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Duality, Part 1
A Four Visitors Story
Start at the beginning of the Four Visitors series
The light faded gradually from Steve Gem's eyes everywhere but one point. Steve was slowly turning in a circle and the spot of light kept passing. It flickered, sometimes brighter and higher and sometimes lower with each pass. Steve was slowing down now, and he came to the realization that what he was seeing was a campfire out in the woods.
"People." Richard's voice was quietly earnest. He'd always been comfortable stating the obvious. Steve couldn't do that. Steve would just end up sounding like a retard.
"Hide." Steve took over, as the situation called for. He'd handle it. He always did.
Besides, Steve was pretty sure he knew what he'd find. It was a cold, wet night. A school night. He couldn't hear music or laughter.
These guys weren't out in the woods partying. They were out in the woods. The fire was to keep warm.
"Keep quiet," Steve warned Richard.
Steve counted five paces of flattened early spring seedlings and sprouts. The effect would be more pronounced in the summer. Steve knelt at the edge of the circle and examined a cluster of daffodils, folded over neatly at the base of their stems.
"Take them," Richard said. "You never know."
Steve didn't have good argument for that, so he pinched through the stems with his thumbnail and walked into the woods holding his bright yellow bouquet.
The woman didn't belong with the others. That was the first thing Steve noticed.
She was wearing a well-used leather jacket and jeans, but they were clean. Her hands clutched a clipboard, and they were hands that got washed in a sink in her own house before she went to bed every night. Grey curls spread out under a ski cap she had on. She was probably a few years past sixty, Steve figured. Thick-built, but not fat. Probably spent a lot of time outdoors, just not the way the rest of this crew did.
Outreach worker, or church recruiter? Or government social worker?
"Are you all right?" The woman spotted Steve before any of the others did. He walked out into the firelight, ignoring the muttering in Portuguese. Steve would rather have had a chance to prove he wasn't a threat without some caseworker waving a clipboard around, but there was nothing he could do about it now.
"My name is Edith Franz. I'm a census worker. Could I have a moment of your time?"
Steve laughed out loud. "Ten years, huh? Don't that fly by. Last time I answered the census it showed up in the mailbox of my own house."
Edith nodded. "You're not the first one I've heard that from. You living out here?"
Steve shook his head and made sure he spoke loud enough for everyone to hear. "Me? No. I got a friend who's got a couple weeks work for me and a room I can stay in. Likely be moving on then."
Edith handed him a card printed small with addresses of soup kitchens, contact numbers for local programs, and shelters.
"Much obliged, Ma'am." Steve handed Edith the bouquet of daffodils, took the clipboard with the census form from her, and started to think up some lies.
Nick Lorem bowed his head for the closing prayer, but he didn't hear the words. He saw and heard the same things he always saw and heard lately when he closed his eyes: His brother, the barrel of a gun, and "They don't talk. That's on you, Brother." Then, like it always did, the voice faded, replaced by Una Blanco telling him "It's your choice, Nick. I'm only telling you what's going to happen."
"Are you all right, Nick?"
Nick opened his eyes to find Hal Morris leaning on the front of the cramped little school desk that Nick was wedged into. He'd just about outgrown the Christian Youth Group. Literally. The eighteen-year-old football player was in his last year with the group. It was a time for moving on, and Nick knew that the familiar was going to feel a little uncomfortable. But the way things had been going, the thought of Paris Island and not having to think any more than how high when asked to jump held a certain appeal. Eight more weeks.
Nick hadn't answered Hal. He figured he'd better. Hal graduated three years ahead of Nick. He'd been in school with Nick and he'd been in school with Nick's older brother Alex. Hal had gotten by with D's, but he'd played football. Or rather, he'd played football so he'd gotten by with D's. He apprenticed with an uncle who was a plumber, and now he worked his ass off five days a week and ran the Youth Group on Sundays for Reverend Chalmers. On Saturdays, he set up shop in the woods selling dope to high school kids heading for house parties at whoever's parents were away for the weekend.
Hal Morris was the all-American small town success story, and he was doing about as well as a plumber's apprentice in a town like Danforth, Rhode Island, could hope for.
"Yeah. Fine," Nick finally answered.
