“Oh, great Oracle, I have come to… oh. Umm... Whoa.”
The young man stopped practicing his speech and stared at the house, losing his train of thought. Here, tucked next to a ravine in the heights of the Glyderau range, the modern single family home looked welcoming, yet perfectly out of place. And certainly nothing like one would expect of an Oracle’s home. One last time, he second guessed his choice to come here. But to turn back now seemed like an affront to all the effort he had already gone through. He exhaled heavily, lifted his head up with false confidence, and strode towards the front door. It opened just as he was reaching up to knock.
“Your parents, they moved to London.”
Luc nodded. The pen scratched out a few words.
“You stayed here to take over the family business, run the farm.”
Luc nodded again, still silent, the pen the only noise between the words.
“There was a girl too. But that didn’t last. Now, you feel out of place, alone, unsure.”
Luc turned away from the man who seemed far too young to be an Oracle and acted more like a psychiatrist, and looked about. Shelves half-filled with books lined the walls, such that no other space remained but for doorways and windows. The room was well lit and cozy, not the sparse harsh stone structures that were home to the oracles of legend. An ornate wooden desk with stacks of additional books nestled into a corner off to the right, while a plush reading chair with an oil lamp rested across the room. Through one doorway, he could see a sparse but clean bedroom. Through another was a simple kitchen.
A silence between movements of the pen nudged his wandering thoughts, and Luc turned back in his chair. Before him, the Oracle sat cross-legged on a large ottoman with a book open on his lap. The backlight made him seem to glow, but also obscured his face.
“You long for days gone by, the life you once knew, and you want to know how to get it back. Don’t look so surprised, figuring out that much doesn’t take any special ability. Everyone who has ever come here was searching for a past that no longer existed. Or an answer to how to handle it. I am not the Oracle of Hiraeth because I tell fortunes about the weather or livestock, after all.”
“Everyone who ever came here? Even you?”
“Yes, me most of all.” The Oracle paused, leaving an opening, but Luc did not press any further. The Oracle turned the page and continued, jotting notes as he spoke. “Your house is falling apart. The farm is barely surviving. You were forced to sell off half your land and the rest is barely producing. You had to let your last farmhand go because you couldn’t pay him anymore.”
Luc’s eyes tried to focus in on the Oracle’s obscured face. “How do you know all this?” The Oracle ignored the question and scratched a few more words. Finally, he put down his pen and closed the book. He doused the light behind him, then took Luc’s hands in his own. His eyes, finally visible, were warm and wide and inviting.
“There are a thousand ways to go home again, but there are millions of ways to leave it behind. Most people who leave find a way to move on. As they start to walk away, the way appears. Those that cannot find the way, those that are overwhelmed by the yearning, the grief, and the desire to return home, they come to me.
“Some come to me to seek answers. They wish to know what happened and why.”
That home is no more. My young man, I know it pains you that they left. Your parents grew tired of their difficult life here. They wanted to experience something new, to build new memories where the ghosts of their past wouldn’t haunt them. You were their third child, and the only one to survive long enough to walk. Seeing your face reminded them every day of what they had lost. Your decision to stay at the farm made their new life both easier and lonelier. It was not a mistake. It is what made you what you are and what you will be.
“Some come to me to seek prophecy. They wish to know what will happen to them in the future.”
That home is no longer what it was. My poor young widower, be full of sorrow, that you may become full of joy; weep, that you may break into laughter. Your future is a complex one. Your newborn child will grow strong in body and in will. He will make you proud and he will break your heart. And you will find love again, and loss as well. Life is a balance of holding on and letting go.
“Some come to me to seek advice. They wish to know what to do now, what to do next.”
That place is not your home anymore. My dear fellow, that farm is not your future, but that of your children and their children. Trust them to carry on for themselves. You need to go now and find what is important to you. What do you care about? Seek out what has made you happy before and make it your future as well as your past. Let yourself be silently drawn by the stronger pull of what you really love.
“Some come to me to seek serenity or acceptance.”
That place you live in now is not your home, it never was. My old friend, you must come to terms with who you are now, who you were then, and the events that made that change. No future will satisfy you until you can harmonize your past. You must journey back as you continue to journey forward. Whether one moves slowly or with speed, the one who is a seeker will be a finder.
“So, what do you come to me seeking today, Luc? Advice? Prophecy? Answers? Serenity?”
“Don’t you already know?” Luc’s weathered face broke into a small smile.
“I see a good many things, including myself asking you that particular question,” responded the Oracle slowly. “But I do not see all things. Over the years I have found that sometimes, what I don’t yet know appears in the moment as if it is free will, at least until the plan is shown to me. So, tell me, what do you seek?”
A silence filled the room as the two old men looked at each other for several moments.
“Finally, at long last,” murmured the Oracle. Then he stood and opened his arms.
Please excuse the intrusion, I don’t mean to be a bother. I know this is a difficult time, and even though the nurses and doctors are doing all that they can for you, this is still a hospital after all.
Let me introduce myself. My full name is difficult for most to pronounce, so you can just call me Maggie. And no, I am not officially on staff here, though I do make it a point to visit as many of the patients in your situation as I can. Everyone deserves to have some company, especially while going through these difficult times. And I have time to spare.
I know, I know, everyone is supposed to be wearing that standard issue gown and mask. I just don’t see the point for me. Don’t worry, the ones I’m wearing are perfectly safe, even if they aren’t the boring old yellow and white – such bright yet somehow dreary colors. I prefer multi-colored and fanciful clothing, don’t you? My outfit was specially made for me – it uses all-natural dyes and includes almost every color in the spectrum. Except for the river blue you see in my hair. That one is hard to reproduce properly in cloth for some reason.
Actually, when I was younger, I used to live by a river, the Weser River to be precise, in Lower Saxony, which is in Germany. I was tall and thin then, and very fair skinned with dark black hair. That was when my friends took to calling me “Magpie” because I always dressed only in black and white, unintentionally emulating the local avian population. It wasn’t until many years later that I first saw colored magpies. By then though, I had already started wearing many of the much more flamboyant colors you see me in now, changing the way people see me.
Do you mind if put my hand on your arm? That okay? Not too cold I hope? I always feel like it creates a better connection if I touch someone. We all miss being touched when it is unavailable to us, especially over such a long time. It’s just human nature.
Hmm-mmmm da da da… Mmm-hmmm…
Oh, you like that? I’m glad. I’ve always liked humming. Music is just such an important part of life. I think it is an important part of each of us, whether we recognize it or not. Everyone has their own song, even the plants and animals.
Did you know that the right song can elicit an emotional response in all living things? Not one song, I mean, but every living thing has its own song. I was involved in an experiment many years back where music was tested on rats. They didn’t respond well to strings or reed instruments, only woodwinds. The proper song on a panpipe or flute would make them all pay attention. After a bunch of tests, I found a tune that caused them to follow the sound around wherever it was coming from. It seems each group of rats – they’re called a mischief, you know – each group tends to respond to the same song, much like a clique of human children do.
Yes, of course I know about the legend of Hameln. You know, there are a lot of theories about what really happened to the children there after the townsfolk refused to pay the Piper. Did they all get led to their death in the river? Were they returned after a higher fee was paid? Were they actually all killed by a plague? Did only the deaf, blind, and lame children manage to survive? Was the Piper a real person or a personification of death? Was the Piper even a man? Maybe the children were actually led away to escape the plague the rats had brought, and the Piper was just providing them accompaniment on their way out.
