Preface: This is in no way related to Opals and Topazes, a full-length novel I worked on in the summer of 2017.
I was eleven at the time, but I remember it like it was yesterday. The sun had set on the last normal day in our little Maine hometown. I was out past when I was supposed to be, riding my bike down the street in my tiny, pine forested neighborhood. The hot summer air still lingered, even though we were pushing almost ten o’clock at night.
Three voices – two males and one female, all adults – spoke to each other from an open garage down the street. Curiosity got the best of me, and I pedaled over to see what they were doing. They weren’t shouting or loud by any means, but they were enthusiastic. One guy was cautious by nature – I wouldn’t quite label him as scared – and the other was casual and apparently quick to laugh. The woman seemed to understand the most of what was going on, and was therefore bossing everyone else around.
Remember, I’m telling you the events as I recall them, not necessarily the facts. It’s up to you to interpret or dismiss them accordingly.
I stopped my bike across the street from them. The garage had logs stacked along the side for the wood-burning stove when the winter snows would clutch my town and hold it hostage for those few icy months. But for now, in late August, it sat rejected on the outside of the spare building. Inside was what was odd, though. There were the three adults I told you about, of course, and some sort of scientific equipment that held the attention of the cautious man. The other guy had a golf club in hand, putting small stones against the side of the garage as he conversed. The woman was all paper and movement. Behind the equipment was an odd, circular hole in the back of the garage. They must have had the floodlight on in the yard behind the garage, because it looked like daylight on the other side when I peered into it. Electricity crackled from tiny rods that had been placed around the hole. I couldn’t tell if it was some sort of odd security measure or not, but they all kept their distance from it.
“Oh, no you don’t,” the woman said, picking up a tabby as it wandered about their operation. “Not a good idea, fuzz butt.”
“How much longer?” the guy asked as he putted another stone against the side of the building. Without any external stimulus, he hefted the golf club above his head and danced around a little, as if accepting the cheers of some imaginary sports crowd.
“Ninety seconds,” the scientist answered.
The woman put the tabby down in favor of a small box, from which she pulled a fist-sized metallic lump.
“Careful with that,” her scientist friend cautioned.
“I know.” Her tone was absent, entirely focused on the weird rock. Slowly she placed it out of sight on the ground behind a bunch of the equipment.
“Clint?” The not-golfer finished his victory lap around the garage and trotted over, now the closest of the three to the weird metallic lump.
It was a full moon, I remember, and if the small group had bothered to look out of the garage, it would have been easy to spot me.
“You know what you’re doing?” the woman confirmed.
The other man squaring his shoulders and teeing up to the object.
“Fifteen. Don’t screw this up, Clint.”
“It’s not exactly difficult,” the man responded without looking.
“Just make sure your calculations are correct,” the woman said, now heading over to stand by the scientist.
“Of course. Five, four, three….”
“Batter up!” the one called Clint said. Then he rocked his shoulders as he swung the golf club. The metallic lump went soaring easily into the hole in the back wall of the garage.
That’s when things got weird. It looked like the object, as it passed into the light beyond, somehow transformed. It got much smaller, compressing into a crystalline shape and morphing form the dull, rounded metal thing into a bright, purple stone. It almost resembled a gem, but was just large enough for me to see from this far away.
Not a moment later, the ground shook. I was so enraptured by the scene in front of me that I almost lost my grip on my bicycle, but fortunately I was standing over the frame as I watched, so it didn’t’ exactly have anywhere to go.
“Hold on,” the scientist said.
“A little late for that, don’t you think?” the golfer asked.
The second quake knocked me off balance. It had to be at least twice as strong as the first. I looked up again, alarmed, but I wasn’t prepared for what I saw next. It may have been my young imagination, but it appeared to me like the hole itself was bigger, and the ground behind the equipment was collapsing into it, getting eaten away by the hole. I didn’t know what else to do – I fled.
“What’s happening?” were the woman’s shouts as I pedaled as quickly as I could away from the scene. I don’t remember having a destination at that moment. It was more like a location to avoid. The third quake was the strongest yet, almost throwing me off my bicycle.
