Category Archives: Writing

The End of Infinity Part 4

“Boys,” Sarah-Maybeline said with a knowing look on her delicate features. She sat on Vanessa’s bed, her long dress bunched up beneath her. Vanessa sat at her desk and kept her head down on her math homework.

“You know,” Sarah-Maybeline said, “you should really go for this football thing.”

“Why on Earth would I do that?” Vanessa snapped, “I have more than enough on my plate between my classes, Toastmasters, and my job.”

“Your job at McDonalds.” Sarah-Maybeline lifted an immaculate auburn eyebrow.

“Yes, Sarah-Maybeline. McDonalds.” Vanessa straightened and turned around to look at her. “it’s teaching me valuable life skills and the money will help pay for college.”

Sarah-Maybeline fell forward and lifted her feet behind her. Vanessa wondered if Sarah-Maybeline’s mother would be scandalized to know that Vanessa was seeing her bare feet and shins. “You know what teaches valuable life skills?” Sarah-Maybeline said, “Football. You know what pays for college? A football scholarship.”

“I’m not going to get a football scholarship. That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.” Vanessa turned back to her homework.

“Maybe not, but you will get attention.” Sarah-Maybeline paused for effect, propping her head up with her forearms and swaying her legs at the knees, “from bee-oh-wai-ess.”

Vanessa’s pencil stopped moving, all the math going out of her head. She was done with bee-oh-wai-ess. She was a strong and independent woman. There was no need and there would be no need for them in her life. She refused to let such a frivolous matter have any effect on her future.


Vanessa stood with Sarah-Maybeline in a wide green field overlooked by the ever-present Adirondack mountains. Sarah-Maybeline showed her how to grip the football with her fingers on the laces.

“How do you know how to do this?” Vanessa asked, incredulous.

“Five brothers, eighteen male cousins. I’m the only girl in my family, remember?” She took Vanessa’s shoulders and whispered in her ear, “So you can count on me to know boys.”

Vanessa lifted her arm above her head. She flicked her wrist and the football twirled and landed a few feet away.

“No no no, put your whole arm into it. Your core, too. Twist away from the direction you’re throwing, then send it all forward at once. Here, let me show you.”

Vanessa and Sarah-Maybeline looked like they were from another time in their long muted dresses. Vanessa figured a football looked out of place in her hands, but to see Sarah-Maybeline twist back and send the ball sailing far overhead to land out of sight behind a rolling hill was something else. She looked so at home in both a long dress and with a football that for a moment it was easy to believe the two were not in conflict with one another.

Now Vanessa was eager. She and Sarah-Maybeline ran over the hill to the ball, and she picked it up again, trying to mimic Sarah-Maybeline. “Correct my position,” Vanessa ordered. Sarah-Maybeline pulled her shoulder back, rearranged her fingers, and lifted her arm.

Vanessa’s arm lurched forward and the ball landed on its tip in the dirt a couple yards away. “That’s improvement!” Sarah-Maybeline assured her, “Now think about keeping the ball going in a straight path throughout your throw. The most perfect starting position won’t matter if you let it all loose the moment you start moving.”

Vanessa stepped forward and picked up the ball. She assumed the position and let Sarah-Maybeline correct her. “Now, Vanessa, remember to keep it straight. Focus. Throw like you mean it this time.”

Vanessa put her mind on the ball and imagined it going in a straight line as the rest of her body moved in a fluid motion around it. She took a deep breath and unwound her tensed posture into what felt like the perfect throw. She watched with dismay as the ball began once more to flip side over side. It didn’t fall, though. It just kept going higher and higher like gravity had no interest in it.

“Wwwwwwwwwoooooooooooaaaaaaahhhhhhh!!!” Sarah-Maybeline cried, her wavy brown hair lagging behind her as she bent her knees to jump up again in triumph.

Sarah-Maybeline returned to normal and they watched the tiny dot in the sky as it finally began to descend, disappearing in the trees high on one of the mountains in the distance well to the left of the direction Vanessa had been hoping to throw.

