# Math class taught me that rules are to be broken

Math is all about rules, right? Immutable axioms come together to prove still more complex phenomena. Truth does not change with the times or with popular opinion, or even with new scientific insights. Some might find that comforting, others boring, but it wasn’t how I learned math.

Let me tell you one of the first things I learned in math. One is the smallest number. When you lift a finger, you start counting at one. Before that is not a number, it’s just nothing. My math universe consisted of the “natural” numbers, and the only way it grew was when I learned bigger natural numbers. To tell my friends that they were poopy heads times one thousand was much more impressive than times one hundred (roughly ten times, I’d say) and to tell them they were wrong times infinity was deeply gratifying. If I saw an empty desk, there weren’t “zero apples” on the desk, there just weren’t anything.

Soon after, I learned that before I started counting I was at zero, and my understanding of math expanded to the whole numbers. The whole world was packed with zero of anything I could imagine. It was an exciting but somewhat unsettling time, knowing that at any given moment I was both in possession of zero raspberry cheesecakes and moments away from becoming the victim of zero rampaging Tyrannosaurus Rexes. The only time I was not in possession of zero raspberry cheesecakes was when I was in possession of one or more raspberry cheesecakes. If I ate my cheesecake I would be back to zero, and I would have to stop because, of course, there is nothing less than zero.

Enter the integers. If somehow I ate a raspberry cheesecake that was not there, I could find myself in debt one raspberry cheesecake. I tried to imagine what it meant to have a negative number of raspberry cheesecakes, and the image that always came to my mind looked like an undeveloped photograph (appropriately called a “negative”), or a digital picture with its colors inverted in Photoshop. This black cheesecake with cyan raspberry sauce would sit on my desk, I imagined, generating stress and consternation from all around until I hoarded my allowance and bought another raspberry cheesecake to carefully line up with the anti-cheesecake until it popped into place, and both vanished, leaving me again with the ever-present zero cheesecakes.

I still worried that I would be in trouble if I ever had more friends come to my birthday party than I had cheesecakes to give. If one friend came and I took no cheesecakes for myself, I could make do with just one cheesecake. Advancing through grade school, though, I learned that with even just one cheesecake I could serve two, even three friends. I could serve eight friends or a thousand friends, provided they did not mind getting one one thousandth of a cheesecake. This raised a terrible prospect – what if zero friends came to my birthday? Solemn-faced, my math teacher Mrs. Fraction told me that I could not divide my cake among zero people. The results would be undefined, and I shuddered to try and picture an undefined amount of cheesecake. It felt to me like zero cheesecakes, a whole universe of cheesecakes, and a whole universe of black and cyan anti-cheesecakes. I took Mrs. Fraction’s warning to heart and promised I would never allow a birthday to happen with zero friends.

By this time I understood square roots, and the first matter of square roots was that, since a square is always positive, the root of a square may be positive or negative. A negative number does not have a square root, so my teacher Mr. Algebra taught me. From Mrs. Precalculus, I learned that square roots of negative numbers still did not exist, but that didn’t mean mathematicians didn’t sometimes dress up in long white lab coats and thick goggles, shout “eureka!” and pretend that they had discovered them. That is, the mysterious quantity that when multiplied by itself would become an anti-cheesecake was something familiar to all children – imaginary. So, if I could imagine the square root of my raspberry cheesecake imaginary square root of raspberry cheesecake times I would end up with a real life anti-cheesecake. I knew that anti-cheesecake only provoked consternation and judgement and cost a whole positive cheesecake to get rid of, so I never tried this experiment.

So I could take the square root of a negative number, or at least pretend to, but I remembered my vow to Mrs. Fraction. One thing I could never do, never ever, was take my cheesecake and give it to zero people to share. One of my less responsible or possibly less honest friends claimed to have tried this. He was fond of chili cheese dogs with relish. He donned his older brother’s football helmet, then for safety he hid in a pillow fort behind the couch and sent his little sister to place the chili cheese dog with relish on an empty table where there were precisely zero people to share it. My friend reported that the chili cheese dog with relish did not fill the entire universe, it did not turn cyan with red relish and a purple bun. It did not even do so much as disappear until his father came along and subtracted one chili cheese dog with relish, licking his lips and telling my friend to wash the table. My friend concluded that one divided by zero was in fact one, but I suspected there might be something wrong with his experiment, and thank goodness. I would not want to live in a universe packed entirely with chili cheese dogs with relish or even raspberry cheesecake. Eating food is fun, but wading through it to get to the bus each morning and having to eat it just to make room to breathe seemed less so.

All these terrifying prospects returned with a vengeance when Mr. Calculus told the class that we were going to divide by zero. I raised my hand and asked Mr. Calculus if this was wise, but he assured me that the secret is knowing whether you are dividing by negative zero or positive zero. That flew in the face of what Mr. Algebra had taught me that zero is neither positive or negative, but here Mr. Calculus admitted that we were not exactly dividing by zero. We were also not simply imagining that we could divide by zero, Heaven forbid. To divide by zero, you divide by x as x approaches zero. Think of the smallest possible number. Think of it as literally infinitely small. If you divide by that, you know what you get. If it’s an infinitely small positive number you get infinity, if negative, negative infinity. As long as there’s the slightest fraction of a friend coming to my party, I at least know what is going to happen to my raspberry cheesecake. Just to be safe, I still make sure that I’m among the people sharing. One raspberry cheesecake divided by one is one raspberry cheesecake.

# The Sympathetic Universe Part 25

Eloy remembered. Hesitantly, he sloughed off his decrepit old body. He reached out to Gabriel, who at this point it was needless to say was not in Hell.

“That was a terrible game,” they agreed. Gabriel’s god chimed in, “Eloy, it was fine until your god wrecked it.”

“That game was WRECKED from the START,” said Eloy’s god.

“Why are you still talking like that?” Angel’s god snapped, “You don’t see me trying to communicate by sending you all cryptic visions.”

“If you don’t mind,” said Mr. Tiger, “Some of us are still playing. Destiny is so close to second place.”

“A DIS-TANT second place. Eloy, I’m still LAUGH-ING from your conviction that I was your mother. I went through an no-IN-TER-VEN-TION version of Eloy’s life before we started the game, so if AN-Y-THING, I’m YOU from the future! It’s A-MAZ-ING how we become our parents, I suppose.”

Eloy wasn’t amused. Part of him agreed that this was just a silly game, but a larger part of him felt like this was his life. “You let me believe I was fighting to not go to Hell.”

“And HOW HARD you fought, my child.”

Eloy said nothing. He turned to the game. The whole universe was a few astronomical units in every direction. Most of it was just there to avoid having to hand-engineer the day cycle, the seasons, and the weather. The whole thing was copied from a few thousand BC, with Camp Virtue placed in what would be Yellowstone National Park.

Eloy watched Eliza, Destiny, and his children stand at his pyre. He wondered how he could already be declared the victor if there were still two people playing, so he checked the score.

GABRIEL: 10,442 Points

ANGEL: 25,321 Points

DESTINY: 30,001 Points

ELIZA: 30,125 Points

ELOY: 246,681 Points

Well, that explained that. Destiny delivered the eulogy and got another ten points. Eliza had graciously let Destiny deliver the eulogy, which earned her twenty points. This system really was a terrible one. With the help of his god, Eloy had pinpointed the highest-return virtues in the game and exploited them to achieve an order of magnitude higher virtue than anyone else without really being a substantially better person. That and learning that really nothing was on the line in the end made it all seem pretty pointless.

