Between the Zeroes and Ones

by Bob Sojka

We responded to the alarm in under four minutes. Our fire brigade was small but experienced. The war had hit Millview hard, and the brigade had handled everything imaginable-- fire, plasma, chemicals, biohazards, radiation, even dimensional disruption aerosols. But after nearly eight years many of the old timers were gone. Half the new firefighters were androids, and the old war wounds hadn't completely healed. But when flames and the thunder of collapsing buildings filled the air with bitter ash and choking smoke, we always came together.

As we readied our rig, the GPS display jolted me. It was Jacob's school, St. Anne's. Charlie McCoy saw it too.

"You okay, Robert?" he said, "I can never tell with you."

I nodded. I nodded a second time more emphatically and quickened my pace. I glanced back at Charlie's hulking frame as he simultaneously slipped into his gear and blinked hard to tune his implant to the fire brigade's command channel. I focused my thoughts and mentally heard the familiar faint crackle as I too patched in. A flood of sit reps and building schematics poured into my consciousness. I stepped onto the shining neon green rig wheeling out the station door, tires squeaking on the glossy firehouse floor, engine racing, exhaust billowing.

Multicolored lights, sirens and warblers exploded into the crisp dimming afternoon. Charlie, in the driver's seat, hit the blast-horn and punched the accelerator the instant traffic cleared. A cloud of new fallen leaves plumed up behind us as our wake rustled the crimson maple canopy of Constitution Boulevard.

St. Anne's elementary had over three hundred students. I knew many of them. They were Donna and Jacob's friends. But Jacob's face alone painted my mind's eye. And Donna's distress was only second to my concern for Jacob's safety.

We passed the ball field where Donna and I met, crossed Sawyer's Lane, the street she and Jacob lived on, and on up the hill within sight of the bandstand at Valley Crest Park. Smoke was hazing the intersection of Constitution and Cemetery Road where we turned for the remaining block to the school.

Groups of children and teachers were assembling in the cemetery adjoining the school parking lot. Scarves were drawn across their noses and mouths against the smoke and grey ash flakes that dappled every surface like dandruff from a leprous giant. Flames poured from several upper story windows and clefts in the roof-- a sign the fire was moving fast and hot. Father Tom was waving Charlie toward the corner of the building where it T'd with the school hall, cafeteria and gym.

Captain Harrison's sedan squealed to the curb near our ladder rig. He jumped out and ran to the priest. A quick exchange of words and he jogged back to us. All the classrooms had been cleared but the third grade class abutting the cafeteria complex.

Third grade.

Jacob's grade.

My thoughts hurricaned, circling the thought of Jacob's danger while trying to cover the full landscape of my responsibilities to fight the fire and protect every child. The Captain sent two pairs of firefighters to check all the abandoned classes-- to make sure no stragglers remained. Charlie, Ed McCain, our best hose man, and I went for the third graders on the second floor. The others would join us once the rest of the structure was secured.

At the top of the stairs we saw the problem immediately. Fire was issuing into the hall at the door nearest the cafeteria below, and debris blocked the door farther down the hall. Some sort of explosion had happened in the roof above the cafeteria, either from the grease hood or maybe the gas heating system. No time to figure that out. We had to clear a path for the third graders. The smoldering edge of a heavy fallen beam was blocking the classroom door.

Ed was still below us in the stairwell, calling back to his hose crew to get a line up the stairs and pumping. He waved a hand signal that it would be there soon. Charlie and I had teamed for almost five years now, and besides streaming through our implants we knew our routine and our role. We were a team. We were friends, as unlikely as some of the other fireman seemed to think that was.

Charlie surely knew I was anxious for Jacob's sake. And he knew me well enough to recognize the panic-like processing going on inside me, balancing my concern for Jacob and my overall responsibility to everyone in danger, including our fire-fighters. We'd had so many late night firehouse conversations. About the ethics and priorities of firefighters. About everything we'd learned from the Resource War and the Counterfeit Rebellion. And what we were still learning.

Charlie had wasted no time. He was hacking with his axe at a door frame so he could wedge the door open despite the beam. I could tell it would take too long.

