Fake Blood


My life has been marked by symbolism, with video games providing some of the most poignant moments. Yes, you read me right: time-ravaging life-debilitating muscle-atrophying video games.

When I first held the original Nintendo controller, I held it upside down. The black cord jutted toward me, level with my bellybutton, and then curved down and away—an umbilical between me and the 8-bit box. Mind you, it wasn’t that I thought the controller was right-side up. Rather, I was convinced that upside-down was the better way to play. That Mario and Luigi had a hard time conforming their behavior to my inverted will was not really my problem.

The moral to this fable? Even as a child, I was predisposed to making things more difficult than they were designed to be—a trait I lugged with pride well into my adult years. So, hurray! Nintendo has taught me something about myself, and the lesson is a heavy one. But that’s not the half of it.

I learned to drive in an arcade at the ready age of three-and-a-half. Sitting in my father’s lap while he worked the pedals (my legs were too short to reach), I would steer the roving racecar as if I were dodging landmines, yanking the wheel right then left and watching with evident satisfaction as the car burst into an orange blip coupled with the digitized crunch of what must have been somebody’s idea of a sound-effect. It was in this same arcade that I learned you shouldn’t yell Damn! every time Mario gets killed, though I couldn’t understand why at the time.

The way I saw it, the games demanded an unadulterated display of aggression. To lick my chops at an exploding car or to curse Mario for getting whacked by a turtle shell was just my way of honoring the deal.

Roughly a decade later, the gaming structure had evolved so that four friends could sit side by side, stare at the same TV, and casually—not to mention methodically—plot out the most gratifying way to kill one another. For me to say that I was a kind of prodigy in this enterprise is not to embellish the truth: I gunned down my opponents with such alacrity and precision that pretty soon it became second nature to me. Just ask any of my friends.

I remember my first experience with this new and intriguing world. Here, the awareness of a short, scrawny, pale-skinned twelve-year-old could be transferred into the 64-bit polygonal framework of a muscular, scowling titan who wielded some type of modified assault rifle—or if you got lucky early in the match, a bazooka. In this world, I was someone to be both feared and respected.

I won’t say that I won every match, but I did win most of them. What’s more, I made doubly sure that everyone was aware of my God-given proficiency. After a few hours, my friends were ready to take the fight off-screen and kill me for real. I don’t blame them; by that point we were all so numb to our bloodlust that hatred and venom came as naturally as breathing. If we could say something nice, then it wasn’t worth saying. For the rest of that day, wherever we went—to the beach, the mall, a pizza buffet—our spite followed us like a cloud, ready to unleash at any moment a storm of our own making. None of us wondered why we were so quick to anger.

A few years passed, and on we played. A popular game among our ranks was far less violent than the one previously described, but the consequences were no different. The premise: choose your favorite Nintendo character, pick an arena from a dozen different Nintendo environs, and utilize items ranging from baseball bats to laser swords—deposited randomly at the auspices of an invisible god—to knock your opponent out of bounds. Good old-fashioned knock-out fun, right?

Not for me. As innocent and bloodless as the game was, I was still in it for the glory of the kill. If I couldn’t win, then what was the point? So, I found ways to manipulate the rules without cheating. The way I saw it, anything the game let you do had to be considered legal even if it was unconventional or even a tad “cheap.” There was just one problem: my friends did not share my conviction. So, when I figured out that I could grab my opponents, strap them to my back and then leap out of bounds, thereby killing my character and theirs too, all hell broke loose.

“You can’t do that, Adam!” they would shout, to which I would reply with a smirk, “Really?” and then do it again. To me it was just the logic of winning: if I had more “lives” then the rest of them, then this became a very effective strategy. No matter how many times I killed my character, I would end up on the upside—because I would be the last player standing. There’s no doubt that I was right and that it wasn’t really cheating. But it doesn’t change the fact that the game turned me into a plain-dealing ass.

Sure, I was the victor often enough, but what did I win? The more than deserved enmity of my friends, to be certain. And if someone else won, the results were usually no different. It should have been about having fun, but how could it be when the game’s sole agenda was to pit brother against brother, while each sat side by side drinking sodas and pausing every few minutes to wipe pizza grease off on their shorts?

To be fair, conflict was not always the result. I remember playing one-on-one with my good friend, Chad. As we realized that we were both down to our last lives—that it was a matter of sudden death—he paused the game, stretched out his hand to me and said, “Good game, dude.” I remember being convicted because I had not thought to do the same. But then, of the two of us, he has always been more prone to show humility.

I, however, was still in it for the kill. In this particular case, the game was not the problem. We hashed it out fair and square until the moment he sent my character soaring. That was one of the few times I remember losing with something like a speck of dignity. It was a thing I had to be taught.

Years later, when I became a man—or close enough to one to be admitted into that category—I found that the only way to play games was to make time for them. So, I didn’t play that often. I was attending college in Colorado and most of my time was devoted to studying; if I did play, it was to pass a wakeful half-hour with something casual before going to bed: Yoshi’s Island, Donkey Kong, and Sonic the Hedgehog to name the favorites. Like me, my friends were dispersed across the globe in pursuit of their singular quests. It had been ages since I’d fought in the arena of simulated warfare. I was certain that I had gotten rusty, that I had lost my touch.

As it turns out, I lost a great deal more than my touch. But in the process, I gained something else.

Returning home one summer, I decided to go back and play one of my all time favorites. A revolutionary game for its time, it immersed the player in an Orwellian world of resistance fighters pitted against the forces of a totalitarian government. Almost anyone who played the game could tell its story-writers were apt students of literature and history, and that the game’s design was the result of gifted physicists, engineers, and architects. It was then and still is a work of art in its respective medium. So there I was, home for the summer with a day all to myself to do whatever I wanted; I couldn’t wait to play it again.

When the first enemy started shooting at me, I aimed my pistol at his head and squeezed off three shots. The controller vibrated in my hands to simulate the aftershock of pistol fire, and I watched a burst of red spatter the concrete wall behind the enemy’s head. Clearly, the game-designers had studied the various behaviors for specific kinds of exit wounds. My artificial, make-believe enemy crumpled to the ground in a heap and just lay there. Simulated killing had resulted in simulated death. What else did I expect?

I felt a cold shock go through me. The controller slid out of my hands and into my lap. I just stared at the screen, at the glossy pistol that served as the only evidence of my presence in that world.

Out loud, I said, “I am pretending to blow someone’s brains out.”

After all the time I had spent defending simulated violence as a way to release aggression (a fact which is supported by research), as a harmless pursuit, as no different from watching an R-rated war movie, I had never considered it for what it was at its most basic level.

“I am pretending to blow someone’s brains out.” I sat there and I recited this phrase, like a litany, for I don’t know how long.

And as I sat there, I saw the history of myself in video games. My first experience with the Nintendo had instantly brought out the rebel in me, the contrarian for contrary’s sake. In the driver’s seat I learned to enjoy carnage in perhaps its most innocent and unassuming form, and with Mario I learned there was something in me, a spark of rage, that could be lit like a fuse and charged to ignite. Later, when I was most impressionable, I learned that I could gun down my friends in a make-believe coliseum, that they could gun me down as well, that when it was all said and done it was just a game and it really didn’t mean anything. Just like it didn’t mean anything when we were out in the real world and one of us would lash out at the slightest provocation.

In games, my competitive spirit thrived. It didn’t matter what we played; if I played it, I played to win. To kill even when killing was not the emphasis. It took an outside influence to remind me that there was such a thing as a noble way to lose—that while winning temporarily sated my lust, humility was the way to never be hungry again.

Many people may think that I am doing now exactly what I did with my first controller; that I am making something more difficult than it needs to be, or inverting facts based on my own subjective experiences. Maybe I am.

That day when I played the same game I had played a hundred times before without a second thought, only to feel the act of killing for what it must really be like—to have my breath sucked out of me as I put a pretend bullet through a pretend head and watched pretend blood spray a pretend concrete wall—may have just been an off day for me. Maybe I was just more vulnerable than usual. Who knows? They’re only games, after all.

The Brazen Bull


Phase one usually doesn’t harm a soul. It’s the thinking phase, the inceptive hovering over the face of black waters. Nothing is spoken and no promises are made—there is no law and no one to break it, no light and thus no understanding of darkness. Nothing is right and nothing is wrong. A voice says “light be.” Suddenly a veil splits from top to bottom and it is this perpetual tearing of the immaterial that carves its way toward the farthest reach of eternity. This is phase two, the vocalizing of the concept that causes a new world to envelop the old. If this stage is initiated, the one in charge is responsible for making sure that the original idea is sound and, most importantly, something that produces life.

