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A Lonely Place
by T. Everett Cobb

 

It was only the second day of his paper route and Mosiah was liking it better with every turn of the pedals. He was on his own out here among the farms, where the roads were straight and you could see for a hundred miles. Out here, he could get away from Samuel. Not that Samuel was always mean, but when he really got mad, his fists became cinder blocks that could crush you down to sawdust. Mosiah tried not to think about the cinderblock fists. And he was glad he had a paper route.

He stopped and opened his route book and noticed a yellow house standing off the road. On the porch, a girl sat looking at him. There were no sidewalks in front of her property, just gravel. It made his arms numb when he rode over it.

"That’s an ugly bike," the girl said. A smile curled her lip. She must have been a few years younger than Mosiah. And she wasn't really a girl. She was a veld.

Mosiah had never given much thought to the chips and rust on the bike's frame. The pea green paint suddenly looked like vomit to him. He wished he could push the ugly thing into a nearby irrigation ditch.

"My sister said she likes you."

The girl didn't talk like a veld. Velds didn't like anybody. That's what Samuel said. You had to believe Samuel when he talked.

"She saw you riding by yesterday and said you were cute."

Heat spread into Mosiah’s cheeks, turning to fire that consumed his eyes. He took the play out of the pedal.

"But I said you were a human, and I knew it. Humans don't even have brains."
Her huge black eyes blinked, like big butterfly wings. He realized it would be easy to confuse her natural expression with a smile. Their cheekbones rode so high and their lips seemed so taut, velds usually looked like they were smiling. She got up and turned for the door. Maybe she’d read his thoughts and found them obnoxious.

He started off, causing the gravel to pop under his tire, as the screen caromed against the door frame. Before he could push the pedal, a warmer, softer voice stopped him.

"Hey."

A second girl had appeared, taller than the first. Tassels of reddish hair fell around her eyes, giving her head the shape of some tropical tree. She looked weird but pretty, her face pulled back in that same veld smile.

"My sister's mean. That's all."

Mosiah didn't know how to answer.

"I hope you won't hate me just because she's mean."

He managed to shake his head, which seemed to remove an invisible barrier. Her feet made no sound on the gravel as she came closer.

"She did tell the truth though." The girl shrugged. “I guess I really said that."

"You did?"

"Do you come by here again tomorrow?"

"Huh?"

"Tomorrow. Will you come back tomorrow?"

His vision became a tunnel. At the end he could see only the girl. The eyes. The nose. Blink blink. Her face seemed to crawl, haunting down there at the end of the tunnel, surrounded by waves and waves of gray fuzz buzzing all around the sides.

"I ... Maybe."

"I'll wait for you,” she said. “Right here."

He nodded, because that was all he could do, and forced the pedal down, steering his bike into the ruts of the road. He didn't look back. The velds had always frightened him--they'd frightened most humans. But now one of them liked him.
He made a silent vow, he would avoid that house from now on.


* * *

Mosiah did not live on a farm, and he was glad. It was better not to live so close to velds, many of whom were farmers. They were smelly aliens who always stared because they were too stupid to know it was rude. That's what Samuel said.

"You know the velds that live over on the farms?" he said to Samuel, who was lying on the couch reading, like always.

"Farms? They live everywhere, like a race of cockroaches." Samuel said it without lifting his eyes from the page. He was so smart he could read with his eyes and think other thoughts with his mind. "And they can live in the attic for all I care, just so I don't have to see them." It would mess up his reading if velds were hanging around.

"Can they really read people's minds?"

"No. It's all a lie. They're just little insects who can't do anything so they have to try to scare people by making themselves mysterious."

"But they say we can't think."

Samuel finally looked up from his book. There was a big wrinkle all along his forehead. "What are you chattering about velds for? You friends with them now?"

"No."

"Then what do you got to say about them?"

"Nothing. Just that some of them are on my paper route."

"I better never catch you hanging around them. You'll give mom another breakdown and then I'll beat the hell out of you."

Mosiah tried to look cross. Samuel was only two years older; Mosiah didn't like being pushed around by him.

"Go do your homework for once. Mom'll be home." It seemed like Samuel never had to do homework.

Mosiah tossed himself onto his bed and his eyes wandered along the cracks on the ceiling. The veld had asked him to come again tomorrow. But no. He'd already forgotten about that. Not going by there anymore. He wouldn't even think about that again.

Wouldn't think about someone liking him.


* * *

She was standing by the post at the edge of the property. "I'm glad you came." That smile was pulling at her mouth again.

"You're in the wrong place," he said.

"What?"

"You said you'd be waiting right there, on the path."

"Oh."

Mosiah realized how stupid he'd sounded. Now she must have thought he'd hung on her every word since the day before.

"My name is Nera."

He chuckled back at her. "That's weird."

"But you like it, I can tell. Come on. I want to show you something."

"What for?"

"You can see our farm."

Mosiah shook his head. "Nah."

"There's nothing to be afraid of."

He couldn't deny anything, because she could read his mind. It seemed to him there must be other velds peeping through the shutters of the old farmhouse. Or maybe they weren't looking, maybe they were just sitting quietly in their chairs, reading away at his mind the way Samuel read his books, listening without looking up. It felt strange as she led him along a beaten path to the barn--so many people thinking about him at the same time. He wasn't used to such a thing. But maybe you couldn't call velds people.

The barn was a dark structure made of dead wood. No one had ever bothered to paint it.

"Where did you get a name like Mosiah?"

"I--"

He had told her his name, hadn't he? "If you can read my mind then you already know."

