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Pariah of the Little People

By Alex Beyman All Rights Reserved ©

Drama / Fantasy

Pariah of the Little People

The first big lie I discovered was “it gets better”. They tell you that so you’ll keep going, like a carrot dangled in front of a crippled mule. Mom and Dad thought it’d be different at the new school. All new kids, nobody knew me, a chance to start over with a clean slate.

“Don’t worry, they’re all Christians here.” I might’ve figured that out for myself, because as we approached I spied a sizable cross protruding from the top of the building. I felt some amount of guarded optimism then.

I was never exposed to much church type stuff until Mom found religion in a big way upon becoming pregnant with what will soon be my baby brother. So far, all I really know about Christianity is that Mom says it turns bad people into good ones. Sounds like what the world needs more of if you ask me.

When Dad found out there’d be a new mouth to feed, he said he wanted to turn a new page in our lives. That meant moving us all into a new, larger house. One I learned by eavesdropping on their occasional fights that he can’t really afford on top of the baby. He keeps saying he’ll make it work. I don’t see how, but Dad’s a smart guy. He must have some plan I don’t know about.

The next big lie, really just a variant of the first one, is “time heals all wounds”. It doesn’t. There’s a point of diminishing returns past which the pain does not continue to measurably shrink, but it’s small enough that you’re functional. Like a toothache or a splinter, but in your heart.

There are brief, precious periods during which something else distracts me enough that I truly forget it’s there for a while. But when it’s over, it trickles back to the forefront of my mind. Jennifer. “It’s just a crush, you’re too young to really love anybody” Dad told me, imagining that would somehow help. But reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, does not go away.

I still love Jennifer. I’m not supposed to. I know enough about how this sort of thing works to recognize that I should’ve moved on by now. It’s not healthy to linger, but I am powerless to forget. She’s there whenever I close my eyes, in searing detail. Every last strand of golden hair, every little freckle.

She’s there when I dream too. That’s what really hurts. Because there, she loves me. I have no defense against this, as of course I don’t realize I’m dreaming. I would be content to stay there forever, but I must eventually awaken. Oblivious, in those first few seconds, to who I am and what’s happened.

But the memories return soon enough. I rocket through the five stages of loss in a matter of seconds. In a very real sense, she leaves me every day. And the pain is as fresh and visceral each morning as it was when it actually happened. If only she’d stay out of my dreams! I am haunted by the living, and see no prospect of escape.

I hang onto things. It’s in my diverse portfolio of character flaws. Uncle Michael once told me a riddle and made me swear not to look up the answer. I was at it for several weeks, thoughts consumed with the matter day in, day out. I finally blurted out the answer one night at the dinner table, having suddenly figured it out while eating.

We pulled into a parking space and I piled out of the car, fully laden book bag straining uncomfortably at my shoulders. “Be on your best behavior” Mom whispered. “When am I not?” In answer, she scowled. Then licked her thumb and used it to wipe some unseen dirt from my face.

How easy to just go and do something to somebody else like that. I’ve never been able to make it clear to her how much of an ordeal even small interactions with another person are for me by comparison. Dad would tell me I’m whining, and that whiners get nothing, quitters get even less. So I endure it quietly as she herds me into the little office.

As I shed my pack, I envision little people easing it to the ground with great complex scaffoldings and cranes. Then moving it along on rollers, teams of twenty or so pulling on each carefully woven miniature rope. “I’ve heard a lot about you from your mother and father, young man!” The grownup addressing me is tall, bespectacled and balding. His every movement, however subtle, is uncannily rigid.

I reluctantly extend my hand towards his. Imagining it is a false wooden hand the little fellows built, extended on my behalf by crank driven scissor jack mechanism. That I might be spared the discomfort.

“Why don’t you tell me a little about yourself and why you’d like to attend our fine school.” I realized he was prompting me and froze. When free to formulate my thoughts, I can readily explain them. But when put in the spotlight… “I...suppose...I’m hoping there will be nice kids here I can make friends with.”

He seemed delighted, though it proved difficult to discern his true feelings as the more I spoke to him, the more I realized he always looks like that. Big smile, immaculate white teeth, eyes wide as though excited about everything. So long as he’s not frowning, I must be doing well.

It’s Russian roulette to try and guess what they want to hear. I used to think it was easier just to speak my mind. I owe many of my worst days to that naive decision, but at the time felt I’d rather be rejected for who I am and what I think than embraced for some carefully cultivated false impression. I didn’t realize then that being able to tell the truth is a luxury I wouldn’t always be able to afford.

“That’s as good a reason as any. And indeed, our students live their lives by the teachings of Jesus Christ, our lord and savior. Whatever troubles you may have had at...secular institutions….” His voice dripped with disdain for a moment. “...Will be but a distant memory, like a half remembered nightmare once you’re settled in here.” Just what I wanted to hear. Which troubled me, as I know what that usually means.

But, not wanting to sour the occasion nor to make enemies before I even started my first class, I mustered as much cheer as I’ve ever been able to. Not really a lie so much as an exaggeration, I told myself. It really did sound like an improvement to hear him tell it. The prospect of a school free of ogres powerfully enticed me.

“There’s just the matter of the statement of faith”. He slid a paper across the desk to me along with a fountain pen. I carefully read it all, then scratched my head. “I dunno if I believe most of this.” His formerly bright, immaculate smile now faded as the corners of his mouth crept downwards. Looking over at my mother, I discovered she too did not expect such a reply. I must’ve really put my foot in it somehow as there were tears in her eyes.

It began to dawn on me then that all of this, the school, the move and so on, was being done to me rather than for me. Nobody ever asked what I wanted, rather the plan had long since been finalized and now I was being wedged into it whether or not I fit. I must’ve appeared lost in thought as the suited fellow once again asked me to explain, in my own words, why it is I want to attend this school.

Deceit is a practical life skill they really ought to teach you early on. It turns out lies make for a powerful social lubricant. I’ve also learned recently that honesty is worse than useless when you’re dealing with people who all but demand that you lie to them. Who often will punish you if you don’t. So I carefully formulated my next sentence, balancing what they wanted to hear with what I could stomach saying.

“I don’t really know what I believe, never thought about that much. All I know is that for most of my life, with only a few exceptions, the world around me and everybody in it has seemed hostile and poisonous. I don’t know where my home is but I’m not a native of this place, I’ve never felt like I belong here. When I seek out people with the power to help, I instead find them aligned against me. I often wish I had an ally, stronger than any of them.”

No reaction was apparent for several seconds, save for his inscrutable, news anchor style empty grin. He simply studied my face, hands arched on the desk before him. Then at once his tone of voice changed. As best I could tell, he was sincerely pleased with my answer.

“That’s good enough for me! Young man, I think you’re in exactly the right place. I’ll save this form for you. If I’m right, before long you will sign it wholeheartedly and with as complete an understanding of why as we can give you.”

With that he folded up the form, tucked it into a manilla envelope, then stashed it in his desk. It was a tense ride home, though I couldn’t figure out why. I’d apparently said the right words. Perhaps they knew that’s what I did and were upset? Mom turned back once, eyes still a bit puffy, to remind me that I’d promised to be on my best behavior. Hadn’t I been?

I spent the afternoon as I often do as of late, searching the field and charred remains of the forest for miniature settlements. Finding none, I’d begun to fashion my own. Breaking up twigs to the appropriate size, painstakingly building little chairs, beds, cabins and the like. Hoping I might persuade them to return. Couldn’t imagine what someone might think if they should happen upon me during the act. Probably that I’ve lost it.

The third big lie is “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. Like how a broken bone heals to become sturdier than before. Not so with the heart or mind! Asylums and cemetaries are filled with evidence to the contrary.

As I put the finishing touches on another little cabin, my mind helplessly dwelled on memories of Jennifer. Of that single, cherished Summer for which life loaned her to me, only to then snatch her away for good. I am past those desperate, pathetic fantasies that she will somehow return to me one day. If I wait ten, twenty, fifty years for her heart to miraculously change. But I still hurt.

I was never a strong person. Like a damaged spiderweb, a sandcastle or ship in a bottle, even the most skillful repair attempts can’t restore it to exactly how it was. With no option to start over, I could only feebly set about rebuilding the collapsed parts of myself as best I could. A rickety patchwork, barely functional, and liable to be destroyed by a stiff breeze.

My fault of course. Many things are. I’d come out of my shell and finally begun to connect with another human being. To grow around her like a tree grows around a boulder, such that it becomes a critical structural element. A load bearing pillar that, once removed, leaves the tree irreparably weakened and not long for the world.

That hollow space has a very particular shape that nothing else will fit into. However my parents insisted I would heal, I just never improved. What little confidence I’d accumulated until then blew away like the ashes of the burning forest. Maybe that’s why they won’t appear to me now.

Their settlement is still in the lake. When I bike over there at night I can see lights down there, so somebody’s home. The pier is intact, there are occasionally boats or submarines docked, but they don’t come out. I sometimes catch a glimpse of their faces through the submarine portholes or the window of the adjacent shack, waiting patiently for me to leave before resuming work.

During my last visit I found something new next to the pier. A three inch tall statue of me holding aloft the baseball bat, Winston at my side. When I visited Winston’s grave in the remains of the woods, a similar statue stood atop it. So they remember! Perhaps as a legend now? I don’t blame them if they don’t believe in me anymore. Neither do I.

As we pulled into the driveway, Dad told me he wanted help unloading some stuff from the back. I peered over the seat and sure enough there were three crates of what the logo identified as motor oil stacked behind me. “That’s a lot of oil. Do we really need that much?” He lightened up a little, laughing at my apparently foolish question.

“It’s not for us. I’m going to sell it. With your baby brother on the way I took on a second job to pay for all the stuff we’ll need.” Mom beamed at him and cooed about what a hairy chested breadwinner he is. It was terribly heavy and even a single crate was about my limit. Nonetheless I managed to move two out of the three from the garage to the master bedroom without help.

He explained it all to us over dinner. “It was a heck of a bargain, only fifty bucks plus the cost of the oil to get started. I bought a lot because they said to make the big bucks you’ve got to go all in. Dave recruited me, so he gets a small cut of my sales. But I also get a cut from the sales of anybody I recruit. The more people you bring in the more money you make, and everybody gets to be their own boss.”

Mom’s eyes sparkled as she listened. She said it sounded too good to be true, but was plainly already sold on the idea. I wondered aloud why, if it was so ideal, everybody didn’t do it. They both became quiet and Dad frowned at me. “Wait and see, Mr. Negative. They warned me about naysayers, I can deal with that. I don’t wanna have to in my own home though.”

He had me there. I’m hardly an optimist, anyway. Mom told me to head upstairs and load all the additional school supplies she’d recently bought into my already overloaded backpack. I had a lot of fun with it, thinking about the prospect of starting at a whole new school the next day. All too soon! A tornado of butterflies twisted up my stomach. Equal parts excited and apprehensive.

Somehow the butterflies only multiplied overnight. It was tough to keep my cereal down on the drive over. I resolved to have fun, first and foremost. Whatever was different or unfamiliar, I would embrace it. Do as the Romans do! Even try to be the best at it and make some friends along the way. “I learned so much from my old school” I thought, “All I have to do is not make the same mistakes here.”

The principal met me in the parking lot and stiffly escorted me to the cafeteria, where I’d just missed breakfast. No big tragedy to me as I was far too nauseous to eat. He introduced me, the familiar agony gripping my body as all eyes in the room studied me for any flaw however small. I’ve long since learned to always be vigilant for attacks that can come at any time and from any direction.

Then some of them smiled. Briefly, it occurred to me that I might be misreading their intentions. It was only a room full of other students, after all. They looked either friendly or indifferent, none of them menacing as of yet. So I scolded myself for assuming the worst and picked a table to sit down at.

Naturally I picked the one with the prettiest girl. It happened as though on autopilot and I regretted it even as I began to sit, remembering what sort of trouble I’d invited. It turns out I’d gotten well ahead of myself though, as she initially wouldn’t even let me sit there. “Ew” she muttered. “Go sit over there.” She gestured dismissively to a table with no obvious open seats.

“It’s...It’s full up” I whispered. “I don’t mean any disrespect. I’d just like to sit.” She heaved out a disgusted sigh. “Fine, whatever. But don’t look at me.” So I didn’t. It proved difficult, as she really was intensely lovely. A shocking sensation to feel after all this time, in spite of my conviction that I was no longer capable of it.

Scandalous how little control we have over that. The body just picks someone out of the crowd and decides that’s who it wants, wrestling the uncooperative brain into submission using hormones. However you consciously know that it’s a poor choice, the body just indifferently plows ahead until it tumbles over a cliff.

“Don’t mind Heather. She’s like that to everybody. My name’s Tyler.” A very sharply dressed, distressingly skinny boy next to her extended his hand. I took it and shook vigorously, relieved to be welcomed by anyone.

Though he had a crooked nose, his hair was immaculately combed, his teeth sparkled when he smiled and I glimpsed a pink plastic barrette behind one of his ears. “That’s a nice hair clip. Is that a butterfly on it?” He froze and looked panicked. The principle turned to look at us, then came over.

“We talked about this Tyler. You know I’ll have to tell your father.” He plucked the hair clip from the boy’s head and pocketed it. “If you have any more, tell me now.” Tyler’s lip quivered. I couldn’t understand why a piece of plastic was such a big deal. When the principal left, Tyler appeared resentful until I apologized and insisted I didn’t remotely understand what just happened.

“It’s alright, I believe you. That was my favorite though.” He got up looking morose, and took his empty tray up to the counter for washing. Heather snickered. Here for five minutes and I’d already upset someone. A personal record. Keen to make friendly conversation that the incident might be forgotten, I looked around for some clue as to what the popular fads were at this school.

“There’s no Pocket Creatures” I said absentmindedly. The boy next to me, spotty faced and with a patchy mustache beginning to come in, explained that Pocket Creatures are based on evolution. I pretended that explanation made perfect sense to me and, with some sense of what they didn’t like, moved on to ascertaining what they did. Every other student had a Bible open on the table before them.

That was someplace to start. “So, the Bible huh. There’s a lot of stuff about the concept of God that makes me wonder. Like, what is God made out of?” Mustache kid looked at me like I had two heads.

“That’s a silly question” he asserted. Oh, so it’s common knowledge? But when I pressed him for the answer, he clarified that the question itself wasn’t valid. “God’s not made out of anything. God is just God, don’t overthink it.”

How could something not made out of anything exist? It didn’t line up for me. “So wait, how does God receive our prayers if he’s not made out of anything but we are? A prayer is brain activity, our brains are made out of atoms, so-” Mustache kid cut me short, informed me that you simply pray and God hears it, then called me a weirdo.

That seemed to settle the matter for him, but I’d never actually gotten an answer. So it excited me to learn that the next class would involve Bible reading followed by writing a short essay about what we read. Finally, some real answers! We filed into a classroom that a sign on the wall informed me was “core”, the general purpose room most of our classes would be held in.

Before I sat down, the teacher informed me there was “assigned seating”. That explained why everybody paused to study a wall chart on the way in. The concept delighted me as I could see how it would break up the disruptive cliques that otherwise form. But it also meant that should I make any friends, I’d not be able to sit next to them consistently. Fair trade, I concluded.

Once seated according to the chart, I and the other students were instructed to open our Bibles to Genesis. As it was the start of a new school year, she explained for the new students, we’d start with the first book of the Bible and progress through it at the rate of one full reading per year.

I love to read. It’s one of my precious few escapes from monster world. A good book is a kind of nourishment, so the prospect of immersing myself in what looked to be the thickest one I’d read to date tantalized me. At school, no less! We were to remain silent during this period too, a nice respite after the relative bustle of the cafeteria.

However, right away I spotted problems. The narrative laid out an order of the creation of the universe which even I knew to be wrong. The Earth was created before the sun and all other stars in this story, birds before land animals, plants before sea creatures as well a number of other, smaller errors. I raised my hand to ask the teacher about it, but when she came over she just told me to include the questions in my essay.

So I did. Anticipating eventual clarification, not the trip to the principal’s office that I got. I’d turned in my essay nearly an hour ago and was enjoying an interesting history lesson when a teacher’s aid appeared in the doorway and beckoned to me, frowning. Some of the other students looked at me the way they tend to when they know you’re in trouble.

“Would you care to explain what led you to write this?” The principal peered at me over his bifocals as I fidgeted nervously, dwarfed by the swiveling leather chair I sat in. “I dunno. We were told to read as much of the Bible as we could in an hour and write down our thoughts, so I did.” He sighed, then stared expectantly as if I’d been obtuse.

“I agreed to give you a chance here under the assumption that you’d make a sincere effort to grow, spiritually. These answers come from a place of rebellion. A boy your age is in no position to say that the inspired word of God is wrong about anything. I fear your thinking may be backwards.”

I explained that the sun could not have originated after the Earth as planets form by gravity building up discs of captured debris and dust around them which gradually amass into planets. “And has anybody seen this happen?” he pried. I said that in fact they have, and photographs of distant accretion discs taken by space probes could be easily found online. This only further incensed him for some reason.

“What you’re doing is looking at the world through a secular lens which assumes no creator exists. That’s the starting point of the atheistic false scientists who’ve made such a mess of our country.” To me, that seemed to be the conclusion which observation led them to rather than their initial assumption, but I bit my tongue as he continued.

“Instead, use the Bible as your starting point. Look at the world through a Biblical lens, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit.” I asked if he meant I should first assume the contents of the Bible are true, then fit everything else I encounter into that framework. He perked up. “Yes, that’s it exactly. But it is not an assumption, it is a fact.” I asked how he knew this, and was instructed to have faith. It was a frustrating non-answer, like the one I’d gotten from that kid in the cafeteria.

When I returned to class I found I’d completely missed the rest of the section on the Roman aqueduct and other crude technologies. It really put me out as the topic fascinates me. I recalled building similar contraptions for the Homunculi settlement. The smile that it brought to my face was swiftly erased by resurgent memories of the forest fire. I suppose sometimes you can’t have the good without the bad.

As I studied the textbook before me, I imagined teams of little fellows swarming all over it, taking notes before cooperating to laboriously turn each page. Some cried out as the falling page draped over them and despite myself, I chuckled. It elicited a strange look from the girl next to me. When I returned my gaze to the book, they were gone.

So instead I peered out the windows. A whole wall was comprised of them, inviting distraction. The field of tall, dry grass waved as a gentle wind tossed it about. On one side, the parking lot. On the other, a playground with a small forest immediately next to it. The only divider was a modest wall of stone blocks perhaps up to my waist, easy enough to surmount.

Something jumped out at me from the corner of my vision. A detail of the field I’d overlooked at first. I looked over it again and again. Until I noticed some strange tangled mass near the center, laying atop the grass. Somebody’s kite? A model airplane, maybe. The teacher’s shrill command to return my attention to the front of the room interrupted my speculation. Oh well, it can wait until recess.

The textbook cover read “A.C.E: Accelerated Christian Education”. Sounds good to me I thought, seeing no downside to learning more quickly than usual. The font looked larger than I’m accustomed to, and each page was replete with cartoon illustrations.

Some took the form of two or three panel comic strips stressing the virtue of obedience. “You cleaned your room so well!” a mother says to her daughter. She replies “Yes, I am glad I obeyed. Obedience makes everyone happy. Can we go to Bible study now?”

A few were pretty abstract by comparison. The one that caught my eye depicted some sort of laughable amalgam of animal parts with a caption that read “The missing link???” What did the artist mean by it? I knew of no such creature proposed by science and couldn’t see how anything remotely like it could fit into established taxonomy.

Other strips depicted conversations between eerily wide eyed children in old fashioned clothing with a sort of forced quality to the dialogue. Not the sort of conversation anybody would ever actually have, but the one the artist wanted to portray for whatever reason.

“Tommy, may I introduce you to my best friend, Jesus?” The other boy excitedly welcomed it without question, though Jesus was not physically present to meet with anybody. There was no punchline and I wondered if the author had forgotten partway through that comics are supposed to be funny.

Another below featured a woman holding a bundle of several protest signs, hair frazzled. Her infant daughter sat at her feet, asking “Mommy, now that you’re liberated, who's going to feed me?” I didn’t get any of ‘em so far, so I gave up on it. The relentless focus on total obedience unsettled me for reasons I could not yet articulate.

“Now at the time”, the teacher explained, “it was falsely believed that the Earth was flat. This is just what the scientists of the day believed. They keep getting it wrong, but still want us to believe them. It was also widely believed by scientists that flies and maggots are spontaneously generated from within meat. This was their theory of how life began, later renamed the theory of evolution.”

None of that seemed right. To my knowledge, science didn’t exist until relatively recently in history unless very loosely defined as “attempts to figure things out”. On top of which I’d recently read a detailed description of a flat Earth covered by the vault of the sky, within which the sun and the moon move the book of Genesis. Somehow I doubted science was to blame for that particular error. But she pressed on.

“Today we are meant to believe that all life originated from rocks. Rocks! That one day, nothing exploded, then pieces of it started circling around each other for no reason. Then lightning struck a slimy puddle on the early Earth and some rocks in it came to life, turning into fish, then frogs, then lizards, then mice, then monkeys. And then us! From goo to you, by way of the zoo!”

Everyone else laughed at the last part but I only sat there staring, intensely disturbed by the spectacle. Either the blind leading the blind, or willful deceit. “This belief that we’re only animals, that man can be his own God and nothing matters, is responsible for every ill in the world today. Before long, if we’re to save this sin cursed nation, Godly men will have to rise up and take control of it back from the secular humanists.”

I’d never heard of secular humanism before then, but based on the tone she took while talking about it, I assumed it must be something like a mixture of leprosy, acid and angry bees. “Besides which, it doesn’t even stand up to the simplest questioning! Like for example, if human beings came from monkeys...then why are there still monkeys?”

More laughing followed. The discontent percolating within me until then finally boiled over. I simply couldn’t sit there listening to lies forever without saying something. “It was apes”. The teacher was the only one to hear me over the laughter.

“Could you speak up?” I hesitated. I don’t do well when under the spotlight. But standing there, wondering whether to continue, I recalled something I once read in a book given to me by my father: “Speak the truth, even if your voice shakes”.

So I did, firmly asserting that humans descended from apes and in fact taxonomically still are apes. Also that we did not come from modern monkeys but rather share a common ancestor with them. “Other primates still exist for the same reason that wolves still exist even though we have dogs now”, I concluded.

Several awkward seconds of silence passed. Basic science was always something Dad made sure I knew alot about, as his Dad also made it a focus when he was my age. It’s why my birthday and Christmas gifts have always tended to be educational. Little model steam engines, telescopes, crystal radio kits, stuff like that. I wondered now if it’d been a mistake.

That’s when I first heard it. A low, experimental chant at first. As if she was testing the water. Heather from lunch, I think. “Monkey boy” she said. “Monkey boy. Monkey boy. Monkey boy.” Other students near her began chanting as well, and it took on a rhythmic quality. “Mon-key-boy! Mon-key-boy! Mon-key-boy! Mon-key-boy!”

I looked around in horror as it spread. Tears welling up despite every effort to hold them back, my worst fear now realized. “MON-KEY-BOY! MON-KEY-BOY! MON-KEY-BOY! MON-KEY-BOY!” Everyone was doing it. Jeering, pointing, laughing at me for being so foolish as to suggest that humans descended from apes.

A sort of mania took hold. Maximum possible humiliation, the likes of which I thought I’d finally escaped by coming here. The frail shadow of confidence I’d painstakingly rebuilt until now burst into a cloud of splinters and dust, as though struck by the shockwave from a nuclear blast. Unable to endure any more of it, I ran from the room, their chant growing fainter behind me with every frantic stride.

Why run? There’s no escape. I should know that by now. Where could I go? I’d eventually grow hungry and have to return home. Mom and Dad would then make me return to school. Anywhere else and the police would be sent to find me, with the same result. My instincts now firmly in the driver’s seat, I went someplace familiar and comfortable.

The woods proved denser and more vast than they appeared from the classroom earlier. Easy enough to get lost in, but that’s exactly what I meant to do. I nearly missed the little hole in the stone wall as I began to climb it. But even in that state, my eye for detail demanded that I look more closely. So, wiping my tears away, I knelt before the wall and scrutinized what I discovered to be a tiny door.

It was of superb craftsmanship that I’d recognize anywhere. And as I looked, I caught a brief glimpse of a worried, suspicious face peering back at me through the inset window. Anybody else would overlook it. Indeed they must’ve, but the question remained how any little people wound up here.

Behind me I saw stirring near the front office, adults talking to one another excitedly and gesturing towards the woods. I could guess what it was about, and wasn’t in the least bit ready to return to that room. To their piercing laughter and chants. So I vaulted over the wall, and was soon deep enough in the woods that I could no longer see the school or the field.

The terror gripping me until then began to subside, replaced by a feeling of relief and momentary safety. I knew anxiety would eventually set in as I contemplated the punishment awaiting me, but just then I felt enveloped by a temporary pocket of protection and calm.

I took the opportunity to survey the damage inside, rifling through the shattered pieces, overwhelmed by the task of fitting them back together. I would never be ready to return, I decided. But I knew I’d have to.

That’s when I saw it dangling between the treetops. An odd little multi-story birdhouse, or something like it, suspended by fishing line strung between the trees. As I searched for more signs of their presence I also noticed finely crafted little doors in the bases of the trees, tucked in among their roots. Falling back on the places they knew to be relatively safe, either above or below the human eyeline.

“I knew you’d come here.” I whirled around ready to fight. But it was only Tyler, so I reluctantly lowered my fists. “Wanna know how?” He didn’t wait for me to guess. “This is also where I used to come to cry until they figured it out. They don’t let you get away. That’s rebellion. They’re not far. If you don’t want to be found yet, follow me.”

I reflected soberly on the fact that I’d just met Tyler that morning. I had very little reason to trust him. But I did hear adult voices approaching and as he extended his hand, smiling warmly, something in his eyes disarmed me. So I took a chance. Scolding myself for it even as we ran through the trees towards the field, wondering at what point he’d suddenly turn on me. But he never did.

The tall grass, which I discovered on the way is replete with praying mantises, concealed our passage into the field where we soon came upon a weeping willow. Its dangling branches proved thick enough to obscure the hollow space behind them, and the tall grass around it compounded this effect such that it made a serviceable hideout.

We parted the willow branches, ducked inside, then shot one another a conspiratorial grin as we listened to the distant sound of adults searching fruitlessly in the woods. I thanked him. “It’s okay. I thought this might happen after the stuff you said at breakfast. But you’ve really gotta be stronger than that if you’re gonna make it here.”

I told him I’d been led to believe this place would be different. He seemed astonished. “Isn’t it much worse at secular schools?” I shook my head. “About the same. This is exactly the sort of thing I used to deal with every day.”

He gave me a knowing look, then took my hand in his as if to comfort me. “It was pretty awful for me early on, until I learned to say what they want and act how I’m supposed to.” The two of us sat there for a while in silent contemplation.

“Hey, I’m gonna duck out for a second.” He advised against it, but I insisted. “Don’t worry, I won’t let them see me. There’s something I have to check.” With that I emerged from the willow tree, surveyed the field and chose the route with the tallest grass. It was circuitous and I had to sweep clinging mantises off my pant legs a few times, but I eventually arrived at the strange wreckage I spotted earlier.

I won’t say I suspected it. But I hoped. And there it lay, the busted up remains of a sky house. Very much like the ones I saw the little folk escape the forest fire with, but with noticeable improvements. For one thing it had a set of four small, flexible solar panels of the sort campers sometimes use radiating from the main body on long, spindly wooden arms.

Now hopelessly broken of course. As I picked through the wreckage I found that they at least salvaged the batteries. The immense deflated remains of the balloon which once held it aloft lay crumpled up to one side. Fire damage to the house itself suggested it was an emergency landing, they must’ve headed for the wall and the woods from here.

That explained why they didn’t bother to bring the surviving solar panels as they’re of no use in a forest anyway. I wished I knew more but didn’t have the time to pick through the remains more thoroughly, so I dragged as much of it as I could carry back to the willow tree.

“Woah! Where’d you find that?” I told him I found it in the middle of the field. While he inspected it and muttered something about craftsmanship, I peered out through the branches to check on the progress of our pursuers. Instead it seemed recess had begun. The other students were playing football in the parking lot, swinging on the swingset, gossiping by the water fountain and so forth.

Surely the adults wouldn’t just give up? Maybe they figured we’d show ourselves eventually if it seemed safe. At any rate, we could hardly live out the rest of our lives under that tree, so after some negotiation we settled on trying to mix in with the other students. At least that way we’d elude punishment until the end of recess.

However, a different sort of punishment awaited us. The chant started back up even before I arrived on the playground, growing louder as I drew near and more of them joined in. “Look who he’s with!” a tall, thin boy with curly red hair called out. “What were you two doing out in the field?” Heather grinned. “I bet I know what they were doing. Tyler, you perv.” Baffling. What could she mean?

“They were doing it in the tree, like monkeys! Monkey boy and Tyler, monkey boy and Tyler, monkey boy and Tyler!” The redheaded boy chimed in. “That’s why they call it faggot-tree.” The playground erupted in raucous laughter and my legs began to weaken. It never takes much. My first day and I’d already ruined things somehow. Through hot, bitter tears I struggled to pinpoint where I’d taken the first wrong turn.

Then something strange happened. Something new. Tyler boldly stood between me and the rest of them, like the lone telephone pole which is not toppled by a hurricane. “Look at yourselves. Are you Christlike? Isn’t it the meek who will inherit the Earth? You’re casting many stones, but are any of you without sin?”

Heather asked how Tyler could lecture them about sin when he likes boys. That’s when I put it together for the first time. Nobody ever explained what fag meant, I’d always taken it for a general purpose insult.

I’m ashamed to say that it sent my mind back to when he held my hand under the willow tree, and I felt mildly uncomfortable. The unfamiliar tends to. But to see Tyler throw himself to the lions for my sake quickly banished that feeling, replaced by tearful gratitude.

“You should let him speak” Heather suggested. “Don’t let a homo fight all his battles. I wanna hear him explain how human beings can come from rocks.” That got my attention, as I’m sure she knew it would. I could never leave that sort of thing alone.

“Nobody ever said we come from rocks. He might be talking about the hypothesis that precursors to organic molecules originated by mineral chemistry. But abiogenesis isn’t the same thing as evolution in the first place.”

Heather looked mildly impressed but the rest just became irritated. “That’s a lot of five dollar words. You think you know everything, don’t you. You think you’re better than everybody else.” I protested that it wasn’t rare knowledge but something anybody could look up on the internet, and advised them to do it when they got home.

“That teacher was lying to you” I insisted. “Saying crazy things and calling it evolution. I don’t know why. There’s a lot I don’t understand about this place. They told me everyone would be kinder here. So far the only one like that is Tyler. I don’t care if he likes boys. I’d trade a thousand of you for one of him.”

Heather raised her immaculate eyebrows. "Would you look at that" she remarked, "the monkey boy has evolved into a monkey man". The rest didn't take it so well, swiftly closing in around us. Tyler put up his fists, likely for the millionth time since he started here. I wonder if that’s how his nose got crooked. 

Before it could get any worse, the adults found us. I was seized by the neck and frog marched to the principal’s office, where I had a feeling I’d be spending a lot of time from now on. I didn’t see where they took Tyler.

“Twice in one day. Not promising.” Once again I sank into the swiveling leather chair as the balding, bespectacled principal stared me down with that unflinching smile of his. “I’m told that you defended evolutionism to the other students, and claimed that our faculty is a pack of liars. That’s quite serious, you realize.” I didn’t actually. Searching my memory, I couldn’t see how I’d been in the wrong, so I said as much.

The principal sighed deeply and bridged his fingers. “I’m not too upset about the evolutionism business. You’ve been brainwashed by the secular media. It’s only your first day. In time, you’ll learn better. But I’ve also heard you went out in the field for some time with Tyler. May I ask what you were doing there?” I recounted how we’d fled the woods and waited out the search under the willow tree.

“Did Tyler try to kiss or touch you at any point?” I told him we briefly held hands. Not wanting to incriminate Tyler but also not wanting to lie. I asked why that was a problem. “Son, there’s a lot you don’t understand. I still think you came to the right place, now more than ever. But you’ll have to accept that you are not in charge here. You don’t decide what’s a problem. We’ll tell you.

In Tyler’s case, it’s a sickness. But you cannot see it, because it’s a sickness of the mind. Someone with the same sickness undoubtedly came and abused him sexually when he was little, passing the condition on to him. That’s how it spreads. They get to you when you’re young and impressionable, and put wrong ideas into your head about who you should be attracted to. That’s how they increase their numbers.

In order to correct it, we need everyone around him to be unanimous in their rejection of his sin. A united front. Do you understand? If there’s anybody who tolerates it, he’ll take that as validation. It only works if he is alone in his sin and the community of his peers condemns it.”

It seemed to me that in fact this school existed primarily to put wrong ideas into the heads of impressionable young people in order to increase the membership of their religion. Somebody like that teacher got to them when they were little and told them things they shouldn’t have, conditioning them to be this way. But I knew better than to say so just then.

“I don’t want to hear about any more outbursts like the one today. I also can’t let you leave here with a slap on the wrist. We recently brought someone new onboard, a child psychologist. I’d like to have you spend some time after school with him each day. You can say no, but I guarantee you won’t like the alternative.”

When he put it that way, it was a no brainer. I didn’t relish being detained after school as it cut into my alone time, which I now craved more desperately than ever. But I also had no interest in discovering what sort of creative punishments these people might devise for a troublesome naysayer.

As he droned on, I imagined the little fellows flooding into the room under the crack in the door. Standing on each others’ shoulders, climbing over one another to reach the top of the desk. Then building a protective wall around me, and swarming the principal. Biting, clawing, crawling into his ears and nostrils. “Do we have a deal?” I snapped out of it. The little ones vanished, and with them my will to resist. “Alright” I whispered, staring somberly into my lap. “I’ll do it.”

The rest of the day was less painful than I expected. There was a whispered “monkey boy” here and there, but discipline seemed better than I was used to such that they didn’t try to get away with chanting aloud in class. The first substantial improvement I’d so far noticed, perhaps the intended result of those weird comics in the textbooks.

I missed lunch, so my stomach was growling. It didn’t go unnoticed. When I returned from a trip to the bathroom, I discovered someone snuck a banana into my desk while I was gone. Tyler was there, but the look of resolute defiance I’d so admired earlier was nowhere to be seen. Instead he looked troubled and hollow. I wanted to ask him what happened by note, but as I was already teetering on the edge of suspension I elected not to.

I returned to the main office with no small degree of apprehension. While I waited, something caught my eye. A hint of color at the bottom of a nearby the shape of a butterfly. Peering over the rim, I confirmed it. Tyler’s Barrette! The principal must’ve dumped it here after breakfast. I pocketed the little pink bit of plastic for the time being.

That’s when I saw him approaching down the hallway. Yet another new person I’d soon be trapped in a room with and forced to explain myself to. But I’m no stranger to psychologists, so I at least had some idea of what to expect and understood the format our discussion would follow. Wasn’t much, but it did calm me down somewhat.

The chubby, mustachioed man who greeted me as he arrived didn’t come across nearly as severe as the principal. Somewhere between forty and fifty if I had to guess, with a blonde combover and a beige sweater vest. “We don’t have to meet in this office if you like. I imagine this doesn’t feel like a safe space by now, am I right?” I nodded silently and he led me to a modestly furnished room on the other end of the hallway.

All sorts of framed pictures lined the walls, one of which was apparently his degree in “Christian mental health counseling”. I puzzled over why it didn’t say psychologist, but nevertheless took the seat he offered me and before long we were ready to begin.

I launched right into a defense of what I’d said, and carried on like that until he stopped me. “You’re not here to justify yourself. There are no wrong answers in this room. I’m not a referee either, my job is really just to get to know you. This is all a big misunderstanding. You’re new and come from a very different world. I’m sure that between us we can find a way to smooth things out and integrate you neatly into the community.”

He said it as if that was ever what I wanted. Maybe a very long time ago, but since then “the community” is exactly what I’ve been trying to escape from. “Now, why don’t you tell me what happened. Remember that I’m on your side.” Now more at ease, I told him my recollection of events. This time slow enough to be intelligible.

He laughed uproariously. I seized up, thinking he’d joined the others in laughing at me. Just the opposite. “I see what the problem is. Wanna know a secret? I don’t believe in a lot of that stuff either.” I was shocked. At last, a voice of reason! Or so it seemed. “I’m a Catholic. If you think you were hazed on your way in you should’ve seen the ribbing I got from the other faculty members.”

He explained that Catholicism is the correct, intelligent, defensible version of Christianity that came first while Protestantism, what everybody else here believes, is a layman’s bastardization of it. “At a Catholic school none of this would ever have occurred. They teach evolution, you see.” Sign me up, I thought. Couldn’t possibly be a step down from this place.

“But wait”, I thought aloud. “If they teach evolution, don’t they also have to teach that Genesis is wrong?” His demeanor subtly changed and he paused to think before answering. “No, of course not. The Bible can never be wrong about anything, because God can’t be wrong. It’s our interpretation of it that’s faulty.”

I recognized this line of reasoning as having much in common with the principal’s admonition that I always interpret the world from the starting point that the Bible is correct. To hear it also from this fellow was troubling.

“For example” he offered, “Genesis says that everything we see today was created in six days. But the word used for day can also mean a work period. So who’s to say how long each of them was?”

I cracked open the Bible on the table next to me and soon found the verse I was looking for. “And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.”

I closed the Bible and looked expectantly at him. “Literal days are light out” I said, “literal nights are dark. Literal days have evenings and mornings. This passage very plainly specifies that the authors meant actual days rather than multi-million year “work periods”.

The softness left his face. For a moment he stared at me as though I’d shit on the rug before his composure returned. “Look, keep in mind how young you are. You lack the finesse and intuition for exegesis that comes with age. Many brilliant theologians have interpreted Genesis in a way that reconciles evolution with Christianity to the satisfaction of millions.”

I shrugged. “I don’t doubt that, as it is their job to render it more defensible and they’ve collectively had nearly two thousand years to do so. It is also no doubt exactly what those millions badly want to hear.”

As the exchange continued, his easygoing manner continued to erode. I worried about what he’d be like by the time we were finished. “It is written that a day to God is as a thousand years, and a thousand years is as a day” he said. I pointed out this yielded a figure of 6,000 years for the creation of the Earth, cosmos and life and asked if he found that estimate credible.

“You’re picking too many nits” he complained. Which translated, near as I could figure, to “You’re not giving this material the same extreme benefit of the doubt that I do”. The next example he introduced was the Garden of Eden narrative.

“Now of course, all of humanity cannot have descended from just two people. It is a genetic impossibility. Did you know Adam means Man?” I didn’t. But I did know that Genesis contains a genealogy which traces all the way back to Adam and Eve as the literal progenitors of humanity.

“Nowhere”, I pointed out, “is the genealogical record interrupted with a note that says “a couple hundred million years passed here". And as I recall, Adam eating of the fruit is how original sin was incurred, which is why we’re all in need of salvation even from birth. Right?” He nodded, looking impatient and disgruntled. “If Adam did not exist and never ate from the fruit” I inquired, “why did Christ need to die on the cross?”

Again he insisted I was taking things out of context or misinterpreting them but no matter how I pressed, he would not specify how. “This is much simpler than you’re making it”. I found that dubious, but heard him out. “If your interpretation were correct, the Bible would be wrong. The Bible cannot be wrong as it is God breathed, it says so in second Timothy 3:16. Therefore, your interpretation is faulty.”

As before, it seemed to me that he was deliberately thinking about the Bible in a way which simply did not allow it to be wrong about anything, no matter what. It could say that the freezing point of water is thirty degrees Fahrenheit and he’d find a way to make it true. Impressive in its own way, reminiscent of what lawyers do for a living.

It also seemed slanted to me that he mounted all of these impassioned, sophisticated defenses of Genesis, but was content to allow the creation stories of other religions to simply be wrong. When I asked him about the Egyptian creation story, or the Norse creation story, he dismissed them as obvious fables. The products of minds with a “comparatively primitive understanding of nature”.

Realizing we could go in circles like this forever if I kept “picking nits” as he put it, I pretended his argument was persuasive. We’d already gone over the allotted hour, and indeed when I exited into the parking lot my visibly bored parents were waiting for me. As I got into the car I noticed three more crates of motor oil in the back, plus one I didn’t recognize. Business must really be booming.

“So, you gonna tell us why they kept you an hour later or do I have to guess?” Always straight to the point with Dad. “You weren’t fighting again, were you?” Mom queried, a hint of motherly concern in her voice making it sound a smidgen less accusatory than it otherwise might’ve.

“No, no fighting. Don’t worry, it’s taken care of.” Of course it wasn’t. But right then, it was enough for me that I’d survived my first day. The prospect of 1,459 more like it ahead of me was too daunting, so I just didn’t think about it. Not a lasting solution but the best I could manage.

More unloading when we got home. I took the opportunity to study the new crate. Goji berry juice? I asked Dad about it and he gave me some long spiel about how Goji berries are a super food with all sorts of remarkable health benefits. “My buddy from work who got me into selling motor oil originally worked for another network marketing firm that sells health foods. I bought some of his leftover stock to try it out.”

The cans were enormous. Twice the height of a soda can and a bit thicker, like some of Dad’s fancy beers. Gave me some ideas of what the little fellows could do with them...before I remembered we're no longer on good terms. My heart sank. They were my refuge from monster world until the fire. Now I have nothing.

I headed for my room. Larger than the last but also mostly bare. A structure becomes a home by being lived in for long enough, doesn’t it? But I don’t handle change well. Everything was exactly how I wanted it in the old house. This one felt strange, sterile and somehow hostile. I expected that feeling to fade as I settled in more completely.

The desk was littered with various pieces of tiny furniture in the process of being whittled, miniature contraptions of various kinds I prototyped, and all manner of other odds and ends I intended for the little fellows’ benefit. Even if I am no longer in their hearts, they’ll always be in mine. I suppose that’s just how I’m wired.

I carefully swept it all aside to make room for my Bible and laptop. The events of the day still fresh in my mind, I resolved that if there were any explanation for why things turned out as they did, it would be found in this book. I also pulled up a web browser so I could look up the words I didn’t know.

Searching nearly anything Bible related with evolution in the search string yielded a first page canvassed with apologetics websites assuring me that evolution is impossible (“a new age religion based on misguided faith”) while Biblical six day creation is the truly scientific model of origins supported by all available evidence.

I may not have much experience yet, and I’ve made my share of mistakes so far, but I know when somebody’s blowing smoke up my ass. It’s like they wanted to make sure anybody searching those terms only got their side of it. Many of the websites looked to be targeted specifically at kids of various age groups, advertising Biblical cartoons and games.

This greatly complicated my research. Some of the sites were designed to superficially resemble legitimate information resources but if you clicked “about us” or went to the main page it turned out they were yet another ministry focused on combatting evolution. Next I searched “What does the Bible say about boys who like boys”.

I sort of wish I hadn’t. It explained a lot, but left me feeling strung out and gutted. Many of the pages were resources for boys like Tyler who’d been kicked out onto the street by their families. Some were chat lines for suicide prevention.

...But also page after page of justifications for those things, which did indeed look Biblically sound. I counted three condemnations of homosexuality in the New Testament, two in the Old. I could imagine reasons to dismiss any one of them by itself if I tried hard enough, but taken together, they painted a pretty clear picture.

It was sobering to imagine his home life. I returned to reading ahead into Exodus, trying to get a leg up and some insight into how such a school could exist. But all the while, in the back of my mind I’d begun thinking of some way to help Tyler.

If I could convince the other students in my classes that the Bible was wrong about big, important stuff, it could also be wrong where it says that boys can’t like boys. Then they’d leave him alone. Reinvigorated, the path ahead now clear to me, I studied long into the night. I must’ve fallen asleep at my desk because I woke up there, pages stuck to my cheek peeling away as I sat up.

On the ride over I discovered by peeking into my sack lunch that Dad tucked a can of Goji berry juice into it. Sweet, maybe? I had a weird feeling about it. But then, I’ve always been a picky eater. Breakfast was uneventful if you don’t count the constant whispered chant of “monkey boy” as I ate. It sucks that I can’t let them see me eating bananas now, I miss those.

Bible reading was also refreshingly placid. There was little to object to this time and I knew better than to write anything critical now anyway. The same vague discomfort I felt when searching for what I could say to the principle when presented with the statement of faith now returned. I went over every sentence I’d written searching for anything which could be construed as a lie.

Nothing today. A small victory! But I wondered how long it could last in a place like this. Near the end of the period, the teacher handed out a surprise quiz based on what we covered yesterday. I quite like tests! I’m good at them, they’re like puzzles where you try to discern the answer most likely intended by the author. It’s usually possible to score well in that way even if you’ve not studied the material.

My smile was short lived. “1. Who created the universe and living things?” Even the first question was a problem. Not much wiggle room either. “2. How long did it take?” I began to sweat and fidget with my pencil. “3. Write a number by each of the days of creation below to indicate which order they took place in.” It just kept getting worse. What could I possibly write that would satisfy me, but also the teacher?

Then it came to me. “According to the Bible, it was God”. If they didn’t think too hard about how I worded that and why, it should pass. A huge weight was lifted from my shoulders as I found I could answer every question with that prefix and it didn’t trouble me in the least.

“4. True or false: The universe is billions of years old”. This one proved tougher. The Bible doesn’t specify the age of the universe anywhere. Based on my research the night before, somebody once added up the ages of everyone in the genealogy from the latter half of Genesis and arrived at 6,000 years give or take.

I answered that the Bible doesn’t say. Next up, “5. What did animals and people eat in the garden of Eden?” I answered that according to scripture, they were vegetarians. Something about all of this still felt wrong. “6. True or false: If an animal has sharp teeth, that must mean it’s a meat eater.” I raised an eyebrow at this one, not understanding the relevance to Genesis.

I supposed there might be sharp toothed herbivores not yet known to science, so I answered false. “7. What caused there to be fossils?” Another confusing one, as the Bible never says anything about fossils. I answered accordingly. It just went on like that. By the end I felt like I’d been through a minefield.

I was partway through history class, learning all about how ancient man apparently used dinosaurs like the “Behemoth” as a beast of burden, when the same teacher’s assistant from before came to collect me. I had some inkling as to why but still felt irritated when the principal produced my freshly graded test and asked me to explain why I answered as I did.

I asked if any of them were wrong. “A few. But it’s the ones you got right that concern me. Did you think I wouldn’t notice? These answers were written in a spirit of rebellion.” I asked what he meant by that.

“It’s when you do something subversive. That means sneaky. Usually to get out of obeying God, and the authorities He has appointed over you. This includes smart alecky test answers, misleading students behind our back, undermining your teachers, and thinking about the holy scriptures in an adversarial way. You can’t slip any of it past me.”

I considered explaining that I felt uncomfortable answering in a way I knew to be false. But I knew it’d just make things worse. I even tried to compromise only for that to fall through as well. So, gripping the edges of my seat, I lied. Not a half truth or a lie of omission, but a genuine, full blooded fib. I could see no other way forward.

“The last time we spoke, you told me I should interpret the world through a Biblical lens. Which means always starting from the position that the scriptures are true. All of my answers reflect that. You gotta show your work, right? That means it’s not a good answer if it doesn’t include how you know it’s true. Because it says so in the Bible, which is the inspired word of God. And God cannot be wrong.”

I’d done it. Acted my narrow little ass off. Told my first unqualified lie, and it made my skin crawl even as I struggled to maintain a poker face. He studied every detail of my expression. I could practically see the notches and grooves in the key of my answer depressing exactly the right pins in the lock of his brain, by exactly the right degree.

“On some of these, you answered that the Bible is silent on the issue.” I affirmed it. “We can make guesses based on what it says, as Bishop Ussher did, but we’re only human. It’s better to stick only to what it actually says.” I held no such opinion but it meshed with what I said before. To my own dismay I discovered I was finally developing a knack for deceit. He ate it all up with great relish.

“Indeed! That’s called Sola Scriptura. Though there is more to support a young Earth than the genealogy of Genesis. But you’ll learn about that later in the year. I must admit I’m relieved. It looks like I had you all wrong this time, you’re a quicker study than I gave you credit for.” Indeed, I thought. Just not in the way that he meant it.

