by [Madame Black
Mari was never one to have an exciting life. She had no friends, no family, and no social life outside of college. Besides her inexplicable attraction to being accident prone there was nothing of interest about her. But as those who live their lives long enough come to learn, things can often change quickly and with little notice. Those are how the most adventurous and exciting stories begin.
It was 5:30 and time for her evening class at St. Westwood College, and as the clock chimed its periodical tune Mari picked up her book bag by the strap and slung it across her back, making a soft thud as her books smacked her consequently. She shouldered the load and closed the door behind her then started down the stairs only to stop abruptly and return inside for her keys. Sighing loudly and shaking her head, she took them from their place on the door-side table then closed the door once more with a little more force and skipped down the stairs to the sidewalk. However, as was usually the case, she forgot to actually lock the door. She adjusted the bag on her back and pulled her hair out from underneath it so it wouldn’t pull and burrowed her hands in the pockets of her jacket, drawing her shoulders to her ears as a piercingly cold wind blasted her from the front. The freezing air made her nose burn and she crinkled it as a way to prevent a sneeze. The breeze passed and she shivered once to get the cold of it off of her. The sidewalk still had a dusting of snow wedged in its corners, left over from the winter that was supposed to be on its way out. It was nearly March but still felt like the first of the year. Her breath came out in puffs, trailing behind her as she kept her pace, though not bothering to notice. She was underdressed as usual but didn't seem to mind suffering, however brief it would be. She passed row after row of town homes, mostly inhabited by teachers or luckier students of the college nearby. There were hopeful buds on the trees that were planted in front of every house, daring to emerge before the proper time, but Mari didn't see it. Her eyes were focused on the pavement in front of her. Step after step; a rhythmic undertaking of the short walk to the campus she attended and a path she took multiple times a day. It was engrained in her memory, and while she could usually make the trek without paying much attention, she was barely conscious to what she was doing and in a matter of moments, she had missed her turn.
There was nothing that weighed on her mind, no small daydream or fantasy to take her from reality, not even the image of what was going on before her. She simply slipped into the habit of having her mind wander off without her. It was something that, while she knew she did it, she was almost incapable of stopping. It was automatic that whenever she was doing something monotonous or boring, she would simply tune out the world around her. The problem became when she wandered off at a time she ought to have been paying attention. There was no telling when the habit began, but it was as long as she could remember and there was no real reason as to why she did it. She had been to psychiatrists, doctors and specialists and they all had different conclusions, though none were conclusive enough for her to accept. She had A.D.D. or she was subconsciously avoiding her troubles, or perhaps there was some invisible tumor in her brain or birth defect that was causing these problems, but nothing was found on her CAT scan, no medicine helped but in fact made it worse, and other than the untimely death of both her parents, she had no concerns. But even that was a million years ago and she had been an infant. Introspectively she felt as if she had a good life.
But what was good? Or better yet, what was bad? These were all subjective questions to her and more or less pointless, and so she stopped trying to figure out why and just accepted it.
She adjusted the book bag on her back and pulled out the bits of curly hair that was caught beneath the load, then stopped suddenly and looked around her. With a heavy sigh, Mari promptly turned around and continued back to the place she had passed that was her turn.
The college was in sight now and looked almost dreary in the undesirably cold weather. It wasn't a particularly attractive building, though the damp evening sky and the greenish yellow light from the street lamps made it worse looking than it was. St. Westwood had been on the same site for several hundred years before burning down in an unfortunate science experiment. That's how it was publicized anyway, as the rumor was that a rival school committed arson in order to usurp the funding that would have been favored to St. Westwood. Only part of the original campus remained, which had, suspiciously enough, been the part of the building that was used as a chapel and meeting hall. After all, potentially killing hundreds of students and teachers and causing city wide fire would have been more acceptable than burning down a church. The construction afterwards had been done by a more modern architect and it showed. Instead of the stately and gothic-like structure of the church, the new college was fairly shapeless, inorganic, and built with cheaper stone. The campus was small compared to others in the city, having only five main buildings, but had the reputation of taking on students who would not otherwise be able to afford college, and that is why Mari was there.
Some of her classmates walked in front or behind her now as she reached the main entrance of Whittington Hall, but they passed her without a moment's hesitation, only holding the door open because others were behind them. Likewise, she continued on without any notice of their existence, her mind blanked and robotic, not that she would have known they had the same class together. She had one task at hand and that was making it to class on time, and she was barely capable of doing that. Students bustled around her, taking things from their lockers, rushing passed, coming in and out of various classrooms, all while avoiding her at all costs. Not that they knew her, but as she subconsciously walked to her classroom she was unaware of all else around her, which caused her to get in the way. She was often bumped into and even halted at times, on several occasions nearly running into a group of people who had stopped to chat. This was always just enough to rouse her from her nothingness and apologize for being so clumsy.
After climbing a few stairs and making a few turns Mari barely made it to her class. The room was one of the larger ones the school offered, used for general classes that large numbers of students would need to take for various majors. Hers was Psychology, and this evening's class was simply that: Intro to Human Psychology. A rather droll subject, but for whatever reason it fascinated her. Perhaps she hoped to find out what made her own mind tick, or maybe it was because it sounded good. Why was never a question she cared to ask. She made her way up the amphitheater-like seating area to about the middle row, and sitting in one of the desks closer to side of the room that had the door. The crowds of people bothered her and while she enjoyed school, as much as she could anyway, she much preferred being at home by herself. Her book bag was opened silently already, in fact it was a wonder her things hadn't fallen out, and she removed her books and placed them on her desk. She opened her empty notebook and laid it on her desk with an unused pencil on top, though there would be no point in having them out. It was almost halfway through the semester and she hadn't taken a single note. She folded her left arm on top of her desk and placed her right hand underneath her chin and waited for class to start. After a few moments her professor came swiftly into the room and closed the door, and a hush came over the room as the lesson would start.
The man was young, or younger than one would expect a professor of his caliber to be. From what she knew of him, he was a bit of a prodigy, having attended one of the most renowned schools in the country at the modest age of 16 and graduated with honors and a Master's degree at 24. He then became a very well recognized teacher and author in the field of psychology where he now taught his theories in her very classroom in his late 20-somethings. Despite how intelligent and decorated he was, he was also well liked by both students and faculty. He set his briefcase down on his desk and began right away after greeting the class, recapping the lesson from the previous week and walking out from behind his desk to teach. He was engaging, for the subject, but as always Mari had already zoned out.
Her stare was impeccable considering she didn't attempt to focus her attention on him, or seem to anyway, but while she was mentally gone, it always appeared as if she were eagerly listening, which tended to get her in trouble. For as long as she could remember, there was never a class she could actually focus on, no matter the subject. She honestly found learning interesting and fun, but never managed to do much with classes. Her best learning took place at home, in silence and solitude. Yet her eyes remained transfixed on her teachers, following them around as they walked, even nodding here and there if it sounded like a good point was being made. It was only imaginable that she would get called upon to answer various questions or to put her own insight on things, and while she could usually recover her thoughts quickly enough, it was always possible.
Her current professor was a brilliant man and extremely engaging, though from a mentally distant perspective he might have been comical as well. No other teacher of his subject could have been so animated and clearly excited about the topics being taught. He was a lively man who had a habit of walking up into the seats on occasion to further make a point about a person’s reaction to something or a perception one might have about a remark. Often the students would get physically involved in the lessons as would her professor, always willing to go the extra mile just to prove a point. He practically danced about the room now, making a rather clever point on a subject he most likely did research and created his own theories on. His lectures were practically workouts and he thoroughly enjoyed a good debate, often making an entire class a verbal battle-of-the-wits. But he was standing still now, waiting.
"Mari!" he called once more after a couple failed attempts. A few of the students in the back rows giggled or sighed at her blatant display of inattentiveness.
She jumped but quickly responded, "Yes?"
With a slump of his shoulders he walked to the chalkboard where he had previously written several theorems and indicated with his hand. "Can you please tell us which of these theorems were accepted by the board of psychology after the 1900's?
"Yes, it was the 'Theorem of Human Motivation'," she answered confidently.
"Very good, Mari," he said with a contented smile as others in the class sighed with frustration for their inability to choose correctly. "That's right, because Heinroth's Concept of Depression was never accepted…" he continued on with the lesson. He knew he could rely on her to answer correctly and so called upon her somewhat frequently. He didn't chide or lecture her about her dreamy state as many of her other teachers would do, nor did he ignore her. She liked him the most for this. It was if she knew he were trying to draw her out, but also knew it wouldn't happen and accepted her regardless.
It wasn't by accident that she always had the correct answer. While she paid no attention in class and made no notes, she buried herself in her studies and rather enjoyed the learning process overall. She had always done exceptionally well throughout her school years, which baffled her teachers. Her excellent grades allowed her to be herself for the most part as they realized as long as she was learning and not affecting the other students there was no harm.
Her professor scribbled some more on the chalkboard, tapping it occasionally with the small stick of chalk to emphasize a point he was making. He had rolled up the sleeves of his collared shirt to his elbows and paced from side to side of the classroom, barely taking a moment to breath. The primarily female population in the front rows watched him dreamily, as it was also well known that he was rather handsome and some of the girls took the class just to have an excuse to watch him and try to engage him in conversation. He was tall and lean, with a sort of rugged geekiness that appealed to college girls. It was also well known that he was a bachelor. But if he had eyes for any of his students it would have been Mari, though he would have never admitted it. Perhaps because he knew it was partially his fascination with her lack of personality and her obvious intelligence. It was clear, however, that she paid as much attention to matters of the heart as she did to whatever she was doing at the time.
It seemed like only moments had passed, but the two hour class was wrapping up and Mari was beginning to come-to again.
"I've got your tests from last week graded. I'll hand them out as you leave," he said as he gathered up the papers from his desk and began to thumb through them. Mari scooped up her pencil and closed her notebook, placing them all neatly back in her book bag and making sure this time it was closed all the way. She waited for others in the row to leave before she stood and placed her bag over her shoulder and made her way down the stairs to the line that had formed for receiving the test scores. She waited patiently in the back of the line, advancing when there was room in front of her, far less agitated and nervous than the others around her. She listened to their conversations for a moment, as they asked each other how they thought they did and whether or not they thought they were going to fail. She had no such thoughts as she was fairly sure she knew what she got and felt no anxiety.
"Rashad…" he said as he flipped through the stack of papers to find the one belonging to each particular student, "Nina…. Denise….Adam…" He continued, muttering their names more to himself than to each student, stopping only when one of them had a question. He patiently but quickly answered each question without pause in his paper handing process, trying to be efficient with their time but not waste it either. After several minutes she was the only one left.
"Ah, Marisabelle Cota," he said with a smile, handing her paper enough to let her grasp it though not letting it go. "An A+ as usual."
"Thank you?" she said cautiously, as there was obviously something else he had on his mind.
He paused for a moment, trying to find what he was looking for in her eyes, but to no avail. They were blank and unreadable. "Can I ask you a question?" he asked softly as he allowed her to take her paper at last. He turned for a moment to find his desk, and then leaned against it.
"Yes, of course Professor Hannoway," she said as she folded her arms over her paper which lay against her chest.
"My students call me Jack," he said with a laugh as he folded his arms as well.
"Just seems so informal," Mari said with a shrug.
"That's the point!" he said almost exasperatedly with a nod of his head. When she didn't respond, he continued with his question. "Anyway, I'm curious about something."
"What is it?" she said with a little concern in her voice.
"You have straight A's, you've never answered a question wrong in class, and you're obviously very intelligent. I've even checked with your other teachers and they say the same thing. But what I'm wondering is," he said with a pause before unfolding his arms and placing his hands on the desk behind him, "What are you doing here?"
"I'm sorry?" she asked, now more confused than ever. She shifted her weight on her feet and raised a brow to further her questing appearance.
"You don't seem to have much interest in psychology, why is it your major? What do you want to do with it?"
Her brows knit together in confused as she looked down to her feet a moment and fidgeted, trying to find a way to answer him. It wasn't the first time she had been asked a question like this and it always left her feeling empty and useless. "I'm not really sure. I guess I haven't figured that out yet."
He sighed and rubbed his jaw with his hand, trying to use all his abilities and knowledge to take one more crack at this strange creature. He looked her over more closely than he normally would, examining a potential reason behind her. Her clothes were neutral and unfashionable, her hair simple and undone, and while she was surprisingly beautiful, the way she kept herself and how she appeared to others, she was very forgettable. Even her emotions seemed neutral and inoffensive. He shook his head but smiled.
"You have no passion for anything," he surmised simply.
Mari frowned and fidgeted a little more, wondering where all of this was coming from and searching herself for a way to retaliate, but there was nothing because he was right.
"I'm worried about you," he continued after letting her think for a moment. "You need more than half a care in life to get you through and you don't seem to care deeply about anything, or anyone."
Her head lifted and her gaze met his, and for the first time she saw the look in his eyes that told her there was something more behind his concern. She didn't know how to react, if she should be flattered or take his comment at face value. The bewilderment must have shown because he quickly shrugged.
"All I'm saying is that you should do some soul searching. Find out what matters most in life and what doesn't."
"Ok," she said, as if she had been asked to do some difficult task. She awkwardly turned and made her way to do the door before turning and muttering, "See you tomorrow Professor Hannoway."
Mari made her way down the steps to the main building of the college she previously entered. The puzzled look on her face remained from her conversation with her professor. She glanced down at her test paper with the large graded A+ on the cover and sighed. He was right after all. She had no passion for the subject, and in truth she didn't know why she had chosen it. Other subjects interested her just as much and, come to think of it, she had debated between them all heavily when considering her major. She had no desire to sit on a chair and listen to other people talk about their problems, and she certainly didn't have the attention span. Even less interesting was the idea of teaching or becoming an author. And while most people her age and in her position would at least have some idea of what they wished to do with their lives, she didn't have a clue. All she knew is that she would eventually graduate and move on to… something. She tried to search her feelings and come up with some conclusion as to where she was going, but to no avail. She couldn't even picture herself with a job in general. Being a secretary would be a comfortable job, or a librarian, but what did that have to do with psychology? She sighed with frustration and tried to empty her mind.
There was no use; she was concerned now. What would become of her after college? She had been well taken care of since her parents had died. The accident had seemed like a million years ago and she had no memory of it personally. She was practically an infant when it happened. No family had come to claim her, because mother and father were all she had. Foster care was the first and lasting option throughout her life. As she grew older she decided adoption was not for her and preferred skipping from one family to another. They were glad to have her each time as she kept to herself, studied well and never got in any trouble. Her foster siblings left her alone and allowed her to remain as introverted as she liked. Growing up was easy, though less happy seeming for those on the outside looking in. College seemed like the next logical step in life and so when she graduated high school she received some government aid to get her on her feet, and as she was accepted to St. Westwood, the school provided her with living and tuition free of charge as long as she attended provided she remain an A student. It wasn't that she desired a degree for any particular reason; she simply did what was common practice by others. She had no emotional attachment to any of her foster family and had no real friends growing up, so moving away was easy. Nothing tied her to the world, and yet she was content. Or at least she thought she was. That very concept was in question now.
What was happy? And for that matter, what was sad? Was she incapable of normal feelings, or was everyone else around her simply over exaggerating? She always felt as if she were floating through life with no purpose and never had the initiative to find out what it was like on the ground. And so with overall perspective on these thoughts, she felt as if they were pointless and tried to shrug off the thoughts.
Just then she realized she had been walking down the wrong street. She stopped abruptly and looked around with a shiver, trying to figure out where she had gone, but it was to no avail. She pulled up the sleeve on her jacket and looked at the watch on her wrist and found that she had been walking for almost an hour. Not again, she thought. Nothing around her looked familiar and the street was unlit by street lamps. No sound of cars or people and in fact it was very eerily silent. She twisted her mouth in thought, trying to remember a familiar street from one of her last wanderings that may be nearby but she was coming up short with ideas. She continued on the way she was going, assuming she would figure it out eventually, and since she had no time constraints, a nice walk would do her good.
The same rhythmic tapping of her feet as she walked filled her mind and echoed in the silent streets. Simple things like that tended to consume her thoughts, though she tried not to become lost in the depths of her nothingness again lest she become more lost than she already was. She looked from side to side occasionally, checking down various streets she came across hoping to find something that was familiar. Still nothing. She couldn't make up her mind if it was a bad thing that she met no one on the streets to help her, or a good thing. The school was centered on a friendly "good" part of town but she was entering some of the "bad" parts by now. The houses she passed looked empty and dark and they were beginning to frighten her a little. The black windows made her feel like she was being watched. She turned and looked over her shoulder a few times just to make sure, but there was no one in sight. Her pace quickened a little as she was a little more eager to find a familiar place, or at least a busier better lit part of the neighborhood. Her breath steamed out in front of her and left little trails as she walked, and this she figured, caused her vision to blur a little as she began to think she saw movement from the corner of her eyes. Every time she looked, however, there was nothing and she had to smile at herself for being so paranoid.
She had to stop frightening herself, so she decided to hum a tune as she walked. There were lights and cars driving by not far ahead, and the singing would help her relax. Mari searched her mind for a song she liked, but had a hard time thinking of one. She liked music but she never could consider herself the kind of person who had a favorite band or singer, and she never kept any portable devices in which to listen to music if she had wanted it. She tried to think of one of the last songs she heard that was enjoyable, but gave up after a few moments. In her eagerness to overcome her paranoia she decided to make up her own tune and started humming away.
