The Middle Distance

I nod, clumsy hands sweating
As they hold a phone to my ear,
But I cannot find words to answer
Beyond “mhmm” or “yeah” as my thoughts,
Tangled like my hand in my hair,
Lie in knots on the ground around me.
Knots I tied myself because this
Is harder for you than me.
You need to relay information
And I need to hold it together
So you can make another call after this one.

Continue reading

NaNoWriMo 2018 Day 24 (11/24)

Yesterday and today have been weird. Between getting booted off my laptop for a surprise Windows update and trying to arrange a visit with my grandparents, I haven’t had much opportunity to get my writing done. I only got six hundred words in once my computer had finished doing its update as it was almost midnight and I was dead tired from two nights of sleeping in an unfamiliar bed that felt akin to sleeping on a moss-covered boulder. I wanted to do more, but I just didn’t have it in me. I also wound up sleeping really well last night, so I overslept my planned wake-up time and didn’t have the time to write before I needed to get out of bed, pack, and head to my grandparent’s place. So now it’s after seven in the evening, I’m sitting in my friend’s living room because I need to be around My People after a stressful weekend, and I’m trying to jam out enough of a blog post that I can justify hitting that “Publish…” button.

Honestly, I should probably just get this up, write one hundred words so I can continue my update streak on the National Novel Writing Month website, and then stop writing for tonight, but I’ve given up on my daily word count so many times lately. I don’t want to keep doing that. I’ve got a lot to do in order to succeed with my goals this month and I can’t afford to keep making excuses. I don’t want to keep making excuses. I want to get my words done, but that’s a tall order when all I can think about is how thin and frail my grandfather felt when I hugged him on my way out the door. How small he’s gotten. How he was too tired to crack jokes. How he didn’t once refuse any of the assistance we offered him. He used to be as big as I am and it’s startling to see how small he’s gotten. In my car, I have clothes my grandmother bought him that are too big for him that would fit me. These are different from the last ones I got. Those were given to me as my grandparents moved to a smaller house and needed to free up some space. They were extra. These are almost new and just don’t fit him now that he’s lost so much weight.

This is one of those things that alters the course of your mind. I can feel my mental topography change and my thought’s about my grandfather show up in every mental space I have ever built. The mental image of my writing–the internal me slowly climbing a mountain without a clear path or a certain destination–is now done in the shadow of another mountain whose paths are all too clear. The empty darkness that is where my internal self lives, a place of calm emptiness where I go to get peace from the noise of my mental health issues and the noise of live, is no longer entirely dark. The ocean of my depression has a giant wave on the horizon that is moving at a speed I can’t detect, but I know it can crash over me at any moment without warning. There’s no escaping this.

I imagine I’d feel something similar if one of my parents was ill, but it’s hard to know. It’d probably be different and maybe worse in its own special way. My grandfather has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Some of my earliest memories involve him or stories about him. I remember when my sister was being born, the one who is only a couple of years younger than me. It is only a flash, a moment in time, a picture of a story someone once told me, but it’s still crystal clear. I remember my older brother and I playing some kind of game on the couch in the basement of their old home that involved taking the cushions off the couch. Maybe we were building a fort, maybe we just wanted to bounce on the springs of the couch, but our grandfather was there, watching over us as we played as he put up with our games in a way that let us know he’d rather be here with us than anywhere else. He was a bartender and union electrician until his retirement and he’s always been a tough old man in my eyes who still managed to avoid a lot of the more toxic bits of masculinity in his emotional dealings with us. That might just be the eyes of a child worshiping his favorite relative or the rose-colored glasses of an adult remembering his favorite relative since most of that side of the family has a tendency to engage in passive-aggressive bullshit more often than not, but it’s hard to believe I’ve imagined it entirely.

I want to be able to write about it, but I just don’t know how to fit him into a story. He’s always been a goofy, silly old man to me, and I don’t want to just drop him off somewhere that won’t do justice to the person I’ve seen my entire life. This is all still pretty recent and I’m pretty sure I just need more time to figure it out, but it’s hard to write anything without thinking him. I want to preserve a part of him in the stories I tell, just like I’ve got snapshots of so many people in my stories, but I haven’t spent as much time considering him like that. Even though I’m familiar with loss and the limitations of mortality thanks to the loss of high school classmates and my own traumas, some part of me just refused to accept that this man who always seemed bigger than me–even after I had an inch on him–would one day no longer be. I still don’t want to believe it.

