ANNO DOMINI ~Allium~
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BOOK 2, CHAPTER 18: NOT WHAT YOU DO, BUT WHAT YOU BECOME
Sunlight washed over every inch of the boring hotel room, given free rein to do so as the window blinds had been left wide open all night. The air was dry and stale, even painful and spiteful, making Sandra’s eyes burn as she sat on the bed.
Having made it back from Saint Baptiste Monastery minutes ago, she was unable to sleep any longer and didn’t feel rested. Her knees were pulled to her chest in a tight huddle, her smartphone next to her, her social media feed onscreen. She considered deleting the account—all of her friends were posting pictures of their significant others and trendy restaurants they’d traveled hundreds of miles to eat at.
Not having posted anything online in almost a full week, the total disconnection of deleting her social media would probably eat her alive, so she decided against doing so. She missed the people in the pictures, but the face-to-face encounters were probably over for good.
While scrolling down her social media feed, numb to the pictures showing smiling faces of her abandoned past, her phone rang as the name appeared onscreen; her friend and coworker Liz from her old job was calling.
“I knew she’d call me at some point,” Sandra muttered to herself. “I’d thought she would call sooner, actually.”
She answered, bracing herself for the conversation she’d been dreading.
“Sandra.” The girl’s voice through the phone was already audibly rigid, having only spoken Sandra’s name.
“You’ve been absent from work for three days,” Liz said. “Two of our bosses tried calling you, but it went straight to voicemail.”
“Makes sense.” Sandra was blunt and devoid of enthusiasm. “I blocked their numbers.”
“Are you all right?” Liz asked, sounding worried. “Everyone at work is afraid something bad happened to you.”
“Yeah, sorry, but…I won’t be going back to work there.”
There was a pause.
“Oh,” Liz said. “Does that mean you quit?”
“Why?” Liz sounded more sad than angry. “Is everything all right?”
“I wish you would’ve told us, Sandra.” Now Liz sounded angrier. “It’s bad enough you just no call, no show without at least saying you were quitting. You could’ve at least told me…your friend.”
“I know.” Sandra pressed her phone against her right ear, grabbing a handful of the bedsheet with her left hand as she sat forward on the bed. “What I did was unprofessional…and wrong, but I sorta had a mental breakdown, I guess.”
“That doesn’t sound like you’re all right,” Liz told her. “I’m off today. I’ll come see you.”
Sandra despaired at what she had to say next.
“You can’t. I left Alliance. I’m in Chicago now, and I plan on never going back.”
This third pause was one of suspense, and as Sandra held the phone to her ear, she was ready to accept whatever Liz’s response would be.
“Are you for real?” Liz asked in disbelief.
“Oh, okay, that’s fine then. Don’t worry about, like, letting anyone know. It’s cool to make us worry about you, just to find out that you just gave us the middle finger.”
“I don’t care, Sandra. Have a nice life.”
The time was approaching 10:00 AM when the phone call ended. With a deep breath, Sandra ran her hands over her face, feeling the faintest satisfaction of the makeshift, second-rate closure. She couldn’t afford to lament her decision, though, because her emotional health was already being charged for deficit.
There were a few beers in the mini fridge left from the cheap case Bret had bought during his visit…that fateful night when Sandra met Chris and Robbie. She dragged her feet to the fridge and stared at the beer bottles. Food was important and her bank account was pitiful, so her options were limited.
Sandra twisted the cap off a beer. The smell was revolting. It was 9:50 AM.
“Breakfast of champions,” she murmured with a quivering eyebrow. “Cheers.”
At 9:51 AM, she finished her twelve-ounce breakfast, acknowledging the robust, metallic flavor of regret. She had never wanted to brush her teeth more in her entire life, and made for the sink right away.
While filling up one of the little complimentary plastic cups with water, a knock came from the door. Every muscle in her body stiffened up, and the plastic cup overflowed from the tap and spilled over her hand. She turned the water off and set the cup on the counter, staring at the door, frightened by who or what could be visiting her.
