The Sympathetic Universe Part 16

After coming back half-dead from exhaustion and still without Eliza’s phone, Angel’s mood had darkened. Sitting on the green easy chair with her ankle elevated and wrapped in bandages from a first aid kit she’d found in the kitchen, Angel told Gabriel with no small amount of condescension that his “sacrifice” wasn’t virtuous when it only caused trouble for everyone else. He was just being an attention seeking puta.

“On top of that,” Eloy pointed out between mouthfuls of sundried tomato pesto pasta, “stealing people’s ideas is the opposite of virtuous. In my time, it’s called ‘plagiarism,’ and you don’t get any points for it.” Eloy felt sorry for Eliza, who was on double-duty translating everyone’s arguments into French. Even when Destiny told Gabriel her mommy would have put him in time out by now, he calmly informed her that God’s rules were greater even than those of mommies.

In the meantime, Eloy was still wondering about this little girl. Why did Destiny have a two way radio and how did she know how to use it? It didn’t assuage his concerns when he asked her and she said “What’s a wadio?” Angel admitted that she hadn’t seen any two-way radio with Destiny, who eventually admitted that she had left it behind because it kept making “scawy noises.” How had she properly operated a radio that she didn’t even know how to turn off?

Destiny didn’t have the attention span for extended interrogation. When asked where the radio had come from, she started bawling about Mr. Tiger. When asked where she came from, she started bawling about her mommy. When asked if she even knew what decade she was from, she bawled about her mommy and Mr. Tiger.

So, over the next few days Eloy did his best to slowly piece together the story. As Gabriel became thinner and began to spend more and more time sitting unresponsive in the corduroy easy chair, Eloy learned that Destiny’s favorite show was Power Rangers, placing her firmly in the 90’s or later. He learned that Mr. Tiger took the form of a stuffed animal that came to life and talked to her when no one was looking. He still couldn’t figure out what happened on that mountain that let Destiny talk to them.

Angel called a meeting about Gabriel in Eliza and her room. The topic was “Should we force-feed Estupido until he comes to his senses?”

“Estupido” was Angel’s new name for Gabriel, sometimes “Viejo Estupido.”

Angel was in favor, Eliza was against, and Eloy was abstaining, thinking it better not to take a side against either of these women. Destiny was in the common hall with Gabriel, playing with a coloring book from Eliza’s pack that had alarmed Eloy when it said it was for adults, but turned out be full of flowers and abstract patterns that were not inappropriate for Destiny at all.

“I don’t think he likes it here,” Eliza said in Gabriel’s defense, “He doesn’t speak our language; he’s the oldest by forty years; I haven’t seen one meal show up that would be at home where he’s from. Maybe we can figure out how to get the fridge to make something he wants to eat.”

“I have looked that fridge over a few times now,” said Angel, “there’s no knob or anything to adjust to get different food.”

“But maybe it doesn’t work that way,” Eliza said, her tone sounding oddly confident, “Maybe need to think differently. What if it responds to our desires? Maybe we can all… think about Gabriel’s favorite meal and it will show up?”

Angel and Eloy stared at Eliza, who raised her hands. “Look, let’s all just think of the most delicious rice and bean stew that we can imagine. Maybe if we stand by the refrigerator when we do it. It’s nearly lunchtime now.”

So they gathered up Destiny, who was fully on board with Eliza’s “mind reading fridge” scheme, and went to the kitchen. Gabriel was slumped in his chair with his mouth wide open snoring and in no position to be suspicious.

“Ok,” said Eliza, descending to sit cross legged on the kitchen floor, “everyone close your eyes.”

Eloy sat on the counter and closed his eyes.

“Now,” said Eliza, “Imagine you are sitting in front of a wooden bowl in your monastery’s mess hall. The steaming stew in front of you smells of onions, oatmeal, asparagus, and sausage. You dip your spoon in and bring a chunk of sausage to your mouth. It is perfectly spiced pork. You saw the pig slaughtered just today.”

Destiny cried in protest at the image of the slaughtered pig.

“Ok, you didn’t see it slaughtered, but you can tell it’s fresh. Also fresh is the thick slice of barley bread next to it and the whole leg of mutton on a plate besides. You are ready for a feast!”

“You reach out to the pile of roasted turnips and pluck one out. They’re still hot and smell of garlic.”

Eloy peeked and saw Angel’s nose wrinkle at the turnips, but she said nothing.

“The turnip yields easily to your teeth and is packed with juicy flavor. It tastes as if it’s been cooked in the fat from the mutton.”

Eloy had no idea what mutton even was, let alone what it tasted like.

“Ok, everyone,” said Eliza, “just sit with that image for a while.”

Eliza remained silent for a few moments and spoke again. “I am going to open the fridge. Keep thinking of the delicious stew, mutton, bread, and turnips.”

Eloy watched Eliza go to the fridge. She pulled out a red lunch tupperware and, with trepidation, peeled off the top. Eloy couldn’t see what was in the tupperware, but he did see her make a fist pump.

“Everyone,” she announced, “today for lunch we’ll be having turnips, barley bread, and what I believe may be mutton!”

“Ewwww!” Destiny whined.

Eloy watched as Eliza scooped off some turnip and put it in front of Gabriel’s nose. Gabriel sniffed, and opened his eyes. “Qu’est-ce que c’est?”

“Ton déjeuner.”

Gabriel reached out and took the spoon. “D’où est-ce que sa vient?”

