Zoe’s freckles faded in the red and blue flickering light of the torches. I knew she hated her freckles. Even though she had dark brown skin and black curls—from her mother’s genes—those freckles were a sign of the father she wanted to forget. He’d had red hair, fair skin, and had been covered in freckles. He’d nearly beaten Zoe and her mother to death before the silver ray took him.
“What ray…what utopia would you want to go to…if we get this figured out, Zoe?” I asked, picking up one of the old books and thumbing through it. I didn’t recognize the language. It was not written in the alphabet I knew. I closed it and looked at her again. I felt like anything could happen in the fantastical light of those sparking torches.
“I’ll take silver,” Manny said, before Zoe could respond. He clenched his jaw and shivered. “Zoe wouldn’t want to run into her dad, now, would she?” he added. “I’ll take silver.”
Zoe looked at Manny in a way I’d never seen before. Her face looked almost vulnerable. “You’d do that? Don’t you…want…”
“I don’t want to run into my mom. I don’t think she’d be that proud of me.” Manny said, matter-of-factly, but the muscles in his cheeks twitched with effort. He looked away from us and ran a hand through his blond hair.
Zoe looked back at me, her face now back to her normal I-don’t-care-about-anything look. “I’ll take gold. We all know you’ve got to do white, Fern. Sure, you get into trouble with us. You’re such a punk, almost getting us caught when we stole that car a few months back with your goody-two-shoes panic, ‘We’ve got to put it back when we’re done!’ Remember? Plus, you could see Joy. And if I see your dad, I’ll say hi for you.”
I was shocked. After the awkward conversation in the car, earlier, I’d assumed Zoe and Manny had lost their passion for our plan. Yet, here they were both choosing the utopias which weren’t thought, or taught, to be “the best”.
“That hardly seems fair, you guys,” I said. “What if you get stuck there? What if silver and gold are…horrible. How could I let you guys do that?”
Manny looked back over. “Didn’t you say that Jack said something about the utopia we get being the place we’ll be the happiest, or comfortable?”
I nodded. “Yah, but…”
“You think I’d be happy living a communal law, sharing my stuff with people? Being nice and smiley like you? That isn’t me, and you know it, Fern,” he finished.
“If you argue, you’ll just make us think you’re too good for us. You’ll make our answers embarrassing…like, if we don’t choose the same happiness as you that makes us less, you know. But we can be good, even if we aren’t exactly like you. So, don’t.” Zoe said.
I opened my mouth to protest, but nothing came out. She was right, but it was so hard to accept. It was always in the back of my mind, no matter what I did—that I wanted to go where Joy went. I wanted to be with her. If my actions didn’t always show it, that was my fault. But that was certainly what was in my heart. It had never occurred to me that everyone didn’t want what I wanted. Sure, people were different, but didn’t they all really want the white utopia—whatever it was? But no. Jack had helped me see that on one of our first discussions. There was a lot of goodness, but not everyone wanted all of it. I didn’t know why they wouldn’t, but maybe that was only because I couldn’t see outside myself.
“Okay,” I said. “I won’t argue.” Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Manny stifle a momentary look of surprise. “I don’t understand, but I asked and you guys made your choices. I can accept it.”
Manny laughed, suddenly. “You mean you’ll try to accept it…and then try really hard not to make us feel like we should have argued with you over the white.”
“No,” I said, chuckling. “I promise. Jack…he said what mattered most was that we all went where we felt the most comfortable. And, after thinking about it, I could see he was right. It would be…wrong…for me to force you to go somewhere I want you to be, because it’s my idea of happy. Yah, I need to let you choose your own happiness.”
“I’m starting to like this Jack guy better and better,” Zoe said as she stood up and began looking at all the old books and scrolls. “Now, let’s see what we can find. Before that weird Harold guy comes back. This is our chance. If we wait for him, he’ll try to usher us out of here and we’ll have to come back tonight. Or, we can check out this room…or all the rooms, or look around before he gets back.” She looked directly at me again. “We don’t have to do what he said. Rules are out the window for now. Okay, Fern?”
I nodded. Manny smiled and jumped to his feet. He held out his hand and helped me up.