"Is that what you think?" She stopped at the barn’s gaping door. "That I can read your mind?"

Mosiah shrugged. His hands were coiled in his coat pockets now.

Nera's gaze burrowed into him, and it surprised him that he felt no need to look away. Her face wrinkled and she cried suddenly, "Why do you all hate us?" She whirled away and ran into the barn.

He heard the crunch of hay as Nera passed through beams of light falling through the roof. He considered getting on his bike and riding off. But she might read his mind all the way home and hate him forever.

The shadows were thicker inside the barn than they looked from the door. He listened hard against the crack of dry stalks beneath his own rubber soles. The place smelled like ammonia. It made his nose wrinkle.

He found her in the corner of an inner stall, surrounded by bursts of hay and rusted iron. A stare hovered on her face as she twirled a long stem of chaff. Sometimes it was hard to tell the stick from her narrow fingers.

"Is it true?" he mumbled.

"Not really. Sort of." Her eyes didn't move.

"You can sort of read my mind?"

The smile returned. She looked at him. "Sit down."

He wanted to, and it frustrated him that she knew it. So he shrugged and plopped down, almost facing her.

"Close your eyes."

"What for?"

"Because I want to show you something."

"How can you show me something with my eyes closed?"

"It just makes it easier."

He shrugged again and closed his eyes.


* * *

The savannah whispered all around. An insect buzzed in his ear while, in the distance, he picked out the belly of a viper grating against supple spikes of grass. The scent of antelope blood swarmed into his nostrils, now voluminous in the air, now slipping onward.

And she was there, near him. He could feel it.

"There is meat for us in the valley today." She knew about the meat. He did not question it. But for two cubs it was not always safe in the valley. Jackals roamed there and other marauders of the land.

Her torso rubbed against him and her tongue stroked his ear. Of late she had begun these rituals. He did not resist, but felt no impulse to respond in kind.

"Come. We will find it."

Life teemed all around, and it seemed strange to him--did other creatures not notice two lions creeping down through the brush? The law of the land allowed for it. He understood the minds of the gazelles and antelope, how they knew only one of them would fall in an attack. That left only so much room for the fear of the herd.

"There. The vultures are gathered over there."

The cadaver lay near a water hole below, a cluster of shabby black ribbon around it. The vultures picked and scratched, snapped at one another and screamed their oaths.

She broke into a charge. Above the rush of wind, the tearing of grass and a rumble caused by his own paws, he heard her growl. It was followed by the loose beating of vulture wings. Their raiments moved like cumbersome tree branches; he wondered how they made use of the air. But it was their own mystery, which he could not understand.

She grinned. "Look. This is a large one, a bull." Flies scattered and resettled with her every move. The scent was furious, which did little to increase his appetite. But this was not a real feeding, only their private thrill of the hunt.

"We have our kill!"

She established herself on the far side of the carcass and took a theatrical look around. The lioness, master of the hunt.

The more he ate, the hungrier he became. While he bloodied his golden face and paws, she came beside him, stroked his ears, nuzzled him. He returned no attention, and it made her affections increase. The smell of her breath, fur and sweat dazed him, mingling with the odors of the carcass.

He was so inundated with this ecstasy, this torrent of sensation, that he nearly choked at the sound of a wicked laugh. It stabbed his ear, and only then did he realize his mate stood up straight at his side.

Scanning around, he found the most fearful eyes he had ever seen. A hyena glared through the thrushes. This mongrel was full grown. And it would kill him, for such was the law. He was a cub in the valley without adults.

His vision started to shimmer from the terror boiling up in him.

The killer tensed and readied itself to pounce. Then its beady irises stretched into large, black disks. The snout melted upward and the fur dissolved into pale skin.

The first thing Mosiah heard was the thrusting of his own lungs. He lay slumped against wooden planks, surrounded by a disaster of hay. And Nera was close. But he didn’t look at her.

"Father ... I--"

An adult veld stood across the stall, looking down at them. It blinked once.

Mosiah had never been this close to an adult veld before.

"Nera, you ought to apologize to the boy."

"Yes. I'm sorry ... Mosiah."

Its glare seemed to harden, and she rose, causing the hay to hiss, and plodded past her father.

"Go on, boy. Your bike is out by my gate. And your papers have not been delivered."

Mosiah nodded and pulled himself up to his feet. He marched past the veld and ran to his bike.

He hardly felt the vibration from the gravel as he set off down the road.


* * *

The smell of a beef roast filled Mosiah’s bedroom and bled saliva in his mouth. His mother had already called him to dinner. He'd heard, but still pretended to sleep.

She pushed his door open without ceremony. "Dinner." When he didn't budge she raised her voice. "Mose. It's time for dinner."

He stirred and raised his heavy eyelids. It was easy to pretend--he truly was exhausted. "What's the matter with you?"

"Nothing."

In the dining room, Mosiah plopped himself onto his chair like a sack of flour. He noticed Samuel lay his book aside and sit up. Samuel's crystal-blue irises deflected the glow of the overhead lamp.

"How can you read when it's so dark? I couldn't."

"That's 'cause you can't read in the first place."

Mother came pushing in from the kitchen. She still wore the skirt and blouse she'd worn to work that day. The outfit took years off her figure, as did the blonde streaks she'd recently added to her hair.

When she stopped short of the table and whispered a curse, Mosiah knew she would backtrack to turn off the stove. She always did that.

"Your Mrs. Dunston called," Samuel sighed as he hobbled to the table, like a man in the desert. "Wondered why your papers got delivered so late."

"She won't call here no more," Mosiah said.

