AFTERWHERE – a science fiction story

AfterwhereAFTERWHERE

The reverend Sebastian Archibald Castilar paused at the beginning of his weekly sermon, surveying the scattering of people spread out in the pews before him. Attendance today was worse than last Sunday and that Sunday had been worse than the previous week.
Every week, a few more people dropped out, sometimes a family, and that was hard on Sebastian Archibald’s ministry. He tried hard to whip up some fervor in the flock, doing his best to expound the doctrines of the church, but nothing seemed to work these days. He tried humor and then sternness but the response was always distressingly similar. Polite smiles and a reluctance to part with their resources. Sebastian Archibald’s church needed those resources badly and in spite of his best efforts, he was falling behind.
A slow burn of a righteous anger began to build inside him as he thought of all these complacent souls, coddled by their technology and comfortable in their regulated lives, giving scant thought to the Afterwhere even as they blithely accessed it in their dreams. Sebastian Archibald thought often about the Afterwhere. In fact, he dwelt on it. His whole purpose for being was predicated on the notion of an unpredictable Afterwhere. Wasn’t that what he was there for? To guide these folks safely through the Afterwhere?
He monitored his implants and fine tuned the vocal enhancers for a more forceful delivery. Today needed to be different.
“Uncertainty awaits you, my friends,” he thundered, pounding the pulpit for emphasis. “Life is uncertainty. You’re here today and maybe gone tomorrow. What have you done for yourselves? With yourselves? What are you in the here and now? More importantly, what do you do in the Afterwhere? Do you dread going there? Do your visits fill you with terror and your days with dread as you anticipate your next inevitable visit? Do you know what’s out there waiting for you night after night?”
He wiped a spray of spittle from his chin and noted with satisfaction that his outburst had woken up at least some of the people in the pews. Tiny green pinpoints of light glittered like fireflies throughout the room as neural implants woke up and registered activity. He re-adjusted his vocal enhancers for more dramatic effect.
“I’ll tell you what’s out there, my friends,” he continued, pointing his finger for dramatic effect. “The devil’s out there, out in the Afterwhere, waiting for those of you who step in there unprepared. Are you prepared?”
Sebastian Archibald was in fine form now, the words rolling off his tongue like waves on a shelving beach. His sonorous voice, subtly enhanced, filled the sculpted hall and The New Electric Assembly of the Afterwhere Church reverberated with his message, making the ultraglass and titanium-steel structure vibrate with delicate sympathetic harmonies.
“He’s real my friends,” Sebastian Archibald continued, “And far more devious and terrible than the abstract constructs your data ports project in your minds. He’s been around a long time and he’s been fine tuning his approach all these years. The Afterwhere Devil lurks behind the portal to the Afterwhere my friends, and he wants to add your soul identity and your memory structures to his vast network. A network of integrated misery and terror that permeates all the interstices of the dark side of the Afterwhere.”
He paused again for dramatic effect. “Are your memories safe? Do you believe the cloned synaptic images in your data banks are safe? They’re all accessible via your Identikey codes, and that’s what he steals from you in the Afterwhere. Your codes. Your After-Identity. Your personality in the Afterwhere. Is it secured? Are you prepared?”
The sweat was rolling of Sebastian Archibald’s brow now, trickling past his ears and into his gleaming tyvek collar. He ignored it. He had their attention now. All of them. The artificially dimmed auditorium was awash in green pinpoints of light, winking and glowing as their owners accessed their implants, uploading recorded copy of his words to their databanks. He smiled. That’s what they needed. A good stir of their subconscious soup to shake them out of their data-safe programmed little worlds.
The Reverend Sebastian Archibald Castilar spoke for another forty-five minutes, each one of them more dire and dolorous than the previous. He stormed around the sanctuary gesticulating wildly, his ornate metal-fiber robes glittering as the strobes of the mood lighting caught them. The lighting operator seemed to have caught the fervor of the moment. She had three flash beams trained on the reverend at all times, making him appear to glow of his own accord. The fog machines rolled their heavy white clouds across the floor of the sanctuary and the reverend seemed to float about the room like a spectral apparition.
Just before his closing statements, the reverend linked his interface to the building systems and artificially darkened the ultraglass walls of the church, a signal to the lighting operator, who responded with a frenzy of strobe lighting simulating lightning strikes around the cunningly silhouetted figure of the reverend. For a few minutes there in the Church of the New Electric Assembly of the Afterwhere, it seemed as if the Afterwhere had indeed become the present.
“You are doomed, all of you. Doomed to an eternity of endless grinding repetition. Repetition of the most unbearable horrors your minds can envision. But all is not lost. I can help you. I can show you the way through the Afterwhere.”
He paused to let the idea sink in. The green fireflies flickered madly.
“Open your data ports to my uplink stream, my brothers and sisters. Do it now. Do it every day. Do it before you fall asleep and your dreams take you where you do not want to go.”
He raised his voice a few more decibels and lowered the pitch and the timbre, going for the payoff now.
“I have what you need. I will show you a safe road. A safe road through the Afterwhere.”
He stormed out through the mirrorblind curtains at the back of the sanctuary as his closing words echoed in an infinite loop through the church sound system, ten thousand watts of amplified reverberated exhortation that hung in the air long after he had departed, leaving the members pinned to their seats like butterflies on a display board.
That night, the reverend’s uplink stream pulsed as it had not in a very long time. The church servers frantically added more bandwidth as more and more people opened their data ports to his stream. The Unicredit counters monitoring his revenue stream blinked madly as his message downloaded across the data spectrum. The credits poured in faster than his mind could register, and the reverend felt a warm glow of happiness at his achievement, but he was already thinking ahead, knowing he needed to maintain the intensity to keep that credit flow active.
