Thruhiker: Day 3

March 22 (7:30 – 16:30)
Dawson County Park – Lakeside View (25 mi)
Total C2C miles: 45.5
Weather: Freezing in morning, cold all day, cloudy – intermittent breeze

In the morning, it’s below freezing. The water in my water bottle? Solid ice. The leftover dolmas, falafels, and couscous I’d saved for breakfast? Frozen. I check the weather on my phone. 28 degrees? Below freezing, when the last frost date for this region is March 15. Record-setting cold temps.

I’m grateful I selected the quilt with three-season use that’s designed to go down to 25 degrees. I didn’t expect frost, even in the mountains, but at high altitudes, you never know, and the trail will take me over 10,000 feet in the Granite Falls range. I was snug last night, but I’m cold this morning, so I pack early, pick up a latte and breakfast wrap from the park vendor, and hit the trail with the early morning sun.

I can see my breath.

The trail wanders past the cutest barge on the river. It looks like someone could live there. I imagine myself living there. What if instead of walking the trail, I traveled the waterways? What if it was one of those barges that you propel with those long sticks? Then, I’d walk up and down the length of the boat, while the boat traveled leisurely down the river. My arms and shoulders would get sore, pushing the big pole.

As I walk the trail, I try to figure out the math. Would I be walking more, poling along on the boat, for I’m walking up and down the length of the boat, or am I walking farther along the path, since the boat would be moving faster?

I think this is calculus.

I can’t really figure it out, but I get this nice sensation of moving along, the speed of the boat carrying my own steps more quickly, and this makes the trail travel faster for about an hour, until I notice that, even though I’m walking, I’m cold.

It is so cold.

I check the weather on my phone. It’s down to 25 now. The forecast predicts a high of 32, with temperatures tonight reaching the teens.

I wasn’t prepared for this.

A fountain in a park I pass is frozen.

The cherry trees are blooming, and I wonder if all the blossoms will freeze and fall off tonight.

The sun can’t really penetrate the clouds.

I just walk.

For a long time, I don’t think. I just walk. When I’m hungry, and I get hungry often, since it’s so cold, I munch on nori, which has like zero calories and a lot of salt, so my tongue starts to feel thick.

The water in my water bottle is still frozen.

At the parks I pass, the public drinking faucets have been turned off. Too cold.

The strawberries I bought are frozen. I put them in my mouth and let them thaw, swallowing the ice water as it melts.

The trail runs through another town, and I stop at a cafe in mid-morning. I drink three glasses of warm water, a coffee, and eat another breakfast wrap. I resist the urge to buy lunch, for it will just freeze in my pack on the trail.

Ice has formed along the edges of the waterway, in the shaded areas.

What will I do tonight? I’d planned to hike all the way to Lakeside Park and camp there. But I’m not sure I want to spend the night in my tent. My quilt can handle 25 degrees, but if it gets down to the teens, will I even be OK?

What makes it even this cold? It never gets this cold down here.

It’s the jet stream, all messed up. The polar regions warm, the temperature differential between the poles and the rest of the globe goes flat, and the jet stream gets wonky, and the cold seeps down here, while the polar caps melt.

I wonder if this summer will bring the Blue Ocean Event. When the polar caps melt, the sea level will rise a few meters. All the land I’m walking today is below sea level.

If the levees don’t hold, this whole region will be under water.

When my dad walked the C2C trail, he felt the continuity of it. “One thing lasts,” he always told me, “the land. The river may change course, the rain may erode the cliffs, but even if the course is different, we still have the land.” He meant the whole ecosystem. My dad relied on the patterns of seasons, knowing that the last frost came in early March, the cicadas sang in June, the crickets in September. My dad counted on all these patterns outlasting him, as if it didn’t matter if he weren’t here for the rest of my life, because the patterns would be. The rhythms of the land would go on, and in them, I wouldn’t feel alone, because all my dad taught me about the land and nature would continue in them.

Only that wasn’t happening. It wasn’t that my dad didn’t know about climate chaos, because he’d known about it since before I was born and was always talking with us about reducing emissions and our carbon footprint. I guess it was just that he was an optimist, and he felt that we’d make changes quickly enough.

After all, he’d made changes in how he lived, and how our family lived. He died before the jet streams got screwed up. He died when he still had hope.

As I approach Lakeside Park, my lips, my nose, the tips of my ears, my fingers, and my toes feel frozen.

I don’t think I can camp tonight.

There’s a motel in Lakeside View, near the park and not far from the trail, and I check in there. It’s only 4:30, but I can’t walk anymore when I’m this cold. I’m worried I’ll get sick if I do, and then I’d be laid up for a week or more, and my schedule would be messed up. I need to get through the desert before the heat sets in, for if it’s weirdly cold now, it could be brutally hot then, for that’s what climate chaos means.

I take a long bath. All my food, except the nori, is ruined when it thaws. I get a pizza then return to my room and watch Greta Thunberg videos on my phone. “We showed that we are united and that we, young people, are unstoppable,” she says, and I feel a little better.

I take out the deck of cards I bought yesterday, with the mice on the back and the adorable Jack of Clubs, and I play solitaire until I can’t keep my eyes open any longer.

As I lay in the lumpy motel bed, under the scratchy blankets, I imagine the water rising, slowly covering the trail I walked today. The red and green barge floats over the flooded meadows. The mice on my deck of cards live in the barge, and Jack Clubs mans the pole, walking with his little mice feet up and down the length of the barge, while the barge floats on.

“You walk farther,” he says to me, in his mouse voice, “for I am carried by the current.”

And I fall asleep.

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Ten-Cent Tarot: When There’s No Land Left to Grab

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Entrepreneur, power company magnate, real estate tycoon, computer conglomerate CEO, and chairman of the board of a globally renowned science research facility, Geoffrey Landgraab did not fit the type who would consult a tarot card reader. The man came from a family that had schools named after them.

But guilt and despair can drive a man to cast off type.

Calliope picked up a heavy energy from him when he showed up outside her apartment late one evening.