"Why not?" Mother frowned as she pulled her chair in.

"I quit."

"You what? You quit?" She started scooping and stirring, like she sometimes did when she was mad. "Well, that's just fine. Next thing, you'll think you're quitting school."

"That's just it. I don't have time to study."

"Study?" Samuel put on a smile. "When the hel--what do you mean? You've never studied in your life."

"Have too."

"You boys quit it. Someone say prayer."

It was Mosiah's turn and he mumbled it like an apology.

"I thought you really liked the paper route, Mose?" said Mother as she sliced up the beef.

Mosiah found himself inspecting the flesh. "I did. Kinda."

She shook her head and sighed the heaviness out of her lungs. "You boys."
"Why'd you have to cook it so much?"

"Huh?" she grunted, stopping in the middle of a slice.

"It's so dark, the meat."

She peered at him as if he were a stranger. Then creases came down from her eyes and her forearms alighted the edge of the table. "I've been doing my roasts like this since you were nothing but a wiggling little--" Her eyes misted. She dropped the silverware and wheeled out of her chair.

Her footfalls were the only sound until they died with the slam of her bedroom door.

"Jesus, you little shit. You give mom another breakdown and I'll rip your head in two."

Mosiah didn't know how to look up from his empty plate. His stomach ached from the rich smell.

"You doing drugs now?" Mosiah made himself a promise; Samuel wouldn't get a rise out of him tonight. "Whatever it is you're doing, I suggest you leave it outside that door."

"Quit trying to talk like a man." Mosiah took his turn to get up and march for his room.

"One more word and I'll show you a man!"


* * *

The day glowed under a great white ceiling, and the wind blew stiff, but slow. Its coolness was something Mosiah could almost see. He shivered against the lining of his coat and pretended the trees were making fun of him, taunting him because he had to be in school instead of outside playing like them.

He stirred at the sound of the other kids closing their books. Mrs. Harker, the math teacher, had been extolling the glories of a polynomial. Mosiah had listened only long enough to lose interest.

Now his neighbors bustled for their workbooks, which forced him to gather his arms on the desk. He leaned forward behind the silhouette of Chelsea Bjarnson, who always sat faithfully upright in front of him.

In his mind, the image unfolded of a narrow country road. Maybe he shouldn't have quit the paper route. It was something to do, and you could make maybe forty dollars a month, and then you wouldn't have to sit around the house hoping Samuel wouldn't say anything to you. And maybe, if you had time, it was no big deal to stop and--

But his bike. It was so ugly and he never wanted to ride it again. And besides, he wouldn't think about that other thing. It was better not to think about it.
Mosiah's head was just warming against his forearm when he heard his name. It made his back stiffen. He peeked toward the overhead.

Noticing his shift, Mrs. Harker looked up from her teacher's edition. The false blush on her cheeks made it seem like she was smiling. She covered the rest of the room in a glance and found her place in the book again. Mosiah stared at her. She'd played a cruel trick, calling his name, knowing it would throw him into a panic.

Mrs. Harker was becoming a colorless painting when he heard his name a second time.

His head snapped to the side. Some of the kids had their faces buried in books, while others took cover behind the students in front of them.

If it wasn’t Harker, then someone was taunting him.

Red anger flooded down his neck and into his chest. He hated that kind of cowardice. You want a fight, speak up. Or shut your pretty little mouth--

(Mosiah.)

He swallowed.

Now he knew. The sound came from inside his head.

(Where are you? I need you, Mosiah.)

She was looking for him.

(Where are you?)

He found his hands clenching the desk. Everyone around him must have heard the voice. They all knew and they would call him a veld-lover and everywhere he went they would say, "Veld-lover, veld-lover," but always whispering it in snatches so he wouldn't know who was saying it and he would forever be christened Mosiah the Veld-lover, and they would make him wish he hadn't ever loved a veld--

(If only I could see you. Mosiah, where are you?)

But no one looked his way. None of them cared anything about him. They never talked to him or even pretended he was alive.

(If only I could see you.)

He grew numb all around; not in his skin, but in his mind. He couldn't perceive the air in the room, or the people. He could only sense her, calling from far away, where the roads were straight and narrow and the houses far apart.
And he was up, walking. Through doorways, then halls, down steps, then sidewalks. He was walking, marching. And he knew right where to go.


* * *

The little waterfall chattered like a nest full of chicks. He knew it would. The whole scene looked just the way she had shown it to him.

All during his walk she had projected to his mind the image of this place. Water falling from a wooden box, imbedded in the earth above a pond, where she sat, skimming the water with her toes. The box was an irrigation stopper, and late runoff was making its final migration to the valleys below.

A bank of grass ran along one edge of the pond. Beyond it, yellow and brown trees blocked the view of her father's farmhouses.

It was just the way she had painted it.

"You came." Her eyes radiated the glaring daylight, which made them seem bigger somehow. She looked strange. Her face was whiter than he remembered it, and her lips thinner and looser.

Mosiah shrugged. "Your feet are going to get cold."

"It's okay. They already are. This pond is for the ducks, but they're all gone now."

"Where?"

"South, dummy."

"You sound like your sister."

"Don't say that."

He crouched at the edge of the pond, pretending to study its brown bottom. "How did I know you would be right here?"

"Because I told you."

"Yeah, but how? How do you tell me things?"

"I don't know. I just think it."

He could feel the cool air tickling his lungs. It seemed to make him think clearer. "Doesn't that mean--won't your father hear?"

"No. When we’re imagining together, I can’t control it, but when I’m just talking to you, it’s easy to make it private.”

