Death Becomes Real

Five days. I had five days until I sent my best friends to another dimension, or alternate reality, or an…afterlife. Five days until I finally got all the answers I’d been wanting for years. Five days was too long, as well as altogether far too short.

I sat up in bed on the 360th day of Helix and took deep breaths. My clock read 7:15 a.m. I was already running late. Excitement and anticipation mixed with panicked thoughts. I swung my feet over the side of my bed and hastened to the bathroom. After brushing my teeth, and combing my hair, I quickly selected an outfit from my dresser. After throwing it on, I realized it was the same outfit I had worn to the Peach school on the day my mother was taken. I shivered, then changed my shirt to something noticeable: a nice, long-sleeved reddish-purple t-shirt with a flew thin pink stripes. I wasn’t trying to blend in today.

A knock sounded at my door. “Fern, dear,” Dora said with her rich voice. “Breakfast is waiting, and Jack too for that matter.”

“Coming.” I said.

I grabbed my backpack, wincing when I realized I’d forgotten to complete my math homework. Math just didn’t seem to matter that much these days. School didn’t seem to matter. It seemed that all that had ever mattered in my life was my family, and the rays. Those two things had swallowed up everything else. Everything else was like a grain of salt in an entire recipe for cookies.

I found Jack in the kitchen, eyeing two fresh, sugared donuts on my plate. His plate was already empty. A big glass of chocolate milk held the 12 O’clock position at the top of my plate. A nicely folded paper towel sat to the left for me to wipe my sticky fingers when I was done. Dora was all about finger food.

“Don’t you dare,” I said, putting my hand over my donuts so he couldn’t see them.

Jack smiled. “If you come late for breakfast, you can’t expect me to resist Dora’s donuts. One more minute and I was going to take care of them for you.”

I tossed my backpack on the floor behind my chair and sat down. I felt Jack watching me as I began wolfing down my donuts. I got all the way through the first one before he spoke.

“I visited Manny at his home yesterday evening. He’s seems rather positive considering his circumstances.”

“Visiting the school really impacted Manny,” I said, taking my first bite of the next donut. I chewed happily.

“So, it’s not because you plan on liberating him before his trial?” Jack asked. His right brow was arched, expectantly.

I choked on my donut and guzzled chocolate milk to recover. “He told you!?”

Jack sighed. “Fern, he stole the car. Part of doing the right thing is to accept the consequences. He wronged…let me restate…all of you wronged the bank manager. Manny took the fall for that. Granted, he did the actual stealing, but running from the consequences…”

“That’s just it, Jack. Zoe and I are to blame too. You know that.”

Jack nodded. “And I would have had you all confess to the cops. Manny still would be where he’s at. But you’d be worse off, too. I would have expected you to accept whatever punishment had followed. But Manny demanded I let him take the fall for all of it.”

I frowned. “He’s been especially self-sacrificing of late. Even more so since we visited the school. I didn’t expect him to do that, Jack. I feel like I owe him. That’s why I…”

Jack held up his hand and interrupted me. “It was a fine line to walk, on my part as a Teacher, letting him do that. I decided to let Manny choose to take the accountability for all of you. Not for your sakes, but because it shows a better side of him than I expected, considering his reputation around town. To suffer on behalf of others—willingly—is a powerful thing. I allowed it because it shows he’s capable of becoming more than he is. But I didn’t do it so you guys could spring him.”

“But if he’s changing, doesn’t him going to jail counteract his progress?” I argued.

Jack shook his head. “It might seem that way. But consequences are important, Fern. They…provide an impetus for obedience. If we could do whatever unkind or selfish thing we wanted with no negative consequences, then why would we ever try to do what is right? There wouldn’t even be a very strong argument for things that are right, now would there? Right choices are harder initially. But they reward us positively in the long-run. Yet, they take self-discipline and effort. You, Fern, should understand that. On the other hand, poor choices give an immediate temporary reward, but always end in uncomfortable long-term consequences. If you spring Manny from his consequences, you are not only going against what you believe. You are helping Manny down a path to a lesser utopia. If he never suffers the consequences, how will he ever know if he might desire something better? Consequences are far more about learning than punishment. To help him avoid those consequences… Well, you are slowing or reversing the progression he’s made. Is that what you want?”

