My Name Is Lenn (Second Edit Preview)

Chapter One – Found

Surrounded by a torrent of debris in a storm-swollen river, fighting the freezing water, blustering leaves, and stabbing sticks, I fought to live. My determination was rapidly deteriorating, but fear kept me kicking, flailing. In an instant as sharp as glass, something narrow and frighteningly jagged crawled from my left shoulder to my right ear. The screeching pain removed most of the air in my lungs from the shock. I tasted blood and I felt it cascade into my lungs, even with my mouth closed. I could no longer breathe, even above water. Only by the sheer luck of the current did I drift towards bare rock. Crawling, I turned myself downwards towards the slope, and threw up the blood and swampy water. In the dark, I didn’t understand the full extent of my injury. But the last thing I perceived that night were thick black channels of my own blood drizzling down the stony ground.

In my throws of confusion and blood loss, darkness passed over me. I had no concerns for the morrow. Time abandoned me as quickly as the heat in my body. Dreams floated through my mind. Was I viewing my last thoughts? Either that, or part of me was not yet willing to let go of life, and still dared to hope.

I saw you, Aria. So clearly. Your smile. Your hope. I reached for you. But I could not feel your touch. I could not even whisper your name. Every one of us, every member of both our families was dead, and you would be last. With that realization, my dreams faded and all emotion vanished.

But though I stood knocking on Death’s mighty door that night, begging to be let in, He did not answer.

The very next thing I remember are hearing someone call out, far away:

“Hey, Aaron, wait for us!”

The words did not immediately register; an unintelligible roar. They sounded like my dreams, like the buzzing of flies. Another sound quickly filled the void: the hoof-like thunder of violence pounding upon dirt. It was rhythmic at first, but it quickly filled my ears until it deafened me.

Then, it stopped short, and a small bout of silence led to a single breathless phrase.

“What is that?

I felt nothing. Even when a very powerful force lifted me into the air and placed me delicately upon my back, forcing my frigid equilibrium to square off against gravity. Not a sliver of reality returned.

I saw daylight without seeing. Strong and terrible, it blinded my still-closed eyes.

“Look, Ian!”

“What is….? Whoa. Whoa.”

“Look, there’s blood everywhere. It must have been attacked by something.” There was a short pause. “It’s… dead.”

I felt a thick dull object compress my chest against the ground, and the intense agony made me clench inwards.

“No, look! It’s still breathing, look. It’s alive!”

I wanted to tell the voice to stop shouting in my ear. But it wasn’t shouting, exactly, and it was nowhere near my head. The sun disappeared from view, overcome by a shadow cast from a strange source, way up high. At once, I knew exactly what had discovered me.

Denvi. And ka denvi at that. Several of them, by the sound of it. I wasn’t yet dead. But I soon would be. And for an entirely different reason.

I opened my eyes. At least, I tried to. Still blinded by the scales of sunlight, I could only see the outline of an enormous figure standing above me. I could see a head, bent knees, wide shoulders. Almost beyond my sight were two similar shapes beside the first, strong ivory towers that reached into the sky. Nothing in detail.

“It’s awake!”

“Chris, stay back. Shh! You’re going to scare it.”

“No I won’t!”

I closed my eyes again. Was I simply going to accept this fate? Part of me must have, as I felt no fear. No feeling in my legs or arms. Despite the warmth of the sun and the bright spring day, I felt winter in my throat and earth in my lungs.

“Aaron, we’ve got to take it to my Dad. It’s gonna die if we don’t.”

“Eww,” said the youngest voice. “I’m not touching it. It’s naked.”

The voice above me made a clucking sound.

“It’s not naked, Chris. It just doesn’t have a shirt. Besides, it’s obviously a little boy. Who cares?”

“We don’t have anything to carry him in. Dad taught me never to jostle a patient, since it could make their injury worse, you know? Do we… have anything I could use?”

“Should’a brought a backpack,” said the youngest.

“Yeah,” answered the voice directly above me. “Um. Oh, hey. Hold on, Ian. Use my shirt.”

At last, a vital spark of fear shot through my heart when another great force embraced my prone body and lifted me straight off the ground. Instead of becoming little more than red splatter within a terrible fist, or the force transforming into a claw to rend me into pieces, I felt myself descend into tender rest, as if placed into a warm cradle. Admittedly, the cradle smelled like someone in desperate need of a bath, but I could hardly complain; for the first time in days, I felt some source of comfort.

“It’s gonna get your shirt bloody,” said the youngest voice.

So?” came the haughty reply.

“It doesn’t matter. Come on, we’d better hurry.”

I felt a sudden acceleration, like nothing I had ever experienced before. I gasped; it felt as though I had been strapped to a falcon in freefall. I recovered my breath, and began to feel the wall upon which I leaned, heaving inwards and outwards with the effort of a heavy jog.

I didn’t know what these ka intended to do with me. But like no other time before, I knew in my heart that I would never see you again.

* * * * * *

The sounds that echoed around me would have been frightening at any other time: the honking of terrible horns; the rumble of great machines; the delightful songs of birds that would have pried me to death for breakfast if given the chance; the murmur of other denvi laughing, speaking to each other.

One concern crossed my mind: would this ka reveal me to other denvi? Would I ever have freedom again? But then it occurred to me: I might not survive the next few hours. Very little else mattered if I died.

The journey felt like hours, my ripped skin fully exposed to the wind and sun. I wasn’t sure if I still bled freely, but the sapping cold I felt in my extremities told me more than enough.

“Chris! You’re faster than us! Run ahead and go tell dad that we’ve got a dying patient! He should be in his office!”

“Okay!”

“Don’t move him around too much!”

“I know, I know.”

“Your dad’s not home today?”

“No, he’s at work filling out papers and stuff. Hopefully we can sneak in through the back.”

Sneak? Interesting. Was sneaking something these ka usually did? Or did they do it because of me?

I dared to open my eyes again, now that my angle had improved and my blindness somewhat faded. Above me was a horrific view. Beyond a chest covered in gray fabric was the slender jawline of a young ka, his gaze aimed directly towards his travels. A short round nose, messy brown hair, light freckles, green-blue eyes. Everything in the right place, nothing at the right scale. For a split second as his feet rounded a corner, his eyes graced upon mine.

“Don’t worry, little boy,” he said to me, his voice quiet and oddly determined. “My dad’s going to take care of you.”

‘Little boy’, he said. Kani. I hadn’t been called that since Grandmother passed.

“Is he okay?” asked one of the ka, not the youngest.

He came into view, and looked upon me as one would look upon a corpse. This one’s face was more youthful than the ka that held me, with a thinner build, red hair, freckles from ear to ear. His chest was also blindingly bare, but of course it was; he’d given me his shirt to lay upon. I wasn’t certain what expression he wore from my prone position, but it was apparent that his awe was just as sure as the one who held me.

For the first time in many hours, I attempted to speak. Although air escaped my lips, no sound accompanied it. I tried again. Nothing but a rasping noise, the sound of gurgling saliva and blood. In slight panic, I lifted my hand as best I could to my mouth. I could breathe, but I could not speak. I must have appeared as terrified as I felt, as both ka winced at my reaction.

“No, no, please don’t touch it,” said the ka who held me. “Come on, Aaron, hurry.”

“Right!”

The second half of the journey did not take nearly as long. I looked to my left, and saw for the first time the weight of a denvi hand, slender and enormous. Its fingers curled around me, blocking my view of the road ahead (and blocking others from viewing me in return).

Strangely, the thought hadn’t arisen until that moment that this ka was holding me in the crux of his arm like a newborn child. The black-blue shirt beneath me covered much of the arm, yet within my hand’s reach was a portion of the golden white, covered in invisible hairs and spotted with a single tiny mole. Whether out of curiosity or sick madness, I reached out my hand and gently slid it against the arm. When my hand felt its warmth, I realized that I smeared it with a trail of still-wet blood.

“Hey,” said the panting ka above me with a light laugh, to my great distress. “That tickles.”

I mouthed the word “sorry”, but only breath came out.

The ka denvi arrived at a gigantic building, two stories tall and covered in smooth white clay. Instead of going through the main entrance, the ka passed into an alleyway beside it. I saw power lines above tall wooden fencing, as well as a wide windowless wall of stone.

The ka called the place a ‘doctor’s office’. I knew the phrase, but not in context. I had only known healing through bitter herbs and roots, a chalky denvi pill two or three times when fevers threatened to kill a younger me.

If denvi medicine could cure this, I thought, it would be a miracle.

A door clunked open loudly, startling me, and the sunlight above me disappeared as the ka stepped into the building. Instead of the blinding light of the early morning, the atmosphere was replaced with dim halogen and the scent of denvi cleanliness. The air turned cold, freezing what blood still pumped through my veins. Denvi preferred living in spotless and pristine environments, sometimes disturbingly so; that place was devoid of color, incredibly alien.

Down a hallway, turn right, down another hallway. Past ringing telephones, laughing voices, and the sickening smell of bitter chemicals.

“Dad!”

“I told him, Ian! I told him about the dying patient!”

“What is this about, Ian?” asked a gruff deep voice. It sounded displeased, which turned my stomach. “No. Absolutely not. The clinic is no place for dead animals.”

“Dad, just… just look at him, okay? It’s not an animal, it’s…” The ka shot a glance back down the hallway before whispering: “It’s a little boy!”

“A what?

I heard a giant rise from a creaking chair.

“What do you mean, a little…”

I may not have been completely naked, but I have never felt more exposed than I did at that moment.

I then stared at the tallest denvi I have ever laid eyes upon, then and since. I thought the ka that held me was gigantic; his father stood over him like a skyscraper. Though age greatly separated the two denvi, the older male appeared remarkably similar to the ka that held me: slender face, round nose, intense eyes, and a beardless complexion. His fatherly frustration melted into amazement as he witnessed me for the first time.

“Wait, wait, wait,” he whispered in shock, turning away. He reappeared instantly donning a thin pair of frameless glasses. “My goodness… Ian, where did you…?”

One of the ka closed the door behind them.

“It was Aaron who found him. We were walking down the canal when we saw him next to the water. What is he, Dad?”

“I have no idea…”

His rough finger touched my stomach, and his fingers gripped my knee. He then felt my forehead, and must not have liked what he sensed.

“I mean, I… I don’t know if I can fix this. Look how deep that wound is.” I heard him sigh. “I have stitches, but… I’m not a surgeon. I’ve never stitched anything like this.”

“Well… can’t you just, I don’t know… bandage it?” asked the ka.

“And just leave a hole in his throat? If the wound is infected, it could kill him no matter what I do.”

“Please, Dad,” the boy continued. “You have to do something, I don’t want him to die!”

Emotion hit me, and it hit me hard. Beside the thought of never seeing you again, I couldn’t imagine a world in which someone besides you would care whether I lived or died. I wanted to cry out, but I only produced a whisper.

The great denvi pursed his lips and looked at me.

“Can you… understand me?”

I tried to whisper: “Yes.” No sound emerged, but he understood.

“If it were up to me,” he told me. “I’d take you to UCHealth immediately. It’s the best hospital here in town. You’ll have the best chance at survival if we take you there right now.”

I shook my head, hard and fast. If I went to a denvi hospital, even if I survived, my life was over. And yours as well, most likely. If the humans learned about me, about us… I would never see you again, and Elder Ordi would make sure of that. The bastard would bury both of us before ever allowing humans to discover our home… even if it meant better lives for them all.

“Are you sure?” he asked. “Now… I’m not a bad doctor. But I’m only human. And I can’t make any promises.”

I nodded, accepting that. Truth be told, it was because he was human that I dared to hope. And somehow, I think the denvi doctor anticipated my answer. He shook his head, and sighed. But then he gave his son a determined look.

“If you’re sure,” he said. “Place him on the table, Ian. I’ll do my best.”

The ka named Ian stepped towards a strange cushioned piece of furniture that appeared to be more of a bed than a table. Though immense pain flashed through my body, Ian took me gently with his great hands, removing me from the warmth and placing me down on the surface. I felt the crinkling of paper beneath my back; I had no idea what purpose it served. I gazed silently at the ka named Ian as he watched me in return, his face flush with concern. Beside him was the ka named Aaron, who tossed the freshly-bloodied (but fortunately dark-hued) shirt over his shoulder.

“All right, all right,” said Ian’s father, sitting back in his chair. “Okay, let’s see. Ian, boys, I need you to stay quiet for a moment.”

All the young denvi took a few steps backwards, and Ian’s father wheeled himself to sit directly over me. Into his ears he placed a strangely-pronged metal necklace called a ‘stethoscope’. Though I would later be informed that every denvi doctor wore such a thing, and that they were quite harmless, I thought he was about to smash me flat with the hammer-like tip of the tool. He pressed the wide circular end of the device upon my stomach and chest, and both the cold and the pressure made me scream. Or, it would have, had I the ability to scream. Instead, he saw the reaction on my face.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I don’t know how else to do this. If you can, try to breathe normally. I have to hear you breathe.”

I obeyed as best I could, drawing in air against all odds; the tool made exhaling easier than it should have been. None of the denvi said a word.

“Okay,” said the father at last, sparing me from the tool. “His lungs sound clear. Only a little rasping.”

“What does that mean?” asked Ian.

“It means he isn’t gasping for air from internal bleeding. It seems like whatever cut his neck missed the vitals… except…”

He leaned in closer to me, peering through his glasses.

“Can you speak?” he asked me. “Can you make any sound at all?”

Again, my mouth opened, and I created the words with my lips. I placed my hand to my neck, being cautious not to touch the torn flesh, and mouthed the words: ‘Neh angia, neh angia’. No sound emerged. It finally dawned upon me why.

“You can’t…” said the father. “You poor thing.”

“What, Dad? What happened?”

The father pulled away from me.

“It’s possible his vocal cords were severed. The wound is certainly deep enough. He’s lucky that whatever caused this didn’t tear open his carotid artery.” He traced the left side of his neck with his finger as he spoke. “I just… I don’t think he’ll be able to use his voice.”

My expression turned dark, and I let my hands fall. I’d never speak again. I’d never be able to yell, or cry, or sing, or read out loud.

Or tell you how much I love you, one more time.

“I’m sorry,” Ian said, stepping towards me. He reached out his finger and gently touched my forearm. “I didn’t hurt you when I picked you up, did I? You couldn’t have told me if I did.”

I couldn’t focus on him. I was too busy trying to process the world. Life, in that moment, what remained of it. I think, at long last, as the cold faded, shock had started to set in.

“Let’s see,” said the father, moving in close again. “Damn it. I don’t even want to try suturing this. Steri-strips will have to do. I’m sorry, little guy, but I have to make sure those wounds don’t become infected. When I put the antibiotic on, it’s going to hurt. Probably… a lot. But I’ll put Lidocaine on it immediately, so the pain won’t last long. Is that all right? Do you understand?”

