An excerpt from The Watchers: A Novella, coming 2022
Not words of forgiveness—the old man knew he didn’t deserve that.
He’d long believed that forgiveness was a shallow, meaningless gesture. It gave him no peace, for any man or god could say I forgive you. One only had to ask for those words and they were given, no matter how horrific the sin. That his god had done so long ago was proof that the gesture meant nothing. That he hadn’t felt absolved left him restless.
No, Emil prayed for opportunity.
He maintained this pose—his head down, eyes closed, hands folded—for a half hour, as he did every morning. The sun beyond the cave slowly rose and orange light skipped across his stooped figure. He prayed more in argument than surrender, for his god had given him the same answer every morning for years. Opportunity lay out there, in the world beyond Emil’s refuge. He heard. He listened. And he rejected his god’s answer, begging for another, for he was as cowardly as he was repentant.
The sunrise broke free of the horizon; its light glowed behind Emil’s eyes. He opened them, raising his head and his hands at once. He imagined his words—do something with my wretched life—pooling like rainwater in the palms of his hands and flung them into the air. The wind carried his prayer away.
Emil slowly got to his feet, knees snapping, the trance of his meditation lifting quickly. Standing in the cave’s entrance, he knew this day would be like all the others—squandered. No, he told his god again, going back is impossible. He’d be shot on sight, everyone he knew was long-dead, and what would he even do when he got there? It would be a different place now, unrecognizable, and filled with what he feared most.
No, Emil pressed, though no voice argued with him. He left the cave and walked the well-worn path to his cabin, as he’d done every morning for fifteen years. He’d been a coward for a long time and no longer expected much from himself but the simple tasks required to survive alone in the woods. All he had were these tasks, his memories, and the guilt. It was the guilt that kept him hidden and alone.
He made the gentle turn left and downhill and came upon the view of his cabin nestled cozily by a small pond, and thought of Anna, as she used to be. In better times, this cabin had been their summer retreat and Emil still saw it that way. After the revolution, he half-expected her to meet him here, but she never turned up. The authorities did, however, and briefly; he’d hidden in a root cellar for a full day, all the while telling himself it was coincidence, that Anna couldn’t have given him up. Not the woman who’d loved him once. When they left, he turned the root cellar into an escape tunnel.
The rest of the morning passed quaintly. Emil had his breakfast and fed the birds, chipmunks, and geese, greeting each with the name he’d given them. He sat on his porch and whittled what would, eventually, be a white-tail deer. As he carved, the sun yellowed and climbed the sky. The trees that ringed the pond were still bare, the reeds dry and withered, but in the woods a chickadee sang out for a mate, which meant spring was here and he should till the garden for planting. This had been the rhythm of his life for fifteen years. Fifteen years that blended together into one long stretch of quiet, simple time, with only his own, uncomplicated thoughts for company and his memories like an ache.
Emil didn’t mind it. Sameness meant safety, whereas change was a sharp slap out of the endless haze of his daily life and into awareness. Change, like the presence of another person inside his circle of solitude. He felt her dimly at first; she slipped into his thoughts like a light breeze ruffling the surface of a pond. Then suddenly she was a gust, uprooting trees. Uprooting him. It couldn’t be. Could it?
Emil glanced up from his whittling to scan the lawn, expecting to find someone standing there. He was, as he had been, alone, but he still felt her, somewhere, and not far way. He listened. The chickadee sang. Another gust blew across his mind: a second presence joined the first. There was a man and a woman. Where could they have come from? Where were they now?
He put down his whittling knife and the half-formed deer. The suddenness of their presence left Emil reeling and confused. No one came out here, ever; he was the only soul for miles and miles. Maybe he was mistaken, his gift rusty from disuse, but he rejected this idea as soon as it arose. His gift had never failed him before and he knew it. It failed just the once, but—
The woman screamed.
No, not a woman. A girl.