“Le réfrigérateur.” Eliza smiled, “Dieu vous aime et… veut que, ah, vous viviez”

Gabriel huffed and gave the spoon back. “Non.”

It took another day of thinking of various medieval dishes, and by the time they had all exhausted taste for ale, barley bread, and mutton, Gabriel was finally convinced that God didn’t want him to fast until he died. He ate all four tupperwares of sausage-tripe stew in one lunch.

It all fit together too easily for Eloy’s liking. It was more than apparent that they were not playing by the rules of their… homes for lack of a better term, but he was beginning to suspect there was more at play.

What were the chances Eliza could have just guessed the nature of the refrigerator? On her first try, no less.

What were the chances that Destiny would just happen to figure out how to operate a two-way radio and then forget?

It might be because of her recent success alone, but Eliza was carrying herself with more confidence lately. She hadn’t patted her shoulder in a while. Eloy had received no hints or visitations at all from his mom that would allow him to accomplish such unlikely feats. Heck, Mom couldn’t even be bothered to stop a hurtling van before putting him in the driver’s seat. Gabriel’s interpretations of his god’s will were so erratic it was more than clear he was not getting any direct channel. Angel had lost Eliza’s phone and nearly killed herself trying to find it again. No divine intervention there. Eloy narrowed his eyes. Trying to intuit the requirements to win this virtue challenge was hard enough on its own. What would he do if Destiny and Eliza were getting help that the rest of them were not?


The Sympathetic Universe Part 15

When light filtered through the windows of the cabin, Eliza began to worry. She stood to do her calisthenics, but when they were done and she had showered off her sweat, the worry came back. When Gabriel came out of his room, sat on one side of the beige loveseat, and asked in French “Eliza, where are the woman and the baby?” she became more worried. Eliza didn’t see any need to get into a fight with Gabriel over his inability or disinterest to learn anyone’s name, so she just shrugged. “I don’t know,” she admitted. She and Gabriel could communicate any concept that could be expressed within the bounds of French I and French II.

Eliza had not slept all night, and struggled to sit up in her overstuffed easy chair. “No sense in waiting on breakfast,” said Gabriel. He stood and moved to the fridge. He came back with no food and a confused look.

Eliza yawned. Seeing that she was not going to ask, Gabriel said, “The meals are four.”

Eliza blinked the fog from her head. She couldn’t believe that Gabriel was complaining about breakfast. “Is that wrong?” she asked after an extended pause.

“We are five,” Gabriel pointed out.

Five was optimistic at this point, Eliza noted with trepidation. “We are three,” she countered.

A look of horror crossed over Gabriel’s face. Eliza didn’t know how to say “as far as I know” so she just shrugged and said “maybe.” Gabriel was not mollified.

“That is not funny,” he said.

“We shouldn’t do anything until everyone is up,” Eliza said, and Gabriel nodded his agreement.

Before Eloy awoke, though, Angel limped into the cabin with a sleeping, dreadlocked child in one arm. “Eliza,” she said, holding Destiny out, “I’m going back for your phone.”

Eliza rushed forward to accept Destiny, and Angel turned and left. Eliza carried Destiny to the empty room and laid her on the bare mattress. She lifted her head and put a pillow underneath. Then she pulled the folded blanket from the end of the bed and draped it over the child. This seemed satisfactory and she returned to the common area.

An hour later, Eloy ambled in, chewing on a piece of french toast from a green tupperware. He sat down in the other easy chair. “Nobody’s eaten breakfast,” he observed, some toast still in his mouth, “do you guys not like french toast?”

“Eloy!” Eliza shouted, causing Eloy to jump, “how many tupperwares were in there?”

“Four,” Eloy said, “there’s always four. What’s your problem?”

Eliza was too tired to keep the condescension out of her voice, “Eloy, how many people are staying at this cabin?”

After a moment’s frustration, understanding dawned on Eloy’s french toast-filled face. “Fuck, Eliza, there’s not enough food!”

Eloy’s gaze became distant. Eliza glared at him as he reached into the tupperware without looking and pulled out another slice of french toast. Then he saw her look and stuffed it back in. He pushed the top back on and rushed back to the kitchen to throw it back in the fridge.

Eloy often looked like he was doing calculations in his head, and when he came back he was doing it again. “Everyone else should eat,” he announced, “I will fast until we have enough food to go around.” He puffed out his chest, inordinately pleased with himself.

Eliza offered him her best “Isn’t that nice,” smile and stood to go to bed. Angel would handle this when she got back.

The sun was high in the sky when Eliza awoke. She couldn’t sleep any more, even though she was hardly any less groggy. She wandered back into the common area to see Eloy rambling about something to Gabriel, who nodded like he always did when he didn’t understand anything that was being said. “How did she know what frequency to set her radio to? How did she even know how to operate a two-way radio?”

Eloy turned when she came in, “Finally, someone who speaks English.”

“Bonjour, Gabriel,” Eliza said, “Comment ça va?”

“Bien merci,” said Gabriel, turning away from Eloy, “et toi?”

“Fatigué” Eliza admitted, “Faim.”

Gabriel laughed, “Va manger.”

“Je vais,” Eliza agreed. She made a point of not looking at Eloy, but she let a grin onto her lips as she walked to the kitchen. He really had walked into that one.

The green breakfast tupperwares were gone, replaced by red lunch tupperwares. Eliza wondered if anyone had actually eaten breakfast, or if all the food besides one slice of french toast had gone completely to waste. She peeled the top off a red container. French fries. Good ones. They were hand cut. She could see the potato skin on some of the edges and big chunks of sea salt. Despite being in the refrigerator they were still hot. She put the tupperware down and washed her hands, then she pushed the fries aside to see what was beneath. A turkey Reuben on seeded rye bread. Eliza’s mouth watered.