“I would have come during office hours,” he said, “that is, if you have office hours. I don’t know what your typical schedule is.”

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“I’m open when I’m open,” Calliope said. “I’m here! You’re here! The cats are here. Let’s go! Let’s see what the cards show.”

He smiled. Sometimes, brightness can shine through the heaviest of clouds, and when his smile reached his eyes–just barely, but enough to let them crinkle at the corner–Calliope felt that his miasma was not yet too dense to disperse.

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He followed one of the cats, Cupcake, back into the study and sat behind the computer, as if an office chair and keyboard were necessary accessories to his comfort.

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“I don’t give consultations back here,” Calliope explained. “This is my room, actually. Mine and the cats’.”

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She led him to the consultation table in the corner of the kitchen.

She lit all the candles, turned on the strings of bulbs, and filled the diffuser with geranium essential oil.

“It’s like a gypsy place,” Geoffrey said. “How do we start? Do I tell you what’s wrong?”

Calliope looked at him.

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He fidgeted for a moment, as clients often do when her eyes first see past them, and then, as the quiet moment stretched, he sighed and closed his eyes.

She pulled a seven card spread: the Fool, the Magician reversed, and the World reversed fell in the crux of swords and wands.

“All right, then,” she said. “What are you resisting so hard? What is keeping you up all night?”

“I don’t trust anyone who isn’t up all night,” he said. “Whoever’s not worried, that’s who’s not paying attention.”

He went on to talk about climate catastrophe. The scientists at his own facility had contributed to an international team that had recently published a study claiming that the planet was at risk of reaching “Hothouse Earth” conditions.

“And you feel guilty,” she observed. It wasn’t a question.

“Of course I feel guilty! Don’t you? Who doesn’t feel guilty? We’ve only known for how long–since I was in high school, back in the late 1970s, that we had to change, and change immediately, to keep this from happening. Did we? We didn’t! And look now. It’s happening in our lifetime!”

She felt his despair.

“Let’s right-size your feelings,” she said. “I’m not trying to minimize the catastrophe that stirs those feelings. But when we enter an emergency, that’s when we most need clarity, calm, and resilient fortitude. You do no one any good, even with all your power and resources, if you are a Magician reversed. Let’s get you right-side up, first, and then consider what you can actually do, besides letting yourself get ripped up by guilt, shame, and depression.”

“I’d feel even more guilty if I weren’t depressed,” he admitted.

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“Well, snap out of it,” she commanded. “First, did you, Geoffrey Landgraab, single-handedly create the state of climate catastrophe?”

“I drove a car! I live in a big house. My power company didn’t produce solar until five years ago. My wife uses plastic like you can’t believe!”

“That’s not what I asked. Did you single-handedly create this situation?”

“Single-handedly? Like, by myself? Alone? No.”

“Right. Me, neither. Now, did you contribute to this situation? Were you a participating part of a human system that created this climate catastrophe?”

“Part of it? Yes. Of course I was.”

“Right,” she said. “So was I. So am I still.” She waved towards the strings of light, the electric pump in the fish tank, the stacked washer and dryer, the fridge, stove, and even the candles. “I am part of it. And so is, I would venture to say, every living person on this planet.”

“Surely not!” Geoffrey protested. “Not some villager in the jungles of Borneo!”

“I would say every living person. What fuel is used for cooking and heating in a tiny village off the grid? Carbon-based fuel. Fire. What is the taproot of the problem? Over-population. If a person heats or cooks with any carbon-based fuel, they are contributing to the problem. Anyone who has more than two children who survive into adulthood contributes to the problem. This is a human-caused disaster, and every living human is part of the system that has created it.”

Geoffrey sat stunned. “I’m not willing to agree,” he said at last.

“But do you at least agree that you are one part of the problem, and not the entire problem itself?”

He did.

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“And a very small part, at that?”

“I am not so sure of that,” he said. She could see that it was hard for someone who owned so much to feel small, even when he was.

“Self-importance aside,” Calliope continued, “can you, single-handedly, fix this problem?”

“Of course not!” He admitted. “If I could, I would have! Decades ago!”

“Exactly,” she said. “So perhaps, a feeling of helplessness, and even despair, might be understandable. But guilt? Your guilt is way out of proportion.”

She rose and brewed a pot of tea from chamomile flowers and pine needles.

“You did not single-handedly create this. You cannot single-handedly fix it,” she said, pouring their tea. “But, just as you contributed to the problem, you can contribute to the solution, correct?”

His eyes flashed wide and the sclera was clear and white.

“Tell me how you already have contributed,” she said.

He talked about transforming the power company to solar, about using solar power in his own home, about driving as minimally as possible, and then, only driving his small electric Ford, which was drew its charge from the solar panels at his home and businesses. He talked about the scientists at his facility and the direction of their research program.

“You’ve done a lot,” she said.

“It’s not enough,” he said.

“No, not by a long ways.” She thought of the card The Fool, so dominant in his reading. “What more might you do?”

“I always thought I should go into politics,” he said. “My wife, Nancy, she scoffs whenever I bring it up.”

Calliope recalled the Queen of Swords reversed in the position of home in Geoffrey’s reading. “How would it feel to dethrone that criticism?” she asked.

Geoffrey smiled again. “Do you think I could? I may not have the charisma a politician needs,” he said, “but I know policy. I could write some damn effective policy. Do you think I’d win?”

“Even if you didn’t,” Calliope said, “what’s to lose? By campaigning, with curbing climate catastrophe as your platform, even if you don’t get elected, you bring this issue into the discussion. That’s a win, right there.”

“A win right there!” he echoed. “By golly! I’m going to do it! Will you be my campaign manager?”

She had to refuse. But she would serve as consultant to the newest candidate for representative of Congressional District 68.

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Lighthouse: The Wind is Sick

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During Naavre’s first eighteen months, I returned to my novel. I’d set it aside, without even intending, after Sept and I got together. Caught up in the romance of our first year together, the intensity of the rebel movement, the significance of our work with the refugees, the rewards of caring for Santi and helping Seb, on top of the physical and emotional demands of pregnancy, I’d all but forgotten it.

