“The Family” originally appeared on my old LiveJournal page as part of Crossed Genres’ Post A Story for Haiti project. The idea of the project was that writers would post a free short story, and readers could show their appreciation by donating what in their minds the story was worth to a cause assisting Haitians after the devastating earthquake early in 2010. A bit like sponsors supporting someone racing for the cure. But instead of doing something easy like running a marathon, we go the distance to write & offer you free fiction.
I’ve always had a soft spot for this short, sweet (for certain values of ‘sweet’), hard-to-classify story, and I was glad of the chance to share it for a good cause. As I move away from LiveJournal to continue with this blog, I thought it would be sad to let “The Family” languish there. So, after almost three years, I’m bringing it to light again–after a round of polishing and expansion–and, once again, it’s for a cause.
Haiti has slowly recovered from the disaster, though they have a far way to go yet, and while there are many charitable partners helping them (I would especially recommend the grassroots Roots of Development for their community-led, capacity-building, and commonsense approach), the cause I’m seeking support for this time lies somewhere quite different–in five small, rural villages in the north of Ghana. These are villages my class will be visiting as part of our three weeks of study and travel around the country, which is one of the fastest growing in the world. Yet, although Ghana’s average per capita annual income is $3000+, almost 45% of the population lives on less than $1.00 can purchase in the US per day. The poorest people live in the rural northern villages, practicing subsistence farming, yet they also hope to share in their country’s thriving economy. The community nonprofit Capacity Rural International, with local leadership, helps the villagers reach the priorites they decide upon themselves, with help from funding raised, in part, by my class. We are fundraising for CRI as a service learning project and will be delivering the money we raise during our visit in March.
The particular project my student group is working on is the development of a microfinance program to be managed by a women’s cooperative run by female leadership from each of the five villages, as well as vocational scholarships for qualifying male and female students. The loans, equivalent to $25 US each, will be used by each woman to promote her agricultural production, and the men also seek $500 to be able to rent a tractor for the year. Simple technologies can radically increase yields, allowing a surplus to sell and savings to invest in education and future enterprises (the village women also have plans for shea butter production, and young seamstresses’ scholarship awards will include money to buy a sewing machine).
More information–plus some fun perks/prizes your donation can earn–is on our IndieGoGo page. The Indie campagin had closed as of March 4, but donations may be made through PayPal (under address firstname.lastname@example.org, which is also where any questions may be sent). And underneath the PayPal button, you’ll find the story! I hope you enjoy it, and thank you!
Emily opened and blinked bleary eyes. Blinked again. Sensing something not quite right. The night around her was black–except the black was pushed back by the yellow-white, almost blinding lights that filled the bottom of her vision. As sleep melted away, she became aware of a sensation–speed.
According to the speedometer on her dashboard, below the brilliant golden gleam, 35 miles per hour.
Emily didn’t check for headlights behind her before slamming on the brakes. As the car slowed to a stop, she leaned back, gasping, while her pounding heart leaped into her throat. When the adrenaline came, it coursed through her body with nearly ecstatic force. Sweeter than sex or a thick, comforting slice of chocolate cheesecake. Almost worth waking up to find yourself driving down a country road in the middle of the night.
She was dressed, yesterday’s bluejeans and a cotton blouse both gone clingy with sweat. Buttons all done–not bad, given she’d never to her knowledge sleepwalked before, much less dressed in the midst of it. Never mind sleepdriving.
By the look of things, what could be made out in the darkness beyond the headlights, she had driven far from home, too.
Still half-queasy with relief, she turned to her passenger’s side to see if there might be a farmhouse amid the fields bordering the road. No farmhouse, but she found somebody sitting there.
Emily screamed. Not very loud; her mouth was so dry that she could only manage a strangled yell. Underwhelming as an expression of the most acute terror she had voiced in her life.
“It’s all right,” her young passenger said. His tone remained calm; he didn’t even bat a blond eyelash. “Just keep driving.”
Emily found her foot gently pressing the gas pedal in spite of herself and turned back to the road, knuckles paling as she gripped the wheel. “Who the hell are you?”
“Tivvien, in name. I’m the nephew of the 14th Lord of–well, that wouldn’t mean anything to you. Keep straight and follow the road.” His voice, still smooth and soothing, was faintly accented in a way she couldn’t identify. He spoke as if were all routine, which was just as well, because if he hadn’t, if it hadn’t been for his weirdly tranquilizing presence Emily wouldn’t be functioning well enough to drive. “You’ve been…I guess the word is kidnapped. It’s all right; you won’t be hurt. Can we go a little faster? As it is, you’re not the only one they’ve taken.”
