Chapter 11: The Cliff
The first emigrants to this part of America inscribed their names upon Register Cliff for the purpose of declaring that they had made the trek, many in the hopes that their family and friends behind them on the trail would receive the message that they had made it this far. At the base of the cliff, there are three unmarked graves of emigrants, identity unknown, who made it no further.
As Sarah rests at the top of the cliff face and watches the early sunset, she knows it is for the best that she will see none further. There will be other sunsets, countless, and countless minds to witness each. She’ll leave the earth, and in so doing, leave all those minds to pass their time in something close to freedom. Closer than any she’d give them. If she stays any longer, she fears she may not allow a free thought to pass over this earth. Deep down, she knows she possesses no upper limit, no bounds for her, or that Other’s, ability. Billions of unnamed faces, and she tells herself she’ll do it for them. But as she works up the courage to fling herself from the edge, it is only Ralph’s confused mind, that blank face over which she briefly held sway, which she contemplates.
Sarah watches the light bounce from her ring. Ralph had given her cubic zirconia rather than diamonds. He said diamonds were products of war, all of them stained red before some corporate cartel bought them from the warlords (he said it like that—always ‘warlords’—never a specific name) wiped them clean and hoarded them, and now charge ludicrous amounts of money for what amounted to shiny old rocks.
What the hell are we, Neanderthals, he said. And yet he gave Sarah an imitation of the real thing and she asked, why? Not that she disagreed with the sentiment, she didn’t want a diamond. But she didn’t want cubic zirconia either.
What is the purpose of wearing a fake diamond, other than to trick the rest of the world into thinking you’ve given me a diamond? How is that any different than giving me the real thing? And he said, no, this is different. This way you can fit in with all those crazy Neanderthals we share this planet with, without actually having to be one.
She almost told him then. It would have been poetic, she thinks. Something like no, we aren’t like the rest of the world, we’re something higher, both of us. Then she would have spoken to him without uttering a word and he’d have known then, yes, we are an order above that species. She should have told him then. She shouldn’t have waited so long. If she’d told him then, maybe she wouldn’t have done what she had. Maybe she wouldn’t have to do what she now must.
We, Ralph and Sarah, us together, are not them down there.
Poetic, maybe, but doomed and untrue. The truth was, Sarah was up here, everyone else, including Ralph, down there. She could become invisible if she so chose, she could convince every person on earth that she could fly. She could kill every human on earth with a thought. No, she shakes her head and reminds herself, she can’t do any of that, only that Other can do it. She, then, is below the Other as well.
She’d never meant to do it to Ralph. She’d never meant to do it to anyone. She didn’t think intent had much to do with it at all, at least not hers. No, the thing seemed to take her when it wanted, this Other, as if it had some evolutionary trigger. For Sarah, no fight or flight response but instead complete control.
She’d waited too long to tell Ralph she knew, and so she had steeled herself for the worst. What could she say to her mother when she brought up the topic? Sorry mom, I can’t tell Ralph because his reaction might mean I involuntarily take over his brain. Oh, you didn’t know I do that sometimes? Yeah, not exactly in control of it all the time, but don’t worry. I’ve never done it to you. No, the very act of revealing this truth might cause the beast to wake and re-mold Monica. And then, she’d still have the problem of telling Ralph someday, if she was ever to live with herself.
So, Sarah decided to rip the bandage off and tell Ralph about her power to read minds if not that darker bit. Besides, she didn’t fully understand that part herself, no use trying to explain it to another. After the wedding they sat together at the stairs leading to the alter on which they said their vows. Ralph was giddy, brimming with a full heart and trying to take in everything and store it away. She remembers him thinking how brains ought to have hard drives in them and then thinking maybe someday they would. Well, until then, we have the video camera.
It was rare for him to be so at peace, so far from all the worry and anxiety that grew naturally from his situation, and yet, Sarah knew she must rob this moment from him.
She told him half of the truth, but not with her words.
He was furious. Worse even than Sarah had expected. His thoughts hurt her much more than any of his words, for the thoughts were a physical pain to Sarah unknown to any other on earth. His thoughts were like knives piercing her skin. He stood and began to walk away from her, toward the door. His mind raced, deciding in a torrent. Within her, the emotion like fear but not fear, the cascade of chemicals inside her brain which no textbook contained the word for, stirred. She looked at Ralph’s back as he began to walk away, and this other emotion, this beast, it turned to him and bared its teeth with the pointed smile of a killer.