Xirra and Teko, who’d heard about the draft from Sept, asked after it often, encouraging me to resume writing. But it was Morning Joe who helped me see that, maybe, I had something to say and this novel was the vehicle for saying it. The ideas I wanted to write about weren’t just ideas to Morning Joe: they were core to his experience of life.

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While Santi spent the days at Seb’s school, and Naavre slept, and Sept washed load after load of laundry, or cooked our meals, or cleaned house, I sat at the computer, letting the moments of quiet weave through the household sounds of running water, a sweeping broom, the click of Mojo’s nails across the wooden floor, and the quiet thrum of the washing machine, and in that brook of silence, I found my words.

I realize now that I was writing for Naavre, too. Or rather, I was writing to bring into focus for me resilience. I knew our baby had been born on a planet with challenges we’d never faced before, and I wanted to excavate the layers of my words to discover what hid buried in the gneiss of spirit and intelligence. Could I uncover something to give me strength for raising a child in a crumbling epoch?

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During this time, Morning Joe became a regular part of our daily life, visiting often.

“He trusts you,” Sept said.

I deflected. “He likes all of us.”

“No, you hold a special place,” Sept said. “He met you first, and he trusts you in a way he doesn’t trust others. I can see it in his face.”

Before I returned to working on the novel, when I felt the need to take a break or get out for a bit, I’d often accompany Morning Joe to the garden center, the co-op, the farmer’s market. Once he asked me to go with him to the Romance Festival in the city. Would I be his “wingman?” I laughed. Where had he heard that term? From Luna Kari, no doubt, Mistress of Idioms.

He seemed unnerved by the crowd, even though most of the people we talked to were our friends.

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While I caught up with Masami, he stood off to the side. He began to whistle and click, a distress call in his home language.

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“Morning Joe?” I asked. “You OK?” I stood beside him. He stopped the whistle-clicks and steadied his breath.

He looked at me and smiled. “OK,” he said.

“You know Masami, right, Morning Joe? She’s a friend of ours and a friend of Ritu’s.”

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“Yes. Peace Garden friend.” He’d been working at Ritu’s Peace Garden for the past year and he and Masami’s shifts often coincided. “Masami, hi!”

“Good evening, Morning Joe!” she laughed.

“Evening morning,” he chuckled.

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They began talking of the kale seedlings that had sprouted yesterday.

“Cute baby greens!” Morning Joe gushed. “Juicy-sweet! Very proud, little green!”

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“Ready for the festival?” I asked Morning Joe, when he finally ran out of praise for the seedlings and Masami wandered towards the displays of roses and hellebores.

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He glanced at the people sipping tea, ordering from food stalls, throwing rose petals, and shook his head.

“Here,” he said, nodding to the lounge across the street. I followed him in.

The place was empty, with everyone at the festival. He walked up to the stage and selected a song. I seem to recall it was Neil Sedaka’s “Laughter in the Rain.”

He sang over the orchestration, but he didn’t sing the words or even the melody. He sounded like mockingbirds and crickets.

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“That was beautiful,” I said when he finished and joined me at the table.

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“From home,” he said. “When very young. Like Santi. Before. Before they come for me.”

“Your home must have sounded magical, if that’s what the singing is like.”

“That song. It is the song the papa sing to the mama. When they want to grow family. I feel that song. I feel to sing it. I sing it. From here.” He touched his chest. “But no one come to reply. My no grow family here.”

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“I am sorry, Morning Joe,” I said. “I wish someone had answered your song. Maybe some day.”

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“No,” he replied. “I am only one. No one here for family growing.”

I knew little about his home planet then, only the brief bits that Luna Kari had told me. What I know about Pu!’Re I learned later, mostly from Teko and Xirra, for Morning Joe didn’t like to talk about his personal and planetary history.

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He came from the ancient peace-loving hunter-gatherer culture of Pu!’Re, a planet illuminated by eleven moons back in the distant regions of the Kfvico’kyastorr empire. When Pu!’Re was colonized, the Kfvico’kyastorr (or Cookie Store, as we call them), identified the people as the planet’s primary natural resource. Every eighth year, the Cookie Store harvested the crop–20-50% of the children, who were stolen from their families to provide slave labor. Morning Joe was one of these, kidnapped to work in the gardens of the elite.

When I asked about his home that day, or what families were like where he came from, I hadn’t realize the pain this would stir.

“All nature to me–all that natural, all is nothing,” he said.

If I had known more then, I wouldn’t have asked. I would have waited and listened, which is what I did once I understood how deeply he was hurting.

“If I go home–I cannot go home. If I go home, it is no more. It is for my mother, my father. It is not for me. I been taken. I here. This where I stay. This home. I cannot grow family here. It is me. It is Luna Kari. It is OK. It is not OK.”

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He said he felt peace when he worked in the garden. He even felt happy. He felt happy when he was with our family. He explained that he could even accept that he could never fulfill his longing to “grow” a family of his own by settling into his love for this planet.

But then he said, “The wind is sick. And new home is to lose, additionally.”

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The wind is sick? I asked if he meant the jet stream and the collapsing polar vortex. He nodded.

“In garden, I feel this. The kale. They grow today. Tomorrow? No rain. Or too much rain. Tomorrow, no kale.”

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I explained that it wasn’t the first climate change that this planet had seen. Perhaps it’s the most tragic, for being preventable.

“It could have been avoided,” I said. “Enough people knew, before the tipping point. And that makes the tragedy of it such that it can’t even be compared to the previous ones, even with their mass extinctions.”

“What lost?” he asked. “In previous?”

I listed what I could remember: the graptolites of the end of the Ordovician, the trilobites from the Devonian, the tabulite corals of the Permian, the jawless eels of the Triassic, the ammonites of the Cretaceous.

“What lasts?” He asked. “What not lost?”

