Sunday, September 13, 2015

37: Remembering

Jason Calloway remembered.
My God, he thought, as the memories came rushing in.  My God…he did it!  My little bro did it!  I knew he could…
And then he was there again, a tiny boy in a tiny home in a huge world.  Cringing.  And there was mommy, yes, cringing as well, and daddy was angry again.  Angry because there was no money; angry because there was no work to be had in the blighted industrial netherworld of Beloit, Wisconsin; angry because Jason was struggling in school or because Jason had made a mess of the yard or because, perhaps, Jason himself was just a mess, and it was all he’d ever be, and when daddy got mad, daddy hit.
And then, later, daddy would cry, and daddy would hug.  “I just get so mad,” he’d say, and he’d promise that things would be different, and he’d swear he loved them.  And Jason knew he did, and mommy knew he did, and so they all struggled on together as best they could, because that was what a family did.   Until the next time that daddy got mad again.  And Jason swore that he would do better, but it seemed he could never, ever do enough.
Until Jason was older, and Jason was bigger―much, much bigger, and much, much faster.  And suddenly he was more than good enough, because on the Memorial High School soccer field, on the basketball court, and above all else on the football field, Jason was as good as there was.  And Jason was delivering the hits―that boy’s one hittin’ mofo, Paul, they’d tell his dad―and the harder he hit, the louder dad would yell, and the happier dad would be.  And if dad was still angry some of the time, he knew better than to express it physically towards Jason, or towards Jason’s mother, because Jason was, as they said, one hittin’ mofo.  There was a new sherrif in town.
And everyone surrounded Jason with love, and showered him with praise, and the harder he hit, the more they praised him.  And the grades didn’t matter so much any more, not to anybody, and the scholarship offers rolled in.  And the women as well, they’d always loved him, but there was one, one above all the others―Sarah, blonde and beautiful and a year older, Sarah, the prom queen and the captain of the cheerleading team, and she could have had anyone she wanted, and she chose him.
Until she didn’t.  Because people talked, and what they told Sarah was, you and Jason, you know, you’re not the same.  I mean, he’s a good guy and all, and he’s a HELL of a linebacker, got a great future, but let’s be honest, you’re…you’re not the same.  You know what I mean.  And people are talking.  So people talked about people talking, and Jason didn’t care.  But Sarah did, and one day, in Jason’s car, she talked to Jason.  And she told him that she loved him, really she did, but it just wasn’t meant to be.  And he asked why not, and she said just because.  And people are talking.  About what, he asked, and she told him, you know.  About what, he demanded, and she said, Jason, it just won’t work out.  About what, he shouted, and Jason, she shreiked.  And then she was clutching her nose and bleeding, and he was staring wide eyed at the smear of her blood on the football state championship ring that adorned his fist.
And here was the pure hell of it:  it worked.  She stayed with him.  And now, every time things didn’t seem to be working between the two of them, he’d get mad, and she’d get scared.  To others, it was invisible; everybody was talking about “the golden couple”, the pride of their community, and people loved him all the more.  And every time they did, he hated himself a little more, and he’d seek refuge in the things that had given him comfort―in power, working the heavy bag, running stairs until his quads would go no further.  In speed―wind sprints until he threw up, driving like hell on the back road to Janesville, and the cops didn’t care, because that was Jason, great kid, and he’s got a ticket out of here, don’t screw it up for him.  And on the field, of course, delivering the hits like the hittin’ mofo he was, hitting people until it made him woozy, hitting them so hard he blacked out once or twice.
And then came the night that Sarah didn’t come out of her house when he came to pick her up, just her dad, and he said, Jason, I’m sorry, but you need to go now.  And he’d gotten angry, because anger worked, only this time, there was nowhere for it to go.  And go he did, off down the street in a screech of rubber, in the barely-used SUV the Badger boosters had arranged for him, faster and faster out of town and up 51 into the countryside, and faster yet, all that speed and all that power, and then the road turned but the car didn’t, and the tree loomed in his headlights.  And Jason finally delivered that one last hit, to the person he’d secretly wanted to hit all along.
And now Jason sat, slump-shouldered on his cot in the room in Ben’s attic, and he realized that Will had been right, and that he’d been right as well.  I have a reason, Jason thought.  But I don’t have an excuse.  There can never be an excuse. A man who puts his hands on a woman is lower than a dog.
Jason stared at the harpoon in its case, dangling from the peg on the back of the door.  He thought about all of the joy the weapon had brought him, and all of the acclaim.  He thought of how proud his skills with it made Ben and Rosemary.  He thought about how he’d used it to serve the community.  He thought about how he’d saved Will and Emily with it.  He thought about all he’d done for others. 
Rosemary told me that Haven needed me to be exactly who I am.  But for once in my life, it can’t be about what other people need.  It has to be about what I need.
Jason took the harpoon that made him the pride of his community out of its case, and carried it to the tiny window beside his cot.  And he hurled the harpoon out the window.  And he sat down on the cot, and he stared down at his fists, and Jason Calloway thought, long and hard, about how he’d become the man he was, and about who he wanted to be.
For once, it has to be about what I need.  And I need me to be something more.

