On the Road to Salvation - Part One: Beautiful and Cruel
I traveled once to a foreign place--foreign to me, anyway. A random place, not particular in my choosing, and not a destination but a stepping stone along the way to a destination I had not chosen--allow me to explain.
Making a living travel-blogging, particularly as a survivalist, demands a certain commitment to education before the trip. Fortunately, history enthralls me. My enthusiasm for local lore feeds that commitment well. Please, don't ask--for the sake of those reading, I'll never disclose this place. Along with treasure and beauty and glory and adventure, death and ruin await those who journey here.
Setting out, I had my equipment prepared, my gadgets and gizmos aligned, my pockets full... and all at once it dawned on me: to leave it all behind.
Past journeys to unknown destinations always began tainted. I'd choose places to which I'd never been, but always having some allure--Monaco, Milan, Rio, Beijing--then I'd prepare, properly, for conditions I knew I'd face. I'd find a clearing, look around, and choose a direction which surely offered the challenges for which I'd prepared. This journey... would be different. Not only would I not be prepared for what challenges lay ahead, but I would not bias the direction by looking around for... anything.
I stepped into an openness--I won't call it a clearing--and lulled myself into a state of oblivion. Clear the mind--eyes shut and covered with my hands as well. I turned in circles, moving my head up and down, alternating my gait in order to disorient myself. I uttered a low and constant hum to dissuade my ears from trying to locate myself. So committed to choosing a direction as random as chance itself, I spun and spun, and spun even more--to the point that I thought another turn would surely topple me. In honesty, the reason I was still spinning was because I genuinely feared choosing a direction... so I stopped.
Well, I stopped, but my head was still a hopeless whirlwind, anchored only by uneasy shoulders. Kneeling down to steady myself, only patience would help restore me. I looked down to be sure--to confirm the dizziness had subsided. The storm in my head had calmed.
Before my rational thought was fully restored, with my left arm, I pointed--behind me--as far as I could reach without turning. I had chosen; and on that random choice began my contribution to what future travelers would learn upon their investigation of local lore.
I turned to look, uphill, the horizon no more than a kilometer away toward the morning sun still climbing from the Earth. It was hard to clearly see, but I was quite certain, in the distance, I could see three small structures--houses perhaps--that I hadn't noticed before. Deciding I'd spent enough time spinning and kneeling, I stood again and walked toward them.
They were surrounded by outcroppings of huge stones. Flanking them, the horizon was lined with armies of trees. A bit nearer, I resolved in my mind that they were definitely structures--not mounds or bushy trees playing tricks on my eyes. Side-stepping occasional bushes and weeds kept me from a direct approach; however, stepping around one larger bit of growth, I lost sight of the structures completely. They were gone. Or were they? I took a few steps back, into the line of sight I'd had before circumventing the bushes. Like a mirage materializing on a desert floor, the buildings reappeared, as if hidden by a fold in space somewhere between us. Testing my vision, I bobbed my head side-to-side and watched them disappear and reappear, as if I were standing on a threshold into another universe. A strange phenomenon, for sure, and perhaps if I'd had more time, I would have contemplated it longer, but I resolved not to lose myself simply determining whether or not something was even there--in time, I would find out for myself.
Closer still, but not there yet, I saw they were old and weathered, left behind by those who knew them best, and abandoned by those who knew them not. Excellent, I thought. The sun was higher in the morning sky, but even with better visibility, the buildings seemed to slip away. I dared not wander too far off track. Despite the inevitable obstacles, something inside me was insisting: until I reach them, I should never let them out of sight. I wondered what relics, treasures, or secrets they might reveal, but let's face it, I'd been in similar structures before, and although their history may be plentiful, any clues to their mysteries were typically lost to those who had come before, absconding with anything that might have disclosed the buildings' purposes or worth. Nonetheless, whenever we happen upon one, do we not always go inside?
I came to the first building--the largest of the three. There's something magical about places such as these. Eyes closed... you can smell the history. Well-worn floors, with every creak, echo footsteps tread lifetimes ago. Thin vines had invaded, seeking something better inside, eventually taking their place among the other beings that had found a fine place to die. Not a bit of furniture or furnishings inside, as predicted.
The roof of the second building had partially collapsed. It was treacherous to walk atop the fallen lumber, so I skipped whatever treasures may have lain beneath and went on toward the third, but I didn't go inside because something caught my eye. The army of trees that had shaped the horizon was now before me, and as I'd guessed, they marked a stream running through the gentle hills with their out-of-place boulders strewn about haphazardly--a geological wonder that surely perplexed generations before the power of volcanoes was clearly understood. Among the trees, closer to the stream, I saw something also out-of-place. It looked like a street lamp--a sturdy base, tall, slender pole, and... the top was obscured by low-hanging branches. I thought to revisit it after I'd investigated the third building, but with things around here disappearing in the blink of an eye, I made a bee-line for it while I had it in view.
Not a street lamp, but a signpost, revealed itself among the trees--remarkably antique and weathered. An ancient post held ancient wooden flags pointing to ancient destinations. Some had fallen off and lay deteriorated at my feet. Looking up, I tried to read the words carved into the flags, but time had rendered all but one of them illegible. Apparently, the town of Salvation was somewhere to the east. Interestingly, every town along the way seemed to lie eastward, as if I were standing at the farthest western location on a trail of ancient ghost towns invisible to anyone who wasn't already on the road; as if from this place, every location, attached or fallen from the signpost, were simply... on the way to the next. This is perfect! A quest had begun to take form in my mind--seeking out the fate of those who lived among the structures before their being abandoned by their posterity. I hadn't any notion of distance, nor destination, but there was no question which direction to go and... isn't the journey into the unknown kind of what this whole thing is all about? I could see the title: On the Road to Salvation.
Heading east; my adventure had officially begun. If only I'd thought to look at the flags in the same way I'd looked at the buildings earlier--they'd been as clear as day, but I'd hastily set out. Just a slight glance, with the proper tilt, I would have read the names. I would have been prepared, at least mentally, for what stops along my journey lay ahead.
Meandering alongside the stream, the path kept my mind from wandering. I wondered if its novelty would ever wear off if one opted to stay. A good outdoorsman could certainly live comfortably in such a place--building materials, fresh water, I'd even stopped to collect a few wild gooseberries along the way. I walked for hours--all day, in fact. As dusk approached, shelter became my priority. Warm, dry weather meant a simple lean-to would suffice. Among plentiful trees and thick foliage, I bent down to grab another stick and noticed a human footprint in the soft dirt--a bare foot.
My thoughts were everywhere, developing plausible reasons that someone might be traveling the same paths as I, but... barefoot? I might have gone on for quite a while if not for the rustling of branches to my left. I sharpened my eyes on the depths of trees and undergrowth, then another rustling behind me. I spun 'round to see the same nothing as before.
"Hello?" I called out, hoping for a response. None came, but no more rustling either. I might have dismissed it as an animal--perhaps a rabbit--but for the footprint. It was small enough. I admit, I was probably less concerned than if it had been a full-size foot. Nonetheless, I had a shelter to construct and clearly, if it was a human watching me, there was no desire to make my acquaintance.
Once my simple structure was complete, I set to gather more downed bits for my campfire, once again considering the tale of Prometheus stealing fire from the gods to share with man. Whatever had spooked me earlier hadn't stuck around. I'd been theorizing how old the footprint might have been, figuring for rainfall and such. I won't say it was at the back of my mind, but it definitely wasn't at the front. I'd seen a nice log for burning while I was scrounging for materials earlier, and I was on the hunt for it again. Sans Ariadne's thread, one has to be mindful of landmarks when traipsing through wooded areas... and labyrinths. I found the log I'd been looking for, and noticed the stump from which it had broken still standing a full meter or so tall at the break. Lightning, I suspected, had been its demise. The upper edges were charred black in contrast to the red hair hiding, poorly, behind it.
I kept a peripheral eye on the hair as I continued to collect pieces of wood for my campfire-to-be. Purposely delaying the gathering, waiting to get a glimpse of the watcher, I had my suspicions. I'll admit, I was excited. I'd read about it, but could it be? Depleted of patience, and unnerved by the unknown, I opted to abandon my bundle, there on the ground, and walk directly to the tuft of hair to confront whatever mysteriously shy guest existed underneath it. I walked right up to the charred stump and looked down over top of it.
It was a girl--asleep against the stump, and more importantly, naked as the day she was born. Embarrassed for her, I stepped back to give her space. At her sight, I lost myself--as if everything I knew of this place suddenly washed away and stood there, stupid. What in the world was she doing out in the woods, butt-naked, and sleeping out in the open? I had no clue what to do. I couldn't just leave her, but what's the proper etiquette for these circumstances?
I decided to forego the lean-to and get a fire going right there. If she awoke to find a warm fire, perhaps she'd be inclined to stick around, and it might keep the predators from making a meal of her in the night. A thin, flannel coat was all I had to offer her. I hung it on the side of the stump where she could easily find it, then settled in for a few gooseberries and a crackling fireside nap.
By the time I woke up, the flames had become embers. It was night. When I realized where I was, I jerked up and looked toward the stump. The flannel coat was gone. Flagrant rustling in the trees behind me--I wheeled around, still groggy, but agile enough to get onto one knee. More rustling to my left... and more in front of me--scurrying around an invisible perimeter. Whatever they were had clearly scared away the watcher. I heard something charging closer. Still I saw nothing but darkness. I instinctively tumbled backward, over and through the coals, sending sparks from embers soaring like spirits freed from the fire. The eyes. They revealed the wolf before its form--glowing a blue-grey through bright orange sparks. I grabbed a small stick with a glowing tip--a sad weapon, but better than nothing. A chorus of growls from an anxious pack followed the alpha's lead. I could smell them. More blue-grey orbs flanked the leader.
"Morach! Nya!" a stern, woman's voice called, "Nya peyta!"
The wolves stopped--their eyes turned to my right. Scampering to my feet, I firmly held the flimsy, smoldering stick because it was the only thing that still made sense. The voice belonged to another woman--also long red hair--also naked, head to toe.
"They will not harm you," she said confidently as four more young women emerged from the woods, "and neither will we."
Every hair on my body was raised. None of it seemed like it could possibly be real. Adrenaline coursed through me like lightning. Her eyes glanced down at the feeble stick I held. I dropped it into the fire as if were pure evil. A weapon, even as futile as a charred stick, seemed an abomination in their presence. But the wolves... they obeyed this woman before their own primal hunger. I thought, I must be dreaming... or dead.
"What is this? Who are you?" I demanded.
"I am Taenope. You have come into the Nesh seeking fortune?"
"No, I'm not seeking anything, really. The wolves obey you. How?"
"They do not obey me, they simply understand me, as I understand them."
"Okay... I'm not sure what that means, but thank you for stopping them. They would have torn me apart... though not without a fight."
"You are no more their enemy than the fallen tree is yours--it is a means to survival."
"Okay, I guess I understand that. What are you doing out here... all of you?"
"We live here. This is our home. What are you doing here?"
"I was heading to a town... though I'm not sure it still exists."
"Thessyna will show you the way if you wish."
"My daughter... you presented her with a gift without knowing her name. For this act of selflessness, it is our tradition that she must do for you whatever you ask."
I felt a warm presence, like a heat lamp, behind me. I turned to see the girl--she was the one who was sleeping before--wearing my flannel coat as she approached humbly. I was stricken by her beauty, I won't lie, but she was so out of place. She looked familiar, like a young woman I'd seen outside the hotel where I'd stayed before the journey began, though her hair was much longer and red. I turned back slowly, saying, "I appreciate the offer, but I'm not in need of..."
The woman was gone, as were the others. Thessyna was the only one remaining. I spun around to try to catch a glimpse of their retreat, but there was nothing--nothing at all. I turned back to the girl. She walked to me without hesitation. The warmth she emanated could not be explained by any logic, or even hypothesized by pure conjecture--it was magical if it was anything.
"Thessyna," I said calmly.
"And may I know your name?" she asked.
"Graeson Reid," I said, caught in her eyes like a snare, "How old are you?" I asked.
"I don't know. You're a human?"
"What? Yes, I'm a human. What do you mean, you 'don't know'?"
"We don't really keep track of things like that."
I rubbed my temples in mild frustration.
"Please... let me," she said, reaching for my head with both hands.
The sensation of her touch was as inexplicable as the radiating warmth of her approach. Her fingers were medicine--healing pains I didn't even realize I had. My eyes closed in complete relaxation, my shoulders sagged at my sides, my hands tingled with energy unknown to them. My eyes fluttered open as I let the old breath out of new lungs. Her eyes were soft and clear, lips parted as if begging for contact. I blinked away the notion. She was young and beautiful, but too young... and too beautiful, as I suspected. I gently took her wrists and brought them down to her sides. The blissful moment was over.
"What... what did she mean by, your tradition?"
"It is a rare thing--a traveler giving something valuable to a perfect stranger. The gesture requires repayment."
"But to commit to doing whatever someone asks... that seems... potentially dangerous."
"Luckily, it doesn't happen very often," she giggled, "and those who give out of goodness rarely ask out of malice."
"You sure don't talk like a young girl. May I ask... how old are you?"
She ignored the question, "Come on," she said as she began to walk away.
"Where? Where are we going?" I asked, following along almost involuntarily.
"The tradition states I must do whatever you want."
"Yes, I understand that, but where are you taking me?" I asked.
Looking over her shoulder at me, she replied coyly, "I'm going to show you what you want."
Well, my journey certainly took an unexpected turn. I didn't know where she was leading, but I was surely following. Dark forest--moonlight managed to break through on occasion, casting light upon the twisting Contorted Beech trees--aptly named--gnarled limbs, arms and fingers caught in the throes of anguish, knots freezing faces of horror forever in sylvan screams. They spoke to me... flooded me with terrific tales, warning me of ancient truths. Thessyna took my hand, breaking the hypnotic snare I'd tripped beneath the boughs. A good thing, too--a bizarre feeling of dread and... pity had crept in. I felt as if I could have stayed beneath the branches of one particular Beech, simply staring at its stems until death came to relieve me--and for my sake, that's exactly what it wanted.
"Just through here," she said, pushing away the sullen branches of the last Contorted Beech.
Words can hardly describe the utopian landscape beyond the trees. Another stream flowed from a small, clear pond, boulders of all sizes helping to guide its path. A grassy clearing began to become visible with rays of morning sunlight peering through the taller oaks.
Thessyna led me to a large, flat boulder, crawling onto it, lying down, facing me. She threw her arms over her head, my coat flaying out beneath her. "Isn't it the most beautiful thing you've ever seen?"
I found it nearly impossible to take my eyes off of her, "Yes, I think that's a fair statement."
"Are you cold?"
It was a leading question. I couldn't help but think, though... I should be cold. "Actually, no," I said, thinking myself in full command, yet playing perfectly into her plan.
She raised a hand toward me. I couldn't tell if I was being pulled forward or being pushed from behind. I felt myself drawn closer. I took her hand and felt the intense medicating warmth again as she sat up, looking up at me. I felt ensnared by her, like any semblance of self-control was swept away by currents under her control. Her expression turned to excitement--she could feel me giving in. Her eyes grew larger, her mouth wanton. She threw herself back again, teasing me, teasing herself, heaving in seduction, "Don't you wish you could stay with me here forever?"
My heart nearly beat right out of my chest, "This is happening," I thought. "It's your tradition," I remembered.
"Tradition," she repeated sensuously.
"You have to do... whatever I want," I recalled.
She looked deeply, seductively, into my eyes, "Anything."
I matched her gaze, "I want you..."
"I want you to release the souls of the men trapped in the Nash Forest trees."
"No!" Her eyes turned to fear.
I raised my voice, "I want you to relinquish them from their prisons."
"No! You mustn't!"
I roared--that the trees themselves would relish in my demands, "I want you to free their souls and let them find their way to wherever they belong!"
Gusts and torrents crashed through the trees. Paradise became a whirlwind, swirling with whisking leaves. Heavy mists hit like horizontal rain, harvested from the stream.
"No!" she cried, "No! Not my beautiful trees!"
I shouted above the gale force winds as she writhed on the massive stone--I recalled, perfectly, their lore--words came like providence to my voice, "By the sacred tradition of the Dryads, I command your compliance! For your wicked seduction and trickery, I demand the release of all your victims' souls! I want their captivity ended! I want their freedom restored! I want their pathways unimpeded! I want your sylvan prisons barren!"
From the howling forest, moans and cries of men in anguish grew even beyond the torrents. Branches on Beeches became fluid on the wind. Trapped souls of hapless travelers, wanderers, and thieves began to emerge from the Beeches and take their places among their long-lost fathers, and in seconds...
... they were gone.
Thessyna lay helpless on the stone before me, her face hidden--beautiful and cruel.
"And lastly," I said, as the winds finally calmed, "I want my coat back."
She laid there, bested--a thousand years of seduction, sorcery, and treachery--undone in a single wish. Her hair was destroyed, garnished with grass and bits of dried leaves. Tears sullied what was, moments ago, sublime.
She squeaked pitifully, "You took them from me."
I gave her my hand. What is broken must always be rebuilt. "Stand, Thessyna. Come, I recognized your charm the moment I saw you. How could anyone not feel it to the depths of their bones? The unmatched beauty of the Dryad Nymphs is legendary throughout the world, and the care you take in overseeing the forests is as crucial as the forest itself. These trophies of men--of prisoners taken--you've lost nothing that was yours to keep. And be honest, is it so great an achievement, ensnaring with such irresistible allure, the love and lust of lonely men? Accomplish the feat as a rotund, weathered sea hag, and there a truly deserved trophy you'll have."
She cracked a smile beneath her defeat.
I continued, "Play your game of cat and mouse if you must, but send your mouse on his way when he's beaten. Look there... you don't need them. You never did. Isn't the forest even more beautiful now, without the reminders of how simple simple men can be?"
"Perhaps... it is," she managed, "But how will I remember them?"
"Perhaps you won't," I said sharply, "But isn't it vastly more important that they, instead, remember you? Truly, if I were to drink the gods' ambrosia and live to the end of days, I assure you, I would not require a reminder--some trinket--to remember this time with you. You have no idea how close I came to becoming your next backwoods Beech."
She smiled at that, "And I will remember you, for the forest is forever changed. I don't know what I will do if you say you won't stay--they're words I've not heard before."
She was still playing her game. "Let's try it and see what happens," I said, "There's a fair chance we'll still be the same. I sincerely hope you don't melt... or blow away. I'd love to learn more of your family's lore--how the forests came under your care. Be honest, though--if I am no different from any other traveler in the woods, and it doesn't matter who fills these shoes, then don't ask me to stay with you. It won't make a difference how I answer if it doesn't matter who I am."
She backed away and turned aside, biting her lip as she considered my words.
"Okay," she said in certainty, perhaps honest with a man for the first time in... ever. Stepping closer--not seductively or slyly--but cautiously and in earnest, "Will you stay with me here forever, Graeson Reid?" a desperate tear in her eye.
I smiled and took her hand, "Lovely Thessyna," I began, "Despite your beauty, playful and pure, despite temptation's promising allure... because of your sincerity, I can assure, you've never been more attractive than you are, in this moment, in all your life. I cannot stay with you here forever, but with your permission, I would be honored and grateful if I could stay with you this day."
She stood perplexed... torn. A kind of confidence accompanied this unprecedented rejection, "You said... no."
"Are you okay?"
"I don't know. I feel... something. I feel..."
"Yes. That... that describes it perfectly. With each encounter, men and women both, have looked at me from top to bottom and side-to-side, but never considered to look within... though, to be honest, I never really looked, myself. I do feel three-dimensional," she agreed, "and terrible."
"Yes, terrible. I feel terrible for those men... I didn't care about them at all. I still don't care about them, to be honest, but I should have..." she held her head low, "I should not have done that to them."
"Or tried to add me to your collection."
We spoke for hours as the sun made its way overhead. I helped her understand her newfound capacity for shame and remorse, and that they made her infinitely better--more complete. She told me amazing stories about the nymphs; one I found particularly fascinating, regarding forest fires--how the Dryads help guide the animals around the smoke and flames, how they nurture new growth after they've been extinguished, and how they unite to keep the flames from ever destroying their sacred groves.
Among their many routines, they make a point of studying languages by cleverly intermingling with nudists of different cultures. Thessyna has studied eleven contemporary languages and fourteen forgotten ones.
Being intimately familiar with the forest, she showed me which plants are safe for humans to eat regardless of taste--some requiring cooking, others which can be consumed raw. I learned how to harvest pine nuts and the best way to prepare termites, grasshoppers, and grubs. She taught me which parts of a stream are safe to drink from to avoid pathogens (a word she did not know).
"I think you just made that word up," she said playfully.
"Only if I'm not saying it right."
"Path-o-gens," she repeated.
"Exactly. Tiny little bugs and microorganisms that can make you sick."
"That's not at all why I thought we drank from these parts of the streams."
"Well, now you know," I said, as I skipped a stone across the water.
"How did you do that?!"
"The stone! It just jumped off the water! Do it again!"
"You've lived here, in this place, for years and years and you're telling me you've never skipped a stone? No wonder there are so many perfect skipping stones lying around. Here, let me show you."
I picked up another stone and really put some heat on it. It skipped eight times before submitting to the water's grip.
She stood, mouth agape, slowly turning into a smile, "You're a sorcerer! That's how you were able to defy me! You used magic!"
"It's not magic, love, it's physics," I explained, smiling away my laughter, "Anyone can do it."
Having studied my second toss, Thessyna selected a rock and prepared for her first attempt.
"Hold on a minute, that's not going to work." She'd chosen a lovely stone--nearly black throughout with two white lightning strikes through it--but the shape was all wrong, like an egg. I put it in my pocket to break her concentration from it. "I'll hold onto this one. You need to look for a flat rock... like this one. You're going to hold it with your forefinger along its edge, then you'll flick your wrist, throwing it side-arm, like this. If the stone hits calm water on its flat bottom, it'll bounce off the water's surface."
"I can do that," she insisted.
"Of course you can."
She lined herself up with the water's edge, inched closer, turned a bit more sideways... she gave a practice swing, concentrating on her wrist-flicking... and she let it rip! What a beauty of a toss! It skipped an easy five times. She jumped with laughter and amazement. Now, if you've never seen a naked nymph jump for joy, I can tell you, it's... difficult to maintain eye contact.
"Did you see that?!"
"Ah... yes, yes I did."
"You have a rock in your pocket!"
My breath caught, my eyes stretched wide, "Uhh... yes! Yes I do!" I pulled the black egg out of my pocket, "Look at that rock! Isn't it something? We should look at this together for a minute."
She took the egg and admired it, tracing the streaks of white with her fingertips. Positioning herself in the sun, she held it in front of her bosom. "Look how the sunlight shines on them."
"This really isn't helping. Maybe we should..."
She turned and zipped the rock into the water. Not a single skip, just plunk... and gone.
"Come on!" she insisted, "Come swim with me."
"Are you nuts? The water's way too cold," I said. Then again, maybe that's a good thing.
I sat down and unlaced my boots, pulled off my socks, and wet my feet in the water. I was right about the water being cold and... about the other thing, too.
"Here, hold onto me."
I took her hand. Once again, the incredible warmth shot through me like electricity. Standing in the stream, I was immune to the water's chill. Each time I broke contact with her, the same electricity turned to an icy shock until I touched her again. It wasn't an unbearable cold at my feet, but the warmth provided by her touch was certainly preferred.
I had to admit, her constant state of total nudity made my shyness seem... childish. "Fine, I'll join you for a swim."
She knew the water well--where the shoal was too shallow, and where it was deep enough to dive. A quick dip salvaged her wrecked hair. She swam back to the shallow rim and stood again on the river rocks, the water just above her knees. Sunlight rode the water rolling down her form. It was easy to see why so many Beeches lined the clearing. Being with Thessyna unclothed--I won't say it was perfectly comfortable--I will say it was un-uncomfortable. I forced my way through the frigid shallows and joined her in the deep. We remained in contact, and had a hot swim in a cool pond on a warm day.
She looked at me with devilish eyes, "You wanna see something amazing?"
"I'm already there."
She sank below the surface and was gone half a minute. The cold was actually refreshing after her contact at length. When she re-emerged, she wore an even more devilish grin.
"What?" I asked.
She lifted her hand from the water and revealed... she had found the black egg stone.
"You're kidding me! You found that stone in all this water?"
"No," she said, "In all the oceans and all the seas, in all the land and lakes and rivers and streams, in the entire world," she held it against my chest, "I found this stone... in this water."
Good thing she didn't ask me again if I wished I could stay there forever, or I may not be here to tell this tale today.
Perhaps the least important, yet one of the most memorable experiences was when we walked onto land again. Her ability to generate heat caused her hair to dry in seconds. Touching my arm, the same heat dried my entire body almost instantly. I ran my fingers through my hair just to revel in the sheer oddity of it. She giggled--to her it was nothing, but to me, it was nothing short of magic.
"Would you prefer a towel?" she asked with a coy grin.
"No, actually. I just... didn't expect it."
Just then, I caught movement in the taller grass nearby.
"Look, there... something moving." I instinctively put myself in front of Thessyna and readied myself for butt-naked battle. In a moment I realized that, whatever it was, she could probably whistle to it and make it do tricks. My arms went limp and I hung my head in embarrassment. I stepped aside. "A friend of yours?"
She just smiled and walked toward the lurker, "Meesha, is that you?" she asked.
The great wolf lunged from the tall grass into the clearing. Thessyna dropped to her knees and raised her arms like a child ready to embrace a huge loyal dog, which she did. She turned her head to me. With a look, she extended an arm, inviting me to come near. The wolf gave me a look also... one that suggested I might think twice about accepting the invitation, which I did.
"You mustn't show fear. Come. Meesha, this is Graeson Reid, our friend. Dralpa, Graeson Reid. Dralpa, Meesha."
I stepped to them despite the wolf's warning, and extended a hand for the ceremonial sniffing. Sufficiently sniffed, I offered a scratch of the ear. It was over. The great wolf became a Labrador and collapsed at our knees for a more thorough scratch-fest.
"Dralpa means friend?" I asked.
"Mmm... not exactly. It's similar but, you can't just say you're somebody's friend and they just accept it. Dralpa is more like... you're on the same team. Friendship requires more than an introduction."
I used both hands to scratch Meesha's neck and belly. "What do I need to do to become friends?"
"Exactly what you're doing now. Meesha loves to have his belly scratched, don't you?"
