“The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.”
The tap, tap, tap on the car roof announces the coming deluge. June’s darkening afternoon sky makes escape that much harder. The rain hitting the roof escalates into a roar. Headlights flash on, revealing a sea of tiny dancing ripples as the driving rain strikes standing water on the road.
“Are you nuts?” WJ’s mother says.
“I’m not crazy,” WJ’s father replies.
“Slow down! You crossed the line again! You’re going to get us all killed! Billy—Jesus!”
The high beams of a vehicle illuminate the back of WJ’s parents’ heads. His mother’s fingers reach to double-check his seatbelt and booster seat, feeling the buckle at his navel. The high beams from behind brighten. The harsh light forces her to squint.
“TOO BRIGHT!” WJ calls out.
“WJ, cover your eyes for Mommy! Don’t uncover them until I let go of your shoe.”
WJ slaps his hands over his eyes. He feels the pressure of his mother’s left hand on the toe of his right sneaker. The car swerves hard to the right, pressing WJ’s shoulder into the rear driver’s side door.
“You’re going too fast, Billy!” Mary says. “You can’t see … turn off the high beams … the rain is making it worse!”
Bang! WJ’s neck snaps back against the seat from the jolt of being rear-ended.
“What the hell! Oh my God, Billy! Hold on WJ!”
“I’m sorry, I brought this upon us.…”
Something immense glides over the hood. A wing swipes the rain from the windshield. Billy jerks the wheel to the right. WJ’s head snaps to the left.
The high beams disappear. The interior goes dark.
“What was that?” WJ’s mother says.
“A bird,” his father says.
“Birds don’t fly in storms!”
“That one does!”
WJ’s mother’s eyes meet his. “Hold on WJ, we’re almost home.” She twists to check him and glances out the back window.
“Billy … they’re gone.”
“No, they’re not. I know them.”
His mother studies the road behind them. “No, they’re not there. Where did they go? Oh my god, Billy, the bird is still here!”
WJ looks out his window. Even through the pelting rain, the majestic flyer is keeping pace alongside the car. A yellow eye stares at WJ, bobbing with each flap of the bird’s wings.
“I’d rather a bird than them,” his father says as he steals a glance at WJ and then the bird.
“Why won’t they leave us alone? You told them no didn’t you?”
“It’s because I told them no.”
Vvvrrowm. The sound penetrates WJ’s entire body; it feels like the time he stuck a screwdriver in the socket trying to fix things like Daddy. The car jostles to the right.
“What was that!” she says.
“I told you. They’re still after us!”
The car fishtails as it is shoved off the road. The rear passenger tire spits gravel, and a spray of rocks pelts the undercarriage.
WJ presses his hands hard against his ears and closes his eyes tight. “It’s loud Mama! Make it go away!”
“WJ, hold on!” His mother claws the air for his shoe.
A burst of white dust from the deployed airbags fills the car as its hood slams into a tree stump flanked by clusters of saplings at the bottom of a ditch.
The reflection of their car’s headlights on the brush reveals his mother’s hair draped across her airbag. Through the slackening rain, a witness stands silent outside.
Tall, head cocked, a great blue heron stares into WJ’s window. It begins to gently peck at the window with its long, thin, yellow beak but suddenly stops. The heron cranes its neck to locate the source of the crunching of footsteps on gravel.
“Mary! Mary …” WJ sees his father shaking his mother by the shoulder.
The dashboard and headlights flicker. WJ’s father presses the car horn and the bird takes off.
“Mary!” WJ’s father says. His mother stirs. “God … help us!”
“Billy,” she says. “What’s happening?”
“Oh my God! Mary, you’re bleeding …”
The car jostles again—then, a shattering of glass, sudden and loud, like a wave crashing against 10,000 tiny bells. WJ’s mother screams and shields her face as glass shards pepper the interior.
“No! No! No! No! Mary run!”
“Billy … no!”
WJ bursts into tears.
Tattooed hands reach through the shattered windshield and grab his father. His mother swats at the hands. With one hard yank, WJ watches as the bottoms of his father’s shoes disappear through the windshield opening.
“Billy! Nooo … nooo!” His mother struggles to open her car door but can’t. “Billy … Billy …”
The patter of rain on the car and his mother’s whimpers fill the eerie silence. She turns back to check on WJ. Her face is dazed and disheveled.
“WJ, oh my God. WJ, I’m coming,” she cries. Through his tears, he watches her struggle to open her door.
“Let me out!” She twists in her seat to kick at the door window with both feet several times but only succeeds in cracking it.
His mother scrambles in her seat as she turns to reach for him. Her face, dusted with white powder from the airbag, mingles with her blood and hair, making her appear more zombie than mother. WJ screams at her grotesque appearance.
“WJ, it’s okay, I’m here. We’re okay,” she says as she squeezes her way between the front seats to join him. “WJ, it’s okay. I’m going to get us out of here. We have to get out of the car,” she says frantically as her fingers fumble with the buckle on his booster seat. The straps of his seat belt slacken as she releases the buckle and pulls him into her arms. “Hold Mommy tight, close your eyes and don’t let go,” she orders.
