Chapter 1

The following is Chapter 1 of my current work in progress. Feel free to leave a comment or critique. Did it grab your attention? Or after reading it, did you think, “yeah, ok, what else you got?” Do the character reactions seem real, or do they seem forced and artificial? Also, please do point out any grammatical or spelling mistakes.

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Delara groaned softly as she awoke from a deep sleep. She opened her eyes slowly, rubbing the sleepiness from them with the palms of her hands. As the grogginess subsided, she turned her head to look around.

She found herself in a room. Two curtainless windows adorned the left wall and the wall in front of the bed. The walls themselves were bare. No pictures, no ornamentation of any kind, just bare white walls, and a stark white ceiling.

Where am I? she wondered.

The realization that this was not her home was slow in coming. Startled, she sat upright on the bed, turned and planted her feet on the floor, looking around at her surroundings.

Behind her, the sun poured light through the window, shining on the floor at the foot of the bed at a steep angle, small bits of dust shimmering in the harsh rays. The floor’s surface was a rough-hewn parquet hardwood floor, the planks unvarnished and unpolished, but not so rough that it was uncomfortable to her bare feet. The walls seemed to be made of alabaster, or some kind of white plaster, as was the ceiling. In front of her, a closed door was the only exit.

The door, like the floor, was rough-hewn hardwood. Maple maybe, or oak perhaps. It lacked polish but seemed sturdy and well crafted. Oak floor runners, the same color and material as the door, ran around the room, separating the floor from the walls.

She sat upon a feather mattress. She assumed it was filled with feathers, it was soft. There was no spring mattress beneath it, and the bed itself was spartan, made of the same wood as the door and running boards. The bed was merely four posts that provided a platform to support the mattress. It had no headboard.

It was a double bed, comfortable and roomy enough. A woolen blanket and white linen sheets covered the mattress. A single, reasonably firm, feather pillow lay at the head.

Beside the bed stood a small nightstand, bare except for a single unlit tallow candle. Delara realized, suddenly, there were no light fixtures in the room. There were no light switches on the walls next to the doors, nor any electrical outlets at their base. The ceiling was devoid of any type of bulbs or glass panels that might produce light.

There was no other furniture in the room.

Next to the bed, on the closest wall, louvered shutter doors covered what Delara presumed to be a closet. The louvered wood panels on the doors were the only hint of ornamentation that she could see.

She looked down at herself and found that she was dressed in a light, short-sleeved cotton T-shirt, and matching cotton trousers. Beside the bed, a pair of white cotton socks lay on the floor next to calf-length leather boots. Neither the clothes nor the shoes were hers.

Where am I? she wondered once again.

Her last memory was of standing over an assortment of carrots at the Aria Supermarket in Mazar-i-Sharif, in Northern Afghanistan, carefully picking the firmer ones to add to the collection already in her basket. The din of the market still rung in her ears, the aroma of fresh produce still lingered in her nostrils.

She quickly put on the socks and boots. They were her size, fitting comfortably. She rose and opened the bedroom door.

“Hello?” she said, peeking her head around the door.

No answer.

“Hello?” she said again. “Is there anybody here?”

Again, no answer.

She walked out of the bedroom into a living room area. Like the bedroom, the floors were rough-hewn parquet. The room contained only a single chair. The chair was like the bed, simple and spartan, but functional. Also, like the bedroom, other than a recessed picture window, the walls were bare.

A wood burning fireplace, cold and empty, dominated the western wall. It looked clean, devoid of ash or debris as if it had never been used. As in the bedroom, the living room lacked any light fixtures. Three dark, unlit candles sat upon the mantle of the fireplace.

Adjoining the living area was a small kitchen, or what could be a kitchen, containing a black wood burning stove. A row of cupboards ran around the kitchen, made of the same wood as the doors and furniture. A countertop with a sink ran around its circumference. Separating the kitchen from the living room was another open countertop, devoid of any kitchen appliances. It too contained the ubiquitous candles.

As she walked through the room, peeking around the kitchen, she noticed a small, empty alcove that could serve as a breakfast nook, if only there had been a table and chairs. It contained a double door that opened into a patio.

She walked back to the doors and cautiously opened them.

“Is anyone here?” she asked aloud, peeking her head outside. “Anyone?”

The patio, made of the same wood as the doors and furniture covered a three-meter-square surface that opened into a small grass-covered yard. A stone fence enclosed the yard, and few bushes and a conifer tree grew in the westernmost corner.