Sarah-Maybeline tackled Vanessa to the grass. “Oh my goodness gracious. You are the coolest person I know! You are going to get so much money and everyone is going to want to be your boyfriend.”

Vanessa was stunned.

“First off,” Sarah-Maybeline considered, straightening up, still pinning Vanessa to the ground, covering most of her body in her long dress, “we need to buy my brother a new ball.”

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The End of Infinity Part 3

Vanessa’s panic attack, as Dr. Saunder explained it, turned out to be an isolated occurrence. In five years, she had not had another case of feeling like time had stopped and the air was no longer responding to attempts to breathe or move it, and this was so much for the better.

Boys didn’t tend to look Vanessa’s way at Saint Francis and Mary High School. Despite the progressive dress code, many of her classmates were still wearing long skirts and dresses, and many of them seemed to have no trouble attracting attention. Sometimes her friend Sarah-Maybeline would confide in her that she received too much attention. This was despite the fact that Sarah-Maybeline’s mother made sure her dress consistently covered her ankles. Vanessa restrained herself from telling her friend what a wonderful problem that was to have.

With eighteen years under her belt, Vanessa was much wiser than she had been. She now understood that it was not her mother’s dubious fashion dogma that kept the boys at bay, it was something fundamentally and deeply wrong at the core of her being that would guarantee a life without affection no matter what remedy she might seek to take. “Comforting” was not the word she would use to describe this new understanding, but it did free her to spend more time on her studies.

Vanessa’s academic performance had skyrocketed over the past five years. Her parents marveled at the way she could read a whole book  for English in under two hours and then complete her math homework in fifteen minutes. To her it didn’t feel like two hours or fifteen minutes. She could have sworn she’d been struggling over her math for half an hour and she would look at her grandfather clock in the corner of her room and see only five minutes had passed. Dr. Saunder called this stretching of time the gift of concentration, and when Vanessa suggested that people often thought less time had passed when in deep concentration, not more time, he was not moved. Vanessa didn’t wear her Schaffhausen watch anymore, as despite her local watchmaker’s assurance that it was top of the line and in excellent condition, it ran alarmingly fast, sometimes as many as twelve times faster than the other clocks around her.

Vanessa awoke at six in the morning. No matter when she went to bed, when she awoke it was always six in the morning and she always felt well-rested. She did not tend to be inclined to abuse this phenomenon, as by the time ten at night rolled around, she tended to be thoroughly exhausted from a day that felt twice or three times as long as it should have been. She got out of bed and brushed her teeth, then washed and changed into her school dress.

Vanessa enjoyed the wooded part of  her walk to school. A blue jay flew past, reaching out its wings and pushing them down to propel itself forward. “one…. two…” Vanessa counted the beats of the wings as it floated by. She approached a little brown rabbit that didn’t seem to notice her until she was upon it. She wondered sometimes about the slow reactions of animals in this forest. She bent down and touched its soft fur as it tensed its  legs to bound away.

At lunch, Vanessa studied with Sarah-Maybeline at the outdoor lunch tables. She was beginning to reconsider this tradition, as more and more it had become Vanessa trying to study while Sarah-Maybeline pretended not to revel in the parade of boys desperately trying to get her attention. Today John “don’t call me Jack” Sprat, the captain of the football team sidled up to them while Vanessa tried to wrap her head around her calculus homework.

“One divided by zero is undefined,” Vanessa told Sarah-Maybeline, following the text slowly with her finger as to move too quickly carried the risk of starting a fire. “But the limit of one divided by x as x approaches zero is infinity.”

“Ha ha ha,” Sarah-Maybeline giggled tossing her auburn curls, “get rid of that stupid ball, dork.”

“The question is what is the limit of one divided by x as x approaches zero from the other direction?”

