This is part of “The Descent of Man”, FtB’s Darwintine Festival fiction anthology. If you enjoy being part of our community and appreciate the work we do here at FreethoughtBlogs, please consider making a donation to our legal defense fund.
Anywhere is Better Than Here is part of a work in progress tentatively titled Blood in the Fire.
Iowa City, Iowa 1994
Miriam sat on a wooden bench as the last drunk college students filtered out the Pedestrian Mall. The soothing sound from the Pissing Sisters, the nickname for the tubular water spouts atop of the fountain in front, failed to comfort her. Miriam knew it was only a matter of time before a police officer would chase her away, but her body felt too heavy to move. If she could move, she thought, where would she go?
“I didn’t expect to find you here,” said a man.
Startled, Miriam turned and saw Matthew, wearing a black blazer, black jeans, and a white t-shirt with an IndustrialnatioN logo on it.
Miriam turned her attention back to the Pissing Sisters. “Where should I be?”
“Lots of places. The House of Chaos–”
“Someone would post about it on ISCA.”
“Hanging out with Tommy Stinson’s new band?”
“Saw them back in 1992. Gabe’s charged way too much to watch them rehearse, and Tommy didn’t play any Replacements songs.”
“Good point. But, I still have to wonder–” Matthew sat on Miriam’s bench and moved closer to her. “Why here?”
Miriam shifted away from Matthew, keeping her eyes on the fountain.
Matthew continued. “After all the effort to slip away from Pete and his associates, you end up here. Out in the open, with no escape.”
Miriam sighed. Hours earlier, she’d escaped from Pete and his associates after a pointless argument. After running away to Iowa City years ago, Miriam eventually wound up in his circle. She knew Matthew was one of his out-of-town partners, but beyond a few polite conversations, and some dances, she didn’t know much about him.
“There is no escaping Iowa City,” said Miriam. She noticed herself touching her abdomen and quickly moved her hand away. “So I might as well be in my favorite spot, watching the sisters pissing the night away. So if you’re here to bring me back–”
“I took care of Pete.”
Miriam gasped and faced Matthew. Matthew brushed back his medium-length blond hair.
“Took care of him?” asked Miriam, unsure if that was good news.
“Not like that. But you don’t have to worry about Pete anymore.”
Miriam didn’t know how to respond. “Thanks, I guess.” She looked down at herself. Unless something changes, I’m always going to have to worry about him. The Emma Goldman Clinic isn’t a charity.”
“Family?” asked Matthew.
Miriam turned away and faked a laugh. “That’s a joke.” She felt a tear running down her face and brushed it off. “They threw me away years ago.”
“Threw you away?”
“My dad got angry and tossed me out. The rest of my family went along.”
“All of them?”
Miriam fought off her tears as she remembered her sister.
Matthew continued, “I can’t imagine–”
“Do you want something?” snapped Miriam.
“Yeah. Do you want anything? Because I’m not in the mood for small talk. And I probably don’t have what you want. So if you want to get high, find a seller. I’m out of that. If you’re hard up, there’s a massage parlor near the tracks.”
Matthew chuckled and gestured towards Miriam.
“That’s what I want.”
“Think about it. Here you are in the Ped Mall, acting like you’re about to be pushed off the edge of the world.” Matthew jumped backward, performed an aerial summersault, and landed on the upper ledge of the fountain. Miriam was surprised he didn’t stumble. Matthew looked down. “And oblivion is so tempting right now. No more pain. No more problems. Just eternal peace. All you have to do is stop resisting and jump.” Matthew jumped up, performed another summersault, and landed inches from Miriam. “But you won’t jump. Why? Because you’re a fighter. Not one of those muscle-bound fools, but a real fighter. You fight because you know. You know death doesn’t offer you peace. It offers you nothing. It turns you into a decaying lump of matter. It turns you into something as common as dirt. Yeah, life can suck, but you have to know that you’re one of the lucky ones. You’re alive, and you know that you’re alive, and not only do you know you’re alive, but you can also appreciate that you’re alive, and you can appreciate the world around you. How many other collections of atoms can say that? Hmm? Not many, and on some level, you have to know that. That’s why you fight. You fight because this is your only chance to be sentient. Every feeling is a gift. Sadness, fear, pain, pride. All things worth living for. On some level, you have to know that. That’s why you fight. That’s why you’re fighting right now. You’re standing on the edge, but you’re not going over without a fight. That, Miriam- That is why I like you.”
“You’re weird,” Miriam replied.
“I have been called many things, my lady.” Matthew stretched out his arms and bowed slightly. “‘Weird’ is a title I accept with honor.” He leaned back and lowered his arms. “I am weird, and I also offer you an alternative to oblivion.”
“What?” she asked, expecting something unworthy of his flowery performance.
“I run a family business.”
Miriam tensed up. “What do you sell?”
“We sell sustenance, but our mission is to change the world, one sale at a time.”
Miriam gave him a skeptical look.
“For better, of course.”
“Is it legal?”
