Joy and the Peach
I’d seen it before—a narrow column of blinding silver light, way off in the distance. Usually it was so far from me physically that it was distant emotionally too. Sometimes the light was more golden, or white. But it was silver that I saw most: a cold, metallic vacuum sucking people out of the world.
The death rays had no feelings. They took young and old, vibrant and sick. Even the unborn were robbed from their mothers’ bellies when centenarians were still walking about. There was no reason or logic to the rays—or, at least not any that I could figure out.
The chantries talked about the rays. Yet, I never felt that they really knew what they were talking about, and I’d attended all of them. It all seemed to be some ploy to elicit certain kinds of righteous behavior. Do this bad thing, Fern, and you’ll get sucked up by the silver ray. Avoid this action, Fern, and you might get chosen by the golden light. Do this and this, and surely you’ll be taken by the white pillar. I never knew if I should hate the rays, fear them, or see them as some sort of spiritual emancipation from life. Every chantry I’d gone to could never manage to explain the distinction with any certainty—not without a fat donation, anyway. But then, even money only encouraged Peaches to make something up that sounded good. Then, after another fat donation to their chantry they would add a confident tone to their made-up words and nod heavily. This satiated the majority of the curious.
But, not me.
I was twelve when I realized that no one really knew anything certain about the rays. They had only found obscure ways to explain them. They had determined to impress logic and reason on something that could not be captured by such finite principles. Even as a pre-teen I could see that.
Some people had seen the death rays up close. They’d seen loved ones taken on their death beds, or friends annihilated by mass waves of death rays during war. But, when I asked these people to tell me what they saw, or what they knew, they never talked. If they did try to answer, they would babble this or that, and even though I heard a string of words it sounded as if someone had put cotton balls in my ears. Mothers who’d lost babies—to whom the rays had literally stolen their children from their bodies—they turned cold and lifeless with vacant eyes and gaping mouths, when I tried to get them to explain.
Then, only a few months after I turned fifteen, came a beautiful, clear, sunny day. The air was dry and crisp and yet not too cold. It swished down out of the nearby mountains like a sigh from the earth. I was walking down my favorite lane near a seam of town where the Learen Forest and local commercial buildings joined hands. My mother walked by my side with my ten-month-old baby sister, Joy, in a newly bought stroller. We found it at Millie’s Baby Shop. It had pink and chocolate-brown stripes and shiny satin, fuchsia ribbons.
The sky was already bright that day, and it felt higher and more unreachable that usual. Then, suddenly, my vision was overwhelmed by a blinding, white light. I tried to make sense of the sudden burst of illumination, but my body and mind were immobile. I felt alive and yet I knew if I moved, I would be subjected to intense discomfort; like trying to pull a warm tongue off a frozen flag pole. I wanted to move my eyes, to look about, but the same suspense of encountering unexplainable pain made me feel that I should not make the attempt. I submitted.
As soon as I gave up the idea of trying to look about or move or think too deeply the light disappeared. All movement was suddenly restored to me.
“Mom!” I turned quickly to look at her. “Mom, are you okay?”
My mother was nodding. “I thought one of us was being taken by the death ray.” She said slowly.
Then, we both looked down into the stroller. I felt my chest tighten and was certain my heart stopped for at least a full second. I wanted to scream in horror. I wanted to yell, “Why? Why? Why?” and yet I could only stare.
Mother gasped and sort of melted to the ground. The stroller, still in her grip, collapsed to the side and all the baby stuff spilled out. Out of instinct I swiped at the stroller and tried to keep it from toppling, as if Joy was still in it, but my hands missed. It shouldn’t have mattered to me that Joy’s blanket, rattle, and binky fell to the ground. She was gone now. But her departure had come so fast, so unexpected. The white ray had struck out of nowhere.
I tried to grapple with the reality of her passing. The rays meant death, right? So the chantries said. But I couldn’t. I was in shock. I felt as if I was outside of my own body watching myself fall apart. I tried to exercise mental control, but deep emotion within me ripped all sanity and control away. Awareness of my mother, of the world around me, blurred. I watched my own face go blank. I tried again to gain mental control, but there was no wheel to steer and no handles to wrench back onto the right course. My lifelines had melted into a vast void that I couldn’t swim through. It was too thick and deep.