John flipped the ball in the air. “This ball is most of this school’s funding. A lot of rich Christians want to send their kids to a school that dominates on the field without compromising its traditional values. That money rests on these two shoulders.”

“Mm, broad shoulders. But I don’t care. I don’t need a star football team.”

Vanessa looked up, “Get out of here, John. We’re studying, you know, to get real jobs?”

Sarah-Maybeline fluttered her eyelashes, “Yeah, John, go make out with your stupid ten million dollar ball while you stretch your school-carrying shoulders. They must be so sore.”

John grinned and leaned in closer. Now his football was in the way, so he turned around and pitched it to one of the bigger guys a few tables away. “Heads up!” The burly guy turned his head surprisingly far for his absence of a visible neck and in one fluid motion reached up and snatched the ball from the air. John turned back and put his face right to Sarah-Maybeline’s “They are so sore. I think I need somebody to give them a massage. It would do wonders for the school’s bottom line.

Vanessa spoke up, “That’s a great idea to take to the principle, John,” she suggested, then she adopted a faux masculine voice, “Principle Carpenter, with a small investment of $100 a week for me to have a personal masseuse, I can increase donations to this school by upwards of 10%!”

Sarah-Maybeline giggled devilishly and pushed John away. He stumbled back and was still blinking and trying to understand what had just happened to him when Vanessa looked back down to her textbook. “So if we have a very small denominator, then we get a large number. If we have a very small negative denominator…” there was another shout, “Heads-up!”

Vanessa heard a grunt, and then a sharp intake of breath followed by Sarah-Maybeline’s voice. “Vvvvvvvaaaaaannneeesssssaaaaaa…”

Vanessa shook her head. The hubbub around her had stopped. With a sudden pit in her stomach, she thought she couldn’t breathe, but it wasn’t the case. She could breathe and she could move. John was floating in the air, his arms outstretched towards nothing. Sarah-Maybeline’s eyes were wide and her mouth gaped open in a shout.

Vanessa looked up and saw a football inches from her forehead. She reached up and plucked it out of the air. Everything returned.

“a!” Sarah-Maybeline finished. Then she did a double-take. “Good catch!”

John turned around and for the first time looked directly at Vanessa, all thought of Sarah-Maybeline out of his mind. “Vanessa, right?”

Vanessa furrowed her brow. “Yes… and you’re Jack Sprat.”

John gritted his teeth, but let it pass. “Did you just catch that ball? Did you even know it was coming?”

“I – yes, I clearly caught it, Jack. It was in the air, now it’s in my hand.” She brandished the ball as evidence.

John nodded quickly, “Have you ever played football?”

“What’s a football?” Vanessa sneered.

John nodded and pursed his lips, then he raised a finger, “I’m going to go have a chat with the coach.” He spun around and started away. After a moment, he broke into a sprint.

“You forgot whatever this thing is,” Vanessa shouted after him, throwing it overhand. It slipped out of her hand and bounced on the table and into Sarah-Maybeline’s side.

“Vanessa, ouch!” Sarah-Maybeline whined, putting her hand to her ribs.

“Sorry,” Vanessa shrunk and returned to her calculus. Negative infinity. Once you got it it made perfect sense. There was something satisfying about the order of math.

The End of Infinity Part 2

Vanessa Koltrane lived a routine life with her family in a little town near the Adirondack mountains. When her school changed its dress code to allow girls to wear pants, she asked her mother to buy her a pair of blue jeans, but was sternly rebuked and sent to her room. She stared out of her window at the towering mountains and pouted.

The next day, passing by her local corner store on the way to school, she saw a pair of bell-bottoms that looked just like she had seen on TV. She turned her eyes away, but the they lingered in her mind. She could barely pay attention in school. She wasn’t the only girl in a skirt, but she was sure hers was the ugliest and brownest.

On the way back, Vanessa stared longingly at the jeans. She knew she could never afford them, but maybe if she could just try them on it would be enough.