WJ grabs his mother’s neck and clamps his eyes shut. His body jiggles in her lap as she fumbles with the rear door handle. A gush of cool, damp air fills the car. WJ clings to his mother as she steps out of the car and into the ditch. Rain clouds, having given up their load, calm to a drizzle. WJ lifts his head from her neck and opens his eyes only to be blinded by a flood of light.
“WJ, don’t look,” his mother warns. “WJ …WJ … WJ …”
“WJ, time to wake up.”
“Will … I said it’s time to get up!” His mother’s voice slips under the door. She knocks, opens the door a crack, and flicks on his lights.
Will squints hard and shields his eyes, turning off his phone’s alarm. He closes his eyes.
Just one more minute…
Will forces himself to sit up.
One more month of school. At least I’ll see Russell.
He picks up a charcoal grey t-shirt from the floor and gives it a sniff.
He squeezes into his favorite skinny jeans, a gift from Auntie Joy.
“Phone, phone,” he mumbles.
He lifts the shade for more light; his childhood curtains, of Spaceships and ringed planets, are gone, leaving his windows naked. Spaceships are cute fantasies for kids, but Will is past that. Underneath the window, his father’s old record player sits atop the makeshift shelves-turned-entertainment-center. Its clear plastic cover, marred with soft scratches, has yellowed with age. The vintage silver turntable crowns an old Pioneer receiver. On the shelf below are records scavenged from his parent’s collection.
Catching his phone peeking out from beneath the pillow, he grabs it and stuffs it in his front pocket. Will slips into his white-soled grey sneakers; they still fit well enough to make it through to summer. Belt, belt…
“WJ, pick mine,” his father’s voice calls out in his head.
Will never told his mother that this happens; she might bring him to the doctor. Imagined or real, it did not matter, it was comforting.
His favorite memories of his father were walks in the woods, sitting high on his father’s shoulders. Back then he had his father to himself. His eyes catch the framed photo of him and his dad beside the turntable. It is the best photo he has of them together. He was three, holding a football, his father crouched behind him; his father’s steely, blue eyes showed a confidence Will envied, and his thin-lipped smile brought out his dimples. Will inherited only one of his father’s dimples; it was a family joke that Will’s right side belongs to his father, his left to his mother.
While the football photo was his favorite keepsake, he never cared for the game. He was never athletically inclined. He always wondered if his father’s presence would have made a difference. However, he did enjoy watching the Celtics once in a while, but that was the extent of his sports interest.
Riding his bike and swimming were his favorites. Will has become quite a swimmer; when he was in middle school, he and Russell would swim around the islands at Pawtuckaway and jump off a boulder taller than a Mac truck.
“Dad, can you hear me?” Will says softly.
He waits a moment for a response. Nothing. Will sifts through the pile of clothing at the bottom of his closet. A glint of silver catches his eye.
There it is.
He pulls out a silver-studded black leather belt. He snatched it from the attic years ago. His mother said when his father was younger he wore it whenever he needed to feel badass. It is the kind of belt Russell would wear. Despite Russell’s social challenges he still conveyed a unique swagger.
As he tugs the belt through his pants’ loops, its large studs catch on every loop. He pulls it to the tightest hole, but it is still a bit loose, causing the buckle to droop forward. A quick adjustment of the belt between the loops and it becomes a perfect fit. It feels good to fit into something.
Today, I’m the badass.
“Willis!” Russell flicks a black polished fingernail through his thick, wild black hair, pushing his hair out of his eyes. His black denim jacket is bedecked with band pins, psychedelic buttons, and sci-fi badges, and a UFO emblazoned across the back.
“Guess what I did last night?” They drop their backpacks at adjacent lockers.
“You watched UFO documentaries last night.”
“Wait, what? How did you know?”
“I would say I’m psychic, but you wear your The-Truth-is-Out-There t-shirt whenever you go on a UFO binge.”
“Yeah, I binge-watched Season Three of E.E., but that’s not what I wanted to tell you.”
“You gotta cut down on UFO documentaries, people will think you’re strange.”
“I have Aspergers, people already think I’m strange. What I was gonna say is I started practicing leaving my body.”
“Leaving your body?”
“You ever heard of an OBE? Out of Body Experience? I’m gonna have one. I’m this close,”—he pinches his fingers in front of his face— “I can feel it.”
“How do you know if you didn’t just dream you left your body?”
“A fair point— I think I’d know. What about you? Car crash dream again?”
“Yeah, but I had one before that one.”
“Variety is nice. In this one, were you at least driving a car?”
“No, I’m in a field at night. I’m holding a knife and looking behind me because something’s chasing me.” He grabs his Physics book from his locker.
“Cool, a Bond dream. Then what happened?”
“That’s the whole dream.”
“Dude, that can’t be the whole dream.”
“That’s all I can remember.”
“Why, if it isn’t the Freak Force. I hate to break up this nerd-fest, E.T., but you’re standing in front of my locker.” Rich Artman says and gives Russell a shoulder shove. “What’s with all the hair gunk? It’s on my jacket now.” Rich brushes the shoulder of his varsity jacket, a fierce blue and gold stallion emblazoned across the back.
“Russell does rub off on you after a while. You could use a bit of his personality.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Rich presses his chest against Will’s.
“Russell’s my friend,” Will says nose to nose. “Leave him alone.”
“Whatcha gonna do, Freak Two?”
“Hi Rich,” Lily Powers, pokes her head out from behind Will’s locker door.
