By Billy Collins
This poem captures the disappointment of a teacher with his obstinate students. Truly examining something – especially a work of art – includes looking at it from multiple perspectives and discovering different meanings, but the students continually abuse the work in an attempt to discover one true meaning because they are certain that one must outweigh all the rest.
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
(Photo: Elijah O’Donell)
By Edgar Allan Poe
Probably one of my favorites by him.
This poem captures the great burden of the artist, the blessing and curse that comes with creating art. We wield great power, but we love what others cannot see or understand (until we’ve created it). In this sense, the artist is alone. The “demon” is Poe’s calling to be an artist.
A close friend of mine is getting married in a couple of weeks. A long time ago, they asked me to write a poem for their wedding. I thought I’d share it here.
They walk in beauty
With stars up above,
Hearts glazed in light
And overflowing with love.
She carries her life
A budding rose of white
Tinted blue from the gaze
Of her gentle-eyed knight.
What is stronger than death,
More fragile than a bud
Than the hearts of two children
Bound together by God’s love?
(Photo: Pablo Heimplatz)
Moneday, M 5, D 27, 427 AP
A man was being beaten by other men. He looked at me with dark, sad eyes. I felt ashamed and a little frightened. I turned away. Current me screamed at past self to do something, but I kept walking, keeping my eyes on the ocean.
Coward, coward, coward.
I woke up to Richard shaking me. I must’ve left the door unlocked, and Allan never came home. When I looked at him, his narrowed gaze softened.
“What happened to you, Freddie?” He asked all these questions about why I looked so rough. So sad.
I did my best to assure him that I was fine. How could I tell him that his father had killed me? Would kill a helpless boy? Has probably killed many, many people?
He stood up and crossed his arms. “I came to talk to Allan, but maybe you have answers about–”
“I don’t know anything,” I said at about the same time I saw the folded paper in his hand.
Allan had written him a letter. Apologizing.
“That idiot thinks he killed me.”
“He did, Richard.”
Richard rolled his eyes. “What, a lifetime ago? And then he tries to tell me that Maria and I belong together, like that’s a thing. I mean she’s pretty or whatever, but the girl is like a sister to me, and everyone knows she’s head over heels for Allan. He sounds just like my father spewing garbage like that.” This time when he rolled his eyes, he didn’t smile. “What is going on in the world?”
“Richard, Allan is the current copy of Jonathan Vaughn.”
“What?” Richard laughed. “Are you serious? And I’m guess that I’m Michaelangelo. Wow! That makes so much sense. Why my dad… and now this… and Al being absolutely crazy. You know, I know this is why he’s been neglecting Maria. Her poetry is really, really great, but it’s phenomenol now, and I think this is why. Little Byron girl. The name Lovelace really suits her. And yet I am so bad at science! I hate math, I just want to draw stupid pictures of birds that fly over the wall.”
“You’re not mad?”
“No, I mean, I’m a little freaked out. But that’s also kinda amazing. Enemies turned best friends. I don’t know Jonathan, but I know Al. Whatever argument you want to make, the two can’t be the same person.”
“Well, they are.”
“Freddy… you know your brother. And I know Allan Wolfgang Avery probably as good as you. So where’s your brother. He’s going through a stage, and we’ve got to get him before he does something stupid. Not like he already hasn’t”
“I don’t know… Did you know I’m his son?”
Richard’s smile faded. “Okay, little Vivaldi, that’s… uh-uh… no.” He shook his head, but I showed him the frozen holograph. It had been clutched in my hands all night. Richard narrowed his eyes. “Small world,” he muttered.
I changed clothes, and we went on a search for Allan. I asked Richard if he’d ever had feelings for Maria. After prodding, he finally told me that he had liked her at one time. But Maria had chosen Allan. She’s always loved Allan. He was killing her.
“It’s killing him too, I think… What happens if I miss my meeting with Shepherd Jaques?”
“Nothing. Absolutely nothing.” He stopped me. “Vivaldi, go back to your space and try to calm down. You’re shaking like a sycamore leaf in the rain.”
“Richard, why did you never tell me that your father was Chief Williams, the head person of Alexandria?”
“Because,” he looked at the ceiling, “I swear on Shakespeare, Beyonce, and all the greats that my father is the lamest man alive, and I cannot stand him. My mom’s fine, but – plus, it would be weird. And you never had any idea? Richard Williams?”
I went to see Shepherd Jaques anyway. The stained image returned when I demanded why he’d never told me that I had been Reestablished.
“How could I tell you that, Master Avery?” he whimpered.
“You let them do that?”
He told me the seat of Originals was based on a democracy where many are easily swayed.
“The ultimate goal of Alexandria is to keep humanity alive and coexisting peacefully with one another and the world. And with Relocation, it is reasonably argued that such humans don’t actually die, but are relocated with a different family at a different time and place under a new name.”
I demanded to know, what about when the Relocation aspect stops? What happens when future people look back at how people who are inconvenient or handicap or not living up to the standards of creatively contributing?
“Many argue that our written and taught goal will be established for future generations.”
“But it wasn’t for Jonathan Vaughn or even for Chief Williams. Chief Williams is just as guilty as Jonathan was for murder under the idea that he’s doing what’s best. And you keep saying many, like it isn’t you or something.”
“Because it isn’t.” He smiled sadly.
I wanted to know how the people died. Did Monitors do it? Did they care to kill a useless punk or even a little child? Did they make it look like an accident? How did the people not know? Why was no one curious? What had my parents in my previous life been like?
“It is never wise to Root-reach, Master Avery.” Shepherd Jaques’s dark eyes narrowed. “You see what has happened with your brother. Live this life, and live it like it’s your last. That is the duty of the laymen. Only Originals should bear the burden that you are now trying to carry.”
“But everyone has the memories–”
“Yes, but obscure memories mean very little in comparison to life. Root-reaching is a problem among Originals every generation or so. My life spans at least two. With knowledge comes power and also responsibility. If everyone has this power and responsibility, imagine the chaos that would ensue. It is a burden that few are meant to bear, and only the best and strongest are meant to do so to preserve order.”
“But who decides? Who has the right to decide who gets this knowledge and who doesn’t?”
“No one, yet the decision must be made.”
“I was there at the beginning. Why shouldn’t I be an Original?”
“Originals are the ones who originated the cure, the way to preserve humanity, and Alexandria. There are only around fifteen of us, but the oldest hold the most power, meaning Richard and your brother don’t have much of a say.”
We didn’t talk about my dreams. He told me to come back later that day when he had gathered his own thoughts. When I went back to my space and fell onto my bed, I remembered the orison in my pocket.
They found my brother.
I never got a chance to talk to Shepherd Jaques about Meronym, the woman I’ve seen from my dreams.
A Monitor brought me to the western wing of the Institution, the part that acts as Alexandria’s hospital. His skin looked pale, and his eyes were swollen. He laid there like a corpse. My heart fell to my feet and shattered. My ears rang as the Medicator told me that it was poison, that they had pumped out what they could salvaged what life he had remaining.
(I can only write this because I have to. I have to remember my brother for who he was as Allan Wolfgang Avery and what happened to him.)
I crawled onto the bed with my head in that spot between his shoulder and chest. And I wept until I fell asleep.
I dreamt of nothing.
When I woke up, Richard, his father, and Maria were in the room.
Richard’s eyes looked swollen. His arms were crossed and his feet shuffled uncomfortably. “Dad, can you –” Chief Williams left. I hated him. I wanted to watch a spike run through his head.
When I looked down, Allan’s eyes were open. He smiled. It is another tragic stain that will haunt my memories until I die.
Chief Williams hadn’t done this. Allan had done this. He had poisoned himself. He drank an acid that would turn his insides to liquid. Because he deserved it.
“It’s the same poison I used to kill you, Richard.”
