Wolves in the Fog
It’s the kind of night that wolves love. I can tell because the twirling wisps of fog try to catch my eye.
Abuelita used to say that no living creature is safe on nights like this, when the heavens blindfold the town with a blanket of mist. On nights like this, even the moonbeams can’t find their way. Instead, they bounce back and forth until the whole foggy veil crackles with electric blue lightning. It’s like the moon herself is lost in blindness, trying to get home before the wolves smell her fear.
Another wisp of fog flashes the light of a moonbeam at me and an icy finger drags its sharp nail along my spine. A cold shiver crawls over my skin. It’s almost like the smoky mass winked at me…like it’s alive and knows it’s being watched. I know there are innocent wanderers out there. I know there are wolves lurking in the darkness, waiting for the right moment to pounce. It’s only a matter of time before the wolves take their first victim. Trust me, it’s that kind of night.
A loud whip cracks outside and I can’t catch the small scream that escapes my mouth. After a few seconds, the bellowing groan of thunder rolls across the night sky. Even the front window rattles from the skyquake and I can’t help but shudder again.
“Go back to sleep.”
The voice catches me by surprise. I turn my attention from the window and see three larger-than-life burritos wrapped in heaps of blankets on Tío’s living room floor. The lumpy cocoon furthest from me is the one that moves first: my big sister, Josefina.
“How can you sleep?” I ask.
“Well, I’m trying to,” she snaps, “but between the storm and your yipping, it’s almost impossible.”
“But Sefa, it’s one of those nights,” I say.
“Oh, give me a break…” she groans.
“How can you sleep when there are wolves hiding in the…”
“That’s an old wives’ tale!” Sefa shouts. “Abuelita told us those stories so we never broke the rules or stayed out late. They’re not real! Grow up, Enrique!”
Sefa has a nasty habit of treating us like subjects in her kingdom. But ever since her quinceañera last month, she’s even quicker to lay down her law, like we’re all taking the same test and God Almighty gave her all the answers ahead of time. She didn’t see the fog winking at me, telling me it knows something that we don’t.
“You didn’t see the fog…” but she cuts me off before I can make my point.
“Cut it out!” comes a voice from the heap next to me.
My big brother Roberto sits up in his sleeping bag and throws off the hood of his sweatshirt just as another thunderclap rattles the window.
“The first thing you have to do is shut up,” Berto groans. “Then, you have to put your big boy pants on and stop believing in stupid ghost stories, okay?”
“Oh, what do you know?” I argue back. “You didn’t see what I saw. You were too busy snoring.”
“Impossible,” Berto scoffs. “I couldn’t have been sleeping because I was busy listening to your whining, you little puppy dog.”
Berto whips my face with the sleeve of his sweatshirt, which is two sizes too big for him. I’m too surprised to feel angry at first, but when I see his smug smile, I feel my cheeks start to burn.
“Maybe that’s what we need to do,” he says, stinging my nose with his sleeve. “Throw this little puppy dog out to the wolves so we can finally get some rest.”
When he whips me a third time, I catch his sleeve and pull him toward me as I throw my fist into his chin. I’m not sure how he moves so quickly, but before I know it, my shoulders are pinned to the floor under his knees and he’s slapping the top of my head until I see double. I see the outline of two shadows behind him trying to grab hold of his swinging arms. Once the attack stops, I notice the two shadows blur together into the shape of my sister. Sefa knocks Berto on his side and then falls to her knees between us.
“I know…you’re both…upset,” she says between breaths. “I am, too. We’ve all had a long night, but it’ll only get longer if we take it out on each other. Things will be better in the morning.”
“What about Papá?!” I yell.
All I hear are Sefa and Berto complaining that they’re sleepy, but neither of them seem to care about Papá.
“What if he’s on his way right now?” I ask, unable to hold the tears that roll down my cheek. “He could be walking through the storm, trying to get to us, and all you care about is going to sleep? None of you saw the fog wink at me. The wolves are out there.”
“Let the fog take him,” Berto answers.
“Berto, don’t,” Sefa calls out.
“What? Do you feel differently?” he says. “Did you see the look on Mamá’s face when the jefe kicked us out of the apartment today? The man’s supposed to be the head of the house, right? He’s supposed to provide for us and for Mamá, right? Instead, he pisses his money away at the bar while we starve! Let the fog have him. If not the fog, give him to Enrique’s wolves!”
I can see Sefa working things out for herself. She’s looking at her hands, inspecting the raw calluses on her fingertips from helping Mamá sew the handbags they sell on the side. Even Berto helps pump gas at the local station sometimes, but we still can’t afford rent.
“Is that what you’re doing, Enrique?” Sefa asks. “Are you waiting up for him?”
I’m too embarrassed to look at Berto because I know he’s right to be angry at Papá. But I can still feel his judgment warming my face like the heat of a flame. Sefa’s eyes have pity in them, but her look isn’t for Papá…it’s for me.
“Be careful, little brother,” she says. “If you’re waiting for Papá to come around, you may be waiting a long time. And if you look out there too long, you might start seeing things that aren’t really there.”
Somewhere in the back of my mind – way back where I know things I still don’t understand – the weight of my sister’s words hit me like a grenade going off in the distance. I know she’s right, but I can’t admit it. I’m too ashamed that I still want to see Papá, even though he hurt everyone so badly.
“Maybe you’ll see him another day,” Sefa says, putting her hand on my shoulder. There’s kindness in her gesture, but I can tell she’s also disappointed that I see past Papá’s sins to the man who used to kick the soccer ball around with us every Friday evening. “Til then, you still have us.”
Suddenly, a strange noise meets our ears. It’s a faint clanging at first, but it gets louder slowly until it sounds like it’s just outside Tío’s door.
“Do you hear that?” I ask.
Sefa and Berto don’t need to speak for me to see the answer in their baffled faces. A few more rings and I recognize the sound from the old cartoons I used to watch on Saturday mornings.
“Is that a trolley bell?” Berto asks, reading my mind.
“That’s it!” I shout.
“But it can’t be,” Sefa says. “The old trolley lines haven’t worked in our town since our parents were kids.”
“Well, even if they did,” Berto adds, “there’s no trolley line within miles of Tío’s house.”
We all look at the window at the same time just as a bolt of lightning comes alive from inside the fog. We see it just as the thunder shakes the window. A pale blue trolley floats in thin air along Tío’s street, with one antenna extending skyward into the fog. It’s like the ghost tram is being powered by the storm itself. The trolley is empty except for its pilot, who is wearing a thick hooded cloak. He steers the tram along the curve of the street until it comes to a halt at the end of Tío’s driveway.
When we see a little girl in a red jacket and a brown suitcase waddling toward the street, my heart stops. Sefa, Berto, and I stare at each other in disbelief, but it only takes a second before one of us is moving. Sefa jumps over Berto’s sleeping bag and unfolds the last of the four sleeping bags still bunched up between hers and Berto’s. Sefa pulls the cover back only to find two pillows wrapped inside it. There’s no sign of our little sister.
“Nora!” Sefa cries out.
All three of us are outside in an instant, but we’re already too late. The trolley is picking up speed down the lane, as it sinks into the fog like an anvil in quicksand.
The last thing I remember seeing is a metal plate welded on the back of the tram and the emblem carved into its surface: the face of a wolf with angel’s wings sprawled above it.
It’s all my fault.
It’s all my fault.
It’s all my fault.
Caleb’s whimpering disrupts my hypnotic trance. I wonder if his tolerance for my midnight clacking has finally run out. With some effort, I avert my eyes from the typewriter and see a lump swaddled in the bedsheets. The drooping cot takes up a quarter of our studio apartment; he’s so close I can almost reach out and touch him from my spot at the dilapidated desk. He wrestles with the quilt for a few moments, yipping like a young pup, before letting the waves of slumber wash over him once again.
Despite my incessant labor these past few months, my son finds a way to sleep through the night, though his dreams have been tumultuous since Hannah’s diagnosis. So, too, has my insomnia. When Billy and I were notified of her immunodeficiency, I made a deal with God – or Satan or whatever celestial being would listen – that I wouldn’t know sleep until either she is delivered from her grave or I am sent to mine. If a life-for-life exchange were something our Omnipotent Dictator would entertain, the curtain would’ve set on this melodramatic tragedy months ago, but as it is, my beautiful daughter suffers in the hospital and my only remedy is the typewriter and the opus being crafted by its levers.
I refocus my eyes onto the parchment. There they are again, the four words whose echo I can’t escape even if I could find a way to exist outside of myself. My latest manuscript is nearing three hundred pages and who knows how many times those words have bled from my subconscious onto the page.
It’s all my fault.
It’s all my fault.
It’s all my fault.
Billy has spent the last year trying to convince me otherwise, but the self-flagellation is both merited and just. Perhaps only a mother could fully comprehend the ownership she has in her child’s triumphs and tribulations. If a son experiences pain, who else is to blame but the mother whose protection was a failure? If a daughter experiences hardship, who else is to blame but the mother who couldn’t pave a safer road? On the other side of the coin, what greater gift for a parent than to watch a child mature into a better person than you ever were?