Boredom was the bane of this jaded world he lived in; every aspect of life and living regulated, controlled and monitored by robot processes to the point of mundane invisibility. The only escape for a largely process controlled population was through dreams, themselves monitored by robotic AI’s that randomized the outcomes of those visits so that no person visited the exact same scenario repeatedly. The Afterwhere was a logical construct to exercise the subconscious portions of the mind that could not be controlled by the robots, and lately, the Afterwhere had grown increasingly dark. The reverend’s church was a response to a growing emotional need.
Sebastian Archibald needed to keep the fears of his flock alive, their terror of the Afterwhere stoked, so that the New Electric Assembly of the Afterwhere Church continued to grow. And he along with it. As he pondered the problem he had an idea. He had posited a devil. They were terrified of that devil. So why not give him to them?
He would give them that very devil. The Afterwhere Devil, live and present via malware that would upload through their data ports and infect their implants subtly, making them receptive to his suggestions. His very own controllable Afterwhere Devil.
The Reverend Sebastian Archibald Castilar did not sleep that night, turning possibilities and outcomes over in his mind until he had crystallized what he wanted. Early next morning he placed a video comm call to an old friend of his who made robots for a living. His friend had done very well for himself, considering that most of the world was now run and regulated by robots of every shape, size, texture and capacity. The call was short and Sebastian Archibald was precise in his requirements.
Could his friend build him a robot interface to his exact specifications?
He could? Good!
Could he do it in a week? Two weeks? Great!
Could he tailor the robot personality to match the criteria he would specify? Excellent!
The price? What?
Well, never mind. There was going to be a lot more where that was coming from. Do it!
Minutes later, Sebastian Archibald had uploaded a hyper-security packet to his friend, with detailed instructions regarding the personality and capabilities of his new robot interface. The reverend was building himself a robot devil. An Afterwhere Devil, no less.
The next two weeks saw a feverish build up of intensity at the New Electric Assembly of the Afterwhere Church. Sebastian Archibald installed pheromone enhancers in the ceiling, subliminal message displays on the back wall of the sanctuary and upgraded the lights and sound before the next gathering. He posted prominent instructions at the entrance that all neural implants should have their firewalls lowered within the church and their receptors enabled.
The church was packed. Word had spread amongst the community that the reverend was onto something. He had a handle on the Afterwhere. He knew the pitfalls within that desolation and how to avoid them. People brought friends. Families brought other families. They sat mesmerized as the reverend expounded on his theme. This time he had visual backup. Giant displays behind him punctuated his words, picturing dismal dystopian futurescapes as Sebastian Archibald described the dangers of the Afterwhere. Subliminal messages pulsed invisibly in the background and the pheromone enhancers pumped the atmosphere full of disquiet and lurking terror as the images rolled on, bleaker by the moment.
At the end of the sermon, Sebastian Archibald was drenched in sweat and so was his audience. They sat slack-jawed in their seats as the reverend choreographed the finale of his performance like a circus ringmaster. The Unicredit input following the service far outstripped the previous week. The reverend’s net worth soared like a spaceship leaving orbit and his visage began popping up on the national buzz feeds, feeding the frenzy. He was a shark in a school of mackerel. He was the titan at the gates of the Afterwhere, the holder of a VIP access pass guaranteeing a good time to be had by all who could afford it. He was unstoppable.
The next week, the week before the devil arrived, he worked himself into a frenzy, foaming at the mouth as he frightened the wits out of those gathered in his church. There were so many people waiting to get in that he set up five services, spaced and hour and a half apart, all of them playing to capacity crowds. By evening the reverend was exhausted but edgy with anticipation. He dismissed his staff, telling them to take the next day off as a bonus for their work at the services and waited for the technicians who would install his dream device.
It was well into the early hours of the morning before the techs were done interfacing the new system with his servers. Sebastian Archibald could barely contain himself as he waited for them to leave. He sat in front of the interface terminal, brimming with anticipation. What devilry would he program for his first week’s rummaging inside his unsuspecting members memory data banks?
A small glittering dot appeared in the center of the display, resolving into a buckyball shaped figure that spun rapidly on the screen before him. The buckyball had many glittering rainbow-colored facets that flashed and winked mesmerizingly. Behind the interface, his data port came alive, servers humming urgently; data access monitors blinking rapidly in synchronization with the rotating buckyball.
The reverend was mildly irritated. He hadn’t activated the devil interface yet but the damn thing was obviously on. No matter, The technicians probably initialized the system before they left. Clearing his throat he stared directly at the buckyball and accessed the audio interface.
“Castilar. Log on and register vocal and retina print.”
The spinning buckyball flashed silver for a moment before turning prismatic again.
“Vocal and retina print confirmed. Welcome Sebastian.”
Something prickled in the back of the reverend’s mind, like an itch on the inside of his skull. He squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head. When he opened his eyes, the sensation was gone.
Sebastian. The system had called him Sebastian, but he had not told it his name. No one called the reverend by his name. His was simple The Reverend. Sebastian Archibald Castilar guarded his personality with a fervor that matched his religious zeal.
The buckyball on the screen grew in size, some of the facets disappearing into dark openings like windows into an infinite depth. Inside those lattices sparks flashed into existence and died. The room lights dimmed and the unmistakable coppery odor of pheromone stimulants wafted into his nostrils. On the display he could see the reflected green LED of his own implant flare into activity.
A nameless dread assailed him as a suave voice bearing a hint of mingled mischief and malice echoed inside his head.
“Sebastian Archibald Castilar. Welcome to the Afterwhere. I’m your host, the Afterwhere Devil.”

