an excerpt from
The Journeys of John and Julia:
Genesis, Book I
The conference was scheduled to begin at 11:11 PM, sharp.
The conference room would appear at 11:00 PM behind the old amphitheater.
Eleven minutes would be plenty of time to get the invitations out and for everyone to arrive with time to spare.
It wasn’t really an invitation though, it was more like a directive and no RSVP was necessary. Everybody just had to appear. It was a duty. It was non-negotiable. It came with the territory and no one had ever questioned it.
It was highly unlikely for unwelcome visitors to show up in the area at that time – the sites of a conference were always chosen with the greatest efforts to that effect and the old amphitheater lay abandoned in the middle of a vast ancient forest with huge virgin growth trees. Most of them were more than a thousand years old, beholders of events almost too fantastic to believe. They say that the occasions on which human beings stumble into their midst are rare. They reason that a few old stones arranged in a half circle with a big slab of rock in the center and by no means spectacular enough to attract attention is all someone would see. They conclude the site is ideal.
On this particular moonless night, the creatures of the forest were the only witnesses to what was going to happen.
At exactly 11 o’clock, a slight movement disturbed the calm of the scene. In fact, it was more a blur than a movement, really. The dark night air behind the amphitheater became alive, quivered, warped, wobbled, emanated a strange hissing sound – all in astonishing disregard for the laws of physics. To the uninitiated however, it was no more than the wind in the trees. You had to strain your eyes really hard to notice the conference room emerging out of the empty space between the amphitheater and the bordering trees. It blended so well into the landscape that it was hard to determine whether it truly existed or if the remote forest in combination with a black night triggered the imagination into seeing things. Therefore, despite the fact that the absence of any human being could not be totally assured, the chances of being detected were negligible.
Any of the twenty-two members of the group could summon a conference, and each of them understood that this privilege was never to be abused. It was an unwritten rule that without a good reason – genuine or subjective – no one was allowed to initiate a meeting.
Actually, there were twenty-three associates, but everybody thought of the Siamese Twins as one person. They were not twins exactly – Siamese or otherwise – they were a couple.
Nobody though could recall them ever being apart and that fact had earned them their nickname.
Today Theodore Cliffton had placed the call. He was known to behave foolishly at times, but all his colleagues would show up anyway and the conference would happen, no matter who sent out the invitation.
Here he was, a young looking man, dressed in a uniquely patterned colorful shirt, khaki-shorts and sturdy hiking boots, a safari hat lying next to him. He sat on the center rock of the amphitheater, very still with his eyes closed, in deep concentration. Not a muscle on his entire body moved. He could have been part of the landscape – that’s how still he was. Just before he opened his eyes, he nodded to himself as if affirming something in his mind. Then he stretched his legs and got up.
As he looked in the direction of the conference room, an opening appeared in the wall closest to him. He knew he had only a few seconds to enter before the building shifted sixteen and one-third degrees counterclockwise and the door would disappear. He picked up his hat and swiftly moved through.
The nondescript exterior of the hall gave no clue of what was inside. The structure was round with a diameter of maybe fifty yards but held only one room. There were no windows, yet the room felt wide and airy. It had a high dome ceiling with all kinds of strange symbols painted on it. The walls were a funny looking metal structure – they resembled a gigantic honeycomb. The metal gave off an iridescent glow, filling the whole room with a soft, shimmering light. There was not a single door.
In the center of the room stood a huge round table with twenty-two high-backed chairs evenly spaced around it. They were beautifully crafted, and each of them looked slightly different, including one as wide as a bench.
Aha! That’s where the Siamese Twins will sit, Cliffton thought, while he performed his duties as host, inspecting the room making sure that everything was as it should be. His dazzling blue eyes reflected the luminescence all around him as he looked up to the ceiling with its many symbols and a pleased smile crawled over his face.
That same moment, as if responding to his smile, a magnificent red and golden feather separated from the ceiling and slowly descended towards him. It stopped only inches away from his head – then moved horizontally towards the table. It circled the table three times and finally came to rest on the back of one of the chairs. Merging with the wood, it created the impression of a chair with a red and golden feather painted on its backrest. Cliffton approached the table, pulled back the newly decorated chair and sat down. All he needed to do now was wait.
Because he had closed his eyes again, he missed what happened next. Twenty-one more symbols began one by one to protrude from the ceiling, slowly gliding towards the table and attaching themselves onto the chairs. Just like the feather had. There was a golden wand with pointed tips on each end, a beautifully woven piece of fabric that seemed to be nothing more than a radiant beam of moonlight in one moment and completely opaque like a pearl the next, a rose, a crystal ball, a pair of keys – to name just a few. Each of them found its place as if directed by some invisible force.
Would there have been a clock in the room, it would have shown that this whole affair was completed in less than thirty seconds. But time was of no consequence in these surroundings. Everything happened in a special rhythm the way it always had, the way it always must.
Theodore Cliffton’s silent contemplation was interrupted by a low purring sound. He opened his eyes and saw exactly what he expected to see: The humming noise meant the mysterious mechanisms of the hall were getting ready to allow the next person in.
Sure enough, just a little to his left, a door appeared and his esteemed colleague, Doctor Chester Magnussen, stepped into the room. He was a tall, ordinary looking man of middle age and seemed a little bogged down by the black pilot case he carried in his left hand. The eye-catching, ankle-length crimson cape he wore, gave his appearance a certain old-fashioned dignity and suggested that he had either been on his way to the opera or to a costume ball, when the invitation reached him.
“Hello Avi,” he said cordially, placing his bag on the table. He pulled out the chair next to Cliffton’s, the one with the golden wand on it. “Nice job you did selecting this site. Must have found it on one of your travels I reckon?”
Cliffton smiled. Avi was what his friends called him, and it was short for his nickname, The Adventurer. All of The Twenty-Two had known each other for what felt like eternity and with a few exceptions, they hardly ever bothered to use their real names.
“Hi Mac, good to see you again. How have you been?” Cliffton replied with his smile now reaching all the way to his voice. “I stumbled across it, while investigating some rumors about a Bigfoot living in these forests. Made me really curious. Only, then I got sidetracked with – oh listen,” he interrupted himself as the low humming sound started up once more.
“I know Avi,” Magnussen mumbled to himself, “of all your wonderful traits focus surely is not one of them.”
But Cliffton was no longer listening to him. He watched the door reappear just a little bit to the left from where it had been before, and a spectacularly beautiful woman, covered from head to toe in a long flowing gown, made of some shiny silver-blue material, walked in. Despite the fact that she was carrying a sizable ancient looking book, she moved with such easy grace that it seemed as if her feet didn’t even touch the ground. It was impossible to guess her age – one moment she looked like a young girl and then, only an instant later, as ancient as her book. But looks were of as little consequence in these surroundings as was time.
“Good evening MaDame” Magnussen welcomed the new arrival with greatest reverence. “May I help you with your book?”
“Oh come on Mac, don’t treat me as if I was an old grandmother.”
Mirra Prestessi shot Magnussen an icy look, as she threw the book on the table. “Besides, I know you know that I would not let you or anybody else handle the book even if I was feeble which I am not so thank you very much.”
“Ah Mirra,” Magnussen answered, an expression of alarm on his face, “it just makes me nervous to watch you throwing the book around the way you do. I think of all the things that could happen if – “
The arrival of more people interrupted their dispute, and soon the hall was filled with the humming of the appearing doors and the laughter of old friends.