That is…if life were fair.
When I hear the lock turn, my heart drops into my stomach like a load of bricks, another symptom only understood by mothers of a suffering child. The moments that rob us of our joy and change our lives forever often begin with something deceivingly ordinary like a phone call or a doctor opening the door to the waiting room. As children, we fear the dark or the monsters lurking therein, but the worst nightmares often come under the guise of normalcy. When Billy walks into the apartment, I search every inch of his face for the only telling detail that matters, but he’s wise to my routine.
“She’s okay,” he mutters.
Only then does my pulse cease its agitated staccato.
“You left her alone?” I ask.
His voice doesn’t have its usual charming confidence. That grinning light that captivated me all those years ago has been snuffed out by a cruel reality. But above all else, Billy is tired. I know deep down he’s just as tired of me as he is of being bullied by fate. Though he’s occasionally vented his frustrations with the latter, he’s far too stubborn to admit the former.
“Billy, did you leave her alone?”
“Do I ever?” he replies.
“Of course, she’s not alone!” he snaps. “I’ve asked Sam to stay with her tonight, so I can get a good night’s rest for a change. I can’t very well pour into others if I have no energy myself. I’ll go back in the morning. Unless…”
He’s leading me into the boxing ring again.
“Never mind,” he mutters.
It’s his casual dismissal that sends me over the edge.
“Unless what?!” I scream. “Unless I go to the hospital? How will I write if I’m constantly disrupted with prodding nurses or beeping machines? I need to be here…writing. Isn’t that what you and Sam and the others told me? That the power of my words can deliver her?”
“I just think if you took a break every once in a while, your daughter would appreciate seeing you. She asks about you every…”
“You filled my head with these notions of magic and fantasy, Billy. You taught me the transformative power of fiction. You taught me the limitless power of the imagination, the belief that lives can be truly restored by profound ideas. You told me that fiction inspires, improves, transforms!”
“I know what I told you,” he mutters.
“Then tell her why I’m not there! Tell her I’m writing the miraculous story that will save her life! Tell her that I’ll use the magic of stories to create a better life for her. You’ve made me believe I can do this, Billy. Now, I just need more time.”
“That’s precisely what Hannah doesn’t have!!”
I’ve heard it said that the line between love and hate is dangerously thin, which makes the fire of a passionate relationship a two-edged sword. Through the last decade, Billy and I have had our share of arguments, but oh, I hate him for those hurtful words.
“Now, he’s a realist,” I say, gritting my teeth.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” he asks, looking defeated already.
“Billy Richards, the dreaming author, has finally abandoned the clouds to make his wife feel guilty for not being at her daughter’s bedside. I know bloody well she may not have time, Billy! How dare you throw that in my face? I haven’t slept in months, slogging away at what you’ve made me believe will save her life. And now, when I’m less than thirty pages away, that’s when you waltz in here and make me feel guilty for putting into practice what you’ve been preaching for the last decade?”
“Under circumstances like these, there are better ways to spend your time, Stella. Hannah needs her mother.”
“Don't you think inspired writing has true saving power?”
“Of course, I do, but…”
“Then my time at the typewriter is well-spent. My faith in sprouts from what you’ve taught me, after all.”
“Fine!” Billy spat. “Each of us will stay on our separate paths and if Hannah doesn’t pull through, we’ll see who lives with the burden of regret.”
“You bloody bastard!” I cry out. It doesn’t take long for me to see beyond the veil of his bravado. “Ah, I understand now. You don’t want me to finish the story because you wanted it to be you. You wanted to be the savior. You wanted to be the author of the masterpiece that saves her. Always craving the limelight….”
“No, I’m scared, Stella! Our little girl is battling for her life and her mother is bent over a typewriter. Now, I believe in your writing with every fiber of who I am, but I can’t let these days go by blinded by an experiment that may not work.”
Caleb begins to cry, the vault of his slumber burst open by his parents’ heated argument. I don’t know why his sobbing makes me angry, but the blood rushing to my cheeks makes it hard for me to think how best to comfort him. Of course, things come easier to Billy Richards, who takes a black pipe out of his pocket and feigns a few puffs from the empty instrument. He dangles it within the boy’s reach and Caleb inspects it for a moment before puffing himself. Even at three years old, Caleb still finds solace in whatever he can use as a pacifier.
Perhaps a victim of envy myself, I turn my back to them and continue typing. I can feel the anger coursing through my fingers and into the words that appear behind the stamp of the type levers.
* * * * *
Engrossed in the rhythm of the typewriter’s clacking, I exist in a space independent from time. But the knock at the door brings me back. When I see Sam’s familiar face aghast with a markedly unfamiliar despair, my stomach turns inside out. I know he’s come to announce that the worst has happened. My daughter is dead.
It’s all my fault.
It’s all my fault.
It’s all my fault.
“I’m so sorry…”
Sam speaks the words, but we don’t hear them. Billy doubles over in the doorway, screaming at the top of his lungs.
“Oh, God, NO!!”
I feel something icy grip my heart. My breath becomes shallow at the thought that the beautiful creature we loved into existence is no longer. It’s impossible to describe just how wanted our children were, just how desperately Billy and I wanted to be parents. When the doctors placed Hannah in my arms, a crying bundle weighing less than seven pounds, I fell in love so deeply, and just as quickly fell into the fear that I could lose something so inherently precious to me.
The finality of my loss is so devastating that I become numb. I don’t feel sadness or anger. No, all I can think of is the unfinished project on my typewriter and the power yet to be infused into its words. I wipe a solitary tear from my cheek and take my seat at the writer’s desk.
My fingers are possessed with a palpable desperation. I know exactly how I want to finish my story, so I allow them to roam freely as I let my mind meditate on the twisting path that brought me here. Leaving to America. Taking a chance on a charming young playwright. Submitting my samples to the local paper. Marrying Billy and starting our family. But no, the most important decision of my life hadn’t been any of those. It was this, to surrender my grief and infuse it into the grand masterwork whose power would resurrect my daughter from the dead.
“What are you doing?”
The judgment in his broken voice sickens me. It hurts to stop typing, so close to finishing my best work yet. I don’t see Sam standing in the doorway or Caleb crying on the edge of the bed. I only see Billy sniveling like a traumatized victim.
“Saving our daughter,” I say.
“It’s too late, Stella.”
I can’t describe what becomes unhinged. I tense every muscle in my body until they send involuntary spasms down my arms. The veins in my forehead pulse with heated blood. I am disgusted by Billy’s lack of faith. This man, who was my creative pulse when I didn’t believe in my abilities as an author, should be clinging to the pillars he instilled within me. Instead, he judges me for doing that very thing. I see his black pipe on the bed and know exactly what I need to do.
Tremors and cramps seize my body as I put the pipe in my mouth. I close my eyes and bite down on the end of it until I can feel my teeth cracking into it. My fingers bounce on the keyboard, possessed by the demons of my unstoppable hope. As I unlock my imagination, I feel a satisfying electricity coming off the pipe and through me into the words on the page.
I think of Billy. The way his eyes grinned when he first told me about the magic of truthful storytelling. The way he gleamed when I walked down the aisle. The misty-eyed expression of a doe when I told him I was pregnant. I loved this man from the very first time I saw his self-satisfied grin at New York Harbor. How utterly disappointing to see a man of such conviction falter when we finally are afforded the opportunity to change the course of our lives. I know what I have to do to bring my daughter back from the eternal slumber of death.
Rest well, Billy, I think. Know your sacrifice played an integral role in resurrecting Hannah from the dead.
When I type the final word of my manuscript, the pipe singes my tongue in an explosion of heat and I see an image branded on my brain. I see a group of weeping nurses walking out of a dark room. Just before they close the door, a reanimated monitor beeps, its power supply humming back to life.
“What have you done?”
Someone’s voice rips the illusion from my mind. I open my eyes, an ounce less confident that my work has triumphed over death. Billy and Sam look shell-shocked, but when I look to the bed, only a wisp of steam floats where Caleb used to be. Billy’s stare glares into me.
“What have you done?” he repeats.
It’s all my fault.
It’s all my fault.
It’s all my fault.
The Maestro’s Boy
Don’t do it.
The boy froze in his tracks, both palms pancaked to the glass window. The realistic presence of the voice broke the hypnotic trance he’d held over the trinket in the shop’s display. Sneaking a quick glance over each shoulder, Doro dismissed the voice of his conscience and continued fawning over the golden pocket watch, whose insides were exposed. The pristine harmony among the network of microscopic gears made him wonder if God Himself shared a similar perspective when watching the universe of His creation tick. The brilliance of the timepiece’s exterior reminded the boy of the golden fleece so coveted by Jason and his Argonauts.
Thou shalt not covet.