At first the sound was strange. Her weak voice carried through the street more than she would have liked, so she tried to sing just above a whisper. It seemed as if there were no other sounds at all except her voice and the constant tapping of her feet. The sound was so awkward she almost stopped, but it helped her feel a little better. She continued, almost more to amuse herself now than anything. It was effective and that was all that mattered. As her song formed into something less than random, she picked up her pace to match the beat, taking almost a child's enjoyment in the act of creating a song.
The lights were a little closer now and she had already put fear out of her mind when something strange happened. A strange breeze came flying past her to the right in such a way she felt as if it had been something more solid than just the wind, and while it felt as cold as the night there must have been some heat in it as there were waves of energy like heat above a pavement running through it. She marveled at it, as brief as it was, and it caused her to stop dead in her tracks. It was a strange phenomenon and she wondered if the weather was about to change. She got the distinct feeling once more that she was not alone but there wasn't a soul in sight. Mari was on the verge of ignoring it completely but there was definitely something going on. The air suddenly felt charged and heavy, like a lightning storm had been conjured around her, and just as the thought entered her mind, two very real cracks of thunder tore through the thick air and caused her to jump. Another gust of air shot past her on the other side just as the other one had and she spun around on the sidewalk as it whipped around her. She tried desperately to come to some conclusion of what was happening and catch some clue around her, but she could see nothing. She was too frightened to stay where she was anymore and had the overwhelming desire to run, though she didn't understand why. Everything around her seemed unsteady and now there seemed to be shadows around her, but what was casting them she couldn't tell. She was next to a construction site now and there seemed to be dangers all around her. One of the town homes had been gutted and the support beams holding up the awning as well as each level of the home suddenly came crashing down. As bricks, wood, dust and a million other materials came crashing down around her she screamed and held her arms above her head, trying to shield herself, but she tried still to meander herself away from harm. The destruction was so sudden and massive that it also took out parts of the homes around it. The ground beneath her started to tremor and she feared that she was in the middle of a freak earthquake. She didn't know whether to try to find secure cover or keep running, but the ever strengthening smell of gas told her to keep going. She wouldn't make it far.
Only moments after the home fell, like a meteor striking the earth, a crater formed in the street beside her and the wave of energy emanating from it threw her forward just as the gas caught fire and exploded into roaring flames. Mari didn't even realize she had been thrown but opened her eyes to find she was lying in the street with flaming debris all around her. Her vision blurred as searing pain radiated through her, but her mind consoled her as she lost consciousness. Her last sight was of a tall dark man in the shadows. Someone would save her, they were already there, she was sure of this.
The sound of beeping and soft chatter woke Mari from sleep. She was instantly aware of various cords and similar objects attached to or surrounding her. The lights were dim but present nonetheless and caused her eyes to strain as she tried to focus on her surroundings. It was a familiar sight, but not one she was grateful for – her home away from home, the hospital. She tried to move but found it was rather difficult and painful to say the least. A nurse outside saw her moving and came quickly to her side.
"Hey honey, are you with us?" she asked as she checked the machines around the bed.
"Yeah," Mari managed to squeak.
"You got banged up real good, but nothing that won't heal, lord knows," she said as she walked around to the other side. She picked up Mari's chart and looked it over quickly before laying it down and resting her hand gently on her arm. "Do you remember what happened?"
Mari thought for a moment and blinked a couple times, but it was hard enough to remember the nurse's name let alone what exactly had happened earlier, in what seemed like eons or possibly moments ago. She couldn't muster enough strength to make any sort of reply so she shook her head gently.
"That's alright sugar; you go on back to sleep. Maybe you'll remember something after you wake up," she said with a kind smile before leaving the room.
Sleep was instantaneous.
The night was filled with strange dreams. Mari felt like she was falling, but in the midst of her descent there was the sensation of fighting. It seemed pointless however, like a child throwing punches at the air. And all the while was the feeling that someone was there. It was dark and frightening, yet almost warm and comforting at the same time. She felt confused, and her sleep was restless.
She awoke late the next day and the sun was shining through the window. There was a dull pain ringing in her head and the brightness didn’t help. Lying as still as she could, she tried to focus her eyes on the ceiling, letting them adjust to the light and trying to remember what happened the night before. Her head felt fuzzy and she found it hard to concentrate on anything but her discomfort. She lifted her arms up to see what was on them and found a wrist brace on one and bandages up and down the other arm. Turning them over and checking everywhere that was visible, she found mostly scrapes and some newly formed bruises from her accident the night before. She moved her hands up her chest and to her head, checking for every place that hurt even a little and feeling the bandages.
The memories started coming back slowly now. She was on her way home from school when she got distracted and lost. Then.....then what? She remembered the building crashing and the strange weather. Perhaps there was an earthquake that accounted for the building falling and the tremors. And the explosion! There was the sudden memory of burning embers around her and of lying on the cold pavement. Her mind raced with the sudden memories and images. Everything made sense to her and as far as she was concerned, she was at the wrong place at the wrong time. She was now fully awake and while very sore and achy, nothing seemed to be damaged more than what her usual accidents caused her. In fact, she seemed to have gotten away with very little injuries. Knowing her way around a hospital room, she reached for the button to call a nurse and waited patiently for one to come.
A different nurse from the night before walked casually into the room and to her beside with a kind smile. "Hey Mari, how're doing sweetie?" she said as she began to check her bandages.
"A little sore," she replied with a weak smile. Nurse Tucker was one of the many hospital employees she was used to seeing and they all knew her well.
"Well you had quite the accident last night, didn’t you?" she said as she made her way to the other side of the bed. "Do you remember what happened?"
"Yes, a little," Mari replied as she tried to sit up a little farther to help the nurse with her work. "I just remember something like a storm… trembling… and then a building collapsing around me…” She stopped a moment to try to form her thoughts into something more cohesive and legitimate but she could only put so much together while her head ached. “I was on the ground, and then I was in here – that’s all, right now,” she concluded apologetically.
There was a look of concern on the woman's face as she listened to her story, all the while checking various things from her reflexes to how well her pupils dilated. This worried Mari, thinking perhaps there was more damage to her body than she had thought, and it must have shown because the nurse explained her expression.
"I didn’t hear anything on the news that would explain it, honey. It must have been an isolated event. But you think you're memory might be a bit foggy?"
Mari's face reflected her confusion and frustration with the event. "Yeah, probably," she said as she gave up. She sighed heavily as she searched for other possibilities, but she knew Nurse Tucker was busy and couldn’t stay to help her figure it out. The woman finished her exam and crossed her arms at the foot of her bed.
"Well you were lucky, with whatever happened. You got a pretty good concussion but other than that, a few scrapes, bruises and a sprained wrist. We'll give you a prescription for the pain, but you know the drill. Keep your wounds clean and put antibiotics on twice a day. And stay out of trouble! You know we love seeing you honey, but we'd prefer you not to be a patient every time! We'll have you ready to go as soon as you're dressed."
"Thanks Nurse Tucker, but I still have some medicine from the last time, I won’t need a new prescription," Mari said with a smile as she slowly sat up in the bed.
"Alright then honey, I'll call you a cab."
Mari stepped out of the taxi and gently closed the door behind her, shouldering her bag as she mounted the stairs to her home. She fumbled with her keys a moment, the pain in her wrist affecting her movement. After finding the key, she turned the knob only to find that she had forgotten to lock the door again, and let her book bag fall to the floor. As the door was closed behind her, she leaned her back against it and sighed loudly. Now that she was fully conscious and awake, it seemed like her mind plagued her as she was in need of relief. Placing her jacket on the coat rack and kicking her shoes off to the side, she made her way straight to the kitchen to put on some tea. She took the kettle off the stove and filled it with more water, then turned on the heat. She leaned against the counter as she waited for the water to boil and tried to clear her mind. For some reason she felt a little more overwhelmed than usual when her accidents happened. Perhaps she was stressed about the confusion surrounding the strange events. She ran her fingers through her curly locks, pushing them out of her face only to have them fall back on her shoulders. The kettle began to hum so she rummaged through the cabinets to find a clean mug and a spoon from the silverware drawer. Setting it down on top of the stove, she moved to the refrigerator to take out a jar of marmalade. The whistle of the kettle suddenly started her for some reason and caused her to jump. She laughed out loud at herself as she poured her favorite tea into the mug - peppermint. With a spoonful of orange marmalade jelly she stirred the hot tea and let the delicious smell swirl in steamy strands to her nostrils. She breathed it in happily and her head hurt a little less because of it. With her eyes closed, she let the tingling sensation fill her lungs and calm her through and through.
After a few moments she took the mug in her hands and carefully walked to the living room where she made herself comfortable on the only piece of furniture in the room. There wasn’t a need for more as there weren’t ever any guests. She drew her knees up and curled her feet underneath a blanket left unfolded at the end of the sofa. Her elbow rested on the arm of the chair and she stirred her tea contently, trying only to concentrate on the swirls of color in the liquid. The late afternoon sun was shining dully on the floor in front of her and while the house was warm, she shivered. To remedy her chill she took a sip from her tea, finding it flavored just the way she liked. She burrowed a little further into the softness of the sofa, snuggling into a comfortable spot. Now she could think.
What was it that was truly bothering her? She couldn’t decide if it was the fact that there was, as of yet, an unknown cause for the events that put her in the hospital yet again, or if it was the strangeness of it. While there seemed to be a perfectly reasonable explanation behind it, whether she knew of it or not, there seemed to be such mystery involved. She couldn’t quite pinpoint why she thought this way. Perhaps it was the feelings she got as she walked through the alleyway. That too could be explained away. After all she was in an unfamiliar part of an already unfamiliar town and it was after dark. She had gotten herself in hairy situations before due to not paying attention, so she had a reason for the paranoia. But there seemed to be something more behind it. Craziness was always a possibility though unlikely in her opinion. She had had enough physical trauma in her life to make psychosis possible. She shook her head as she took another sip of her tea, languishing in the warmth as it traveled through her.
Her mind suddenly remembered the conversation she had with her teacher just before she left. No passion, she thought with the slightest bit of sadness. It was true, but what was she to do about it? She could waste her life like so many have done and travel the world, have experience after experience and hope to happen upon her true meaning of life; a reasonably pointless way to live. Why search for a life she already has? It may not be what most people would consider a "good" life, but that was objective depending on your perspective. She was happy after all. Or was she simply consoling herself with a lie? It didn’t matter, she suddenly decided. And with that she put the thought out of her mind permanently.
She took another sip of her tea when she heard a knock at her door, or so she thought. With a confused and almost concerned look she set her mug down on the floor and silently walked to the door. Looking through the peep hole she saw two men in uniform outside her door, so she quickly opened it for them, as she was fairly sure she knew what they were there for.
"Ms, Cota?" one officer asked as the other one responded to something coming through the walkie talkie.
"Yes, that's me," she said with a weak smile.
"We understand that you were involved in an accident last night, is that correct?"
"Yes, I was. Come in," she said as she opened the door wider for them both to come in.
"Thank you," the same man said with a smile as he came in with the other man in tow. He issued a "Thanks," as he passed her as well. They waited for her to close the door and lead them to whichever room she wanted them to go in. She passed them in the hallway and led them to the living room where there was more space for them to stand or sit. The first man, who was clearly a senior officer, waved his arm for her to sit and had the second man sit on the opposite side of the sofa. She sat facing them and waited for their questions.
"I'm Officer Daniels, this is Officer Douger," the first man said as they got started. "You understand we've got some questions as to what happened. Do you mind giving us your story?" he asked as he stood behind his man.
"No, of course not," Mari said as she folded her hands over he knees. She looked down at her lap and tried to think of how to word her little misadventure. "Well, I was on my way home from school and I got a little lost..."
"Which school do you attend?" Officer Douger asked as he began making notes on a pad.
"St. Westwood, it’s just down the street a little," Mari said with a wave of her arm to indicate the direction.
"And you say you got lost?" he asked with a bit of disbelief.
"Yes... I, uh... wasn’t really paying attention and I must have missed a turn or two," she said with obvious embarrassment.
"Go on," he said as he looked back down at his pad.
"I realize that I had gotten lost and was trying to find my way back home, when...." she paused to think. It was difficult when she wasn’t sure what happened. "I'm not sure exactly what happened then. It felt like an earthquake, or a storm of some kind. The building just crumbled and I could smell gas. Something must have created a spark as apparently there was an explosion. I don’t remember anything after that." She twisted her arms a little as she knew how it must sound to them and she was doubly embarrassed not to mention nervous. The man on the couch scribbled some more notes before stopping to look at Officer Daniels, then her.
"You said it seemed like an earthquake?"
"Yes. The nurse at the hospital said she didn’t think there was one, or a storm, but I thought I remembered hearing thunder, and there were some strong winds..." She shrugged as she was unsure of what else to say to further her thought.
"Ma'am, I can say without a doubt that there were no storms and certainly no earthquakes in the area last night. So your story doesn’t quite match up."
Her nervousness increased now. Surely they didn’t think she had something to do with this? How could she! "I'm not sure what to tell you, Officer," she said truthfully.
The two men looked at each other a moment before Douger made a few more notes. Officer Daniels took a few steps away from his partner, watching his feet as he stepped, clearly trying to make a decision on what to say. His hands were behind his back and there was the look of frustration on his face, though it didn’t seem to be caused by her. It seemed as if there was more beneath the surface she may never know about.
"Here's what we've got," Officer Daniels started. "The building you were talking about was a town home that was in the process of being renovated. It’s been in that state for many months, and the building itself is at least a hundred years old. It’s quite possible something in the supports were damaged to a point where it would have collapsed one way or the other. It’s a little, just a little, coincidental that you just so happen to be there when it happened." He raised his hand for silence as Mari started to defend herself. "Now it’s not impossible that this was a coincidence, just strange. No, the strange thing is the crater-like dent in the street just beyond the building."
Mari's eyes widened in confusion as she didn’t seem to remember anything about this. Her mind raced to make sense of it but the accident simply wiped it from her memory. If it hadn’t been an earthquake, then what? They must not have found anything around it or they wouldn’t be asking her about it, and so the puzzle perplexed her even further. "Could it be a sinkhole?" she asked with obvious concern.
"At this time we're not one hundred percent clear on that, but it doesn’t seem to be the cause." He walked in place a little bit more, choosing his words carefully. "Sinkholes usually form a deep hole, like you would think of at a fault line. But like I said earlier, there were no earthquakes and no tremors. We're not even close to a major fault line. No, this had the appearance of an indentation. Like something came crashing into the asphalt and caused it to crack and break underneath it. However, nothing was found to create this."
Her jaw dropped a little as she couldn’t imagine what he was thinking. It was impossible it seemed, and yet it happened and remained. It was far more likely to be a natural occurrence, and yet they had no evidence of this. But at the same time, there was no physical evidence either! Apparently some invisible force caused the crater, but that was ludicrous. She felt obligated to further her uninvolvement. "Other than the explosion, I don’t recall anything else. I did get a concussion so it’s likely if anything else happened.... I simply don’t remember." She paused a moment, thinking about her wounds and then remembered to ask. "Was anyone else hurt?"
"The problem is, Ms. Cota, you were the only person involved," Officer Douger added as he set his pencil down. "All the other town homes in the immediate vicinity were unoccupied and the ones that have people in them, heard sounds but nothing else."
"Could it have been a bomb?" she asked suddenly, still trying to think of other ways to put the pressure of herself.
"We haven’t ruled it out, but no explosive devices were found and the evidence doesn’t indicate that it was the cause."
Mari felt defeated. Her shoulders slumped in confusion and her head was beginning to ache again. She raised her hand to massage her temples and winced a little as one of her bruises was nearby. "I don’t know," was all she could say.
"Well, Ms. Cota, we don’t have anything to suggest you were a part of this, other than a helpless, and unfortunate, bystander. But you understand we can’t rule you out completely until we have more details from our investigation. We may need to question you further depending on what we find," Officer Daniels said as he patted the shoulders of his young partner, signaling that they were done for the night.
"Yes, of course," Mari said regretfully. It wasn’t the first time she was under investigation.
"And you'll let us know if you happen to remember anything?" he asked as he handed her a card with the station phone number on it and his name.
"Yes! Yes. I'm sorry I couldn’t be of more help," she said as she stood to walk them out. Officer Douger stood with her and she escorted them to the door where she held it open for them.
"Have a good night and get some rest, Ms. Cota," Officer Daniels said as he shook her hand. Douger nodded his head as he passed her and then swiftly made their way down the stairs and to their car. Mari closed and locked the door behind her, but stood where she was a moment. With one hand on her hip and the other at her head, her thoughts were racing again, trying to make sense of everything she learned. She shook her head gently as she walked back to the living room and took her mug, now barely warm, and decided to go to bed before anything else unexplainable happened to rattle her brains. The light switches clicked loudly as she turned each of them off, leaving only the light over the stairs on so she could see her steps. The last thing she wanted was to fall. From experience, it was some of the worst injuries a person could have. She stepped up the creaking stairs, her hand gently gliding on the rail beside her, trying to watch her mug and not let the liquid fall. As she entered her room, she set the mug down on her bedside table then suddenly stood erect. There was the unmistakable smell, just the faintest whiff of burnt fabric. Already it had passed, but the lingering sensation caused her great alarm. With sudden realization she pulled up part of her shirt from her shoulder and sniffed it, catching about the same scent and wrote it off as having smelled herself. She curled her nose as vowed to bathe and do laundry first thing the next morning and turned off the light in her room.
