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The Ephemera - Chapter Two
A note to readers: This is a chapter of my new book, The Ephemera. I’m publishing it here as I write it, without revision, because readers asked to see my process. You can find previously-published chapters of The Ephemera here.
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A big dark hand settled on Elara’s shoulder. In the open market — hotspot for pickpockets and con artists, unpatrolled and, no matter what people said, unregulated — the hand was cause for alarm. She was already on edge. She’d just passed the Recollarium’s open aisles, feeling guilty and guarded the whole time. The Recollarium was in the market’s center on purpose: so shoppers would pass it (and be tempted by it) as many times as possible. Elara averted her eyes and distracted her mind whenever she went near it. That, and thought about her brother.
Elara’s second instinct, when the hand grabbed her, was to run.
Her first instinct was to obey.
“No,” said a disbelieving voice. “Not you. Not Elara. There’s no way in Hell you’re actually here.”
Elara turned. Her back was stiff. Her lips parted, ready to explain whatever needed explaining.
For the scantest of moments, she thought the man behind her was her father, made young again: the way he’d looked when she was two, when she’d been far too young to remember anything: a glimpse seen through her mother’s eyes as she came up behind him shaving in the mirror. But Elara’s father was dead now. Dead at the hands of the Seekers. She didn’t want to remember him the way they’d found him. Mom had been gone and Rhys was only eleven when Dad died, so it’d been Elara’s job to identify the body. Given his condition, it wasn’t easy.
She didn’t realize she’d been holding her exhale until it escaped all at once. Her chest deflated and the oddest thought came with it: What if my breath stinks?
The man was Callum Mack. And no, she didn’t believe he was really here, either.
“Oh my God,” she said, starting to smile.
“Elara Frost … in the flesh!”
She wanted to say something witty, but she hugged him instead. The embrace was aggressive, her short stature only able to wrap his towering one at the middle. She hung on too long. It wasn’t just good to see Callum. It was more like rescue. Callum felt like her past. Smelled like her past. How long had it been? Even if she’d thought hard on it, which she didn’t, she honestly couldn’t have said.
“Why are you here?” she asked. Her cheeks already hurt. She didn’t smile like this anymore. She smiled, but not like this.
“I needed to buy some fish.”
“I meant here.”
“I’m visiting. But how are you—?”
“Who are you visiting?” she interrupted.
“James. You remember James.”
“I don’t know anyone named James.”
“James, Elara. James.”
“You’re right. Now that you’ve said the same name a few times, I definitely remember him.”
Callum rolled his eyes. “You don’t remember James? With the teeth?” He made a face to demonstrate. Callum was big and broad, and the buck teeth he gave her now were absurd. It was weird to look up at Callum. She supposed he’d been his full height when she’d last seen him (had to be; they were both eighteen), but to her Callum would always be the fat little kid with the Snoopy lunchbox who’d been dumb enough to carry cash and not think the big kids would take it from him. Let them try and take it now, she thought. He had the most envied of male builds: not just tall and not just broad, but simply big. Older Callum struck her like a superhero: more, somehow, than everyone else.
“Right. Jimmy Nuts,” Callum said, nodding.
“Jimmy Vale,” she corrected.
“We called him ‘Nuts.’”
“Because he was crazy?”
“No,” Callum said. “The other reason.”
There was a beat. A woman passed them pulling a two-wheeled cart stuffed with cans.
“How long are you here?” Elara asked.
“It was supposed to just be a few days, but I’m seeing a guy tomorrow that Jimmy told me about. He decided we should meet. It’s about a job. A private sector job.” He said that part deliberately, so there’d be no confusion. “So who knows? I might stay forever.”
She punched him. “And you didn’t think to call me?” Then she laughed at his reaction — her small fist, his big chest and the accompanying flinch — but immediately cut herself short. It suddenly felt like people were staring at them, though they probably weren’t. She was making a spectacle of herself. There were no rules about that, but it’s not who Elara was anymore. It was Callum’s fault, bringing her old self out of her.
“Hey! I had no idea you lived here. Why do you live here?” He emphasized you and here separately: Elara of all people, here all places.
“I moved … three years ago now? Also for work.”
His gaze glided to the right. Toward the spires, visible over the hill.
“At the museum,” she clarified.
His eyes seemed almost relieved as they came back. “You. Working at a museum.”
