It so happened that the farm of Yuan Wei Tao grew prosperous in a fertile river valley. This prosperity gave Wei Tao the opportunity to indulge in his passions of basketry, pottery, and calligraphy. He was particularly adept at creating dolls out of reeds, which he would give small clay faces and wrap in a poem. Sold at the market in the nearby city, Wei Tao’s dolls were regarded as good luck charms and made particularly favored gifts for teachers, scholars, and firstborn sons. Despite success with his art, Wei Tao always considered himself a farmer first, and always worked his time in the fields before he would allow himself to indulge his fancies.

Wei Tao had a young wife named Xue Ying, and it was for her that the greatest and most intricate of the farmer’s creations were reserved. Though childless, they shared a great and noble love and could often be seen working the fields together alongside laborers and cousins. Xue Ying’s beauty was renowned throughout the river valley, as was the overwhelming devotion she showed for her husband and neighbors. But one day it came to pass that an ox broke free of its plow and trampled Xue Ying beneath his hooves, killing her instantly.

Distraught, Wei Tao withdrew himself from the world. He concealed Xue Ying’s death, convincing others that she was merely badly injured and under his care. In his despair, Wei Tao crafted the finest doll he had ever created and offered it to the Heavenly Grandfather with a poem begging to be honorably reunited with his beloved. His devotion moved the heavens, and a celestial doll appeared on Wei Tao’s doorstep wrapped in instructions.

Wei Tao created a reed doll in the shape and form of Xue Ying, and filled it with poems of the highest quality describing her life and nature. Then, using a process revealed to him by the Heavenly Grandfather, Wei Tao covered the doll in living clay. This new Xue Ying awoke, was to the eyes of Wei Tao as she had ever been. But the celestial doll had borne a warning: though possessing her form and imbued with her spirit, the new Xue Ying was still but straw and clay.

Wei Tao and Xue Ying lived their lives as they had before, but Wei Tao did not heed the Heavenly Grandfather’s caution and once again worked the fields with his beloved. As she carried heavy burdens, the living clay on Xue Ying’s back gradually thinned until a laborer noticed the bare reeds poking out from beneath her clothing. Thus was the doll’s nature revealed to the valley and also to Xue Ying herself.

A cigarette flared to life between her fingers. Technically smoking wasn’t allowed anywhere on school grounds, not even on the loading dock. Then again, the rock keeping the battered door to the teachers’ lounge open wasn’t technically kosher either, and it had been placed there by the principal.

Gene lit his own coffin nail after Weatherby proffered her lighter. “Not exactly being a role model for all the kids, are we?” he said.

“You know damn well they’d smoke whether we did or not. It’s all they have to tide them over before dope and meth, after all,” Weatherby sighed.

“I can see that the beginning of a new school year has you nice and uplifted,” Gene countered.

“Seeing the new wave of children come in…all so young, all so beautiful,” said Weatherby. She coughed. “And then looking at myself–never beautiful, no longer young–frankly, I can’t think of anything so depressing. You’ll have to forgive me if I’m a little grumpy, Mr. Ulrich.”

Gene fiddled with his cigarette, unsure of how to respond. He’d been warned about Weatherby, but he also had to get along with her if he intended to continue smoking out back. “There’s always what you teach,” he said. “Advancing the state of knowledge ought to count for something.”

“You’re an art teacher, Mr. Ulrich,” said Weatherby. “You get to talk to the children about finding their inner voice, expressing themselves, following their dreams. I teach mathematics. I doubt even a Harvard statistician had youthful dreams of solving equations all day.”

“The kids still make mistakes, even in my class,” said Gene. He flicked his ashes into the football helmet-cum-ashtray provided by Hanretty in Phys Ed.

“When your children make mistakes, it’s cute. It may even be modern art. But when my children make mistakes, they’re just mistakes. I get to mark with red ink because no new school of mathematics was ever founded by someone who thought two plus two equals twenty-two.”

The next morning, Kevin couldn’t find it in himself to crawl out of bed for so much as a glass of water. His temples pounded mercilessly in what he might have called an ‘uber-headache’ had he been able to so organize his thoughts. Half-hangover, half-migrane, it made the soft lights and sounds of the waking world outside the bedroom all but unbearable. Despite a parched throat and chapped lips, Kevin was too weak to get the bottle of water at his bedside, much less sip from it. And even then the sunshine streaming through the closed blinds and the rustling of the blankets would have been more unbearable than thirst.

People came and went downstairs all day–it was impossible to miss the nuclear detonations that accompanied each footfall, door slam, and idling motor in the driveway. No one could be bothered to check in on poor old Kevin, but in many ways that was a blessing in disguise. A conversation–or, heaven forbid, a hospital visit–would have reaped more in agony than it sowed in goodwill.

“This is the Southern Michigan University Alumni Association calling for Geraldine Thompson. May I speak with her?” Kelly ran through her spiel by rote, flipping through the list of people still to be panhandled.

