Tuesday morning, catching up
It's Tuesday morning, not even 7, when I get to the school.
For the past few days I was out of town, camping, and this is my first day back, so I decided to come in earlier than normal and start in on the ungraded pile of quizzes from Monday.
Hit the ground running and all that.
Eventually Jerome comes in and we split the remainder of the work.
Grading the quizzes and chatting about our lives is a nice way to get back into the swing of things.
The first class is at 9 and we have plenty of time to catch up and even plan out the day's activities.
Over the past week, Jerome has been working through the lesson plan we both came up with, and I'm happy to see that all the kids in our classes seem to be following the material.
As 9am approaches, the students start to come in, so I ask each about the past week, and in turn I get grilled about the camping trip.
Yasmin and Gene walk in together, as is typical, but then she beelines for her desk, pointedly ignoring Gene.
Gene comes over to the front of the room, by my desk, and we chat, but it's superficial, and he doesn't mention Yasmin.
There are a few minutes before first bell, so I come over to Yasmin's pod of four desks, take a seat opposite her.
"Good morning, Mr Miles," she mumbles without looking up.
"Hey there, Yasmin, how are you doing?"
After a few moment, she looks up at me, but her eyes don't stay too long: she quickly looks over toward Gene, then back to her desk.
"Is everything alright with you and Gene?"
She shrugs, keeps her eyes down.
After a minute, she looks up at me.
"We played baseball last night, and I got a home run," she says through clenched teeth.
"Gene was pitching... and we haven't really talked since then."
I look back towards Gene and catch his glance.
For a moment there is a shimmer of shame on his face, then Gene buries his head in his textbook.
Yas is on the verge of tears as the bell rings.
"Congratulations on the home run, Yasmin, that's a huge deal.
And Gene will come around, just give him some time."
We go over the logarithms lesson from last week, I remind the class of the basics, and then we start doing problems from the textbook.
Jerome and I circulate through the class and answer questions, but the kids seem to be doing well and are ploughing through practice problems at a steady pace.
About half hour into the class, my watch starts to buzz.
Fuck, I think, who is it now?!
There are only 18 students in the class, so it's easy enough to find an activated Beacon: the ubiquitous bracelet on Yasmin's right hand is glowing bright red.
Jerome calls administration while I make my way to Yas.
"Settle down, settle down," I begin the usual spiel, but it's not necessary, these kids have been through this countless times, everyone continues to work through the problems.
Yas is starting to hyperventilate, but even before I reach her, Gene is already at her side with a pad of paper and color pencils.
He holds her hands, stares deep into her eyes, she looks back, and for a while the two friends just sit there and breathe.
Eventually Yas nods, a confirmation to me and the rest of the class that she is OK, and then she starts coloring.
Gene puts away the textbook and Yasmin's workbook, the list of problems incomplete and suddenly abandoned.
Gene stays at Yasmin's pod and continues his work.
The rest of the class goes by uneventfully.
I look in on what Yas is working on, and it turns out to be an orange hot-air balloon.
The school councilor Elle Kearns shows up with the principal, Ms Fonteau, outside the classroom a few minutes before the end of the hour.
After the bell, they meet with Yas, Gene, and a few others.
Jerome and I join them, of course.
"I'll be with Yas the next two classes," Gene is explaining, "then we have lunch, then Anne has three classes with Yas."
Anne nods at that: "I've called Mr Nadir, he's going to pick up Yas after school."
Yasmin is holding her phone and every minute or so, but with seemingly random frequency, she pokes at an emoji on the screen and a computerized voice says: "Yasmin is doing good".
"Alan and Sumit are our backups," Gene adds and Ms Kearns seems satisfied.
All eyes turn to Yas.
She smiles and holds up her phone: a happy character looks back at us.
I look over the cafeteria and count the SpeechAlerts, the sources of the disturbing red glow.
Today there are three impacted students: Yasmin N, Toby D, and Elizabeth S.
They are spread through the cafeteria, each seemingly the center of their own fan-club.
The other kids are making a point of supporting their temporarily-disabled friends.
I smile, then frown at the obvious.
I'm not trying to glamorize Jefferson Aphasia, or demean its sufferers.
Obviously it is terrible and devastating, what happened five years back and what continues to happen now, but there are moments of happiness in the grief.
Reminders of the potential of humanity, that we're not all utter shit-heads.
Elle Kearns, perhaps one of the best examples of non-shit-head, sits down on my left, plops her heated and sealed coffee mug next to my lunch.
"Gar, how are you doing after this morning?"
She nods in the direction of Yasmin.
Sucks when it happens to kids, but..."
I shrug and take a bite of my sandwich.
"Ever been to the Old Playground?" Elle Kearns asks as she grabs a potato chip off my plate.
I shake my head, continue chewing.
She looks deep into my eyes.
I stare back and chew for a bit.
"Actually, yeah, I am," I nod and take an even bigger bite.
"Ah, perfect, then we're going there on Friday, for date night!"
Elle smacks me on the shoulder and walks off in the direction of the library.