Doro’s heart leapt and he turned in a circle like a dog chasing its own tail. Not one living soul was in close proximity, save for the occasional passerby clickety-clacking down the cobblestone thoroughfare. The voice had become incessant recently, regurgitating the boorish musings of Doro’s Sunday school teacher. At that moment, the boy caught a flashing glimmer out of the corner of his eye. He was convinced the pocket watch itself had winked at him. In the midst of his resolve to make that watch his, by hook or crook, how could Doro have known it had merely been the reflection of the sunlight that had penetrated the thick layer of metallic grey clouds?
Thou shalt not steal.
“Oh, what do you know!?” Doro cried out.
The Maestro may not have seen the crime if his last patient hadn’t cancelled his appointment. But old Signor Tartuccio had fallen victim to yet another bargain. Yesterday’s pastries for half the price. It was a financial steal, but it came at the cost of severe indigestion, and yet old Tartuccio resisted not. There were some mysteries of the mind that could not be explained, not even by therapy with the wisest man in the provincial Italian town. It was only by happenstance that the Maestro had been free during what would’ve been his last hour of administering therapy. From his office window on the third floor, the Maestro had watched his son play the thief yet again.
You mustn’t feel ashamed. You’re not the guilty one.
“If not I, who is? A father must mold his children.”
Doro isn’t a child, Maestro.
“He’s still a boy!”
You were younger than he when you came to wisdom.
The Maestro removed his small bifocals and gingerly rubbed the bridge of his nose, reflecting the accuracy of the last statement.
“Do you suppose nature can teach what nurture could not?”
The decision is his, Signore. Give him the opportunity to prove himself.
“And if he lies yet again?”
He’ll have the Angel to answer to.
A chill seized the Maestro’s heart in its icy grip. He remembered his own encounter with the Angel all those years ago. The Maestro shed one furtive tear, wishing he had more faith in his boy to tell the truth.
The boy whistled through the town at a full sprint, past the corps of fir sentinels and into the heart of the Forbidden Forest. The path once marked by compact wood chips soon became unkempt potpourri made of mud, roots, and pine needles. Then, Doro ran some more. When his lungs felt like sacks of burning coal, the boy fell to his knees and flung his hands above his head. The sun had gone down hours ago and without its guidance, Doro couldn’t find his grandfather’s cottage. The boy had loved his grandfather, a jolly old man that had never made Doro feel like a stupid child, the way Papa did. The so-called Maestro of Piombino.
You shouldn’t have lied. You shouldn’t have stolen.
The boy jumped to his feet, suddenly aware of every inch of distance he had put between himself and his home. Despite the attempt to pass the voice off as a figment of his imagination, Doro couldn’t ignore it any longer.
“Who are you?!” he yelled. “What do you want?!”
The towering trees bounced his voice between them until the reverberations boomeranged back to him.
To guide you.
“I don’t need guiding! I don’t need anyone’s help!”
Everyone needs help from time to time.
“Oh, what do you know? I don’t have to listen to you.”
Suddenly, a radiant white light illuminated the forest like a bolt of lightning from the hands of Jupiter. Doro clutched his eyes, temporarily blinded by the flash’s brilliance.
“Come, Ronzio,” said a pleasant female voice. “You’ve done well to try, but your work is done here.”
Doro felt a slight tickle from behind his right ear. When the boy finally opened his eyes, he saw a large bumblebee floating towards a blue aura. He touched the back of his ear, wondering how he hadn’t noticed an insect of that size crawling on him.
“Who are you?” Doro asked, trying not to let his voice tremble.
“Different things to different people,” the female voice replied. The source of the sound seemed to be coming from the center of the blue aura. “Some consider me a fairy, while others call me a witch. Still, others call me an angel.”
“What do you want?”
“I want to know what you want, Doro.”
The boy wondered what reply would secure his safe passage.
“I want what all little boys want.”
“Not to be treated like a little boy?” the aura offered.
He covets the possessions of others.
The bumblebee flitted around Doro’s head.
“What’s that?!” the boy cried out.
“Your conscience, Doro,” the aura replied. “It’s a voice you should’ve listened to a bit more frequently. Perhaps then, you’d behave in a manner fitting of a man. Good men don’t envy what others have. Good men don’t steal what doesn’t belong to them. Good men don’t lie about the wrongs they’ve committed.”
“It’s just a watch!” Doro yelled back, wondering how this mysterious entity could know the details of his recent whereabouts.
“There is a string that connects everything in existence, Doro. You didn’t only rob Signor Collodi of a prized antique, but of the good he’d do with the proceeds of its future sale. Do you understand? Everything is connected. And this isn't the first object you've stolen, is it?”
“Oh, what do you know?!” Doro screamed. “You’re just like Papa. I’m not bad because I take things! The world is for the people who take what they can get. That’s what everybody does. Take, take, take! It’s the only way to change your stars.”
“Your Papa is a wise man,” the blue aura told the boy. “But he wasn’t always the Maestro. He learned the ways of the world at his own expense and grew as a result. You could benefit from his experience, but you don’t respond to instruction, Doro. You upset the world’s balance when you act so rashly, and you’ve been given so many chances to mend your ways.”
“See this?” Doro said, raising both arms above his heads. “No strings on me. I can do what I want!”
“Perhaps that needs to change.”
You mustn’t feel ashamed. This isn’t your fault.
Through misty eyes, the Maestro looked at the insect on the windowsill and offered the cricket his palm. For years now, the Maestro began his day with a walk across the cobblestone street that led to Signor Collodi’s shop window. Despite the desperate pleas of his conscience, the old man felt he deserved the heartbroken pangs in his chest every day he cast his eyes to the lifeless marionette suspended by strings, frozen mid-dance.
Had Glen hit something in the road? The constant hum of the engine, which had done nothing to drown out his anxiety, must have lulled him to a lower degree of consciousness than was healthy when sitting behind the wheel. Furiously blinking the drowsiness from his eyes, the rented Kia Rio swayed between the striped lines of the two-lane highway. The dark countryside stretched into oblivion in every direction, save for the ten feet of pavement illuminated by the headlight.
“You imagined it,” Glen mumbled to himself.
The mysterious sound seemed almost sentient in its defiance of Glen’s theory. He most certainly had not imagined it. There was a moment of what-am-I-supposed-to-do-now panic before he recaptured his composure.
“The tire?” he guessed, sneaking a glance at his rearview.
His heart beat a nervous cadence in his chest and as he pulled the rental car to the side of the road, his pulse quickened into a broken staccato. Then, as if to join in Glen’s percussive symphony, another Thump! thudded from the back of the car. He tiptoed along the side of his car, using his cell phone as a flashlight. It wasn’t until he put his hand on the latch of the trunk that he realized his only means of protecting himself against whoever – or whatever – was in the trunk lay hidden in the glove compartment.
“Doesn’t make a difference,” he muttered to himself.
Glen unlatched the trunk.
“For the love of Pete! Took you long enough, chappy.”
An old man lay on his back, his arms and legs flailing in the air like a confused turtle lying on its shell. As the stowaway tumbled out of the trunk, Glen saw he had wild grey hair and a beard to match. His wrinkled tweed coat came complete with elbow patches, reminding Glen of a 1940s Ivy League professor.
“Have you the time, chappy?” the man asked.
Staring at his companion, Glen wanted to laugh to diffuse the tension he still felt in his chest. He wanted to say something, but nothing came out. Too much practice being lost in thought recently he supposed. He had no answer. The old man squinted deeply as if to look through Glen.
“Do you speak, chappy? Have you got a tongue?”
“Yes,” he answered, snapping himself out of a trance. After seeing the source of the Thump!, it seemed silly that he had felt so threatened just moments ago. “I’m sorry. This is just…”
“Narcoleptic,” the professor interrupted.
“Excuse me?” Glen begged his pardon.
The man squinted deeply again.
“Narcolepsy, a condition of unpredictable seizures of slumber. Narcoleptic, a person with said condition. Are you not wondering how someone my age could have possibly ended up in the trunk of a rental vehicle?”
“Yeah, I guess so,” Glen fumbled over his words. “I’m sorry, I had no idea someone was back there. I apologize, this is all very…”
“Strange indeed,” the professor interrupted again. “Now, have you the time? Or an estimate of how long you’ve been driving?”
“Sure,” Glen replied, checking his phone. “It’s nearly four in the morning.”
“My, my,” the old man sighed. “Thank heavens I awoke when I did, chappy. You didn’t have all that long left. ’Twould’ve been a downright shame. May have cost me my pension!”
“Pardon?” Glen asked.
“You’d be Master Glen St. Claire, would you not?”
“How in the hell…?”
“Spare me the incredulous commentary, chappy. I have far too many customers and far too little time to dwell and dote so generously on you. In that light, would ye mind if I were blunt?”
“As if you haven't been?”
“Suppose I said I know where you’re heading and I know why you’re heading there. Suppose I said you had less than ten minutes til you decided to go through with it.”
The echo of a memory flung Glen from the roadside.
“It’s a numbers game, Glen. We just can’t justify keeping you on board. I’m truly sorry.”
Hearing his boss – someone he considered a legitimately close friend – go corporate on him was like drinking spoiled milk.
“Tom, I’ve been with the firm since I was in college,” Glen had responded. “I’ve given you ten years of my life. This is the only job I’ve had. My wife's expecting. What am I supposed to do?”
