Ch. VII, p.4

He waves his hand in polite rejection of her offer, but sits nearby. She fascinates him; or maybe it is a show of solidarity—after all, he once lived on the fringes, too.

“Take it,” she says, thrusting the apple towards him vigorously.

Again, he declines. “Not to be rude, but you got that off the ground.” He smiles patronizingly, as if explaining a simple concept to a simple child.

“Where else would I get it from?” she asks, laughing at him.

He furrows his brow and looks upwards, again checking to make sure the apple tree is still there. It is, but he feels an unsettling truth in her remark. He shies away from understanding.

Again the girl laughs. “Oh, you don’t get it, do you?”

“Get what?”

“You’re just like me.”

He feels bad for the ragged child, but she is starting to get on his nerves. “You don’t have any idea what you’re talking about, do you?” he says brusquely. Immediately, he feels remorseful; it was an unwarranted response.

“Go ahead then,” she says, gesturing towards the tree. “See what happens.”

He looks up again. The tree seems farther away than it did before. He raises his hand an inch, and the branches, ever so subtly, recede the same distance.

“There’s no point. I’m not hungry anyways,” he says, unable to hide the anxiety in his voice. ‘I’m not like her.’

She tosses the apple to him and he catches it; a reluctant concession. Looking it over in his hand, he feels repulsed. It is waxen and insubstantial; a pale imitation of the real thing.

“Take a bite.”

“I’m okay.” He sets down the apple.

“It’s the best you’re going to get. But I know, eating it would be admitting it. And the moment of truth is never a soft moment.”

He gazes into her eyes, and senses something strange and familiar behind them. Instantly, he forgets about the apple, as if it had never existed.

“What is your name?” he asks.

She grins—she had been waiting for this—and presses aside her knotted strands of hair, throwing back her head. Crossing her legs and sitting up straight, she sways side to side, her mouth wide and her throat open to the dark sky. For a moment, no sound comes out as she sways gently and with increasing rapidity. Then, a timid warble emerges, softly, slowly, gently, bounding with hypnotic rhythm.

Her song swells and sways and rolls like waves breaking over a sandy beach, and her mouth is turned up in an enraptured smile. Time seems to have stopped to listen, as if it intends to replay the moment through eternity. Then it is all over—her melody reaches a crescendo and swiftly ebbs back into silence.

Somehow, the impracticality of such a title doesn’t even occur to him.

“And what do you call yourself?” she asks with a playful smile.

“Frank…” He pauses, feeling small and insignificant saying it. “Frank Marrus,” he finishes.

“Ah… I see. Your name belongs to the world of man. That’s why you feel that you do, too.”

A twinge of anger flares at the base of his skull, firing up his senses. “Where do you get off,” he demands irritably, “saying something like that? It doesn’t even make sense!” He has lost his temper; lost his calm and collected nature.

“You are like a dog, still desiring his master’s love, even through beatings and casual neglect. If only you could see yourself…”

He does. Frozen in time; legs crossed, elbows propping him up on his knees, hands supporting his chin. His face tells a tale: his expressions are built of learned responses rather than experience; obedient; docile; dripping unctuousness.

But there is a glow, deep in his chest. Something as mysterious as it is familiar. The home he forgot he had; sparking through his social façade occasionally, but mostly forgotten, ignored, denied. He feels that he must have misplaced it, long ago. And he feels deep regret.

A hand touches his forearm and he comes back into his body. Her fingers are clasped around his wrist; coolly colored cylinders appear through her skin, an electric pool dribbling down into his own hand, revealing the same structure. He wants to recoil. He wants to shout. He wants to dissolve into the soil and cease to be sentient.

Instead he looks again into her eyes and sees the truth. Interlocking slats rotate where the irises should be, sliding together and breaking apart in timed intervals. They shift in color between maroon and indigo, marked with gray indentations.

He can’t take his eyes off hers… Her gaze is simple. Relaxed. All that needed to be said and seen had passed. She slides her hand into his and raises him up. He follows her lead unquestioningly as she takes him deeper into the forest, the details of trees once more edging into view.

The path is long and winding; burned into her memory. She darts between towering sequoias and through thorny bushes, the world blurring past. Without her, he would be lost, and for a moment he fears she wishes to abandon him. But it is only fear, compelled by confrontation with the unknown, and nothing more.

Beyond a trickling stream and over a great rise in the land, she slows her pace, arriving upon a small clearing. A glimmering curtain of sunlight bathes the center through an opening in the leaves, and drenched in its rays is a brilliant, redly radiant flower.

He forgets about the girl and approaches, enthralled. It is the most beautiful thing he has ever seen… He doesn’t notice himself kneel, doesn’t notice his hand reach out… All he sees is the brilliant red, flowing with spectacular electric current. And his fingers, caressing its soft petals reverently, can feel his own heart beating against them.

“This is yours and yours alone. You are the bridge that will unite us all.”

Immediately he awoke. Darkness all around assaulted his eyes unintelligibly, but only for a moment. In a way, he wasn’t sure he had dreamed at all; but the feelings were still with him, impressed upon his memory with unyielding firmness.

‘Modify,’ he thought, pinching at the black material wrapped around his wrist. The fibers detached and he slipped off a glove, examining his hand in the light of a “sticky bulb” he had borrowed from Maria’s gear. He could see veins and lines and cracks. Beneath it all, he told himself, was bone. He pressed the hand against his exposed cheek; warm and fleshy, sanguine with blood.

He placed the hand overtop his beating heart, looking over at Maria. ‘She’s just like all the rest. She wants to take it from you.’ He felt a surge of loathing, but shook his head. This wasn’t like him. There’s that voice again… What if it means something? What if I really am different, something other than I believe?

I have to clear my head. He slipped his glove back on and picked himself up from the ground, walking out of the cave. Standing near the entrance, he took a deep breath and grimaced at the encompassing black. If only he could see the stars…

And then a thought struck him. Why not? What was stopping him from just climbing the nearest tree and having a look around? His heart seized at the thought. What about those noises he had heard earlier… the whispering and feet crunching along the forest? Again his eyes darted to Maria, and he considered waking her to see if she was interested in having a look around.

‘Be a man, Frank.’ He wasn’t sure if that was his own thought, or the ‘voice’ he thought he’d been hearing. Wherever that sentiment was coming from, it was right, he realized. If Maria was fearless enough to lead them here, he was fearless enough to simply climb the closest tree and take a look around.

Gathering a few lights and sticking them to his chest, he walked just beyond the energy field that had been protecting him, jumped and clung to a low branch on one of the many trees surrounding, and began to climb.

It was easier than he had anticipated. He could feel his lungs, flush with air from the Oxyphiles, and his arms, surging with renewed strength and control. He quickly got into the “find-a-branch, lift, steady” rhythm that would compel him to the top, only whacking himself in the face with a branch or two on the way. And as he went higher, the darkness began to evaporate, soon thrusting him into the fresh night air where he drank in the world, renewed by calming stillness.

The whole universe lay itself out before him, innumerable glittering stars dancing within the night’s obsidian cloak, unobscured by any grim horizon of city lights. Immediately, he recognized a variety of constellations and thrilled himself at the sight of the moon, hanging crescent shaped against the black.

So… he thought, his heart racing at the notion, this is still Earth…

He steadied himself and began climbing down, anxious to tell Maria about his discovery. But when he stopped to shine a light on his path, six eyes and gleaming teeth shined back at him, dreaming of his death.

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