1 - Bonfire of the Vain

The black dog moves leisurely along the perimeter of the circle. In the center a large bonfire incinerates a small wooden shed. He stops along the outer edge of the people, his black coat soaking up the fire's heat, his alert ears pointing up, his open nostrils flared, and his slitted eyes reflecting the raging fire. He sits on his haunches behind the revelers, his forelegs stiff to the ground. In the dusky light he appears to be youthful and vigorous: the powerful Belgian Shepherd of his youth. But the smattering of scars sprinkled among his black and grey coat, obscured by the encroaching night, intimates his raucous encounters. I have seen this dog before this night. He belongs, I correct myself, he runs with the man who is in charge of this ransacked spectacle of a house built primarily to flaunt the wealth of its former owner. It sits high on the cliff overlooking Black's Beach, two miles north of the actual village of La Jolla. From its three hundred foot perch it commands a sweeping view from La Jolla to the south going west up to Palos Verdes on the north. Its prominence exposes it to all the elements and I understand the former owner and his family were dissolved in the initial cloud that swept over them from the air station to the east. Good-bye Big Money and say 'hello' to darkness.  I stand among the shadows of the crowd, but the dog takes note of me, and I of him.

The fire pit is the depth of a large pygmy. Its diameter the length of an ancient redwood surf board, about fifteen feet. Sixty feet to the west of the pit is the drop down the cliffs to the beach and the Pacific Ocean. Torn pieces of concrete, rebar haphazardly sticking out from them like brittle bones, are placed around the pit to form an ineffective barrier from the conflagration. An orange ball of sun melts into the distant horizon of the Sea. Ten-foot high torches are posted outside the group, out of the path of a tipsy intoxicant, who might fall against one and knock it onto someone or something. The heat of the day continues into the evening. The hot wind coming off the ocean dances the fire, projecting several jumping silhouettes against the Greek pillars to the east. The pillars stand tall amongst the battered home.

I don't know these people. They were not present three years ago when I carved on the waves below. I stand among them and drink water that is offered to us along with the other beverages. I have been living along the coast in Lower California, below Ensenada. I found myself there those three years ago. Wandering. Delirious. Scurvy ridden. More bones than meat. I met up with a family of gypsies. People that knew how to live off their wits and they took me into their fold. They fed me their food; they didn't feed me to their dogs.

The revelers are eating, drinking and talking. Some of them are fallen over in stupor. Several are jumping to the sounds of an old albino woman playing an electric guitar accompanied by a young black man beating on drums.  They are in rhythm. The piece is unfamiliar. It appears to be something they are creating, spontaneous in the path that it breaks. The setting, in its destructed grandeur and celebrating inhabitants, bears an eerie resemblance to a festival at the Acropolis in all her half razed glory.

I watch as a large oriental woman, big muscles, big breasts, moves past the dog and stops. She searches the gathering with her perceptive eyes. She is wearing a white long sleeve shirt that is tight against the curves of her muscular breasts, and black hemp trousers drape her legs. Her ankles are sheathed in black ankle guards. The fire sparks and reflects metal from a holstered small pistol that blends into the black rubber boots covering her feet.  A large black man strolls up behind her, wearing the identical rags and leggings. He stops and gathers in the throng with his senses. Neither of them have noted me as the dog did.

A man, shorter by several inches, walks behind them and stops next to the dog. He wears only a pair of cut off blue jeans over his loins. The rest of his body is barren except for his Mexican huaraches wrapped around his feet. His thin muscular torso is unadorned. He is just less than six feet tall, lean body of a surfer, face garnished with long brown stranded hair and a sketchy Fu Manchu. I know this man from Windansea. Windansea after the destruction. He seems to have come further in stature since our last meeting. I remember him as being pushy, persistent, focused. He plied his game with Stasia.

My attention heightens. Is Stasia here in this encampment?