“No, Allan!” Richard gripped the end of the bed. “It’s the same poison that Jonathan used to kill Michaelangelo!” He was shaking. “You blame yourself? How do you think I feel? You doing this. My dad told me what happened. My past self never even felt it, Al. Never even saw it coming.”
“I know you didn’t mean it.” Maria stepped forward. Every muscle in her face was twitching. “When you put you could never love me, because you had taken everything from me? I don’t believe it.”
“Maria…” Allan wheezed. “They thought I killed you accidentally…”
“No.” Maria lowered her head.
“…But I found my old journal. You were pregnant. That’s–” He coughed.
“That’s not you, Al!”
“Yeah, you…” Richard shook his head, teeth gritted. They were glaring at him.
Don’t be angry, I wanted to say. Don’t be angry when he’s about to die. Be angry later. Not now. You’ll regret it forever, so not now.
“Your stupid letter,” Richard growled. He crumpled it up and threw it at Allan. It bounced off his chest and landed in the floor.
“I had to do this for you, for everyone… And for me. I can’t… live anymore.”
“Because your past life did something stupid? That’s…” Richard’s breathing sounded like he struggling for air. His face was a mixture of red and pale blotches. I had never seen him cry.
“I want you two to get married. As it should be. And you, Rich, you find that cure. And you have another baby.”
“Allan, I love you.” Maria stepped closer. “I love you.”
“No…” Allan wouldn’t look at her.
“Why would you just leave me like this? Remember when you got inspiration for Song of Glass? You were looking at the stars. And I was looking at the stars. And then you were looking at me, and you said… you said…” She covered her face with her hands.
How long had they been here? Had Allan made them be silent until I woke up? Why? Why?
He had his whole life. I needed to ask him why.
“Maria…” Allan heaved. “Please, don’t make this harder. I can’t. Live. Knowing what I know about myself. About life. About humanity. They have ruined us. Already.” His gaze shifted to me. The whites of his eyes were yellow. “I. Know. Everything.”
“You’re so selfish!” Maria screamed. She threw something down then ran out of the room.
“Go after her,” Allan whispered, but Richard shook his head, teeth gritted, tears swelling in his eyes.
“I wish I had known it, Allan. Just so I could’ve punched you in the face. You’re so… so…” He squeezed his eyes shut, and all the water in his eyes leaked out. “Selfish.” he hissed. “I… wish I could never forgive you.” I could hear the sobs rising in his throat. My heart ached. His lip quivered. “For this. Today. But I love you.”
Allan smiled weakly. “I love you too. Now go–” He coughed. “Go,” he said again more feebly.
Richard shook his head and left. His shoulders were shaking. I watched the doorway after he disappeared.
I looked back down at Allan who did his best to grin.
“I am selfish. You deserve better, Freddy.”
“Stop it,” I said. “No more of that.”
I wanted to ask him why, I still want to demand and scream and cry and lie down on the ground until I disappear into dust. But it won’t help anything. The past can’t be changed.
“Please don’t hate me,” he whispered.
Till that moment, my insides had been trembling, shaken loose by the revelation that my brother would die, that he would die because he wanted to. But then it hit me. Everything broke free and swirled around into a liquified mess of liquified mess of blood, bones, confusion, disbelief, startlement, fear, hopelessness, and uncried tears.
I will never recover.
I want to think of music, but all that comes to mind is poetry about death, sang in notes of sad desperation. And I curl myself up in it, like a dark blanket that can hide me from the rest of the world. I lay here waiting for someone to jerk it off of me and wrap their arms around me and pour the sunshine into my soul, but there’s nothing but this void – a void of where my future would have been had my brother lived to see it. Now, that future is nothing more than an indistinguishable blob of gray.
“I wish you could’ve chosen to embrace this life,” I said. “With me in it. This life that you have now, because it’s the one that matters right now.”
“All life is the same. For a moment we get to be glorious, like ice sculptures bathed in light, but then we melt into an endless span of ocean, so deep and wide and full that it’s like nothingness.” His eyes dulled, and he heaved in a few breaths of air. “I regret everything.”
“You’re wrong,” I said. I wanted to bring up the disabled boy, and how he didn’t have a choice while Allan did, and how Allan should’ve fought, should’ve worked to prove himself wrong, to prove what he wanted to believe as true. But I knew better. “And regrets only last a lifetime. You should’ve never blamed yourself for your past lives. You shouldn’t even blame yourself for yesterday. Or tomorrow. Because you have now. Learn from it and move on.”
Allan managed to laugh. “I love you, Freddy.” His eyes gleamed. “I wish I could cling to hope like you, but I regret living. Ignorance is bliss, but when you learn the toll humans have taken on the earth, have taken on each other, I just – and I know I shouldn’t blame myself. But I can’t help it… Since… beginnings. Mankind was evil. A wave of woe that threatened to drown the earth until she finally fought back… Yet still, we have survived… We try to focus on what is good in mankind, but look where that got us? Look… what they’ve done. The future will be no different.”
“Maybe,” I muttered. I hated listening to him, but I needed to hear him. Every memory of him, the good and the bad makes me both angry and sorrowful. “But Allan, this wave is made of individual drops. Like me, Richard, and Maria. There will always be good in the bad. That’s why the future presses onward, continually, ever continually. Light is too beautiful to ignore, just as life is too beautiful to ever truly end, despite everything’s insignificance. Don’t you think to the universe and whatever lies beyond that everything is meaningless? So you can’t look at it that way.”
My eyes had begun to burn. I kept trying to swallow my sobs. The light was leaking out of his eyes a little at a time. He no longer looked at me but stared at the ceiling.
“Light…” he murmurs then smiles. “Freddy Bear (he hadn’t called me that in years, not since I was at the Academy), I want you to find a girl and fall in love. If they decide to relocate me, I want you to take me. Be… with people I love. Make me… good.”
Allan went silent after that. His eyes remained fixed on the ceiling, lips slightly parted and turning blue. His hand was growing colder, but he continued to squeeze mine every few seconds, then every few minutes, like he was trying to pulse his life into mine.
I didn’t let go, long after the squeezes stopped. I held back the sobs despite the fact that I knew – I knew even though they had taken him off of the heart beat monitor after we’d arrived. I knew his heart had stopped.
I don’t know what happens to souls. Do they float in the air waiting for a new body? And all those souls from so many people, are they flying around, or in the streams and dust? Does God hold them in his hands before fashioning more bodies from earth and dust? Will Allan Wolfgang Avery still be Allan Wolfgang Avery when I have him specially cloned to be my son one day?
I laid my head against my brother’s limp arm and let the tears leak out of my eyes. I still refused to sob and wail because I didn’t want anyone taking Allan away from me yet, even though I knew he wasn’t there. So, I let the cries choke and die before ever reaching my mouth.
I understand Allan and where he came from. With the history of humanity and the leaders of Alexandria proving themselves to follow the exact same path of every other system of power, it’s enough to make you weary of life even if your life has just begun. Just the idea of raising my own father as my son one day in a society where he could be replaced if he’s not good enough, where he could do away with himself if he chooses, makes me wish that I was nothing more than a cloud floating across the sky watching all the sons of men and their histories while my own life was regenerated time and time again through oceans, maybe lakes or streams.
But that’s foolish. If I was a cloud, I would want to be human, so that I could at least try to make a difference, even if I never could. I could try to be that one to stand in the gap.
I will stop taking Invenire. It’s time I focus on my own life. I’ll go back to translating the voice of my poor, neglected violin. I will probably marry that girl who showed me the orison. We will raise my father. When Richard marries Maria, I’ll talk him into remaking the cure. I’ll try to make sure non-traditional relocation never happens again.
I just want to look back on my life – this life – and be content with it.
I thought Maria’s thrown down paper was her letter from Allan, but it was another poem that he never got to read.
The architecture of our souls
We explore with our eyes closed.
We claim our lands and tame our seas,
Carve our name on histories.
