Somer 11 of 11
The paintings in my father's studio ranged from machines in still life, to landscapes of a strange island, to portraits of a woman I had never seen before. Scattered on the floor were scraps of metal from his sculptures of a Nuclear Energy Harness and an old airplane model.
Once I asked him who the woman in the portraits was. He told me it was my mother. She had lived on an island far from the rest of the world and had died there shortly after I was born. He said that he had found himself there when he had gone sailing one day and sailed right into a storm, which destroyed his boat and washed him onto the island shore.
Ever since then, I would sneak into his studio and look at his paintings. I usually skipped the N.E.H.'s, because the only thing interesting about them was that my father was the student of the man who invented it.
First, I would look at the landscapes. The sky was always a brilliant shade of blue above tree tops and deserted fields and sandy beaches. The most interesting of the landscapes, though, was the view from a balcony. The buildings were not very tall, and all seemed to be made of the same grey material. Each building was flanked by little houses and in the very center of the city was a large plaza. The cars didn't look nuclear-powered; they looked more like the ancient fossil-fuel cars that were used before the 3rd World War. There was a railing at the bottom of the canvas, and a small table with a coffee mug set on top of it, which was how I knew it was the view from a balcony.
Next, I would walk over to the portraits. I would study each one closely, looking at the shape of the woman's eyes, nose and lips. I took note of her skin color and her hair. I didn't look much like her. I looked more like the man standing beside her in one of the paintings. Everything about him was brown, – his skin, eyes and hair. He was lanky and tall, and so was I. I looked nothing like my father, who was fair with black hair and had a shorter and stockier build.
Why did I look like the man in the painting? I asked my father about him, but he never answered me. I had to know.
So when I turned twenty, I sailed out in the same direction my father had gone twenty-one years ago.
The pain in my left ankle was unbearable-especially since it had been the right ankle that I had sprained two years ago. I didn't understand. Had I broken it unknowingly?
Frustrated, I began to cry. I covered my face with a pillow in an attempt to keep my sobs from being heard, but he rolled right over and turned on the lamp.
"What's going on?" he asked groggily.
What did he think was going on? "I'm crying, you idiot," I said, hitting him with the pillow.
He took the pillow from me and sat up. "I know you're crying. And don't call me an idiot," he answered, trying to sound authoritative. He only sounded stupid to me.
Sniffing, I turned to him. He looked tired.
"My ankle is all funny. Never mind. I'm going to go put ice on it," I told him as I got up. I looked at the floor but I couldn't find my slippers. Before I managed to get off the bed, I felt his hand on my arm.
"What?" I said, pawing the floor with my good foot. "Where on earth are my slippers?"
"You know you can tell me stuff, right?" he asked, sounding anxious. I didn't pay him any mind. My slippers were missing. "Look, I know this whole arrangement between us is weird, but I don't think it would hurt for us to try to like each other."
I glanced down at my left hand where, on my ring finger, gleamed the silver wedding ring that bound me to him. Chained me to him. I was about to say something, but my ankle was throbbing at this point, so I pulled free from his grasp and stood up.
"Forget the slippers; hell, I don't even use slippers," I said, more to myself than to him. Muttering, I limped out of the room.
The apartment was quite large. His parents had given it to him-I mean, us-as a wedding present. Three bedrooms and two bathrooms. There was a kitchen, a dining room, and a living room. Best of all, there was a balcony with a fire escape. I liked that I had way to sneak out.
The whole place was filled with boxes. Having only lived here a fortnight, most of my things were still packed. I had my own room, and supposedly, my own bed, but my mattress had not yet arrived. Under normal circumstances, I would have slept on the couch, or even on the floor. But the couch was piled high with boxes full of breakable things that I was too afraid to move, since I am hopelessly clumsy.
I wasn't comfortable on the big bed. I didn't want him beside me. I barely knew him! It was a king-size bed, and I did make sure that there was a column of bolster pillows lined up between us, but that didn't make it right. I wanted to love the person sleeping beside me, to have had a choice in the matter. So I slept close to the edge of the bed, with my foot dangling, trying to stay as far away from him as possible. Maybe that's why my foot hurt.
