BITTEN
 
     Natalia’s mouth was dry, and she found it hard to swallow.
     “This is so exciting,” her mother said, squirming in her seat.
     Her father nodded with a big smile on his face.
     Natalia managed a swallow and almost choked.
     “I… I wanted to go to college.” Natalia almost coughed the words.
     “Nonsense,” her mother said. “I never went to college and look at what I have accomplished.”
     “How can you not want this?” her father said with a wave of his hand about the room in which they sat.
     “This is just a waiting room,” Natalia muttered, but her statement was misconstrued.
     “Fine, imported mahogany woodwork. The finest tapestries. Gold. Silver,” her mother said, pointing out the lavish dressings of the room. “I almost feel underdressed.”
     Her mother smoothed her skirt and fiddled with her necklace. Natalia knew the dress was an original creation that cost a lot of money. Her mother had accessorized with matching shoes, a hat, and gold jewelry with diamonds and rubies. Natalia thought she was overdressed considering where they were. However, she nodded in agreement with her mother. The richness of the room did seem to make her mother’s outfit, and even her father’s tailored suit, seem shabby.
     Natalia smoothed her own dress out of uneasiness. She swore her white dress glowed, making her feel even more self-conscious.
     “I meant this room is supposed to look over the top. They’re trying to impress you,” Natalia said, startled to find her voice raspy.
     “Of course,” her mother said as if reprimanding her. “A position in this church is quite a feather in one’s cap.” Her mother looked ready to explode with joy.  “This church is at the forefront for helping the poor.”
     “A lot of people could be helped with the money in this room,” Natalia murmured. She wanted to reiterate that she wanted to go to college but knew it would be futile.       “I didn’t know we were coming here.”
     “You’ll be taken care of for life,” her father said, looking about the room as if this lavishness would soon be Natalia’s.
     Natalia grimaced. This was not where she thought they were taking her. This was the last thing she’d ever want for her life.
     “Can’t we wait and decide when I’m eighteen?” If she could make it that far then she’d be free.
     “Don’t be ridiculous,” her mother said.
     “You need to grab these opportunities when they arise,” her father said.
     “What on earth are you going to do when you’re eighteen when you can be settled here?” her mother said.
     “College?”
     “Nonsense. Your brother, Beryl, has already been to college. He’s married and we already have a grandbaby.” Her mother scrunched her shoulders and smiled as if she was admiring her grandbaby.      “Such a precious little boy.”
     “You have everything you ever wanted,” her father said to her mother. The smile plastered on his face seemed a little forced.
     “Not many get an opportunity like this. To be accepted in the most prestigious church,” her mother said.
     “I don’t want to be a nun.”
     “Not a worry in the world,” her father said under his breath, almost as if he was envious.
     A wave of horror swept over her at the finality of her parents’ decision. She found she could hardly breath as if a rock was sitting on her chest.
     “Do you think we’ll get tea?” her mother said in a quiet voice as if afraid she’d be overheard.
     “Not this early in the morning,” her father said in an equally quiet voice.
     “Tea?” Natalia was aghast that her mother was wanting tea. Her parents were destroying her life and her mother wanted tea?
     “We’ll get you some later,” her mother said, reaching over to pat Natalia’s knee as if to comfort her.
     Natalia jumped. A door panel, concealed in the wall in front of them, opened. A richly robed man, wearing sandals, stepped out. In silence, he ushered them into the office with a wave of his hand. He seemed to stare at her, hardly giving her parents a glance.
Natalia swallowed hard as she rose. The office beyond the door was more lavishly decorated than the waiting room.
     “Please, sit.” The words were a command.
     “Your Lordship,” both her parents said as they settled into chairs in front of his desk with Natalia sandwiched between them.
     Natalia recognized the man sitting behind the desk as the Lord Abbot. She’d seen him on the news. His business suit was expensive and adorned with gold cuff links and a gold tie pin. She thought he hardly looked the part of a humble servant of God. Natalia immediately took a disliking to him. He never even rose from his desk. He looked as if he was a banker and they were a family applying for a loan.
     “I’ve received your application,” the Lord Abbey said.
     Natalia noted with distaste that he didn’t even bother to introduce himself. Of all the times she’d seen him on the news, he’d only been called by his title. She wondered if anyone knew his real name.
     “Excellent to hear,” her father said, rising and placing an envelope on the desk.
     Natalia swallowed hard, again. She knew there was a check in that envelope and hoped her father hadn’t been too generous. The Lord Abbot shifted in his chair, making Natalia think he was going to grab and open the envelope to see how much, but he didn’t.
      “The application will be review by our board and you should know in a week or so.” His eyes fleetingly took in the envelope.