“But if I can think things to you, and you can think things to me, then we're kinda the same."

She shook her head. "Humans can't make it happen. I mean, they can't think together, can they?"

"No."

"That's okay. I like humans."

"'Cause you can see into our minds and we can't see into yours."

"Sort of."

He shivered. The sound of trickling water made a cold day colder.

"Why are you shivering? You have a jacket. Come on."

Above the pond, an old fort had been built amid a patch of trees, which she called the meadow. She slipped through an open panel in the wall with Mosiah following, stretching his eyes in the sudden darkness.

There were blankets within and a torn-up mattress flopped against one wall. It made a deformed armchair. Her closeness and the shelter of the blankets brought warmth to his blood, and to his mind.

While they sat there in silence, he became hypnotized by cracks in the wall. They looked like frozen lightening. Was she probing the reaches of the farm to find her father? Mosiah would never know.

The cracks began to dance.


* * *

Fireworks exploded above his head. Police cars wailed like banshees in the distance while glass seemed to shatter far and near.

He barked as he ran--pounding the black cement with the pads of his paws. In the corner of his eye, he could see her sleek coat wearing the dampness of the night, her breath bursting in hot clouds. Rhythm. Her every step was the rhythm of the night. He howled because the rhythm was his religion. His god.

The mouth of the alley came into view and they reached it in three strides. "This way!" he growled and scrambled to his left, barely avoiding the wheels of a huge metal monster that smelled like burning death. The brakes screamed, and so did the driver.

Power shot through him. The hardness of the city all around made him a new creature. Life was a series of resurrections. It was glee, the driving force within him, summoning storm after storm of rebirth.

A wasteland of broken cars began to open before them. He felt his limbs racing toward it until a rapid movement caught his eye. A cluster of shapes darted from the cover of a pile of slag nearby.

Three of them. From their small legs and thick trunks, he calculated the danger in an instant. Rottweilers.

She snarled at his side, and he bore his teeth for collision. The ground seemed to jump as skin and bone converged.

His calculations began to multiply. Every muscle jerk. Every flinch. A study in dynamics. He sank his teeth. Here. Then there. Ripping with joy.

The heavy skin at his neck unfolded in a pair of vice-like jaws. He was forced to follow as he bit down into muscle, tearing as he went. A curtain of red heat sprayed through the air in front of his eyes.

The tearing and lashing sped up, and turned to a mess of torn skin and bright blood, until a strange sound was heard. Voices. Yelling. They were thin, empty sounds that revealed animal weakness. He realized they were the voices of men. But their clubs were mercenaries of justice.

No thought of revenge. He scrambled away into the mists that always descended on the alleys at night. Soon he found a dark fissure in the wall whereto lick his wounds.

Only when she came drifting down the alley did he realize they'd been separated. He picked up her scent, and a sudden charge ran through him. It was a force that screamed in his loins. Mount her. Let the glee guide you. Walls all around made a sudden shift. It frightened him, forced him to recoil. Where was he?

Mosiah found himself laying next to Nera in the dark. She was breathing hard too.

It was quiet for a moment, until she whispered. "Are you all right?"

"Huh?" He was still trying to find his bearings. Something had forced his mind from the dream. An impulse.

A shadow passed through the open slat and Mosiah found himself studying a small, grinning face. The eyes he recognized, black and large.

"Bluck! You almost did that with him!" Nera's little sister. Her face twisted with revulsion. "That's awful!"

"Get out of here, Caba."

"You get out. This is my fort."

"It isn't! And I told you to get out."

"Fine. I'll get out. I'll go tell father what you and the human were doing."
Nera latched onto Mosiah's wrist. She dragged him up, then shoved Caba against the wall. "Tell him then!"

The day was glowing softer now as they ran down the gentle curve of a backroad and landed in a field of dead grass that stood waist high.


* * *

He had been staring at the sky for some time, exploring the clouds without seeing them. Her voice made him stir and he thought to himself how the clouds looked like icing on a tin of cinnamon rolls.

"What's the matter?"

He stayed quiet for a long time.

"I can tell something's wrong."

He shook his head.

"You can't fool me."

And he knew it was true. "Then, if something's wrong, you must know it already."
"I don't know everything you think. And sometimes you make it hard for me to know."

"Good."

"Are you upset about what happened? When we were--?"

He shook his head, and didn't know how to make words out of his feelings.

"Why won't you talk to me?"

"Nera, how can you stand to be around someone who can't think like you?"

"I told you, I like you."

"But it must be boring. Unless you just like having the upper hand."

"Is that what you think?"

"I don't know."

Nera turned and let her back roll onto the grass. Her shoulder came against his so that they were both gazing straight up into the sky. She raised her hand and pointed to a chunk of white that hovered apart from the plainer ceiling above.

"See that cloud there? I know you see things in it."

"Like what?"

"Well, there's a part that comes off on the right there. And you think it looks a little bit like a horse's mane. And this part here, on the bottom is kind of like a face to you. An ugly face, maybe like a character."

"I was thinking it looked like a troll, in a story I read once."

She sighed deeply and, for the first time, Mosiah wondered what she was thinking.

"This is the whole thing, Mosiah. Velds can't think that way."

"What way?"

"Like that. Like make things up in our minds."

"Make things up?"

"I know you don't understand. Because it's so much the way you think, you can't even get the picture of what I mean."

He lay very still.

She continued, "My father talks about it sometimes."

"About what?"

"Once he said he finally figured out the difference between velds and humans."

"What was it?"

"He said we don't have what you call an imagination."

