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An Imaginary Life

Chapter 1- An Imaginary Life

“We’re closing now son.”

Jeremiah pulled himself reluctantly away from the battlefields of the civil war and glanced up at Ms. Moss. “Please just another minute, Mel? I just found an actual Union soldier’s journal entry from the day before Gettysburg!”

Melanie Moss, the archive historian, peered down her stubby nose at him and planted her hands on her hips. She stared hard at him. Jeremiah merely smiled. He knew he’d already won.

“Alright.” She said, huffing dramatically. “Five more minutes. Will you be wanting a scan of that one?”

Jeremiah shook his head. “No mam, thank you!” He turned eagerly back to the text before him, running a careful finger down the scanned image of a soldiers’ final journal entry.

The blisters on my foot have calmed down some today. Georgie’s salve really worked wonders. What I wouldn’t give for clean socks, though. Ma’d wallop me real good if she saw the state of my clothes now. But we aint had enough water these past two weeks to justify baths, let alone doing the washin’. Dirt is just something you learn to live with. My mouth tasks foul from the water we found yesterday but I don’t dare complain. Better than nothing.

Tomorrow we march to Gettysburg, the hamlet the Colonel tells us will win us the war.

The passage ended there. In the caption below was written: Excerpt from a Union soldier’s personal journal, Gettysburg, 1863.

No name, no indication of his hometown or life before the war.

Jeremiah, taking deep, slow breaths, gently stroked the scanned document, his eyes tightening as he gently mouthed the final sentence.

“Now, Mr. Atlas.” He jumped as Ms. Moss sternly told him off. Grinning sheepishly, he very gently closed the binding on the ancient book and replaced it on the shelf behind him.

“No chance I could see the original document, Ms. Moss?” He asked as respectfully as he could muster, opening his green eyes wide for a kind of puppy-dog pout.

She raised an eyebrow at him. “You know the archives are only open on…”

“I know…archives are accessible absolutely only on Thursdays.” He quipped. “Just thought I’d try my luck.”

Ms. Moss shook her head. “One would think with a head and tongue like yours, you’d be a lawyer boy.” She swatted at him. “Now get! I’m closing!”

Jeremiah grinned and dashed off, vaulting the table by the lockers just to prompt another shout from Ms. Moss. She adored him, she really did but he knew she liked to lock up early on Tuesdays so she could meet her daughter at soccer practice. He just couldn’t help himself.

Reaching the lockers by the entrance, he dug the key out of his pocket and opened number 4. His slim backpack fell out and he scooped it onto his back before dashing out the doors. He paused only to throw a hearty “see you tomorrow, Mel!” over his shoulder and hear her exasperated sigh in response. Then he was out the door and running.

The warm April air swallowed him and he breathed deeply, savoring the dust-free feel of the open air. As much as he loved the atmosphere of the archives with their ancient secrets, dusty texts, and hidden historical treasures, he lived for this feeling. He pulled his red beanie down tighter over his hair and bounced on the balls of his feet in anticipation.

Taking off at a sprint, he kicked off from the wall of the library and grabbed the low flagpole above the door. Swinging once or twice to gain momentum, he caught a glimpse of Mr. Andrews on the second floor. The historian only rolled his eyes and returned to whatever was occupying his attention on his computer. Jeremiah grinned to himself then swung off of the flagpole, arcing across the pavement. He ran along the wall of the community center opposite, using his momentum to gracefully make his way back to the ground. He wasn’t there long though. Picking up speed again, he raced towards a fence at the vacant lot, his black vest flapping and his sneakers squealing along the sidewalk. Jumping as high as he could, he grabbed for the chain link barrier and hauled himself over it in two fluid motions.

Dropping into the abandoned lot from the top of the fence, he rolled over his left shoulder, careful to avoid putting any weight on his backpack. The lot was in disarray, covered in last year’s garbage, and frequented by this year’s raccoons but he didn’t mind. Bowing slightly to a startled, spread-legged squirrel that stared at him like he was hell-spawn, Jeremiah set off again, his sneakers tearing into the dirt. When he reached the other fence, he readied himself to vault this one, wondering vaguely if he’d be able to do it one-handed this time. He’d almost succeeded last week and there was more light this time.

Jumping as high as he could, he stretched out his hand, the black bracelet on his wrist glinting in the late evening light. He smirked triumphantly…

Only to get clobbered in the face by something cold and wet.

Startled, he writhed in the air and smashed right into the fence, his body weight making it buckle slightly.

“What the hell? Who the fuck’s there?”

Still dazed, Jeremiah raised his head, his pounding heart catching up to him with a vengeance now that his free-run had been disrupted. He could feel a small cut on his cheek from the fence but no other injuries were apparent. He glanced behind him for the rogue flying object that had ruined his trajectory and spotted a tiny canvas packet on the ground, split open to reveal dark soil.

Confused, but now curious, he climbed the fence like a monkey.

A girl waited on the other side, glaring at him like a squirrel.