     Natalia stiffened as his eyes moved over to her. She had the odd feeling he was staring at her breasts. His look was creepy, but his words gave her a ray of hope. She feared they would take her at once. She had time to plan an escape.
     “We are so please you are considering our Natalia,” her mother said with a gush of pride that made Natalia embarrassed.
     The Lord Abbot smiled and nodded, but his eyes never moved away from her. Natalia almost expected him to lick his lips.
     “My assistant will provide information on preparing your daughter should she be accepted,” The Lord Abbot said, gesturing with his hand to the door.
     The robed man stood in the open doorway, holding a packet. He also gestured with his hand. To Natalia, it was an obvious sign that the meeting was at an end despite it seemed like it had hardly started. She rose with haste. The open door was her escape and she wasn’t going to wait another moment. Her movement spurred her parents into realizing that the meeting was over. She hurried ahead of them out to the corridor toward the front entrance.
     “Don’t walk so fast, Natalia,” her mother said.
     Natalia felt she needed to get outside for air before she suffocated. She rushed out the front entrance and trotted down the steps before she stopped and sucked in air. Her lungs found the smog of the city refreshing. The heavy traffic that flowed in front of her looked like paradise. She had the brief feeling she was a doomed prisoner who’d received a delay in execution.
     “Let’s have lunch at the cafe,” her mother said as they caught up with her. “I know it’s a little early, but we can have a cup of tea beforehand.”
     “If we must,” her father said.
     “Café Green or Paula’s?” Natalia said, falling in behind her parents. She felt a malicious pleasure in knowing that the question would irritate her mother.
     “Paula’s, of course,” her mother said, almost sounding snippy.
     “Green’s has better food,” Natalia said in a quiet voice. Her mother didn’t respond. She knew her mother preferred Paula’s. It was the place to be seen, and it was the last place Natalia wanted to go. The café had a huge outdoor area with artistic tents over it that allowed people to sit out at tables rain or shine. There tended to be more rain than shine.
     “What a beautiful sunny day,” her father said.
     “Yeah,” Natalia breathed. She now felt like a ten-year old having just complete some program at church, and that her mother wanted to now show her off, dressed in what could be described as a white fluffy virginal dress. However, it wasn’t even Sunday. It was a Thursday. Late morning.
     “I have to go back to work right after lunch,” her father said.
     Her parents strolled in a leisurely manner, arm in arm, as if they had the world at their fingertips
Natalia swallowed hard again as she spied the packet her mother carried. Her mother held it out in front of herself as if making sure anyone they saw could see. Natalia already knew what was inside. Her friend, Rebecca, had faced the same fate and had shared everything. Natalia felt like crying as she thought of her. Rebecca was now dead.
     “You’ll have to read this closely,” her mother said, waving the packet.
     “I already know what’s inside,” Natalia said with a gloomy voice.
     “Nonsense. Each packet is specific to the person. I’m sure due to your father’s position, that you will be well placed in the church,” her mother said as if she’d already read the information.
Natalia shook her head but knew her mother didn’t see. Nor her father.
     “All the same,” she said, knowing the packet spelled out the proper behaviors and rules. Due to the death of Rebecca, she now knew violating the contract carried a death penalty.
     “Natalia, I’m not liking your attitude.”
     That was her mother’s way of telling her to shut up.
     Natalia knew that Rebecca had been taken to the church, but believed she also had time to plan an escape. Unfortunately, she’d been taken back to the church the next day. She’d managed to escape six months later. However, she only managed to survive a few months among friends before she was captured. During her short freedom, she’d informed them about the life of a nun, and it wasn’t pretty. You were a slave who washed, cleaned or worked in the gardens. As well, there were the endless prayer sessions and long periods of isolation. And there was the sex. Rebecca informed them that she’d been sterilized within days of becoming a nun. After a few days of recovery, she was put into service for any of the male clergy to use at will. A refusal resulted in a gang rape and a beating.
Natalia didn’t know exactly how Rebecca died, but the rumors suggested that she was entombed and starved. Or as the church would probably say, she was left to the mercy of God.
Natalia felt her chest tighten in terror as she saw her own death.
     “R-Rebecca said….”
     “Enough, Natalia,” her mother said in a stern voice.
     Natalia knew she couldn’t broach the topic again. Her parents only saw the good and the glory.
     “You can’t believe the story of some rogue runaway. Her parents were publicly embarrassed.”
     Natalia knew differently. She’d seen Rebecca’s bruises and the horror in her eyes.
