tagNovels and NovellasThe Freshman Ch. 37

The Freshman Ch. 37

bycaligula97236©

Chapter 37 - Four days in the United States

Two days after the Day of the Dead Ceremonies ended, Jason and Cecilia boarded a plane to go to Frankfurt and then another to continue to Chicago. They were traveling with their U.S. passports, but with special Danubian diplomatic visas that gave them de facto rights as Danubian diplomats. Were either of them to run into any problems in the U.S. it was guaranteed they would have the full weight of the Danubian government backing them.

Before they left, Prime Minister Dukov called Dr. Burnside and notified her that the two students were returning to Chicago for a few days. He explained they were traveling to take care of some urgent family matters and that they needed transportation. Burnside quickly arranged for the Foundation to use two of its own drivers for the students. She calculated that they were less likely to run into trouble if they had employees of her institute responsible for transporting them to wherever they needed to go. Anyone wanting to harm them would have to confront both the Danubian government and the famous Chicago think-tank, which was the best that could be done for their safety.

After she hung up from calling the Foundation, Burnside then called Jason's grandmother and let her know that he was coming back to the United States. He would return to Wisconsin immediately upon touching down in Chicago.

"Oh thank heavens! Yes, Ruth, I need him back, because I need him to get his sister out of here!"

Jason's grandmother explained that Cassie's initial trauma had subsided due to the intensive therapy she was receiving, but that she still had a severe problem with post-traumatic stress, which seemed to be set off whenever she saw anything that reminded her of her parent's neighborhood. That literally meant anything that had been in her sight the day her parents were killed. Seemingly random items such as SUV's, tractor mowers, shotguns, garage doors, police cars, yellow police tape, popular teenage fashions, and various rap songs set off a spell of panic that canceled out days of efforts to calm her nerves.

As a result of her problems with the flashbacks, Cassie had withdrawn to her room. The condo's guestroom was furnished with older items that she could not associate with anything that had happened the day her parents were killed. She couldn't watch television or listen to the radio because a song or commercial might remind her of something that had happened that day. Her only entertainment was listening to her grandmother's records or reading. Throughout the summer she refused to leave the room and even kept her curtains shut. Over the summer she had gone pale and gained weight, due to her complete lack of exercise.

Cassie's psychiatrist speculated that what she needed was to go to some place where nothing would remind her of her parents' neighborhood or anything she had experienced in high school. If she could avoid seeing things that triggered her flashbacks, she could begin living a normal life and eventually overcome the mass of phobias that had taken control of her soul. Unfortunately, there was no such place in the United States. Modern life and pop culture intruded everywhere, even in the most isolated rural area. It seemed that the only solution to resolve Cassie's problem, to find her a life in a completely unfamiliar setting, was unworkable.

However, it turned out there might be a solution. The same night Jason began marching with Cecilia to celebrate the Day of the Dead, Mrs. Schmidt and her granddaughter looked through an album of pictures he had sent from Upper Danubia. Two things struck Mrs. Schmidt. First, from the photos it seemed that the country looked absolutely nothing like Cassie's neighborhood in the U.S. Everything was totally different. Second, it was quite clear the pictures did not bother Cassie. She seemed genuinely interested in seeing them. That was when the idea occurred to Mrs. Schmidt to send Cassie to live in Danube City. In the Danubian capitol there were no SUV's, no U.S. pop culture, no low-rider jeans or rapper clothing, no oversized mansions with looming garage doors, no Sheriff's Department patrol cars, and most importantly, no drugs. Danube City offered Cassie the prospect of a life without constant reminders of that horrible day she lost her parents and her boyfriend. Both her grandmother and her psychiatrist were convinced, if the girl could live a normal life in the unfamiliar setting of the Danubian capitol for a while, she might start to recover.

Ruth Burnside pondered the strange coincidence, Jason's return to the U.S. and Mrs. Schmidt's realization that Cassie needed to get out of the country to recover from her trauma. It was obvious that was why he had come back, to fulfill his destiny to help his sister in her hour of need. Burnside shook her head. The professor was a hardened atheist, so she quickly discounted the thought that Jason's timing could be anything other than a very fortunate coincidence. Still...