If human beings engender a concept to produce life, they rarely do it on purpose. One can speculate whether they would be capable of perpetuating themselves were it not for the pleasure-seeking impulse that guides them instinctively toward sex. In and of themselves, humans rarely approach phase one with the kind of purity attributable to One; let us call him the “First.”

Phase three orders the “produce” of phase two so as to create a life-perpetuating cycle. With the First it was probably an age-long process of assigning which organisms would become fish, land-crawlers, flyers, beasts of prey and burrowing creatures. To achieve his end, he placed them in a context which we would call “time” and then set them to work. By all accounts, he saw that this was good.

Then the First creates men and women, gives them a piece of himself, and stands by as they excommunicate him from the order of things. In this new order, human beings take it upon themselves to carry out the three-phase process of thought, speech, and action. This is how all things move toward death.

 * * *

I am hidden in a crowd of Israelites and Canaanites. That is, until they bow to a statue with the head of a bull, its jewel-encrusted arms outstretched and sloping back toward a hollow, bulging abdomen from which tongues of flame curl like whiplashes and lick the dry night air. Reluctant to bow, I retreat behind a nearby boulder and, keeping close to its shadow, peer out at the ranks of worshipers. The chalky feel of the rock reminds me that I am both here and now, and that the fire churning in the statue’s belly is hardly the stuff of dreams.

Drums boom and trumpets sound as a robed, priestly man ascends three stone steps toward a great plinth set before the towering bull. The priest or king carries what looks like a naked baby—I see something like plump feet kicking out at nothing, while stubby-fingered hands grope for the softness of a mother’s skin only to clench at a thistly beard or a piece of linen covering a flat, foreign chest.

A woman kneels at the steps and buries her face in her arms, and I watch her shoulders heave and her body quiver. The drums thunder to drown out the baby’s deafening screams; the people begin to make a sound as of wind among treetops. The robed man holds the baby aloft before the bull’s flat nose. Above the nose rests a pair of impassive eyes, and I remember with a tinge of irony that some artisan-slave with a liberal ingenuity must have carved them that way. At first I wonder if the man holding the baby is Solomon or Ahaz, but that question slips from me just as the baby slips from the bull’s upraised palms and rolls down the bronze arms toward the belly of fire.

The flames spit, crackle, and glow. The bull smiles in the play of light and shadow. In spite of trumpets and drums and whirring voices I hear the child’s scream as if it were echoing the suppressed cry of rage that splits my heart.

And then I see it: this is phase three of human initiative, ordered and set by the precedence of thought and speech. “Oh God in heaven,” I cry within myself, “how did it come to this?” But I already know the answer. It’s because phase one did not hurt anybody, and phase two was just freedom of speech in all its explorative beauty. And after much critical thinking and a series of discussions, someone decided that it would be in the people’s best interest to burn babies alive, while the command “Do not give any of your children to be sacrificed to Molek” was labeled as an antiquated piece of advice—take it or leave it.

I turn away as the priest lifts another child toward the glowing altar.

* * *

When I wake from it, I’m still in the car. Driving of all things. The last thing I remember is pulling out of Jake’s driveway, and then something started talking to me about phases. We’re almost to my place now. He’s in the passenger seat, carrying on a serious discussion as if I’ve been listening the whole time. “The problem,” he says, “is that we can’t really determine when life begins. And if we try to, we may as well be playing god. Know what I mean?”

I realize that he has come to the end of his point and that it’s time for me to respond.

“No,” I say. “I don’t.”

I can still see the brazen bull, but his lifeless eyes don’t see me.

“You don’t?” He folds his eyebrows at me. “But I’ve just explained it.”

“Why are we talking about this?” I ask.

“Because you brought it up,” he says.

“Did I?” I turn onto the road that dead-ends at my place.

“Yeah. You said it was a simple matter of right and wrong, life and death. So I was explaining how it’s much more complicated than that. Were you even listening?”

I pull into my driveway and turn off the ignition. We sit for I don’t know how long, both of us waiting for me to say something. This is phase two, I realize. We’re making ourselves feel better by talking about it and talking about it until we renounce anything resembling a concrete resolution.

Sitting in the quietude of his impatient stare, I don’t have to try very hard to hear the thundering drums and the blasting trumpets. And to see the bright, blazing stomach with its tongues of flame coiling around a naked baby feels like really seeing for a change. Then, it comes to me as if from somewhere else—I believe the First has given it to me. I see Eve as she rationalizes eating the fruit and Adam as he rationalizes sharing it. I see Cain as he justifies his anger toward his brother. I see human history as the complicating of simple matters, and I know with whom it began: a garden snake speaks of wisdom and the way to know both good and evil.

“Well,” he says, “were you listening or not?”

I speak without looking at him. “Yes,” I say. “I heard every word.”

The Ninety-Eighth Conduit


Highway 98 will guide you along the emerald coast, out of one thriving condo-city into another, past the wealth and splendor of Destin all the way to a beat-down corner of Jack’s hometown where it changes its name to 15th Street, as if ashamed of what is has become. I’m in the back seat, trying to be invisible. Jack, who has recently become a case worthy of my objective analysis, is sitting in the passenger seat with his hands resting lifeless on his runner’s thighs. Elsa—blonde, beautiful, blue-eyed, intelligent—is our designated driver because the car belongs to her parents.

We are heading east and nearing the threshold of Destin, the only city I’ve ever known to capitalize on creation and still achieve a utopian equilibrium. You can’t say anything bad about Destin. To pass through it without stopping, you almost have to plug your ears and blindfold your eyes like you were sailing past the isle of sirens.

“So,” Jack says to Elsa, “are we done? You and me?”

I don’t blame him for bringing it up. It’s been like waiting for water to boil since we pulled out of the condo at Blue Sands. Jack’s been itching for her to say something because, after all, she is the one whose fire has cooled. Like any killer, she is the type to let things die without asking if they’re really dead. Jack, the more sensitive one, has a harder time letting things go.

“I don’t know,” she says. The sadness in her voice makes me wonder if she isn’t as much a victim of her habits as anybody.

Jack smiles. “You don’t know?” He laughs softly, warmly. “That means it’s over.”

Yes, Jack. You’ve come to it at last.

A month ago I had warned him that it would come to this or worse. Two weeks ago she had lain in his arms as a supple body of delicate warmth; often he had latched to her like a newborn to its mother, as perverse as that must sound. So, I wasn’t surprised when he finally told me that he didn’t care what I said—that he was tired of being lonely. “How do you think I feel?” I had wanted to say, but I just kept silent. Now that the moment has arrived, I find that I cannot pity him.

“I’m sorry,” Elsa says. Her cheeks are streaked with real tears, and so I do pity her. She knows what she has done, but it’s not entirely her fault.

We halt at a red-light just as we’re passing the Destin shopping outlets. I take this opportunity to float up, out of the car, and hover for a moment over the face of oblivion: it’s a parking lot, but from where I float it looks like a circuit-board with electrons in a constant, orderly state of flux. One electron almost bumps into another, and the two sit like two shock-frozen insects for a good thirty seconds before finally starting up again. To the south, I hear the waves breathing. I think: only human beings would imprison themselves on the fringes of heaven. Remembering my charge—the boy Jack—I return to the ninety-eighth conduit, into the electron-capsule where Elsa is still crying and Jack is staring coldly out at nothing. I get there just as the light turns green.

“Please don’t cry,” Jack tells her. “You’re not the one who’s to blame.”

So he knows the deal, at least. He knows that he must bear the consequences of risk as any sober-minded man ought. I resist the impulse to shake my head, fearing to give up my invisibility. It’s the situation that’s pitiable.

“I’m sorry I hurt you,” she says. Her tearful eyes follow the curve of the road.

“I let myself be hurt,” he says. “I just wish you would have told me it was over. You owed me that much.”

“I was afraid,” she says. “I didn’t know what to say.”

“I know,” he says, “and it’s all right. It’s done and that’s all that matters.”

Yes, it is done, but whether for the last time remains uncertain. Perhaps now Jack will learn that what he really needs is already his, and that all he has to do is ask for it. But who can say? At the moment, I’m still invisible, hardly a consideration in his plan for self-reconstruction. He is still thinking in terms of the conduit, of his most recent failure as a signpost on the “inescapable” highway.

Looking at the GPS screen beneath the dashboard, I see a multicolored outlay of the coast. It shows our position in the conduit, to the left of a green margin, to the left of a blue margin—highway 98, the coast, the Gulf of Mexico.