Three other companions, body guards is a better description, for that is what they are, wearing the same trappings, uniform if you please, move at a distance behind him and stop. There is a brown woman, apparently cut from the Amazon rain forests, a Pacific Island man cut like lava from an exploding volcano, and a white woman with the build of a skilled water polo player. Her hair butch cut and colored black, but I recognize Stasia by the way she turns her head! I watch her as intently when five years since she lit up the side lines at the high school basketball games. Her strength is back. More so than ever. Time has been good for her.

The dog looks back and up at the surfer. They make eye contact and then the dog looks away with his eyes swiftly passing over me with seamless recognition. He looks to the crowd, stands up, and begins to wade randomly among its members. Following a different path, flanked by his guards, the man begins to move into the throng. I smell a quick whiff of skunk and then it is gone. Someone in the crowd, I think, for it contains the spectrum of humanity: young to old, male to female, emaciated to muscular, ugly to beautiful, and all shades in between; with one obvious exception: there are no fat people in the group of one hundred or so attendants.

They are all skinny like I was. I doubt Stasia could pick me out of the crowd unless I made some familiar movement, for it has been two years since we were together. Two years since I fell out of her life and into oblivion. Over two years when that man with the dog came onto our beach and began his sweet talk and mendicant ways. But I will chronicle that period at a later date. That was past, this is now.

Most people are standing with a goblet of some kind or a rolled paper held in their fingers. They are speaking loudly with their neighbors between drinks and passing hits. Several are talking trash with members of the opposite sex. I watch one, a striking brunette woman, wearing a raggedy shirt which reveals a long burn scar running along her spine, speaking with three men in various states of intoxication.  Her presence surpasses the liquor and weed they have been taking and wakens a desire for woman that has lain dormant for many months. I know that desire. This woman basks in the same desire. She knows this. She cultivates this.

Others are still seated on the ground or at old wooden tables, finishing a meal of dark breads soaked in fish oils. Dried fish heads, sea kelp, cabbage, beets, cucumbers and mushrooms complete the offerings.  I move over to a wooden table and partake of this buffet. I take a large portion of tuna and spread the mushrooms and cucumbers over it. There is a glass cup with some dressing on it. I tip my finger into the oil mixture and then place it to my tongue. Hot like Mexico. Cayenne like Nigeria. Green Pepper from Guatemala. I smile inwardly and I hear the music miss a beat and look up to straight eye contact with the Old Woman and she grins at me and nods her head and goes back to her music, having just cut a new path with her rhythm.

Out of the corner of my right eye I catch a glimpse of a shadowy skinny, withered old man, his skin hanging about his neck and exposed stomach. He holds a glass of liquor. I can tell he was once an obese man, a fat man. His excess weight probably helped him survive the famine. I turn straight toward him and he slowly speaks to me, "you from around here?" And I instantly recognize the voice emanating from the malnourished frame as that of a former high-ranking government official. I remember seeing him numerous times on television talking head shows and on the Internet.

"I was," I reply. He shakes his jowly face slowly up and down, in the palsied manner of a person with nerve damage.

"Well," he speaks with the deliberation of a learned man, "I'm from Fairbanks Ranch." He pauses thoughtfully, "what was Fairbanks Ranch." He lived in a high-end community northeast of La Jolla. Multi-million dollar homes built around the former estate of a silent film star from over a century before named Douglas Fairbanks. 'Fairbanks,' a genteel British name with the connotations of wealth, aristocracy, privilege and mostly whiteness; with a smattering of rock and rollers or movie actors of different gene make-up as a nod to the community's tolerance.  

I look at his stooped, haggard appearance. I remember he played basketball at Princeton. Now he slopes from his shoulders and has droopy eyes.  He had been a decent person. He had resigned in protest when his President became too unbearable. "What are you doing here," I ask.

"We," a slight pause. "My family. We always enjoyed coming to La Jolla for the seashore and sunsets." He lifts the glass to his mouth and takes a long deep drink with closing eyes. When he finishes he opens his eyes again and looks at me, "Medication for the pain," and he gives a little mouth grimace.

