For the Distant Horizon

August 12, 2014

Clouds, 2-25-13

 

The Agent

February 22, 2010

THE AGENT

by

Erin Snow

“Your first assignment.” Harman handed Ermelinde the treasured papers. She dared a glance at her supervisor, at his cheekbones and sky-blue eyes. The look in those eyes heated her skin and stung her new scales. She quickly focused in on the serpent medallion on his chest. The serpent image had long disturbed her, but she preferred that to blushing. Harman coughed: get back to business.

She darted her eyes quickly down at the papers in her hand, saw Harman’s boots move away. The door closed. She began again to breathe and even gave the sheaf of papers an experimentally authoritative snap (hoping that the security camera had picked up that she had no worries). She looked again at the papers and jerked: she’d gotten the plum assignment, the assignment. The one all the pre-agents had speculated about—who would get it? Well. Guess who.

Ermelinde knew that few of her fellow students thought it would—or should—go to her. She was nineteen, a full year older than everyone else in the program, because she had derailed herself four years earlier. Sure, she’d straightened out  a couple of years ago,  but she’d still made herself suspect.

But then, everyone had expected that Harman would give her the best graduation-day assignment. They weren’t blind.

She set the sheaf of papers down because her palms were sweaty. Straight spine, deep breath. She would successfully complete this Pre-Agent assignment; she would become a Family Security Agent. She would see her life—and that of her Core Family—redeemed and made re-eligible for the privileges merited by her status as Agent.

Two years ago, who could have imagined that she would be the one to bring honor to her family? Could she overcome everything and everyone who couldn’t imagine such a thing? Everyone was waiting, waiting, invisibly. Harman knew this, too. Everyone at the school and even her own family had spent the last year either betting against him or willing him to take her in hand, redeem the lost, shamed family. He was a new supervisor and no slouch as an agent, either, and if anyone could do it…

Ermelinde sat at the empty metal desk, bent to the task of getting to know the target, focused on the name at the top of the first sheet. Oh no.

“Hidi-Nasha,” she murmured. So this was Harman’s test. Hidi-Nasha—“Root Born with the Rain”—had been Ermelinde’s heroine. Sure, when she was fifteen, a bad age. Some people went nuts then, okay? All right, breathe, breathe.

Hidi-Nasha was seventy-something, a painter. The charge: “Potentially pre-terrorist”—grounds for arrest. She was one of “The Children of the Artist,” of course. “The Artist” was their name for “God.”

“Yeah, they wish,” Ermelinde murmured as she studied the information. Most of it she already knew. Knew it with the heart of the fifteen-year-old she’d been.

The Artists, long considered a fringe group, had initially comprised painters, musicians, writers, dancers, yes. But in the last couple of years, they’d started to include architects, businesspeople, teachers, accountants, the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker. They were of every race. The group was getting out of hand. Ermelinde’s own mother had been one of them, quite long ago.

Hidi-Nasha’s beliefs threatened the State. Her very name, “Root Born with the Rain,” seemed meant to rankle. Global warming had made it a social faux pas to want rain or cool temperatures. Weather forecasters were instructed always to speak in regretful tones when reporting even the now-meager rain that for centuries had been a plentiful and nourishing presence in this region, and to praise the braising white skies: “Another hot, beautiful day!”

Of course this woman would take a name that made people remember the wrong things.

The file included some of Hidi-Nasha’s pamphlets. Ermelinde unfolded them one by one, slowly. Their colorful pages opened up under her fingers like flowers to…rain. She lost herself staring at the colors, reading once again the ideas. The remembered ideas that she did not want to remember. But she should read all the material in the folder. And besides, wouldn’t it look different to her now? She wasn’t the same person. All right then. She blew a strand of hair from her face and, flattening a pamphlet on the table, began to study it.

The pamphlet, black font printed on gold parchment, proclaimed,  “God is Mind, nonmaterial, infinite Spirit. What is there in it that would or could create its opposite—limitation, walls?”

Ermelinde sat up, gazed at the empty wall, remembering bits and pieces of their ideas. Matter was all about walls: walls of time, aging, death, economic walls, social walls. But, the Artists said, divine Love, Principle, was not the source of these walls. It in fact dissolved them, bit by bit. Therefore, it was not family groups, networks, pills, personalities, or politicians that were the source of security, health, career, home, safety.

They asserted, further, that collective mesmerism alone accounted for the benefits of the legally required genetic vaccinations, and for that matter, all of medicine.

She looked again at the pamphlet, scanning it, trying to be empty and indifferent about it. “Apple trees produce apples. Divine Intelligence produces a coherent, intelligent creation. The State, the Extended Family, and the Church of Therapeutic Revelation combine to confuse and hypnotize thought until people want only the respite of the animal comfort of belonging.”

Ermelinde fanned herself. She recalled one of Harman’s recent arrests of one of the Artists. The man was a businessman who, upon being offered a normal bribe in the course of corporate negotiations, had gone off alone “to think,” he said. Somehow, while the man was gone, the corporate officer who’d offered the bribe changed his mind, saying he couldn’t account for his sudden “distaste” for the custom. The Artist was put under surveillance; the other guy, up to then a top-notch employee and loyal citizen, had developed an attitude problem and quit the corporation.