Jerome is across from me, reading a book, but I can see his grin behind the faded pages.
After school lets out, Elle and I go for our typical hour-long run around the neighborhood.
We catch each other up on our days.
"We don't have to go to the Old Playground," she eventually offers.
"I know, but let's do it," I reply.
We run for a bit and I don't change my mind, and neither does she.
At the Conant Ave intersection we split up: I head right back toward the school, she heads straight toward our shared apartment just half a mile away.
I'd like to join her, but the Drama Club Revue is tonight, and I have to attend this performance.
Toby and Yas both have roles in tonight's skits, and I want to show them support.
Toby plays Trotsky in the first skit of the night and skulks around with a foam skull.
His backup Sumit - whose SpeechAlert is thankfully glowing a muted green - is on stage next to Toby.
Sumit is wearing all-black, aside from the green-glowing SpeechAlert, and acts out the play.
Toby matches Sumit's movements and facial expressions, opens his mouth at the right moments.
The audience has learned to ignore the under-study, because the audience is busy echoing Toby's lines as one.
Toby is the body, Sumit is the mind, and the audience is the voice, of a character on stage.
Theater of the 21st century.
It has certainly changed.
Yas' skit is one of the many non-verbal, Jefferson Aphasia skits, so she is able to perform it herself, without a backup.
With four other actors, she presents an old speechless folk tale about an arduous but successful hunt.
Her bracelet's red glow creepily highlights the fake blood around her mouth as her character bites into a fresh kill, and it all works, and the audience is ecstatic.
Before the night is over, Toby's SpeechAlert changes color and there is terrific applause from the audience.
It's a bit embarrassing, but the damn bracelet gets a bigger reaction than most of the skits.
Wednesday is a pretty typical day.
Yas is back, cheerful and joking around with Gene, their little tiff all forgotten now.
Wednesday night, Elle and I have dinner at Ms Fonteau's place.
It's a regular event that Elle has been attending for a few years now, and one that I've recently joined in on.
Ms Fonteau, the school principal, has had a long-standing relationship with the Kearns family, and now that Elle's father and mother are both out of the picture, that leaves just Elle.
And Elle is happy for the company, which means that so am I.
Ms Fonteau made an amazing lasagna and I even go back for seconds.
After desert I excuse myself and sneak into Ms Fonteau's home office.
There's a painting of an orange-and-blue hot-air balloon hanging on one of the walls, just where I remember seeing it.
I hear Elle approaching and tense up, my hands go cold and seem to fill with needles.
I shake my hands to try to restore some circulation.
"Hey, everything OK, Gar?" she asks.
"That's the one," I say to Elle and point at the painting.
"Jas was coloring that same picture yesterday, during her JA episode."
Elle looks over at the painting and considers it for a few moments.
"The hot-air balloons are constantly taking off here in the summer, I can see where the inspiration comes from."
"Who painted this one?" I ask.
"My father, in his college years," Elle replies.
"Ms Fonteau found it in some of her paperwork, a few years back.
I think she went to college with my dad."
I nod at that.
I hadn't realized just how long Fonteau's relationship was with Kearns.
Friday, The Old Playground
I've heard of the Old Playground before, of course.
Had read the articles about it, and the other known SFZs.
But I haven't actually gone to see it.
Never mind even entering it.
But it's Elle's turn to choose our Date Night locale, and if she wants a strange one...
Like with most things these days, there's a website where you need to book a specific time at the Old Playground.
I show the admittance code to the surprisingly-alert guard at the gate, and we're through into the old high school parking lot.
The old building and everything other than the playground are gone.
We park in a large, mostly empty lot.
It's early evening, the sun has recently gone down, but the Old Playground and the parking lot are both illuminated by strong lights.
There are a few cars in the lot: I can see a line of four ambulance, two cop cars beyond that, and closest to us are the two civilian vehicles, a blue sedan and a white minivan.
It's Friday evening, not really a surprise that the Old Playground isn't the most popular hang-out.
A group of teenagers and an old, white-bearded guy are leaving the playground and bee-lining for the minivan.
I've only heard but hadn't seen until now of parents organizing "outings", sort of like the mumps parties of the last century, in an attempt to get their little ones to practice with the Predictable Jefferson Aphasia in a safe environment, to make sure they can keep calm when the Unpredictable Jefferson Aphasia inevitably sweeps through town.
Empty bleachers face the fenced-in area, so I lead Elle there.
"Mind if we watch?
For a bit?"
"Sure," she nods and hugs me.
The term "Jefferson Aphasia" is of course as much a misnomer as the Spanish Flu or Monster Island.
Spain was the first to recognize the flu as an epidemic, and for that they forever became associated with it.
One must also remember that Monster Island is actually a peninsula.
So "Jefferson Aphasia" isn't actually aphasia, but that's what someone started calling it in the months following the near apocalyptic events of June 16th, five years ago, and the name stuck.
June 16th is to my generation what September 11th was to our parents.
A day forever marred on every single calendar by the countless changes our world has endured.
On June 16th, people everywhere, in every city, state, country, continent... irrespective of gender, national origin, age, profession, or any identifiable difference... all lost their ability to identify words.