That night the dream came again. No images, just a vision of confusion and smoke. There was a presence so profound it was frightening, yet at the same time she was not afraid. It was heavy and intimidating, like a weight pressed on her but by morning the dream faded and she slept peacefully for a while.
It had been a little over a week since the strange event and Mari's wounds had healed. One thing she was grateful for was her body's swift ability to mend itself. Besides allowing her to live a fairly normal life without long interruptions, it saved her from the embarrassment of being seen with wounds seventy percent of the time she was ever noticed. When you're that accident prone people start questioning your mental stability or whether or not some sort of domestic abuse is the cause. She had the innate ability, however, to be invisible for the better part of the time in both large crowds and small. This too was fortunate for her as she preferred as much privacy as she could get and never really felt lonely. Emptiness was a different matter.
She returned to class the next day and every class after that, unaffected by her injuries and largely unnoticed. There was only one more visit from the police, but their questioning was brief. They only wished to know if she had remembered anything else and to their disappointment she didn't. The men informed her then that they were closing the case unless any further information came forward as no conclusions could be met. She was grateful for this, but also disappointed, as she had hoped there could have some idea as to what happened to her. With a sort of mental shoulder shrug, she put it out of her mind.
It was time for her evening psychology class once more and she found her mind wandering as it usually did. She caught fragments of lecture in between day dreaming but like always, her pencil never touched the notepad in front of her. Her eyes rarely left her teacher, following him as he paced to and fro, giving the impression that she was listening where she really wasn't. He caught her off guard on several occasions that evening, but as always she answered with textbook accuracy. From time to time the other students would sigh or make various noises to express their frustration at their inability to answer correctly. She was largely unconcerned with how they felt however, but tried never to seem haughty with her knowledge. Unlike what most would think of her, she had enough social skills to know what was acceptable and what wasn't, no matter how unsociable she was on a personal level. Mr. Hannoway also made sure never to praise her or show his disappointment in her lack of observational answers. He was a clever man and knew how to manipulate his class to run efficiently. It was difficult for him though to see such a brilliant student have so little perspective on a field that required some personal insight. She had a mind for the subject, but not the heart to care. There was nothing he could do so he tried not to dwell on it.
Mari snapped from her empty reverie as one of her classmates nearby was called upon to answer a question. She turned her head slightly to hear their reply without actually turning to look at them, though she already knew the answer. They took a moment to reply, searching their notes in hope to find the answer without actually having to think on it much. In the end they were close but didn't answer the question completely. Professor Hannoway corrected them on his way to the chalkboard to highlight parts of his lecture that involved the correct reply. He continued on to his next point and Mari became distracted by a student in the row below her. She realized since the beginning of the class the boy had been slumped over on his desk snoring softly. He laid his head on folded arms and had been sleeping rather soundly for some time, and it seemed whatever was going on in the classroom didn't rouse him in the least. Professor Hannoway was one of the few teachers that never bothered to wake sleeping students during their class time. His philosophy was that it was up to his students to prove themselves and he had no qualms about failing a student if their grades weren't up to par. The poor boy before her probably stood little chance of passing. Mari twirled the pencil in her hand a few times, looking down at her blank paper as if waiting for words to appear. While she had never felt the need for notes, she never accepted never as likely. Perhaps that was her philosophy on life: Skepticism whenever needed and faith where there was no contradiction.
Maybe she would write her thesis paper on that.
The fact was, Mari more closely lived her life to this statement than anything else, though she may not have realized it. In everything she did or came in contact with, it came down to two questions; is it plausible, and can I find any other explanation for it? Most often this led her to excellent choices and conclusions and occasionally it perplexed her as she found something that could not be explained. However she also divided her time wisely and was a good judge of whether something was worth pondering over or not. This kept her from wasting time on things that may or may not be necessary to know and prevented her from daydreaming even more.
This day’s class was on a particularly curious topic: religion. It was one they had been studying intermittently for over a week and had only touched on it, but today was different. Though her attention had been wavering since the beginning, she had picked up that the Professor was focusing on various religious beliefs of the beginning of mankind and its evolution to modern times and beliefs. The class was already winding down and it appeared he would let the class out early, and this could only mean one thing; there would be an assignment, and a large one at that.
He circled a few things on the board behind him then moved to his desk where he removed a stack of paper from his briefcase and tapped the edges on the surface to shuffle them in an organized fashion. As he finished the last statements of his lecture the students began noisily placing their items away in their bags. They half listened to him as they eagerly prepared to get out the door as quickly as possible, but Mari stayed silent and still in her seat as usual. She hated to feel pressed against others and rushed, so she always waited to be the last to leave. He was well aware that they were in an apparent hurry and so stopped them before they got ahead of themselves.
“Please be aware of your next extended essay which I am assigning to you tonight,” he said with a smile in amusement of the students’ reactions. They sounded their loud sighs and moans as they dropped their bookbags back against the floor and quickly took out their pencils and planners to make note of their latest bane. “Right,” he continued with a smirk, “We’ve been talking about origins of mankind on a more philosophical note as opposed to historical, and in particular, various religious beliefs on these origins and how they may have originated.” He loudly tapped the stack of papers against his desk to precede his next statement and emphasize its importance. “So, your next extended essay is to specifically be on…”
He paused to allow all the students to be ready as he did not plan on writing the title on the board. The classes were progressing in difficulty and it was midway through the school year, so these little things were to be a test of their diligence. Once he saw that most of them were waiting on him, he continued.
“…The Hypothetical Development of a Religion and its Philosophy of Human Evolution.”
One or two pencils dropped in a thud against notepads, aghast at the seeming complicated nature of their next assignment, and more than a few heads turned in confusion. A student in the back automatically asked for him to repeat the title, and he graciously complied, pens scribbling quickly to make sure they had everything correct, and as expected, several arms shot up in uncertainty. Professor Hannoway called on one of the closer students and listened to their question and expanded on it.
“Basically, what you are to do is choose at least one religion, any religion of the world but it must be a historical one, and you are to research its origins and the origins of mankind according to its practitioners. You will then choose one of three stances: You will argue whether you believe it is or is not plausible, or whether it may be plausible, and of course why.”
There were now even louder cries of discontent throughout the room as many tried to grasp the point of the project and were having difficulties. More arms shot up to question the specifics of the project and they were each answered in turn. Mari nearly sighed as well as the questions became more redundant and detailed. She was tempted to look at the clock at one point, wondering how much longer the discussion would go on, but at least it seemed like her fellow classmates had a general understanding of what they were to do.
“Remember, this is not a research paper,” he said as they began to pack up their things once more, “While you will be searching into historical records for your theory, I don’t want a recount of what we already know. This is based on your opinion and you will be graded on how well you argue your belief, not on how accepted the belief is or isn’t.” The class began to stand and make their way down the stairs, and the professor added something quickly before they all left.
“This is due in two weeks. I also have your short essays from last week graded now and I’ll hand them out at the door.”
As usual the students lined up and waited impatiently as a couple of their fellows stopped to ask questions about their grades. Most of them had given up trying to understand why they had failed or performed poorly and just accepted that they may or may not pass by the skin of their teeth. The line drew closer and closer to the hallway and the sounds of lockers closing and people talking could be heard loudly through the room. It was probably the poorest place to hand out papers, but it was meant as a way to guarantee all the students received their papers before heading out. Mari shuffled closer with every student but was halted now as one girl became emotionally upset at her grade and pleaded her argument with the professor. He regretfully disagreed with her and tried to encourage her to see things from a different perspective and to keep trying as hard as she was. He was ever the clever man at discerning who needed help and who didn’t want it, whether it may have been a lost cause or one that just needed a little prodding. She never quite realized that he would do everything he could for her and that many of his tactics would in fact been beneficial to her. With a helpful smile he sent her on and took care of the next few students ahead of her until she was left. She smiled slightly as she reached for her paper then stopped awkwardly as he made no move to hand it to her.
“I wanted to speak to you privately,” he said as he gently closed the door.
Her face turned to utter bewilderment as he had never had this demeanor with her before and it caused her great concern. Ever humble, her mind raced to thoughts that perhaps she had not written accurately or had not cited her references properly. Could this be her first failure? His tone certainly seemed somber enough. She caught her breath when she realized she had been holding it as she watched him walk to his desk and lean against it as he was wont to do. She turned and slowly stepped in front of him, her book bag now held by one strap so it dragged on the floor. He rubbed his head and adjusted his glasses as he was obviously putting words together in his mind, carefully choosing.
“Do you think the assignment I gave tonight is too difficult?” he asked at last.
Her eyes widened for a moment as she was now completely confused. “Perhaps…” she began, thinking more of her classmates than herself. “But maybe it just seems hard,” she added with hope. While she breezed through the class there was no desire for her classmates, however invisible they were to her and she to them, to fail and have to repeat.
“Nothing seems like too much of a challenge for you,” he said with a smile, now softly rapping his fingers on the desk. There was purpose behind this conversation, she could tell.
“I’m not sure I understand what you mean,” she said as she began to feel more awkward. His comment felt condescending and complimentary at the same time and she couldn’t quite follow this thoughts.
“I specifically picked this assignment with you in mind,” he released at last, watching his carefully guided thoughts make their point.
“Why me?” she asked quickly.
The Professor twisted his mouth as his thoughts continued down their intended path. “While the assignment is perfect for the current subject matter, I knew it would push you to go outside your comfort zone.”
She began to understand now. He was referencing their previous conversation a few weeks ago, the conversation the night of her most recent accident. With a rather loud thump of her heart, her stomach sank a little as she realized that she may have failed for the first time in her life. She didn’t want to assume too much too soon, but she now feared the worse.
When she didn’t respond, he continued to speak, his eyes on the floor. “Whether you use a degree in psychology or not, you need to pass this class, and in order to do so you’re going to have to push yourself.” Her face became ashen now and he chose not to delay her grade any longer.
“I couldn’t give you an A, I’m sorry,” he said as he placed the paper in her hands and hoped for the best reaction.
Mari’s eyes widened in disbelief and relief at the same time as she noted her grade. Neatly placed in the corner beside the title of her essay and name was a B. Her heart was beating wildly with anticipation, but now she could breathe once more. It was the only grade less than perfect she had received since kindergarten, and she had only done “poorly” in playing well with others, a skill she could live without. He was watching her now, hoping she wouldn’t have a nervous breakdown, though he doubted it was possible. She sighed deeply, discontented with herself and a little discouraged.
Seeing this, Professor Hannoway stood straight once more and walked behind his desk to open the top drawer. He took out a small bundle of papers and promptly handed them to her. Folding his arms on top of each other, he watched her examine the brochures, reading every small detail on each page before turning to the next. When she crossed her brows and looked to him in confusion, he explained.
“That is the Historical Society of Mankind, as you can see,” he said as he gestured, the title of the building clearly written on the front. “They have one of the most unique collections of museum grade artifacts as well as an extensive library on everything you would need to know for this essay. However, as this is a private collection, you must have written permission to gain entrance.” He twirled his hand around in the air to indicate there was something attached to the back of the documents she had not seen.
Mari carefully detached the paper from the brochure at the staple and opened to read it. Inside with eloquent language detailed explicit permission for one Marisabelle Cota to be had from the current date til the date the project was due, and signed by the headmaster of the organization. Something inside her jumped a little though she didn’t know why. She figured there was some degree of anticipation of this project, a way to prove herself and explore a rare wealth of knowledge.
“I know this essay will be difficult for you. Why, I’m not sure, but you have a perpetual inability to have an opinion on things,” he continued. He laughed shortly then added, “I shouldn’t say inability. You have it in you, I know it. But Mari…” he looked her sternly in the eyes. “I can’t accept for you to be impartial any longer. Part of psychology is having an understanding of all vantage points. Neutrality is a goal most of us shoot for, but you over exaggerate neutrality with textbook accuracy.” He paused for emphasis before concluding, “I will fail you if I have to.”
She looked up sharply from the brochures and their eyes met. Never had Mari seen him quite as serious as he appeared now. His point was taken and while she wasn’t sure how she would accomplish his task, the sternness melted from his face and a smile was there.
“I believe in you,” he added as a way to prevent the conversation to be taken negatively. He wanted to scare her towards the correct path, not turn her away from it completely. “Go on,” he said as his head nodded towards the door.
Mari emerged from the classroom feeling a little dejected. She held on to the straps of her book bag at her back and let her feet drag a little as she mulled over her latest challenge. Her last paper had been a very honest attempt at opinionated writing, but apparently she had failed to do just that. It was difficult to pick sides when every option seemed likely to be true or accurate, and in an age when everyone seemed to voice their perspective so violently at times, she imagined she stuck out like a sore thumb. She wished it was easier to be biased, but at the same time she wasn’t sure she’d like to change. Having a “side” meant there would inevitably be moments in time where it would be challenged and need defending, and confrontation of any kind was unacceptable to her. In fact the thought of defending whatever position she would have to choose for her paper was beginning to make her nervous and she swiftly put it out of her mind.
The hallway was mostly empty now and only the remaining students from the night classes were filing out, stopping at a locker or talking with a friend before leaving for the evening. Her eyes were on the floor in front of her, watching the laces on her shoes fly wildly with each step – a pleasant distraction from noticing people who might just happen to notice her for once. She preferred to keep to herself and while not unkind, she was rather scared of social situations and large groups of people. There never seemed to be a time when anyone paid her any mind except when she was inconsequently in the way. Hearing swift footsteps behind her, she dodged slightly to the right in order to let her person behind her pass easily but she was surprised when they remained behind her. Trying to ignore the situation, she kept on but paused briefly as she heard the person say something, seemingly to her. She looked over her shoulder and she heard them again.
“Hey!” a girl said as she leaned her head to the side so she could see her more easily. Mari’s eyes widened questioningly, making sure she was trying to speak to her and not someone else, but the girl instead remained and smiled awkwardly.
“Hey, you’re Mari… right?” she asked a she doubtfully drew out her name, unsure if she had the pronunciation right.
“Yeah,” Mari said hesitantly.
“Hi, I’m Jackie,” she said as she adjusted her armful of books to let a hand free for her to shake. Mari slowly put out her hand to shake the girl’s, feeling rather anxious. She remained silent as she waited for her to say what she wanted. After a brief silence between them, Jackie continued.
“You do really good in class, right?” Mari’s confused look, made her elaborate. “Jack… Mr. Hannoway’s class…Psychology.”
“Oh yes,” Mari said as she realized Jackie was one of the students who usually sat a few rows below her. “Yeah, I guess I do well.”
“You just always have the right answers, like all the time,” she said as she nodded her head as if to confirm her own suspicions. It was obvious by her accent and the way she spoke that she was from another part of the country and Mari found herself trying to figure out if she was chewing gum or if it was a mannerism of her speaking. When she remained silent yet again, Jackie continued without missing a beat.
“Yeah, see, I’m not doin so good,” she said as she turned her mouth up in embarrassment. “I keep tryin real hard, but I just don’t get it. Ya’know?” Mari nodded her head as more of a way to let her know she was listening than actually agreeing with her.
“It’s kinda stupid that I gotta take this class anyway, ya’know? I mean, I’m trying to get my MBA. What does that have to do with anything?” She shifted her weight and balanced her books on her hips, allowing her to wave her arm around emphatically.
“I’m not sure,” Mari said almost apologetically. Her eyes glanced around the hall a moment, wondering if anyone else was watching or waiting for her, hoping to find a distraction from the conversation.
“So anyway, I was wondering,” she paused with a hopeful grin, “Would you be willing to tutor me?”
“Me?” Mari asked as she straightened up in surprised. She opened her mouth to speak but was swiftly interrupted.
“I just got like, my fifth straight D and there’s no way I’m takin this class again. Just a few hours a week maybe, I could even pay you a little. I can’t really afford much, but I’m getting desperate,” she said swiftly, trying to get Mari to accept without thinking too much on it. She knew what a challenge she would be, and hoped Mari wouldn’t notice.
“Oh… I… I don’t know how good I would be. I don’t do anything special, I just sorta… get it,” Mari stuttered as she struggled to get herself out of the situation. She had tutored classmates before and always ended with frustration and quitting on their part. “I just don’t think I would be any help to you.”
“Oh. Ok then,” Jackie said with obvious disappointment. “Alright, well… I’ll see ya later then.”
Before Mari had a chance to apologize and offer any advice, the girl had taken a couple steps backwards with one more awkward smile as if to say, “thanks anyway” before turning to exit in the opposite direction.
