Aphelion Issue 241, Volume 23
July 2019
 
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Faces

by Kaye Branch



Seven hundred years prior to her birth, Jenaya defensively stripped her name down to Jen. She watched her hand carefully every time she wrote her name and worried irrationally that she'd write her name somewhere public and get discovered. Jen shouldn't have been annoyed by the lack of signature in the pages of the calendar book.

The calendar book covered the span of 1996 to 1997. The activities were listed in slots marked by hour. Many of them involved mothers or ballet, two activities none of her housemates were interested in, yet she'd found it in their shared house. It was probably personal but it appealed to her.

No events were listed after July 1997. Jen flipped one blank page after another until she reached the back section which contained a series of boxes with four blanks: name, address, phone number and notes. The boxes were marked off by letters of the alphabet and only two names were listed. The first was her housemate Micah's full name along with his father's address in one of the boxes along with a number Jen didn't recognize. Jen wondered if it belonged to his ex-girlfriend until she found the second name: Byron James. Byron's phone number was listed with no address. A line of hearts filled the line next to the heading "notes". The line looked so private that Jen slammed the calendar book shut and hoped Micah wouldn't notice.

If he called her out, she'd tell him that her attention to detail was what landed her a position as a librarian finding information for the military. Micah didn't know. Since she and Amaya and Trent, two of her coworkers, were inexplicably jettisoned seven hundred years to the past, she'd had few options besides helping her housemates run a print shop and hoping her position was still available to her. She didn't even know what she had done wrong.

####

It was Jen's turn to cook dinner and she needed groceries. Micah offered to go to the market with her, but Jen declined. Her native housemates hated the market but once she'd adjusted to the foreign smells and bright colors, Jen almost enjoyed shopping for food.

Alone, Jen made good progress and got into line about twenty minutes after she walked in. Standing in line, Jen noticed a display of bright pink posters. Each one contained a grainy black and white photo.

After she paid, Jen examined the posters. They all followed the same design scheme: the word "missing" in bold capital letters served as the heading of each poster with a picture beneath it, with a full name listed as a caption and details necessary for identification were written beneath the picture. The date the person had gone missing was at the bottom.

The display made Jen think of the archives, which presented the information in clear, unambiguous details. With fewer facts than were presented on the posters, the archives could have located each of the people described. She wished she had access to the archives when she came across the name "Byron James" under a grainy photo of a slender man. No one had seen him since July 8, 1997.

####

"Explain it to me," Jen said, using the phrase she began all her questions about native culture with. "How do people go missing here?"

"What do you mean exactly?" Aries asked.

"The people on posters. Does no one really see them for years?"

"Usually they get murdered, the murderer hides the body and no one finds it," Axel said.

"Doesn't anyone search?"

Axel looked at Micah. Jen looked at Axel and guessed that Micah had some connection to a missing person, information the calendar book had indirectly given her but without detail.

"People search," Axel said. "But they're not always successful."

"Usually someone finds missing people," Micah said. "It just takes time."

"Where Micah's from, a lot of people go missing," Virgo said, shooting a glance at Aries, his younger brother. Virgo and Aries never talked about their lives without each other or with parents. They didn't talk about life outside of Terenax either, while Axel and Micah had plenty of stories they were willing to share.

"Why?" Jen asked.

"It's complicated."

"There must be a high incidence of crime."

"The crime rate was really low until recently," Aries said. "It didn't get high for years after the first set of disappearances."

"That's why being where he's from still has prestige."

"It probably won't for much longer," Micah said. "Our industry is getting destroyed."

"There's still a lot of rich people there," Axel said. "Your father, for example."

"Dad hired a lot more security officers, so I guess there is hope."

"There are more security officers but the crime rate is still high?" Jen asked.

There should have been a correlation or else Micah's father should have fired his security officers. Without the archives, Jen lacked data she wanted.

Aries and Virgo turned to each other.

"The security guards only serve the commercial district so that people can come in, spend money and get out of town," Aries said.

"What's with the sudden interest if you don't mind me asking?" Axel asked.

The phrase "if you don't mind me asking" meant that Jen had asked a question that she shouldn't have.

"I just noticed the missing person posters at the market," Jen said.

Aries laughed. "Unrelated. All of those posters are of people who are dead, not missing. If you look hard, you'd see that the shape the posters form is an 'M' at the top and an 'X' at the bottom."

"What's the significance of the configuration?"

"To show what killed them."

####

Two nights later, Jen took a walk alone.

She'd come to love walking alone since she'd lost both her parents at the age of fourteen. Letting her out alone was one of the few concessions Hanna, Jen's foster mother, made.