Another knock, louder this time. Not wanting to answer the door with beer on her breath, she reached for the plastic cup of water.
When her hand was over a half foot away, the cup toppled back and spilled across the counter.
Flustered and on the verge of panicking, she took a deep breath, calmed herself down, and marched to the door. Looking through the peephole, all she could see was the top of a blonde head with irritated, green eyes looking at the door from the hallway.
Sandra opened the door, coming face-to-face with Aleph-Naught.
“Hi there!” Al greeted with a toothy grin. “For a second, I thought I had the wrong room.”
“You’re Al,” Sandra replied, pushing her black hair out of her face with a relieved smile. “After everything I’ve seen, I didn’t know what to expect when I heard someone knocking.”
“It’s just me. Can I come in?”
When Al stepped in and Sandra closed the door, Al sniffed around, eventually looking at Sandra with suspicion.
“You smell like alcohol,” Al said flatly.
Raising an eyebrow, Al said, “Must be nice being a free spirit.”
Sandra sighed. “It has its ups and downs. Anyway, what’re you doing here? I thought we were meeting at six.”
“My bandalores’ restoration hit a roadblock,” Al told her. “It’s been put on hold while Brother Benjamin looks into it, so I set out on my usual morning routine: gathering info, exploring, and buying provisions. I was nearby, so I thought I’d stop by before I return to work on restoring my bandalores. They need a lot of work. The magical configurations need to be entirely rebuilt…”
“I see,” Sandra said, narrowing her eyes. “It’d be nice to have known ahead of time that you were coming, though.”
“I haven’t tagged you with ratmail, so I couldn’t send a message,” Al replied straightforwardly.
“…You didn’t do what? And how’d you find me?”
“You showed me the hotel itinerary on your phone last night, remember? I saw your full name, so I asked for you at the counter.”
“Oh, I forgot.”
“Typical scout work.” Al rummaged through her hoodie pocket. “I brought you this, so don’t complain.” She took out a cold deli sandwich from her pocket, still wrapped, and handed it to Sandra.
“This…this is from you?” The young woman held the sandwich with both hands, a dreamy shimmer in her blue eyes.
“See, I ain’t so bad. It’s salami, pepperoni, and ham with lettuce, black olives, onions, green peppers, provolone, and a balsamic reduction sauce. Pretty good, right? I don’t usually bring gifts, but you looked like you needed some cheering up.”
Almost immediately, Al witnessed Sandra go into a feeding frenzy and rip the wrapping off the sandwich. Taken aback by the sudden transformation from woman to animal, Al cringed as Sandra dropped, sat cross-legged on the floor, and devoured her food.
“Ohhh…” Sandra cooed with her cheeks stuffed. “Stho ghood…”
“Cripes, don’t talk with your mouth full,” Al muttered. She watched Sandra take another big bite of the sandwich, and felt a bit of pity. “You were really hungry…weren’t you?”
After swallowing, the young woman stared at her sandwich and the mess of crumbs, vegetables, and balsamic drippings on the paper wrapper spread out on the floor.
“Yeah,” she replied quietly. “To be honest, I’ve only been in the city a few days, and it’s been hell. I knew the city was more expensive, but this food shortage thing is making me skip more meals than I’d accounted for.” She looked up at Al with a weak smile. “Really, I owe you for this.”
Al held up her hand. “Don’t worry about it.” Crossing the room, she gazed out the window at the morning cityscape with Lake Michigan only a short jog away. “You have a really nice view. This is the first time I’ve seen this city from this high up.”
After licking some of the balsamic reduction from her wrist, Sandra asked, “What do you think of it?”
“Hmm…” Al gave it some thought. “It’s ugly. I don’t like cities.”
“Funny, I feel the opposite.”
“To each their own.”
The black balsamic reduction continued to dribble from Sandra’s sandwich, persistently forming a river toward her elbows. Putting the remaining few bites on the paper wrapper, she stood up and faced Al.