Everything comes to an end eventually. There is a price to be paid for everything, even life. I’ve gotten a lot of life and happiness out of my grandfather, especially considering I know so many people whose parents have already passed on. I just always hoped it would be longer. I mean, out of all my grand-relatives, I always kind of figured he’d be around the longest. I feel kind of crappy saying that, but it’s true. Now I have to face the fact that it isn’t and I’m having a hard time reconciling my feelings and my knowledge. Especially when I’m struggling to figure out how to write about it.

I’m going to eat some kind of alcoholic desert my friend made and rejoin the group for a little bit, but I think I might take the night off from my National Novel Writing Month project and try my hand at writing about a man who is leaving a shadow larger than life. I hope your day was productive and I hope you manage to reach your writing goals today. Good luck.

 

Daily Prompt

One of the big Fantasy series I have been enjoying lately is Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive. Despite being made up of three (of ten, according to what I’ve read) giant Fantasy tomes, his stories are fun, quick, and refreshing. This gigantic, sweeping series features a world that is different from most fantasy worlds I’ve read. The powers are novel, the means of getting powers relies on rules that are slowly being revealed but are incredibly interesting, and everything originally from the world has some kind of carapace because of the regular storms that swing through the area or is otherwise incredibly hardy to account for how insane the weather is compared to ours. Beyond all that, the stories aren’t afraid to confront difficult issues or show how terrible people can become good people. The effects of trauma, the reality of depression, and complexity of doing bad things for good reasons are all addressed (incredibly well) throughout the series.

 

Sharing Inspiration

How does your protagonist respond to interpersonal conflict? Are they a pot-stirrer, or do they hate the idea of being involved in the nitty-gritty of other people’s lives? Some people immensely enjoy setting up conflicts between people and some people would literally rather die than engage in any kind of emotional or verbal conflict, let alone a physical one. How does your protagonist feel about them? Is it something they can handle easily or is it going to be a struggle they’re going to need to muddle through? Write a scene showing them responding to or engaging in some kind of conflict.

 

Helpful Tips

Don’t chain yourself to continuity when you’re writing. If you get hit by a great idea for something that’s pretty far down the line from where you’re currently writing, pursue it. Don’t put it aside and expect to remember it when the time comes. The same goes for entire scenes or chapters. Or plot points. Or books. If an idea comes to you, record it. The idea might change as time passes and it might not fit when you finally get to it, but it’ll still inform how you write the parts around it. Maybe it’ll bring you back to an element of the story you lost between writing that section and reaching it. No matter what, though, it’ll be worth recording because at least it’ll get the idea down somewhere so you can keep your mind focused on moving the story along rather than trying to juggle story pieces that showed up ahead of their moment.

Saturday Morning Musing

In most of my circles, social and professional, I’m known for having long hair. Typically, I grow my hair out for two years, get a buzz cut, donate all the hair, and then let it grow for another two years. Because my hair grows very quickly when it’s short, I spend a lot of that two-ish years with what would be considered “long” hair for a guy. Right now, it’s long enough to touch the bottoms of my shoulder blades and I’ve gotten to the point where I’m wearing it up or pulled back almost all of the time because it makes my neck sweat during the summer and always falls in front of my face when I’m configuring hardware at work. Which also means I’m considering cutting it.

This time is a little different, though. Now, in my mid-to-late twenties (I’m getting close to twenty-seven), male pattern baldness is firmly taking grasp of my head and my hair is thinning to the point where it doesn’t seem to be growing any longer, aka my hair is falling out faster than it’s growing back. I’ve always had a pronounced widow’s peak, but now I’m getting a widow’s mountain and the peak is slowly sinking back into the rest of the mountain.

