Category Archives: Writing

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.

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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 Sympathetic Universe Part 17

Without the phone, there was no longer any such thing as Eliza time, but that was fine with Gabriel. The sun peeked through the clouds on the horizon, rays of light reaching out into the early morning sky. Gabriel kneeled at the window. He regretted the loss of his Bible upon his transportation, so he focused on repeating verses that he knew by heart. God had particularly encouraged him to know the book of Job, and now he was glad he did.

In the reflection of the window, Gabriel saw the boy. He was trying to communicate again. Ignoring the protestation of his joints, Gabriel turned and squinted at the boy, thinking of how Eliza told him that he thought of himself as the son of God.

To his credit, the boy waited patiently as Gabriel rose and made his way to sit down in his easy chair. Eliza had shown him how to raise the leg rest for his swollen feet. This time the boy at least had a plan to cross the language barrier. He had a sheet of paper and colored pencils, on which he drew a bright yellow cross, colored in with a lazy squiggle. He drew yellow lines pointing out around in a halo. He pointed to the cross and said something.

“God,” Gabriel suggested languidly.

The boy pointed a finger and exclaimed affirmation. “God!”

The boy pulled a black pencil out of a yellow box and drew a stick figure. He pointed to himself. “Eloy.”

Gabriel nodded, growing more fascinated despite himself. Eloy drew another stick figure and whipped out a brown pencil, with which he drew a sloppy blob around the second figure. Presumably a robe. The boy pointed at him.

The next figure stood a head taller than the rest and had some scribbles near the head to give the impression of long hair. “The Spanish Woman,” Gabriel said.

“Angel,” said the boy.

Then the boy drew another two figures, one with a little green dot on the shoulder and another smaller than all the rest. He pointed to the first one. “Eliza” muttered Gabriel, furrowing his brow. Pious pride tangled with personal shame in his mind. The boy pointed to the smallest figure. “The baby,” said Gabriel.

“Destiny” said the boy.

“Yes,” Gabriel nodded.

Eloy nodded and took his black pencil. He drew a line from the cross to each figure. He pulled his pencil back and threw down an X over all the lines. Gabriel felt the same cold sweat break out that he’d been living with for the whole month he’d been here at Camp Virtue. The abrupt disconnection from the divine, more recently compounded by the shame of nearly succumbing to the despair. I insult to injury, rescue by the apparently superior faith of a little girl who had readily admitted she didn’t even belong to a church… it was still a fresh wound on his pride.

“No!” he nearly shouted. From the way the boy jumped, he may have actually shouted. He had to take pride in the piety of the future’s children. It was an admonition to him to be even more faithful. “We cannot allow ourselves to believe that God has abandoned us.” He leapt up. “Like Job, we have the rare opportunity to prove our faith in God’s benevolence and wisdom!”

The boy shrunk from Gabriel, his hands raised in a placating gesture. Here Gabriel was with his second chance, and he was using it to shout at a child who didn’t even speak French.

“No,” Gabriel repeated more quietly, sitting. He beckoned the boy back over. Hesitating, the boy approached and, with an apologetic look, re-emphasized the X separating each of them from God. Gabriel nodded stiffly.

The boy proceeded to draw a blue box underneath Eliza. He added two rectangular doors, a shorter one on top. “Refrigerator,” he said. This magic box that was always cold and produced food was now familiar to Gabriel and he nodded. Underneath the baby, the boy drew a rectangle with two circles and a line extending from the top. Another artifact of the future, the radio.

The boy put a question mark under each device. Gabriel had no idea what the mystery surrounding these objects was supposed to be. He didn’t understand them at all, but Eliza had explained they were commonplace in everyone’s time but his. He shrugged.

The boy tapped his temple with his index finger. He said something more, but Gabriel still didn’t get it. He shook his head.

The boy made an impressive show of keeping his cool. He took a blue pencil and drew new lines from God to each of Eliza and the baby. This was unmistakable. Gabriel had no idea how or why, but the boy was convinced that Eliza and the baby somehow had established new connections with God.

Gabriel reconsidered recent events from this position. How could he be blamed for losing faith in God first when God had selected only him to be abandoned? Could Eliza have used her divine advantage to humiliate him into thinking he was of inferior faith instead of telling him the truth? Gabriel set his jaw. What would it say about him that after a life of sacrifice and dedication his own God so casually left him for someone who had given nothing?

These thoughts were confusing and alien to Gabriel. In eighty years in the monastery he had seen every sort of human injustice, but he had to admit that here eighty years of experience amounted to little. He drew in a breath. “What do you think we should do?”

The boy probably didn’t understand the words, but he went to the paper anyway. He drew three lines halfway to the Spanish woman, himself, and Gabriel. He drew a black line in the way. Something was blocking God from helping them?

The boy drew a question mark. He didn’t know or he wasn’t sure. Gabriel nodded. This was the sort of ambiguity he knew how to work with. “We know there is hope. We bide our time.”

The boy tried to figure out what Gabriel had said for a moment, then shrugged. He stood, gave an awkward nod, and left. He wasn’t more than a few steps away when Gabriel felt a feeling he hadn’t in a month. In an instant, he felt whole and loved. The feeling was electric, and Gabriel was lucky that the boy didn’t turn around at his sudden intake of breath.

The voice from his life on Earth came to him. “I never left you, Son, but you must face this challenge on your own.”

Gabriel was in shock. He could do nothing but mutter prayers under his breath.

“Also, Eliza’s cell phone is in the third crevasse from the beginning of the rock section of the climb. The Spanish woman couldn’t find it because it was buried in a pile of leaves. That is all I can tell you. Be strong.”

The feeling of wholeness lingered before Gabriel knew he was alone again. That night, when he returned to his bunk, he saw two books on his bunk. The first he was delighted to see, was his illuminated bible, bound in leather. The most valuable possession he had ever owned. He opened it to the first page and traced the beautifully wrought I with his finger, following the path of the bright green snake that twined around it. The other book was much smaller, less than half the height and a quarter the thickness. Gabriel wrinkled his nose as the thin, flimsy cover bent and the whole book lifted off the bed when he tried to open it with one hand. It was in English, too. Gabriel was mystified until he saw the smaller French translation underneath the English. Gabriel put the book to his face and, haltingly, read the English: “Talk Like an American: a Traveler’s Guide.”

 

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

Stop.

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 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.