None of the next generation were on the scoreboard. Eloy’s common sense told him that they were just products of the universe. More than not being part of the competition, they wouldn’t have any consciousness until someone decided to try living their lives, which, this being a minor spin-off universe, would likely never happen. The notion was an affront to the mortal Eloy he still strongly identified as being.

“Gabriel, Angel,” Eloy asked, “would you and your gods like to play another game?”

“No,” all four entities answered in unison.

“No, no, a different game. I was thinking we could take out the whole point aspect. We don’t really need to have just one winner. Instead of trying to optimize virtue using a sloppy scoring function, what if we just helped our charges lead meaningful lives that make sense to them? I also would suggest that we don’t relocate everyone to a camp in a deserted universe. We ended up pretty stunted with no other people around.”

Their silence suggested he had their attention. “When this game is done, let’s take Robert, Avery, and Janet. Don’t separate them, just move them into another world with people. We can pick some other people too so Destiny and Eliza can join. Since it’s a shared universe, no altering it except for communicating with your chosen. Also no fast-forwarding or rewinding – we have to all operate in the same time at the same time.”

“Honestly, that sounds boring,” Eloy’s god said.

“I was thinking I’d just go off and do my own thing for a while,” said Gabriel.

“Fine, so the eight of us can mix and match mortals and gods. Sound fun?”

This seemed like a reasonable idea and it met with general approval.

“Ok, I’ll start setting up a world while this game finishes up.”

Soon, Eloy was watching Avery from outside time and space. Unbeknownst to herself, Avery was the same entity that had been her late mother Eliza. Her eldest brother Robert used to be the god to a severely displaced French Monk named Gabriel, and her older sister Janet was the consciousness of their aunt Destiny. They were charged with raising one little child, formerly Angel’s god, with advice from the god formerly known as The Grasshopper. Eloy had left the naming of this child up to the mortals. He even insisted on this when Avery won the game of Super-Chess to decide who would get to pick the name and begged him to just tell her what name he wanted her to pick.

“Avery,” he chided, “Great divine plans are overrated. Don’t worry too much about how it will all add up in the end. Just do your best for the world you have now.”

# The Sympathetic Universe Part 24

As promised, Eliza made a point of celebrating Christmas on the 25th of December and Destiny’s birthday on January 1st as separate holidays. She also quietly selected s’mores for dessert since it was her day to select on Destiny’s real birthday, December 18th. On January 2nd, the day that next year Destiny had announced would be her birthday since she didn’t like everyone being tired from New Year’s Eve, Eliza realized that she no longer felt certain that next year would not come. Reluctantly, she added a year counter to Eliza time. For lack of any point of reference, she simply declared that as of January first they had entered the year 1 Eliza Time.

As January deepened and the days got colder the hike out to the foot of Mount Endurance for her daily calisthenics was becoming less and less enjoyable. Eliza struggled to keep her balance as she shivered through her jumping jacks. Eloy had proven to be immovable with his secret, but if she was condemned to Hell, she at least didn’t have to let him off the hook about it.

By the year 2 ET, Angel’s regular patrols of the fridge had hardened into a comforting habit. “Hi Angel,” people said as they pulled out ordinary food day after day. Angel had been on edge, expecting at any moment that there would be a crisis. She had expected some event to happen that would required her discipline and fine-tuned sense for danger, but it had not come. Now that she understood that this had been her thought process, she knew intellectually that the great crisis might never come.

In 11 ET, Gabriel fell ill. He did not complain to his campmates about the clawing pains in his bowels. He merely took his morning prayers to thank God for choosing him for direct contact and guidance and to ponder at the wild turn his life had taken in his final decade. Still, he knew from the way people treated him that it was clear to all he was on his way out.

After eleven years at Camp Virtue, he found he could hardly remember his life in the thirteenth century. Of course, he could hardly remember anything at all at this point, so maybe it wasn’t as significant as he’d like to think. He chuckled for a second and coughed for five. Eliza put her hand on his back, “Destiny, get him some water.” Destiny was sprawled out across the couch, her long legs dangling over the side. She rolled her eyes, “get it yourself.”

Eloy put down a copy of Ulysses he had borrowed from Eliza’s small library for the umpteenth time and that he was squinting at yet again in his vain attempt to understand. “I’ll get it.”

“Thank you, Eloy,” Eliza said, exchanging glares with Destiny. Eliza had taken the longest to forgive Eloy for his refusal to explain what he knew about Camp Virtue, but like everyone else, she had been worn down by time and the shortage of other options for friends. Gabriel noted that the pair were the only two of close to the same age. He had seen the wild swings of their relationship starting after the first few years, and he hoped he’d at least live long enough to see them settle down with each other.

In 13 ET, Gabriel married Eloy and Eliza. Destiny forced her resentment out of her face and smiled for them. She suspected that the doddering old Gabriel himself was the only happy person at this wedding, having been suggesting it with greater and greater urgency for the past year. Since they already lived together Destiny could see no point to it except to enhance the contrast between them and everyone else who had no sensible person to form a romance with. Angel had accidentally admitted during the preparations that she felt like her adopted children were marrying each other, and Eloy and Eliza themselves had only been together again for a few weeks after their last breakup. They were certainly having this ceremony to pretend at the lives they would never get to really lead. Nevertheless, they were Destiny’s family, so she smiled.

In 14 ET, Eliza had a son. The whole camp had participated in deciding on a name, but ultimately Eloy and Eliza decided against “Michael”, and “Jesus.” Why should they stick to the “divinity” theme they had never asked to be part of in the first place? They named their son “Robert.” Everyone worried about how the childbirth would go without modern medical equipment, but fortunately mother and child both ended the process exhausted but in good health.

A few months later, little Robert slept in Eloy’s arms as Eliza delivered the eulogy for Gabriel. The four remaining travelers from other worlds were all adults, and they had all worked together to expand the fire pit into a pyre, but all agreed that it should be Eliza to wield the blowtorch to send Gabriel off. Staring into the blaze, Eliza wondered where Gabriel was going, and the thought sent chills deep into her bones.

In 20 ET, Destiny explained to Robert that he could pick any day of the year to be his birthday. Eloy protested that everyone knew exactly what day he had been born and it was not at all like Destiny’s case. Destiny set her jaw, “you know, Eloy, what’s so important about what day it is? We’re just five people here. We can make whatever traditions we want, can’t we?”

“Yeah!” Robert agreed, raising a tiny fist in the air, “I want a birthday cake every day!”

In 31 ET, they sent off Angel. Eloy remembered all the times Angel had tackled him in his youth, how she had stolen his van all those years ago, and how she had had once wrested the blowtorch he now held in his hand from his grasp. It had taken years for her to trust him, but trust gained was all the better for being hard-earned. It wasn’t the same blowtorch. That one had died a while ago and they’d pulled out another one using the creme brulee trick, but it felt the same. The refrigerator room seemed desolate now that its sentinel was gone. When he lit the pyre, he struggled more than he had in the thirty years before not to think of all of these people he so loved going to Hell. He didn’t know that. His mother’s enigmatic words could have meant anything.

A few days later, Robert hurried up to Eloy. He had always looked so much like his mother, but now that he was becoming a man his features were beginning to more closely resemble Eloy.

“Dad, what’s this?” he withdrew a piece of paper he’d found buried at the bottom of a desk drawer in the room Eloy and Eliza shared. It was folded and crumpled and ragged at the edges and it had notes scrawled on the back and typeset words on the front. Eloy chuckled in amazement that it had not been lost forever.

“Son, you go show that to your mother. Tell her I said ‘better late than never.'”