They lost the ability to read, to speak, even to have an internal dialogue.
Hence the proliferation of Iconography, the easily-recognized signs that adorn every store and label every door.
Blue-lit emergency phones dot every city at regular intervals, and when there is no infrastructure in place, drones hover over the landscape and provide instant support to any Jefferson Aphasia sufferer.
At first, five years ago on June 16th, when the world-spanning JA hit, I was one of the temporarily-unaffected.
I didn't quite understand what the big deal was.
So you couldn't find the right word for a few hours, so what?, I used to wonder.
Then, on June 18th, just two days into growing worldwide panic, I was affected, alone in my hermetically-sealed condo, utterly shut off from a world I had already come to hate.
That's when I felt inescapable fear and immeasurable desolation.
Humans are defined by our language.
Language allows us to think, to ponder, to consider.
We are capable of abstract thought because of language.
I learned all of that in the "few hours" that JA impacted me.
I learned that, but was unable to put it into words, as my internal monologue was gone.
And then, after six hours of torture, JA receded and words finally came to me.
And this how we all live now.
The Old Playground is an SFZ, a Speech-Free Zone.
It is a permanent spot where Jefferson Aphasia kicks in and our brains temporarily regress to some prehistoric state that is incapable of recognizing words.
We watch as a family with a young boy, around the age of 5, approaches the Old Playground.
The boy must have recently moved here with his family, he isn't in the school system yet, so neither I nor Elle know this family.
The guards open the door to the air-lock, and the family steps inside.
The door closes quickly, but silently.
I watch the boy.
His eyes go wide, his mouth tries to form a scream, and the boy looks from his father, to the mother, and back.
They glance at him with love in their eyes, their hands touch him and make him feel safe, surround him as a warm basket.
After a minute, the boy stops crying, smiles up at his parents, at the comfortable hold they have the boy in.
"It's like they're holding his head underwater, in the kitchen sink, and are just waiting for the boy to realize that he can breathe the water," Elle mutters to me.
The father gives a thumbs-up gesture to the guard, the mother repeats the same same gesture.
All eyes are on the boy, and he quickly flips the guard the bird, before changing the gesture to a thumbs up.
Elle laughs at that.
"Kids sign the funniest things!"
The family goes through the air-lock, through the side that leads deeper into the Old Playground.
The boy runs around and plays on the equipment, his earlier reaction now entirely behind him.
The parents hug and smile at their child.
The monkey-bars and the zip-line have an ancient look to them, but shine with a recent coat of paint, and there is a layer of rubber from discarded tires over the whole field.
The equipment here is kept in good shape.
"When the JA hits, do you ever feel like a fish out of water?" I ask Elle.
"Yeah, that's an interesting analogy.
I've heard people describe it like being waterboarded.
You know it's not going to kill you, but it's the worst thing you'll ever experience in your life."
"Waterboarding, yeah, that's another concept that comes to mind," I say and shake my head.
"Look, we don't have to go..." Elle begins for just the second time.
She knows how I feel, has seen me in the grips of Jefferson Aphasia, has had to sooth me in the past.
But something in my reaction must speak volumes, must in some way communicate to her that I need this moment to happen, that I am here for her and for myself, so she drops the argument.
"OK," I say and jokingly slap my knee.
"Let's do this thing!"
Elle smiles and we walk to the entrance.
The cops welcome us, give us a brief security check, and we step toward the air-lock.
The extra-wide gates surrounding the Zone slide apart and we step forward, our hands clasped between us.
Gary Miles and Elle Kearns step over the yellow-and-red tape that delineates the SFZ from the not-currently-SFZ of the outside world.
Gary's eyes widen and he quickly glances around.
He was expecting this, of course, but now that he is within the SFZ, he is unable to talk to himself, he is unable to remind himself that this is expected, that this is the plan.
Gary's mouth opens and closes, like the fish from his earlier analogy, and he tries to talk, but nothing is coming.
He makes a growl instead.
Elle puts her hands on Gary's cheeks, maneuvers his head to face her, locks eyes with him.
She holds him and he breathes, and for a few moments that is all that they do.
The cops on the other side of the fence have turned around a bit, backed up, are giving Gary and Elle some privacy in this tender moment.
Elle kisses Gary and his heart finally stops resembling a runaway jackhammer.
They face the cops, give them a thumbs up, and watch as the gate they walked through closes.
Two large Iconography signs are attached to the gate:
Elle and Gary face left, towards the gate that blocks the way further into the Old Playground, which only starts to move once the entry gate is closed.
The so-called air-lock system at work.
Elle leads Gary toward a bench and they sit down.
Gary looks around and his eyes flit around on their own, following some potential sequence of play: first the slide that is right next to them, then the monkey bars at the end of the slide, then the see-saw, the merry-go-round, a four square court, then finally the swing set with the boy and his parents.
For a little while, Gary is entranced with the young boy and his parents.
The three are at the opposite side of the playground, their Beacons shine red and give a particularly somber hue to the swing set.