The Artists had become a security risk.

*            *            *

The heat in the room intensified with Harman’s knock.

“Sir,” Ermelinde, standing quickly, greeted him, saluted, and started right in: “As you know, day after tomorrow, Hidi-Nasha will open a show of paintings in a gallery across the California-Oregon border. I intend to apprehend her at that gallery, on your approval, sir.” She was pleased to have made her first strategic decision.

“Excellent,” Harman said. “Exactly what I’d do. We’ll order your vehicle. You’ll head out day after tomorrow. At ease, Cadet.” His eyes were warm. Was that pride, Ermelinde wondered, pride in her? “Well, this is it,” he added, as the faint strains of martial music drifted to them from across the campus.

She wanted to grin, to dance, but forced herself to keep her eyes on the wall behind Harman’s shoulder. Yes, this was it, graduation day, one door closing, one opening, a special door just for her. Time to prove her wings.

“Ready for the outsending prayer?” Harman asked.

As Ermelinde swallowed, hoping he had not heard her gulp, Harman opened the door, gestured for her to precede him. They walked in silence across the campus to the Church next to Bureau headquarters.

They joined the other cadets and their supervisors on the concrete stage, facing several hundred friends, family, and Family Security Agents. At the dais, the Head Minister of Family Security nodded to the graduates and to the audience. She held her mike close to her mouth but bowed her head for a long, powerful moment. The coiled-snake symbol of the deity glittered on faux silk banners throughout the auditorium.

“We will now pray,” she said at last, looking up as if into the distance, gracefully brushing away a strand of blonde hair. A rustle shushed through the room as every head bowed.

“Almighty God,” the FS Head said, ““Today we send out our newest potential FS Agents. Each has studied hard for two years. Each has pledged to live for Core and Extended Family, and to protect our nation.”

Her voice echoed; Ermelinde’s heart bounced. “Over these particular past two years, we’ve seen clear evidence of exactly why we need each of these fine young people you see sitting up here. We at the Agency understand that there are some, seeming to be gaining followers, who care about nothing so much as brainwashing our citizens about the very foundation of what we know to be reality. I’ll be blunt; we all know who these people are and what they claim. They ignore matter. In their delusion, they choose to withdraw from it and from their responsibilities as impeccable citizens of our Extended Family.” The Minister smiled sadly. “They go too far.”

She gestured to the back of her head. “We thank you, Almighty God, that, in genes and DNA, wiring and neurons and chemicals here in the human brain, you give us the seat of unlimited potential, to study and use. We ask that you bless us in our good use of these gifts.

“Finally, we ask, Almighty God, that you bless each of these patriots in their impeccable service to our great nation. So we will it.”

“So we will it,” the audience echoed.

Ermelinde kept her face still as the upraised faces in front of her, the auditorium full of faces glowing with pride, seemed to waver and flicker.

No. Not now!

Her heart began to slam in her chest, erratically. She controlled her panic at this symptom of reality shifting that her Core Family mocked and distrusted. She had earned her way through to solid ground. She’d worked hard and she had renounced delusion. Everyone had to believe that. She had to make them believe it.

She would make everyone know it. She closed her eyes tight and briefly, fought the dizziness. She would get control of herself. She would prove that she was strong, smart, no longer fooled.

*            *            *

The ladies’ changing room, somewhere along labyrinthine corridors behind the stage, was electric with celebration. Even the approved and usual talk about who suffered from which illnesses, injuries, and disorders had lost its appeal.

This year, most of the Agents-to-be were women. Cadets occasionally wedded their supervisors, thus interlocking whole, lucky Core Families into the Family Security Bureau.

“So, has he asked you yet?” one of the girls called across the room strewn with metallic gowns, snack food, designer shoes, and packets of free party-sized genvacs.

“Yeah—Mr. Prime-Partner material,” someone else sighed theatrically.

“No,” Ermelinde said. “Our relationship’s professional. That’s all.”

“Yeah, he’s probably had his hands full enough getting Ermie through the program, let alone thinking of marrying her,” laughed another girl, leaning forward to touch the shiny new scales on Ermelinde’s cheek and turning back to the other girls. “She wanted to be an Artist, you know—when she was fifteen, of course!”

“So? I’m here now, aren’t I?” Please, she thought. Please let it go.

“Her mother was an Artist…” someone murmured in explanation to a puzzled-looking girl Ermelinde didn’t know. Ermelinde yanked her gown over her head to block out the whispers: “…arrested…disappeared …”

“Can we drop this?” yelled another girl who had longed for Harman for the past two years. “The truly hot issue of the moment is that I’ve lost my left shoe! Everyone look for a glittery gorgeous left shoe!”

“Yeah!” Another girl shouted with a whoop. “Time to party!”

*                 *                 *

Everyone shot up their genvac doses, fantasizing that the vaccinations would speed the formation of scales and who knew what miracles—wings for some, spectacular horns for others. Everyone was pretty sure the genvacs would not produce anything amazing during the fifteen-minute drive from here to the party site—but they were the Progress Generation, and tonight was the night for giddy hopes.