On the eve of 55 ET, Eloy read the Bible in his easy chair. Not Gabriel’s illuminated copy, which was not only much too beautiful and fragile for casual study, but also written in 13th century French, but a copy from Eliza’s little library. He had read every book in it several dozen times, but he found himself going to the Bible more and more. Plenty of books were an easier read, but living in a home where everyone had a direct relationship to the divine (or was the descendant of one with such a connection) the book seemed to have more meaning. His studies seldom went anywhere, though. He would read passages that seemed like they described his and his family’s struggles, but then on closer inspection would write it off as wishful thinking. His favorite passage was John 3:16, and each time he read it he did so aloud for the benefit of everyone else in the common area.

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

Eloy reading this at full volume with no warning was so commonplace now that Robert and his two sisters Avery and Janet didn’t even look up from the game they were playing. It was a game with little wooden pieces they had carved themselves as children. It was loosely based on chess, which Eloy had half-taught them before losing interest. As they had become bored they had modified the rules. To resolve fights over one child being left out, they tweaked it so that three children could play. To keep things interesting they had added new pieces with different abilities that you could swap in and out to make your own chess army. They carved dice and alternative boards. Now the laws of the game were so labyrinthine and arcane that no one but the three co-creators could make any sense of them. Likely due to the absence of anything else competing for their interest, even as adults they continued to play, immune to Destiny and Eliza’s harsh judgement. When Eloy wasn’t reading his Bible, he liked to watch them and wonder at the creations of which their minds were capable.

That night Eloy put his bible down and shuffled to bed. He had a funny feeling in his chest, but he ignored it. He kissed Eliza on her forehead and lay down next to her. He passed into slumber, never to return.

***

“CON-GRA-TU-LA-TI-ONS, Eloy,” said a voice in a great dark expanse. It was a voice from a lifetime ago, but Eloy would never forget it.

“Mom, where did they go?” Eloy shouted, desperate for the answer to the question that had defined his life, “Are they ok?”

“We won the GAME, my boy! Give me a moment to get your MEM-OR-IES back to you and EV-ER-Y-THING will make PER-FECT sense.”

# The Sympathetic Universe Part 23

When there wasn’t much else to distract her attention, which of course was always the case at Camp Virtue, it turned out that Eliza could stay angry for longer than Eloy had previously thought humanly possible. First it was little things. Eliza started going to bed early and skipping Eloy’s regular campfire. Eliza’s calisthenics time changed abruptly, and whenever he adjusted his schedule to meet hers, it would change again. Then, If he needed to tell her something, he would always have to say it twice. Sometimes he would say it the second time and she’d say “what was that?” and he’d be obliged to say it again a third time. Other times, his second attempt to communicate would be met with an icy “Yes, Eloy, I heard you.”

By November, the rift between them was so palpable that the whole group had become chillier along with the weather. Eloy didn’t know if Eliza had said anything to them, but it was clear to him who was taking what side in this quiet fight.

If it had ever been really friendly, Gabriel’s attitude with Eloy had become brusque, and more often than not, Eloy was beginning to suspect he was underselling how much English he had learned in order not to interact with him. Angel seemed grumpier even than usual. At first she focused it on Eliza herself, especially when she ignored Eloy, saying “Eliza, Eloy is speaking to you,” sometimes with a “carajo” for good measure. Overall, though, she interacted with Eliza much more than with Eloy, and everyone knew whom she respected more. Eventually she stopped speaking up, and seemed to accept Eloy’s shunning as the new normal.

Destiny was happy as long as Eloy kept coming up with creative desserts to feed her. Or s’mores. She never got tired of s’mores. One evening she and Eloy were again the only people at the campfire. Angel came to supervise the lighting, but now more often than not left once the fire was started and she had the blowtorch back in her safekeeping. Destiny expertly mashed marshmallows onto a stick until the whole stick was obscured in the mushy white cylinders.

“Destiny, how are you going to roast that?” Eloy chuckled.

“I roast one side, then the other.” Destiny carefully grabbed one end of the stick and then the other to demonstrate.

Eloy grinned approvingly. “Sounds great. Let’s see you try it.”

Destiny nodded and held her marshmallow wand out over the fire. When it was nicely browned, she pulled it back and grabbed the other end. “Ouch!” she withdrew her tiny hand, covered in hot melted marshmallow.

“Try taking those ones off,” Eloy suggested, “and then holding that side to roast the others.”

“No,” Destiny put her hand in her mouth and sucked on it. Then she grabbed the squishy half-melted marshmallows again and held the stick over the fire.

“Well, let’s see. Eloy tapped his chin thoughtfully, When would I like it to be?”

Destiny rotated her stick as the marshmallows browned on the bottom.

Destiny jumped, “Oh no! I don’t have a gift for you! Can you have your birthday tomorrow?”

“Sure,” Eloy laughed, “I don’t mind having been born tomorrow at all.”

“Great,” said Destiny, sliding her marshmallows off her stick into a goopy pile on a black and starred tupperware top. She carefully maneuvered her prize between two graham crackers, then slid in a bar of chocolate.

“Eloy,” Destiny asked, gaping in a marshmallow-chocolate smeared yawn, “what is Hell?”

All the energy went out of Eloy in a rush and he sighed. “Who told you that word, Destiny?”

“Eliza said your god told you we’re being tested and and and it’s a stupid test and and and we’re going to Hell. She says that there’s a secret your god told you that you won’t tell us because you only care about yourself.”

Eloy furrowed his brow, “Do you believe her, Destiny?”

“No. My mommy told me God loves everybody and so everybody goes to Heaven. She said there’s no such thing as Hell.”

“What did Mr. Tiger say?”

“He never wanted to talk about it. He said to focus on this world and then when I came to the next world I would learn what to do about that then.”

Eloy smiled, “That’s very wise of Mr. Tiger. Now you are in the next world, though, so what will you do?”

Destiny thought about that. She took another bite of her s’more. She had completely finished her s’more by the time she spoke again. “It’s the same,” she declared. “I’m just sad everybody’s mad now. Did your god tell you a secret? You can tell me. I pinky swear I won’t tell anyone.”

“I do have a secret,” Eloy grinned. Destiny’s eyes widened.

“My birthday was yesterday.”

“Oh no!” Destiny squealed, “I missed it! No, no, no, make it tomorrow again!”

“Ok, it’s tomorrow. Let’s get to bed so my birthday can come faster.”

“Ha ha, ok”

Eloy poured his bucket of water over the fire and he Destiny headed back to the cabin.

That night, storm clouds brewed. Eloy would rather be sitting outside brooding in the rain, but it was too cold, so he had brought a dinner chair out to the cabin’s roofed porch. He had taken to keeping the guide to virtue folded and on his person at all times, like Angel did with the blowtorch. Now that people suspected, he figured he could count on his room being raided. He hoped again, as he had many times in the last month, that the end of this stupid challenge would come soon, and he could just get to heaven and quickly forget the difficult decisions this bizarre situation forced him to make.

He pulled the guide out again and studied it again for any further hints as to what his strategy should be, but nothing stood out to him besides integrity and humility. “I haven’t lied to anyone,” Eloy mumbled, “I can’t even guess what humility means in a competition with just one winner.”

A sound made Eloy leap from his seat and spin around, shoving the guide behind his back. The door remained shut, rattling in the wind.  Eloy gave an exhausted sigh. Every muscle in his body felt tense. He folded his paper up and returned it to his pocket. “Please end soon,” he prayed before returning inside to go to bed.

# The Sympathetic Universe Part 22

“I don’t like my birthday,” Destiny explained one chilly October morning over breakfast, “because it’s too close to Christmas. All my friends get two parties, but I only get one.”

“Well,” said Eliza, pulling a sausage out from her green tupperware, “We won’t combine them. We’ll celebrate and give you gifts for both days.”

