Joy in the Journey (Or, Stopping in Dot-on-the-Map Towns Along the Way)

Tomorrow, I’ll be heading “back home” to Rochester, NY, to visit family and old friends–some of whom served as the inspiration for the protagonists in The Eye-Dancers and The Singularity Wheel. It’s a visit I always look forward to.  It’s good to see the old house where I was raised, to walk through the same rooms and hallways I did when I was growing up.  It’s good to sit and chat and reminisce; to enjoy the company of people I’ve known and loved for my entire life; and to play Trivial Pursuit, my favorite board game, and a tradition every time I return home.

 

So when I arise bright and early tomorrow morning and hop in the car, I will look forward to arriving in Rochester later in the day.  But that’s not the only thing.  Because, as much as I want to get there, I also enjoy the getting there.

 

Indeed, there is an appreciation for the drive from my current home in the hills of east-central Vermont to my childhood home not far from the water’s edge of Lake Ontario.  The drive itself comprises approximately 350 miles, one way–and takes just shy of seven hours.  There are different routes I can take, especially once I cross the state line into New York.  I can get on 87 South and whip down to Albany, and from there speed west on I-90 straight into Rochester.  That’s the fastest way–all highway driving.  It is also the route I will not take.

 

Sure, I’ll merge onto I-90 eventually, but not at Albany.  No.  Rather than zipping down to the state capital, I will instead travel first on Route 4 and then Route 29, traveling through small towns like Whitehall, Hudson Falls, Fonda, and Herkimer–off-the-beaten-path places with weather-beaten houses and 19th-century storefronts and village greens, straddling the verdant valley of the Mohawk River or the easy, gentle path of the Erie Canal.  The kinds of towns most motorists sail right through without a thought, eager to arrive somewhere else, somewhere bigger or glitzier and more represented in travel brochures.

 

But me?  I like to linger.  Not too long.  I want to visit my family, after all, and there are still miles to go before I get there.  But for a little while.  I’ll pull into an empty lot or park along the shoulder of the road and take a ten-minute walk–perhaps down the Capra-esque Main Street or along the quiet sidewalk of a side street, appreciating the architecture of the century-old homes, breathing in the spring air, contemplating the aroma of flowers and newly sprung leaves.  Or I’ll enter an establishment, a local shop as far removed from a chain store as possible.  Maybe it’s a general store or an antique shop, or a restaurant with the town’s name emblazoned somewhere on the awning above the door.  Even when I don’t get out of the car, I make sure to slow down, observe the surroundings, take note of the pedestrians and the signs and the banners flapping in the breeze.

 

I’m not sure why I’m drawn to these old, old little towns in eastern upstate New York.  Maybe because there is a sad charm to them, a dignified sense of age and experience that, while not showy or ornate, commands a species of respect.  Or maybe it’s just realizing that these towns, these way stations in the rural heart of the Empire State, are rich with history, with experiences.  With ghosts.  How many stories are contained within the town limits?  What might the buildings and houses, some of them crumbling, in states of disrepair, say if they could speak?  Or . . . maybe they can speak.  Maybe you just need to stop for a moment, look beyond the peeling paint and the broken shingles, and listen.

 

This isn’t so different from a literary journey, either.  How many times have we undertaken a novel or a memoir, or anything that requires us to write hundreds of pages, and bemoaned the pages yet left unwritten, the scenes yet left unrealized.  “Only on page 57?” one might complain.  “How am I going to finish?  How can I get to the end?”  It’s human nature, I suppose.  We want to complete what we start.  We want to beat our competitors.  We want to get there.

 

As such, the words “The End” are two of the most fulfilling for any author.  But . . . are they not also bittersweet?  Because while you may have become tired of the never-ending work-in-progress, and longed for the beginning of a new project, a new novel, you have also spent hour upon hour, day upon day, week upon week, with your characters.  And now–you are done.  Finished.  What once seemed a burden (“What will I do in the next chapter?  How will Jennifer deal with that?  Does George call her out in chapter 30 or not?”) now seems like a friend who’s left you, who’s gone across the globe, or the universe, to a faraway and inaccessible land.

 

In driving the seven hours to the old family home, or in writing a novel that carries on for months or even years, there will always be an ambition, a quest, a need to finish, to accomplish, to arrive.  But while in the midst of it all, it’s a good idea to take a breath, forget about where you’re going, and instead experience where you are.