Like the house, the yard was empty.

Aside from a small bathroom, containing a shower, sink, mirror, and toilet, there were no other rooms in the house.

“Where am I?” she asked aloud, to no one.

Obviously, she was alone in the house. The question was, whose house? And how did she get here?

The house itself seem deserted as if no one lived there. There were no personal effects of any kind. There were no pictures on the walls or books on shelves – there weren’t even any shelves to hold them, in any case – or anything that would indicate the house was inhabited.

She stood in the middle of the empty living room, trying to decide what to do next.

Outside, through the picture window, she saw a young man. Close-cropped reddish-brown hair hugged his scalp around his ears and around the base of his neck, and then grew out into unkempt bushiness atop his head. His freckled skin was white as linen, with just a touch of fuzz on his chin that could be generously described as a goatee. He wore thick glasses, black and old fashioned looking, and looked to be in his late teens or perhaps early twenties.

Like her, he was dressed in a simple cotton T-shirt and trousers, and a pair of calf-length leather boots.

He was Caucasian. That in itself was strange. Not many Caucasians lived in Mazar-i-Sharif. Most of those that did were around Camp Marmal, the NATO base. But Camp Marmal was to the east, kilometers from the market where she had been.

Slowly, and cautiously, she opened the front door of the house and peeked outside.

“Hello?” she said meekly.

The young man spun around and looked at her, his eyes and mouth open in a naked expression of distress. His reaction made Delara even more uncomfortable than she already was. Why was he so anxious? She involuntarily took a step back, further into the house, using the door as a protective shield. The knuckles of her hands turned white as she gripped the edge of the door even harder.

“Hello?” he said. “Don’t worry lady,” he immediately spurted, noticing Delara’s agitation, raising his hands, palms forward in a non-aggressive stance. “I’m not going to hurt you.”

He answered in fluent Dari, her native tongue. He may have looked Caucasian, but he’d obviously grown up in Afghanistan.

He was tall, taller than he had first appeared when Delara had spied him through the window. He stood nearly two meters, she guessed, and he was also impossibly thin. She estimated that the young man weighed no more than 75 kilos. He didn’t look very threatening.

“I don’t want to hurt anybody,” he pleaded. “Look, I uh, I know this sounds strange, but um, could you tell me where we are?”

His answer and question merely added to her own confusion.

“You don’t know where you are?” she asked, dumbfounded, returning his question with one of her own.

“No, I uh, I woke up,” he said, his brows furled worriedly, “in there,” pointing at the house next to Delara’s, “Do you… do you know who lives here?”

She stepped outside the door and closed it behind her. The door had a latch, but no lock that she could see. It just had the number 87 emblazoned on the front. The house the young man pointed to had the number 85. It was the only way she would have been able to tell the difference between the houses. In every other respect, they were identical.

She stood on a small inlaid stone pathway that led from her front door to the street. The street was cobblestone, perhaps 8 meters wide. On each side, a brick sidewalk ran the length of the block. Small deciduous trees planted at intervals provided shade from the sun.

Along the block, house after house stood, each one identical to the last. There looked to be about ten to each block, on each side of the road. To her left was another block, as there was to her right.

“I don’t know who lives there,” she answered. “I don’t know anything about this place, or where we are.”

The young man tilted his head, the expression on his face turning from distress to one of confusion. She walked up the path, stopping just a half meter in front of him.

“You don’t… you don’t live here?” he asked, struggling to understand.

She shook her head no.

“Like you,” she said, “I woke up in there, with no idea how I got here.”

“Hello,” said a voice coming from a portly man who had just stepped out of the house across the street from Delara’s. He looked to be in his mid-thirties. His scalp glistened in the sunlight through prematurely thinning brown hair combed neatly over a balding head. Like the younger man, he wore spectacles. However, his glasses were wireframed, thinner, more stylish.

Another Caucasian. They had to be somewhere around Camp Marmal, Delara decided.

Like Delara and the young man, he wore the same T-shirt, trousers, and boots, identical in material, cut and style as theirs.

“Excuse me, but, do either of you know where we are?” he asked.

As with the young man, Delara noticed, the portly man had spoken in Dari. The strange thing about it though was that both men had spoken with no discernable foreign accent as if they had grown up in the region.

“No, we don’t,” said Delara.