No, no I won’t give in to it. Sarah plucked a daisy from the planter nearest the altar and looked into its petals, forced herself to consider this delicate bloom. Turn inward, turn away, shut those thoughts of his out so that you and that thing inside you don’t know them. Let his thoughts be his own. Let this decision be his. But there the thoughts were, all of Ralph naked before her.
He had a quick thought—leave—and that Other stood on all fours, it acted upon Ralph and the thought was gone from him. He’d never remember it, and in its place was love for her and acceptance of the half-truth confession she’d given him and happiness again and full throated peace, all a product of Sarah’s control, all a construct of her making and all terrible and false. Ralph her puppet husband. Her, a puppet as well. Who was to be blamed for such a state of affairs?
His mind was hers for that moment and if hers then, then hers forever. That thing, that goddamn thing that shackled her had now shackled him as well.
And if he knows, what benefit?
Ralph was ready to return to the wedding party with the others, ready to embark on a life as the happy strange couple. Sarah wiped her tears and Ralph kissed her on the mouth and she was in misery.
She knew then what she must do.
Dead at eighty-five, one hundred and five, thirty-six, no different. How foolish to think this thing would somehow get better with age, as if it would simply drift in the background, harmless as a shadow. Had she never met Ralph, its time would have come, it would have made itself known and driven Sarah out as sure as a malignant brain tumor. She’d always known it, she thinks, but was only to afraid to admit the truth. For her, suicide was always the sole eventuality.
Dad’s favorite trip with her was when he took her on a road trip, in close approximation of the entire Oregon Trail. She remembers a painting she’d seen in her schoolbook as a girl, the first one she’d ever seen of the trail. In the painting, a group of settlers are travelling west as the sun is setting. In the foreground, a young boy in a dirty hat leans from the back of a wagon as he feeds his goat by hand. Sheep are grazing nearby, and beyond them a man with dark swept back hair inspects the horizon. The man is joined by his female companion. She’s wearing a gray prairie dress and beside the woman stands a young girl, presumably their daughter, with bright blonde hair. The three of them stare off into the distance: jagged, snow-capped mountains under thick cloud bank. Sarah still wonders whether it was fear or hope those travelers felt in that painting.
Sarah envisions the hopes and dreams they must have held onto over all those miles. Or was it fear which drove them on? Fear. Sarah settles on fear for those weary travelers. If I was in that painting, she thinks, I’d know.
Dad and her, they didn’t have it as easy as Ralph. He could simply switch to the ‘off’ position, and revert to a proper human. Her and Don weren’t so lucky. Guess luck doesn’t run in the family. Like she can’t turn her telepathy off, Don can’t remove his wings.
But once, he’d given it a good shot. Sarah hadn’t met Ralph by then, but she had just started work at the gift shop. After her shift, she went home and took a hot shower. When she finished, she noticed a missed call from dad.
She played his message. So drunk his words were hard to make out in the recording. It was a short message, and not too sad, in fact for a moment Sarah thought maybe dad was getting back on his feet. He said, “I’ll have you back, honey, and then I’ll have Mon back too. I can move back and it’ll be fine. Hope to see you soon,” and then the recording stopped.
Optimistic at first blush, but an odd sound in the background gave Sarah pause. She replayed the message. “I’ll have you back, honey,” then a sound like ‘sch-toop, sch-toop;’ “and then I’ll have Mon back too,” sch-toop sch-toop like scraping; “I can move back,” sch-toop, like metal or stone; “and it’ll be fine,” sch-toop like metal on stone; “Hope to see you soon,” sch-toop like a blade being honed. Then click. End of message.
It all came together. He was going to mutilate himself. How does one stop the bleeding during a self-directed wing removal? Sarah didn’t know, and she doubted her father had figured it out. She panicked, knowing her father might die tonight half a continent away. But the beast stood and Sarah left her apartment.
In a post 9/11 world, a petite woman with no plane ticket walked straight through security, she boarded the first plane headed to Wyoming with no resistance, the man at the rental counter in Wyoming handed her keys to a car without asking a question, and not one of the thousands she encountered have any memory of that day.
