Plinius Part 2: A Short Story
Jack Is Not Favored
On our way back we stopped off to see Father Michaels, since it was on the way. His church was located on the edge of my grandfather's farm out in the middle of nowhere. It was a large simple structure, A-frame roof, one room, paneled wood, flaking white paint. There were living quarters attached to the back and that's where Father Michaels stayed. Toby wanted to check his solar array to see how it faired. I didn't think it was necessary since the Father's needs were few. But we stopped anyway. I barely got out of the truck by the time Toby was halfway across the dirt parking lot. I got out and slammed the truck door and stood there watching Toby make his way to the entrance of the church. I reflected back.
Once it was a school. Doubling as a church on Sunday, until the grade school in town was completed. I was only a boy, about five years old, remembering the heavy horse drawn wagons lumbering down the dusty trails between the fields as they made their way toward town. Bringing in large redwood freshly cut from the slopes of the distant mountains at the edge of the valley. I could still remember, the teams of horses, straining, fighting. The grunts, the sweat, the whips, snapping relentlessly. The driver's voices, screaming. The large wagons with their heavy chained loads passing by, kicking up dust.
Father Michaels stepped out onto the wooden planked porch before Toby got there. He was a tall husky man and it showed as the floor cried out under his weight. I stayed back and lingered off to the side in the weeds where the solar panel was located and I felt stupid considering I knew nothing about them.
"Oh, how are you Toby?" he said rather surprised. "I wasn't expecting you so soon." He looked over and noticed me. I tried to smile.
"Hi, father," I said reluctantly. He gave me a stern look.
"Hello Jack," he said in a somber tone. He was part of the ruling board and he had a pretty influential seat on the ruling council. When the council forced me along with them, to look for Cal at the summit he was there, leading the way. Because of that, he didn't trust me, and has had his eye on me ever since.
"We're just fine," Toby answered back. "We thought we'd stop by and see how you are and I want to check your array." For a moment I thought he was going to bow in service before the father and I turned away suppressing a smile.
"Oh, no need," He stepped off the porch. "I hate to tell you that you wasted a trip, but everything's ok. I don't have any power problems here."
"Are you sure?" Toby seemed confused, lost. "How did the night go?. At least let me check your batteries."
"Not necessary." He stretched out a hand and put it on Toby's shoulder. "My batteries are working perfectly. No problem." He stopped and looked at me and then back at Toby and grinned. "Who knows? Maybe I have the good Lord on my side," he said, letting out a hearty laugh.
"Are you certain?"
"Yes, I'm sure Toby. Don't worry." He patted him on the shoulder. "I have enough power here that I probably could bring Aggy back."
Aggy was a computer. She could talk. She could listen. Many hours I conversed with her after church services. But that was many years ago. Despite Father Michaels boasting, he only had one terminal among many. Aggy was a larger computer network with terminals in the schools, in the library, in the town hall, connected by an underground communication grid. But when the power problem emerged the network went down. Aggy was the first casualty. And no one seem too concerned, and that's what I couldn't understand. Maybe it was because I talked with her so many times. If I knew what I knew now, I could ask her many more questions. She answered everything. I missed her.
"Why not both you boys come in and rest a spell. I have some coffee brewing." He gestured toward me and I approached. He tried to be cordial to me but I knew he was having a hard time. For him, everything would be set straight after the marriage, which he was eager to preside over.
"Ah, we can't," I blurted out. I stopped dead in my tracks and gauged his response. He gave me a funny look which caught me by surprise. "Sorry Father, we have to tend to the fields." Besides, I've never seen Toby drink coffee.
"Jack's right," Toby said after some hesitation. "We're running late as it is. Maybe some other time." He nodded his head slightly. "Thanks anyway."
"Well, ok. I won't hold you back." He turned and galloped back up the steps and stopped at the porch and turned around. Together Toby and I had started back to the truck. "Hey, you two stop by anytime," he yelled out.
"Alright, sure thing," I said. It was a sure thing that I wouldn't. Toby and I both waved and watched as he turned and disappeared back into the church. We got back into the truck and drove off.
