A Positive Spin
“Chase the rays?” Jack asked, though rather more calmly than I expected. He fixed me with an interested gaze that left me feeling like perhaps I hadn’t really thought my idea through.
I swallowed. This was it. “Ever since I was old enough to understand the rays… No, that’s not quite right.” I took a deep breath and closed my eyes. I saw my younger self, sitting on the couch. I saw my mother, tears in her eyes, trying to explain that my Dad was gone. “When my mom told me—as a little girl—that my dad was just…gone, it didn’t make sense. I mean, I guess at that point in my life I’d heard about the rays, but they didn’t mean anything to me. They were just this thing that happened sometimes. Death…I didn’t understand death. I don’t think I cared. But then, when my dad didn’t come back… I mean, I knew he wasn’t coming back, but my heart felt like he should, you know. I was just too little to grasp it. So, when he didn’t come back, it hurt. Suddenly, I had to start caring about the death rays. They weren’t just this ambiguous thing anymore. They had hurt me. They had stolen from me.
“Then, as I got older, I learned about the different rays from the chantries. My mom used to go once in a while…back then. I think she wanted answers. Then we found out dad went to number two, the gold—like he was second rate or something. We both got angry. She got over it. I didn’t. I’ve never gotten over it. We quit going to the chantries. Our money ran out, and I got even angrier. We couldn’t afford to get comfort. Do you know how wrong that is?”
I looked up at Jack, again. His interest had changed to sympathy. I sighed.
“I do, Fern. You know why I set up my chantry the way I have. I understand.” He said.
I nodded. “I’ve never been able to let go of my anger, Jack. Never. My mom did. But she also stopped going to the chantries too. We couldn’t afford it, really, of course. But also, we just got tired of the same old stuff. It just didn’t answer our questions. And most importantly, it didn’t bring us comfort. I was so desperate for comfort…for something…anything.
“Then I met Manny and Zoe. They’d been hurt too. Maybe in different ways, but the rays were a shared frustration and mystery. We became friends because we understood each other. We fed each other’s anger. We started making plans—a plan actually. We decided we would try to find out a way to chase the rays, to willingly go to the utopias so we could get answers from the source. It was far-fetched. We knew that. But it gave us something to lean into. That’s why we started harassing the chantries, found work so we could afford to go. We were determined to figure out what the Peaches weren’t telling us. We figured they knew.”
Jack swallowed. “But now you’ve been to the school, you know they don’t know. Don’t you?”
“Terrible trade, wasn’t it?” I mumbled. “To lose my mother in exchange for a nearly useless trip.”
Jack sighed, and fixed my gaze. “You don’t get to decide when the rays come, Fern. Some other power does that. Whether you’d been at school—where you should have been—or on your way to the Preacher school, that ray would have come. It was not a punishment for your actions.”
I sniffed and banged my fist on the table. “But how do you know that?! How do you know whoever it is that controls the rays didn’t take my mother as a punishment for me stealing a car and lying and…? I wish I’d never… I don’t deserve her or Joy!” I broke down into tears before I could finish.
“Fern, your dad was not taken because of something you did. Neither was Joy or your mom. It might be hard to do, but think of who you’ve become because of them being taken.” Jack said.
“What?!” I exclaimed amidst sobs. “Are you saying that they were taken to make me…better?” I was astonished. What was Jack saying?
Jack put his hands up. “Fern, I don’t have all the answers. But I have learned that for me, at least, getting angry about the negative things in life has never served me. All we really can do is learn about ourselves from everything in our lives. Think about it. What have you learned? How have you changed because of the rays?”
I bit my bottom lip, but incredulity had also stifled some of my tears. Then, I coughed and couldn’t stop coughing. Jack patted my arm, and jumped up to grab me some water. It was in front of me in a flash. I drank half the cup. Jack was fixing me with his concerned, yet interested, gaze again.
“I don’t know,” I said, barely above a whisper. Yet, I knew very well how I’d changed. But I didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t want to admit that anything good in my life had come from the rays. Because if I said it aloud it would mean I couldn’t keep being upset. I’d have to heal. I’d have to keep trying to live on, and I didn’t want to.
Jack arched a brow, but then let it drop. “Okay. It’s okay. But at least think about it, will you?”
I looked away and barely nodded.