The quickness of Tom’s response stung the most.
“Glen, you’re thirty years old. It’s not like your life is ending. And look at your resume. You won’t have trouble finding work. Listen, our backlog isn’t what it used to be. For someone drawing your salary who doesn’t have responsibilities for bringing in new projects? You’re dead weight, amigo. We just can’t keep you. I’m sorry.”
Like hell you are, Glen thought, wishing he had the cajones to say that straight to Tom’s face. But he hadn’t. Of course, he hadn’t. Confrontation wasn’t in his genetic make-up.
“Millions of people lose their jobs, chappy,” the old man said, bringing Glen back to here and now. “Trials make us appreciate the truly important things, eh?”
“No, not another bullshit cliche,” Glen responded. “Listen, spare me the sermon, I’ve heard them all. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. It’s not about falling, it’s about getting back up. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. But how does dead weight become undead? Does the weight just try, try again?”
“There’s far more to life than work, chappy.”
“Tell that to my wife!” Glen yelled back. “Tell that to my unborn twins. How the hell am I supposed to be a good husband? Or a father? How am I supposed to provide for a family without…? How will I ever…”
Glen fell to his knees, his voice surrendering to a series of convulsive sobs. The old man sat on his haunches and put his hand on the broken man’s shoulder.
“Those answers aren’t revealed if you go through with this near-sighted solution, chappy, and leave your loved ones with such a mess. How will your twins deal with their own tribulations, knowing they had a father whose only answer to struggle was that pistol in your glove box? You want to be a good husband and father? Then, dare to persist. You keep driving, you meet the challenge. When love and fear present that inevitable fork in the road, you don’t lose sight of what truly matters, chappy. You persist so that things may happen as they must.”
Glen was utterly embarrassed to have displayed such vulnerability to this strange, all-knowing guest. And yet, a strange peace descended upon his long-troubled mind.
“Now, may I interest in you a chocolate whilst I tinkle?”
The old man reached into the inside pocket of his tweed coat and pulled out a Twix bar.
“What?” Glen croaked, taking the candy bar.
“Here, have a snack. I’ll just need a tinkle so we can be on our way. We’re a long way from where we started, chappy, but still a ways off from where we’re going.”
The could-be professor pranced into the tree line far more gracefully than his age suggested was possible. Glen waited for a quarter hour before he gave up hope that the mysterious visitor would return. When he reentered his rental, Glen shot a nervous glance to the glove box. Feeling empowered from his confidant’s advice, he resolved to toss the pistol into the forest before his will weakened any more than it had over the last month. Glen popped open the compartment, but his firearm was missing. In its place, was a golden compass with a parchment-textured business card taped to its back. The typewritten font was placed clumsily off-center and read:
Keep driving. If you feel lost
at the fork in the road,
use the compass. Then, keep driving.
When Glen reached the stop sign at the end of the next turn-off, he hesitated a moment as he took another bite of the Twix. Sneaking a look at the compass, he flicked on his left blinker to retrace his steps back home. A peculiar sensation pinched his cheeks.
Glen couldn’t remember the last time he had smiled.
"An idea is the most dangerous parasite in the world. It spreads through the mind like cancer consuming its host. An idea is resilient and once it takes hold, it feeds. Think of what truly powerful ideas have done: changed lives, altered histories, shaped the world.”
- Captain Christopher Monroe
* * * * *
Insanity, it is said, is the repetition of the same process expecting a different result. As I unsaddle Ulysses, I cannot resist re-defining the term for I feel madder on the nights I fail to repeat what has become an addictive routine. As the weeks persist in their forward march, so too do my midnight rides to the Bohemian’s Tavern. It becomes difficult to admit that I feel more normal discussing fiction with academics or reading poetry with piss-poor students than passing my time in the so-called comforts of home.
Do I have the courage to fuel my heart’s flame? Or will I recognize the chink in my sanity if I continue playing the role of the politician’s daughter? These are the questions I ponder when I slip into the manor house by the back door and notice that I’m being watched. Even by the dim lighting, I can see Father’s beak-shaped nose cast upward, his condescending expression reaching me from down its crooked curve.
“Is this my punishment?”
Of the legion of questions with which I expect to be cross-examined, this one catches me off-guard. Yet, it shouldn’t have surprised me because it places the Almighty Mr. Darling center stage in someone else’s drama. I don’t know how to tell him the script of my life’s production has no part for him.
“You give yourself too much credit,” I answer. “Not everything I do pertains to you.”
“Does it not?”
I have seen Father upset before, but the tension in his clenched jaw suggests he is seething. When he rises from the upholstered chair and takes a step toward me, it sends a shudder down the small of my back.
“When you eat, it is only because I feed you. When you put on your pants to go riding God knows where at this unseemly hour, it is because I clothe you. When you recline in the library and poison your mind with liberal ideas about self-expression, it is only because I give you the roof under which you do so. Everything you do pertains to me because I am your father and…”
“Father, I never asked…”
My attempted interruption ceases with the generous force of Father’s hand. The initial impact stings my cheek, but it grows into an incessant burning as the shape of his palm brands my face. I touch the edge of my lip and pull back a crimson-tipped finger.
“Your wanton disrespect will no longer be tolerated. You were taught better, but despite my pleas, you continue to embarrass your family with your thoughtless actions.”
“What are you talking about?”
The desperation in my eyes betrays my ignorance.
“You insult my intelligence, Stella. You expect me to believe you’re not fleeing your home to attend your inflammatory writing workshops? If not that, then perhaps some gentleman caller. Whatever the reason, not only do you disgrace yourself, but your behavior implicates the family name. I will not continue having my name slandered by your carelessness.”
“Father, I swear I’m not…”
“We’ve asked very little of you in exchange for the comforts you enjoy. But you’ve made your contempt for us painfully plain, Stella. Your mother and I are in agreement. Henceforth, you are being disavowed. We’ve arranged for transportation to America, where you will stay with your mother’s sister. After you disembark, your life is yours to live however you please. You can tarnish your own reputation without damaging ours any further.”
I hear the words and yet my first thought is not of losing family or any young girl’s dream of the perfect doll’s mansion for a home. It is of a modest tavern with a leaky roof somewhere in a countryside I will never see again.
* * * * *
The boat drops anchor in New York Harbor on the last day of 1969; the thematic irony couldn’t have escaped my poet’s heart if it tried. With nothing to my name but the two suitcases I carry off the boat, I trudge all over the docks searching in vain for an aunt I’ve never met. After the disembarking crowds dissipate, it becomes easier to take in the American portside. Narrow brick shop fronts litter the docks like toy soldiers. Vendors cry out sales pitches in muddled accents, attempting to drown out the bellowing horn blasts of docking ships or the constant whistling of nearby factories. It seems like every decibel of the general din is competing for the attention – and pocketbooks, it must be said – of every casual passerby.
It isn’t a sound that arrests my own attention, but the sight of a decorative wrought-iron sign hanging from one of the brick shop fronts. Outside a bookstore called Inkwell’s, I see a motley gaggle of people watching what I assume is a street performer. When I get closer to peer through the wall of pea coats, I see a solitary figure performing some kind of dramatic reenactment.
The actor is a whirlwind of energy. It isn’t his youth that gives him that advantage, but the vulnerability of his performance that makes my heart flutter. He is reciting the conclusion of Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities and perfectly executes both characters in the work’s final installment: the condemned seamstress and the martyr Sydney Carton. He manipulates his voice expertly between a high-pitched Cockney and a husky baritone eerily close to Father’s tone. Once the seamstress’ death is nigh, he dramatizes Carton’s famous monologue, left unuttered in the novel. The soliloquy is captivating.
“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”
As he bows his head, the audience is left in suspense, waiting on tip-toes to see if there is more. In those moments, I cannot hear fog horns or factory whistles or aggressive salesman. I am locked into the sincere delivery of one of literature’s most famous concluding sequences. I can see how much the actor believes in the words, how they fuel his white-knuckled fist held frozen over his heart, how they pulse in the crow’s feet radiating from the corner of his closed eyes.
When he finally lifts his head, I remember to breathe. Despite a thin glaze of tears over them, his eyes seem to grin in the satisfaction of having done the words justice. I wonder if I’d ever be the same. Every individual applauds fervently, some whooping and hollering, while others remove dollar bills from their pockets.
His performance was magical.
The young man removes the bowler’s hat from his head and shakes the hands of those who fill his coffers. He displays such charisma, such sincerity, such joie de vivre. As he works through the crowd, I can’t control my racing pulse. No man back home ever elicited this kind of response in me, despite several having tried, probably motivated more from a desire to impress Father than to win me over. My saliva evaporates and as his grinning eyes find my fluttering ones, I wonder if I’ll survive the encounter with his bubbly ease. He is so…American.
“You look like a gal worth meeting,” he says, offering his hand. “Enjoy the show?”
His accent is coarse and unrefined, nothing like the characters he had been impersonating not two minutes ago. But those grinning eyes held me prisoner. I don’t have to ask to know this man was worth meeting.