The sandwich was cut in two, she noted. It was thick with a generous portion of turkey slathered in thousand island dressing. Even skipping breakfast, she didn’t need to eat the whole thing. Destiny was a little girl, she couldn’t eat that much. She’d seen Gabriel eat. Half the time, he left most of the food untouched. This wasn’t an issue at all.

Eliza brought a plate with half a Reuben and a pile of fries out to the table in the space adjoining the kitchen and common area. The triumphant look on Eloy’s face made her giggle, which perturbed him. “Please enjoy your meal,” he intoned, “I will wait until there is food enough for all.”

Eliza couldn’t keep her attention on Eloy’s ridiculous posturing. Her Reuben was just too good. At first, she thought the french fries needed ketchup, but soon she was appreciating their own inherent salty flavor all the more.

“Oh, man,” Eliza exclaimed, “this is really good. Wow. Do you like Reubens, Eloy?”

“I’m abstaining,” Eloy insisted, “don’t tempt me.”

“You’re missing out,” Eliza cajoled, “this is just half a tupperware. No one needs to go hungry.”

“Oh,” said Eloy.

“The other half is on the counter.”

Eloy stood. He came back from the kitchen with a red tupperware in one hand and an already half-eaten Reuben in the other. “Wow, these are good!”

“Gabriel,” Eliza called, “viens manger! Il y a … uh, beaucoup de … nourriture!”

“Non, merci. Dieu me nourrira.”

Eliza had trouble understanding this. It sounded like he was saying he was going to eat God. “quoi? Tout …” she struggled to think of another way to say that there was plenty of food. “le monde peut manger”

Gabriel struggled to get his point across, “Ah, non, ah, I… ah, not eat food. You eat.”

Eliza looked back at him. “Beaucoup,” she repeated. She pointed at Eloy and her plates and raised one finger, “un … uh, tupperware.”

Gabriel did the sign of the cross and bowed his head. “La vertu exige des sacrifices.”

Eloy put down his french fry, and his face looked calculating again. Then he shook his head, picked it up and popped it into his mouth. Eliza smiled and did the same. She took another fry and looked back at Gabriel. His face was stoic, but he was mumbling prayers under his breath. Eliza took one finger and pushed the fry into her mouth, and biting down, appreciating the crispy, salty crunch. “mmmm,” she groaned closing her eyes, “délicieux.”

The Sympathetic Universe Part 14

Crowded into in the radio room, the group listened with bated breath. Angel stood flagpole-straight, closing her eyes to better hear.

“Destiny,” said Eliza, all professionalism, “where are you?”

Angel was so glad that Eliza at least seemed interested in being competent. It troubled her deeply that between a sullen man-child with the world’s weirdest mommy issues and a doddering old French anachronism the barely-teenager was the most reliable person she had with her in this perhaps literally godforsaken place. She tried to keep it out of her face, but she desperately hoped that Destiny was more responsible than the people she currently was being forced to take care of. Maybe a forty-year-old. She would even take a twenty-something.

Destiny’s high voice came back on the radio. “I’m at…” she paused “end- enduu – Enduuance Peak.”

“C’est un bébé! ” Gabriel exclaimed putting his hand to his chest, “Que se passe-t-il dans cet endroit abandonné!?”

Angel didn’t have to speak French to get the gist. Her heart fell into her stomach. She kept her face straight.

“Destiny,” said Eliza, “are you hurt? Can you follow the trail to camp virtue?”

“I’m ok.” Destiny chirped, “Wheas da twail?”

“I’ll go get her,” Angel interrupted, “Right now. You all stay here. Destiny, this is Angel. I’m coming to get you. You stay near the trail.”

“Coming to get me?” the voice sounded alarmed.

“I’m coming to help you,” Angel corrected, “tell me what’s around you.”

“I don’t know.”

“Come on, sweetie,” Eliza chided, “the more you tell us the more we can help.”

“I don’t know, I don’t know. I don’t know wheah I am. I want to go home. I want Mr. Tiger.” Destiny pronounced it “Tigeah.”

“Where’s Mr. Tiger?”

Angel suspected there was not one person in the room who couldn’t surmise who “Mr. Tiger” might be. Angel saw Eliza reach a hand absently to her shoulder with a lost look on her face. Even Eloy and Gabriel both visibly shrank into themselves. Angel herself felt the empty, clawing feeling of being separated from God. She set her jaw. “Don’t worry about Mr. Tiger now, Destiny. We’re coming to help.”

Destiny was not encouraged. She started to whine. “I want Mr. Tiger. Mr. Tiger, where are you!?”

“We’re not going to get more out of her,” Angel decided, “I have to go.”

“Take my phone,” said Eliza, holding it out. She used her other hand to wipe some wetness that had welled up underneath her eyes. “It, uh, it has a flashlight. Just… flick it forward a couple times,” she demonstrated the gesture and a white light glared out from the phone. Angel accepted the phone. Eliza kept talking as Angel tried to recreate the gesture. “Use her radio to contact us when you find her.”

Angel looked at Eliza, pleased once again to have someone with presence of mind.

Eliza shrunk from Angel’s gaze, “If, uh, if you don’t mind.”

“Thanks,” said Angel curtly, and turned the light off and on a few times.