I wound my way around the mess and finally got to the kitchen. I found a dishtowel, took a handful of ice cubes from the freezer and wrapped them in the dishtowel. Then I sat down on one of the kitchen stools and put the makeshift ice pack on my sore ankle.
I could hear him coming out of the bedroom. I concentrated on keeping the ice on my foot, desperately hoping that he was in no mood to talk.
All hope in vain.
"Gemma," he said as he came into the kitchen. "Please come back to bed. It's 3 am."
I waved him away and replied, "Go ahead, don't wait for me. I'll be there when it doesn't hurt anymore."
Instead of going back to bed, he sighed and sat down on the stool beside me.
"You're not the only one having a hard time adjusting to this situation," he said softly.
I peered at him from behind my bangs. "What makes you think that this is about our 'situation'?" I asked. "My foot hurts. That's all. Our 'situation' has nothing to do with it."
"We've had this conversation three nights in a row," he answered. "Yesterday, I found you asleep on the balcony chair. I know you're using the pain in your foot as an excuse not to sleep on that bed. Have I been rolling over onto your side or something? Just tell me. If you want, we can take turns. I'll sleep in the chair tonight. You go in there and get some rest."
"It's not that, Mick," I told him. "That bed isn't MY bed. My bed fits only me, and sometimes, not even." Then my voice started rising. "All I want is to be in my REAL room, in my parents' house and to be a regular, 19-year-old. Because, really, just in case you haven't noticed, most regular, 19-year-olds aren't married to guys they've only just met." There was a lump in my throat as I choked back all the other things I wanted to say. Mick was a decent person. He was trying so hard to make things easier for the both of us. But everything had happened so fast that I couldn't cope.
He stood up to go back to the bedroom. "I'm just trying to make this work. For everyone," he explained. "If you only knew why we were made to do this, then maybe you'd understand. We're doing this for Somer… I can't really explain it to you because I don't know enough myself. We can't afford to be selfish; there's too much at stake. I didn't ask for this, either, you know. I'm...I'm just trying to make this work."
I didn't answer. I didn't even move. I just let him walk back to the bedroom.
Too much at stake? Could he be more melodramatic? Oh, how the hell did I get into this mess?
Oh crap. I couldn't feel my foot.
I had a mug of coffee in my hand. It wouldn't do. I rummaged through the kitchen cupboards, searching for the chocolate milk powder.
"Gemma," I heard him call from the bedroom. Good lord, what now? I stuffed all the things I had thrown out of the cupboards back. In my haste to get out from under there, I hit my head. Rubbing the lump that appeared on my forehead, I walked towards the bedroom.
"Yeah?" I answered. I walked into the bedroom, unsure of where he was exactly. He stuck his head out from behind the bathroom door. "You're not ready. I thought you were coming with me. What's wrong with your forehead?"
I plopped down on the bed, disappointed that he remembered I was supposed to come along. He was visiting his parents. They were nice people, but one could hardly be excited to see the people who forced you to marry their son.
"Oh that. I hit my head while I was inside the kitchen cupboard," I replied. He gave me a look, as if asking what I was doing inside the kitchen cupboard.
"I was looking for something. Stop staring at my forehead." He wasn't stopping. Finally, I gave up. "Look, if you stop staring at my forehead, I'll finish my coffee and get dressed so we can go."
He grinned and disappeared again behind the bathroom door. I had gotten to know him a little in the month that we'd been married. I actually enjoyed his company, but still not enough to sleep on the same bed. I had my own room now, one of the two spare rooms we had.
I went back to the kitchen and drank my coffee, forgetting the chocolate powder. I walked out to the balcony, cup in hand. Down below, cars went by on the main roads. I could see people walking down the sidewalks. People came in and out of shops. There were children playing in the schoolyards, teenagers riding hoverbikes in the park. Looking out at the view, I thought about why I was here in the first place. I remembered all the years I'd spent growing up on Somer, never thinking about what I'd have to deal with now.
Somer was a little island on the Pacific, a little way from what were New Zealand and Papua New Guinea. It was uninhabited until World War 3 happened, and refugees escaped to this island. A few years after, the rest of the world was ravaged by war. We kept old world traditions and still spoke more or less the same way as they did before the war, but we were the only people left on earth. And so, I was born into this world-or what was left of it-a third generation Somerian.