I left with a heavy pit in my stomach. I recognized it as the same feeling from when I first struck somebody in anger. An invisible line had been crossed. Specifically, the sort you can only cross in one direction. It’s just one compromise after another, and there’s never any fighting it. The world demands it of you, trampling you into the dirt if you decline.

Another stain on my heart. I wondered if any red would still be visible by the time someone buries me. They make it so much easier to simply go along with all of it, and so painfully difficult not to.

When I arrived back in Core, I’d again missed the rest of history. They moved on to science, or their curious version of it. Everyone had been paired off into groups of two, the tables reorganized accordingly.

“Oh good, you’re back. Less confused now I hope. Go sit with Heather.” I stiffened up. Turning to survey the room, everybody else already had a partner except her. She sat there furtively shooting daggers at me, as if wanting to appear disgusted but also indifferent.

I wanted to return her disdain but her beauty makes it impossible to keep up the act. Hair the same shade of straw blonde as Jennifer’s, but cropped to just below the elaborate silver seashell earrings dangling from her lobes. Icy blue eyes rapidly scanning my person, finding nothing of value by the looks of it. Lately I’d be hard pressed to disagree.

“Ew. No.” She put her hand on the chair I meant to sit in. “The teacher paired me with you”, I protested. “I’m sorry, I didn’t choose it. Let’s just work together long enough to-” She repeated herself and pushed the chair into the table so I couldn’t sit. What should I do? I hardly wanted to force myself on someone who clearly didn’t want me around. But that put me at odds with the teacher. Something I meant to avoid going forward.

I imagined the little fellows stepping in. Teams of them pulling a comb through my hair to straighten it. Brushing the wrinkles from my shirt with a mechanized roller. Could I really be so repulsive to her that sitting next to me for an hour would be unbearable? How they’d climb on each other! Like a human pyramid but layers upon layers deep, soon taking the shape of a chair I might sit in.

“The floor’s fine. Or a different table.” Her ultimatum dissolved my daydream. I could hardly work together with her on any sort of project if we sat separately. So I chose the floor. The teacher came around handing out boxes of stuff for the day’s activity. “What are you doing down there? Take your seat already.”

Heather jumped in before I could speak. “Yeah, I don’t know either. I said the same thing but he ignored me. I guess he just likes it down there.” I heard students nearby snicker. One made a muffled comment, something about a carpet monkey’s natural habitat. I sheepishly stood, then reached for the chair while looking Heather in the eye.

She smiled sweetly and pulled the chair out, seemingly welcoming me to sit. A sudden change that made no sense, but I didn't feel inclined to question it. Then, no sooner than the teacher was out of earshot and busy with something else, Heather instructed me to move my chair as far as possible away from hers.

“I’m already halfway into the aisle.” Didn’t sway her. “Further”, she whispered. So I scooted. “Further than that.” I scooted a bit more. “Keep going.” I was now no longer properly sitting at the table, but in the space between tables. The teacher noticed and began to come over but hesitated, shrugged, then returned to the front of the room.

Each box contained a candle and a balloon printed to resemble the Earth. The effect diminished somewhat when I inflated the balloon to discover the continents were stylized and cartoonish. The teacher came around to instruct each of us individually in the importance of being careful with the candle, lighting them one by one along the way.

“Now, imagine that the candle is the sun. If you were God, where would you place the Earth? Feel the balloon warm up as to move it closer to the candle. What is a good temperature for people, plants and animals?” I did as instructed. The balloon, being relatively insubstantial, heated up near instantly.

“Now move it a little closer than that.” I did so, closing the gap by a centimeter. As I looked on, the surface of the balloon facing the candle began to discolor. Then all of a sudden, it burst. As did balloons throughout the room, to a mixture of gasps and delighted laughter.

“It is an astonishing fact which the secular establishment does not want you to know” the teacher proclaimed, “that if the Earth were just ten feet further from the sun, it would freeze. While if it were just ten feet closer, it would burn up. They want us to believe that happened by accident!”

Some of the laughter had a familiar, menacing tone to it. I looked around and discovered that several pairs of eyes were trained on me. Oh how I wanted to say something. I knew they expected it though, so I kept my mouth shut. It hurt, too. Like the truth was trapped in my belly, trying in vain to claw its way out.

Tyler came and sat with me at lunch. It elicited some furrowed brows, but nobody came to separate us. “Oh, hey. I have something for you.” I reached into my pocket and withdrew the pink barrette. “This is yours, isn’t it?” He stared in disbelief. Then at me. Then at the barrette as he gingerly took it from my hand. Then at me again. “How did you get this?”

I told him the story of my after school meeting with the psychologist, how I spotted it in the trashcan while waiting. He swiftly pocketed it, looking around to ensure nobody noticed. Then looked at me all weird again, eyes glistening. “I...I don’…I dunno how to...” I interrupted to assure him it wasn’t a big deal, I just happened to see it. He relaxed a bit and smiled. “Well...thank you.”

It’s just a barrette, isn’t it? I puzzled over the matter while following the herd from the cafeteria to the playground. Tyler joined me here as well. I told him he should put it in his hair now that we were outside. “Oh no” he said, looking at his feet. “I couldn’t.” We wound up sitting on the wall, our legs dangling, talking about all kinds of stuff.

A concerned looking teacher came by and told us to sit at least two feet apart, but did not bother us after we complied. “It really is easier to obey” I thought, shuddering as I remembered where I first read that. “Why do you always look sad?” Tyler pried. I remarked that he’d only known me for two days, so “always” was a strong word.

“I’m right though, aren’t I. There are bags under your eyes and lines in your face I’ve only seen on grownups before now. You’ve even got a grey hair.” I didn’t believe him until he picked it out for me. “I’m not happy here” I admitted. “I can already tell I don’t fit in. I probably don’t fit in anywhere.” He prodded me for more, expressing doubt that the school was the only thing.

“People hate me for reasons that are out of my control. I’ve never felt normal and I don’t think I ever will be. I try to make friends wherever I go but always wind up alone. To top it all off, I’m in love with somebody I know I shouldn’t be, who will never love me back. And when I try somebody else, even though they may be very pretty, it feels wrong.”

A long silence followed. When I turned to look at Tyler his eyes were doing that glistening thing again. “...I dunno. It probably sounds strange to you, I-” he burst in here. “No, no! I understand completely! You have no idea how happy I am to hear those words from another person. I thought I was alone.”

He held up one finger. “I feel like all my life I’ve been a candle drifting through a dark and rainy night. A single flame is not difficult to put out. It’s delicate and easily extinguished by a stray droplet or breeze.”

He then held up a second finger and brought them together. “But if another candle joins it, or two, or three, they burn more brightly and warmly together than they could separately. Then it’s much harder to put them out.”

My eyes widened in sudden recognition. I’ve never used those words to describe monster world before but he could only be talking about it. About the slowly multiplying rays of sunshine which break through the clouds, as you meet others who make it all bearable so long as you’re near them. I wasn’t just looking at a friend or ally. I’d found another me.

So I opened up to him. Not quite as completely as I’d opened up to Jennifer, leaving out the stuff about the witch and little people, but close. It felt exhilarating! Maybe nerve wracking would better describe it. A snap decision to share some of my most vulnerable parts with somebody I’d only known since yesterday. He said all the right things...could that mean he lied?

Even now I feared he might start laughing at any moment. As if everything I saw him endure the other day could simply be a show they put on to draw me out. Yet I glimpsed something in him just now that forced my hand. Like this might be the only chance I’ll ever get to be fully understood by another person and my choices are to seize it or regret it forever.

He listened with rapt attention, eyes twinkling and smile growing all the while. It was the first time I’d seen him like that. Sure, a smile here and there. But I mean with his guard all the way down. Now I understood why. It’s very much like discovering your tribe at last after being lost for many years in a foreign land. Two people is a tribe, isn’t it? And if there are two, there could be more I haven’t met.

“That’s amazing” he said. I’d finished out of breath, in a hurry to get it all out and unsure how he would react. “Listen.” He took me by the shoulders. “Don’t ever let them put your flame out. However hard they try. They’ll never stop, either. But no matter what, don’t let them put it out.”

I didn’t know what to say. So I just somberly nodded. “Good” he said. “Then neither will I.” I took hold of his shoulder too, as if to seal the pact. Just looking at one another in a fleeting, beautiful moment of perfect understanding until the teacher from before came to admonish us for putting our hands on each other.

It was impossible to sit together undisturbed after that, so we split up. I had him wear my jacket as our hair’s the same color, that way he’d be mistaken for me, and I could freely explore the forest and field.

He seemed happy enough to oblige. When I came upon the wreckage of the sky station stored beneath the willow tree I was shocked to find a mass of little fellows in white tunics crawling all over it. Not done picking it clean? I hope I didn’t make their lives needlessly difficult.

Perhaps they’re just curious because somebody moved it. If so, they showed no indication that they noticed my presence. I moved about taking extreme care not to crush any of them underfoot, watching them meticulously pick the mess apart, stripping the wiring and chopping the balsa wood into inch long lumber.

Then I took the empty juice can from lunch and set it down amidst the tangled mess. They immediately crowded around to inspect it as if it had appeared from nowhere. As hoped, they proceeded to roll it onto a sled made from salvaged balsa and set about dragging it off towards the woods.

I followed a long trail of the little fellows trekking to and from the original landing site, salvaging the bits I left behind when I moved the wreckage. Also seemingly inspecting the area for clues as to how it moved. Several times I spoke to them, explaining that I moved it. They never understood me before but used to at least react to my voice.

At the edge of the crash site there arrived a strange amphibious vehicle of some sort. Carried on six articulated three wheeled treads, the body apparently watertight and able to submerge for underwater travel. The front unscrewed and swiveled to one side. At once, a dozen little fellows in blue tunics poured out brandishing tiny rifles.

What followed was a visually confusing, tumultuous brawl. White tunics versus blue, rifles issuing faint popping sounds, their targets collapsing in a bloody heap. I gaped. What were they doing? I’ve never seen them kill each other before. “Stop” I pleaded. But they continued, indifferent to my presence.

One of the white tunics climbed a clump of grass, then blew into a horn. A moment later, six praying mantises leapt into the fray, wings rapidly beating as they descended. Like grasshoppers, not capable of true flight but something close. Each mantis bore a tiny rider, strapped to a saddle and harness system which blocked the mantis from reaching behind itself.

They were all too capable of attacking the blue tunics, though. I watched in horror as one of the insects seized a blue tunic homunculus in its powerful grasping forearms, then set about methodically eating his head. The shrieking was short lived.

“Stop!” This time a firm command. But it too was disregarded. How could this be happening? How were they turned against one another? The unthinkable only continued to unfold before my eyes as I sat there paralyzed with shock. Then something new emerged from the amphibious carrier.

A frog about the size of my fist, with a pair of riders on its back within a transparent bubble cockpit mounted by harness. Wires from the bubble penetrated into a wound behind the frog’s head, presumably a means of controlling it. The stubby little creature advanced on the mantis cavalry, then shot its tongue out. Quick as a flash, the rider saved only because he fell off in the process.

The grumpy looking amphibian now munched on the crushed body of the mantis, who frantically clawed at the frog’s face with its pincer arms. Much too late for that. In another three bites it was gone. The horn sounded again, this time signaling a temporary retreat. The white tunics all fled towards the willow tree. The blue tunics hung back, presumably to secure the territory they’d captured.

Is it because of Dan? Did lasting trauma from the war cause this? Is it because I’ve been absent from their lives for too long? Perhaps fighting Tyrants on their own served to militarize them. I followed the submersible tank’s track marks back to its point of origin, a drainage pipe on the far end of the field. Next to it was a small body of water, perhaps thirty feet across. Just accumulated runoff from the road.

Even so, they put a base in it. Building these things seemed to be ingrained in them now. The only place they’ve ever been safe, in their experience, is underwater. At the bottom, perhaps four feet deep, I could just make out a cluster of interconnected glass jars and bottles lit from within.

Their base of operations from which to assault the other tribe. What else could it be? A ring of LEDs indicated what I figured for some sort of docking collar meant for the amphibious carrier. Within some of the larger jars I saw silhouettes moving about, much too large for Homunculi. Frogs maybe? Like the one I’d just seen them use.

The pipe explained how they got here. It must connect to a river or stream. Or to the sewer system, from which they could get just about anywhere. I peered into the pipe and on the other end, in the darkness, saw the dim green glow of foxfire. Little shits. It hadn’t even been that long. I blink, and they’re at each others’ throats.

My rage grew when I returned to the crash site to find a second unit of mantis riders assaulting the blue tunics. A team of blues was riddling one of the mantises with bullets, its arms falling to pieces, then finally its head. The rider escaped the worst of it behind the same metal shield which prevents the mantis from removing him.

But once the insect collapsed in its death throes, the blues set upon the now helpless rider as their buddies cooperated to take down the other mantises in the same fashion. I watched anxiously as they closed in around the white tunic, brandishing jagged little knives.

“STOP!” This time with force. They didn’t listen. I raised my arms above my head as if to smash them. All of a sudden, every last one of them stopped and looked at me. Frozen in place. Waiting expectantly to see what I’d do. It was their first acknowledgement of me since the war, but somehow I didn’t feel relieved.

My heart, pounding until then, began to slow. I lowered my arms in despair. Just couldn’t do it. No matter what. I’d already hit someone in anger. Already lied. Hurting the little fellows would be the last line. The last black mark on my heart.

Smart as they might be in certain ways, they also have a naivete about them. Like they’re just figuring out for themselves lessons that we did centuries ago. They haven’t existed for all that long, after all. They don’t know any better, I thought. And they’ll hardly learn anything from being flattened. They’d just be afraid of me after that. I don’t think I could bear it.

I thought back to how I found Winston. Emaciated, bruised. Beaten and neglected by someone who grew frustrated or bored with him. Forgetting that he’s just a dog. Expecting too much, forgiving too little, behaving monstrously to what at the end of the day is essentially a child.

It’s not that they can’t see me. At least I don’t think so anymore. It’s that they want to find their own way! I remembered the story the old crone once told me about why she created the Tyrants. I’d almost betrayed her. Betrayed myself. My stomach churned. Forgive me, crone.

I tried sweeping them away from each other. Placing stones in their path, and so on. They treated it as a temporary obstacle, each time cooperating to devise a way over or around it in order to continue fighting. They’ve got their own objectives now, independent of what I might’ve ever planned for them. At the moment, that included killing each other.

Stubborn little idiots. Yet even now, I love them. I want to do something. But what? Smash a few, alienating them further? Eat one alive in front of the rest, like a Tyrant? It would destroy me. At a loss for how to proceed and unable to watch the slaughter for even another second, I stood up and left. Resolute that it wasn’t over, that I wouldn’t stop thinking until I found a solution. I could do no less for her.

I brought my angst back with me. Tyler noticed. As the bell rang and we headed for the main building, he first returned my jacket, then asked what was wrong. “I don’t want to talk about it”. He looked troubled by my answer, but left it alone.

I passed Heather in the hallway. Passed might be the wrong word. As I approached she made a show of swerving to one side, giving me an almost comically wide berth. Muttering “Ew” on the way, of course.

I still looked. I’m helpless not to, she’s even more captivating in motion. I again scolded myself as though I’d committed some infidelity against Jennifer. What a fool I am, Jennifer’s undoubtedly forgotten me by now.

I spent the next period lost in my own head. Conscious only to the degree required by each lesson, the rest of my mind devoted to the problem of how to unify the two tribes. The trick, first off, will be to catch them in the middle of something. Otherwise they just hide. But then what?

Any sort of barrier I erected, I knew too well they’d soon circumvent or destroy. Nor would it do to imprison them all individually. Periodically destroying their infrastructure and weapons to make war more difficult occurred to me but I doubt the crone wanted me to sabotage them. Nor would she want them to forever remain under my control.

More like hatchlings meant to eventually leave the nest. To keep them in a state of perpetual infancy by force would be perverse. But so would regimenting their behavior with fear and pain. Why are they doing this? What happened? Perhaps that’s the key to it all. Discovering the original cause of the schism.

The teacher broke my concentration, slapping another quiz down on the table before me. I noticed a stern glance from her as she proceeded down this row of tables. I must’ve made an impression the other day. If I’d known there would be another quiz so soon I’d have paid more attention to the lesson, but it’s not as though tests have ever given me trouble.

As ever, it’s down to guessing which answer the author of the test intended. These people make it easier than ever. Most of the questions are of the “complete this sentence” variety, where there’s only one possible answer that the wording strongly implies anyway. Like what they’re really after is a rote affirmation that you agree with every aspect of their worldview.

“Where did the flood waters come from?” I thought back to the other night and couldn’t recall anywhere in Genesis which answered this. But turning the quiz over, I found another question which mentioned a shell of ice around the Earth. What? The physics of that wouldn’t work.

There I go picking at nits again. If I did that, I’d never finish the quiz. So I turned off every part of my brain which objected to the idea of a hollow ice shell enveloping the planet, then forged ahead. It was a huge relief to approach the remaining questions this way, such that I suspected it’s what I was meant to do from the start.

Then I got to a question concerning Earth’s distance from the sun. It made me writhe internally. I couldn’t give them this one. Could I? But I also didn’t want another meeting with the principal. Fear of being disciplined exerted a subtle but effective pressure on me. Like I was being wedged, gently but firmly, into a mold.

I left it blank. If asked I’d say I didn’t know and meant to come back to it later, but forgot. I’m already a liar anyway, and something about these people makes them easy to deceive without the degree of remorse I’d normally feel.

It’s not just because they’re cruel. Cruelty is typical of ogres. It’s the penchant of these specific ones to aggressively deceive themselves and anybody else who will listen, children most of all. Do they think we’re stupid?

I thought I was past the worst of it. Then I came upon the only question so far to really make me think. Wasn’t expecting that. “Why did God have to drown everyone but Noah and his family?” I sat there, reading and re-reading it. This was at least Biblical, but I’d struggled with it when I read it on my own too.

Up until that point I’d related to much of it. The creation of smaller, simpler people in our image from clay. Striving to teach them right from wrong. Forced to leave their cloistered paradise, scattered to the winds. I could pardon the harsh punishment for disobedience, that’s one way to go. Just not what I felt the witch wanted me to do.

Mass murder, on the other hand, isn’t so easily rationalized. I could understand the frustration, but not acting on it with such profound brutality. Winston hardly ever did what I told him to, but I never decided the answer was to kill him. He was just a dog. I never so much as swatted his butt.

Throughout what I’d read so far, it described us as God’s children. If killing a disobedient dog is out of the question, how could a parent kill their disobedient children? Is that what a good parent does? I’ve gotten the belt a few times, but Dad’s never tried to murder me.

I rejected that approach outright back in the field. They’re my little buddies. I’ll never lay a finger on them with the intent to injure, so long as I live. That’s part of being their guardian. Part of being a dog’s best friend. Part of being a good parent.

To be bigger and stronger, but always gentle and patient. Using your power to shield them from harm while you teach them how to live. Not to terrorize them into obedience like the Tyrants do. It was the first thing I could really call a core principle, and that’s the precise moment it crystallized within me. The strong should help the weak. Protect and nurture them. Not control them with fear.

I remembered telling the principal on the first day that I’ve always wished for somebody stronger to protect me from the ogres. But if there’s nobody who will do that for me, then I’ll become that person for anybody weaker than I am. I can’t imagine there’s many, but I’ll find them. I’ll put myself between them and the ogres. That’s where I want to be.

It was one of those pivotal moments you later wish you’d marked on the calendar. So rarely does something influence the course of your life in a way that you’re conscious of. But to this day I can pinpoint that single question on that ridiculous quiz as the reason why everything afterwards unfolded the way it did.

The rest of my classes went by without any major upsets. All the while, I dreaded meeting with the psychologist at the day’s end. I just wanted to go home. There’s something to be said for some quiet, calm time to unwind after each day. And for somebody to talk to about the day’s events. Yet despite his initial assurances to the contrary, I got the feeling he wasn’t there just to listen and sympathize, but to steer me in a particular direction.

“I understand you’ve befriended Tyler.” I didn’t deny it and saw no reason to. “You do understand that he’s a...homosexual...don’t you?” He said it in a hushed tone. Who is it he was afraid might overhear us? I fiddled with my hands and whispered my answer. He told me to speak up, so I did. Marginally.

“I know he likes boys. I don’t see what the big deal is.” It was like I’d reached up and slapped him in the face. “The big deal”, he replied, “is that to lie with a man as you would a woman guarantees damnation. Do you understand what that means? Into the lake of fire. Eternal separation from God, wailing and gnashing of teeth, the fire which never burns out.”

Given what I read earlier in the day, and for that matter in the Bible the other night, that didn’t surprise me. I was beginning to get a clearer picture of what sort of person these people think God is. A world of ogres ruled over by the biggest ogre of them all. I knew better than to say that, so instead I asked why it’s such a serious offense.

“Men cannot make children with other men! Only with women. If we were all gay, there would soon be no more humans left.” I asked if absolutely every human on the Earth was ever likely to spontaneously turn gay, or if instead it’s an extremely tiny percentage of people.

He admonished me to ‘be serious’, though I was. I then asked if there’s some pressing shortage of humans on the planet, that we badly need more. “Isn’t it the opposite?” I said. “We have too many, if anything.” More picking at nits, he replied. Any deviation from the path he intended the conversation to take seemed to qualify. What the principal would describe as “spoken in a rebellious spirit”.

But I couldn’t let this go. I sensed it was the key to why they treat Tyler like a leper, and if there were some way to make them stop, this was how to find it. “I thought the point of Hell is that only bad people go there.”

He then defined ‘bad’ for me. Until recently I thought it meant malicious, cruel, sinister, vicious and so on. It turns out what it really means is disobeying God’s instructions for us as recorded in scripture. That umbrella apparently covers a great many behaviors which harm nobody.

“For instance” he said, “most here believe that salvation comes through faith alone.“For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. We Catholics believe it’s both faith and works, but never just works. Faith was always the indispensible component.”

I asked him to clarify what we must have faith in. “That Christ died for our sins, then three days later rose from the dead and ascended to Heaven.” I blinked. He said it so casually, as if it made perfect sense.

“That’s oddly specific and doesn’t seem to have anything to do with morality” I objected. “Why is that the main thing? If it’s all about rewarding kindness and charity while punishing cruelty and violence, I can get behind that. But why is believing Christ rose from the dead the one thing we absolutely must do in order to avoid eternal torture?”

He quoted some relevant verses to me, stuff about how Christ is the gate and nobody can enter the kingdom of Heaven but through him. That all who do not believe he is God will die in their sins. Again, as if it were all perfectly logical and I was remiss for not taking it as a given.

“I understand the Bible says that’s how it is, but that doesn’t really answer the question” I complained. “Why is it that way? Why is the lynchpin of whether you go to eternal paradise or an eternal torture pit your belief or disbelief that a particular guy rose from the dead two thousand years ago?

It’s as if using the threat/bribe combo of Heaven and Hell to get people to believe that specific part...and everything that follows from the real point of it all. In which case the noble sounding stuff about how we should treat each other just disguises it.”

He listened intently, eyes narrowed, hands clasped together on the desk. This was the guy who once told me there are no wrong answers in this room. Evidently I found one. “This isn’t a productive tangent” he said. “What you’re missing is that the word of God is not for you to dissect and scrutinize, but for you to read, believe and obey.”

That didn’t cut it for me. “I don’t understand Hell either” I continued. “What father tortures his children? My Dad would never do that. If he did he’d be sent to prison.” He again sighed, then explained that people who go to Hell choose to be there by rejecting Christ.

“You mean by not believing he rose from the dead. That’s not choosing to be there. It’s like if I were to build a dungeon and threaten to torture you there if you don’t believe I can shoot lightning from my eyeballs.

If you don’t believe me, does it really mean you chose to be tortured in my dungeon? And if I told you I can save you from the dungeon I built if you obey me and believe the lightning eyeball thing, am I really saving you? From myself, maybe.”

He went about phrasing it in different ways that I think he hoped wouldn’t sound so creepy. Like that we all deserve death in the first place, but by his grace we can enter Heaven anyway....if we believe a certain thing, of course. But it didn’t really change the equation. Like a mugger with a gun to your head explaining that if you don’t give him your wallet, you’ve chosen to be shot.

“None of that is of any importance” he insisted. “Because the resurrection happened, we can know for certain Christ was God. So we must obey his teachings, evangelize and live our lives in a Biblical way. Even secular historians agree the resurrection took place.” That one was a head scratcher. If it were true, how could they still be non-Christians? He explained they are simply stubborn and married to sin.

“I researched that a bit on my own” I admitted. He tensed up. “I couldn’t find any record of the resurrection from around that time except for the Bible” I said. He objected that there exist several credible records of Christ’s execution.

“I don’t deny that. But an execution is not a resurrection. That a man died is unremarkable. What would be remarkable is if he rose from the dead. So far the only source I can find for that is a book written by his followers for the purpose of converting others.”

He sighed, then looked at the clock. “Well, we should definitely touch on this again next time. I think it’s at the core of your behavioral problems.” My behavioral problems? He didn’t elaborate. “Take this home with you. It will answer your questions.” It was a burned DVD marked “Reasonable faith: The historical evidence for the resurrection.” I had enough homework already, but thanked him and promised to watch.

It proved to be a huge waste of time. The guy on the DVD echoed my psychologist’s insistence that secular historical evidence existed for the resurrection. But I kept watching and waiting, and never heard any. He presented the following as “facts to be explained:” That Jesus was executed, that he was buried, that he then rose from the dead and appeared to many.

But when it came time to explain the basis for these facts, he pointed to scripture. There was contemporary evidence that he was executed and buried, but for everything after that, he drew on accounts from the Bible. As if nobody would notice the transition. Who would be convinced by this that didn’t already believe in the resurrection?

I popped it out of the player and stacked it on top of another DVD, one we’d all been sent home with. “Evolution vs. God.” Hadn’t watched that one yet and didn’t intend to. Not during the precious few hours each day that I can escape from that sort of thing. There was a little paper slip inside with instructions to sign it, presumably to indicate we’d watched the film, so I did.

Just then, the phone rang. I didn’t bother answering as it’s rarely for me. Only this time it was. Dad approached, phone in hand. “Some kid named Tyler wants to know if you’d like to come over this Saturday.” I asked if he was okay with driving me. He held the phone up to his ear and requested Tyler’s address. “It’s just a few miles, you should be able to make it on your bike. I guess I could drive you anyway.”

I took the phone to confirm it. Tyler sounded excited, regaling me with all of the cool stuff there would be to do. I assured him I’d come over even if he lived in a cave. With the day and time set, I handed the phone back to Dad. I later overheard him placing an order for yet more of that motor oil, plus another crate of the juice from his buddy.

On a whim, as I’d already gotten my hands dirty researching Biblical matters, I plugged the name of the motor oil company into a search engine. The first page was all glowing reviews, testimonials and purported scientific studies. But all of them had “syn” or “synthetic” in the site name, as in “synthetic oil”.

When I clicked around on each page I found it was incomplete and hadn’t been updated in years. Just the facade of a website, to give a certain impression. On to page two. The contrast was like night and day! I wondered how they managed to get only the favorable stuff to show up on the first page as I browsed through comment sections full of people warning others that the company was some sort of scam.

In every case, there were other people angrily dogpiling them for “spouting ignorant, uninformed misconceptions” about the company and their product. These people all had the company’s logo set as their avatar, their profile or signature contained links to where you could buy it, and there was noticeable repetition of specific arguments as if somebody had coached them.

So I went to one of the links posted by a critic. It explained the structure of the company, how very few make any real money selling the product, and the company’s profits mainly come from selling memberships to people who want in.

The company website promises at some future date you will be fabulously wealthy if you join, with testimonials from people it supposedly worked for. There were also surprisingly self aware warnings that naysayers were spreading “anti-competitive lies” about them which should be disregarded.

Evidently the court system didn’t see it their way as further searching revealed they’d been in near constant litigation for several years now. Raking in so much money from their business that they could afford to draw out the legal process for as long as possible.

It was the contention of the government and burned ex-distributors that they were a garden variety “pyramid scheme”. Something the company emphatically denied. I watched a video of an expensively suited spokesperson defending their model. “Every business or organization of any kind is structured like we are, with one or a few people at the top, and then successive layers of management, salesmen and so on below that.”

Seemed airtight. Except he never mentioned what made them different, the fact that you have to pay upfront to work for them. However he was questioned about it, he answered as if it’d never been said, becoming visibly irate the more the interviewer pressed the point. By now I’d gone from suspicion to alarm, then to conviction that these people had roped my Dad into some ruinous scam.

My dad’s a smart guy. How could he have fallen for this? There was nothing about those shills in the comment sections to suggest they were especially dim either. Then I remembered all the crates.

How much cash had he already sunk into motor oil? He was sure to be relieved when I told him about all this. Imagine if he just kept buying more, never able to sell any of it. We’d have to give up the new house.

I broke the news over dinner. He froze, staring at me with his mouth full. Then set down his knife and fork, finished chewing, and began to speak. “You know, it’s funny. They warned me I might hear that sort of thing from people who don’t understand how their business model works.” I told him I knew perfectly well how it works, it’s just a scam.

“That’s enough. I can understand how this happened, you’re very young and impressionable. Must’ve read something online from a disgruntled failure who didn’t hustle hard enough, then blamed the company. You can’t believe everything you read on the internet, I really should’ve had that talk with you sooner. People have agendas, they lie.”

I couldn’t let it alone, because I knew if he continued it would ruin his finances. The house, the baby, everything he had planned would fall apart. Anxiety built within me as I described at length the paid search results, the comment shills, the lawsuits, struggling to convince him. Dad just kept turning redder as I talked. I really thought he’d yell at me. Mom’s eyes darted back and forth between us, concern clearly written in them.

When he replied, it was with a measure of calmness that took me by surprise. It meant he was either not as upset as I’d thought, or much moreso. “Listen carefully. Pyramid scheme is just a scare word. A slur people use to shame and discredit legitimate companies with nonstandard business models. I’m sure there are plenty of real pyramid schemes out there, but the term is often abused.

I read all about that tactic and all the other ones naysayers commonly use in the pamphlet that came with my distributor kit, so save it. Whatever you may have read, a pyramid scheme is not what this is. I can sorta see how it would look that way to you, but I would know if it was. Do you think I’m stupid?”

I assured him I didn’t. That I’ve learned more from him than I ever did from school. That all I wanted was for him to research it on his own, from sources not owned by the company or other distributors. He mulled it over, placated by the concessions, and eventually agreed. I’ve always known him to be stubborn, but not wholly intractable. Mom says he was worse before I was born, but he denies it.

“You know, if you argue like this at school, your principal might have a point. I’ve gotten two calls from him now complaining about your contrarianism.” As if I’d simply set out to be disagreeable? It didn’t surprise me that he saw it that way. I explained why I struggled with the contents of the quizzes and some of the things the teacher told us in class. He laughed when I mentioned the bit about evolving from rocks.

“Yeah I was worried about that. But it’s the only private school in the area we can afford, and aside from some of the oddball stuff they teach, I’m certain it’s a step up over sending you to any public school. You know how I feel about that.” Indeed I did, having come from one. “The other kids do seem better behaved while a teacher’s around.” I admitted. “It’s the teachers that are the real problem. They’re out of their minds.”

Again he laughed. I was only too happy to move things in that direction, as he seemed sincerely angry when I brought up the topic of pyramid schemes and he can get pretty ugly when sufficiently provoked.

Mom objected that the subject matter didn’t seem that far out to her and asked Dad why it was a problem. I finished my dinner while he explained to her how it is scientists can know the age of the Earth, the order various species evolved in and whatnot as she looked on with rapt interest.

It’s cute when they get like this. They really do love each other, and I know despite everything else that’s happened I’m lucky to come from a stable home. But no doubt they would start kissing soon and I had no intention of sticking around to witness it.

The motor oil scheme stuck in the back of my mind as I headed for my room. Something to keep an eye on, anyway. As he’d already opened a crate, I took one of the canisters from it and tucked it into my pocket as I passed through the kitchen. The little fellows have turned me into somewhat of a packrat. I look at every little thing and think “what might they make with this?”

While there was still daylight, I headed out to the remains of the forest. Looking for hidden settlements, fragments of the past. Here and there I spotted new growth. I smiled inside. To think it was all burnt down, but hasn’t given up. Nobody has to encourage a plant to live.

When I wandered to the shore of the lake, an astonishing sight struck me. The consequence of the battle I witnessed the other day in the field, near as I could tell. Bizarre flying machines streaked overhead, rocket engines belching grey wispy plumes of smoke out the back as they tore through the airspace over the lake.

Distant muffled pops sounded in rapid succession. A combination of depth charges dropped by the aircraft, and the anti-air guns mounted to the decks of a dozen or so surfaced submarines. Far above loomed something I’d not seen yet, but should’ve guessed they would build. If not the whole of their civilization, at least a military base of some sort.

A distributed cluster of white balloons each perhaps eight to ten feet in diameter held aloft a network of buildings suspended from them, moored together with fishing line and connected by flexible walkways. I wished for binoculars, but even from this distance could discern what various parts of it were for.

One carried a crisscross of long, flat runways suspended under it. For the single seat fighter craft now assaulting the lake presumably. No sign of the birds they once rode. The tops of the balloons looked to be coated in paper thin photovoltaics, the source of their energy. Delicate net-like moisture collectors hung off the sides to extract water from the air.

Of course with water and energy, you can get hydrogen and oxygen. A serviceable, if not ideal, fuel for rocketry. I don’t recall ever showing them how to build rockets, though the metal Tyrant ejection mechanism did have a model rocket engine in it. Must be something they reverse engineered later.

In spite of what they were using it for, that part pleased me. I want to see them excel. But at the same time, every new innovation they produce is immediately turned to the purpose of killing one another more efficiently. Intelligent stupidity. The spark of brilliance needed to design fantastical mechanisms, but the blinkered, brain damaged single mindedness needed for mass murder.

There I stood, anguished by the juxtaposition of the two, but powerless to do anything. If I let it continue I knew it would only escalate until the last warrior from each tribe strangled, bit and clawed at one another atop the wreckage of their once great civilizations.

As I looked on in silent consternation, a shimmering red beam leapt forth from what could only be a high powered laser pointer slung underneath one of the floating buildings. Despite a gentle wind buffeting the flying settlement slightly, a gimbal kept the laser perfectly on target, slowly reducing one of the submarines’ anti-aircraft guns to a heap of molten slag.

In response it launched a salvo of missiles, most spiraling about harmlessly but one striking a fighter, bursting in a flash of light and black smoke, the concussive sound of the blast mildly hurting my eardrums. Flaming bits of wreckage rained down on the lake, extinguished by the water as they landed.

“Why!?” I shouted. As if they’d listen. I picked up a rock and hurled it into the fray, hitting nothing. I’d be horrified if I did, but it also hurt to do nothing. This isn’t what she wanted. The crone never would’ve let this happen. She’d know what to do, I felt certain of it. Things had only gotten this bad because she left it all to me.

“Is a shame, yes?” I turned towards the voice. A shockingly beautiful girl stood there, for how long I don’t know. Her hair and skin were both bone white. I’ve never seen white hair except on the very old. Her dress looked inordinately fancy. Red satin with all manner of bows, lace trim, and other embellishments. It reminded me vaguely of Christmas.

“ can see them?” I asked. If so, she’d be the first. “Da, why should I not? I was there when Babulya made them.” I knew of nobody by that name and said so. “Fool. I speak of grandmother, the one who entrusted the care of these little ones to you. A poor choice by the looks of it, but I assume she saw something in you that I don’t.”

Her face transfixed me as she spoke. Immaculate, perfectly symmetrical. Pale as a ghost, with white hair flowing down her shoulders to either side from beneath her frilly red bonnet. The crone never spoke of a granddaughter. Nor could I see any resemblance, though for all I know the old witch might’ve been quite lovely when younger.

One of the little missiles exploded over our heads. I ducked and shielded myself with my arms. She opened a frilly, matching red parasol which deflected the smoldering bits of debris as they fell. “Do you know why they’re fighting?” I plead. “They never used to.” She shook her head, generous white locks swishing about her face.

“Is not in their nature” she explained. “But, they are impressionable. If someone teaches them this way, they will follow it.” I told her about Dan. About the war with the Tyrants. Less than a year ago but to me it may as well have been another life. “No, I think not” she muttered, expressionless. “I see why you taught them war. No other choice. But something else has changed in them, to make them devour themselves like this.”

It couldn’t be Dan. So far as I know he’s in another state. There’s nobody else I know of that they’ll show themselves to, except for this girl. I studied her for clues but came away with very little. Something about her posture, how the light hits her is undeniably fey. If I didn’t know of her relation to the witch, I wouldn’t believe she had human parents.

Finally one of the little missiles launched by the subs connected with the sky base. A plume of black smoke rose from the fire it started and I could just make out frantic efforts by those aboard to put it out. The settlement began to rise. Imperceptibly at first, but then more and more steadily into the sky as the little rocket fighters swarmed around it, jockeying to land.

Seemed that the blues had won, at least for the time being. But they also lost a number of subs. From the outside, and a larger scale, I could plainly see the insanity of all this. But I suppose if I were much smaller, fighting in the thick of it, the whole petty mess of a war would seem infinitely meaningful.

“Looks like it’s over for now.” I turned back to the girl, but she’d vanished. I scanned the edge of the woods but couldn’t see where she went. As expected, I suppose. I briefly searched the sky for any sign of a flying broomstick, but then decided she probably wouldn't use anything so trite. I waited around a bit, but when nothing else of note occurred, headed back to the house.

On the way there, I wondered when I’d see the girl again. Thoughts of her hair, dress and pale features frustrated every effort to think of anything else. Why didn’t the crone tell me she had surviving family? I realized I’d never asked. Even so!

There was so much she left unanswered. Taken to the grave, or whatever became of her body when the Tyrants were done with it. So many questions I wanted to ask, but assumed I would never get answers to. Until today.

When I arrived at school the next morning, she was waiting for me in the cafeteria. Had I been drinking anything I’d have done a spit take. My eyes immediately snagged on her as I scanned the room. Even in normal clothing, she stood out like a sore thumb.

She wore a dress again, but quite modest compared to the one I first saw her in. White wool with embroidered roses around the sleeves, neck and hem. Nearly every other girl in the room was sending furtive glances her way. Some curious, some dubious. Some menacing. I myself couldn’t help but wonder about her.

“What do you think of the new girl?” Tyler asked as I sat down opposite him. I neglected to tell him we’d already met, instead answering that I didn’t think anything just yet. “I love her dress” he gushed. “It’s on point. Maybe a little old fashioned but she sells it. Floral print is all wrong for October too, but she can pull it off with that hair. It makes my whole life come true.” I smiled a bit, and asked rhetorically what his life had been until now.

A teacher’s assistant came by. “None of that sorta talk, Tyler.” I wondered what sort she meant. All he did was amuse me. I couldn’t identify any bad words in it. The TA returned to the corner of the room but continued keeping a close eye on us, as did a few of the other students. Whispering amongst themselves about this or that. Nothing of any import to me, I’m sure.

I relished the chance to get a better look at Heather, suppressing the usual nagging shred of guilt. Certain she wouldn’t notice, as her own attention was fixed firmly on the new girl. I could feel the electricity between them from clear across the room. So palpable that I feared to walk between them! For her part, the new girl paid no attention. Just daintily finished up her breakfast, then quietly left.

The morning’s Bible reading covered the tower of Babel story. I’d long since read it and was privately now on Leviticus, but I find the “just so” stories of Genesis wild and interesting enough as to be worth multiple readings. Yet while it certainly captured my interest, as with the rest of Genesis, I found it filled with troubling themes.

The idea of a great guardian and caretaker who does not nurture and encourage his little fellows to exceed him one day, but instead sabotages their ambitions seemed all wrong to me. If the guardian is our father, what father sees his young son learning to walk, or to read, and punishes him for it?

What father knocks down his son’s building blocks, stomps his sand castle and burns his inventions, then cripples him in some way to ensure he can never do it again? So he will only ever be a child. I couldn’t abide it. That’s not what a good father does, and not something I could ever inflict on my little buddies.

I love them, and delight in watching them grow. I want to cultivate them, never hold them back. If they exceed me, so be it. All children eventually exceed their parents if they aren’t deliberately stunted. If some day there is nothing more I can teach them, no useful thing I can do for their benefit, I’ll be glad. My duty to the witch will be fulfilled.

I badly wanted to write my true feelings down. But they’ve successfully installed a sort of invisible restraint in my mind which turns me away from being honest with them. And, I fear, with myself. I gave in and wrote something bland, approving and submissive. Maybe this way I’d get to hear an entire history lesson for once.

No dice. Something different today. After reading and reflection period ended, we were shooed along into the gym which doubles as a chapel. Certainly large enough, though the basketball hoops at either end diminish the desired atmosphere somewhat.

“October is approaching” boomed the principal, standing at a podium he’d wheeled out from a storage room. “Many of you are probably excited for the coming Christmas season.” Some brief laughter and cheering, cut short when he continued. “But before then, there are some things about the upcoming month that are important for young spiritual warriors to know about.”

He set up a large metal basin atop the podium, apparently designed to mount firmly to it as he bumped it once or twice afterwards and it didn’t budge. Another fellow I didn’t recognize joined him onstage for a purpose not yet clear to me. He poured some lighter fluid into the basin and, as we all gasped, set it aflame.

“October is when Satan’s grip on the world is strongest. Accordingly it is filled with seemingly harmless, fun temptations which are in fact a gateway to worship of the dark lord.” With some grunting, he shifted a cloth sack out from behind the podium and began to remove stuff from it. The first was a fist full of Halloween candy.

He tossed the candy into the fire. It flared up and soon a sickly sweet aroma filled the room. Looked like the ventilation fan overhead was doing double time to get rid of the smoke quickly enough. Fortuitous that it should be there, they must’ve done this before. He now produced a Halloween mask resembling a Jack o’ lantern and put that in the fire as well.

The smell became much worse as the plastic melted. “You see, he comes to you in many forms, pleasing to the eyes and other senses. Makes consorting with dark forces seem fun, whimsical and trendy. You have seen this in so called pride parades, in yoga, in those Pocket Creatures videogames, in “Dungeons and Dragons”, and so on.

But during this month, he does not hide so carefully. Just presents himself in a way that invites the whole family to participate. If they are foolish.” He tossed a DVD of some horror movie into the fire. The noxious mix of candy and plastic fumes started giving me a headache.

“But fear not. You need only put on the full armor of God to defend yourself from these spiritual attacks. First, the helmet of salvation!” He handed the fellow next to him a plastic costume helmet, probably purchased from the same Halloween outlet as the other props. “Next, the shield of faith!” He handed the guy a comically small plastic shield.

So it went, the rest of the pieces being the belt of truth, boots of peace, sword of God’s word, and the breastplate of righteousness. Each apparently symbolizing some aspect of how we’re to mentally prepare ourselves before encountering and disputing ideas contrary to Christianity.

It was a relief when the assembly let out, mainly as I was in desperate need of fresh air. Tyler was there too, looking as invigorated by the display as the rest. I didn’t get as much out of it. But then I don’t think I’m the intended audience. “Wasn’t that cool? God hasn’t left us defenseless against heresy, but equipped us with armor!”

I shrugged, but he didn’t seem deterred. “It really gives me hope that I can change, you know? That I can learn to be the me that God wants me to be.” I furrowed my brow. “I like you how you are” I said. “If God wanted you to be different I’m sure you would’ve been born like that in the first place.”

He vigorously denied it. “The story of Job shows that sometimes God sends us troubles as an opportunity to prove our devotion by overcoming them.” The way he said it sounded halfway logical, if you bought into a whole mess of strange axioms first. My heart sank a little as I listened. They’d gotten to him long before I arrived. Got him believing that he’s the messed up one.

Another surprise awaited me after lunch. As I headed out for recess there was a white bus with the school’s logo on the side that sharply dressed faculty funneled us into. The excess rode in a similarly painted van that followed behind. As I searched for seating I spied an empty spot next to Heather, who grimaced as I approached. “Yeah I know, ew” I mumbled, and passed her by.

On my way towards the rear of the bus, something struck me in the back of the head. I turned and looked at my feet to find a wadded up banana peel from somebody’s lunch. There was faint snickering from various directions. I didn’t have the energy to be upset right then, so I sighed, turned around and resumed searching for seating.

I meant to sit next to Tyler but found that seat occupied by a faculty member in neatly ironed black slacks and a white button down shirt, glaring at me. So I wound up picking an empty seat at the very back, and was surprised when the albino girl in her matching white dress carefully deposited herself next to me, not so much as making eye contact.

For a split second, I saw a pair of piercing blue eyes framed by perfectly parted blonde hair staring over the edge of a seat near the front. They dropped out of sight the moment I noticed. I shrugged it off, then turned to the girl seated next to me. “I never got your name.” She turned to meet my gaze, then smiled and extended a delicate little hand. “Katerinka.”

I took her hand and shook it brusquely, just as my dad taught me to when making somebody’s acquaintance. She frowned and withdrew, apparently expecting something different. A high five or secret handshake, maybe. “Do you know where we’re going?” Still mildly peeved for whatever reason, she took her sweet time to answer.

“Da. Is planetarium. We sign little paper about it, do you not remember?” There’d been something they sent home with the God vs. Evolution DVD we were meant to sign and bring back so I did, but I never looked closely at it. Still, a planetarium! Finally I thought, we might actually learn something.

When we arrived, at once something seemed off. The planetarium itself was an unexpectedly small building in the distance, surrounded by carefully manicured gardens amidst a sparse but picturesque forest. As the faculty filed us off the bus I noticed various monuments along the pathway to the structure bearing reliefs of creation events from Genesis. Strange decorations for a planetarium.

Each was mounted within a frame of what were meant to look like naturally occurring stones, but which I discovered to be stagecraft style plexiglass when I touched one. “Look with your eyes”, the white shirted man scolded. Plastic vines draped over each monument gave them a sort of high fantasy aesthetic. Felt like a theme park attraction.

That feeling only intensified as we continued. The landscaping resembled a Disney forest, abundant grassy meadows sculpted to frame manmade ponds, electric pumps driving various small waterfalls. As we passed a sign with information for visitors, I heard a scratchy, drive-thru style electronic voice.

“As you explore the gardens, open your heart to sensing God’s presence in nature, and bear witness to the evidence of his craftsmanship in all living things.” It went on like that but we were soon too far past to make it out.

Up ahead there were various prop buildings, designed in the style of quaint old timey cottages and even a little schoolhouse. Quite like walking through a Thomas Kincaide painting. If you looked closely at the windows, the walls were bare plywood inside. Just what’s necessary to create a certain impression.

We passed another, grander waterfall which was really just an unusually large plexiglass fountain embedded in a hillside. It made me wonder how much of the landscape itself was real. Who’s the target audience for this sort of thing? It felt cheap, tacky and awkward to me. The whole grounds smelled mildly of styrofoam and glue.

I kept absentmindedly brushing my arms as if to wipe off the essence of it. A regular forest is beautiful enough, and would be an improvement over all this. The most spiritual I’ve ever felt was out in the old forest before it burnt down. To reject what they believe God made, instead reshaping it to conform to a childlike conception of how nature should look seemed unabashedly perverse.

Then came something genuinely beautiful. Until I looked closer, a pattern that would define my experience here. To one side of the path lay a rose garden more elaborate, over the top and colorful than I’ve ever seen. The old man misting the roses greeted the white shirted fellow leading us. Apparently they know one another.

“Charles. Keeping the roses red, I see.” The old man chuckled and sang a few bars from that Alice in Wonderland song before returning the greeting. “I spy some new youngsters! Training them up in Christ, as ever.” They shook hands warmly.

I chose then to compliment his roses. I was given a stern look by our handler for speaking without invitation but “Charles” waved him off, delighted by his new admirer. “The trick is in the preservatives.” He waved the spray bottle around a bit.

“When they are at the most beautiful stage in their bloom, I spray on a coating which keeps them that way as long as possible. Shortens the overall lifespan of the plant, but then, they are most pleasing this way.” He finished spraying the row of roses, the leaves of which I now noticed were browning slightly.

I felt an unexpected pang of pity for the blossom nearest me. The leaves subtly wilting, still alive but just barely. Of all the rotten luck to be planted in such a place, deliberately stunted to achieve a desired result.

I wished I could uproot it, smuggle it out, and plant it somewhere in the wild where it could thrive. No longer conformed to what man thinks a flower should be, instead free to be what nature decrees. I gave it a silently apologetic look over my shoulder as we were bustled along.