Most of them were loosely in touch at any time, but for all of them coming together for a conference was a big deal nevertheless. They clearly enjoyed this opportunity to catch up. A beautiful lion with an impressive dark mane walked around the room greeting everyone by rubbing his gigantic head against their hips and was purring with pleasure like a kitten. He belonged to Leona Strong, and in her presence the big cat was usually well behaved.
At exactly 11:11 o’clock, everyone had taken their assigned seats according to the symbols on the backrest of the chairs, and the conference could begin. An anticipatory silence fell over the room.
Cliffton cleared his throat and got up.
“My dear friends,” he said, opening his arms wide in a gesture of warm welcome. “Thank you all for being here tonight.”
Then, true to his style, he jumped right to the heart of things without noteworthy preamble. “I must introduce a matter of great urgency. I was contacted by a girl. She is thirteen years old, her name is Julia and she is in dire need of our help. She is not aware of her reaching out, yet the emotional intensity of her wish to have a different life is so strong that I even lost interest in chasing that Bigfoot I have heard about. And there is no need for me to tell you how much Bigfoots mean to me. They are the sweetest creatures and they – “
Chester Magnussen realized, as did everyone else, that Cliffton was dangerously close to losing sight of the proposed subject and, finding his friend’s leg under the table, he gave him an as he hoped discrete, yet firm kick to the shin.
Thankfully, today this nonverbal suggestion was enough to bring Cliffton back to his proposition. He was filled with childlike curiosity and it was quite natural for him to explore any new situation at the snap of a finger. As consequence of such behavior, he lost himself as quickly in a labyrinth of stimuli. Needless to say, keeping up with him posed quite a challenge for his friends.
“Er – where was I? Er – yes, Julia. Her parents recently separated and a few months ago her Grandfather died. Her world is upside down and she suffers deeply. She wants to change but aside from getting her parents back together doesn’t know what and if she knew that, she wouldn’t know how. She is not aware of the fact that the emotional intensity of her sincere wish to have a life without pain and full of happiness is like a prayer. I can’t explain why but I strongly feel we must let her see that every prayer is answered and that reaching out is never ignored! So I invited you here to look into her case and to get your valued opinions, as to how we should proceed.”
Regardless of his little deviation into the world of Bigfoots, it had been an unusually lengthy speech for Cliffton, and this fact was enough to convince the group of the validity of his claim. Even before he sat back down, the group was already discussing the information. Everybody talked at once – someone even yelled across the table.
“Please please my dear Ladies and Gentlemen,” shouted a stern looking man over the noise. “Let’s have some discipline here.”
His steel-gray hair lay so tight around his head that it resembled a helmet. In combination with a beard that covered almost all of his face and a pair of bushy eyebrows, he looked as though he wore a visor. His piercing gray eyes rested briefly on each of the members as he glanced around the table. He radiated an aura of unmistakable authority. As if muted by remote control, there was instantaneous silence.
“Er – yes – thank you, Herr Kaiser,” said Cliffton, noticeably relieved that the burden of restoring order had been assumed by someone so much better suited to the task. “I shall gladly answer all of your questions regarding the case. However, I was hoping Mirra would be kind enough to help us get some clarity, by affording us a glimpse into her book first.”
Mirra Prestessi, at the moment wearing her young-girl-look, had not participated in the general conversation. She sat with her eyes shut and seemed to stare at the closed book in front of her. Any stranger would have thought it very odd at best, that someone could actually stare with their eyes closed, but the people in the room had long become accustomed to Mirra’s way of looking. A common joke among them was that she really possessed a thousand eyes and that she used her physical ones only as a show of social graces. Despite these efforts to not intimidate with her eccentricities, by far not everybody felt comfortable looking into her eyes.
Half the time they were of an unclouded dark blue that bordered on purple and inflicted a sensation of being pulled down into the frightening unknown of the deep sea on a calm day. The rest of the time, they changed to a silvery blue, reminiscent of a sheet of arctic ice or the smooth panel of a mirror. On these occasions, there was no way to penetrate their glassy surface and everything they looked upon was reflected back in a threateningly clear way. Whichever color they were, caught in the path of their gaze, even the most carefully projected mask, pretense or wall was stripped away. In the presence of those eyes was no room for any perception other than truth. Mirra Prestessi was a strange woman indeed.
Without anyone touching the book, it suddenly flew open. As if by magic its pages started to turn; slowly at first, picking up speed with every turn of the page, creating a delicate breeze that made Mirra’s dress move in patterns resembling the concentric circles of a stone thrown into a pond.
Everybody in the room watched the process with fixed attention. It always was such a treat to snatch a peek into Mirra’s book, and it was by no means certain for the book to comply in all cases. The level of excitement in the room could not get any higher without becoming audible even to human ears, when Mirra finally opened her eyes and the book came to a stop.
Anyone unfamiliar with the workings of the book might have wondered why it had stopped at two blank pages – but then again, said person could have flipped through the whole book without finding so much as a single dot of ink in it. To the uninitiated, the book contained nothing but innocent blank pages – page after page after page. Such a person might have thought the book an unused journal perhaps and his guess would not have been far off the mark. Just some journal he never dreamed to exist.
Although the members of the group were aware of the special powers the book possessed, Mirra was the only one able to obtain information from it without the help of Chester Magnussen. By nature of her being, she practically was the book. With those weird eyes of hers, she had seen everything that ever has happened and stored it in the book. And – as if this was not fantastic enough already – her eyes had seen everything that ever was going to happen and stored it in the book, too. And alongside everything that ever has happened or ever will happen, the book stored all the things that could have happened but never did and maybe never will, too. In short, Mirra’s book contained every imaginable possibility as well as every unimaginable probability – past, present and future.
No member of the group however, found this particularly noteworthy. After all, time was of no consequence in these surroundings. And in an environment where time is of no consequence, anything is possible.
“Well,” said Mirra while aging slowly and not minding it a bit, “looks like the book thinks there is something to Avi’s claim. Mac, would you please?”
Chester Magnussen was already on his feet, fiddling around in his pilot case. He was obviously looking for something.
“Somebody tell me what we want to accomplish here. Visual only? Tactile? The whole shebang?”
Although his questions were not addressed to anyone specific, everyone respected that this was Cliffton’s call – so he was in charge. For now, anyway.
“I suggest we first go into visual-audio-sensory-mode, Julia only, time vector alpha-457.9-present with some explanatory narrative for off-screen goings-on if necessary,” Cliffton answered, reading the numbers off a scrap of paper he had taken out of his shirt pocket. Aside from a pouch around his waist he never carried any baggage, but seemed to produce everything he needed miraculously from the depths of his shirt. “Based on what the book shows, we evaluate the data and then take it from there,” he continued, looking around the table for response. Everybody signaled agreement.
“Then this is all I need,” said Magnussen, pulling a bizarre looking object out of his bag. On first glance, it might have been no more than some ordinary stick; colorful and round with smooth edges on both ends, about twenty-two inches long.
On closer observation, the colors came to life; swirling shapes, moving in a dark-violet medium of peculiar viscosity bending and contorting with the motion of the shapes. So, although the idea seems extreme, it looked as if the wand contained a condensed version of the universe.
Magnussen removed his crimson cape to reveal the floor-length toga of dazzling white he wore underneath, held together by the most awesome belt in the form of a snake biting its tail. With a movement of his galaxy wand as swift as it was elegant, he touched the book, and one segment of the honeycomb-structured-wall lit up like a screen.
He slowly lowered himself back onto his chair, as if not to disturb the swirling motions of his wand. Mirra closed her eyes again – not out of any necessity, she just preferred to look with her eyes closed – and the honeycomb-wall-monitor displayed some static. From the metal frame around it, bright-green flashing characters indicated the marker ‘alpha-457.9-present-Julia-VAS/n’.
