"Hey there, Alli. It's time to wake up, now."
"Go away," I mutter to Allegiance. I try to push her away, but she just holds onto me closer. I'm pretty sure the Setting's turned off now, but my arm still hurts. I don't want to look at it. I don't want to think about it, either, but I do. How? How can I lose an arm? How is The Author this mean to me? I'm a good character! I don't distract her like Erik does. She's even said she likes me! I try to rub the tears away from my eyes, but nothing happens.
"Don't move," Alliance's voice says. "You're okay, Allegiance. The Setting's turning off, you have your arm back. You're fine."
I open my eyes to glare at her, but I see that she's been crying. I reach out to touch her, but nothing happens. "I thought you said I had my arm back!" I shout.
"You do," Alliance promises. "You don't have muscle control yet. You'll be just fine in a few seconds, alright?"
I look away from her. I see Alynn, and Tarin, and Lukas and Selah. I scowl at them, and a few more tears leak from the corners of my eyes. For a moment, I wonder why they've never lost a limb, and a strange anger consumes me.
Alynn kneels next to me and puts a gentle hand on my shoulder. I want nothing more than to push her away. "Are you hurtin'?" she asks.
"Lukas and Selah made you some tea--"
"I don't want it!"
A hurt look comes into Alynn's eyes, and I remember she has feelings, too. Suddenly, I can move my arm again. I look at it and start crying. Alynn and Alliance make a hug sandwich with me in the middle, and gradually, all the anger and frustration and pain melt away and get replaced with a cold emptiness.
"I'm sorry, guys," I whisper.
"Don't worry," Alynn says. She smiles. "I know what it's like to be fierce mad at The Author. But I also know that she's a fan of happy endings. You needn't get yer heart crossways about anything."
"Translation?" Alliance asks.
"Don't be frightened. She'll work everythin' out."
"How?" I demand. "How can anything work out when I'm a one-armed freak? Kids won't like me anymore."
"I'll still like you," Alynn promises. "And Tarin--" She looks at her little brother, but he clings a little tighter to Lukas's arm. "He'll still like you, too. Won't you, Tarin? Come here."
"I won't," Tarin declares. "Ye're being girly-girls and crying everywhere."
I smile, but I still feel cold and empty on the inside. "Thanks for trying, Alynn. I'll be in my room."
"Do you want the tea?"
I know I've felt alone before, but I don't remember it hurting this much. And at the same time, I can't stand being around other people. I just want to think, and to sort things out. I go to the small, black-painted room that's the only place I have any privacy in The Imagination. There, I sit on the edge of my bed, look at my left arm, and think.
Or rather, I don't think. I just sit, and feel this strange, cold, numb feeling grow inside me.
Suddenly, I remember Alliance. I remember that she called me Alli, which she never does, and also that she hugged me. I can't remember the last time someone hugged me without me asking them first. Alliance spends so much time acting the way I feel on the inside--cold and distant. I've heard the word aloof somewhere. It sounds like her.
Then, from somewhere, the thought hits me that maybe she's felt like this. I know she's never lost an arm, but she lost our parents. I was just a baby, and we lived in Estonia, when our house got caught in the middle of terrorist crossfire. Mom, Dad, and my sister Analecta all died. Alliance was five. She'd remember all this. She probably remembers something other than being raised by various government agencies, and I wonder if losing your family is worse than losing an arm.
And maybe, just maybe, that's why she turned out the way she did.
I'm interrupted from my thoughts by a declaration of "Hey."
I jump, and I look up to see The Author Herself.
M. J. Piazza is a Jesus-loving, dog-walking country girl who just so happens to write books.