Hot, Cold, and Lukewarm

“I think we have no way of knowing what it all means,” Jack said to Zoe and I, as we drove back from the Peach School. Harold had wanted to come, since he couldn’t stay at the school any longer. But Jack had forbidden him from joining us, calling us, or meddling. Harold had agreed that our plan was somewhat suicidal, but he’d still been anxious to observe, because he felt it was important—epic even. More importantly, Harold was convinced that re-establishing the connection between the dimensions was more important than a couple of teenage lives—though he’d offered to go himself if Jack talked us out of it. Jack had taken offense to that, angry that an adult would support such a thing without any factual support for the idea. No matter what we’d learned from Harold, Jack had taken a firm stance. Dimensional peril, or not, Harold was not to get involved.

Harold had gotten angry, panicked even. He was certain the other dimensions were trying to communicate with our world through me and my friends and the artifacts. He was adamant that we do something to save the rays. “Sure, they’ve been more a necessary evil at times. But now it’s clear that they are also a necessary goodness.” Harold had said. Jack had not disagreed, totally. But neither had he become converted to our plan.

“Harold thinks the dimensions are pulling apart, that death will no longer be neat and tidy…that we could be stranded here,” Zoe said in her usually sarcastic way, “And no offense, Jack. But this place sucks.”

“Not knowing if you can come back or not from the utopias still makes this suicide,” Jack replied firmly. “The unknown of all of it…it’s too great of a risk. Taking your lives won’t solve your own problems…and certainly not the world’s problems… Problems don’t go away with death; we merely carry those problems with us to another existence. Problems have to be faced—here if possible. Harold…well, he’s speculating. The school’s oddities are certainly disturbing. And I’m certain something needs to be fixed. But that is for the school administrators to do. Not you kids. But even more importantly, we’ve gotten Harold’s viewpoint only. We haven’t identified the full problem. We’ve only been told what Harold thinks the problem is. And until we get the facts, running into a death ray…even if you can find one—I’ve still got to verify Harold’s absurd claim that they’ve stopped altogether—doesn’t identify or solve the problem.”

It was silent for a moment. I cleared my throat. “So, you’re not worried about souls getting stranded here?” I asked.

Jack swallowed and cast a quick glance at me before returning his eyes to the road. “I am afraid, Fern. But I’m more afraid that you are trying to throw your life away on a whim because of all that you’ve been through… You too, Zoe. Throwing your anger into this plan is just a way to delay dealing with the emotions you’re both submerging. I know, I’ve been there myself…”

“…We need to give things a positive spin, right?” I interrupted. Jack nodded firmly. “I’ve been doing that, Jack. I’ve been thinking really hard about what the rays and losing my family members has done.”

Jack gave a twinge of a smile, “And, what have you discovered?”

“That the rays have pointed my life toward…well, the rays. I mean, consider. My dad dying was enough to spur my interest in seeking truth…for me to care enough to decide what utopia I went to. But that wasn’t enough, was it? After finding Manny and Zoe, and becoming better friends with them than I ever would have otherwise because of the rays, I formed a plan. That plan should have died away, right? We should have outgrown it. But we didn’t. We kept moving forward. Then, we found problems with the Peaches and the chantries. And you can hardly argue with that.”

Jack sniffed.

“And maybe I should have just moved on with my life even then. But when I couldn’t get what I needed from those Peaches, Jack, I had to keep looking. The negative pointed me back to the rays, once again. Perhaps, it would have all eventually become less important to me. But then Joy was taken. That made my search for truth more frantic. I wouldn’t have met you, or perhaps, gotten to know you in the same way. I wouldn’t have learned about the Peach school. I would have never gone there. I would have never met Harold or got those artifacts. Surely you can see, Jack…”

Jack didn’t answer. He didn’t look angry. But his face was a mask of uncertainty.

“Jack?” I said, more quietly.

Jack sucked his teeth and sighed. “If you want me to agree, I’m not sure I can do that, Fern. I can see the logic in everything you say. But I still feel conflicted. I want to trust your feelings on this. But my own don’t agree. If I weren’t your guardian, I would still counsel you against this. I’m afraid I have to stick to that angle. I’m sorry.”

“Will you stop me?” I asked, even more quietly. Zoe shifted in the back seat, waiting for the answer as anxiously as I was.

Jack took a deep breath, then focused his attention on making a few turns. Then, he shot me another quick glance before looking back at the road. “That, Fern, is the dilemma I’m still pondering.”

“What if we can’t identify the problem without trying to contact, or visit, the utopias?” I asked. “What if this is the only way to identify the problem? To get the facts?”

This time, Jack didn’t respond. He just glanced at me from his peripheral vision, and sighed. I sighed too. Zoe sighed from the back seat.