Perhaps, somewhere, the words exist
To explain the infinite.
There’s magic, magic in our bones,
Dust of stars within our souls.
Wishing we saw all that we should,
Beauty in our damaged good,
Forgotten time finding ways back,
Grand attempts that do not lack.
(Photo: Dariusz Sankowski)
Suneday, M 5, D 26, 427 AP
I’m a woman, definitely a woman. Pretty. Petite. Very pale, unlike my own brownish skin. My hair is dark, and my face is round with dark slanted eyes. I only know this because I stare in a mirror. There are others who look just like me, and some who look slightly different. A terrible song plays. I am nauseated because the smell makes me think of death and rotting flesh. Yet people are eating.
Shepherd Jaques told me that Allan figured out something about his past self.
Shepherd Jaques’s grim stare sent chills up my spine. We rarely talk about my dreams or violin. I think he has retraced my problems to Allan.
My brother has tried to break it off with Maria. The woman that he loves. The woman that he wants to marry.
“Your brother is Root-reaching. It’s something an Original does when he finds out his past life and tries to cling to it.”
“My brother’s an Original?” Allan had told me, but I wanted to act surprised, but Shepherd Jaques narrowed his eyes, probably assuming that Allan had told me.
“Only Originals are allowed to work at the Institution.”
I wanted to ask why, but something else was more important.
“What is he reaching for?”
Shepherd Jaques wouldn’t tell me anything, but he searched my eyes like he wanted to. He returned to looking at his notes, quill in hand, pretending to write though I know he was only doodling.
“Something has come up, and I’m afraid your brother will be left out of the discussion. I think you should know… since you’re his brother.”
Then he told me. I’ve felt my spine tingle before, usually right before and during a solo or when my work is being evaluated for its worth. But never like this. The tremors moved up my spine and through my limbs. An undistinguishable feeling (fear maybe?) curled around my stomach like a cord until it was knotted.
There’s a boy. A baby, basically. He fell before onto one of the railways that lead from East Alexandria to the Alexandrian Plaza. His life was salvaged, but he lost an arm. Only an arm. But he was a musician for all of his past lives. A pianist.
“They want to… Reestablish the boy.”
“What does reestablish mean?”
“It’s like Relocation, only… prior to natural causes.”
“What?” I asked. I was gripping the armrests of the chair. “What is that?”
“Relocation is when someone dies. Their living data from the right cerebral hemisphere is relocated to a different family. A different life. Their rebirth. It’s how we insure humanity’s survival… until the cure for sterility… Did not your brother speak to you about this, Master Avery?”
“So what is Reestablish?”
“It’s… uh.” Shepherd Jaques stopped writing. He stared at that space on the ground between our chairs. I could tell he was thinking because his lips were moving very slightly without any words emerging. He does that sometimes. “It’s a new term.” He finally looked at me, but his expression was masked. “It’s – um, they want to do away with this copy and replace him… with…” He stopped talking. His eyes moved back and forth between mine.
I was in disbelief. Am still in disbelief. He told me that the father was an Original. A man named Amadeus Shakespeare. He and his wife, they know about the cloning process. They claim that their child – their own child – never actually dies. And so to replace it with another copy, after doing away with this “damaged” one.
Alexandria is built on people who contribute. People who aren’t burdens. We all are just photocopies anyway. Why not? Why not just kill a handicap kid, so his parents and his future copy get to live happy lives!
“The father has good arguments, and…” His old face looked so tired yet unmovable. Like a sad granite statue. “The cure to infertility is so close, Master Avery –”
“Are you defending this?” My hands were shaking. “Is this why my brother was so upset?”
“No – not exactly…”
Allan wanted to find the cure as quickly as possible, so the Counsel of Originals would have no choice on the matter but to let the boy live. The cure had apparently almost been found by a Michaelangelo Jackson. But it had been lost. Allan was forbidden to go through his files, so he did it anyway in secret.
“Your brother… he discovered something that he was never meant to know.” Shepherd Jaques’s dark eyes turned glossy. That image of him will always stain my mind. A sad, tired, helpless old man.
Allan wasn’t in our space, so I wandered the halls of the Institution. I met lots of other Inscapes (we’re identified from the Monitors and Originals and other workers who get to leave by our golden badge shaped like an I with an S in the background. To me it resembles Nehushtan, the golden snake climbing the pole from the Bible)
I met a girl named Johanna Monet, a painter. Thirteen years old. She was sitting in a room full of little egg-like things. I stood and watched her through the glass door watching holograms. She saw me. Those egg-like things are called orisons, and they’re early versions of minervas.
“I watch them to get inspiration for art. You know, they’re actually how we rediscovered different languages and those things. Too bad we can’t actually go out in the world and discover those things for ourselves.”
We had looked at each other knowingly. She wanted me to stay and watch, but I had to find my brother. She slipped an orison in my hand. It’s one that has taught her a lot about the world prior to Alexandria from the point of view of a Prescient – an early word for an Original.
“Bring it back when you’re done. I’ve not finished it, but I have too much inspiration right now. I don’t want to ruin it.” She has a pretty smile.
I found Chief Williams with some other Originals turning a corner at the same time I did. Allan was in the back of the line staring straight ahead with gloomy, dull eyes.
“Who’s to say he isn’t right? I don’t think Richard is any closer today than he was yesterday or a year ago. He’s very content, I’m sorry to say. He’s more interested in pursuing art. I’m trying to push him towards Maria, but he doesn’t seem interested in her either. I don’t know how to motivate him – Frederick Avery.”
That fake smile resurfaced, but I was too busy staring at my brother, whose face had turned a shade paler when Chief Williams mentioned Maria.
Our Maria? Our Richard?
“So you’re Richard’s father?”
“Oh! Um, that is correct, young man.”
I talk to Richard a lot, and he always rolls his eyes and smiles when I ask about his dad. This would make sense.
Allan turned and walked away from the group with his head down. The seven Originals and I turned and watched him. He was wearing a golden Inscape badge.
“There’s something I need to talk to you about, Young Avery,” Chief Williams said, still staring after Allan. “Jaques has told me much of your conversations.”
“I can’t tell you anything until you tell me everything that you know.” I crossed my arms. He’s about half a foot taller than me, but I wasn’t budging. My insides were shaking. “Or are you going to kill me too, under the guise that I no longer play the violin very well?” The Originals glanced at each other, and Chief Williams closed his eyes slowly and sighed.
“Alright,” he muttered. “First, it’s not killing–”
“Ah yes. Reestablishing a life doesn’t constitute murder.”
His eyes darkened. “Young man, you have no authority in this place. It is not your decision to decide what is best for mankind.”
“But you and your friends get to decide? In the old days, didn’t they vote? Why don’t we let Alexandria decide what’s–”
“Alright,” he growled, grabbing my arm, much stronger than I would expect for an old man with graying hair. He pulled me around the corner they had just rounded and through a door into what looked like a lab space. He let me go and glared down at me. “Where are we, Frederick?”
“The laboratory, Frederick, of Jonathan Vaughn, and now of your brother Allan Avery.” He pulled a drawer open, pulled something out, and slammed it shut. “I knew better than to let him back into the Institution, but my son wouldn’t have it any other way. I thought it might inspire him. Look at this.”
“What is it?”
“A frozen holograph from an early version of a minerva. What do you see?”
I saw me, as a boy, standing next to what looked like Allan. A much older Allan, who stood next to a very pretty woman with very light skin and blonde hair. We were smiling.
“What is this?” I repeat, my hands shaking.
“An Original and his family. This girl,” he pointed to the woman, “was able to bear a child before being treated. You. Unfortunately, the Plague got her before the cure could be administered. This man, who you now know as Allan Avery, was your father.” When I said nothing, he continued. “We thought it would be best to give him a responsibility to look after. One that was closer to home than his wife and child from his previous life, but an actual blood-relative. That rarely happens. But Allan was too young, and Artemis and Vincent, the volunteer Originals for the Relocation of Jonathan Vaughn, were unwilling to have another child, seeing they were much too old to raise it. When Allan began acting in a concerning manner, we took matters into our own hands.” He crossed his arms.
