Table Talk

I sat at Jack and Dora’s kitchen table. The glass of milk in front of me was only half full. I could see where the film of the milk still clung to the sides, hinting that more milk had been in it a few minutes ago. I stared at the milk remaining. My stomach was as numb as my heart. I didn’t really care about the milk. I wasn’t hungry. I didn’t care about the best homemade beignets in the world sitting on the plate next to the milk. The smell alone should have tempted me. Dora was the best cook I’d ever met. But to me it meant nothing—without Joy and Mom. I didn’t mean anything without them. My whole world had lost all meaning.

“You going to eat those?” Jack’s voice pierced through the haze. “If not, I think I could fit a couple more in my stomach.” I heard the plopping sounds of Jack patting his tummy.

It took nearly everything I had to look up at him. He was standing beside me, looking down. Despite his light tone, his eyes were knitted in concern.

“Go ahead,” I said, looking back at the milk. “I don’t deserve them anyway.”

Jack had already told me a thousand times since the night of the 351st that my Mother’s death was not my fault. But all I could think was that maybe some beings from a dimension I couldn’t see had taken her to punish me. I was certain I was being punished for stealing the car. I was being punished for running around the Peach school, for harassing Harold. Manny and Zoe didn’t deserve to be punished. They didn’t feel quite like I did. But I had known better. I had known better than to lie and betray my Mother and I’d done it anyway—for my own selfish purposes. My own pride had led me to do things I knew weren’t right.

That night was still replaying, over and over in my head. Over and over, it played. Over and over, it destroyed me.

“I would have gladly taken all three of you to the school.” Jack said when my sobbing finally subsided and my blubbered explanation was complete. Zoe and Manny had turned off the car and joined me. They watched, hands stuffed in their pockets, and faces filled with shame. It took no prodding. We all admitted everything.

“Why didn’t you ask?” Jack said again. “I would have gladly given you all a personal tour. I’ve met Harold. Briefly, but I could have worked it all out.”

“What?!” I mumbled, dumb with shock. “Wha—what?” It spilled out again.

New tears streaked down my cheeks. Jack pushed my head back against his chest. “Fern, I’ve always been here to help you learn what you want to know. I don’t keep secrets from you. The school doesn’t keep secrets. Different preachers have personal beliefs and biases, but we all fundamentally want to help people. If some—okay many—sometimes exploit their congregations for money, most do it because it’s tradition. Not because they don’t want to share truth. They have to live and eat too, you know. Not everyone is as lucky as I am.” He and Dora shared a look I couldn’t see in the darkness.

I pulled away from Jack’s chest, and collapsed onto the ground. I could hardly see anything, but my mind didn’t even register the hard concrete or cold, damp grass. “You…you would have… I betrayed my Mother’s trust for nothing…and…and now she’s gone. You…you…would have… It was all for nothing?”

“Here, Mr. Jack,” Zoe said. She handed him the bag full of the things we’d brought back from the school: the oil, the lamps, the square stones, the angel statues, and the book. “We took these from the school.”

“The school shifted and sort of gave us those things,” Manny added.

 I’d never heard remorse in Manny’s voice before; a sort of humility. Vague, I realized I’d seen a lot of new sides of him in the last 16 hours. But my mind had no room to wonder what was going on with him. It was bursting with pain. Despair and misery and pain bound me like a fishing net. I was caught, and every way I turned I couldn’t escape.

Jack didn’t open the bag. Instead, he put it back in Zoe’s hands. “If the school gave it to you, then you should keep it. It wasn’t meant for me. That building is unpredictable, at bets. If it brought itself together to give you something, then there’s something it wants you to know.”

Zoe sniffed and I didn’t have to look to see the crooked smile that accompanied her next words. “You really aren’t a Peach, Mr. Jack. I… Well, thank you.”

“You two please return the car.” Jack said. It was not a question. But the command still contained a fatherly warmth that made it almost impossible to disobey. “Then, head home and get some sleep. Nothing can be solved tonight. We’ll be taking Fern to our home. If you’d like to visit her tomorrow, that’s where she’ll be.”

