Theodore set out from his house, not knowing when he would see home again, but happy at the thought of what might lay beyond the river. He walked and wondered at the sunrise in front of him. It cast a bright green glow over the sides of the gravel road, illuminating each blade of grass from behind. This, he thought, was the color God intended when he made Green.
Over the next hill, Theodore was surprised to see there was something quite wrong with the sunrise. He found the source of light much closer to himself than expected. In fact, it seemed as though the sun was resting above the ground toward the bottom of the hill he was standing atop, precisely in the center of the road.
All at once he became frightened, yet inescapably drawn to the great Light. He moved forward, squinting to see what could be the phenomenon’s origin. With each step, he could somehow see with greater clarity and detail. Either his eyes were adjusting, or the glow was dimming as he approached. To either side of the brightest part, he thought he could make out the shape of wings.
As Theodore came within a few meters of the blaze, his eyes began to trace a pair of large, robed feet touching the ground, and followed them up to find hands and shoulders well above his own head. He stopped in his tracks, and as he stared upward, a face emerged. It was the smiling face of an Angel.
The being was a giant, more than twice Theodore’s size. It was beautiful and powerful; terrible, yet with a certain inexplicable gentleness, and seemed to be female. She was robed in white, with skin like unstained porcelain and deep blue eyes that kept a remnant of the Light behind them. Theodore stood in awe, speechless, and the Angel slowly knelt, holding out her hand.
"Do not fear," she said, "for a great Power is with you. You have much to know, and I will be your comfort through all the untamed wild, and your Light in the shadowy places. You may be small in stature, but you will be raised up as a mighty man. Now, follow me; be brave and strong, little Theodore."
Ann walked down the stairs and onto the platform just in time to see her train depart. Another would arrive in 9 minutes, the sign read. She looked at her watch, and then away, briefly, to some people on the opposite side, also waiting, and having an obviously more enjoyable time of it than she was.
She checked her watch again… 8 minutes, 45 seconds. The time remaining would slow unbearably without a book or phone conversation to speed it along.
She saw a woman approaching, and looked down, instinctively. She avoided encounters with strangers, no matter how friendly they appeared to be. She kept her eyes from contact and wondered what the woman could possibly want from her.
"Hello, dear," said the woman, stopping to Ann’s right, about three feet away. She wore a grey coat and skirt of combed wool, and a white blouse with tiny embroidered flowers in green and pink. She had thick stockings, and a pair of brown therapeutic shoes Ann could imagine on her grandmother’s feet. Her long hair was salted and peppered by the years, and partially pulled back. Her face wore the weathering of time and trial; yet, it was bright, and related a deep, fundamental happiness that Ann lacked. Her name was Joy.
"I’m terribly sorry to bother you. I was down here looking for a new friend, and I thought you seemed nice. I wondered if you might want to go to the market with me."
Ann had already lifted her eyes, and immediately, she recognized the strange nature of this woman, of her request, and of the sincere, unassuming smile she wore. Ann wanted to say no, but couldn’t get the words out of her mouth. She also wanted to give Joy a chance, for some reason her customary standoffishness could not contemplate. Anyway, what was the harm of grocery shopping in public with an elderly woman on the way home from work?
Ann turned toward Joy and offered her hand. “I’m Ann,” she said. “I’d be delighted.”
Jane and John walked silently by the lake. It was a warm day outside, and light from the sunset was beginning to turn orange-red and flow over onto the ground below. A bluebird passed gracefully, flying from it’s perch in an onlooking green tree. They passed a group of happy children sprinting and spinning in circles, and couldn’t help but laugh with them. For a moment, their cloudy landscape of larger-than-life decisions seemed to disappear.
I am jostled from sleep and spread thin, as I am lifted to the edge of a deep well. I am trapped, secured, immobile.
All at once a flash of light and the cool, open air wrap around me. The sky spans boundlessly above in all directions. I am twisted and flipped, disoriented, and then jarred to a halt, suspended in mid-air, transparent and vulnerable.
