05:35:06 pm on
Monday 11 Dec 2017

His Journey 2
AJ Robinson

The Island & Tea Party-- part two of a three part series

Stephen felt more alive than he’d known in years. The salt spray stung his eyes. He licked his lips, relishing the taste of the seawater, and felt a sudden pain in the pit of his stomach. It was the water of the Vineyard Sound, of that he was certain. To anyone who loved the Island of Martha’s Vineyard, there was no mistaking that flavor.

Yet, how could that be?

He tried to put such questions out of his mind and focused on getting to the little no named island. Then he remembered something. The small island southwest of Martha’s Vineyard was called No Man’s Land. It was a forbidden place, a dusty little lump of dead earth that had been used by the U.S. Navy for target practice for years, which was why it had been declared off limits.

Was he now headed there?

No, that didn’t make sense. He didn’t know the town he was sailing from, but he knew it wasn’t anyplace he knew. One more mystery to add to the list. The sea rolled and heaved under the boat, the rain fell hard, the wind so strong it made the droplets fly into his face and sting like bees. Yet, he didn’t deviate from his course. He headed straight for the island, until the wind changed, and then he had to tack, which he did expertly. Stephen didn’t know how, but he kept the boat close to the wind, and it heeled over so far that the port side dipped under the rolling waves. Water sloshed into the cockpit and over his feet, and then down into cabin below.

How long have I got before the boat sinks?

He looked up; the island was growing large on the horizon. Flexing his fingers, he rubbed his free left hand up and down his arm in an effort to warm up as the minutes slowly ticked along. He shivered and shuddered, the boat slowed and settled low in the water, and he stood up. The wind suddenly changed, the boom swung about, and he tried to duck. He was too late. It struck him in the side, right in the ribs, he lost his balance, and he tumbled overboard. For a few minutes, he was lost in a swirling cold vortex, he couldn’t even figure out which way was up, and then he was caught in the building action of a wave. His head broke the surface just in time to see a beach loom into view, and then he was tossed ashore. He lay there a moment, got up on his knees, and coughed and gagged as he tried to collect his thought.

Man, I thought I was a goner there for a minute.

He stood up, shook in an effort to get the excess water off of his clothes, and ran his hands up and down his body to assess his injuries. His hands froze. He didn’t have any injuries. Yanking up his shirt, he strained his neck to check his side. There was nothing. No bruises, no breaks or even cracks to his ribs, and his lungs were completely clear. Now, considering the fact that he’d been underwater for a while, he should have some lingering congestion and pain from the water in his lungs.

He felt fine.

No, it was more than that, he was in excellent health. Then he saw something else. Actually, it was more accurate to say that he didn’t see something. Namely, the scar from his hernia operation was gone! How could that be? None of this made any sense, not if it was some sort of reality show. So, what was really going on? He fixed his clothes and started to head inland. The island was his only clue, which meant he was going to check it out. The beach sand was soft and yielding, and the weather suddenly cleared. At first, it seemed that the island was uninhabited, but then he saw low rooftops appear over the trees, and heard voices off in the distance.

What is this, some sort of resort?

It was hard to make out what the people were saying, but they seemed to be asking for things. So, maybe they were ordering drinks and food. He pushed aside a low hedge to step through, and stopped in his tracks. There were several small buildings, clearly some kinds of restaurants and shops, and they were surrounded by row after row of people.

“More give me more,” a man demanded.

Stephen cocked his head. The man sat at the counter with food, drinks, a laptop, three toasters, and a bunch of jewelry piled in front of him. He wasn’t alone, all the other people had similar piles, and the people in the back were angrily trying to push their way to the front.

“Gee, people, don’t you have enough? Come on; let the people behind you order.”

Several of them spun to face him, practically spitting as they hissed at him.

“Go away!” one spat.

“Mind your own business,” another growled.

“What is this place? Can you at least tell me that?” he said.

They ignored him and went back to demanding things from the wait staff. Stephen sighed and shook his head, and cut a wide arc around them. In all, there were half a dozen cabana-type businesses there, and they were hard-pressed to keep up with the orders. A wide stone walkway was before him and he started along it. He was glad when their voices faded into oblivion; it was a comfort to be free of them. This area was very peaceful, it was quiet, a gentle breeze wafted the trees, soft warm sunlight filtered through the leaves, and a heady aroma of fruit and flowers filled the air. Stephen stopped in his tracks. He hadn’t merely entered a place of serenity; it was a zone of total bliss.

