Truth in Retrospect
Jack smiled his best as the last member of the day’s congregation left reluctantly out the door, glancing back with earnest excitement, and waving cheerily with a smile that was missing two teeth. It was a middle-aged man, a little on the tall side, with tan, leathery skin and a mess of yellowy-grey hair. He bore the signs of a man who’d been strapping and muscular in his prime. But time had begun to wilt that stature—time and life. The man looked to have lived hard. His red flannel shirt looked clean, but was stained with grease. He must work at a garage somewhere, Jack thought.
It gave Jack a boost to see someone reawakened to the concept of the utopias, cheery even. Yet, with that boost came the reminder that to those very same utopias he’d lost Fern. Jack had spent so many years reawakening himself to the concept of the utopias. Dora had started it in his youth…just like I told Fern. But he’d lived plenty—in many ways; he’d thought he’d conquered so much about himself, and had become immune to resenting the rays. Even the grave stones piling up in the new city “graveyard” hadn’t been able to break him. But losing Fern—that had brought resentment not just to the surface, but exploding through like a geyser.
Jack still remembered the day he’d met Fern. He had come to admire her, from all the rumors. He’d been warned that she was cynical and disruptive. Yet, not one preacher—peach—had ever been able to argue that she hadn’t made good points when discussing with them. Jack had looked forward to the day when Fern and her friends would come to his chantry, to challenge him. But they never had come.
I was too far off the beaten path, Jack thought. Yet, his home, his chantry, had been in the right place when Fern had been at her lowest. When she’d lost Joy, she’d wandered through the beautiful, vibrant Learen Forest, right to him and Dora.
Jack did not believe that Fern had come into his life by accident. From the moment he’d seen her, he’d known he needed to be there for her. But he never could have suspected that she would become—in a way—his daughter, and that he would be asked to give her up so soon…to the utopias. He’d never suspected that he had needed her as much as he thought she’d needed him. He had never considered that she would become yet another test of his faith in the white utopia.
“No, I won’t let my thoughts wander that direction,” Jack said aloud to himself, as he continued to watch the man in the red flannel shirt disappear toward town. Jack watched until the many was a tiny speck, and then until that speck disappeared. Saying it aloud made it a tiny bit easier to press on. Yet, right on the tails of that desperate thought was also the fearful feeling that he would never feel again the light he’d felt the day he’d helped Fern go. His memory of it was powerful, but it was beginning to fade, to become harder to remember perfectly. “If that’s where she is, then she’s better off. I know that, I’ve felt it, and I will conquer this sorrow.” Jack reaffirmed, pulling his shoulders back, making his posture match his determination.
A hand pressed kindly on Jack’s back. “Come have some lunch dear,” Dora said.
Jack turned to face her. His eyes taking in her beautiful brown skin, dark eyes, auburn hair, and glowing countenance. A grin took over his face, betraying his attempts at sulking. “If I keep eating to comfort my soul, Dear, I’m going to become a very big man.”
Dora laughed quietly. “We do whatever it takes,” she replied. “But I’d say you’re safe. You’ve been scarfing down my cooking for years; and, while I’ve fought a war with the weight of it, you seem to be able to tuck it all away somewhere hidden.”
“Didn’t I tell you when I was a kid, I’m magical?” Jack teased.
Dora rolled her eyes and then poked him in the stomach. “Even magic can’t hide that much food.” Then, she led him to the table and slid a plate of roast beef, carrots and potatoes, with a hot roll in front of him. “Been simmering this since last night.”
Jack looked down at the meal. It triggered an unexpected emotional response, and he found himself crying.
“Jack!” Dora exclaimed, “What is it?”
Jack hastily wiped the tears away, and smiled up at Dora. “I’m sorry, dear. Don’t you remember the first meal we ever took over to Fern and her mother, right after Joy was taken?”
Dora’s eyes went wide. “…it was…I made roast beef, carrots and potatoes…”
Jack nodded. “I think at last I finally understand how Fern felt when she lost Joy. And I thought I was so empathetic and comforting back then. I thought I could relate.”