            Emily Collins remembered.
            My God, she thought, as she looked up from the arrow she’d been fletching.  Didn’t I ever listen to anything NOT from the 80s?  Pat Benatar was just the tip of the iceberg…  And then the memories subsumed her thoughts completely.
            Bouncing on daddy’s knee.  Being pushed by him on the tire swing in the backyard of their clapboard house in Topeka.  Being hoisted into the air in his arms, swung around in circles, thrilling at the sensations yet never feeling unsafe.  Listening together to the music of his youth―Duran Duran and Elton John, Laura Branigan and Juice Newton, Hall and Oates and Ashford and Simpson and Prince and Falco and, irony of ironies, Styx.  All on vinyl, all on their battered old turntable, all in the company of her daddy.  “My little princess,” he’d called her.
            There had been her mother and her sister, whose long and wavy hair had been a rich and lustrous brown.  There had been security and serenity.  And then there had been her own emergence, a bright and blooming flower, as she had discovered her talent for competitive speech.  It was in her blood and there was nothing to be done.  Policy debate or Public Forum, Lincoln-Douglas or Original Oratory, it had made no difference―it was a blizzard of medals, a continual shower of success.  She’s so strong up there, they’d said, so graceful, so smart, so poised.  She’s going places.  You must be so proud.  And they had been, her mother, her role model.  Her sister, who idolized her.  And daddy most of all.
            And then she had gotten sick, and then sicker.  She had approached her illness as a flawed affirmative case to be taken apart, a performance from which the bad bits had to be edited out, but the bad bits couldn’t be excised because the bad bit was her, it was in her blood and there was nothing to be done.  And slowly, brutally, it stripped her of all that had made her special.  Her energy was gone first, and her performance suffered…and then she had to leave the team entirely, and then the school, and her friends.  And it was just the four of them.  And they told her how brave she was, and what a fighter, but it was a lie, she was terrified all the time, and there was no point to strength, and poise was meaningless.  And it was taking that from her anyway―her hair was gone, and she grew thin, and then emaciated; her hands wouldn’t stop shaking and her voice was a rasping croak.
            And her family’s security went with it; they wouldn’t talk about it with her, but she knew the bills were bankrupting them, she knew they’d sold the car, and Brianna wore nothing but hand-me-downs, but she didn’t care, she just wanted her big sister to be well, it was all she wanted in the world.  And Emily couldn’t give that to her; she didn’t have enough fight in her.  She was weak, weak…
            And then, near the end, came the day when her father disappeared.  Simply broke under the strain.  Cut and ran.  Left the three of them to fend for themselves, amidst a rising tide of bills and heartbreak.  And at the very last, in a hospital bed under fluorescent lights, Brianna has asked her, “Will you watch over me?  Will you keep me safe?”  Because, of course, she was terrified; that was her daddy’s job, and her daddy was gone.  And Emily had hated, and then she’d died.
            Emily sat on the workbench in what had once been Ammerman’s shop, and inside, she screamed at herself that she wasn’t a weakling, that she wouldn’t cry.  And then she thought again.
            You have spent so long being invulnerable because you told yourself you wanted to be strong.  You wanted to put up a magnificent front before the world.  You wanted to show them all who you were, and who you could be.
But to appear invulnerable is to fear the judgment of others.  And to be governed by the judgment of others is not strength.  Your father was invulnerable, right up to the moment that he wasn’t, and when he wasn’t, he didn’t know what else to be.  He wouldn’t bend, and so he broke, and he took his whole family down with him. 
To allow yourself to be vulnerable, and to wear it proudly…THAT is strength.  Vulnerable is what you can be, if you have the courage.
And the tears did come, a few at first, unsteadily, but then she found her rhythm and there were quite a lot of them, as it turned out; she was good at this.  And strangely, at the end of it, red-eyed and wan and utterly without poise, she actually did think herself stronger.  Strong enough, mentally, to recognize that Jason was not her father, and Will was not her father, and neither was anyone else.  Strong enough to say goodbye to him, and to what he represented.
And, perhaps…yes, maybe strong enough to say hello to someone else.
Hello, she said, addressing the princess in her head.  I don’t believe we’ve been formally introduced, and I know your sort are big on formal introductions.  I’m Emily, and I’m the one who’s kept you locked away from daylight for the last few months.
Look, I know we haven’t exactly been on good terms.  Sorry about that.  My bad.  But if you’re so inclined…I wouldn’t be TOTALLY averse to working out some kind of time-share arrangement.  You know, letting you out of that tower cell every once in a while.  Get some fresh air.  Let your hair down, in a non-Rapunzel-y way, of course. 
Just a little bit of freedom at first, mind you.  No promises about Prince Charming, and you’ll need to know your role and get back in the keep when told.  But, if you can learn your role…maybe we can come to terms.  If you’re interested.
And inside her mind, the princess smiled, and offered Emily a perfect little curtsy.

