© 1999 Betsy Westphal
"Tonight," Edam thought. "Tonight is a perfect night for it." He got up from the table, put away his dishes, and then realized how pointless cleaning up was. He looked around, seeing the room anew now that he would never return to it. Plain, shabbily made wooden bedstead, table, chair, and dresser a barren room for a barren life. "Well, its done with." He put on his cap, but deliberately didnt put on his jacket, and slipped out quietly, trying not to disturb the other residents of the boarding house he called home.
He had lived in Bay Pines for a almost a year now, and had been waiting less than patiently for warmer weather for almost six months, ever since the idea had occurred to him while reading the newspaper. "Berserk Sime Kills Neighbor!" the headline had screamed in very large type. He had read it, and the article under it, without any great outrage despite the reporters best efforts to inflame anti-Sime feelings and stir up dissension and unrest in Bay Pines over the relatively new Sime Center that had opened a few years ago. On that autumn evening, he had eaten his solitary dinner, remembering the newspaper story, and found himself envying the victim. "But its supposed to be a terribly painful death," had run through his thoughts, and he dismissed the glimmer of almost-hope that had shown itself momentarily. Over the next few months, though, the idea had recurred again and again. Almost all the ways to die that he knew of were painful and unpleasant. At least this way, his parents wouldnt have to live with the shame of having a son commit suicide, the ultimate act of laziness. They already hated Simes, and it wouldnt change their lives significantly.
Edam hadnt always spent his time alone, thinking about how to die without being recognized as a suicide. He had grown up in a nearby small town, with the same hopes and dreams as anyone else in that town, Pine Knoll. He always enjoyed working with his hands. The entire area was known for the pine trees and the fine quality wood from them, so Edam apprenticed with a carpenter. He loved wood, how it smelled, how it felt, how it resonated, and he loved making beautiful, useful things with it. He began, of course, with rough carpentry, repairing sheds and other structures, then learned to construct buildings from the ground up. By the time he was eighteen, he had discovered his niche, making fine furniture. He made a name for himself by building beautiful, one-of-a-kind affordable hope chests, which became popular gifts for brides-to-be all over the region. He married his girlfriend Mirta, the younger sister of his best friend Jaid, and felt that he had begun his life in earnest.
His daughter came along one year after the wedding. They named her Eria Rose. She was a beautiful, happy baby from the day she was born. She rarely fussed, and once she learned to smile, she never stopped smiling. Edam and Mirta built a house with help from both families, next door to Jaids house, and down the street from his parents home. By the time Eria Rose was learning to walk, the house was complete and they were planting their first garden, thrilled to have their own home and hoping for another child to complete their happiness.
But stories have happy endings, Edam remembered, not lives, and one summer night when Eria Rose was two, the alarm bells rang. Clang-clang. Pause. Clang-clang. Pause. The alarm bells were telling the people of Pine Knoll that there was a berserker. Every adult male had to answer that summons, and anyone else who could wield a gun was expected to do so as well unless they had other crucial duties. Edam hated the bells. "There has to be a better way than shooting our children or our younger siblings," he thought every time the alarm rang. "Maybe we should get a Sime Center too. Living near the snakes would be better than killing our own people, and sending them elsewhere, tentacles and all, would be better too." Like many of the younger adults in town, he had argued in town meetings to no avail that there had to be another answer. Pine Knolls town council had expelled all of the younger council members over this very topic. Edam knew that he was considered far too young and immature to bring up the issue when men who were much older and more respected had been thrown off the council for the same suggestions. So the damn bells kept ringing, and every time he reluctantly picked up his shotgun and joined the posse. He had managed, so far, to avoid having to shoot anyone. He hoped to keep his record intact one more time. In fact, he hoped that the alarm bells were wrong, and that there was no berserker and no need to shoot anyone.
The posse formed up and moved out. "Its Shirmers son Junior," one of the posse members said. Everyone heaved a sigh of relief, "Not my child, not this time." Edam wondered how he would feel in ten years, when he would have to worry that Eria Rose would turn Sime. The posse moved through town systematically, checking every hiding place a child could squeeze into, rifles, shotguns, and pitchforks held ready. Nothing. No Junior Shirmer, no changeover victim at all. They ended at Shirmers barn at the edge of town. Edam went into the barn, saying, "He wont be in here, of course, because Shirmer would have checked here when he found Junior was missing." He looked over his shoulder and said "But we gotta check everywhere so we can go home," when something someoneleapt at him from the hayloft. Years of shooting birds for the pot took over, and Edam brought up the shotgun and fired in one smooth motion. The figure, now clearly seen to be Junior Shirmer, collapsed to the floor horribly wounded in the chest and obviously dead.
Edam broke into tears. Junior looked just like his father, only smaller and thinner. And now, dead. They had the same dark hair, dark eyes, and very pale skin. They had had the same slim builds, which had led everyone to hope Junior wouldnt turn Sime since his daddy hadnt. They had almost looked like brothers, not father and son. Shirmer had hoped that Junior, who was sixteen, was safely past the danger of turning Sime, and had looked forward to turning over the day-to-day work on his farm to his son. And Junior had wanted that too. He had been famous, or infamous, among the children of Pine Knoll, because he had told everyone, every day, "Im Junior Shirmer and Im going to be a farmer too, just like my daddy," from the time he learned to talk until the age of eleven or twelve. Edam had met Junior on the first day of school for Junior, when Edam was ten or so, because Junior had introduced himself that way to everyone in the school.
