Pages 28 – 30

He threw his empty beer can to the ground and I watched it roll, the thin scratch of it against the concrete floor crackling against the still air. We were both silent watching the can finish its roll and then, without ceremony, Doc stood offering me his hand, walked me out of the room and back into the warmth of his color filled house. I noticed the large sweat stains on the back of his shirt as I followed him down the hallway stopping when he stopped in the foyer.

He pulled a small bag from the floor. I looked inside at the clothes from the closet neatly folded and stacked at the bottom. On top of the clothes were the grey chuck taylor sneakers and he let me balance a hand on his shoulder as I slide the shoes on my feet.

Doc opened the front door and the complete darkness outside was disorienting. I focused on the sounds of the night. The steady rumble of people living their life knowing I would try and be one of them.

Before I had a chance to reason why I was hugging him, my arms wrapped tight around his neck. He only chuckled his arms folding around me, his mouth lightly brushing the top of my hair.

“Good luck to you.” He kissed my cheek pulling away. “I do believe this will be the last time we’ll ever see each other.”

I nodded knowing intuitively he was right….(there are a few sentences here that I can’t make out, sorry)…

I walked out into the darkness. The door clicked shut behind me. I never looked back and I never saw him again.

My head was throbbing as I walked through Doc’s stale yard towards my car. I wasn’t sure if it was the aftermath of the cleansing, the effects of guzzling two beers or the combination of both. I rubbed my forehead gently with my fingers and thought how quickly everything can change. How quickly your life can be something so different than anything you could have ever imagined.

I remembered how I used to believe in fantasy things, devour books about vampires, werewolves, shapeshifters, witches, fairies and everything in-between. How I had lullabyed myself with ideas of how much easier life would be if I wasn’t human. It had been romantic, enticing. Now it was aggravating. I would throw all those books away, burn them if I could. I would pass them in bookstores and hide the new releases behind cookbooks or accounting software. I shook my head gently, trying to steady the pulsing there, and wondered if the people writing those books had any idea how very wrong they were.

I rememberd the truth as Sara had told it on the night I’d made my choice. The reality of the balance, like a giant scale controlling everything. The existence of  those fighting to tilt the scale in one direction and the others fighting for the opposite. She’d explained the control of the balance and the work of Persuasion – the art of swaying a soul – as the result of every decision, thought, and choice. Enough activity and a soul is marked. A mark cannot be changed. That will determine the end of everything.

I remembered coming to the frightening realization that the apocalypse will have nothing to do with mythic beings or anything make-believe. It will come down to a counting of regular people. Of marks. Of souls.

My Josh was born a Taram. He was bred to work in Persuasion and to be a cloaked. He always said I must have been too. I don’t know if I believe him or if it even matters. I’d met him on the third day of training. He’d been simultaneously eating an apple and an ice cream cone and I couldn’t help but stare as he orchestrated the two. My eyes had continued to follow him as he’d looked up and without the slightest hesitation walked over and sat beside me. Tossing the apple core so it arched high in the air before landing with a thump into the trash he said he’d never been stared at by such a beautiful girl before. I didn’t believe him. Both the beautiful part and the never been stared at part. He seemed like the type very used to being stared at, midnight and smooth, impossibly tall, hair falling just past his shoulders in thick velvet locs, eyes dark and clear, smile easy and genuine with dimples so deep they’d seemed branded into his face.

He’d become my first true friend. He was gorgeous but the idea of making it more seemed cheap, seemed too easy for what we were meant to be to each other. He became a reflection of the best parts of me. Beyond silly things held together by flowers, love songs, plans of everything just right that crumble when they inevitably aren’t. We were destined. We were forever. We fell into an easy ritual. At lunch he would bring me an ice cream cone to share. At night we stayed up practicing training sequences and talking about everything. His girlfriends. My lack of boyfriends. The lives we had before ending up where we were.

He’d made me laugh imitating Sara during class or the girls who lined up to watch when he walked from the shower. When I first got to Essex and the memories of my past were sneaky and resilient he would sleep near me at night, wrapping his arms around me to keep me from floating away. He would recite Pablo Neruda in my ear or play Outkast through his portable ipod speaker and I would find reason to smile.  I thought he was perfection in every way. That he was truth.

We’d sparred frequently. Some would say too frequently. Training required an equal emphasis on combat and persuasion but we were drawn to fighting. He was impossibly crisp in his movements, inventive and ridiculously fast. He’d been my choice for the Kachina. He was a birthright. His fighting skills rivaled my own and he seemed to know more of the teachings than the elders themselves. It became an inside joke. The two of us best friends doomed to battle for the fate of the world. We’d joked while we sparred teasing that a failed move had just cost the universe. We’d called each other Armageddon laughing between bites of ice cream and apples.

Pages 21 – 27

Sorry for the delay in getting this posted folks, I completely got caught up in the haze of Thanksgiving turkey and stuffing and accompanying naps and all together laziness. Moving forward, I’m going to work to stick to my schedule of posting about twice a week until we work through this thing. Thanks for hanging in there with me!

I thought in the dark and silence I would think – think about what else needed to happen, about the pain that was coming,  about if I was crazy to even be trying to do what I was trying to do. Think about Josh and wonder if he thought about me. Think about Sara and if she was still looking for me, if I would wake up in the morning and she would be here trying to take me back. Instead I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow, feeling surprisingly safe in the strangers house.

Bribed by the smell of strong coffee I peeled one eye open, then the other. A steaming purple mug rested on the nightstand. The room was new-light bright, sunlight refracting off every surface throwing prisms against the smooth walls. I sat up in bed sipping the coffee and nibbling on the buttered toast resting on a saucer beside it. Rubbing crumbs from my hands I swung my legs over the edge of the bed and taking another sip from the mug peaked out the bedroom door. The hallway was empty. I stood still, uncertain like a child just freed from punishment. Doc’s voice resonated down the hall. “How’s the coffee?”