“Hey…” Rich smiles. “What’s your name again?”
“It’s Lily,” she says sliding between them.
“Yeah, the new girl.”
“So what’s going on?” Rich asks.
“Nothing. I just wanted to say hey.” She quickly turns her back on Rich to talk to Will. Still pale from winter, Lily’s fair skin and hay-colored hair suit her. She brushes a golden tendril from her eye. “Will, My Beautiful Corpse is opening this weekend; I was thinking of getting a couple of friends together. Would you like to come? It will be fun.”
“You guys don’t want to go to that yawn fest,” Russell interjects. “The trailer is stupid.”
“Why, Freak One, because it doesn’t have aliens?” Rich slams his locker door. “I’ll take you. I’ll pick you up in my beemer. It’s a little more comfortable than wee Willie’s handlebars. Saturday night?” Rich flirtatiously taps her locker with his book.
“Actually, I have my own bike. Will, we can ride to the movies together.”
“Oooh, Fartman, you just got served.”
“Shut up, E.T.!” Rich shoves Russell hard into the locker.
“I said, stop shoving my friend,” Will steps between them.
The first bell rings.
“Or what?” Rich puts his face into Will’s. “I could bench press you.”
“I know if we get into a fight you’ll probably beat me, but you’ll get kicked off the football team, which would make getting my ass kicked worth it.” Will smiles and waves to the hallway surveillance camera. “Say, hi to Principal Davis! Now, what are you going to do?”
“Dude, did you just fart?” Will scrunches his face and fans the air in front of him.
“We’ve been gassed! “Fartman! You live up to your name,” Russell says, recoiling from the stench.
“It’s Artman, Freak One!” He fires back and gives Russell one final shove as he retreats down the hallway.
“Your fart was worse than your shove!” Russell hollers at Rich as he walks away.
“Stallions!” Rich whoops as he approaches a small group of his teammates with a high five.
The second bell rings.
“We’re late,” Will grabs his Physics book.
“Will, what you just did was really cool,” Lily says.
“Not really. I could have gotten my face smashed. But I had a good feeling he wouldn’t. For once, being a jerk jock came in handy,” Will slams his locker door. Turning to head to Physics, he spots Lily, stopped ahead, and looking back at him.
“My mother said the angel was beautiful and are really beings of infinite love and patience. The angels that came to her and told her the Earth is a classroom,” Allie says, combing her fingers through her chocolate brown high ponytail. She lifts it to examine it for split ends as she speaks.
“God, Allie, you’re so transparent. You can stop campaigning. You’re not getting any more likes. No one believes you,” Ivy says under her breath.
“Ivy, your words are like your name-poisonous. Spsstttt…” Allie sprays an imaginary spray toward Ivy. “Weed be gone, so we don’t have to douse ourselves in calamine lotion.”
“Grow up, toddler.”
“I believe her,” April interjects. “I had an angel experience. But the one I saw didn’t say anything. I just saw it when I got caught in a riptide and almost drowned.”
“Really…” Allie says.
“It’s true. It’s like Allie’s mother says. There is that light.”
Ivy rolls her eyes.
“Ivy, I don’t care what you think. I saw it.”
“Come on April, really?”
“Yes, and I will never forget it.
“Then I have one question for you… what flavor Kool-Aid did you have with your breakfast this morning? Grow up, people. Live in the real world.” Ivy grabs her books and moves to the front of the class passing Lily as she makes her way to Ivy’s abandoned seat.
“Hey, Allie,” Lily sits and quickly unpacks her backpack.
Will and Russell slip in the door just before, Mr. Bohr, closes it, and quickly make their way to empty seats near Lily.
“Hey, Russell,” Allie says, biting her lip.
“I know, but I like Al better.”
“Al is a boy’s name.”
“Not necessarily. Al is short for Albert, Alan, Alexander, which is the male version of Alexandria. In today’s world and understanding of one’s sexual orientations, Al has become gender-neutral.
“Whatever,” Allie says turning her back on him. “As I was saying, my mom says many of these angels that walk among us don’t even know who they really are—they think they’re regular people. Nobody told them they’re an angel, so they’re completely oblivious! They have to figure out on their own that they’re angels. They asked my mom, ‘How would you live your life differently if you learned you were an angel?’ Ever since then, she’s been a completely different person; she even apologized to people she hurt in the past, including me.”
“So,” Allie finishes, “which one of us is the angel?”
“Thank you, Allie. Every time I hear your mother’s story it inspires me,” Mr. Bohr interjects with coffee-scented breath. “But this is a science class. It’s time to close your mouths, open your books and your minds. As Carl Sagan said, ‘Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.’”
Mr. Bohr’s wild, thick, disheveled, once-red hair, his bulbous nose atop his prodigious mustache, might mark the brilliance of a genius too caught up in matters of the universe to bother with such petty considerations as grooming. His oversized glasses and potbelly round out a persona so cliché it might as well be a costume.
“So true, Mr. Bohr,” Russell says. “But, check this out… I can bend a spoon, with my mind! Who’s got a metal spoon? Anyone?” He points out across the classroom. “Anyone? No one? Oh, wait…” Russell reaches into his pocket. “I happen to have one right here.” With a flourish, he pulls a metal spoon out of his pants pocket. “An everyday, normal spoon,” he tells his audience. “Here, inspect it for yourselves,” he passes it around.
