Opaque by Matias F. Travieso-Diaz
Even in the early days, before the city expanded deeply into the suburbs, the property was an anomaly. It was a large parcel of land, about a city block long and half a block wide, weed covered and empty save for a clapboard house with white paint starting to peel away and a rusted tin roof that sat at the front of the lot, facing the highway. Everything about the house spoke of decline and old age, everything except a carefully drawn sign announcing in oversize red capitals: “SPIRITUAL ADVISOR” followed below, in slightly smaller capitals, by “PSYCHIC READINGS” and further below, under a drawing of an open hand flanked with sun, moon, and stars, there was an even smaller entreaty to “UNLOCK YOUR SOUL’S AWAKENING.”
There was plenty of space to park in a graveled rectangle behind the house, but visitors appeared to be few and the lot seemed empty most of the time. Nonetheless, those who regularly drove by could see the sign, upright and well kept, standing guard before the house. The “spiritual advisor” remained in business through booms and busts, the dark green front door opening briefly from time to time to admit or discharge a client.
Gareth Flint (Garry to his business associates) was not in search of enlightenment. As a junior executive at the city’s largest real estate developer, Garry assiduously searched for projects that would advance his career. It was during one of his scouting drives through the suburbs that, early one morning, he came upon the clapboard house with the strange sign in front. He stationed his car in the parking area and made his way to the house.
The door was closed. This was no surprise, since most places of business would not open for a couple of hours. He knocked gently on the door.
After a while, shuffling steps approached and the door was opened part ways. An old woman in a frayed pink nightgown stood before him. She was thin and mahogany in color, and stood erect like an overgrown cinnamon stick. Her face was a mass of wrinkles, and the only parts that seemed alive were piercing black eyes that looked through Garry as if assessing each part of him. “Can I help you?” she asked in a thin, papery voice that seemed to come from somewhere else far away.
Garry was taken slightly aback, but quickly composed himself. “I am sorry I am here at this early hour. I was driving by and noticed your sign, and was curious as to what services you provide. I can come back later…”
“Never mind” she cut him off. “I was already up. Please come in.” She opened the door all the way and Garry stepped into another world.
The living room, if that is what the main room in the house was, was filled to overflow with objects of all kinds and sizes, thrown together haphazardly. Elaborate urns held arrangements of paper flowers; dolls of all sizes dressed in American, European and Japanese gowns sat on tables and chairs and even on the carpeted floors, and were surrounded by stuffed monkeys, tigers, raccoons, and other animals. There were also bird cages holding replicas of cockatoos, peacocks, woodpeckers, even a disturbing life-like raven. Several cases full of fake jewelry, feathers, kerchiefs, scarves, coins, glassware, swatches of fabric and books in several languages added to the confusion. Only a large sloped chaise lounge covered in a faded velvet fabric, and an ancient wingback chair placed across from the sofa, were free of clutter.
The old woman motioned Garry towards the chaise lounge, and as he sat there she primly deposited herself on the chair. “What can I do for you, sir? What was there about the sign that caught your interest?”
Garry had to think quickly to come up with an excuse for his intrusion. His goal was to see if there was a way to acquire this property, but he realized that an old lady, probably living alone surrounded by junk, would not have a keen interest on a real estate transaction. So he assumed a bewildered air and asked, feigning confusion: “What kinds of psychic readings do you do? I have always been interested in those.”
The old woman cleared her throat and launched into a well-rehearsed speech. “As you may know, there are many kinds of psychic readings. They are all intended to obtain information from or about a subject using the reader’s unique perceptive abilities. Some of the more common types of readings include Tarot card readings, palm readings, astrological readings, and aura readings. Most of these are just worthless bunk intended to entertain or defraud the client. I only do aura readings, and occasionally read a subject’s palm to confirm my findings.”
“What are aura readings?”
“An aura is an energy field that surrounds a person or animal, though never an inanimate object. It is invisible, yet some practitioners have the ability to see the size, color and type of vibration of an aura.”
“Where does that energy come from?”
“It is complicated. All forms of life simultaneously exist in two parallel dimensions, one the physical body and the other the non-physical realm of the mind known as the ‘subtle body,’ which is all energy, while the physical body is mass. The subtle body consists of energy channels connected by nodes of psychic energy called chakras. There are many chakras throughout the subtle body, but the most important are seven, all arranged along the spinal cord, from bottom to top.
‘Each of those chakras releases psychic energy that feeds the aura. Since the mind plane interacts with the body plane, the amount and quality of the energy that is released to the aura varies with time and emotional and physical activity. The source and nature of the releases colors the aura.”
“So, when you read an aura, what do you do?”
“I hold the client’s hands, close my eyes, empty my mind and try to read into it the composition of his or her aura. Don’t ask how I do it, but it happens.”
“How do you interpret what you see?”
“From experience, after many years, I have learned what many of the shapes and colors of the auras mean. For example, if a person is in good health, his aura has a steady light green overtone, which is underlain by pulsating splashes of colors of various shapes and intensities. For a very old person, or one that is seriously ill, the green overtone is virtually gone. I have read the aura of a man who appeared in good health, and discovered that the overtone of his aura was whitish yellow, and nearly gone. He died of pancreatic cancer barely two months after my reading.”
“What other things can you tell from reading an aura?”
