Jester’s Oath Excerpt
I hate the cold, but I hate the hot more.
Sweat clings to my back as I lean onto the crooked tree, languid arms and legs tangling in the dew-wet grass. Back in Salea, snowflakes settled onto rough-hewn peaks from September till March. Mother used to say the snow was the universe's way of telling us that it was sad and it was tired. The flakes were tears, she said. Maybe the universe needed a hug.
The clammy stickiness is foreign, strange. Maybe if the sweat came to life - it would be blond, with droopy eyes and a droopier mouth - we could have a conversation about how much it sucks to be completely alien, to utterly and truly not belong in a brand new place where nothing makes sense.
The trek from Salea to here, to Fer, took multiple sundowns and even more sunrises. We ventured through looming forests where my legs itched and bled, bustling towns where we snatched morsels of bread under the cloak of night, and scattered cottages interspersed through dying farmland. Rolling hills sang along with us as we hummed the Pauper's March; bellowing moos scared us from stealing bits of stunted corn from sallow fields. The Earth, like us, felt starved and drained. Babies wailed, mothers cried. Bodies stacked in scattered heaps lined the sides of the streets.
Life back in Salea was good, or at least as good as it could be. Teo and I went to school every morning and learned what we could. Useless tidbits like the history of the royal lineage inflated our brains, only to be popped like a lifeless balloon once we walked out the doors each afternoon. We dedicated the majority of our focus and effort to salvaging fish at the frozen creek, or climbing the massive tree near our disheveled hut. Mother prepared hearty soups in the winter and light veggies in the summer, and we were happy. But the happiness betrayed us. Like a too-hot ray of sun, it blinded us, because while our naive selves were scaling towering bark or sneaking up on thrashing fish, Mother fell ill. She wasn't the only one; the baker down the road, the family across the street, all coughed and flailed and burned with scalding fever. Sickness was spreading its dirty claws like a pungent phantom, and it snagged too many in its grasp.
So did the baker, and the family. After that, it was our teacher, the seamstress, the fruit-seller across the way. Businesses boarded up their windows. The streets, normally bustling, settled into a ghastly silence.
The sickness was not the end. Two months after Mother's death, the snow, and the rain, stopped falling. The corn crops failed first. Then the potatoes. After that, the drought drove out everything until only shells of mummified kernels remained in yellowed fields. People starved, and people died. Salea was no longer safe for Teo and I. So we began our journey here - to Fer - the promised land of lore and wealth whose towering, gold rimmed buildings Mother would whisper about at night, eyes ridden with misty longing.
"Lyra, you finished all the water," Teo mutters, lowering onto the wet grass. He pulls at his too-long curls and struggles to summon a drop from the - decidedly empty - wooden canteen. I exhale, the puff of breath moving a wisp of ratty hair away from my eye. Frustrated with his whining, and with our newfound lack of water, I spit back, "We split it evenly. I took my share, you took yours. We'll find more later."
Rather than responding, Teo simply stretches and yawns. "It's weird, not being at home. Here, the trees feel like they're watching you. Look, you see that one? Doesn't that piece of bark look like an eye?"
I suppress the urge to laugh at Teo's overactive imagination. Two years younger than me, he always manages to find hidden meanings in the ordinary. In Salea, he claimed a fish we caught held a conversation with him. Another time, he promised me that while relieving himself in the forest, a cluster of frogs encircled him 'with the intent to maim him.' To his credit, however, he can make light of the darkest situations. Times like now, his imagination feels like a welcome distraction. I decide to amuse myself.
"Teo! I think the tree just blinked."
He jumps up, a yelp accidentally falling out of his mouth. I laugh and clutch my stomach. "You're too gullible. It'll bite you in the back one day."
Huffing and puffing (Teo, for some reason, thinks this is intimidating. In reality, he resembles a winded, out-of-shape old man), he yanks at his curls once more and sits back down. I rake my fingers through the dewy grass, picking out clumps of dampened dirt.
I know we need to get up. I know we need to leave, need to keep walking. The city gates, according to the number of carriages passing through, must not be more than a few miles off. But already, I'm scared. Scared that we won't be able to find work, scared that somebody will discover we come from plague-ridden Salea, scared that Teo won't be able to eat and his terra-cotta skin will stain with the pallor of sickness. Times are hard. But I can't give up. Not because I'm brave, or noble, or fearless. I can't give up because if I do, we'll die.
I funnel energy from my brain into my heavy limbs, forcing my legs to hold me upright. My voice wavers as I turn towards Teo, whose tousled dark curls cover his eyes like an opaque curtain. I take a deep breath.
"Come on, Teo. We're going to Fer."