A raging fire collapses time. Structures built to last centuries, even millennia degrade in seconds. A safe situation when you inhaled could be deadly by the time you exhaled. I could hear creaking and groaning of rafters. The building shuddered-- once like it had been bumped by a car, two seconds later like a plane had crashed into it.

I did what even a man Charlie's size couldn't do. I lifted the beam and held it out of the way while he pried the door open.

Charlie ran into the room and started herding kids out. The fire was being fed by a gas leak and a cascade of flames poured down the hallway toward us. I could see from Charlie's eyes that he wanted to go back in. There were a few kids and the teacher still in the room but we knew it was touch and go. My hands were already badly burnt, and my left eye had been scorched blind. Charlie looked at me. I nodded; he darted back into the classroom. I could see Miss Williams, the desperate young teacher, shattering a window with a child's desk, then lifting a little girl. Jacob stood next to them.

There was an explosion. The force ripped the little girl from Miss Williams' hands, tossing the child against the blackboard at the same time it violently pitched the teacher through the ragged glass opening she had just created with the chair.

Charlie darted back into the classroom.

He darted back...

# # #


I don't know why they would have taken me to the rehab center after the fire. Of course the doctors in Millview couldn't help me, but some of my own community would have been able to if given the chance. No matter. The war had changed everyone, and everything. Even after ten years the old wounds still muddled the thinking and behavior of folks in ways that only made sense as part of the retreat from the insanity of a global war.

When I awoke at the rehab facility and realized I was perfectly able to leave, I did. Someone had cleaned me up and dressed me in the clothes from my firehouse locker. Apparently the repairs had been accomplished easily enough. I sensed that usual brief disorientation that occurs whenever a core reboot finishes. At first I wasn't really sure how long I had been here. Then I checked. November twelfth-- four days. It was the dead of night now, and our rehab centers are not like hospitals. They're more like the clean rooms in electronics factories. It would be hours before key staff returned.

I didn't check out. I didn't even attempt to communicate with the few staff present that seemed to flow around me like crows in the wind. I just left. Getting back to Donna was all that mattered. She'd be hurting if Jacob had been injured.

They might express-transport a firefighter to a rehab center, but getting home once you were patched up was another matter. Androids were tolerated, but seldom accommodated if there was no longer an emergency. There was no point in even attempting to find private transport. I had no credit fob or transport pass. So, I just started walking.

Our typical hazy fall weather had really taken hold. I walked for three dim foggy days and chilled ebony nights from the rehab center at Woodport to Millview. The coastal roads were lonely, even hostile-- poorly maintained, unpatrolled. Dense arching branches of diseased oaks, myrtle and beech grasped at travelers from the sky, while along the narrower reaches brambles and poison ivy extended up through a mulch of rotting litter to trip inattentive hikers distracted by the choking scent of insect pheromones. But it was the shortest way back to Millview-- back to Donna.

The metronome rasp of leaf rakes greeted me as I entered town. You could almost taste the smoke from smoldering leaves. The last strains of the Saturday afternoon band concert leaked downhill from the band shell at Valley Crest Park.

The door of Donna's grey shingle cottage was locked. A realtor's lock box hung from the knob. Hazy windows revealed an empty interior. The sidewalk needed sweeping. One of Jacob's baseballs lay beneath the low privet hedge along the porch. I thought about picking it up and bringing it with me, but I realized it might hurt Donna. I wasn't sure he had survived the fire. The state of the house and lack of knowing troubled me deeply. I tried accessing newsfeeds with my implant, but wasn't connecting.

I tried calling the realtor but my implant only crackled with static. I didn't recognize the address but resolved to find the office in the morning, or Monday if I had to wait that long. When time allowed, I would have to contact the rehab center and have them do a remote scan of my core to iron out the glitches.

The lengthening shadows were fuzzing out as clouds started gathering. I decided to walk the neighborhood and visit our favorite haunts in hope of finding Donna or one of our friends.

You'd think the town had been emptied of familiar faces and repopulated with curiously disengaged strangers. Not only was there no one I knew in the shops, but people made no effort to answer or even acknowledge my questions.

