Tuesday, November 11, 2008

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.

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