Legends are always more interesting than truth, after enough time has passed.
Oh wow, that’s a loud alarm. It’s okay. Here, let me get that IV line straightened out for you. That’s better. Just relax. I’m here.
Hmmm hmm la da da-da da hmmm…
I’m sorry that you aren’t allowed real flowers in here. You know, plants are very simple organisms. They have clear desires: water, sun, survival, reproduction. The old wives’ tales say that singing to a plant will make it grow. That’s actually true, you know. Whistling actually works best. Like wind through the trees, whistling is a language plants understand. You just have to sing the right song. If you do, you can lead them on their way upwards.
I don’t whistle much anymore these days. No more playing woodwinds either. Not much call for them in my current line of work.
Children are always looking for someone to show them the way forward. All those songs they learn early on? All there to teach them the ways of the society they live in. Music unlocks the brain. At that age it can also manipulate their thoughts, though only briefly. They are easy for me to reach, but also more easily distracted. They like to go their own way.
Doo de doo, de doo doo…
Not surprisingly, adults are much more complicated than plants or animals or children. Eliciting reactions or emotions takes something more individual, specific to their life. So many types of music, so many different people. Sometimes it takes a long time to find the right one. I used to search for songs to control people. I was good at it. I wasn’t always a good person. I was more interested in my way.
Now, I look to help people unlock their own song. We each have one, you know. You do too. I have already heard it resonate in you every now and then. Your song is all of who you are, what you want, what makes you alive. And the song can show you your own way forward.
Yes, I can hear you. I can hear your song. I feel it. It is complex, and filled with glory and sadness and wonder and fear. It is unique, like you. And it is beautiful. But it is not yet complete. Come, let me accompany you. Let us sing your song together. Let me help you to find your way back.
“Doctor, the patient is awake!”
“Back where you started. Here we go round again.”
Sometimes the satellite radio knows the exact song to play.
The headlights on my beat-up old Mustang project a dim yellow glow into the morning fog. Moisture slides through the air, finding its way into the car through the leak in the cloth top. It’s been a long time since I have driven this car in the rain, back before the odometer cracked 150,000.
Ahead, I can just make out the tattered green marker reading “mile 37” in faded white letters. I slide the car all the way down to first gear and ride the yellow line on my right, following it off of County Route 201, until it ends on a poorly packed dirt road. The danger of bottoming out with the extra couple hundred pounds in my trunk leaves me worried about whether the tires will survive. Thankfully, in about a mile, the road changes to a smooth blacktop. On firmer ground now, I grind the clutch and nudge the stuttering engine back into second gear.
A large sign reading “Welcome to Ashford-Beta, a TWIN-MURALS project” greets me on the edge of town. The original plan was to call it New Ashford, until someone pointed out that there already was a New Ashford. Leave it to the science geeks to choose the Beta option.
MURALS (the Modernize, Upgrade and Reinvigorate Ashton Living Society) started off as a cadre of furloughed environmental engineers and one architectural history major. Their original goal was to bring Ashford into the modern world of advanced infrastructure while maintaining a link to its past beauty. To do this, they needed to gather tremendous amounts of detailed information about the city and its buildings, some of which people were less than willing to provide.
TWIN (Townsend Women in Nanotechnology) was a group of techies from a nearby town that focused on making the first self-replicating, self-sustaining, programmable nanobots. Their long-term goal was inexpensive space exploration, but first they needed to perfect the bots themselves. That required a smaller and more local testing ground. And one that preferably didn’t include their designs being blown up in rockets or used as weapons.
Together, they created a partnership that would lead to some amazing breakthroughs. And the depletion of Ashton’s budgetary funds.
Ashton-Beta is still here, in all its glory, one of the biggest boondoggles of its time. Made not only to solve a problem, but to allow us to make what was already great even better. “Maintain the best and improve the rest” was the project’s motto. Certainly, a few people ended up with their lives improved, mostly those that got paid a lot of money. It ended up worse than worthless to the rest of the original Ashton residents.
The streets here are empty of people. The houses and stores hold only relics of the past, too old to be useful, too recent to be retro cool yet. All this effort, all this work, all this money. Just a giant empty shell now, though it’s still a marvel to see.
I take a slow left off Main Street and up towards the South End, heading home.
By early spring of 2033, it was clear to most of its residents that the city of Ashford was in significant trouble. Roads were deteriorating faster than usual. Several buildings had collapsed under the previous winter’s snow. Sewer pipes had broken next to the downtown park. Everything appeared to be falling apart, mostly because it actually was.
The underlying problem was brought about by an accident the previous summer that no one really wanted to talk about. It doesn’t matter how it happened anyway, or whose fault it was. The responsible parties are beyond reach now, scattered or dissolved.
The impact of the event might best be described as an inverse neutron bomb. Simply put, a neutron bomb is a radiation weapon made to affect only living things, killing them while leaving the non-living structures around them intact. In contrast, the Ashford disaster released a mutating enzyme that generally affected only non-living things, slowly removing their stability until they collapsed inward. Living creatures and plants were able to fight off the slow mutation and survive. For the resident people in Ashford, exposure appeared as a nasty skin rash that lasted about a week. The pets and livestock carried on as normal other than some general fatigue. The trees, plants, and grasses merely showed early signs of turning fall colors.
The radius of effect was roughly circular in shape, and perfectly encompassed the entire city. The fact that the spread stopped at the city limits was seen as both a blessing and a curse, depending on whether or not you were a resident.
Once the city council realized what was happening, they put out a call for help from all corners. The TWIN-MURALS Alliance was one of the first to raise their hand. Their extensive data collection already in place astounded and scared the council members, but the Alliance’s plan intrigued enough of the public to start a movement. That data meant that the construction of a new Ashton could begin right away, and held the promise that the faulty mutation would not be repeated there, which was a stroke of luck. With this hope, significant additional funding was made available. All of it really. Everything the city had, and everything the residents could part with, went towards the Alliance’s plan. The fear of loss, and promises of maintaining the status quo in a time of turbulence, were great motivators.
The house is still just as I remember it: white brick front, old-fashioned antenna attached to the chimney, a/c unit coming out of my bedroom window. I park the mustang in its old spot in the right-hand side of the carport, and the engine sputters and goes still.
Home. Here I am. And here it is, still the same, as if I had never left, if a little overgrown. I grab my briefcase from the passenger seat and let myself out, coming face to face with a five foot tall weed. Okay, things are very overgrown. But it’s still home. The house key is behind the shutter as always, and I let myself in the side door into the kitchen.
There is bottled water in the fridge, as there always was, and I twist one open on my way to my den. I set the briefcase on the desk and open it. The business section of yesterday’s news stares out at me from my tablet with the headline “Whistleblower in Financial Fraud Case Goes Missing”. Beneath the tablet is my broken iPod which contrasts sharply with a modern laptop and an electronic actuarial notebook. So much information in so many forms. I close the case gently and leave it in place.
It’s been a long few days, and my clothes are a mess of sweat and oil stains. I’m sure I must reek, though I seem to have gone nose blind to my own scent. I strip down, leaving the clothes on the floor, and jump in the shower, ridding myself of the last 72 hours’ worth of grime. Then I towel off and collapse on the bed, staring at the ceiling and breathing in the memories.