As for Cecilia, Burnside knew that she needed to return to her former home in New Jersey and had arranged for a co-worker who owned a private plane to take her to Newark. The co-worker had business of his own to take care of in New York City anyway, so flying there with two passengers was not a problem for him. Once they touched down the driver from the Foundation would rent a car and take Cecilia wherever she needed to go. The driver was an ex-Marine originally from the south side of Chicago, so driving into Cecilia's blighted neighborhood did not intimidate him in the least.

Jason and Cecilia held hands as they touched down in Chicago. After getting through Customs, they found Jim Halsey waiting for them. Halsey took the two students to his own car, and drove Cecilia to a regional airport where her plane was waiting. She kissed Jason goodbye and left with the man assigned to both drive her and protect her while in New Jersey.

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Jason traveled north with his driver in Jim Halsey's personal car, after dropping off the professor at his house. The car sped northward across the pleasant autumn landscape as Jason contemplated the complete upheaval that had transpired in his life over the past year and a half. The driver was an amiable man, willing to talk or not talk, according to the need of his passenger to either socialize or keep to himself. Jason was quiet throughout most of the trip, lost in his own thoughts and pondering the tragedy that had overtaken his parents' lives. As the sights, sounds, and smells of Wisconsin entered Jason's consciousness as reality instead of memory, what had happened to his family finally hit home. He realized in Upper Danubia he had been so separated from his life in the U.S. that he had not truly grasped the fact that his parents were dead and his sister changed beyond recognition. It had not yet struck him that now he was the one responsible for the future of the Schmidt family. His grandmother had done her part, first by encouraging him to get away and then by taking charge of Cassie. She had done her part, but now Cassie had to be Jason's responsibility, not hers.

Just four hours after leaving Cecilia at the municipal airport, Jason watched the familiar streets of downtown Carterville pass by as he approached his grandmother's condominium. Mrs. Schmidt and her boyfriend met up with him as he dismissed the driver to find himself a motel room. Jason and his grandmother would spend a couple of hours getting caught up on each other's news, but with an emphasis on the events surrounding his parents' deaths and the effect they had on Cassie. It did not surprise Jason that Cassie's friends had disappeared on her as soon as the uproar from the shootings died down. The murders changed her personality beyond recognition, making her extremely withdrawn and serious. She no longer was a source of fun and entertainment. Subconsciously her friends saw her as contaminated and after an initial round of condolences kept their distance. Anyhow, the loss of the Schmidts' house meant that she no longer could remain enrolled at her elite high school. Instead, she faced finishing her studies at the much less prestigious public school in Carterville, not that it mattered. By the end of the summer Cassie had become so withdrawn that it was clear she would have to be home-schooled.

Jason asked what he could and could not talk about when he saw his sister, thinking that perhaps she did not know about her father's activities against Upper Danubia or about his secret plans to ditch his family following the failure of the coup in April. Mrs. Schmidt told him that everything was fair game, because she had told Cassie in detail what had happened to her father during April and May. Following the shootings Cassie had been consumed with guilt, thinking that what had happened to her father was her fault. The girl's grandmother calculated that if she knew the truth about her father she would feel less guilty about his death. That was true, but the information left Cassie very suspicious and paranoid about people's intentions towards her. She couldn't trust her parents, which meant she couldn't trust anyone.

There was, however, a faint hope that Cassie already had hit bottom and was beginning the long process of recovery. After a long summer of depression and psychological inertia, her curiosity about life was just starting to return. She began to ask her psychiatrist questions about post-traumatic stress, to better understand herself. Yes, Cassie had changed. At age 17, she already was thinking about the larger issues in life. The life that she had led as a teenager was gone, blasted away by her ex-boyfriend's revolver. It was apparent that she was ready to move on.