“What the hell were you doing in there?” She demanded, her sharp gray eyes piercing him.

Jeremiah shrugged, hanging over the top of the fence casually. “Running. What are you doing throwing things at me?”

She lobbed another canvas packet, this one deliberately at his head. He dodged it, giving her a wink. “Planting seeds, what does it look like?” She snapped, unaffected by his charm.

“That doesn’t look like gardening…” He replied, climbing up to sit on top of the swaying fence.

She looked away from him, intently tying another package closed. “That’s because it’s not. It’s called seed-bombing.” She chucked the packet at him but it missed by a few feet.

Jeremiah nodded his head in understanding. “Oh, so you’re bombing the bodacious, bungalow with bursts of beans?”

She glared at him. “Did that tiny packet of water, dirt, and clover make you stupid or are you trying to humor me? Because I don’t appreciate either.”

He slid down the unstable fence and rolled over his shoulder until he stood alongside her, bending his knees dramatically as he stood to his full height. He was a good few inches taller than her, he noted with pleasure. The girl backed away from him, her eyes narrowed at his muddy sneakers, perfectly white sweatshirt and dark jeans, his red vest and beanie. He took the opportunity to glance her over too.

He estimated her age at around his own, give or take a year. Still, 19 was a difficult age to place on more people. Even some of his mom’s friends told him he looked 23.

She was wearing an oversized gray sweater and faded jeans, both of which looked too big for her. Her long hair was sloppily pulled back into a messy bun and crammed underneath a faded Yankee baseball cap. She had a high forehead and strong cheekbones that only further highlighted her sharp little nose. All in all, she wasn’t exactly pretty but she wasn’t half-bad either.

“Well I am sorry not everyone appreciates the fine art of the alluring alliteration anymore.” Jeremiah replied, leaning casually against the fence. The girl ignored him, returning her focus to the last two seed-bombs, which she was pulling out of a ragged backpack.

“Appreciating an art is very different from recognizing one.” She replied after a few moments of silence, perhaps taking that time to form the perfect answer before she spoke. “If it can even be called an art. It’s annoying at the very least and wildly unnecessary at the worst.” She hefted her last two bombs and hurled them over the fence and into the lot. With a satisfied nod, she dusted off her hands, swung her backpack onto her back and turned away from him without another word.

Jeremiah hastily picked himself off the fence to follow her. As he jogged to catch up with her long strides, he noticed her pulling on a pair of thick dark gloves.

“Off to plant more seeds?” He asked her, looking pointedly at the gloves.

She pulled the last glove on with her teeth, tightening a strap to hold it in place. “No,” She said around the fabric, “I’m off to bomb a building and then give an old man who smells like vomit a hand job.”

He actually tripped at the conviction in her words. So badly that he had to stop walking and reorient himself. By the time he’d gotten himself back under control, she was at the end of the street and turning onto the next block.

He almost called after her, but the image of her cold words had his voice dying in his throat. Shuddering, he turned in the opposite direction and resumed his walk home. God, what a morbid girl. You’d think someone who cared enough about the environment to lob seeds in vacant lots would be a little nicer, especially when he’d just been trying to be nice.

Normally, he would have free-ran home, like he did every day after leaving the archives. But his feet didn’t want to run at the moment. Jeremiah tucked his hands into his vest pockets and strolled casually down Lofty Avenue. Bomb a building… He had to wonder if she’d really meant more of those odd seed-bombs. She seemed like the kind of person who would make that joke. But the way that she had said it almost made him think that…

An explosion interrupted his thoughts.

His feet stopped, his heart went still. Slowly, he turned his head towards the Gainsville Museum. A dark plume of smoke rose above it. Even from two blocks away, he could hear screaming.

Oh god…oh my god…

Before he’d even gotten a good look at the building, his feet were carrying him towards the flames, the wind whipping past him as he sprinted towards the danger.

He had always loved running.

***

Ms. Abigail Serenity was a woman of morals and boundless empathy. She could have told you the life story of the birds that came to peck at corn cobs outside her second story window. Children from all over came to her house on Sunday mornin’s, because they knew that’s when she took her fresh baking out of the oven. Sweet pies, scones, steaming loaves of bread, and cookies. She were so generous that by the time the children left, there’d be none for her.

But she never seemed to mind. Hers was a solitary life and she lived through others.

That was probably why she took in the child outside her door that one Sunday. It had been a crisp, autumn day and she’d made apple pie and pumpkin cookies for the begging village children. The girl had been among the others, begging for treats and mulling about. But she spoke to nobody, and when she did manage to grab a cookie, she hid it in the folds of her pants rather than eat it.

The child stayed and even though she tried to leave first thing next morning, Ms. Serenity had made waffles for breakfast and the child stayed. The old woman fancied herself the child’s keeper and set about trying to make her as happy as possible.

“Every girl needs a mama, an auntie and a best friend…” she used to say.