He felt better than he’d felt since arriving in this bizarre world.

Kneeling down in the soft grass, he paused to catch his breath, and he tried to figure out what he should do next. He had no idea how big the island was or how late in the day it was getting. Looking up, the sky had completely cleared, not a cloud could be seen, and the sun was high in the sky. He chewed his knuckle. Shouldn’t it be getting late in the afternoon? Oh well, one more mystery for him to solve. Standing up, he marched off down the trail with great determination.

No time like the present! I’m getting some answers if I have to stay out here for a week.

Crying and groaning suddenly filled the air. Stephen followed the sounds, winding his way along a serpentine path through the thick trees, and came to a small clearing. Before him was a large round bed, beautifully adorned with blankets and pillows, and shaded by a broad canvas umbrella. A man sat in the center, his back to Stephen, and he shook and heaved as he groaned.

“Mister, are you okay?” Stephen said.

The man turned slightly and glared at him. Stephen gasped and almost fell over backwards. The man’s face was horribly disfigured as if he’d been hit by a car or suffered some other terrible accident.

He looked Stephen up and down, and practically spit at him. “Go away, you’re unworthy of me.”

“Sheesh, okay, fella, I was just trying to help you.”

“You are inferior, leave me!”

Stephen did so. As much as he wanted to help the poor guy, he’d learned a long time ago not to try to help people who didn’t want it. Racing off down the path, he obviously took a wrong turn. He didn’t get back to the main walkway. Instead, he encountered still more people like the man. Men and women, all races and nationalities, the only thing they shared was horrid wounds that tormented them. Yet, no matter how hard he tried to offer aid, they refused and reviled him, and he finally ran from their presence.

Just when it seemed he would never get away from them, the vegetation parted, and he found himself back at the beach. Breathing hard, he scanned the area, and saw the boat not far offshore. Could he swim to it? Despite his long run, he didn’t feel tired, and so he decided to go for it. Pulling off his shoes and shirt, he dove into the gentle surf, and swam hard.

It felt good. His muscles were strong, his body toned and tight, and he seemed to reach the port side in no time. Grabbing the edge, he easily hoisted himself aboard, and that’s when another memory struck him. He hadn’t been able to do anything like this in years for one simple reason.

He was old.

That’s right, I was, I am an old man who can’t get around without a walker. So, what’s going on? This isn’t a reality show. I can’t do these things anymore, and most of those injured people couldn’t survive their wounds.

Stephen got the boat turned around and headed back towards the port, his mind racing as he tried to figure out what was going on. The weather stayed nice: gentle breeze, a few fluffy clouds to give him shade, and the sea mild. As he neared the dock, he snapped his fingers.

Got it! This is one of those virtual reality simulations, a game to let old fogies like me have some fun in our declining years. So, I wonder how I get off-line. Huh, maybe I don’t. Maybe I’m so old and infirm that this is it for me. Damn, I sure wish I could get some straight answers as to what’s going on here.

Back at the dock, he tied up the boat, even though he didn’t see the need. It wasn’t real, so what was the big deal? As he headed along the dock to the shore, he saw, of all things, a rickshaw waiting at the edge of the road. The ‘driver’, a petite young Asian woman, gave him a slight bow of her head. Her short black hair was a contrast to her fair skin and hazel eyes.

“Stephen, I’ve been sent to collect you,” she said in a gentle tone.

“You have? For what? Oh, is this about me stealing the boat and going to the island, or hurting the girls?”

She smiled. “Not at all. There’s a tea party at the gardens. You’re to be the guest of honor.”

“Really? Huh, this program is really something. But, a rickshaw? Why not a taxi?”

“Traveling in the open air is so much nicer, don’t you agree?”

“I guess. You going to be strong enough to pull it? I’m kind of heavy.”

“I can easily carry you, Stephen, it’s no trouble,” she said with a smile and gestured for him to get in.

He snorted as he climbed into the seat. “Of course, what was I thinking? It’s VR, so it’s not real.”

She moved between the bars, hoisted they up, and off they went. Stephen was amazed at their speed. They seemed to practically fly over the pavement as she took him around curves, up and down hills, and finally to a beautiful garden on a cliff that afforded him an incredible view of the ocean. She stopped before a white picket fence and trellis covered in pink roses. They made Stephen think of the flowers at his grandparents’ cottage.