Heaven is less than a mile south of us, and all it takes to get there is a right-hand turn off of the road most traveled. I’ve been telling Jack this since he was a baby, and so I don’t bother to tell him now. I am confident that his wounds will heal, and that he’ll remember me soon enough. So I stop, let the car pass through me, and watch Jack and Elsa fade into the distance. I know Jack by the distinct, blazing color of his heart—it is all I’ve ever seen in him since the dawn of time.

In need of a little free air, I decide to float up high enough to get the same view I had on the GPS screen. Far beneath me, the electrons are channeling through the conduit like blood platelets in an artery, coagulating in places and bleeding out in others. Condos, like fortresses, line the white sands that mark the threshold of my kingdom. Again I realize what I’ve known for a long time: that most people aren’t really looking for heaven. They’d rather fight for parking spaces outside the gates.

Sparing the Rib


“What about you and your woman?” he asked me.

I sat across from him in the dark room and watched him light his pipe. For a second the room flared in the frail light of the match; the drapes behind him glowed red. Then he waved out the match and tossed it somewhere. Now it was just the moonlight from the window and the tobacco in his pipe, smoldering in its hollow. His eyes in the fading light were dark chasms whose cores burned small embers. I could smell it almost as soon as he lit it. Reminded me of some good place I had been to as a child but, now, could not fully remember.

“What woman?” I said. “There’ve never been any women much less any woman.” I took a sip of my coffee. It was hot and bitter, the way I preferred.

He made a noise under his breath and coughed once. “The one you spoke of about a year back. What happened to her?”

“Oh,” I said. “She got married. I was invited to the wedding but… other things to do with my time.”

“Yeah,” he said. He blew a smoke ring into the air and I could see it for a moment before it drifted up to the ceiling and vanished.

“Yeah,” I said. “It’s always the same, isn’t it?”

“What is?”

“Hell, I don’t know.”

“Yeah,” he said. “Me neither.”

I rested in the soft chair with both hands wrapped around the warm ceramic mug, the sweat from my palms making it slick against my skin. I breathed in the smoke from his pipe and let it do its work on me, coughing a little and taking sips between coughs. We relished these late hours in the silence of one another’s company as we had in times past, for it was the dark that unburdened us of our thoughts and kept them hidden from outsiders.

“Our fathers found good women,” he said. “Didn’t they?”

“Yes,” I said. “They did. I’ve often wondered what’s made us so different from our fathers.”

“What do you mean?” he said, his pipe clenched between his teeth. “We’re just like them. They are good men and we are good men too.”

“Then what’s the difference?”

“The difference is the times,” he said. “The difference is that woman is evolving and man is staying the same. You remember the Tarzan stories?”

“Of course, but what’s that got to do with—”

“Remember how the first book ends?”

I nodded. “Yeah. Tarzan and Jane don’t end up together.”

“Well,” he said. “Imagine Burroughs had never written sequels where they do end up together, or he had died before he could write them, or you had never known about them. If one novel is all there is, then how does Tarzan’s story end?”

“It ends with him alone,” I said, and then found myself assailed by the stark reality of the observation: even the multilingual, super-intelligent Lord of the Jungle with his washboard stomach and godlike courage couldn’t win the heart of the woman he loved. What chance did any of us have?

He nodded slowly, as if he were falling asleep, and breathed a curl of smoke. “Maybe that’s the path of the true hero,” he said.

“I get the feeling you’re right,” I said, “though I wish you weren’t.”

“God,” he said. He took the pipe out of his mouth and, holding it, rested his arm against his thigh. “I hope I’m wrong.”

But I knew he wasn’t wrong. I knew he wasn’t because I had often wondered the same thing myself, only I wasn’t as good at fleshing it out as he was. See, we were two good men who took great care to live decently and to uphold justice whenever it needed upholding, or so we liked to think at least. Since youth, we had modeled ourselves after great literary heroes—Greystoke, Odysseus, Edmond Dantès, Duncan Idaho—thinking that such traits would cause the most noble and beautiful women to flock to us.

But time had stalked us first as children, then as lustful and hormone-frenzied teenagers fighting to resist nature, only to confront us as full grown men without wives, without girlfriends even. It sounds like a trifling thing to complain over, but a woman’s companionship is the surest thing by which a man can survive in this world. Like the first Adam, we are left with a vacant gap in the cage that guards our hearts, and as time passes we grow only more conscious of a breach which only an Eve can repair.

I think that’s why we sat at times like these late into the midnight hours, feeding off each other’s presence, wondering at the condition of our ultimate selves—at the fog-laden destiny that lay far ahead of us upon some mirthless and blind sea…

“What’s that?” he said.

I looked up at him, startled. His face was glowing in the dim, smoky moonlight.

“Oh,” I said. “I was just thinking out loud. Guess I was saying that I couldn’t see far ahead of myself. Like trying to peer through a fog, you know.”

“Yeah,” he said. He leaned back and smoked his pipe. “Stuffy in here.”

There was nothing more to say. Feeling tired in spite of the coffee, I set the mug on the table beside my chair. I can’t remember when I finally drifted off to sleep, but then I guess no one ever does. You sleep and you wake, sleep and wake again, while during the intervals you strive to feed the deepening void, only to deepen it more. Yet, I am told that at some point you stop searching for the rib God took from you, and instead you start searching for Him. That’s what I am told.

Midnight Highway (What I’ve got so far…)


“It isn’t what you think,” he said.

“No? What is it then?” she said. He looked over at her but she kept her eyes on the highway. Beyond the glow of the headlights she could see the curve of the road line with trees, mostly pines. Trees were everywhere, flying past the truck in great sweeping hordes. They hadn’t seen another car since they had driven through some little place called Greensmith half an hour ago.

“There’s no point trying to convince you when you get like this,” he said.

“I don’t know what you mean,” she said. She still did not look at him.

The truck was cruising at seventy-five miles per hour and she felt as if the soft whirring of wind alongside the windows and beneath the chassis would put her to sleep before too long. She wondered if falling asleep wouldn’t be some spell of his.

“You put up your wall and that’s the end of it,” he said. “Like you’re doing now. There’s nothing I can say that will make you understand.”

“I understand perfectly,” she said. “Why does anything else need to be said?” She moved a strand of hair from her face and then studied her fingernails.

“I suppose you’re right,” he said.

She laughed softly. “About what?”

“There’s nothing more to talk about.”

She looked through the window, watching the movement of space-time and wondering whether she moved through it or if it moved in spite of her. She was in awe of the swift blur of dark trees beneath a moon that neither wavered nor changed pace.

“Space and time move through us,” she said under her breath. “They move and we wake up in another place far from home. But when the point arrives at us, will we ask, ‘How came we here?’”

She felt him looking at her but she didn’t turn around. As long as she didn’t look at him, she felt alone. The feeling soothed her anger.

“You write your best poetry when you’re angry with me,” he said.

She smiled but didn’t let him see it. “Don’t flatter yourself,” she said.

He laughed and she found herself both hating and loving him for it—for the sound of his laughter alone.

 

* * *

 

An hour later they stopped for gas at a little station just off the main highway. She looked about the place as soon as they pulled up, taking a quick assessment of everything from the gas-pumps to the rusted dumpster behind the building. She found herself wanting to believe that the place might be closed, but the lights were on everywhere and the sign in the window buzzed a neon OPEN. She wanted to suggest finding some other place to stop—she kept quiet because she knew what he would say.

An old Volvo was parked on the side of the building and a newer-looking Jeep idled in front of the convenient store with its lights on. There were two people inside the store, the cashier and a customer shuffling around the area where they kept the cold drinks. Their truck pulled up alongside the pump and the engine faded as Martin turned the key. When the headlights went out, she noticed the nauseating flicker of a dying fluorescent bulb in the awning overhead. God, what a place.

“I’ll wait here,” she said, shielding her eyes.

“All right,” he said. “I’m going in while the tank fills up. Do you want anything?”

“Just water I guess,” she said.

“No snacks or anything. Just water?”

She nodded. “Just water. Thank you.”

He got out of the truck and shut the door. She watched him place the nozzle into the tank, and then watched the numbers climb beside the digital dollar sign. She followed him with her eyes as he went inside and walked back toward the men’s room. The cashier glanced up at him as he entered, nodded. He nodded back. She saw him go into the men’s room and close the door behind him.

She wondered if it would be over by the time he got back. Yes, she knew it would be. He would get back in the truck and then she would tell him what he must already know and what only she was brave enough to speak. The night’s drive home would be long enough without either of them saying what they felt—so she must say it for both of them.