The mother stands and pushes the smiling boy in the swing, as the father takes a photo.
Gary's mouth changes its expression to match the young boy's, a wide smile that shows a lot of teeth.
Elle strokes Gary's hand and breaks him out of his reverie.
Gary looks back at Elle and the smile falls away, only to be replaced by an altogether-different expression.
Tears begin to stream down Elle's face.
Gary moves in closes and kisses her, softly.
They hold each other for an indescribable amount of time.
Of the dozens of high-powered lights that illuminate the Old Playground, one goes out and snaps Gary and Elle out of their trance.
Elle gets up and runs toward the slide.
The playground hardware isn't original, the child-sized equipment has been replaced with sturdier and larger versions that are appropriate to all visitors.
Elle climbs the metal contraption and slides down, whooping.
Gary notices that the boy and his parents have left.
Gary notices this, but quickly forgets it, as the thought is replaced by the joyful laugh of his girlfriend.
Gary follows her to the monkey bars and they chase each other, their inner children seemingly unleashed.
I start the car, shift into drive and navigate out of the parking lot onto the main thoroughfare.
Elle is stroking my leg, her message clear.
We hit a lot of green lights and I am thankful to whatever deity is watching over us.
Our lovemaking is as wordless as the date at the Old Playground.
We grunt and moan and scare the cat.
Afterwards, we lie in bed and hold each other.
"I was lost"
"You were there for me"
"I felt trapped"
"I felt loved"
"It was fun"
"I love you"
We say the same things to each other through tears, forget who said what, just know that we both felt drained by the experience at the Old Playground.
We make love again and Elle drifts off to sleep.
Ten minutes later I head make my way toward to the basement.
I moved into an old lady's place a week after she fell down in the shower.
And because of how things worked out in my personal life, at the very moment the ambulance was taking her to the hospital, I was being kicked out of my own home and sent packing.
This little backwoods town by the name of Ambrosia was in dire need of a math teacher, and that seemed like the best decision at the moment.
It worked into my life-story so perfectly, that I found purpose and meaning in this most terrible situation.
Like a phoenix I will rise from the ashes of my destruction, I must have thought at one point or another.
I unlock the heavy basement door, swing it open, enter, turn on all the lights.
From the top of the stairs, I can see the entire basement, and don't see any of the tell-tale signs of intrusion.
I lock the door behind me and descend.
During my first week here, I boarded up all the windows into the basement.
This door is the only way into this place, and I wear the only key on a chain around my neck.
This place really feels like my fortress of solitude.
The nature of the basement has never come up as a topic of conversation between me and Elle.
She simply accepts that this is my place, where I go to rest and do whatever it is that a math teacher from Boston might be up to.
I walk up to the safe in the corner of the room, twirl the ancient-but-smooth lock, spin it this way and that, and the great door swings open.
I reach past the pistol and its ammo, grab a black thumbdrive that's sitting just against the safe's back wall.
The computer is a somewhat older gaming PC with two monitors.
Nothing too strange, certainly not for a nerdy teacher.
A swirling abstract pattern of reds and purples moves around the screens.
Before I log-in, though, I check my phone for camera alerts.
There are just three: when I got up, as I walked through the kitchen, and when I opened the basement door.
No news is good news, I think to myself.
I put the thumbdrive into the USB slot on the keyboard and sign in with a long, convoluted password.
The password and the thumbdrive act as a two-step sign-in process: the computer won't unlock without both.
First things first, I check my email.
There are a few notifications from the various forums, but nothing too exciting, nothing that can't wait.
I come back to the most recent browser window and dive back into the topic on the screen: The Old Playground, SFZs, and Manuel Kearns.
Saturday, Penrose, and bagels
It's Saturday and Elle has a run organized with some teacher and parent friends of hers, so I sleep in.
Elle comes back around 11am and is surprised to find me still in bed.
I'm reading a book by Roger Penrose.
I toss on some house clothes and go into the living room, where Elle already has a breakfast of bagels, muffins, and coffee that she brought back after the run.
"Did you stay up really late last night?" she asks.
"Yeah, guess I was on a roll, had lots of ideas to work through," I explain and wave the current book.
"What's that one about?" Elle nods toward my new fascination.
"Penrose thinks our brains are quantum devices that are communicating with parallel versions of themselves.
In a nut-shell."
That's some heavy stuff.
New research project?" Elle asks.
"Eh, too soon to tell," I wobble my hand back and forth.
"I like the theory as idea-porn, but I don't think I agree with it."
"You like it, but you don't like it?" Elle frowns.
"I'm not convinced by the arguments, but it's still a fascinating idea."
"OK, fair enough," she nods.
"Listen, Elle..." I begin and lamely trail off.
Elle raises her eyebrows at me.
"Can I ask you about your dad?"
Elle blinks at me and tilts her head.
I feel like a puppy is staring at me and struggling to comprehend what I just said.
"Sorry, never mind, it's nothing, just a shit-load of thoughts running through my head this morning," I reply and try to back-pedal as fast as I can.
"Uh-huh," Elle replies wordlessly.