There is a joy in the journey.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

 

“You Can’t Get There from Here” (But You Can . . . with Some Delay)

It was one of those lazy, hazy midsummer days in the Northeast, when the humidity hangs thick and wet over the land.  I was driving through the back roads of central Vermont, looking for a particular house–an address tucked away on a dirt lane far from the beaten path.  These were the years before I had settled in this area and called it home.  I didn’t know my way around.

 

Sure enough, as I came to an unmarked intersection, I took a wrong turn.  I didn’t know it at first.  It took a couple of minutes.  But when I drove several more miles and didn’t have a clue where I was, I decided to stop in the gravel parking lot of a country store.  It was the only place I saw, aside from isolated farmhouses and old, weathered barns, that might offer the hope of someone providing directions to steer me back along the right route.

 

I parked in front of the store, a clapboarded single-story structure with white peeling paint and two ancient gas pumps out back.  They looked like something out of the 1950s.  I had no idea if they were operational, and had no intention of finding out.

 

The door was open, without a screen, and I walked in.  The interior was small and cramped, complete with wooden shelves, a pot-bellied stove in the corner, and thick bark-covered beams overhead.  Beside the unlit stove, four men sat at a round table.  Each eyed me suspiciously.

 

I approached the table.  The men, three of whom were seniors, and the fourth perhaps in his thirties, continued to eye me.  There were poker chips gathered in the middle of the table, and the men were holding playing cards in their hands.  Already uncomfortable at the intrusion, now I felt worse.  I was interrupting their game.

 

“Excuse me,” I said.  My voice sounded too loud in the close, warm space.  “Sorry to bother you, but I was wondering if you might be able to help me find an address.  I thought I had everything mapped out, but I guess I was wrong.”

The men just sat there, motionless, looking me over as if I were a specimen to be driven over to the town taxidermist.  One of them cleared his throat.  A second placed his cards, facedown, onto the table.  The other two just stared.

 

I gave it a few seconds, and when no one said a word, I took a step back and turned toward the door.  I guessed I’d go knock on a farmhouse door and hope for a more cordial response.

 

That was when someone finally spoke up.

“Where ya headin’?” the younger guy said.

I turned back around, told them the address.  This brought on another round of silence.

Then, the oldest-looking guy seated at the table, a gaunt fellow with wire-rimmed glasses, said, “Thing is–if you was a bird, it’d be easy to get where you’re wantin’ to go.  But if you have to take the roads–it’s a field.  Fact is, you can’t get there from here.”

 

One of the other men smirked.  Another one coughed.

I wasn’t sure what to say.  I realized I was the amusement for the day.  There was no reason to hang around.  I’d just have to go back the way I had come and re-map the journey.

 

But then the younger guy held up his hand, and proceeded to give me the directions I needed.  He used short, staccato phrases, offering only the barest of minimums.  But I thought I had it when he was through.

I thanked him for his help.

“Would be easier if you was a bird,” the older man said again.

When I walked back through the doorway, I was sure I could hear them laughing.

As I got behind the wheel of my car and pulled away, I wondered if they had given me the wrong directions–just to further the joke.  But they hadn’t.  Twenty minutes later, I found the place I was looking for.  The directions were accurate.

 

“Though roundabout,” I was told later by someone in the know.  “He led you out of your way.”

But at least I’d made it–delay or no delay.

************************************

And that also accurately sums up the writing and editing process I have undertaken on The Singularity Wheel–the sequel to The Eye-Dancers.  It was a surprise project from the get-go.  I hadn’t even envisioned there would be a sequel–but then, out of the ether, an idea struck that wouldn’t let up and wouldn’t let go, and I had to write it.

 

When I began the book, over four years ago (!), I had no way of knowing how winding, circuitous, and bumpy the road would be.  I first announced the sequel’s existence in a blog post in the spring of 2014.  “It’ll take another year to write, no sweat,” I thought at the time.  But then 2014 bled into 2015, which morphed into 2016–and still, the book wasn’t finished!  There were character crises, plot points that needed wholesale makeovers, and twists and turns in the story line that needed alterations.  It was, and has been, the most challenging writing project I have ever undertaken.

 

Even so, as 2017 dawned, I was almost finished!  And in April, the first draft was finally complete.  I was at last able to key in the words, “The End.”  I even posted about it at the time.  So okay–I would release The Singularity Wheel at the end of summer!  Piece of cake!