“Jonathan Vaughn,” I muttered, clutching the frozen holograph. “You mean…” I looked at him, the tears beginning to blur my vision, but Chief Williams seemed unmoved.
“So Jaques has already told you.”
Jonathan Vaughn was my brother’s past cloned self. Michaelangelo Shakespeare was his colleague, the man who discovered the cure because he was so in love with his wife Ada Wordsworth Shakespeare that he wanted to have an actual child with her. Jonathan knew that the Relocation process would end once the cure was found, and he tried to dissuade his colleague. But Michaelangelo succeeded. Jonathan abandoned everything, even his wife Juliet and child Rosanna at the time, in order to take over Alexandria and ensure the Gilgamesh Project never ended.
“What hurt Jonathan is that he did not have a following. He’s known as the madman who wanted to live forever,” Chief Williams told me.
Jonathan murdered Michaelangelo through poison, poison that destroys the internal organs. The first murder case in Alexandrian history. And he destroyed the cure, trying to burn everything in the lab. He then tried to destroy the saved data of Michaelangelo so he could never be reborn, but they had managed to salvage some data from Michaelangelo’s teeth and eyes. Jonathan and Michaelangelo had been the two main Original Prescients to discover the cure for the Plague. They couldn’t just terminate Jonathan’s life permanently. Especially with only 1,997 humans remaining. He had been a good man for his previous lives. So Artemis and Vincent Avery agreed to be his Relocated parents, despite being in their sixties.
“Since Jonathan had abandoned his previous family, we decided to use you, his bloodborne relative, to lessen the chance of that happening again. We wanted to wait a least another generation before allowing him back into the Institution, until all evidence of Jonathan had been destroyed.”
“And Ada, the past copy of Maria, she died after her husband.”
“Yes. Jonathan took care of that. Accidentally, but it happened nonetheless.”
“And me, I died shortly after Jonathan?”
Chief Williams stared at me. Unblinkingly. “Unfortunately, no. You were living in Eastern Alexandria, young, punkish, only writing a few mediocre songs when your rent came due.”
“What does that mean?” My hands were beginning to shake. “What… what did you do?”
“You had to be Reestablished.”
“You killed me?” It emerged as a little more than a whisper. His eyes already dark eyes turned black like coals burning through my skin.
“You did not die, Frederick. You were simply reborn. It was in the best interest of what should be done.”
I stumbled backwards into the counter and looked around at all the science instruments that I couldn’t recognize.
“Shepherd Jaques let you do that?”
My heart throbbed against my chest so hard that I thought I would throw up. I ran past him, out of the laboratory, past the other dazed Originals, past the library. I made it to my space in time to empty the contents of my stomach.
I laid for an hour on my bed and stared at the ceiling. It still hurts to breathe, like the wind has been knocked out of my stomach and can never be replaced.
That handicap boy will die.
(Photo: Karl Fredrick)
The links to the previous parts are at the top of this post.
Frieday, M 5, D 23, 427 AP
I was a pale man standing in front of dark people. They had wide, dark eyes. I was desperate, but they did not understand. I became dark, and the people became pale. I don’t know if I was a man or a woman, if I was angry or sad. The mind of past self was screaming in frustrated desperation until even my ghost presence couldn’t breathe.
What was I fighting? What was I afraid of?
This faded, and I was on a stage overlooking hundreds of people. I’ve never seen a stage like this. I felt calm and happy. Finally, ghost self could breathe. I was playing the cello. That awkward, glorious instrument. A most beautiful song. My insides quivered with every laugh and sigh and whisper and of my cello’s voice. I had a wedding band on my left ring finger. I could feel myself smiling. It wasn’t a solo, but there was no music in front of me. Five other celloists played beside me. Our cellos knew the song by heart.
I will find this song.
(Continue) Frieday, M 5, D 23, 427 AP
Allan doesn’t understand why it took them so long to accept him into the Institution. He is happier than before and doesn’t ignore me anymore.
Shepherd Jaques took me to visit him at the Institution one day where I met Chief Williams, the man who decided that Allan’s science-art project was enough to prove his worth to the scientific development of “keeping humanity alive.”
It still makes me sick to think about.
Chief Williams asked me how my brother managed to do, to pull off something like “Song of Glass,” and I explained that each of the bulbs were a different size and shape so they made different sounds when they exploded. Thousands of them, all to make a four-minute song. How? Heat. He heated them up. Some at the same time to make harmony.
“A breathtaking masterpiece.”
“Allan told me he was relieved it was over, so then he would be free for a little while to pursue what he wanted.”
The light left Chief Williams’s eyes a little.
He was probably thinking what everyone else thought – what else could Allan possible want? In a family of musicians, what was there other than music?
All Allan has ever wanted was to work at the Institution, but he had too much musical potential.
Writing my thoughts has helped me somewhat bridge my relationship with music, so I’m going to write this here. (I didn’t in earlier pages because I was afraid Allan would read it.)
Allan stopped acting like my brother when he began work at the Institution. I thought it would be better, that he would be able to talk to me and not be so frustrated and tired all the time from working on his “masterpiece.” But it’s worse.
He tells me when I am being a disappointment. He forces me to practice. He grounds me. He slapped me for talking back a week before seeing Shepherd Jaques. I was so angry that I cried. I tried to play my violin, but all it wanted to do was screech in fury until the strings on my bow snapped in half.
I don’t understand what is happening.
Allan put his arm around my shoulder and smiled in Chief Williams’s face when he rounded the corner. The smile on the old man’s face broadened, and I realized that his prior smile had been the fake, polite kind.
“Well, well, the genius and his doppelganger.”
“We do look alike, don’t we?” Allan squeezed my shoulder.
Chief Williams’s face turned grave, and the pit in my stomach widened – a pit I hadn’t even realized was there.
“You shouldn’t have told him, Allan.”
If either of us said anything about our discovery of the Gilgamesh Project, we would become permanent residents at the Institution.
“That is, until we’re reborn,” I mumbled. The old men’s faces grew grave, and Allan pinched me.
“If, Young Master Avery. If you’re reborn.”
“Jaques is right. Once we find the cure for this second disease, the human race can continue without us.” Chief Williams turned his gaze to Allan. “You were sworn to secrecy, young scientist. If it happens again, your research privileges will be revoked.”
Allan’s blue eyes sparkled. “What are secrets between brothers.”
The way he said brothers – I don’t understand, and Allan won’t tell me. He only smiles.
Chief Williams sighed then turned to me.”And you, Young Avery. You are sworn to secrecy as well, or your new home and music hall will become the Institution. So keep those lips sealed, and focus on your violin.”
Satureday, M 5, D 24, 427 AP
They’ve decided to make us permanent residents at the Institution.
I don’t know what happened, if Allan said something, or if one of the Institution Monitors lied on us, but I woke up to the sound of everything being moved. Monitors were there to take me to the Institution. Allan wasn’t home. I haven’t gotten a chance to see him yet.
Shepherd Jaques wouldn’t hear any of my excuses about missing classes or concerts. They already figured out that I didn’t have any friends – besides Richard and Maria – and my tutors would be given the standard excuse of being withdrawn to a different area of Alexandria. I don’t think they would have done this if I still had standard classes at the Academy. If only I could be a year younger, pre-Academy graduation age.
Shepherd Jaques still meets with me because I still need to be “fixed.” I can still write music and play in here. There are plenty of Inscapes (people who “aren’t” being held against their will within the Institution for knowing too much) who do such and are often some of the most creative, brightest artists of Alexandria.
I’m standing inside of a very high building that overlooks a city, a city much larger and very different looking than Alexandria. There’s a lady beside me. She’s older than me, current me, not the me in my dreams. She’s probably the same age as the person in this dream.
