CHAPTER 1 - LAZARETTO and CHAPTER 2 - METAPHYSICAL PISTOL
Series Info | Table of Contents
As the fog lifted, the smell of burning flesh filled his nostrils. He was staring at a pair of black rubber-soled lace-up boots, the kind worn by infantry troops. Between vibrations permeating his skull, the term jackbooted reverberated through his mind until jackbooted vibrations became a numbing chorus. He lifted his head off the cold wet concrete but the refrain continued.
Well, he thought, they finally got me. After all these miles, all these crazy episodes, all these superhuman feats, I got done in by beef jerky. How fitting. Cravings have just been a prelude to something else since the powers came over me. They've just put me in the right place at the right time since then, although I haven't always responded appropriately. But I suppose this really was just an ill-timed craving. I just had to stop at this particular store. I've always had a weakness for beef jerky anyway. Besides, hunger makes cowards of us all, or is it fatigue? Before he could answer his own question, Jason Arnan vomited on the black boots.
Any fair-minded person would agree Jason shouldn't have been forced to run. Sure, he had meddled where he shouldn't have, but how can he be blamed for that when he didn’t even realize he was meddling until it was too late? He just thought he was exploring. Besides, if we tried to keep track of how many people are unjustly running from bad things and from other people in this world we would lose our minds the way Jason was beginning to lose his those last few days before he found himself on the wet ground without a memory of how he got there. He remembered a ball of fire, but it seemed to drop on him like the powers he might or might not still possess.
Jason's mind titled back to Juan del Sol's caveat. His brother Stephen had referred Dr. del Sol to Jason for a child custody case. After they had finished a preliminary discussion of the case Dr. del Sol asked for just a few more moments of Jason's time.
"Stephen has told me about some of your unusual experiences. It seems you've had strong precognitive occurrences and sensed many things most people never do. Or at least if they do, they ignore them or convince themselves they are not real. Some fool themselves into thinking their minds are playing tricks or something. Stephen suspects there have been events you haven't told him about as well."
"You know Stephen."
Juan del Sol raised a salt-and-pepper eyebrow above his glasses. "Is it because these things scare you?"
Jason tilted his head to one side for a brief moment. "Some have felt dark, some very dark, but I'm not afraid."
"Well, you must be careful." Dr. del Sol leaned forward and shook his index finger to emphasize each of those last three words. "Lots of decent people with a developed sixth sense like yours have fallen into a bad way because they got too curious or careless. There is powerful evil in this world and beyond. It plays dirty and often deceives."
"I truly hope you do. You already told me you have a busy day, but I hope we can have a meal whenever and wherever you want, my treat." He gestured toward his frail chest before turning his palms upward and outward toward Jason, who bowed his head in return.
"That's very nice of you."
"You trouble Stephen because he can't explain certain things about you. He once told me he has many memories of you but only a partial portrait."
"Stephen always is the clever one."
"He's used to having answers, or at least working theories, for everything. Abilities like precognition and prescience confound him."
"He told me reincarnation is the best answer he's found so far for déjà vu. But knowing him, he'll never stop looking."
"He told me he first believed there must be a higher power because of you and now he thinks you have no faith after losing Beth."
Jason cleared his throat. "We're going to be talking anyway about this case of yours, so tell Stephen not to worry."
"Thank you. Do you think I have a chance?"
"Nothing's guaranteed but if what you told me is true, I believe you have a very good chance."
"Wonderful. I speak only the truth, Counselor Arnan."
Jason wondered if things might've gone differently if Juan del Sol had walked into his office and his life a few months earlier, before the changes he'd failed to accept were already firmly rooted. Maybe he wouldn't be in this predicament, whatever it was. Jason only knew he wasn't in a good situation. But he hadn't known much of anything lately. For the most part, he hadn't known where he was going to be from day to day since the powers descended.
He'd never asked for such a thing as special powers, at least not since he was a small boy pretending to be some superhero. He'd just wanted a little peace and a little piece of sanity in a world gone mad. But powers had found him. Powers had pushed and pulled at him after he got a little taste of peace and sanity. Powers had crashed upon him like a bolt of lightning.