“I’ve read it half a dozen times,” I reply, trying to conceal how taken I am. I shake his hand and go to pull it away, but he tightens his grip. “Though hearing it performed aloud does give it a life of its own.”
“Fresh off the boat, huh?”
“Pardon?” I can’t help placing my palm on my chest.
“That accent ain’t from this side of the Pond. London?”
My cheeks flush and I nod.
“I knew you were worth meeting,” he says. He kisses my hand before letting go.
“Is this how you make your living?” As the words float in the air between us, I realize they are tinged with a hint of judgment, involuntary though it is.
“Dickens got paid by the word, my fair lady,” he answers quickly. “It’s no coincidence his entire first paragraph is one sentence. Check again if you don’t believe me, but why shouldn’t we profit for saying the words he got paid to write, every cent of them?”
“I suppose I never…”
“And acting is simply a passion project. I work…here.”
He points to the wrought-iron sign hanging outside Inkwell’s.
“A bookkeeper?” I ask, trying to choke down the laughter bubbling up my throat. A chuckle hiccups out of my mouth and after that, it is beyond my help.
I can only respond after composing myself.
“My family disowned me for my love of literature,” I explain. “Father found my poetry inflammatory. His socio-elite sensibilities were easily offended. It’s quite ironic that the first American I meet works at a bookshop.”
“I knew you were worth meeting, Miss…”
“Stella,” I finish his sentence. “Stella Darling.”
“Darling indeed,” he replies. “Can I let you in on a little secret? Bookworm to bookworm?”
He beckons me closer and I lean my ear closer to his lips.
“I’m not a bookkeeper. I’m Inkwell’s resident playwright.”
I can’t help but flash a smile to the leaden sky above us.
“Well, your passion for the written art shows in your performance,” I say. “It was lovely to meet you, Mr…”
“Leaving so soon?” he says, without providing his name.
“I’m staying with my aunt, but I can’t seem to find her.”
“Then, let me cook you a warm dinner. I live in the loft above the shop. If you join me for dinner, I’ll give you my name and then we won’t be strangers anymore. Please, I’ve never met someone quite as…ladylike as you.”
He knows before I can utter a word that he has vanquished my resistance and I follow him to the loft. The actor’s attempt at a roast beef stew leaves much to be desired, but the conversation is delectable. Hearing him describe the written word as nourishment of the soul makes me feel weightless and triples the distance between me and my old life across the Atlantic. He speaks of chasing dreams and his addiction to ideas and how his writing aims to change his audience fundamentally. It’s all music to the ears of an impressionable young poet.
After hours of animated discussion, I find myself yearning to know every ounce of him. I was his from the first moment I saw his grinning eyes. So, when he kisses me, my fate is cinched as I let all inhibition melt away. We give ourselves to each other in the waning moments of the 1960s. After, we lie in his cot, half-covered by a pile of clothes when I hear fireworks explode somewhere in the distance, signaling the turn of the decade.
“You owe me a name, young man,” I say, trying to lather him with a forced coquettish air. I expect to be swallowed by his grinning eyes and am instead met with a pallid, mournful gaze that looks alien on his face.
“Life is so cruel, Stella,” he says. “I am so very sorry.”
He rocks my head off his chest and finds his pants strewn over the bedside. As he searches his pockets, I feel scared that I had been too trusting and wonder if I am in legitimate danger. But all he removes from the pocket is a folded piece of yellowish paper. As I unfold it, he caresses my cheek.
“I didn’t mean to deceive you, Stella. You have to believe me. I promise I didn’t mean to take advantage of you. But when I saw you, I couldn’t help my gut feeling that you were a gal worth meeting. My Lucie Manette.”
I saw the picture of an old Uncle Sam whose point is screaming, “I Want You!” William Richards had been conscripted to the United States Army to assist in the escalating conflict in Vietnam.
“What does this mean?” I ask, feeling every blow in the battle waging inside my belly between sadness and shame.
“I report for duty in two days.”
“When will you be back?”
I saw two answers hover between his lips, but much like Sydney Carton’s prophetic last words, they were left unspoken. I could see the words nonetheless. He didn’t know when he’d be back. But he also didn’t know if he’d be back. Ah, how fleeting feels can be. Despite the near freezing temperatures outside, I throw on my clothing and haul my suitcases down the stairs, hoping no one would look twice at my disheveled state. Despite the wisdom that the docks after midnight is not an ideal place for a young lady, I run as far as my legs will take me.
I remember New Year’s Eve 1969 not as the day I arrived in the United States, or as the turn of a tumultuous decade, or even as the first time I gave myself to a man, my life changed forever.
It will always be the day I met, and then lost, Billy Richards.
“He can see us,” one of them squeaks.
I never believed they existed, but this one is staring right at me. It looks like one of those walking sticks you find in the woods – well, maybe not this time of year since they prefer summer. Still, Christmas Eve or not, there’s an army of walking stick insects performing some kind of science experiment on my older brother.
“What are you doing?” I whisper-scream.
Drew stirs under his covers. Like ants caught red-handed, all their motion ceases in a split second. Drew and I would’ve done the same if Mom had caught us in the pantry after midnight.
“Told you he can see us,” squeaks the one staring at me.
Six of them are propped on my brother’s pillow, holding a glass beaker near his face. The pear-shaped vial looks like something from chem lab. I have to wipe my eyes to be sure, but there’s some kind of bright, transparent goop floating in it like a dead jellyfish. I see another three stick bugs holding a syringe to Drew’s ear while a fourth pulls on a microscopic handle. I have to look past their surgical instruments to notice a platoon of them spread atop his blanket and bed covers, holding clipboards and notebooks. Another two dozen are on the wooden floor, passing messages along in an elaborate game of telephone, their line trailing off into our closet.
“What are you…?” I start to repeat.
“Shhh!” one of them protests, waving twig arms thinner than dental floss. Do I see miniature bifocals and a small puff of white beard on its face? “We dare not hurt the lad.”
I know it’s my hearing, not my sight, that’s failing me now, but I rub my eyes aggressively with closed fists anyway. As my vision comes into focus again, I see only a handful of the walking twigs with their chemistry equipment. The others must’ve scattered back into the closet.
“Dreamsnatchers are shifty critters,” Grandpa used to say. He’d share the same long-winded myth every Christmas. It’s been a couple years since he passed, but I can still see him sitting in his favorite recliner chair, the one grooved uniquely for his robust form.
“Their work is precise,” he’d say. “In and out quicker than a flash and just like that, your childhood dreams are gone. Dreamsnatchers! Thieves in the night.”
“It can’t be…” I sigh without thinking.
Drew stirs again, threatening to turn completely around.
“Cease and desist, boy,” the bearded twig begs me.
“He’s critical, Doctor,” says the twig next to him.
“Doctor?” I repeat to myself.
“We can’t have you wake the lad,” he says.
If Gandalf were a stick, I think to myself.
“Did we extract the requisite volume?” Dr. Gandalf asks.
“My estimates show eighty percent,” one replies.
“I concur, Doctor,” says another.
“Are we able to proceed without completing the procedure?” Dr. Gandalf asks again, rubbing his chin with his twig arm. The beard looks like the snow-smeared bark on the redwoods outside.
“I wouldn’t wager it,” one says from under the syringe.
“We’ve had success from ninety percent extraction, but no less,” adds another from under the jelly-filled beaker.
“It’s a risk,” contributes a third. “Not one we should take. We owe it to our people to collect as much as we can.”
Their high-pitched debate continues, but it’s Grandpa’s raspy bass that I hear, like an echo from behind a curtain I can’t see. The nostalgia puts his ghost in the corner of my bedroom. I can see his kind blue eyes hiding behind thick-rimmed glasses. I can see his Einstein hair and the white stubble on his chin and cheeks. I can smell the cigar smoke infused in his sweater.
“It happens to everyone,” Grandpa would tell us. “One day, we are bright-eyed and bushy-tailed children chasing far-fetched dreams, confident that anything is possible. The next, we’re wondering how to escape our grown-up routine. We become weighed down by the burden of adulthood. It’s not the dreams that have changed, it’s us. And why’s that, bumpkins? Because the Dreamsnatchers take them!”
Drew and I never believed Grandpa could be telling the truth! Wasn’t it just a fairy tale that grandparents told their children’s children on holidays? Some way parents could explain away their growing up? I look to Drew’s bed and see the small squad of walking twigs preparing to reinsert the syringe into his ear!
“Stop!” I cry out, careful not to be too loud.
“For heaven’s sake,” one of the Dreamsnatchers say.
“I know what you’re doing,” I say with timid accusation
Today hadn’t exactly been a textbook Christmas Eve. Drew went off to the Boy’s Academy last August, the first time we were in separate schools. Every student in the Academy chooses an emphasis, but Drew didn’t know what to focus on. Dad pressured him to choose something reliable like he had back in the day: science. But I grew up next to Drew. He never liked numbers or formulas or laws. Drew plays the fiddle better than the tavern musicians. He writes stories better than Grandpa used to tell. Drew’s an artist. He came home today, much later than everyone wanted him to – after all, the Academy’s winter recess started two weeks ago. Well, Dad found out that Drew chose creative writing. Their Christmas gifts ended up in the trash bin. Let’s just say today would be the worst day to have his dreams stolen.