About ten minutes later we arrived back on the farm. Much to my dismay my grandfather had already made it back before we did, as I watched him in the distance tend to the horses corralled next to the barn. I drove straight into the fields toward the irrigation junction box and Toby and I got out of the truck. In the distance, the sun had finally cleared the mountains and a stiff cool breeze swept by us, rolling over the wheat, rushing rapidly toward the sun, almost as if it were trying to quench the coming heat. The pumps and the electrical interface where housed in concrete shacks every few acres or so. Time hadn't been kind to them. The concrete was chipped and soiled and water worn. The steel access covers were rusting and flaking. Most of the swing latches were either fused or broken off. With the power problem we couldn't irrigate the entire crop anymore. So we went to a rotation system. Turning only some of the sprayers on at a time for a few hours and then going on to the next section of the crop and doing it over and over again.
Something Is Different About Toby
"You weren't too interested in seeing Father Michaels, were you?" Toby said as he lifted open the doors on the access hatches and secured them. He turned back toward me and smiled and then let out a big laugh. "This marriage thing has really got you." He laughed again.
"Shut up." I said as I crouched down and peered inside at the pumps and the electrical interface. "You should try marriage." I looked up at him. "Then I can watch you squirm." But I said it before I remembered. Toby would never be assigned a mate. Like not drinking coffee. Or never eating.
"No, I'll never have to go through that," he said rather boldly. He removed his flannel shirt and folded it carefully and placed it neatly on top of the concrete shack. He stood up straight and looked up. Closed his eyes. Breathed deep. I watched. For a moment he seemed frozen. Solid like the concrete next to me. But he sighed and let go and breathed deep again and I watched his pure white chest heave out and then in. Slowly he opened his eyes and he stared at me in a sort of a devious way. "That feels so good." I didn't do anything but stare back and wonder.
Toby was different. Like the rest of his people, they are a minority scattered among the outlying farms helping with the plowing, the planting, and the irrigation. He was as old as my grandfather from what I can remember. When I was little until now, he had not changed. Unlike my grandfather, where time had taken its toll, Toby was the same. No wrinkles. No arthritis. No change. He was strong. He was agile. A little slower maybe. But nowhere as bad as my grandfather. His sight was sharp. His hearing acute. I wondered. Was he going to outlive me, like he had so many others? Somehow I knew he would. He was different. His skin, white as freshly washed linen hanging on a clothes line. His eyes, deep metallic grey. He loved the sun, soaking it up as much as he could turning his skin even whiter. For me, I cursed it. For what it did to the crops. For what it did to my skin, burning it to a deep red.
But I did notice one change in Toby. A few years ago, at the onset of darkness, at the kitchen table, he went blank. No emotion. No facial expressions. Just an empty look in his eyes. He stood up. Excused himself. Walked away, and went to his room.
"Hey, Jack!" a voice screamed at me from somewhere. I ignored it, then struggled to find it. "Jack...Wake up." Slowly, I floated back to reality to find Toby leaning over me, snapping his fingers in front of my face.
"What's wrong with you," he said with a smile. I got up. "Your grandfather is calling you." He pointed toward the barn. In the distance I noticed a small figure standing there looking at us with its hands on its hips and I cussed under my breath. I trudged off into the fields toward the barn. As I walked, the only thing that went through my mind was the sun. In another hundred hours the sun would be overhead. The winds calm. The temperatures incredibly high. My father died in conditions like these. And it wasn't far from here.
"What took you so long?" my grandfather snapped. I had barely gotten within earshot and he was already starting in on me. "Those pumps have to be primed. Haven't you any sense."
"I got back as soon as I could," I said as I stopped and surveyed the fields, trying to avoid him. "We went to see how Father Michaels was doing. Toby wanted to check his array." My grandfather fell silent and turned.
"What about the grain?" he shot back. "Did you place the withdrawal?"
"Yes. It's all taken care of," I said trailing off. I ignored him and I looked at the fields. The mountains. The breeze caught me and embraced me. Deep within I felt something. It stirred. It moved. I suddenly felt myself swept away. Transported to another time. But it was the same place. We were on the other side of the barn away from the corralled horses. It was here, that Cal came to see me.