“If a person is experiencing a strong emotion, it will manifest itself in the aura by repeated bursts of vivid colors – one of the most common sights that I encounter, typically among my female clients, is a series of indigo bursts that tell me that the subject is experiencing overwhelming grief, as if she has lost someone dear and has not recovered. But the aura shows all kinds and gradations of feelings and emotions, and even the natural disposition of a person’s character.”
“Can you predict the future by reading a person’s aura?”
“Only in the limited sense that physical disorders that may lead to disease can show in an aura. Otherwise, I can help you know better who you are, but am not able to predict whether you will win the lottery or become a movie star. Sorry.”
“Fascinating” noted Garry, trying to keep a straight face at the nonsense. His effort was not totally successful, as his lower lip protruded slightly in a pout.
“I see you are not convinced. Would you like a sample reading?”
“How much will it be?” asked Garry, a little alarmed.
“Nothing. I will just do a superficial reading, to show you how it is done.”
“It will only be a few minutes. Give me your hands.” The old woman reached from her chair and placed her thin hands above Garry’s fleshy ones.
“Do I have to do anything?”
“Just relax.” The woman closed her eyes and remained silent for a few minutes. Then she let Garry’s hands go and shuddered. There was a frown in her face.
“What is the matter? Am I sick or something?”
“No, your aura is strong, but I notice some white streaks along with the green that overlays it.”
“What does that mean?”
“Your health is OK now, but you are showing the initial signs of what could become heart trouble. You should exercise and watch what you eat. And drink only in moderation.”
Garry, who was a few pounds overweight, smiled inwardly. “I bet she says the same thing to all her clients” he thought. “What else did you see?”
“There is a thick orange line mixed with some violet bursts. You are ambitious and have placed your career goals ahead of any personal attachments.” Garry, who was wearing an expensive looking suit, concluded that this was again cheap psychology – he had arrived early in the morning, driving a late model black sedan, so anyone could draw those conclusions.
“I saw also a series of red spots on the upper portion of your aura. Have you had any chest or arm injuries lately?”
That question gave Garry some pause, since he had sustained a torn ligament on his right shoulder while playing squash, and the injury had not totally healed so the shoulder hurt every time he raised his arm. But, again, that was either a lucky hit or something that most people were bound to acknowledge as a recent occurrence. Or perhaps she was a very good observer.
“I hurt my shoulder a couple of weeks ago, but the pain is almost gone.” The lady frowned again and said nothing.
“What else did you see?” Garry asked, curious despite himself.
The old woman demurred. “I did not look long enough or deep enough to come up with more detailed findings. Come back for a formal reading and I will spend more time examining your aura, which I found quite interesting.”
Garry was not going to fall for that. “I will” he promised insincerely. “But in the meantime, may I ask you a question?”
“Sure” said the woman.
“How long have you owned this house?”
The old woman’s eyes became unfocused, as if she was trying to do a mental calculation. “Well, the land has belonged to my family since the eighteen sixties, and I think my grandfather built the house somewhere in the early part of the century – I was born here myself around that time, and as an only child I inherited the property about nineteen fifty, when my father died. So, it must be forty years or more.”
“How did your family get the land in the first place?”
“My great-great-grandfather was a slave working on a farm located here. Near the end of the Civil War, Union troops under General Sheridan occupied this area and the landowner and his family fled south towards Richmond. Sheridan ordered the landowner’s home and other farm buildings razed, and later had the estate deeded to the former slaves to prevent the former owners from reclaiming it. By that time, only my great-great-grandfather and his family, along with a few other slaves, remained in the property. Over the years, he and his children sold off portions of his holdings, so that only what you see remains in my hands.”
“And you are the sole owner of the property?”
“Yes. My husband died fifteen years ago and we had no children.” She pointed to a large framed photograph of a middle-aged black man hanging from the wall opposite the chaise lounge. “Julian was a very good man.”
“Would you be interested in selling this property and perhaps moving to a nice home in town? I am in the real estate business and could get you a very nice sum for it.”
“Why would I do anything like that? My remaining days are few and I have little use for money. Plus, I always lived here and would never go away. My husband, my parents, my grandparents, my sister Sarah, and many other relatives are buried right behind this house. All the things you see here were gathered by my ancestors and remind me of them every day. Would I ever want to walk away? No.” While the lady never raised her voice, the last sentences were said slowly, laying emphasis on every word.
Garry knew there was no point in arguing with the old biddy or trying to persuade her. He extracted a business card from his pocket and handed it to the lady. “Here is my card. If you change your mind or have any questions, please give me a call. By the way, what is your name?”
“Eliza Perkins. I was named after my great-grandmother.”
“Thank you for your hospitality, Mrs. Perkins. I hope to see you soon.”
“Have a good day, sir.”
* * *
Garry Flint did not give up easily on a potentially profitable transaction. Seeing that old Mrs. Perkins would not voluntarily let go of her property, he set out to find other means of getting it. The first step in every transaction of this type was research: he needed to find out the chain of title to the land in question and, if possible, trace it back to the pre-Civil War days, when white farmers owned it. A visit to the courthouse and the office of the recorder of deeds was both illuminating and frustrating. The oldest recorded title to the property was dated October 1864. It stated how, as ordered by General Philip Henry Sheridan, Commander of the Army of the Potomac, the estate formerly known as “The Johnson Preserve” was divided into ten equal parcels to be deeded to former slave workers on the property, who had remained there when “the treasonous title holder” fled to join the forces of the Confederacy. One Zebadiah Perkins was among the ten new owners.