I told him about cyanobacteria, ocean dwellers believed to have existed since shortly after the creation of the planet. “They survived all the mass extinctions,” I told him. I shared my fascination. Before I knew it, I’d started telling him about my novel. This was before I made the commitment to return to it. As I began talking about the woolly mammoths and the bacteria that reproduced through cloning so that, genetically, the individual bacteria still alive, those that had survived all five mass extinctions, and would likely, possibly survive this sixth, were still, genetically, identical to the very first that swam the seas in the early epochs of this planet, I discovered my passion. I felt an itch through me, and only one thing would let me scratch it: writing this novel.

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“The story is sad,” he said. “I am sad. It is sad. But it is the story for you to tell. You will tell it. You write it. Luna Kari read it. She tell it to me. We remember the woolly mammoth. We think like the cyanobacteria. The story sad. Strong.”

“Do you really think I should write it, Morning Joe?” I asked. “It’s not totally crazy?”

“No,” he said. “This crazy. Story good. In ocean now, cyanobacteria?”

“Yes,” I said. “They’re also called blue-green algae. They’re everywhere, in water all over the planet.”

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Morning Joe grew very quiet. We talked little on the ferry ride back. When he hugged me good-bye as the ferry pulled up to the dock at Magnolia, he whispered to me, “I think of what lasts.” And he whistled and clicked as he walked up the dock. He turned, before the ferry pulled into the bay to take me home, and he smiled. “Life!” he shouted. “Life!”

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Author’s note: More information about the species mentioned from the five mass extinctions can be found in Viviane Richter’s article “The big five mass extinctions,” posted in Cosmos Magazine.

Lighthouse: Too Early Spring

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I had some trouble finding my way in the back country, in spite of my self-professed talent with topographical maps.

I had to follow deer trails up there, generally not a problem, but I hadn’t counted on them criss-crossing quite so much.

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When the ranger had stopped by the night before, he’d warned me about this.

“I can take you up there myself,” he said, “but not until Saturday. Can’t leave my post before then.”

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His connection with Ritu and the refugee program was personal, not professional, and he didn’t want to risk alerting anyone to the transfers that had been happening across federal property.

“I’m not sure I should wait that long,” I said. We’d heard reports of AAC riots planned for the weekend, so we wanted to be home well before then.

“All right,” he said. “Just use common sense, then. Don’t get hurt. Don’t get injured.”

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I gained confidence when I spotted Finger Rock. Below it was a crevice through the granite, and if I could climb through it, I’d come out in the high meadow where Ritu’s friend lived, just beyond the national park border.

This was the first winterless year we had. It was February, and already, what little snow had fallen in late December and early January had melted from all but the highest peaks. Bird song broadcast an early breeding season, and wildflowers bloomed two months too early.

In spite of my better wisdom, I got caught up in the excitement of early spring—-the sun, the songs, the blooms, the whispers of warmth, it was hard not to feel alive and vibrant, though I knew that this disruption of normal patterns signaled nothing good to come, even for those very chickadees and warblers now celebrating spring.

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The significance hit me when I arrived in the high country to see the shrubs already in leaf.

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A tidy cabin with a well-cared-for alpine garden stood at the far end of the meadow, across from the sign marking the park border.

This was where Ritu’s friend lived. This was where I’d meet the refugee.

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There was no one home.

Tired from the trek, I lay down in the meadow, near the cabin. I’d hear them when they came back.

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A peregrine flew overhead. It was early for them to be in their high country range.

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I heard a child’s laughter. When I looked, there stood a little girl, who looked like a fairy dressed for a camping trip. She must be the daughter of Ritu’s friend, I figured. She ran off through the meadow and behind the trees before I could ask her where her mother was.

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I walked until I came to a circle of boulders enclosing a mountain herb garden. Tending the wild mustard was an older woman, dressed in well-patched clothes. This was Rachel.

Sometimes you can tell when you first see someone that they will become your friend. That’s how I felt with Rachel.

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I didn’t even have to explain myself. She knew who I was and why I’d come. Ritu had left word once Sept and I made our plans.

“They usually don’t stay,” she said, “when they’re arrive here. This is a good landing place, you see. No one to notice the distant lights, no one to see them being dropped off, except maybe the back country ranger, but then, he’s one of us, isn’t he?”

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Rachel had helped about half a dozen refugees by that point. Usually, she kept them for a few days, long enough to acclimatize to the atmosphere, to help them adjust their disguises, to brush up on their language skills, and to review a few safety points and cultural conventions. Then, she walked them back to the park to where the ranger met them, and he arranged their transport back to one of Ritu’s pick-ups.

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“But this one’s different,” she said. “This one needs a special touch.”

The little fairy girl joined us. I decided she must be Rachel’s granddaughter or great niece, not child, after all.

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Rachel turned to her and began speaking Vingihoplo. I caught the word gotukoda, home, and sanghi, safe.

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“This is Santi,” Rachel said, and I understood then why this refugee could not travel alone.

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Sintuliyu dastaliyu!” Santi said, using the traditional rebel greeting: peaceful day.

Sintu!” I said back.

The concept of sintu doesn’t directly translate to what we think of as “peace.” If peace were active–the making of peace, the partaking of peace, peace as the condition for life and energy and harmony, then it would come closer. I thought of the old hippie Super 8 films I’d seen shot at peace rallies, with “Peace,” as a greeting, shouted like a call to action. That was closer to what sintu expressed.

Santi raced off again.

“She’s happy here,” Rachel said, “but she knows she can’t stay.”

We walked slowly back to Rachel’s cabin.

“What do you know of the girl?” she asked.

I admitted I knew nothing, only that she needed safe escort to a sanctuary. We didn’t know then where she was headed, only that we’d bring her to our home, and from there, Ritu and Xirra could arrange for her to get to where she’d be staying.

“Do you know why she’s here?” Rachel asked. “Why she had to leave?”

I repeated that I knew nothing about her.