“It’s legal in a court of law, but let’s just say we have powerful competitors. The laws of men do not constrain them. That’s where you come in. We need a scout, and you’ve already demonstrated you’re qualifications.”
“By escaping Pete?”
“Much more than that, Miriam. I’ve heard so much about you and seen much more than you know. Joining the family would be perfect for you.”
“You still haven’t told me what your business does.”
Matthew looked around. “We should discuss this in private.”
“Let me guess, your place?”
Matthew shook his head then gestured towards the tallest building in Iowa City, a hotel. “Have you ever been to the top?”
Miriam shook her head.
“Want to go?”
“Yes. I can get us there. Follow me.”
Matthew started towards the covered alley leading to Dubuque Street. After a few steps, he looked back at Miriam. “Unless you don’t want.”
Miriam looked at the fountains then at Matthew. “No tricks.”
“Not like that.”
Miriam jogged to catch up to Matthew, who stepped into a dim portion of the alley. She started to talk, but he motioned for her to stop.
“You remember the last time we danced?” he whispered.
Miriam couldn’t forget their slow dance. While the others were content with the prom hang, He held her at arm’s length and tried, unsuccessfully, to get her to spin. She nodded.
“Remember our hug afterward?”
“Yeah,” she replied. It wasn’t that memorable, but it didn’t seem creepy at the time.
“Let’s hug then.”
Miriam reached out to hug Matthew. When they embraced, darkness materialized around them like a cloud. In moments they were surrounded by total darkness.
“I got you,” whispered Matthew as he tightened his embrace. She felt her feet rise from the ground and sensed that she was accelerating like she was on an elevator.
Miriam thrashed her legs but still couldn’t feel the ground. “What are you–”. The shadows dissipated, and Miriam saw that they were floating above the hotel roof.
“Oh my God!” she gasped.
“Not so loud.”
They gently floated down to the roof. Matthew released his embrace. Miriam stumbled back, almost tripping over her feet.
“How–How did you do that?”
“Magic,” said Matthew. He opened his mouth as he protracted two fangs.
Miriam staggered back at first.
Matthew retracted his fangs. ‘Yes.”
“Yes, I am what you think I am.” Matthew pointed. “If this frightens you, the door is behind you. If you leave, know that you will never see me again.”
Matthew turned his back to Miriam and strolled to the edge of the roof. Miriam watched him for a few moments as he looked out into the night sky. Cautiously, she approached Matthew. She noticed how his hair flowed in the occasional breeze and the almost perfect smoothness of his skin.
“What do you see?”
She stopped. “See?”
Matthew motioned towards the edge of the roof. “What do you see out there? Oblivion?”
Miriam hesitantly moved closer as she felt her fear of heights grip her. She felt chills as she neared the edge.
“You won’t fall.” He offered his hand. She grasped his hand, now noticing that her hand was slightly warmer than his. Miriam took a deep breath and crept closer to the edge. She looked down and instinctively tightened her grip.
“I’ve got you,” Matthew replied. “You’re safe.”
Miriam caught her breath, but she still kept a tight grip on Matthew’s hand. She looked out at the Iowa City skyline. In the distance, Miriam saw the Old Capitol complex and the Van Allen Physics building. She loosened her grip slightly.
“What do you see?”
She took in more of the view. Her fear faded. “I don’t see oblivion. It’s beautiful. You know, whenever I felt stuck, I’d look up at this hotel and imagine myself standing right here. I thought that maybe I could see the way out.”
“And now that you are up here?”
She paused. “I don’t see it. I just see a small city in the middle of nowhere.”
“You just have to know where to look. It’s not a physical path. It’s the possibilities that you have to look at.”
Miriam turned her head towards Matthew. “Possibilities?”
“Yes. You see, centuries ago, the Mongol hordes were on the verge of conquering Europe. Europe’s armies were no match for the Mongols’ superior horsemen and tactics. Kingdoms that once seemed invincible crumbled before the invaders. It seemed like nothing could stop them from obliterating Europe. Think of it. Everything about Europe– Art, culture, literature, knowledge– All gone, trampled by the hordes.
“But in the shadows, a small group met in secret. They were determined to not only defend Europe but also to make sure that no nation, kingdom, or tribe could ever threaten it again. On what seemed to be the eve of Europe’s destruction, they formed a pact and vowed to do anything, holy or infernal, to ensure Europe’s security.
“Their first efforts were small but successful. They built on those successes and learned from their failures. When the pact shattered, their successors continued the work. Over time, European civilization grew larger and more powerful than the original conspirators dreamed possible. Because of their efforts, we are now standing on top of a building and looking out at a city built in the middle of nowhere. A city that came about because of decisions made centuries ago.”
Matthew faced Miriam. “Join me, and I’ll offer you a new life. Free yourself of your burdens. Free yourself of this place. Accept my offer of rebirth and I will help you discover your possibilities.”
Miriam looked out at the Iowa City skyline again. She smiled as she looked past the lights of Iowa City and into the darkness. “Tell me more.”