Installment for 2 June 2003
Still at the Gathering place. She'd been here so long. Except for Chestnut Hair throwing the tray in her face six - seven? - dinners ago, Nelle had no idea of time passing.
The lights went out.
The cavern fell silent.
Nelle shifted. The sound of her exhaling -
The lights came back on.
The sound came back - the distant drone of air pumps driving air down from the surface.
Nelle stood up, knocking her elbow against the statue, sending shooting pain up her arm. She grimaced and so did the statue.
But the statue always grimaced. This statue had a twisted look of agony on its face.
The lights went out one more time.
She heard people stirring in nearby cells.
The lights came back.
Nelle third-folded her mat. If she quarter-folded it, her butt hung too far over the back to be comfy. She settled into sitting facing the back of the cell.
"Can I sit with you for a few minutes?"
Nelle looked up at the person coming down the stairs into the cell. A small man in plain brown robes. He had a red cloth tied in his hair. Nelle thought that meant something.
She started to get up but he motioned for her to stay seated. He undid the tie around his waist and took off his mat. He third-folded it and settled onto the floor in front of her.
"Are you a full-fledged monk?" Nelle asked. "Do monks get fledged?"
He smiled. Something odd.
"I am a monk, I suppose," he told her.
"Is it a sweep?" she asked. "The lights going out? Somebody told me the cops do sweeps."
He nodded. "The police are convinced we have a killer hiding here."
"Why not?" Nelle asked. "You're sheltering me. Why not shelter a killer?"
He looked at her for a moment. Nelle wondered if she had gone too far - hinted too much.
"We're not sheltering anyone. Or, rather, we're sheltering everyone. We are not the police. We are not bound to find lawbreakers."
Nelle nodded. Something odd.
"Still," she said. "Can you really take that attitude? I mean, if any criminal can hide here, soon, you'll have nothing but criminals."
He turned his hands over - palms up - and looked down at them.
"What is there to steal? Will you steal my mat? How many mats can you carry? Let them come. There's a reason why people are unhappy in that world. Perhaps they can find contentment here."
"People steal my mats. How long will it take? The sweep?"
"It depends on how many officers they use. An hour or two." He crooked his head to the side and smiled a rueful smile. "The city keeps trying to have this place condemned. They say someone in need of medical care would not be able to get it. I think the police do not want to climb up sixty or seventy stories after they do one of their sweeps."
"You're mirroring me," Nelle told him, turning her head to the left.
He nodded. As if to underscore his agreement, he cocked his head to the right.
"You wanted to talk to me, Mister Mirror?"
"I don't think it has anything to do with this sweep," he told her. "Still, he has found you. Your pursuer. Questions are being asked. The exits will probably be watched."
Nelle nodded thoughtfully. Her visitor nodded as well.
"How long have you been here?" she asked him.
"I don't remember," he said. "Five years, I think. It's 2048, right?" Nelle nodded. "I haven't come this far up in a couple of years."
Her guest fell silent. She looked down at him - tried to read the subtle clues humans gave off - she herself gave off. Perhaps he wanted her to leave and spare him and the others the trouble of fighting a Baron. Perhaps he wanted to do her, right here in the middle of a sweep.
"But you know that's not why I wanted to talk to you," he said.
Nelle shrugged. "What's your name, Mirror Man?" she asked.
He talked like Chicago. Must be the son of a Mexican soldier.
"I don't really know," Nelle said. "Ordinarily, I'd fake it along for a while, see if I could get you to tip me off as to what you want but - " she looked up, looked around the cell, looked at the side of the grimacing statue - the main occupant of the cell. She shook her head. "This place just sucks all that out of me. And I miss it."
Lupe smiled broadly - joyfully.
"It is meant to, but if you miss it, you are not meant to be here yet."
"So," she went on, smiling a little herself. "Well, no. I have no idea why you want to talk to me."
He nodded. "There are many here who think you to be a guide."
"Is that why my mat is stolen twice daily?"
He nodded. "People have been talking about you. People have been moving forward because of you."
"So, what?" Nelle asked. "Do you want me to deny my divinity?"
He shook his head, looking quite serious about her question. "We are all seeking to touch the divine."
"I meant - "
"I know. I know. No one thinks you're encouraging people to move forward. We are concerned at how many have moved to the outer quarters. At first, we thought they would move back."
"Is it a problem?"
"Problems are transitory. Still, only one hundred monks may occupy the inner quarters. Only when - "
"If you want, I'll tell people not to move ahead. That's really annoying."
"Sorry," he said, looking down at his left hand, mirroring Nelle's gesture. "Telling them won't mean anything. It's the mats we're worried about. You've used a number of mats since you arrived."
"Yes," Nelle said. "Forty or fifty, I guess. People keep stealing them when I'm in the shower. Or if I leave it in a cell."
"They don't steal them," Lupe suggested. "They don't own them and neither do you. That's the problem."
"They're not showing up on the Bay, are they?"
"I don't know. I don't think anyone has taken a mat outside the Gathering Place. It's causing problems - transitory but irritating. People have marked the mats you've used. They - like you - are losing them when they cleanse. Those with mats are traveling in groups to - so that one can watch the mats at the cleansing."
"It's all very distracting from ignoring distractions."
"Yes. You're being sarcastic, aren't you?"
"A little. Okay, what can I do about it?"
"We want you to sit on all the mats."
She stared at him. Did he just say -
"All of them. If you sit on each mat, then they can no longer be objects of - interest."
"I - I'm sorry. I thought you were making a fat joke. Sitting on all the mats, like my ass was huge. That huge. Shit. Ow."
"I meant no - "
"I guess," she said. "You wouldn't know. It happens every day. Every day. You'd think we were living in the damn twentieth. Any, hey, let's be clear. This isn't about the Floating Spirit. People are fixated on me because I weigh 150 kilos. Three hundred and forty-two libras at my last medical. People take my mats because I'm a freak."
Lupe looked down at the statue's robes to his left.
Nelle let the silence go on.
A cop walked down the stairs into her cell. She looked up, looked at his scanner.
"Hello, Baron," she said.
"Just doing my job, Sister," the cop said, turning to walk back up the stairs.
"If you think that people only think of you as a freak," Lupe began quietly, "you are wrong. The story of the Floating Spirit has spread throughout the community. If it's -"
"Shut up," Nelle said. "I'll do it. How many mats are there?"
"About ten thousand," he said.
"I am not getting up and sitting down ten thousand times. I am not spending my knees on that."
He shook his head. "We will find a way."
"Do you think it will work?" she asked. "I mean - will that count in people's minds? If I just sit on it for a moment?"
"I think so. People just want to have a connection to the divine. They think you have come closer to it."
"Who's our friend, here?" she asked, hitting the concrete robes of the statue. "He's all grimacy, like, I'm so angry at existence'."
Lupe looked up at the statue. He couldn't see its face from where he sat.
"I don't think they have names. The statues were added in the twenties. I don't know why, but it's impossible for me to imagine the Gathering place without them."
"I have to get out of here," Nelle told him. "I don't know if I can. I don't know if Mister Purple has finished his mission or is even still free and alive." She shook her head. Mister Mirror shook his head. "My enemy is too powerful. I don't have anything - except the ability to bless mats."
"Perhaps that will be useful for you."
The Floating Spirit © 2003 Tim D. Sherer
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