“I’m going, too,” Eloy blurted. Angel felt her mind go red and whirled at him, but he was already fixing her with a glare of his own. Everyone was looking at them. God, Angel prayed silently, Please send me a vision, tell me what I’m supposed to do. She had been praying long enough she knew how to do it without people reading her face. Angel waited for Eloy to say more. “I’m not going to slow down for you,” She said eventually, “If you get tired or lost you’ll have to find camp on your own.”

Eloy glared all around and donned a distinctly adolescent sneer, “Ditto.”

It was obvious Eloy spent all his time sitting on the couch watching TV, but he kept up with Angel’s brisk walking pace anyway. Angel was grateful that she didn’t actually have to leave him behind and worry about him on top of this little girl lost in the woods.

In moments they saw the trees thin and the big wooden sign rise up. “Endurance Peak.” “Where is she?” Eloy asked, struggling to speak between deep gasping breaths. Angel pointed at the end of the clearing. Wooden logs cut in half made steps leading upward.

“Oh, man!” Eloy’s boyish face was stricken, “how much further do we have to go?”

Angel kept her smile on the inside. “The whole trail is a few hours each way. Mostly climbing over rocks. Hopefully she’ll be on the closer side, but I’m going to go until I find her or reach the end.”

Looking at Eloy’s face, she added, “You don’t have to go anywhere.”

Angel took a sip from her water bottle as she watched Eloy stomp back the way he came. It was paved and nearly straight. He couldn’t possibly fail to get to camp. She turned and moved forward. It could be the days were just long or Eliza time thought it was later than it really should be, but the twilight still shone through the trees even at 7:30. It wouldn’t last much longer, and she didn’t want to trust Eliza’s little magic future rectangle any more than she had to. She couldn’t keep up a sprint for hours, but unencumbered she could go much faster than the pace she had set for Eloy. She took the steps at a jog.

Thirty minutes in, Angel slowed back down to her fast walk. Even with the light from the phone thing she didn’t feel comfortable walking along this trail in the dark. At places the whole path was just big rocks. The walking was still flat, but some of them were far enough apart you had to reach your foot out to get to the other side without falling into the gulch below.

God, please give me a vision. Where is this poor child?

As with every time since she had come here, Angel’s pleas went unanswered. She stumbled on a root and just managed to catch herself and keep from tumbling over. She couldn’t keep feeling sorry for herself. God had abandoned her and that was it. She couldn’t spare the attention while she focused on finding a little girl and not getting a broken leg on the way.

Angel slowed further and shined the light all around her. “Destiny? Destiny!”

The forest’s crickets and frogs made such a racket that it was becoming oppressive. Angel took in a breath. She pulled up Eliza’s phone. 9:14. The going was slower than she had expected in the dark. That was a terrible oversight. She couldn’t afford to be sloppy in this world without a god. “Destiny!” she shouted again.

This was the part of the trail where the rocks grew steeper. Angel put the phone in her pocket and hefted herself onto an enormous slab. “Destiny!” She had passed several places where sign markers said “Endurance Peak,” and she didn’t remember there being many more after. If Destiny had not stayed near the trail, there wouldn’t be much that –

Do not think like that.

Angel pressed on. When she reached the end of the trail, the actual peak of Endurance Peak, she shined the light out into the darkness where just a few days before during the day she had seen a broad vista. All trees, she remembered. No evidence of civilization for miles. No evidence of Destiny. “Destiny!” Angel was beginning to feel as if the crickets were laughing at her. The frogs and birds were mocking her. Again, she failed. She couldn’t save anyone on Earth and she couldn’t save anyone in this twisted Hell. She


Slowly, Angel forced herself to turn around. She kept shouting Destiny’s name as she descended, shining her light everywhere she could. She knew the composure had left her, and she sounded as desperate as she felt. Her mind went back to the radio room. The wailing little girl who had lost her god and everything else. She knew that little girl because she was that little girl. Hell if she’d ever let anyone know, but it was true.

Angel had lost her focus. This time when she tripped she didn’t catch herself. She landed hard onto the rock. The phone light spun in the air in front of her before it fell and vanished. Shit. 

Angel ignored the pain flaring in her ankle and scrambled forward to find the phone. No one would help her if it had broken and wouldn’t light up anymore. She would never find it in the black night if that had happened. She felt ahead of her as she crawled. She couldn’t afford to fall into a chasm on top of everything else she had fucked up already.

As she crawled, she thought she heard a sound besides the ever-present crickets and frogs. She lifted her head and closed her eyes. Someone was crying. She considered shouting, but she worried that Destiny might run away instead of towards her. Slowly, not letting the gentle sobs escape her ears, Destiny turned around. She crawled forward, one hand in front of the other, as the weeping grew louder and more distinct. “Mr. Tiger…” she finally heard, “Mr. Tiger… Mr. … Mr. Tig- Tiger…”

Angel crawled forward until the sobbing was right in front of her. She guessed she could reach out and grab Destiny if she needed to.

Angel didn’t shout. “Destiny,” she whispered as quietly as she could.

The crying stopped. Angel held her breath and, ignoring her ankle’s protest, readied herself to pounce if Destiny spooked and tried to run.

“Destiny,” she whispered again.

Destiny began to whine softly, a note of fear entering her voice. No, no, no, this wasn’t good. What could Angel say?

“Destiny, I’m sorry about Mr. Tiger”

“Mr. Tiger.” Destiny agreed, sniffling.

“I lost my Mr. Tiger, too.”