Destiny’s eyes lit up at this, but Eloy chimed in, “Actually, Destiny, as far as I’m concerned, time is so screwed up now our real birthdays don’t really have much meaning anymore. I mean, will you really be a year older because a girl from thirty years in the future has guessed based on the movement of the sun and the temperature a month ago that it might be December 16th?”

This got less of a reaction. Eliza finished chewing her sausage and chided, “Eloy, you’re just being confusing. Also, you shouldn’t talk with your mouth full.”

Destiny laughed at this, “Ha ha, Eloy is gross!” Eliza nodded vigorously.

Eloy fumed and swallowed his mouthful of pancake. “I’m serious. Even if your date is exactly right for wherever we are now, it’s not the same as the dates we came from. It was June in my dimension.”

Eliza shot back, “What good does it do to wonder about these things? Let’s just let Destiny have her birthday.”

“Yeah!” Destiny pouted, “Don’t take away my birthday! That’s mean!”

“I’m not – ” Eloy started, then he stopped to swallow his sausage. “I’m not taking anyone’s birthday away! In fact, Destiny, how would you feel if you got to pick whatever birthday you wanted?”

Destiny’s voice was muffled by her mouthful of both pancakes and sausage. “I want two birthdays!” she forced some of the food down, “No, I want a birthday every day!”

Eliza glared at Eloy, who raised his hands, “That’s not what I mean, Destiny. You still get just one birthday, but it can be whatever day you want. When do you want your birthday to be?”

Destiny thought about this as she poured more maple syrup into her tupperware. She reached in with her fork and brought out a piece of pancake, the syrup falling off it in a thick stream. She put it in her mouth and said “I want my birthday to be far, far, far away from Christmas. On the other side of the year. My new birthday is January 1st.”

Eloy and Eliza glanced at each other. “Destiny,” Eloy said, “do you understand that January 1st is closer to December 25th than December 16th is?”

This earned him an exasperated look. “It’s on the other side of the year, Eloy,” Destiny explained.

Eliza grinned as Eloy narrowed his eyes. “Destiny, do you know what day comes after December 31st?”

“Yes, Eloy,” Destiny said, “January 1st comes after December 31st.”

“So, if your birthday was on January 1st, how far would it be from December 25th?”

“A whole year, Eloy.”

“No, think about Christmas first. If you start at Christmas, how long will it be until your new birthday?”

Destiny pouted. She took a maple-syrup soaked sausage and put it on the table. Then she put her dripping fork onto the other side of the table. Eliza grimaced. “This,” Destiny pointed at the sausage, “Is the start of the year. This fork is the end of the year.”

Eloy pursed his lips.

“Do you see how far away they are, Eloy?” Destiny put her arms out all the way to either side.

Eloy opened his mouth, but Eliza interrupted him. “Ok, Destiny, your new birthday is January 1st. We’ll celebrate both holidays. Now finish your breakfast. Eloy, may I speak with you privately?

Eliza sat across the fire pit from Eloy, each on their own stump. She spoke in hushed tones, “Why are you always talking about time, Eloy?”

“Time?” the wind picked up and Eloy pulled up the hood of his coat.

Eliza’s tone became harsh, “Do you really think we’re going to be here long enough for it to matter when Destiny’s birthday is?”

Eloy was taken aback. “I have no idea how long we’re going to be here. Do you?”

“Eloy, don’t you wake up every day and hope that when you open your eyes you’ll be in your old room again?”

Eloy didn’t know what to say.

Eliza continued, anxiety pushing her voice higher, “In your own universe? With your own god?”

“I…” Eloy stopped, “I don’t think we’re ever going home. This doesn’t seem like a spiritual test to you? Don’t you think we’re more likely to be sorted into Heaven and Hell than just dropped back into our own worlds?”

Eliza’s jaw dropped. She shook her head, wide eyes fixed on Eloy’s face. “It’s not – That’s not- We can’t possibly – ”

“Be judged for eternal reward or punishment based on this ridiculous, sloppy trial?”

Eliza relaxed a moment, at least understood, but her voice remained tremulous. “I mean, what about Gabriel? Will he be punished eternally because he couldn’t handle being transported eight hundred years into the future to try to fit in with four people from a country that would never even exist in his lifetime?”

Eloy reached for something reassuring, “I don’t… think he’s doing that bad,” he mumbled.

“Or Destiny. How is she going to be judged? A five-year-old isn’t fit to understand virtue.”

Eloy thought about the guide from his mother. How sure was he that only one person could emerge from this trial victorious? Some foolish part of him felt that it was wrong, even beyond the official measurements of the competition, that he was making everyone else fly blind. She had been clear, though. Each god was helping their own chosen be the most virtuous. Eloy couldn’t fool himself into thinking there was a possibility of joint victory, and it was only right that he try to save himself from eternal damnation if it was between him and four other people.

Eliza watched him. “Eloy,” she asked, “what is it you’re thinking about when you get that calculating look?”

“What?” a chill ran over him.

“I, uh, you know, nothing, I guess. I’m just zoning out.”

Eliza raised an eyebrow. “What did your god tell you?”

“You know, it’s been a while since we’ve checked on Destiny. We should probably go back in.”

Eliza’s expression remained impassive. The way she looked at Eloy made him feel like he was sweating despite the cold. “I’ll just go on ahead,” he said, “Take your time.”

Eloy looked back as he reached the door of the cabin. Eliza was still sitting, staring into the woods. He found himself hoping he wouldn’t have to deal with these people for much longer, but he also couldn’t really abide the idea of them all going to Hell. He blew out a breath that fogged the air for only a moment before blowing away, then he wrenched his eyes off of Eliza and went back inside.

# The Sympathetic Universe Part 21

Angel watched Eloy chop wood from a few hundred yards away. What could he possibly have planned? There was no way to light anything here. “Hey,” she shouted, “What are you doing?” The small figure of Eloy looked around confused, then shouted back at her from the distance, “chopping firewood!”

“How are you going to light it?”

Eloy paused. “Oh, I’m sure I’ll find a way.”

Angel nodded. He had received a lighter directly from his god, unless there was some other way to get something like that. Certainly she couldn’t have him burning the cabin down. Didn’t he say something about being protected from fire? Did he think he was going to be virtuous by rescuing them from a fire he set? Setting aside all the other failures in this reasoning, surely he didn’t think that a fire rescue would be so easy without his god’s direct assistance.

Angel stood in the corner with her arms crossed, watching Eloy withdraw his lunch from the refrigerator, taking uncomfortable glances back at her as he did so. “Hey, Angel,” he asked as he withdrew a sloppy joe from his red lunch tupperware and took a bite, “is there a problem, officer?”

Angel’s eyes narrowed, and Eloy rolled his own eyes and put the rest of his sloppy joe back into the tupperware. He reached into the refrigerator with his free hand and passed Angel another lunch. She accepted it and held it, continuing to glare.

After lunch, Angel watched Eloy from a distance as he collected tinder. At supper she was in the kitchen again, this time before Eloy. She stood in the corner while he scrunched his eyes next to the fridge. “What are you thinking about?” Angel asked.

“What kind of supper?” Angel pressed.

“A delicious one. It will blow your mind. If you don’t mind, I’m trying to concentrate.”

Angel was quiet. Eloy crossed his fingers and reached to open the refrigerator. He pulled out a blue supper tupperware, and peeled it back. He pressed his lips together in frustration. He pulled out another one and popped off the top. His brow furrowed. On the third tupperware his face lit up. Angel stepped forward as Eloy withdrew the smallest blowtorch she had ever seen. He only had time to turn and let his grin of triumph fall away as Angel leapt to tackle him to the ground.