One name in the J’s popped out immediately: Gregory Johansen.

“Shit!” Kelly said, forgetting that her headset was most definitely not muted.

“I beg your pardon?” Geraldine Thompson huffed. She’d been in the midst of a long-winded denial that Kelly had tuned out.

Eyes wide, Kelly killed the call. “Damn you Johansen…not just content to ruin your own call, are you?

Johansen’d had a rough time at the university, attending as he did from 1966-70 for undergrad and 70-72 for his MBA. SMU had been a minor center of the counterwar and counterculture during that time, leading to violent protests and the suspension of most facets of campus life. There’d been no homecoming in ’67, ’68, or ’69, no football games in ’68 or ’70, and the graduation ceremonies in ’68 and ’72 had been canceled due to bomb threats.

As a result, Johansen bore a heavy grudge against SMU as an institution and against his fellow students, past and present, in particular. His wide-ranging diatribes to SMU Alumni Association solicitors to the effect that they could have his money when he got his stolen pomp and circumstance back were legendary for their ferocity. But he was an alumni nevertheless, and loaded to boot, and so remained on the list. For all his venom, Johansen’s number was openly listed; Kelly was of the opinion that he relished the opportunity to bring the “hippie students” soliciting funds down a peg or two.

Mack was the kind of person who always walked around in a cloud of cigar smoke–as if the other business he was involved in wasn’t enough, he loved to clench death-sticks between those fat lips of his and give people cancer. I sometimes wondered if he even really smoked at all, or if he just pulled out a cigar, as big around as his fingers and just as brown and weathered, to impress people. A cigar says power, money, influence. A cigar says ‘I’m the kind of guy you don’t screw with–you default on one of my loans, I break your kneecaps and shove this stogie in your crotch.’

None of that would bother me, of course, if I hadn’t been trying to kick the habit myself. Cigars and cigarettes aren’t the same, as any smoke snob will tell you, but that aroma was enough to make me reach for my empty breast pocket, where the cowboy-killers used to be. I rolled a stick of gum up and stuck it where a cig should have gone.

Mack laughed, dredging up a gallon of phlegm from deep inside his stout frame. “Ain’t you gonna light up?” he said. “Them Bubble Yum brand cigs, they sure pack a wallop.”

I laughed too–with Mack, you laughed when he did, whether what he said was funny or not.

“So, anyway, the old prick drops dead. Literally. Right there in his goddamn workshop. His kid found him there the next morning, at the bench, lookin’ like he was asleep.”

“Heart attack?” I asked, trying to sound interested, even though I didn’t know Karol Kazdemu from Joan of Arc. It’s always a tragedy when somebody dies–in the abstract. But if you don’t know ‘em, the most people can muster is a vague sorry feeling before they forget all about it. It doesn’t pay to dwell too much on death anyway.

“Stroke.” Mack gestured at Sunday’s Times, crumpled on his coffee table. “The obituary was very specific–I bet that was his doing.”

“Terrible tragedy,” I replied. “What’s it got to do with us?”

Mack took a fresh drag from his cigar and exhaled, filling the room anew with that sweet, dusky smell. My mouth tightened; God, I wanted a cigarette.

“For most people, yeah, stroke’s a terrible tragedy all right. But not Karol. For him, a stroke means he weaseled his way out of payin’ me back.”

Everything was bright colors, smiling faces, and infectious salsa music.

Donovan stood up on the bar to address the assemblage. “My friends!” he cried. “Through adversity and times of utmost trial, we have persevered. Now is the time to wash all that away with laughter.”

I weaved my way through the crowd, unable to keep from grinning or bobbing a little to the music. Sanderson was there, and Lowell, still arguing over their silly real estate development. Mary’d had her baby, finally, and Sean was beside her with pictures, flashing them to all passersby whether or not they demonstrated a speck of interest. Even Richard sat at the bar, having an animated conversation with some minor functionary while liquor flowed freely into glass after glass.

The person I’d most wanted to see, though, wasn’t at the bar or on the dance floor but on the balcony outside, alone.

“Tell me something, Bethany,” Karl said at my approach. “How do they do it? Celebrate in there, after everything that’s happened? Everyone we lost? Is it wrong that I don’t want to drink and dance after that?”

I handed over my drink, which he gratefully drained, and clapped a hand on his shoulder. “The way I see it, they’re all in there with everyone else. Kim’s at the bar ordering another one of those ridiculous mixed drinks of hers, the kind with no alcohol. Mark’s hitting on anything without a ring on as well as a few that do. The others as well. I think you can see it too, if you look hard enough.”

Karl nodded. “If there was anyplace out there they’d be, at least in spirit, it’s here,” he sniffed. “They wouldn’t want me out here moping like a refugee from a spring prom.”

“I don’t either,” I said. “C’mon, let’s go back to our friends. Alive or dead, everyone’s together tonight.”