“Uh-huh,” Destiny mumbled. Then after another sob, “Is this Angel?”

Angel steeled herself. She couldn’t start celebrating until they were both safely at the camp.

“This is Angel, Destiny. I’m here to help you get someplace bright and warm. Would you like to come with me?”

The Sympathetic Universe Part 13

Eloy’s watch read 12:15 PM when they saw the sign for Camp Virtue.  Indeed, they shortly crested a hill and saw cabin lights. The triangle roof of the cabin extended forward out from the main building. A trellis extended across the base of the triangle, three beams rising outward, one straight up, one diagonal to each side, creating an image like a starburst. Almost before Angel finished parking the van, Eloy was out and running to the cabin.

Eloy opened the door.  Sitting on the wide, wooden floor was a young girl listening intently to an old man in an easy chair. The girl had hair long enough to cover her ears. It was messy, but somehow in a way that seemed free rather than unkempt. It was brown at the top, fading to blonde at the bottom. The man looked like he was wearing a scratchy brown blanket held together by a rope tied around his waist, and he was speaking loudly and waving his arms. Eloy had trouble understanding what he was saying through his thick beard.

“Regardez!” said the girl, looking in Eloy’s direction. By this time, Angel had caught up with him, and had shoved through in front.

“Ah,” exclaimed the man, “Bienvenue les amis!”

“I don’t speak French,” Eloy muttered to Angel.

“I would be surprised if you did,” Angel replied matter-of-factly.

Angel and Eloy stared at the man, who stared at the girl.

“Good evening!” said the girl. Her accent was metropolitan American with a hint of southern, no trace of french, “where did you come from?”

Eloy stared. Angel jerked her head in their direction, “you tell us, first.”

The girl’s and man’s eyes widened at Angel’s aggression, but it only took a moment “I’m Eliza Cunningham from Carrboro, North Carolina in the year 2019. This is Gabriel. He’s a monk from thirteenth century France.”

“Bonjour, ah,” he looked back at Eliza and stressing each syllable said, “Hello.”

Eliza smiled back and nodded approvingly. Gabriel put out his fist and without missing a beat Eliza pushed hers to his. In unison, they both withdrew, evidently very pleased at their secret handshake.

Eloy had to consciously close his mouth. Eliza was from the future.

“I’m Eloy,” Eloy offered, “I’m from Richmond, Indiana, 2003.” Eliza beamed, but Eloy figured she did that for everyone. All eyes turned to Angel.

“I’m Angel,” she said, “I’m from Detroit, Michigan, 1975”

“Bienvenue!” exclaimed Eliza.

“Bienvenue!” Gabriel agreed.

Eloy did a double-take in Angel’s direction. She didn’t look like she was from 1975 at all.  Maybe it was just that she wasn’t wearing a disco outfit or a huge afro and she wasn’t washed out like an old TV show.

“Is there someone else with you?” Eliza asked.

Eloy started to look behind him, but Angel growled, “There’s no one behind us, Stupid.”

Eliza continued, “There’s another bed is why I ask. Two double rooms and one room with just one bed. Also, there are five chairs here, if you count the loveseat as two. There are five cups in the cupboard, five each of forks, spoons, and knives.”

“The cabin expects five people,” Angel summarized.

“Yes, the cabin or whoever set it up.”

“All right,” said Angel, “you two have special relationships with God, right?”

She thumped her chest, “I get visions,” she pointed at Eloy, “he gets overprotected.”

Eliza patted her shoulder, “I had a physical conscience that took the form of a grasshopper.”

“You had a Jiminy Cricket?” Angel asked, bemused.

“Yep.” Eliza pointed to Gabriel, “He heard God’s voice when he prayed.”

“Does anybody know why we’re here?” Eloy asked, not expecting an answer.

“Virtue,” Eliza said.

“Beyond that, though.”

Eliza shrugged.

The virtuous thing to do, Eloy knew, was to let someone else have a bedroom all to him or herself, so he volunteered to bunk with Gabriel. He wondered if it netted him additional virtue credit when he quietly endured Gabriel’s snoring.

Breakfast the next day was curious. After her morning calisthenics, Eliza showed him how to get it. Just open the fridge around mealtime, and it was there. Usually it needed some microwaving. It was individually portioned. Exactly four packages of food in tupperware, one for each person. Not five, he noted. To Eloy’s delight, the breakfast sausage and eggs tasted like it had been prepared the night before by hand.

Angel held tight to the keys of the van. She pointed out that it wouldn’t do anyone much good if they drove out to look for civilization and ended up out of gas in the middle of the woods. She was impervious to Eloy’s argument that he appeared in the van first and therefore it was rightfully his and he should get the keys.

Eloy synchronized his watch with Eliza’s amazing phone that did everything. She was the best prepared of all of them. Her grasshopper had instructed her to hold onto a bag of useful supplies as tightly as she could before she disappeared and it had worked. She had a charger for her cell phone and the cabin had outlets. She said her phone could even connect to the internet and use satellites to tell you where you were, but there were no nearby cell phone towers, and apparently no satellites either. Eliza said she would love to synchronize to the central world clock, but she couldn’t without internet, so her time was just a guess. Nevertheless, her phone set the standard for the whole camp. They were on Eliza time.

This continued for a week. For lack of anything else to do, Eloy joined Eliza in her calisthenics routine, struggled to learn 13th century French with Gabriel, and did his best to avoid Angel whenever he could. It wasn’t hard, as she spent most of her time exploring the surrounding area in a systematic attempt to find an escape back home, or at least back to civilization.