There are plenty of options out there for the man who wishes to fight back nature and hold on to his hair, but most of them are a lot of work and no method is certain to work. Nor is any method cheap. I wouldn’t call them expensive, especially in terms of medical procedures or many life-sustaining medications, but they cost enough that I’d have a hard time justify sticking them into my budget since they’re nowhere near necessary. I like having hair. I like long hair I can pull back, that is thrown around on windy days and can that I can run my hands through when I’m busy thinking about something (stroking your beard only works for so long, so it’s good to have a backup). However, I’m not so attached to the idea of having hair that I’m going to freak out about losing it or spare no expense in trying to prevent it from disappearing entirely.

Honestly, I’m pretty lazy and only started growing my hair out originally because I didn’t want to take the time or spend the money to go to a barbershop in college. Donating it just became an easy, go-to explanation to give when strangers (usually older people) would inevitably demand to know why I had such long hair. However, after donating it the first time and getting to see the wig made from my hair (there was actually a local organization that’d take your hair, turn it into a wig, and donate it to the big cancer center nearby), I decided to stick with it. It kept my life easy, did a good thing, and I got to enjoy having long hair without needing to deal with too many “get a haircut, hippy” comments. I’d like to keep growing it out and donating it, if I can. I think that’s a good cause and it makes me feel good to be able to contribute something.

That being said, I’m getting to the point where I’m not sure how well my hair’s going to grow back after I get it cut the next time. I’m pretty sure the length of my hair has done a fair amount to conceal just how thin it’s getting up top. Without some kind of medical or pharmaceutical intervene, this next haircut will probably be the end of growing it out. One of my uncles had the same problem around the age I’m at now. He had long hair and, when he got it trimmed for a wedding, it never really grew back enough for him to want to let it grow out.

To make matters worse, my beard is still slowly filling out because genetics. I apparently inherited the slow-arriving-but-eventually-thick facial hair from my mom’s side of the family and the once-per-generation male pattern baldness from my dad’s side of the family, so I’m pretty follicly challenged. The only thing I’ve really got going for me is how soft all of my hair is. Which doesn’t count for much when most of my hair is going to be on my arms and legs a year or two from now. The chances are good that I’m going to go bald but, unlike all of my bald associates and family members (there are only two of them and they’re both on my father’s side), I won’t be able to grow a lustrous beard to compensate for it. Which is a total bummer. I want nothing more out of my hair than to eventually have a giant wizard beard. I feel like that shouldn’t be too much to ask considering how hairy I am in general, but my beard is still slowly working on connecting over my upper lip.

Personally, I’m getting to the point where I kind of want to just shave my head. For one thing, I feel like a nice big change is exactly what my life needs right now. I already moved my room around, so maybe I should just change something about myself if I really want to feel like something is different now. For another thing, I’d save a lot of money on shampoo and a lot of time in my morning routine if I no longer had hair that needed washing, combing, and drying. Plus, it’d be easy to maintain. Heck, I could ask my roommates to just buzz my head clean every week and then I’d never need to do anything but buy a new trimmer every few years. Or I could learn to do it myself, since I’ll like live with the remnants of my hair for the rest of my life, just like my grandfather and uncle. Aside from the need to shave/trim regularly, going bald would make everything much easier.

I’d just really miss having long hair. I enjoy having it and not needing a hat during the winter because it keeps my ears cold. At some point, probably soon, I need to make a decision. Shell out the money to try to get my hair back into sustainable condition or commit the bald look and figure out where to stop trimming near my ears so my beard looks natural. Is it where the sideburn reaches its consistent width, or is it level with the part of my ear that connects to my head? Or do I just trim to until the hair is all the same color (my facial hair is a reddish-brown and my head-hair is dark brown)? There are so many unanswered questions and I don’t really care enough to seek out the answers. Maybe the knowledge will just come to me when I pick the bald route. Spontaneous knowledge, like my parents expected to happen when I first started growing facial hair.