“They?” Emily croaked.
“We’re going to meet…some people. Turn left here.”
Tivvien’s directions were given a bit too close to the fact, and Emily found dark satisfaction in the way he was tossed in the seat beside her. Should have worn a seatbelt. She did, even if she had buckled it on while asleep.
“Where am I going?” she asked.
The road ran straight for a long way now, unrolling between endless rows of corn. Emily took her eyes off it and turned to Tivvien. He was funny-looking, she thought, though not entirely in a bad way; slim, not very tall, with bright blue-green eyes and shoulder-length yellow hair. Yellow, not blond. Though his skin was very pale, his features were decidedly not Caucasian. Not much like any other human features she’d ever encountered, either. Yet not bad looking.
“What’s going on?” she said.
“We’re going to a place where my people have gathered. The Lords will…anyway, they’re waiting for you. You won’t be hurt, but it would be dangerous to let them see you’re awake. Look.” Tivvien sighed and ran a slender hand through his hair. “I want to help you. This gathering…I’m trying to sabotage it.”
“Why?” Emily looked back at the road. She had slowed to a crawl, but felt calm enough to handle the vehicle along with a conversation. She liked listening to Tivvien’s voice. It was soothing, sounding sort of like the way chocolate frosting tasted.
She shook herself out of it from the base of her spine upward. “Why?” she repeated. “What’s your problem with this meeting, what are you going to do about it, and how am I involved?”
“Why? I suppose you could call it revenge.” Though still soothing, his tone picked up an air of sheepishness, as if he hadn’t considered before that his motivations might be so base. “Some of the people there have harmed me. Injured me. And they’ve hurt others, too.”
“You don’t look injured to me.” He looked fine, actually; young, athletic, and healthy, though strange.
“It’s not physical. More…a personal, ah…never mind. The Family will hurt you, too, if they think they have reason, if they get the chance. We’re not going to give it to them.”
“The Lords and their people. My people.”
“I see. And how can I help you with them?” she asked dryly. “What, and I’m asking this for the second time, do I have to do with any of this?” She was about to continue, demanding to know what she was doing driving in the middle of the night down country roads, where she was going, and why on earth it was her of all people, Tivvien started speaking again in his soothing, chocolately voice.
“For my plan to work, I needed one of the people they’d chosen–you. The ceremony requires ordinary humans, at least what you would call ordinary. I’ve lived among your kind too long; I’ve started thinking like you. This will only make things more confusing. Forgive me.”
“There’s nothing to forgive,” Emily said, beginning to regret her earlier sharpness with him. Perhaps it was because of his looks and whatever was going on with his voice. It wouldn’t be wise to trust him, she thought, but she didn’t have much choice now.
“The Family will try to bind you to them.”
After a pause, Emily realized some answer was expected of her. “Oh…kay.”
“During the binding, you’ll be connected to the Source. That is–it’s what keeps the Family strong.”
“A power source? Like…a generator, or battery pack?” Even as she said it, she knew her words were wrong. But what could be the right ones? Tivvien didn’t describe his Source very well, but he didn’t have to; the tone of his voice said enough. It was like hearing of water from a man dying of thirst.
“Perhaps you could call it that. All of us–all of the Family–need contact with the Source. We won’t die without it, not like lack of food or heat. But it’s very lonely, being cut off from it. Like being cut off from everything you know in the world.” His words shrank into silence, but Emily didn’t care to pursue that line of conversation.
“So. For a moment, you’ll be at the Source…turn left. This is it.”
She looked at him blankly; there was only an open field where he directed her to go.
“What did you expect, a concert hall?” Tivvien wrinkled his nose, but instead of sounding irritable he managed only an interesting, brittle tone. Emily turned into the field and winced as her compact’s springs complained by imitating a jack-in-the-box.
“Park by the others.” Tivvien pointed to an interesting line-up beneath the cornrows: two minivans, a pickup truck, three compact cars, and an SUV. Probably not the Family’s, Emily thought. She stopped beside the pickup.
“Act sleepy,” he whispered beside her. “Better yet, act asleep.”
“I don’t know how to sleepwalk,” Emily protested.
“Move slowly, with your eyes on the ground. Act…happy. It’s not quite like real sleepwalking, anyway.” As she unlocked the doors, he added, “And don’t trip over anything.”