If not for all of the other exotic and miraculous events of the past few hours, this moment would have been a crowning moment in my life--to share the trust of such a magnificent and dangerous predator--lying on his back, paws curled and relaxed, emitting a low, growling, blissful tone, tongue lolling out one side of his mouth.
"Meesha came to us as a puppy. We don't know what happened to his mother, but the pack wouldn't care for him as they normally do orphaned pups. He's been a friend to us for many seasons... years, I mean. He's a great hunter."
"I bet he's a great tracker, too."
"The best! My sisters used to hide when he was just a puppy, and I would tell him, 'Grick Naya,' and he would find her. 'Grick Shalesh,' and he would go directly to her."
With the words, Meesha would perk up to see if she was asking for his help, but he sensed the lack of urgency in her voice and resumed spa treatment posture.
"So grick means to go get something."
"Very similar, really. If you said 'Grick-nal,' you would be asking to him to go get something for you. Grick just means you need help finding something."
"I can't believe I'm learning to talk to wolves."
"Not all wolves, of course," she said, "just the ones here in the Nesh--those who we've taught."
Suddenly, Meesha rolled and sprang to his feet, knocking us onto our keisters. His ears perked and nose lifted to the air.
"I guess he's had enough," I mused.
"No, listen," she said, holding up a hand.
We stayed still and silent, watching him. He began to prance toward the tall grass sniffing the wind. Faintly, I heard a distant howl. Meesha turned and squealed. Another voice in the distance. Meesha whimpered and sat, raising his chin. He opened his mouth as if to join in the chorus but only muttered a few disappointed groans.
"Doesn't he know how to howl?" I asked.
"Of course he does."
"It seems like he wants to, but he doesn't."
"Meesha doesn't just want to howl; he wants to belong to the pack."
"Oh. He is truly a lone wolf," I surmised.
"There's something about him. We tried introducing him to the pack, but they shun him for some reason. It may be why he was orphaned. Maybe he was abandoned. We don't know."
We watched him listening to the others. After a minute, the song was over. Meesha wandered off without so much as a glance back at us, almost as if to do so would erase what was left of his pride. I felt that stupid thing in my throat. As he disappeared into the trees, I realized Thessyna was gripping my hand. She felt bad--empathetic toward his loneliness. I felt it in her touch.
"There is something special about him, isn't there?"
Hours passed too quickly. We simply spent them... together. The evening grew cold as the sun dipped behind the western sky. We'd eaten so many wild fruits, nuts, and roots that I never even considered being hungry. The long day, however, took its toll. Eventually, we fell asleep.
Morning came too soon. We were up before dawn. There were a few more things she wanted to show me before I left. I believed, perhaps through mere arrogance, she hoped I'd stay.
"I never had to watch the men age," she said, "It wouldn't be fair for you to stay. Take this."
"I told you, I don't need a trinket to remember you."
"It's not a trinket. Take it." She tossed it to me, forcing me to catch it. "I've imbued it with the power to generate warmth. Keep it with you, and you will always feel my warmth," she said, shedding a tear.
"This is an amazing gift, Thessyna. A part of you."
"It's nothing compared to what you've given me. Besides, we prefer that you don't start fires anyway. Remember the rock tower... "
Something she'd said earlier, "... you must turn right to see what's left. I remember."
We shared our last moment together at the water's edge, with the morning sun rising, cutting again through the tall oak trees. She hugged me tightly and shed another single tear. With her arms around me, she looked into my eyes, parting her lips. Her slender calves lifted her upward as my attention turned to the great wolf bounding again from the tall grass. Great timing, Meesha. His tail wagged exuberantly as he rushed to join our sentimental farewell. Just as her lips touched mine, Meesha's giant paws pushed Thessyna's shoulders into mine, toppling all three of us down to the water behind me.
I felt the water splash in my face, my back finding the ground. "Hey! Buddy! Wake up!"
I blinked and slapped the water from my eyes. "Thessyna?" I looked side to side, "Meesha?"
"Oh, great. Hey, do you speak any English?" the woman asked me, leaning directly over me with a hatchet in one hand, "Parlet... le English?"
Confused and annoyed, I answered, "Yes, I speak English. What..." I pawed again at my eyes. She looked just like Thessyna, but... it wasn't Thessyna. Her hair was short and blonde. She was fully clothed and harsh. Her voice was firm and rough.
"Sorry about the water--you weren't responding. You'd better get your marbles packed up. There are wolves in these hills. You're lucky I found you. Hell, you're lucky you made it through the night."
I looked side to side. The little campfire I'd lit--it was there beside me. The fallen tree, the charred stump... and there it was... my flannel coat. It was all there.
She kicked at something beside me on the ground, "Been eating gooseberries, eh? It's too early in the season--they'll keep you from starving to death, but don't eat too many or you'll be in for a helluva night. What's a meesha?"
"It's a... he's a wolf..."
"A wolf? Meesha? Too many gooseberries, buddy. Do I want to ask about Thessyna?"
I shook it off, "I'm sorry, you caught me coming out of a dream. You just... you bear a remarkable resemblance to an old friend of mine."
Her eyebrows raised as she nodded a half smile, "You're off to a great start, Jack. I look like some old lady? Usually people say I look young for my age."
"I'm sorry, that's not what I meant... I meant..."
"Save it. It's Nicole," she said as she began walking away, "What's yours?" she asked over her shoulder.
"Reid, Graeson Reid."
"Graeson. Graeson, you said?" She turned to face me.
"Do me a favor, Graeson, put some clothes on."
Sweet mother-of-pearl! I was naked as a newborn! I scrambled for my clothes, off balance and embarrassed. She never took her eyes off me. She just reveled in my awkwardness. Eventually I got myself dressed again, and walked over to the flannel coat. I lifted my eyes to the trees behind it, where we'd... where I'd... it didn't matter. I grabbed the coat from the stump and pulled it on.
I could hardly lift my head as I walked toward her. I finally pieced together, she was the young woman I'd seen at the hotel before. I looked up--there was no use in pretending.
"Well, thank you for the rescue. I won't hold you up any longer."
"Yeah," she replied simply.
"Are you heading back to town?"
"No, I'm headed east."
"How long have you been out here?" she asked.
"Since yesterday morning. You?"
"Since the night before. What's east of here?"
"I don't actually know. I do a travel blog..." I said--she clearly was not impressed, "and I guess I'm just looking for something worth writing about."
"Well, I hope you find something before you die. Technically, you survived twenty-four hours on your own, so you're doing better than most already. I've been part of four search and rescues since I came here, but you're the first person I've found... alive anyway."
"So... I'm sorry, I forgot your name..."
"Nicole, right. You know these woods pretty well?" I asked.
"I wouldn't say that. I just know how to survive in them."
"That's awesome. I'm a survivalist as well, but I know enough to admit when I'm in over my head. Would you be interested in joining forces maybe... two more days? I can pay you."
"Not a chance, Jack. I know when to admit it, too. I'll tell you one thing for free though... you need to lace up your boots."
It wasn't the answer I was hoping for, but she wasn't the type to be easily convinced. I took her advice, lacing my boots. I straightened up to wish her well. She was frozen in a stare. Three wolves had come out of the trees and stopped short only because they realized I was there. A lone hiker was an easy target for the pack, but the two of us were a different matter. Two more wolves came out, tipping the scales back into their favor. I hurried to her side. I had to try it, "Morach! Nya Peyta!"
Nothing. Two of them moved outward, flanking us as the leader held his ground next to the others. Nicole raised her hatchet and steadied herself, keeping an eye on the one circling to her right. The leader's head turned toward the same side. I heard scurrying and a vicious growl, then the tale-tale yipes of a scared dog. The flanking wolf was in full retreat. Another massive wolf was in pursuit. Instinctively, I searched for any sort of weapon to join the fight. I found something in my coat pocket--a rock--perfect size for throwing, too. A quick glance wasn't enough. I had to look again. The black egg! I felt its warmth... her warmth!
"Meesha!" I cried as he turned and took a position in front of us.
At the name, the other wolves turned and quickly disappeared into the trees. Meesha's terrible growls and barks echoed in the hills.
"It's okay, boy, they're gone," I said, placing a hand on his back.
He turned and snarled at Nicole.
"It's okay, Meesha, this is Nicole. Dralpa, Meesha. Dralpa, Nicole." I looked at her, "Come, don't be afraid."
"I'm not afraid... I'm friggin' terrified."
"Yeah, I was too."
Although reluctantly, she came close enough to begin the ceremonial sniffing.
"A friend of yours, huh?"
"No," I said. "We're just on the same team."
Wolf-petting continued for a few minutes, as it should. I felt better having Meesha there. "I guess we should get going."
Nicole looked west... then, "Just two more days, huh? $500, what do you say?"
"No, I should be good," I said, petting Meesha beside me.
She sighed, "Fine. I'll go with you."
"What were you doing out here, anyway?" I asked.
"Apparently nothing... I was hoping to get some pictures of a certain kind of tree that's supposed to be found in this area. Maybe you've seen one. It's called a Contorted Beech."
FROM THE MOMENT I was born to the moment my mother died, my father knew my first breath would surely be my last.
She died, so why shouldn’t I? My father watched my birth, her death. He watched me take my first breath, and then my second, and my third. She could hardly breathe when she died, and yet there I was, pale and alive.
My father brought me into his home as if the mere thought of what I had done to my mother was a threat. I was a foreigner to him.
I swear his first words to me were, ‘You killed my wife, and now I am forced to take care of you.’
But he looked past it after a while. I grew up beside my father, and he never remarried. It was just me and him, him and me. It was fine that way for a while, not worrying about feeding three or more mouths, not worrying about what my mother would say about anything he disagreed with.
I missed her, yes. I had never known her and I missed her. But I suppose that is what a child is supposed to do—miss the ones we knew and the ones we didn’t, and still grieve. We are gentle creatures, softened, until we begin to rot.
MY FATHER OWNED A watch shop, and I worked beside him until he tried to send me off to school. I said no, but he insisted. But all I wanted to do was sit in his shop and watch customers come in and out.
I was a people watcher; my father knew that. He never did send me to school after I had refused. He simply let me help in the shop and taught me how to read by his own way. I caught on quickly—reading became my new life outside of the shop.
After a while, I began reading plays, and then I was determined to become an actress. I decided it so very quickly my father wondered if I even meant it at all. But I knew from then on, after reading about far away places across the globe, that I wanted to travel and live on the stage.
But my father did not buy it. He told me, by the time I was fourteen, that if I did not get a job of my own, that I would never be an actress.
'And where will I get a job, Papa?’ I asked him.
‘The bakery, down the road. A good friend of mine owns that bakery with his wife, and you will get a good pay there.’
‘Papa, it’s a bakery.’
'And hundreds of people go there a day. They will pay you well, with their daughter going off and his wife sick. Two people cannot run a bakery that large alone.’
‘Two? Who is the other person?’
‘His son. Emiliano.’
'And how old is he?’
‘About your age, I suppose.’
Papa was always the one to tell me about things I never knew before. And this—this seemed like something I would want to know about.
‘Alright,’ I decided. ‘I’ll go there tomorrow and tell them you sent me.’
‘Good, Carina. I’ll walk you early tomorrow.’
‘I’m fourteen now. I can walk alone.’
'If you say so.’
‘I do. One day I will own this watch shop and that bakery as one.’
My father laughed loudly. ‘Oh, really? And how will you do that?’
‘Well, by marrying the bakers’ son, of course.’
‘I will show you, Papa. I will own that bakery and I will inherit this watch shop and that’s final.’
My father sent me off, the thought of him leaving his watch shop upsetting to even consider.
But even then I knew I was lying.
AND SO I WALKED into that bakery the next morning and told the man at the counter—the one with the thinning black hair—that my father had sent me to work for him.
He recognized me instantly. ‘Ah, Carina. Leonardo’s daughter, my dear. Please, come here.’
He examined me as he led me behind the counter and into the kitchen. Guests were already beginning to pile in at the first sparks of daylight.
‘And so what brings you here? Your father wants you to get a job, yes?’
‘And how old are you now?’
I looked around the beaten kitchen. The paint was chipping and the sink was dripping. And yet the spirit was alive.
My eye caught on the corner of the room, where a boy younger than me stood washing a dish. I noticed he was looking between the man in front of me and myself. His eyes wandered, his gaze never ceasing to rest on a single object.
I focused my attention back on the man in front of me. ‘I am more than capable to work here, Signore. I know how to bake and I can read the menus very well to the customers that cannot.’
‘Even if you didn’t know how to bake,’ the man teased, ‘I would’ve still hired you. We desperately need the extra hands.’
‘Even if I could not bake?’
‘Well, Emiliano would’ve taught you.’ The man turned around towards the boy. ‘Wouldn’t you have, son?’
Emiliano nodded very slowly and tentatively.
‘Good, my boy.’ He turned back to me and shook my hand. ‘Well then, Carina, you’re hired. You start today, right this moment.’
I stood up and continued his firm handshake. My father had always taught me that a firm handshake meant a trustworthy man. ‘Oh, thank you, Signore! My father will be more than pleased.’
‘Of course, Carina.’
He left the room through the two wooden doors beside us. I turned to my left. There he was, the boy—Emiliano—still watching me, but when I met his gaze, he quickly went back to his dishes.
I walked towards him, though he looked as if he might jump out of his apron.
‘You’re Emiliano, right?’
‘I’m Carina. I suppose we’ll be working together from now on. It’s a pleasure.’ I held out my hand, expecting him to take it back. But he just looked at me and simply nodded again.
‘Do you… speak?’
‘Ah, I see. You’re shy.’
‘No, not really.’
‘Then why didn’t you shake my hand?’
He looked down at his soapy hands. ‘Dishes.’
I nodded and walked closer towards him. ‘Do you need any help?’
‘Yes, actually. Can you finish with these?’
Emiliano handed me an apron, and I took a dish from the sink. I began to wash as he kneaded dough between his fingers.
Those next few days became a routine for us. I would arrive at the same time as the bakery opened, and we would begin. I would wash, he would knead, I would put them in the oven, he would do more dishes. Oh, there were endless dishes to behold! But, of course, I got used to them after a while.
I was open with Emiliano. I told him about my life and I asked him questions about his. I didn’t tell him much about me, as his life seemed more important to speak about than mine. My life wasn’t all that grand in my father’s shop. But his life, baking, and baking, and baking—what a way to live.
Weeks passed. Emiliano opened up. I opened up. We were almost friends, you could say, and it felt as if the world was right. I told him about my mother—not that I had killed her, no, but that she had died when I was young. And so he was silent about it for a while; until one day he asked me about her.
‘Do you ever miss your mother when you mention her?’ he said curiously one day while we were in the kitchen.
‘Of course, I miss her.’ I told him. ‘But I have gotten used to it. I don't even remember her face.’
‘That seems like a nightmare.’
‘It was. It is. But I've gotten used to it. It's just the way it must be.’
‘It doesn't have to be.’
‘But it is.’
Even he knew that I was right.
EMILIANO AND I BECAME twin flames. I had never had a friend such as him. One that was intelligent, and yet friendly, restless, and yet still in the mind.
We talked for hours at a time at work. Emiliano’s father would have to remind us to work, we spoke so much! Oh, but he was simply so fun. You could say he was my brother, and that I loved him as such.
Often, I would stay as late as to close the restaurant with Emiliano’s family. I would walk home beside him and would wait outside for a few minutes before my father’s shop closed, and then I would walk home to greet him. Occasionally, Emiliano would walk with me.
We had meaningful conversations in the dark. Nothing but our words to surround us. Scarcely able to see our hands in front of our faces.
One night, almost two months after I had met Emiliano, he walked me home as it began to flurry. Winter in Genoa wasn’t cold enough to be considered frigid, but it was simply that to us Italians. At the time, at least.
‘If you could go anywhere in the entire world,’ I began to say, ‘where would you go?’
He shook my head, a laugh escaping his lips. ‘You know I can't answer that question.’
‘Try to. I ask you all the time, and you never do. So try now.’ Truly, I did.
‘Where do I start?’ I stopped to consider. ‘France?’
‘What about America?’
‘America? That's a thousand miles away.’
I nudged his shoulder. ‘Come on. You have to think big.’
I spun around myself, my arms outstretched. I felt so girlish; still, I giggled. ‘Oh, America. The name even sounds wonderful, don't you agree? I would give anything to step foot in New York and become an actress. To leap on the stage—that is my greatest life's desire.’
I came close to him again and pressed up against his shoulder. ‘What is your greatest life's desire, Emil?’
He turned to me. ‘My life's desire? Those are just dreams. Your life cannot have desires.’
‘Oh, but it can!’
‘How do you know?’
‘I've read a book about two lovers whose life's desire was to be together. And since it was meant to be, through all their hardship, it came into play.’
‘Fiction, I suppose.’
‘Yes, but fiction has many grand lessons—’
‘No, it does not.’
’Come on, Emil.' I nudged him again, and I secured a smile on my face. ‘Brighten up. Is the snow making you grumpy?’
I scarcely saw him roll his eyes. ‘Yes, actually, I suppose it is.’
I leaned closer to him as we neared his home. ‘Thank you, Emil. For being my friend.’
‘Of course, Carina.’
‘Fate has brought us together. I just know it has.’
As I shut my door, I heard my father across the hall, making his way into bed. I was late once again, but he didn’t care. As long as I loved the life I was living, my father would keep letting me come in past dusk.
I went to the window and watched as Emiliano walked away, his arms around himself, trying to keep the warmth.
BEFORE I COULD TAKE a breath, there were three people in the kitchen again. Emiliano’s mother got better, and yet they decided to keep me. I felt honored.
For a while, everything was balanced out. I turned fifteen, and Emiliano turned fourteen. He grew older beside me. I watched him mature. He watched me learn more than I already knew.
We began to teach each other things with our knowledge of the world. I taught him about the Romantic poets. The arts, the theater. Emiliano seemed like he cared, something no one ever seemed to do anymore.
I would tell him about the books I was reading. My favorites—the Age of Innocence, Cheri. He couldn’t read very well, but I taught him what he needed to know. That was enough.
He seemed to memorize everything I taught him, and during the summer months when we had more freedom, I took him out near the sea and we would talk endlessly for hours about my novels and my poems and everything I could ever want to speak of to another human.
I don’t want to boast, but I made Emiliano more open. He became an entirely different person in that year after I had met him. He opened up more; he learned to live. When something upset him, I showed him it was alright to cry. To feel everything. I held him and I comforted him and I let him know that I was there.
In January, Emiliano’s sister came back from France. I met her, and she was truly the kindest soul. We all were a family then.
I recall a day when his sister came by the bakery with her fiancé, André, and we all worked together. Emiliano’s sister helped André knead bread with her fingers guiding his over the dough, and I served while Emiliano stood at the counter and his father washed dishes.
His mother was still recovering from her illness, so she sat on a chair behind the counter and helped him speak to people and take orders. She laughed the entire day. I remember the beams of sunshine that came from her lips each time she smiled. I remember the blush on her face as she saw the secret kisses his sister and her fiancé shared. I giggled. How romantic they were! Oh, how I wished back then how I could kiss someone that deeply.
Emiliano’s father laughed and shook his head humorously as he interrupted the kiss by barreling into the kitchen, and then I was giggling again, and Emiliano was hugging his mother as she put her face in her hands. She watched my sister push my father away, flushing.
I watched the chagrined couple as they moved from each other. As Emiliano’s mother and father came close to one another, I came next to him, just for a moment before the next customer came in, and put my lips to his ear.
I mustered up some courage to say, ‘When your sister leaves, that'll be your parents to us.’
‘What do you mean?’ he asked, his face practically begging for answers.
‘They'll practically be begging for me to kiss you,’ I teased. ‘They already see a spark.’ I raised my eyebrows. ‘And will I give in to their pleas? Just wait and see, Mr. Fournier.’ I turned to greet the next customer before daring to look back at his face.
THAT NIGHT WALKING HOME, I leaned into Emiliano, my arm pressed to his shoulder (I was a head taller than him).
‘You know,’ I began, ‘we all feel like one family.’
‘We are,’ he confirmed. ‘We are all one, big, merry family. One in a whole.’
That was the night when I stopped walking to look over at him. I grabbed his hand for a moment and held it. I let go after a few seconds. ‘I hope things stay this way forever.’
What was I doing? Oh, God, I was falling down a rabbit hole.
My lips brushed the corner of his mouth.
The darkness of the night surrounded us. I felt his breath beside me. I nearly smiled.
‘I love you, Emil.’
After a moment: ‘I—’
‘You don’t have to respond. Just know.’
And we walked in silence for the rest of the way home.
A WEEK LATER, HIS sister’s wedding came about. It was in Florence, three hours away by train, so we all packed up and threw ourselves onto a train at five in the morning. We would stay there for four nights, sleeping in a hotel. My father had agreed with much surprise. We could hardly contain our excitement.
I curled up against Emiliano’s sister the entire way to Florence. I could now say she was my own sister; that’s how it felt. Emiliano sat with his father and André. But mostly the train ride was uneventful.
We departed from his sister and André when we arrived at the train station. They were off to their wedding suite, that lucky couple. And so we toured around the city before settling into our hotel, a four-room suite.
Upon arriving, Emiliano’s mother exclaimed, ‘Isn't this too expensive?’
I told her that her daughter had all the expenses covered.
Before his mother could respond, I grabbed Emiliano’s hand and dragged him into the second room, the one next to his parents’ king-sized bedroom.
I took a look around. Oh, it was the largest room I’d ever been able to sleep in.
‘Where will we sleep?’ Emiliano asked me. He suddenly became aware there was only one bed.
‘Well, Laura told me they could only get two bedrooms,’ I said. He knew what I meant from there.
‘Unless you want to sleep on the floor.’
‘No, it's alright.’
‘I'm a light sleeper, don't worry.’
We set our bags down.
‘Where will we change? There is only one bathroom in the other bedroom.’
‘I'll close my eyes, don't worry.’
‘Unless there's another way.’
‘Fine. I will too.’
He couldn't seem to look at me without his face setting itself on fire! I almost giggled as he left the room.
It was going to be a long few days.
THE WEDDING WAS THE next morning, bright and early on a cold February day. The air had a tinge of chill to it, but mostly it was warming to a sort of spring-like feel. I slept alone that first night, as Emiliano was unsure about sleeping next to me. But that night after the wedding, his parents told him three people could not sleep in one bed.
Nevertheless, I was the maid of honor, and he was the best man. It was such a wonder to go to my first ever wedding. When the vows took place, I saw everyone begin to cry. When the kiss took place, Emiliano looked at me. I don’t know why I got all giddy, but he smiled at me. He always knew I did that when two people were in love.
During the wedding reception, I couldn't seem to stop talking about the beauty of the ceremony. Emiliano just sat there and listened to me speak. My excitement overtook me.
I spoke about his sister's dress and the flowers on the altar and the way the sun shone through the windows, reflecting on his sister's skin at just the right angle. I spoke about how in love they were, and how their vows were so lovable and sweet, and how, when they kissed, their lips came together so fiercely they could've set the church on fire.
I knew I was going mad. I knew Emiliano did not care. But what was I to do to get myself to stop talking?
He simply nodded and laughed. I laughed along with him, leaning into his shoulder and taking in the blending of our happiness. I was the only one who could tell which smiles he was faking. I knew he was not faking these.
‘How did you enjoy it?’ I asked him as we wandered from the party towards the basement of the reception. The air was cold, as it was nearly a cellar, but the noise of people's joy had faded to a faint din. ‘As in, what do you think of your sister getting married at a young age?’
‘I believe she is happy with André,’ he confessed. ‘She deserves to be happy.’
I looked up at the thoughts forming in my mind. ‘Ah, I hope they have beautiful children. Yes, they will have beautiful children. Many. Tell me, how does it feel to know you will soon be an uncle?’
‘Yes, an uncle.’
‘It feels quite splendid.’
‘Doesn't it!’ I giggled.
He didn’t even seem to think about what poured out of his mouth next. ‘Carina, I love the way you laugh. Truly, it brings me joy to just listen to it.’
He stopped himself and hid his face in his palms. ‘Sorry, that is strange to say.’
I looked at him and smiled, a faint blush coming across my face. What a wonderful thing to say, I thought.
‘Emiliano, you know you can tell me anything. And that's very kind. Thank you.’
‘Yes, I know. You are welcome.’
‘And you know I love you, yes?’
He didn’t have to think about it this time. ‘I do.’
‘Good. Always remember.’
I looked at him with a faint look in my eyes. I inclined myself towards him again. My shoulder set itself against his chest, somehow, and I was nearly on top of him when I turned my head to face him.
Oh, Lord, what was I doing? I was insane, insane, insane.
My breath blended into his before I could even register what I was doing. I gently pecked his lips, letting both of ours meet. It was brief, shorter than anything I could’ve ever known. Before I knew he had even closed his eyes, it was over. And then I was standing up.
‘Let's go grab a drink, shall we?’ I asked him with a calm tone.
WE WENT UPSTAIRS to the party again, and I didn't speak to him once after that. I went to join his sister, and I didn't see him until that night when we made our way back to the hotel.
I was just beaming; what a joy the party had been. Emiliano’s parents retired to their room, leaving us alone in ours. As they closed the door, he stood beside me, watching as I moved from the door and went to fetch a nightgown in the corner of the room.
‘Well?’ I asked. ‘Why the long face?’
‘Emil, I'll change first, then you. We'll both close our eyes.’ I motioned for him to turn around. ‘No peeking.’
I saw him take a deep breath. He nodded and turned around to face the other way.
I slowly gathered my clothes and undressed. He was so silent, so still, I wondered if he was even breathing. I watched myself dress as I watched him with his hands over his eyes.
When I was done, I merely said, ‘Alright.’
I watched him turn around. As he moved to his suitcase and retrieved his clothing, he quickly demanded, ‘Turn around.’
‘Sure, Signore Fournier,’ I teased.
I heard the rustling of clothing as my eyes were closed. When he was finished, he told me to turn around again.
‘You sure you didn't peek?’ he asked.
‘I believe you.’
‘You best believe me.’ I came close to him again, and he froze. It was almost as if he was scared of me now. ‘Let's get into bed.’
Hesitantly, we did. I climbed into the queen-sized bed on the left. Emiliano climbed in after me, and as we laid down, the room was bathed in silence. I was aware of my every move beside him.
After a few minutes of silence, I thought he was asleep. I decided to hum a tune. I turned towards him.
‘Are you awake, Emil?’
No answer. He must’ve been asleep, but I knew he was not.
‘Emil, turn towards me.’
He faced me. He looked at me with something I’d never seen in his eyes before.