Powers became inexorably intertwined within him when his spirit had once again left his body to visit a special place. Even though he knew no proper name for it and had no concrete idea how to get back there, Jason remembered that special place that pulled him away as vividly as he remembered anything.
Time has ways of distorting most memories, of twisting the peripheries the way elements curl the edges of old portraits. It numbs the neurons and stills the synaptic connections until things like size, shade, and circumstance are slowly obfuscated. Details erode beneath the pressures of living as time fades colorful events into blurry black-and-white snapshots yet forever freezes certain seemingly insignificance scenes. A song or a particular perfume might bring back an unremarkable row of sodium-vapor street lights when you and your significant other were fighting during the middle of your first big road trip together. Do you remember those lights because the road seemed so gloomy and long, and you were just thankful not to be in total darkness with this person you had no idea could become so confrontational over such a little matter—something you can't even remember? Or do you remember the lights because you had to look away from what you were afraid you might see despite the darkness, and they just happened to be there?
Jason didn't remember any street lights from this place. The sun was always bright. A lovely girl was sitting beside him each time. She wasn't lovely like his Beth, but she was transparently beautiful like an old friend from previous lives who'd seen centuries of him at his worst and still loved him.
Of course no one was lovely like his Beth. She was the reason little things like a row of sodium-vapor lights leaped out of his memory. They were stark reminders of everything Beth had never been. There was no big fight on his first road trip with Beth. That regrettable road trip had been with a girl he tried to understand but never could. She would say the right things to earn his trust and they would be together again a short time before another fight wore his patience too thin. She showed up one day and begged him to take her somewhere, anywhere. He wasn't sure how she even found him after all the years that had passed and he suspected she was using again but said she could go with him to a bar where he was meeting some friends. Later at the bar she left with another guy, vanishing as abruptly as she had reappeared. That was the last time he ever saw her.
He could never imagine Beth doing anything like that to anyone. He couldn't remember having any serious fights with Beth either. They had disagreements but they also knew how to compromise and respected each too much to fight dirty. After hurting Beth's feelings once during a particularly stressful time Jason vowed to do whatever was necessary to avoid it happening again. When they became angry at each other, they would part until they cooled down. When Jason asked Beth to marry him, he told her he wanted to go through premarital counseling first in the best program they could find. He not only loved Beth but treasured her as a person. His past dating history helped him realize Beth was unique, a woman who deserved not only his best but whatever was out there beyond it. So he decided to go through counseling in order to be a better man than he ever would've been on his own.
It wasn't as easy decision for Jason. He'd been the person people came to with their secrets. Friends asked him for advice, and not just legal advice. After spending several years following college looking for the right path, he eventually went to law school and became an attorney who specialized in family law. He was the guy who sometimes talked his clients out of divorce. At other times he convinced clients to settle out of court even though it cost him lucrative fees. Seeking justice had made law attractive to him, a person who'd enjoyed empathizing with and helping others since he was a boy.
Those tendencies had sometimes been deleterious in his romantic relationships, just as they had cost him legal fees. Before Jason met Beth he eventually learned that even the best of people don't fix other people. Broken people can be helped once they decide to help themselves, but they can't be saved by white knights or compassionate princesses except in fairy tales. Of course knowing and assimilating a lesson are much different. Jason continued to underestimate the problems of others while overestimating his own influence. Accepting that he could control only his own attitude and actions was difficult for a man who so fervently grasped the idea of a transcendental human spirit, in particular his own human spirit.
After Beth was gone he isolated himself as much as possible despite the efforts of his friends and family. When he finally thought about how to move forward former visions came back to him. Old dreams renewed themselves until he decided he would begin seeking answers through his spirit and in his nightly visions.