The party at Leaders’ Grove Resort, though geared toward the fabled Summer Ritual at the end of the evening, offered additional novelty: trees, grass, cool air. The fledgling Agents had experienced little, in their lives, of such things—nature was reserved for Core Families faithful to the Corporate States Executive branch, therefore, blessed with government contracts and tax breaks. The ocean resort hinted at the rewards of loyalty. Ermelinde took deep breaths of the cool, salty air.

Harman, as Ermelinde’s supervisor, had the right to escort her without risk of teasing comment. His blond buzz cut, glimmering scales, and tight-fitting olive-drab uniform that showed off his medals drew admiring glances.

As they passed through the wide gateway into the resort, Ermelinde knew her smile was pasted to her face. She loathed this abnormal shrinking tendency. The evening was supposed to be fun. She had to get over being so serious. She knew where that led. Had led. Past tense. She wasn’t like that anymore. Ever.

She forced herself to unfreeze enough to look around. Banners fluttered, tech music pounded, booths offered instant sign-ups for military duty, medical services, and an exciting range of vaccinations—and there, across the landscaped grove, the huge steel-sculpted serpent god. Over the hooded head, a sign read, “Fight the Continuing War on Terror—Get Your GenVacs Here.” It must make sense—the nation’s leaders knew more about all of that than did the ordinary citizen. Paranoia was for the foolish, the people who couldn’t stand peace.

A large yellowed parchment document lay in a glass case near the entrance. Harman stopped to gaze at it, politely making way for them through the small crowd of people who stood staring dreamily at it.

“Look here, Agent,” he said. (Ermelinde blushed; he smiled in a satisfied way when he noticed.) “See where the Constitution was changed? The red ink there?” He looked hard at her. “Anyone would be honored to die in order to preserve the progress we’ve made.”

“I didn’t know you took a history course,” Ermelinde blurted, a little shocked, and knew by the way Harman stiffened that she’d missed her chance to say the right thing—maybe, “Yes, honored,” or “I’d die!”

Harman said coolly, “Agent, I’d be about as likely to take a history course as some course in art or music. You ought to know that.” But then he seemed to make an effort to smile conspiratorially. “I’ve heard old people talking.”

From her brief time of rebellion, Ermelinde recalled conversations about the editing of the Constitution, about how blunt was the Corporate States CEO (then known as the “president’) back in the early part of the century, when he had ordered the revisions. He simply announced what he had done, made no apologies for it. People were tickled by his capital-A, kick-ass Attitude.

He pleased people, too, with his talk about God. It wasn’t until that generation was gone that the population gradually understood what he had meant by “god”, but by then, polls said that the people were with him all the way. That was also when the fringe group, the Artists, began to grow.

“Now, that’s art,” Harman said, pointing. “Awesome.”

Ermelinde turned to see, a few yards away, the famous mural that had drawn a small crowd. The mural that, despite her talent with paints, she had refused to help restore. Staring at the mural, she remembered, with a flash of pain, her mother’s quiet pleasure about that decision: “Good for you, honey. Good for you.” And how her mother had stroked her head.

All that encouragement had done was cost Ermelinde the chance to make her love of painting less suspect. If she’d joined in, been a team player, no one would have noticed her passions. But she had not been able to bring herself to even look at the sketched-in mural.

Now she stared at the giant gas-masked, scythe-bearing figure that loomed over the earth’s populations. She recognized the images of genetically modified crops, animals, and human-animal hybrids. And the images of human women in caskets.

“That’s power!” someone in the passing crowd said. “Look what’s possible with human will!”

Murmurs of praise and sounds of snacks being unwrapped. Ermelinde glanced quickly at the knots of people gazing at the mural, eating their genesnacks, repairing their genetic weaknesses as they wandered the grounds.

A gong sounded through the trees.

“Showtime,” Harman said. They walked to the grove where the white-robed national leaders yearly enacted their ritual to the Holy Serpent. He put his hand at the small of her back, guiding her, causing a burning flush to rush up her spine.

*            *            *

The silver waxing moon shimmered in the thick air over Boa Boulevard, following its path that human agency could not touch. Yet.

Ermelinde leaned her throbbing head against the windowsill. The big celebration for the graduates had seemed to go on forever. When the party wound down, Harman had driven her back to her place and almost kissed her outside the building. But the surveillance cameras would have caught it. Ermelinde understood instantly: better for them both to wait until she’d proved herself. Harman had stepped away from her so quickly that maybe even someone playing and replaying the surveillance tape would not be sure he’d had any special interest in her. Then he was gone and she had walked upstairs, tired and wanting only a shower and a blank night’s sleep.

Her apartment was hot, and a nightmare had awakened her. Throwing aside her blanket, Ermelinde stumbled to the window. She stared red-eyed at the cityvid two blocks away, its eighty-foot screen flashing service messages and affirmations three times each into the night: “FLU SEASON: three months, two weeks, one day away! Get your HERBS and PHARMACEUTICALS now!” and, “I am successful. I am successful. I am successful.” Ermelinde smiled a little: yes, she would be successful: remember that, use all moments to push forward.

She wandered, fanning herself with her hand, over to her metal desk and sat down with the target file, reexamined the pamphlets written by Hidi-Nasha, wishing there were an updated photo. But that was probably part of the assignment, being able to ferret out the target with as little as possible to go on. The thing was, though, that this wasn’t just a training exercise. She really did have to find and bring the woman in. A burst of adrenalin flashed through her exhausted body.