Jason was shocked by his sister's appearance, even though he knew what to expect. Her old aggressive boisterous nature was gone, replaced by a personality that was rather shy and very serious. She had gained nearly 30 pounds, which was part of the reason she was ashamed to go out in public. She was wearing a sweatsuit, because none of the stylish clothing she had from the year before fit her anymore. She had absolutely refused to buy larger-sized clothing, so she stuck to sweatsuits. She was very pale and her appearance was unkempt. Her hair, although clean, was a mass of tangles because she never bothered to comb or brush it.

Jason skipped asking Cassie about how her summer had gone, because he already knew. Instead he talked at length about his own summer, his studies at the National University, the hassle of learning to speak Danubian, and his preparations to run several marathons in October during the Harvest Festivities. At first he was cautious about mentioning anything about why he had gone to Danube City in the first place, nor did he mention anything about Cecilia. He stuck to general topics, figuring that he could move into more personal ones once Cassie felt more comfortable around him.

The two teenagers realized how much they both had changed since they last spoke to each other. Cassie was amazed at Jason's self-confidence and how, without a hint of arrogance, he seemed to dominate the room. He knew his own mind and what he wanted from himself. It was clear that he had a clear vision of his life and no longer was intimidated by his failures. Had Cassie's former friends seen him now, they might not have liked Jason, but there was no way they could have so casually dismissed him like they did the year before. Quite likely it would have been the other way around, Jason would have seen the girls for what they were, shallow, uncaring princesses who did not merit his time or consideration.

Cassie, on the other hand, was not sure about anything. When she spoke to Jason she did not look at him, but instead kept her gaze fixed on a spot on the wall. At first it was hard for Jason to get used to the idea that, even though she wasn't looking at him, she was paying attention to what he was saying. That vacant look in her face did not reflect what was actually going on in her mind, but it seemed that her inner thoughts were separated from what she was doing with her body. Her mind was responsive, but her body was not.

As for who she had been in high school: her high school slang, her experimenting with boyfriends and drugs, her popular clique and obsession with having fun, as well as her self-assured attitude; that all was gone. What remained of her character was not much more than a bunch of psychological wreckage, from which a much more serious person was just beginning to form. She was haunted, not only by the memories of what had happened in May, but also by her trauma and deep-seated fear of flashbacks. In some ways her behavior was like a person who had suffered a massive heart attack and barely survived. She was obsessed with her own fragility and the prospect that anything at any moment could trigger a second, and this time fatal, relapse. Above anything else, Cassie seemed to exude a feeling of fragility.

Fortunately one thing in Cassie's character had not been destroyed over the summer, and that was her curiosity. Without looking away from that spot on the wall, she began asking Jason questions about Upper Danubia, and finally questioned him about the trials in May. As her brother explained more and more, Cassie became increasingly interested about their father's role in the coup and what her brother thought about it. Jason just gave the facts at first; what he knew about the plans of Mega-Town Associates and what came out in the trial that was not covered by the press in the United States. Suddenly, Cassie became impatient. Without moving her eyes from that spot on the wall she snapped:

"Look Jason, I don't give a shit about 'Cutter', and the pigs, and what they did with the guns. I want to know about Dad."

Over the next hour Jason told Cassie everything he knew about their father's role in the coup, and finally brought up the comment about Cecilia that prompted him to turn the information he was gathering over to the Danubian government.

Cassie surprised Jason by telling him about her own research, information she had dug up about their parents. Over the summer she became curious about her father's behavior and in understanding why he acted the way he did. She downloaded numerous articles off the Internet about the behavior of identified sociopaths. From studying the behavior of sociopaths, Cassie's research led her to explore what was known about people suffering from narcissistic personality disorder. She shared a rather startling conclusion with her brother, the possibility that both of their parents suffered from narcissistic personality disorder.

"I'm sure Dad had it. He would've had to. I mean, to do all that shit just to make himself happy...I mean you can't do that unless you're really fucked in the head. And I'm sure he was really fucked in the head. That's obvious."

