May 2010


A biting, bitter cold consumes me.

Colder than darkest space or the gaze of a forsaken love, it tears at my windbreaker and whistles through my hair. It is as if all the frigid indifferences and icy words of the world have coalesced into a crystal-clear diamond-hard point and rammed themselves deep into my chest. It’s hard to breath; the air steals every breath I take, scattering across the snow as a thin gray vapor. I can see others out here too, struggling through ankle-deep powder towards destinations long forgotten or unknown.

I smile as we pass, but the cold stiffness of my mouth makes more of a grimace, though my amicable wave still shows my intent. No reply; the other figures, stark against the snow, are either too frozen or too absorbed in their own worlds to touch another across the gaps that separate us all.

Perhaps, in their worlds, this is a better circumstance.

A place of business closed, with an entire sun cycle to waste. Or exposure to climes colder still, making the tundra I see no more than a powdered-sugar frost. I eventually get where I’m going, and so do they. The ice in the air will eventually coalesce into the pattering of April raindrops. But for now, frozen in time as well as being, we simply pass each other by and vanish into the mists from whence we came.

The “Nature’s Bounty” feast, put on by the Callahan Country Students for a Happy Earth, had generated a lot of leftovers, which they had promptly abandoned to biodegrade. Gaines Park maintenance volunteers had been called in to deal with the issue; Isaac cannily observed that the CCSHE’s reasoning had been sound, and that a biodegredation site away from picnic tabletops was the only missing piece.

Gabe confronted Isaac as he was packing away his gear. “There’s a pile of miscellaneous nuts sitting on top of that flagstone,” he said. “We were supposed to clean them up.”

“It’s a shrine to Aquerna, the Norse goddess of squirrels. She’ll take them if she wants them.”

“You don’t expect me to believe that, do you?” Gabe said.

“Believe what you want. I’m not cleaning it up.”

Defeated, Gabe left Isaac to rake leaves in the vicinity of the “shrine,” which he went about with characteristic sloth and lack of attention to detail. Returning from a long, leisurely stroll to deposit a bunch of leaves in a bag, Isaac noticed that the pile of nuts had disappeared from the flagstone. He also noticed a short brunette girl in the bushes nearby who seemed to be wearing nothing but her birthday suit.

As much as Isaac appreciated the aesthetics of the human form, Callahan County and Gaines Park had strict statutes in place to keep nude sunbathers from the nearby college at bay, and volunteers were often put upon to summon the authorities or chase them down.

“Hey, earth child!” Isaac yelled. “It’s too early, and you’re too pasty, for sunbathing to do anything! Get lost!”

She turned and regarded him with wide eyes.”Hello. I am the Avatar of Aquerna.”

“W-what?” Isaac felt his heart stutter; no one should have known about that save Gabe. “I made that up! It was just empty snarkiness!”

“By invoking the name and attaching it to a site, you designated a site,” the girl said. “By refusing to recant when confronted, you expressed a belief. Ethereal beings need human belief to exist, and a site to manifest. You have provided Aquerna with the first of each in over one thousand years, and her avatar is before you now in gratitude.”

Trish’s train of through was broken as movement in the underbrush gave way to a frightened dash across the path. A doe emerged from the lightly wooded ravine, and glanced around. Upon seeing the threatening form of a biped approaching, the doe gingerly stepped back into the forest’s edge.

“How did you manage to get out here?” Trish whispered. The wooded area was a tiny oasis in an urban sprawl, cut off from the nearest state forest by a dozen ribbons of highway.

She waved at it, which seemed silly in retrospect–how is an animal supposed to interpret a gesture like that?–but made perfect sense at the time. The doe bobbed its head; Trish knew better than to interpret the gesture as a response, but couldn’t help herself.

The creature remained there, peering out of the brush, until abruptly melting into the forest once more, without leaving so much as a sign of its passing.

I woke up the other day, and realized that I was here. I’m a college student. Living in a dorm. Eating pizza with a vigor and frequency I would never have dreamt possible. I have a car, a tiny little thing that’s essentially a go-cart with doors.