“Please don’t,” I say with a shaky voice.
Dr. Gandalf peeks at his neighbor’s clipboard.
“Andrew Joseph Edmonds,” he reads aloud. “Age fifteen?”
“Yeah, but I’m fourteen,” I call back. “Take mine instead. Drew needs his still.”
“Gregory Stewart Edmonds?” Dr. Gandalf asks.
“That’s me,” I say, nodding.
“You aren’t due for extraction yet. Not for another twelve months, at minimum.”
“So what?” I can feel my heartbeat quicken. These Dreamsnatchers may be small, but the sight of them terrifies me. And even more than how they look, it’s what they do that sends a chill down my back. “Drew needs them, please don’t steal them.”
“We’re not thieves!” cries the one who caught me staring.
I can tell now that it’s a female, and a lot younger than Dr. Gandalf. A few of them dart to my bedside with remarkable speed.
“Take it back!” she yells at me, pointing a twig arm so close to my nose, I can almost feel its prick.
“Nurse Gwen,” Dr. Gandalf says, trying to calm her down. He turns to me, poking his bifocals further up his twig nose. “Take care not to accuse too hastily, Gregory. Despite what you’ve heard, we don’t take dreams from children.”
“But Grandpa told me…” I start.
The wise Dreamsnatcher raises his arms to silence me.
“I know very well what he told you, but it wasn’t the whole truth. We don’t take dreams away, we rescue them.”
It takes a second for the big reveal to sink in. Even so, I still can’t grasp what Dr. Gandalf is trying to say.
“Human beings are the greatest wasters of dreams in the known universe,” Dr. Gandalf shares. “Most adult humans choose a path of security, wasting the limitless potential they had as children. Every child inherently understands the inspiration of what surrounds them, the magic of what it means to be alive and to live while you’re alive. Somewhere along the way, life chips away at that raw childlike awe. Then, there comes a pivotal moment of no return. The dreams don’t come back after that.”
“What are you talking about?” I ask. “Drew’s chasing his dreams. He just declared an emphasis at the Academy. He’s going to be a writer!”
“Is that so?” Nurse Gwen shoots back.
“I’m afraid that’s not altogether accurate,” Dr. Gandalf says. “The note folded in his journal will confirm that he elected medical science. Andrew will be a doctor, and a good one, too.”
“How can that be?” I wonder.
As if talking to walking sticks isn’t already hard enough to accept, I have a harder time believing that my brother and best friend chose to follow Dad’s footsteps. I tip-toe gingerly across the room to find the journal buried in his book bag. When I remove the folded paper from inside the front cover, what I read confirms Dr. Gandalf’s statement. Drew probably lied about his emphasis today because he was lashing out. Maybe, he resented Dad for forcing him into something that wasn’t his dream.
“But he wants to be a writer…” I mutter.
“So did your father.”
I turn around, wide-eyed. Only Dr. Gandalf and Nurse Gwen remain on my pillow, the other Dreamsnatchers and their surgical tools gone from sight.
“My father wanted to be a writer?” I ask, thinking I may have heard wrong.
“He would’ve been one, too,” Dr. Gandalf explained. “But when his mother passed – your grandmother – he forewent his heart’s desire to learn more about the sickness that took her life. A noble choice indeed. After that, I ordered the extraction of his dreams myself. Our people use this dream energy for wonderful things. It is our lifeblood. We only extract them if and when the adult foregoes them of their own choice. Andrew, like your father, made his choice.”
“But, but, but…” I struggle to find words.
“This is the natural course of life, Gregory,” Dr. Gandalf explains. “Human beings grow up. They pass their wisdom and knowledge to their children, who eventually grow up themselves. There is beauty in that.”
“But Drew doesn’t want to be a doctor,” I say. “He just wants to make Dad proud. Isn’t there anything you can do?”
Dr. Gandalf stops to consider my request.
“Are you thinking…?” Gwen asks in her high-pitched squeal.
“Hush, Gwendolyn. Perhaps, an experiment is in order.”
The wise twig pricks my nose so quickly that I barely see his arms move. I don’t even feel the needlepoint pierce my skin before everything goes dark.
* * * * *
It’s a bit harder to open my eyes than it usually is on Christmas morning. With gifts ripe for the picking, I’m usually sitting by the large pine before the sun rises. But after that strange dream pulled me another level into sleep, it takes extra effort to get out of bed. Drew’s bed is empty, but what do I see poking out from under the frame? It’s an envelope. I have to squint to see the writing on it:
We couldn’t undo our work on Drew, but you had plenty of dreams to spare. Don’t fret, we only took what little they needed. Merry Christmas. – Dr. Q.
I walk through the hallway, wondering how small that pencil must have been, when I hear a sound that had become foreign in these walls. Is Dad laughing? When the Christmas tree comes into view, I see Dad sitting on the couch with Drew on the ground in front of him.
“Not bad,” Dad says, waving a small pamplet in his hand. I'd recognize Drew's composition notebook anywhere.
“Really?” Drew says. “I didn’t know if you’d like it. Sorry I overreacted last night.”
I half expect Dad to begin one of his preachy sermons, but there’s almost a reciprocal apology in his face. Then, he says something I never thought I’d hear in a million years.
“Did I ever tell you I wanted to be a writer once?”
The Cloud Factory
The night had begun with a familiar complacency bred by decades of routine. The old bag of bones dawdled through the detoxification chamber, dawned his crusty white jumpsuit, grabbed his wooden broomstick, and began sweeping the factory tile inch by inch. He performed the same laborious task every night during the two-hour break between shifts, the only time the Cloud Factory’s characteristic buzz was absent.
Routine and anonymity, Cornelius White thought to himself as he swept the linoleum floors of the laboratory.
Without warning, a high-pitched siren prompted a nervous staccato in White’s chest. Just a couple months shy of his centennial, he was surprised the old ticker was capable of such a lively cadence.
He removed his protective visor and wondered if he could ascertain the alarm’s cause. He knew that kind of curiosity – even the slightest distraction from his work – could get him canned. And everyone knew what happened to undesirables who weren’t employed assets.
Routine and anonymity, he thought, pulling his protective visor back over his head.
The alarm was certainly not routine, but what business was that of his? There would be consequences if he acquiesced to his curiosity's incessant nagging. A moment later, a loud whoosh hissed across the room from where two spry lab technicians entered the laboratory. Without a word, they took a seat in back-to-back cubicles and began typing on their touch-screen monitors like virtuosic pianists.
For White, that night had begun the same way as the last million nights. Then the alarm had sounded and now there were live technicians at the Cloud Factory during shift break? Despite the compulsion to continue his routine, White risked it and broke his usual sweeping pattern, waddling down the aisle between the technicians’ cubicles. His vision was still remarkably acute despite his age, and White realized the technicians were typing messages to each other.
GAMMA: Running diagnostics.
ALPHA: Error source?
GAMMA: On campus.
GAMMA: Yes. Condensation chamber.
GAMMA: Status unknown. Further tests needed.
ALPHA: Estimate to completion?
GAMMA: 3 hours…
ALPHA: But Sunrise is in…??
GAMMA: Less than 2.
ALPHA: I’ll call reinforcements. NOW!
While Gamma continued playing a concerto on the touch-screen, Alpha ran right past White without acknowledgement. The janitor’s knobbed knees knocked together like two branches in a breeze. Not many were privy to the inner workings of the Cloud Factory, but everyone knew they had been the world’s salvation after America torched the ozone all those generations ago. If there was something wrong with the condensation chamber, sunrise would ignite the earth’s surface. But what could the janitor do about it?
Routine and anonymity, White tried to reaffirm.
For an undesirable like Cornelius White, they were the two most sacred pillars of a wholly unsacred existence. The janitor was one of the dwindling few able to remember a world without that mantra. Society once revered the elderly for their wisdom and experience. That was before. Back when people spoke to one another. Back when people left their homes to mingle. Back when face-to-face interaction was valued and time spent with fellow human beings was normal. Generations had come and gone since and with them, any compassion toward those too old to work. Sure, radicals had tried to amend the political climate, first by negotiation, and when that didn't work, by force. But to no avail. White swept those floors to prove he wasn’t a burden to society, to earn his right to live. But when were rules worth breaking if not now?
“Aww, screw it,” he mumbled to himself.
He dropped his broomstick and walked down the large aisle just as an army of technicians flooded past him – almost through him – into rows of pod-like cubicles. Wordless troubleshooting soared through invisible corridors above White’s head and yet, no one took notice of the waddling janitor. It had been decades since the old man wondered if he was a ghost. But the years showed him his place in the world, his value to others.
All undesirables were invisible.