Allie scrutinizes it. “Is this spoon clean?” Her nose wrinkles and she holds it with two fingers at arm’s length.
“Perfectly harmless. A bit of dried yogurt from yesterday most likely.” His face turns to glee at her attention and she passes the spoon back to him. “Now that you have seen that this is just an ordinary spoon from an ordinary kitchen, watch closely, as the extraordinary is about to take place right before your eyes.” With rapt attention, the class watches as he grips the spoon tightly in his right hand, holding his arm out straight in front of him so all can see.
He closes his eyes. “I’ll quiet my mind, so I can gather energy from the universe. It works better if everyone watching does the same.” He pauses for a long moment, peeking briefly to gauge the audience, breathing slowly and deeply. He opens his eyes. “This metal’s warming up, I can feel it softening.” He brings his other hand up to grip the spoon, then, with a rapid flick of his wrists, the spoon bends, not a bit, but around itself three times.
Audible gasps come from the class.
“If you could see yourselves,” Russell says, grinning ear-to-ear. “You look like you’ve never seen magic before. Tutorial available for $14.99 from AmazingWoodini.com.”
“How did you do that?” Mr. Bohr asks.
“You’re the Physics teacher, you tell me! A little metallurgy and physics… and psychology; people gladly fall for a lie that lets them escape their pathetic realities. It’s not hard. You really wanna know? I’ll teach you… for the low, low price of $29.99.” Russell adds as he slides back into his seat, whips back his shock of thick, wild hair, and then pulls a handful over his right eye, Criss Angel style.
“A quick round of applause for our resident magician,” Mr. Bohr says as he heads to the front of the class. “Let’s return to business… where’s my spotlight?” he chuckles. “Who can recap what we learned yesterday about atoms?” He points to the only student to raise her hand. “Lily?”
“We learned that subatomic particles are so far apart that they are mostly made of space?” She flashes a glance at her neighbors.
Allie scrunches her nose and mouths: brown noser.
“Correct. We’re surrounded by mostly empty space; even physical objects like this table,”—he gives it a rap— “which feels utterly solid. Physical objects have vastly more open space in them than particles.” Mr. Bohr adds, “If we removed all the space between all the atoms in the Earth, our entire planet and everything on it would take up the space of a football stadium.”
Will writes in his notes:
Mostly space. What’s in all that emptiness? Extra dimensions?
“Time for a new lab,” Mr. Bohr announces. “Find a partner and pair up. Come up, get your lab books, and go find a table.”
“Hey Al, want to be my partner?” Russell asks.
“In your dreams.”
“Dreams are good. I can make that happen.”
“I’ll be your partner,” Ivy tells Russell.
“Will, want to be my partner?” Lily asks.
“Uhh… uh, sure,” Will says.
“Is everyone clear on their lab assignment? Follow the guidelines on your instruction sheet and we should see some pretty interesting results.” Mr. Bohr says, checking the time. “Report is due Tuesday, and I want conclusions to show a clear chain of causality. You’ve got a few more minutes of class, I recommend you use it to set up your working schedules.”
“That’s a good question,” Lily says.
She reads from his notebook, “‘What’s in all that emptiness? Extra dimensions?’ Totally profound. Mr. Bohr’s mind would be blown if we made that part of our hypothesis.”
“So, shall we meet at your house or mine?”
“We have to discuss the theory and come up with our hypothesis before we do the labs. It’s due Tuesday, which isn’t a lot of time. So, we have to meet after school to work on it.”
“Yeah... right.” Lily’s piercing eyes made him feel naked. He kept his eyes on his sheet of paper to avoid looking at the gentle swell of her breasts, which was peeking out at the point of her v-neck. He pops his head up to find her blue eyes staring back into his. He turns away and fiddles with his textbook.
“How are we going get this lab report done on time?”
Don’t look at her breasts. Don’t look at her breasts…
“Well,” Will says, “I guess we’ll need to work on it together.”
“We don’t share a study hall.”
“Should we work on it, um…”
Don’t look at her breasts.
“At your house?”
“I was gonna say online.”
“Oh.” She shuffles the papers in front of her.
Idiot, idiot, idiot!
“But I suppose… you could come over.”
“Okay, but I don’t want to wait until the last minute.”
“Yeah, I guess we should get a jump start.” Will rubs the back of his neck.
“Yeah, I want to stay on top of this lab.”
He could not stop himself; his eyes found her breasts again. “Yeah, we should definitely keep abreast…”
The first bell rings.
I mean… you wanna come over to my house after school today?”
“Sure!” She glides her hair back behind an ear and lets out a big, satisfied exhale. She slides her things into her backpack, failing to contain her smile.
“I’ll meet you at the front entrance. We can bike to your house.”
“It’s a date. See you at 2:30.” Lily spins on her heels. Her cheeks are lifted by the smile on her face as she leaves the room.
“My bruh has a date at 2:30,” Russell raises his hand to high-five Will.
“Put your hand down, it’s not a date. We’re going to get together at my house to work on our hypothesis for our lab.”
“Do you have to meet her at a specific time?”
“At a specific place?”
“You have an activity you’re are going to do together?”
“That’s a date. I know you like her and she likes you. Take my advice and enjoy the fact that Lily is crushing on you.”
