Blogger’s note: I’d mentioned in my Happy Anniversary 2 post that I’d planned on starting to write some fantasy and science fiction. This is the first one I’ve gotten down. I’ve submitted it twice… and been rejected twice which, as I understand it, is not uncommon. I’ve been invited to join a sci-fi writing group which I’d love-love-love to do, but I don’t have the time right now for several reasons. A pity, as I’m sure I could learn a lot… perhaps in the future I’ll have the time and the group will have the opening. Thus, I am self-publishing this to get it out there and, hopefully, solicit comments on how I might improve it. Obviously, having put it up on my blog, I can’t get this published in a magazine or anything, but… if I can get some good comments I can use them to influence and improve my next story.
Enjoy, please let me know what you think, tell me suggestions on how I might improve it, and if you like it – please forward it on to others. If nothing else, I hope this shows a different side of me, one worthy of consideration in seeing me as more than just an engineer.
(This is a sci-fi/fantasy romance. Nothing explicit, but just be forewarned.)
He sat under the oak tree at the top of the hill, leaning against it with his knees up, staring at the sun as it slowly sank and the already-cool fall day started to turn crisp. As he twirled the burnished bronze vial pensively, the old man’s warning came to mind. “Both of you must drink their vials in the last light of the same setting sun,” the old man had said. He’d also warned “If one drinks and the other does not, the soul who drinks this elixir will be trapped, alone forever…”
The sun fragmented as its rim penetrated the autumn-stripped woods, and was soon lined with dark veins from the silhouetted trees. Almost time, he thought.
He wondered aloud, “Will she drink hers? Will she wonder and doubt? What am I doing? Can I do this?”
“Can I do this?” he repeated. Their one kiss came to mind, and he heard – as if she were standing there – her single-word reply to his plea to drink the elixir: Yes. “How can I not do this?” It was more statement than question, and he swallowed its sweet contents down, replaced the stopper, and put it into his jacket pocket.
“Come on, let’s go home,” he said to the dog, rising up and brushing his pants off. They walked down the hill to the waiting car. Home was the same as always. Dinner, helping the kids with their homework, feeding the pets, reminding the kids of their own pets, and doing all the regular mundane chores. Then, with the kids asleep, he went to his office. His binder, labeled “In case something happens to me”, was still where he’d put it years before. He reviewed it one last time. If something went wrong, he didn’t want his family to suffer.
Then it was time for bed. Slipping into bed next to his already-sleeping wife and falling asleep as well, the world disappeared in a cascade of golden sparks and a chorus of tinkling bells.
Just days before, in the morning, he had gone to the break room for his mid-morning coffee. Standing at the counter pouring steaming water into her cup was a woman he’d never seen. Slim, almost as tall as he, with milk chocolate skin and shimmering black hair cascading down her back to her waist. She wore a sleeveless purple dress. Gold and diamonds glittered boldly on her left hand’s ring finger as she turned, smiled, and said “Hello,” with an Indian accent as she stepped forward to shake his hand and looked at him with black eyes. “I’m Shareen. I just started.”
“Charles. Charles Williams. Junior partner.” He took her hand and felt like he’d grabbed a live wire. His arm tingled and he felt wobbly on his feet, light-headed, and staggered. She jerked her hand away, overbalanced, fell against the counter, and then landed awkwardly on her rear. They stared at each other for a moment. He recovered, smiled, and offered his hand again to pull her up. “Here, let me help”. She took it and he pulled her up. The momentum brought her up close, almost touching. His hand tingled at her touch.
Before he knew what was happening they were kissing, a hungry lover’s kiss, clutching at each other, pulling so hard they would have merged into one if they could have. Her lips, her touch, her taste, her smell, engulfed him. But it only took a few seconds, a handful, before his mind took over and he pulled away, stammering, as she blinked at him, their hands sliding down to hold each other left-in-right, right-in-left, still tingling, and then they fell apart as each took an uncertain step backward.
“I… I… I’m sorry, I don’t know what… please, what just happened…” he managed to get out. She opened her mouth to speak, her eyes on fire and he knew it was for him, but then the full awareness of what they’d just done flooded her mind as well. Her hands flew to her mouth in shock, and she ran from the room.
