Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
Editorial    
Long Fiction and Serials
Short Stories
Flash Fiction
Poetry
Features
Series
Archives
Submission Guidelines
Contact Us
Forum
Flash Writing Challenge
Forum
Dan's Promo Page
   

Unmarked by the Malachim

by McCamy Taylor



Children walk by, in twos and threes, like flowers vying for the attention of bees. The glint of sunlight on red-gold curls, the rosy blush of a cheek, the delicate tips of fingers freshly scrubbed, the nape of a neck unmarked --

Restlessly, I rub the back of my own neck, also unmarked though tomorrow I will be...thirty-six? Is it possible? It seems like only this morning that Satchel and I were playing in the woods. We came upon a bear cub, small and round, so like another child that we approached it without fear, until the mother appeared. With a snarl, she lunged at Satchel, but he was quick. One moment, he was there, and the next he was gone.

Peerless! Hide!

Before the mother bear's eyes could turn to me, I followed my friend into our secret world, the place where nothing was just one thing. I was a shrub. A deer. A gust of wind. Mama Bear sniffed the air, searching for the scent of man-cub. I was an apple rotting on the tree. The mark of an alpha wolf on a tree trunk. Brittle leaves crushed underfoot.

The bear gathered her cub and ambled away. I breathed a sigh of relief and stepped out of the secret world into this one, where everything is just one thing. Satchel appeared a moment later. His dark eyes were laughing.

"Did you see how big she was?" He stretched his arms wide --

If I close my eyes, I can see him, clear as day, though he has been gone -- how many years? Twenty-six? The summer I turned ten, I caught a fever. The fever went to my head, and I fell into a coma. My parents, the doctors, everyone thought that I was as good as dead. Everyone except Satchel. For six weeks, I lay in a hospital bed. Satchel came by every day. Though I lay there lifeless as a doll, he talked to me. Or so they say. I don't remember.

When I woke up, on the last day of summer, the sky was filled with storm clouds. The wind through the window stirred the curtains. I smelled the rain before it fell. A nurse dressed in blue walked into the room. Her eyes widened.

"You're awake!"

Was that what it was called? My mind felt dull. My limbs were weak. I tried to lift my head from the pillow, but I was overwhelmed by the heaviness of things. The bedspread neatly darned. The bedside table, so white and square. The window set just so -- the world was a hard edged thing that crowded me from all sides, making my head spin and my stomach heave. The secret world was very far away -- was it all a dream?

I was home schooled that fall. As the fog cleared from my mind, I remembered that I had a best friend, and that there was a secret world we shared. I searched for him in the forest where we used to play. Was that Satchel? No, just a tree, a sapling with its branches outstretched like arms --

I asked my parents about Satchel. Every day, they invented a different excuse, until finally they ran out of lies. Then, they told me. On the next to the last day of summer, while I was lying in a hospital bed in a deep coma, the Malachim came to town, as they do every thirteen years. They Tested all the children, and three were Selected. Satchel was among those chosen.

In my mother's eyes, words unspoken. It could have been you. They could have taken you, too. The two of you were so alike. If not for the fever --

When I asked my mother what the Malachim were, she told me "Angels." When I asked my father the same question, he replied "Aliens." When I asked my grandmother, she crossed herself and told me never to say that word again. The doctor said the Malachim were "benevolent visitors who had done great things for humanity." Our neighbor said they were a branch of the government.

The only thing everyone agreed upon was that once a child was chosen, he never came home again.

On the fifth of January, I walked to school alone. It was a cold day. Everyone wore scarves and turtlenecks and hooded coats, so I did not notice the marks until we were in class. Tiny blue dots, little more than ink smudges on the nape of the neck. I had seen this kind of mark before. Adults had them. So did older teenagers. But, up until that day, I had never seen the blue dots on children my own age.

That night, I examined myself in the bathroom mirror. No blue dots anywhere. I found a hand mirror. Nothing on the back of my neck, either. The next morning, I looked again. My skin was still spotless. Weeks passed. I became fascinated with necks. Very, very old people were unmarked as were young children. Everyone in between carried the sign, but sign of what?

Finally, I thought to ask "When did the Malachim first come to Earth?"