But yesterday, I was in Mr. Fitzpatrick’s math class, sophomore year of high school. I was chauffeured around by my mother, who dropped me off at class in that huge old Crown Victoria of hers. Pizza meant either cafeteria cardboard or a treat for special occasions or unsupervised nights.

Men are supposed to wake up screaming one night in their forties, feeling the growing wrinkles on their face and crying out “I’m old!” “Where’s the time gone?” “I was twenty-five just a few months ago!” College students don’t suffer mid-life crises.

I’m not going through a mid-life crisis, unless my life is to be exceptionally short. I flipped through an old yearbook awhile ago, and found my picture. The beaming innocent staring back at me could have taken my spot in communications class without
incident. No, what’s preoccupied me recently is the way time, itself, is speeding up.

When I was nine, and the family took a summer trip to Disney World in July, I can remember ages of activity on either side of that great line through the vacation. Three months was 3% of my life back then…if I live to be a hundred, that’s three years. Each summer vignette–from wandering downtown dressed like a pirate to that bee sting at my aunt’s cabin–is a week, a month unto itself. Last year, a week was a barely perceptible blip on the radar screen. Class followed class, assignment followed assignment, and weekend followed all, as surely as ducklings totter along after their mother.

I tell people about this feeling. “Time’s speeding up!” I’ll say. “Look at how fast last year went! At this rate, tomorrow it’ll be next week, and next week it’ll be time to retire and in a month tops I’m worm food.” They laugh sometimes, a little nervously, at the sheer weirdness of what I’m saying. For most people, the process of looking back doesn’t begin until 25 or 30–everything until then is eager anticipation. I’ve got a head start because I’m addressing the problem now.

“Nothing personal,” Luchari said, aiming the pistol. “Just business.”

“Is that supposed to make me feel better?” said Da Silva.

Luchari lowered his gun. “How do you mean?”

“Would this being personal really make that much of a difference?” Da Silva shrugged as much as his restraints would allow. “I mean, after all, I’m dead either way.”

“I suppose so,” Luchari said, stroking his chin. “Never thought of it that way before.

“It being personal might even be a good thing. Me, I’ve done some bad stuff in my time. I can see a guy taking something like that, making it personal, and going out of his way to settle accounts. It’s what I’d do. I can respect that in a way.”

“You know,” Luchari said thoughtfully, “I think it’s really more for me, than for you. Makes me feel like I’m somehow not killing you in cold blood, that everything’s okay.”

“Hey, I know exactly where you’re coming from,” said Da Silva. “Whatever it takes to get you to sleep at night.”

“This has been very illuminating. Thank you.” Luchari smiled, then squeezed off two shots from the hip. Da Silva slumped forward, the back of his skull gone.

“I love it when someone comes up with something a little more creative than ‘please don’t kill me,'” Luchari said to his men. “Having a little stimulating conversation for a change makes this job that much easier.”

We’ve been good friends for years, he and I. I would’ve followed him anywhere. To Hell and back, as it were.

Well, he hasn’t been the same since the accident. I really can’t blame him, but…

When I he came here, I followed him. “Here” is out in the middle of nowhere. Hardly anything for me or he to do.

He doesn’t mind.

It’s what he asked for.

For all our talking, I don’t even think my old friend knows I’m here. His mind’s elsewhere.

I’m not unhappy here…it’s quiet, relaxing. But I can’t help feeling that I’m needed elsewhere. I’m a healer of men, and I don’t play golf. Always hit the sod farther than the ball. And somewhere out there, there must be people in pain.

Injured, suffering, or worse.

If I weren’t out here, could I be helping them? I don’t really have much of a chance to help people anymore. Healing is God’s work, and it’s just not needed much here.

Are my gifts going to waste?

I wonder, should I leave? Abandon my friends here, my old friend, and go? Try to seek out those of greater need, and help them? See my family, my children more often, perhaps? I don’t hate it here, and occasionally my skills are needed. A lot of people depend on me–psychologically. I don’t have the training, but I know how to listen. I know how to coax out a smile with a little joke. And I have enough years under my belt to have advice to spare.

So should I leave, and try to use my God-given gifts to help as many as I can?

Perhaps I should, but not right now, not yet.