An immeasurable blast of heat presses hard against my face, stretching me in every aspect, threatening to undo me. Every fiber of my being strains to keep hold of the bonds that define my existence.
The relentless gust continues and molds me, my shape now distorted, expanded, and ready to burst. I am filled by it, and helpless to it’s force; I begin to tear at the edges as it builds intensity.
I can hold onto my life no longer. I open my grasp and give way to the wind, releasing myself to its will. It follows through, knocking me out of my perch to fall to earth. I close my eyes and wait for the sharp stab of death to pierce me.
A moment of eternity passes. Suddenly it seems I am lifted on a new breeze, floating weightless above celebratory cheers. Streams of laughter emit from nearby and I open my eyes to the sun, flying higher and faster than before.
Rays of light play on my newly shapen surface, creating patterns and waves of color and glinting with the joy of summer. Hosts of smiling faces carousel below me as I twirl and pass into the sky. I am born anew.
It was the 17th hour of the trip, and finally the mountains were appearing one by one. They crept up silently when least expected, growing in number and size. They slowly crowded around, closing the aperture to the sky, whose color deepened to a dark blue, true and bold, adding authenticity to awe as the first snowy peaks appeared. The tallest ones were still far away, but just within eyesight as the morning awoke. Jack loved being there, so much nearer to the atmosphere than he was at home.
He sat squeezed into the well-researched position least likely to abet motion sickness as they wound through the beginnings of Monarch Pass. Even without the sloshy, rocking momentum of the charter bus, he had already gotten a headache from the restless conversations going on around. They built up quickly and filled the vehicle, the sound compressing into a miserable drone of insincerity which lulled him to sleep the night before, and then shook him from it early this morning.
He’d been to this type of thing before, and the collective’s whitewashed facade was sickeningly familiar. It was altogether enough to question his acceptance of the invitation to a mountain retreat with 42 other people he’d never met in the first place, but he was generally happy to take any excuse to visiting Colorado, and he was hoping to make a few new friends while he was at it.
A man directly behind had been issuing a discourse on morality for the past hour. His row-mate chimed in every couple of minutes with little affirming grunts and repetitious sound bites. Across the aisle to his right was a woman with her ears headphone-plugged and her nose stuck in a Bible, having yet to speak a single word to another human on the trip so far.
Jack stood up in the aisle and looked ahead to the road winding through the rocky hills and evergreens. He began a slow pace toward the front of the bus, looking to the left and right for someone who seemed honest, available, and willing to enjoy the view.
The air was still warm and humid, although the sun had set an hour earlier. I had just sat down on the grass out of sheer boredom when Clara approached and held out a candle, already lit. It was the night of The Walk.
It was traditional for the whole town to carry candles through the meadow on the first weekend of July. Warsham was full of annual traditions like this, which almost everyone enjoys, except me. I speculate it’s a big reason most of my friends stayed around after high school.
Some say the candles represent the stars that fall during the previous plowing season. As the superstition goes, they are sent to make the crops grow. Our grandparents still recite:
"Without a dying star come down
Without a borrowed light from There
We’ll take no food from what’s been sown
We’ll give no child to bear”
I looked at the candle in Clara’s delicate hand for a moment, then to her quiet face. I rolled my eyes. She smiled back simply, ignoring my mood. I shrugged a bit, stood up, and took the candle, hoping she’d let my hand touch hers lightly. We started following the others down the hill facing south, where we were all supposed to blow out our candles at once and keep silent.
Clara and I had always made fun of the old stories. Since coming back home, though, I couldn’t read her as well as I used to. She’d changed somehow, and I hadn’t. It affected our conversations, which threw me off a bit.
We walked, and I turned to look at her as often as I could. Her hair was shorter now, but the night reminded me of the last time we saw one another before I left for college. She said we’d always be friends. We’d pick up right where we left off. I didn’t call or write as often as I said I would, and didn’t see her but once a year at Christmas. I searched for a memory to rekindle us, and before I realized it, we had reached the bottom of the hill.