The fluorescent bulb sputtered, popped and hissed. Darkness spread over the truck like a thin but more than welcome blanket. She exhaled a deep breath, relieved at the absence of artificial light. She heard the nozzle click, wondered if she should get out and finish it. No, she thought. It was his truck after all. She didn’t owe him any favors. She sank into her seat and stared vacantly through the passenger window.

Two men wearing dark, heavy coats emerged from the black highway and strode toward the convenient store. They were tall, broadly built, and moved with a sense of purpose unfitting for both the time and the place—but then, people always looked suspicious at these kinds of places after dark. She looked around to see where they may have parked a car, and by then the first of them had swung open the glass door and stepped inside.

She sat frozen to her seatback as he drew a pistol and leveled it at the cashier—a burst of bright red spattered the multicolored canvas of cigarette cartons and lotto tickets. The cashier’s head kicked back, chin skyward, as he collapsed. She watched the second man level a shotgun toward the far corner aisle where the lonely shopper had ducked in terror. Her heart skipped at the sudden explosion of canned goods, cardboard and glass. A second blast followed. The man with the shotgun moved toward the refrigerated section and then peered over the debris, looking first with the barrel of his instrument. She saw him turn to the other gunman and nod—like it was that simple.

Then, the man with the pistol turned and moved toward the restrooms.

What had happened was now part of the unchangeable, she knew. But the little that remained—what might yet be done—struck her into a sudden burst of mobility like spurs in a horse’s rear.

That they hadn’t noticed her in the truck she attributed to grace or luck or a mingling of both. She opened the glove compartment and found the Ruger LCP compact pistol; it was supposed to be loaded but she double-checked to be sure. Sliding the clip into her palm, she felt the familiar weight: a column of hollow-points stacked and ready.

She reinserted the clip, racking the slide. She slipped off her sandals and then shoved open the passenger door. Planting her feet, she raised the pistol with both hands and aimed at the man carrying the shotgun. His back was to her. She squeezed the trigger.

To her relief, the glass wasn’t bulletproof. A needle of a hole marked the bullet’s entry and she saw her target reel from the shock, tumbling into a shelf lined with bags of potato chips.

That was all she needed to see.

Wheeling on her toes, she sprinted barefoot toward the dark highway. Crossing, a glance both ways told her the road was desolate. She knew they were coming for her; she hoped they would. They might forget about checking the bathrooms long enough for Martin to escape. She ran without stopping for a straight thirty seconds, blindly into the dark, toward a black wall of towering pines.

 

* * *

Deadland: Awakening


Chapter One

“And then I wake up,” I said.

My half-clothed body hung in the suspension cylinder, my arms outstretched toward its curved walls like a crucified man. I could feel my heart-rate decelerating, and my breaths were longer and deeper. The cylinder was doing its job well.

“Does the dream ever change?” A soft feminine voice asked me. I knew this session was being recorded, possibly even being viewed by an unseen live audience.

“No,” I said. “It’s the same every time.”

My voice lacked inflection, a result of the cylinder’s vocal modulator. The monotonous tone was designed to produce a calming effect on the speaker. When my time came to be placed in the cylinder, I was surprised by the modulator’s immediate effectiveness in regards to myself… it made me feel like I could say anything without fear of consequence. A dangerous feeling.

“That concludes this session, Lieutenant Allon,” the female voice said. “Would you like to remain in the cylinder for a while longer?”

“No,” I said. Too much of a good thing was never a good thing.

The holding field within the cylinder slowly dissipated, lowering me gently to the ground. I stepped through the door as it was opened and retrieved my clothes from the table in front of me. I said nothing to Gwen as I put on my pants. I watched her without appearing to watch, and I could sense that she watched me with the same acuteness—a glance showed me that her eyes were on her note tablet… then another and her eyes met mine. It had been a careless exchange on both our parts.

At the same time we both looked away, hoping that the people monitoring the room hadn’t noticed. I quickly put on my shirt and left. We would not attempt to meet again that night as we had on previous nights. It was too close to the hour of departure; no need to risk our one ticket off this cold, rotating derelict of a city.

She was the psychiatric officer enlisted for the voyage; her responsibility was to analyze all crewmembers prior to the launch, excluding Captain Dominic, who was analyzed by a separate committee. But the rest of us were approved or denied based on her professional assessment.

If anyone knew that we were seeing each other…

Captain Dominic was her father, an honorable man for whom I held the greatest admiration. He respected and trusted me. Like everyone else, he had no knowledge of my relationship with his beloved daughter.

As I walked the transparent floor of the ultra-glass corridor, I looked out over the city, upon the long rows of metallic towers varying in height and structure—they glowed with a blue radiance under the light of Geira’s gray star. There were no trees or plants above the surface on this world because they could not survive in such lifeless light. Instead, we kept them in underground greenhouses, where they thrived in artificial survival conditions. I’m not entirely certain as to how the greenhouses functioned but I know that the oxygen was harvested from the plants, where it was then ejected into our shielded atmosphere and continually recycled. The elementary basics of offworld civilization.

I had never seen Earth—I’d been told for most of my life that it was a place far worse than Geira. But now, for the first time in my twenty-four years of living, I was going to find out for myself.

When I was young, I remember asking my mother about it. She said it was nothing like the paradise it had been at one time, said it was a place to rob men of their souls, where the once glistening blue oceans had now become saturated with the blood of her own children. At the time it had sounded like an exaggeration.

I think she hated it, Earth I mean. My father died there… there in some cold, sunless desert or in some cavern outpost at the hands of the Unseen Enemy. Little news had come to us of his death. Little news ever came from that place many had come to know as Deadland. Now, I often wondered if there was perhaps more truth to my mother’s words than I had originally suspected.

I heard footsteps in the corridor behind me, but I didn’t look back to see who it was. I listened to the pattern of the footfalls, the rate of movement, the clicking of heels against the crystalline floor. I slowed down and waited for him to get closer.

“Hello, Tertius,” I said without looking at him.

“Good morning, sir,” he said in a voice that sounded remarkably human, more so than usual. “I sense that you are troubled. Do you wish to speak of it?”

“No, thank you,” I said calmly. “It’s nothing serious anyway… it’s just I haven’t been sleeping well the past few nights and I’m nervous about my first spaceflight. I spoke of it already to Gwen.”

“It is normal to experience apprehension prior to taking a deliberate life-altering course,” Tertius said.

“Life-altering?” I asked. Something in the way those two words had been forced together unsettled me. But then I guess it just meant I was normal.

“Yes,” the halfman said. “You have been here for the entirety of your life, brought up as a soldier but also kept within reach of your loved-ones, with whom you have fostered a safe attachment, an attachment that has served its purpose and now must be severed.”

I nodded but said nothing. No point in contending with a halfman on the matter of severing attachments.

We walked through the spiral glass doors and emerged onto a balcony overlooking the main lobby, where once it would have been normal to see over a hundred people going about their business. Since the Exodus, such a bustling community was not so common. The lobby was nearly empty but for two armed guards watching the entrance.

I would never openly say it, but I liked the city better now that half of its inhabitants had left to seek out other worlds, presumably never to return. Mankind had always been a divided species; it only made sense that we should break apart into distant factions.

“I find the quiet relaxing,” Tertius said, as if in tune with my inner thoughts.

“Yes,” I said. “So do I… whatever anybody else says.”

When we had descended a flight of stairs, we turned away from the main entrance and headed toward the elevator. I did not wonder that Tertius was with me. Likely he was due to report at the command center just as I was, and anyway I was glad of the company whether human or half. Turning down the central corridor, I saw a man at the end facing the elevator doors. His hands were in front of him, hidden from view. I then noticed that the elevator was not active. He could have entered at any time but he just stood there and waited.

“Tertius…” I spoke under my breath.

“Yes, sir?” He lowered his voice to match my own. I knew he could sense my feelings, but whether he grasped the reason for them I could not guess.

“What is this man doing?” I asked.

We were approaching more slowly now. The man was a little less than ten meters away from us, idling. I saw Tertius analyze the scene, watched his face grow solemn.

“It is odd,” was all that he said, but I could see that his guard was up.

Neither of us was armed, at least not in the external sense. We moved toward the man from behind, not attempting to hide our presence from him. He would’ve had to be deaf not to know we were there.

“Trying to decide on a level?” I said. We had stopped about six paces from him.

He stood motionless with his back to us. There came no reply. I glanced at Tertius, saw that his eyes were locked on the man like the crosshairs of a theron’s diamondpoint. I knew the halfman was analyzing the stranger’s every subtle movement, every minute gesture that I in my limited human ability could not detect.