My mother looked up from her book. "Fifty...no, fifty-two years ago. That's when the War ended." The War, not the war. The endless cycle of attack and counter-attack that left a third of the Earth's population dead and the rest desperate --

Until the Malachim arrived and, as one, the soldiers laid down their weapons, the missiles returned to their silos and peace blanketed the planet like a cleansing winter snow. I had seen it with my own eyes in the secret world, tasted the bitterness of it with my own tongue, heard the mournful cries of --

"And they only take children?"

"Children and teenagers, that's right. Why do ask, honey?"

"Just wondering." I had learned long ago that no one else could see the blue marks. No one except Satchel, and he was gone now, which meant that our secret world was now my secret world. Though the visions were vivid again, now that the effects of the fever were gone, they seemed slightly unreal, because they were mine alone --

The hairs on my arm prickle. Someone is watching me. I look over my shoulder, and there is Dearest, my little friend. Ten years old, she has Satchel's smiling eyes, brown as chocolate in a caramel face.

"Peerless!" she squeals.

I pull myself back into the present. "Don't you have school today?"

She climbs up onto the park bench beside me. Her legs dangle, feet six inches from the sidewalk. A stick-on bandage on her left knee hides a scrape. She smells of grass and milk and starlight. Gazing into her eyes, I see our sun at the moment of its birth and at its death, a slow, drawn out process, no explosion to rip the solar system apart, just creeping cold --

Dearest is walking beside me as we step from planet to planet, like climbing stairs, the dying sun a fierce ball of red fire at our backs. "There's no school, today," she tells me. She points to a comet. "It's going to hit the big planet, the one with rings. But not for a long, long time."

I nod. I too have seen the comet collide with Saturn in the distant future. In the secret world past, present and future overlap, like shadows on the road at sunset, forming new shapes, new patterns. Because Dearest can see the patterns, too, I know that I am not insane, no matter what the doctors say.

"No school?" I try to remember what holiday comes in late September.

The dying solar system becomes a beach. Lizards of unbelievable size crawl along the shore. Dinosaurs? Dearest, who is very bright, points to one and says "Stegosaurus. In the book at school, their spikes stick straight up. Those look more like wings."

"Or umbrellas. Is it a holiday?"

We are back on the park bench, sitting side by side. It is midday. The sunlight is filtered through the trees, and we are bathed in light and shadow. "No, it's Testing day. The Malachim are at school."

My heart catches in my throat. "You saw them?"

"Of course."

No one ever sees the Malachim. We know that they exist, because their human servants tell us, and because of the things they do. Like ending wars.

"What do they look like?"

Dearest wrinkles her nose. "Um...like lightening, if lightening lasted for a long time and not just a second. When I look at them, I taste orange. Not orange like orange juice. The color orange."

I know what it is like to taste color and smell sound. In the secret world there are many things that words -- and the five senses -- cannot describe.

I am afraid to ask my next question. Afraid of the answer she will give. "Did they Test you?"

"Not sure. The woman with them told me to come back later. Maybe I'll be Tested then. Did the Malachim Test children when you were little?"

"Yes."

"What was it like?"

I shrug. "I don't know. I was sick."

"Is that why you don't have a mark?" Dearest reaches up and touches the back of my neck with a warm, slightly moist fingertip.

"You can see the marks?"

"Of course. Little blue dots. All the grownups have them, except you. That's how I knew you were different."

Different. An innocent word when we are young, and a curse as we get older. I have tried so hard to fit into this world where everything is just one Thing. Tried in vain, because at thirty-five almost thirty-six, I am still unmarked. And because I am unmarked, I sit on this wooden park bench day after day, trying to force the world to become heavy again as it was when I woke from the fever. If I stare at the same spot of dirt long enough, surely it will become only dirt, and then I will be as others are. Normal.

Dearest has gum. She offers me a stick. It smells like bananas. My wife, Fairest, could not eat bananas. They made her break out in red welts. But in the secret world, she could eat as many bananas as she wanted.