“I’m not sure this is a case of right and wrong, Jack,” I continued, a little more soberly. “I think the path I have to take is just that—my path. It’s different from yours.”

“But it will affect my path, nonetheless.” He said, quietly. “If you disappear forever, that will change my life forever.”

I nodded, sadly, “At least we can agree on that.”

 ***

 Four days. Four days until I crossed my fingers and hoped and waited for the New Helix Rays. Not just so that I could send my friend, Zoe, to the gold utopia; but to find out if Harold was right. If the rays really were blocked, if another dimension tied firmly to ours was somehow tearing away. Four days until I broke Jack’s heart—and likely my own, too.

“Fern, are you even listening?” Zoe’s irritated voice broke my internal contemplation.

“I already told you. Jack said we shouldn’t spring Manny, that for his soul’s sake we have to let him suffer the consequences.” I said for at least the tenth time. “I know he’s our best friend. I know you think I’m turning my back on him. But that’s just it. I’m doing the opposite. I’m doing what’s best for him.”

“I can’t believe this,” Zoe smashed her fist down onto her own leg. We were both sitting cross-legged in my special place—the one Jack had given me. “Is this about your soul, Fern? It’s always about you, you know that?! I’m so tired of your conscience always causing the rest of us problems.”

“Has it ever occurred to you that your conscience causes me problems? I’m always trying to accommodate you and Manny. What my conscience has done is keep us all from getting into serious trouble until now. Manny chose to take this fall, Zoe. He insisted. Remember?”

Zoe rolled her turquoise eyes. I could see a ripple in her jaw. She was clenching her teeth. “We told him we’d spring him. That’s why he took the fall for us.”

I shook my head. “No, he took the fall for us. Then, after he did that, you promised him we’d spring him. I didn’t do that.”

“Maybe not, but you did nod after I said it.” Zoe countered.

“I know. I did it because I felt bad, too. But now I’m trying to make the right decision again.” I emphasized.

“Well, it’s not the decision I want to make. Can’t you see that?” Zoe said.

“I know it’s not! But if you sneak him from his house, then because I’m also involved it will implicate me too.” I closed my eyes, tired of arguing. “What good will it do if we all get put in jail because of what you want to do?”

“You suck, Fern.” Zoe said, standing. She shoved her hands into stretch jean pockets and began pacing in a circle around the small glen.

My stomach felt sick. It hurt to hear it, but Zoe was right. I nodded. “Ya, I guess I do. It’s not your fault I’ve always been wishy washy. I want to do what’s right. But just like you said, I always go in on the plans I don’t agree with and then try to fix them after the fact. It hasn’t ever worked very well, has it? You’d think by now I could just do the right thing to begin with.”

Zoe nodded; lips pursed. “Ya, you’re not such a great fixer.” Her dark curly hair was extra big and bouncy today, making her look extra mad, as if electric sparks were coming out of her head.

“I’m sorry.” I said. “I like to think I’m white material you know. But, sometimes I’m still insecure. I want yours and Manny’s support and friendship. So, I give in a lot. Maybe I shouldn’t have done that so much. Now that it’s really important, I have to stand my ground, you know? Zoe?”

Zoe sighed at last. Her stony facial expression softened. “Maybe you shouldn’t have been so wishy washy. But we knew what you were like from the start. We liked you anyway. We pushed you on purpose, though. We were trying to chill you out.” She laughed, suddenly. “You don’t know how many times Manny and I teased and made fun of you behind your back. But…all in good fun, you know. You can be such a goody-goody. It’s so annoying. But it’s simply what you are, Fern. But it’s not who I am. I don’t see the world like you do. And no matter how convincing Jack is, I’m not sure I ever will.”

“So, we’re agreed? Manny stays?” I asked.

Zoe shrugged. She didn’t answer. She simply kept pacing around the circle.

“Okay, we’ll table that for now. Let’s try to catch the light through the orb in this golden ray statue. It looks like the light is finally here.” I said, motioning to the growing glow of light that was filling the secret glen as the sun shifted.

Zoe stopped and shrugged again. “Okay,” she replied, pulling her hands out of her pockets. She went over to the cloth bag we were carrying everything in and fished around for the correct statue. She pulled it out. “Here it is. Do you want the matching square stone?”

I shook my head. “I know that the focused light coming down through the trees isn’t a ray. But I think we need to get the trajectory of the light figured out first. Based on our guesses, we’re going to need to know where to place the stone and consequently, where to put the oil lamp.”

Zoe held the statue and walked over to the mid-afternoon sunshine that was pouring down, like a pillar, onto the little altar Jack had built with stones in the glen. “Okay, here it goes,” she said. She held the angel statue up into the light. At first, nothing happened. Like any glass orb, the ball simply sent points of light, reflections, bouncing around the glen. A few shown with tiny rainbows on the edges, a sort of prism effect taking place. But then, suddenly, the orb itself began to glow.