‘I really had a fun night,’ I whispered. ‘The wedding was beautiful.’
‘I did too,’ he agreed. ‘It was.’
I nodded, quiet.
‘Can I ask you a question?’ I said after a moment.
‘Did you mind the kiss?’
‘What kiss? During the wedding?’
I rolled my eyes and smiled. ‘You know what kiss.’
‘No, I didn't mind. It is what happens, isn't it?’
I giggled at his ignorance. ‘The one I gave you, Emil.’
‘Did you mind it?’
‘No, not really.’
‘Do you want to do it again?’
‘No, not really.’
I wasn’t taken aback though. I merely wanted him to kiss me. ‘Come on, Emil, kiss me again.’
I leaned closer to him. My hand brushed his arm. ‘Why wait? While we're alone is best.’
I didn't let him agree to it; I didn't even let him try. Before I kissed him, I squeezed his hand as a promise. And then I let our lips press together.
This time the feeling was more than real. He closed my eyes, I closed my eyes. I breathed him in; I tasted his lips against my own. My arms came around his neck, and I held him there. I was going to let us feel this kiss together for as long as we wanted to feel it.
I shifted on the mattress. I felt her chest through the fabric of his shirt.
‘I love you, Emil,’ I said as I pulled away. I pulled back.
His legs moved to touch mine, and the longer I kissed him, the longer I began to know him and know him and feel who he was.
‘I love you too, Carina,’ he told me. I could almost hear his mind say, I do.
Tainted But Not Forgotten
Driving to work is becoming depressing. When the world was in chaos, as it had been for millenniums, the traffic at this very spot was unbearable. Money hungry businessmen and women, racing to get to their offices for their early meetings with investors. Investors, scrambling through the highways, rushing to get to a computer to snag another client for their pyramid scheme. Clients, carpooling through the HOV lanes in hopes to make it to their warehouse jobs before the bell rang deeming them late. Then there was, I. A mother and widow, driving to work in efforts to keep the lights on; avoiding an accident caused by any of those lunatics. Those were the “good times”; but that was then. Nowadays, I am just one woman among the tainted, pretending to care if I make it to work on time.
"Post-apocalyptic" is what they would call it. But is it? When the sky began to open with trumpets blaring harmonic notes, the roads were congested. People were traveling nonstop to see if their loved ones were picked up by the openings. The streets and highways were in chaos; more than usual. On February 23, 2023, the first sighting of the sky opening was reported. It snowed on the beaches of Southern California that day. The wind was light, the skies were gray and the feeling was eerie. I remember that day. I thought it was the worst day of my life.
While at work, on that February day, I received a phone call from Gema's school. Gema was my beautiful six-year-old daughter. Hysterically hyperventilating, the generalist at her school struggled to put her words together. After thirty-six seconds of trying to understand her, I came to realize what I was hearing. All the children had been raised into the sky by what was described as "angels with trumpets". Rushing through the highway, I finally made it to her school. The other parents were frantic about what the school staff explained as a "miracle". Our children had been playing outside when a bright light parted the glooming sky and trumpets were heard for miles and miles. The children eased the teachers by telling them "...please tell our mommies and daddies not to worry, Father God is opening the gates for us. Don't be scared. We will all see each other very soon." The children were gone and the sky was reverted back to its normality.
Luckily, I was able to catch the baby sitter, Alma. My ten-month-old daughter, Daisy, had also been taken to the sky. Apparently, an angel had come to visit Alma before I arrived. I knew this woman was a saint when I first met her as a child. Alma took care of me when my parents lost control of their emotions. It became routine for them to drop me off at her house as they returned home to smash whatever plate or cup they seemed fit to sacrifice during their arguments and rage. There was something so angelic and pure about the love that that woman showed me. Anyway, Alma eased my pain with the most beautiful words any mother can hear, "...they are perfect! God is saving them from the torment and destruction that the world will face. He's taken all the innocent souls of the world; all at once. I have seen Gema and Daisy, they are so beautiful and filled with... I can't even explain. I will be joining them soon. You have done a great job at protecting their innocence." Alma didn't continue. I began to hear trumpets outside of her home. She heard them as well. Tears of joy filled her beautiful wrinkly skin as we walked outside of her home. The sky opened for her. I didn't see what was at the other side of the bright hole in the sky, but I did see the happiness one cannot describe upon Alma's face. As she disappeared before me, I felt a calm but profound pain in my heart. The weight of grief brought me to my knees.
My obvious next stop was to my parent's house. They were older in age and had time to repent their inner sins before this day. About a year before God started to take His innocent children, I had enrolled moms and pops in "La Luz - Marriage Counseling for the Tired"; a course specialized to help older Hispanic couples with inner traumas to find love and forgiveness. They found the love they once had for each other. This led them to renew their vows in the same church they once married in thirty-three years ago. For thirty-two years they disagreed in every aspect of decision making and in less than one year of counseling they were happily enjoying the ounce of love they had hanging on by a thread. They were also gone. I was happy for them. I figured that the counseling truly worked for them after all.
Two months after Daisy was born, my husband Ezekiel was involved in a horrible accident. He worked early mornings and late nights as I stayed home with the girls. That night, while he drove, we argued about something stupid; forgetting to clean the litter box. He lost control of his work truck and was killed on impact. Losing him is still the biggest pain I carry with me. Our marriage was like all marriages; arguments about taking out the trash or meaningless fights about what roses I wanted for Valentine’s Day. One thing was for sure, though; our love was real. A love so real that I could not forgive God for taking him away from me so suddenly.
It has been seven years since God began to lift the kind, innocent and devoted, but I remain in the same heartbreak and in the same place. My anger with God has kept me on Earth. I have no one left. I have the same route to the same job; the same check for my same... empty... meaningless... life. The sky opens less and less every day. I remember driving down this very freeway and the sky would open every four minutes. "Wow, there goes another one." I would say. Now, it opens once every day. You would think that the world would be in chaos, but it's not. It's depressing. The world has truth and no crime is reported. Everyone that hasn't been picked up try their best to be "saved". We all know the truth. Even some non-believers have repented, accepted God and have been lifted to the skies. I have witnessed the local drug dealers… well, ex-drug dealers, be lifted with no hesitation. Everyone is trying hard to be accepted.
There is no longer a government. There was however a world-wide announcement by the United Nation Director, Erin Ackiner, that left everyone in a zombie-like state for about a year.
"The ones who are left behind have hope. Be kind. He is real. Repent and you'll be ushered to His gates. He is real. The world will end soon. Repent. The ones left behind to suffer will have no purpose in His Kingdom and will burn."
This message repeats over and over again on the only broadcasting radio station in the nation. There's no gossip, no award shows, no concerts of demonic rituals, nothing. Contrary to all those ‘end of the world’ movies that Hollywood had embedded into our heads, the world is not in flames or in complete disarray. The world is calm. At first, people couldn’t understand what was truly happening, but after a while, we all knew the truth. God, in His complete merciful glory, was saving the ones who deserved it. Everyone is fearing of God now. As it should have been since the beginning.
I guess the real reason why Adam and Eve did what they did was because of “doubt”. They didn’t truly know that biting the apple had direct repercussions, but now, we, the descendants of their original sin, know the truth.
I remain in disbelief of our current state. Most of us have resumed our normal lives. We go to work and get a pay check but it doesn’t mean anything, really. No one is breaking the law, no one is money hungry. The lights and gas stay on because if the owners were to shut them down, they too will burn, therefore, they keep them on. The poor are being helped, then fed, then raised to the heavens. The rich are learning how to be humble and the everyday-joe and jane, like myself, are just living. Just breathing. We go to work to pass the time. We get our check, we deposit, we go shopping for food, we go to bed and we repeat. We stay in place. We all do the bare minimum to not lose our minds. We try not to think in vanity, or complain about the weather. We all know the truth and we all don’t know why we were left behind.
“Tainted but Not Forgotten” is a group that I have been attending for about three months now. Originally, the idea of the group was to speak about our loved ones and our epiphanies on how to be lifted. Perhaps that was the answer to be reunited with our families. When most of the group realized that the number of members weren’t diminishing but in fact, growing, they began to talk about their pain and confusion on why they remained instead. The group has organized many events in efforts to promote happiness and self-perseverance, but it doesn’t seem to be working. Not many get lifted and if they do, not many notice. I don’t speak or participate at these things. I watch and listen as I hear the pain dripping from their mouths. Like the ice-cube that escaped from the Sunday barbecue chest while a cold brew is lifted. Melting away from existence as the sun remained hot and present for the happy cheers of children running through the sprinklers. My Gema was always so excited for summer. She would run like a cheetah with no loss of energy. My Daisy never had the chance to experience “running”. At the time she was lifted, she only crawled. She never felt the contrast of cold droplets hitting her warm face as she ran through the water like her older sister, a crazed wild animal.
Tonight’s meeting is short due to the speaker, Adam, having a mental breakdown. He started off with the group’s mantra, “We are tainted but we are not forgotten”. Shortly and slowly after that, he began to ramble on about his old life. He was a banker who approved loans for the middle class. He did some sketchy transactions during the original cleansing. He thought it was a good idea to ask for majority of the loans back before their agreements were expired, due to the world ending, of course. Filling his customers with doubt and fear for not paying back, well, you can imagine his demise. Tonight, he started to talk about how stupid and selfish he was and proceeded to weep. He left the stage and did not return. We are all headed home now.
Driving home… every night… to an empty house… is becoming depressing. Becoming? No, it is. How am I still here? Day after day I sit in this same driver seat thinking to myself, “WHY AM I STILL HERE!? I was a good person! I am a good person- I mean, I wasn’t the best, but who was? Arnie, the drug dealer, sold drugs! To kids! How was he lifted before me?! God, what kind of sick joke is this?! Why do you keep me here!?” … and day after day I remain confused and depressed.
As I park my car in my drive way, I notice my living room light is on, which is weird, because saving energy is what we were told to do, therefore, I know I shut it off. I park my car and make my way to the front door. I have a weird feeling in the pit of my stomach. A feeling that I haven’t felt in such a long time. Fear? Anticipation? I’m not sure. For years I’ve stayed stale in emotions; knowing the truth and still not understanding makes you this way.
I walk into what seems to be my empty house. No doors seem to be broken into, granted, no one locks their doors anymore, and all my windows are shut. The living room light is indeed on but I am sure I turned it off. As I reach over for the off-switch, I notice a shadow behind me. Adam, the speaker from the group reveals himself and begins to speak nonsense. In a frantic plea, he yells, “You have to believe me! He isn’t real! None of this is real! It’s the government! God doesn’t exist! We are all going to die and end up nowhere!”. I try my best to calm him. “Adam! Listen to me!” I yell. “You are o.k.! Remember! ‘We are tainted but not forgotten’ Say it with me!”. Adam is not interested in hearing my voice. He pushes me away and I fall back slamming my head on something hard. I reach towards the back of my head and notice I am bleeding. The scent of fresh cut grass overwhelms me.
Newly wedded, my sweet Ezekiel, carved a center table for me. I kept asking him to carve me something “I’ll actually use” since he was always in his studio carving bird houses. Comically, the table could not withstand the weight of a coffee mug. It wasn’t until I told him to place it in the corner of the living room entry, that I realized I actually loved it. It was made out of eucalyptus tree. I remember how it smelled; like spring. It was an art piece from his heart and was displayed as such. Its sole purpose was not for holding or keeping objects displayed; it was to remind us of our love. Imperfect but valuable.
Bleeding only happens when you are hurt. I had forgotten how bad it felt; pain. A quarter inch wound on the back of my head began to drench my hair and hands of blood. Adam looks at me with fear, an emotion I’m sure neither of us have felt since 2023. Right before my eyes, something I have never seen, and I don’t think anyone has, appears before me. The ground opens. The room gets dark and I could hardly breathe. Adam, standing over a hole that appeared in the center of my living room, looks back at me. In a soft whisper, “I’m sorry…” escapes from his breath. He is sucked into the hole and no remains of his six-foot, 190-pound body is left behind. The smell that lingers in my home is so strong that I begin to regurgitate. The taste of salt permeates my taste buds. The smell is overwhelming. Everything begins to fade. Miraculously the front door opens. A smooth breeze enters my home and brushes against my blushed faced. Silence filled my house as I sat in desolation.
Thoughts flood my mind after what I just witnessed. “The floor opening? Is this normal?” Up to now, only the sky has opened; not the floor. Is there a Hell, now? I rush into the bathroom in search of my first-aid kit. As I hold it in my hand, I realize, I haven’t needed this kit since Daisy accidently scratched her nose and made herself bleed. Those cute little fingernails. How I long her breath on my breast as she drank from me. A feeling I took for granted. Her eyes, how they looked up to me as if I was the true fountain of life. I was her shade in the scorching heat of her first heat-wave. She was the warmth on my chest that kept my heart burning for her acceptance of my love.
Adam’s face stays in my mind. A week has flown by and I have not returned to work. I wonder if they assume I have been lifted. At work, my boss, Leonard, warned us that if he ever went missing to not look for him. He wanted to make a point that he would be one of the first ones to go. He has not gone missing, just like the rest of them, he remains working, but not me. I can not leave my house. Over and over it replays in my head. No reports have been made or at least none that I am aware of. My mind is cloudy with “what if’s” as if any of it made a difference. Why did God want me to see that? Why? Is His torture of keeping me here without my babies not enough anymore? Was taking everyone, I ever loved not enough? Am I not enough for them? Am I not enough for Him? Day after day, I sit in this living room and ponder on every mistake I have ever made. Was it because I accidently stole a bag of chips one time? Was it because I cursed at my parents out of frustration while they fought? What is it?
I have exhausted every meaningless question in my mind and I think it is time to head outside. When I would have fits as a child, Alma would always tell me to go outside and get some fresh air. When the weather was too cold to go outside, she would lay my head on her lap and blow on my face. Fresh spearmint from her garden would always keep her breath as pure as her heart. No natural air can compare to how calm she would make me.
Since I have not gone outside for a week, my mailbox is flooded with notices from the “Tainted But Not Forgotten”. I open one of the biggest envelopes and begin to read, “ATTENTION: THE GROUND HAS OPENED. THE WORLD WILL SOON END. BEWARE. REPENT!”. In a furious rage, I begin to rip up the letter in my hand. I can not bare this mind twisting movie I am living in anymore. I drop to my knees and begin to yell at the sky.
“God! I’m talking to you! You listen to me! Why have you done this to me? Why was I not enough for you? I took care of the children you lent me and I knew they were yours to begin with! You took my mother and father, and even then, I knew I was not theirs to keep, anyway! But Ezekiel! Why did you take him from me?”
My head becomes heavy and it drops to the concrete road. Before I could lift my head, I see a pair of feet in front of me. I look up and realize it’s a young girl. She is wearing a white dress with an orange scarf. “Why do you curse at God as you do?” she asked. Ignoring her first question, I ask in return, “Who are you?”. She smiles and sits next to me on the hard concrete. “My friends call me, Lily.” she says. I respond, “Well since we are not friends, what is your name?” She smiles and bows her head, looking at the rocks on the ground, “You may call me Lily, friend.” I am distraught and weak from cursing at the sky that I do not have the energy to argue with this random teenager. Her accent is not Californian, and I do not have the need nor curiosity to ask her once more. I sit in silence as she begins to speak.
“You know, you are one tough woman. I’ve seen so many mothers fall and never get up. Are you aware of the strength you possess? All of these new blessings have surely made you accept your armor…”
I think to myself, “Did she just say “blessings”?”. Although I am not interested, how can this random kid tell me about my “blessings”? She doesn’t even know me. She continues to speak.
“I know, I know, you don’t know me, but I know you. I was sent to you, to help you. I would have come sooner but I wanted to learn a bit more. You see, I wondered if you still had humanity. I was told that you were special, but I had to see for myself. The world is ending and no mistakes can be made. In fact, no mistakes are ever made. He knows everyone’s heart...”
Before she can continue, I cut her off by exclaiming, “I’m sorry, “He”? Look, I know you probably live on my street and you have probably wondered about me, but I am fine. I am just overwhelmed. I’m sorry, but I’m going back inside my house and I hope you do not follow me.”
As I am walking away, she follows. “Hey Bug…” she says. My heart stops. “What did you just say?” I ask. She smiles and says “Do I have your attention now?”.
I feel like throwing up. Memories of who I once was flood my entire being. Ezekiel used to call me “Bug”. I turn and look at her and I see her grinning with the face of hope. A face a have not seen in a long time. “What did you call me?” I repeat. She walks toward me and sits me on the bench in front of my house. Like word vomit, the words I have harbored until now begin to surface. I can no longer hold on to these thoughts. I begin to weep and confess.
“I was selfish, I was needy, I was a burden! He had just called to ask about dinner and I started to nag about the cat litter. I hated that cat, he knew that, he wanted to keep it, but I didn’t. Why did he call me while driving? He knew he didn’t have Bluetooth, he knew it was dangerous! I killed him! I made him lose control! I killed him. I’m the worst kind of human. God has every right to keep me here! I was selfish, I was unbearable. My sweet baby girls deserved someone better. Someone who could provide, I should have gone to college. I should have gotten a degree. We lived pay check to pay check. I couldn’t even afford a present for Gema on her birthday. My parents started doing better when I stopped visiting them. It was me! I was the cause of their chaotic marriage. It was all me. God, I know you have kept me here because of me, I know that! I just want the pain to end! Please God, send me wherever you want, just make the pain stop!”
Lilly begins to cry with me. Two random people… sitting on a bench… crying with each other. Lilly places her hand on my heart and begins to hum. A weight I had become accustomed to is lifted. The fog that has crowded my head is clearing up and the stress on my eyes has been vanquished. I can see now. Lilly stops humming and says to me, “Many don’t know how heavy they make themselves. You don’t need to hold on to that any more. I have taken it from you. You should hear them soon.” She gets up from the bench, hugs me, and walks away. Relief and confusion over power me. I want to sleep. Although I feel weightless, I am exhausted.
My inner chaos has settled. I begin to head inside my house but quickly stop. An echo reaches my ear. The wind starts to pick up and blows off the dead leaves in my way. The once gloomy gray skies begin to clear and I begin to hear birds. Funny, I know I have seen birds lately but I can’t remember when was the last time I’ve heard them. Tears begin to roll down my face.
I hear trumpets.
Betty Del Castillo
Gravel In Your Gut
Part 1: Old Saloon in a Street of Mud
Drops of rain bounced fiercely off the brim of my knackered old hat, dampening out any chances I had of hearing the crisp steady sounds of Johnny Stud, a young traveling fiddler from Arkansas who happened to be skipping to his own upbeat tune inside the saloon I had now stood in front of. After two days of travel, my mouth was dryer than the Texas summers I had experienced as a boy, and tonight I fully intended on drowning myself into the warm clutches of the cheapest Tennessee Hooch they offered, either until I lost consciousness or when the bar keep, Mr. Silverstein, closed the bar doors locking me out for good.
The Gatlinburg mud stained the lower third of my elongated coat splashing against me in a fanfare of thickening muck, and I preferred it that way. I finished hitching my horse and was sure to double wrap the lead, then turned toward the yellow hue illuminating from the windows of the Black Forest Cantina. The end of my night hastefully invited me in, however with much control, and no reason to rush, I realigned my lower back. I made sure to adjust my six-shooter while I snapped my waist-band back into place and tightened down the straps.
Navigating up the stairs to the saloon I dipped my head underneath the sheet of water converging off the edge of the roof. Each droplet drilled a shallow ditch further into the ground forming along the perimeter of the porch. A wife and her leather-faced husband exited the bar tripping over one another. The man barely kept his legs under himself as most of his weight laid over her shoulders. She struggled to drag him toward his horse, yet somehow remained composed and lady like in their oddly choreographed shuffle. I nodded to her.
The responding scowl on her face carried the weight of years of embarrassment he must had burdened upon her. I got the feeling this was a regular occurrence, and would be willing to bet he will be sleeping in the barn tonight with the cows, provided she managed to get him home. I sparked up a match, then flicked the remaining ashes off my previously half-smoked cigar, and forced the embers into an orange glow. A strong draw eventually illuminated my tangled beard, and a thick musky smoke filled my mouth. I held it in for a moment dropping a shoulder into the porch post. My gaze followed the disorderly couple on their way home, and arguably well on their way to a divorce. I exhaled a cloud of relaxation into the air above me, watching it dissipate similarly to the way their silhouettes faded into the darkness, as they dipped into the shadows behind the general store.
Occasional hoots and yips from the patrons jarred my attention as the drunkards danced and sang to the ditties’ that Stud played inside. His fiddle-stick kissed the strings quick and witty, but not too complicated to follow, and carried a somewhat repetitive locomotive sound that chugged along, and was accompanied by the clashing of the emptied glasses filling the room. It was a lively welcomed contrast to the isolating July monsoon I had just endured, having trampled through the mountains from Hot Springs, sixty-miles north-east of here. A good stretch, a warm drink, and maybe a little attention from a widower looking for a few coins, would be all I need to set me up for another few days on my trip to Chattanooga.
With my cigar clenched in my teeth I shook off my coat, kicked any loose mud onto the floorboards, and folded my jacket over my arm. I then pushed my way through the folding doors to enter the Cantina, a regular stop for me when I came through. Somewhere in the corner of the bar I spotted a stool that was close enough to the alcohol yet offered a view of the room that did not infringe too much on my security. Trust me, when you are in as many bars as, I am you appreciate having your back to a corner. I sat down, jamming myself between a balding loud-mouthed fat man, and an unwashed tattered mess of a woman who was passed out in her own vomit on the bar. Perhaps surprising, it was not the worst place I stopped to have myself a brew.
The inside of the place was well lit, centering around two large Chandeliers equally spaced above a somewhat-impressive main room, and stretching to the top of a lofted ceiling. The remaining light was accented by enough wall sconces you could lose count of. There were five dedicated gambling tables, three filled of poker players, and two occupied by dedicated black jack players. Each were scattered among a dozen regular patron tables filled with mainly fur trappers, lumberjacks, and soot-laden miners. Everyone was attempting to strike it big, or at least enough to have a free night of partying. The place was dingy at its cleanest. A haze from the burning tobacco mixed with the gas lanterns on the walls, filled the room. A hard-working musk punched through the air and lined the inside of my nose. It was the smell of a strong respectful work ethic combined with a lack of regular bathing. It was my kind of place, and my type of town.
Johnny Stud romped his feet in the corner of the main room in unison with his infectious tune. The crowd followed suit. Some tapped their toes, a few nodded their heads, and the rest were slapping their hands to their thighs. They all seemed unknowingly hypnotized by his music as they shared conversations form across their tables. Stud was elevated above the crowd on a single-step stage tightly tucked away in front of a small piano. Reaching tall behind the stage was a staircase leading to an open-lounge loft that towered over the establishment, and accessed a series of rooms along the back perimeter of the upstairs. There was roughly a half dozen saloon girls working hard to get free drinks, attempting to acquire any extra cash however they could. They all pretended to be drunk, flirted robustly, and sat across the laps of what appeared to be wealthy business men. An experienced stout woman walked into my view leading a man up to her personal room, the fifth door from the top of the stairs to the left. They disappeared for a short while, then re-emerged. Their clothing was more frazzled and out of order than when they entered. One had become a little richer, and the other, of clearer mind, but both were satisfied when they parted ways. My scanning of the room was interrupted by Mr. Silverstein.
“What’ll you have?”
I pulled my gaze away from the room.
“The cheapest dark you got”
He reached under the shelf and fumbled around for a bit, but finally came up with a full bottle, mainly untouched, of an unknown whiskey. His eyes widened with unsurety followed by a shrug of his shoulders.
“Just imported from Kentucky, cheapest I got. Double for a nickel?”
I was reluctant, but when I patted my pockets, I was quickly reminded of the lack of funding I had brought with me, and ultimately caved to the inferior alcohol.
“No Choice I reckon. Keep ’em coming.”
Part 2: Dirty, Mangy Dog
A couple drinks in, and the warm welcome of the Kentucky mountains flooded through me. Though not hugely impressive, they made a stronger drink than I had initially assumed. Feeling more relaxed, entirely bold, and a little lucky, I slammed down another nickel.
“Filler ’er up Thomas.”
Mr. Silverstein shot me a stern glance over the top of his glasses while he filled my cup. The edges of his fluffed mustache provoked into a curl and met the bottom of his nose as his lips pruned together into a scowl. He never liked his first name being used outside of his very tight-knit circle. Hell, I guess I never did either, and knowing that I flourished a rise out of him, I put my hands up, waving them in submission, accompanied by a light-hearted chuckle. I leaned back into my chair choking on my own smoke.
The corner of his mouth curled with a grin slightly while he waved his pointer finger toward the tables.
“Go lose your money on one of those tables or find something to do, you grungy bastard. Just get out of my hair”
He snickered a little, while sauntering to the other end of the bar, and began wiping a disorderly mess left behind from the last rowdy customer. I turned toward the room unsure of which table I would decidedly join.
The room fell quieter than before as the Alabama man stopped playing, yet the patrons maintained a vibration throughout the room engaged in their hearty conversations. The echo of a fiddle being rested against a chair only caught the attention of a few. Then Mr. Stud made a short announcement to the room.
“I’ll be back after a long piss, and a much-needed refill.”
A couple cries in support of his chosen lack of sobriety sounded, while he stepped of the stage nodding to the house piano player who walked past him to take his seat at the keys. He started to fill the musical void playing a local favorite, Maple Leaf Rag.
“You gon do sumtin, or just sit der lookin like a foo?” interrupted the loud-mouthed fat man adjacent to me.
He was barely awake, struggling to stay upright, and swaying within the ocean of his alcohol filled gut. He misted the air around him as he talked as his lazy gut spilled over his unbuttoned pants, and jutted out below his stained shirt. I leaned back to avoid the cloud of spit shooting in every direction. With his current state, I refrained from responding, but I pondered as it had never occurred to me in all my observations that others could be watching me too. Perplexed with this thought, and unsure of how long I had been sitting there starring at the room, I rose out of my seat pushing past the sloppy drunk toward the room.