I met Fairest in the secret world, when I was nineteen. She was eating bananas and watching an army dressed in grey battle an army dressed in blue. All the combatants were young men. Their boots churned the earth. Their blood stained the grass. For as long as I could remember the blue and grey soldiers had fought each other on that grassy field that was a parking lot in my own time. Satchel and I used to take the long route to and from school in order to avoid the sight of young men lying in pools of their own blood, their intestines glistening in the sun. But I was nineteen now. A man. War no longer frightened me, because war was a thing of the past, and in the nine years that Satchel had been gone, I had learned to distinguish past from present and present from future --

Fairest looks up. Her hair is the red of maple leaves in the fall. Her eyes are storm grey. "What are you doing here?" she asks.

"Watching the soldiers fight, same as you." I sit down beside her. She offers me a banana. It tastes of moonlight and the first word spoken by the first human millions of years ago and the rain that will fall next week.

Fairest reaches for another banana. Her hair falls forward, exposing the nape of her neck. Like me, she is unmarked.

"You were never Tested," I blurt out.

She frowns up at me. "Tested?"

"By the Malachim."

"That's right." Then, she tells me a story. At the age of twelve, she underwent heart surgery. Afterwards, she did not wake up. She was on a breathing machine for months. By the time she got better, the Malachim had come and gone. When she returned to school, all the students had blue dots on their necks except her.

"I thought I was the only one who could see them," she murmurs. The wind lifts her flame colored hair.

I pull back my collar.

She nods. "That explains it. You're the first real person I've met in the Land of Make Believe. Except... if you're here and I'm here, then I guess it isn't make believe." She smiles and holds out her hand. "Pleased to meet you. I'm Fairest."

"I'm Peerless."

One year later, Fairest and I married. Shortly after the wedding, I went to work in the local mine. One day, the support beams collapsed, and we were trapped. The hours stretched into days. My coworkers died, one by one, from cold and thirst and finally lack of oxygen. I survived, because in the secret world there was sunlight to keep me warm and a lake full of water to drink and the air was fresh and Fairest was there --

When they finally cleared the fallen rocks, the flashlight beams blinded me. I took a breath, but the air smelled foul, like death and decay. My back ached where a fallen rock had pinned me to the ground. I could not feel my left leg at all. The real world was a cold, bitter, painful place. Easier to retreat to the beautiful meadow by the lake where my wife waited for me --

But when I went back to the lake, Fairest was gone.

Alarmed, I force myself back to the real world. The paramedics are kneeling beside me. One of them sticks a needle in my arm. The other applies plastic stickers to my chest.

"My wife," I mumble through my oxygen mask.

"Save your strength," says one of the heavyset young women.

"It's a miracle he's alive," says her partner.

The world goes blurry again. I circle the lake, looking for my wife. I find a small pile of banana peels but no sign of Fairest. The sun is rising over the nearby mountains. A red disc, the same color as my wife's hair. I lift my arms towards the newly risen sun, inviting it to take me --

Someone stuck a microphone in my face. "How does it feel to be the only survivor?"

"My wife," I gasped. "Where's my wife?"

Winter at the lake now. The surface of the water is frozen over. I walk upon the ice, searching for my lover. I think I see her, trapped under the ice, staring up at me. But when I fall to my knees, it is only my own reflection. For the first time in my life, I wonder Is this madness? With that thought, the world of the lake goes dim...

And I returned to the real world to find myself in a hospital bed, my mother and sister at my side."Fairest," I croaked. My voice was hoarse. "Where's Fairest?"

My sister, Beauty pats my hand. "You're gonna be all right. The doctors say you may be a little bit confused for a while, but you're gonna recover." Lies, every word of it. I can feel the tension between what she says and what she thinks, like the bitter taste of a small animal's death cries in the talons of a bird of prey, anger and regret and disbelief all crowded into one, small moment that lasts forever --

"Where's Fairest?" I ask again.

My mother and sister exchange glances. "Peerless," says Mom. "You remember how Fairest was never Tested, because she was sick in the hospital the way you were when the Malachim came? Well, the Malachim came again while you were trapped underground -- "

Dearest edges closer on the park bench. A strand of dark hair falls in front of her eyes. I resist the urge to brush it back. Thirty-five year old men who sit on park benches all day are not allowed to touch little girls. A couple passes by. The woman murmurs something to her male companion. I feel their eyes upon me, weighing me, judging me. It is easy to form opinions about Things when you live in a world where Things are real.

