A Pillar of Light

People use the word “surprise” far too much to apply to a general sense of unexpectedness or awe. We surprise people with parties and presents. We show up unexpectedly at an event. But, never in my life had I truly understood the full meaning of the word “surprise” until Jack entered the grove.

When I heard his panting and his running footsteps from far away, I assumed it was a runner of some sort, who had taken a detour through the Learen Forest to extend the run or perhaps even to shorten it. However, as the steps got closer, I felt a sense of panic. Any number of scenarios crossed my mind, but most included policemen or other law enforcement officials after Manny. Was I going to be taken to jail as an accomplice in his escape? I know I’d been seen with him and Zoe around town. It wasn’t a secret we were friends. Would I be held, or detained, or even questioned? And if I was, would I tell the truth? And even if I did tell the truth, would anyone believe me, or would they simply think I was telling a crazy story to protect Manny’s escape?

With the lamp, oil, stone, and sun statue all laid out, I felt exposed and unprepared for any kind of interrogation, least of all one about Manny. I tensed as the footsteps pounded toward the grove. I hustled to stuff the artifacts all back into the bag. Even with them, I was certain the officials wouldn’t believe the truth.

I didn’t have time to hide. So, I simply waited, my heart beating loudly in my still barely hearing ears, my muscles tensed uncomfortably in anticipation. I clutched the bag close to my chest, already worried that the artifacts would be taken away by the police and my chance at getting to the white utopia would be gone. But even as I thought it, my heart sank. Unless a miracle happened, I wouldn’t be going anywhere. I’d been sitting in that grove for just under forty-five minutes trying to figure out how to hold the statue, catch the ray, light the oil lamp, and then somehow step into the ray without losing the trajectory of the light. I couldn’t light the oil lamp first, or the heat would burn me up. Once I caught the ray, I’d be too frozen to light the lamp. And without both of those steps there would be no way for me to focus the ray toward the square sun stone, let alone to step into the ray of light.

As my heart sunk low with defeat, my muscles relaxed and my arms let the bag fall down into my lap. I realized that no matter who ran into the grove, I couldn’t go to the white utopia anyway. It was done. And, unless Manny or Zoe could fix the breach from the other side, or get help to do so, no one would ever go to any of the utopias again. The death rays—as I’d always called them—would never save anyone from this temporary existence ever again. We were all stranded, perhaps forever—body and soul destined to rot and be lost to the uncountable eons of time.

I waited in despair. Then, the footsteps entered the grove, and the sound of hard breathing and gasps for air brought my head up. I opened my mouth to speak and nothing came out.

“Fern!” Jack barked, breathing heavily.

“Jack,” I croaked out, still shocked. “I told you I wouldn’t be here. Why…”

“Fern,” Jack interrupted. “I’m…(pant)…I’m here to…(pant)…help you go…”

Shock. Surprise—in the truest sense of the word. For a moment all my mind could process was that Jack was standing in front of me. “What?!” I called out. “Did you say…But I thought…suicide, remember?”

“I’m here to help you, Fern. I give in. I’m sorry it’s taken so long. But, I’m here for you.” Jack was still breathing heavily, but his words were all connecting now. “I don’t want to lose you. But I can’t be selfish anymore. I’m…sorry…it’s taken me so long. I’ve tried to be so honest and true to you. But…I’ve held back since this all started…I never thought…”

Hope shot from my stomach up through the top of my head so quickly, I nearly fell over from the dizziness. My mind began processing properly and became alert. The afternoon ray was still pouring into the grove. I still have time…but not much. Do I have to go today? I wasn’t sure I had to go now, but it felt like I did, like the sooner the better, or perhaps at some point it would be too late. How much of my thoughts were actually true, I didn’t know. There was no time or way to test them. It was all gut feeling at this point. I had to go today—now—that’s what my gut was saying. It was telling me that I was running out of time.

“There’s not much time. Are you sure?” I asked Jack, still reeling from the surprise.

Jack nodded, still huffing a bit. His face was flushed, and his hands were on his knees. “No time for goodbyes, probably. Well, I don’t want to say goodbye anyway. Just tell me what to do.”

I stood, opened the bag, and started handing Jack the oil lamp and the square stone. Then, realizing that I was the one going, me, at last, I stopped and readjusted. “Actually, you get the sun statue. You focus the light right there on that orb that the angel is holding and try to get the light ray to focus on this square stone.” I set the square stone down right in the middle of the grove, inside the actual ray of sunlight already pouring down from above. Second by second that ray was adjusting, and starting to wane. I began explaining, quickly. “You’ll freeze from the cold, but then I’ll light the lamp. Once you can move, focus the ray on the square stone. Though, you shouldn’t have to move much. Then…then…”

The words wouldn’t come. Jack filled them in. “Then, dear girl, you go.”

