The universe doesn’t always warn you when your time is up. If it did, though, would anyone listen? Do things differently? Make different choices?
I am Jana, an Empath. Bonded since birth to my Empath brother, our minds work in unison. But as often as not, we are at odds with one another in our struggle to be separate but together.
I emerged from the overgrown brush beneath the trees and into a small clearing. The mid-morning sun sparked on dust motes scattered through the air. A grasshopper flew sharply away at my approach. At the center of the open space, I stopped. The new fruit on the trees behind me lent a sweet aroma to the air. I closed my eyes and turned my attention on my brother.
All the way out here, Marcel’s anxiety was like a swarm of bees in my head. Indeed, the whole of the campus was humming with the news from the war front. As I stood still, just breathing, I focused all my energy on my brother.
I spoke his name aloud as if I stood before him and not on the other side of the compound. It had little effect. His anxious pacing continued unabated. I could feel it rising in me as well, the need to move, to do something. It’s what had driven me here in the first place. If I didn’t gain some control of this, and soon, his anxiety would swallow us both.
Frustrated, I let go the way Marcel never could. I screamed at the morning sun, as loud and as long as I could manage. In the near silence that followed my outburst, an unseen eagle cried out as if in sympathy.
Pointing my body toward the north where the White River flowed out of the foothills, I drew my sword. Slowly at first, then increasing my speed with each rotation, I went through the forms Master Chen had taught me. Again and again I completed each motion, letting my body work while my mind remained focused on Marcel. I pushed him as hard as I pushed my body.
Marcel’s pacing slowed and finally stopped. He pushed back against my mind. The reports from the war front had him agitated, leaving my mind in chaos as well. On days like this, my connection with my brother was almost more than I could stand.
‘Enough, Marcel.’ I pushed the words along the bond, the way we’d communicated for as long as I could remember. ‘It’s time to stop.’
I let the sword drop from my hand in frustration. I leaned over, hands resting on my knees as I gulped in air. Sweat ran from my face and dripped onto the blade at my feet. The blade glinted dully in the sunlight. It was in need of cleaning. The idle thought was swept from my mind by another, and another. Marcel’s mind was never still.
With a sigh, I stood to my full height, taking in a deep breath as I did so. I brought my arms together in front of me, one hand poised over the other as if I held a small ball. I let go my breath in a long exhale.
I stood that way for several moments, breathing in and out. I focused on calm, sending it outward to Marcel.
At last my mind found some measure of peace, and I began to move through the meditative forms I’d learned long ago. I closed my eyes, breathing in and out as I moved in rhythm with the earth. I let the wind direct my body as I focused only on the peace of the hilltop.
Move, inhale, step, exhale. Turn, and start again.
I was so focused on Marcel, on trying to calm the chaos he lived in, I didn’t notice right away I that I was no longer alone.
“Here you are.”
I opened my eyes at Andreú’s words, hiding my startled response.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
Andreú pulled me into an embrace, spinning me around in circles. His joy was infectious and I couldn’t help but laugh out loud.
“Put me down!”
He stopped spinning and let my feet back down to the ground, but didn’t release me.
“I’ve been looking all over for you.”
“That was a waste of your time. You should have known I’d be out here.”
“And I would know that, of course, because certainly you’re not supposed to be in Elder Harlan’s philosophy lecture right now.”
“Ugh! That man is insufferable. I don’t know why he insists we continue to sit through his boring lectures when we should be learning something far more practical. What with the war going on.”
“Right.” Andreú looked down at me, his eyes twinkling with mischief. “Then, of course I should have known you would be beating up some poor lout on the training yard. Because what is more practical than that?”
“Andreú!” I slapped at his shoulder, trying to push myself away, but he held me even tighter. “I don’t beat anyone up.”
“Of course not. Still, you were not there.”
“Master Chen has his hands full with all the new recruits. I wouldn’t be able to get a real workout. And I didn’t feel much like getting beat up myself by a bunch of clumsy farm boys with sticks.”
“Fair enough.” Andreú pulled me down to sit on the ground beside the tree, keeping his arm wrapped around my shoulders almost as if he feared I might flee. “But then I should have known by your absence at the yard that you would naturally be with Marcel.”
“I’m not my brother’s keeper, Andreú.”
“That’s not fair. I look out for him, is all.”
“He’s a grown man, Jana.”
“I know that—.”
“Shh.” Andreú put a finger on my lips to forestall my words. “I’m sorry. Let’s not fight.”