I didn’t at all, but I nodded as best I could anyway.

“I just hope this works. You said you found him near the canal?”

“Yeah. He probably almost drowned. But it doesn’t matter. He’ll get better,” Ian said steadfastly, bending himself to put me and his eyes on an even level. “I know he will.”

I blinked a few times, and out of sheer hopelessness, I reached out to him. With his wide thumb and forefinger, he took my outstretched hand and most of my lower arm.

“It’ll be okay,” he said. “I promise.”

I’d only known this ka for maybe fifteen minutes. And I didn’t believe him. But tears formed anyway. 


Chapter TwoStrange Place, Strange People

“I think it’s better if everyone stayed quiet about this little boy for now,” said Ian’s father, driving a colossal vehicle called a ‘car’. Of course, I knew what a car looked like from pictures. And I had nearly been struck by one on the way down the mountain. But I had never been inside one, much less one that was moving. “At least until he improves. Agreed?”

“Yeah,” said all of the ka.

Ian held me carefully in his arm, supporting me with a thick, light-blue towel. Ian’s father had undersold the truth: putting on those first bandages turned out to be one of the most painful experiences of my life, worse than actually being sliced open. The “hydrogen peroxide”, as the denvi called it, was a clear liquid, clear as water. It was not water. He applied the substance to my skin with a cotton swab. At first, it was merely cold. But within a second, the wound in my neck stung as if I’d been set ablaze. Within ten or so seconds, I passed out. To my shock, I woke to see sunlight shining down on my face, my frail little body once again being carried by the human boy. I reached up, and discovered thick but delicate bandages completely engulfing my neck, my shoulders, and much of my chest, to the point where I could not have raised my arms above my head. The intensity of the pain had been replaced by a strange and pleasant numbness, and I had zero desire to move, lest the burning reignite.

Although I had nearly been consumed by a flood, I’d thrown up quite a bit of what I had swallowed. I was thirsty, very suddenly so. Although I doubted there was anything that could be done about it, I had to let the ka know. Again, part of Ian’s arm was uncovered by the towel, and I gently patted it.

“Hmm?” He looked down. “Oh, hey, you’re awake! Are you okay?”

“He is?” asked Aaron, looking at me as he sat at Ian’s side.

“Can I see?” asked Chris, turning around in the front seat.

I called upon my voice by mistake, mouthing the words ‘I’m thirsty’. Hearing nothing, my hands instinctively touched the cotton muffler at my throat.

“You’re…” Ian said. “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”

“I think he said… something about being dirty?”

“You can read lips?”

“I dunno.”

They looked back down at me, and I shook my head as well as I could.

“Nope, guess I can’t,” said Aaron with a chuckle.

I pointed to my mouth.

“Yeah, you can’t speak,” said Ian. “Or… something about your mouth?”

I nodded. I cupped my hand and raised it to my puckered lips.

“Oh!” Ian said. “You’re thirsty! Dad, do we have any water in here? Like a water bottle or something?”

The father looked around a bit, despite the distraction of the road beyond the windshield.

“I don’t think so,” said the father. “But I don’t think a water bottle would be good for him anyway. You’d probably drown him. We have an eyedropper at home, that might work.”

“All right.” He turned back to me. “Do you think you’ll be all right until we get home?”

I nodded slowly, closing my eyes. I nearly let my chin lean forwards, but the sting in my neck kept me motionless.

The drive only took a few minutes. But as I watched the landscape beyond the vehicle’s window fly by, tree after tree, sign post after street light, I realized just how far away I was traveling from you. I know our decisions had brought me to that place. My decisions. But I had run out of choices to make. If I tried to return to our village, especially with that kind of injury, I would die within a day. Maybe with the help of these denvi, once I regained my strength, I would have a chance to return to you.

The car stopped moving when it arrived at a well-kept building of white wood and red brick, at least from what I saw from my perspective in Ian’s arms. Chris and Aaron rose, exiting the vehicle without being prompted.

“Remember, guys,” Ian said. “Don’t tell anybody about him. Even Uncle Ty and Aunt Amy. Just tell them I have a doctor’s appointment to go to or something.”

“You’re not wrong!” Aaron said with a quick smirk.

“See you, boys,” said Ian’s father. “And good job today.”

The doors shut, and both ka ran for the home’s front door and disappeared inside. The car then continued its movement.

In truth, I was becoming a bit alarmed. The deep rumble of the denvi vehicle, the pain in my body, the exhaustion from the entire terrible week, it all conspired against me. The urge to sleep even overrode my desire for water. But if I drifted off into sleep now, would I wake up? And where would I be when I awoke?

Ian noticed my distress. Looking down, his breath fell upon me.

“Are you okay?”

“Let him rest, Ian,” said Ian’s father. “That will be the best thing for him.”

“All right,” Ian said, watching me. “Don’t worry. You can sleep. I’ll make sure you’re comfortable when we get home.”

Trust is a strong word. I wasn’t sure I had much for the boy or his father yet. But his few simple words granted me the permission I needed to surrender. I closed my eyes, and was out in an instant.

The very next something I experienced was a powerful smell. A collection of smells all wrapped into one, in fact. They weren’t individually terrible. Together, they clashed.

One was some kind of bitter cleaning solution, what denvi use to clean their floors and furniture. The second was unfamiliar, primal, the kind of odor that marks someone. I’ve been told that denvi only sort of experience such smells, that dogs are better at identifying people this way. Do you remember when you told me mine was like juniper? I never could help having that dull smell, no matter how much I bathed or what soap I washed with. But this one was thick, the smell of an older child and something buried, like orm roots. The third smell that consumed my senses was by far the strongest: a mixture of savory herbs and flavorful stock.

My eyes opened. A dim white ceiling greeted me first, made yellow by a light source from somewhere in the room. My eyes tracked the ceiling to the far wall, upon which sat two rows of wooden shelves. On these shelves was a colorful assortment of plastic toys and books, well-used boxes with bright graphics and frayed corners, and plastic cases with a variety of English words upon them. Beside the shelves was a wide window framed with dark-red curtains, through which I could see trees, telephone lines, and the light blue of a beautiful spring afternoon.

I tried to lift myself to get a better view of my surroundings, but the roaring pain in my neck pinned me down. I dared not move, but I again attempted to make sound, any sound at all. When I mouthed the words, I could hear the delicate wind of spoken language, but it did not have my voice, nor did it have any great volume. Then, for the first time since, I nearly gagged as the inside of my throat erupted in irritation and pain. After all the blood and damage, it was only natural. If the doctor had been right about my throat, that my vocal chords had been “fractured” by whatever hellish thing I hit in the river, then perhaps it wasn’t the best idea to force my voice to function. I settled back into my light-blue bedding and simply stared.

My ears yearned for recognizable sounds. Muffled voices echoed from elsewhere inside the denvi home, all too indistinct. Every four seconds or so, I would hear a sharp click from somewhere behind me. I didn’t recognize it. It was hollow and tinged, like the metallic ping of a bell. I hated it. With every click, it felt like something in the back of my head was being struck with a ball-peen hammer. But since it didn’t approach, I deemed it annoying but nonthreatening.

Somewhere deep within the bowels of the house, the sound of rushing water echoed. Whenever their plumbing flowed, said the gatherers, denvi would be present.

I decided that the sound was too distant to concern me. Until, of course, I reasoned that distance didn’t exactly matter when all the denvi who lived there knew what I was, where I was, what I looked like, and my current state of health.

I’m unsure how long I laid in that strange rectangular room by myself. For all their faults, I mused, the gatherers had been right about one thing: the denvi adored ninety degree angles. Every room that I had seen thus far had been perfectly rectangular, perfectly geometrical. I didn’t mind it. It had to make their construction projects simple, at least. I knew many who regularly complained about them, though.

Every room is the same, they often said. The only thing different about each room are the colors on the walls and the obstacles on the floor.

If the rooms are all the same, I would always ask, then, what makes them so hard to navigate?

Nothing important is ever on the floor, they would answer. It’s always up above.

I had never been too sure about that. But the gatherers’ toolkit made things quite clear, and never changed: steel grappling hooks, tough leather belts, and as much thread as you can shoulder. Climbing was the only way to survive in a denvi home. Olem, climbing was the only way to survive anywhere. Combined with the ability to remain hidden in the shadows. If a deni had any trouble with these two skills, they were better off staying home.

Like me.

I never was a very physical person. I couldn’t be. You know that. So I taught the deni children how to read and write, content to enjoy the odd scraps of paper the gatherers would bring back. When you convinced them to find some for us, of course. For a few moments, I wondered if I would ever get to teach again. I wondered if I would I ever get to live in a villageagain. Or, come to think of it, would I even see another living deni again?

A sound. The click-thud of a closing door. Footsteps.Big ones.They distanced themselves at first, but then reappeared as deep thumping upon the solid floor nearby.

I froze. Every instinct inside me demanded me to move, to flee, but the pain grew unbearable the moment I even dared to lurch forward. I relaxed, and the pain dulled. Death was just around the corner and I couldn’t move a muscle.

A great door suddenly clicked open directly behind my head, shocking me. I closed my eyes and pretended to be asleep. If the skeletal visage of Death had actually entered the room, I’d never see him coming. Was that better or worse?

Great footsteps on carpet closed the door behind them. I heard the sound of a quiet sigh, and within a second, felt the brush of stirred air as a very large someone strode past where I lay. I dared to open my eyes for just a split second, and I saw the dark-haired head of a familiar ka ignoring me, walking further into the room.

The veritable weight of his presence unnerved me, certainly, but I realized that my position was somewhere high off the ground, as if on some shelf. If I had been lower down, in a crushing position, my psychological state would have been considerably more fragile. Once the ka named Ian passed by, I could no longer see him from within my bedding. He began humming some tune, considerably off-key, and I heard the crunch of metal springs beneath dozens, maybe even hundreds,of pounds.

I didn’t want him to find me awake. But I preferred he didn’t go to bed and leave me in a state of uncertain panic for two to three hours, either.

I didn’t know if the boy would see it, but I had to try. Despite the discomfort, I raised my right arm, waving my hand back and forth to grab the boy’s attention. In that moment alone, I was glad you weren’t with me; you would have stabbed me with your hairpin to make me stop. I felt incredibly foolish. But it soon had its intended effect.

“Oh!” said a quiet voice.

The metal springs complained again, and deep-thumping steps brought the ka denvi into view. I don’t quite know why I expected his appearance to differ from only a few hours before. Though my imagination had turned him into a hideous monster as I slept, he simply… wasn’t. The dim yellow light that shone from behind him cast his massive shadow upon me. Despite this, more than enough daylight entered through the window that I could see him in detail. Bright green eyes, long messy hair that grew past his ears. I could only see his face, his collar, and part of his shoulders, so I knew I must have been quite high off the floor.

“Hi,” he said to me.

I offered a small wave in reply, blinking to make sure this boy was truly looking down upon me and not some other poor fool.

“Oh, good, you can wave.”

I couldn’t nod real well. But I could smile. Slightly.

“How are you feeling? Are you in pain?”

I shrugged my shoulders, which made me wince.

“I’m sorry. I wish I could give you medicine to help. Dad isn’t sure how much we can give you yet. He said he’s gonna do some research about it, though, maybe give you some… relative to your size, you know? Do the bandages help, at least?”

I moved my lips. I think he took that as a “yes”. He watched me for a bit longer than would be considered polite. I even closed my eyes for a second as if tired, just to look back and see he hadn’t stopped staring. I think I glared at him. That gave him the hint, and he shook out of his daze.

“Uh…” The boy chuckled, moving on. “Oh. Hey, do you… want me to get you anything?”

Again, I lifted a cupped hand to my mouth. Recognition lit up his face.

“Oh yeah! Sorry, I forgot! Wait right here.”

Not that I had a choice. Just as abruptly as he had entered the room, he stepped out; the entirety of him suddenly not being in front of me was almost as jarring as him being there. I heard his footsteps travel a short distance, a door open, something clatter, and a waterfall cascade into a hollow bowl. Ten seconds later, the ka returned, closing his door and coming back into my view.

“Here you go,” said Ian cheerfully. In his hands he held a large plastic tube and an even larger vessel filled with pure water. “Drink from this.”

It wasn’t just a tube, exactly; a tube with a plunger within that could fill and empty just by squeezing the plunger through it. Ian brought the tube to my mouth, and as his thumb pressed upon the plunger, my lips immediately met with moisture. I inhaled the first fist-sized drop. Metaphorically. I hadn’t had a clean drink of water in maybe two days; I’d thrown up all the unclean river water I’d dare drink before then. A second drop emerged, and I lapped it up. A third, fourth, and fifth drop formed, and I took my time with them, enjoying every second of the incredible crisp liquid. Finally, I leaned my head backwards as a sixth drop formed. I thought it might spill across my chest. But Ian was watching the procedure closely, and simply by pulling on the plunger, the drop withdrew back into the strange tube as if by magic.

“Is that all?” Ian asked. “Do you want more?”

I raised a finger up.

“One more?”

I pushed my hand forwards a few times.

“Oh. I’ll wait. Sorry.”

He was considerate, I’d give him that. Perhaps I wasn’t an animal to him after all. Once I regained my composure and felt there was room for more, I waved at him.

“Here ya go.”

The tube lowered and produced a droplet, which I sucked up with gratitude. I did the same with a second, a third, and a fourth. I then raised my hand to make the water cease, which it did.

Now, I thought to myself, what do denvi do? Then I remembered; I’d seen it in a picture from a torn magazine once, and I’d seen Grandmother do it a few times. I lifted my hand, formed a fist, but left my thumb extended. I didn’t really know what that meant. But I’m glad Ian did, and a smile formed on his face.

“Yay,” he said. “Good. Good. Hey, are you cold? Or hot? Lift up your arm.”

I didn’t, but the boy took it in his fingers anyway. My left arm, too. It hurt.

“Hmm. What about here?”

He felt my stomach with his forefinger. I lost a bit of air as he pressed down. He then lightly squeezed my right foot. It was then I knew for sure that I had lost my ratty shoes. I didn’t much care; they hadn’t offered any real protection. I was just grateful I still wore any piece of clothing at all (specifically, the pants that clung to my waist).

“Yeah, you’re cold. Do you want me to get you another towel? Help keep you warm?”

My hand waved a negative and fell back down to my side. Despite the blood loss and relative nakedness, most of me was badly sunburned, and for the first time in a week, I felt fairly comfortable.

“You’re sure?”

I nodded.

“Um, let’s see,” he whispered, lowering his eyes to my level.

I turned my head as best I could, and saw the curious light of his eyes not more than a few arm lengths away. I’m not going to lie, it was slightly horrifying, being able to seemyself in that reflection.

“Dad says that it’s super-important that your patient stays comfortable. And he said that sometimes a distraction can help lessen pain. If you want, we can watch a movie on my TV. I’ll watch with you to make sure you’re okay.”