When she arrived at Don’s filthy house, she found him sobbing and slowly sawing at his left wing where it met his shoulder. Too drunk to do any real damage, but he managed to break through the skin and blood ran down his feathers and stained the carpet red.
He put the knife away. He drank some coffee on and began to sober up. Sarah went back home and he stayed in Wyoming. He has no memory of the incident, but Sarah can’t get rid of it.
And now at the cliff the Other rests, giving Sarah some modicum of free will until it decides to wake. When it is roused, it will have her again and she will succumb to that dread emotion, as sure as the spider which eats its mate to ensure its own survival.
I can’t control this. It must happen.
Ralph is coming to stop her, she knows. He has figured out what she did to him, yet he’s on his way with Don and Monica. Sarah can sense them. She could wait, confront it, control it…too late for that now.
And if she rejects Ralph, he won’t stop trying. He refuses to see that their tale is already dead. Doomed from the beginning really. If she hadn’t been so naïve to have tried loving someone in the first place, if she had only kept her infectious mind further away, maybe she wouldn’t be at the top of this cliff.
Sarah scoops a handful of dry dirt from the ground, holds it over the cliff edge and lets it fall. She watches the wind carry it away.
Best to get this over with.
She stands, seeing in prisms through her tears. “Goodbye,” she whispers and steps forward.
A voice in her head, like an icy echo, unheard before now yet familiar, speaks. “I’m here to save you,” it says. She thinks, this is the voice of my dreams, and wills her foot over the edge. But her foot refuses to yield to her command.
You can’t die, not when they are all so close. This is only the beginning.
Who are you?
Sarah looks into the sun and knows she, this Other, her yet not her, could blot the sun from every eye. She stares directly into the blinding light and thinks if I had been blind some way to have never seen him—I would have seen him still. The light burns Sarah’s eyes and the world comes in negative images. She turns inward, to wage battle against herself.
She loses sense of time and space. She sees only that black mass which is herself, and in this void they hold palaver.
She must kill it. She throws all of her weight toward the cliff edge; she doesn’t move a muscle.
I will not die today.
I will. Don’t stop me. Sarah jerks her foot forward, one step is all she needs but her foot rests on the edge of the cliff. She tries to envision this thing within her, but what she sees is nothing more than a wavering reflection of herself, as if she is looking into a mirror warped by age.
I am you.
I have to kill myself, to save Ralph.
Then why don’t I?
Sarah groans and wills herself to move. She sees nothing but knows, one more step and gravity will wield its own power over her. Yet she remains planted, safely atop the cliff.
Don’t stop me!
Nothing is stopping you. Is this voice not yours? Is your struggle to move not also your struggle to stay put?
You, you control. You aren’t me. You, you’re trying to control me. You are a killer. You are evil.
This voice is your voice. This control is your control. The evil you claim to hate is your own. You speak in dreams, and now the dreamers come to you.
The healer, the shapeshifter, the seer, you spoke to them, can you deny it?
She could not. She had always wanted to find others like herself, and it seems that she had. But what truth can be found in a dream?
They are the first. There will be more.
How do you know?
How do you know?
Here in this unseeing silence, alone, she can admit she knows them already. In her mind, she can sense them all. Thousands of odd humans, all of them hidden; some of their powers hidden even from them. Here she could be honest, at last. She lay on her right side and saw them all.
The next iteration of humanity is at hand. I will lead it.
It has already begun. I am only lying to myself. I will lie no longer. Gather them.
Sarah witnesses a sphere within a vacuum. This sphere is black, save some darting lights like lightning bugs which appear and disappear in flashes. These are the minds. They must be drawn together. She inhales, readying herself to give those flashes a push, readying herself to start something other than suicide.
She hesitates. A whisper in her mind urges no.
The Other answers the whisper, saying: This fight is now over. Go away from me.
Sarah rolls to her left side, and begins again, to focus.
Sarah?” Ralph’s voice throws her from her trance.
Sarah remembers where she is. She sits up and turns to see him. It is a starry night and bitter cold. Somehow night had arrived without her noticing. She sees herself through Ralph’s eyes and knows that she looks very not okay. She stands and wipes her face, finding it wet. Had she been crying? Her lips are beginning to chap and she runs her hands through her hair to remove the bits of straw which had somehow become tangled there. She shivers. Ralph removes his jacket and hands it to her. She doesn’t put it on.