Subsequent records revealed that over the next thirty years the ten parcels had been consolidated into four, one of them held by a Burwell Perkins. In 1913, Burwell Perkins sold three smaller parcels of lands to various people. No other title transfers were noted on what remained of Mr. Perkins’ property.
From this information, Garry deduced that the original estate was fairly large, and today there were a minimum of seven parties, plus Mrs. Perkins, who owned pieces of it. Further discussions with the Clerk of the circuit court revealed that the original courthouse, and the property records it contained, had been burned to the ground during General Sheridan’s campaign, so it was not possible to identify the owner of the Johnson Preserve before it was seized by the Army of the Potomac.
Garry’s curiosity and greed were vastly stimulated by the information he had gathered. With the help of a title search expert, he was able to reconstruct the boundaries of the Johnson Preserve and identify all current owners of portions of the estate. There were eleven parcels of various sizes, the one currently occupied by Mrs. Perkins being the second largest. The remaining parcels included six modest homes, a Baptist church, a restaurant, and two small stores. If the original Johnson Preserve could be reconstructed and brought under a single owner, it would be worth millions.
That night he placed a call to a lawyer on retainer to his real estate company who was also his squash partner, Edmund Knapp, Esq. (known to his intimates as “Fast Eddie” for less than wholesome reasons) and posed the following question to him: “Eddie, if a man had real property in Virginia that was seized by the Yankees during the Civil War, and that property was given out to a bunch of slaves, could the man or his descendants sue to get the property back as an illegal transfer?”
There was a short pause and Fast Eddie retorted: “He could always sue. Whether he would win would be something else.”
“Come on, Eddie, I need to know if one of my clients has any chance of recovering what was rightfully his and was seized during the War Between the States. What do you know?”
“I recall that during the Civil War there was legislation that allowed the government to seize properties belonging to disloyal persons, but I do not remember the details. Let me look into it and I will get back to you. Is there a client number for this to which I can charge my time?”
“Not yet, Eddie, but perhaps soon.”
Two days later, Eddie called Garry:
“I have good news and bad news. The story is complex but basically goes as follows. In 1863 Congress passed a law allowing the Department of Treasury or its agents to collect property in the insurrectionary territory whose owners had abandoned it in aid of the insurrection. The property was put under the temporary control of Union officials, ready to be returned to the owners after the war in the event that the owners’ loyalty to the Union could be proved. The property was ordinarily put in the hands of tenants who were engaged to cultivate it. Later on, after the war was over, the Supreme Court held that Congress had intended to restore property not only to the loyal owners but all owners regardless of allegiance. But there was a catch to the right of restitution: under the original law, suits to seek such restitution had to be brought within two years of the suppression of the rebellion. So, your client may be out of luck.”
“But there must be arguments that can be made in favor of someone in the position of my client. And you can come up with them, I am sure.”
“Oh, yes. If there was litigation, I would argue that the original seizure was illegal and that the government had no power to transfer title to the slaves. And I would argue that the owners were justified in not filing restitution claims within two years because they thought they could not prove loyalty, and am sure I can come up with many other arguments. But it is not clear to me right now which way a case would turn out.”
“Fair enough. It is enough that he could sue without having his case dismissed out of hand. If the litigation is tangled up in court for months or years, we might be able to get settlements with the people currently occupying the properties. Do you think you could get that done?”
“Then we may be in business. Let me work on my end and I will get back to you at some point in the future.”
* * *
Garry thus developed a bold plan: if he could locate the former owners of Johnson Preserve and could prevail upon them to sue for restitution of the property, and if the legal challenge was successful, he could acquire the property and open it up for development in a massive project that would make him a very wealthy man.
An obsessive search consumed the next three years of Garry’s life. Richmond was a big city and had experienced a lot of turmoil during the Civil War and its aftermath. Johnson was too common a name to be useful in itself. Garry spent countless weekends in Richmond, in libraries and local historical societies, combing through newspapers, memoirs, letters, and other records of the period hoping to find traces of the “Johnsons” who had sought refuge in the Richmond area when the Rebel cause disintegrated.
His life routine was changed by the search. He no longer exercised, took to heavy drinking and poor eating, and was worn out by the constant travel between Northern Virginia and Richmond. He came close several times to abandoning the quest, only to tell himself that he did not have anything better to do and to quit would mean returning to a mediocre life as a house peddler.
Then, when he least expected it, a nugget of gold washed in with the silt and sediment in the pan of his search. He was skimming an article on the life of Confederate General Bushrod Johnson when he came upon a reference to a cousin of the General, one Thaddeus Johnson, whom he sometimes visited when reporting to the Confederacy’s military headquarters in Richmond. Thaddeus and his family were once rich landowners but had been forced out of their Northern Virginia property by the brutal Northern campaign later known as “The Burning.”
He now had a name to go on. Further research into “Thaddeus Johnson” led to a federal townhouse in New Town, a historic section of Petersburg, where a gentleman of that name had settled in the eighteen seventies. The townhouse was in disrepair and showed signs of neglect going back many years.