I stepped two paces closer. “Turn around and face us,” I said. The time had come to put aside pleasantries. The man slowly turned, but in an abnormal fashion… it was as if his body was being unwound by a coil of thread.

When I saw his face, I became certain of my death. His mouth and chin were washed in blood, which had run down his neck onto his clothes. Where eyes should have been, there were two red sockets staring back at me. I could see that the blood around the eyes was still fresh. In that fleeting moment, I could feel the man looking through me, reaching into my mind and sifting through my thoughts in search of something I did not possess. But he found other things.

This child is like the other. A son of dissonance.

I could hear his voice—frail with a fluctuating pitch. I had been taught about this creature but never before had I encountered one. The Skoll they were called. Tertius was rushing forward at a speed which no living thing could counter, but I was not aware of his movement. My death was wrapped up in this moment… and so the moment lingered. No man abided long the presence of the Skoll.

The non-human will defeat us. Depart now. The voice thundered in my mind, paralyzing me. I watched as blood began to stream from the two sockets and the open mouth in vast quantities… the first and only sign of what the Skoll referred to as departure. Tertius stepped between me and the thing that held me immobile. His movements were beyond my ability to calculate. I felt the halfman’s irremovable grip on my ribs, his thumbs almost converging at my sternum.

He threw me back the full length of the corridor and in the same movement launched the Skoll with a heavy thrust of his left palm, battering him against the elevator doors.

On impact the creature detonated. The force of the explosion threw Tertius some twenty feet down the corridor. A rush of fire surged along the narrow channel of the hall and then dissipated in another breath.

For a long time I could not hear anything. I lay for several moments, struggling to regain my breath. Slowly, sounds were becoming more and more distinguishable. I could hear the flames crackling near the elevator. I finally found the strength to roll onto my stomach. One of the guards was standing over me, saying something. I know I heard him but I never registered the words.

I saw Tertius lying a short distance from me, his form almost hidden in smoke. Another of the guards had seen him and had rushed over to him, obstructing my view of his motionless body. I wondered if he were dead or merely unconscious.

I felt my body being lifted into a suspensor field. The time passed quickly, and there were moments when I didn’t know where or even who I was. The next moment, I opened my eyes and saw Gwen hovering over me, taking me somewhere.

“Tertius,” I heard myself say. “Is he… alive?”

“I don’t know,” she said.

“He saved me,” I said. I felt my mind slipping. I wasn’t sure if they had drugged me or if I was suffering the aftereffects of my encounter with the Skoll.

“Yes,” Gwen said. She and another medic led me into the rehabilitation room and began performing a number of tests. I lost track of their movements—lost track of time altogether. I awoke several times during the course of the day. Sometimes Gwen was there, but then sometimes I was alone. Finally, late in the evening I suppose, I fell asleep and did not wake until the following morning.

I dreamed something but I don’t remember what it was… I only remember that Tertius was there, in the dream.

Midnight Star (or The Vigil)


I sat by the window in the dark, hunched down so that my eyes could see just above the sill, and looked out over the moonlit field. The house so quiet you could hear the oak floors groaning in the outer hall; not the groaning of footsteps. I had not heard footsteps in a long time but I knew well enough what they sounded like at times like these. Sometimes I thought I heard the soft tread of her footfalls coming from the bathroom and I had to remind myself it wasn’t her—wasn’t anybody.

Still, I knew she was out there somewhere. Not in the field. Out there with Polaris and the others. So I sat every night, just like this, and waited for my chance to go after her. I knew it would come as long as I remained patient, watchful. Didn’t matter how many nights I had to sit up; I would be ready when the chance came.

She and I had been the last. When they took her that left just me and the house. Not even my house, but an old friend’s from before the Great Unraveling of time and space. He was the one who had told me to come here, said he would meet us. That was five weeks ago, or maybe six. Hell, I can’t remember. He had gone with the rest of them too. The proof of it was in the knowing.

Every time they took someone, you’d know it somewhere inside—because they wanted you to know it. I saw it like a game of musical chairs in my head: with each pause of the song, someone new would get taken out of the game. That’s how I knew I was the last. Somehow, I had managed to win the game.

 

Author’s Note: This is all I’ve got so far… just a concept, without form and void at this moment. I hope to continue work on this (and several other ideas) in the near future.

Tertius – A Character Profile


I am both man and machine, and therefore incapable of God-knowledge: the knowledge of spirit and supernal entities. I am a being dependent on the limited capacity of a mind, superior to most but limited nonetheless. I am the third to survive that unholy bionic transformation with the awareness of my old self yet intact and so they named me Tertius, meaning “third”. They wondered how a mind like mine continued to function in the aftermath of those inhuman and mortifying experiences which no man or woman should ever be forced to endure as I was forced to endure them even as a child.

They said if I had been older that I would not have survived—the conversion would have done to me what it has done to every living halfman, each of whom is only aware of his beating heart in terms of its necessity while ever I am aware of mine in terms of its capacity to keep me alive—me and my soul.

There is a difference there that many fail to perceive; it is one that separates the synthetic nothingness of every tick-tocking halfman from this one… this one who regards himself as human but who must function at the caliber of artificiality in order to maintain his existence amid this collapsing universe in which he has chosen to reside. I say “chosen” because, if I had wanted it, I could have died in the conversion chamber as a boy, which would not have been an undesirable destiny. I could have failed as all halfmen fail if I hadn’t been fool enough to think it might be worth my while to remain in this… this abominable form.

Abominable: a machine cannot possess God-knowledge but the man at my core remembers something of what it meant to believe in or disbelieve in God. That paradoxical concept does not frighten me because my conditioning has taught me the worthlessness and the impedimentary nature of fear. I have not felt fear since the conversion and as time has passed I have become more detached from any form of it. To believe in a god, one must fear it, and yet I feel as if I could believe without fearing…

And so I fear there must have been some error in my conditioning, though I use the word “fear” now only as it is used among humans to indicate belief in some negative or undesirable future variable.

Lineage


             I awoke as if I had been summoned.

            A pile of glowing embers that only made the darkness more pronounced was all that remained of our fire. I heard someone say once that darkness had palpability, a thickness, that it wasn’t just an absence of light—can’t remember who said it. I never believed it.

Sat up and listened. Wondered why the darkness and the cold reminded me of what somebody said about something I didn’t believe, whose name I couldn’t even remember. Absence is its own presence and all that nonsense. Doesn’t feel like nonsense now, I thought. I wanted to laugh, only it seemed a sacrilege. Didn’t believe in sacrilege either, but night can make you renounce old doctrines and become a proselyte to just about any kind of craziness in the time it takes for a dying fire to draw the cold to it. I told myself that I didn’t laugh because the cave would just laugh back and wake Noelle.

I slithered from my blankets and crawled close to where she was—my hand bumped her, but she didn’t budge. Her breathing, faint and hollow as a ghost, was the sleeping kind; heat from her nostrils bristled the tiny hairs on my knuckles. Feeling her breath, I remembered what I had always known, that more than one kind of light exists. Sometimes it’s the light you feel but can’t see.

That’s what hope is, I thought. Faith and all that goodness Mom and Dad used to talk about before putting us to bed. All of it was light felt and not seen. That was why we were hiding in a cave, to protect the true light in a world of reversing polarities. What that man said, maybe he thought it sounded clever. I don’t know. Maybe he really believed in the palpability of nothing. The rest of the world seems to believe it—they worship it now.

Got up and walked to where the cave opened to the escarpment leading down toward corkwood and canarium trees. The full moon cast its light through the trembling jungle leaves and reached toward the cave’s mouth, but I didn’t let it touch me. Been teaching myself how to think fast and move slow; seems the best way to protect yourself in a world where people are doing just the opposite. God knows I wanted to bathe in that light, but I kept close to the shadows, listened and watched. You learn to listen and watch for a good minute or two.

“Addy,” I heard her whisper. Her cold hand on my dangling wrist.

“Go back to sleep,” I said. Wind whispered in the jungle.

“I can’t,” she said.

“Another dream?”

I could feel her nodding “yes” behind me. Didn’t have to look anymore. More than one way to see. More than one kind of light.

“It was Mom and Dad,” she whispered.

I heard an anomalous crunch of leaves and almost shushed her, but thought better of it. It was an animal’s sound—the other kind would never announce themselves that way. With them it was always what you didn’t hear, what you didn’t see. I knelt down and, taking her by the hand, drew her back into the greater shadow.

“What did they tell you?” I asked.

“Mom didn’t say anything,” she said. “Dad just said tell you ‘Genesis 12:1’. I asked him what he meant and he said ‘wake up now’. After that, they were gone.” She started to cry and so I held her close.