Mosiah frowned, searching deeper in the clouds for some hidden meaning. "But--but that can't be true. I mean, you guys made rockets that flew millions of miles to bring you here."

"So?"

"So somebody had to imagine what the rocket looked like before they built it."

"Well, my father would say, yes, we can picture things, but we can't--we don't know how to--"

Mosiah, gazing at the cloud that had now become a tree, knew the word she needed.

"Metaphor."

"What?"

"That's what you mean. My brother, Samuel, talks about it because he reads so
much. A metaphor is something that carries lots of meanings behind it."

"Yeah. That's what I mean. Kind of."

"But you've got no reason to feel bad. I’m amazed at all the stuff you create in my mind."

She rolled over and looked at him with her eyes narrowed, an expression he'd never seen before.

"I create? You think it was me?"

"I mean all the stuff you make up. Like the lions and the hyenas and the dogs fighting."

"Mosiah." Her face softened and she seemed to smile. "That's not me." She shook her head. "That's you."

Her words made him chuckle, but he felt sick.

"I mean, sure, I help bring it up so we can both share it. But it all comes from this deep place in your mind. Like a treasure chest." A sigh developed in her, and Mosiah knew the distant feeling of the sound.

Maybe she really did like him.

Then she rolled back again and looked up. "I could never come up with those kinds of ideas. I don't have that deep place you have."

It was quiet all around, with only the whisper of a breeze. Her laugh came soft and sweet above the sound. "My father sits in his study and listens to old music disks, the old-time operas. And I can see his mind aching to know how these things were created. But he feels a kind of loneliness velds have never known. Because now that we are around humans, we all look into each other, and it seems like there's nothing to see."

Mosiah shivered and thought about the long walk home. Her slight fingers came down on his arm. "Mosiah, don't let me be like that. I don't want to be away from you, ever."

She was crying.

"I--"

Her breath drew in and she sat up quickly. "My sister. She's looking for me. My father wants me."

"You better go."

"Yeah." She rubbed her eyes, then they fluttered like butterflies again. "Will you come back?" She suddenly looked like a marble statue come down from the sky. One that human hands had never touched. Mosiah wished he could sit here in this spot forever.

He looked away. "I guess you already know." He got up and started down the road without brushing himself off.

And he heard her breathe, "I love you, Mosiah."


* * *

His mother's Toyota came gurgling down the road. The sun had only just set, but the headlights were on, giving off a pathetic amber glow in the dusk. From a hundred yards he could tell it was Samuel at the wheel.

The car pulled up with a squeak and the passenger door flopped open.

"Get in."

Samuel hardly looked at him as he slid onto the tattered vinyl.

Mosiah mumbled, "What're you doing here?"

It was a long time before Samuel said anything.

"The school called." Mosiah knew what that meant. He suddenly felt foolish. Why hadn't he thought about the consequences of leaving school like that? Now his mom would chew him out, tell him she wasn't going to take care of him forever, and if he couldn't stay in school and go to college, he could just go off and be a nothing like his father. . . He found himself toying with the cheap chrome handle on the door, wishing it were already tomorrow.

Samuel continued. "So did the hospital."

"The hospital?"

"Yeah. Mom had another breakdown. This time it was like a seizure."

Mosiah held very still.

"They say she had too much stress."

Mosiah’s lungs filled up, and it ached. "Why's she always so stressed out?"

"Oh, that's good, coming from you. The school calls her at work and says you walked off right before lunch and you wonder what she's stressed about."

Mosiah stared out at passing fence posts, tried to focus on them.

"She's in the hospital because of you, you little asshole."

"I didn't do anything."

"Really? You know, I just had a gut feeling I'd find you out here somewhere. And if I ever catch you out here again, playing footsies with velds, goddammit--!
Mosiah never saw the cinderblock that slammed into his cheek. Samuel hammered Mosiah's head so hard, it hit the window.

His vision turned to blood and he lunged at Samuel with his voice blaring like a siren. He swung and punched and scratched and soon found himself pinned down in the crack between his seat and the door.

Somehow, Samuel had stopped the car, right in the middle of the road, found Mosiah's throat in the dark and forced him back. In the gleam of distant street lights, Mosiah could see murder in Samuel's eyes.

"Listen, you little puke. Next time you take a swing, it better be enough to kill, 'cause if it isn't, I'm going to finish you. You understand?"

Mosiah's vision was getting hazy. He pulled against Samuel's grip, but his brother was putting all his weight down on that arm. Its force pinched his windpipe and blocked his chest from moving.

"You understand me!"

Mosiah nodded. In an instant, Samuel was back in his seat, steering down the road.

"You need a good ass-kicking. Too bad the last thing mom needs right now is to see you a bloody mess."


* * *

His mother was on the second floor of the hospital.

The whole time he was there, Mosiah shivered from the look on her face. It seemed like someone had peeled her eyelids back, and they wouldn’t ever close again. She glanced around her, but didn't really see anything. And she responded, even tried to smile. But her efforts were there in her eyes, fighting something invisible. Maybe, in her mind, she was standing at the edge of a cliff, despite her terrible fear of heights, and she was trying to pull herself away. If fact, if he knew anything about nervous breakdowns, she'd already fallen over the edge and the doctors had brought her back. But they couldn't make her walk away from the edge. Only she could do that.

Mosiah tossed in his bed that night and wondered if he should have apologized. The thought had angered him earlier though, as he had stood there in the hospital room. He would only have said he was sorry to make Samuel happy, and Mosiah couldn't do that.