“And you think today is going to be better / Change the world and do it again / Give it all up and start all over / You say you will but you don't know when.”
The Alliance’s final plan, dubbed Gemini, was fully funded within two days. The plan was simple in concept, if not in execution. The nanobots were upgraded from observers to creators and programmed with a new set of coordinates. They were tasked with outputting everything they had previously input in an unpopulated area of the state. First, the land would be rebuilt in the exact image of Ashford, complete with hills and lakes. Then the infrastructure, roads, and buildings would follow, all identical to the current city. In the end, the only thing that would need to move would be the people and animals and a few lucky plants. Then Ashford would be razed, cleaned of the mutation, and rebuilt again. All outdated technologies could be improved on, and capacity left for further advances. A chance for the city to come back from this tragedy as a true modern wonder. A perfect duplicate Beta home, leading to an even better upgraded real one.
Unbeknownst to the Alliance, however, the nanobots had not only mapped out the structures, they had gathered data on everything within the city limits, down to the submicroscopic level. Well, anything that didn’t move while being scanned at least; they had been programmed to ignore living things.
Sleeping naked is amazingly refreshing. I feel relaxed now and reinvigorated. Fourteen hours of sleep will do that. I grab some of my old clothes from the dresser (good thing I lost that weight I had gained) and a pair of sneakers from the closet. While I am in there, I pop open the fire safe and pull out the sizable roll of $20 bills I keep inside and stash half of them in my pocket. Then I grab my briefcase from the desk on my way out, a small thrill running through me as I feel how light it feels.
In the end, project Gemini cost the city tens of millions of dollars, took too long, and solved nothing. Before Ashton-Beta could be completed, the original Ashton’s underground infrastructure collapsed and the area was reduced to rubble. Most locals left while they could, purchasing replacements for everything as soon as they got out of town. Clothes, cars, computers, even dentures had to be replaced. In a matter of months, nothing that was in Ashton at the time of the accident remained.
What eventually became Ashton-Beta had its own problems. The first Ashton residents to arrive noticed that any home improvements they made disappeared in hours. A fixed broken window might at best last a day. The nanobots were continually creating a perfect copy of Ashton, exactly as it was, without recognition of good or bad. And no meddling residents would keep them from their purpose. And if you weren’t from Ashton? Well, in short order you were left with nothing: no car, no phone, not even the clothes you wore on your way into town.
There would be no upgrades. There would be no new technology. There was no moving forward.
There is no future in Ashton-Beta. It will never change.
The day is over, but the warmth remains, and my Mustang waits patiently for me. I pop the back and toss the briefcase into the empty trunk. Then I think better of it and open the case to scoop up its lone occupant, my now pristine iPod. I make a mental note to remember to buy a new tablet when I get home.
Back in the driver’s seat, I jack the iPod into the car stereo, then start the engine. The Mustang hums like a thoroughbred. Oh, how I’ve missed this. I drop the top and back out of the driveway, leaving home once more. As I hit Main Street, I push the car easily into fourth gear, leaning into the curves on the sleek blacktop. Just before the odometer reaches a mere 17,000 miles, I come to the edge of town. I slow down unnecessarily out of habit before I hit the dirt road, not yet used to the now unburdened rear suspension. Heading out to the 201, a sign reflects brightly back at me and I salute it on the way by, promising I will come back. Again. And again.
“Now leaving Ashton-Beta – Your perfect home away from home.”
“Back where you started, come on do it again, do it again...”
“I cannot tell a tale as well as Auna did, but I shall do my best to do her memory proud. As she would have said, fetch me a drink and I shall begin.”
The girl poured her mother a small cup of hot tea, then one for herself, and waited with feigned patience.
“This story begins and ends with fire.”
Kijeia kneeled on the ground, swaying from side to side, and stared at the sky, watching the sparks from her campfire melt into the stars above. Thick smoke hung low, undisturbed by even a breath of wind. Until yesterday, the winds had buffeted her as she made her way across the jagged cliffs, but now they had stopped completely. She welcomed the burning sensation in her eyes, watering from the smoke, masking her tears of shame. She remained there, in motion but unblinking, until her vision blurred such that the sparks and stars became as one.
On the other side of the fire, her lupine companion lay resting with its back to both Kijeia’s movements and the dancing flames. The wolf’s fur was singed across the ridge of her spine, marring an otherwise solid gray coat. Her eyes stared steadily into the darkness of the valley below.
Eleven days ago, the pair had left their village and the valley, narrowly escaping ahead of several threats to their lives. Between them, they had already injured four members of the family. Five now, she reminded herself. Only one could be blamed on the wolf. And she had been provoked. That fool had to have been exceptionally dim to get between a mother and her cub.
But Turas losing his hand had been almost a season ago, and still left three injuries to account for. Now four. And Kijeia couldn’t fault the victims for any of those, not even Marijke with her foolish customs.
Every day for the past 28 years I have climbed this cliff to give thanks and prayers, ever since I was old enough to walk.
Not tomorrow she wouldn’t. Or ever again. Marijke’s “restless personality” was finally at rest. In the end, however briefly, she seemed to have found calm. But not Kijeia. Like Marijke growing up, serenity was not in her nature either. Yet her father had tried so hard to get her to be calm.
“The most important thoughts you will ever have will arrive like these butterflies, and you have to be calm to recognize them and accept them. You have to let them land, or you’ll chase them away.” They had been laying against the side of the house, comparing the size of their feet. She watched, momentarily transfixed as two western swallowtails clung nimbly to her father’s knee. But when she reached out her hand too quickly, they disappeared in a flash. Along with his knee.
Attempting to escape the memory, Kijeia closed her eyes, locking in the smoke, and shook her head. This increased her body’s motion, scattering more sparks from the fire. When after a few moments it was obvious that she had failed to clear her mind, she gave in and opened her eyes again.
The remnants of light had dwindled from the western sky. The flames slowly settled into a less active state and stars began to outnumber the sparks as the moonless night took over. A slight wind pushed through the valley below, but still it ignored the stagnant cliff air. Even so, the temperature up top had begun to drop significantly. Kijeia began to sway faster.
“Do you miss him, Fala?” The wolf made no response, but Kijeia continued as if she had.
“I’m sure he misses you too. I know it’s in your nature to adapt and move on, but it just feels wrong, separating parent from child. The blood-link survives, no matter how much time or distance.”
Fala continued to regard the valley, only flicking an ear slightly to signal she had heard. Kijeia stood up and prodded the fire with her stick. A couple more stray sparks made their escape, joining their brethren in the sky.
Kijeia followed the sparks with her eyes and then followed their path with her hands. When she had reached as high as she could she balanced up on her toes and continued to raise her hands higher. Eventually she was stretched to her limit, and still the sparks’ paths continued up and beyond her. Out of reach. Always out of reach.
Except when she wished they were.
The memory of the first boy she hurt was the worst. They had flirted very carefully for months, hiding their feelings from friends and family alike. For a while she wasn’t sure if he really was flirting with her. Later, in a lisping voice from behind the now omnipresent balaclava that covered his mangled face, he told her he wished he hadn’t been. At least he had been honest enough not to claim otherwise.
She spread her fingers above her, allowing the starlight to shine between them. The stars themselves sat there shimmering, just out of reach, there for the taking. She could feel their heat in her palms. Closing her fists slowly, Kijeia hoped to contain the heat, but the movement in her legs made it impossible to keep the distant suns in their place. Her hands returned to her empty, as cold as the surrounding night.