The entire time, Katerinka stuck to me slavishly. I dunno why, she didn’t seem to have anything to say. I asked her once why she was following me, she just stood there staring calmly back until I resumed walking. Heather followed too, but at a distance. Any time I noticed, she’d look away and pretend to be minding her own business. Girls are inscrutable.

Finally, Katerinka spoke. She was silent long enough I’d begun to wonder if I dreamt what happened by the lake. “You and I. We need to talk.” I welcomed it, expecting to learn more about her. But she only wanted to talk about me. Really personal stuff I didn’t understand how she could know.

“You ask at the lake why the little ones do not hide from me, da?” I nodded, remembering the encounter. “Is simple. Something poison your heart. Not completely, but if left alone it will grow until it consume you. If you tell me what it was, this will go faster.” I blushed, and refused. “Is a girl, isn’t it” she guessed. Am I really that transparent?

I feel like there’s an additional layer of consciousness necessary for hiding my feelings that I lack. I was never able to conceal them from Jennifer either. Whatever it is I’m missing, girls have loads of it. What an ordeal it’s been to go through life emotionally naked.

“Fine. Yes, it was a girl. I know, you don’t have to tell me. It’s silly. I shouldn’t still be agonizing over it.” She rebuked me. “There, that is problem. Right there. Why? Why turn on yourself? Not enough attackings from outside? Is normal to feel this way. Let it happen, is chemical reaction. Takes time to burn out. The poison is because you hurry it, and injure yourself on top of wound already from girl. Such boy thing to do.”

I felt a lot of things at once. Slightly annoyed that she presumed to know me well enough to play armchair psychiatrist. But also intrigued. A lot of it resonated. She didn’t ask for permission to continue. “When bone breaks, can you hurry it to heal? Anything you do will just make it heal wrong or delay. Hands off, let to heal. So with your heart.”

I just kept walking, absorbing it. Envisioning her sitting at Lucy’s psychiatry booth with the little can of nickels. “It isn’t only that, is it boy? Even so far, I see this place is no help. These people, I struggle to keep food inside stomach. Lumpenproles! A circus of baboons, an asylum run by the inmates.” I smirked. Somehow she could just openly say what she felt. “Yeah” I managed. “I’m...not cut out for this. For other people. I’ve tried, but I’m too weak.”

Again she rebuked me. “I think so too at first. Little fragile tryapka. I wonder why Babulya chose you. But then I watch you among the others, and I see. Outside is weak, yes. Needs much work. But inside is like iron kettle! You suffer in this world while they don’t because they have already let their insides grow ugly as everyone around them. You struggle to keep yours clean.”

My mouth hung open a little. I really did feel transparent to her just then. Some sort of spell? “Is plain to see if you look right” she explained, as if reading my mind. Maybe so. “That is why they let you see them”, she continued. “Clean heart. They can see into it. That you suffer much but do not grow ugly. So you will not hurt them.” She’d not yet explained how she knew, but it did line up with everything I could remember.

It only pained me worse to know that. Because I quickly worked out that it meant they’ve been hiding from me out of fear. As if I could hurt them, even like this. As if I ever would. Then I remembered the battle in the field. When I raised my fists as if to flatten them. Could I really say with such certainty that they’re safe from me? Now, and for the rest of my life?

Must be what they’re wondering. I don’t fear disappointing anybody. Not any human. But I fear disappointing them. What if they’re right? Supposing they see something about me that I can’t. If so I may as well just sign that paper and slowly blend into this nightmare. Finally take my place with the rest, transformation complete. My heart recoiled.

“No. I’m not what they think. Not yet. I can still see them! Sometimes, anyway. None of the others can. They must still trust me a little bit, surely? It hurts that they would fear me. I’ve only ever protected them, how could they think I’d ever bring them harm? Help me. You know something about all this. How do I make them stop killing each other? How do I convince them I would never…”

I peered over my shoulder to see another student eavesdropping, looking equal parts disturbed and confused. Katerinka and I walked a bit faster. When we’d put some distance between ourselves and the other students, she answered.

“I came when I learned Babulya died. I find out from the little ones where you lived. Much work to find where you move to after that. But I have not come to join you back to them. If you love something, let it go, da?

They must make their own future. Much more important problem I have come to discuss. The Tyrants did not simply disappear because you win war. Some survive, then create more. If not stopped, they will spread across Earth and do what they were created for. To us all.”

I shuddered, my thoughts returning to the night one of the pale little creatures appeared at the foot of my bed. How close I’d come. And I know too well what they do with us! What they need to create new Tyrants.

I suppose I’ve always known it wasn’t over. I’d just not seen any for so long, it felt as if I could ignore the problem. Is it really selfish that I wanted to live a normal life for a while? But that was back when I had a very different notion of what this school would be like.

“So what do I do?” She began to answer, but we’d arrived at the planetarium. I zipped my own lips as well with no small degree of frustration, as now the Tyrants were all I could think about. We were directed to sit in the concentric rings of seating around the central projector, and to my surprise, Heather invited me to take the one next to her.

She was smiling, too. What to make of this? She never smiled at me before. “Hurry up and sit” she insisted, “the show’s gonna start soon.” My heart began to flutter, then pound as I eased into the seat and glanced over at her. Nothing seemed amiss. Why the sudden change? I then glanced to my right to find a grumpy looking Katerinka also studying Heather.

“Many places, but you still find worst seat” she whispered to me, voice dripping with scorn. I puzzled over what I’d done wrong, but soon forgot about it when the presentation began. The man who burst out onto the slightly elevated stage on the far side of the room looked to be in his forties but was dressed as if much younger, wearing neon green tennis shoes, flame print shorts and a backwards baseball cap. His shirt read “On fire for God”. I could tell I would soon wish he actually was on fire the moment he started speaking.

“Hey young people! Radical crowd today! My name’s Spanky, I run the youth group that sometimes meets here for Biblical astronomy.” I didn’t dare ask what made it Biblical but had some troubling suspicions. “I’m here to rap with you about space, our planet, and your role in God’s creation!”

To my dismay, he meant a literal rap. It was plodding, based on simple rhymes every verse and was set to an alternating drum and cymbal beat that he played over the sound system from a tape recorder. Sitting through it was grueling, and by the end I felt I’d lost years off my life.

Something about their music and other media has that same uneasy, surreal, forced quality as the cartoons I saw in the textbook. Like the bare minimum of effort was put in to dress up ideological content as a song, a movie, or whatever else. And we were coached relentlessly to prefer “God focused” media over secular offerings as “anything which does not glorify God is worldly, Satanic trash.”

The result being that the school’s entire library of books, videos and CDs are Christian themed. Whenever I’d seen other students trading music or movies it was stuff like Veggie Tales, a rap video about “side hugs”, Bible Man, the Left Behind novels, even videogames based on scripture where you played as Noah striving to collect all of the animals before the flood. It was everywhere I turned, with no respite except at home.

It gave me reason to reflect on how much I could blame any of them. Raised inside something like a bubble made from one-way mirror that you can see into, but not out of. A whole parallel culture created as a Christianized clone of American popular culture so they’d never be tempted to expose themselves to any non-Christian information. So that they’d never run into anybody or any book, film, or song which would do anything except reinforce their beliefs.

Must be pretty convincing from the inside. Like it’s simply reality. Fish who don’t see the water they’re in. They recognize this about people in other religions like Islam or Hinduism of course, as they’re looking into those bubbles from the outside.

They’ve just never turned that same perspective back on themselves, never stepped out of their own bubble. Understandable, if you believe doing so leads to eternal torment. Kinda like the concept of Hell was knowingly designed to make you stay in the fold.

To make you fear and distrust your own doubts, powerfully motivated to make sure everybody you care about converts. As I dwelled on it, I began wondering how I could push them out of their bubble. Even if only for a moment! But, in a way that wouldn’t result in punishment.

The rapping buffoon finished up, then introduced the next speaker, someone who looked genuinely qualified to operate a planetarium. “Phil Rosen”, professor of cosmology and head of this planetarium was well as two others funded by the same wealthy backers.

“Thank you Spanky. And welcome to you all! It’s a delight to see your curious young faces”, he began. “I was about your age when first introduced to astronomy, cosmology, and all things to do with the study of the heavens.

None of you who have ever looked up at the night sky with awe could mistake it for a dry topic, I’m sure. It’s all down to who you learn about it from. I hope to bring the majesty and wonder of the universe alive for you dear children! But if I don’t, there will be no refunds.”

A few quiet chuckles. He turned out the lights, fiddled with a laptop, and the laser projector hummed to life. It turned out to be an unexpectedly riveting experience. Sure, there were mentions of God, creation and so forth but the central focus really was on communicating the scale and behaviors of the cosmos in an approachable way.

My apprehension melted away and before long I felt unreservedly glad I came. I had no choice of course, but this hadn’t turned out to be the wasted day I assumed it would be on the bus. This guy really knew his stuff, and listening to him explaining time dilation evoked warm memories of stargazing with Jennifer.

The lights were eased back on by the use of a remotely controlled dimmer, the projector shut down, then professor Rosen invited each of us to ask him three questions. That’s when I hatched my plan. This guy was purportedly the director of two other planetariums.

Most likely conventional ones, I figured. He also seemed sincerely committed to educating kids about space. Seemed like better than even odds that he’d give a straight answer to any question I posed.

So when my turn came around, doing my best to sound innocently curious, I asked whether it’s really true that the Earth would burn up if ten feet closer to the sun, or freeze if ten feet further away. His ears perked up, he made brief eye contact, then looked at our handlers. For direction, I suppose. One of them shook his head subtly, then gave me a dour look.

“...In fact, that’s absolutely true young man” the professor said. “The Earth was perfectly placed by God at the exact right distance from the sun. Were it any closer or further, we would perish. This just goes to show the perfection of creation, so that we are without excuse. Next question.”

I balked. He prodded me to continue, but my jaw hung open and I couldn’t find words. How could this happen? The students say these things, so you go over their heads to the faculty. But they’re the same way. So you go over their heads to someone like this, only to run into the same thing. How many layers deep? Is there still a world outside of this nightmare?

He’d nearly moved on to the next kid when I was finally able to compose myself. I was not yet beaten and still hoped to corner him somehow. “Is the Earth’s orbit circular or oval shaped, and what’s a habitable zone?” He could hardly answer either without putting the lie to what he’d just said.

“That’s two questions, my dear boy. You’re certainly inquisitive! What a treat. Indeed the Earth’s distance varies greatly from the sun throughout the year, but it also retains heat from when it’s closest, so that it does not freeze while at its furthest point.

This, too, shows the hand of an intelligent architect at work. I’ll say nothing of so called habitable zones, as really, we have only the Earth to base such estimations on. All we can say for sure is that the Earth supports life and appears to be unique in that regard. One more question, please do make it simpler as I’d like to get to everybody before the time runs out.”

I wracked my brain for something plausibly deniable. Something that pertained to what he taught us and could be passed off as the well meaning question of a bewildered child. I’d nearly exhausted his patience when I hit on it.

“When you were explaining time dilation, you mentioned travel times measured in light years. Some of the stars you used in your formula were millions of light years away. How can we see those stars, when the light from them would need to have been travelling for much longer than six thousand years in order to reach Earth?”

He sat there digesting the question. Other students around me began to murmur to one another. I’d done it, surely? Even Heather was staring at me with an expression I couldn’t decipher. Surprise? Concern? Offense? How I wish that came more easily. At last, he cleared his throat and issued a response.

“I’m glad you asked! It’s quite simple, really. God created the light in transit, giving the appearance that the universe is much older than it really is. You could be excused for making such a mistake if your estimations neglected to factor in Biblical truths.” The handler in the corner nodded approvingly, as did the other students around me. Once more I was aghast.

No hope. Any hole I meant for the others to glimpse the outside world through was hastily papered over just as soon as I’d cut it open. Like some inane game of whack a mole, deflecting my every effort to tear down this carefully constructed facade so expertly that I realized he must have decades of experience at it. There was never any realistic chance for a child to trip him up.

I was stopped on the way out by one of the faculty and given a talking to about rebellious spirit this, worldly influence that. I behaved as if frightened so that he’d let up. The last, lingering ounce of guilt for deceiving these miserable creatures finally drained from my body.

Where I felt as if I should be frustrated, instead I was forlorn. Even with a near perfect setup, I hadn’t been able to provoke any unfiltered insights. Most if not all of these kids would grow up still believing all this. They’d probably go to their graves believing it.

Somehow it hadn’t sunk in until now what lengths they would go to. Even on the way in, despite all of the creation themed monuments along the path, the enormity of it didn’t click for me. That they would actually bother to build their own special planetariums to send their kids to, just to be sure that they won’t be told certain things.

Could there be more places like this out there? Maybe an imitation natural history museum with Adam and Eve riding animatronic dinosaurs or something. The absurdity of it made me doubtful, but by this point there wasn’t much I’d put past them.

The principal had some choice words for me but I again acted my way out of it. “How strong is faith that is never tested? What if the others wondered the same thing but never received a Biblically sound answer?” and so on. There’s a formula to it. Once you get a feel for their mindset, devising a response that’ll tick off all the right boxes is effortless.

The psychologist was harder to fool, as usual. But also refreshingly sympathetic as he found the answers professor Rosen gave me as absurd as I did. “Protestants. What can you do? I really don’t see the harm though, if the end result is that the kids are saved from damnation.” I thought to point out he was rationalizing deceit, then remembered I’d already not just dismounted from my high horse where honesty is concerned, but sold it to the glue factory.

“Don’t take that stuff too seriously, anyway” he urged. “You’ll be here for what, three years? Then you’ll have a choice of Christian highschools to attend, many of which do not adhere so strictly to fundamentalist interpretations of Genesis.

These people may seem numerous because they surround you at the moment but I don’t meet many of them outside of work. They’re just a handful of fringe loonies I wound up working for because of an...unfortunate misunderstanding at my old Parish.”

I wondered briefly what sort of misunderstanding it was, but then my mind snagged on the bit about a handful of vocal loonies. I knew that to be false. The other night I'd sought out polling data on the prevalence of young Earth creationism in the US. Everybody I asked on Christian message boards assured me it’s a vanishingly rare perspective, but I now suspected they lied to me out of embarrassment.

The poll I found worded the question “Do you believe all life on Earth appeared in its present form sometime within the last ten thousand years?” I chose this over polls with more ambiguous or provocative wording. How you phrase the question is very important as it’ll drastically affect the results you get.

They were careful, accordingly, to specify a young Earth timeframe and to leave out incendiary language concerning man’s common ancestry with other apes. Nonetheless, 46% of Americans answered yes. A minority, but then I found that it is not close to 100% of Americans who are Christians as we were told in class, but 75%.

A little napkin math yielded a figure of around 60% of American Christians, as a subset of Americans overall, who reject evolution as an explanation of origins and explicitly embrace a young Earth model of creationism. A little more searching revealed that A.C.E. is a commonly used curriculum in thousands of private schools just like this one across the country.

It winded me, like a surprise kick in the gut. I’d made the same assumption as my shrink until then, that this school was some isolated anomaly, an obscure little madhouse unique in all the world that I simply had the rare misfortune of being sent to.

But no, somehow it’s everywhere. Must’ve taken many years to spread this much, surely? For the life of me I couldn’t understand why in all that time nobody ever took up arms against it, organizing an effort to burn these places to the ground. These centers for the assembly line psychological stunting of children.

Contrary to my shrink’s insistence that Catholics are immune to all this, the same polling data indicated that 35% of Catholics had answered the question in the affirmative. When I asked about this on the forums I was told by resident Catholics that those people didn’t count. That the Vatican has always been fine with evolution and embraced it from day one.

The truth turned out to be less rosy. Some guy named Pius the twelfth had begrudgingly allowed the possibility of evolution but expressed the hope that it would prove to simply be a passing fad.

He went on to condemn those who would “imprudently and indiscreetly hold that evolution explains the origin of all things.” Which technically it doesn’t, as abiogenesis is a separate thing, but I doubt that’s what he meant. Some ‘embrace’! These people don’t quite lie, usually. More like exaggerate and polish the facts to support their own narrative. “Almost lies”, you could call them.

That’s when I first realized I should never trust anything they tell me, at least not concerning the church, history, biology, cosmology and so forth. Vaguely brought to mind a William S. Burroughs quote I’d once read about doing business with these people. It seemed dramatic and severe at the time, but I now began to understand what he meant.

Somehow, nothing’s ever their fault. Only the admirable Christians are “real” ones. All great men of Western history were Christians, so Christianity gets the credit for their achievements but does not catch any of the blame for the actions of infamous Christian dictators, who are instead held to have been secretly Godless. Something like the blood libel, but aimed at heathens.

For this sort of person, science proves the Bible if you read it a particular way, anything which flat out can’t be reconciled with it is either a hoax or a conclusion there will never be enough supporting evidence for, that sorta thing. I realize now that I’ll never get a trustworthy answer from them. My shrink was proving to be no different.

I told him about the poll, but he casually dismissed it. “You can’t believe everything you read on the internet. First check if the website you’re reading is Christian. If not, there’s your problem. Any source that isn’t Christian is only going to be biased against Christianity and set out from the start to slander it. Burn that advice into your brain, kiddo. It’ll prevent a lot of spiritual confusion going forward.

But really, we should discuss your internet use. The web is a quagmire of deceit where Satan is very powerful. He plants all kinds of fake evidence against the Bible there to lead you astray! I’d like to send home some software with you, it’s a web filter I use on the computers at home to make sure my kids don’t get into any trouble when they have their computer time.”

I sensed there would be a prolonged argument if I declined. So I accepted the jewel case, slipped it into my bag and resolved to discreetly bin it at the first opportunity. We then talked a bit about Tyler. More shit I didn’t want to hear about how I was encouraging him by being friendly. About how he might try to confuse me, and make me like him.

I found it increasingly difficult not to snap when he did this. I knew that’d get me nowhere, even make things worse, but the attitude evident in the way he talked about it felt like sandpaper dragged over my brain. Even as I pretended to be apologetic, my teeth stayed clenched firmly together.

“A little bird told me you’re sleeping over at Tyler’s home tomorrow” he said. I asked which little bird he meant, but he ignored me and carried on. “This might be a good opportunity to use your budding friendship as an opportunity to witness to him about the sinful nature of the choice he’s made. Hearing it from someone he trusts may prove more persuasive.”

My goodness. It left me speechless, envisioning a swarm of little fellows climbing toothpick scaffoldings around him as he spoke, planting explosive charges all over his body that he might be demolished the same way you would an unwanted building. I scanned his desk for any sign of a tiny plunger style detonator, but he interrupted the daydream to notify me that we’d run out of time.

Dad picked me up this time. Looking unusually grumpy, wearing a blue hat with the logo of that oil company on it. I asked what was the matter but he apparently didn’t feel talkative, instead driving me home in silence. It started raining on the way, and as I grew lost in thought, my eyes came to rest on the serpentine patterns of raindrops as they crept bit by bit down the outside of the window.

He and Mom resumed fighting as soon as I was in my room. In the old house my room was upstairs so I could rarely make out what they were saying when they get like this. Not so in the new one. Now I know it’s almost always about money.

It wasn’t the yelling that kept me awake, not for the most part. Even after it died down I just lay there, mind racing even though my body’s exhausted. Thoughts of Heather, mostly. And Jennifer. Fantasies I might’ve dismissed as stupid and pointless until the planetarium trip. What did she mean by the sudden friendliness?

Experimentally, fearfully, I tried fitting Heather into the space in my heart where Jennifer once was. The structure groaned, small cracks appeared and dust fell from it. Not quite the right shape, but very close.

I found many of the feelings I’d once believed were specific to Jennifer could be adapted to someone new...with a little work. Even as a little voice screamed in protest, insisting that any change would be a fatal mistake.

Why risk it, after all? I’ve only just gotten this mess put back together enough that it works. Another misstep might collapse it for good. Yet the more I fought the idea, the more enticing it grew. If a beautiful creature like Heather believed in me, loved me, became the core of my heart, I could do anything. I felt sure of it.

I know I should be able to stand on my own. But my heart never formed properly. Sorta like that flower at the planetarium, but because it’d been thoroughly trampled as a sprout. Now permanently crooked, only able to stay up with external support. Like vines growing around a trellis.

More than once, we were told in class that everybody has a hole in their heart shaped like Jesus. That only Jesus should go there, nothing else will truly satisfy. We’re meant to intimately love and confide in a long dead Middle Eastern man we’ve never met.

It doesn’t sit right with me. If someone told them the same thing but switched “Jesus” for “Steven”, “Carlos” or “Hank”, they’d understand how I feel about it. The push to make Jesus an integral, load bearing component of our worldview and sense of identity seems intended to make it emotionally impossible to ever leave. So we’ll fight anybody who tries to talk us out of it.

Heather’s like that. Isn’t she? They all are, at least I assume so. If anybody else has doubts, they’ve been a lot more discreet about it. Although, except for my outburst over evolution on the first day, I’ve done an alright job of keeping my doubts to myself. I’m only candid with the shrink, and even then not completely.

When we sit quietly and pray, then talk about how we felt the presence of God or the holy spirit in our hearts, I worry I’m the only one that’s lying. Or maybe none of them really feel it, but pretend to for fear of being the only one left out? So we all gush about how extravagant and beautiful the emperor’s new clothes are, trying to outdo one another.

I could endure it. Even for a lifetime, if it meant marrying a girl like Heather. I tried to picture us as a married couple. What sort of house would we live in? What would our kids be like? What is it I changed about myself to make her suddenly like me, and how can I increase it? Will there ever come a day when I can honestly say I feel nothing for Jennifer?

This focus quieted the chaos of my mind enough that, after about an hour of it, I drifted off to sleep. I dreamt of little people as I often do. Except this time, I was among them. A great chaotic crowd milling about a hillside, most of them clad in shining aluminum armor. The ones who weren’t wore blue tunics.

Behind me, something began to emerge from the lake. Crayfish! But their shells were electroplated with a thin layer of metal, giving them the appearance of fearsome machines. A pair of misters fed from a water pouch kept their gills moist such that they could breathe air. A pair of long, thin cannons were mounted to pivots drilled directly into either side of the poor animal’s carapace. An artillery unit, near as I could tell.

Row after row of these glittering monstrosities crawled out of the water, controlled by the same mechanism I saw them use on the frog before. Speak of the devil, frogs were next. Hundreds of them, all bearing a bubble cockpit on their backs from which the pilots controlled their motions.

An explosion pressed on my eardrums. Blue tunics in the clearing before me were scattered by the blast. Three quadrotors, still bearing the hobby shop stickers, banked towards us before coming in to land. Beneath each one was slung a container of some sort, revealed to be troop carriers as each was gently set down, then opened up.

One of the blue tunics near me, chest covered in military decorations with a tall white hat perched on his head, cried out incomprehensibly. Sounded mad, probably wondering where the anti-aircraft units were.

White tunics in their own glittering armor poured out of the carriers. The quadrotors, having delivered their payloads, detached and flew away. Behind me one of the metal plated crayfish took aim with his cannons. I ducked and covered my ears just in time.

The shells came down on one of the containers, reducing it to smoldering scrap. The armored white tunics were long since clear of it though and took up positions behind natural cover from which to shoot at the advancing blue ranks. Outnumbered, surely? But then reinforcements arrived.

A second wave of quadrotors swooped in and prepared to land. But as soon as they were in range, a volley of missiles impacted them, sending their tangled blades spinning off in different directions as the flaming wreckage buried the poor souls trapped in the containers underneath. I scanned the battlefield for the source of the missiles.

The lake lapped gently at the hull of the sub surfaced near shore. Another missile turret rose from a hatch on top as it swung out of the way. A third wave of quadrotors which had been inbound behind the second now thought better of landing and instead doubled back the way they came.

The blue tunics around me whooped, danced and thumped their chests. Their revelry was short lived. A gigantic shadow fell over the battlefield. Looking to the sky, some sort of airship loomed above us, then dozens of openings appeared in the underside.

An aircraft carrier of sorts. The mantises descended upon us in such great number as to darken the sky with so many beating wings. One landed atop a group of terrified soldiers to the right of me, hacking at them with its serrated forearms as they screamed. Their rifles were torn away, often with their hands or arms still attached.

Another group in front of me formed a semicircle around one of the beasts, twice their height, and focused their fire on its thorax until the top half fell to the ground. Still, it clawed its way towards them until they destroyed the head. The white tunic riding on the back was pulled from his mount and gutted.

Then, a huge section of the airship detached from the undercarriage. At once, a set of six solid rocket engines ignited, slowing its descent. A missile launched from the sub struck it, but it proved too large to be destroyed that easily. Instead it managed a rough but serviceable propulsive landing, then hatches in the sides swung down to act as ramps.

They didn’t even bother putting out the fire. No intent to recover the craft, I figured. Their numbers now tripled, the firefight at the front grew more intense. The men nearest me were still dealing with the swarm of mantises. One of the metal plated crayfish reached out and snatched one in its claw when it came too near.

The graceful, spindly insect was first crushed at the midsection, then meticulously pulled apart with the other pincer. Pieces of it were then drawn into the armored beast’s mouth parts by a set of smaller grasping limbs around it. The rider struggled to free himself from the straps in time, but failed.

Relentlessly the waves of white tunic soldiers advanced on us, focusing their fire on the frogs. Mouths full of mantises too numerous to eat any significant number of, they made easy prey, and before long most of them lay dead or dying. The crayfish however made for more resilient targets.

The coating of metal on their shells repelled bullets and despite their slow speed on land, their claws had no trouble snatching, then bisecting white tunic soldiers and mantises alike. Their cannons went off in a staggered fashion, the shells coming down two by two atop the largest crew container, which some white tunics were still using for cover.

It erupted in a maelstrom of flames and debris, some of which landed startlingly close. Just as it looked like the tide of the battle was turning, the white tunics began to retreat. The floating carrier descended low enough that those on mantises could, with the assist of small abdominally mounted rocket motors I’d not noticed until now, make the short flight back up to it.

The great ungainly craft then slowly rose into the sky. Blue tunics around me cried out in relief, embraced one another, then set about tending to the wounded. Believing it was over, as did I. Our remaining artillery units crawled ahead, the fellow with all the medals and ribbons apparently deciding the next move would be to press our advantage.

I hung back, helping a medic bandage a fellow who lost his arm to one of the mantis riders. I could scarcely believe my little buddies were the authors of such barbarism. The same fellows who once tenderly bandaged my wounds, sung softly to Winston until his fear faded and kept the crone company for all those years. Now ripping each other apart and wading through the gore.

I felt the ground beneath me shudder. At the same time a short, bright flash stung my skin. Shielding my eyes with my hand, I lifted my gaze to the distant field ahead. The sight that greeted me was hauntingly familiar. A dull orange fireball rose lazily out of the ring of dust and debris at its base, growing into a column of turbulent grey smoke.

Then the sound reached us, and the blastwave with it. The grass all around me, each blade many times my height, thrashed about in the violent gale. The deafening roar lasted several seconds during which all I could do was huddle over the wounded soldier, clutching my ears in agony.

When it finally subsided and I felt it safe to again look towards the impact zone, there it was. The still rising, now exhausted cap of smoke and dust trailing a long, thin column below it down to a flaming crater. I wept, the tears stinging my scalded face on their way down.

They actually did it. Somehow it never occurred to me, I always assumed their better nature would stop them short of this. I don’t know why. Like the witch said, they’re too much like us. Their fatal flaw. A hot, dry breeze began depositing a thin layer of smoldering ash onto the survivors. Though, that’s probably an optimistic term for them. They’d discover why soon enough.

I woke up choking on a scream, twisted up in my sheets. I sputtered and gasped, then dry heaved over the edge of the bed. It took me a good five minutes to slow my breathing and another ten before my heartbeat returned to normal. I’m no stranger to nightmares, but they’re usually vague and abstract. What I just saw couldn’t be dismissed so easily.

At least it wasn’t another one about Jennifer. Do I really not endure enough while awake, that my subconscious feels the need to rake me over the coals every night? Surely it isn’t selfish to expect dreams to occasionally be comforting or beautiful. If I could only return to the forest every night, perhaps take tea with the witch, I’d absorb every sling and arrow without complaint.

My mood lightened somewhat when I remembered what day it was. Truly a rare occasion, nobody’s ever invited me over before. I had Jennifer over a few times way back when, but mostly to work on that project together.

That was the pretense anyway. Half remembered images of the mushroom cloud returned again and again to the forefront of my mind as I washed up, brushed my teeth, got dressed, then made my way to the kitchen.

“Oh good, I was about to come roll you outta bed.” Dad now wore not just the company cap, but a jacket the same color with a logo on the left breast pocket. I winced, but as I didn’t want to fight on the drive to Tyler’s, kept my mouth shut. While I ate breakfast I noticed a light, airy feeling. Relief, like a compressed sponge being allowed to expand back to full size.

I realized on my last bite of choco puffs that it was simply the feeling of not being at school. Normally by now I’d have my nose in the Bible, taking notes in preparation to write the usual supplicatory essay. Instead, having survived my first week more or less intact, I had an entire sunny, free Saturday ahead of me.

A short drive later we entered an overgrown forest road blocked by a motorized gate. Unsure what else to do, Dad got out, pushed the button on the little intercom to one side and explained why he was here. Sure enough, a moment later the motor whined to life and the gate clumsily trundled off to one side, screeching along the way.

The road continued well into the woods until we came upon a gorgeous three story home in a clearing. The first floor was cobblestone, or at least made to look like it on the outside. The floors above were polished white wood with grand, sweeping inclines that intersected to form the roof.

“This is the kind of house I’ll be able to buy us when business picks up” Dad commented. Again I bit my tongue. Out of the corner of my eye I could see him glance at me a few times, perhaps expecting more of a reaction.

Soon a familiar face appeared in the panoramic front window, then Tyler emerged and greeted us. His father, a stout muscular man of perhaps forty, followed close behind him. My dad and Tyler’s made introductions, then got to talking about general Dad stuff. Sports, stocks, politics, that kinda thing.

We were given the OK to continue ahead into the house and told there were healthy snacks on the dining room table. There were, and the inside of the house was every bit as lavish as the outside led me to believe! “You didn’t tell me your Dad’s loaded” I mumbled through a mouth full of fancy cheese cubes.

“Oh, yeah. I suppose so. I don’t really look at it like that. This is just how I grew up.” I then asked if there was any soda in the fridge. “No, no. He won’t allow it. No sodas, no processed foods, no unfiltered tap water. Says there’s contaminants in everything. Estrogen gets in the water from prescription drugs people flush, from BPA in plastics and so on. He says that’s why I turned out like this.”

Like what? I mulled over it trying to connect the dots while scarfing down chilled prawns. His dad entered and let me know mine had left. “I forgot to ask him if you have any allergies. Probably should’ve done that before I let you eat anything.” I shook my head, mouth still stuffed, and he smiled in amusement.

“So how’d you get so rich?” I asked after belabored swallowing. Tyler shot me a stern look, which his dad also noticed but waved off. “Fine question. That’s how to learn, and if you want to succeed in life you’ve got to find out how others do it. Have a seat in the livingroom. Tyler, why don’t you get out the movies and games for later.” Tyler ran off while the two of us settled into facing recliners.

“Before we get into any of that” he started, “I’d like to know the nature of your interest in my son. You must know by now that he has a certain problem. I need to be sure you don’t have it too, or that you won’t encourage it.” I looked bewildered and answered that I simply like spending time with Tyler and feel like we have a lot in common.

“You like girls, don’t you kid?” Weird question. I nodded, which seemed to put him at ease. “That’s all I wanted to know. I had a good feeling about you anyway, and I’m rarely wrong. You’re a straight shooter. That’ll get you far.”

I wanted to argue that in fact it’s only a good quality until you run into people with power over your life who don’t like what you have to say, but I kept it to myself, not wanting to alienate my host.

“Tyler also tells me you talk about technology a lot. That’s actually how I made most of my wealth, as an inventor. I bought this house with investment money. My inventions sometimes attract the wrong kind of attention from the government and big oil, so we have to move around a lot, change our names. It’s kept Tyler from making many friends. I’m glad he’s found a good one in you.”

The stuff about changing their names perked my ears up, though I couldn’t say why. I did appreciate the praise though, and really did feel a connection with Tyler. “You given much thought to your future, kiddo?”

I nodded and told him that someday I want to own a sailboat. He looked impressed. “That’s more of a plan than I had at your age. You’ll need some cash in the bank to buy one of those, however. Any idea how to raise it?”

I answered that I’ve always liked fine, intricate machinery and often take apart broken stuff to find out how it works. I didn’t tell him that it was building the settlement for the little guys that really ignited my interest in such things, as I’ve learned not to be so forthcoming about it.

“Good, good. You have a bright future ahead of you then. Especially going to the school you’re at. A lot of guys I’ve worked with in the past went there. It’s all about who you know and what church you go to. That’s the code, y’see. Just a friendly off the cuff question they’ll ask you during job interviews around here. To make sure they’re hiring the right kind of people.”

I asked what happens if you answer the wrong way. “Why would you? Just go with the flow and you’ll be taken care of. All the big employers around here are run by entrenched Christian families. Go to the right school, make the right friends, attend the right church and you’ve got it made. Everybody else, well...they deserve what they get for turning their backs on Christ, know what I mean?”

He flashed a conspiratorial grin that I realized a few seconds in I was meant to return, so I did. His tone changed after that. Formal until recently, but now more chummy and familial. We’d crossed some interpersonal threshold I couldn’t understand the nature of. I put it down to copying his expression and made a note to do that more frequently in the future with other grown ups.

“So what is it you invented that people invest big bucks into?” I pried. “Must be pretty high tech.” He grinned. “Do you want to see it?” Of course I did. He led me to the garage, then pulled a tarp off of what looked to be a pretty standard motorcycle, albeit with some weird stuff bolted on where the fuel tank should be.

“All my investors are fine, trusting, churchgoing folks. My bread and butter. With anybody else you get all sorts of whiny nitpicky questions about how it works, why I haven’t mass produced it yet if it’s so great, blah blah. The trick is finding people with deep pockets who are willing to believe. Granted, this is pretty unbelievable technology. It’s a motorcycle that runs….on water.”

He studied my face. Then frowned. Had I not reacted correctly? I did the same grin from before but it only further confused him. “You realize what this means, don’t you? Our planet’s covered in water. Seventy percent of it! All of it usable as fuel for any car or bike outfitted with my technology.”

All sorts of alarms were going off in my brain. I could feel something was wrong but wasn’t yet certain. So I asked for an explanation of how it works. “Oh, you’ll appreciate the elegance of it. You pour water into the fuel tank, then it’s broken down into oxygen and hydrogen. The hydrogen is then fed into the fuel cell, which powers the motor. It can also use a regular combustion engine, some people like the noise.”

I narrowed my eyes and studied the contraption. Something was missing from the equation. Then, in a flash, it dawned on me. “How does the water get separated into oxygen and hydrogen? That can’t just happen by itself.”

His friendly smile vanished, and his next words were very carefully articulated. “Clever kid. Well you see, there’s a standard car battery that provides the current necessary to perform electrolysis.”

Electrolysis. I know what that is, I thought. The little guys use it to make rocket fuel. But they’re always pumping energy into the process, it’s very lossy. If they could get more energy out of the hydrogen than they used to extract it from water, they could just use the hydrogen to power the electrolysis in a feedback loop that would output a constant excess of hydrogen gas with no need for the solar panels.

“The best part” he continued, “is that the only exhaust is water!” I scratched my head, looking over the bike a few more times to make sure there wasn’t some part of it I didn’t understand, then asked him why not pipe the water from the exhaust back into the fuel tank and run it forever on the same water.

I’m not the best at reading faces. But I recognize irritation very well. I’ve seen plenty of it and it has a sort of Pavlovian connection with impending suffering for me. My anxiety grew as he wiped some sweat from his forehead with a monogrammed silk handkerchief, stuttering a few times before deciding what he wanted to say.

“Well, obviously that wouldn’t work. You’d lose water vapor over time, it’s not a perfectly closed system. I did work on something like that once! I sold kits for a permanent free energy magnetic motor back in the day until the Fed stepped in and shut me down. Didn’t want such revolutionary technology making it to the people, you see. They’re always stifling honest, hard working entrepreneurs and suppressing all sorts of miraculous innovations.”

It seemed to me that all he’d built was a spectacularly inefficient electric motorcycle which performed an unnecessary and highly lossy conversion of energy from electrical to chemical, then back to electrical. I’d be surprised if he could get five miles out of it. Maybe those few miles would be enough to demonstrate it to investors though.

He seemed like a smart guy. How had he not already figured out it wouldn’t work the way he described to me? Surely he’d given it a test drive and run out of battery pretty quickly. It didn’t make sense. Unless he was somehow making money by deliberately misleading people.

But that couldn’t be true. He’s Tyler’s father. Tyler’s wonderful, there’s no way his father would be somebody like that. I couldn’t leave it alone, though. I never can. It always destroys me but I never learn from it, something in me just forces the issue every time. Even when I can tell it’ll just bring on a world of hurt.

“I don’t think this can work" I opined. "The energy is ultimately coming from the battery, and if I remember right, splitting hydrogen out of water is maybe 10% efficient. Even if it were 100% there’d be no point, you could just use the energy from the battery to directly power the motor.”

He scowled for a moment before recovering. When he replied it was in a disturbing singsong tone, like a radio personality or the narrator in a commercial. “Revolutionary technologies are never recognized in their time. Neither are the men who invent them. They laughed when Galileo said the Earth orbits the sun! They laughed when Columbus said he’d sail around the Earth.”

I started to reply but he wouldn’t let me. Cut right in, put a hand on my back and led me to the living room. “You know what your problem is, kid? You pick everything apart. Tyler told me the other kids don’t like you, now I see why. That’s really something you should work on. You won’t get far dissecting and scrutinizing every little thing.

You gotta learn to just let a good thing be a good thing. It’s all about having faith. All of my investors have powerful faith, I couldn’t have interested them in such an exciting business opportunity otherwise. It’s the very best virtue you can have.”

I had a good sense of why someone like him might think so, but didn’t agree. Sensing I was on thin ice, I simply nodded, told him I’d give that some thought, then ran off to find Tyler. He’d amassed an impressive stack of both DVDs and games for the newest console. I’d never met anyone until then who owns it.

It’s a real marvel to behold. Clean lines, shiny finish, glowing disc slot and touch sensitive wireless motion controllers with little screens in ‘em. Nothing I’d ever dream of asking Dad to buy. “Just more shit to clutter up the entertainment system cables, waste your time and rot your brain” he’d say. No doubt he felt that money was better spent on cases of motor oil.

I first perused the games, excited to put the advanced beast of a machine through its paces. “The Bible game?” I murmured in confusion. I flipped through the cases. Ultra Noah’s Ark 3D. The Zoo Race HD. Catechumen 2. Bible Adventures 3. Captain Bible in The Dome of Darkness HD. Left Behind: Eternal Forces 2. The You Testament 3. It just went on like that!

“Don’t you have any normal games?” Tyler seemed confused, then aghast. “You mean….secular ones? Of course not. Dad wouldn’t allow that trash in the house.” We played the Noah’s Ark game for a bit, trading off every level. It was a reskin of a popular shooter but everything from textures and weapons to sound effects and music had been replaced.

The goal seemed to be putting unruly animals to sleep with a slingshot. It was unbearably dull, so at my request, we switched games. Left Behind was some sort of isometric strategy and combat game where you try to convert bad guys by singing, and kill the ones who won’t turn to Christ. Though of course the game stresses that it’s in self defense. Yet more of that familiar perspective, where the entire non-Christian world is an enemy to be feared and fought.

Catechumen 2 was another shooter, but you could force enemies to convert by blasting them with energy beams from a magical sword whereupon “Hallelujah” is sung by an unseen angelic choir and the enemy kneels in prayer. Perhaps born out of frustration with certain nitpickers who cannot easily be talked into converting?

Captain Bible was similar, you played as a superhero sent to liberate a city “enslaved by Satanic lies” which turn out to be expressions of skepticism. You download the necessary verse to rebut the “cyber lies” from “scripture stations”, then confront various characters like a false Christ named “Lamb Master”, a drug dealer and so on as the boss battles.

None of them were any fun. Shoddily made to deliver a particular message with quality as the secondary concern, a theme I’d noticed in absolutely all of their media so far. But we’re supposed to grin, gush about how much better it is than secular media and ask for seconds. Not today! Not while I’m with somebody I don’t have to act around.

“None of this stuff’s any good.” He looked baffled and asked what I didn’t like about it. I found I couldn’t articulate the difference without having him play some secular computer games or something, then realized this stuff was all he’d ever known. To him, it’s as good as it gets. I must seem like a snob. So I put a sock in it and said we should watch some DVDs instead.

Despite myself, I cringed when I saw the covers. I don’t know what I expected. “Colby the Christian Computer”, a musical about a robot evangelist. “Psalty the Singing Songbook”, “Bible Man versus the Shadow of Doubt”, “God’s Not Dead”, “Do You Believe”, “Rappin’ Rabbit’s Christian Habits On Ice”, “Davey and Goliath”, “The Creation Adventure Team” which looked to be an imitation nature science show starring a bearded guy alongside various anthropomorphic dinosaur puppets, and the same “Evolution vs. God” video I’d been sent home with.

“You know, I have the new Doom game at home” I offered. “You fight demons! It’s very Christian, and an awesome game. I could bring that over next time.” He waved his finger at me. “We don’t call worldly things awesome in this house. Only God is awesome.” I shrugged. When in Rome.

We settled on watching a documentary about a boy who had a near death experience and claimed to have seen God, Heaven and angels. It rang a bell in my brain as I recalled the boy admitting in a recent interview that he’d been coached by his parents to make it all up for the press. I got my phone out and brought up the article to show Tyler.

“Well, I’m sure sometimes people do make up stories to get famous and make money. But they can’t ALL be fake, and if even just one of them is true, it still proves Heaven is a real place you go when you die.” The problems with that reasoning troubled me, but Tyler’s the last person I wanted to upset, so I sat quietly through the rest.

Afterward he asked if I’d like to watch a “Doctor Dino” lecture. I declined, trying not to betray how much the prospect of sitting through another 90 minutes of that sort of thing horrified me, and suggested we instead play outside. Good call as it turned out. The woods behind the house were even more embarrassingly lush than the ones Dad drove us through on the way in.

I nearly didn’t notice the cat on the way out. Very old, raggedy fur and lanky proportions. “Oh, you found Mister MacGufferson!” Tyler exclaimed, kneeling to pet the cute, if weary looking animal. “He’s barely a pet in the regular sense, just kinda wanders wherever he likes and sometimes comes here to be fed and loved on. I have a soft spot for animals so he always gets what he wants from me.”

With permission, I joined in the petting. It warmed my heart how Tyler doted on the crotchety old cat. “We adopted him from the shelter, he was a stray before that. Dad kept asking if I wouldn’t rather have a kitten. But everybody wants kittens, they never have trouble finding a home. It’s the elderly ones that need help.”

I could’ve hugged him right then, but spied his Dad watching us from the upstairs window and thought better of it. I gave Mister MacGufferson one last chin scratch for the road, then followed Tyler into the dense forest. We’d not made it a hundred feet before he cried out “STOP!!” I froze in place, heart pounding. “What is it? A hole? Snake? Trip wire?”

He walked slowly up to me and focused his eyes on something. I followed his gaze and, once my own eyes focused on it, I discovered a little spider cowering on its web just two feet from my face. Its body covered in the most beautiful, intricate markings. “That’s Henrietta. She just got done building that web, don’t you dare go and destroy it already. She’s a dainty little miss gosh darnit, so treat her like one.”

I carefully sidestepped the web. He directed me to a well worn path he’d made specifically to avoid destroying spiders’ webs. “They’re God’s creatures too. Lots of people don’t think of ‘em that way because they’re so small nobody ever sees how pretty they are up close. They eat, they breathe, they have their own little lives just like us.

It’s easy when you’re so big to just mindlessly destroy their homes or even their lives without so much as realizing it. What if some big powerful monster wrecked your home and stepped on your Mom and Dad? You’d want a creature like that to be gentle with you since you’re smaller and weaker, right? So that’s how we should be. To cats, even to little bugs.”

He blew gently on Henrietta. Must’ve done so before, she behaved as if that was the all clear signal and timidly resumed building her web. I made a point thereafter to pay close attention to the path before me and more than once it paid off as I avoided stepping on snails, a few millipedes and a banana slug.

Along the way, Tyler informed me of the scientific name for each of the species we saw. I didn’t know he was so knowledgeable about animals. “I’ve got the whole set of Zoo Books back home, we could look at those after we’re done out here.” I told him I wouldn’t mind it. Might be the only thing in the house that wasn’t Bible flavored.

Felt something like a jungle expedition. Vines draped from the forest canopy, thick vegetation obscuring the forest floor. We caught a brief glimpse of a deer and several rabbits at various points.

“He really owns all this land? Your Dad I mean.” Tyler nodded. “We’re called upon to be good stewards of nature. It’s why he’s worked so hard on inventing cleaner transport technologies. His inventions are going to change the world some day.”

I really, really wanted to keep my trap shut. How I wanted to. I fought it as best I could, but like always it clawed its way up out of my belly, then bashed against the back of my teeth until I let it out. “I’m pretty sure your Dad is scamming money from people.” Tyler continued walking as if I said nothing until he finished processing the statement, then stopped cold.

“What do you mean?” There was a guarded tone to his voice I knew meant I should pick my next words very carefully. “The way he describes how the motorcycle works is impossible. It could drive for a couple miles but then it’d run out of battery. The way he says it works would violate the laws of physics.

All I can figure is that he takes them for a short drive to convince them it works, gets them to invest money, then once enough of them figure out his game, he moves you and your Mom to a new state where nobody knows him yet. That’s why he keeps changing your names. It’s an obvious scam.”

Tyler’s face contorted in slow motion. I could tell I’d hurt him, but not how badly until he spoke. He didn’t blow up at me. Even worse, it was that fragile but steady manner of speech reserved for the times when you’re inches away from hauling off and hitting somebody.

“You’ve made some mistake. This is my Dad you’re talking about. He would never lie to anybody, least of all me. You say it’s obvious to you that it can’t work, but it isn’t obvious to him, and he’s the smartest guy I know. Who’s more likely to be right, a grownup or a kid?

Personally I think it’s more likely you’re just too confident about your own judgement. Like you’re always right about everything and never make mistakes. I can see how it would look like a scam to you, but that’s simply not what it is. It can’t be.”

I bent over backwards to apologize and insisted I meant no disrespect to his dad or to him. It seemed to fall on deaf ears at first but the more I prostrated myself, the more he softened, until the damage was more or less repaired.

“You really have to stop being so sure you’ve got it all figured out” he urged, what I chose to interpret as well meaning advice. “That’s part of why the other kids pick on you, yanno. I don’t mind it so much but it can really be difficult to tolerate sometimes.”

I wounded me to hear that from him of all people. But if Tyler thinks so, maybe there’s something to it. I was quiet for some time and must’ve seemed troubled as eventually Tyler said he didn’t mean to come off as harsh, and really did like me.

“You focus on the little details. You’re sweet to all the tiny creatures, and it really meant something to me when you salvaged my barrette. You’re the only person in my life besides Jesus who’s on my side. So I’m gonna be on yours too.”

I thought about the day we met. About the time he showed me where to hide so I could get all my tears out without being seen. He really had been on my side from day one. The only kid in that school who ever felt like a real person to me, rather than a bipedal cruelty dispenser.

“Oh I’m on your side all right. I’m always gonna be. It’s a conspiracy now, you realize.” He cocked his head at me, so I elaborated. “When at least two people are in on something, it’s a conspiracy. Now we make our secret plans. We’ll need a shared cipher so we can send secret messages. Oh! Codenames! We’ll definitely need codenames, that’s the first thing.”

So we brainstormed our codenames, writing down the ones that made us laugh hardest. In the end, he chose “Retribution Salamander.” I wound up with “Exploding Eagle Justice.” Which I suppose is the particular brand of justice commonly administered by incendiary birds of prey.

For an hour and change we just ran around playing spy, making gun shapes with our hands and shouting shooty noises at each other from behind various trees. It was a trick to do this while avoiding spiderwebs, which is how he finally got me. “No, no force fields. You already used that. Don’t say I missed you either, I got you that time, you’re dead as it gets.”