 © Bryan Knower: September 2014

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Sierra Madre Blues

Sierra Madre BluesSIERRA MADRE BLUES

veryshortstoriesSebastian Crist first noticed her when he parked his bike and walked down to the spring by the roadside. If he had not stopped for a drink of fresh water and a toke he might never have seen her up on the hillside. She lay curled up against a jumble of rocks some distance up the slope from the spring, seemingly asleep.

Maybe she fell. Maybe she was injured. What was she doing up here?

The sheer absurdity of someone out here in the remote wilderness of the Sierra Madre Mountains made him think he was hallucinating. Maybe he was imagining what he saw. He closed eyes for a few seconds, but when he re-opened them, the girl was still there. He realized then that something was very wrong. Wrong for him and possibly wrong with him.

He had stopped near a small culvert on Route 166, the old Sierra Madre highway from Guadalupe to Taft. A ghost road, haunted by coyotes and rattlesnakes. A road less travelled. Sebastian knew the road well. He had ridden it before, exulting in the feeling of freedom as he pushed the motorcycle around the bends on the deserted highway. The deep thrum of the Indian’s big engine between his legs and the shattering roar of his passage through the numerous cuts and gullies was like a balm to his soul and these days, his soul felt in desperate need of soothing.

Leaving his bike by the side of the road, he scrambled up the slope to where she lay, a sense of foreboding growing in him as he approached her. It wasn’t until he was within a few feet of her that he realized she was dead.