Is it common for parents to not teach their kids how to shave, or was that just me? My childhood was weird, so I’m not sure I can take my own experiences growing up as an indicator of the general way things go…

 

 

Filling

When the days are long
And everything turns to ash
At your touch;

When your favorite things
Are just another way to forget
The march of time;

When you pour in words
Or images like an alcoholic
Pours drinks;

When you escape with
Fleeting success the drudgery
Of your life;

When you are simply
Trying to fill the hole inside
With anything, like dropping coins
Into a well–
              Coins carrying dreams
              And whispered prayers
              As if the weight of each
              Did more than weigh
              Down your soul–
Hoping that the next one
Is all that you really needed
To fill it up;

Do you ever fill the whole inside?

Morning Coffee

Harris woke to the scent of frying bacon, birdsong, and early-morning sunlight. He blinked his eyes, trying to adjust to the light from the window Linda had thrown open.

“C’mon, get up!”

Harris pulled the blankets over his head. Linda sat down on the bed, pulled the blanket back, and gave him a kiss on the nose. “If you wait too long, breakfast is going to get cold!”

Harris smiled as Linda pulled the sheet back, putting up only a token resistance as she hauled him out of bed. “Alright, alright.” Harris pushed himself to his feet and hugged his wife. “You win.” After putting on his bathrobe and new slippers, he followed his wife’s singing down the stairs to the kitchen. He watched as she flipped pancakes for a moment and then started making coffee. Five minutes later, they were eating.

“I’ve got a few errands to run, Harris, but I’ll be back shortly after one.”

“Alright. I’m going to work on getting our taxes filed after I clean up here. Should be done before you’re back.” He smiled at Linda.

He lifted his mug to take a sip, but the handle slipped in his hands and hot coffee poured into his lap. Even as he leapt out of the chair, part of his brain pulled at him and, instead of a coffee stain on his robe, he was looking at his bedroom.

The shades were drawn and the window was closed. The air smelled faintly of sweat. He looked around his room and tried to see it as he had when he was still asleep. He tried to remember his wife as she had looked that morning, but all he could remember was how her face had looked when she handed him the divorce papers later that day.

Coldheart and Iron: Part 8

READ FROM THE BEGINNING


I pushed open the door and took in the scene unfolding in the clear space between empty animal stalls. Standing in two groups, the nomads and laborers were yelling at each other. In between them was Camille and a few Wayfinders with guns trained on the floor. I could see Camille shouting to make herself heard over the hubbub as the rest of the Wayfinders caught between angry mobs uneasily thumbed their safeties. All the other Wayfinders were sitting near their guns and the nomad children were huddled in a corner away from all the commotion with the older woman sitting in front of them.

The scent of hamburgers and my extreme hunger set aside, I tossed my gear to the ground and hurried over to the two groups, waving my arms. As I jogged up, I locked eyes with Camille who grimaced and then fired her gun into the far barn door. As the sharp crack of her rifle faded, silence fell and the two groups became aware that I was shouting at them.

“What is going on here? I want you and you” I pointed to one person from each group, a woman from the nomads and the laborer who stood furthest forward, “to explain to me why you aren’t behaving like adults. While they’re doing that, I want everyone else at opposite sides of the barn. Hands kept clearly visible or I’ll send Wayfinders to find out why they aren’t.” I crossed my arms  and glared from one group to the other. “You couldn’t just sit and eat your dinner in peace?”

The two groups, shepherded by armed Wayfinders, retreated to opposite sides of the barn. A few people from each group shot bashful looks in my direction, but no one split off from their group. After a quick whispered conference, the laborers sent the man I’d pointed at over. He was the friend of the man who had been getting aggressive with Laura a few days ago.  He started to speak, but I held up my finger to silence him while I waited for a nomad to join us. When they finally sent the woman over a couple of minutes later, I pointed at the laborer. “Speak.”

“These idiots led the bandits to us. It is their fault our friends died.” He clenched his fists and his jaw for a moment, but relaxed them a moment later. “We just want them to accept responsibility for these needless deaths.” After a moment of silence, I pointed to the nomad woman who was positively bristling.

“My wife wouldn’t have died if it weren’t for these assholes! If they had any ability to defend themselves, none of the bandits would have gotten close enough to kick down the door and kill my family.” The woman’s voice broke and she clenched her fists. “If only they had been better, Elaine would still be…” She broke into tears and I braced myself to stop her from lunging at the laborer, but the tension drained out of her body and she covered her face.

