Wednesday, November 12, 2008

quick note

Well, you've probably figured out by now that this is a far stranger book than Sanctus, to which it is the sequel. I've finally figured out that I just like weird books. They're fun to write, and my favorite thing to read.

So, in warning, this novel just gets stranger from here on out. Expect epic battles, strange powers, and more wacky visions. If you like Descent Into Hell, or Place of the Lion, you'll be fine.

Thanks for reading! I'm up to 60,000 words, with 5k coming every day, and I'll post more soon.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

chapter 9?

The bus bounced crazily, as Brother Frank tried to avoid both the washboarded areas of the road and the nearby scrub brush that grew close to the dusty trail that had been marked as a road. I clutched the armrest of the van, and tried to relax. The drive had taken several hours, and most of the monks had been up since dawn. The desert was completely flat when we’d turned off the road, but as we drove further into the wilderness, we wound down into the bed of an arroyo, and cliffs of dust and small stones rose on all sides. The only vegation I could see were small plants the color of the ddust itself, a few stray tufts of some tough grass, and the occasional stunted grey bush. The hillsides were rugged, crusted in some places, and soft with dust in others. Not much water ever flowed here, and every drop left a distinct trace.
We pulled up to a small flat area, and parked, much to the relief of everyone. In a few moments, all the doors were open, and everyone was unloading. “Remember,” Brother frank called out as he tossed sleeping bags to various monks, “silence starts at lunch, and it’ll be best if we’re set up by then, so work fast!”
The bed of the arroyo was a flurry of activity as everyone set up their own sleeping area, then moved on to setting up the stoves, tables, and coolers needed for the food. As the sun rose towards its zenith, we finally got everything stowed safely, and gathered around the tables for the meal.
Brother Francis rolled back the sleeves of his robe, and lifted his arms to the sky. “Lord God, Father of all that is, be with us here in the wilderness as we learn to see you here. Let us learn to seek You wherever you may lead us, even when the path is hard. We especially ask for wisdom for James Mason Neale Peyton, our friend and brother in the Lord, as He seeks You. Meet him here when all other distractions are gone, and guide him towards You. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”
I was embarrassed that he had named me in the prayer, and took some comfort in the fact that silence was now in effect. The area was so barren that there were no birds, and the only thing that cut into the silence was the faint sound of the wind, and the occasional insecnt. Once an airplane flew by overhead, engines roaring so far above that they could scarely be heard.
I knew that today would primarily be spent silencing thoughts and moving into mental and spiritual silence. Brother Frank had explained that we were free to explore the desert, as long as we went in groups of two or more, especially in the caves. A cardboard box at the campsite held walkie talkies and water bottles, which we were required to take if leaving the campsite to explore. It was a potent reminder of the deadliness that lay in wait for the unwary in the unforgiving desert.
I saw a small rounded mound of dirt, too small to truly be called a hill, that rose on one side of the campground, and quickly scrambled up it. I was momentarily grateful that I was wearing my tattered jeans instead of a monk’s robe. The brothers were all clad in their traditional robes, and though they managed just fine, I could tell it was a little difficult at times.
I stood on the top of the little mound: it sloped down gently on all sides, and the top was very soft and slippery under a thin crumbled crust. I could only move about 7 feet in any direction before I would begin to slide downwards. As I looked out over the arroyo, I could see back the way we had come, and noticed a tall thin crack in the side of the hills. Though the sun was almost blindingly bright, the entrance to the cave was pitch black just a few feet in. On my right, to the east, was a series of small hills—we’d driven through them on the way to the campground, and Brother Frank had said that they were riddled with small caves, some of which were unexplored, because the entrances were too small. A smooth wall of dried mud towered over the campsite, to the southeast, and in it was a small vertical chink, like a keyhole. The walls were almost vertical, and there was no way to get to the cave from above or below. Behind me, to the south, a mud hill had deeply eroded, and the bleached earth had deep rivulets and layers running through it. It made me slightly uneasy, and I mentally termed it, The Necropolis. The name seemed to fit, for no particular reason. To the west, the road wound away through the arroyo, amidst more hills. Ahead and to my left, a small mud peak rose. It was perhaps three times as tall as the mound I stood on, but significantly more massive. The slope was gentle most of the way up, but perhaps twenty feet from the top, the earth had sheared away, giving a dramatic appeareance to the crest of the hill. I thought about calling it the Matterhorn, but realized that the name of a snowy peak was out of place here. Casting about mentally for the name of a desert mountain, I settled on Mount Sinai. Wryly, I noted that on one side, the base of the hill was covered with thorn bushes.
I sat down, looking out over the camground. Most of the monks were there, their brown robes contrasting with the paler earth, yet seeming to be a part of it. A few were sleeping, most were reading, and Brother Frank was scribbling in a notebook. I didn’t see Andrey, and figured that he must be off exploring.
The silence overwhelmed me and I found myself just sitting quietly, watching the qquiet interplay of light over the rugged faces of the hills and ground. No one moment was quite like the last, and the clouds drifted quietly overhead. For the first time in a long time, I didn’t care about the Sight. It could go, or come, and I would be happy as long as I was here. I slowly relaxed until I was lying on my back, watching the clouds. They drifted over the top of the mud wall in long streamers, stretching thin across the sky, bfreaking and reforming as the wind hit them.
A piece of paper, tattered and stained as if it had been there many months, flew suddenly over the top of the wall, caught in the draft. It dipped and swirled, but never fell out of the wind stream. I watched it soaring, thinking that it was somehow fitting that the only way to move in that rarified atmosphere would be to dance.
Slowly, the sun sank in the west, and the shadows lengthened. The warm pale dirt on Mount Sinai grew more saturated in color as the sun turned red. I stood again, watching, and the whole top of the mountain seemed to be aflame, the color and light reflected growing more intense every moment. The simple white clouds were now ribbons of the brightest red, pink, and orange, and in the east even a few of purple. The sky was turning a deep indigo, and across the arroyo, the moon was rising, looking like a bride in her wedding dress.
I saw a flurry of motion below me, and realized that the brothers were gathering for dinner. I brushed myself off, and when I looked up again, the sun had sunk below the horizon and the light, though still brilliant, had dimmed on the hills and was fading quickly. I slipped down the hillside in a river of dust, and landed in a cloud. I coughed quietly, and tried to brush myself off.
A fire was beginning to blaze quietly in a firepit, and several coolers were open. I could see packages of hot dog buns being opened, and couldn’t help laughing at the sight of brown-robed monks sliding wieners onto bent coat hangers. Andrey sidled up behind me, and said in a low voice, “The camping diet makes up for the silence. Trying to eat healthy out here is impossible, so it’s camping food for a week!”
Night fell quickly, and the temperature dropped along with it. Though it was only April, I found myself very glad that I had brought not only a jacket but also a light blanket. Most of the monks had made similar provisions, and we sat around the fire, a circle of wrapped bundles. The young monk with cropped hair and thick glasses had brought a guitar, and strummed it quietly. A few of the brothers sang along, but I didn’t recognize the tunes. The sky was still a dim purple in the west, and the moon was shining brightly. A few bats flapped through the gloaming, and I watched them distractedly. The smell of the desert at night struck me: cold dust, plants releasing the last of the days warmth, and a slightly burnt tang on the wind.
Brother Frank stood up, and gestured to us to pay attention. When all eyes were turned to him, he spoke. “Brothers, as most of you know, we’ll be ending each day with prayer and meditation. I’ll spend a few moments guiding you, then let you take it from there.”
He gestured to the barren landscape. “Did you notice as the sun was going down, how quickly it grew dark? And how dark it appeared? As the sun slips below the horizon, the shadows look pitch black, and it quickly grows cold. But look now, how well can you see?”
I looked around. The moon had risen high in the sky, and was shining brighter than I had ever seen it. There were no other lights for miles. Even with eyes accustomed to the glow of the coals from the fading campfire, I could tell that the landscape was brightly lit, and the hills threw sharp shadows.
“Even in the light, the light shines brightly. Even in the dark, there is hope. Keep this hope alive against the fall of night.” He bowed slightly, and sat back down, eyes closed.
As he fell silent, I looked up at the peak of Mount Sinai. There was now no trace of the sun’s fire that had touched it only a few hours ago. It was cold, and looked almost icy. The moon’s light etched across the landscape, throwing everything into sharp relief; blades of grass that had looked dry and withered by the light of thre sun looked now like the blades of sabers, gleaming in the cold harsh light. The entrance to the cave just down the arroyo was now a vertical line of jet black, and admitted no view of its interior.
I looked up, and almost gasped at the beauty of the stars. I hadn’t seen them this bright since I had left Indiana, and only rarely then. I thought back to the line from Blake, “when the stars threw down their spears.”
I didn’t feel like praying—not that I was angry at God, I was simply content to rest in the silence for a while. The great inky dome of the sky seemed like the ceiling of a monstrous cathedral, one that held not only the beauty of the day, but the terror of the night. I turned toward the hill I’d dubbed The Necropolis, and it was more horrible by night. The white soil was almost glowing in the reflected light of the moon, and the deep rivulets were a wretched black, but I was content. There was room for it here.
I felt something like the flicker of the Sight, but it quickly fell silent. I felt the cold creeping in, since I’d been sitting still for a while. I let it come, and felt a shiver go down my spine.
In the heart of the circle of monks, the coals continued glowing and pulsing with light and heat. The heat was too weak and too far away to reach me, but I was glad for its simple existence.
After a few more moments, Brother Frank stood again, and gestured for us all to rise. “Father God, You who dwell even in the heart of the wilderness where all else is barren, meet us here. Show us the terror of your glory, and let us see You in all that You have made. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen.”
The fire was quickly banked, and I retreated to the warmth of my sleeping bag.
The night was cold, and the ground hard, but I slept well. I woke early, with a crick in my bag, and found most of the monks already moving about. The coals had been uncovered and were being coaxed back to life. A sparing amount of water had been poured into a tin coffeepot, and it was slowly warming up on a rack over the infant flames. Andrey was occupied at one of the camp tables, setting out bagels, cream cheese, and jelly. I had slept in my clothes for warmth, and didn’t have to worry about getting dressed, so I wriggled out of the sleeping bag, and went over to help him. He pointed wordlessly at the waterless hand sanitzer perched at the end of the table. I cleaned my hands and began rummaging in a paper bag for napkins.