The trek to the Condensation Chamber took nearly an hour. The massive glass cylinder housed coils of smoke stacks looping upward further than White could see. If the chamber were functioning properly, the cylinder’s innards wouldn’t have been visible behind the glass. White’s sweeping never took him outside the factory’s main floor, but he had seen images on the security screens of the chamber filled with thick curtains of steam and fog, the very lifeblood of the clouds bellowing into the heavens. Those veins now ran empty.
Suddenly, something caught White’s eye, a small yellow square flapping on the other side of the cylinder. Walking around the chamber’s circumference, White saw sprawling cursive on a yellow post-it note:
If you can read this, activate the system with the following voice command –
'undesirable saves inhumanity, a Cinderella story.’
White gasped. He had heard whispers of activists who fought for the rights of undesirables and for traditions long faded from humanity. They often argued that humanity’s humanity had died with the undesirables persecuted and executed for their inability to work. It made White wonder how intuitive it would've been for one of those young technicians to actually get off their butts and walk to the supposed source of the problem, and yet the Condensation Chamber was empty.
The janitor couldn’t resist the tear that fell from the corner of his eye when he realized the beauty of what would probably be defined as an act of terrorism. Only undesirables could read handwritten cursive. Only undesirables had the courage to use their voices. This was orchestrated so that only an undesirable could bring the clouds back.
“Cinderella story indeed,” White whispered to himself, wiping the tear from his wrinkled face before reading the voice command.
A journal entry by Zane Callahan, dated 2/13/19:
For once, she gets a lucky break.
Gracie’s suffered from the beginning. She’s been repeatedly flung through the wringer for fun. Life or Fate – or whatever Being sits in the driver’s seat – has had it in for her from the start.
Mom was already at a “risky” age when she had me, let alone Abel. But they wanted a girl. The docs told them it wasn’t wise, that her pregnancy with my brother had already been irresponsible. They tried for another year, and no dice. Everyone gave up…us boys would have to do.
Nine years later, along comes this miraculous accident. It was supposed to be impossible. Mom was supposed to be too old. This little girl was never supposed to be here. But she was conceived and brought to term and lived. Well, that must’ve pissed Somebody off because all her life, Gracie was made to pay for the undeserved gift of having been brought into the world.
At first, the payback was small. A hearing impairment here. A reading disability there. Prickly thorns in her side that made every little thing that much more inconvenient, that much more irritating. But we learned sign language. Dad sold his car and paid for some extra tutoring. We got by.
Gracie was 12 when she broke her back.
She’d been left stranded at the tutor’s, so her instructor agreed to give her a lift home. The drunk driver that plowed into them killed Gracie’s instructor on impact and paralyzed her from the waist down. Welcome to a new normal. Dad usually picked her up, but that afternoon, the buses were backed up real bad. Of course, he would’ve had his car if he hadn’t sold it to pay for the tutor. Mom could’ve picked her up, but she used to see a shrink back then. Of course, she wouldn’t have needed counseling if the precious daughter she had prayed for hadn’t been born with certain…complications. Us boys could’ve helped, but I’d moved to LA long before that and Abel was at university.
Gracie was 20 when she lost the love of her life.
With all the odds stacked against her, Gracie managed to graduate with honors, alongside this kid named James. They both studied education in college and fell in love somewhere along the way. They planned to get married afterward, too. James knew all the difficulties in front of them, but there was no changing his mind. Abel called James a saint. So, James jumped on a train to pick up the ring, but the Express pulled up short of Braddock. The engineer was texting, at least that’s what the news said. Otherwise, how do you blow through two red signals to find yourself face to face with a freight train?
Gracie was 26 when she was diagnosed with cancer.
Leukemia is an old man’s disease, so there’s no rationalization for the question that haunts us still. Why her? Chemotherapy didn’t work. Radiation didn’t work. Her only chance was a transplant. I cursed her odds…why would this tragedy be any different than the others? But I was wrong! They found a match in the marrow registry! A miracle! Salvation! Except that one month before the transplant procedure, the would-be donor pulled out. With the chance to save a life at his/her fingertips, the donor retracted. Gracie died three months after that.
I’m sick about it. Not only that Gracie’s gone – and that’s reason enough to be sick – but that when Abel called to tell me, I felt…relieved. There’ll be a funeral tomorrow and a million sullen faces sharing their condolences. All I’ll be thinking? At least her torture’s been ended. At least her luck has finally improved. At least she’s finally been granted mercy.
I love you, sis, and I’m sorry that life was so cruel.
You didn’t deserve a bit of it.
* * * * *
A journal entry by Abel Callahan, dated 2/15/19:
Remember when I held your hand the last night you fell asleep? Remember when I asked how you dealt with tragedy after tragedy? Remember when you told me there was a reason for all this – you, the one in the hospital bed, comforting your suffering family in the midst of your own mess?
Sis, I think you were right.
Have you heard that phrase before? I hadn’t until the funeral yesterday. One of your nurses said you suffered gracefully. I didn’t know that was possible. She said she asked you if you hated your donor. “There’s someone out there who needs her marrow more than I do.”
Did you really say that? HOW could you say that? Mom, Dad, and I were fuming when the donor turned her back. You were on the brink of a life-saving procedure! That person effectively killed you! You would’ve been forgiven for hating them. But no, what do you do? Defend this perfect stranger with the benefit of a doubt. The nurse said she was inspired by your answer, inspired to forgive her own sister…I guess they a falling out 20 years ago.
That story gave me pause.
I wonder if I owe it to you to square things with Zane. You found a way to share a huge piece of your heart with this stranger who could’ve saved you. Why can’t I find an ounce of courage to do the same…with our brother no less?
Oh, but you’re chock full of surprises, aren’t you?
James’ mom was at your service, too. “Suffered in a way true to her namesake,” she said. She told me what you did for the widow’s ministry at Kindred Church. I don’t get it. Your almost-fiancé is taken from you in a freak accident…I mean, days before he was going to propose. You would’ve been forgiven for exploding in anger, for shutting the world out, for turning your back on love. But no, you turn around and use your pain to pour into others. Did you know that James’ mom established a scholarship in your name at that church? Of course, you knew. Mom and Dad had no idea. When did you learn to be so sneaky?!
This got me thinking about your accident, too. It took me all day today, but I found out what happened to the drunk driver. Nick Thompson is sober now – 15 years too late if you ask me. But it turns out that he sustained some brain damage in the crash. Even with the massive speech impediment, he uses his handicap to show high school students the dangers of substance abuse. He’s a motivational speaker at high school rallies. I could’ve killed him when I found out what he did you to you. But you wouldn’t have. You would have pointed to the trail of breadcrumbs leading to the fruits produced by your suffering.
I had to look up the meaning of your name after the funeral. Grace: an undeserved gift. This world is selfish and crass and fast-paced and cold. How did you find the energy to shine a light on all that despite being given lemons over and over? You’re a superhero, kid, the baby constantly teaching folks supposedly wiser than you.
Now, you’re gone.
I could write those words a million times, and it’ll never be easy to accept their permanence. But, there’s this idea that makes it a little less bleak. One idea like a ray of sunshine on a dreary afternoon. How many lives were touched because you lived? How many lives improved because you suffered gracefully? I don’t know about heaven and hell, but I hope to discuss the answers next time I see you.
I love you, sis. Until we meet again.
Terminal, they said. Two months tops.
That was six months ago.
They’re saying it’s a miracle. At least that’s what I overhear through these paper thin walls. Whether they mean me or their experimental drugs is up for debate. All due respect to them nurses, but I’m not living proof of things like miracles, God, Santa Claus, or other flights of fancy.
I know damn well why I’m still alive.
So does the creep who asked me to fix his watch.
Fix it for me and I’ll give you more time.
My gut screamed to take the gig. Like it knew I’d be finished otherwise. I don’t know the first thing about watches. Hell, I can tell time, but don’t ask me how the gears fit together, or what makes it tick. Still, if I could get the damn thing to work long enough for him to heal me and walk away? Call it my own version of experimental treatment.
Cutting a corner, you say? Sue me, I’m no saint.
Who doesn’t need more time than they get?
I need one cancer-free day so I can end it with Chloe...for good. I need time to come clean to my wife. Time to get sober. Heaps upon heaps of time to show my girls that I’m not perfect, but that daddy loves them and won’t ever hit them again. What’s one white lie to earn back all that time I wasted?
The creep walks in.
His eyes make my stomach turn. I ensure the watch is ticking before handing it over.
It won’t last five minutes.
“All fixed,” I say without hesitation.
“Wonderful,” he replies, handing it back.
“Do I get the time you promised?” I ask with growing panic.
“Of course…you get as long as that watch is ticking.”
“Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” – Alice
* * * * *
“What do we have here?” Christopher Allen whispered to himself as he popped open the black metal box. Inside, he found an odd collection of items with a note lying on top written in sprawling cursive:
Property of high sentimental value.
If found please call
Daydreaming wasn’t something Chris did much…that was, until his beloved wife had passed. Since then, his mind had made a habit of wandering, perhaps searching for an alternate world that had more to offer than the barren one he now endured without Veronica. Chris had been swimming in his own thoughts again behind the controls of the excavator when he had heard the clamor of metal hitting metal.
