Stuck, in the jungle, for five days. After my plane crashed down, it has been going down hill for me. I knew I should not have flown alone. I also shouldn’t have flown that close to the trees. Oh well. What’s done is done. I have to remain focused.
As I wander north throughout the Brazilian forest, alone, with my compass, knife, canteen, and my survival bag, all seems lost. A thousand wandering eyes seem to be staring at me in all directions. I am nervous, scared, and hungry. I haven’t eaten since I took off from my home in Delphos, Ohio. I need food. I stop from my long hike and decide that I should settle here for the night. There is a sparkling river with clear water near by. Also there are canopying trees that will keep me dry. I try to make a bed with sticks and leaves high in the trees, but fail to on my first two tries. Luckily though, I am successful on my third try. It’s not perfect, but it will do. My stomach cringes, I need food. I decide that I should put my fishing skills to some good use. I grab a long stick and find some string and hooks in my survival bag. I then overturn a rock and find a nice juicy worm. I assemble my pole while it starts to rain. A nice cool drizzle covers my body and helps rinse out my wounds. I estimate that I have about three hours of sunlight left, and I need to build a fire. I throw my line in the water and place my pole securely under a rock. I gather some firewood and go back to my fishing hole. I place the wood in a neat stack close together and reach in my survival bag. I find a God-send, flint. Flint sparks easily with a rock. I ignite the fire in only a couple of minutes. As soon as I start my fire, I get a bite on my fishing line. It’s a whopper! I tug and tug. A fierce battle that lasts for twenty minutes ends abruptly as the fish runs itself upon the shore. I recognize the fish immediately. A red belly piranha stares back at me from my hands. I grab my knife and go to work cutting at the thick and meaty beast. I ate it and I never tasted anything as sweet as this. I save some of the organs for tomorrow and call it a night and head on to my sky bed.
I wake up to the sounds of birds singing and chimps crying, so peaceful. I have made my goals for survival. I will stay one more day here to get some of my strength back, then I will leave tomorrow. While I was flying I saw a village due north of where I am. I am going there because I think that will be my safest bet. I estimate that it will be a couple of days to get there. I want to catch as many fish as I can so I will be well nourished through my long and rough hike ahead. I put my pole in the water using the old piranhas heart as bait. No sooner than I did that I caught one. I guess that the piranhas love the blood. Today all I am going to do is stock up on fish. I place my catch of fish in the shade up in the tree hoping that no big game animal could smell it. My luck prevails. At day’s end I manage to catch twelve fish, and one turtle. That’s exactly what I need.
I wake up to a curious monkey staring directly at me. I jump and scare him. I named him George. I think that will not be the last of him. I start up my fire again and eat two fish. The breakfast will give me the energy I need to hike this long day. I group the remaining ten fish and turtle and put them in my survival bag. They are an asset. I grab my canteen, fill it with water, and I split. I head due north. I stop for nothing. I am occupying my mind on my loving family. I have a wife and two kids. I miss them all dearly and I long for home. By now the sun is high in the sky and it appears to be at least five or six. I decide that it’s time to call it a night. I stop again by a tranquil pond with a waterfall. I first build my bed on another tree and grab two more fish to eat. I am down to eight fish and a turtle. It’s now late and I have about two hours of sunlight left. I am dirty and smelly, so I take a nice long swim in the pond. The water is cool to the touch and it eliminates all of the dirt on my body. I warm up by my fire that I built after my swim. I still wonder for home. I go to bed and dream.
I wake up again with George the Monkey peering over me. After he sees me wake, he takes off and heads for the shadows. At least I have company. I estimate if I make good timing today, I might make it to the village tomorrow. I hurry, give the life back to my fire, then I eat a fish. Nourishment is good. I could use the energy. As I hike well past three, I have noticed that George is indeed following me. He will not get close enough to touch or far enough to be out of sight. He’s a cute and curious monkey who has no balance. It’s almost funny to watch George swinging from tree to tree and somehow barely make the jump. By five I am about to just hall down and sleep on the ground floor. With the strength I have I make my canopy bed and grab my turtle and dig in. It strangely tastes like dark meat chicken. Right now that tastes like a five course meal. After dinner I crawl in bed and hope I can find the village tomorrow.
I wake up soaked. There must have been a storm in the area last night. Oh well. I head down and eat three fish. I could use the extra energy for the long day. I hope to meet the villagers by one. I head out and see no sign of George. I was kind of hoping to say good-bye. As I hike alone I notice the beautiful scenery. There are gorgeous waterfalls with wild and vivid wildlife. I have even seen a butterfly as big as my head. This is definitely not home. As I walk I hear a noise. A rattling in the bushes. I stop. I look. Nothing. I continue on. This keeps happening for five or six times with the same result occurring, nothing. I hear the noise again. I turn and I see the villagers staring at me with weapons in hand. I tell them that I speak English. They don’t understand me. They then take me back to the village. They take me to their middle-aged chief who does in fact understand English. I tell him my predicament, and he tells me that he will take me to the airport tomorrow and tonight I should rest.
I wake up to the females of the tribe surrounding me with food, drink, and clean clothes. I eat and drink while I listen to the wonderful sound of the chief who is telling me the plan for the day. I pack my belongings and say goodbye to the villagers. I head out with the chief with my survival equipment and leave this jungle to go back to my suburban jungle home.
The smoke curled in tendrils through the air as the white-hot flames consumed the city. People were dashing manically through the streets, gathering whatever was salvageable. Most had a wild questioning look of fear on their faces, now knowing what would come next. Adults no longer attempted to comfort those in need; instead, it was every man for himself. Children were ripped from their mother’s arms by an undetected force and never spotted again, leaving the women bewildered and grief-stricken. It embodied every child’s hidden nightmare; every dreaded monster in the closet had come to life today.
It had started out as a seemingly normal day, yet there was an eerie silence that screamed something was not quite right. The church bells did not ring at the usual times but instead remained dormant, casting a loud hush over the town. The sun did not show itself; instead, a deep, murky gray color settled in the sky and the usually crisp, breezy fall air acquired a thick mist.
People began to commute to their jobs and children to their schools. Everything was going just as any other day would go, yet there was an almost ghostly vibe that carried through with the hours that no one could shake off. The thin obsidian hands on the glowing white face of the clock on the church steeple rancorously edged through the numbers: nine o’clock, ten o’clock, eleven o’clock. Eleven thirty came and the already gray-stricken clouds turned livid and rumbled ominously.
As the clock struck twelve the lightning started. Initially it struck about every three minutes, a blinding bright flash that lit up the city followed by an ear-splitting crack. Three minutes rapidly turned into two, two into one, and then it was as if the lightning never ceased, kept flashing and flashing until there was barely a moment of darkness. No rain fell amidst the uncanny storm, just flares of lightning and deafening snaps of thunder.
Then the wind began. It howled through the city, down every street and into every alley. It was as if it was making sure no one could hide from it. Every corner of the city shrieked with the sound of the surging wind, the clapping thunder. Every house shook treacherously and then stopped momentarily, just to start up again worse than before, as if being mocked by the storm. Trees began to fall and power lines with them.
As schoolchildren were dismissed from school and adults made their way home from work, the storm worsened. There was no power in the whole city, and many things were aflame from the deleterious lightning. Whole houses began to crumble under the combined forces of the wind and the fire. Families began to pile into their cars and evacuate the city. Hundreds of cars were crossing the main bridge and it split in two, sending vehicles of people tumbling down into their watery graves below.
In the distance, a bolt of lightning lit up a stained-glass window embedded in the side of a great stone cathedral. Those who had escaped an unlucky fiery or watery death were now roaming the streets in the obliterated city, searching for a sign of hope or life on which to cling. Citizens turned toward the cathedral in hope of shelter, and began to make their way over. Inside the place of worship was dark, quiet, and serene, as if God was completely ignoring the catastrophe inches away from the great stone steps leading up to the church. After about an hour or so, a few hundred people were gathered in the cathedral, sitting or sleeping on pews and in the aisle. Most people had knelt and commenced prayer, hoping God would answer them and erase today from their minds and from time. Many moments passed and the storm seemed to die down. Inhabitants of the church rushed to the vast wooden front doors and pushed them open. What they saw was not the familiar landscape of their friendly city. A feeling of relief and great peace washed over them as they realized where they were.
"Daddy!" I leapt into his arms, embracing him in the biggest hug my eight-year-old body could muster. He was a hefty man; three times my size, and fifty times my muscle mass. Still, all the same, his arms felt safe and warm.
"Oh, my sweet, sweet baby girl." His eyes were stained glossy and a single teardrop pricked his handsome cheek.
Never in my life had I seen my dad cry. Not when grandma and grandpa died when I was two, not when Mum and I had gotten into that big car accident three years ago, and not even when he cut his thumb clean off with a buzz saw. He cussed up a storm. I've heard him cuss many times and have acquired a number of words Mum forbids me from saying. Mum would always chide him like a little kid, her hands on her hips, her temper flaming hot, "Are these the values you want to infuse in our daughter, huh?" She would storm out in a huff of rage.
My stare was on the single tear still wet on his cheek. "What is it Dad? You're crying."
"Oh don't mind me, sweet pea," he tried to sound jolly and light-hearted, but it didn't work. "I'm just going on a wee trip, that's all."
A trip?! Even I knew that's not what this was about. We have always loved trips; everyone does. Dad had said countless times to Mum when she'd complain to him about money issues, "A good vacation now and then makes for a fresh start on life again. It can keep the soul from growing too weary of the habits and routines established in us since the working man took his first step."
He was such a wise man. Half the words and phrases that came out his mouth baffled my mind. I would spend countless hours looking up odd grown-up sounding words that I heard him say, then casually try and slip them into everyday conversation. I felt proud and grown-up when I would say, with my chest swelled and a grin on my face, "Stock market is atrociously lofty, better not invest."
I looked upward into his massive, but gentle face, and could see several more tears fill the crinkles around his green eyes, course down his strong, defined cheekbone, all the way to the very tip of the scuffled nubs of hair on his unshaven chin. Now as I looked into the blocky face of the man I thought so indestructible, and finally saw his eyes weep, I couldn’t help but sob. Like a water balloon on full contact the sorrow burst from my eyes, staining my dad's shoulder in salty tears. Without words we communicated. This conversation brought fulfillment like none other. With one last squeeze he let go and whispered hot in my ear, his voice trembling ever so slightly, "I love you, honey." He always added a loving honey, or sweet pea when he wanted me to pay attention. And I have gotten it coded in my head, along with the numerous other words to watch out for.
He was over by Mum. "Love you, Emma," now sobbing into the puffy sleeve of her high fashion blouse. She whispered something into his ear, but I couldn't hear a word of it. Whatever it was she had said seemed to be heart-touching; I could tell by Dad's reaction. He gripped her tight for the longest time, moaning and bawling all the way. Finally collecting himself he grasped her with both hands; one on each shoulder, "You take care now." He gave her a quick peck on the check, then came to me, bent down to look me square in the eye. I have never seen him so serious in his life. "I'll be back, sweet pea, I promise. Two years from now by Christmas Eve, I promise, cross my heart," he made the sign for crossing your heart over his chest, "I promise I'm coming home, baby." His eyes gazed intensely upon me, appearing to be strong, but I could sense the fear that was hidden by the bleak mask, that seemed to be ever present. "I'll be back, I will." He said in a hushed voice more to himself then anyone. And that was the last I saw of him.
December 24, 1944
As I gazed out the frosted window and the winter world that lay beyond, I shuddered and wrapped myself tightly into the fuzzy, purple, sheep's-wool blanket my Aunt Haftly had given me last Christmas. It was midnight, Christmas Eve, where was he? The fire crackled in the distance; however shivers continually and rhythmically crept up and down my spine. Like a ghost that had walked through me, an eerie, chilly feeling was in the air. A hard thump was beginning to boil in the back of my throat. "No, I mustn't cry!" I demanded. "He's coming, he's just late, that's all." Though I had realized a couple of hours ago that the chances of him returning tonight, or even this year were slim; however in the deepest parts of my heat I longed and wish for it to be true. So hope, though fragile and frail as it may be, never dies.
Mum says every time she looks deep into my eyes she can see Daddy in me. I opened the mirror and looked into my own piercing green eyes, envisioning a husky, strong man standing in front of me.
"Good day!" I would say. He'd tip his hat, then look at me puzzlingly.
"I am searching for my family; my wife and darling daughter who must be around your age."
"Who are you?" I'd question innocently, but the butterflies in my gut would tell me, "It's your dad! It's the man you've been dreaming of returning all these years, and he's finally done it, he's home!"
"I am Thomas J. Kinsly, war veteran and hero, and I am returning home to my family." He'd bend down and whisper, "You see, I've promised my daughter, Lissy, I'd be home by now and I really mustn't waste any time..." He began rambling on, but the ringing joy in my ears prevented me from hearing any further.
"Daddy," I'd interrupt, a grin pasted on my face, "I'm Lissy!" He would then gasp.
"Lissy, is that really you? You have grown so big, honey!" Then I'd run into his arms like I was four again. Hugging and kissing him, we'd share in a heart-wrenching reunion of love.
“Ekkkkkk….” I snapped back into reality. That sounded like a car, close to our house. Wildly my eyes darted toward the source of the sound.
“Daddy?” Excitement bubbled from within me. My racehorse heart was the first to go, then my palms, which two seconds ago were solid ice cubes, began to perspire rapidly. In a rush of exhilaration, I cast the blanket to the ground leaping for the door. Then stopped dead in my tracks. “Maybe it was the neighbours, returning home after many long hours of scanning houses, searching for the most decorated one and taking photos of it. Or maybe mum had snuck out for eggnog. I was in such a trance, I probably would have never noticed. Think of all the possibilities, Lissy.” Not wanting to be disappointed with the outcome, I managed to sit down and wrap myself snugly in the blanket once more.
The crunching sound of footsteps in the snow drew up my excitement yet again. These weren’t my mum’s dainty high fashion shoes from the miniature boutique shops, these shoes sounded like genuine leather, tough-as-man-ought-to-be boots; exactly the kind my dad had worn, at exactly this time of year. They were nearing the house.
“One, two, three.” I counted the number of steps in ecstatic nerves, until the footsteps stopped in front of the door, not more than ten feet from where I sat. I dared not move.
“Ding-dong!” my stomach churned with anticipation. My breath was coming in heavy rasps, and I was shaking from head to toe. “This is really it,” I breathed, “He’s here!” I approached the door beaming from cheek to cheek, drew back the floral curtain, “Da-..” My smile faded with a sudden rush of disappointment. “Who are you, and what do you want?” I say flat and monotone.
“The name’s James, toots, and I’ve got a letter for ya’ so will ya’ please open up?” He had a dry New York accent. I closed the curtain and sprinted to the comfort of my sheep’s-wool blanket wanting to cry. “Fo’ the luv’ a…” He sounded agitated and his voice raised in hot temper, but I didn’t care. I had just gotten my heart wrenched out. He should stop harassing me and just leave already. But he was persistent, “My knickers are shakin’, my hands o’ frozen solid, ‘nd I can’t feel my nose!
Open up girlie!" his fists wrapped on the door. "I know you're dar', I can see yo' shadow!" He paused and waited for my response. I gave him none. Why was he so pushy? Can't he see I wanted to be left alone? He tried a new approach, "Hey, gurl, umm, dis' here's from da' government, sure don't wanna' let dem' down." He paused. My breathing grew louder, and my heart pumped on full blast.
"The government!" I thought in horror, "What do they want with us?" He began to cuss. “Your da last one on my shift, nd I really wanna be getin' home. Da' boss wanted me to deliver this parsonally' but, I'm jus' gonna' slip dis' in da' mailbox if ya won't come out ‘nd get it for yo'self!" Leather boots manically slashed the snow until they came to a stand still at the mailbox. Wrenching the flap open, I heard the violent edge of the New Yorker's voice raised to un-containable levels of rage, '"Dem damn kids! When will day' learn? Why I outta,” he grumbled something to himself all the way to the car.
As soon as I heard the engine putter away, I sprang into action as if someone had flipped the toggle in my body that said on, and my organs began to work properly again. I raced to the mailbox with only the socks on my feet, and the purple blanket clenched around my body. "Bloody hell, the man's mad!" I wheezed. "He ripped the bloody mailbox from its hinges! Oh, well the letters still there." I casually brushed the now useless piece of metal aside and clasp the envelope tight in my hands exposing myself to the harsh winter weather. On the front I could see loads of stamps with Britain's flag covering them, it looked very official, and there was barley enough room to put our name and address. But there it was: Mrs. Kinsly 257 Mulberry Rd. London, England. I did not want to lose this. I made a mental note. A harsh gust of icy wind lashed at me brutally, every pore on my body felt like a needle was being jabbed fiercely in, out and back in again. Goodness, I had forgotten how cold I was. I quickly enclosed myself in warmth again.
Had my dad written me a letter? He hadn't written me for ages. My heart danced for joy and I forgot all about the cold. Was he coming home for Christmas, and he's writing to say he's sorry he couldn't make it for Christmas Eve like he promised?
Realizing that I had to get to the house if I wanted to read this, I forced the numb stubs on the edge of my body to trek the many feet to the door. It was a great feat. My lost train of thought had suppressed my pain. With each step unbearable coldness mixed with a numb tingling sensation spread throughout my body, starting from my feet upward. Finally, after what seemed like ten minutes of agony, I slammed the oak door behind, and took my cozy seat by the fire. I let the warmth melt away at my numb feet as I stared at the familiar floral curtain smiling at me. "Letter!" I remembered the all important government letter in my hands. Fingers like ice sickles, I forced them to tear open the crease of the letter, a single sheet of paper fell unto my lap. With shaky hands, I nudged it open. Only two small sentences made up the whole letter, all typed out and looking official.
Dear Mrs. Kinsly,
I am sorry to inform you that your husband, Mr. Thomas J. Kinsly, has perished in battle. We will be shipping the body to a nearby funeral home as soon as possible.
Thank you for serving your country, Robert W. Manning Sr., Private Manning, head of the Department of War
I read it again, and again. Thinking if I stared at the neatly typed words, they would somehow rearrange to say my dad was coming home, he was alive, and a war hero. He would be receiving his badge next week, and there would be a big dinner party honouring him, pictures and stories of him would be printed in history books to come, and we would all live happily ever after. It was no use.
"Yes!" I cried "Yes! Yes! YES!" feeling nothing at all like myself ranted on, "I read it clear as day! It was right there! He's dead, he died, he's never coming back! A positively idiotic buffoon would be smart enough to see that!" I flung my myself to the ground. "A bloody idiot!" Crying myself into an uneasy sleep, darkness engulfed my mind.
"Ring! Ring!" I awoke next morning in my bed to the sound of the telly. I waited five seconds. Mum didn't seem too chatty today.
"Oh, well," she sounded drained, and by the sound of her voice, I was sure she was as white as a sheet. "Thanks for letting us know. Goody day." I heard the faint "click" as the telly meekly joined the receiver, then footsteps.
"Oh, brilliant!" I wrenched my ear from the door's jaws. "She's coming!" Swiftly I speed to the bed, jumped under the covers, and shut my eyes a little too tight. At once, noticing they would appear forced, I hastily softened my grip.
"Umm... honey," A familiar face hunched over me. I turn upward to lie on my back and gently brushed open my eyes, squinting a bit.
"Ya..Yess." I stammered in my most innocent I-just-woke-up-and-wasn't-trying-to-esdrop-on-your-calls-and-by-the-way-that's-not-one-of-my-favorite-hobbies voice. I gave a weak grin.
Croaky, and cracking slightly, Mum blurt out, "I'm sorry about yesterday. I'm sorry I didn't believe." Man, she was on a role. "It's just that honestly, deep in my heart, I didn't want to believe it. I don't think you did either. And you were right to get mad at me, and..."
"What?" I tried to suppress it, but there was no use. My bottom jaw hung, swinging lifeless. I gaped open mouthed and buggy-eyed at my mum. She looked taken aback.
"About Daddy, sweetheart. You don't have to pretend. It's alright."
I was utterly confused. "What abou..." suddenly, without warning it hit me. It was as if someone had my life on tape, rewound it, then flashed scene by horrid scene with revolting accuracy. In hyper-speed the memories flashed; the promised on that dreary day, the confusion and sorrow the were contained in my soul, the endless waiting and wanting more then ever just the chance to spend one single day with him, just one, the regret and injury his death left on my heart.
"Oh, God," my mouth went as dry as sandpaper, abruptly realizing, "He's dead." It was like being one again. All my feelings were there, raving and lashing at me all at once. But how do I react to them, and what are they? These new strange, complicated surge of emotions made me want to laugh, cry, hurt someone or myself, go out into the world and take major risks in my life, and just lie down and die, all at the same time. By this time all I was able to manage was a blank stare, "Oh.." the word barely recognizable grumbled through the minuscule slit dividing my lips.
Mum gazed at me with a look that said, I'm-sorry-to-disapoint-you-love-but-I-have-to-tell-you-one-last-bit-of-rotton-news. "The funeral's today." And with that she left.
"Why is this happening to me?" the room was swirling in a vortex of colour. "Today was supposed to be the best day of my life. Dad was supposed to return home, after fighting in the war for all these years. We'd laugh and have a jolly good time sipping eggnog round the fire, as he illustrated to Mum and me tremendous tales of near death experiences in which he demonstrated super human strength, wit, and cunning to escape his grave peril and free our country. Then he'd recite the acceptance speed he had prepared prior the banquet that was held in his honour, and show us a shiny medal pined to his chest. He would be a genuine hero. Then I pull from my breast pocket my macaroni heart and poem I had made for him as a Christmas gift, and his smile would widen. Seeing his smile I couldn't contain myself, and a toothy smile would break the surface. With a hearty laugh and wink he'd exclaim, "Oh, nun', I love you!" I'd leap into his arms and feel the love radiate from his warm body.
Eerie rustling noises echoed from under my bed.
"Err., hello?" Weakly I mouthed the words. "Just try to shake it off, Lissy. It was nothing, you know that. You know how your imagination has a tendency of running wild. Especially given the circumstances. You're bond to hear strange noises or feel a strange presence. But it's all in your head! None of it's in the slightest sense real." I tried to reason with myself; talk logic.
"In, and out, huff, puff' Now I could panic.” I heard breathing, real, live, breathing! Something else is in here! Something evil, I could just feel the ghostly presence swallowing me up in its vile grasps.
Thinking fast I stuffed the picture of Dad and me, and the poem into the drawer below my vanity, macaroni dispersing every witch way was I leapt from the bed like it was a fiery coal.
There it was again. I froze. "Oh no!" I stood between my bed and the door like a deer in headlights, trapped, "it's the ghost of Christmas past! I was feeling bad about my dad, and now it's come to get me!" My head throbbing with pain feels like it is going to explode. My pulse growing ever demanding ringing through my ears.
"Oh God! Oh God! Oh God! What does it want with me? Where's Scrooge at a time like this? Oh God," I held my breath for a millisecond as the thought slapped me icily in the face. "Maybe...I'm Scrooge!" I whispered aloud. "Maybe the old one died or retired and now I have to replace him!" Panic coursed through my veins. That... that thing was creepy enough on the telly! Seeing it live would make me upchuck my internal organs. The whole experience would be completely macabre!
I envisioned the ghost of Christmas Past; the haunting black hole of endless nothingness for his face, the gnarling shadow of a clocked figure, tall and oppressive he'd linger over my weak body, a mist of fear and agony would sweep over me as he would yank me unwillingly into the Christmas past to replay horrible torturous memories. My heart sank.
No one could ever hear Scrooge in the movie! They couldn't even see him! He was forced to relive his past, whatever memory the ghost chose, and Scrooge had no choice but to watch. Oh, he could yell, wave his hands about, make a fool of himself all he wanted, but no one ever knew he existed. That can't be me! How am I going to phone the police?! "Ha!" laughing at my stupidity,
"They'll never believe me that's for sure. What am I to say? The Ghost of Christmas Past kidnapped me, could you lend me a time machine real fast, I'll bring it right back, I promise."
I give a full fledge wail as my dog, Fluffles, bounded from his hiding place under my bed and started licking my leg affectionately. My heart felt on fire.
"Oh, thank havens! Fluffles! It's only you, boy.” I laughed like a fully licensed loony case that, for the betterment of themselves and all who surround their life, should be in a straight vest and sealed tight under lock and chain in the psyche ward. "Dear Fluffles," I was gasping for air, "you gave me quite a fright, boy. Yes you did!" I ruffled his wagging ears and make daft faces at him.
"Clash, bang!" Mum fumbled her way up the stairs.
"What is it? Is everything alright?" Her face stained in sweat, and if you could imagine it, twice as white as before.
I peered innocently up at her, laughter hauling abruptly. "Nothing much. Just a little tense from the news, I guess."
"Well, get dressed," her scowl returning, "And try to look decent, will you?" she recited the rest so fast that I had to ponder a moment what she was saying, "The funeral is in two hours. That's two hours, not two and three quarters. I expect you to look nice. No casual clothing are to be permitted. You will prepare a speech in remembrance of your father. No dilly dally now! Chop, chop! Oh, yes" she added as an afternote, barley half her head peeking out the corner of the wooden door. "Marsha's coming by to pay her respects." Magically a black dress, black shoes, and pearls materialize in her hands. She passed them to me, "These should do. Ekkk...Slam!" she disappeared from behind the door.
"Marsha's coming by to pay her respects." I mimicked Mum's voice perfectly in my head.
Marsha, good old Marsha had always been there for me. Since the third grade, Mrs. Wainhind's class, she had always been my very best friend. Heart of gold and a soul of gumdrops, she was by far the sweetest person you'll ever meet. When I was down, which was quite often nowadays, she looked for the positive in everything, making me feel loads better. She always knew exactly what to say.
I pushed the last pearl through my ear and fastened on the back. Looking at myself in the mirror, I distinguished that I didn't look half bad considering there was nothing in the slightest bit cheery about my outfit, or my situation. "Well," I gave a docile smile to my reflection, "Here goes nothing."
"Shoot!" Scrambling out the door I almost had forgotten to snatch my jacket on the way, which was also black. I matched too precise. I arrived at the car and banged the door closed. To calm myself I thought I'd give counting in my head and deep breathing a go. "One, two," and before I reached thirty we pulled into the snow covered driveway, far too early. I was daftly unprepared for any of this. It all seemed oodles too sudden. My eyes rested on Marsha nearing the car. From out the window, she waved and gave a little smile. Stepping out of the car, I waved back, unable to smile.