The lovely woman in the special place he found during his sleep was always at the corner of a picnic table. They both sat with their backs resting on the table while facing out toward a few of her friends. Her guileless face radiated a warmth incapable of deceit. An easy smile soothed any insecurities away as easily as her laughter babbled up like a quenching brook. In a few special instances during athletic competition and times of desperation Jason had felt the difference between ordered time and space (chronos) and moments when there were gaps between time (kairos) as posited by the Greeks. These were moments when everyone and everything around him seemed to near the freezing point at the molecular level while he kept moving without restriction. Kairos was a difficult concept for most people to understand, which probably explained why he'd seen kairos defined in so many ways: the opportune moment, a collective pause, an opening in time and space, the appropriate time and place, a higher realm…
But there was a moment he looked in her eyes and understood why kairos was often called the supreme moment. Although she was attractive, he did not feel pulled to this woman by physical desire so much as he wanted to feel this way about other people but knew it wasn't feasible. He could feel this way only about her and her friends. It was the way he felt with a small puppy except that they did not depend on him like the puppy depended on him. Yet they were as loving, forgiving, and loyal as the puppy. They made him feel the way Beth had made him feel, safe and happy. He had always been able to trust Beth. Every fiber of his being understood these people would do him no wrong. It completely overwhelmed him until he started realizing he would be leaving soon. He could sense the increasing pressure. He could feel he was about to be pulled back. He tried to tell her. He tried to tell all of them.
"Listen, everybody. I'm so glad I met you. I wish I could stay, but I can't."
The dark-headed guy sitting on top of the table across from Jason pinched his eyebrows together and drew his head back. "What are you talking about?"
"I've got to leave. But don't forget me. Don't forget I love all of you."
Jason's female friend grabbed his arm. "You can't go."
"I don't want to go."
"I don't have a choice."
Jason often wondered if his friends remembered those words as clearly as he did, if they were even capable of remembering them at all. Jason got back to them just a few days later, but he didn't count it as a visit because no one seemed to notice him. He couldn't hear what his friends were saying and they apparently couldn't see him. That only increased his desire to return. But his next visit took required more time.
Jason drifted in and out of vague awareness as the fog permeating his mind diminished and then thickened again. Fleeting moments of lucidity were like a high road climbing misty mountains as glimpsed from a passing train—such snippets whetted his appetite but did not reveal much. He knew he was no longer on the wet concrete and he felt his body moving. He realized he was being transported somewhere. He figured the destination was an interrogation room. He wondered if they would torture him. In a way, he knew he had to accept some of the blame. His desire to redeem himself through helping others had made him careless. His longing to snuff out so much ugliness had made him reckless. Then his sense of justice had made him dangerous. He had been trying to carry the burden of his guilt while finding a way to make a meaningful impact without calling attention to himself. It all became such a twisted mess.
He thought about the platitudes people threw out when they had nothing else to offer. They mostly meant well, but how often did they really think about what they were saying? They would say things happen for a reason. But had this really happened to him for a reason, or had it just happened? First of all, why him? Just in his circle of acquaintances he could think of much more suitable people. Why then? He had still been in a bad frame of mind when everything came crashing down so unexpectedly, burdening him with such grave responsibilities. There were billions of people in the world. Probably millions of them, perhaps hundreds of millions, were much better candidates.
People also liked to say that things will only get better. From his perspective, things were not getting better. His greatest comfort at the moment was knowing life would eventually end. This too shall pass, they would say. Yes, life would end. His embattled spirit would probably linger. One day the Sun would presumably consume Earth. But what good was that doing him now, and how long would he be forced to suffer?
Jason had done things some people never would have thought possible, so he decided to try once more before he lost consciousness again. He focused on that idyllic place. He would try to get back one last time. Maybe this time it could be forever.
Jason tried to remember how he'd first found the place. A casual observer surely would have told him it was just an imaginary land, a creation of his willful imagination—some place where desire intersects dusky shadows. Most scientists would probably say it was a cerebral anomaly, something like a seizure. But how had he been able to return, and how had the people been exactly the same? There wasn't anything remarkable about the place itself, except that he knew it was far away. He could feel that. It was a land far away from things like consumptive hate, destructive pride, narrow stereotypes, and the threat of mutually assured destruction. There was no remarkable terrain, no inspiring architecture, no bucolic fields—but there was a sense of complete transparency. Jason sensed it in a moment and in that same moment opened his heart, willing to do whatever he could for the collective welfare of the group at hand.