"You just seemed a little zoned out there, Nick. This is important for you." Hal shifted his eyes around to make sure the rest of the teens were gone, or maybe that the Reverend wasn't coming by to check in. "You don't get the 'What Would Jesus Do?' bullshit the kids are getting. I'm giving you serious apologetics stuff. The verbal ammo to defend the Christian faith. I gotta know you're on board with this."
Nick nodded. "Yeah. Got it. Nonduality. Bad, right?"
Nick had read the assignment, and felt he understood it pretty well. He just wasn't in the mood for a discussion.
"The belief that if God is the universe, than we are, by that definition, a part of God."
"Yeah," Nick tried to assure Hal. "It's an ego trip. I am not God. You start equating man with God and you're in some serious deadly sin of pride territory. I really get this stuff. It makes sense to me."
Nick worked himself free of the school desk and stood to leave. Hal stopped him with a hand on his shoulder.
"What's been going on in school?"
Nick genuinely had no idea what Hal was talking about. "What?"
"I'm hearing from people you've been going to Room 43 at lunch on Mondays."
Nick turned to face Hal, annoyed. Why did he have to justify every stupid thing? And where had Hal found out?
"Facebook. I'm still connected with some guys on the team."
"You're connected with me, Hal. You could have just asked."
"Okay, I'm asking."
"Girlfriend thing, Hal. Tina asked me to go." Nick was lying, but it was close enough. Tina was barely talking to Nick these days. Mondays was one of the few days Nick had the same lunch block as Tina and he'd been going to Room 43, the Danforth High School Gay/Straight Alliance, because it was the only time he got to see her.
Hal looked like he was starting to say something, putting together the words to some lecture.
"Look, you want me to stop going?" Nick asked.
"No, Nick. You know what, there might be some time when it would help to know if they've got some stunt or protest planned. No, you're there now, get some use out of it. Apologetics, Nick. We're not afraid of the other views. We know who's got our backs."
"Yeah. Right. Hey, pray for me in there, okay."
Hal smiled. "You got it, brother."
Nick couldn't get the image of his brother's face out of his head. For Tina Cronin, it was the face of John Crowell, dead on his own kitchen floor. Blood had come out of his mouth, and pooled around his cheek and his jaw, thickening to a sticky paste by the time Tina got a chance to look at the body. She turned her eyes away too late and the image stayed with her.
It came mostly at night or at times like this, when she drove down Evans Road and made the right turn onto Willow Street, where she'd witnessed the murder.
Tina didn't have any business on Willow Street. She just had a need to know what was going to happen next. So before school, or in the evening after practice, she took her detour. Nothing ever seemed to change.
There was never any police tape, and she kept expecting to see a for sale sign on the farmhouse with the attached barn that had been Crowell's art studio. The place just stood there, unchanged for weeks, and to Tina that was something horribly unfair. A man was dead, and the world had gone on without noticing.
She hadn't told anyone. She knew it would be useless. She'd wanted to talk to Nick about it, but the hurt she'd been through with Nick was too fresh. Nick sitting in the GSA meetings and absorbing the cold silent treatment from the kids that Nick and his friends had bullied couldn't make up for what had happened. Tina wasn't sure what could. Part of her wanted to cut Nick off from her life entirely.
But a man was dead. A man who'd been kind to her. And Nick's brother was a part of that, so Nick was a part of it too. And if she cut herself off completely, then she'd never understand any of it.
Tina needed desperately to understand. That's what brought her down Willow Street twice a day.
It was two in the afternoon half way through April vacation, and Tina was shivering in the cold of her own sweat and the car's air conditioning on her way home from a mid-day captain's practice with the track team. Basketball season had ended with a decent run in the state tournament, and then it was exams and track practice was starting up, and the twice-a-day pilgrimage to Willow Street had become three times.
Tina looked up from the Gatorade bottle that she wished wasn't empty and saw a woman piling John Crowell's paintings on a patch of grass at the end of the driveway. Tina jammed on the brakes and swung the wheel, arriving in the driveway more suddenly than she'd wanted to, and visibly startling the woman.
She was older than Tina, but probably still in her twenties. She had her hair in pigtails and a worn, shabby look that wasn't trying to impress anyone. The kind of woman that could be made over into something amazing on one of those reality shows. Her car had seen better days too. Typical small-town girl who'd forgotten to get out of the small town, Tina decided before she even introduced herself.
"What are you doing?" Tina asked before introducing herself as well.