Soon, everyone was awake, and breakfast began. Andrew, the young monk with the thick glasses glanced at the fire, the wire hangers from the night before, and the breakfast table, and began grinning. He grabbed a hanger, and motioned to Andrey to hand him a bagel. Andrey, skeptical of the plan he could see forming, raised an eyebrow, but tossed a bagel to him.
Andrew jabbed the hanger through the bagel, and approached the fire. The weight of the pastry bent the hanger nearly doulble, and something that was not quite a chuckle ran through the group. Several of the older monks looked around for Brother Frank, but he was absorbed in his reading, and didn’t notice.
Edging closer to the fire, which was now blazing, Andrew paused, trying to figure out how to make his plan work. Finally, he grabbed a broken two by four that lay in the pile of firewood, and carefully balanced the hanger on top of it. After a few minutes, he managed to finagle the bagel into the warm air above the flames, and grinned widely. He drew it back slowly, and pulled the bagel off the hot metal, and ran over to the table to spread cream cheese over the warm bread before it cooled.
I stifled a laugh, and moved over the table to grab my own breakfast. Though the thought of a piping hot toasted bagel with cream cheese and jelly was appealing, I wasn’t particularly eager to take the effort to hold the plank and the wire over the campfire. I could tell that several of the monks weren’t as sluggish in the morning, and the toasting apparatus was passing amongst the group.
Finally, the commotion caused by a group of men trying desperately not to laugh caught Brother Frank’s attention, and he quietly put his book down and came over.
Andrey happened to be attempting to toast his bagel at the time, and was so intent to keeping the hanger the perfect distance from the flames that he didn’t notice his superior’s approach. Brother Frank was almost standing next to him when he said in a low voice, “Forgoing simplicity, Brother Andrey?” Andrey yelped, and the bagel, along with the hanger and the end of the plank, dropped into the fire. He whirled around to see Frank standing next to him, and attempted to stammer out an explanation before remembering the silence and quieting himself. The look on his face caused Andrew to start snickering, and finally the whole group, myself included was laughing, and even Brother Frank was grinning.
“Get yourself another bagel, Brother, but please try to do things the simple way from now on.” Andrey looked sheepish, but grinned as he spread cream cheese on a cold bagel.
As soon as the breakfast items were securely locked away so that the few desert creatures that lived in the area couldn’t get to them, Brother Frank waved everyone over. “Just a short notice. Silence is in effect for the whole day. We will be going over to the first cave, Plunge Pool, as soon as I finish the announcement, so get your flashlights ready. We’ll probably also be going in there periodically throughout the week, but our meditations will be in there today. Don’t bring any reading material—there’s some light in there, but not much. You’ll only need your flashlights for the entry. There are sandwiches in the large cooler, please grab one and at least one bottle of water.”
The short walk to the cave was hot and dusty, and I could feel tiny particles of dirt settling into my hair and clothing. I fell into step beside Andrew. I didn’t really know him well, apart from a few conversation exchanged in the van on the journey down to the desert, but he and Andrey were the only two monks my age, and I felt more comfortable around them. They seemed to still be having some difficulties completely ffitting in with the monastic life.
We stopped beside the entrance and waited for Brother Frank. He walked into the narrow opening, and was quickly lost to our sight, though I could see the light of his flashlight gleaming faintly on the sides of the entrance. A few of the other monks entered, then Andrew. I followed close behind him, and found myself facing a wall of rock. The entrance, though thirty feet high, was no more than three feet wide, and wound in a convoluted fashion in to the hardened mud of the cliff face. It wound for perhaps thirty feet, and I gripped my flashlight tightly, edging my way sideways through the passage.
Suddenly, I felt a blast of cool air in my face, and found myself stumbling forward into a large open space. My eyes strained to adjust to the darkness after the bright light of the sun outside, but I couldn’t see a thing. I felt a hand on my arm, pulling me towards the wall, and I groped my way forward carefully. I felt my fingertips brush the cool ddirt wall, dislodging a stream of dust. I leaned against the wall, and tired to look around. The darkness was like a physical presence, pressing in on my eyelids. I founbd myself blinking as if hoping to dislodge it, but the inky blackness remained. I switched my flashlight off so as not to blind those across the cavern from me, and looked up. I could see a tiny gleam of reflected light that seemed to be flickering across the roof of the cavern. I assumed that there was a skylight somewhere above, but it didn’t seem to open directly into the large room. The air inside the cave was cool, and I could feel a current.
Slowly, my eyes adjusted to the darkness, and I could see the dim shadowy shapes of the monks across the cave. Most were sitting, some with their heads bent down and resting on their knees, deep in thought or prayer. Again, I found myself more willing to simply sit in silence, just being, not trying to pray or even particularly to think.
It’s amazing how oddly time passes in the dark. All sense of the passage of time deserted me, and I hardly moved, just shifting enough to keep my legs from falling asleep. I absently ran my fingers through the soft dust that powdered the floor of the cave. In a fit of inspirtation, I removed my shoes, and dug my bare toes into the cool powder. I set the shoes where I could find them, tying the laces together.
I pressed my back against the wall of the cave, feeling the coolness of the rock seeping into my back. I closed my eyes, and simply was.
The cool breeze brought with it the smell of long age, the smell of cool dust, and the dryness of old bones. I dind’t mind, and enjoyed feeling the refrigerated blast on my face. I hadn’t brought a razor, and my beard was beginning to grow, though it was little more than stubble at the moment. I didn’t know if I’d keep the beard but I was enjoying not having to shave.
I could hear the occasional shuffling sound of someone shifting position, or standing after a long time sitting. Once or twice I thought I heard the clicking of rosary beads and the whisper of a prahyer. I didn’t know if there were any saints of the desert, but I doubt I would have sent up a petition to any of them if I had known of them.
I let the silence slowly enter my soul, trying to still any thoughts or memories that surfaced, but it was difficult. Nature abhors a vacuum, and my brain would bring something else to the top of my consciousness as soon as I had cleared the previous thought. I felt like a silversmith, constantly skimming off the dross, but the thoughts below were never silver, but seemed to be dross all the way down, murky and dull, heavy with impurities and base metal.
I don’t know how long I sat, still and silent, but finally realized that my legs were growing numb. I quietly pushed myself up, and leaned against the wall while waiting for feeling to return to my legs. They prickled as blood flowed back in, and I winced, shifting my weight from foot to foot, trying to hasten the recovery.
I noticed that I had been in darkness enough for my eyes to adjust completely, and the light from the skylight was, far from being a mere gleam, a bright glow. I could see the faces of the men across the cave from me, and even see the irregularities in the walls of the cave. It was a very round cylinder, going almost straight up. There were a few small ledges, but not enough that anyone could climb to the skylight without the help of rapelling equipment.
I thought of the rains that must come sometimes, and imagined the skylight as the mouth of a rushing waterfall. How quickly the place would full up, I thought, and wondered when the last time that much water had come through there. Brother Frank had mentioned that one of the smaller caves had only been formed in a rainy season forty years previously, and I wondered if that was this cave.
I dug my toes into the powdery dust, and realized how fragle the cavern was. Rain might not come for fifty years, but even without the rain, it was slowly drifting apart. The slow march of time would wear it down, even if the rains never came.
But the rains would come. I’d seen the hills outside, and they showed the clear marks of rainfall, though it couldn’t have been much. One of the monks had told me that there was often water in the bottom of Footprint Canyon, though he didn’t know if that would be the case this year. I let the dust drift through my fingers, and felt the cold.
I felt my stomach growl. I didn’t know what time it was, but decided to go ahead and eat my sandwich. I pulled the rather squashed bag out of my jacket pocket, and tried to reach into it as quietly as possible, tbuit the paper bag crackled pretty loudly. Every sound was amplied in that space, and I felt a little bit bad about it until I heard other bags started to crackle.
The sandwhich was cold on one side, where I’d had my back pressed against the wall, and somewhat warm on the other, where the pocket had rested against my leg. I wasn’t even sure what kind of sandwihch I’d grabbed. I pulled the plastic bag open, and sniffed carefully. Tuna. I checked it first to make sure that no-one had put lettuce on it, then bagen scarfing it down. I wondered why I was so hungry, since I’d done little that day. As usual, the sandwich taseted fantastic, like everything does on a camping trip. An odd mixture of smells arose in the cavern—I could smell tuna, ham, and I thought I caught a whiff of peanut butter and jelly.
I finished the last few bites of the sandwich, and took a few drinks of water from the water bottle I’d brought. I assumed that since we were sitting in the cold dark cavern, I wouldn’t be particularly thirsty, but I was. I hadn’t realized just how quickly the dry atmosphere of the desert, even in here, would wick away all moisture, and I wished I’d brought another water bottle. Even after stadnign, my body was still stiff, and I decided to explore the entrance of the cave a little bit. It was bright with the afternoon sun which reflected into the main cavern with a yellow glow: there were at least five switchbacks, and with every surface it bounced off of, the light picked up a warmer tone.
I followed the stream of cool air, and discovered a smaller cave just off the main one. The entrance was so narrow, I had to squeeze through sideways; even then I wasn’t sure I could make it. Unlike the main entrance, this one never opened into a larger cavern, but simply went a few feet back. I could tell that there was more to the opening than I could get to, since the air was not only fresh, but cool, indicating that it had passed through a good bit of the cavern system before exiting here.
I paused, not quite stuck in the rock, but knowing it would take a bit of squirming to get free. I was cold, and could feel the chilly rock touching my backi, my knees, my ribs, my arms. It was much darker in here, since my body was blocking most of the light that came from the entrance. I stopped edging forward, and simply let myself rest. I wedged one knee against a wall, and lifted my other foot off the ground. I tried to relax, there in the rocky cradle. Slowwly, I was able to persuade myself to relax and began to feel as if I was sinking down and becoming a part of the stone. For the first time my mind was silent, and I felt myself drifting as though asleep, though I’m sure I never closed my eyes.
I’m not sure how long I stayed there, held by the rock, and thinking of nothing, but I didn’t stir until I heard the brothers stirring in the cavern beyond.

