It was nearly ten thirty when Sophie finally entered Liping’s room. The woman stood gazing out of her window, hands clenched tightly behind her back. In the weeks before her resurrection, Sophie and her father had decorated the room, modeling it after pictures they found in the history archives.
Like most temporary residences, the room had been fashioned after Old World hotel rooms. They were small but comfortably utilitarian. A twin bed was set near the window. Across the room, a reading chair, lamp, and side table were lined against a wall. A sliding door on the west wall hid a small closet and dresser. Against the remaining wall sat a beautifully carved wooden desk and chair, fully stocked with loose paper, blank notebooks, and assorted pencils and pens. Sophie had even gone so far as to place a stack of watercolor paper and a set of inks and brushes in the bottom drawer, hoping that the woman would reveal an interest in Chinese calligraphy. But so far, Liping’s activities in the carefully decorated space were as sparse at the words between the two.
Liping was eating some sort of steamed cabbage dish when Sophie knocked on her door. The aroma warmed the small space.
“Come in,” Liping said without rising from the table.
“Good morning,” Sophie said.
“Almost noon,” Liping corrected curtly.
“Yes, almost. Did you cook that yourself?”
“Of course. I don’t need other people cooking my food all the time. Anyway, those foreigners never quite get the flavors right.”
Sophie thought back to the time her family had spent ordering ingredients from abroad, waiting for their arrival, and learning the difficult recipes. Months of work, all for naught. “Perhaps you could teach us sometime,” she said simply.
“I doubt that’s necessary. You can all cook your food and I’ll cook mine. Easier that way.”
Liping barely made eye contact as they spoke. It was often like this, as if her words were directed more to the space around her than any person in particular. Sophie often wondered at what she perceived was Liping’s discomfort, but knew the woman well enough by now to know that asking directly would prove fruitless. Liping finished the last of her rice and pushed the dish to the center of the table.
“I’ll make us tea,” Sophie said, having learned Liping’s tradition.
“I’ll do it. You always burn the leaves.”
“Ok, but I’ll help,” Sophie said, rising for the cabinet. Liping put her hand against the girl’s shoulder and pushed her back.
“No, you sit. You foreigners are too much, always trying to do everything for me. Let me do it! A woman needs her independence. I ran a thriving restaurant once, I think I can handle a pot of tea.” It was the first time Sophie had heard what she imagined to be a tinge of playfulness in Liping’s tone.
Liping opened the cabinet and began removing her tea utensils along with the miniature porcelain pot and cups. She set the boiler on and began busying herself with tidying up the room.
“It seems you’re settling in nicely,” Sophie offered. She watched as Liping folded the sheets on her bed and stacked pillows against the headboard. The boiler clicked off and Liping moved it from the countertop to the small round table where Sophie sat. As Sophie reached for it Liping’s arm shot out and slapped Sophie’s wrist.
“Wait! You can’t put boiling water with those leaves. It’ll ruin the flavor and we’ll have to start over. Just let me do it.”
“You clearly weren’t raised in a Chinese family,” Liping said finally after waiting for the water to cool a few degrees. She poured a pencil-thin stream into the pot and swilled it with the leaves for a few moments. Then, after straining the water and throwing it into a wastebasket, she refilled the small pot.
“You must always wash the leaves first, before drinking,” Liping said with a raised index finger. “It improves the taste and cleans them of pesticides.”
“I don’t think those leaves were grown with pesticides,” Sophie thought aloud.
“You can never be sure. Even some of the most expensive teas are grown with all sorts of chemicals.”
“Not these. Our neighbors grew them near here. They were from China.”
“Ah, no wonder the tea is so good. Foreign tea could never be so fragrant!” Satisfied, Liping leaned forward and filled Sophie’s red-brown cup.
“So, are you the one paying my bills here?” Liping asked when they’d each enjoyed their first sip.
“Rent, electricity, laundry. I haven’t seen any bills, and I’m wondering who’s been paying for it. It’s not necessary, you know. I’ve got a savings account and we can transfer the money here. I don’t expect to rely on anyone’s handouts.”
“Well, I appreciate that, but there aren’t any bills here. We generate the electricity ourselves, naturally, and the water comes from a rain reservoir. Everything else we care for by hand, including cleaning and washing clothes.”
“What about the groceries? Where do those come from?”
“Some we grow ourselves, most are traded with neighbors. We don’t use money here.”