“This thing is getting really…cold,” Zoe said.

“Cold?” I asked. “Really? You’d think…”

“…like, cold enough to freeze my hand.” Zoe kept talking. There was a hint of panic in her voice.

“Hold onto it as long as you can,” I suggested.

“It’s getting colder,” Zoe kept commentating, “…and colder.”

Then, a little ray of light shone out at a low diagonal angle from the statue, shining a mini moon onto the grass of the glen, very near my feet.

“I can’t hold it much longer,” Zoe said. “It really hurts, Fern.”

“Just set it down on the altar Jack built. See if it works without you holding it.” I suggested.

The top of Jack’s stone altar was about waist height. Zoe set the statue down, quickly. It wobbled a bit. But as soon as her hand let go, the mini ray disappeared and the orb ceased to glow. She sighed and shook her hand. Then, she began rubbing her hands together and blowing on them, to get them warm. She stumbled a bit, in an odd sort of way, her face going pale for an instant. Then, she shook her head and seemed to fight wobbling down to the ground. After a moment, the color came back to her face, and she forced a smile. “I’m okay. Just felt really drained for a second, there.”

“Well, now we know it stops working if you stop holding it.” I said, focusing a cheery smile in her direction.

“Which means, you’re going to need help,” Zoe said, matter-of-factly, arching a brow at me. “After you send me, who will send you?”

“I don’t know. I’ll have to work that out… Maybe it’s different with the actual rays.”

“What if the real rays make that statue even colder?” Zoe asked. “That would be bad. So, maybe the oil lamp is for the statue, not for the person stepping into the ray?”

“That could be a problem, then. Because I remember when the ray came for Joy. I couldn’t move even the tiniest little bit. I don’t remember feeling cold. But it might have been a different kind of cold than we understand.”

“The variables just keep adding up,” Zoe heaved. She grabbed the statue and quickly took it out of the sunlight. Shortly after, the sunlight shifted diminishing the light and eventually taking the glen into shade. She put the statue back in the bag, and then began fishing for something else.

“What are you looking for?” I asked.

“Just checking to make sure none of the book pages got loose,” she replied, but she kept rustling about anyway.

“Grab the square stone with the moon,” I said. “Let’s put it where that ray shone down and try to figure out the angle a little better… I wonder if we’ll be able to adjust the stone or if the ray has to hit it directly…”

Zoe handed me the square stone with the moon carved in it, about the size of a large coffee table coaster. I went over to approximately where I remembered the mini moon made of light hitting the grass. “Was the moon facing a certain direction? Do you think the direction of the stone has to match up to how the light reflects it down?”

“Dunno,” Zoe mumbled.

I stared at the moon stone. “Maybe the stone takes care of the freezing problem…”

“How would it do that?” Zoe asked, still fishing around in the cloth bag. Then, abruptly she stopped, looking up at me. “Do you think it absorbs the cold, maybe?”

I picked up the stone and held it. “Maybe it’s not actually cold. Maybe it’s energy? Isn’t light a form of energy? Maybe the stone absorbs the energy.”

“Now you’re getting nerdy. I paid attention in my science classes just long enough to get passing grades. It’s not like I retained anything. But I suppose I vaguely remember something about light being one of the purest forms of energy. It’s like radiation, too, I think. But that’s all I remember.”

“Maybe we’re thinking all wrong,” I said. “Maybe it’s not temperatures as much as it is light, or energy.”

“Hey, that statue was cold. And, I know cold when I feel it.” Zoe said. “It’s definitely temperature.”

“What if the statue, or the light, was taking energy from you, though. It was taking heat energy from you…” I said. “…it got cold only after it started glowing…so, it was taking something from you, I think…”

Zoe’s eyes got wider. “So, then, I’d need to get more heat, right? Which means…maybe we don’t want anything either hot or cold. Maybe we use the lamp to find something bearable, like a middle ground?”

“Lukewarm,” I said, laughing. “Right in the middle. It could be that the oil lamp is about giving the ray energy so that whoever holds it doesn’t get sucked of energy—”

“—and frozen to death,” Zoe added.

“Yes! And then the stone…well, I don’t know what the stone does. But the thing is, it has to help whoever needs to step into the ray be able to do that without also getting frozen. Right?”

“Maybe. Or maybe it keeps them from getting burned up?” Zoe suggested, uncertainly. “If it was too hot, it could do that.”

I shook my head, but my face was still full of hope. “It’s a puzzle. But I think we’re close to cracking it. Meet back here same time tomorrow?”