As I pedaled through the four-store town, that’s when the patches started to appear. They looked like snow, glowing slightly in the moonlight. But it wasn’t snow. They came up from the ground with little bits of grass and shrubbery, which died on contact, poking through. The patches seemed to glow, but with some internal source, shifting through colors as if the patches of white had trapped the northern lights underneath. I didn’t know my gemstones very well then, but I do now well enough to tell you that the colors appeared very similar to opals, but on a much larger scale.
I remember this overwhelming fear as I sped away, toward the coast and the lighthouse, that the hole I had seen swell in the garage was going to catch up with me and swallow me whole if I stopped to look behind. I was breathing hard just to support my cycling legs. When the next quake hit, it threw me off my bike entirely. I landed hard, sliding along the asphalt on my side before coming to the most terrifying thing to me in that moment: a dead stop.
I wasn’t the only one panicking now. Screams started from the townsfolk as they fled this way and that around me. They were suddenly extremely loud, choking me like an ocean wave, undertow threatening to drag me into utter helplessness if I didn’t do something soon. I forced myself to look back from where I came, fearful of the encroaching hole, but instead, I saw Linda. She was an adult but still my friend. A teacher’s aide at the only school in town.
“Come on,” she beckoned. “Get up.”
Suddenly a loud crack covered the panic of the populace. I thought it was lightning at first, but it didn’t take long to figure out that it was instead one of those large pine trees that had marked the beauty of our small town. The tree fell as if in slow motion, landing with a deafening rumble into the fish and tackle store, splitting the building cleanly in half, with both sides still standing afterward. My guess now is that a glowing patch had appeared under the massive pine too, killing it on contact and sending it crashing down.
Then Linda hoisted me to my feet, making eye contact with me for a brief moment before snatching my hand and fleeing with me, away from the town and toward the lighthouse. The only thing I remember about that run was avoiding the glowing patches as they became more numerous.
Suddenly, everything quieted. The ground stopped rumbling underfoot, and the moon seemed to return to full light as the glowing spots on the ground started to fade away, leaving blotches of gray where green and autumn amber had once speckled the forest floor. It would be another hour before they would all go away entirely. When I looked up at Linda in that moment, she seemed just as confused as I felt, and just as breathless. I did my best not to cry out in a mixture of terror and relief, but when she hugged me close, I couldn’t help the tears.
The final oddity of the night happened then: a mammoth gust of wind blasted Linda’s braids into my face. When I looked up, she wore an expression of pained shock, as if someone had just run her through with a sword from behind, but of course there was no one there. I learned later that that blast of air was what had killed most of the people during the incident, Linda included. That and the patches of not-snow as the fleeing people had stepped on them. The only other thing I can tell you about that wind was that it felt like a sucking more than a blow, as if the wound in the earth, created by the quakes or science I had witnessed, had pulled all the life it could into itself before closing up for good.
Ninety percent of the town’s population died that night, and another half of the survivors passed from radiation poisoning in the weeks following. I looked for those three adults I had seen during that time, both among the survivors and the dead, but there was never any evidence of the group or their equipment. Others told me I had imagined the whole thing, and for a long time, I believed them. But now, I find myself wondering if they were the first victims of the incident. Official reports called the whole thing a nuclear meltdown, but the only thing I can tell you for certain was that those of us that survived were never the same again. Something about that night made us… wrong.
I was seventeen when I first went with my whatever-it-was. I remember it was a bad day. I had gotten permission from the judge to be on my own since my birthday, but people were still treating me like a child. I was helping at a church summer camp – my foster father had coaxed me into it – and the parents kept referring to themselves as “miss” or “mister lastname” around me, but “firstname” around the other adults helping out.
I was surprised, then, when I saw one of the parents pull up. His partner was in the seat next to him, and the three kids the men had adopted were in the back seat. I was sure he was already in the kitchen though – the ice pops I had in my hands were given to me expressly to bring to him there. But he looked me straight in the eye from the driver’s seat as the kids complained in the back. “Devin.” He said my first name with a mixture of conviction and desperation. “I need your help, Devin. Please.”