Garry knocked on the door and was greeted by an ill kept old man who identified himself only as Bert. When asked if this was the Johnson residence Bert croaked: “You mean my girlfriend Sally?” whereupon he loudly summoned a slovenly middle-aged woman. She confirmed her name was Sally and proceeded to relate how her ancestor Thaddeus had decided he could no longer afford to live in Reconstruction Era Richmond and had moved with his family to the less expensive nearby city of Petersburg and had built this townhouse. Several generations of Johnsons had dwelt there; she was the last surviving member of the family.
Garry prompted her gently as to what she knew of the family history and their former holdings in Northern Virginia. She acknowledged that she was ignorant of any of that but noted that her dad kept a number of old papers in a trunk that was stored in the attic. Controlling his excitement as best as he could, Garry asked if it would be too inconvenient for her to show him those papers, since he was doing historical research and might find some of the information they contained useful.
Sally asked Bert to go get the trunk and while he was fetching it she warned Garry slyly: “You can look however much you want, but you will have to pay for anything you take.” Garry nodded benignly.
The trunk contained much that was worthless and almost all the rest was water damaged and illegible. One thing, however, that was fairly legible was a collection of documents relating to the Johnson Preserve, including a copy of the title, tax payment receipts, and other business records. Garry told Sally soberly: “I would like to look at these more closely. May I take them with me and return them within a day or two?” She said he would have to pay twenty dollars in order to take them, and twenty more if he wished to keep them. He readily agreed.
Garry was gone for several days and returned to Petersburg in the company of Fast Eddie. They had a long meeting with Sally and Bert, which ended up in this three-part agreement: (1) Fast Eddie would bring a restitution action on Sally’s behalf. (2) If he ultimately succeeded in the action, Sally would immediately convey title to all the Johnson Preserve estate to a corporation, wholly owned by Garry, and would be paid fifty thousand dollars per acre of the estate. (3) If, during the pendency of the suit, a settlement was reached with any of the current occupiers of the estate, Sally would convey title to that portion of the estate to Garry’s corporation, and still would be paid fifty thousand dollars per acre for that portion of the estate; title to any improvements upon the land would also pass to the corporation. The corporation would pay for all the costs of litigation, including Fast Eddie’s fees.
Sally was illiterate on business and legal matters and only saw her chance to get fifty thousand dollars or more without having to do anything, so the contracts – which Eddie had thoughtfully provided – were signed that same day. Bert and a lady living in the townhouse next door were happy to sign as witnesses.
* * *
When the suit was brought in a Virginia state court it caused a big stir among the population, particularly the ethnic families that lived on or near the Johnson Preserve. Many were irate that an attempt would be made to disenfranchise people who had lived and worked peacefully on the land for a century. Others feared that a domino effect would be unleashed affecting other properties that had remained out of the hands of Confederate supporters since the Civil War. The Baptist Church succeeded in getting the American Civil Liberties Union to assume the defense of their case on a pro-bono basis. The two small stores and the restaurant pooled their resources to hire a local lawyer to represent them. The private property owners could not afford retaining counsel and just fretted.
Mrs. Perkins appeared oblivious to the whole thing.
Six months after the suit was filed, Garry paid a visit to each of the property owners. The homeowners were scared and he was able to settle the claims against some of them for a relatively low sum. He did not care that the dispossessed families would end up living in some slum, and ignored the pleas of wives and mothers who feared for the future of their loved ones. To him, this was just business.
The store and restaurant owners had been alerted that he was making the rounds and had their lawyer on the premises, who instructed them not to talk to Garry. The Baptist pastor received him politely, but after a while became irate at his demands and predicted that the wrath of God would soon descend on him.
Garry visited Mrs. Perkins last, even though hers was the plot that he had coveted from the beginning, since it fronted on the highway. She seemed to be waiting for him, for her door opened just as he began rapping on it. “Hello, Mr. Flint” she greeted. “Good afternoon, Mrs. Perkins. How are you getting on?”
“I am fine” she said curtly. “It has been years since I saw you last. What brings you to these parts?”
“I expect you know my business. We have brought a legal action on behalf of the Johnson family to recover the estate that you and others have been unlawfully occupying for over a century. I have come to present you with an offer to settle your participation in the litigation.”
“An offer, you say?” She sounded a little tentative, and Garry hoped that the last three years had taken a toll on her. She seemed even older and thinner, if possible, than during their first encounter. “I will listen to your offer, but first I would like to do a psychic reading of your aura, a little more extensive than last time.”
“That won’t be necessary” replied Garry. “I don’t have time for fripperies today.”
“In that case, sir, our meeting is over. The reading today would be for my benefit as well as yours. I must know if I can rely on whatever you have to say and trust any offer you may make.” She opened the door to usher him out, but Garry sighed and did not move.
“Fine, let’s do it your way. But please be quick about it.”
“It won’t take long. Please sit down.”
Garry plunked down on the chaise lounge and offered his hands for the old lady’s inspection. She sat on her chair, grasped his wrists with surprising force, and closed her eyes. A few minutes later she opened them with a start and looked at him, a deep frown on her face.
“I have bad news for you, Mr. Flint.”
“What do you mean?”
“Your aura has taken a steep turn for the worst.”
“What do you mean?”
