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Autumn, Part Three
A Solstice story
Start at the beginning of the Solstice series
Michael leaned against the wall, exhaling. Long didn't know - couldn't know - about what had happened on Countryside Road. It had been an accident, nothing more; and if he hadn't stopped when he saw the orange glow in the rear-view mirror of his Corvette he couldn't be blamed for that. They'd been chasing him, not the other way around.
He wanted to be home. He wanted to be done. He wanted to be back in Iraq, where if you didn't know who your friends were, at least you knew who the enemy was.
"Hi." The voice was soft, but anything but shy; and when he looked up he didn't know what to say. She was nut-brown and smiling, with a row of teeth that spoke of sunshine and sharks in equal measure and a red-tinged flower in her hair. "You're Michael, aren't you? I saw your face in the papers."
"Yeah," he said reflexively. He'd grown accustomed to this, even if he didn't like it, but this time he had some news of his own to fall back on. "You're Keely, right?"
"That's right, only I'm not in any papers."
"Long pointed you out to someone, that's all."
"Yeah," she rolled her eyes. "He's got me working more as a celebration than he ever has in the office. He had you good and cornered for a while, didn't he?"
He was about to ask what she meant, but forced himself to relax. "He talks, that's for damn sure."
"Part of the job, I think. At least he let you stay out of the photos."
"Part of your job?"
She studied him carefully for a second. "Is that supposed to be a joke or an insult?"
"Hell. A joke, believe me."
"I believe you." She stepped closer, rolling the wineglass in her hand.
He didn't know what to say at that point. Somehow this felt different than the accolades at the Northwoods, the empty smiles on empty faces waiting to be talked to. He suddenly felt like a teenager in high school again, wanting to get back on the field or back to the gym, surrounded by something he only half understood in the deepest part of his soul.
Why wouldn't she say anything else? Why was she leaving it up to him? He looked across her face, the sly smile and tanned skin, the little black dress, the flower in her hair, and fell back on the most obvious thing he could.
"Where'd you get a flower like that in September?"
"You like it?" He hadn't seen a smile like hers in too many years, not since Vickie's mother had pulled up stakes and left Solstice, the Midwest, and Mike in the dust all at once. "I grow them in a greenhouse, behind the family farm. Do you know what it is?"
"Long said it was a hibiscus."
"The Mayor's not interested in flowers. Not the way I am - not the way I was born to. The same way you were born to understand something all your own. Something you can't avoid. Something ... dangerous."
She stood too near him, the mahogany depth of her hair set off by the brilliant pink of the hothouse orchid pinned within it. She reached with an elegant carelessness to release the flower and extended it, full lips curling into a predatory smile.
"But this is only a flower, Michael. Nothing more to it. It's nothing but a flower, like the ones your mother grew and loved."
He watched her carefully, watching for solid ground. Too much had happened since returning to Solstice, too much strangeness in the land he'd thought he was protecting overseas.
"How did you know that?"
"Your mother loved flowers."
"But how did you know that?"
She shrugged. "I have access to a lot of files, but something like that?s not going to show up in any of the Mayor's records, or any other records, really. I didn't know her - I would've been too young, wouldn't I?"
He simply nodded.
"Then how would I know she loved flowers, unless I knew something about you that couldn't be written down and wouldn't make sense to anyone else?"
"You couldn't," he said, mouth growing drier. More than anything he wished he was back in the room behind, surrounded by people and plates that could serve as some kind of distraction; but nobody rode to his rescue here in the coatroom hall. "So how do you know them?"
"I know other things, too. Do you want to? I can tell you that the reason you were an only child was that you were such a difficult and prayed-for pregnancy, that your mother had been barren before she started to work in the gardens and greenhouses your father never understood. I can tell you that you were a loud and fussy child, that your screaming drove them up the wall and then back down again.
"I can tell you that your father strayed and I can tell you that even though you didn't like it, you understood it all too early. You knew you'd be a soldier from the first day you understood what it meant to fight, to plan, to defend. You were always the cowboy, never the Indian. You led the kids on your street in any game you played, and you didn't play at army men - it was the Marines or nothing, the best of the best."
His breath was coming short and fast, as it had when he'd come under fire in training exercises. He felt alive, awake, and aware for the first time since coming back to Solstice. "How are you doing this?"
"Does it frighten you?"
"But you're curious."
"Yeah," he nodded, face flushing crimson.
"And you don't like being curious, do you? You want things to be simple and easily explained, nice and tightly under control." She leaned in closer, and the floral scent of her perfume no longer seemed out of place against the dying trees and leaves he knew lay beyond the window. "Even if it isn't your control."
"So tell me how you got my life story under your control."
"I told them you'd play sweetly." Her smile loosened, became easy and welcoming now. "I knew it because of who you are, deep inside. You couldn't have had any other childhood, no matter where you grew up, no matter what your parents named you, no matter what color you were born.
"You're no more Italian than I am Hawaiian, and yet you were made for war, and you were made as Mars. Your mother had to be barren, to touch flowers, to suddenly, surprisingly, conceive. Your father had to be cold and inaccessible, given to stray, full of self-importance. If you were going to be born, if you were going to be fulfilled, then this would be your life, Michael.
She extended the flower again. "This is the plant that bore you. Touch it. Remember it. Accept it, here and now."
He watched the flower, captured by the roll and lull of her voice, however crazy the words might sound. There was something in his stomach that had been missing all his life, a piece of the puzzle that had driven him out of the house and into the barracks where he'd felt most at home.
Her eyes danced above the flower, the dark brown of farmland soil with pupils heavy as lava fields. They caught his own and sent him spinning, tore away the endless years between who he was and what he'd been.
Michael Monroe flew over the fields outside of Troy and across the sands of Iwo Jima, saw the carnage of Breitenfield and Belfast, Pharsolous and Flanders Fields. He was behind the reins of a chariot drawn by Fear and Terror, he saw the birth of the twins he'd never known in this life, founders of the greatest city the world had ever know, Romulus and Remus.
The silken touch of the flower against the cheek weathered by desert winds and too many unshed tears brought him home to who he was, and as he opened his eyes the only thing he understood was that the flower lived in Keely's soul as well, that she was Persephone in some other set of skin and souls, wrapped by oceans alien to him and everyone in Illinois.
"You see me, don't you," she smiled. "The great awakening, the first dawn, the light and heat. Do you believe me?"
"I believe in everything," he whispered, and she leaned in close to his still and frozen form.
"As long as you don't believe in everyone, you'll be fine. Trust me, Mars. Trust me and no one else, and we'll make this world something to see."
Story by Ivan Ewert, Copyright 2009
Image by L. Emery, Copyright 2009