“Give it to me straight.” Sandra stiffened her back and squared her shoulders. “What we’re doing is dangerous. Deadly.”
Matching Sandra’s seriousness, Al replied, “Yes, it is. Not only might we lose our lives, but we’re also dealing with some of the oldest, biggest secrets known to man: the Chashman Artifact for one, and the existence of you Desphelmers. One misstep can have severe consequences of any and all sorts.”
“That’s what I figured.” Sandra smiled rigidly, but only to aid her acceptance of the circumstances. “You’re knowledgeable about these things, aren’t you? About our abilities, and those evil shadow things, right?”
“I am, but to an extent. My organization, as a whole, is centered on all those things. But,” Al hung her head with shame, “I’m just a scout, essentially a cadet and student of the basic teachings. I don’t know all that much.”
Sandra looked at the blonde girl.
“You act so mature for your age, though.”
Al didn’t look up, her face grim in the shadow of the bright sunlight through the window. “Thank you. Makes me wonder if it’s true, though.”
“Well…compared to other kids your age.”
Al kept her eyes down. “Kids, huh…?”
The dark, inky balsamic reduction sauce dripped from Sandra’s knuckles to join the other stains on the hotel room carpet; she knew this was happening, but ignored it.
“From what I’ve been told,” the young woman said, “I’m a rarity because I don’t need ‘magic’ to use…whatever it is I use.”
Al nodded, stepping away from the sunny window, as the aerial view of Chicago was something she didn’t want to see.
“I still don’t understand it,” Al said, sighing.
“Then it’s just something we don’t know yet,” Sandra replied matter-of-factly. “Is it possible for me to use magic?”
The question was a difficult one.
“I don’t know,” Al said. “The thing is, while magic is supposed to be necessary to use the immaterial energies, it also limits the output of those energies. If you learned magic, it might limit your output. But, then again…it also might provide you with abilities you wouldn’t have otherwise.” She groaned, digging her heel into the carpet. “It’s bad enough I gotta teach ya’ll these things, but it’s really annoying when all this new stuff is happening. What a pain.”
“Could you teach me magic?” Sandra asked.
Al shook her head. “Nope, that’s forbidden. Unless I have special permission, I can’t teach magic to outsiders, and I’m not eligible for receiving that permission in the first place…because I’m just a scout.”
“Oh,” Sandra said, “then I’ll just have to learn it myself.”
That statement earned Sandra a chastising glare from Al.
“You don’t have any idea, do you? You can’t just learn magic on your own. It takes tons of practice. Your lifestyle needs to be molded around it.”
“I like a good challenge,” Sandra replied with a cocky smirk.
“It’s a philosophy! Magic is more than something you do, it’s something you become.”
“Then I’ll become what I need to become!” Sandra realized how loud her voice was. “Sorry…I didn’t mean to yell.”
“Look, it’s a no-go,” Al told her. “Your abilities are a huge mystery, so even if you do make the cut as a magic-user, it might not work.”
Sandra tilted her head with a raised eyebrow.
“You’re saying it’s impossible?” she asked.
“Of course it’s impossible,” Al said hastily. “At least in your situation for now.”
“But what if I put my mind to it? Literally become obsessed with making it possible.”
“Then you’ll be wasting your time, lady.”
A staredown between the two commenced. Seconds later, Sandra was the first to break away, looking at her right arm with the dark river of balsamic sauce. Al watched Sandra lick her teeth and clench her fist. Wondering what Sandra was thinking, Al was horrified when the young woman suddenly sank her teeth into her own arm, biting through the skin while grunting in pain.
“What the hell is your problem?” Al barked. “What are you doing?”
No verbal reply. Instead, Sandra held out her arm so Al could see the bloody bite mark.
“Heal.” The green glow covered the wounded area. When the skin was sealed and fully restored to normal, Sandra stared at Al with frightening resolve. “The next time you tell me what’s impossible, remember that I’m already capable of doing what you thought was impossible.”