With a drink in my hand and some money to lose, I sat down at the first available seat that would deal me seven cards, and was lucky enough to have a good view of the stage. Completing the circle at the table among four other men, I threw down a few coins to buy into the next round. I scanned my competition while I got comfortable adjusting my seat. To my left donning a grey vest with matching slacks was a slick and orderly man who rose properly in his chair, and carried himself differently than most others in the room. Even well into his glass of Gin, he spoke with an educated vocabulary, and a sharp tone grabbing the attention of everyone at the table with each word, indicating to me he was either a traveling salesman, a lawyer, or perhaps worse, a politician. To my right sat two other men, both similar in build and age, and as filthy as the ground I walked in on. It was apparent they made attempts to wash their faces and hands, but the soot and crud stained their skin regardless, with a dull and dead appearance. It was also evident that they had just come straight from work to be here and I assumed they were spending their entire days wages at this table. They could have been railroad workers, but I was certain they were miners, especially from the consistent coughing and occasional black tar that accompanied their spit. Just like many young bucks before them, these two seemed to be friends. They had most likely come from the same small town, working hard to make a little extra coin for their families, before the long treacherous winter came. Sharing a few jokes and joining in some laughs they kept their presence to a minimum.
The fifth man at the table was a bigger man who sat uncomfortably bent with age. He began dealing the cards out for a new round to each of us. His crooked fingers grasped the deck revealing his onset arthritis. Though, he moved more fluidly than one would expect with thickened and twisted knuckles. He managed to keep his head hidden under his tilted hat conveniently casting a shadow over his face. I figured it was his personal way to disguise his poker tells and create a sense of mystery to those he played. It worked. Breaking me from my table read, he stopped dealing, and with a sudden poke of his brim he flicked his hat to the top of his forehead to speak to a saloon server girl passing by. He leaned into the light turning toward the girl which illuminated a long and prominent scar on his cheek. It seemed quite familiar to me. He pointed at his empty glass and groaned out a few gritty words.
“Another one, ma’am.”
He flipped a coin unnecessarily high into the air above her. She followed it as if she was a cat tracking a bird, and snatched it carefully with both hands out of the sky in a similar feline fashion. Though most girls were happy to receive any money they could, her jutting chin followed by an obvious eye-roll suggested a mild irritation, as she walked away. The large gray-haired man turned back to the table passing out the remaining cards to the rest of us, but a shimmer light passed over an unmistakable evil eye. I could not help but glance more than once. I was transfixed; Hypnotized. His distinctive squint was maintained by a raised boney cheek. His scar reached far up his face to meet the bottom of his curled and arched brow. I slowly shifted my weight in suspicion and began opening my jacket. I fumbled through my pocket for a worn-out picture my mother had given to me many years earlier. My arm extended in front of me pumping with anticipation as I squinted for my final confirmation. The men’s eyes around me shifted from their cards in my direction. In these parts it was just as unusual to have a photograph in your possession as it was to be interrupting a poker game bizarrely holding one up in front of you. Therefore, I scored two, for oddly capturing the sole focus of the table, on me. In an almost a perfect coordination with the building pressure, a well refreshed Johnny Stud entered the stage for his second set of the night. He picked up his fiddle and started in right away, stomping the hardened wooden stage, sending shock-waves through the floor boards throughout the room. My heartbeat had already been slowly increasing, but quickly increased to match his new intensity.
Before my eyes, I had the picture on one side; the old snake of a man in front of me on the other. I held it for some time, but my hand eventually lowered to the table allowing a raw and unblocked view. He starred back at me confused, yet lacked any intimidation or worry.
“You got somethin to say boy?”
The tension had broadened to the rest of the room, and the men at my table all moved away from the anticipated ring of fire about ready to take place. I abruptly stood up tumbling my chair behind me, leaned over the table, and flicked the picture into his chest. I knew without a doubt, that I had just found my father.
Part 3: Growing up Quick and Mean
Perhaps my father was not of right mind, or a fair amount of alcohol abetted him the night I was born, but without explanation, on November 15th 1855, I was named after my great-grandmother. Though, this is the origin of my pain, my bastard father managed to compound a series of bad decisions when he abandoned my mother and I, only three years later. I was cursed for the rest of my life. He left nothing for us; no money, no food, and certainly no fatherly guidance for a growing young boy. The only thing that my daddy ever did leave us was an old guitar, and an empty bottle of booze.
Growing up was quick for me. I became a man without knowing how to be one, and much earlier than most. I fought almost every day learning better how to brawl well before I could ride a horse. It was safe to say if my mother wasn’t dragging me out of the schoolhouse three times in one week, we were having a good week. In the heart of Texas, there was not a place for a boy like me. I challenged everything, especially their all-loving religion often asking myself and others, how a Just God could do this to a boy and still be considered “Just”. A fair answer was never offered nor concluded. We moved a lot, and each town we lived in seemed to mirror the last, a bane for both of us. We were judged everywhere we went, with fury of the good book knocking us further and further out of the Lone Star state, and causing my mother an enormous amount of torture and pain. It is not good for a woman to be without a man who occupies her house, and she was regularly scolded for not being married. Her anxiety and probably my wild ways, eventually led to her failed heart. Without faith, parents, or any friends, I soon became more suppressed from the public eye dipping further into the shadows for many years.
My name and my story traveled from town to town to hide my shame. I worked relentlessly after my mother passed wherever I could wrangle cattle, help in the stables, or brawl in a bar for money. I worked my way all over the south, but eventually ending up in Tennessee, today, in Gatlinburg at this old saloon in a street of mud. The years of pain, the death of a withered and broken mother taken too young, and the hatred for my abandoned youth filled my veins.
Part 4: The Mud, the Blood, and the Beer
My father glanced at the picture briefly, but discarded it onto the floor, effortlessly. He then looked up to me producing a scowl.
“Who the hell do you think you are?”
The fury of my entire upbringing blazed inside my body, and I began losing my abilities to control myself. My muscles tightened, my fiery blood flushed my neck and face, and my fist hardened into stone as I ground my knuckles into a knot. We were meeting for the first time as grown men, but I knew, he knew, who I was.
“My name is Sue! How do you do?”
I clenched the end of the table promptly tossing it over my left hip into the adjacent crowd, and aggressively strode toward him. The glasses of undrunk alcohol smashed onto the ground shattering across the feet of at least eight men, and the undrunk brandy splashed across the breasts of the women who accompanied their laps. The fiddle kept chugging along louder and faster. Most bands would have already bailed at the hint someone was going to fight, but Johnny kept playing hard and rough attempting to distract the crowd, yet he fueled my anger deeper. With a dead-eye on my target and driven by only one motivation, a vow that I had made my myself many years prior, I rage-fully inched my way towards him belting out.
“Now you gonna die!”
He started rising out of his chair toward me as I wound up my iron ball of a fist and thrust the entire pain of my Texas childhood right between his eyes, knocking him back into his chair. The legs instantly buckled under the force of the impact causing him to launch further onto the laps of two men attempting to flee behind him. I surprised myself a little, and even took a second glance at my hand, impressed by the power I had just unleashed. I was confident any man would not have come back from that one, but just as he hit the ground to my surprise, he bounced up toward me faster than I had put him there. The crowd had fully encircled us clapping and yelping, and the honky-tonk was in full swing. The piano player joined Johnny and played along in a tension-building ditty. A women shrieked in the crowd distracting me for a shortest of moments.
“He’s got a knife!”
A shimmer of light from my father’s blade, whizzed past my face and easily carved out a piece of my ear. The tip of the blade punched a hole through my hat, launching it off my head. I stumbled backwards holding the area where the part of my ear used to be. The warm thickening liquid flowed everywhere; down the side of my face, over my fingers, and began filling my ear canal. We both were bleeding. His blood ran from the middle of his nose and onto the floor. He held his knife out in front of him as he hunkered toward me one slow step at a time. I hopped out of the way as he swung and extended arm toward me. We began to circle the room like caged animals. Another lunge and a miss, but it was much closer than the last. The crowd move along with us, but began constricting us in like a snake. Within seconds, I found myself backed up against the chair I had thrown earlier. He squared up to me inching forward with a smile on his face, Blood filling the gaps of his teeth. I squared to him eager for another go at that hideous smirk, and in an attempt to dissuade him, stared through his soul as I licked my blood of my hands. Without hesitation, he took two stutter-steps to the side, and lunged again toward me, forcing me to duck under his arm. I grabbed the legs of the chair and came up swinging with all my might, meeting across the front of his teeth. The wood exploded into more than a hundred splinters showering the crowd with wood dust, blood, and fine bits of teeth debris. We tumbled together off balance. The crowd gasped as the knife became air-born, flipping out of his hand and slamming tip-side down into the floor boards. Patrons began scattering out of the way opening a space for us as we crashed through the entrance doors, and onto the outside porch. We fought and bounced down the dampened stairs, swearing and yelling along the way. The thick muddy street cushioned our landing as we finally came to a stop having gouged a muddy slick in our wake. I was lucky enough to have landed mounted over the top of him.
The rain had not let up since I had first arrived. It showered us with water, washing away some, but not all of our blood. I slammed the side of his head with an open palm, then grabbed him by the throat attempting to squeeze the life out of him. He gulped for air, but instead of fear showing in his eyes, he seemed to invite the death in as he fought back. His arms had great strength but even greater reach. He inched them up my arms to my shoulders, and converged up to my forehead. He began squeezing my temples until my skull felt like it was going to cave in on itself, and then began forcing his calloused thumbs harder and deeper into my eyes. I hollered in discomfort. We both bellowed our warrior grunts back and forth while continuing to inflict a relentless onslaught of pain on each other. The crowd that had followed us out, gathered at the porch. They cheered, clapped, and stomped in glee, as if this was the best show they had seen in a decade.
We managed to roll into the steepening street a little further. I started gaining my feet and he punched me in the ribs, knocking me back to the ground. He then attempted the same. I kneed him in the gut, forcing the wind out of his body. We were almost a stalemate, yet kept fighting to gain control or die. I tried to crawl away from him to gain my balance but he grabbed my legs and pulled his slimy body on top of mine biting a series of holes into the back of my leg. I overcame the agony instantly filling with rage, and twisted around like an alligator’s death roll. I sat up, grabbed his shoulders at the sides, and headbutted him square in the forehead.
I fell backwards into the mud, sliding a few feet away, as he rolled a few times in the opposite direction. We were both in a daze, exhausted from combat, and certainly gassed from an enormous intake of alcohol. We slowly paced to our feet, slipping, crawling, and reaching for anything that could help us up. I eventually found my way to the porch steps, and he snaked himself to the watering trough. Before I could fully gain my stance, he got his feet under himself first. He rushed at me, landing a crushing blow to the middle of my back. I fell to my knees. His boot delivered another blow, launching me to my hands, bent over and almost defeated. A final blow to the side of my ribs laid me fully out. I was face down in mud, covered in blood, and reeking of piss warm beer. I thought I had learned from past fights, but I certainly underestimated the power and resilience of my enemy tonight. My father leaned against the porch post catching his breath. He spit up a large wad of blood into a puddle at the base of my feet. A piece of his tooth emerged from the quickly dissipating red mess. I would tell you I had fought tougher men, but I really couldn’t remember the last time I did. He kicked like a mule and had bit through me like a god-damned crocodile.
We stood there looking at each other with the same stalemated stare, wincing in pain, and both sharing a competitive urgency to win. My breath was heavy, and my chest rose rapidly matching my need for oxygen, yet instead of self-care, I began to rise over my feet. His hand flipped his jacket over the back of his hip revealing his six-shooter, and his palm began grazing the cylinder. I felt then it was one of our last moments, either him or I, and so I went for mine. With more speed, more anger, and sheer will to survive, I pulled mine first. He stood there defeated, finally as I rose my aim at him. He released his grip causing the gun to fall, splashing into the mud below. I held him at gun point while I leaned against the railing of the stairs matching his stance. Both of us were steadfast and quiet. I had one arm wrapped across my chest bracing my ribs. In a baffling display of arrogance, or with a cynical sense of humor, my father began to smile down the barrel of my loaded gun.
Part 5: Different Point of View
I was taken back from his display of happiness in the face of death. I took in the moment while I regained my stance, and shifted my aim. He grunted up another wad of blood, spit to his side, and cleared his throat while he chuckled to himself in defeat.
“Son, when I left your mother and you, I was in a bad place, and knew I would do more harm than good for you both. I knew this world was going to be one hell of a ride, and if a young boy was going to make it, he had to grow up tougher than leather, and sharper than nails, especially in Texas. So, I named you after my sweet grandmother, your great grandmother, Sue.
A few women on the porch awed a tone of forgiveness as they resonated in anticipation for the rest of his speech. They waved their hands rapidly onto their flushed faces and tearing eyes. Some were fortunate enough to hold a fan.
“Now I know you never met her, it was before your time, but she was the strongest mule of a person I knew; Kinda like you is now. I walked out that door before you could ever come to hate me for a thousand other reasons I would rather not re-hash, and I knew that you would be forced to thicken your skin quicker than a flash flood in a Texas drought, or you be killed and eaten alive by the ravenous world around you. It seems to me like that name helped you become one hell of a man.”
A couple men in the crowd nodded and tipped their hats as they grunted in support, but others shifted around uncomfortably from the sappy tone this father-son fight had turned into.
“I know there is a fire in your belly and your hatred of me has been burning for some time. It shows in how well you fought. You fight with passion; asking questions later, and I respect that. Hell, I would not blame you to kill me now. I certainly gave you a damn good reason to do so, but before you do, I ask you to think about how you came to receive that gravel in your gut, and the spit in your eyes. No matter how horrible I have been to you, and all of the mistakes I have made throughout my useless life, I am still the son of a bitch that named you, Sue.”
The rain was the only thing that broke the silence throughout the crowd. It continued crashing against the beaten and tattered roof. One harsh droplet after another my head and ran down my face. I was speechless. My mind racing to calculate my next move. I stood there still, gripping my gun; sure to keep a bead on my father. The crowd was filled with individual statues, some gaping at the jaw, all motionless. Everyone waited, including me. On one side, I had an unbearable past, solely created by the man in front of me, and my revenge was just on the other side of a bullet. I was angry and seeking a relief. On the other side, I had my old man that I had never come to know, who stood in front of me alive, mercifully explaining his heart out, and showing me a different side to what I thought I knew all my life. What could I do?
I moved my mouth to speak, but could not formulate words. I got all choked up. He was right, I was a passionate fighter, but that passion could go both ways. I lifted my thumb to the cocked hammer, pulled back, and eased it forward. I lowered my gun, and holstered it. My father stood still, but you could tell a sense of relief moved through his body. Tonight, I chose compassion.
“Pa, I reckon were gonna need a drink after this one.”
He took a moment, nodding his head in agreeance.
“We sure as hell are, son”
-written by Chris Sadhill
Earth had always had a sentimental love affair with her depraved brother, a romantic notion of seeking an embrace with our star’s prodigal son—to make him right, bring him into the fold, change his wayward life to good health and make him productive.
In the 25thCentury it was generally accepted that terraforming of the fourth planet had succeeded.
Dr. Christopher Cooke was an angry Martian. Today’s irritation only added to the generalized fury that raged within him. Being sent to collect magnetic fluctuation data in the field, a major inconvenience, was only a small blip on the extensive range of his angerscape.
He was a quiet, tense man who seldom spoke up, which is why he was the one plucked out to perform field duty when one of the usual field technicians called in sick. Still, he felt, better here than there. He had put millions of kilometers between him and the feckless bureaucracy that had killed his wife on Earth. The distance didn’t mitigate his anger, but it allowed him to function. There was no one here that deserved his rants, so he had the luxury of remaining quiet and doing his work. Even the extra work he was saddled with today.
He pivoted the tripod, aiming it at the lodestone rock that was the magnetic center of the caldera at Arsia Mons. Even though the innards of the ṺberCollider were shielded, the surges needed to run it were at the mercy of magnetic turbulence. The MagScape satellite above, while helpful, was not accurate enough to guarantee pin-point magnetic stability at the surface; it was only good for predicting massive amounts of molten core that determined the entire planet’s magnetic flux. But here on the ground Dr. Cooke was able to render a holographic plot of the lines of force. In the small box that sat atop the tripod, all of the mathematics used to determine the ṺberCollider window of safe operation whirred silently with qubits in the background, reducing the result into a mere pushing of a needle into the green on the dial.
“It’s on the green,” Dr. Cooke radioed in on the infraband.
“Good work, Cooke,” Dr. Kubacki radioed back.
Twenty-five years of education, Dr. Cooke scowled, and I can tell when the needle’s in the green.
He eyed the Martian artifacts that had helped colonization: the perfectly spherical, metallic half-centimeter dollops that seemed strewn around the lodestone he was recording. There seemed to be more in this area than what he was used to seeing, because what he was accustomed to seeing was only a rare one, usually having been extruded from a site of erosion. And then he became very still. The thin air made him conscious of his breathing. The cold now was very noticeable.
Mars had been successfully terraformed, but he still needed to became aware of everything, because that was what one had to do when noticing something gone awry. This planet offered new ways to die or be injured, as horrible as they were novel, and it paid to pay attention. What he saw made him pay attention.
One of the dollops moved. This was a dead world, and the only movement, besides the dust that rode the gales, was solely of human origin. Yet, he was sure of it—it had moved. Was it the magnetic attraction of the lodestone? He closed the dustcover over his magnetometer and walked slowly toward the small object. Towering over it, it sat there inert. He remained as motionless as it was, straining to see, wondering if he should write off the movement as his imagination. He reached down to pick it up.
These small, round structures had jumpstarted the whole Martian colony, providing a ubiquitous supply of perfect ball bearings for all of the moving parts that made a colony run. Rarely seen on the surface, when the engineers dug, they seemed to just pour out of the excavations. He reached down to pick it up like so many engineers had done in the field to collect them. Before he touched it, he jumped, for it unrolled right in front of him.
“No one’s ever seen that before,” he murmured.
And then it fired at him. It snapped violently into a small ball again, launching itself with enough force to enter his head. He reeled back, slapping his hands to the circular wound on his forehead. He fell.
After a moment he recovered. He realized something altogether new had happened on Mars. And it was an attack by something that had been placed by the thousands in all of the machinery that made life possible on terraformed Mars.
He realized he had something Martian living in his head now. His mind was frenzied. How do I get it out? Is there brain damage? Will this thing jump back out on its own? Will I have brain damage then? What if all of the ball bearings decide to snap like that?
He ran through a series of neurological exercises. His thumb could oppose each of his fingers. He could touch his nose with his eyes closed. He stood and had no imbalance. He counted backwards from 100.
And his head didn’t hurt.
He now knew his days as a data analyst for the ṺberCollider were over. He knew he had a new job. He would be studied and he supposed that was good. Although he felt fine right now, no one could predict that something insidious wasn’t conspiring against him. Yes, let them study me. I want to know what’s coming, if anything.
But he wasn’t that angry anymore.
Sixty years before Dr. Cooke had received his ball bearing:
The vast engineering feat of terraforming Mars was finally deemed, announced, and celebrated a success. Not by the engineers or the geologists. Not by the scientists.
The planet itself made the announcement with its first-ever spontaneous thunderstorm.
The word success, for those on Mars who had witnessed it, seemed an exaggeration; the thickening of the atmosphere was still in progress back then and still required the breathing assistance of OxyVents for those who dared to inhale out-of-doors. And announcement seemed a somewhat premature declaration, the thinness of the atmosphere presenting the thunder to human ears four octaves higher than the roar of Earth thunder, as if a real Earth vinyl record had been played on an antique 78-RPM phonograph, reducing a bone-rattling planetary phenomenon to a cartoon sound effect. Nevertheless, the psychological victory went public as a monument to the next step in humanity’s evolution.
And to capitalism and the business model.
For the terraforming of Mars, too expensive for nations alone to pursue alongside the crippling obligations of their societal entitlements, necessitated partnerships with the incorporated rich of Earth –Big Energy, Big Pharma, Big Comm, Big Transport, Big This and Big That.
From the beginning, the terraforming of Mars was a business relationship between nations and the companies large enough to take the investment hit first in exchange for the payoff later. And so it was that the ballyhoo of terraforming was seized and hyped and was as profitable as any insider trading. The initial payoff for corporate investors was inflationary only: stocks rose to new heights and titans of industry towered even higher. Suddenly Valles Marineris was sexier than Silicon Valley and more intoxicating than Napa.
Participating nations waxed idealistic with proclamations of a new sphere of peace in the solar system, destined to host the best that Earth had to offer. “Mars vigila,” borrowed from Latin literature, was the official triumphant slogan: “Mars, awaken!”
Meanwhile, the thunder on Mars sounded comically falsettoed and anemic, like an adolescent’s voice breaking. Mars announced, Earth cheered, but the handful of colonists remained strangely silent, pressing on in pursuit of real red thunder, which would take another busy sixty years.
Moons Phobos and Deimos were euthanized by crashing them into their planet so their pulverized dust could partner with the radiodegradable nanoreflectors suspended high around the planet. They were ultimately replaced by the large near-Mars asteroid, Ancile. It was easy to force Phobos below the Roche limit into the planet, and Deimos, although about three times farther away than Phobos, was only half its size and easier to nudge. The two native moons’ deaths raised the temperatures and what debris escaped the upper atmosphere became an equatorial ring.
The new imported moon begot the polar magnetic fields that stabilized the atmosphere.
Once Ancile was tidally locked with its planet, water could accrue, dust could settle, oxygen and carbon dioxide could assume their rightful positions in and out of human lungs, and the OxyVents and ArEsuits could be stowed. By the sixty years after the first spontaneous thunderstorm, the colony population had grown to 2700 persons and the first compound was ready to bud off into a second. All had gone well until this point.
Then, the ferropods came alive.
Dr. Christopher Cooke, data analyst at the ṺberCollider on Mars, found this out the hard way. It was an astonishing surprise that set the program back six Earth years. Half a centimeter in diameter, these nearly perfectly round structures, made of primarily iron in an alloy mixture of silicon, zinc, and over a hundred other trace elements, thought inert and non-viable, were a mistaken natural resource used wherever in the colony ball bearings were useful. There was a duplicity in their perfection as bearings: they were also self-lubricating, covering themselves with a non-degradable slick that originated from deep within their concentric layers. They were easily available, littering the planet’s surface in the numerous canyons and calderas. In fact, all novel industrial design for Mars used the ferropod’s dimensions as the construction standard.
Perhaps it was the achievement of an ambient temperature above 40 degrees or a humidity self-sustaining at 2% or a combination of these and a dozen other man-made Martian corruptions, but with the ferropods no longer functional as ball bearings, the colony suddenly lost environmental and indoor climate control, refrigeration, flywheel use, turbines, transport steering, axles, universal joints, graviton cones, and engines of every sort.
The colony collapsed.
The entire settlement had to be retrofitted when these tightly stratified little balls came back to life and were not happy in whatever niches, crevices, or interfaces they had been placed. Like a part of one’s body rarely thought about until it is missed, something as mundane and unseen as a ball bearing threatened a whole world with its abdication. The problem was so devastating that the colony population was halved within four months as evacuees to Earth exchanged with massive crates of ball bearings of the inanimate type.
The ferropods, as seemingly simple as they were, ushered in a cultural upheaval: there was life elsewhere in the universe, and the fact that it was just next door implied that it was probably everywhere in the universe. A Cultural Psychology Committee was created, inviting from Earth a panel of distinguished psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers to assess and if possible implement responses to the colonists’ difficulties in grasping the gravity of the situation. But their being on Mars was already as surrealistic a life choice that no surprise could nonplus.
On Earth, philosophers sold books, evangelists sermonized, mental health workers evaluated, politicians strategized, and ball bearing tycoons became very rich.
The ball bearing dependent colony on Mars retrofitted and recovered. When prudent, the population again surged over 2500, but now included new talent. A Botany and Biology Consortium was established, along with its Veterinary Studies Division, or VSD. The ferropod was apprehended, studied, and also feared; it appeared that when their globular attitude stretched out into a linear, shiny, slug-like shape, snapping back into a ball released enough kinetic energy to make the reformed ball ballistic. So far, three humans, including Dr. Cooke, had suffered strikes to their heads, with varied results.
Two fantastic events resulted during the search for more of these strange little beasts in hopes of determining what they lived on. The first was the discovery of the Ares arboreta plant, an ambulatory green flora with functional limbs that had begun germinating from long-dormant spores; the second was the discovery of the Sonotomes—unearthly songs and vocalizations which were recorded out of thin air from the mountainous areas. The Botany Division of the Botany and Biology Consortium had swelled to parity with the Biology Division, and a new group, designated Electromagnetic Archeology, came on board in attempts to decipher the mysterious Sonotomes and hopefully find fossil remains of those who sang them.
The Botany and Biology Consortium joined the Cultural Psychology Committee, the Electromagnetic Archeology Council, and the old and long established Terraforming Maintenance section of the Geology College of Mars. Together, they made up the New Mars Colony Project Security Council, or MCPSC.
The business interests of Earth were not without representation on the MCPSC. The Nations of Earth—the NOE—formerly the United Nations which were no longer united except by business relationships, sent an NOE liaison to the MCPSC as a non-voting member. The official function of the NOE liaison was to authenticate that the colony did in fact consist of the best Earth had to offer—philosophically, ethically, and humanistically. The real function of the NOE liaison, unknown to the other members of the MCPSC, was to step in—to intercede—on behalf of the business interests of the NOE. Thoughts of independence—or even insubordination—were to be reported back to Earth and, if necessary, contained. This person had at his disposal a secret Prestige Guard who would help him secure the colony, should this ever become necessary. The MCPSC welcomed him as an interested guest; he accepted as nothing less than a predatory spy, forever crouched in a striking position.
It was a business decision.
But business was good, so the MCPSC kept administering and the NOE liaison kept observing politely and unobtrusively. Any such suspicion and intrigue was buried under the wonders of the discoveries thus far—life in two disparate species, spanning flora and fauna, botany and biology, and on the very next world at that! And evidence of a sentient species, extinct, but which left records for study. And now, even Martian thunder sounded right.
Mars was no longer comical; Mars was serious.
Renée Niemann the veterinarian was as wise and learned as any septuagenarian could be, but she didn’t look any older than she did when she was thirty-five. Telomorphing was optional and over half submitted to it. It wouldn’t grow new limbs, but if one were lucky enough to live life intact, one could look forward to a youthful appearance and feel for at least 120 years. Even those at the end of the bell curve, at about 150 years life expectancy, didn’t look any older than sixty or seventy.
Having undergone the process in her early thirties, she continued youthfully in her profession until celebrating her “Rebirth” at what normally would be her retirement. Rebirth was a new folk tradition in which telomorphs received a second birth certificate with great fanfare, similar in importance to a Bar Mitzvah, graduation, or marriage. In observance of this custom, Renée celebrated her Rebirth on her 65th birthday, the official event at which she would announce her new life’s direction.