I shaded my face with a hand as we came back out into the light. The sun had gone far past noon, and was now falling slowly towards the western horizon, though it would be a few hours until dusk. The light was bright and warm, and the air was hot, hitting us in the face like a furnace blast after the chill of the cave. We paused at the entrance, waiting for our eyes to adjust again. It took quite a while—the sun reflected off the pale dust and launched itself back into the sky, which though still blue, had gone pale, and dusty near the horizon.
As we reached the camp, I found myself drawn to the little mound I’d climbed the night before, and made my way to the top again. Several of the other monks wandered down the arroyo and around the bend. Most simply sat in camp chairs below, enjoying the warmth and light. Andrew began climbing some of the lower hills in the area, and Andrey watched.
My body was eager to move after so many hours of stillness, and I did some stretches. I felt a bit silly, but was determined not to let self-conscioousness inhibit me here. None of the brothers were watching anyway, and I raised my arms above my head, feeling my spine pop several times. The warmth of the sun was intense, but not unbearable, and I soon broke into a sweat.
After about thirty minutes of stretching and moving, I decided to explore some of the other mounds nearby. I didn’t alert anyone else—the hills were all within easy shouting distance, and none were higher than the mound I was on. There were about five little hills between the one I was on, and the Necropolis. I had no intention of climbing that one, but I wanted to get a better look at it.
Climbing each hill took longer than I had expected. The dirt was soft and slippery all over, and when it gave way I would slid back down the slope under I hit a more solid section. Before long, my shoes were full of dirt, and I could feel dust between my toes, and even gritting between my teeth. Finally, I stood on the hill that sat at the foot of the Necropolis, and stood looking up at it. It wasn’t very large, but I still felt a chill as I looked at it. The rare waters had carved rivulets down the side of the slope, and subsequent erosion had explanded them, until the uneroded sections looked like crumbling columns of an old temple. The soil was slightly different here, a different mineral in the soil, causing the wwhiter crust of dirt coveriung the formation. I’d seen streaks of a similar mineral, perhaps a calcite, on the other hills, but none were so covered in it as this one. I wondered how long the hill had stood, how long it had taken to carve it out of what had once been flat land. It still shocked me to realize that I was at the bottom of a valley that had been carved by water, and that the tops of what looked like hills were the remnants of the original flat lands.
I leaned forward, and rested my hand on the crust of earth that covered the Necropolis. It felt surprisingly warm to the touch—I had almost expected it to be cold, though there was no reason for it. The hill sloped away from me at a sharp angle, narrowing towards the top. For a moment, I was surprised, as the hill began to glow with a warm light, but as I turned I realized that the sun had begun its final dewscent and the whole arroyo was glowing with the warm colors of sunset. Mount Sinai was a mass of dusty fire across the way, and the cliff face to the right was a wall of flame, the keyhole entrance a deep velvety black. I slowly made my way back over the hills, and down to the campground. It wasn’t yet time for dinner, but Brother Frank was poking at the fire, trying to persuade the banked coals to come back to life. I grabbed a stick, and joined him in prodding tinder and wood into place, until the first tongues of yellow flame caught. Soon the fire was roaring again, and the others came and gathered for dinner. Old Brother Aidan, a monk of at least seventy, opened a few cans of chili into a battered kettle, and placed it on the rack above the flames, and stirred it occasionally. Another monk, whose name I couldn’t remember, clattered a stack of bowls, trying to separate them. Another wiped the bowls down with a paper towel to clear out the inevitable dust that had settled into them since we’d entered the campsite.
The chili was bubbling happily amidst the flames as we settled down to dinner. Brother Frank had packed cheddar cheese, onions, and sour cream, so we made a feast of the chili with the various additions. Andrew brought out his guitar again, but insteadof singing, just played it quietly, meditatively. I wondered what he was thinkning. He was a wuiet man who seldom spoke, and often seemed lost in his own thoughts. Andrey was the monk I saw him with the most often, but even then, I hadn’t seen them speak often.
I got a bowl of chilli with all the toppings, and settled into a chair next to Andrew, trying not to spill the chili into my lap or onto the ground. I mostly succeeded, but winced as a trickle of hit chili fell over and tricked down the back of my hand. I set the bowl on one knee, and wiped my hand carefully on a paper towel. It didn’t seem burned but would probably be a little sore for a few days. I waved it through the air to cool it, then picked up my spoon and dug in.