His voice was so sad, so resigned, it hurt me to hear it. I nodded. Jack nodded back and looked down. He spoke without meeting my eye. It was the first time he’d ever spoken to me without a confident, eye-locking gaze. “You’re a brave person, Fern. Thanks for putting up with me. I’ll…miss you.”

There was nothing left to do. I moved forward and wrapped my arms around Jack. “Thank you,” I whispered. “But no goodbyes. You already said.” I felt Jack nod onto my shoulder. Then, he pushed me back. Without any other words, I got ready. The surprise had finally worn off and had now been replaced with butterflies in my stomach. I wasn’t afraid, but I didn’t know what to expect. It wasn’t like a roller coaster where you could see the drop coming or the upside loop waiting in the distance. I was going to step into a light ray and then everything beyond that was mystery. And I still didn’t know if I’d ever come back, or if this was really the end—my end.

“Holding the statue is rough. Once I’m taken, the backlash is a bit sudden and traumatic.” I said, remembering sending Zoe and worrying now about Jack’s wellbeing.

“It’s okay. I’ll manage.” Jack mumbled. Then, without any further warning, he plunged the sun statue’s orb into the mid-afternoon light ray.

Without waiting even a few seconds, I lit the match. But when the ray was caught by the orb, I was physically pushed back by the light’s energy, and immediately I felt the energy pulling the heat from my body. I grabbed the lamp, instinctively, and rolled away—very stiff from the cold. I turned away from the light, my back starting to go frozen and inflexible, and lit the lamp in my hands. It surged into a blazing fire. I was suddenly in a war of trying not to burn to death or freeze to death. My hands were on fire while my back was fighting to move a muscle.

“Jack!” I called. “Hang in there. I just got the lamp lit.” But I wasn’t sure if he could hear me. From what I’d experienced with sending Zoe, I wasn’t sure if Jack could see or hear.

Turning, with great effort, I managed to inch closer to where I thought Jack was. All around me the light was so bright, I couldn’t even open my eyes. They were closed and I was trying to peek out through my lashes. Guessing, I set the lamp down. I was warm enough now that I could move sufficiently, even if it was like moving through quicksand. But it no longer seemed to matter if Jack could move. All that mattered, I realized, was that I could move—that I could take the final step into the ray. The light, however, was too bright and painful. I wouldn’t be able to find the square stone by seeing. So, I clenched my eyes tight and reached out my hands. Straining, I could sense the numbing cold. It was pulling all the energy from me and the grove. It was more tangible and frigid off to my left. I moved toward it. Then, without any preparation, my body was zapped with needles of ice and my it felt as if it separated from me. Then, even with my eyes closed I saw nothing but bright, white light.

 

***

 

When Jack awoke, he was unprepared for the cottony feeling in his head, the dull, yet pounding headache, and a persistent ringing in his ears that drowned out all other sound. His limbs—they were burning and tingling, as if he’d been out in the cold too long without gloves and shoes and socks, and had jumped carelessly into a boiling hot tub. It was extremely uncomfortable and painful, but not totally unbearable. Fern had warned him, but this was far beyond what he’d expected. He was also overwhelmed with a feeling of pure terror.

Jack had known he needed to help Fern. He had been certain, though he’d fought the feeling for longer than he had admitted to anyone. But now that he had done what he’d known he should do, he was far from feeling at peace. Instead, he had awoken to a sense of fear. “What have I done?” he mumbled, but he couldn’t even hear his own words. His ears were still ringing and his head was still stuffed with cotton.

In time, Jack sat up. He could tell he’d been out for hours, because the grove showed the rays of the sun well near dusk. He’d trimmed the branches himself to let in light at different intervals during the day. Within about 30 minutes, he always knew what time it was. He stood, weakly, wobbling a bit as he hobbled over to the stone altar. The fear, rather than assuaging as he examined his minor injuries, increased to a level of near panic. He forced himself to breath. In and out. That’s it, Jack, in and out.

The panic, however, took root. Jack began to hyperventilate. He fumbled, gathering up all the artifacts. They were all charred with a white, silvery substance. The lamp was dented and had a hole in it where the pillar of light had sucked out every last scrap of heat and oil. The square stone was cracked, nye upon breaking in half. The angel statue had been disintegrated. However, the orb had remained, and was spotless and intact.

Jack tried to calm down, but his hyperventilating continued. He began hobbling quickly toward home. But as he pushed himself toward it, he became weaker and weaker. Soon, he fell to his knees. He couldn’t breathe. Blackness took him.

Jack woke to Dora’s voice. “Jack! Jack. Open your eyes dear. What happened? Are you okay? Is Fern…is Fern okay?”

Jack opened his eyes with great effort. “She’s gone,” he said. His voice was hoarse, but he could hear it finally; though there was still a tiny ringing in the background.

“You look terrible, Jack. You’re covered with silvery white stuff. I can’t seem to wipe it off. Let’s get you home to some soap. Maybe that will get it off. Can you walk?” Dora said.