He is frightened for her. She can see it in his eyes and in his thoughts.
Don is here, too, with his arm around Monica, and they are both fearful as well, not for their own safety, but for their daughter’s. They both look at her how one might lay eyes on a person holding a blade to their throat.
“Are you okay?” Ralph asks. Ralph is thinking of how to gently ask his wife not to throw herself from a cliff. His words aren’t coming easily. He takes a step toward her.
Ralph stops in his tracks. His mind is thoughtless. His eyes are glazed.
Don knows what she has done. “No,” he says, “please, don’t let it control you, like I let my wings control me.”
I am in control.
Don sits. He does not object.
And me? Monica thinks.
And you. And Monica’s mind is at rest and quiet.
I don’t want to do this.
It is done.
Sarah waits, no longer fighting back, and within the hour four more arrive. Howard Jacobson, his sister Elisa, the healer Tabitha, and the shapeshifter all hurry from their vehicle. Elisa, the seer, knows only that they should be here from her vision. A vision of the future, but incomplete. If she had seen the entire puzzle, she would have led them all far, far away from here. Running would not have saved a one of them.
I don’t want to do this.
The four of them stumble through the dark, struggling through the brush under the moonlight, until they reach the edge of the cliff where Sarah waits.
The seer emerges from the bushes and walks onto the rocky clifftop. The other four follow her. Now they notice Don, Monica and Ralph sitting quietly with glazed eyes. Something is starting to stir within each of their minds, telling them they should not have come.
Elisa is the first to speak. She takes a step toward Sarah and mutters “hello,” trying to sound cheery but her voice betrays her alarm at Sarah, who to Elisa looks as though she’s lost her senses.
The others trusted Elisa, this complete stranger, who had no clue what would occur on this cliff. They followed her because they sought communion, but they found isolation, for Sarah is not one of them. They are fools. They need protection. This is for their safety, and for the safety of those like them. Sarah gives Elisa a false smile.
Hello, Elisa. Future-seer.
The pain of the foreign sensation of telepathy causes Elisa to put her hands to her temples, and she grimaces in pain.
Sit. See nothing.
Elisa sits and sees nothing.
Howard Jacobson, who has only followed Elisa’s fragmented vision thus far, decides it is time for action of his own. He thought this night might bring danger, and he was correct. He lifts his shirt and pulls a .45 from his waistband. His mistake was thinking that gun could help him.
The Other speaks into Howard’s mind, saying: your finger is on my trigger. Put the barrel into your mouth.
Howard follows these latest orders.
Calvin Nelson and Tabitha Xuba exchange wide-eyed glances but neither knows how to react. For a moment they panic, and Calvin makes a start to break back toward the vehicle, but in less than a second both of them are entranced like the rest. They sit next to Elisa.
To Calvin: show me what I look like.
Calvin transforms, becoming and exact physical replica of Sarah. Calvin could have some use.
The ex-colonel has no power. He has no use.
I don’t want to do this.
It is already done.
Sarah looks at Ralph, but his eyes are blank. He could never love me again.
He could love you again, they could all love you, if you will it.
This is the end.
In Ralph’s blank eyes, Sarah sees what that beast might reap, if unleashed upon the earth. She imagines billions of blanked eyes, she focuses hard on his, and for a moment, Sarah breaks free from herself.
She turns from Ralph. She releases the entire group from her control, just in time to watch her leap from the cliff edge.
She is in agony. She is at peace. But most of all, she is in freefall. In the space of a blink, she wishes she hadn’t jumped.
Howard pulls his gun from his mouth. Don sprints over the edge and dives headfirst after his daughter.
Ralph runs after her in a panic, tries to stop at the edge before he falls. He stumbles near the edge and then topples over it. He wishes he had chosen flight.
Sarah senses that he’s fallen, she senses his terror.
I love you, he thinks, aware that this thought will be his last.
I love you.
It shouldn’t have ended this way for us, she thinks, but her father hasn’t given up yet. Don’s wings cling to his back as he plummets, chasing Sarah. He flexes them once, hard as he can muster, and this propels him closer. Sarah feels the powerful gust of air from his wings, she feels his arm wrap around her torso. Her feet scrape the ground, but Don beats his wings twice more, causing him and his passenger to fly parallel with and just above the earth. Don slows, and sets Sarah safely on the grass below the cliff before landing next to her.
