Suddenly he noticed lights, as if coming from a house. Thinking he might finally be off Fox Hollow Road and onto something that would take him into town, he breathed a sigh of relief.
“Shit,” he said, as he got closer to the house. “Looks like a frigging dead-end.”
He slapped his hand on the steering wheel. He decided to knock on the door and ask for directions as he stopped the jeep near the driveway. It was quiet, desolate. He took a deep breath and confronted his fear. “Get hold of yourself, man,” he said.
Nick stared back at the farmhouse. It was familiar, which was not unusual. At every turn in upstate New York there was a farmhouse.
“A compelling sight,” he said.
The house was stately and white. Lace curtains moved with the wind, like the porch swing. He could hear the creak. The house stood against the night in shades of grey, like an old postcard photograph picked up at a flea market. Nick could see bicycles lying on the grass. A dog lifted his head from the porch and stared at him. Nick felt strangely nostalgic.
He’d assumed years ago that he’d been raised in Phoenicia, New York, because that’s what it said on the hotel register when he checked out of the room he’d awoken in, with no memory at all of how he had gotten there. Phoenicia, New York, was another small town within biking distance. He must have been on a lot of country roads in his childhood, staring at houses just like this one. He never went to Phoenicia, though, it was too frightening to confront a past he couldn’t recall, but he’d insisted on buying a second house in New Kingston after finding the town on a Google search for vacation homes. Had he subliminally chosen to be near Phoenicia?
He didn’t have any answers, perhaps he never would. Perhaps he didn’t want them. As he stared at the house, it drew him in, engulfing him in a black and white fantasy, like an old film. He couldn’t have any connection at all to this farmhouse. New Kingston wasn’t written on the hotel register.
Nick stared at the house for several more minutes before the image faded, simply drifted off into the night, leaving behind a phantasmal mist. Nick drifted into the ebbing image, falling into a mindless stupor, as if inebriated.
“God,” he cried out. “What the hell is happening to me?”
He struggled to escape the blank plateau into which he had fallen, but he couldn’t. It was as if his thoughts were being gripped by a distant hand. He suddenly felt floated right up to a shadowy shape in the sky.
“Leave me alone!” he shouted.
His head fell sharply to his shoulder, an action that seemed to come from somewhere else, another person―another body.
“Stress can cause people to black out,” Jenna once told him.
“Yes, of course, that’s it―stress,” Nick whispered. He looked back at the house again. The noise returned, overbearingly loud―the drill into concrete…deafening.
Quickly switching the radio back on to fight the noise, he thought about screaming out for help. The sound hovered above him, precariously close.
He turned the radio up louder. Nothing but static―Damn.
The noise continued…threatening to use its power…devour him. It was directly over his head, so very close. He felt lifted by it, lifted up to someplace far, as far as space.
“This is madness,” he whispered. “This is impossible.”
He had spent his entire adulthood distracted by the ordinary pressures of survival. He never considered himself particularly introspective, not much caring to delve into the remnants of feelings hidden beneath the debris of inconsequential information―feelings his wife insisted were vital links to his mental well-being. Nick never questioned his life after waking up in a Chelsea hotel with no past. He walked out into the city and survived. Surviving took up all his time, owned his thoughts. He didn’t need to know the rest, the forgotten past. The only choices he needed to make were the ones he faced in his profession as a circulation vice president for a major New York newspaper. It took twenty years, but he finally had an executive’s salary.
He didn’t want to know his inner life. The dreams he had over the years had been too disturbing to probe―images of violent anger, blood everywhere he looked, murders he could not explain.
“My inner life is uneventful and average,” he’d told Jenna when they first met. “I can’t devote much time thinking about it.”
And then, years later, new torment, new dreams…monsters haunted his sleep, metaphors for himself, he surmised.
No, Nick did not want to find his past or obsess on any uncomfortable emotions, especially not with his dreams, blood on his hands, a dead child at his feet…a battered woman.
“Am I insane?” He looked out into the night and shook his head. “Am I?”
He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. He switched the radio back off and listened for the quiet stillness of night to return, soft and melodic. He listened until all he heard was the wind.
As he stared back at the old farmhouse tears came into his eyes. He suddenly wanted to leap from the car and run to the front door, as if he belonged there, behind the majesty of its silent repose.
I’m home. Mom! I’m home, he wanted to shout.
His eyes blinked as the lights in the farmhouse flickered. He switched the radio back on. He needed the music to ground him, but the static had returned with an irritating repetition. He tried to find a clear station. He was agitated. He wanted to get the hell out of there. He knew that by now the only general store in town would be closed and he’d have to deal with the supermarket for a
lousy quart of milk. He hated the supermarket: big, cold places…so why the hell can’t I get off this damn road and make it to the goddamn general store?