Zoe grimaced. She cinched up the bag and stood, hands in fists. “I’ve got to work the next couple days, Fern. I mean, if this whole thing doesn’t work out, I’ve still got to live this crappy life down here. So, I’ve still got to be somewhat responsible. If it does work, and I don’t come back, then no biggy, right?” She hesitated, as if suddenly uncertain. “But…also, how do we test the stone without also trying to step into the ray? I think this last part we’ve got to do on New Helix. So, meet here on New Helix?”

“Ya, I guess so.” I answered, a little confused. “Uh, I thought we needed to practice. But—” Maybe, I could test the stone without Zoe. It looked like I was going to have to. “Ya, alright. Meet here on New Helix after I get out of school? …Jack won’t let me skip.”

“Ya. Okay. Well, I gotta run.” Zoe stuffed her right fist into her right pocket. “See ya!”

As Zoe hustled out of the glen, I turned and walked over to the altar. I sat down. Despite still needing to figure out the oil lamp and the stone, my biggest problem with the plan now loomed up in front of me. How was I going to go to the white utopia without Jack’s help? I grabbed the bag and loosened the cinch just enough to stuff the square moonstone back inside. I cinched it up again and placed it next to me; all the while wondering what good it would do to send Zoe to the golden utopia if I couldn’t get to the white and Manny was robbed of going to the silver. Without Manny, there was no one to go to the silver. Part of me knew that for the plan to work, someone had to go to each one. And that meant that someone else had to help me. If Jack wouldn’t help me, would Dora? And even if she would, how could I ask her to go behind Jack’s back. “No, she won’t do it.” I mumbled. No, Dora and Jack were one-and-the-same when it came to matters like this. Dora was out of the question.

For a moment, my mind turned to Manny. But I quenched that thought. I couldn’t ask Manny to help and then leave him behind. Ugh! It’s not supposed to be like this! How can I do this right? I wanted to do it right. I was tired of trying to fix things from the back end. I had to do this. And if I was going to do it, I had to do it right—as if I were Jack.

“If Jack were me and he felt compelled to catch the rays, how would he do it? Who would he ask for help?”

I was left in the glen with the very real problem of failure. And if I could only send one person to any utopia, shouldn’t it be me?

 ***

 I walked into the kitchen to find Jack sitting at the kitchen table. He was reading his own writing on a piece of paper. I caught the end of a sentence of his next sermon before he noticed me and fell silent. The look he gave me was grave.

“What is it, Jack?” I asked. I pulled out a chair and sat down, setting the artifacts in the cloth bag by my feet.

“Harold is right, Fern. I checked the records. Since you and your friends left the school there have been no rays—at least not here. But there’s a general consensus in the city office that they haven’t been seen anywhere.”

“Has…” I swallowed. “Anyone died and just…stayed here?”

Jack frowned and nodded. “Just two…here anyway. They were buried in the ground outside the city border, and the spots marked with wooden signs.”

I’d never seen a person who was not alive. The idea of a body that didn’t move or breath or speak, whose heart didn’t beat and the eyes didn’t blink; well, it gave me a icky feeling in the back of my throat and a sick feeling in my stomach.

“Who had to do that?” I asked.

“Dora and I helped. And a few of the other preachers,” Jack said.

“Could you tell if the bodies…you know…still had a soul?” I asked.

Jack shrugged. “How could any of us know? No one really knows, Fern. But my opinion is that there is no soul left in those bodies. It was like they were simply shells. To me, they didn’t even look…real, to be honest.”

I took a closer look at Jack’s face and saw lines of worry streaked across it. I swallowed. “Do you think Harold is right about all the rest, too? Like, the severing dimensions?”

Jack shrugged. “I’m good at religion, Fern. Not science.”

“Do they have to be different things?” I asked.

Jack’s face flinched, then broke into a smile. “Look at you, making me think. Who’s the Peach now?”

I smiled back. “Hey now, don’t get mean.” Then, I laughed.

Jack’s face quickly turned sober again. “I haven’t changed my mind, Fern. In case you were wondering. Even with this one fact of Harold’s being right. But I did want you to know. Granted, it was tempting to not tell you, but I didn’t want fear to guide my actions. I trust you, Fern…I trust you do follow your own path. I guess what I have to figure out is what my path is in regard to you.”

“So, you’re saying you want to stop me, but aren’t sure you should.” I said.

“Or, I think I should stop you, but I’m not sure that I should, except I can’t accept that—can’t even wrap my head around it.” Jack replied. “Not that it matters as much…if the rays have stopped coming.”

“I’m still holding out for the New Helix rays,” I said. “I have to hope.”

Jack smiled, wanly. “I suppose we all have to hope for something. For the first time in a long time, I’m feeling confused about what I should be hoping for.”

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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!

Emerging Truth - Paronian Legends I

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