RJ’s NOTE, 2 May 2017: On a revision recommendation, I’ve added a chapter so…, consider this revised post technically two chapters. It’s a little easier than backdating…
May 6th, Year of our Fair Lord 10, Central Jonestown
It was funny, really, in the saddest kind of way, that you could stand in front of a portrait and, just by changing your point of focus, see your face staring back at you through another’s.
Rosalinda Thorne’s brother had died eight months ago, and she still couldn’t get past his final portrait. He’d looked straight into the camera. He’d been smiling. His life hadn’t been as good as it could have been by then, but smiling for the camera was what you did. In his khaki military uniform and buzzcut, he looked every bit the proud soldier he’d been when he’d finished basic training, not the half-dressed man shooting bottles of Gray Goose off a treestump.
Rose lay her hand on the small dresser in the hallway a moment, then forced herself to look away. It had been a long night. She had missed more sleep than she’d meant to, and odd thoughts like this were dogging her not an hour into the morning.
Passing the old Westfall flag folded on the dresser closest the door, Rose caught her leather jacket off of its hook by the doorway, slung it across her shoulders, and stepped out into the cool summer dawn.
She stood a moment on the porch, letting her shoulders roll back comfortably into her jacket’s armor. A breeze was blowing from downtown. She could smell bad sewer water on it. She knew her father was around back, already opening the lot to the tannery adjacent to their house, so she stepped off the porch to go see him first. The tannery was a small business, but it made enough from the intake of the hunters and the farms surrounding Jonestown. Not much was doing well in the poor northern town, but the Thornes weren’t doing too badly either. She watched her father a moment. He was thumbing through his ring of keys.
Her father looked up as he grabbed the lock at the gate. He was a handsome, broad-shouldered man with hard lines in his face, all the moreso these days. His unkempt hair spoke of ill sleep as well.
“Shouldn’t you be dressed for graduation?” he asked her with a glance. “Give me just a moment. I’ll drive you to school.”
“I don’t really feel like going,” Rose admitted. “I was thinking of visiting the Wellingtons’ instead.” It wasn’t the whole truth, but it wasn’t a lie and her father was owed that much.
A soft expression eased the harsh lines of age in Glenwood Thorne’s face. He nodded and gave her a little wave. “Take your time then, Rose,” he said. “Give Pastor my love.”
Rose turned with a short nod and headed off down the narrow street. Pastor had been her friend since childhood. Unlikely and unhappy circumstances had thrown them together, but the connection they’d forged was a strong one. It’d had to be, with so few visits in over a year, what with his time in the hospital and her time in mourning. It would be good to stop in again, to just see him alive, though she had other plans too, other things that had to be asked, things her father wouldn’t understand.
Rose turned down the next street. A number of stores along the lane were permanently closed, boarded up with fading For Sale signs; but those that were in business were already opening in the gray dawn light to make the most of the day.
She stopped in front of the old appliance store where televisions stood on display at a window. A small grate was built into the window so the sound would carry through. Not many families owned a television these days, so a few people were lingering and then leaving as they went about their morning business, catching up on the news. Curious, Rose crossed the street.
She reached into the pocket of her jacket and found the silver dollar she always carried. She turned it thoughtfully between her fingers. She’d kept it since her brother died. It had been his, and before that it had been their grandfather’s. Now, seeing the President of Westfall on the screens before her, Rose stopped in front of the window and took the coin in one hand. Her thumb rang against the metal with a ping as she flipped it.
Rose stuffed the coin away and lingered to watch the news. There’d been a string of Tails lately. The last time she’d gotten Heads was before choosing to skip graduation. Considering this, she looked hard at the television screen, wondering what the answer would mean this time.
The President of Westfall stood with his chest puffed out behind his podium. He appeared to be in his late sixties though she knew he was older, and was beaming a frog’s smile, looking important to himself, as he waved his hands to quiet down a flurry of questions. Behind him stood a tall man in a pale suit, leaning on a cane. There was some kind of press conference in process despite the early hour of the morning.