"Oh God, you look pretty, Lissy," Marsha's awe-inspired voice made an attempt at being jolly.
"You too." Trying to make small talk and keep my mind away from the funeral and the fact my father was dead, "lovely dress."
"Ruddy occasion, though." Her voice lost only a fraction of its cheerful ring.
"Thanks for bringing it up," I tried to sound breezy and light.
Suddenly realizing what she had done, apology swept across her face and her muscles contracted with guilt. "Sorry, I know this must be hard on you." The familiar, upbeat, positive Marsha returned once more and like a bomb you know will explode at any minute she began off on one of her speeches, "At least he was an honourable man, right?" I gave a wee shake of my head. "At least he died fighting for this country, protecting and defending all of us. Not some druggie ruling London's most rubbish-filled street corner, stealing purses from grannies and attacking pigeons for his only source of food!" A toothy grin I could not suppress any longer, beamed at Marsha, and we let burst jovial laughs. "Oh, I haven't laughed this good in ages." Concluding her speech, she gazed deep into my eyes. It was like she had opened a door to my soul and she could peer straight through me and see whatever she wanted, all of my secrets, worries, hopes, desires, everything. She always had a way of this. "He did not die in vain."
"I suppose," giving a jerky up and down shrug of my shoulders.
"Be proud of him, Lissy." Her tone, her body language, everything about her this second reminded me of a pushy psychologist.
"Lissy, you are proud of him? You must be! Not only for the man he was," I could tell she was in one of her speech modes again.
I wrinkled my nose. What is she talking about? Up, down, I saw her mouth moving but the words came out blurred and faint, like she was talking through a tunnel stretching fifty feet long.
"Yes," I pretended like I was enthralled in her conversation, "As proud as anyone, the proudest!" This obviously satisfied her because she dropped the matter entirely.
"It's getting a bit chilly out here, do you mind if we go inside?"
"Yes please!" I beg. I had forgotten how excruciatingly frozen my exposed legs had become. And what did she mean by a bit; it was a downright blizzard out here.
Turning to the steps I realized Marsha and I were the only humans within sight. Well, there was always Dad, buried round the corner in the cemetery, with about a thousand other decomposing strangers.
We rounded the wooden steps up to the door, holding to the railing for dear life. God, was it icy! Marsha flung the brass, snow encrusted door open and we both scampered inside like little kids taking refuge in the warmth, waiting for their hot cocoa. About midway I could spot a few uneasy children whispering to one another; they looked and pointed at us, and then whispered to their buddies some more. Another group of children just plain ogled stupidly, only until weary mothers shot them the shut-up-and-stop-staring-or-Pm-denying-your-my-kid look did they shift violently in their seats, pretending to be intently amused by the fig carving on the pews, twitting their thumbs round and round.
"Over here." Marsha motioned to a section of pew in the back row.
Aunt Haftly's stern gaze eyed me from the podium, loathing me for taking the spotlight. As fast as she shot the look, it was gone, she turned back to the crowd again and beamed.
She was an actress on Broadway for thirty-seven years. She absolutely hated people who got up to, for example, go to the loo in the middle of the show and barge in mid-song. In my option, she treated every aspect of life like one of her shows, dramatically over-animating every little detail, and occasionally flashing a blinding, unhuman set of pearly whites, that must have cost a fortune.
"As I was saying," she gave one of her blinding smirks. "Knowing Tommy as well as I did, you would say," she paused and hunched her upper body to murmur in the microphone for dramatic effect. "I knew all of his... dirty, little secrets."
The audience confer a reassuring chuckle. Aunt Halftly began to fluff her gruesomely red, over dried hair. Cherry Spritz' was the latest colour.
She was lying through her teeth. Although she must be used to lying. Constantly she had to lie every time she steps foot on the stage. In her latest performance she completely convinced total strangers that she was an American musician named Lucy Lou, getting her big break at last.
Dad would have never, in a million years, tell Aunt Halftly any of his secrets, let alone any dirty, little ones! Even in her younger years Aunt Halftly cared more about fame and fortune then anything or anyone. Her big dream was to see her name printed in flashy lights across all of Britain.
Aunt Halfly gave a catty chuckle, and batted her long lashes. "That is all, thank you very much." I could tell she was restraining herself from blurting out, "You are such a fantastic audience! Thank you! Thanks! I'm here all week!"
The pastor had to shove her out of the way. He uttered, in a compassion that only a priest could muster for such a woman, "Thank you, sweetheart. You may take your seat now."
After about ten more queenly waves, five kisses blown to various people, and a couple of winks, she smugly took her seat in the front row, sitting erect, proper and poised.
Pastor Dan cleared his throat, "Next we will hear from, Lissy, daughter to Thomas."
He just said my name! Why on earth would he...oh yes, the speech I was supposed to write. Marsha gave me a nudge. I guess I am just going to have to wing it, then. I've done school projects last minute loads of times. This should be a breeze. I tried convincing myself. It didn't work. The only thing I hate worse then public speaking is fake, rich Aunt Haftly. My legs turned to Jell-O as I steadily embarked my trek to the podium. "One, two, three," I am looking down at my velvet dress shoes, "twenty-six." I stopped and turned to face my doom. "All I have to do is give my speech and walk back, no biggie." I began to nibble on words like a little kid at the doctors.
"Err.. .hello everyone. Umm I would, well a.. .thank you for, err, ummm.. paying your, ahh, you know, respects, and umm.. all. Ummm.." I have nothing prepared! I look desperately into the crowd for help, but all that answered me were bleak stares and annoyed, will-you-get-on-with-it looks. I am an utter fool! The vain in my temple began to pulsate louder and louder. I was sure the crowd could hear the harsh thrumming through my microphone.
My eyelids clamped shut. I'm a bloody idiot!
Nearby a baby began to cry out of the blue. No, more like wail for dear life. This baby was mad! I mean, really, really furious!
What would Marsha say in a situation like this?
The shrieks pounded violently in my head. My brain turned to mush. I couldn't think. What was I going to do? Of course, Marsha would be really sweet about me totally losing it in front of the biggest crowd I had ever seen in my entire life.
The heavy metal door eked open and shut, and the screams puttered away like a car. I took a deep breath, and opened my eyes to the people I knew would be dumbfounded as they eyeballed me. Owww, my head ached! Gathering the minuscule courage I could muster, I began my speech in the most powerful, confident, matter-of-fact voice possible, under my current condition. Here goes nothing.
"I've known me father to be a kind-hearted, gentle soul enclosed in a large package." Yes, I can do this! With a burst of adrenaline I remembered a story he'd once told me. "Ever since the first grade he knew he longed to right the wrong doing, not only in his small Catholic School, but throughout the entire world. Every night, returning home from his newspaper job, he'd save up his pennies to provide a starving family in Africa with a decent meal, and a roof over their heads." My confidence level rising, "I've always known that serving his country would be his fate. What job would he have loved more? I knew he would act very bravely, he would never surrender, never give in. I knew he would bare our nations name with pride. I knew that war would be bloody, treacherous, and there was a chance he would get hurt. But I never knew I would lose my daddy, forever. That looming day, when he went off to war, I never could fathom that this would be the last memory I would have of him. I would never hear my daddy's voice, or smell his sweet aftershave again, for as long as I live. I never tried to grasp those memories, and hold tight to them, because, I could never have imagine him gone. He will never be dead though. Not as long as those who on Earth cherish the memories and love he has left. He will always be in my heart, forever singing a majestic melody that can never be muted. I am so very proud of my Daddy."
My mind went blank. No more words occupied me . My confidence level, once so high, dropped like a thousand-pound weight falling from the sky. As I fumbled my way down from the risen podium and scurried to take by seat at the back, applause filled the once so intimidating pews and about fifty or so people, mostly women, but occasionally a few men here and there, were weeping there souls out and blowing vigorously into a hankie. I felt good about the applause, but at the same time I felt as if I was simply horrid human being. Since coming to this funeral, which I so dreaded, I did not shed a single tear, not one!
"Great speech!" Marsha breathed, smiling wide at me when I finally reared the end of the pew and sat. "Wow, I didn't know you had it in you? I thought you were deathly afraid of public speaking?"
I continued staring bleakly into the head of the person in front of me, five rows up, and I could see out of the corner of my eye her smile fade.
"Not one," I burst out without thinking.
"Huh, Lissy what are you talking about?"
"I haven't shed one tear since arriving here, not one single blasted tear. Does that" I stuttered, "Does that mean I don't love my dad, that I never did? My eyes are as dry as the Sahara. "
"You’re just taking in all the happy memories that you've shared with you Dad. That's why you haven't cried yet." Marsh always comforted me, "Everyone has their way of coping, Lissy."
The speeches end, and a lovely mass and eulogy followed over my father’s grave. By the end of the eulogy everyone was weeping hysterically and hugs were uncontrollably flying every which way. Marsh and mum are arm and arm, embracing each other in a tight squeeze. The waterworks soared. I seemed to be the only one who was unfazed and different, like a sober, black person in a party of white drunks.
About ten minutes had passed, and I was grateful for the mourners’ absence. With them vanished the awkward tension, and the feeling I was a bloody, retched person.
Then I stood over my father's gravestone, my feet nailed to the hard, snow covered earth.
"Hey, Lissy," Mum grabbed my shoulder. "I have to go." She must have seen the look of disappointment in my eyes because she hastily added, "But you can stay a couple of minutes if you'd like to."
I glanced downward, "Yes, I'd like that very much."
"I'll go warm the car up then, love." And she scurried off. I could hear the dainty crunch of her designer boots breaking the snow's surface. I remained still until I was certain the car's door was shut,and she was out of earshot.
Reaching in my coat pocket my hand came to rest on the picture of Dad and me and a couple of clinging macaroni noodles.
"Here, Dad." I wedged it between the tombstone and the stone flower vase. "Maaa... Merry Christmas." They finally came, hard and strong. Choking and gasping I laid myself on his gravestone, clenched onto it like a leech. Nothing was going to separate him from me. Nothing except cold, unforgiving death. I wailed, and it felt like any second now I would vomit into the snow. There was one more gift. With shaky hands I pulled out my poem and read it aloud:
To my dearest Daddy,
Your return is like warm sunshine in the winter air,
Like a single leaf on the tree of hope,
You give me a reason to hope, and dream, and love,
Your music fills my world with an array of colour,
Giving me the freedom, and joy of painting my world however I may please,
Oh, Dad you've been missed,
The centre piece of the puzzle was lost,
And now that it has been found,
At long last I may gaze upon our artwork in awe and splendour,
I love you as the sun loves the beach,
May we reign in this unending bounty of love 'till God taketh' our souls.
With the last words my voice came out squeaky and forced.
At that moment I realized something. Something staring me in the face for all this time, but I would always brush it aside not paying it a second thought. Christmas wasn’t about presents, baking cookies for Santa, hanging holly, out-decorating your neighborhood, caroling in the snow; it was not about giving as many presents as possible, cooking a feast worthy of the gods, sipping eggnog round the fire with the holiday channel on the telly full blast, or anything else you may associated with when you first hear the word, Christmas. Sure all those things were jolly good, but if you have no one to share the experience with, what really do you have? What would be our reason for being on this Earth our whole lives? Without those I love and whom love me, my life would be a swirling black hole of despair, that I would be forced to wonder in misery my whole life, trying, but never succeeding to find my way out. Those who share love are my way out of this black hole called life. Life sometimes isn't fair, and can strip you down to your core nerves. This sting is unbearable. But with those whom you love waiting round the corner to brighten your spirits, it somehow makes life worth living again, and maybe seem not all that bad after all. They were the root that kept me upright and firmly planted.
"To love and to be loved, that is the only reason we are put on this abused, mislead Earth." My dad's voice echoed in my mine. My dad might have left me in body, but the knowledge and love he gave in the short while he was here will forever be with me.
"Forever singing a majestic melody that can never be muted." I recalled my own words, and now I could finally see the meaning that lay hidden, beneath the cracks of my own voice, the meaning I was oblivious to. I had speed through my speech so feverishly that I didn't have any time to ponder the meaning behind my own words.
"I'm becoming more and more like my father everyday," I chuckled to myself. "Well, I've got some catching up to do if I want to spread half the love and happiness he did." I couldn't help but to grin, walking steadily to the car. "Ahh, bliss at last."
Something drew my eyes upward. My jaw dropped in disbelief. Did my eyes deceive me? For overhead, plain as day, soared a bald eagle, cawing in the sky among the clouds. It was my dad's way of saying I love you, and goodbye.
"We think she will pull through Aimee. Her legs are broken, but they should be okay in the casts. The only thing we must keep a close eye on is infection."
"Doctor Shaddix, how do you know if she will be okay? She's been in a coma for three weeks. Will she ever wake up?"
Mom, I'm still here. ..I'm still fighting... You haven't lost me yet... Mom... Can you hear me?
"I can't say for certain that she will, but there is a good chance. She has shown signs of progress. Caden has come off the ventilator; a very good sign. All you can do is wait it out."
I couldn't feel my mother's hand on mine, but I knew it was there. I knew she was close. God, what have I done? The first time that I woke up in my coma I thought I was dead. I couldn't move my body, couldn't really feel my body, I couldn't talk or open my eyes. It wasn't until I could hear the doctor's voice telling my mom that I was in a coma, that I realized I was alive. Being in a coma is like being in a small, dark room, and your body is numb all over. It's the worse feeling in the world. I didn't really remember how I got to this point until last Sunday when a police officer came in the room and told my mom what happened. After that, I couldn't stop thinking about it, and every time I thought about it, the more I started remembering that whole day.
My boyfriend and I met at a gathering for the troops event a few days before our dads left for their tour in Iraq. After a tearful goodbye to our fathers, we got to talking, and later that day, exchanged numbers. Brighten Parker has called me everyday after that. We hit it off great. Finally, on July 24th (my birthday) he asked me out. We had the time of our lives together; we did everything with each other. We weren't like most teenage couples, yes we did have the boyfriend/girlfriend part in our relationship, but we also had the best friend side. We were just plain goofy together, and we had fun.
Five months passed and nothing went wrong. We were going great until Christmas Eve. Brighten and I were out at dinner when both of our moms called us and told us to go back to Brighten’s house immediately. They were sobbing. We knew something had happened, but we didn't know what. We got into his car and as we pulled in his driveway, he took my hand and squeezed it. As he did that, I turned and saw what he was looking at. The Superior Officer's car was parked by the curb. We both knew what that meant. One of us had lost our dad. As we got out of the car, Brighten pulled me close to him and he just held me. I broke down. I couldn't seem to make my tears stop falling. As I felt his warm tears mix with mine, he put his hand under my chin and pulled my head up to look at him. He looked me in the eyes, just searching for the right words to say. He just started saying anything he could.
"Honey, everything's alright...It's gonna be okay..."
He had a painted on smile and his once strong, manly voice was suddenly boyish. It was the saddest voice I've ever heard. He held me for awhile longer and looked at me one more time. He wanted to leave; you could see it in his eyes. We started walking up the drive; a walk only about 15 feet seemed like miles and hours long. As we walked in, we could just feel the tension in the air. We walked into the living room where our mothers' grim faces greeted us.
"Bads, this is Staff Sergeant Armstrong. I'm afraid he has some news for us. Why don't you guys have a seat?"
We both said we would stand. With every deadly word falling from the Staff Sergeant's lips, Brighten pulled me closer and closer to his side.
"I'm terribly sorry to inform you that both Private James Parker and Private Jacobby Pritchett have entered into rest this past Sunday, December 21st. Both men were in the same company as the only two snipers. On a mission in Fallujah, they were taking cover in a nearby mosque. While firing rounds at the enemy, the radio was broken when one of the men fell on it. Because the radio broke, they never received the order to stand down. There was an enemy fighter plane flying in from the south. The plane was a suicidal mission, aimed directly at the mosque. They never saw it coming. The plane crashed right into the mosque, killing everyone inside. After the smoke cleared and it was safe to move again, the other men on the mission went to the mosque and found Private Parker and Private Pritchett's dog tags. Your husbands died with honor and in doing so they have received the Purple Heart. Both will be given to you along with the folded American Flag at the funeral. I know this must be a hard thing to deal with, so we will discuss further actions later. Again, I'm so sorry for your loss, they were good men. Our thoughts and prayers are with you, and God Bless."
As he walked out the door, we just stood there shocked that it was both of our dads. I didn't know what to think. The voice inside me was screaming at the top of its lungs. As if it was planned, all four of us broke down at the same moment. We never saw this coming, not both of our dads. Why did this happen to us? Why now? We sat there with our mothers and cried for hours.
Around three that next morning, Brighten leaned over, kissed me on my forehead, went to his room, and slammed the door. Finally after that, my mom and I left. On the way home, not a word was exchanged between us. I walked in the house, past my dad's study, and finally, my room. I threw myself onto my bed, and cried myself to sleep. Over the next few days, Brighten and I didn't see each other or talk. I called his mom and asked her where he was.
"Caden just come over. He needs you."
"Mrs. Parker what if he doesn't want to see me?"
"He locked himself in his room and I can hear him crying. Trust me. You need to be here."
"Okay, I'll be over in about an hour."
I arrived at his house; Mrs. Parker let me in and told me to go to his room. As I walked up to his room, a million things were racing through my mind. What should I say to him? Should I say anything? I got to his door and knocked.
"Baby, it's me, it's Caden. Why don't you open the door so we can talk?"
As he opened the door, I was greeted with an aged face. His eyes were sunken in, the corners of his mouth were frowning, and his skin was weathered skin. I walked in and just stared at him.
"Brighten you can't stay cooped up in here forever."
"I can as long as I want to."
"Why? Our dads' funerals are tomorrow, you have to come out then."
"Yes, and I'll go, but I don't have to stay out there."
"You can't just walk away from this. It's okay to move on."
"Have you even thought about what happened? Our dads died fighting to protect us. Do you realize that? It's only been a few days, and you walk in here like nothing happened! Just leave! I don't want to see you again! Just get out!"
"Why are you doing this? Please Brighten! We can get through this."
"Did I stutter? I said get out! We are over!"
"If you want to do this to yourself, then fine! I'm sure your father would be so proud of you for being so strong for him."
"Don't you dare bring him into this!"
"I don't need this. You have a wonderful life being locked in your own prison."
I cannot believe I just said that! What am I going to do? I ran out of there. That was the only thing I could do. How could he be acting like that? Him moping around was not going to bring his dad back. He was acting like he was the only one who lost someone.
The next morning was the worst. It was the first morning that I hated to wake up. I went down to get breakfast and my mom decided to tell me that Brighten and his mom were riding with us.
"Mom did you not listen to a word I told you? We broke up! He doesn't want to even see me!"
"What did you expect Caden? His dad was his role model."
"And Dad wasn't mine?"
"I didn't mean it like that. We just have to take this one day at a time."
"UGH! You just don't understand, Mom!"
How could she act that way? I was so angry with her. It was like she wasn't even listening to a word I said. It was like she didn't even care about how I felt.
An hour later we were in Brighten’s driveway. By the time his mom and he got in the car, I was already crying. When he finally looked over at me and saw that I was crying, without skipping a beat, he reached over and grabbed my hand. When I looked at him, he was starring out the window. He had to have felt bad. Why would he be holding my hand? Whatever it was, I was glad he was doing it. We always got into stupid fights, but none like yesterday's. I hoped he didn't mean what he said, I know I didn't. I wanted to tell him that I was sorry for saying what I did about his dad. I was sorry for acting like nothing happened. But he also had some things to be sorry for. He should apologize for yelling at me. He should also apologize for telling me he didn't want to see me again. I knew that would happen, but I didn't know when. I wasn't going to bother him about it now, not on our way to the funerals.
The church was packed. I didn't know our dads were so popular. My grandpa did the service. I liked it; he wasn't overdramatic, but he wasn't nonchalant. We started out with a prayer, then some hymns. Grandpa had some people tell stories about our dads, most of them were funny. They were about good times; not about death. Before Grandpa said the last prayer and before everyone said their final, tearful goodbyes at the caskets, he told the story of how they died. There wasn't a dry eye in that church. Some women had to leave the church because it was too much for them. I supposed that they had husbands and boyfriends over in Iraq and in Afghanistan.
The ride to the cemetery was filled with nothing but silence. You could hear a pin drop inside the car. Our dads were buried side-by-side. Brighten held me close the whole time, and squeezed me when our moms were handed the Purple Heart, Dog tags, and the folded American Flag. After the funeral services ended, we went back to Brighten’s house and ate lunch. When Mom and I were about to leave, Brighten pulled me aside and hugged me.
"No matter what happens, I will always love you."
I wasn't sure what he meant by that, but I didn't care. We were okay again. Things were slowly falling back into place. I just wished they would stay there. I don't know what I'd do if anything else were to happen.
The next week was okay. Brighten and I were still dealing with our dads’ deaths and we were still dealing with each other. He wasn't always locked in his room; he came out to visit with his mom and me, but mostly, he only came out to go to his dad's grave. Everyday at three o'clock, Brighten would call me and see if I wanted to go with him, and everyday I would say yes. He would just sit in front of his dad's tombstone and stare. Sometimes we would only be there for a few minutes and other times, we would be there for hours on end. I always wondered what he was thinking, but every time I asked he just said, "Nothing." He never said anything, or answered my questions except that one. I knew he was thinking something, I just didn't know what. I gave up trying to get an answer; I didn't want him to get mad at me again. Every night he took me home and every night he wouldn't say anything to me. Two nights ago, we got kicked out at midnight by the grounds keeper. Brighten took me home like always but something was different. He talked to me when we got to my driveway.
"Caden, you know how much I love you right?"
"Yes, and I love you too."
"Just remember that okay?"
"Brighten, tell me what's going on."
"Promise me Caden, please."
That was that. He gave me a hug and kiss, and just walked away. I didn't know what to think; I didn't know what to feel. I was nervous and angry. I didn't know what he was going to do. He gave no clues. I was mad that he wasn't telling me. Was it good or bad? He'd been acting weird since our dads’ deaths. I guess it was understandable.
The next night I got my answer. Around four in the morning, Brighten's mom called. Something terrible has just happened. She was crying. Why would she be calling me at four in the morning crying? Regardless of why she was calling me, I woke my mom up and informed her of what was happening. Around four thirty, Brighten’s house came into view. There were police cars, an ambulance, and a fire truck, all with their lights flashing. I didn't think that they were at Brighten's house until we got closer. We pulled as close to the house as we could, and my heart sank. Something horrific has happened.
"Caden, stay here while I figure out what happened."
"No mom. This is my boyfriend’s house, not yours. I think I will go too." I couldn't stop my tears. I really didn't know what to expect.
As we walked close to the police cars, a cop tried to push my mom and I back.
"NO! Tell me what happened! Brighten is my boyfriend!"
"Ma'am, please step back."
"We got a call around three this morning of an unconscious boy. We came and he was passed out on his bed. We tried to resuscitate him, but there was no way. He was gone. I'm sorry ma'am."
"NO! This can't be happ-" Just as I was screaming at the cop, the paramedics rolled out Brighten’s gurney, with Brighten’s limp arm hanging slightly off of it.
This can't be happening. Not to me. Not now. All within a month my dad and my boyfriend are taken away from me. WHY? What did I do to deserve any of this? Did Brighten kill himself? Was it because of me? Did I do something wrong? Was it something I said? How could I have let this happen?
"Mrs. Parker, what happened to him?"
Mrs. Parker, always being the one to never make the first to comfort pulled me close to her and we both broke down screaming.
"What happened to him? Was it me? Did he say something?"
"Honey there is no way it was you. It wasn't any of us."
"How do you know? What happened to him?"
"I don't know. He told me he didn't feel good before he went to bed, but I didn't think anything of it until now. If it's any one's fault, it's mine, don't blame yourself."
We sat in the middle of the street, pouring our hearts out. We sat there until the last police officer left the scene. We didn't know what to do. She just lost her husband and son; she doesn't have anyone else anymore.
I was at a loss. I was in a daze that morning. I didn't know what to do. I didn't know what to say. How are you supposed to feel after such events happen? I felt blank, and empty. I didn't want to mope around, but I didn't want to do anything. I just couldn't' find a middle. I didn't know how to handle everything. The only thing I knew was that I had to get away. I had to leave the place where everything happened.
I took my iPod and went on a walk. I didn't know where I was going, or how far I was going to go. I just wanted to get away. About an hour later I found myself on the train tracks. I was walking on them for about a half hour when suddenly I heard a loud noise; like when a train sounds its horn. I turned around as fast as I could, and I saw a huge train coming right at me. I tried to jump off to the side fast enough, but I tripped. I tried to pull my legs off as quick as possible, but the train was faster than I was. The next thing I know, I'm in a coma in the hospital.
"Caden, honey, can you hear me?"
Yes mom, I'm here. What is going on? Mom?
"Honey, your legs have gotten infected. The antibiotics are not working..."
Mom, please. I don't want to lose my legs. Mom, don't let them take my legs. Please. I'm sorry. I didn't mean for this to happen.
".. .the doctors are going to have to amputate your legs. They don't know if you are going to make it. Since you are in a coma, there is no way of telling. But I need you to pull through. Caden, I know you can do it. I have faith in you."
Mom, I'm not going anywhere. I promise.
The surgery went great. No complications. Everything went perfect. Although still in a coma, I felt a lot better. The only thing I wanted to do was wake up from this coma and apologize to my mom. I wanted to apologize for being out by the tracks; I wanted to apologize for making her buy me that stupid iPod for my birthday.
"Mrs. Pritchett, I'm terribly sorry to inform you that your daughter has not made it through the surgery."
"What? What happened?"
"We didn't catch the infection in time. The infection spread to her heart, and with stress of the surgery, it killed her. Her heart wasn't strong enough. I'm sorry."
"How could you have let this happen? You were supposed to take care of her! Why didn't you catch the infection in time? You killed my daughter!"
"Ma'am, I understand how you feel, but there was no way of detecting it, or knowing it spread to her heart. The infection started in her legs, but didn't show any signs until it spread to her heart. I'm sorry.:
"What? I'm dead? There is no way! I can’t be dead. I feel fine. "
"Caden. It's okay. You're home now. "
"What? Dad? Brighten? Mr. Parker? "
"Honey, you died while in surgery. The infection spread to your heart, and your heart just wasn't strong enough for the surgery. "
"But what about Mom? What is she going to do? What about your mom Brighten?"