I smiled taking the short hallway easily with my long strides. Turning the corner I found him standing at the stove, eggs fragrantly scrambling, a slice of bacon dangling from his mouth. He nodded towards the cup in my hand. I took a sip then raised it in salute. “Delicious.”

He grinned coaxing the remaining piece of bacon into his mouth. “Come have breakfast. It’s almost ready then we’ll get started. The longer we put it off the worse it will be.”

“Right. Shouldn’t put it off.” I took another sip of coffee, fighting the urge to drop the mug on the floor and run out the door, but running wasn’t going to get me anywhere.  A little procrastination might. “I think I’ll start my day with a shower if that’s okay.” I said.

“Sure, sure,” he grabbed another piece of bacon from a tissue lined plate chewing between words, “I’ll be ready when you are.”

I turned padding softly back down the hallway. Finishing the last of the coffee I opened another brick red door hiding the bathroom. I’d never truly considered silver a color until stepping into the shining room. Silver was everywhere. The fixtures brushed and matte, the porcelain tiles in the shower, lining the walls and floor were polished, reflective and bright. The sinks were impeccably smooth stainless, the mirrors ornate in antiqued silver leaf. The shades covering the light fixtures, the towel hanging from the wall, even the soap resting in the tray – a decadently beautiful silver. The water from the oversized shower managed to soak in the light from the metallic walls transforming into liquid metal as it fell snaking down the perforated drain.

Stepping under the shower head I smiled imagining the color of Doc’s eyes in this room. I stretched my neck letting the hot water pound on my shoulders, along the small of my back, closed my eyes letting it rain over my face. My mind kept trying to walk its way around what was about to happen but I refused, instead held it captive in silver coated strings of water willing myself not to think at all.

Back in the white room I threw on some lotion before pulling on the jeans and one of the white tanks hanging in the closet. Barefoot I stepped back out to the kitchen. Doc sat at the black lacquered table, eggs, bacon and hash browns piled high on green serving plates. He spoke without turning around. “You need to eat, sit down. I’m good at breakfast, you’ll enjoy it.”

Sitting beside him I filled my empty plate with fluffy yellow eggs, potato and crisp strips of bacon. I took my first bite watching him pour orange juice from the container into a powder blue glass. We ate making the most minimal small talk – how lovely the morning was, how well we’d both slept, how nice the weather had been lately, how tasty the eggs were. We ran out of polite things to say at the same time. Catching each other’s glance, our nervous smiles morphed into crazy giggles.

His kaleidoscope eyes were wide and moist. I stood with my empty plate in hand and was halfway to the dishwasher before he spoke again. “I’ve never done this before. Wiped a Taram and of course never a Kachina. Bravado from yesterday aside I might be a little nervous.”

Walking back to the table I stopped to stoop in front of him. “You’re nervous?” I met his eyes with a half smile. “Come on. The longer we put it off the worse it will be.”

In the midst of clearing plates and washing dishes he explained what he thought would happen, how he thought things would go. I listened with one ear, enough to know what I was getting into, not enough to scare me away. Dishes clean and distractions shelved I followed as he walked to the other side of the house, past two closed doors entering through the third.

Stepping through this new threshold was unsettling. The room was sterile. Stale. In such sharp contrast to the rest of the house it was as if we’d leapt through a wormhole to another dimension. Paste grey walls, poured concrete floor, dull white cabinetry plain and unadorned, no handles, no panels just smooth lonely board. No windows, or rather windows covered with single pane shutters so seamless with the walls they read as one piece. In the center of the room like a forgotten shoe was a worn grey dentist chair sagging with the weight of tarnished stainless accents. Utilitarian and alien the chair loomed large and intimidating in the empty space.

Doc stood behind me. I heard the soft click of the door and then his finger was protruding past my shoulder pointing at the chair, his voice soft but stern against the back of my neck.

“Get in.”

I walked to the chair, pulled myself up and swung my legs around to recline fully. Laying in the chair I heard Doc before I saw him. The muffled slap-slap of his flip flops against the hard floor followed by his hands at my wrist securing them in restraints fastened to the sides of the chair. He was all business. The hint of smile I’d grown used to seeing completely gone. His colorful eyes were hidden as he looked down. His brow was creased but his hands stayed focused and steady.

Securing the last restraint he walked behind me, flicked a switch and the oval swivel light above my head was awake and full. My heart knocked softly against my chest. Under my breath I hummed one of my mom’s old lullaby’s attempting to will myself calm. He spoke before I could admit it wasn’t working.

“This will hurt, especially in the beginning.”

It was impossible to see his face through the perfect brightness of the light surrounding him. I stared instead at the outline of his silhouette, tracing the slope of his shoulders, curve of his neck over and over again.

“You said that before, do you really have to keep saying it?” I unconsciously flexed and released my hands against the wrist restraints, breathed in deeply shifting side to side squeaking against the vinyl of the worn chair. He pushed the lamp to the left making half his face visible the other half stayed mute in shadow.

“We’ll go over this one more time so you’re clear on what’s happening. Once I start you won’t really be able to process anything until we’re through.”

“Your bedside manner is great Doc.”

He forced a smile. “Just want to make sure you know what you’re about to get into.”

“Um hum.” I said suddenly and desperately wanting to be anyplace but here.

He cleared his throat. “Okay, your ability to be recognized and called is a soul connection, established simultaneously with your marking. Because it is so intrinsically attached it is impossible to remove but I can reorient it. I can’t promise it will make you 100% clean, not for you. Your frequency,” he raised his hand in front of my face moving it rapidly back and forth, “does this” he stopped, moving his hand slowly straight up and down, “instead of this. The best I can do is promise to make it much more difficult for your signal to be noticed. Your desire to not be detected should also help. Clear?”

“Keep talking Doc so we can get this thing over with.”

“Right,” he continued, “Like I said, your signal’s connected to your soul. To re-direct it I’ll have to expose it, then I’ll basically be squeezing the signal into a different vibration. I’ll have to hold it there long enough for it to take. Then we’ll be done.”

“Great. Then we’ll be done.”

“Exposing your soul will be the worst,” he swallowed, “kind of like being skinned alive.”