Liping smiled widely at the wonderful joke. “Ha! No money!”
“Must be hard to believe, huh?”
“Hard to believe? You have much to learn. Nothing is free in this world, and if someone tells you otherwise they’re about to rob you!” Liping’s head flung back and she cackled into the air.
Sophie forced a smile and continued sipping. Well, at least she was laughing.
It was only 12:35 in the afternoon and already Naomi was more than ready for bed. She yearned for the familiar, cool sheets of her bed, Charlie’s embrace, and the starry panorama overhead lulling her into the dream world. But the day wasn’t even half over.
She’d been fussing over mundane tasks in the center’s kitchen for most of the morning, moving unthinkingly from one task to the other as if her head had somehow detached from the rest of her body. That ugly swollen bruise on Harold’s face kept flashing into her thoughts. His words were fiery little arrows streaking through her subconscious.
The meal would be simple, she decided, settling on grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup. Fifteen minutes later she was walking the tray down the hallway to Adrina’s room.
“Come in,” Adrina said as Naomi balanced the tray in one hand and rapped on the door with the other. Naomi walked across the room and set the tray on the bedside table. She took a few moments to examine Adrina’s head, palms, and feet, the places she’d been scuffed from the fall out the window a week before. As expected, she was almost completely healed.
“How are you feeling today, Adrina?” Naomi asked, clenching her jaw as she stifled a yawn. She pulled a chair from the table and placed it at the foot of Adrina’s bed.
Adrina shrugged, “No problems. Thanks for lunch.”
Naomi nodded. She felt a thousand pounds of weight pushing her down into her seat, pulling at her legs and her shoulders. Tugging at her eyelids.
“You look pretty beat, doc,” Adrina said as she bit into the sandwich.
“It’s been a long day. And please, call me Naomi. I’m not really a doctor.”
“What happened with the men outside this morning?” Adrina asked, frowning. She glanced over her shoulder at the window looking over the walkway at the front of the complex. Strings of melted cheese trailed from her lips.
“They had a little disagreement. One of them was hurt, but it was nothing serious.”
“Yeah, I saw that British guy get popped in the face. Seemed pretty bad from here.”
“He’ll be ok. Just needs rest. Like you.”
Adrina looked down at her foot and shrugged. The swelling had almost completely disappeared. She wiggled her toes and rotated her foot slowly in a half circle.
“Hey, doc–Naomi, I mean–why don’t I have a lock on my door?”
Naomi looked over to the door absently. “We’ve never needed locks.”
“Well, we might need them now. I’m just saying I’d feel a lot better if I knew I could lock my door, you know?”
“Why? What are you afraid of?”
Adrina motioned her head towards the window and gave Naomi an incredulous stare.
“Oh. Right. I can understand that. I’ll tell you what, I’ll talk to my husband and see what he thinks.”
“Never heard of a place without locks,” Adrina mumbled.
As tired as Naomi was, she didn’t miss the change in Adrina’s expression. It was as if a shadow had been cast over her face. Her eyes had widened but she wasn’t looking at any particular point in the room. It made Naomi think of Charlie. He used to make that look, too, back in the Old World, back when they’d lost the first baby. She would speak to him but the words just seemed to fall through him and disappear, like drops of water falling down a deep, dark hole.
“Tell me a little about your life as you remember it, Adrina,” Naomi said, the fog of drowsiness lifting as her mind tried to focus. There was work to be done.
“Not much to tell. Used to be a barista at a little coffee shop, not like Starbucks or anything fancy like that, just a tiny place. Pretty dirty actually. It wasn’t a bad job. But I’m not working now. My boyfriend takes pretty good care of me. He’s a good guy. Name’s Corey. Not perfect, you know, but he tries really hard and I’m proud of him... Although, I think he lost his job recently... I remember that happening. But you know, things have been fuzzy since I woke up here. Must be the chemicals passing through my body. A nurse told me that once, you know, it takes time to flush them out.”
“It sounds like you’ve been in hospitals a few times in the past. Did you get sick a lot?”
“Nah, I’m pretty healthy. I mean, I don’t get the flu or colds and stuff like that a lot. But... Yeah, sometimes I don’t feel so good and have to go in, just to get checked up on, you know?”