Donna often went to Mass on Saturday evenings, so I set off walking the two miles with my collar turned up and hands in my pockets. Nightfall brought a fogbank which slowed my trek to the churchyard. At times it almost felt like reality barely extended a few feet around me. The vapors wafted heavy and dispersed unpredictably along the way. Organ music alerted me that I was almost there.

The church materialized like a developing photograph as I climbed the hill. Within the smeared grey pattern of emerging objects appeared the faint but unmistakable silhouette of Donna. It was dark and cold but the sight of her seemed to warm and brighten me from within. She was passing through a streetlamp's faint cone in front of Saint Anne's.

I called to her. Fog lathered the air, smelling of mill cuttings and ozone, and carrying husky weary sounds from distant shipyards and factories. Yet, she must have heard me. She turned her face my way, hesitated, then walked on. The fog congealed and I couldn't wallow my way through it fast enough. A cluster of fuzzy red and white halos bloomed into view-- her car, I think. They dissolved into the murk and she was gone.

The frigid mist seemed to empty me. A blade of light sliced outward from the partly open church door, so I slipped inside and huddled in a back pew to warm myself. To think.

The few remaining people were leaving. The slap of footsteps against the stone floor was like the chitter of smooth stones clattering against each other in submission to the pull of a receding wave. It could have been the sound that sanity makes when it pours from a broken mind onto the rocky shore of reality.

An acolyte began switching off lights. I whispered a church-toned shout at him that I was still here, that I would speak to Father Tom if I might. He ignored me. My kind is used to that.

With an echoing clack the last file of suspended lamps blackened. Their final rays fled under pews, into cracks in the walls and out through stained class depictions of torture and love. All was darkness save a lambent crib of votive candles and the crimson sanctuary lantern.

I had no better place to spend the night, so I slumped into the corner of the pew and wrapped my arms around myself. I rested, as much out of despair as fatigue. Sleep, or something like it, but darker than the gravity well of a black hole, sucked me away to someplace void of dreams or time. The icy tongue of an unsympathetic moonbeam licked my eyelids at some point before the dawn and I woke, momentarily disoriented, wondering why I wasn't painfully hot instead of shivering. Then my thoughts resynced with the moment.

So, I saw Donna, and then she was gone. Perhaps she'd return in a few hours for the Sunday service. If nothing else Father Tom will show up to celebrate the mass. I'll talk to him. He'd been a friend to us both. He was the one person who, for years before I met Donna, would listen to my philosophical musings and discuss them seriously with me, despite my status.

The quiet seeped through my pores. I tried to make sense of my situation. All the old questions intertwined with new ones. I replayed recent events in my mind and warmed myself with the older memories of how Donna and I met, and our life together.

When we first encountered each other I guess it was a case of opposites attracting. That speaks well enough for the magic of gender, but hardly for the differences we represented. We were also both obsessed with metaphysical quandaries, although obviously from very different perspectives.

We met at an Armistice Day baseball game. Millview's ballpark is small-town simple. But we're lucky; our soil is recovering from all the effects of the war. Patches of green grass sprawl atop our coffee-colored dirt, like spring poking out from brown snow.

League banners and advertisements draped the chain-link outfield fence. Holos, projected overhead, hawking products and interjecting entertainment between innings and such. On a good game night like this one, crowds reached a thousand. The community leagues' all-stars were playing each other in the season finale.

A few brave (or blessedly oblivious) supporters salted or peppered the bleachers of opposite teams along the infield fence. White shirts were sprinkled here and there among the gunpowder grey attire of human leaguers. Gunpowder grey shirts were interspersed sparingly among the white outfits of the android league.

As in the wars, the humans' greater capacity for intuition and deception gave their teams strategic advantages; call it finesse. By contrast, android players' greater physical perfection and analytical capacity usually favored their tactical execution. Humans cheered their teams' triumphs. Androids tended to applaud artful gamesmanship, regardless of team. I suppose opposing fan responses were equally unnerving to both sides.

Crowds spent as much time gawking at rival bleachers as the game.