I knew what a “movie” was, if only because of the word. At first, I gave him a halfway shrug. Until my plodding mind comprehended what the boy was offering me. When would I ever get the opportunity to watch a denvi movie otherwise? I quickly nodded to override my shrug.

“Yeah? Cool. Uh, hang on, let’s see…”

Ian looked around his room for a moment, and then stepped outside again. His thundering footsteps faded, then I heard him faintly shout to someone. Everything grew quiet. A door very far away slammed, and Ian’s footsteps rebounded towards me until he entered the room. He passed me by, fiddling with something wooden and metallic. I had no idea what to make of it, so I remained still.

Ian then came into view.

“I got you a chair,” he said. “You’ll have the best seat in the house. Like sitting in your own theater.”

I nodded, not fully understanding. I only knew of “theaters” by the word. But if they had anything to do with movies, they must have been fantastic places to visit.

“Okay, here we go,” Ian said, his slender yet gigantic hands reaching for me. One hand descended beneath my right side, and the other crossed over me beneath my left; I half-expected to be smothered. Instead, I went airborne, descending into that strange and massive room. I didn’t have too much time to marvel at the movement before my bedding and I came to rest upon an inclined surface. Although I couldn’t say so, it felt wonderful to be seated. Ian’s hands disappeared, and there, standing upon its own table, I looked upon the largest and most foreboding black rectangle in existence.

The descent hadn’t frightened me all that much. No, it was the tower of a boy that loomed over me that attracted my horrified gaze. Dressed in a gray shirt and shorts, I could see Ian in much greater detail from my new perspective, from his knees all the way up to his head. It was like looking through some strange piece of warped glass, making the child only appear to stand as tall as a tree. But no. In reality, I was lying prone, under the complete command of this very real denvi.

I was right about lower altitudes, but perhaps not about him.Contrary to every tale I had ever heard about them, this human named Ian didn’t pose a threat to me. He didn’t intend to, at least. His size did, sure. But his demeanor did not.

He crossed the room between me and the rectangle, taking some device in his hand. The pitch-black rectangle suddenly gave way to a pair of bright blue words that I couldn’t pronounce. They made no sound, but the two words then became a blue illustration of a television that playfully bounced back and forth across the screen. The television was active and ready.

“Okay,” Ian said, stepping towards the shelves that hung next to the window. “I’ve got a couple of movies to choose from. What do you think? Star Wars? Lord of the Rings? Maybe a Disney movie?”

I hadn’t the slightest clue what any of those words meant. Without any hint of preference, I almost shrugged again, but then an idea popped in my head: I had a very important question (a number of questions, really), and without a voice, there was going to be only one way I could ask it.

I raised my hand to stop the boy. Before he could ask why, I pressed my fingers together and wobbled them back and forth against the palm of my opposite hand. I watched Ian’s face for any sign that he understood.

Ian cocked his head to the side.

“You want to… write something?” he asked. He then smacked his forehead. “Oh! I’m so dumb! Why didn’t I think that you could? Hang on, let me find something you can use.”

Ian stepped away from my view, and the sounds I heard resembled rummaging through a filled drawer. The silly boy mumbled to himself in the meantime.

“No, not a pen. Too big. Nay, pencil’s too big, too. Maybe if I snap it in half, I dunno. Marker? Eh, they’re all dead. And you can’t write with a cray… Ah!”

Something snapped, surely too delicate and light to be a whole pencil. More rummaging. Then the boy reappeared, kneeling before me.

“Here you go.”

His hand hovered close, and between his fingers was a short gray stick a bit thicker than my thumb and twice as long as my hand. I recognized it immediately, as I had used them all the time: it was the lead of what the denvi called a “mechanical” pencil. I took it gladly.

“And here, you can use these.”

With his other hand, he placed a thick pad of light-green paper up to the edge of my lap. I’d used these as well. They called them “sticky notes”. People in the village generally used them not only as writing material, but as a source of adhesive that comes off easily enough with a thin knife.

I began writing my question when there came a knock at Ian’s door. I panicked somewhat when Ian said: “Hi.”

I looked; a familiar face looked back.

“Ian?” asked Ian’s father. “Is our patient awake?”

“Yep,” Ian said. “I was going to watch a movie with him, but guess what? He knows how to write.”

The denvi’s face brightened.

“Really?” he said. “That’s wonderful! I’d love to join you. Is it all right if I come in?”

“Is that okay?” Ian asked me.

Despite the water I just drank, my throat ran dry. But I nodded all the same.

The denvi opened the door and stepped into the room, and I imagined him hitting his head on the top of the door frame. I’m exaggerating, obviously, but I had never seen someone standing so tall before. I’ve never asked him to know for sure, but the good doctor had to stand more than seven feet tall, at least.He carried a large wooden stool in one hand as if expecting to enter whether I liked it or not. After placing it beside me and sitting down, Ian leaned backwards and plopped to the floor on his bottom. With both of them seated, I felt considerably less intimidated.

I pressed my hand against my forehead and closed my eyes, thinking for a moment. It would have been so much easier with a voice. I then pressed the graphite to the paper. Aware that the denvi would likely not be able to read my regular handwriting, I struck out my first words, rewriting them as large as I dared. It took me a moment to get used to my seating position, but I soon found a way to scribble without too much discomfort. Finished, I tore off the paper from the stack and handed it to Ian, who took it expectantly.

He squinted at the note, and for a moment, I thought I might have to rewrite it.

“Why would…? Because you were gonna die, silly.”

“What does it say?” asked his father.

Ian handed the note over.

“It says, why did you save me?”

The denvi above me placed a hand to his chin, and seemed to understand the intent of my question a bit better than the boy.

“Something tells me you don’t have very much experience with people like us.”

I shook my head.

“What do you mean?” Ian asked.

“Well, I’ve never seen someone like him, have you?” Speaking to me, he said: “You probably didn’t expect to be found by the boys, did you?”

I paused, and wondered if what I wanted to say would get me in trouble somehow. I carefully traced letters to paper anyway, pausing for a moment when I realized that they wouldn’t be familiar with my language. I pulled the note from the stack, and hesitated on who I should hand it to.

Ian’s father reached out first. He took his glasses from his pocket and studied my writing.

“My family,” he read. “…is dead because of humans.”

Ian’s eyes opened wide.

“…seriously?”

His father remained impassive when I nodded.

“You have every reason not to trust us, then,” he said.

I looked away.

“…but your whole family?” Ian asked, pulling forwards. “How?”

“Ian,” said the father. “I don’t think that’s our right to ask.”

They looked down upon me, and saw me busily writing. Mother, Father. Han and Sareil, the little brother and sister I would never know. Most of my students. Grandmother, your father Andre, and your brother Xande. I had already mourned for those I loved. As for the rest, what little grief I had for them was spent, and I could write without emotion.

I know this was always difficult for you to understand. But you, the children, and Grandmother were the only people I even wanted to care about. As for the rest, well… they could all go to hell. Writing about the dead wasn’t terribly difficult when most of them had made it very clear and public that they hated me.

It’s not the most satisfying form of revenge. They died, and I remember. But it has kept me warm some nights: I can remember them however I want.

I handed my response to Ian’s father.

“’Mostly sickness,’” he read.

I wrote another.

“‘Bad water and food.’”

“’Accidents. Animals.’”

“‘It’s not your fault, though.’”

I wrote another; despite the pad of paper being nearly as wide as I was tall, my arms were short, and I had little energy to say everything I wanted.

“’You are better than my family ever was,’” Ian’s father read. “What do you mean by that? I’m sure that’s not true.”

“Yeah, all we did was pick you up out of the canal and patch you up,” Ian said.

I frowned. I wrote more.

“‘You don’t know my family’.” The father shrugged. “Oh, well, I suppose we don’t.”

Ian squinted, wrinkling his nose.

“Were you running away from home or something?”

I wrote.

“They threw me out.’”

“Why?”

“Ian,” his father growled, scolding.

“…what?” he whined back.

They didn’t need to know everything. I put pencil to paper.

“‘My leg doesn’t work well’.” The father frowned. “Hmm. I did notice something before.”

“You can’t walk?” Ian asked.

“‘I can walk slow.’ Do you know what’s wrong with your leg?”

I wrote.

“‘I became very sick.’ When?”

I wrote again.

“’As a baby’. Both of your legs? Or just one?”

I held up a finger. Then two, wiggled my hand, and shrugged.

“Hmm. Does your knee bend normally? Or is it a little crooked?”

I wrote.

“No. Very crooked.”

“Do you mind if I lift up your pant leg and take a look?”

I wobbled my head, motioning down. Ian’s father gently grasped my wretched left foot with one hand and lifted up my pant with the other. I watched his face as he examined it.

“Can you keep it lifted? By yourself?”

I did my best, but my leg immediately began shaking from the strain.

“Whoa,” Ian whispered. “It’s like… his knee looks backwards.”

“Hmm. Atrophy, too.”

“What’s atrophy?” Ian asked, peering down at my leg along with his father. His breath hit me immediately as he zoomed in; he was so close, I could have kicked his nose.

“See the muscles of his calf? And his thigh. Compare the two. See how much more developed the right is than the left? Oh, here. Sorry.”

He gently took my leg with his thumb and forefinger. I nodded, grateful for the relief from shaking. My instincts told me to be worried about how closely they were examining me, but at that point, I preferred someone tear off my bum leg altogether and save me the trouble of hauling it around.

“See? It’s atrophied, which means the muscles have shrunk. Or just never grew strong.”

“Atrophy.” That was a new word to me. Now I could describe why my leg was ji kalok ys nanol. So skinny and bent.

“It does look like it bends the other way… May I?”

At his request, I quickly shook my head and twisted to pull my leg away. I could hardly bend it myself without discomfort, I didn’t want a denvi to do it for me.

“Sorry, understood.” He seemed to ponder for a second after releasing my leg. “Have you ever injured your back or your neck? Broken any bones? Or was it just from falling ill as a child?”

I shook my head at the mention of broken bones, and simply shrugged off the rest.

“Interesting. I wonder if it was something as simple as polio.”

“Polio?” Ian asked. “What does polio do? Isn’t that gone?”

“Nearly gone, yeah. Before immunizations, it used to kill thousands of children a year all over the world, and often crippled those that survived. Now it’s nearly eradicated from humanity, but… maybe not from his people. Polio and meningitis can act just like this, with muscle weakness, paralysis, genu recurvatum.”

“Genu wha-huh-tum?” Ian asked.

I would have asked the same thing.

“Genu recurvatum. Hyperextension of the knee.”

“Oh. That’s the technical term?”

“Yep. Although, maybe it’s not as bad as it looks.” He looked to me. “You can still feel your leg, move it, and bend it. Right?”

I nodded. I’d never heard of polio before. Or “genu wha-huh-tum.” Or “hyper-whatever-he-said.” But I knew the word “paralysis.” My left leg had never lost all of its feeling, or its ability to move. It was weak and misshapen, though, and it had been for as long as I could remember.

“How do you move around?” Ian asked me. “Hopefully not just limping.”

Instead of writing it, I extended my arms (wincing at the pain) and pretended to walk, making motions as if someone had placed sticks beneath my arms.

Ian’s father nodded.

“Crutches,” he said. “Hey, whatever works, right? You’re a tough one.”

I wrote three words of doubt.

“Hey, I don’t doubt it. I know a tough guy when I see one. You’ve got the upper body strength to prove it, I can tell.”

He poked me in the chest, and I offered him a small grin in return. There really wasn’t much muscle there either, but it was a nice thought.

“Wait…” Ian said. “With the rain last night, you weren’t actually trying to swim in the canal, were you?”

I shrugged. I had only really intended to follow the bank of the river in the direction it ran, but the slippery mud and gravity conspired against me.

“You can swim? With that leg? Wow.”

“It’s all in the arms,” Ian’s father said, flexing his own. After a chuckle, he pointed to his neck and asked: “Do you have any idea how you got hurt? Did you hit something? Or fall?”

“Yeah! Or did a cat get you with its claws or something?”

I wrote many notes in a row. Ian’s father gathered them all in his fingers.

“‘No animals. I fell into the water. I hit something sharp, metal maybe. Couldn’t breathe. Threw up blood and passed out.’” Ian’s father nodded. “We’re definitely going to have to keep an eye out for infection. Canal water is dirty stuff, but it’s worse if you hit something rusted. If you get a fever or start to feel nauseous, you tell us right away.”

“But he can’t.” Ian said, scratching his shoulder. He paused. “He can’t tell us.”

“Hmm. And it’s hard to hear someone shout on paper. Maybe we can find something he can use to make sound with. Like a bell, something he can hit.”

“Good idea. And I’ll listen for it if he needs anything.”

“Does that mean you’re volunteering to be the night nurse tonight?”

Ian sat up straight and offered me a mighty salute.

“Yes sir! I’m at your command, sir!”

I laughed. Tried to. Though my lack of voice should have been expected by then, it wasn’t. As the two denvi motioned to stand, I closed my eyes. I dug deep and forced a growl, demanding it emerge from wherever it would. It actually did. Though filled with mucus, blood, and (for all I knew) gravel, my upper throat could still make a hoarse rasping noise.

I sighed; it was something.

“Oh,” said Ian’s father, standing immense over me. “You know what? We’ve been incredibly rude.”

“Huh?” asked Ian.

“We’ve completely skipped introducing ourselves,” said the father, placing a hand on Ian’s shoulder. “I’m sure you know this little scamp by now, this is Ian. My name is James. James Petersen.”

“Oh yeah. Sorry! I didn’t even think about that.”

“Can we ask you your name?” James asked.

I nodded gratefully, and wrote it in English. Ian took the page from me and read it aloud.

“‘Lenn’. That’s a cool name. Can I call you Lenny?”

I raised a dull eyebrow at him. It made him giggle, for some reason.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Lenn,” James said, playfully prodding his son’s head at the odd joke. “When my wife gets home, I’ll introduce you. I hope we’ll be able to help you, I really do.”

I didn’t thank them, then. I should have. They had given me medicine, a bed, water, and kind words. Only two other people in my life had ever done likewise. One was long dead. The other I had left to endure misery alone.

Gratitude never was my forte.

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Not Good for the Heart (?)

I’m not a huge fan of confrontation. Or stress. That’s probably not surprising for anyone who knows me. If you don’t, you may wonder why I wandered into the depths of politics and religion with the last two articles I wrote. I’m a glutton for punishment, I guess. Nothin’ like “a waste of time” to get the blood pumping. I always find a way to stretch the barriers surrounding my own emotional containment. I’ve been told this is a good thing, but I’m not too sure about that. I feel like I’ve learned a few things this week, though, and I thought I’d share (if only to help me process my own feelings).

Hemingway once said: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” If that’s the case, then writing is a biopsy, and the reader is a doctor. Deep inside, you hope the reader is trained to process the results. You hope the reader has a decent bedside manner. You hope what you have isn’t terminal.