It is Testing day. All the children of the town will be examined, and two or three will go away. Dearest will be among those who are Selected. I know this as surely as I know the back of my own hand, dirt encrusted, nails chewed to the quick, skin cracked around the knuckles. As surely as I know the hurricane that will flood the streets of this town three years from now. As surely as the sun shines overhead, and the wind rustles the leaves. As surely as three young men carrying baseball bats will stroll by the park bench where I sit day after day...

Three young men carrying baseball bats stroll by the park bench where I sit. Their nerves are stretched taut, like razor wire. Baseball caps pulled low to shade their eyes, they search the world for the Thing that eats at their happiness. The eyes of the youngest, shortest one alight on me. He nudges his friends. They snicker.

"Hey, grandpa!" one of them says. The bat swings and cracks against the back of my head, inches above my unmarked neck. The world explodes in pain and light, and I am falling, my legs kicked out from under me. I taste the salt and iron of blood in the back of my throat. My breath is a ragged gurgle. A scream. A shout. Feet slamming against the pavement. The sidewalk hard and cold against my back. Hands on my chest pushing, pushing, pushing. My jaw is grasped. My mouth forced open. A tube slides into my throat. Air rushing in and out. My blood pounds inside my head --

It is dusk. I am watching as the dancers circle the open fire, moving to the rhythm of the buffalo skin drum.

It is dawn. A woodpecker strikes the bark of the maple tree again and again. Each tap sends a jolt of pain through my head.

It is a time before light or dark. I am floating in my mother's womb. Her heart beats. Boom. Boom. Boom.

It is another cold, sterile hospital room. I lie on a stiff mattress covered with soft white sheets. Beside me, a machine forces air into my lungs. I fight. An alarm sounds. A nurse dressed in blue appears. She holds up a syringe to the light. My vision goes dark. Sounds recede. Only my thoughts remain. Another Testing day come and gone...

"Peerless!" Dearest's voice is shrill. "Get up! Now!"

The light through the trees is dappled green and gold. The wooden park bench is warm against my back. I take a deep breath. The air smells of fresh mown grass and dog shit. In the distance, three young men are walking. They wear baseball caps and carry bats. Their names are Nolan, Cal and Hank. In this perfect world of ours, all girls are fairytale princesses and all boys are sports heroes. So why do I shiver at the sight of them? Why do those baseball bats fill me with fear?

Using all her strength, Dearest pulls me to my feet. "Run!"

I run as I have not run in years, not since the mine disaster left me weak in one leg and weaker in the head. Dearest and I dash through the woods, sending leaves flying and squirrels scurrying. Birds take to the wing. We emerge from the far side of the forest panting for breath. There, up ahead, the elementary school I attended as a child. Babe Ruth Elementary. Once upon a time, it was named for a Confederate general, but we do not idealize soldiers anymore, not since the Malachim ended war. The playground is full of children, laughing, swinging, running. Every neck carries a new blue mark.

"This way." Dearest tugs at my hand.

I follow my young friend through the double doors into the school. The hall ceiling is shorter than I remember it, but the smell is familiar. Floor polish, chalk --

I am a child again. Satchel waves to me from the far end of the hall. He starts to run. The principle yells "Slow down -- !"

Dearest takes my hand and leads me to the cafeteria. A short line of unmarked children wait outside the door. They are restless, bored. When they see me, a dirty, ragged man, they laugh and point. Automatically, I try to hide in the secret world, but Dearest tugs at my sleeve.

"Stay here!" she whispers loudly.

One by one, the children are admitted to the cafeteria, and one by one they leave. They are laughing as they return, unaware that they have been marked forever by the Malachim.

It is my turn now. I hesitate in the doorway. Dearest pushes me forward. The smell of milk and canned peaches and cabbage takes me back again to the days of my childhood. Satchel is waiting at the table by the window --

"Can I help you?" asks the brown haired woman who sits at the teachers table. She wears black rimmed spectacles and carries a clipboard. As a girl, she lisped, but now she speaks perfectly enunciated English. In six months, she will notice the mole on the back of her right thigh, but it is already too late. The Malachim ended war and with it most of the world's hunger, poverty and disease, but there are some things they cannot cure, like cancer. And death.