She looked over again at the rectangle of star-beaded sky. The breeze that curled the curtains into the room did not cool it. The moon glowed at the center of the window. Ideas from her days of rebellion drifted back to her. Matter is a misstatement….

Impatiently, she turned on the TV to one of the medical channels. Its recitation of new illnesses and disorders, their warning symptoms, and recommendations of medications and surgical procedures, soothed her tension. The nation did know how to take care of its citizens, no need for discussions about whether or not matter was real! She shook her head.

She would apprehend this target, get her into Redemption, be respected, be a part of it all. She returned to bed and slept soundly.

*            *            *

The respect shown her by the guards at the California-Oregon checkpoint was heady. They flirted with her in the early-morning light, waved her unmarked car through. Everyone loved an Agent, even a Cadet Agent. Maybe especially a Cadet Agent—for her promise, for the reassurance that new generations kept coming up.

She drove for miles unaware that she was smiling dreamily until she suddenly saw that she was approaching her target area. Then something happened.

A quarter-mile from the gallery, Ermelinde had the impression that a sudden, odd, moving thing engulfed the car. Though the fluttering, lit shape made no impact, a confused yelp burst from her throat; she lurched and ducked and convulsively stamped on the gas, lost control of the steering wheel. The car roared into a gigantic redwood stump.

Ermelinde thought: I hit a sun patch, a trick of light. Then she fell into spinning blackness.

*            *            *

She came to as late afternoon turned lavender. She stepped onto the deserted road; her ankle wouldn’t take her weight. She looked at her watch and sank back against the car to quell nausea and anxiety. Think, think, think! What had happened?

It was just stress. Never mind. The thing to do was to keep moving, pushing forward, do her assignment. Focus. She looked again at her watch.

Okay. The gallery should still be open. She could turn the accident to her advantage: she’d arrive as someone seeking help. She set forth, limping along the deserted, stump-lined road. If she’d read her map right, the gallery was only a few minutes up the road.

It might have worked, had she not been swept to her knees again by the glowing and weightless thing—not the sun! Too soft, too cool—and found herself, when her head cleared, back at the car. She started forward again. Was shepherded back again.

The third time it happened, Ermelinde scrambled painfully into the car. She tried the ignition, the radio. Nothing. The redwood stumps around her dimmed in the twilight. She ducked her head to look out the window at the darkening sky.

*            *            *

When she was little, she and her mother liked to watch the sky. Her mother taught her things none of the other kids heard from their mothers. “Is reality atoms and molecules, or is it mental? If it’s mental, are we talking brain, or Mind?”

Ermelinde would lie with her head in her mother’s lap, both of them meditating on the vast dark blue sky. She had begun to feel her sense of herself expanding, something that wasn’t organ, tendon, bone, but was even more her, somehow. She began to see beyond the stars. The sky would dissolve into vast, soft light. She, her mother, and everyone she knew were there, were themselves, but did not seem to consist of blood, bone, genes. They were just…be-ing. Each one individual, each unlimited.

When Ermelinde was fourteen and came down with the flu, her mother sat by her bed, “just reasoning, and listening to God,” she said. The flu vanished, from one minute to the next; the allopathic doctor looked at Ermelinde’s mother with suspicion. The neighbors, acupuncturists and naturopathic physicians who came to offer their services, warned Ermelinde’s mother that her ideas “went too far,” even as they saw Ermelinde race off down the street on her skateboard. “Lucky,” they said—this time.

Around that time, the government began to announce new laws. Ermelinde knew somehow that, next time, the neighbors wouldn’t be so casual.

Family groups were to meet with Family Security Agents, who outlined the importance of the Core-Family concept in the fight for national security. Then, everyone was to receive special shots. To protect the nation from pandemics, they said. Then the shots were for “strengthening genetic make-up.” “At the end of the day,” people shrugged, “it’s all good, right?”

Ermelinde repeated things she was taught in school. Her mother would laugh. Once Mom had said, “A mass of matter called ‘the brain’ isn’t our selfhood.” And, another time, “Human will isn’t where our power comes from.” Ermelinde repeated at school what her mother told her at home, hoping her teachers would nod thoughtfully and maybe expand on the ideas, maybe say, “Well, yes, that’s true; we just haven’t gotten around to that, yet.”

But the teachers always looked annoyed, sometimes even angry. They began to stop calling on her in class. The other kids picked up on it, whatever “it” was, and became cool toward her.

A couple of people from the neighborhood had begun stopping by to have private (more like ‘secret,” Ermie thought worriedly) conversations with her mother. Ermelinde, pretending to be curled up with a book in the next room, would eavesdrop.

No one in a uniform came pounding on the door. Not right away. Ermelinde’s mother began, however, to get a reputation in the neighborhood. People were saying that they’d had various illnesses and problems just kind of disappear after they’d spoken with her.

Then her mother, herself, had been disappeared.

Her relieved father quickly remarried, and the genvacs started. Ermelinde could not hold onto her vision of light. Her final attempt—desperately getting hold of contraband pamphlets by one Hidi-Nasha and spiraling for two years into wild bouts of climbing out her bedroom window and running through the glaringly lit streets as fast as she could to Artist meetings, and of painting pictures of starry nights—ended with stronger doses of genvacs. Life became peaceful.

