No Charge for Truth…or Dinner
It took me a week to leave my room. I didn’t go to school. I ignored my mother’s pestering to talk. I felt bad about that, knowing that she was grieving too. But somehow, I justified my unkind behavior to her. I knew she’d seen the rays take others—far more than I had ever seen. I told myself she was an adult and that adults didn’t need to grieve like teens did. I told myself adults were less caring and immune to the pain. I didn’t believe my justifications. But I used them to push her away anyway.
However, my own conscience only allowed me a week to be a pain-in-the-behind. On the eighth day, I finally took a shower, put on some clean clothes, and brought out all the dirty dishes from my room that had collected from my mother bringing me meals. What a rotten daughter I had been.
I found my mother on the couch watching a chick flick. I opened my mouth to tease her but stopped. From the side I could tell she wasn’t watching the TV at all. She was staring, blankly, at the wall. I slowly sat down next to her and put my hand on her leg.
“Mom.” I said.
Mother closed her eyes.
“Mom, I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
Mom swallowed. “Jack came to see you. He said he’d promised you two would talk.”
I vaguely remembered Jack promising me we’d talk later before walking me home, but at the time I thought he was only making polite conversation. It never occurred to me that he would visit and make good on his word. That wouldn’t be normal for a Peach to do without the promise of money.
“Did you talk to him?” I asked.
Mother nodded. “Nice man, that Jack.”
Mom finally opened her eyes and looked at me. We stared at each other for a moment. Then, she grabbed me into a hug.
“I’m sorry I’ve been so terrible this week. I just…” I began.
“Don’t talk, Fern. Don’t apologize.”
“But I ignored you and didn’t help and you were hurting too…”
“Fern.” Mom said sternly.
I closed my mouth. Mom leaned back and held me by the shoulders. “Tomorrow it’s back to school.” She said. I nodded. “Now, get a snack and then go clean your room. Jack said he and his wife are bringing dinner over this evening. We’ve got to get this place picked up.”
I looked at my Mom pensively. “Maybe he’s being nice to recruit us to his chantry. Wouldn’t be the first time we’ve seen that. Wants to save our soul, or something…”
Mom shrugged. “His wife has a reputation for good cooking. Recruiting or not, I’m eating whatever they bring over.” Then, she sort of smiled.
I sort of smiled back. Neither of us could give too much emotion to the humor, but we gave what we could. After another quick embrace, I went and cleaned up my room.
Jack’s wife, Dora, was all roses and sugar. She had dark auburn hair, warm golden-brown eyes, beautiful brown skin, and let’s face it, a huge dose of genuine soul. She didn’t pretend to know our pain. She didn’t smile too much. She brought in food and got right to serving it out. There was no pretense or shallow chatter. She didn’t talk too much or try to force conversation. We were all completely at ease. Jack too. Therefore, by default, Mother and I talked a ton more than we thought we wanted to. Thoughts and feelings flowed from our mouths like water over a waterfall.
When the subject of Joy came up, Dora didn’t tell us not to talk about her. She didn’t look awkward or worried that mentioning her would hurt our feelings. She was somehow able to take complete happiness in our memories and to feel appropriate sorrow when we tearfully talked about how small and little she was when she was taken. Jack said very little and like a good man let his wife’s cooking do all the comforting. I couldn’t help wonder where these people had come from. They were what everyone should be—in my opinion—and what no one truly was. I could hardly believe they were real.
As dinner came to a close, Dora cleared the table and began to clean up and Mom naturally joined her. They fell into conversation leaving Jack and I sitting alone at the table.
“Care to go have a seat on the front stoop?” Jack asked.
“The promised conversation.” I said.
“I keep my promises,” Jack said, “at least all the ones I remember.”
I smiled and it came a great deal easier than I would have thought.
Without a word, Jack stood and I went, of my own accord, with him out to the front porch steps and we sat down. Since I’d first met and talked with Jack on his porch steps it was easy to restart our conversation on my porch steps. The location provided the right ingredients for a deep conversation: home—a place of safety only a few steps and a door away, freedom—the ability to run away simply by charging out into the night, and a feeling of stability—cool, concrete steps that seemed like ancient rock that had lived, survived, and was still here.
“There are three different kinds of death rays.” Jack began. “But you’ll know all about that. Should I explain anyway?”
I nodded. “I’ve never been to your chantry. You might as well give me your rundown of religious philosophy.”
Jack tilted his head and kept on. “Everyone believes, and we preachers have been taught, that the white ray takes the parting soul to the highest Utopia. The golden ray takes the parting soul to the second highest Utopia. The silver then would take its victims to the third Utopia.”
I raised my hand slightly, and Jack nodded for me to go ahead. “Sorry to interrupt so quickly, but I’ve always wondered what the word utopia means. Can you tell me?”
Jack swallowed. “It is a term we use rather loosely, especially in these days of hundreds of chantries and religions; but I believe it means a heaven of sorts, or a place that runs in some kind of perfect order. It’s supposed to be better than here. People live forever, there, and live happily.”
“If it means there is perfect order, why are there three of them? Isn’t one enough?”
Jack scratched his chin. Then, he looked at me and asked, “Are the things that make you happy the same things that make your Mom, or all your friends happy?”
My first instinct was to say yes, but then as I thought about it, I wasn’t sure. “Well, my friend, Manny, he would play video games all day every day for eternity if he could. He doesn’t want to have to think, if he can manage it. My friend Zoe, she’s not as family oriented as I am, but I think that’s because her dad was taken by a silver ray years ago, right after he’d gotten drunk and beaten her and her mother to near-death. Right after leaving them unconscious, he stumbled several miles through the Learen and out onto the highway and got run over by a semi-truck. She thinks family is great but she believes being alone and free is preferable. Less chance for pain.”