“You did what you could, dear,” Dora said. “If she hadn’t felt your sincerity, she wouldn’t have kept coming to you with questions. She trusted you and you know it. Why, she loved you enough to write you that goodbye letter! And without that trust and that letter, you could never have helped her go.”
Jack sighed. “I know. I keep replaying the circle of events.” He looked up at Dora. “Why can’t I let her go? Why…”
Dora sat down and dished up her own plate. After they both ate a bit, in reflective silence, she looked at Jack. “I think I’ve often heard you say that asking ‘why’ is unproductive. In a sermon you gave a few years back, dear, I remember quite clearly you saying that the ‘why’ of a trial only matters when we’ve learned to choose who we want to be despite the trial. You said the trial should make us more of what we are. Then, if the ‘why’ is ever given to us, it will be a gift. You said the why of a trial should never be a condition of what we will and won’t choose. You said that waiting to choose who we’re going to be conditionally based on the why of a trial only serves to unmake us, rather than to make us. It’s a distraction. Those were your very words.”
Jack stopped chewing and stared at the table, thinking. Then, he gave a hint of a grin. “I married a wise woman, that’s what I think.”
Dora smiled back at him.
A knock at the front door interrupted Jack’s admiration for Dora. He glanced behind him. Through the angle from the kitchen door toward the foyer and the front screen door, he could only make out a man’s left shoulder clothed in a red flannel shirt. Jack took a deep breath. He punched down the mental frustration as he rose from his chair. I know this man is excited to have found my chantry, but can’t he just go home?
Jack pasted on his kindest smile, nodded to Dora, and then took the five large steps to the front door. He cracked the door open, “Hello! Is everything all right? I thought I saw you head toward town,” Jack said, with less enthusiasm than he would have liked. He noticed, quickly however, that the man was leaning over a bit and breathing hard—as if he’d been running.
“…I just…have…a…message…Jack, sir…” the man managed through hard breathing. “…I got home…and…something…something odd…sir…my son…Manny…”
Jack felt the hair on his arms rise and goosebumps explode onto his skin. “Manny’s your son?”
The man nodded, finally starting to recover. “He’s been…missing, sir…missing for the last…three days…He’s the one who told me…about your…chantry. That’s…why I came…”
Jack felt his stomach sink, disappointment setting in. Manny was back, but not Fern. What was I hoping for? “I’m so glad you came, truly! What can I do for you…I’m sorry, I never got your name?”
“Billy, short for William… But that’s not all I wanted to say. Something odd, no crazy. Manny’s been missing…for the last few days. When I just got home…he was there. He is there. And suddenly I have all these memories from the last few days. He’s in those memories! It’s like he was never missing! But I know he was gone. I just know it.”
This time, Jack’s stomach did a flip, and the goosebumps returned. He opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came out.
“He told me…he told me to tell you, Jack, sir. He told me to tell you, ‘Thank you,’ and that ‘I’m back,’ he said. It makes sense to me, because I was so certain he was gone, even though now I can’t remember that he even was gone. I even remember him being there when the police came by to check on him, sir. I was so confused. He told me to run and tell you…that you understand what’s going on.”
Jack’s heart, despite his weak attempts to calm it, began to pump with fierce hope. “Dora!” he yelled, frantically. She came running up behind him, eyes wide with fear. Jack let the door slam shut on Billy and took Dora into a great hug. “I’m going to see Manny, Dora. Do you understand?”
Sunshine burst onto Dora’s face. Her mouth formed the name Manny, but no sound came out. She transitioned quickly, however. “Hurry, Jack!” she said. “And hurry back. It’s going to be all I can do to wait.”
Jack nodded. “I’ll be back soon.” Then he opened the door and joined Billy on the porch. “William,” he said, unable to quench his grin, “lead the way, sir. If it’s okay with you, I’d like to come see Manny.”
Billy nodded, looking perplexed. “Seems you know a whole lot more than any normal man should, sir. You sure you’re not something more than a preacher? Do you also control time?”