 

During the editing process, however, I found that more changes still needed to be made than I’d realized.  Time slipped past, summer came and went.  Then again, The Eye-Dancers was originally published in November 2012.  I liked the symmetry.  Why not release The Singularity Wheel in November 2017?  It would be perfect.  Five years of real time had passed–and, in the story itself, five years of fictional time had also passed from the conclusion of the first book to the start of the second.  Everything was coming full circle.

 

But now–here we are, in November, and just like my journey through the back roads of Vermont that summer day years ago, I have discovered that “as the bird flies” isn’t always the way a story will proceed.  I am right now in the final edit/proofreading/copy editing stage.  The endgame.  But even here, I have found a few last wrinkles that need to be ironed out, a few tweaks that need to be inserted, a last assortment of fixes that need to be made.  Grudgingly, I have come to realize that the November release is too ambitious.  The project has been “a field” as the old-timer at the country store said to me once.  A field, indeed.

 

That said, the eleventh-hour adjustments are minor in nature.  Ninety-nine percent of the work has been put in.  It’s just a matter of trying to finish strong and present the best possible product I can upon publication.  As much as I wanted to meet my own self-imposed November deadline, I didn’t want to rush it now, at the end, after such a long journey getting here.

The delay will be one month.  And this time, there won’t be any further postponements!  The Singularity Wheel will be released prior to January 1, 2018.  I don’t have a single, specific date in mind–but it will be in December.  This time, I promise.

 

In this season of Thanksgiving, I want to thank all of you who have read and still read this blog and who have supported The Eye-Dancers these past five years.

 

Writing a sequel has been a long, long process, often beset with speed bumps and deep, tire-puncturing potholes, but, to paraphrase my old country-store friend, I have, at long last, “gotten here from there.”

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Short Story — “Cover-Up”

Each of the characters in The Eye-Dancers carries with them some emotional pain–a fear of rejection, a lack of self-confidence, family concerns, the loneliness of not fitting in at school.  They also have a tendency to hide their issues–or at least try to.  Marc Kuslanski, for example, underneath his know-it-all exterior, is a boy in desperate need of a friend.  He doesn’t like to admit this, to himself or others, but his bouts of denial do not negate the truth.  Thankfully for him, the events in the story unite him with Mitchell Brant, and a friendship is indeed formed.

In the short story “Cover-Up,” which I wrote a few years ago, the protagonist is also carrying with him the baggage of emotional pain, the burden of regret and self-blame.  And, just like Marc, he tries his best to conceal it.  But on a long, cross-country train trip, his seatmate sees right through his mask.  Will he open up to this stranger, or throw up his customary wall?

I hope you enjoy “Cover-Up” . . .

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“Cover-Up”

Copyright 2013 by Michael S. Fedison

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“So, do you wanna talk about it?” the young woman with the terrible scar asked.

He was sure he didn’t.  What Patrick really wanted to do was sleep the ride away.  But that didn’t seem likely.  It was still light outside, and the train was bumpy, lurching often and sometimes feeling precariously close to derailing.  Not for the first time, he asked himself why he hadn’t just flown.  “Talk about what?”

The woman looked at him.  Her eyes were a light, pastel shade of green.  “You know . . . whatever’s bugging you.  I can tell something’s really got you down.”

“Nothing’s wrong,” he said.  “I’m fine.  Just tired, I guess.”

“It’s not good to hold things in, y’know,” the woman said.  “You need to let it out.  And I have a good ear.  Really.  All my friends say so.”

He silently wondered if she actually had any friends, she was so nosey.  But she had seen right through his lie.  Something was bothering him.  He was annoyed that he wasn’t able to hide it, especially considering all the practice he’d had.

“Hey, really, I’m fine, so just drop it, okay?” he said.  The train lurched, and he was thrust forward, grabbing the seatback in front of him.  “Man, real smooth ride, huh?”

The woman smiled.  “What’s your name, anyway?”

“Patrick,” he said.  Taking advantage of his window seat, he looked through the glass.  They were traveling through the flat country of western Illinois now, past dead cornfields and crisp, white farmhouses with covered porches and weathervanes and dirty plastic sheets draped over the windows, flapping in the wind.

“Hi, Patrick,” she said.  “I’m ‘Becca.  Well, Rebecca.  Everyone calls me ‘Becca, though.  So, are you a Patrick?  Or a Pat?”

“Patrick.”  His dad used to call him Pat.  He didn’t even want to think of that name.