I started. “Remember that year we turned the heater on full blast in the storage room the night before The Walk? And the whole box of candles melted together…”
"Shh! I can’t believe you’re bringing that up now!" she whispered, and looked around anxiously.
"Oh, because you’ll be in so much trouble after all these years, right? I think the statute of limitations has run out by now. But, I do seem to remember it was your idea," I snickered.
"I don’t know what you’re talking about," she whispered again, loud as she could. She blew out her candle and quickly turned away from me, leaving me in the dark.
She neglected the letter opener and rushed to unseal the envelope, tearing the short edge off anxiously. Her eyes scanned quickly for the words she hoped to read. At first run-through, “accepted” was nowhere to be found.
Surely it’s there. She just missed it, right? A second glance at the first paragraph coldly confirmed her fears. This was a rejection notice, not a letter of acceptance.
Frustrated, she grabbed her keys from the hall table and left the house immediately, needing some fresh air and a place to sit and think. Taking off toward the shoreline park, her mind raced. How could they not want her? Weren’t her scores high enough? How many applicants did they accept?
Two blocks down, and she was already tired of thinking. The cut-through to the wharf caught her eye. Maybe the hustle of passers-by and tourists would be a better diversion than the park. She skipped over the first souvenir t-shirt shop and convenience store and entered the fish market on the left side of the boulevard.
She moved quickly through the stands of sea creatures amidst a cloud of consumers and workers in dirtied aprons. Dozens of fish eyes stared without shame and followed as she passed, opposing her clarity of thought. Her feet travelled faster past the next few booths to escape paranoia, then stopped suddenly in front of a table of colorful crustaceans.
A mountain of crabs stood before her. They were laid carefully in stacks and rows and covered in ice, waiting for nothing now but to be inspected, sold, and cooked. Her mind flashed to the bottom of the ocean, and she wondered what it was like down there, covered in deep darkness. She wondered if the crabs knew how she felt: cold, alone, scrutinized, judged.
The sign read “SALE! 50% off - $11”. She reached into her purse, pulling out a twenty and two ones. “I’ll take that one,” she pointed. “At the bottom in the middle column.” She held out the three crisp bills as the attendant wrapped up her selection. He traded, then went to the cash register, looking quizzically at the two singles.
"Keep the change," she said, and moved on.
Leland trembled as he untied his boots and pried them off. Carefully placing his socks and shirt inside, he walked toward the water and stopped, toes well out of reach of the waves’ gentle lapping. He noted how unpredictably they approached and retreated, marking the heartbeat of the ocean.
Astonishing, that a man can go 71 years on Earth without swimming a single stroke. The years creaked in his bones as he knelt and inched closer to touch the wet sand with his right index finger. Eroded by the next swell, the ground gave way and enveloped his first knuckle. He pulled his hand back quickly and shook a flurry of drops from it. He was still afraid. A surge of embarrassment ran through his heart as he saw even children enjoying themselves, seemingly impossible distances from shore.
He wouldn’t have another opportunity like today. He gathered the courage by a simple avoidance of regret, bolted his eyes shut tightly, and stepped forward. Fearful questions flooded his mind as he felt the sea’s cold fist wrapping fingers around his ankles. Knees next, and then an icy shock of awkwardness as water displaced air, ballooning his shorts. He suddenly realized he was waist deep, and kept moving, until he could feel the ocean tightening around his chest, causing one or two shuddering breaths to flee. He wondered how close to shore the undertow’s jurisdiction lay, and stood motionless, now up to his shoulders in the bubbly surf.
With his fists still clenched to his sides he opened his eyes and looked back to the sandy beach with dream-like disorientation. One deep breath, two, then three, and he was able to open his hands and stretch out his arms, almost floating. Surely as he had been told, the water supported him and made him feel weightless. Being careful not to allow a misstep, he realized the sea was trying to rock him gently back and forth and remained undecided about letting it. Looking upward to the sky, a smile of relief won his face. It was a remarkably beautiful day.