Magnussen adjusted the position of the wand with the tiniest tilt of his fingers, the static cleared, and the face of a pretty girl with light brown hair cascading in smooth curls just below her shoulders appeared on the screen. Her eyes had the subdued blue-green color of the ocean on a cloudy day. Specks of gold, scattered around the iris like motes of dust in a ray of afternoon sunlight, matched the healthy golden glow of her skin perfectly. Framed by long thick lashes, those eyes were the most outstanding feature in a face otherwise obscured by traits partly still belonging to the face of a child and partly already to that of a woman.
“May I introduce Julia,” said Cliffton, his voice vibrant with a tinge resembling the pride of a craftsman presenting his masterpiece.
His remark was quite superfluous, because as far as anyone could tell, Mirra had always been accurate in finding the proper blank page in her book.
Julia was in her room, staring into the mirror above her dresser, moving her head this way and that while studying her face critically. With a pleased smile she turned around and grabbed the phone from the side table next to her bed. Sliding it on, she quickly speed-dialed the number she would have remembered in a coma. She sat down on her bed, one foot tapping impatiently on the floor.
“Finally! What took you so long? I miss half my life waiting for you to pick up the phone.” She listened intently to the voice of her friend on the other end of the line – her tapping foot picking up speed.
“Ok, ok. I see. Just why you think we have those scientist geeks inventing all this micro stuff if you don’t take it with you everywhere?” The impatiently tapping foot seemed to have infected her free hand. “Listen, all I wanted to tell you is, the stuff we bought at the mall yesterday is fan-absolutely-tastic! I put it on before I went to bed and it wiped this pimple completely!”
Phone pressed against her ear, Julia got off the bed and started dancing around the room.
“Yesss! Another victory in the battles of adolescence! My life is totally changed! Now I’m so ready to go to camp and face Miss I’m-so-Wonderful and her homies.”
She stopped her spinning in front of the door and put her free ear against it.
“Sorry Kellie, gotta go. I hear mom coming up the stairs. Probably because I didn’t respond when she called. Keeps her in shape,” Julia giggled. “Twenty stairs less on the stair-stepper at the gym tonight. Talk to you later. Sure. Bye.”
With her usual display of excess energy, which she tried to work off in the daily gym routine her daughter had hinted at, Julia’s mother knocked at the door, and by the time Julia had a chance to answer, she was already sitting on the bed. She wore a dark two-piece suit and pumps of the same color. Her auburn pageboy hair, beautiful enough for shampoo commercials, bobbed around her made up face. No doubt, she was all geared up to go to work.
“Wow mom,” Julia exclaimed, closing the door behind her mother, “sometimes I think you’ll be the first one to break the faster-than-light-speed-barrier.”
Under normal circumstances, Julia did not allow her mother to violate the fragile structure of their mother-daughter-boundaries by rushing into her room without being properly invited in. But this morning, she still carried that glorious sense of well-being, originating in her triumph over that nasty pimple and consequently, she felt rather generous towards the world. As a sign of just how deep this generosity reached, she surprised herself by extending it to include her mother.
“Julia I have to talk to you,” said Elizabeth, dropping her shoes on the floor and pulling her legs under. “Why don’t you sit with me for a minute.”
“Sorry but that sounds way too serious for the space I’m in right now. Whenever you start without saying any of those nice things mothers are supposed to say – you end up saying something I don’t want to hear.”
Julia walked towards the mirror, scanning her smooth, unblemished skin in an attempt to hold on to the blissful feeling, which now was fading fast. “I’m in such a great mood and I won’t let you spoil it with your mother-daughter-intimacy stuff.”
“Oh come on, darling,” her mother sighed, fighting for composure as she recognized the dreaded if familiar feeling of tears pushing behind her eyes, her usual emotional response to harsh words. Julia’s in particular. “It’s never the right time for you. You’re either depressed about something or too busy talking on the phone or off solving mysteries with your nose in a book and we hardly talk at all anymore.”
“See, now you’ve done it. Thank you very much. This is exactly the reason why I don’t want to talk to you. It’s all about you and your needs.”
Julia turned around, the golden specks in her eyes shooting phasers in the general direction of her mother.
“First you come busting into my room with no regard for my privacy whatsoever, then you lay that speech on me, guiltying me for the failure of our relationship, when the truth is that you’re jealous because I have a life and you don’t.”
She tried to read her mother’s expression and decided to top her speech with some authority. “Doctor Kline told me I have a right to my space.”
“I’m glad your therapy is working,” Elizabeth stressed every word. She was torn between sympathy for her daughter’s plight, resentment for her daughter’s behavior and self-pity for being a single-mom stuck in a disintegrating situation, “but if you think I pay a thousand a month to support a conspiracy between you and your therapist to abuse me, you are mistaken.”
“Great! Now it’s a conspiracy. What’s it gonna be tomorrow? Voodoo? I think you’re paranoid. No wonder dad couldn’t stand living with you any longer.”
Horrified, Julia listened to the words as they tumbled out of her mouth.
Mothers do have a way of driving innocent young adults crazy with their stuff, claimed a furious voice inside her head. Yet, underneath the soothing warmth of her anger, she felt the notorious, spindly finger of the guilt-monster reaching for her conscience, causing a throbbing sensation somewhere in the back of her head. You’ve gone too far this time, it suggested, hooking her, trying to reel her in.
Ultimately, this time her anger won. She stomped her foot on the floor in an effort to scare the guilt-monster away as much as giving emphasis to her next words, and in the hidden landscape of her mind, she transformed into Stepmother telling Cinderella that she couldn’t go to the ball. Throwing her head back while at the same time rolling her eyes towards the ceiling, she managed to give her voice a haughty pitch. “I’ll be so glad to be rid of you for a while when I’m at camp.”
There was a moment of silence that could not have stretched more than a second yet seemed to last way beyond the tick of a clock.
Finally Elizabeth’s sigh broke the spell. “I’m glad you mention it – because you’re not going.”
The way it frequently happens in situations that extend normal perception into slow motion, Elizabeth noticed that, in spite of her feelings of frustration, she was able to speak in a fairly calm voice. She attributed that fact partially to shock at Julia’s hateful words and partially to relief that at last she was able to inform her daughter of the changed situation. Some of it anyhow.
“Grandmother called yesterday. She wants us to visit and the only time I can get off work with that big project and all is during the time you’d be at camp.” Elizabeth spoke fast now, eager to get it over with. “I informed Ms Vabersky already and she promised to make the necessary arrangements. She said she’ll even try to get us a refund for the retainer.”
She watched Julia with some trepidation. Waiting for her daughter to respond, she started picking the cuticle of her thumb with the nail of her index finger, something she did whenever she needed to keep it together in situations beyond her control.
Julia tried to absorb what her mother had told her. It didn’t make any sense. Her mouth fell open as if to take the information in that way – it was no use. All of her senses screamed that what she had heard was bad, yet the meaning eluded her, as though the synapses in her brain had stopped firing before she was able to interpret the message. She stood paralyzed. With her anger spent in the quarrel preceding this fatal blow to her summer plans, she began to cry.
“Oh no Mom,” she sobbed, “you can’t do that to me! You tell me all the time I don’t take enough interest in my school friends, now I do and I really want to go. I worked so hard to get on the all-star team to make this happen. Please, can we talk about it? I didn’t mean what I said about you and Dad!”
In an attempt to turn the situation around, she moved towards her mother and threw herself on the bed next to Elizabeth.