"My mom and your mom will be fine. They know that we are all in heaven watching down on them. They will keep us in their hearts, and our memories alive. "
There is a window, and a man, and a bird. The man is sitting at the window, sitting in a chair in fact. The bird is also sitting at the window, but on the other side, that is the outside. The window is high up in the sky and is surrounded by at least one hundred and eight other windows, most of them empty. The bird is looking very curious because it is looking at the window, studying its reflection - a reflection that includes a fiery orange setting sun and wispy clouds. The stupid bird might not even realize that its reflection is a reflection and not a whole other bird. The man also has a reflection, but it’s ghosty and superimposed over the bird and the city. The man might be thinking that it looks like he is outside floating in the sky, but he’s not, fantasizing about floating in the sky that is. This man in this window is actually terribly scared and sad for a very strange reason that I bet you probably can’t guess. Not in a million years.
This man here is thinking about jumping out of the window. In fact he will do it in about eight minutes. Seriously, no lie. He doesn’t know that he’s going to do it; but trust me – he’s going to do it. Notice the slowly expanding pit stains, the tension in the jaw, the eyes intensely focused on vacant space. These are not the signs of a happy person.
The bird cocks its head.
You’re probably thinking, like I would be, that what this man needs is some fresh air, to get outside, go for a walk, or to at least call a caring peer or relation, you know, considering that he is borderline suicidal and all. He must have somebody, a childhood friend, a favorite aunt, or a congenial nondenominational minister of some sort that cares about him and would simply die if he or she knew what a tough and dark time he was going through.
The man in fact does have quite a few of these relations/peers. He comes from a pray-together stay-together family with a dozen brothers and sisters and a happily married, almost-ripped-from-a-fifties-sitcom mother and father, who baked pies and smoked a pipe, respectively. And he was also a popular guy, with a close knit circle of friends he had had since third grade with whom he had built forts and confided in and bragged to about getting his hand up under a girl’s shirt, plus scores of casual acquaintances that respected him and spoke well of him during lunch breaks or at the water cooler. There were literally forty-seven people that he could have called up, even in the wee hours of the morning, who would have begged and pleaded with him to see the error of his ways, that his was a happy life and that for every dark cloud there was, in fact, a silver lining. And he would have called them, too, any one of them, had he been able. It was just that he couldn’t.
He was twenty-four years old, happy as a lark, and in no way shape or form did he want to die, especially in such a violent and inevitably slow way as he eventually would. He just needed to jump out of that damn window.
Which, by the way, is six and a half minutes away.
* * *
The reason that he couldn’t make a call is that his phone didn’t work. Before he smashed the retro rotary dialer into a million pieces while screaming profanities and swinging away with the baseball bat he kept under his bed (he was an All Region ball player in high school), all the phone would do is emit noises like low whispers, which, even after listening to for ten minutes, he couldn’t make out one word of, even though he had a vague suspicion that the voices (both of which sounded vaguely middle-aged and womanish) were talking about him in a thoroughly negative and gossipy manner. And as to the previous suggestion that he should get outside, take a walk around the park, maybe get a hotdog and watch the sunset – that too was impossible. His door wouldn’t open. He’d kicked and pounded and thrown various souvenirs and hip knick-knacks at it, but the door just stood there, only doing half of what doors were designed to do, that is, not opening. For twenty minutes he crooked his back, ignoring his myriad chiropractic problems (the result of a tragic, but sadly typical, high school ball injury) and had smashed his face against the peep hole, single beady eye whirling around the convex peep hole’s warped world, watching his oddly stretched and distorted neighbors stream by, immune to his screeching and pounding, even though he pounded until his fist felt like mashed potatoes and there was a shiny and bloody hand-shaped stain on the faux wood door.
And about the window, don’t even think about the window. It was like a wall made out of glass, which I guess pretty much is what a window is anyway. Regardless, it wouldn’t open and after the door and the phone, the poor guy was too darn tired to fight, and just laying down on the floor, twiddling between thumb and forefinger the coil of the still as of yet unsmashed phone, he rocked back and forth sobbing his eyes out. Then it was only 8:32 a.m. He still had a whole day ahead of him.
* * *
His cheek is smooshed against the window, the fleshy clamminess a contrast to the doubly insulated heat. Fiery red, yellow and orange rays blast through the window panes, cutting a lattice of shadow and light across the room, the man’s silhouette – sharp and giant – projected on the opposite wall. He is very conscious of his sitting posture. His spine is currently curved in such a way that the chair’s excellently advertised, expertly created ergonomics do not like. There is a pale, washed-out version of himself, sitting, floating in space, on the other side of the window. Maybe it’s only reflection, or maybe he’s actually flying.
* * *
He had a dream last night. It was one of those dreams that you wake up and you’re so excited, that you just need to tell someone, except, in the middle of relaying it to your coworker or commuter buddy, it comes out all wrong and doesn’t sound nearly as interesting as you felt when you woke up, and your friend just stares at you nodding politely, but underneath the pleasantly smiling exterior, you can tell that he doesn’t really care – or worse, he does care and you remember he was a psychology minor in college and suddenly you feel naked and find yourself blushing and you start stammering and pretend you can’t remember the rest. But the truth is that you can remember and you’ll probably never forget it, despite loads of mental effort and repression; and, then, even as you’re riding the subway back home after work, that little voice in your head is still nagging you, asking what sort of person are you to dream that anyway? Yeah, it was one of those dreams.
Anyway, the dream goes like this. It’s the perfect summer day – birds in the sky, a nice breeze, sprinklers firing everywhere, lawnmowers sending up an arc of grass clippings over the fence. He is seven years old, maybe eight; he’s not sure. He’s lying on his back in the middle of his yard, staring up at the sky – the most beautiful sky he has ever seen. Big and blue and deep with just the right number of clouds – huge fluffy things, immaculately white, and it seems like, he just knows it somehow, that he can reach up and grab one. He starts reaching up for it, and he’s like a baby again – all warm and safe and soft and cute – and he just keeps reaching cause it’s just a little farther, a little more stretch and… and he’s got it and he’s touching it and squeezing it and it’s so soft and tender and all around amazing – and then it’s like the sky breaks open and there are heavenly choirs and hallelujahs and he feels – no, he knows – that the universe and he are one and everything and everyone is connected and completely and totally loved, and it’s all in the most sincere and genuine and nondrugged out way possible.
He is enjoying this feeling of oneness, one with everything, with the sprinklers and the grass clippings and the birds which spin around his head like a mobile (maybe it is a mobile), but then he has that horrible falling feeling you sometimes have in dreams, when you think you trip and you wake up shooting yours arms out to catch yourself, except instead of tripping it more feels like the whole sky rammed him head on, knocking him out of his body and back dozens of yards. There’s this one moment, when he sees himself, like his body, and it’s eclipsing the screamingly brilliant sun, and for one second, all he thinks is, Wow, but then that second is up, and the sky tears open, like God pulled out his pocket knife and the white cloudy meat seeps out like the stuffing of a mutilated teddy bear. Then a million mile long spear tears right through his gut and then through the Earth and the sun and a few stars and galaxies. All of a sudden, he was a million light years away and everything was lined up, liked a universal shish kabob, and there he was, a tiny, dirty, trivial speck, shish kabobbed somewhere between a medium sized star and one of its rocky little planets. The second hung on and kept going and became more than a second, became an entire eternity until God, not the merciful Shepherd, but the badass, buff God from Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, gingerly plucks out the spit and smiling uses it as a tooth pick as everything snaps back to place and he (the man) fall into a wide open sky, bluer and deeper than he ever thought possible.
He woke up screaming into silence. The clock said 3:11 a.m. He switched on the TV. Caught a rerun of Family Guy and was back to sleep in fifteen minutes.
* * *
In three minutes, the man sitting in the chair will be a three-yard smear on the sidewalk.
Seriously, what can he be thinking? What would you be thinking? Would you remember your first kiss? Your graduation? Your third birthday party? That one really funny evening when you weren’t quite drunk and she wasn’t quite drunk and everything was perfect and you thought for once that maybe this was someone I might be able to love forever? All of those things? None of those things? Or would you focus on what was coming? Heaven? Hell? Maybe reincarnation? Or would you just quote unquote try to smell the roses? Your last sunset? The last time you would smell tooth paste, and how truly unique and queer but refreshing that smell is? Could you even think?
Would you even care?
* * *
In a matter of minutes, the panic – the feelings of impotence and helplessness – took him, a healthy, American boy, and reduced him to a sniveling and soggy mess on the carpet. Liquids of various colors and viscosities gush/seep/ooze out of mouth, nose, anus and other orifices that shouldn’t be leaking. He leaves multi-hued stains as he rolls around; and watching him, you realize that gnashing of teeth isn’t just Biblical hyperbole.
Reader, don’t you just want to reach out between his retchings, and, you know (finding a dry spot of course), pat him on the back and give him a good old everything’s going to be okay? Or if you are deficient in empathy, you might offer him a sharp kick in the ribs and some terse, salty advice like grow a pair, blubber boy. Either way, do you really understand what is upsetting him? I mean it’s just a door, a phone and a window, right?
Sure, it may just be a door, and a phone, and a window, but after all they are a door, a phone, and a window – meaning, this shouldn’t be happening. Doors open, dozens of them everyday. That’s hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions of times by the time you’re dead. Why would you think otherwise? It’s just a piece of wood or metal or some combination of the two, nailed to three hinges; there’s nothing technical or magical or complicated about it. But yet, isn’t the idea horrifying – that something so simple, so obvious that a three year old could tell you how and why it has to work, doesn’t work? If something as fundamental as a door no longer makes sense, how are you supposed to make sense of anything? Maybe the floor will stop working, or maybe gravity will reverse itself? How can you be sure of anything, if you can’t be a sure of a door?
* * *
Through the storm of psychic drama and existentialist crises, the man’s fragile, battered ego, bloodied and war torn ego limped to the front of the mind and banged his shoe Mikhail Gorbachev style, yelling above the chaos, telling all of the fear and doubt to shut the hell up and be quiet or he’d come down there and shut them up himself. And there was silence, and the ego delivered a passionate monologue that condemned pointless fear mongering, that stated simply and succinctly the necessity of level-headedness and reason, and while choking up a little, reminded everyone that they were reasonable adults with a duty to perform. Voice breaking with passion, a tear rolling down his face, along with many a face in the audience, he closed by saying it’s just a door. The crowd was silent except for little whispers here and there that leapt like a wildfire across neural circuits and synapses. It’s just a door. It’s just a door. Coping and repression mechanisms kicked in, adrenal and stress responses were dismissed, and the refrain repeated and echoed and spread until the man suddenly realized that he wasn’t crying, and he wasn’t shaking, and couldn’t for the life of him remember how that stupid door had upset him so much in the first place. It’s just a door, he thought proudly, and standing up, forced a laugh, in imitation of many a war movie and Sunday afternoon melodramas he had seen – a laugh that seemed to say haha, men don’t get upset over such trivial things.
With a swagger, he marched himself into the bathroom, his confident and proud façade in ironic contrast to his brown and yellow stained boxers. He twisted the knobs as far to the right as possible. Unseen pipes squeaked and groaned and torrents of hot, luxurious water gushed from the showerhead. He stripped down and started to shave, flexing his pectorals and triceps in exaggerated, commercial-esque motions, while hot, steamy clouds poured from behind the full and billowing shower curtain.
Naked, smiling, he disappeared into the mist. Soaps suds dripped down his legs, zigzagging from little hair to little hair. Excrement and mucous went round and round in ever tighter and faster revolutions until they silently slipped down the drain. Stepping out of the shower, he felt fresh, clean, like a new man – a man with ambition and will that is ready to climb, rung by rung, the corporate ladder. He went to brush his teeth. He squeezed the tube and paste plopped onto the brush; but he changed his mind – he’d brush after breakfast. Eggs would be good, maybe oatmeal.
He was halfway to the kitchen when he realized that the world was an uncorrected myopic blur. He didn’t have his contacts in. Moseying back to the bathroom, he had a hard time finding his contact case. He normally left it on the counter, but it wasn’t there. It wasn’t in any of the drawers either. It was with a slow, and building terror, that it dawned on him that not only was his contact case missing, so was his saline and deodorant and… sticking his head up and looking up at the sink, so was his previously toothpasted toothbrush.
Back inside his head, as his ego and other mental faculties look on in horror, there is unbroken silence. Then Mr. Adrenal Gland freaks, and Medulla Oblongata is too stunned to increase heart rate accordingly, and blood pressure plummets, and nerves fires this way and that. Little ego, moments ago so proud, runs around yelling for order until a rough and tough Central Ischemic Response, or fainting reflex, decks poor little ego across the chin, sending him into a sprawled heap on the floor.
* * *
Through the glass and around the panes, the image of the bird waddles back and forth across the narrow ledge, pecking this way and pecking that way and every once in a while, stopping – for some reason that the man could never guess – the bird would stop and just look – its silver blue speckled breast swelling from the unheard coos – it would stop and stare at him, at the man, through the doubly insulated, UV filtered, semi-reflective glass, staring right at (into?) his eyes.
He met the gaze unblinkingly.
* * *
If you could see into his head, if you could see the wispy white bubbles of his thoughts, gears and cogs would be twisting, springs would be compressing, and a little idea, a crazy idea, buried deep in the cobwebbed darkness, would slowly, but fiendishly, making its way through the esoteric mental machinery – until finally, seven minutes and thirty-two seconds after we’d shown up to spy into this man’s most private and personal life, the dark thought reaches the central control room, and coolly and knowledgably twists knobs and flips switches, and then sitting back, legs crossed, smiles peevishly.
Externally, tension melts like a spring thaw. Shoulders droop, relaxed, and a sigh – inaudible – passes through the slightly parted lips that are already, for the first time in not just today but years, are starting, ever so slightly, to twist and curl at the edges, forming into a genuine – a crazy but no less genuine – smile.
His gaze drifts from the window – a full one hundred and eighty degree rotation – back into the dark apartment, his apartment, where he had eaten and slept and watched TV and dreamt of a blindingly bright future – a future with Judy, in the suburbs, a little house, a respectable job, but above all Judy, most mind-blowingly beautiful girl in the world, who he, even amidst the surging wave of euphoria, can feel as an empty echo sing songingly calling from the hollow space between his ears, the dark thought having bound and gagged her long, long ago.
High, dizzy, tepid and bubbly, his knees creak, his center of gravity shifts forward. For the first time in four hours and sixteen minutes, he is standing, and for the first time ever, he is moving with a definite, purposeful gait. His fingers brush old trophies – impeccably polished but never the less dull and plastic, relics of glory days gone out the window. He passes without looking at the Ivy League diploma and smiling, proud, tear-jerked parental photo. In three seconds he has walked the entire length of his life.
Flat against the wall, half-naked, trim, fit, white and angelic -- muscles, tense, relax, tense, flex and, slowly, extremely slowly, contract one final time before exploding – his athletic build silently screaming across the three hundred and ten square feet of his prison apartment. Arms pump wildly, practically flapping – the window, a glare of heavenly white and shadowy latticework approaching nearer and nearer. No sweat, no thoughts, no fear – just pure, unadulterated being. The moment comes, an instantaneous eternity – flesh meets glass, and glass shatters, millions and millions of unique and individual crystals, July snowflakes, suspended in air, as feet leave ground and leap to heaven, frozen between moments in a perfect, glittering, screamingly beautiful instant, an instant dividing and subdividing into an infinite series of perfect eternities – eternities, but moments nonetheless, intangible but no less mortal, things that sadly must end and the man (his name is Gabriel) is smiling, happy, free, if for only a second until he is no longer ethereal but corporeal, tugged against his will by his own indelible gravity into an ever accelerating half parabola that has no end but the end, i.e. the bitterly hard concrete that approaches faster and faster each instant until the final moment when flesh, bone, blood and most of all spirit stop being one and go their separate ways.
* * *
It’s night now. The sun is set. Mosquitoes and moths dance in the lamplight, the half-darkness periodically punctuated by magnesium flashes – police photographers, anonymous, trench-coated men, faces hidden behind darkness and blinding lights, immortalizing the scene in negative on 35 mm emulsion strips. As we move skyward, we see three detectives, steam from fresh coffee dancing between flashes, gingerly step underneath the typical yellow barrier tape. One turns to the other and begins to say something, but as we move higher, his comments disappear into the night. Stars resolve themselves from the background. The moon hangs over the scene as if it is bending down out of the sky to take a look, and a single feather from a single bird floats to the earth, more slowly and more gracefully than Gabriel ever could.
In the distance, aisles away, the check out lane was a dull roar of chatter, beeping, and rustling bags. Further into the store, as row upon row of merchandise sprouted from the very tiles underfoot, that very same low thunder became muted, softened. Beneath countless rows of buzzing fluorescents and deep within the commercial gullet, a soothing semi-solitude could be found.
Standing as he was, unobtrusive and rather ordinary, Ben Daught failed to portray his true self. The idle store-goer and the professional shopper, alike, would have found nothing remarkable about Ben. He was of average height, not quite six feet tall, and basic coloring. Outwardly, Ben Daught was your typical, mid-class American.
The book section. Standing tall, quiet, shelves lined with books and stuffed with books; dripping with books, created a maze of sorts. To enter into this library-like labyrinth, one first had to traverse through a small jungle of magazines. From the entrance, the path split, leaving you with one of two choices. Regardless of which direction you picked, it would lead you back to where you started. In the center of this rectangular oasis arose a column overflowing with every sort of writing imaginable.
Within that small pocket of stillness, Ben found a world he was aptly suited for. Not only was he a voracious reader, he was an equally as passionate writer. Here, where the written word abounded, Ben found that he could truly think. The countless pages around the man seemed to absorb and divert all distraction, while nevertheless exuding a deep and thought provoking ambience.
Currently, Ben was intent upon the central pillar of his tiny microcosm. Inevitable Ambivalence. The book was off to the left, just shy of center, and was surrounded by half naked cowboys holding scantily clad and rather voluptuous women; the romance section. A tiny smile crooked Ben's lips as he lifted a copy of the book from the shelf. Inevitable Ambivalence. Beneath the title, and much smaller, read the words "A tragic romance." What Ben had truly been looking for was etched across the bottom of the book's cover: Ben Daught.
His book. Ben opened his very first novel and sifted through the text indiscriminately. Various words and phrases jumped out at him. Occasionally, an entire sentence would stand out. As these bits and pieces slipped into his mind, Ben found himself reminiscing. He could remember the exact moment the words first hit paper. He could remember how they felt forming into coherent ideas within his head. In many cases, Ben could even recall how the words rolled from his tongue and the satisfaction they ultimately brought him.
Flipping to the back cover, Ben found himself. Smiling subtly, he considered himself as appearing self-assured; confident as to what the future would bring. Closing his book, Ben gazed upon the back. Printer perfect, a brief summary-hook attempted to lure potential readers to what had taken him months and months to hammer out and even more to have edited.
"A riveting tale of a young man, Samson, seeking his true love, Margaret. There is one issue, however, Margaret is taken. Without a moment's hesitation, Samson plunges into a desperate war to win her heart away from Leon, her present lover. Margaret quickly finds that she has feelings for both men and is caught within a terrible game of tug-o-war. Ultimately, she must make a decision."
Sighing, his hands reluctant to leave behind his brain-child, Ben tucked the book back amidst its fellows. A sad smile rested upon his lips as he turned away. It was obvious that he would've loved to stay longer, but Ben had other appointments to fill.
From a bystander’s view of things, Ben had quietly been standing in place, when he suddenly turned away from the shelf, the very epitome of a man set upon a mission. At that exact moment, a young woman was making her way past Ben. Bam! The two collided. The armful of materials the woman had been toting about suddenly became a chaotic spray of shrapnel, which clattered against most everything.
"I'm so sorry!" Ben was scrambling about, attempting to collect the odd assortment of items he had just knocked loose. "I didn't realize you were right behind me. I should've been paying more attention! I'm so sorry!"
"Oh, don't you worry about it," came the woman's gentle reply. "This wasn't the first time and definitely not the last time that this will ever happen to me!" Ben offered her what things he had been able to retrieve.
"I hope that's everything." He smiled hopefully and was relieved to see an answering smile.
"If this is the worst thing that happens to me all day, then I'm having a great day." Ben noted the wisdom in those words and was further pacified. "Well, I really must be going!"
"Again, sorry. And watch out for idle browsers! We're an unpredictable bunch!" Ben watched the woman walk along a shelf and disappear around the corner. He shrugged to himself, at once acknowledging and dismissing his thoughts. Well, she had a pretty face.
As Ben went to take a step, his foot knocked against something. All Ben saw was a brief flash of red that clattered beneath the edge of the lowest shelf. Another sigh escaped his lips as he sank down to his knees, so as to fish out that mysterious object. He must not have gotten everything back to that woman.
After much straining and shifting, Ben finally wrapped his fingers around the mischievous thing. He jerked back all of a sudden, shaking his hand. "Ow! Are there needles down there? Bugs?" A small droplet of blood oozed from his finger. He sucked on it momentarily. Reluctant now, wishing to avoid a reoccurrence of just a moment ago, Ben carefully snagged the thing in question and pulled it forth.
"What the heck?" Cupped warily within his palm rested a strange melding of the organic and the manufactured. The first thing Ben noticed about the crimson object, was that it resembled a well-formed rose blossom on one end. From the base of the blossom, finely crafted vines twined along the oblong contraption. The artisan in question was very particular; he had forged inch long steel thorns. Tenderly manipulating the rose within his palm, Ben found that the end opposite the rose was pocked by a single, perfectly round hole. Could it be? Click-click! That was one lethal pen.
All the way home, Ben's mind had been preoccupied by the little incident in the store. In particular, he was fascinated by the dumb luck of the whole situation. Within his head, luck began to twist into chance, which in turn metamorphosed into fate. Ben came to the conclusion that fate was decidedly interesting.
Before he even saw the austere walls of his apartment building, Ben was putting words into sentences that already had a set location within his newfound story. Thoroughly entranced, Ben's footfalls upon the stairs could almost be classified as random and meandering. It were as if he would move up a stair or two, but pause to think through an idea, only to ascend a few more steps. Ben only lived on the second floor of the building, but his stuttering passage was reminiscent of a man four times his age.
The guy was simply oblivious. He had transcended the everyday world and entered into one that was broadening with every moment of attendance. Luckily for Ben, his subconscious mind recognized home when he was standing right outside the door. Reaching into his pocket, a mass of keys announced their release from captivity with a merry jingle. Grating roughly, a twist of the key elicited a resounding thud from within the door.
Pushing open the wooden portal, Ben seemed to reactivate. He was suddenly energetic and promptly tossed his shoes and jacket aside. Padding through the small apartment, Ben slipped into his bedroom. The room itself wasn't very large to begin with, but throw in a bed, a dresser, and a desk that haughtily proclaimed its superiority, and the room became devastatingly tiny.
The walls enclosing the room were covered by a smoke-stained white wash. When Ben first moved in, he couldn't stand to be in the room unless the window was thrown open and a fan was desperately trying to suck in fresh air. Now, however, when the window became a dark portal through which the city's lights peeped inside, and his lamp was heroically throwing back the night, Ben found the smoky walls to be homely and comforting. What Ben truly loved about his bedroom, however, was the thick carpet that cushioned his every footfall. Were he to stand in one place, Ben would swear that the carpet was trying to consume his feet.
Winding his way through the room, Ben settled himself behind the self-important desk. During his college days, Ben had been making his way back to the dorm after work, when he spotted the desk. Even then, the piece exuded nobility, narcissism. Someone had kicked it to the curb, and for good reason: furniture that made everything else look shabby was difficult to keep around.
Regal, arrogant, the desk stood upon the street corner like it were the dais of the royal court. The desk's character charmed Ben forward. Behind its bow front and darkly burnished luster, he saw himself in visions of scholarly grandeur. With piles of books at hand, an open journal, and ink smudges everywhere, Ben had procured the final piece of his erudite fantasy.
Nearly bouncing, Ben pulled open a drawer. Forth, from within the dark innards of his literary pulpit, he withdrew a fresh notebook. Unlike many of his peers, Ben much preferred fresh paper and the smell of ink, than the rapid staccato of a keyboard. He felt that actually writing his stories gave them more life; put more of himself into them.
Ben flipped the notebook open to the first page. Reaching into his pocket, he grabbed a pen (an item he never left home without) and prepared to start writing. Ben was suddenly struck by a profound realization. Cradled within the grasp of his fingers was the rose pen from the store. Somehow, he had grabbed it without pricking himself on the thorns, which, even now, glimmered dangerously in the sunlight. It were as if the vines had not only avoided his fingers, but coiled about them. To his surprise, the rose pen turned out to be not unlike a pet boa constrictor; latently malignant.
Despite his surprise, Ben cheerily shrugged his shoulders and clicked the pen to readiness. He always considered a title for his stories before he actually began to write them. In many ways, his title became his thesis; helping to keep his thoughts focused and the words flowing. Today, however, a title was not forthcoming. Ben agonized over this minor roadblock for some time, sifting through his thoughts, until he finally admitted to himself that a title was stubbornly waiting just beyond his reach.
Setting pen point to paper, Ben caught onto an opening idea and began to coerce the right words into the proper formation. Those first words became an infinitesimal crack in the dam, releasing the very first trickles of water. As each tiny droplet squeezed through a minute fracture, particles of cement were eroded away and the hairline fissures became liquid-gushing breaches. With every scribbled word, water poured from fresh ruptures and old cracks began to spew liquid from massive clefts. Ben was lost within this deluge, this ink-coated fantasy.
Abruptly, Ben was jarred to true consciousness. His current sentence was only partly complete, yet he found it wrong already. His words weren't matching and the flow was being disrupted. Ben jumped back a few lines, seeking to recapture the essence of his inspiration. Again, he was brought to a bumpy, screeching halt. Casting his thoughts out, hungry nets seeking elusive fish, Ben meditated on the issue at hand. Ben contemplated the problem for upwards of an hour, but finally had to draw in his nets.
Setting down the pen, resigned to his fate; at a loss for words, Ben leaned back in his chair. Relaxed and comfortable, Ben let his eyelids drift shut. As he went to prop his legs atop the desk, a gut-roiling stink assailed his nostrils. Ben sat up, all of a sudden, desperately attempting to expel the pungent odor from his quivering senses. Unsettlingly metallic and utterly invasive, the blood-scent failed to dissipate.
His weary mind and exhausted frame were overwhelmed. Instinct, desperate reaction, swelled forth and sent Ben reeling from his previously languid composure. Adrenaline was barely enough to keep himself standing. Pale, visibly shaking, Ben had undergone a drastic change in physical well being. He stumbled to his bed and collapsed. Consciousness fled.