In her “first life,” as the telomorphs were fond of saying, she had been a prominent veterinarian; she had enjoyed an academic position pioneering telomorphing efforts in mammals, which revolutionized animal husbandry world-wide. For these reasons, she was well known to all biologists, xenobiologists included.
At her Rebirth she stood before her friends, loved ones, and colleagues—no doubt, she thought, the same group who could have attended her funeral had she declined telomorphing like her late first husband had. She promised herself, determinedly, that she wouldn’t allow her thoughts to go there and spoil this day.
According to the newly minted Rebirth tradition, her future was kept secret so that, after great anticipation, she could make a surprise announcement of the direction of her new life, to be followed by the expected heart-felt congratulations.
Before telomorphing, it was, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” After telomorphing, people had the joy of announcing what they would do now that they weregrown up. The first half life of a telomorph, a long life in itself, often was shaped by all of the sobering near-misses and what-ifs of the world. In the new way of looking at it, the end of the first half, at age 65, was considered, finally, maturity; the time before, a childhood of preparation.
Certainly there were those whose first half of life was so successful and rewarding that the Rebirth announcement was just that they would continue on as before. And for those whose contributions impacted the world favorably, they were even encouraged to do so with tax credits and corporate perks. No one fancied the idea of an Einstein going into carpentry or a Shakespeare going into sports merchandise wholesaling.
But the majority, financially secure from doing what they had to do to get that way, now had wisdom of age and experience and the security of a life that pragmatic finances could create. And conversely, no one would have a problem with a car salesman becoming a Rembrandt.
The socializing, drinking, and eating prepared the attendees for Renée Niemann’s announcement. The new direction.
And they were not disappointed.
“Mars vigila!” she announced. “To Mars!” followed by a lengthy and starstruck round of applause. The questions followed, none of which she answered at first.
“Will you do veterinary medicine there?” “Will you be helping to look for any fossilized animals there?” “For fossils of actual Martians?”
“I will do more than that,” she answered, then paused in a show biz stunt of coquettish torment. “I’ll do more than that,” she repeated, “I hope to meet them.” But her gleam made it sound like a promise. Applause erupted again.
As is customary with Rebirth tradition, she now read her official statement that discussed her decision. “Dear friends, children, loved ones, and even ex-husbands,” she began, a snickering of the audience catching fire from a mischievous wink, “not all ex-husbands,” she confided, and the snickers coalesced into overt laughter, for after the death of her first spouse, her one true love, she became no stranger to carelessly re-marrying. “Some weren’t invited tonight,” she whispered playfully.
“We’ve all heard of the ferropods and the dangers they present. And we’ve all heard the strange sounds that are called the Sonotomes. There’s more to Mars than a bunch of rust, and there’s more to this,” she pointed to her head, “than a bunch of dust.”
“What about a bunch of lust?” someone wisecracked. She stopped to search the crowd for the culprit, who clearly got away with the playful barb.
“Oh,” she said, fluttering her eyelids, “My next boyfriend is going to be green.” Touché, but it was time to get serious.
“Since we’ve gotten the Higgs particle, the prisn, and the graviton in the bag, and now that we have harnessed their unruly stepchild, the chronoton, and,” she added, like a keynote speaker motivating a sales force, “now that temporal reconciliation has been documented at the quantum level, then the atomic level, molecular level, and on to grams and kilograms and even living things over at the Vet school, the Chronarchy has been readying to expand the experiment. I am happy to tell you I have been chosen to be in the first tempconciled colony to co-exist with the original Martians.” The awed hush pleased her. “Imagine, luring their time epoch from the past to co-exist with us now. This is a new age for Man, and hopefully, a re-age for native Martians. We have much to learn from that long-rusted race.
“To us, it will seem a visit from them; to them it will seem a visit from us. Two visitations during the same time. Of course,” she said apologetically, “outside of the tempconciled zone they will live and will have died in our past and we in their future. But in the zone, tempconciliation means an exciting, unprecedented present in TimePrime, where two beautiful races and evolutions will exchange knowledge and feelings.” She darted her eyes back and forth, as if sharing a secret. “It’s called the ‘Welcome-to-the-Solar-System’ Initiative, and you’ll be reading about it on your newsfloaters tomorrow with coffee.”
“Are they really little green men?” asked one of Renée’s grandchildren, seven, and one of twin girls.
“God, I hope so,” Renée answered the child directly. Then to the small crowd as a whole, “There’s going to be so many upset science fiction writers if they’re not.” She neutralized her smile. “The limited geological reconciliation trials on Mars over the harsh and sterile areas of the polar areas have not resulted in wave forms with exclusion zones—”
“English, please!” from deep in the crowd. Renée regrouped, her smile returning.
“It’s gonna work. And I expect the intermingling to be enormous. I expect to earn my salary, which I hope is out of this world.” Her audience groaned. She paused. “Sorry, couldn’t pass that phrase up.” Hers was a good audience, and she easily was able to swing the pendulum form flippant to serious, back and forth.
At five foot two and just over 50 kg., she seemed larger atop the stage from which she spoke, but she hoped thinner with the vertical stripes of her dress. She had already vowed to transport at least four Earth kilos to dump on Mars, transferring four kilos of potential energy she would release into Martian kinetic energy. She amused herself with the things she chose to worry about while giving a life-event speech.
“Now that I look back on my childhood, it appears that everything I’ve done, studied, learned, performed, and accomplished during my first sixty-five years, all of it has prepared me for the second half of my life.” She swept her eyes around the entire room. “I will of course be bringing all of you with me.”
“Really?” the twin asked again, her sister looking equally invested in the question.
“No, sweetie,” Renée answered, and pointed to her heart. “Just in here.”
“When do you leave?” asked Renée’s daughter, who—having declined telomorphing—looked easily many years older than her mother.
“Well,” Renée smiled a rascally smile, “maybe I’m already there.” Her gloating time reference served her well to conclude her speech.
Beat it geezer you know the score.” Richard let out a defeated sigh. Yes he did know the score. There was no bartering with a broker. No credits, no Xfactor. He’d know before he made his way to the “spot” early this morning he would be walking home empty handed. Getting Xfactor on the black market was getting more difficult. The spot was one of the few places to get Xfactor without leaving the city limits. Even then you would have to arrive as early as 4am and wait anywhere from 1 to 4 hours. Furthermore the broker would only be around between 5 or 10 minutes selling X to the frantic consumers before he’d disappear quick as a cat only to return the following day. There were other forgotten corners of the city where x brokers materialized to sell x to eager streamers but being well past his prime and out of the loop with whatever new locations were “frigged” with the young people these days, Richard would likely have no more luck finding them than the police. Although the thought frightened him more than he could say Richard knew if the spot ever got hot then his streaming days were over.
Richard allowed himself to be pushed back to the edge of the group by the flood of other streamers. All were younger. Mostly men and women ranging between 16-40 years old though, Richard was sure one kid that brushed past him couldn’t be more than 12. Richard watched enviously as the other streamers, those with enough credits, spent freely loading up on enough x to last the next few weeks, or days, or hours… Richard knew there were cold streamers amidst the group. (People who spent more time streaming than in the real world.) Some of these cold streamers would spend days in a comatose state binging on x, until their supply was used up resupply and repeat. This subgroup barely gave themselves enough physical attention to stay alive and often appeared shrunken, pale, sickly, and hollowed. The term cold streamers originated from the fact that these individuals often resembled walking corpses.
Six seven minutes then it was over. So quick, so smooth. As long as you had the credits you could get your fix. The small crowd dispersed in mere moments, and the spot would once again become a humdrum location in the large bustling city. Richard picked a direction and started walking. The spot was only 15min away from his apartment complex, one of the reasons for his relocation. He would end up their eventually no matter which direction he choose. It was 7:15am the city was just starting to stir. Just a prelude to the buzz and rush that would consume the city for most of the daylight hour and persist long into the night. In an environment such as this one it was easy to fade away into the background. This in fact was Richards’s reality.
Richard, age 68 going on 69, was no more noticeable than a misspelled word in a dictionary. He could disappear for months and no one would notice. Technically he had been experiencing this for the past several years which confirmed his suspicion. No one cared. Richard had lived in this city almost 24 years and he had not a single friend. His wife Gretchen passed away from illness 12 years ago. His family never visited or even called. Not his eldest son Robb or his younger son Andrew. He was never close to his own siblings even when they were younger. His older brother died 4 years ago and last he spoke to his younger sister was at the funeral. Family, extended family, friends, of these Richard had none. At least no one who cared enough to visit him once in a while, call him on a holiday or send a card, picture, or holotone to show they knew, or cared that he was still breathing. He was a ghost, a shadow, and for all practical purposes he was already dead.
There was just one exception, and that was Elisa.
Elisa was Richards’s oldest granddaughter who was 23 now but they’d been close since she was a child. “I want Grandpa! Grandpaaaaaa!” she would often wail when she thought her parents were being unfair. At least that was what he was told by Andrew. She remembered how she used to squeal with excitement when her parents brought her to stay with him when they went out. He remembered how he swelled with joy on the days they spent together. As she got older her interest in spending time with her Grandpa did not fade. Often she made weekly visits and they would spend the entire day together, just the two of them. Gretchen used to joke “don’t go stealing my husband” or “If I was a couple of years younger then it would be a fair competition for your Grandpa’s attention!” This was all in good spirits of course. Gretchen loved Elisa almost as much as Richard did. It was Elisa who got him through when Gretchen passed away. She visited him every day for nearly 6 months before her parents finally put a stop to it. Even so she would call and even write letters though they only lived 20 min apart. “But we’re pen pals!” She would argue fiercely to her parents when they pointed this out. The two remained close even through Elisa’s high school and college days but all too soon the inevitable happened. She got married.
His name was Noah. Richard remembered the elation when she first talked to him about Noah. “I can’t wait for you to meet him.” She gushed. Richard listened fighting desperately to conceal the feelings of dread. 20 is too young he thought, too young to get married. Despite his silent objections 11 months later, he was giving Elisa away at her wedding. That was the last time he saw her. Her new husband was fortunate enough to land a high paying job on the other side of the world. After the honeymoon they relocated and that was that. Richard despised Noah. He was smart, honest, hardworking, handsome, funny, and well-mannered, but he committed an unforgivable crime. He stole his granddaughter.
With nothing and no one left to comfort him Richard turned to Xfactor, the highly controversial substance seen all over the evening news at the time.
Xfactor did the trick like nothing else ever could. With Xfactor, Richard was no longer lonely, no longer unimportant. He experienced the sensation of being loved, wanted, appreciated, and yes even necessary to every bit the same level as when his wife was alive and his granddaughter much younger. The wonders of Xfactor allowed the user to experience a person’s memories. People could relive any experience imaginable and the experience was so potent it was like actually being there. Users of Xfactor described the sessions as being able to experience everything the original memory holder felt while also being vaguely aware of your own feelings. This state of double awareness was a gate way to levels of experiences that non streamers could only imagine. Twice the joy, twice the excitement, twice the ecstasy, twice the intrigue, success, twice the fear, heartbreak and pain, (for those who were into those types of experience.)
For Richard it was family memories he craved. Birthdays, weddings, family dinners, family game nights, family reunions, and the like. He couldn’t remember ever feeling like such an essential part of a family, but he could now. Through the memories he streamed he knew exactly how it felt and then some when incorporating the feelings of being a cared for husband and a well-loved grandfather which Xfactor rekindled. The wonders of Xfactor were still largely enigmatic as were longer term side effects for both users and providers but what did it matter? Richard was not one for complicating things. Streamers get experience, providers get credits. Supply and demand. That’s simply how it worked.
“Credits where can I get more credits” Richard mumbled to himself, hurrying towards his apartment for no apparent reason. There were no credits there. He knew this. Richard was forced to retire 3 years ago. When his granddaughter started seeing Noah and significantly less of him he became so depressed and detached from his work that he lost his job. With no motivation to pursue another occupation, Richard decided it best to just retire. He’d been working all his life and with nobody to support but himself he easily had enough credits to live comfortably for the rest of his life. That is of coarse, if you did not calculate his X usage.
Xfactor was expensive. It became obvious from the start that Richards monthly retirement credits would not be enough to satisfy his growing X addiction. So he began dipping into his savings. Just a little at first, then more. The more Xfactor he got the faster he used it and the more the cravings grew. He kept telling himself. “I’ll ration it this time. One a week is enough to get me by”. Then, “well that was much too difficult I was being stingy but every other day is plenty”. Then, “two a day should be more than enough. There’s no reason I should need more than that”. Now it was all he could do to make what started out as a sufficient month supply of Xfactor last more than a few days. When the savings ran out he began pawning his valuables. It had gone much the same way. He would set limits then break them. Set more boundaries then cross them. “No matter how bad things get I’ll never sell this.” He would say. Then he’d sell it. “If I ever seriously consider pawning this then I know I need to cut back” then he’d pawn it. 2 month prior he sold the last of Gretchen’s jewelry. And hours of sobbing and arguing with himself did not prevent him from pawning his wedding ring last month. That’s why Richard knew without a shadow of a doubt heir was nothing left in his apartment to sell. If there had been anything else he would have held on to his ring. He told himself as much before he sold it.
He arrived at his apartment complex ascended the steps to the 2nd floor and proceed down the lengthy hallway to 28D. Richard had been operating on auto pilot since departing from the spot this morning and was only fully aware that he arrived back at his apartment when the door locked behind him. He stood there numbly looking hazily around his barren apartment. “Richard you fool” he said to himself. He walked across the room and sank into his musty old recliner. Throw up yellow was how Gretchen always described it. It was every bit as worthless as she always complained. It was among the unsellable objects left in the apartment. Head in his hands Richard tried to process what happened over the past week that lead him here.
He’d been stupid, so stupid and shortsighted. It was his birthday in 2 days and 3 days after is what would have been he and Gretchen’s 41st anniversary. This was always the hardest time to deal with. His two wonderful girls would always make it the most memorable week of the year. Now that was all in the past. As a counter measure to this time that brought so much pain Richard planned on spending the better part of that week drowning in a stream of X. But he blew it. He knew that if he got the Xfactor too soon he would be unable to make it last, but he’d been almost 2 weeks without streaming before he finally made the plan to sell his wedding ring that had been almost too much to bear. When he got back with the precious Xfactor he had already decided he would use one or two just to take the edge off. He started off with a beautiful memory of a father holding his new born son for the first time, tears streaming down his face. Then he streamed a long and touching memory of a couple celebrating their 53rd anniversary surrounded by their large loving family. Then it was Christmas, then a father daughter hiking trip, then a day at the lake, then a proposal, then Christmas again. Richard was reaching for his 11th X capsule before he managed to stop himself. And now here he was, barely two weeks later looking at facing the burden of crushing depression without a single X capsule to help dull the pain.
Richard sat there alone going over the situation over and over in his head. Only vaguely aware of the passage of time, he suddenly got to his feet so quickly he almost startled himself. “I need to get my hands on more X, period.” He decided. “But how?” he asked himself out loud. “Any way possible” a voice in his mind said. And Richard knew then and there he would obey. Sometimes he scared himself when it came to Xfactor. When precious X was concerned he found himself behaving in ways he never would have imagined. It happened often. And before he fully grasped what he was doing his hand was resting on the apartment’s front door. I’ll borrow the credits he thought I’ll talk to that boy he’ll understand. He’s like me, no he’s much worse. I’ll promise him double the credits next month. That will give me plenty of time to think of some way to gather more credits. He stood there a few moments building himself up for what he was about to do.
(That boy) was Richards’s neighbor who lived across from him in apartment 27D. Richard didn’t know much about him, in fact he wasn’t certain he had even gotten his name. He lived there before Richard arrived about a year and a half ago. He was young mid to late 20s and was undoubtedly a cold streamer. He had the gaunt unkempt look about him. And he certainly didn’t have a job. He would spend days at a time in his apartment and would be seen hurrying down the hall back to his apartment after a short while. Richard was almost certain he’d seen him at the spot once or twice though admittedly it was difficult to be sure in all the confusion. But his confirmation came several months ago.
Richard was returning home when he saw the young man struggling to open his apartment door. He was burdened with several bags he refused to put down. When he fumbled his keys he made an attempt to grab for them but instead tipped one of his bags spilling no less than 10 xcapsules on the floor. Richard who had reached him by this point was just stooping down to help him when he shouted NOO! Hugging his bags with one hand his neighbor scrambled across the floor quickly reclaiming his spilled contents. Richard was too shocked to be annoyed about having bent down for nothing because from where he stood, he could see that at least one of the young man’s bags was filled nearly to overflowing with Xfactor. Richard didn’t know how he could have possibly paid for all that X nor did he know why he chose to transport it in such a precarious way. What he did know is that this was certainly more X than he had ever seen in one place and that was without even assuming there was more in his other bags. When the man returned to his feet he resumed his fight with the door even then refusing to let go of even a single bag. Now that Richard was standing next to him it was clear to see why he was having so much trouble with the door. He was shaking so violently Richard could almost feel the vibrations through the floor. His gaunt face was dripping with what seemed like an unnatural amount of sweat but his mouth was set with determination, his eyes seeing only the door. Richard gently slide his hand on top of the younger mans and carefully guided the key into the lock. Richard stepped back as the young man unlocked his apartment door and walked into the threshold. Once inside he turned back. “Thank you” he murmured keeping his eyes on the bags instead of addressing Richard directly, then he gently shut the door. Richard remembered feeling genuine concern for this young man. If I ever get that far gone there might be no coming back, he warned himself.
Without allowing any more time to debate himself Richard threw the door open walked up to 27D and knocked. When no one answered he began knocking louder. There was still no answer. “He’s not here” said the voice in his head “this was a bad idea Just go home and think of something else.” Instead Richard found himself calling out loud. “Hello! Is anyone there? It’s Richard, the man from 28D. We’ve spoken before remember? Could you open the door please?” Still no answer. Then he was pounding on the door. “Hey I know you’re there, I just need to talk to you for a minute that’s all!” Still there was no response. Richard kicked the door angrily, and regretted it a second later when pain shot up from his leg. Choking back a cry of pain Richard knelt down to attend his foot. “When did I get so irrational?” he asked himself through clenched teeth. This was indeed a terrible idea. He decided. “I need to collect myself and come up with a real plan.” Using the door handle for leverage Richard began pulling himself up… and the door knob turned. When he managed to get to his feet he saw he’d pushed the door open a few inches. It was done completely by mistake. Richard stared dumbly at the blackness of the apartment through the slightly open door. Then, before he could stop himself he pushed in open and went inside.
It was dark. The shadows of many objects cluttering the room were only visible thanks to the light coming from the hallway. “Hello?” Richard called into the dark apartment. “It’s Richard from 28D. I just came to…” his voice trailed off. There was no response. Richard flicked on the lights and gaped in amazement. The room wasn’t teaming with clutter as he originally thought. Instead it was filled with all sorts of fancy new luxuries. A large plasma sheen T.V. was embedded in the wall. Large fancy speakers were posted in the corners of the room. Heavy expensive looking curtains hung from the windows, blocking whatever natural light would have entered the room. A large pillow foam couch was resting neatly against the wall. There was a shelf filled with expensive looking gadgets and toys some of which Richard did not recognize. And sitting right in the middle of the room was a luxury recliner with an X helm resting on one arm. On the floor looked like a number of used X capsules. Resting on the floor next to the recliner was what looked like an old fashion paper grocery bag, the same type his neighbor had been carrying the day Richard helped him. This was the opposite of Richards’s apartment in every way. Richard closed the door behind him. All this time he had the idea that this young man was struggling but a quick look inside told him his neighbor was better off than most people in this apartment complex.
Well he’s not a broker. Richard thought to himself. Brokers don’t stream. That was basic. He didn’t appear to be employed, so how could he possibly afford all this stuff and still binge on X seven days a week? A criminal? Or rich parents perhaps. Probably the later. Except for X smuggling, crime in the city was pretty low. Besides this young man didn’t seem the type to Richard, not to mention he was a cold streamer so it wasn’t likely he would be able to set aside enough time for criminal activities. Crime? Richard thought to himself. “Isn’t breaking and entering a crime?” But instead of leaving Richard ventured deeper into the apartment moving towards the Xfactor but pausing to examine the contents of the apartment.
Things felt so surreal quite unlike streaming. It was more like a dream. Richard didn’t feel scared or anxious though he knew he ought to be. He could get in serious trouble if he was caught here and yet he felt strangely calm. He touched one of the shelves. A thin layer of dust clung to his finger when he removed it. He reached the fancy glass coffee table in front of the plasma sheen T.V. It was dusty as well. In fact everything in the apartment seemed to be unused except for the recliner and of course the Xfactor products. Richard carefully knelt down and picked up one of the capsules on the floor. No flash. Naturally it’d been used already otherwise the capsule would respond to his touch with blue light. He returned it to the floor and was about to stand when he caught a glimpse of something curious. He paused… then he saw it again. An orange flash. It came from one of the capsules lying on the floor. He couldn’t have seen it right, but then it flashed again, orange plain as day. That wasn’t right.
X capsules had two colors blue and red. Before being used the capsules would lay dormant until touched at which time it would respond by flashing blue light every 4 or 5 seconds signaling it was ready for use. In between flashes there would be a brief description of the memory, such as [Daddy Daughter Dance]. After being used the capsule light would glow red continuously for 1 or 2 hours and afterwards remain off for good. That was it. Blue flash ready to use, red glow shutting down permanently. But this capsule was not only displaying an incorrect color it was flashing without being touched. “Defective” Richard thought dismissively though he’d never heard of Xfactor malfunctioning before. “He probably used it and it is shutting down or it never worked at all”. Never the less Richard found himself reaching for the capsule. The moment his hand touched it, it flashed blue. Richard was so surprised he recoiled as if he’d been jolted by static. The capsule once more resumed flashing its incoherent orange light. More curious than ever then, he reached out once more and picked up the strange capsule. It began flashing blue. Richard brought it close to his face hoping to read a description, but the memory section remained blank between flashes. Richard stared at it for a few seconds then placed it on the table next to the luxury recliner. He moved on to the bag. The sight of its content set his heart hammering as it ought have been. It was filled with Xfactor.
Please be active he pleaded silently stooping once more to reach the contents of the bag. All the capsules brushed by his fingers began to glow blue. His heart was beating faster. “I’ll just take a few he said deliriously. Just a handful”. He won’t miss them. “Even a cold streamer would take weeks to go through all this”. “And I’ll pay him back anyway he added” as he picked up a capsule to read, right after… he stopped short. [Fun at the Strip Club] He picked up another. [Jannies Halloween Party] and another [Totally Wasted] and another. [Sex with Reena Tyreas] No nooo! he moaned in all of these X capsules there has to be at least a few decent ones. [1st high] [Ben at Beerfest] [Spring break with April and Brittney] [The Ultimate Beach Party] [The Girl at the Bar] then he lost count rummaging through the bag till he was literally tossing out the bad ones, which was apparently all of them. Richard became more and more frustrated and desperate by the capsule barely recognizing what he was reading but knowing he didn’t want it. [Sex] No. [Party] No. [Drugs] No. then Richards fingers were hitting the bottom of the bag.
“No!” he flung the empty bag across the room. It landed unimpressively in a heap. The strength left from Richards legs he sank down to the floor sitting amongst the Xfactor that was now littering the living room floor. “So that’s it then”. he though numbly… But no, it was not. He came here for credits not Xfactor. Anyone of these fancy pieces of technology would earn him some nice credits. He rose wearily to his feet. Then his heart stopped when he heard a loud slam seemingly coming from inside the house. Richard was paralyzed he couldn’t breathe. “I’m done” was all he could think “I’ve gone too far and now I’m done”. “Run you fool”! He screamed at himself. Then Richard was at the door and his senses returned to him. There was no one else here. The slam came from 25D like it did almost every single morning around 9:30. It sounded much closer now because it was coming from next door instead of across the hall. Even with the realization, the prospect of seriously being caught had forced Richard out of his craving delirium. I’ve got to get out of here. He decided. But first...
He hurried across the room to retrieve the empty bag getting down on his hands and knees once more he hurriedly began scooping xcapsules off the floor and returning them to the bag. He got almost all of them when he remembered there were some on the floor already. That’s good enough Richard decided. I was never here. He took one last look to confirm he did the best he could to return things to how they’d been when he entered. That’s when the curious flashing xcapsule returned to his attention. There it was just sitting on the table flashing orange where he left it. “That’s supposed to be on the floor.” Richard reminded himself. He picked it up. Instantly it began flashing blue. Richard brought it to his face staring. Still no description. He hesitated a moment, then pocketed the capsule. It was on the floor with the other discarded capsules, Richard reasoned. He won’t miss it. With that Richard left his neighbor’s apartment and closed the door quietly behind him. He walked across to his own apartment and slipped back inside. Once the door was securely locked, he slid wearily into his own old and musty yellow recliner.
Sitting here back in his armchair he could barely believe the last few minutes actually happened. Like it matters he thought bitterly. “Nothing’s changed”. “I can’t believe I took such a big gamble and the only thing I have to show for it is a bad X capsule”. But he didn’t really believe that did he? Why bother taking it if he didn’t secretly hope, that maybe just maybe there was a chance… he pulled the capsule from his pocket. It flashed blue signaling it was ready to use. Richard stared at it wondering. Then he got up and retrieved his Xhelm from his bedroom. “There’s no point in putting it off.” he decided. “I’ll know in a minute if it’s worthless or not” he returned to his chair inserted the mystery capsule into the receiver then slipped the helm over his head. Richards’s heart was hammering. There was something on this Xcapsule he could feel it now. Even if it wasn’t exactly what he wanted just the thought that he was mere moments away from streaming was enough to excite everything in his being. Taking in a deep breath Richard hit play.
Richard clawed the helm off of his head tumbled out of his chair and wretched. On his hands and knees he remained gasping to catch his breath, thick red saliva dripping from his chin. That wasn’t real, it wasn’t real. He repeated manically. It couldn’t be. What would that mean? He struggled to stand his legs, were shacking so badly it was almost all he could manage. How long had he been streaming? He looked at his clock 12:59. It had been roughly three hours, but Richard was so disoriented, someone could have told him it had been 3 minutes or 3 days and he would except it without question.
Deep breaths deep breaths, he chanted trying desperately to regain his self-control. Was that really a memory? If not then what the heck was it? Not a counterfeit surely. A streamer could tell and, nothing about what he’d just experienced seemed staged. With a trembling hand he reached for the helm still on his chair and plucked the xcapsule from the hold. As soon as it was removed from the slot it began to flash blue once more. Gaa! Richard cried dropping the thing like he’d been bit. It fell to the floor barely missing the red wet mess Richard left on the floor. It lay there flashing its ominous orange light. Richard felt like he was about to be sick again. He hunched over, hands on his knees, fighting the nausea. He managed to keep down the rest of his morning cranberry juice and in a few moments, it passed.