Her throat had been cut from ear to ear, a red gaping slash that grinned at him from beneath her chin like an obscene mouth. His stomach heaving, Sebastian fell to his knees, bile spewing from his mouth, burning his throat and nostrils as he wretched. Images from the nightmares that haunted his dreams filled his mind, tightening his gut until he doubled over with the pain. He willed the dead girl to go away but in his mind, she beckoned to others, the fey spirits from his past that hounded him, taunting him, daring him to react, to do more than run away.

He always ran, literally and figuratively. In every instance he left the scene in a panic, reliving the macabre details in the nights that followed, unable to understand what he encountered. He never knew if the encounters were real or just twisted figments of his imagination, and he told nobody. His prior arrest record took care of that and he had no illusions about what might ensure from reporting such an event.

It all began two summers ago, on an evening just like this one in the Arizona desert. Days after a desert rave, high on Peyote extract, seeing the colors of the rainbow reflected in the hot sand; amorphous shapes swirling around him, imaginary or real, ghosts of the future, phantoms of the past, all of them female, all dead, speaking silently to him, commanding him.

Time seemed to stand still and voices spoke inside his head, telling him about unspeakable things, asking him if he was ready. He struggled in vain against their hideous insinuations, fighting desperately for control over his slipping mind, alternately pleading and ranting at them.

What do you want? Why me? I don’t understand. Tell me. What do you want?

It is your legacy, they said. Why do you resist?

It was not what he wanted to hear, so he ran, fleeing the desert, sweating out the peyote in terrified hallucinations night after night, trying to convince himself that it was all a result of a bad trip. The fault of the peyote buttons.

He felt exactly the same now, the urge to run paramount in his mind. He fought it, squeezing his eyes shut again, hoping this was all in his head. It didn’t help. In the desolate landscape around him, there was no sign of anyone, savior or pursuer, an absence of anything but the two of them, Sebastian and the girl, alone and surrounded by silence.

The quiet was unnatural, a stepping out of time, a time where lips moved, a time where limbs beckoned, gesturing; a time for drowned ears, like a face underwater, everything observed through a watery lens, eyes open without goggles, all clearly obscure.

In Cuidad Juarez, the dead girl’s eyes had looked like that, opaque, unseeing, accusing.

Why didn’t you do something? Where were you when they were killing me?

He had denied responsibility. Vehemently.

Not me. It wasn’t me. I’m trying to help but you’re already dead. Please, I’ll do what I can. Poor dead senorita. Don’t look at me like that. I’m so sorry, but it’s too late.

Avoid the accusing stare, the marks of her desecration and his shame. So young, so innocent, just like this girl huddled among the rocks up in the Sierra Madre Mountains. He was too late for her also, just as he had been too late for the girl in Cuidad, too late to help, too late to prevent the shame, the tearing, the mutilation. He wanted to scream.

Why me? It isn’t my fault.

There was no escaping it. Every one of them different but still the same. Mouths open, the ghostly image of a silent scream frozen on bloodless lips, a record of final agony endured, the rictus of desperation morphing from the phantoms in the desert to the silent accusations of the girl in Cuidad. Same expression of surprise, desolation and pain, with Sebastian standing immobile, rooted, frozen in time and space, all the desperation of all the lonely souls robbed of life and love pressing him on that rocky hillside with the sunlight fading like the hope in his heart.

Alone. That’s how you died. Alone. A solitary journey. A solitary experience.

And he was a solitary man. Always had been. Often wondered why. Adamantly refused to face the answer. Even though a dead girl lay before him, he was alone.

Sweat dripped from his hair onto his forehead. He did not notice. It ran into his eyes. He blinked, trying to release the moisture, but his eyes stung.

Sweat or tears? I don’t know. I don’t care. What now? Why do I see dead people?

Perhaps it was time to change the status quo. In retrospect, everything had the clarity of clear glass. In Cuidad, he had not moved the body of the girl. He did not move this one either. She was fresh, like a newly killed deer, the strange sweet smell of blood strong in the air; an unforgettable smell. He had done nothing then, self-preservation his dominant instinct. He made an effort now, for monsters were nearby, watching him as he got his blanket from his bike and covered her with it, watching him as he made his way back down the hill and kicked the bike back into life, watching him as he sat astride his softly muttering Indian, contemplating what to do next.