He had his five weeks of fame in the administration before his words conflicted with the President and then he was out the door. He had been an Ambassador to one of those middle eastern countries and he casually mentioned that some of our reputed Allies were indiscriminately bombing civilians and this wasn't in the best interests of our country. He was carpeted off his job on the windy words of the President, "I will tell the people what is in their best interests."

I touch his hand with mine, "you were a good Ambassador for our country. A truth-teller."

His eye lids raise slightly, "you're a tall young man. Basketball?"

"No. The ocean," and I slip along a shadow formed by some high beams blocking the torch lights and into another part of the crowd.

My father was a late grower and I took after him. Since the Gitanos took me on I have spurted six inches and added fifty pounds to my frame. Healthy food and strong work from fishing and working the fields of wild vegetables. Before the . . . Before the fields were filled with organic vegetables and berries that went to us Norte Americanos. Now they were wild for us baja californians to pick and eat. The fish and crustaceans were there to net and feast upon. They have all joined with the adolescent hormones to develop my physical body.  I infrequently wonder how the radiation may have spurted my growth in addition to the other powers it has blessed on me. But that is my outward appearance, for I still carry my beloved Leaf in my now tattered knapsack.

Across from me, a man with his left arm missing from the shoulder joint is dexterously picking amongst the vegetables with a pair of chopsticks. His face has Asian features, perhaps from Mongolia. Eight or nine small children, age less than double digits, are playing hide and seek through the crowd.  An old woman, with large pendulous breasts pressing heavily against her torn shirt, is unsuccessfully trying to corral a small urchin wearing only tattered gym shorts with a faded white logo of a winged shoe.  Two wide wooden picnic tables hold large trays, now only a quarter filled with the foods. The peasants have been gorging themselves. Three large wooden planked tables hold four metal tubs filled with plastic water bottles and two fifty gallon wooden vats storing a local intoxicant. Tobacco smoke and cannabis smoke mix with the haze from the roaring fire.

Flanked by his group, the man makes his way through the crowd and stands among the pillars beside a supper triangle. His guards separate him from the groundlings at his feet. His Hawaiian guard, built like a Pipeline Enforcer, takes the steel rod attached to the metal triangle and strikes the insides with three quick circular motions. Immediately the noise level descends and he shouts toward the gathering: "All quiet!"

Several voices are still audible above the crackling fire and he shouts one more time, "All quiet!"

Now only the fire speaks with its crackles and its heated embers popping into the air.

"This is why you were called here, this is why you were fed, and now it is time to shut your mouths and open your ears!"

I am slightly amazed by the gathering. The few survivors that I have encountered had no sense of organization. It was like the corporations and military people had been obliterated. Apparently none of them had the lamb's blood smeared across their front door. I was only able to make it here because a fierce battle between rival gangs along the still standing border wall left no one alive. They had all slashed and hacked each other to death like some ancient Bruce Lee film. Jackie Chan imitators.

The word came down through the transients that the path north was clear for now and so I took advantage of that and trekked back to my old stomping grounds. Wondering, hoping, that I might see the just sighted Stasia. When he came into our orbit three years ago, she was his goal. I was skillfully pushed aside. Now what role does she have to play with this pretender?

The man stands there looking out toward us. Not me, but them. The herd. He waits another twenty, thirty, forty seconds, testing their attention span, and then he speaks:

"Thank you this evening for attending our Sunday gathering around the fires that so easily burn with the debris, the discards, the detritus that has taken over many parts of our world since the 'Accident.' We put out the invitation to you and you came. Some of you are new visitors to our tribe, as our messengers chanced upon you with the invitation. We accept you as equals. Many I recognize from earlier gatherings the past several months. Others of you were recently taken captive by us and remain here at our will. Others of you are peripatetic gypsies, travelling through as you search for something or someone, whatever that might be. One of the reasons that we have this gathering on a Sunday evening is to encourage those with some type of religious belief to partake of our provisions and companionship while we all try to sort out whatever destiny we may have."

