The Sympathetic Universe Part 22

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A whole year, Eloy.”

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

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

Eloy pursed his lips.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eloy didn’t know what to say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” a chill ran over him.

“You furrow your brow and your eyes look left and right. What do you think about?”

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

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

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

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

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


The Sympathetic Universe Part 21

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

“How are you going to light it?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Supper.” Eloy answered.

“What kind of supper?” Angel pressed.

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

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

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

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

“Let go of the blowtorch,” Angel repeated.

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

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

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

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

“Humility,” Eloy mumbled.

“What was that?” Angel asked.

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

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

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

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

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

The Sympathetic Universe Part 20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sympathetic Universe Part 19

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nudge me!” Eloy whispered urgently.

“Turn your paper over, my child.”

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

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

The Sympathetic Universe Part 18

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

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

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

Angel furrowed her brow, “Hello, Gabriel.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 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 16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eloy sat on the counter and closed his eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ewwww!” Destiny whined.

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

“Ton déjeuner.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It's about whatever I say it's about