I concentrated on my breathing still my exhale caught in my throat. He leaned closer. “Are you sure you want to do this?”

“Is it this bad for everyone? The folks choosing to be cleansed make it through this?” My head shook against the cracked padded headrest. “I knew some of them. I don’t see how they could make it through this. They couldn’t make it past the first quarantine!”

“It’s not this bad for them. They are so new, their signal so faint it’s over and done in seconds. You are not them.”

I sighed trying to relax into the chair. “No. I guess I’m not, and I don’t have a choice so if we could be done with the talking…”

He nodded and moved the light back to the side. I braced against his silhouette, my hands clutching the seat. He stood behind me and placed a hand over each of my wrists. I felt his breath on my forehead when he spoke. “Don’t speak. Try not to move.”

I expected there to be a build-up. Something to get used to. There was none. The pain was immediate and intense slithering itself around me overtaking every other sense. I saw nothing, lost feel of the chair beneath me, found even my screams locked shocked and stranded in my throat. I felt myself rip open piece by piece, fragments giving way to a gaping hole of a space. I was hot and cold. He was wrong. It was nothing like being skinned alive, it was like being ripped apart into tiny pieces, it was being set on fire, it was ingesting every bad thing only to have it claw out of you again. I waited for it to ebb, for the ‘worse at the beginning’ to give into the ‘not so bad middle’ but it remained constant and pure. I was aware of my crying only by the puddles forming over the tops of my clenched fists. I was aware of the totality of pain and then I was aware of nothing at all.

When I came to I was still strapped down. My clothes soaked through. Doc’s form was slumped over me in the chair with his cheek supported by my shoulder. I searched for my voice, took silent account of my body flexing and stretching each muscle grateful for the sluggish response. Turning my head I rested my cheek against his trying twice before words actually fought their way past my lips.

“Doc – Doc get up, wake up.” No response. His weight was heavy, unanimated.

Dead.

Panic rose inside me like a moon-pulled tide. I spoke again louder, school teacher assertive. “Get up! Wake up! Come on Doc I can’t have this on my conscious. You have to wake up!”

Still nothing. He was resolutely motionless.

I looked around the empty room in vain, tested my wrist restraints cursing under my breath when they held fast. Moaning I searched for reserves of strength within my exhausted body before beginning to rhythmically slap his cheek with my own turning my head left and right, left and right.

“Wake up! Wake up!” I kept time with the sound of each slap, the satisfying contact of my sweat drenched cheek against his own, wake-up wake-up the metronome ticking me back and forth. And he did. Right when my neck was screaming to stop and my voice had dried to a throaty whisper he shifted beneath me, placing a wobbly hand between my face and his mid-swing before pulling himself upright and walking unsteadily to the side of the chair.

The color was drained from his face. His lips dry. His smile cracked. He rubbed his cheek against the bright ruby spot growing in response to my slaps. Moving as if through molasses his hands began working at the wrist restraints, his voice as rough and unsure as my own. “Was it good for you?”

I laughed tension in my body letting loose in one massive flood. He laughed too, softly at first, then loud enough so it mingled with mine filling the room. My wrists freed he helped ease me from the table. Standing, laughing, relieved we took stock of one another.

“Please tell me that worked Doc.”

He walked around to a mini cooler hidden behind the base of the dentist chair tossing a can of beer when I nodded. I sipped the cold liquid watching as he opened a can of his own. The room felt clear and quiet. He threw his empty can into the trash reaching for another before testing his voice. “I’m having a difficult time pinning down your signal with you three feet away. It worked. If I can’t pinpoint you it will be pretty much impossible for anybody else to.”

I dropped my empty can on the floor bringing my hands up in time to catch the second one he threw my way. “How much trouble will you get in for this? I held the unopened can between my hands turning it slowly. “I know it’s a little late to say but it seems unfair to have asked you to do this, knowing there are risks involved, consequences, I’m…” I looked at his collar bone, the top button of his unbuttoned shirt unable to meet his eyes, “I’m sorry to have put you in this position, sorry for what ever comes because of it…”

He sat on the dentist chair rubbing his cheek. “Every turn in life brings trouble or peace. It’s all part of the balance. I weighed the costs to help you. Whatever comes will be my own to manage,” he paused, “besides I promised Sara I would do what I could.”

I sat on the floor my back pressed against the cool wall, my shirt clammy from sweat, goose bumps traveling down my arms. I barely had the energy to register shock. “Sara said to help me? Sara did?”

He chuckled shaking his head against a memory he didn’t share. “She does that. Makes plans for you before you even know you need plans made. She believes in the end no matter how much running you do you end up right where you need to be. Let her run, she’d said. So I’d promised I would.”

I smiled, Sara’s calm face solid in my memory. “And so here we are?”

“No friend.” He said. “So here you are.”

Pages 16 – 20

I’m moving through the story a little faster now after getting used to the handwriting and the flow of the story so hopefully I’ll have more to post in time for a little Thanksgiving reading!

The waitress brought the check laying it briskly on the table no longer eager for Doc’s attention. He dropped neatly folded bills on the shiny red Formica then leaned back, arms stretching over his head extending a yawn, words slightly distorted by his gaping mouth. “So you ready to do this?”

“W-what you mean now?”

“Of course now. Why not now?”

I stared at him with nothing to say. He held out his hand. “Give me the keys, I’ll drive. You should relax as much as you can before we start.”

Speechless I placed the keys in his palm standing to follow as he walked out of the restaurant into the steady heat of the afternoon. Stopping by my car he opened the passenger door waiting until I sat and buckled my seat belt before walking to the other side. Settling behind the wheel he started the engine eying the gauges on the console as he navigated out of the parking lot. “You really shouldn’t drive with less than a quarter of a tank, especially if you don’t know where you’re going. What if you’d gotten stranded?”

I laughed my forehead in my hands. “You are very used to telling people what to do aren’t you?”