A month ago, a family meeting was held in our dining room, and I found that aside from my parents and relatives, there was a family I had never met before. They were seated around the table with the guests squeezed in next to my father. I walked towards the table to join them and realized that the only vacant seat was beside one of the guests, a boy about my age. As I sat down, I realized that everyone was staring at me. I knew then that this whole meeting was about something unpleasant, and that it had to do with me.
My reverie was disturbed by the sounds of Mick in the bedroom struggling to put his suit and tie on properly. He was huffing and puffing, like the wolf in the story about the three little pigs. I turned to look at the clock on the dining room wall. We were going to be late for dinner at his parents' house. So I washed my coffee mug and went into my room to get ready.
Before leaving the apartment, I found a freshly-made bowl of salad in the refrigerator. I covered the top of the bowl with plastic wrap and we set off.
We rode in Mick's outdated Talon Twilight. It was a good car, if not a bit old. It had all the things cars nowadays needed: GPS, an Auto Drive function and an extendable trunk. The body was a faded blue-grey, the same color the sky turned at twilight (hence, its name). It ran smoothly for a car almost a decade old (Mick had bought it secondhand), even if the shocks weren't top-of-the-line anymore. To me, it seemed that the Twilight was a lot like Mick: simple, quiet and dependable.
The ride to his parents' place near the seaside was quick. Mick never turned on the stereo, but I didn't mind. There were enough things going on in my head. I knew I was bound to make something go wrong at dinner.
When we arrived, Tina greeted us with hugs and kisses. She seemed so pleased that I had brought the salad. "This will be perfect with the fried chicken!" she said.
Sitting down for dinner, I though that there was a chance it would turn out to be a pleasant meal. If I hadn't thought it, we could have had a nice, quiet dinner. But I did think it, and by doing so, I jinxed it. That was it. I am a hopeless jinx.
Right as we were helping ourselves to the food, Greg asked, "So, have you two settled into the apartment?"
I nodded while I shoveled lettuce onto my plate. "Oh yes. The only thing left to do is keep the things we aren't using yet in the spare room."
"Which spare room?" Tina asked. "I thought there were two spare rooms."
"Well, the bigger spare room - I'm using it as my bedroom," I said thoughtlessly.
She gave me an odd look, as though I had spoken in some alien tongue. "You don't sleep in the same room?" she asked.
Then I realized what I had done. Luckily, Mick decided to take this one. "We're taking things slow, Mom." SAVE! I felt the urge to get up and give him a high five. "Taking things slow..." - that was funny. As far as I was concerned, we weren't planning on taking things ANYWHERE.
His mother only nodded and continued eating in silence. Things turned a bit sour after that.
A little later on in the evening, Greg asked Mick, "So, can I expect any grandchildren any time soon?"
Calmly, Mick replied, "I already told you, Dad. We're taking things slow."
Then Tina just had to speak up. "I don't understand why you're taking things slow. You're already married." I liked her so much better when she kept her mouth shut.
I kept my head down. I couldn't look at Mick. He knew that if his parents said anything more about marriage and grandchildren, I was going to jump onto the table screaming, "OF COURSE WE'RE TAKING THINGS SLOW; YOU FORCED US TO GET HITCHED THE DAY AFTER WE MET! WHAT THE HELL DO YOU EXPECT US TO DO?"
But I did no such thing. I sat there, chewing. Mastication seemed to give me a kind of inner peace. I found my center in the midst of all that chewing. They were still talking, but I had tuned them out somehow. I didn't know what they were talking about anymore, and I didn't care. All I cared about was chewing my food 26 times before swallowing. I stabbed at my food with a fork, popped it into my mouth, chewed, and swallowed. I only realized there was no more food on my plate when the fork hit the porcelain with a clink.
The rest of the evening went on smoothly, though. Mick had managed to maneuver his parents into talking about less controversial topics, like the weather and the slowly rising prices of vegetables.
The road back to our apartment ran along the coast. One side of the road was polka-dotted with city lights, flickering in the darkness. The other side was peppered with stars as a half moon climbed its way up the dark blue sky. It looked like the world had disappeared into the nothingness that lay out there on the water. I looked out the window and longed to disappear into the comfortable blackness. At least, there, I would have no Somer to sacrifice my happiness for.