At precisely six fifty-seven Eliza time each night, the whole group crowded into the radio room to watch Eliza deliver her broadcast for help at seven o’ clock. “This is Eliza Cunningham. I am here with three other people. We are stranded at a place called ‘Camp Virtue’ near Endurance Peak and seek assistance.” Eloy was irritated that Angel didn’t declare Eliza incompetent and take over that task, too. Apparently he was the only person here that merited so little confidence.

One day, after another tense fifteen minutes of listening for a response, Eliza stood to indicate it was time to leave. As Gabriel in the back turned to leave so everyone else could get out, the radio crackled to life.

“Eliza,” the radio said, “Come in Eliza. Eliza, this is Destiny. Over.”

The Sympathetic Universe Part 12

Eloy watched the road wind in front of him. Gray trees fell behind in the twilight. When the van did not turn with the road, Eloy realized he was in the driver’s seat and swerved out of the way of a spruce tree, managing to only hit a low branch, which dislodged with a crack. Thankful no one was hurt, Eloy backed up back onto the road and set the van to park.

Eloy examined the damage to the van. The left light was smashed in. Not something he could hope no one would notice. His heart was still pounding in his chest. Just a moment ago, he was about to go to school. Then God disappeared, then he appeared in a van rolling down a mountain hill and crashed it. All in all, a stressful day. He could still feel God’s absence. What was he supposed to do now? A voice in his head would be much appreciated.

It was completely dark now. The blinking red hazard lights showed him the outlines of his hands and the road and not much else. Eloy got back in and turned his lights on. He was gratified to see that the smashed light still worked even if it looked like hell. He checked the fuel gauge. Full. Eloy chuckled, like this van had just visited a fuel station in the middle of the woods. He sighed and tried to puzzle through what was happening. Nothing left to do but continue down the road. He started the van up.

The absence of God made Eloy on edge. The fact that he couldn’t see more than a few yards in front of him on sheer mountain roads would not normally faze him when everything was planned out so that he would do nothing but learn valuable lessons. Before he appeared here, Boden’s voice was rambling about virtue and about running out of time on “this Earth.” He also said that Eloy’s pet theory about God being his mother was wrong. On the other hand, that’s exactly what his mother told him in person, too, so…

“ok,” said Eloy aloud, “virtue.”

The road continued to wind. It was a climb now. Time passed. Eloy had seen no one else on the road. No cars, no signs, nothing. He tried turning the radio on. Static. He turned the dial through the frequencies. Static everywhere. Eloy grit his teeth and slammed on the dashboard. Everywhere had radio! Where the hell was he!? He turned the dial back the other way. More static, until he reached 171.7. A young woman’s voice. “…za Cunningham. I am stranded in the woods seeking assistance. I do not know my coordinates, but I am at a place called ‘camp virtue’ near Endurance Peak. Please send help.” The transmission ended.

“ok,” Eloy said, “camp virtue.”

Then he shrugged. “Endurance Peak.”

Eloy grimaced and raised his hands in surrender before clapping them back onto the wheel when the road made a sharp right. “Keep driving forward,” he muttered, “I guess.”

Eloy left the radio on. He turned the static down and listened to the noises of the night. Crickets made a continuous symphony. An owl hooted. A clicking noise he couldn’t identify. Another bird? The road went on.

In time, Eloy saw a figure waving at the side of the road. Easy as pie. The virtuous thing to do is help. Score one for Eloy. Eloy pulled the car over and rolled his window down.

“What have you got that smug look on for?” snapped the woman. Her black hair framed her scowling face. She looked old, like, 35 or something.

“Excuse me?” Eloy asked, taken aback, “I could have sworn what you said just now was not ‘thank you for helping me.'”

“The fuck is your problem?” the woman shouted, “you think this is a joke?”

Eloy and the woman stared at each other, and the woman shouted, “Did you crash this!? Are you old enough to drive!? Are you planning to tell me what’s going on!?”

“What’s going on!?” screamed Eloy, not sure whether to be angry or terrified, “I don’t know what’s going on!”

But the woman had reached in the window and unlocked his door. Before he knew it, vice-grip strong hands were hauling him out of the van. He braced for impact with the pavement, but, without giving him a chance to escape, the woman laid him gently on the ground. Then she climbed in the driver’s seat.

“Are you stealing my van?” Eloy stammered, vaguely worried about what would happen if he tried to stand up.

“Hey, fuck you.” the woman jabbed a finger down at him from the van. “How dare you. I was in the middle of a presentation. There were executives in that audience. There were power-brokers in that audience. I was going to show everyone what a woman could do. There were little girls in that audience. What happens when a latina who worked her way up from nowhere starts to tell people who have been told all their lives they’re worth nothing – what happens when she’s just about to tell them they can be something, and then she ceases to exist! What kind of message does that send?”

Eloy had no idea what kind of message that would send. He chanced putting his arms under him and pushing up a bit to look at her. “I disappeared in the bus in front of school,” he offered.

“Don’t lie to me,” the woman did not seem as assured as before.

“I really don’t have anything else but that van. Could I at least sit in the back?”

The woman scowled. “You sit in the front,” she said, “so I can keep my eye on you.”

Eloy had to admit that he had been getting tired of driving. He leaned his seat back and yawned. He checked his watch – it was supposed to be 9:00 AM. The darkness was getting to him.

“Hey, what’s your name?” the woman asked.

Eloy shook the sleep from his head, “Eloy.”

“Hm, so you’re God’s chosen.”