Little did he know that death is the most fun part of the game. That’s where the dramatic speech of the dying villain comes in! “Perhaps you’ve won the day Retribution Salamander” I wheezed. “But what sort of world will men like you create in my absence? A world where salamanders dole out brutal uncompromising retribution while eagles, their explosives forever disarmed, are powerless to achieve justice!?”

Then I keeled over and made all sorts of exaggerated dying gasps, gurgles and moans. He complained that I was ruining the game by turning it silly, but I kept gasping, gurgling and flailing about on the ground until he laughed. If they laugh, you got away with it.

“Hey, wanna play Tough Guys?” I’d never heard of it and said so. Tyler produced a small bottle of hot sauce from his pocket. “I learned this at youth group. We take turns drinking from it. More and more each time. First one to tear up loses.” I asked why that meant you’d lost. “Duh. You can’t be a tough guy if you cry.”

I soberly reflected on that idea for a moment before indulging him. Every time I drank, he egged me on in a gravelly Batman style voice. “You wanna be a tough guy huh?? You’re just a weak little sissy if hot sauce is all it takes to make you cry! Why, I wrassle me up a gator, punch its eggs out and eat ‘em raw every morning! Then I fight a bunch of flesh ripping weasels! Then I juggle those exact same weasels with my pecs! Are you man enough? WELL ARE YOU!?”

I laughed, sputtering up some of the hot sauce. “It doesn’t count unless you keep it down, drink again.” I plead my case but was overruled, so I took another swig. He won in the end, but I put that down to experience. Plus I’ve never handled spicy foods terribly well, and near the end I absentmindedly itched my eye...not realizing my finger had some hot sauce on it. I really don’t recommend that.

Once we ran out of games to play, we just set to wandering, talking about life. I found out he’d broken his nose exactly how I assumed and told him I wished I’d been there to take the punch instead.

I also found out his Mom’s pregnant like mine, so we’re both gonna be big brothers. I felt exhilarated, but confused and worried. The same feeling you get when you can’t tell whether you’re in danger.

I’d only known Tyler a week. Was it really safe to open up...completely? I dreaded it. The last person I made myself fully vulnerable to on purpose was Jennifer. When she left, I decided I was wrong, that it really is just me against monster world. That sealed it. “No more risks from now on” I’d vowed. It’s just life trying to trick me into letting my guard down again.

Yet, I felt safe too. Exhilarated, confused and worried, but safe. Hopeful, just cautiously so. That’s alright isn’t it? The same doubts Jennifer provoked in me now resurfaced. That perhaps I’ve gotten it wrong all my life. That perhaps there are good people in the world, perhaps I’m not really alone.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Yet, I had to try again. What else is there? It’s like Tyler said. A lone candle, drifting by itself through the darkness, is too easily extinguished. I must’ve been quiet for a conspicuously long time, as Tyler asked me if something was wrong.

Decision time. I’d have to answer him, and could hardly lie. He wasn't the sort of person I now felt comfortable lying to. And if we were really gonna be friends, I didn’t want to start that habit with him. But to completely bare myself would be to trust that he is what he seems. That I won’t be hurt again, that the world is not so sharply divided between myself and the ogres.

“Ever since I met you” he ventured, “I felt like you just plain don’t like other people. I dunno how else to put it. I mean, I have all the reason in the world to feel that way but I don’t. They don’t just pick on me because they’re evil. They’re rebuking me for my sinful choices. I remember that whenever it hurts, whenever I want to say some unkind thing to them.

Jesus told us to turn the other cheek, after all. So I listen and try to learn from it. To find out what I’m doing wrong so I can change. Then they’ll welcome me as a friend, because I’ve gotten right with the Lord. Even if they seem cruel, I know in the end I’m the one that’s wrong because scripture says so.

Being set straight when you’re in the wrong can be painful. In fact it usually is. But you know what my Dad told me? He said we’re like glow sticks. Sometimes we need to be broken before we can shine. If you look at it that way, they’re doing me a favor.

But you. You take it all personally! Gushing a gallon of blood from every little nick and scrape, falling apart every time somebody has a little fun with you. They’re not that bad, you know. I don’t think you ever really gave them a chance.”

I thought about it. Then thought about it some more. It sickened me to hear him defend how they treat him. Stockholm syndrome, I think it’s called. I sat there, mulling over all of it, trying to pick out what I did and didn’t want to tell him before deciding I may as well just lay my cards on the table.

“I didn’t start out life hating people” I began. “In fact I spent the last ten years or so trying like hell to be likeable, because I was lonely and wanted friends. But no matter what I do they hate me, something about me attracts aggression. I still don’t fully understand it or I could make it stop. I can tell you what I’ve figured out so far, though.

The first thing I noticed is that people I’ve just met often don’t understand me the first time I say something. But I don’t slur my speech. Nor do I have a thick accent, so what gives? The best I can guess is that the human brain, to conserve calories, focuses mainly on picking out the most commonly used phrases.

A sort of subconscious level of speech recognition that keys into cliches, colloquialisms, pop culture references, slogans and so on. If you don’t communicate that way, people stumble over your words. It forces them to begin consciously interpreting what you’re saying which annoys them as it requires more energy than usual. This makes for a less than ideal first impression.

It’s not like I do it for fun. I’ve always preferentially used the most accurate phrasing over the most familiar. Precision of language was important to me because I thought it would prevent misunderstandings, and that misunderstandings were why people hurt me. Now I know it isn’t that simple, but by this point I don’t know any other way to express myself.

This often makes them irritated at me, even though I’ve not said anything unkind to them. This in turn makes me irritated back, but they don’t recognize they’ve done anything unreasonable. So when I retaliate, to them it seems unprovoked. Something about how their brains are wired, or how mine is, causes the maximum possible friction between us. I don’t want it to, but I don’t know how to be any other way.

Worse still is when you can get them to understand the words you’re saying, but because they don’t understand what you mean by it, from their perspective you seem like a rambling madman. You can’t ever suggest that the problem is their incomplete understanding of it, or any other topic, because to them it feels very much like they do understand it completely.

They aren’t aware of the parts they don’t know about yet, so whatever portion they do know about seems like the whole enchilada. From their perspective I must seem unjustifiably sure of an idea that to them seems like nonsense, because they interpret the holes in their own understanding of it as holes in the idea itself.

If these were the only problems, I wouldn’t hate other people, but myself instead for failing to engage and integrate properly with them. But they aren’t simply lazy or difficult to communicate with, they’re proactively malicious.

When they’re irritated, they do not hesitate to misrepresent you. Yet they cry bloody murder if you misrepresent them, as if that’s a tactic reserved for their exclusive use. They impose themselves as far as their strength allows, then collapse in tears and cry persecution if ever the fellow under their boot gets the whip hand over them.

The very best outcome you can hope for when you argue with one of these creatures is that he’ll privately recognize you are correct. Even then, he will dig in his heels because he wants to win the argument, or at least not obviously lose it. But then the next day you’ll overhear him repeating your ideas to somebody else as if they were his own.

If after having raked you over the coals extensively based on a misunderstanding, they discover that they were in error to do so, they expect immediate forgiveness. Dreading the prospect of being on the receiving end of such treatment in retaliation, they will all of a sudden say very noble sounding, superficially high minded things.

They’ll say that violence never solved anything. That holding onto hate does more to harm you than the other guy. Can’t we sit down and reason together like civilized people and so on. Ideals that were nowhere to be seen a minute ago!

How forgiving or judgemental they are depends entirely on whether they already like or dislike that person. Which in turn depends in large part on whether or not he agrees with views they’re emotionally invested in.

If he is especially intelligent and uses it to argue for their views more articulately and effectively than they’re able to, they will regard him with extreme favor. A sort of cognitive exoskeleton to augment their own ambitions, the only application for intelligence in excess of their own that their ego allows them to appreciate.

As a consequence, there’s a lot of money to be made eloquently telling people that whatever they already believe is the truth. But if the same man uses his faculties to instead dismantle, diagram and discredit those views, the ogre reacts with horror and fury, as if you’re somehow brutalizing them.

Such people can abide a simpleton voicing opinions on either side of an issue without feeling threatened. It’s only when they hear something disturbingly credible which they can’t abide if true that they fly into a rage, no matter how politely it’s put forth. As if they can make it untrue by killing the messenger.

They do this because for an ogre, there is no such thing as entertaining an idea without also accepting it. To them, argumentation is not the reasoned exchange of ideas in pursuit of improved understanding, but a fight to the death.

If ogres have a pre-existing affinity for someone, most likely because he does a good job of stumping for their ideals, that guy can do no wrong in their eyes. They will rationalize any transgression of his, painting him in the best possible light and giving him the greatest possible benefit of the doubt. This is the essence of politics so far as I’ve been able to tell.

However, if they harbor a grudge against the fellow, they will instead pick out and magnify any past transgression of his that they can dig up. If they cannot find any dirt, they’ll either invent some or grossly exaggerate. Never will they feel a hint of remorse for slandering him! Even less so if they are part of a group. Ogres are pack animals you see.

The magic of mob aggression is that no single member feels responsible for harm they collectively inflict. And should the target complain of the harm visited upon him by this mob, they will trivialize it, accusing him of exaggerating his suffering in order to play the victim because that’s the narrative necessary to stave off remorse.

That is, until one of them becomes the new target. Then, one of the very same people who before mocked the suffering of the fellow he and the others inflicted it on suddenly howls in agony, believing that it’s an entirely different matter now that he’s on the receiving end.

These qualities make it impossible to convince myself that I’ve merely misunderstood them, that I’m entirely at fault for how they treat me and so on. The exhaustive gauntlet of self-scrutiny I put myself through years ago, reasoning that if so many people react badly to me, I’m the common denominator and therefore bring it on myself.

But none of them ever experience self-doubt to that degree, or they couldn’t carry on as they do. Even if I am constitutionally abrasive, I cannot find a way for it to justify the awful things they’ve done. They even seem to recognize that cruelty is what’s wrong with the world...when done to them...but never make the connection that they’re the sort of people who make it that way.

Don’t let them make me ugly, I used to tell myself. Fight it at any cost! For all the good it did. My insides are much uglier now than even a year ago. I can feel the stains they’ve left on my heart. The more I think about what they’ve done, the more I want to hurt them. I should be free to put back into the world the suffering it inflicts on me, right?

Whatever others do to me, I may do to them. If that’s not the case, it means I am the one person in the world who’s fine to abuse, where others are not. I want to reject any line of reasoning which leads to this conclusion as it’s transparently designed to screw me.

...But at the same time, "Everybody else does it so it's okay for me to" is naked, empty rationalization. There’s still a piece of me which realizes that it’s hardly a valid justification for anything. If everybody else thinks that way, the world stays shitty. Last year I figured out that I have a choice whether or not to contribute to that.

It’s the only power I have in this world. They can trample into the dirt everything I ever cared about, everything I liked about myself. They can ruin every precious thing, drag my battered body through the dirt, feed me leaves, call me names and make me cry.

But they’ll never, ever make me hurt anybody weaker than I am. Not for revenge, and certainly not for fun. I’m still firmly in control of that. So long as they’re powerless to make me cross that final line, they can’t make me into one of them. If they do, then there’s no point in asking Jesus or anybody else to save me. There’ll be nothing left worth saving.”

It must’ve been a lot to absorb, as he looked drained just from listening to the whole mess. It was a solid minute or two before he could think of anything to say. I don’t blame him. I’ve been bottling it up for so long, the resulting deluge was bound to drown anyone nearby once I finally pulled out the cork.

“That’s really how you see humanity? No wonder”. He gazed mournfully at me. “What it must’ve been like for you, looking at other people that way for all these years. I can scarcely imagine it. You know, you’re the most thoroughly lost person I’ve ever met. But you’re not alone anymore.” He leaned in and embraced me. I sat there in shock for a while before relaxing and hugging him back.

A feeling of lightness came over me, like the next gust of wind might carry me off. I laughed, not at any joke but rather the only fitting expression of how I felt as much of the accumulated weight of my life experience until now was lifted from my shoulders. In that moment, I rejected monster world. I just couldn’t sustain it anymore, not after meeting Jennifer, certainly not after meeting Tyler.

It felt precarious and terrifying. However bleak, there’s also a degree of comfort to be found in monster world, if only because it’s so familiar to me by now. If I really meant to destroy it, I’d have to swear never again to retreat into it, no matter how painful life may become. Like ripping off a bandaid, best done all at once lest fear stop you. So just like that, I did it.

The two rays of sunshine piercing the grey stormclouds multiplied. Faster and faster, merging as they met, until there was only sunshine all around me. My heart soared. Exhilarating, but also scary. I couldn’t shake the feeling that a huge part of myself had just died.

Tyler reached out, smiling gently, and wiped the tears from my eyes. I’d not even realized they were there. “I wanna tell you something”, he said. “You’ll roll your eyes I bet. It’s Biblical. I’m not trying to make you believe anything, but there really is a lot of stuff written in there that relates to what you just told me. Can I share it with you?”

I grimaced a bit, but right then I found it impossible to deny him anything. So we picked out a spot in the shade of a tree amidst a sun soaked meadow, then settled in and began talking. Tyler did anyway, for the most part I just sat and listened. “You know, early Christians were persecuted by everybody. Jesus himself was mocked, wounded and crucified for delivering a message the people at that time did not want to hear.

As you say, the world is a dark, evil, sin drenched place. Because Satan rules this world. Nothing good comes from it, but there is hope. For Christians, this is not home. It’s a temporary gauntlet we endure to prove our worth, on our way to our real home in Heaven where our real father is waiting.”

I protested that I already have a real father who I love very much. He had an answer for this however. “Matthew 23:9 says we are to call no man on Earth father, for our only real father is in Heaven.” I didn’t much like the sound of that, but kept listening.

“In Matthew 10, 34 through 37” Tyler continued, “it is written that sometimes following Christ will make enemies out of the members of our own family! But that our first loyalty must be to Christ, even over family members, and that anyone who loves their mother, father or siblings more than Christ is not worthy of him. If my parents were to insist that I not worship Christ, I would be right to cut them out of my life.”

That only made it worse in my mind. I don’t love anybody more than my family. I didn’t even love Jennifer that much. If some strange man told me to love him more than my family, and that if I don’t then I’m not worthy of him, I’d tell him to fuck off. But I promised to hear Tyler out, so I made an effort not to interrupt again.

“You see, this terrible, bleak world of sin and cruelty is on the way out. It will be destroyed very soon, Jesus was clear about that! Every nasty unbeliever who picks on innocent, sweet Christians will suddenly discover we were right all along, then they’ll experience richly deserved suffering.

First at the hands of the antichrist and demons set loose upon the Earth during the Tribulation, then again in Hell. For they will appear in front of Christ, and as they denied him on Earth, he will deny them before the Father. Then they’ll be cast into the lake of fire where the worm that eats them does not die, and the fire is never quenched, just as it says in Mark 9:48”.

It stunned me. Not because I found any of it persuasive, but because it sounded so familiar. He was once again describing monster world, and the same sort of bitter revenge fantasy I’ve often entertained during my loneliest, darkest moments.

The “me against the world” perspective. That everything outside of the self, or the in-group, is miserable horrid garbage. That every outsider is a vicious monster deserving of torture. “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature” I once read someplace.

If he told me this a week ago I might’ve embraced it. Hearing him describe it was like looking in a mirror. And with that mirror held up, I could for the first time see the true ugliness of it. Every little stubborn, frightened, angry, wounded, hateful flaw laid within me bare and magnified for easy recognition.

It would’ve been such a natural fit for me until today. But having rejected monster world as a delusion born out of pain, fear and loneliness I could hardly adopt a worldview effectively identical to it, if much older. I found it somewhat comforting that I was not the first person to see the world that way, but it only reinforced my conviction that I’ve always been wrong to.

The world isn’t evil. It isn’t a dark place, not even mostly. Being hurt narrowed my vision. I saw only the bad in the world, in society and the human race. Blinded to the beauty all around me, blinded to the kindness in others, only begrudgingly allowing one or two people at a time into my heart.

It’s a sickness. A sick view of things I couldn’t see for what it is until I stepped out of the bubble I was in and looked at it from the outside. Only an illusion all these years. One I built around myself, to insulate me from humanity so nobody could hurt me that badly ever again. Just as countless have done before me, and will continue to after I’m gone.

That isolation is what made me sick. Being cut off from the rest of humanity warps the way you look at things. Makes you suspicious, exclusionary, disdainful of outsiders. The fear which comes to rule your heart soon invents monsters in every shadow, murderers behind every tree and assumes the worst of everybody.

I did this to myself by pushing people away. By keeping my guard up all the time. Nobody can hurt me if I don’t let anyone in, I’d reasoned. But deeper than that, because I was hurt, on some level I believed it was because I’m a bad person.

I let them convince me that I’m dirty, that there’s something fundamentally wrong with me. So I pushed people away, even good people, not wanting them to waste their time getting tangled up with such a wounded, tarnished fuckup.

That’s why I always make it bad. Why I assume the worst, why I deal with everybody at arm’s length and otherwise self-sabotage. Because someone treated me like trash, and I believed them. The exact moment my perspective began to distort.

That’s when the world around me went from a place of light, color, sound, wonder and the endless delight of exploration and learning to a grey, frozen wasteland devoid of life, beauty and any other reason to continue. The moment monster world was born.

“But even the best of us are tainted” Tyler continued as I emerged from my inner world and returned my attention to his speech. “Original sin, the first disobedience to God, left a mark on our souls. We’re dirty, and only the blood of Christ can wash us clean.

Until then, we are too dirty, inferior and unworthy to be in God’s presence. The only way we can become good enough is if we devote our lives to worshiping his son, Jesus Christ. Then God forgives our many severe flaws and is gracious enough to-”

I broke in here, having heard quite enough. “The flaws he made us with? Gracious enough to what? To spare us the torture pit he built himself?” Tyler looked shocked, but when he recovered, went about rationalizing it the same way as the school shrink.

Namely that we’re all worthless garbage who inherently deserve to be tortured forever, but that by joining a particular religion and believing what they want me to, my inferiority can be overlooked and I’ll be spared.

The global flood notwithstanding, I’d been able to struggle with and work past a great many Biblical teachings that didn’t sit right with me before this, but now finally arrived at a brick wall. Tyler had done for me what nobody else could.

By holding up that mirror, he showed me how ugly I’ve let them make me. How severely I’ve deluded myself in a desperate bid to protect my heart. It took Tyler to show me that monster world isn’t real, and never was. I desperately wanted to do the same for him.

“No.” I muttered to myself. Tyler cupped a hand to his ear and asked me to speak up. “No! I’m not dirty. I’m not tainted or inherently bad. Neither are you, neither is anybody. I used to think that way, because bad things were done to me. But that’s the perspective of a scared, wounded child.

I’ve grown too much in the last year to go on looking at the world like that. There’s beauty everywhere! In the forests, in little spiders, even in other people. Sure, some of them are just nasty for the fun of it. But assuming they’re all like that almost made me miss out on meeting Jennifer. On meeting you. Who knows what other nourishing human connections I’ve passed up because of fear?

Yes, I’ve been damaged. Maybe I’ll never finish fixing myself. But I’m also not just gonna collapse in a pathetic, tearful heap of wreckage, shaking my bitter little fist at the world in condemnation. Lashing out, looking at every new person as a threat instead of a potential new friend. I’m sick, Tyler. Or I was until now. It really is a sickness too, I finally see that.

The irony is, you think the monster world perspective is the only healthy way to be, and that liking boys is the real sickness. You’re the one that’s lost. In a deep pit of misguided self hatred they’ve stuck you in. Even if it kills me, I’ll one day pull you out.”

We sat there for another few minutes in silence, each digesting what the other had said. Finally, he found what he wanted to say next. “Even if you really believe all that, at the end of the day, God demands certain things from us. You can say those things are wrong, but you’re only human. Is it not written, “The wisdom of man is foolishness to God”? And that “There is a way that looks right to a man, but leads to death”? We’re to walk by faith, not by sight. Which are you doing now?

It’s like I told you before. You rely too much on your own flawed human reasoning. God can’t be wrong! If God’s word says it’s an affront for a man to lie with another man, then it is. Right is whatever God wants, wrong is whatever He doesn’t. There’s no arguing with it.”

I couldn’t abide it. Slavery and mass murder become virtuous because a book says so? Because the authors claimed a supernatural being told them it’s okay? The creator of the universe really descended to just the Middle East and just a particular time period to inform humanity that he despises homosexuality, that women and slaves should be subservient?

“If that’s who God is” I responded, “no wonder the other kids behave the way they do. They’re just being as much like him as they can. I don’t believe an actual supreme being could really be like that. The way he’s depicted in the Bible just seems like a magnified tribal warlord from that era, with all the same psychological qualities. The same exact prejudices and desires.

The notion that an actual supreme being would tell slaves to obey their masters, that two men or women who love each other must be executed, or that women should never hold a position of authority over a man is laughable.

But it makes perfect sense if it was instead written by men from that culture and time period, primarily concerned with using the fear of an absolutely powerful, invisible tyrant to keep women subservient, to keep slaves in line, and to suppress stuff that grossed them out or made them feel insecure.

Why is the supreme being male to begin with? How could it be gendered? Does it have huge magical genitals out in space somewhere? Why does it want everything ancient man wanted? Why does it hate everything ancient man hated?

If we’re its children and it’s our father, how could it drown millions of us? How could it command one group of us to exterminate another right down to the women, children and livestock as in Joshua and Numbers? What sort of human father would ever do that to his kids? How could he bear to sacrifice even one of them, whatever the reason?

Why, then, should we hold a greater being to a lower standard of parenting? You might say it’s because God is unknowable to us, but then how is it that ancient man knew enough about him to fill a book?

I can’t believe that. I won’t. The fitful, capricious, jealous, vengeful character in scripture cannot be the true supreme being. It’s far too human for one thing, embodying all of our worst qualities and few of our best. If it were real, I would dedicate myself to destroying it at any cost.

If I have to, I’ll climb the tallest mountain, yank it down from the clouds by the beard and cut its throat open. Then I’ll root out and burn away every one of its churches, temples and mosques from the surface of the Earth.”

Tyler scoffed. “Listen to yourself, that’s foolishness. If you oppose God, I guarantee you’ll lose.” It seemed to me an appeal to give up, to quietly accept tyranny just because the tyrant is irresistibly powerful. But does might make right? I’ve never believed that, and still don’t.

“Maybe so” I conceded. “But someone important once told me something that’s been stuck in my heart ever since: Real strength is fighting for what you care about, even when you know you can’t win.

If I were to devote my life to dismantling something monstrously larger, older and more powerful, with armies upon armies of devoted followers ready to defend it, no doubt they’d easily crush me. But I say that’s a life well spent, and not at all a bad way to die.”

He told me I was crazy, and I agreed there was probably something to that. But I also didn’t much see what it had to do with anything. We argued a little while longer until he grew tired of it and decided we should leave that topic alone for a while.

Tyler was somber after that, as we picked our way through the foliage in search of nothing in particular. I worried I’d upset him. When I asked if we were still friends, he smiled and told me there were never any conditions. That friends are friends, and at least now he knew me better.

“I didn’t expect it to go that way” Tyler said. “In the textbooks and my comics, it happens very differently. They are always eager to hear about Jesus and give their life over to him at the end.” I realized it was the first time he’d testified to anyone and briefly regretted pushing back so hard.

“I just don’t want you to burn in Hell.” I processed that for a bit. It dawned on me that he’d been fundamentally well intentioned. In his mind I’ll suffer eternal torment if I can’t be persuaded to revere Jesus. None of that seemed creepy to him, it’s what he was raised with.

“Supposing”, I offered, “that they made Hell up. So people like you would be strongly motivated to convert everybody you care about in order to save them from going there. So you’d be afraid to leave the church, or even to entertain doubts too seriously.

Heaven too, as the incentive. Who doesn’t want to be reunited with their dead loved ones? Who doesn’t want to live forever? If you promise people they can have those things if they believe what you want, I’m sure you’ll get a lot of takers. It hooks into some really deep seated primal fears and desires.”

He gave me a funny look, like I was talking nonsense. “Nobody designed it that way. That’s just how it is. God told them, then they wrote it down. Anyway I thought we weren’t gonna talk about this. It’s not exactly how I envisioned spending the day.”

I told him I never envisioned winding up in such a school either. That I didn’t want any of it in my life but it kinda forced its way in anyhow. “If it weren’t for you, I don’t think I could do it. You’re the diamond in that dungheap. The brightest ray of sun piercing through the darkest clouds.”

He fidgeted and blushed. I wondered if I’d said something offensive or confusing until he told me I’m sweet, but still lost. A foreigner in a land the customs of which mystify me, so that I’m always making enemies I don’t mean to.

“You already understand the importance of being physically gentle to smaller, weaker creatures. But there is another kind of gentleness I fear you haven’t yet learned. I do like you though” he confessed. “I think we’re always gonna be friends no matter what. Maybe I could show you, and it would be okay.”

Show me? I badgered him about what he meant. He beckoned for me to follow him deeper into the woods, so I did. We soon came upon a small quarry he explained had been dug out by the construction crew that built the house. “Saved us some money to get the stones for the first floor from our own land.”

Nothing inherently remarkable about a quarry...if not for the sprawling civilization carpeting the sandy floor which I immediately recognized as the work of the Homunculi. I staggered backwards in shock. Faint signs of hustle and bustle confirmed they weren’t even bothering to hide themselves from us. Impossible! What could it mean?

“That’s how my face looked when I first saw them too. Pretty amazing, huh.” I didn’t know what to say. A billion different questions clogged the way out through my mouth such that I just stood there for some time, saying nothing. Then I remembered that day out in the field when I showed Tyler the wreckage of a sky settlement.

He never asked me what it was. Seemed to instantly recognize. Just wanted to know where I found it. He must have known all this time! What a waste it’d been to hold it back from him. So I filled in the blanks. Told him of my own little people, the city in the woods, the sky bases, the colony at the bottom of the lake. Everything but the witch, on account of his beliefs.

He listened, eyes wide and mouth hanging slightly agape. As shocked to find someone else who knew of the Homunculi as I was. But then, it made some sort of sense. Until now I’d met nobody in all the world as sweet, trusting and forgiving as Tyler. Who’s endured so much, but remained so clean inside despite it. Of course he could see them. Of course they allow it.

We carefully scaled our way down over the cluttered rocks, not quite boulders but still a pain to surmount. Then slowly approached the edge of the city built upon the quarry’s sandy, desert like expanse, taking care not to step on any of them. A wonder to behold! They did here what they always seem to do in any new place.

Explore. Colonize. Invent. Improve. “I brought them some of this stuff, but they built the rest” he admitted, pointing out a transparent vinyl umbrella in particular. They’d removed the handle and turned it into a sort of agricultural dome tent, the inside of which was lush with various hydroponically cultivated plants. Herbs mainly, of an appropriate size for their use.

They all wore brown tunics and had devised their own set of technologies for thriving in this environment. I spotted several of them scaling a large pile of rocks, wearing something like a backpack mounted set of mechanical spider legs, each leg many times longer than the operator is tall.

It made easy work of climbing over adverse terrain, and each looked to be powered by the wind up mechanism found in walking robot toys, music boxes and the like. Tyler claimed credit for this as well.

“Early on I busted open any wind up toys I had and gave the doohickey inside to them. I just kept asking Dad for more toys like that and he kept buying ‘em. I wanted to see what they’d make out of it.”

I could remember countless times I’ve scrounged up various trinkets to give my own little guys for the same reason. Then I saw a bunch of what I thought were dragonflies buzz past. They spiraled around something like an airfield, then came in for landing. I balked. They were all Homunculi, wearing a set of mechanical dragonfly wings on their backs! Each powered by the same wind up mechanism from before.

“Aren’t those pretty? They invented them after a raid by some other kingdom, or tribe. I don’t know. The invaders wore white robes and rode praying mantises. It was awful! So many died, there was nothing I could do, I didn’t want to hurt any of them in spite of everything. But the white robed ones were repelled, and since then these quarry dwelling fellas have been working on their own flying machines as a countermeasure.”

I watched in awe as a motorized winding machine docked to one of the flight packs, then with a great effort and commotion, rewound the spring inside it. One of the little brown robed fellows then removed the pack, strapped it on, and took off. Flew right past my head, receding rapidly into the distance in the direction of the woods we came from.

Simply marvelous! Most of the buildings were domes, made from some sort of cloudy glass. I noticed subtle ribbing all down the sides and wondered why until I saw a new one being printed. They’d built a mechanism that smelts sand into glass and deposits it layer by layer to form habitable structures.

The result was a gorgeous smattering of domes, spires and more than one grand palace which almost looked as though made from crystal. In the center stood a familiar statue of me holding a baseball bat to the sky, with Winston by my side.

Various long, segmented vehicles crawled about. Clearly based on the same design as the six wheeled transport their ancestors built back in the forest before it burnt down. These new machines had puffy, fat tires each the diameter of a coffee mug, trundling across the dunes carrying ore to be refined.

Mining seemed to be their principal occupation. Scanning the surrounding jagged, rocky walls of the quarry, I realized it made for exceedingly difficult terrain to negotiate if you were Tyrant sized. Up against even much smaller defenders, equipped with machines which make traversing such terrain a breeze, you’d stand no chance of reaching the sands in one piece.

As I studied the landscape, I failed to notice the small crowd gathering at my feet. When I did, it was a trick not to accidentally trample them in surprise. Moreso when the significance of it struck me. These ones would acknowledge me! Here I stood, and there they were, surrounding my shoes in warm reception.

I carefully knelt to get a closer look. Men, women and children milled about, talking excitedly about my arrival. Could it be that some of them recognized my face? Sporadic gestures back towards the statue in the center of their city confirmed it. Oh, the relief. The powerful waves of relief threatening to overwhelm me!

But why? What changed? I turned inward to perform an inventory of my heart. At the same time I wracked my memory. All I could come up with was Tyler’s spiel. That, by seeing my own warped perspective of the world reflected in the Bible’s, I’d at last brought myself to reject it entirely.

That dreadful exam question about the global flood convinced me of who I want to be. Tyler’s summation of the Biblical worldview convinced me of who I don’t. In a very real sense, he saved my soul. Just not the way he meant to.

I extended my pinky slowly and delicately towards the crowd. Several approached and placed their hands on the tip. I was helpless but to tear up. The reunion I’ve longed for all these lonely months! Tyler asked why I was crying. I couldn’t think of what to say. I didn’t want him to know they’d abandoned me. Much less that I deserved it.

I became distinctly aware of the sunshine on my back. Of the warm sand beneath me. The natural beauty of the forest around the quarry, and the general beauty of life. The stormclouds had been banished, forever with any luck. Now there was only light, warmth, color, sound and comfort.

It was as though a monochrome filter I’d been looking through until now had suddenly been removed, and I could see the world as it really is. No longer a hostile, barren place but an intoxicating mess of differences, of exciting commotion and possibility.

I’m going to make it, I thought. Through the school year. Through the gauntlet of students chanting “monkey boy” at me, through a life I’d until now seen more as a burden than a gift. An unbearable slog I trudged through only for fear of hurting the few I love who would be devastated should I cut my own suffering short.

“I can do it” I muttered. Tyler cocked his head. “With you” I clarified. “I can do it. I’ll make it through, if you’re my friend. If you believe I can do it, then I can.” He smiled gently, knelt next to me and took my hands in his. Gratitude flooded my heart. That I’d met him. That I’d met Jennifer, however short our time together was. Grateful simply to be alive.

For hours after that we ran through the woods, laughing, hiding, shooting imaginary lasers at one another and whooping like crazed gibbons. It was during this romp that I stumbled across the next settlement. After a while he backtracked to see where he’d lost me to, and set about explaining that the initial settlement had long since split in two.

These little ones wore green. They lived in houses strung up among the trees, as their ancestors once did in the old forest. But also in various outposts mounted to the trunks, flitting between them by way of those wind up dragonfly exoskeletons. How’d they get their hands on those?

As if in answer, I spotted a caravan of the brown tunics at the base of a tree, selling their wares. My eyes bulged. Once again Tyler couldn’t understand what surprised me so. When I spelled it out for him and demanded to know how he’d brokered any sort of peace between the two tribes, he told me about the contagious madness of the white houses.

“Early on, they got along famously. Each produced something the others needed. They traded and intermarried freely. But then, funny buildings began to appear. All the same, little white houses kinda like mine but with metal symbols on top. The brown robed fellows had their own symbol, the green robes had a different one.

The little guys would go into the houses normal, but come out acting weird. That’s when the fighting began. Skirmishes at first, then raids, then full blown wars. I was loathe to interfere, but when the death became too much to bear, I set about flattening those little white houses. They rebuilt them, but I just destroyed them again, making sure each time nobody was inside.

I had to do it dozens of times before they gave up rebuilding ‘em. Once or twice, out of curiosity about what goes on in there, I lay down on the ground so I could peer in through a window. One of them would stand up on a stage before a podium, wearing some grand decorated outfit and tall white hat. He would gesture wildly and speak excited words, though I could not understand.

Why? I still don’t know. Something about those places disrupted their feeling of oneness, instead dividing them. It just spread and spread, like a rash or a mold, until I put a stop to it. I fear what might’ve happened if I’d let it continue. Their weapons are only becoming more powerful by the minute.”

I laughed, refusing to explain why when he asked. Instead I called him a genius, lavished him with praise for thinking of such a thing. Sweet, genuine Tyler. So like him to recognize exactly what had to be done, yet not realize the larger connection. Nor did he need to, I felt. He’d already done it. Saved my soul, even showed me the way to save the little ones.

So I threw my arms around him. We stayed like that for most of a minute before his father interrupted us. “What is this, Tyler? What in God’s name is this?” He pushed me away, visibly panicked. I scanned the trees for signs of the little ones. They’d all hidden and pulled hoods over the trunkside houses so they resembled fungus caps.

“Dad, it’s not like that. I was witnessing to him, he was just so happy that-” His dad barged between us and struck Tyler across the face. He collapsed to the ground, wailing. “Every time! You get my hopes up that you’re healing, then something like this happens. Do you think I’m a fool? Well you won’t be able to fool the Lord when you stand before him! I only do this for you! How it hurts me, but how glad you’ll be when we’re reunited in Heaven! I only do this to save you from the fire!”

I got between them and shouted him down, best I could with the feeble voice of a scared young boy. Called him every nasty name I could think of. Told him he’d have to kill me to lay another hand on Tyler. When I took a swing at him, he seized me by the arm, then spun me around and restrained me with my arms behind my back.

“I wasn’t wrong about you. You’ve got guts. But you picked the wrong battle this time. I thought maybe you’d be a good influence on my son. Show him what a man is meant to be like. But if you’re going to defend his disgusting sin, you’re not welcome in my home or on my property. I’ve been too soft until now. I thought I could coax him back from the brink. Now I see what I have to do. Maybe I should thank you for that.”

He dragged me back to the house even as I fought him, with a bruised, tearful Tyler walking silently ten paces behind. He called my Dad to come pick me up, leaving me out front, pacing around the porch in a furor. How I wish I were stronger. How I wish it weren’t always the ogres in control, however far up you go.

Dad was steamed at me when he arrived, but settled down when I explained what happened to him on the drive home. As we pulled away from the fancy house shrouded by foliage, I saw a forlorn little face peering out at me from an upstairs window. My heart ached as if wrapped in writhing thorns. Agonized by how powerless I’d been to protect my first real friend.

Tyler wasn’t at school the next day. Nor the day after that. I continued as I did before, venturing out to the field each recess to leave the little fellows an empty can and bottle of motor oil. Still no sign of where they were taking any of it, but they would now warmly greet me each time I made a delivery.

Where before it meant the world to me, ever since Tyler disappeared it instead seemed a small consolation. The entire school was abuzz over Tyler’s disappearance. I didn’t hear “monkey boy” for a solid three days.

When Katerinka approached me in the field one recess, some sort of instrument case slung across her back, I thought she too meant to question me about where Tyler had gone. I began to insist I didn’t know before she interrupted.

“Is not about missing boy. I bring gift. Perhaps you are ready for it now.” She set the case down on the grass, flipped open the snaps, then swung the lid ajar. Inside was the strangest violin I’ve ever seen. Comprised of what looked like a tangled mass of black vines, cold and glassy. She explained it was made from obsidian.

“That’s sweet of you, but I don’t play violin.” She gestured dismissively. “Is not normal violin. No need to teach how to play. Will come to you when time is right. For now, just to practice holding it.” I did as she instructed and picked it up. By far heavier than it looked, with an odd fold-down tray to the left side.

“What’s this for?” I said, pointing to the tray. “Paper goes there. Here, take bow.” She handed me the bow, made from obsidian like the rest. The far end bore a sliding brass fitting into which she stuck a quill pen. “This is a joke, right? Am I meant to write something with the bow at the same time as I’m playing? Who designed this thing?”

She glared. “Babulya.” I gulped, and shut my dumb trap. But why give me this? An unwelcome distraction. All I could think about, all I wanted to think about, was how to free Tyler. I’d concocted all sorts of rescue schemes in my head since Saturday. Pipe dreams, most of them, and I knew it. Still, I could hardly do nothing.

I recalled his Dad laying into him. Sending him sprawling to the forest floor in a blubbering heap. Murderous rage welled up within me. Just then I felt a painful prick on my finger, yelped, and nearly dropped the violin. “Careful, fool!” Katerinka harshly admonished. “No, not ready I fear. Not yet.” She snatched it from me and inspected the underside.

In a few places, thorns had emerged from holes in the vines comprising the instrument’s body. I stared at her inquisitively. “You have feeling just now, da? Bad feeling, to hurt someone.” By now it no longer surprised me that she could seemingly read my mind. But the real explanation turned out to be simultaneously stranger and more mundane.

“I told you boy, is no regular violin. Is the Secret of Storms. Forged by Babulya with same magic she use to create little ones and Tyrants. As the little ones do, it peers into your heart. If you harbor evil there, it will see, and refuse to allow holdings of by you.”

I winced. Isn’t it enough that I’m an open book to everybody else? Even an inanimate object can see right through me...though I now wondered just how inanimate it could possibly be. “No foolings of it are possible. For to hold it, your heart must be clean and clear as a glacier. As a crystal fountain.” I assured her I got the idea, then asked why it was so important I learn to play violin in the first place.

“You don’t listen! No learnings require. Just as it see into your heart, your heart can see out through it. Whatever you feel when you hold it comes out as music, and is written in most nakedly honest, beautiful words upon the sheet.” That made some sense of the tray and quill, but it didn’t really explain why any of it was necessary, so I pressed her for more.

“No troubling yourself. For now, is enough that you know, so you can prepare. A time will come when you will hold the Secret of Storms and play the song only you can. Your last, most important favor to Babulya. Until then, clean your heart. Only if it is spotless can you do what you’re needed for.”

Cryptic and worrying like a lot of stuff she says. Must be a witch thing. However she tried to impress upon me the importance of the strange instrument, those thoughts were crowded out by painful memories of Tyler, cowering before his father in the woods. I smiled faintly, imagining that if I were to hand the Secret of Storms to Tyler’s dad, he’d bleed out.

How happy and free I’d been until then. Playing, exploring, confiding. Until the bull entered the china shop. There’s no permanent escape, is there? Monster world has a powerful gravitational field. If you don’t quite achieve escape velocity, you’ll just fall back into it.

No. It won’t suck me back in that easily. All I have to do is wait it out. Tyler can’t be grounded forever! Soon he’ll return to school and, with him by my side, I’ll be invincible. These poor unprepared fools don’t yet know what an explosive eagle is capable of when it joins forces with a retribution salamander.

That sustaining hope got me through the next week. And the next. Every time it began to fade, I doubled down on it. Everything will be right with the world when he returns. He’ll be back any day now, I kept telling myself. I suppose because I couldn’t conscion the possibility that he wouldn’t.

No, he’ll come back. He has to. How could he enter my life and teach me so much only to then vanish from it forever? There’s just no way it can end like this. Such thoughts consumed my mind day after day. If anybody noticed how despondent I’d become, they didn’t say anything. Except for the occasional “monkey boy”, of course.

I distracted myself with the search for the little white houses. Now that I knew what to look for, they were everywhere. I assumed they were homes before. One by one, I rattled them a bit so everyone inside would come out, then squashed ‘em flat. Once, the little fellow wearing the decorative costume and tall hat shouted angrily and shook his fist at me. I flicked his hat off.

As expected, they kept rebuilding them. But I just kept knocking them down. All those little factories for the mass production of maniacs. No wonder they were at each others’ throats. Even after this, they fell back and defended bizarre compounds in remote parts of the field. Fenced in, with row after row of bunkhouses.

There I found they’d confined every member of their population with black hair. No clear reason why, but the fence posts all bore the same symbol atop them as the little white houses. Something to do with the tall hat men.

Of course I immediately tore down the fence and led the black haired little ones back to civilization. The sewer pipe for the blue tunics, the woods next to the playground for the white. I puzzled over it as I did so. What is it about black hair that made them all want to go live in those isolated, fenced in little towns? Or had they been sent there?

The fences, too, were rebuilt several times until I’d destroyed them enough that they just gave up on it. Every time it was the ones with tall hats that organized it, and more than once led the charge against me. Even in swarms of a hundred or so they’re not hard to get away from when they’re on foot. And each time I returned, the tall hat men commanded smaller and smaller mobs.

For a while, those with black hair lived in tents and shanty towns on the edge of their former territory. But these too grew smaller with time as their occupants were gradually reintegrated. Something about those fence towns still gives me chills. Like I prevented something terrible, but only by the width of a hair.

All the while, at every opportunity, Heather invited me to spend time with her. To sit with her at lunch, to hang out in the hall between classes, she even frequently waited at the edge of the field for me. Mystified as to why I wanted to be alone there, but content enough with it not to pry.

It was much needed salve for the wounds inflicted by Tyler’s absence. The more we hung out, the more convinced I became that I’d misjudged her. “You know sometimes when girls are mean to you, it’s because they like you, right?” she once asked. In fact I didn’t. I thought back to the trio of girls who pantsed me at my old school, and their list of boys I snatched.

She sure asked me about Katerinka a lot. I regretted not knowing enough to answer most of her questions. But I kept the fact that Katerinka’s the granddaughter of a witch, and a witch herself, under my hat. Not the sort of news that would go over well in a place like this.

“I dunno. She just follows me around. Tried to give me a violin, then took it back. I don’t know why, or what’s up with her.” Heather then asked if I thought Kat was pretty. I shrugged. “Yeah, I suppose. Kind of.” Heather scowled, but bounced back in an instant when she saw I’d noticed.

“I don’t think she’s right for you.” I shot her a curious look. Right for me how? I nonetheless assured Heather I’d do my best to spend less time around Katerinka. I’d always found that girl disagreeably short tempered anyhow.

“Good” Heather cooed, placing her hand over mine. My heart began pounding. Her hand felt so slender and warm, each little fingernail perfectly painted. Did I dare take hold of it? Cautiously, I turned my hand over and wrapped my fingers around hers. She frowned, then withdrew her hand. “...After you’ve gotten rid of Kat” she stipulated. “Oh...of course” I mumbled, face now red as a beet. “Anything you want.”

By this time, Mom’s baby bump had become outrageously pronounced. Though still worried about Tyler, the fact that I had a little brother on the way and possibly a beautiful new girlfriend made the anxiety a bit easier to bear. But with Tyler’s disappearance in the back of my mind, I couldn’t fully enjoy anything.

Even trips out to the field couldn’t restore my mood. That swirling, explosive delight simply to exist that I felt in the quarry...with Tyler. Now rapidly fading away, as do the details of a dream soon after waking from it. The Homunculi were hard at work building new little white houses. Why? I thought I’d broken that habit. This time they’d constructed it from stones. It was still not much of a challenge to topple.

They must be pretty pissed at me. Not so much as to hide, rather forming crowds around my feet and shaking their fists in protest. What for? Couldn’t they see I was helping them? I spotted a dozen or so in the center of the settlement they’d slowly expanded since the crash, tying rope to the statue of me, struggling to pull it over.

On a subsequent trip, I discovered their settlement mostly empty. Following a trail of stragglers I soon found they’d repurposed the shelter within the cracks of the wall next to the playground as someplace they could gather, listen to the men in the tall hats, sing, clap and so forth.

Hopeless. The mania seemed to have embedded itself inextricably in their little heads. All I could do was continue tearing down those troubling fenced in compounds they kept building. Tyler must’ve made some other change besides simply wrecking the little white houses. But what? If he were here, he’d know what to do.

I winced and shielded my face as a pebble bounced off it. Scanning the wall for any sign of the source, I noticed a pair of the little ones manning a catapult they fashioned. So that’s how it is, I thought. Why do they defend it so? They were fine without it before.

All it seems to accomplish is to spread like wildfire and create artificial categories of little people who become needlessly hostile to one another. Then they wage war. Which makes life miserable, so they turn to the men in the tall hats and their little white houses for relief.

From the outside I could see it as a self-reinforcing cycle, and only meant to do them a favor by disrupting it. Yet however badly I want to help, it clearly isn’t appreciated. What good can I do by forcing my will on them?

Having only recently been welcomed back, I hardly wanted to alienate them again. It came to a head one day while I was toppling their latest, strongest structure of that sort. Something happened which provoked serious self-reflection.

As I rattled the building, not everybody came out. I saw one woman peer out through the open doorway, then duck back inside. However I shook the building, she wouldn’t leave it. So I tore off the roof. That was apparently her cue to finally flee, carrying armloads of books. Big, thick dusty books and various artworks I could guess the nature of.

But the look her face! Her wide, tearful eyes! As she ran, she tripped on herself. The books and paintings tumbled out of her arms and scattered before her. Now filthy from the mud, she turned over and gazed up at me with an expression of undisguised horror.

It pierced my blackened heart. I could handle being ignored. Maybe even hated, if I thought they were just being stubborn. But I cannot survive the way that particular little one looked at me. I do not abide that they should ever cower before me in fear, and decided that so long as even one of them looks upon me as a monster, I am. I may as well have put a Tyrant in place to do my dirty work.

So, for a time I just sat and watched them operate. How they would bring in new people, recondition them, send them out to spread it to as many more as they could. There seemed to be some pattern to it. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but felt a strong sense that I’ve seen something like this before.

There were no visible connections between the little guys, yet they’d begun to behave in concert, like small parts of a larger organism. When observing the territory of the little people who’d taken up a symbol resembling a lightning bolt through a bird of prey, I felt a particular energy. An ebb and flow to how life proceeds, wholly different from the feeling I got in some other groups' territories. They dress differently, they work at a different pace, it’s like something I cannot see is acting on them.

“Egregore, Babulya called it.” I scanned the field and soon spotted Katerinka perched on a log, cross legged, reading her own big dusty book. Today she wore a strange black dress that seemed to me to have entirely too many buttons. She continued before I could so much as make a quizzical grunt.

“When many people work together towards same goal, same ideas in mind, is very much like they join into singular being for however long it last. The others in class would call this the “Holy Spirit”. All that is needed is glue to stick them together. Some mechanism which motivates them to join group, to stay in group entire life for fear of leave it, and to go try to recruit others.

Long time ago, little single celled creatures did this, becoming multi-cellular. Forfeiting their autonomy for benefits that come from working as larger, more organized creature. No doubt, is frightening if you are on outside of it looking in. Most of all because they really only treat their fellow insiders any better than the average person. But such groups can achieve things which you, as an individual, could never hope to.”

I thought back to when they were simpler. To when all they needed was the crone, then me, to guide their way. They’d gotten along alright...with some prodding. But they were helpless to defend themselves against the Tyrants.

I’ve already seen such determination in them to hold onto this despite my every effort to take it away. Perhaps I can use it to make them stronger? I won’t be around forever, after all. By the time I’m an old man they must be completely sufficient unto themselves, not just for material provisions but also self defense.

I hate that it makes them warlike. But until the last Tyrant is killed, maybe that’s how they have to be. The main problem, which as yet I could think of no solution to, is that their newfound will to dominate is focused mainly on other tribes of Homunculi. Even small differences in their rituals, buildings, hats and so on provoke murderous purges.

By October, the lightning bird fellows had assimilated every other group. Burnt down or repurposed their temples, driven out or killed those who wouldn’t convert, and it seemed at last that the troubles were over. But then, it began to split. First two, then four, then seven subgroups, each with their own take on how to worship, who to exclude and so on.