chapter 8 or whatever

The phone rang just as I was riding my bike up to Northman Hall, and I scrambled to answer it, nearly wrecking my bike in the process. I let the bike slide to the ground, and opened my phone.
“Hello, is this James Peyton?”
“Yes, this is he.”
“Hello, James, this is Broither Frank from the monaqstery at St. Joseph’s. Brother Andrey’s been telling me how you would like to join us on our retreat, and I thought that before I made a final decisiojn, I’d ask you a few question myself, if that’s alright.”
“Oh! Sure, just give me a second, I just pulled up to work.”
“If another time works better for you…”
I shoved the bike into the bike rack, and wuickly looped the chain around it. “No,. now is fine, really. I’m ready.” I sat down on the low wall that ran beside the wheelchair ramp. “I don’t mean to be a bother, I just really feel like this is something I need to do.”
He chuckled slightly. “That’s alright, don’t worry about it. Well, let me just start with the basics. How long have you lived the Christian life, James?”
I shifted into a more comfortable position. “Well, I gew up in a Christian family, so it’s a little hard to say. I remember definitiviely making a choice at 9 that I wanted to be a Christian, but there’ve been a lot of little choices along the way to being a believing adult, too.” I winced at my silly response. I had hoped to impress Brother Frank enough to let me accompany the monks on the retreat.
“Alright, that’s fine. And what is your level of commitment to your local church? I believe it’s St. Joseph’s, yes?”
“That’s correct. I used to be highly involved, with my fiancée. But then she passed away, and I guess I let some of it slide. I still go to Mass every week, but usually not much more than that. I’ve been meaning to start trying to reconnect…” my voice trailed away; this was not going like I had intended.
“Very good, very good.” I couldn’t tell anything from his calm voice. Every response was given in an utter monotone. “And why exactly do you want to come along on this retreat?”
I began sweating slightly. “Well…I’ve been experiencing some pretty intense…spiritual…things lately, and I wanted to get away from the distractions here to sort them out.”
“And what about the retreat you took here? Didn’t that help?”
“YTes, immensely. But it wasn’t long enough—we only got about 30 bhours of real silence, and I didn’t start being able to really think and pray untiul the time was nearly up. It’s just so noisy inside my head sometimes. Also…” I paused, trying to decide whether to reveal this or not. Then I remembered that Andrey had probably told Brother Frank everything about our conversations already. “It’s also that I’m thinking about taking vows as a monk. Joining a monastery. I don’t know if it’s really a call…a vocation..whatever you call it. I want some time and space to figure that out.”
There was a long silence on the other end of the phone, though I could hear something that sounded like a very quiet whispering, and I realized that Brother Frank must be praying. I felt lslightly emvarrassed to be listening in on a prayer, and turned my attention to the students passing by. A few that I recognized from Dr. Russell’s classes waved as they passed by, and I nodded in return.
“Alright, James.” I juped slightly at Brother Frank’s voice in my ear. “I think that it will be fine if you join us. I will have Brother Andrey contact you with the travel information. I believe we’ll be able to pick you up, as the desert is closer to you than us. Is that alright?”
“Yes! Yes, of course, it’s fine. Thank you, just…thank you!”
Brotehr Frank laughed again, and the warmth returned to his voice. “It’s alright, I’m sure it will be our pleasure. Have a wonderful day.”
I double-checked the lock on my bike just to make sure that it was solidly lockled, then quickly ran upstairs, knowing I was almost late. Sure enough, Dr. Russell was waiting in his office, putting folders of papers into his bag, about to head in to the class. “Sorry I’m so late sir, I had an urgent phone call.”
He looked up, but continued getting his materials in order. “oh? Anything serious?”
I caught my breath. “No sir, nothing serious just a little bit of good news. However, I do need to ask you about some time off. I am going on another retreat, a longer one this time. I need the last week of April off work. I’ll do everything I can ahead of time to lighten the load.”
Dr. Russell leaned back in his chair, and stared at me for a moment, tappingg his bearded chin with a balllpoint pen. “Getting completely out of town, are you?”
I nodded, digging in my own bag for the stack of papers I was returning. “Yes sir, to the desert. I’ll be going with St. Joseph’s monastery, from Santa Barbara. My church goes up there for our parish retreats, and I’m going with them on a retreat to the Anza-Borriego desert. It’s out pas tJulian somewhere.”
He nodded. “I’ve heard of it. Pretty barren. Well, of course you can have the time, you’ve earned it. You need to get away for a while. No, hold on to those papers, I’m going to need your help in class today.”
“What? Which class?” I was surprised, Dr. Russell rarely called me into a given class unless he had already scheduled it with me.
“I want you to come into my philosophy class, 103. We’re on Plato’s Phaedo, and I think I’d like your insights on the matter.” He stood up with a grunt, and wrestled the strap of his bag over his shoulder.
“I’ll be happy to, of course, but I don’t think I’ve read that dialogue since I took the class.”
He shrugged, and walked out of the door. “That’s alright, you at least have a brain in your head. You can think, and that puts you way above this class. Freshmen. They come in so warped from an education that taught them nothing but how to spew slogan and tidbits worthy only of a tv trivia show, it takes all I can do to bend them straight and show them that they know nothing. They’re usually juniors before I can get anything good in their heads,” he grumbled. I swallowed a smile, remembering how often my class had complained about his disdain for the school systems. It wasn’t until my own junior year that I’d looked back and realized how much good Dr. Russell’s classes had done for me. “Go easy on them sir, it really isn’t their fault how they were taught.”
“No, but it’s their own fault how they leared,” he growled, unlocking the classroom door and striding in. “They can blame that on no-one else, even if they didn’t know better.” He set his bag on the table, and began unloading it.
A few minutes later, students began trickling into the room, and each took his seat around the large table in the center of the room. It was not an attractive room; the walls were smooth, some variety of off-white, and the ceiling was covered in aging acoustic tiles. The outside wall was a row of windows that looked out over the parking lot, one straggly tree, and over into another classroom across the way. The sounds of the camus drifted up through the open windows, and a ceiling fan stirred the air slightly. Cropped blue carpeting covered the floor, and the tables were sturdy, but had obviously seen better days.
Dr. Russell turned to the blackboard and wrote a series of questions: “Friendship over a distance: possible or impossible? Fictional characters: real or unreal? Is Theseus’ ship still Theseus’ ship?” I heard several people groan, and one or two eager students opened their notebooks and quickly scribbled down the questions, and sat poised for answers. I couldn’t help but laugh at that: there were always some students in any discussion class who tried to take note of every point made. I’d given up on that by the second week of freshman year—I noticed that the notes never made sense later anyway. Over the years I realized that no discussion couold be recreated: you had to rely on your own memory, and the fact that simply haaving the discussion would shape your soul, whether you remember the exact argument or not.
“Ok, class, get settled,” Dr Russel said, glancing at the clock. “We’ve got a lot to cover, as usual, and for today I’ve brought Mr. Peyton in. You all know him, and since he’s the one who grades your papers, I aassume you’ll be polite. Mr. Peyton, feel free to take a seat.”
I pulled out the seat next to him, that no-one ever seemed to want to take.
“You’ll notice these three questions I have up on the board. Let’s start with those. Mr. Hayes, would you like to guess what these questions have to do with the dialogue?”
A young man, wearing a polo shirt and khakis, looked a little startled, but spoke up almost at once. “Well…I’m not sure about the bit about Theseus’ ship, I know it’s mentioned but…On the one about whether fictional characters are real or unreal. Socrates didn’t leave any writings, so most of what we know about him comes from Plato. For the sake of the dialogue, we ould say that Socrates is a fictional character. As such…is he real, or unreal?” The kid spoke quickly, and hesitated as if unsure, but Dr. Russell let him finish without interrupting.
“Very good, Mr. Hayes. Anyone else?”
Two dark-haired girls looked at each other and tried to repress a giggle. Russell pointed at one of them, a girl with curly hair and a pointed chin. “Miss Thomas, how about you? Any thoughts about friendship at a distance?”
She tossed her hair, and responded, “Well, obviously, you can be friends at a distance. I mean, my best friend is Ashley, and she’s in Texas right now, but she’s still my friend.”
“Oh really? So distance doesn’t matter? Would she be your friend if she was on the moon? Yes? Good! How about if she was dead?” A low murmur of laughter ran around the room, but quickly died as they saw that Dr. Russell was serious. I was quickly skimming over several sections of the dialogue, trying to reacquaint myself with some of the story.
“Well, no! I mean, she’d be dead.”
Dr. Russell folded his arms, and looked at the girl. “Oh, so you only love her body? Her form?”
“No! I love her mind, her personality, her soul.”
“Do any of those change on the other side of death, given what we believe about it?”
She looked slightly uncomfortable. “No…but it’s different?”
“How is it different? Her mind and soul still exist, though they may not be physically present to you. But she’s not your friend? Hmmm. Maybe you’re just too impressed with space.” A young man on the other side of the room laughed, but quickly silenced himself.
Dr. Russell glanced back at the girl. “So when your friend dies, the friendship dies? Well, that seems tragic. Please, explain why you think I asked you this question about friendship.”
She thought for a moment, looking frustrated. “I dunno…I mean, Socrates is in jail, so he’s separate from his friends…”
“It’s because he’s about to die,” interjected the young man from across the table. “Cebes and Simmias think that he will no longer be their friend on the other side of death, and Socrates tinks he will. That’s why he launches into his speech about the immortality of the soul.”
“Mr. Lawson! Nicely done!”
I let the debate fade away into the background, and began pursuing my own thoughts. I believed, somehow, that Angie was still the same person she’d been before she died, but never really pursued the implications before. As I saidk, she was always better at this sort of thing than I am. But if Dr. Russell was correct, and I couldn’t really fault his argument, why shouldn’t our relationship continue? It could never be the same, we would never get married…but perhaps she would never truly leave me. I smiled sliughtly at the thought.
“Mr. Peyton, if you don’t mind, I’d like to pick your brain on this.”
I nodded, waking myself from my reverie. “Sure, Dr. Russell, what’s the question? Sorry, I’m afraid I was off chasing some rabbit trails there for a few minutes.”
“That’s azlright. We were continuing the discussion of friendship across a distance. Is Socrates here?”
For a moment, I froze, then relaxed as I realized that Dr. Russell could not have meant the question as a request to See, but simply as a philosophical conceit. “I am inclined to say yes. We have his words, and any writer worth his salt pours his soul out into his words. We’re here in a community intereacting with his words, so…yes, I’d say he’s here.” Some of the students shifted uncomfortably, trying not to look around the room as if they were afraid to see the ghostly shape of a man in a toga and a long white beard. I wondered what I might be able to See if the Sight hadn’t left me. I felt a slight pang at it’s absence; I’d gronw used to it, even though I hated it most of the time.
“Alriht, so that’s one vote for him being with us. So far, the class is evenly divided. Let’s pursue this a little bit. How many of us here believe in realities that can’t be seen?” Every hand went up. “Ok, good. We’ll let that assumption stand for the time being, since it’s something Socrates assumes as well. So you can’t trust your eyes to tell you that something isn’t in the room, correct?” A chorus of ‘yes’ arose, and Dr. Russell continued. “Do you have any evidence from your senses that such is the case?”
Several people shook their heads, and began to look distressed. “Look, I’m not going to attack believing in invisible things, alright. Here, do you believe in the reality of a triangle, the geometrical concept? Yes? Ok, it has no physical form, and no material existence either, so you’re on safe ground for now. Relax. This isn’t an attempt to tear down everything you believe. We ssave that for sophomore year.” A ripple of nervous laughter rippled through the room.
“Ok. Invisible realities. Would it make a difference to you if you could, in fact, see them?” Several students nodded, several shook their heads. “Ok, split class again. Oh well, we’ve gotten a little off track. Back to friendship over a distance. We’ve already established that there is an invisible entity that is the essence of your friend,, and somehow that remains in a relationship- with your own invisible essence, call it your soul if you like. So again, why are you letting physical space make such a difference?”
“But it does make a difference,” said a sedentary young man sitting near the middle of the table. “I would never have been able to establish a relationship with my girlfriend if she hadn’t been physically present.” A few guffaws started, but Dr. Russell silenced them. “Well, of course, I love her when she’s not here, and I love all the non-phsyical things about her, but the physical things are often my way of knowing the non-physical, right?”
“An excellent point, Mr. Sikora. And one that Socrates himself addresses in the Symposium, no? Good, you’ve done your homework.”
After another thirty minutes of hard discussion, the class was over. We headed back to Dr. Russell’s office, and for once I had no essays to grade. “Well, Mr. Peyton, you’ve been grading their papers, but you hadn’t been to that class in a while. What’s your opinion on their progress?”
I leaned against the doorframe. “All in all, I think they’re about where they need to be. In all honesty, sir, most of the real progress is hard to judge in class. A lot of my philosophical development happened after class, in the cafeteria, talking with my friends and trying to dodge the occasional flying apple thrown by the jocks across the room. That’s where the real learning happens, I think.”
Dr. Russel laughed as he unloaded papers and books from his bag. “That’s part of the point. I don’t expect them to get too much out of the class. I’m planting little brain worms, that will hopefully wake up when they’re having other conversations. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, and you can never be sure which students will respond. Some of the smartest people I know never had an original thought or challenged any idea of their own. Some of the students who hid in the back of the class and doodled on every paper ended up being the best minds in the class. You never know.”
I smiled, remembering my time in class. “I’m gglad I’ve gotten to be a part of this. It’s pretty neat to watch.”
He looked up suddenly, and stared at me through his thick glasses lenses. “ ‘Gotten to be a part of this’? You’re not planning on leaving anytime soon, are you?”
I hesitated for a moment. Telling someome that you’re thinking abot becoming a monk is not the easiest thing to do. Clositered orders are crazy, they say, an outdated ideal, each monk a weak-willed person cut off from normal life, or even a sexual predator unwilling to live in the world anymore/. I didn’t even know if I really would be doing that. All I knew was that I wanted to. I wanted the quiet, the openness, the community, and something else that I couldn’t even name.
“Well…it’s a possibility. You see, the retreat isn’t just for my own refreshement. I’m trying to see if God wants me to become a monk.” I could feel my face turning red as I said the words, feeling clumsy and a little foolish.
Dr. Russell had been bent over his desk arranging papers, straightened up, and looked at me. Then he took off his glasses and polished them thoughtfully on his shirt tail. I’d never really thought much about it, but he looked like most busts of Socrates I’d seen. An ugly man, on the first impression, he had unkempt salt and pepper hair that fell to his collar, and an assymetrical face. He was shorter than me, and had a bit of a potbelly. I hardly saw that anymore, he was simply Dr. Russell, a good teacher and a fine man. I’m not sure why I took stock of his appearance then, perhaps I was simply preparing mysef to say goodbye, storing his image in my memory.
“This is sudden,” he said at last. “Are you sure that’s what you want?”
I shook my head. “Not yet, that’s what the retreat is for. But it’s possible I won’t be coming back next year. My loans are all paid off, and as soon as the lease on my apartment is up, I am financially free. But again, I don’t even know for sure yet whether it’s what I’m supposed to do. Just that it’s something I want to do.”
“Waste of a fine mind,” he grumbled. “Why would you lock yourself up there, away from the world? You can’t change anything from there. It’s all about being down here in the mix, really getting in with people, and getting your hands dirty.”
“I’m not convinced of that,” I said, sitting down on a folding chair in the middle of the room. “After all, the monks are there to live good lives, and to pray for the sake of the world. That can’t mean nothing. And in fact, if what you were saying in class is correct, they aren’t leaving the world. Anyone can be present to a friend, correct? Well then, perhaps the monks aren’t withdrawing, but simply trying to be a conduit between one world and the next.”
He studied me for a minute, eyes narrowed slightly and forehead furrowed. “You’re pretty insistent on trying this out, then.” I nodded, and he sighed. “I think it’s a mistake. Biut your life is your own, and if your spirit sys this is what you need to do, then it’s what you need to do. But listen to me, Mr. Peyton, I hope you’re not doing this because you think it’s somehow romantic for the lover who’s been left alone by death to swear eternal fealty to his love, and retreat from the world. That’s nothing but mere selfishness, and I’d hope you would know that.”
I sighed. “I’m fairly sure they woouldn’t let me become a monk if they thought I’d spend all the time thinking about a woman. That’s kind of not the point of taking the vow of chastity.”
Dr. Russell looked at me for a moment, then croaked a kind of laugh. “Fine, you win that one. For now. Go ahead and take your retreat, see if this is what you need to do. If not, your job is open to you for as long as you want it. If it is the path you choose, well, then I wish you well. But please do try to keep your mind alive. I’ll feel better about it if I think that one of my best students is still learning.”