“Adrina, what if I told you that you’ll never have to worry about seeing the inside of a hospital again?” Naomi asked the question gently, testing the waters. She’d waited a week for the opportunity, but with Adrina’s unexpected injuries and her demeanor after the fall it had been impossible. Finally she sensed a chance, and took it.
A smile made the left side of Adrina’s mouth twitch and she reached for the soup. “A lot of doctors have told me that. Not the doctors in the white jackets, you know, but the other ones, the ones that... Well, anyway, I’d say that’s great. But it’s just the stress. Life is so stressful and sometimes... It’s just the only way I can get a break sometimes, you know.”
“But sometimes you take too much,” Naomi said. She was finally beginning to understand. Adrina had suffered from a drug problem. Naomi wondered why this hadn’t shown up in the paperwork.
“Yeah, it’s hard. Like, I just forget how much is in my system, I guess. I’m not doing it on purpose. I don’t hate myself, I’m not like those other people. That’s what the doctors don’t understand, I guess.”
“How did your boyfriend feel about all this, if you don’t mind my asking? Corey, right?”
“Yeah, Corey. Well, like I said, he’s a good boyfriend, pretty good, I mean he’s doing his best, just like me, but. Well we’ve talked about my... stuff. I mean, sometimes it’s just talking, which is ok, but then sometimes we get pretty angry, but I know he still loves me, you know?”
“And you love him?”
“Yeah. I mean, I think so. I’ve known him for such a long time, you know? We met in high school. He was so handsome then, and strong. He had this car, way before any of the other boys were driving. I guess a girl just needs to feel safe. Right?”
“Of course. A sense of safety is important. Did Corey make you feel safe?”
Adrina opened her mouth slightly, as if to answer, but seemed to find it difficult to look into Naomi’s eyes. Instead she surveyed the view from her window. Daniel was outside raking leaves. Naomi heard the muffled rhythm of flat wire teeth scraping against grass and dirt. Her son wore a large leather patch on his shoulder, and occasionally a falcon would swoop down to perch there for a few minutes before returning to the skies.
Naomi watched Adrina fidget in the corner between her bed and the windowed wall. She had been rubbing a spot on her shoulder in silence as she studied the scene from her window. She waited for a few more minutes as Adrina finished sipping from the bowl of thick red soup, and then began collecting the empty plates.
“Well, I’d better get these taken care of,” Naomi said with a smile, indicating the tray of dishes. “You keep resting. If you need anything, there’s a phone at the lobby desk. The number for our cabin is monogrammed there, too. And I’ll talk to Charlie about the lock.”
Adrina smiled up at Naomi, and for a moment, Naomi believed that she was beginning to understand her. Her eyes held a darkness that betrayed a visage of youth. There was pain there, pain that would take time to heal. The scars were no longer visible, like the ancient mounds of steel and iron from tanks and bombshells that had been crushed during the Great Day and slowly, over time, covered in soil, manure, grass, and trees. But if one were to dig...
“You gonna shoot or just stand there bird watching?”
A strong shove came from behind, scaring him so bad that he had to bite his lip to keep from screaming. He held it in. The force had been so strong that his oversized Grizzlies hat and eyeglasses had shifted on his head. He let down the muzzle of the rifle to free one hand and adjust them. His fingertips grazed the cold tide of sweat descending from the brim of his cap.
“You look like such a dork. No wonder nobody likes you.”
“Just shut up and let me shoot.”
“Yeah, right, like you have the guts.”
“I do too have the guts.”
“Then prove it. Pull the trigger.”
He wanted to. He wanted more than anything to press his trembling finger against the cool, curved metal and hear that shot ring defiantly through the air. He wanted the whole world to hear that shot, so that they’d know he wasn’t a wuss, that he was strong, just like his brother.
But the trigger felt like a million pounds, and his little finger just couldn’t budge it. He was shaking now, so cold and so scared and feeling so stupid for not being able to do it, for not being able to be a man.
“I... I think it’s stuck, Hyde,” Jack said.
“Idiot. It’s not stuck, I just fired it like a minute ago! You’re just a wuss. Can’t even kill a stupid bird.”
“I am not a wuss.”
“Yeah you are. And I’m gonna tell all your friends about this, how you were too much of a wimp to finish the job, after begging me for so long to take you hunting! You’re pathetic.”
“Stop it. Just shut up!”
“Or what? What are you gonna do, cry on me?” His big brother snickered. His voice was a hiss in Jack’s ear.