Richard stood up. The vile capsule was winking orange up at him. Richard backed away from the capsule as if evading a poisonous creature. “I need to get out of here”. “But where” Richard was at the door once more. “Do I want to go? If what I just saw was real…” Waves of fear and dread washed over him. “I know too” much he thought dumbly’. “People with this kind of information don’t live long and what am I? “Just a worthless old man”. He had no friends to confide in, no one he could go to for help. “there’s not a soul in the world who cares about me he thought bitterly.”
But perhaps… that could be a strength. Maybe I’m so far off the charts no one is watching. Maybe I can slip through the cracks like I always have. I won’t speak out; I won’t tell a soul... “But Elisa!” his thoughts flew to his beloved granddaughter. She has to know. But if I tell her she’ll be as dead as I am. Richard staggered to his bed room and sat down on his old and lumpy bed. “What should I do?” He stared wistfully at the holotone on his night stand one of the only useful remaining items in his house. He never could part with it. The holotone was his icon of hope. He would stare at it for hours hoping Elisa would call one day like she used to, then they’d talk and laugh and pretend to dance like they use to. When he looked at the holotone he could almost see Elisa’s translucent figure standing with arms outstretched for a virtual hug saying how much she missed her grandpa since they last spoke.
Richards’s eyes were brimming with tears. I can’t, he said, tears spilling over. Even if I leave a message when she doesn’t answer, if they come for me they’ll check my contacts”. The best way I can keep her safe is to keep the years of silence unbroken. He would never; Could never hear her voice again. “But the memory, he sobbed into his hands. How long would she really be safe”…? No! Richard stood up angrily. I won’t sit here like some tired old man. If I’m going to die, I’m going to do something that will protect my Elisa even if it costs me my life. My life is nothing. I’ve been living dead for years anyway.
Boom! Boom! Boom!
Richard froze his short lived determination replaced by paralyzing fear. Someone was pounding on his front door.
Boom! Boom! Boom!
The knocking came again. And there was no doubt in Richards mind then. In the past 3 years, he had never received a holotone message, a call or a letter that wasn’t related to bills, and it had been even longer since anyone had knocked on this door. That’s why he knew it was related to the Xfactor. They had come for him, to collect the information he never should have received. To silence a voice that never had a chance to cry out. Each knock on the door was a gunshot and Richard knew he was dead.
Boom! Boom! Boom!
Mary Red Riding Hood
--By Aylin Gutierrez--
The red of a ripe apple.
Wind whipping the sleeves like sails at baring seas.
A shield of polyester and cotton linen against the harsh elements while embarking on an adventure.
It’s what always went through my mind putting on my favorite red jacket. I couldn’t get enough of the color, giving me my name, Red Riding Hood.
My story begins in the crisp days of Autumn.
In New York City.
I live on the top floor of Sunrise Height apartment complex, one among a slew of high end homes. At the end of the block lived my bullheaded grandmother who insisted to my Mom she live alone.
Except now she had gotten sick and had almost fallen trying to make herself soup. So she made a reluctant compromise with my Mom to have me handle making and delivering meals. It helped that I was her favorite, though only, granddaughter.
As Mom packed the food, I caught sight of the news.
“‘Burglar known only as Smoker has made another daring clean up. This time robbing the home of well known socialite; Miss Sandy Hiller,’” said the anchorwoman, “‘police have only found his calling card, a single cigarette butt.’”
“Mary, maybe I should go with you,” Mom proposed tightly, demeanor turning antsy.
“‘Police suspect the criminal has experience in lock…’”
“But you promised to let me do this myself,” I whined. Sometimes my coddling mother could be so annoying. How could a girl have a few adventures with a Coraline issued Other Mother inches behind?
She brought up the Smoker, how his spree could reach us and grandma. “Oh please! I promise I’ll be alright. Besides, even if he comes around there are richer people to rob than an old lady.”
Mom was still unsure. “If I see him I’ll kick him in his soft place,” I promised eager to convince her.
I could’ve done a pirouette in the lobby. Only I had dignity to preserve. Plus a picnic basket full with delicate jelly jars.
Mom did finally cave. On one condition. Taking her pepper spray along too. Said spritzer was now nestled deep in the pocket of my coat. Mom really worried too much.
I had buttoned the garment at only the very top, making it a flowing crimson banner strike from my back.
Still, I was itching with anticipation.
Out in my big metropolitan paradise on my very own. Prancing about the sidewalk like a fine lady. Strutting about and turning heads. Pushing elevator buttons and tapping my shoes as if I had important business to tend to.
“Someone’s giddy today,” the doorman said, taking note of me. He was young and freckled like a loyal squire of the Round Table knights. Starry eyed and eager to please.
“Uh huh. I’m gonna have a big adventure!” I bragged, unable to contain my excitement.
He cut into my rambling with an indulgent laugh. My mouth snapped shut. With a wry smile Mr. Squire Phil waved goodbye. Reminding me to be careful.
‘Keep it in,’ I reminded myself. ‘Big people and real adventurers were always cool.’
Then again, I was small. No one would notice me. And it would be enchanting to spirit through faster than a hummingbird's wing, skirting about like a naughty fairy.
I ran down the streets weaving past fancy suits and dresses. Oooo that shade of pink was divine.
I shook my head, turning my nose at the store display. Can’t slow down. Grandma was hungry. It was my mission to make sure she had her supper.
In no time my target was in sight. The obscenely luxurious Alpine Suites fortress. Within that dizzyingly high maze… lay my granny.
Resuming my sprint I collided with an odd character. Up close and personal he felt sturdy, solid as castle battlements. He had a close coif of hair in a shade of deep walnut wood brown, blue uniform accessorized with an air force jacket, and one. Pierced. Ear. The stranger smelled awful.
“My! Are you alright young lady?” he asked.
Without a thought he knelt down, picking up my things. A real life Prince!
I nodded dumbly, picking myself off my behind.
He handed back my basket. “Thank you,” I mumbled, a little embarrassed. I dusted myself off as if I often crash into princes.
“It was a pleasure,” he said with a smile. He patted my head.
My heart swelled maybe seven sizes. I had to tell granny about him! Without the deafening squeal infecting my every rational pore.
The lobby here was whitewashed and fancy with gold here and there, around every corner. I questioned how in the world they found so much.
“Hi. I need my Granny Esther’s room,” I greeted. Even on tiptoes the woman had to look over the desk to see me.
“Ohh, oh of course,” she swooned, “now would that be Esther Thompson, sweetie?”
I nodded vigorously. So close now.
“Okay alright. Now she’s on floor eighty, Room 33. Got that now?” she checked, “I can always spare a moment if you’d like some assistance.”
I bristled, all at once realizing I should be very cross at this lady. Curse me for assuming she was so darling and nice with everyone. I was a pre-teen. We were gremlins and she should know that. Yet here I am, just like everywhere else, treated like a baby. “No, I’ll find my way,” I replied, nose raised. “You were very much unhelpful.”
Marching in an open elevator with some flair, I decided I liked feeling tall. Maybe I’d ask Mother for a pair of heels.
Getting off on the 33rd floor I continued my quest in earnest. Except each hall at every turn was exactly the same. I was hopelessly lost on this twisty floor. Even so I kept going; turning and circling until I was deeply dizzy.
No matter what I could not give up.
At that moment, my heart leapt for joy to catch sight of him.
He spotted me. “You lost?” he asked as he lit a cigarette. At least I knew what that smell was now.
“Yes,” I admitted, making myself small. My gaze went to the floor. It couldn’t laugh at me.
Prince bent down, a gentle expression on his face that immediately put me at ease. “Hmmm, okay, who are you trying to look for?” he asked.
I repeated what the lobby lady told me. An odd expression flickered on his face, something hard and cold coming to his eyes. For just a moment I got unpleasant wrigglies in my stomach. As fast as I had seen it that weirdness vanished. So, clearly I was just imagining. Yes. Surely since adults spent all their time being gruff and pompous anyway.
Prince was much too gracious, lightly laughing, and I could quickly tell not at me. “Ahh, I get what happened. That girl must be new. This floor only goes up to seventy-five, besides, all the old folks are on the first five floors.”
Something wasn’t sitting right with me for real now. That five floors rule would be the exact thing my grandmother loathed. So why have an apartment here? How did this man know her?
“My grandma never mentioned a man,” I told him, backing away.
There it was again. Spitting out some whisper, clear anger in his features. Before reformatting his face so I couldn’t get a sure enough read. Still, it was in a clipped tone that he asked, “did she mention a locksmith?”
I nodded in response, still just a little uneasy.
“Trust me. Miss Esther Thompson is on the third floor, room eighty.”
“Okay thank you,” I said, figuring it wouldn’t hurt to check.
Prince went the opposite direction as I headed for the elevator.
Now it was crammed full of people. One pair was a Mother and son. Her toddler showed off a booklet pining for the woman’s attention. She, buried in her phone– some call, dismissed her son. Dejected, he dropped the book.
‘Alpine Suites Floor Map.’ Lightning quick I grabbed the discarded book. On the 33rd page I saw it; a map to take me to room eighty.
Looking up I saw floor 7 was up next.
And leafing through the book, I found a stairwell not far to take me back up the rest of the way!
More effort, but faster if I took it at a run.
I ran like a madwoman, my lungs burning in protest, legs stiff as stone. Even as my breath hitched several times I didn’t relent. Though by floor seventeen I’d slowed to a crawl. The stairs went up forever. No wonder everyone in Rapunzel used her hair to get up the tower. It was a tiresome nine or eleven minutes more before the door read 33. In my joy I could’ve kissed the door, but settled for thanking Tinker Bell that my grandmother’s room was nearby.
Nearly collapsing, I trudged my body forward in one last mighty trek.
An eerie surprise waited for me in that room.
The door was ajar, revealing chaos. On the floor were several plush couch cushions, the entire thing upholstered or lopsided clearly having been rifled at each and every tiny crevice, her hard candy collection strewed in a fountain beside an upturned glass table, and her beautiful cherry wood cabinet brutally shattered too. Propping it back up one door sqqqqreaked open, the piece already emptied of fine china and delicate figurines.
“Granny,” I whimpered in the suffocating silence.
“Here dear,” rasped a voice, straining their throat.
Then I saw it amidst the whole mess. In the candy dish was a single cigarette butt with small wisps of smoke curling into the air. The Smoker.
Looking around, I found the speaker box near the door and phoned the lobby.
“Yes Mrs. Esther–” I shushed the woman.
“Call the police to the 33rd floor in Room eighty. The Smoker is in the apartment,” I hissed.
“Oh dear of course,” she whispered, “now you get out immediately sweetie.” With that I was in silence.
“Mary are you alright? Should I check on you?” rasped that unnatural voice. Fear smothered me. Granny was nowhere! She was sick! And this man knew my name! For all I knew he had hurt her.
I wanted to cry for being so stupid as to believe anything he said. Why did I always have to be in my own head?! Why couldn’t I just pay attention?!
No, stop it.
‘Stop. It,’ I commanded of my thudding heart. I had obviously caught him in the middle of his spree. Granny may have as well, explaining the level of disarray.
Granny was here, and she was okay. No way could I run now.
“Yes grandmother, just put a pot of tea to boil, all by myself for the first time, and obviously Mother sent that Jasmine one you like,” I strode just shy of the hall, deeper into the apartment, “she also gave me warm, buttery croissants won’t that be nice?”
I continued to ramble about the nice meal and a cute boy in my class as the solitary bedroom came into view. No backing out now.
I plucked up all my courage, even the little bit between my toes, and entered.
Quickly scanning the room there was no sight of grandma. What lay on the bed was a horrid, stinky excuse of a Prince with one of granny’s patented knit baby bonnets. I stifled a giggle.
“Granny!” I exclaimed, giving the thief a huge squeeze. Same sturdy body. At the foot of the bed I noticed what resembled a bit of a pillowcase sticking out. Probably all of granny’s things.
“Don’t worry I’ll take great care of you,” I bounced. Bustling around I piled blanket upon blanket on him, raised and fluffed his pillows, turned the fan on his face, and stuffed a thermometer in the Smoker’s mouth.
He took all this in stride. So no incriminating evidence to notice yet.
When I was done he could barely move, wrapped in a sweltering embrace. Still, he spit out the thermometer. I picked it up as if checking the number.
“Pumpkin,” he forced out, no longer bothering to hide how livid he was.
“Yes granny. Need anything?” I asked, acting oblivious to his discomfort.
“No I– I mean yes Mary. Please help your tired granny to the couch. I need a break from this stuffy room,” he asked, full pout out.
Grinning ear to ear I instantly refused him. Okay now this was getting a little fun. I truly had disappointed him and his tired, defeated face was priceless.
“I know what you need.”
Eye toward the closet I released the bomb, primed for a reaction, “a cold, wet towel.”
Actually making the move for granny’s walk-in closet…
The Smoker cried out, launching an arm out so as to stop me.
Turning around, he then retracted what I knew to be a too large, too smooth hand once my eye was on my bedridden patient again.
“Okay,” I decided, “I’ll just keep you company to distract from the nasty heat.” With a hop I plopped my weight on the thief. Escaping his notice was my hand digging for my pepper spray.
“Oh but, what of the tea Mary?” he asked in a feeble, pitiful whine.
“That takes ages, by then the fan and blankets will have canceled each other and you’ll be right as rain!”
A siren wailed, cutting through the walls and the closed window. Before he could look I clasped his face in my hands.
Without thinking I uttered, “granny, your eyes are so narrow.”
“Oh just tired from scratching my dear,” he lied, added by a dainty cough, if he were a Rottweiler.
“And your voice so deep and raspy,” I continued.
“Sore throat child, you know that,” he said, a venomous edge to his voice.
I dropped the act there. “And your hands… are a man’s!”
Leaping from the bed I made a mad dash for the closet door. The Smoker was faster, grabbing a bunch of my jacket. Flinging me on the bed he had just abandoned.
He towered over me, ready to grab and restrain me further. I managed to roll out of his grasp.
I hoped with the bed as a barrier he’d be a little wary.
I was wrong. Like all other adults, he thought little of a skinny girl who hadn’t hit puberty yet.
Pepper spray was in my hands but it hardly mattered. My first move was quickly countered by a hand clasped around my wrist.
I struggled fruitlessly as his grip tightened. With no other choice I dropped my weapon, getting the distinct impression he would break my wrist if need be.
Still as I had promised, I kicked his soft spot. Hard.
Wrenching myself free I scampered out.
A glance behind me revealed him limping not far behind like Igor.
Fingers all too close I forced myself to just focus on getting to the foyer.
Just a step away he caught me; this time by my hood. My prized accessory had now turned into a noose as I gasped for air.
I clawed at the button. My mind already suffering from the air deprivation.
He was dragging me back into a darkness. I could feel as my feet scraped along against their will.
My hands finally clasped right, putting that motion into undoing the big button. Yet my fingers just didn’t–
“I’m sorry it had to be this way, girlie,” he said. “If only you hadn’t stuck your nose where it didn’t belong.”
So much anger in his voice. Was he going to do something worse than just stuff me in the closet? I tried to scream only for it to come out as a squawk, like a dying turkey bludgeoned for the last time.
A miracle happened as my fingers undid the button.
I fell backwards gasping for air, but I didn’t care. The Smoker stared for a second, stunned at the absence of a choking girl.
I didn’t give him the chance to react before dashing for the living room. Glass, there was so much glass. Maybe, get a shard?
No. I couldn’t chance him calling my bluff. Something I could throw.
With all my force I threw one behind my back.
He whacked me over the head so hard it felt like a rock.
On my side I grasped for another.
I waited for just the right millisecond. For him to bend down.
I leapt, forcing the thick layers of fabric and fluff over his face.
Now the Smoker was the one gasping, arms flailing around blind.
Quickly, I retracted before I did something I regretted or my beast got lucky.
Happy to say, I stepped on his protected face.
I tripped and on all fours scrambled to hide in the kitchen. My breaths came in shallow gasps hearing footsteps and growls, bringing to mind rabid wolves.
Luck shined on me again in the form of granny’s steel pan.
Grabbing the handle, I brandished the cookware similar to a sword.
I whacked without abandon but still heard a satisfying CLUNK. The vibrations so deep they tingled my hand!
Still, I was better off than the Smoker whose cigarette hand was now a weird marriage of stiff yet squishy lump at the same time. With some vigor I continued my assault, catching the second, his forearm, and his belly.
He was forced to kneel, heaving as he struggled to catch his breath at all.
“Hands in the air!” screamed a man in dark blue.
Still in my stupor I dropped the pan as if it were a hot potato.
Like me the police were shocked into what they walked in on.Except they regained their bearings lightning quick, just like heroes did.
Picking the bruised Smoker off the floor they cuffed him.
Seeing them my voice came back as if I had eaten an Ursula pearl. I tried to tell the story of my grandma in the closet and under the bed, all the stolen things, and the dirty, dirty bonnet.
My body eventually caught up with my mind who both realized it was over. My knees nearly gave out until a pair of hands caught me, and guided me to the sofa.
“Don’t worry, you’re alright now,” comforted a buck-toothed officer with adorable little curls of fool’s gold hair blooming out of his hat.
His smile was so gentle. So nice. Like a Prince’s. Or a man doing his cop job.
And all I could do was nod.
With all the excitement over I realized just how terrified I was. As good an idea as crying sounded, my heart still hammered too, too much for that.
“Look I hate to do this,” Buck Tooth admitted softly, “but we’ll need some answers. So, if you could come with us to the station to answer some questions–”
“Oh no she won’t,” my granny said in rasped tones. I nearly jumped before remembering my granny really did have a sore throat. I breathed a little easier at seeing her. Red faced and droopy eyed with her flannel pajamas all rumpled she still looked okay for a woman with a cold who had been forced into her closet.
She joined me on the sofa, immediately shielding me in a warm but a firm embrace. I clung to her arm, blocking out how I had almost been suffocated.
Not ten minutes ago I think.
“Whatever you ask, she can answer right here,” she coughed, sounding a bit mannish.
“Granny!” I yelped.
“Fine. I’m fine sweetie,” she assured, clearing her congested throat.
“And you,” she snapped at Buck Tooth, “put on a pot of tea for my granddaughter.”
With permission from his partner, Buck Tooth obeyed the order. The other cop relented granny’s second demand and after calling my Mom over, questioned me about the last twenty minutes. I answered as best I could, reliving every last detail. Granny also gave her two cents here and there.
The Smoker’s capture would cause an uproar.
Not in the least for who had been the one to do the deed.
My Mom, beside herself with worry, smothered me in love and diligent watch. Even in our home.
Then again, I wouldn’t be so mean anymore as to turn her away.
I became her shadow, pining for her company and clinging to her in the circus of media vultures and police deposition. Still, it was cool to see my picture in the paper.
I had proudly read the headline.
‘A Red Riding Hood Story: How Lockpicking Burglar Walter Loope was Ensnared.’
Sure, I’m a “clever, resourceful girl full of spunk,” but maybe I’d take a friend on my next adventure.
A Question in the Dark (ShadowWood, Chapter 1)
Jazzlynn Burskain could hear the two young girls laughing and giggling over the sound of the wood burning in the stove. They had been playing up in the sleeping loft for over an hour now. “Onya! Lex!” she called to them. “Girls! Come down now and eat!”
She knew all too well how hard it was, growing up without a mother. When Daryen the baker had asked Jazzlynn to watch these two during the day—at least until school started again after the Harvest Day celebration—she had jumped at the chance. Now their days were usually spent together, doing all those little things the girls had been missing since their mother passed away.
Their mother Elyce had come down with wasting-sickness when Lex was just a toddler. The village wyler had been able to take away her pain, but even Wyler Jalstone couldn’t stop the inevitable end. Only the Eldergods themselves knew why good people sometimes were taken away so unfairly.
For perhaps the millionth time, Jazzlynn wondered if her own mother had been lucky enough to die quickly, the night she was taken by the Shadow-Beasts. Her speculation was pointless; she put her faith and trust, as she always had, in the wisdom and love of the Eldergods. She was doing her best to make sure that both Thelonya and Alexis grew up knowing they were loved, and that they kept their faith intact as well.
Today, the two were doing their best to get into quiet mischief. This week had been a hot one as the weather turned, and instead of wanting to go swimming or fishing (like all the boys in town seemed to want to do), they insisted on going up into the sleeping loft and playing dress-me-up. They had found the old trunk that held Jazzlynn’s mother’s clothes, and had spent hours changing and giggling and posing in front of the big mirror up there. Jazzlynn was concerned at first that they might damage one of her mother’s dresses or hats, but when she saw the look of complete longing in their eyes, she couldn’t say no.
Daryen was a good man. He was doing his best to be a good father, but when his wife had passed he had not been able to face seeing her things, and had sold all of her clothing and jewelry. The only mementos the girls had of their mother were two of her aprons, a rolling pin with her initials carved in the handle, and her recipe box.
Elyce Allistol had been an herbalist, and had recorded not only all of her handed down family recipes in this box, but also many of the herbal mixtures and plant drawings that were so invaluable to the healing abilities of the local wyler.
Each morning, Jazzlynn helped the girls tend to the garden behind their home. Ambelle Jalstone had been the town’s wyler for a great many years, and she still relied heavily on the herbs and plants that grew in that garden.
The knowledge that Elyce had passed along through her recipe box was her closest link to these two, and Jazzlynn was determined to keep that link alive. She had spent many an afternoon here in the cottage with the girls, baking pies and grinding herbs.
While the girls were playing upstairs, Jazzlynn had finished making dinner. She was going to make sure they were fed, and then she would walk them home. They would stop at the smithy and take Daddy and Micah some dinner on the way. She had made enough to bring Daryen a bowl of hot stew as well. She knew that unless he were reminded, he would eat no more than a piece of bread all day.
The two girls came down the ladder from the loft, giggling.
“What’s so funny?” Jazzlynn asked them.
The two younger girls looked at each other, and began to laugh even harder.
“Nothing,” Onya said, with a wink to her little sister.
“Yeah, nuffing,” Lex added. “I’m not tellin’ you that On’a said Micah was cute with his shirt off.”
“LEX!” Onya yelled in mock exasperation. When Lex slammed her hand over her mouth, with eyes a big as dinner plates, Jazzlynn couldn’t help but give in to her impulse and explode with a healthy, happy laugh of her own.
“That is NOT what I said!” Onya insisted, her grin stretching wide. “I just said that I bet Jazzlynn thinks he’s cute with his shirt off!” With that she turned an accusing eye on Jazzlynn.
“You’re silly, the both of you!” said Jazzlynn, avoiding answering the question. The truth was she actually did find Micah cute, and when she saw him working in the smithy, with his shirt off and the sweat glistening on his muscular arms … well, that wasn’t something she felt right discussing with the girls. “Did you two wash up yet?”
With a resigned sigh, the pair headed past the spinning wheel in the corner, and out the door to the well-pump in the yard. Jazzlynn heard Onya tell her little sister, “See? I told you she likes him!” Grinning, she just shook her head. Little girls could be so goofy.
Micah Smith wiped the sweat from his forehead, and reminded himself once again to remember his bandanna tomorrow. Being a blacksmith's apprentice was very hot work. It gave you aches in muscles you didn’t even know you had, but it was also very satisfying. To see a plow-blade, or a scythe, or even a horseshoe that you had created with your own hands from raw metal and sweat … there was something magical about that.
How does Ash stand the heat? Micah often asked himself the same questions, and his internal monologue was almost never-ending.
I’m at least fifteen feet from that furnace, with only a single leather apron covering my chest, and I’m sweating rivers, but he stands over there in a full leather body shield, right next to the forge and he is barely even breaking a sweat!
For the past twenty years, Arvin "Ash" Burskain had been the village blacksmith. Legend had it that he had earned his nickname when he was still an apprentice, because he spent more time cleaning the furnace exhaust pipes as punishment than he did working metal, and was always covered in the ashes that were part and parcel of this profession.
Micah was lost in thought when he saw Ash glance up at him. The older man was working a bevel into the edge of a sword, and as he looked at his apprentice, he raised one eyebrow. Micah quickly turned back to his anvil.
With a final solid swing of his hammer, the horseshoe Micah was working on finally attained the correct arc - which Ash insisted exactly match the one mounted on the wall.
Like the horse is going to notice if the left side is a little out of true, thought Micah.
As that thought flickered through his head, so did the lesson his father had taught him about trying to take the easy way out. “If you take a shortcut and no one else knows, the only person you have cheated is the one who is aware of what you have done.” It had taken him a very long time as a young boy to work out the logic behind that particular nugget of wisdom, but once he had understood it, he had tried to apply it to everything he did.
Ash had told him almost the exact same thing when he had started here last summer. “If it’s worth doing,” the blacksmith had said, “it’s worth doing right.”
That was Ash through and through. Why couldn’t Da have just been that simple and clear?
The truth was, Micah had started out with this apprenticeship mainly as a way to be close to Jazzlynn after he came of age at sixteen. Now, just over a year later, he had actually changed his name to Smith. This name change was the final stage in every young boy’s transformation to manhood. Upon the choosing of a career, men changed their last name from their mother’s family name, to one that identified their profession. This new name was theirs until the day they married, at which point they assumed their wife’s family name. “Smith sounds much more professional than Shoemaker,” he had told his Ma, “and I’m gonna do this right.”
He found that he not only enjoyed creating metal tools and weapons, he was actually pretty good at it. In fact, yesterday Ash had told him that the knife set he had made for the Milners was “not half bad.” This was high praise from the surly blacksmith, who always seemed to be smiling with his face, while still judging you with his eyes.
He never looks at Jazzlynn with that glare though. I think he loves her almost as much as I do.
This thought alone was enough to make Micah blush, and he turned away before his boss could see him.
Watch, now he’ll start in with the “you might as well make yourself useful” speech.
“Boy,” the portly smith said, in a voice that was many decibels louder than it needed to be. That was one of the drawbacks to working in the smithy; it tended to ruin a man’s hearing much earlier than most professions. The repetitive clang of hammer on iron sometimes invaded Micah’s dreams. “Boy!”
Ash snapped his fingers as Micah hurried over to him. “Since you have time to stand around with that foolish blank look on your face, you might as well make yourself useful, and sweep these floors. It looks like a herd of dirty cattle were milling around in here.”