“Chris!” came the familiar voice of the superintendent. “What the hell happened?”
“It’s fine,” Chris said, breathing a sigh of relief. He removed his hard hat and ran his hands through his matted black hair. “These knickknacks were buried on-site.”
“Hmm,” Mitchell groaned without taking his eyes off Chris.
“I wasn’t all there, Mitch,” Chris mumbled, disappointed.
“Lucky for us, it’s just a box,” said Mitchell. “Could’ve just as easily been a water main or a gas line. You lucked out, Chris. That could’ve meant millions in damages, and your ass on the street. What’s in there anyway?”
They noted the objects in the case: a battered sheriff’s badge in the shape of a five-pointed star; a brown harmonica with golden edges; a pink cigarette lighter; a golden compass rose; and a wooden baton that looked a like a wand.
“Looks like junk to me,” Chris thought.
“One man’s junk is another man’s treasure, huh?” Mitchell said. “Day shift arrives in an hour. Are you sure you’re okay?”
“Yeah, go ahead,” Chris answered. “I’m about done here, too. I might call this number just to be sure it’s not someone’s life savings.”
“You’ve got to be more careful operating that excavator, Chris. I won’t be able to cover for you if you screw up again.”
Mitchell patted his friend on the shoulder and left him alone with the case. Chris felt an irresistible magnetism toward the collection of objects, though he couldn’t venture a guess as to their meaning or value. He was reaching for his cell phone before his awareness caught up.
It rang once. Chris wondered if it was already too late to turn back from that odd sense of inevitability. He had a strange sensation as though a current was pulling him toward something he couldn’t comprehend. It rang twice. Chris felt an instant of self-doubt and considered hanging up before opening Pandora’s box any further. But the box was already open, wasn’t it?
There was no third ring.
All of Chris’s brain noise suddenly ceased and his attention was fixated on the quiet breath he barely made out on the other end of the line. Someone was there, but was waiting for Chris to break the silence. He wondered if his curiosity would lead him down the same path as that unfortunate – and notorious – cat. But what use was caution now?
“Hello? Who’s this?” Chris asked with much less conviction than he wanted.
“Did you find it?” came a feeble female voice in an accent. “My treasure trove? You found my trove?”
“Yes,” Chris responded, suddenly aware of how rough his own voice sounded by comparison. “I think so.”
“Are the contents secure? The sheriff’s star? The harmonica?”
“Yes, how would you like me to get these to you?”
“Do you know The Ink Bard?” the woman asked.
“The bookshop downtown?”
“Yes, would you be so kind as to meet my husband just before the shop closes this evening? That’s 8:00 pm tonight. We can offer a modest fee, if we can trouble you.”
“That’s not necessary,” Chris said. “But I can be there, sure.”
“The Coalition thanks you.”
A click ended the phone call. The Coalition. At the sound of the familiar name, what had started as a harmless school boy curiosity had evolved into dread.
* * * * *
Chris usually napped after working the graveyard shift, but sleep didn’t come that morning. The afternoon hours passed laboriously. After the sun finally ceded its celestial throne to the full moon, Chris found himself on the corner of Spring and Fifth Street, waiting for someone to notice his abnormally clunky case. In his attempt to be unsuspicious, Chris felt all the more so and noticed every passerby’s stare on him like a laser beam. Only a few stragglers dawdled over last-minute purchases, shortly before the bookstore’s closing hour.
“Mr. Allen?” asked a resonant bass voice.
Chris turned and saw a broad-shouldered bald man wearing a tailored suit. The man had a perfectly trimmed moustache and sharp grey eyes. Chris thought his visitor’s face seemed familiar, but couldn’t quite place from where.
“Yes…?” Chris asked.
“Lucky guess, old boy,” the man responded. “Not many men stand outside bookstores at this hour with such strange looking cases.”
After a split second of silence, Chris released his nervous laughter. He noticed the bald man restrained from joining him.
“Are you…are you Coalition?” he asked on unsure footing.
“My wife co-owns this establishment,” the bald man replied without acknowledging Chris’s question. “She’d like to give you her personal thanks, if you have a moment.”
“Fine,” Chris obliged.
The gentlemen shook hands and the bald man led Chris into the store. In the back corner, a narrow spiral staircase descended into the floor to a basement. Something in Chris’s mind attempted in vain to trigger his caution, but a foreboding sense of inevitability swelled again. He may as well have been the white rabbit falling down the rabbit hole. Indeed, he was…Chris was already halfway down the staircase before he realized he was moving at all. He looked back up at the bookshop’s interior and couldn’t conceal his uneasiness.
“I admit the setting is strange,” the bald man offered. “This bookstore was constructed on the ruins of an old masonic temple.”
“Is that right?” Chris answered.
“Indeed. My wife values her privacy and she considers the basement somewhat of a personal office space.”
The rabbit hole went further still. Chris followed his host as they continued their descent. With each step, the space became mustier, until a raw humidity made it difficult to breathe. At the base of the staircase, the bald man said, “She’ll see you briefly now.”
Chris proceeded into a chamber that resembled a medieval prison cell. Lined by white stone, the circular chamber was lit by torches hung at even intervals along its perimeter. The only other thing in the room was a marble altar behind which stood Miss Havisham incarnate. The woman had straggly grey hair and was dressed in a long white nightgown. Chris almost recognized the woman behind the unkempt strands, but again couldn’t place from where.
“My apologies, Mr. Allen,” she said behind an eerie smile.
“I – I’m sorry?” Chris stuttered.
“Could I bother you to place the case on the altar?”
Even if Chris had words, he couldn’t have uttered them if he’d tried. All he could manage was what the lady had asked of him. She clicked the case open and inspected its contents. Seemingly pleased, she turned the case towards Chris and proceeded. “My sincerest thanks for finding my treasure trove. I cherish it so.”
Curiosity and fear battled within him. He felt a compulsive need to see his journey through and yet he was legitimately frightened. He resolved to uncover the truth about the case and its relationship to the Coalition. Oh yes, and he vowed to steer clear of daydreaming in the future. Hadn’t that been the first in this odd row of dominoes? If he hadn’t been daydreaming, he would’ve dismounted his excavator at shift’s end that morning. As it was, he was staring at a random box of random objects speaking to a random stranger hundreds of feet below a random bookstore.
“Do you prefer Chris or Christopher, Mr. Allen?” the lady asked.
“Dealer’s choice,” Chris answered.
A realization slowly dawned on him. How was it that these two complete strangers knew his name? Had he said it inadvertently on the phone or just moments before outside the store? Chris wondered how he could have two opposing desires simultaneously. He longed to run and yet refused to move his feet from where they were planted.
“I prefer Christopher,” she decided. “Reminiscent of the saint, at one time the patron saint of travelers, if I’m not mistaken. May I ask what you’re fiddling with, Christopher?”
“Oh, this?” Chris replied. In the midst of his anxiety, he hadn’t noticed he was twisting his pin between his fingers. He removed it from this shirt and handed it to the old woman behind the altar. “My late wife gave me this on our second date.”
“Wings?” she whispered.
“Angel’s wings,” Chris added.
“For the saint?”
“From a saint, more like.”
“It’s…perfect,” she gasped, fighting back a smile.
It was that look-what-I-just-did expression of achievement that enlightened Chris as to who she was…that was the same moment a piercing pain cracked his skull. He collapsed from the dizzying blow, and noticed a warm sensation trickling down the back of his neck. The bald man walked into Chris’s narrowing field of vision, dropping a torch stick as he approached the woman. Chris detected the advent of an eerie finality as he fought to remain conscious. His eyes were fixed on the objects in the case and two palpable truths began to take shape.
He had been deceived.
And he knew what was going to happen.
“But you’re…” he tried to say. “Coalition. Victor said that...”
“I know what Victor said,” the woman cut him off, her voice raised in anger. “I’m sorry he deceived you, Christopher. You aren’t the first, and you won’t be the last. Forgive me, but this is for your own protection and for the protection of the ones you still love.”
The movement was so sudden that Chris didn’t see it unfold through his failing vision. The woman stretched out her right arm, holding the pin in her palm. With her left, she held her right wrist while she muttered what seemed like an incantation. Chris felt as though anesthesia coursed through his veins, draining his consciousness in preparation for a surgical operation. His energy was being coaxed from him. Before he could have another thought, darkness enveloped him.
He found the bottom of his rabbit hole.
* * * * *
“Welcome back, ladies and gents!” The anchorwoman was positively giddy. “A Saint Among Us is the book, Nora Moret is the author. It’s been a while since you’ve come out with something new. Where did you get this brilliant idea?”
Nora gritted her teeth and flashed a fake smile to the host. She found her husband slightly off camera shaking his bald head, and she rolled her eyes at him knowingly.
“I steal them, Diane,” Nora laughed. “How else!?”
The studio audience erupted with laughter as did the giddy host. Eventually, she straightened out and continued with the interview. Who besides the late Christopher Allen could know Nora Moret was telling the truth?