We perused the scrolls and pseudo books. The books were all about the same color: brown, dusty leather made from who knows what animal. The leather was not bound to the pages, but wrapped around them to hold the pages inside and protect them. The thicknesses varied, but the text on the leather covers had long ago faded away. We opened several and were disappointed to find that the words were in languages we didn’t know.
“They’re all written in different scratches, symbols, or who knows what.” Manny said. “I can’t get money for any of these. I can’t even lie about what language they are. I’d lose my street credit.”
Zoe laughed. So, did I.
The scrolls also weren’t particularly helpful. The first three fell apart, into near total dust after we unrolled them, leaving behind only the wooden poles.
“There’s nothing here. I think Harold chose this room to keep us from meddling,” Manny said. “Let’s get out of here and head to another room.”
Zoe and I grabbed the torches while Manny heaved open the insanely heavy door. He made quick work of it. “Good thing you work out,” Zoe laughed.
We emerged back out into the hallway. Except, oddly, we weren’t in the same place we had been before we’d come in. Instead of a hallway, we were standing on the top row of seats in an enormous meeting room. Countless rows of marble pews reached down toward the floor and a rectangle platform. I expected a podium to be on that stage. But, instead, there were only lights—light rays with no electric source shining up toward a very high, stone and marble ceiling. The ceiling held up the several thick fluted pillars. Their oddly shaped cornices made the pillars look like giant arms.
“Back through the door,” Manny said. “Come on. Back through the door.”
Still open-mouthed, I ran behind Zoe back through the door. But we emerged not into the room, but back into the hallway. I heaved a sigh of relief. “That was creepy…how…”
“That room looked like a theatre, where the crowd surrounds the stage. No curtains… But why would Peaches need a stage. Do they put on performances?” Zoe said more to herself than to me or Manny.
“I can’t imagine theatrical performances. But I can imagine a tribunal,” Manny chortled.
“That’s because you’re guilty,” Zoe replied.
“Where do we go now?” I asked. “This is the opportunity we wanted, right? To get lost and find answers?”
“I say we head down that hallway with the hundred doors. There’s got to be something worthwhile down there.” Manny suggested.
“But what if everything is in the crazy languages?” Zoe asked. “What good will that do us?”
I shrugged. “We could try to sneak through those red and gold doors that lead to the actual school. There’s got to be stuff in there we can read.”
Manny and Zoe nodded. Without a word, we starting walking back the way we remembered Harold bringing us. But after walking for several minutes, everything began to look different. I pointed to a figuring that looked familiar and we walked past it. But instead of leading us to one of the staircases we remembered, we came to a large golden door with a picture of a group of peasants being caught up into a ray. Manny turned the crystal doorknob and wrenched the massive door open. Behind it were the staircases we had come up.
“I don’t remember this door,” Zoe said. “But those look like the staircases that lead back to the main floor.”
“I guess we head that way then,” I said.
Manny held the door for us girls, and then we trotted down the staircases. But, by the time we reached the bottom, the foyer we had seen from the golden door had faded into a solid wall. Two doors appeared. One, in tarnished silver led left. Another, old white-washed oak led right.
“What in the—” Manny began.
We all stopped on the bottom step, dumfounded. I knocked on the silver door. It had a tarnished bronze handle. The handle twisted and the door opened. I waited to see the person who opened the door, but when the door swung wide, no one was behind it. All I saw was a strange, empty room full of only clear glass jars. Some were full of something that looked like oil.
“Okay, this is getting creepy,” Zoe said, grabbing my arm.
“Back up,” Manny said.
We turned around and headed back up the stairs to the golden door. Except when we got back to the top of the stairs, it faded before us. Then, suddenly, we were back in the hallway outside the room that Harold had shut us in.
“Do you think…we’ve been in that room that Harold shut us in the whole time?” I asked, turning around. Back over my shoulder, the other direction, was the very same things we’d seen on the tour. The others turned around and looked uncertainly at the hallway.
“I say we run,” Manny suggested. “Run.”
“But what if it’s all in our heads?” Zoe asked.
I closed my eyes, trying to think. If Harold could navigate this building, there had to be a trick to it. Or was it a trick at all? It felt like one right now. But what if it was all in our heads?