These subgroups resumed fighting, if anything more fiercely than before. Purge after bloody purge, rarely was I around to interfere. I’d come upon wrecked villages, their inhabitants bleeding out in the streets, the remains of their temples crumbling into piles of smoldering ash. Homogeneity was proving impossible to attain, all efforts to do so only making things worse.

The other problem was that I couldn’t very well reach the sky settlements, nor the one in the lake. Whatever form of worship they practice, I had no way of influencing it. Frustration mounted until I at last realized the futility of the whole endeavor and washed my hands of it for the time being. Perhaps it’s just another thing they’ll have to work out on their own.

“You are spending much time with Heather lately” Katerinka pointed out. I acknowledged that and asked what of it. “I do not like her. I have known many girls like her before, they play many games, always mean harm. You stay away from her.” I took umbrage at that, asking what business of hers was it who I spent time with.

“More is at stake here than makings of googly eyes and hand holdings with some cuchka derganaya.” She sounded cross but I tuned her out. Yet again, somebody elses plan I was being wedged into. Besides which, the puzzle of reconciling the various tribes still consumed me, and I’ve never been able to put down a puzzle until I’ve solved it.

How? How did Tyler pull it off? I dreaded trespassing on his father’s land, but resolved that if there were any clues to the solution, that’s where I’d find them. When recess ended, to my surprise we were not directed back to class, but rather into the gym. There was to be another assembly on the topic of spiritual warfare.

This time Katerinka was quicker than Heather, sitting down in the open spot next to me. I thought for a moment the two would throw themselves at each other and fight based on the way they traded glares.

Just then I felt a vague sense that I’d gotten myself stuck in the middle of something dangerous, where the hairs on your neck stand up and a little voice in the back of your brain tells you to flee. But of course I couldn’t, as the assembly had already started.

I surprised myself, feeling disappointed that it wasn’t as theatrical as the last. That one had at least been entertaining. The silver lining was that it didn’t look like he meant to burn anything. Instead the lights dimmed, a motorized projection screen lowered behind him, then the projector behind us began casting images onto it.

“You already know from the prior assembly what spiritual warfare means, and how to defend yourself against all manner of mockers and scoffers who will try to trick you into worshiping Satan. The path to Heaven is narrow, the path to Hell all too wide. It is written that Christ is the gate; that none come to the father but through him.

That will be the key to understanding this lecture. For there are also countless false Christs in the world. Men who try to replace Christ in our hearts. To supercede Christianity with new, false religions even though Christ himself said not to believe any who came after him, making such claims. Muhammad was such a man.”

The powerpoint slide changed. “Muhammad was a warlord with great charisma. Such that people who listened to him speak were spellbound, a cult of personality. That is often how false Christs get their start. Just a few followers at first, then dozens, then hundreds. Then thousands, and now millions! Like a plague spreading across the Earth.”

He proceeded to explain, with the assistance of some strange black and white comic strips he’d scanned, how Islam is actually based on worship of a Moon Goddess. Apparently a demon in disguise. Not something I’ve ever heard from a Muslim, though granted I haven’t spoken to many. I wonder what sort of things they teach their kids about what Christians believe.

“This brings us to Joseph Smith. Another charismatic con man claiming to be a prophet of God! Claiming the world would end soon, as did the Jehova’s Witnesses early on. Of course when it didn’t, they claimed it was metaphorical all along. This sort of retconning is something you’ll see a lot of in false religions.”

I thought back to the numerous verses in Matthew and John where Christ predicts he will return before those standing there listening had died of old age. Before that generation had passed away, and before his followers had fled through all the towns of Israel. Probably not the best time to bring it up though, so I zipped my lips and kept watching.

“There’s a formula to it. You can always recognize false Christs, because they use the same basic scheme every time. They go around proclaiming that the end of the world is nigh, to stir up fear and curiosity.

Then, they tell you that you can be saved if you devote your life to them, becoming one of their followers. But that you must sell or give away your belongings, as material possessions will only inhibit your spiritual growth. Of course, the real reason is to make you dependent on them for food, clothing and shelter so that when you begin to have doubts, it is difficult to leave.

They often also urge you to leave your job and your home, and to cut off family members who disapprove of the group you’ve joined. Turning you against your own family is one of their most sinister tricks. They do this because family members are the most likely to try to extricate you from such a group once they realize the nature of it.”

The slide depicted a sleazy looking guy in a white robe standing above a bunch of followers gathered around his feet. It occurred to me then that if you were to add a beard and a red sash, it could be any given depiction of Jesus I’d ever seen.

“They promise some fantastical reward, exclusively available to members of their group. In Scientology, you get to live for trillions of years with mastery over matter, energy, space and time. In Mormonism, you become the God of your own planet. Basically, some sort of tempting perk that they conveniently cannot prove to you because it happens either at some indeterminate point in the future or after you've died.

That’s just the incentive. The carrot, if you like. But there’s also a stick. Outsiders, who they will tell you are ignorant and depraved, will receive some terrible fate for rejecting the chance to join. Also if they join, but leave it later on.

This serves several purposes: First it's a revenge fantasy for coping with people who mock the group or leave on bad terms. Secondly it's an incentive for members not to leave, to make them fearful of their own doubts, and to make sure to recruit as many of their loved ones as possible.

Naturally they don't want their mother, father, siblings or children to suffer the terrible punishment! This is how they get you to recruit your own children into it, generation after generation. If nobody puts a stop to it, there’s no limit to how large it can grow this way.

Next, and perhaps most sinister, they will target people down on their luck. Impoverished, poor self esteem, in prison, in countries outside the US with terrible living condition and so on for recruitment.

This is done because when somebody is hungry, hurt, depressed or desperate, they're not thinking straight and will often believe anybody who feeds them, clothes and shelters them, and gives them something to believe in. That's why it's crucial we get to them first with the gospel, because if we don't, somebody like L. Ron Hubbard will.

It’s tricky to talk anybody out of this sort of thing, because they make a point to sabotage your critical thinking. Saying that doubt is your enemy, that reason will only steer you wrong, and that members of their group have no need of it.

Now, some of you may have Mormon friends. They will say that Mormonism doesn’t do many of these things. Not today they don’t, but they did early on. That’s why it can be difficult to identify cults, they change over time, trying to become established and gain the appearance of legitimacy.

Once their membership is sufficiently large and stable, they can drop practices like requiring new converts to sell their belongings, or to cut off unsupportive family members. Those practices are liabilities. Necessary in the beginning to retain new converts, but ammo for critics too. This is why the older a cult is, the less of those practices remain.

Islam has very few, as it’s 1,400 years old now. Mormonism has more, as it’s roughly 200 years old. Scientology has all of these qualities as it’s younger than either of those, something like 60 years. The older they get, the less obviously cult-like they become, and the more they take on the appearance of a religion.

But don’t be fooled! God sent prophets before Christ, but none after! While traveling the lands with his group of followers, warning sinners that Armageddon is near, he delivered many inspiring speeches which drew crowds of hundreds or thousands. In some of these speeches he foretold that others would come after him, doing the same things he did, saying the same things, but that we’re not to believe those charlatans! Only Christ!

By sticking to the narrow path of belief in Christ as our Lord and Savior, who rose from the dead, we can be saved from the terrible cataclysms awaiting heathens as written in the book of Revelations. It is only by devoting our lives to him and worshiping him as the only son of God that we may enter into the eternal paradise of Heaven, and be spared the terrible fires of Hell.”

I sat there stunned, having finally connected the dots. I scanned the room around me, searching for anybody else who had the same epiphany. Only Katerinka looked to be on the same page, but rather than horrified she appeared wickedly amused by the spectacle of it. The explicit description of the structure of early Christianity as laid out in the people who don’t realize that’s what is being described.

She gave me a sly wink. Heather, not in on it, misinterpreted the wink and latched onto my left arm. Katerinka scowled back, and latched onto my right arm. I struggled, but neither would let go. Is this my life now? Swimming will be a trick with these two hanging on. No idea how I’ll put on coats either.

I continued to piece it together as he spoke. Jesus had been one of these charismatic speakers who accumulated followers by claiming the world would end soon and that they could only be saved by him. In Luke 14:33, I recalled Christ telling a crowd that nobody who does not give up their belongings could be his disciple.

He’d also once told a rich young prince that wealth would prevent him from getting into Heaven, but that’s in Matthew and refers to a different event. Most of the “sell your belongings” stuff is in Luke, like Luke 12:33 where he says “Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.”

Then there’s the stuff about leaving your job and family. In Luke 14:26 he says "If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters--yes, even their own life--such a person cannot be my disciple."

In Matt. 10:35-37 he says “For I have come to turn a man against his father a daughter against her mother a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law---a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household. Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”

Then in Matthew 19:29, he says “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.”

I wondered if I wasn’t seeing false patterns until then, but it matched up perfectly. Jesus started the world’s most successful end of the world cult. It’s true, he once stipulated that no man can know the day or the hour.

Not with precision, in other words. But he’d also said many times that it would happen within the lifetimes of people alive then, listening to him. It was all just reinterpreted as metaphor when the end did not arrive on schedule.

I balked. Might’ve laughed too, if the situation hadn’t suddenly become so profoundly horrifying. If true, it would mean that a cult had swallowed up much of humanity. Just spread and spread, generation after generation born into it, recruiting by evangelism and the sword.

Now there’s holidays based on it. The calendar divides all of history into the periods before and after the death of a cult founder. Movies, books, toys, games, hospitals, planetariums, museums, even this school. All to create the appearance of authority. Of legitimacy, and truth. So that if it surrounds you from birth and it’s all you ever know, there’s no way you’ll ever think to question it.

It didn’t take long after that to figure out Joseph Smith and Muhammad pulled the same stunt. Must’ve realized how Jesus did it and wanted a piece of that everlasting worship pie. The world is littered with statues commissioned by men who wanted to be remembered as visionary heroes. These fellas just figured out a cheaper way to achieve the same thing, and make it last.

They knew exactly what they were up to. Must have. Jesus predicted in the “end times”, mockers and scoffers would come, and there will be a mass falling away from the faith. He knew eventually most people would realize what he’d done and wanted those who remain fooled to interpret that as a sign of the end of the world. That they might be even more convinced of their beliefs.

Likewise he knew others would come after him, understanding how he pulled it off, trying to do the same thing. So he thought to sabotage them ahead of time. “Many will come and say I am he”. That there will be false prophets, but not to believe them. Only his method proved so incredibly infectious, and efficacious, that it worked anyway. Two more times, at least.

If you boil it down to the basic mechanics, it’s really very simple. Something to make you join. Something to make you stay. Something to make you fear your doubts, and suppress critical thought. “For we walk by faith, not by sight”. “Lean not on your own understanding”. “The wisdom of men is foolishness to God”. “There is a way that seems right to a man but leads to death”, as Tyler once told me.

It’s just information structured in such a way as to motivate patterns of human behavior which defend, reinforce, and spread it to as many hosts as possible for as long as possible. Like a chain letter, which promises wealth or good luck if you send it to 5 friends, but visitation by a scary ghost if you don’t. Or a computer virus. Or…

I thought back to my research into the oil company Dad’s been “distributing” for. One guy at the top who started it, spreading exponentially via recruitment. But then, that’s just one parallel. A fire engine and apple are both red, that doesn’t make them identical. The commonalities didn’t end there, though. The more I thought about it, the more of them I recognized.

The unfalsifiable promise of future wealth if you stuck to it, and recruited as many friends as possible. The fear of missing out if you don’t. The suppression of all contrary information, coaching employees to be defensive and belligerent to anybody trying to clue them into the nature of the scheme or to former “distributors” trying to warn others.

Zombies. That’s what they seem like, anyway. Afflicted with a contagion of the mind which compels them to spread it to others, and to fight every effort to remove it from them. My heart sank still further as I contemplated what I might do about it. I’m too late, aren’t I? Twenty centuries too late. The battle to contain it was already lost long before I was born. I’ve felt pretty small and helpless before, but never more than I did right then.

I already knew from experience that they don’t listen. If you try to reason them out of it they just get angry, sometimes violent. And there’s so many of them that you cannot overcome them by force. The minute any significant number realize you’re not afflicted, they converge on you like sunlight focused through a magnifying glass on some unlucky ant.

The principal ended on a bit about how Al Gore is the cult leader of Global Warmism, the ultimate false Christ of our times. “The difference between global warming and armageddon is that only one of them will really happen. Jesus Christ will return, and reveal all imitators for what they are!” Everybody clapped, while I just sat there looking forlorn.

They could recognize all of this about Mormonism, because they aren’t Mormons. Mormons wouldn’t agree, being just as carefully sheltered as these people are. They can see that it’s how Islam began too, because they aren’t Muslims. Nobody in one of these things can see, from the inside, what it really is. But they can look at people in other religions and chuckle to themselves about how lost they are.

Like they have this huge, selective blind spot when it comes to whatever religion they’re personally a member of, sparing it the same scrutiny they subject other religions to. They take for granted that it’s true just because it feels that way, not realizing that’s just how whatever you’re raised to believe normally feels. That it’s why Islam feels true to Muslims, Mormonism feels true to Mormons and so on.

The perversity of it all threatened to overwhelm me. How had these things spread so effectively? Didn’t anybody ever put together organized opposition? Just follow them back to their hive and burn it so it can’t produce more of ‘em like you do with hornets. The principal headed for the bathroom, and one of the teachers put on some sort of brief puppet show about abstinence to keep us entertained.

I whispered “These people are in a cult, aren’t they?” to Katerinka. She found it terribly funny, so I asked if there was something I’d misunderstood. “No, no. Is as you say. Very successful cult, of the sort that preaches end of world is near. Those weary homeless men with sandwich signs reading ‘end is near!’ you sometimes see on the street corner are trying to start their own. Sometimes, one of them gets a few to listen. Then because a few listen, he seems to know something, so more come and listen. Then he seems even more credible, so yet more follow him, and so on. Much easier before internet.”

I pulled at my hair, still gripped with anxiety, and begged to know what could be done. “Well, one man in old Russia have idea to simply shoot and bury them until they are all in the ground. Bulldoze their corpses into landfills, demolish churches, prevent ever from taking root again. He is why Babulya fled to America, and why her mother and father did not make it.”

That sobered me up quick. I hadn’t really thought through my imagined solution to its logical conclusion. What would the crone think of me if she’d known I would entertain such ideas? Katerinka surprised me again by taking the opposite perspective.

“Are these not same people who purged witches? I argue many times with Babulya that they would kill her if they could. For all of their history, whenever they had the power to destroy people they did not like, they never hesitated to.

Often they have killed on the basis of false accusations they invented, like the ‘blood libel’ they used as pretext to massacre Jews. Or accusations of witchcraft, or that other religion worships demon, or that God of universe hate gay people. Then, when finally they receive long overdue payback, oh how they cry! How they wail and sob, saying “such victims are we” to any who will listen!”

Listening to her speak never fails to chill me. I wondered if, should she ever perform an inventory of her own heart, she might come back empty handed. The part about gay people perked my ears up though. Before I could ask about it, the principal returned, looking refreshed but morose.

“Before I let you go, I have an important announcement about a former student of ours known to many of you. Some weeks ago, Tyler Allen was sent to a special camp outside of the US. It is run by strong, Bible believing men of God who strive to correct wayward youths who have fallen prey to the spiritual corruption of homosexuality.

This is accomplished by time tested methods for re-educating stubborn teens, like hard labor in the hot sun, group Bible readings and condemnation of sin, isolation in ‘the box’ for those who are rebellious, rare but necessary acts of ‘physical correction’, and so forth. It is grueling, but tough love always is. They assure me it’s a sound methodology which has cured many of their sickness. However, some do not survive the process.”

I began to feel sick. He couldn’t possibly mean….? But he did.

“It breaks my heart to tell you all that Tyler died from a combination of dehydration, exhaustion, and attempted exorcism of the demons inhabiting his body which have for so long caused him to sin. It further grieves me to say that, based on the best information available to me, Tyler is now in Hell receiving due punishment for his error.

I know many of you were close to him. Know that he died fighting Satan, but sometimes that old serpent is just too strong. There will be a memorial organized by his parents this Sunday after services. Those wishing to mourn him are welcome to attend. That is all.”

I sat there blinking, still not absorbing it. Some sort of joke, surely. Having a laugh at the expense of 'ol monkey boy. But no punchline followed. He just stepped down from the stage and headed back to his office as other kids around me stood up and headed for the big double doors.

Katerinka put her hand on mine and started to say something a few times, but never got it out. Was she in on it too? Tyler can’t be dead. Ludicrous. What sort of camp kills children? How could such a thing exist in the world? Katerinka withdrew, but continued to watch me from afar as I stumbled along in a daze. Even Heather kept her distance for once.

Tyler dead? No, can’t be. He’ll come back. That’s how it was planned to happen so it still has to. He said we’d always be friends, no matter what. One horror compounded onto the next. It never ends. However I struggled to hold onto my precious epiphany from the quarry, I could feel it slipping away. Torn to shreds by the news that these foul, reprehensible ghouls had killed Tyler.

The reality of it set in gradually. Even when Katerinka tried to approach me, I pushed her away. How could she understand what I felt? I’d never seen her feel anything. Heather, too, cooed and fawned over me. I did not react. To react is to tacitly acknowledge the reality going on around me. As if refusal to do so might snap me back into the world where he’s still alive.

I drew a lot of pictures of him in my binder, tuning out whatever the lesson was in each class. I hardly cared about that anymore. I just wanted to make sure I hadn’t yet forgotten his face. Like writing down a dream while it’s still fresh in memory after you wake up. All the while, I dwelled on what the principal told us concerning the circumstances of Tyler’s death.

I thought back to the little fellows. Their funny hats. Their little white houses. And their fenced in camps. I only had an inkling of what they were for at the time, perhaps wishing to believe they didn’t have it in them to do such a thing. What if I never interfered? Would they really have gone through with it?

Too much like us, the crone said. Fatally similar. As the days went by, they began to blur. Then turned into one long, grey smear. Monster world finally reabsorbed me. I fooled myself into thinking I’d finally escaped. But of course, there is no escape. Never was. All the while my drawings of Tyler started to deviate. I instead began to draw machines.

Hopeless, cold mechanisms. A long line of people fed into one end. The other students, and the faculty from this horrid place. They moved along a conveyor belt. Stripped by robot arms, blasted with water and soap, then subjected to assembly line torture. Each station performed some act of mechanical brutality, after which the conveyor belt whisked them along to the next station.

Electrocution at first. Then briefly blasted with flame. Then stabbed with needles, then their fingers would be severed. Each step organized in order of severity, so they’d stay alive until the very end. At that point their remains were processed into biofuel and used to power the entire machine.

I filled page after page with these sharp, detailed schematics. Something like an automated industrial slaughterhouse with me at the controls. I am helpless but to devise machines. It’s just something my mind does while idle. That habit now intersected with my grief over Tyler’s death as it spiraled out of control.

What variety. What creativity. A machine consisting of a moving wall which pushes them over the edge unless they can fit through a small hole. So that they starve, bicker and fight, the few who make it going on to terrorize the next set.

A room where the whole floor is a slow moving conveyor belt with a furnace at the far end. So they can never rest or sleep, but must keep moving until they collapse from exhaustion and are consumed by the fire.

A room with a low ceiling and an exit which opens only once enough weight is applied to a button just large enough for one person to stand on, such that one of them must eat the rest in order to escape. Of course all that waits for him through the exit is whirling blades.

The designs all employed proven principles and included both electrical and plumbing diagrams. I could not be satisfied unless I knew they would work if built. Some part of be desperately yearned for a day when I could really build these machines, and feed into them their intended fuel.

It pained me to think of how the crone would regard what I’ve become. But I just kept drawing, because so long as I was doing that, I wasn’t thinking about Tyler. When I filled one binder I just moved on to a fresh one, and rapidly filled that as well. How it stewed within me. How I roasted, slowly, glistening, in the fires of my own hatred.

I could feel it ruining me. But try as I might, I couldn’t be any other way. Not after what happened. Not after what they did. Deeper and deeper I descended into parts of monster world I’d never seen before. All color vanished, immersed in a samey amalgam of dull, putrid garbage. Garbage people, garbage school, garbage planet.

Perfect, pure hatred. Burning away every soft part of me. Leaving only the relentless, ravenous, desperate urge to hoist the black flag and begin slitting throats. Of course they were persecuted throughout history!

I cannot possibly be the first to discover their nature and recoil from it. They richly deserved the suffering heaped on them until they took control of Rome as decent, sane people realized what they were spreading and tried to fight it.

But the winner writes the history books. So they painted themselves as martyrs, persecuted bearers of a vital truth rather than simply the most successful of many cults. Even when they’re the ones with their boot on your neck, they play the role of mournful but optimistic victims intent on reconciling with their so called persecutors, who in most cases are actually their victims.

At all costs they won’t break character if it means garnering sympathy and maintaining the appearance of moral superiority. If ever they can make their accuser doubt himself, he’ll be carefully steered to a point where he must apologize, prostrate himself before them and otherwise vindicate their narrative.

They always get away with it, too. There’s just too many of them to oppose, they already occupy every seat of power, and have repeated the lie that they are the golden standard of morality so often that it’s become true in the minds of the general public. Everything they do which appears merciful, from hospitals and prison ministries to third world mission trips, has the underlying purpose of gaining access to the wounded, the gullible, the downtrodden. Ideal targets for conversion.

How richly and intensely I despise them. To the very core of my being. Language does not suffice to express this feeling. If “hate” were written in letters one millimeter tall over and over on my bones until all surface area is covered, it would capture perhaps a tenth of it. As if, should I undertake to wipe them from the surface of the Earth and be struck down in the attempt, my corpse would rise from the grave and resume killing.

I had nothing to say to the psychologist. He’d heard about Tyler’s death and sought to comfort me, a hopeless endeavor. I just sat there, turning further and further inward, as if traveling far enough in that direction might reveal some permanent escape from all this. I nodded periodically whenever I heard a silence, and after enough of that, he released me.

Mom’s turn to pick me up this time. She noticed I was awfully quiet a few minutes into the drive home, but I was no more responsive to her questioning than I had been to the therapist’s. Only when I was finally in my room with the door closed did I allow myself to cry. I’d not really been suppressing it until then so much as not allowing myself to experience any emotion other than anger.

I could still only wrap my head around it in an academic way. Any time I tried to connect that part of my brain with the part responsible for sadness, it threatened to destroy me. That imbalance only continued to build with no means of equalizing it until I finally surrendered. All I could do was weakly thrash on the floor, harsh tears stinging my red, puffy eyes.

No. This can’t work. I could feel my insides being shredded. If I allowed myself to collapse completely this time there’d be no possibility of rebuilding afterwards. I’d simply renounce the world, my life and every illusory, fleeting moment of happiness in it. I determined I could only survive if I denied it. At the very least, I had to go see for myself that he was really gone. Had to be sure.

With the sun low on the horizon, my body plowing through the clouds of little flies which come out to mate at dusk, I biked to Tyler’s house. The fence doesn’t completely encircle it, and at one point is fairly easy to vault over from a pile of rocks I recognized as having been taken from the quarry. Had to leave my bike behind, which made me nervous I’d be found out. But I didn’t expect to be long.

The woods have a completely different feeling in the dark. Not quite so dark I couldn’t navigate them, but neither could I see clearly. My imagination filled every ambiguous shadow with terrible things. Monsters, machinery and bodies. I stumbled several times on logs, fallen vines and all manner of other obstacles, wondering if I’d perhaps gotten turned around until I came upon the quarry.

Tyler’s house was just visible from it. The window I knew corresponded to his room was dark. He might just be sleeping, I thought. But as October approached it was getting dark earlier and earlier. I checked my watch. He shouldn’t be in bed already. As I sat there, I began to feel foolish.

The part of me which knew the truth berated the rest for holding stubbornly to the fantasy that I’d heard wrong. That it was some manner of prank, or social experiment. That even now Tyler was somewhere in that house, preparing to return to school the next day. The tears returned, and this time refused to be restrained.

I sat at the edge of the quarry begging for that window to light up, well into the night. The sun now gone, darkness enveloped me. The familiar song of crickets chirping and frogs croaking tried, but failed, to drown out my sobs. But again as I mourned, my sadness mutated into rage. I fumed, boiled and seethed in place, imagining how I’d avenge Tyler if only I had the power to.

Not only Tyler, but everyone like him in those camps. Staring up wistfully at the same night sky as me even now, feeling alone in the world and without hope. Were I not equally alone, if I only had ten or twenty others like me, I could topple that fence. I could storm that camp, free those children and punish their captors.

If only I were strong. If only I did not live in a world already largely under their control, or the control of some effectively identical religion descended from theirs. If it’s one against ten, there is hope. If it’s one against a hundred, surely there’s at least a slim chance. But one against billions would be defeated before he could accomplish anything.

That’s when her words again returned to me. That real strength is fighting for what you care about, even when you know you cannot win. I resolved then to devote my life to fighting them wherever I find them.

At this late stage, no satisfactory reconciliation is possible. The only thing which will truly set my heart at rest is when the day comes that they’re the ones in those camps. Not learning how to be straight, but being deprogrammed.

I’ve heard them fearfully predict such a day on the radio many times. Even as they eagerly subject young people, whose only crime is to love each other in a way forbidden by cult teachings, to the same fate. Dreading the prospect that someday they’ll no longer be in control, and what they’ve done to so many others for the past twenty centuries will at last be done to them.

How I would love to operate such a camp. How I’d look on with relish as they perform back breaking labor in the hot sun. How I’d chase them, whipping at their legs with a switch as they run laps, and put them in isolated confinement if they refused. As they did to Tyler, I would do to them. An eye for an eye, as they might put it. Nothing more or less.

Instead, they’ll get away with it like they always get away with everything simply because they’re the ones in control. At best, we might fight them until the camps are abolished. But there will never be any payback. The minute, the exact microsecond you finally fight your way out from under their boot, their rhetoric suddenly changes.

Where before they were haughty and self righteous, now they urge you to be civil, high minded and forgiving. Qualities they advocate, but never embody. We’ll be told it’s enough that the practice has ended, we should be satisfied with that and forget the whole business.

As if two thousand years of murders, chemical and surgical castration, harassment, exile and professional ruination can be swept under the rug just because they’ve finally been forced to stop. “The important thing”, they’ll say, “is not to take out your anger indiscriminately on Christians who after all are the finest, gentlest folks there are.” Loosely translated, the important thing is that they be allowed to get away with it like they always do. A slap on the wrist at most.

As if they ever cared which specific gay man or woman they targeted. As if they’ve ever shown a shred of mercy until the exact moment their boot slipped and the fellow who’d been stuck under it picked himself up, wiped the blood from his face and put up his dukes. How? How can there be no retaliation? It’s not a matter of punishing the son for the sins of the father, as they haven’t even stopped doing it.

Even if they do, should it be possible for centuries of persecution to go wholly unpunished just because the most recent generation of persecutors has at last been overcome and conveniently claims remorse for what’s been done, even while they continue to do it? Is that all it takes to get away with multigenerational perpetuation of grinding, brutal misery?

The last time I came here, the forest felt gentle. Welcoming, surrounding me as it always does in a protective cocoon. I’ve always felt safest in the woods until now. Something about the tone and air of the forest had changed. As if hostile, pushing me out. As you might spit out something bitter and poisonous.

I tried to brush it off my skin, but it settled there again almost as soon as I was done. I might’ve focused on that longer, but was captivated by the lights of the settlement at the bottom of the quarry. Work never ceases here, it seems. Day and night the ore carriers traverse the sands, little electric bulbs guiding them into the refineries as a lighthouse might guide a ship.

Here and there, even about my head now and again, flit the little ones with the wind-up winged backpacks. Also carrying their own little electric lights to prevent collision. I might’ve mistaken them for lightning bugs if I didn’t know better.

I gasped as one collided mid air with an unseen insect, tumbled for a few feet, but then deftly recovered. It took my mind off Tyler, however briefly, and I could at last breathe. I remembered a saying; that anger is an acid which does more to corrode the vessel it’s in than whoever you mean to pour it on.

The acid of my anger had been at work all this time dissolving me from the inside. But however I tried to reverse the reaction, I couldn’t. Not after what they did. Even then, my brain knew I was destroying myself. But my heart wouldn’t let me put a stop to it.

Just then, a blindingly bright flaming mass arced overhead and came down explosively in the middle of the settlement. At once most of it was on fire, little men hurriedly dashing about slapping at their bodies to extinguish the flames. I cried out in astonishment and searched for the source of the projectile.

Over the far rise appeared an army unlike any I’d seen before. Little ones, certainly, but decked out in red robes and armor. They were busily resetting a trebuchet they must’ve used to hurl the incendiary mass. The armies of the quarry quickly massed and set out for the ridge, scaling the boulders effortlessly with their spider-like exoskeletons and flight packs.

Back in the settlement, those not killed by the blast were feverishly spraying water on it, battling back the flames, struggling to save whatever could be saved. The red robed fellows parted to make way for a battalion of what, as I crawled closer, I realized were bombardier beetles. The sort which spray a mixture of chemicals from their abdomen that ignites on contact with air.

The beetle riders descended the boulders and met with the brown robes partway. There were rapid, scattered flashes of light as the beetles blasted their targets with flaming chemical spray. I could barely make out the high pitched screams of the brown robes as it melted their flesh.

Most of their artillery seemed to be repurposed fireworks. Several were simply roman candles on wheels, aimed towards their attackers and set off. The successive fireballs each one spewed missed their targets for the most part, but when one happened to connect, it was devastating.

As I looked on, the quarry dwellers revealed the ace up their sleeve. A building at the center of the settlement split open to reveal a tuning fork with what looked to be the vibration motor from a cell phone mounted to the handle...which then began to resonate. Imperceptibly at first, but soon it exerted a noticeable pressure on my eardrums. 

The sands all around the settlement tossed and shifted. But then, somehow, began to organize. As if by vibration alone it was being made to take a particular shape. In this case, an ever-growing protective dome which raised up around the settlement, fires now mostly extinguished. Even when stray shots from a roman candle impacted the dome, the hole was quickly filled with more sand.

I clapped, tearfully, then clasped my hands over my mouth. I dare not breathe! The second massive flaming projectile was hurled and impacted the dome. It sunk partway in, but the sand surrounded it, smothering the fire.

The sand dome continued to build itself up until the very top of it closed. Then the sand abruptly stopped moving, solidified in that configuration, though the vibrations were now stronger than ever. I never taught them anything remotely like this. It must simply be one of their inventions. How marvelous when they put their minds to protection rather than murder!

But no sooner than I finished the thought, something began to emerge from the sand near the edge. A mound of it rose, sand sliding to either side to reveal the body of the thing as it clawed its way free from its buried hiding place.

A great mechanical scorpion, as long as my body is tall, pulled itself bit by bit from the sand. Then once finally free, began to trudge towards the fellows in the red armor, still perched on the rim of the quarry. I could see them mill about nervously. Another incendiary mass was loaded, then fired. It struck true. The scorpion was now coated in flaming, sticky gunk. But it didn’t appear to so much as slow it down!

I recognized the joints as based on the ones their ancestors devised for the metal Tyrant. The movement so smooth, if you squinted you could mistake it for a living thing.They readied another flaming load, but the scorpion stuck the tip of its long, articulated tail into the sand. Then it began to vibrate.

I laughed with delight as a shield began to form in front of it out of sand, by the same manner as the dome. When finally they let loose the missile, it impacted the shield harmlessly. Destroying most of it in the process...but then it already served its purpose. So it went, the great crawling machine summoning a shield before it each time the red robes hurled another flaming mass.

I could tell they’d not counted on this. Something the brown robes kept close to their chest until now. As it began to climb the rocks towards them, the red robes panicked and broke rank. Before they could get the catapult moving, the scorpion was upon it. In a single swift motion, it brought the tip of its tail down on the contraption, shattering it into a contorted mess of splintered wooden wreckage.

I followed close behind as the scorpion trailed them into the woods, eager to glimpse what sort of civilization they built around combustion based technologies. After a few minutes, the metal scorpion turned back. Satisfied, I suppose, that the red robes were powerfully spooked and would not soon return. My own curiosity would not be so easily sated.

As I groped blindly through the darkness, I began to feel a strange force pulling me onward. Like the invisible energies I recently felt while observing the various tribes play out their rituals. I’d again crossed a threshold of some kind, though I couldn’t yet describe the nature of it. As I proceeded I began to hear a distant thumping rhythm.

It grew more intense and sophisticated as I drew near, and I could now see flickering red light up ahead. Casting intermittent shadows over the forest floor, bathing one side of nearby trees in light of a color I’ve never before seen emitted by a fire.

When I finally discovered the source, I was wholly unprepared for the scene before me. A lone, ethereal red flame flickered on a pyre in the center of their encampment. Around it danced multiple concentric rings of naked little fellows, smeared in something wet and grimy, dancing hand in hand.

Presiding over all of it was the unmistakeable figure of a Tyrant...nailed to a crucifix. Not moving, and, upon more careful inspection, still inanimate clay. I spectated breathlessly from behind the bushes as what remained of the attacking party returned. Battered, wounded and weary, but having secured their prize.

They towed behind them a wheeled cage filled to the brim with captured brown robes. I was so caught up in the firefight I didn’t even notice that’s what they were after. The wheeled cage was brought before a tiny stone altar at the foot of the crucified clay Tyrant. One at a time, prisoners were dragged from the cage, restrained to the altar and sacrificed.

The blood collected in a basin below the altar. When full, it was carefully lifted by a team of red robes and poured into the slightly open mouth of the clay Tyrant. I thought I was imagining it at first, but before my eyes the clay slowly changed texture to resemble pale, sickly skin. Until at last its eyes opened.

My breath caught in my throat. The two golf ball sized glossy black orbs studied the ceremony before it. Then it weakly smiled. Its restraints were undone. The wretched creature was helped down from the cross and supported until it could stand on its own. I dry heaved. Of all the possible survival strategies, entering the service of the Tyrants never occurred to me.

How could they reduce themselves to this? After everything I’ve done to protect them. To deliver them to victory over the cruel, toxic little monsters. I never figured them for boot lickers! Evidently a quality found even in some percentage of Homunculi.

Yet, while gazing into its eyes made me feel queasy and brought on a headache, it did not produce the paralysis it once did. As if something recently changed inside, to make me somewhat immune. Or compatible. Just then I noticed countless pairs of big, shiny black eyes in the woods around us, red light from the enchanted flame reflecting off them.

One by one at first, then several at a time, they came within reach of the light. Surrounding me in all directions for as far as the light could reveal. I felt no hostility from them. It was more of a welcoming party, or initiation. I felt their energy resonate with something inside me. Conceived the moment I learned of Tyler’s death, rapidly gestating since.

My suspicions were confirmed in the worst way when they brought me the sword. A twisted, convoluted handle wrought from the same sculpted obsidian as the violin Katerinka showed me in the field. With the same thorns, though as my hand drew near, they retracted. Sensing that I was the sort of person it wanted to be used by.

Tears returned as it dawned on me what all of it meant. How very, very far I’d fallen. What, despite my futile struggles, I allowed them to transform me into. Yet this was the logical path forward, surely?

Like Dan before me, I’d take control of the Tyrants. Use them to pick off the other students one by one. Relishing in the mourning of their families following their disappearance. Or perhaps I’d just leave the bodies for them to find.

Part of me fought it. But where before it was just slightly larger than the part of me which embraced, which craved this outcome, a tipping point was reached. The vile black goo bubbling up within me finally seized control. No reversing it now. No going back to who I was. Everything I most desperately wanted was now within reach.

My hand drew closer and closer to the sword’s handle. It resonated as if some strange magnetism was growing more intense. The countless pairs of round, shiny black eyes blinked sporadically around me as they watched me step into the role they’d so carefully prepared. The only direction left for me to go. The final step in my transformation. Monster world? What a joke. I’ll show them a real monster.

Just before I could take hold of the handle, an ear piercing shriek filled the air. The Tyrants all writhed in pain, as did I. Then a striking figure wearing a shimmering dress of obsidian fragments and a reflective full face mask leapt into the middle of the ceremony. Seizing the sword before I could, then using it to skewer the freshly animated Tyrant.

The red robes and their Tyrant masters scattered in a panic. All I could do was to stare, enraptured by the spectacle. The figure twisted the blade, relishing the little monster’s agony. Steam began to rise from the wound. Then the blood started boiling as it gushed out. A foul scent issued forth, scouring my nostrils.

The masked figure whispered to it in a deep, guttural voice. “Sleep, you black eyed pig. Fall into a deep pit of ghosts.” The impaled Tyrant writhed, deflated, then finally turned back into clay once all the blood finished boiling out of its body. Then it burst into flame.

I gasped for air, still hardly able to believe what was happening. The figure strode up to me, put one foot on my chest, then spoke. “This is how little you resist? To be so easily consumed by your sadness that you would give yourself over to them in a moment of weakness, undoing all of my hard work until now?”

The figure slid back the shiny, curved, mirror-like covering. Like a mask but featureless. No holes for the eyes, nose or mouth and nothing like the shape of a face. Of course it was Katerinka. Still, a remarkable sight to behold. I sputtered, searching for words with which to defend my actions but finding none that sounded convincing in my head.

“I tell you in the field, the Tyrants did not vanish. All this time, gathering blood. From the little ones, with their own help. I am sure you know what they use it for.” I shuddered, remembering the last time I laid eyes on the crone. I somberly nodded, wiping away residual tears. “Then, no more dawdlings” she said. “From now on, I teach, you learn.”

So she sit me down amidst the trees, and with a wave of her hand, little people hiding among their branches produced lanterns by the hundreds until there was enough light to see by. “Do you feel that?” I waited for a bit, then inquired what she meant. “Do not play game with me. The energy, when you enter forest.”

I recalled the feeling from earlier, and told her about it. “Is alive. Not surprising, right? Of course is alive you say to me, is trees. But that is not full extent of it. Trees communicate with one another by releasing chemical signals. Awareness of danger, such as fire on one side of forest, propagates tree by tree to the other side until all of them feel stress. Plants, they are simple. But even they feel stress and communicate.

I say they are simple individually, but when many of them network, it forms something like a brain. Where each tree is but a neuron which can receive and send signals, either originating in them or just passing it on. Very alien sort of mind. Slow thinking, hard to understand. When think so slow, you perceive time differently. Years go by in a blink. Decades, centuries, eons. To the forests, we were hairy creatures swinging through their trees not so long ago.”

I found the idea interesting, but asked why she was telling me any of this. “Is a God, don’t you think? Of a sort. A small one, anyway. A mind grander and older, to which our lives pass more quickly than this sentence. An emergent intelligence in nature, but just one of many. For you see, any network of processes which act on each other in a cascading, causal manner behaves this way. And there is always a bigger fish!

Communicating with these minds is the basis of magic. To curry their favor, to connect ever more intimately with them. Many forest witches in the world, is the easiest and most comprehensible Boltzmann brain on Earth.” I asked her to repeat the term, never having heard it before. “Boltzmann brain. Emergent thought-like activity in seeming chaos.” I then asked if the crone had been a forest witch.

“Tch! Babulya? You think so little of her? She was no amatuer. No hemp wearing, granola crunching servant of the forest goddess. Did she never tell you that she was the Witch of Storms? Only one left in the world, a dying art.

To conform your mind to the one which consists of synchronous storm activity around the planet is by far a more difficult feat than to do so with the forest mind, which is by comparison not so different from us.”

Living storms? It beggars belief. Nonetheless, I continued to listen. “Babulya mastered storm magic. So completely that she was split, at all times, between her own body and the storms. So intimate was the link that, when her body ceased to live, she simply withdrew into the storm consciousness entirely. I tell you in truth, she lives on wherever there is thunder and rain, violent winds and the flash of lightning.”

I thought back to her intervention in the field, and began to piece together how she’d done it. Great waves of relief washed over me as I came to believe she still persisted in some form. But also shame, as I now realized she really had been watching me all this time. Witnessing what I’ve become since she left.

“But, remember that such great, distributed minds can also be made of people. You know a cult when you see one. Now, anyway. But they are not such simple tricks as you imagine. They would not work unless those ensnared in them truly believed. And because they believe, because they all believe the same things and push in the same direction, a larger being is born.

A magnified image of man. Of his strengths, his weaknesses. His compassion, but also his wrath. As the concern of the ancient Hebrews was above all else to become powerful in war, to dominate their enemies, so Yahweh was chosen from the pantheon of Canaanite gods by Abraham for exclusive worship. For he was the Canaanite God of war.

Other gods were shaped in the same way by the psychology of their followers. Whatever drives they all shared in common were also the drives of their God. So it is that there have been Gods of wine and partying, gods of the harvest, gods of the ocean, of love, and every other facet of existence.

Wherever humans have been unified in a feeling, for however long it lasted, a larger being embodying that feeling was given life. An egregore. And just as one whose mind is in perfect alignment with the storms or the forest can persist within that network even after the death of their body, so too is possible to copy yourself onto a network of human minds.

If they all synchronously embody your teachings, your behavioral qualities, striving to be as much like you as they can, something like magnified version of yourself is brought to life. One which, should they pass on their beliefs to next generation and so on, need never die.”

I dwelled on that for a while. I once read about the idea in science fiction that we might capture as digital information everything about ourselves that makes us who we are and put it into computers in order to persist in some form after our bodies die. What she suggested was not so different, just accomplished by more primitive, organic means.

While I pondered, she produced the violin case she brought with her the other day. When she opened it, the Secret of Storms was impossible to hold. The thorns were all extended, protruding threateningly such that I dare not pick it up. “Do you see now how far you’ve set me back? Much work to do, healing your heart, before you can again so much as hold this.”

I vowed to do whatever it takes. She studied me closely. “Good... Good. First step is to understand difference between justice and revenge. I sense the crippling weight of a grudge within you. If left alone it will slowly twist up your insides. It will distort your heart, until it is so closely in alignment with the Tyrants that you may as well be one.”

I thought back to how I looked upon them without ill effect, aside from some dizziness. They’d really almost gotten me. How long, I wondered, have they been subtly pushing me in that direction from the shadows?

“That is the essence of a Tyrant, you see. To make record of every little transgression. To never, ever let it go. To obsess over punishment of wrongdoing to the exclusion of any other thoughts until it turns you into a monster.”

If it hurt to listen to, it was only because of the accuracy. I asked her if I couldn’t just slay the Tyrants with the sword they offered me. “The Poison of Sorrow. Is a powerful weapon. In some ways, the equal and opposite twin of the Secret of Storms. Both forged on the same day from the same materials, both powered by storm magic. But I tell you, every Tyrant you kill with it would also kill part of you.

Is cursed. Babulya made it during a fit of sadness and fury, dwelling on what became of her parents. On the way she was beaten and teased by the other girls. A weapon to destroy the world, which she so regretted creating as to curse it such that whomever should pick it up with intent of harm anyone would be slowly corroded by it, from inside out.

On that day, she also create the Secret of Storms. A failsafe. After the Tyrant tried to kill her in her sleep, she realize what could happen if it escape her control. If it learns to make more of itself. So, to balance out the sword to destroy the world, she creates the musical instrument to save it. Powerfully effective at the only thing which has ever defused man’s lust for blood. Understanding.

The one who holds the Secret of Storms, whatever that person feels, it is realized as writing and song. Synchronously, as is the way of all magic. However difficult it may be for that person to communicate normally, such a wide and efficient conduit is created that all who hear the song, or read what is written, will become that person in every way that matters for as long as the song endures. They will know his heart as intimately as their own.

It is the only way to, at once, everywhere, untangle the twisted up heart of every Tyrant. To reverse completely the distortion which makes them what they are. In that moment, I tell you, they will be undone!

Drained of the energy which animates them, returned to being lifeless clay figures. No matter how numerous, no matter how powerful, if one with a heart in the right condition should play the Secret of Storms, every Tyrant on Earth will be forever destroyed.”

Exhilaration burned within me. The creeping worries I’d put on the backburner for so long began to evaporate. Knowledge that the Tyrants were still out there, replicating. At long last there seemed to be a viable means for effecting their defeat!

She then handed me the chrome mask. “You will need this. By the time you are ready to hold the Secret of Storms, you will once again be vulnerable to their gaze. Only this mask can filter out the effect, but still permit you to see. Take it with you everywhere. Never let me catch you without it!”

I turned it over in my hands. The rim was lined with gold. When closed around my head, it would fully envelop it like a helmet. I tried it on. “It fits well”, I offered. Katerinka seemed pleased, yet also troubled. “Is powerful protection for eyes, but cannot also protect your heart. I have brought you back from the brink once. It is up to you whether I must ever do so again. Better for us both if I don’t.”

She left me there, silently contemplating her words in total darkness. After a while I got up and returned to the quarry, simply sitting and watching the little ones rebuild. The mechanical scorpion was busy burying itself in the sand, in preparation for the next attack. I looked up at Tyler’s window. The moonlight reflected off it in such a way that if I squinted, I could pretend the light was on.

Without realizing it, I began to cry again. Unguarded, unfiltered tears. All the pain I felt was finally allowed an outlet, and as I worried it would, I could feel it destroying me. I convulsed slightly as the sobs escaped my body.

Then I nearly fell backwards in fright when I felt something warm and hairy crawl into my lap, but a tired sounding mew revealed that it was only Mister MacGufferson. Probably wondering where Tyler’s gone, hoping I knew.

The bony old critter curled up in my lap and set to purring. How do cats always know when you need that? I hoped he didn’t mind all the tears falling on his fur. I carefully stroked the leathery little beast, scratching the fuzzy beard-like spot under his chin. Maybe I had it all wrong. Maybe he knows Tyler isn’t coming back, and just came to mourn with me. “I miss him too” I whispered.

I biked home in a stupor. Feeling everything and nothing. Soon enough, the everything part of it faded away. The next day my body performed Bible reading and wrote an agreeable essay as though on autopilot. “He’s really gone, isn’t he?” I caught myself thinking now and again. It took a while, but reality had finally sunk in.

Until then, it felt like an act. Like Tyler might return to school any day now. My stubborn heart not fully accepting it until the other night. But, having done that, I let all my steam out of the boiler. The one thing he’d told me never to do was to let them put my fire out, but they found a way. I just continued as before, one foot in front of the other, but now without any convincing reason why I should.

They told us in class once, after studying various historical Christian victories against oppressive kingdoms and governments, to trust that God always wins. I now understood what they really meant is that Christians always win.

Which, to them, is interchangeable with “The good guys always win”. Because that’s how they always perceive themselves, no matter what terrible things they’ve done, or even are in the process of doing when you ask them. According to them, simply being Christian means you’re one of the good guys, as they’ve already gotten what they want from you.

The good guys don’t win. Not even most of the time, or Tyler would still be alive. It’s the ogres who usually come out on top. Who blanket the Earth even now, with their own country, near total control of congress and the senate, an unbroken electoral winning streak and a network of schools like this one across the country for ensuring it never ends.

I appreciate now what a hopeless battle it is. They’ve already won, and cannot ever be stopped. They’ll get away with killing Tyler, and anything else they feel like doing, because the police who’d normally punish them are in the same religion.

So are the politicians who might otherwise ban the practice. You just run into more of them however far up you go, and they protect each other. There’s nobody stronger than them to set things right.

The only signs of life I showed were the ones demanded from me. I’d sometimes lay my head down on my desk, wanting to sleep or be dead. But then I was admonished to sit up straight, and I no longer have it in me to disobey. They broke me like a glow stick, and from their perspective, I’ve finally begun to shine.

“You’re not in any trouble” the principal assured me after a TA led me to his office. “I’ve been told you’re showing signs of rapid improvement. The school psychologist says you were faultlessly compliant the other day, and none of the teachers have reported any signs of subversion. I can’t tell you how pleased I am. Didn’t I tell you this day would come?”

He opened a drawer and produced a familiar envelope. He then withdrew a folded up sheet of paper, unfolded it, and laid it before me. The statement of faith. I stared at it with dull, lifeless eyes as he grinned expectantly at me. “I don’t care anymore” I thought. “I just don’t care.” I reached out for a pen, made sure there was ink, then signed my name along the bottom as indicated.

“Excellent! This is a milestone, you’ll see. I’ve never seen anybody come so far in their spiritual growth so quickly. I expect great things from you.” I quietly thanked him for the kind words and asked if there was anything else he wanted from me.

He assured me that was all and sent me back to class. On the way, I registered mild surprised that I didn’t feel dirty when I signed it. I’d sort of expected to. Then again, that would first require something of value to ruin.