“The museum,” she corrected.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means it’s not an art museum, Callum.”
“But you still wear the little glasses, right? The half-moon ones that hang around your neck on a chain?”
“You’re thinking of a library. I’m not a librarian.”
“Because I’m one hundred percent imagining you wearing little granny glasses on a chain right now.”
Then silence. That was the problem with small talk: When a conversation meant nothing, it had a way of dying without warning. And so they stood where they’d been, smiling at each other. A pair of children streaked by, colliding with Callum’s side in a way that made Elara want to tell him to check his pockets. An elderly man detoured, laboriously, around them. The market was always crowded on Saturdays. She and her old friend were an island in the flow, in everyone’s way.
“Are you off for the day?” Callum asked, moving aside.
Elara shook her head. “I’m actually just heading in.” She patted her bag, with its zippers and second strap to hold it close to her side. “Got my granny glasses and everything. Are you around tomorrow?”
Callum looked aghast. Or, more accurately, sarcastic-aghast. “A city resident wants to meet on Sunday?”
“Are you making fun of me, or where I live?”
Callum shrugged. “Can’t it be both?”
“Sunday’s fine,” she said. “I’m a known heathen. Just because I live in the punchbowl doesn’t mean I drink the Kool-Aid.” And her mind echoed: Kool-Aid. She saw a giant pitcher full of red liquid bursting through a wall, saying OOOH-YEAH. Or was it AW YEAH? She always got them confused. One was the Kool-Aid commercial. The other was a pro wrestler.
From fifty years ago. Or seventy years ago. A hundred and fifty years ago. How old are you, Elara?
She thought of Rhys. Rhys at a round wooden breakfast table with two white people, all three watching that asshole pitcher ruin their wall. Were the people his parents? His biologics? Elara wasn’t sure what they’d looked like; she’d never asked. Everyone was drinking Kool-Aid. To which Rhys had been allergic, so obviously he never drank it. It was the red dye. It gave him hives. Or at least, that’s the way Elara remembered things. The memory was crisp. Clear. Like TV inside her skull.
Then it was all gone, and the only thing left was Callum.
“You all right?” he asked, studying her face.
She laughed off the daze. “Just tired.” Or sick; she’d been dizzy last night, too. “What about you? Is Sunday actually okay with you?”
“Why are you saying it like that? Why wouldn’t it be okay?”
“You were always so religious,” she said.
“I still am. But that’s religion. Like, actual God.” He touched a thin gold chain at his neck, its bounty invisible inside his shirt. She didn’t have to see the crucifix to know it was there. When they were young, when they cut out and went swimming, the crucifix and shorts were all he used to wear. “God lives here,” he said, touching his chest, “not in a building.”
Again his eyes went to the spires, but he didn’t comment. Then they came back, his voice bright again. “So. Lunch tomorrow?”
“Are you asking me out?”
“I heard that somewhere.”
Then, like an internal echo: Do you hear me, Elara?
Troubled for a reason she couldn’t articulate, she forced away a frown. She found a smile instead.
“Call me tonight, okay?” she told Callum. “I’ll come up with some restaurant options in the meantime. Oh. Hang on. My new number is better. It’s …”
Callum raised a hand to stop her. Behind the hand, the look in his eyes had changed. Elara couldn’t say how, but it’d changed.
“I don’t have a way to write it down,” he said, deliberately now. “Why don’t you call me. You remember my number, don’t you?”
“Actually, no. I got a new phone. I lost the old one and—”
“But you remember it … right?”
Callum took both of her hands. At the same moment there was a great white flash from all around them: some enormous thing exploding into pure and soundless light. Elara double-took, but nobody else did. When it was over, the people nearby were still going about their business. It meant nobody had seen the flash but her … and the thing that’d happened before was happening again.
“You’re okay,” Callum said. He was watching the startle leave her eyes, seemingly unsurprised by it. He was still holding her fingers at the second knuckle, speaking as if soothing her down.
“Did you just see—?”
“You’re okay,” he repeated. He was making a statement, not asking a question. He still had that strange look in his eyes. He was staring right into hers, trying to make her understand … something. “… aren’t you?”