Oop, it’s terminal.

It’s the big word in the middle, it’s wonderful; I’ve never had someone critique my work with something so specific before. Kind of exciting, actually. I was looking for “preachy”, but “tendentious” is fantastic. At first I thought he misspelled “tangentious”, like, going off on endless amounts of tangents. And boy, do I ever (I love parentheses). But no, that’s not what the word means.

Tendentious: “expressing or intending to promote a particular cause or point of view, especially a controversial one.”

Thank the Lord, someone actually recognized what I was doing! It sounds like I’m being facetious when I say this, but I’m not: I’ve been waiting years for someone to give me feedback that’s so specific. I’ve spent the last ten years of my life working for marketing agencies where the only feedback I receive is if the details of the content I write need clarification or correcting. And if they do need correcting, I don’t often get specifics about adding things so much as deleting. Having worked for the last two-and-a-half years as a remote freelancer, I don’t get to discuss content writing much with people who do the same work, since, well… I don’t have co-workers.

I’m pretty used to being wrong, though. And I’m very used to being boring.

But “tendentious”… I never get to be tendentious, much less get recognized for it.

Hypocrite? Well, yeah, I mean, I mentioned that I was in the article. I usually assume everyone is, but it’s good to play it safe. I mentioned the possibility of being wrong many times, too, so I’m happy to get confirmation. The review even made it to the last line in the article, too, which makes this even more exciting; I only mentioned invoked Reagan’s name once, and despite agreeing with the sentiment that he was an evil hypocrite (just as every mortal who ever lived in this world is), I still believe the quote is useful, if not an actual truth.

You know how many times I’ve told myself that I’ve been wasting my time, though? That’s old news, my man; you and my brain both. And not just here, on this blog. I’ve mentioned in the past how I’ve felt about my own work, how none of the hundreds and thousands of pages of content I’ve written over the course of my life will ever be seen by human eyes. Even now, the words I’m writing amount to a fart in the wind. Nothing besides a bit of traffic from URL bot trawlers on search engines and blog scammers.

To be honest, though… I’ve never really had anything I’ve wanted to say before. Not really. I’m strange that way. I’ve been writing since I was a little kid, writing silly stories for myself and never for anyone else. Only in the last few years have I reached out to my own family members to see if I had anything worth saying. Not until early 2021 did I realize how hard it was to love writing while being too scared to show people the metaphorical blood on the typewriter.

When I chose “atheism” and “religion” as two of the keywords that would be attached to the last blog post, I knew what I was doing. I knew the kind of people I was inviting to the party. And I want to thank him. Honestly. Your feedback, while not the first deconstructive criticism I’ve ever received, told me more than I ever hoped for about an article that I knew was a throwaway from the start. You recognized I gave it effort, you recognized its purpose, and you read it to the end. Not a lot of readers have given my work that much attention, much less that much recognition.

Okay, it was… mostly a throwaway. I don’t enjoy writing things that aren’t meaningful to me, in some way (it’s why I didn’t get my bachelor’s, after all). Like I’ve said, thinking gets me into trouble. No matter how heartfelt I start things, the more I bleed across the metaphorical page, the more I realize that I’m just making a mess, and not a pretty one.

But, as a writer, I am duty-bound to bleed. And the more time and effort I waste in this profession, the stronger I become as a writer and as a person. Now that I’m no longer shackled to my medications and caffeine, I am able to accept unwarranted (and delightfully-specific) heat when it comes my way. And that is a wonderful sign of progress.

This all being said, however… I’ll take my refiner’s fire by degrees, thank you. I’m still a wuss. A wuss in remission, but still certainly one.

Something, Not Anything, and Especially Not Nothing

These words have power, even in fiction. And they’re worth holding on to.

A video appeared in my Facebook feed recently by Brad Stein entitled: “Ricky Gervais Atheism Rebuttal (Part 1)“. And it got me thinking. I know I get in trouble when I think out loud, but I can’t help it. So I’ll throw my two cents out there, mostly to help me form my own understanding.

One of the main points of atheism that I understand the least is the desire to throw away all of man’s collected theological arguments, philosophies, and development. Just get rid of it, they say. All of it. Immediately. We don’t need it anymore. If the world could just “get over” God completely, they argue, we might actually start making sense to each other. After all, now that we have the scientific method, what do we need faith for?

The thing that gets me is that they speak as if a religion-less world would solve more problems than it would cause. You know the phrase, “throw the baby out with the bath water?” To get rid of all religion and God, you might as well be throwing the whole bathroom out of the house. Yes, the bathroom often smells bad, and yes, it needs cleaning more than most other rooms in the house. In fact, sometimes the sewage comes back up and explodes out of the toilet, and sometimes we have to call the plumber or even the disaster clean-up crew to come take care of things.

But no one would argue that building a house without a bathroom is a good idea, at least not in the modern world. Even if it’s an outhouse on the property, outside of the house of society, it is something man can’t do without, and to say that they can invites trouble.

But there’s more to this analogy than comparing religion to waste disposal, because the bathroom is used for much more than this. The bathroom is where man comes to become clean. It is the one place inside the home where man is renewed, when man begins and ends each day, mostly out of necessity, but sometimes… just because. (Apologies if this overstretches the analogy. But really, what parent hasn’t retreated to the bathroom for a moment of solace?) A home without a bathroom is a miserable place, and even if you’ve chosen to build your home without one, there is somewhere in your home that you wash yourself and do your business.

If not, well… I hope you use dry shampoo, at least.

Hopefully you’ve noticed by now that I’m not really talking about the optimal type of bathroom, whether you should have tile or hardwood floors, or whether a bidet is preferrable to toilet paper. Which religion is true isn’t the question here (although, due to my inexperience, my argument is from the Christian perspective, as it is the one I am most familiar with). It’s the question of, on a societal scale, whether religion is preferrable to none at all. And, like it or not, believe it or not, religion has been an absolute necessity in mankind’s development, and will continue to be, so long as man requires a source of moral integrity.

And I submit that he does.

(Yet another aspect of atheism I don’t quite grasp. They insist that man is capable of being a moral creature on his own, that left without restrictions of belief, he could make manifest a modern and moral society. All I ask is: moral to who, exactly? The greatest amount of us, or a select few? The society that accepts stories such as The Lord of the Flies, 1984, and hundreds of other godless dystopias as societal possibilities states this “fact” with a straight face, and that has always confused me.)

Let’s be fair: if it wasn’t for the very Christian founding of the United States that believes that speech is a sacred gift that ought to be protected, even if the speaker is factually or morally wrong, there are a lot of other discussions that we wouldn’t and couldn’t even be having right now (as an aside: you can, in fact, shout “fire!” in a crowded theater, especially if the theater is actually on fire, in which case you probably should, and remember to help everyone find the right exits. In fact, to expand on this analogy, in my opinion, it is the sole purpose of the religious to shout when they see fires, i.e. moral dangers, stamp them out when they can, and help the weak and downtrodden escape with their lives, sometimes quite literally.) I submit that the very site that hosts this blog and others like it would not exist without it (the fact that there are countries that block Wikipedia, of all things, or at least interfere with the free editing of its content, is astounding to me. But not unexpected, and telling of cultures and, yes, religions that do not agree that you can simply say things).

The scientific method and all the vaunted sciences which atheism loves so very much were developed by God-fearing men and women who sought to understand all the facets of creation, and might not have done so with such feverish dedication and curiosity had they not felt a moral obligation to do so (a moral obligation that arose, I might add, often because of their faith, and not in spite of it). From the ancient Greeks to the Islamic Golden Age, from Galileo to Sir Issac Newton, the search for knowledge and truth has never been separate from faith and belief until these most recent two centuries. The Renaissance, for instance, was financed and forwarded as a whole by men of faith; only now, in these days, would we question the worthiness of a scientist by his belief in a higher power. Even men like Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking would not have been able to perform their work without standing upon the moral foundations laid by men who at least publicly believed in God.

Yes, men and women are foolish, and very imperfect. Petty, often, and gullible. We always have been and we always will be. Man’s religions especially so. But we would not be as “advanced” as we are without them, and, in my humble opinion, we would be dramatically worse off without God and religon existing within our societal framework. Indeed, God and religion is the framework we build on, and to rip it out and start from nothing would be both ill-advised and (in my opinion) probably impossible anyway, so long as people exist in this world who seek to help and love others.

That’s not to say that atheists are incapable of love or giving to charity. But I am saying there is a correlation between goodness and religion that is undeniable.

An article entitled “Can societies abandon religion and continue to prosper?” was written for MercatorNet by Michael Kirke and lays out a few points of evidence for this. I’ll highlight this main point:

“In a world where people often lived near starvation, religion helped them cope with severe uncertainty and stress… as economic and technological development took place, people became increasingly able to escape starvation, cope with disease, and suppress violence. Does this, however, mean that their faith in a higher power was necessarily illusory?

“…if the overall thesis is that the only factors governing the future of mankind are those recognised by the materialist modern mind, then it is a very limited one. Uniting good political science and sociology with the entire corpus of theology and Christian doctrine as it has developed down through two millennia will give us a much more useful reading of what the future might look like than will a Babelesque go-it-alone mindset. The corpus of the Judean-Christian Scriptures — with their prophesies, parables and accounts of historical events —  still gives us essential resources for interpreting and coping with the events, and follies, of our times.”

In my opinion, it couldn’t be less illusory if it tried. That starved, desperate, violent world is the world that our modern one was built on, and if popular media tells me anything, it’s the one we will return to if society should ever collapse under its own weight. And, in the end, you can’t get away from that. You accept the most good that you possibly can, remember it in the history books, and move on, else we go back to square one with nothing and repeat the suffering in ignorance.

Perhaps the most common argument for atheism I encountered was the argument that man is never more bloodthirsty, murderous, and trecherous than when serving a god. And yes, it’s true: under the banner of religion, man has murdered their fellow man in untold numbers, from the days of Babylon to the planes that struck the Twin Towers. But it wasn’t until we managed to get God out of the way that man made murder an industrialized endeavor. From the Holocaust to the Holodomor, from Mao’s glorious revolution to the killing fields of Cambodia, man gets awful good at killing other men and doing terrible things when they put God aside, often with the aspirations that life will be better once the undesirables are gone.

Because the first undesirable removed, inevitably, is God Himself. And that is hardly God’s fault.

The silliest argument I’ve ever got into with someone about the intrinsic value of religion was about the total death toll of the Crusades, how the conflict that spanned two centuries would not have happened had God and religion not been involved.

Such a simple theory of a simpler time, as if the greater religions of politics and desperation were not as active and far-reaching.

At the time, I didn’t have the numbers in front of me, but here they are. They’re rough, of course; anywhere from one million to nine million soldiers and civilians dead due to the 200-year, octuple-pronged conquest of the Holy Land. It’s impossible to be accurate these days, but even with rough estimates, and with all due respect for generations of people that died under terrible and barbaric circumstances, these are baby numbers.

The Third Reich was able to kill just as many people in a period of ten years. The Soviets’ five-year plan did it in a single year. Mao did four to eight times more, in only four years. And without a god to be found.

But, naturally, when you use the word “conquest”, it makes it sound so one-sided, when it was very much not. In fact, most of the “crusades” were failures, and overall they certainly were. Could I just submit the possibility that such a conflict was, in fact, not ordained of God? That, in fact, the majority of reasons the conflict began actually first conflicted with the very commandments God gave His followers, namely “thou shall not kill”? That it was men and power, not religion, that was the problem? Because, again, let’s be honest: even some Christians thought it wasn’t a good idea to continue sacking the East in 1114, and Christians were slaughtered for getting in the way. There’s a reason they started, though, that wasn’t “because God told them to”. The First Crusade began because Emperor Alexios of the Byzantines (who was not Catholic) no longer had control over the region and asked Pope Urban II to intervene, which they might have done anyway because of the massive military victories made by the Muslims in Spain in the mid 1000’s. There’s a board game about it, for Pete’s sake. Europe was in trouble, and needed to stand up for themselves. Too bad it took eight crusades to realize they didn’t need to take it that far; by then, it was just a thing to do to prove yourself a decent Catholic ruler.

Of the ten worst genocides in modern history, only the genocide that took place in Bangladesh in 1971 was committed solely on the grounds of state-sanctioned religous bigotry. All the other man-made cataclysms were performed with different primary motivations in mind, many of which were actually state-sanctioned genocides of specific religious groups, or became worse for those that followed a particular belief system.

Is that fair to say? Even as I write this, I know how complicated history is, and how uneducated I am. Even now, I have trouble believing that someone would care so much about the things I believe… that they wouldn’t merely prefer I didn’t exist, but would go out of their way to kill me, my family, and everyone who dared to share my worldview. That if I were Jewish in Poland in 1942, an SS officer’s first reaction to learning of my existence would be to reach for their gun and not shrug in indifference. That if I were Muslim and living in Cambodia in 1975, that the first reaction of an agent of Khmer Rouge to seeing me across the room would be a knee-jerk execution by machete and thrown in a mass grave with the bodies of my friends and loved ones. After all, I’ve been told so often that it’s the religious people that love killing people so much. Why would a non-believer act like this?

If this sounds naive, it’s because I’m being so on purpose. That’s my point: people are awful anyway, no matter what they profess to believe.

Yes, people are terrible. And people with power are even worse, especially when made desperate. But that does not mean the whole of the system of belief that a powerful man holds is a net evil, especially when the system is judged only by the actions of those in power.

So what is religion, then? Is it opium for the masses, like the Marxists say? Is it merely an allowance, a shield you can wield against all forms of criticism, especially if you’re able to fool enough of those terrible people? Is it an oppressive and unnecessary system of rules and regulations that forbid you from thinking for yourself? Is religion merely “the effect of a frenzied mind… [a] derangement of your minds [that] comes because of the traditions of your fathers, which lead you away into a belief of things which are not so”?

If that’s all it is, there’s great news. The philosophers have spoken: “God is dead, for we have killed Him.”

But what would you put in His place?

The haughty answer is: “nothing.” I think the honest answer is: “anything else.” I believe the more complicated answer is: “everything else.”

How long will that last, do you think? In this world of popularity contests and symbolism, how long can you hold together a world of people with “nothing”? With “anything”? I know from personal experience that “everything” can distract for a good couple of years, at least. But is that all I get in return? A distraction?

You’ve got to be able to make us all some promises with your “anything” and “everything else”.

If we dropped everything we believed, right now, would fewer of us die in the short-term if we followed your “everything”? And I do mean all of us, all people living right now, because that is the endless demand I hear. How about long-term? Would fewer of us encounter a broken heart, or heal from heartache and separation faster? Would fewer of us have to suffer from depression, sadness, and doubt? Would your “anything else” make us all less lonely? Would your noisy “everything” help us find meaning in our existence in this staggeringly uncaring universe? Could it protect us from hopelessness? Could it save us from sorrow? And if it could not, could it at least explain why we are destined to live in such conditions?