6AM - Wake and shower
There was a lady who lived overtop Ben, who, like a well maintained clock, was as predictable as the morning sun.
6:35AM - Stretch and exercise
7:10AM - Eat hurriedly
7:23AM - Run for work.
Hammers. The landlord was having something repaired? Jack hammers! Was the building being demolished? His head had herds of wildebeest charging through it. Ben rolled and groggily stared at the clock.
Mrs. Elliot was shaking apart his sanity.
His brain felt like a smashed pumpkin. The very pulse of his heart was painful to him. Ben groaned and strained to escape back to sleep. He was unsuccessful. Every energetic aerobic leap sent another needle of pain to splinter his skull. Had he gone on a drinking binge? Try as he might, Ben failed to recall his activities from the night before. The pillow over his face was a gentle muzzle, quieting the relentless barking of reality. He dozed restlessly.
Dilemma; a crux. Reality teetered upon the brink of total collapse. Fate; the chess master's process, was being overthrown. Order was dissolving into chaos. A lonely man in a cold world was returning to the cloying shadows of existence. His world was high atop the teeter-totter, just waiting for the other side to leap away.
Ben's eyes flicked open.
He rolled from bed and mindlessly coerced his faint body to position itself at the egotistical desk. He was already scribbling away. As he wrote desperately, his stomach growled demandingly. Barely halting his mad dash scribble, Ben remarked, thoroughly distracted, "Oh hush!" He had jotted only a few more words before his stomach redemanded his attention. "I'll feed you when I'm done writing!" The unsatisfied beast within his belly mewled one final, piteous cry.
The man had been stepping past product-laden storefronts. He wasn't browsing. He wasn't thinking. He was just walking now, waiting desperately for his chance to plunge into the street, where an oncoming vehicle would invariably splatter his guts across the snow-dappled asphalt. He heard his chance before he saw it. A roaring car engine was fast approaching; he edged towards the street. Finally.
The speeding driver didn't have a chance. The plan was infallible. The car's blazing headlights cut a swath through the evening gloom. The man took the first step towards his eternal oblivion. "Oh no!" The fast tattoo of high-heeled traffic stuttered; faltered. A slight weight suddenly knocked the man off balance and sent him groundward. A woman had stumbled and they were both lying on the cold sidewalk.
In the flicker-flash instant of an eyeblink, Ben was aware of reality. He was shivering, cold. His fingertips felt numb. His joints were clunky and aching. For the slightest moment, Ben's vision went out of focus. He was only getting sick, he thought to himself. His ink smudged left hand resumed its work. He'd rest when he was done; hopeless addict.
His world had been reordered. She had set things straight. He felt important and purposeful. Her burning light was pushing back the shadows, confining them to some dark corner of his mind. They had some deeper connection. Many a time, a simple glance held time still for an ephemeral eternity.
She didn't quite share his near devotion. Before long, God had cast his shadow over their relationship. She was God's and he was left grasping at dreams. He pleaded. He fought. He wept. He suffered. His world was dead, not unlike pulling an immature fetus from the womb. His hopes were snuffed out before they could even reach the full culmination of birth. He had returned to silently treading along the storefront.
The truck made a fine mess of his humanity. And the woman's sorrow-soaked tears watered the parched earth of his burial mound.
Ben, unfathomably exhausted, nestled the final punctuation into the paper. He signed his name, leaned back, smiling thinly. The pen clattered against the chair and thudded softly into the carpet. A few droplets of ink had been shaken free of the pen, staining the carpet red...
Lorcán, son of Larine, looked forward to Samhain with the same enthusiasm he granted any other festival that forced him to leave his self-imposed exile from the mountains of Munster. He tolerated it. He closed up his simple shelter, packed a few essential things, and called for his slave from Alba to get ready to leave and left within the hour. He would arrive at Dubh Linn and be treated like the royalty he disdained and remained family with.
If it would not have offended his uncle, who was also the High King, and his mother, Lorcán would have happily stayed in his isolated mountain home. He had been so sure of entering the other world last time he went into a deep trance, but he could not try for two weeks at the least. He could not with all the chatter, banalities, and interruptions. He supposed he could have threatened to curse those who spoke or interrupted, but he was not sure if the gods wanted him in the other world, so they may not appreciate his bringing down a curse. Besides, it would have ruined his mother’s good humor at seeing him.
What good is being a druid if I cannot properly curse people? he thought grimly while sitting at the High King’s table at the feast.
Lorcán’s extreme dislike of people, especially pompous clan chieftains, finally waned enough that he stood and wandered around for enough time that his true purpose for coming would not be offensive.
He was here to get his son and take the boy back to Munster so he could begin his study of the priesthood. Ciarán was just seven and the youngest and only survivor of two other brothers and a sister. Lorcán and his mother had agreed Ciarán was probably better off with children his own age and more people than the solitary mountains after his mother’s death, so he had gone to Dubh Linn to his grandmother and great-uncle, but Lorcán felt that it was time Ciarán understood he was not to be a warrior, but a druid.
Druids were feared. Druids were not drawn into impossible battles for greedy High Kings who killed their sister’s husband and nephew’s father because he grew bored of a peaceful kingdom. Druids told the greedy High King what ought to happen.
Lorcán was a little bitter. He admitted this. He was happy being bitter.
He was also in fear of the gods to take his son from him, but he did not admit that. He could not admit his fear to the gods, lest they be tempted to take more from him. Lorcán was fairly confident that they demanded he, as one of their favorite druids, not have any distractions. They were awfully demanding that way.
Lorcán stopped to watch the warriors’ joyful, carefree race. They mostly rode naked, as tradition demanded, but a few wore breeches or loincloths. He leaned against a stake, an appreciative smile playing at his lips. Lorcán was the son of revered warrior Larine, son of Ciarán, who had been buried in the finest way, standing up while facing his enemies. Larine’s war cry could be heard by the gods and struck fear in Roman centurions and, supposedly, in Samhain himself. It was said that was how Larine managed to escape so many certain death scenarios, by riding on his horse into the other world and striking fear into Samhain with his battle cry.
Lorcán enjoyed the storytelling of this, but he knew that it had never happened. If it had, Larine would have survived his final battle that would not have been his final battle.
A chief’s son won and was modest enough even Lorcán could appreciate his win. The boy saw a druid watching him and looked startled for a moment, but Lorcán melted back in the crowd. His druid’s tonsure ensured people would step out of his way and his long absences ensured hardly anyone would recognize him.
He found his cousin, a dour boy of sixteen who wanted not to be prince, High King, warrior, or druid. Connor was adamant to be a bard, whether or not his father forbade it.
“Have you seen Ciarán?”
“I have not seen him since the day before last, but I have heard him several times since playing with other boys down by the stream.”
Even Lorcán was bothered by Connor’s constant tone of melancholy. He tried to hurry away, but Connor continued speaking and started to whisper.
“Have you heard, cousin? You most likely have not and you must hear this. You are a druid and may be able to help-”
“What is it?”
“There is a man who is to be sacrificed tomorrow at noon.”
Sacrifice of a man was uncommon, but not unheard of. Lorcán was fairly sure it worked, considering how the gods had regarded his own family.
“Is he a criminal?”
“That is a very interesting question to which I have no answer.”
“I may be able to help. It would be a bad possibility, though, considering I am taking Ciarán back with me. They may not like that. What is his name?”
“Dubhan, son of Dubhan.”
Lorcán froze and then studied his cousin for any jest, but he knew that Connor did not do such things.
“He’s a fine warrior, the best, they would not-”
“They would and they are. The harvests have been bad, Lorcán, and people are demanding from Father as to why the gods are doing this. He does not know and blames it on Dubhan. He has been hunting for criminals and has found all of them but the leader of a slave rebellion. Supposedly, he has made Father look like a fool and must appease the gods.”
“The gods would not be angry at Dubhan’s inability nor the fact he has made your father into a fool. Plenty of men have been doing it for years.”
Connor very nearly smiled.
“I thought you would like to know, cousin. He was your best friend, after all, and the most loyal, even after you went to study.”
Though he had been in a satisfactory mood, Lorcán felt it leech away. He gave a sharp nod to Connor and strode through the crowd. He would find Ciarán and then go discuss this problem with the High King.
“I cannot do that, Lorcán.”
His short temper had already burst, but the druid held it in while he stared coolly at his uncle. He tapped his walking staff for several minutes, until the High King stood and paced.
“The people expect me to do something. They think Dubhan has caused the bad harvests because of his inability to do as I asked-”
Lorcán could have told him the real popular opinion, but did not.
“I must attempt something to pacify the gods. They must think I am trying, whether or not it really works-”
“So one man’s life may be sacrificed for nothing?”
The High King looked at his nephew for several minutes.
“I understand he was your best friend-”
“Not was. Is. He always will be.”
There was silence.
“I have conferred with the other druids. They believe this is the solution. Am I to tell Cathair or Finbarr that my young druid nephew believes they are wrong?”
“No, you are to tell them that we should not risk angering the gods. They gave us the fine warrior Dubhan and we are not to throw him away on a whim!”
“The gods are unpredictable. You know this. Do you object because you truly believe it is wrong? Do you object because Dubhan was your best friend?”
Lorcán had not lied since he had lied about eavesdropping on the conversation about his dead father when he was five. He would not speak. In this case, he did not speak for several minutes. Instead, he studied the wind blowing the trees outside. Nature soothed him, but as his anger left, he was very tired and he wondered if he were growing too old for these sorts of things. Nearly thirty-eight was a good age.
Finally: “I will give him his rites and be the one to paint him.”
“As you wish.”
“I will perform the sacrifice. What method?”
“Bludgeoning. A few strong hits to the head should finish him off quickly.”
Lorcán wished he had not volunteered, but it was only right for one friend to ease another’s suffering, even as little as they could.
Lorcán rose early the next day and went to the stream. He submerged himself completely despite the cold and stayed under until he felt his body tensing up. He bounded out, waited until his body was dry, and dressed in the white druid robes he usually scorned.
Much as he disliked the old druid, he went to Finbarr for the paint. It was blue, a color unlucky to men of Dubhan’s family. Lorcán took it while holding back all commentary.
Dubhan was guarded by a single warrior, who stepped aside for Lorcán. Dubhan looked up from the ground where he sat.
“I was hoping it would be you.”
Lorcán studied his gaunt friend, dipped his fingers in the paint, and left two blue streaks on Dubhan’s face. He handed the bowl to Dubhan, who took it, and looked at its surface.
“I could not permit anyone else to do this.”
“Do you know how they intend to do it?”
Dubhan closed his eyes and bowed his head. His left arm rested on his thigh and paint dripped from his fingers and onto his leg.
“I told my uncle I will do it.”
Dubhan looked up and at Lorcán.
“Will you have mercy and kill me quickly?”
“Thank you. Will you leave me to my own now?”
“Would it be too much to ask that I see my son before I am completely painted?”
“It would not. I wish I could repay your loyalty in a better way, but-”
“If it is the gods’ will, it will happen no matter.”
Lorcán looked at the blue paint drying on his fingers. He left Dubhan’s miserable one room prison and spoke to the warrior guard.
“Your name, warrior?”
“Jarath, son of Cormac. You are Lorcán, son of Larine. The High King told me to let you pass.”
“I offer a favor in exchange for a discreet one to myself. Permit Dubhan to see his son and I will see to it that good fortune falls on you.”
“Good fortune could mean that I am not killed, simply disgraced.”
“I will confer with the High King on your behalf. Let the boy pass when he comes.”
Lorcán turned and went to the festival. The High King was eating his morning meal when Lorcán asked to speak to him. Waiting patiently, Lorcán thought that, quite simply, he could just threaten to curse the High King’s oldest son and the man’s descendents.
Or be diplomatic. Either one might work, but right now Lorcán was itching to bring a curse down on someone, anyone.
Lorcán turned quickly and studied the short, stocky form of his uncle. In impressive shape for a man who was 55, but still slow. It was good they did not have any recent wars, because Lorcán was sure the High King would be inefficient.
“I saw to Dubhan.”
“What else is there?”
“I told the guard his son is to be let through. All he asked was to see his son a last time.”
“So be it. I promised him.”
“I will have a messenger go find his family and tell them his son is to go then. Is that all?”
Lorcán had already started to walk away.
Lorcán raised the club above his shoulder level and brought it down with all the force his arms could give. The rock cracked under the pressure. Lorcán wiped his brow before setting the club against the side of a cart.
“How much longer?” he asked a warrior. The warrior looked up at the overcast day.
“Only fifteen minutes. Perhaps we should get to the arena.”
The arena turned out to be an area of grass marked with large rocks. People were everywhere, the High King stood in his chariot alone, apparently preferring a solitary viewing. Lorcán saw his mother standing with her arms around Ciarán. Dubhan was stripped naked and kneeled by a rock. He had finished painting himself and was entirely blue, save for his sandy hair. The old druids, advisors to the king, stood off in a knot on their own.
Lorcán motioned to the warrior assigned to him to hand him the club. He took it and walked to Dubhan. The crowd grew suddenly quiet.
“Are you ready?”
“I saw my son. I am.”
Lorcán had been sure there wouldn’t be so much blood, but there was. Three blows to the back of Dubhan’s head had the other man unconscious and Lorcán was fairly sure he was dead. He put his hand in front of Dubhan’s mouth, felt no breath, and looked into his eyes. Wide and fixed at a point beyond Lorcán’s head, the druid knew without any doubts his best friend was dead.
Gone. Unarguably gone. The best man Lorcán had ever known or would know was killed on the whim of selfish gods and a selfish High King.
Lorcán let the club fall to the ground, turned, and saw Ciarán, son of Lorcán the druid, and saw Lorcán, son of Dubhan the warrior, standing together.
He called for his son. They would be going home. The gods could only take one more from him and they would only do it by killing him first.
The harvests were poor again that year.
He knew there was still something there and Lorcán could not help but feel the sharp hollow every morning that he woke.
He was not surprised. He was so very confident there was something more than what he saw, but he had given up the Celtic gods precisely two days after the death of Dubhan.
The meals were made, food was gathered for the next few days, and Lorcán took one of his solitary walks in the evening. He was gone for several hours and when he returned, he found that there were actually three chariots outside of his house. Fervently hoping it was not the High King or diplomats of, he went into his modest home.
There were only three men inside. Ciarán looked up at his father and said, “they’ve got a wonderful story, Father. Will you listen to them?”
And the only reason Lorcán did so was because his son asked.
“I will listen after I have had their names. To tell you men, I am Lorcán, son of Larine.”
“Jarath, son of Cormac-” and the man saw Lorcán’s face distort into instant anger and added- “but I am no longer a warrior. I travel with these men to banish the old gods.”
“This is the druid you were speaking of, Jarath?” the oldest of them said.
The man studied Lorcán. “I am Patrick.”
“I offer my home for the night,” Lorcán said. “I have little food, but I offer that as well.”
“Are you a druid any longer?” Patrick asked.
“I have not been a druid for a long time. My son says you have a story?”
So Lorcán heard from Patrick the story of a man named Joshua and he felt that emptiness slowly start to leave him. After the story was finished, Lorcán was silent while Ciarán’s face lit up and he questioned Patrick intensely about his story.
He could not give up his gods so easily, though he had abandoned them without a second thought, but he shivered when he thought of Joshua and the sacrifice of a man without reason.
But he didn’t feel quite so meaningless any longer.
As Patrick patiently explained the conversion process to Ciarán, Lorcán said, “There is a stream not far from here.”
No more of those angry, selfish gods who did not care at all, who played with their worshippers and dashed them against the rocks when they were finished. Lorcán watched the other men talking to each other, but careful never to leave the boy in their presence out, and felt a kinship with this Joshua.
He had not felt so hopeful, so alive, in such a long time he nearly smiled, but he didn’t.
It would take longer, but Lorcán was certain it would not be much longer.
The harvests were not excellent that year, but they were not poor again.
Love. Hate. They are different topics. Right? They are as far as the East is from the West. Are they not? Actually, there is a very fine line between the two. One can only go west so far until she is back in the East.
Akemi Chang placed her paint-covered brush on the easel. Her pastel painting was finally completed after her long struggle with procrastination. She knew she needed to work on that particular part of her character but always decided that it could wait another day. This painting finished her show of oriental beauty and balance that would take place tomorrow evening. She did not really enjoy the idea of dedicating an entire show to her Asian heritage, especially since she had been trying to get away from the traditions that plagued her childhood, but her manager said that this show should increase her popularity among the minority.
Her oriental show was the least of her worries. With about an hour before five p.m., Akemi hastened into her little restroom to freshen her appearance before dinner with her parents. She knew her mother would not approve of her rumpled appearance, but what choice did she have? She put her long black hair into a loose bun, threw on jeans and a T-shirt, and slipped on her clogs. Dinner started promptly at five. With time against her, Akemi rushed out the door.
“You are late.”
“Only by a few minutes, Mama,” said Akemi, after her mother’s stern greeting. Akemi walked into the house and took off her clogs by the door. Her mother scanned Akemi’s appearance with a look of disgust.
“I invite you to dinner, and you do not even have decency to clean up. By the way, you are exactly seventeen minutes late. Your father is waiting at the table.”
After watching her mother walk briskly into the kitchen, Akemi mumbled under her breath, “Nice to see you, too.” She entered into the dinning area where she saw her father sitting at the table. “Hello, Father.”
“I assume your mother already mentioned that you are late and about your dress.” Akemi’s father waited for the nodding reply of Akemi before continuing, “Come here, my child. I wish to know about you. It has been a while since we have seen you.”
Before Akemi had any chance to respond, her mother entered and said, “Exactly three years, seven months and twenty-one days since we last heard from you. Here dinner is ready.”
Her parents bowed their heads in reverence to their ancestors while Akemi only did so to not offend her mother any more than she already had. While her father prayed to grandparents who had to be from the Ming dynasty, Akemi remembered traditions that she had to endure because of her parents. She was not sure even why they migrated to the United States in the first place, except maybe to escape from hardships. Her parents even tried to arrange a marriage for her, but she luckily managed to get out of that.
Her father finished, and she served her parents tea. Her father asked her what she has done with her life. “Well,” she replied, “I have become a semi well-known artist. My originals are priced around $5,000-$7,000. In fact, tomorrow is my first show by myself with no other artists. I have tickets for you if you would like to come.”
Her mother looked at her somewhat surprised. She inquired, “You never seem to want us before. Why now?”
“Hanae!” interjected Akemi’s father, “Be thankful that she wants us now and not after we have passed on to join our ancestors. Akemi, tell me. Is there a theme to your show?”
“Yes, there is. It is oriental beauty and balance. It was actually my manager’s idea—”
“That man is nothing but a thief and a liar! I do not trust him!” said Akemi’s mother enraged.
“Akemi, I side with your mother on this. I do not trust him. I did not even trust him four years ago. I am disappointed to find you still under that man’s guidance.”
Akemi stood up and away from the table. Years of controlling parents and pointless customs played within the recesses of her mind. Anger shone brightly on her face as she argued, “Greg has given my art the popularity it deserves. He has been more help to me than you ever were. Following pointless traditions. Praying to dead family. Those aren’t the ways of the world anymore, especially not in the U.S. We’re on the West Coast now. Why don’t you guys start acting like it!” Akemi turned around unable to bear the pain on her parents’ faces. She said quietly and softer, “Thanks, Mama, for the dinner,” and left.
The night was young and the show barely born, yet people filed in just to catch a glimpse of the work by the Asian artist. Those who attended Akemi’s art show saw the wonders and beauty of a culture that she herself thought to be plain and controlling. Akemi, still feeling the jubilation from the night’s adventure, was escorted home by her manager, Greg. “So…” began Greg, “did you enjoy your show?”
Akemi replied with a smile, “Yes, I did!”
“The night isn’t over, you know.”
“It’s not?” Akemi looked at Greg quizzically. She was trying to guess what he was thinking, what he was planning. She had learned that whenever Greg would use a line to that nature, that something bigger was definitely in store. “Akemi, the day is just starting,” led right into her first show. “Don’t be down, the day is bright,” marched itself right into her first few sales. “Where exactly are you taking me, Greg?”
“To here.” Greg parked the car in a parking lot outside the local park. He fished around the backseat, which was full of papers and art supplies, then he lifted a simple bandanna. He handed it to Akemi and said, “Put it on so you can at least be somewhat surprised.”
She stepped out of the car and placed the bandanna over her eyes yet leaving her feet visible. Greg took her by the elbow and led her to his mysterious surprise. During her blind adventure, neither did Greg lead her astray nor let her stumble. The journey was silent. All Akemi could hear were their footsteps on the fallen leaves and twigs until they stopped. Greg whispered into her ear, “Are you ready?”
She bit her under lip in anticipation and replied, “I am.”
Greg gently lifted the blindfold off of Akemi’s eyes, being careful not to pull a single strand of her hair. Akemi looked around and gasped. There was, under the stars, a picnic for two made of her favorite food, Burger King Whoppers and onion rings. She laughed. It touched her heart so much, but when she looked at Greg’s face, she realized that he had misunderstood her sudden laughter. So she grabbed his hand and gently pulled toward the direction of the picnic. Greg’s face lightened, and they both raced for the blanket. When they reached the blanket, Greg seated Akemi before sitting down himself and allowed her the first choice. Joy and mirth could be seen in both of their eyes under the soft dance of the candle’s flame.
Time passed, and the night was clear. Their stomachs were content from the burgers, and their sides were hurting from laughing. Akemi sighed and said, “Greg, this night has been perfect, but I do have to go to bed sometime this morning.”
“I will take you home just as soon as you answer this question.” Greg took Akemi by both hands and lifted her to her feet. Greg knelt back down on one knee. In his palm was a black box. He opened the box and inside was a small diamond ring. Smiling, he asked, “Will you marry me?”
Akemi stood there speechless. Now this was not what she was expecting. Her parents’ warning echoed in her ears. This night had been so perfect and Greg had never mistreated her, but what was keeping her from saying yes? She looked away, unable to look upon his face when she gave her answer. “Greg, this night has been great, and…you have given me much, but…I…can’t give you an…answer right now. Sorry.”
Greg stood there with a blank look upon his face. “Let me take you home.”
The walk to the car and the ride home was silent. Greg never looked upon Akemi’s face the rest of that night. He pulled in front of her house. Akemi said, “Thanks for the evening. I really had a great time. And you are a great friend.” She was about to step out when she heard Greg mumble. “What did you say?”
Akemi stepped out of the vehicle and walked into her house. She lay down on her bed without even changing or getting ready and fell into a fitful sleep. Her last thought before she left the conscious world was, “What have I done?”
The next week came with no excitement. Akemi felt like she was in a muddled dream. Everything was quiet, and only one small lamp was on in her room. She was lying on her bed contemplating the dilemma in front of her. She knew she had to get out of the house and that would happen only after she figured out what to do. She knew that by saying yes to Greg’s proposal that she would definitely lose her parents, but by saying no, she would lose Greg and possibly her whole career. She finally came to a conclusion. She picked up the phone and was dialing Greg’s number when she heard a knock on her front entrance.
She answered the knock only to be greeted by one of her oriental paintings that was shredded. Shocked out of her contemplating state, she quickly withdrew into her home with the painting. She quickly closed the blinds and turned on all the lights to clearly see the damage done to her painting. A message was written to her in a deep red liquid. She touched the lettering only to discover that it was blood. Akemi bent over and held her stomach in order to regain control over her shock and revulsion. After a few minutes, she was able to attempt to read the message again. It read:
“From the East you have tried to escape,
But to no avail have you succeeded.
Now in the West you try to forget,
But to this end you will not triumph.
“So now to the East must you travel,
And this is what you seek.
The ones who first raised you in the East,
And the ones who watched you set in the West.”
Akemi read those lines over and over. Anger raged within her. Whoever was behind this was despicable. She tried thinking of all the people who could be behind this. She had stolen the spotlight from many artists. She had not hurt anyone intentionally. She played her memories of the past few months and years. No one seemed to be a person who could do this. Greg entered her thoughts, but she quickly pushed him aside. He would not perform heinous criminal activities to get revenge. That was not how he was.
She knew exactly where her parents were being held. She picked up the phone and dialed Greg’s number. After several rings, she heard Greg’s voice, “Hey! This is Greg. Obviously, I’m not home, but if you’ll leave—” She let her hand drop as she let out an impatient sigh of frustration. She lifted the phone just in time to hear, “—after the beep. Thanks!”
“Greg, it’s me, Akemi. I’m figuring you’re there but just refused to pick up, which I understand completely because that’s something I would do, but anyway…I need to leave. I can’t explain, but if I don’t get back to you within a week, call the police. I believe someone captured my parents. I don’t know who or how, but I believe I know where they are at.” She took in a breath to relieve her chest from the pain of saying her next statement. “Greg, I’ve been thinking, but…I think I may have made my decision…. I know it will take some time to get everything sorted out…. My answer, to your question, is…yes.” She took some deep breaths and laughed, “Greg, I will marry you. I love you. Don’t worry. I should be fine.” She hung up the phone and packed her bag. Hoping that one carry-on bag would be enough, she grabbed all her gear that she deemed she needed as well as her desecrated painting and left for her childhood home.
It was a gloomy night, and Akemi was at the door of the house that had plagued her life and that had forced her to run with all her might to the West and its customs. Memories of her parents came into her vision. She began to think of all the things that her parents had given her. She realized that they did love her and showed it in the way they thought best even if it was not how she preferred. Closing her eyes, she tried in vain to keep the tears of pain and tiredness from springing forth.
Akemi looked around the exterior of the house. The house was in terrible condition since no one moved in after her parents left. Trees grew right next to the house. The foundation showed signs of insect damage. The door barely hung on its hinges. She knew there would be no way of sneaking in and out without being noticed. With everything against her, she prayed to an unknown being and entered.
She walked slowly across the first room. Her head quickly scanned from side to side. Her body was on high alert, ready to react to anything that might happen. She searched all the rooms. Each empty room she passed only led her deeper into the house. After a long painstaking search, she came to the doorway of the last room—her bedroom. Her hand slowly reached for the handle. After the loud opening, the full panorama view of her room stunned her. With hands tied together and mouths gagged, Akemi saw her parents lying together on the ground. Her father was injured in the head and was unconscious. She could not identify her mother’s condition except that she was alive with no noticeable bleeding. She breathed a sigh of relief. She started toward her parents when she heard, “Welcome back.”