Emily considered doing her best Halloween zombie shuffle–without the costume or the colorful groaning–but changed her mind as a willowy brunette strode past her with footmanship that wouldn’t look out of place on a fashion runway. Her glassy gaze into the middle distance didn’t to much for the look, though. Emily followed with her own eyes on the ground a few steps ahead and her own walk a little less glamorous, trying to still the shaking of her hands.
“Don’t worry.” And then Tivvien was beside her using his best soothing voice, so it was no trouble at all to obey. “You won’t be in any danger… You’ll be fine. But look, I can’t stay with you. Join the rest of the sleepers. Do as you’re told. And when you touch the Source…you need to break it.”
“But what will I need to break?” she said. “And how? And…” Unfortunately, she glimpsed shapes moving at the corner of her vision, and had to murmur the words in a low voice without moving her lips. Nobody heard her, not even, apparently, Tivvien.
“Just follow the others.” He touched a hand to her shoulder in a way that was probably meant to reassure; it failed. Even he sounded nervous now, as much as she could judge his strange voice, and when he left her he walked too quickly, as if afraid to be seen nearby.
“Hey, Tiv,” she heard someone say. “We’ve been wondering when you’d come to watch the herd. See anything you fancy? Like that bright young spark, and what did you call him again…?”
There came laughter, not cruel. It was as if they found something genuinely funny…Tivvien and his bright young spark from out of the herd. Was she in the herd, now? Was she a bright young spark, too? And was she…fancied?
She kept walking, like a soldier’s march only with less snap, and was nearly out of earshot by the time Tivvien replied. She couldn’t make out any words, although the tone was eerily pleasant.
The people walking ahead of her had stopped. Emily halted and raised her eyes to furtively look around. The crowd she stood at the back of consisted of normal men and women, about forty of them. But there were others, too, who stood around the group as if watching…she wasn’t sure, exactly. Like cross between observing a childrens‘ softball game and feeding time at the zoo. Not a nice way to be watched. Of course, the watchers themselves were beautiful, with yellow hair and delicate alien features.
“Hello.” A normal voice, a man speaking a little loudly as if to get their attention. The sleepwalkers turned to the place where it came from. Emily mimicked them belatedly.
A man stood there, dark-haired, middle-aged, and portly, well dressed and pleasant looking. But he moved strangely, and Emily realized he was staring at the space above the gathered peoples’ heads.
“If you will all listen to me, please.” A rustling as the group settled down to listen to him, and then a ringing silence. His pleasant, normal, human voice fell into it. “Thank you. And welcome–Welcome to the Family.”
The man gestured to a group that stood behind and around him–more of the yellow-haired people, the beautiful and strange people in beautiful clothing that resembled modern-day business suits or pencil skirts and blouses, but more colorful and with unusual, but highly flattering cuts. Emily tried to look without looking as if she did, but couldn’t spot Tivvien among them. He must be watching with everyone else.
“These,” the man said, “are our dear Cousins. We share with them our forebearers, forefathers and -mothers, from days long ago. The years, though, have been far crueler to them than to us–and this sad fact is why you are present now. Our Cousins need our help.”
“What can we do?” several voices asked, muffled and sleepy.
“You must open yourselves to the Source.” The words echoed in open, silent air. Emily dared another glance at the people, the Cousins. They stood still, and she would have guessed they were bored if not for a certain sharpness in their gazes. And then she spotted Tivvien, towards the back of the Cousins watching–those standing with the man must be the leaders, the Lords or whatever–completely motionless, rigid, with hands clenched into fists.
“How do we open ourselves to the Source?” scattered sleepwalkers whispered. She couldn’t help noticing none of them asked what on earth the Source was, or what opening to it might imply.
The man pulled something from a deep pocket and held it up. Light shone around his fingers, reflected by crystal strands within a globe of what appeared to be glass. Emily couldn’t tell where the glow was coming from, but she was pretty sure its source–the Source?–couldn’t really be contained inside a glass orb.
“Come forward,” the man said. Multiple sleepwalkers did so at once; there was momentary confusion as they had to move into a single file. Some seemed to jostle for position towards the front. Emily wasn’t certain if she should join him, and looked to Tivvien for guidance. He wouldn’t meet her gaze.
“And what’s your name?” the portly, pleasant man asked the first woman in line.
It was the brunette with the supermodel walk. Her million-dollar profile was illuminated by the eerie light of the Source. “Melissa.”
“Melissa, will you help your Family?”