“There you are,” Harold’s voice rang out. He suddenly appeared in the hallway before our eyes. “Come with me. It’s been hours. We’re nearly to closing time.”
“Hours?” Manny growled.
Harold approached cautiously. “I suspect you got caught in a time loop. That has happened to me a few times. I’ve walked down a hallway for what felt like seconds and ended up back in the main foyer a whole day later.”
“No! We opened doors and rooms changed. Hallways disappeared. Doors appeared. We’ve been trying to find our way out!” Manny yelled. He began punching his right fist into his left palm.
Harold pursed his lips and took a step back. “Odd, but not out of the ordinary. I assure you.”
“What is ordinary, here?” I asked.
Harold sighed. “Best not to linger. That’s why I always keep the tour moving. Follow me.”
Reluctantly, but also somewhat eagerly, we followed Harold. He led us seamlessly back to the main foyer and we sat down on the velvet, green benches. The red and gold doors beckoned nearby. I looked at them askance wondering how we could find our way in.
“This building may seem ominous. But I assure you, not a soul has ever been lost in here for more than a day. It’s very rare. It seems the three of you have come on an off day.” Harold explained. He appeared much more relaxed.
“You said earlier ‘unending’. What do you mean by that?” I asked, firmly.
Harold arched a brow. “Did you not experience it? How else would you describe it? It simply doesn’t end. Even from the outside the building plays tricks on the eyes. Does it ever actually end? Well of course, but it’s like your eyes can’t find that end. And inside…well, things shift. But they always come back to normal.”
“But why do they shift? What causes the shifting and the time delays and the endlessness? Why is there an ancient amphitheater with a glowing platform, but there’s no electrical lights?”
Harold smiled. “I haven’t seen that room since my first day here! And I thought I had caught most of the shifting patterns. Maybe that room only shows up once every several years.”
“You still haven’t answered any of our questions,” Manny pointed out, sighing deeply. “Why won’t anyone ever answer any questions.”
Harold stared at the ground. He appeared to be fighting a mix of sadness, determination, and resentment. Then, he looked up. “Not all questions are meant to be answered in this life, young man. And more importantly, what regular person like you and I could handle such knowledge? This building is a mystery. It delights most. It scares only a few. Answers. Well, if I had them, I’m not even sure you’re ready for them. But I don’t have the answers.”
“So, you don’t know why the rooms and hallways shift.” Zoe said, flatly.
“And you don’t know why there are time delays?” I asked.
Harold shook his head, “No, I don’t. No one here does. They simply are what they are.”
“What about all the Peaches…I mean Preachers? Do they know about all of this?” I asked. Manny nodded at my question. The doubt and skepticism were a thick mask over his handsome face.
“The students here are well aware of the building’s oddities. All tour it before beginning their studies. We have to warn them so they don’t get too lost. But what can they learn that none before them have? As well, there is little to be gained religiously from the tour. So, most learn to take it in stride.” Harold said.
Jack had never mentioned the oddities of the school. I felt the urge to drive back and ask him. But I was here, now. There had to be something to learn.
“Isn’t the origin of this building and the helix rays the source of our religions? How can there be nothing to gain from all those oddly wrapped leather books and scrolls? How can the shifting and changing mean nothing?” I asked.
Harold sighed and then carefully sat down a few feet from us on the velvet green pew. “There are books of all different languages in the school. Those that we can read are part of the studies.”
Frustration finally boiled up within me. It was all the chantries, except Jack’s, all over again. All the vague evasive answers simply fed my anger. Harold kept talking but I stopped listening. I eyed one of the red and gold doors. I took a deep breath. Then, I bolted toward it. It was unlocked. I opened it and ran blindly down what appeared to be a never-ending stone and marble corridor with doors every few feet on both sides. I heard Harold calling out behind me. I heard his feet thudding on the marble floor. I heard Manny and Zoe calling out and running at a distance behind me.
“No!” I yelled back over my shoulder. “I’m not leaving until I get some answers!”
My eyes latched onto a door several strides beyond me. It looked the same as all the others. But it was the one my eyes settled on. My head and heart were screaming for answers. With every foot hitting the floor I heard: answers, answers, answers. I grabbed onto the doorknob, and looked back. Harold was only about thirty feet from me and moving fast. His silk gray robe billowed out behind him, revealing only Manny and Zoe’s heads. I set my jaw, ripped the door open and stepped into darkness.