“There doesn’t seem to be anyone home,” said the portly man. “Do you happen to know what city this is? I don’t recognize the architecture.”

As he talked, he crossed the street and stepped closer to Delara and the young man.

“I’m frightfully sorry, but…” said the portly man. “Are either of you from Wolverhampton?”

“No,” said the young man. “Never heard of it.”

“It’s just outside of Birmingham.”

“Birmingham?” asked the young man. “Birmingham, Alabama?”

“Birmingham, England,” replied the portly man, his brow knotted in confusion. The three just stood, looking at each other, each lost in their own world of bewilderment. No one could think of anything to say.

“Beckman,” said the portly man after the silence had drug on for an uncomfortably long enough time, extending a hand to the other young man in greeting. “Jack Beckman.”

“Daniel Rosenstein,” said the young man, taking his hand and shaking it. They both turned to look at Delara.

“Delara,” she said. She didn’t shake hands. She merely nodded at them, and they nodded in return.

“Before I woke up in there,” said Jack, pointing to the house he had just exited, “I was in Wolverhampton. I was on my way back to my flat from The Dog and Doublet…” he said, his head bowed as if he were reliving his last moments before waking in the house.

“The Dog and Doublet?” asked Daniel.

“It’s a pub, on North Street. In any case, I was strolling up North Street, and the next thing I knew…”

“You woke up in that house, with no idea how you got there?” Daniel finished for him.

“Precisely,” he confirmed.

“I was at the market,” said Delara. “Then I woke up in there.”

“I was in my dorm room,” said Daniel, “studying, and the next thing I knew, I was waking up in a strange house.”

“Bloody hell,” said Jack.

“I’m from L. A.,” said Daniel. “I’m a student at Cal Tech.”

“L. A.?” said Jack.

“Los Angeles,” confirmed Daniel. “Los Angeles, California.”

“You mean, America?” said Jack. “You mean to say, this isn’t England?”

Daniel merely shook his head, as if to say he didn’t know.

“I’m from Mazar-i-Sharif,” said Delara, “Afghanistan.”

“Bloody hell,” said Jack.

As they talked, Delara noticed a pair of eyes peering at them through the window from the house next to hers, on the opposite side from Daniel’s.

A woman was looking at them. She was clearly frightened, trying to hide as soon as Delara noticed her. When she peeked out again, Delara waved at her, beckoning her to come out.

Slowly, the door to the house opened, and a cinnamon-skinned young woman peeked through the crack between the door and the house.

“Hello,” said Delara, giving a tentative wave with her hand.

The young woman didn’t answer. She just stood inside the door, in a fit of indecision.

“Hello,” said Delara again. “My name is Delara.”

The woman still seemed to hesitate.

“This is Daniel, and Jack,” she said in her friendliest voice.

The woman, looking to be in her early twenties, slowly stepped out of the house. Like the rest of them, she wore an outfit identical to theirs. Her long, thick, silky black hair hung to the middle of her back. High cheekbones formed around her large brown eyes. Her thick pouty lips quivered with anxiety as she stared at her three neighbors. She was thin, standing merely a little over one and a half meters. She couldn’t have weighed more than 45 kilos.

“Mariana,” she timidly said.

“Hello Mariana,” said Delara. “You don’t happen to know where we are, do you?”

Mariana shook her head no.

“Where are you from?” asked Daniel.

“Coatzacoalcos,” said Mariana.

The three looked at her, puzzled.

“Veracruz,” continued Mariana.

Still, they seemed puzzled.

“Mexico,” she added finally.

“You’re from Mexico?” asked Delara. It had seemed a bit strange when Delara first met Daniel, and that he had answered her in Dari. It was even odder that he had spoken her language without the slightest trace of an accent

When Jack had come out, also speaking flawless Dari, it was even stranger. It was just that much less probable that she should run into two foreigners who had grown up in her country. It was even more confusing when they both claimed to be from America and England. If Daniel was from America, and Jack from England, how did they learn to speak her language as well as they did?

Now, here was this young girl, speaking flawless Dari, claiming she was from the other side of the world. It didn’t make any sense.

“Yes,” said Mariana. “I was at the hospital, stocking supplies, and then I woke up in there…”

As they conversed, a few other people tentatively stepped outside their houses, each looking as confused as the last, congregating in groups of two’s and three’s. They were all dressed the same, wearing identical outfits to the one Delara, Jack, Daniel and Mariana wore.