Jason had found a place where collaboration was the norm rather than some misunderstood exception. He'd found a place where people didn't try to get what they wanted by fooling others but communicated frankly. He was moved by the innocence and enthralled by the sheer logic of it all. Life on Earth could be so beautiful if only people cooperated. He had believed that for as long as he could remember. It was in the best interest of all humans to regard others carefully and treat them with kindness, but too many of them didn't see it that way. Despite the directives of major spiritual and philosophical figures to love neighbors, to do unto others with love, and to judge not… too many people seemed to act in their own best interests for those ideas to work properly. Even in simple matters like driving, a tiny bit of consideration would make life so much easier. But too many people seemed blind to others—determined to do whatever they wanted no matter who it inconvenienced or even potentially hurt. Although there might be two lanes open a driver would slowly pull into the one occupied—inevitably blocking the path of an oncoming motorist, one who might be highly distracted. Some people even seemed to delight in this type of disruption. When these same drivers were inconvenienced they flew into a rage. People actually shot each other over such things.
Other people were shot for a few dollars or a pair of shoes. News stories were bad enough, but the details he heard from the criminal attorneys were often difficult to reconcile with the idea of human spirituality. Jason definitely understood there was powerful evil in the world that often crawled under the skin of ordinary people. Sometimes he wondered if evil wasn't winning the ultimate battle.
Perhaps only a catastrophic collapse of society could force people in general to live with more regard for life. Jason didn't have the answers. He couldn’t find the answers even when he had powers he'd never imagined, but he had realized his nation's way of life was not sustainable. It was consuming itself from both ends much faster than it could recognize, much less repair, the damage. An inferno was gorging itself on an abundance of people falling through the cracks.
Jason pictured the faces of his transparent friends in that distant land as he focused on controlling his breathing. He tried recalling different techniques he had learned. Everything was so jumbled. He took a deep breath and focused on his core. Each inhalation became increasingly deeper and slower. Jason was determined to control his own destiny by asserting his ultimate will, but he was fading back toward the black of unconsciousness.
He fought to retain his senses. He imagined his spirit using his vertebrae like animal claws—scurrying against the darkness to reach toward that purple haze out beyond the stars, but his spirit was scrambling ever faster against the side of a darkening hole that fell inward much quicker than it yielded progress. Memories appeared like snapshots in a little remote corner of his mind, teasing him with thoughts of what he had so long ago and how he'd failed to understand he had a special power of his own before the greater powers had coalesced into something he vainly struggled to control.
Throughout his life, even before he traveled to the other side of the world, Jason heard people describe a higher power in their own unique ways. He also perceived that how they thought about abstract concepts like Heaven, Hell, good, evil, justice, retribution, and forgiveness often depended on how they perceived themselves. Jason intuitively believed and viscerally felt before intellectually deciding, based on observation, people tended to find the kingdom of Heaven or open the gates of Hell within themselves. He heard them talk about faith but he never knew what that was like.
He remembered talking to God as child and feeling tingly, the way he imagined his puppy felt when it jumped into his arms and licked his neck. Jason felt a palpable presence. He admired people who had faith and thought perhaps faith hadn't been required of him because he lacked the capacity for it. As he got older and realized many of his experiences were not shared by other people who had faith in a higher power, he felt both blessed and guilty—but he mostly he felt guilty because he'd done nothing worthy of being blessed.
Jason was six when he and Stephen, who was ten, joined their parents for a family camping trip. Jason's father, who was on his way to becoming the next president of Argyle College, had rented a cabin on Lake of the Ozarks. Donald Arnan had barely put the family station wagon in park when Jason jumped from the car and ran from one side of the cabin to the other before turning back toward his family.
"Is this it? Is this our cabin? This is great. I remember this place. It's awesome."
Catherine Arnan stared at her son. "Jason, what do you mean, you remember?"