Eloy sat upright, “what?”

The light from the headlights illuminated the outline of the woman’s face. “That’s what Eloy means. ‘God’s chosen'”

“Oh.” Eloy was surprised no one had ever told him what his name meant. “God’s Chosen” seemed a little on-the-nose. “What’s your name?”

The woman shrugged, “Angel.”

The van bumped over a large stick on the road. The radio murmured its quiet static.

“Fuck,” said Eloy, “are we gonna run into Jesus next?”

“That’s my Dad.”

Eloy’s face contorted as he mouthed “what?”

Angel chuckled, her mouth stretched painfully wide across her face.

“God is my mom,” Eloy blurted.

“Fuck you,” Angel managed between heaves of laughter.

“No, really.”

“I just see the future,” Angel said, “It’s like dreams, but they tell me what’s going to happen. The visions always tell me no one will believe me if I tell them what I saw, and they never do.”

Eloy doubled over in his seat. He could barely breathe.

Angel continued, “But seriously, your mom? Jesus is just my dad’s name. It’s a common one.”

“I don’t know.” Eloy kept laughing. He couldn’t exactly say what was so funny. Maybe the night had just got to him.

The van continued on through the darkness.


The Sympathetic Universe Part 11

“People always ask me,” said Reverend Boden in his characteristic long-short rhythm, “why does the world have suffering if God is all powerful and all good?”

Eloy blinked and looked down at his iPod. The display said “Red Hot Chili Peppers – Californication.” He rolled his eyes. Knowing his mom, He wouldn’t get to hear anything else through his earbuds until he was through this, so he set his jaw and got comfortable. Hopefully it would be done by the time he got to school and he wouldn’t have to pick it up again on the way back. He didn’t really mind Boden. Dad used to listen to him in the car and Eloy remembered falling asleep to his cadence. “PEOPLE… ALWAYS… ASK- ME- ….. WHY does the WORLD have SUFF-ER-ING if GOD is ALL POW-ER-FUL and ALL GOOD.”

“First I remind them that God is incapable of evil, for what He does is the definition of good. God is good, but more to the point good is God. They often want more than that.” Cue laughter from the congregation.

Eloy rolled his eyes. Mom was really laying it on thick today. He could put up with it. He had to admit he had enjoyed the attention he got after rescuing that old woman from the fire. The first responders were baffled at how he had apparently ambled in and led the woman out by a hand. The old woman, who’s name he had completely forgotten, had told everyone the fire just died down wherever he was about to walk. They didn’t believe her any more than they would believe him that she and her daughter hadn’t existed at all just days before.

“So, I tell them that they need to look beyond this world. We suffer as children when we learn we cannot take a sodapop from the store without paying for it. Our childish minds curse this cruel society that puts sodapop in our reach and then slaps it from our hands for so little reason.”

Eloy yawned and looked over at his busmates. The red-haired girl was hunched over a bulky green and purple copy of The Half-Blood Prince. Eloy guessed it could be any gigantic green and purple hardcover book, seeing as her wild hair blocked his view of most of the cover, but it was hard to imagine what else it could be. He restrained himself from the urge to shout “Snape kills Dumbledore!” She’d probably heard it a hundred times by now.

“But then we grow up and see the greater plan. With experience, we see the wisdom our parents wished to teach us, and the world makes sense again, all the better for the suffering of our youth. That’s what this world is to eternity. It is your soul’s childhood.”

Eloy experimentally turned his iPod off. He may as well save the battery. The sound didn’t stop. On a lark, he took his earbuds out.

“God gives you experiences now,” the reverend’s voice rang clear in his bare ears. Eloy glanced around, but no one else could hear, naturally.

“When my father killed himself, I asked God ‘why, God, what lesson should I learn from this?’ He said nothing, for the lessons of our soul’s childhood are not ones that can be taught, they have to come through living.”

A chill ran over Eloy. He didn’t know the reverend had lost his father, too. He probably didn’t, and this was just his mom using the reverend’s voice to manipulate him. Eloy slouched further. He fished the newspaper clipping out of his backpack. The one with the picture of him leading Wilma Duff out through the roaring flames. The article made no mention that Wilma had ever had a granddaughter.

“Sometimes,” Boden intoned more loudly, “people don’t want to LIST-EN to the voice of God. They drown it out with their petty worldly pride and forget that all of their successes were given to them through His holy grace.”

Eloy knew better than to try to talk to his mom out loud in public when she wasn’t there. He tried to think as loud as he could, “I get it, Mom! Can I please listen to my music now!?”

“God is not your mother, young man,” Boden’s voice snapped. Eloy froze. He felt the blood drain from his face. After a moment, the voice continued preaching, “We are all finite beings. We are all running out of time on this Earth. There comes a time in our lives when we realize those who guided us are gone, and now we have to guide ourselves and perhaps be the guide to others.”

Eloy realized his mouth was hanging open and closed it, “What do you mean, time is running out?” he thought.

The voice started speaking more quickly, “Your virtue is paramount, but the acts on this earth are immaterial. Practice virtue, but don’t expect reward. Virtue for its own sake.”

Eloy’s heart was pumping in his chest. Something very bad was happening, he was sure. The bus stopped at his school, but he stayed rooted to the seat. The reverend was now speaking so quickly that he could barely follow, “Pro-social… greatest need… the first stone… the least of these…”

For ten tense seconds, Eloy listened to sage advice pumped into his ear at light speed, utterly incomprehensible. Then it stopped.