I could tell Jack had a ready answer to my statement: I don’t deserve them anyway. Strangely however, he didn’t say anything. He simply sat down next to me at the table and started eating my beignets. He ate them slowly, savoring each bite. I saw him in my peripheral vision, but made no move to stop him. While he chewed, I managed to sip some more milk.

Dora came in and kissed us both on the head before she headed off to work at the bakery. She said nothing. But I knew that she had offered my Mother a job at the bakery. Unwelcome tears began to stream down my cheeks without permission.

“Just like yesterday, I called the school. They said they have work for you to do at home. I’ll go pick it up here in a little bit.” Jack said after gulping down the last beignet.

I nodded. Jack stood up from the table and patted me on the shoulder. Then, I took a few more sips of milk. I heard the front door open and close and Jack’s steps thump on the porch. Then he was gone.

I focused on my milk. That was my whole goal for the day—to finish it. But now that Jack had left, I pushed it away. Clothes. Yes, clothes might be a good idea. I hadn’t gotten dressed for three days.

Surprisingly, I found that Jack and Dora had brought over most of my things from the house. They’d been making trips there, every day, to get it cleaned up and sell it as part of my Mother’s estate. The house wasn’t really worth much. But Mother and Dad had owned it. Jack said whatever money was made would go to me. But I had no idea what I’d use it for. I didn’t even know what to do with myself past getting dressed.

***

I came to myself, shocked, to find myself dressed and walking in the Learen Forest. I stopped and looked around. It was sunny outside. Trees swayed in a light breeze. Hues of dark green, bright yellow-green, tans, browns, and rich golden-yellow fluttered around me, as leaves danced to the tune of the wind. I felt my hair blow. I touched it. It was soft. Wow, I brushed it? I began walking again and realized I was very near the secret little grove Jack had given me to meditate in. My body began moving in that direction without really consulting me. I thought about fighting the urge to go there. But my mind was fuzzy, sitting behind a haze of sorrow. Why not go there? It’s not like it matters where I go. Mom’s gone. Joy’s gone. I’m all alone.

I walked into the grove and was startled by that same golden light that Jack had shown me, incidentally revealing his tattoos. The tiny ray pointed down through the trees onto the haphazard altar of stones. The fear of it woke me up. And then the fear left. I walked right up to the light and stuck my arm in it. The light revealed the fine hairs on my arms. I could even see the tiny, tiny hairs on the backs of my fingers. The light made my skin look healthier and warmer.

“Even though I’m the worst person ever, you still shine on me.” I said to the ray of light. “Why?”

The light didn’t change. It didn’t answer. I wanted it to answer. I wanted all the answers right then and there. Yet, I was too numb to get upset that no answer came back from the light. It didn’t surprise me that nothing happened. When had anything ever happened the way I’d wanted it to?

“Then why am I here?” I said to myself.

I sat down on the stones and put my head in my hands. I let the light shining down in the little grove pour onto my head. At first it simply felt warm. Then, my head began to absorb the heat and I began to get hot. I touched my head. I suddenly remembered what Jack said when he gave me the grove to meditate in. He’d told me not to be afraid of the light. …light brings clarity, he’d said. It revealed things we sometimes didn’t notice or forgot to see. It revealed things.

I stood back up and put my hand under the light. It took longer than the top of my head, but my hand began to warm up. “You reveal things…but you also make us feel things.” I said to the light. “Can you help me feel again?” Tears came, yet again. It was getting really hot in that little grove and it was softening my numb, angry heart, allowing in more horror and exhaustion. I pulled my hand back and sat down, suddenly wilting under the heat. I cried. Then, I cried more.

Suddenly, the grove grew dim and a hint of coolness set in. The little ray of light had disappeared because the sun’s rays had changed their angle. My sweat was replaced with a brief chill. I shivered, adjusting.