“But of course we can honey,” Elizabeth answered, gently stroking her daughter’s back. “We’ll talk about it tonight. I gotta run. I’m late as it is and I have this important presentation today.”
The second she heard herself talk about the presentation, she remembered that she would take her clients out to dinner and would not be home until late. Unable to deal with more of Julia’s disappointment at the moment and afraid that Julia would notice her annoyance, she added quickly: “Why don’t you call Grandma and tell her how excited you are to spend some time with her?”
She got up and kissed Julia lightly on the back of her head.
In a balancing act, Elizabeth put on her shoes, as she advanced towards the door. She always struggled to cram as many things as possible into a single moment. She called that managing time. One hand on the doorknob, she looked at Julia and announced in a voice a touch too chirpy to reflect her true feelings: “I’ll leave you some money on the counter. You can go to the mall and do something fun.”
Julia listened to the sound of her mother’s footsteps disappearing towards the garage. As soon as she heard the door bang shut, she reached for her phone to call Kellie.
“Something terrible has happened, can I come over? Thanks. See you in a minute.”
For a brief moment, she considered just slipping into her sneakers and rush over to Kellie’s without bothering to wash her face or brush her teeth – then decided against it. No matter how big a crisis she was in right now, her getting another pimple or, god forbid a cavity, surely wouldn’t help the situation. She trotted into the bathroom and took care of her morning routine.
Back in her room, she pulled on her favorite jeans and T-shirt to band-aid her bruised self-esteem, slipped into her shoes and went downstairs. In passing, she snatched the money off the kitchen counter, stuffed it into her jeans pocket without even counting it, grabbed her keys off the hook by the garage door and left the house.
A big gray cat with a fluffy fur coat got up from his sunny place on the front lawn to greet her. Yawning, he gracefully stretched each of his limbs separately – the way only cats know how to do – then walked right in between Julia’s legs. In a major effort to stay on her feet without stepping on the cat, Julia bent down to scratch him behind his ears.
“Hey Twinkle Toes,” she purred, “something terrible has happened this morning. I’ll fill you in as soon as I’m back. Gotta run now. Kellie is waiting.”
She opened the gate carefully as to not let Twinkle Toes out – a bit in denial about the fact that a waist-high fence is no real obstacle for a cat.
The members of the conference watched Julia stroll down the street, and Mirra opened her eyes as if bored with the lack of action.
“What do you think of her?” Cliffton asked anxiously, addressing everyone in the room at the same time and of course, everyone shared their opinion at once.
“Please please, let us not start this again,” Herr Kaiser’s voice thundered above the din. “I am sure we can discuss the matter in an orderly fashion.”
As before, the commotion ceased immediately. He looked around the table and noticed several raised hands.
“Now now, this is much better,” he growled his approval.
With a slight bow of his head, he prompted the regal looking woman to his right to speak. Despite her majestic poise, she radiated a motherly quality of warmth, kindness and understanding. Her words carried the simple grace that comes from a benevolent heart full of love for all there is.
“I think Julia is a nice enough little girl. She’s merely going through a normal adolescent separation phase.” Her wonderful smile brightened the whole room, her breath smelled like roses. Everybody was mellow and relaxed as she continued. “I recall that Julia recently had her first menstruation, so of course she will be in conflict with her mother. Let us not forget that this is a necessary step in growing up for a girl. How else would she be able to define herself as a woman of her own? I can help her with that easy enough. Let me just –”
“Regina I warn you! Don’t you dare mess with the situation before we all reach an agreement,” Herr Kaiser interrupted her sharply. “We all appreciate and respect your desire for harmony but there are certain rules even you have to follow.”
“Of course my dear, rules made by you and your kind,” Regina retorted without changing her expression. “However, I guess you’re right for now. Because your vision is not tainted by desire, you do excel in an indisputable kind of clarity. And no, you don’t have to remind me of what happened the last time I interfered without your consent. Just promise me to return the favor and not discipline her without consulting me first.”
“I’m sure King Arthur still remembers too, what happened on that occasion,” Mirra chortled under her breath.
Herr Kaiser, missing Mirra’s comment, seemed pleased at Regina’s relenting so quickly. In his presence no one was entirely without reason. And there was definitely no need for him to promise Regina anything. Actions caused reactions. If this indicated punishment to her, there was nothing he could do. He turned to the woman sitting at his left.
“Counselor what is your opinion? How do you read the situation?”
Dora Bell, The Counselor, was a tall thin woman. Her already longish features were augmented by the way she wore her hair. It was of a deep orange red and must have reached all the way to the floor. This of course was pure speculation, as no one had ever seen it undone. She always piled it up on her head in three tiers like a wedding cake, causing the impression of her wearing a pointed hat. In between layers, she had stuck decorative golden and silver pins with three-leaflet ornaments dangling from them, creating a most delicate tinkling sound whenever she moved her head. She must have spent hours every day to get it done just so. But because time was of no consequence in her surroundings, that didn’t really matter.
Her neck was long and slender, providing ample room between earlobes and shoulders for dangling earrings, which repeated the three-leaflet pattern of the ornaments in her hair and echoed their sound. Her dress, in the same color as her hair, was unadorned as not to take away attention from her head.
Her fingers played with a pair of enormous old-fashioned keys on the table in front of her. Their clinking added another score to the symphony played by her jewelry.
“Nobody likes to admit failure but let me be frank. I have tried many times to get Julia’s attention, to no avail.”
Her lovely melodic voice chimed right in with the rest of the tune. “Julia is only one of many children of this generation, whose imaginary capacity is swatted by this overload of sensory input so readily available to them through modern technology. Just remember what we saw in her room: a telephone, a computer, a TV, a sophisticated sound system. At times when I tried to contact her, I even resigned myself to using these devices. But there is just too much going on for her to notice. Sometimes she talks on the phone, while looking at something on the Internet, with the TV blaring in the background. And now with her grandfather dead, who was the only person in the family with moderately evolved senses of intuition, I don’t see how there’s a chance for my being heard at all.”
Dora slumped back in her chair, raising her arms above her head to signal the group her utter helplessness in the situation. The sudden motion provided her ornaments the opportunity of jingling into a crescendo.
“Maybe we could contact her through a dream,” Mirra suggested. “Luna, what do you think?”
Moni Lunaluna, a round-faced woman with short silver-blond hair and shimmering complexion, answered: “Dora asked for my help in the matter a while ago and so I tried. But Julia likes to wake up to her music-alarm-clock set at a bothersome loud volume, which instantly produces more information for her senses to absorb. There is simply no time for the subtle vibration of the dream to float to the surface and to penetrate her waking mind. Therefore my efforts have been lost as well.”
Cliffton thought it wise to say something in Julia’s favor. The discussion was not at all going in the direction he had hoped it would.
“I monitored Julia on and off since she reached out and asked for our help, so I am aware of the place she’s at,” he offered, doing his best to communicate competence in the matter. “This is exactly the reason why I summoned you. What I am about to propose needs to be sanctioned by all of us.” He looked as if he had been asked to jump off a cliff and as he continued he did not sound quite so reassured anymore. “Er – there’s only one way to say it so I say it: er – I was thinking, maybe – er – we could make direct contact with her?” His voice trailed off as he cast a timid glance at his colleagues, then he added hastily: “I admit this is unorthodox but she is in this phase of transition and I am convinced it could work.”
The level of tension in the room was high. All of The Twenty-Two seemed to hold in their responses in a combined effort to avoid another one of Herr Kaiser’s reprimands.
Finally, Brian Liebermann, the male half of the Siamese Twins, broke the silence.