He handed her the globe, murmuring something. Nothing happened–at least, nothing Emily could see. Tivvien’s hands were clenched so tightly it was amazing that the knuckles didn’t pop out of alignment.
After a moment, Melissa handed back the orb and moved away, someone else taking her place. Same murmured exchange–same question, same answer–same nothing happening. Then the next person in line. Emily watched the light-filled globe. In one man’s hands, it flickered, and the portly gentleman gently retrieved it and sent him away. Yet for the most part the light burned steadily in the hands of whoever held it, with no visible change throughout the weird ceremony. Emily watched each person as they sleepwalked away, but none of them seemed much different, either. Maybe because they were too deep asleep to register any changes?
Tentatively she took her place in line. She tried to pass near to Tivvien, in the hope that he’d give her some sort of direction. He was silent as she filed by.
So then. It was down to her. The Source flashed in the globe as another sleepwalker held it in her hands. Something different. The portly man sent her away, and the line shuffled closer. Emily could hear the exchange once more, low murmurs in the quiet.
“Karen, will you serve your Family?”
“Joshua, will you serve your Family?”
“Derek, will you serve your Family?”
Then Derek was gone, and Emily stood before the Source.
Time slowed. She looked into the glowing depths of the orb and saw them pulse.
So she was wrong, too.
She looked up, waiting to be sent away. But the gentleman seemed to notice nothing out of place, nor did anyone else. In fact, he was offering the globe to her. The globe in which heartbeats thrummed–glowing heartbeats, like lives flickering. Straining. They needed to burn stronger. They needed her.
“What’s your name?”
The flickering heartbeats pulsed feverishly in the Source before her eyes. She was the only one who could see it. How they needed her. Understanding came in a rush, perhaps from the globe itself.
The Family’s lives were inside it. Not just the Cousins’. The sleepers’, the chosen ones’, too. Bound together and burning brighter for it–at least the Cousins’ were. She could recognize their life-flickers, because they were so strange. Their hearts didn‘t beat like ordinary human hearts. Dull human hearts, beating in the threads wrapped supportively around the fragile, brilliant glimmers.
The man repeated his question.
“Emily.” She said her name thickly, and barely even heard it herself.
The Source, the tangle of Sources, beat at her, into her. She could see it because it invited her in. Demanded that she come in.
“Emily, will you help your Family?”
He was offering the globe. She reached out to take it, knowing it would enslave her, bind her life and reduce it to a shadow in the service of that other, sunlike, flickering being.
She could see it now, the one that must be meant for her–a coiling and uncoiling ribbon of brightness, not blue, not gold, but somehow both those colors and more besides. Beautiful, yet even more delicate than the others–weakening. It stretched as her fingers touched the glass, straining towards her. As the globe settled heavy and cold in her hands, it touched her with a point of warmth, and she realized in a flash of intimate insight whose life-spark it was.
Tivvien, alone and unbound, one of the last Cousins to be so. Waiting for the life only another member, a human member, of the Family could give. Tivvien, who needed her to survive. Who needed the Source to have her.
Tivvien, who wanted to destroy the Source.
Did he know they were to be bound? Had he been drawn to her because of it, out of all the Family’s chosen captives? Had he–Tivvien–
She felt their lives slither together, knot together–there, inside the Source; Here, inside the Source; how had she gotten in here? It didn’t matter.
She was flickering out in here. Fading like a cooling coal, like a flower cast in the smothering shade of an ancient tree. His life-spark coiled around hers like mistletoe on its doomed host, and it blossomed. She flickered again, small, dull, and fragile.
It was happening to all of them, all the mere ordinary normal people bound in the Source. They walked away as if nothing had happened, because it felt right, only natural, that they should give everything for their Family. But it would kill them, in time. It would drain life away.
Tivvien’s desperate spark, hungry after long starvation, was draining her away faster than most.
She needed to destroy it or she would vanish, extinguished, snuffed out. Whether Tivvien knew it or not, her choice must be the same. Kill the Source and everyone who depended on it or lose her own life.
Them or her.
Him or her.
Him or all of them.
The man repeated himself once more. “Emily, will you help your Family?”
How much time had passed? Hollow glass, kissing her hand, resting in cradling palms. Hollow glass, so fragile. Flesh, so fragile. Life. Light. Flickering flames. Heartbeats. Fragile as glass.
“Not a chance,” Emily said, and crushed the Source in her hands.