The man’s plea shocked me. He had always been so happy – always smiling and willing to aid anyone however necessary. Why then would he be asking for my help? “Why are you asking me?” I voiced my thoughts without thinking, knowing there were far more people with far more skills that would be happy to do whatever they could for him.
“You’re an orphan.” The words cut into me. The sentence was so simple, and yet his conviction was so pure, I was moved. Was he an orphan too? It had been five years since my family and everyone I knew had been wiped out, but I still hadn’t gotten over it, exactly. More like gotten past it. My hand still shook if I thought too much about it, and the nightmares were less frequent than at first, but just as frightening as when I was a child.
It wasn’t until I had sneezed and looked up again, that I realized it was just an illusion. My change – brought on by the wave that had somehow spared me – had me seeing things that never actually happened. The empty road, with no car in sight, and no sounds of it speeding away, was evidence enough of that.
Schizophrenia. I had looked it up online. But if anyone knew that this was happening to me, they’d revoke my right to be an adult, and probably lock me up in some psych ward forever. So I just ignored it. Others like me had experienced changes, but none of them appeared in the same way. Hunter was aware of what was happening around him as he slept, so long as it wasn’t too deep of a sleep. I’m not sure what Michelle’s change was, but she told me she had discovered it too. They both thought I hadn’t discovered my change yet, but I knew others had too. Several had killed themselves rather than deal with it. I was better off telling no one. I wouldn’t be the only one completely unaffected by the wave, so it wasn’t that unbelievable. Was it?
I heaved a sigh, frustrated at myself for believing the illusion, and turned to the kitchen intent on finishing my original task. The ice pops were melting. I entered through the dining area, enjoying the air conditioning, but it was immediately obvious an argument was going on in the kitchen.
“You never even wanted kids! Why would you put me through this if you didn’t want me?” The adolescent voice was adamant and angry.
“Stop this.” the same voice that had pleaded to me from the car was now firm. “You’re being a child. Sit down.”
I knew I shouldn’t be there. This was a private argument, and one they would thank me for never hearing. But the illusion I had just experienced stopped me. Was it possible? Could I help somehow?
“You never loved me! You’re not even my real dad! You hate me!”
“You know I don’t -”
A door slammed then, echoing through the kitchen to the empty dining hall around me. His son must have stormed off. Before I consciously could reject the thought, an idea popped into my imagination. How could I help a family spat? His words, from my illusion, came back to me. “You’re an orphan.” That also meant I lived with foster parents growing up. My foster father was even nearby. Somewhere. Was it being a parent, not an orphan, he wanted help with?
I peeked my head around the corner into the kitchen. I wished the child could see the look on his father’s face as I could in that moment. Shocked, absolutely. The hurt was obvious. But the guilt – I hadn’t expected the guilt. Had his angry son been right? No – impossible. The overwhelming pain that was written plainly on the man’s face completely rejected the idea. But I couldn’t understand what was going on. Nor did I, in that moment, think it was even possible for me to.
The he turned and spotted me. “Oh good! You brought the ice pops!” He was suddenly the smiling man I was used to, holding out his hands to me to receive my package. “They’ll be happy to have those after lunch, I think.”
I watched him, amazed as he started to whistle, taking the cold box from my arms and sliding it in the freezer with an icy grinding sound. Was it all an illusion too? I didn’t know how to tell until they were broken. There was no obvious break this time. “Is there,” I hesitated as I asked, “anything else I can help with?”
“Nope!” He was as cheery as ever. “Lunch is almost ready, I think.”
“Nothing at all?”
There was a pause – so brief that it would have been easy to miss – before he answered. “We’re all set here, I think.” That moment was enough to convince me that he needed someone to befriend him. But I myself couldn’t do anything. I knew nothing about raising children in any capacity.
Then I realized I didn’t have to be the one to talk at all. My foster father had gone through similar arguments with me and other foster children. He could help. The man before me now only needed my help in order to put them together.
I nodded and left the kitchen, finding and sending the man I considered to be my dad to help.