In my own life, I have felt abandoned by those who shared my faith. When I was at my lowest point, I did not know how to ask for help, and they did not know how to give it. But it is a commandment in my religion to “mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort”. Yes, those that share my faith may have failed to follow that commandment sometimes, due to inexperience or insecurity.

But they succeeded far more than they failed. Nothingness didn’t have an answer for me. Atheism doesn’t care if I attempt suicide again. My one small life means nothing to nothingness, and it means much less than that to “everything” and “anything”. But my faith tells me that my God does care. A lot, actually. And because of that, I am still here.

Does your belief system compel you to act the same towards others? Does it urge you to reach out the those you love, even when you don’t know how? Or even to reach out to those who mean nothing to you? It’s likely to. If so, where does the system you follow originate?

Just as the worth of a man’s thoughts are best judged by what he thinks when he is alone, so too is a man’s beliefs. Therein lies the difficulty, because although religion and faith affects the whole fabric of society, it is a very personal thing, a very individual thing. A difficult-to-control thing. A difficult-to-explain thing.

But none of these traits make religion wrong. Or even useless. Far from it, actually. It’s only a shame it has taken this long to reach a view of individualism that we can have honest and peaceful discussions about what makes our beliefs different. And it’s a greater shame that believers are often shamed for doing so (and I share these examples because of how easily I can see them being mocked on the social media cesspool that is Twitter; I have no desire to look up examples).

Talk about “comically” missing the point. The artist has proven only that he has made the slimmest of mental effort, throwing away the whole of “white American Christianity” by lumping them with terrorists, murderers, and child traffickers. I don’t care how you feel about any of the groups portrayed, though, honestly: caricature and mockery like this removes our willingness to understand each other. Be they enemy or friend, saint or sinner, 85% of the population of the world affiliates with a religion. Like it or not, believe it or not, you do yourself a disservice by ignoring and discarding it without learning why.

Whether you believe in God or not, you must acknowledge that everything we cling to, everything we love, and everything we consider beautiful stems from something: a system of belief, a tradition, a source of morality. Even if you don’t believe it, it’s likely someone you love does, and it’s likely they were taught by others that believed. If a man removes from himself a fundamental source of morality, he allows for his children to believe in anything.

And “anything” is one of the most terrifying things someone can believe in. This article, entitled: “Believing In Anything” by Dale Ahlquist, is a wonderful read, as is G. K. Chesterton as a whole, if you ever get the chance.

I’m not asking you to believe in the Tooth Fairy, or Santa Claus, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I’m not even asking you to believe in the god I believe in, really. I’m only asking you to watch your child’s actions and behaviors if they do believe in the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus, and ponder what use that belief serves. I’m only asking you to judge how the man who believes in the Flying Spaghetti Monster lives his life, and if he and those he associates with are all the better for his mockery.

I’m only asking you to judge our society and people the way my God did, and if any of it has value, to not discard the whole of it, and ask why:

Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?

Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit.

A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.

Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.

Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.

Matthew 7:16-20

That’s why I can’t throw it all away, like the atheists tell me to: because there is goodness there. It is personal. It is difficult to explain. It’s also why I don’t blame those that have, if that is truly what they have experienced. But, as the Gipper once said, freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. And like it or not, believe it or not, faith is an inextricable virtue of freedom. Square one is not a place I want to raise my own children, no matter how flawed the people who stand on square forty-two might be. Because, for all I know, those strange people with strange thoughts on square forty-two might have something of real value.

If you’ve got a bridge you’d like to sell me, I’ve got a bathroom remodel I can offer you in return. All you need to do is ask.

Again and Again and Again and…

I want to cry.

Yes, it’s been about 10 years since I last had kidney stones. Well, they’re back, and with a vengeance. I walked about a mile this morning before I had to stop, collapse on the cement for about ten minutes, and turn right back home. Little wonder they decided to “show up” now; I’ve walked about thirty miles in the last two weeks, so whatever stones I’ve got dancing around in there finally came loose. I’m like a freakin’ maraca, and I can’t even stand up without feeling like I want to die.

And yes, they’re on my left side, meaning they won’t be passing without surgical assistance.

*sigh*

Do I have a job yet? No. But if I manage to get one this week, I guess I know where my next two or three paychecks is going: straight to paying for another round of lithotripsy.

Guh.

Examining the Wounds Without the Bandages, Part One

I don’t talk about my mission much. When I do, I usually only talk about it long enough to mention where I went, when I served, and how much it affected the person I have become. If you’re familiar with that person, then it’s probably safe to assume that you think I absolutely hated my mission and wish I’d never gone. I’ll admit, I have said those exact words before. Many times, actually. But I don’t think that simple statement helps illustrate how I really felt about my mission service. After all this time, after dealing with depression and bipolar disorder in all the wrong ways, I feel like I should revisit some of my memories, especially now that I’m slowly removing all of the “band-aids” that I shoved over the wounds attempting to ignore them instead of treat them properly.

I served as a full-time missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in the Los Angeles Mission from 2007-2008, my time cut short due to a major bout of kidney stones that required surgery to remove (twice, actually, separated by a few years). To say that those 14 short months were “formative” to my present life would be like describing the excavation of a craver via a nuclear explosion as “repositioning some dirt”. I’ll explain why, and why I believe, ultimately, that it was a good thing I chose to serve.

On Top of the World One Minute…

I graduated from Timpanogos High School in Orem, Utah in 2006. Right from senior year, I had a full-ride scholarship to Brigham Young University, Idaho, and I was super excited to dive into life and learn as much as I could about everything. I did not yet show any symptoms of bipolar disorder, and only minor signs of depression stemming from the typical teen angst. During junior high and high school, I was the goody-good Mormon boy (at least I felt that way). I never had any really good friends in my family ward, but I had a group of close friends from school that expanded as time went on. I ended up pretty confident and optimistic, all things considered, especially going into the transition to college.

I was able to live with my grandparents while I attended BYU-I at the end of 2006 and the beginning of 2007, which became a wonderful learning experience; my grandpa, Richard Bird, was previously a watercolor/oil painting teacher at the old Spori building on campus, and I was able to take advantage of learning from him when I took a few art classes.

It was during this time that two major health issues revealed themselves.

I intensely remember sitting down in the living room of my grandparents’ house one morning, turning on a marathon of The Lord of the Rings trilogy that was showing on TBS, and being unable to rise off of the couch for the entire marathon. And it wasn’t because I felt any strong desire to watch them, either. For those of you who know me, sitting down, willingly, to watch a fifteen-hour marathon of anything on a channel that made a nine-hour, non-extended-edition experience that much longer because of commercials… I wouldn’t do that, especially not the week of midterms, not when there were things that needed to get done.

It was my first brush with what I called “depression” at the time, but now realize was my first manic/depressive downswing.

I also began feeling the first twinges of pain from my left kidney. There’s a story there, beyond the kidney stones. I was born two weeks early, which doesn’t seem like it should have been much of a problem. But, hey, I’m a problem child, and I came pre-packaged as one. Not only could I not breathe on my own right out of the gate, my left ureter (the tube that connects my kidney to my bladder) was formed incorrectly. Surgery was performed to fix the blockage when I was a few months old, and I’ve got the scar to prove that the doctor tried their best. Unfortunately, while my ureter is large enough to process water, the scar tissue on that dang little tube doesn’t allow kidney stones to pass on their own.

Why is the ureter so dang thin and long? Asking for a friend.

I did not realize this before my mission. Nor did the doctor who performed my physical and approved my physical ability to serve. This will become important later.

…Crashing the Next

It’s not too hard for me to point to why I feel like my mission was the worst thing evar. The difficulty arises in admitting that I don’t actually feel that way. So, if you’ll allow me, I’ll lay it all out in the most awful way possible and then attempt to build up from the lowest point.

Growing up in Utah, it’s not difficult to see how I was able to feel confident enough to serve a mission. I was surrounded by friends, family, co-workers (for the most part), ward members, and even complete strangers that believed in exactly the same things that I believed in. When I made the decision to serve a mission, this was celebrated, and expected. So expected, that I was not aware I had a decision to the contrary. I had family that decided not to serve, certainly, and I didn’t hold that against them; I still don’t. I felt I had no reason not to serve. After all, in the LDS church, it is expected that every able-bodied and worthy young man should serve a mission. For all I knew, I was able-bodied. And I felt worthy.

So I did.

I can’t even begin to describe what it feels like to go from a pure and understanding environment where you have been taught to value a single ideology with your whole being, to enter a place where no single person believes anything remotely similar to you. To go from a place where you are one of a comfortable majority to one in an intensely singular minority. But not just any minority. A minority that belongs to one of singular scorn and contempt. To most people on the street, you become something less than human. Less than a telemarketer calling during Thanksgiving dinner. Less than a teenager going door-to-door selling pest control, because at least they can easily explain the purpose for why they knocked on your door. Less than a Jehovah’s Witness, because at least they know what they believe. What was I? A scrawny white kid from a creepy cult who couldn’t speak much Spanish… and frankly, not much English either, at least not with any great charisma.

When I put on the badge, that black missionary tag with the name of the church and “Elder Bird” engraved on it, I became a target, for better or for worse. Combined with the white shirt and tie, a very visible target, one that made an excellent backboard for 64-ounce Big Gulp soda cups and drunk people who wanted to let off some steam. People go out of their way to cross the street to avoid talking to you. Those that do want to talk to you usually begin the interaction as a confrontation instead of a conversation. Sure, you get doors slammed in your face. But I began to prefer that. It hurt much less than talking to a very tired elderly mother with four mentally-handicapped adult children (all of whom she still cared for) that demanded to know what a nineteen-year old boy could possibly explain to her about the unfair god that “blessed” her in such a way. How could I explain to a woman who, in an effort to show pity on a deluded and brainwashed young man and tried to convince that I had fallen for a “delusion”, that I had chosen to believe of my own free will and choice, and that it was my choice to teach the gospel I had grown up learning, knowing, and, yes, loving with all my heart? How could I even hope to convince a veteran that had fought in the killing fields of Vietnam, whose lungs had inhaled enough Agent Orange to cause serious and life-threatening damage on its own, that I knew something that could put his heart at ease, in any way?

When Christ healed the man with palsy, he asked a very pointed question to the scribes: “For whether is easier, to say, Thy sins be forgiven thee; or to say, Arise, and walk?” Growing up, I used to equate the two in “difficulty”. I don’t equate them anymore. Palsy, leoprosy, blindness, deafness, even the condition of death itself. The human heart is infinitely more difficult to heal.

It’s one thing to give blessings. It’s one thing to baptize. It’s one thing to administer the sacrament.

It is an entirely different thing to look someone in the eyes and tell them that they will never hear something that will matter more to their eternal happiness or misery than what they will hear from me. To do so with a straight face. To do so with as much sincerity, clarity, and quality as such a discussion demands. And to do so for fourteen hours a day for two years.

And Then It Ended

And then I came home early from kidney stone issues. Remember the ureter problem? I had two dime-sized kidney stones that made any movement painful and missionary work impossible. And for the next fifteen years, the bipolar got worse, I never found a medicine that could make the mood swings tolerable, and I lost my grandparents before I ever found the courage to really look at the choices I’d made.

Logically, as a missionary, I knew two things. That the Savior was asking me to help Him carry His cross, and that He promised that His burden was light. But I was not wise enough to realize that the “burden” he was asking me to carry was not merely the one I carried as a missionary. It was the whole of my life. True, He was asking me to carry what I could, enough that I could “walk and not faint“, that I ought not “run faster or labor more than [I] have strength“. I’ll be the first to admit it, I always bite off more than I can chew. I always pick up heavier rocks than I know I can lift. I’m not a wise individual. And I’m a show-off by nature. I added an unnecessary amount of pain to my healing process.

But I did it because I thought I was supposed to. Returned missionaries are always stronger when they come home. Or so I thought. Returned missionaries always return victorious, triumphant, with a greater conviction. Or so I insisted was the case for me. When I came home, no one really asked why I was ten months early. I assume those who cared already knew why. I didn’t really talk about my mission because no one really asked me about it. And when I did, only these negative emotions rose to the surface. Only the bad times came to mind.

I was in a lot of pain. Physically, because of kidney stones. Emotionally, because I had been a psychological and sometimes physical target of ridicule and abuse for fourteen months. And spiritually, because I thought I had utterly failed as a missionary. I had baptized one person personally. A mom who wanted what was best for her and her child. A mom that I had felt guilty teaching (whether or not that guilt was warranted, I don’t honestly know; in my view, the circumstances of it were strange and kind of hard to explain).

I didn’t stay in contact with anyone I met on the mission, besides old companions. I feel bad about that. It was easier to hope that everyone I knew had forgotten about me. Better that they stayed in contact with missionaries that were stronger than me, better examples. Better with the language. More confident in sharing the message. Less ashamed of the good fight. Even now, I’m scared to reach out, even just to say hello. Even now, it hurts to even contemplate improving my Spanish, so ashamed I was (and still am) at my feeble attempts to speak it in the mission field. I did my best in that regard, so I know the shame is unnecessary. But when has necessity ever dictated what I felt?

Was It Worth It Or Not?

The Lord and the prophets have called the trials and tribulations we live through a “refiner’s fire”. The process of ore purification requires a ton of heat to separate the pure metal from the impurities and dross that make the material otherwise unusable.

I like the analogy. The mission is certainly a refiner’s fire, a never-ceasing application of intense heat and pressure. But I feel like we then equate all of life to the same process. But it isn’t. On the whole, life can be spicy, and the conflicts of day-to-day living can get pretty hot. But it’s much more situational. There are episodes of extreme conflict followed by long stretches of relative calm. Life is much more the potter’s game, a longer period of sculpting and formation, with much more emphasis on patience and practice. The mission belongs to the blacksmith, endless hours of heat, hammering at an object that does not like to budge. An intense period of time where chunks of yourself are sheered away in explosions of sparks and flame, and you’re never quite sure if the metal will bend or shatter.

Me? I was pulled out of the forge early. I wasn’t given time to anneal. I hadn’t adjusted to the pressures and the pain that the hammering was inflicting before it all just… vanished.

But just like there are many forms of refining, there are also many different versions of annealing, hardening, or “finishing” metal. The Lord knows my specific alloy. Maybe instead of annealing, I needed another form of finishing to “harden” the faith I had formed.

Maybe my finishing required a process such as this:

Believe me, the narrator in the video stating that the usefulness of the age hardening process depending on the alloy is not lost on me. My kidney stones were a time bomb that went off precisely when it was meant to (whether you, the reader, believe that or not is irrelevant, by the way). For me, the refining process was specific and intense. What it meant is left for me to interpret, the purpose of the final form known fully only to the Master.

Well. That’s only partially true.

