying on with their lives. Her time in the hospital was becoming dreamlike, it was incompatible with the normality of the life she could see through the window. The car slowed as it neared the water.

As soon as the car stopped, the door was opened from the outside and a man, who she did not recognise but who called her Lena, helped her to carry the dozing Max, took her to a fishing boat. Lena stepped from the jetty onto the swaying deck, turning at once to reach for her son. More hands supported her, guided her to a seat. There were shouted instructions, someone released a rope, the sound of a motor coughing, the breeze increased, cool wind tangling her hair. But her single focus was Max, lying half next to her, half across her, his weight heavy on her legs.

She sat on deck, shivering in the cold, spray dampening her hair, the wind blowing away her worries, reminding her that she was alive, she had survived. The motor started, and they eased away from the dock. No one had spoken, other than instructions as to where she should sit, where to stow her bag. It all happened automatically, and Lena again had a sense of being a small part in a big machine.

Max was beginning to wake. Every so often he would look at her with bleary eyes, smile, then drift away again. Lena moved her legs, trying to find a way to support Max whilst allowing her blood to circulate. It was several years since he had allowed her to cuddle him, and she savoured the opportunity to hold him close, knowing that when he woke properly, he would move away, want to be independent.

Lena looked out, across the water. The waves were high, buffeting the little boat as it rose and fell, lifted high then dipping low, over and over.

The boat crossed the narrow strip of sea to the island. John and Agnes were waiting, with Den and Lucy. They were huddled on the jetty, collars turned up against the wind.

As the boat arrived, Den leapt on to the boat, hugged Lena, wordless, tears running down his cheeks. No attempt to control his racing emotions, no desire to appear manly, strong. He had thought he had lost her. He loved this woman, with her corners and frowns and doubts. She was part of him. He held her close, breathing in her tangled hair, smelling the dust on her. She pulled away, needing to breathe, smiled up at him.

John told them to hurry, the boat needed to leave. They passed bags to the family, Agnes handing them a parcel, telling them there were sandwiches.

Lena was shaking, the cold seeping through her thin jacket and into her bones. John noticed, gave her his own coat, told her to wear it, to stay safe. Then he and Agnes stepped back, waving arms in big arcs as the boat moved away, the motor sending black smoke into the air, bouncing across the waves.

John and Agnes watched the family leave, grow smaller and ever more distant. They were glad they were safe, were looking forward to a return to normality. Yet Agnes knew that a part of her was leaving with them, she would never forget this little family.

Beside her, John waved in silence. His plans were almost complete, the family would be an obstacle now, it was better that they left, hurried to safety before they started asking questions. They had not been as compliant as he had hoped, but it didn’t matter now, the result had been achieved.

Lucy was frightened in the boat, thought they might sink. Lena was beyond being frightened of anything. She held her daughter on her lap, letting her body warm her, whispering songs into her hair. She liked the feel of the boat as it rose and fell with the waves, riding over the powerful ocean, carried along with no attempt to resist. Den held Max, took him to the edge when he needed to vomit, wound a scarf over his bare head to keep him warm.

Max was fully awake now but aware only of the immediate, the cold, the sickness, his headache. He had no idea what was happening, where they were going or why. Nor did he care. Talking would come later, he simply wanted to feel better.

They arrived on the French shore. More people were waiting, more friends who they had never met. Lena thought about all the past discussions with John; she wondered if these people too were stars—if John had counted them.

They were bundled into a car, driven through towns and cities until they reached Paris. More people, old buildings, many cars. Finally, they were left at the station, a stranger’s barcode was used to pay the fare. The family sat on the platform, waiting for the tube train that would take them onwards. At their feet were bags, donated by more unknown friends: food, clothes, provisions for the journey.

Lena wondered how big this network of people was, just how many people John controlled. She leant against Den, happy for him to be the strong one, to be able to let go for a while. She thought again about her journey, her mission. She wondered if it was enough, if she could now be counted amongst the stars. Worried that it might not be, that there was something more, something she had missed. She was still tired, groping with the thought, trying to sort it out in her mind.