Eventually, she moved around the waning fire and lay down a few feet from her companion. The wolf allowed her that much, but still refused to openly acknowledge Kijeia’s existence. Some wounds heal slowly. But they would heal, in time.
Not Marijke’s though.
Kijeia clenched her hands tightly and tried to ignore the memory. But it was recent, and raw, and was not willing to leave her alone yet. In her mind, Kijeia could still see the family matriarch as she fell from the cliff, taking the wind down with her. She could still see the crack her anger had made. She could still see the scorch-marked edge that signaled an end and a beginning.
That night, in her half-sleep state, she was visited by her father, as she had been every night since she had left home. He stood over her, seeming taller than his true height even on his one remaining leg. Once again, he stared mutely at her hands. The first time she had called out to him, begging for his forgiveness. The second time she screamed at him, ordering him to talk to her. Thereafter she could only whisper, hoping he would just once look her in the eyes. Now, she responded to his silence with her own. Each dream had seemed longer than the last, and this time Kijeia did her best to prolong it, wanting to delay the inevitable. But this night would end the same as the others. Eventually she would follow her father’s gaze to her hands.
There, she should see light. Flame. Charred flesh. Maybe even bone. That was how it ought to be. But it never was. She resisted as long as she could, but when her father closed his eyes and bowed his head, she found herself looking down again at her perfect, unburned hands.
It was a sign. It was a miracle.
But she couldn’t control it. Therefore, it was wrong. She was an abomination. So she couldn’t be allowed to live.
He couldn’t let her die. He couldn’t let her stay. She had to run.
Kijeia awoke to the fading echoes of screams in her mind. She tried to shake them off, but they remained at the edge of her consciousness, taunting her. Accusing her. Hating her.
“Someday, you’ll begin your life again.” Repeating these parting words of her father out loud, Kijeia pushed herself back up to her knees.
She looked at the circle of blackened earth around her and sighed, then patted the remaining small flames with her palms, snuffing out their oxygen.
Fala had wandered away to keep the rest of her fur safe, but she would return soon enough. Outcasts as they were, a danger to their family and themselves, they were destined to travel together. Their bond had been forged in fire.
The story apparently complete, the girl looked down at the still full cup of tea in her hands and sipped. It had fallen cool now, and tasteless. Her mother sat in silence, teacup grasped in shaking hands, a gentle breeze fanning the hot steam away from her tear-filled eyes.
This story is related to the previous week 9 story “The Glass Cliff” – findable at https://hangedkay.livejournal.com/3335.html
People always ask me if I knew from day one. Or if I should have known.
The short answer is “no.” The long answer is “perhaps.”
To be fair to myself, it was a hectic time.
Casting calls are nerve-wracking for even the most experienced of actors. Casting directors only say they love them because it is their job, and it keeps them paid. Dozens, or even hundreds of people, coming in to read the same lines over and over. Every actor hoping to be chosen. Every director hoping for that spark of light. Every casting reader hoping for it to end.
For musicals, it is just that much more intense. Dancing, singing, and acting are a trio of skills that very few people possess in combination. When you find someone who does, and especially one who also fits the look and style of the role you are casting, it is like coming across a minor miracle. And while you are waiting for that person to come along, you cringe at a lot of lines, you apologize to your eyes during a lot of mediocre moves, and you scream inwardly at a lot of painful notes. For me, as the music director, it was my nightmare.
In creating a musical about the broader Curie family, and expanding upon the reasonable success of the two-person off-Broadway production The Half-Life of Marie Curie, our production company had pulled out all the stops. Aided by my past experience working with her, we landed one of the biggest names in musicals, Dorothy Rae, to play the lead. We had worked together when she was still just young Doreen Rakestraw, before she took the industry by storm. We had become close and stayed in touch over the years. It was a thrill to finally get to work with her again.
Our secondary lead, Andrea Hanson, was a small theater lifer, who was known locally for making the most of small roles. Together, they created a chemistry on the practice stage. Andrea played the role of Irene, a Nobel Prize winner in her own right, and the eldest daughter of Dorothy’s Marie Curie. We had searched a long time to find someone right for Irene, before Andrea came along and won the part.
So when Andrea broke her rib less than a month before opening night, and the same week her understudy let us know she was pregnant, we were beyond distraught. We went scrambling for a replacement, and back into the hell of casting calls. There were rumblings that someone had mentioned that Scottish Play and doomed us all. I must admit, it felt that way at the time anyway.
If, as I mentioned, musical casting calls are intense, replacement casting is a whirlwind like little else. No one wants to delay opening night, so along with all the skills we previously needed, “quick to learn” was also of paramount importance. And nearly impossible to predetermine. We needed a miracle. I needed a miracle.
And I got one in Julie Harford.
Julie showed up to the audition without an agent, and with only a short bio. A couple high school plays. Some musical theater in college. One local production in her hometown of Philadelphia. But she had the look, and she had the drive. She had the voice. And I had no idea.
The perfect story here would be one where the moment she started singing, everyone stopped in their tracks and turned to listen and just knew. But of course, reality is never that simple. I was not even in the room when Julie first auditioned; the first round was left to my assistants. But my understanding is she just barely made the cut, mostly due to her lack of experience. I didn’t hear her sing for the first time until her callback a couple days later for the duets. The choices had been narrowed at that point to four potentials. Since we needed both an Irene and an understudy, they each ostensibly had a 50% chance of being brought on board. Except really, once Julie and Dorothy started to sing together, no one else had any chance at all of being Irene.
No disrespect at all to Andrea, who as previously mentioned was impressive in her own right, or to the other three ladies, but Julie’s audition nearly erased all memory of their existence. She sounded exactly as I had pictured Irene’s voice to be, fitting in with Dorothy’s in a way that only a mother and daughter can. It was as if the two of them were born for the roles. They had an immediate chemistry onstage. And they took to each other right away offstage as well, creating a bond that propelled us towards opening night. Dorothy took Julie her under her wing, and into her apartment, and into her life.
There is a theory in music called “blood harmony” which states that two people singing together who are related by blood will sound more like one person harmonizing with themselves. Dorothy and Julie represented the closest to that notion I had ever seen. It was even more impactful when they were made up to look like mother and daughter for the show. There is a song near the end of the show where mother and daughter sing together of all the discoveries left unmade while Marie is fighting her losing battle with leukemia. That song could break the heart of a dictator. When Dorothy and Julie sang it together, it could even break the heart of a jaded musical director.
When I look back now, it feels like it should have been obvious. Dorothy was a polished gem whose industry accolades spoke for themselves. A true professional. And Julie was by far the easiest person I had ever worked with. She took my notes to heart and implemented changes without need for repetition. She had her lines memorized before some of the regulars, and showed the grace and poise of experience beyond her years. I was witnessing greatness. But I was still blind to the truth.
Within the space of two weeks of rehearsals, we had created a memorable show that really felt like it had a shot. It was commonplace that members of the stage crew forgot themselves and their jobs and became engrossed in the action going on on-stage. I have never admitted to such a lapse, myself, and won’t here either. However, we all knew we had a potential hit on our hands. The ovations on opening night supported that theory.