Elder James E. Faust shared President David O. McKay’s words of what happened to the survivors of the Martin Handcart Company during a conference talk in April 1979. He stated:

Some years ago president David O. McKay told from this pulpit of the experience of some of those in the Martin handcart company. Many of these early converts had emigrated from Europe and were too poor to buy oxen or horses and a wagon. They were forced by their poverty to pull handcarts containing all of their belongings across the plains by their own brute strength. President McKay relates an occurrence which took place some years after the heroic exodus: “A teacher, conducting a class, said it was unwise ever to attempt, even to permit them [the Martin handcart company] to come across the plains under such conditions.

“[According to a class member,] some sharp criticism of the Church and its leaders was being indulged in for permitting any company of converts to venture across the plains with no more supplies or protection than a handcart caravan afforded.

“An old man in the corner … sat silent and listened as long as he could stand it, then he arose and said things that no person who heard him will ever forget. His face was white with emotion, yet he spoke calmly, deliberately, but with great earnestness and sincerity.

“In substance [he] said, ‘I ask you to stop this criticism. You are discussing a matter you know nothing about. Cold historic facts mean nothing here, for they give no proper interpretation of the questions involved. Mistake to send the Handcart Company out so late in the season? Yes. But I was in that company and my wife was in it and Sister Nellie Unthank whom you have cited was there, too. We suffered beyond anything you can imagine and many died of exposure and starvation, but did you ever hear a survivor of that company utter a word of criticism? Not one of that company ever apostatized or left the Church, because everyone of us came through with the absolute knowledge that God lives for we became acquainted with him in our extremities.

“‘I have pulled my handcart when I was so weak and weary from illness and lack of food that I could hardly put one foot ahead of the other. I have looked ahead and seen a patch of sand or a hill slope and I have said, I can go only that far and there I must give up, for I cannot pull the load through it.’” He continues: “‘I have gone on to that sand and when I reached it, the cart began pushing me. I have looked back many times to see who was pushing my cart, but my eyes saw no one. I knew then that the angels of God were there.

“‘Was I sorry that I chose to come by handcart? No. Neither then nor any minute of my life since. The price we paid to become acquainted with God was a privilege to pay, and I am thankful that I was privileged to come in the Martin Handcart Company.’”

I wish I could say that I had never complained. I wish I could say that I never asked the Lord to tell me why I was feeling so devastated and hopeless, when I did what I knew was right. I wish I could say I always had the right mindset, or had the right perspective. I even wish I could say with certainty that angels had guided my steps in that City of Angels.

But I can say, with absolute certainty, that I have become acquainted with God in the time since. I know that Jesus Christ is my savior, that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is His ministry, and that there is more to life than the fire.

In that way, I can say with equal surety, that I am glad I served a mission. And I wouldn’t trade that for anything. That, or the wonderful memories that I’ll share in my next blog.

When You Love What You Hate

One of the hardest things about mental illness is feeling pain and anxiety while doing the things you love, to an unbearable degree. But you have to do the things you love. You have to. You have to serve those you love, because the alternative is to give up every good thing you have. So you do your favorite things, and you help your friends and family, and all while your mind is screaming at you to stop.

The Trigger

Disgustingly accurate meme about choosing depressing shit over the things you love.
It’s too real.

During depressive episodes, even as I’m going through life as usual, things affect me in ways they shouldn’t. Or, I should say, they affect me in ways they wouldn’t otherwise.

Yesterday was already off to a rough start. In fact, the whole week was, because a depressive episode had started brewing on Monday, skipping a day to begin properly beause who-the-hell-knows-why. I had just finished editing the first four chapters of my book, posting them here on my blog and inviting people to read them if they wanted to. I didn’t get a whole lot of feedback, as usual. I don’t know what kind of audience my book is really for, besides myself. And honestly, not many people have the time to read these days, and even less have a desire to read on a screen instead of on paper. That, I totally get; it’s why I use a text-to-speech program, I always miss punctuaction and spelling when writing online, and that’s when writing, never mind reading. (EDIT: I messed up the previous sentence while writing it, case in point.)

By the afternoon, my sister had stopped by the house to see my mom and dad, and I told her about my writing. I had told my mom about it the day before, and she had started reading it, noting that she hadn’t noticed too many differences in the first two chapters she read. Which was to be expected; chapters three and four were the chapters to receive the greatest amount of change in terms of plot and conversation.

After talking to them about it, I thought I would then message a few online friends about it, to see if they would want to read something I wrote.

And that was the moment it started. That was a trigger.

What the Trigger Triggered

Though my “career” as a writer (if you can call it that) has been rocky because of mental illness, I’ve come to a certain level of awareness about the type of content I produce. In online marketing and content writing, the true purpose of content isn’t necessarily about the meaning of the words you type on the page. SEO marketing (or search engine optimization) depends on the writer using the right keywords and keyphrases to attract people to read whatever is being presented. If I’m doing work for a puppy grooming salon, I write to the topic they want me to advertise, I write the words “puppy grooming” a certain percentage of times, and mention a location, usually the town or city of the business’s physical location (let’s say Burmingham, Alabama). So if people in Burmingham, Alabama look up “puppy grooming” in a Google search, the fact that I used those words tell the search engine to suggest they click on that page, as it may hold the information to the service they’re looking for.

In all likelihood, the person searching Google for “puppy grooming” is not going to read the 600 words I wrote for the page that appears. Unless it’s a blog (and a pretty good one at that), they’re likely going to skip ALL of the words on the webpage to find a phone number, an address, something specific, especially if it’s for a small business with a specific product or service. No one reads the marketing. And why would they? I don’t know anything specific about the businesses I write for, and it’s specifics people are always hunting for.

In other words, you might say that I have spent the majority of my adult life writing for search engines, not for an audience, and certainly not for myself. That’s not to say that I’m not grateful for the paychecks, and it certainly isn’t to say that I haven’t learned how to be a better writer by proxy.

But search engines don’t easily demonstrate appreciation. I can count on one hand the amount of times I’ve received any kind of feedback from my work, negative or positive. Of those, the majority were because I colossally messed something up. That’s not to say I’m a bad writer. Or, at least, I don’t think I am. It’s just the nature of the beast. Even though I always try to find the interesting details, try to throw in some humor with the professional copy, when it comes right down to it, I’m not being paid to be interesting or humourous. I’m being paid for a word count.

I’m a performer for machines.

So, when I finally have the chance to show off a story, a narration that I’ve had locked in my brain for more than a decade, and I’m nervous as hell to do so…

It hurts when I hear nothing back but the same echoing silence.

Cue the Pity Party, Right?

No. That’s the part that I hate the most, actually. I’ve never written anything besides the SEO stuff. I shouldn’t expect anyone else to care even a fraction of what I do for the story I’m trying to tell. Everyone I love, all of my friends, they have their own lives to live, and I should not expect anyone to drop everything they’re doing to read 80 pages of what is likely to be hot garbage. Besides, this is the hobby portion of the thing I love, there is no time limit on its creation or its editing, and I’ve said many times to those of my friends and family who have taken time out of their busy lives to read it that this is a personal project with a target audience of one.

Me. I’m writing this story for me.

But that’s the thing. The story is personal. There are many aspects of the main characters that are facets of myself, or the person I wish I could be. I’ve tried to design these characters to have needs and desires that make them unique. They tell stories to each other, and crack jokes that made me, as the writer, actually laugh out loud. I’ve spent a lot of time crying with these characters, even, and poured a lot of my self-doubt and hatred into a few of the scenes in the book. Perhaps more than I should have, seeing as how I wrote much of the book while dealing with the worse moments of my own life.

Writing is one of the few methods I have at my disposal where I can truly express how I feel. How I see the world. How the world affects me, and how my mind interrupts and distorts the proper flow of information, both in and out. For the majority of words I’ve ever organized into coherency, my writing has been written to be ignored. Sure, word count and percentages aren’t the only things that matter. But I can guarantee that I’ve posted incorrect information that got the job done anyway. And like an electrician, or a plumber, my goal is to make something that works. I only get feedback if I do a bad job wrenching the pipes together.

Just for once, I want to create something that makes people happy for having read it. I want to make someone want to know what happens next. Hell, I want someone to tell me, flat-out, that they read my story and thought it was one of the most boring things they’d ever come across. I would love someone to tell me that my work put them to sleep. That it wasn’t their thing, but they read it because they knew I wrote it.

I’ve performed for machines for so long… and I just want some feedback.

So What Did the Episode Look Like?

Pretty deep depression. The suicidal type, for about a day and a half. Me, wondering if it’s even worth my time to be here. Me, wondering if I’m worth anything more than my physical presence. Me, desperately wanting to talk to someone about it all, but knowing that I will make zero sense, especially if they assume I want “solutions”. Me, wanting a purpose in life but seeing none if I can’t rise above this. And, worst of all, me, wondering what the conversations would be like between my friends and family if I did actually end it (the fact that my diseased brain finds that shit in any way cathartic being the number one reason I should be seeking professional help, but being too scared about money and time to do so).

A lot of “me”. It always is.

At about 11 o’clock P.M., the episode finally lifted. I went downstairs and made some oatmeal butterscotch cookies. Then I jumped on here to write about it.

What I’m Learning

Being off of medication has flipped things one-hundred and eighty degrees, and not in the direction you might think. Not upside-down, but right side-up. I can more easily recognize that it isn’t ME that hates the things I love, that wants me to stop writing, that wants me to hurt. It’s the imbalance. And it has always been the imbalance.

You know what? That’s what you are, officially, with a capital “I”. You are the Imbalance. You are the stain in the mirror. The shadow on the wall. You are the reason I hate myself, and want my time on Earth to end. But you are not me. On medicine, that distinction was so blurred, I could not see where I ended and my shadow began. The window was so blurred, I couldn’t see that the reflection had fangs, and the face of a fallen angel.

You are not me. You are this.

I haven’t learned how to fight back yet, but just the fact that I can recognize the difference… maybe it’s a step forward.

Memoir #2 – The New Face of West Virginia, October 23rd, 2102


I remembered something called the “sky”. As dimly as the lights in the vault. As dimly as I remembered writing my name on paper for the first time, a big blue ceiling with a bright lightbulb during the day, an endless sea of stars at night. In the exit presentation, Vault Boy reminded us not to stare at the sun or risk permanent blindness. Sure, I thought. Looking right at a lightbulb is kinda dumb. When that great vault door opened, sunlight streamed into the suffocating steel-and-concrete room like an endless flood. I couldn’t keep my eyes open. Instinctively, I dug into my tool bag strapped around my shoulder to grab my welder’s goggles. Though tinted green through the lenses, I knew I stared into a wall of pure white.

Everyone around me hugged their loved ones or held hands tightly. Some tears were shed. Some prepared to exit the vault with the solemnity of a funeral march. No matter their individual feelings, one thing was emphatically certain: Vault 76 was closed for business, and all the Mr. Handys cheered us on to remind everyone of the fact. Every single dweller crowded inside the atrium cheered as the machinery pulled the gigantic cog aside. With the door open, the air was sheer electricity. 

Liz and Liam came to stand by me as the metal catwalk extended. I noticed (as much as I could with welding goggles on) that they both holstered weapons. Liz, a custom-machined six-shooter, and Liam, a brand-new automatic AER9 laser rifle. With my baseball bat tied to my backpack, I suddenly felt very naked. Liam also had a walking stick of sorts, a surprisingly well-kept wooden cane that I’d never seen before.

“Whoa. Liam, that’s a real nice-”

I then felt my goggles fly off my head.

“Don’t be a pansy,” Liam growled, handing me back my eyewear by shoving it against my chest. “The sooner you get used to sunlight, the better.”

“You even remember what the sun feels like?” Liz asked me.

“Sorta,” I mumbled.

Vault staff busily prepared individual teams and approved travel destinations while we stood behind the expectant crowd, so we had some time to examine our new equipment.

The heaviest by far was our C.A.M.P. units. We had been instructed in their use in bimonthly meetings, but to finally have one of my own felt incredibly satisfying. The size of a piece of luggage, I deployed it for just a moment to check out its functionality. A workbench all its own, the C.A.M.P. came with a rotary tool, a small inlaid table saw, a lathe, and a drill press. With a display screen much like my Pip-Boy, the C.A.M.P. came pre-programmed with schematics for machining everything from tools and basic electronics to laboratory equipment and everyday appliances. There were even instructions on how to make stuffed animals. 

I noticed one in particular and chuckled; what kind of deal did Vault-Tec have with Radiation King to include detailed instructions on how to repair and replicate their televisions and refrigerators? Or Nuka-Cola with instructions to build their vending machines? I found the thought of a vault filled with company executives just waiting to retake their brands in the nuclear wasteland entertaining.

“What do you think of these perk cards?” Liz asked, flipping through the multi-colored and laminated packets. Wrapped in crisp cellophane, these “cards” measured about four by six inches; some were thin while others were thick enough to be books. Thinking back, of course Vault-Tec would call them “perk cards” — let’s make post-war life collectable! Regardless, each showed Vault Boy performing many different activities. Shooting rifles, mending armor, hauling heavy loads, haggling with merchants. Liz opened one titled “Home Defense” and discovered these cards were, in fact, compact instructional manuals that detailed how to develop the specific skills depicted on the cover. “Wow. Look, there’s codes for our C.A.M.Ps to build military turrets. Biometric sensors. 5.56 and AER9, everything. Missile launchers even? Now that’s living.”

Liam peered over Liz’s arm to look, remaining silent but appearing interested.

I thumbed through my own cards and came across one that looked simple enough to start with: “Inspirational”. I unwrapped the plastic and opened the front cover. From its own description: “Travelling alone in the wilderness? No longer! Become a stalwart leader and ‘inspire’ your group of fellow survivors towards a better tomorrow!” The perk card described ways to rely on your companions as well as boost their morale and talents in times of need. “Feel a boost of confidence and discover all new experiences,” it said. “Learn from your companions as they learn from you! In no time, you’ll be ready to take on even greater challenges. The future is in your hands!”

I shrugged. Might as well start with that. If the little “perk card” could teach me how to learn from Liam and Liz’s skills, I’d take that advice any day.

At last, the crowd began to move forwards, and our fellow vault dwellers stepped into the outside world for the first time in twenty-five years. Liam showed our route to the overseer’s assistant, and I passed him to walk into the warm rays of the sun. Like stepping in front of a gentle radiator, I did exactly what Vault Boy instructed me not to do: I looked upwards at the sun. Now filled with radiation, I stopped and waited for the red mass in my sight to fade. Liz laughed and patted my shoulder. Leading me forwards, I soon saw the most glorious image I had ever seen before: the whole of Appalachia. Maple trees whose red and orange leaves fluttered in a gentle breeze, the baby-blue sky that went on and on, and distant rain clouds creating a veil of grey some miles south. In the distance I could see the colossal digging machines that once excavated Mount Blair. I’d never imagined the great Appalachian mountain range and West Virginia’s forests would be so beautiful. I’d seen such sights in the holovids, sure, but nothing compared to seeing it in person.