He pauses and it has the desired effect of drawing the audience into him. He is good. He is practiced. An orator of the old school. Probably fluent in Latin and Greek and Cicero and Plato. He continues:

"As we all know, the apocalyptic collision of the human forces of the Earth has created the world we now live in. We, you and I, and any others that are out there still living in this world, are living the life that many predicted, many dreaded, and more than a few felt inevitable. I am guessing that most of those people are no longer living in this world." He is quiet and looks through the crowd.

My attention is diverted to a fellow with one arm chopped off below his right elbow. He is speaking in a harsh whisper to a one legged man shorter than himself. The black guard has moved beside him during the silence and now the people watch the half arm man speak for another ten seconds before he realizes that all else but him and the fire are quiet; that he is the center of attention. He looks around at the others and then toward the man and then up at the Black Void who immediately picks him up with one hand on his jugular. His raspy voice is silenced. His stump and good arm beat weakly against BV. The crowd separates a path and BV quickly carries him to the edge of the cliff and throws him into the darkness. There is the brief sound of his body bouncing against the sandstone cliff and then only the sound of the crackling fire.

BV turns back toward the people and traces the opened path, stopping halfway to say, "Pay attention people. We do not ask here, we tell. This is the way with us when you are among our tribe. " Then he moves back up next to the man. The Pretender speaks again.

"Where was I before that rude interruption?" I review the torch-lit faces in the crowd. In the flickering light I see fear in some of them. Others sleep. Many are relaxed. Weed has that effect. Some are very attentive.

"It has been just under three years since the war began. It has been a year since we formed our tribe and now our tribe is preparing for a small group of us to go on a journey that we, as individuals, embarked upon countless times before the war. Travels to the north, toward Riverside and Big Bear and then west to Los Angeles. We need to find out if there are others like us who have survived. Those gypsies that have passed through here have never come back and the mutants that we occasionally battle have been severely limited in their communication skills. We need to meet other peoples to re-establish societies, for companionship, for protection, for creating the essentials necessary for a comfortable way of life, for larger gene pools, etc."

He stops to gauge what effect, if any, his words have on these people. This man is Quintilian. He has rehearsed this talk for years. Before the world chaos probably one of those motivational speakers or politicians who gathered in the coin while they increased their flock of believers. Their ilk led to the destructed world we now found ourselves in. He continues:

 "The main purpose of our gathering tonight and through the ensuing days, is to find out who among you wants to join us in our quest. Who among you has the qualifications that we are looking for? We need about ten more adventurous individuals to join up with us."

He again pauses and I follow his eyes to watch a stupor man sitting with the groundlings blink his eyes as he awakens to his words. I think he came for the party: the food, the intoxicants, the companionship. But now he understands an adventure is about to begin. I see that beneath his fuzzed head is a long lean muscled body of, let me guess, an ancient tri athlete. A man whose entire family was abruptly wiped from the face of the earth and he was left to fend on his own. Or maybe his wife and children died in his arms as some radiation or plague destroyed them. Or perhaps the family survived only to be beaten, plundered, raped and killed by a marauding subhuman pack of mutant survivors. Only he has the guilt of survivorship. We share in this history, but it is long ago and is now rarely spoken of. It is assumed. It is an unspoken fact of being alive. I know this. The Pretender is well versed in this and he uses it in his manipulative talk. My temple feels some heat and I turn back to the man and I find him looking directly at me in the shadows. I know he cannot see into shadows. Unless he had the contact lenses put in? What if . . ? He looks away and begins again:

"I am going to tell you some stories to pique your interest.

For those who do not know me, I am the oral historian for the Oddment. For that is what our tribe call ourselves, we few, chaotically gleaned from so many.  We are a living history, encompassing the past to fill out the characters and events that are taking shape as I speak. I only speak what I do know, from the writings and spoken word of others, and from my incomplete experiences of the events past. A few things I derive from deductions and of course, my imagination. Perspective is my interpretation of the events and your story of these same events may be nonexistent or may vary one hundred eighty degrees from mine. But the victor writes the official history.