He shrugged pulling sunglasses over his constantly changing eyes and continued to drive and drive and drive. Hypnotized by the rhythmic passing of white staccato lane lines and Doc’s bell-like humming of what sounded like Disney movie tunes I reclined my seat, closed my eyes, bunched my jacket for a pillow and welcomed sleep.

My eyes fluttered open a few hours later as he pulled to a stop in front of a small ranch-style house with a tragically landscaped yard. Unassuming and generic it was the epitome of beige, dirty beige siding, beige shutters, light beige door, beige-brown patches of dead grass like abstract polka dots decorating the lawn.

Silently we walked towards the unlit house. Following him I climbed three concrete steps merging into a small porch. There was the soft click of a key and then we passed through the front door into the compact foyer. He flipped a switch and my breath caught in my throat.

I should have known. The exterior of his house was the unassuming book bag catholic school girls use to hide their short skirts and high heels. The inside of his house was undulating with color. The foyer walls electric blue with burnt orange crown moldings. Large scale oil paintings thick with texture hung from them, yellow, red, blue and green swirls of human body parts, arms, legs, curves of backs and lifts of chins memorialized on canvas. Random rainbow stained partitions of parquet, oranges, reds and blues built a patchwork floor. I walked slowly behind as he headed towards the kitchen passing more artwork, electric landscapes, abstract waves and blocks of color, huge life sized canvases, some simply propped against the wall, a large violet shaded breast leaning against an equally intense couch with apple red velvet pillows.

The entire house was wide open. No walls separating the foyer, living room, dining room and kitchen. Each space an analogous homage to the miracle of the rainbow. Dropping my keys on the kitchen counter he walked to his shiny black fridge offering me a neon green soft drink in a slender glass bottle. Grabbing his own bottle he stood across from me leaning against a red oven. His eyes were alive in this space, an excited shimmy of every color he passed, a kaleidoscope regarding me with a palpable air of concern.

“You look tired,” he took a sip of soda, “maybe we should start first thing in the morning when we’re both refreshed.”

I barely heard him preoccupied instead with looking around his candy-land house, at his eyes moving from color to color like Jack’s jumping beans. In theory everything about him and his house should have been jarring, should have just been wrong. Instead the smash and flood of color miraculously found a way to soothe. Nudging off my shoes I sat on the edge of the counter swinging my legs and sipping my drink holding the neck of the bottle easily between two fingers. “Your house is…your house is insanely perfect.”

Reaching into the fridge he grabbed another bottle, draining half in one long swallow. “It’s how I see the world. This is the only place I can surround myself with color without worrying about this.” He tapped the side of his right eye drawing my attention back to their Rorschach menagerie of colors. Their ever changing now seemed the most normal. It was impossible to imagine them any other way. They seemed to promise honesty. The shifting eyes of a man who until twelve hours ago I never knew existed. A man who shouldn’t exist.

Finishing my drink I let loose the question I was afraid of. The one I’d been shuffling around my mouth since the need to have my life erased became the only viable option. “How much will it hurt? A lot? It seems as if it should be one of those things that’ll come with a lot of pain.”

His voice was soft. “It’ll hurt.”

I hoped down from the counter. Walking over to the fridge I reached in for another drink,  grabbed a bottle of sunshine yellow liquid and popped the top. “Maybe tomorrow is a good idea,” I said looking down at the floor, “after bunking in my car last night sleep in a bed sounds amazing.”

He placed his hand on my shoulder knocking me lightly with his knuckle under my chin they way I always imagined a father might do. “Come on, I’ll show you where you’ll sleep.”

I followed him down a short butter yellow hallway then through a shiny brick red door. The bedroom was white with a purity that was stunning. A baroque crystal chandelier hung low from the ceiling, layers and layers of crystals seemingly illuminated from the inside out. The walls were spotless with a barely perceptible sheen, glass bedside tables emerged like ghosts from their smooth surface. The floor was low pile shag fluffy and deliciously soft under my bare feet but the bed, the bed was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.

It was a four poster masterpiece. Victorian and ornate constructed from what on first glance appeared to be entirely of glass. Amazed I ran my hand over its surface, every detail perfect and smooth. I looked at Doc quizzically.

“It’s a polymer plexiglass,” he said, “Indestructible.”

Transfixed by the chandelier light refracting through the panes of the headboard, I ran my hands over the milky cashmere comforter draped evenly over Egyptian cotton sheets. “It’s amazing, just unbelievable…”

He looked around the room finishing the last of his drink. “It’ll do, it’ll do.”

Chuckling at the incredulous look on my face he stepped back hand resting lightly on the door knob. “There are clothes in the closet. Pajamas if you need them. The bathroom is down the hall first door on the right. I’ll leave you towels and a toothbrush. Get some sleep. We’ll get started in the morning.” He gave one last smile winking at me with eyes full and pale as the moon before closing the door behind him.

I sat quietly listening to the sounds of him moving down the hallway. The subtle rustle of running water as the toilet flushed, the whisper quiet clicks of lights being turned on and off. Standing I walked towards the closet toes curling against the plush carpet. The inside of the closet was as thoroughly white as the rest of the room. Stark and mostly empty save for a pair of jeans folded over a slim bone white hanger, a pale yellow button down shirt, two crisp white tank tops, black Havaianas flip flops, grey chucks and a large white sleep shirt with a giant yellow smiley face in the center. I ran my hands across everything, fingering the clothes, smelling the newness of the shoes. It was all my size and all eerily similar to what hung in my own closet.

Shrugging off my jeans and tank I eased the cotton sleep shirt over my head and down my shoulders feeling it lightly brush the back of my knees. Climbing into bed the sheets were a welcome cool against my skin and it all smelled the color of white, crisp and open. Soft.

A small oval speaker sat demurely on the ghost table. No radio dials. No blinking lights or on/off switch. Examining it I ran my hand over its unmarked surface until my index finger slid over a pebble smooth dimple an inch above the bottom. Trailing my fingers over it again with the slightest increase in pressure I exhaled in surprise as Nina Simone’s throaty voice rolled from the speaker. Turning off the remaining bedside lamp I leaned back against the firm pillows. Snuggling under the soft comforter as Nina’s Cry Me A River coaxed my eyes closed.