She briefly fought the urge to stop her and offer to help her anyway, but she remained where she stood a moment, reflecting on her decision before turning around and continuing on her way. The girl seemed so sincere in her need and it wasn’t like her to decline assistance. It was pathetic how little help she was in teaching situations, but there really was no rhyme or reason to her study methods. She had always been particularly skilled in memorization and soaked up knowledge like a sponge that could forever expand. There were no methods or strategies, and as her professor was fond of pointing out, her papers read like a textbook. She was the last person Jackie needed help from. It wouldn’t end there though, she was determined about that. Maybe it was a little bit of shame in herself or sympathy for the girl, but she decided to do something to help, even if it was informing Professor Hannoway of her desire for tutoring. There must be someone else more capable than she.
Her hands felt the texture of the carved wooden doors as she pushed them aside, their weight a difficulty for the petite girl. The icy night wind hit her like a wall and instantly took her breath away. She would be glad when the winter was over and spring would take over. Already the days were getting warmer, but the nights were as frigid as ever. She pulled her hoodie up around her ears to keep her neckline as warm as possible and continued down the stairs. Keeping her pace briskly, Mari attempted to keep her mind on her route home as she usually did, but the natural tendency for her mind to loose control quickly set in before she had even left the campus.
The gears of her mind were already churning away to her newest project and what her subject matter should be, trying to focus her intent on something she had a stance on, however difficult it might be. She tried to think of all the world’s religions she was familiar with and their beliefs of creation, and she was perhaps more educated on the subject as is, than were most of her fellow classmates. There were the obvious choices, Christianity – which would undoubtedly be chosen by both sides of the spectrum towards belief and disbelief in its ideas, Judaism – one more commonly defended than criticized, Hindu – more exotic but less likely to be possible, and Buddhism – which was equally skeptical in its possibility. She had the distinct desire to choose something somewhat uncommon and had decided that she might be able to succeed in her task if she could pick something that was less or more likely to be plausible; that way it was less of an opinion and more logic and reason. But would that defeat the purpose of the project? Hadn’t that been what she had stuck to all along?
She sighed loudly and watched her breath trail behind her down the sidewalk, wondering what her own beliefs were. The simple answer was that she had none. There was no religion or belief system that she advocated, finding reasonable points in nearly everything she learned about. The common scientific explanations of the universe seemed just as likely as an all-knowing being creating the universe in seven days, or the world formed from a flower that emerged out of a multi-manifested god’s naval. She didn’t dare commit to just one belief when there were so many things still to learn and experience. How could she claim to have all the answers? Trying to at least come up with a subject, she asked herself, what seems more likely to be true? Or less likely? Which should she choose – the lesser, or greater probability? Unable to fathom choosing something she honestly felt could be in some way more correct than the others, she made up her mind to find something that seemed less reasonable.
But what? With so many choices she wasn’t even familiar with, how could she choose? That would be the first step, she knew then; she would need to do some research and brush up on her world religions to find one that would be just right. Perhaps that’s what she would do tomorrow.
She had come to the point in her trek home where she would turn on to a different street and continue on her way just a block or two more, yet something caused her to stop where she was. She was at an intersection of two normally busy streets and the pedestrian lights were flashing for her to proceed. Removing her hands from the pocket of her hoodie and breathing on them for warmth, she looked both ways down the street, noticing that no cars were coming and there were only a few people walking in the distance and it was silent. Her home was in sight, and yet something cause her to linger a while, as if she were making up her mind on something she was yet to realize. She rubbed her hands vigorously once more and looked to the light which was still flashing for her to walk when she realized that the road that lay ahead seemed familiar. Somewhere within the next block a street light was out and it was uncommonly dark, lending perhaps to some memory. Perhaps it was something about the houses. Then she remembered; this must have been the way she had come the night she was injured. It was shocking to see how close to home she was when whatever happened, happened. Curiosity now caused her to make up her mind, and as the light continued its suspicious flashing, beckoning her onward, she continued walking straight.
At first her decision had seemed completely reasonable, after all, with no hints from the police and the absence of her own memory, she aught to see for herself whatever evidence was left. Maybe it was just an adventurous distraction from the stress of her assignment or even a bit of boredom, but it seemed like a good idea. Her pace quickened almost as if to prevent herself from changing her mind and returning home, but now as the intersection lay further and further behind her, her swift gate was more for warmth and less exciting.
However, curiosity soon turned to nervousness and her heart began to beat a little faster. She remembered what the police officers had said about the night she barely remembered. Contrary to what she had thought, there was no natural disaster that could be blamed, no act of violence or otherwise had occurred, which left her and everyone else in the dark. The environment was no help to her nerves as the neighborhood began to decline in appearance the more she walked, heading towards the poorer part of town, and it was late. It suddenly seemed colder and she could feel goose bumps forming on her arms. Her natural inclination was to rub her arms, as if to erase them with a little bit of warmth. Every step seemed more and more familiar and she made sure to pay attention to the buildings this time, lest she ever make the mistake of heading this way again, she would know exactly where she was.
A car or two drove past her, temporarily blinding her with their lights before coming to a stop sign somewhere behind her. She suspiciously eyed them peripherally to make sure no one would emerge from the cars and present a threat to her, and her mind was eased when they continued driving. Her mind went back to the buildings, the street, the sidewalks – anything that would assist her in identifying the area in the future. She had learned that this was an important skill many years ago when as a child she would constantly get lost wherever she was. Whether it was a shopping center, at school, or on a fieldtrip somewhere, her lack of mental awareness caused a lot of problems for her and her caregivers.
A sudden sound caused her to snap back to the reality she had temporarily slipped out of when she thought she had heard the sound of footsteps behind her. She pivoted while slowly walking to see if she was crazy for thinking this and with no great surprise there was no one behind her or anywhere in sight. With a sigh she continued on, trying to steer her mind to more pleasant thoughts and smiled at the uplifting thought of her as an investigator. Could she solve her own mystery? The idea of her finding some hidden clue at the scene of her accident and making an incredulous theory as to what happened and confirming its validity seemed like a novel she had probably read sometime in years past. Still, it was a little thrilling to think that there might be something there. In fact, she could see evidence of the scene not far ahead.
Just in view there was a taped off section of the road and abandoned construction equipment surrounding the area, leading her to believe that must be the spot from what she had been told. There was almost a skip in her step as she hurried ever closer to the area, somewhat eager to see the site and return home in a reasonable amount of time. The homes she passed were now very familiar indeed and she remembered some of the little details around them. Just ahead now was the home that was being renovated, the memory of which had previously been neglected to her. It now looked more like the casualty of a missile than one of a makeover. Plastic sheets lifted gently in the wind, lending the occasional crackling sound as it rose and fell against the brick. Bits of stone and mortar where stacked in a messy pile beside where the stoop had been, obviously set aside to be used again. Charred bits of wood and other materials were everywhere and the lingering stale smell of smoke was still present. The home had been reduced to rubble, as several others around it were as well. The magnitude of whatever happened was a little overwhelming suddenly as she stood in place and gazed around her. Her sinuses began to burn and itch in the cold as tears formed in her eyes, thankful that her carelessness hadn’t caused her death, once again.
Yet, she thought with a sigh.
She turned around suddenly without really knowing why, searching the road behind her. It took her a moment to realize she had felt as if someone were behind her once again, though without a sound as before. Her brow furrowed in confusion and she chastised herself for her recent bout of paranoia. It was extremely uncommon to her and she wondered if she were under more stress than she realized. She turned back around to quit the thoughts in her head when she remembered the real mystery of her ordeal.
Something had caused the explosion. The gas wasn’t leaking until something caused the line to break. But what? A flurry of possibilities ran through her mind as she tried to analyze all of them with her limited memory. She remembered the explosion, but what was before that? Something natural, it seemed. There was the initial thought that an earthquake had occurred, but that was immediately ruled out as there had been none reported, and surely one would not go without notice in an area that never experiences them. She stepped closer to the portion of the road that had been roped off with caution tape, stepping over pieces of rubble and carefully watching where she was walking. Her heart began to pound as if preparing for some huge revelation that was to be revealed to her. She nearly held her breath in anticipation as the massive depression in the pavement came into view. Its size nearly took up the entire street and its depth was more than what was common for a sinkhole. Should she have dared climb down into it, the street level may have come to her hip. She decided not to get too close as the ground may still be unsteady and with her track record of random accidents, the last thing she wanted as to be brought to the hospital twice from the same spot. She gazed in amazement of it and pondered what could have caused such a monstrous crater. From her studies in geology in high school she deduced that if the ground have given way, it would have looked much more like a pit with a clear line of where the earth had sunken in. This instead looked more like an indentation with crumpled bits of rock and dirt in an almost smooth and rounded fashion. It was as if something had fallen from a great height, yet there was no evidence left behind.
She inched closer, daring to come to the line of tape just feet away from the edge to as to further inspect the ground when a light gust of wind carried the smell of smoke past her. In a moment’s time her mind had passed off the smell as that of the charred ruins but she suddenly knew it was different. It was fresh, like the smell of burnt fabric and something else, something familiar. The paranoia she felt before was now at its peak and the hairs on her neck stood on end with the sensation of fear. Shadows…she thought she saw shadows once more, and the hidden memory of those shadows from the accident stirred to her swiftly leave the site. Fearing something terrible might happen once more, she trusted her instinct and began to run back the way she came, glancing backwards once or twice to ease her suspicion. Her book bag jingled noisily as she ran, bouncing violently against her and she held on tightly to the straps as if they were some rope that might keep her secure and safe. She glanced back once more and saw nothing that aroused suspicion, and fearing to make any potential witnesses think she was in need of help, or furthermore, simply crazy, she slowed to a brisk walk, keeping an eye on the path behind her until her home was in sight.
Closing the door firmly behind her, Mari breathed a sigh of relief. The fury of thoughts and fears in her mind were now put to rest and she may have very well escaped a second fateful accident. As her book bag slid off her shoulders noisily to the floor, she took both her hands and massaged her faced until her fingers ran through her hair and out. She was still processing what just happened and the fear was till fresh, preventing her from making much sense of it just yet. Realizing she hadn’t locked the door behind her, she swiftly turned and bolted it shut, as if to further prevent her unfortunate doom from seeking her out once more. This was the first time in a long time she had averted danger consciously and it was a little overwhelming.
She needed some release from this anxiety, so she made straight for her kitchen, switching on lights as she went. The tea kettle was exactly where it always was, ready for a new cup to be made, resting on the front burner of the stove. She turned the stove on and brought the kettle to the sink to dump out the old water and refresh it with the new, laying it on the warming coils until it whistled. Searching the cabinets for a clean mug, she found none and promptly found the largest one she had already in the sink and began to wash it. As the water from the spout heated up, she let her hands under the steady stream. Her hands were still frozen from the walk home and her fingertips burned a little as the warm water rushed over them. She washed the mug and rinsed it out, then set it on the stove next to the heating kettle. Standing in front of her stack of various flavored teas, she looked them over carefully, trying to decide which to choose. Peppermint was her favorite, but chamomile might be nice after a rather horrifying night. She went then to the refrigerator to see if she had any marmalade, the decided factor in which flavor it would be, and sadly found none. Chamomile it was. Peppermint tea just wasn’t the same without the sweet orange jelly, and she made a mental note to buy some more the next time she went shopping. She returned to her mug with her tea bag and waited for the whistling.
Such a pleasant distraction made some of her anxiety go away already. Her mind was beginning to clear a little and she felt more at ease. As it dissipated, it was almost as if none of it had happened to begin with. Already she was feeling a little silly. After all, what exactly had happened? She reviewed everything step by step but things were making less sense by the minute. Bad feelings, thinking she had seen things, a certain smell – all things easily explained. It was night time in a rough neighborhood, which completely explained her fear and paranoia, not to mention the surfacing of strange memories, or at least what she thought may have been memories. Who could say which were real and which she may have made up? Head trauma can cause false memories, this she knew all too well, as it had happened to her before. The shadows could have easily been a person or animal she had failed to notice. And as for the smell? It must have been another material she was smelling that had come from the same fire, or even from one of the homes still occupied.
There, she thought with varying confidence, that explains it all.
The fear had been so real though, it was hard to imagine that there was nothing to cause that beside her own weak mind. But really, what other explanations were there? She suddenly realized that the kettle had been gradually whistling louder and louder and was nearing a rather shrill note, so she removed it quickly and poured it into her mug. Removing a spoon from a nearby drawer, she swirled the bag around in the water, watching it turn a pale yellow and allowing the vapor to envelope her face and enter her body. Instantly she was at ease and her problems were melting away to be forgotten.
She returned to the spot where she left her bag and dragged it behind her by the strap with her free hand before scaling the stairs to her bedroom. As she passed the doorway she tossed her book bag onto the floor beside her bed and set her mug on the night stand. She pulled the cord on the lamp on the same table and switched on the light, dimly illuminating her bedroom. With her hands on her hips, she tried to decide how to spend the rest of her evening before going to sleep and glancing around the room while doing so, as if she might see something to remind her of a task or chore that needed to be done. With little inspiration, she picked up the cup and took a cautious sip of her tea, savoring its warmth and reveling in its soothing flavor. She sighed contently before setting it back down again and turning around towards the bathroom in the hallway.
Before she could reach the switch on the wall, Mari crossed her arms in front of her and pulled her hoodie over her head and laid it in the hamper she kept by the door. Using her toes, she held her shoes down at the heel so she could slip out of them without having to untie them. She left them neatly beside the hamper as she usually did. Her hands felt the wall for the light switch and flicked it on with a loud click. She passed the mirror without a glance and headed straight for the tub, leaning over to set the plug in the drain and turn the water on. A nice hot bath and a little light reading before bed would suit her just fine, she had decided. As she stood back up she openly yawned and shivered at the same time. She rubbed her arms for a moment and realized her skin was rather cold and it felt as if a chill had run through her little house. Turning to leave the bathroom and let the water run, she headed for the thermostat in the hallway to adjust the temperature to something cozy.
As she passed the doorway to her room she sharply stopped. Out of the corner of her eye she thought she had seen the window open and the curtain blowing as well. Though admittedly forgetful there was no way she would have opened it, let alone left it open on a cold winter day. All the feelings she had just put aside rushed suddenly back and fear consumed her as she sensed something was wrong. The stairs leading down and out were in front of her bedroom door and there would be no way she could escape a second look even if she wanted to run. Just to quell her fears and convince herself she was being silly, she took a few quick steps backwards to take a look. There, half in and half out of her window stood a menacing looking man, and Mari suppressed a scream, if only for a moment.
Her lungs filled sharply with air as she very nearly shrieked in terror but before she could make a sound, he spoke.
“Do not be afraid.”
She wanted to turn and run but her feet were glued to the floor. There was something oddly soothing in the tone of his voice, something utterly betraying to the feeling that came from him and the threatening look on his face. Every hair on her body stood on end and the air seemed slightly electrified with his presence. Somehow her eyes were deceived as he looked much taller than he could have been and it was almost as if she could see the ominous air about him, like a dark fog swirling with the light breeze that enveloped him. The wind picked up the corner of his long jacket and the smell of burnt fabric and debris came into her senses. With it came a sudden moment of clarity as everything made sense without any explanation from him at all, and yet it came.
“Do not be afraid,” he said once more. He took the step down to the floor and stood erect, and if Mari hadn’t been studying him so carefully she may not have noticed that something in him softened a little. Her fear began to subside but her heart still raced madly. Something in his eyes seemed to flicker almost like a smile, and he continued with his mission.
“I have watched you for some time now, and I do not mean you any harm. You must pay more attention to what you do Marisabelle.”
Her eyes widened as her name was called and the fear returned for just a moment. She wanted to be bold, to stand her ground and demand who he was and why he was in her house, but she couldn’t force her lips to move. She could only stare at him, like she was a prisoner in a dream, meant only to hear the message and not question it before waking.
“I know much about you,” he explained, remaining uncannily still and seeming to focus all his intent and focus on her alone, drawing her in like a moth to flame. “In fact I know why.”
“Why?” she suddenly asked without realizing.
“Yes. I know why you are the way you are – the daydreamer, the solitary one, ever so content with whatever life gives you, even when life is cruel.”
She felt tears well up in her eyes though she wasn’t entirely sure why. It felt as if he were speaking to her soul, as if his words alone caught and intrigued her. Without specifics she knew he was referencing her family. She had never mourned the parents she never knew but she suddenly felt their loss, through him. There was a loneliness she didn’t remember feeling before and the longing to belong; so many thoughts and emotions that had perhaps been repressed that she now sharply felt with him there. He was silent as she began to tremble, allowing her time to let what he was saying soak in.
“Your teacher is right though, you don’t have any passion, but that can change.” His eyes left her for a moment, sweeping the ground as his words were carefully chosen. “Everyone needs a reason for living. Do you know yours?” he asked without really meaning for her to answer. “I cannot choose which path you must take, nor can I instruct you on which is the best way, but I can tell you who, and what you are. The rest is up to you.”
He moved then to the pocket on his breast and removed a folded piece of paper with writing on it and tossed it gently so it would land on her nightstand. “This is where you can find me. Come and I’ll give you the answers you’re searching for.”
Mari went to speak, to stop him and probe him for the answers she wanted now, but as soon as she opened her mouth she felt the cool sensation of water against her bare feet. She suddenly remembered leaving the bath tub to fill up with water and turned to see the water rushing over the edges like a waterfall onto the bathroom floor. As she turned back to the strange man in her window, she found that he was gone but the window remained open. The softest breeze lifted and played with the curtains but there was not so much of a trace of him left.