The laborer turned to step toward the nomad, clearly uncomfortable but unwilling to back down. “If they had come to where we were instead of trying new windows, no one-”

“That’s quite enough.” I grabbed the laborer’s shoulder and pushed him back a couple of steps. “I know both of you lost people today, on top of what must have been an exhausting night and day. I’m not going to ask that you calm down or control yourselves, because grief is important and should not be denied. You should mourn however you see fit, just do it without blaming other people.”

I turned to the laborer. “You all signed waivers. You knew this could happen at any time and that some of you would probably die.” I waved my hand as he started to speak and then put it on his shoulder in an attempt to be somewhat comforting. “Yes, this was awful, but we’re not safe yet. Surviving until after the blizzard should be our focus for right now. We can rest and mourn once we have taken shelter for a few days.” I patted his shoulder and then turned to the nomad.

“Your group has lived outside of an enclave for years. You all knew the risks you took. I’m sorry about your wife and your friends, but the laborers are not to blame for their death. These things happen and we need to stay strong and work together if we’re going to prevent any more loss of life.”

While the laborer stared at the ground and the nomad wiper her tears away, I sighed. “I know how hard it can be to lose people. I’m a Wayfinder because I’ve got no one left to me but this family I’ve created. I’ve buried my own share of people. They were there and then they were gone. There’s no sense to it.” I paused to clear my throat and master the emotion roiling through me before quietly continuing. “I had to do it again today.”

I paused to clear my throat again, letting my feelings of loss and failure to protect my people and those we had taken under our protection wash over me for a moment before pushing them away again. “None of us is alone in our grief. If we want to get through this, we need to support each other. The blame for today’s death lies with the bandits and they’re all dead.”

The laborer shuffled his feet and, after a deep breath, looked up at me. “Thank you for your help, Wayfinder Marshall. I think we all would have died without your aid.” I nodded, and was about to express my condolences, but he cut me off as he stiffened his back and his eyes hardened into a glare. “The thing is, though, we all paid good money to be guided and protected. Sure, we signed a waiver. But we also had a contract!” He crossed his arms and clenched his jaw, but his glistening eyes betrayed the hurt and frustration he felt. “Bringing these people to our group violated that contract!” His voice lost a little bit of its steam and I could hear the hitch in his voice, even if he did his best to hide it. “And it brought the bandits down on us.”

“The person responsible for breaking the contract has been punished according to our rules.” I shifted my stance a little, trying to look a little more stern but still conciliatory. “We did everything we could to guarantee your safety. What’s done is done and I will not tell you who is responsible for that decision. If you have any problems, you come to me. If you try taking issue with any of my people, they will direct you to me.”

“Thank you, Captain, I will make sure to speak with you if anything else comes up.” The laborer nodded, arms still crossed and back rigid, but this time all traces of sadness were gone from his face “In the meantime, I’d like to discuss our refund.”

I hid my surprise and mounting frustration by going into business mode, all expression gone from my face and all emotion gone from my voice. “Your refund.” I arched an eyebrow at him and let a little disbelief and the tiniest trace of humor I didn’t feel seep into my voice.

“Yes.” The laborer cleared his throat. “Since someone in your organization violated our contract, we’d like our money back.”

“We can discuss this later. This is for the two of us to talk about alone, rather than in front of this woman.” I nodded to the nomad woman who was still sniffling. “Is there anything else I can do to help you, ma’am? Or are you and your group ready to retire for the night?”

She nodded and wiped her eyes one last time. “If you cannot guarantee our safety or give us space away from these poor marksmen, we’d prefer to break off on our own.”

I calmly took a deep breath before answering, trying to keep the anger I felt out of my voice. We spent valuable resources and lost people trying to save both of these groups and they were turning on us. “You can do that, if you like. You will have to leave everything we gave you behind, though. All of the weapons and gear we’ve recovered from the bandits, too. Everything you didn’t bring yourselves.”

“No.” She folded her arms across her chest, matching the laborer, and her face went from watery and sad to commanding in an instant. “We fought and died for those. We’re entitled to a one-third share of everything from the bandits.”