“So, Patrick . . . have you ever taken the train before?  I love it.  It’s like a real trip.  You get a chance to really talk to people, y’know?”

No, he didn’t know, and he didn’t reply, hoping she would take the hint.  He just wanted to be left alone.  But she was hard to ignore.  That scar was hard to ignore.  It was the deepest, longest scar he had ever seen on a person’s face.  He’d noticed it right away, as soon as she had boarded the train and decided to sit next to him.  It started to the right of her eye, just below the brow, and twisted its way down her cheek, not stopping until it reached the point of her chin.  Every time he glanced at her, his gaze fell upon it.  What had caused such a gash in the first place?  He had no idea, and preferred to keep it that way.  Just another reason to stare out the window.

“Where are you headed, anyway?” she asked.

“Denver,” he said.

“Really?  So am I!”  Great.  Just great.  “You must’ve gone back home for the holidays.  I did, too.  But now it’s time to return to real life and work and paying the bills.”

“Yeah,” he said.  Real life.  Work.  That was fine with him.  He never should have gone home in the first place.  The faster he forgot about it, the better.  Mom and Jayne crying.  Jayne laying into him for leaving a few days early.

“That’s just what you did before!” she’d said.  “You ran away.  Can’t you stay a measly couple days more?  For Mom?  And for me?”

But he couldn’t.  What did his presence help anyway?  They were all miserable together.  He just wanted to leave, so he had.

The door at the far end of the car opened and then snapped shut.  A couple, likely returning from a meal in the Dining Car, walked down the aisle.  Three young children, two girls and a boy, trailed right behind them like a small school of pilot fish.

He looked out the window again.  The winter sun, sinking to the horizon, gave off its last weak rays of the day.  The porch light of a distant farmhouse flicked on and shone like a beacon across the frozen fields and dead, windswept grasses.

“So, what do you do, Patrick?” Becca asked him.  “Where do you work?”

He wished she’d shut up.  He wasn’t up for this.  Still, he told her he was a technical writer who worked for a computer software company.  He wrote the how-to manuals no one liked to read.  But he enjoyed it.  Wrestling with the minutia of the programs, figuring out the meaning behind the engineers’ logic, crafting documents that somehow translated the highly complex material into understandable language for the end users.  It allowed him to get lost in the safe world of code and technology, sweeping unwanted emotions, unwanted memories, aside.

Another couple entered the car.  The next call for the Dining Car would be due shortly.  But he was thinking about going to the Lounge Car.  A few stiff drinks sounded good.  He was feeling warm, claustrophobic.

“You hot?” he asked her.  “They got the heat turned up way too high.”  He took off his jacket, placed it under his seat.

“I’m not hot,” she said.  “But if I was hot, I wouldn’t know, so . . .”

What did she mean by that?  He looked at her, but saw only the scar, which seemed almost to pulsate with a life, a vitality of its own.  Whatever had happened to her must have caused unspeakable pain and anguish.  But that thought just made him hotter, more in need of a drink.

He sidled past her, into the aisle.  The train lurched again, and he almost fell.  He would have, too, if he hadn’t grabbed onto the seat in time.  She didn’t ask him where he was going, and he didn’t say.  The last thing he wanted was for her to tag along.

“See you later,” she said.

He nodded, and headed for the Lounge Car.

It was almost deserted.  Just a young couple sitting next to each eating pretzels and popcorn, and a bald, thin man sitting by himself looking out the window into the darkening twilight, his left hand wrapped around a glass of wine.  Perhaps he, too, was attempting to drink away his troubles.

Patrick bought a beer, inwardly groaning that the kid behind the bar didn’t want to see ID.  He had just turned thirty.  Getting asked for ID used to be a hassle, five years ago.  Now he felt slighted when someone failed to do it.

He sat down, as far away from the couple and the bald man as he could get.  He needed to be left alone for a while, to enjoy the taste and buzz of the beer.  He wanted peace and quiet, light, airy thoughts.  But his mind had other ideas.  He closed his eyes, and saw his mother crying.  Not yesterday or the day before, but two years ago, after the accident.  He saw his sister crumpled on the sofa, her face buried in a pillow.  And he saw himself, standing there, hands in pockets, not knowing what to say or do.