She picked her sandwich up off the floor, devoured it in two bites, marched to the bathroom, and closed the door.
When the sound of the shower kicked in, Al snickered.
“Damn…” she said to herself with her arms crossed. “I think we’ll be all right.”
Drake waited for Chris on the California Station platform of the Chicago ‘L’ train Blue Line. The boys had decided to browse some stores, so they met up in an old favorite area for doing just that.
“Marilyn went home?” Drake sighed. “I thought there was supposed to be a group.”
“Yeah, we all couldn’t make it,” Chris replied.
Shrugging, Drake said, “Ugh, whatever. We’ll still have fun, buddy.”
Chris and Drake walked along North Milwaukee Avenue through the community areas of Logan Square and Wicker Park. The stretch was filled with various shops and places of interest, making it a great walkable street for shopping.
“Can I ask you something?” Drake asked while walking.
“How can I say this?” Scratching his head, Drake asked, “Um…is there…a girl you like?”
“Huh?” Chris thought about it. “I…don’t know…”
Drake remembered the brief conversation in current events class earlier that week.
“Robbie asked me in class the other day if you were going out with someone…”
“Robbie did?” Chris looked toward the sky. “Why’d he ask?”
“Well…I’m not going out with anyone.”
Drake nodded. “I didn’t think so.”
With a sneer, Chris elbowed Drake. “Who do you like, then?”
Drake turned red. “N-nobody!”
“I think you do.”
“Shut up, Chris!”
“You started this.”
“And I’m ending it.”
The boys entered a music and movie store. CDs were going out of circulation, so there were plenty of clearance deals. Also, the hottest new vinyls were in stock.
“I’m thinking of getting the first Leap Into Traffic album on vinyl, the self-titled one,” Drake said, handing the record to Chris. “Sometimes I forget that they’re from Canada.”
Chris looked at the album cover art, a low-resolution sepia photograph of a chair with roller skates on all four legs. Looking at the reverse side of the vinyl sleeve, Chris read the track listing for Leap Into Traffic, although he already knew all the songs.
1. Aftermath Mondays
2. Decelerating Through a Green Light
3. In Your Defence
4. Better Now without Her
5. Intermission [Instrumental]
6. The Declaration of Surrenderpendence
7. Stretching the Bagel Hole
8. Sell Out [Reel Big Fish cover]
9. Itchy Records Need Scratched
10. Not in My Neighbourhood
11. Stunted Growth
12. Designer Dress Shower Curtain
“This is a good album,” Chris commented. “My favorite song is still ‘In Your Defence.’”
“That’s a classic!” Drake replied with a grin. “How’d it go? ‘Signaling to stop the pace, we failed the race to leave this place. In your defence, I meant no offence. In your defence’…something, something.”
“They have a new album out now,” Chris told Drake. “Cootie Perfume, I think it’s called. They’re also touring more in the U.S. than in Canada, for some reason.”
“Yeah, we’re going to that concert, so I’m gonna listen to it on Spotify. They’ll probably be playing a lot of songs off it.”
After browsing the CD clearances, Drake noticed the section for the band Sewage Dwellers. He removed the first CD in front and glanced over it.
“Here’s a CD by another band that’ll be at the show.” He handed the CD to Chris. “I’ve never heard of them.”
The Sewage Dwellers album Beneath the City featured illustrated cover art of what looked like a Jurassic-era wombat emerging from a cesspool full of carcasses, and a murky cityscape in the gloomy background. The band’s logo looked like splattered slime with accidental letter-like shapes. Chris flipped the CD case over and read the track listing.
