Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Chapter 2

Chapter 2.
I still couldn’t shake the terror of the dream of the night before as I took my usual morning bike ride around the neighborhood. The infamous “June gloom” was out in full force today, and the fog hung so low that I could only see a block in front of me. The trees slowly dripped, and their usual friendly colors were dark and muted. I half expected to see the young man in black watching me from behind any of the trees, but the ride was uneventful. No strange lights, no robed figures, not even a stray dog. The fog muted the sounds of passing cars, and I could hear my bike tires hissing softly over the damp asphalt. Though it was well past eight, most porch lights were still on, illuminating a small circle of damp over the doorways.
Out of habit, I took the path to work, and was turning into the main driveway before I realized where I was. I decided to cut through the campus and make my way back home from the other side. The fog was beginning to clear, and the sun shone through in a few places. As I turned right under the belltower, a patch of blue sky began to show clear overhead, and the entire landscape was transformed. The dark, damp trees gleamed as if they were newly washed, the asphalt shone as if it was black glass, and the concrete glistened silver. I coasted downhill through the residential area of the campus, and found myself riding beside the drainage ditch the ran through the north edge of the campus. A family of ducks was out on the water, splashing and quacking joyously. The drainage ditch, as usual, was filled with greenish water and unidentifiable weeds, but this morning a rainbow arced over it. The shimmering colors danced just beyond the other shore, and as I looked, everything changed without changing. The rainbow no longer disappeared a few feet above the nearest buildings, it now reached into the sky, a towering banner of visible joy. The green grass, already standing tall from the new moisture, looked like an army, bristling with spears and marching to cover the face of the earth. The dingy dormitories, stained with the exhaust fumes of countless cars, exuded a luminosity of their own. I looked down the ditch to where the water disappeared under the road, and in the culvert stood a women, robed all in green with a blue sash, her bare feet barely covered by the water. Where she stood, though the water level was low, it foamed forward like the crest of a wave, and where her cloak touched the water, reeds sprouted, and waved like courtesans. Her face was veiled, but from under the veil came forth a song that was like water itself as it flowed on the air.
And the song was the ducks quacking as they played in the dirty water, water in a concrete ditch. The rainbow was a smudge of color, tentatively hanging in the sky, and the bridge was empty. My hands were shaking as I made my way across the bridge and back home.
I was hardly in the door before I was dialing the number for the on-campus health clinic. The doctors there probably couldn’t do much for me, but it would be the easiest way to get referred to a good psychiatrist. There’s no way this was normal, and I knew I just simply did not have time to go mad.
After making an appointment, I tried to settle down and get something done. My resume needed to be rewritten for a job I was applying for, and there were still a few ungraded papers for Dr. Russell. I tried to work at my desk, but found myself jumping at every little sound in the room. Finally, I grabbed the stack of papers and my computer, settled myself on the couch, and turned on the TV to cover all the ambient noise, and to keep my brain distracted from anything other than the papers in front of me. After a few hours, I was typing the last bit of information into my computer, when Stephan walked in.
“Working on papers for Russell?”
“Mostly resume stuff, actually. I really need to get a job that pays better. I’m thinking of trying to move a little further south. It’d be good to have a change of scenery.”
Stephan nodded slightly. “You look weird again, James. And you never sit in front of the tv to work unless you’re watching something specific. I’m fairly sure that Saturday morning game shows are not really what you want to be doing right now.”
I ran my hands through my hair. “I saw something again. It’s getting worse. I made an appointment with the health center for Monday. I don’t think they can do anything but maybe run a blood test, but they’ll be able to send me to someone who can really help. I don’t know why this is happening, and I need it to stop. Right now.”

Sunday morning dawned grey and cloudy, but as I climbed into my car to drive to church, the overcast sky was breaking into small bits of puffy white clouds. I rarely use my car, since my job is less than 5 minutes away by bike, but Our Lady of the Angels is twelve miles away, and takes 20 minutes to reach by car. I usually drop by the school to give rides to students who need it. I pulled up in front of one of the dorms, and a few students straggled out. Erin and Jason were sophomores, and had been getting rides from me for more than a year now. I try to keep in touch with Jason, since he had a pretty rough freshman year—his girlfriend committed suicide, and Angie helped him cope with that, but then Angie died, and…well, it was a rough year for both of us.