Chapter 7ish

That night, I dreamed again. These dreams were becoming a regular occurrence, and I didn’t know if the dreams came with the Sight, or as a response to it.
I found myself wandering through a sea of fog, trying to find some marker that would tell me where I was. I could see dim shapes moving in the murky gloom, but could never quite get a good look. Finally, the fog began to swirl away, and I found myself standing on the wooden bridge in the part again, looking down into the trickle of green water. I knew what I would see when I lifted my head, and tried to keep my attention focused on the water, but it was no use. I looked to my left, and saw the Lady in blue. She extended a hand to me, and in her hand she held a branch of thorns. The thorns cut deeply, and the wood was covered in blood. The blood fell onto the ground and splashed the bottom of her robe. Behind her stood a gaunt figure all in black, its tattered robes whirling in an invisible wind. The Lady held out the thorny branch to me, and indicated that I should take it. I pulled back in horror and turned to my right. The red-robed form was there, flames surrounding him and turning the fog around him to gold. I still could not see his face, but in his hand he held an intricate crown, wrought of gold and set with hundreds of glittering stones.
I took a step to the right, and the air shivered and shimmered with a golden light. With every step, the golden light pulsed. I reached out a hand to touch the crown—
And woke up. I swore loudly, then rolled over and pulled the pillow over my head. “I’ll See things during the day if I must,” I groaned, “but can’t I just get one good night’s sleep?” I glanced at the clock. 6:58. Rolling out of bed, I shuffled through my closet in a haze, finally yanking on a shirt and tie that didn’t completely clash.
I grabbed the newspaper from the doorstep as I ran outside, but decided to just stuff it in my bag rather than taking the time to set it down inside the house. I took the stairs two at a time, hopped on my bike, and coasted down the street.
I couldn’t shake the vague sense of accomplishment from the night before. Despite my misgivings, it had felt good to make an actual difference. The things I saw had been so useless, so frustrating, but that sudden rush of adrenaline, the quick decision, the life saved…I felt a surge just thinking about it.
I walked into Dr. Russell’s empty office, planning to drop off the papers that had been graded, and get to work on the new stack of work. Before settling in to see what sort of nonsense had been turned in, I spread the morning newspaper out, glancing at the headlines. It was the usual, politics, economics, world news, local news.
I flipped over the local section, and my heart nearly stopped. There was a mug shot featured about one of those headlines that always make you shake your head and wonder what the world is coming to. It read, Local Girl Raped, Murdered: Suspect Sought. The photograph was blurry, but I would have known it anywhere. Those same frantic eyes had stared into mine for a split second last night, just after I’d saved his life.
It took me a good half hour to calm myself down enough to pick up the paper and read the rest of the story. I put it down a few moments later, sickened.
I’m not sure how I made it through the rest of the day—everything went by in a haze. I remember making it through my usual schedule, but I don’t remember anything I said. My mind was completely knocked off course by the thought that my action, the one I’d been so proud of the night before, had gone so disastrously wrong. The paper mentioned the location where the young girl’s body had been found, and it was located less than a block behind the grocery store. He’d been running when I stopped him, and if I hadn’t…well, it wouldn’t have brought the kid back to life, but he might have paid the price with his own life.
As soon as I got home, I dialed Scott’s number. After a few rings he answered, sounding groggy.
“Scott Harkness.”
“Scott, it’s James. Did you see the paper this morning?”
“huh? No…don’t usually look at the paper. What’s in it?”
“What’s in it is that guy from last night.”
Scott’s voice seemed to brighten, as he replied excitedly, “Oh yeah? What’s it say?”
I struggled to keep my voice calm, but wasn’t completely successful. “What it says is that he raped a murdered a fourteen year old girl last night. At a house just behind the grocery store. He ran from the scene, and no-one saw him after that.”
There was a long pause on the other side of the phone.
“Scott? I don’t know what to think about this. I thought that saving someone’s life would be a good thing. You never said there would be anything like this!” I could feel bitterness and anger seeping into my voice, though I knew it was my own fault. I hadn’t questioned anything I’d seen, hadn’t stopped to think. Before I could apologize, he spoke up.
“James, I’m sorry. This truly is horrific, and I wish there was something I could say. But the truth is, we just have to act on the best information we have. The smallest hesitation, and disaster can be unleashed. Even if you hadn’t stopped him and he had been hit by the car, it wouldn’t have changed anything. That poor girl would still be dead.”

“Then what the hell good does it do to be able to See,” I shouted into the phone, pacing the living room furiously. “If I wanted ambiguous information, I’d just rely on my own two eyes and normal vision. How could anyone ever rely on this crap?” I angrily hung up, and set my phone on the table. I felt like going for a jog to release some of the pent-up energy and frustration, but the last thing I wanted to do was be out on the streets when night came on—no telling what I might See. But as the evening wore on, the apartment seemed to be closing in around me. I finally decided to take the chance, and quickly changed into shorts and a t-shirt, and headed downstairs.
As I ran, I took great care to keep my eyes on the pavement in front of me. I didn’t want to see anything else. But as twilight fell, and my excess energy was used up, I began to feel better and even relax a little bit. The summery smell of honeysuckle was in the air again, and the moon was rising into a purple sky.

I came to a long stretch of smooth pavement, and closed my eyes for a moment, just enjoying the feeling of the air rushing past, the hint of coolness in the breeze, and the feel of the concrete under my feet. “Please, God,” I whispered, “I don’t want this. I can’t deal with it. Just take it back.”
For a week, I saw nothing. No strange robed figures interrupted my dreams. No strange lights flashed when I picked up a gallon of milk at the grocery store. At first it was a welcome relief. I found myself whistling on the way to work, and sleeping more than five hours a night.
But after a few days, I’d find myself staring off into space, wondering what unseen things might be there. Just because I couldn’t see them didn’t mean they weren’t still there. I watched students walking along the roads at the school, wondering what I might be able to see if I tried, wondering whether I’d see a glory or a terror.
Sunday came, and as usual, I picked up a group from the school. Erin and her fiancée were taking a different car, but Jason came, and behind him I saw Corrinne.
They got into the car, and buckled the seat belts as I pulled away from the parking lot. “Hello, corrinne,” I said. “I didn’t expect to see you here.”
She laughed, and glanced over at Jason. “Well, Stefan’s been encouraging some of the people in his art classes to investigate liturgical traditions, to see how imagery and iconography are used in conjection with religion. I grew up without much religious imagery around, except for the standard unimaginative watercolors of Bible scenes. I’ve really enjoyed some of the stuff he’s been showing in class, so I thought I’d try it.”
Jason chimed in. “It took me awhile to get used to it. It all felt so hokey at first. I mean, most of the art just isn’t that great, right? Ok, the stuff at Our Lady is ok, but not magnificent.”
I thought back to the statue of the Holy Family at St. Joseph’s, and felt an unaccustomed sadness.
“Hey James, you’re Stefan’s friend, what church does he go to?” Corrinne leaned forward with interest. “We’ve asked him several times, but he refuses to talk about it.”
“Oh…Well…I guess it’s ok to tell you, but please don’t spread it around. I’ll explain.” I glanced over my shoulder and switched lanes. “Stefan is Eastern Orthodox, and a pretty devout one at that. A few years ago, his freshman year, there was a big controversy over that. Some student got into a hissy fit, kept insisting that Orthodoxy wasn’t really Christian. He was furious when he found that several very popular teachers were Orthodox as well, and kept trying to get them fired. Fortunately, the university handled it well, and it blew over, but it’s still a sore topic for a lot of people. Now that he’s teaching here, he doesn’t want to stir any of that up again. So, now you know, but please don’t spread it around.”
We came to the top of a hill, and stopped at the light. The morning sky was pale blue, tinted rose and gold in the east, and in the north, foothills rolled gently towards the mountains in the distance.
“You know, Angie took me here once,” Jason said, thoughtfully. “I was still pretty messed up from Hannah’s death…well, that wasn’t all. I wasn’tt a particularly good person then. For some reason, she decided that she wanted to help, and started taking me to all these places…She could see God in anything, I think. That park right there, on the left. She loved that. You see that line of houses there, on the top of the foothills?” He pointed as the light turned green and I put on the gas.
“Yeah, I remember that.” I smiled slightly. “We went for a picnic there once, and she pointed it out. Said she called it the Kingdom of God. And you’re right, she did see God everywhere—I never could quite get it, but she was serious about it.”
“I thought she was nuts at first,” Jason grinned. “But now every time I see that string of houses, well, that’s what I call it to myself. So I guess she convinced me in the end.” He sighed quietly, and turned away from the window. “Hey, I’m sorry, James, I don’t know if that’s still a sore subject or anything. I put my foot in my mouth a lot, so I don’t tend to notice when I’ve said something I shouldn’t.”
We coasted to a stop in the church parking lot, but I didn’t unbuckle my seatbelt yet. “No, it’s ok. It’s been a year, and it doesn’t really hurt to hear about her. I’ll always miss her, but I know she’s happy where she is. She’s living in the world that she always got little glimpses of.”
The service proceeded as normal, but I grew more and more uncomfortable. I could feel the presences in the room, knew that there were things there that I couldn’t see. Finally, during the final prayers before the congregation was called forward for the sacraments, I couldn’t stand it. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and looked again.
No figures in robes, no lights, no flames. I blinked a few times, my eyes flickering quickly over the congregation. Still, nothing. It was gone. Had I spent so much energy on ignoring the Sight that I’d eradicated it? I tried again, but with no more success.
I kept trying throughout the day, but with no luck. I was sitting in the living room, thinking, when Stefan came in; I realized that it had been several days since I’d seen him. I’d been too involved in my own problems to even notice.
“James!” He set his paintbox down, and let a tote bag slide off his shoulder and land with a thump on the floor. “Sorry, I didn’t see you before I left, we had the art retreat this weekend. I forgot to mention it, just remembered Thursday.” He grinned, and flopped into the armchair.
Stefan is one of the most intense people I’ve ever met, but you wouldn’t necessarily notice it at first. He’s about average height, wiry, with dark brown hair and black eyes that could be as quiet as a church or as fiery as a lightning storm. He tends to not talk very much, and slouches a little bit, and trying to pry his attention away from anything that’s captured it is nearly impossible.
“How’d the art retreat go? I thought you hated those?”
Stefan rolled his eyes, and ran his hands through his already crazy hair. “Ugh, yeah. But I’m a teacher now, so I gotta make an appearance. It was actually kind of fun. They went to the beach on San Clemente again, you know the one. It was really nice, for the most part. It was nice to get to hang out with some of the students without having to be the teacher. I mean, good grief, even the freshmen aren’t that much younger. Nice to just be able to act normally around them. We did some sand sculptures, and most people had cameras and were taking pictures. The best part was when this one kid, pretty talented sophomore, got out his guitar. Everyone was just hanging out, enjoying the sunshine, drawing or doodling, singing along with whatever songs we happened to know.”
I smiled, glad to see Stefan happy. “What’d you think of them? I mean, the students, when they weren’t in class.”
Stefan thought for a moment, rocking gently in the armchair. His Mediterranean skin tanned at the drop of a hat, and two days in the seaside sun had given him a better tan than I could hope for in a summer. “Well…they seemed happier there, that’s for sure. When they’re just around other students who are like them, they relax a little. There’s no pressure to be cool, or contrary. They’re much more open to wonder. I don’t know why they’re so afraid of it the rest of the time. They were snapping pictures of the sun on a leaf, or the way the sand was crumbling at the edge of a footprint. Nice to see. I’m thinking of organizing an exhibit around it. I dunno, we’ll see.”
He turned towards me. “You don’t look so good, buddy. In fact, you’ve been pretty distracted for awhile. Unless you’re getting over some form of devastating pneumonia that I didn’t know you had, I think something’s wrong. Care to explain?”
Thirty minutes later, Stefan was stilling sitting in the armchair, but I was pacing the room trying to keep my thoughts in order as I finished up the story.
“Now I can’t see anything, but it doesn’t help. I know what’s still out there, and it doesn’t matter that I can’t see them, they’re still there. I don’t know what to do anymore, but it’s getting hard just to get through a day at school.” I stopped talking, unable to put my frustration into words, but kept up my furious pacing.
Stefan looked at me thoughtfully. “Have you tried the medication the doctor put you on?”
I nodded and pulled the bottle of my pocket. “Yeah. I’m supposed to take them every morning, and I can take an extra one if I start feeling too stressed. Haven’t noticed that it’s been working.”
“You don’t think that’s why you’ve stopped seeing things?”
“I doubt it. I don’t feel any different. I wasn’t even that stressed until these…things…started showing up.” Disgustedly, I tossed the pills onto the table.
“I wouldn’t be so quick to discount the medication,” Stefan said, picking up the bottle and examingingg the label. “But really, I’m more worried about that group you were hanging out with.”