“Let go of the blowtorch.” said Angel, pinning Eloy to the ground, his arm behind his back.

“Ahh! Ow, ow ow, Angel, you’re hurting me!”

“Let go of the blowtorch,” Angel repeated.

“What is your problem!?” Eloy whined, and Angel pulled his arm further to the wrong side of his body.

When he finally released his prize, Angel took it. “I’m in charge of everything to do with fire.”

Eloy crawled to the corner and cradled his arm. “All right, Fire Marshall Ramirez. Fine. I wanted it to be a surprise, but may I have permission to make a campfire tonight?”

Angel tried to keep the surprise from her face. That was all he wanted to do? “With supervision,” she said.

“Humility,” Eloy mumbled.

“Grace. Ok, that sounds good. If you feel more comfortable managing the fire, that’s fine. Thanks for not actually breaking my arm.” Eloy bared his teeth in an overwrought smile.

That evening, Angel brought Eliza who was, of all things, a boy scout. She assured both of them that in 2019 this was something that could happen. She showed Angel and Eloy how to set a perimeter for a fire. They cleared a ten-foot perimeter around a flat area a little ways away from the cabin. Then they used a shovel from the supply shed and dug a pit in the dirt about a foot deep. They constructed a wall of stones around the pit, and they were done. Eloy asked Eliza if it was ok if he did it on his own from here. Angel was impressed with how well he was managing his wounded pride. It was obviously a great effort. Angel leaned against a tree and watched him mumble some kind of mantra to himself as he worked. Once Eloy had built a small tent of twigs and sticks, Angel held out the blowtorch.

That night, flickering firelight lit the faces of the campers. Eloy grabbed Destiny by the back of her shirt and pulled her away from the fire when she got too close. Gabriel grinned and said “We had this in my time.” He looked at Eliza for approval on his English, and she smiled at him and nodded. Angel held the blowtorch in her hands, thinking about how to keep something so dangerous safe in a cabin with no locks. Around eight-o-clock Eliza time, Eloy left the fire and went back into the cabin. He returned with two black tupperwares speckled with yellow stars. “Did you know,” he asked, “that a nighttime snack is a meal of the day?”

Eloy opened the first tupperware to reveal graham crackers, and the second had Hershey’s chocolate bars and Jet-Puffed marshmallows. Eloy helped Destiny roast her marshmallow and Eliza helped Gabriel, although once he had the concept he did not require further supervision. Eloy showed Destiny how to stack several marshmallows on the same stick for maximum marshmallowy goodness, her eyes wide with wonder. When the fire died low and everyone had sticky fingers and smiles on their faces, Eliza told Eloy it had been a great idea. Eloy shrugged and made a face that said, “well, I don’t like to brag.” Destiny suggested they eat s’mores every night and for every meal. When Eloy tried to tell her that they would have s’mores frequently, but they had to eat other food, too, Destiny insisted. Then she started crying and Eliza, her self-designated caretaker, moved to pick her up to take her to bed, but Eloy said he’d do it, and did.

Angel took the bucket of water she’d kept next to her the whole time and held it above the fire. “Does anybody mind?” she asked. “Don’t worry, Angel, I’ll do it.” said Eliza. Angel put the bucket in front of her and moved to leave. She had bruised her shoulder tackling Eloy and was exhausted. In her bed she resolved to keep the blowtorch on her person at all times, but she didn’t know what she could do if someone summoned another one. She might have to hang out in the kitchen every day at mealtimes, then again for the late evening snack. The prospect did not thrill her. She struggled to think of a strategy that could keep everyone safe without being such a drain on her time, but her thoughts grew more sluggish until finally she fell asleep.

# The Sympathetic Universe Part 20

Eliza spent an hour a day helping Gabriel learn English from his little guide. So, generously, Eloy spent two hours a day with him. Generously, he gave up his day to pick what food to eat, offering a bonus day on rotation to each of his campmates. Certainly, Eloy’s generosity could not be questioned.

Eliza and Angel had been sweeping the floors on a weekly basis with a couple brooms they’d found in the closet. In the spirit of service, Eloy took over. The day before their cleaning day, he swept all the floors, including the men’s bathroom, which had over time become rather ugly. Eloy found that he could do just as good a job as the two of them in half the time. They were always moving furniture around and he just swept directly underneath them. He smirked and shook his head at people who made things more complicated than they needed to me.

Humble Eloy thought of how much he cared about other people and how unimportant his own needs were. Eloy humbly looked back at the guide. “Humility: Appreciate what one has, appreciate the gifts of others.”

“How fortunate I am,” mumbled Eloy, “It sure is impressive how tall Angel is. Eliza is really good at knowing what time it is. That Destiny sure is adorable, and, um, mature for her age? Gabriel is really good at French.” Eloy thought a moment, then nodded and mentally crossed off “humility.”

Temperance – it was difficult for Eloy to do better than anyone else at abstaining from alcohol and tobacco, considering there wasn’t any around to indulge in. He ate his food slowly and paid attention to when he was full. He offered the rest to everyone else in case it would get him more generosity points, but there were always leftovers anyway, so it was a moot point. Sometimes he overdid his temperance and was hungry in the night, which was when he learned that the refrigerator included nighttime snacks as a meal of the day. Over a bowl of  French Toast Crunch, the little toast-shaped morsels oddly cold from being in the refrigerator, Eloy mused about how many points this blitz must be getting him.

Eloy felt he had always behaved with integrity, he felt. In fact, it was everyone else who had concealed their visits with their gods for so long. Oh wait. He would have to be honest with them about the guide. Or maybe not. He didn’t know exactly how the points worked, but he was pretty confident the advantage of exclusive access to the guide outweighed the penalty to his integrity score.

Eloy thought that industry was not cleanly separable from service, but eventually he figured that he could work hard at something that would mainly benefit himself if he wanted to focus specifically on this category. He had not kept up with Eliza’s calisthenics after the first couple days after his arrival, so he picked them up again. He started doing them twice a day, even though he soon began to feel sore on a regular basis. Eliza suggested that he should rest more while he built up endurance, but he figured at this point the best thing to do was to focus on building up his score as quickly as possible. His Mom, for all her strengths, had neglected to tell him if this game was about reaching a given score the fastest or having the highest score at the end, so he thought he’d try rushing it for a while and see if he won before he had to start pacing himself.

Grace was described as giving a gift to someone who does not deserve it. This was challenging, as it was hard to know who the system would determine did and did not deserve any given gift. Eloy could look out for opportunities to be nice to people who looked like they were being immoral, but mostly he would have to just hope that by being generous he’d happen across some grace here and there.

It was frustrating having so little to give. If he had a million dollars he could give it to a charity and get lots of generosity points. Maybe he could even give the money to some society to help death row inmates or something and win big on grace. So much at the camp was simply parceled out evenly to everyone, generosity didn’t seem to even be a thing. They even had each received a heavy coat and a pair of gloves (appearing on their beds) for what evidently was an upcoming winter. This event led Eliza to add an estimated “Eliza Date” to her Eliza Time. She guessed September 9th. No one dared to suggest they assign a year.

What was more frustrating was when Gabriel started refusing to accept more help with English. He insisted he was too tired, and had been happy with one hour of intensive practice a day, which, he strongly implied, he preferred to receive from Eliza. Then Eliza and Angel went ahead and swept the cabin on the day they usually did like he hadn’t done anything. Angel and Eliza were way ahead, he realized. They just happened to have landed on some of the virtues by accident, those lucky jerks.