The car ride was a blessed relief, as happy chatter from Erin and Jason filled the car. Erin was in an art class, and was struggling with some of the ideas, but really enjoying getting to express herself in a new way. Jason was asking herr about various artists, and if she’d seen Stephan’s show last year. I was content merely to drive, and let my mind wander.
Our Lady of the Angels is a small church, with only a few hundred regular attendees. It meets in a little stone building that you would probably miss if you didn’t know what you were looking for. As we pulled into the driveway, we could see the ushers greeting people and handing out bullitens. A few children ran shrieking across the lawn in a game of tag, and the parking lot was beginning to fill.
I took my usual seat—on the aisle, close to the front, but not too close. The familiar liturgy swept up my mind and body as I went through the motions and words I’d spoken a thousand times before. When it came time for the sermon, we all settled back into the pews as Father Timothy made his way to the pulpit.
“In today’s readings, we encounter the story of Elijah, going out in the wilderness to die. This is not the sort of action we expect from our heroes. He has just won a great battle against the forces of evil, God has shown his hand mightily, but at the first threat from Jezebel, Elijah runs and hides. This is where we are reminded that our heroes are not stone or marble gods, not supermen or fictional heroes, but real flesh and blood. And flesh and blood are often weak. When we do not get what we desire, we fall away and seek out what we think to be our own good.
“We too often seek our own power, our own glory, and fail to see that these belong to God. He may call us to give up everything…or to give up nothing, and live a normal life. We often want to be asked to perform the greatest sacrifices, when all He asks is the small ones. We want to be His voice in the streets, and He calls us into the wilderness.”
I shifted uncomfortably in the pew. The small urging voice in the back of my head was getting louder, insistently chiming along with Father Tim’s words. No. I don’t want anything but a normal life. I want God to ask that of me—I can live a normal life. But the simple thought would not go away: This life is not meant for you.
I looked out over the congregation, those I could see without being obvious. My eyes were drawn to one man, an old veteran who sat in the very first row every week. I cringed as I saw a shadow forming by him, a shadow that I knew was not cast by any of the lights in the building. No, not here. Not a crazy sight here. I can’t let anyone here find out that I am going insane. I turned away, nothing wanting to see what shape the shadow finally took, and not really caring. Who cares what a hallucination looks like?
Rote memory and habit got me through the rest of the service. As soon as it was over, I dashed to the bathroom and threw cold water on my face. I examined myself in the mirror. My eyes looked a little bloodshot and bleary, but nothing that anyone would really notice.
I dried my face carefully and walked out of the bathroom. I found Erin and Jason in the fellowship hall, and told them that I’d be waiting in the car. As I walked out of the hall, I saw a commotion in front of the church, and walked over to see what was happening. Jim, the veteran, was lying on the ground, his face a deathly gray. One of the men was bent over him, performing CPR. I heard sirens in the distance.
I could hardly think—it had to be just a coincidence. But the shadow…the shadow.
The ambulance pulled up, sirens blaring, and screeched to a halt. The EMTs jumped out, and began to care for Jim. As they placed him on the gurney, I edged my way around the fringes of the crowd and made my way to my car.
Though shaken, I was able to drive Jason and Erin back to campus safely, and was grateful when I pulled into the parking space at the apartment. I made it upstairs, and flopped down on the couch. I was just beginning to drift off into a nervous sleep, when there was a knock on the door. I rolled over and tried to ignore it, but it continued.
I opened the door to see the young man dressed in black.
He smiled, and made the same slight bowing gesture that he’d givne me when I saw him under the streetlamp. “I’m sorry, I’m sure I’ve startled you. Please let me explain.” He reached into a small leather bag that he carried on a strap over his shoulder, and pulled out a small pamphlet. “This will sound very strange, but if I am correct, your life has taken a very strange turn lately. I hope that this will make you more open to what I have to say.”
I was too stunned to respond. This is it, I thought. My mind has snapped, and I don’t even know why. I didn’t even know if this guy actually existed outside my head. Before I knew it, he had come into the apartment, I was seated back on the couch, and he’d drawn up a chair for himself.
