“Yeah, alright. Let’s go.”
“You’re okay with this?”
“I’ve always felt that there was more out for me than this.”
“I thought you loved your life.”
“I do,” Clark Rivkin picked at the dry skin around his thumb, a nervous habit his wife had begged him to stop, “but it’s gotten too easy.”
“A lot of people would be grateful for that.”
“I am!” He looked up at his current companion, and his dark eyes told the truth. He was content, but there had always been a nagging deep inside him that there was something beyond the horizon. Fifty four years of his life had passed with plenty of lovely, completely ordinary wonderful experiences. If the next ones could be filled with a little bit of wild, he wanted it.
“What will you tell your wife?” The small woman was his polar opposite. Where he was tall and broad, she was short and lean. Though she was significantly older than him, there were no crow’s feet around her gray eyes or silver streaks in her brunette curls to give her away.
“I’ll tell her I need some time from work, an exotic trip. She’s taken a few with her girls, she’ll understand.”
“And if you don’t make it back?”
He scoffed, “Old men get lost on mid-life-crisis trips all the time. She’ll be okay eventually.”
Though he wasn’t positive she would be. If he really was gone for good, he knew that would break her heart. Though their love had never been a heated affair, it had always been loyal and steady. She’d been one of the easy choices of his life. As he leapt up the corporate ladder in the tourist industry, he knew he would need a strong partner and a patient wife. He’d found them both in her. And here he was about to reward his wonderful bride of thirty years with abandonment. Yet- he ached for adventure.
The lean woman nodded. “Alright, grab your essentials and make any needed arrangements. You’ll need to be ready by dawn.”
He raised an eyebrow, “By dawn?”
She smirked, “Sorry, habit. I’ll be here by 6:30 tomorrow morning. You need to be ready because we have to be out of here quickly to meet up with the others.”
He watched her stand, straighten her blazer, and turn to his office door to leave.
She turned, “Mhm?”
“How are we traveling? If we fly, I need to get my meds. I’m a terrible flyer.”
She sucked her teeth, then sighed. “Clark, we’re not flying. But if you need meds for traveling, you’re gonna want to bring ’em.”
He nodded, pretending that didn’t sound incredibly foreboding. When she left, he began picking at his thumb again. Time to call the wife, tell her he’d be out of town for a while. He briefing considered saying he was scouting a new hotel area, but then she’d want to come help and talk to the locals. So he decided to stick with the midlife crisis trip.
Speed dial 1. It rang twice, and then the familiar “Hey there!”
“Hey love, how’s the day going? Good good, well I’ve actually just booked a few weeks out. No not business. Yeah, I’m alright, just need some sunshine and air, you know. Yeah exactly, well I was thinking…”
It was 6:32 Eastern Standard Time, and she was far more comfortable back in a world she recognized.
Clark was barfing up his breakfast in a bush nearby.
“I told you it would be a rough travel. Take those meds of yours?”
Her question was met with a glare and another hurl.
It had been a big jump from his country home in New York to where they were meeting the rest of her company. The first ride was always the hardest, but if he really was the Champion, he’d get used to it over time. If not, well… then he wouldn’t have to worry about it.
Her company was waiting nearby in the woods, mostly whole, waiting on just a few more to join from their own travels.
Ani introduced Clark to Captain Collins, Sergeant Teak, and the rest of the group. They were all excited to meet him, not only because he was a potential Prophesied Champion, but because he was so entertaining! Even their obnoxious wizard Fendoialin coughed out a giggle when Clark told about being late to his own wedding because his pants wouldn’t stay up. Most of the other Ones that had been brought into their party were young or shy or brooding, and Clark was none of that. He was a confident gentleman, who talked about his family and joked about his “rowdy youth.” It was a nice respite, and previous Companions were a bit jealous of Ani’s find. She admitted to them that she had been surprised too when she’d happened upon Clark.
“And the gem went off immediately?” Private Jones asked, pointing to her necklace, where she kept one of the gems they’d each been gifted.
“The minute we shook hands,” she nodded, “so I made sure to get the job with his PR team so that I’d have access to the company calendar, get his birthday, and there it was- early Fall, under a Second Star. It shocked me, but I’ll admit I was pleased not to get stuck with a pre-teen!” She grimaced, “No offense, Dan.”
Private Elmer laughed, “None taken! That poor kid. I’m glad he pissed his pants and ran home before I had to watch The Door take him out, though.”
“Ah the illustrious Door-thingy,” Clark huffed, as the hills were harder on on a middle-aged hotel mogul than they were on a trained band of warriors, “tell me more about this door.”
“Ya know,” Sergeant Teak called from behind them, “I think the less you know about what The Door is capable of, the more comfortable you’ll be.”
“Ha!” The company froze at Clark’s laugh. It was, again, an unusual response. “I bet you’re right! Lead on, gents! And tell me more about these weird Kishi creatures instead…”
The next weeks seemed to fly by. It took the first couple to work on Clark’s endurance before they could even begin combat training, but when he finally had the breathing down, the sword work came easy. It gave Ani hope that so many of the moves came naturally to him. That hope only swelled when his stealth training went so well that they were able to pass the Thunder Kishi without disturbing them. Only once did they have to slow because he sprained an ankle in the marshes, and even then he didn’t whine, only apologized for his clumsy misstep. Of course, none of The Called seemed to mind, they were all settling into the idea of Clark being the One, and that was putting them all at an ease a few had not allowed themselves to feel in years.