Cold metal. Jack clenched his teeth. His face was hot and red and he could feel the tears welling in his eye sockets. He cursed himself for being so weak, so stupid, just like his brother said, just like everyone said, even Dad. Jack tightened the tendons and the muscles in his face and body, he felt a whisper of strength pulsing through his shoulder and into the arm that held the gun, down into the trigger finger.
The gun fired. The muzzle recoiled high into the hair, throwing Jack’s scraggy nine-year-old body backwards and into the mud. He fell on his wrist and felt it twist unnaturally behind him. He yowled in pain, and against his best efforts, began to sob. He hurt everywhere. And Hyde just stood there, pointing. And laughing.
“Jack? Jack, can you hear me?”
Jack felt a hand against his shoulder, rousing him gently.
“Wake up, Jack.”
It wasn’t his brother’s voice. In fact, his brother had disappeared, along with the mud pit and the rifle. Jack’s eyelids fluttered open, revealing a world stuck at a ninety degree angle. The line between land and water shot vertically straight into the sky. And Jack was back on the pier, lying there on his side, the underside of his face wet with drool.
“How do you feel?” Said the voice again, clearer now.
Jack dipped his hand into the lake water and splashed it against his face. The hangover was still there.
“Pretty lousy, actually,” Jack said.
“Sit up and drink this. You’ll feel better.” Jack sat up slowly and reached for the mug. The drink was sour and hot.
“Thanks,” Jack said, wiping his mouth with his arm.
“You want to tell me what happened today?” the man asked.
Jack knew him as Charlie, but was fairly certain these people weren’t using their real names. In any case, this guy seemed to be in charge, and Jack didn’t mind talking. His mind was beginning to clear and he could be careful.
“The man was insulting me, so I put him in his place.”
“How’d it start? What were you two arguing over?”
Jack shook his head. He couldn’t remember all of it. “We’ve been butting heads since we got here. Guy’s a total jerk. Always acts like he should be in charge, like he’s smarter than the rest of us.”
“You do realize, Jack, that he was just lashing out, right?”
Jack shrugged and tossed a stone into the water. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“He’s just confused. Like you and the others. Harold talks down to others because it gives him the feeling of being superior, of having control.”
“You a psychiatrist?”
“No. It’s just an observation.”
“Well, whatever the case, he had it coming.”
“Yeah, perhaps. So how’d it feel, when you hit him? Do you think you resolved the conflict?”
“What is this, a high school counselor meeting?” Jack sneered. “I didn’t care about resolving any stupid conflict, I cared about shutting him up.”
“Well, you succeeded. I doubt you’ll be hearing much from him for a while.”
“Good. Mission accomplished.”
Charlie surprised Jack with a stifled laugh.
“So Daniel tells me you haven’t asked many questions since you’ve been here.”
“What’s to ask?”
“Jack, I know you don’t trust us yet, but you must have at least some questions you want answered.”
“That Daniel kid gave me the rundown. I get the picture. He your son?”
Charlie nodded. “And how does that picture look to you?”
“You want the truth? It looks like a fairy tale. Some real nice happily-ever-after, riding-into-the-sunset stuff. Disney garbage.”
“Is that what you see, when you look around? Garbage?”
“I’m not saying this place is garbage. I mean, it’s beautiful. No one would argue that. But I think your explanation of what’s really going on is a crock.”
“Why do you think that?”
“Charlie, right?” Jack asked.
“Yes, I’m Charlie.”
“So Charlie, let me tell you a little bit about me, and what I’ve seen and done. Let me tell you, I have witnessed some crazy, messed up stuff. I served in Iraq and Syria and Afghanistan during the war. You wouldn’t believe the stuff out there. You ever heard of jihadi youth camps?”
Charlie shook his head no.
“Picture an elementary school. But instead of studying history books they’re studying twisted excerpts from the Quran. Instead of recess, they’re staging mock beheadings. Four and five year olds with machetes hacking melons atop broomsticks. At nine years old, they know how to build a pipe bomb. At twelve they’re full-fledged suicide bombers. Or how about women birthing compounds, where young girls–some foreign–were brainwashed to believed that Allah wanted them to give birth to dozens of future fighters for Islam. Et cetera et cetera. I could go on until you’d beg me to stop. And you know what they always told those people? You know what the carrot on the end of the stick was?”
Charlie was shaking his head again, frowning.