The other posse members milled around, momentarily unsure of what to do. Then one of them clapped Edam on the shoulder. "Good shooting!" he said. That broke the uncomfortable silence. Another older man approached Edam and said, "Son, you did what you had to do." Then he paused. "Mmph. Damn shame it was Junior." There was a general murmur of regret and concern for the dead boys father.
One of the few women in the group asked "You taught him some carpentry, didnt you?"
Edam looked up and nodded. Miz Walker was a crotchety woman, good with a gun, and had outlived three husbands. Almost all of her children had turned Sime and been killed. "No wonder youre upset," she said. "It takes all of us that way the first time. Go home and have a drink."
Edam nodded wordlessly. There was nothing he could say. He had to do it. He didnt want to have had to do it. He just wanted it different somehow, so that Junior could live and so could everyone else. He picked up his shotgun, broke it open, and dumped out the remaining shells, putting them in his pocket. He had been drilled on gun safety since he was as tall as small gauge rifle (his first gun), and even this was so engrained in him that even under the circumstances, he did the right thing to keep everyone safe from an accidental shooting. As he did so, he thought about the irony of it. Here he was making sure no one would get hurt, after he just shot Junior Shirmer in the chest. He heard someone say, "We should clean this up so poor Shirmer doesnt have to," as he began trudging homeward.
Everyone looked up as the alarm bell rang again, clang-clang-clang-clang as fast as someone could pull the bell rope. Fire! Edam, too, heard the bell ringing fire and looked around. He saw a glow down the road. It had to be a building fire, nothing else would be that bright, and it was near his house. He began to run the quarter of a mile down the dirt road, with the rest of the posse streaming along behind him. Two crises in one night, he thought. "I hope its not Jaids house." As he pulled up gasping, he realized it was his house that was engulfed in flames.
His nearest neighbors had not all been in the posse. So the women, older men and a couple of younger men (who were the rearguard in case the berserker had come back into town while the posse was searching) had started a bucket line that was bringing water from the nearest well to throw on the fire. But the house was completely afire, flames spilling out of the windows and roaring through the roof. Edam grabbed one of the bucket chain members. "Wheres Mirta? Wheres our daughter?"
The soot stained man replied "I havent seen them," as he passed buckets of water toward the front. "Ask Jaid, he was in the rearguard so he was here first." Edam looked around wildly for his wife and child. Surely they were here somewhere! Jaid was at the head of the bucket line, throwing water as fast as buckets were handed to him. "Jaid, have you seen Mirta or Eria?" Edam asked frantically.
Jaid shook his head sorrowfully. "I tried to get inside. My wife saw the fire out the window and we came running over." He coughed, and Edam realized he was covered in soot and coughing because of all the smoke he had breathed. "It was so hot it took my breath away. The flames were everywhere. I couldnt find them." He coughed again. Edam looked, really looked at Jaid for a moment. He was covered in blisters, some of them broken and weeping, mute testimony to his attempt to find Mirta and Eria Rose in the inferno.
With a sound like thunder, the house collapsed, sending a column of sparks into the night sky. Jaid turned to the rest of the bucket chain and said, "We need to wet down all the ground around the house to prevent it from spreading." Everyone knew what he meant was that Edams home and family were lost. Jaid turned back to Edam. "Im so sorry. I tried. I really tried. But I just couldnt find them." His voice trailed off. "Why dont you stay with us tonight?" he suggested a few moments later.
Edam and Jaid went out into the early morning light after spending a sleepless night, Edam on the settee choking on his misery and grief, while Jaid coughed and coughed upstairs in the bedroom. The ruins were still smoldering in places. They picked through the burnt wreckage until they figured out where the bedroom had fallen, and there they found the charred remains of Mirta and Eria Rose. Gently, Edam wrapped all the remained of his life in a blanket. Jaid tried to comfort him. "I doubt they suffered. I think the smoke took them before the flames reached the bedroom." But Edam was inconsolable. His wife and daughter had been his whole world. Without them, his world was empty, dead. "Just like that Sime he had shot while his wife and daughter were dying," he thought.
Over the next few days, Edam found himself going through the motions of living. He attended the funeral services the local minister offered to perform for his loved ones. But he had already said his good-byes and felt nothing but numb emptiness as the minister spoke. He thanked the townspeople for their concern and for their efforts on the night of the fire. He spent his nights on Jaids settee, locked in a tight knot around his misery, and his days staring at nothing at all. Finally, he left town. He couldnt go on facing his friends, his family and his neighbors. "They mean well," he thought, "But they dont understand." One neighbor had tried to comfort him by saying, "At least Eria Rose didnt turn Sime." He thought, somehow, that was the worst. He had been shooting down a child turned Sime while his daughter was dying. He hoped that being with people who didnt know about his loss would help. At least they wouldnt ask "How are you doing?" in mournful tones that somehow implied he should be crying. So he rode the stage to Bay Pines, the nearest city, and got a room in a boarding house. The very same one that he was leaving now, almost a year later.