“She was a minstrel–in the medieval sense, not the Vaudeville sense–a court musician. She’s a clone of a type of extra-terrestrial that’s almost preternaturally talented at music, and she was created to provide a form of living entertainment for the elite.”

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“Was she treated alright?” I asked.

“Oh, yes!” said Rachel. “Like one would treat a high-tech stereo. A valuable piece of property.”

“She had no freedom, then?” I asked.

“She was bizoo,” said Rachel. “You know what that means to the Mainstreamers, don’t you?”

I know now. Most of my life has been spent in the cause of bringing freedom to bizoobi, and I’ve heard more stories than I’ve let myself remember. But at the time, though Sept had told me what fate would have awaited him if Situ hadn’t taken action, I hadn’t yet integrated what I’d heard with my construct of reality.

“She was found to be dangerous,” Rachel said, “subversive. So she was scheduled to be decommissioned–slaughtered, with others no longer fit to serve.”

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“What is subversive about that little girl?” I asked.

“Her music.”

Santi had begun to play on a small white violin. The beauty of the violin is that it’s not inherently diatonic–it’s not bound to fixed tones or scales. Santi played music like I’d never heard before, dancing in between tones, sliding up and down pitch. The music followed its own sense and pattern, and as I listened it unwound feelings and emotions within me.

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“But it’s beautiful!” I said.

“Exactly,” said Rachel.

“It’s soulful.”

“Precisely,” Rachel replied. “And you know what Mainstreamers believe about bizoobi.”

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“That they have no soul,” I answered.

“Exactly,” said Rachel. “And so how could music like that come from a being without a soul?”

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Author’s note: Who is this child and what tribe does she come from? You’ll have to keep reading to find out more, but to catch all the harmonies, you might want to also be sure that you’re reading SuperKyle’s We Belong to the Song. Many thanks to Kyle for the Sim that Santi comes from and for the ideas that she embodies.

Lighthouse: Entrust

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I’ve always wondered if it was because I was the one sent to fetch Santi that she became so important to me. Or maybe it’s because, true to her name, she offers the healing properties of music.

Of course, I was primed to step into a mother’s role. Shortly before I left to pick up Santi, Momo and her family came, delivering one of their pups, now fully grown, to Octy. Being near Momo and her daughters was bound to get me dreaming of a daughter of our own.

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And then there was Sebastion’s surprise.

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There’s nothing like the scent of a newborn to get maternal instincts flowing. And that Septemus’s new baby sister had pale skin and iridescent scales only intensified my desire for our own extra-terrestrial daughter to cuddle.

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Septemus’s Truth #42 holds that when things happen is when they are meant to happen. Sept has told me since then that he wants to revise it to “when things happen is when they happen.” I say it’s the same difference, but he asserts that no, the distinction is subtle but essential.

Nevertheless, at that time, I firmly believed that things happened when they were meant to happen. I could apply this to everything in my life, and it held up, so it became truth for me.

My hormones combined with my belief in the providential timing of a beneficent universe, and I was primed to respond when Xirra told us of the refugee stranded in Granite Falls.

“We should both go,” Sept said. “I’ve always wanted to visit the mountains. We can bring Mojo, or he can stay here with Elui. Let’s do it!”

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Sept couldn’t go–of that I was convinced. This was the time when the Anti-Alien Coalition, the AAC, first began holding protests (more like riots) against extraterrestrial refugees, diplomats, immigrants, and citizens.

“It’s not safe!” I said. “You know the towns the bus travels through. I don’t care how good you look as Max. If they find out who you really are, you could be attacked!”

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Sept had to admit I had a point.

He was quiet for a minute. “I like doing things together best,” he said. “You’ve been great helping out with Ritu. At the same time, I guess I always thought this was my project, and that you were pitching in for me. Isn’t it selfish of me to ask you to go to such trouble as this trip would be?”

“I kind of see it as our project,” I said. “It’s important to me, too. Of course it’s important to me because it’s important to you. But it’s also important to me for my own reasons. You know, social justice and all that.”

Sept laughed. “My beautiful activist wife!”

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I winked.

“Would it be sexist of me if I said you couldn’t go because you needed to stay to keep your old moon-man company?” he clowned.

“Yes,” I flirted back, “but in a very cute and endearing way.”

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We got serious then, because there was so much to plan.

Xirra hadn’t told us much, only that the refugee, who was too young to travel on her own, stayed with Ritu’s contact up in the back country. I said I’d get a topographical map from the ranger when I got there.

“Do you know how to read a topographical map?” Sept asked.

I did. I’d studied natural history at college, and that was a required skills in the field.

“That’s impressive,” said Sept. “I guess you’re much more equipped to go than me.”

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It didn’t hit me until I was on the bus, heading through the desert below the foothills, how much I would miss Sept. This was my first time to be apart from him for any length of time since our first date.

I knew this region well. We’d spent a few weeks here and up in the mountains during field quarter when I was in college.

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It was easy to fall into the rhythms of its shifting light.

The land was sparsely populated. A few ranches nestled into the valley, and the ranching town lay a few miles back.

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I sat in the rear of the bus, gazing out the window at the light on the rocks.

It was easy to fool myself into the illusion of harmony.

The passengers near me talked of shopping at Target for new tennis shoes for their daughters, entering their one-year-old heifers in the 4-H fair, and the return of Roseanne to TV.

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Lulled by the mundane, domestic conversations, I began to suspect we’d been paranoid in thinking Sept had anything to fear.

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“Johnson said another one of those blue people stopped by the store the other week,” said the grandma in the seat in front of me.

“Naw. Really? At the General Store?” said the woman next to her.

“That’s the one. Even with the sign. Of course he didn’t sell him anything. Just pointed to the exit.”

“Well, I hope they cleaned up the shop well afterwards,” the woman said. “No telling what kind of alien bugs those types carry!”

They switched the conversation back to the grandchild’s prospects for college.

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So, we weren’t paranoid. The sentiment against extra-terrestrials, especially in rural areas like this, ran strong.

