Back then, I had a strategy for coping with information that challenged my concept of reality: I played along as if everything were normal. Al Gore, an extra-T change-agent? Sure! Makes perfect sense! Galactic cosmic rays manipulated to seed clouds? Of course! That odd-looking poodle a space dog? Right!
Then later, when I was alone, the incomprehensibility of the absurd crashed in on me.
I had wanted my pregnancy to be a time of integration, but it became, instead, a walk along the line of cognitive dissonance, the path which has traced the perimeter of my lifetime journey. I’ve made my home in the space between realities. Back then, the liminal moments caught me unawares. It was only later, after decades of listening to Santi’s music, hearing Naavre’s stories, feeling Sept’s touch, that I developed a taste for the space between what we know and what is possible.
I took long walks every chance I could.
Facing the deep silence below the surface of a leaf, past the blue sky, under the meniscus of the pond brought me back to all I’ve ever known as true, and that silence remained the same even while my understanding of possibility rearranged itself for the forty-ninth time.
This life served as a bridge for me between the small patch of toiled ground that circumscribed my parents’ life, and even the lives of my college friends, and the broad fields of conception which formed home for Sept, his family, and comrades.
I began to sense the rare chance I’d been given–I’d always longed to escape the boring, confined life that seemed to wait for me when I was a child.
Taking the escape shook up reality. So be it. The comfort of definition is overrated–I know this now, and I sensed it then, even when the undefined overwhelmed me with novelty.
My walks often led upriver to the Culpepper. We weren’t expecting any refugees at the time. Xirra sought sanctuary for them in other regions for a while, so as not to draw attention to our efforts. But still, the message had gotten out through the underground. A street artist who went by the name The Concertmaster coded messages in yellow paint woven through murals in public spaces throughout the cities and towns. Yellow was our color, and those who knew the key could read the signs pointing our way. So even when we weren’t expecting anyone, we were prepared for anyone to show up.
For this reason, I often dropped by the café, just in case. I always felt safe there, even considering the hostile climate of the broader society. For one thing, our town was hidden in our forgotten, insular valley, and for another, at the Culpepper, I was always surrounded by the regulars, marked by their yellow clothing or accessories as our friends and allies.
One afternoon, I was joking around with our friends Masami, Caleb, and Zaidi, a recently arrived rebel-in-disguise, when an elegant extra-T woman entered. She held a white ceramic jar in the crook of her arm.
“Kiyakja nanalī in’i EOo xiliyu, Mallory-ttei,” she said to me. I didn’t recognize the greeting. All I could understand was “in’i EOo” which implies a sense of belonging. “Nice to meet you,” she continued.
“Sintaliyu dastaliyu,” I replied, using the standard rebel greeting: peaceful day. “It’s nice to meet you, too!” I waited for more.
She set down the ceramic jar on the counter and opened the lid, releasing the scent of vanilla and chocolate. The jar was filled with freshly baked cookies.
“I hope you’re fine with chocolate?”
“I adore chocolate! Did you pick these up at the cookie store?” I said, forgetting my training in the confusion.
Zaidi cleared his throat. “These look home-baked,” he said, standing close behind us.
“What?” said the woman. “Yes, these were made at home.”
“Well, they smell absolutely delicious.”
“Really? Thank you!”
The barista handed me the pain au chocolate I’d ordered. I glanced at the confusing cookies.
How much did she know? Were the cookies a coincidence? Why was she here, and what was my role, my duty?
She followed me to the tables and sat across from me. I closed my eyes for a moment to think through my cover. How much did she know about me? Did she know Sept, Xirra, Ritu?
So far, all the extra-Ts I’d met, except for the two children we encountered at the park in Willow Creek, were connected, through family, the crash, the refugee project, or the rebel movement.
Chana, who’s married to Ulysses, an extra-T rebel, sat with us. I felt personally safe with her, Masami, and Zaidi there, but I also felt how much was at stake.
“Oh, what am I doing?” The woman laughed. “Marching in with a cookie jar… It’s like my awkward youth all over again! Let me start over. Hello, I’m Navi 4CE, and I have two children who’ve been talking about you non-stop.”
“Two kids?” I realized at once she was referring to the children from the park at Willow Creek. “Oh! Shintu and Refi? You’re their mom? How are they? They’re adorable! So smart. And sweet.”
“They take after Azure. In adorability and smarts both.”
“Azure. Is that their father?” I imagined someone like Sept. Wouldn’t it be something if they were cousins?
“Their mother. Parked her rocket incorrectly in the backyard of my first serious workplace. Being a rookie fluent in her language, I was given the honor of driving off this beautiful stranger. She, for her part, offered to buy me a drink in her favorite pub if I ditched the next shift. I ended up ditching quite a lot more for the privilege of sharing my life with her, but nothing I’d change for what we built together.”
I smiled. It was a beautiful story. “Are you and Azure from different places, then? Different planets?”
“Yes, Mallory, I was thinking you might ask that. I’m from the Lanterns, she from Willow Creek downtown. To think I studied in that very town for three years, but it took a wormhole for us to meet… life tricks you that way.”