She turned to him. “Go right in, Stephen, they’re waiting for you.”

He bit his knuckle wondering who ‘they’ were, but just smiled and nodded. “Okay, thanks. Do I owe you anything for the ride?”

“I’ve been paid,” she said simply.

He smiled and walked under the trellis, and paused to take in the scene before him. It truly was an afternoon tea party like his grandmother had told him about. Many small round tables were set out in rows and lines, each with a white silk tablecloth, and three or four people were at each table drinking tea and snacking on cookies. None of them seemed to pay much attention to him, which made him wonder how he could be the guest of honor. Yet, there was something vaguely familiar about all of them. Stephen couldn’t put his finger on it, but he was sure he knew or at least had heard of all of them. The center aisle was slightly wider than the others and a small table sat unoccupied at the end in front of a well-worn fence covered with more pink roses.

I guess that’s my spot.

He started walking, and instantly felt all eyes upon him. There was no need to look around to confirm it; he simply knew they were watching him.

Sheesh, guest of honor or human sacrifice? I remember going to Central America and learning about the Mayans and Aztecs, didn’t one or both of them practice that? I feel like a condemned man walking his ‘last mile’ to the gallows. Well, I’m here, let’s see what happens next.

He took a seat in one of the two white wicker chairs at the table and cast his eyes across the assembled throng. They all smiled, but it was scant comfort. He remembered that classic nightmare of going to school in his underwear, and realized he didn’t have a shirt on. Looking down, he stifled a cry as he saw he was dressed; he had one of his old Hawaiian shirts on!

He jumped in his seat. “What the-?”

“I thought you would like that,” a familiar voice said.

His head whipped around. The little Asian lady was there. She poured them both tea and took a seat in the other chair. The other people instantly fell silent.

“You again? Why…? Wait a minute, I get it, you’re doing one of those things where the top guy plays a minor character so he can move freely about and see what people think of his creation. You’re like that guy in the Matrix movies, the…”

“The Architect,” she replied. “Yes, I am the creator of all that you see.”

“Wow,” he said slowly. “Is this your true appearance, or just an avatar?”

“Oh, I have many forms. But, Stephen, it’s time you faced the truth. This is not a reality show or a virtual world. Think back, remember where you were before you came here, and accept where you are.”

He rubbed his chin as he stared straight ahead. Slivers of memories, like bits and pieces of a photograph swirled within his mind. Slowly they drifted together as if floating on black water so that only the image could be seen, and the parts began to click together.

He swallowed hard. “I was in a hospital-type bed in my cottage, my family was around me, and I-I…”

“You died, My child,” She said.

Stephen’s chest tightened and he shivered for a moment. “I’m dead. This is the… afterlife, and you’re…”

“The Architect.”

“Oh, God!”

“You got that right,” She said with a smile. “In the flesh, in a manner of speaking.”

“Oh, sorry, I didn’t mean to… I mean, I was just-”

“Stephen, calm down, it’s all right,” She said. “I get that all the time, so I make a joke in an effort to lighten the mood. At least you didn’t swear.”

He took a deep cleansing breath. “I try to avoid it, something my mother always pushed me on. So, I’m dead, I’m really dead, and you’re… ah, you’re not what I was expecting.”

She laughed. “Would you prefer this?” Waving Her hand, She morphed into the classic vision of God: the old man in the white robe. “Or how about this?”

She changed again.

Stephen cocked his head. “Wait, I know him. That’s…”

“E.G. Marshall, he played Me in ‘The Littlest Angel’. You remember it? It was one of your favorites.”

“How could I forget?”

He grinned and changed again, and Stephen almost fell out of his chair.

“Whoa, you’re me!”

“Well, you are made in my image.”

Stephen couldn’t help himself, he rolled his eyes. “Really?”

He changed back to the Asian woman. “Sorry, I can never resist that one. It’s kind of like in ‘Star Trek V’, many faces, but only one voice.”

“Oh, but that was a God-awful movie! Oops, sorry about that.”

She laughed. “It’s okay. Yes, it was terrible, but it serves the purpose of making My point. So, let’s talk. I know you have questions. What would you like to know?”