Jack shook his head, “No. I’m afraid not, Billy. But I have an open mind and I believe in miracles. How about you?”
“I’m starting to, sir,” Billy chuckled. Then he scratched his head. “Never would have thought one day back to church would’ve changed my life so much.”
“It’s not church that changes lives,” Jack said as he patted Billy on the back and urged him down the stairs and to a quick walk toward town. “It’s truth. However, if we’re looking for it, we’ll find a good deal of it within the walls of a well-meaning chantry, perhaps more than we can discover on our own without it. That’s the purpose of going. It’s like concentrated laundry soap. And from there we’re more likely to discover that the truth we hear was in our heart all along. It was merely making the effort that helped us find it faster.”
Jack walked with Billy at a pace just short of jogging. Yet, even so, he felt that it took hours, rather than ten minutes, to arrive at Billy and Manny’s home. Billy let Jack in and he took in the place. It was messy in a way that made it clear only two men lived there. It wasn’t dirty, but neither had much care been taken to keep it tidy or clean, let alone welcoming. Jack had no sooner taken four steps into the house then Manny came at him from the back hallway, and enveloped him into a hug.
Manny was a younger version of his father, blond, broad-shouldered, muscular, and tall. Though Jack wasn’t short, he was shorter than Manny and by no means as built. Manny’s intense hug nearly crushed the air from his lungs.
Jack couldn’t keep his mouth shut. The moment Manny let him go, questions flew from his mouth. “Did you see Fern? Is she okay? What happened to you? How did you get back? What…what…wha…”
Manny’s radiant countenance and bright eyes brought Jack to a stuttering halt. He took a moment to concentrate and see the boy before him. The Manny in front of him was very different. He didn’t look defensive, brooding, or hard. He looked open, happy, and hopeful. He held himself differently, if possible, more confidently. But not a physical confidence, the kind he had previously had, that warned any nearby that Manny was capable of winning in a physical fight. It was a deeply internal confidence that had nothing to do with his muscles.
“You are different.” Jack said, frankly.
Manny nodded. “I know who I am, now, Jack. Or, at least who I want to be. I wasn’t sure before.”
Manny radiated peace. It washed over Jack, calming his adrenaline and releasing the tension in his anxious muscles.
“…And Fern?” Jack asked again, this time slower and clearer.
“I never saw her. I went to the Silver, remember?” Manny said, then shivered as if remembering.
Suddenly, Jack’s hope regarding Fern took a momentary back seat. Here, in front of him, was a man who had visited one of the utopias. Here was someone with more information than he’d ever had, than anyone had ever had.
“Shall we sit for a bit?” Jack asked. “I’d like to hear your story.”
Billy broke in. “I think that’s a good idea. I’m buggered if I don’t find out what happened.”
Manny hurried to clean off the few, well-used pieces of furniture. His gaming console and controllers were scattered about. He tried to put everything into one corner. “Sorry about all this. I…just got back a few minutes ago.” He shrugged when it was obvious that he couldn’t do much to make sitting comfortable.
“It will do,” Jack reassured. “Please, I’m anxious to hear about your experience.”
Manny smiled and sat. Jack and Billy sat too.
“What was it like, Manny? The Silver utopia?” Jack asked, quietly, curiously.
Manny took a deep breath. Then, as he exhaled, he said, “It was horrible.”
“In what way?” Jack asked, leaning forward a bit.
“I couldn’t trust anything that I saw. Nothing was what it was, if that makes sense. Everything was a lie, in some ways. It’s…hard to explain. But it wasn’t all fire and burning and torture…like the chantries teach sometimes. At least…not the torture and misery I’d pictured.”
Billy’s eyes went wide. “Where did you go boy?!”
Manny faced his father. “To the silver utopia, dad. Well, one of them.”
“There’s more than one Silver?” Jack asked.