“I got gym next… with Fartman.”
The second bell rings.
“Freeman and Laforce, you’re going to be late for your next class.”
“Willis, just be thankful it’s not dodge ball.”
Russell stops under the classroom door. “What gives, Mr. Bohr?” Russell points at the dim LED light above the jamb. “Your cool detector must be broken because my spoon trick was sick. Does that light even do anything?”
“You’re the magician,” Mr. Bohr quips, “you tell me.”
Mr. Bohr raises an eyebrow when the light blips as Will exits.
Dinner at The Freeman’s
“Can I help with the dishes Mrs. Freeman?” Lily asks.
“Nonsense,” Mary says. “You’re our guest. Will can clear the table.”
Lily gets up and grabs her plate, careful not to disturb the chess game at the end of the table.
“No Lily, please sit. Last I checked, WJ still has two hands. Let him clear your place.”
Lily offers Will her plate and mouths, “Sorry.” He brings it to the sink, his ears growing warm.
He flicks the switch for the over-the-sink light. Clickety-click. The fluorescent light sputters, making a little noise but no light. Will flicks the switch off and back on with the same result. He flicks it several times. “Can we replace this light? The plastic’s turned all yellow. It doesn’t even turn on half the time. It’s junk!”
His mother comes over and places her hand on the switch. “Think kind thoughts to the light,” she tells Will. “Thank it for turning on, then flick the switch.” She pauses and closes her eyes. She flicks the switch; with an audible clickety-clickety-click, the light flickers and stays on.
“Oh come on,” Will says. “You got lucky. I warmed it up for you.”
“Now where were we?” She returns to the table.
“You don’t believe that New Age crap, do you?”
“I do believe ‘that New Age crap,’ and you’d be wise to broaden your thinking.”
“Mr. Bohr says, ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.’”
“Mr. Bohr,” Mary gives Lily a playful tap on her arm. “Don’t you love it when people’s personalities match their names? FYI, WJ, the evidence I’ve experienced is extraordinary enough for me.”
“Like the time you thought you saw an angel?” He makes air quotes behind her back.
She turns to Will, “I’m not crazy. I saw her, and you did too; you just don’t remember. She saved both of us.”
“Mom, you saved us. You were probably in shock and running on adrenaline.”
“No, she saved us.”
“Mrs. Freeman,” Lily says, “that’s the second angel story I’ve heard today.”
“Disdain is not a flattering look for you WJ. You want evidence? Try this: Ask a question before going to bed. Ask anything. See what happens. Lily, Thomas Edison would nap sitting in a chair with a steel ball in each hand and a metal tin on the floor under each.”
“He did this so when he was on the verge of sleep he’d wake himself up to capture his subconscious thoughts. Thomas-Flipping-Edison, you guys.”
Bwoop. Lily checks her phone. “Mom’s texting. That’s my cue.”
“Well, Lily, it was a joy having another woman in the house. Do you need a ride?”
“Thanks, Mrs. Freeman,” Lily says. “No, I’ve got my bike. It’s only a few miles. Bye, Will!”
His mother waits for the door to click shut. “Bye? Is that the best you can do? I have a lot to teach you about women.”
His room illuminated by the glow from his phone, Will opens the window a crack to let in the sound of peepers. He pulls back his blanket, slips between the sheets, and fluffs his pillow. As his phone blinks off, Will wonders what question he should ask.
Not that it matters, this won’t work.
He wakes up the phone and checks the alarm. Off.
“What will I be when I grow up?”
No, that’ll take too long.
“Tell me about tomorrow?” He puts the phone back on the nightstand and pulls up his covers.
Too vague. I know plenty about tomorrow. Tomorrow’s Saturday. It will still be spring. The forecast is sunny. I’ll have breakfast, lunch, and dinner; and likely hang around the house all day.
“Can you tell me something about tomorrow I don’t know?” Satisfied and proud of his question, he closes his eyes and relaxes into his pillow. His phone’s display goes dark once again. He dozes off as a few slivers of moonlight sneak past his pulled shades.
Blackness. Void. What is this?
“Is he ready for what’s coming?”
“Doesn’t matter. He’s stubborn. He’s unaware.”
“Lead Council, most adults are unaware.”
“Yes, unfortunately, that is true. The boy is almost sixteen, and he does have a keen sensitivity that is undeniable. Additionally, I think he possesses more wisdom than most of the adults we tried to help. If given the time and our support, I believe his mindfulness will blossom, and his abilities will grow.”
“Lead Council, I am grateful you see what I see and recognize his potential.”
“Wen, we all see what’s in his heart.”
“Lead Council, I contend his fears control him. He abdicates his responsibility. He lacks faith; he refuses to consider any perspective that challenges his own.”
“And I contend he’s capable and willing.”
“Indecisive? Really? How is that any different from what we are doing, challenging our positions to arrive at a consensus?”
“He lacks courage. Let’s not forget the others. They failed miserably.”
“They didn’t fail. They weren’t ready. There’s a difference.”
“They were unable to open their eyes.”
“I feel he has the capacity.”
“It’s not whether he has the capacity; failure could crush him. He’s not ready for Infinity.”
A hint of light reveals seven men and women in timeless linen tunics standing together next to a pond.
