2017 Polaris, New York
I could not show my face in Gaia after what I’d done. I doubted its people would forgive me if they discovered my identity; the moment would diminish and erase any redemptive work already completed. Any good deeds would be tainted by the revelation as many would probably think I’d done them in the name of gratitude. Victims and survivors might feel further victimized by my attempts to make right what could never truly be made right.
No, I could not show my face in many parts of this world after what I’d done. But I could show it here, tucked away in a cramped kitchen with people who knew me only as Jon.
Victoria placed me in the back where I cleaned and scrubbed dishes and moved boxes of food and supplies. Sometimes, I served our guests, but showing my face to so many all at once unnerved me. I always needed several minutes to settle in and forget I didn’t have to hide. I enjoyed the mindless work behind the scenes because it freed my mind to think of other things, and those other things did not have to be my current problems or the roiling, untended hatred I bore for the elite of Drakon.
Except for Jemier. I often thought of Jemier and how I missed him. Our time together before my exile had been full of strife, but as my closest friend, he knew all facets of me. He’d trusted me when I’d given him no real reason to. He’d been the only one to protest during my second trial in the Court of the King. Amongst the betrayed faces at that sham of a legal ritual, amongst the glares that vowed vengeance, Jemier alone had joined my voice.
Yet he was not here. I replayed what Sam had said about forgiveness; maybe Jemier’s outburst hadn’t come from the merciful place I’d wanted it to, yet I still clung to the hope that he would not abandon me as so many others had.
When the pans were scrubbed, the sinks were wiped down and sanitized, and the tables were cleared, I no longer thought of Jemier but rather of all I saw that day whenever I brought clean serving spoons and other dishes out to the serving line. I became familiar with my duties as well as the poverty that infected the city I now called home. Children were amongst those who visited, and I hated it.
My father must have allowed thousands of children to die simply for being from a different, poorer faction. He’d had his troops quell countless alleged uprisings. How many quellings had torn life from Cydrithenna, stripped communities of their wealth, and created more orphans and vows of vengeance? How similar the slow genocide of the poor was to the violent swiftness of smashing soft skulls. Why, given what Karrdil knew about me, had he not just killed me in my infancy as he had so many others? What purpose did I serve to him if I could not meet the most basic standard for royalty?
I was an object to him. And as his belonging, I had performed many of those quellings for him. Been responsible for orphaning many and throwing families into poverty. I’d been tempered to do it without thought. No wonder I’d done the same here on Gaia.
The kitchen could not staunch the flow of these deeper cuts.
Although none of the children who ate here were orphans as far as the staff were aware, they were unfortunate in another way. Some had homes but little or no food to fill them. One or two regular families lived in vehicles. The meager increments I donated at the grocery market obviously did nothing for this community.
I took to watching the news but found the national stories too revolting to swallow. I listened to Gaians argue with themselves over who was to blame for the kind of poverty at Our Lady of Sorrows; ofttimes these arguments were made by Gaians dressed in the high-end attire of this planet’s elites. Did they not approach their roles with any awareness of their reach? Their responsibility?
Were he still alive, Varin would’ve fit right in, loving as he did the chaos of a blame game. I stopped watching such news channels when I came home late at night and relied on local news and the tablet. My anger with Gaians as a people remained, but the boiling rage reduced to a simmer. I didn’t need the constant reminders of home.
After two weeks, I learned how to cook meals that didn’t taint the air, crinkle my nose, or bore my palate. The meals I made weren’t extravagant, but I learned quickly how to transform them. I practiced at home, using the tablet as a guide. I found entertaining lectures given by a quirky fellow and ended up purchasing these lectures to watch anytime I desired on the device.
I applied my knowledge to the kitchen at Our Lady of Sorrows. Cooking became part of my routine, drawing me farther away from the serving line that infuriated me and put my identity at risk. I saw the hungry in the quantities I cooked, and I vowed to become a better cook with each passing day. I wondered how much money I needed to live on and if Our Lady of Sorrows could make better use of it. But no matter how many I helped feed and how much I quietly donated, it seemed like we always ran out of food and served new faces amongst the regulars.
I burned one batch of tonight’s soup, encrusting the sides of the pot so badly that the mechanical dishwasher could not clean up my error.
“Let me help with some of these,” Brida said, joining me at the sole three-compartment sink while I scrubbed the pot. I often found Brida at my side, even when tasks called her elsewhere.
“No problem.” Her bun came undone and unraveled down her neck. Her black hair tie fell to the floor. I dried my hands, picked it up, and wiped it of dust.
“Here.” I handed it back to her, and she scrambled, ready to take it with her soapy hands, but then dried them off. Finding a piece of carrot stuck to them, she cursed and washed up properly, then took the hair band.
“Thanks,” she said, looping her hair through the tie. “It’s ugly, but does it look tight?”
“It looks secure to me.”
I dipped my hands back into the soapy water to find my scrubber. “I heard Alan didn’t come in today.”
“They might’ve found him somewhere,” she said very casually. She rewashed her hands.
“The others went looking for him?”
Her lips parted slightly. “No, I mean the police. They might’ve, you know, found him.”
She nodded lightly. “It happens sometimes if they can’t find a bed.”
“Alan wasn’t homeless, only hungry.” We didn’t just feed those without homes. We fed the entire spectrum of this community’s poor. The working. The sheltered. The people demonized for having children in a society that condemns them for wanting a choice in the matter.
The train of thought upset me. I enjoyed the intellectual conversations I’d had with Alan the few times I served on the line. He’d given me insight into this planet’s philosophers and their many flaws.