“…have just informed me,” he was saying, “that our enemies in Eastasia have been testing a potent, nigh-undetectable chemical weapon. This gas creates delusions of an apocalyptic nature. It is very powerful, since it can throw people into a panic. Our intelligence has observed its use in the wars of Eastasia against the free nations of its continent.”
A number of cameras flashed as they took pictures. Murmurs rose from the reporters gathered in the small pressroom. The camera panned out, perhaps for dramatic effect. The President frowned at it, but began to take questions from the small packed group.
“President Kennick,” said a reporter near the front. “How long has Eastasia been working on this weapon since its conquest of the Pacific isles?”
“Oh, they’re still at war, still at war. I heard they conquered another country already too, some other island in the ocean somewhere. Yes, next question?”
“Mr. President, where have these psychological effects been observed?”
“It’s funny you should ask that, it really is,” said the President. The big man leaned over his podium and smiled at the press caged in their pit. “We’ve had some patients come in from the west coast, you see. It’s like it’s wafting on the wind. Nothing severe yet, but we think it’s a taunt, you see. They want us uneasy. They’re ruthless, will do anything to win a war—gas, guns, child soldiers—think of a bad thing and that’s Eastasia. You don’t see us acting like that here in Westfall. We have a democracy here. I’m your president because you elected me, none of this warring business, it’s all very legitimate and orderly…”
Behind him, the man in the pale suit leaned harder on his cane and cleared his throat a little.
“But the effects, yes, it’s important that I tell you more about those effects,” the President redirected himself. “Listen real carefully, because this is something you all have to know. It is of utmost importance that you know it, so listen close: The effect of this drug, this gas, is the strangest, most strange of all dreams that you can possibly imagine. If you have a dream in your head like this, it’s important you go see a doctor, one of our doctors, not those fake doctors who try to work for free. We have legitimate doctors who can talk to you about your dreams and see about getting this stuff out of your system. Just remember, those short guys across the ocean are trying to get into your head. The world isn’t going to end. It’ll be going on for a long time, I think any smart person would agree.”
Again, the man behind him seemed to have developed a cough.
“Now where was I, oh right, what you need to know is this is psychological warfare. In fact, it’s bad, bad because some people might believe otherwise, you see. If you hear anyone else talking about a dream, you get our doctors to them, and if they don’t see the doctor, maybe you might want to call the police, or your senator. Get us their name and address and we’ll look right into it. Just in case they’re really a part of the plan, you understand. Who’s to say there aren’t spies everywhere who want to do something with this? So if you hear anyone talking about a dream like that, you’ll be sure to tell us—I mean, anyone in government. You let us know right away.” He reached up and tugged at his lapels as he turned to give a camera a better smile.
“Mr. President,” called a short-haired man from the back of the pressroom (he was so far back the camera had to pan), “I just want to confirm what you’ve said for the Five City Times, if that’s all right?”
“Confirm away,” said the President.
The man squared his shoulders and glanced down at his notebook. “You’re saying that Eastasia, a nation across the Pacific Ocean, is sending a drug into our atmosphere to make people dream that the world’s going to end?”
“That’s right,” said the President, with a proud jut of his wide chin.
“How could it possibly travel so far within the ocean’s atmospheric conditions?”
“We’ve got the science, young man,” said the President. “Trust me, I’d think it was ridiculous too, but there are people having real anxiety over this. It’s nothing to joke about.”
“All right,” said the man. “So should we consider this a threat of war from Eastasia?”
“If there’s war, we’ll deal with war,” said the President. “The important thing right now is that if you have dreams like this, or any dreams really, dreams you think mean someone’s trying to do something bad in Westfall, you tell someone in charge right away. Anyone believing these dreams is a crazy person. They’re full of lies. If you don’t say something, you’re helping the enemy—oh, but it seems we’re out of time…”
Rose’s frown deepened as the press conference erupted into last-minute questions.
Are they even trying to hide the lies anymore? she wondered uneasily. It had been ten years though, she admitted. Why would they care to? She flipped the coin one more time, then again, until Heads came up at last. Turning away from the view of the President’s froglike smirk, she strode off down the street towards Lower Jonestown to see Pastor.
May 6th, Year of our Fair Lord 10, Lower Jonestown
His name was Pastor Wellington. “Pastor” wasn’t a title. His mother had had… ideas.