“Tell me about it. I didn’t know that…Ok, I guess there’s really no reason I should have assumed that this kind of sight would be more accurate that any other kind, but still. They didn’t want to seem to deal with the issue.”

Stefan hesistated, and set the pills back on the table. He shoved his hands into his pockets, hunchgin his shoulders as he always did when he wasn’t completely comfortable. “Well…Yeah…but that’s not really what I meant. I mean, I’m just going from what you said, but it seems like they were always referring to other people, those without this ‘sight’ as lesser or other than themselves. That’s a pretty dangerous path.”
I stopped pacing and looked at him. Father Timothy’s warning came back to me; I’d forgotten it. “You think that might be part of it?”
“I don’t know. But I do know that they worry me. I’m not an egalitarian, but to so consciously place yourself above the rest of humanity, decide who lives…how soon before you decide who should die?”
“They wouldn’t kill anyone. And you know I’d never—“
Stefan held up a hand. “I know, I know. You wouldn’t. At least, you wouldn’t, as long as you stay the person you are now. People change. And I don’t mean that being with them would necessarily change you, but people DO change, whether they mean to or not. The only way not to change is to stagnate, and you don’t seem the type to do that. I worry about the things that would influence you while you change.” He looked out the window at the afternoon sunlight that flooded the plaza, turning the pool into a liquid turquoise stone. A small vine traced its way up the stairs from a bush that badly needed trimming. “See that vine? It’s going to grow stiff soon. It’s clinging to that railway for support, but if you try to pull it away, it’ll never be straight again. It’s grown into it. Don’t let your soul get that entangled with this.”
I leaned against the wall. “But, if it comes back anyway, isn’t it a great gift? A great tool? Why not use it?”
“Eyesight is a tool. Speech is a tool. Every good gift can be a tool, and every tool can be misused, or used to any purpose. Hand someone a hammer, they can build a house of beauty and culture, or a slum to extort from human misery.” He gave me a small smile, then picked up his bag and paint box and retreated to his room. A few moments later, I heard his chant CD begin, and a few wisps of scented smoke trickled from under the door.
I went down the hallway and sat at my desk, hoping to get some papers graded, but found myself unable to look at them. Shuffling through a stack of papers, I came across the crumpled schedule for the retreat at St. Joseph’s. I missed the calm, even laced with the terror of the visions. On a whim, I grabbed my phone and quickly dialed the number.
“Hello, St. Joseph’s Retreat House, this is Andrey, may I help you?”
I felt my pulse quicken with nervousness, but was glad that the young monk had answered the phone instead of one of the men I didn’t know. “Andrey? It’s James Peyton. I was up there for a retreat with Our Lady of Angels in Placentia, and we met.”
“oh, yes, of course. What can I help you with, James?”
“I think I need another retreat, and thought that there might be something available at St. Joseph’s.”
“Another retreat? So soon? Weren’t you here about two weeks ago?” The monk’s voice was obviously puzzled, and I could hear him rustling papers.
“I know, but it’s…well, it’s kind of urgent. Is there anything ready? Or a waiting list? I don’t really know how this works.” I started anxiously tapping my fingers on the desk.
“Actually, there is, but I might have to check with Brother Frank. See, the brothers and a few lay brothers from the community are going to be taking a retreat to the desert soon. It’s pretty intense, though, I warn you. And it’s a rough desert; no toilet facilities, no water except what we bring in. Lots of caves in the hills. It’s pretty barren.”
“No, that sounds fine. I went camping a lot as a kid, and I’m used to all kinds of terrain. The desert sounds great, if it’s ok with you guys to take a stranger along.” I breathed a sigh of relief.
I could hear Andrey scribbling something, and then there was a loud clunk. “Drat. Sorry, dropped the phone. Ok, let me go ahead and get your contact information so I can checkl with Brither Frank. He’s usually pretty open to people coming along, but you realize that you only mentioned a potential interest in the monastery a few weeks ago. We barely know you, so he may say know, for your own sake. As I said, the retreats can be intense, and we wouldn’t want you to get in over your head.”
“Sure, sure, that’s fine. Here’s my info.” I gave him my telephone number and email address, and hung u[p the phone. I glanced up at my calendar. The retreat, if I was allowed to go, would be in less than two weeks. I wondered if I’d make it until then.