In the desert, he ran from the collective consciousness that beckoned him. He had run from the girl in Cuidad too, run from faceless and unseen retribution, and he meant to run now, from the nameless something that waited up the mountainside for him. In spite of his sputtering resolve the specters called to him, tempting him, beckoning, like so many times before. And in the forefront was the girl he had just left. The girl on the mountainside. The girl with the red smile. A smile that implored with the others.

Stay. Stay and be part of us. We are the same. Come be with us.

He rode away then; the accusation of that bloody grimace imprinted on his mind like a ghostly afterimage, and in the very edges of his vision, a ghostly company rode with him. And with them the dead girl in the Sierra Madre Mountains, now part of that endless expanding circle, reciting the litany of something he still refused to figure out.

Bryan Knower 2014

TRANSIENT: A Short Short Story

transient02TRANSIENT

Short Short StoryA hazy beam of sunlight throws a vertical swath of light on the wall, making a bright smear on the washed out pattern of the wallpaper. The paper must have been ivory colored once, but now it is a dirty shade of cream, fading to yellowish brown. The peeling edges lift off the wall like the curling dog-eared pages of a well worn book, in places torn to reveal the dull blue of an earlier print. Along the path the sunlight takes as it creeps up the wall, the paper has bleached, evidence of long tenure.

In a corner across from the window, an iron frame bed leans drunkenly against the wall, looking like it might collapse without additional support. The frame was once painted black, but all vestiges of color have peeled away, leaving only bare metal, interspersed with darker splotches of rust that contrast vividly with the incongruous emerald green of the coverlet. The bedspread seems relatively new and the small images of romping cats scattered across the surface seem like a sick joke in contrast to the severity of the room. At the foot of the bed stands a battered brown suitcase, its leather scuffed and scratched. The zippers are broken, the tabs missing and the case is now secured by two straps, curling and worn smooth from much use.

There’s a wooden clothes horse in the left corner, adjoining the window. On its rungs hang a faded pair of blue jeans along with two threadbare grayish t-shirts. The shirts may have been black once, but repeated washing seems to have leached all the color from them.

The other corner hosts a small metal table and a folding chair. Paraphernalia litters the table; a thin length of latex rubber lies like a flaccid snakeskin beside a tarnished silver spoon and a partially used spirit lamp. A disposable hypodermic syringe has rolled to a stop against the lamp, and resting near it is a crumpled scrap of foil paper, an orphan from the overflowing ashtray.

The ashtray, once the property of the Happy Family Peking Diner, is the cheap tin kind that everybody steals. The remnants of a dozen cigarette butts, the unfiltered kind, fill the bowl. The ash tray, once gilded, is now black with the detritus of innumerable mashed out smokes. The smell of stale tobacco fights for supremacy with the scent of Lysol air freshener, creating a strange pungent odor that is not altogether unpleasant.

The sunlight barely illuminates the room, even though it is still early afternoon. The window is grimy, and the inside surface is streaked as if someone has tried to scrub it clean with paper. The outside of the glass pane is spotted and patchy where raindrops briefly liquefied some of the grime before hardening it into a new pattern; layer upon layer of cloudy whorls that filter out most of the light. The view outside is bleak; dominated by the brown brick wall of another building, all the windows shuttered. The light in the room will vanish when the setting sun disappears behind the rooftop of that building.

A single light bulb hangs from the ceiling by a length of wire, as grimy as the window itself. The bulb is bare and unlit. In the wan light diffusing into the room, the wooden floor seems streaked, the result of many repairs that have matched neither the grain nor the type and shade of the wood. The boards look stained and dull, the surface lacquer long since gone and the wood darkened to a chocolate luster with age.

The sound of a jack hammer drifts up through the imperfect window seal, the rhythmic clatter mingling with the sound of shouted voices from out in the hallway. On the other side of the wall, a baby cries, providing a monotonous background to the rhythmic thud-thud of a boom box with the bass turned up loud. The walls are like acoustically permeable membranes, making privacy altogether impossible.

A cheap mirror hangs on the back of the closed door, reflecting the interior of the room in unflattering detail. Above the mirror, someone has screwed in a couple of cheap metal hooks. A white bathrobe, relatively new, occupies one of the hooks, a puffy cumulus smudge against the dull leaden backdrop of the door. It is one of the few things in the room, along with the suitcase and the jeans, that clearly belongs to someone.