Days seemed to drift by like fog. The school bell screamed again and again as he floated like a specter from one class to the next, never wondering why he went through his routine, only wishing, every now and then, that he still had a paper route. This was the one thought that could make him mad. He had quit for the wrong reason, a forgotten reason, as if he had let go of a rope that had given him a way up the sheer walls of a pit, all because he was afraid of what he might find above.

Samuel eased up, and it made Mosiah sick in his gut. He hated himself because he was playing Samuel's game. As long you did what Samuel wanted, he didn't hit you and almost talked to you like you were a person and not a dog that was just around for his kicking pleasure. At the same time, Mosiah tried to tell himself that Samuel didn't have it easy. They'd moved mom to the psychiatric ward and Samuel became responsible for taking care of everything at home. Sam was the one who had to talk to the bishop so they could get meals. That's why the ladies from the church brought them dinner every evening. They even picked Mosiah up for school in the morning and took him home everyday. He hated listening to their daughters chatter about nothing. And he was grateful the school was only twelve minutes from his house.

He didn't know how many days had passed when he heard her voice again. (Mosiah.)
She called for him many times, and again the next day. He tried to let it pass the way a mailman ignores a an anxious dog beyond a fence.

(Mosiah, please...)

One day, in the early evening, Mosiah sat down to think about how to answer. The bishop had come to pick up Samuel and take him to the hospital. They were going to give mom another blessing. It was peaceful. He closed his eyes and tried hard to point his thoughts.

I can't talk to you, he thought as strongly as he could.

(Mosiah, what's wrong?)

I can't talk to you, he repeated.

She was quiet for a moment. Then he heard, (But I love you.)

He struggled to put thoughts into a sequence. It wasn't easy.

My mother is in the hospital. It's all because of me. She's going to go crazy if I make her upset.

(I'm sorry.)

A colorful sense came to him, like a perfume. Was this her sadness? Slowly, the sensation died and he could hear her no more. It was silent.

Hours had passed since he’d sat down there, looking out the window toward the west, where farms spread across the floor of the valley. He hadn't realized the view had turned to black, dotted with twinkling lights, until the bishop's car came gurgling into the driveway and his headlights swung toward the window. Samuel jumped out from the back seat and trotted to the passenger door of the long car. Mosiah’s jaw dropped as he watched his mother climb out. It looked, from where he sat, like she was smiling. She turned to face the bishop, nodded to him, still smiling, shrugged and headed up the walk. Samuel closed the door with a flick of his hand, a final wave to the bishop.

"It was a miracle," Samuel whispered after mother passed through the living room, leaving Mosiah with a kiss on his head. They listened to her steps in the hall, and her bedroom door closed.

Samuel took in a deep breath and shook his head. "It was just like we've heard about. The bishop put his hands on her head, and one of the elders was there. They asked me to help, Mosiah, so I put my hands on her head too. And then the bishop blessed her and it just--" Samuel swallowed and Mosiah didn't recognize him for a minute. He hadn't seen Samuel get swollen like this in years. Now it made him uncomfortable.

"She said someone appeared to her, while we were blessing her. A man all dressed in white. He took her by the hand and walked with her to a peaceful place, and that changed everything. I don't know what it all means, but she was so completely different when we finished. Her face was like on fire and she got up out of bed immediately. I never thought I'd see a miracle."

Samuel moved toward the hall and stopped in the doorway. "We have to make this good, Mose. Mom's better, and we have to make sure nothing happens to make her sick again." Samuel didn't wait for a reply, and Mosiah was glad. He didn't know what to say.

A quiet sense of relief settled over the house, and in the darkness of his room, Mosiah lay looking up into the shadows cast across his ceiling. I'm glad my mother's better. She was sick, and it was because of me. And I'm glad she's better.


* * *

Next day, right after the lunch bell, he heard her again.

(Mosiah.)

The sound came through so clear, it seemed like her lips were next to his ear. He stopped on the stairs leading up to the main hallway of the school. Other kids passed him as he stood by the iron rail.

Because of his mother's miracle, it didn't seem so bad to talk to Nera. But you had to be careful, not do anything stupid.

He opened his thoughts toward her, cautiously, and she spoke again. (Mosiah, I wish you were here.)

I'm in school. I have to start doing better, or my mom will get worried.

(Is your mom all right?)

Something happened last night. I'm not sure what, but she thought she saw an angel.

(I'm so happy for you. I just--)

A sudden break ended her thought.

Nera?

(Yes. I'm sorry. I--)

With her pause this time, the break wasn't so harsh, and she continued.

(It's my father. He's--)

Mosiah gave her a moment. She had never spoken in fragments like this, and he couldn't tell if her thoughts were just scattered, or if it was something more serious.

(He's dead.)

Mosiah's arms landed on the iron bar, which kept him from rolling down the stairs. The words hit him hard, but it was her grief that really took its toll, pouring from his mind down his torso and into his limbs. He realized that was why she halted and stammered. She tried to keep it from drowning him too, but it was too much.

His classmates sounded like distant birds as they filed past. He glanced up, feeling heavy streams of salt water on his face.

(I'm so sorry. I didn't want to hurt you.)

Mosiah calmed his lungs and set off down the stairs. Samuel would be madder than ever before, might kill him if he found out. But this was what he had to do.


* * *

There came no imagery. It was plain to him that she waited at the house, where the rest of her family sat in an electric silence. The little yellow building came into view from behind the row of trees on the south property line. He felt a shiver looking at it. The veld man wasn't in there now. Or if he was, he was only a corpse. That made the whole place seem old and dry.