I look different. My pale hair has darkened, and I wear strange, brown colored clothes. The lady smiles at me. She’s very pretty, I think. There’s a fluttering in this past self, and the sound of the wind and my past self’s heart collide to create a sequence of chaotic notes that I can’t make sense of.
It’s music. I know it is. My past self is trying to arrange notes but can’t because of all the emotions stirring inside of him. Confusion. Awe. Happiness. Anxiety. Anger.
I think I was in love.
(Continue) Satureday, M 5, D 24, 427 AP
Something is wrong with Allan, more wrong than usual. He’s angry, but his face is pale and not red. When he saw me, he screamed at some of the Monitors until nearly passing out. They had to carry him to our new space.
I sat in a chair over in the corner farthest from the windows while he threw things – glass ornaments and miniature jade statues – going back and forth between yelling and muttering in Italian. I don’t know Italian very well because I’ve only studied the basic Romance languages and Revised English.
He finally broke down sobbing, whispering over and over “Mi dispiache. Mi dispiache tanto.”
Watching him makes it harder to breathe. I close my eyes and try to block out his heaving.
When he calms down, I will ask him why he is sorry. He shouldn’t be sorry about me. I don’t mind living here.
Satureday, M 5, D 25, 427 AP
I’m a boy who, I think, is a younger version of current me, though I have no recollection of this ever happening, because the child looks just like me, only ten years younger. Blond hair with my birthmark near my neck. I wasn’t wearing a shirt but wore a very outdated style of trousers that seemed to be in good condition. I was happy.
Someone chased me, also laughing, making playful growling noises. We were outside on the green grass.
The chaser called out, “You’s better stop runnin’ lil’ buggah.” More baby language that makes current me want to laugh.
Baby me replied, “Nay! Gets me!” I looked behind me, and the fellow chasing me looked something like Allan. The glance only lasted a second, but I couldn’t shake the image of what could be a fifty-year-old Allan bent over crawling after me, laughing, with grayish hair and a beard.
Back to today:
Real Allan has changed.
I meet Shepherd Jaques in his space since he also lives at the Institution. His face was pale the entire length of our meeting. He made me some bumble tea.
“How’s your brother?”
What a stupid question.
“He’s never been better,” I replied.
Shepherd Jaques looked down. I could see his spirit drooping, and I felt a little bad because he’s just an old man. Probably would’ve been handsome a while back.
Then he said something that made my insides unravel.
“Allan discovered some things that he was never meant to know.”
And then the old man expected me to talk about my dreams and my music after dropping that on me.
Later today (it’s too much effort to put the full date more than once):
Maria has apparently been trying to talk to Allan, but he refuses. I would normally call him an idiot, then he would lecture me, then I would roll my eyes, then he would tackle me, then we would fight until either we were both laughing or the other stomped off. But something is wrong with my brother.
Maria gave me a slip of paper. Her eyes were puffy and red, and my heart stooped. I feel sick. She’s knows something is wrong just like I do, but what can we do?
Her slip of paper had a poem. I didn’t look at it at first, but I could tell by the spacing of the short lines. When I gave it to Allan, he didn’t glance at it before throwing it away. So I took it and unfolded it. (I copied it here.)
He walks in darkness, in the night
Of clouds and shadows void of light.
Yet all that’s best of dark and bright
Can soon be glimpsed within his eyes
Thus mellowed to those swollen skies
Which giddy, mindless day denies.
Somber, soft, his gaze doth express
Upon a wise yet smiling face
Till flitting joy seems much the less
Compared to wisdom’s sad embrace.
In stormy eyes, I must confess
How pure, how grand, their dwelling-place.
And on his hands, and cheek, and brow,
Such wondrous calm and eloquent.
To a bear a burden none can know,
I do declare my strength is spent
In hiding when my heart does glow
In love for storms and innocence
“Allan, you need to read this.”
“I will not.”
I watched him, leaned over his notebook scribbling frantically. His blue-gray eyes didn’t blink for nearly two minutes. They were wide and glassy, like steam on a mirror. I look almost identical to Allan, with pale hair and stormy blue eyes and a grave expression. I wonder if a girl would ever write me a poem. It sounds so familiar. Probably the most beautiful poem I’ve ever read.
“Allan, I think she wrote it for you.”
“Then I must never read it,” he muttered.
“Then I must never read it!” He threw his quill down and glared at me, his shoulders heaving. I nearly fell backwards. Heart jumped to my throat. Allan’s glassy eyes dimmed as his face contorted. “I’m sorry,” he whimpered. “I – I…” He left, covering his face with his arm.
I tried to read his journal, but Allan’s handwriting is messy enough, let alone being in a language I don’t know. But I know it’s not good. He has the same sentences written over and over again. Especially, Perché io sono vivo?
Over and over and over again.
I will look up the meaning later.
I am dreading having my dream. I don’t know why.
(Photo: Marcus Castro)
Part 1 to this long project can be found here.
The Dream Journal of Frederick Willspin Avery
Tueseday, M 5, D 13, 427 AP.
My brother once told me that light is only the illusion of life. I asked him about this yesterday right before I went to see the Shepherd. I was scared. I still kinda am. I don’t know what to think of Shepherd Jaques.
“Freddy, lighting up and producing heat doesn’t constitute life.” I asked him what would, and he rolled his eyes and told me that he had an appointment and he would be back to get me at five.
Allan Wolfgang Avery has become a famous name, and I’m a little famous for being his brother. He’s a Kinetic Alchemist. He uses heat to manipulate and transform things so that they make music. His first love is science, but he will take part in orchestras to help pay the rent like with “Song of Glass.”
Shepherd Jaques is an ancient man with thick, unfashionable glasses and a white beard. But there’s a sparkle about him. In his eyes? A light. I can’t place it, but I trust him.
The first thing he said to me yesterday was, “So I heard you have lost your love.”
Is that what they call it?
He laughed and went through what a Shepherd is supposed to do, but I had already heard all about it from my brother.
Shepherd Jaques told me that my brother was concerned, but I know the real reason he needs me “fixed.” If I don’t play the violin, how will we survive?
Of course I can play other songs to satisfy the landlord and the grocer for a little while, but the real currency of Alexandria is original music. Or original paintings. Or original novels. Or original musical instruments, like my brother’s invention. I don’t know where we’re supposed to keep getting all of this stuff. They’re pumping us dry and expect us to keep pouring out the masterpieces.
“Master Avery, you have fourteen years of age, hardly ‘pumped dry’ as you claim… But it is the claim of most clients, people mostly in their sixties. But I have helped them.”
He wanted to take me back to why music had originally been important to me.
“Because my brother told me it was.”
The eyes of Shepherd Jaques grew slimmer, and his lips pursed, but the light in his eyes grew stronger.
He forced me to talk about all of the things that I talk to myself about all the time.
I don’t remember my parents, and Allan won’t talk about them.
I don’t know.
My brother is twelve years older than me.
I don’t know what a brother is supposed to be like because Allan is more like my dad, mom, and brother. Maybe even my sister, too.
Allan only created “Song of Glass” because he wanted to prove that he could turn science into art. Visually and musically. He wanted to work at the Institution, and he finally has that dream. But I knew it wasn’t for art. It was for curiosity. And now that he has a chance to satisfy that curiosity, he has less time to deal with me.
“Tell me about you, Master Avery. This has nothing to do with your brother but with your music.”
I play the violin because it reminds me of the cello. I like the sound of the cello better, but it looked too awkward to play. The violin is the second most beautiful instrument.
It’s not like the piano with lots of notes overtaking your mind and drowning you. It’s a lone voice. A beautiful cry into the abyss. Sharp or mournful.
“Yes!” Shepherd Jaques’s eyes began to glow. “There is the love. Tell me, where has it gone.”