“Paradise! Oh yeah, just like this one. Nature, beautiful scenes as far as you could see, a land flowing with milk and honey, plenty of willing virgins, and on and on and on. You see what I’m getting at?”
“Not really. What does that have to do with us here?”
“Maybe I don’t know exactly yet, but it’s just too similar for me to accept it and just jump right in, like the rest of you have. There’s something going on here. Maybe you’ve found a way to switch things around, maybe this is some kind of insane new tactic to brainwash American soldiers into doing… someone’s bidding–“
“So you think we’re terrorists?”
Jack shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe you don’t know either. Maybe someone else is pulling the strings. After all I’ve seen, anything’s possible.”
Charlie looked up at the sun and winced. Jack measured his movements and his reactions.
“Jack, I feel like I need to remind you that up until now, you’ve been the only one to exhibit violent behavior. We’ve done nothing but help you, feed you, and clothe you.”
“To gain my trust.”
“Well of course. Is that such a bad thing?”
“It all depends on your purpose. What is your mission?”
“Our mission is simple. We’re here to help you learn the truth.”
“What is truth?” Jack said scornfully.
“Well, the first truth is that it’s unfair to compare us with terrorists. We’re not brainwashing anyone here, and we’re certainly not teaching people to kill and hurt. Have you heard us say anything like that?”
“Those things you saw in the Middle East were horrendous, I’m sure. I get that, and I’m willing to hear about it and I don’t deny it was awful and real. But just because those people were fighting for something that resembles what we have here doesn’t make this invalid, and it doesn’t make us their accomplices. That’s like giving up on money because you’ve been passed a few fake bills.”
“I haven’t given up on anything, I’m just being cautious.”
“Then prove it. Give this place a chance. You might just like what you find.”
With that, Charlie rose, stared for a few minutes into the distance, and walked back to shore with his hands stuffed in his pockets. “Dinner will be ready soon. You can eat in the cabin with us if you’d like. Your choice,” he said over his shoulder.
Harold fidgeted about his room listlessly, rolling Charlie’s words over in his mind, examining and dissecting them. Like any puzzle, this one could eventually be deciphered. It would take time and careful analysis. In the end, it was noting more than a battle of minds, intellectual warfare in which Harold would eventually triumph. Where there’s a will there’s a way, they liked to say. But whoever they were, they were wrong. Intellect was the key. Where there’s wit there’s a way, they ought to have said. Everything else was hopeless and blind wishful thinking. Harold was determined to probe and scrutinize until the mysteries unraveled in his hands.
Mystery number one: What was this place, and how had Harold come upon it? He was no longer in Cambridge, one of the few things he could be certain of. Someone had claimed this cabin was somewhere in the Western Rockies, but Harold doubted it. It simply wasn’t cold enough. Based on the length of the days, Harold had confirmed it was sometime in mid-autumn, a time when the Rockies would’ve been blanketed in snow. But the weather here had been comfortably cool. Harold had even donned short sleeve shirts a few times while inspecting the premises around the center.
Mystery number two: How had his youth returned? From the moment he’d woken in the small room he’d known something was different. The aches and pains had vanished. The skin on his fingers, neck, and face was taught and firm. Within moments of moving about, he’d discovered that the changes went beyond the exterior. He had more energy, more dexterity. Within a week he’d almost forgotten what it had felt like to be an old man. But the mystery behind the metamorphosis remained unexplained.
How? Had they slipped him some medication before he’d woken on the first day? Could this all possibly be happening in a much later, future society, one where medicine had been so advanced as to wipe away the effects of aging? It was possible. But then why not admit it? Why all the religious tedium? Was it possible that even these people did not know the truth? What if someone else was maneuvering things from some unseen and secretive sanctuary?
The possibilities were enough to drive a man insane. It was impossible to validate any of it. At the end of each inquiry, each hypothesis, lay a dead end. They laughed at him, mocked him. There were simply too many unknowns.
He needed more data.
Harold walked to the bedside desk and opened its top drawer. It revealed a small leather notebook and an assortment of pens. He gathered these items in his hands and sat himself in the desk chair.
If he was to get to the bottom of the mystery, he needed to be systematic. He opened to the first page of the notebook and put pen to paper. Harold would record all of what he knew here, in this book. He would collect information to fill these pages. Information on the other guests, information on the geology of the area (to ascertain his true location), information on the hosts that ran the center. He would find the answers.
He would solve the puzzle and win the war.