10 – 15

These pages took a little longer to re-write than I anticipated but I think I was able to get all of it…oh and there may be mistakes, I’m really just reading, typing and then posting without editing so if you find any I apologize in advance!

I was awake before dawn. With tingling hands half numb from being smooshed between my shoulder and the door handle I fluffed the side of my matted hair and circled my neck slowly, hoping the subtle movement would ease out the stiffness. Yawning deeply I slide into the front seat, pried loose a half-full water bottle caught under the seat and took a long swig rinsing the early morning dryness from my mouth. Still fingering the soreness in my shoulder I gulped another mouthful of water swishing the liquid between my cheeks before starting the car and pulling off.

I drove for about twenty minutes before spotting a towering hotel in the distance. Turning into the parking lot I grabbed toothpaste, a pair of jeans, a wife beater and clean underwear from the duffel bag in my trunk tucking the bundle under my arm. Walking quickly, determined to project the idea I belonged in the hotel’s marble foyer with its large crystal chandeliers and piped in classical music, I squared my shoulders, kept my gaze straight forward and made a bee-line for the women’s restroom pushing my way inside.

The bathroom was blessedly empty. I exhaled brushing my teeth with my finger using the  shirt I’d slept in to wash-up quickly in the sink. Ducking into a stall I changed my clothes waddling out in socked feet. I ran my hands through my disheveled hair and considered throwing on some make-up,  but settled instead for a quick swipe of clear lip gloss. Bending down I slipped on my chucks tying the laces into double knots before standing to stare in the mirror.

I ran over the planes of my face with scrutiny. Rust tinged brown skin, full lips, eyes dark and hooded so I always looked tipsy in pictures. Cheekbones only bothering to be visible when I smiled. I sighed, briskly gathering my dirty clothes spouting a pep talk into the empty bathroom along the way. “Stop thinking it’s impossible. It’s not impossible. Walk out of this bathroom. Get in your car. Find someone to wipe you so clean you…” I chuckled at the absurdity of the idea. Sara was right but I wasn’t ready to accept that. Not yet. Shaking my head clearing it of doubts I met my dark eyes in the mirror. “Find someone to wipe you so clean you can’t be called. So clean you can forget you were ever Taram and live a gloriously normal boring life.” I smiled awakening cheekbones, ran one last hand over my tightly coiled curls and walked out the door.

My steps were brisk, determined so the jolt of running into him was full and instant, my dirty clothes tumbling in one tangled heap to the shining inlaid floor. I fell bracing my empty palms against the slick hard tiles. He was unshaken like he’d been planning to knock me off my feet, and he was staring at me. I pushed up from the floor gathering my things speaking as my hands corralled the last of my dirty clothes. “Sorry. I wasn’t looking.”

“I know you.”

I looked up sharply. He said it with complete authority and I stared at him absolutely certain I’d never seen this man before in my life. His face broke in a smile and instantly I wanted to like him. I told myself not to. Don’t talk to strangers. I took a step back. Addressing my unasked question he took a step forward. “No you don’t know me but I know you.”

I shook my head trying to move around him. “You have me confused.”

“No,” he paused, “No, but I believe I am confusing you.” He took another step extending his hand. On autopilot I shifted my dirty clothes to my left to shake it. He smiled again and I found my lips were traitors, they curved in response. His voice was deeper than it seemed it should be and smooth like melted caramels. “You can call me Doc, and you are Velma.”

Reflexively I pulled my hand away widening the distance between us. “How do you know my name?”

He laughed then. A full unapologetic sound bouncing off the walls wringing moisture from his eyes. It was a satiating laugh reminding me of my mom’s. I tried to build up anger but the memory of her laughter bubbled up from my stomach guiding my words so they were anything but menacing. “I’m not laughing, this is not funny!”

His boom died down to silent waves contracting his belly pushing his breath out in excited gasps. I stared in disbelief at his boyish blue eyes, perfect square jaw, dark black hair, button down lavender shirt hanging loose over well worn jeans. He was surf-boy Superman handsome. Something he seemed aware of but addressed in an after-thought sort of way, and he was claiming to know me. He knew my name.

In light of recent events every red flag should be waving but I couldn’t will my feet to walk away. Without warning he grabbed my hand pulling me behind him, his words coming out quickly one after another.

“I didn’t mean to laugh you were just so shock-and-awe back there. The look on your face! I just couldn’t hold it in, you being cautious of me!” He stopped walking plopping us down on a soft toile upholstered bench in the lobby. An assortment of tall potted fichus shaded us from the main entrance. A fountain in the foyer gurgled rhythmically ending in small concentric splashes.

I dropped my dirty clothes on the floor turning to look into eyes that instead of blue were a striking peridot green. I felt my eyebrows raise even as I tried to stop them. He brought his index finger up to the side of his temple.

“It’s the eyes right?” he shrugged. “It happens. Normally they try to match whatever I’m wearing. Except for purple. I wear a lot of purple.”

I stared at him trying to determine if I should run, knowing my stupid curiosity had me sitting on this small bench serenaded by a fountain and guarded by a tree. I wanted to hear what else he had to say so I let loose the questions bubbling behind my lips. “What are you? How do you know me?”

He smiled again his face brightening. “I am what you planned to look for. Had a dream you would be coming. Thought I would save you a trip.”

Understanding unfolded lazily inside my head. “You’re a cleaner.”

He stretched his arms above his head. “I’m the cleaner. The one the folks at Essex keep hidden behind their bedtime stories.”

He sat openly letting me regard him with suspicious eyes. Could it really be this easy? This morning I had no plan and now the answer was sitting beside me with a half smile and eyes turning cloudy and grey? He broke the silence.

“It won’t be that easy and I hate when they go grey, it’s my least favorite. Makes me look very Dawn of the Dead.” He frowned lightly. I shook my head finding surprise no longer existed, words escaping my mouth only to confirm information.

“You can read minds.”