“Council, who among us has ever been ready for what’s next? Fail miserably. Fail again. Until one day you fail a little less. The next day less; and the next. That’s what growth looks like. Struggle mightily even when it feels like it’s too much to bear.”
Lead Council turns. “What are you doing here?”
“See? He’s already demonstrating his powers. That’s more than capacity.”
Will’s eyes pop open. He checks his phone to see what time it is.
What was that? Was it a dream? Did I leave my body? Where did I go? Who were they? I have to tell Russell.
Will drifts back to sleep.
The Change Purse
“WJ, let’s explore!” Will’s father calls to him to enter a shallow cove underneath a rocky outcropping at the edge of the beach. Sunlight bounces off tide pools; their reflections dance on the dark walls.
Along with various colorful fish, a raspberry octopus swims past him in midair. The octopus stops, lifts a tentacle, and Will lifts a hand. When the two touch—like a passing shadow—the octopus’ pigmentation shifts from crimson to peach. It pushes off Will’s hand and floats towards the back of the cove where Will finds Lily, in a raspberry-colored top. She is radiant, her hair billowing.
Will steps with care as he moves from sand to seaweed to rock. The sloshing of water in these shadowy tide pools echoes off the walls with a rhythmic bloop, galump, bwoop.
The octopus reaches out a tentacle and pulls Will closer to Lily. She raises both hands, holding something out to him, light pouring from her cupped hands like a water fountain. Bloop, galump, bwoop.
His dream vanishes at the sound of his phone. Forearm over his eyes, Will turns his head to the nightstand, hoping the texter will go away. It’s Saturday morning. Ugh. He unlocks his phone.
His phone rings. He waits a moment before picking up, but the caller hangs up. As he stares at the Missed call from Lily on his phone, it rings again, and he picks it right up.
“Hey Will! Whatcha up to today?”
“No plans,” he attempts to sound awake. “Why?”
“I thought we could work on our lab.”
“But it’s Saturday.”
“Okay, then let’s do something else. I don’t have plans either,” Lily says. “So … why don’t we have no plans together?”
“Sure, uh … yeah, okay, that sounds good.”
“Um, right now?”
“Yeah, right now. No silly, I have to bike over first.”
“Ah, ha ha. Yeah, right. Sure, now works,” Will says, jumping out of bed and scrambling for clothes.
“See you in a few!”
“Psychedelic,” Lily turns over the album cover. “Klaatu?”
“Yeah, people thought they were secretly the Beatles.”
“Cool. Can we listen?”
“It’s a little weird.”
“I like weird.” She takes the album out of its sleeve and opens the turntable’s lid. Will turns on the receiver. “Is this how you do it?” Lily places the record on the platter. “Where’s the on button for the record player?”
“It turns on when you move the arm over the record.”
Lily and Will both grab for the arm at the same time, fingers nearly colliding. They both pull back and grab for it again, halting short of touching. They both chuckle.
“You do it,” Lily says.
“No, you do it,” Will says.
“Yay,” she grins and lifts the arm. She moves it over the platter, and it starts to spin.
“The orange light tells you when the record’s spinning at the right speed,” Will tells her.
“Move the needle right here,” he says, pointing to the outer ridge of the record.
She smiles as pleasing pops and crackles come out of Will’s speakers.
“The turntable was my dad’s. Mom helped me restore it a long time ago. It needed a new needle, belt, and oil. I had a lot of fun with it … I don’t use it as much anymore.”
The song starts with sounds of trudging through a marsh at dusk, giving way to dulcet vocals accompanied by flute and synth. The vocals begin tenderly. As Lily closes her eyes and listens, Will studies her grin.
“A song about telepathically contacting aliens? Cool …” Lily picks up the small, framed photo from next to the turntable. “Is this your dad?”
“How old were you here?” She offers him the picture.
“Three.” He returns it to the shelf.
“I can see the resemblance.”
“Will,” his mother says, with a courtesy knock. “Oh, I thought I heard voices. You two slipped right by me.”
“Hi, Mrs. Freeman!”
“Hi, Lily. Will, I wanted to warn you your Uncle Rod is coming over. I made the mistake of mentioning the light over the sink, and he insisted on fixing it,” she rolls her eyes. “Anyway, I’ll leave you two to it. I mean … I’ll …” She shakes her head and mutters, “never mind.” His mother closes the door, then opens it … just a bit.
Lily snickers. “She left us to it!” she smiles. Will blushes.
“You got any other trippy albums like this one?”
“Hmm. Not much here, but my parent’s … my Mom’s record collection is up in the attic.”
“Ooh, can we go see if there’s more?”
“It’s a little creepy up there,” Will says, leading her to a door in the upstairs hallway.
“Creepy? That means it will be better than My Beautiful Corpse,” Lily says with a smile.
Will opens the hallway door to reveal bare wooden stairs going up and around a corner, wrapping around the chimney. The attic floor is makeshift, planks laid down—not even nailed in—across insulation and joists. The single, bare light bulb and window at the end are not enough to light the space.
“Creepy never bothers me. Creepy places have the best treasure.”
“Here,” Will points to a few milk crates filled with old albums. “My mom says the most loved albums are also the most worn.”
“Awww,” she sits cross-legged on the dusty, unfinished pine floor.