She glances at the kitchen clock.
"Oh, I didn't realize what time it was.
We have the minor league game this afternoon, Jerome and Sam are coming over in an hour."
"Just have to put my pants on," I smile back.
Baseball, America's once and future pastime
Sam, Jerome's partner, drives us in their recently-upgraded show-car.
This one is an electric truck with a metric fuck-ton of practical and holo FX bolted onto it to produce a terrifying post-apocalyptic death car.
Quite a few heads turn and smiles greet us as we drive down Ambrosia's sole main street on the way to the minor-league game in a chuffing and steam-belching War Rig.
Sam is driving, Elle is in the front next to them, they are chatting about the roster for the day's game.
I'm in the back-seat, just enjoying the strange experience and the surprisingly soft leather.
Guess I wasn't expecting luxury in a post-apocalyptic vehicle.
Sam catches my eye through the rear-view mirror and takes this opportunity to spear me through the heart: "Hey, Gary, Jerome and I were just watching your stream, the episode about the baker, I love that one!
Did you know that she was on a plane on six-sixteen?"
I nod along to that, of course I spoke with the baker about her fateful flight.
"If it's not a secret," Sam asks, "are you working on anything right now?"
I glance briefly at Elle but she is staring at the train that's passing by on her side.
"Yeah, looking into Jefferson Aphasia, a bit, maybe from a quantum perspective.
We just visited the Old Playground, last night," I mention, trying to rope Elle into the conversation.
"Have either of you been to the Old Playground lately?"
"Eh, who has the time?" Sam replies and laughs.
Gallows humor, of sorts.
Hey, when's the last time you lost your shit on purpose?
Jerome pipes up, thankfully: "I spotted an albino dalmatian earlier today.
It was the least I could do."
Sam brakes the car so suddenly that both Jerome and I smash our faces into the smooth, soft leather in front of us.
"No puns in my car!" Sam roars, then gets back to driving and chatting with Elle about the upcoming game.
Elle attended school with a few of the players, a good fraction of whom them have very similar life stories.
They've stayed around, tried their hand at various careers, but always ended up back here in the fall.
Elle explains that baseball is like a light-house, or at least that's how it feels.
I can definitely see that.
It's also another activity that is mostly unimpeded by Jefferson Aphasia.
We get to the stadium and I offer to get drinks, while everyone else heads onto the field to chat with the players before the game.
It's that small of a town.
I get to the dispenser and punch in our usual order of two popcorns and four drinks.
Jerome peels off from the group and finds me at the concession stand.
"Elle's in a mood," Jerome offers without a preamble.
I glance toward her and Sam, they are chatting with #14, Alec something.
Alec compliments Sam's dress, and Sam curtsies in return.
Elle glances our way, then quickly looks away.
The popcorn begins to fill up the container, two clear plastic cups appear out of the machine and begin to fill up with amber liquid.
"We went to the Old Playground last night," I remind Jerome.
"It was a bit weird, at first.
And I'm thinking of researching it.
And I asked Elle about her father."
Jerome nods and picks up two of the drinks.
Two more plastic cups drop down and start to fill up.
"Shit, that's a sore topic," Jerome winces.
"No one really wants to talk about what happened that day, not about the people we lost."
OK, thanks Jerome.
Hey, can you do me a favor?"
"Can Elle and I stay at your cabin tomorrow?"
The cabin and the hike
After the game, I spring the surprise cabin stay on Elle.
She is excited, of course, but has some grading to get done before the weekend is over, as I expected.
So we compromise and decide to head over tomorrow morning.
The cabin is only an hour outside of town and we get to it before noon.
We've spent most of the week indoors at the school, for extracurriculars and the like, so I suggest we go hiking, get a healthy dose of the mountain air.
Elle is happy with the idea, so she packs us a couple of snack packs and we head out.
I drive us to an empty lot further down the road, we park, and I lead us toward the trail.
This isn't one of our normal routes, so Elle lets me lead.
"Did you come up here last week?" Elle asks about my recent camping trip.
"Yeah, this was it.
Pretty close to Jerome's cabin, eh?
This hike has a hell of a view," I say and promptly shut up.
"You're so tense, Gar.
"I've been thinking...", I begin.
Elle is watching me, waiting for me to continue, but isn't rushing me.
It's clear to her that I've got stuff on my mind and chose the hike for this conversation.
"Where were you on 6/16?"
It's a question as old as humanity: where were you when this big event changed the world?
Where were you when the planes hit the towers?
When the first human died on the moon?
When humanity temporarily lost our minds and devolved to pre-language beings?
We walk for a while through the dense, moss-covered forest, before Elle decides to speak.
"I was 25, out of college and back here, in Ambrosia.
That day was a Thursday and I was tubing with some friends.
We all played hooky, actually, called in with crap excuses to our various jobs."
We hit a particularly steep section of the trail and for a few moments we both shut up and busy ourselves with not slipping.
"Then It hit at 12:17pm.
We were in the river, about two miles down from where we started, our crafts all tied together, with two coolers."
Elle walks quietly for a while.