Sarah sprints to Ralph. He’s lying flat, face down on the ground. Once Sarah reaches his side, she can see blood, black under the stars, soaking the area around him. She tries to see through Ralph’s eyes but he sees nothing. His thoughts are present, but weak and fading. Though it is deep into the night and his eyes no longer work, he thinks the light here seems much too bright. He wrongly imagines Monica and Don hovering above him, they block some of the bright light and Ralph is thankful. Then he forgets Monica and Don and he envisions Sarah in her infamous blue dress, the one she wore the night they first made love, and then that image swirls, grays, is gone and Ralph thinks no more.
Ralph remembers what it is to breath, for a moment.
Open your eyes.
Ralph’s brain directs his eyes to open, yet they remain shut. The connection is gone now. His consciousness is slipping from him. He tries to move but faraway washed out pain is the only response his body can give him. His breaths grow shallow and then his breaths disappear.
Ralph! Ralph! Answer me! But blood flow can’t be controlled telepathically. Ralph doesn’t obey her.
Sarah presses her eyes closed and tries to focus harder, tries to find anything, any signal from Ralph but there is none. His mind is silent as the dirt.
Ralph is gone from her and Sarah is more afraid then she has ever been, and so the Other rises again and breaks the chains in which Sarah had so recently bound it. It snarls first at Don.
Don has his hands on his knees, winded still and looking over at Sarah, confused as to what has transpired.
Before he can have a second thought, the Other commands him: fly.
Don spreads his great wings and ascends up the cliff wall.
Then to Tabitha, Come down with him.
Tabitha leaps from the edge without hesitation and lands in Don’s arms. He brings her safely to the bottom of the cliff, and once Tabitha reaches the ground, she is directed: heal him.
Tabitha goes to Ralph without hesitation. Howard stubbornly raises his .45 again and from the top of the cliff he takes aim at Sarah, but it is no use. The beast bares its teeth.
Howard lowers his weapon and does nothing. Monica, who had been peering over the cliff edge, retreats from it and does nothing. Calvin stands, swaying and silent. Elisa sits and sees nothing.
As Tabitha leans over Ralph, Sarah is searching for that familiar airwave—Ralph’s jagged and beautiful mind but where is it? Nowhere.
He is gone away and Sarah is numb. An ache floods her head, from the back of her neck to the forehead and saturates her skull with pain. And with this pain and this beast there is one hidden thought of the only here able to hide any of them: Ralph is dead. It has won.
Sarah collapses and rests the side of her head upon the thin grass and watches through Tabitha’s eyes. She is looking down at Ralph’s unmoving and broken body. Tabitha is thinking, looking inside him, trying to find something to grab onto of Ralph, of his essence. Something to bleach on his black tapestry.
Tabitha has a fleeting thought, what if I could bring him back? Then she recoils from Ralph for she knows Sarah’s listening in and she attempts to shut every thought out, tries to slam her brain shut but cannot. To bring his life back might cost Tabitha her own. There is fear in Tabitha’s eyes, and Sarah knows because Sarah sees through the very same eyes.
Sarah directs Tabitha’s hands to Ralph’s chest.
“Sarah, no” Don says.
Don takes Sarah’s shoulder tighter. Sarah does nothing to free Tabitha. Her mind seems far off, as if there’s someone else in charge now. How Sarah’s head aches. She can’t free Tabitha if she wanted to, anyway, for this isn’t her choice.
I can’t control this. It must happen.
The Other speaks to Sarah, saying leave.
Sarah takes a shallow breath and leans into her father’s hand. She realizes this thing has brought them together today, so that she might be filled with fear, and in her fear set it free. To not fight would be easy. To let it go, let it run roughshod over the rest of her existence would be simple. She could be released from responsibility, and no one will blame you.
Inside Sarah’s head a black mass pulses, the mass moves and wants to cut, wants to split and churn over the old and from the waste give birth to something wholly new and powerful. It is her and it has waited and now it will form and feed. And it thinks it might be God or Satan and it wants to find out which. Sarah will pass over the earth or destroy it.