“Don’t cry, Noelle. I know what he meant.”

She looked up at me. “You do? I never know what he means.”

I smiled. “Gather up our things as quietly as you can,” I whispered. “I’ll put out the fire.”

“We’re leaving?”

“Yes,” I said. “Dad wants us to and so we’ll make for the mountains. Tonight.”

I nudged her off and followed her. Covered the embers with rocks and dirt while she rolled up the blankets and stuffed them into our packs. Dad and I had agreed on Genesis 12:1 well before the onset of things. Get out of your country. Noelle was special—the other kind couldn’t listen in on her dreams the way they could mine. Mom and Dad knew that. I seldom dreamed anymore; if I sensed a dream coming, I would wake up on instinct.

“Ready,” she said. She handed me my pack and donned hers. I looked her over and remembered I would kill or die or both if it meant protecting her.

“Me too,” I whispered. “Stay close. We’ll keep to the shadows.”

From the escarpment, we began climbing the layered ascent above the cave. When we had climbed for about an hour, I looked down through the wiry branches at the jungle floor touched by strands of a falling moon. Shapes of men, like bats fluttering, were darting between the rocks and trees.

“What is it?” she asked.

I turned away. “Nothing. Keep climbing.”

We climbed until dawn.

* * *

            When Noelle was three and I was nine, we drove up to the farm to visit Granddaddy and Grammy. Four hundred acres of arable land surrounded by a forest of pine and evergreen. The snow had fallen heavy on the earth, so thick that I could climb in through the kitchen window without having to jump for the sill. Dad had said it was more because I had grown, but I liked the idea that the snow had somehow raised me up, as if it were on my side.

One night Dad woke me up, told me to put my warm clothes and boots on and to meet him outside. I asked him what was wrong and he said nothing yet, but that I should hurry and make certain I layered up. Passing through the foyer on the way down, I saw Mom in the kitchen but she didn’t look at me. She sat holding a mug of coffee, staring down past its rim the way she always did when she was searching somewhere inside herself.

“Hurry,” she said. “Don’t keep your dad waiting.”

In her cold reclusion I sensed something inevitable—that I had been awakened in the night because I was about to be born and so I needed to be present for it. For a moment I watched her without saying anything, as though to preserve her as an icon in the shrine of my heart. I knew that I would never see her with the same eyes again. In my first birth she had played the most active part, the lead role even. But in the birth that awaited me out there in the winter night she could have no part.

When I stepped outside, I closed the door gently behind me and stared at my father standing at the edge of the steps that led down from the porch. He did not look at me either. I wondered if he even could.

“Ready?” he asked.

I nodded. He made me follow him and I could tell we were heading toward the barn. As he walked, he plowed a gulley through the snow and I followed in it as if it were a lighted path carving its way through a crowd of night.

“Why are we out here?” I asked him.

“That question can’t be answered in the time it takes from the porch to the barn,” he said.

Then he glanced back at me or past me, I’m not sure which. When he saw that I was lagging, he told me to speed up. His tone was calm but I could hear in it a chill that had its roots somewhere in the core of his heart, sliding its branches into his veins and spreading a deep freeze through him. And then I knew—he was afraid. My father. A man marked by an incapacity for fear, known and respected for it. That realization of my father’s humanity was the first rush of blood and water thrusting me toward a new advent.

* * *

            Noelle was asleep next to me while I leaned against a tree, watching the slope we had climbed that morning. We were hidden behind a thin veil of leafy bushes and projecting rocks, but I could still see the treetops in the forest below. The sun was warm and I could tell the day was going to get hotter the higher we climbed. I didn’t like the idea of stopping so soon but she was tumbling in her steps, slipping on beds of loose pebbles. If we didn’t rest, I would either have to carry her or let her sink face-first into the black dirt. So far from their nearest enclave, the other kind would be reluctant to travel by day.

At least, that was my hope.

From my coat pocket I drew my short knife with its fat blade and its polished horn handle. Held it in my open palm, watching the sunlight burn through the glassy edge, casting a rainbow on the tip of my boot. I had only used it to kill small animals for food; Dad had taught me how to kill a rabbit and then skin it so as to preserve the meat. I always told Noelle to hide and look the other way during those times but I couldn’t stop her from watching if she wanted to see. The first time she saw me kill an animal, she refused to eat it. It took an hour to convince her that we either ate or we starved. That had been right after we left the village—two weeks ago. Since then, life in the wild had thinned her out.

Still, I didn’t know how much longer I could keep up feeding the two of us while we ran for our lives. We had to find help. If nothing else, I had to get Noelle someplace safe. I didn’t care what happened to me anymore, not like I used to anyway. It wasn’t just me they were after—if they got me without Noelle they had nothing; they’d have to kill me. But if they got her… if they got her I’d do anything they wanted.

“Addy…” Her voice came up from some buried place.

“Yeah?”

Birds fluttered in the branches overhead; an ant was crawling across my knee and I flicked it away with the knife.

“How much longer do we have to climb?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Until we find Uriel, I suppose. He lives somewhere near the summit.”

“How do you know?”

“That’s what the doctor told us back at the village, remember?”

“What doctor?”

“The tall man with the big hands,” I said.

“Oh,” she said. “I didn’t know he was a doctor.”

“The village doctor. Kofi.”

“Did you believe him?”

Did I believe him? What other choice was there but to believe him? Either I believed him or I threw away everything Mom and Dad had fought for… were still fighting for. They had sent us to the other side of the world because of what they believed, and so far they had been right about most things. They had been right about Kofi; it stood to reason that Kofi was right about Uriel.

“Of course,” I told her. “That’s why we’re out here.”

“The other kind are close, aren’t they?”

No reason to lie to her. Dad always told me to keep as much as I could from her but to answer her questions truthfully. She was young but she wasn’t a simpleton.

“Yes,” I said. “That’s why we can’t rest for much longer.”

For a few minutes we sat and listened to the life of the mountain and the forest. The day was deceptive in its peacefulness, just as the night had been.

“Addy,” she said.

“Yeah?”

“What if Uriel doesn’t exist?”

I sat quietly for several lingering moments, waiting for an answer to come. It came with a renewed burst of sunlight as a cloud passed.

“Then God will send someone else to help us,” I said, wondering if I believed it. Hell, I had to tell her something.

As we returned to the slow labor of the hike, I kept sensing movement to my left. When I  glanced in that direction, there was nothing. We would go on for a while and then I would sense it again, like an extra shadow moving apart from our own, parallel to our ascent but keeping itself at a distance. Of course, when I looked for it again, I didn’t see anything except a bird hopping in the brush. I don’t know if it was really anything; it didn’t feel much like the other kind. I can’t really describe what it felt like—all I know is it was with us for a good ways.

* * *

When we came to the barn, he had to shove his full weight against the door to open it. The door squealed on it hinges and skidded against the concrete floor, sounding like fingernails on a chalkboard. The doorway loomed like a rectangular maw of shadow; the air within felt colder than outside and as Dad stepped over the threshold he was half enveloped by darkness. From the inside wall, he grabbed an electric lantern and, switching it on, was ignited in a soft glow that made me suddenly miss the warmth of my bed. I thought about turning around and running back to the house.

“Hurry up,” he said, beckoning me inside. I stepped across and thought of Julius Caesar. Except I had no army.

I was startled to see the blackened shape of a man sitting on a workman’s stool at the far end of the barn, barely visible in the dim light of Dad’s lantern. He sat beside Granddaddy’s covered-up 1959 Chrysler Imperial. As we got closer to him and the light revealed some of his features, I got the sense that he was out of place beside that American relic, not because it was American but because it was of time and space. When the light hit him full on, I saw his face clearly, and I could’ve sworn then that he was both the youngest and oldest man I had ever seen—he didn’t fit beside the car because he didn’t fit anywhere.

“Addy,” he said, looking me in the eye.

“Yes, sir,” I said.

He nodded, as if assessing my response. Then he looked up at my father. “Leave the lantern,” he said. “You can wait outside if you like but I would suggest going indoors where it’s warm.”

“I’ll wait outside,” Dad said. He looked down at me and started to say something, but a look from the man made him swallow an empty breath instead. He nodded at the man and then walked back to the other side of the barn. The door cracked shut and suddenly I realized I had been left alone in the bone-freezing cold with a man I didn’t know.

“Do you know who I am?” he asked me.

“No, sir,” I said.

“I know you don’t but I have to ask,” he said.

“Why?” I asked.

“In case you did know who I was,” he said, smiling.