It was twilight when they finally reached The Door. Ani wanted to wait. They had been traveling all day, Clark was tired, it was about to be dark, and-
“It should be now,” Captain Collins decided. “We’re here, the light is good. But Clark, if you want to wait, I understand.”
Ani began to answer for him that of course they should wait, but Clark placed a hand on her arm, “You have been waiting quite a long time by the sound of it, Captain. I won’t make you wait any longer. If I can be of service, let’s start now. And if I can’t, well, you can go back to doing your job.”
Captain Collins offered him a straight smile, “I appreciate that, Clark. I really do. And of all the Ones I’ve met, I’d sure hope I will answer to a Champion such as yourself.”
A blush crawled up Clark’s neck, and he coughed before thanking her “That’s probably the best compliment I’ve ever gotten, and I can’t even tell a soul back home.”
Private Jones laughed somewhere behind them. Ani wasn’t surprised that even here at a test of legendary life or disastrous death, Clark was trying to put all of them at ease. She didn’t think it was fair, and decided he deserved at least one more night to talk and laugh and rest, just in case.
She was about to demand they wait through the night when Clark looked to her.
“Ani, if it’s not me-”
“It will be, Clark. It feels right.”
He turned fully to her, took her shoulders in his hands, “But if it isn’t, Ani. I don’t regret coming. This has been amazing, wonderful. Thank you.”
She blinked away the weight in her eyes, swallowed the tightness in her throat. “Don’t say those things, Clark. They’re cliche’.”
He laughed, then squeezed her shoulders again. “Just in case though, Ani. No-” He stopped her protest, “just in case. Promise me one thing.”
“Of course, Clark.”
“Take care of Pepper.”
“Your wife.” Her heart broke. Every nerve screamed, but she remained still and visibly calm.
“Yes, Pepper didn’t deserve to be deserted, though I imagine when they finally assume me dead and give her my will, she’ll participate in some retail therapy.” He chuckled at his own small joke. “Nonetheless, it can’t be easy to be left on your own when you thought you had a lifelong partner. So please, however you do it, make sure Pepper will be alright.”
She took his hands, held them in her own. Her gray eyes met his brown ones with nothing but strength. “I promise.”
“Thank you,” He squeezed her hands, kissed her cheek, and then walked to stand before The Door.
He looked towards Captain Collins. “Is there some way to turn it on?”
“No, just approach The Door in whatever way feels right to you. You know the circumstances?” The captain’s voice was stern, but there was a hint of concern in her eyes.
“I do.” He said more to the wall of stone than anyone else. Then he squared his shoulders, and approached The Door with confident steps.
He’d only taken two when the dust around his feet began to swirl. The small whirlwind rose to his ankles, then his knees.
“No, Clark!” Ani moved to save him, but strong arms locked her in place. “Let me go!”
“I’m so sorry, Ani,” Jones’s said at her ear, “but you’ll only get caught in it and we’ll lose you too.”
The duster was around Clark’s waist. He turned, smiled at Ani, and mouthed something.
“What? Clark no!” She pulled hard at Jones’s restraining weight, but she couldn’t focus enough to break free.
And the dust was up to Clark’s neck. Then his smile, his eyes, and past. The moment it reached just above his hair, it settled again. Where the dust storm and Clark had been, there was nothing.
“NO!” Ani lunged again, and this time Jones let her go. She ran and kneeled at the spot he’d stood, as if her silent despair would make the earth give him back.
Captain Collins took a knee beside her. “I’m sorry, Ani. I know he was important.”
“What did he say?”
“I know you can read lips. What did he say?”
Captain Collins paused, but a sharp look from Ani made her answer. “He said ‘tell Pepper I love her’.”
Ani sniffled, “I can’t.”
“Of course not,” Captain Collins nodded, “That would require re-entering her life, explaining you were with Clark. But I think he wasn’t considering that at the time.”
Ani nodded, though they both knew that wasn’t why. She stood, and dusted herself off.
“Well,” she sniffled once, “that’s a damn loss. Back to the search.”
But she’d already turned back to the camp.
Private Jones approached the Captain. “Orders, Captain?”
“Like she said, Private. We continue the search.”
Jones watched his fellow soldier as her back retreated into the woods, “and Ani?”
“Will do her job. Give her some space though, have McKoi take her spot on watch tonight. Keep an eye on her.”
And the search went on.
Atonement (noun): Reparation for a wrong or injury.
Another visit with The Called! Man they’re a fun gang, I really like them. But I am sorry they lost Clark, he was a good guy.
I normally make it a little easier how the word fits into the story. Today, the story and word both came out of me, but the word is more of a foreshadowing/hint to this chapter of The Called’s tale rather than this story itself. Is that cheating? Oh well, my blog, my rules 😛
But I am still Atonement today. Not in too much of the sobering sense, but this winter has kicked my butt, and for one reason or another I’ve let it! It’s time to get back on the workout schedule, put the TV remote down, and pick the book up, feed my body what it wants to be fed rather than what’s easy when it’s so cold outside.
Do you have those times when you need to look in the mirror and kinda apologize to yourself? “Sorry for all the judgement and junk food, I’ll get some quiet time and broccoli for you ASAP.” That’s where I am, and I think we often owe apologies to ourselves that we don’t give. Maybe we (and maybe Ani too?) need to give ourselves the apology, atonement, care, that we owe ourselves.