Moe took off his sunglasses to give her the side eye when she carried the pants in. He put out his cigarette and asked, “Did your mudda say ye could buy those, V? I don’t think I could sell them to yeh without permission, y’know. It’s not like she’d hafta guess which stoah they came from.” he screwed his face up into the odd, leering expression he made when he was practicing his comedy routine.

Vanessa knew Moe was from the Big City and didn’t share her mother’s old-fashioned values. “I’m just gonna try it on, Moe.”

Moe chuckled deep in his throat. “I won’t tell if you won’t.” He returned his sunglasses to his face in a symbolic show of turning a blind eye.

The pants were the most wonderful thing Vanessa had ever experienced. Just the feeling of them hugging her body was ecstasy. In the mirror she looked like she was a TV star. She stepped out of the dressing room and Moe grinned at her. “You like ’em?”

“Yes.” Vanessa twirled and leapt, exulting in the freedom of having no loose fitting cloth weighing her down. Moe laughed. “Gosh, V, I’d just give ’em to ya if ya mudda wouldn’t flay me alive. Ain’t she gonna be expectin’ you home about now?”

Vanessa froze. Why did she have to take these off? Moe was even going to give them to her for free. The only thing in the way was her mother. She wrote it off and resumed dancing.

“Hey,” Moe said after a moment, “honey, I think it’s time for you to change back and head home.

Vanessa strutted in front of the mirror in the open dressing room door. “Do you think I look like a movie star?”

“You look like a princess, sweetheart, now I know yer mom is a piece a work and it ain’t fair, but I’d really appreciate if ya could maybe get moving.”

Vanessa did not want to go home. She was happy here. She just wanted to stay here in these pants. Not forever, necessarily, just a little longer. She spun around to beg Moe for more time, but he looked different. Moe’s sunglasses were back in his hand. She watched his face contort again for his comedy routine, but it did so much too slowly to maintain any joke.

She stood silent and stared. mouth stretch out to one side and his eyes bug out as usual, but achingly slowly. They seemed to just keep stretching further and further, buggier and buggier. As this happened, Vanessa felt like the air around her had grown heavier. When she breathed in it felt like she was breathing molasses.

Soon she had stopped paying any attention to Moe and focused all her energy on forcing air in and out of her lungs. One two-ton breath in haaaaaaaaaaaaa, one two-and-a-half-ton breath out aaaaaaaaaaah. “Moe” she squeaked, “help.” For a long second, she couldn’t breathe at all. She tried to pull her arms to her neck, but the air resisted her. She was trapped. She was going to die here. Just like Mom tried to warn her, God was punishing her for wearing blue jeans.

Then Moe finished his rictus and donned a look of concern. He rushed forward and kneeled in front of Vanessa as she gulped in breath after breath of the hot, tobacco-scented air. “What the hell just happened to you? Pardon my French.”

“I’m going home, Moe,” Vanessa croaked, “I’ll take the pants off. Thanks for letting me try them.”

“Uh, yeah, no prob. You sure yer ok? Do you need a ride? I can close this place up fer five minutes, nobody comes by anyway.”

“No,” Vanessa whispered.

“What were you doin’ all of a sudden tryin’ to breathe so fast? I never seen nobody pump their lungs like that.”

Vanessa nodded and stood up. She returned to the dressing room, changed, took her pants back to the rack, and walked back home.

Little Vanessa sobbed and shook and blubbered unintelligibly in Dorothy Koltrane’s arms. “There there,” she soothed, doing her best to follow what her daughter was saying, “God still loves you. There there.”

The Sympathetic Universe: The End of Infinity Part 1

I’m going to start labeling my short stories set in “The Sympathetic Universe” separately. For installations after the first, I’ll include only the story title, and leave “The Sympathetic Universe” as a category.