It had all been his fault.  It never should have happened—not to Dad.  Patrick had recently moved into a new apartment across town, and didn’t visit his parents very often.  That evening, he was coming over for supper.  His car had a transmission leak and on the way over he had intended to buy some fluid.  But his thoughts had drifted, he’d forgotten, and now the car was shifting with difficulty—the transmission was dry.  When he said he needed to run to the automotive store, his father said not to think of it.  He would go.  Patrick should stay with his mom and his sister.  Patrick protested—he was the one who forgot to buy the fluid, after all—but Dad was adamant.

“Be back in fifteen minutes,” Dad had said.

They never saw him again.

Patrick took a long drink of the beer, trying to submerge the memories in alcohol, washing them down some fast-moving stream that would carry them away to a distant ocean, forever adrift, forever removed from his consciousness.  Several seats in front of him, the bald man slammed his wine glass down, causing some of the wine to spill onto the table.  He muttered under his breath, drank more wine, then banged the glass back down again.  To Patrick’s left, the young couple were whispering to each other, as if gossiping about the two lushes sharing the car with them.

He wished he were drunk.  But he was all too sober.  Suddenly, and with ferocious clarity, he heard the knock on his parents’ door.  Dad had been gone over an hour, they were getting worried.  But still, what could have happened?  The car-parts store was less than three miles away.

Images, sounds, smells raced into his head, like snapshots from a nightmare.  The door opening, revealing two police officers.  They appeared solemn, yet mechanical.  Just doing their job.  Mom shrieking when she heard them say Dad had been blindsided by a teenager running a red light.  The table had been set, the glasses full of water, the salad ready to eat, tossed in the flower-patterned bowl Mom had owned since before Patrick was born.  Dad’s plate and silverware and napkin laid out in his spot, at the head of the table.  The smell of pot roast in the oven, mashed potatoes with butter on the stovetop.  And seeing the calendar on the kitchen wall, the picture showing a snowy field in some distant mountain valley, sparkling under a blue sky the color of his dad’s eyes.  And on the date he had come over—February 17—Mom’s curly, pretty script:  “Patrick coming for supper!”

But more than anything, he remembered the cries of his mother.  She yelled at the officers, “No, no, it can’t be!  This can’t be happening!”  Later that night, Mom was in her bedroom, in the bed she had shared with her husband for thirty-two years, crying and saying, softly now, over and over, “No.”

And through it all, Patrick could only feel one thing, one repeating thought, bent on driving him mad:  It should’ve been me.  Not Dad.  It should’ve been me.  If only he hadn’t forgotten to buy the transmission fluid.  If only he had insisted that he, not Dad, go to the store!  It should’ve been me.

The train lurched again, causing some of his beer to spill.  That apparently struck the young couple as funny, because they giggled harder.  Patrick wished he could share even one-sixtieth of their good humor.  This wasn’t working.  Coming to the Lounge Car had only made things worse.  He cursed himself for having gone back home for Christmas.  All it accomplished was to cause these memories to bubble back up to the surface—after he had spent the last two years forcing them down.  That’s why he’d moved away.  He couldn’t take it anymore.  Every time he visited his mom or saw Jayne, he saw the sadness in their eyes.  And when he saw that, he felt condemned.  He knew they didn’t do it on purpose, but he didn’t need to see it, either.  Going home for the holidays, nothing had changed.  So Patrick decided to leave ahead of schedule.  He needed to go back to Denver, far away from his mom’s sad eyes, no matter what Jayne accused him of.  Running away?  Yes, he was running away.  He needed to rebury those memories again.  Shove them deep inside an impregnable vault where they couldn’t touch him, couldn’t harm him, couldn’t haunt him.

It should have been me.

“Shut up!” he yelled, and the bald man turned to glare at him.  Even the couple stopped giggling.

He downed the remainder of his beer, then got up to leave.  He realized he was better off chatting with Becca, as long as she didn’t pester him to “talk about it.”

“That was quick,” she said when he brushed past her and took his window seat again.  Outside, it was full dark now.

He rested his elbow on the base of the window, cupped his chin in his hand, gazing out into the pitch nothingness of the night.

“Guess you didn’t have such a riveting time, huh?”  she said.

He looked at her, and she smiled.  Despite her awful scar, he actually thought she was pretty.  But the scar distracted him.  He tried not to fixate on it, but he couldn’t help it.

She traced the outline of the scar with her fingertips.  “Mmm-hmm, I know,” she said.  “Hard to miss, isn’t it?”

