October 9th, 2033, Grand Canyon Village, Arizona, USA
A car door slammed. The front seat jostled, as Jill reached back for a seat belt, then jangled the keys about. With a sigh, she sat back.
Her chest ached. She felt so small, but the emptiness felt bigger than the canyon.
“What was that about?” asked her passenger.
“Mm. Well Rose mentioned…”
There was a bag at their feet. Jill stared past the horns of the jeep and listened to her friend rummaging. She was surprised by what was pulled out and pushed towards her.
“Not that I want to make an act of littering in a national park pointless…,” added Tori Wellington, like somehow blind eyes could see what she was staring at. “…but it was pointless.”
“I don’t need that anymore, Tori,” she said quietly.
“In the interest of a blind person who doesn’t want to walk home from the Grand Canyon,” Tori replied, “because I certainly shall not be driving, I beg to differ.”
“You’re being a bit dramatic—as usual.” She snatched the book up, but then held still, staring at the gold leaf runes on the faux leather cover. “I didn’t throw myself in.”
“How long before that happens?” Tori asked quietly.
“Tori, I’m not one of your clients…”
“Please, Jill. I’m here. Death isn’t better than being alive, it’s just easier.”
Jill sat silent for a long moment. From anyone else, she reflected, that would sound so shallow. It had been a long trip here though, through Carlotta, Broken Arch, even Ridge Town, shying away from Glitterford and Gao’s permanent patrol. There had been long talks and long silences, and campfires to be honest around. They had looked in on Dean Edda, the woman who’d helped them in Broken Arch, then tuned the radio when the trial of Drogheda Hound aired live on all the stations. (She wouldn’t be executed, and Jill had expected as much. She was, after all, certifiably insane.)
There was really no other threat to Jill or the others from the outside now. People just accepted that the photos for wanted criminals weren’t them anymore. Jill sensed Baton behind the cover up. So, all that was left were the inner demons to fight.
“You know,” she said at length, “when Rose’s brother died, I didn’t know what to do. He’d killed someone. All my beliefs said he was banished from paradise. I couldn’t comfort her. And when I heard about your mom…”
She looked back at the runes.
“…well, all my beliefs said she was in paradise. It didn’t feel right. And then that… person… showed up. I ran away from my beliefs because they hadn’t saved me. I ran to Fred, because he’d been something real that could help me. And then…” She shook her head. “I can’t for the life of me figure out when I was awake or asleep after that, nightmares and dreams, nothing felt real.”
Tori waited, expecting more. She’d taken it for granted, Jill thought, the fact that people around her tended to listen more than she did. Even her mother, who hardly noticed when things changed, had a nod and a hug at the end of most things these days.
“I guess what I’m trying to say is, I don’t know what to believe anymore, but things are so bad I’ve got insomnia. I can’t hide in a dream. I can’t do nothing. But I don’t know what to do other than keep reporting for The Democrat and hope to wake other people up.”
“All the more reason to pray.”
She turned the book around in her hands. “How?” she asked. “I was going to murder Rose and use this to excuse it. You know some parts of it say people like you and Rose are damned.”
“Well, they say our existence isn’t natural.”
Jill pressed her hands to the sides of the book and finally turned to look at Tori. There had been a lot of blood, she remembered. She’d had to leave the room when Wheeler’s people brought them to the hospital, a private place with fine-looking beds and cream-colored walls that made horrible things look all the worse. And when talk of surgery had come up, of reconstruction and the things that needed to be done or done away with, of decisions that had never entered Jill’s closed little world as possible… She’d been angry at Rose for insisting what she did, and angry at herself for finally understanding why.
The surgeries had to come in stages. The glass eyes were the most obvious, the color of fog, still troubling in their own way, overlarge in such fine features, fittingly sibylline. Tori’s hair had grown out again. It fell partially caught up in braids about his—no, her—shoulders, in flat, twisted bands of black that made Jill think of crow feathers. Her frame was still thin, but therapy was working on that, and there was a real cane for walking now. She and Rose had talked of getting a dog. It would take some stress off her family, who praised Rose highly for vague virtues but clearly weren’t sure if this second drastic change to their sister-son was something they could confront daily.
At last, Jill said, “I guess the Fair Lords aren’t natural, when it comes to that.” She turned the thought over. “So if the gods let such unnatural things as them exist, maybe they want you and Rose to exist as well. Maybe you’re their answer, something to startle us awake so our eyes stay open, for when bad things come. I have no right to say who’s damned anymore.” She clutched at the book’s spine and stared at it. “Or maybe I’m just telling myself another story…”
“Is it a story that keeps you awake?”