Being a "good writer" simply means to open a door. In our messed up world, where technology governs our mornings, evenings, and nights, reading - and writing - is an escape. Only truly gifted writers can create and warp and manipulate words to formulate an entirely new universe; one where you're a vagabond traveling the seven seas, or a man turned into a bug, or even the member of a Dionysian cult. Writing gives form to the seeds of imagination that lay sallow in our minds - it fertilizes them, waters them, allows them to grow into lush gardens of questions and ponderings and adventure. Gifted writers are able to pull their readers in to their twisted reflection of reality, making them feel like it's true, even for just a moment. And most of all, a real writer understands that they must give their reader closure. In a world where uncertainty plagues every aspect of our lives, such closure is immensely freeing. It makes sense, and it makes us want more, because who doesn't want the answers to the seemingly unanswerable questions that torment us on the daily?
Welcome to the Apocalypse
A cacophony of sounds swims around me, punctured by a wailing cry of, "Mom! I want the PHONE!"
The apocalypse has happened. I am among zombies.
It's a swelteringly hot day, but somehow, I feel the overwhelming urge to shiver. I'm terrified, truly. It's been fifty-something years, and I thought the future would be badass; flying cars, robots, you know what I'm getting at. It's The Future! But instead, I am surrounded by the undead.
All around me, there are people. A writhing child tears at his mother's sleeve as she clicks away at a black object in her manicured hand. Vehicles honk and swerve and weave through the bustling street. But they're not really people, I don't think. They all stare at these sleek cubes: holding them out in front of them, smiling at them, holding them up to their ears. And their eyes; they're glazed over, like they've been dug out of their graves and forced, like pawns, to act like they're alive.
Again - I didn't ask to be woken up into the apocalypse. I'm a scientific miracle, for God's sake! Couldn't I have at least been woken up in some kind of robot bar, maybe taken some of the strain of being frozen for decades off with a whiskey? But no. Zombies. Just my luck.
Lights flash around me as I march forward, determined to appear normal. To appear like one of them. I stare at a distant point ahead of me, hoping my eyes will swim out of focus and I'll look like just another zombie, going about my zombie day. I don't want them to suspect me - to kill me. No. I must act like one of them. To protect myself.
One foot in front of the other, Thomas. Keep on going.
All around me, there is motion. Lipglossed mothers pushing around crying babies in warped baby carriages. A teenage boy dashing past on a tiny-looking skateboard, his t-shirt tattered and worn. Yellow, sleek-looking automobiles zipping through pedestrian-laden walkways. Flashing signs, flickering store lights. I can't even wrap my head around how much there is - how many people, how many streets, how many bicycles with shrieking bells. My head pounds with the sheer humongous-ity of it all. I need a glass of water.
Speaking of water, a cold glass sounds like the gateway to Heaven right about now. Sweat clings to my back, sinking its sticky fingers into every one of my pores. It's unnaturally hot - dangerously so. I clutch the collar of my shirt and pull it away from my neck, feeling it detach like an old bandaid from an injured thumb. New mission: get water.
My eyes drink in the storefronts lining the sidewalk where I walk. A man in a business suit, eyes covered in darkly tinted sunglasses, pushes past me, nearly knocking me over. I stop in front of a garishly lit yellow sign, bigger than my entire body. It looks like an upside down W, or maybe a weirdly drawn M. A woman walks out the door, gazing at me pointedly. She holds it open for a second.
I step forward and walk through.
Instantly, I'm surrounded by a sticky, salty smell. It fills my nostrils and travels up into the endorphin-creators in my brain, pumping seratonin throughout my nerves. Fries.
I approach the counter, behind which a kid with bad skin stands. He's staring at one of those godforsaken cubes I saw the mother looking at earlier. He, like all the others, has a glazed, zombie stare. I gather up the courage to walk forward.
"Cup of water, please."
He continues to stare at me, eyes still empty as the center of a doughnut. Man, a doughnut sounds good right now.
"You have to buy a meal first, sir."
I shove my hand into my jeans pocket, twisting around and coming up with - nothing. When planning to be frozen for an unknown chunk of the future, money isn't exactly a priority.
"I got nothing, pal." A sudden thought enters my brain. How could I have not asked this earlier? "Hey, what year is it?"
For the first time that I've been in this weird limbo of a future, his eyes glean some sense of emotion. Confusion. "2019. And if you've got nothing, then nothing I can do for you."
Jesus. 2019. 67 years. I decide to ponder this length of time later - right now, I need to focus on the task at hand."Come on, just a glass of water."
Obviously irked by my continued questioning, the kid caves. He grabs a plastic ringed cup and fills it with water from some odd-looking machine.
"Here you go. Goodbye."
I shoot him a quick smile, then turn around towards the tall doors. My eyes are instantly drawn back to the street. Like a living organism, it seems to grow and warp and breathe, like each little zombie-person is a blood cell or capillary keeping it alive. It's beautiful, but also too much. Far too much.
The street is singing to me - harmonies comprised of intermittent honks and rising voices. I take a deep breath, stepping forwards towards the door. This is it.
Well, 2019. Here I come.