 As I speak this, we are victorious."

Still the cocky son-of-a-bitch that I gradually remember so clearly. Will he recognize me in my transformation? Will Stasia know me? Surely the Belgian knows me, but will he let on of our past? More from the Orator:

"I am going to tell you a part of our history."

He stops speaking and the people seem to hold their breath. Only the fire crackles in the now dark arena. The light from the torches is too high to reveal their precise forms. They are all shadows. Adumbrations. Faint indications of what they once were. The albino and the black ceased their music long ago and stand close to the fire. Her whiteness absorbs it into red skin. His blackness sheens from it.

He has them. He does not even have to be so good as he is, but he has them. They are in the palm of his hand and he could command them to jump off the cliff and I believe they would do it. The Orator continues:

"According to the sundial, it is shy of noon. The sky is darker than normal as the blue cloud cover reflects azure in the western ocean. She moves quickly and quietly across the bright ivory sand, eyes glancing about as she carries her surfboard toward the small waves. The particles stick to her toes and as she lifts each foot, the falling grains sparkle on their descent to the sand pack. She smiles at the small barking sound of the coarse sand as her feet glide through it.

Thinking to herself:

 Almost there.

Nobody out but me.

Nobody on the beach but me.

Far to the west she sees the sun reflecting off a black form high in the sky. She studies it for a long time. It looks like a black cormorant, hovering, searching for a fish to descend upon for breakfast. But cormorants don't hover this long; at least they didn't. But time has changed and maybe this cormorant changed with the time.

 Stopping close to the water's edge, she kneels down and places her board on the ivory grains. She reaches into the back pocket of her tattered blue jean shorts and pulls out a bar of myrrh-tainted paraffin wax. She pushes it against her board and begins to rub it quickly along the top, watching the jagged sleeve of her faded blue rash guard whiplash over her tan forearm. She waxes the rails of her board, all the while glancing about with searching eyes. It takes a minute or so to wax, as her board is long, ten feet, and imperfect, patched dings pock it like the face of the moon.  The skeg has several indentations in its front and long scars drawn along it sides. She is aware of their resemblance to her. At nineteen years of age, she is dinged and scarred along her six-foot frame. The left side of her face bares a deep scar line from her high cheekbone back to her ear."

His next words mumble in my ear, as I know this story is about Stasia!. . .  juice from freshly cut Aloe Vera leaves has reduced its visibility, but she stopped that therapy six months since. She quickly learned that she needed its mark for strangers that she encounters. Let them understand that she has mixed it up before and that she is the survivor. That she is one of them."

A quick rush of heat emanates from my cheeks, and it is not from the cayenne or the fire. I was there when she go that scar. Not this clown.

"Almost.

She inspects the deep fissure at the origin of the fin and then she hears the barking. Dog sounds resonating deep from the exposed reefs to the south, the voices of the sand becoming louder, reaching her before the intruder. Not the yipping of the cubs, the sick, the lame and the old that live within her small shelter. Something different. By the volume, something heavy. Something masculine.

She sees him first and he startles when she stands up. He stops in place.

Mutant.

She muses the thoughts that she has learned in the past two years:

Adaptable genes.

Not of this country.

 They are separate by twenty feet and now the only sound is the lapping of the small waves over the shore sand. He has a full head of hair on and around his head. His shirtless torso exposes ribs covered with dark skin and dark hair. He wears yellow trousers faded from age and torn along his hips, revealing the muscles of a man on the run. They lock eyes for ten seconds and then a possessive grin moves up his lips, revealing broken teeth.

Eating must be difficult.

She thinks and her gaze follows his eyes as they descend to the bulge in his trousers and thoughts of all the hackneyed jokes of early years among her girl friends about horny men edge into her consciousness. She looks back to his face and more of his cracked teeth are visible as his broken demeanor assumes to dominate her.