“What you’re suggesting is risky business,” he argued, looking grim. “I realize it has been done before, but never with someone so ill prepared as this Julia. What is your feeling about it, Helena?” he inquired from his wife.
Helena Liebermann tilted her head as if the space above held the answer to her husband’s question, a mannerism her friends were quite familiar with. It was like a pavlovian response – you asked for her opinion and her head turned upward. At last she spoke.
“I agree with Avi insofar as Julia definitely needs some guidance. I suppose she would not feel so lost if her father were still living with them. She trusts him. She listens to him. Perhaps we could do something to get her parents back together.” She casually glanced around the room, seemingly with no intent other than reading the expressions of her colleagues. When her eyes reached Regina, the slightest movement of delicately chiseled eyebrows provided the response she was looking for.
“They are such a nice couple,” she continued her assessment, “what a shame they lack the insight necessary to grow together as husband and wife. I suggest we –
But no one heard what Helena suggested nor if she made a suggestion at all, because Regina had left her seat and moved towards Chester Magnussen and his wand.
The proximity of Regina and her rose-scented breath sent a pleasant shiver through his body, and for a fraction of a second he lost his focus, causing the wand to lift off the page. A fraction of a second does not sound like much, yet in surroundings where time is of no consequence, it presented just the opportunity needed for Regina to carry out her plan.
Before anyone had a chance to intervene, she exhaled deeply and the page in the book turned. The wand settled back down, and the screen showed Julia and her parents in the kitchen.
Julia and her father sat at the table, ready to start eating breakfast. Elizabeth stood at the stove, impatiently tugging at a strand of long auburn hair that had come loose from her ponytail. As she had done many times before, she asked herself silently, whether she would ever find the courage to cut it off.
She had always thought she would look great in a pageboy, and short hair would be so much easier to deal with. But Peter just loved her mane. In endless arguments fought out inside her head, she unfailingly succeeded in convincing herself that it would be unfair to show up with short hair when he had fallen in love with a woman who had locks right down to her waist. Yet deep down the feeling persisted that her whole life would be completely different, if she could just get rid of that hair. With a sigh she took off her apron and put the last batch of pancakes on the table.
“Mmmh honey,” Peter said, smiling appreciatively, “breakfast smells delicious as usual. Surely I’m the luckiest man alive to enjoy a gourmet breakfast in the company of the two most gorgeous girls on the planet.”
Sitting down while pouring herself a cup of coffee, Elizabeth returned his smile with an expression full of love and contentment. Gone were her thoughts of a different life.
“Thank you darling,” she said, “you know how much I enjoy our mornings together.”
Peter took his wife’s hand into his, squeezing it gently.
“And how about you, princess?” he asked, addressing Julia. “You seem unusually quiet this morning.”
Julia, startled, looked around the room. It was filled with an almost unnatural brightness but aside from that, everything appeared to be quite normal – no different from any other morning, as far as she could remember. Yet she felt weird. It was hard to put her feeling into words; a vague sensation in the pit of her stomach, maybe a faint idea of something being out of place…
“Must be the aftershock of that terrible dream I had,” she said when she finally managed to speak. “I dreamt you guys were separated. Dad, you had moved out and Mom, you were some sort of big deal in corporate world. I think you owned one of those environmental companies. You took care of the planet but left me home alone all the time with lots of cash to throw around for comfort and all I’d do was hang out at the mall. I was terribly unhappy and wished with all my heart for my life to be different.”
Speaking these words, the knot in her stomach tightened, but Julia chose to ignore it. “And there was a fight I had with Mom and I said awfully hurtful things to her. I think there was more, but it’s all slipping away so fast now, I can’t remember clearly what else was going on.”
She took a sip of orange juice and let out a deep breath. “Boy, I’m sure glad it was only a dream though. I never want to feel so lousy again – ever!”
Both her parents had listened attentively to her story. Peter opened his mouth to give a – no doubt – comforting reply, but no one in the conference room paid him any attention. In fact, since Regina’s intervention no one had bothered to watch the screen at all. The inside of the circular hall with its beautiful decorations bore no resemblance to the well ordered meeting it had housed just a fraction of a second ago.
Everybody had left their seats, frantically trying to move towards Regina, shouting and gesturing wildly. The very instant Chester Magnussen’s wand had reconnected with the book, the metal structure around that segment of the wall, which served as monitor for the book, started to blink furiously on and off – a deluge of neon-red light, emitting a penetrating beeping sound. In between beeps a computerized voice announced “Reality Breach at vector alpha-457.9” in endless repetition, as if to communicate the urgency of the matter to the members of the conference.
That was of course entirely unnecessary. Everyone of them was painfully aware of what Regina had done: she had single-handedly altered Julia’s reality while Julia was in her normal, waking consciousness, a measure strictly reserved for only the most exceptional situations. However even then, all of the twenty-three had to agree unanimously that all other options were exhausted and a shift in the individual’s chosen reality proved necessary and beneficial not only to the individual involved but was to the highest good of all life everywhere. To ensure the least impact on the psyches of all concerned, it was only done after careful planning and preparation. Full compliance with predominant systems of belief provided a strict frame of reference for every action that needed to be carried out.
Of course those extra precautions merely needed to be put in place since humans had abandoned their belief in magic, and incidents of this kind had either been banned to the land of fairy tales or diminished to the world of horror stories.
And because all of them longed for the time when it was normal to be in direct contact with the outer world, no one was totally innocent of the kind of trespass Regina had caused. In the course of eons every one of them had been tempted to interfere and some of them had tried. This fact, however did not justify the violation in the least. The situation was serious.
“Everybody, everybody take their seats and Chester, turn that thing off before I forget myself!” Herr Kaiser roared, face red, bushy brows a straight line. His voice sounded like a sonic boom and the cacophony of outrage subsided quickly into silence with everyone tiptoeing back to their seats as ordered. No one wanted to see Herr Kaiser forgetting himself!
“Of course Willhelm … at once … what was I thinking?” Chester Magnussen answered as if coming out of a trance. With visible effort he pulled his galaxy wand away from the page. The alarm stopped and the metallic structure reverted to its usual opalite glow. The screen went black with a small, slowly blinking red square in the lower right corner as the only visible reminder of the fact that the very structure of reality had been upset.
The book jumped a few inches into the air as if violated by this sudden disconnection and shut the moment it hit the table.
“Hey Mac, whoa!” Mirra’s voice as cold as her glare, so cold it felt like icicles reaching for Chester Magnussen, “how often do you think I have to ask you to not pull your wand without proper shut-down on my part first! You pull that thing so fast you shape-shift into a torturer pulling toenails. Now there’s an unbecoming identity if there ever was one! And FYI, you weren’t thinking at all! As usual you just couldn’t resist Regina, now could you? All she ever needs to do is to get close to you and you lose focus. If I had it in me to feel disgusted about such behavior, trust me I would!”
“Thank you Mirra, thank you, but this is quite enough,” said Herr Kaiser, still trying to compose himself. “We are all more than capable of imagining what that must feel like for you and I’m sorry for your inconvenience but,” his voice gaining volume as his speech gained momentum, “we do have a reality breach at hand and we have to find a solution to that mess. You all know the longer it goes on the more difficult it becomes to re-instate the proper time-line.”
“Be assured you have no idea about my feelings at all,” Mirra unimpressed. “And honestly Willhelm, I don’t quite understand your fuss. It’s all in the book anyway – so it’s all the same to me whether they’re back together or not, whether they’ve ever met or not, whether they –
“Of course it makes no difference to you,” Herr Kaiser cut her off. As much as he generally enjoyed a neutral perspective, on occasions that required action he had very little patience for Mirra and her philosophical detachment. “It does make a big difference to them though and you know it. Just to refresh your memory,” his sarcasm as sharp as a samurai sword, “in the time-line where Julia’s waking consciousness is right now, she didn’t even reach out to us for help!”