Immediately, he looked away, at the seatback in front of him.  “I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean to—”

She smiled again.  “Hey, it’s okay.  At least you weren’t staring with your mouth hanging open.  People do, you know.”  He swallowed, still feeling like he’d done something wrong.  “I don’t mind talking about it,” she went on.  “I mean, it’s a part of me, you know?  It’s the first thing everyone sees.”

There was a call over the PA system, they were taking more reservations for the next meal to be served in the Dining Car.  A short, fat man, middle-aged, immediately rose from his seat and waddled down the aisle.  He nearly tripped and fell when the train lurched, and a blond-haired kid snickered.  The fat man blushed and cursed, then walked through the doors into the adjoining car.

Becca eyed the blond kid with amusement.  “You know, I wasn’t much older than him when I got this,” she said, still touching her injury.  “I was only a little girl, five at the time.”

“Look, you don’t have to tell me about it,” Patrick said.  They were passing through a small town now, past a darkened post office, a brick town hall, and a row of stores that appeared to be closed for the evening.  “I’m sure it’s not something you like to talk about.”

She glanced past him, out the window.  “I was left by myself—only for a couple of minutes, but that was all it took.  I found this pair of scissors, and it was like I was in a trance or something.  I wanted to see if I could make myself feel something, I had to feel something, even if it hurt.  Just to see what all the fuss was about, you know?  Everyone was always telling me to be careful, but I just couldn’t understand.”

That makes two of us, Patrick thought.

“Remember how I told you before you left that I wouldn’t know if it was too hot in here?” she asked.  He nodded.  He remembered, all right.  She was a strange one.  “Well, if you want to know the truth . . . you’re sitting next to a true marvel of the medical community.  I’m a real find, y’know.  I’m one of only sixty people in the United States with CIPA.  And only a fraction of us ever get through childhood.  And here I am, twenty-six and still kicking.  I should get a medal or something.”

He just looked at her.  Every time she opened her mouth, she lost him a little more.

“CIPA . . .” she continued, apparently sensing his confusion . . . “Congenital Insensitivity to Pain with Anhidrosis.  It’s a condition you’re born with.  Basically, I can’t feel any pain.  I can’t feel the cold or the heat.  You can kick me in the face ten times and I won’t feel a thing!  Or throw me in a bucket of ice water, and I wouldn’t feel cold.  Pretty crazy, huh?  You should Google it sometime.”

He gave no reply, and she paused to allow him to digest it all.  His first thought was that she was making it up.  But then he figured she was probably telling the truth.  Why would someone lie about such an odd, unheard-of condition?  How would that benefit her?

“And, see, that’s what really made me want to do something to cause a sensation, to even cause pain,” she said.  The train had left the small town behind, as it continued its journey over the prairie-like countryside.  Soon they would cross the Mississippi River, into Iowa.  A long way to go before reaching Denver.  “I mean, everyone was always telling me that knives were dangerous, fire was dangerous, scissors were dangerous.  But it was just words to me, you know?  It didn’t mean anything.  So I had to see.  What can I say?  I was five.

“So I went to the dresser where I knew the scissors were, and I . . . well, let’s just say I was a very curious little girl.  I jabbed the sharp end into my face, right here. . .”  She gently massaged a point on the scar directly beside her eye.  “Good thing I didn’t go a little to the left, huh?  Or else I’d be blind.  But I still didn’t feel anything, and I was like, ‘What is this?  What’s the big deal about scissors?’  So I pushed them in a little deeper and then I dragged them all the way down to here.”  She touched the bottom of her scar, just an inch away from her chin.  “And you know, I still didn’t feel anything, and I started to see all this blood.  But I didn’t know what to make of it.  I mean, I felt fine!  So I was about to try the other side of my face, and that’s when my mom came into the room.  I guess you can figure out the rest, huh?”  She smiled.  “They took me to the hospital, and I had to have surgery.  They did the best they could, but . . . .  Anyway, I try to look on the bright side.  I mean, when I get a filling, they don’t need to shoot me up with Novacaine.  And you know what?  I can’t even sweat!  How many women would love to be able to say that?”

She laughed, and he laughed with her, though he felt awkward laughing on the heels of such a grisly story.  More than that, he felt dazed, as if he’d had five beers instead of only one.  It was so hard to wrap his head around this, to make sense of it.  But it was true.  She didn’t feel pain.  She was like a rock.  The more he thought of it, the more he liked it.