“Now, about helping you chase the rays…” Jack said. “I don’t know exactly how to do that—as you know—or if it’s even possible. And even if I could, if you do manage to catch one and…go there…what if that’s it? What if you never come back? That’s almost like…suicide, Fern. I’m not sure… Even with all my own curiosity, I’m not willing to risk your life.”
“My soul is eternal…right?” I said. He nodded. I shrugged. “I heard you practicing your sermon.”
Jack pursed his lips. “Then you heard some of the rest, too.”
“Yes, that I shouldn’t let fear drive my choices. It’s not fear driving this choice. I mean, it was. But not anymore. I know who I love: my family and friends. I know what I love: truth. I’m not chasing the rays out of anger anymore, Jack. I need to get the truth so I can decide where I want to belong.”
Jacked looked down, thinking. He sighed a couple of times, and it seemed the silence as he thought dragged on for a long time. I watched him, expecting him to suddenly respond. But he didn’t. At least not with a firm answer. “Fern…I’m going to have to think about this. I can’t give you an answer today.”
Despair washed over me, but I pushed it back. It was time to bring out my evidence. “The school, while we were there, it shifted…and we found this room, and all of this stuff. It’s stuff that makes it seem like we are supposed to chase the rays. There’s a book, these statues, and stones and…”
“Fern,” Jack interrupted me, something he’d never done before. “You don’t know who put those things there. You don’t know who was trying to reach you there. It could be a test of your character. It could be a trap to get you to take your own life. Just because it came from the school doesn’t mean you can trust it. I know I sound preachy right now. I’m sorry. It’s because I’m uncertain, I care about you, and I’m afraid. That school is as much of a mystery as the utopias. I want it to be real, that someone very good is helping you. But what kind of friend would I be if I didn’t consider the other possibilities?”
“You’re saying I’m important enough that someone from some other reality is trying to get me to mess up my life?” I asked.
Jack put his hand on my shoulder. “There isn’t an unimportant person in this whole world. Only we humans define importance by notice, by others thinking we are important, or things like that. That you are important goes without saying. That you are a pivotal figure with a pivotal mission seems very likely, however. You’re only a teenager and yet everyone around here knows about you. I’d heard about you long before I met you. I was warned about you by other preachers, if you must know. But now that we’ve become friends…I’m certain what you do with this determined curiosity, this need for truth, will impact not only your own life, but the lives of many. But the question is, what impact will you have?
“What if you do figure out how to chase the rays? Will others follow who are not ready to choose? Will they take their lives too, out of immature curiosity? What if you stay and find the truth you seek differently? What if what you choose right now is a pivotal moment for more than you and your friends?” Jack said.
I’d never heard his voice so forceful, so frantic. For a moment, it felt like a daddy-daughter moment. He had always tried so hard to be my friend, to never push me. But I could see that he really did care about me. He was trying hard to not parent me, but was struggling. I was so glad he was trying. He and Dora were all I had left. I put my hand on his. “That’s why I need your help, Jack. I need to do this right. But…I’ve got to do this.”
Jack offered me a weak smile. “I’ll think about it. That’s all I can promise you, for now.”
I nodded. “Thank you.”
“I’d feel a whole lot better about your sanity, Fern, if you’d eat.” He added as he stood up from the table.
A small, unexpected laugh escaped my mouth. “If I eat, will you help?”
He arched a brow again. “Just eat, please.”
“Okay,” I agreed.
“I’m not sure any of this makes sense,” Zoe said, chewing a particularly large wad of gum, smacking heavily, as she flipped back and forth between the few pages of the book. Her black-curly hair danced as she turned her head back and forth between the objects sitting nicely on top of a picnic blanket and the neat, yet very elementary drawings. “They must not know our language. They could have written a few instructions instead of ‘this + this + this’.”
I shrugged. “Maybe pictures are more effective than language. Or maybe…well, Jack suggested the information might not be sincere. He thinks it’s possible that it’s a trick.”
“Ya, but why go through all the trouble to trick us?” she asked, after rolling her eyes. “Whoever it is could have tricked any number of people over the years. Right? Why wait till now? And why us? We’re just a bunch of punk kids. Anyway, Harold was eager to happen upon such a thing since he dropped out years ago. Yet…no one else has ever been given this stuff…that we know of, anyway.”
“Jack seems to think there’s something…he called it ‘pivotal’ about this whole thing. He said that what I choose to do would impact a lot of people for good…or bad…so I needed to be cautious.” I said.
