Stamped - Act III
“Why are you chasing him? What good will this do?” she asked.
“Just because I couldn’t keep you here, doesn’t mean that I can’t keep him.”
Elena sat next to me in my truck, as we raced toward the port. Perry had been talking about Sloan’s trip for weeks, about trying to find his mother for years. I only heard the talk of an unhappy child. Never thinking he would take the leap off of the ring and into the looking glass. Alice stared at me, unblinking. The trucked bumped and kicked as I raced over the washboard gravel of the road. I was surprised I didn’t hear him leave, but he had told me so many times. I should have listened. I would have been able to stop this.
“There is nothing you could have stopped,” Elena said. “He was born to chase the wind.”
“No one is born to do anything. We learn our duty,” I shot back.
“So this is my fault?”
“Of course it’s your fault. You left me. You left him and Ayla. And he’s so much like you. You never thought about how your actions would create this cycle. There is always a consequence to what we do. Especially to our children.”
“The universe isn’t trapped in amber. It is in constant motion.”
“That’s why we need to move with those we love. Elena, he’s a child. He isn’t old enough to go chasing after you.”
“He heard his calling and he has to listen. Just as you’ve heard yours, Tal.”
“You don’t know your calling at his age. He’s all hormones and angst.”
“We are all born to listen to something. You should be proud that he heard his so young. Some people never take the time to listen to what calls for them.”
“He won’t hear anything if he’s dead.”
A turn appeared suddenly in the road. I jerked the wheel a little too hard. The truck’s tires spun on the dirt, we swung sideways, and then straightened. Cold ice shot through my veins and into my chest. My heart beat pure adrenaline.
“Slow down, Talmai. You can’t find Perry if you don’t get there,” Elena warned. “I don’t want to see you hurt.”
I looked at her from the corner of my eye. Her eyes bored into me. At that moment, laughter suddenly bubbled in my stomach and burst from my lips. Her forehead crinkled. I stepped on the accelerator and laughed even harder.
He looked at the hologram image, then at me, back to the picture, and laughed. Deep from the bottom of his stomach, holding onto the sides of his gut like it might fall off.
“Are you kidding me?” he said through bouts of laughter. “Do you know how many kids I see every day?”
“He’s quiet so he probably didn’t talk to you but he has this way of hovering just at the edge of everything. It can be unsettling,” I said, not giving up. The diner was packed. The ship hadn’t left for the surface yet. Everyone was eating their favorite meal before they landed on the surface and life became much harder. Forks and knives scraped plates, mugs of coffee clunked to the counters, and a constant stream of sweetheart and darling came from the team of just over-the-hill waitresses. A neon sign flickered in the corner of the window.
“You gonna get something or you going on your way?”
I was parched. He was not the first restaurant owner who I had talked to. Perry was constantly eating. I was so sure I’d walk into the first restaurant in Ringsport and see him sitting at the table with a forkful of eggs hovering in the air. I’d be stern, he’d apologize for making me worry, and we’d go home. So far, things couldn’t have been more opposite.
“I need to keep looking for my son,” I said to the gruff diner owner. His no-nonsense look cracked slightly and I saw a reflection of my emotions on his face. He was a father. I could see him trading places with me briefly in his mind. He opened his mouth to say something. A plate fell and shattered on the ground. The general roar of the diner stopped while everyone looked for the perpetrator.
“You best get going then. The ship leaves soon,” he said, dried his hands on his apron, and stepped into the chaos of the crowded dining room.
I cast one last look around and turned off the hologram. I stepped through the door and into the street. With a ship leaving imminently, Ringsport was filled to the brim with people, supplies, and a buzz of excitement that seemed to electrify the air. There was a new oxygen mine opening, which meant piles of cash to whoever brought it online. And after it came online, there would be an influx of construction and growth in Summer’s Hold. This was a rush for land, a race toward a new horizon, an opening of another chapter in life.