Nowhere. It’s here. I’m here. The violin is here. But when I go to the violin, and I look at it, and it looks at me, and I pick it up like I always have… It isn’t silent, but I can no longer translate its voice to the world.
Shepherd Jaques asked me if I had ever considered poetry as an alternative.
No. And I don’t want an alternative. I don’t know what I want.
“Well Master Avery, before you can once again begin translating your violin’s voice, you must translate your own.”
The idea of a journal made thousands of butterflies flutter against the lining of my stomach, nearly causing me to throw up.
“You will do it,” Shepherd Jaques said with a smile. His voice wasn’t authoritative like my brother’s, but more like a reassurance that I was capable.
I know what’s wrong. Shepherd Jaques knows what’s wrong too, even if he won’t talk about it because that’s not his job. His job is only to help be rekindle the creative spark that will make me a useful contributor to society. But I don’t know if I want to be a useful contributor anymore. There’s just something wrong with Alexandria, I think, and everyone inside.
“I think I’m trapped in a trench, and a war is going on around me that I can’t see. And no one else can see it either, but we can all feel it,” I told him.
Shepherd Jaques smiled. He was used to dealing with cases like mine – never in one so young! – but then again, I had no parents.
Allan had rescued me from being a permanent resident of the Academy when he turned 20 and could become my guardian. At the Academy he was like my brother, always showing up unexpectedly with gifts and bear hugs.
Shepherd Jaques said we would begin with writing my thoughts, and yes, that meant whatever I wanted. Whatever concerned me. We would pick up in two days (tomorrow) when I came back.
Would I use this as a dream journal? Allan, now working at the Institution had told me something about a dream drug known as Invenire.
Absolutely not. Well, hopefully not. Invenire was only used as a last resort.
Thurseday, M 5, D 16, 427 AP
Shepherd Jaques told me that we would have to start using Invenire.
We began talking about sources of inspiration, and I mentioned dreams that I had, how I felt like it was me in those dreams even though it didn’t look like me. Not completely. I was dressed different. But in one I was in a large wooden container moving over an expanse of blue with waves and birds and open sky, and all I knew was that I could not drink the foamy water. I later learned it was the sea, and that was where I got inspiration for “Sea Voice.” Some kids from the Academy came to me asking to “help” put their grubby hands all into my project. I let them.
When I told Shepherd Jaques that Richard, a friend of Allan, had joked that I could be the descendant of Antonio Vivaldi, Shepherd Jaques’s eyes became so wide that I could see flecks of gold buried in all the brown.
So, I guess this will be a dream journal after all.
I’m actually more relieved about writing my dreams than I am my own thoughts. I’ll probably write some of my thoughts every now and then anyways.
Suneday, M 5, D 19, 427 AP
Ivenire makes me feel as though I’m stumbling through my own mind looking for a way to escape, but it’s not even me. It is me, but it also isn’t. I don’t understand it.
I had two dreams last night. Once, I was a girl with slitted eyes looking at a book secretly with another girl. We were one of many, and I think we drank our sisters’ blood without knowing. The other time I was awake, staring upwards, tasting metal, and birds pecked at my skin.
Shepherd Jaques told me it would take at least five to six days before it would take effect, but I should write down any interesting dream that I have in as much detail as possible.
I think those dreams should have disturbed me, but I felt like I was watching the life of someone else through their eyes. It was easy to stay calm.
Allan wasn’t frightened about me taking Invenire. He actually seemed happy. I would finally be useful.
“Has it helped you any, Master Avery?”
I told him that it makes me feel strange. His eyes dimmed, and he asked me what I thought that meant.
There’s a strangeness. It’s always been present. Everyone has them. Memories of things that never happened. Blurry emotions and thoughts that aren’t really ours. Invenire intensifies this.
Shepherd Jaques said nothing, but Allan told me.
Short version: Invenire helps us get back in touch with our past lives. Our past creativity. Our past passions. The “past self” that existed before I was born.
But I have to take it for another three days before it will help me.
Shepherd Jaques wouldn’t tell me if it’s ever backfired, but I’d assume it has.
Wedneseday, M 5, D 22, 427 AP
Dream 1: A Rebel
I stood in front of the mirror, a little older than I am right now. I had on baggy green pants and no shirt, and blond hair fell past my shoulders.
I hated myself.
I stared out through my own eyes and tried to understand. It was so blurry.
An unwelcome, bemused ghost being dragged around like baggage in a time that no longer exists, holding on to the emotions of who I am now with one hand, and holding the angry, dissatisfied emotions of a different self with my other.
I was skinny, and I cursed a lot. I was too angry to eat. My house had white walls with paintings of flowers. My dragon tattoo and face piercings were so out of place. I never dressed.
I tried to talk to myself, but it was no better than screaming into the void. I banged the piano repeatedly before throwing my papers into the floor and screaming.
(I never wake up, but something shifts.)
Then I’m outside, and I’m a woman staring at a brick wall, waiting for words to appear. I’m wearing a dress and walking quickly. It’s a different city than Alexandria. The buildings stretch into the sky. When past me glances at them, current me gets dizzy.
I have important papers. I ask myself what, but she doesn’t answer.
All she thinks is, I have to hurry, have to hurry, have to hurry.
I have to hurry.
Why are we hurrying?
(That’s all I remember.)
Thurseday, M 5, D 22, 427 AP
I learned today that we never die.
My Invenire glitches, as it does with some people, but Shepherd Jaques said it will begin focusing in soon because the right side of the brain remembers more creative aspects. It just takes time.
I know how to play my brother. Pluck the right strings, and he sings louder than a violin.
Shepherd Jaques confirmed it. He’s one of the “Originals,” as they call them. So is Allan.
They both talked to me about it. Said I couldn’t say anything to anyone. Not Richard. Not Maria. (Allan’s friends because I don’t have friends because I hate people.)
Allan’s eyes were glowing like he’d just come off the mount from speaking to God, but Shepherd Jaques’s face was very pale and dim.
Allan came to my session today because he needed to inform Shepherd Jaques that he’d let something slip. He hadn’t let something slip because he’d opened the dam doors himself, nearly drowning me in the flood that followed. On purpose.
“I don’t want to be alone,” he’d whispered after cupping my face and pressing his cheek against mine. The strings inside of him were vibrating with anticipation, and I tried to seal myself off from him. I didn’t want him to scare me, to make me sadder than I was.
But I had already figured. “Past self.” Could they be more obvious? And it didn’t make me emptier. I was actually relieved.
“What’s the date?” Allan demanded, grinning, shaking.
“AP… What’s AP, Freddy.”
My heart had already been pounding, but at that moment it began choking me. Did I want to hear this? No. Yes! How can I explain this? I was covering my eyes but staring between my fingers.
“Younger Master Avery… The Originals, including your brother and I… we developed the cure to the Plague. But it came at a price.” His eyes looked like muddy water.
What does that mean?
People can’t have kids. People who don’t die of the Plague will never be able to have kids.
But it’s been 427 years after the Plague.
Yes, they know.
Other Originals, Allan among the chief scientists, developed a way to make sure the human race never dies out until the cure is discovered. There are only 1,997 known human beings left on earth. All have been kept alive for the past 427 years. All live within the city of Alexandria. None have ever actually died
I know too much. But when Shepherd Jaques turned around, Allan winked. He would tell me everything later.
Shepherd Jaques said he had to call Chief Williams and tell him about my knowledge. Allan hugged me. Why is he so happy? My insides have melted to my feet, and I can still barely breathe.
It means something. All of it means something. And I think it’s something bad.
“No one has ever gone outside Alexandria. The earth has evolved to destroy humans. The only safe place is within its walls. Motion sensors, cameras, laser guns all protect us from what is outside the perimeter, and poison spray prevents the deadly plants from growing over the walls. All to protect what remains of the human race.”
Lies. Lies. Lies.