“No.” I set down my milk and stared at the last three-fourths of my second donut. I had no argument. Jack was dead right. So why didn’t I want him to be? Why did I still want to do things my own way; to give Manny his chance at the silver ray?

When I didn’t offer more of an answer. Jack continued. “I got a call from the Preacher school today.”

I looked up. “What? Are we in trouble?”

Jack shook his head. “No. It was Harold. He looked me up. Said you’d mentioned my name.” Jack’s eyes flickered to the kitchen clock. “It’s time for you to get going. What are your plans after school today?”

I glanced at the clock. It was 7:35 a.m. I had fifteen minutes to walk to school. And I would still probably be tardy to my first class. I stood, wiping sugar from my chin and took a last gulp of my milk. “Zoe and I were going to meet up. We’re trying to work on stuff…figure out how these artifacts work.”

“Well, how about I drive the two of you over to Saxton. Harold has some things he wants to tell you. He said it was urgent.” Jack said.

I hitched my backpack onto my shoulders. “Ok.”

Jack nodded. “See you after school.”

***

Arriving at 413 Bilton Ave, in Saxton with permission felt a whole lot different. Where Manny, Zoe, and I had been anxious and uncertain in driving a stolen vehicle and entering what we’d thought was a forbidden edifice; Jack drove his car confidently. He pulled up to the school with as much emotion as if it was a local gas station. Zoe and I hopped out. We followed him up the steps, through the palatial columns, and toward the doors.

On this visit, however, there were no doormen. And before Jack could put his hand up to open one of the massive wooden doors, it swung open to meet us. Harold came stumbling out as though he’d been running from a monster. He was breathing hard and had a wild look in his eyes. He shooed us back down to the steps as if we were a pack of wandering dogs. “Have a seat, have a seat,” he panted, when we were on the few steps. He glanced back up at the building, uncertainly. We all sat down. Then, Harold gathered his silvery gray silk robe up around him and joined us.

“What is it, Harold? You sounded quite urgent on the phone.” Jack spoke.

Harold took a deep breath, nodding at Zoe and I. Then he looked at Jack and back to us. “Where’s Manny?”

“He couldn’t make it,” I said, quickly.

Harold gave me a questioning look. Then, after pursing his lips, he spoke. “There’s something very wrong with the school…well, with more than that, but we’ll start with the school.”

“Wrong?” Jack asked.

Harold nodded at Jack, but then looked back at us. “It shifts you know. It always has. But it’s getting worse. I had noticed it, over the years. Bit by bit it got a little less predictable…a little less safe. But I didn’t really think anything of it. Stuff in the school shifts often these days, and I simply take it as is. Things disappear. Things also appear…as you know.” He said the last part looking right at Zoe and I.
“You mean like the artifacts these kids brought back with them.” Jack said, drawing Harold’s gaze back to him.

Harold breathed deeply, still catching his breath. “Yes. But I’m sure they didn’t tell you, Jack. The school has never produced artifacts like theirs. Everything is foreign, yes, but it’s just a vase here, or a statue here. Nothing ever appears together, in groups, certainly not coordinated or purposeful. The books and scrolls are in languages none of us can read. The ones you read while studying here were the very few we had that we could read. But when this young lady here,” he pointed to me, “stumbled into that hallway that had never appeared before on the student side of the school, and landed us all in that room… Well, those artifacts appeared pretty much tailored to what these kids were after. I’d never seen anything like it, and I’ve been managing the building for years!”

“You didn’t know they were after the rays?” Jack asked, calmly. He seemed very reserved with Harold, if interested.

“No. They didn’t tell me until afterward.” Harold replied. “And since they left, the shifting has gotten worse. Every day it’s exponentially worse. It used to only be one side of the school. But now even the side the students are on is shifting madly. Instead of new artifacts appearing, they are all disappearing. Whole rooms are morphing and changing before my very eyes. We lost twenty students for over three days. When they reappeared, they didn’t remember anything.” He looked right at Zoe and I again. “They’d been in some kind of sleep the whole time. Vases and paintings that have been fairly static and hanging for years are now gone. Everything is going away as if they are no longer connected to…well, to this place!”

“With the danger, are the Deans still holding classes?” Jack asked. His hands were resting together on top of one of his knees.