chapter 6ish

I sat in a chair at the coffeeshop on Wednesday evening, sipping occasionally on a cheap coffee, and trying to look casual. Every few moments I found myself tapping my foot anxiously or clenching my fist, and forced myself to remain calm and still.
I heard the chime as the door opened, and Scott walked in. He nodded to me as he entered, but walked over to the ordering line to get a latte and a small muffin. As he waited to piuck up his order, I had the chance to examine him. I’d never really paid attention to what he looked like when he was in my apartment. He was on the short side, and wiry. He had dark straight hair, parted in the middle, and a lock of it kept falling into his face. He had an intense but not unpleasant expression on his face, and thanked the barista with a smile when she handed hiom the steaming cup of coffee. He grabbed a fistful of napkins from the dispenser, and took a seat across from me.
“So…you said you wanted to talk again,” he said, carefully breaking off a bit of muffin and popping it into his mouth. “I’m glad you did. But what in specific did you want to talk about?”
I pushed aside my dislike of him for a moment, and cleared my throat. “I went to the psychiatrist yesterday. She, naturally, thinks that I need severe help, since I am seeing things that do not exist. I was given a prescription for a sedative, and if that doesn’t work, she will advance that to more psychoactive drugs.” I dug into my pocket, and held up a small amber pill bottle. Scott held out his hand, and I tossed it to him. As he examined the label, I continued. “Now, so far the only confirmation that I have that these things are real is the fact that you saw the same things I did. I don’t necessarily trust you, but there’s no way you could have made that up. So, ok. I want to know more. I want to meet some of your people, and find out if they were ever put on prescriptions, and if it did or did not help, and what happened.” My voice was slightly harsh, but I did not want to give Scott any impression that I was willing to join his group of…whatever they were.
Scott gave the pill bottle one last look and tossed it back. “Of course. There are several people who were given rather extensive psychotherapy before we found them, and they’d be happy to talk to you. But I can tell you some of it right now. See, I did the same thing.” He held out his arm towards me, and rolled back his sleeve. His wrist was crisscrossed with scar tissue, as if he had been restrained for a time. “It got so bad they had to strap me down on the gurney to give me an injection. The drugs didn’t help me. Either they dulled me down so much I couldn’t function as any sort of normal human being, or they made it worse, opened my mind more to the visions, and twisted them into something that they weren’t, mixed them with ddreams from my own nightmares.”
I shuddered involuntarily. Scott rrolled his sleeve down, drained the last of his coffee, and stood. “We’ll be meeting tonight. It’s the best time to get to know some of them. You’re more like us than you realize.” He gestured slightly at the occupants of the coffee shop. “Look at all of them, sitting here. They’re plugged into music so they never face the silence, they connect themselves to the interenet at every chance because they can’t handle being alone, and they bind themselves to everything about them. They don’t see, and those of us who do have to protect them. It’s our duty.”
I stood slowly, eyeing the door. “Where are you meeting?”
“It’s a warm night, we usually just meet in the park. There’s a table by the playground, and we usually meet there.” He grinned, and headed for the door. “Relax, we don’t wear black robes, goat skulls, or yellow spandex. We’re mostly normal, just like you.”
I followed him out the door. “I’ve got my car, do you want a ride?”
He shook his head. “Best to walk. It’s only two blocks down that way.” He pointed down the street to the park just across from the back entrance to the college. “It won’t take long.”
As we walked, I was silent. The cars rushing by, the noise of college students out and about, and the pumping bass of stereo systems was more than enough noise for me. Again I found myself wishing to be back in Santa Barbara, enjoying the silence of St. Joseph’s. The night air was slightly cool, but warm breezes blew through, carrying the scent of honeysuckle and jasmine, mixed with the fumes of passing cars and the sticky sweet cherry scent of spilled slushies from the nearby gas station.
It only took a few minutes to reach the park, and I could see a few bright stars glinting over the tops of the trees. A small group was already gathered around the table: a pudgy young man who seemed to be still in high school, an older man with glasses and a heavily lined face, a middle-aged woman who looked like she would be at home on Wisteria Lane, and a young woman with dark hair, perched on the edge of the table. As we approached, she leaped down and ran up to Scott.
“Hey, you’re late. I thought you said you’d be here by 8:30, and it’s almost 9.” Her voice was quiet and lilting, and I caught a quick glimpse of blue eyes as she turned towards me. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be rude. I’m Brittany. Scott told us he’d try to bring you tonight, but we didn’t know if he’d actually succeed.” She held out a small tanned hand, and I shook it.
“James, meet the Society,” Scott said, chuckling. “Sorry, we call it the Society because we’ve never found a name that didn’t sound pretentious. This isn’t all of us, we’re missing Michael, Soren, and Mikaela. The gentleman in the blue shirt there is Richard, Henry is the kid, and Rachel is our soccer mom.” The woman laughed, as if it was an old joke. Richard smiled, but it was a guarded smile that spoke of pain and caution. Henry, the pudgy kid, stuck a hand out to shake, and grinned widely from a freckled face. Rachel’s blond hair was slightly mussed by the breeze, and she raised a hand to smooth it as she shook mine. Brittany tugged her knit cap down over her ears, and jumped up and down slightly. “C;mon guys, we need to get going. My mom’s expecting me to be at the coffeeshop again by 11. Let’s go.”
“Hang on a sec, Brit, we’ll make sure you’re back in time, but we’ve got business first.” Scott motioned for me to sit, and I did so carefully, still on my guard. I felt out of place in my buttondown shirt and tie—I hadn’t taken the time to change from school. I loosened my tie, and undid the top button of my shirt.
Scott cleared his throat and raised his voice a little. “Okey, everybody, we’d like to welcome James today, he’s just got some questions, and isn’t a part of the Society as yet. Richard, Rachel, I know that both of you went through pretty intense psychotherapy when you first started seeing things, would you be interested in telling your stories?” Rachel blushed slightly, but nodded. Richard’s face tightened, but he nodded as well. “Richard, you go first, just get it over with. It doesn’t have to be long, just the basics”
Richard turned toward me, and began nervously polishgin his glasses with the tail of his shirt. “I, uh, I used to be a professor. At that school just down the street. I, uh, started seeing things in class. Got to where I could know things about my students without them saying a word to me. Finally, one day I saw this big black creature standing behind one of my best students, this sweet little girl named Hannah. I knew she was having some troubles, but I didn’t know what. I freaked out a little bit when I saw that big thing standing behind her, but kept telling myself I was just tired, just imagining things.” He turned away, his eyes filling with tears. “That night, she took a bottle of blood thinners and slit her wrists. I always wondered what would have happened if I’d said something. Drove me nearly mad, but when they sent me to counseling, the young man I talked to didn’t know what to do. I got passed from doctor to doctor, and was on ten different medications. I even spent a week in an insane asylum. It got…bad. Finally, Scott met me going into the shrink for my latest therapy sessions. I was so doped up, I could barely understand what he was talking about, but something of it sunk in, and I skipped my appointment. The next day, I flushed all the drugs down the toilet, and haven’t taken one since. It took me a while to understand what I was seeing, but…you couldn’t get me to take any of those pills again.” He fell silent, and I looked away, unwilling to stare at the obvious pain he was feeling.
Rachel spoke next, her voice a soft alto. “I thought the things I was seeing were due to a nervous breakdown after my husband left me. I went straight to the psychiatrist my friend recommended, but the pills did nothing.” She smiled wryly. “They never made me sleepy, only a little irritable, but my doctor kept getting worried when nothing he prescribed would make these things go away.”
I turned back to Scott. “Obviously, everyone here doesn’t respond to the medications, for whatever reason. But you told me once that you made everyone in the group get fully tested and treated if possible. I’m assuming you’ve found a few people who were simply hallucinating.”
Scott nodded. “Yeah, we have. Either they find us, or we mistake them for a real seer. It seems like the beings we see have some sort of effect on the mentally unbalanced and they can sense them, though their impression of them may be radically different. We have to be careful. Most of those we’ve turned away, we’ve been able to persuade to get real treatment, and some of them have been completely fine. One young man, Kris, seemed very promising, but it soon became apparent that he was schizophrenic. Fortunately, after getting in touch with a good doctor and starting a treatment plan, he’s been hallucination free for months.”
He leaned forward over the table. “We really are serious about not taking in anyone who isn’t seeing the things we see. We can verify these things, to some extent, though we’re still learning about what we see. We’re still trying to figure out what everything means, though we have some pretty good ideas. You don’t have to decide tonight whether you want to join us or not, but I think you might enjoy one of our patrols. Brittany and I will be going out tonight, and walking up to the grocery store parking lot. It sounds weird, but a lot of high school and college kids hang out there.”
I hesitated. It still sounded strange. Visionary vigilantes, scouting out a parking lot. But I couldn’t resist; I wanted to know how they were able to see things that could make a difference to anyone. I nodded, and rose silently from the table.
“Ok,” Scott said, motioning to Henry, Richard, and Rachel. “Henry and Richard, you take the park here. There’s usually people over by the lake. Check the sidewalks, too. Rachel, are you ok with taking the shopping center on the corner? Yes? Ok, good. Meet back here at 10:30, and we’ll coordinate.”
Scott and Brittany turned and walked up the street, and after hesistating for a moment, I followed. The night had grown slightly colder, and the wind had picked up. As we neared the grocery store parking lot, Scott slowed slightly. “Ok, this is what we’re going to be doing. Mostly, you’ll just be looking. Do whatever you need to do to see—everyone’s a little different. Just keep both sets of eyes open. It’s rare that we see anything dramatic, but you never know.” He turned, and handed a few crumpled dollar bills to Brittany. “brit, do you mind checking out the juice shop? Grab something to drink and just hang out. Looks like they have a pretty good crowd in there tonight.” The young woman nodded, and stuffed the cash in the back pocket of her jeans. “james, you and I are going to take a quick lap around the parking lot, and then hit the grocery store.”
“The…grocery store?”
“I know, it sounds weird, but there are a lot of people there. Brittany found a women who was about to have a heart attack, and was able to call 911 right before the woman collapsed. Richard was walking back from here when he saw two guys planning a robbery. He followed them until they got near the house they were planning to hit, then contacted the police.”
“Before seeing them do anything?”
“Well, yeah, or he wouldn’t have been in time. But he watched until he was sure.”
We walked forward into the grocery store, blinking slightly as we moved from the night into the bright interior of the store.
For a moment, my heart sank. The sterile white walls of the grocery store were covered in bright packaging, orindary people were doing their weekly shopping, and garbled versions of pop songs at least 10 years out of date were playing over the muzak system. It seemed so…normal.
But then from the very corner of my eye, I saw the faintest edge of an unfolding robe. Not much, just a flicker from the corner of my eye, but it was enough. We moved off towards the back of the store; as we walked, I closed my eyes for just a moment, and took a deep breath. When I opened my eyes again, I knew I was Seeing. Little things flickered on the outskirts of my vision; I looked over at Scott, and what I saw almost took my breath away. The air around him flickered like fire. In the center of his chest was a warm red glow, pulsing like the beating of a heart. He smiled slightly, but turned away and kept walking. “Just keep your eyes open,” he said.
Walking through the store while Seeing was an extraordinary experience. Wings and flames darted out from behind soccer moms, and strange lights shone on guys in sweats and carrying six-packs. To keep from looking out of place, we each picked up a few items; nothing seemed dramatically in need of action, so we made our purchases and left.
I was walking on the outside edge of the curb, still slightly in shock of the night’s events, when Scott elbowed me in the ribs. “Look!” he said, and pointed to the middle of the road. A figure stood there, swathed in black robes from head to toe; the light of the moon did not shine on it, and what light shaded the folds of its robes seemed to come from behind it.
A car turned the corner, and began picking up speed. I heard the sound of footsteps behind me, and saw a man running from an alleyway. He was looking frantically behind him as he stepped into the street, and in a flash I knew. I reached out a hand and grabbed his jacket. I braced myself, but as he ran past, he almost dragged me to the ground. I stumbled, and let go of his jacket. The car whizzed past in front of us, calmly proceeding on its way. The figure in black shifted, dwindled, and fell away to nothing.
The man looked back at me with a frantic expression as he scrambled to get away. His eyes were slightly crazed, and a few days worth of beard grizzled around his chin. He ran away into the darkness of a side street, and disappeard.
“Well that was…” I paused, trying to figure out what I thought about what had just happened. Scott was ecstatic. “Your first save! This is fantastic! Let’s go check in with Brit, she’ll want to hear about it, too.”
Inside the juice shop, it was crowded, but not raucous. Brittany was slumped in a large leather armchair near the door, using her straw to stir some watery juice around in the bottom of her cup. As Scott walked through the door, she bolted upright, slurped the last bit of juice from the straw, and ran up to him. “It’s been all quiet here. I only saw a few little things, but nothing big.” She looked irritated. “Anything for you?”
He nodded, and waved her towards the door. “Yes, but let’s not talk about it here. Besides, you need to get back to the coffee shop to meet your mom. We’ll fill you in on the way.”
“Holy cow,” Brittany exclaimed after Scott finished telling her the story. “That’s great, to get a save your first time out.”
I was a little uncomfortable with Brittany’s fulsome praise, but couldn’t help but admit that it was flattering. “I didn’t even know what I was doing, you know. Just...I dunno, reacted. Did the first thing that came to mind. Honestly, I think I scared the guy more than anything, I don’t think he ever even saw the car.”
An SUV drove up, and honked twice. “That’s my mom,” Brittany said, rolling her eyes. “I’ll see you guys later.”
“Finish your homework, kid. Drink your milk. Eat all your veggies,” Scott teased, grinning. Brittany made a face at him as she backed out the door of the coffee shop.
Scott chuckled, waited for the headlights of the vehicle to disappear, then headed for the door. “Come on, let’s meet up with the others. They’re probably waiting.”