I was swept into the current of pedestrians and let the crowd push me toward the ship. I hated it here: the press of the unwashed people, the piles of trash a transient population of explorers creates, the hollow look of not knowing your place in the world that flashed in every eye. It was the look that starts innocently enough but soon becomes predatory. I saw the casual glances of the predators, ready to prey on me for my country attire. They called to passersby:
“Hey, lady, you thirsty?”
“I got some cheap food in the back. My grandpa’s recipe.”
“Help. My friend is hurt. Can anyone make a splint? They’re hurt just around the corner...”
“My bike drained. Does anyone have money for a battery charge?”
They spoke with the right tone and inflection, but their glances told me everything. I was another resource for survival. I was just food. They kept calling me to slaughter. I walked on with deaf ears.
The press grew tighter and denser the closer we got to the ship. Soon, it dominated the sky. It was one of those human achievements that seemed impossible, except for the fact it was right in front of me. Tiny forms crawled across the outside of the ship. Walkways and hatches hinted at the honeycombs of hallways beneath the hull. It was a massive thing. It was made on Earth—probably just off orbit from the moon. When things are scaled by solar systems, something made on the surface or on the nearest satellite is just semantics. A flash of a white nightgown in the corner of my eye tore my gaze from the ship. She walked around the corner. I followed.
The crowd didn’t want to let me pass by. Something had happened and it had piqued everyone’s interest. Elena dodged between people in front of me with little problem. After a few strategically placed elbows to rib cages, I caught up to her. She stopped at a police line. Emergency drones hovered, hummed, and ordered the crowd to stay back. Eyes looked at the drones warily. We had all seen what had happened during the Summer’s Hold riots. The police had been very clear that they were here to enforce the peace, not to protect it.
There were two bodies under canvas sheets. Two officers stood next to them and conversed quietly. One seemed to be telling a joke. When the punch line came, there was the briefest twitch of a smile on the other officer’s face. Elena crossed the police line. No one noticed. Of course no one noticed. She walked barefoot on her tiptoes. Her step over one of the corpses looked like a dance. She twirled and sat down on the hood of one of the police vehicles. My stomach dropped.
“E-excuse me,” I called to the two officers.
They either didn’t hear or chose to ignore me. I inched closer to the police line and raised my hands slightly. Only Elena looked at me. I crossed the line with my hands up.
“Excuse me, officers. I was wondering—“
A blaring siren from the drones drowned out my words. Lights flared and flashed. And a cloud of floating robots swarmed me. I could be incapacitated or dead with a keystroke. I had to know who was under those sheets.
“Get behind the line, citizen,” the PA from the drone ordered me.
I took another step toward the officers with my hands still raised. The hum from the drones became deep and angry. I kept my hands high. One officer looked at me wearily. He looked at his partner and seemed to silently argue about who was going to deal with me. The officer who lost the staring contest rolled his eyes and sauntered over to me. Elena smiled and tucked her legs under her.
“Those drones aren’t so happy that you’re here. They can get pretty dangerous,” the officer said, while he eyed me up and down.
“I’m from the countr—” I started.
“Things aren’t like the country here. I’m sure you need to get home for dinner.”
“That’s the thing. I came here to—”
“If you can’t tell we’re pretty busy,” the cop said.
“My son he’s missing. I need help.”
“Buddy, I don’t got time to look for every lost kid in Ringsport.”
“Just let me make sure he’s not under there,” I said.
“I can’t let you see them before we process them.”
“Ok. Can I show you a picture and will you tell me?” I asked desperately.
The cop looked to his partner for support but his partner stood next to Elena and wrote in a notebook. The crowd was getting restless and the drones were buzzing louder and louder. The officer let out a sigh.
“All right. What does he look like? You got a picture?”
“It’s on my computer. The drones won’t…”
“Yeah, yeah you’re fine. Just hurry. We got to go. ”
Perry’s smile hung in the air. I turned up the brightness on the hologram so you couldn’t see through to the street. I wanted the man to have as good of a look as he could. The man looked at Perry’s face for a long time. He said something under his breath and walked back to the two bodies. His eyes met mine. He bent down and lifted the canvas off of one of the bodies. The lifted fabric obscured my view of him. He looked at the body for a long time.