I wait and watch as Elle travels back in time and remembers the silence of the Event.
"It was four of us on that trip, and three of us got impacted.
Lenny was the only 'lucky' one, though it sure as shit didn't seem that way, not from his point of view.
We all freaked out immediately and ended up in the water.
Lemmy got to the shore first and helped the rest of us.
It was strange, coordinating without speaking.
It was like pantomiming, but much simpler, since we couldn't spell things out.
Lemmy was talking, of course, but no one could understand him."
"Who else was with you?"
"It was the four of us: Lemmy, Jane, Scott, and me.
I remember that Scott was really losing it, he was freaking out and yelling, shouting incoherent nonsense.
Jane stuck close to Lemmy, as she did anyway."
"Where was your mom during all of this?"
Elle stops and looks back at me, questioningly, but something in my look must be speaking straight into her soul, as she turns around and keeps walking.
"Mom was at home, and she wasn't impacted by the initial waves of JA.
Like you, Gar, it didn't hit her until two days later."
I nod at that, glad to hear that my memory of the event is accurate.
"What about your dad?
What happened to him?"
"The same thing that happened to a billion other people, Gar," she replies frostily.
For about ten minutes, neither one of us speaks.
We continue to climb the trail higher and higher into the mountains.
Elle is enjoying the exertion, I can hear her directing anger into her motions, into the climb.
This has become a walk of anger for her.
That's a good place for her to be, I decide.
The "billion" figure that Elle quoted came from the undocumented deaths, the disappearances, and the many suicides.
Everyone on the planet lost someone to the 6/16 Event.
We all attended the empty-coffin funerals and said our goodbyes to the Lost, the friends who left our world so immediately and privately.
"My dad disappeared during the Event.
His pickup was eventually found in the Mill Creek, about half-way between here and Ambrosia, but they never found a body."
"What do you think happened, Elle?"
"The obvious, Gar.
He freaked out, drove his truck into the Creek, and drowned."
Elle is trembling.
I reach out for her but she shirks back from my touch.
"Why?" she screams.
"Why the fuck are you asking me this shit?!"
Elle has a crazed look in her blood-drenched and puffy eyes.
"It's just up ahead," I say as a way of explanation and lead Elle toward a shadowy meadow.
The forest opens up here a bit and a patch of green pops up, devoid of trees.
The far side of the meadow is in deep shadow, but details pop out at us as we approach, and eventually Elle notices the heavy steel door set into the near-vertical wall.
A rusted but obviously yellow metal sign hangs on the door and warns of dangers just beyond.
"What is this place?" Elle asks.
"In the 1960s, Ambrosia was on a short-list of places to host NORAD.
That honor eventually went to Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado, but not before some exploratory tunnels were cut into the rock.
They installed some administrative and security offices at the topmost level, then ceased operations.
This is one of the entrances to a half-constructed military base from an ancient war."
"Why are we here?"
"Because there's something you need to see."
The door slides on a rail and reveals a small cave just beyond.
Sunshine illuminates the meadow, which in turn lights up the cave.
"It's perfectly safe," I start my preamble and Elle's intense eyes almost burn a hole in me.
"I was through here, recently.
Just try and keep that in mind.
And keep moving toward the light."
Elle looks into the cave, doesn't see any light sources, and raises an eye-brow.
My hands go up in a placating gesture, to which Elle just nods: "Right, right, I trust you, Gar.
Let's get this over with."
Elle turns on the bright LED torch that's mounted on her shoulder and steps into the cave.
I activate my own lights and follow her.
"There's a smaller cave, here," Elle points to the side, "right where the floor tilts, be careful-", and promptly looses her footing and slides into the mountain.
If I didn't know this was going to happen, I'd have been terrified.
I sit down on the slightly-tilting floor of the cave and scoot forward until gravity defeats friction and I begin to slide.
Elle is a tumbling, strobe-like light source.
She slides out of a hole in the cavern and lands on a pile of mattresses, and illuminates the space.
Gary follows and bumps into Elle as his own momentum carries him farther into the room.
Both of their JA beacons are lit up a bright red.
Elle keeps looking between the beacon and the strange surroundings she finds herself in.
Gary watches Elle, but is calmer, some part of his brain is clearly expecting this situation, so he does not panic.
They have landed in what looks like a communal shower space.
Dull white tiles line the floor and the walls.
Elle and Gary take a moment to look around.
Elle gets up and scans the walls of the room, and quickly finds the yellow spray-painted arrows and smiley faces.
These are the same smiley emojis that have become ubiquitous in the post-JA world, and clearly they have rooted deep into Elle's brain.
She smiles when she sees the smileys and the arrows.
Elle turns toward Gary, waves at the spray-painted glyphs, smiles a radiant smile, and begins leading them in the indicated direction.
Gary nods and follows.
The showers lead toward a long tunnel, and the far end of which Elle notices lights.
The arrows point that way, so the two of them continue walking.
There are arrows spray-painted on the walls of the hallway, all pointing the same direction.
They pass about a dozen rooms, and look into each one, but each is deserted.