Elara blinked. She felt almost lightheaded. She’d seen flashes like that twice before, and both times she’d been alone. Once, she’d been looking at the calendar in her apartment, thinking about her week ahead and how much she had planned, noticing that Rhys’s birthday was coming up and not wanting the reminder. Her head had begun to swim. She’d gone to sit down but hadn’t made it, waking an unknown time later on the floor. Another time she’d been pacing, thinking — doing what her work friends called sticking her head in the clouds. She’d felt the same swoon, but managed to get to a couch before passing out. And now it was happening in public? She knew what she should do: She should go to a doctor. She didn’t, though, because she was afraid of what they’d say. Obviously she had a tumor, just like her mother. Mom had survived cancer, but she’d never been the same.
(It wasn’t the surgery that changed her. It was what happened to Dad — and Rhys — that did that.)
The newest swoon was departing. She shook it off, embarrassed he’d had to call her back to the real world twice now. “Yes,” she said. “Yes, I’m okay.”
Callum’s head whipped to the side as if something had caught his eye. His demeanor changed in a blink. He said, “Look … I have to go.”
“Sure.” She still felt fuzzy. “It was great to see you.”
“You’ll see me again soon. But first, you’ll call me. You have to call me, Elara. Don’t forget. You have to call me first.”
“I told you. I lost my phone. I don’t have your number.”
“That’s okay,” Callum said. His hands were shaking; he was agitated for some reason. “You remember it.”
“I don’t think I do. I—”
Again Callum glanced over his shoulder. This time Elara looked where he had and saw a man and a woman in black jackets breasting the crowd, coming in their direction.
Callum leaned close, talking quickly. “I gave it to you the day we ate all those hot dogs.”
“You could just tell me the damn number, you know,” Elara said. She didn’t want to play games, not now that she was thinking about tumors.
“That day,” he said more firmly. “With all the hot dogs.”
She turned again to the man and woman making their way toward them. “What’s going on?”
“The day with the hot dogs.” He was so serious, so insistent. “Remember?”
“It was marshmallows,” Elara said. “We ate marshmallows, not hot dogs. I don’t even like hot dogs.”
“No, it was hot dogs. Think back. Do you hear me, Elara?”
(Do you hear me, Elara?)
He held her hands properly now, up to the wrist. His grip had tightened. “It wasn’t marshmallows. It was hot dogs. Do you hear me? Say it. Hot dogs!”
He was almost violent. Wide-eyed. His fingers dug into her flesh, pulling her close, shaking her.
“Fine! Fucking hot dogs! What’s your—?”
He dropped her hands, pushed through the crowd behind her, and was gone.
The pair in black jackets arrived seconds after Callum left. One looked at the other, then pressed a finger to his temple. The other, a small and sharp-jawed woman, watched him expectantly. Her eyes rolled back, showing the whites. The trance lasted just a few seconds. Then she looked at her partner, his message retroactively received, and gave chase.
“Who were you talking to?” the man asked Elara after the woman was gone.
“An old friend.” She shook him off when he tried to touch her, acting more like the rabblerouser Callum had known than the Obedient New Elara she’d become. “Who the hell are you?”
He flashed a badge. They were Watchers. “You’ve come with me,” he said.
“You will,” he corrected, shifting tense. She’d heard that about Watchers. Their jobs required them to be simultaneously in the current moment and in memories. It made them confuse past and future, present and past.
He grabbed Elara’s wrist and was just about to take her away when he again pressed his finger to his temple: a message from his partner. Then he said to Elara, “Apologies for this, Miss, but it’s necessary. I suggest you brace.”
Elara didn’t have time to ask what he meant until it happened. Her vision blurred. Text began to stream upward on the inside of her eyes as if she was wearing a heads-up display. She’d heard Watchers could strip machine code from a person’s chips, but she’d never seen it and certainly hadn’t had reason to plunge her own source before. It came as a raw file: her mnemonic storage serving itself to the Watcher’s priority access.
“Callum Mack,” he said to himself, nodding as the cascade ended. “You know him from childhood.”
“What the fuck?” Elara blurted, finally with enough wits again to protest. “That’s private!”
He ignored her and began to lead her by the wrist. “This way if you would, Miss,” he said, as if she had a choice.
I’ll publish new chapters of The Ephemera when they’re ready, with no set schedule. Please note that only the first handful of installments will be available for everyone to read, and that after that I will begin publishing new chapters for members only. Learn more and become a member here.
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