Akemi spun around and saw her parents’ captor. “Greg,” she stammered, “What are you doing here?”
Greg’s form remained still. His shoulders were stooped, and a gun remained in his belt. He stood there facing Akemi. His face showed no sign of emotion, except for his eyes. Akemi could see pain and hate in the deep recesses of his pupils. After a long moment of silence, Greg finally answered, “I loved you. I gave you a name, a career, a life of your own, but when I handed you my heart, you ripped it to shreds. So, I figured I could repay your kindness and decided to bring you to the very place you disdain and make you feel the same pain I feel.” Greg drew the gun on her father and fired. She moved to her father’s side and stared at Greg.
“Greg, what are you doing?”
“Exactly what I said I would do.”
“You have it all wrong. Greg, I did love you. I just had to think it through. Listen to your voicemail.”
Greg took out his cell phone and dialed his voicemail. She knew exactly when he heard her answer. His eyes widened, and he backed away until he ran into the wall. His demeanor reminded her of an animal backed into a corner. His breathing came in harder and shallower breaths. He looked down as if contemplating his next move. He then looked up and said, “I’m sorry.” Before Akemi could react, Greg put the barrel of the gun in line with his temple and pulled the trigger.
Akemi saw his body crumple to the floor. She turned her head from the suicide and gave her complete attention to her father. With one hand, she lifted her father’s head, and with the other hand, she reached for his hand. She knew he would not last much longer. She saw one tear drop and then another. Soon, she could not stop the flow. All the emotions that she had faced and battled came out at that moment until she heard her name whispered.
Akemi opened her eyes and looked into a face that should not belong to a dying man. Her father smiled and said with some trouble, “Do not be sad for my fate for I shall finally join my fathers who have gone on before me…Remember this, I love you and so does your mother.” Her father labored for a few seconds then with his last breath, “I love you, my Hanae.”
His head fell limp and felt heavy in her hand. Akemi gently laid his head on the floor. She then went to her mother’s side only to find her crying. Akemi lay beside her mother and held her. The rest of the night was spent with Akemi and her mother lying beside each other, mourning for the husband and father who reunited them.
A cold, biting wind whipped around the six-foot frame of Destin Shraedor, pulling at his essence. Icy claws ripped into him in the hopes of gaining a purchase upon his coat with which it might rip off this protective second skin and reach his vulnerable layer within. He trudged onward in this abnormally frigid autumn wind, struggling on in the hope that he would soon reach the protective, warm interior of his home here in Haverhill, Massachusetts.
Finally, after what seemed an age of striving against this vicious, blustering foe, Destin saw a house begin to materialize within his range of vision. It was about average size, maybe a little smaller, and it had a very plain exterior. A small path led to the front door and many leaves, crisp like old parchment, were strewn throughout the yard, with only a few hardy individuals still clinging for dear life to the branches of the nearby tree. There were leaves of every imaginable color, dark red leaves the color of rust, burnt orange ones whose shade resembled that of a tabby cat who prowls a farm, golden yellow ones that seemed like captured rays from that bright ball of fire in the sky, and pale brown leaves that looked like perfectly toasted bread. Destin felt a glow start at his very core and stretch its burning tentacles throughout his body, warming him as they went, for this was his home and he knew he’d soon enter within it and be able to slam the door shut and barricade the whistling beast outside.
As he was forcing his way up the path, he worked to get out his dullish door key and finally got it to follow the squeaking path into the lock. With a twist of the key and an almighty yank on the door handle, he managed to open the door and immediately half fell, half ran, inside. Milliseconds before he got the door back within its comfortably fitting frame he felt something like the tiniest breath of wind possible brush against his cheek. The only difference was that this had a warm, comforting, almost human-like feel to it, but it was gone as quickly as it had appeared. Destin would’ve believed that he’d imagined it if not for the crisp, white envelope he now saw lying upon the hallway carpet. He stripped off his coat, for he was now quite warm, and hung it on the hook that was near the door, then bent over and picked up the envelope.
He carried this to his living room, admiring upon the way all of his antique and eclectic possessions that created an extreme contrast between the inside of his house and its exterior appearance. When he was seated comfortably in his antique looking wicker rocker, he took a good look at the envelope for the first time and noticed a blood-red wax seal with a coat of arms pressed into it was sealing the envelope and keeping it from opening its mouth wide. He carefully pried this seal away from the paper to which it clung and the second it lost its purchase upon the paper, a white light blinded him and the most beautiful woman he’d ever laid eyes upon was standing before him in the middle of the cluttered living room. The sun couldn’t hold a candle to the glow that emanated from her figure, and yet Destin retained the ability to look upon her form without hindrance. Her golden locks fell about her shoulders like a river of the purest gold. Her pale blue eyes gleamed like perfectly cut sapphires, but there was also a deepness to them that could only be born from many years of life, many more years than it seemed she could possibly have lived based upon her appearance. She had lips so rosy red they made Destin believe if he could only smell them for a moment, his entire spirit would be filled with the aroma of a veritable field of roses. She wore an old-fashioned dress of the richest purple, one that strongly resembled the array of dresses Destin had collected from the 18th century.
He had become so entrapped by her appearance that it wasn’t until she first spoke and broke him out of his reverie that the truth of the situation hit him like a sledgehammer: this beautiful figure had just come out of the envelope that had appeared seemingly out of nowhere at his feet. These thoughts didn’t last for long, though. He was soon hanging upon every single syllable that floated out of her mouth, born out by a voice like the purest tinkling of the smallest bell.
“My name is Elina Gisli. I know not your name, nor the time when this has finally reached you, but I petition you for your help. My family and I are in trouble and you’re our only hope. Please, come to our rescue. All you need do is travel with haste to the mansion outside of the town of West Newbury, Massachusetts. The address is 1692 Shadow Land Lane. Once more I plead with you to assist us in our darkest hour.” With that, her form dissipated like a wisp of smoke blown apart by a strong breeze.
Destin sat in shock for a moment longer and then got up and began to pace throughout the house. He knew that this was a crazy story and could hardly believe that this had happened, and yet he couldn’t forget how real it all seemed: her beautiful demeanor, her haunting voice of silvery tones, nor that sad expression which she bore upon her face. That face which belonged to someone in their 20s, someone near his age, and yet seemed to have weathered many more years beyond those visibly shown.
Finally, after so long a debate over this quandary that the sun had sent forth its last rays over the horizon, Destin packed his old carpetbag and prepared to set out upon this journey full of unknowns. The only thing he knew was that he couldn’t get Elina’s radiant face and extraordinary voice out of his head, and no matter what the outcome, he had to try and help her and her family claw their way out of their current plight, whatever that might be.
He looked up the address online and although he didn’t manage to get any results, he did find the town and discovered that it lay not too far from his hometown here in Essex County. Once he realized the time and discovered that it wouldn’t be that far of a drive, he decided to wait until the morning to set out upon this quest of unknown intricacy. He consequently went to bed soon afterward, his mind a whirlwind of thoughts and questions.
He got up early the next morning and after a small breakfast, he gathered the possessions he was taking along and then set out for the mansion. It was an uneventful drive, but he couldn’t stop thinking about Elina. When he finally turned into the long drive marked 1692, he felt a sense of dread and gloom pressing in from all sides. Large, imposing trees lined the entire drive and hung over so far that their branches had intermingled enough to form a sort of tunnel that blocked out all light. This darkness, coupled with the drop in temperature and slight dampness that resulted from the tunnel-like formation, created a very different atmosphere from what Destin had been experiencing only seconds before. The other unsettling aspect of this drive was the fact that no more than 20 yards into this arboreal passageway his car stopped dead with the rapidity that a landscape alters its appearance once blasted apart by a nuclear warhead. This only added to Destin’s sense of foreboding, and after spending a little while trying to restart it, he left his car and determined to walk the rest of the way under his own volition.
Each step he took seemed to last a lifetime and after what seemed ages, but could only have been seconds, Destin exited from that path which he had come to hate with a passion. As the mansion grounds unfolded before him, he began to take in an extremely large, ivy-covered mansion. He also noticed perhaps the weirdest phenomenon of all, even though it was only one o’clock in the afternoon, and the sky had been perfectly clear when he entered the tunnel, the entire grounds were only illuminated enough to provide the atmosphere with a dusky feel. It was also a bit of a shock to him because it all looked very old and unkempt. Only one small path was visible among the massive tangle of weeds that almost completely covered the grounds. An old, crumbling well was barely visible above this living sea, and as Destin began to stride up the walk, he noticed that a stone wall that used to line the pathway was now in a crumbling state. As he neared the mansion, he realized that his first impression of it not being in too dire a condition was inaccurate. It was covered by vines that had wriggled in and around many cracks in the walls, and the mansion was in such a state of disrepair that Destin thought it seemed as if the vines were somehow supernaturally holding it together. He told himself, though, that that just couldn’t be; it was impossible for mere vines to hold a building up. Thinking back to the earlier apparition and everything that had happened since he’d entered within the grounds, though, caused him a slight hesitation, for this seemed like just another thing that couldn’t possibly be, and yet here it was, resolutely staring him back in the face.
He soon surmounted the creaky steps with more than a slight hesitation, but they proved to be structurally sound. Once he’d traversed the width of the porch, which was covered in at least two inches of dust, he reached for the door handle, only to realize that none existed. All there was was a brass doorknocker in the shape of a gargoyle’s head, with the knocker held between the gargoyle’s long, sharp teeth. Destin haltingly reached for the knocker and once his fingers touched the handle, he quickly knocked it once, twice, three times and then took a step back. Not long after this the door began to swing slowly, and apparently of its own accord, inward to admit him into the mansion.
He treaded carefully as he entered the dark interior of the mansion and as soon as he was fully in, the door slammed shut, leaving him in total darkness until a thousand candle flames burst into life in a humongous chandelier directly over his head. Startled and surprised, Destin took a step back and as he did so, he felt something that felt unsettlingly like human flesh brush against his arm, sending a chill throughout his entire countenance. He ever so slowly began to turn around, and as he did so, he caught the reflection of the chandelier in the blade of a sword held by a startlingly handsome middle-aged man with a manic gleam in his eyes.
Destin wanted with all his soul to run away, but he found himself unable to move, that is until a high-pitched cackle escaped the mouth of this strange man, and with that, he broke through his momentary paralysis and raced up the nearby stairway, nary giving a thought to where these steps might lead. Once at the top he turned to go down the corridor to his right, but another very handsome man, truthfully just a younger version of Destin’s first acquaintance, stood there blocking his way with a mace held firmly in his grasp. With that, Destin did a rapid about-face and took off down the corridor in the other direction. He ran until he reached the end of the hallway and then he threw himself into the room that was situated there. He slammed the door and had just turned around when an exact duplicate of the young man from the corridor materialized with a spear held poised like a rattlesnake rearing back before it strikes the deathblow. He turned back around and was just beginning to open the door again when he heard a female voice yell, “ENOUGH,” in an ear-splitting tone. He glanced behind him and saw that the spear-wielding man had disappeared, so he eased the door back open and peered out.
He didn’t know what he’d expected to see, but what he saw certainly wouldn’t have been gracing the top of his list. A smiling woman dressed in a golden, flowing dress was striding purposefully toward him down the hall, with the three men trudging along behind. He would’ve been worried that it was just some plot to trap him, if not for the fact that he thought he recognized her from somewhere. Then he realized what it was; she resembled an older version of the woman who’d emerged from the envelope. She stopped a few paces away from him and said in a soothing, maternal voice, “Please don’t be frightened. My husband, Edmund,” and here she pointed towards the older fellow, “is very protective and is always worried about our safety, so please forgive his hasty actions a few moments ago. As for these other two,” and here she nodded in the direction of the two who both seemed to be about Destin’s age, “well, they’re my twin sons, Homero and Caratacus. They meant you no harm; it’s just that they have an ornery streak in them and thought it would be fun to scare you. As for me, my name is Ira Gisli and I’m sure you’re wondering what’s going on here.”
“That’s for sure,” Destin said in his normal voice, for he felt that this woman meant him no harm and that helped to calm him down somewhat. “I do know that your family is in trouble, though, because I received an envelope yesterday, and a woman who resembles you, Mrs. Gisli, came out of the envelope and spoke of trouble for the Gisli Clan.”
“Oh my goodness, you received the letter!” exclaimed Ira. “After so long I thought that there was no chance of it ever reaching anyone. You see, my daughter, Elina, managed to find a magical scroll that allowed her to send that out over two hundred years ago in the hopes that someone would come to our rescue, but after all these years I’d lost almost all hope. I would explain our story, but Elina is better at telling it, so why don’t I let her explain.”
Destin just now realized that Elina had appeared off to the side and when he looked towards her, they locked eyes and a warmth and tenderness spread throughout him as he again admired her beauty. He would’ve gladly stood like that forever, lost within her gaze, but she soon began to speak. “As you apparently know I am Elina and I sent that letter out over two hundred years ago in the hopes that it would find someone suitable to ask for help. Now allow me to explain our plight. Back in 1690 my family and I lived happily in this mansion, which was in prime condition then. We were a wealthy family and we were and still are very devoted believers in God. One day my father overheard Danae, an older woman in town, talking about witchcraft and praising the devil. He reprimanded her for it, taking her to the town prison, where she was locked up for practicing witchcraft. She promised to get even with my father and said he would regret his decision for all time, but he didn’t think anything of it then. The next morning, though, we all woke up to find that we could not leave the mansion. No matter how hard we tried we couldn’t manage to get out and even though people came near the drive, they always turned around at the edge of the drive as if some invisible force kept them away. We’ve been stuck in this mansion ever since, never aging a day and never crossing the threshold to the outside. You’re the only human being to be in this mansion besides us since that fateful day.”
Then in a much more soothing tone she continued. “Now please stay calm while I explain why we need you,” and here she hesitated long enough to allow him to nod, “Only when another human willingly sacrifices themselves will we be freed from this curse. You can think about it if you want, we have all the time in the world.”
“That’s alright,” Destin said, for he knew that he could never refuse this trapped family their one chance at making it to heaven. Also, he knew that he would willingly do anything to help Elina because even though he had only just met her, he loved her with his entire heart and soul. “I’ll do it. The only question I have is how do I sacrifice myself?”
Elina answered in a sorrowful tone, with tears glistening at the corners of her eyes, “Thank you very much for doing this. It will be very simple really; all you have to do is allow my dad to stab you through the heart with his sword and it will all be over.”
“Ok. I’m ready, but please make it quick.’
“It’ll all be over before you know it,” said Edmund in a deep, soothing voice. With that, his sword appeared in his hands and flashed through the air, driving into Destin’s heart with the ease that a hot knife slides through butter. As he felt his crimson, life-giving blood begin to flow freely from his chest, Destin collapsed, only to be caught in the surprisingly strong arms of Elina. As the room spun about him, he could see the mansion begin to collapse and the Gislis start to glow. The last thing he knew before he lost consciousness was the feeling of floating slowly upwards, Elina still cradling him in her arms.
The river water was cool as Darren splashed it on his face; the frigid temperature helped to wake him up these days. He stretched his back, feeling the tight scar tissue from his short service grow taut compared to the surrounding flesh. The cabin stood still behind him, hand-built from the trees around him, secluded from the kingdom that had been on a slow march to Hell when he had deserted.
Darren marched slowly back to his home. The trees around him sounded with a hundred different cries, none of them human. They comforted Darren; compared to the recurring nightmares he suffered constantly they were soothing. He sat on the chair he had built and took up a whetstone to sharpen his lumber axe.
His peaceful afternoon was suddenly interrupted by the whinny of a horse sounding from nearby. He looked up from his sharpening, alert, his soldier instincts immediately imposing themselves upon his actions. He placed the axe back on the shelf he had carved out of a stump and reached for his rusting saber he kept in a hilt on his belt. The man on the horse rode into view, saw Darren standing and shouted. Darren drew his blade and stood ready, acutely aware that he was horribly mismatched against his opponent, who was wearing full scale-mail armor including a helmet with a visor.
The rider pulled his own sword out of his scabbard and held it in a ready stance. Darren mirrored his position, holding his own sword steady. The two circled each other once before the rider lunged at Darren, his blade creating whirling flashes of light on the trees. Darren inspected the man’s pattern of attack and, finding something familiar about it, jabbed with his saber, caught the guard of the rider’s sword with his blade and, with a flick of his wrist, disarmed the man and sent his sword flying off into the underbrush.
Before the rider could react he slammed his saber’s rusting hilt into his opponent’s poorly-armored throat. Darren threw the saber to the ground, hooked a foot behind the stunned man’s leg and gave him a strong shove backwards. The rider hit the ground and Darren was quickly on top of him, saber back in his hands, setting the blade to the man’s throat. He expected to hear pleading or half-hearted threats for retribution from the King-guard, but what he was not expecting was a coughing laughter.
Darren got off the man’s chest but kept the saber pressed to his throat. He motioned for the man to stand up. The rider, still shaking with suppressed laughter stood, one hand nursing his throat. Darren pointed at the man’s helmet. The stranger reached up with one hand and grabbed the bottom of his helmet and lifted it off his head.
“Apparently these years spent in this god-forsaken wood have not dulled your skill with the rusty blade you use.”
Darren dropped his saber to his side. The man in front of him had a days-growth of black beard that matched the short, spiky hair on the top of his head. His nose was long and hooked, and it looked as if it had been broken multiple times. He had jutting cheekbones and large ears that stayed close to his head.
Darren’s jaw worked several times before he could mutter an intelligible sound. It had been so long since he had found it necessary to voice his thoughts that now, when he was confronted with his erstwhile friend, surprise and lack of practice rendered him mute. Eventually he regained control of his voice and stammered, “Eric? What the hell are you doing here?”
Eric grinned the smile Darren remembered from so long ago and said, “Been looking for you for a long time, Darren.” Darren had last seen Eric the day before he had deserted at the Battle of Lyngate all those years ago. They had both been soldiers in the Praetorian Guard, but Darren had found a life dedicated to war was not what he wanted. He had told Eric the night before his intentions, and it had caused a rift in their friendship. He wondered what Eric was doing this far out in the Borderlands, and what he was doing looking for him. The penalty for desertion of the Praetorian Guard was a long, slow death and each member was encouraged to hunt down deserters and turn them in.
Darren shrugged helplessly. Eric stepped forward as if to take his hand, but Darren stepped back and picked up his saber from the ground and held it threateningly in one hand. Eric stopped and raised his hands in front of him. “Hold on. I am not here to turn you in. I quit the Guard many years past, despite the uniform.”
Darren lowered the saber. He had recognized the armor since Eric had ridden up on the horse and had feared the Praetor had taken to hunting down deserters again, like they had in the early years after his leaving. He looked pointedly at the armor and said, “Well if your service to the Guard is over, why do you still have the armor? The officers don’t let leavers walk away with their mail.”
Eric narrowed his eyes and his face adopted a grave look. He coughed once into his mailed fist and said, “Do you have any drink? I have been riding for days and my supplies are low.”
Darren motioned towards the stream that ran behind his cabin, never taking his eyes off Eric. “There’s a stream behind the house. Other than that there’s nothing.”
Eric walked around the wooden building, looking once at the uneven timbers and patched roof. “Did you build this yourself?”
Darren followed him, still gripping the worn handle of the saber. “Yes I did. Cut down the trees myself and set it all. It took me forever.”
Eric knelt by the stream and pulled his gauntlets off. “Not bad. Looks cozy.” He caught some water in his cupped hands and brought it to his mouth.
“Eric, we both know you didn’t come all this way out into the Borderlands to talk about my house. If you plan on taking me in, feel free to try but do not expect it to be an easy task.”
Eric laughed again. “Darren, first off if I was going to ‘take you in,’ I would not have revealed myself to you; second, even if I wanted to report you for your long-forgotten desertion, you have disarmed me and have me at your mercy; and thirdly, I did not so much ‘leave the Guard’ as ‘followed in your footsteps.’ I stole this armor before my own desertion from the Guard almost two years ago.”
This news took Darren aback. Eric had been a staunch supporter of the Praetorian Guard when the two served together. He had taken it hard when Darren had confessed he was going to leave. Now the news that Eric claimed he too had left the army behind, and illegally, made Darren stop.
Eric continued. “I’ve joined the resistance, Darren. And I think you should join too. We could use a man of your talents working with us.”
Darren stared at his old friend for a long time. Eric joining the resistance? That was unbelievable to him. “You can’t be serious. You would never join the resistance, you loved being with the power too much.”
Eric stood and put a hand on Darren’s shoulder. “Darren, you knew when you left that the kingdom was going to Hell, and fast. What do you think happened all these past years when you were gone? That the Praetor magically cleaned up the mess he had made, that he apologized and everything was better? Things have been steadily going downhill, though you would not know it living out here for so long. The Praetor approved public executions of anyone suspected of having ties to the rebellion over two years ago. They regularly kill anyone who speaks out. That is why we are fighting. We hope to replace the Praetor with a new one, one who knows that the populace deserves better.”
“And who is this new Praetor going to be? Someone who knows what they’re doing, I suppose, or another war hero-turned-politician like the one you’re trying to replace?” Darren sat down on the chair again and picked up the axe and stone and began sharpening.
The grim look on Eric’s face was replaced by a grin that made Darren shiver. Joining the resistance had obviously not changed Eric too much. “Darren, you have been gone too long. Your son has been busy these past few years.”
Darren stopped sharpening the axe but did not look up. When he had left the Realm, Theo had been ten years old. Darren’s wife, Mariana, had died during the Plague-year so Theo had gone off to live as an apprentice to a blacksmith, intent on working his way through the Academy and eventually opening a forge himself. The hardest part of Darren’s self-imposed isolation had been the constant contemplating about whether Theo had made it. Now hearing that Theo was the leader of the Rebellion caused the years of loneliness to come rushing up from where he had hidden them for so long.
“What do you want with me, then? I’m getting old, Eric; we both are. And if this fails everyone involved is dead. Theo, you, me, Anne-”
“Anne is dead, Darren. The Praetor had her executed two years ago.”
This time Darren did look up. Anne had been Eric’s wife of ten years and one of Darren’s closest friends. “The City Guard found reason to believe she was involved in treasonous activities. They had her executed in the Square with ten other ‘criminals’.” Eric continued. “I deserted the Guard and joined up with the Rebellion the day after the letter reached me.”
So that was the reason for the change Darren had noticed. Anne had often joked about being ‘Eric’s rock,’ and now that she was gone it seemed Eric had lost a part of himself. “Eric…I’m sorry…”
“That’s what happens when you leave for ten years…you miss things.”
Darren set the axe on the ground and stood up. “I just want to be left alone, Eric. I’ve had enough of governments and edicts for a lifetime. If I come back with you and help, would you let me alone afterwards?”
“Darren, if you helped us bring about a Revolution, we would let you live by yourself, but if you stayed you would get a royal treatment. The stories of your early days in the Guard are almost legendary among the younger recruits to the Misfit Army.” Eric held out his hand.
Darren shook his head. “Those were the early days, Eric. I’m afraid you might be a tad disappointed,” he said as he took his hand.
The gleaming city of Ethias sat in the sun in the river delta below the Crags, framed by grassy fields on one side and a sparkling blue ocean on the other. Darren and Eric sat astride their horses and watched the meager procession of commoners make their way into and out of the city through the main gate. The white and crimson of the City Guard could be seen in the crowd, standing at the gate and making regular patrols.
“There is the not-so-great city of Ethias, capital of the Realm. Once a magnificent city, now no more than a cesspool for corruption…we hope to end that soon.” Eric said as he led Darren down the sloping Godroad to the main gate. In the days since they had left Darren’s hideaway they had grown short beards and were caked with grime from the common rains from the forests in the Crags. They hoped the dirt and beards would be enough to ward off any lingering image the Guard might have after their desertions.
They passed through the gate with no incident and continued through the crowded city. The architecture was as Darren remembered it, a hodge-podge of buildings stacked on top of each other with little care as to aesthetics or practicality. The Hanging Stein still protruded from the city wall, supported by wooden poles attached to the roof of a tanner below it. Buildings were piled next to each other, the roads a seeming afterthought weaving throughout the mess.
Darren followed Eric, noting the large number of red cloaks he saw in the crowd. Eric had been right; things had gone wrong while he was away. Beneath the seeming helplessness of the main populace was a seething undercurrent of readiness, a predetermined purpose to their movements that hinted at a wide-spread plan for change. “Maybe they can pull this off,” thought Darren to himself.
The two men stopped and deposited their horses in a run-down stable and continued on foot. Eric led Darren to a back alley between a blacksmith and an inn and down the alley towards a grating set into the wall. Darren’s companion knocked twice on the grate, then twice more after a pause. After a few seconds a quiet voice called out, “Who knocks?”
“A misfit,” answered Eric. Without a sound the sewer grate slid into the wall next to it, revealing a staircase spiraling down into darkness. Eric motioned for Darren to follow him and descended the stair-case without looking back. Darren glanced about the alley, shrugged, and followed his companion down into the darkness.
When he reached the bottom of the steps he saw a frame-way built into the stone and torches placed in sconces on the walls. A trough of sewer water ran through the center of the tunnel, with slick stone walkways on both sides and a thin stone bridge spanning the trough every twenty feet. The most shocking sight to Darren, however, was the people.
A multitude of people walked the stone edges of the sewer with a purpose. The crowding rivaled the busiest street of Ethias at noon, though the people were careful around the open sewer. Eric stood at the entrance and smiled at the look of sheer disbelief on Darren’s face. “Welcome to the Sewers, the hideaway for the Misfit Army. Every common man, woman, and child knows about these tunnels and is free to use them. Apparently we’ve gotten back just in time; your son has the main uprising planned for this very night.” Eric looked pleased.
At this news Darren inspected the crowds more closely. Each person had some form of weapon strapped to their person; a sword on the hip, a bow across the back, or knives in a boot. Here and there Darren could see the faint glow of enchanted weaponry or armor, and the clang of steel on steel echoed faintly throughout the tunnels. At Darren’s curious look, Eric said, “That is coming from the practice rooms. Theo should be there about now judging the new-comers. It’s down that tunnel and the third turn on the left.”
Darren started walking but stopped and turned back. “Where are you going to be?”
Eric turned and began to leave, calling over his shoulder, “I have some business with a tailor who defaulted on his payment to the cause. You’ll see me again before this is over.” He continued walking and was eventually lost in the crowd of people. Darren started walking towards the practice rooms.