He looked around. Whatever had just happened, nobody else had seen it. He leaned heavily against the counter, wondering what to do. Go with routine, he concluded. He got his coffee and went back to his office, and tried to work.
Every time his computer beeped with a new email, he wondered if it were her. Or perhaps a sudden emergency meeting with HR. Every time his phone rang he looked at the caller ID with fear, but it was just business. Then his boss, Ted, the firm’s founder, called and he nervously picked up the phone. Trying to quell the fear in his voice, he said “Charles Williams.”
“Charles, Ted here. Just reminding you about your trip to San Francisco next week. Since you’re the only person in the firm who speaks Mandarin, we need you there to finalize the Raptorium-Middle Kingdom Enterprises contract. You ready?”
The relief in his voice must have seemed strange to Ted. “Yes, all set.”
“Good. This is a huge deal and I want to make sure you’re ready. Get this signed for our client and you’re on track for Senior Partner.” His boss hung up.
The next day his anxiety was even worse. Each beep of the computer made him jerk. Each instant message startled him. And the phone ringing sounded like a death knell until he looked at the ID and saw that it wasn’t his boss, wasn’t HR, and wasn’t her. But at the same time he wanted it to be her. He needed it to be her. Her eyes filled his thoughts, and even though it was a day later, he could still taste her kiss, feel her against him. Her perfume and smell still filled his nose, and he still felt her hands in his.
At the end of the day he went home to dinner. He took the dog for its evening walk. He answered the kids’ homework questions, did the dishes, and helped get the kids to bed. His wife snuggled up on the couch to watch TV, and they made quiet love… but it wasn’t her he saw. It was Shareen.
And it got no better. Work, which he liked, had instantly become perdition. The weekend was no relief – all he could think about was her. He avoided her on Monday, staggering his coffee times, and eating in his office. But Tuesday, the day before his trip, he was going to the men’s room and she came out of the women’s room.
“Hi,” he said, not knowing if he should shake hands, not knowing how to stand, not knowing if he should look her in the eye or avoid eye contact. He decided to look at her.
“Hi,” she said, looking down, avoiding his eyes. “A big trip tomorrow?”
“Yes.” Everyone in the office knew about this deal.
“You’ll do fine.” She lifted her face to look right at him and he felt a jolt just from her gaze. She took a step toward him, reaching out, then jerked away as though he was a hot iron that she’d been about to touch. She walked away, pausing to look at him before she went around the corner. He fought the urge to run after her.
Later that day he stepped out for a short walk. When he came back there was a sealed, colorful card envelope on his desk. Charles was all it said on the front. Even before he picked it up he knew who it was from. All she’d written on the Hallmark card was Good luck! in beautiful cursive, echoing the cutesy stock message. No signature. But there was one word in the lower left corner, scribbled over and obscured. She’d started to write something else, and changed her mind.
He stared at it the whole flight. No luck. He arrived at the hotel, exercised, showered, and had dinner. He reviewed the planned negotiations and made some notes. Then, lying in bed he stared at it one more time, and put it aside to try and sleep. Just as he was in the transition from waking to dreaming he heard her voice. Come back to me.
He sprang upright, awake. Come was the word she’d written and crossed out, before she’d even finished the thought. Now that he knew what to look for, he could see it. Come back to me. He fell back on the mattress, and thought of her. He thought of his wife and children and pleaded to the empty air, “What am I going to do?”
The next two days were grueling. Negotiations. Clarifications. A call back to Ted for a first-day situation update and advice. But in the end, the deal was done, and quicker than anticipated. Both sides, the American company, Raptorium, and the Chinese company, Middle Kingdom Enterprises, wanted the contract signed. With time on his hands he decided to do a little exploring.
He went to Chinatown and had dinner. Walking around as the sun sank towards the Pacific, he passed by a small alley. Something pulled at the corner of his eye and he looked down it. Hanging underneath a faded and dusty awning was an equally-faded sign on weathered wood, in Mandarin: I can help.