“How would I know you?”

His smile faded. “You would only know me if you weren’t yourself.”

I started to say something but he lifted a gloved hand to quiet me. He wore a heavy wool coat that covered his knees almost to the rims of his black boots. His hair was long and gray and he had matching stubble on his chin and cheeks. His eyes were black in the lantern’s red light.

“I don’t have time to answer questions,” he said. “Rather, I’ve come to ask you a few myself.”

“All right,” I said, a little reluctantly.

He sat up and started to lean back even though there was nothing to lean on; he was taller than I had originally guessed.

“Let’s start with a hypothetical question,” he said. “You know what hypothetical means, right?”

“Yes, sir,” I said, and my voice croaked from the cold.

“Good,” he said. “Now, let’s begin. You live a very long time, so long that you don’t know how old you are anymore—we’ll just say you’re half a billion years old. You keep getting stronger but the earth is dying and its people are diminishing. The sun grows dim and the planet is getting colder. Then, you realize it is within your power to destroy everything and attempt to create a new world, but you still have a choice: you can let the earth and its people fade, or you can put it all to an abrupt end and try to start something new.”

I was quiet for a moment, then asked, “Can I do both?”

He shook his head. “You must choose between them. Also, remember that there is great risk in destroying the old world, because there is no guarantee that a new world will be created. Only the potential exists. Still, the old world is dying and another opportunity to create a new one may never come again. Knowing that, what choice do you make?”

I started to answer what I thought to be correct: that it wasn’t my responsibility to make that kind of decision, that it was not within my power—only something in my insides locked up when I tried to say it. I went rigid, felt a sudden upwelling of terror without knowing what I feared. He saw the hesitation and lunged forward. In less than a second he held me in an iron vise with his right forearm, and then I felt something cold prick the skin of my exposed neck.

“If you’re one of them,” he said. “I won’t hesitate to kill you. Answer the question.”

“It’s not a question,” I rasped.

“What?” His grip loosened a hair’s breadth.

“It isn’t a question,” I said. “It’s something I’ve already done.”

“Explain,” he said.

“A dream I had three nights ago,” I said. “In the dream, I destroyed everything. I had a choice, like you said. I couldn’t let things go on as they were. I didn’t want to tell you because… because it scared me that you knew.”

In the moment, I was shocked by my own explicit honesty. I had never spoken with such clarity.

I heard him let out a heavy breath; his arm fell away and I rushed forward about six paces when something caught me. I looked up at a man of similar build and with a face that carried the same aura as the other man but unique in its own right. My captor gently turned me around to face the other, who was back on the stool and smiling with a kind of warmth that seemed out of character for a man who had just threatened death. Out of the corners of both eyes, I saw two more men appear, one to the left and another to the right.

“These are my brothers in arms,” the gray-haired man said, indicating the men who had just appeared. Then he held aloft a shining, phosphorescent blade—I was startled by how sharp it seemed.

“Are you going to kill me now?” I asked.

He shook his head. “No, Addy,” he said. “I never held the blade to you. I only let the crest of the hilt touch your skin.”

“Why?”

“The simplest explanation? To test how you respond to fear,” he said. “I had no intention of killing you, but the threat was necessary.”

“But you said you wouldn’t hesitate.”

“I said I wouldn’t hesitate to kill you if you were one of them,” he said. “I already guessed that you weren’t. But then you hesitated to speak the truth. Why?”

“I already told you,” I said. “I was afraid.”

“Afraid because we knew about your dream?”

“Yeah,” I said, forgetting the sir. “That among other things.”

He smiled again. “The dream is proof of your humanity,” he said. “I sent you that dream to prove that you weren’t one of them.”

“But you said you already knew I wasn’t.”

For the present, I overlooked the revelation that he had sent the dream, whatever that meant. I didn’t understand it but I didn’t doubt him either—in some way, it made sense if only at a subconscious level.

“Yes,” he said. “I did know.”

“Then why go through all of that?” I asked.

His face grew solemn. “Because you need to know for yourself that you are not, nor will you ever be, one of the other kind. Do you know about them?”

“Dad has told me some things,” I said. By some things I meant very little, but I did not feel compelled to explain that to him. He seemed to know enough without me telling him anything.

“Did you know that they are incapable of dreaming?”

I stared at him. “No,” I said. “I didn’t know that.”

“They have proven more than capable of spying on the dreams of human beings,” he said, “but that is where their powers stop. Have you ever felt that someone or something in one of your dreams was both an outsider and a threat?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Lots of times. I always try to wake up.”

“Good habit,” he said.“The dream you had about the earth is one we sent to numerous individuals, but you are the only one who made the choice to risk everything. That makes you a very important person. And, while it tells us what we need to know about you, it also means you can never safely dream again.”

Never dream… never again. “Why?” I asked.

“Because the other kind were present in your dream too, if only as silent listeners,” he said. “And now they know who you are, just as we do.”

“And who am I exactly?”

He laughed softly. “Someone who might make a difference.”

* * *

            In a narrow cleft of rock we huddled, while from behind a thick bush of prickly needles I peered down at a silver stream, scanning the stony riverbank from the high ground to where it bended toward the lower valley. No one in sight but that never meant much. I listened and watched for a good five minutes if not longer. Below us, the sun was flooding the rocky slope with light and heat. There’d be nowhere to hide when I came out from our meager covering, but we needed water.

“All right,” I whispered. “I’m going down. You can watch me from here. Just keep low. Okay?”

She nodded. “Just hurry.”

Hurry. Everybody was always asking me to hurry. Just like I was always praying to God to hurry. Please help us and hurry and don’t let us get caught and hurry and send someone to help us and please, please hurry.

I climbed down from our lookout and ran with stunted strides toward the stream bank, skidding on moist pebbles as I neared the water’s edge.  A series of short, grassy shelves carried the stream into the valley like an uneven stair, flowing in little dips and falls that hummed with the surge of water. Trees were thicker on the opposite bank. I hunched down with my boots touching the stream.

Filling the first canteen, I scanned the dark network of leafy branches and low-hanging limbs as they swayed between narrow bands of sunlight and shade. And then I felt the presence, a noiseless shadow hovering toward me, and at the same time I heard Noelle scream.

The knife was out of its sheath and glistening in my right palm even as I turned toward the presence at my left. I saw the tall shape of the hooded man, the markings on the ashen face, the eyes gleaming like tiny shards of ice in the stream’s reflected sunlight—more light than they were used to and yet this one endured it.

In that split-second, I was aware of more than his proximity, of more than the long, outthrust needle between the knuckles of his left hand. How many were with him? They had heard Noelle scream; how long before they got to her? How many seconds did I have before the one approaching at my back would strike? If there was one in front then there was one behind. Count them when they’re dead.

The blade did its work quickly—the hilt left my palm and the knifepoint struck the enemy in the heart. Stained with his blood, the weapon was in my palm again in almost the same instant and I hadn’t even moved. I did not see him collapse before I felt the force of the blade leading me, and so I turned with it, all the way around toward the valley-side of the stream. But I was too late.

A shock of ice coursed through my arm as the whip struck, curling around my wrist and tightening like a boa constrictor. The knife twirled in the air as it spun loose from my hand, its guiding power lost to me now. It landed somewhere in the bed of long grass as my enemy tackled and drove me backward into a rush of cold water that swelled above my ears. He held me there while drawing something from his cloak, and then I saw the needle flash as it caught the sun.

God, not here. Not now.

His weight lifted from me as though it had been torn away. A yellow blur leaped across my vision and displaced the enemy’s black shape. I lifted my head in time to hear a wild animal’s roar followed by a crunching sound, like bones snapping. After that it was just the trickling of the stream, the slight hum of the miniature waterfalls.

Blood in the water but it wasn’t mine.

I saw the black-robed body lying face up against the opposite bank—a tawny lioness stood over him and stared at me, licking her teeth. This was the Africa I had been told about but had not yet seen, at least not up close. She stared at me as if waiting for me to thank her, but I couldn’t move, couldn’t speak. And then I thought of Noelle. Had they gotten her? Why wasn’t she calling out to me?

“You all right, kid?” A man’s voice from my right.

His low-cut boots, splashing through the slow current, seemed heavy enough to make the stream rise up and flood the bank. I looked up at his face: young and yet old. His blonde hair, suffused beneath a trekker’s hat, would turn white depending on how the sun hit it. I couldn’t tell what color his eyes were in the shade of his hat. Across his chest he carried what looked like an M-16 assault rifle. I didn’t say anything, but kept looking between him and the lioness.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “She won’t eat you.”