Eloy would have to get creative. He took his next day to pick the food. It was a crisp morning, but he didn’t feel he needed gloves yet. He hefted in his hand the axe they had found in the supply closet and brought it down on the log in front of him. Instead of splitting, the log hung onto his ax, but he just lifted the whole thing and slammed it back down for a satisfying “SNAP.” Industrious, Eloy thought, watching his breath rise in the air. He chopped those halves into quarters and placed them on a stack he was making against the side of the cabin.

For supper, he would have steak and his mother’s homemade macaroni and cheese. He’d include a salad for a vegetable option. He wasn’t imagining it in much detail, but the fridge would just sub in a salad someone else had been thinking about. What he was really looking forward to, though, was the dessert. It was a crème brûlée, and he wanted it extra fresh. In fact, he was hoping the very last step would be something the refrigerator would give him the means to do himself.

# The Sympathetic Universe Part 19

Sometimes you feel most alone when you’re surrounded by other people. Eloy’s campmates, for lack of a better term, had all been visited by their gods. Each one of them had made an abrupt transition from desperate to confident coinciding with the appearance of a remarkable new ability or artifact. Now even Angel was looking downright serene, by her standards, and all of a sudden the phone was back and everyone was on Eliza time again.

What, exactly, was Eloy’s mother up to? She had dictated his life to prepare him for this, he was sure, and now she couldn’t be bothered to come and give him her support like everyone else’s gods? Eloy’s face curdled into a frown and he slouched in his chair poking at his salted mutton. Eliza time said it was Friday, and Friday was Gabriel’s day to pick the meals.

Nothing ever happened at camp virtue, Eloy mused. It was almost as if it were less of a test and more of a purgatory. They would just keep living their dull, isolated lives out in the wilderness wondering what the meaning of virtue was on into eternity. Was he aging? Angel got hurt, so maybe they were still mortal, and purgatory would only last a lifetime instead of eternity. Gabriel would be the one to watch to see if mortality was a thing here.

Eloy retired to his room after supper. There weren’t any video games, there were barely even books besides the ones that Eliza had brought, a strange scattering of middle-grade fantasy from the future mixed with Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. Eloy had found that any book he picked up from her collection was either childishly predictable, or utterly dense and incomprehensible. Eliza had brought Harry Potter, but it was on her phone, which Eloy couldn’t blame her for being reluctant to share.

So Eloy lay on his bed staring at the rafters in the ceiling, trying to unpack their situation. Eloy figured he was one of a small group of people across the world and across time who for one reason or another had been selected to participate in a “virtue challenge” of some sort. Each of them had been selected from birth, and it seemed each of them may have had a whole alternate universe to themselves. The evidence he had put together for this was that he had never heard of Angel Ramirez, who would have been in all the history books when the first Latin woman president of a prominent company (General Motors, if she was to be believed) vanished in the middle of a live televised speech. There would have to be a conspiracy theory at least, or something. Eliza said she’d had a Latin American history section in her social studies class, and Angel never came up. Nevertheless, the world was full of remarkable things Eliza and Eloy had never heard of, so Eloy had to admit the evidence towards any conclusion was less than compelling.

The real mystery, of course, was what lay beyond. How long was this camp going to last? What would come after it? Despite all her power, Eloy’s mother had never told him anything about that, in person or through disembodied voices. Eloy wondered if this was a test to get into heaven. In any case, he was pretty certain that it would be better to win this challenge than to lose it. If only he knew more about the rules than “virtue = good.”

“That’s what I need,” Eloy said aloud, “if you’re listening, Mom.”

Eloy waited as if the ceiling would respond. Then he said, “What are the rules? How do I win?”

Eloy wondered if, in a diabolical twist, the secret to winning the game was not trying to win, instead selflessly helping others to reach victory. But would trying to win by trying to help others win still lead to victory? If so, would people want to accept each others’ help? If receiving help to win actually made the helper win, everyone would want to help and no one would want to be helped. Each person trying to help others win, would in fact be trying to make them lose. By trying to make others lose, they would no doubt lose points for selfishness, which would help the others win, but by helping the others win they would gain points, once again causing them to lose points… You could try and just do what’s right, but once you learned how things worked and what the stakes were, it would be difficult, if not impossible to pretend things weren’t that way, since to do so would be in the hope that you would be able to get points and win, which, of course was bad… Eloy decided just to hope he wasn’t expected not to try to win.

“Eloy,” said a voice, it was Reverend Boden, the voice his mom had used on the bus! It felt so long ago now, a world, or possibly an entire universe away.

Eloy rolled off the top bunk and crashed to the floor. He sprung up and grabbed a pencil and some paper off the desk in his room. “Yes, Reverend!”

“Eloy, a lot has HA-PPENED since we last spoke.” This was definitely his mom, but it would do no good to confront her again now. Eloy transcribed the words directly onto the page.

“I hope that it is clear that GOD has not FOR-SAK-EN you.”

Eloy scratched the words down as fast as he could, hoping he would be able to read his handwriting later.

“We are expected not to intervene, but when Destiny appeared on a mountain away from eve-ry-one else, Mr. Tiger was able to get the right to briefly help her. Then, of course, it had to be FAIR, so each god got a moment with their chosen.”

The voice stopped as Eloy’s pencil caught up. Eloy’s mouth was dry. Please don’t stop talking.

“Not much, just a little nudge in the right dir-ec-tion.”

The voice stopped again, just long enough to get Eloy worried.

“Mind you, the NA-TURE of a nudge was left O-PEN EN-DED. Thus, I have been CARE-FUL-LY CON-SID-ER-ING my nudge.”

“Yes, yes, what is it?” Eloy begged after another excessively long pause.

“I also wai-ted to go last so that no other GOD could RE-SPOND to my NUDGE.”

Eloy found suddenly that he had enormous respect for his mother’s strategic sensibilities. He held his breath waiting for the next message.

It came, somehow seeming all at once a booming powerful voice and a barely audible whisper. “I am going to NUDGE you all the way to VIC-TOR-Y, Eloy. But it will be up to YOU to TAKE that victory.”

“Nudge me!” Eloy whispered urgently.

“Turn your paper over, my child.”

A glow left the room. Eloy was alone again, but no longer forsaken. He reached out and flipped his scrawled notes over. On the other side was a whole page of formatted, printed text in Times New Roman font. Trying to keep from shaking, Eloy read the title under his breath.

“Being the Best at Being Good – Maximizing your score across the seven virtues of Camp Virtue”

# The Sympathetic Universe Part 18

It was after lunch, but that’s all anyone knew. Even the sun was hidden behind the clouds. For Angel, who was used to making the most of every minute, being unable to check the time felt like a strange kind of purgatory. Irrationally, she almost felt like the very nature of time had been wrested from her control. As far as she knew, years were passing around her. During one very long overcast, a century could escape her without her knowing. One day she would wake up and find she was a hundred and thirty five years old and long dead.

Angel came back from her regular expedition up Mount Endurance. Another combing of the mountain was not likely to find her the cell phone, which was well and lost, but it was something to keep her busy, and even on a dreary day like this it was a pleasant hike. She took her shoes off and put them in her bedroom underneath her bunk.

As she rose to leave, she saw Gabriel at the door. He wore a contrite expression on his bearded face and had a little book in his hand. She said nothing, just tilting her head in inquisitive greeting. Gabriel pulled up his book and said haltingly, “Hello.”

Angel furrowed her brow, “Hello, Gabriel.”

Gabriel nodded and flipped to another page of his book. He squinted at it. “Where is the phone,” he said.

Angel glared. Was he trying to rub her face in it? She lost the phone while rescuing a child if that detail made any difference. A look of alarm crossed Gabriel’s face. He flipped through his little book and after a long pause said, “I know.”