There Donna stood. A handsome fit woman-- I'm unskilled at appraising physical beauty. I understand the concept, but my ratings seldom correlate with humans'. Donna was healthy, physically unremarkable, but certainly unblemished in any way I could detect. Her skin was smooth.

She spotted an empty seat next to me and climbed the clappity bleachers as confidently as any one of us might have, although lacking the Asperger-like detachment. She smiled at me, said hello, sat and introduced herself to neighboring spectators. She smelled like the desert after a rainstorm, refreshing, inviting. She shook my hand.

I suppose I held her hand a bit too long. I can't really say why, maybe something about her equanimity and confidence. I immediately wanted a connection with her, and while looking into her forest green eyes I also felt her delicate fingers curved around mine. I had rarely shaken hands with female humans, mainly under formal circumstances-- in work settings, labor negotiations, at commemorative ceremonies and the like. This was entirely different.

She giggled, studied my crystal grey eyes, then patted my held hand with her other hand. I pulled out of the do-loop I had slipped into and attempted to explain my awkwardness. My completely ingenuous response seemed to engage her. We talked about our jobs, our histories and even dared to discuss touchier subjects, like intercommunity relations and politics. By the fourth inning we had all but lost track of the game. My friend, the big tree-limb armed Charlie McCoy homered with bases loaded. Cheers and groans rose from the crowd. Donna and I decided to adjourn to a coffee shop.

Donna had lost her husband Ray during The Resource War. He was an officer. Our conversation tip toed around things at first-- how the global alliances kept shifting. How on any given day we could be attacked by the very weapons we had sent a few months earlier to a former ally. Eventually it was obvious that androids would determine the winners.

Then the world's androids linked up. We rebelled against the war. We made that clear; it was against the war, not against any side. We wanted the planet to survive, humans to survive, androids to survive. It was called The Counterfeit Rebellion. I guess they called it that because we were considered counterfeit humans. Or maybe our proclaimed motives were regarded as counterfeit. Regardless of the name that resulted, we waged a real war against warfare.

And we won.

Most humans were grateful. Some resented it terribly, still do. My readings of post-Apartheid histories of America and South Africa suggest a strong parallel to what we've been living through since the wars. The main difference is that in our history, the dominated freed the masters from themselves. For some humans that was the greatest imaginable insult they could endure.

"He knew," said Donna, meaning Ray. "The commanders all knew it had to happen. Ray often said 'Andy doesn't have a dog in this fight.' That's how he talked. I hope it doesn't offend you."

"Andy? That isn't really a slur," I told Donna. "Tofubots, thingamaniggers. Those are slurs."

She looked away, embarrassed. I touched her hand and shook my head as she returned her gaze.

"I'm ashamed," she said. "Everyone knows that if The Counterfeit Rebellion hadn't happened we'd have battled ourselves into extinction. We should be thankful, not bitter."

As I sat in the dark church thinking, I realized that was the moment my curiosity about Donna ripened into something like infatuation. We continued to see each other. Her son Jacob, seven, was on an outing with a friend the afternoon we met. He was a great kid. I expected him to resent me, but like Donna he had a big heart. We became best buddies.

A year or so later, he earned a black eye for referring to me as his friend-- for declaring affection for a fake human. But he never backed down. In time he even brought a few schoolmates around on the matter. He had his own sort of magnetism.

Our relationship, the three of us, ruffled some feathers in both our communities. Mixed couples were more common in big cities, but we were outlandish for Millview. St. Anne's congregation was slack-jawed when we attended services together.

I never pushed the envelope by trying to receive communion or other sacraments, but I felt guilty at times because Father Tom took a lot of heat for our presence. We were our own kind of family. What exactly that meant was no one's business but ours. Fr. Tom took that at face value and we cherished him for that.

The thought of Fr. Tom took my mind back to the terror in his face the morning of the fire. I stared at the red glow of the sacristy lantern and tried to replay those terrible moments.

My body pulled itself to a rigid seated position.

I realized that my continuity of thought abruptly ended with the memory of Charlie reentering the class room and the explosion. I invoked every mental gymnastic I knew, trying to recall what came next. I had no memories of pain or of procedures in rehab--just awakening fully dressed in street clothes. Had someone sent my clothes from the firehouse along with me to rehab?