Katerinka was the only one who didn’t regard the change as an improvement. I often caught her watching me with either concern or disappointment. Very similar expressions, I can never tell. Maybe it’s a mixture of the two. Heather, by contrast, told me at recess that she likes how chill I’ve become. I smiled weakly. She still likes me. That’s something.

I spent a lot of time with her over the next few days. At lunch, at recess and occasionally joint school projects. I appreciated her efforts to cheer me up, and regretted not being able to give her the results she wanted. I eventually started faking it so she wouldn’t worry. Not just with her, but with my parents as well.

“Hey, umm”. I turned to Heather, eyes glazed over. “I was wondering if you wanted to hang out this Saturday, like a date” she asked. I sat there, blank faced, and contemplated the question. It would be good to go out and do stuff. Might get my mind off Tyler. I agreed.

“Great! I was hoping you’d say yes. Let’s just have dinner at my house, that way you can meet my parents.” The last bit startled me. I still don’t know much about relationships, but I know that’s supposed to be a significant step. Honestly, in spite of everything that’d happened, it was nice to be reminded that I’m important to someone.

Heather was all I wanted in the world at one point. I couldn’t tell if I still felt that way, because try as I might I couldn’t feel anything. Every time I turned inward to examine my heart, all I could see was a cold, featureless concrete cube. It had to count for something though, surely? I’d wanted her so badly, I should at least enjoy her company.

There! A glimmer of affection. I didn’t so much feel it as I was conscious of the corresponding chemical reaction happening in my brain. I summoned half a smile and took hold of her hand. This time she didn’t withdraw. It did nothing to heal my heart. But at least for the short time that we sat out in the field, her hand in mine and her head resting on my shoulder, I felt slightly less alone.

About an hour later in math class, I was again called to the principal’s office. Lately I’d begun to wonder if I shouldn’t just set up my desk and do my schoolwork in there, to save myself the constant walking to and fro. What now? Some new declaration of submission to sign?

Instead, he told me my mother had gone into labor and was taken to the hospital. He handed me his cell phone so Dad could confirm it for me. No cause for alarm as it turned out. Everything went smoothly. I’d been a big brother for about forty minutes already without even knowing it.

“In all the confusion, with the move and the new job, we just never got around to naming him. I was thinking Michael, after your uncle. Or Ray, after Grandpa.” My hand trembled as I listened, and formulated the question I wished to ask. “Can we name him Tyler?”

A long silence followed. I never told them myself, but a notice was sent home with the usual handouts. “...Yeah, kiddo. I suppose we could do that.” I wondered if I hadn’t made a mistake. Now I’d be reminded every time I saw the little guy, or heard his name. But it also ensured I could never forget.

I asked if I could come see him. “Oh no, your mother’s in no condition. They won’t release her for another few days. Don’t stress yourself, like I said it went off without a hitch. I wish I could find the words for what it was like to be here watching it happen. It blew me away when you were born. I thought maybe it’d be less amazing the second time, but it wasn’t.”

I have a little brother now. Emphasis on little. I’m a big brother? It set off all sorts of frenzied wonderings in my mind. What sort of person would he grow into? Would he like me? Would I like him? What do I do if he hurts himself? ...What do I do if somebody else hurts him?

My excitement died down when I remembered what sort of world he’d been born into. That if he’s anything like me, it would be a tedious, miserable slog through one disappointment or humiliation after the next. But then, it might be different for him. Because unlike me, he’ll have someone bigger than he is to look out for him.

I resolved then to do for my little bro what I’ve always wanted someone to do for me. To watch over him, cushion his falls, teach him the way to go, and make life gentler and cooler for him than it ever was for me.

I’ve always had to be that person for myself. There’s something to be said for it, but it’s difficult and painful. Life doesn’t have to be that way if we look out for each other. If anyone ever hurts my brother, I vowed, I will utterly destroy that person until no trace remains that they ever existed. I may have failed my best friend, but I’ll die before I fail my little bro.

When I returned to class, it was free period. Katerinka waited for Heather to go to the bathroom before crossing the room and taking the seat next to mine. “So, you are becoming big brother?” I balked, and asked how she knew. “Witches hear everything, you see.” I folded my arms and waited. “...Okay fine, I guess it because I knew your mother was very heavy with child. But such news! I am wondering now if he will also turn out handsome.”

I smirked, first interpreting it as a joke. But then turned it over in my mind a few times, identifying a possible alternative interpretation. When I looked back at Katerinka, her normally ghostly pale skin was now turning a faint shade of pink and she made only intermittent eye contact. If I’d misunderstood her meaning, I didn’t want to make a fool of myself.

“I...suppose so. Are we going to try the violin again?” She said it wasn’t important, and told me she’d heard I was going to Heather’s house to have dinner. Must be those sensitive witch ears again. “What do you mean it’s not important? You told me preparing to play that violin was the most important thing, and holdings of hands and makings of googly eyes are trivial.”

She looked frustrated and stared down at her lap. I imagined I could see her shaking subtly. When she next spoke, her voice wavered. “Do you know where I was before I come to this school? After Babulya died, I try to find new family. But, always questions of where I come from. Questions I could not answer.

Eventually, men in suits come and put me in home for children with no parents. I was alone there. Even surrounded by so many other children, I was alone. Because I look so different, some are afraid. Others makings of fun, or push me down, or steal my things. Until I had nothing but the memory of Babulya to hold onto.

It was only a few months. But felt like eternity. That was my introduction to the outside world. So when I hear you speak of how it is, I already know is like that. We have more in common than you think. I just do not hurt so badly, because I never had much good to compare it to. There was the comfort and safety of Babulya, then suddenly there was monster world.

This is why I also sometimes struggle to making affection understood. Only Babulya ever showed me any. I was never any kissings of boys in the youth home, or holdings of hands. They were scared. Fear makes them ugly. So I never learn how to…”

She went quiet, still staring at her lap. I didn’t know what to say, so I put my hand on her shoulder. She brushed it off. “Save for Heather.” She looked at me scornfully, and I noticed her eyes were moist. Baffling, and scary. She’d been a stone edifice until now, I couldn’t make sense of why my date with Heather changed anything.

Too much, too fast. Tyler. Heather. Little brother. Now I’d somehow put my foot in it with Katerinka, but couldn’t figure out how. Too much all at once. I put my head down, cradled in my crossed arms. After a minute I heard Katerinka get up and leave for her own desk. I wanted to say something to set things right, but without knowing how I’d messed up, I felt sure I’d only make it worse.

Everybody wants something from me. Do this, believe that, fit into this plan. Sometimes I wish I could turn myself off. Not death, but something like it. Sleep isn’t enough. What’s it all mean? It can’t just be what it looks like.

One injury after the next, like falling from a tree and hitting every branch on the way down. You think at least it will end when you reach the bottom and break your neck, but it doesn’t. There’s just more branches. So long as I’m conscious, I can’t stop trying to make sense of it.

I lifted my head and scanned the room for Kat. There she was in the far corner, nose in a binder, drawing something. Maybe her own torture machines. I’d stopped that habit, worrying somebody would find the drawings and I’d have to explain them to the shrink. Or worse, the principal. Besides which, I could no longer be sure whether it was the ogres or myself that I most wanted to feed into them.

After school, while it was still light out, I biked over to Tyler’s house. His Dad’s house, anyway. It’s hard to get away from. Walking among the same trees I’d hidden behind for cover while we shot imaginary lasers at each other brought back the confusing, bittersweet feeling of surreality. That he could still pop out from behind the next tree, blast me with his outstretched fingers, and insist he got me this time.

Taking care not to destroy any spiderwebs, I ducked behind various trees, then peered around the edge. Daring it to happen I suppose. Of course it never did. In the process, something caught my eye. A stack of comic books stuffed into a hole among the roots. Pulling it out and wiping off the dirt revealed covers emblazoned with colorful heroes, battling evil in a fantasy world where the good guys sometimes win.

But when I opened them up, inside were bridal magazines. Where’d he gotten these? Maybe from his mother’s old stuff. Turning the pages, I found he’d circled certain gowns, veils and shoes. What would a boy do with stuff like this? I guess he could hang it up and look at it. A lot of it was really pretty, I had to admit.

The hostile feeling from the other night was conspicuously absent. I felt no invisible force pushing me out. The opposite, if anything. This was Tyler’s forest. Perhaps it could feel he was gone, and was mourning with me. I’d formed such a connection with my own woods before the fire. It always seemed to welcome me when I visited. To surround me in a protective, nurturing cocoon. How terrible for a boy to lose his forest! How terrible for a forest to lose its boy.

As I continued exploring, several times I came across little houses or villages. Some built by the Homunculi, but some of his own construction. There’s a big difference in the craftsmanship and attention to detail, things our large clumsy hands could never fashion. I’ve built no small number of houses like this on my own. Back when the little ones left me, and I doubted if they’d ever return.

Soon I came across the quarry. I didn’t think it held any new surprises for me, but upon my arrival I was immediately struck by the sight of a cylindrical metal tower consisting of cans. The same Goji berry juice cans I’ve been leaving in the field! A tall skeletal metal tower to one side held it steady as a crane stacked more and more cans on top.

Nearby, smoke issued forth from the exhaust towers of a chemical refinery. I couldn’t kneel down to inspect it as the closer I got, the worse the smell became. My eyes were watering even from several yards away. A long thick black hose trailed from this structure to the skeletal support tower, filling the cans with who knows what.

A weapon, no doubt. Had to be. The last raid was so devastating, they’d gotten it in their heads to put a permanent end to it. I thought back to my dream of the mushroom cloud, slowly rising over a smoldering battlefield. That’s their fate, surely? With no method in sight capable of putting a stop to their petty conflicts.

I wandered over to a statue I thought was just another one of me, holding that baseball bat next to Winston. Instead, it was of Tyler. Sitting crosslegged, arms circled protectively around a little town. There was some small bit of plastic they’d carefully set at the base of it. When I turned it over, I gasped.

The barrette. Every little thing of his I’d seen so far brought back a flood of painful memories. Painful, but precious. This little pink plastic butterfly clip was no exception. How happy he’d been when I returned it. Only now did I grasp why. It’s always too late. I only understand somebody’s feelings weeks, months, or years after the fact. Then of course, I can’t go back and react how I should’ve. The ship has long since sailed.

While sitting there fiddling with the barrette, I faintly overheard what sounded like speech. Following it to the source, I discovered a great domed building printed from cloudy glass, a gaping hole in it left over from the attack. Peering in through that hole revealed a sizable crowd huddled before the same sort of touchscreen music and video player I once gave to my own little guys.

It was playing back an episode of a TV show I vaguely recognized, having caught bits and pieces of it on Saturday mornings while searching for cartoons. There’s this gentle sounding old man in a sweater vest who tells you he’s happy you’re his neighbor. He’ll talk about this or that, then perform puppet shows to convey some lesson about how we should behave.

Perfect for them, I realized. They couldn’t understand what he was saying, but didn’t need to. The puppets acted out the various lessons for them. And his tone of voice and general demeanor had a hypnotic quality, putting me at ease even though I couldn’t make out what he was saying with the volume turned so low.

I reached in with my finger and turned the volume up so I could hear. The little ones, huddling before the glowing screen a moment earlier, now clasped their hands over their ears in obvious pain. “Sorry! Sorry sorry!” I whispered, and turned it back down. They glared up at me. It’s easy to forget differences like that.

I remember learning to hold them comfortably and move them about back when I was building their settlement. How what seem like small, gentle movements to us are huge and scary to them. It’s important to remember that they’re just little guys. It’s all too easy to hurt them by accident, they need special precautions.

I sat for a while, watching the show with them through the hole in the dome. The puppet show, the little model train. The old guy in the sweater vest speaking warmly to the camera. Then I saw some green robed fellows enter the dome, joining the brown robed crowd in silent appreciation.

My eyes bulged as I realized the significance. Could it be that simple? Surely not. Yet it was playing out before me! And the more I watched the show, the more I understood why it had worked where everything else before it failed. The way he speaks to you, the way he tries to make you feel comfortable and welcome.

It’s authentic. He’s not trying to sell you anything. I kept waiting for him to pull out a Bible and start quoting passages, yet he never did. I’ve seen just enough of this show to know he’s a Christian, but that was before I knew what Christians are like. Now it seemed impossible. This man? Really? How could he be one of them? He was completely unlike any Christian, or human being I’d ever known. May as well be an alien.

How could this be? Why, in all the world, is there only one of them like this? I puzzled over it but continued to watch, spellbound by the grey haired, sweater vested man. Then suddenly the episode ended. I waited for the intro to the next, but instead, it was a completely different show. Until then I assumed Tyler had just mass downloaded eps of one show and set them to loop.

I recognized this one immediately. Dad used to make a point of having me watch it. The host is a tall, thin man with windswept black hair, a crooked nose and a black turtleneck plus funny looking bell bottoms.

In every episode he teaches you something new about the universe. Like how the atoms in our bodies were forged by fusion in the heart of our sun. And that we’re how the universe can look at and understand itself.

I remember thinking it was funny every time he said “billions and billions”. But also being drawn in, utterly fascinated and made to feel at home. Craning my neck, I saw murals painted on the inside of the dome depicting the two men standing together, taking turns looking through a telescope or playing with puppets.

I watched the episode to the end, half expecting some third show to start. But it was just more sweater vest guy. Tyler must’ve set them to alternate. I scratched my head. How could it be that easy to broker peace? Why these two specific shows? I didn’t understand and feared I never would.

How did watching this make them give up on building those fenced in camps? Or the little white houses for that matter. It’s like all of a sudden, they knew how to be. Just by watching the examples Tyler chose for them. When I disconnected the player from the power cord and tried to remove it from the dome, they swarmed my hand, beating on my fingers and biting my skin.

It only tickled. But I took the hint, set it back down, and plugged it in again. I’d overstayed my welcome, so I got up and left. But not before taking the pink barrette from the foot of that statue and tucking it into my pocket.

When I got home, I found some string and made a necklace out of the barrette. Something to wear under my shirt as a reminder. Then I went online looking for episodes of those TV shows. I watched a lot of Mr. sweater vest. Tensely waiting for him to say something vicious about boys who like boys, or girls who like girls. He never did.

Nor did he seem to have any opinions about the age of the Earth, how life began, or anything of that nature. All he ever talked about was how to be nice. “He should know”, I thought. “If there’s a foremost expert in that field, I’m looking at him.” I found a torrent of every episode of his show and started downloading.

Next, I searched for episodes of the “billions and billions” guy’s program. Videos of him proved to be plentiful on Youtube, with all kinds of funny remixes that made it somewhat of a trick to find the unedited original episodes. Once I did, I sat and watched those for a while. It took me back to a place of security. Of wide eyed, excited exploration. Before this school, before the Tyrants, before any of it.

Back then it was all so simple. The world was this boundless, beautiful, fascinating expanse that my obvious purpose was to explore and understand. At the time I thought there was no part of nature I could possibly dislike...until I met other kids. The first time it happened was more confusing than frightening.

I just lay there on my side as they formed a circle around me, kicking, stomping and spitting. “Why is this happening?” I kept thinking. Every time I asked them why they were doing it, they just laughed harder.

“I don’t mean you any harm” I pleaded. “I want to be friends, and exchange ideas with you pursuant to improved mutual understanding.” More kicks, more laughter, but then they began repeating parts of what I’d said to one another the way you might quote funny lines from a show.

For a while I thought I must be a different species from them or something. Like a UFO dropped me off instead of the stork. How could we be the same? I couldn’t imagine doing to anyone else the things they did to me, not for entertainment. I couldn’t comprehend the thought process behind it, or why they seemed to enjoy it so much.

Yet, watching these shows did something to reduce the swelling around the wound as it were. No longer so inflamed, for once I found bad memories as easy to forget as they are to recall. This fellow in the black turtleneck was teaching me that in spite of life’s hardships, there is great comfort to be had by appreciating the staggeringly beautiful universe we live in. While Mr. sweater vest taught me that, rare though they may be, there are some okay people in it.

Maybe it’s gonna be alright, I thought. In spite of everything. Maybe it’ll still work out somehow. If not, then these two were doing a bang up job of fooling me. I got my homework out, slogged through that over the next two hours, then went to bed with the pink barrette still dangling from my neck.

The next day at recess, I brought my own digital video player out to the largest settlement in the field. They preferentially built it in that empty space beneath the willow tree where Tyler and I once hid.

Finding the closest thing I could identify to a town square, I carefully set down the media player, turned the volume down to five percent, selected the playlist of downloaded videos, then set it to play them on a repeating loop.

There was an initial flurry of interest simply because I’d brought them something new. Then the crowd dispersed, their curiosity sated. Except for a few. They must’ve seen something the others didn’t, because they sat crosslegged before the great flickering screen with the same intense interest I’d seen in the quarry dwellers.

They didn’t go out and try to rope others into watching. There was no need to. Those who stopped to watch and listen soon found themselves glued to the screen. A familiar effect. I set down the charging cable next to them, then left. No idea what they’d plug it into, but I trusted them to figure it out.

I went back in a bit early, wanting to talk to Katerinka. I couldn’t find her, but spotted her binder poking out of the cubby just under her desk. As nobody was around, I opened it up to see what sort of things she’d been drawing the other day. If possible, she takes an even more dismal view of these people than I do, so I was expecting elaborate scenes of torture and extermination.

Instead, I found detailed sketches of me. Page after page. Some of them just of my face, or everything from the shoulders up. Then I found some of me crouched over the settlement I once built for the little ones out in the woods. Based on what I told her of it, I thought. Until I noticed suspiciously accurate details I never disclosed.

At first it struck me as creepy and weird until I remembered my own binder was filled with schematics for death machines and portraits of a dead boy. But what could possibly be so interesting about me that somebody would draw all these pictures? I was missing some crucial detail, I could feel it. But the harder I struggled to pin it down, the more easily it eluded me.

Katerinka made no effort to pair up with me in science class, though there was ample opportunity until Heather arrived. We built paper plate hovercrafts for some reason. Nobody who teaches here has a degree in anything, it will forever be a mystery to me how schools like this are able to legally operate.

The shrink was in a suspiciously good mood today. I couldn’t figure out why until, after we’d burnt through most of the hour chitchatting about frivolous shit, he produced a manilla envelope from within his desk. I tensed up. Nothing good ever seems to come out of those.

He unfolded the paper and handed it to me. I briefly searched for a pen before studying the paper more closely and discovering there was nowhere to sign it. Not another statement of faith. Nor a citation, or anything punitive. It was instead a “certificate of recognition”. Under that, it listed me as the “most improved” student of the year.

Most improved. I dwelled on that quietly while the shrink looked on with a wide grin. “You’ve really come a long way in a short time. I’m impressed and delighted” he gushed. “When we first met you were so combative, your heart turned to rebellion by the secular world. But in recent sessions you’ve been nothing but obedient and otherwise well behaved. A remarkable transformation, I must say.”

I convulsed subtly as he spoke. But, composure intact, I thanked him for the award and folded it up before pocketing it. The moment the session was over and I was out of his sight, I unfolded the paper slip, tore it into the smallest pieces I could, then sprinkled those into the nearest trash bin. “Most improved, huh?” I whispered to myself. “Eat shit.”

I’d ridden my bicycle to school today. Naturally, soon after I finished up my session with the psych, I found somebody attached the combination lock from their locker to the spokes of the front wheel. Without knowing the combo I simply couldn’t use the damn thing. Passing students stopped briefly to laugh at the spectacle as I fretted over the lock, trying various numbers.

“Surely you realize is useless. Odds against successfully guess numbers is astronomical.” I glanced over my shoulder and saw Katerinka looking on with as much amusement as any of the other kids. I got out my phone out and searched for info on the manufacturer. “I could help you” She offered, “But you would have to apologize.”

What for? I was soon looking at a lock cracking tutorial specific to the make and model of lock on my bike wheel. “I also forbid you to go to that blyadischa’s home.” I continued ignoring her, tugging on the lock to identify the solid numbers and gaps between them which the tumbler became snagged on as I turned it.

“I mean, no special reason. I do not care who you waste time with of course. But is distracting from important learnings.” So now that’s important again? She stood to one side of me, craning her neck to watch what I was up to. After writing down everywhere the tumbler snagged, I separated out the whole numbers. All ended in two except for one that ended in nine.

“Are you listening? I could have that open, is easy spell.” She waved her hand about at the edge of my vision. I was beyond noticing. Dividing the third number by four, I then took the remainder and added increments of 4 until it totalled the highest number on the dial. That gave me a set of ten possible candidates for the first digit. I continued step by step until about an hour later, to Kat’s astonishment, the lock popped open.

“We can meet at the quarry” I called out over my shoulder as I rode off, leaving an unusually flush Katerinka standing by the bike rack, arms crossed. “Her face looks much nicer with some color in it” I thought as I pumped my legs to get my newly liberated bike up over the hill.

I’d later look back and realize it was one of those times that I stubbornly screwed myself out of an opportunity without realizing it, thinking I’d instead done something smart. My life can be described with reasonable accuracy as one long chain of incidents like that, peppered with occasional beatings.

I only realize what actually occurred long after the fact, when my brain finally finishes putting the pieces together. Because of this, even in a world free of ogres, I’d have accumulated plenty of regrets by now.

The worst part is, it also applies to the times I’ve hurt people I care about. The last thing I want to do is hurt anybody, especially the few people I cherish. But when I do, I don’t realize at the time that it’s because of me. They just seem randomly upset. When I finally I figure it out, they’re often long gone from my life, so I can’t reach them to apologize.

Time is a river that’s impossible to swim against. Your every little error carried relentlessly forward, compounded on itself over the years with no way to go back and undo it. It’s an easy trap to fall into. A bottomless pit of regret which few escape.

What if I’d known where Tyler’s dad meant to send him? Maybe we could have run away, built a fort in the woods or something. What if I’d paid more attention to Dan during our battle in the field? I might’ve stopped him before he got ahold of Winston.

What if I’d checked up on the witch sooner? What if I’d said different things to Jennifer, done different things. Surely there was some sequence of correct words and actions that would’ve kept us together?

Useless to agonize. Worse than useless. Not only does it never change anything but while you’re caught in that downward spiral, it weakens you until you no longer have the energy to escape. In that direction lies death, I’m certain of that much.

If instead you’ve committed to living, step one is to steer clear of that pit entirely. Never so much as skirt its gravitational pull. I understand that now. Like a black hole, once you’re too close, nothing in the universe can pull you back out.

There is no salvation in the past, only in the future. Because of the two, it’s only the future we can change. When something delicate shatters, you can never “unbreak” it. But with time and effort, it can be mended. You’ve just got to commit to going on living first. While that remains undetermined, you’ll never start rebuilding.

I want to live. It feels almost daring to say it. When they took Tyler, when I found out what they did to him, it really felt like the end. I thought my heart would stop, my organs would shut down and that would be that. Only my body didn’t accept it. Just kept on chugging, keeping me alive, even though for a while there I was little more than a mechanism.

Phoning everything in. Indifferent to every sensation. My heart finally dealt the final blow from which I felt certain it could not recover. Stumbling about in a daze, my mind responding to anything said to me as if playing back recordings. Whatever would make them go away.

I was dying and I knew it. Tyler wouldn’t want that. If we both perished, what would be accomplished? Nothing would come of it. The ogres would win again like they always do. Almost nobody who sets their mind to bringing these garbage animals to justice gets very far with it.

Such people are swiftly identified, mobbed, then stomped into the mud. Professionally destroyed, socially destroyed, sometimes physically destroyed. A movement built on lies could never have survived for so many centuries without proactively targeting defenders of truth.

How can I continue now that he’s gone, unless I take up arms against this horror? How could I look at myself in the mirror and like the person I see? My blood ran cold as I remembered my teacher explaining that one day, Godly men would rise up and seize control of the country.

Surely then, the special schools and camps would multiply even faster. The pretense of “rehabilitation” would be dropped entirely. History affords plentiful examples of what these people do when they hold sufficient power. It’s only the legal and social pushback from the so-called secular world they richly despise which restrains their ambitions.

Not so long ago, my dream was to own a sailboat. To escape monster world and be alone at sea. I told Jennifer I planned to explore French Polynesia. Now, an alternate destination occurred to me. The majority of these camps are outside of the US, many in tropical locations easily accessible by sailboat.

A fantasy, maybe. A pipe dream. But how I long to liberate those camps! Not by ballot or protest, but to topple the fences with explosives, to defeat the guards with rubber bullets or some other nonlethal measure, then to evacuate the prisoners. How many could realistically fit in a sailboat, I wondered.

I don’t just want these people to be gently forced to stop for legal reasons. I want them to feel the same visceral fear as their victims. Abducted in the night at the order of their own parents, cuffed, thrown into a van, then flown to some forsaken shithole island. Trapped like rats, their lives in the hands of an insane cult, thousands of miles from anything familiar or comforting.

It hurts that they always get away with it thanks to their friends in high places. It hurts that defeating them will only ever be a fantasy. They were around centuries before I was born and will most likely persist for centuries after I die. What hope is there for someone like me, up against such a power?

Jennifer’s words again returned. What true strength is. How could I not fight these people? Why go on living otherwise? I know they’ll crush me. The moment I attract any sort of attention for fighting them, my life will be over. They’ll see to it, that’s just what they do. But after what’s happened, there’s just no other way I can proceed.

I can survive being stepped on. That’s been my life until now. I know how to stuff my dangling guts back inside, put all my pieces back together and carry on. The unsquashable bug! They can’t kill me that way because what keeps me going was never internal to begin with. There’s nothing in there, hasn’t been for a very long time.

I live for love. Of certain wonderful people and ideas external to myself, under siege by the fools and brutes of the world. For Tyler, for Jennifer. For the beauty of nature, and scientific truths. For the crone, the little ones and my baby brother.

I can’t lay down and die if somebody’s counting on me not to. So long as there’s somebody who needs me, who believes in me, my body could be pierced with a thousand daggers and I would not perish...because that’s not where my heart is.

I blew past home and continued on towards the quarry. Being that it was Friday I figured homework could wait until the weekend. I leaned my bike up against the rock pile and draped some hanging vines over it for camouflage as before. Upon landing on the other side of the fence, I was immediately greeted by Mister MacGufferson, who apparently now knew to expect me.

From my jacket pocket I produced a folded over tuna sandwich in a ziplock baggie I’d saved from lunch. Removing it from the bag, I set it down and smiled as the gangly old critter scarfed it down. "Don't thank me or anything" I muttered. On my way to the quarry, I nearly ran right into Henrietta’s web again. She cowered, sensing danger, so I gently blew on her. She cautiously ceased huddling in fear and resumed building her web.

These visits were becoming a habit. Seemed like the woods were the only place where I could consistently remember what Tyler looked and sounded like. A minefield of memories. Every time I happened upon someplace we once sat and talked, or took turns drinking hot sauce, his face flashed into my mind’s eye for a split second.

I pulled the barrette pendant out from within my shirt and delicately clasped it in one hand as I made my way among the trees and undergrowth. As before, if I closed my eyes I could almost feel his presence. But with each subsequent trip, that feeling had grown dimmer.

I despaired at the thought that one day, however I might immerse myself in this place and in fond memories, it will have faded to nothing. So recently, I’d simply wanted the pain to go away. Yet now I held fast to it. At least pain is real. The only trace of him left, besides the barrette. The only proof I’d ever known him.

The other thing I found myself clinging to lately was the memory of that epiphany I had, seemingly a lifetime ago. Tyler by my side, describing the Biblical view of the world to me. My sudden realization that I’d always looked at life the same way, and consequently had been fooling myself all this time.

Since then, especially since I learned of Tyler’s death, that epiphany had begun to fade. To the point where it feels more like a dream than something that ever really happened. Monster world, which for that brief moment in time was exposed to me as an illusion, had since then re-enveloped me.

It would be so easy to dismiss that fleeting realization. To settle back into monster world and accept it as truth. But the epiphany was like piercing the veil, at last perceiving everything as it truly is. So powerful was the feeling of witnessing unfiltered reality for the first time that I can’t simply let go of it, for fear of abandoning the most important revelation of my life.

Of all the experiences I’ve so far had, that blinding glimpse of truth felt more real than anything before or since. Despite how brief it was, by comparison monster world feels like a paper thin facade. Might the epiphany itself be illusory? Could I risk concluding that? Could I risk voluntarily re-immersing myself in a poisonous but comfortable delusion, never again to escape?

It would require a great deal of trust. Perhaps more than I’m capable of. Trust that what I saw and felt that day truly was reality, that I spent my life until then living in a convincing illusion, my perception of the world distorted by accumulated trauma. I’d have to trust that even if I never pierce the veil again, that what I saw and felt the one time I managed to do so was actually real.

I was jarred out of my inward exploration by the distant sound of thunder. As there were no clouds in the sky I knew it couldn’t be, and set off in the direction of the earth shaking commotion to investigate. It died down long before I found the source. Instead I emerged from the brush onto the rim of the quarry, frozen in my tracks by the sight before me.

Tyrants. Hundreds of them by the looks of it. Pouring, climbing, tumbling down the rocks towards the settlement below. Reflexively I reached behind my head and flipped the chrome mask into place, remembering Katerinka’s warning about shielding my eyes from the Tyrants’ gaze.

There she sat, in a high branch of a tree overlooking the conflagration. Lazily reading from her dusty old book without a care in the world. I shouted to her, but if she could hear me over the battle she gave no indication of it. A Tyrant reached the bottom of the rocky slope and was set upon by a team of brown robes in spider like windup exoskeletons.

Built for climbing, not for fighting, they were quickly seized and torn apart. Their pilots did not, save for one, manage to unbuckle themselves quickly enough to escape the greedy little monster’s jaws. A second Tyrant reached the bottom, and the pair made short work of the remaining mechanized climbers.

Those equipped with flight packs fared considerably better. The stubby little Tyrants swung their stick thin limbs about in a frantic attempt to swat the graceful winged soldiers out of the air, managing to down only one in that fashion, losing their sight in the process. The almost insect or fairy-like figures, zipping about in formation, released spring loaded harpoons into the Tyrants’ immense globular eyes.

Blood sprayed out, soaking into the sand wherever it fell as the monsters clutched their faces and screeched in agony. Blinded but not yet defeated, they stumbled about thrashing their limbs and jaws in a fury, trampling a number of soldiers attacking on foot as they did so. Then, one of them sprayed a fuming, noxious liquid from its tongue.

The blast coated a battalion of brown robes who, a second later, writhed on the sand as the acid ate away their flesh. I’d never seen a Tyrant do that until now. Have they learned to…? In confirmation of my fears, a flock of winged Tyrants flew overhead, batlike wings beating at the air in time as they approached the central dome.

Brown robes, green robes, and red robes encircled the dome with all manner of gun emplacements and other fierce weapons. Red robes? I squinted. My eyes hadn’t deceived me after all. So recently mortal enemies of the browns and greens, the red robes now fought proudly by their side. Glimpsing the flickering screen through the hole in the dome, I could guess how that happened.

In spite of it all, the horror of the Tyrants’ sudden reappearance, I could’ve cried tears of joy. This is what I’d been trying so hard to achieve. Right here, playing out before me. Unity! Brotherhood! An alliance of the crone’s cherished children against the enemy they shared from the start.

A dozen Tyrants had now reached the bottom of the rocky slope, with more descending behind them. The segmented ore carriers opened their payload bays to reveal artillery cannons, dormant until the need for them arose. Muffled pops signified a hail of shells which reduced five of the Tyrants to tangled piles of viscera and wounded the rest.

Four more Tyrants reached the bottom and reinforced the survivors. The air was now thick with both winged Tyrants and brown robes wearing flight packs. Here and there a winged Tyrant would seize a flying brown robe from the air and crush it, or gobble it down. But just as frequently, six to ten flying brown robes would swarm a single winged Tyrant, slashing its arteries with their jagged little knives.

A winged Tyrant, severely lacerated and bleeding out, collided with the tree next to me. As it lay on the ground, before it could recover I stomped it until its guts burst out of its sides. A number of Tyrants below were now converging on the segmented ore carriers, identifying them as the primary threat.

One of them couldn’t have toppled it. But six managed with relative ease. The ungainly sand crawler’s wheels spinning uselessly above it, the Tyrants proceeded to pry open hatches, pluck the occupants from inside and eat them alive. That’s when the mechanized scorpion made its appearance.

The sand nearby shuffled, rose in a mound, then parted to reveal the familiar machine. As I studied it I noticed new additions. Tuning forks, smaller versions of the one in the center of the settlement, now tipped each of the six legs in addition to the one on the end of its tail.

Before I could wonder why, it sunk its legs into the sand and began to vibrate. I could feel it through the ground even from this distance. No change was visible until sand began to rise up, enveloping the legs, then the body and tail of the robot. Shaping itself into sections of an armored carapace.

I laughed and clapped, once again blown away by their ingenuity. Each time a Tyrant attacked the scorpion, damaging some portion of its armor, more sand was drawn up through the legs by vibration to repair the holes. Healing its magnificent silicon armor so rapidly, there was no opportunity to deal any damage to the machine underneath.

Not without a price, though. As I watched, I could see the scorpion gradually slowing down. Sand becoming caught in its joints, grinding them up from within. The vibration wasn’t helping either. I saw more than one bolt come loose, left behind in the sand as the insectoid fighting machine trudged onwards.

Now set upon by six Tyrants, it seemed outmatched. With their crude little axes, cudgels and swords, they hacked at the robot’s legs until they began to come loose. That’s when the tail struck. Thrusting its stinger deep into the torso of the nearest Tyrant, the tuning fork on the tip vibrated at a higher and higher frequency until the Tyrant simply exploded in a cloud of sticky pink mist.

The others backed away, stunned. Not far enough though. It again thrust its stinger, too swiftly to dodge, into the chest of a nearby Tyrant. It screeched in fear and struggled to dislodge the tip, but a moment later it burst abruptly into a humid cloud of vaporized gore like the other before it.

Scanning the quarry, for the first time I noticed the absence of the missile. The odd tower of stacked cans was nowhere to be seen! The pad they built it on was still there, now blackened with a huge radial scorch mark. The skeletal metal tower still stood to one side, as did the chemical refinery nearby. But no sign of the cans.

Had they already used it? Would I visit the lake only to find an irradiated wasteland? Competing anxieties jockeyed for dominance within me as the battle continued to unfold. The winged Tyrants were on the run, but the action down in the quarry was far from over. Tyrants, now numbering perhaps thirty, converged on the central dome.

The ring of guns around it blazed relentlessly, but for every Tyrant struck down this way, two more replaced it. “Katerinka!” I shouted. “What are you doing!? Help them!” She only continued to read, leg dangling from the branch, indifferent to the events taking place below. Why? Why would she do this? I wracked my brain but couldn't understand it.

The chemical plant exploded in a brilliant fireball, Tyrants and Homunculi alike thrown back by the blast. The fire quickly spread as flaming fuel rained down around them. Wave after wave, Tyrants advanced towards the central dome. The mechanized scorpion now unable to move, sand clogging its joints, vibration working it apart at the seams.

It lashed out again and again with its tail, perhaps hoping to take out a few more Tyrants even while stationary. Instead, one of the stout, sickly looking monsters seized the stinger and plunged it into the mechanical scorpion’s own body. It rang like a bell, vibrations dissolving the sand armor completely before splitting open the metal chassis beneath it in a shower of sparks and flame.

All this time I’d been spectating under the assumption that the little ones would win. After all, I led their ancestors to victory many times before. Over the last few weeks I’d witnessed their military prowess against one another, imagining that Tyrants were now the least of their worries.

But the Tyrants just kept coming. Wave after wave after wave. Crawling, hissing, biting, clawing. Clammy, pale little bodies surging together in unison, an unstoppable mass of wicked flesh. It dawned on me then that the Tyrants were going to triumph. Just by sheer numbers. They’d already overwhelmed all but the last line of defense.

Bombardier beetles, ridden by red robes, blasted incendiary fluid into the faces of the nearest Tyrants. It erupted into flame wherever it struck them, sending them into desperate fits of smacking at their faces and bodies trying to put it out. Some succeeded, but most only accelerated the conflagration until they collapsed in flames, flesh blistering and turning black.

Much too late, the brown robes tried to raise the protective dome. The familiar throb of the resonance device could again be felt through my feet, and the edges of the dome began to rise. Not nearly fast enough. By the time it was tall enough to exclude most of the Tyrants, one had already made it inside. All they’d managed was to trap themselves with it in darkness.

Just then I heard a terrified howl. Whirling about in search of the source, I spotted Mr. MacGufferson surrounded by Tyrants. My heart leapt into my throat. No, I thought. No, no, no. Not again.

Fear paralyzed me. However I tried to throw myself towards the fragile old cat, my legs wouldn’t respond. I teared up, muttering frantically to myself as I watched the vile little creatures preparing to draw and quarter their prey.

Something in me snapped. Just like that I was off like a bullet, legs pumping, heart pounding so hard it threatened to explode within me. “NO!!” I shouted, “NOT AGAIN! NOT AGAIN!!” I kicked the first Tyrant as hard as I could. It came apart in a spray of blood and ejected organs. The rest swarmed me, but wherever they came within reach I seized and crushed their bodies with my bare hands.

One sunk its sharp little teeth deep into my hand, next to the scar from the last time. I forced my fingers between its jaws and pulled them apart until I heard bone splinter. Blood now gushed from the bite wound but I was blind to pain. Blind to my memories, to anything but murderous rage.

The creature’s broken jaw flopped about as I gripped its bulbous head and torso in either hand, then twisted and pulled as though opening a jar. The head came loose and took the spine with it, gore spilling out of the limp little body as I wrenched the two pieces apart. I threw the remains to either side, carefully scooped up Mr. MacGufferson, then ran as I never have before.

Through panicked tears, the still breathing but injured animal clutched tightly to my chest as I fled, I whispered to it “They got Winston, but I won’t let them get you.” Trees whipped past, sounds of war receding into the distance as I bounded over fallen logs. It all smeared together as the tears blurred my vision. I only stopped running when I physically couldn’t make my legs do it anymore.

My chest heaved, breathing still erratic. It took several minutes for it to normalize, to where I could gather my thoughts enough to inspect Mr. MacGufferson for injury. His eyes were closed. I could feel him breathing, as well as weakly purring. But he wouldn’t move. “Not you too” I blubbered through the tears. Begging, pleading with him to survive.

They take everything you’re not powerful enough to defend. No shred of mercy, no negotiation. If you can’t protect it, no matter how much you love it, it’s gone. If only I were stronger. If only I’d reacted faster. Done the right thing at the crucial moment. I felt a small, delicate hand on my shoulder.

When I turned to see Katerinka through eyes drenched with tears, I fired off a million angry questions. Why hadn’t she done anything? Why did she let it all happen? How could she? For her part she ignored the barrage, circled around and sat opposite me. Over my protestations, she took the limp cat from my arms and laid it out between us.

Opening her great dusty book to a page of particular interest, she withdrew a vial of powder I recognized as a medicine I once saw the little fellows prepare for Winston. She felt around on the cat’s body, taking notice of which spots caused it to twitch when pressed. Then she rubbed powder into those spots while chanting some incomprehensible mantra in a deep, guttural pitch.

I heard muffled pops behind me, reports from distant explosions. I tried to warn Katerinka but was hushed. “Remain silent. Is difficult spell.” So I did, watching breathlessly as she ran her hand over the wounded animal’s disheveled grey fur. Over and over she stroked it, at times adding more powder. Finally, she withdrew a small jeweled bottle of what looked like water.

The lid turned out to be an eyedropper, with which she deposited a single drop of the liquid at the corner of Mr. MacGufferson’s mouth. We sat in silence. Minutes passed. Fear grew within me that I’d failed Tyler. Like I’d failed Winston, Jennifer, the crone and myself. I trembled uncontrollably. Begging the gangly, lifeless form to move by even the smallest amount.

Katerinka took my hand in hers. It was ice cold, yet comforting. Tears fell freely now, soaking into my muddy pant legs. “It can’t happen like this” I whispered. “Not twice. I won’t survive it. Please.” The cat just lay there, no longer breathing. I stood as if to leave. Katerinka seized my arm, pulled me in and we embraced.

She had nothing to say. Just clung tightly to me, arms around my midsection as I clung to her. My teardrops now falling on her white, curly locks of hair draped over my shoulder. That’s when I felt something warm and rumbly wrapping itself around my leg. I withdrew from Kat and looked at my feet. There was Mister MacGufferson, purring up a storm and rubbing himself against my ankle!

I burst into tearful laughter, knelt and scooped the cantankerous old puss into my arms. It weakly licked my nose a couple of times, eyes still not fully open, then rested its head on my chest. My heart soared. I could’ve screamed just then. Could’ve danced, were it not for the delicate load I now carried.

“I did it Tyler”, I thought. Katerinka wiped the tears from my face and asked “Some spell, yes? Can blyadischa do that?” I raised an eyebrow, asking her who she meant. She waved it off. “Is not safe here. For cat, or for boy. We must go, I have much to show you and little time.” For lack of any better idea, I took her home with me.

“I was wondering how long before you brought another animal home” Dad quipped as I came in the front door with Mr. MacGufferson in my arms. “Oh, this time you brought a girl too.” Katerinka introduced herself as my classmate and curtsied. “We’ll be in my room, talking” I explained. Dad chuckled, and wiggled his eyebrows at me. “Talking huh? Leave the door open. ...On second thought, don’t.”

Once the door was shut, Kat removed the leather bound tome from her backpack, set it down on my desk and opened it to the desired page. I laid Mr. Macgufferson down in a drawer I set up as a bed, same as I’d once done for Winston. Felt good to make that bed. Felt even better to see it filled.

“Is happen much faster than I predict” Katerinka started in. “I thought we have more time to prepare.” The open pages formed a map of the area, presumably drawn long ago by the crone. With a pencil, she marked five spots on the map with various symbols.

A drop of water, a rock, a cloud, a flame, and a leaf. I recognized the positions as corresponding to the locations of the various Homunculi colonies. She then drew a star, connecting the sites to one another with straight lines.

“There, in the center. The Locus.” She said it as if I was supposed to understand. I pressed her for details. “Now that quarry has fallen, Tyrants will feel embolden to attack other settlements. I do not believe is possible to fight them. They spend all this time since last battle using captured little ones to multiply. Thousands of them now, easily.”

I shuddered, recalling the ritual I witnessed that night in the woods. Still, glancing over at Mr. MacGufferson recovering in the improvised bed, I felt as if there were still some hope of coming out on top. That, having achieved the small victory of snatching this sweet old critter from their claws, the rest might follow.

“The day will soon arrive”, she warned, “when you must stand upon the Locus and play the Secret of Storms. When that time comes, if your heart still contains even the smallest particle of hatred, all is lost. The future is a world overrun with Tyrants, subjugating whatever part of humanity will obey and murdering the rest.”

I assured her we’d been over this, but she insisted on adding to it. “There is foolings of me, but there is no foolings of instrument. Your heart must truly be clean the moment you take it up for playing of final song. Stay at home, is my advice. Nothing must happen between now and then which would endanger-”

I cut her off and assured her that in recent weeks, all anger had drained from me. That when I thought of Tyler I could summon no rage, only dreary, barren sadness. I was never difficult for others to topple, I told her.

I’d always found the strength to get back up until they took Tyler away. When that happened, following a brief explosion of pain, fury and grief, I just sort of crumpled inward. Didn’t have the energy to sustain it.

She didn’t look reassured. She instead looked mournful, and took my hand in hers. Less of a surprise this time. She’d grown slowly warmer ever since Tyler’s death, though I couldn’t figure out why. I just knew I liked it, and for the first time began to see her differently.

I remember being struck by her otherworldly beauty when we first met. It was just so alien, and her manner so cold, that I didn’t recognize it as feminine until recently. Much too late to do anything about it, of course. I’ve already pledged my heart to Heather. Thrown my hat over the wall, bet everything on the remote chance that I may yet love again. Truly, unreservedly, as I had with Jennifer.

Probably just conceit to think that such a uniquely lovely creature would reciprocate those kinds of feelings anyway. Kat’s all business. She’s only here to prepare me. To tie up the loose ends left by the crone’s passing. I’m sure once that’s done, she’ll leave. Best not to grow attached, then.

Heather’s the safe bet. She doesn’t call me a foolish boy, she’s never been cross or impatient with me. A sure thing. No sense in throwing that away to take a risk on an unknown quantity. Besides, I already have plans with her for dinner tomorrow. If I mean to really make a go of it with her, to be unfaithful before our first date would hardly be getting off to a good start.

I’ve reflected more than once on the similarities between Heather and Jennifer. The superficial ones. If Heather’s hair were longer, she could pass for Jennifer pretty easily. I couldn’t say why, but the more I dwelled on that, the more uncomfortable I felt. It cultivated some nameless guilt within me, as if I were doing something wrong with no clear idea of what.

“It’ll be alright if I just don’t think about that”. That’s the conclusion I came to after laying awake the night after the planetarium trip. I just want it to work out so badly. I suppose I never really healed after Jennifer left.

The hole she left within me cries out to be filled. If not by her, then whatever’s closest. At the same time, some other part of me recoils from the prospect as you would from poison or the stench of disease. Warning me, I think. But of what?

Pick a direction and go in it. I can’t just chase after every pretty face I see. How would Heather feel if I were to ditch her so easily for another girl? I thought back to when I saw Jennifer round the corner in that shop, hand in hand with Trevor. Could I really inflict that on another person?

I withdrew from Kat. She frowned, then seemed like she was about to say something. Instead holding her tongue. Closing up her book and slipping it into her backpack, she readied herself to leave. “Thank you” I said. “What you did for the cat. It means the world to me.” Again, she opened her mouth as if to reply, but some internal conflict prevented anything from coming out.

She smiled warmly. Even so, I thought I could see sadness in her eyes. Probably just my imagination. I’ve never been able to read people before, I don’t know why my brain would choose today to turn that part of itself on. After she left, I sat by the drawer for a while. Quietly thinking, and gently stroking Mr. MacGufferson’s ears as he slept.

The next day at breakfast, Dad wasn’t wearing his oil company pin. Or the jacket, or the hat. I weighed the risks of asking him about it, guessing it might be a sore spot, before finally breaking the ice. “I take it you did a little investigating?” He looked bewildered for a few seconds before cottoning to what I meant.

“Nothing like that. I just don’t feel like...I mean, it was a success. I’d call it a success. I learned something. I just think I could be making even more money in other ways.” He peered at me over his coffee. Perhaps trying to discern whether I bought it. I shrugged inside. So long as he dodges that bullet, I don’t care how it happens.

“Tonight’s your big date, isn’t it?” I choked on my cereal, then admonished him for making such a big deal out of it. “It is a big deal! Your first date. Oh, the stories I could tell you. I’d have to leave out some parts until you’re older though. Are you going with that girl you brought home yesterday?” I shook my head. He looked confused.

“I s’pose that isn’t my business. I just kinda assumed, yanno? She was real pretty. But I’m sure the one you’re going to dinner with is too.” I told him I didn’t really want to talk about it. Then we got to discussing the cat. What to do with it, how long to keep it before finding somebody to take it off our hands, all the same stuff we discussed the day I brought Winston home.

“Don’t go thinking this is the same as it was with the dog” Dad warned. “It’s not our cat. Whatever you may think of Tyler’s father, and rest assured I probably agree, it’s still his animal.” I scowled, imagining the first thing he’d do would be to find something wrong with it. The color of the fur. The length of the tail. Then he’d send it off to be put down, someplace where he didn’t have to watch.

Thoughts of returning Mr. MacGufferson to that man plagued me as I biked over to Everton Lake. Might it turn out alright? The cat’s a loner after all. Like me. Wanders wherever he pleases, so if need be, he could get away. But then there’s the Tyrants. As I reached the top of the hill, I spotted plumes of faint grey smoke rising from where I knew the lake to be.

Surely not…? My pulse quickened, and with the aid of gravity I accelerated madly towards my destination. It was exactly as I feared. Their victory the other day only encouraged them to press on to the lake, where the blues and whites now fought desperately alongside each other to fend off the marauding swarm of Tyrants. This time primarily of the winged and gilled varieties.

I looked on, forlorn, as the seemingly endless mob of pale little bodies poured into the lake. Flashes of light indicated underwater detonations, now and again a mass of bubbles would rise to the surface. The air from within some jug, jar or bottle, liberated when a Tyrant smashed it to pieces. The occupants most certainly drowned, as I drew near I could see dozens of tiny bodies floating gently towards the shore.