I stared at the rifle, at his finger resting near the trigger.

“And I’m not going to shoot you, either,” he said.

“Where’s my sister?” I said, but he just looked at me.

I jumped up and ran back toward the slope, calling Noelle’s name as loud as I could and not caring if the other kind were still around to hear it. She didn’t answer. When I got to our hiding spot, I found her pack.

Just her pack. No footprints, no sign of struggle. I remembered her scream. She had screamed only once. From behind, I sensed the man nearing and whirled on him as if he, like the other kind, had come with an ungodly purpose.

“Where is she?” I demanded.

He didn’t say a word, but just stared at me the way he had before. Like he didn’t know anything… or like he knew something I didn’t.

* * *

            That night on the farm, he told and showed me lots of things I can’t talk about. At least I can’t talk about them yet. He sent one of his men to bring my father inside and then had us stand together. Dad didn’t say anything, but waited like he knew all the rules; what you did and didn’t do. That was when the gray-haired man gave me the knife. As I held it in my open palm, it glowed with a pale, distant light… almost as if it were a mirror reflecting the farthest stretch of the known universe.

“Never let another man wield it while you possess it,” the man said. “Understand?”

“Yes, sir,” I said. “But what would happen—”

“What would happen is meaningless so long as you keep your word.”

I only nodded.

Seeing my withdrawn look, he added: “It will not bend to an evil will. Rather, it will destroy itself before it lets the will of darkness command it. That’s the way I designed it. Let it guide you only in times of need—otherwise, keep it hidden and don’t use it.”

I nodded. “I won’t use it. I hope I never have to.”

He smiled. “We all hope that, Addy. Though no man hopes for it more than your father.” He and Dad exchanged knowing glances. “Still, I feel better leaving you well-equipped,” he added.

I had been staring at the knife, at its inexplicable phosphorescence, when I was stricken by the weight of his words. He was leaving. Why did that matter to me? I barely knew him… and a few minutes ago he had threatened to kill me, or pretended to threaten I guess.

“Where are you going?” I asked.

“My work does not allow me to put down roots, or to rest my limbs for very long,” he said, rising. The drape of his cloak hung below his knees. “I’ve already spent more time with you than I ought to have.” He looked at my father and said, “The rest of the work lies with you now.”

“I’ll teach him everything I can,” Dad said.

The gray-haired man only nodded. He gave a subtle glance to his men, and they moved to the back door of the barn—the one that faced the nearest vanguard of trees that led nowhere but deeper into a wild forest. One by one they vanished into the outer dark, while the winter chill howled at us from the open door. Following his brothers, the gray haired man was about to cross the threshold when I called to him.

“Wait,” I said. He stopped and turned his head. Standing in front of the covered car, he waited for me to speak.

“Who are you?” I asked.

He smiled. “Just a half-billion year old man abiding the space between you and everything else,” he said. “My name is Michael, or at least that’s what they call me in your world. So long, Addy.” He gave a little two-fingered salute and then stepped outside.

Compelled by some unnamable force, I sprinted after him. Dad just stood where he was like he knew what to expect; I could feel him watching me. When I got to the door, I stared out at the flat, white plain of snow as it stretched toward the forest. In the cloud-covered darkness, I could just make out the black outline of the trees.

Not a man in sight. There weren’t even tracks in the snow.

* * *

“Addy…” Her voice, unmistakable.

She came up from under a thick row of bushes, holding the knife. Still streaked with blood, it beamed a full spectrum of colors in the hot, midday light.

“I went down to help you,” she said. “But then the man with the lion came, and so I hid again.” She looked up at the stranger, and then at me. I found it curious that she seemed less suspicious of him than I was; it comforted me a little. She handed me the knife and I started to wipe the blood off on my shirt.

The man thrust his hand toward me as if I were about to step from a ledge. “No,” he said. “For God’s sake don’t do that. You’ll be lit up like a bonfire on a midnight plain.”

“What?” I looked at him with questioning eyes. Noelle crouched under the net of leaves, poised to dive back into her newfound hiding place at the first sign of danger.

“The blood,” he said. “They can smell their own blood better than they can smell yours. Come, we’ll wash it off in the stream. We need to be quick though. More of them are headed this way.” He started back down the slope.

I looked at Noelle. “What do you think?” I asked her.

“I think he’s Uriel,” she whispered.

I took her hand in mine and we followed him to the stream. When we got to the bank, I saw the lioness hovering over the water, drinking. She looked up at me, and then at Noelle; just as before, I was startled by the lucidity of her gaze. More than this, I discovered that I knew her by her presence more than by her look. She was the presence I had felt walking with us earlier that morning, during our ascent up the first slope.

“Let me see the knife,” the man said. The rifle was strapped across his back, while his hat hung by a thin, leather cord around his neck. He scooped water into his cupped palm and then rubbed it through his hair. The water ran down his forehead and along the curve of his narrow cheeks like tears.

“I was told never to let another man handle it,” I said.

He smiled. “Michael gives explicit instructions. But I’ve never heard of him giving away one of his weapons, least of all to a scrawny kid. You must be a very important person. You said your name was Addy?”

“I didn’t say what my name was,” I said.

He laughed. “No, you didn’t. But she did.” He pointed to Noelle with his eyes. “My name is Uriel, in case you hadn’t already guessed. I was told to expect you.”

“I told you,” Noelle said, looking up at me.

“How do we know you’re who you say you are?” I asked, ignoring her.

He laughed again. “Boy, there’s wisdom in caution. But don’t pretend you don’t already know who I am without me telling you. Learn to trust your heart. Things move a lot quicker that way. I am Uriel, and nothing else in this world can attest to being me. Now, clean that knife so we can be moving. I’ll fill your canteens.”

A red murk loosened from the blade as I dipped it in the water. While letting the stream do its work, I saw Uriel whisper something to the lioness and point toward the descending slope, where the stream curved and faded into the trees of the valley. She sprinted off in that direction and in less than a minute was out of sight.

When I had dried the blade, it glistened with renewed intensity. We set out just as the sun began curving toward the west. Noelle clung to my side while Uriel walked in front of us. A little ways into our journey, Uriel glanced back and saw that I was still handling the knife.

“You had best keep that hidden for the rest of the way,” he said. “It isn’t wise to reveal a weapon like that unless need demands it. Power draws lust from even the humble soul.”

I returned the weapon to its sheath. “Are there more people where we are going?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. “But that’s another day’s journey ahead, which means one more night with the enemy tracking us. We’ll need to find a good hiding place sometime after sundown, but we should walk for as long as possible. I can carry the little one when her legs give out, at least for a while.”

When, not if. Noelle looked at me with clenched teeth behind taut lips—an expression I knew too well. I squeezed her hand the way I did when I wanted to let her know everything was going to be all right.

“Where’s the lion?” Noelle asked, her voice like a baby’s when contrasted to Uriel’s staunch tones. She seemed to have forgotten our guide’s prior foresight regarding her legs.

“I sent her to spy on our pursuers,” he said. “She will remain near our trail, but she will not approach us unless the enemy is too close to ignore.”

“I thought they were already too close to ignore,” I said.

“The two you met by the stream were scouts,” Uriel said, his eyes ahead of him. “The rest of their party is much larger, perhaps even more than I could handle in close quarters.” He lifted a low hanging, thorny branch so that we could walk under it. “That’s why we must keep moving for as long as possible. And we really shouldn’t talk either.”

And we didn’t talk, except to answer when Uriel asked us how we were managing. The landscape folded and rose, folded again and rose again toward greater heights as the sun sank toward the west and burned like the last strand of wick in a candle. When night fell, we walked in the dark, up and up, sometimes climbing with our hands in places where the slope was steep and rocky. By the time the moon had risen, Uriel had to carry Noelle.

I dreamed while I walked, even while I climbed. Of the night before, when it had been just the two of us in the cave. Of when we left the village and spent our first nights alone in this country’s wild jungle, more afraid of what was hunting us than any animal that might have killed us for food. Of Kofi, the village doctor, who told us where to seek Uriel. Kofi… was he still alive or had they gotten him too? I dreamed of Michael and the night he gave me the knife. Of my dad teaching me how to survive in the cold wilderness on Granddaddy’s four hundred acres. Of Mom sipping her coffee the night I was born, I mean really born. And through the haze of it all, Uriel was there—a fiery star amid the shades of my past.

When the dreams had at last abandoned me to the cool and hollow night, Uriel was still there, carrying my sister over his shoulder. He was that rare kind of fire that burned long after all the other flames turned cold. And then I wondered if God hadn’t sent us all the help we would ever need.

To Be Continued…