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15 February 2013 @ 02:33 am
{fic} Smoke and Mirrors  
Title: Smoke and Mirrors
Summary: Often we're made up of smoke and mirrors...vague reflections of those we've lost and those who might have been. In the spring of 1927, a reclusive time traveler crosses paths with an inquistive and hurting child. 
Genre: drama 
Characters/Pairings: Tony, Gen. Kirk ; none
Warnings: post-series, dark themes, sensitive subject matter

Smoke and Mirrors

"I began to feel as though the world was coming to an end. I guess I was a bit hazy. Anyway, the next thing I remember I was out on the street..... I went back to the building and helped with the rescue work until we were ordered to stop while a search was made for dynamite."-O.H. Buck, May 18, 1927

"She evokes the same awe, horror and pity as do schizophrenics who often combine deep, true insight with utter helplessness, and who retreat into madness."-Schein, on the myth of Cassandra

There's an old house on the way home from school, abandoned since before I was born until six months ago. There's a man who lives there now, a strange sort of person, everyone says, but then again, Bath is such a small town that any outsider can seem strange. I don't think he's strange, though, just alone.

I call him Mr. Cassandra. If he has a real name, no one has ever heard it or bothers to use it. He sees me around the house one day, catching garter snakes, and he warns, in a voice somewhat hoarse from disuse, about the poisonous snakes that come up on the porch for the sun, and after a long pause he asks my name.

"Heywood, sir." I reply quickly. "Heywood Kirk."

Something flickers in his eyes and I step onto the porch as he starts to come down. He's tall but not an imposing man and yet my eleven year old body has all the hope of an ant attempting to block the path of a human. I stare down through a crack in the wood at a snake below us, curled and seemingly non-threatening, although I know it's dangerous.

"Does it hurt to die?" I blurt out. I expect the answer, the way adults talk to children, a soothing denial, a condescending smile. But he doesn't give me either. He only keeps his eyes on the snake, and a hand pressed into the wall beside him, fingers gripping the splintering wood.

"I think there are things that hurt worse than dying." The words are faint and I feel my chest twist at the familiarity of his tone.

"Me, too." I say.

I work for him after school, then, somedays, bringing food and supplies to him, running errands when he needs them. He doesn't pay me much because he has almost nothing, not even a change of clothes, and the little money he has is old coins from the 1800s or before, and a tiny nugget of gold.

I read the books in his house, left there by the people before, the myths and legends from Greece and Rome, King Arthur and Robin Hood, and a book of pirates. He doesn't bother me when I read, and says little, moving like a ghost through the rooms. Everyday he reminds me of the snakes around the porch, and I walk past them carefully, keeping a wide distance. After a while he starts to talk a little to me, asking me the date, telling me what will happen tomorrow, like a fortune teller with a crystal ball. I never pay much attention to it, because Mama always said that a person could say it would rain and be right 50% of the time. But he's never wrong so I suppose he's good at guessing.

It's like Apollo's temple, this house, filled with layers of the past, shades of the supernatural, with the snakes licking Mr. Cassandra's ears clean so he can hear the whispers of the future, and leaving him alone with the burden of it. I wonder if no one believes him, if Apollo spit into his mouth, too, and left him with a twisted gift that's more curse than blessing. After a while I notice the way he is, the strange way he starts to put out two plates and stops halfway to the table, the way he walks as if he's unbalanced on one side, the look in his eyes as he glances up and then down again when he hears my footsteps. That's when I figure out he wasn't always alone like this. Somebody else was with him and is gone now. I know because I've walked that way, too, looked around and found nothing. I'm not grown up like him but I understand loss.

"What happened to the other person?" I ask one day as I'm helping him wash the windows. He stops, hand halfway to the soapy rag.

"What person?" His voice is careful.

"Somebody you were with. Was it your brother?"

He looks at me, then, and for the first time I see his eyes clearly. Black as night, deep as the ocean, and filled with so much pain it's like a knife in the heart to look at them. "A friend." He says softly. "Like a brother to me. We traveled together for a long time."

"Did you kill him?" He looks startled, then stunned.

"No. Heywood, no, of course not. Why would you think...?"

"Cain and Abel, like in Sunday School. Mama says all brothers are against brothers."

"No, Heywood." A look of pain crosses his face. "He was...is the closest thing to a brother I ever had. And I would have sold my soul before I'd hurt him. Not all brothers hate their brothers. Only a few."

"Did he die, then?" The soap streaks across the window, a thin cord wrapped around the glass.

"I don't know." His rags wipes away the line, leaving a faint smear. "We were traveling. I lost him. He stayed somewhere and I went on. Eventually I came here."

"Did you try to find him back?"

"I always look, Heywood." His voice stabs him, every word bleeding. "I won't find him."