Den felt her tension, held her close. “What’s the matter little one? We’re safe now, we’ve left England. No one will care about us now.”

“Den, I’ve been thinking, about the stars that John counts, the Jews and Muslims. I understand how he includes them, they are mostly born into their faiths, they practice their religions, follow rituals, believe their holy books.… But what about the Christians? How does God decide if they are good enough, have done enough to qualify as stars? How can they be sure they will be counted?”

Den moved slightly so he could look at her. He saw the clouds in her eyes, the worry that loomed there in spite of how far they had come.

“But Lena,” he said, “no one can do enough. That’s the point of Christianity. You cannot earn the right to be a star. A star is an honorary son of Abraham, an adopted son if you like. Adopted by God. None of us is good enough for that, that’s the point.”

Lena frowned. What then, was the point? Had all her efforts been in vain? Would she still be rejected?

Den continued, “When you were in the hospital, saving Max, it was difficult—wasn’t it?”

Lena nodded, remembering the pain in her ankle, the fear, the never-ending dusty vents. She thought of the armed guards with their straight backs, the impossibility of reaching the clones, then her fall from the ceiling; the agony of her ankle, the agony of indecision when injecting the clones, the agony of trying to walk back to the meeting place, the further agony of waiting, wondering if Max would arrive. Yes, it was difficult—more than difficult.

“But you didn’t do it so he would owe you something, so you would have a hold over Max, to control him, did you? And you wouldn’t want Max to go back into the hospital, to do it again, for himself, would you? To go back and inject the clones, to risk capture, so he could say that he had done it for himself? To prove he was capable of saving himself?”

“No,” she frowned, “of course not. I don’t think he could have done it anyway”. She thought of the ducts, the long crawl, the drop from the ceiling. “He isn’t big enough to have done it,” she said, feeling slightly irritated with Den now. It was a silly question. She had achieved what she had for her child, why would she want him to go back and do what was unnecessary?

“I had to do it, so the watchers would help me, there didn’t seem to be another way. I did it because I love him, I wanted to save him. I didn’t want them to change him, I wanted him to be himself, to be safe.”

Den moved his hand, stroked her hair.

“Well, that’s how it is with God. He’s done all the hard work, He just wanted to save us. We just have to let Him.”

Lena looked at him, her eyes bright with tears. She so wanted that to be true, she wanted to belong. Was it really just a case of accepting?

He bent down, kissed her nose. “You will always be the brightest star in my eyes,” he whispered.

The train slid towards the platform, hovering over the rails, the electromagnets bringing it to a perfect stop.

Max glanced at his parents, then looked away quickly. They could be so embarrassing sometimes. He stared at the train through the thick glass seal. The vacuum-enclosed casing retracted, unsealing the train, giving access to the platform. The train doors swooshed open and Max went to help Lucy lift her bags. She glanced at his bald head, grinned, but said nothing.

The train was large, tubular in shape with thick walls to keep the air inside. The tubes it travelled along were vacuums, the electromagnets allowing great speeds as it hovered above the rails.

The family climbed aboard. They were leaving, going to a new life in Asia, being guided by the stars to a place they could be free. It had been a hard journey, they had nearly been stopped many times, but they were on their way now. And they were together, they had survived. They shuffled onto the train, finding their seats, stowing their bags.

The family did not see the newsfeed on the screen behind them. It was very large, projected images of a reporter giving sombre news, announcing the death of Midra. The leader of the Global Council was dead.

Nor did they see the pictures of the man who was to be his successor, the newest member of the Global Council, the person who would decide how England was to be ruled. A young man, very tall. It was his eyebrows that you noticed first, they rose upwards, giving him the appearance of an owl. A great horned owl.

He was the last puppet in the dance.

The End

Thank you for reading.
Counting Stars by Anne E. Thompson is available from an Amazon near you. Why not buy one for a friend to enjoy?

Which book will you read next? Check out my author page on Amazon: Amazon Author Link Here!

 

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