When I woke up, the light in the room was so dim I couldn’t see much. But I heard breathing to my left and right. Straining, I could just make out Manny, Zoe, and Harold all asleep. But which was which I wasn’t sure. I felt the ground beneath me. It was a cool, smooth floor. It must be marble. I sat up and tried to look around. The only light was coming through the crack under the door.
Reaching out in front of me, I scooted forward to get beyond the feet of my friends—and Harold. Then, after finally puzzling out whose feet were Harold’s I tugged at them.
“Wha-?” Harold stirred.
“Harold. Flint? We need to find the torches in this room and light them.”
“Uh…ya…” Harold mumbled. But he soon sat up and reached into his robes, the silk rustling ever so slightly. “Uh…yes, normally they are a few paces from the door to the left.”
I crawled toward the crack of light. I touched the door to be sure it was actually the door. Then, sliding upward, I stood. I turned around and put my back to the door and then turned left, groping carefully along the walls hoping to find a torch. It was nearly ten steps, but at last I rammed my fingers into the metal.
“Ouch! I split my nail,” I murmured. But I grabbed the torch and found my way back to the crack in the door. “Over here, Harold,” I said.
Harold crawled over and after several attempts in the nearly non-existent light, he and I managed to get the torch lined up with the spark from the flint and steel he carried. The torch burst to light, red and blue sparks flying all over me, but they didn’t burn.
“Wow!” Zoe exhaled. “Look at all that.” I looked over, happy to see that she had woken.
Harold, looking terribly displeased muttered. “I’ve never been in this room. Never seen it before…ever. I would remember a stash like this. I assure you.”
I didn’t trust Harold, but he sounded genuine. “Wake Manny, Zoe.”
Zoe nodded and nudged Manny. “How did we all…end up like this anyway? I ran into the room after you and then…nothing. We’re all lined up funny, like someone…messed with us. You know?”
Manny groaned and put a hand to his head. “I swear I’ve never been hit that hard in my life.” Then, he sat up and glared at Harold.
Harold put his hands up. “I didn’t hit you. When I pushed into the room I fell into darkness. I thought it was a bottomless abyss and that I would fall forever. Then, I suddenly awoke.”
I gave him wry half smile. “Just another oddity, right Harold?”
“No! Not another oddity,” Harold blustered. “That’s never ever happened to me before, and I’ve been doing tours here for years since I failed the schooling.”
“Oh great,” Manny growled. “We got a failed Peach.”
Harold furrowed his brow. “It’s not like that. I could have passed. But it didn’t suit me once I got into it. My heart wasn’t in it.”
I crossed my arms and tapped my foot. “Why didn’t it suit?”
Harold rolled his eyes. “There’s no end of questions with you three, is there? If you must know, I grew disillusioned. I thought I was going to learn a great many secrets. But it was all just what I’ve been telling you. And that’s…all! I told you there wasn’t much to know. I’ve been bullying students and teachers here for years. And they’ve all tried, I assure you. We’ve all tried. There’s simply no end to the oddities, pleasant or unpleasant, and no answers to be found.”
I looked around the room, mesmerized by what I was seeing. “I know a man who has found answers none of you have ever seemed to find studying books in this place.”
“Who is that?” Harold asked, strangely eager.
I smiled. “A man named Jack.”
“He’s a preacher?” Harold asked.
Manny sighed. “No, you fool. Jack is a real teacher. He’s Fern’s teacher. He told Fern about this place. That’s why we came.”
“Did he know about this room?” Harold asked, puzzled.
“No, he didn’t send us here to find answers,” Zoe rolled her eyes. “He doesn’t know we’re here.”
I walked to the closest table and touched the items on top. “And I’ll never tell him we came. Now everyone come over here. I’m here for answers and I’m not leaving until I get them.”
This kid-fiction serial is about done. The final chapter…will be available by purchasing the book! Head over to our Kentstead Media SHOP to pre-order your copy today. $2, or more, will go to The Road Home – UT to help shelter the homeless! Click here! Or on the picture above.
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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!