Eloy was shaking. He felt like his heart was either beating at quadruple the normal rate or had stopped beating entirely. The bus was empty. The driver shouted, “Hey, Eloy, you gotta go to school!”

More silence. More than that, Eloy felt a chill. He felt like he had been living all his life under a warm blanket, and now with no warning, he was exposed to the January air.

No, he had been in someone’s arms his whole life, and now he wasn’t.

Now Eloy was on his own.


Steve Duke the bus driver was worried about Eloy. He’d had students who were too frightened of bullies or telling their teacher they hadn’t done the homework and wouldn’t get off the bus, but he had always pegged Eloy as more mature. What did a boy who sauntered casually into burning buildings have to fear at South Davis High school? Steve stood and walked back to Eloy’s seat. Then he scanned all the seats. He got down on his hands and knees and looked underneath them. Then he stood up, pulled off his baseball cap and scratched his head.

“Now where on God’s green earth could that boy have gone?”


The Sympathetic Universe Part 10

Eliza’s favorite movie was Disney’s Pinnochio. Maybe it was a little old, but she identified with the protagonist. Not because she wanted to be a real boy, she was happy being a real girl, but because, like him, she had a conscience. For most people, a conscience was an abstract concept, but Eliza was the envy of her friends because she had a literal grasshopper sitting on her shoulder. It didn’t sing, and it didn’t have a top hat and cane or big, expressive eyes. It was just a normal grasshopper that leapt onto her each morning as soon as she had a shirt on. When Eliza had a challenging decision, the grasshopper crawled up and lifted its body so its forelegs were above the opening to her ear. Then its mandibles clicked and she heard a voice tell her what to do.

When she was a baby, Eliza’s parents had apparently been afraid of the grasshopper and tried several times to kill it. When they took it away from Eliza and let it outside she was inconsolable until it appeared on her shoulder again the next time they let their eyes off her. When they smashed or flushed the grasshopper or trapped it in a jar, it always reappeared. Eventually they grudgingly accepted the grasshopper. It was only when Eliza started to talk and told them what it was telling her that they began to truly appreciate it. Now they seemed comfortable to let their parenting role consist of bragging about their kid and listening to her exploits over the dinner table. The grasshopper did the hard work.

“That young woman is pretending to be your friend,” clicked the grasshopper. Mary’s hair had one curly black strand falling down over her forehead. Eliza thought later she might ask the grasshopper what he would think of her getting a hairstyle like that. The grasshopper continued, “She is not introspective enough to understand her motives, but deeply she just wants to be beloved like you. Be kind to her, help her get some friends. She will come to appreciate why you are the most loved.”

Eliza nodded, and Mary gaped at her. “What – what did it say?”

Eliza beamed – it was a smile the grasshopper had trained her to give through hours in the mirror. She stepped forward and hugged Mary, who was too shocked to react. “Mary,” she whispered into her ear just like the grasshopper, “you are a wonderful and beautiful person.”

Mary blinked as Eliza withdrew. “What?” she asked

“Mary,” said Eliza with a serious pause, “What do you like? How do you like to spend your time?”

“I, uh,” stammered Mary, “I like… football.”

Eliza was the head cheerleader and assistant coach of the men’s junior varsity football team. She was also its lead Instagram and Twitter promoter. Sometimes the junior varsity games drew a bigger crowd than varsity. She didn’t need her grasshopper to tell her that Mary didn’t like football.

“Mary,” said Eliza, “for a moment, stop trying to please or impress anyone. Just for you, what do you like?”

Mary pressed her lips together. She had not considered liking anything besides being liked or things that made her be liked. This was a difficult question, Eliza knew. Eliza saw Mary’s eyes lock on her shoulder, and felt the familiar sensation of the grasshopper climbing back onto her ear. “Mary likes cooking pasta with her mother. She enjoys long walks in the park and writing poetry about boys in her notebook in Social Studies. She has a crush on Chris Evans.”

“Who’s Chris Evans?” Eliza whispered

“Captain America.” The grasshopper replied. Eliza nodded.

“I’m going to see the new Avengers movie with some friends in a few days. Would you like to come?”

“What?” asked Mary, startled from staring at the grasshopper, “oh, yes! When?”

“I’ll be in touch. I have to go work out.” Eliza beamed and left Mary in the hallway.

“That was well done,” whispered the grasshopper, “Now you just have to find some friends she’ll like and plan an outing.”

“It seems like everyone just wants people to like them,” Eliza mused as she let herself into the chemistry lab that was empty during fifth period, “people are so simple.”

“Yes,” agreed the grasshopper, “that is why you shall be the most virtuous of them all.”

Alone between the thick granite tables Eliza began her calisthenics routine. As she did burpees, the grasshopper continued to whisper to her. “How could you have learned what Mary liked without me telling you?”

A chill ran over Eliza. She did not like the suggestion that the grasshopper might someday leave. It was bringing it up more lately. “That’s what you’re here for, though, to tell me. Hey, what do you think if I get a couple strands of hair to fall in my face like Mary? Doesn’t that sound cool?”

“I won’t always be here to help you, Eliza,” the grasshopper pressed, “how can you find out what a person likes if she doesn’t tell you?”

Eliza started a plank. “Well, ugh. I guess I’d, uh, just talk with her for a while and mention a lot of things and see how she responds.”

“Very good,” murmured the grasshopper. “The gym shower will be cold. The heater broke a few hours ago. Be ready for discomfort.”

Eliza steeled herself.

It's about whatever I say it's about