            Benedict Arnold remembered.  Oh, no, he thought, as the memories came down.  And, as it turned out, they didn’t tell him anything much about himself that he didn’t already know.
            He stood, hands on the windowsill, staring out into the street.  He heard the footsteps behind him, and he was terrified to turn around.  She suspects, he thought.  She knows.
            Rosemary’s voice was quiet.  “Tell me about Haven, Ben.”
            It wasn’t quite what he’d been expecting to hear.  He stared at the main thoroughfare.  Already a few people were rushing out of businesses, accosting one another in the street, shouting out new discoveries about themselves.  Declaring their identities proudly.  Havenites have never been shy about that.
            “What was it like,” she asked him, “when you first arrived?”
            He could not turn and face her.  “A cluster of mud huts,” he answered.  “Lost souls.  Burying the best of themselves in the worst of their habits.  Fragile.  Uncertain.  But with so, so much potential for more.”
            “And so,” she replied, “you set to work on them.”
            “I did what I could,” said Ben.  “But in truth, it wasn’t much.  They wouldn’t have let me run things.  Nor should they have, of course; they were not horses to be led by the reins.  They were free men and women.  Flawed and precious.  We worked together.  I provided a nudge here and there.  I did my best to remind them of what they were capable of, and to encourage the best of their habits.  But in the end, they became what they became by dint of their own effort.”
            “And what did they become, Ben?”
            Out in the street, Harry the Hat and Orson had grasped one another by the hands and were dancing in a circle like children.  Manuel was sprinting down the street with a look of delight on his face, shouting something about how Jason had gotten soccer all wrong.  Mean Drunk Ed had an arm around Viola’s shoulders and was regaling her with a story as he waved a wineskin in his other hand; she was shaking her head at his antics and hygiene, but laughing all the same.  They were pouring out, now, into the street, men and women, black and white, greeting one another anew, strangers to themselves no longer.
            “They became…themselves, only more so,” Ben replied.  “They are…still learning, I think, who they can be.  But they are strong, Rosemary.  So much stronger than they know.  And, though I shudder to admit it…they are, on balance, good.  Better than they know.”   Really Big Angus cavorted by the window, Charlotte riding his shoulders, laughing like the child she would forever appear to be.  “And at their best, they are…magnificent.”
            And Ben felt a pair of arms encircle him from behind.  “Then you know exactly how I feel about you, General Arnold.”
            Ben’s chin sunk to his chest.  “You know, then.”
            “Ben, I have known for years.  I knew within a week of meeting you.  You’re the worst Benjamin Franklin impersonator ever.  You don’t even get the aphorisms right!”  She was stronger than Ben had thought; she spun him around, against his will, to face her.  “And could you possibly think that a woman of my intelligence and background wouldn’t know the hero of Saratoga when I saw him?”
            Ben snorted.  “Hero.  A traitor, Rosemary.  And everyone will know now.  They will come for me.”
            “Then they’ll have to come through me to get to you!”  And Rosemary reached up and actually grabbed him by the ears.  “Look at me, Benedict.  Look at me.”  He lifted his eyes, and saw hers, and saw no contempt, no derision, nothing but fierce pride and infinite tenderness.
            “The man you were, Ben, was formidable.  Intelligent.  Courageous.  But also insecure, and proud, and obsessed with his own status.  And that man made a terrible decision, and he paid a terrible price for it, for all the rest of his life on Earth.  And that man is dead, Ben.  That man has been dead for hundreds of years!”  Now she had her arms around his neck and her eyes were blazing.  “And the man who has taken his place, Ben, is as intelligent and courageous as ever, and he is spectacular!  He is the sort of man who can, through the sheer force of his personality, turn a collection of hovels and a huddle of ne’er-do-wells drinking their own waste into a thriving, vigorous city!  And he has burned away the worst in himself, and expiated his sins a thousand times, and he is the darling of my heart, and to be his enabler is the proudest thing in my life!”  And she pulled his head down to her, and kissed him fiercely, and he was so shocked that he forgot to be ashamed.
            And when, after a considerable time, Rosemary decided she was finished, she lifted her eyes to his again, and said, “But he’s not perfect.  He’s still too proud, that man of mine.  Far, far too proud.  Because he thinks his flaws are far worse than other men’s, and he thinks his sins are far greater, and to think that way is a form of pride, Ben.  And even now, he’s thinking that he’s the center of everyone else’s thoughts; that a mob is going to storm his home and cast him out for something he did two hundred years ago, and forget all about what he’s done for them since.  And I love that man, but good lord, he’s a fool sometimes.”
            Ben stood for a moment, gathering his thoughts.  “Well,” he said.  “I certainly agree with that last bit.”  She glared at him.  “But I heard once, from someone wiser than I, that Elysium is not about who a man was, or even about who he is now, but about whom he might become.  So perhaps I might grow less of a fool with time.”
            “And with the right guidance, of course.”  She smiled up at him.
            “That goes without saying,” he said, offering a warm smile of his own.
And there was, Ben came to realize, a mob in the street outside.  But they weren’t waving torches and calling for his head.  They were singing.  All of them at the top of their lungs, and not especially tunefully, and no two of them were singing the same song.  And what of it?  They had their songs back at last, and they had to give voice to them.  It was a spectacular cacophony, an anti-symphony of explosive, ungovernable expression.  It was Haven.
            “So, then,” Rosemary said.  She unfolded her arms from around his neck.  “As a first step towards learning that he is not the center of everyone else’s universe...”
            “…That man might of yours want to ask the woman he loves how her day went.”  Ben raised his eyebrows.  “Or how her life went, as the case might be.  It’s a matter of simple reciprocity.  If he has no secrets from her, she should have no secrets from him.”
            Rosemary furrowed her brow.  “Oh, I don’t know about that.  I suddenly find myself with access to so many juicy little tidbits.  So many memories of so, so many men.”  She smiled mysteriously.  “A woman always has her secrets.”
            Ben swooped down low and, with a grunt, hoisted Rosemary up over his shoulder.  “Not for long,” he huffed.  She squeaked with outrage, then began laughing hysterically as he began climbing the stairs.  “I will remind you, madam, that I am a man thoroughly versed in the techniques of military interrogation.  I am also a man with a relatively new body, and a willingness to use it.”  She laughed and pounded at his back it mock outrage, but it was to no avail; the hero of Saratoga was not to be denied.  “We have ways of making you talk…”