"I'm sorry," Mick said, breaking the silence. I turned to him, giving him a look that asked why. Then he said, "My parents...they just want this to work like this whole thing was normal. I'm sorry if they made you feel —"
"It's alright," I replied, cutting him off. "They're parents. It's what they do. They only want us to be happy. Things are just different for us; that's all."
The glow from the lights outside illuminated his features for a second. His face, though frozen in his usual steady expression, betrayed an ounce of remorse; as if he were in pain and was trying hard not to let it show.
I pressed a button on the dashboard, putting the car on Auto. He let go of the wheel, but kept his eyes on the road. I turned to look out the window again, but this time I was holding his hand.
I was walking on the road that led to Mick's parents' house. Everyone I'd ever known was there. Each person was moving in slow motion, and I was going against them, except I was moving at a normal pace. It was though they couldn't see me, couldn't hear me. My heart was beating like a drum, faster and faster as I ran past the house and towards the sea, calling desperately for my loved ones. No one could hear me. And the beating grew louder...
Someone was pounding at my bedroom door. Groaning, I turned over to look at the clock on my bedside table. It was 4:26 am.
"Gemma!" I heard Mick call from the other side of the door. Ugh.
"I'm sleeping, Mikael!" I shouted. "When I first came here you kept telling me to go to sleep. Now that I am sleeping, you come and wake me..."
He started hitting the door harder and faster. He swore, so I got up and opened the door. "What?" I asked grumpily.
"Get decent," he commanded. "Your parents called. They want us at the beach."
Before I could ask him why we had to leave at 4 in the morning, he disappeared into his room.
Sighing, I went back into my room to change.
Our entire family was at the beach. Some of them were huddled around something, and the rest were looking out at the sea. Mick and I ran down to meet them. And that was when I saw what they were standing around.
It was a boy, lying facedown in the sand.
I took a step back; this was all frightening me. He looked dead. But what was most frightening was the expression on everyone's faces: doom.
The boy was moving. I wanted to know what was happening, so I looked for my parents.
They were standing at the edge of the water, talking to each other. I had never seen them look so grave before. I took a few steps toward them, but before they noticed me, I overheard what they were saying.
"It's falling apart," my mother said. "Why?"
"It shouldn't be like this. They're married. It isn't working," my father said, not answering her question.
I decided to speak up. I had to know what was going on. "What isn't working? And what does it have to do with me and Mick?"
They turned to face me, both surprised, as though I had simply materialized near them.
My father had not said anything, but I understood completely. Whatever it was, he didn't want me to know.
My mother looked aghast. She thought I had the right to find out. She stared at my father for a few moments. Finally, he looked at me.
"Gemma," he said. "It's time I explained to you why we made you marry Mick."
I had long waited for the moment when I would finally get an answer to the question I had been incessantly asking for months. But when it was finally being given me, I did not want it.
"There is something about Somer that you must know," he began. "During the 3rd World War, many people fled their countries to find safer places to live in. Somer did not exist until this time. This is true. But the part about the War over Fossil Fuels destroying the world is NOT. The rest of the world probably still does exist, but not the way we knew it once to be."
I tilted my head to the side questioningly. What on earth did he mean?
"There is a veil," he continued. "That protects Somer from the rest of the world. We're not sure how it works, but we have always believed that the veil stay strong if the magic in our blood—in our family's and in Mick's—remains pure and potent within a small circle of people. This is why we arranged a marriage between you and Mick. If you had grown up and gotten married the same way the other Somerians do, then the magic would have been…diluted, somehow. The veil has gotten weaker over the years, so we had no choice but to join our family with Mick's, to keep the veil up."
His brows were knitted together with worry. I felt bad for him, so I allowed myself to ask only one question: "What's with the boy then?"
My father turned his gaze toward the unconscious boy still sprawled on the sand. "He's not from Somer, that's for sure. Nobody from outside has gotten here before." I had a million questions, exploding like a fireworks display in my mind. But the look of exhaustion on my father's face made me forget about asking anything more. Instead, I stared at the horizon, stretching over the sea. The sky was turning pink. I tried to swallow all the information I had just been given. It was a lot to take in.