“Man, imagine that,” he said.  “No matter what happens, not to be able to feel a thing.”

She tilted her head, looked at him closely.  “It’s really not such a great deal,” she said.  “I wouldn’t recommend it.”

“Why not?  It sounds pretty good to me.”

“But don’t you understand?  I can’t feel any pain!  Don’t you see what that means?  I would have killed myself with those scissors if my mom hadn’t come back when she did.  I would’ve killed myself without even knowing it.  And even now, it’s like, I know not to do things that are dangerous, but it’s still kind of like secondhand knowledge, you know?  It’s like if you read about a volcano in the Indian Ocean or something.  It’s just news, information.  It’s not personal.  I know a knife will make me bleed, but I won’t feel the wound.  You see what I’m trying to say?  And what’s to stop me from burning myself on an electric stovetop?  I can touch the burner, and I wouldn’t even know it’s on!  Then when I look at my hand later and see all the skin is gone, I’d be like, ‘Uh oh.’  Or what if I stuck my hand in a sink full of soapy dishwater and jabbed at a piece of broken glass without even knowing it?  I could slice my wrist open.  Every day is like a minefield, Patrick.”

A handful of passengers walked by, most likely heading to the Dining Car.  They were serving three-cheese lasagna this evening, among other possibilities, all of which sounded good.  Maybe he’d go a bit later, but not now.  Not now.

Becca took a deep breath.  “It’s all just like a mask, a gimmick,” she explained.  “I mean, I can’t feel pain, but I can still get injured.  I still bleed and bruise, and my bones can still break.  The feeling no pain . . . it’s just a cover-up.  It doesn’t really protect me from anything.  It’s like pretend.  Like an act.  I mean, no matter what you’re born with, or what you try to make yourself believe, the things that can hurt you will hurt you.  You know what I mean?”

He just sat there, staring at his lap.

“I think you do,” she said.  “I think you know exactly what I mean.  Don’t you, Patrick?”

He was disconcerted, again, by the way she saw right through him.  He wanted to deny it, to deny her, but he couldn’t.  He dared to look at her, and she had concern in her eyes.  Understanding.  Compassion.  But none of those things set him off.  It was the scar.  That deep, old scar that slithered its way down her cheek like the imprint of a snake fossil.  He visualized Becca at five, wanting desperately to feel, even as she gouged her face and spilled her own blood.  And somehow, he just couldn’t deal with that.

The tears came, suddenly and with great force.  He coughed on his own phlegm, burying his face on Becca’s shoulder.  His body rocked and jerked.  He was sure he caused Becca to rock and jerk right along with him, but he couldn’t stop.

“That’s right,” Becca said, putting an arm around him as he kept on crying.  “You just let it out.”

He was aware, vaguely, that people were staring at him.  He sensed the blond kid’s eyes boring a hole through Becca’s back and right into his head.  But he didn’t care.  He was aware, too, that this was the first he had cried since . . . he couldn’t even remember the last time.  He just knew he hadn’t cried since Dad’s death.  Not at hearing the news.  Not at the funeral.  Not even when he moved away from home, halfway across the continent.  And certainly not yesterday, with his mom and sister.  When he saw them crying, he never thought it did them any good.  What was the point?  People needed to move past their losses, push them away.  If you gave into them, they would paralyze you.  That’s why he’d never allowed himself to cry.  He always feared that once he started, he wouldn’t be able to stop.  He thought he’d only get bogged down in the morass of guilt and regrets and lost dreams that floated high above, always out of reach.

But when the tears finally slowed, and then stopped, he found that he felt better than he had in a long time, as though a monstrous weight had been lifted from him.  He sat upright again, not looking at Becca, and peered out the window at the blackness, at nothing.

“Better?” she asked.

He shrugged, nodded, still not looking at her.

She reached over, gently turned his face to hers.  “It’s okay,” she said.  “It’s all right.”

He felt a lump in his throat, and worried he might cry again.  But he didn’t.

“So,” she said, “you ready to talk about it now?”

He looked into the green eyes of this stranger, this scarred woman he had chanced to meet on his long way back to the studio apartment where he laid his head down to sleep each night.  Where he was running back to as a desperate man in search of a refuge.  But it wasn’t a refuge.  He knew that now.  It never had been.  He looked at this stranger who was no longer a stranger, this friend who had seen him more clearly than anyone ever had.  Even himself.

“Yeah,” he said.  “I think I am.”

****************

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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