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It wasn’t simply the unknown. It was a cauldron of fears brought on by a shifting world. Global climate change, even back then, exerted economic and environmental pressures. Those who relied on the land for their livelihood felt it most keenly. In parts of the world, these pressures led to political unrest and extreme poverty. Entire populations were being displaced, ending up in the countries that hadn’t yet felt it so strongly.

People said things like, “We’ve not even got enough for the people of our own planet. We shouldn’t expect to have to take in aliens who’ve got the whole universe. Let them shove off and move on!”

That became the cry at the demonstrations: “Shove off and move on!”

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All summer, demonstrations had been held across the country and oversees. “Shove off and move on!” None of them had been peaceful. Many cities and towns, like ours, designated themselves, officially or on a grass-roots level, as sanctuaries, and we remained free of protests, welcoming all who came. But we were the pockets of haven in a hostile world.

The grandmother and the woman got off at a small town at the base of the mountains. The only passengers on the bus were a man with fly-fishing gear and a few backpackers who’d stitched onto their packs the symbol of xenophilia: the infinity sign and the numeral one.

I let myself find the current of peace in the evening mist that settled over the forest, and I wondered about this world in which the young refugee I was coming to fetch had found herself.

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Lighthouse: The First Truth

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Within a few weeks, Max and I fell into the type of close friendship that happens between two very different people who find themselves gliding on very similar currents.

At the beginning of each shift, he greeted me with a hug and a friendly word.

“This is how I make a good day great,” he’d say, or something just as sweet.

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I tried not to let on how that how much I savored these moment, though I’m sure, every now and then, he heard my unrestrainable sigh.

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I started hanging out at the Culpepper during my off hours. It felt good to be around someone who always acted happy to see me, and I came to crave being listened to the way only Max can listen.

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I’d been telling him about my novel. Writing it led me into dark places. “When tundra becomes forest, it spells doom,” I said. “We think of forests as vibrant places, full of songbirds and cute little mammals. But what of all the individuals that were displaced? Where do they go? What happens to the species? It’s genomic meltdown.”

I shared with him my theory that all the previous climate changes had laid the foundation for this one–I meant this literally. For what drove this current climate change? The burning of fossil fuels. And what created the vast deposits of petroleum? The mass extinctions of past climate change.

He didn’t laugh. He called my theory genius.

When he saw how mournful I became talking about this, he told me he had something he wanted me to read.

“I think you’ll find it useful,” he said, “and at the very least, it will make me happy if you read it.”

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He wrote down the URL: 77truths.wordpress.com.

I looked it up that evening.

The first truth:

I am not my body.

My body forms a container for me. It helps to establish the context of my experience. When cared for, it can provide a good home.

But my body is not me.

I wasn’t sure I agreed. I had always held that everything I am, everything I feel, results from my corporal existence. I have sensations: from the nerves in my body. I can act: when my body does what I ask. I think: because my brain, which is part of my body, fires specific synapses. I am happy, sad, attracted, pleased, upset, angry, embarrassed, anxious, nervous, worried, joyful, blissed out: because specific hormones and brain chemistry flood my body. Even consciousness, my dad had taught me, can be reduced to a function of the brain in my body.

When my body ceases to exist, I cease to exist.

That’s what I believed then.

Still, if Max felt that this was important enough to share with me, I would continue to consider it. I could keep the foundation of my own experience firm and solid while still considering this perspective. Just because I considered something didn’t mean I had to believe it.

If I were going to consider this, I’d better know who wrote it. I clicked the “About” tab and scrolled down to find the author’s name and photo: Septemus Sevens. An alien.

What could an alien know about what it means to be a human on this planet?

I confronted Max about it when I saw him the next day.

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“Hey, I checked out that website,” I said. “It’s written by an alien.”

“And that makes a difference how?” he asked.

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Did it make a difference? My father was a bigoted man, and he’d raised me. His current prejudiced ire landed smack on the aliens. We hadn’t had any in our neighborhood, but everyday, in the years when I lived at home, he’d pull out some newspaper article talking about some wild conspiracy theory that featured aliens as the culprits.

I let my dad’s prejudice roll right off me. It was obvious, and so it was easy to avoid. My mother’s bigotry was harder to evade. She would make subtle comments, and it was only later–even years and decades later–that I finally unpacked them and set them aside.

At the time of this conversation, I hadn’t even begun to explore the layers of sediment that my familial and societal conditioning had deposited within me.

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I’d decided early in my friendship with Max that I’d share my opinions freely. I didn’t want a conversational censor operating when we talked.

“OK,” I began. “One: the author is not from around here, not even remotely. Two: how does he even know what our bodies are like? He’s probably got like three lungs or something, and totally different hormones and synapses and all that. Three: just–if I’m going to take spiritual advice from somebody, I’m going to take it from somebody who knows what it’s like to be a person on this planet, with all our struggles and challenges. I’m not taking it from some blue alien.”

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“The preferred term is extraterrestrial,” Max said.

“OK, then! From some extraterrestrial.”

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“But what did you think of the words,” he asked softly, “before you knew who wrote them? Did you even consider them?”

I had to answer truthfully. “I’m still in the process of considering them,” I replied. “They go against everything I’ve studied, everything I’ve learned, and even all of my personal experiences. For example, if I didn’t have a body, how could I be here talking with you now?”

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He chuckled. “It doesn’t say, ‘My body isn’t valuable.’ Or ‘my body doesn’t make it possible for me to have a physical existence.’ It just says, ‘I am not my body.’ If I’m not my body–just consider it–then who am I?”

Just consider it. I felt remorseful for having used a term he didn’t like, and then for have dismissed the author outright, when Max was so sincere.

“OK,” I said. “I have been considering it, and I’ll continue to consider it. I’ll take all afternoon to consider it. How does that sound?”

He laughed. “All afternoon sounds ample to process a truth that probably took six months to formulate and sixteen years to germinate!”

At least he was laughing.

“No hard feelings?” I asked.

“None!” he replied. “Of course not!”

“Good!” I shouted. “I wouldn’t want some blue alie–extraterrestrial to come between us!”