The smithy floor was probably the cleanest part of the whole place, but Micah knew better than to object. With a grin that he was careful to keep hidden from Ash, Micah began sweeping.
Ash Burskain pulled the red-hot sword blank he was working on out of the forge, and set it on the flat-iron. In his mind’s eye, he could see the beautiful cutting face that was hiding in the metal, and with the right amount of force and heat he knew he could expose it. He was trying not to think too hard about things today. His little girl would be turning sixteen in just over two weeks, and it was causing more emotions in him than he knew how to deal with. He knew that if he thought about it too much, he would just end up with heartburn again.
Looking over at young Micah, his apprentice, Ash once again marveled at how quickly the boy was learning. He would make a fine blacksmith one day, although Ash would never admit this to him. When you assumed the role of master, you had to keep your students in line, and part of that discipline was done through sheer intimidation and maintaining an air of disappointment at all times.
He had learned his trade from the meanest old cuss of a blacksmith ever, and it wasn’t until after Ash had become a full smith, that old Cordel had become friendly. It was his old master who taught Ash that if a student always felt that he had to work harder to impress his teacher, he would become the very best he could be.
The biggest challenge was that he really did care for the boy. He had watched him grow up as his daughter’s best friend, and he could tell - as could everyone who knew them - that Micah was completely smitten with Jazzlynn. Ash thought that Micah might even be in love with her, and that was a thought that both thrilled him and scared him at the same time. The boy would one day make a fine husband for the right woman, but his daughter was nowhere near ready for that yet. She was still his Little Bit… and then it occurred to him yet again that she was turning sixteen soon. How did fathers ever survive this part of their daughter’s lives?
With uncanny timing, Jazzlynn entered the smithy with her two little charges trailing along behind her. She was carrying a big cook-pot, and even over the smell of the forge and burnt leather, he could tell that she had made his favorite stew. Seeing the idiot’s grin on Micah’s face and the glazed look in his eyes only confirmed for him that the boy was under her spell - and he probably always would be. That was about the only consolation the whole thing offered him. At least if he thought she outshone the moon, then he would not only defend her fiercely, but he would also give her whatever she wanted. That was a secret wish that all fathers had for their little girls.
“Something smells good,” he said quite loudly. His hearing was better than he let on. When people thought you were a little bit deaf, they tended to say things around you in a quiet voice that they would never say otherwise. This suited Ash just fine. “Or is that your laundry boiling in that pot?” He grinned and winked at little Thelonya and was rewarded by her smile, which was almost as bright as Jazzlynn’s.
“Just for that,” Jazzlynn said, “you don’t get any. Micah can just have twice as much.”
“Yeah, if he thinks he’s big enough to keep it from me.” Ash glared at his apprentice, while trying very hard not to smile. It obviously worked, because the boy paled.
“Oh, Daddy,” said Jazzlynn, “Stop that!” She was wearing the grin that he kept hidden, and he couldn’t help but smile at her. She was so much like her mother sometimes that it brought a lump to his throat.
Micah was still standing across the smithy with the broom in his hands, and that moon-faced expression hadn’t changed. Oh yeah, he had it bad.
“Well, boy,” Ash said, “are you just going to stand there? Make yourself useful and fetch us a couple bowls and spoons!”
As Micah turned and headed toward the back stockroom, Ash happened to notice that Jazzlynn was watching him walk away with a bit more than just friendly interest. Uh oh, he thought. This could be bad.
“So,” Ash said, mainly to get her focus off the boy. “What have you ladies been doing this afternoon?”
“We was playin’ dress-me-up!” Alexis’s voice had such enthusiasm in it that Ash couldn’t help but melt a little inside.
“I bet you were the prettiest dressed up little lady in all of Faire Oakes.”
“Yeah, but On’a was almost as pretty.” The complete sincerity in her little voice made Ash laugh so hard that he almost cried.
“They looked even better in Mama’s dresses and hats.” said Jazzlynn, “than I used to when I dressed up in them.”
Ash looked at his daughter quickly. Her mother’s things were very special to her, but all he saw in her eyes was love and affection for these two little ones.
Micah had returned with two bowls and spoons, and was waiting patiently for Ash to notice him.
Jazzlynn took the bowls from the boy and as she set them on the counter beside the tempering baths, she turned her attention back to Ash. “Now Daddy, the girls and I are going to take Daryen some dinner as well. I know that this small amount is going to be hard for you to survive on, but I think you’ll have to make do.” She had ladled him a huge amount of stew - way more than he could eat - and he growled at her.
“You are just lucky I have no one else around to cook for me, or I would simply disown you, you rotten child.” The twinkle in her eyes was the sweetest thing Ash had seen all day.
“Yeah, but then you would have to hire someone to clean up after you, and we both know you are way too tight with your money for that to work out.”
“Go on, get out of here now, so I can get some work done.” He turned to Micah. “And you, boy, hurry up and eat. I’m not keeping you around here just so you can eat my food and watch me work! I want this place cleaned up before you are done for the day.”
“Okay, were going to go,” said Jazzlynn, “and Daddy dear, stop being such an ogre to poor Micah. You know how sensitive he is.”
This last was said with her usual amount of humor, but Ash sensed something more. This was definitely not good–he could almost see the unspoken attraction that existed between these two. He remembered courting his Rosa … and the heartburn that he had been dreading suddenly settled in to his stomach. He would have to start keeping an even more watchful eye on these two.
Jazzlynn set the stew pot down on the table, and called through the connecting door to Daryen, in the bakery’s sales room. He was sweeping and wiping down the counters now that the doors had been closed for the day. It was just barely dinnertime, but she knew that the baker was up and had his oven going before sunrise every day to make the day’s bread.
The girls were both already upstairs getting ready for bed. They too were early risers, and would be in bed and asleep before Jazzlynn even made it back home.
The bakery was one of the larger buildings in town and contained not only the store front, but also the living quarters for the baker and his family. Daryen came into the kitchen, and the smile on his face when he smelled the dinner Jazzlynn had brought him, lit up the whole room.
“Jazzlynn, sweet girl,” he said, his eyes never leaving the stew-pot on the table, “you are a blessing beyond the promises of all the Eldergods!”
“You always say that, Mr. Allistol.” she said with a small laugh.
“And I mean it every time!” His grin was infectious, and it made her very happy that she had brought him dinner.
“Did you even eat anything today?” she asked him in her strictest voice, which didn’t sound very convincing, even to her own ears.
“Aye, I did at that,” he told her. “I had three pieces of toast with jam.” He leaned his head down a bit and with a furtive glance around, he added, “and I also had six oatmeal cookies, but we’ll just keep that between us, shall we?” He winked and smiled at her, and she couldn’t help but laugh.
“Well, you need a better dinner than that. I’ve brought you some stew.” Jazzlynn pointed her finger at the red-haired man in white. “I expect you to eat all of it.”
“As if you could get the pot away from me while there is a single drop left inside. No one puts together as fine a stew as you, my dear.”
“The girls had a lot of fun today,” she told him. “We rotated the herbs in the drying room this morning, and then they played dress-me-up while I made dinner.”
Daryen’s voice grew serious. “Jazzlynn, I seriously want to thank you. You have made such a difference in their lives. It’s been almost five years now since… well, that we have been alone, me and the girls. I have seen a spark in Thelonya’s eyes that I didn’t think would ever be there again, and Alexis walks around imitating you all the time. I couldn’t wish for any better role model for my daughters, and I want you to know how very much you are appreciated.”
“Aww, I love them too. They really are very important to me, and I hope that they know that in their hearts.”
“I’m sure they do, lass. I’m sure they do.”
“I will pick up the stew-pot tomorrow afternoon. You have a good night, and maybe tomorrow, could you make an extra loaf of grain-bread? I want to make Daddy a bread-pudding.”
“Of course I can, sweetie. You have a good night too, and tell your Da that I will be stopping by in a couple of days. I need a new bread-sheet and set of oven tongs made.”
“I will, Mr. Allistol.” Jazzlynn tightened her coat around herself as she left the bakery. The air wasn’t really cold yet, even after dark, but it was no longer the high point of summer either.
She started off toward the smithy and her house beyond, when she heard a sound that sent chills down the spine of everyone in Faire Oakes who heard it. Somewhere off in the ShadowWood, a wolf howled, and this was answered by a distant roar of something large and evil. Had it not been for the protection of Mother Hemlock, there is no way that she would even think about walking outside after dark, when the Shadow-Beasts hunted abroad.
She hurried her steps, and her heart didn’t slow down until she spied the smithy’s warm fires, and standing there in front of the doors was Micah. Obviously, he had stayed around to see that she made it home safely. He truly was a great friend, and it was only right that good friends should think about each other a lot. Having thus justified her strange fascination with him today, she relaxed and smiled as she walked toward him.
Micah watched Jazzlynn approaching from the darkness. He knew that Ash was still watching from the depths of the smithy behind him, even though he pretended that he was indifferent to what his young apprentice was doing. The fact that her dad was so protective over Jazzlynn was a comfort to Micah. He knew that it probably should make him feel awkward, but instead he was very glad to know that if he wasn’t around someone would be watching out for her.
She is way too trusting of everyone, and she never sees the dark side of any situation.
As her shape grew clearer, he kept noticing how curvy that shape had become. He knew that if she caught him staring she would probably punch him in the arm, which would be bad, or maybe she would pull away and ignore him, which would be worse.
“Hey Mouse,” Micah said.
“Hey Scarecrow,” she answered.
These nicknames had been a private exchange between them as far back as he could remember. There had been times as they were growing up, that they were angry at each other, but it never lasted. That’s what being best friends is all about.
“I was going to walk home,” he told her with a grin, “but I was kind of scared of the dark, and was hoping you would walk with me and be my bodyguard.”
“I suppose I could do that, but if we get attacked by Shadow-Beasts, I might just have to sacrifice you so I can get away faster.”
“Well, you know my rule, Mouse. I don’t have to run faster than the monsters, I just have to run faster than you.”
“You wish you could, Scarecrow-boy.” Her grin was as bright as the moon that was shining down on them. “You haven’t been able to beat me in a race since you were thirteen and you grew those ridiculously large feet.”
“Well,” he said, “at least I don’t have to cross my arms and hold my chest when I run.” He had meant it as a joke, but somehow it felt awkward. It wasn’t like they hadn’t joked about the fact that she had developed very female parts, but now he could feel himself turning red.
Jazzlynn turned to him and punched him in the arm. “Oh yeah? Well at least my throat doesn’t have that goofy lump bobbing up and down when I talk.” The twinkle in her eye dispelled his anxiety, and suddenly they were just best friends again.
He knew that his feelings for her had grown and had changed since they were kids. They had always loved each other. Loving others was what their whole life was centered around. The Eldergods had given them the ability to love, and expected everyone to love each other and to help each other through life’s hard times.
Micah didn’t know why, but his love for Jazzlynn had grown so strong and so deep, that he knew he would willingly trade his life for hers, and would always do anything she wanted, even if he knew better.
He was only scared of one thing. He was terrified that if she didn’t feel the same way for him, if she still just considered him a friend and nothing more, then finding out how he felt might destroy their friendship. He would rather be forever just her “friend” and still be close to her, than to admit he was in love with her and have her push him away.
He turned and fell in beside her, and together they walked toward the houses at the south end of town.
As they walked along the road, Micah looked over at Jazzlynn and for a moment, the moon shone down on her and his heart climbed into his throat. He suddenly realized that while she had always been pretty, she was growing into a woman who was truly beautiful. It was bad enough that she was cuter than any girl he had ever met, but she was actually also mind-numbingly gorgeous. I wish I could just tell her how I feel.
Suddenly the howl of a wolf split the night from the direction of the ShadowWood. Jazzlynn turned toward him and stepped close. Micah, without even thinking, put his arms around her and turned them both so his back was toward the sound. She rested her head against his chest and hugged him, and that instant changed everything.
On such tender moments, the fate of worlds sometimes revolves.
“Jazzlynn,” he whispered, looking down at the top of her head, “Will you accompany me to the Fresh Year Festival on Friday night?”
He was stunned! He had thought about asking her, but never intended to do it tonight, or in such a quiet and almost intimate moment. He was afraid for a minute that she would tense up. The air seemed almost charged, and after the ululation of the wolf, the night had grown very quiet.
He felt her inhale and softly hug him a little tighter, and then she tilted her head back and looked up at him. Her face had grown very serious and her eyes seemed to glow in the moonlight.
“Dost thou ask for mine arm to lead and mine hand to hold?” Her voice was deep and full and had a slight echo that didn’t quite sound like her.
He found himself answering in a similar voice. “I do, fair maid and true, request that thy heart and smile be with mine upon that night.” He was experiencing the strangest feeling of déjà vu, and he held his breath.
She smiled, and said “I accept this offer, if it be made in pure love and upon the promise of all the Rabani in Heaven. Dost thou so swear?”
“I swear upon mine honor, and upon mine mother, and even beyond the Rabani to all of the Eldergods themselves, fair maiden.” The air seemed charged. He opened his mouth to ask her if she felt strange too, and instead his voice came out in a quiet thundering whisper. “So mote it be!”
The universe itself seemed to pause for an instant as his words echoed in the silence behind the night.
Then, in the blink of an eye it was over. Jazzlynn stepped away from him and shook her head quickly, as if shaking off water. Above their heads, a noise erupted from the dark trees, and a shadow launched itself into the air. With two downdraft beats of its wings, a large bird of some kind flew off across the dark sky.
Jazzlynn looked at Micah and smiled. “But if you expect me to wear a dress, you can just go by yourself, Scarecrow.”
“Of course not Mouse. I think that if I saw you dress up like an actual girl, I’d fall down laughing.” She reached out and took his hand, and it felt like it always had, just two best friends heading home.
Yet underneath, something felt like it had changed forever, and that made him smile as they walked on through the dark.
(to be continued)
© 2023 dustygrein
He’s Dead…But What If He Doesn’t Have To Be?
By: Nadine Poon [Pen Name: Akito Yu]
*** Year 2031… to 2023
I remember everything.
Everything that has happened and everything that will happen. Only, at the moment, none of it has actually happened yet.
My name’s Akito Yu and I’m a 24 year old living in a small town near San Francisco, California. Around what felt like an hour ago, I was frozen on the street. Glaring lights seared into my eyes, making my vision blur as a speeding chunk of metal rammed itself into my body. The last thing I saw before I blacked out was a soft red light emitting from the lamp post towering above my limp body.
I woke up to an angry red light flashing through my eyelids, and a familiar, consistent beep that commanded my wake. That was the surprising part. Not the lights or the beeping, but the fact that I had managed to regain consciousness after that fatal crash.
I slowly opened my eyes and as my vision refocused, I realized that I was facing my alarm clock which was, for some strange reason, set to 10:00 PM.
Huh. I feel absolutely nothing. Probably because I haven’t been able to process anything yet. There’s a heavy weight pulling down on my chest, as though a chain is holding me down to reality, but my mind has gone completely blank.
Something’s not quite right. My room…it’s not supposed to look like this anymore…I moved out ages ago…
I tilt my head a little bit to the right so I can see myself in the mirror on the wall. My reflection peeks back at me, and I pause. Hold on. My eyes. They’re puffy and red. It looks as though I’ve been crying and rubbing my eyes nonstop —no, wait— I have been crying. Something tells me I somehow ended up crying myself to sleep in the middle of the day. But I’m absolutely certain that it’s not possible… Not only because I very clearly remember being hit by a car but also because I’ve only cried twice in my entire life. Both times 8 years ago. Back when I was sixt-...
My back hit the ground and my hands are shaking uncontrollably as I clutch onto my aching chest. I’m trying to gasp for air but vomit is creeping up my throat and my nose is blocked from the mucus that had followed my tears.
Now I remember. How could I ever have forgotten? This was the week that I lost him. Twice. Shin Hana. The first man to ever enter my life and the last.
The dull emptiness weighing down on me vanishes, and my emotions hit me like a truck as I slowly begin to accept my new reality.
I manage to let out a strangled scream before I black out for the second time in my life.
*** Year 2023 Day 1
A low, shaky voice cut into my consciousness, “I told you we shouldn’t have left her alone.”
Father had always acted strong, so the worry in his tone made my heart ache.
“I-I know, I know,” Mother whispers in between sobs, “but I really thought she deserved some time alone after what she had gone through. We both know how much she loved Shin. I-I’m so sorry… I knew it was bad but I didn’t think it would be this bad.”
So I really did go back in time.
Ha, what a loser. Looks like I’ve been dumped… again. And by the same person, no less.
The raw burn of a heartache doesn’t feel any less painful the second time around. Although, technically, this is the “first” time it has happened. And this time, I won’t lose him for good. Because this time, I can prevent the accident. The thought alone is bringing me more strength and hope than I’ve felt in years… I can see Shin. And I can really save him.
*** Year 2023 Day 2
In my “previous” life, the day after breaking up with me, Shin had been involved in a car accident that cost him his life. A few years later, I interrogated everybody I possibly could about the incident. Eventually, I managed to find out that he was hit on his way home from school by a very large red van.
This time, I’m determined to save his life no matter what. Even if I have to give up my own life. Because life without Shin is absolutely meaningless. And I had to learn that the hard way.
For the first time in six years, Mother is driving me to school. Actually, it has been longer than six years. Because since I started dating Shin, we walked to and from school together every single time, until…
My emotions are tearing me apart and Mother must have picked up on my anxiety, because she’s looking at me with worry embedded in every crease on her forehead, “Honey, are you sure you’re ready to go to school? It’s okay if you need to stay at home for another day. Your father and I both know how much Shin meant to you.”
“I’ll be just fine,” I try to smile reassuringly but can I feel my nose sting as I do my best not to break down into tears.
Yes, I’m doing just fine. I just traveled back in time a few years and re-lived a breakup with my “dead” ex-boyfriend, but yes, I’m perfectly fine.
But of course I can’t tell her any of that. Not to mention how I had to spend the entire morning trying to convince her to let me go to school after yesterday’s fiasco. I can’t let my efforts go to waste.
I quickly unbuckle myself and softly press my lips against her wrinkled forehead, then stumble out of the car.
A tower of red bricks has never looked so daunting before. I take a deep breath, and rush into the building.
“Hey, you hear what happened to Aki and Shin? I thought they would stay together forever. I guess what they say about highschool relationships is true.”
“Yeah, they never last.”
“It’s about time.”
Ouch. I can feel a shiver tingling down my spine. I had forgotten how ruthless kids are. Almost all of them are unsympathetic monsters starving for a chance to tear others apart for a moment of entertainment. And they do so without a single shred of remorse. No wonder why I was a complete wreck the first time around.
As I walk to my desk, I can feel everybody’s eyes boring into me, but all of it fades away when my searching eyes finally find him. He’s here. Shin, it’s you. I’m not letting you go ever again.
His bottom lip slightly quivers as his soft, brown eyes glare at me.
*Snap* I forget everything and throw myself into his arms.
The class erupts, and a storm of voices floods the room.
“She’s finally lost it. Poor thing.”
“Awhh baby girl’s still in denial.”
“Let it go gurl, you’re not worth his time.”
“Hey! Get off him!”
Oh, right. Shin has always been the center of attention. Of course he has. Who wouldn’t fall in love with the handsome angel of a man he was? Sure, he wasn’t the best academically. But he always knew exactly how to make everybody like him. He has a sort of sincerity that is hard to come by nowadays, and his caring nature is even more so.
All of a sudden, I hear a creak and a crisp silence fills the room. I jump out of Shin’s arms and slip into the chair behind my desk. The threatening click of Mr. Haru’s heels fill the room as he briskly strides in, “What on earth is happening in my classroom? Where do you think we are, the zoo?”
At last, the final bell.
I had spent the entire day thinking about how to save Shin. But all of my plans went out the window the second the bell rang.
A stampede of animals in ironed uniforms bolt out of the door, leaving me in the dust.
So much for stalling for time.
I can feel sweat trickling down my back, and heat rising to my face.
Not good. I can’t panic now.
I try to collect myself and thank my teacher before sprinting out the door. My few years as an adult had given me a newfound respect for good teachers and their astounding patience.
I can feel my pounding heart getting ready to pounce out of my throat, but I try to keep a level head as I remind myself that everything will be fine.
It’s fine, I know exactly when and where the accident will occur. Just stay calm. Deep breaths.
I fly out of the school doors and run.
I’m nearly out of breath, but I don't stop. I can’t stop. I have to get to Shin.
Finally, I can see the back of Shin’s head. He’s walking beneath the cherry blossom tree we always passed back when we walked home together. Our cherry blossom tree.
My eyes widen and I nearly faint from shock. A big red truck has come into view, and it’s heading right towards him.
NO! It’s too close! There’s no way I can make it on time.
I take off at full speed.
Almost there, just a few blocks. I have to make it. I just have to.
“SHIN! STOP! GET AWAY FROM THE STREET!,” I yell as loud as I can but I’m already out of breath from running so fast for so long.
It’s too late. I’m not close enough to save him. I can’t do anything anymore…I’m going to lose him…again.
The red truck continues to advance and a feeling of helplessness washes over me. It keeps on getting closer and closer to Shin as I try to reach him.
One more block. Come on, come on. Just one more…
The red truck zooms straight past Shin and he starts to cross the street.
Realization hit me. I had been told that Shin was hit by a red van, not a red truck.
I still have a chance. I might actually be able to make it!
Suddenly, a red van shoots out from the side of my vision. Not having any time to think, I leap forward, trying to wrap myself around Shin as much as I can while moving us out of the van’s path.
I can feel myself losing consciousness already. Blood is seeping out, forming a sticky puddle beside me, and I can no longer move.
Shin? Is Shin okay? Did I manage to save him?
“AKITO! AKITO! This wasn’t supposed to happen,” I hear Shin’s trembling voice flowing into my ears, “Why does it always have to be you?”
Shin begins to shake and sob uncontrollably as he rests my head in his lap, “I thought breaking up with you would be enough to save your life. Why is it that you have to throw your life away for me every single time? I wish it were me instead of you.”
What? What do you mean “every single time”?
I can hear the whining alarm of an ambulance and the whirring red lights reflect on the soft cherry blossom petals fluttering to the ground, giving them a red tint resembling that of blood-red roses.
The warm, red glow of Shin’s soul slowly fades into the background…
*** Year 2023 Day 3
*Beep* *Beep* *Beep* *Beep* *Beep* *Beep* *Beep* *Beep* *Beep* *Beep*
I’m… I’m still alive?
I feel like I’m laying on a cushion of clouds…
My eyes shoot open and I jerk myself up.
It feels like my blood is lava burning into my nerves, and every inch of my body is on fire. My vision goes red and I groan in pain.
As the searing pain gradually fades, I begin to notice that everything is very… white. The sheets, the walls, the clothes…
“AKITO! You’re finally awake!,” Shin, face full of tears, springs up from his chair and clasps his warm hands over mine, “You’re back! You’re finally back…”
*** Year 2030
“Aki, you have a phone call!,” Shin calls out from the front door.
“I got it, dear. Give me a sec, I’ll be right there,” I yell back, as I carefully set down a tower of cardboard boxes.
Shin and I managed to finish college with a master’s degree at UC Davis together, and although I’m still job hunting, Shin was guaranteed a job from his internship at BasketsCo. The moment Shin started his job, we seized the opportunity to buy a small apartment and planned to move in together. Finally we’ve gotten started with the moving process.
I’ve been waiting for this moment for so long.
The second I set down the boxes, I dash to the kitchen counter for my phone, nearly tripping over the hurdles scattered around the floor.
When I see who the call is from, my heart starts beating so fast it nearly bursts, “H-hello? This is Akito Yu, how can I help you?”
I catch Shin staring, looking slightly anxious, and I urgently gesture for him to come closer. I turn the phone on speaker mode and set it down on the counter so that the name “BasketsCo” can give me an intimidating stare from the screen.
“Good afternoon, Akito. My name is Tori Sato, and I am the hiring manager. Thank you for applying to BasketsCo.”
I take a shaky breath, and Shin puts my cold, sweaty hands in his. I can tell he’s just as scared as I am, if not more.
“I am calling you to let you know that your job application has been accepted and you will begin working one week from today. I will give you further instructions on your first day of work. Thank you for your time.”
“T-thank you so much, see you next week!,” I try to sound professional until I hang up the call and look up at Shin.
Before I can say anything, Shin jumps with joy and wraps me in his arms, “YOU DID IT, AKITO! I knew you could do it!”
You were more worried than I was, silly.
I let my emotions take over and tears of joy soak into the shoulder of Shin’s hoodie.
I have almost never been so relieved in my life.
*** Year 2090
Pit. Pat. Pit. Pat. Pit. Pit. Pat.
The rhythmic tapping of rain soothes my nerves as I look out the window and look at the cherry blossom trees of Yoshino District.
After retiring, Shin and I decided to move to Nara so that we could go on walks at Mount Yoshino every day and admire the exquisite beauty of the countless cherry blossom trees together.
I never get tired of the way the flying, blushing petals rest upon Shin’s balding head…
I love how our home is always nice and snug, full of Shin’s warmth.
As I admire Shin’s wrinkled face, he lovingly looks back at mine.
Unfair. He ages like fine wine while I age like milk.
As though he can read my mind, he smiles warmly, “You look beautiful, hon’”.
I don’t believe him, but I smile back nonetheless.
We share each other’s warmth, fingers intertwined, as we sit in front of the cozy fireplace with warm red flames that crackle softly while licking the wood.
*** Story from Shin’s point of view - Year 2023 Day 1
I tightly wrap my fingers around Akito’s as we walk towards the pale cherry blossom tree. I can’t help but keep staring at her beautiful black eyes and scarlet red hair. Everything about her is just so… perfect.
Akito laughs as she tilts her head, “What? Is there something on my face or something?”
“No, no. It’s just that you’re so unbelievably breathtaking,” I smile.
And I mean it, I really do, but she laughs it off as though she doesn’t believe me.
Sigh… if only she could see what I do.
I ruffle her hair affectionately as we wait to cross the road.
Finally, we step onto the black concrete of the asphalt road.
I wonder what I should get for her birthday. It’s coming up soon…
Suddenly, I see a flash of red and Akito pushes me away before I can react.
The next thing I see is an endless sea of red as I hold Akito in my arms, “AKITO! Hang in there, you have to hang in there. Let me call an ambulance. Hold on, don’t move, just hang in there. Oh god, please, just hang in there.”
I can feel her blood seeping through her clothes onto mine.
Oh god, no.
Surrounding pedestrians start to crowd around the street and several of them call the ambulance.
I’m shaking head to toe and I feel completely lost. My tears keep on trickling down onto her beautiful face as I watch the life gradually fade away from her lovely eyes.