Her walks had gotten longer since she'd left Hanna's care. It kept her from the intricacies of human relationships, which always entailed questions about her personal life she didn't want to answer.

As she approached a brick building that housed a literary magazine, Jen saw the symbol Aries had described- an "x" that arched into an "m" was superimposed over a portrait of a blue-eyed blond female. There was no text around the image and no explanation.

Jen walked by and tried to forget.

####

Jen eyed the chessboard. Micah's black pieces outnumbered her white pieces, as she'd expected. Axel was the one who taught her to play chess, but Jen tried to avoid playing against Axel, who always defeated her, silent and smiling, in a few swift, silent moves. By contrast, Micah chatted over the chessboard and though he always won, it took enough time that Jen at least felt like her skill level was improving.

Jen moved her rook a space forward and looked at Micah, who eyed the board casually.

"I saw a poster at the market for someone named Byron James," Jen said. "I've read statistics that indicate that the name Byron is more common among children from higher-income families like yours and disappeared from your hometown. Do you know him?"

Micah moved a pawn forward, illogical given that several of his pieces were close to Jen's king.

"I never knew his income," Micah said. "Or his family. We barely met. Are you doing a study or something?"

"No. Why would I?"

"Wasn't that your job before?"

"Before" wouldn't occur for seven hundred years.

"No. I helped people access information. I may have contributed secondary information to a few studies, but I never authored one." Jen took a pause and wondered how to phrase her confession. "I found a calendar book on the floor and I went through it so I could return it to its rightful owner. The name Byron James was written in the back."

Micah looked at the board. "Your move."

Jen moved her knight forward to borrow time, a commodity she no longer understood.

"What do you mean by 'calendar book'?" Micah asked. "Was it something you could hang on a wall?"

"No," Jen said. "It had calendars in varying scales and a section in the back for contact information. Byron James was one of the names listed."

"That's a planner. It's already going to computer, so it makes sense that you wouldn't recognize it."

"What about Byron?"

"You know about as much as I do. He's dead."

"Why didn't you talk about him? Didn't his death bother you?"

"It did but you never asked."

Micah moved his rook forward and Jen wondered why she'd asked when she wanted to stay detached. If she hadn't asked she could have maintained the illusion that Micah had had a happy, fairly uneventful childhood.

"What killed him?" Jen asked.

"Charismatic psycho. He came into my prep school and convinced people that a world without talented people would be a better place."

"What?"

"Yep. They started by killing the best students."

"Didn't anyone try to stop them?"

"They did and Byron was one of them. He said it was his cause since he'd been a talented dancer as a teenager, even though he didn't have any ties this area. By the time I met him, he even admitted he had nothing to lose. He got addicted to painkillers. The planner belonged to Emma, his girlfriend. She was nine years younger and a talented ballerina."

"Is she still alive?"

Jen thought of the portrait of the woman on the wall. Her facial expression looked troubled, like a woman who as a teenage girl had lost her boyfriend.

"No."

"Is she the portrait on the literary magazine building? I noticed the same symbol from the 'Missing' posters."

"No. That's a friend of hers. She's actually still alive. The symbol is the insignia of the resistance movement. It stands for 'Medax'. The movement to kill talented people called themselves Meda. You know how Code works- add an 'x' and the word becomes an antonym."

Jen nodded. The language besides English spoken in Terenax was referred to as Warbler's Code and often abbreviated to Code. Some of the residents could speak it, but many, like Micah and herself, spoke only English. The only explanation she'd heard came from the name "terenax" itself, which translated to "revolution" while "teren" meant "tradition.

"The Meda shot Byron, I presume?" Jen asked.

"Yep. Meda said it was suicide but we found a picture of the corpse. It's disappeared since then, but it seems like they shot him. Check."

Jen inched her king forward but realized that she was still in check. Sighing, she shifted the king one square to the left, knowing that the game was over, but hating the thought of conceding.

Micah, of course, knew he had won, but made a show of studying the board. "Why does no one ever talk about this group?" Jen asked.

Micah shrugged. "Why would anyone talk about this group? They're like the weather -- there really isn't anything you can do about them except keep an umbrella handy." He moved his rook. "And that's checkmate."

THE END


© 2011 Kaye Branch

Bio: Kaye Branch's work has appeared in Troubadour 21; Children, Churches and Daddies; The Legendary; Danse Macabre; Fear of Monkeys; Conceit; The Fringe Magazine; All Things Girl; Della Donna; Pens on Fire and at Scars Publications - Scars Magazine.

E-mail: Kaye Branch

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