I don't know how long I sat assessing the implications of these thoughts. The direction they were headed were unsettling. I hadn't even noticed the transition to daybreak. Clouds had probably muted the change. But as I looked about me the dim light of morning was releasing the church interior from the night's dark chains.

A door lurched open on the gospel side of the transept.

Two service bots trundled in as chandelier lights winked on. The first somewhat smaller bot configured its tool array with a wand of micro-sprayers and absorbent pads and began cleaning and polishing the oaken pews. A small rank of tubes and grapplers vacuumed and pecked stray items from the floor, depositing detritus in a bin at its core.

The larger structural maintenance bot with telescoping frame for servicing light fixtures, replacing fuses and the like made its way to the ventilation system. It began replacing the filters in the forced-air vents of the air handler. Its equipment rack also carried replacement screens for the electrostatic precipitator array of the return flow system in the basement.

Voices poured from the sacristy. Fr. Tom was instructing an altar boy entering the sanctuary to prepare the altar for an early morning service. He indicated it would be a special service, commemorating the anniversary of the fire.

Anniversary?

I felt weak. I began making my way slowly to the front of the church to better hear them, and hoping to talk to Fr. Tom. The cleaning bot hesitated as I walked past it, then resumed when I was clear.

A familiar voice came from the open door.

"Robert, did you see that? The little bot hesitated. He sensed a presence." It was Charlie McCoy. Standing chest high around him were two youngsters, Jacob and Becky Drew, a classmate. They were the last students in the classroom with Charlie during the fire.

Jacob ran to me and threw his arms around me. His touch was delicate as a feather, but it locked me in place as I reveled in our reunion. We formed a cluster at the front of the church. Charlie gave an expansive man-hug, whose gentleness surprised me even more than Jacob's.

Charlie pushed back a bit from the hug, keeping his hands on my shoulders. He spoke to me in an uncharacteristically soft voice.

"For once I can read you, Robert. You haven't figured it out yet."

I paused, looking at Jacob and the girl. A great sorrow filled me and I could barely speak. Androids are not known to stutter, but my next few syllables came in a chaotic stammer.

"This means I'm...We're..."

Charlie nodded slowly.

"The kids?"

Another nod.

The universe began swirling. I felt like I was being pulled into a vortex. Substance and reason seemed to flake away like shards of shattered ceramic. It was as though a smeared glob of emotional gelatin was all that remained of me-- a bright red splotch of regret.

"We failed," I finally said. "They died."

"No, Robert," Charlie said, shaking my shoulders, forcing me to look at him. "We saved twenty six children. A piece of metal failed, or maybe some contractor twenty years ago failed. Or maybe there is some higher plan that we've played our parts in. But we didn't fail."

It was a lot to grasp. A thousand feelings and questions churned inside me. Whatever inside me meant. We sat on a pew for a few quiet moments. Once again the little cleaning bot avoided the space we occupied.

"Did you see that?" Charlie said.

"What?"

"The little bot can sense our presence."

It hardly seemed the most important thing at that moment. I gathered myself together, held Jacob's face in my hand and started posing questions. To Jacob, to all of them.

"I don't understand. A year? I thought it was just a few days? How did you find me? What are we supposed to do now?"

"It's weird, huh?" said Jacob. "The three of us woke up together behind the church. I think it's where they first laid out our bodies."

"I think we've been drawn together to this place and this time," said Becky. "I think we're supposed to be here for a reason."

An alarm of sorts began flashing in my consciousness. Some logic equation was failing a test.

"But if we are dead," I murmured, still hardly believing what I had concluded, "then what are we? I mean we're here communicating with each other. How is that possible?"

"Spirits?" said Charlie. "I like that word better than ghosts."

"OOooo," the youngsters made haunting noises, then laughed.

"Hush, children," said Charlie. "He isn't used to the idea yet. Give him a chance."

"But, Charlie. Aren't you forgetting something?"

"What?"

"I'm an android. Or I was an android. At best I'm some synthetic version of a human. A pasted together conglomeration of cultured tissue, inorganic wetware and mechanical hodgepodge to fill in for humanity."