The doctors had discussed what these could have been in hushed terms. Their only clues had been the bruises and blood she’d left behind, and the last screams of “Kingdom Come,” a phrase almost no one used anymore. Finally, with no other recourse, the doctors had decided to ask her blinded son.
“She was crazy. It doesn’t matter.”
Some more hushed discussions.
“Wouldn’t you like to guess—?”
That had been a little over a year ago.
Today, Pastor Wellington had been excused from graduating high school, and no one that morning had time to take him to see the show—so they said, or perhaps it was more they didn’t think he’d care for it, or appreciate it, or… something. They weren’t bad people, his relatives.
So now he sat on the floor of his hollow-feeling house, his ankles crossed, his hands at rest on his knees, spending no more energy than it took to sit up straight and keep breathing. It was his usual routine in the morning, something he’d done much of his adolescence to handle stress and hopefully prevent his bad seizures, the ones his mother had insisted meant he was a prophet of lost gods. It was also a time for quiet, when he could brace himself for the day ahead.
During the day, other people would stop by, friends of his mother or those who came on their recommendation. No one came to apologize though, or ask if he needed anything. Instead, without fail, they asked a blind teenager for advice. They asked him what a boy without eyes saw. For the sake of company, he sometimes offered vague proverbs or suggestions, for which they thanked him. It seemed he was quite good at it, because they came back time and again and they left tips in a jar by the door. Now and then a real insight would come to him, but he found it bothered them when he told the truth. He learned to keep his answers vague and to wrap them up in stories.
What Pastor would never tell his family was he could see something. A strange thing had happened since his mother had blinded him, a thing he couldn’t tell the doctors the truth about either. At first he’d hoped it was some side effect of his seizures, something easy to dismiss and medicate. But too many times a visiting relative had turned on the old television for the news and, facing the screen, he had seen something there.
You did not, in Westfall, with things as they were, let anyone know what you saw about the leadership in the country, specifically about the president and his advisors, whether you were blind or not.
It was something his family, teachers, and the doctors all denied, or perhaps truly couldn’t recall, about the president who’d come out of the woodwork ten years ago. They didn’t remember the strange thing about the man. He’d been, a news station had explained, “the King of the Western Faeries,” ancient immortals of Westfall, and the keeper of a court of Fair Folk. His advisors were Fair Lords. None were human. They were creatures that played at being human. A real folklore expert had been brought onto the morning show to talk all about it. The anchors had asked, why come out now? Wasn’t the world too modern for them? Why get into politics? Well, explained the folklorist, who a young Pastor had thought was remarkable for his bushy eyebrows, they’d always been into politics, way back when, once upon a time.
“But are they dangerous?” the talk show host had asked, looking very official from behind his stack of notecards.
“Well, Fair Folk shape their charms and appearances based on what humans want,” the folklorist had said. “Can you imagine someone who has never hungered or feared death trying to interpret policy?”
“But are they good or evil?”
“I suppose you could say they’re as good or evil as all of us and none of us—there are no consequences for immortals. It’s important to remember that.”
What people could remember was that the Fair Folk had won by a small margin, and everyone had praised their nominee for it. Their leader was sworn into office as President Kennick. “Kennick” was not his real name of course, but the national image lost something by calling the president of a democratic republic, “the Slight Twice King.” It lost that anyway, and more, but no one remembered this out loud or else they wound up missing not long after, like the folklorist had.
For some of Pastor’s childhood, he recalled, the news had been unsettling. People came forward with concerns, but investigations were stalled, and then there were more unsettling cases of political prestidigitation inducing a kind of collective memory loss that children noticed but parents insisted they hadn’t. Swallowed were the protests of those who insisted that only a human being could be president. The president was human, the anchors now insisted, the ones who didn’t recall ever interviewing a folklorist. Kennick and his advisors were the best team for the job. What job? Well, running the nation of Westfall. Which was? This nation is Westfall. Where have you been?