Curiously, there are no electrical or mechanical contrivances of any kind in the room. This, added to the lack of furniture, makes the room appear bigger than it really is, an illusion accented by its Spartan emptiness. The entire aspect is one of impermanence, as if the entire room is transient, primed to transform in a moment at its owner’s whim. But there is no living thing here. There hasn’t been for days. Eventually, the landlord will come looking. Come when the pre-paid rent has run out. But by then the Lysol scent will be long gone, replaced by the growing odor of putrescence and the grotesquely swollen foot and ankle protruding from under the trailing edge of that emerald green coverlet.

Bryan Knower 2014

A Short Story

central park 03

TO GLIMPSE THE WIND

The afternoon sun shone directly onto the upturned face of a young man leaning far back on the park bench, his eyes open and staring. Although he felt the heat, Tim Boyd saw not the faintest hint of light and dissatisfaction spread through him like a malaise, pushing back the surge of wellbeing the sunlight had initiated. He sat just inside the park entrance, in his Tuesday spot, feeling bored, and now he felt irritated too. Idly he slouched even lower on the bench, stretching out his arms to discourage others from sharing his seat. The fingers of his extended left hand encountered something flat and metallic. It was warm from the heat of the afternoon, or maybe it had recently been in someone’s hand. Absently he explored the object, turning it in his fingers.

A coin. An unfamiliar one.

He knew the contours of nickels, dimes and quarters intimately, and this wasn’t any of those. It wasn’t a dollar coin either. He knew those too. Something foreign. Exotic. On a whim, he slipped it into his pocket. It was his now, and maybe it was lucky. His lucky coin. God knew he was due for a change, so how about now?

He missed the excitement of his old life as an engineer at the Honeoye Falls test facility. Loved the rush of testing new components, pushing them to the limit and beyond, his daily routine like the thrill of a roller coaster until that early June day six years ago, when an exploding gasket shot a shower of hot metal shards into his face. They told him he was lucky none of those fragments reached his brain. He just wished they had. Years of extensive plastic surgery gave him back a semblance of his face but not his eyes. Those were gone forever, blinded by minute heated metal knives that shredded them beyond repair. The compensation settlement was more than generous. He would never want materially for the rest of his life, but it did nothing for him on the inside, couldn’t give him his old life back. He was a blind man.

He always knew. Instantly. The point at which people learned his disability. Their voices changed; a mixture of sympathy and a generous serving of pity, unsuccessfully hidden. Most people thought that because he couldn’t see them, he couldn’t read their expressions, but Tim became adept at sorting out the nuances in the human voice. He knew when people were sorry for him and he knew when his appearance repulsed them. In the early days, his anger burning magnesium bright at the injustice that had left him incapacitated at twenty-three, he took to walking about hatless, his scarred and battered face in plain view, unmitigated by shadow or hair. Later, as his anger cooled and he acknowledged his situation, he accepted the painful rounds of surgery that slowly re-constructed his features so that today the only external reminders of that horrific time were the scars above his eyebrows and on his cheekbones and jaw. These were what people noticed first. Some never ever realized that he had two glass eyes.

His mother said his scars gave him a rakish appearance, but her opinion didn’t really count. She was his mother. Patricia’s opinion might have counted. A lot. But Pat was gone. He had driven her away. She left within three months, unable to take his fits of depression and violent mood swings. He wanted her gone. She reminded him of the earlier days. So he deliberately hurt her, not physically, but emotionally, battering down her defenses and leaving her in tears, screaming at him, asking him what he wanted from her. Tim could not tell her, He didn’t know either. He just needed to lash out, hurt someone else; make them share his own consuming pain.

In half a year, he managed to alienate all of his close friends. They tried their best to tolerate his outbursts, then came around less frequently, and eventually stopped visiting altogether. By then, he had come to hate the Honeoye Falls house anyway. Built at the end of a tony cul-de-sac named Bridlewood Trail, he had designed it to fit his attitude and social lifestyle, and its sunken levels and open spaces became a nightmare of obstacles. He fell constantly, skinned his knees and elbows, screamed abuse at an endless stream of attendants, disobeyed their instructions and was so thoroughly miserable that when his mother proposed he come and live with her, he agreed, relishing the prospect of a new victim for his vitriol.