"Mr. Cassandra?" I venture a look at him and he's watching me, a hand still resting on the window sill. "Did he believe you about every tomorrow? Did he blame you for losing him?"

His head lifts, slightly, the stoop of his shoulders straightening and taking away some of the aged look of his body. "Always." He says faintly, and there's a slight smile beneath the edges of the word. "And no, he would never have blamed me."

"I wouldn't, either." I say, and there's a fierceness to the words. He looks surprised, but only nods.

"Thank you, Heywood."

oooOOOooo

Once, I see the farmer killing his trees, tiny saplings and shade trees barely grown, like newborns. He's a strange man, not in the way Mr. Cassandra is, but dark, like a hurricane over the water. I run past his farm and to the old house, and Mr. Cassandra is there as always, a snack of bread and jelly and a glass of milk waiting for me.

"What was your friend like?" I slide into the chair as he sits across from me, taking a slice for himself. He spreads the jelly across the bread and I see his eyes flicker with the memories.

"Like an anchor." He says finally. "He had more strength than anyone I've ever known."

"Did he look like you?"

"Dark, like me. A little older." He tips a finger toward his forehead, an absent gesture. "He had a widow's peak there. No, he didn't look like me."

"If he'd looked like you would you ever be able to look at yourself again?" I stare down at my face in the dim reflection of the table.

"Yes." He's studying me, some note of empathy echoing between us. "All of us carry pieces of other people inside us, Heywood. Our parents' eyes, our siblings' habits, our friends' dreams. Some of those people we lose. We live for all of them. They go on because we go on."

"Is it enough?" I ask faintly, and my voice quivers, as if something wound tight inside me is tugging loose. "It shouldn't have to be, should it, Mr. Cassandra? They should be here, too." I look up and his eyes are glinting with unshed tears. He doesn't reply.

That night I tell Father about the farmer, Mr. Kehoe. He tells me not to go by there again, to take the long way to school. I don't obey.

oooOOOooo

I tell him, finally, during the afternoon as I'm reading a book and he's fixing a floorboard that's loose by the door.

"I killed my brother when I was born." The words hang heavily in the air, a murder confession before a judge and jury. His head lifts as he stands, turning to face me. "We were twins. My cord wrapped around his neck. It was my fault he died."

He comes and sits across from me, and he looks old and worn. "Heywood." His voice is soft, gentle. "It wasn't your fault. It just happened."

"But why did I live instead of him?" The words tumble out, raw and torn. "Why didn't I die?"

"I don't know." His voice is thick. "No one ever does. I don't know why my friend was left behind and I wasn't. But my friend believed there was a reason for everything. I think I once believed it, too. Somewhere there must be a reason."

I don't know how long I stay. I tell him everything, about the pain in Mama's eyes when she looks at me, the little grave with no name, the empty spot I feel beside me where my brother should be. He listens, not speaking, not moving, until I'm hoarse. Finally I'm ready to go, and as I reach for the door his words stops me.

"Heywood, don't go to school tomorrow." His voice is low, like thunder on the horizon, a harbinger of a terrible storm. I look back, and he's staring out the window as if memorizing every building. "I told the other children's parents." He continues, almost more to himself than to me. "They wouldn't listen. None of them. Don't go to school. Go anywhere else but don't go to school."

"Why?" The word echoes, throwing itself back at me.

"Something bad will happen tomorrow." The sentence is heavy with sorrow. "Believe me, Heywood, and don't go."

I don't speak and I know he isn't expecting a reply. My shoes squeak on the floorboards as I take the porch steps two at a time, only stopping to look back once I'm outside. I still see his face in the window, a solitary and lonely figure looking across the town, eyes dark with the pain of some unseen tragedy, like Cassandra, the first one to see, watching her brother's body being dragged back into the city.

oooOOOooo

"Mr. Cassandra told me not to go to school tomorrow." My voice is barely above a whisper but the words echo, retreating into the corners like the spiders on the webs over the toys that would have been his. "He said bad things would happen."

Mama still doesn't turn, eyes staring into the sink, scrubbing the dishes. "He's a strange man. I don't want you talking to him again."

"Should I stay home, Mama?"

She doesn't answer this time and I want to catch her arm, shake her, and demand she look at me, that she see me and not my brother, blue and lifeless, in the reflection of my eyes. But I don't.

I don't go to school. I walk, away from the farmer, away from school, and away from the house. I walk until I can hear my heartbeat in my ears, and the breath in my lungs escaping in ragged gasps. Finally I sit beneath a tree and stare up at the sun through the branches, and think, just think, of my brother, of Mr. Cassandra's eyes, and of the warning. And then, somewhere in the middle of my thoughts, I hear the explosions.

oooOOOooo

It takes me a while to understand what happened, to grasp the horror of the scene as I see the school, collapsed and blackened, smoking from flickering fires that dot the walls like tiny beacons. There's a wall down, with little arms and legs sticking out from beneath, and I numbly hear voices shouting as men heave the wall, pulling bodies from beneath, searching for anyone alive. The postmaster is lying on the ground with a man beside him and I choke, dry heaving as I see his leg is gone, just a bloody and torn bit left. Mr. Buck comes out of the wreckage, dragging something I dimly recognize as dynamite, and more men run to join him. Mrs. Hart is huddled on the steps, Percy cradling in her arms, with his two sisters lying on either side of her, faces white and frozen in death. I'm in shock, too numb to move.

