The story so far: While attempting to get through the tunnel, Nick gets separated from the rest of the group.
Lead in story: Let’s be free together
The bats never touched Nick. When they began to fly, a sense of calm came over him. He could hear a voice. “Turn out your light. Keep walking. You can see better than you think.”
It was true, too. Without the light on, it was dim, but not the black he had expected. He could see the bats. They flew around him smoothly. He was like a boulder in the river, diverting everything around him. Nick walked while the bats flew. He heard the sounds of people panicking behind him. It seemed very distant. Nick just walked.
Before he knew it, he was out of the cave. If anything though, it was harder to see once he’d emerged. A thick fog had settled around everything. That was off. It was too late for morning fog and too early for evening fog. He could see the path in front of him clearly though. It led into a thickly wooded area. There was a canopy of leaves above him, blocking out the light somewhat. The trees didn’t look quite right either. There was a smoothness to them that gave everything an artificiality. There was still a trail, but it wasn’t worn dirt so much as smooth, deeply green moss. The forest was quiet. He couldn’t hear birds, or animals, or even the wind in the trees. His feet didn’t make any noise on the moss either. It was painfully quiet. He tried to concentrate on the path, but his mind started to wander. He had trouble concentrating, so he just kept walking.
Nick felt a memory, vivid to the point that he could almost see it in front of him. He had been about twelve, and alone in the house on the beach. His parents had gone to a meeting with his Uncle Carlos. He was pretty sure it was about money. He had been sitting in the living room, reading a book. Nick remembered the book. It was a book of short stories by Raymond Carver. The story he was reading was called Neighbors, about a couple who were housesitting and get swept up in the imaginary lives of the people they are supposed to be housesitting for.
There had been a knock on the door, and Nick and gone to answer it. When he opened the door, there was a girl there. She looked like she was maybe twenty, maybe younger. She had long, curly black hair. When she smiled, she had small, perfect teeth with just a hint of a gap between each one. She wore a thin, tight white t-shirt with no bra, and a dark green skirt. She told him she was his cousin Valentina, and that she was here to keep him company while his parents were gone.
He’d let her in, and she had made a beeline for the kitchen, where she made herself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and ate it while drinking a large glass of chocolate milk. When she sat at the kitchen table to eat, she took a stack of mail that was sitting there and looked though it casually. She told Nick to sit down. He sat across from her. She shook her head and had him sit next to her, moving the chair so close it was touching hers. “It’s ok,” she said. She put her arm around him in a sort of a hug. She smelled of vanilla.
“How come I’ve never met you?” Nick had asked.
“Nobody talks about me. They ignore me. I’ll bet they ignore you too. It’s ok. You’re ok. It’s everything else that is wrong.”
“What do you mean by that?” He’d asked.
“You’ve never heard of me, have you?” She’d asked.
“No. Are you really my cousin?”
She’d laughed then. She took his hand in hers. “I really am,” she said. “They don’t talk about me. They don’t invite me to the family dinners.” In a mock whisper she said, “I do bad things sometimes.” She’d smiled then. “Not to you though. We’re friends, right?”
“Sure,” Nick had said, and he had meant it when he said it. Nick had liked her. He knew he shouldn’t. He knew there was something wrong. Nick didn’t care. He wanted to kiss her.
Valentina stuck around for about a half hour. She told him things about the family that he hadn’t known. She told him who drank too much, who took drugs, and who was having sex with who. After a bit she seemed to get nervous and asked him how long his parents would be gone. She asked him if he had any money and he’d dug up a twenty-dollar bill. She’d hugged him then, and he had hugged her back for a long time.
“If you don’t tell anyone I was here, I’ll know you want me to come back,” she’d said.
“I won’t tell anyone,” he’d responded. When Valentina had left, Nick had gone back to reading Neighbors. He’d read it over again three times.
Nick tried to focus. The path came to a clearing in the forest and in the clearing was a small cabin. It was surrounded by moss, much like the moss on the path, but with one odd difference. There were small, solar-powered calculators, about one every two or three feet in just about every direction. He stared at them as he walked. It was silly, he told himself, but he also felt a deep unease. Every step toward the cabin seemed a little more like a push. He felt like he was supposed to be there though. He was pretty sure the unease wasn’t meant for him.
Nick knocked on the cabin door and a voice called for him to come in. He opened the door to find Ray, the man he had found up in the mountains. The man who had fallen.
“I was hoping to see you again,” Ray said. “I owe you a debt, and I like to settle those sorts of things. Why don’t you sit down? I just brewed up some Makoni and Baobab tea.”
Nick sat at the table as Ray poured tea from a kettle into two cups. The cabin was simple, just one large room. There was a bed on one side, and a small wood stove on the other, with the table in the middle. There was also a small desk with a stack of books on it. Nick couldn’t see all the titles, but one of them he recognized as a book he’d read shortly after his parent’s death, Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah. It had been an odd story, but somewhat comforting at the time.
Ray looked much better than the last time Nick had seen him. He was dressed in new looking clothes, a pair of Levi jeans and a black turtleneck shirt that Nick had only seen people wear in bad movies about jazz. Still, it seemed to suit the little man, and it was good to see him clothed at all.
Nick took a sip of the tea. It had an earthy taste, that Nick didn’t particularly care for, but he took a second sip just to be polite. Ray went to the bed against the wall and pulled out a flat white box. He handed it to Nick. Inside the box was a sweater. It wasn’t the one he had given to Ray the night he found him on the road, but it was a similar color and the same size. “I was unable to save the original sweater, I’m afraid. The blood would not come out. I had to burn it.”
Nick nodded. He picked up the sweater to get a better look and noticed that underneath it was two hundred dollars and a small blue disk hanging from a silver chain. “What’s this?” Nick asked, holding up the chain. On one side was a black engraving. There was an oval with a dot in the middle over a simple figure of a woman.
“It’s a gift, for your generosity the other night. The disk is made with materials from a meteorite that fell a few miles from here several years back. It is inscribed with my family’s symbol. The symbol means to watch over.”
Nick looked at it for a moment. “It’s very nice,” he said. “Thank you.”
“Put it on,” Ray said. “I’d like to see how it looks on you.”
The clasp was two barrels that screwed together. Nick unscrewed it, put the chain around his neck, then screwed it back in again. There was a small click when he finished attaching the clasp. The disk felt very cold against his skin. Nick felt a shiver go through him.
“How does it feel?” Ray asked.
“A little cold,” Nick said.
“Yes.” Ray said. “It’s been through the deepest reaches of space, where it gets as cold as anything can be. That kind of cold lingers, not on the outside, but deep within. You’ll get used to it.”
“You know my family, right?” Nick asked.
“For a very long time,” Ray said.
Nick paused for a moment. “Did you know Valentina?” He asked eventually.
Ray put his hand on Nick’s shoulder. “Valentina. Yes, we always remember our first love, don’t we? Do you remember what she smelled like?”
“Vanilla,” Nick said without hesitation. “I think of her every time I smell it.”
“Me too.” Ray said.
Nick felt Ray’s arms wrap around him in a hug. “Everything will be better someday.”