1. Beneath the City [Intro]
2. Bilge Rat’s Surprise
3. Palace of Visceral Monuments
4. Gargantuan Sludge Wave
5. Warbling Requiem for the Beheaded King
6. Kidney Trapeze
7. Nailed to the Machinery
9. Esters and Euphemisms
10. Regurgitated Beguilement
11. Born from Concrete
12. Lawnmower Dental Floss
“On the band’s website,” Drake said, looking at his smartphone, “it says their genre is ‘primarily shitcore with elements of doomdeath and swampgrind.’”
“Uh, is that even a real type of music?”
“It’s what their website says. I’m guessing it’s heavy metal.”
“Hmm.” Chris glanced at the CD cover again. “I’m gonna get it.”
It was an apartment building much like the others in the Lincoln Square community area, yet the blond man in the white suit had a very specific reason for paying a visit to the tenants of Unit C on the second floor.
He entered through the front and approached the intercom panel, knowing which apartment to page, and waited patiently for the tenant to respond.
“Hello?” said a man’s voice from the intercom speaker.
“This is Leon Kampton, vice principal of Lyonbole Public High School. I’d like to pay Erik Hawthorne a visit, if I may.”
“Ah, yes. He’s awake and doing well. I’ll buzz you in.”
“Thank you kindly.”
On the second floor, Mr. Kampton knocked on the door of Unit C, and was greeted by the man who had spoken over the intercom, Erik’s father.
“Good morning, Mr. Hawthorne,” Mr. Kampton greeted with a friendly smile.
“Hi, good morning.” Erik’s father was wearing a gray Chicago Bulls sweatshirt, and his light brown hair was different from Erik’s dirty blond hair, yet his face was similar, albeit fuller. “I’m Fred. Come on in, I’ll fetch the boy.”
“My apologies for not calling ahead of time,” Mr. Kampton said, holding his hand over his heart sincerely.
“No worries. I’m glad you’re taking the time to check on him.”
Fred walked down the small hallway to the room at the end. The vice principal removed his brown suede shoes and waited in the living room, looking around at the average apartment. He noticed the abundance of Chicago Bulls memorabilia, and a celestial “thought” (or more accurately, a confirmation of predetermined knowledge) occurred to him that Erik would have probably been a basketball player with Robbie if not for his medical frailty.
Moments later, the skinny teenage boy walked into the room, his pasty skin and sunken eyes giving him the appearance of one who had no right to walk among the living. He looked at Mr. Kampton, his mouth open as if to speak, but said nothing.
“Erik!” Mr. Kampton said happily, clasping his hands together. “I see you’re doing well.”
“Um, y-yeah.” Erik’s voice sounded as if it hadn’t been used much in the past week.
“Good, good,” the vice principal said. “I wanted to stop by to check up on you.”
Feeling awkward, Erik chuckled. “Thank you.”
Mr. Kampton looked directly at Erik’s father. The split second of connecting eye-to-eye was all that was needed; prompt the evacuation, an inconceivable cognitive adjustment, neural pathways switching, the emergence of a memory…
“Oh.” Fred checked the digital clock on the side table across the room. “I almost forgot that seafood sale is today. I need to make it to the market before they sell out of the good stuff.” He turned to Mr. Kampton. “Sorry, but I need to head out. It’s not often we get good grocery sales anymore.”
“No worries,” Mr. Kampton said humbly.
“Go, Dad,” Erik said. “I’ll stay here and talk to Mr. Kampton.”
In under a minute, Fred had his shoes on and was out of the apartment. Now alone, Mr. Kampton smiled at Erik.
“So, you’re right as rain these days?” he asked the sickly boy.
“Yeah.” Erik shrugged, taking a seat on the couch. “I’ll be going back to school on Monday…if the usual flare-ups don’t keep me from going.”
Mr. Kampton took a seat on the other end of the couch, a full cushion-length between him and the boy.
“Tell me what happened,” he said gently, being inviting and genuine. “You were unusually indisposed this past week, I heard.”
Thoughts, memories, and anxiety flooded Erik’s mind. He subconsciously gripped his shorts, his palms quickly becoming sweaty.