My father is there, carrying one of the teachers out, and he shouts at me to get back. Mama isn't there, of course, but I didn't expect her. I dimly recognize Mr. Kehoe's truck, burned and twisted, and someone or something in the wreckage. I turn, and run, away from the horror, from what's left of school, and toward Mr. Cassandra's.

I run up the steps of the boarding house, a splinter of wood catching my hand as I grab for the door and stop, seeing him sitting on the porch.

"You knew." The words rip out of me, like a scab torn too early from a wound, every letter bleeding. My feet are planted in front of him, the countless cracks in the worn porch forming a vine-like pattern around me, and his eyes follow them for a long time before looking up. "You're like Cassandra. You know what's going to happen."

"Heywood, I can't see the future." He says softly, and he looks so much older in that moment, a man still in his thirties but aged and worn. "I'm from the future. Your future." My head shakes and he doesn't stop, only continuing. "Six hours of your life. Enough time to miss the explosions. You wouldn't even have missed it if nothing had happened that day. But it did and you survived. And you've always wondered why you didn't go to school but you don't remember." He gives a strange smile. "I didn't remember myself. It's like ripples in a pond. Time irons itself out again and it's gone. When I go on you won't have any memory of ever being here. Of meeting me."

"No." My voice is harsh, a rough jerking sound. "I won't forget you. I won't. You're the only person who's ever understood me. You don't blame me for my brother. You don't look at me and wonder if he would be exactly like me. You just see me."

He reaches out his hand and puts it on my shoulder, warm and calloused with a fine web of old scars and scrapes worked into the skin like an ancient map, and I grab onto his arms, my face falling against the scratchy wool of his sweater, clinging to him as a hot tear stains my sleeve.

"Clytemnestra kills Cassandra." My voice is muffled but there's a desperation in it, as if the answer to my question means everything in the world. "She knows he's going to kill her and she doesn't run. She walks into the room. Why does she do that?"

There's a long pause, so long I think he hasn't heard. When he speaks his voice is ragged around the edges. "I suppose she grew tired." And I want a different answer, because even if he's right, it still hurts.

"You're going to find your friend someday." I state firmly, because I've never believed anything so much in my life. "I know you will." He pulls back, his hand reaching out and gently ruffling my hair, and I think if I could have chosen my father I would have picked him. He steps away, then, toward the inside.

"Mr. Cassandra." He stops against the door, hand on the wood, and I stare hard into the back of his sweater, eyes frozen on it as if I can remember forever, because I know it's the last time I'll ever see him. "What's your name?"

He doesn't look back, and for a long time I think he hasn't heard me.

"Tony."

I lift my chin. "I'm proud to have met you, Mr. Tony."

oooOOOooo

In autumn when the trees turn crimson and gold, I walk past the Kehoe farm and look at the blackened earth, the twisted stumps of trees, and the tiny bits of broken metal. In the center of the stand of saplings there's a little girdled tree, choked to death, leaning against another that somehow worked free. It's a frail thing, clinging to life, but alive, pushing against the destruction around it with all it's might. I kneel and clear around it, giving it room to breathe, and I rest my hand against the dead one, it's near twin.

I think I understand then. The sapling didn't choose to survive at the expense of the other. It simply did. Like me, and my brother. No one could have changed it. I didn't do it. I carry him with me in my face and in my movements, a mirror of what could have been, but not what is. He's with me, but not me, and I think I'm strong enough to live like that, to live for both of us and not linger in his shadow. We've all started healing, I suppose, scars closing over wounds and leaving us forever changed but surviving, learning to live with the ghosts and not become one ourselves.

I walk home past the old abandoned house, run-down and overgrown with weeds. Only the snakes go inside and everyone says it's haunted.

I wouldn't know about that.

oooOOOooo

On May 18, 1927, Andrew Kehoe murdered his wife, set his farm on fire, and detonated hundreds of pounds of dynamite and the incendiary pyrotol beneath the Bath Consolidated School in Bath Township, Michigan before committing suicide by exploding his shrapnel-filled truck, killing thirty-eight elementary school children and six adults, and injuring at least fifty-eight. It is believed that Kehoe's losing the election for township clerk, bitterness over the extra tax levied for the school, and the foreclosure of his farm contributed to his committing mass murder.

 
 
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