She nodded. “I think so,” she said shakily.
“Then I think Fred would approve,” said Tori. “And I think you should pray.”
“I’m not sure what my coworkers at the paper will think of that.”
“It will help in the long run,” said Tori. “When people want the truth, they won’t trust a mask.”
Jill stared at the book in her hands again, wiping at her eyes and occasionally the cover. She fumbled for a box of Kleenex between the seats. “Dammit, Tori,” she muttered loudly, “why are you better at seeing than all of us?”
Rose made rounds of her town most days. She had work at the tannery during the day and community college most evenings, but it was good to be visible, involved, a listening ear as people woke up from their decade-long dream. That, and now and then the dead staring eyes and stripped bodies of animals brought to mind other things; on days like those, she needed a good long walk.
Her father was fine with it, since her niece needed looking in on.
The buckling wire of a screen door felt rough on her fingers as Rose stepped up onto the narrow porch to peer in. Finally, unable to tell much about the dim kitchen from outside, she yanked on the aluminum door and let the squeak of its hinges announce her.
She crossed through the kitchen, which smelled of pasta water and old tomato sauce, and into the living room, where a bay window looked out onto the street. A few toys were strewn about, but Lily was sitting, half sunken into the big family couch, indifferent to them, as she was to most things these days.
“Just checking up on things,” said Rose. “Is Daisy in?”
“Mom’s out,” said Lily. “I’m tired, Rose. Can you take Lionel? He keeps wanting to play.”
Rose looked around the room, then spotted the light on in the bathroom at the end of the hall. The small boy sat on the floor. He had the sink cabinet open and was building a tower of toilet paper rolls for his little plastic cars.
“Hey, little lion,” Rose called.
The boy looked up and, jumping to his stocking feet, hurried into the room, ready to be swung up in a hug. Rose’s back hurt a little, but airplane was the traditional greeting, and children needed stable expectations in their lives.
Rose turned on her phone and called her father, who understood, and she let her grandnephew show her his crayon drawings, and his paintings, and the things he’d made from clay. There were his books from school, with the words he knew, and there was the castle he’d built out of Legos. Rose patiently let him walk her through the house, letting him go on excitedly like a lisping tour guide. It was important, Tori had pointed out on one of Rose’s more uncertain days, that a child find affirmation when he was young.
They came back downstairs, Lionel running ahead, Rose reminding him to be careful on the steps. Lily had the television on.
“He has so much energy,” Lily sighed. ”I don’t get it.”
“We can go to the park,” said Rose. “Get your shoes, little lion.”
Lionel bolted into the kitchen. Newspapers were spread by the door, piled with sneakers.
“It’s a nice day out,” Rose added. “Want to come?”
“Mom’ll be back soon. I said I’d help with chores.” Suddenly she laughed, a bit cynically. “Look at those people,” she said of the television. “I can’t imagine I used to be like them.”
Rose froze, startled. It was the first she’d heard Lily mention them in well over a year.
“Do you want to talk about it?” Rose asked immediately. “If you’d like me to stay…”
“I hardly remember.”
Little feet pounded and Lionel was back, arms upraised because he liked to be carried. Rose bent and picked him up onto her hip. She winced a little again. Stupid back. Before she could think she was getting too old, she remembered Tori. She swung her grandnephew back and forth a bit instead so he laughed. Twenty isn’t old.
“You sure you don’t need a break?” she asked Lily.
The television droned. It was some talk show, with some actor, about some movie.
“I’m good,” said Lily.
“Thank gods, right?” said Rose, and forced a smile.
“I have a town council meeting tonight,” Rose added. “Dad wants to know if you’d all like to come over for dinner.”
“Sure,” she said, not looking up. “You’re never making me go to one of those things though.”
Rose had run out of sighs.
Jonestown’s main park was called Noble Park, presumably for the stateliness of its evergreen trees. It was sprawled out at the top of a hill near the elementary school. A blue water tower as old as the town stood on a crest looking over a baseball diamond and dugouts. Tennis and basketball courts in general disrepair were still serviceable enough to draw school children and adults alike. The swings and jungle gyms were faux wood and plastic, some newly replaced since the air raids had ended, donations from the town council. Much of the play area was scattered with wood chips to soften the packed dirt ground.
Rose sat on a bench and watched Lionel find new friends to engage in games of tag or fort or king of the hill. He was popular with the other children. She’d taught him to ask for their names, and be polite to their parents, and not pull anyone’s hair.