He chuckled. “I don’t think that will happen!”

I started clowning. “Beep! Boop! I’m from Planet Tricksidome! Take me to your nearest coffee shop!”

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I decided to spend the afternoon walking. I’ve always done my best considering when walking under the sun.

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I followed Mojo, a stray that had befriended Max, towards the path that circled the pond.

If Mojo is not his body, then what is he?

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When Mojo’s body is gone, where will he be?

What of the calico cat? What of the man in the blue plaid? What of my coworker Anya?

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What of the woolly mammoths? Their bodies never actually stopped being. They simply transformed into and through bacteria, becoming broken down into soil, plants, trees. Nothing ever ends.

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I followed the low path along the cattails and took in the swamp smells.

What makes this scent? The sulfur and methane produced by the anaerobic bacteria that breakdown dead matter. This is the smell of bodies, plant and animal, transforming.

I’d always thought of it as the smell of death, but maybe it was also the smell of life.

I am not my body.

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Then what am I? And what will I become? The smell of sulfur? The continual process of breaking down, transforming, becoming something else?

I walked in silence along the creek towards the sea. Around one curve, I passed the carcass of a calf, half-eaten by wild coyote-dogs.

The calf isn’t his body: he is, by now, the bodies of the members of a pack of canines.

But there is something more.

What fuels transformation?

What is it that is behind this continuing cycle of change? What creates the movement?

Light sparkled through the grasses–not the sunlight, but something else, some other light that shone through each blade of grass.

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I sat on a log at the edge of the beach and listened to the waves. I looked towards the lighthouse.

I am not this cloud. I am not this flower. I am not these blades of grass, this spark of sunlight, this shine of wave, these shimmering birch trees. I am not the flock of sandpipers crossing the sands. I am not my body. I am everything.

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I didn’t have an answer, but in the not-having-an-answer, my mind became still as I sat on the log and the waves rolled, after, after, one and the other, and none of us were anything in that particular moment.

<< Previous | Next >>

 

Lighthouse: At the End of the World

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Max Culper ran the Culpepper Café, otherwise known as “The Café at the End of the World.” The name held no special distinction, for every place in this town, even the town itself, was referred to as being “at the end of the world.”

It felt like the end of the world here, partly because it sat on the coast, so, literally, at the edge of the continent.

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And partly because the borders not surrounded by sea were surrounded by pastures, which fell into forests,  which ran up to mountains, and so, tucked into this tiny town, we felt cut off from everything, everywhere, and everyone else.

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Mostly we felt we perched at the end of the world because, quite simply, most of the county would be underwater when the climate-change lottery rolled our number. The town stood a few feet, at most, above sea level, waiting like a culvert to be flooded by the predicted ten-to-fifteen foot rise in sea level that could happen anytime in the next one to five decades. Once Pine Island Glacier melted, the café, the town square, and the miles of boardwalk would be frequented by fish. Only the lighthouse would remain, shining its beam across the wide sea.

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This last-chance feel to the region attracted me. Once the insurance companies cancelled flood-hazard coverage to most of the property in the county, established families moved out and folks like me moved in. We trucked in a Bohemian jive to this isolated burg that, when I arrived, boasted more cats and dogs than people.

The exodus of regular-types also made it easy for me to get a job at the café.

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The position suited me fine. Fresh out of college, I was in no hurry to start a typical career. I had a novel I had to write. And if that took off, then maybe I’d never have to get the style of job my parents wanted for me, the kind where I had to wear a suit, stride in sensible shoes, and carry a briefcase. I liked my café apron and Che Guevara cap better.

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My schedule afforded long uninterrupted stretches for writing, and even during my shifts, while a wrinkle in my frontal lobe calculated the details of filling orders, the plot-lines of my novel freely grazed the vast plains of my parietal lobe. It was an intricate and highly problematic story, which had to do with woolly mammoths and the end of the ice age. Climate change and global extinctions fascinated me, and what better way to find the resilience needed to face head-on the looming catastrophes of the present than by spinning tales about the disasters of the past?

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For a writer, working at a café also delivered plenty of time for people-watching and plenty of quirky people to watch. We attracted an eclectic, offbeat group of regulars. Most of them lived in other towns, but thanks to low lodging rates, this was a favorite getaway destination.

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Of course, better than all those perks was working for Max.

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I correctly predicted the moment I met him that I’d fall for him. He was my type: mop-top hair; lean, graceful build; bedroom eyes; pouty lips; and so, so gay.

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It wasn’t just the mannerisms–I’d learned to watch the gaze. His never fell on me.

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Since high school, I’d made a practice of falling for gay guys. It was easier, frankly. Unrequited, I could enjoy the excitement of butterflies and giggles without ever venturing into the marshlands of reciprocity.

Max and I became instant friends, and what did it matter if one of us happened to get a rush off the other? I wasn’t using him. Or, OK, maybe I was. But I kept my habit to myself, so no harm done. At least, that’s how I rationalized it. To make up for it, I was the best employee I could be.

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Max lived above the café. I lived in the neighborhood, and most nights, my evening walk took me past the Culpepper Café. I used to stand at the edge of the plaza, looking up at the windows, trying to guess what rooms lay behind which and hoping for a glimpse of my employer standing before any.

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I tried to time my arrival to work to get there when he was returning from his early morning walk. I liked to watch him enter the building.

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If I was lucky, he’d stop to talk before heading back to the office nook. But even if he didn’t, if I craned my neck, I could catch him concentrating at the computer.

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I had no idea back then what made his brow furrow. I thought it was the stack of bills on his desk, the rising cost of coffee beans as more and more fair trade coffee farms succumbed to slash-and-burn economies, or the reliance on child labor in the chocolate industry.

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I wanted, even back in those early days, to get to know him well enough that he might confide his worries to me.

My coworker Anya knew him well. “Since he was a little tot,” she said. I pressed her for information, but she revealed nothing.

“There’s a reason he trusts me enough to let me work here,” she said, “and loose lips aren’t why.”