Manny sucked his teeth and nodded, looking strangely naïve and innocent, in a way Jack couldn’t put his finger on. “There are numberless Silver utopias. I…I only went to one. It was the worst thing. At first, I thought I wanted to fit in, to put on a show of who I was—like I always do, you know. Only, I realized at some point that I didn’t know who I was. And the show of it never ended, you know. I couldn’t find the real me because I was too busy trying to not know who I really was or what I really wanted… Sorry, that probably sounds crazy.”
Jack stared at Manny for a moment, then nodded. “It makes perfect sense. Tell me, then, what happened next?”
“Well, I realized that nothing around me was real, you know. It was all show. I couldn’t find myself or even pretend to be something because no one around me was who they really were either. They looked so ridiculous. I mean, it should have been funny, but it was horrific. I was trapped in this terrible cycle. In my head I was going crazy. So, I decided I didn’t want any part of that place anymore. I decided I was ready to know…you know…who I really am…then…I got out.”
Jack glanced to look at Billy who appeared to still be struggling to process the fact that his son had visited one of the utopias and somehow come back. Jack looked back to Manny and furrowed his brow. “You got out? How is that possible?”
“Well, in my head, I sort of screamed that I wanted out. I got rid of my disguises, you know…because I had put some on there, trying to figure out what lie about me that I should project…I mean, I didn’t realize that was what I was doing at first…but… Well, when I screamed in my head that I wanted out, this golden door appeared. It just showed up right in the middle of the place I was in. The door was the only thing real, once it showed up. It made everything else fade away. A hand reached out to me through that door and waved me in. I went in, and then the hand was gone, replaced by a hallway of endless mirrored doors.”
Jack realized he was holding his breath and he forced himself to breathe again. “Mirrored doors? Was that another utopia?”
Manny shook his head to the negative with a certainty that was still unnerving, and yet wonderful. “When I was in that terrible place, I wanted so much to know who I really was. That golden door led me to the hallway. Then, the hallway was like an in-between place, a place to choose where to go next. It let me choose who I wanted to be. Every door I looked in showed me an end result, a person I would become if I chose that door. The hallway was glorious, but also painful. In the end, after thinking about each image that I saw, I knew not just what I could be, but who I wanted to be. I also had to choose to suffer a lot of pain to enter that door. But I knew it was the right door. I knew that who I saw in that mirror was who I wanted to be. That it was me, if I would only let myself be it. I don’t think I’ve ever made a harder decision in my life, Jack.”
Jack smiled, tears leaking slowly down his cheeks. Except these weren’t tears or mourning or sorrow, but of joy. “Manny…I don’t know what to say. Can you tell me anything else?”
“Everything is clearer now, Jack,” Manny said. “I’ve still got a lot of work to do. I’m not yet the person that I know I’m supposed to be. But I can see myself better. And since being in that horrible place…I see people around me different too. You see, I used to think people with money had it all. I used to think working at the bank would make me into the person I wanted to be. I thought wearing business clothes and being confident was what would bring me happiness. I always focused on the outside, I think. Then, on the other side, I was betraying that outward image. I resented the people who looked like they had it all. So, I stole from them. I was someone different when I wasn’t working. I was a thief, and I was always trying to look tough so that the people I ran around with—people I never let meet Fern or Zoe—would take me seriously…give me jobs. And they did. I’ve been trying to undercut the ‘rich guys’ for years.” Manny looked to Billy, “Sorry Dad. I didn’t mean to disappoint you. I’m sorry I’ve stolen things…and that now I’m going to jail.”
“It’s alright son. I’ve made my share of mistakes. You and I…we’ll get through this.” Billy replied.
Manny shrugged and nodded, smiling kindly at Billy. Then, he looked back to Jack. “I didn’t see Fern or Zoe. But I do know why in some ways it feels to Billy, and perhaps the rest of the town, that I never left.”
“Why is that, boy?” Billy squawked, grinning. “Where did all these odd memories come from?”