Mari was just on the verge of waking, dozing between forgetfulness and consciousness. She drew the blanket around her closer to her shoulders and lifted herself to turn in her confined space. As she did so her foot tossed aside a pillow from her couch and landed beside the flashlight that had sat on the floor all night, keeping silent watch lest any strangers enter once more. The sound of it falling caused her eyes to open and for a moment she thought someone was there once more. With a relieved sigh, she let her hand fall over the side of her temporary bed and hang in the air for a moment before forcing herself to sit up. As she became more aware of herself, the events of the night before came rushing back to her. Fear had caused her to abandon her room and sleep on her little couch downstairs, taking with her only the flashlight, though for what purpose she was now unsure.
Such strange dreams; she didn’t often dream, and when she did it was most often the things she did most in her daily life – attending class, studying, or walking somewhere, fleeting images of normal things. These were different, though she could not recall any details of them now. Everything had left the moment she opened her eyes, but there was a lingering sensation of fear and revelation, of doom, or recognition… it all seemed so blurred. No use, they were only dreams after all.
Her mind turned back to the night before. Had it been a dream as well? Nothing seemed to make sense now that she thought about it. This person she thought she saw in her window, how mysterious and extraordinary he seemed, but how and why would this have happened? What if he were still there, lurking in the shadows, or more likely a closet? A burglar, or stalker perhaps, someone with ill intent… But why would he have said such things?
“I know why,” he said, as she thought to herself. Strange thing for a thief to say. It couldn’t have been real, but there was only one way to settle this. She had to go upstairs.
As she stood she wrapped the blanket around her tightly, as if somehow it would shield her from any potential harm, though it gave her some comfort. Slowly walking from the living room to the place in front of the stairs, she paused a moment to look around and then up, almost expecting to see someone standing there waiting for her. The feeling was ominous, as if she were going to her doom and she was terrified of what she might find. But what could possibly be so bad, aside from finding some maniac hiding in her bedroom? Evidence that this man was there, that he was real, that some crime had been committed? Or finding out that it was a dream. Still, her heart beat louder as she inched towards the stairs. The house was silent in the early hours of the day – nothing to be heard save her soft footsteps on the wooden stairs. They creaked gently, showing their age, and she feared making her presence known, though she chided herself for it. No one would be there. Who would wait all night just to attack in the morning? Each step made the door to her room just a little more visible and with each step her heart beat louder, expecting to see some trace of someone there, but as she reached the top step, her window was empty and it seemed as if the house were too.
A weight was lifted from her shoulders at the sight, but the fear remained. She must be thorough and check, not only every crevice for the possibility someone was in fact hiding there, but that there was any trace that the events had been real. She swiftly pulled aside her door to find no one behind it, and did the same with her closet only to rifle through her clothes to find nothing. She even carefully checked underneath her bed to find only a pair of shoes and a few dust bunnies. Her room was safe.
She then turned to examine the hall. There was only one other door to check, though it seemed impossible to hide inside a small cabinet she would check anyway, and of course found nothing but towels and sheets. The bathroom was the last thing to check at the top floor and when the door was opened and the shower curtain pulled aside only to reveal empty spaces, she breathed a sigh of relief. There was no sign of any theft or destruction that would be associated with a home invasion and she felt a little safer knowing this. Yet there was something more fearful in not being able to explain what she saw. A dream, it really must have been a dream. She had very nearly made up her mind when she noticed the soaking wet towels piled high in her hamper.
The tub had over flown. She sharply remembered frantically mopping up the water while watching behind her, her hands shaking so fiercely she could hardly wring out the water from the towels. There was no doubt now, this had certainly happened, though it didn’t make any sense. She returned to her bedroom and turned her attention to the window in which he appeared. There was no sign that a person had stood there – no footprints, no dirt, nothing. Yet she could almost smell him, as if a lingering scent had found her just for a moment to prove that he had been there. She pulled the curtain aside and looked out to see the space was empty, and well should have been. There was nothing outside her window, no ledge, no balcony or anything to have climbed up. How could he have made it up and down with her knowing? He had left as if he had wings or became invisible. In the blink of an eye, the turn of her head, he was gone and there was no way it was possible. Turning her back to the window, something caught her eye and she remembered her nightstand. He had left a paper there and she had dared not look at it until now, fearful of what it might say, though it sounded silly now. She reached for it and gingerly unfolded it, treating it like some delicate artifact. On it was written an address, nothing more. She tried to think of where it might be in respect to her house but was unable to recall the street name, let alone the number.
426 Trinity Place
Folding it up, she tossed it back on her nightstand and ran her hands through her hair, breathing deeply for a moment to clear her mind. This was all a little too much for her to handle and she needed to find a way to escape.
She suddenly realized that amid this whole incident she had forgotten one very important thing; the one thing no one would have forgotten after such a traumatic experience – she didn’t even think to call the police. Strange things had been happening, around her, hadn’t they said if anything else were to happen, anything she could remember or say, that she was to notify them? This was definitely the time to call, but something held her back. She had already been under such scrutiny since she was small over her social awkwardness and “potential psychological disorders” that informing police there had been a man in her window that mysteriously disappeared, that made no threat, caused no harm, might somehow be linked to her unexplainable “accident” from several weeks prior seemed like a bad idea. The last thing she needed was to be institutionalized through no fault of her own. Even if they could find this man at this address, he could deny the whole thing and she would still seem insane. After all, what proof was there? She would try to figure out an explanation for things later when her mind was clearer and decide then if she should call.
Now, what she really needed was a distraction. She would search the rest of her little house, just to be sure, and then she would turn to her favorite activity. It was early, there were no classes, that day, and she had a paper to write. Not just any paper, she reminded herself, I need to do this one right. The best thing would be to put all this nonsense aside and dive into research. Perhaps she would even check out this special place her teacher so kindly gave her access to. It would be a nice retreat from her troubles and she could let herself become excited by the exploration of somewhere new and unique. It was perfect and she even smiled at the thought of it. She got started getting ready right away, hoping they would open early.
It was barely dawn outside and the noise from the street became noticeable – the swift sound of tires, squeaky brakes, the sound of the city. It was a music she was all too used to, and yet she found it soothing. Life was beginning, a new day began again, and with it a new world of possibilities. Now that she had a purpose to the day, she quickly readied herself, excited about this new opportunity.
Light switches clicked on, blinds were raised, and she shuffled about the bottom floor preparing her book bag with notebooks, plenty of pencils and some of her books she may need as a reference. In the kitchen she placed two slices of bread in the toaster and pressed down the lever, then turned to make her way up the stairs. Without much thought, she reached into her closet to take out a few items of clothing and was changed in a matter of moments. In the bathroom, her hair was brushed and left as it was. She didn’t much care for checking herself out in mirrors and was only briefly used to make sure nothing was too out of place. She may not have fussed over her appearance but she didn’t want to look a fool either. After only a moment, she was back downstairs to nibble at the toast which was now ready. Coffee would have been nice, and she struggled over whether to make some. Ultimately, she was too eager to leave her house and clear her mind.
As her last bite was finished, she rifled through her book bag to find the brochure she had been given. She looked at the cover thoughtfully, an image of the palatial building, and couldn’t help but be impressed with its beauty. Her heart was now fluttering with excitement and she quickly opened the paper to find a simple map with general directions inside. There was an icon for her school and several other notable buildings she recognized and realized she had probably passed it before. It was only about a mile from her house, or so she estimated, and she felt confident enough she could find it. With a sigh and a smile, she stuffed it back in her bag and went for the door. She grabbed her keys and closed the door behind her, only to forget to lock it, and skipped down the stairs.
Mari was grateful something inside her told her to wear a hoodie, as it had begun to rain. It was a light early spring rain and refreshing, but her long walk would have had her sick for sure had she not worn it. The weather had dramatically improved in the last week and it seemed the cold spell was losing its hold. The sun had just risen but its light was filtered through thick fog, giving everything a warm glow. She had already been walking for some time when she realized she was daydreaming again and stopped to see where she was. Fortunately she had stayed on track and quickly recognized where she was and how much further she had to go. A turn here, a turn further ahead, and she would be nearly there.
She stopped at a corner, waiting for the opportune time to cross the street. The fog made the headlights on the cars nearly useless and it was difficult to gauge distance and speed. After several minutes of debate and between cars passing swiftly by, she decided to run. Nothing like a little exercise in the morning, big city style.
This was her favorite time of the day – early morning. There was something quite unique about a city waking up and starting their day. She had always lived in heavily populated areas, though a city this size was new in her life. It was a thrill, though it posed its own risks to her, and she rather enjoyed it. There were times she even woke especially early just to sit on her stoop and watch everything come to life. Silence was no such thing here, though she learned to hear it in the quiet moments. The city had a way of always buzzing and humming, but those early hours, just before the first peaks of sunlight inched over the high rises and horizon, were magical. Slowly, surely, the traffic picked up, noises grew louder or started, and people began to emerge from their doors and alley ways. Jackhammers began to pound, beeping of trucks and blasts of horns sounded here and there, and of course there was the never ending sound of tires passing by. Lights were turning on, and stores were opening for business, their workers buzzing along to get ready for the day. It was all predictable and almost choreographed, like an opera, to those who knew how to look at it. Little by little the sidewalks became busier and more people were walking beside or across from her. Before she knew it, the city was awake, and the curtain fell on the play of morning.
Another street to cross, but this time there was a crosswalk and many others waiting as well. She instinctively moved when the others did, the blinking “Walk” sign herding the sheep onward. It shouldn’t be much further now, and she would surely recognize the building when she saw it. Such an architectural marvel would be hard to miss in a city such as this. It was on old city and had been around since early settlements many hundreds of years ago, and had always been important. Most of the old world was hard to see as the modern one had swallowed it up years ago. Surely, this place was part of that old world and it was miraculous that it had survived. A tall brick wall had risen beside her and she dreamily let her fingertips graze the stone, as if feeling it would somehow bring her in touch with the old city. She knew her history exceptionally well, and especially that of the locale and she allowed herself to dream of what the streets must have looked like. She was always most interested in the people though – their lives and what it was like for them. It was easy to imagine their morning started much the same way as it did in modern times, and she could almost hear the hooves of horses clapping along on cobblestone streets instead of tires whizzing by. The brick suddenly dropped short of her fingers and this brought her back to reality. Now iron gate-work rose up beside her, the brick only about knee high. She stopped and grasped the cold metal bars and looked curiously past them. There was the beginning of a lush garden inside and it was hard to see much else. Bits of green were popping up here and there as the frost had subsided and buds were forming once more on the trees and bushes. Such greenery was a rare sight and it made her smile. She continued on, curious to see what else there might be.
Every few steps she turned to look, hopeful to see something more substantial to satiate her curiosity. Hedges and trees blocked most of the view, though she could see windows once in a while. Ahead there seemed to be more of a clearing and her pace quickened to reach it. There was just enough space to see some of the building it shielded when she suddenly realized that she must have reached her destination. What she saw through the gate was lovelier than the photo. She wondered where the entrance was and followed the gate further until she could see it further ahead, and just in time. The rain, which had all but stopped at a drizzle, suddenly started again. The gate stopped at a large ornate door made from the same iron. It was old, but the electronic lock on it was a modern addition. She wondered how heavy it must be and marveled for a moment at its intricacy and design. It was something one would expect to accompany a marvelous estate from a far away land where the world was much older, yet here it stood. She pressed against it, carefully, just to see if it would open for her, but it didn’t budge an inch. The gate stood at a driveway that curved to the front of the building, and there was no mistake that she had the right place. To her left there was a small bronze sign that read, “The Historical Society of Mankind - #426”. Under it was a call box and an envelope deposit box. There was a moment of hesitation, but it seemed her only option, so she nervously pressed the button.
A buzz sounded and stopped when she lifted her finger, and she waited. A moment passed and nothing happened. She turned and looked around her, feeling a little like a fool, and waited a moment more. Her heart was beating in her chest and she feared for a moment that she would have to return home. Determined, she pressed the button once more and a little longer and waited.
Moments passed again, when a voice came from the other side.
“How can I help you?”
Mari nearly jumped. “I’m a student from St. Westwood, I have an invitation to study.”
“Ma’am, we don’t open for another two hours,” said the voice on the other side. Mari sighed, a little disheartened. She was about to thank the woman when she was interrupted.
“What’s your name, please?”
“Marisabelle Cota,” she said hopefully.
“Oh…” the woman said quickly, then more silence. Mari became a little more nervous. She didn’t know whether to stand and wait, or to come back later. It was very early, after all. She hadn’t thought about the inconvenience of coming so soon and hated to think they might open early just for her. There were plenty of cafes nearby, she could just as easily study while she waited. Then the silence broke.
“Please, come in,” the woman said as the gate unlocked and opened for her.
Walking up the drive made Mari feel she was in a different world. The fog was just beginning to lift and the rain fell lightly on her. There was something magical in the way the light posts that lined the drive shone through the mist. They were of black iron as well with four bulbs at the top, each with a light inside. The dim lights guided her along the winding drive, closer with each step to the building, which was slowly coming into view. Then, like a veil had been lifted, it stood before her. It was a few stories high with the first significantly higher than the rest. There seemed to be more glass than stone as there were tall multi-planed windows every few feet. The building was neither square nor completely symmetrical, with quadrilateral offset structures jutting out here and there and between each significant structure and window was an ornate pillar. It was a spectacular sight, and in the misty pale light it made the building seem as if it were made of crystal with each bit of glass shimmering in the dawn. It was peaceful and there was something incredibly safe and comforting in its sight alone. She stepped slowly up the stairs, taking the sight in before gently pushing open the glass framed doors.
It was just as brilliant inside as it was out. She found herself in a large open foyer with a soaring ceiling painted with bright frescos. There were crystal lamps and wall sconces lining every wall and filling the room with such brightness and warmth. The whole place seemed to be shimmering. Her feet softly padded the glittering marble floors as she walked further towards a reception desk in the middle. Mari couldn’t help but grin as she reached the desk and greeted the woman she must have spoken with outside.
“It’s so beautiful,” was all she managed to say as she took another look around. The woman was smiling as well and staring at her as she marveled a little more. She seemed just as fascinated, though not with the building.
Mari suddenly remembered herself. “Oh,” she said as she removed her book bag from her back and opened it to find her invitation. At this time a man in a fine suit made his way over to the desk.
“There’s no need for that,” the woman said with a kind smile and folded her hands in front of her. She looked to the well dressed man and he cleared his throat.
Mari stopped and looked at the two before sealing her bag once more and shouldering it. She was amazed at their kindness and service, for being so early. Surely no one else was there at that hour.
“It is a pleasure, Miss Cota. My name is Mr. Williams and this is Mrs. Litcott.”
“How do you do?” Mari said, using her best manners, and ever more impressed.
“If you would please follow me,” Mr. Williams said with a gesture towards the right. Mari pushed her backpack further behind her so as not to get the way and made her way to the other side of the desk and waited for him to lead. There was a dark wooden door just on the other side of the room, and they made their way to it. “We’d been expecting you,” he said with a smile, and Mari thought she sensed the slightest bit of glee. She wondered how many students they received and perhaps she’d been given a greater honor than she had imagined. The door, as they approached, had a lovely plaque that read “Director” in script. She was felt she was beginning to blush as they were making her feel far more important than she was in her mind. The man opened the door and gestured for her to continue.
“In here please,” he said with another smile and a slightly bow.
She thanked him and took a few steps inside. When the door closed behind her, leaving her alone inside the rather large office of the director, she became a little nervous. This was apparently a very important man and here she was in very plain cloths and rather damp at that. She was a little embarrassed at the attention they were showing her, but her mind was quickly distracted at the items in the room.
There was no one there, just an empty desk, so she thought she would quickly look around while she waited. It was a large office and much darker than the brightly lit room before. Each wall was spaced evenly with floor to ceiling book cases made of a rich dark wood. From halfway down were ornate doors with brass knobs, and Mari wondered what might be stored inside. Nearly every shelf was full of books, all of them well aged. Walking over to one side, she leaned in closer and browsed through the titles and each seemed very scholarly, very typical books for an office in such a place, she thought. Standing straight again, she looked around briefly, wondering if it might be rude should she be caught looking through everything and whether she should sit and wait. She walked back to the center of the room and adjusted the weight of her bag on her shoulders, trying to wait patiently. As she continued to look around the room, more things caught her eyes.
Between the book shelves were open walls with darkly patterned wall paper and on each of these walls were portraits; paintings to be exact, and old. Three were of men, and two of women, each very formally posed and dressed, and each from different eras. She couldn’t help but be drawn to them, as there was a quality she had never seen before in paintings. They all seemed to have been painted in oil and in a style appropriate for their time periods, and yet they seemed almost modern in a way. It was their faces that didn’t seem to match, yet she couldn’t put her finger on why exactly. She approached a painting of a regal lady in Edwardian attire and lost herself for a moment in the detail. The painter was a master, surely, as each bit of lace had it own light, and the sparse jewelry that she wore seemed to be real and merely placed upon the canvas. She admired the woman’s face. Whoever it was, she was lovely and had the warmest smile. Yet there was something about her eyes that stood out. Mari stood on her tip toes to see it better. They were bright and alive, and a strange hue of green, but what surprised her more is that her pupils seemed almost star shaped. She blinked a few times and looked again. Yes, her pupils were not entirely round, but was this a mistake, and artistic interpretation? Perhaps the woman was simply born that way. Mari had seen medical cases of people born with different color eyes or with strange colors, but this was new.