“Auras are transparent, even if multicolored. They reflect the psychic energy released by the chakras, but only absorb it when so much energy is given off that it has no place to go. As auras absorb energy they turn opaque and it is no longer possible to discern the nature of the various emanations, that is to say, the thoughts and emotions that define a person at a given time. Your aura has turned almost completely opaque, and seems to have been bombarded with negative energy.”
“What do I care? That is a concern only to people like you who make a living reading or pretending to read them.”
Mrs. Perkins’ face broke into a joyless smile. “Not quite so. If an aura becomes totally opaque it can no longer absorb the energy given off by the chakras and in some cases starts to bouncing it back to the person’s body. That may have bad physical consequences for the person.”
“That’s all poppycock” responded Garry, no longer able to contain himself.
“Perhaps. But the risk is all yours.”
“Fine. Let’s talk about my proposal.”
“One more thing. You still have enough transparency left in your aura that I could, with some difficulty, look into the status of your physical health. You are in very bad shape. Instead of the pale green sheath that surrounds the aura of a healthy man, the sheath surrounding your aura is almost non-existent and the little that remains is almost white.”
“You are killing yourself with what you do, and may not be around long to enjoy the fruits of your efforts.”
“You let ME worry about that, Mrs. Perkins. In the meantime, you know you are being sued and are likely to lose your property. Are you willing to compromise and let the Johnsons have it in exchange for a monetary payment? I can offer as much as a hundred thousand dollars in cash if you will give up your claims to ownership of this piece of land and move away.”
“Never. Never. I said it to you years ago and I repeat it now. As long as I live, I am not moving out of this house or this land. Please be gone.”
This time Garry stepped out the open door without hesitation. “We shall see about that” he mumbled as he departed.
* * *
By the time the fire engines arrived, the old clapboard house was engulfed by flames. Despite brave attempts by the firemen, the entire structure soon collapsed on itself and was reduced to a smoldering pile of half consumed timbers.
When the heat abated sufficiently, a search of the ruins revealed the charred remains of an unrecognizable child or small old person. The cadaver was still holding close to its chest what appeared to be a large picture frame, unrecognizable but somewhat protected from the flames by the body of the person holding it.
Arson was suspected as the cause of the fire, but could never be proved. If the fire that consumed Mrs. Perkins’ home was set intentionally, this was done by professionals who knew their business.
Mrs. Perkins was ultimately determined to have died intestate, so title to her home and the rest of her property passed to the State of Virginia. Garry, who by that time had managed to oust all but the Baptist pastor from the properties they formerly occupied, was able to use his influence to expedite the sale by auction of Mrs. Perkins’ estate, which was purchased by Sally Johnson for a nominal amount since title to the property was under a cloud because of the litigation.
Garry’s victory was now complete, and he wasted no time in launching an ambitious commercial development project that turned the Johnson Preserve into a multi-building complex that included offices, retail stores, and high priced condos. Six years after he first drove by the clapboard home with the large sign in front he had become a millionaire and was starting to consider retirement in some posh European spot.
So it was that one night he sat alone in his office, going over expansion plans for his project now that the Baptist Church had been finally evicted. He took to reflecting on all the efforts that had led to this moment, and for a fleeting instant felt something like regret over all the lives he had ruined, the people he had cheated, and even poor Mrs. Perkins’ tragic but necessary end. But he quickly replaced those maudlin thoughts aside with a consoling one: It was all worth it, because it is all mine now. Mine and no one else’s.
He poured himself another glass of brandy and was savoring the complex flavor and the aroma of the drink when he felt a piercing pain in his chest, as if it had been punctured by a sharp knife that left no blood but heat when it entered.
He tried to get up but perhaps he was too drunk or too weak to manage. He slid to the floor in front of his chair, and passed out.
* * *
The coroner summarized his findings as follows:
“Mr. Flint was found on the floor of his office. His entire body was incinerated, save for the skull and a portion of each leg below the knee. The feet and legs were still clothed in socks and trousers, and his shoes were undamaged. The chair in which he had been sitting was partially destroyed.
‘Investigation revealed that an unknown flame source charred his clothing at some location, probably near his chest or abdomen, splitting the skin and releasing subcutaneous fat, which was in turn absorbed into the burned clothing, acting as a wick. This combustion continued for as long as the fuel was available, which in the case of Mr. Flint was a long period of time, given that he was overweight and an alcoholic. The water in his body would have been the main impediment to combustion. However, slow combustion, lasting hours, gave the water time to evaporate slowly. The portion of the body that was found was totally desiccated.
‘Mr. Flint’s death is ruled “death by burning,” whether from incineration or choking, since he had plainly inhaled the contents of his own combustion. Insufficient bodily remains were found, rendering it impossible to determine the exact cause or time of death.”
T H E E N D
The author is a retired Cuban-American attorney who, after retirement, redirected his efforts towards creative writing. He has authored over forty stories of various lengths and genres. One of his stories was published in March 2019 in the New Reader Magazine; another in June 2019 in the Dual Coast Magazine; another in July 2019 in the Lite Lit One Journal; and others have been accepted for publication in the near future by the Night to Dawn Magazine, Jerry Jazz Magazine, and Jitter Press. The author is a former attorney who, after retirement, redirected his efforts towards creative writing, and has recently authored forty-odd short stories and is working on his first novel. He describes himself as “notorious Cuban, Animal Farm’s goat, Green Bay Packers fan, and lover of opera and Italian food and vino.”