*          *          *

Mom,” Ermelinde said loudly in the dead car among the redwood stumps. She had not expected to speak aloud. She clapped a hand over her mouth and her eyes filled.

She leaned back on the seat. She had thought she was securing her future. Right now, she couldn’t remember what she thought her future would be based on.

Maybe she had a concussion.

When she stepped back onto the road, pain in her ankle changed the plan. And now her skin itched.

“Oh, no.” She looked at her arm. The natural brown skin she had inherited from her mother showed through in the dim light—Ermelinde was losing her scales.

She retreated again to the front seat and thought some more in the dead vehicle next to the redwood stump.

The night was so hot. Her clothes were grimy with the sticky heat; anger built in her chest. She hated heat, no matter how manically loud and happy everyone else got about it. She ground her teeth and felt cool tears roll down her cheeks. What was the matter with her?

“I’m screwed,” she whispered. “Look at me. I’m just screwed.” The night was more silent than anything she was used to in the city. A sense of doom drifted over her. She recognized the feeling; it had been with her for years. Now, in the silence, it billowed.

She pushed violently at the car door and shot out of the vehicle onto the road, spinning away from the pain as her ankle crumpled. Goddammit. She whirled clumsily and knocked her watch against the car door, smashing it.

No lights anywhere. Panic swept her. She punched at the nightlite button on her wristphone—nothing. It didn’t show the time, didn’t flash even a single ad on the little screen.

She looked up the road again. That gallery ought to be visible way down the straight road, as a blacker, lit-up shape against the black night, but it wasn’t. She began limping toward where the damned thing should be.

She’d forgotten about the soft, cool presence, whatever it was. After a brief sense of disorientation, motion, and commotion, there she was at the car again. This time she retreated into the back seat, into the deepest shadows, and curled into a tight ball.

*            *            *

The silence of the night made her feel as if someone were waiting patiently for her attention. What a paranoid idea. She dozed, woke up, dozed, work up. She had been here half a lifetime but the moon hadn’t moved.

“I hate this.” Though there was no security camera on her now, her probation period required one even in her apartment, so, out of habit, she whispered. As soon as she spoke the truth, anger spiraled through her. She would fail. She would fail the way a fool fails.

She kicked the back of the seat in front of her. Her ankle burned white-hot. She punched the seat; a howl rose from all the way down in her abdomen. She tried to keep it down there. Finally—wasn’t she alone out here in this horrible place?—she just let it rip, a long, hoarse scream of rage. Then she remembered—the car might be monitored. She covered her face with her hands, and rocked.

Ermelinde.

Ermelinde stopped mid-sob. Strangely, the panic subsided, like a malevolent stalker suddenly floodlit. Something else was here, talking to her.

You’re meant to go forward.

The voice wasn’t a voice; it was a quietness in her chest.

“Am I dead?” Ermelinde said aloud. “Did I die or something?”

Do you seem dead?

She went hot with sudden terror that she’d begun to lose her mind. She thought of the dizziness at graduation yesterday, the flickers of reality-shifting. Bitterness rose in her chest: sure, yesterday. Yesterday she’d been cocky, steely, thinking she was so sane, had come so far. But evidently she hadn’t been sane then, and now she was in for it. So why not talk to herself? Why not just say things she never got to speak aloud?

“No…if I were dead, why would this all look like business as usual?” She tried to laugh, and coughed instead. A bit of the old daring flared, and she whispered tightly, “I can’t stand the ugliness. Maybe…is this hell?” She put a hand to her mouth—I’m doing that a lot out here—and waited hopefully.

If you died and woke up to a world that looked the same to you, would that be death? And, The divine Mind, Soul, never made ugliness.

Ermelinde wondered if this were a test—maybe a new technology in the vehicle? The voice was saying the kind of thing her mother used to say. Maybe the authorities had gotten hold of their Household Security Tapes that ran in everyone’s homes at random so that no one ever knew. So maybe now someone at HQ was replaying some kind of doctored tape, changing the voice…

She should take an adversarial tone. Just in case. She’d leave the death part out of it for now and focus on the simpler part: “Yeah? So where does ugliness come from?” She made her tone weary and mocking.

If you dream of a monster chasing you, when you wake up do you search your apartment for it? Fear, pushing, human will are the dream. Matter itself—a dream. An imposition. Listen.

She remembered when she’d had the flu—her mother sitting calmly at her bedside, “reasoning and listening.” Was this what Mom had listened to?

In spite of her decision to sound competent and businesslike, she sounded only desperate. “My scales. Something’s making my scales fall off. And my assignment—” She wanted to shut up. She was certain now that someone somewhere was monitoring her.

Is the work you’re doing right? Is it a blessing?

“Right? It’s for the good of the whole country!” Were the people who were listening in—and she knew in her gut that they were—hearing only her voice? Of course they were! Oh, God!

Despite her arguments, she felt lighter suddenly. She was not used to that. It seemed to her that her fight was not really with this…presence. With what, then? Everything spun.