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When my shift was slow, I’d sometimes watch him glide through the café with his ballet-dancer’s long strides. As he approached my station, I’d think through a dozen things I might say to build trust between us. I could be a good confidant.

But in the end, every time, when I saw his enigmatic grin, words would flee and I’d smile dumbly back.

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After all, a good mystery was the best incentive of all to staying motivated at this job, and back then, keeping that job had become paramount to me.

Next >>

Author’s note: This is the first chapter of Lighthouse, the sequel to Septemus, My Son.

Dr. Jasmine’s Casebook: Just Like A Vacation

This story was written for the September 2017 Monthly Short Story Writing Challenge held by our writing community at the EA Forums. If you write SimLit, we’d love to have you join us! We have a new challenge each month.

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“Pack your things!” Deidre called.

“Where’re we going?” Edgar asked.

“Didn’t you hear, doofus?” Tiana said. “It’s a mandatory evacuation.”

“I don’ want to go,” Edgar said.

“Just think of it as a vacation,” said Tiana.

“But it’s not even stormy.”

The sky had turned an eerie gold, and the bay, though calm on the surface, roiled in its depths. Hurricane Kali was expected to make landfall in 38 hours. The forecast track targeted a direct hit on the city.

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Shelters had been set up in schools, gyms, and the convention center.

Deidre surveyed the rows of cots.

“No way in Hell we’re staying here,” she swore. “How am I supposed to keep my babies safe sleeping next to strangers?”

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They had enough gas to make it across the bridge. Maybe they could refuel in Newcrest or, if their pumps were dry, in Magnolia Promenade.

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One look at the lines at the gas stations along Newcrest strip, and Deidre kept driving.

“Mama! I gotta pee!” Edgar said as they reached the turnoff for Magnolia Promenade.

Tiana took her little brother to the restroom while Deidre filled the tank.

Store windows were boarded up.

The family took a stroll along the river path to stretch their legs before getting back in the car.

“All of this will be flooded,” Tiana said. “Think so?”

“Likely,” replied Deidre. Magnolia Promenade sat below sea level.

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“And what about these trees?” Tiana asked. “Think they’ll all be blown down?”

“Most likely so,” said Deidre.

“Awesome,” said Tiana. “Like the apocalypse.”

“What’s an Apoca?” asked Edgar.

“The end of the world,” said Tiana.

“Don’t scare your brother,” warned Deidre.

 

Tiana had to pee when they reached Willow Creek. People had set up tents in the park and were grilling burgers as if it were a Fourth of July Barbecue.

“Can we stay here, Ma?” Tiana asked. “They got free Wi-Fi.”

Deidre glanced over her shoulder towards the creek. When the levee breaks, this will all be underwater, she thought.

“No. We’re moving on.”

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“Where we going?” Edgar asked in the car.

“I thought we’d go to the mountains,” Deidre said.

“Great,” replied Tiana. “Where all the forest fires are.”

“Will you look up the air quality?” Deidre asked.

Tiana pulled out her phone.

“Oh. It’s OK. They had a cold front and rain. The air’s good now.”

The wheels hummed over the pavement, clicking now and then as they passed over the cracks in the blacktop. The rhythm carried a sense of calm, in spite of the circumstances.

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“Wish I had a Tea Cake,” said Tiana.

“What’s that?” asked Deidre.

“I want tea! I want cake!” yelled Edgar from the back seat.

“Like Janie,” said Tiana. “To ride out the storm with.”

Her sophomore English class was reading Their Eyes Were Watching God. Deidre chuckled.

She had her own Tea Cake back when the last big storm crashed into the city, sixteen years ago. Matter of fact, that’s likely when Tiana had been conceived.

“Just as well you don’t,” said Deidre. “There’s plenty of time for all that.”

“It’s gonna be a cat ten,” said Tiana, checking the #HurricaneKali tweets on her phone.

“No such thing,” said Deidre. “Doesn’t go past five.”

“Still. If it did. There’s this boy in my class who’s this major league climate-change-denier. His parents are mega rich. They live right on the bay. All their windows face the water! I hope their house gets smashed.”

“Tiana! That’s a terrible thing to say, and an even worse thing to think!”

“It would serve him right.”

“Don’t ever.”

“OK. But still. You gotta admit that’d be some beautiful irony.”

They drove on in silence.

They reached the mountains after nightfall. Edgar slept in the back seat while Deidre and Tiana pitched the tent in the dark. They were too tired to fix a meal, so they snacked on granola bars, bottled water, and Starbursts for supper.

Deidre woke before dawn the next morning to grill a proper breakfast.

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They charged their phones at the Visitors’ Center. When they weren’t hiking, fishing, and pretending to be on vacation, Deidre and Tiana followed the tweets about the storm.

Edgar chased butterflies, looked for salamanders under rotting logs, made bows and arrows out of twigs and branches, and hunted for arrowheads in old midden mounds.

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Hurricane Kali, aptly named, was the first category five to make landfall in the city. For decades, the city council failed to enact a storm water plan, ignoring the recommendations of experts. Instead, codes were lax and construction boomed. The storm brought widespread flooding, collapsed the sewage system, tore bricks and decks and tiles off of buildings. The entire power grid went down, and it would likely be weeks before it could be restored.

“How bad is it?” Deidre asked her daughter.

“Pretty bad,” Tiana replied.

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Deidre called a neighbor who was staying with parents in Oasis Springs.

“That bad, huh?” she said, after she got the report.

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“How bad?” asked Tiana.

“Our apartment building was condemned,” said Deidre.

“What are we gonna do?” asked Tiana.

Deidre had next month’s rent already saved up, but there’d be no way they’d get back their deposit. She was sure that skinflint landlord would file for bankruptcy.

“Guess we’ll have to start over,” she said. “How do you feel about the desert?”

For now, they stayed at camp, trying to relax and beat the stress.

“It really is like being on vacation!” said Edgar.

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And it was. Except when it was over, they wouldn’t be going home. They’d be starting new.