When Natie found herself lucid again, she was somewhere. Somewhere more familiar, yet not familiar at all. There was the river, but it couldn’t be the river, because it was going in a completely different direction. It couldn’t be her river, because the water was so clear she could see to the bottom.
But it was all the right size. She wasn’t looking at it from a distance and barely able to take it all in.
There were no Hands. There was no backpack either, but Natie didn’t remember if she had had it on when she had been pulled out.
Shaking, she eventually managed to get out of the tree. She climbed halfway down before she fell. Rolling onto her back, Natie wheezed for breath like her father after chasing her around the house as he used to. When she got to her feet, she stumbled away, not certain where she was, where her home might be. How long she had been gone.
She did not see the Hands.
It seemed a little darker, beyond the barrier of her eyelids. Natie couldn’t open her eyes to check though, her terror kept her a tight ball on the branch she clung to. She could breathe still, but her air came out in short bursts, little lungs hyperventilating.
Until she opened her eyes and became breathless.
She was reminded of being five years old, in her house. If her house had been twenty times the size and she twenty times less. It took her a long time to take it in, as she looked around, seeing something that looked like a lantern, but huge. She and the tree had been set down on a table that was bigger than the world, so it seemed. And then Natie looked up.
The face looked down upon the tree and the Hands carefully broke off the part of the tree she was on. Natie screamed again, as she went up up up once more. She looked into the EYE, larger than life, before hanging her head to press it into the bark.
It wasn’t real. This hadn’t happened. She had fallen out of the tree when she saw the Hand and she was making this up.
Natie saw the Hand come down in the distance. Right into town. She gripped the branch she was on, eyes wide in horror as the hand began to move things. She saw the townhouse disappear into the sky. The Hand returned, but the townhouse didn’t.
What she had been told was to meet up with everyone else in the field when this happened. She would meet up with Mom and Dad and they would wait for the Cleaning to be finished. When it was, they would find their way home. But Natie couldn’t move. Her hands clung to the tree, as if afraid that leaving it and running toward the field would make her a big target for the Hand.
The Hand didn’t take people, she had been told. But the Hand didn’t take, as far as Natie was concerned. It was supposed to give them more food. More good things. It never took.
Then the Second Hand came and plucked Natie’s tree right out of the soil.
Natie screamed. She would have let go, but the ground seemed so far away. Her fear of falling outweighed the fear of being pulled up and up and up. She shut her eyes with a sob, feeling the air change as she kept coming up. Past the sky, into…
Natie wasn’t sure she wanted to be outside when the Cleaning happened, even though that was where most everyone else wanted to be most of the time. While she really wanted to see what new flowers might show up after the Cleaning was over, she wasn’t sure if she wanted to see the Hand take.
The Hand had always given before, every time she had seen it. The great, big Hand descended from above with food or toys or would rearrange something. Patty’s house had been shifted from the left side of her property to the right side when they were five. Natie had thought that was great, because it meant she could see her from her bedroom window.
But this time the Hand might take something. And if it was taken out, there was no guarantee it would ever come back. That was why Mom made her wear a backpack with the things she didn’t want to lose.
Natie became tired of hearing about it though, when the months passed and the Cleaning had not happened yet. Her shoulders hurt from carrying around that book all the time. She really wanted to talk about something else.