He shrugged. “Not everybody’s. Actually I’m surprised it works on you, but then again it probably works because it has to.” He bent over scooping my dirty clothes into the crook of his arm. “Let’s go get some food, I’m hungry. Are you hungry?”

Not waiting for a response he stood walking briskly through the lobby between the silently opening glass doors and into the waiting sunshine.

I was hungry. So I followed.

He was tall with strides lyrical and smooth moving him quickly across the blacktop. Turning right he stopped in front of my car leaning casually against the passenger door waiting for me to let him in.  I smirked as he threw my clothes into the trunk before sliding into his seat. There were at least 20 cars in the parking lot.

“Lucky guess?” I said before sliding behind the wheel. He chuckled the sound moving against the air as he fastened his seat belt regarding me with eyes cool and grey. A chill ran through me. He was right they made him appear unanimated, unnatural – like walking death.

Fifteen minutes later we settled into a small orange and brown café bulging with an eclectic mix of people. Neo-soul cats strummed guitars and beat out rhythms on jimbays by the bar. Others escaped into iPods and large hardcover books. Yoga moms with rolled up mats at their feet sipped skinny lattes, split croissants into eights and re-tied perfectly tied ponytails. Couples glossy with hangovers ordered huevos rancheros and potent bloody marys. The smell of eggs and bacon, fresh coffee, maple syrup and buttered bread massaged my stomach adding fire to a hunger I’d been growing since ramen noodles had been my breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Our server loaded our table with gluttonous requests, poached eggs over spicy corned beef hash, banana buckwheat pancakes, house cured sausage and smoked salmon, cantaloupe, fresh brown butter scones and a carafe of dark roast coffee. We ate in silence. Mouthfuls of silky egg and perfectly crisp hash, pillowy pancake and salty savory sausage shoveled in steadily until stomachs appeased we slowed down between sips of coffee and nibbles of melon to regard each other again. He spoke first. “I should start?”

I nodded guiding a petal pink sliver of salmon into my mouth. He nodded in return. “I’ll start. What do you know about cleaners?”

My mouth was full. I shrugged. He sighed pushing his plates away resting his elbows on the exposed table. “Okay. From the beginning then.” He moistened his lips folding his hands under his chin. “If after being marked and completing the initial quarantine it’s discovered a newly cloaked may not have the aptitude for withstanding the riots they are further tested for other attributes. Those chosen to be bleachers are passed on to Saints. It takes five years to master the manipulation of what cannot be seen. Bleachers give up a little part of themselves every time they offer to cleanse someone else. You learn first not to mourn that loss, to not feel it. Regardless of that instilled discipline somehow you almost always miss it.”

He folded a large bite of pancake into his mouth. I was quiet while he chewed waiting for him to continue. He took a sip of coffee, wiped distractedly at a crumb hanging on the side of his mouth before speaking again. “The training is not easy. Many of those working with the Saints request to be cleansed before they’re halfway through, but those who choose to see it to the end do so,” he looked through me with eyes swirling hazel and clear, “well I would say choose to do so for the same reason you choose to do what you do…” he cleared his throat, “did.”

I refilled my coffee emptying the carafe before reaching for the last piece of sausage chewing quietly to not interrupt his story.  He blinked his eyes charcoal before continuing. “They work under the direction of appointed trainers. They work and then they die. That is all the Taram or Eirum need ever know about them unless you find yourself needing the assistance of one like me. Me and the two others like me are the maligned privileged secret of the balance. We are born to do this, able to see the mark, able to do what they train to do as easily as you breathe. Seeing a soul, that indescribable palpableness of someone’s truth is my first memory. It is an amazing burden. We are tasked immediately with perfecting our abilities. Those of us with this birthright are the only ones capable of wiping the Taram and Eirum. We are also expressly forbidden to do so. Our talents are used…”

He paused again smiling at the waitress passing our table. She smiled in return, cheeks cherry red and doubled back to the table she’d overlooked delivering glistening tumblers of juice to the couple sitting there. Looking over her shoulder she confirmed she still held Doc’s attention. He winked. She giggled. He offered his charcoal glance a second longer before turning back to me, face boyish and sincere.

“Our talents are used for other things. It’s remarkable what can be accomplished with access to the soul,” he ran a hand through his shining hair, “and that is where we are mandated to stay. It is a birthright prison. One we are taught to regard as a privilege. For most that is enough. For others it is a catalyst for rebellion. They find new and interesting ways to utilize their skills. It is a constant temptation. There are numerous people willing to offer up more than you can imagine for a taste of what we can do – “

“But what about the balance? Don’t you question your actions? Think of yourself and your fate? Wonder when you’ll be marked?” I hadn’t realized I was going to speak until the questions were completely freed from my lips. He looked amused, reached for the carafe to fill his cup and finding it empty reached for my mug instead adding cream and taking a sip before responding.

“We can’t be marked. We live outside the balance. Some speculate we may be manifestations of the balance itself. Perhaps that is what makes it easier to choose to do horrible things, the feeling of being unaccountable. At least it made it easier for me.”

I felt my eyes widening in surprise. He smiled sadly handing back my coffee running his hand along his throat as if coaxing the remaining words from his mouth.

“There are consequences though as there are for everything. Consequences I still pay for, and will continue to pay for,” his exhale was audible, “since I’ve already decided I will do whatever it is you ask.”

I picked at a small piece of melon. “Why would you do that? Offer to help me, risk any sort of consequence to help someone you don’t even know?”

He leaned forward closing the distance between us through a sea of white plates, remnants of pancake and slices of buttered toast. “I know you better than you know yourself. See you more clearly than you’ll ever see yourself. I feel perhaps in not helping you I could face a far greater consequence than what already awaits me.”

We sat in silence. The blushing waitress cleared our plates searching Doc’s face for flirty glances but his navy blue eyes focused steadily on me. I waited until she walked away before breaking the silence surprised at the steadiness of my voice. “You know that I am the Kachina. You know that I will ask to be bleached.”

He nodded. “I do.”