So it went throughout the night. A small fever torched into a big one; her scales dropped off in patches. She slept, woke, panicked when she feared the presence had left her.

Ermelinde, claim your agency. See as Mind sees, only real qualities. You aren’t the servant of matter, death, ugliness—

“I’m not a servant! I mean, I serve my country. We all do! We serve our country and the whole world! What am I supposed to do? I’m failing at my assignment. I’ll lose everything—” Even to her own ears, these repetitions sounded like the reiterations of a malfunctioning animatron.

Stop.

“But this is all I have! It’s all I am!”

Mind’s ideas are infinite. You’re one of them. That’s all there is to be part of: everything real.

Wake up.

Show me something. Please.

*            *            *

Ermelinde slept again and awoke at dawn. The spreading light and cool air soothed her. Even her fever was gone. What a weird night.

She stared up the road to where she’d seen the gallery lights last night. There was nothing there but redwood stumps. Across the road, way up near the top of a small ridge, a lone woman with a shock of white hair in a long, high ponytail strode vigorously past, gave her a cheery wave, even blew her a kiss. Rural people were different, evidently. The woman was too far away for Ermelinde to go chasing after, and disappeared before she could wave her arms, make her stop, and call out to ask about the gallery.

Wearily, Ermelinde got out of the back seat, climbed back in behind the wheel, automatically stuck her keycard into the ignition slot, forgetting that the car was dead and her ankle twisted.

The engine started up. When she stepped on the fuel pedal, her ankle made no protest.

*            *            *

As he waited for her to finish her report, Harman’s cheeks reddened in splotches. He had already reported to his superior. His promotion was on the line. But Ermelinde had been more to him than an Agent-in-Training. Everyone knew that. Now his judgment about personal matters would be on the line. He stared at her. They sat there in the little hot room at the rickety metal table. He pulled out a file and jerked a photo from it.

“Is this the person you saw?”

The face in the photo, though partly framed on one side by that same long, white ponytail, was distorted with ill will. Ermelinde was confused; she did not recognize this face. And anyway, no one with a face like that blew kisses.

“No,” she whispered, staring at the table top. Harman stood up so fast his chair fell backward with a crash. Ermelinde jerked nervously and her face burned. Harman flipped the photo onto the table.

“Well,” he said, pausing at the doorway, “it doesn’t matter anyway. Hidi-Nasha was killed last night by one of our troops. After we lost touch with you.” He said that last bit with narrowed eyes. “The body will be brought in today for identification. When we couldn’t make contact with you—” he had to rub it in.

Her vehicle had not been monitored last night. She had been expected to carry out her assignment with no safety net. So no one had heard her lunatic one-sided conversation…

Well, she thought, at least I’ve got that.

She flinched again when Harman spun and slammed the door behind him. What? She sat blankly in the stifling room. The photo lay on the desk.

Look again! It was the voice, and it was laughing. Death is in the eye of the beholder.

Ermelinde rubbed her red eyes and looked. Her hands flew to her mouth. She felt as if her own mother had suddenly appeared at her side. Irrational relief flooded through to where her heart hurt. Relief so strong she felt like laughing aloud. Tears in her eyes, giggling and choking, she leaned over the photo. Yes, it was the dawn hiker from this morning. it was Hidi-Nasha.

There was no trace, now, of the ugliness she had seen sixty seconds ago when Harman showed her the same photo. Ermelinde understood. She had been hypnotized by Harman’s world. She had taken it in one last time. She understood that now for the last time, she had stepped out of that world.

Harman would kick her out of the Agency; he had to. She would be shamed, labeled, unable to get a job. She would lose her home-block apartment. She would face the scorn of her Core Family and everyone else. “What am I going to do,” she murmured. But she was surprised to find herself grinning.

She had some thinking and reasoning to do. She knew that today Harman would see the body of a woman killed last night, and for him, it would be the horrible woman of the photograph. His Hidi-Nasha. His world.

She put her hands over her mouth and chuckled, maybe a bit nuttily, but the exhilaration sweeping through her was stronger. She would carry on with her investigation, but she would have a whole different bunch of evidence to gather. Ermelinde put the photo in her breast pocket and stood. Her ankle was fine, and her Hidi-Nasha had walked the hills this morning at dawn. She’d start there.

#

October 7, 2009

It was a dark and stormy night. The doorbell rang, late. I heard a cackle, and then the howling of a wolf, but opened the door anyway, cautiously. This is what I saw. It was starting again. Women leaving their shoes on people’s stairways and porches.

Angel Degrees, A Short Story

September 21, 2009

She saw him emerge from the men’s room, a ready smile on his face, a piece of toilet paper stuck to the sole of his shoe. She watched as the receptionist, mugging and giggling, pointed at the toilet paper.

*

He felt the sharp shock of confusion. Was the receptionist laughing at him? But no, she was helping him. Clowning, kicking one heel behind him, he smiled, plucked the toilet paper from his shoe. He bowed from the waist, and with a flourish deposited the tissue in the laughing girl’s wastebasket.

Relieved at having carried the moment, he strode away, quaking inside. He’d been that close to snarling. His nerves were getting worse all the time, his smile brighter.