"When is it going to be delivered?" Suddenly it hit me. A realization. A thought. The kind that heightens your senses to a new level as you see things differently for the first time. I looked back at Toby in the distance. "Look at me when I'm talking to you!" he yelled. But I kept on looking back at Toby.
"They'll send a truck out in a few hours," I said, but again I turned toward Toby, staring at his motionless form. He just stood there. He was watching us. "They have other deliveries to make, so it may take some time before they get around to us."
"If you would have been there sooner we would have it by now," he griped. "When you're married and have kids of your own, you'll be more responsible." He started to hobble off.
"I hope to have at least a dozen," I said. He shot me a glance. His dark eyes widened and poked through the many wrinkles on his worn face. Council law prohibited more than two children per family. Population control. That's why there was a limit on family size and why marriages were arranged. I had seen the consequences of family marriages not sanctioned by the council. They were considered outcasts, ignored, invisible. They were not allowed to own a business or a farm. They were not allowed to marry or have children of their own. They were not allowed to go to the public schools. Most lived in run down homes in the slums of Plinius far from the bustling downtown.
"Get the hell out of here and get those pumps ready," he demanded. He was shocked and he nearly stumbled as he walked away. "Troublemaker," I heard him say as he continued to mumble and bicker. I started back toward Toby.
As I walked back I noticed Toby quickly duck behind the shack out of sight. Before, when I was over near the barn he stood there not doing a thing. Now, all of a sudden, he was working and it made me mad. As I approached, images flashed in my mind. Images of Aggy.
"How's it going?" I said as I rounded the shack catching Toby crouched down at the access hatch fiddling with the electrical interface.
"Oh, alright." He looked up at me and squinted and then put a hand over his forehead to shield against the sun. "The timers are almost set. I want to slow the rotation down just a bit. That way I think it will prevent the amount of crop damage like we had last time." He looked back down and started to laugh.
"What's so funny?"
"Nothing," he said. He tried to stop, but couldn't.
"Come on, what is so funny?"
"It's nothing." He waved his hand in the air and finally seemed to get himself under control and he stopped laughing. "Just forget it." I backed away a little and kept my distance. I knew why he was laughing.
"Don't you ever think about ever having children?" I asked.
"Why should I?"
"Why not marry?
"What's with you?" He looked back up at me again and smiled. But it was fake, forced. Molded across his face in a hideous shape. He was hiding something.
"What's with you?" I repeated back. "Why are you and your people so different?"
"We're all different," He said as he slowly rose while keeping his eye on me. "What's the big deal?" He was fully upright now. Slowly he put the screwdriver he was holding on top of the shack.
"And that's it. All your people are the same. You all look the same. You all act the same." I started to circle him, keeping my distance. All the while scrutinizing him.
"It's not as you see it," he said. I detected desperation in his voice. He looked so wounded standing there. And it shocked me how much at the moment he reminded me of Cal when he came to see me, telling me he had climbed Mount Plinius.
"Oh, and I'm imagining it," I said with a bit of sarcasm. "We marry. We have children. We grow old. We die.” I continued to circle him. "But not you."
"Come on, quit this," he pleaded. He turned with me, keeping his eye on me. But I had come too far. Things would never be the same again. Never. There was no going back.
"But with you it's different. No marriage. No children. No funerals. No mourning. No death." I continued moving until the shack came between us and Toby peered over the top with stunned wide eyes.
"Stop this, Jack. Please," he pleaded again. "You don't want to do this."
"Why?" I said ignoring him. "Why don't you drink coffee? Why don't you eat? Why don't you sleep?"
"I beg of you. You don't want to know anymore."
"Yes I do." I came around another half circle until the sun was at my back, the truck just off to my right. From this position the light bore directly down on him, illuminating his porcelain skin to a brilliant white. To me it looked especially white. Almost aglow. But maybe it was because everything seemed so heightened right now. So alive. As if everything was taken up a notch. I could feel the adrenalin. I could feel my heart pounding, throbbing in my neck. "What other ways do we differ?" I said in a contemplative manner, as I stared him down. "Can you see better than me? Can you smell better than me.? Can you hear better than me?"