The inside was stereotypical. Piled boxes and crates. A musty smell. A whole wall of nothing but jars of spices, herbal medicines, and who-knows-what on shelves. Curios and display cases stuffed to overcapacity, souvenirs, jade trinkets, and odd-lot miscellany were scattered across tables, in front of books, and everywhere. He had to move carefully lest he nudge anything and start a domino-chain avalanche. A stuffed monkey lurked precariously on top of a shelf, screaming silently forever.
“May I help you?” A wizened old man in a grey silk jacket appeared out of the back through a beaded curtain.
“No thanks, I was just… I was just meandering and saw your sign.” He looked around. “I was curious.”
“Ah.” The old man paused. “I was making tea. Might I offer you a cup?”
Something made him agree. “I would be honored.”
The old man went back through the curtain and came back after a minute, carrying an enameled red tray, a pot, and two cups. “Sit, sit.” Charles sat.
The old man poured two cups. They both sipped tea. The silence stretched. Then the old man asked “Why are you here?”
Charles started talking about his job, the contract, his work… the old man waved dismissively to interrupt. “Why are you here?”
“What do you mean?”
“Only people who need help come in here.” The old man put down his tea and leaned back, fingers meshed across his chest. He asked slowly, again, “Why are you here?”
Charles broke down and it came out in a geyser. Shareen. Her touch. The kiss. Thinking of her. How he wanted her, how he needed her, how he knew she felt the same. The guilt of what would happen to his family if he followed his heart, and what would happen to his job. And the added guilt of knowing she was also married.
The old man was still, staring past his shoulder. He turned to look. There was nothing special to look at. The old man breathed, not moving or speaking, and it became uncomfortable. Charles was about to push back from the table when the old man spoke. “Have you heard of Master Zhuang?”
“He once had a dream about being a butterfly. When he awoke, he wondered if he had dreamt about being a butterfly, or if he was a butterfly dreaming about being a man.”
“I don’t follow.”
“Young man, there is a way for you to be with her in your dreams. It will be real, and you will be together in an Eden, a paradise. The energy between you will move from this world to the dream world, and while you will remember your dreams, you will remember them as dreams only. In this world you will be friends, but just that.”
“How?” Charles asked.
The old man went into the back, rummaged around, and came back with two small brass vials. “Both of you must drink their vials in the last light of the same setting sun. When you are both asleep you will be together. And, if you both wish, you two can be together forever, even after you die, forever young and fully aware, in Eden.” He smiled. “Adam and Eve in a reborn Eden.”
“What’s the catch?” Charles was a business lawyer. “There has to be a catch.”
The old man nodded. “If one drinks and the other does not, the soul who drinks this elixir will be trapped, alone forever, in that honeyed Eden alone for eternity. Only together do your souls have the power to escape.”
“What do you mean, for eternity?”
“Eternity. Forever. Your body will wither away and die, but your soul will be alive until the stars burn out. Alive forever, alone forever.”
“Oh my…” Charles said.
“One other thing. You must not be together when you drink it. You must show your trust in the other.”
Charles thought. “How much?”
“Four thousand dollars.” The old man smiled again. “I take credit cards.”
Charles was normally a careful man. Methodical. Not prone to wild adventure. Yet he whipped out his wallet and paid without hesitation. The two vials went into his pocket and he walked out. Just as he left the alley he thought Wait, what did I just do? The memory of her kiss flared on his lips, and he steeled himself to see it through.
At the hotel room he logged onto his company email. There was a note from Ted, congratulating him and saying they needed to plan for the future. There were notes from several others. He answered them all. And then, taking the vials out and putting them on the desk next to the computer, he opened a meeting request with Shareen to have coffee with him at the corner coffeehouse.
Please, we need to get together. Deleted. Please, I need to talk with you. Deleted. He stared, and typed, and deleted, and typed, and deleted, and typed, and deleted. Finally, he sent one word in the meeting request: Please.
And went to bed. He had an early flight and a long layover in Chicago.
The next morning he checked his email before he left the hotel for the airport. Among a slew of emails was a reply from her. One word. Yes.