“Monty Python records? Nerd alert! Ooh, The Graduate. There’s a gem. I love Paul Simon,” Lily shows him the cover as he joins her on the floor: a young man’s gaze is transfixed on a woman’s leg in sheer black pantyhose.
“Here’s one,” he pulls out a black and white album of a lady in a white suit wearing opaque white sunglasses. “Laurie Anderson.”
“Artsy,” she says. He sets it down beside them.
“What’s in here?” She pulls back the flaps of a half-closed cardboard box.
“Some old junk.”
“Pants, pants, pants,” she says, rummaging through the contents of the box. “Are these your dad’s?”
“Yeah, my mom is a hoarder. Long story. I’ll tell you later.”
Spying books and more underneath, she pushes aside the folded pants with the enthusiasm of a treasure hunter. “Journeys Out of the Body—is this your mom’s?”
From the assorted knickknacks, Lily picks up an item about the size of a plum. It’s light and hollow. It resembles a miniature football if footballs had three sides. She turns it over in her hand; each side has a symbol on it:
“Does that long story include this?” Lily holds out the tiny football. The vision of his morning dream flashes in his mind. Even her top is the same.
He takes the item from her. “Mom!” he hollers and bolts downstairs with Lily on his heels.
“What’s this?” He hands Mom the tiny football.
The smile leaves her face. “Where did you find that?”
“In one of the boxes in the attic.”
“Hm. That belonged to your father … it’s a change purse,” she says, handing it back with forced nonchalance.
“Isn’t it strange for Dad to have a change purse? It’s not very manly,” he says, jamming it into his pants pocket.
Lily giggles awkwardly and blushes at the oddly shaped bulge protruding from his skinny jeans. His mother takes one look at Will and turns her head to stop from laughing. Turning his gaze downward, Will blushes when his eyes catch the bulge. “Oh!” He spins around, “Haha.” he jams his hand in and yanks out the change purse, his inverted white pocket dangling limp against his jeans. He stuffs his pocket back into his pants.
“Your father was into some strange things. Sorry, I didn’t mean it that way. Your dad was a terrific person, and the things he was into were all good, great even--strange—but great.” She gazes up and shakes her head. “Okay,” she mutters and holds out her hand, “Give it to me. I’ll show you.” Will hands over the change purse. She holds it between her thumb and forefinger and pinches. Her pinch squeezes the internal tension rods, and it opens along one of its seams. She glances in and releases her grip, closing the purse.
“I think it’s neat,” Lily says. Mary hands it to her, and Lily tries pinching it open and closed a few times. “Look,” she says, “there are papers inside!” She holds it open for them to see.
“Your dad would want you to have that. It’s yours if you want,” Mary says, peering through the kitchen window. A shiny, black, Dodge Charger pulls into the driveway past the kitchen window. Its engine releases a low growl that increases when the driver revs before removing the key from its ignition.
“Woah! Whose muscle car is that?” Will asks.
“Oh, God. It’s your Uncle Rod. I forgot he said he was coming to fix the light. Is that a new car?”
“Great, just what he needs … a muscle car.” Will grimaces.
“WJ, he can’t help it. He’s your father’s brother. Be nice.”
“That’s the problem. We’re always nice to him.”
His mother opens the knickknacks drawer. “Put that away … ”
Will chucks the change purse into the drawer.
Uncle Rod steps out of his vehicle, pats his hair in the side view mirror, inspects the car’s finish, and flicks an invisible spot of dust off the hood.
“What a douche,” Will mutters.
“I know … but he’s still your father’s brother.”
“What’s he doing now?”
Rod dodges the spray from their floral-shaped lawn ornament. He follows the hose back to the house and turns it off. Water beads glisten and drip off the nearby lilacs. Will’s mother said lilacs were his father’s favorite. After his father disappeared, they moved to this house. His mother planted two lilac bushes and said she was looking forward to the day his father would be able to smell them with her. Will never understood what she meant by that, but he enjoyed the thought of his mother and father sharing a love for something.
Uncle Rod swaggers up the steps to their kitchen door, pulling at his khaki camouflage pants.
“Hi, Rod. Thanks for coming over,” Mary says, opening the door for him.
“Oh, hi, Mary … no problem. I’m glad to help. I turned off your sprinkler to save on your water bill. Like the new car?”
“Oh, is that new?”
“Yeah, I was thinking about going green and all, but you know, a man’s gotta have his power.” He winks at Will. He turns back to Mary. “Anything new to report?”
“Stop asking me that. I’ll let you know.”
“Hi, Will. And you are?” Rod holds out a hand for Lily.
“This is Lily,” Will says.
Rod shakes her hand and winks at Will. “Sweet … you found a sport.”
“Rod, the light’s right over here.”
Rod flicks the switch a couple of times. “Ballast. Pretty common issue. You should go LED. You’d save on your electric bills. Every penny helps when you’re on a fixed income. I replaced all the bulbs in my house. I can replace this for you if you want. Fixture’s about $30 … I wouldn’t charge you for the labor, of course.”
“Well, that’s generous of you.”
“Hey Will, like the new khakis?”
“Those aren’t your old ones?”
“These are the real deal; Desert Storm approved … got ’em at the surplus. Just because they wouldn’t let me in, doesn’t mean I can’t be ready to serve at a moment’s notice. You wanna come to the hardware store with me? I’ll teach you how to replace a fixture.”