Akito. No. You can’t do this to me.
“It should’ve been me. I wish it were me instead of you”
*** Shin, Year 2023 - Day 1 of Shin’s 2nd Chance [The Day Before His Death]
“Shin!,” Akito called out, her clear, bright voice ringing across the hall.
Akito? Is this a dream?
“A-Akito?,” I croaked in a hoarse voice.
Akito ran over, “Need some water?”
“No running in the halls!,” a teacher yelled from her classroom.
Then it hit me. This was it. This was the chance I asked for. I could fix everything right now. She had died for me, but I could make everything right again. I had a feeling that only one of us could live…if I were to try to save myself too, who knows what would happen to Akito? Both of us making it out alive… it’s simply too good to be true. I don’t know what I have done to come across this second chance, but everything comes at a cost; even I know that much.
I am willing to sacrifice anything for Akito. Even our future together. Even my life.
“I’m sorry Akito. I-I can’t do this anymore,” I whisper, trying to keep my voice from choking.
Akito playfully punches my shoulder, but I see a glint of fear in her eyes, “Shin, don’t scare me like that, it’s not funny.”
I’m so sorry Akito. There isn’t enough time left. This is the only way.
“W-we shouldn’t walk home anymore. T-this relationship just isn’t working out. Let’s break up”
I can feel everybody else’s eyes on us, and I immediately regret doing this in school instead of waiting for school to end first. But I can’t help but worry that I’ll miss my chance. I can’t mess this up. Akito’s life is at stake.
I can’t bring myself to look at Akito’s face.
“What are you talking about? W-what happened? D-did I do something wrong?”
I stay silent, knowing that I will break down into tears the next time I open my mouth.
“S-S-Shin… T-talk to me… P-please…”
I turn around to hide my tears and run out of the school.
I’m sorry, Akito, but if somebody has to die, it should be me… I’m the one who got you into that mess in the first place…
I only wanted to walk home with you so that I could show you the cherry blossom tree every day on our way home. It’s my fault you were there in the first place…
*** Shin, Year 2023 - Day 2 of Shin’s Second Chance [The Day of His Death]
I force myself to go to school in the morning. I didn’t get a wink of sleep, but I feel a strange sense of ease knowing that at least Akito will be safe.
As I sit at my desk and look at the cherry blossom tree right outside the window, I let the hours tick by, thinking of nothing but Akito.
I can see the back of her head from where I’m sitting, and I admire her soft curls, silky and smooth as rose petals.
I can’t help but notice that her left hand on the desk is ever so slightly shaking as her right hand draws squiggly lines in its attempt to write letters in the notebook.
I’m sorry, Akito.
After watching her scarlet curls disappear out the door, I slowly make my way out as well.
For a moment, I consider finding Akito to see her one last time, but I tell myself it’s best to stay as far away from her as possible. I can’t risk having her follow me…
Don’t be selfish. Remember, this is already your second chance. You can’t screw this up. You have to make sure Akito doesn’t die.
Before I change my mind, I run out of the school, tears uncontrollably flying out of my eyes. I keep running, and running, until a streak of red makes the world fade into black.
Akito, I hope that one day, you will be able to fondly look back at memories of us spending time together…
Please find happiness and try not to forget me…
Brother and Sister
I don’t usually dream, but when my alarm went off at its usual hour, I cursed it for interrupting my quest for the most tempting bag of chocolate I’d ever seen. I lurched in the direction of the incessant buzzing, only to find myself stuck in the dip of a deflating air mattress. That’s when I remembered that I was not in my apartment. I was in my parents’ house on the floor of what used to be my room, waking up way too early for the first day in a week that I didn’t have to work. Not that getting up at the ass-crack of dawn each morning to ‘craft premium coffee and espresso beverages’ for people a station above you in life isn’t great. It does have its perks. I had just been feeling the ache in my back and my knees more acutely the past week, and if my craving dream was any indication, there was a very natural and feminine reason for that.
Finally grabbing hold of my phone and swiping in the correct direction for ‘alarm off,’ I rolled the rest of the way off the mattress, got to my feet, and slogged out the bedroom door towards the bathroom. Outside my door, I could see the light on in the kitchen. That was usually an indicator that my younger brother, Denver, had gotten up to roam the house in the middle of the night. I listened for my brother, but I couldn’t hear him. He was probably asleep again in his own room, in the dark expanse farthest to my right.
I shuffled into the bathroom and closed the door behind me. Ugh. As soon as I’d gotten up I’d felt my innards soiling my underpants. I sat hard on the toilet, hearing a dull clink of displaced porcelain behind me. I grunted. The doctor had told me that I’d put on thirty pounds this past year. Of course the toilet jumped when I sat on it. It was like the scale screaming, which it surely would have if I’d decided to step on it while I was home. I was monstrous. I could balance two attractive girls my own age on the opposite side of a see-saw from me, and maybe even still be the heavier one.
To clarify, my doctor said none of this. She just suggested that I get back on my exercise regimen and try to cut out the fast food whenever possible. But she also knows that I have severe anxiety and mild to moderate depression, so she might have had a pre-arranged agreement with my inner demons. Not that they’d ever tell me.
I finished my business and cleaned up, trudging back into my bedroom and willing myself not to collapse onto the air mattress once more. I was awake now, and going back to sleep was only going to throw my day off. Carefully, I bent my knees and lowered myself back onto the mattress, pulling the rolling computer chair towards me where I’d laid out my outfit the night before. Black leggings, purple sports bra, Freddie Mercury t-shirt, leopard print socks. Comfy and classy. I pulled off my shorts and began to thread my legs into the leggings. I stood up as I pulled the fabric over my thighs, giving a final tug and marveling at how the fabric seemed to tighten the droopy parts of me. For a moment, I thought of how nice a onesie of the same material might feel. In the next moment, I remembered how my belly always stuck out when I wore onesies. I did my best to finish getting dressed without thinking too hard about it.
After putting on all but my shoes, I flopped starfish-style on the air mattress, groping the top end for the air valve. I had to set the card table up where the mattress was for when Denver got home from school. That was where he listened to records and did his puzzles after homework time. Pressing the right side of my face further into the suede-like surface of the mattress, I stretched my arm further and grasped the plug. I pulled it, dropping an immediate inch as the air began to rush out from underneath me. Carefully again, I stood up from the mattress, folded it in half the long way and lay myself on top of it. Even more air hissed out. I smiled. This was one of the advantages to being monstrous: more efficient air mattress breakdown. I slowly sank down on top of the deflating mass. I pictured myself pressing the mattress down into the floor if I lay there long enough. It made me think of the book Maniac Magee and how the main character said he didn’t like sleeping on mattresses because it gave him the feeling of slowly rising on mashed potatoes. I was slowly sinking in mashed potatoes. I hadn’t eaten mashed potatoes in a while. I hadn’t eaten anything yet today. I crawled off of the flattened mattress strip and folded it one last time, sitting on it and listening to the last of the air hissing out. I was queen of this queen-sized mattress.
That was really the only thing I was queen of.
I gathered up the folded mass of vinyl, stuffed it in its storage bag, stored the whole mess in my closet and ventured out of my room and toward the living room. The dimness of the short hallway in the early morning kept me swallowed for just a moment, but helped me focus my eyes on the oblong splash of light from the kitchen on the floor of our front room. If this had been two years ago, my mother would have been sitting on the couch in her long gray sweater over a bright green nightgown with her black and silver hair pulled back into a clip. Her favorite sweater, comfiest nightgown and least stressful hairstyle at just the right time of morning to start waking up before the rest of the house.
“Good morning sunshine!” she would say, brightly. “I’m surprised you’re up this early.”
“Cramps,” I said out loud, stopping in the kitchen doorway and lifting my arms up to stretch. My fingertips touched the top. My elementary school self was ecstatic. Also, imaginary Mom, this time is no longer early. This is clock-in time. My uterus stabbed upward. Did I say cramps? I meant CRAMPS. Monthly cramps. Hence the black and stretchy, thank God they were clean.
What time did it say on the oven?” I turned and cocked my head to see the neon green display. Six-fifteen. Denver’s lunch for school had to be packed, and I still needed breakfast. Denver needed breakfast too.
I opened the fridge and glanced at the top two shelves before looking back to the couch. I half expected to see my mother struggling, then succeeding in raising herself up from the couch to see what I was up to in here.
“Your mother is morbidly out of shape,” she would have laughed as she came in.
“That’s how I felt getting out of bed this morning,” I would have responded. I scanned the potential food options in front of me. Not a lot of breakfast options available, save for the gallon each of soy and skim milk at the back of the second shelf and the mesh bag of apples that looked like they’d just been in a fight. The milk was going to make my stomach hurt later, and biting into any brown part of any fruit was proven to make me gag. I swore I had bought those apples while they weren’t rotten and yet, somehow, here we were. I removed the economy size jar of salsa from the middle shelf with one hand and rearranged the contents in front of the milk with my left. I considered my cereal options. I usually just bought Rice Chex for Denver since that was his favorite and I was okay with pretty much whatever, but I remembered that I had just splurged on a box of my own favorite cereal for a weekend treat. Cereal for a treat that wasn’t chocolate flavored. Oh, the joys of true adulthood.
I grabbed the jug of skim milk from the fridge. My heart said Honey Bunches of Oats, but my stomach reminded me that coffee would be an appropriate touch for an upset morning stomach.
“Well, I can’t argue with that.” Imaginary Mom turned her head towards me, nodding to the cabinet next to the fridge. “Could you hand me the peanut butter?”
I shifted the milk jug to my left hand and opened the cabinet with my right, grabbing the giant wholesale canister and putting it under my arm before walking it to the counter. I turned to the fridge for corn tortillas to make Denver’s lunch.
“Your father baked some bread a few night ago, and some of it has miraculously survived.”
Sometimes Dad had baked over the weekend for Denver. He worked the night shift during the week, so he kept his sleep schedule by staying up in the wee hours on weekends to get other work done, usually fixing things in his workshop or cooking things that would take too much time during the day. Things like bread with no gluten or dairy. I could detect aftertaste just looking at that bread. That nonexistent bread. I opened the fridge. Corn tortillas with peanut butter it would have to be.
I returned to the living room after making my brother’s lunch and my breakfast, turning on the TV. The light from our widescreen glowing box cut through the early morning dimness like a text notification. I should have been used to early hours by now, I really should have. Something about those news anchors though…they had it so good. All they had to do was read a script and sit down. They actually got to sit down. Lucky.
“Thanks Wendy!” A perky anchorwoman was transitioning the stories on the docket in the typical morning news manner. She turned to her male co-anchor. “All that talk of summer is making me want to party! Do you have any exciting plans for the summer?”
“Well, Cindy, what’s gotten me really excited is the message we received last night from our distant neighbors.”
“Oh, that is exciting!” Cindy turned to face the camera. “Fans of outer space, if you haven’t seen it already, a certain video has been making its way through all the news outlets ever since its simultaneous arrival at both the NASA and US immigration headquarters two weeks ago.”
The ‘certain video’ they were talking about was one that had definitely been around longer than two weeks. It was the travel and immigration services video made by the Planetary Body Messier 52 embassy and posted publicly on their website. Not that that specific website is easy to get to for anyone who isn’t specifically looking for it, but sue me for being better informed than the news outlets just this once. I’d been poking around the internet looking for support groups for nonverbal individuals and their families, which was a lot more difficult than I’d hoped. Stupidly, optimistically. What I found was a nice listing of group homes for those nonverbal individuals where they’d be “well cared for and assisted in reaching their full potential.” From what I could gather, a group home was the lifelong equivalent of those respite camps Mom used to send Denver to in the summer. She got a call from one of the counselors during Denver’s second go-round because he had pushed one of the other kids. What they didn’t tell her until she showed up in person was that the other kid had been hitting and pushing Denver first. The other kid in question was also 5’2 and rather skinny to my brother’s 6’1 and rather chubby. If that situation had been in the context of a public school, Denver would have gotten detention for at least two days. I couldn’t imagine how an all happy and smiley group home like the ones in the ads would deal with a genuine violent outburst if my brother didn’t get his way.
The Messier 52 embassy page was on page three or four of my Google search for ‘nonverbal individual support group.’ The page was bare bones: just a mission statement, the welcome video, and links to the necessary application forms for travel and citizenship. At first, I was certain that what I’d found was somebody’s old video project or prank, and that the links would either put viruses on my computer or lead me to the music video for Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up.” There was that tiny shadow of doubt that persisted though, just strongly enough to make me follow the links after pulling up the site on my iPad—the only device I could debug without help. The forms were legit. After that day the site slowly started beefing up, adding links and information regarding space travel and pricing, recognizing partnerships with various disease prevention groups on Earth, and offering short questionnaires for site visitors to determine their eligibility for Messier 52 citizenship. I had taken them all, and Denver had passed each with flying colors.
“The people here call themselves “Messis,” and claim to live on a planet just outside the Andromeda galaxy.” While Cindy’s co-anchor spoke, his voice became a voiceover to silent footage of the video, which showed what appeared to be a partially-human creature sitting behind a desk and addressing whoever was behind the camera. Of course, they had managed to find the most jarring shot from the introduction video on the site. I went back into the kitchen. “The Messis,” he continued, “tell us that their home is small, peaceful and law-abiding, and whoever wishes to join them there will be welcome, so long as they too are willing to submit to the laws of the land. Now, I don’t know about you Cindy, but that seems pretty fair to me.”
“Fair to me too, Gus,” she said with a laugh. “If only things were that simple here, right?”
“You said it, Cin. The Messis also state in their communication that they specially welcome those who see themselves or are perceived as outcasts, and that’s not all. After the video’s initial circulation, testimonials of other residents of this planet began to surface as well, most notably stories from individuals on the autism spectrum.”
I poked my head out of the kitchen. It never failed. I could pick out the ‘a’ word from 100 paces or more. Apparently the sizeable population of autistic people on the distant planet was now common knowledge. Interesting. But I knew about it first. The rest of the world was just then finding out about it. There had been evidence of life on other planets for years. Years. The only reason it wasn’t exploited was that the general public thought that Our Andromeda by Brenda Shaughnessy was just a work of fiction—an extrapolation of a dream that a mother had for her disabled son. I knew, though. I didn’t know that much, but I knew that there was more truth to the words she wrote than fiction. I would have thought any person who recognized themselves in the author would be able to draw the same conclusion, but that might have been asking too much. Not everyone has a portion of daydreams dedicated to their autistic little brother.
“Autistic Earthlings on Planet M52 are able to find community more easily because the communication is all nonverbal-”
I guessed they didn’t actually know much at that particular moment. Planet M52. Was it suddenly too strenuous to say the full name? In the eyes of the station, it was probably just a viral conspiracy theory covered to boost viewership.
But I had been researching the same topic for a long time. There were even transportation services that offered routes to Andromeda’s outer reaches. They were just really expensive. That stood to reason, since it would take a lot of fuel to get all the way out there. But it was possible. That was the point. I stared at the TV screen, not really seeing or hearing. Andromeda had made its way to mainstream media. Was that going to make my goal everyone else’s now? Before now I had been confident that I’d found a private safe haven for my little brother, who desperately needed it. Was everyone else who thought Earth wasn’t meeting their every need going to drain their bank accounts and start GoFundMe pages to hop on a ship to the outer reaches of the Andromeda galaxy? Because that wasn’t fair. I’m well aware that the fair’s only in town once a year, but knowing the ways of the world rarely made me less indignant.
I stared ahead at the screen until the five-day weather forecast, and then I saw the tiny clock in the upper right hand corner. It was time to wake Denver. I stood up and headed back in the direction of the bedrooms. I was surprised that Denver had actually stayed asleep. I turned the dark corner and then the knob on my brother’s door. True to form, there was Denver in his bed, snoring with his mouth open. I was surprised he still fit in his bed, since last time I had heard the doctor had measured him to be six foot two. That made him even taller than Dad, and I had a hard time picturing Dad sleeping in a twin bed. Then again, I’d probably have an easier time picturing it if it wasn’t Denver’s twin bed, decked out with Batman sheets and a bright blue comforter and separated from the wall by a small infantry of stuffed animals. Staring through the darkness at me was the Disney Store Dumbo we had bought him when he got out of the hospital as a baby. Next to Dumbo was an ankylosaur plush from the zoo’s summer dinosaur exhibit. The two of them stood staunchly by my brother’s ankles, warning all wrongdoers away. I stepped carefully inside the door, knowing his floor was littered with books and puzzle pieces that never got put away. I would tell him to put books back on the shelf and to put the puzzle pieces back into the correct boxes, but that only happened some of the time. Denver was impatient. He wanted to live his days from action to action, without the confusing in-between. When it was time to put things back in his room, he would stalk to the doorway, toss the offending object inside, and return to the room he’d been in before. I stepped around fragmented trucks and landscapes that had escaped boxes with full pictures on the outside. Most of them were presents from our grandparents, who were overjoyed that Denver had a somewhat normal hobby. One of the truck puzzles was one that I had picked up for him at the dollar store. Not nearly as glossy or durable as the others, but he seemed to like it anyway.
I shuffled over and stood at his bedside. “Hey, Denver.” I reached down and lightly shook his shoulder. “It’s time to get up, little man.” I could feel my hand permeating an aura of heat as I reached down. The kid’s internal temperature had to go up whole degrees after he slept. During the years of my Twilight obsession, I was convinced that he was secretly a werewolf.
Denver stirred, but didn’t open his eyes. I knew the feeling. Nevertheless, I shook his shoulder again, a little harder. I swear, his body had it down to a science. Get him just to the point of sweating, and then hold it there. He was warm all over, but his exposed skin was always perfectly dry. His armpits were probably sweating, though. That would explain the rank scent that hit my nose as he rolled over. “Denver, you have to get up now. It’s time for school.”
He turned over, wrestled his eyes open and squinted at me. His nose was wrinkled and his mouth was curved into a sneer. I knew he knew what I was saying.
“School,” I repeated. “You have to get up and get ready.”
Still silent, Denver pushed back his blankets and grudgingly swung his feet to the floor. After rubbing his eyes with the heel of his hand, he stood and stretched.
“That t-shirt getting a little small for you?” I smirked, poking his exposed belly with my index finger.
Still frowning, Denver moved past me and out his door to the bathroom. I sighed. I’m sure if he could have, he would have told me to quit it or eff off, but I had gotten used to speech not being part of his repertoire. There were little grunts and noises that he used from time to time when he couldn’t get his point across in action, but it was much too early for that, for both his brain and his bladder.
Denver has autism, which is totally necessary to explain in some circumstances and totally unnecessary in others. I tell my sibling stories just like everyone else my age, but I don’t always bring up my brother’s developmental disorder. It’s kind of a downer. After revealing that I was an older sibling, I would tell my classmates and co-workers how my little brother was a violent kid, and how he used to kick and slap me but I never bruised, and how one time he broke his bedroom window with his head out of frustration. At the end of the story would be the time that anyone else might say, oh yeah, and my brother’s autistic so we’re kind of lucky that was the worst of it. But I almost never did. I’d just leave it out. I figured that since people already knew I wasn’t quite sane, they’d figure it just ran in the family. And no way I was leading off with the diagnosis either. As soon as you say ‘autistic,’ you silence the room. For something that’s wide reaching enough to affect one in six kids, there sure is a stigma attached. The general consensus today seems to be that autism is something to be sorry for, and that a story containing it will be a sad one, and this is exactly the kind of energy I’m trying to avoid when I’m telling my work friend about how my little brother messed up three keyboards because he insists on eating his chips and salsa at the computer. That’s the kind of thing a normal teenage boy would do, right? And it’s funny. Once I add that he’s autistic, I feel the silence set in. Now it’s a story about a boy who can’t quite understand how things work, and his sister who laughs at him for not understanding. That’s why I leave the diagnosis out of it. That’s why I also tell a lot of sibling stories culminating in Denver just giving me a look. I don’t say that he’s nonverbal and that he probably would have said something clever but devastating if he could, even though that’s closer to the truth. He’s super smart. I know he is. It’s not a question of nurture, I’ll tell you that. He grew up looking at books and watching Sesame Street just like I did. If everyone’s brain was wired the same, we’d all have adults marveling at how we could read the laminated Bible verses on our Sunday school wall at age three. It’s just a matter of nature deciding that everyone having the same internal wiring wasn’t going to fly. I highly suspect that a lot of what he knows gets lost somewhere in the ether between the nonverbal and verbal world. And that’s the stuff that gets through after the autism gets in there and jumbles it up. Most days, I just wish I could get inside his head and take a good look. But alas, I am no brain surgeon. My biggest strength is talking about books and where they went right and wrong, which in no way qualifies me to get inside anyone’s head, except metaphorically. As Denver closed himself into the bathroom, I went back to the living room and staked my position on the comfy chair next to the couch. In our house, everyone did their best to keep out of the way of the person on a deadline. Since he was the one with a school bus to catch, that was Denver.
In the middle of one of those disturbing dog biscuit commercials where they show a golden retriever smiling with human teeth, Denver emerged from the bathroom, still stumbling a little from tiredness. Thankfully, according to my phone clock, it had only been a few minutes since his initial launch. Sometimes he needed reminders to hurry. He lumbered down the short hallway, through the living room and into the kitchen. He yanked out the bag of leftover muffins to present to me.
“Oh, well I see our request has been made known.” I said, not making an effort to sound interested, not that Denver gave a crap. He went to the cupboard for a bowl while I extracted two muffins from the bag to put into the microwave. I put in two, which he would quickly wolf down and then demand a repeat performance, which I would of course refuse just in time to point out the time and remind him that the school bus would be arriving soon.
While the muffins heated, Denver emerged from the kitchen with his lunch bag, going back towards his room for his backpack.
“What do we say to the people who pack our lunches?” I called after him.
“Foo koo Em!”
“You’re welcome, Denver!” I yelled in his general direction. Denver had never been very good at his ‘th’ pronunciation. If you knew he was thanking you, everything was okay. I was just constantly afraid that someone was going to think he said what it sounded like and that I would get a very angry call home from a livid parent and a confused teacher. His ‘y’ sound wasn’t great either, but only the beginning was a real problem.
I heard his dresser drawers opening and closing. That was fairly new. He usually had to be told what to do in the morning every step of the way, but by golly he knew what to do once he got the reminder.
At one point in Malcom in the Middle, the dad says something to the mom like, “We’re men. We can’t read your mind, but ask us and we’ll do anything.” That’s basically the way Denver was. Heck, that’s the way I am at my job half the time. Despite how much I’d like to read other people’s minds, I just can’t. I just learn what people want me to do the best I can and as fast as I can so people don’t get mad. For Denver though, there’s a bit of a synaptic gap. He knows what to do, he just has to be reminded to do it on a daily basis. When I think how tiny that gap in his reasoning or memory has to be, it’s just sad. It’s a distance that a normal person wouldn’t even be able to see without a powerful microscope. It’s so small that if it were an external imperfection on a licensed coffee mug, we would still put it front and center on our merchandise shelf at work, and someone would definitely buy it to drink their latte macchiato out of.
Denver emerged a few moments later wearing blue jogging pants with white stripes and a light brown polo shirt. I cringed. I hated when he put clothes on that didn’t match, even though I knew I should have been celebrating the fact that he could get dressed without any help. His directive had been to put on a shirt and a pair of pants over his underwear, and that’s just what he had done.
“Socks and shoes!” I told him. Denver disappeared into his room once more.
Denver was like I was and like Mom had been—he’d go anywhere barefoot given the chance. He and I had jointly annoyed Dad by taking the trash out in bare feet during the winter. Denver probably did it because the ‘take out the trash’ command didn’t include putting on socks and shoes in its simplest form, but I did it for speed. It took me extra time to put on the proper footwear for the snow, and it was just quicker to briefly endure the pain and cold and get the task out of the way. And besides, sometimes I couldn’t find a clean pair of socks on such short notice.
Denver came back again with socks and shoes on his feet. My eyes darted to the floor to see if the shoes were on the correct feet. They were. It had taken him years of practice, but it seemed he was getting the hang of it. The laces were even tied in functional knots. Messy, but functional. Denver really had been getting the hang of doing things by himself. I got the feeling he liked that about as much as I did. We pretended it was great, but something about the change was still uncomfortable.
“Good.” I picked up and held out his dark blue windbreaker. “Coat!”
Denver took the coat from me and put it on. He looked around for a moment before most likely realizing that he had left his backpack and lunch in his room, and then went back for them. I smiled through the pain of recalling the time I’d walked nearly two blocks toward the train station before remembering that I’d left my coffee in my room. I’d also done that with my glasses. And my apron. That’s what came of working so early in the morning when you couldn’t commit to getting the proper amount of sleep. That was a leg that Denver had up on me. I felt the sisterly rush of jealousy and pride flow through me as my little brother returned, backpack and lunch in hand.
“Are you ready for school?” I asked him.
Denver nodded. “Es.”
“Are you going to go to science class with Jack today?”
“Are you going to do math today?”
I couldn’t help wondering if Denver wanted to strangle people sometimes. Asking him all these stupid questions just to get the desired signs of life from him. Of course he was going to do math. He did math every day, the same with science. I had no idea if Jack was going to be there to do science in class with Denver, but to be fair, neither did Denver. Denver and Jack were best friends, so he probably hoped that Jack was going to be there, but none of us truly have control of when our best friends are going to show up for class or not. Most of us just hoped that we wouldn’t be left alone to suffer.
“Are you going to be good for your teachers today?”
Denver’s facial expression hadn’t changed for any of the questions, but I was pretty sure he wanted to be done with the ordeal. Lucky for him, the bus pulled up in front of our house right about that time.
“Okay, time to go!” I announced. “Have a good day! Make good choices, be a good friend!”
Denver didn’t answer. He threw the screen door open and walked quickly through it. I watched him board the short yellow school bus and I waved to the driver through the screen. Denver’s bus drivers had all known and loved my mom. She always used to greet them by name in the mornings and walk outside to talk with them in the afternoons. I wasn’t quite so social. Luckily, the difference in demeanor at the front door didn’t seem to offend anyone. I went back into the kitchen. The coffee in my cup was running a bit low.
“You want some more coffee, Mom?” I called as I filled my cup. I went back into the front room and searched for her empty cup on the ottoman. There was no empty cup on the ottoman. The house was empty. The repressed teenager inside me smiled, reminding me how often I had prayed for moments like this during my high school days. I was truly thankful not to be that repressed teenager any more, but I wished in that moment for the joy she felt in the eerie silence.
(Author name: Sara Spry)