Of course, the play was all just an excuse for playing with the props and costumes. Parents, sitting in the audience, seem to think that their kids sit quietly with their hands in their laps until it’s their cue.

Clearly, they don’t remember what it’s like to be a sixth-grader.

While we kids with bit parts were waiting around, whether it was rehearsal or opening night, we’d break open the backstage stash and engage in a little impromptu roleplaying. The girls liked to giggle and try on various hideous dresses left over from period pieces or long-ago contemporary productions, while the boys were all about the prop guns.

Our school had the great fortune to have put on a lavish version of Guys and Dolls circa 1985, which meant gangster costumes and prop guns galore. Enough fedoras, zoot suits, Tommy guns, and pistols to go around (except for Jimmy, who had to make due with the crossbow from “Wild Geese: The Musical”). Things broke down very much along class lines, with the most popular kids (and therefore the ones with the best roles) doling out goodies as they saw fit.

Lewis jerked back like a puppet on a string. “No! Please! I’ll tell you what you want to know.”

“Start singing. What do you know about the book?” I’d known from the first that he had a little bit of a songbird in him, but hadn’t been expecting Handel’s Messiah.

“He came by here the other day, looking to pawn it. Said it’d be worth a lot of scratch to the right buyer.” Lewis stared straight ahead as he talked, like a deer in the headlights of a ’32 Cadillac. The truth always was a little blinding for his type, though the fact that he was staring down the headlight of my .32 Winchester probably helped.

“And what’d you say?” I asked, though I already knew the answer. A rube like him was happy enough to buy a heater fresh from intensive recruitment for the local undertaking parlors, but didn’t have any use for a book aside from a doorstop. Lewis would’ve torn up a Gutenberg Bible to pack the pages around a 4-cylinder that leaked more than his roof.

“I told him to hit the bricks,” Lewis said. “No money in books.” Clearly, he’d never seen the hollowed-out Tolstoy in my office full of liquor futures.

“Where was he going after you told him to get on the trolley?”

“No idea.” Lewis glanced nervously at the shooting iron in my mitt like it was going to jump on the counter and do a dance. “A…are you a detective?”

I put my hat back on and pulled my collar up. “I’m a librarian,” I said. “And Mr. Salvatori’s book is very overdue.”

“I’m not quite clear on exactly how evil an inanimate object like that can be,” I said. “Atomic bombs don’t kill people. People kill people.”

“The raw uranium was mined from the depths of the Belgian Congo by forced laborers,” said Tex.

“I don’t know where that is.” Geography was never my strong suit.

“Central Africa. The colonial regime there worked millions of people to death.”

“Fun,” I said. “I still don’t follow, though.”

“There’s more,”” said Tex. “The Nazis purchased the raw ore and refined it into uranium oxide. It was on its way to Japan by submarine to build a dirty bomb when the war ended.”

“I’m guessing they didn’t just throw it overboard.”

“The US captured the sub and turned the fissile materials over to the Manhattan Project, which used it in a breeder reactor to create plutonium for a bomb core. Two separate physicists were killed in radiation accidents by that core.”

“Ouch. That’s certainly dangerous, if not necessarily evil,” I said. “What then?”

“It was detonated over Bikini Atoll as part of a nuclear weapons test.”

I kept walking. Somehow, being lost among short grasses bending in the afternoon sun and trees undulating in a light breeze was less stressful than it ought to have been. Though wild, the foliage nevertheless had a faint air of maintenance about it, almost like the median strip on a highway.

After twenty minutes, I saw the girl again, sitting on another rock. Given her disinclination to move before, I was surprised to see that she’d somehow gotten ahead of me.

“How did you get here before me?” I demanded.

Still keeping that absurd, almost meditative pose, the girl opened one eye and once again regarded me. “I have not moved from this spot,” she said.

“Then how did you get ahead of me?” I demanded. “That doesn’t make any sense.”

“Things often don’t,” she replied, closing the eye. “But I’m not surprised to see you again.”

“You don’t exactly seem to be anything to see me again,” I said. “Care to be a little less cryptic for those of us not into transcendental meditation on random rocks?”

She sighed. “The glen won’t let you leave.”

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