     The café was busy, but with a bribe from her father, the waiter managed to find them a table. Natalia’s only respite was that the table was off to the side and by a pole that partially blocked the table from view of the other tables. She took the chair that allowed her to face the city and not the main area of the café. If she couldn’t see the other tables, then she could pretend they didn’t exist.
     Ahead of her, she saw life and hope. A’ppollo was the largest metropolitan area on the whole continent. The skyline was packed with high rises and raised rails. The roads were packed with cars and trucks. The rails ran constantly. The city never shutdown. The economy was booming, so she heard. Everyone she knew who went looking for employment found it.
     Her mom put the packet on the table. The sun seemed to choose that moment to hide behind a cloud.
     “Tea,” her mother said, ordering as a waiter approached.
     “Yes, ma’am.”
     To Natalia’s dismay, her mother was rubbernecking around to see who else was at the café. To her relief, the waiter was quick to bring the tea, distracting her mother.
     Natalia was still having a hard time swallowing as she stared at the packet; her death sentence. She took a long-time adding milk and sugar to her tea and stirring as if it was too hot, knowing she couldn’t drink. Her throat was too tight. She pretended to drink, using her napkin to absorb some so it looked as if she was sipping her tea.
     “See, now there’s a proper young lady,” her mother said. She was looking around the café again.
     A mother and daughter pair passed their table. While her mother had seen a proper young lady, Natalia saw another downtrodden girl.
     “I remember growing up and children ran amok,” her mother said with distaste.
     Her father nodded absentmindedly as he sipped his tea. He looked faraway in thought.
     “You have it made, Natalia. I’ve told you a hundred times. Your father is doing well in his work. We have very nice house. You have everything you could ever want. Look at the opportunities in front of you.”
     “Death,” Natalia thought as she looked at the few tables in her view. The inhabitants were mainly adults. If there was a minor, they were with an adult. It was illegal for anyone under eighteen to be out without the accompaniment of an adult, preferably a parent. She wasn’t allowed to have more than one friend over at a time. Nor was she allowed to go to a friend’s house unless a parent was in attendance. She had no phone. No computer. Her parents dictated everything.
     The waiter returned.
     “I’ll have the tuna salad on white. No dressings or sides,” her mother said.
     “The lunch special,” her father said. He hadn’t even looked at the menu.
     “Chicken salad sandwich,” Natalia said. “No sides.”
     The waiter nodded and left.
     Natalia thought about her life. She had a savings account, but it wasn’t even in her name.
     “Yeah,” she thought. “I go into the nunnery and you get to keep all the money.”
     Strange how she was told it was her account, but she didn’t know how much was there. She suspected that all the money she’d received as gifts over the years had gone into her mother’s pocket. Her mother liked to spend money, specifically on clothing and jewelry.
     Her mother, showing disappointment, finally stopped looking around. Natalia hoped no one her mother knew would appear.
     “I wonder if you’ll even need to pack. You’ll be in a habit once you’ve gone through training. She’s going to be a novitiate or a novice?”
     Her father shrugged.
     Natalia wished her mother would shut up.
     “There’s no training,” she said in a hoarse whisper.
     “Nonsense, Natalia. You don’t just read this packet and know everything. Goodness, child. You’ll need training just like you would in the job market. You just don’t reach eighteen and someone hires you.”
     “College,” Natalia said in a deadpan voice.
     “We can’t support you forever,” her father said, piping in.
     Natalie suppressed a strong urge to slap him. They were sending her to her death, and they were worried about money?
     “Mother spends…”
     “Natalia.” Her mother’s voice was like a slap in the face. “Don’t you dare talk like that.” Her mother forced a smile as the waiter arrived with their food.
     Natalia picked through her sandwich, hiding the fact that she was tossing bits of it to the pigeons. Thankfully, her mother thought it was ladylike to leave your meal half-eaten.
     “I have to get back to work,” her father said. He’d only eaten half his own meal, showing he was in no mood to linger. He signaled for the bill.
     “It’s such a nice day, you should call in,” her mother said.
     “I have responsibilities,” he said, handing a credit card to the waiter.
     The waiter scanned it at the table and her father signed the electronic pad.
     Her father rose from his seat, forcing her mother to realize they would sit no more. He didn’t stroll arm-in-arm with her mother, forcing her to walk at a faster pace. Natalia felt like running to their car and felt some relief when she was able to hide in the back seat out of public view. She’d hoped her mother would forget the packet at the cafe, but she hadn’t.
     The drive home was quick. Her mother babbled about whatever was out the windows. Her father remained silent, just nodding in an agreeable manner at times. Natalia ignored her mother, unless she heard her name, and then she’d just smile. Her mind was spinning with options, but by the time her father pulled into the driveway, she knew exactly what she had to do.