Now no longer completely blind, I realized the first hint of the world I’d stepped into: the railing upon which I laid my hands flaked with red-iron stains, leaving rust on my fingers. The mighty billboard some meters to my right stood, but only barely, as the metal struts had deteriorated greatly. I looked around me, and saw stone benches chipped, broken, and storm weathered. The poles that once gave light were entirely rusted and useless, their bulbs shattered. Even the hills surrounding the plaza had collapsed, covering the concrete floor in rocks and piles of soil-wash.

All the now-previous inhabitants of Vault 76 grouped together and gazed in awe of the outside world. Just as before, some trembled at the cool autumn air, some celebrated, and some were already breaking off and heading west. As I saw them depart, I lifted up my Pip-Boy to my view and checked out the Geiger counter and health screen. I half-expected to be glowing within half an hour, but I heard no clicking, and Vault Boy was as happy as I’d ever seen him.

“So this is what we have to work with,” Liz said, doing the very same thing with her Pip-Boy. She lowered it and looked outwards to the horizon.  “Huh. I expected worse.”

“We haven’t seen anything yet,” Liam said, joining us with his regular step-clank limp. “Sure, it looks pretty, but I’m more worried about what lives out there.”

“That’s what we have you for, Peters.”

“And that’s what I have you for, Liz,” Liam said emphatically. “And you, Greg. I’ll have your back, and I expect you both to have mine.”

“You bet. We’re a crew, right?” I said.

Liz laughed.

“Right,” she said with a grin. “We got a name for this crew of ours? Oughta make it official.”

Liam rolled his eyes.

“If that’s the kind of crew I’m in, I’ll go back inside and leave you to it.”

“Come on, Liam, don’t be a bulkhead, ” I said. “Hey, what about the Bulkheads?”

“Nah, you’ll make us sound stupid. Hmm. How about the 76ers?”“I’m pretty sure that’s the name of a baseball team.”

“And I’m pretty sure you’re thinking of the 46ers. Austin, Texas, I think.”

“Ah, whatever. Besides, we wouldn’t stand out from all the others. How about the Operators? Like, operating heavy machinery?”

“You’re gonna make us sound all mafia-like. Don’t you remember ‘Dully Williams and the Gangsters of Villa Nueva’? Like we’re ‘operating’ a laundering scheme or something.”

“Oh yeah. Forgot about that vid. I liked that one.”

“Oh hell, you two,” Liam said, taking a step away from us cane-first. “We’re burning daylight. Talk about your dumb little names on the road.”

We headed towards the stairs that led east when we began hearing screaming. Over the railing, I saw the lower plaza level (where the Mr. Handy named Pennington had set up happy yellow-and-blue balloons) and quickly recognized the cause: a rotting corpse of a man lay at the stairs besides the enthusiastic robot. One vaulter, Julian Colter, I believe, held people back from the body as the groups continued to the dirt path down the stairs.

“Poor bastard,” Liam said, looking below with me. “Probably looking for safety in the vault.”

“But there’s no way he died twenty-five years ago.”

“Nah, he’s probably a survivor what got his ass handed to him by someone else with a gun,” Liz said. “Or sickness, maybe. The meetings always said critters would turn into radioactive monsters, but I don’t know if I believe it. Rabid, sure, but full of rads?”

“Come on, people, keep it moving,” Colter said, waving my fellow vaulters on. When one older woman expressed pity, he added: “Don’t worry, our group will come back and bury the poor fellow. Keep moving.”

When it was our turn to pass, I got a good look at him. Wearing ratty clothing, the man’s skin had turned a bluish-green, what remained of his hair matted beneath a red leather cap. His smell caught my nostrils as I passed, and I nearly gagged. Fortunately, it’s a smell I would soon become very accustomed to.

“Yup, recent,” Liam said. “I doubt Pennington even noticed him when setting up the damn balloons.”

“Arrivederci!” Pennington shouted to the departing vault dwellers, all but confirming Liam’s theory. “Au revoir! Auf wiedersehen! Goodbye, my friends! Good luck out there! Stay safe!”

“I miss Sparks already,” Liz said with slight contempt in her voice.

“Come on, Sonny, we’ll find another Mr. Handy out here somewhere. You’ve still got his memory chip, right?”

“Yup. Don’t worry, kiddo. We’ll have a mechanical army soon enough.”

I gave Liz a face behind her back as we continued past the deceased man.

“Enough with the kiddo kid junk. You ever going to stop calling me that?”

“Nope, never will.”

For thirty minutes, most of Vault 76 continued down the steep trail that led towards the 88 highway. As far as switchbacks go, it shouldn’t have been difficult. But at that time of my life, the most cardio I did on a regular basis was a few hours in the vault gym every week. Sure, I wasn’t out of shape, but I had never walked on uneven ground in my entire life, much less did so with a fifty-pound pack on my back. By the time we reached semi-flat earth, I wished I had brought one of the vault sweatbands with me.

Hiking through the trees and smelling pure nature for the first time is something I’ll never forget and never stop enjoying. I’ll be honest: the Forest is the only place I’ll consider setting up my C.A.M.P. anymore. Every part of West Virginia is beautiful, but only the Forest provided good hunting and relatively radiation-free soil. The water’s terrible. But then again, the water’s terrible everywhere. At least the lurks won’t jump out and snap your head off. Just your fingers, maybe. But I digress.

Checking my fold-up Vault-Tec-brand map of the area, it seemed like we’d run across a lumber mill of sorts. A place where wood was processed into planks used in house construction. I only knew this from the holotapes.

The group that stayed together and traveled east down the path numbered about one-hundred or so. A bunch of blue-and-gold wide-eyed vault dwellers: the perfect target.

Entering the mill yard, most of the group remained very quiet. Some kept the group together, leading them forwards. Then, ever the leader, Colter stood upon an abandoned wood pile and turned to address us.

“This is where we begin our reclamation,” he said. “Once we power this mill, we will have all the construction materials we need to rebuild, providing homes and shelter for all of us.”

He might have been right. The lumber mill even included yellow protectrons with saws and clamps for appendages that continued harvesting the nearby woods, declaring a needless intent to: “Chop wood. Chop wood. Chop wood.” No doubt they’d been working for the last twenty-five years by the amount of wood waiting to be processed. To a burly 76er nearest to it, it plopped a pile of wood into his arms with the words: “Please, enjoy this complimentary sample of wood.”

“Those might work,” Liz said with a grin, whispering over Colter’s continuing speech. “What do you think? We’d have all the materials we’d need to build our garage.”

“Wood, though?” I said with a grimace. “I was thinking straight to metal and concrete.”

Liam, behind us, scanned what remained of the treeline.

“I don’t like it. This place. It’s too exposed.”

“Exposed to what?” Liz asked.

“Everything,” he replied. “Gunfire, radioactive freaks. Whatever’s out there could see us for half a mile.”

Liz and I also turned to look, and the old man was right.

Very, very right.

Colter’s speech was then immediately hushed as the entire crowd gasped in awe of a figure emerging from the treeline. Then another. Then another. From the back of the group, I couldn’t get a proper look at them. But everyone else did.

“Survivors!” declared some voices. “Are they dressed?” said two or three.

“Hello!” Colter said with a grand swing of his arms. “Hello my fellow survivors! We are inhabitants of Vault 76, here to reclaim the wasteland and restore America to its former glory! Please, don’t be afraid, we are peaceful!”

At first, the three, then four, then five figures did not advance. They seemed to view us timid dwellers with great interest. For a minute or so. Murmurs of unrest rose from my fellows.

“Grab your bat, Greg,” Liam said, untying my weapon from my pack and latching his cane to his hip. As I readied myself for a melee, I heard the soldier insert a micro-cell into his laser rifle, making an electric click-bwee that told me that safeties were off.

“You don’t think they’re hostile,” Liz asked quietly.

“I know they are,” Liam said. “Come on, this way. We’ll wide circle around them and head for Flatwoods once we can’t see ‘em.”

We three broke from the group, heading north and keeping to the edge of the treeline. Off the path, the terrain grew steeper, and I stumbled more than a few times. Fallen and unretrieved logs made hiking difficult. I looked back, and saw many 76ers watch us retreat; more than a few I recognized from security made to the lumber mill interior in front of the large crowd, raising and preparing their own weapons.

“Please, come forward! We would like to make peace with you and your-”

One of the security staff grabbed Colter by the arm and brought him down, no doubt whispering to him of the potential danger.

The six, the seven, and the eight figures emerged from the trees and began to walk forwards. Security held their ground behind the processed logs while the group itself began to shuffle away from them. A growl called out from the forest, and three more human-like creatures appeared very close to us, limping down the trail we’d just descended.

Then, the screaming. God, the screaming. I’ve heard it hundreds of times since, but I’ll never forget the first mindless screech of the ghouls surrounding us. They descended upon the crowd from the south, nineteen, twenty-five, thirty-seven. I’m only guessing at the numbers, but I don’t exaggerate: they heard us all, and they came like a tidal wave of fury.

Security opened fire. The naked and emaciated husks of humanity fell easily enough, but two replaced each one that fell. The front of the group became the first victims. Ghouls jumped and tore at my fellow vault dwellers with diseased claws and gnarled teeth. Many of the vault dwellers weren’t equipped with weapons, and so fell to the wave of terror. Sure, our vault suits protected us from bites and scratches, but that’s not where the ghouls were aiming. Blood and flesh flew into the air as they ripped into necks, hands, anything exposed. Some fought back successfully, shoving the ghouls back. Many did not. The second layer of vault dwellers, at least the men, grappled with the monsters and attempted to save their fellows and loved ones. Some were successful, the more prepared 76ers clobbering and slashing the fiends with security batons and makeshift machetes we’d crafted in maintenance. The least fortunate were tackled by three, four, and five ghouls, brought to the ground and ripped apart.

Layer by layer, the ghouls flung themselves at my fellow vault dwellers as they retreated into the mill. Security continued their fire, but bullets only did so much to the horde. Those inside the mill held their own. Those less lucky holed up inside the ruined building beside it to the south. I never saw what happened to them.

“Come on, come on!” Liam hissed, his robotic leg having trouble through the brush. “Come on, get into the trees, quickly now.”

More than distracted, I watch the scene unfolding. Bloodied bodies strewn upon the ground marked the ghouls’ advance. Security’s defence seemed to waver as gunfire peppered in and out. The more intelligent and fortunate groups fled through the mill and east. I couldn’t see anything else besides the monsters entering the mill with shrieks of madness. They don’t devour the dead for sustenance; they simply attack for rage’s sake, and I witnessed that first hand.

“Don’t look back, boy, don’t look back,” Liam said to me, waving me on. I obeyed.

The ghouls didn’t see us. Pure luck. Maybe my S.P.E.C.I.A.L. test had been right about me.

Greg Villander Memoir #1, The Vault – A Fallout 76 Story


First thing’s first: I entered Vault 76 at the age of five. My mother was a famous opera singer, and my father was First Chair violinist for the National Symphony Orchestra in D.C.. Somehow, Dad convinced Vault-Tec that I was some musical prodigy that could rattle off Rachmaninoff with one hand tied behind my back. Turns out they didn’t even question it. We almost got chosen for Vault 92 because of my parents’ musical expertise. Someone named Professor Malleus insisted upon it. But, for some reason, we were instructed to stay in West Virginia near Vault 76 until a decision could be made.

When the bombs dropped, Dad told me he and Mom were positively terrified that we would be denied entry to the vault because of our representative’s indecision. But, believe it or not, our names were on the list, and the soldiers ushered us through the giant cog of a vault door.

My musical deception made it through orientation, settling into our living quarters, and three minutes before my music teacher assignment. I’ll never forget the look on Dad’s face as I was asked to play the first of Bach’s Fifth. I plunked the keys on the piano as if I were learning to type on a computer keyboard. Needless to say, the vault teachers that thought I was a piano prodigy for the ages were furious. The vault staff harshly rebuked my parents. I don’t remember the specifics of the shouting match. But, of course, they couldn’t just throw me out.

So, at first, the vault personnel sent me to the only job a non-best-of-the-best was suited for: waste disposal.

Down in 76, pre-war prestige didn’t mean much. But waste disposal? Mom cried every evening I came home covered in who-knows-what, and I’ve never seen my Dad so mad. He shouted at the busy staff for four days as I sat in the smelly innards of 76, spending most of my time crying and getting in the way of Mr. Handys. He demanded to speak to the overseer, but seeing that the vault had just gone into full service, he was repeatedly told the overseer had no time for his, and I quote, “talentless parasite”. At last, and with enough noise to pierce thick steel walls, the overseer was called down. She immediately realized putting a child down there was a mindless and ridiculous idea, even if said child was “smuggled” in. After rebuking the vault staff as harshly as they had my Dad (much to his delight), her compromise was to ask if vault maintenance would take me on as an ‘apprentice’ of sorts. The decision changed the course of my life. Mr. Donovan, Ms. Sonny, and Sparks (our custom Mr. Handy) became my second family, and the workshop on the third floor became a home away from home (even if my two homes were only a couple dozen meters away).

I learned everything there is to know about building a water purifier with my eyes closed, how to scrap a Corvega engine from the bare block and back, and fix faulty wiring when the lights went out. The best and the brightest, right? I’m not one to toot my own horn, but if I had been old enough to work for Vault-Tec before the War, they would have told me to slow down. I learned arithmetic by the millimeter, reading from nights staring at green lines of programming text, leadership skills from projects Mr. Donovan entrusted to me, and, yes, music from the rhythmic hum of a well-tuned nuclear generator. And to you Mr. Jonsen, you flat-footed germ of a man, it was me who fixed your busted Pip-Boy week after week. How you managed to get Fancy Lad snack cake crumbs behind the circuit board always astounded me.

I regularly brought up equipment like soldering irons, silicon boards, and vacuum tubes up to my room, even when the overseer cracked down on maintenance for working on personal projects. I impressed her and the vault staff, though, when I replicated a water chip by myself from studying a real one. She even allowed me to test it on water purifier number four. To my great relief, it did not blow any fuses (of which, Sparks regularly reminded me, we only had a finite amount). While Mr. Donovan reckoned it would only last a few weeks on its own before it burned out, I made a name for myself with that little stunt. By the time I was sixteen, I’d gone from apprentice to vault maintenance assistant to Mr. Donovan.

You’d think the older mechanics and electricians would look down on me for my age and inexperience. On the contrary, I was treated more than fairly by Donovan, Sonny, Franklin, Eugene, and all the rest. It was the other inhabitants of the vault that looked down on me and all of maintenance. For this reason, we all kept to each other for the most part.