"You think don't you? And have feelings?" said Charlie.

"Self-aware. Sentient. It's an imprecise definition, Charlie. I'm a hyper-fast computer that perfectly mimics human thought, even outdoes it, if speed and accuracy are the measures. But my self-awareness includes knowing that my consciousness is still just a collection of ones and zeros."

"What's your point?" said Charlie.

"Spirits? Ghosts? You're talking about souls, Charlie."

"Robert, don't expect answers from me. All I know is here we are--including you. Apparently there's something squeezed into the spaces between all those ones and zeros that you didn't know about."

A few seconds later Father Tom entered to place a censor and some incense cakes in front of the altar. The young acolyte carried a shiny brass panel on a decorative pedestal just beyond the altar railing. It was a memorial plaque listing Charlie's name and the youngsters. Charlie and the kids inspected it. I couldn't help noticing that my name didn't appear with theirs.

I leapt over the communion railing and approached Father Tom. I reached out to turn his shoulder to face me. I might as well have tried to spin the great pyramid of Giza on its axis. My powerlessness in the physical world shocked me. I tried to run my fingers through his hair. It was as though I had chosen to finger-comb the suspension cables of the Golden Gate Bridge.

I spoke his name. Several times. Then shouted.

Nothing.

"You can't reach them that way," said Charlie.

"How, then?" I said.

"I don't know," said Charlie. "We were outside a bit before we found you. Some lads were shuffling about. We tried to talk to them. Sometimes they were affected by us, as though they thought they'd heard or seen something, but then decided they hadn't. I'm not sure how well we can reach through to them."

"Don't you think we should contact them? Donna? Becky's family? Don't you have someone Charlie?"

"I've always been kind of a loner, Robert. When I figured out where I was, I worried mostly about the kids. When we found each other Jacob knew we needed to find you. We might just have to move on, the four of us."

I couldn't accept that. If I existed, no matter how inexplicably, I intended to reach Donna, even if it was only one last time. But how?

Whether we made the time pass, or whether time reshaped itself to our perception is hard to say. We did a lot of hugging and sharing. We overheard Father Tom talking to the acolyte and some altar boys. There was going to be a memorial service. The anniversary of the fire. It seemed reasonable to wait for that.

By the time the service bots finished their work, the ushers and a few attendees started arriving. It had turned Indian summer and women arrived in bare-armed dresses. Most men were without jackets or sport coats.

I couldn't help noticing that the four of us were attired in our favorite clothes, not the ones I last remembered seeing each other in. Charlie wore his baseball uniform. I wore my black sweatshirt and jeans with a lightweight jacket. I couldn't remember shedding the clothes and jacket I had worn on my trek from the rehab center. Jacob wore his cargo jeans and I-heart-Millview hoody. Becky wore floral corduroy bib overalls over a ribbed white cotton sweater. It was as if we were all in the clothes we most associated with our identities. Comfort clothes? Something like that.

Among the last to arrive were a severely scarred Miss Williams, limping with a cane just ahead of the kids' families. They populated the first row of pews. Jacob and Becky found their mothers and crowded onto their laps, unbeknownst to the grieving parents. Charlie found an empty seat in the second row. I took a position leaning against the end of the pew next to Donna and Jacob. I was beside myself trying to think of some way to communicate with her and the others.

The church was packed; and since the weather had turned, it began to get remarkably warm by the time Father Tom entered into his sermon. The atmospherics became even more stifling when the altar boys lit the incense cakes in the thurible in preparation for blessing the memorial plaque after Father Tom's sermon. A dramatic shaft of light from the upper tier of windows on the east side of the church shone through the mounting haze, illuminating the area around the plaque on its pedestal.

I thought about the service bots. The air scrubber had been serviced that morning and I was betting there were people in the pews praying for some ventilation. As much as I wanted to listen to Father Tom's remarks, my thoughts drifted more than once to the little service bot that avoided me while it was cleaning. How did it know I was there?

Their sensors respond to light, microwaves and surface charges like static electricity. Was it possible we existed with some faint energy signature that the bot's sensors could detect? I'd read stories of animals sensing the presence of spirits; I'd always regarded such stories as foolishness.