“Well, ah…” he said, sitting back. “Gee, I’m tongue-tied! How much time do we have? I don’t want to run out of time because You have a world to create or a comet to chase.”

“It’s fine, Stephen, we have all the time you could ever need.”

His brow wrinkled. “Huh, how is that possible? What, You can stop time? Oh, what am I saying, You’re God, of course You can stop it.”

“True, but not necessary. All that we say and do here isn’t occupying as much as the blink of an eye.”

“Really?” he squeaked.

“Ah, you mortals, you’re only able to pay attention to the shortest increment of time you can perceive, which is to be expected. You remember the character of Samantha in the movie ‘Her’? She got her name by scanning a baby name book in a fraction of a second. Then there’s Data in ‘Star Trek: First Contact’. How long did he consider the Borg Queen’s offer?”

“Ah, like… less than a second,” Stephen said with a shrug.

“It was 0.68 seconds, and he said that for an android it was practically an eternity.”

“Ah, I get it; all of this is taking place in like a billionth of a second or something.”

God nodded. “Exactly. So, take all the time you need.”

Scratching his forehead, he scanned the crowd.

“No, they’re not here,” She said.

“How did you-? Oh, you read my mind.”

“Actually, I didn’t, as a general rule, I don’t do that, I respect the privacy of My children. However, I’ve done this with enough of My children to know who you’re looking for.”

“So, where are they, and my brothers?”

“Stephen, not yet, we need to talk first.”

“I… okay. Then who are all these people, if not family?”

“Some people you had always wanted to meet: celebrities, scientists, writers, and so on. I thought they would help to ease your transition. You see, most people take several days to… acclimate to the town, and finally come to grips with where they are. Going to the island necessitated Me accelerating the timetable.”

“Why didn’t You stop me then? Oh, wait a minute, You did try.”

She snorted. “Sorry. Stephen, I let you reach the island. I could have just zapped you to the mainland, made the island disappear or made your boat sink. You needed a challenge, answers, and to feel that your life was under your control again. I gave you all those things.”

“And here I thought I did it all myself,” he said with a sigh.

“Now hold on, you did. I merely set the stage; you ‘wrote’ the ‘play’ and acted it out.”

“I do so love the theatre.”

“I know. Remember, the journey is what’s important. Is ‘Lord of the Rings’ popular because Frodo throws the ring into the fires of Mount Doom? No, it’s the trials and tribulations he and the others face and overcome getting there. You said it yourself many times: a truly great story has tension, conflict and challenges to overcome. Well, a good life is the same.”

Stephen sat up straight, his back suddenly stiff. “Yeah, a good life does have all those things. So, what about Tay-Sachs disease and childhood leukemia, and… and cancer and a dozen other horrible ways children die every day? Oh, and child molesters and serial killers, and the Second World War II and the Final Solution? More than six million died horrible deaths! What about them, did any of them have a ‘good life’?”

God sat back in Her chair. “Wow, you go right for the big questions right off the bat. Okay, we can do that.”

“We can? Ah… well, good, ‘cause I really want to know, and don’t be throwing the Book of Job at me or give me that old line about how You were ‘right there with them’ or You ‘never left their side’! When they screamed in pain, where was Your comfort? When they cried for mommy or daddy to save them, where was Your guidance for their rescuers? Did You dry their tears or bind their wounds? Where, where was Your omnipresence and mighty power? You said I could ask questions. Well, I want to know about those poor suffering children.”

“You’re such a good soul, Stephen. Most people start with things like the meaning of life or where I came from, or is there life on other worlds. Not you, you’re concern is for others.”

“Yes, I am! So, explain,” he demanded.

Frankly, he was amazed at his courage. He was, after all, meeting his Maker, and he didn’t know what the afterlife held for him. Where was his final destination, and was he about to anger his Creator?

Click here to read  The City of Mystery -- part one of this three part series.
Click here to read  His Maker -- part three of this three part series

Combining the gimlet-eye, of Philip Roth, with the precisive mind of Lionel Trilling, AJ Robinson writes about what goes bump in the mind, of 21st century adults. Raised in Boston, with summers on Martha's Vineyard, AJ now lives in Florida. Most of the time he writes, but sometimes he works at Disney World to renew his fantasies and get a few dollars more. AJ writes, with insight and passion, about his family and his dog. His liberal, note the small "l," sensibilities often lead to bouts of righteous indignation, well focused and true.

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