            John Ammerman remembered, but that was nothing new.
            The others―Dion, Little Bill, Grigori, and the rest―huddled around the miserable campfire in the hills, sharing their newfound lives with one another.  Ammerman sat and stared, and let them chatter.
            A fool runs his mouth, spills what he knows.  A wise man hoards his information, and makes use of it.  But to what end?  Haven’s lost.  Years of hard work down the drain.  Memories back?  Yes.  We have them.  The traitor did his job, all right.
            But he hasn’t made us free.  He’s merely fortified Ben’s little operation.  He’s given them the means to exercise domination over other men.  He fixed their memories…but I never got the chance to fix their philosophy.  And with the Mencks reeling, unwilling to take us in, and winter coming on, things could get pretty bleak pretty fast.  For folks around here first, and then it will spread.
            They’ll have their hands around the throat of every free man on this continent, in time.  Unless someone acts…
            A roaring from the sky.  And it was descending upon them, concentric circles of fire.  Wheels within wheels.  And it blazed before them, that thing in the sky, and its aspect changed as it blazed, and it filled all of their senses.  And the others cowered away from it, turned their faces from the fire like cowards.  But John Ammerman sprang to his feet, and spread his arms.  “Of course.” he said  “Of course!  Brought down the STYX, didn’ he!  But when he brought it down, he didn’ jes give us our mem’ries!  He opened up all worlds to them!  And HERE THEY COME!”
            And then came the voice, booming from the sky, resonating through him, through all of them, and the voice was speaking to himThe Seraphim council has need of you, John Ammerman. 
            And Ammerman was laughing wild, arms still outstretched and twirling around, twirling like a child, as his followers scattered.  And he looked up into the light and laughed.
            There will be terrible pain, John Ammerman.  And afterwards, there may be struggle.  But you have been chosen.  You have been deemed a worthy vessel.  You will be transformed.  You will be born anew.  You will bring about the liberation, and the enlightment, of the souls of Elysium.
All that time, Ammerman thought.  I thought I was waiting for the one who could pull it off.  I thought Will was the one.  I thought I was John The Baptist.  But I had it wrong.
 It wasn’t ME who came to clear the way for HIM.  It was HIM that came to clear the way for THEM.
            And for me.
            All this time.  I was the one I was waiting for.
            John Ammerman stretched out his arms to the sky, and he was unafraid.  “YES!”  he shouted.  “TAKE ME!  I’M READY!”

            The fires enfolded him.  And it seemed to those who watched, awed, that John Ammerman had been lifted up bodily into heaven, carried away in a chariot of fire…

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