“Oh, that’s right. Then I don’t know what happened to him. Maybe things got better for him?”
“I hope so.”
“Jon,” she said. “Sometimes it seems like, I don’t know, you’re not from around here.”
“Obviously, I’m not,” I said.
“No, shit. Sorry, I don’t mean because of your accent. I mean because you don’t really know what’s going on. And that’s not a bad thing. I mean, it is a bad thing for normal people, but not for you because you’re learning.” Her face turned from peach to pure pink. “I’m sorry. I sound silly.”
“You always say that, and it’s not true.”
“I say silly things.”
“I would tell you if you said silly things.”
She smiled at me, then splashed some of her soapy water my way. Without thinking, I gave her a gentle splash back. She managed to get me far wetter than I got her.
“See?” I laughed as I scrubbed the last fleck of irritating burned soup from the bottom of the pot. “I told you exactly how I felt about being splashed. Albeit with bubbles.” I lifted the pan, dumped the dirty water from within it, and moved it over to the last section of the three-compartment sink. Brida’s washed dishes lined the bottom, awaiting a proper rinse. “Are you done with those yet? You’re taking up the rinsing sink, and I can’t exactly go to another one.”
She moved. “We’re fortunate, you know. Not every kitchen has one of these bad boys.” She made finger guns at the sink.
“This one is rusting.”
“Yeah, we know.”
“How much are they?”
She snorted. “Are you kidding? You can’t just go out and buy one of these things, moneybags.”
I flicked a wad of bubbles at her.
She flicked two back.
I smiled, but no amount of bubble splashing could make either of us immune to the gravity of our work and Alan’s potential situation.
“We should figure out what happened to Alan,” I said.
“I’ll see what I can find out.”
I rinsed the pot and set it aside to dry, then filled a bucket with soapy water to clean the butcher block. Brida ran a stack of clean trays out front only to return with Peter and Kyle in tow.
“You could come with us,” said Peter.
“And who’s gonna fill in for me?” Brida shook her head. “Can’t do it.”
I often tried to stay out of these group conversations, but this one involved work schedules, and I wouldn’t let Victoria do this work alone. “Sorry, can’t do what?”
“Do you want to go?” Peter asked me.
“You don’t want to go,” said Brida.
“I have work,” I said. “And I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You’re right,” said Peter to Brida. “He’s probably too old to care about this stuff anymore.”
Tack on a millennia and then some. Still, insult received. “Too old?”
Peter shook his hands in apology. “No, sorry, man, not like that. I just mean it’s not something guys like you do anymore. Aren’t you like, forty?”
“Stop it, Peter.” Brida gestured to me. “Does he look forty to you?”
“I always thought twenty-seven,” said Kyle, holding his chin.
I did the maturity conversion in my head while I washed the butcher block, then recalled what Sam had put on my identification. Close enough. “Thirty-two, actually.”
“Oh.” Peter shrugged. “Okay, so did you want to go with us?”
“He’s working,” Brida said. She attempted to shepherd them back into the cafeteria.
“But you said you wanted to go, and now you won’t. It can’t just be the two of us.”
Brida grinned. “Are you scared?”
Peter shook his head. “You’re not supposed to go with only two people.”
I set down my cloth. “Someone please explain.”
“I’ve got this,” said Brida. “So, there’s this old hospital, completely abandoned. And anyway, the news just said it’s been bought by some company who plans to tear it down once the permits and whatever go through.”
Ah. Now this I understood. “You think it’s haunted, don’t you?”
“It’s totally haunted,” said Peter.
“Oh, I’m sure it must be.” Drakons, myself included, did not believe in ghosts. Such phenomena could always be explained by something natural or magickal.
“Well…” Brida raised her shoulders. “There are stories.”
This should be interesting. “Like?”
“It’s creepy,” said Kyle.
“Oh, well that solves it. Absolutely haunted.” I laughed quietly and cut through the group to dump the soapy water in the sink.
“No. You get in there, and you feel cold spots,” Peter said.
A draft or poor insulation. “I see.”
“And apparently you can see apparitions.”
“Oh yes, of course. Couldn’t be haunted without a proper ghost.”
“My friend said she saw this glowing thing,” he said. “And he could like, feel its thoughts.”
Oh, well that was something different. A Daemon, perhaps? Why one would be hanging out at an abandoned hospital on an entirely different planet, I couldn’t say.
“I heard that too,” said Kyle.
“Did you guys hear about the time someone found an entire room of ice?” Brida asked. The two enthusiastic ghost hunters nodded and uttered various words of agreement.
“Ice happens in the winter,” I said.
“It was a few weeks ago.”
Okay, that could have been elemental magick… Frost Giant? Too noticeable. Frost Elf? Perhaps. Daemon? That synced with the story of the glowing being. “What’s the name of this hospital?”
Peter’s eyes lit up. “Wait, do you want to go?”
“I’m merely curious about the local legend.”
“Saint Mary’s,” said Brida. “Seriously, don’t go with them. They just want to walk around and scare the crap out of themselves. They’re not interested in the architecture or anything.”
“I’m not planning on it.”
“Aw, man.” Peter’s shoulders slumped. “Guess we’ll find someone else. You sure you don’t wanna come with, Brida?”
“I said I can’t.”
“Fine.” He nodded at Kyle, and the two finally returned to their work out front.
“I should get back to work too,” she said. “Look up Saint Mary’s when you can. It’s kinda cool.”
If it meant finding evidence of a Daemon? “I’ll do that. Thanks for the local history lesson.”
She smiled. “No problem.”