I wanted to do something. But what? Without diving gear I saw no way to intervene that wouldn’t simply drown me as well. If only I knew what was happening down there! If only I knew who was winning. Above the lake, a flock of winged Tyrants resembling large albino bats circled the white robes’ airborne complex.

The single seat, rocket powered fighters fared much worse than the flying soldiers had over the quarry. Though the sleek little craft were much faster than their opponents, they were also markedly less agile. The ability to outrun the winged Tyrants was of no use here as they sought to defend a stationary mothership.

Again and again, winged tyrants swatted fighters out of the sky. Hinged control surfaces shattered in the attack, I watched in horror as one little fighter spiraled out of control, exploding spectacularly as it collided with another.

The flying colony’s laser spat flaming death at the gilled Tyrants below, but lacked the power to injure any of them severely as each of them immersed in water just moments after being struck. The white robes’ strategy shifted to aiming for their eyes.

The power of the laser proved much more effective at blinding than it had at maiming. Gilled Tyrants screeched and clutched their bulbous eyes as the laser swept over them. Six of the horrid little beasts crawled onto the nearest shore carrying a submarine they must’ve removed from the battle below.

I gasped, eyes wide as they forced the hatch. The Tyrants then began to fish around inside the sub, shoulder deep, pulling out the crew to gobble down one at a time. A flash of light and a loud report accompanied the complete annihilation of those six Tyrants by artillery fire. I searched for the source and spotted a unit of metallic crayfish on the opposite shore.

The victory was short lived. They were set upon by a trio of Tyrants who, after grappling with the formidable serrated claws, positioned themselves in such a way as to pull the poor critter apart at the joints. After which they eagerly cracked open the shell and feasted on the gelatinous insides.

The frogs proved useless for the same reason. Like the rest of their weapons, designed for use against other tribes of Homunculi, not Tyrants. So focused on defeating each other, they lost sight of their common enemy. The one now brutally savaging them.

A pair of amphibious carriers emerged from the water, their noses unscrewing and swinging to one side. Assault troops poured out, little rifles blazing. But again, the bullets were of a caliber designed to kill Homunculi. It took over a minute of sustained fire by upwards of ten soldiers just to bring down a single gilled Tyrant.

Even with appropriate weapons, I knew they never stood a chance. The Tyrants were simply too numerous. Too comparatively powerful. Wherever they managed to destroy one Tyrant, ten of his buddies converged on them moments later, with twenty more close behind. There’s just no end to them!

“How can there be so many” I thought. Why did I let this cancer spread for so long? Multiplying safely in the shadows without opposition. If only I’d stopped it then. The time to act was a year ago! I frantically tore at my own hair, watching the irresistible masses of rotten little monsters laying waste to the little fellows’ final redoubt.

It can’t end like this. Can it? An entire planet dominated by these creatures would be a waking nightmare. Yet as I witnessed the battle concluding before me, I could see no other possible outcome. I thought I’d have more time to prepare.

I assumed until now that I might come up with some plan in the nick of time, that I might once again lead the little ones to victory in the eleventh hour. All remaining hope died as I watched the flying settlement break apart, one balloon after the next burst by the sharp little teeth and claws of the flying Tyrants, until the tangled mass of flaming wreckage plummeted into the lake.

I biked back to my house consumed by a mixture of confusion, regret and despair. “Is that it?” I thought. Had I just witnessed the end? Can’t be. There must be more settlements. Must be. I thought back to the map one of the little fellows once showed me. Dozens of colonies. They can’t all be destroyed. They can’t. If so, why go on?

I recalled something Tyler once said. That above all else, I must never let them put out the fire within me. Even if all that’s left is an ember. I spent most of the day cowering by the window, waiting for an approaching swarm of Tyrants that never came. Busy seeking out the remaining colonies most likely.

The futility of it occurred to me as the sun drew near the horizon. I meant to protect Mr. MacGufferson, if nothing else. But how long could I manage that in world overrun with Tyrants? There’ll be nothing I can hide from them when that happens. Nothing, however small, that I’ll be able to protect.

Dark thoughts of relentless Tyrant hordes continued to dominate my mind on the drive over to Heather’s house. Too far to bike, and I hardly wanted to show up sweaty anyhow. I should be excited, I thought. It wouldn’t do if I spent the whole date preoccupied. Come what may, I would at least prefer not to face the end of the world alone.

Can’t I just relax and enjoy myself? I wrestled my mind into submission, stuffing those troubling visions of pale moving carpets of little crawling monsters blanketing the landscape deep into the back of my mind. Not tonight, I thought. Tonight I’m going to be happy.

I felt a twinge of guilt, but couldn’t pin down the source. Jennifer? No, that’s not it. I know by now that this is exactly what she’d want me to be doing. Finding somebody new. Like she told me to, I was trying again. Like a rocket launch, trying over and over no matter how devastating the failures are. Because the potential reward is so great.

I’ll make it work. I just have to reinforce myself from the inside. So I don’t shake, however nervous I get. This is it, my chance to be happy! To fall in love again, to grow the roots of my heart around someone new. It felt almost heretical to think about. “Farewell Jennifer” I thought. “You’re finally gone from my heart.”

Subtle exhilaration grew within me. This is the beginning of something, isn’t it? Something wonderful perhaps. A leap into the unknown! No longer chained to the past, but forging ahead into an unwritten future. Not alone either, but with someone new by my side. A graceful, affectionate angel.

If someone like her believes in me, I can do anything. For such a beautiful creature to love me can only mean there’s something of real value in me. Something even I cannot see. If I cannot believe in myself, I can at least believe in the me that she loves. I blushed, scolding myself for counting my chickens before they hatched.

I’d not yet so much as kissed her. A bit soon to be thinking such things. Daring, in a certain light. Presumptuous might be a better fit though. I imagined myself heroically rescuing Heather from the teeming multitudes of Tyrants as they bore down on her home. Then felt self conscious for having such an indulgent fantasy.

One of the details was off, though. I kept picturing Katerinka in my arms for some reason. I shook my head as if to clear my thoughts, and tried again. Only to again picture myself rescuing Kat instead of Heather.

The harder I forced the matter, the more memories came flooding back of the times she’d helped me. The times she was the lone voice of reason in a world gone mad. I scowled, and resumed trying to change her face into Heather’s but my mind just wouldn’t cooperate. So I put the silly fantasy out of my mind entirely, and instead focused on readying myself for the date.

This consisted of rehearsing every conceivable line of dialogue in my head beforehand, just so nothing she said could take me by surprise. It never works, people just aren’t that predictable. I keep doing it mainly for the comfort. Makes me feel prepared.

Heather’s house appeared even larger and more opulent than Tyler’s. I had some vague understanding that the other kids at school came from wealthier families than mine, but visiting their homes really made it concrete. Recalling my living room chat with Tyler’s dad, I now felt I had some idea how their parents achieved that high standing.

This one was white too, but in a tacky Spanish castle style. I expected the cars out front would be much nicer to look at until, as we pulled around to the driveway, I discovered there weren’t any. “Thought her folks would be here to greet you” Dad muttered. I shrugged and suggested she was on the way or something. He raised an eyebrow, but didn’t stop me.

As he pulled away, I straightened the tie he’d lent me. Much too big for my frame, while the suit was too small. My nice formal clothes, usually reserved for funerals, Christmas dinner or when we have guests over that Mom and Dad want to impress.

I rang the doorbell and was startled by the resulting symphony of chimes. I waited there, feeling anxious and a little stupid, wondering if she wasn’t home after all. Then I heard the knob turn, and the ornate door swung open to reveal an absolutely incomparable vision of beauty.

I don’t know why it surprised me that she’d dress up. I myself had done so. As best I could anyway. Over the past couple days, whenever I pictured what the date would be like, she’d been wearing the sort of clothing she does at school.

Instead she wore a flowing, gauzy gown with a belt made from linked brass hoops, the plunging neckline revealing jewelry of the sort I never imagined somebody our age could own. The necklace was stunning enough, but it was nonetheless accompanied by earrings resembling clusters of crystal teardrops dangling from either lobe.

“You’re going to come in aren’t you?” I didn’t realize how long I’d been standing there, dumbfounded. She smiled. “I take it you like my ensemble?” I stuttered briefly, mind tripping all over itself before settling on what I wanted to say. “All it’s missing is the wings” I mumbled as I stepped into her home.

“Oh, I brought a gift”. She turned and looked at me with unexpected confusion. As if bringing a gift was a strange thing to do. Still, I took out a small glass bottle into which I’d put some sand, an empty snail shell, a little yellow plastic fish and some water.

“I noticed you’re always wearing earrings shaped like fish, or shells, or droplets” I pointed out. “You like the ocean, don’t you? I thought I’d give you your own little ocean.” She took it, and for a while just quietly studied the inside. Turning it around, expressionless. I began to wonder if she didn’t like it. If perhaps I’d done something wrong.

“If you don’t like it, I can”- she interrupted to insist that it was a wonderful gift, her momentarily maudlin aura suddenly vanishing. “I...I just didn’t expect you to bring anything is all. It’s funny, isn’t it? ...Funny.” I didn’t see how, but pretended to get the joke so as not to come across any more awkward than usual.

She didn’t like it, I thought. That must be why she reacted that way, now she’s just being polite. It was a stupid gift. Why did I think she’d want a bottle of water and sand? Stupid, stupid. Should’ve at least picked some flowers on the way as a plan B. Heather set the bottle on the mantle over the largest, most decoratively embellished fireplace I’ve ever seen and invited me to sit on the sofa with her.

I carefully perched on the far end and furtively glanced at her, still wondering about the gift. “I didn’t mean all the way over there” she laughed. “You can sit closer than that.” So I scooched about a foot nearer. “Closer” she said, smiling warmly. I scooched another foot. Finally she let out an exasperated sigh and slid herself right up next to me.

It was overwhelming. To feel the warmth radiating from her body. The intoxicating scent of her perfume, the smooth pale skin of her face and her soft golden hair bombarding my senses. My heart began to pound, and despite my every effort not to, I began to shake. I felt my guarded heart opening up at last. Like the petals of a flower as it blooms.

“Ever since you got here” she said, “you’ve seemed nervous and troubled. It’s not me, is it?” I assured her it wasn’t. A half truth. Thoughts of the Tyrants kept returning to the front of my mind, even as I fought them back for the sake of enjoying what might be my last chance for happiness. That’s most of it. The rest was just excitement and anxiousness, I suppose. I’d hoped it wouldn’t be so obvious.

“Well...there is something I’ve been worried about” I confessed. “I haven’t been able to tell anybody else. It’s something I was supposed to do on my own, but everything went wrong. Now I don’t know what will happen. I didn’t want it to get in the way of enjoying tonight.” She smiled sympathetically, and put her hand on my thigh. I tensed up.

“Whatever it is, I’ll take your mind off it” she whispered in my ear. “Tonight, there’s only you and me.” She made some quick gesture with her hand, and the lights turned off. My heartrate, already thunderous, grew so violent I couldn’t imagine she didn’t hear it. My eyes not yet adjusted, I could no longer see her, though she was so close. “Kiss me” she cooed.

This is it. This is it, this is it. I fought to bring my erratic breathing under control. Calming my mind, I puckered my lips and leaned in. Nothing there. I leaned further, but still no Heather. Had she moved? I grew confused and wished my eyes would adjust already. No sooner than I finished the thought, the lights suddenly turned back on.

Heather stood across the room amid a crowd of about fifteen of her friends that I recognized from school. They burst into laughter, took out their phones and began recording my frightened, baffled expression. I tried to ask Heather what the meaning of it was, but found myself paralyzed. Like a deer in the headlights, no part of me would budge however fervently I willed it to.

The laughter intensified, beating at my eardrums, the room beginning to spin around me. It couldn’t be what it looked like, surely? But there stood Heather, laughing just as hard, recording the stupid look on my face along with the rest. The room spun faster and faster as I felt my sanity spiraling the drain. It can’t be what it looks like. It can’t.

“You actually thought I felt anything for you!?” Heather incredulously demanded. “How? How could you believe that someone like me could ever have the hots for a gross little troll like you? Are you mental? In what world is that possible? You really will believe anything.” Faster and faster the room turned around me, my senses mounting a mutiny against my brain in defense of my crumbling heart.

“Look at his eyes!” One of them shouted above the cacophonous laughter. “He’s gonna cry! Cry, you little bitch!” I felt at my face. Without realizing it, a tear had escaped. In full view of these jackals, my defenses completely destroyed, I groped desperately within myself in search of a way to restore them. Much too late. Stabbed fatally in a vulnerable spot I never imagined they’d reach.

Tears flowed freely now. Twin waterfalls cascading down my face with no way to stop it. I fought, but failed, to regain control of my feelings. To halt the internal bleeding. But the wound proved too wide. The blood gushing from it rose around me until I drowned in it. Felt like I was losing my mind as the banshees howled with delight.

Instinctively, I pulled the mask over my face. I’d concealed it within my jacket’s rain hood, she just never asked me to hang it up on the way in. Probably in a hurry to position me for the big surprise. I don’t know why I did it except that I didn’t want them to see me cry.

Then something strange happened. Lost in a whirlpool of internal agony, it took me most of a minute to realize the laughter had begun to die down. I peered up at them. Most still laughed, but now looked vaguely disturbed. The reflective coating of the mask, I realized, was like a panoramic mirror. They could all see their faces in it, contorted with malicious glee.

As they stared at their reflections, the laughter continued to diminish until they at last felt silent. Then, some of them became angry. “Hey, take that off.” I gripped the edges of the mask, remembering Katerinka’s warning that I should never be without it. “Take it off, you fucking weirdo.” They now looked distinctly uncomfortable, shifting about, some putting their phones away.

“I...don’t feel right. I thought this was gonna be funny” one of the girls whispered, backing out of the group. “He’s ruining it!” one of the guys grumbled. “Make him take the mask off!” Two of them approached and tried to pry the mask from my face. I gripped it even more tightly. As they watched themselves in the mask’s reflection they grew more and more agitated, disturbed for some reason by what they saw.

But however they fought with me, I wouldn’t let them take the mask. I couldn’t let them go on watching my breakdown. Couldn’t let them see my tears, and without the mask I would be easy prey for the Tyrants. I went right on blubbering, invisibly to them, as they grabbed and pawed at me. Trying to remove the mask.

Finally I wriggled free from their grasp and ran for the door. I heard them shout furiously after me as I burst forth from the house and ran down the dark country road. Still crying, the mask shielding my face from the sharp, cold winds that might otherwise have dried my face. I ran and ran, forgetting the distance. Indifferent. I just had to escape.

My mind reeled. How could this have happened? My heart continued to bleed out as I struggled to make sense of it all. Eventually my legs ran of out steam. Sore, tearful and exhausted, it was hardly surprising when raindrops began to fall. I didn’t notice until it was pretty heavy. Still desperately clutching my dangling guts, trying to stuff them back into my body.

But, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men. The harder I tried to restore my composure, the faster I fell to pieces. Beyond the pale. I never imagined I could hurt this badly. A whole new level of pain Heather had introduced me to. I thought I’d hit rock bottom before! But beneath each deep, there is a greater deep.

The rain was now torrential. My clothes completely soaked, I couldn’t make myself care about it. Like fretting over a splinter in your pinky just after you’ve been impaled. Blinded by the horror, insensate, I stumbled onward. Like a machine, indifferent to physical damage. One foot in front of the next, in front of the next. Must keep moving.

Until I collapsed. Crying, soon screaming as well. Incomprehensibly. The bellows of a mortally wounded animal. Couldn’t find words for what I felt. Couldn’t think straight. I hunched over on my hands and knees, screaming into the mud as the rain beat upon my back. Every time I tried to regain my lucidity, it again destroyed itself.

I recalled that I’d cut Jennifer out of my heart for this. For Heather. I fell to pieces, dry heaving. I betrayed Jennifer for this. For this! My throat grew hoarse from screaming, but I couldn’t stop. My voice just grew more and more strained. My throat burned. My tears now felt like acid.

Everything I’d worked so hard to rebuild within myself finally imploded. Irretrievably. Ground into the finest particulate, not so much as two intact pieces left to nail to each other. Nothing but ash and embers. I couldn’t remember who I was. My ridiculous fantasies of being loved now returned to mock me, circling around my body like Heather and her friends.

Why did I ever believe anybody could feel that way about me? What is there to love? I brought this on myself by believing life could be good. That something pleasant might happen for once. That I deserve to be happy.

I started digging. The rain still pounding my back, I scooped handfuls of mud to one side with the intent of excavating a grave to bury myself in. The rain made the soil pliant, but I didn’t get very far before my fingers started bleeding and I had to stop.

I slid off the mask, then bashed my head against the ground over and over. Hoping to cave my skull in. But the mud was too soft. Small rocks embedded in it gashed my forehead pretty badly, but I couldn’t feel it. Drowned out by something immeasurably worse. The rain at least washed the blood away.

I eventually got up and resumed trudging in the direction I thought I came in. Didn’t really know, but didn’t care. “Either I’ll die or get home” I thought. One’s as good as the other. Any attachment I ever felt to my own life had completely evaporated. About a mile down the road I realized the rain was now warm.

I should’ve been shivering, but wasn’t. The frigid wind also died down. Just the rain now. Big, fat droplets of warm rain battering my face, chest and shoulders. I tasted one, and to my surprise, it was salty. The crone’s tears, I thought. She must’ve seen the whole thing. As if to confirm it, thunder sounded in the distance.

I played with the idea of walking the other way. As far from civilization as I could get. To survive by scavenging, or to at least die peacefully amidst beautiful wilderness with no ogres for miles in any direction. But there’s no getting away. There’s just too many of ‘em, and no mirror big enough.

Eventually I came upon a gas station. A pump attendant approached me, asking if I was alright. My head still swimming, it took some effort to remember how to speak. “I’m...alright. I’m not hurt.” He asked about the forehead gashes. “It’s not serious. I just need someplace to wait for a ride.” It seemed to satisfy him, at least partially. He still looked concerned, but went back to work and let me be.

I called Dad. He badgered me with questions about why I needed to be picked up so soon. I deflected them all and begged him to just come get me. I sat on the curb under the harsh neon tube lights and reflected on everything. I was at least cogent now. Able to think. But not to feel. No matter how hard I tried, that fuse seemed to have blown.

I stared out into the darkness. Imagining countless glinting, bulbous eyes staring back. It no longer seemed like such a tragedy that the Tyrants would soon destroy all of this. So much of it is garbage, so little is worth saving. I felt fucked up. No better way to put it. Just irreversibly, horribly fucked up and broken.

Not properly sad anymore, or even angry. Just grey. A dull, repetitive continuum of greyness. No reason to care, to feel. No reason to try. When Dad finally arrived, he too was shocked. “I must look like a truck hit me” I thought. A glimpse in the fold-down mirror on the drive home confirmed it. Wet, black hair plastered to my scalp and face. Deep cuts in my forehead now starting to scab over.

He asked if I’d been in a fight. If Heather did this. I told him she didn’t. Technically true. He eventually figured out I didn’t want to talk about it after I silently endured the barrage of questions for a good ten minutes or so. The windshield wipers worked double time keeping the view clear as the storm outside grew ever more violent.

I caught myself wishing it would never stop. That a cleansing downpour would submerge monster world, washing away the ogres. A miniscule, barely audible voice within me protested. As if angry that I’d succumbed to something it once had under control. Long gone are the days when that voice was the dominant one, replaced since then by something profoundly ugly.

I showered when I got home, but couldn’t get warm. However hot the water became, my insides felt like cold, grey concrete. I dialed it back a bit when I felt as if I might pass out. There’s no washing it off. Not that easily.

I didn’t bother to put anything on, just sprawled out on my bed. Staring at the ceiling, mind racing. Working backwards, step by step, in an effort to figure out how I arrived at this point. Where I’d taken the first wrong turn. Was it the gift? No, her friends must’ve been lying in wait before I got there. Did I say something to upset her in the days prior? Nothing from my memories jumped out at me.

My eyes gradually adjusted to the darkness. I could make out the corners of the ceiling, shadows of a swaying branch outside the window cast against the far wall by a street lamp. I thought I saw movement. I expected fear, but nothing stirred in me. Eyes lazily searching the shadows in every corner for any sign of Tyrants, I silently begged them to appear.

“Come take me” I thought. “I’m ready”. The shadow of the branch continued to gently sway. Nothing emerged from the shadows, however I welcomed it. Of course not, I realized. That would be merciful. Hours passed as I simply lay there, eyes open but unseeing. Heart beating, but unfeeling. Lungs continuing to draw breath only because I didn’t care to stop them.

Mr. MacGufferson crawled out of his drawer, hopped up on the bed and curled up on my tummy. I felt twisted up inside. Pinched, contorted, without a way to reach in and fix it. But I had to admit, the rumbly little lump now slumbering on my stomach did help somewhat. I closed my eyes and focused on the rhythm of his purring.

Cats just know. Probably the same way the little ones do. It did the trick and before long I was out like a light. The exhaustion probably didn’t hurt. I found myself drifting in a cold, black abyss. Distant clusters of lights floating past all around me, as well as lone stragglers. As I watched, the loners flickered, then went out.

The clusters proved more resilient. But these, too, were extinguished bit by bit until only pure darkness remained. Up ahead, a sleek shape drew near. Glistening, but difficult to discern as it was as black as the void around it. Once close enough I discovered it was the sword Katerinka used that night. The Poison of Sorrow.

It rotated silently in place, as if inviting me to take hold. I looked around. Endless nothingness in all directions. Nowhere else to go. Nothing else to do. So I made the only choice available to me, and grabbed the handle.

The cold did not vanish, as such. Rather, my own body temperature fell until it matched that of the void. Discomfort vanishing with it, as a differential no longer existed between the two. I felt mild pain as I succumbed...but then blissful numbness. A welcome absence of sensation after a lifetime of incessant pain. Surely it’s better to be this way?

Then I felt a sharp pain in my hand. I tried to release the handle but found I couldn’t. The thorns extended into my hand, in actuality the sharpened tips of black obsidian tentacles now burrowing deep into my arm. In a panic I flailed about trying to jar it loose, but I’d already crossed the threshold.

The tentacles just kept working their way into my body. Past the elbow. Past the shoulder. Writhing, slithering, wrapping themselves around my bones and organs. My entire arm now appeared to be a living mass of shiny obsidian tendrils. Bulging as I flexed, having taken the place of muscle.

My fear intensified as the process gradually consumed the rest of my body. Until it enveloped my head. As soon as it finished converting my brain, all fear subsided. Seemed foolish ever to have felt that way. I’d been right to begin with. This is an improvement over how I was. Nothing soft and warm left. No living tissue means nothing that can be wounded. Nothing that can die.

Only stark, cold, hardened obsidian. Absolute purity of being. And with it came purity of purpose. I now spied Earth approaching in the distance. It grew and grew, until I found myself descending to the surface. The sword now fused to my hand, an inseparable part of my body, it sought out the nearest population and began to kill.

Not because I felt any anger. There was nothing left capable of feeling. I’d become something like a machine, which simply performed the only function it could. How they screamed as they fled, sounding to me like the baying and bleating of barnyard animals.

I wrought destruction and misery wherever I went, wreckage and gore piling up around me. No weapon tried against me prevailed. No barrier succeeded in excluding me, or even slowing me down. One foot in front of the other, in front of the other.

Even as shells and rockets struck me. Even as my body was engulfed in flame. Eventually, I always reached their hiding places. Looked upon their terrified faces without empathy or remorse, then extinguished them. As they did to Tyler.

Along the way, masses of Tyrants grew around me. Drawn to my presence, feeding on the wake of fire, tears and corpses I left behind. Draining the blood, that they might further increase their numbers. I felt no allegiance with them. Our goals just happened to intersect.

I couldn’t have stopped if I wanted to. I just didn’t want to. I didn’t want, period. Desire was now alien to me. I wasn’t doing this of my own volition. Not for any reason. It was simply happening. Something I couldn’t not do. Like my mind had been reduced to dominoes. To a Rube Goldberg machine with only one possible outcome.

I trudged onward, climbing mountains of bodies, walking across the bottoms of oceans in search of anybody I missed. Finally, I came upon a scavenger. Wearing a hooded cloak, too busy picking up scattered books and paintings to hear me approach. I seized it by the neck.

It screamed until I tightened my hold on its throat. Slowly it turned, writhing frantically, until I could see the face beneath the hood. Katerinka. Beautiful, pale features soiled with soot, dried blood and grime.

She grabbed and beat at my cold, glistening obsidian arm as I held her aloft. I saw fear and hatred in her eyes. Tears formed, then rolled down her filthy cheeks. I hesitated for only a moment. Then continued to tighten my grip.

I awoke nauseous and coated with sweat. Then I sat there naked for a while, contemplating the dream. Holding my head in my hands, I pictured Kat’s terrified face as I choked the life out of her. The ultimate absurdity! I’ll never hurt her, I thought. No matter how far I might fall.

There was a knock on my door. I called out that I wasn’t decent, got dressed, then opened it a crack. Dad reminded me that today was Tyler’s memorial. “No time for breakfast, I overslept. I’ll be in the car.” No complaints, I thought. I couldn’t imagine keeping anything down in this condition.

It grew worse on the ride to school. My insides just turned over and over on themselves. Churning, swirling, as they usually do when I sense danger. What danger? Traffic was sparse, the car was comfortably warm inside. Something just felt wrong. One of those things you can’t nail down.

When I arrived, the gym was jam packed. Preparations were not yet complete, so I wandered about the school grounds for a bit, taking note of who all showed up. In the process I realized I was searching for somebody. Memories of her terrified, dirty face the only part of the dream that didn’t fade. Growing more vivid, if anything.

I really wanted to see her right then. Difficult to articulate why. To make sure she’s alright? I don’t think so. It was only a dream after all. The little voice which lost control of me long ago was now feebly pushing me to seek out Kat for some reason. A single ember, the last one not yet snuffed out.

This time I trusted it, and approached a student I recognized to ask if he’d seen her around. “‘Sup monkey boy, lose your banana?” he chuckled. I cringed but ignored it. “Have you seen Katerinka?” The gangly ginger pointed me to the bathrooms. “She’s in the girl’s room as usual.” Before I set off in that direction, I asked what “as usual” meant.

“My sister says she goes there and cries. Just sits by herself in a locked stall, bawling her eyes out. Then she dries her tears and returns to class like nothing happened.” I asked him if his sister knew what Kat cries about. He gaped at me. “Come on dude. I know you believe we evolved from rocks or whatever, but nobody’s that stupid. She cries about you.”

About me? She must really be worried. The little voice denied it. No, not worried. Then what? Offended? Anxious? I eliminated each possibility one by one until I reached the only remaining option at the bottom of the list. Placed there as I felt it was by far the least probable. But, having ruled out everything else…

My stomach sank as I considered the implications. It can’t be, can it? I must be reading the situation wrong. If I approach her and I’m mistaken about this, I’d make a fool of myself. Much too late anyway, even if true. Much too late after what happened with Heather.

There are so many confusing ways to hurt people. Without meaning to! Without even realizing it’s happened. I wondered how many people I believed to be intrinsically cruel, indifferent ogres have trampled me without meaning to. It’s not like I say anything about it most of the time. I usually just stew internally, or run off and cry somewhere they can’t see me…

Oh, shit. Shit! I stopped in my tracks. After all this time, all the giant blinking neon signs I somehow missed, my brain finally connected the dots. It became real for me. Looking back on everything she’d ever said. How she reacted to various stuff I’d said or done. Everything snapped together all of a sudden.

Only, it was too terrible to fully accept. She’s the last person I’d ever want to hurt. I couldn’t take it. Not on top of what happened to Tyler. Not on top of what happened with Heather. So I instead clung to the lingering possibility that I really was misreading it all. A position of familiarity and comfort. Of safety.

I spotted her in the crowd when I next entered the gym. The principal greeted me as stiffly as ever, asking to read over my prepared speech before I queued up front by the stage. I’d written something you might expect to find in a Hallmark card. Bland, vaguely inspirational. He approved it, then we carefully slogged through the crowd up to the front of the room.

Once I was seated, he made the equally arduous return journey, then smiled expectantly as the first speaker took the stage. Behind him was a projected image of Tyler as a toddler with low resolution animated gifs of angels playing trumpets to either side. Scanning the crowd, apart from Kat, I also recognized Tyler’s Dad. I scowled.

“It warms my heart to see such a strong turnout” The speaker began. “Although of course, what brings us here this morning is a tragedy exceeding any chance of description. Tyler came to us bright eyed and full of promise, his obedient little heart fully devoted to serving the Lord. Seemingly senseless, that he should be taken from us so early!

At times like this it can appear as if there is no plan. No justice in the world. Yet, without tragedies, how would we recognize moments of beauty and bliss? Might it have been God’s plan to use Tyler’s life, short as it was, to convey a vital message about what He expects from us all?

I find it helpful in times like this to reflect on the meaning of love. All legitimate, genuine love comes from God. Flows from Him. For He invented it, and is the source of all love in the world. The nature of Satan, however, is to take good things God creates and distort them. Just a little bit. But in a way that subverts God’s intentions entirely.

Because we are so patient, so loving, we feel tempted to overlook the distortion. That’s the old serpent’s game. Because if we accept the change and carry on, once we’re used to it, he can introduce another. And another. Like a frog sitting in a pot brought slowly to a boil, until depravity rules the world.

It hurts so badly because he afflicts people we care dearly for. That’s how he tempts us to tolerate their sin. It hurts! I know it. But, because we can see this trick for what it is, we will not be fooled. Remember that Christ said those who love friends, spouses, parents, or even their own children more than him aren’t worthy of his grace!

By reminding us of this simple fact, and that the wages of sin is death, Tyler has not perished in vain. While it pains me deeply that he is now in Hell, there is a lesson in it for us. A protective reinforcement against such manipulations.

His life, I tell you in truth, was not wasted. We got to know him, savored his good qualities, and cherished that time. By learning from his death, although he was cast into the lake of fire, he has spared everyone who knew him from the same fate. Many in this room undoubtedly owe him their very salvation.

So, let’s remember him not for his sin. None of us are without sin, after all. Instead, remember only the good in him. His devotion to Christ and his valiant struggle with sin, a powerful inspiration to all of us. Amen.”

Everyone present echoed the ‘amen’. The tall, suited brunette then announced that a friend of Tyler who was very close to him in his final few weeks on this Earth had prepared something to say in remembrance. With that, he stepped down from the stage and invited me to take the wireless microphone.

I climbed the handful of steps, stood before the podium, and cleared my throat. I then took out the prepared speech, unfolded it and flattened it before me. But of course I never had any intention of actually reading it. Instead, even as my voice faltered here and there, I spoke from my heart.

“I’ve not even attended this school for a year. I knew Tyler for only a fraction of that time. But it was enough that I came to love him. Not as a man loves a woman, though that distinction is important only to you. Rather, as one feels having discovered a long lost brother, or a fellow countryman in a strange, distant land he is stranded in.”

The principal looked baffled. Figuring out at once that what I was saying didn’t remotely resemble the speech he’d read and approved beforehand. I could see him fidgeting nervously in the rear of the room, but I carried on.

“I learned so much from Tyler. That there are others like me, with the same thoughts and feelings about life. That I’ve let pain warp my perception of the world. But also, what a Christian is meant to be like versus how they actually are. The contrast couldn’t be more severe.

The fellow that spoke before me rightly observed that you cannot have good without evil, because without that contrast you wouldn’t know good when you see it. Well, I have seen evil. I’m currently speaking to it.

Now I know who the bad guys are, what sort of person I want to be instead, and what I want to do with what’s left of my life. That’s the lesson I’ll take away from this place, and I sincerely thank you for it. You’ve given me direction, just not the one you intended.”

The principal now looked panicked, and began carefully working his way through the gathered throng of people towards the stage. I counted on this, keeping my speech short enough that I’d be able to finish before he reached me.

“You so-called champions of mercy, who show none except to those who believe as you do. You supposed opponents of iniquity, who create needless division! You alleged bearers of truth, who feed lies to children! You self-appointed advocates for a universal brotherhood of men, who practice exclusion with the greatest zeal. You, who claim to cherish family values, yet betray your own children because a religion commands it!

I rebuke you. Christ commands us to forgive, but I do not follow him. Because I know a cult when I see one, and because it would put me in your company. I do not forgive you and never will. It is precisely because so many of your victims or their friends have forgiven you and moved on with their lives that you get away with so much.

Instead, were it in my power I would feed you all into a meat grinder. I would turn the handle myself, and eagerly consume what comes out. Failing that, sticking as many of you as will fit into your own dreadful camps would be a satisfactory compromise.”

The principal, rage burning in his eyes, was now nearly upon me. Spotting Kat’s wide eyed face in the crowd, I thought to add a little something of hers to the end. “Sleep, you black eyed pigs” I declared. “Fall into a deep pit of ghosts.”

The principal seized me by the collar, lifted me nearly off my feet, and dragged me off the stage. By now the crowd was murmuring excitedly to one another. Some angry. Some confused. But with any luck, a few had glimpsed their reflection for the first time and didn’t like what they saw.

My Dad was called and asked to come pick me up early. He grumbled, having already done so the night before, but agreed. While I sat complacently on the curb outside the principal’s office waiting for Dad to arrive, Kat joined me. “Was some speech you give. I took pictures of their faces, so you can enjoy later.”

I laughed. More out of relief she didn’t hate me than because of the joke. “I had to say all that” I explained. “I’ve been keeping it in for so long. That’s what was wrong, I think. Jamming up the works. Getting worse and worse, but I feel as if I’ve cleared that blockage now.” She nodded thoughtfully, then asked how the date went.

“Nothing happened!” I blurted out. She cocked her head and waited for me to clarify. “At Heather’s, I mean. I didn’t even stay for long. Nothing happened.” Her expression started out blank, but slowly a smile crept onto her face. A soft, mournful smile.

“Is not quite the truth, is it? Something did happen. You forget, I still speak with Babulya.” I flinched, and began turning a deep shade of crimson. “All that glitter is not gold, da? Sometimes a fruit rots from inside out, so you do not know until you bite.” Still flush, I nodded without making eye contact. I couldn’t bear to show her my face just then.

“Do you expect I should always be waiting for you?” she inquired. “To watch from sidelines while you chase after other girls, to pick up pieces when they are done with you? To dry your tears? Do you think any girl wants to be second choice?”

I answered that I didn’t expect anything from her, and gravitated towards Heather in the first place because she was the only girl since Jennifer to express clear interest in me. She sat there fidgeting as I spoke, as if on the edge of saying something but holding back.

“I still don’t understand how it turned out this way” I lamented. “It was supposed to be a new start. I thought maybe this time I wouldn’t wind up alone like I always do. I thought since they didn’t know me yet, I’d have a chance.” Katerinka thought about that for a moment. Then muttered “They still don’t know you. And you’re not alone.”

We sat in silence for a while, each soaking in what the other had to say until I remembered something else. “I think I know what the difference is now. Between justice and revenge” I told her. Kat’s ears perked up and she invited me to continue. “Justice is putting things back the way they were before. Revenge is just inflicting equivalent harm.”

She stared at me. Eyes twinkling, grin widening. “This means perfect justice is impossible” I continued. “Nothing can ever be put back exactly how it was. But revenge only makes it worse. For both parties, but mainly for me. I still come out of it at a loss, much worse than if I’d just forgotten about it.

The longer I hold onto that anger, the more the damage compounds within me. Like sand in my gears. I don’t think that means I have to forgive people who don’t deserve it. I hope not, that’s often impossible too as I tend to hang onto feelings until I’ve totally exhausted them.

But, I should recognize a no-win situation when I see it. Take the loss and move on, or at least find some way to fight back that isn’t so self destructive. Otherwise I’m just helping them injure me more severely.” She stared and blinked, grinning from ear to ear. Finally she spoke. “You’re ready.”

Before she left, we committed to meet each other at the Locus in three days. She explained that it coincided with a nearby hill Dad used to take me to when I was little to look at stars through his telescope. To me, already a meaningful place. I’d just never known the full extent of it until now.

When Dad pulled up and I climbed into the passenger seat, he had some choice words for me. Evidently the principal related bits and pieces of my speech to him over the phone. “He’s talking about expelling you! Do you realize that!? Wants to meet with us on Monday for an expulsion hearing!” He settled down somewhat on the drive home as I told him my side of it.

“Still, did you have to say all that? This is the only private school in the area I can afford. What are we supposed to do with you if they won’t accept your apology?” He flipped his lid when I told him I had no plans to apologize.

Mom was even less impressed. Came as a surprise to see her home, as I’d forgotten she was due back today. The bickering died down when I saw the swaddled up bundle in her arms. My new baby brother. I approached cautiously, folding back the cloth to get a look at his face.

My heart melted. So much happened in the past few days, I’d never really given much thought to how it would feel the first time I got to see him. Occupied with other things. So I was without preparation or defense. The moment I first saw his face proved as transformative as that day in the quarry. At least.

Every feature so small and perfect. I’ve never seen anything so beautiful before or since. “We went with Ty” Mom explained, “so it doesn’t get confusing.” I tried to reply but was at a loss for words. “I see so much of you in him” Dad said. “Looks just like you.”

We gathered around Mom as she lay there, cuddling baby Ty. Fawning helplessly over the newest addition to the family. Even after Dad left on an errand, and Mom fell asleep, I was still huddled by her side. Just looking at baby Ty. He, too, drifted in and out of consciousness as babies tend to.

“Welcome to monster world, little fellow” I whispered. “It can be a scary place. But you’ll be alright, because I’m here. I won’t let anyone hurt you. I’m bigger and stronger. Your ally and protector! I’ll see to it your life is very different from mine, I promise.”

Ty gurgled, flailed his tiny hand about, then grabbed onto my finger. Memories of the night before finally started to fade. Replaced with images of Ty’s perfect little face, etched forever into my brain.

Oh, the things I’ll teach him. The places I’ll take him, the wonders he’ll come to know. All of the good in life, none of the bad. If I can help it, anyway. That must be what I’m here for, surely? My reason to continue.

The last remaining ember within me grew just a bit brighter. Stoked by the realization of a new purpose. Someone to protect. Someone who needs me. Something perfect and pure that all the ogres and Tyrants of the world will never get to, try as they might. Not while my heart still beats.

Mr. MacGufferson hopped up on the bed before I could stop him. But he only seemed as interested in baby Ty as I was. Carefully sniffing his face, his little hands. Ty giggling as the whiskers tickled him. I didn’t have to tell him this was somebody important. Somehow, like always, he just knew.

I didn’t feel nearly as anxious as I expected to on the way to the expulsion hearing. A blessing in disguise, surely? I couldn’t imagine enduring multiple years in this place. Once again I found myself sunk into the great swiveling leather chair, flanked by my concerned parents to either side.

For a while the principal just stared me down, hands bridged before him on the desk, breathing slowly through his nose. When he spoke, it was with that familiar calm, measured tone that I know means trouble. “I had such high hopes for you” he sighed. “For a while there, you looked like you were making progress. You don’t know how much this pains me.”

Mom and Dad looked spooked. The only ones in the room his intimidation routine seemed to be working on. So far, anyway. “You mentioned something in your little speech that stood out to me, because I’ve heard it before” he continued. “That this, all of this, is just a cult. The whole of Christian history!”

He said it as though it were self-evidently absurd. Near as I could tell, that’s exactly what the outcome of a successful cult looks like. Somehow Islam’s long and storied history in the Middle East didn’t compel him to believe there’s any truth to it. One of the few things I felt we’d ever agree on.

“You know, I’ve struggled with thoughts like that. Heard persuasive arguments of all kinds. Satan will try anything to budge us from the narrow path to salvation, or didn’t you realize?” My parents nodded along. Either in agreement or in an effort to appease him.

“I’m going to tell you a story. Something very personal to me. Maybe it will help you realize the severity of your offense. Do you know what I did before I took this job?” I shook my head. “I was an up and coming pastor married to the love of my life. A more beautiful, caring, perfect woman has never existed before or since.”

He idly took a framed photograph down from a shelf and set it before me. She really did look lovely. “When I was twenty four, freshly wed, I heard the voice of God call me to witness to the people of Uganda along with my wife. We organized a mission trip with a dozen other brave, Godly men and women.”

I began squirming inwardly, now with some sense of where the story was going. “As we camped out on the fourth night, while the housing and chapel were being built by volunteers, my wife contracted Malaria. Because we were camped outside such a remote village, and because of narco terrorist activity in the area at the time, it took several days to transport her to the nearest hospital. She passed away less than a week after arrival.”

I sat there dumbfounded by the insight. So much about the man made perfect sense in light of this. My stomach sank as he went on about his wife. “Happened just like that. She was vibrant, loving, full of life. Then she was taken from me because of a damned mosquito bite of all things. Do you understand? When you say it’s all just an overblown cult, do you understand what you’re saying to me?”

Now so on edge I couldn’t think straight, I again shook my head. So he clarified. “You’re saying I didn’t really hear God call me to organize that trip. That it was my ego. A delusion of grandeur! That I just wanted to make a name for myself as a pastor. And because of that, my wife died.”

I tried to cut in here and assure him I never knew about any of this. But he plowed ahead, talking over me. “You’re saying there’s no chance I’ll ever see her again. That I will never again embrace her, feel her lips on mine, that the sole reason I carry on in this world is a lie used to motivate belief.”

I finally got in an apology and made sure he knew I didn’t mean to imply any of that, and in fact this was the first I’d ever heard about his wife. He replied as if I said nothing. “Really try to appreciate the horror of what you’re suggesting. It’s not just me. Countless generations have watched those dearest to them committed to the Earth, able to continue only in the firm belief that it isn’t a final farewell. That there is hope, in Jesus Christ, that we can be reunited with the ones we’ve lost.”

There’s nothing I could say at this point to defuse the situation. I could see droplets of sweat on his brow, a manic look in his eyes, and a single strand of hair from his comb-over now hung between them. “Think of the wars that have been fought. Think of all who have killed, or died, under the assumption that Christ was who he claimed to be. Do you comprehend the scale of the tragedy, then, if he wasn’t?”

In fact I did. If you take something so firmly for granted, for so long, doing things which are only justifiable if it is true, there comes a point where it’s impossible to go back on it. Impossible to allow it to be wrong, no matter what anybody says or what evidence they show you. I felt that way about Tyler for a while. That I couldn’t go on unless I believed he would return.

“For one person, a child no less, to spit in the face of so many centuries of history...the writings and accomplishments of great casually dismiss it all as a bunch of fools taken in by a cult...You’re liable to receive much worse than expulsion later in life if you don’t learn to tread more carefully around topics with so much history and potent emotion invested in them.”

I still couldn’t really put myself together enough to react. It was the first time I’d ever seen a hint of genuine feeling in him and now understood to some degree why he comports himself like a robot most of the time. I couldn’t find it within myself to feel resentful, even though his voice now had an unmistakably threatening undercurrent.

“So you see, it simply cannot be a cult. Aside from the fact that I’m not a stupid man, and would of course realize it if I were in such a thing...It can’t be, because of what it would mean for my life and for the past two thousand years of history if that were true. I can certainly see how you might look at it that way, and I’m sure you can find clever ways to make it superficially look like one. But that’s just not what it is. It can’t be, period.”

I gulped, not taking my eyes off him. Going into this I expected some yelling, gesticulation and to be kicked out of this madhouse. I never thought it would become so uncomfortably real. I just silently nodded to everything he said after that point, mainly wanting to be done with it so I could escape the stuffy little office.

In the end, though I was disallowed from continuing to attend classes, we were offered the chance to continue by homeschooling. Same curriculum, same pace, just done from home. If I knew that was an option from the start, I would’ve jumped at the chance.

I did make a show of pleading my case. Briefly. But my take on things wasn’t welcome. There was also the small matter of my drawings. At some point a teacher’s assistant thought to peek at what I was filling so many binders with, and understandably found it a touch disturbing. I tried to play it off as illustrations of Hell, but could tell nobody was buying it. Might’ve helped if I hadn’t labeled everybody in the drawings by name.

I wasn’t yelled at on the ride home. Nobody much felt like speaking. It’s rare that anybody you don’t know too well just goes and drops a bomb on you like that. On the one hand it felt like emotional extortion. Dumping that on someone pretty much forces them to humor you. But on the other, while a friendship is not a marriage, I felt like losing Tyler gave me at least some sense of the man’s suffering.

All this time, in my mind he was just the ever present heavy hand of the law. I never suspected what he was dealing with inside, on his own. I regretted learning of it so late. We might’ve understood one another more easily on the basis of that shared experience. Still, I wondered how he would react if told that his wife is in Hell, as he once said of Tyler.

Not that it made much difference to me, but when we got home, I got an earful. Dad even took his belt off, although it only amounted to a bunch of huffing and puffing. I was too twisted up in my confusion over the principal’s story to care either way.

Reminded me of Dan. Sometimes, assholes are just assholes for the fun of it. But sometimes they’re like the lion with a thorn in its paw, an incomprehensible monster to everybody except the mouse brave enough to find out what’s wrong and pull out the thorn.

I might’ve been that mouse had I known sooner. Every time I argued with him in that office, I was unwittingly twisting the knife. If anything, he’d been remarkably patient. There are so many confusing ways to hurt somebody without meaning to. Even when, in your mind, all you’re doing is fighting for truth.

They didn’t bother grounding me at least. What is there to ground me from? Schoolwork occupies most of my day, and it’s increasingly grey and rainy out as November approaches. We don’t usually get so much rain, Dad says it’s climate change. The TV meteorologist seems less certain.

“There’s recently been an increase around the world in reports of unusually violent and unseasonal storm activity” he says, perfect shiny hair refusing to budge however he moves his head.

“As yet no word from NASA or NOAA on whether this fits into the prevailing models of climate change, but the minute either issues any sort of statement, we’ll be the first to relay it to you concerned folks at home. Until then, stay tuned for a segment on storm preparedness.”

Quick cut to stock footage of anxious shoppers trampling over one another for stuff like toilet paper and flashlight batteries, while a charismatic voiceover explained that we were being shown what not to do. Soon followed by a list of alternative sources for those goods should the local supermarket be sold out.

“It’s nice to see more of you. Usually you’re at school all day, then out in the field until dark.” Mom sat down next to me on the couch, cradling baby Ty in her lap. “Ooh, that reminds me. We should fill up the bathtub with water. They say you’re supposed to do that in case utilities are interrupted.”

She handed Ty to me, then got up and headed for the bathroom. For a while I just hung out with him, watching the flickering television screen reflected in his eyes as he stared at it. The next segment was about rioting following outages caused by the recent inclement weather. Onscreen, a group of masked looters beat a shopkeeper after trashing his store.

I frowned, got up and changed the channel in search of something less troubling. I nearly missed it because I was flipping through so fast, but when I stopped and went back a few, there he was. Mister sweater vest. He was doing one of his puppet shows. A veritable fever dream if you don’t make an effort to understand what it’s about.

Ty began to smile, laugh and occasionally burp. Whatever vibes that guy sends out, Ty seemed to be picking ‘em up. He said something, almost in passing, that caught my attention. “There is no normal life that is free of pain. It's the very wrestling with our problems that can be the impetus for our growth.”

It was sort of an astonishing thing to hear from a stranger, and from such a program. As if he were speaking directly to me. “Anyone who has ever been able to sustain good work has had at least one person--and often many--who have believed in him or her. We just don't get to be competent human beings without a lot of different investments from others.”

The more I watched, the more surreal it became. I recognized some of it from the episodes I downloaded for the little ones, but I never bothered to sit and listen for this long until now. Much of what he said was so intensely personal. I could see now, more clearly than before, what they found compelling about it.

“Confronting our feelings and giving them appropriate expression always takes strength, not weakness. It takes strength to acknowledge our anger, and sometimes more strength yet to curb the aggressive urges anger may bring and to channel them into nonviolent outlets.

It takes strength to face our sadness and to grieve and to let our grief and our anger flow in tears when they need to. It takes strength to talk about our feelings and to reach out for help and comfort when we need it.”

He went on for a bit about fear, pain, happiness and love. About how the transience of bright spots in our lives doesn’t diminish their worth. Finally, he closed with “Everyone longs to be loved. And the greatest thing we can do is to let people know that they are loved and capable of loving.”