The sound of colliding swords grew stronger as he continued on, and mixed with the noises of a voice calling out instructions. Darren turned left at the third tunnel and walked across the bridge and towards the practice rooms. He eventually reached a large circular hub in the sewers with a makeshift wooden platform over the hole in the floor. On the platform were racks of swords and other weapons, and a group of younger men and women were currently play-fighting with several swords as a tall man with thick black hair called out criticism and compliments.
Darren stopped at the tunnel mouth. Theo looked the image of himself when he was that age, tall, handsome, and with thick black hair that fell across his ears. His nose was crooked along the bridge from where he had fallen when he was younger. His right arm stopped at the wrist and was capped by a block of iron carved to look like a fist. He noticed Darren and looked at him for a moment before going back to the fighters.
The new recruits eventually tired of the practice and were released to go about their business, reminded that they were to report to their barracks by moon-fall when the uprising was planned to occur. Theo placed the swords back in their racks and turned to face Darren. Darren looked at his son and saw no hint of recognition on that face, no idea that his father stood before him. “Who are you?” Theo asked. “You look familiar, have I seen you around here before?”
Darren walked towards the platform and climbed the short steps leading up to it. “If you have seen me, it wouldn’t have been very recently. I’ve just returned from a very long vacation.”
Theo nodded and narrowed his eyes. “I think everyone here could use a bit of a vacation. So if you haven’t been around for a while, how did you find out about this place? Were you recruited?”
“I guess you could say I was recruited. Man named Eric showed me here and said you were looking for experienced swordsmen.”
Theo nodded again. “Eric is a good man, if a bit fanatical. He lost his wife to the Praetor and ever since he’s been looking for that man to fall.” Theo picked up a sword from a nearby rack and gave it a few practice swings. “What’s your name?”
Darren figured it was close enough to the right time to reveal who he was. “My name is Darren. I deserted from the Praetorian Guard over ten years ago. I’m your father.”
Theo stared at Darren. “That’s impossible. My father left for the Borderlands years ago; I got the letter when I was twelve. Said he was a traitor. My father would never return to a realm that was this far gone.”
“Theo, Eric came searching for me because he knew I was the best sword fighter in the area ten years ago. He was looking for years through the Borderlands and finally found me. I’m here to help you bring down the Praetor.”
Theo’s response was cut short by a messenger arriving and handing him a note. Theo took it with shaky hands and read it. When he was done he handed the message back to the runner. He looked at Darren and said, “I want to believe you. You might be my father, you might not be, but I have more important things to worry about right now than re-appearing family members. If you are my father, I expect to see you on the frontlines tonight with us. I hope that deserter’s spirit isn’t too strong.” With that, Theo got up and left the practice room, leaving Darren alone on the platform.
Eric found Darren still in the practice room an hour later, looking through the swords and weapons for a suitable replacement for his saber. He grabbed a rapier and tried some practice slashes before dropping it to the ground in disgust. He then reached for a dao and practiced with it. Liking the feel, Darren replaced the saber on his belt with the dao. Eric coughed once into his fist and Darren looked over.
“How’d it go?” asked Eric.
“Honestly, I don’t know…”
“Well that’s a shame. Now come on, the uprising is in under an hour and we’re needed to prepare.” With that Eric turned away and left, not looking back. Darren sighed and followed.
The central room of the Sewers was filled with people, each prepared in their own way for the coming battle. The huge crowd packed the opening and overflowed into the surrounding tunnels. Theo stood on the central pedestal, his iron fist raised high as he recited his speech.
Darren stood in the back of the room, watching as the people around him were swept up into fervor, cheering every word Theo said. “The Realm was established under principles! Has the Praetor followed those principles?” Theo cried.
“He stations members of the Guard inside our homes! He sends spies into our midst to report back to him!” The crowd leading from one of the tunnels parted and a big man dressed in black chain armor walked forward, dragging a man along by his hands. He threw the man forward at Theo’s feet. He was ragged and thin, his ribs protruding from his chest like ridges. Theo unsheathed his short sword and placed the tip at the man’s throat. Darren leaned forward.
“I could end this traitor’s life now!” Theo cried to the crowd.
Shouts echoed out, several of them calling for the man to be the first victim of the uprising.
“I will not, however, because I am not the Praetor! I will let him go; whether he tells the Guard or not is up to him! Let this be a message that the new government will not rule out of fear!” The spy lay trembling with the point of the sword still at his throat. Theo removed the point of the sword and pointed his finger at the tunnel behind him. “That is the way out. I hope never to see you again.” The man nodded his head and ran, never looking back.
Theo continued, “The moment of truth is now! The common man will rise up against the Praetor and drag him down, replacing him with a new Praetor, one who knows that the commoner is the cornerstone of the government, not the coin! Now is our time!”
The group of rebels cheered wildly as Theo ran through the crowd. The people followed him like the tail of a comet, running through the sewer tunnels towards the grates that led to the city streets. Darren was swept up in the rush and carried to a nearby exit, where they waited for the signal to begin.
The streets had quieted greatly after sunfall. The guards patrolling the streets expected merely another boring night of encouraging the homeless away from doorsteps so it caught them by complete surprise seeing the mass of ragtag soldiers charging from the alleyways. The guards on patrols were quickly overwhelmed, and only the guards who were near a barracks could regroup in time to mount a counterattack. Once the Guard caught wind of the uprising, however, they began to fight back.
Darren fought alongside a huge man who wielded a zweihander as if it was a short sword and a small man who held two glowing shivs. The Guard retreated before them, calling for the alarm to sound. The windows of the buildings along the road lit up as the lights were turned on in response to the noise.
The initial sweep of the charge had reignited the fight in Darren’s blood, and he was suddenly back at Lyngate, defending the Realm against the Mercenary Army. The Guard had retreated to the barracks and castle grounds, and the streets belonged to the Misfit Army, except for some small pockets where the members of the Guard had managed to quickly organize a defense.
Theo appeared suddenly at Darren’s right as he was wiping the blood from his blade. He put a hand on his shoulder and said, “I’m glad you’re here, father. It is good to see you again.”
Darren smiled as best as he could. “It’s good to be back, Theo. The Praetor has gone too far and it’s time he’s brought down. I just wish there was a better way to do it.”
Theo smiled a sad smile and said, “I know you dislike the fighting, but it’s the only language the Praetor understands. You haven’t been in the realm for upwards of ten years; you didn’t see the atrocities the Guard got away with under him.”
“I know,” Darren sighed. “But if the new Praetor will really stand for ‘the good of the common man,’ how is he any better if he comes to rule through blood-she—”
Darren was interrupted as the man behind him fell gurgling with an arrow through his throat. Darren and Theo looked towards the castle and saw the full Praetorian Guard advancing behind a shield wall. Theo stepped forward, lifted his shield and sword and cried, “We take the castle! Show the guard what we can really do!”
The Misfit Army roared and ran with him, charging the armored vehicle that was the Guard. Darren lifted his dao and dashed with them. The two forces came together like a wave crashing against stone. The shields of the guard repelled the majority of the attacks, while their enchanted swords easily parted leather armor and the flesh beneath. The first rank of the Misfit Army was downed easily, but the gaps caused by the attack allowed the second rank to find a weakness in the shield wall.
Darren saw Theo exchanging blows with a man wearing the black armor of a Guard captain and was about to go to his aid when a sword thrust nearly skewered him through the side. He dodged aside and brought his sword down where the man’s arm was. The dao skittered across the chain armor and failed to injure the man. The Guard warrior tried to smash his shield into Darren’s face but he dodged back and kicked at the man’s leg. The mail hurt his foot but he succeeded at throwing the man off balance. He swung his dao at the man’s poorly-armored neck and felt it nick bone. The man fell, his head wobbling uncertainly on his now-thinner neck.
Darren looked up and inspected the battlefield. The ground was scattered with red cloaks and mismatched armor, but most of the bodies belonged to the Misfit Army. The Guard had a greater skill with their weapons but the rebels had sheer numbers on their side. Darren saw the two sides crashing together again and again, leaving more bodies on the ground with each attack.
Darren downed three more men with his blade, and the fighting continued on into the late hours of the night. Messengers came and warned of the Misfit lines breaking under the charges of the Guard and of breakings of the Guards by the Misfit Army. Darren began to worry when news came of Eric’s unit routing in the face of a combination of Guards and mercenaries.
A horn sounded, creating a momentary lull in the fighting. Every head turned and looked at the castle, from where the horn had been blown. A column of men in bright crimson plate armor was marching down sloping road, bared great-swords held in gauntleted hands. “The Elite Guard…” someone whispered.
Suddenly a hand clutched Darren’s shoulder and he whirred with his blade to attack, but it was Theo. He had his sword hilt placed in a carved hole in his iron fist, and he had a ragged cut down the length of his arm. “The Elite Guard is here…we’ve lost too many. We have to retrea-” a feathered arrow shaft sprouted from Theo’s throat, cutting him off in mid-sentence. He collapsed into Darren’s arms.
Darren stared in shock at the blood slowly flowing from the wound in his son’s neck. Theo stuttered, trying to say something before his eyes glazed over. Darren looked up in time to see the Elite Guard begin to rip into the Misfit army with their great-swords while the weapons of the rebels merely bounced off the plate armor of the Elite Guard. “Retreat!” Darren called weakly. “Retreat! We’ve failed, retreat!” The rebels nearest him began to back away and run. Darren closed Theo’s eyelids and lifted the body, carrying it away as fast as he could from the slaughter.
Three days later Darren drove the head of the shovel into the soft ground of the grave. Eric stood nearby, keeping watch for any patrols of the Guard. The rebellion had failed, the Misfit Army had been routed, and the Elite Guard had followed the retreat into the Sewers and had cleaned them of any traces of revolution. The Praetor had sent out regular and far-reaching patrols of the Guard; Darren only hoped his cabin was isolated enough to avoid detection. Eric had survived by hiding on the rooftop of a house for two days and had found Darren preparing to leave the city. The two had snuck out of the city, eluding the increased patrols of Guards.
In the aftermath of the Night War, as it was already being called, the Praetor had declared martial law and had used it as an excuse to close his fist around the already-choking city. Rumors made the rounds about a possible invasion by neighboring Thessa, looking to acquire Ethias as a possible outpost. Eric had planned on heading south and finding a boat away from the Realm, but recently the idea of bringing down the Praetor with a properly trained and geared army appealed to him. He was trying to convince Darren to join him, but he was done with military.
“Darren, we could do it. If we go to Thessa and present the facts about our defeat it might help them actually succeed in taking down the Praetor.”
Darren just shook his head. “I’m done, Eric. You can continue all you want, but I’m done with violence. I’m going back to my home and I’m going to finish living my life.”
Eric turned his horse around. “I’m sorry about your loss, Darren. I know what it’s like. If you change your mind, you’ll know where to find me.” He flicked the reins and rode off through the forest, eventually disappearing from sight.
Darren sighed and put the shovel back on his shelf and walked down to the small river running behind his cabin. He sat on the bank and cupped his hands under the surface until they were filled with water. The river water was cool as Darren splashed it on his face; the frigid temperature helped to wake him up these days.
Shortly after the Vietnam War, the United States government began spending billions of tax-payer money to fund a top secret project known as “Operation Phantom.” Rodney Thomas had been head commander in chief of the project since the very beginning for his brilliant strides in math and science. The project involved the research and development of “time-viewing” where one could view any moment in time. Similar to time travel, one who can view any event in time can have unlimited power and use it in virtually endless ways. The U.S military felt compelled the operation would work well against any hostile forces. However, this project has also had great controversy just like the idea of time travel. The most convincing theory claims that one who views the future will always do the same as predicted leaving him or her in the same dilemma. The only difference is that one would know it was going to happen.
After failure upon failure over the course of the past forty years, Thomas grew maliciously impatient and wished to appoint one last team to try and complete the project before the funding was cut completely. There was also the time factor of his health. Thomas was diagnosed with a benign brain tumor making his time rather limited. After months of searching he felt he had found the right team for the job.
Twenty-eight year old Hooper graduated top of his class and was working in the Pentagon on private affairs when Thomas came to speak to him about "Operation Phantom."
Despite the theories, Hooper and his team of associates: Davis, Houston, Bradshaw, and Whitcamp, were assured they could complete the project.
The U.S. government made many precautions. In case of any life threatening situation, they made arrangements to have a lab far from anything or anyone their project may harm which is why their research facility can be found approximately three thousand feet below an old abandoned military base in Nevada. All of the scientists involved are not permitted to leave until the project is finished or declared a failure. Finally, if any of the scientists mention their experiments to anyone, they would never be permitted to the surface again. Given these harsh parameters, Hooper’s team was still up for the challenge. As Thomas’s health began to decline, Hooper became the head of all the matters involved in the project.
After five years of exhausting research and development of the pronounced “portal,” Hooper and his team declared the project finished. "Operation Phantom” was to be tested June 11, 2017 after clarification from the president.
“Has everyone made their final checks?” asked Hooper intently.
Assured, Davis replied, “Everything checks out, sir.”
Hooper had the honor of flipping the switch to activate the portal. When nothing happened, the whole team felt a deep emotion as if a great tidal wave had crashed them to some distant shore of which there was no return.
“Davis, can you locate the problem?” asked a desperate Hooper.
“The system says the portal is working just fine,” replied Davis.
After a brief moment of silence, a distorted wave suddenly fired upward and out through the ceiling. Then what felt like an aftershock shook the room. When the alarms went off, Hooper knew something was dreadfully wrong. Moments later, a distressed Thomas appeared in the room.
“What happened?” asked Thomas.
“As of now, we have no idea,” admitted Hooper.
“The calls are already coming in on what this thing is doing,” stated Thomas.
“What do you mean?” asked a rather confused Hooper.
“It is destroying everything in its path and it is moving insanely fast. Hooper I’m going to have to speak to you in private upon the nature of the situation.”
As Hooper’s team proceeded to the surface, Thomas gave Hooper the documents he was carrying in what seemed to be a manila folder.
“If my predictions are correct, the void is back,” Thomas muttered to Hooper in a distinctive tone truly revealing the seriousness of the situation.
It came from nowhere. With a crack as if fired from a cannon the size of cities, and a flash brighter than the red-hot intensity of the sun, the void fired out through the research facility and began its onslaught of destruction and mayhem.
In a matter of minutes, it decimated cities to rubble and altered the very landscape, turning mountains into plains, rivers into deep gorges as if a child shook an etch-a-sketch. The most terrifying thing is not the destruction that the malevolent void had reigned down upon the poor citizens but its mysterious disappearance. As quickly as it had fired upon the world, it vanished as if it ripped through the very fabric of time and existence into some inescapable rift.
"Back in the 40's, research and development for a super-weapon was at an all time high. The atomic bomb was of course the winner. However, Robert K. Hathe, a British scientist, stumbled upon a force far more powerful. Hathe came up with a method to harness all the hate in the world to create a life threatening void," said Thomas.
Hooper with many more questions was in a state of astonishment.
Thomas continued, "You know the Black Plague?" That was our fault. With no other option we sent the void back in time killing 75 million people in a matter of weeks. It was fortunate that there was no more hate for the force to run on because after that amount of death, people were in a state of sorrow or most likely fear. From that point, the project was deemed a failure and all evidence of its existence was destroyed accept this remaining file.
"Now wait, this is ridiculous. The Black Plague was a sickness. That's not what we're dealing with right now," Hooper declared.
Frustrated, Thomas replied, "This void has capabilities way beyond imagination. To put it simply, it became aware that sickness was the simplest way to kill millions."
"Became aware?" asks Hooper.
Without warning, a devastating ear-piercing crash filled the room.
"The life support systems have blown!" cried Hooper.
"Get out of here, now!" screamed Thomas as they raced for the door.
Suddenly Thomas was struck by a support beam crushing everything from the waist down. The lab immediately erupted into a flaming frenzy.
“How can it be stopped?" asked Hooper trying to get what little information he needed to figure this out.
Thomas croaking his last breaths of everlasting advice, "The void can be depolarized with an anti-portal..."
"Anti-portal? How can it be done?"
After several obscenities and coughing a fair amount of blood, Thomas barely vocalizes his final thought.
The lab, being consumed by flames was going to be Hooper's tomb as well if he didn't escape. After staring in disbelief at the death of his commanding officer, he scrambled for the elevator taking him back to the surface.
"How am I going to explain this to the team?"
Immediately, ground units seized Hooper taking him to a safe shelter with all the other employees. What seemed to be two-thousand people were all crammed in an abandoned military hangar. The sight stunned Hooper as he scanned the scene. Dozens of doctors were handling everything from severed limbs, to massive hemorrhaging. Units were carrying corpse after corpse of employees. The sight left Hooper in a state of absolute disarray for the gut-wrenching fact was that his team had caused all of this.
When he searched T.V. stations for any answers on this void, he could only find the destruction it had already caused. It seemed as if it had been everywhere showing hundreds of shelters just like this filled with the injured.
After spending precious time searching, Hooper found the remnants of his team.
"Davis, what's the damage?" Hooper asked.
"Whitcamp is the only one pronounced dead after I seen the void had ripped him limb from limb and tossed him several hundred feet into the air.”
"My god," stated Hooper struggling to grasp the reality of the situation.
"Does anyone know where this thing is?" asked Bradshaw.
"No, it moves way too fast," said Davis.
"Does anyone have any answers at all?" asked Hooper.
"There is virtually no coverage on what this thing looks like, where it is, or how big it may have gotten in the past hour," stated Houston.
"Anyone or anything that gets too close is destroyed instantly," Davis added.
"Well, we've already spent too much time talking about this. There's only one thing to do," Hooper replied in an assuring manner.
"What do you propose?" asked Davis.
"We make an anti-portal that runs on the world's love.”
“I’m sorry, could you repeat that?” asked a very confused Houston.
“Thomas said it is possible to harness the power of the entire world’s love to stop this void driven by hate,” admitted Hooper.
After a brief moment of awkward glares and grimacing stares of misunderstanding, Davis replied, “You really have spent too much time down there haven’t you.”
“Look, this is our best shot and I don’t see any of you coming up with any other bright ideas,” stated an uncomfortable Hooper.
“It’s not that we’re judging your idea, but it’s completely insane!” declared Bradshaw.
“Even if there was a way to harness the power of love, which sounds ridiculous by the way; how are we going to pull this off?” asked Houston.
“The key lies with these documents,” replied Hooper, holding the manila folder.
Again, out of nowhere the void suddenly fired itself upon the world continuing the ongoing rampage of death and devastation after one day of dormancy. Any land caught in the void’s path was reduced to barren wasteland. The hustle and bustle of the streets laid only a vision of death and destruction. What once could be called an urban sprawl of city goers moving which way and that now only portrayed an occasional squawking of the flying scavengers that ravaged what little was left. The stillness had an eerie serene feel disturbing to even the vilest of men.
The void’s chaos had shown a force that rivals that of god. It turned cities inside out in mere moments as it began moving at a devastating pace. Destroy and move, destroy and move. Its process was simple, its intentions irrefutably merciless. As millions upon millions died, the force seemed to grow. The void became a black emptiness as if it were a force driven by the very epitome of hell. The Earth seemed to be a lost cause after the void continued its onslaught before it finally vanished for the second time exactly one hour later.
“Hello?” asked an alarmed Hooper, actually not expecting any reply. Hooper was blinded by the blackness that had consumed the hangar and undeniably frightened by the disturbing silence. There were virtually no sounds of any one, anything or even the faint beeping of the EKG machines that had once filled this military hangar. Hooper began to panic as he realized he couldn’t get up. He truly believed he had died and this became his most bitter fate to lay in darkness for all eternity screaming for an answer.
“Auxiliary power initiated,” announced a friendly automated voice.
When the lights came on, Hooper was in an absolute state of horror. Bones were scattered all through out the hangar. There was no flesh, no organs, or even the sight of blood. Everyone was reduced to bones.
He realized he was on this cot and found a few empty needles lying next to him. A sedative would explain his inability to get out of bed, but his mind began to race to figure why he was the only one left in the hangar.
Once he pulled himself together and could get out of the cot; he found that a small tape recorder was sitting under his pillow along with a note that said “play.”
Curiously enough, Hooper pressed play.
“Hello Hooper, I’m sure you’re full of questions on what happened and why you are not among the thousands that have already perished. We can explain that later. The truth is... we need you alive. However, we're giving you a choice. If you think you can stop this thing on your own, go right ahead and see how long you last. If you want to be a part of the solution, there is a jeep in the back with directions in the glove compartment to an underground location not far from your current location. The choice is yours."
It took Hooper a significant amount of time to absorb the reality of his situation. All the death that surrounded him was more than enough to convince him to go through with it. With the few puffs of a cigarette and a good amount of thought, he got in the jeep, found the directions, and was off for this unknown location to meet an unknown person whose motives could be simply to eliminate him. Despite the risks, he couldn't think of any other way around it.
"Ahuuhh," gasped a dazed Houston as he struggled to get to his feet. He had not a clue of where he was, but was initially dismayed to see that he was in some type of prison cell with Davis passed out a few feet in front of him. He promptly gave him a swift kick to the side, trying to get him up.
"Ehh" muttered Davis as he too struggled to wake.
"Where are we?" asked a mystified Houston.
"I have no clue. Do you remember what happened in the hangar?”
“It got dark, everyone started screaming and I guess we ended up here.”
“Did you see Hooper or Bradshaw, I mean before the lights gave out?”
“Hooper was lying on a cot while Bradshaw was carrying some syringes.”
“What did he need them for?”
“Does it matter right now? We have to figure out how we got here and why.”
Davis and Houston scanned their surroundings. It was a plain cell. There were two bunk beds and a toilet in the far corner. There were three cement walls without any windows. The fourth wall was barred and outside was a dim lighted hallway as tall as all the other cells and stretched what seemed an endless distance.
“It seems we are in a rather large prison,” stated Davis.
“And I think we’re pretty much stuck here,” explained Houston, expressing the grim truth.
Hooper followed the directions which led him a few miles out of the city into some abandoned gas station. After parking the jeep, he saw a man in full lab attire walk out of a phone booth carrying a silenced .45 blaring in his direction. The man directed Hooper inside. Keeping the gun on him, the man pulled Hooper into the booth which served as an elevator. When the doors opened, Hooper was mystified by an underground city of researchers and annalists all working as if nothing was destroying the planet.
“What is this?” asked Hooper hoping to gain any information on this facility.
The man gave no response and escorted Hooper into a room with two seats, one table, and a mirror. Hooper began to believe he was going to be interrogated for some sort of crime as he sat and waited patiently for some answers.
Hooper didn’t know what to say when Bradshaw walked into the room.
“It’s good to see you again Hooper.”
“Did I miss something? What is going on?” asked an enthralled Hooper.
“Well, to start off simply… I was hired by a group of extremists that wanted 'Operation Phantom' to fail.”
“You bastard, do you have any idea what you’ve done?” blurted an enraged Hooper as he struggled to believe what was unfolding.
“Calm down. I didn’t want any of this to happen.”
“All that matters is that you’ve killed millions of people over some moral issues concerned over what may or may not happen! How could you betray your country and sell yourself to stop something that will never end. If it didn’t work now, it was going to work later; it’s just how our government works!”
“I was in an obligated situation. If I refused, they were going to kill my family. Look, you said it yourself, you can stop it. This can end.”
“Jesus Bradshaw, why didn’t you tell me?”
“They bugged everything, I couldn’t take the chance."
"Well, what happened back at the hangar? How did everyone die?"
"The void is a mysterious thing and uses any possible method to kill any life form. The void released a man eating virus into the hangar but luckily I injected you and I with Dioproxatonin, a chemical used to eliminate the virus before it penetrates the body. It’s all in Hathe's documents. It turns out he did ton of research on this thing before he eventually hurled it back in time. However, the chemical made us both pass out, but since I woke up before you, I made instructions for you to meet me here as soon as you came around."
"Did you catch what happened to Houston and Davis?"
"Sadly, no. I believe the virus may have gotten to them."
"Such a pity. They were good men."
"What about your theory? I have an idea where the portal is and we have all the resources for your plan to work.”
“It’s not just a matter of resources, we’re asking people to love, and I’m sure that won’t be an easy task.”
“Hey! Where are we?” asked an irritated Houston.
The man gave no response as he handed the two men their breakfast.
“I want some answers. We want out of here, now.”
With still no reply, Houston and Davis began losing patience. Both of them felt they could be out there helping but they were incarcerated in this prison for reasons they still haven’t understood. It was certainly taking an everlasting toll on their sanity. Ten minutes later, two men fully equipped with shotguns and side arms, opened the cell, cuffed them and escorted them into a small room with a light shining directly on them.
“Hello, Mr. Houston and Mr. Davis,” spoke an electronically altered voice from behind the light.
“Silence. I will be asking the questions. Were you two working on Operation Phantom?”
Houston and Davis had no intention in complying with the man’s orders. With no response, both men received a swift blow to the face from the butt end of a shotgun.
“I’m going to ask again. Were you two a part of Operation Phantom?”
“Yes,” Davis finally admitted.
“Good, then you’ll be useful to us. Stone, West, take them back to their cell. We’ll deal with them later,” ordered the man behind the light.
When they were returned to their cell, they easily realized their situation.
“How did they find out about Operation Phantom?” asked Davis once they were alone in their cell.
“It’s obvious someone was in on it.”
“But who has the resources to make it through all the background checks and deceive the members protecting a top-secret facility three thousand feet below the ground? This is absolute madness.”
“Well, we’ll just have to figure that one out later. Right now, we must find a way out of here or we will surely be used against our will.”
With no warning, the void once more fired down upon the Earth. The sound: the most sinister and horrifying noise that any being with the ability to hear could imagine. Its screeching, howling, mass of black matter would bring fear upon the most feared of creatures.
It seemed as if the mass had lost all momentum as it grimly hovered over the ground projecting a red hue over the Earth. It had grown roughly the size of the moon and a deep red seemed to develop from the core as if something was growing inside just waiting to burst out.
The red soon began devouring the black in a twisted whirling pattern. It began to vibrate and pound uncontrollably which in turn created Earthquakes all across the planet.
Shortly after, the void exploded into a colossal cluster of locusts that began devouring everything. They moved in a linear pattern eating away at all the surroundings, leaving nothing behind. The sight created an image as if blood had rained down from the heavens just overwhelming, dissolving anything that came into contact. There was no escaping it. It moved in such a swift manner. Anyone caught in its course was most certainly lost.
The devastation continued for exactly one hour before the locusts finally faded away in a remarkably rapid fashion.