Is it still a lie if it’s not completely a lie?
(Photo: Kat J)
This is the promised final project from university. I released the abstract a while back as a writing prompt, and it can be found here. I’ll release more parts in the upcoming days.
I say to him, “I know she has some sort of dark past. Something bad or…” And I catch myself.
Jason laughs. “Don’t you already know?”
Don’t you know everything?
I hate him. I can only reach the first layer of his thoughts and it’s always dripping with sarcasm.
“In one memory, I saw you, Jason.”
“Did you?” His eyes grow shiny. They look like dew drops reflecting the color of the brown earth beneath, but it’s still misleading as to what I actually see.
“What do you know?” I pry, but Jason says nothing. He knows how to block me out. I can’t read him, and he’s just about the only person who can do that.
It’s easy, after all, to slip myself into the mind of another. I can’t take over. Nothing of that sort. I can’t even make them aware of my presence, but I can sift through their memories and watch through their eyes.
But there’s too many memories, and it drains my strength. A few minutes is all I can stand before my head is ready to split open.
“Jason, you sent me with her because you didn’t trust her fully. Was that a lie?”
I hate him.
“Why are you so guarded around me? It’s not like I’m going to use anything against you or the guild.”
“No, but you’re annoying. Like a kid brother. Who knows when you might let something slip.”
I stare at Jason for a few more minutes, but he gives no signs of letting up. When he gets too tired of blocking me out, he’ll just leave his office to go to his quarters or something. I can’t follow.
I close my eyes and try to exit my mind. I see myself inside the room. It gives off a dark, static energy with vague outlines for Jason’s desk and chairs. I see Jason’s energy, a bright red and orange, like a glowing fire in the midst of this shadow world. I manage a wobbly step towards him before I feel like I’ve been axed in the head. My energy crumples to the ground and dissipates back into my body.
“Hey, you okay?” Jason’s voice rings in my ears. Tears have actually gathered in my eyes. My face has contorted to keep back the pain. How could I be so weak!
I never imagined a true mindreader’s power until encountering Niles.
I was just walking on the street, head down, doing my best to block out the voices around me, till I heard a distinct Hello.
The voice sounded like it was right in my ear. A lot of people around me looked around, some glancing as they walked, some turning around at vendor’s booths, asking if others had also heard, but I made the mistake of knowing exactly where to look. I should’ve known better. Stupid.
He was across the road. Clear blue eyes, peppered hair, and a neatly trimmed, silver shadow.
You’re a mindreader? I asked.
His laughter resounded in my mind, but not the slightest trace of a smile emerged on his face.
You’ve never heard of mindreader traps, kid? You fell right in!
My mind felt fuzzy. The soft fur of my brain was gently petted and poked by a stranger as if it were a bunny’s corpse. My insides curl in on themselves at the memory. Is that what it feels like? I shuddered violently.
You’ve never met another mindreader? Kyle? That’s your name?
I’d never met another mindreader, but I knew there had to be a way for me to kick him out of my mind. We both went still until I heard his laughter in my mind again.
That’s the best you can do?
“Get out,” I muttered audibly. Sweat was gathering on my forehead, back, and palms.
I’ve not met another mindreader in a long time… He began casually looking around and walking down the street. Across from me! He didn’t even have his gaze fixed on me!
Wait – what are you doing!
And at that moment I realized that other people had heard his Hello. I’d never been able to speak to anyone else from my mind. Let alone more than one person. I didn’t even know it was possible!
Kyle, you’re going to hurt yourself. Stop fighting my presence.
He stopped walking when he reached the point straight across from me and leaned over, pretending to look at some vendor’s wares.
Who… who are you!
Wow, kid you are pathetic. He laughed again. My name is Niles. So you didn’t even know mindreaders could communicate with other people?
How could he have known my thoughts when I wasn’t thinking them at that moment? I didn’t understand, and frankly, I was terrified.
“Hey, dude… you okay?” I glanced to the side at a guy with a pulled back afro staring at me from behind neon yellow glasses. The guy looked several times across the street to where I’d been staring and back to me. “…Something wrong?”
You going to say something, Kyle?
“Uh, it’s nothing. I was just thinking.”
“Ha! Okay, chillax dude. No demons on this street. I’ve been living here for twelve years.” He lightly punched my shoulder and kept walking.
Out of habit, I tried to slip into this guy’s mind, but this freak Niles was holding me hostage in my own. Yellow glasses was probably thinking that I was a freak.
You need to work on your poker face, kid.
Why can’t I push you out of my mind! You’re not even looking at me.
You’re far too weak… I’m impressed. And by impressed, I mean utterly shocked at how weak you perceive your powers to be. Well, potential powers. We’ll say that. I can’t remember the last time I was actually as weak as you. Maybe five years of age? And you’re… seventeen.
He’d been there a while, and I assumed he would soon get tired.
On the contrary, Kyle. I could stay here all day. I could go to the park, catch a movie, be on a train to a different city, and so long as I’m aware of your location, I can slip into your mind.
I focused. I wasn’t going to let him know any more about me by being carelessly allowing memories to slip into the forefront of my mind. I could somehow guard myself the same way Jason does.
Ha! Really Kyle?
The scorn in his voice was sickening, and as hard as I concentrated, I could still feel him going through my mind like it was a filing cabinet. Picking out memories here and there then putting them back. What was this guy!
Hm… pretty girl, that pathfinder, Leilani. Oh, you don’t want to invade her privacy. How adorable.
I had to get away from him! I thought that if I could just get far enough away to where he couldn’t find me…
As I was running, my body came to an abrupt halt. My heart pounded against my chest, and my mind screamed out at the rest of my body, but it wouldn’t listen. The cold sweat on my body grew profusely worse. I had only made it a few steps up the street.
I turned around to see Niles standing up straight, his back to me, fists clenched, finally appearing to be concentrating on something.
You can’t run. And you’re not even strong enough to fight this.
My legs started moving. I walked into the road, turned my head back and forth, and walked right up to Niles. My insides were panicking and trembling, but they had no choice but to obey him. He turned slightly and opened his eyes. They narrowed on me.
You think that they would want to kill you? No. When you think of people hunting mindreaders, they’re talking about people like me. You’re so weak that no one would ever bother with you. Niles closed his eyes. His sigh echoes through my mind. But what should I expect from someone who does everything they can to suppress their power.
You can… control my body?
The corner of his mouth curved upward. He wore a dark, long coat and dark pants. Tall. He was a stereotype for a detective.
Think I’m a stereotype do you? He laughed again. A very degrading laugh. That might be so, but you’re such a typical modern specimen that I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve been jumped in an alley several times and always look over your shoulder in a dark parking lot.
He was an attractive older man. I could only hope resemble him when I reached my fifties or however old he is. Thank goodness I was too freaked out to think this at the time.
Child’s play. I can do much more terrifying things.
We both turned and began walking up the street. We turned down an alley. I still didn’t have control of my legs.
Anything you can imagine that someone with access to the mind can do. Rewrite your memories. Convince your mind that certain parts of the body no longer function. Turn your nightmares into a reality, at least on a mental dreamscape. They call us mindreaders because there exists a misconception for where our powers truly lie. No one knows. Because if they did… well…
We stopped in the middle of the alley before it opened into another vending street. This one primarily for selling clothes.
I can imagine why people would want to kill you.
His half smile resurfaced. If I were someone else, I would probably want to kill me, too. He glanced around. Kyle, do you wish to remain pathetic the rest of your life? I know you use your powers to help people. And something you should consider, with more power comes more control. I never have to worry about the overwhelming voices around me. Let me teach you.
I… I don’t know.
Kid, this power isn’t going to show up all at once. It takes years of painful practice. You have to master your own mind to begin mastering others, a feat nearly impossible in itself… But I understand. The prospect of having such power is a bit terrifying.