I stopped walking. There was nothing but complete dead silence. I marveled at how alive I felt. How everything moved in bright vivid images like a movie, frame by frame.
Jack and Cal Were Betrayed By Toby
"When Cal came to me that time," I said with nearly a whisper. "You were the one that overheard us?" I looked down for a moment. I didn't want to look at him anymore. "Didn't you?"
"Please Jack, lets not go into this," he responded. Slowly he grabbed his shirt off the shack and put it back on while he kept his eye on me. He looked so awkward. So naked. In a way I felt sorry for him. But I kept on going.
"Come on. Tell me. You were the one that turned me in." I watched as he clumsily tried to button his shirt. "Didn't you?"
He struggled. First his mouth opened. Then it closed. He turned away and then back at me. Again his mouth opened but no sound emerged at first.
"Yes," he finally blurted out with some difficulty. "I was the one." He took a few steps toward me. "But I had no choice..."
"Damn it. I knew it!" I said cutting him off. I went to the truck and kicked it in the door and watched as rust flakes fell to the ground. I went to the hood and pounded the palms of my hands into it a few times until it became too painful. "I knew it. All this time. You were the one." I turned my back on him and looked back at the trail in the field that we drove down earlier. I was exhausted. Everything was crashing down. My senses seemed pale now. Dull. Deadened. I turned back toward Toby. "All this time I thought I knew you."
"Jack, please, let me explain."
"No! I don't know you anymore." I left him behind and stormed across the fields toward the house. When I got there I went to my room and slammed the door and then violently swept everything onto the floor. The lamp, the books, the picture of my parents, the one of my grandparents, off the dresser. The digital clock and the lamp on my night stand. I sat in the chair in the corner of the room and tried to get control of myself. But I was furious at Toby and my hands shook and again I felt my heart pounding in my neck and throbbing in my temples. Next, I got up and left the room and went back outside through the back door into the backyard.
It was there that I wrestled control of myself. Away from the barn. Away from my grandfather. Away from Toby.
Behind the house, about three hundred yards, was another concrete shack. Unlike the one I had come from, a long steel pole projected from the top of this one. An array of lights was clustered at the tip pointing down in all directions onto the fields. I went to it and put my hands on the concrete top at shoulder level and hoisted myself up. I sat down and leaned back against the pole and pulled my knees close to my chest. The lights were for the fields during the long darkness. But how long before they didn't work anymore? I wondered. I looked out over the rolling bright lit fields. The mountains in the backdrop. I marveled how beautiful this sight was and how calming it was. How long had I been here? It seemed like hours. It even seemed like my tirade with Toby never happened. But it did. And it probably was only some number of minutes ago.
To The Edge Of The Valley
"It's a beautiful sight, isn't it?" a voice said calmly somewhere below and off to the side. I had been so overwhelmed myself by it that I didn't even hear anyone approach. "Even after all these years I am still awed by it."
"I know, me too," I answered back. I continued to look ahead at the horizon without moving.
"It must be some incredible sight to be up in the mountains looking back this way." the voice said again in the calm tone. "Don't you think?"
"I don't know," I responded. "I have only imagined what it would be like."
"Well, we can take care of that," the voice said in a tempting way.
"How do you mean?" I almost looked down toward where the voice was coming from but I resisted. My heart jumped at that statement but I kept myself restrained. I didn't want to show any excitement, even though I knew what it was leading up to.
"We'll both go there."
I couldn't resist anymore. I leaned over the edge and caught Toby just standing there looking up.
"Jack, I owe you an explanation for everything," he said nervously. The calmness in his voice gone. "The only way I can explain, is to take you to the edge of the valley. I talked to your grandfather and he approves."
"You mean go to the mountains?" I said. I was so surprised. Shocked. I had forgotten that I was mad at him. Maybe it was a trick. Maybe he was doing this to get me on his good side again. But I decided to go along with it. I wanted to see what would develop.
"Yea, that's what I thought I said, didn't I?" Toby responded while raising both eyebrows.
I swung my legs around and jumped off the shack and followed Toby into the house.