Elle and Gary are the only humans in the place.
The hallway turns to the right, and that is where the light is coming from.
They turn and find themselves in a single large room.
If Elle or Gary could speak, they'd probably describe the space as a cafeteria.
The far end seems drenched in sunlight, so they hurry toward it.
As they get closer and their eyes adjust to the sun, Elle notices the prison-like bars that separate the big room from the outside.
She walks up to the bars, grabs them and shakes, while screaming in incoherent rage.
A section of the bars moves as Elle shakes it, moves slightly to the left.
Elle pushes against the sliding door and in a few moments there's enough space for Elle to slip out.
Gary follows through the opening.
"-whole place is an SFZ!"
I only hear the last part of what Elle says, since I was a few steps behind her and was still in the SFZ when she started speaking.
"Why the fuck did you lead us through that?
What if this gate was locked?!"
Elle is livid, but she is also curious.
She is clearly angry at what happened, but she wants answers more than anything.
"We would have been stuck there, possibly for days, even weeks," I reply slowly.
"But good thing that this place is..." I point through the iron bars to the large room we just left.
There is a bed there, in the corner of the space, along with a table and an art station.
An easel stands in the middle of it all, and on it is a large frame, covered with a brown tarp.
Elle glances back toward the almost-NORAD site and considers that for a moment.
I can see the gears turning in her head as Elle undoubtedly tries to imagine that horror scenario.
Stuck in a deserted SFZ, with no way of contacting anyone.
Elle shakes her head, amazed at the terrifying thought.
"Weeks, in there, with Jefferson Aphasia making it impossible to think.
I wouldn't make it an hour, never mind days!"
The voice freezes Elle in her steps.
It is coming from behind her.
Elle turns, slowly.
I can see tears well up in her eyes, but the fireworks don't go off until she faces the speaker.
"Dad!" Elle shrieks.
"Your father was on a hike on June 16th, not too far from here, when the Event happened and impacted our world.
He fell down into the Base, back when this gate", I gesture behind us, "was still locked.
Being trapped in that maze of doors, unable to understand what was happening to him, and, unlike most of the world, not having the respite of even a few hours... Your father was driven close to madness."
"Close," he utters from the camping chair.
Elle pours him a cup of cowboy coffee, then sits in the chair next to his.
They are both facing west, toward the sunset.
I pause for a moment and take a minute to appreciate our world.
We are sitting around a campfire, a few feet away from the would-be NORAD SFZ, with Elle's long-presumed-dead father, having a coffee.
We're situated under an outcropping of rock, so even a downpour would not touch us, and from here I can see for miles.
Most of what I see before me are forests of green that haven't felt man's reach.
I can see how life out here might be pleasant.
"He spends most of his time in the Base," I continue, speaking for Elle's father.
He nods along and drinks his coffee.
"Your father has forgotten a lot of language, so it is difficult for him to communicate with us."
Manuel takes this moment to shine a laser pointer at a box of cookies on the table.
I get up and fetch them for him.
Manuel grins and nods his head, in an action that I now take to mean 'thanks!'.
"And this is one way to communicate, but it's hard to say 'I love you' with a laser pointer," I finish.
Elle nods, of course she has figured this out.
She looks at me and I know the question on her mind.
"I've only known for a few days," I answer.
"I stumbled onto this place on the last day of my stay at the cabin.
I wasn't sure how to tell you that your father was alive.
And I'm still not sure how to explain that he likes it here."
"Correct," Manuel says.
"It's great to see you, dad," Elle says and rests a hand on top of his.
"Tour, tour," Manuel says and shines the laser pointer at the opening in the steel fence, into the Base.
"I'd love to," Elle says enthusiastically through a veil of tears.
It has been there for as long as we've been in this place.
I give a thumbs up, but remain seated.
This is just for them.
Manuel gets up and walks, without comment, straight through the doorway of the SFZ.
Elle follows, but falls down after a single step into the Base.
After a moment she regains her composure, but the SFZ is still an unpleasant experience for her.
Manuel beelines for the kitchen area.
It's a mostly-open space demarcated by a handful of wire racks filled with pots and pans.
Manuel walks through these and grabs two cast iron pans, presents them to Elle.
She is confused, but after a moment Elle runs her hands over both skillets, simultaneously touching their insides.
She seems to caress the dark steel, even closes her eyes as tactile sensation seems to overload her.
It goes like that.
Manuel presents a sensory view of his new home, and Elle experiences it.
She plunges her hand into a barrel of rice, smells the paints, feels the heft of the exercise equipment, jumps back as Manuel turns on a propane torch for a moment.
His new home is half laboratory, half an industrial kitchen, half an art studio.
The rest of the space, the nooks and crannies, is stuffed with canned food.
Manuel rips the tarp off his painting to reveal an orange-and-blue hot-air balloon.
Elle glances at me, past me, toward an orange-and-blue hot-air balloon that rises above Ambrosia.
It's the season for them.
Elle and Manuel continue the tour and I watch as a few more hot-air balloons go up in the sky.
It's a good day for flights of fancy.