“Hurray to that!” Mirra unbothered in her knowledge that she was pushing it, “I’d say the meeting is adjourned and we all go home.” Then as was her nature, reflecting Herr Kaiser’s sarcasm right back to him, she added, “Please Willhelm, enlighten me, what was it again that happens in the time-line where she did reach out?”
Herr Kaiser, engulfed in his anger, was blind to her provocation and charged right ahead. “Great that you should mention it, because as you very well know, if we would not be blessed enough to operate within surroundings where time is of no consequence, we’d all be transported back to who knows where the moment the wand hit Regina’s turned page. And nobody but your blasted book knows exactly what happens in that other time-line. So why don’t you do me the favor and shut up.”
Taking a deep breath he turned towards the Twins. “And Helena you of all people know better than trying to eliminate choices from people’s lives. It is their birthright to figure out truth and consequences of their decisions. Did you forget that this is how they learn? I will have no more of this interference business. Do I make myself clear?” His voice reverberated off the walls, creating a sound like rolling thunder.
“Crystal clear, dearest,” Regina Green exhaled slowly, sending another whiff of roses through the room. The energy changed instantly back to peace and calm. “Julia asked for a different life and in a way, she got it. And all this rehashing of what we already know does not bring us any closer to a solution of the problem. I suggest we look at the facts and then decide what we can do.”
“Oh blast! I don’t want to hear another word from you!” Despite Regina’s attempt at restoring harmony, Herr Kaiser was still mad at her. “Of course Julia has gotten a different life but we don’t know whether this is the life she would have chosen, never mind that not a single being in her environment – and that does include her cat – had a choice in what happened. And as much as I would like to explore all the different vectors that could possibly grow out of this incident, we do have to take responsibility for our screw up. So let’s get on with it. How much time has passed in the outer world since the breach?”
“That would be 92 seconds and counting,” said Mirra after consulting the index of her book, which of course, to everyone else was nothing but another blank page.
“Good, good! Then we’re well within the limits of our 5 Minutes reversion rule,” said Herr Kaiser. “Get ready! Mirra, Chester, please. Let’s get her back to vector alpha-457.9 with a 94 second reversal extrapolation to make sure she’s not missing anything there. Come on now, do it!”
Mirra, looking not older than fifteen at the most, went into silent communication with her book once again. As soon as it opened to the appropriate page, Chester Magnussen inserted his wand. The metal frame displayed ‘alpha-457.9-ex94r-Julia-VAS/n’. The blinking red square disappeared as the image of Julia leaving the house emerged on the screen.
A big gray cat with a fluffy fur coat got up from his sunny place on the front lawn to greet her. Yawning, he gracefully stretched each of his limbs separately – the way only cats know how to do – then walked right in-between Julia’s legs. In a major effort to stay on her feet without stepping on the cat, Julia bent down to scratch him behind his ears.
“Hey Twinkle Toes,” she purred, “something terrible has happened this morning. I’ll fill you in as soon as I’m back. Gotta run now. Kellie is waiting.”
As she opened the gate carefully to stop Twinkle Toes from leaving the yard, a feeling of familiarity rushed through her body. For a brief moment she felt disoriented. She shook her head as if to clear her mind.
“Wow Twinkle Toes,” she said, “did we not do all that just a few moments ago? What a weird day this is.”
This remark brought a total recall of the argument with her mother, and the emotional impact of her personal tragedy pushed any memory of everything else that had happened this morning into the depths of her subconscious mind.
Thus, as the members of the conference watched Julia stroll down the street, her consciousness was safely restored to the here and now.
The synthetic voice streaming from the shimmering metal frame informed the members of the conference that ‘particle beam download at vector alpha-457.9-present-Julia’ was complete and the room echoed with the sound of applause.
In the big city, in another dome shaped structure, another conference room. Very different in more than one way from the conference room of The Twenty-Two, it towered over the city at a staggering height of 1500 feet. The pitch-black interior didn’t give any clue as to what it might look like and the only source of light was a large screen that seemed to hover suspended in mid air, displaying the bigger than life-size face of a man. An artificial voice announced “Constellato for Mr. Oten” – “Constellato for Mr. Oten” increasing the volume and thereby the urgency of the message with every repetition.
At last, a disembodied sound from the darkness suggested, “Go ahead.”
“Mister Oten,” the face on the screen came to life, “I just noticed a random particle beam download at vector alpha-457.9. It caught my attention because it has an overlap of 94 seconds in real-time. I thought I better let you know.”
Niem Vidalgo Oten stepped closer to the screen. Staying in line with the black theme of his surroundings he wore a black suit and black turtleneck sweater. With his black hair, thick black eyebrows and dark eyes the dim light of the monitor upgraded him from disembodied voice to disembodied face. “And what exactly does that mean?”
“I cannot be sure,” Constellato, rubbing his right eyebrow with the middle finger of his right hand, “do you want me to speculate?”
“No, your simple opinion will do,” said Oten, adding the feature of disembodied hands to his physique. Judging by the movement of those hands he pulled a black chair towards him and sat down. He looked like a spooky pantomime in a black box performance.
“Someone at this vector has experienced a déjà vu of 94 seconds.”
“A déjà vu?” white hands patting back a stray strand of black hair on white face. “How can that happen?”
“Like I said I honestly don’t know,” Constellato’s voice showed signs of unease.
“Then use your million dollar brain and speculate. And you better don’t waste my time.” The hidden threat in Oten’s answer provided a perfect explanation for Constellato’s apprehension.
“A tiny rupture in space-time is the only logical conclusion. Created by a moderately high-energy wave and it’s not coming from our side. I already checked.”
“Can you give me a visual?” asked Oten, leaning forward in his chair.
Without answering, Constellato’s hand seemed to reach out of the screen into the room pointing at a three dimensional holographic version of Julia carefully opening the gate and leaving the yard. They watched how she shook her head telling a big gray cat with a fluffy fur coat, “Wow Twinkle Toes, did we not do all that just a few moments ago? What a weird day this is.” And as Julia strolled down the street Constellato pulled his hand back from the room into the screen.
Oten let out a suppressed sigh as if to mask his relief. “Thank you C. I don’t think we have to worry. Some random energy fluctuation, no more. If she would have powers she would have been more excited but she seemed rather depressed to me.” And emitting a scary snorting kind of laugh he added, “In any case we have her readout and should it happen again we know how to tag her. For now we just leave it be.” Unaware of the fact that symbolically speaking, his decision to leave the girl’s identity unchecked boosted the trouble-factor of his life by the power of twenty-two, Oten snapped his fingers, the screen turned black and the room returned to impenetrable darkness.
Back in the conference room of The Twenty-Two everyone was cheering, clapping their hands and dancing around the room in demonstrating their relief at a disaster averted. Even Herr Kaiser showed the pleased victorious demeanor of a job well done.
“Alright! Alright,” he said at last, “now let’s not forget the reason why we assembled here to begin with. Avi tell us what you had in mind.”
“Er – yes – thank you Willhelm, er – Herr Kaiser, er – thank you all for your input,” Cliffton stammered in a nervous attempt to gather his thoughts. He cleared his throat and took a deep breath. “As I was saying, I am aware of Julia’s disposition and I realize the risks involved for us to seek direct contact, yet I strongly believe the attempt would have great merit. Especially now with the – er – incident – er – I feel we have a lot of explaining to do.” He swallowed hard. “My original idea was to establish some support for her. There is a boy, John, a childhood friend who lives by the Lake. He is sensitive and very interested in all things out of the ordinary. Mirra, maybe, if you would?”