“Shit,” he said, switching off the radio altogether.
The lights from the house flickered again, as if an electrical storm was passing over, but the night was clear. Nick backed the jeep up, deciding he would leave the way he had come in…no need to ask for directions. As his breathing returned to normal, he was grateful for its steady rhythm. He was making rational decisions like his old self. It had all been imagination, just imagination.
As Nick backed up the jeep, he noticed a man at the window of the old house peering through a torn shade.
“What the hell happened to the lace?” He whispered as he stared in awe at the tattered blind. He quickly thought of his wife and the look in her large dark eyes as she gave him that half parted smile and suggested therapy. How the hell would he ever explain any of this to her?
He sat quietly. His eyes drifted back to the house. He looked quickly for the dog. All he saw was a tired old porch―empty…no porch swing. No dog.
“Shadows playing tricks,” he said. The oblique shape in the sky expanded and lowered itself closer to the Earth.
How did this happen? I can’t believe I’m strapped into this seat like a prisoner. I’m being sent away to die and if I don’t find a way to escape, that’s exactly what’s going to happen. All I want is to be back home, wrapped up in my blanket like this never happened. But it did, and the stale air in this shuttle is making me sick. The transportation shuttles back home never felt this suffocating. This is the worst day of my life.
Everyone needs to stop staring at me like I’m a pariah. Especially Commander Viteri. Those close-set eyes of his are boring into mine, and I know I should look away, but I won’t. I won’t give him the satisfaction of seeing how scared I am. He told Ma and Da that I’m a non-conformist, well then, how’s this for non-conforming. Go ahead and glare at me, I refuse to flinch.
His hatred is burning into me. He looks at me like I’m nothing, a stupid Single, the only child in my family. But why should that make me less than the Multiples, and who decided that being a Single was a stigma anyway. Ha! He looked away first. Sure it’s because he brought up a projection in front of him, but it still feels like a little victory.
Lenora Averlowes is on my left. I remember her from school, but we were never friends. She’s popular, taller and prettier than me. Even her shiny auburn hair is better than my dull brown. And she’s not a Single. She has a lot of siblings. She hasn’t said a word to me and I know why. I’m nothing to her. I completely forgot that we have the same birthday, but I do remember that she volunteered to be advanced. Hard to forget, because she let everyone at school know, bragging like it made her special and better than those of us who didn’t volunteer.
“Hi, Lenora, I’m not sure if you remember me, but I’m Dax.” I’ll shake her hand and be friends, if she wants to.
Look at her pulling away, repulsed by my offer of friendship. I should have known.
“I know who you are. You’re a Single and your parents are poor. And you talk too much about things you shouldn’t talk about. I don’t want you talking to me.” She turns away.
There are a few chuckles from the other kids, some I know and some I don’t, and a few of them strain against their seat restraints like they want to get further away from me. So much for making friends.
“Orwan!” booms Viteri, staring right at me. He’s out of his seat, holding onto a strap attached to the ceiling. “There’s no talking on the shuttle! You’ve just brought on the first behavior modification.” He touches a small metallic box attached to his belt.
Immediately, there’s a stinging jolt that goes through my feet all the way to my head. Apparently everyone got the same shock because they all jump and cry out as well. My fingers and toes are tingling. Viteri sits again and goes back to scanning through the projection.
Lenora glares at me, her bottom lip trembling. Her voice is barely above a whisper, “I knew you were trouble. Behavior modification before we even get to camp. Who’s ever heard of that? I’m going to be made a Lead at training camp and I’ll make you pay for this.”
The other recruits nod and scowl at me.
How does she know she’ll be a Lead? I thought ranks were given out at the camp, not ahead of time. It doesn’t matter to me though, because I’ll be slated to spend the rest of my life, however long that might be, fighting the Katarga aliens on the moon, unless I can find a way out of this. All Singles go straight to the moon and are never heard from again. Everyone knows that. I wish I never had to turn fifteen and go through my Date of Fate. I wanted to stay home and get a job, not get advanced into the Global Forces.
Soldiering is a world I know nothing about. All I have left are my memories of home. It seems like forever ago, but it was just this morning that I woke up and smelled the wonderful buttery aroma of birthday cake baking. Ma must have saved for weeks to buy eggs. Before it came out of the oven though, Viteri showed up at our door.
That was the moment my life changed. He ordered me out of my bedroom and made me stand against the wall in our tiny living room. He’s so big, he took up most of the room and made Ma and Da look incredibly small with their heads drooped down. That’s something I’ll never forget because they looked defeated. I’ve never seen them like that. Even with us being poor and low status, they always had hope and made the best of things. That hope vanished this morning though and that’s what scared me most.