It was Perry. I knew it was. He was too young. Too new to be navigating these streets. He had never met a person he couldn’t trust. My Perry was gone.
The cloth dropped and the officer walked over to me. He looked at my eyes then looked at my mouth as he spoke.
“How recent is that holo?”
“Few months old.” I felt like I was floating away from my body.
“His hair was that length when he went missing…”
“Last cycle. ”
The officer bit his lip and rocked on the heels of his boots while he calculated something. Finally he said:
“It’s not him. It can’t be. I mean I thought it was going to be, because of the hair color and cheekbone structure. ”
“How do you know?”
“The body has signs of atmos use.”
“It’s the new thing. People bring toxic air from Alice and huff it. It slowly melts your sinus cavities. The kid,” the officer jerked his head toward the body, “had been on the stuff for a few months. Early stage cavity melting.”
“I—officer,” I suddenly lost the ability to speak. It wasn’t Perry. I was so sure that he was under that canvas. The sun was setting behind Alice and it cast long shadows down the street. My role in the crime scene hadn’t turned into anything exciting and the crowd was shrinking back into the flow of people.
“Get looking for him. The ship leaves after the next solar cycle. You don’t have much time,” the policeman said, turned, and left.
I don’t remember what I said. Just the bump of the crowd as I stepped back into its press. Elena still sat on the car. I felt the weight of her gaze as I walked by. I listened to my feet. The mob jostled me back toward the ship. Hundreds of gangways were being lowered and attached to the side of the ship. The sun was gone. Lights from the town flickered to life. Music played from inside bars. I tucked into an alley and stared at the ship. Where was Perry? Where would he go to get onboard? I was so lost in my thoughts that I didn’t hear the footsteps behind me. The first blow sent me to my knees.
All I saw was black. I didn’t know if it was because I was just looking at the lights and it ruined my night vision or if the blow had blinded me. I didn’t have time to think about it. Another blow hit me on my back and sent my face into the cement. A rough group of hands reached into my every pocket, while a sharp toe made sure to kick me a few times for good measure. I could hear their cursing. I wasn’t some hopeful pioneer with my entire life in my pockets. There were more kicks, but my mind couldn’t engage enough to count. Soon they left me alone. My fingers curled and uncurled against the grit of the ground. I stumbled to my feet and toward the first source of light I could find.
“You don’t look so good,” a deep voice greeted me. I all but fell into a chair by the bar. An old man looked at me and dried a highball with a pristinely white rag. At least I wasn’t blinded in the attack. “It gets like this before a ship leaves. A veritable feeding frenzy.”
I looked up at him. He had bushy muttonchops and a vest that was straining its hardest not to burst. He poured some whiskey into a glass and slid it toward me.
“On the House.”
“Thank you,” I replied.
Elena gave me a long glance from across the bar. The kind that used to put my stomach in my throat and make me sweat from my palms. I broke my glance as soon as I could. I needed to hear. I needed to keep my mind grounded.
“I’m looking for my son,” I said. “He got here early this morning. Probably during the third solar cycle. Here I have a picture of…”
My wrist computer was gone. It was stripped from me along with everything in my pockets. I had left a key in the truck because no one wanted to steal something so ancient that they had no idea how to work it. Thieves are lazy and that’s the only reason I still had a ride home.
“He’s. He’s about this tall and…”
I had to keep reminding myself to describe Perry in the present tense. He was still here somewhere. There was still time. I droned on about his looks, mannerisms, what he was probably wearing. The bartender listened the whole time. He opened his mouth to say something when another patron hollered from across the room. The bartender lifted a single finger: Hold on one minute. He walked to pour the man another drink, and my gaze shifted back to Elena. She ran a finger around the rim of another man’s drink. Slow circles. I could almost hear the glass start to sing at her touch.
“There are lots of people who come here. I really wish you had a picture. But a kid that had his mannerisms was here earlier. He was with a friend. Sloon?”
“Sloan.” My heart beat wildly. Perry was here. He was ok. I could still get to him.