Like all mothers, she was over protective and his abuse rolled off her like raindrops on a newly waxed car. Eventually they established an uneasy camaraderie. He submitted to the therapists and others who molded and shaped him into a new Tim Boyd. Not improved, just different. He came to terms with his handicap too, learning to use his ears and nose in place of his eyes. He learned Braille, devoured audio books of all kinds, fiction, non-fiction, languages, philosophy, things he would not have dreamed of reading in his previous life. He learned to use a cane and stopped bumping into things. He learned to go outside and cross a street, to order food from a street vendor, making the correct payment with bills folded in different ways to identify them, dollar bills unfolded, fives folded in half, tens folded lengthwise, twenties with a corner bent down. Of course he had no way of knowing if the bills he received in return were the right denominations and it galled him that he needed to have his mother fold and categorize them for him when he got home.

His settlement secured them an apartment on the second floor at the corner of Central Park East and he quickly learned to make it across the corner plaza into the park. He loved the park. Loved walking in it, feeling the air on his face, enjoying the sounds of birds and insects as he sat on the park benches listening to the conversations of passersby. Sometimes they greeted him and he responded, but it was ephemeral contact and he yearned for something more tangible. He had lost touch with the baggage of his earlier life and he was lonely. He avoided the other blind people in the park. He suspected they avoided him too. A mutual unspoken agreement to stay out of each other’s way. They reminded each other of themselves, and Tim didn’t need reminding.

He felt around on the bench until he located his cane, then stood up and walked across the grass to the paved walkway, heading north, further into the park, feeling for the verge with his cane. His ears tuned in the different sounds of various passersby; the regular scrunch of purposeful feet, probably someone in the park for lunch and headed back to work, the soft whirr of an approaching bicycle, the stuttering buzz of the occasional skateboard. Tim knew them all, just as he knew most of the paths and byways in the park by now. Just ahead, a right turn onto a gravel path would take him up a small hill overlooking the conservatory water. There, a park bench faced west over the treetops, perfectly situated to catch the setting sun. He was still a few hours away from sunset however, and he planned to sit awhile and listen to the sound of the summer crickets and the chatter of birds arriving by the water below him.

The hill was steep but he took it briskly, anticipating the solitude at the top, striding out purposefully across the grass to where he knew the seat was located. Very few people came here. In all the time since finding this secluded nook, he had only encountered a couple of people, and they arrived to find him already established in the spot. From their voices, he figured they were couples looking for a hiding place. They were always surprised to see him, then apologetic when they noticed his cane. They always backed away, apologizing profusely, and Tim understood exactly why they were apologizing. He stayed silent, letting them retreat from the clearing and down the hill, leaving him alone with his thoughts and his little victory.

Today, his cane encountered something foreign as he felt for the edge of the seat. It felt soft and he rapped it harder with his cane, hearing a soft gasp in response.

A voice said, “Excuse me.”

There was someone already seated here. On his bench. He was confused and a little irritated. This had never happened before. “I beg your pardon,” he said, scrambling to regain his dignity. Then, with a note of exasperation in his voice, “You should have said something, you know. I can’t see you.”

“I know. I’m so sorry.” The voice was feminine. Youthful and vibrant, with a hint of humor. “I was so taken up with the way you came up the hill without using your cane that I forgot to make myself known. I do apologize.”

“That’s ok,” he said, although he didn’t feel okay. “It’s a great spot, and the setting sun is just perfect from here. Enjoy the view. I’ll be going now.”

“Oh, don’t go,” she was contrite now. “Please stay. You can share the seat with me.”

Tim hesitated. He wasn’t much of a conversationalist these days, but the voice intrigued him, and besides, he needed to stake his claim to the bench. This place. Otherwise, she might make it hers. “All right,” he said, feeling opposite her voice for the other end of the park bench.

Her sudden touch on his hand surprised him. Her grasp was gentle but firm and her touch tingled.

“Here, let me help you,” she said, guiding him with her hand on his arm.

He felt her other hand at his back, helping him to settle down in the corner of the seat. Her touch was comfortable, almost intimate and he felt regretful as she withdrew her hands and sat down opposite him. Nobody had touched him in a long while. Not like that anyway.

Get a grip, Tim, he thought as he struggled to compose himself. She was just being polite.

He shifted his position so that he was half facing her, or where he presumed she must be, and made an effort to be polite too.

It was no trouble at all.