*

Sally went to bed thinking about the little scene at work; hours later, she flailed awake, gasping. Gradually, the warm, unmoved, unpanicked embrace of cloud-soft cotton topper, sheets, comforter, convinced her that the nightmare was just that. She sat up, face in hands.

How bizarre. That new mailroom kid—this was the third time she’d dreamed of him. Each dream was weirder. This one was the worst: he was a killer, and they shared a house.

Grabbing a pen, Sally recorded the bare bones of the dream: “I’m at top of stairs, watch him walk from foyer to dining room. Sense he’s about to kill again. Horrified. End of dream.”

“Breathe,” she told herself. She walked to the bathroom, checked the apartment, watched leaf shadows move across her living room wall in a night wind. She was alone. She changed into jeans and sank into the old rocking chair in the living room, staring out the window at the night.

“Why him?” she asked the dark. The stars touched gently blowing branches; the darkness stroked her forehead. “I don’t even know him.”

By nine in the morning, back at work under the fluorescent lights, Sally felt far from her nightmare. Sitting in her cubicle on her break, she straightened her desk, quickly brushed her hair, logged on to her e-mail.

“Subject: FYI!” The e-mail from her father informed her that he’d heard on the news that funds for school loans of the type Sally needed were being cut—too bad, how was she going to finish school? And, oh, yeah, he’d given her home address to an anonymous caller who had called him all angry about a letter Sally had written to the paper.

“Subject: GET GOING!” The e-mail from her sister, Julie, was about having run into Sally’s ex and his new wife: “She’s gorgeous and owns her own business!” Julie really, from the heart now, sis, wanted to know when Sally was going to discover her talent in this world—

Sally hit “Delete,” clicked “Empty Trash,” and breathed deeply. Standing, rotating her neck, she noticed that mailroom kid back at the receptionist’s desk.

*

It was so funny. He could both chatter and be in deep distress, mourning, actually. He could lose the stars, feel abandoned by the angels of childhood, taken over by the legions of adulthood, and still manage to grin here in this inhuman light, in this boxed-up space. Deep life was to be forgotten, abandoned, in this fragile, post-jail world. It was to be betrayed.

His rage boiled. He struggled harder to grin and joke. Comfortable treadmill, bland consent to hell—what if he were to just scream! For reconnection to the sky, for mercy, for help?
*

Without work’s wound-up pace, Sally was stripped of defenses against family e-mails, nightmare, wobbly hopes for her future. She had learned lately to disconnect from her family’s smile-wreathed destructions. But she knew that when she was alone she felt haunted.

She decided to work with that nightmare.

Dating a page in her dream notebook, she sat in her rocker facing an empty chair. The chair was for the mailroom guy.

*

His stars, his dreams, his horizon-loving spirit—then the drugs, the spiral, the betrayal, the jail time. Where was the little kid with the cowboy hat, the paints and canvases, the belief?

He came fully awake, in the dark, on his ratty couch. He felt weird. He hadn’t acted on the feeling (yet). But he knew the signs. He’d been on the edge of the vortex for a while now. He knew he was going to get sucked in. There wasn’t anywhere else left for him to go, was there.

*

In her notebook, Sally wrote “Conversation” at the top of a page and plunged into it.

Sally: Why are you in my dream?

She waited. This was the important part, at the beginning, when you felt as if you were making everything up from things you already knew. You had to be willing to be quiet and listen. She held her pen ready.

Mailroom Guy: I need help.

Sally wrote quickly, then went right to the heart of the thing.

S: Are you a killer?

MG: Don’t want to be.

S: This my dream—are you part of me—what part?

MG: Heartbroken part.

Sally stopped. Heartbreak? Over the world, after the time when you had known things about the world and yourself, good things, magic things? The wind shook her windowpane. Sinking back in the rocker, she blew out a breath. (Hey, Julie, here’s my talent! I’m really good at having fascinating conversations with myself!)

*

He was going to do something stupid and wrong, he knew it. As he hit the night sidewalk on foot, heading into narrow leafy alleys and side streets, something made him look up into the starry silence. Giving his head one violent shake, suddenly he surprised himself with some kind of choked sob. Even in the dark with no one on the streets, he felt himself blush angrily, and stalked on.

*

“ ’In dreams begins responsibility,’ ” Sally murmured to the stars. Yeats? “I have dreams. Why else would I want to go back to school, get my degree?” She stopped when she recognized that she was talking to her father and her sister and feeling tight in her throat.

Picking up notebook and pen again, she faced the empty chair and resumed, writing hastily.

S: Have you actually killed?

MG: Not yet.

Sally was relieved. She didn’t know why she’d be relieved at the answer she’d made up herself, but she was. Maybe it was because the other side of the discussion was starting to feel real, but that was good. That meant she was plumbing the nightmare.

S: What do you feel?

MG: Life’s flat—but I see everyone else loving, happy. Keep trying to touch that.

S: What prevents you?

MG: Had bigger dreams. Boxed-up life now.

Sally paused. All right. The nightmare was yielding its gift: was her responsibility to walk away from the thousand little betrayals? For the sake of her unprovable dreams about what she wanted to be? Family, ex—the snakebite destructiveness, innuendos, the dull, month-by-month death by matter-of-fact digs? A boxed-up life?