Mark and Jenn parked the car and dragged their tired feet up to the next plot on the list. “So, what do you think of this one?” she asked.
"Looks just fine," he mused. "Just as good as the one you liked earlier, I think, if not better for the natural runoff on the south over there."
"Honestly, they’re all starting to look the same to me… What is it that’s growing here?"
Mark had been wanting so desperately to rebuild her trust. Of course he had no idea what he was talking about, but thought he could make some progress if he sounded authoritative enough. “Alfalfa, mostly. But these types are hard to distinguish. Could be a lot of things mixed in here.”
"And you said I can work with that, right, and still plant whatever I want?" She saw him nodding in reply, and couldn’t keep from smiling. "I’m sure glad you’re here, so smart about these kinds of things," she said, thankfully.
Matt braced himself under the tall, cool grass and tried not to breathe. His thoughts were racing for a plan, a distraction, anything.
The clouds just stared back. None of the endings his vivid imagination conjured were happy. If the guys with guns didn’t see him hiding feebly, he might be able to wait them out. If they did, however…
He heard the footsteps of two men now, quickly moving around the corner. They must have seen him enter the large culvert. He buried his shoulders deeper into the ground and wished to disappear — the same way he’d always wanted as a kid, studying magic tricks, indulging a silent disappointment when he found they weren’t real.
Normally, he would’ve been happy to lay in just such a spot and gaze upwards. The movement of the clouds could’ve entertained him for the entire afternoon. Maybe if he could just forget everything from the past few days and mentally escape, it wouldn’t matter what they did to him. Maybe he could pass away with a smile right here.
He thought he saw a horse in the clouds, just for a moment. A brilliant, enormous thing, snorting and pawing at the sky, completely unafraid. It looked him square in the eye, threatening to trample the earth and his pursuers below.
Another sound, further now, but still from the concrete just thirty feet away, and the flurry of panic took over again. Who where they? What did they want with him? Is this happening because he saw what went on behind Danny’s shop last night? Could he get away with his life? More importantly, if he did make it out, what were the odds of surviving if they came at him again?
"No time to think ahead of yourself now," he almost spoke. No opportunity even to look up and make sure they were gone. A breath knocked at the door of his throat, willing to force its way out. He blinked once and allowed it to exit, slowly.
It’s sad, what’s happened. Everyone used to love hearing the reverend preach. He wasn’t so misunderstood then. I watched for years as all his old friends left, a few at a time. Sure, new people would arrive every now and then, but as the numbers dwindled they wouldn’t stick around as long. It’s a shame that there’s hardly no one who’ll give you a chance if you’re not “popular”.
I was the one who benefited from staying. I got to feed him lunch almost every day as he got older and hear about all the hardships he endured over the years without complaining a single time before the congregation. Things myself and most folks never even knew were going on. He didn’t want anyone to be troubled. But he was just like them, with problems all his own.
All the cold, careless people he had to put up with. Those “friends” he thought would be there for him until the end. Everyone endlessly questioning his devotion to his own family, when week after week, for years, he never missed a Sunday. Blaming him for his wife’s suicide and son’s womanizing… Now can you imagine? Heartless. Who wouldn’t be glad, in his shoes, that they left after all? I’d have a mind to tell them all to buzz off, where they still around. Thank the Lord he doesn’t have to look them in the eyes anymore.
So, this is the place?
How do you know?
Because it looks nothing like what I imagined.
And, do we know someone here?
Yes, the caretaker… Don’t you remember?
Not really. It was so vague. I wasn’t really following, but I thought you were, so I didn’t bother to ask questions… What was it he actually said again?
He said we’d be able to find some food here and a little rest before we have to move on.
And when is that?
I don’t know. He said “we’d know once we got here.”
So, what are we supposed to do?
We’re just supposed to wait. And be glad we’re being given a breather.
Yep… And, if you really want to have any fun, you’d better get used to the fact that we don’t know everything. Stop asking so many questions. You know the answers wouldn’t make sense if you knew them. Your questions wouldn’t even make sense.