“Like hell you are!”  The laborer stepped forward again, dropping his arms and balling his fists. “If it wasn’t for you, we wouldn’t have been attacked. You’d all be dead if it wasn’t for us!”

She sniffed derisively. “And that’s why we get a share. You defended us, but you wouldn’t have gotten anything without us.”

I stepped in between then, pushing the laborer back as his face turned red and he raised a fist. Part of me wanted to laugh at the absurdity of it all, but the rest of me wanted to curl up and cry after eating as much as I could. I settled for remaining calm and neutral. “Stop it.” I turned to the woman. “Wayfinders have rights to all items looted as a result of action on their part. You’re using them because it’s worth our while to invest in you protecting yourselves. If you leave, you leave everything but what you brought. We’re guiding you for free and you are lucky we don’t just take everything you have of value in payment.

“And you!” I rounded on the laborer. The physical and emotional exhaustion I felt starting to wear away the calm facade I had been propping up. “Go back to your group and cool off. I’ll come find you after dinner and we can discuss the contract.  I can tell you now that it won’t change anything. You’re not getting your money back.The field decisions clause means any decision I make in the field will not violate the contract. The conditions outside of the enclave cannot be predicted beforehand.” I gestured for him to return to his group. “You should still have the paper copy you all signed. Read through while you wait. Let me know if you find any holes.”

I turned my back on the man, but shot a glance at Camille, who was watching from a dozen steps away. She nodded, letting me know he’d walked away. I turned my attention back to the nomad woman. “Is there anything else?”

She shook her head. “No. We’ll stick with your group, for now. I’m sure you can expect a poor net review when we get to an enclave.”

I laughed as she walked away, absurdity winning out. “The world doesn’t work like that anymore. The net may still exist, but Yelp sure as hell doesn’t.” I was still chuckling but getting close to tears when Camille walked up a minute later.

I nodded, surreptitiously wiping my eyes. “Thanks for keeping an eye on us. I didn’t think it would come to the point where you’d need to intervene, but everyone was a lot angrier than I expected.”

Camille shrugged. “It never hurts to be prepared.” Camille stood to attention and saluted. “I’m officially handing command back to you, sir. We’re back to people stuff and I’m ready for my first sleep in almost three days.”

“Thank you.” I saluted Camille. “Rest up. I have a feeling we’ll need to keep an eye on these two groups for a while yet.”

Camille grunted and walked off toward the Wayfinder campfire and her bedroll. “Yeah. Especially if we’re going to all be cooped up together for a week or more during that blizzard.” I sighed and followed her, trying to be more optimistic about the likely results of our next few weeks. All I could see in our future, though, was a bunch of fist-fights and more anger. Even though it would be ideal, there would be no way for us to have two separate shelters prepared and stocked in the few days we had left before the next blizzard.

 

Coldheart and Iron: Part 7

READ FROM THE BEGINNING


The final tally of the dead was worse than I had hoped but not as bad as I had feared. Six dead laborers, a dozen dead nomads, and two dead Wayfinders. Most of the injured survived, except the one Wayfinder whose wounds claimed him about two hours after the battle ended. Most of the dead had been in the farmhouse, where the bandits had crashed through the door on the tail of their flashbang.

The nomads’ medic was one of the guards in the basement, so he got to work right away after we gave them the all-clear and was instrumental in saving a couple of the more injured laborers and nomads. He worked with Jonathan, our medic, to stabilize everyone we could before we moved them all into the barn to recover, rest, and hide while half of the uninjured Wayfinders scouted to make sure there were no more bandits around.

I personally led the squad to follow the tracks of the group that snuck up on us. It was relief to discover they had split off from the main force before they were in sight of the bandit’s base camp, even if it was frustrating to see how our scouting had failed us. We got back to the farmhouse around ten a.m. and immediately went to work digging graves with the other able-bodied Wayfinders. A mass grave for the bandits and individual graves for everyone else.

Around noon, the laborers and nomads emerged from the barn and started lending a hand. They knew as well as we did that the bodies needed to be buried by nightfall, and they wanted time to lay their friends and family to rest. They just needed more recover after the firefight than we did. Around five in the afternoon, the last shovel of dirt was placed, the last words were said, and any Wayfinder not preparing to leave in the morning was busy hiding all traces of the battle.