Mirra sighed and closed her eyes focusing on the book. The familiar process of the book turning its pages started once more. Because the wand was still plugged in, a multitude of images flickered across the screen.
“How would you like it, Avi? Same time-vector? Same mode? Some of Mirra’s omnipotent viewpoint if it helps with clarity?” Magnussen asked.
“Yes please, if no one has any objections?”
Magnussen interpreted the ensuing silence as consent.
“All right, then I’m all set.”
The very instant the pages came to rest, the metal structure framing the lit up section of the wall read: ‘alpha-457.9-John-present-VAS/n’, and the figure of a boy became discernible on the screen. The twenty-three watched curiously…
… as he entered the kitchen of his parents’ ranch-style home. Bare feet a little bit too big for his height stuck out from pajama pants a little bit too short. His blond hair reaching in curls below the chin, still tousled from sleep, added to the impression of innocent clumsiness so adorable with puppies.
His mother looked up from her morning paper – her love for her son oozing out of every pore. She was well prepared for John’s first words – they had hardly varied since he was a baby. And even then most times his crying had probably meant just the same.
“Morning Mom, is breakfast ready?”
Though John didn’t seem to require an answer, she held up her end of their morning ritual by replying: “Not yet but it will be as soon as you come out of the bathroom.”
With a sound that could have translated into agreement as well as disagreement, John opened the refrigerator and guzzled a big mouthful of orange juice right out of the bottle. Taking a sip of her coffee, Sarah was tempted to comment – then changed her mind. It was no good to start a day nagging. Putting herself into John’s shoes, she certainly wouldn’t want to be told what or what not to do before she’d had her second cup of coffee.
While John was in the bathroom, she put cereal, soymilk and a bowl of sliced fruit on the table and a blueberry muffin in the oven. Fully dressed and wide awake, bursting with the energy of youth, John sat down at the table, filling his bowl with several generous helpings of cereal.
“Is this all I’m gonna have this morning?” he asked. “I’m starved.”
“The muffin’s coming. Enjoy your metabolism while it lasts,” Sarah said with a grin. “Judging by your pajama pants you must have grown another couple of inches over night.”
“Have to load up, I’m going to the lake.”
“How nice. Anybody coming with you?” his mother asked, silently hoping his response to be Ted or Andy or anybody, really.
“I’m going by myself. I’ve got some thinking to do and I do that best undisturbed. I might take the new book Dad brought me from the library. It’s got great stuff about the brain in it.”
“Times surely have changed. When I was your age, I couldn’t wait for summer vacation to get away from books. All I see you doing is getting yourself deeper into them.”
“But mom, you were a girl, that’s different. Girls are only interested in clothes and stuff. I have a theory: it’s because… ah you’re still just a girl, you wouldn’t understand,” he said with the resigned air of the misunderstood genius.
“Just wait until you get interested in girls then we’ll talk again,” Sarah said with mock indignation.
For the most part, she had accepted that her little boy was different from other kids his age. Not that he hated roughing around occasionally and he was actually a fairly good basketball player. He was just bored with what he called ‘guys showing off their testosterone.’ And that from an almost thirteen-year-old whose hormones should soar sky high she thought. Maybe if we would have moved to the city…
“Mom, are you listening or writing a story in your head?” His mother was a writer of children’s books, and he was genuinely proud of her having such a cool job. She illustrated them, too. “I said I smell something burning and considering all probabilities my conclusion is it must be the muffin.”
Good Lord, where had he learned to talk like that, Sarah wondered.
“Sorry honey, you’re right. I was drifting.” She took the burnt muffin out of the oven. “I guess it’s toast this morning.”
“Na, that’s o.k. I wanted to ride by Mrs. Livingston’s anyway and she always got these yummy cookies right off the sheet. Maybe she can tell me when Julia’s coming.”
“There you go, didn’t I promise you you’d be interested in girls soon,” Sarah teased.
“Come off it mom. Julia’s not a girl, she’s my buddy,” John answered, rolling his eyes in a mixture of incredibility, disgust and shock at the strange idea.
Sarah had a dozen comments handy but decided to stop teasing. Puberty was difficult enough without mothers making fun of it.
“Ok. You say hi to Mrs. Livingston for me, will you and don’t be late for lunch!”
“Uh huh,” John promised, running out the door.
He hopped on his bicycle and was already half a block down the road when he remembered the book. No use in breaking the flow by going back. He would just pick up something interesting at Fragrant Meadows, the Livingston Estate.
Sam Livingston, or Grandpa as John was allowed to call him, owned this great collection of books, and most of the time he was more than willing to lend some of them to John.
“Reality check,” John said aloud, pedaling harder to gain momentum for the approaching short, yet steep climb marking the entrance of Fragrant Meadows. “Grandpa used to own, used to lend. Grandpa is no more. Grandpa is dead.”
Brought up to always be honest about his feelings, John acknowledged the tears in the corners of his eyes being caused by his sense of loss rather than the wind on his face. With a pang, John realized once again, how much he missed the old man.
As far as he could think back, he had never spent an entire summer without him. Like clockwork, Grandpa could be found at the lake day in day out, rain, shine or tidal wave. John’s only living grandparent was his father’s mother Kate and he had hardly any dealings with her. She traveled all over the world and they rarely got to see her. However, spatial proximity was only the obvious reason for his close relationship with this ersatz grandfather. Grandpa used to explain that it was always easier to relate to strangers than to relatives because you didn’t have relations, and that it was easier to like strangers because you didn’t have likeness. Whatever that meant. Grandpa sure was a whiz with words! Listening to his positively far-out stories about nature in general and the nature of things in particular, unfailingly left you with delicious goose bumps all over your body.
Lost in his memories, he had negotiated the hilly terrain on ‘automatic pilot’, a phrase his mother adopted whenever she found herself going through the motions without being fully present in an activity. Thus, he arrived in front of the Livingston’s house, a huge Victorian mansion of the elegant Italianate style; its three stories dwarfed by the stand of old pine trees next to it. A multitude of flowers in hanging pots on porches, balconies and alcoves, created a stunning contrast to the immaculate white paint. The shutters were of a friendly blue that rivaled the color of the sky. Invisible from the front, John knew of the magical garden-terraces in the back, which were gently sloping all the way down to the lake. Manicured lawns alternated with stretches of meadow, herb gardens gave off enchanting aromas – there even was an orchard with a variety of fruit trees. And of course flowers everywhere. In John’s opinion, the name Fragrant Meadows described the place perfectly.
He dropped his bicycle in front of the stairs when Amelia Livingston appeared on the porch. She was of average height and looked like a picture-book grandmother with her coifed white curls around a full, friendly face. John sometimes wondered whether his mother had her in mind when she illustrated the grandmothers of her books. As if to perfect that image, Amelia wore a starched apron complete with a big ribbon in the back, tied around what ages ago must have been her waist. She smelled of lavender sachets, vanilla beans and chocolate. John’s mouth began to water in anticipation.
She definitely wasn’t anything like his real grandmother who wanted to be called Kate, dyed her hair, painted her nails, and was always in support of this cause or that. Right now she was somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere, trying to stop some foreign government from testing their atomic bombs by detonating them under water, killing fish and reef and poisoning the ocean with radioactive fallout. Of course he thought that was a great thing to do – just not for a grandmother! Amelia Livingston’s voice brought him back to the here and now.