“I was,” he said dully, not looking at the vice principal. Taking a deep breath, he knew he had to say something. “I…I wasn’t myself…”
Mr. Kampton could see the reluctance on Erik’s face, and it was notably potent. Something was stirring in Erik’s head that Mr. Kampton, Lavi, couldn’t read, something that a divine being couldn’t gain direct access to. Speaking on a human level was the only means by which he could tap into the essential information in the boy’s mind.
“It’s hard to explain, really,” Erik murmured, looking at the carpet, gripping his shorts tighter.
“I’m sure. However, it’s important to be honest, not just with me, but with yourself.” He spoke with modest, heartfelt words, but the white wings fanning out were meant to be the necessary element for truly reaching the boy. “Things will be easier to understand soon, even if they aren’t right now.”
Erik turned his head slowly to the angel next to him. He blinked casually, his expression still solemn.
He looked away and sighed.
“I hope so,” he said.
Mr. Kampton stared at Erik—full wing span, glowing aura, all-encompassing holiness and warmth…
“You don’t see the truth?” the vice principal asked, his full attention on Erik. “It’s right in front of you, and you don’t see?”
The sickly boy’s underwhelming reaction had already answered, though.
“I don’t think so.” Erik looked back at Mr. Kampton. “But…there’s something I know.”
With indecipherable quasi-emotions, and with his complete angelic display exposed, Mr. Kampton asked, “What would that be?”
Erik thought about it for a bit.
“It was like…there was another me in my head.”
Not looking away, Mr. Kampton said, “Another you?”
“Yeah.” Erik nodded, releasing his shorts and looking at his clammy hands. “There was something inside me. Like a voice, or another mind. Actually, it was more like a part of my mind, but it grew out of control and took over everything.”
I had disgusting powers, he thought. A sickness. A vengeance.
“I don’t want to become a bad person,” Erik added meekly.
The glowing, holy entity leaned closer to Erik.
“You think this ‘other you’ had something to do with you missing school all week? Or that this ‘other you’ is why you are unable to see the truth?”
As Erik glanced around the living room, he fought back the anxiety.
What can I tell Mr. Kampton? He won’t believe me. He’s a nice person…but I don’t think he’s able to really understand. Normal people like him wouldn’t understand.
Erik fidgeted. “It was terrible. I…I thought horrible things. I even did horrible things. Not just what I did, but what I had become. It took me over. I wished for people to be sick, because I was sick all the time…and…”
Mr. Kampton held up his hand to halt Erik’s explanation.
“You know you got your wish,” he said, his voice firm and disciplining. “You heard of the ghost flu, haven’t you?”
Erik pressed his face into his palms, nodding. “People got sick,” he said timidly. “Yeah…I got my wish…that’s for sure.”
“Look at me, Erik.”
The boy removed his hands from his face, his wet eyes glossed over as he looked at the blond man next to him.
“W-what is it?” Erik asked. Uncertainty showed itself in equal abundance to shame.
For some time, the vice principal studied Erik. Yet, nothing presented itself. The wings, halo, and aura vanished. Mr. Kampton smiled and stood up.
“You shouldn’t dwell on it, Erik,” he said with a gentle smile. “Keep your chin up, kiddo.”
“I know.” Erik sniffed before cracking a grin. “I’ll remember that.”
“Don’t fret about being a bad person. It isn’t merely about what you do or what you become. You have a choice, you see?”
“If you need somebody to talk to, you can come to me, but I’d recommend confiding in Christopher Findale first.”
The sudden name made Erik seize up.
“Why Chris?” Erik was sure he already knew, though.
Mr. Kampton shrugged. “He’s a special person, wouldn’t ya say? Anyway, don’t fret, and I’ll see you on Monday!”
“…Yeah. Thanks for all you do, Mr. Kampton.”Remaining on the couch after Mr. Kampton had left, Erik waited for his dad to return. Leafy green salad topped with crab meat sounded extra tasty as he hoped the market wasn’t sold out.