At the end of our first full week, before the dark theater of Monday, we all went out for a drink. Cast and crew were on cloud nine, and early reviews were making us look at the possibility of an early move towards Broadway. It was a raucous party, lasting until nearly 2am. At the end of the night, I walked the two stars back to their apartment, ostensibly because they were too drunk to go alone, though I was more than a little buzzed myself.
“You know, you two are amazing together. If I didn’t know better, I would think you actually are mother and daughter.” It was meant as a compliment. I wasn’t fishing, and I didn’t know, even that far in. Dorothy just smiled and looked over at me.
“But of course, you know, we are mother and daughter.”
I laughed. They did not. I looked at them questioningly. They remained silent.
It took me another few seconds. Then “light dawned over Marblehead.” Of course. As I said, it should have been obvious.
“How? When?” I was not feeling particularly articulate.
“I figured it out right after she moved in with me. Confirmed it with the adoption agency last week. Julie is my firstborn. From back when I was just starting out. Before I was married. Before I could properly raise a child. Before I was more careful about my career. Always suspected she would find me one day. The fates are funny like that.”
Dorothy’s eyes were wet with encroaching tears. I looked from one to other, light dawning just a little more. Julie stopped walking, then bit her lip and looked up at me.
“Come on in, Tabbris.”
Professor Dina’s office was a windowless heptagon, lined with bookshelves from floor to ceiling, each one filled with perfectly symmetrical hardcover books with gold embossed spines. In the middle of the room was a large, white, granite desk stacked with neatly piled folders. Behind the desk, Dina sat up straight in a proper white suit, elbows on his armrests with his fingers intertwined, his head slightly angled to the side expectantly.
“Thank you for seeing me, Professor. I know you must be busy these days.”
“Not to worry, my boy. Always nice to see a former student. Sit down. To what do I owe the pleasure?”
Tabb slid over into the right-hand chair out of habit, glancing briefly at the empty chair to his left. Then he looked down at his hands and paused. This wasn’t going to be easy.
“Come come, it can’t be that bad.”
If only you knew, thought Tabb to himself.
The bullpen had been nearly full when Tabb arrived at his desk that morning. The clock, hanging on his otherwise pristine temporary wall, had dutifully reminded him that he was late, again, as he had dropped his passcard into the slot and logged into the network.
[Your password will expire in 7 days. Please consider changing your password.]
Why bother, thought Tabb. If things didn’t shape up, he might not even be here in seven days. Last thing he needed taking up mental space at this point was a new, unique, 32-character password.
As soon as he had finished logging in, he had pressed the “five minute break” button and looked around with a frown. His white desk was immaculately clean, or perhaps better stated, nearly barren. Its only adornment was a single plaque, duplicated in every cubicle, with the handwritten phrase “Each man's life touches so many other lives. – Clarence.” No pictures. No puzzles. No calendars. Nothing to take his mind off his recent failings.
In the cubicle next to him, Sariel was just finishing up with his current client. “You’ve made a great decision… Yes, you’ll be very pleased with it, I’m sure… No, no, good for you… Okay, take care now… Until next time then.” He clicked off the headset and raised his visor.
“Hey there, Tabbie! Got three already this morning. Gonna be another glorious day!”
“Yep, glorious day, Sari.”
Tabb had smiled and waved good-naturedly at his neighbor, then reverted to a frown. Sari had already dropped his visor in response to a blinking light and had moved on to reading about his next potential client. Three already? Tabb hadn’t had three all week. At first he had thought it was bad luck, then maybe that the system was handing him the lost causes. Now, he was pretty sure it might just be a problem with him. His heart just wasn’t in it lately. But there it was, the blinking light, his five minutes already up. Time to get to work. With a heavy sigh he had grabbed his headset and prepared to review his first customer of the day.
“I think I’m just not in the right line of work.” Tabb continued to stare down at his hands, unwilling to meet those of his former mentor.
“Nonsense, my boy. Why, you were top of my class. Your practical aptitude scores were nearly off the chart. Promoted inside of six months if I remember correctly. Of course you’re in the right line of work. It is absolutely what you were made to do.”
Tabb said nothing, but raised his eyes just enough to meet Dina’s.
“Okay, what’s really bothering you? Out with it.”
“Nothing works. Or rather, nothing works anymore. I can’t convince anyone to listen to me.”
“You know what I mean.”
By break time, Tabb had reached his mental limit. Six hours straight and not a single victory to speak of. Just a couple of “I’m not sure right now, let me think about it” and a long line of “I think I’m going to go in a different direction” combined with several nastier versions of “Buzz off!” and “Who the hell do you think you are?” In the past, that last one would have made him chuckle. Now, it just made his mood even worse. Sariel had gone to break early, already making his minimum quota for the day before the halfway point.
Against his inner desires, Tabb had removed his headset and visor carefully, and had placed them on the desk without smashing them to pieces. He had slowly taken his card from its slot and had not broken it in half instead of putting it in his lanyard. He had left the desk in one piece. He hadn’t kicked the walls down. And, instead of going to the break room, he had headed over to his old school. If anyone could help him out of this funk, he figured it would be Professor Dina.
“So, you are telling me you have tried everything?”
“And nothing works for you?”
“And yet Sariel is succeeding where you are not?”
Tabb dropped his head once more. The accusing tone in the professor’s voice was clear. Sariel had been held back twice before finally graduating. And now here he was outperforming the model student.
“So, clearly you haven’t tried everything.”
“But I used to be able to tell people the right thing to do with such conviction and clarity, and they would just listen to me. What am I doing wrong?
Dina smiled. “What are you doing wrong? You’re still sitting in here talking with me.”
Tabb returned to his desk, and palmed his passcard while feigning to put it in the slot. Donning his headset and visor, he leaned back just enough that he could see Sari while still seeming like he was hooked into the system. And then he waited, and watched, and listened.
At first he was confused. Then he laughed. It was absurd. Then he watched in disbelief as the successes piled up. And his smile faded. And he listened closer. And finally, he tried to learn.
“You know, you may just not be ready for this yet.”
“No worries, it’s probably too much to handle right now.”
“That’s a completely valid concern.”
“You just don’t have the necessary skills for this. It’s not for you.”
“Well, it sounds to me like you aren't interested in moving forward on this.”
“Sari, can I bend your ear for a minute?”
Sariel pressed his long break button and pulled off his visor. “Sure, Tabbie, what’s up?”
“I’ve been watching you and…” Tabb paused, unsure how to phrase the next part.
“You’ve been watching me? The golden one paying attention to the universal last one chosen?” Sariel laughed short and loud, but the poorly hidden sneer in his voice had been unmistakable, and Tabb remembered with regret school days he had once cherished.
“Sari, please. Please.” The repetition seemed to diffuse the situation for the moment. Sariel sat up straight and looked Tabb squarely in the eyes. Tabb swallowed, and tried again.
“How do you…?” Another long pause.
“Get them to listen?” Tabb nodded silently. I listened to them. And I learned from them. Times have changed, Tabbris. People don’t want to be told what to do any more. And you can’t just convince them by filling their ear with a good argument. You have to get them to convince themselves. And you have to let them decide.”
“But what if they choose wrong? What if they listen to their demon instead of listening to you?”
“Then you move on to the next one, and don’t think about it. Reach as many as you can, no matter who they are. Heaven knows the demons have figured this out. And here we are playing catch up. It’s not about who we reach, it’s about how many. That’s what Clarence was telling us. Each man's life touches so many other lives. It’s a numbers game. Speed and persistence is the key.”