At the end of the street, a tall, barrel-chested black man appeared, walking in from the adjacent intersection, carrying a small wooden box. Like everyone else, he wore simple cotton trousers and calf length leather boots. But his shirt was different.

He wore a blue, long-sleeved buttoned-down shirt. He sported a navy blue tie. An armband adorned one arm, the same color as the tie. Atop his head, he wore a blue beret matching the tie and armband. The beret seemed to have a logo stitched on the front, but he was too far away to make out any details.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he bellowed so that everyone on the street could hear. “There’s no need to be frightened. We know you are confused, and we know you have questions. Please, everyone, take notice of the number on the house you woke up in. You’ll need that number to register. Now, if you could all please gather round? We will do the best we can to answer your questions.”

Delara, Mariana, Jack, and Daniel exchanged glances. Daniel was the first to turn to walk toward uniformed man. Jack, Delara, and Mariana followed an instant later.

“What do you suppose is going on?” asked Jack, turning toward Daniel.

“Ain’t it obvious,” blurted a stout man suddenly walking next to them. He was in his early thirties, with a scraggly brown beard that matched the unkempt, bushy hair atop his head. “It’s the government.”

“The government?” asked Jack.

“It’s them socialists,” said the man. “This been coming for some time. Now they gone and done it. Them socialists libtards, they can't handle freedom. They hate America, and now their roundn’ up all the good Christian Americans. They musta put sumthin’ in the water. Knocked us out. Gotta be the government. You mark my word.”

Jack opened his mouth as if he were about to reply, but then kept silent at a glance from Daniel. Daniel subtly shook his head, as if to say, “don’t.”

The crowd slowly gathered around the uniformed black man. The man had placed his wooden box on the ground and was now standing on it, waving for the people to assemble.

“That’s it,” he bellowed. “Come on up. Gather round. For those of you just coming out, please remember the number on your house.”

A few late stragglers exited their houses, and soon a crowd of about forty or so people stood around the man on the pedestal.

“Alright,” said the black man. “Is that everyone?”

His gaze fell over the crowd. Judging the throng to be the expected size, and noting that no one else was coming out of the houses, he addressed the waiting assemblage.

“Welcome to Valhalla,” he said. “My name is Sam Everette, and I’m here to help you get acclimated.”

“Where the hell are we?” yelled out the stout man with the scraggly beard next to Jack, his voice and manner belligerent. “Who the hell brought us here, and why?”

“Now, hold on there big fella,” Sam said to the man, smiling a friendly smile. “There’s no reason to get upset, now. No one’s gonna hurt you here. It’s perfectly safe, I can assure you.”

“I ain’t upset,” said the man, “I just wanna know where we are.”

“And what is your name, Sir?” asked Sam.

“Name’s Jim,” said the man. “Jim Howey.”

“Pleased to meet you, Jim,” said Sam, smiling a friendly smile. “Where you from?”

“What the hell you mean, were’m I from? I’m from Hopkinsville a’course.”

“Hopkinsville,” said Sam. “And whereabouts is that?”

“Hopkinsville?” said Jim. “In Christian County,” he continued seeing the questioning look on Sam’s face. “Kentucky,” he said, finally.

Delara noticed how Sam had engaged Jim in a friendlier conversation, asking for his name and place of origin. His manner skillfully defused the situation, causing the previously quarrelsome Jim to calm down. This wasn’t the first time Sam talked down an agitated crowd, Delara would wager.

“Ya ain’t never heard a Hopkinsville?” asked Jim.

“Ah, no,” said Sam, “I can’t say as I have, Jim. I never did travel much. I’m from Chicago.”

“The hell you say,” said Jim. “What the hell you doing in Kentucky if-n you’re from Chicago?”

“Well now, here’s the thing, Jim,” said Sam, his voice calm. “We don’t know where we are, or how we got here, but we do know, wherever this place is, it isn’t in Kentucky.

“Course it is,” maintained Jim. “Where else would we be? The government ain’t gonna spend a lotta money just to move us outta state. Even them socialists ain’t that ignorant.”

“As I’ve said, Jim,” Sam said, his voice calm, the very embodiment of patience, “we don’t know who brought us here, or why, but we do know, it wasn’t the government.”