“First, let me introduce myself. My name is Scott Harkett. I’m just as human and physical as you are. I know you’ve been seeing some strange things lately, but I’m here in the same way you are. “
“How do you know what I’ve been seeing?”
He thought for a moment, then responded, “I’ll answer that in a minute, I really will. But let me continue for now. I’m part of a group of…well, I suppose you’d call us mystics, though I’m not fond of that word myself. I prefer “sensitive psyches,” but many of the group insist on retaining a spiritual element to the name. I’m a materialist, but I don’t see any need to let that difference of opinion divert the group from its main purpose. No, we’re not sociopaths, or mentally unstable. In fact, a prerequisite of the group is that all who work with us must be fully checked out by a physician and a psychiatrist. If they find nothing wrong except the…sightings…then they can join.
“Now, the explanation of how we knew you were seeing things. As I said, we have discovered that certain human beings become sensitive to impressions outside the normal realm. We differ as to our explanation of the source of these impressions, but we do believe them to be objective, because we all see the same things. For instance, I can tell you that last night, around 9pm, you saw a blue-robed figure, sitting on your bed.”
He let that sink in, watching my reaction.
“You see, we all really do see the same things. What you saw, I saw. And that’s how we found you. When someone become sensitive to these impressions, they tend to gather around that person for a while. We found you, because they found you.”
I tried several times to respond, but each time closed my mouth without actually saying anything. After a few minutes, Scott stood up and headed for the door. “I’ll leave you alone for now. You’ll need some time to get used to this. Here’s my number—call me when you’re ready to learn more about this gift. For now, just get used to it. You’re not insane, and you’re not sick. The things you see are real.”

I didn’t remember leaving the apartment, or walking to the park, but when I returned to my senses, I was wandering aimlessly through the park. It’s always been one of my favorite places to be; it’s a strange, narrow strip of land that borders the drainage ditch upstream from the college campus. You wouldn’t think that a park centered on a ditch would be pretty, but it is. The concrete ditch makes several small waterfalls, and there are some very nice wooden bridges. I was standing on one of the bridges, looking over into the water. I suppose I needed some time away from my mind to allow it to process everything.
What would it mean if these strange visions were actually visions of something that was actually occurring? I thought I believe in forces outside the normal realm of human experience, but it’s one thing to say you believe in something, and another thing to actually see it.
I picked up a twig lying on the railing of the bridge, and dropped it into the water. It swirled around for a moment, caught in an eddy, then sailed under the bridge and out of sight. I idly wondered what would happen if, instead of waiting to be surprised by one of these moments, I decided to see for myself. I looked upstream, and saw a young mother and her two children playing on the grass. She had shoulder-length brown hair, and a cheerful face. Her daughter ran around in a sundress, gleefully shouting at the top of her lungs and waving a leafy stick. The son, still very small, was crawling through the grass on his hands and knees, peeking up at his sister through the grass and laughing.
I looked at them carefully for a moment, tensed in anxiety, but slowly made myself relax. I closed my eyes for a moment, took a deep breath, and opened them again.
The young woman was lit up with an inner flame, and her laughter sounded like the pealing of bells. The grass around herr seemed like a rich carpet, and the afternoon sun on her hair shone like a crown. The leafy branch the young girl waved was lit up like gold, and the baby’s skin gleamed like alabaster. The ground seemed to spring up to meet the feet of the girl as she jumped, and I could hardly look at their faces. I turned to leave the bridge, and found myself face to face with the blue robed figure. It stood taller than I would have though, at least seven feet. The robes still billowed outward, though there was no wind that I could feel. It felt as though the creature was rushing toward me at an incredible speed, though it moved no nearer. I still felt a chill go through me from head to foot as I saw it. I turned on my heel, hoping to get off the bridge before it could cut off my escape, but halted in my tracks. The other end of the bridge was guarded by a figure all in red, and the ends of its garments were flames. It was also veiled, but under the veil I thought I could make out the sharp edges of a bare skull.
I turned back toward the figure in blue. It regarded me calmly but silently. I took a small step towards it, and it lifted a pale white hand to beckon me forward. I took a deep breath, and began walking slowly toward it. As I came closer, the figure faded, until it was nothing more than air when I passed, and left the bridge.

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