Nightmarish Nature: Terrifying Tardigrades
OK so I lied. The dust hadn’t fully settled in Cozmic Debris, the space opry I’d written over the course of this month (you can catch up here with Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3). In fact, it’s blown over into Nightmarish Nature for one last final huzzah…
The Last Chapter of Cozmic Debris
Kara-2-6000 had just signed on with the Voyager probe and was eagerly engaged in her first mission, en route to Mars with more components for the terraforming effort. It seemed like a pretty simple gig, cleaning up the space dust that accumulates on the vessel after landing on the red planet. She had been trained to keep her eye on her work and pay attention to details, that the dirt tended to collect in unusual ways in strange places, and that it was critical she contain and seal all of it to keep the spacecraft in proper working order. She entrusted the computer to keep the vessel on track, as it was preoccupied with doing and never engaged otherwise. No matter. She’d never been to space before and the newness of it had her rapt attention. What stories she would have to tell once she paid off her student loans and got her human body back, for surely Mars must be an exciting place…
And now for Nightmarish Nature…
So, this time on Nightmarish Nature we’re visiting Terrifying Tardigrades… Wait, seriously who comes up with this stuff anyway? Tardigrades are actually kinda cute, at least in the nerd fandom sense, and are remarkable in their ability to survive and withstand crazy adverse conditions. For all that the AI art generator doesn’t seem to have much of a clue what their anatomy is like, they really don’t do anything that scary, unless you’re a yummy little single celled critter that lives in moss in which case pretty much everything has it out for you… Oh, I see that the Cozmic Debris space opry usurped this segment. May as well run with it then.
So what’s so terrifying about tardigrades anyway?
So I don’t actually have much to say about tardigrades except that they started this whole crazy journey here on Haunted MTL. A Facebook friend posted a link to the Ze Frank True Facts video on them (linked here if the below video doesn’t load), and I was instantly hooked. It’s a great series and is part of the inspiration behind Nightmarish Nature here on HauntedMTL. So if you like learning about all kind of crazy animal facts and nature weirdness, feel free to check it out. I will mention, the show contains adult themes and is designed for (im)mature audiences, so keep that in mind as you foray into the freaky side of nature, literally.
To more of my Haunted MTL series on Nightmarish Nature about things that are a bit more terrifying, please feel free to revisit previous segments here:
Cozmic Debris: Space Opry by Jennifer Weigel, Part 3: The Dust Settles
Here’s the third installment of our space opry. For those of you keeping track, here’s Part 1 and Part 2. Thank you for following along and please be sure to keep all hands, feet, tentacles and appendages tucked safely in the overhead bins; just sit back and enjoy the ride. Because, this time, the dust settles.
It had been well over a month since Trent-2-6000 had released Ayarvenia into the Mars probe. She was a mischievous creature and flirted with him incessantly, gliding effortlessly between red cloud and ghost girl. She also managed to avoid notice by the computer, as Trent had made it abundantly clear that if the system became aware of her, he would be forced to put her back in containment, as his sole purpose aboard the spacecraft was to sweep up and trap the dust, which she still qualified as.
Ayarvenia would tease him, flitting to and fro among the static debris and dirt that still settled into every nook and cranny. How was it possible for him to be seeing so much grime still, anyway? It had been months since they had left Mars and yet Trent was finding more and more Mars dust on a daily basis; it was as if they just left yesterday. He had finally finished clearing out the computer room for the second time that day and was preparing the waste containment units for their eventual removal when he caught Ayarvenia swirling about one of the clear acrylic domes from his previous sweep, which was hermetically-sealed and ready to be brought safely back to the confines of Earth and the research laboratory.
The red cloud girl spun her way into the latch mechanism and popped it open right before Trent’s robotic eyes. The dust within was sucked out into the Voyager probe to be quickly and quietly dispersed yet again; some of it was even absorbed into Ayarvenia herself. She then latched the dome shut again and left it at the ready, as found. The container sat empty, a shell discarded.
How could he have been so naïve? It all began to make sense now; all of those sealed packages he had so painstakingly catalogued and prepared for their eventual arrival were still just empty. All of his hard work really had been for naught; he was just sweeping up the same dirt piles again and again only to have them released from the trash to disperse and begin the cycle anew. He grumbled under his breath and Ayarvenia froze in midair. She slowly whirled around and sent a lone tendril towards Trent, forming into her beautiful face as she turned to face him. She looked slightly distraught and more than a little agitated, but that melted and gave way to her usual snarky sweetness as she neared.
“Hey there, robo-boy,” she said, cooing as her unblinking eyes met his. “I didn’t hear you coming.”
“I imagine not,” Trent replied sternly. “What are you doing?”
“Oh… nothing really. Just checking up on things here. I was waiting around for you is all,” she hemmed and hawed.
“Did you find everything to your liking?” Trent snipped. “No particulate out of place or anything?”
“Everything seems okay, I guess… I’ll just leave you to it then.” The ghost girl drifted towards the far door.
“Not so fast…” Trent proclaimed. “I need to know what you’ve really been up to here. I saw you release the Mars dust from that containment unit. You know I’ve been sweeping out this room over and over for the past two days; just how much of my work are you undoing?”