“I don’t know a lot about cleaners, in fact as time goes on I realize I don’t know a lot about anything but I do know that in choosing to help me. Because of who I am. Who I’m supposed to be. Things could be bad. For you.”

He laughed. “No pretty one, things will be bad for you. You are the one running from your destiny. I suspect without warning it will come back and smack you upside your head.”

He was the second man to call me pretty and I could think of no more profound hint of premonition. The first man to call me beautiful had left me with pieces to mend. It seemed this might end in much the same way. I also knew regardless of any rational arguments to be made on either of our parts we were already resigned to what would be our fate.

 

Pages 6 – 9

Sorry it’s not more, these pages were harder to decipher, they’re faded and stuck together in some places so that I can’t make out all the handwriting but I’ve typed up what I could.

It was almost cold outside. Cool enough so that I forced the stubborn zipper on my jacket closed and crossed my arms over my chest. I wanted to run back to Sara, to have her hug me and say that she was wrong and th…….(It doesn’t stop here, just can’t make out the handwriting, there are smudges and some rips in the paper.)

…My mom died (ineligible few words)… I was three. No one ever told me how or why. She was there one day and gone the next. I remember her though, as strange as that may seem. I remember everything about her. She was spectacular, full of energy, honest and strong. She used to make up songs about everything, sunshine, cereal, traffic. She had a laugh I still hear in my dreams, not delicate at all, hearty, loud and undeniably full. She was my weight in the world. With her gone everything shifted, fell.

With just my father and I left the house became cold and hard. I wasn’t smart enough, pretty enough, never enough of anything to make him proud.  I’d thought being a tomboy would make him happy, and maybe for a while it did. That was when we would play catch and he taught me to catch fireflies in ventilated jelly jars. But then everything changed. After that the only thing he I can say he taught me was how to survive. He’d taught me to shoot a gun when I was young enough that the recoil knocked me repeatedly on my butt, taught me to fight with sessions he called ‘love taps’, mixed bourbon with my milk making sure I would sleep giving him the freedom to spend his nights doing things men like him did. I’d missed my mom. At night I would talk to her, sing songs she used to sing. When I woke up alone I would slip on one of her old nightgowns pretending she was wrapping her arms around me and singing me to sleep.

I was seven when my Dad brought home a woman who stayed. She hated me immediately. I think she thought it would make him happy and it did. Together they became creative, took pleasure in finding new and inventive was to punish me. It became difficult to recognize my body without the bruises. I got used to sleeping outside on the picnic table when they refused to let me in. I got smart, stashing a blanket, Archie comic books and snack bags of potato chips by the basement window, pulling them out whenever my knocks at the door went unanswered. I didn’t mind those times so much. It was quiet and calm. I could almost forget about them. In much the same way they effortlessly forgot about me.

On my eighth birthday I’d been late coming home from school. The house had been quiet when I approached. My knocks had echoed unanswered against the wooden door desperately in need of a new coat of paint. I’d thumbed through my mind trying to pinpoint what I could have done, what I needed to apologize for. I’d fallen asleep trying to figure it out and woken up the next day still unsure. I was sure they had never come home. The sound of his rusted car’s struggling engine had snapped-crackled-and-popped loud enough to wake up the deepest sleep, and my eyelids had cracked open in response to bright sunshine and nothing else.

All day I’d waited for them. The next day too but they’d never come and I never saw them again. A neighbor had noticed me after the fourth day squatting to pee alongside the fence before calling child protective services. In less than 24 hours I’d been in the system, wrapped tight in it, accosted by it, by years squeezing in suffocating and abrasive. Houses I’d learned to ghost my way through, tears I’d learned to lock inside. I’d promised to save them for something true, something beautiful or meaningful or real. Not for cardboard families and rooms still thick with the scent of kids who’d come before.

When the time came I’d walked away from that life heading straight towards someone else’s idea of what is real. I had been completely wrong when I thought I’d found what I was looking for, that thing I could wrap up and slip in my pocket as family. I’d been desperately wrong, so blindingly wrong I’d cried fresh tears on a park bench and walked away from every newness I’d built. Now it seems I may have been wrong again, but this time, regardless of what Sara said, I was determined to do something about it.

I needed to accept the possibility that it might literally take me forever to find what I needed. Leaving Sara sitting on a floral comforter with an inheritance of three orange packets of chicken flavored noodles I found my little blue Honda parked on the street and climbed inside. Watching day move into night I stretched out as much as possible against the squat back seat trying to line my thoughts up in a way that made sense. I wanted out. I wanted out as soon as possible. The only way to do that was to be clean. Otherwise I’d always be tied to the Taram. I needed to find someone to bleach me, which if Sara was right, (and she always was), brought me right back to being impossible.

I’d have to go back to Essex, find somebody who might help. Someone who knew someone who’d been cleansed, maybe even knew how I could reach them. Problem was I didn’t know anyone who could help me, didn’t know anyone who knew anyone who’d been wiped and that put me back at square one. My eyes were growing heavy closing on their own. I rolled on my side bunching my jacket for a pillow. I would sleep for now, and tomorrow do anything but stand still. Run until I couldn’t run anymore or came up with something better.

Pages 1 – 5

I’ve been hiding out for twenty three days. I’ve wrapped and rewrapped the bandage around my waist praying my ribs are bruised and not broken. Today I bought more ramen in packs of ten and camped out in the motel eating the chicken flavored noodles for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I’m aggravated that I can’t stop crying. I try to sleep but he’s always in my dreams. Once I close my eyes every attempt to forget who I am comes roaring back like waves before a storm.

In the brightness of day I can remember it as a fairytale, detach myself like it was someone else he’d sat next to that first day eating an ice cream cone and an apple, telling me I was beautiful. That we were forever.

At least it wasn’t just me. He’d had Sara fooled too. She watched the two of us after quarantine training, sitting to hear from the elders, eating lunch outside in the sunshine, arm and arm, whispering secrets, laughing, trusting – she would have warned me if she’d known. She was the only person left to trust.