The SFZ eventually gets to be too much for Elle, and she comes out of the Base after almost an hour, takes a seat next to me.
I extend a beer to her, and she accepts and gulps it down.
There is of course the giant elephant in the room, and neither one of us is quite ready for that conversation.
But, Elle looks up at me, as if her thoughts mirror mine, there is no better time.
"Thanks for taking me here," Elle eventually says.
"I can understand why you were reluctant to tell me.
He is not the same person he was.
But," here Elle faces me directly and her eyes shoot flames, "why did you wait almost a week to tell me?"
"Your father asked me to wait, not to tell you, until today."
Elle looks toward the Base, finds her father there.
He is starting to cook: there are several open cans on the counter and he is slicing up meat on the cutting board.
The cans are brightly colored, with big black symbol outlines that denoted peas, corn, and one I couldn't see from here.
Of course Manuel stocks this place with JA-accessible food.
"What was it like in there?" I ask Elle.
That was the overwhelming emotion, I think, from the past hour.
It was fascinating and lovely to see his life.
I'm glad that he is not dead, but I'm not sure how I feel about his new life."
Elle drinks more of her beer and watches her father.
The gears in her head are whirring and I don't dare interrupt, so I sit back and drink as well.
"He can't go back, the world is too much for him.
I get it.
I hate it, and I get it"
Tears run down her face and I know that Elle is starting to accept things.
We are seated around a fire pit, and it's running low, so I take this opportunity to add a few more logs to the fire.
"What am I missing?" Elle asks as I sit down.
"Drop the niceties, Gar.
What do I need to pay attention to?
You've known about my father for almost a week, you must have thought through every single damn avenue.
What am I not seeing?"
"Your father is cooking with meat from a fridge," I point into the Base.
"Someone else knows about my father," Elle nods.
"That's kind of expected, he couldn't have survived here on his own.
And it's probably the same someone who unlocked the Base."
"That seems like a reasonable assumption," I agree.
"What else?" Elle asks.
I'm about to respond, but at just that moment Manuel steps out of the SFZ with a tray of food.
And dinner's on and everything else is forgotten, for now.
Manuel has four plates and sets of silverware with him.
Elle looks my way, but all I can do is shrug at this point.
I'm just as in the dark as she is.
Manuel has prepared beef Stroganoff from the canned supplies and the meat from the fridge.
It smells delicious and I say as much.
Manuel just nods his head and smiles.
"This is great, dad," Elle beams at him, then turns towards me.
"Dad was never really interested in cooking, before."
Manuel shrugs and smiles at Elle.
He reaches into his jacket pocket and takes out a stack of note cards.
These are held together with a rubber band.
He takes the first one out and extends it to Elle.
She takes the card and reads it out loud: "What is your life like?"
She hands me the card, wipes some tears from her face, and starts telling Manuel about the past five years.
The rhododendron bushes to the side of the ledge rustle and out of the foliage steps out a person.
The sun is behind the newcomer, so all I can see is the silhouette, but it's one I can identify in a heart-beat.
It is the school principal, Ms Fonteau.
Elle stops speaking mid-sentence.
Manuel's back is to the newcomer, and without looking he waves her to come over, to join us for dinner.
The words hang in the listless air and I look from father to daughter to principal, and back.
Ms Fonteau walks over to us, slowly.
Surprise is written on her face.
Surprise and fear, I think.
It's obvious that she was not expecting to see us here.
Elle's eyes are narrow slits of anger.
Manuel places a hand on top of Elle's hand in a calming gesture.
He looks into Elle's eyes and with effort repeats himself.
The sun is getting close to the horizon, but we still have hours of daylight left.
Ms Fonteau sits down and Elle continues telling her story.
The tension dissipates as Elle describes her own role as a councilor at the school, and Ms Fonteau contributes to the story, provides context.
Manuel seems to be enjoying himself, and that's likely the real reason that these two are getting along so well.
I don't say this, of course.
Manuel fetches desert from a fridge in the Base.
While he is gone, Elle addresses Ms Fonteau.
"Thank you for taking care of him," Elle says, her tone frosty.
Ms Fonteau stares back and nods.
Manuel comes back with four cups of lemon curd parfait.
"That's a dish I can't make even with a recipe," I say and Elle nods along, supportive as always.
It's a strange dinner, but the most pleasant one in a long while.
Manuel's leg is jumping and he keeps glancing at a clock on the wall.
"Manuel spends most of his time in the Base," Ms Fonteau offers as an explanation, and Elle starts packing up.
We say our good nights and leave through the path behind the rhododendron bush.
It's a short but steep walk down to the parking lot, and we're quiet for all of it.
We get to the car and I hop in on the driver's side.
Elle follows on the passenger side, but she is slow and takes a while to take off her jacket and outer shirt before getting into the car.
I am nervous, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
How are we going to handle this?, I want to ask, but my throat is clenched shut.
"Without condemning, or condoning," she begins and there is a twinkle in her eye.
She gathers my face in her arms and brings us together, kisses my worries away.
"Thank you," she says through tears, "thank you."