And they’d kept running it, had been running it, for a little over a decade now. International news slowed to a trickle. Everything was the president’s new war on homegrown terrorists. There was some talk of new vague enemies, empires overseas: Eurasia, Eastasia… A few people asked, “Why do those names sound familiar?” No one bothered to answer.
So when you realized that, blind, you could see them as they really were… you didn’t dare tell anyone.
Except Rose. You could always tell Rose. She was good with secrets.
She’d be graduating today, Pastor realized. It really had been over a year. Rose had made it, for whatever it was worth these days to make it anywhere.
At an itch, Pastor rubbed at the scars on his face, then fought himself and put his hand back on his knee. He couldn’t let that become a habit. And he needed to stop letting his mind drift, focus on breathing, on being.
See something else the doctors aren’t allowed to know about.
For days there’d been a feeling hanging over Jonestown, or rather a knotted mass of feelings. It felt Fair like the Slight Twice King and his Lords. It had ridden in high on the wind at first, but now it was sniffing about the streets like a dog on a scent, seeking for something. It had caught on his ankles the other day, right at the front door.
But what did it want with a poor place like Jonestown? What did they want?
Did they know about him?
There were ways to find that out. He just had to find stillness, then let go, fall, let another part of him take the reins, before life came to interrupt…
Footsteps on the gravel path outside the front door distracted him. Too late?
He sat a moment, listening, and then felt himself relax.
His youngest cousin’s voice came with the squeaking of the screen door down the hallway.
“Eli,” he acknowledged.
“There’s a visitor,” said Eli. The boy let his feet skip within the door frame. Nine years old. He never tried to come in further. Pastor could remember the uneasiness his own childhood. Because it was often Eli with family messages, it was out of compassion that Pastor faced the far wall and not the door for each morning sitting.
“Who is it?” Pastor asked, as a formality.
“The tanner’s daughter’s asking after you.”
“The younger one?”
Eli was silent in surprise.
Then, “How did you know?”
Pastor would have smiled if he’d been facing him. He wasn’t, so he frowned instead. By the strong pace on the gravel path that wavered now by the door. By the ping of a fingernail against a silver coin, by the slap of the palm as the coin was caught. It was a family habit. No, that was the wrong word…
Did the Yes/No questions pile up for something like this? There had been at least one flip to decide to skip graduation.
“Can she come in?”
Pastor was about to answer when he felt something in his chest tighten. There were sparks of color in his not-vision. Memories, but not really. Impressions, but not those either. Worlds no one else could see. They writhed, glowed, burning lightless and deep and ancient, pulling him down with them to the hidden heart of the earth that knew everything, leaving his body behind. There was the home of all things dark and all flames unseen. Gold was a feeling, not a color. Shape was a touch, then a taste.
He came up for mental air. Some shape rose with him, lingering on his tongue. It changed to a word as he woke fully back to consciousness, from one darkness into another, though neither was the snuffling dark thing in the streets. Pastor turned the word over. It was a name. He studied it for some time, worried.
Why now, when he wasn’t trying?
“Pastor?” Eli asked.
It might have been longer than he thought. It usually was when he went away.
“Should I send her away? Was it a fit? Should we get Dr. Louwin?”
Pastor had set answers. “No. My mind wanders.”
Eli didn’t speak.
“Show her in,” Pastor added, belatedly.
Her steps were quiet now. She was his age, barely past eighteen, old enough to be a woman when the older ones thought she should be, young enough to be a child when they didn’t like how she went about it.
No brush of polyester graduation robes though. Instead, the creak of leather, the favorite coat for a cool day, or was it because she needed armor? She’d once said that was why she liked it. There’d be gloves in a pocket, along with her clasp knife.
“Pastor?” she said.
What else should he say?
She asked, “Do you know why I’m here?”
“You flipped a coin,” he said, because it was the sure answer. “It landed on heads, so you’re here, because if it was tails, it would mean ‘no.’”
“And there’s no reason not to see me except a ‘no.’”
No laugh. Something serious then. She was still quiet, but it was full of waiting now.
Pastor settled back into himself, sinking into the hollow darkness of unseeing that surrounded him, not so deep as before though. He had to be careful about that place, he resolved, more aware of the edge of the cliff.
“Is Eli gone?” he asked. He’d forgotten to notice.