Curiosity took her to another painting, this time of a man. He was dressed just as nicely, placed with a landscape of some sort in the background of the painting, though his era was more Jacobean. There was the same attention to detail as the one before, in fact certain things made it seem as if it had been done by the same artist, but of course that was impossible. It was more likely there was a master painter in an early period of the renaissance and some devoted following kept his teachings and passed them through the ages while still utilizing more contemporary styles. She knew of other painters and their devotees who had done the same. But when she looked at this man’s eyes, she saw the same slightly star shaped pupils. His portrait was much closer than the woman’s and she was able to see it more clearly now and she could tell it had intentionally been done. They must have been distant relatives with some genetic defect causing their eyes to be such a way. As much as her conclusion made sense, some doubt lingered in the back of her mind, though she shrugged it away.
Mari returned back to the center of the room and waited once more. She looked around for a clock found one on a shelf nearby. It had been nearly fifteen minutes since she’d entered the room, and wondered when the director might come. There was still the nagging fear that she had come at such an inconvenient time and hated to think of how discourteously she decided to arrive. The thought was causing her to become anxious. Perhaps if she could continue to entertain herself the time would pass more quickly and perhaps it wouldn’t be as rude as she imagined. She let her book bag slide off her shoulder and caught the strap before it touched the ground before taking a few steps forward and placing it gently next to one of the leather chairs in front of the desk. She was surprised to see it relatively clear of paper or junk, almost as if it were rarely used.
As she looked around once more, she found that several of the shelves had antiques displayed, some in glass cases, and some simply placed for viewing. She started with the one closest to her and had to bend to see it well. It was encased with glass and she could tell that it was very old. Inside the case was a squat clay bowl with intricate patterns drawn on the outside. They were geometric shapes and lines, carefully placed to make a richly ornate but simple design. The edges were little chipped here and there, but altogether it was a very whole piece. Judging by the patterns and style of pottery, Mari searched her knowledge bank of art history to imagine its age, and she roughly guessed that it was Egyptian or even Mesopotamian several centuries or even millennia before the Common Era. It was stunning and Mari couldn’t help but smile a little. She moved on to the next in the bookshelf beside her and found a large early camera. There was no case around this and it simply sat on the shelf with part of the bellows exposed so as to show its entire shape. It was made of rosewood with brass parts and embellishments. It seemed as if it were in perfect condition, almost like it had never been used. The leather even seemed conditioned and soft. She was particularly intrigued and couldn’t help but let her fingers caress the smooth wood. The dials on the lens turned with ease and she found herself dreaming of the people who must have sat to have their picture made. Who loved and cared for this as much as they did? It was a captivating thought. She gently lifted and turned the camera around a little more, wondering where the viewfinder was and what it was like to take a picture with such a device. Would it still work? She turned it all the way around to see the back and found that there was a glass panel, not a viewfinder, and her curiosity piqued once more. Leaning closer to see if she could see anything through the glass and through the lens, she was disappointed to find it wouldn’t be as simple to figure out as she would have liked. She shivered suddenly as the air suddenly changed and grew colder.
“I didn’t expect you so soon,” a soft voice said out of the stillness.
Mari jumped and turned to see a man behind the previously empty desk. He was finely dressed and standing still and patient though there was a very cross expression on his face that instantly made her feel embarrassed and even fearful. She began to shake a little and carefully placed the camera back into its spot and put her hands together.
“I’m very sorry, I didn’t mean to intrude so,” she stuttered and blushed heavily, fearful of what he might say. She knew it would be rude of her to look through his things, and yet she couldn’t help herself, he had such an intriguing collection. Her curiosity may have cost her her privileges and her mind began to race with what would happen if she would be denied such an honor so shortly after it had been given to her and what might become of her paper she was to write. His expression hadn’t changed and he seemed so thoroughly angered, his eyes all but shielded from his furrowed brow. Her heart was racing as she waited what seemed like hours for him to speak. She felt she wasn’t sorry enough, so she apologized again.
“I shouldn’t have been so nosey, I’m very sorry.”
“The items in here are put on display so that I and others may enjoy them. You’ve done more flattery than harm.”
His statement took her back. His voice calmed her fears, but still his face had not changed. It was a startling contradiction that was hard to believe. She nearly felt he was mocking her or toying with her, but there was no sense of mischief in his voice. Amazingly, she felt much more peaceful inside though his presence seemed to bring a weighty feeling to the room. She awkwardly put her hands at her side and walked to the center of the room once more and beside the chair she left her bag beside.
“I’m Marisabelle Cota,” she said, finding it hard to look into his eyes. She couldn’t wrap her mind around the feeling she got from him and it caused her to be very nervous. He seemed both sinister and comforting at the same time, off-putting and inviting, enraged and content. She was wary of him, though she felt no need for it. He stood and observed her, as if he didn’t know why she was there and was waiting for her to explain herself. The silence, however brief, only made her more anxious, so she stooped down to her bag and rummaged through it quickly to find her invitation. His gaze on her was impenetrable, even as she approached his desk he didn’t blink and Mari felt like a little girl about to get in trouble. The air became thicker the closer she got and she wondered if she were making it up or if he indeed had some sort of presence. Their eyes met as she handed him the papers, and something within her was struck.
He was not a stranger to her, or not a complete one anyway. She suddenly remembered him. All of the emotions from the night before came flooding back to her and she became afraid. She took a step back from him and her eyes were as wide as dinner plates. It was him; it was the man in her window last night. Though he looked far less intimidating now, and yet even more so. He was ragged and even a little dirty then, dark and menacing. Now he seemed a proper gentleman with his hair combed back, and in a fine suit minus the jacket. She didn’t know whether to be terrified or curious and found that all she could do was stare. And he smiled.
“I see fate has brought you to us whether you knew it or not,” he said after glancing at her papers.
“You, are the director of this place?” Mari asked after a moment, still trying to piece things together in her mind.
“The note you left me – this is where you wanted me to come?”
Her mind raced. This couldn’t be happening, such a strange coincidence. Or was it completely so? He had never introduced himself, never stated his intentions or purpose, and for all she knew he could be a serial killer getting to better know his prey. This had to be some sort of sick joke. But what could he want with her? She feared what he might say, but felt she was in too deep as it was and regardless of what the outcome might be, she wanted to know. Yet his calm demeanor and gentle voice kept her from sheer panic.
“Who are you and what do you want with me?” asked at last.
“My name is Relic, and you are safe. The rest is a long story.”
Instantly, she believed him, and there was a sense of calm that washed over her in that moment. There was no reason, and yet she accepted his words without question. Her body began to loosen up and her heart stopped racing. As her mind began to clear she remembered something he said just moments ago.
“You said ‘us’. Who do you mean?”
His stoic eyes lowered for a moment in thought, trying to find the right words. There was great care put into what he told her, and she was keen to notice this. “We are an organization beyond that what you see.” His eyes met hers again, watching her reactions carefully and gauging his next moves based upon them. “This place, this building is a façade.”
Mari’s heart sank a little. What was she getting herself in to? The atmosphere and the architecture were so warm and inviting that it was hard to imagine any secret lay behind the beautiful walls. Her mind raced with possibilities, trying to piece together the puzzle of this place, of him. Could it be a crime organization? Images of mobsters and dirty money seemed obscene but plausible nonetheless. Perhaps some religious order made of zealots bent on world domination? Again, the thought seemed silly and she gave in to temptation once more.
“A façade for what?” she asked cautiously.
“Greater things,” he responded simply and with the faintest of smiles. There was pride in his expression, though one almost had to feel it in order to see it. He felt the need to put her at ease, as if he could feel her heart beat faster when she was fearful. She was obviously not content with is response and he knew he owed her more of an explanation, so he continued once again with caution. “Mankind is not yet ready to relearn what it has forgotten, but we have the clues here – the truth, for those ready to see it.” He laid his fingertips gently on the desk almost as if he needed to feel a connection between himself and the building and everything in it. This was his world.
But Mari was more confused than ever, and it showed. She wanted to push, wanted to get a clear answer out of him, and yet she found it hard to get past his aura. There was something so surreal between him and the surroundings that she found it difficult to concentrate. She felt calm and at ease and yet there was the nagging feeling of questions without answers. She fought the urge to simply accept everything he said and go on with whatever. What did she even come there for? It was becoming hard to think straight.
And then she snapped out of it. She was suddenly aware of where she was again, could feel her book bag at her feet, and remembered the dampness of the rain on her hoodie. It felt like being pulled out of a dream. He also seemed to recover slightly as he stood a little straighter.
“We must not start there,” he said as he remembered his manners, “Please, have a seat.” He extended his hand towards the chair beside her and waited for her to set her bag down and sit before taking his own chair from behind the desk and sitting. She felt awkward in such a fine chair and wearing her most modest clothing and she felt very out of place. He seemed to fit so perfectly in to his surroundings, like they were one and the same. Oddly enough, he seemed much taller than he had a moment again when she was closer. It was almost as if his presence had grown. Relic, she thought suspiciously, putting the image of him and his name permanently in her mind. Like everything else with him, it fit.
As more of her reverie broke, she suddenly remembered the questions she wanted answers to, and she sensed that he was ready to answer them now. There was still the slightest hesitance from her, as if she wasn’t sure whether she was ready for the answers. Her fear of him seemed to have passed and she felt she could trust what he said. She breathed deeply for a moment.
“Why were you in my house?” she asked firmly, placing both her hands on the armrest of the chair as if it would give her strength. There was no anger, though perhaps there should have been. She felt more like a reporter getting an interview than an innocent girl interrogating her intruder.
“To give you an opportunity… to learn, if you are ready,” he said evenly, reminiscent of something he said earlier.
“I came here to learn, to study for an assignment in one of my classes.”
“Fate had a part in that,” he said as he laid his hands neatly on his desk in front of him, “as I said.” He nearly smiled again. “Mr. Williams, the man you met earlier, is in charge of students and visitors. He knew to be expecting you, though apparently had not remembered you had been previously invited through your school. It is not the opportunity I had intended when I visited your home.”
“So it was to learn about myself? That’s what you said… ‘Why I am the way I am’.”
His eyes lowered again as he thought carefully on what to say. He was leading her in a direction toward the truth, but every word, every thought in her mind was gently placed. There was silence for several moments and he sat completely still. His face looked almost like stone to Mari. The light from the tall windows was nearly all there was in the room and it cast a soft hue on his sharp yet equally rounded features. His skin seemed pale and had a grey tone at times, such that he looked to have been carved in place. Then he would move, even slightly, and the appearance would change and he came to life once more. She was finding this intriguing and almost made a game of watching for it to happen.
His eyes fell on her as he came alive from his position. “You’re different Mari, you’ve always known this.”
Something took her back a moment as he used her nickname, as if he had known her for a very long time. She was taken off guard and now felt a little defensive. “Yes,” she started slowly, “I’ve been diagnosed with a dozen different social, emotional, and mental disorders since I was a child.” She hung her head a little, feeling a sadness she hadn’t felt in a while. “Everything from autism to severe depression.”
“What do you think?”
She looked up sharply as he spoke. In all her life she couldn’t think of time when someone had cared to ask what her opinion was. There were so many times that she tried to diagnose herself or come up with an alternative solution, but she had never found anything that fit. In fact, it was most likely the reason she was studying psychology, with the hope of finding an answer. Her head lowered again and she nervously pushed aside a strand of hair from her face before admitting, “I don’t know what to think.”
Relic was silent for another moment. He could feel how much distress the topic caused her and imagined how much pain she must feel. To have gone through life thinking there was something wrong with you, to imagine that someone thought there must be a cure to fix you, and then to feel within your heart that it was true – it was something that upset him deeply. She was not alone in her struggle, if she only knew.
“Do you believe in good and evil?” he asked out of the blue.
“Yes, of course,” she said slowly, having been caught off guard again.
“And what if I told you that there are those who are genetically inclined to be wholly good or wholly evil?” He watched her carefully now, studying every slight movement and reaction.
Mari furrowed her brow in thought. It seemed more like a theological question, a subject she was not altogether familiar with. It was obvious there are good, decent people in the world, and it was even more obvious that there were even more evil ones. But as to whether they were born that way with no effect of outside influences, good or evil, seemed debatable. She was also no student of medicine and had no idea if a “good” or “bad” gene had ever been found, though she doubted it. So what was she to think?
“I’ve never come across anything in my studies to suggest it, though I’m sure there are those who would agree.”
She continued to think for a moment, wanting to decide what position she tended to lean towards, but as usual she was unable to have an opinion for herself. Either way seemed equally logical and there was nothing to back it up. It was unfair to choose a side, in her mind.
“I suppose anything is possible,” she replied, trying to keep an open mind. She never was one to argue, especially when in unfamiliar territory.
Folding his hands, Relic gathered his thoughts and leaned forward. “And what if I told you that you were one of those born wholly good?”
Mari blushed heavily at such a suggestion and even made a short awkward laugh. Surely he wasn’t serious. “I don’t think that’s possible, no one is perfect,” she reasoned, and especially me.
“Perfection and purity are two entirely separate things. One can err and still be inherently good.”
It was sound reason, but still she couldn’t fathom it. Everyone makes mistakes, and she of all people seemed in constant error. Even something as innocent as disappointment from others could be bad, couldn’t it? One would have to debate what exactly was good and what exactly was evil, and it would eventually lead to splitting hairs. Philosophy was something she knew nothing about and had no mind for. Her mind was swimming now, trying desperately to find something to say in response, but she was left speechless.
“Think for a moment, reflect on your life,” he said with the slightest of passion. He was finally breaking through. “Have you ever felt anger?”
She wanted to say yes, just to have something to say against his theory, but after a thought, she could think of no time. Disappointed, sad, a sense of loss, loneliness, but it seemed she had never been angry. There had never been a time she had even noticed the lack of the emotion. All the times anyone else would have felt that way, she did not. After many moments and with an unsteady voice, she replied, “No.”
“Have you ever hated anyone or anything?”
This time the response came quicker. “No,” she said after only a moment. She had certainly never felt the need to hate, and took a general favorability with nearly everything. No one was beyond redemption, and nothing wasn’t worth a try, a thought, or some acknowledgment. This she was sure of.
“Have you ever lied, cheated or stole?”
“No, of course not!”
His constant stern expression seemed to soften slightly, almost as if he needed to console a child with the hard truth. “Even the most innocent child has felt or done these things before, and yet you never have. Not ever, and you never will.”
Mari couldn’t accept it. There had to be some flaw in her, something she could use against him, but the more she fought it, the less she could think. She knew she had done something wrong in her life, it couldn’t be true.
“But I have been punished before, as a child.”
“Was it for something bad you had done, or an innocent mistake?” he asked knowingly.
She went through each circumstance that she could remember through her mind. There was a time she had carelessly bumped into a table and broke a small porcelain statue. She told her foster parents about it right away and had been sent to her room. But it was just an innocent mistake. There was another time a child had blamed her for calling him a bad name, but of course she hadn’t done it. She was young and her foster parents had just received her in their home and didn’t know her nature yet, so they were both punished lightly as a precaution. Another mistake. There were only a couple of other times she’d received anything other than praise her whole life. It was clear she could find no contradiction to his statement of her.
The truth was that she didn’t feel like a particularly good person. She didn’t donate money to charities, or spend her time helping her community; she was no philanthropist, and that’s what truly good honest people do. She was just an ordinary girl trying to find her way in the world, nothing special. Her hands folded gently in her lap, feeling a little defeated and strange.
“This is what sets you apart, what others cannot understand of you. Most people, though good at heart, feel all the emotions that you never will, and they cannot fathom a person who does not. So they analyze and diagnose and try to make sense of what they deem impossible. It is what makes you so much different than everyone else,” he said with a soothing voice, though his tone would change to continue, “and what makes you prey.”
His words sent a chill down her spine and her heart felt like it turned to ice. She felt such warning in his voice that the danger seemed eminent. “What do you mean?” she dared to ask with a stutter.
He took a deep breath before leaning back a little. “As there are those born of purity and are wholly good, there are those born of pure evil. They seek to extinguish the light that they hate and are envious of. They seek to extinguish you.” The fear was rising in her, but he had to continue; she must know the truth at last. “Those born in the dark love the darkness, and you are the light.”
It made no sense to her. Why should anyone go out of their way to fool with her? She felt so insignificant and lowly; most of the time she was merely a fly on the wall anyway, a simple observer on what people called “life”. So rarely did she ever get in anyone’s way and she certainly never caused trouble. Why would anyone want to harm her?
“But there’s nothing special about me, why me?” she said as tears were welling up in her eyes.
“Mari, that was no mere accident.”
In an instant she knew what he spoke of and she could feel herself turn pale. Finally a blunt answer, but she hadn’t prepared for it. Her jaw dropped and quivered, wanting to probe him for answers, but found she could not ask; but was too important for her not to hear the truth at last.
“You were caught up in a skirmish between our two sides, though you couldn’t have known it at the time. He was unaware of your presence until you were injured, and if things had gone a different way, you would not have survived.”