But it wasnt better. If anything, it was worse. He found work doing carpentry, but no one needed another maker of fine furniture. So he built houses and barns and other sort sorts of buildings, and knocked together workbenches for various businesses. He didnt know anyone in Bay Pines. He worked, not conversing with other carpenters on the same job, and then went back to the boarding house alone while they went home to their families or out for beer. As the weeks went by, he drew more and more into himself, until entire days could pass before he spoke to another human beings at all, and he became sadder and sadder.
By the time that sad summer ended, he couldnt even muster up the energy to go to work, so he was fired by the contractor he had been working for. He began spending his savings, and didnt leave the boardinghouse for days on end. He contemplated suicide. He dreamt of it. He longed for it. But the one thing that held him back was that he did not want to bring more grief to his parents. They were very religious, and would be shamed in front of their fellow churchgoers if their son committed suicide. Suicide was the ultimate laziness, refusing to accept that God wanted you to suffer to purify you, the minister preached. So the days drifted by, summer became autumn and autumn became winter, and his savings began to run low. Then one day, while buying bread and cheese at the store, he saw the newspaper headline and added the paper to his purchases.
For the first time, he had an idea of how to end his misery. He would wait for warmer weather, because if the city patrol saw him out in bad weather, they might become suspicious and arrest him. He began planning. He went out and found another carpentry job, this one mostly repairing buildings in the city. He scouted the territory. "How will I find a Sime to kill me?" he wondered. Then he was sent to a job in a less desirable part of the city, near the river. He was next door to the Sime Center. The Sime Center! That was the answer. "Where do you find Simes? At a Sime Center!" He began scouting. He took long walks all over Bay Pines, learning the roads, alleys and paths and how they connected to one another, gradually focussing on the area around the Sime Center itself.
He developed a pattern of walking every night after work, while the other men were home with their families or enjoying beer fueled camaraderie somewhere. He included the Sime Center on his route almost every night. The fence was not very tall, clearly not meant to stop people from going in or out. The gate was well marked, and apparently never locked. He watched, day in and day out, varying the times as best he could. Children came and went, apparently for classes of some sort, and there was a steady stream of donors, people who got paid to give their selyn to the channels at the Sime Center. He heard it was good money for no effort, and thought about using it as an opportunity to scout the inside of the building, but gave that idea up because he also heard that channels could read your mind and if that were true, he would give himself away.
By the time warmer weather arrived, he was ready. "Tonights the night," he thought again. "Warm and dry, so a walker wont look suspicious. A full moon, so I will be able to see to find a place to wait." He set out at his usual brisk pace. By now, the city patrol knew he walked every night, and ignored him. He made his way to the Center and walked boldly through the front gate as though he belonged there. As soon as he was inside the fence, he took to the shadows. The Centers grounds were landscaped to provide areas for sitting and enjoying nature. He found a bench, sheltered in the shadow of a large tree and screened from sight from the street. That was perfect. He sat down. He was prepared, if he didnt succeed tonight, to come back here again and again until he did. He was tired, though, and despite his efforts to stay awake, his eyelids slipped closed. He dozed off.
The moon was close to setting when Edam awoke. Something had awakened him. Perhaps a sound? He wasnt sure. But he was alert now and stiff from the hard wooden bench. He stretched quietly, trying to relieve muscles cramped by sitting in one position for hours. He heard a twig break nearby, as though an unwary hunter had stepped on it. His heart pounded. Either he was about to get caught or he was about to succeed.
He stood up. There was a blur of motion, barely visible in the waning moonlight. Edam had time to think, "Its just a kid like Junior," and the child no, Sime was on him. He fearlessly held out his hands to the berserker as he or shegrabbed Edam. There was a moment of searing pain, like that of fire, over his whole body, and he thought that he was dying as his wife and child had died, of fire, and that this was proper. But the pain lasted only a heartbeat, and was gone.
Edam seemed to be somewhere outside of himself, as though he were a ghost watching his own death, and yet still himself. He saw himself strangely. He was made of colored light, swirling like the confetti thrown at weddings, and ringing with a single note like the choir director would use to cue the church choir. He felt as though there was a dark presence clutching at him, a darkness that needed the light and music of the confetti. He grabbed at the confetti stuff, pushing it at the darkness as fast as he could. He knew that if he could somehow empty himself of all of it, all the music and light, that his suffering would be over. Faster and faster he strove to feed the darkness the light and sound that was himself. He realized that there was no pain at all now. In fact, there was a chord ringing in his head, like the sound of the choir. He was filled with the same joy he felt in the church choir before his voice broke, or the joy that ran through him when he held his daughter for the first time, or the happiness of seeing something he had only imagined made real by his own hands. He thought again about how the choir had sounded like angels when he was little. He heard that music now; a pure chord that his whole self resonated to, like the sounding board of a guitar resonated. "I didnt realize that being killed would be joyful," he thought. Then everything went black.
[go on to Part II]
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