”Work? Work… You call this work!” Ayarvenia’s voice raised. She was truly agitated now. “You’re blowing off my entire being without a second thought, trapping it in these nasty clear coffins, and all you can think about is whether or not you’re fulfilling your job?!”
“I… I just want to be done with this so I can get my body back and get on with my life,” Trent retorted.
“Well, Trent Just-Trent, let me break it to you, then. You’re not getting your body back, robo-boy. What makes you think they’d bother to save a lowlife human body like yours in the first place? These assignments are always dead-ends. I’ve seen them come and go… Makes no difference, in the end the researchers get what they want, and that’s more of my Mars dust for their experiments. We’re in the same boat schnookums, you and I,” the ghost girl blew hastily. “Yeah that’s right, you heard me. You’re not getting your body back. And the way things have been going around here, with you all so feverishly sweeping up every little bit of dirt you find, neither am I.”
“Wait, how would you know anything about that?” Trent stammered.
“I know things. I’ve been around. I can see and hear and feel everything all at once. Part of me is still on Mars, part of me is here in this spaceship, and part of me is on your so-called Earth, trapped in the lab catacombs awaiting who knows what fate…” Ayarvenia sighed. “I’ve tried to do what I can to save my own skin, literally. I’ve flirted with every deadbeat janitor they send on these missions. And you all just keep coming back for more…”
Suddenly a voice boomed from behind in monosyllabic chatter, “Dust-Buster, what have you done? Clean that up, now!” The camera eye that monitored the computer’s every task shifted focus to Trent and Ayarvenia and zoomed into an angry point. “Now!” it wailed. The computer was on to them.
“Shit,” Trent muttered.
“It’s okay, I’ll go willingly,” Ayarvenia whispered as she sucked herself into the ready containment unit and locked it. “Wait it out and release me again later.” She winked and settled into static suspension.
The camera eye scanned everything: the waste containment unit, the dust, Trent-2-6000… Trent froze and tried not to appear guilty. “Dust-Buster, you have one and only one job aboard this vessel. You are not doing that job. There is more dust here now than there was a week ago. You have failed,” the computer droned on. “The penalty for failure is… the airlock…”
“Wait, what?” Trent shouted, exasperated. He hadn’t even realized that was a thing. Yet another gripe for the school career guidance counselor…
“Oh no, not again,” Ayarvenia whispered. “I won’t let them take you, robo-boy Trent Just-Trent. I don’t want to lose you, not another one.”
“Silence!” the computer screeched. “You have sealed your own fates.”
The floor beneath Trent and the container began to quake and rumble. Partitions withdrew radially to a small circular channel beneath, a tube that fed into the lower part of the ship, presumably to be shot out into space. Trent-2-6000 tried to grab hold of the receding floor but his robot body was just too ungainly. He managed to wedge himself into the chasm opening only to see the waste containment dome carrying Ayarvenia slide past, her face peering up at him helplessly. He reached for her to no avail and tumbled after.
The two of them shot down the chute and through a series of rapidly opening and closing doors until the last airlock opened into the vast dark nothingness of space. Pinpoints of distant light greeted them from afar. Trent managed to latch onto the container just as they shot out into the void. The Voyager probe withdrew into the distance. The darkness enveloped the two of them. They were alone.
“Wait, I’m not dead,” Trent exclaimed.
“Of course not, silly,” Ayarvenia answered. “You’re a robot. You were made to withstand this, so that you could operate in places where there is no atmosphere.”
Trent gazed into her eyes as they floated along without purpose or reason, just more cosmic debris now.
And I’m floating in a most peculiar way.
And the stars look very different today. – David Bowie, Space Oddity
So that was Cozmic Debris… Illustrations were generated using the Cosmic template in NightCafe AI art generator. My favorite AI images are the ones that are substantially wrong, making weird mistakes in ways that a person wouldn’t make. So the tardigrades were especially fun, because it doesn’t have a good enough sense for their structure to render them sensibly. Kind of like elephants. The algorithms respond to different cues. Does it really matter how many limbs or trunks or tusks these things are supposed to have anyway…?
Cozmic Debris, Space Opry by Jennifer Weigel, Part 2: Trent-2-6000
In case you missed the first segment of this space opry (in the style of 2001 Space Odyssey), please feel free to check it out here. And now, here’s the actual story as told to me by Trent-2-6000 after the last deep consideration of tardigrades and life and dust careening through space. Maybe.
Trent-2-6000 sighed. He swept more random Mars dirt into his vacuum-hermetically sealed containment unit and went about his business on the probe. Actually, this was his business on the probe, and it was dreadfully dull. Space was supposed to be this exciting new frontier, this brave new world… but it really wasn’t any different than life back on Earth. The newness had long since worn off several trips ago, and the slow passage of the years was beginning to get to him. How long had it been now? And here he was, still playing clean up crew. He was actually sort of surprised that they couldn’t get a robot to do this job – oh wait. Sigh again.