A yellow Prius screeched to a halt as Franklin Jones Watson crossed the street back to his apartment from Avengers: Endgame. Frank waved off the driver’s shouted curses. The movie’s approach to time intrigued him. He watched Back to the Future to see if it really was all bullshit, and indeed was appalled by the basic failure to understand even simple principles of cause and effect. Standing behind the desk at his neighborhood’s Best Buy, he fretted. “If Marty McFly disappears because his father never met his mother, how can he do it slowly? Doesn’t a slow change require time? Is there one time that we experience and then another time that governs changes to that timeline? If that’s the case, how can Marty see his history being erased? Wouldn’t his memory be erased along with it?”

Frank watched Terminator, Hot Tub Time Machine, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and Looper, and came no closer to a satisfactory understanding. He wondered over a tepid hot pocket in his company break room, “If they cut off his limbs in the past, why is it only at that moment that we’re watching that they vanish? Why would he suddenly be unable to use the brakes in the car because he’s lost his leg? Why wouldn’t he not have been able to start driving the car in the first place, since he by necessity would have always not had the leg?”

Franklin lay in his folding reclining chair and watched through all of the old and new episodes of Dr. Who. “U R all being played,” he wrote on a Dr. Who fan site. “I thought at first Big Media just struggled with time travel, but now I know the truth.  In the modern Season 9, Episode 4 : ‘Before the Flood,’ the writers unambiguously brag about how the show has neither the desire nor the intention to take time travel seriously. This is really far from the first of a long series of offenses, but this one I found especially galling. The Doctor himself takes the time to carefully explain to the audience how what he is doing is a paradox. He points out that when he followed the instructions of a version of himself visiting from the future, he then gave those instructions to himself in the past simply because he remembered having been told them. Where did the instructions come from? Then instead of a satisfactory explanation of how in fact it is possible what the doctor has done, the show doubles down and suggests that the audience should be impressed that the writers have no respect for time travel. I’m starting a petition to boycott this show and all other attempts by Big Media to confuse the public and suppress knowledge of time travel. -FJW”

When a woman said in her OKCupid profile said that she liked to wonder about time travel paradoxes, Franklin meticulously explained to her how time travel has not once been properly represented in films and TV. He had recently rewatched Avengers: Endgame, for example, and realized that despite an initial promising confession that Hollywood and New York TV Establishment had been brainwashing us with lies like Back to The Future, it in fact was no less guilty. “If you believe the horseshit that Steve Rogers did not alter history appreciably when he decided to stick around in the past, what about chaos theory? Watch Jurassic Park. Every individual action we take is affected even if it’s in individually undetectable ways. If Steve Rogers appears and pushes air out of the way to make room for his volume and it moves a particle of dust an inch to the left such that it gets caught in a different air current and ends up in the nose of a passerby, it can cause him to sneeze when he otherwise would not, slowing him down by a full second. Not to draw the whole explanation out, but his interactions in the office will change when he meets everyone a second later, then their lives will be changed so on and so forth. If you say the big events won’t be affected, consider that Gavrilo Princep had given up trying to make the assassination that would begin World War I, and just by coincidence happened to be eating a consolation lunch on the street that Franz Ferdinand’s car was turning onto. Chance events make history.”

Curiously, this woman who supposedly enjoyed intellectual inquiry did not find Frank’s points intriguing and never responded. Frank brooded on humanity’s refusal to think seriously about time travel while waiting at the bus stop. What could we accomplish if this knowledge were not kept from us as a species? If only, Frank thought as he got off the bus, if only I could explore time manipulation myself. As he crossed the street, Frank was hit by a purple Jeep and killed.

In a great black expanse, Frank heard a voice. “THIS IS AN AUTOMATED PROCESS TO RESTORE YOUR MEMORIES.”

Then Frank remembered that his real name was BABBBABBABABAABBBABABBBBABABABBBBBBBABABAABBBABABABABABABABBBAA, and he could experiment with time as much as he damn well pleased.

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.

“Eloy, when is your birthday?” Destiny asked.

“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.

“How about today?” Eloy asked.

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.