The only other inhabitant of the vault I ever became friends with was Liam Peters, the security guard that kept the peace in the maintenance wing. He was in his late twenty’s back then (his wife had been nine years older; I still don’t know why that was so scandalous to others). When there was no peace to enforce (which was often), we talked a lot about pre-war life. Well, he did most of the talking, and I the asking questions. He wasn’t a normal vault dweller. For one, he had been a private during the actual Battle of Anchorage. For second, he had an honest-to-God metal leg identical to an assaultron from the RobCo technical manual that replaced his entire left leg. No wonder we had the manual! 

During the final push to retake the oil refinery on the outskirts of the city, he took a bullet that shattered his left hip. He was, quote, “on the battlefield until the god damn end”. Gangrene took his upper leg, and there was no saving the lower for the upper. For his service, and because of his particular injury, the “RobCo Valiant Service Reconstruction Project” offered him a chance to walk on two feet again, and he accepted. 

“If I had known what a piece of shit this leg of mine would be,” he said. “I would have chosen crutches.”

Again, because of his service, he accepted the offer for a place in Vault 76, so long as his wife was admitted as well. The only reason they agreed was because Mrs. Donna Peters was secretary to one Nicholas O’Leary who was a West Virginian Representative. Apparently, O’Leary gave a glowing endorsement, and that’s all it took.

And then she died in 79’. Hemorrhagic stroke. The first death in Vault 76, and she was only 39.

From the moment I met Liam, I knew why he patrolled the maintenance wing: if anything happened to that leg of his, no one in the Vault could easily carry him to the elevators (his robot leg weighed seventy pounds alone). His quarters were right next to the elevator as well, and he could always radio us for assistance. He carried a fusion power pack on his hip to power the thing, so the battery was never the issue. It was the chain-wheel assembly that pressurized the actuators. The chain would always slip no matter how many times we sharpened the wheel gears, and he’d be “limping” into the shop at least once every two or three weeks. Still, he had a hell of a right hook when hot-headed maintenance guys got into fights, and he stepped on more than a few toes (literally, not figuratively) to keep everything on the level.

Vault 76, with all of its politicians, soldiers, artists, inventors, biologists, they all grew older, and some of the more posh became wary of Reclamation Day. No one said so out loud, but the thought of leaving the vault to “reclaim” the nuclear wastes of the outside world brought a nervous air to every meeting and every presentation.

But not me. I couldn’t wait. Neither could many of my maintenance friends; a world with few survivors meant a near unlimited supply of tools, parts, and equipment. Every member of the hydroponics team were thrilled at the prospect of studying post-war flora and water radiation levels. Even the lead physician seemed keen on the great day, even though Dr. Madison acknowledged that there would be no end of patients eager for medical assistance. There were many vaults in West Virginia, and connecting with them would make reclamation all the easier.

My parents were also nervous, but seeing my enthusiasm, they softened to the idea of bringing culture to any survivors on the outside. After all, surely some had survived the awful twenty-five years of post-war life. Dad would play his violin for crowds once more, and my mother’s voice would soothe the weary souls of travelers and vault dwellers alike.

And then Dad passed away. Three years before Reclamation Day. His death devastated Mom, and my dreams of building a post-war home for him faded in an instant. A heart attack, Dr. Madison said. He was 67 in 99’. Mom mourned for an awful long time, and returning home every night from the workshop became depressingly dark. Like Liam, the loss a spouse made survival inside a vault feel meaningless. A bleak future outside, emptiness inside. Her health took a turn for the painful, as even Dr. Madison didn’t have the resources to perform a hip replacement. 

Mom took her own life in March of 2102. Overdose on painkillers and alcohol. Willingly or accidental, no one could say.

But I knew.

No longer part of a family, the overseer moved me to a smaller single living quarters, and Mr. Donovan allowed me time off to grieve. I feel ashamed to say that I didn’t require much time. I had already done my grieving for Dad, and living with Mom, so lifeless in comparison… She didn’t even sing anymore after Dad died.

Reclamation Day came faster than everyone expected. The night before the fraptious day, the whole vault partied hard. It lasted well into the night and early morning. I listened to the cheers of the vault soccer teams playing one last game, heard the toasts with 76’s remaining stock of bourbon and wine, and smelled hamburgers and fresh-baked apple pies. But I was upstairs in my quarters, writing in my journal. I had filled my backpack with all of my tools and projects. I wasn’t depressed, exactly. But when Liam knocked on my door to see why I wasn’t at the party, he sat down and we talked for a while.

Seeing my map laid out on my desk, he asked me where I planned to go.

“I’m not sure,” I said glumly. “See if there’s a trader in Flatwoods who likes fusion batteries, trade them for some food, and head to my parent’s old apartment.”

“An empty stomach and a baseball bat,” Liam said with a smirk, eyeing my “weapon” that leaned against my dresser. “Doesn’t sound like much of a plan.”

“Dad and Mom always told me they left things there when they ran to the vault. I figure it’s as good a start as any.”

“Well, we’ll have to buy you a 10-mil. No use getting killed by some mangy dog before you get there.”

I couldn’t speak for a moment.

“…you-you’re coming with me?”

“Are you joking?” he said with a laugh. “You think I can fix my leg out there on my own? Donovan’s an old coot, Sparks ain’t comin’, and who knows what Sonny’s plans are. You’re the only one I trust.”

That’s when the crying part happened.

About two hours into our conversation and planning session, I heard another knock on my door. The bulkhead opened, and Sonny looked right at me with her regularly intense stare. On her shoulder was her tool bag.

“You prepping for tomorrow?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Why?” Liam asked. “You plan on beating us to Charleston?” 

“No,” Sonny said. “I’m coming with you. And I don’t care what you say.”

Again, I couldn’t say a word. I hardly expected this. Who would follow a 30-year old into the West Virginia wilderness armed with only scrap parts and a baseball bat?

“Are you serious?”

“Hah! You think you can just barge in here and demand a place on our crew?” Liam asked, folding his arms.

“Hah, crew? Two ain’t a crew. Three’s a crew.”

“It does take two people to fix your leg,” I said to the grizzled soldier.

Liam peered at Sonny.

“You’re good with a wrench, I’ll give you that. Almost as good as the kid. But what else you bringing to the table? Two car mechanics and a washed-up private doesn’t make for much survival.”

“Thought you might say that.”

Sonny then opened her bag and produced two pressurized needles filled with crimson life-restoring liquid. There were many, many more inside.

“Whoa, stimpacks? Where did you get those?”

“They ain’t giving these out until tomorrow,” Liam gruffed. “You think you can bribe us with meds? Besides, you probably stole ‘em from the clinic. That don’t make you a medic.”

“I’ll have you know I got these legitimate-like. I’ve worked with Dr. Madison more than a few times. I even helped with surgery once. I reckon I can heal bullet wounds better than anyone in this vault. Save for Mr. Madison, of course.”

“You ‘reckon’?” Liam asked. “Now that sure fills me with confidence.”

“Hey, there’s safety in numbers, right?” I said. “Three C.A.M.P.s are better than two.”

“We really plan on camping, huh?”

“Absolutely,” I said. “Say we set up right next to each other, put up some walls, rig up a motion alarm, and we’ll have a fortress we can call home. Heck, we could even set up shop next to the power plant outside Charleston. We could use the power, and I’ll bet that place is full of supplies.”

“So long as you bring a hazmat suit,” Sonny said. “But that does sound like a good idea. I’ve always wanted to see the inside of an actual nuclear power plant. Provided some yokel with a gun ain’t beat us to it.”

“True, kid. I can guarantee the folks left in the capital have restored power already.”

“Then let’s help ‘em out. What do you think? Build a garage, get paid, and run the best machine shop this side of the Ohio River!”

Sonny gave her own peculiar sideways grin, and Liam shrugged.

“I’ve heard worse plans,” he said. “Better than the one you started with.”

“I’m definitely up for it,” Sonny said. “Heh, you’ve always been the one with your metal head in the clouds. No wonder Donovan picked you as his assistant.”

“And you’ve been the troublemaker, ‘Liz,” Liam said. “Don’t make me play the discipline committee out there.”

“Says the tin man with bullets in his brain,” Sonny teased. She then smiled. “This oughta be fun.”

Responders Nuka-Cola Plant Journal – a Fallout 76 Short Story

A holotape discovered by Vault 76 survivors in the ruins of the Nuka-Cola Bottling Plant east of Flatwoods on the edge of the Ohio River.



Nuka-Cola Plant Record: written by Erica Daniels.

March 4th, 2078: 

Yes! Absolute jackpot! The moment I saw it on the map, I knew it was the thing we’ve been searching for.  If there is anything that could uplift the spirits of the Responders and the people they’re assisting, it’s a taste of the pre-war world to enjoy. And what’s better than Nuka-Cola? As far as I can tell, all of the machinery is more or less intact. All it’s going to require is a bit of oil to grease up the gears, as many glass bottles as we can find, and a few wrenches to keep it maintained. After all, I’ve heard these bottling machines can be a bit finicky; the bottles jam in the hoppers the moment you stop paying attention.

I blame the bottle designers. Sure, the shape is iconic. But having to clear jams every hour is a pain in the ass.

March 12th, 2078: 

Seventeen crates ready to go! I had one myself, and my Geiger counter spiked. It was perfect!  The selfish part of me tells me to charge for them, considering how rare they are anymore (all of the vending machines in Charleston were looted in the first two weeks), but who would do that, honestly? I mean, it’s not even that paper money has officially lost its value. But there are so many orphans in the city that need some kind of comfort, even if it’s just a bottle of ice cold cola. Well… they might not be ice-cold by the time they get there, but you know what I mean.

To my sheer disappointment, the storage tanks for the Strontium-85 had deteriorated… no, melted. No doubt by the Strontium-85 itself. It was never meant to stay in storage tanks for long, anyway. There was certainly a bright blue glow, but I didn’t dare reprogram the systems to process Nuka-Cola Quantum with contaminated radioactive ingredients. I’ve had a clean one before, and it felt like my brain was being smashed with a fruit-flavored brick… along with my pee glowing blue for a week. I heard people died flavor testing the thing. Sure, they were just rumors, but I’m not about to try getting the recipe wrong on purpose.

I didn’t want to disturb the dust of a deteriorating factory, but curiosity got the better of me. I explored the taste testing booths, and what I found blew me away. I can’t type in the entire non-disclosure or liability papers, but holy hell… They’re pretty brutal. Even donating plasma for the war effort didn’t have this many terms of agreement. And one of the taste results I read? It sounds like the guy ascended into nirvana. No thanks, I’ll keep my mortal mind restrained to reality, I think.

April 2nd, 2078:

Hoo boy, I’m glad I’m all the way out here and not in Morgantown. Heard Captain Larkin and Chief Mayfield have more than a bad feud going on between them. Can’t believe Mayfield fired on students at VTU… I didn’t go to no fancy-schmancy university, but kids are kids. It’s not like a few broken windows and walls of graffiti are going to affect us any worse than the gosh-darn end of the world already has.

Keeping that in mind, I sent fifteen crates (ninety-six bottles times four columns, for those keeping count) up to the University. I made certain to send a message with the boys that the Nuka was for the fire department, the police, and the students. A liquid peace treaty, if you like.

So, for the month of March, that’s ninety-seven crates sent out, forty-three to Charleston, twenty-five to Morgantown, eight to Flatwoods (in exchange for two mechanics and machine parts), seven with the medical teams, six to VTU, and eight given out free to refugees who pass by the factory.

I’m going to be very sad when the ingredients in this factory run out. I’ve seen a lot of faces brighten up to drink Nuka-Cola again. From what I hear, the next closest Nuka Bottling Plant is in D.C., and I’m not about to travel east; from the stories the refugees tell me, the capital got blown to hell and back. I realized that offering irradiated soda to already sickly irradiated people wasn’t a good idea, but just the opportunity of tasting America’s number-one soda again made people happy for the first time in months. These moments make enduring the factory’s lack of air conditioning and constant assembly line malfunctions worth it.

Who knew the Nuka-Cola corporation would become a non-profit?

May 16th, 2078:

Well, it was too good to last. This Tuesday at two o’clock, the red lights came on and the line halted. All of the ingredient tanks were empty, except for one with a peculiar scent of seventeen fruit-flavors and rubbing alcohol. Better yet, when I opened it, an explosion of flies burst out like the damn plagues of Egypt. It wasn’t until I checked the terminal in a panic that I realized that this particular tank was disconnected from the line. A few of the boys saw it happen, and they all swore to secrecy. Dodged a very large bullet there, and I’m not about to tell anyone.

This morning Captain Larkin and her fellow officers stopped by the factory and congratulated us personally. I couldn’t believe it. “It’s not just soda,” she told us. “And it’s more than just morale. It’s a sign that we can bring the world back again with a wrench and a bit of willpower.” That made this whole venture worth it. She even told me that my stubborn captain-of-the-guard brother Tom sent his gratitude; apparently his men loved the factory’s particular post-war taste. 

Anyway, the boys and I cracked open the line’s last bottles of icy cola with Captain Larkin and her group. We sent the last four crates with them as well. And now it’s just clean-up duty. We’ll scavenge what we can and send it off to Charleston.

I wonder where me and the boys will go next. I hear there’s a giant teapot right up the hill, and I’m dying for some authentic sweet tea.

Monorail Elevator Recordings – A Fallout 76 Short Story

Discovered by Vault 76 survivors within the mainframe of the Appalachian Monorail Elevator’s second level. Recording as follows (transcript included).



October 23rd, 8:11 AM.                                                 

AMS would like to inform all passengers that monorail system maintenance has detected a minor fault. All passengers are instructed to remain calm as maintenance has been notified. Expected maintenance wait time is ten to fifteen minutes. The Appalachian Transit Authority thanks you for your continued use of the Appalachian Monorail System.

October 23rd, 9:48 AM.                                                  

AMS would like to inform all passengers that monorail system maintenance has detected an unexpected fault. All passengers are instructed to remain calm as maintenance has been notified. Expected maintenance wait time is two to four hours. The Appalachian Transit Authority thanks you for your continued use of the Appalachian Monorail System.

October 23rd, 9:49 AM.                                                 

AMS would like to inform all passengers of B car that a major fault has been discovered in train car coupler. Expected maintenance wait time is seven to ten days. Counseling will be made available at the next station, courtesy of Hornwright Industries. We remind you to keep all legs, hands, and arms inside the monorail car at all times. The Appalachian Transit Authority thanks you for your continued use of the Appalachian Monorail System.

October 23rd, 11:22 PM.

Alert: all passengers are reminded to please remain in their seats with their legs, hands, and arms inside the cabin at all times. Exit doors should remain closed for your safety. In case of medical emergency, first aid supplies can be found at the front and rear of the car. Counseling will be made available at the next station, courtesy of Hornwright Industries. The Appalachian Transit Authority thanks you for your continued use of the Appalachian Monorail System.

Error: Unable to reset train car exit doors. Maintenance and authorities have been notified.