I felt such a connection with Navi at that statement. I wanted to share my life story with her, right then, and I was close to saying something about Sept and how life’s tricks had led me onto this fine path that traversed the infinite and the mundane, but before I could say anything Chana interrupted.
“Oh! This scone is divine!” she said. “Do you think they got it from the cookie store?”
Navi looked up from her hands. “This store you speak of sounds really interesting! If they have half the atmosphere you’ve got here, I should definitely pick Zure up someday and check it out. Maybe bring the kids, too.”
“It’s metaphorical,” I replied, flustered. How to explain the cookie store? And why had Chana brought it up? I only know her warning put me on edge. “It’s like a saying,” I said, making up the first thing I could think of. “It’s slang here for really good, delicious. ‘Oh, this coffee is divine! Did you get it at the cookie store?'” I laughed, lamely.
“Fascinating. I’ll have to settle for Shintu’s creations, then. And, I almost forgot! Refiltre was asking about a girl who they met that was with you in the park back then. Your daughter has stricken quite the impression. ‘Lightriver-of-melodies,’ Refi said, and I felt like she could still see the music.”
“Oh, Santi!” I wanted to explain that she wasn’t my daughter then, that I was just delivering her to a safe place, but that she was my daughter now. I held my tongue, stuck between What-could-I-say, what-couldn’t-I-say?
“Santi? I had a friend with a similar name living next door when I was small. Vanté, short for vateanticé. Santi must be very important for you, too.”
“Yes. She is,” I said, resting in that simple truth. “She’s my adopted daughter, as you can guess by appearances. I can’t imagine ever having been without her, anymore, nor not having her as part of my future! I guess it’s true what they say, about how children change you. And I guess I’m about to be changed again!” I laughed, patting my pregnant belly. “Can I get you anything?” I asked. I was starving, again.
“I’m good. And I wish you’ll never have to imagine anything less than happiness.”
It was a kind wish. I looked into this woman’s face, so full of good cheer and benevolence.
Chana looked concerned, as if a thousand alarms were sounding, so I kept my feelings of friendliness reined in, but what I really wanted to do was to share my life story with Navi, and then to invite her back home, so she might meet Sept and Santi and share spaghetti with us for supper.
Chana whispered something to Justine, another of Ritu’s colleagues, and when I returned with a second pastry, Justine claimed the spot beside me with a clenched grin.
“Did I say something odd?” Navi asked.
“Oh! Not at all!” I replied. “I was just thinking of your kind wish. I am happy, very, and so I wonder if that is why I do spend time imagining the possibility of ‘less-than.’ When one has happiness, one has something to lose, that’s what I’ve discovered. These aren’t the safest times to be living in, after all, are they?”
“I don’t have it very bad myself,” said Navi, “having been a part of the community for so long, but the kids… there have been incidents that could have ended really bad. As in scary bad. And there’s this feeling all the time, in the back of my head, and I just–sorry. I shouldn’t. To you of all people.”
“Oh, you can tell me anything,” I said, feeling both my genuine goodwill, and its shadow of guilt, as I realized that I, at that moment, felt constrained against reciprocating a confidence. “I don’t believe in coincidence anymore,” I said. “There was a reason for Santi and I to be at the park the same time that your kids wandered into that AAC riot. It wasn’t a gesture that I take lightly. Fate tapped us on the shoulder, that day, I’m sure.”
“Mallory. Mallory. Mallory,” said Justine.
“Can I get you something from the cookie store?”
“No! I’m fine!” I said.
She chuckled. “Play it safe, dear,” she said, as she left.
We watched Justine join Chana and Masami in the reading room. They clustered together, whispering.
“I should really get going myself,” said Navi.
I didn’t want her to leave. I wanted to spend the rest of the afternoon with her and arrange to meet up again soon, with the kids and Sept and Azure.
“Tell Shintu and Refi hello from me!”
“Yes, I will. Same goes for Santi–send her my warmest regards. Until next time!”
“And thank you for the cookies!” I called as she walked towards the exit.
I had so much to tell Sept when I got home. Zaidi had already called him, and so had Chana, to tell him about this unknown extra-T bearing a jar of homemade cookies.
“It was Shintu and Refiltre’s mom!” I told him. “Remember the kids Santi and I met at the park? I really like her, Sept. I wish we could be friends.”
“Then maybe we should become friends with them,” Sept asked.
“Everyone was so nervous around her,” I said. “They didn’t know her. They acted so strange, like an extra-T who wasn’t one of us was someone to be feared.”
“What did your feelings tell you about her?” Sept asked.
“That she’s a lovely, beautiful, kind, and generous person.”
“Then I’m sure she is all that,” said Sept. “I think it would be splendid for us to become friends! All of us.”
Sept made it simple. She may have been a stranger. She may have used a greeting that wasn’t the standard rebel salutation, but if, in my heart, I felt she was good, then she was a friend already.
Author’s note: The beautiful Navi 4CE is indeed Shintu and Refiltre’s mom, whom we met in Up a Creek! They all come from For_Eorz’s stories, which I highly recommend! For_Eorz wrote this with me, providing all of Navi’s contributions to the conversation and lots of plot elements!