“How much of the planet has been affected?” asked Hooper curiously.
“About twenty percent of the Earth’s land mass has been hit by the void,” responded Bradshaw, “But that’s not the worst of it. The void became twenty thousand times its original size, and evolved into a mass of locusts that ate away at anything in its path.”
“Where did it hit?”
“It left a five-hundred mile wide straight line from Greenland down through the U.K. and stopped somewhere through Italy. Strangely enough, these disasters only last an hour.”
“An hour? That’s odd because that is the same amount of time it takes to power-down the portal. You don't think--?”
"They're using it!"
"Those extremist pigs!"
"They want everyone to die? Don't they realize what they're doing is suicide?"
"We must stop them before this gets any worse. Do you know where their headquarters are located?"
"Yes, it’s about eighty miles away under an old prison."
"Get a team ready. We'll have to end this now."
“I’ll get right on it.”
"However, we need some insurance,” said Hooper.
"What do you mean?" asked Bradshaw.
"Round up a team of men to spread the word of love. We need to stop the hate so the void will have no power. It's the only thing that will stop the void if we fail."
"As ridiculous as that sounds, I suppose that would be our only back up plan. I'll get a team together immediately."
Bradshaw initiated an all-out campaign informing the world on how to stop the void. Every means of communication began telling the public not to hate.
"You know its not going to be an easy task getting the world to love, right?" asked Bradshaw.
"That thought had occurred to me but we must get going," said Hooper.
Bradshaw then handed Hooper an M-4 assault rifle. Hooper could only stare at it as he contemplated his non-military history. Once Bradshaw got the team of fifty men together in a convoy of seven trucks, they were ready to face the demented extremists hidden under the prison. Hooper couldn’t withstand the butterflies thriving deep within him knowing this would be the first time he would have to face combat. He knew this would be a cakewalk for Bradshaw because of his experiences in the War of 2012.
Once the men arrived, a demolitions crew blew the doors to the prison. Bradshaw’s men stormed the building and encountered a startling scene. A line of men all carrying assault rifles surrounded the entrance. There was nowhere for Bradshaw and his men to go. A slow moving figure approached from the light in the far end of the room. As soon as his face was revealed, Hooper and Bradshaw just couldn’t believe their eyes.
“I thought you might have found me,” replied Thomas from his wheel chair.
“Why are you doing this Thomas?” asked Hooper who could barely keep himself from collapsing.
“I’ve spent forty-five years in that hole for what? Just so our government can go against all moral and reason to have a glimpse at the future? The plan was a horrible idea from the beginning and they wasted my life for a project that was expected to certainly kill us all.”
“That still doesn’t explain why you are killing millions, perhaps all civilization!”
“In a society driven by war, greed, and hate, I think I’m doing the world a favor.”
“This can’t be happening,” Bradshaw quietly muttered to himself, trying to deny the events that were unfolding.
“No matter what you do, you are going to die.”
A statement like that would strike fear into the most audacious of men. At that point in time, something powerful seemed to give Hooper the confidence and the valor to stop Thomas and his men from destroying the planet. He began to wonder if it was love that was ending the hate. The thought created a sudden realization within him that baffled him. He felt as if it was the very will of god for him to complete this mission. However, the thought wasn’t the most important thing concerning him at that particular moment in time. It only took one look at Bradshaw to confirm what was coming next. It was die by a barrage of bullets or wait for the planet to be devoured by the void.
“You're going down Thomas!” screamed Bradshaw at the top of his lungs.
The room quickly filled with the sound of machine gun fire. Men began dropping one by one to the ground. Hooper and Bradshaw found cover behind a desk while the rest of their men gave support from the door way.
“What now, Bradshaw? It looks like we’re outnumbered five to one!” exclaimed Hooper.
“Just give'em all you got Hooper!" roared Bradshaw, unloading round after round on Thomas and his crew.
As the battle waged on, it seemed Thomas's numbers were beginning to dwindle. Love was surely putting an end to the hateful might that had consumed Thomas years before in the heart of the research facility often times referred to as the very depths of hell. Knowing defeat was imminent; Thomas decided to retreat further into the prison where he could use Davis and Houston.
“Wake up!” hollered Davis.
“What's going on? It sounds like a war out there,” said Houston.
“I don't know but be ready to shield yourself from some gun fire—“
Thomas opened the cell and quickly wheeled himself in. He had with him a government issued assault rifle.
"Thomas, is that you? Why are you in a wheel chair?" asked Davis.
"You're both coming with me. Don't make any sudden movements because I would hate to have to shoot you." plainly advised Thomas.
"Thomas, what's going on?" demanded Davis.
"Don't worry about it!" exclaimed Thomas still keeping all his attention to the hallway.
Davis and Houston not knowing what else to say followed Thomas waiting for what was to happen next.
When Thomas had heard the gunfire come to an end, he quickly directed the men into a dark room with him following closely behind. When he hit the lights, Davis and Houston couldn't believe that they were staring at the portal.
"Thomas, don't tell me you’re the one responsible for all this," said Davis.
The silence made his suspicions correct. Davis and Houston couldn't think of anything else to say because they were just too disturbed by the current facts that went way beyond anything they had ever imagined.
"Power it up," said Thomas.
"No. This has got to end. You're not going to destroy the planet!" exclaimed Davis.
"Do it, or you both die!"
"It's not going to happen, Thomas!"
Mercilessly, Thomas shot both men with out a moment's notice. Both men were dead before they hit the ground. Thomas struggled from his wheel chair to make all the adjustments to the portal. Once everything was in order, he hit the switch and activated it, releasing the void one last time. Bradshaw, Hooper, and the remaining team members quickly ran into the room only to find that they far were too late.
"Thomas activated it!" screamed Bradshaw losing all hope as he pronounced each syllable.
"There he is!" said Hooper as he pointed at the corner concealing Thomas.
Bradshaw's men immediately opened fire. Round after round blew through him in a manic fury leaving nothing but a heap of what was once a man with streams of blood spread all over the wall behind him. Thomas was surely dead but his devastation was yet to end.
"Now it’s up to the people. Love is the only thing that can bring down this hate," said Hooper as he could only stare down at Davis, Houston, and Thomas in disbelief.
The void shot down upon the Earth once more only this time it had certainly decreased in strength and speed. There was also the matter of the void's altered appearance. This time it had taken on a milky hue and was unquestionably miniscule compared to what it had once been.
The void tried to continue its onslaught once more only to find that the damage it caused weakened after every blow. Continuing its rampage was out of the question. It was, to put it simply, dying.
Bradshaw’s team successfully informed the entire planet on how to end the void’s destructive force. The word of love had spread around quickly. There was no doubt that people had hate on the mind although, instead of hate for their loss, they began to love what they still had. Unbelievably, it would have to take a deadly force that threatens the entire planet’s existence to get all people to listen to moral and reason in order to stop what was slaughtering them. Even then, convincing them took a considerable amount of time.
Like a lost animal caught in predator's territory, the void rapidly moved trying to find hate for it to attain power. After blindly and erratically searching for an hour, the void slowed to a halt, started to shrivel, and with a great flash, vanished once more along with the hate that had threatened to consume the Earth ever since the first man had set foot on its terrain.
He hated light. He avoided all light in order to keep what sanity he had left. He slept during the day, as the sun was his worst enemy. This lonely man stayed awake in his empty house doing his very important research, focusing on every detail carefully with his precious magnifying glass. Nothing ever changed unless he got a fresh stack of papers containing new information about the sea. His life revolved around these sea reports. He was obsessed.
Aidan Callibari grew up in a small town called Edisburg, that was centered around a bustling fishing industry. Following in his father's footsteps, he worked as a fisherman and then sold what he caught at the market, located on the coast of the ocean. This is where he met her. Her name was Lucy, but she was known to sailors and pirates as "The Star of the Sea." She stepped off of her boat in Edisburg on a bright morning, with her shiny gold jewelry jingling loudly, and her light hair shining in the sun. Lucy stepped up to Aidan's counter and asked for the price of his fresh fish. When he looked up, their eyes met for a moment until they both looked away in embarrassment. He easily struck up a conversation with her, and they soon settled on a date that they would meet again.
Things went well for Aidan and Lucy, and it wasn't long before they fell deeply in love with each other. They began making plans for a wedding, Aidan built a small cabin for her on the beach so she could live near the water, which she saw as her second home. Out of love for Lucy, Aidan had saved up all of the money he could, and built her a lighthouse right next to the cabin, so everyone on sea and on land could see his love for her. The light at the top was much like the way he felt for her. It spun around day after day, never ceasing or pausing.
"Enough of this daydreaming about Lucy!" Aidan yelled angrily, as he hurled a crumpled paper map at the wall in his small cabin. He had been thrusted back into reality by the bright light from the lighthouse that shone through his window for just an instant. The revolving light was a constant reminder of Lucy. Aidan took a deep breath and focused on his stack of thin crinkly papers, taking his precious magnifying glass out of its dark velvet bag. He had become obsessed with the mystery and would stop at nothing to find answers, even if it meant giving up his sanity. Sleeping by day, and studying by night, he fell into a routine and his life revolved around his crinkled stack of papers and large magnifying glass.
As hard as Aidan tried, he couldn't keep his mind off of Lucy. He would unknowingly slip back to bright, pleasant times with her, but these memories would only make him more furious. Aidan had been a happy man, loving life and everything about it, until that horrible day. It stuck out in his mind because it changed his life forever. On that day, Aidan woke up to find Lucy gone, and all that was left was a note. It read, "Aidan, I feel drawn to the seas for reasons I can't explain. I have to leave you, but I hope that I can do whatever it is that I am called to do, and then one day return home to you. With love, Lucy."
After reading the note, Aidan fell into depression, feeling he had lost his only purpose in life. He had convinced himself that she had left him for another man, and he was determined to find her. He wanted to bring her back to the cabin where he could keep her forever.
The only way to find her was to study his collection of maps and nautical reports, tracking her boat to a destination that he would one day sail to and bring her back with him. Until then, he lived an isolated life in the cabin with that irritating light rotating in and out of his window.
On one especially dark night, Aidan followed his solitary routine. He studied the maps and did his best not to think of the past that he had shared with Lucy, for it only made him feel even more empty. As he sat at his desk by the window, he came to the usual nightly realization that he wasn't making any progress, and that Lucy was sailing farther from his lighthouse every day. He threw his thin crumpled papers down on the desk in frustration, and slammed the magnifying glass down on the windowsill. "I'll take a break for now. It will be sunrise soon," he thought to himself as he slipped into bed, trying to concentrate his mind on something other than his failed attempt at finding Lucy.
While Aidan drifted off to sleep, everything seemed normal. The light from the lighthouse kept turning, and the ocean waves kept crashing up onto the shore.
As the light revolved, it shone into the cabin window by the desk. This was where Aidan had left his tool for his obsessive research. The light radiated through the middle of the magnifying glass and was transferred to the crinkled maps and ocean reports. By this time, Aidan was in a deep sleep. The cabin went up in flames, and nothing could be done to stop it.
The bright light of the flames in the dim morning sky made the cabin glow for all of Edisburg to see. Its radiant yellow hue could be seen from the ocean, as well. As "The Star of the Sea" sailed in with exciting stories of her adventures out on the water, Lucy realized that she would never get to share these tales with her love, Aidan.
Her purpose on the sea had been fulfilled. She had attended to her duty as captain of a pirate ship, and then found the proper successor. Now she returned home to Edisburg to find her home and her soul mate in ruins. It was her very own lighthouse that had enflamed and left her dreams in ashes.
As soon as she walked outside her eyes immediately began to water. She looked over to the river behind her house and she saw the hockey sticks and goals tossed along the bank from the day before. The frigid, January wind stung her eyes and she quickly wiped away the wetness in fear that it would freeze on her face within seconds. Even though she has seen worse conditions in Michigan, she still felt safer overestimating the severity of the weather.
The gray cloud that opaquely hid the sun from her was as drab as the atmosphere from within her house. She was way too bored to stay in the house all day. Her mother didn’t like the idea of having her twelve year old daughter play by the river by herself, but she also didn’t want to listen to the constant whining and accusations of running a prison. The youthful girl was a like a jack-in-a-box and to keep her trapped in that tiny little box of a house made her want to desperately spring up and see the world around her.
The young girl pulled her scarf tighter around her neck as the sharp blades on her feet squished into the foot of snow covering the once green grass. It always amazed her how hard it was sometimes to walk with skates on a surface it was not made to, compared to the luxuriously smoothness that the skates gave her while gliding on the glassy hard surface of the river. She had loved to skate since she was little and the river twenty yards behind her home had fueled her to become dedicated towards her passion. The river fluctuated with depth, but in all of the summers she had swam in its cool, bluish-green waters, it was always remained deep enough to go well over her head. Though the river was only over ten yards wide, it was just big enough for her to complete an oval circle with satisfaction.
She reached the bank of the frozen river and crossed through the opening of the trees just like she had many times before. She sub-consciously glanced left and right down the river like she was looking for someone, but every time she found herself starring at a scary, arctic picture. The frozen water beneath her looked mysterious and impenetrable while the tree branches and bushes hovering around the river bank were frosted and iced over from past storms. The trees’ branches use to frighten her as a young child. Now she is almost comforted by them. It’s as if they were enemies but now that they have found out each other’s secrets they were now confidants exchanging trusting, knowing glances that no one else could ever understand.
She had to uncoordinatedly wave her arms to fully regain her balance when she first stepped on the ice. The wind was sharp and piercing but she clothed and prepared herself as best as she could for the conditions. Once she began skating, it didn’t seem to matter how cold she was. She became lost in thought, just gliding in a circle, around and around. Her legs effortlessly led her body around the circle. Her body was so in time with itself. Every part of her worked together in unison to continue the path along the circle. The grin on her face that represented her full delight was gleaming with radiance that even though she could not feel the sun, the warmth from inside her was powerful enough to keep her alive forever. The smile quickly faded away as her worried brow dominated her face. The sound from underneath her was so piercing and sharp in her ears that her heart beating frantically in her chest was soon all she could hear. She didn’t want to look down, but her eyes disobeyed her and wandered down her skate and landed on a spot where the ice once had been.
Her back ached from hitting the ice so hard, but as her laces became wet, she soon focused in on the dark bluish-green circle surrounded by a thick, clear sheet of ice that had formed by her feet. The fear and adrenaline that surged through her veins, caused the few short seconds of her life to filter through her mind as detailed photographs that she could individually recall but struggled to put them together in an organized album. The very last image she remembered while her head was still above the ice was similar to the image that she recalled from when she first stepped on the ice. The hopeless sky that hung over head was the background of the picture with the focused object of the helpless branches bunched together that stared at her with their sympathetic limbs.
The frantic fear that powerfully controlled her body inhibited her from actually feeling the severe coldness of the water that was quickly lowering her body’s temperature. Her powerful fear forced her to hysterically pull her arms through the water to counteract the water’s fatal drag down. Her arms stroked and stroked through the water, striving to reach the light shining through the hole she had just passed. She wanted to scream, but no matter how desperate her vocal cords were, her lungs still couldn’t be any more generous than they had already been.
Suddenly, she stopped. The undercurrent of the river was pulling her down away from her old hole of beacon and onto another brighter one farther downstream. She was afraid to find out what this new, strange light might be but she somehow did not care. She gave in to the motion of the water and instead of fighting it allowed the cool water to stream past her arms and legs, carrying her to their own destination. The current comforted her like it was rocking a young infant to sleep, relaxing the muscles and calming her anxieties. The water slipped through the crevices of her fingers and danced along her smooth, youthful face. Her thoughts were calmed and the fact that she was trapped did not startle her, for there was nothing more that she could do. As she drifted closer and closer to the bright light, her mind was as still as her body.
As soon as she walked outside her eyes immediately began to water. She looked over to the river behind her house and she saw the hockey sticks and goals tossed along the bank from the day before. The frigid, January wind stung her eyes and she quickly wiped away the wetness, but it was not just the January wind that made her eyes water. As she looked up into the hopeless gray sky, with a worried brow, she began to search for her missing daughter. Instead, she found a roughly shaped circle that was colored in blue, drawn on a sheet of smooth, white ice.
Dawn. The clouds parted, and a ray of light filled the gap. He could see them. Dead bodies covered the once green valley now stained red. Blood covered his shield; his sword dripped crimson; his eyes burned with sweat. He had never seen so many die in one battle.
His name is Camdidus, commander of the Roman Seventh Legion and servant to the Emperor Licinius. He could see the edge of the valley where few were alive the rest were dead. Camdidus stood, removed his helmet and let it fall to the blood-stained ground. His eyes were searching for a fellow soldier. Thousands had fallen in battle. They had to regroup. They had to go home. They had to survive.
"Camdidus," a parched whisper.
The wind blew through the valley and carried the stench of the dead with it.
His mind was distraught. He could not escape the condemning thoughts. All was lost.
His name. What? he thought.
He spun around. "Sempronius!" he shouted. Camdidus ran to his wounded brother in arms and knelt beside him.
"Sempronius are you hurt? What happened to you?"
"I am not sure," he whispered roughly. "We were marching...marching in the heat and they came so quickly. We were surprised... we could barely defend ourselves...then my head hurt and I saw... a bright white light...then darkness...."
Sempronius closed his eyes, breathed shallowly, and did not move. Camdidus sheathed his crimson sword and placed his brazen shield upon his back. He felt Sempronius' forehead. A raging fever attacked Sempronius' body. Camdidus took Sempronius in his arms with the strength only a Roman soldier could possess. His eyes searched the valley. More soldiers were standing amidst the bodies and blood. Battle weakened; they breathed deeply and looked to Camdidus for guidance. Fifty he counted. Only fifty thousand fought in the night, and only fifty remained.
"We must leave! Head east!" he shouted.
We cannot be caught in the sun. It is safer at night, Camdidus thought. There is no place to hide during the day. Only shade under a tree. Trees? The forest.
"Head for the forest! It is where we will stay tonight!” he commanded. "Pray men! Pray and hope we make it before the barbarians return!"
The seventh legion was sent to engage the barbarians. Emperor Licinius needed the land to continue the expansion of the mighty Roman Empire. Camdidus had been a soldier for nearly twenty years now, and he had fought in England, Greece, and Jerusalem. There was not an enemy he had not conquered. He was a warrior. Now he was a commander. These men of the Seventh Legion were his responsibility. He would not let them die from his mistakes.
Hours had gone by, and they were still walking. The sun was beginning to set. Camdidus lifted his head and saw the forest. "There it is men! Hurry, conceal yourselves."
Sempronius, still asleep, was heavy in his arms. His shield and sword were weights on his back. The men were his responsibility.
The fifty made it to the forest and made a camp, having no tents or any tools to make a fire, only trees. Some men ventured to the lake on the edge of the forest and brought back water. Sempronius' fever raged on and Camdidus paced from tree to tree, wondering what to do. Rome is too far away. The fifth legion is farther east. We have no supplies. Camdidus leaned against a tree and held his head in his hands, and he prayed. "Jesus you have helped us before, help us again. We are alone in this unknown territory. Give us guidance and protection. Please..."
"BARBARIANS!" shouted a soldier.
"Camdidus!" said another soldier. It was Marcus.
Camdidus turned in the direction of the voice. Marcus ran straight for Camdidus. Marcus was Camdidus' messenger. Camdidus chose him as a messenger because of his loyalty and willingness to accept assignments that could potentially be fatal. He was a fast runner and a strong soldier. He was proud of his accomplishments and was always ready to tell stories of his family.
"Camdidus," Marcus slid to a stop. "Barbarians ambushed nine men by the lake and killed them. It is a scouting party, and they are running back up the hill. I believe there might be a thousand more across the lake. What do we do?"
Camdidus looked at the ground and brushed his wavy black hair with his hand. "Jesus," he whispered, "We are surrounded. We have nowhere to go. This forest offers our only protection, and the lake is the only water for three days on foot. Protect us Jesus, keep us safe."
Camdidus faced Marcus, and placed a hand on his shoulder, and looked at him with a sense of comfort and urgency.
"Marcus, run and tell the men to stay concealed in the forest and pray to Jesus for our safety. Tell them to have faith in him because he is our only way out of here."
"Yes, Camdidus!" Marcus spun on his heel and sprinted toward the others, and the wind seemed to follow. Camdidus faced the direction the wind came from and saw storm clouds forming between the mountain peaks. With his back to the barbarians, he knelt beside the still sleeping Sempronius and prayed for protection and strength.
Only two years ago had Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity. Emperor Licinius opposed this act vigorously and debated that Christianity was a religion for the weak and the poor. Camdidus became a Christian only a year ago and trusted this Jesus god with all his might. The other Roman gods never made him feel strengthened, but this Jesus god felt like his friend.
"Jesus protect us, for we are weak and sick, we cannot fight this army. Protect us."
A mighty roar echoed from the barbarians. Camdidus faced them. They were coming. They were running. He was going to die.
"Jesus I have faith in you, you will protect us."
A low rumble came from deep within the valley. The barbarians were screaming, chanting, and pounding their chests. They hated the Romans and were bloodthirsty for battle. Evil followed them everywhere. Death and destruction were their friends, and the earth trembled in their presence.
Camdidus felt the earth shake as the barbarians swept down the hill. Facing this enemy, Camdidus felt small and helpless, but he had faith. He saw them come to the edge of the lake, where they reformed their lines, and war chants began. They charged toward the forest, and Camdidus fell to his knees and said, "Lord I have faith in you."
Suddenly from behind Camdidus came a terrible wind, and clouds blocked the sunlight. This wind came from the valley behind the forest and filled his ears with terror. Trees bent from its ferocity; branches cracked; and leaves lost hold of their perches. The wind caught the barbarians off guard; many fell over and cursed the sky. Camdidus opened his eyes and watched with terror at what was happening. The wind came from all directions and surrounded the enemy. The barbarians faced all directions, confused as to what was happening. This terrible breeze spiraled into the sky and punctured a hole in it. A mighty boom pounded their ears, and many held their heads in fright. Storm clouds came through the hole in the sky, and rain fell over their faces. The wind did not stop its violent pounding as lightning streaked the sky. Then from the center of the storm, a solitary lightning bolt blasted the center of the barbarian formation, and the earth vibrated violently. The barbarians began to run, but the wind would not let them. More thunder and lightning pierced the shields and helmets of the barbarians.
God was fighting for Camdidus and his men.
Then without warning, a ferocious ringing filled Camdidus' ears, and a bright star descended from the storm's eye. It descended very slowly and came to rest one hundred feet above the barbarians. Accompanied by rain, lightning, and thunder this star began to grow. Its light, which illuminated every object in the forest, blinded Camdidus; and a massive shockwave knocked Camdidus on his back. He fainted.
The scent of morning dew filled Camdidus' nostrils as he opened his eyes. It was morning. The storm clouds were gone. The breeze was gentle, and the sun was rising behind the mountain. Camdidus stood and saw his soldiers walking through a barren field; he ran to them and looked at the scorched ground.
"Where are the bodies?" he asked.
Marcus came beside Camdidus, "Sir, we don't know."
"There were a thousand soldiers here last night in that storm, and the bodies are just gone?"
"Camdidus, all we found was a helmet in the center of this field,” said Marcus.
Camdidus looked towards the center of the battlefield. There it was. One solitary helmet, and perched on top of it was a snow-white dove. Camdidus stood dumbfounded and clueless and thought it could only be a miracle. He walked toward the helmet and dove; but before he could reach it, the dove flew away. He watched it soar into the air and followed it until it went out of sight over the hill the barbarians had come over.
"Camdidus, how is this possible?" asked Marcus.
"This was an act of god. Jesus saved our lives last night. Thank him because if he had not brought that storm, we would not be alive." Camdidus looked at the helmet then gazed beyond the hill. "Marcus, carry Sempronius. He is still asleep, but his fever has not broken. We are going to follow that dove over the hill!" he shouted.
The Seventh Legion followed Camdidus over the hill and trusted him. After the miracle, they had witnessed, they all believed in the Jesus god. They felt he was connected to them and were glad they had Camdidus as their leader.
They followed Camdidus and the dove for two days before they found a scouting party of the Fifth Legion. The red cape of the horsemen was a welcomed sight as they approached a small fire. Camdidus spoke with them and asked in which direction the main army had gone. He walked over the next hill and saw the sun gleam off the tents of the Fifth Legion. Camdidus and his men ventured to the tent of the commander and sat outside as men of the Fifth Legion brought them water and soup. Camdidus talked with the commander and arranged for him and his men to have horses and supplies to ride back to Rome. They left the next morning and arrived in Rome a week later.
Camdidus took Sempronius to the best healers in Rome who were unsure if he would live or not. Camdidus and his men said a prayer for Sempronius, and visited the Emperor Licinius to tell of their great battle.
"Licinius, we have had a great victory amidst our hour of misfortune. We are all that remains of the once mighty Seventh Legion. We were caught by the barbarians who they slaughtered all, except for who you see here. We the survivors escaped to a forest and prayed for a sign. Then the barbarians came back. Thousands rushed to the forest in which we were concealed. Then we all prayed for protection and were delivered with a great thunderstorm that killed all of the barbarians. The next morning we continued to search for the Fifth Legion and we found them. They gave us horses, and now we are here."
Licinius tapped his fingers on the armrest of his imperial chair. "And to which god did you pray for this thunderstorm?" he asked.
"We prayed to Jesus, Licinius," responded Camdidus.
Licinius choked on his tongue. "You prayed to Jesus," he said. Licinius had not expected to hear Jesus. He still hated Christians, but maybe this was a sign that Christianity was a valid religion. He pondered the situation for a while and said, "It is not important which god you prayed to. You are safe and alive. We shall have a celebration and tell all the people your story. Go and rest until the celebration for you look weary and exhausted."
"Thank you Licinius," replied Camdidus. He bowed and left the Emperor's great hall. The men of the Seventh Legion followed Camdidus and rested until the celebration.
That night during sunset, Camdidus and the Seventh Legion paraded through the streets of Rome. The people cheered and considered them heroes for defeating so many barbarians. Children in alleys shouted, "Look there is the Thundering Seventh Legion!" Their story of victory in the storm spread quickly, and the people referred to them as the Thundering Seventh Legion. Camdidus smiled as he heard their new name. Marcus and the men greeted and waved to cheering men and women of all ages as they praised them for the victory. Soon the sun set, and the Thundering Legion sat at a long table illuminated by a great fire and the soft blue gleam of the moon. They feasted and thanked God for their survival. They sang songs of victory and praised the Emperor for his magnificent celebration.