She looked over at the big living room window, at the upper branches of the tree outside her third-story apartment. Their motion in the wind, their tapping on the glass, seemed ordinary, but the moment stopped and held, like someone ahead of you who checks to see if you’re still following.

She smiled a little and gave her head a shake. But she felt some kind of old music stirring in her, nothing she wanted to shake her head at, actually.

*

Something had led him wrong. What responsibility had he to the defeating, angular streets, the hamster-cage offices? His spirit told him to try to do right, and he had thought that getting this job was right, but it was a lie.

He walked and walked and walked and refused to look up again.

*

S: Is there anything bigger, grander? Any hope?

MG: Anger.

In the dark, Sally leaned her head against the rocker’s back. She could ask or say anything. She was, after all, talking to herself. She could open up the topic she never broached to anyone. She sat up straight and attentively bent over her notebook as if she really were talking with someone else in the shadowy room.

S: Is there…anything divine? What if I see you as an expression of something divine? Isn’t there something finer that we’re all receptive to? God…?

MG: I wish.

S: Me, too, believe me…are you thinking of doing something all angry and weird?

There was a long blank silence. Sally waited as if there really were someone in the empty chair.

MG: Do you think there’s something more?

S: Yeah, I do. I wouldn’t say this to anyone but myself, I guess, but look, I’m sitting here because of a dream. I’m talking with you, a part of myself, maybe—but maybe you really are the mailroom guy, too, how do I know. The point is, this is good. Doesn’t it feel like there’s something going on here?

MG: Yeah.

S: Well there you go! How could you give up and think that all there is, is stepping off the edge or whatever you were planning on doing? Killing something in yourself…?

She couldn’t say, “Killing someone.”

There was no answer, but Sally felt some upsurge of joy, as unexpected as a shooting star when you just happened to glance up at that spot in the universe at that moment in your whole life. She laid her pen and pad down and sat back, eyes closed.

*

He stopped stalking and cocked his head. The wind had cooled his face and dried his tears; now it seemed as if he were hearing a voice under or in the wind, an echo or something, and it was almost calming. He probably was nuts after all.

*

Shifting, leaning forward, rolling her shoulders, Sally considered: clearly, the part of her that reached for freedom, kindness, hope, was a lot more desperate than she had let on to herself. But she’d somehow pushed through that desperation. She was restless with hope.

Pushing herself up without thought, pulling on jeans and t-shirt, she rushed outside, out onto the sidewalk, into the windy night. Her gut sense told her to turn left and walk, just walk, face turned up to the wind and stars.

“All right,” she whispered. “I’m not going down, I do have some kind of talent, and I will find it.”

I don’t know who you are, dream mailroom-guy, she thought as she hit the silent street, but I’m telling you, I’m telling both of us, or all sides of me, whatever—I’m saying we’ve got value. Each of us, some kind of value. Yeah, Dad, even if we don’t get our loans for school. Even without degrees. Even if we don’t know what we’re supposed to be doing here. There’s something bigger and grander blowing through us, because anything less is wrong. Period.

So while she was helping herself out, why not include the real mailroom guy? Just know this about him, too. Why not?

*

The voice came to him now from the tree-scented breeze, silent alleys, his insides; it filled him like water soaking into parched cells; it was closer than the air he breathed. It didn’t feel crazy. The legions inside shrank from it, so it had to be good, right? And it rested him.

Yes. Calmed him. “All right,” he muttered. “Okay.”

He looked up to the deep night. At just that moment a meteorite arced across the timeless sky. Half-sobbing again, half-laughing, he felt as if he were waking up to the streets around him: dancing branches, quiet shadows, and one other solitary soul, a woman walking quickly, gracefully, along on the other side of the street, looking, as he had done, into the sky.

He continued on along as the woman across the shadowed street passed him going the same direction, in and out of deep shadows. They glanced quickly across the street at each other, faces only pale shapes, but he felt a moment of intersection and nodded. Under the yellowy streetlights, he saw her quick nod in return, and she went her way and he went his, tingling a little, and lighter.

He was awake, he was awake again, he was himself, and the sky, the horizon, the wind, the things he had believed in a lifetime ago, were all around him now and always had been. The still, small voice back of them, not the hive sounds of the cubicle world, was there. It had never left. Something had helped him.

He chuckled giddily, quietly—maybe this was manna, maybe this was cripples picking up their beds and walking.

He sat on a wooden park bench, put a hand to his chest. “I can get some paints and canvases. Why the hell not. I can do it tomorrow. My God, it’s okay! It’s okay.” He could never tell people about this, but so what? You didn’t need to explain–probably shouldn’t even bother explaining–something like this. You just got back on your path.

*

An instant after she’d passed him going the same way on the other side of the street, she jerked a little. Wasn’t that the mailroom guy? She had to push through the involuntary flinch to keep herself moving smoothly forward. She probably shouldn’t glance back—he was too weird.

But wait a minute: in her dream, he’d been angry and lonely, but hadn’t she worked that out? When she reached her building, she looked back, but he’d disappeared into the starry, windy night.

Sally closed her apartment door behind her, locked it, lit a candle. Wrapping herself in a comforter, she curled up on the couch and closed her eyes. Racing into the night had gotten her shoulders straightened again. She believed suddenly that she would find her gift.

The End