Angel maintained her glare, and added her inquisitive head tilt. Gabriel bit his lip and read again, “I know.” Then he pulled the book open to the previous place he had been saving with his finger, “where is the phone.”

What the fuck was this old puta talking about? How could he possibly know where the phone was? Angel shook her head and moved toward him to exit the room. When he didn’t move, she gestured right with both her hands, signaling for him to let her out. Gabriel stepped to the right and stared at her as she exited the room. Angel stopped in exasperation and glared back at him. “I know where is the phone,” he said again hopelessly.

“Go talk to Eliza,” Angel snapped, and stormed off.

That evening at dinner, over mashed potatoes and deep fried turkey, Eliza said “Gabriel says he knows where the phone is.” Eloy straightened out of his slouch in a violent motion and stared bug-eyed at Gabriel, who, for his part, avoided looking at Eloy at all. Destiny was giggling and thoroughly enjoying herself at the far end of the table smearing mashed potatoes on her face.

Angel rolled her eyes. “And where is that? Let me guess, we just have to think about it hard enough and it will show up in the fridge?” That Eliza seemed to understand how this world worked better than she did drove Angel up the wall. She was confident that technology would not advance enough in a mere 40-something years for Eliza to be personally familiar with either telepathic devices or food synthesis machines.

Eliza narrowed her eyes at Angel, who shook her head again and mumbled “attention-seeking puta” under her breath before returning to her turkey leg. In moments, Eliza was speaking again. “I think between his description and your experience with the area we could find it.”

Angel put her knife down and rubbed her temple. She opened her mouth, then closed it to take another moment to think about what she wanted to say.

Ever the queen of tact, Eliza decided to say more, “I was thinking you in particular would be happy to hear this news, Angel.”

Angel was done taking care of people’s feelings. “Why would I be happy to hear this news, Eliza? A psychotic old man suddenly knows where I lost a cell phone in a place he’s never been to before? Why should that news give me the slightest pleasure? None of this makes any sense. Use your brain, carajo!”

Gabriel turned to Eliza, “Qu’a-t-elle dit?”

Eliza looked for everything like it was Angel now who was talking nonsense. “Elle ne comprend pas comment tu sais ça,” she mumbled to Gabriel, who nodded sagely. Angel tilted her head. Eliza’s look of frustration gave way to one of alarm just like the one Gabriel had worn a few hours earlier. Eloy was sitting back in his chair looking like he was struggling not to laugh.

Suddenly, Eliza backtracked. “I think I got too excited, and I overstated what we knew. What I meant to say… is that Gabriel was looking at the falling leaves and realized that my phone could be covered by leaves…. I’ve been out there and I saw what I think is the area you lost it, so, uh, collectively, we think that we might have an idea of where it could be.”

Angel felt some of the steam go out of her. This made much more sense, she had to admit. With a start, she realized that Eloy was glaring at her now. She looked over to Destiny, who met her eye and grinned through her mashed potato beard. “Turkey,” she said, “gobble gobble.”

“Do you have something to say, Eloy,” Angel growled, “or are you just going to alternate laughing to yourself and leering at me all night?”

Now it was Eloy’s turn to look alarmed. He looked at Eliza and Gabriel, then back at Angel. Collecting himself, he spoke.

“Angel,” Eloy said, “honestly I’m surprised you never figured this out on your own.”

When Eloy didn’t continue, Angel tilted her head again. “Anyway,” Eliza interjected, “maybe we can go right now. I’m sure you’re eager to be able to know what time it is again, Angel.”

“Nobody’s going anywhere,” Angel said through clenched teeth, “Eloy, you’re surprised I never figured what out?”

“Our gods visited us, Angel.” Eliza blurted, “I’m so sorry yours hasn’t visited you yet, but I’m sure she will soon.”

“He,” Angel corrected. Angel’s mouth was on autopilot. Her mind was on double-duty trying to make sense of this news and staving off a barrage of self-recriminations. “Why would my god abandon me?” was a question she knew she could not afford to seek an answer to.

“My god hasn’t visited me either!” Eloy announced with a grimace, “look, Angel, we’re both forsaken! Buddies!”

Angel sneered and exhaled one half of a laugh. She stood. “I’m going to the bathroom.”

Angel walked right past the women’s bathrooms and continued down the hall to the back exit. Her ankle was close to 100% now, and if she sprained it again it would just heal again she told herself, ignoring its own attempts to counsel her otherwise. Once out the door, Angel sprinted to Mount Endurance. She leapt over the half-log staircase, ducked and weaved through the overgrown section of trail. If her god was here, please at least give her what remained of today’s sun.

As Angel ran, she felt the wind blowing, harder than she’d ever felt before. The trees swayed and the howling and rustling of leaves rose to a cacophony. She slowed her pace just enough to maintain her balance. She shivered as she walked, occasionally looking up at the racing clouds.

As Angel approached the rocks where she fell, the world brightened. The clouds finally blew past and let the sun beam down. Immediately the wind died. The sun was high enough in the sky it couldn’t be past late afternoon, despite their having already eaten supper. Angel spat in disgust and was triply hell-bent on getting control of the time again.

A squirrel stood chittering in the center of the boulder trail. It was brown and huge, almost the size of a small cat. Its furry, curved tail hung high above its head. Instead of scampering away, it stood and stared at Angel. Angel approached slowly, and it crawled forward and turned back to look at her again. Angel increased her pace. The squirrel led her to the third gorge and jumped in. Angel peered down and watched the little animal dig through the leaves, brushing them aside until it found what it was looking for.

With a corner of Eliza’s phone exposed, the squirrel scampered away. Angel reached out her arm and could just barely get her thumb and middle finger around the edge. She pulled and the phone came out easily. She did the flicking motion to turn the light on. Nothing happened. She tapped the button on the side, and the phone showed the outline of a battery. “Ha,” Angel laughed aloud even in magical 2019 they still have to deal with dead batteries.

Angel went still as she felt little feet scamper onto her back. Before she could decide whether to look back, the feet climbed up to her shoulder, and whiskers tickled her ear. She heard the voice that she had so desperately missed. “I would never abandon you,” it said, “my darling Angel.”

The feet didn’t scamper away again, they were simply gone. Angel glanced to the left and to the right, up the trail and, with a little effort from her position, down it. She carefully put the phone in her pocket, and she put her face in her hands and sobbed.

# The Barbarian of Pelor

[This is a character backstory for a medieval fantasy roleplaying game I’m playing]

My adoptive family said that Pelor placed me on the steps of their community center as a test of their faith and compassion. Certainly it was hard to propose another explanation for how an infant such as myself had made it all the way into a town so secluded most members had never seen another race of any kind. As well, there is no doubt that I indeed tested them.

In later years, I have been told that just to look at me one might not be blamed for thinking there was no human blood in me at all. Please don’t say that to me. The music director at the community center, who I sometimes would privately think of as my mother, told me once that I had the prettiest voice of anyone in the village. I loved nothing more, and still love, for that matter, singing the hymns and quoting the words of the Almighty. I keep my book of Pelor on me at all times, although by now I hardly have to pull it out to remember the passage that I’m looking for.

Oh, but I was going to tell you how I tested them. Well, I was always a… an emotional child. I was also large. Before I could talk I could destroy just about anything, and when I was frustrated I did. You can imagine how frustrating it would be, finding it so hard to be quiet and demure as Pelor asks of women.  As far as my family was concerned, I was just “different.” I had to learn from travelers that there was a name for what I was.