It fell inwards, not only under the physical force she exerted but also, perhaps, in shock that one of its own would so betray it.
Shards cut her palms. Her skin was burning too hot for her to feel the pain. Light blazed around her, within her. Cries rose, screams swelling so loud they were soundless. Lives raveled and unraveled, came unbound. Some flickered and went out. A few human. Most their Cousins.
His life flickered among the cracked and spilled-out Source, like a candle in a soft breeze, or a bonfire in a strong one. He was dying.
Emily didn’t want him to die.
It was for no reason, really. She didn’t particularily like him. Even if he was somewhat attractive–in looks, in voice, and undeniably in bearing and some less shallowly judged things–it was such an alien attractiveness that it couldn’t be likable. And he had as good as kidnapped her, by using her kidnapping for his own ends. She had only gone along with his plan because she needed to, for her own sake. And by God, it was his plan. If he died for it, wasn’t that his own fault?
But it was simple. So simple, to reach out through the ruins of the Source and entwine and bind their lives. To save him.
Emily felt her life gutter a moment, but it still burned. Duller, perhaps. But the Source’s brilliant light was no longer smothering or burning her away. There was only a small, barely perceptible tightening of the noose, the mortality that haunts all ordinary people anyway. She wouldn’t have noticed if she hadn’t been shown where to look.
She would live.
The pleasant man who had handed her the Source was dead. And so were so many of the Cousins scattered around her, prone on the grass, fine fabrics and silken yellow hair spread in disarray. Some lives were still bound together; Emily could see them floating before her inner vision which seemed scored by shattering glass. Some of the strongest held on alone. Though none of them were thriving.
Tivvien lay sprawled on the grass nearby. She went to him.
“Had your revenge?” she asked. It was a cruel thing to say, perhaps, but his eyes were clear and his breathing even; he was all right and had nothing else to do but answer.
“Yes.” He pushed himself up, shrugging off the hand which she held out to help. “But…I don’t understand.”
He didn’t know? “I bound myself to you.”
“But you destroyed the Source?”
“I broke it.” She paused. “It would have killed you, you know. If I had let…”
He studied the grass beneath his fingers. “I know.”
“You didn’t care?”
“Look at us.” He weakly raised his arm, gesturing to Cousins who were dead and dying among their still-bemazed captives. “We’ve lived off your kind for centuries. As parasites. I thought…” In a lower voice, he added, “It kills humans, being bound to us. Always. But some it takes faster than others. That’s…that’s what happened to him. Maybe it was because he was so sensitive, I don’t know…”
“Who was he?” Emily ventured. Tivvien’s ‘bright young spark’?
“Alejandro. We were in the south then…” He shrugged, as if forcing something heavy off his shoulders.
“You were friends?” she asked lamely.
“You…were bound to him?”
“Not me,” Tivvien murmured. “No. He belonged to someone else.”
“Perhaps you should have been together.” Emily was thinking aloud. No, not even thinking; she spoke out of the instinctive knowing that still lingered on her, even without the Source. “Perhaps that was why…he was bound to the wrong person, of course it wouldn’t last.”
“I was…so helpless,” Tivvien said. His voice, strange but holding emotion not so unfamiliar, drew her back. “I could only watch him die…”
She placed a hand on his shoulder, carefully. “Perhaps we can be friends?”
He looked up at her. He was frowning, not angry, but…puzzled. Bewildered. Lost. Above all, lost.
“Look,” Emily said finally, with great gentleness, “we should get out of here.”
Glancing around, she could see some of the prone shapes surrounding them beginning to stir, to rise, to shift and groan as they tried to clear their eyes and throats and minds. The sleepers were slowly waking up.
“Is there anything we can do to help?” Emily wondered aloud, then shrugged away the question. There really wasn’t. “Come on.”
Tivvien let her haul him to his feet. “Where?”
“Anywhere. How about my place, for now? I’ll make tea…we can talk. Get acquainted. You can tell me what this bond between us entails.” She smiled weakly. “I’ll drive.”
She wondered if he even knew how. Maybe she could give lessons. After all, she was good enough to do it with her eyes closed.
Tivvien fell asleep in the car. Emily let him drowse, listening to his slow, deep breathing. After a few turns, she found a familiar road and headed down it. All the while, she was careful not to let her cut-up hands grip the wheel too tightly. She pushed all thoughts of the field and what had just happened there out of her mind. Time enough for that when they got home.
She turned up her headlights and wondered at how they joined ahead in the night, like two living flames intertwined.