I studied Ty’s face, wondering how much he could possibly understand at this age. But then, I decided, perhaps those instructions aren’t for him. I resolved to make sure that so long as we live, Ty will never have to wonder whether I love him.

Having already stumbled into every pitfall imaginable, I can better guide his steps as a result. Having loved and lost, I can convince Ty it’s not the end of all things that it appears to be when the same thing happens to him. Nobody will ever successfully deceive, manipulate, defraud, indoctrinate or otherwise take advantage of him, because I will teach him to spot such people a mile away.

Since I couldn’t find any reruns of it, I opened up the streaming video service Dad uses for movies and found the full run of Mr. Turtleneck’s space show. Ty started getting noticeably antsy behind me until I queued all the episodes and the first one began playing.

Soon he was captivated by simulated flythroughs of the Valles Marineris on Mars. Squeaking with delight as the narrator’s “spaceship of the imagination” skimmed the icy debris constituting Saturn’s rings.

I briefly wondered at what Ty had in common with the little folks, that it should work as effectively on him as it did on them. It occurred to me that they once also shared some mysterious connection with Winston and various other animals. Beyond my understanding, I suppose. But Kat could probably fill me in.

The last time I saw her was in the crowd during my speech at Tyler’s memorial. For all I knew she was stuck attending that dreadful school, even now. So it came as both a surprise and a relief when, around midnight, I heard her voice calling faintly to me from my window.

With some grunting and heaving, I slid it open. She stood there bone dry, the rain falling around her but nowhere touching her clothing. “How are you doing that?” I inquired. She climbed in through the open window without asking, and answered “Do you forget what Babulya is the witch of?”

Before settling on the edge of the bed, she first peered out through the window for a while with a worried look. She didn’t say who or what she was checking for, but I could guess. “They gather” she muttered. “More than I ever see before. Organized. As if…” She trailed off and got busy thumbing through the pages of her thick, conspicuously dry book.

“You know, even before I met Babulya” I pondered aloud, “for some reason I always felt comforted by storms. I’ve always seen beauty in rain, and thought of thunder not as the distant roar of some horrible monster, but as threats issued by nature against whatever forces might harm her little creatures.”

Kat looked up from her book long enough to say “Closer to truth than you know. Babulya still watch over us, even now. Nothing lasts, but nothing is lost. If not for her, no hope for victory. Even with her help, the future is unclear. Still so much can go wrong.” I absorbed that for a minute. Then asked Kat what she’s the witch of if her grandmother’s the witch of storms.

She again looked up from her book, this time slightly annoyed by the frequent interruptions. “Ice. Snow. The cold which pierces to your bones. The cold which, in untold eons, will consume all things.” I smiled. If Kat’s any indication, you can get straight answers from witches. But not without dramatic flair.

I studied the contours of her face, bathed in the flickering tungsten glow of a nearby lamp. Her skin, possessing no color of its own, seemed to absorb and embody the color of the light. Watching her work with such diligence and precision, like some delicate clockwork mechanism brought to mind the night I first met the crone.

Huddled fearfully in the handmade wooden seat, watching her prepare the stew. A stranger then. But the fear drained from me so swiftly. I felt wrapped up in some protective, nurturing energy. Like an enveloping cocoon. Even if my mind did not know I was safe in her care, my gut did.

I realized then that I feel the same way around Kat. Some strange field emanates from her. Wrapping me up, insulating me from monster world. Stoking the feeble ember within me. I still couldn’t see the resemblance, but now imagined I could sense one by other means.

She noticed my gaze and asked what I found so interesting. “There is so much of Babulya in you. I never noticed before.” She looked mildly surprised, but also pleased. “I still miss her so much” I confessed.

“The day we met by the lake, I remember wishing desperately she were still here. That she would know what to do if she were. Then you appeared. At every step you’ve done nothing but try to protect me. From Heather, from the Tyrants. From this world. It took me so long to recognize what you were doing.”

She listened thoughtfully. I wished I could go so much further. My heart wanted to say things my mind wouldn’t allow. Anxiety began to build as I fought myself. Within my inner world, I tried something new. To fit Katerinka into the gap that Jennifer left. Heather came close, but didn’t quite fit. I should’ve known what that meant at the time. Should’ve listened to that quiet little voice crying out in protest.

But Kat fits perfectly. Like a glove fits a hand, like the missing piece of a one of a kind puzzle. My heartbeat quickened. Why didn’t I accept it until now? She suffered at least as badly, but never collapsed in on herself. Never stopped growing. In all ways a stronger person! Not a prisoner of monster world, but one who expertly navigates it.

Where I only ever admired Heather’s beauty, it’s Kat’s unbelievable strength that I find myself most drawn to. Just picked herself up and carried on with her mission, simple as that. If there is anyone in the world I could trust to shelter my heart from it, to look out for me as I’ve vowed to look after Ty, I felt certain I was now looking at her.

Dangerous thoughts. Dangerous, dangerous. To say any of it out loud would be risking pain in excess of anything I’ve yet suffered. To look upon Kat this way, only to discover she doesn’t return those feelings would be agonizing. She might laugh, she might be disgusted. Solely interested in completing the mission.

Damn my timid heart. There is no more certain way to sabotage your every chance at happiness than to play it safe all the time. Contrary to intuition, it’s the bland, gentle path which leads to the greatest regrets. If only I could force it out. A violent act, almost. To remove all doubt so abruptly, to thrust the contents of my heart onto another person who probably wants none of it.

I’m a coward. That’s all I am. A hundred times I started to say what I wanted her to know. Got as far as my tongue, but I couldn’t make my mouth open. Couldn’t so much as whisper. If only I knew what she was thinking. Most likely about how I ignored her all this time, chasing after Heather.

Damn my eyes for what they don’t see until far too late. Stumbling all over myself to get my hands on fool’s gold, a brilliant diamond dangling right under my nose as I did so. What could she want with me now? Too little, too late. It’s always too late. Frivolous too! On the eve of a battle to decide the future of humanity, to be preoccupied instead with guessing at the contents of a girl’s heart.

“What are you feeling?” she suddenly asked. I stiffened up. Could she read my mind? When I didn’t answer, she swung the violin case up on the bed, opened it, and took out the Secret of Storms. “Final hour approaches. I sense much change in you.Something happen recently to soften your heart.” I nodded, thinking back to baby Ty. She carefully picked up the instrument and offered it to me.

I scanned it for protruding thorns, but couldn’t find any. Can it be? I took it in my hands and positioned it as if to play. Not a single sharp little jab. Nowhere. I felt around the body of the instrument to confirm it. Cold, hard and smooth. No thorns!

Katerinka did nothing to disguise her excitement. “How? I think after what blyadischa does, you would be…” She looked up in time to see me cringe. “Nevermind. Whatever it is, hold fast to it. Somehow, is working.” Just then, Mr. MacGufferson leapt up on the bed and trampled all over Kat’s book.

He has a way of making himself the center of attention, regardless of whatever you were doing before he showed up. Kat didn’t scold or swat him, but lifted the fuzzy sack of bones and placed him between us. He contentedly curled into a ball and let the two of us pet him. Soon he was purring loudly, emitting occasional grunts of approval.

Now and again, our hands brushed against each other. My body tensed up every time. How I wanted to tell her right then! How it burned within me, searching for a way out. Only she knows me now that Tyler’s gone. If I let her slip away, lost to the passage of time and the diverging courses our lives might take, would I ever forgive myself?

“So, you can make it stop raining?” She nodded. “In small area, da.” I asked if she could keep the roof dry. She thought about it, then asked what I wanted to do on the roof. “I won’t keep you for long. There’s just something I need to be sure of.”

Soon the two of us lay side by side atop the house, insulated from the roof by an unrolled blanket. Above us the night sky stretched out like a black sheet, with so many pin pricks letting light through. My breathing slowed. When I strained my ears listening for it, I discovered her own breathing matched the rhythm of mine.

With everything that’s happened, and an unthinkable cataclysm bearing down on me, the tranquility of staring up at the great big sky on an October night did much to quiet my mind. But of course, that isn’t why I brought her up here. As I lay there, intensely aware of her presence beside me, I searched my memories.

Above all else I was trying to remember exactly how I felt that Summer’s night I lay on the roof with Jennifer, gazing at stars. There was the same vague feeling of comfort and belonging. Of being enveloped in a warm cocoon that I also once felt from the crone. But that was the only commonality so far as I could tell. Everything else felt different.

Katerinka isn’t Jennifer. But then, I’d been wrong in the first place to feel anything for Heather based only on her superficial similarity to Jennifer. That was my first errant step down a path to ruin and heartbreak. There is no replacing an individual, I realized. I’d been foolish to try. Sick, hurt, searching for something the same shape just to close the hole. To stop the bleeding.

Kat fits into that space not because she’s the same as Jennifer. Kat is Kat. As I felt around my insides, I realized the reason she fit is because of a single all-important parallel between the two. The only one I ever should’ve cared about.

“I love you”, I whispered. Silence followed. Then Kat asked me to repeat it. I felt certain she heard me the first time, but said it again anyway. “I’m sure of it now. You pushed me away so hard early on, I guess I never took this feeling seriously. Afraid to even try. Of how you might react, what you’d say, how you might look at me.

But now that I know you, I’m more afraid of living the rest of my life wondering what would’ve happened if I were brave enough to say something. That would be worse than the school. Worse than Heather, worse than the Tyrants.

My biggest regrets aren’t things said to me by others, but things I didn’t say to them. Risks I didn’t take. Times when happiness was within reach, but I was too cowardly to seize it. The gentle path. Always playing it safe, terrified of being hurt.

To hell with the gentle path! Easy to say that now, I might die tomorrow. But I should’ve been strong enough to renounce it sooner. It’s too easy to rage at the cruel, the wicked. The ogres of the world. Too easy to blame them for the condition my heart’s in, when the truth is that I did most of the damage myself.

Come what may, I’m glad I was born. In spite of it all. Because whatever you say, and whatever happens tomorrow, I got to know you for a time. Whenever I look at you, I glimpse something remarkable. Something I only managed to glimpse on my own once before. The world as I would see it if my life had been different. How it really is, or how it could be with a mended heart.

Even if you laugh, or leave without a word, I had to tell you. Had to. I won’t die a coward, and it’s only because of you that I finally lived.”

We lay in silence for a while after that. I didn’t regret saying it. I really did need to get it out. Like the speech at Tyler’s memorial, the sort of thing that will kill you if you cage it up inside for too long. Even so, I desperately wished she’d say something. That she loves me too, I hoped. Or at least bare acknowledgement.

“When we first meet”, she suddenly whispered, “I push you away because I too am afraid of being hurt. But also, afraid to hurt you. You’re needed for most vital purpose. Your heart must be clean for it. Too selfish, if I were to confuse your feelings. Too risky. Such difficulty to know you. To protect, teach and be with you, but feel nothing. Impossible, in the end. But whatever I might want, and however dearly, is of small importance next to what you must do.”

I managed a half hearted laugh. “To save a world of ogres?” Where for a time, I’d felt determined to destroy it. She rolled closer and took my hand. Still ice cold. “Not for them” she whispered. “For Babulya.” A point of light sailed past far overhead. The space station? Or a satellite, perhaps.

Beneath the canopy of stars we lay, her face buried in my shoulder, leg draped over mine. I felt mixed up, but relieved. At least she didn’t laugh. I got to say what I needed to. Beyond that, I got to feel something I once thought I never would again. Something I could at last be certain was real.

The storm grew stronger through the night, rain beating at my window, wind whipping the branches about. Sleep was fitful. I was yanked from my slumber once by especially loud thunder, finding Mr. MacGufferson huddled against my stomach. Somehow he’d burrowed his way under the covers without waking me.

When at last I set to dreaming, I found myself once again among the little ones. This time at the bottom of Everton Lake. Such serene beauty lay before me, a sprawling interconnected patchwork of bottles, jars, jugs and so on. Electrically lit from within, like glowing lanterns spread out across the lake bed.

An aquatic plant undulated slowly in the current on the other side of the glass hull. I marveled at the panoramic view until I noticed the faint echo of a distant alarm. Scanning the room, which turned out to be one of many stacked floors constructed within a propped up glass brewing jug, I spotted a blinking red LED in the ceiling.

Suddenly a group of Homunculi descended from the floor above me in a panic, scrambling to the next spiral staircase at the other end of the room. Along the way one of them gestured frantically to me, shouting in some strange language I couldn’t understand.

It made no sense. Until I again looked out across the submerged colony and spotted incoming Tyrants. Just silhouettes at first, features obscured by the ever present underwater haze. Algae and other particulate, swirling in the currents, illuminated now and then by a ray of golden sunlight from the surface.

Three. Five. Eight. Now twenty at least, propelling themselves towards the colony with webbed hands and feet, legs pumping against the water behind them. Then the first wave of fighter subs launched. Several long, thin craft descended from an upturned plastic container in the distance.

A moonpool, I assumed. A hangar and workshop for the repair and supply of submersibles. The little vessels accelerating away from it resembled nothing more than daggers. Sleek, vicious looking craft slicing effortlessly through the water on their way to intercept the approaching horde.

The first blossom of guided torpedos swarmed forth from the clusters of torpedo tubes embedded in each craft. Individually no larger than a matchstick, but frightfully swift, they impacted the first wave of Tyrants with terrible force.

A red cloud of blood and viscera now spread outward from the point of impact. But as I looked on, the next wave of Tyrants swam right through it. The fighter subs released their second volley of torpedoes with the same effect, but the Tyrants kept coming.

A shadow passed overhead. I looked up and struggled to make out the silhouette sailing past above me until it was at last far enough away to resolve. A massive submarine, doubtless their most fearsome. Short mechanical tentacles trailed behind it, like those of a squid.

Sub bays in the bottom opened up and released yet more of the dagger shaped craft, which did not release torpedos but instead accelerated towards the Tyrants with the apparent intent to ram. I gasped as the first plowed messily through the stomach of the nearest Tyrant, his intestines trailing behind it for a ways.

The second and third fared just as well, but then the Tyrants became wise to the tactic. Spacing themselves further apart that they might maneuver more easily, the next fighter sub to speed towards them was instead seized by the aft section.

When gripped that way, the craft became serviceable swords. One of the portly little monsters brandished his improvised weapon and grinned, flashing countless tiny little teeth. Then it spotted me. I backed away and began searching for some means of reaching the surface.

The problem is, everybody else had the same idea. As I descended the stairs, floor after floor, the sirens grew louder. Once I reached the level with access to the rest of the colony, it was absolute pandemonium.

A river of violent, frightened Homunculi flowed from the entry on one side of the room to an exit on the other. Here and there, unlucky ones tripped amidst the stampede and were ruthlessly trampled.

I looked out through the glass hull in the direction they were all heading. The next building over, what looked to be a repurposed water cooler jug, was now releasing little bubble shaped craft towards the surface. Each built from the sort of transparent plastic capsule that small toys are dispensed from 25 cent machines in.

Lifeboats. Lifeboats! A way to the surface! No wonder. The cacophony of angry, fearful voices continued unabated as a gilled Tyrant swam past outside. So absorbed in their own immediate concerns, few noticed.

It grabbed one of the lifeboats as it rose and crushed it. Escaped bubbles continued rising, along with a slowly dispersing cloud of blood. It picked the remains out from within the wreckage and ate them, then repeated the routine with another lifeboat.

I cried out a warning but couldn’t make myself heard over the din. Only when the Tyrant began pounding on the next building with a rock did any significant number take notice. I could feel each blow transferred through the structure and into my feet.

As a result, we all felt the first fracture. Moments later, ice cold water issued forth from the tube leading to the next building. The stampede suddenly reversed course and began to scream. Only ankle deep so far, but spreading rapidly, it would begin to rise as soon as it reached the limits of this floor and flooded the ones below it.

As I fought my way through the deafening chaos, I noticed a family huddled between a pair of huge storage canisters. I can’t read their writing but from the scent, I guessed it was dried fish. For the same reason I couldn’t understand what the father was saying, even if it weren’t so maddeningly loud.

But I know that face. The one he carefully maintained for the sake of his little boy, the one that says I’ve got things under control. That everything will be alright, the biggest lie of them all. I still remember hearing it from my father the first day I came home with a bloody nose.

It’s not going to be alright. Not by itself, and whoever tells you otherwise usually can’t do a damned thing about it. They just don’t want you to be afraid, or to give up hope. It’s not that I don’t understand why they do it, but false hope is worse than none.

If I’d known the truth, I might’ve prepared myself. Might’ve tried some other approach instead of stupidly trying to make friends with the other kids day after day, coming home with a new bruise every time. Better to know the truth of this world, that I might get a head start adapting myself to it, than to go on helplessly waiting for change that never came.

As I was carried down the corridor of clear rubber tubing by the surging throng of panicked evacuees, I spied a few of the most desperate ones diving out through the moon pool and trying to swim to the surface. I didn’t see them drown, but there’s just no way. We’re far too deep.

The surreal beauty of this place didn’t escape my notice even as I ran for my life. An isolated, fantastical safe haven. Everywhere the little ones go, they build the most breathtaking and ingenious works. But however well hidden, the Tyrants always come to destroy it.

There’s no keeping anything from them. The more precious it is to you, the more intensely they delight in ruining it. No use asking why they do it either, that just makes them laugh harder. It’s simply what they do, who they are at their core.

The corridor emptied out into a second moon pool module. The herd split and rounded the pool on either side. Suddenly, a Tyrant thrust his arm up into the dry. Thrashing about, grabbing blindly at anyone within reach. The masses of screaming men, women and children flattened up against the hull.

Too late for the poor man seized in the Tyrant’s gargantuan claws, shrieking in terror until pulled under. “He looked awfully familiar” I thought as I edged around the room towards the exit on the far side. That’s when I came upon his son. Hunched over the edge of the pool, crying his eyes out.

I tried to persuade him to keep moving, but without avail. Through the tears, he began whispering feverishly to himself, hands clasped together. I couldn’t figure out why until I spotted the pendant dangling from his neck...cast in the shape of a baseball bat.

May as well have been a knife for how savagely the sight of it pierced my heart. I felt pressure building on my eardrums. The water now lapped at my knees. Pleading with the poor, frightened kid wasn’t doing any good, so I threw him over my shoulder and ran.

The whole way he beat my back with his fists. Probably still convinced his father might surface through that pool at any minute if he waited patiently and prayed sincerely enough. I just kept running, feet sloshing through the water as it rose steadily toward my knees.

He never forgot me. His father too, no doubt. There must be a few who still remembered what I did for them, even as the white houses spread. Even as they toppled every statue of me, one by one.

We came out into a building consisting of a well furnished interior built within an old fashioned diver’s helmet. Sparks flew from the lighting fixtures, presumably due to electrical shorts elsewhere.

Through the faceplate I witnessed a gilled Tyrant approach. It loomed larger and larger until its face filled the window, eyes lazily scanning the interior until they focused on the two of us. It withdrew for a moment, found a rock on the lakebed, then began to bash furiously at the glass with it. A spiderweb of cracks spread outward from each point of impact.

I was halfway through the corridor to the next building when the water struck me like a freight train. Every inch of exposed skin stung as my body helplessly twisted about in the deluge. I held fast to the boy with one arm and grasped blindly with the other, eventually snagging a rusty metal pole.

When I managed to get our heads above water, as the boy sputtered and coughed, I realized I’d grabbed hold of a spiral staircase. The handrail, anyway. The current was too strong, I couldn’t pull us up out of the water with one arm. But then the boy joined in. Seizing the handrail and pulling as hard as he could, while it wasn’t much, proved to be just enough.

The minute we were free of the surging water, the two of us hurriedly scrambled up the stairs to the next level. Wouldn’t be long until this floor was underwater too, I realized. Through the glass I watched as distant modules went dark a few at a time. Before glowing in unison, everything humming along perfectly. Now shutting down bit by bit, like the organs of a dying beast.

Soon the only rooms still lit were the upper levels of the towers which the rising water level hadn’t yet reached. I could just barely make out waving points of light on the very top floor. Trapped evacuees signalling for help that will surely never come.

To one side, a Tyrant finished crumpling the hull of a submarine. The largest sub fired a torpedo at it, but the Tyrant simply snatched the torpedo, turned it towards the nearest building, and released it.

The impact sent fractures radially outward, some encircling the jug. The points of light on the top floor turned off. Perhaps worried they were attracting attention? But the cracks just kept spreading, and spreading...until all at once, the jug collapsed on itself.

I was so distracted by the spectacle, I didn’t notice the water was now up to my ankles. The boy and I ascended another floor. All the while I wondered why I bothered to save him when I’d already witnessed what would soon become of us.

So certain was I that we’d eventually drown, I almost didn’t believe it when, as we ascended the stairs to the next level, there was a docking port. I turned around scanning for any nearby subs. The last few fighter subs were embroiled in combat with a handful of Tyrants, defending the betentacled mothership as it retreated towards the drainage pipe.

I scavenged through boxes until I found a pair of lanterns. Taking one in each hand, I waved them about, hoping to attract the attention of the submarine’s captain.The boy quickly picked up on my plan and joined in, waving his own set of lanterns.

It wasn’t the captain of the mothership that noticed us, but the pilot of a lone fighter sub coming in to dock with it. He happened to glance over and see us as his damaged craft scooted past the top floor. I held my breath, waiting to see whether the great cylindrical vessel would send anyone back for us.

Instead a smaller, pill shaped transport sub detached from the great streamlined hulk and set about evacuating the last few towers not yet flooded or collapsed by Tyrants. One at a time it docked to the highest available port, the two halves mechanically pulled together to form a seal against the outside water.

No sooner than it finished rescuing the survivors from the last tower, a pair of Tyrants began hammering it with stones from the lake bed. The sub hurriedly approached the next tower and repeated the docking procedure.

While it did so, the tower behind it became riddled with cracks, then finally collapsed on itself in a burst of bubbles and wreckage. Too slow. Entirely too slow. It won’t reach us in time, will it? I felt a tug at my pant leg. Glancing down, the boy was looking at me expectantly.

For reassurance I suppose. That everything will be alright. I made no effort to disguise the fact that I simply didn’t know. He seemed to understand, and buried his face in my leg. So we waited, white knuckled and breathless, until the transport sub finally docked.

The whole structure reverberated slightly as the mechanical graspers pulled the two rubber lined rings tightly together with a metallic ‘kerchunk’. Then with a rusty groan and modest shower of water droplets, the two hatches swung open. The inside was completely packed, wall to wall, with evacuees. The structure again shook, this time because of a gilled Tyrant just outside.

Those in the sub urgently beckoned. But try as I might, I couldn’t fit myself among them. A loud splintering sound accompanied the dreaded propagation of fractures throughout the glass hull. No room left. No room.

Except perhaps if the boy went without me. I shoved him into the only gap I saw. He grabbed the sleeve of my robe, teary eyed. No time for that, I thought. Another impact spread the cracks yet further around the curvature of the top level. I pried his hand loose, then stood back as the hatches shut.

I was wrong. Or not entirely correct anyway. Sometimes things do turn out alright. But someone has to make it happen, and there’s always a price. Another impact caused jets of water to spray in through the nearly shattered hull at various points around me.

I stood there silently watching the transport sub detach and pull away. The final impact imploded the jug. An abrupt, ear splitting “whump”, a split second of agony, then darkness. Too often I awake this way! Drenched in sweat, heart beating madly. I held my head in my hands to reorient myself.

The storm must’ve continued through the night, still raging outside as I showered. While the steam swirled around me and the barrage of droplets beat at my back, I thought about the look on that little boy’s face as I forced him to leave without me.

After I got dressed and made myself a modest breakfast, I plopped down on the couch and got busy with my A.C.E. booklets. Mr. MacGufferson crawled into my lap and curled up there, occasionally batting at my hands as I jotted down bland, theologically correct answers.

About an hour and a half into the section on carbon dating, I heard Dad pull into the driveway. A few minutes later he came in the front door sopping wet with an envelope in his hand. “I ran into Tyler’s Dad today” he revealed as he shed his dripping layers and hung them up on the coatrack.

“With your car I hope”. He didn’t find it amusing for some reason. Instead he made his way around the couch and handed me the envelope. “It’s from Tyler. His Dad wants you to have it.” I balked. From Tyler? He must’ve written it from the camp. I nervously fidgeted with the barrette hanging from my neck as I opened it.

“Hello! First things first: I’m happy here and well taken care of. The facility is beautiful and clean, with every modern amenity and a level of comfort verging on that of a resort. An absolute bargain for what they charge!

Emphatically, I want to assure you that I’m not being censored or coerced in any way. I really love it here! I’ve already learned so much from my talented, highly qualified counselors. With every day that passes, I can feel my connection to God being repaired. Slowly but surely the trajectory of my life is being corrected so that it matches what God wants for me, and I can’t tell you how relieved I feel. Hallelujah!

“Leave it to God” my Dad would say. Everything’s going to be alright! After all, God never gives us more than we can handle. There have been some days when I thought that I’m just not cut out for the kingdom of Heaven. But the fact of the matter is that we don’t have to let the world decide who we are. The circumstances of your life only shape your identity if you allow them to.

People can change. Even when it feels far too late to be anything other than what life has turned us into, we can still change. It’s not easy, but it can be done. The way of the world is that everybody passes on suffering. They receive it from one person, then offload it onto somebody else.

Madness, isn’t it? The people we pass it onto rarely did anything to deserve it. But there’s another way. Whoever you believe Christ was, he had many good ideas about what to do with suffering. Instead of passing it on, we’re meant to let it go. To turn the other cheek, disrupting that toxic cycle.

Even now, you can decide to change course. It’s never too late to become the person you’re meant to be! I’m not saying it’s fair, either. What forgiveness do you owe anybody when so few have ever shown you mercy? But it’s not about keeping score. It’s about pulling yourself free from that cycle so that it doesn’t destroy you.”

It was signed “Warm regards, Tyler Allen”. Parts of it sounded like something he’d say. Other parts didn’t, as if the letter was edited before they sent it to me. Enough of him shined through in spite of it that I decided to keep the letter someplace safe, so I could get it out and read it whenever I have difficulty dealing with certain memories.

To do that, I first had to get Mr. MacGufferson off my lap. Harder than it sounds! Cats have some mysterious control over gravity where they’re light as a feather when they want to be picked up, but weigh a ton when they don’t. I eventually did dislodge him, but not without a fair bit of grumpy yowling and some fresh claw marks on my ankle.

After pressing the letter flat between the pages of an especially thick hardcover dictionary and making note of which shelf it was on, I resumed work on my A.C.E. packet, occasionally glancing out the living room’s bay window to keep an eye on the storm. The Locus was visible from here, peak protruding intermittently over nearby trees as the wind whipped their branches to and fro.

Mom had her own TV on in the other room, and over the sound of wind and rain outside, I could just barely make out the voice of the weatherman. “We’re seeing some unusual formations North of Everton Lake. Possible funnel cloud, but as yet there’s no reason to believe it will touch down. Those wishing for up to the minute extreme weather notices should download our new app, using the bonus code-”

I tuned the rest out. But, as I again looked towards the Locus, the cloud layer really did appear to be circling it. Slowly at first, picking up speed even as I watched. Something like a very gradual hurricane. Where the eye would be, a break in the clouds permitted a brilliant ray of sunshine through. It fell directly onto the peak.

That would’ve been indication enough. But in addition, a little speck of red spiraling about the ray of sunshine caught my attention. I rummaged through the bin next to the door, usually where mittens and winter hats go. But also where Dad often leaves his binoculars.

After adjusting the focus and peering through them, my suspicions were confirmed. There flew Katerinka, straddling her closed up umbrella. “I knew it wasn’t a broom!” I laughed, then returned the binoculars to the bin and got my bike out of the garage.

The ride over was miserable. I made a note to ask why she couldn’t have kept the rain off me when I got there, but as I drew close enough to make out the little multicolored battalions formed up around the base of the hill, that suddenly seemed like a frivolous concern.

A feeling of exhilaration welled up within me as I approached the front line. The final, complete realization of my fondest dreams. For there, side by side, stood soldiers from every single tribe. No longer at each other’s throats over territory or differences of belief, but at last fully united in a bold spectrum of colors against the mortal enemy of their kind.

The blues looked out of their element as most of their mechanized units are designed for amphibious assault, but they nonetheless boasted the most sophisticated assault rifles of the lot. The Greens were invisible to me until they revealed themselves, as each of them wore something like a ghillie suit which blended in perfectly with the grass.

The browns were present in force, with what remained of their robotic exoskeletons. The spider like climbers ambled about anxiously, but in addition, some new contraption I’d not seen until now.

Perhaps fifty of them wore something like a wind up humanoid robotic suit they were strapped securely within, but with stout, stable little legs and comically disproportionate weaponry in place of arms. Some were simply tuning forks. I could guess what those were for. Others bore spinning blades, clusters of tiny missiles, beefed up laser pointers and so on.

Reds also made a strong showing with plentiful bombardier beetles, catapults, trebuchets, a whole legion bearing flamethrowers and wearing reflective flame retardant armor, wielding an impressive arsenal of projectile fireworks.

As I finished circumnavigating the base of the hill, I finally came upon the white robes. I’d been unsure whether they would join in the fight as I never got the chance to expose them to the same videos as the other tribes. Indeed their leaders still wore the tall white hats, and they still carried banners bearing their lightning bird symbol.

But even so, they came. Compelled to lend their strength to the fight if for no other reason than their own self interest. No doubt they imagined they could go back to expanding their holy empire once the common enemy of all Homunculi lay dead. “That’s good enough for me” I thought.

The wind intensified as I approached the peak. Raindrops stung my face, my raincoat thrashing about my slender frame. Katerinka lazily spiraled down and landed on the peak to meet me. “Is about time you arrive.” I complained that she never specified a time.

“Tch. All tribes appear at dawn, no excuse. Critical moment approaches! How do you feel?” I searched my insides. “Anxious, I suppose. But resolute. I wonder if we’ll survive this, but there’s no other direction to go in. I swore to protect the little ones with my life. That’s what I’m here to do. For them, for you, and for Babulya.”

She heaved the violin case off her back, opened the lid, and handed me the Secret of Storms. Raindrops splattered the cold, hard obsidian instrument as I held it to my chin. Not a single thorn. Kat smiled, but only briefly. Suddenly something at the base of the hill caught her eye. Her face then contorted with rage.

I followed the direction of her gaze and soon wished I hadn’t. Somehow, with all that happened recently, I didn’t see this coming. “Of course” I thought. Of course someone organized them. They’re too dim otherwise. It was Dan before. They flock to anybody whose heart drips with venom. That was me, not too long ago.

Still...I didn’t expect it to be Heather. She made for an incredible sight, decked out in armor the Tyrants fashioned for her. Form fitting, faceted protective plates of chiseled obsidian totally enclosed every part of her body, jagged shards of it protruding from the shoulders for ornamentation. Even her earrings were obsidian shards.

Memories of that night flooded back into my mind. Of the incessant howling laughter, of Heather demanding to know how I could ever have believed such a stunning vision of beauty would feel even the smallest degree of affection for a sad, sickly little creature like me.

I began to tremble. With anxiety at first, but it quickly transmuted into rage. Tears formed and snaked down my cheeks, mixing freely with the raindrops as they fell. I felt a sudden jab in my hand. When I searched for the cause, I found a single thorn sticking out of the underside of the violin.

Katerinka panicked when she saw it. “NO! Don’t look at her! What does she matter? Of what consequence? Do not be so easily undone! Remember the importance of what you have come to do! Having come this far-” I interrupted, voice wavering with anguish. “You didn’t tell me it would be her! Why didn’t you tell me!?”

Below us, battalions of Tyrants formed up around Heather. Slowly massing into a great ring encircling the base of the hill, then expanding outwards as more and more of them arrived. The ranks of the little ones tightened. Their weapons readied, their bodies steeled for the impending massacre.

Why? Why did it have to be her? I could face down anyone else. Had they chosen somebody eleven feet tall with rippling muscles, I could throw myself at them without hesitation. Because the worst such a person can do is to kill me, in which case I’ll have fulfilled my promise and this grinding, brutal mess of a life would finally be over.

But they chose Heather. Must’ve known what it would do to me. Try as I might I couldn’t clear those memories from my mind. Everywhere I looked, I saw them laughing at me. Taking pictures. It pierced that spot deep within that I have no defense for, completely destroying my will to fight without shedding so much as a single drop of my blood.

At the bottom of the hill, the war had already begun. I was blind to it. Blind to everything but my gut wrenching memories of that night. Katerinka shook me by the arms, slapped me several times and pleaded with me to put myself back together.

Below us an incredible spectacle unfolded. The fruits of my hard work. Of Tyler’s ingenuity, and the little ones’ united will. Blue fought seamlessly alongside red, which fought alongside brown, and so on. As desperately and fiercely as they once fought each other. No! A thousand times more fiercely! A million times!

As I looked upon them, limp and despondent, I nonetheless reveled in the magnificence of it. They fought as a single, massive organism. Each tribe bringing some strength to the table which the others lacked, by far more effective against the Tyrants as a whole than they ever were individually.

The reds launched roman candles into the Tyrant hordes. Bursts of flame accompanied each successful strike, the target tumbling backwards as his comrades forged ahead. The catapults were fired next, flaming payloads coming down with terrible destructive force wherever they landed, Tyrants launched into the air by the blast landed nearby in crumpled, bloody heaps.

Still, they came. Glistening from the rain coating their pale little bodies, stickly thin legs marching up the side of the hill in unison. I feebly tried once again to take hold of the Secret of Storms only to discover two more thorns sticking out of it. The more I dwelled helplessly on this powerful feeling of humiliation, the more it turned against me.

I knew soon they’d get close enough that their gaze would paralyze me. It’d be over soon after that. I might’ve slid my mask on but I just didn’t care enough. Kat went on shaking me, shouting something or other. I couldn’t make myself focus on anything but Heather. Standing confidently below, armor glittering with every lightning flash, her grin as wide and maniacal as any Tyrant’s.

Why did it have to be her? Before I thought there was at least a chance. Kat built me up so much that I really thought we might come out on top. Hopeless. I can’t face her. I could barely face myself after that night. What a fool I was. What a fool.

Katerinka took off on her lacy red umbrella, again swirling about the gap in the clouds high above. A moment later I heard her voice ring out. An ear splitting shriek. A battle cry, like that of a furious valkyrie. I felt a sudden chill, and all around me the raindrops began coming down as sharp little shards of ice.

None struck me. Instead the Tyrants bore the brunt of it, flesh shredded by the barrage of tiny crystalline daggers. Their agonized screams filled the air as they fell. By the hundreds, they fell. Gushing blood from countless wounds all over their bodies, a literal death of a thousand cuts.

Katerinka spiraled down and landed, visibly out of breath. I think she hoped that would stop them. But still, they came. Surging, swarming, a seemingly endless mob of crawling terror. The ranks of the little ones closed in, retreating gradually up the mountain as the Tyrants drove them back.

That’s when the cackling began. The familiar, long, low raspy laughter I remembered from the battle in the field. A blinding bolt of lightning connected sky and Earth, then another, and another. Only this time without effect. The Tyrants came prepared, every tenth one carrying an insulated staff with something like a lightning rod atop it.

I started to cry. The worst possible time for a breakdown, but I couldn’t stop it. I could see no possible outcome other than defeat, and knew I’d failed the crone. Failed Kat, myself, Tyler, everybody. The Tyrants would consume us. Then spread out across the surface of the Earth, performing the only function they ever knew how to. An entire planet under their rule, and I was the only one who might’ve stopped them.

The whites and blues now comprised the bulk of the front lines. Blues forming up and firing in formation, shelling the nearest Tyrants with the six artillery units they managed to salvage from the lake. The whites, unable to fly stably in the high winds, instead sweeping a turret mounted laser across the Tyrants’ exposed eyes.

They were close enough now I could feel my body tingling. I still didn’t bother putting on the mask. “They’ve already won” I muttered. They won when they chose Heather. They won the moment I was born, really. I was never the right person for this. I don’t know why the crone chose me. I’m not strong. Not in the least bit difficult to topple.

Katerinka smacked me across the face, then pulled me up by my collar. “Why! Why fight so hard all this time only to fall apart at the end? Why does blyadischa matter? Why did she ever matter?” When my eyes met hers, I discovered she was also crying.

“I can’t do it” I mumbled, rain plastering my hair to my forehead. “Not by myself. I’m not strong enough. I thought I could do it if somebody believed in me. If somebody really, truly loved me.” She stood there, still holding me on my feet, eyes wide and mouth hanging slightly open.

“You fool” she whispered, barely audible over the wind. “You blindest of all fools. I love you. Always have. From the first days when I secretly watched you from afar, building settlement in woods. Caring so tenderly for Babulya’s legacy as a father cares for little children.

I love you when you are bold. I love you when you are mournful. I love you when you laugh, and when you make me laugh. I even love you when you cry, for there is such depth of feeling within you, I cannot help but feel it too. You beautiful, sweet fool. I only hold back for fear of crushing such delicate boy.

I am not afraid anymore. If I must say it for you to understand, then I will. With every ounce of blood in my body, with every beat of this heart in my chest, I love you and always will. I am the one who believes in you! If you love me too, then do what you came here for.”

She roughly pulled me in and planted a kiss me. The world seemed to grind nearly to a halt around us, the battle carrying on in slow motion. The whole of reality secondary to this singularly perfect moment. I embraced her and savored what I never dared hope for until now. Always so timid, my heart paralyzed by fear.

But for the first time I could feel no shred of fear within me. Instead, as she passionately pressed her full, warm lips to mine, I felt that feeble little ember within me suddenly explode. In a blaze of impossible vitality it roared to life, a raging furnace of feeling. Of love, of bravery. A boundless, searing energy which blasted white hot arcs throughout my body.

I stiffened up and stood on my own. At once my posture changed. Eyes wild and menacing, I glared at Heather. She looked confused, but not afraid. Yet. As Kat looked on excitedly, I pulled my mask on, as did she. Then I leaned down and for the last time picked up the Secret of Storms. It damn well wanted to be held now.

“I can do it” I thought. I’m going to. I swear I will! If Kat believes me, I can slaughter a billion Tyrants. A trillion. I can take on the armies of the world. With Katerinka holding up my heart from within, I can challenge the very stars! My heart throbbed like an engine. An altogether alien ferocity, never before known to me, now gripped my mind.

I felt as if struck by lightning. Like a conduit for the most violent, unstoppable forces of nature, which guided my hands as I placed a page into the instrument's tray, positioned the bow, and began to play. I cannot say how. I still don’t know how to play violin. The only way I can describe it is that my heart sang through it.

And how it sang. Everything I’ve ever felt, beautiful or ugly, gushed out through the freshly created opening. The song rattled me to the core. Mournful yet muscular. Turbulent, blasting every pretense to vapor. I couldn’t hide anything from it! All was finally laid bare in purest form.

The foundations of the world were shattered, revealing the underlying machinery of the universe for all to see. My heart pulsed with the rhythm. My mind resonated, rang at the same frequency, the depth of feeling from which all hearts draw strength in their darkest hour at last unleashed in a tempest of raw, visceral power.

The Tyrants fell to their knees, covering their ears and bleeding from their noses and eyes. The beam of sunshine grew around me, intensified, then burst. I collapsed from the force as the brilliant golden wave travelled outwards in every direction.

I huddled there on my hands and knees, struggling to catch my breath. Once I did, I noticed the absolute silence around me. I slowly raised my head and surveyed the battlefield in search of some explanation for it.

Clay. All of it. Every last warrior, Tyrant or Homunculus, stood frozen in place. No longer flesh and bone, but dull brown clay. I carefully picked up the little one nearest me. It crumbled into dust, dry as a bone. “They did it” I thought. They finally did it.

The final line I swore I would never cross. The one which would make an ogre of me. All this time I thought they would never find a way, but they did. They made me kill my little buddies. All of them. Above me the storm clouds receded, rain fading away, replaced by warm sunshine on my back.

I picked up another one more carefully and held the poor little thing in my hand. Desperately wishing it would somehow return to life. But the moment I played the Secret of Storms, the crone’s magic was undone. I just never realized until now what that would mean for the little ones. My poor little friends.

They did it. I killed them. The one thing I said I’d never do. I killed them all. My hand started to shake. Mildly at first, then so much that the fragile, dry clay figure broke apart into clumps of powdery brown dust like the one before it.

It can’t end like this, I thought. I have to fix it. There has to be a way. Kat must know. Surely, if there’s a way to reverse this, Kat knows about it. I turned to ask her, only for the magnitude of my grief to sharply increase.

Kat knelt atop the peak, sun beating down on her lavish red bonnet and dress. She held her favorite leather bound book in her hands. But her hands were made of clay, as was the rest of her body. I couldn’t make myself believe it until I touched her face.

I convulsed. Refusing the reality before me. I survived Tyler. I survived Heather. But there was no conceivable way to survive this. The only interpretation of it that made any sense to me was impossible to accept. That Kat was just another creation of the crone. Made from clay, given life, and imbued with a single purpose. To destroy all Tyrants.

A failsafe, in case the Tyrants escaped the crone’s control. Was she ever more than that? Did the crone ever see her as a daughter? Had she ever really loved me, or is it just what I needed to hear in order for her to fulfill her purpose?

I fell to my knees, head in my hands. On the verge of losing my mind. I won’t believe it. I won’t. I want to go back. To when Katerinka was flesh and blood. To when she loved me. How could she do this? How could she make me love her so much, knowing this would happen?

A second possibility occurred to me. That Kat wasn’t a creation of the crone at all, but a unique Tyrant. The real purpose of which was to achieve the extermination of all Homunculi. A Tyrant of the heart. My mind raced, working feverishly to make sense of it all.

At last I broke down. Inside and out. This was it, the last straw. And how it broke me! I collapsed into the mud, not even sobbing. Insensate, connection between mind and body temporarily severed. I wanted to scream but couldn’t. Nor could I resume crying. I just lay there, cold and unfeeling. Begging for my heart to stop beating, for my lungs to stop drawing breath. That never works.

Was any of it real? Did she really love me? Now I’ll never know the answer. If not, I was played for a fool. In the most profound sense. Heather’s childish ambush seemed as nothing by comparison. To build me up, to awaken strength within me I never knew I had. To fill the hole in my heart and perfectly complete me after I’d already given up hope that anybody ever would.

Only to then die. The cold, futile absurdity of it. Of feeling anything for anybody, when you can never know their intentions. Can’t even know who they are. The writhing, crawling horror of it. The emptiness.

I felt content to lay there in the field until scavengers came along to eat me. With any luck I’d already have expired from hunger or thirst before then. What possible reason is there to get up? I only did all of this because of her. Because she gave me the strength to.

Monster world’s sick sense of humor. Just when you think you’ve defeated it, when you think you’ve found the one person in all the world who can make you whole, she crumbles into dust. An oasis in the desert. Yet more fool’s gold.

There’s no coming back from this. I eventually did pick myself up out of the mud, brush as much of it off as I could and began trudging down the side of the hill. But it was all automatic. Survival instinct taking the wheel. My face remained blank all the way down the hill, limbs carrying me forth only because I didn’t stop them.

I came upon Heather, her obsidian armor also reduced to crumbling brown chunks of clay. She was crying, mascara running messily down her face, picking up the clay Tyrants around her and cradling them. When one collapsed into dust, she simply scooped up another.

“My babies” she sobbed. “What have you done.” I stood there sobered by the realization that, perhaps, she’d been as close to the Tyrants as I’ve always been to the little ones. Playing mother to a pack of monsters. “You did this!” she cried. “You can bring them back, can’t you? I’m sorry! I’m sorry for what I did. I beg you, bring them back. I’ll do anything. Anything!”

“Ew” I replied, and set off for home.

The following weeks were a blur. I found relief mainly in slumber. Where, in dreams, I could still see Kat. Could still feel her lips on mine. A cruel respite as every time I awoke, I was again confronted with memories of her death. The reality which doesn’t go away, however fervently you wish for it.

If you asked me why I continued getting out of bed, eating, completing my schoolwork, I couldn’t tell you. It’s one of nature’s obscure cruelties that, when your heart is broken, your body doesn’t get the memo. It keeps on mindlessly surviving. Putting food in your mouth, chewing, swallowing. Stumbling about in a daze. The life of an insect.

I don’t want this. Any of it. I renounced my life soon after I returned home from the hill. There is no longer even an ember within me. No flames, no wreckage, no ash or dust. When I look inside, there’s simply nothing.

The other solace I find is in watching over Ty. As the weeks turned into months, then into years, he sprouted up before my eyes. I still cherish the memory of the day Mom came home with him. The shining promise I saw in his face then hasn’t faded. He’s all I have now. The only reason I haven’t gone looking for something tall to leap from is because of the promise I made. To always be there for him. To look out for him, as I once wished someone had looked out for me.

After a year and a half, he was up and walking about. That made my job considerably more difficult but I always relished the chance to spend time with him. He remains my only glimpse of light in a world that’s grown unbearably dark.

Two years on, he can hold simple conversations. It’s the most remarkable thing to watch him develop. Watching a consciousness slowly blossom out of nothing. He doesn’t find storms comforting as I do. Whenever there’s rain or thunder at night, he’ll visit my bedroom, asking me to go to the bathroom with him.

The first time I asked him why he couldn’t go alone, he said he was afraid there would be monsters waiting. I initially thought to explain to him that monsters don’t exist. Not anymore, that is. But as I often do, I found myself recalling bits and pieces of Tyler. Things he once told me that I’ve burned into my mind.

There are many ways to be gentle. Does it really matter whether monsters exist? I realized trying to convince a two year old of that would only make me seem uncaring. However persuasive my reasoning, he’s still much smaller than me. Still sees the world as a child does. Monsters are unquestionably real to him.

So I relented. Then, and every time after, I held his little hand on the way. Barged into the bathroom, boldly sweeping the light around. Shining it into every nook and cranny as he waited outside, nervously gripping the edge of the doorway. Then it’s my turn to wait outside while he pees. Sternly scoping out the darkened hallway, making absolutely sure that no spooky monsters approach.

I’ve got to take it totally serious. As seriously as he does. He’d be able to tell if I didn’t, so I try to live in that mindset with him. It is not so alien to me, after all, to feel very small and vulnerable. I can tell he appreciates it, and there’s nothing I wouldn’t do to protect his smile.

He’s at the age now where he’ll start attending preschool soon. I dread it. It’s not as if they’ll allow somebody my age to follow him there and make sure nobody hurts him. He’ll be out of my reach. So recently I’ve started spending as much time with him as possible. Teaching him what to expect from other kids. The good, the bad, and the importance of never holding onto anger. Above else that if anyone tells him he’s garbage, it’s a lie.

Today was the first day I took him out to Winston’s grave. “You never knew Winston”, I explained, “but he was a good dog. He would’ve loved you as much as I do.” We walked through the woods for a time, navigating the new growth. Saplings now just barely above my head.

Of course, I found no trace of the little ones. Only their ruins. Ty took interest in these, having great fun rebuilding the little cottages with twigs and pebbles. As if to entice them to return. Even if it were possible, I’m no good to them now.

Whatever spark they once saw in me is long dead. If any survived I have no doubt they would not show themselves to me. To their eyes I would be like any other person. An ogre, irreversibly ruined inside. Having found the only means of belonging in this world that it was ever possible to.

I left Ty and wandered a short ways to the edge of the woods to watch the sun set over Everton Lake. When the darkness came, of course, I saw no shimmering lights at the bottom. I no longer hold out hope for such foolish things. On some days I wonder if perhaps I imagined it all.

Just then I saw a shooting star streak overhead. I impulsively wished for the only thing I could think of. What I want the most. Then I scolded myself for it. I was about to turn back when I glanced at it again, and noticed it was growing larger. Larger, and closer.

I gaped as it drew near. A flaming mass of some sort. It arced over my head, suddenly slowed, then came down in the woods behind me. Ty! I was off like a shot, bounding through the new growth, heart pounding, terrified that whatever it was might’ve struck my little brother.

Not again. Not him too. I lost Tyler. I lost Kat. I won’t lose Ty. I won’t! Terror fueled me, legs pumping, adrenaline surging as I scrambled feverishly towards the spot where I left him playing with sticks and pebbles. Dreading what I might find.

What I found was my baby brother sitting cross legged with Mr. MacGufferson snoozing in his lap. And there were the little fellows, still wearing their space suits. Frolicking on his shoulders and in his hair while a few more emerged from their singed, conical re-entry capsule bearing the “Goji berry” logo.  

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