Mosiah had just passed the fence and turned onto the grass when the screen flew open and slammed against the house. Caba came out, her voice the shriek of fire trucks.

"You killed him! My father's dead because of you!"

Mosiah stopped. He'd never seen a veld's eyes stretched in anger before. Now he saw that her screams were directed at him.

He didn’t say anything. His legs were straight as sticks as he watched Nera scamper out behind Caba. A scolding ensued, then Nera hugged her sister and urged her back through the door.

Mosiah had watched it all happen in less than a minute. And still he stood there.

"I'm sorry." A darkness filled Nera’s face as she looked down at him. It must have been an expression of grief. A chuckle burst from her mouth. "I guess I say that a lot."

He had a sudden impulse--he wanted run. It wasn't fearful, which made him think it was her impulse coming through. They ran across the lawn and down along the irrigation ditch that divided her farm from the road.

Nothing was said, yet Mosiah knew they would turn right at the end of the yard and follow the narrower crossroad along the barb-wire fence to an ancient underpass. There they would slump down together and catch their breath.
"Are we safe here?" he gasped upon reaching the shade of the underpass. "A car could come rumbling down this road and mash us in a minute."

"All the farmers know this road dead-ends against the freeway there. We're the only ones who ever used it."

He nodded and set his weight against the green, broken cement at his back.

"Nera?"

"Yes."

"Caba said I killed your father."

"She's upset. Right now she's blaming everybody."

"Is that the way velds get?"

"I guess."

He drew in a deep breath and squinted at the blue sky outside. "There's more to it. I can tell."

Nera shook her head, and looked like she might cry again.

"Tell me."

He sensed the effort it took her to form words. "Your mother didn't see an angel, Mosiah."

His understanding began to open. She was helping him see it.

Mother had been lying in the hospital, and they had put their hands on her head and she had seen something. A man. Dressed in white.

"It was your father."

Nera nodded, with no attempt to speak.

"He crossed into her mind and helped her away from her craziness?" All the pieces came together before him. The veld man had done it for Nera, hoping it would help assuage her difficulty.

He spoke to Nera in thoughts. Could that one bit of contact kill him? Tell me, Nera.

(Not by itself. It's something else. He saw how hopeless, or maybe lonely his life would be from now on, after feeling what it was like to be there in the richness of her mind.)

I don't get it.

(I know.)

How do you know this is what did it?

(You have to believe me, Mosiah. He made his heart stop.)

Made it stop?

(Yes. We found him in his study. He was in his chair, listening to his music, and he made his heart stop. Velds kill themselves of grief that way.)

It's voluntary?

(I ... Well, if you can call suicide voluntary.)

I guess not.

Her arms came around him and he could feel the sobs inside her rib cage. (Don't leave me, Mosiah. You are the only person I want to be with. I don't have the things you have in your mind, but I can make us one. Isn't that good enough? Doesn't that make me something?)

Yes, Nera.

The wall at his back crinkled away into a solid pillar. The wooden ties above broke apart in a silent ballet of movement, spreading out into the leaves of a brilliant red and purple tree. Sound brought the scene to life, and he made out the thousand whispers of those leaves and the call of strange bulbous birds that bathed themselves in a cackling fountain not far from where he sat against the tree's trunk.

It was warm here and, oh, so strange.

A thick species of grass monopolized the ground, spongy and pale.

He wandered down and out of the group of trees that made a ring around the fount. A vast garden spread out before him. It was kept in perfect condition, and he was proud because it was he who kept it so.

From down in the dense floral array of blue, yellow and white, a woman's shape appeared. She gazed without guile on the colors as she strolled toward him. Her body carried no clothing, and he realized only then that he was in the same condition. It surprised him that he felt no impulse to cover himself. He was free.

"Hello," she said, with her usual warmth and familiarity.

As she drew nearer, her leanness came into detail. Her skin had a darkness to it that brought out every feature of her face and frame. There seemed something of veld in her, and something of human. A perfect blend of each. And she was not a girl, but a woman. In the prime of her existence, built by the mind of some master framer.

"Have you noticed how the hippotherions keep the grass cropped? They never let it crowd in around the flowers."

Yes, he had noticed. And he nodded. His eyes never wandered from her. Never had he seen her so resplendent. No flower had held his attention as she did today.

"Why do you stare at me so? Is there something amiss?"

"No," he said. "I was just noticing--" He wanted to say something but didn't know quite how. Impulsively, he lifted his hand and laid it upon her breast. She did not move, except to look up from his touch. "You have these."

"Yes." Her eyes seemed to search his face.

"Why do you have them? I know I shouldn't worry over it, because everything is so wonderful here, but it seems strange."

"Do they bother you? I would not annoy you--"

"No." His other hand came up and touched her other breast. "But I wonder. The hippotherions have them and I have seen their young feed from them."

"Yes. It is sweet. I enjoy watching them."

"But do you not want young?"

She blinked at him, then glanced down at his hands. Something stirred behind her eyes.

He withdrew. "I am sorry. I would not hurt you." He caressed her face and turned away to wander the garden.

"Don't be sorry," she said. It made him stop and he felt her press against his back. Her arm stretched around him, across his chest. "Why must we resist this?"

He nearly shrugged when a voice surprised him. "Do not question the Word."

They turned together and saw the nahashim, hanging from a parah tree nearby. Its three snake-like trunks coiled around different limbs of the tree, making the creature look voluminous and incomprehensible.

"You resist because you fear the wrath of the Gods. To act on your baser instincts is unjust, and the Gods are not unjust. You must do what is right."