“But I saw no one, how is that possible?” she asked faintly.
“I cannot explain it to you yet, suffice to say that we are beings with abilities beyond your own.” Relic’s demeanor changed ever so noticeably to her in these moments. There was nearly a look of concern, possibly regret that washed over his stony features. There seemed to be a struggle going on in his mind, as he sat in silence. Mari’s mind was blank and found she couldn’t look away from him. Then he stirred. “You were not alone that night,” he said as his eyes met hers.
She suddenly was forced to go over the details of the event in her mind. There was the realization she was in the wrong neighborhood, the eerie feeling, empty buildings, an explosion, and… “It was you,” she said as she vaguely remembered a person entering her vision just before unconsciousness. Her heart skipped a beat and she didn’t know why.
“I have been watching you since that night, protecting you.”
A minute passed and Mari couldn’t look away from him. He seemed rather stoic now, as a soldier facing its commander. “Why?” was all she managed to squeak out.
“You are a rarity Mari. There are so few of you born into this world and they often do not live long enough to have children of their own. There are so many dangers in the world without having to worry about protecting yourself from these terrors. We are also beings of the light, though very different from you, and it is our duty to protect you at all costs to ourselves.”
Mari thought then she must have known what a very important person might feel in their lives - a member of a royal family, a key politician or famous actor perhaps. She didn’t feel worthy of their protection and still couldn’t fathom the need behind it. There seemed to be layers upon layers to this mystery and she felt like she might never find them all out. But something he said kept striking a chord within her.
“You keep saying ‘beings’…” she said with a questing look.
“Our kind has been known by many names throughout history, each of them relevant to the time or event. Our presence has been stamped on to the pages of the world since its beginning. One name, perhaps, rings truer in suggestion than above all others. You may best know us as ‘angels’,” he said with the greatest of care. He waited for her reaction and was not entirely surprised when there was none. Her eyes lowered from his and he could tell she was deep in thought. He would have left her there to think until she had digested what he said, but there was one more thing to add. “Whatever we are called, you must know,” he started before pausing, trying to put it delicately, “we are not human.”
“I don’t understand,” she said as she met his eyes again.
“I, and the rest like me, have never been human. Long ago, we were born out of the hearts, minds, and emotions of mankind. We were created to serve and protect in a time of chaos and fear. It is our purpose and continues until the end of time or until we are no more.”
He was serious, she could tell this. She didn’t know whether to take him literally or if there was some sort of hidden meaning behind it. After all, a goose is not a duck and yet they are both birds, or perhaps rather, a tree is not an animal, but they are both alive and living together in this world.
“You don’t look any different.”
“We took the forms given to us, though we can change our form at will. There are clues to our difference, if you notice them,” he said as his lips turned to the slightest of smiles.
Mari squinted her eyes in skepticism, as she hadn’t noticed anything except his exceptional presence, which could very well be his own and not that of his ‘kind’. She remembered something at the same time. Before he had arrived and while she was snooping around she had noticed the strange portraits – various figures with the same strange trait. She turned her head towards the paintings on the wall as if needing to remind herself that she had indeed seen them all with oddly shaped pupils. Almost fearful of the confirmation, she turned her attention back to Relic and while they were sitting at a distance, she could now see what she deemed to be the same trait. She hadn’t noticed before, or maybe she didn’t want to, but the difference was so subtle it was hard to catch. His smile grew a little wider as he knew now that she was aware of it and she had to catch her breath as she realized she had been holding it.
His claim seemed more plausible than ever, though she still held some doubts. What was an angel anyway? A higher being from God with wings and protected mankind from evil, or at least that is how most people would answer, so she thought. Protecting mankind is precisely what he claimed they did and if they were able to change their form as he said, why could they not appear with wings? Perhaps they could even fly; it all seemed possible now, if she were to believe any of this.
“So you’re my guardian angel?” she nearly said with a smile.
“Along with most of the names we have been known by, ‘angel’ is not a term we use for ourselves as it connotates a sense of religion, which we are not associated with.”
“Then what do I call you?”
“We call ourselves Apocrypha.”
Moments of silence passed between them. Mari tried to wrap her mind around everything she’d heard while Relic watched and waited for her to be ready to hear more. She could do very little reasoning any more as her mind grew tired of trying to connect the dots with things she already knew, was familiar with, and believed. She would never call anyone a liar, let alone say something was factually true or false, so there was nothing she could do but accept what he had to say for the time being. Deception had been thrown out the door, for she could see he wasn’t trying to manipulate her, but it was hard to swallow nonetheless. One concern still lingered.
“Am I human?” she said with difficulty. The words nearly stuck in her throat.
Mari sighed with relief, though afterward she was unsure of why it mattered so much to her. It was, perhaps, a way to distance herself from the difficult things she was hearing. He could say he wasn’t human all he liked, but she didn’t have to accept it in the end; having to accept that she wasn’t human was an entirely different matter, and she was glad to hear it wasn’t the case. She felt like laughing at herself for the relief. Of course she was human.
“So the ones you were fighting…”
Relic took a deep breath before answering, cautious as ever. “Just as we are not human, our enemies are not either. We are born of the light, and they the darkness. As we were created from the need of protectors and from the goodness in mankind, so these beings were born from the evil in their hearts. They are older, and evil is so much easier to nurture and create, than goodness. They are like us in every way, except opposite. They have their mark in history as well, and as we have been known as ‘angels’, they are most often known as ‘demons’.”
“Why would you need to protect me from them, what could they want with me?”
“Your presence in the world is a threat to their dominion. You are born without evil and under the aegis of our protection. Like you, and oppositely, there are humans in the world that are born with evil in their hearts and no place for goodness and they are under the demon’s protection. Our battle for the ultimate destruction of the other has raged since our creation at the dawn of time. The balance has shifted many times and as of late their numbers have increased. They excel by killing off your kind and creating more of their own, leaving more darkness in their wake. For who is to take your place if you are destroyed? Your purity is not something most people can achieve in their lives; you must be born with it. And if none are born, there is a void.”
The room seemed to grow eminently darker as he spoke, and she couldn’t tell whether it was her imagination. Mari was never more aghast with fear and horror. Killing for the sake of killing; to merely displace one person from existence in a numbers game? It seemed so gruesome and she couldn’t comprehend the purpose of it. She never felt more insignificant and important at the same time and it was overwhelming. To think that simply living, being, existing, was a threat to anyone was beyond her and tears began to well up in her eyes.
“What am I to do?” she said hopelessly.
“Help us,” he said in earnest.
A tear rolled down her cheek. She felt like a helpless child unable to understand what was being asked of her. “What could I possibly do?”
“More and less than you might think.” He leaned forward in his chair, wishing he could console her and ease her mind, but his words would have to do for now. His own heart broke a little at the sight of her. As many times as he’d enlightened those like her, it was always difficult for him, and them, but for some reason this girl, this human, had more of an affect on him.
“Mostly, we wish for you to live your life as you would like, and our protection, generally, allows for it. We wish for you to know the truth and know yourself and your place in the world, which is why you are here. It is the least we ask of those born of the light.”
“That’s not so bad,” Mari said as she wiped away the tears from her eyes. Already she was more at ease and less afraid. The darkness she sensed earlier had dissipated and the sun shone through the windows as it had earlier. Perhaps it was just the weight lifted off her shoulders that made it seem so.
“It’s all very reasonable,” he said reassuringly. He was pleased to see her relieved and felt he could continue. “We also offer employment here at the museum. In fact Mr. Williams and Mrs. Litcott are both humans born of the light and work here full time. They are all like family to us and we take as good of care of them as we can. We also offer sanctuary to those who desire it. This place is more than a museum, it is our home as well, and yours should you like it. We have living quarters below and you can be assured it is the safest place in the world to be.”
Mari felt more comfortable the more she heard from him. It eased her mind to know that she could escape the dangers the world now held for her if she wanted it. It also made her feel better to know there were others like her, in this very city, let alone the same building. It felt far less lonely than it had before.
Relic folded his hands on the desk before continuing with a more awkward proposal. “Long ago, we realized that those born of the light are often so different in nature to other humans that finding a suitable match became difficult, and they became unequally matched or went most of their lives before finding someone, if that. To aid this dilemma we attempted to match suitable mates for them and have been incredibly successful in this.”
“A dating service?”
“We do not like to think of it as such, but yes, essentially.” The matter was a little embarrassing to speak of, and if he could, he would have blushed at the topic. “It does of course help our cause as well, for if they have children, our numbers will increase. We even match ourselves sometimes.”
Mari’s eyebrow raised a little as she heard this. It was even becoming a little uncomfortable to her as well, and as much as she wanted to ask how it was possible, she felt that the fact that he told her this alone meant that it was and she would leave it at that.
“Our humans are beautiful to us, and we love them. Sometimes they love us back.”
Her heart skipped again as he looked at her and she nearly gasped at the feeling. It was a strange feeling, like it had momentarily stopped and jumpstarted again. Perhaps it was all the emotions she’d felt today that her body was a little overwhelmed. She’d wondered if he had ever fallen in love with a human, but she couldn’t bring herself to ask.
He cleared his throat and looked at his desk a moment as he prepared to continue. “We also have scientific studies that we ask for assistance with. Genetic research has come a long way and if we can find a way around the need for our numbers to multiply slowly and naturally as they have in the past, it would be in our best interest. There are career opportunities there as well, but mostly we ask for assistance in things such as blood samples. The more we know about ourselves the more prepared we can be. This is all purely voluntary; we will do nothing against your will.”
Her eyes followed his every word, the slight movements he made when he spoke. She could almost sense his unease at the subject. The last thing she ever wanted to feel like is a science project, and he must have known this. She did however feel like a patient hearing news from the doctor that she had an illness she would have to live and cope with the rest of her life. As his lips moved she could see the faintest of hint of a couple long almost fang like teeth that made him appear wolfish at times. It made his whole appearance that much more mystical and strange.
“And what if I want no part in this, do I have a choice?” she was afraid to ask, even more afraid to hear the answer. There was no true way to forget it all, to go back to the way she was before, this she knew.
His eyes lowered almost sadly and said, “As I said, nothing would be against your will. You would still have our protection, though you would never see or hear from us again, unless you desired to.”
Silence grew between them once again, and Mari’s eyes were fixed to the floor. It was a beautiful hardwood, something that seemed to have been picked out with great care and very well taken care of. She traced the patterns of the grain in the wood with her eyes, leading her no where in particular, and especially not to any conclusion in her mind. There was no divined wisdom in its timbers, no clear path laid out before her. A fork in the road has two ways and she was to choose one, but her mind was a blur and she could concentrate on little else but the ground.
“I don’t know that I believe any of this,” she said at last. Her voice seemed loud to her, and she didn’t know why. There was still so much she wanted to know, wanted to ask, but the questions blew like chaff in the wind when she reached for them. Everything she had thought of life, thought she knew about herself was different now and if all he said was true, nothing would be the same. She couldn’t leave without knowing or understanding all she could, but she was fearful all the same. Could she live with a new truth of the world? It was as if being told the sky was green when you always thought it was blue.
“You don’t have to,” he said as calmly as he could, trying to give her what peace he could. “We only offer the truth, we do not force it.”
Leaving the floor, her eyes went to him again and found that he had stood without her realizing it. He seemed as tall as ever as he stood beside his desk, his hands at his side. Their time was coming to an end, and while she welcomed the idea of fresh air, it was hard to bear the idea of leaving when there was so much to hear. He waited patiently for her, as ever, watching the curls of her hair fall around her shoulders when she moved. She was clearly in distress, but there was nothing he could do for her now. It was up to her, what her next move would be.
“We do wish to know,” he said after several minutes. “We offer you all the answers you could ever want and community to surround you, or we can leave you alone. It is your choice.” Mari sighed and dropped her eyes once more before he interrupted her thoughts. “You do not have to choose now. Take as much time as you need, a few weeks perhaps, then come and speak with us again. Our doors are always open to you, whenever you need us.”
“You’ll just let me go?” she asked as her brow furrowed.
“Of course,” Relic responded with obvious confusion. He wondered if he had taken quite enough care in speaking to her.
“It’s just it seems like you’ve told me all your secrets, or what seems like secrets. What if someone finds out?”
“You haven’t even decided if you believe me or not, the rest of the world surely wont,” he said with a small smile. “We…” he started and then corrected himself, “I trust you.”
“But what if the demons find you through me? Am I even safe to go home?”
“They know where we are,” he said confidently much to her chagrin. “There are features of our physiology that prevent us from attacking each other where we live. We are like two sides of a magnet and cannot touch. It is something that can be explained further should you return to learn. And yes, you are safe. We will continue to protect you, though you will not know of us.”
A sigh escaped her lips, relieved to hear of it. Now she was ready to go, she needed peace and a little silence away from there where she could think and try to go on about her day. She reached for her book bag at her feet when she suddenly remembered. “My paper! What about my research? That’s what I came here for to begin with.”
“You are welcome here any time regardless of your intentions. Our resources are at your disposal.” Mari stood and gently put her bag on her shoulders and turned to the door. “Would you like a tour while you are here?” he asked with a gesture of his hand. He was a good host after all and hated to see her leave. It was always hard to watch them walk back into the world they came from.
“No, thank you. I don’t think I could study now anyway.”
“Goodbye Ms. Cota,” Mrs. Litcott said with a wave as she closed the door behind her. There was some concern in her voice as she watched the girl skip down the steps. Mr. Williams was still beside her, watching nervously as well.
“I hate to watch them leave like that,” Mr. William said after a moment. He shook his head, remembering when he too had the conversation she had. Since working at the museum he had seen many people of the light come and go after such discussions. Many he never saw again. He always wondered what was going through their minds, if they thought similarly to himself and the others that had joined together. He also wondered what caused them to stay away and reject the truth. It must have been a lonely path for them afterwards, and he wished them the best in his heart.
Relic stepped silently towards the two and watched as the last glimpse of Mari could be seen down the drive through the glass windows. His mind was also in a swirl of doubt and he could only wait and see. His hands were firmly behind his back as he stood beside the two.
“Do you think she’ll come back?” Mr. Williams dared to ask as he looked to their stoic leader. He instantly regretted it as he noticed a look, however slight, he hadn’t seen on Relic’s face in such a situation. There very nearly seemed to be pain in seeing her leave and he wasn’t sure what to think. “Relic?” he asked with great concern.
With a deep breath and a straightening of his back, Relic turned to the man with his eyes lowered and thought a moment. There was a lot he wanted to say, wanted to think, but something about her made him more concerned than usual, and so more cautious in his actions. There was only one thing he would allow himself to think, and so he said, “I hope so.”
Mari stirred her coffee listlessly, staring deep in its caramel pool. It was really more cream than coffee, but it was the way she liked. Something about watching the liquid swirl and turn around the spoon was mesmerizing and peaceful. She needed it now – peace of mind, but clarity was needed too and she found the two in conflict. Around and around, and then changing directions, watching the whirlpool form in the center, it was the only thing she could concentrate on. The spoon clanked gently on the walls of the mug, sounding at times like a wind chime blowing in the breeze. So she had sat for a very long time.
The sounds of the café moved on around her with little notice. Low voices chatted away over biscotti and sandwiches, laughing occasionally at something she would never hear. The staff moved around, setting plates down where they were needed, reading the menu to new guests and using the outdated register that clanged when opened. There was music too, soft jazz humming in the background. Occasionally the doors would open and the sounds of the street became clear; cars honking, motorcycles grunting by, dogs barking at each other. People came and left in the time she spent staring silently into her cup. The world could have been crashing down around her and she would have barely blinked. That was until she realized she had wanted the coffee for more than just to play with.
She looked up as if for the first time, briefly unaware of her surroundings as was usual for her. The people sitting around her were not the ones she had seen when she arrived and she thought she remembered breakfast being served when now it was lunch. Her cheek was sore from the palm of her hand as it had laid there for some time and she was sure to have had a red mark from it. She turned her wrist around, as it was sore as well before picking up her mug to take a sip.
Her expression turned as she found her coffee was ice cold by now. There was disappointment in her face as she examined her drink, but she was never one to waste and so drank it anyway. Tea was usually her hot drink of choice, but whenever she needed to think a little clearer or get through something difficult, it was what she turned to. It didn’t seem to take long before its effects kicked in and her mind was turning once again.
She had needed to get away, away from that place, but she found she couldn’t go home. Her quiet little house seemed just as confusing in this time as the mansion had. Decisions were not something that came easily to her, especially when they were critical. There was plenty of time to think it all over, to see how she felt about things and make a decision then, but for some reason she felt pressed for time. She had waffled on her college major since she was a young teen and put it off until a few weeks before her papers had to be turned in. The more time she had to ponder something, the better it seemed, and yet she wanted to have an answer now. Perhaps it was her curiosity piquing her eagerness. Thoughts swirled in her mind. His words echoed and seemed to mix together with her own conflicting thoughts until she could only hear mumbled chatter. It was time to stop, calm down, breath, and make a rational for and against list.
Where to begin? For, she thought.