Jack nodded. “A lot of people don’t like to hear it, but goodness comes in many levels. Many people can be good in many ways, but not all of us are good in the same ways, and not all of us want to be good in the ways other people are good. Does that make sense?”
I shrugged. “I think I see what you’re getting at. So that’s why there’s more than one Utopia? Each one is suited to the types of goodness people want and what will make them truly happy?”
“Well, it’s much more complicated than that and also in many ways far too simple. But that basic explanation works fine for me.” Jack said.
I was still a bit confused, though. “So, when the chantries preach certain commands and actions taking you to one Utopia or the other, they are what, like an initial filtering process?”
Jack arched a brow and half-chuckled. “I suppose you could think of it that way… In fact, that may be one of the best summations of the chantries’ intent that I’ve heard. You’ve clearly given this a lot of thought. I think we try to encourage people to live so that the white pillar will take them, but we preach about the others so that people at least have an idea what other places death can carry them. It’s about happiness. But each person has to decide what that happiness is for themselves.”
“I guess now I’ll have to relearn what I thought I knew but have mostly forgotten about the behaviors for each of the three Utopias.”
“I’d be happy to teach you.” Jack said.
I smiled. “So, this is a veiled attempt to get me and my mother to attend your chantry.”
Jack looked taken aback. “That’s what you thought this evening was? Solicitation?”
I squirmed a little and looked away. “Well, isn’t it? Not that you and your wife aren’t nice and all. You’re like the best Peaches I’ve ever met.”
Jack shook his head. “Fern, I’m not trying to get you and your mom to attend my chantry. I’d be more than happy to talk to you, anytime you want, about anything. No donations or contributions to the chantry wanted or required. My only motivation is to help you. You’ve stirred up a lot of interest over the years. I consider you a searcher and a spiritual equal.”
I didn’t know how to respond. Me? A spiritual equal to a Peach? Who was this guy?
Jack smiled at last, making me feel at ease again. “Best if we do it at your house or mine. But, if we do it at my house you’ll likely get to benefit from Dora’s cooking.”
“You’ve got private lessons with a Peach?” Manny snorted. He turned away from me and crossed his arms.
I punched him in his oversized left tricep. Aside from video games, the other ten-percent of his life was spent at a weight set. I never understood his obsession with weight-lifting since he only needed his hands to play video games. But, then again, there were a lot of things about Manny I’d yet to puzzle out.
“Well…yah!” I said. “Wouldn’t you have appreciated some answers after you lost your mother, two years ago?”
“Hey, now. No need to get snippy and personal. But you do realize that all the three of us stand for is exactly everything the Peaches try ruin or hide. They only want our money. They keep people hanging with a little information here and there to continue to get revenue. That’s how they keep running. And now you want to pay a Peach for one-on-one manipulation?” Manny said. “I can’t believe you’d do that!”
“I told you. It’s no charge. And finding the truth behind the rays requires a full investigation. Talking to one of the Peaches without having to donate is something I couldn’t pass up.” I said. When he didn’t respond I gave him a demanding look. “Could you?”
We called the preachers Peaches after several visits to some of their chantries. It took money to attend and at the time none of us were old enough to have a real job. So, we offered to pick peaches from a local orchard and sell them if we could keep thirty-percent of the profit. That thirty percent went to pay for chantry attendance. Then, as we kept investigating, we had to constantly use the word ‘preach’ or ‘preachers’ and pretty soon we were simply calling them Peaches. It worked out well because it was easier to drop the ‘r’ and call the religious leaders the very fruit we sold to listen to them. It carried the derogatory vibe we ascribed to them.
“Just wait ‘til Zoe finds out. She’s going to be pissed.” Manny said as he eyed me through the long front locks of his blond hair. The side and back of his head were shaved short, but the top and front hair hung over his forehead and into his eyes.
I shrugged. “I know she’ll be upset, but Jack seems sincere.”
“Jack? Jack? You’re calling the Peach by name?”
I clenched my jaw. Manny was being his normal overbearing, annoying self. He was determined to make me apologize for doing something he and Zoe and I had all wanted and tried to do for years. I wasn’t going to put up with it. I turned and stomped away. But, before I could get far, Manny grabbed me from behind and held me in sort of a bear hug. After I stopped struggling, he turned me to face him.
“I’m sorry, Fern. I…I do understand. It’s only that we’ve learned not to trust the Peaches. They set themselves up, you know, to get attention and praise. The more followers the more money they rake in. You’ve seen their ridiculous mansions. It’s hard to believe one of them is really interested in helping us learn something real. And for one to promise you information for free? Surely you can see why I’m skeptical.”
I nodded and tipped my head. “I was so shocked when Jack said he’d talk to me pro bono. I mean, I’m actually supposed to go over there tonight. You want to come?” I asked.
Manny’s eyes went wide. “Heck no! This is your thing. This Peach doesn’t know me and doesn’t care. I don’t want any part of him. But you have to promise to share what you learn.”
I met Manny’s gaze with intent and nodded. “Of course. We’re a team. Anything I learn that will help us figure out how to fulfill our plan, you know I’ll share it. Why else would I be doing this? It’s for all of us—and all the others out there with the same questions as us.”
Manny turned up one side of his mouth and gave me a look that screamed, I’m tolerating this dumb idea you have…for now. “I’ll tell Zoe.” He said at last. “I’ll keep her calm. But tomorrow we’ll all meet after school and you have to give us the low down on Jack’s BS from tonight. If you get something good, then we’ll support you whole-heartedly moving forward. Anything for the plan, right?. If it seems like he’s playing games… Well, you know we won’t let you get taken in on some recruiting scam.”
I nodded. “Deal.”
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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!