When I would have protested further, he leaned in close and kissed me. I had come to like these stolen kisses perhaps more than I should. But I let it continue. And didn’t resist when he pulled me onto his lap so that I straddled his legs with mine, knowing he did it deliberately.
Andreú pulled away first. When he did, he kept his hands on my face, leaving me nowhere to look but at him. His eyes held passion, and I could see he very much wanted to continue our little kissing game. As much as I did. But when I leaned in to do just that, his hands held me back.
When I looked back into his eyes, I noticed something I had missed. Besides the physical hunger was something deeper, a more intense longing. Almost a desperation.
“What is it?” I asked, suddenly worried about his answer. Andreú dropped his hands from my face, moving them instead to wrap around behind my lower back. I felt a sudden, unexplainable urge to flee from him. But his arms held me in place. “Andreú?”
“Jana, you know how I feel about you.”
A sensation akin to worms wriggling inside my chest made me squirm on his lap, trying to pull away. I knew now where he was going with this, and I simply couldn’t sit still and let it happen. Not again.
“And I know you care for me too,” he continued in a rush of words. “Would you stop?” His hands shifted to my hips, trying to keep me still.
“Andreú, please don’t do this.”
“No, Jana. I will do this. Marry me. I love you.”
The words had been spoken. I quit fighting against him as the worms became instead a block of ice. I couldn’t breathe. Didn’t dare meet his gaze. I couldn’t bear to witness his pain when I refused him again.
“Nothing has changed, Andreú.” I didn’t dare speak above a whisper for fear I would choke and begin to cry.
“But don’t you see? Everything has changed.”
“What? What has changed?”
“The war, Jana.”
“The war!” I said in disgust. I pushed away from him, but moved only so far as to settle on back on his knees. “Is that all anyone can talk about?”
“It’s worse than they’re telling us. They will send us all out.”
“Send us? To war? What are you talking about? We’re all that’s left here. They can’t send everyone.”
“If we don’t go there, the war will come to us. It’s only a matter of time.”
When I’d pushed away, Andreú’s hands had remained, resting lightly on my knees. He moved them away now, rubbing his face before dropping them into his lap. He looked away too, so that he no longer held my gaze. I could see the tension in his jawline. I wanted to reach out to him, to touch his face and somehow soften the hardness that I saw there. But fear for my brother held me back.
“Marcel can’t go to war. It would destroy him.”
“He’s a capable Empath. You need to give him room to do what he’s capable of. He’s your brother, Jana, not—.”
“Yes, my brother. And he needs me.”
“He’s a grown man. Why do still protect him? Why does he need you so badly you can’t find your own happiness?”
“You don’t understand. Marcel is different. He can’t… He’s not…” I fumbled for the right words and failed. “He is not like you, Andreú. He’s different.” My words sounded harsh even in my own ears. “I’m the only one who can help him.”
“Then help me understand.”
I stared back at him, trying to read what I saw in his eyes. All I saw was pain. I pushed to my feet and stepped away. I needed the space as I tried to rein in my wild thoughts and emotions. I turned my back on Andreú, looking up the river toward the hills. It was hard to believe that war and death and ugliness waited just beyond this peaceful scene.
Marcel had picked up on my distress despite how I’d tried to keep it from him. He was pacing again. I needed to end this. Quickly. Before things got out of control once more. I took a deep breath and let it out slowly before turning back toward Andreú.
“You and my brother were friends once,” I said. “I just wish it could be that way again.”
“I’ve tried, Jana,” he said with a weary voice. “He hates me.”
“He doesn’t hate you, Andreú. He’s afraid…”
“Afraid? Of what?”
“Of what you mean to me.”
“And do I? Mean something to you?”
“How can you even ask that? You know you do.”
“Do I?” Andreú clambered to his feet and held his hands out to me, but I refused to take them. He stood an arm’s length away, his gaze holding mine with an intensity I found difficult to return. “How can I know that, Jana? You’ve never said anything.”
“I always thought there’d be more time.” I looked away, unable to hold his gaze any longer. I even went so far as to turn my back and walk a few steps away. He was quiet for so long, I nearly turned back to be sure he was still there.
“There is no more time, Jana. The war, it’s coming.”
I didn’t turn around. I wasn’t ready to let him see the emotions I knew were plain on my face. After a few moments of silence, Andreú came and stood beside me. Together we stared down into the valley. The sun was now high in the sky.
From below came the sound of bells. We stood together, our hands not quite touching. His body sagged, and I could hear the resignation in his voice.
“It begins,” he said. “We’re already too late.”
©2016 T. A. Hampton
Part 2, coming soon