I struggled in vain for what felt like hours. Yet, a part of me knew it was only seconds. Then, I began to float up to the surface of the void…
In a rush, my consciousness was sucked into synchrony with my brain. I was inside me again. The world was still blurry for a minor moment and them BAM! in a sickening rush, everything I looked at fell into sharp focus—so sharp it made me dizzy. “No!” I couldn’t take this anymore. I shivered and grabbed control of my arms. I oriented myself toward the Learen Forest. Then, I croaked out an emotional, guttural groan and turned and ran into the safety of the trees.
I don’t know how many hours I wandered in the Learen Forest that day. Five? Eight? Ten? But, sometime after the moon came out, I collapsed next to a local chantry on the very south end of the Learen. It was one of those tiny home-based chantries you could tell was sturdy but didn’t look it on first glance. It was anything but ornate, and yet it still managed to give off a religious vibe. It was one of the few I hadn’t gone to.
It pained me that on the worst day of my life that my final refuge was a place run by a Peach. But I couldn’t walk another step. I was raw emotionally and weak physically. My hair and clothes? Probably a scraggly, bunchy mess.
No sooner than I crawled up the front stoop of the small chantry then the front door opened and a man in his late thirties came out the door. He had dark brown hair accented by a receding hairline with only a few flecks of gray, a handsome face, strong shoulders, and that look of kindness and surety that some Peaches simply had—because let’s face it, most of them are stern, pious, and incredibly annoying. I knew immediately that this man wasn’t one of those. He wasn’t a mainstream Peach.
I nodded in reply not sure how he knew my name. Then, he held out a hot buttery roll and a cup of warm cinnamon milk. I could smell the spice rolling off the steam and watched butter threatening to drip off the edge of the roll and onto his fingers.
I took the food eagerly but ate it slowly. Amazingly, it injected life and comfort into me. I took several deep breaths between large and very unladylike bites. Mom would have been embarrassed.
“I heard about Joy. I offer my deepest condolences, though I know that those words don’t really give any comfort. But, it’s what we say, right?”
Grateful for his honesty, I nodded.
“Jack.” He said, offering me his hand to shake.
I shook it, handed back the empty mug, and sighed. “Thank you, Jack.”
Jack smiled. “I’d like to take credit for those rolls, but my wife is the master. I think they speak for themselves.”
I nodded immediately. That roll and milk was exactly what I had needed. It was far better than anything we rustled up in our house. And for a short, blessed moment it had held my attention more than my grief.
Jack sat down a few feet from me on the stoop. “It can’t be described, can it?”
I looked at him with a furrowed brow. “What?”
I opened my mouth to talk about it and that horrible feeling of warm-tongue-on-frozen-flag-pole came back to me. Sickness spread into my stomach. I tried again. Then, I shook my head, closed my eyes, and pushed it all away. “I guess not.”
Jack nodded. “I’ve seen you asking questions. You’ve been drawn to those rays for several years. Now, perhaps, you see, or feel, why no one talks.”
I looked back, in my mind, at all the people I had pestered for information, for answers, about the rays. Jack was right. I understood them now. They wanted to tell me. But something—something about the rays, being so close to one, seeing a loved one taken. No, no way they could talk—nor could I.
I turned my confused gaze full onto this preacher-man, Jack. “How did you know about me? Was I that much of a bother?”
Jack looked down and then out into the night. “No. But, when people couldn’t answer your questions, they sometimes came to me asking why there was some unseen force blocking their responses. I’m sure they went to some of the other preachers, too. People think we know stuff. But we don’t know much. Only what we’ve been trained to teach. So, when I couldn’t help them, they stopped coming to religious meetings. Some—well, enough—mentioned your name. After that, I have observed your curiosity of the rays from afar.”
“The white one. It took Joy. Why her? Why white? Why…”
Jack shrugged. “We can talk about it some more someday. But for now, I think I should walk you home.” He turned toward the door of the chantry, without waiting for my agreement, and yelled, “Dora! Walking Fern home!”
“Alright!” a female voice yelled back.
Then, Jack stood, offered me his arm and walked me home.
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Hi! My name is Angela Tempest. I write fiction that entertains, takes you to another world, and fills your life with truth. I hope you’re enjoying A Search for Utopia. If you love it, there’s more. Check out my author page to read my other stories!