The room next to mine was now occupied. The boy at the beach had been put in our care, no doubt a ploy by my parents to get Mick and I closer together.
He told me his name was Jacob, and that was all he could remember. During meals, I made sure to sit across the table from him. I liked to study his face; there was so much behind that blank expression that I wanted to learn.
His black hair was unruly and long. His skin was a light mocha, and his eyes were basil. He had a wide nose and mouth, and a stubble-covered chin.
Once we were all in the living room and Mick was bent over his computer, trying to write a report for his law internship while Jacob lay on the couch, deep in thought. I sat on the floor, reading an old book about an orphaned boy who found out he was a wizard.
I decided to give up on my book, annoyed with the idea that there was a magical world, hidden away from everyone else, with a whole group of people living happily behind a magical veil. I put the book down and decided to go off to bed. But then I noticed something.
Both Mick and Jacob wore the same expression on their faces. Brows crumpled and eyes intensely concentrated, I found it amusing, since they looked nothing alike otherwise.
Mick's brown hair was neat, short and spiked at the front. His skin was tan, with a straight, narrow nose and a small mouth. His eyes were brown and slightly slanted.
I looked from one to the other with great interest. After my amusement wore off, I got up.
"Goodnight," I said to no one in particular.
"Goodnight, Gemma," Mick replied, not looking up from his computer.
For some reason, I expected Jacob to say something. Feeling oddly disappointed, I made my way to my room.
When I stopped to open the door, I was startled by Jacob, standing beside me.
"You don't sleep with him," he said. He stood there, too close for comfort, looking at me.
I felt naked, like he was boring into my soul, reading my thoughts, undressing my mind with his eyes.
He was so close I could smell him; he smelled like the ocean: spicy, salty and misty. I breathed deeply, becoming slightly more lightheaded with every breath.
Then he spoke again. "Goodnight."
He walked into his room, and I was left in the hall, staring at the spot where he had stood.
I knew what was happening to me, and I knew it was going to be trouble.
Mick left early for school one morning. He was already gone when I woke up, so I didn't bother making breakfast. I wasn't hungry anyway. I sat down at the computer and decided to manage our bills online. Somer's online connection was very handy. I never had to leave the apartment to pay bills, and the money Mick's and my parents' sent registered instantly on our online account.
As I was logging on, I began to think about the online connection that had existed before the world war. They called it the World Wide Web. Well, it was still worldwide, except there wasn't much left of the world anymore. Just Somer. Then I remembered. There WAS a "rest of the world." We were just hiding from it. At that point, I went to check on Jacob.
His door was open, so I walked in. The bed was made, and the curtains were drawn, the morning rays spilling into the room.
"You're up early."
I spun around, and Jacob was standing behind me.
"I was just wondering if you were hungry…" I lied. Truth be told, I wanted to ask him questions about the world outside.
He nodded, and I turned to leave. I guess I was still making breakfast. I was halfway down the hall when he called after me, "There is a world out there. A very big one. And the war has been over for a long time."
I stopped and looked at him, realizing that for him to have said that, his memory must have come back.
"My name is Jacob Call and I'm a student," he said as he wolfed down the chocolate chip pancakes I had made.
"What are you studying?" I asked, watching him chew.
He gulped and replied, "Geology. I'm the student of the great Richard Mark, discoverer of the Nuclear Energy Harness." What on earth was a Nuclear Energy Harness? I looked at him, and tried to picture everything he was remembering about the outside.
"It's this machine," he said. "While the different world governments were at war over fossil fuel, Richard Mark created a machine that controls the flow of nuclear energy. Now everything is nuclear-powered…." He went on about molecules and atoms, but I wasn't paying attention. I was trying to picture it in my head, the world from which he came. And then I forgot about that and started staring at his mouth.
His lips moved slowly, as though he savored every word he said, every bite of pancake he took. It formed into different shapes, and I had this strange urge to lean forward and kiss him.
And then he stopped talking. I realized he was looking at me strangely; he had caught me staring. I could feel my face turning red, so I busied myself with clearing up the table. He stayed where he was, and the whole time I could feel his eyes following me as I put the dishes in the sink.
As I washed the plates, he grabbed me by the shoulders and turned me around.
"I'm sorry," he said.
Before I could ask why, he kissed me.