And she had endeavored to provide all three no matter how unresponsive the child was. She told the child stories and tucked her into bed at night and brought her toys from her attic. But the child wasn’t interested. Oh she listened and obeyed and said “yes ‘um” and please and thank you and the like but she was always distant. She never reciprocated a hug or initiated a touch.

Ms. Serenity pretended not to notice or care. She assumed the child would come to her in her own time. She clung to the hope that one day the girl would miraculously do an about face and become the perfect daughter.

She kept waiting.

Often the child would just stare at her as she sewed or baked, her eyes watching the tiniest movements with vivid fascination.

Ms. Serenity had this old thimble that she would fiddle with. Never use, but instead just fiddle. Like it were a worry stone or some kind of religious talisman that she had to have with her at all times. She would roll it between her long, spindly fingers, murmuring quiet-like to herself and twirling a strand of her gray hair around one finger endlessly. And whenever her musings or worrying or whatever were troubling her passed on, she’d tuck that thimble into her pocket and act like it meant nothing.

It had puzzled the child but she asked no questions about it. She never did.

But of course she couldn’t ignore it. It called to her, it all did. The house with its creaking floorboards, the rolling pin coated in sticky flour, the pins in Ms. Serenity’s hair, and most of all the thimble in her hands.

The dam broke innocuously enough. Ms. Serenity was forever plagued by missing items and she had always been a natural finder. So when the thimble vanished one day after Ms. Serenity had placed it down and forgotten about it, she was shocked to find the child offering it back to her with tears in her eyes. And when she asked the child what the matter were, she were shocked to hear her ask, real quiet: who’s Jane?

And once the dam were broken, there was no stoppin’ the flood waters. Ms. Serenity cried and cried at first, then she demanded an answer. And when the girl couldn’t give one, she fetched one of Jane’s old teddy bears and held it out to the child. Then she fetched her old rag doll. Then her baby teeth.

The child could tell her everything: the date, the color of the dress little Jane had been wearing, the exact words that were spoken. So the toys came out of the attic, the clothes were dusted off their shelves, the pictures came out of the albums. All of them were thrust at the child, demandin’ that she look, see, touch and tell.

Ms. Abigail had knowed her memory weren’t so good no more. But she’d never imagined that she’d forgot what had been most important to her.

And now that the memories were comin’ back, she had to have more of them. She had to feel them feelings again, see things again, to convince herself that her memories weren’t gonna go away again. No matter how the child begged or cried or pleaded “no more! No more!” she couldn’t stop. It were all she had left now: a treasure that she had forgot had once been hers.

So focused had she become on the girl, that she had forgone all the other children. No more fresh treats on Sundays, no old stories or kind smiles. She had grown bitter and twisted now, and yelled at youngins to get off her property. To stay away from her precious memories and let her be with Jane. She forgot how to be kind.

So when the child vanished, so did her memories. They up and left her too, leaving nothing but a faint imprint in her mind, devoid of any happiness or satisfaction. And no matter how hard she searched, she never found the little silver thimble her daughter had choked on all them years ago.

***

The woman with the gray eyes watched dispassionately as the museum went up in flames. It was burning quite nicely, the smoke was very sparse and wispy. Not at all like the last one. That one had been a black boil of pus. She grimaced as a fire truck sped past her, its alarms wailing. She hated alarms.

It might actually get there in time to save the structure. But there was little hope for what was inside.

Ah well.

Stowing the thimble in the pocket of her jeans, she turned on her heel and stalked away from the smoke. Her thoughts swam with memories of an old woman who smelt of cloves and flour and fear and repressed rage. She felt a knot of cool, hard metal clogging her throat that even though she knew wasn’t there, she kept trying to swallow away.

If only such a sensation had never been felt. If only the small metal object in her pocket had ever done its intended purpose, rather than found itself caught in a young girl’s trachea. If only she’d never stolen it and given in to her curiosity.

She tightened her grip on her final seed packet, feeling the thin, bio-degradable material split under her touch. Seeds and dirt filled her palm, their young lives filling her head with sensations of coolness, patience, and fortitude.

It was oddly comforting, it always had been within this deluge.

She continued on her way, strolling aimlessly down the streets of whatever city was called home now. It was distracting enough. If she ever wanted a break, she could always don the gloves and the sensations would subside maliciously. But she could not forget, she never forgot.

Her gait paused as she reached the sloping fence where the squirrel-boy with the annoying alliterations and ridiculous red beanie had harassed her. A slight pang of envy ran though her, an emotion that was as foreign as a thimble caught in a throat.

His life…running, enjoying the sensations…she could have had that life. Fewer than two years before it had been presented to her, she would have welcomed it, grasped it and never let it go. She would have been able to ignore the occasional flashes of insight, push them to the back of her mind until her power faded, until her extra sense was nothing but a childhood fantasy, a delusion she had created, like an imaginary friend.

But it had come too late. And life had passed her by like a fleeting dream, leaving only the memories she carried and the metallic taste of death in her mouth.


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