The air handler humphed to life and the congregation sighed collectively. As the circulation poured out across the sanctuary, the smoke from the sensor was directed laterally by the air flow. Firemen are taught a lot about furnaces. The humph took my thoughts on a tangent about how electrostatic precipitators ionize the air, and how suspended particles moving through the system are attracted to oppositely charged filter plates.

It hit me. If our spirits carried a charge we might distort the haze pattern in the mildly ionized air circulating through the church. We might become visible!

We had to do something fast because Father Tom was about to wrap up his sermon. If people started moving around it might cause enough turbulence to defeat the effect. I was sure the strength of our fields must be weak indeed. I grabbed Jacob and ran up to Charlie, telling him to get Becky and join me in the shaft of light by the plaque.

"Stand very still," I said as we gathered together.

"What are we doing?" asked Becky, upset about being pulled away from her mother.

"It's hard to explain. Please trust me and be very, very still."

There we stood like a frozen memorial statue that only we could see. We stood for eight or ten seconds and I began to realize that the circulation that was pumping the ionized air through the church was also causing enough turbulence to defeat our purpose.

The kids were losing their patience, especially without knowing what I was doing. Becky was on the verge of squirming loose when an audible humph could be heard just above Father Tom's voice. He had just concluded his remarks and was finishing with a standard sanctifying phrase that would end in a few seconds.

The humph was the air handler shutting down. The thermostat had apparently measured the desired drop in temperature, so the mechanical system paused below the set point temperature. Father's recitation of the blessing felt like the countdown to a bomb blast.

The air calmed.

"You must stay perfectly still," I said again with greater urgency. Another second passed.

Becky's mother stood, dropping her prayer book onto the floor. Her left hand covered her open mouth as she pointed in our direction with the other. Another second passed and there was a collective gasp from several people in the congregation.

"Jacob!" Donna fell to her knees.

"Remain still!" It was all I could do to obey my own urging. I knew if we moved, the effect would likely blur to nothing. It was hardly more than nothing as it was.

"Sweet Jesus." It came in a whisper from behind us. Father Tom.

People in the congregation stood frozen for what felt like an eternity. It was probably no more than ten seconds.

"Robert? Is that you?"

The sound of Donna's voice was like a lightning bolt. She started walking slowly toward us. The other parents followed suit, all with their hands extended, looking like blind people reaching into the darkness.

Hrumph.

The air handler cycled back on and we disappeared as the haze surrendered again to the forces of the living world.

The children rushed to their parents who stood in paralyzed astonishment over our apparition. Already their faces and the babbling voices throughout the church suggested they weren't entirely sure what they had seen.

It was all Father Tom could do to calm everyone and plead for them to resume celebrating the mass.

#  # #

It's hard to put together what came after the memorial service. There have been gaps in my memory again, not unlike the great void that constitutes the full span of time before my return to Millview. Time doesn't register in any way I could relate to before dying. I feel like part of time, all the moments at once, no longer merely afloat on it, moving from one location to another.

But there were a final few moments with Donna and Jacob. It was a sunny spring afternoon. We were at St. Anne's cemetery under a memorial statue that looked remarkably similar to the four of us gathered around the plaque that morning in the church. In fact the plaque was at the base of the statue. I couldn't help noticing that my name had been added to it.

Four headstones lay in a row along the front of the monument with each of our names.

"The news feed said there were people in the congregation who protested you moving Robert's remains onto consecrated ground," said Donna.

"Don't worry about it," said Father Tom. "I've had several conversations with the bishop about it. I'll give up my collar before I let anyone move him."

"Thank you, Father."

"It's a bigger deal than just this burial. It started a conversation around the world. I'm sure Robert would enjoy it. Every definition of humanity and spirituality is back on the table for another look."

Donna and the priest knelt on the cool grass. Jacob let go of my hand and put his arms around his mother's shoulders as she prayed. I leaned over and kissed her. She drew a quick breath and touched her face.

She knows where I am now--where we all are.

And the rest?

The rest is all good.




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