Jack tried to sit up and was surprised that his muscles responded. “It was quite the backlash,” he mumbled, still unable to speak as clearly as he would like. “But I think I sent her. She’s…” Jack focused his eyes, finally, and looked up into Dora’s eyes. Her tears reflected his own, “…gone.” Dora looked down for a brief moment, then, grabbing Jack’s hand, she helped him to his feet. “And I’m afraid,” Jack finished once he was on his feet.

“Afraid of what?” Dora asked.

Jack shrugged, then winced. His shoulder muscles were incredibly sore. “I don’t know. I just feel terribly afraid.”

Dora furrowed her brow in concern. “You did the right thing, Jack.” Dora reassured. “I’ve known you a long time. You’re not a perfect man. But in things like this you always do the right thing. It’s why I love you so.”

Jack felt a pin prick of truth at Dora’s words. “You’re right. I did do the right thing. Then, what am I afraid of?”

“Is it that she won’t come back?” Dora asked as she tugged on Jack and urged him to start walking.

“No,” Jack said. He felt frustrated, and yet though he couldn’t describe it, the fear was still with him. It permeated every muscle in his body, his heart, his lungs. His head swam with it.

“Well, let’s get you home. Afraid or not, you’re in no condition to do anything for a few days,” Dora chided, though concern overshadowed the sternness.

Jack allowed Dora to lead him, slowly, as his legs still wobbled when he walked, all the way to their home and his modest little chantry. As the front door banged shut behind them and Dora led him toward the kitchen, Jack stopped. “No, take me to the chantry.”

“Are you sure? I really think you need to eat something.” Dora said.

Jack suddenly tuned into the growling of his stomach. “Yes, I do. But first…the chantry.”

Dora nodded, and held Jack’s arm as they turned right and entered the chantry door. Jack hobbled toward the front and took a seat in the chair he sometimes used when he sat down to discuss with his congregation, rather than to talk at them. Dora helped settle him, and then she stood quietly to the side. Jack sat, closed his eyes, and focused on the feeling of fear. Tears began to pour down his cheeks.

“Oh Jack,” Dora groaned. But Jack held out his hand, eyes still closed, hoping she would stay next to him. She took his outstretched hand and held it.

Minutes passed. Jack focused doggedly on the terror. Then, with his eyes closed, his memory was finally able to grasp the small flash, the moment just before Fern had left. He hadn’t seen her leave. But he’d felt something. It had been something overpowering.

“I know what I’m afraid of,” Jack said at last, calm returning to his shaky voice. Dora didn’t answer and Jack knew she awaited his explanation. She squeezed his hand. “For a brief moment, when the pillar of light was so bright, my hands and body so cold and yet burning fiercely at the same time, I felt something overshadow all those physical senses. As they fought for my attention something rich, real, and beyond description enveloped me. I could call it love but that word is woefully inaccurate. It falls short. But it was something akin to love—a love so powerful, so real, so tangible and yet clothed in intelligence so fierce and mighty, and yet…Dora, it was energy and death and life and love and awe and…well, everything…all pointed at me…”

“And…” Dora encouraged.

“And I’m terrified I’ll never get to feel it again. That feeling…that’s what I’ve always been reaching for without even knowing it. It was right there. If I’d been able to move, I would have stepped into that ray right alongside Fern.”

“Perhaps that’s why the rays always prevent people from following their loved ones. Perhaps that’s the reason for the paralyzing energy…or the cold…or whatever it truly is.” Dora suggested. “We would all follow something so wonderful and powerful if given the chance.”

“But what if I don’t get there? What if I don’t get to feel that ever again?” Jack asked, his voice full of an uncharacteristic desperation. “Waking up…this world feels so incredibly bleak, so terribly dark in comparison to what I felt in that flash of time.”

Dora chuckled and put a hand on Jack’s shoulder. “Oh, my dear, you’ll get there. Today you proved that you would sacrifice what you wanted most—a child—to get there. You gave up your personal agenda for her agenda. For all we know, it was the agenda of the utopias. You let her choose. You let her be her. You followed what your heart knew. I am certain…and I’m not even a Peach,” Dora chuckled again at the use of Fern’s derogatory term, “that today, my dear Jack, you felt what you felt because you did what you did. In my opinion, which I admit I think is pretty correct, you were given that taste of unspeakable love as a sign of who you’ve become. And I couldn’t be prouder of you.” Jack looked sideways at Dora. Tears were streaking down her cheeks harder than before, even as she smiled. “Now,” she continued, “You will come eat and shower, and then we can both cry the tears we need to cry over our one and only child, whom we only were blessed with for a very short time because of the utopias, and then we will think of her and pray for her with hope for as many days as we have left in our life here in this place, be it days, months, years, or decades.”

“Yes Ma’am,” Jack said.

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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.