Well, for starters I’m very curious. About what exactly, though? He claims they are not human. Isn’t that interesting enough? Perhaps, but what exactly would you do about it? Study them of course. I would like to find some proof that what he claims is true. And then what would you do? I don’t know, but they seem to know things that are secret or hidden from the world, and I think it would be interesting to know these secrets. Is that all? Well, if they’re right about that, maybe they’re right about other things. Like what they claim about me, and that’s worth knowing for sure. And what about the blood tests he mentioned? He said it’s all voluntary; I don’t have to involve myself that in specifically. Though I would like to know exactly what they’re trying to do, and perhaps I would. Wouldn’t you feel like a guinea pig? I already feel like that though. Besides, they wouldn’t be trying to diagnose me, it seems like merely research. And what if all he says is true? What if your entire life is turned upside down and everything you thought you knew for a fact was a lie? Would you be able to cope with that? With never being the same?
Mari sat back in her chair, her hands on the table in front of her. It was a difficult thing to think about. How would her life be different after today? Would she be constantly looking over her shoulder, wondering when the next attack would take place? Would she have to stop school and put all her future plans aside? There didn’t really seem to be any future plans for her though, just another day ahead with things in mind, but nothing concrete. Would she have to live like a hermit? She wondered if people like her (she was unexpectedly already accepting their claims about her) could ever live a normal life. He made it seem so easy, like she could simply go on like nothing ever happened except that she would have new friends to occasionally meet with and would always have someone in the shadows watching and protecting her. She wasn’t entirely that naïve. Could it ever be the same?
But it already isn’t the same. I can’t be the person I was yesterday, no matter how much I would like to go on and forget.
She remembered the alternative. Against. She could refuse and try her best to live her life without them.
I can go back and tell him that I’m not interested, that I want to be left alone. But what if their claims are true? What if there are evil forces in the world who want to eradicate you simply for existing? He said they would always protect me, I just wouldn’t know about it. What about in 20 years? Do you have enough faith that they would continue protecting you well in to your life? Maybe they would forget about you. Wouldn’t you be more paranoid? I could always go and find them again. But what if you can’t?
Her shoulders dropped at the thought. It wasn’t as if she could look them up in a phone book, and she didn’t have a phone line that went straight to them. They could very well lose interest in her all together; she didn’t know their character yet. Perhaps this Relic was trustworthy, but what about the rest? What is their role? Why hasn’t she seen any more of them yet? How many were there? There were too many questions and her mind was becoming overwhelmed again. She closed her eyes briefly and massaged her temples. Deep calming breaths eased the torment and after a moment or two she found she could focus again.
Honestly, I don’t know that I could live every day without knowing for myself whether he was speaking the truth or not. What if the truth is worse than ignorance? I’ll never know until I find out.
Mari jumped a mile in the air. She put a hand over her racing heart as she turned to the waitress beside her.
“I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you.”
“No, no, it’s alright.”
“I was just checking to see if you were alright. Can I get you anything?” she asked with a little concern in her face. It was obvious that she was beginning to wear out her welcome.
“Oh, could I have a little more coffee?”
“Sure,” she said as she poured from the pitcher in her hand. She smiled before spinning around and walking away to fill other customer’s cups as well.
Mari doused her coffee with milk once again and stirred gently, wondering if she had made up her mind yet. Leaning forward she kicked her feet back behind her only to knock into something. She looked down and remembered that it was her book bag.
“My paper!” she said out loud, and immediately regretted it. She sighed with disappointment, realizing that she had failed to do what she planned that day by working on it. Of course, yesterday she didn’t know that the place she would do her research was something other than just a library. Could she even go back to do her studying if she decided to say no? He made it clear that she was welcome to use their facilities, but it would be awkward to say the least. It certainly wouldn’t make it easy to put it behind her and try to forget. Perhaps there was a way around it.
With sudden inspiration, Mari smiled and took a sip from her coffee. She would adjust the topic of her paper so that she could make an excuse to study them and learn their supposed history. It would surely bring her grades back up and perhaps be the perfect subject for her thesis paper to come. It was the best excuse and made her mind up clearly. She would agree to participate and in return ask to learn about them with the intent of writing her paper. When her paper was done, she could always choose to step away and put things in the past if she found there was no proof of their claims.
One thing was in her way, and that was her paper was due in only a couple weeks. She didn’t have time to spare to make sure this was the right answer, and while she would have liked to go back that moment, she decided that she would return tomorrow, despite their request, with the hope she could begin right away. Fear was turning to excitement once again and she quickly drank her coffee, eager to return home now. Once finished, she left a generous tip and picked up her back to leave. She just had to remember which way she was going.
Mari stepped quickly as she passed people on the street. Her excitement was overwhelming and she couldn’t wait to reach her destination. Her morning had gone by slowly and she had done all she could to pass the time. Her arrival the day before had been so early in the morning, she didn’t want to repeat the same mistake. Reading the paper, munching on some breakfast, and cleaning up a little was all she could do to occupy herself until it was nearly afternoon. Now she couldn’t slow her feet. She tried to keep her mind focused on where exactly she was going, mostly remembering how to get there. The iron gate was nearly in sight.
The thought crossed her mind once more if this was the right decision to make. She could always turn around and go back home, but she had a paper to write one way or the other, and if Mr. Hannoway found out she didn’t use the Conservatorium as he’d arranged for her, she could very well fail her class, and then what? Every decision came with its risks. She pushed the thought out of her mind as she saw the property just ahead. It was already done; no chickening out now.
The call box was in front of her once more and her heart was racing now. She desperately hoped they wouldn’t be upset with her for not taking the time to think more. Her mind was made up and she hoped that they would understand. Knowing what kind of place she was going to this time made her dress a little more consciously and she tugged on her skirt a little to make sure it was in place and straightened out. She’d chosen some of her nicer clothes, though it was still very common. A longer plain skirt and light knit top of the same cream color with a nice pair of white flats was her outfit of choice today. Her hair was loose and a little curly as it always was, and she thought to fuss with it for a moment, but chose not to. A thought entered her mind that she had put too much effort into her outfit and how uncharacteristic it was for her to worry so much about her appearance. It was already done though, and now she was just stalling.
She pressed the button and held her breath.
“May I help you?” the familiar voice said on the other end.
“Yes…. It’s Marisabelle Cota,” she said with a shaky voice. There was silence for a moment and she could feel her heart beating in her chest. Fear began to take hold, unsure of what would be said. Hopefully the worst thing would be for them to turn her away, but even that would be a crushing blow. It seemed like it was taking forever, and her anxiety grew.
“Come in,” she said as the buzzer on the gate sounded and they opened automatically for her. Mari smiled and made her way inside.
It was such a treat just to see the mansion up close once more. It glowed with warmth and light and its beauty was a magnetic pull. One could sit on its lawn and dream things never before seen or create magic for the first time. There was the feeling like one was completely safe and almost in another world. The sound of cars didn’t exist, and one forgot that a city was built up around it. The air was cleaner, the sun brighter, and peace was something that never existed until that moment. She could have sworn that she was floating closer to the door instead of walking. In fact, before she knew it she was already at the door. With a deep breath, she stepped inside.
Mrs. Litcott stood at the reception with a bright smile, waiting silently until Mari came closer. She was distracted once more by the beauty of the mansion once inside. It seemed much brighter than the day before as the sun was higher and much clearer. Clutching the notebook in her hands, she drew her attention from the high walls and ceilings back to the desk, and blushed a little as she came to the counter where she stood.
“We didn’t expect you again so soon,” she said gladly, then asked curiously, “What can I help you with today?” She fully expected Mari to be interested in the library and it seemed as if she were ready for her research she’d previously intended.
“I wanted to talk to Relic,” she answered nervously. The very notion of speaking his name to someone else sounded otherworldly to her. There was still something about him that made her doubt his existence. “I want to participate.”
The woman’s face turned to astonishment. “Oh!” she exclaimed and pressed a button nearby. “One moment,” she added and waited for a moment.
“Yes?” the man’s voice said on the other side.
“Miss Cota is here,” she said simply with a smile.
There was nothing more said on the other line and Mrs. Litcott stood straight once more, her hands folded happily at her chest. “We’re so pleased to have you Miss Cota!”
“Please, call me Mari,” she said with a little blush.
“Mari, yes. You’ve taken us by surprise. We thought for sure you’d take a few weeks to think it over.”
“So you know why I’m here?” Mari asked with caution. She was still getting used to thinking that she was different and wasn’t sure how well know it was around the Conservatorium. For all she knew, it was a big secret no one talked about.
“Yes. Did Relic tell you that I am also one born of the light?”
“Yes. He said the other gentleman was as well,” she answered just as another door was opened and he entered. She couldn’t remember his name from the day before, and the same astonished look as on his face.
“Mr. Williams,” Mrs. Litcott said as she acknowledged him. “All of the employees here as well as those living here are either Apocrypha or born of the light. We are all friends and family.”
The man slowly walked to the center where they stood and smiled. “Miss Cota,” he greeted her and offered his hand. She adjusted her notebook and shook his hand, still blushing a little, “very good to see you again.”
“Mari was just saying that’s she’s already decided to join us,” Mrs. Litcott informed him. His smile was bright and they both nearly glowed in their happiness to see her. She felt a little overwhelmed with all the excitement centered around her. It felt as if she was joining an exclusive club and they hadn’t had a new member in years.
“Very good. We’re so glad to have you here.”
“Thank you both,” she said with a shy smile. There wasn’t a time she could remember when anyone was so happy to see her. Already she felt a little more at home. “Is Relic available today?”
“Yes, dear. I’ve already spoken with him,” the woman responded with another smile. In fact the moment she hear Mari at the gate she had informed him. “He should be here in a moment.”
“If I may ask,” Mr. Williams continued, “What made you decide so soon?”
“Well, I suppose curiosity,” Mari said softly. “I’m not sure what I think about all this just yet.”
“It can be a little overwhelming to those who haven’t grown up with the knowledge of what they are. But a skeptical mind is nothing to be ashamed of,” he said wisely. Without her intending to admit it, it was obvious she wanted validation. He’d seen many people who were like them come and go from the Conservatorium, many who were like her and coming suddenly into this knowledge. Some could instantly put their faith in what they’d heard, but many needed to learn more and see it all for themselves.
“I’m sorry,” she said nervously, not wanting to see like she was calling it a lie. They obviously had come to accept it all long ago and this was their way of life. “I don’t mean to sound so doubtful.”
“We’ve seen it all, my dear. There are some who have not been able to accept the truth we offer, and it always breaks our hearts to see them leave without even questioning. It is much better to be doubtful than to simply reject it because it is difficult,” Mrs. Litcott said soothingly.
“I suppose so,” Mari said with a nod of her head. There was truth in her statement and it calmed her fears about her decision to come that day. It had been a good choice, a wise one even.
“Well, you are certainly welcome here and I know everyone will be very eager to meet you,” Mr. Williams said with a light clap of his hands, “when you’re ready of course,” he added.
Mari was just about to question further when she stopped. The two had turned towards the door Mr. Williams had entered from and Mari turned her attention there. In the doorway was Relic, his hand still on the knob. His mouth was slightly ajar and while his expression was generally stony, there was a sense of awe as he stared at Mari. It was obvious from the expressions of his colleagues why she was there, but it was hard for him to believe. She had caught him off guard and genuinely surprised him. His eyes locked with hers as he slowly made his way towards them.
Mari’s heart beat a little faster as she saw him standing there, as dapper as the day before, and with the same presence. She felt he was there before she saw him and the same sense of heaviness and chill accompanied him. There was something in the look on his face that made her blush again, and his eyes wouldn’t leave hers. She felt like a child, making a decision on her own for the first time and trying to have the confidence to uphold it. It was reassuring to see him though – to know that he was not a dream or something she had made up.
“You’ll find you have many friends here,” Mr. Williams continued as he and Mrs. Litcott observed the two of them carefully, but Mari wasn’t listening anymore. She found she had to pull herself away from his steady gaze and put her attention back on the two at the counter. “You can call on us whenever you need us.”
“Thank you for your kindness,” Mari said as a distraction for herself from him. He was beside them now, his eyes unblinking on her and completely silent. At a loss for words, he could only look at her and wait for someone else to speak. Mari found she had to turn to him once more, feeling the pressure to explain herself.
“I couldn’t wait,” she said softly, almost apologetically. “I wanted to come back, to learn.” She studied his face but found she could not read it. His brows were locked and as threatening as ever, though she could see past it, see the probing in his strange eyes. There was as much conflict in his expressions as she’d remembered from the previous day. Softness was paired with fury, curiosity with demand. She wasn’t altogether sure she was seeing correctly into his character, and for all she knew his appearance was not the contradiction she’d imagined, though he could continue to prove her correct.
“You have decided then?” he asked with hope.
“Yes,” was all she needed to say.
The faintest of smiles touched his lips. Mr. Williams and Mrs. Litcott exchanged glances discreetly then turned to observe them both. They had never seen anything like this in all their years. To interfere would be inappropriate, so they remained silent. Moments passed with no words between them, only locked gazes.
“Would you like the see the Conservatorium?” he asked at last.
“I would like that,” she answered. It was, after all, what she’d hoped for that day.
Relic suddenly turned to Mrs. Litcott and instructed, “Clear my schedule if you will.” She nodded in compliance and sat down to look through her organizer and begin her task.
“I hope it’s not an inconvenience,” Mari said with a little concern. After all, he was the director of the Conservatorium and most assuredly a busy man.
“Never,” he said with gentle seriousness and turned to look at her once more. His gaze was steady in the moment of silence that followed after. He wanted to make sure she understood this. “Thomas, if you would take over,” he said once he was sure his point was made, addressing Mr. Williams. The man nodded with a courteous smile. Relic turned his attention back to Mari and said, “Now, if you will follow me.”
Mari followed just behind and looked over her shoulder with a smile to the two at the counter as a way of thanking them for their help and kindness. Her feet tapped lightly on the marble floors, though it seemed he made little noise at all, she noted. She was closer to him now than ever before, and the hair on her arms felt like they stood on end and she was surprised to find he was not as tall as his presence made him seen, though he was still nearly a foot taller than her. They walked in silence until they passed through an open doorway leading in to a large hallway. Her eyes wandered the spacious area, soaking in the details of the magnificent architecture and the various display areas. She glanced down both sides of the hallway to find many tall statues guarding the walls as they stretched down. These were masterful carvings she had only seen in photos, now before her. Works of art adorned the wall space in between and brought rich colors to the room. She had only begun to take it all in when he slowed his pace and spoke.
“What do you know of the history of this city?”
“Just what I learned in history books,” Mari answered as she continued to observe the objects displayed as she passed them. His back was to her which allowed her to feel a little more at ease without his powerful gaze upon her. Assuredly, he was only briefly showing her around and she would be able to study the items in detail at another time.
“This land has always been inhabited by people, long before there were settlers from distant places,” he began. “Wherever mankind is, so are we.” He barely glanced over his shoulder to find she was immersed in her surroundings. He was sure she was listening, and needed no confirmation of it. “When they came over, we came with them and joined with our brothers and sisters who were here before us. The place on which this building stands has belonged to us collectively for millennia. The building you see was built around 300 years ago by some of our most brilliant craftsmen. It was built for two reasons – to allow us to collect items of importance to our history and the history of the world and to teach others about it, and to provide us a place to live.”
Mari turned her attention to him as he partially turned to her. He could sense the questions in her and was prepared to answer.
“You live here?” she asked with surprise. As large a building as it seemed, it was difficult to imagine a group of people living in such a place, and especially for a place open to the public. It made her wonder further on how many Apocrypha there were – a question best saved for later.
“What you see now, and all that is above ground is meant for the public to use. Our quarters are deep underground and only accessible to Apocrypha and those born of the light. The rest of the city does not know about it.”
They began walking once more as this information was allowed to sink in. There was only the soft tapping of her feet for a few moments, a sound which echoed lightly off the high ceilings. The place was so empty and seemed strange for an education institution. She wondered how many people walked those halls daily on average, as they seemed like the only ones there. Her eyes followed information plaques and glanced into display cases and tables as they passed, nearing the end of the first side of the hallway.
“This main hallway is dedicated to the arts and occasionally houses works borrowed from other great galleries and museums. We have some of our own which remain here at all times.”
“They’re beautiful,” Mari said quietly, afraid to upset the delicate sound.
They continued on this way through the halls and briefly through the outer rooms which houses the rest of their collection. There was everything from very early works of human craftsmanship to illuminated manuscripts and everything in between. It was one of the greater collections of antiquity and significance she had ever seen, and was always impressed by such places. Relic went on to explain things here and there, allowing her to catch a peek of what they had to offer without spending too much time in one spot. However, he saved the best for last.
He walked to a door close to where they had entered but on the opposite side and gently opened them up for her to see. As any gentleman would, he stood aside and allowed her to enter first before closing the doors silently behind them. Inside was the atrium, and perhaps the most splendid part of the building. They stood on the top floor, a balcony of sorts that overlooked the rest of the room below and gave a stunning view of the glass dome above their heads. The room itself was several stories high with each level below theirs separate from the rest. Spaced every so often were gilded pillars and book cases between them. It was a vast library with a place in the center on the bottom floor to study and to read. There were a few people reading quietly below, the only sound that of their thumbing through pages and replacing books in their place. Its magnificence nearly took Mari’s breath away and he could sense her awe. He had a feeling she would like it best and smiled at its effect.
[to be continued.......]
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