“But what about those we don’t reach? Aren’t they important too?”
“They are all important, but no one is more important than another. You have to move on to the next one. You have to be able to let it go when you fail. Remember what Professor Pygar always said:
“An angel has no memory.”
Getting away with murder is not as easy as the professionals make it seem. Hair, fibers, fingerprints, blood spatter, even flakes of skin – they all can be your downfall. Step in a bit of mud along the way? Welcome to a line-up. Get spotted by the wrong person who happens to have a photographic memory? Get ready for prison time. Walk by an ATM on your way there and back? Prepare the electric chair.
Leave your cell phone on using GPS? Well, now you’re just trying to be caught.
Technology has changed the world of everything, even murder. So when that video of me showed up online...
To be fair, I wasn’t being very careful that day. No plan in advance. No rental car. No disguise. No sneaking in through windows or back doors. No carefully constructed alibi. Just taking advantage of an opportunity that fell into my lap, almost literally. It seemed perfect. So easy. And then…
Ultimate Fail Videos Number 72371
I didn’t realize immediately why Mark was showing it to me. It was just another video in a stack of amateur-captured oddities: a kid trying to jump his bike off a walkway stairs banister and ending up running into a telephone pole. Not unlike videos that get posted on the internet a thousand times every month. Hilarious to the right audience and immediately forgettable. Yet, this time, not quite so generic. For there I was in the background, car parked at the side of the road, license plate clearly visible along with my new Doc Martens walking up the driveway next door.
Looking back, I vaguely remember the burst of laughter as I was approaching the house, but I never would have even known about the video. And more importantly, neither would anyone else that mattered. But somehow, Mark had seen it. Man had too much free time on his hands. He recognized the house, my car. Worse yet, the video was time stamped. And he recognized the date and the time. A time when Leo was out of the house, and a day Shelly wasn’t.
“Nice boots, Bobby.” Mark looked pointedly at my feet, then back to the video. Sometimes being good to yourself backfires.
Mark and Leo go way back. He was best man at Leo’s wedding, basically introduced the two of them. Shelly and I, we don’t go back quite so far. But we went pretty far that day. And many other days before, to be honest. Leo wasn’t around much and Shelly, well, she deserved better. So I provided better. She’d have had a much better life with me than with Leo. Mark apparently didn’t see it that way. Or care.
His requests for a ‘monetary gift’ started the next day. I asked for time to consider. He laughed at me. I paid. Mark knew I would cave. I had to. Over the next few weeks, that video became a real thorn in my side, even with its minimal views. He showed it to me daily, or started to at least. And I paid him every time. As long as it was out there, I had to, or I was done for.
At the same time, the police’s murder investigation was ramping up. Leo was their original prime suspect, but he had an iron-clad alibi. I did not. Meanwhile, he had also started his own investigation. And Mark had raised his rates. Between Leo being on the hunt, and my dwindling bank account, time was quickly running short. And that video hung over my head.
So, I reached out to the guy who had posted it. I started small. “Hey, my license plate is in that video, do you mind blurring it out?” No dice. “Maybe you could crop the video as a close-up to better show the event without showing the scenery (including me and my car)?” He either couldn’t or wouldn’t. Time and money were running short, so finally, I took him to court to get the video taken down. Basically for not getting my permission before posting the video with me in it.
Well, given how much I could afford to pay for a lawyer, and the legal landscape of the time, you can guess how that went. The defense brought in the hosting company. They tried to pay me off, but that would have left the video as it was. Then they figured they would beat me in the press and announced a big legal battle. First amendment rights and all that. Made the news, and so the video got more hits than ever before. Eventually, Leo saw it. As did the cops, who brought me in for questioning.
Leo’s serving 20 to life now for murder. Apparently, his ironclad alibi for that day was that he was “home with Shelly” and she had backed him up on it out of fear. All completely undone by that time-stamped video. And me, I finally was able to tell them my actual alibi without risking my own death.
Ah, Leo. Should have spent more time with the wife, man.
Don’t expect us to visit.
“Take a vacation. Let the rest of the boys take care of things for a while. That’s not a request. I’ve already packed for you and set you up at an all-inclusive. The plane leaves in 2 hours. The cab is out front. Now shut down your computer and go.”
And with that, I was boot-kicked towards some year-end mandatory fun.
As anyone that knows me can tell you, I am not good at having down time. My brain is used to running on overdrive. My motto is “Work hard, work hard.” My down time is the four or five hours of sleep I get after I pass out each night. Vacations are something from my childhood. Retirement is a pipe dream I don’t ever expect to reach, and certainly not to enjoy.
I have always looked at “relaxation” as a waste of the precious limited time we have on this planet. I don’t believe in reincarnation or any afterlife. I have this one chance, and I am going to make the most of it. And making the most of it means continuously churning. Down time just doesn’t fit into that formula.
But the last few months have been overly busy, even for me. And my business partner, Anthony, he must have seen something that made him worry. Maybe it was the growing discoloration under my eyes. Maybe it was the way I started getting snippy with him when discussing future options. Maybe it was that I made a mistake that almost cost us a couple million dollars and put us in legal jeopardy.
Okay, it was definitely that last one.
So, here I am sitting in the lobby of a resort on the coast of somewhere, freshly groomed and pampered on Anthony’s dime, reading the financial papers and taking notes with pen and paper. Because, let’s face it, I don’t really know how to relax.
It seems I have made an impression on some of the other guests.
This morning, I met one Mr. James Patrick, or “J.P.” as he prefers to be called. He is a “magnate in the wool industry” (who knew that still existed in this age of synthetics?). He is on holiday celebrating a fabulous year at his business. Having noticed me deep into the financial journals for a couple days, he came and joined me at a table in the lobby and interrupted my reading. Apparently, he made a personal fortune this year, but given the new codes, he is now looking at a massive tax burden. I am not sure if he wanted to brag or complain, or more likely both. But we hit it off well. Both of us are workaholics. And more importantly, he was very interested in my take on tax shelters and international business options. We set up a time to talk tomorrow following his afternoon spa reservation.
Later in the day, I went to stick my feet in the hot springs and found myself sitting next to a newly engaged couple. The sulfur smell was rather strong, and apparently had made the young lady wary of getting anything higher than her ankles wet lest it ruin her suit, or even worse, her new engagement ring which she showed off to everyone in the area. To be fair, it was a beautiful clear stone, more than 3 carats, and strikingly cut in a teardrop shape. Her fiancé was presumably wealthy, but he repeatedly rebuffed my attempts to discuss either what he did or his financial state. He also seemed a bit unhappy at the attention that the young lady was getting from all the other guests. As she wandered around showing off her new jewelry, he confided that if he had known that it would become the center of everyone’s attention, he might not have made such a large purchase. Additionally, it turned out, they were booked through the end of the year in a room right next to her parents. Not, as he put it less gently than I will here, the best setup for their newly engaged status. I have a feeling I may see him at the bar a few times over the next few days.
Perhaps most interestingly, I believe I may be being followed by two young ladies who are staying here. They keep looking over at me and then turning away quickly when I glance up. Lots of wide eyes and whispering. I will have to investigate further.
J.P. is pretty desperate to save some money before the tax year is up. Apparently, he spent a little too much of his earnings this year on “non-tax deductible” (illegal) items. I am working with him on some opportunities that might save him significantly both this year and next. We spent about three hours talking and he has offered to show me his business’ financial info in the morning so I can see if there are any other areas I can help with. It’s nice to get a chance to use my brain and talents after sitting around for a couple days. Maybe this “vacation” will be a good thing after all.