“There’s about six or seven hundred of us here,” continued Sam, turning to address the crowd before Jim could respond. “We got here just the same way as you did. We were back home, going about our daily lives, and then we woke up here, in a house identical to the ones you just woke up in.”

“Who would do that?” asked a young lady from the middle of the crowd. “I think Mr. Howey’s right. Who else but the government could do that?”

The crowd murmured and buzzed. A few agreed that the government was the most likely culprit. Most didn’t know what to believe yet but accepted a government conspiracy of some kind or another as a plausible, if unlikely, explanation.

Sam held up his hands to settle down the crowd.

“Alright, alright settle down now,” he said, his hands in the air, palms forward in a placating gesture.

“We don’t know much,” he said, as the mob began to settle. “But we do know that no government is behind this.”

How do you know?” insisted Jim.

“Alright, listen up,” said Sam, raising his hand in the air, “By a show of hands, how many here are from the United States?”

The people looked around at each other, surprised at the question. Tentatively, Daniel raised his hand, as did Jim. About a dozen others did likewise, intermittently spaced through the crowd.

“How many from China?” Sam asked next.

Another dozen or so raised their hands.

“Anybody from Europe?”

Two dozen others raised their hands.

“You there,” Sam said to an Asian woman near the middle of the crowd who didn’t have her hand up. “What’s your name?”

“Min-seo,” she answered.

“Where are you from, Min-seo?”

“South Korea,” she said.

“And what language am I speaking?” asked Sam.

The woman stood stunned. She hadn’t been expecting that question. It took her a moment to get her bearings.

“Korean,” she said quietly.

Once again, a murmur ran through the crowd.

“No he isn’t,” said a dark, brown-skinned man standing next to her. “He’s speaking Portuguese.”

“And where are you from, Sir?” Sam asked the man.

“Brazil,” said the man.

“What about you, Mam?” Sam asked, picking out a woman on the other side of the crowd. “Where are you from, and what language am I speaking in?”

“Lüneburg, Germany,” she said. “And you’re speaking German.”

“I am an American,” said Sam, “and, as I told Jim here, I’m from Chicago, and I am speaking English.”

Once again the crowd buzzed with excited confusion, everyone, looking around at everyone else. Sam rose his hands once again to settle them.

“I can assure you, I am speaking English,” he said. “In this place, you will hear the tongue you grew up with, the one you are most comfortable with. Language is not a barrier here.

“It’s a good thing, too. We have people from every corner of the globe here, from America, Europe, Asia, India, Russia, Africa, South America, you name it.”

“How is that possible?” asked a young man toward the right edge of the back of the crowd.

“We don’t know,” said Sam. “But one thing is for sure, the government of the United States, or any other government for that matter, doesn’t have the technology to do it.”

It was peculiar, Daniel admitted. He’d never heard of anything like it. From his studies at Cal Tech, he knew that great strides had been made in translation software, allowing people from across the globe to communicate through the internet and various other computer networks, translating each person’s respective language in to that of their listener, but he’d never heard of anything with this kind of sophistication. Instantaneous translation, audible with no trace of controlling mechanisms. He poked his finger in his ear, just to make sure he wasn’t wearing an earplug.

He wasn’t.

“No government on Earth has that kind of technology,” Sam reiterated.

Jim looked as if he were about to respond

“And even if they did,” said Sam, before Jim could get a word in, “why would they? Why would the American Government, or any other government for that matter, want to collect several hundred people from across the globe and put them in some obscure town?”

“It is strange, I’ll give you that,” said Daniel.

“It wasn’t the government that brought us here,” said Sam one last time, “and wherever we are, this isn’t Kentucky. We know it isn’t. It isn’t even the United States.”

“How do you know that?” asked Jim.

“Well, there’s that,” said Sam, pointing up at the sky behind them.

The crowd turned to look. Behind the houses, just above the horizon, the moon peeked out behind a cloud. The moon did look a bit odd, Daniel thought. It seemed a bit too small, but it was still a white, cratered orb. Daniel wasn’t an expert on lunar topography, yet, it didn’t look quite right. The Sea of Tranquility should have been broader, and it had an odd shape.

Nevertheless, the moon was partially covered by clouds, and the sun still shone, further obscuring its features. Daniel thought that perhaps it was just a trick of the light.

“And,” said Sam, “there’s that.”

Sam had turned, and once again pointed to the sky, this time, behind him.

The crowd collectively gasped as they gazed upon a second moon rising just above the northern horizon.

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