"He's here to be Tested," Dearest announces.

"Tested?" The woman blinks behind her spectacles. "We only Test children. This man is too old."

Dearest tugs at my sleeve. "Show her your neck."

Obediently, I turn around. What is that I see out of the corner of my eye? Near the window, something tall and thin. Almost translucent in places. Instead of casting a shadow, it casts light. The golden glow falls on Dearest's face. It falls on my hands. It does not touch the brown haired woman.

"Where's your mark?" she asks, frowning behind her black rimmed spectacles. She cannot see the Malachim, but she can see their mark.

My mouth is dry. "I -- I was never Tested." I explain about the fever and about the mine accident.

She presses her lips together. "I see."

But she does not see. The Malachim is here with us, but she cannot see it. If she could, she would be struck dumb. "What's your name?"

I tell her.

She consults her clipboard. "Ah, here you are. You were supposed to be Tested twenty-six years ago!"

"I told you, I was in a coma."

"And then trapped in a mine. Yes, I heard you. Very well. Come here. Let me examine you." I step forward. She peers into my eyes. "Do you see anything out of the ordinary in this room?"

Yes. I see a ragged man dressed in dirty clothes in an elementary school cafeteria. I see a wooly mammoth fall beneath the spear of a hunter. I see the last spaceship leave the dying Earth for the stars. I see --

I jerk my thumb in the direction of the Malachim. "Something's glowing over there. By the window. It looks like an alien. Or an angel."

The woman's name is Venus. Her parents had great hopes for her, and so they named her after a hero. I know this, because I am there when she was born. She frowns and turns to Dearest. "Did you coach him?"

"No, ma'am," the girl says promptly. "I told you I know someone who can see the Other Places just like me."

"I thought you meant another child." Venus examines me and shakes her head. "He's too old."

The Malachim glides forward. It whispers something. The sound smells like ripe cherries. I hear Satchel's voice. I hear Fairest laugh. I raise my eyes and look into the face of yesterday and tomorrow. I see myself, and I am not sitting on a park bench. I am not trying to make things just one Thing. I am looking into the face of yesterday and tomorrow, weaving a future in which there is no war...

"Are you an angel?" I ask the Malachim.

"No." The word smells of blueberries and ash.

"Are you an alien? "

"No." A deer bounds through the forest. The Malachim's voice is the sound that the hunter's arrow makes as it misses and hits a tree stump with a soft thump.

"Why did you come to this world? Why did you take my friend, Satchel? And Fairest. Why did take my wife?"

Its smile is the sound of sugar. "I have always been here. Satchel and Fairest have always been part of me."

"And what about me?"

"It's your choice." The Malachim's voice bathes me like moonlight. "If I mark you, you can go back to your park bench. Venus is correct. You are old. But not the oldest that the Malachim have taken. During the war, we took many older than you. Soldiers on the battlefield. Widows crying at home. Parents who outlived their sons and daughters. We are them, and you can also become part of us."

"Will I get to see Fairest again? And Satchel?"

"You see them already."

"Will I get to be with them?"

"They never left you."

And like that, it is done. The skin at the nape of my neck tingles. Light pierces my head. I am Unmarked by the Malachim. Hand in hand, Dearest and I leave the cafeteria. We wait in the playground. The other children no longer notice me. I have become my ten year old self again, though I am also a man of twenty-three and almost thirty-six. I push Dearest in the swing. The sun dips low on the horizon. In twos and threes, the children leave for home. Night folds her arms around us. The stars are rushing past my head. The pieces come together. Nothing is ever lost.

THE END


© 2012 McCamy Taylor

Bio: McCamy Taylor is, of course, Aphelion's reigning Serials / Novellas (fiction longer than 7,500 words) Editor. She is also the author of many stories and articles that have appeared in Aphelion and various other publications too numerous to list here. Her most recent fiction contribution to Aphelion was the short story The Margaret Mitchell Estate Strikes Back in the August 2012 edition. (And check out the Serials section of this issue for another McCamy Taylor opus, Baron Sabbath!)

Comment on this story in the Aphelion Forum

Return to Aphelion's Index page.