Emil sat straighter in his chair. This was the first voice he’d heard in fifteen years and it took a moment for his ears to adjust. Sitting there, he resembled the deer he’d stopped whittling—his every muscle absolutely still, lungs barely breathing, tuning his senses to the intrusive sound to figure out where it was and whether it was a threat.
The girl screamed again.
He leapt off his rocking chair and sprinted down the steps, around the back of the cabin, into the woods. Old leaves crackled under his boots and she screamed again, her voice closer this time. Her spirit expanded in his mind, so strong he knew where she was—near the river where brook trout swam in the summer—and heard her thoughts, a million of them, heaving and twisting across his mind like swallows in flight. She was frightened and believed herself doomed; Emil sensed the man who doomed her but ignored him.
All that mattered was the girl.
He ran towards her, hardly feeling his own body racing across the forest floor. The first person he was going to see in fifteen years was a girl, barely into womanhood. What would she be like? Would she be friendly, combative, standoffish? And what would he even say to her? Emil was once good with people, very good, but those days were gone and he was an unpracticed brute now. In a moment he’d see himself reflected in these strangers, in their reactions to how he looked and what he said. He didn’t want to be seen. And they may try to hurt him, of course. That’s what people did—they hurt each other. Emil almost stopped, but he saw the scene in his mind already: the river swollen with snow melt, the narrow passage choking it into a foam of rapids and, on the bank, the man holding the girl captive. Her demise was imminent and she knew it. Then Emil’s body was on the high ground that overlooked the river and the picture in his mind merged with the outside world.
The man and the girl stood on the riverbank, looking out of place in a spot Emil knew so well. His eyes and ears struggled to focus on the couple, their figures blurred, the sound of pounding water muffled, but their pose was as he’d imagined. The man was behind the girl, one arm locked around her shoulders, the other pinning her arm behind her back. He breathed heavily on the side of her neck, lips nearly kissing her ear.
Emil felt like an idiot standing there on the high ground, staring, an act that would make it obvious he lived somewhere in the woods. And what did he think he was going to do, anyway? The man was young and broad-shouldered, stronger than him. Well under thirty, to Emil’s sixty-three. And the young man was armed. At the sight of the gun, Emil ducked, but too late. The man’s eyes flicked upward, catching him, and he yelled “hey!”
The second voice he’d heard, other than his own, in fifteen years.
The girl looked up at Emil, too; he met her eyes from above and stood up straight. Her tiny, vivid face made him want to be taller, stronger, and braver, not just because he wanted her to know he could—and would—save her life. He felt measured and judged by her, her mind melded to his already. Incredibly, Emil forgot his fear.
“What are you doing out here, gramps!” the man barked up at him. “This isn’t a residential zone!”
“Just taking a walk,” Emil answered.
He showed the man his hands and made his way down the slope, boots skidding on leaves and soft ground, dizzy from the clanging reality of their voices in the quiet forest.
“That’s against the law, too,” the man barked.
He held a gun to the girl’s head and there was a flatness to his eyes and an unnerving lack of patience Emil didn’t like. It was unwise to question him. The girl—tiny, elfish, blond—was composed, yet angry, and she scowled at Emil, judging his appearance. He had a villainous look—a deforming scar on his left cheek that offset his mouth, obsidian eyes, slanted, winged eyebrows, and he was dressed in layers of old, patched clothes.
Emil smiled, though he knew the effect wasn’t pleasing. “Let the girl go.”
The man snorted. “You, get down on your knees, and put your hands on your head.”
“Why would I do that?”
“Why wouldn’t you?”
With the gun, he tapped an emblem embroidered on the shoulder of his long overcoat; Emil now noticed that the man wore a black uniform with gold trim. The set also included trousers, tall boots, and beret. The emblem was a modified version of one Emil had seen fifteen years ago, back when he still lived in Chicago. At first, it had been spray-painted on buildings, then it decorated propaganda. Just before Emil found himself on the wrong side of a revolution, it adorned flags.
An eye, nestled in the outstretched wings of an eagle.