She remembers her parent’s faces, Ralph’s face, and she wills herself to fight once more. She turns inward again, and the others are freed from her power.
You are neither God or Satan, you are only a decision. Not unique but common. Nothing more than a desire to control what should not be controlled.
Normal is all Sarah wants. But she can have so much more. She can have everything.
She focuses on the grass nearest her and she realizes the smell of it is salty. She lets her hair shade her eyes from the night sky. She lets the ground cool and slow her racing mind, she breathes easy, and in this cool slowness she imagines Saturdays in the park and cheap bottles of wine and the first time her father showed her this place and all those names carved into the sandstone, she remembers quiet nights on the couch and she is lost in normalcy. She lets every abnormal part of her fall away and her power disappears from her mind. It is gone.
I am a daughter and a wife. I will be a widow, if it is my fate. Not good, not evil, only me. Same as everyone else.
She relaxes, but only for a moment for her work is not yet done. She re-focuses and remembers that boy on a subway with his intrusive mind, the one who she wished desperately to help but could not, and she imagines herself, back in that moment, willing the best for him and so her power reappears for she summoned it. With a smile, Sarah shuts her third eye. Now it is hers. She no longer belongs to this. She controls what she should. It is but a part of her.
Ralph. She looks up.
Tabitha is no longer attending to Ralph. Sarah can hear her panting for breath. Sarah looks up to see Howard, his hand trembles on his gun and now he has it aimed down from the cliff, in the direction of Sarah’s sweating head. Sarah can barely make out Elisa’s silhouette peeking from behind Howard. Under the starlight, the barrel of Howard’s gun from Sarah’s angle is a circle as black as a hole in a memory.
Sarah smiles and lets Howard take aim. So this is anticipation.
Don stands frozen in fear, still grasping Sarah’s shoulder. Monica is moving toward Howard, and Sarah cannot tell what any of them are thinking.
“Put it down,” Elisa says, and reaches for Howard’s arm. He lowers his weapon.
From the corner of her vision, Sarah sees a figure rise. It is Ralph.
“I did it,” Tabitha says. “Not because you made me. He’s back. I needed to know whether I could, for me.”
Sarah opens her third eye. Ralph is there and his beautiful mind is there and Sarah wants to go to him, she wants to bathe in all of him. But she senses Tabitha’s pain—strong from the exertion of bringing a dead man to life—and Sarah thinks you don’t hurt and then Tabitha doesn’t hurt.
Sarah leans down and kisses Ralph. He smiles and she can tell—not from his thoughts but from the look on his face—that he senses something new in her. Ralph nods at the new people gathered around him and says, “guess we’re all in for a pretty good story.”
So under the bright yellow fluorescents of a twenty-four hour diner a way up the road, they ate, and they talked and laughed together, as people do.
If you’re ever in the mood for a road trip, there’s a spot by the name of Peculiar Family Café on Guernsey Road, about a mile west of Register Cliff, Wyoming, which comes highly recommended. Owned by a former Colonel and his extended family, far as I can tell. The building is a simple wood-sided affair, and the location is about an eight hour long drive from nowhere, but this restaurant is worth the trip. It is, by any measure that matters, the best restaurant in the world. For one, the cook has wings. For another, the waitress will know your order as soon as you do, and the food will be cooked just the way you like it, even if you haven’t fully expressed your preference. While you wait on your order, say hello to the handsome man behind the bar, and he might show you a magic trick. When your food is ready, what will seem to be a floating plate and a floating suit will come near your booth. Your invisible attendant will only reveal himself after he’s set your order down on the table. He’s a funny guy, with a big smile. Tell him a joke, no matter how corny. The meal will be the best one you’ve ever eaten, bar none. And on your way out, the maître de will take you by the hand and within that moment you’ll swear you’ve never felt better—and the truth is you haven’t—because all your ailments will be stripped from you. The only catch is that once you leave you’ll tell all your friends about this splendid day you visited a one of a kind hole in the wall with the best damn food you’ve ever eaten, but you won’t be able tell the story quite right because you won’t be able to put your finger on what is was you ordered, and you won’t be able to remember what any of the staff looked like. In fact, you won’t remember much about the trip at all, but you will forever cherish it as one of your best memories. So what are you waiting for? I’ll bet they’re expecting you already.