“Well, after stepping through that mirrored door, a voice, that was so wonderful it hurt to hear, told me that because I had made the choice I had, He would extend me mercy. He would make it possible for me to take the path I had chosen. He said that being afraid to suffer—which was why I let Harold sneak me from the house—did not mean that I deserved more jail time. He said that Harold’s influence had caused me to waver, but that my initial determination to take the jail time for stealing the car was the true me. So, I think He did something so that it seems to almost everyone that I was never gone, I think.” Manny grimaced and then relaxed. “That voice, His voice…it was like nothing I’ve ever felt. So, I’m going to accept my jail sentence, serve it honestly, and then make some real changes in my life when I get out.”
Jack stood without realizing it, as if his body had taken control while his mind was occupied. “I’m so glad you are back, Manny. It gives me…hope. But I think I must go now.”
Manny grinned, widely, and stood also, grabbing Jack’s hand in a firm handshake. “Fern is the best of all of us Jack. I know she’ll come back. Nobody wanted to go more than her, but not to stay. To get answers. If I can come back, then I know she’s coming back. I’m excited to hear her story. If the Silver I visited was a taste of all the lesser utopias, then I hope to find out that the gold and the white are as wonderful as we all hope.”
“So, you think Zoe will come back too?” Jack asked.
Manny sighed, looking a little sad. “Zoe’s had a hard life…some real terrible hurts. I suspect that if she wants to come back, He’ll let her. But of all I know of Zoe, if she found any sense of joy and peace in the Gold, I would guess that she’d stay.”
Jack noticed Manny’s sadness. “Will you be okay…if she stays?”
Manny nodded. “I’ve had a crush on Zoe, on and off, for a long time. But after my…experience…I feel that she and I would not have lasted long in a relationship. But I will always love her in a certain way. My future holds a deeper love than what she and I could have had. We have always understood each other, but I don’t think we would have been good for each other. Of that I’m quite certain. It’s odd, my life looks so much different to me now that I’m back. This town feels so little, so small, now that I’ve been outside of it. My life looks so much different, too. All the answers I thought I wanted about my mom’s passing and the utopias really stopped mattering once I was there. All my problems really came down to me…it was not the utopias that I needed to figure out…it was me. My whole life looks different to me now, in retrospect.”
Manny stood up tall, his countenance so changed. He knew what he was talking about. Jack realized that he had always thought he was certain about so many truths. And while he was certain, he didn’t think he’d ever had what Manny now had. Jack smashed his lips together thoughtfully. “Thank you, Manny,” he said. “I’ve been really struggling since all of this…has happened. I’ve missed Fern terribly. Thank you for coming back. For…all that you learned. I’ve…got to go. I’ll be at your trial, though, and will—if you’ll accept a Preacher advocate—importune with the judge for the shortest possible sentence. I can’t help but think he will see the change in you if I point it out to him. Also, that you turned yourself in must play into his ruling.”
“You’d do that?!” Manny exclaimed, joy bursting onto his face—a face that had always been so guarded, but which now shined with free gratitude.
Jack shook Manny’s hand again and then turned for the door. “It would be my pleasure.”
Dora waited on the porch for Jack to return. Her heart was beating fiercely with concern and anticipation. If Manny had come back, did that mean Fern would too? Would she and Jack get to be parents again? Would she get to be a mother, even if only to a teenage girl who needed her?
Dora stood up and descended the front steps to the well-beaten path in front of their house. She began pacing. Back and forth, back and forth. She wanted to see Jack coming back, to know the moment he was getting close. Minutes passed. An hour. She sighed and pursed her lips. She sat down on the steps again. Then, returned to the path and kept pacing.
Finally, Dora stopped, hugging herself. “Ugh, this is killing me.” She gazed off in the distance toward the depths of the Learen. “Jack, where are you?!” Then, tiredness overwhelmed her. She’d been trying to hold Jack together for the last several days. But no one had been holding her together. Tears that had been coming and going for days finally burst through again. She let them flow. Then, she heard a door slam inside the house. Running steps sounded in the inner hallway. Dora turned to face her own front door, looking up toward the porch. Terror and joy burst into her chest as she looked up through the murky view of the front screen door. There she saw a glowing form staring down at her.
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!