Camille was busy with after-action reports and Natalie was updating the supply logs with Jonathan, so I took Lucas aside to help me scatter snow over the graves. We worked in silence as the sun set until the last glimmers of light were disappearing through the haze of clouds coating the sky.

“You should have checked with me first.”

Lucas didn’t say anything. He stopped working and started off toward the setting sun. I let him have his silence for another minute before speaking again.

“I know the nomads would have been captured or worse if we hadn’t done anything, but we’ve lost six of the people who paid us to get them safely across the tundra and you broke one of the biggest rules of the Wayfinders. Again.”

“What do you want from me, Marshall?” Lucas turned to look at me, his usual grin replaced by a mixture of sadness and anger.  “I see people in need, and I want to help them. You would do the same thing, if you found people running for their life.” Lucas sighed and looked down at his feet. “Or at least you would have. I don’t know anymore.”

I stared at my oldest friend and tried to keep my roiling emotions off of my face. “We have rules, Lucas.” His head snapped up, eyes meeting mine and face as carefully neutral as mine. “Over the past fifteen years, we’ve added more and more rules as what we’ve done has turned from a past-time to fund our searches into something bigger than-”

“Than helping people?” Lucas stepped toward me, lowering his voice so no one would overhear. “We started this whole organization in order to help people, Marshall, or have you forgotten that?” I clenched my hands but kept my face neutral as the roiling was replaced by indignation and anger. Some part of me knew that we were both tired, Lucas especially so since he hadn’t gotten much rest the night before all of this had started, either. I took a moment of silence to try to calm down a little, to resist the urge to knock him down, but he took my silence as an answer.

He took another step towards me, getting in my face and dropping his voice to a hiss. “Are you so caught up in playing ‘King Cowboy in the New Frontier’ that you don’t remember what this was all about?”

I punched Lucas in the solar plexus and swept one of his legs. It felt good to be standing over him, but I knew he was just as angry as I was, if not angrier. I relaxed my fists and arms, looked up at the sky, and took a deep breath. I acknowledged the part of me that knew I messed up and tried to get the anger I felt under control. This wasn’t the first time we’d had this argument and it probably wouldn’t be the last.

When I looked down again, he was still on the ground, clutching his chest and gasping for breath. I squatted down next to him and, after he’d recovered enough to stop squirming, I grabbed his shoulder. “Dude, you can’t keep saying stuff like this. You know I don’t think that. You know why I started all this. You know why I’m STILL a Wayfinder after almost twenty years of fruitless searching.”

“That’s…” Lucas gasped and coughed. “That’s no excuse. If anything…”

I felt the anger creeping back and tried to keep myself calm. “You know better than anyone else what this disaster has cost me. You’ve got family and friends you could be living with instead of wandering around out here. You chose this life. This life is all I have.” I sat down next to him and rubbed my face.

I took another deep breath and softened my tone a little more, trying to sound a little more apologetic. “I would have helped them, that’s not the problem. That’s not the rule you’re in trouble for breaking. You knowingly led a group of bandits back to our group. You compromised our secrecy and, as a result, people died that otherwise wouldn’t have if you had followed protocol.”

Lucas glared at me as he pushed himself into an upright sitting position. His voice was angrier that mine had been and I was glad that almost everyone else had gone into the barn. No one else would be able to hear us if we started shouting. “Protocol would have meant taking them to Chicago and they had just been chased away from there! What good would that have done them?”

“More good than this would have.” I gestured at the graves we were sitting near. “You could have taken them to Rockford instead. That’s much closer than Chicago and you would have been able to get them there by tomorrow morning if you pushed them hard enough. They’d have been safe behind the walls of the enclave there.”

“And risked getting shot at while trying to push children and elderly at a quick pace? We’d have had to leave that old woman behind in order to have a chance of making it, because she’s too big to carry.”

“At least then everyone else would have had a chance.” I stood up. “Also, I’m pretty sure that old woman could have outpaced most of the other nomads.” I chuckled, trying to lighten the mood.