The conversation flowed easily. He felt mesmerized, lulled by the sound of her voice, almost as if he was outside his body, observing himself in conversation with this stranger. Their conversation covered diverse topics, veering from the weather in New York to automobiles to travel to exploring and even horseback riding, which he had loved to do back at Honeoye Falls. The breadth of their shared interests seemed astounding and Tim, nowadays taciturn by nature, found himself animatedly discussing the merits of different kinds of honey in a slowly growing bubble of contentment, like drowning in a pool of molasses. For a while, he struggled to keep his head above the surface, but his charming companion seemed to know exactly what to say at exactly the right moment, and he gave up the effort to stay detached and went with the flow.

She was utterly enjoyable on so many different levels. Her voice, attentive, with a hint of laughter behind it, captivated him entirely. But he was also aware of her presence, the subtle perfume that she wore, a mixture of flowers and grasses perfectly appropriate to the setting and the time of year. And her touch. She kept touching his arm with her fingers to make a point, slim sensitive fingers that never pressed down or grasped, just brushed his forearm, almost accidentally. He found himself looking forward to those moments, leaning towards her to facilitate the contact.

In those times, he could feel her breath on his face, peppermint sweet, as if she had just finished a stick of gum. Maybe she had. Tim wanted to comment on how nice her breath smelled but thought it inappropriate. He wondered what she looked like. Wished he could see her, see what she was wearing, and for a while, the old anger at his injury flared up, but she blithely turned away his looming discontent, unaware she was doing so. It must have shown on his face. She commented on how expressive he was, and how his features changed when he became excited or involved with what he was saying or what she was saying. He didn’t realize the sun had sunk below the treetops until she shivered audibly and said it was getting cold. The hill was somewhat exposed and the wind off the water made the evenings sometimes chilly.

“I’m so sorry if I’ve kept you past your time in the park.” He mentally kicked himself for not being more attentive to the time and place, but he didn’t want this to end. Didn’t want the moment to end.

“Oh that’s no problem,” she said, “I live on the West side, and it’s just a short walk.” Her laughter was infectious. “Besides, there’s still enough light. Can you feel it?”

Tim could not, but he didn’t deny it. “Let me walk you to the park entrance,” he said, getting to his feet, hoping he’d bump into her by accident.

“That’s not necessary,” she protested. “I can find my way out of here easily. Let me get you down to the path.”

He insisted. It would be a long walk back through the park, but the thought of the imminent parting was suddenly painful. Surprisingly, she didn’t demur. She took his arm, slipping her hand between his elbow and his side in a gesture that seemed perfectly natural yet unbearably intimate. Tim was sublimely aware of her presence as they walked back down the hill together. She kept talking, describing little details for him as they went, their bodies leaning together, steps synchronized like old friends. They reached the West Gate far too quickly.

“Thank you,” he whispered as she disengaged her arm from his. “I enjoyed that very much.”

“Me too,” she said, then leaned closer and pressed her lips to his cheek. “Goodnight,” she whispered in his ear, then turned away.

He stood there a long time, listening to her receding footsteps, feeling like a ship adrift from its moorings. Before the sound faded entirely, he lifted his free hand and waved, hoping she had looked back. He didn’t know if she waved back. Then the sound of her was gone. Only the silence remained, rushing in to fill the void that she had occupied both physically and emotionally. The street sounds came back, the clip clop of horse’s hooves, a carriage passing by, going back to the stands on Central Park south. The blare of horns announced the impatience of drivers in a hurry to get home. He realized he needed to go home too.

He took the major park thoroughfare on his way back, walking briskly, replaying the past hours in his mind. He savored the best moments, luxuriating in the surfeit of his senses until he realized he didn’t have her name. He didn’t know who she was or if she would be back. Cursing himself, he turned around, walking a few paces before he realized the futility of his actions. He had no idea where she lived, or which way she had gone after she had left him, no idea if she came to the park frequently, no idea if he would ever see her again. The thought leeched all the good feeling out of him, and he walked the rest of the way home in a foul mood, cutting savagely at the edges of the road with his cane.

Waiting to cross the street back to his apartment, he put his hand into his pocket and discovered the coin he had found earlier was missing. It must have fallen out of his pocket on the hill. He felt irrationally disappointed by the loss and it soured him completely. He drank a fifth of scotch before going to bed but it did nothing for the hollow feeling in his stomach, and the gnawing thought that he had lost something precious.

That night the nightmares returned.

Bryan Knower 2014