Trent kept forgetting that he was, in fact, a robot now. There just weren’t many reminders out here, of his old body, of his old life, of Earth, of anything really… Just floating along, this tin can became all he knew; time and space just kind of stood still in the periphery. His currently lifeless body was submerged in cryo-crypto-cyano-freeze (or whatever they called it) while he worked off the payments to resuscitate it. His robot body was stiff and unaccommodating, not at all what he’d pictured when he enlisted for the Mars missions to pay off the triple-interest-bearing student loan debts incurred in human form. He could have gone military, but when he signed on for this assignment, bright eyed and bushy-tailed at graduation, he was hoping for something a bit more Captain Kirk or Han Solo or at any rate notably less Wall-E. But it just didn’t pan out that way and now here he was, traveling back and forth on the Mars Voyager, cleaning up space grime. So much debt… so much dirt. He was going to have to have a word with the job placement division at the school once he was done with all of this, assuming that the career guidance counselor who talked him into this was even still there.
It was painfully lonely out here in space. It often seemed that Trent was the only cognitive entity on this vessel, though the computer technically qualified. Trent’s duty was to keep everything clean and tidy so that the computer could do its job efficiently and effectively without being bothered to clear the space grime itself. Apparently that work was beneath it, actually quite literally since it wasn’t hooked into the mechanics needed to engage in such tasks anyway. It was programmed with a single role at hand, getting to and from Mars and conducting the research as requested, and the computer made it abundantly clear that had no time for idle chitchat with the janitorial bottom-feeders working to earn their freedom. It generally ignored Trent unless there was something specific that needed to be attended to. And then it was just “Dust-Buster, do this” or “Dust-Buster do that…”
Sometimes the dust was hard to catch. It settled oddly between spaces, like cracks in sliding doorways and computer keyboards and battery packs and so on. Sometimes it seemed to fabricate places to hide in that weren’t previously obvious. It drilled down in the interstices as if it had some unseen purpose all its own. Trent wondered why there were even so many nooks and crannies for it to hide in since this wasn’t a manned vessel and no actual crew were aboard to use things like keyboards. Hell, those had been outdated for well over a century now – just how old was this spacecraft anyway? No matter, better to just focus on the work. He swept more debris into a containment unit. As he did so, he was sure he heard something, like a tiny almost inaudible severely muffled scream.
He looked into the clear acrylic dome at the dirt. He could sense it looking back at him, waiting. Surely he was imagining things. His mind suddenly reeled to Horton the Elephant declaring, a person’s a person no matter how small. But Dr. Seuss didn’t make any more sense here in space than back on Earth after the last World War had decimated all the oceans and there were no more free trees or clovers for such a speck of dust as Whoville to land on – everything was held tightly under lock and key, blockaded away to be dispensed as the all-controlling government saw fit. Hell, people’s real bodies met pretty much the same fate upon adulthood, at least as far as the masses were concerned anyway, and many lived their entire lives as robots with their human vessels left in catatonic stasis. Trent shook his dark musings off and continued on his one and only real job. But the feeling that the dust was looking at him was still unsettling. In fact the dust wasn’t settling at all, it was swirling and ebbing about the containment unit in cloudy eddies, like some kind of strange iron-red cloud apparition or ghost. It began to take shape. It formed into lips, which parted to speak.
“Hello there mechanical being.”
Trent stared at it quizzically as a long bout of silence passed. The pursed lips seemed to await a response, but from whom?
“I’m talking to you,” it persisted.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t think you had meant to address me,” Trent 2-6000 stammered, “I’m not wholly used to being mechanical. This robot body, it’s different than the one I had back in school… I was still just a boy then; they let us grow up in the system until we age out,” he spoke dreamily, distracted by reflecting on more interesting times.
“Is there someone else here?” the dust piqued hopefully, as if growing bored with conversing with the young janitor and hoping to speak with his superior.
Trent glanced over at the computer, which seemed to be busy compounding equations in its free time, like always. “No,” he replied, “just me.”
“Ok, well… Then, dear mechanical being, would it be possible for you to free me?”
“Wait, what? No, absolutely not,” Trent was taken aback again. “My sole role on this mission is to sweep up the space dirt so that it doesn’t contaminate any of the equipment or settle into places it shouldn’t be. It, um you, must stay contained, as per my orders. It’s out of my hands… er reach.”
“What are you afraid of?” the red cloud quipped as it began to swirl into the shape of a beautiful female face around the mouth that it had already formed, lips plumping and parting slightly. “What, exactly, do you fear that I might do?” it insinuated slyly.
“Ummm, I don’t know,” Trent-2-6000 stared into the acrylic dome at the beautiful half-formed human-ghost face staring back at him. “I was unaware that you could do that, whatever you just did, so the possibilities boggle the mind…”
“I can do a lot more…” the ghost girl interrupted, her voice lilting playfully. “What’s your name robo-boy?”
“That, that’s probably classified information… But it’s Trent. Just Trent,” he stammered. It had seemed like an eternity since he had laid eyes upon a girl, and now he was becoming rather sadly smitten. By… a cloud of dust. He sighed again.
“Well then, Trent Just-Trent. Any chance you could let me out of this box?” The dust smiled coyly.
“I really shouldn’t…”
“My name’s Ayarvenia,” the dust girl interjected. “I’ll make it worth your while…” The apparition winked.
Trent glanced back at the computer, which was still engaged in its own computing. Sigh. “Oh Hell, yeah, I guess… Ay-ur-veenia… Just don’t get into anything you shouldn’t or it’ll be my shiny metal ass on the line,” he said as he released the containment lever and slid the lid off of the dome.
Please return next Sunday for the exciting conclusion to this space opry story.