I don’t want to give the wrong idea. I owe everything to my family and to Pelor. In time I became better at feminine virtue. I felt free in the woods, so I spent much of my time studying plants and collecting herbs for the local clerics. Even if I couldn’t always keep my face calm, I learned how to keep my actions in check. Whenever I was upset I would repeat scripture to myself in my head, “Whoever is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city,” is a favorite of mine. Over time I grew to trust that men would take care of me, even though they were mostly smaller and weaker than me, and it was easier to accept my role in Pelor’s grand design.

At 13 years old, I was already as tall as I am today. I not only had to duck to get through doors, my shoulders were so broad that I had to pull them in. It was actually a few days after my birthday that we heard the commotion in the town. I was wearing my simple brown dress, sweeping the floors between the pews when I heard the screams coming outside the door. My body tensed, and I started to feel the strange stirrings in me that I often got when reading the more violent sections of Pelor’s holy text. I breathed deeply and told myself Roman would handle it. He was a fighter that was visiting us at the time. Kind man, but terribly rude. He was so handsome in his armor, and I enjoyed his valorous tales. I wanted to quietly smile at him and make polite little gasps along with the other women who surrounded him in the evenings, but he wouldn’t let me. Instead, whenever he saw me he insisted that I do unladylike things like arm wrestle him and I had to politely excuse myself from his company and listen to my friends retell his tales of adventure afterwards.

So, with effort, I continued to sweep the pews as the chaos continued just outside the double doors. “Make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Pelor…”

The fight continued until late afternoon. In the early evening I listened to Josephine tell me the hair-raising tale. A troop of zombies had wandered into town from who knows where. As was expected, the menfolk had come out with pitchforks and torches, led by Roman in his full armor and great sword. After a long battle they had managed to disable them all. Josephine said they’re going to have a bonfire to burn the zombie remains for good measure. I noted my thrill of pleasure at the idea of Roman showing off in the light of a huge fire, and thanked Josephine but told her I was just going to go upstairs to bed.

That night I woke to another scream. This time, it was accompanied by an audible curse that could only be from Roman. I ran to my window and looked down at my hero. Roman look different from when I had seen him before. He wasn’t injured, that would be ridiculous living in the company of a small troop of low-level clerics, but the way he moved, his armor looked heavier than before. He put on the same show of bravado as he always did, but it was easier to see through it after fighting zombies almost all day. He was holding a torch in one hand, so he couldn’t use his two-handed sword properly.

I put one hand to my chest and one hand to my mouth with a gasp as I saw what he had come out to meet. Josephine had described to me what looked like human corpses come to life, which was terrifying enough. This look like a corpse of something that might be human, or might once have been. It was covered in gray flesh hanging loosely on its body like an ill-fitting suit over an empty skeleton. Its arms and legs seemed too long for how thin they were, at the end of its fingers were not nails but claws like the knives I’d use to chop meat to cook for a Sunday night dinner. The gray lifeless eyes of the zombies were not there, but rather they glowed red in the night. I whispered another verse to myself and practiced my breathing, my eyes glued to the window.

Roman and the creature sized each other up for only a second. Then they were on each other. The first thing Roman did was shove his torch at the thing, evidently hoping it would catch alight. It was too quick for him, and sent the torch scattering away. I could see in the dark better than my friends, and I saw Roman’s eyes locked on the glowing red ones of the creature, probably the only thing he could see. Roman moved his hand to wield his great sword, but the thing’s claws raked his beautiful face, leaving deep gouges that just barely missed his eye.

“No!” I shrieked, forgetting myself. I pressed against the glass and watched in an overwhelming mix of emotions I could not begin to describe. The fight seemed to stop for a half second, then I saw the fight had not stopped at all, It was only Roman who was no longer moving. I felt a tear run down my cheek. I knew I was losing control of myself, but I was so full of emotion there was no room for shame.

The greatsword fell out of Roman’s stiff hand, and long arms reached around him to pull him towards the being’s rotting, toothy mouth. Suddenly I was on the ground right in front of Roman and the creature. Everything was out of my head. All of my upbringing and careful training and practice was gone. I screamed every foul word and improper slur directly from the heart of my being and charged the creature, shoving it away from Roman so it fell on the ground.

When I ran out of awful things to say, I just shrieked and sobbed and groaned and roared and gnashed my teeth and and kicked and tore at the creature. My white nightgown was covered in dirt and blood and rot as I placed one foot against the creature’s chin and pulled on its arm. In my frenzy I somehow thought I would simply tear this creature limb from limb. Somewhere behind me I heard a chuckling, then came Roman’s voice, barely a croak. “M-Mary, the- the sword.”

Of course! I tried one more tug at the arm for good measure, then I sprung away and scrambled to grab the greatsword. The thing was up by the time I’d gotten the sword. It opened its mouth to lunge for me, and I lifted the sword over my head with both hands and, with an explosion of fire inside my chest that I will never forget, I brought it down in front of me.

The next morning, I was the talk of the town. It was terrible. The shame I had forgotten during the event was full on me once more. I had betrayed every one of the virtues Pelor had vested in me when he made me a woman. Despite everything I had done and everything I had tried, I had shown myself to be the slave of my emotions.

I hid in my room in my filthy, tattered nightgown, trying not to look at the window I had smashed through the night before. Even my body, a betrayal of Pelor in size and shape alone, was now covered in hideous scrapes and bruises. I was acutely aware of my indelicate size as I sat on my bed with my hands in my lap staring at the floor. “Mary,” said the parishioner, “Roman told us what happened.”

“I have failed you. I have failed Pelor and this community. Give me whatever punishment you see fit, but please don’t throw me out. This is all I have.”

I would’ve continued blubbering, but the parishioner interrupted me. “Mary, Mary. You saved this town. You saved Roman’s life. You have done nothing wrong.”

“But,”

“I don’t think this is the right place for you Mary.”

“You are throwing me out,” I wailed.

The parishioner pressed his lips together, unsure how to deal with my outburst, “Roman wants to take you as an apprentice.”

I practiced my breathing and recited to myself under my breath.  “No. This is the right place for me,” I muttered.

“You’re welcome back anytime, Mary. You always have a home here.”

So in three days I said goodbye to Josephine, my mother the music director and my other friends, and was off.  My time with Roman was a whirlwind.  It might not be an exaggeration to call it the opposite of my time in the parish.  Whereas I could not bring myself to heel enough to satisfy my village, the people I saw on my travels seemed universally to find me too uptight and religious.  My handsome Roman, contrary to whatever fantasies I may have had about our long trips on the road in only each other’s company, seemed seldom to remember that I was a woman at all.  When other men made loud and obnoxious note of my sex, instead of defending my honor himself, He would just look at me and pantomime swinging an axe.  I can tell you that to this day, I have never raised arms over such small matters.

After a few months of this, the only thing that made sense were the moments of genuine danger, during which I began to feel that Pelor had a different plan for me than for other women. There was no shortage of genuine danger. Traveling with Roman, it began to feel strange if a week went by without some violent conflict in which we had to defend helpless villagers from a supernatural threat. The world outside my parish was a terribly violent place, and I loved it. It felt like hundreds of times that Roman had to chastise me after a fight for throwing my shield at a foe and leaping on top of him.  Fight after fight, I learned to strategize through the fog of adrenaline and blood. At least, strategize enough to decide between wielding my greataxe with two hands or a war hammer in one hand and a shield in the other.  Eventually, my weapons became a part of me, and when anger came over me, it was not mindless rage, but a controlled battle frenzy.

After two years of failing to turn me into a swearing, spitting, brawling sell-sword that he had decided I should be, Roman dropped me off at a church of Pelor in a large city.  Even the weathered priests here did not see where I would fit in. The only thing that made sense were fighting and Pelor, but it was clear that didn’t include Pelor’s worshipers. So, I paid my respects at the shrine and I left, with no one but Pelor to show me the way.