I was twelve years old the last time I saw my father.
He didn’t die, although many perished. He didn’t divorce my mother, although not many marriages survived. He didn’t desert me, although I feared on several occasions he’d never return.
No, the reason I haven’t seen my father since I was twelve is because the canisters fell and I went blind.
SEVEN YEARS LATER
“How much further?” I asked.
Moments ticked by. No response.
It had been a simple question, yet I was getting only dead air. Well not exactly. Even when there was no noise, didn’t mean that I couldn’t hear. The sound of a slow breath being exhaled and the light rasp of a tongue running over dry lips before the sucking sound of saliva being gathered in preparation for a swallow echoed through the headset embedded in the helmet I was wearing and into my ears.
Carter was nervous and there was something he wasn’t telling me.
The thick strap from the leather bag I carried over my shoulder and across my chest dug into my collarbone. I hadn’t realized that I’d gathered so many eggs.
I waited another few seconds. Still nothing. Okay, I thought, this must be bad…really bad.
Carter Bain was my…my…
Come to think of it, what was Carter Bain to me? He’d joined my family’s salvage crew three years ago. Worked alongside my father, older brother and sister, and various other crew members in the closest knit unit you can have in this type of business. Yet there was some kind of distance between him and…well, me.
I couldn’t put my finger on it. Sure he was friendly enough, quick when he noticed I needed help, and frankly could talk the ears off of anyone within hearing distance. Which by the way was totally weird due to the fact that Carter was deaf.
Anyway, my feelings for Carter were…now that I think about it, rather screwed up.
How do you define someone who described the world to you, more often than not in minute details, when you yourself couldn’t see? Someone who you felt perfectly at ease around and yet had never had any form of physical contact with. Someone who-
Carter swallowed again, distracting me from my thoughts, and I heard the agitation in his shallow breathing. His quiet anxiety seeped through the speakers along with the background hum of the instrument panel he was seated before. Something was seriously wrong.
I took a breath. “Whatever it is, you better lay it on me. It’s getting hot in here.”
I could feel the humidity in the air clinging to the back of my neck and my hands. The only two parts of my body that were exposed. It was heavy and moist, and the longer I stood there the more my quickly dampening skin began to itch underneath my shirt and jacket.
A whispered voice came back at me. Rushed and hoarse. It was the voice of my sister, Angie. “Don’t say a word.”
There was a pause, like there always is when you’re speaking to Carter. None of us were in the booth with him, so he was forced to read our words off of the display screen.
“She’s in too deep.”
Carter’s words weren’t argumentative, though I heard the struggle and underlined tension in the timbre of his voice. He and my sister had never really gotten along and now whatever was going on, whatever I couldn’t see, had them once again butting heads.
“Tell me, Carter,” I urged.
“No,” Angie commanded.
“I got…or sh…e’ll ever for….me.”
It was hard for me to make out Carter’s response to my sister’s demand since he’d obviously placed a hand over his microphone in an attempt to conceal his hushed words from all of us. I heard them just the same. And it wasn’t so much the fact that I wondered what I’d never forgive him for, that sent a chill running up my spine, as it was Carter’s tone.
For three years I’d been avidly listening to every word he’d spoken both awake and while asleep. That is when Carter Bain actually slept. I’d spent hours, weeks, even months studying, analyzing, and committing to memory every nuance of his voice. His pitch and his tone, and the complex structure of every syllable he’d spoken. They all had become my constant companions.
Carter was scared. No, scratch that. Carter was terrified.
I tried to swallow. I found I couldn’t. Sweat began to pour over my brow beneath the helmet. Without even realizing it, I started to shake. Was I about to die?
Then a voice ricocheted in my head.
‘Keep it together, kiddo, kiddo, kiddo’.
I felt my heart stop. That voice was my brother’s. Or, at least how I remembered Jake’s voice sounding. Jake along with so many others had died seven years ago. The day the canisters had fallen.
Was my dead brother now trying to help me stay calm until help arrived? Then another even more horrifying concept crept into my thoughts. Was Jake subtly warning me that I was about to join him in the Far Beyond?
A tremor of fear snaked up my spine. I licked salty tears from my lips. I had no idea I had started to cry.
“Em? Em! You’ve got to listen to me very carefully.”
Carter was back. His voice was stronger, more measured. I tried to draw strength from that fact.
I nodded slowly even though I knew that Carter couldn’t see me. That he’d only see the image coming from the camera mounted on my helmet, bob a couple of times.
He continued. “Jam’s about forty paces behind you. He’s on his way...but there’s...a problem.”
“Carter,” Angie’s voice echoed once again in my ears. It was harsher than before and held a warning.
“Fuck off!” Carter growled. His voice was raw emotion.
I sucked in a breath. If I wasn’t already scared shitless, I was now. Carter never, ever swore.
“Screw you,” Angie shot back. “I won’t have you-”
“Yeah, well, too damned bad-”
“Hey, buddy,” a calming voice cut in. It belonged to my older brother Benjamin, Jam for short. “Don’t sweat it,” he assured Carter. “I’ll bring her back.” Then I heard his tone harden. “Ange, put a damned lid on it.”
“Up yours, you shouldn’t-”
I heard Jam snort. “As if you could stop me.”
I quickly found my voice again. “Carter, how deep in shit am I?”
My sister went quiet. I heard Carter running his tongue along his lips again. The distinct sound of him sucking in his cheeks before he swallowed echoed in my ears.
The fear that had snaked up my spine wrapped itself around my chest. “Tell me,” I whispered.
“Past your eyeballs.”
For some reason his words made me guffaw. “So there’s hope?”
Angie sucked in a breath. Jam made a tsk sound. Carter didn’t reply.
Okay, I thought, if three people considered hope dismal, it could mean only one thing. I forced a breath past my suddenly dry lips. “How many bodies?” I croaked.
My heart started to thump.
Okay, it wasn’t like I could see the bodies. That was the one beauty of being blind. Well, not completely blind. I could still see the tiniest bits of shades of grey, interspersed with pinpoints of dotted light. It wasn’t much.
I didn’t need sight though, to have the flash of dead and mutilated bodies streak across my mind’s eye. I’d had sight for twelve years. Plenty of time to store up hoards of graphic violence that had been splashed across our family viewing screen.
Violence due to the Larcore.
The problem was that this area shouldn’t have had bodies to begin with. We’d sent our sniffer dog in the night before. Ragtop, named for the tuff of shaggy hair on his head, had gone in and come back without making so much as a whimper. And Ragtop was the best cadaver dog we’d ever trained.
So if my hunch was right and I was now standing in a sea of bodies, I was truly screwed. My life was about to end, and end horribly.
©Legend of the Sapphyre Wings by Janet Merritt