The sun fell westward. Lionel wandered back over as some new friends waved goodbye. He climbed up onto the bench and lay down on her lap, his head pillowed on his small hands, yawning and stretching overdramatically. She straightened his hair, brushed a wood chip from his sweatshirt, then watched the sun and let him doze. The boy could sleep anywhere. He wasn’t old enough for danger to feel real.
A cane made sharp thuds on the dirt path behind her. Rose turned her eyes to look for cars along the road, slipping her hand quickly into the pocket of her leather coat.
“I’m alone,” said the person behind her.
“I doubt that,” she said, and internally she swore. She hadn’t thought of being near a mirror in months. They made her edgy, really. But she kept her phone off when she carried it.
Regus Baton stepped forward, past the bench, and studied the sky like the setting sun bothered him. Rose looked up sideways, warily. He still had gray black hair and pale clothes. Anyone who paid any attention to his background figure in the news should have been concerned by some man that for twelve years had never changed, but for one thing: The odd gray scar on his right hand.
“I’m only here to talk,” he said. “I’ll be gone as instantly as I’ve come.”
“Wheeler sent you?” Rose suggested stiffly.
“You do understand you’re under surveillance?”
“You do understand I don’t care?”
“Democracy isn’t about making a choice and leaving it alone.”
“An interesting notion.”
Rose put a hand on Lionel’s shoulder protectively. She thought about how a clasp knife was not so strong a weapon as the gun she refused to carry. Then she thought of something else, withdrew her hand from her pocket, and let her silver coin flash between her fingers.
“Shall I congratulate you on Mr. Wheeler?” she asked.
“It’s common courtesy that equals exchange pleasantries before having a conversation.”
“You think we’re alike?”
Baton sat down on the other end of the bench. He set his cane before him with both his hands on top.
“Equal,” he repeated. “But, now that you ask, has either of us changed since we met, Ms. Thorne?”
She sensed that the direction of his gaze had altered. She turned her coin again, brushing at her sleeping grandnephew’s hair possessively.
Baton wrung his scarred hand, “I’m a little surprised about—”
“You’re not human. I don’t expect you to understand.”
“We need humans to survive. I do try.” He folded his hands again. “You and I both know what happens when we fly too close to the sun.”
“I lost Fred,” she agreed, swallowing hard in a dry throat. “Your court lost its King.”
“Heroes and dragons,” Baton sighed. ”They’re two sides of the same coin.”
“Life’s more complicated than that,” said Rose.
“Then why use a coin?”
She clutched the old dollar in her fist. “I was never playing for yes or no, Mr. Baton,” she told him severely. “I wasn’t asking myself if I’d obey or disobey, or give up or keep fighting.”
“You flipped a coin to make a choice…”
“But both choices were always mine. The gamble was that you would believe it wasn’t, because it’s all a game to you. You wanted—believed—that I was playing by rules.”
He went silent.
“I learned from my brother long ago,” she went on, “as long as you’re asleep, your hero’s someone else. When you wake up, you’re supposed to realize the truth.”
“That all those things, the heroes and dragons and wise men and sorcerers in your head—they’re all part of you, trying to talk to you, to get you to do what’s right, to grow.”
“We don’t dream.”
She looked up, surprised.
He was staring down at Lionel worriedly.
“Yes. About flowers and cars and the sun.”
Again, there was a stretch of silence. Rose dared another sideways glance at the mild-mannered Fair Lord. Was he really just here to talk? He sounded like a nostalgic old man.
He asked, “And do you?”
“Yes. Of a government of the people, by the people, for the people, that shall not perish from the Earth.”
Baton sighed. “Then I shall warn Wheeler to be careful of you.”
“You all had better be,” she said, “and of everyone like me.”
With the stiff movements of an old man, Baton planted his cane again. He pushed himself upright, then stood, his eyes closed, looking somehow withered by the sharp evening shadows.
“Farewell, Rosalinda Thorne.”
The sun set.
She woke Lionel and carried him back to his mother.
There was dinner.
And town council.
And talk of next year’s elections.
Then she walked home, past the tannery, and the railroad tracks, and the houses with eyes like skulls. She turned up the path with the repaired mailbox and let herself in with her key, stepping over the suitcase left by the door. The house was dark. It smelled of soapstone and incense and the things people expected when they wanted someone to tell them what they already knew.
She left the lights out, mounted the stairs, stripped in the laundry, unbound her hair, and then crawled into bed.
Her hands found Tori’s own in the warm dark.