“Stop resisting,” he said aloud, grabbing my head, his thumb on the center of my forehead. “Stop…” His timid voice was nearly identical to the one that’d been echoing around in my mind.
I slowly lowered my guard. It happened in an instant, like he took a computer chip out of his mind and stuck it in the hardwiring of my brain. I fell backwards. I blinked away the fuzzy vision to see him standing over me with an expression that blended well with other faces… unless looking closely at his eyes. The pale blue was piercing, though it was protected by a glossiness. Once past the glossy outercoat, I could see that his eyes were analyzing every fiber of my being.
I felt normal. A little dizzy, but at least he was out of my mind.
“What did you do?”
“Nothing much. Now I’ll be able to communicate with you from abroad.”
He told me to contact him if I ever wanted to learn. It’s been three days. Maybe if I could just get control of my own mind.
“Weren’t you ever afraid of all that power corrupting you?”
Niles never answered. Did that mean he was evil? But he had acknowledged me using my power to help Jason and the guild. We walked back out of the alley together.
I’ll give you one week to decide if you want to be my pupil.
And what after that?
You’ll come with me. And learn.
I’ll leave my –
And if I refuse?
I’ll erase your memory of our encounter.
How long will it take? You know, to –
That depends on your abilities. He looked at me, and I could tell by his face that it wasn’t going to be a weekend. Or even a month vacation… or even a year of training.
Was I really willing to give up everything I had just because I let some guy get to me about being weak? But if I could just control my own mind without feeling like my head was splitting in half! I wasn’t worried with Leilani anymore… and that concerned me. Because being more concerned with power than other things in life is a very worrying situation. But what if this was my only chance! But after he erases the memory, it won’t even matter. I’ll never know the true extent of a mindreader’s abilities.
I wish I could talk to Jason about this. I mean… I know I could, but… I’m actually afraid of what he might say.
“Welp, guess it’s time for me to go in here.” Jason closed his book and got up.
“Jason, can I talk to you about something?”
“I’m not going to tell you about –”
“No. Not that. Um…”
“What?” He crossed his arms.
“I met another mindreader the other day.”
Jason’s dark eyes widened.
(Photo: Frankie Cordoba)
This is a part 2 to an earlier story “Ash and Snow.”
I just felt like continuing it because the main character in my cousin’s book has similar powers to Niles.
Something is wrong with my mother.
When I heard the glass shatter, my eyes burst open. I rolled and stumbled to my feet, blinking away the burning in my eyes.
“Mom,” I mumbled. The thoughts threw themselves together, and I remembered my encounter with Maxton. “Mom!”
I found her staring at the ceiling. Wide, glowing eyes. Hands still partially out where a still empty cup had been resting. The mark near her shoulder has spread across her chest, arms, up her neck, and down her stomach and legs. Glowing lines, like those on a sheet of music, only these twirl and quiver as if they are alive, as if they are veins filled with fluorescent blood, stretching even to the tips of her fingertips.
I glanced around nervously when I first saw her, but yes, our curtains are closed and cover every inch of the windows. I still wish they were thicker.
So it wasn’t Maxton, the supposed hunter. It was something else.
I sit down and watch her. Talking does nothing, and if I accidentally break her connection to whoever is on the other side, she’ll pass out. I watch the spinning lines emerging from her mark. They fan out and even have little notes like budded flowers forming in some places. Music that only my mother can hear. Music is her gift, after all. My father’s had been art. She told me that his mark created swirling patterns of what looked like clouds, waves, and wind.
Part of me hopes that I never get a gift, but I’m still curious for what it could be.
I close my eyes, but I can still see the limbs of the mark, even with their glow already partially covered by her tank top and pajama pants. Her root mark is the same as mine and all the other Gatekeepers’ marks. Something that looks like a sun, circled once with a full circle and extra lines partially forming a circle on the four corners of the mark, supposedly representing an opened gate.
Opening a gate is a forbidden practice.
I close my eyes and remember my first teacher. Ms. Sonata and her somber gray eyes. Why? Why is it forbidden? I don’t remember what an original mark looks like before the transformation.
It can only be done by certain people. Forbidden people.
Her gray eyes had shined. What did she think about it? Forbidding people from existing because they served a different God than the Ruler of the World Empire.
I didn’t know what it would mean to become a Gatekeeper. It just… happened. But there’s no reversing the transformation.
Did they know that? We can’t change back even if all we want is to be normal? To stop hiding?
I’m probably the only Gatekeeper who thinks this way. Most embrace their power.
But what good is power if they kill us for using it?
I remember when Alexa Solomon showed me traces of her gifted mark.
I can use some of it when I wear this navy sweater. It doesn’t show through. See?
She didn’t know what her gift was exactly. Her mark’s limbs were jagged lines like lightning. It wasn’t as bright as my mothers.
I can help people without them even knowing it.
Thinking of her smile makes my insides crawl uncomfortably. That’s the only point of Gatekeeper’s power. To help others see past the Gates put up by the Ruler of this world to the King of the other, so they can pass through and become citizens of this other Kingdom.
At the time of my transformation, I agreed that this Ruler was not a just one, that I would rather serve another, that I would rather be free and pass through the Gate. But now, I don’t even see the point of becoming a citizen of a different world, and it’s not like things in this world are so bad… besides us Gatekeepers being hunted and executed.
I want to ask my mom about it all, but I’m afraid of what she’ll think of me. I hate talking about it. It makes me so uncomfortable when she tries to talk to me about it.
I think the point is that when there are enough of us Gatekeepers, the Gate to the Spirit world will completely open, and the King will come through and take over this one. But I can’t really remember.
My mother inhales sharply. I don’t get up and grab her in time. She falls to her knees in a coughing fit. Trembling.
“Mom?” I rub her shoulders. She covers her eyes. The message must’ve been bad.
“It was Tracey Solomon,” she heaves. “Apparently… apparently a family here in the capital has been discovered and captured… and they had a daughter at the Academy.” She turns sideways to me as my heart begins to throb. The mark’s limbs have begun to fade. “She was making sure we’re okay.”
I help my mom get into the armchair. I offer to make coffee. It’s four in the morning, but I don’t think I’ll sleep any more, even with the presentation being due tomorrow.
“Thalia honey, do you have any idea who it would’ve been?”
I try to imagine anyone who didn’t fit it, who was a little too kind, too bright-eyed, like my mom, but no one stands out. Then again, I probably don’t stand out either.
“No… but we’ll find out tomorrow.”
“Doubtfully. They won’t want it getting out that they had someone like us at their Academy.”
Only the second week of classes, and they’ve already caught someone. How many of us are there? Surely there can’t be that many.
I want to tell her that we should just leave. That I’ll fake getting sick and miss a bunch of classes. I’ll do bad on my presentation… pretend to forget my lines or something. Anything to get kicked out.
But what if they study you when you get kicked out to figure out the reason for why you failed? What should I do?
Sweat forms on my palms and forehead.
She laughs. “You have nothing to worry about.” She closes her eyes, smiling. Always so cheery, even with our lives potentially on the line.
I don’t say anything because I know she’ll say something like how the King will take us through a particular Gate into his world, so we have nothing to fear in death. It seems so dumb, but the powers Gatekeepers have are nothing to laugh at. And my mom is one of the strongest. She has one of the closest relationships with the King. Basically his daughter.
My mark is barely visible.
All the limbs from my mom’s root mark have faded. I wish she would wear a thicker shirt to bed, or at least one with sleeves, in case our house was ever searched or broken into.
“I wonder how they were caught.”
“They weren’t as smart as you.” My mom grins. She cracks her eyes open to look at me then closes them again. “But don’t worry about that now. I know you have a big day tomorrow.”
I kiss her cheek, and she kisses mine.
“Goodnight, love you.”
“Love you too.”
But I don’t sleep. I stare at the ceiling and think of all the ways I can subtly end my friendship with Maxton Locksey.
(Photo: Christopher Burns)