He sat in the coffee shop at 3:00 P.M., not knowing what he was going to say. He’d arrived early, mulling all sorts of scenarios of what he’d say, what she’d say. It was a game he’d play when he had something difficult to discuss with his wife and, of course, things never went the way he’d plan. But it was a habit.
He felt her presence even before she touched his shoulder from behind as she came by the table, but he still jumped. She sat across from him. They leaned in to talk quietly, conspiratorially, and her proximity made his hair tingle, like from static electricity on a dry day.
“This is crazy”, he started.
“Crazy, yes. I am married. You are married. We cannot.”
“What if there was a way we could?”
“What do you mean?” She looked at him, puzzled. He explained about the shop in Chinatown, the old man and his words about being together in a dream world, his warning if only one drank, and how two nights from now it was supposed to be a clear day and night. He put the two vials on the table between them. She asked, “You are serious?”
“Can we go on working in the same office if we don’t?”
She looked at the table, drilling holes into it as she thought. “No.”
“So you quit right after starting, and your husband will ask why. Or I quit on the cusp of being made senior partner. And be asked why. Or we try to have a quiet affair and we will get caught.” He laid his fingertip lightly on her hand and she jumped at the spark of his touch. “Could we keep this quiet?”
He pulled his hand away, and concluded, “Or we try this.”
She picked up one vial, looking at it. She was silent for a while, then put it in a pocket. “So, two nights from tonight?”
“Right at sundown before the sun disappears.”
“Will you?” she asked.
“Yes. Will you?”
She smiled, looking at him, extending her hands out for him to take. He did, but even knowing the jolt he’d feel it was hard to just hold hands. Every fiber of him wanted more – now! She said one more word. “Yes.”
The sparks cleared from his eyes and he looked around. He was in a shaded patio, maybe 30 feet square. Tiled in off-white marble, with rough walls built up waist high all around, the sides above the wall were open air. On one side an opening had a porch under a dark wood pergola draped with shimmering golden fabric rippling in the soft ocean breeze; from there he could see stairs snaking down through waving beach grass to a glistening white beach where waves crashed gently on the sand. A small sailboat rocked gently beside a pier.
Above him was a roof held up by columns of the same dark wood. A low bed was partially embedded in the floor, one wall as a headboard, and it too was covered with shimmering golden fabric, with a watermelon-sized copper cornucopia beside the head of each side. The openings were blue whirlpools and he somehow knew that they would provide anything he wished. A wood table and two chairs, also of that dark wood, was tucked away to one side of the opening to the beach, a sunken bath bubbled and steamed opposite it in the other corner.
Opposite the ocean side, a hill with trees stretched upwards lazily. To his right he saw a splashing cascade of a brook and beyond that, a cove; to the left were more trees. The old man was right. Eden.
He held his hand to a cornucopia and a goblet of wine appeared, as he’d wished. He sat. He stood. He felt the water in the bath, sat at the table again, went outside and walked around on the sandy soil, and started down the path to the beach, then returned. Walking around the outside of the patio he found a toilet in a small enclosure. Time passed as the sun moved, and he got nervous. More time passed. And more. He went to the foot of the sunken bed, looking at it for what seemed like forever. He heard only the susurration of the wind in the trees and the waves crashing, and felt only the warm breeze, and started to panic.
Bells tinkled behind him and he jerked around. She appeared from a fading waterfall of golden sparks dressed in a shimmering purple satin camisole and loose shorts. She blinked, looked up, gasped, grinned, took three steps and jumped at him. He held on for a moment, then her momentum overbalanced him and they tumbled into bed, kissing, touching, the energy between them was white-hot fire, and he was drunk with her against him. They pulled clothes off each other, skin touching as they prepared to consummate their union, but doubt flared, and he pulled back. “What’s wrong?” she asked.
“Am I a man, or a butterfly?”
Her smile rivaled the sun, and her fingertips slid teasingly up his arm. She caressed his hair, and put her hand on the back of his neck to pull him back down. Her whispered answer filled the world.
“Charles, my love, does it matter?”
© 2015, David Hunt PE