“Mom,” I said to the empty grove. “I’m so sorry. Please forgive me. Please don’t forget me, wherever you are. I…hope you’re with Joy now. I hope…maybe someday I’ll be there with you both.”

***

The door to Jack and Dora’s house slammed behind me. Instinctively, I returned to the kitchen table. My glass of milk had been cleared and replaced by a stack of school books, paper, and a pencil and pen. I listened intently and heard Jack pacing in the chantry across the hall. His voice filtered through, but I couldn’t grasp any words. I could only hear the up and down of the tone of his voice. It sounded as if he was practicing a sermon.

I turned away from my books. I simply didn’t have the energy, and tiptoed from the kitchen, across the hall, and leaned up against the chantry door. Words became clearer as I leaned my ear up against the seam of the door.

“The soul is eternal. It is taken by the rays, to its eternal existence—the place it belongs. Notice that I said, ‘the place it belongs’. It’s not taken where we think it should go. It’s taken where it belongs.

“Here, in this world, our soul feels incomplete because it doesn’t quite know where it belongs. Through our choices, we come to know ourselves. We figure out where we want to belong. Where do you want to belong? What kind of people do you want to be around? Are you making choices because of what you fear? Or because you want to impress others and get their approval? Whose love and respect do you desire most?”

There was a pause. Then, I heard nothing for what seemed like a long stretch of seconds. Then, Jack’s pacing feet started up again, followed by his voice. He had backtracked a few sentences and then changed his sermon.

“Through our choices, we come to know ourselves. We figure out where we want to belong. Then, we find the personal mettle and strength to become the kind of person that can belong there.

“I think far too often we let fear influence our choices and who we become. Fear is powerful, but it can’t last. Fear will eventually exhaust us, and bring us despair. At some point, fear will lose its potency because we will get tired of being afraid. At some point, what we love and who we love must be our motivation for choice. At some point we must love more than we fear.”

I leaned away from the door and walked back to the kitchen table. My mind was caught up, tightly, in Jack’s words. Fear or love? Which has been guiding me?

I had stolen a car instead of asking for Jack’s help because I was afraid of his disapproval. Fear. I had devised a grand plan to conquer the rays because I was afraid of them. Fear. I had lied to and betrayed my Mother because I had been afraid to tell her what I was up to. Fear. I’d never told my Mother anything about my plan or what Zoe and Manny and I were up to because I was afraid she’d stop me. Fear.

“But all my grand scheming, because of my fear, didn’t help me save Joy or my own Mother from the rays.” I said aloud. “You’ve been living in fear, Fern,” I added, chiding myself. I slammed my hand down on the table. “Since you understood what happened to your Dad, you’ve been letting yourself be guided by fear. It’s time to try something different, Fern. Don’t you think? What do you love, Fern? Who do you love? Even more importantly, what will you do because of what you love, Fern? What will you do?”

What will I do? A chill rippled down my spine. It was a breath of comfort, but not much. But it softened the misery and suffering just enough—just enough for me to feel love. I love you Joy. I love you Mom. I love you Jack. I love you Dora. And I love you Manny and Zoe. That was the end of my list.

In that moment I knew I had to continue the plan—the plan to chase the rays. My heart was beat up; it was a torn mess. But I knew what I loved. I knew who I loved. And now I would chase the rays with the right motivation. I wasn’t afraid anymore.

The chantry door opened and closed. “Fern, you’re back,” Jack’s kind voice stated. 

I turned to face him. “Jack, you said the other night that you would always help me. I…I should have been honest with you. But I was afraid you would try to stop me. I was afraid Mom would try to stop me. I was afraid…I have always been afraid of the rays. They’ve taken so much from me. But I’m tired of being afraid. So now, I’m asking for your help.”

Jack came over and sat down at the table. He motioned for me to settle myself down as well. “How can I help, Fern?”

I swallowed, but determined fear could not win ever again. “I want you to help me chase the rays.”

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Angela Tempest
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Angela Tempest

Fiction Author

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!

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A search for personal identity in a world that’s afraid of the truth.