“Sloan.” The bartender nodded as if he was filing the information away forever. “They were in here. Ate some food. Didn’t tip. Talked about boarding the ship and going to Alice—it’s the same conversation I’ve been hearing for weeks. It’s not much ground but I prefer to keep Ringsport under my feet.”
“Did they say where they were boarding the ship?”
“You know. I don’t recall. They didn’t really seem like they had a plan. I hope they got their environment suits. You know they cost a fortune on the planet. Seller’s market down there, I guess.”
My mind raged against the sides of my skull. How could I be so close but not any closer? This man had seen Perry and Sloan just six hours ago. I drank my whiskey in one deep gulp. The fire in my throat helped calm the complaints of my body.
“I gotta find him.” I raced into the dark streets, hoping I looked too wild to attract the attention of any more predators. Love-drunk couples raced the streets hand in hand. I wondered how many of them would smile that big in the morning when they saw who they were waking up next to. I hurried against the glow of the rising sun. Please let the neon illuminate the night for just a little longer.
The engines glowed lazily, almost as if they had nowhere to be. The ship rose slowly and smoothly sailed toward the dusty looking glass in the sky. My gait was the opposite of the ship: weary and stumbling. I knew the ship was my only hope. He was gone. Elena looked at me from across the street. Perry was gone just like his mother. Gone to chase the wind. My weary feet took me back to where my truck waited.
My hastily scribbled note left for Ayla would have to be explained. I would have to explain to her that he brother shared the same affinity for the horizon that caused her mother to leave. I hated explaining something I had never understood. I knew Ayla was like me: she loved building with the dirt beneath her feet. I didn’t realize I was at my truck, until I had the hidden key in the ignition. I glanced at myself in the mirror. Blood had crusted to my brow. My face was a shade darker from the dirt of the city. And I never bought more coffee beans for the farmhouse. I looked at this stranger sitting in my truck with empty eyes. The engine started without an issue. The first small win of my week. My tires rolled me home but my mind didn’t leave the city.
The truck had barely stopped when she rushed out to greet me. The solflowers danced with the sun and a light breeze kept the sun from baking us. I turned the key and waited for her. A deep sigh breathed from the engine, echoing my mood perfectly. I watched my daughter as she ran. I was ready to have the hard conversation about her brother. You could see that she was rooted to the ground with how she ran. Each foot planted before the other one rose. Unlike her mother who floated and flitted everywhere. I closed my eyes and rubbed two fingers on the bridge of my nose. There was a headache deep down in my skull that was just waiting to wreck my day. I opened the door when Ayla got closer. My legs were weak and shaky. Oddly enough, Elena hadn’t made an appearance since the Ringsport. He absence was both a relief and a worry.
I fell to my knees, and Ayla jumped into my arms. I crushed her with a hug. She smelled like dust and soap. I burrowed my nose against her. She was my ground and I hers.
“Daddy,” she whispered breathlessly.
“I’m so sorry, baby. I did my—”
“I didn’t know what to do and you weren’t answering my calls. Did you lose your computer?”
“I did. I have something to tell you—”
“Me first. I’m trying to tell you right now.”
“What is it, honey?”
“When you left something happened.”
She pushed away from me. I stayed on my knees from the combination of both exhaustion and curiosity. Ayla stepped back and took something out from her pocket carefully. She held the envelope like it was porcelain. It was stained and dirty. And covered in stamps.
“I didn’t know what to do, Daddy. I didn’t open it. What does it say?”
I took the letter with trembling hands. The script was fluid and languid. It looped and swayed across the paper. Almost as if it was floating in the sky. It moved just like Elena did. Ayla’s eyes beamed up at me, while she waited impatiently. I ran my thumb along the edges of the envelope, before I turned it over in my hand and broke the seal. It was stuffed with a thick pile of paper, folded over and over. I took the letter and unfolded it. A sudden, urgent breeze slipped under my thumb and scattered the pages. I would reclaim every sheet and devote myself to each and every word. But for now, all I could do was watch them dance in the wind.
Thank you for reading along. Look for more soon.
@ello @ellowrites @yourdailybread @ellospace