Quick musings:

No fear.

 My beach, my town, my Life.

He rushes toward her with outstretched arms and a loud cry,

'Yaaaaaa!'

 Each of his forward steps increases the fury of his war cry. Each of his forward steps sinks deeper and deeper into the sand, until his yellow faded trousers are buried at a standstill, the sand pulling now at his sternum.  He is so close that his stanched breath blows across her while the weight of the sand holds him down. He flails his arms with his diminishing scream now tinged with desperation. His outstretched arms reach awkwardly toward her and she notes a faded blue and red tattoo of a hyena on his inner left forearm as she smiles back at him,

'My name is Stasia, and you are  . . . .'"

Stasia Asia. What has become with you? This Pretender is so oratorical.

"His anger is replaced with terror as his hyena leaps one more time toward her, the separation in his shoulders making a cracking sound and he blinks his eyes for a split second and only feels the instep of her right foot crashing against his neck where it breaks his carotid artery. His eyes open briefly as his head snaps against his shoulder, neck broken, and then he is gone, the stench absorbed in the dense salt air, the sparkling sand closing over him and leaving particles floating in the air like sandy fire flies.

The ivory sand becomes quiet now, only moving from the light onshore breeze lightly touching it. A breeze that carries the smell of the western sea: a mixture of salt, water, sea life, kelp and oxygen. The breath of Life

She watches a very small wave run up to her feet and then she slowly again kneels down to her board and resumes caressing it with the myrrh wax.

She rides the small waves. Sometimes she goes left and sometimes she goes right. Regular-foot, goofy-foot, switching stance. There is insufficient wave energy to allow her to break free into the air, hand on rail leading to the apex of her maneuver, only to fall back into the wave. Instead, picking up what little speed the wave has to offer, she ends the rides by kicking out of the wave with the launching of her board high into the air, like a breaching porpoise.

She is tired, exhausted, satiated. She again runs her eyes up and down the beach and towards the cliffs that front the ocean to the east. Still no one there. Some sea gulls, terns, an occasional pelican and osprey. But no human beings.

Then she rotates the position of her board to face west by moving her legs like a Danesco rotary eggbeater. The hovering cormorant is still there. She stares at it intently.

Why?

She thinks.

It is stationary. Like one of those outer space ships from the movies long ago.

 Why?

Again. Amused at the boldness or ignorance. She raises her right hand to the side of her right eye and makes a small flicker with her forefinger and in the distance, high above the cormorant, a streaking white large bird become larger as it moves east toward her and the hovering cormorant. It quickly reaches the cormorant and rips onto it with gripping talons that abruptly clear the cormorant from its hovering. The large white bird, its belly covered with blue feathers in the shape of a diamond that match a small plume on it forehead, swoops low over Stasia in its eastward flight.

Exactly,

She murmurs, as the plastic body of the captive shows it to be a drone, not a bird, and the circular orb in the center of the body reveals a camera, not a bird's eye. She watches the white bird move up to the cliffs and then through a gap in the cliffs not visible to the lazy eye."

He stops speaking. My mouth is dry. I think of the bird and how I introduced Stasia to him! I think of the sand and how I taught Stasia to call to it! Did she teach him how to do it? I doubt he has the soul to learn it. Could he have learned it from her? The Pretender grins with no show of teeth. He is proud of his performance. He should be. The sheep grazed on it. His dogs can move them whatever way they chose.

From my shadow, I look at the faces, red from the hot flames and the drinking and smoking. I do not wonder how many of these people will be dead in six months. I wonder how they survived this long. Must have strong genes. Or the paucity of food allowed their immune system to marshal their antibodies to fight off virus and disease, instead of depleted sugars and flowers and milk.

What is the value of human life? Why am I still alive when it would be so easy to lie down and go to sleep and never wake again? To join with those that I move freely with nightly in my dreams.