“Sure, then she would have had an equal chance to get shot in the back, just like everyone else..” Lucas started struggling to his feet. I offered him a hand but he smacked it away and glared at me instead.

“Stop arguing. You know I’m right or else you’d have hit me back by now.”

Lucas slipped in the partially melted snow I’d been sitting on and he fell over again. He shot me another dirty look from his place in the snow before just laying back and covering his eyes. “I can’t even stand up, much less strike a superior officer right now. I’m too tired. Couldn’t this have waited until after we found shelter for next week’s blizzard?” He let his arms fall to the side and picked his head up to meet my eyes. “Or at least until after I’ve gotten some sleep?”

I shook my head. “I’m sorry I hit you, Lucas. That was way out of line and I know you don’t really think I’ve forgotten anything. I wish this could wait, but we have to talk about this today. If nothing happens to you, if there isn’t a clear resolution about what happened, then the laborers, the nomads, and the Wayfinder trainees will start to wonder about why their friends and loved ones are dead. I wouldn’t be surprised if we have a problem with the laborers before the week is out.”

I offered Lucas my hand again and, after a moment’s hesitation, he took it. “They paid us to keep them safe.” I grunted as I hauled Lucas to his feet. “They all know that nothing is certain out here and that we couldn’t guarantee their safety, but this will be a hard thing for them to handle. All the trainees now realize just how likely it is that they’ll die out here if they stick to guiding large groups. This will seem like a slap on the wrist to them, but you did break a rule and these are the recommended consequences.”

Lucas took a step back after he gained his feet and brushed the snow off his pants and coat. “Yeah, that you wrote.” His voice was calmer, but I knew I’d need to do more to make it up to him than apologize.

I nodded. “You’re still head of the scouts, but your pay for this trip is going into the death benefits of our dead Wayfinders and you’re demoted to Lieutenant. Once we’re back in an enclave, we’ll look into getting you promoted again since the only reason you’re not higher ranked is that we don’t have higher ranks. No matter what, though, your pay won’t change for future jobs”

I stared at him, stony-eyed, while I waited for him to acknowledge my orders. After a another few swipes at snow that was no longer there and a deep breath, he saluted. “As you say, Captain.”

“Good.” I nodded and gestured toward the barn. “Now let’s finish up so we can go inside, eat, and get some sleep.”

Once we had finished, we walked off toward the barn. Someone had set up a LED floodlight near the door so we could finished up. Once we got near the door and started taking packing up the flood light, my nose detected the first hints of someone making hamburgers. My stomach growled in response and I was suddenly struck by the realization that it had been over twenty-four hours since I had eaten. I was so focused on the hamburgers that it took Lucas pointing it out for me to realize that the noise I was hearing was shouting coming from the inside barn. I left Lucas to finish up and, rushed inside. When I saw what was going on, my heart fell.

Through the Eyes of a Statue

Everything seemed so quick. The little creatures around it moved faster than it could track, but it enjoyed watching the blur of their movement. The humans were respectful, ensuring the constant exposure to the elements and birds did nothing to damage it. It didn’t really mind the birds, seeing as they moved even faster than the humans, but it did enjoy the colder months when the birds were scarce.

There was a door at the statue’s feet and something through that door attracted many humans and their companion creatures. It suspected that the door led to whatever was behind it. It couldn’t turn to look, but it could feel the reassuring weight of something even larger than itself at its back.

It was so long since it had first opened its eyes and seen the wonderous world around it. The area had changed drastically since then, as the humans molded the world to their will. Once it was the tallest. Now it was dwarfed by the structures around it, whose height passed beyond its sight. It could not turn its head and it missed the sky, but there had been so much going on below that it had not cared.

The humans and their creatures had stopped coming around, though. There had been rumbling and a bright light. Most of the humans had vanished, leaving behind black smudges everywhere. There were some humans left and they still moved quickly, but not as fast as they once did. The statue was sad to see them go, but it thought they would be back. There had always been humans around it.

For now there were the plants growing where the humans once occupied. They moved much more slowly, and it enjoyed that. Maybe the humans would too, once they came back.