Jason interjected with his own thoughts on the matter, relaying what he knew about the Danubian concept of damage to the soul. Rather than contradict Cassie's research, Jason's comments seemed to complement what she had found out. Mr. Schmidt's soul had been damaged by greed, which in turn was the result of an over-developed sense of self-worth, in other words, narcissism.

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Over the next two days the surviving members of the Schmidt family talked in the condo's living room about the tragedy that overtook Jason's parents. Their grandmother took the two teenagers through a mental journey into the past as she tried to figure out if there was anything she might have done to contribute to her son's personality. As they listened to her, Jason and Cassie came to understand their father much better and also understand what had influenced them as they were growing up. Finally Jason was able to talk at length about the accident that had killed his girlfriend and the decisions that had led up to that incident. Cassie confided some of her experiences with her own clique, and finally had an apology for her brother:

"You know, when you got busted and everyone was jumping on you, you know, like...telling you what an idiot you were and how fucked in the head you were...I...I never said anything. I just kinda sat there listening and was real happy it was you instead of me. I'm sorry about not sticking up for you...because I should've and I didn't...I'm really sorry about that."

Cassie hugged Jason hard, as tears flowed down both their cheeks. The recovery of their lives, and of their relationship with each other, had begun.

Finally the moment had come for Jason to tell his sister what he had seen during the Day of the Dead march, especially that second night. He went into detail about the march itself, and then described what he had seen of the lives of their parents. Their grandmother gasped, because Jason had described things early in their marriage that he would have been too young to remember. Then he got to the point, his visions of Cassie and what the Priestess told him afterwards.

"I think the point of it all is that I'm supposed to take you to Danube City, and that's why I came back. To get you out of here, so maybe you won't be having all the flashbacks...'cause it seems that everyone thinks that's what's going on, you know, the flashbacks and everything."

Cassie looked at her grandmother, and then back at Jason. Her gaze refocused at that spot on the wall while she thought it over. She nodded. Her voice was barely audible.

"OK. I'll try it."

Jason and his grandmother looked at each other, totally stunned. They had been expecting a crisis, or an argument, or having to spend a long time trying to reason with her. It turned out none of that was necessary. It turned out Cassie was aware that the only hope she had of regaining her sanity was to leave Wisconsin. As for what she would do upon getting to Danube City, she took it for granted Jason would help her get set up.

"So...you're...like...OK with it? Going to Danube City with me?"

"I said I'd go, Jason. I already told you that."

Her eyes stayed fixed to that spot on the wall. She had nothing more to say, but she knew something that her brother and grandmother could not have known. Her departure would not be temporary. Once she left, she could never come back.

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Upon landing in Newark, Cecilia rode as a passenger into her old neighborhood. The area looked as bleak as ever. In fact, if anything it looked even worse than it had when she left. She noticed the bus station from where she had left now was a check-cashing place. Ain't that just great, she thought to herself. Just what we need, another fuckin' check cashin' place. A few more row houses leading up to the tenements were abandoned, either burned out or converted to crack houses. The tenement buildings rose above the bleak landscape, as grim and forbidding as ever. The hopelessness of the neighborhood quickly closed in on the young student, a feeling that the area was reaching out to grab her and suck her back into the abyss.

There was one detail that struck Cecilia immediately. The graffiti was completely different. The area was under armed occupation by a rival gang, the same group of thugs who had murdered her brothers and were still killing off their associates. She looked around to see how permanent the change seemed to be, searching for clues such as the faces and colors around her old tenement building. Everything, especially the clothing and the symbols on the walls, was different. She did not recognize any of the young people floating around the complex. She knew that she had entered enemy territory.

Cecilia's tough driver pulled up to the entrance of her mother's building and let her off at the entrance. She thought about going straight upstairs to her mother's apartment, knowing that she probably was not safe if she stayed in the hallway. If anyone recognized her as Raul Sanchez's sister there could be trouble for her, even though she had been estranged from him. However, she couldn't go up the stairs quite yet. Something pulled her to go through the lower level to the back door, where a group of young boys of various ages were milling around in the playground outside. There was one boy in particular that caught her attention. She walked up to him, to get a better look.

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