On that note, I heard from the nice man at the front desk that the young ladies apparently have been asking around about me. He said that they noticed how much I look like a certain aging legendary rock star, who used to be known to frequent these parts under an assumed name to get away from it all, and they wanted to know if I was him. I can’t decide whether to be amused or insulted. The desk clerk told them he was not allowed to say one way or the other, and I said that suited me fine.
Meanwhile, as expected, I ran into Daniel (the fiancé) at the bar this evening. He is still being protective about his professional life, but I did manage to get him to admit he works in antiquities. Apparently, the diamond in the engagement ring was paid for with money that was supposed to come in for the purchase of an ancient burial chest he had acquired. The purchase hit a snag when the buyer turned out to be “not liquid” financially. Unfortunately, he had already bought the ring. I almost feel bad for the guy. He seems to be in a really tough place.
Spent the better part of today working with J.P. on his business. We are working through some tax loops that should save him significant money in the long run. Hard to do too much for this year, being so near the end of December. He has given me access to his people back home so I can work while he gets his spa treatments. He goes twice a day for at least two hours at a time.
I did run into Daniel again at the bar. He seems really upset, and opened up more after a couple of drinks. Apparently, if he doesn’t sell the chest, he may have to go belly up to pay the jeweler for the ring. I suggested just taking the ring back, but he says he can’t do it to his fiancé. She apparently is extremely happy with her precious treasure. Though it is hard to say how happy she is with him. She was nowhere to be seen. If I wasn’t still miffed at being sent away, I would ask Anthony if he would be interested in purchasing the chest. He has always liked ancient relics.
On a side note, I decided to go to the club tonight. I dressed in an old outfit Anthony sent along for me. It felt a bit retro, but it made for easy movement when dancing. The young ladies were there too, and they were definitely watching me. Living the Rock and Roll lifestyle.
I never thought anyone could learn so much about the wool business so quickly.
I spoke with Daniel’s fiancé. Apparently, things are going really badly, and she is having second thoughts. I think I have a way to help them both out.
I think I’ll go back to the club for a bit.
Busy couple days.
I was able to get everything set up for J.P. early in the day and therefore before the year ended. A couple Cayman accounts, some nice charitable donations, and corporate documents for new subsidiaries that can protect him from tax and legal liabilities in the future. He insisted on paying me twice my asking fee (to be fair, he wrote that off too). Even transferred it by wire to make sure it came out in the current year.
I made a deal to purchase the chest from Daniel. He was desperate, so I got it really cheap. Just enough so he can pay down the ring cost to a manageable level. Of course, not long afterwards, his fiancé and her parents left without him. She stopped by my room on the way out to thank me for my advice, and to give me a box with the ring to give back to Daniel.
Meanwhile, the young ladies and I were at the club to party in the New Year and… Well, I don’t want to kiss and tell. Let’s just say I gave them a legendary story to tell their friends.
Anthony welcomed me back today with a smile and a shake of the head. I guess I didn’t really get away from it all during what ended up being a busman’s holiday, but it did reinvigorate me. The end result was a good one: Two new shell companies we can use, three new bank accounts that we have the routing numbers and passwords for, a nice ancient burial chest for Anthony, and several hundred thousand dollars in clean money. Oh, and a beautiful teardrop diamond that I think I will make into a nice necklace. Plus, three marks that not only didn’t know what hit them, but are probably happy enough with me that I could keep them on the hook for more.
Also, a very invigorating New Year’s Eve and morning. I made sure to thank Anthony for setting that in motion, and for providing me with the proper look for that one. Good that he knows his classic rock.
All in all, an enjoyable and profitable vacation.
Time to see what the boys have been working on without me for our next con.
I have to admit, the days had all been pretty repetitive and stressful around here for a long time. Anything new was generally considered a good thing. And any extra help was always appreciated. So when the old Greek showed up, with his chiseled body and hardened hands all ready to roll, we all got pretty excited.
The morning he arrived, it was my luck to be the first to see him coming over the rise, and as such it was my job to greet him at the gate. He didn’t speak a word in response to my greeting, but his handshake was firm and steady and he looked straight into my eyes. His hands felt like well-worn leather and he shook my arm hard enough to show that he could have removed it from its socket if he wanted to. There was no anger there, just a passing of information. He probably had no idea what he was walking into. He certainly couldn’t have known his future impact on our lives.
Stretching my shoulder joint lightly, I led him back to meet the rest of the crew.
“This here is Samuel, he’s the foreman.” The new fellow seemed not to understand, so I shoved my index finger into Sam’s breastplate and repeated “Samuel.” Then hooked my thumb into my own chest. “David.” Then I pointed at him. The Greek mumbled something too quiet for me to quite catch, but Sam seemed to hear well enough.
“Good to meet you Izzy. Gather around boys, say hello to Izzy here.”
“Hey Izzy.” “Hi Iz, I’m Aaron.” “Welcome Izzy, is that short for Isaiah?”
“Izzy’s fine,” responded the newcomer. At least that was what it sounded like through his thick accent. I still wasn’t sure if he understood us or not either.
“Right. Okay. Thomas, show him the ropes, literally. He can help us with the hauling today. Tomorrow he can start getting up to speed on the rest. Let’s go everyone, back to it. That barn won’t build itself.”
The rest of that first morning went the same as usual, with Izzy picking up the hauling job right quick, like he was made for it. By midmorning, he understood instinctively where and when we needed the wood delivered. Turned out he was better at pushing than pulling, so Thomas moved him to behind the sled. By lunchtime, it looked like Thomas was barely pulling on those ropes at all, yet that sled seemed to move faster than it ever had before.
Lunch was the usual morose affair. Same old food, same old conversations about what still needed to be done on the barn that afternoon. Izzy sat on the end of the bench and watched us as we ate, nibbling on some bread and cheese. It had been a long time since the last newcomer, and to be honest we weren’t really sure how to behave around him any more than he was around us.
The afternoon was filled with chatter and rapid construction. Every afternoon was. As the shadows grew longer, people got more irritated, and the worry about if we would finish in time rattled a lot of nerves. The result of failure was not something quickly forgotten.
By daylight’s end, the last of the siding was being placed. The sun wavered under the horizon in time with the last echo of the sliding door shutting. We had done it, but just barely. The crew hurried to their bedrolls and were asleep in minutes. As I lay down, I noticed Izzy sitting up, staring at the barn.
“Get some sleep Iz. Long day tomorrow,” I called out. But he didn’t turn my way. My first barn holds a special place in my memory as well, so I guess I understand. He would regret not sleeping enough though, and I was too tired to try again to convince him of this fact.
In the morning, however, Izzy seemed as well rested as anyone else, and the next day went much like the one before. And the one after. And the one after that. Each morning we moved on to a newly laid foundation. By sunset we had built another barn. Sixty-five people working in tandem, and Izzy slid right into whatever role we asked him to play. Hauling, lifting, steadying. He was stronger than most, and never seemed to tire out like the rest of us.
After a couple dozen barns, Izzy’s influence on our work made us fast enough that we had a little free time at the end of the day before sleep. It was a change to our normal routine, and a welcome one. For the first time in longer than any of us could remember, we had time to talk about more than the placement of a beam or the angle of a roof. And talk we did. About everything – our lives, our loved ones, all the things we had lost or missed out on.