Zoe sniffed. Her freckled olive skin and turquoise eyes looked even darker in the shade of the Learen’s trees. We were close to Jack and Dora’s house, but not too close. “Sounds like something Jack would say. I went to his sermon the other day, ya know, when you were still…uh…under the weather… Kinda felt like I had to after what we did and all his forbearance and help. It…wasn’t so bad, his sermon. He’s very believable.”
“So, you think he’s right?” I fixed my widening eyes on Zoe.
She shrugged. “Hey, you’ve been saying it all along, Fern. He’s the real deal. He clearly really cares about you. Even if he’s wrong, he’s the one person whose opinion I would be willing to give credence. But…I do still think there’s something to it all. I mean…I was about to give up on this whole thing until you came up with this school tour. Even then I wasn’t so sure, which I made very clear on the car ride there. When we were lost in the school, I told myself that all I cared about was getting out and getting home. But the longer we were there… Did you see how funny Manny got?”
“Ya,” I laughed half-heartedly. “I’ve never seen Manny so philosophical and soft. It was not as odd as I would have thought.”
“And that’s what I’m saying, Fern. Did you ever think you’d see Manny sacrifice for anyone? He agreed to take silver…for me. He’s the one—out of all of us—that had a religious experience. I simply can’t forget that, no matter how much I try. There’s something to all of this.”
I sighed, thinking. “Too bad he couldn’t make it today.”
“One of his street friends posted bail, but he’s still confined to his house. Cops won’t let him out until the trial. He’s got no defense though, especially since he confessed to stealing the car. He’ll be put in prison for a bit… That is, if they don’t figure out all the other things he’s stolen and sold. Then he’ll get some real time.” Zoe said, swallowing her gum unexpectedly. She grimaced.
“Is he still planning to run for it?” I asked.
Zoe nodded clenched her jaw. “Ya. He’s got a few street friends who are trying to help him out. I’m going to miss him. But if that’s what he’s got to do to avoid the consequences, then he’s got to run. Right?”
“Not if we can figure this out.” I said, firming my voice. “Zoe, we’ve got to figure out how to do this. We’ve got to help him. He took the fall for all of us. I don’t want him living on the run the rest of his life.”
“Well, then you take a turn,” she said, tossing me the book. It landed on top of my plate of cheese and crackers. I glared and her and hastily brushed off the delicate leather. “Seems simple enough, right? Statue, stone, and oil lamp. But, do you light the oil lamp first and hold it? Do you set it to the side of the stone? Do you step onto the stone or into the ray? Do you hold the statue or does someone else hold it for you? And most importantly, how do you find the ray? Or when you put all the stuff together, does the ray come to you?”
I shook my head. “I wish I knew.”
Zoe picked up her own plate of Dora’s homemade mozzarella cheese and basil and olive oil crackers and began munching, now that her gum was gone. I opened the book that was more of a stack of loose papers held between folded leather. Over and over again my eyes were drawn to the instructions for the white ray. But staring at it didn’t answer any of Zoe’s questions.
“And what about the problem of moving once the ray comes?” Zoe continued, her mouth still half full and chewing. “There’s no use trying to step into a ray if we’re frozen to the spot when it comes.”
I stared at the picture again. “Maybe that’s what the oil lamp is for. In this picture it looks like it’s giving off heat. Maybe…the oil we got from the school is different than regular cooking oil. Maybe…it’s special, magical or something.”
“Or maybe it’s the lamps? Or the combination of all the artifacts that will make the difference.” Zoe pointed out. “That’s the problem. We don’t know, Fern.”
“Then, we’re going to have to try,” I said, matter-of-factly. “Let’s try to get you your gold ray. If it works, then I’ll help Manny get the silver.”
“Then, who’s going to help you?” Zoe asked. “Jack?”
I took a deep breath. “Maybe, but I’ve a feeling he’s going to say no. But I can’t worry about that yet. We’ve got to try and answer some of these questions first. We’ve got to succeed at least once.”
“Look at you getting all positive and hopeful.” Zoe smiled. “You almost look like the old Fern!”
“Jack told me to find the positive spin on what I feel are negative experiences. I’ve…been trying to take his advice.”
Zoe smiled, one of her extremely rare, non-cynical ones. “If it weren’t for the rays, we might never have become friends, you know.”
I laughed. “You mean you would have been less annoyed over the past several years.”