Harold fidgeted, in contrast to Jack, and shook his head. “All classes have been moved off site. For the first time in history…it’s…” The steps vibrated beneath us, startling Harold to silence. The vibration was very slight, but I recognized it. I looked up at Harold. His eyes were wide. “…it’s like the school is being disconnected from our world. Like it’s winking out of existence.”

The steps stopped vibrating. I looked to Jack. His brows were furrowed in thought. He fixed Harold with a measuring gaze. “There’s more, isn’t there.”

Harold exhaled roughly, seemingly surprised and yet grateful that Jack could read his thoughts. He swallowed. “At the school we track the rays. City officials report when people are taken. We have countless years of records.” He looked at Jack. “You’re a preacher, correct?” Jack nodded. “You know we track what rays come when and for whom.”

I jumped in shock. “You guys keep records of the rays?”

Jack and Harold nodded, but it was Jack who spoke. “That’s how I knew about Joy. As Preachers, we check the records frequently. We’re supposed to help people, Fern. But your mom…I knew without checking the records. I knew when Dora came home worried that she hadn’t shown up for work. But I checked with the city officials immediately to confirm it.”

I looked back to Harold. “Can anyone see the records?”

Harold nodded, if a bit reluctantly. “We don’t make a big deal of it. In the past people have gotten weird about the ray records: trying to predict them and such. But, technically yes, you could see them if you had a good reason. But that’s not the point, Fern.” Harold’s voice was almost scolding, now, and hyper in its panic. “The rays don’t follow patterns, per say. But they did used to be less glitchy. But they’ve gotten extremely odd the last few years. And most importantly, since you kids left with your artifacts last week, the rays haven’t come at all!”

“Not at all?” Jack asked.

Harold clenched his jaw. “None. The Deans are all worried about the New Helix Rays. What if they don’t come? What if the rays never come again?”

It took a moment for me to process what Harold was saying. His mention of records had gotten me thinking about how to track the rays. But when I heard that they hadn’t come since we’d left the school, my mind immediately went to my mother.

I looked right at Jack, tears filling my eyes without warning or permission. “Mom was taken before I left the school, Jack. If I’d only left sooner…”

Jack shot up from his place on the steps and came and sat next to me. He put a hand on my shoulder. “Fern…you can’t blame yourself. Please. I’ve told you. The rays don’t come because of what you do.” I tried to stop crying, but I couldn’t. Jack turned back to Harold. “No rays, you say? None? Anywhere?”

Harold looked very sad. “None, Jack. You can check your records when you get back. But I think something is very wrong. That’s why I called. These kids are up to something, and I’m hoping it’s not their fault.” The steps vibrated and shifted beneath us suddenly. Harold Jumped up. “Off the steps. Quickly.” He commanded.

Jack grabbed my arm. Zoe grabbed the other, and we all ran down the marble steps and into the grass. Harold ran with us. When we reached the street, we looked up at the building. The entire edifice blinked. For a second nothing was there. Then, it was back. The steps, however, had disappeared altogether. Then, for a moment the roof seemed to be hanging in the air with nothing underneath it. Then, again, the building was back. But it was wiggling as if it was a tv image and the signal wasn’t being read correctly.

“This,” Harold said, firmly, “is what I’m talking about.”

“I don’t think we can pin this on the kids.” Jack said, matter-of-factly. “But it is interesting how things have escalated since their visit.”

“The thought has occurred to me that perhaps the effort to get those artifacts to the kids ripped something in the interdimensional fabric.” Harold suggested.

“Or maybe it was already ripping,” Jack said. Then, he fell silent.

We all grew quiet and watched the building. After another minute or two, it seemed to solidify back into place. We all began to breath normally again, but Zoe tugged on my sleeve and whispered in my ear. “How will we get to the utopias if there are no rays? You heard him. They don’t think the New Helix rays will come.”

“If there are no rays, does that mean there will be no death?” I asked Harold, sniffling back a few remaining tears.

Harold sputtered. “No, I’m afraid death will still come, Fern. But instead of a peaceful disappearance, we’ll be left with lifeless bodies. We’ll have to start burying them or something. I don’t know. I’ve…I’ve never had to think about it. No one has. The rays have always meant an ending. They have always meant death. But death was a transition. The rays took them. What will it be now?”

“And what does that mean for their souls?” Jack said, but it sounded as if he was talking to himself. “Does that mean their souls are stuck here as well?” He turned to look at me. I saw something in his eyes I had never seen before: fear.

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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.