He found himself squinting at the nahashim. Its preaching always seemed to eclipse the promise of joy and pleasure.

"But it is given to you to decide."

"Is it just that we should not have joy together?" He was surprised that she should be so frank with the nahashim.

"Your question comes from a selfish heart, woman. Selfishness is never the source of real joy."

It was hard to argue with the creature. It seemed to know everything, and it drove him and his helpmeet by the rod of fear. He felt a sudden surge in his chest, one that grew with such intensity that it astonished him. He found himself taking her by the hand and running through the garden, racing to hide himself from the nahashim.

She laughed, and it was a sound that made him ache inside. He wanted only her, to touch her, to have her, to sink into her and forget the boundaries of their world. But he knew it was selfishness and he frowned as they rolled down on the grass in the thicket below the flower gardens.

"What is it?" she said, catching her breath.`

"It's all wrong. I want you and cannot have you. Why would the Gods make me thus, that I should have these feelings?"

His words made her cry. Her dark eyes blinked at him and she touched his face. "Can it be selfish if I want you to have what you want? I am yours. I will bear you children. That is what I want."

"But is it right? Is there nothing of selfishness in your desires?"

"I do not know. And so I don't know the path to joy."

He found his hands upon her, and their faces together. And soon they were one; it made her weep. And somehow he knew it was the cry of joy and pain together.

And while he was loving her, the voice of the nahashim called down from above. "O man of flesh, the sword of justice hangeth over thee." And he couldn't stop loving her, but still found himself looking up at the nahashim's crystal-blue eyes. Then its face turned pale. It was a white face, made pink under the darkened sky. Eyes. Mouth. Nose. The man had to think about it. Yes, he knew this face. It was that of a--a veld. A farmer. One who had died. In his own chair.

The face smiled. Or was it a smile? "I'm sorry it has to be this way."
Now the woman cried like a baby as the creature’s two scaly limbs descended, reaching for him. The man could only stare back.

I never hated you.

"I'm sorry."

And she wept and cried and called out to him, and they both loved on in misery and joy as the nahashim whispered secrets.

Slowly, two fists grew up out of the limbs of the nahashim. Large, knuckly fists that grabbed a hold of him and lifted him onto his feet. They had vice grips on his shirt that forced him back against a jagged wall. The creature's center tail dropped down and split in half to form two legs.

And its black viper eyes squashed inward toward the nose and became Samuel's blue irises, turning round and round like machine gun belts.

"You little son-of-a-bitch! I knew I'd find you here!"

Mosiah couldn't speak, couldn't grasp where he was. There was crying coming up from the ground to his right.

"You only care about yourself!" Samuel's cinderblock fist came at him.

(Mosiah, what's happening?) He could hear her weeping in his head, and in his ears.

Please talk to me, he thought instinctively, because the sound of her voice was pleasant in here. In his mind.

(Mosiah!)

The fists showered down now, punching and punching. His nose split open as lightning cracked on the horizon of his mind, now here, now there.

(Mother! Caba! Somebody help me!) Her thoughts blasted off in every direction, he could see them. And it was pleasant, because he couldn't stay out there, where the lightning cracked.

His back hit the wall again, he thought, until he realized the warm flow moved outward across his cheeks. He was on his back. And now it was worse, because the cinder blocks rammed into his gut, and he needed to vomit.

Shadows flickered. He knew it was a struggle because Nera was still broadcasting. She had jumped on Samuel and gotten hold of his hair. He wasn't going to like that.

The danger suddenly woke Mosiah. When Samuel got himself free, he would try to kill her.

Mosiah found the coarse cement of the wall, and pushed himself up. Through the tears and blood smeared across his eyes, he made out Samuel hunched over with Nera holding tight to his hair. Samuel's fists swung parallel to the ground, hitting her waist and ribs. Mosiah’s anger boiled. She was a veld, built as slender as a fawn. Samuel found glee in crushing anything smaller than himself.
Mosiah's own fist erupted into the air and landed on the back of Samuel's head. Samuel growled louder and tried to spin away from her grip. She held on and Mosiah found his foot traveling swiftly toward Samuel's face. When the hit came, Samuel cried out, like a girl; Mosiah suddenly didn't know his own brother.
The force of the blow broke Nera's grip. Samuel rolled back against the wall, sobbing. Mosiah had never seen Samuel like this. The sight forced him to the wall too and he looked away.

He now saw the Toyota parked out in the sunlight, door open, engine running. Beyond the car, Caba marched down beside a veld woman.

They stopped near the car, and the woman looked at Nera, then to Samuel, and last to Mosiah.

"Leave here. Never come back." Her tone was like a final amen.

(Mother--)

(Come here.)

Mosiah could hear them, and the woman knew it. She wanted him to hear. (Come here, Nera!)

Nera rose and, sobbing, staggered to her mother. (Tell the boy good bye. Tell him never to come here again.)

(I can't!)

Mosiah found himself getting up, moving along the wall. He stumbled past the velds and started up the road.

(Mosiah!)

(Nera! Your father is dead because of them!)

He didn't look back. With every crunch of gravel under his soles, he heard her calling, and soon felt the blanket of her grief come over him.

(Mosiah!)

He walked on, and it made her voice draw into a tight little ball. It dwindled to a whisper and died.

The veld woman cried out.

Around him, the farmland became sloppy blues and greens, like a painting. He was crying tears.

His own mind would be a lonely place forever more.



Story copyright 2002 by T. Everett Cobb tecobb@qwest.net

Illustration copyright 2002 by David Sauma info@dreamescape.com



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