 The brown-skinned guard lifts a gourd of water for the Pretender to drink and he drains it easily. "Thank you," he says and she nods her head. I remember that nod. She was with him before, when I first encountered him.

Maybe what this world needs is a Pretender to order people about, to organize them into a community for survival. Maybe most people want that, need that, or else they would die. He chooses what he wants, takes what he wants, but the people, most of the people, live their mundane lives.

Rosa is her name. She had a stench about her -- that was she! The skunk odor. The beauty about her.

Six foot two and eyes of blue, how my eyes could look at you.

That was her story before.

She told it to me at Windansea. Four months after the wedding with her belly filled with child and the world turned. Fourth degree Don, like her husband and then he was gone. She was in the tombs of the library at the University and it swept over her and when she worked her way out of the rubble four days later there was nothing left. We met her a year later. Like many beautiful women she embraced ugly, sought it out as a friend. Beauty in a savage world is not to be published. It invites unwanted advances and sexual assaults. She cut her scalp hair short and let the rest grow out. Wrapped her breasts in linen under her shirt. Pumped iron and practiced her forms. Portrayed an air of masculinity. Had open tattoos written beside her eyes after she killed someone.

She had one when I saw her. Now the torches showed she had three.  Only with those that knew her munchkin child, now running among the crowd, did she sparingly show her feminine side. She carried a small leather purse on her belt. It was filled with the skunkweed that I gave her from my father's stash and she mixed it with her food so that it would eventually pass through her pores. Skunk odor. It served as a shield. She never smoked it. She knew that would attract the potheads who wanted the easy high and sought the stench.

 She had a pet skunk. She named him Frisky. A frisky fellow that she had trained to do her bidding. On more than one occasion the skunk sprayed overzealous visitors to our familiar beach. We always got a good laugh at their expense.

This kept the men away. Most of them. The Orator speaks again,

"I know the difficulty that our tribe has born in our effort to survive this new world. I know the losses, in the thousands, of people that we knew in the old world. Those swept away by the initial events of destruction and disease. Those that succumbed to the rigors of trying to survive. And now, those that are so weak in mind and body that their time with us is limited. The dog. My Belgian Shepherd dog. He can smell their dying DNA. He can nod his head at a person and I know their days, even hours or minutes, are limited. Will he ever nod at me? No." He is silent for many seconds and again only the fire crackles with noise.

"I am going to sleep. The watch is posted. Keep the noise down."

He passes through the people and I see that he studies them closely. He knows what he needs from people. He is intelligent. Very intelligent. He rates them. Discards those not suited for his purpose. But isn't that the way it should be?

Survival of the fittest?

Those asleep apparently unimpressed with his words. Those that have smoked themselves into slackness.  The man sleeping on the dirt a distance from the fire with his goblet sitting at a tilt in his tattered clothes, a smoked roach dangling from his open lips and fluttering with his loud snores. Not ones you should count on for any service.

Two people separate his path from me as he walks toward the perimeter with his studies. Stasia trails the other guards several feet behind him and as she is parallel to me her head jerks and I softly slide behind the shoulders of the two men between us and look down to the ground. I see her walk hesitate for a moment, and then it picks up again and she is gone, behind his train.

I hear the long scream of a crazed woman and look off to see that the walls of the burning shed have collapsed to reveal a burning man, a standing cadaver, with his arms raised in a V. The body immediately turns to ashes that are blown east by the wind and those few revelers that saw him blink their eyes in disbelief. The rest are unconscious, but I wonder now if these are afraid to sleep, afraid of what dream they might find themselves in.

I know that I will have difficulty sleeping, but if I do, I know what my dreams will be: Stasia. Stasia Asia and all those little moments, those little long moments that we had together for the year before the Pretender; descended upon us.

I move past the crowd and to the black and the trail that leads down to Black's Beach. That is where I will sleep tonight.

 Once again.

 

 

 
 
Copyright 2019 James C. Weaver
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