“Hello John! What a nice surprise for you to visit,” she said with sincere affection. “How are you? How is your family? Everything is all right I hope?”
As it often occurs with people who live alone, she had developed the tendency to talk too much whenever an opportunity for conversation presented itself. She was aware of this annoying habit but incapable of changing it, despite the nagging fear of alienating her callers and consequently ending up completely alone. “I just took some chocolate chip cookies out of the oven,” she rattled on, “why don’t you come in and have a few? I remember you always liked them.” Finally she made herself stop, to give John a chance to participate in their talk.
John was a little overwhelmed by all those questions coming at him rapid fire, making him even more painfully aware of Grandpa’s absence. It never was a problem to speak with him.
“Good morning Mrs. Livingston,” he said, at last summoning up his manners, “That’s very kind of you, thank you very much.”
They entered the house. John followed Amelia as she led the way into the kitchen.
“So John, tell me, how is your summer vacation so far? Do you have fun? Are you enjoying your time off?”
John felt awkward, wanting to say something while simultaneously trying to avoid the topic of Grandpa Sam and how much he missed him, especially now. Amelia seemed to read his thoughts.
“It is fine to talk about Sam … you know … I miss him too. It is certainly not the same thing, but if you wish to use his library just go ahead. You are welcome to. I am sure that is exactly what he would have wanted you to do. You can borrow anything you like.”
John felt relief and gratitude that she had made the situation so easy for him. “Thank you Mrs. Livingston. I was hoping this was ok with you,” he said, grabbing a cookie from the plate Amelia had put in front of him. “Oh, my mom says hi. And do you know whether Julia’s coming anytime soon?”
He took a bite off the still warm cookie. In expectancy of the fast approaching, deliciously sensuous sugar high, he completely forgot his social training and sprayed cookie crumbs all over his shirt, while talking with a full mouth. “Mmmh these cookies are great. I wish my mom could bake like this.”
Thankfully, the propelled morsels of pastry fell short of Amelia, who delighted in watching John’s appetite. Sam always had such a sweet tooth himself. Though he had died almost three months ago, she still experienced tremendous difficulty adjusting to her life without him. Small things, like baking cookies in the morning the way she had done for the past forty-eight years, helped her to cope with the situation. Maybe one morning she would wake up forgetting about the cookies, and from then on she would be able to get on with her life. Maybe that day would never come. One thing was clear – she was not there yet. She felt tears pressing behind her eyes. To spare John the embarrassment of having to watch her coming unglued, she spoke quickly.
“I talked to her mom yesterday. They will be arriving the first week of August and Julia is going to stay for the rest of the summer. Now go and find yourself a book, if that is what you want. I will be outside watering, if you need me. And John, do not be shy, take some cookies for the road.”
That was not something he needed to hear twice. “Great! Thanks,” he said, jam packing shirt pockets as he vanished down the hall and out of Amelia’s sight. Cautiously he opened the door to the den, barely refraining from knocking first, half-expecting for the familiar baritone to invite him in. Since grandpa’s death, John had surprised himself a few times already by having involved conversations with him. This usually worked best at his secret spot by the lake close to where they used to fish together and where John knew himself unobserved. He most certainly would not want to be caught mumbling to dead air, yet he could hardly wait to tell Julia all about it. With a combination of apprehension and excitement, he entered the study. Maybe it would happen again today? Maybe it would happen here? The house where grandpa had lived practically his whole life seemed predestined for that purpose and there was no danger from anybody prying. There was only Amelia, and he had a suspicion that if she detected him engaged in a discussion with her dead husband, she’d join right in.
It had started about a month ago. John had been at the lake, sitting on the ground playing with the knotted rope hanging from his tree house. All of a sudden he felt grandpa’s spirit so intensely that upon turning his head in surprise, he saw grandpa standing right next to him, a big grin on his face. At first, John didn’t mind in the least. They chatted, laughed, even walked a bit. It was no different from all the countless times in the past when they had met at the lake doing just the same. It was only when grandpa started to tell him about the pixie living in the tree right next to John’s tree house, that he had realized with sudden shock what he was doing: he was talking to a dead guy. He got a weird-out faster than anyone could say spooky, and grandpa’s presence disappeared at once. Since then, John even had considered thinking of him as Sam rather than grandpa in this context. If he was a ghost now, it just seemed safer not to be too intimate. However, while alive, grandpa used to make a distinct difference between spirits and ghosts in his stories, but it seemed inappropriate to ask him about that now. Maybe he would find something helpful among the books. He stood there inspecting the titles. After a deliberate and time-consuming search, he found a book with a promising title: ‘The Alchemy of Death and Birth.’ Maybe he would get some answers there. He could hardly wait to start reading it. Lost in thought he even forgot to say good-bye to Mrs. Livingston. He jumped on his bicycle and was on his way to his tree house where he hoped to explore the book undisturbed. It looked old and worn, and because of that he had at first hesitated to take it along. But then he remembered Mrs. Livingston telling him to take whatever he wanted and besides, he would take good care of it.
“Of course you will!”
John almost lost control over his bicycle when he heard grandpa’s voice as if responding to his thought about the book. He looked around but no one was there.
“Grandpa?” he dared to mutter under his breath. “Grandpa, can you hear me? Are you there?”
When he received no answer, he knew he could stop straining his ears. He had learned this past month that it was easiest to get in touch with Grandpa Sam when fully relaxed. The more he tried, the less successful he was in contacting him. Now that seemed a paradox. “I need to make a note of it and think about it some more another time,” he said aloud, which he considered to be definitely one of his less desirable habits. Maybe I should get a dog, he thought, at least then I could pretend to be talking to the pooch. If I’m not careful, I’ll end up with a reputation, like hey, do you know John, the guy who’s talking to himself whenever he’s not talking to the dead!
Laughing at his joke, he arrived at the tree house. He threw his bicycle on the ground and as usual marveled at the impressive construction. The tree house was the biggest gift he had ever received. His parents surprised him with it on his eleventh birthday, and grandpa had helped him select the tree, a huge old oak at least seventy feet high. It stood at the fringes of Fragrant Meadows and grandpa had handed him a roll of parchment – official stamp and all – that secured his right to use this tree for the rest of his life. A copy of it decorated the door of the tree house and John was immensely proud of it. He remembered the building process as if it was yesterday. Because his birthday was at the end of October, the leaves of the oak had already started to turn and fall off. That exposed the naked branches and made it easy for them to decide where to put the platform for the foundation of the house. They found several perfectly angled limbs, approximately twenty feet above the ground. When his mother heard about this she tried to veto on account of such a height being way too dangerous. John had argued that if they wanted him to be on the ground they should have given him a tent. That settled the matter. So, after a flood of motherly advice and a promise to be extra careful, construction could begin.
At this step of the project, grandpa proved yet again what a great friend he was. He had just torn down an old barn and allowed John to use the wood. There was more than enough to build the ten by fifteen feet house John had designed, and because there were also some leftover shingles from the construction of the new barn, they were able to put on a real roof. Thanks to grandpa’s generosity, John had enough money left for a few simple pieces of furniture. Technically John considered the tree house as much a gift from grandpa as from his parents.
He carefully climbed the ladder and went in. He sat down on a mattress by the window, opened the book and set the alarm on his watch for 12:30 pm to make sure he would be back home in time for lunch. From past experience he knew that upon entering the world of books he was transported to a place where time did not exist and the alarm helped him to deal with that fact in a responsible fashion. He fished another cookie out of his shirt pocket and began to read.
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