“How about this?” the solider said. Emil heard a tremble in his voice, as if his authority was new. “You get down on your knees, or I shoot you right now.”
Emil obeyed. If he was shot, the girl’s punishment was sealed and he sensed it would be extreme. The soldier’s mind revealed she’d stolen something; the bulging bag looped around her shoulder confirmed it. Remembering what the radicals had believed in those early days, Emil guessed the girl would be hanged for this crime. Was this her first attempt at stealing? He didn’t think so; she had the unremarkable look of a thief—small, plain, and tomboyish, with her hair cropped short and a meek face. Long limbs gave her the illusion of height, her petite size, the illusion of youth. She wore frayed clothes too big for her—possibly hand-me-downs from a brother, given the masculine style—but showed signs of being hemmed to fit. With a quick glance, she could be mistaken for a preteen boy. He pictured her slipping in and out of crowds unnoticed, her small hands diving into pockets.
“Who did she steal from?” Emil said.
The soldier’s flat eyes sparked and he made himself taller, flicking up a sharp-tipped nose. “A Commander. She pilfered a jewelry box from his summer home.”
Emil extended his hands. “Clearly, the girl is in need. If this Commander is as wealthy as he seems, surely he can part with a few trinkets. She needs it more than him.”
The man’s thin lips flattened. “What are you suggesting?”
“Just a simple act of charity.”
“Charity!” The word pinged off tree trunks. “Suffering elevates Sinners to Saints! Would you deny this Sinner,” and he twisted the girl’s arm, the one he’d pinned behind her back, “the opportunity to earn herself a better place?”
Emil had heard such talk before. It started maybe twenty years ago, maybe earlier. The beginning was hard to pinpoint, for the stirrings of revolution were quiet and infrequent at first, slithering from person to person, spreading almost imperceptibly. Emil had been amazed and disgusted at who, among his friends and colleagues, believed and repeated the rantings of a gullible, dissatisfied minority. A minority that aspired to overthrow the government, and succeeded. The crazed ranting had metastasized into dogma, spoken by a man in authority. It was now the law. Emil’s cabin, his life, felt very far away now. He looked at it nostalgically, with a twinge in his chest.
“I am just arguing for mercy, that’s all—”
“Put your hands on your head! You’re both coming with me.” The soldier imagined the girl’s hanging joyously; Emil’s fate was shadowy, something with a squat cement building and razor wire— “I said, put your hands on your head!”
The soldier extended his arm over the girl’s shoulder, the gun in his hand now aiming at Emil’s heart.
Come on, old man, do something…
The girl wriggled under the man’s grip, her eyes glancing down, at her boot, her voice slipping into Emil’s mind, clear as his own—distract him— as the soldier grew angry and impatient, and all of this rang between Emil’s ears at the same time, dizzying him, blurring and muffling the outside world, disconnecting him from his own consciousness. He stumbled. This is how it was in his youth, when his gift emerged and he didn’t understand it. Back then, it felt like insanity. It had been treated as such.
Emil’s hands were pressed against something cold, pulling his mind back into his body. He’d fallen forward, the heel of his palms sinking into humus. He grounded himself in the feeling of soft and cold on his skin and the color of the brittle, pale yellow leaves strewn around his knees. He remembered, in a snap, how to live in other people’s minds and his own, at the same time. Slowly, clarity returned and he chuckled softly to himself.
Go home, his god had ordered, over and over again. It was foolish of Emil not to listen. Pointless, really. There was no ignoring the universe and its commands when it had a mission to fulfill. Emil wondered what it was. Regardless, his compliance didn’t matter; his god had brought the outside world to his doorstep.
Come on old man! The girl thought. What are you doing?
Emil pushed himself back to his knees and faced her. Her expression gave away nothing. Only her eyes—wide and burning like tiny fires—hinted at her desperation. Emil measured the distance between himself and the soldier, and then looked to the sky.
And then, he got to his feet.