The walk back to the park was uneventful, and we mostly kept silence until we arrived, and saw Richard, Rachel, and Henry waiting for us. Scott hailed them and jogged over; I kept my own pace, and arrived a few seconds later to find Scott already in the middle of retelling the story/. I was no longer consciously trying to See, but flickers of Sight remained. As I approached the group, I felt myself passing through an invisible barrier, and saw the faintest hint of red. I squinted, a for a moment, saw a ring of red-robed figures surrounding the group.
“So then James just reaches out for the guy, and…James? You ok?” Scott turned toward me as I halted in my tracks. “You look like you just saw a ghost!” The others laughed, as if the phrase were a common joke among them.
I shrugged it off. “Well, you said that some of these…things…you see, that they tend to gather around people who can see them. I guess that explains why there’s a circle of them around us now?”
Scott nodded. “Yeah. See, we’ve been meeting here for a while, and they’ve realized that this is where we’ll be. We’ver never gotten a real clear look at them, but they’re here. Even when you’re not Seeing, the air feels a little…prickly, I guess…when they get close. Like the air before a storm, sort of. “
I shivered, but joined the rest of the group at the table. “I dunno, they give me the creeps. If they’re like the one I saw a few weeks ago, they’re a little disturbing.”
Rachel shrugged, brushing her hair back from her face. “You get used to them. Usually, it’s the tall figures in black you have to watch out for. We think they’re an archetype of death…well, that’s what Scott calls them.” She smiled kindly at Richard who lifted an eyebrow. “You see, Richard thinks that they actually are some sort of angel of death. We’ve never been able to satisfactorily determine whether they have some sort of objective existence, or are simply projections of a human mind.”
Scott smacked his palms on the table and leaned forward. “Ok, people, any other stories from tonight? Brit had to go, but it was a quiet one for her. Rachel, how about you?”
She shook her head, and folded her arms across her chest to warm herself. “No, not really. I saw a few little squabbles, some minor accidents in the waiting, but nothing big enough to merit ingterference. Pretty quiet evening.”
Henry spoke up. “We saw a couple people coming up out of the tunnel, there by the golf course. Most of them were fine but one guy was pretty high. We watched him, but he just got in the car with his friends—he wasn’t the driver—and drove off. Man, you should’ve seen the air around that guy, it was crazy. Dark purple, and this little green slimy thing growing tentacles all over him. He’s pretty far gone, I think.” He nodded with the sagacity of someone who wanted very much to be thought mature.
Scott sighed, and ran his fingers through his hair. “I hate ones like that. There’s really not much we can do. I don’t suppose you got anything that might identify him?” Henry shook his head morosely.
“Ok, well, I think that’s about all we can expect for a night. Keep taking notes, keep working.” The four of them joined hands in the center of the table; Rachel looked over at me as if expecting me to join in, but I pretended not to notice.
“See what you can, do what you can, save everyone you can.” The meeting dispersed after that, Richard pausing for a moment to whisper something to Scott. He nodded, and Richard headed over the hill towards a small parking lot. “Well…Ok, I’m sure everything seemed a little cheesy to you. I suppose it is. But we really do want to save everyone we can; it’s all about helping other people. It’s amazing how good you start to feel when you know you’re really doing something to make the world a better place.” He inhaled deeply, and let his breath out in a great whoosh. “I hope you’ll think about doing this with us. I think you’ll end up seeing more clearly than any of us—You’re already seeing much more clearly than I did when I was twice as far along. With every person who joins us, we see more, and we’re so close to being able to do so much more.” He shoved his hands into his pockets and looked away. “Sorry, didn’t mean to get so intense. I just really care about this, is all. It’s given meaning to my life, you know?”
Something inside me still whispered frantically that I should just turn my back, and run away as fast as possible. But part of me wanted so badly for these visions to be about something, for my life to have some end goal, some purpose other than going to work every morning and grading papers every night. Helping others, saving lives in ways other people couldn’t do…it was undeniably appealing.
“I just need to think about this for a while,” I said, turning to go. “I’m not saying no, but I’m not saying yes either. Just give me some time.”
He nodded, and fished around in his pocket for his car keys. “Sure, sure, that’s fine, we all find our own way. Just let me know when you’re ready.” He waved good-bye, and jogged toward the parking lot, keys jingling faintly in the night.
The moon was shining brightly as I walked back towards the coffee shop where my car was parked, and I wished I’d brought a jacket.

chapter 5ish

Chapter 5
I was glad to get back to my regular schedule at school, but found that I missed the quiet of the retreat house. After spending two days in almost total silence, except for time spent in the services, ordinary noise seemed to be not only louder than usual, but I noticed yet again how filled my life was with noise. There were almost no beats of silence, and I found myself longing for it.
Monday was exhausting, though it felt good to be back at work. By the end of the day, my bag was weighted down with papers, and I was glad to toss it onto the couch and flop down next to it. I lay there for a while, staring up at the ceiling, and enjoyin the relative quiet, though I could hear the sound of children playing in the courtyard of the apartment complex. Stefan would be home soon, and I wanted to have something for dinner, but wasn’t quite ready to get up off the sofa. I closed my eyes, and the warm still air soon put me to sleep.
It wasn’t one of my strange dreams, but felt like a normal one. I was walking down the stairway to the labyrinth again, and the sun was directly overhead. When I reached the bottom of the stairway, there was no lower level, but a wide sea. The waves lapped at the very lowest step, but dropped off immediately into endless green depths. I looked up, and a small raft came sailing over the waters, and the young monk, Brother Andrey was sailing it, steering with a large spoon. He paddled the raft up to the brink of the sea, and motioned as if to beckon me aboard. I tried to protest, but found myself stepping on to the raft, feeling the wood splinter under my feet. The wind caught the sail and sent the craft skimming across the surface of the sea. I laughed as the spray hit my face, and lifted my face up to the sun, enjying the warmth of its light.
I heard a jingling noise, and opened my eyes to see Stefan walking into the apartment, balancing several sketchbooks and a tackle box full of paint as he unlocked the door. “Hey James. How’d it go today?”
I got to my feet, and grabbed the sketchbooks as they slid from under his arm, and managed to snag them before they hit the floor, though a few loose papers fluttered to the floor. “Yeah, it was ok. Yours? Still trying to knock some sense into the freshmen heads?”
He laughed, and set the tackle box by the door; his hands were covered with swathes of deep green, yellow ochre, and jet black. “Trying. Not really succeeding, I’m afraid. A few seem to be interested in the world around them, but mostly they just want to be cool. Oh well. You do what you can.”
I set the sketchbooks on the table, but held onto a smaller one that I recognized as his personal sketchbook, one that he always carried but never used for any of his classes. “Hey, I haven’t seen any of your work in a while, mind if I take a look?” Stefan shook his head, and turned down the hallway. I could hear the water running through the pipes as he scrubbed his hands, trying to remove as much of the paint as possible.
I settled back on the couch with the little book, and began thumbing through it. Stefan usually carried, amongst his many art supplies, a small bag with a pencil, eraser, pen, and a handful of colored pencils. This sketchbook was his record of ideas, thoughts, impressionjs, quickly captured. He took his inspirations from the world around him, but you might never know it from the things he drew.
Red feathers, white roses, and crawling vines adorned most of the work, arranged in differeing structures. Some drawings featured city skylines, aflame with incandescent tongues of fire. Every picture seemed to explode with energy, yet drew the viewer inward to the very heart of the painting.
I had always liked Stefan’s work, but his senior show had been my favorite. Almost cartoonish in style, it had been the first time I had wondered if it was possible to love a city that was as ugly as Los Angeles. He thought so, and indeed, spent as much time as possible in the city, watching it in different lights, in different weather, and in different moods. He was convinved that the city had a soul, a soul that could be saved or lost, and was determined to capture the essence of that soul in his work.
I closed the book, and set it back carefully on the table as I made my way into the kitchen.
Tuesday I met with the psychiatrist. She was a lovely African-American woman with long braids. I sat down cautiously in the armchair in her office as she quickly scanned over the forms I’d just filled out.
“Alright, Mr. Peyton, this is definitely something I’d like to look into. Now, you say you have no history of mental illness, and none in your family, correct?”
“Yes ma’em, that’s correct. We’ve never had anything like this happen as far as I’m aware.” I shifted nervously in my seat, and adjusted my tie. “I feel fine, I’m not overly imaginative or overly tired. Everything seems normal, except what I’ve described there.”
She flipped a few pages over to re-read the description of symptoms that I’d written and raiserd an eyebrow. “Yes, well, that’s certainly unusual, and I’d like to see what we can do about that.” She turned toward me, and placed her hands palm down on the surface. “Mr. Peyton, it’s obvious that something is wrong, since you are seeing things that do not exist. However, you seem to be fine in all toher regards—something rare in and of itself in this sort of case, I’ll add—and I cannot force you to follow any of the advice I give you. However, I will strongly advise that you do exactly as I say.”
She began scribbling on a pad of paper. “I’m going to prescribe a sedative, and we’ll see where we go froim there. Please take note of any adverse side effects, anything out of the ordinary. It may be that you would profit more from a psychologist’s help than from any drugs I can prescribe.” She tore the prescription slip off and handed it to me. “Follow this, and make an applointment for two weeks from now.”
As I went back out to my car, I couldn’t help but wonder if I should fill the prescription. I had one other person’s confirmation that things I was seeing were real, but…I didn’t really trust that person. Scott had said that the members of his group were all required to get complete psychological testing before he would let them join, surely one of them had tried drugs to get rid of the visions…
I paused, drumming my fingers on the steering wheel. I didn’t want to contact Scott, or see him again in any forum, but I needed to know. I closed the door, and started up the car. By the time I arrived back at the apartment, I had made up my mind.
I looked on the counter where I’d tossed Scott’s contact information. I hadn’t cleaned there in a week, and the slip of paper was still where it had landed. I dialed the number, and got a voicemail service. “Hello, this is James Peyton, I’m trying to reach Scott ? about a group he’d mentioned. Ah, I’d like to go ahead and get some more information, so if you’d please call me back at this number, that would be great. Um…ok, thanks.”
I let out a deep breath as I hung up. What was I getting myself into?