“Ya, but you’re the best annoying person I’ve ever known.” She replied. Then we both laughed even harder. “No, but seriously, Fern. Our biggest problem is how to find the rays. This book hasn’t solved that for us, at all.”
Suddenly, it hit me. “What’s today,” I asked.
“What?” Zoe said.
“What’s today’s date? What day of Helix is it?” an edge of excitement entered my voice. Zoe sensed it.
“It’s the 356th.” She said, eyes wide, waiting.
“That’s it!” I held up my hands and exclaimed. “Let’s try it on the 1st! The day of the New Helix Rays!”
Zoe’s eyes flew open wide. “That’s brilliant, Fern.”
“The rays are guaranteed on that day, aren’t they?” I said. “They shine all day and don’t take anyone. The one day we’re all safe and can celebrate the beginning of the next year’s cycle of life. On that day, the rays seem to be everywhere and nowhere, right? Well, maybe with all of this stuff we can draw them to us?”
“Ya! You can send me in the morning. And if it works, you can sneak Manny out of his house and send him. Then, he’ll be free from his trial and all that’s coming.” Zoe said, words rushed with anticipation. “Wait, that only gives me ten days to…prepare.” Then, she grew very still. “Ten days till…something new…maybe even the end.” She paused, then looked me square in the eyes. “Fern, it’s time for the positive spin.”
“Uh, positive spin. Right. Um… Maybe Jack’s right,” I said, coming up with something on the fly. “But I really think we are meant to do this, Zoe. If it’s a little scary, though, I could go first. Then you could save Manny.”
Zoe shook her head, immediately. “No, no. No, I’d rather go first. If something goes wrong… I want you to live, Fern. You…deserve to live.”
“I never thought I’d ever see you get serious and sentimental,” I said. “And what’s all this about me deserving to live? What? Like you and Manny don’t? That’s not positive at all.”
Zoe’s face stayed serious. “That’s not what I meant. I mean, I really think Jack’s right. It’s not our decision that’s pivotal, Fern. It’s yours. This is your thing. It’s your plan. I’ve been mostly behind the idea all along. But it was you that made the plan ‘the plan’, you know? You’re the one who gave Manny and I both hope. We’ve grown up a bit now—since it all began—but you kept us going the last several years. ‘The plan’ gave Manny and I hope. Who knows where we’d be without you? Manny probably would be even worse off than he is. Seriously, I think Jack is on to it. I’m the…follower. You’re the leader. I’ll go first, Fern. Not for me, though I do want this. But for you. I want answers for you as much, if not more, than I want them for myself. I think now that it’s really a possibility I’m just a little anxious. The book doesn’t say anything about coming back. So…ten days…positive spin…ya know?”
I felt tears welling up in my eyes, and nodded my understanding. Surprising since I’d cried so many in the last several days. I couldn’t believe there were still any tears left. “It is scary. But I’m more scared of never getting the truth. Of never knowing why someone’s helping us. I’m more scared of never trying now that we have this stuff. I’m tired of being afraid of the rays. And because someone gave us this stuff, we know there is life on the other side. There’s something waiting for us there. I feel less afraid when I think of that.”
“Now, that’s a positive spin,” Zoe said. Her smile returned and she dug in her purse for another square of gum. “Jack would be proud.”
Jack would be proud. I knew the effect the rays had had on me, and suddenly I could accept it. When the rays took my dad, it made me care—for the first time in my young life—about the rays. If my dad hadn’t been taken, I never would have charted my life around seeking the truth. If it hadn’t been for the rays, I would never have become the same kind of friends with Manny and Zoe. We were all so different, yet we were close. We cared about each other. They had taken care of me as much as I’d tried to help them. And if Joy, my little half-sister hadn’t been taken, I might never have met Jack. Can I even imagine my life without Jack? No. I might never have eaten Dora’s amazing food. My mother might never have smiled so big on her way to Dora’s bakery to start work the day I sneaked away. The rays led me to Jack—the father I never had growing up, and likely a much better one than the one I’d lost.
I had already received glimpses of all the good the rays had done for me in my life. But now they all rolled through my mind and tucked themselves into one large, mental treasure chest. Sadly, Jack was right. The rays had made me, well, me. And they had given me as much, if not more, than they had taken. They had carried me to the Peach school. They had led me to answers. The sorrow they had brought had led me to truth.
“Yes, Zoe,” I grinned back. “I think he would.”
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!