“No one’s with you?”
“No one sent you?”
“No. I had a…”
He wasn’t going to say it for her. He waited.
“…a dream… again. I keep having the same dream.”
“Come in.” He waved her out of the hall and heard her move into the doorway.
He worried then, if others would be up so early, not to ask for entry but to invade, little bits of darkness trailing into the room around their ankles, if they were seeking her out….
He suggested, “Will you walk with me? The doctor says I really should get out more.”
“Can we talk here?”
“I’ve come to ask you to walk much further than around the town…, Pastor.”
There was always a catch just before she said his name.
She used to call me “Tori.”
He sighed, for no other reason than to acknowledge the reason for the change. Before his mother had blinded him, they’d had a friendship he’d taken for granted, a time and a place to share secrets, before trauma and therapy and relatives told him where to go. And then her brother had committed suicide. It’d been so hard to just talk since then without feeling monitored.
“What is it?” he asked, again belatedly.
“I need a guide, to go somewhere.”
Pastor struggled to remember. The edge of Westfall’s southernmost state.
“The world is going to end.”
“You mean, in your dream?”
“Whenever I woke up, I just had this… feeling. I still have it. It won’t go away.”
“You think we should run?” he asked seriously.
“It’s this drive to reach the border, like maybe there’s an answer there, a way to stop him.”
He didn’t need to ask who she meant. He saw “President Kennick” on the television enough. Again, Pastor considered the hunting beast that rode the high winds.
“You think they’d want to end the world after ten years?” he asked.
“There was something on the news this morning too. The President, saying not to listen to dreams. That’s why I need you, Pastor.”
“I need your eyes.”
Pastor unwound his ankles. He stood slowly, listening to his body creak as bones in limbs too thin complained at a cold morning. He stood a moment, then he stooped. His long fingers found the wooden staff just under the sofa. He hesitated at a twinge in his back, then stood. He put his forehead to the rod and leaned on it tiredly.
“You don’t,” he said.
“I know it’ll be dangerous.”
A thought came to him, as certain thoughts did. “Flip your coin,” he said.
“I… already did.”
“You’ve decided then?”
“Pastor, I asked the same question and flipped the coin until it landed on ‘heads.’”
It wasn’t necessary, but he said, “You don’t do that.”
“I…” She trailed off. He imagined she shook her head. She’d had a certain way of tossing her hair when they were young. Who was he joking? They were young.
“It must have been some dream.”
“I feel like time is running out,” she said seriously. “I mean, if I’m wrong, I want to be sure. And if I go, I can’t go alone.”
There was something not being said.
But then, he wasn’t about to tell her about the dark outside that knew her name.
For a moment, Pastor deliberated. Most young people looked forward at the future. When you nearly died, you started looking backwards. Rose was one of the few people who met Pastor’s backwards glance.
He wasn’t sure he liked it.
He wondered if her hair was still long and flashed when she tossed it.
The thought made him angry at himself.
He turned around and waited for her to see how useless he’d be.
She let him wait.
“I’m not going without you, Pastor,” she said, “not if they’re involved.”
He turned away. Most people would be disgusted. Most people would leave you alone, be happy to pity you at a distance, to give what you need and say that’s enough, to leave you without someone to talk to, because your empty eye sockets make them uneasy.
His admiration and resentment fought each other just a moment longer.
“Will we come back?” he asked. “Flip your coin.”
He heard the ping of the silver coin on her nail, a fumble of the catching hand.
He asked, “What happened?”
“It’s between my fingers.”
“It’s not an auger, Pastor.”
Again the hesitation. “Tell me what it means to you then,” he insisted.
“That we’ll come back?”
“It could mean just one of us will.”
Maybe part of it was the strangers who wanted advice but not truth. Or the doctors and their prying questions that made him wonder if they’d put him on that special watch list, the one the King said was for “terrorists.” Or maybe it was the silence in between all that, the wondering what it was all for while facing walls to spare children…
But much of it was the darkness whispering curiously at the door.
And the fact that he wasn’t about to let her go alone.
“Rose?” Pastor whispered.
“We’ll need a hunter too.”