"Well, there's a screened-in porch on the back. That's where I want to sleep, because it's close to a creek and I like the sound of the water. There's a cot somewhere I can sleep on. And there are two bedrooms. They're over here, on the right. There's a TV and a couch and stuff on the left when you come in the door. There's a kitchen past all that. Oh, the bathroom is in between the two bedrooms. Can I sleep on the porch. Can I?"
"Jason, we’ve never been here."
"Donald, what is he talking about?"
"Beats me. Let's go have a look. I think it does come with two bedrooms and a screened-in porch, but I don't know how it's all arranged."
Stephen adjusted his thick glasses before looking up at his father from a brochure. "It says here all the cabins on the property are unique. They didn't use a standard floor plan. I guess that's supposed to be part of the charm."
"Well," said Jason's mother, "the outside is lovely."
"In fact," said Stephen, "these cabins range from one to five bedrooms."
"Well, let's take a look." Donald Arnan opened the door to see two bedrooms on the right, a TV on the left, and a kitchen beyond that before he eventually discovered that the hall led to a screened-in porch.
"See, isn't it great?" While the rest of the family watched in stunned amazement, Jason ran from room to room to reveal those things he had already seen. When Stephen asked him later how he knew, Jason said he remembered being there. Stephen explained he had never been there, but Jason was insistent. He had seen this place.
Two years later when the family took a trip to St. Louis so Jason could see the Cardinals play baseball, he got excited two different times on the road—once about an upcoming bridge and another time about the way the road was going to pass through a mountain. Jason described the bridge before he saw it and the road did indeed go through an area where rock had obviously been blasted to clear the roadway. He also walked up to a stranger on the sidewalk in St. Louis and called him by name. Jason's parents apologized to the man and asked Jason what he was doing. He simply said he remembered the man, but no one else—not even the outrageously precocious Stephen—knew what to say.
After that, Jason was more judicious. There would be other times he knew how their rooms were going to look before they entered or how the highway ahead would open up into a unique sight before they ever reached it, but after that trip to St. Louis he mostly kept those things to himself.
There were a few times he let things slip. He mentioned scores of games that had already been played in his mind but not on the field, court, or diamond. He made comments about people being dead before the fact was revealed because he'd already seen their demise. Most of the time he didn’t realize what he was saying until people reacted.
But he had to say something that particular day he and Stephen went to the lake even though he realized Stephen would almost certainly understand the nature of his prescience. They were visiting an uncle who had a nice lake house in a private cove. Unfortunately his boat was in the shop for repairs. On the second day of their visit, while Uncle Ernie was running errands, Stephen and Jason followed a trail just past the edge of his property to a flat rocky spot in the middle of a bluff. It looked like a good place to dive into the lake. After Stephen retrieved some goggles and made sure there were no obstructions, the boys enjoyed the opportunity to try new dives and flips without fear of embarrassing themselves like they might at the community pool near their house. The lake level was at a depth during their two-week visit so that the spot was about the same distance from the water as the diving board at the pool. They returned every afternoon during that vacation.
On the penultimate day of their visit Stephen was in a hurry to get in the water. He knew they only had one day left. But Jason grabbed him.
"What are you doing?'
"There's something down there, Stephen."
"What are you talking about? I don't see anything."
"Of course not. The water's too dark."
"Then what are you talking about?"
"Just trust me." Jason put on a pair of goggles his gut had told him to bring that day and jumped in the water. A few minutes later he was waving his arms.
"What is it?"
"There's a car below me, Stephen."
"A car. It looks pretty new. It must have gone off the top of the bluff above us. I think somebody's inside. We have to call the cops."
When Jason got out of the water Stephen had his hands on his hips. "How did you know?"
"You know what. How did you know something was under there?"
"I don't know."
"You told me something was under there. You knew. You even knew where the car was. That's how you knew where it was safe to jump."
"I just felt like we should be careful."
"No, Jason. You specifically said there was something under the water."
"I didn't know what else to say."
"You knew, didn't you? You didn't even have to see a body, did you? You just knew. How did you know?"
"It's not important."
"How did you know?"
Stephen dropped his head into his spindly fingers, as if they might somehow divine the answer. When he raised his face, Jason was already headed down the path. Stephen grabbed his towel and tried to catch up.