Some number of barns later, Izzy finally joined in our conversation. A couple of the boys had started arguing about “the meaning of it all,” and no surprise it was Aaron who was running his mouth the most.
“This has got to be Hell, I tell you. Same thing every day. Build it up today, another one tomorrow. Another one the day after that. Every day the same thing. We build a barn one day, we move on to the next one the next day. Nothing changes.” Aaron was on a roll tonight.
“Some things change,” said Thomas, nodding toward the Greek.
“Nothing important. Our families are gone. Our friends are gone. We toil in this heat day after day. There is no future. There is no choice. We’re just living in Hell. And we’re stuck here forever.”
“This is not Hell.”
Slowly, everyone turned and looked at Izzy. You wouldn’t have known he had spoken, but that there was no one else near him. He was slowly rubbing his hands together, like he was just softening those leather palms. As the silence lingered, he looked up at them. And for the first time, he really spoke. In full sentences.
“And nothing is forever. What you do here, what we do here, has a purpose. We work together. We create. We build. We move forward. We support each other. We are more than ourselves.
“Our work isn’t meaningless. These barns are useful to other people. To animals. We are providing something of worth, even if we don’t get to stay around to see it or use it ourselves. We are a part of something bigger.
“And we get to rest, and eat, and drink. We get to feel alive.
“We aren’t just pushing some boulder up a hill, all alone, only to have it fall back to the bottom over and over again, without a break.”
He stopped there, seeming lost in a memory.
“Well, it’s still Hell to me,” muttered Aaron to nobody in particular.
Izzy shook his head and gave a small laugh, the first time he had made that sound since I had known him.
“One man’s Hell is another man’s Heaven.”
The Setup: Tuesday, late afternoon
“The tarot cards may know all, but it is up to us to take on the difficult job of interpreting them.”
Perhaps true. But in Chin-Sun’s interpretation, the tableau of cards laid out in front of her, as beautiful as they looked spread out on the deep red tablecloth, was not promising. A mix of problematic and often inverted tarot cards showed mostly confusion and long roads ahead, along with upheaval and family concerns. All a bit too negative for her taste, and more importantly not helpful in making the decision she had come here concerned about. Though at least there appeared to be no monetary issues.
“I still feel so unsure of what to do.”
“This is an overview of your big picture. If you wish an answer to a more specific question…” The seer gathered up the cards and slid them into the rest of the deck. His hands twisted and the cards fluttered about, shuffling and then settling into a perfect pile. Then he laid the deck face down on the table and fanned them out smoothly from his right to his left, the intricate brown ivy pattern on the backs of the cards bleeding into a seamless arc.
“Focus on your question. Close it into your fist. Concentrate.” The businesswoman followed his directions, feeling a bit foolish. But she needed to know.
“Now, open your hand, palm down, and let it move over the cards. Keep focusing on your question, but listen to the cards. They will tell you where the answer is. Keep moving your palm over the cards. Don’t rush. You will know when you are close.”
And somehow, she did know. The cards near the far left felt… inviting. Calling to her.
“Smaller movements now, closer to the correct card. Let them guide you. Concentrate on your question. Lightly touch the card. It will tell you if you have chosen properly.”
Chin-Sun extended her middle finger slightly and moved it down to the edge of a card, touching the one below it as well. She was close, she could feel it. But which one? She felt something from them both, but which was stronger? The one on top? Yes. That was the one. She pulled it out from the fan, and the seer quickly swept the rest of the cards away from it in opposite directions, creating two smaller piles.
“Turn it over.”
She gasped as she caught sight of the face, even before she finished flipping the card.
Major Arcana number 13. Death. Chin-Sun grimaced inwardly.
“Death. A very strong card, yes. But not what most people think it is. Death represents change. It represents the end of a cycle and also implies the start of a new one with a transformation. Significant, but not necessarily bad. Your life will not be the same as it was. Something important is about to alter your path. Remember, this is in response to your question. Think carefully on it, and clarity will come.”
Chin-Sun’s face softened, and then, slowly, broke out in a smile.
The Twist: Tuesday, evening
After escorting the woman out, the seer returned to the table and flipped over the top card of the gathered deck on his right, the one that the woman had hesitated on and almost chosen. He stared transfixed, then closed his eyes tightly.
Major Arcana number 16. The Tower.
Usually a single card provided the answer to a question. But sometimes cards called out in combination, though the businesswoman could not have known it. She would not have realized it was the overlap of the two cards that answered her.
The Tower and Death together. Shocking change. Dangerous. Problematic. He sighed heavily, took out his cell phone, and made a call.
The Turn: Tuesday, late evening
Back at the hotel, Chin-Sun couldn’t shake her excitement at the seer’s final reading. Tomorrow she would be meeting with her idol, here in this suite he had reserved for her. She had been following his career for over ten years, always hoping to get a chance to meet him. And now, here she was, about to start working with him. Sort of. With one of his people anyway, and on a side project. But he would be here tomorrow and she would be introduced to him. In person. One on one. And maybe that would lead to…
She shivered despite the heavy heat of summer that had seeped into the room.
She looked at the clock on her phone. Time to get some rest. But her brain was still racing, her nerves still firing, and the room itself was too hot to sleep in. Plus the a/c had made such a racket that she couldn’t deal with it. It had hardly worked anyway. She had opened the window (thankfully the back alley outside was quiet) and put on a rotating fan. It was better, but not enough. Eventually, she gave in and took a couple sleeping pills.
The Conclusion: Wednesday, late morning
“No obvious signs of foul play. What do you think? Stroke? Heart attack?”
The young officer looked around the hotel room carefully. The clicking noise of the standing fan filled his ears, a broken piece of plastic wedged into its mechanism leaving it stuck blowing directly at the bed. The window behind it was closed but unlocked, its etched film preventing him from being able to see the fire escape outside that he knew was there. A bottle of sleeping pills spilled out on the nightstand, still partly full.
“Asphyxiation,” called out the coroner.
“Come again? Really? By murder or accident?”
“Not sure. Could be either one. The window fell, the fan broke. Or the window was closed and the fan was jammed. Either way, the cause of death is clear.”
“Asphyxiation,” pondered the officer.
“Fan death,” noted the coroner.
Both shook their heads solemnly at the scene.
The Epilogue: Wednesday, afternoon
Gangrim sat and pondered, still confused. He had entered her hotel room that morning with a light step and a smile on his face. He had been looking forward to meeting this woman for quite a while, ever since she had first appeared on his list. Always nice to meet a fan.
Yet, for some reason, the woman had seemed less than thrilled to see him. In fact, she didn’t seem to recognize him at all and was adamantly opposed to joining him. He thought maybe she didn’t recognize him, as she said something about not being ready and that she was supposed to be meeting her real idol. It was all mixed up. But no, he wasn’t who she was expecting. She wasn’t what he had been told. It all went rather poorly, really.
He went back and checked his preparatory notes again, re-read them carefully, then sighed.
“You know, I really need to start paying closer attention. I could have sworn it said Fan of Death.”
Shaking his head, Gangrim looked up the next name on his list, then went out to continue his collecting.
Introduced in the Chasa Bonpuri myth, Gangrim Doryeong is the Korean death god, who reaps dead souls and brings them to the underworld.