The woman looked puzzled and annoyed. She wasn't expecting to have to explain her actions, but she seemed surprised that anyone had bothered to care.
"My uncle passed away. Clearing out his art supplies. Are you a student? Can you use any of these? I guess they could be painted over."
Tina stepped forward and held up one of the black canvasses.
"These aren't supplies," Tina said. "These are Mr. Crowell's art."
The woman gave a perplexed look and stared into the blackness, trying to discern something she might have missed.
Then she gave up. She looked up and then over Tina's shoulder and past her.
"She's right. But you have to touch the canvass."
It was Tina's turn to be startled. No other car on the street. Where had the man come from? Behind the house? The woods? The power lines?
He was tall and thin with his hair in a ponytail, his face weathered, but his eyes bright and eager.
"I'm Richard Gem. I'm an art dealer. Ms. Crowell?"
"Georgia Tabbot. Crowell is my maiden name. My father was John Crowell's brother. Are you saying you want to buy my uncle's art?"
Gem smiled. "Not exactly. I want to make a business deal. I want to help you sell your uncle's art."
Hal tossed a beer to Nick, who caught it one-handed while he was pulling his cell phone out of his jacket pocket with the other hand.
Nick looked down at the screen.
He turned back toward the kitchen and walked through and out the back door before he picked up. It still took him some maneuvering to get to a spot where the sound of the phone wasn't being drowned out by the music. He finally found it behind the pool shed. It was still too early in the season for Doc McKenzie and his wife to be hanging out at poolside, so they'd picked up an online deal on tickets to the US Virgin Islands. Their son was Nick's teammate and he was another student in Hal's youth program. He'd told the Doc he had to write a term paper for US History and April vacation was his one chance to get the research done.
It was his one chance all right. His chance to be a hero, and he was making the most of it.
Nick crouched behind the shed and leaned up against the low chain link fence that surrounded the pool area.
"I'm here. Sorry. Noisy."
"I can tell." Tina didn't approve. "Nick, are you drunk?"
"No. Just got here. Honest. Look, what's up?" he said.
"I need to talk. It may be nothing. It's just? Can you listen?"
Nick pressed the phone closer. "Yeah. Yeah, sure."
She told him about the man she had met at the Crowell house.
"Ms. Tabbot agreed to hear him out. I helped them bring the paintings back into the barn. Poked my head into the house too. It's been cleaned up. That was all I could tell."
"I don't see?" Nick began.
"You were told there would be others, right? Other strangers coming to town with messages or whatever? This guy, Richard Gem. Where did he come from?"
Nick thought about that. He didn't have an answer.
"Could be anyone," he said, finally. "Mr. Malone has that guest speaker coming in next week for your club. Doesn't make that guy some kind of mysterious stranger. It's just some dude."
Nick still referred to the GSA as "your club" when he talked to Tina about it. He'd gotten the email about the guest speaker that morning.
Tina apparently hadn't checked hers.
"You're right. It could be anyone. Nick, can we talk about what happened? About what Una told you? I mean really talk?"
Nick thought about it. It would have been easy to say yes just to get back to Tina, to spend some time alone with her. He thought about it and decided that wasn't a good enough reason. But there were other reasons. Stronger ones.
"Yeah. Coming over now."
Nick waved goodbye to a couple of his buddies and headed for his car.
The McKenzie kid lived out in the boondocks.
Nick was about halfway back into town when he heard the truck. He never saw it. It came up alongside with its lights out and swerved into him. Nick tried to keep his grip on the wheel, but the shoulder injury from the fight with Alex exploded to life and his arm stopped working just as his pickup took a second impact and went over the guardrail.
Nick's vision filled with light.
He had enough time to wonder if he was dead before the light began to fade, leaving white spots in front of his eyes that partially blotted out the shape of a man in front of him.
Nick was sitting on leaves. He wasn't hurt. He looked behind him. His truck was about ten feet down the embankment, leaning against the tree trunk that had stopped the fall. The front windshield was a spiderweb of cracks, but the doors were shut.
The man in front of him, a bum in a trenchcoat and a beat-up Sox cap, looked down at Nick and offered a hand.
"I'm Steve Gem. I'm a visitor here. And I figure that was fate's way of saying we ought to get introduced."
TO BE CONTINUED
Story and image by Rick Silva, Copyright 2010