It was easier to think about Sara even though I waited everyday for her to come. To find me and drag me back. At night the sound of cars, people in the hallway fumbling with their motel keycards, the muted tumble of the ice machine all bruised the air like an omen. I kept the shades closed. The volume on the TV low.  I made a mental checklist of the redeemable points; I was alive, there was still money left, noodles in colorful wrappers stacked next to the TV, the air conditioning worked today. That was okay until I blinked and saw his face, until the memory of his smile pushed against any safe space I tried to build. Then the tears found room all over again.

I kicked off my shoes sending them flying towards the wall. I would not cry. I would do something. Figure something out. I would make a plan, and it would have to be soon, very soon. It had been twenty three days. My connection to the others was still too strong.

Sara would be coming.

She found me on the twenty fourth day. I didn’t expect her to be so angry. Her voice carried evenly as she walked past me into the small room.

“What in the hell do you think you’re doing? You’re hiding?!” She held her arms open as I closed the door. I stepped into her embrace my mouth nuzzled against her shoulder.

“Nice to see you too Sara.”

We sat on the edge of the unmade bed. Motherly concern tinted her young face. “Everyone knows how hard this is for you Peanut,” I smiled at her pet name for me while she continued, “but you can’t run away. Even if you manage to believe you’re no longer a part of it he will find you, and because you are unprepared you will lose.”

I rubbed my temples, eyes closing against her words. “I know this Sara, I know but did you really expect me to watch Josh marked Eirum at his naming – HIS NAMING! – plus realize we are the two Kachina, and then just go back to Essex and pretend it didn’t affect me. That it was all part of the plan?”

“Sweetheart we knew there would be,” she searched for the right words, “an adjustment. No one thought you would head right back to the Taram house, but we also didn’t think you would seriously try and run away.”

I paced in circles around the small room. Sara stared at me from the bed. It was still too easy to remember when being a Taram was the most important thing. The early summer morning when on the last day of training I’d been officially inducted, given my name. It was the same day Josh had gotten his. We’d stood in the center of the elders minutes apart being welcomed by the Taram surrounding us. It was the day I trusted him the most and the day it all came tumbling down.

He betrayed me and I still didn’t know why, couldn’t understand what happened. The only clear thing was the one I needed to run from. I was Taram Kachina, the fabled chosen who would fight the last battle, and with Josh choosing Eirum and also being Kachina, I would be fighting him.

To the death.

I stopped pacing and stood by the window resting my forehead on the cool glass. “I’m angry Sara, hurt. This is too hard. I can’t fight him. You were there. I was useless, worse than an untrained.”

“You were shocked and overwhelmed.”

“What do you think I am now!”

The air was heavy with our silence. I stared at the one car pulling out of the deserted parking lot. The bed squeaked as she stretched to recline against the stack of meager pillows.

“So what is your plan?”

I spoke without moving, my breath leaving small fog circles on the window. “My plan is to find a rogue, get clean and pretend none of this ever happened.”

She sighed. “Even if you find a rogue who’s willing it won’t help. You can’t be clean.”

“What are you talking about Sara?” I said. “I’ve seen it hundreds of times, all the newbies who want out get out.”

Her head shook once resolutely. “You are not them. Newbies are bleached because being in the world aware of the Taram and Eirum will upset the balance. You will not be cleansed for the same reason. There will be only one of you ever, and only one of him. There will be one final battle. Cleansing you would prevent that. There is not a rogue in this universe with the power to change it.”

I turned from the window. “Dammit Sara then I’ll just keep running!”

“Run from who Peanut?” Her voice was soft. “All of the Taram can sense you, and Josh will find you. Right now he grows stronger with the Ahali. Anyone choosing to switch their mark will call you to a riot. You’ll be unable to fight that call. None of the cloaked can especially not you. Not now.”

I slid down to the floor, my shirt billowing with frosty air from the conditioning vent. The idea of being called to another riot pulled my stomach tight. I used to love them. The fighting had always been my favorite part, but it would never be that way again. Plus I had no idea what was happening to him. The teachings said the Kachina would be able to absorb the Ahali but no one knew how it would affect a person. What it would do. All souls release Ahali when they’re marked but until now, until the Kachina had been chosen, no one had absorbed it. No one had been able to.

Sara was right. He’d always been frustratingly determined and too damned curious for his own good. He’d be marking souls as quickly as he could, sucking in as much Ahali as he could content to deal with the consequences, if there were any, later.

Even in my own head this whole thing sounded ridiculous. It seemed impossible my life had led to this moment, this no name motel in a no name town with everything turned completely upside down. In joining them I’d thought I’d made a decision to affect the world. It seems now it wasn’t even my decision to make. If I was Kachina, if Sara was right then I was destined to end up here. Destined to fight Josh. Destined to be really pissed off about it. I ran my sweaty palms against the top of my jeans.

“I don’t know what to do. Tell me what I’m supposed to do. How I’m supposed to act? If you’re right then he’s already stronger than me.” I pushed up from the floor grabbing my coat forcing it over my shoulders. Sara’s eyes followed as I packed my small bag heading for the door. The corners of her mouth wilted.

“Where are you going?”

Her question solidified the fact that I had nowhere to go. My fingers curled around the doorknob. “I didn’t sign up for this. It’s not fair to ask me to pay this price, it’s not.” I’d whispered but I knew she’d heard. I walked out into the colorless mid afternoon closing the door behind me. She didn’t follow.

Read Me First

This story is not mine. It showed up as a random smoosh of papers, tucked inside a plastic box that I found on my porch once the flood waters drained. I think it is just a story. I’m putting the pieces together, trying to put the pages in some sort of order but the more I read, I think maybe it could be more. Maybe what I hold in my hands is not just a story but some hint of the truth.

It seems too much for one person to decide on their own, so I’m going to share it here; posting each piece as it comes together, re-typing what on the pages is handwritten and hoping I get it right. Then if you read it, if you find this, what we share here will just be our little secret.

But If you wrote it…if you wrote it I hope it is not your truth because if it is, your heart must still be broken. If it is we will never know to say thank you.