“Thanks, Uncle Rod, but … ”
“Learn about taking care of your home; it keeps you grounded. You don’t want to end up like your father.”
“What? He knows I’m kidding. Don’t you Will? As for you little lady, treat my nephew right, and he’ll never have a reason to leave you,” he says wagging a finger at Lily.
“I really appreciate you stopping by,” Mary says, opening the door. “The kids have a hectic schedule this afternoon and I need to make them lunch … ”
“Lunch? That’d be great. Keto?”
“Yes, I know what it’s short for. I’ve heard of it. I just don’t know what it is.”
“Low carb, high fat, all the basics … eggs, tuna, extra virgin olive oil, almonds, avocados, butter—preferably grass-fed if you have it, but if not, I understand. Body’s a temple, right, Will? Nothing sugary, no grains, no root vegetables. You should give it a try Mary, it’ll help with your, ah … metabolism. Maybe like a chicken salad with olive oil and feta? It’d be good for Will’s brain function too.”
“I’ll keep that in mind. Low carb, high fat,” Mary says through clenched teeth.
“Tell you what, I’ll head over to the hardware store before we eat and pick up a fixture for you. My treat.”
“That’s generous of you Rod, but I want to pay you.” She grabs the doorknob to let him out, and his hand lands on hers. He smiles and gives her hand a quick, gentle squeeze. She withdraws her hand; he opens the door.
“Hey, Will? I’m opening up the cabin this weekend. How ’bout you and me head up? Seclusion, off the grid, just you, me, and some fresh air. It’d be good for you to have a father fig—”
“Gee, that’s quite an offer,” Mary says. “Will and I will have to talk about that.”
“Yeah, let’s talk about it,” Will says.
Mary closes the door and locks it.
“I’ll be back in time for lunch!” Rod calls out from the other side of the door.
“Don’t make me go back to his cabin again,” Will says. “I went three times, and every time was torture. I’d rather have my teeth drilled.”
“Of course you’re not going. I was being polite. He can be difficult, but he’s been going through a rough patch since Joy left him. Show him a little compassion.”
“I bet Dad wouldn’t,” Will says, irritated.
“Your father knew the value of compassion. I wish I could get that through to you. Your Uncle Rod may be too far gone, but you still have options.” She opens the drawer and tosses him the change purse. “Explore your options. Lily, would you like to stay for lunch? Tuna fish sandwiches and fruit salad.”
“Yes, thank you.”
“You two can hang out in the living room while I make the fruit salad.”
“Come on,” he says to Lily, and she follows him.
Will has a seat on the couch and turns the change purse over in his hands.
Lily plops down in the adjacent pleather recliner, draping a knee over the chair arm closest to Will, and bobs her foot in his direction. “Sooo … WJ? Will Junior?”
“She calls me that when she’s trying to embarrass me.”
“Well, I like it.” She corrects her posture and leans forward. “Can I see?”
“Sure,” Will perks up and hands her the change purse. She peeks inside again, “Let’s check out these scraps of paper.” She gets up from the recliner and joins him on the couch. She removes the papers and spreads them out on the coffee table in front of them.
“‘I ask for answers, and I get them,’” she reads, her voice low, serious, and an eyebrow arched. She grabs another. “‘I treat people with kindness.’ Aww, that’s sweet. ‘I don’t let my fears get the best of me.’” She turns to Will, “This is like some bizarro fortune cookie.” She chuckles at her own joke. Her glee leaves her face when she reads the last one to herself. “‘WJ is safe from harm.’ This fortune cookie went from cute to creepy.”
“Let me see.” Will grabs the scrap of paper.
“I’ve never seen this,” Will says. “That’s not creepy, that’s crazy.” He tosses it onto the coffee table.
She slides the papers aside, opens the purse wide, and holds it up for closer inspection. “Hey, there’s some words on the inside in the fabric on the back.” Stitched in golden thread on the red silk lining, she reads: “‘Activated Consciousness.’” She wrinkles her nose. “What the heck do you think that means?”
Will stares at the coffee table.
“Hello? Earth to Will. Does any of this make sense to you?” She asks, “Where’s your dad?”
“He left when I was young.”
“You sound surprised.”
“When your mom talked about your dad, it sounded like she still loves him.”
Will turns on the couch, placing a leg on the cushion, and turns his torso to her. “He left after the car accident. For all I know, he’s dead.”
“Oh my God.” Lily holds a hand to her mouth.
“He’s not really dead, but … we don’t know. It was a long time ago.”
“My mom doesn’t like to talk about it, but it was raining, and we got into an accident because he was driving too fast. That’s what I remember. But my mom says evil men forced the car off the road and abducted Dad, and that an angel saved us. Uncle Rod thinks he went nuts and left us. Everybody has their version of what happened.”
Lily places her hand on Will’s. “I’m sorry, I had no idea.”
“Anyway, it was after that we moved to this house, and we’ve been here ever since.”
Mary peeks her head in. “Lunch is almost ready. I’m missing a cantaloupe for the fruit salad and chips for the sandwiches. I need you to run to the store,” she extends a ten-dollar bill.
“What about Uncle Rod?”
“Don’t worry, he’s getting a bagged lunch. Hannaford’s is not even a mile. Take your bikes, and you’ll be back before him. Remember to press the bottom of the melon like I showed you and smell … ”