Camdidus amidst all the singing and dancing came and kneeled before the emperor at the head of the table. He noticed a concerned look on Licinius' face and asked what was troubling him.
"Licinius, you do not join in the festivities. What keeps you from celebrating with the people?"
Licinius gave Camdidus a stern look. He rose from his chair and beckoned Camdidus to follow him to the gardens behind the temple. The gardens were a place for pondering questions. Many philosophers and dreamers came here to ask the gods and each other for answers. Licinius came to the edge of balcony overlooking the city. He could see the stars and the fires in the streets casting shadows of civilians dancing and feasting. Camdidus stood behind him and asked, "Sir, why have you brought me here?"
Licinius faced him and said, "Camdidus, you are a great soldier and have had many victories. Your men trust you with their lives and are very loyal to you. I commend you for your victory. However, what troubles me is the fact that you prayed to that heathen Jesus god."
"Sir, Jesus is no god of heathens. He is the Messiah and a friend to all who will accept him."
"No, do not preach to me. I do not want to know this Jesus because he is not real. Your God told you not to create idols and tells you to be merciful. How can a god be real if we cannot see him or create a statue in his name?" Licinius turned away from Camdidus and looked over the balcony once more. "A Roman commander cannot be merciful especially to our enemies. Emperor Constantine thinks this faith in Jesus can save our empire. His attempts are useless. Christianity is not the answer because it is not real. We must expand and assimilate more people into our culture. Your victory with this thunderstorm distracts the people from the fact that you let the entire Seventh Legion die. Your Thundering Legion is lucky to be alive. After tonight, I will have you and your precious Thundering Legion thrown in prison."
"Licinius I do not understand. According to the law passed by Constantine, you cannot persecute me for my faith."
Licinius turned and glared with rage into Camdidus' eyes. "I do not care what laws Constantine has passed. I am the Emperor of the East, and what I say is law." His face was passionate with anger and hate. "You and the Thundering Legion have until morning to renounce your faith in this Jesus. If you do, you will not be placed in prison. However, if you do not recant, you shall be beaten and tortured until you exclaim Jesus is not God or until you die."
Licinius walked past Camdidus and left him alone on the balcony. Camdidus looked into the sky and prayed. "Jesus, you are the Messiah, and no one will change that."
He returned to the feast and sat down beside Marcus. Marcus was entertaining a young boy who sat on his lap. Camdidus recognized it as his son and smiled at the thought of family. "Marcus," said Camdidus, "there is something you must do." Marcus looked at his son and told him to return to his mother by the fire.
"What is it Camdidus?" he asked.
"Emperor Licinius has given us an ultimatum. We must recant our faith or die."
Marcus' eyes went blank and his heart raced. "Our survival in the storm proves that Jesus is real; why does Licinius still not believe?"
"I do not know the answer to that question, Marcus. I must know what the others feel about this. Ask every one of them and return to me with their replies."
Marcus stood silently and asked every member of the Thundering Legion if they would keep or recant their faith. He returned an hour later and sat beside Camdidus. "Sir, they all feel the same way. The storm has solidified their faith in Jesus, and they will not renounce him."
Camdidus smiled inside and his mind was at ease. "I am glad to hear it." He placed a hand on Marcus' shoulder, "Spend time with your family for you may never see them again," he said.
The party ended and all the people went home, but Camdidus and the Thundering Legion did not leave the temple steps. They sat in a circle and prayed for strength. The sun rose, after which the Thundering Legion went into the court of Emperor Licinius.
"And what is your answer Camdidus?" asked the Emperor.
"Licinius," replied Camdidus, "we shall never renounce our faith in Jesus."
Licinius looked deep into Camdidus' eyes and said "So be it. Guards arrest these men and beat them until they renounce their faith!"
Eighty guards clothed in black capes and bronze armor took all the prisoners by the arms and took them into the town square. The Captain of the soldiers stood on a pedestal and announced to the growing crowd the fate of Camdidus and his men.
"These men of the Seventh Legion are to be whipped and flogged until they are dead or renounce their faith in the heathen Christian god Jesus!" he shouted.
Camdidus was brought to the pedestal and was forced to kneel in front of it. The guards shackled his hands to the ground and tore his shirt from his back exposing shoulder blades and spine. The captain took a whip and held it above his head. This leather weapon slithered from his hand and fell to the ground. The captain gave a shout, brought the whip down, and snapped his arm back quickly. The whip gave a terrible crack as the leather made contact with his skin. A sharp pain came between Camdidus' shoulder blades as the whip struck his neck and upper spine. He shrieked as the glass shard in the end of the whip ripped open his skin when it recoiled back toward the captain. His cry echoed throughout the square as spectators watched in horror at the spectacle before them. The captain took the whip above his head again and repeated the vicious swing. With each stroke, a line of crimson colored agony appeared on his back. The captain was relentless and slashed Camdidus' side tearing away his abdomen and chest. Blood dripped like sweat from Camdidus' body as he writhed in pain.
"There is nothing you can do to me to make me give up my faith," he struggled to say.
"Do not speak!" shouted the captain as he brought the whip across Camdidus' face. Camdidus shrieked as his cheek was torn open, and he began to cry. The captain saw his tears and kicked him in the mouth. He handed the whip to another guard and said, "Whip all of them." Two guards unshackled Camdidus and brought Marcus to the pedestal. He, like Camdidus, was flogged, as was the rest of the Thundering Legion.
Half of the day had gone by, and the forty men of the Thundering Legion were once again brought before Emperor Licinius.
"Will you renounce your faith?" he asked.
Camdidus looked at his men and then turned to face Licinius. "No," he said. Then Camdidus felt weak and fell to his knees. He looked up at Licinius and saw a soldier standing beside him. It was Sempronius. "Sempronius you are well again," he exclaimed.
"Do not speak unless I say you can," said Licinius. "Sempronius was brought to me this morning by some of the guards. They say he was part of your Seventh Legion and that you carried him to Rome. He is aware of the decision you made; and yet, he does not share your sympathy with this Jesus."
"Sempronius, Jesus delivered us from death. He is the reason you . . . “
"The medicine of the emperor saved me from the fever," Sempronius interrupted. "Camdidus you are making a very foolish decision by believing in the Jesus god. Stop this now and go home to your friends and family."
"No Sempronius. I will not renounce Jesus," was his reply.
Licinius looked at Camdidus and said, "Sempronius you are now the captain of the guard. See to it that these men recant their faith or die."
"Emperor you cannot expect me to kill my own friends," Sempronius said quickly.
"Yes I can; and if you do not follow my orders, you can join them."
"Yes your Excellency," he whispered.
For three months, Camdidus and the Thundering Legion were tortured and beaten. Every day they were brought before the Emperor and were asked to renounce their faith, but everyday their answer was the same. "We will not renounce Jesus." The men were growing weak and struggled to hold on to their faith. Camdidus encouraged them everyday to be strong and to realize that this persecution would lead others to Jesus.
Sempronius' heart became hardened as he watched these forty be tortured. He asked everyday for them to make this suffering stop. They said "No" every time, and he did not understand why. These men are foolish, he thought. Can they not see that they are causing their own deaths? All they have to do is say, "I do not believe in Jesus.” Yet they are stubborn and do not recant. He began to hate Camdidus for being so stupid. Sempronius looked forward everyday to beating Camdidus and the others. He began to hope that they would never recant because people as foolish as them deserved to be tortured.
Licinius grew tired of hearing their answer. He arranged for a convoy of horses and supplies to carry him and the Thundering Legion away. It was now the middle of winter, and snow covered the ground. The cold made the animals and plants hibernate for the season, and everything was deathly quiet. The convoy traveled for two weeks before reaching a frozen lake. The ice was thick, and the wind bit the fingers and toes of the Thundering Legion. They stood beside the lake as the guards pitched their tents. The guards also built a large fire and a bath inside one of the large tents.
Licinius addressed the forty men of the Thundering Legion with Sempronius at his side. "These will be your final hours. You will be left in the cold until you renounce your faith in Jesus. In that tent is a bath for any of you who will recant. You will be served hot food and be given many warm clothes. This is your last chance. Will you renounce your faith?"
"No," replied the forty in unison.
Sempronius then ordered his guards to strip the forty naked and push them onto the ice. The forty stood fifty feet from the edge of the lake and shivered from the wintry chill. They huddled together for warmth and prayed.
"Oh Lord, forty wrestlers have come forth to fight for thee. Grant that forty wrestlers may gain the victory."
One day went by, and their extremities were blue with frostbite. A few couldn't even move from their spot on the ice. Marcus stood beside Camdidus and said, "Camdidus I cannot do this anymore, I am going ashore."
"No Marcus, you cannot give up now. We have come so far together. You must not lose sight of God."
Thinking of his family Marcus whispered, "I am sorry Camdidus." And he left the circle and shuffled across the ice to the shore.
Licinius met Marcus at the shore, and Marcus said, "I recant my faith. I do not believe in Jesus."
"You are wise Marcus," replied Licinius. Four guards came and wrapped Marcus in warm towels and escorted him to the bath where he warmed his body by the fire.
"Oh Lord, forty wrestlers have come forth to fight for thee. Grant that forty wrestlers may gain the victory."
Sempronius walked to the edge of the lake and shouted, "You see Camdidus it is not that hard. Just come ashore!"
"No we will not come to the shore!" was his reply.
Sempronius turned away in disgust and saw something in the corner of his eye. It was a bird. A white dove was circling in a field beside the lake. Then it glided gracefully to the ground and perched itself on top of a rock. Marcus walked toward the dove, stopped short of it, and wondered why it was here. He turned and looked at the camp and then back at the rock, but the bird was gone. He came closer and saw that it was not a rock but a helmet. He picked it up and saw scorched earth beneath the snow. He recognized this place. He had had a dream of this place before. He looked in all directions and noticed the forest and the mountains surrounding the valley. This was the place where Camdidus prayed for protection. It was where the thunderstorm protected the Seventh Legion. He looked at the sky and remembered what he had done to Camdidus. He was wrong to have tortured him so much. Camdidus was right. Jesus had saved them that night, and Sempronius realized he needed Jesus.
Sempronius ran back to the camp and stripped all of his clothes. He threw the helmet down at Licinius' feet and said, "Camdidus was right." Then he ran and joined the Thundering Legion on the ice and asked Camdidus for forgiveness.
"Oh Lord, forty wrestlers have come forth to fight for thee. Grant that forty wrestlers may gain the victory."
This new forty looked into the sky and saw a bright star. They watched it as each one of them froze to death on the ice looking into the heavens. Licinius noticed their gaze and looked up but only saw clouds and snow. He called for Marcus to be brought to him so that he could praise him, but Marcus did not come. Licinius went into the tent and there on the ground laid the body of Marcus the Messenger.
"What happened to him?" he asked the guard.
"I am not sure. He opened the tent and looked into the sky. Then he had a horrible coughing fit and fell over onto the ground."
"What did he look at in the sky?"
"I do not know; I did not see anything."
Once upon a time there was a beautiful bright and shining star, but it was a very lonely star. All of the other stars lived billions of miles away so he had no one to play with. This made the star very sad. The star lived above the ocean where he could watch the fish play with each other. He was somewhat amazed that there was such a diverse amount of fish. There were really small fish and there were also great big fish. He thought it looked very graceful how they could gently move around slowly and peacefully, but they could also move very quickly in case they had to escape another fish. He thought that it would be very fun to swim and wondered what it would be like to live in the ocean.
The star looked around at all the other stars and then down at the fish swimming around and said with all of his heart, "I wish that I could have a friend to play with, that way I won't be lonely any more." He watched the fish as they chased each other around and thought it looked like so much fun. The star also loved the salty air above the ocean as well. It made him feel like he could be part of the fun that the other fish were having. He loved the salty taste that the ocean left sprinkled in the sky after the water had evaporated.
"If the ocean tastes like this and if I ever have the chance to live there, it would be like heaven," thought the star out loud.
One day the star began to feel very ill. There was way too much salt in the atmosphere. He was beginning to feel weaker and weaker by the second. The star had never experienced this much salt in the air at once. It was like a huge cloud of salt and it was in his air to breathe.
"I feel like I am going to explode," cried the star. His stomach ached and groaned, and he wished that the pain would just go away. His color started to disappear and the poor star started to dim. He was becoming less and less shiny very quickly. He was starting to feel very light-headed and felt like he was starting to fall down towards the ocean. He soon realized that this was not just a part of his imagination, but that he was actually falling towards the rough, dark ocean. While he was falling, he felt like he was starting to get harder and that he was gaining more of a rough texture. His five points started to feel more like legs; they were harder to move than his gas points that he had as legs before. Since all of these strange things started to occur, it caused him to gain weight and made him shoot through the sky even faster than he had originally been moving. He could tell that he was starting to get closer and closer to the ocean because he could hear the waves crashing against the beach and could feel the cold night breeze. The star was a little frightened because he was not sure what was going to happen to himself.
As the star crashed into the ocean, he realized that he was turning into a gorgeous fish. He then realized that he had developed gills that would make him able to breathe under the water. He was no longer shiny but he had gained a beautiful dark, navy blue design with beautiful light blue colors running down his legs, going along with every rough textured bump. The fish in the ocean had heard a loud noise and saw a bright light; they quickly swam over to where the star had landed. They all gathered around to see this new fish.
A baby sea turtle and his mommy gathered around with all of the other fish. The baby sea turtle pointed to the star and said, "Hey look everybody, he looks like a star from the sky above."
All of the fish looked at the star and they all agreed. So the fish decided to call him a starfish. The new starfish couldn't believe what was going on. Was this truly happening or was he just dreaming?
The starfish told the fish what had happened and how he had always wanted to come down to the ocean to play with them, because they always looked like they were having so much fun.
The fish were all fascinated with him and asked, "Would you like to swim around with us and play fish games?"
"I would love to. You have no idea how long I have wanted to hear someone ask me that," said the starfish.
The starfish had never seen so many fish in all of his life and thought it was amazing how they each had something special about them. Some of them were shiny while others were plain. Some of them had bright colors, while others had dim colors. Some of them looked very soft and slimy, while others looked dry and rough. He thought each fish was beautiful and could not wait to make friends with each one of them. They started to play games and the starfish could not believe what he had been missing.
Now, because the star was granted his wish, people from all around the world wish upon falling stars to grant their wishes, too.
“Thank-you, madam, a Merry Christmas to you and God bless!” The bell above the door tinkled merrily as a swell of rosy-cheeked holiday shoppers rushed into the bakery, their hats and scarves sparkling with a dusting of snow. A blast of crisp London wind followed them in and danced around the shop along with the sweet aroma drifting from the kitchen. Arthur closed his eyes and took a deep breath, taking in the Christmas spirit alive within his bakery. Everything in the shop seemed to glow with holiday cheer and Arthur embraced it. He had owned the bakery for fifteen years and it had become his life and his passion. Though the living was a poor one, he felt perfectly content.
Somewhere in the city, a bell tolled out the hour of closing time. Arthur gave a cheery farewell to the last of his customers, and shut the door behind them. He turned around slowly to gaze fondly at his shop. Bathed in lamplight, the rich oak paneling and smooth marble countertops gave the little bakery a welcoming feeling which Arthur was very proud of. After surveying his shop for a few moments, he began his nightly routine of dusting the countertops. As he worked, his hand brushed against a small envelope propped against the cash register. He absentmindedly put the letter inside of the cash register drawer and continued with his work.
Several minutes later, Arthur stepped out onto the frosty cobblestone street where the lamplighters were already hard at work. After locking up the store, he started off down the street toward his home. When he came to the street corner, he spotted a group of children across the way. He smiled to himself. He knew these children well. They were beggars, and they often stood outside of his bakery in hopes of receiving a shilling from a generous holiday shopper. They were very young, but it seemed to Arthur that they had wisdom far beyond their years. He made his way across the street towards the children, as he did every evening, and smiled warmly at them.
“ Now, what have we here? Upon my word! Surely these must be Christmas angels! ”
The children giggled quietly to one another but joined him in the game.
“Ay, sir, that we are. But you see, sir, we seem to have lost our wings!”
“ Dear me, that is most unfortunate. Yes, indeed, a terrible loss. I’m afraid that I haven’t seen them anywhere, but I think that these may belong to you. ”
Arthur reached into his coat pocket and pulled out several shillings, one for each child to put in the tin cups they carried. The shillings gave a cheery “plink” as they were dropped into the cups, almost as if the shillings themselves were singing a Christmas melody. The children smiled gratefully at Arthur who again reached into his coat pocket, this time pulling out a large paper bag.
“By the by, do any of you young rascals happen to know anyone who likes gingerbread?”
The children’s eyes grew large and sparkled like the falling snow.
“Perhaps not. Awful stuff, gingerbread. I’m sure that nobody here likes it.”
The children all shouted, “We love it!” with such force that several passersby looked around in alarm. Arthur laughed heartily at the embarrassed expressions on the children’s faces and passed around the bag of gingerbread. He then bid the children “Good night” and walked home feeling slightly warmer in the frigid night air.
The next morning arrived with a rush of activity and excitement. It was Christmas Eve. Arthur unlocked the bakery door and opened it to the busy streets. Sounds of caroling and laughter reached his ears as golden rays of morning sunlight crept softly into the bakery, awakening the darkness. Arthur headed into his shop with a wave of eager shoppers in his wake. The store was cleared of merchandise almost instantly, and as the crestfallen shoppers stared in disbelief at the empty shelves, a beaming Arthur emerged from the kitchen laden with tray upon tray of hot bread. The pleasant “ding” of the cash register and “pling” from the bell above the doorway serenaded the shoppers as they bustled about the shop with Arthur watching fondly on.
The day passed all too quickly for Arthur’s liking, and when the bells rang out for closing time, he locked the door unwillingly and began to wipe down the countertops. As he cleaned, he noticed a shilling which he had neglected to place in the cash register. The cash register sang its merry tune as Arthur put the shilling inside. He had just begun to close the drawer when a flash of white inside caught his eye. Beneath several one pound notes was the envelope he had stumbled upon yesterday. Arthur carefully ripped the seal and pulled out the letter inside, holding it up to the lamplight for a better view. As he read the letter, he put a hand on the countertop to steady himself. He looked up from the letter and stared blankly into the shop, allowing the effect of the words he had just read to sink in. After several silent minutes, he lowered his gaze back to the piece of paper clenched within his sweating palm and slowly began to read it aloud.
“Mr. Burbank, as your creditor, it is my unpleasant duty to inform you that the mortgage payments on your bakery have not been paid within the amount of time allotted to you. Regretfully, if these payments have not been met by midnight of December 24, we will have no choice but to foreclose on your mortgage. I will arrive at your bakery at ten minutes to midnight in order to complete all of the necessary forms.
I remain respectfully yours,
Arthur lowered himself onto a chair and stared at the wood floor. The constant supply of holiday patrons in his shop over the past few weeks had completely driven the mortgage payments from his mind. The sounds of light footsteps outside of the store reached Arthur’s ears, but were quickly forgotten as fresh waves of grief washed over him. With three hours until midnight, he knew that he couldn’t possibly make up for all of the weeks of payments that he had missed; his bakery would have to be closed. With no source of income, he would also have to sell his small house. He would be turned out into the streets of London with no money, no hope, and no future.
Arthur took much longer to close the shop that night than he normally did. Each familiar smell and sound swept over him and he fought back tears. His life as he knew it was crashing down around him and he was powerless to stop it. After removing the very last of the shillings from the cold iron cash register, Arthur doused the oil lamps, plunging the little shop into darkness. He ran his hand over the smooth surface of the marble countertop one last time and stepped out into the cold night air.
Large snowflakes began falling steadily as Arthur painfully made his way through the empty streets of London. His footsteps echoed mournfully off of the frosty pavement only to be overwhelmed and stifled by the piercing darkness of a starless sky. Arthur’s mind was so numb with disbelief that he barely noticed the group of children standing huddled in a pool of lamplight. They greeted Arthur more quietly than usual and stood in silence as he attempted to smile at them. He would miss their cheerful faces entering his shop on Christmas morning, tin cups full of a year’s savings, eager for food. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the last of his shillings. With a broken voice he whispered “Merry Christmas” and dropped the coins into the little tin cups set upon the ground. He then gave one last brave smile and continued on his way. The children said nothing to one another but watched on solemnly as Arthur’s hunched form faded down the street and was obscured by a mist of falling snow.
An hour later, Arthur returned to the store after packing up the few possessions in his small house. Everything that he owned in the world was now in the small, shabby carpet bag at his side. It was now well past midnight; the creditor would have already foreclosed his mortgage, but he felt as though he needed to take one last look at the bakery before joining the homeless population of London. As he grasped the frost covered doorknob, he noticed a golden stream of light peering from behind the window curtains. Feeling completely mystified, Arthur opened the door and stepped inside to find the shop bathed not in darkness, but in the familiar glow of lamplight. The creditor was nowhere to be found and yet the lamps were still ablaze. He gazed about cautiously. The shop was exactly as he had left it, all except for a small white note propped against the cash register. Arthur took the note in a trembling hand and opened it very slowly. It read simply “Bill paid in full.” Beside it sat several empty tin cups.
Elizabeth was a quiet girl, but she had a good heart. That was the reason James Kenson fell in love with her. He knew she had been around; Elizabeth had been married twice before. The first husband was killed when he got sick with cholera. All John knew about the second husband James, was that he was in an accident with Elizabeth and after that their relationship was never the same.
Elizabeth was a beautiful girl, her long blond hair bobbed from side to side as she walked. She was shy and had a mysterious air to her that made you want to know more. Once people got to know her they had a straight opinion about her. You either thought she was unusual and odd, or you saw her as sweet and just shy. James had loved her very much but now her third marriage was becoming strained. He always knew she disliked water, but over the months her fear for the liquid had become more severe. He found out about this way back when they were planning the wedding, three years ago to be exact.
“Darling, where shall we get married?”
“By the house would be nice, or maybe in the church. What do you think?”
“That’s lovely but I say somewhere more romantic, what about by the ocean.” Elizabeth stared off out the window. “Elizabeth what do you think,” he said again.
“Oh, oh sorry I was just thinking that it sounds lovely, it’s just that I don’t like the ocean.”
“What, you don’t like the ocean, everyone loves the ocean!”
“I don’t know why I don’t like it,” she said defensively, “you know my memory is bad from the accident. I must have fallen in when I was a child.”
He didn’t like to ask her about the accident or her past marriages. Since her memory was weary about certain events, he left questions alone. They settled for marriage in their local church.
John was a business man, a successful one so money was not a problem for him. They had a beautiful house together about an hour away from the coast in Virginia. It was a grand old blue Victorian, which had once been owned by the first Mayor back in 1840. There was a quaint little creek that ran through the back yard near the forest which Elizabeth disliked.
“It’s a hazard, what happens if it floods?”
The house was bought anyway; John insisted it was the right one.
“A flood, there hasn’t been one in decades!”
John loved to have parties, he was a spontaneous man, and did love to drink. Elizabeth didn’t see the purpose in this. She said hello to everyone and then usually disappeared into her room after that. People began to wonder if something was wrong with Elizabeth.
“Oh, she’s just shy, she’s not much of a drinker,” replied John.
He noticed that she never bathed much. Only when she was home alone would she take a bath. It would be days, and then he’d go on a business trip and she’d be smelling like roses again when he came home.
“What is wrong with you, you seem so distant to me. You never want to take part in our socials. “Lets take a walk by the creek and.”
“No, not the creek,” she cut in.
“Fine, is the parlor okay?” John knew she had a problem, something was not right. Her behavior was becoming more and more erratic.
“A problem, I have no problem. I just like to stay were I feel comfortable. I don’t like the creek.”
“You also don’t like bathing; the ocean, and you hardly ever have a drink. What is wrong with you, have I done something wrong?”
“No, nothing, I just don’t like water.” The secret was out, he now knew her fear. She couldn’t explain it but she just didn’t like it. A terribly odd feeling of danger came over her whenever she was near it. The accident she said, something happened in the accident.”
“What, what happened?”
“I don’t know,- I don’t remember. I’ve been seeing things, a man, and I’m trapped, like in a car.
“I know, he said, I know what happened. You were in the wreck on Sawmill road. I saw it in the newspaper about two years ago. A couple was driving and the road was flooded ahead, once they saw the water they tried to turn back, but they slid, the car over turned and the people were trapped. That must have been you and James.” She shuddered when she heard his name, but wasn’t sure why.
“Oh, dear,” that’s all she could say about it. They talked about it until late in the night. She made him believe that that was what had happened. He thought now things will be better.
“I’m here for you if you ever need to talk, don’t be afraid.” Even though her memory was vague, she did know one thing, there was no car accident, it was something else.
After the talk Elizabeth’s problem only worsened.
“I’m taking you to Dr. Paul. He is the best doctor around and will find out what is wrong with you.”
Elizabeth knew there was nothing physically wrong, but agreed to go anyway.
“ Well, your heart is weak, so you must be careful not to get over excited, but the anxiousness must be a side effect from her accident, said Paul. It seems to be having an effect on your mental state.” He told her to write down her feelings in a diary, to help her remember what really happened. John was outraged by his inquiry of Elizabeth and believed there was nothing mentally wrong with his wife. Elizabeth knew he was right and secretly kept a diary about her thoughts when the fear came over her. She knew something had happened with water but what? The diary helped her slowly put the pieces together. She kept seeing a man standing over her in her sleep, he was pushing her down, but then she’d look again and he would be gone. Putting the pieces together with the diary helped Elizabeth, the fears decreased but she still wanted to figure out the truth.
One day Elizabeth was outside for a walk, when she saw a fire burning out from the fireplace. She wondered what John was doing with a fire in the middle of the summer so she went inside.
“What are you doing with this!” as he held up her diary.
“Please no, don’t John, it’s helping me.”
“Helping you with what, by putting more crazy ideas into your head? There will be no more of this,” then he tossed the book into the fire place. He grabbed her hand and made her watch. There is nothing wrong with you. You may have a weak heart, but your mind is fine!” But, she was not fine; as he grabbed her a major piece of the puzzle was found. She looked up at him, but he was no longer there, it was James. Her heart hurt, and her head was dizzy. She couldn’t see; she was blind.
“She will face her fears once and for all.” He carried her to the creek. He waited for her to regain her composure, and as she opened her eyes she saw she was in the water. She looked up as she sank, she saw James with a sinister grin on his face. The memory came rushing back to her. He tried to drown her, and he was doing it again, only this time he would succeed.