“Why do you think everyone is being so cagey? They’re protecting something.”

Kevin waved his arm, but the fever-addled could manage only a feeble swat.

Fiona continued, never breaking her gaze. “This is bigger than you realize. Maybe bigger than you can realize.”

“You…you’re just a fever dream…” Kevin mumbled weakly.

“Who’s that you’re talking to?” Marcia said in the next room. “You need your rest!”

“No. This place, that’s the fever dream. The tortured hallucinations of something we can’t comprehend.” Fiona approached, hand outstretched. “Come with me.”

“No…no,” moaned Kevin. “I’m not listening anymore. Even my own subconscious won’t give me a straight answer.”

Her stare didn’t waver, but Fiona began to grow agitated. “I’m trying to save you, can’t you understand that? What does the truth matter if you can’t understand it?”

“No…”

Marcia entered the room carrying a stack of hot towels. “These’ll have you right as rain soon enough. Who were you talking to?”

“F-Fiona…”

“Well, you’re in a bad state now, but not so bad as to be talking to the dead.”

The city was beautiful at night. At precisely 7:00, the lights would switch on and shine into the darkness, creating an island of light. They glinted off the calm waters of the bay, they cascaded over the low buildings, and they cast eerie shadows on the hill overlooking the city. One structure in particular, tall and thin, cast a gigantic dark line over the hill and the complex of buildings perched atop it. Because of this, the inhabitants called the whole area “the Stripe.”

And standing on the Stripe, illuminated from ahead by the city lights and behind by the rising moon, stood a lone man, a sentinel. A casual glance would’ve revealed nothing aside from his alert pose, but a more discerning observer could’ve noticed his sharp military tunic and the rifle slung over his shoulder. A cigarette, its tiny glow accentuating the contours of his face, completed the picture.

He’d been on watch for hours, and wasn’t to be relieved for another three. No one in his unit wanted the graveyard shift; it was dull and cold. He always volunteered for it, though: the graveyard shift was quiet, and nothing ever happened. The “sunshine shift,” however, was another story. The guard smiled, thinking of his mates dealing with the crowds that invariably formed around the compound gates. Along with jeers and insults, the malcontents usually threw stones too.

It was odd, he thought. His unit guarded the Stripe, but no one knew what it was they were really protecting. He had his own ideas, of course, but they were of the un-soldierly type: research lab, weapons development, government offices, and so on. That was one odd thing about the job, the guard thought again. No one knew what they were guarding.

A sudden movement to the right caught the sentry’s eye. Unslinging his rifle, he took one last puff on his smoke and crushed it with his bootheel.

“Who’s there?” he demanded.

As if in response, a loud clatter sounded to his rear. Whirling around, he fired blindly into the darkness. Cursing himself for wasting ammunition, the guard fumbled for his flashlight. Its brutal, high-powered beam revealed a metal can, old and rusted, lying on its side with a bullet hole through it.

He’d only been staring at the can for a moment when he heard a soft but distinct “whump” behind him. The guard turned, only to see that a small dart had embedded itself in his forearm. He yelped and ripped it out, trying to illuminate it with the flashlight’s beam. Even as he did so, his eyes began to water, and a feeling of calm passed over him. He struggled to aim as a figure stepped into the beam, but collapsed in a heap as another figure appeared at his back.

They were playing this beautiful waltz when we first met.

I don’t even know how we were invited to that cotillion, full as it was of glitz and glamor and last names tracing back to the Mayflower. But we were, and both standing aloof, when the live instruments struck up the tune. The next thing I knew, we were together, lost among the beautiful melody and motion of the moment.

Even after the original, volcanic “us” became the prosaic, everyday “we,” I still think of the waltz when I see you. But I never did learn what it was called, even though I can still hum it to this day, and often do.

I’ve hummed the bars I can remember to the few musically inclined people I’ve met on my travels, always to the shaking of heads and the shrugging of shoulders. Over time, the trail grew fainter as the day to day took its toll on what had once been. Sometimes I think that the impromptu waltzes that sometimes break out in the kitchen, untrained voices substituting for clarinet and string, are the one thing that we can still share unadulterated by the pettiness that so often creeps into our lives.

So when I heard those lilting strains drifting out of the old State and across the street, I had to investigate. I had to know, though sometimes I now wish I had continued on my afternoon walk.

An ancient Ford Model T lies in the center of the field, slowly rusting away. Bare rungs that once held a roof jut nakedly into the cold morning air. Stiff oxidized springs squat forlornly where a driver had once sat; the soft padding long ago dispersed by countless mice and birds. The entire front end of the vehicle is missing, its parts no doubt scavenged to prolong the lives of other vehicles. It looks like the skeleton of some forgotten animal, forever lifeless and condemned to stand as a memorial to what once had been.

“Are you sure this is it?” Sam says.

Her grandfather pokes a finger through what looks like a bullet hole on one of the rocker panels. “How could I forget?”