March Forth (The Woodford Chronicles Book 1)

 

 

 

 

 

March Forth

 

Dedicated to all who read it,

And especially to my beautiful niece, Alexandra; may you follow your artistic pursuits as far as they will take you..

Prologue

              The man sat on a bed in a run-down motel room, whispering over and over, “This is a bed.  I am sitting on a bed.  It is a bed.  This is a bed.”  He was desperately trying to remember; it was an insignificant thing, but he just wanted to remember something.  Anything.

              The thing with the numbers on it started making a noise; he jumped a bit, and then stared at it, willing it to stop.  It did.  He turned his attention back to the task at hand, which had been….

              It had been….

              He was trying to remember something.  What was it?  He knew it, he knew he knew it; he just had to think….

              Then he was sitting on a beach, watching the sunset over the ocean.  He blinked.  This isn’t where he was before.  He had been sitting on the… on the thing, and the thing that made the noise… did the thing.  Right?  He hadn’t been here.

              A deep voice behind him said, “You don’t even realize what’s happening, do you, David?”

              David
.
That sounded familiar.  Something clicked in his brain, and he turned to look at the speaker as he asked, “I’m David?”

              The speaker, a tall man in flowing robes, gave him a wan smile that did not reach his sad, pitying eyes.  “Yes, you are David.  Try to remember that.  Try to remember all that you know; when you do, you’ll be able to fix this.”

              David stared at the tall man, wide-eyed, wondering what he was talking about.  “What do I know?”

              The robed man made a sound somewhere between a laugh and a sob, and shook his head slowly.  He stared at the ocean for several long seconds before replying.  “You know very little, right now.  But you did know many things.  You knew the cause and solution to the problem you’re having now.  You knew what was important in life.  You knew me.  You knew you weren’t alone.”

              “Wow,” David said, nonplussed. He certainly had known a lot, it seemed.

              The robed man continued staring out at the vast ocean, his gaze on the distant horizon.  He appeared to be deep in thought.  After a few moments, he said, “What is important to you right now, David?”

              David’s face screwed up from the effort of concentrating.  After several long moments full of deep thought, he looked up at the robed man and stammered, “I…I’m David?”

              “Telling,” the robed man murmured, mostly to himself.  He heaved a sigh and said, “David, my friend, I need you to hear me right now, and remember my words.  Can you do that?”

              David shrugged, having no idea whether he could.

              “You must use your gifts.  You must find a world where you can be safe, and you must find me again.  Do you understand me?”

              David stared blankly at him, showing no sign whatsoever of understanding, so the robed man repeated, “Use your gifts.  Find a world where you can be safe.  Find me again. Say it.”

              “Use gifts.  Find….um….”
              “Find a world where you can be safe.”

              “Find a world where I can be safe.”

              “Find me again.”

              “Find me again.”

              “No, you have to find me again.”

              “Find you again.”

              The robed man nodded, satisfied.  “I want you to repeat those to yourself, all the time.  Concentrate on those instructions more than anything else.”

              David nodded, and took up the new chant.  “Use my gifts.  Find a world where I can be safe.  Find you again.  Use my gifts.  Find a world where I can be safe.  Find you again.”

              The robed man placed a hand on his head, willing the words to stay in his mind.  When he took his hand away, David blinked in the bright sunlight and looked around, confused.  He was alone again, huddled on a sidewalk in the cold.  People bustled past, but no one noticed him.  He had no idea where he was, or how he had gotten there, or where the robed man had gone.  He felt like he should have control over such things, and that maybe he once had, but he wasn’t sure if that was even true.  With no one and nothing to verify the feeling, it might be safe to assume he had always been tossed about like this, from place to place, with no control.  He wished he knew for sure.

Desperate for something to focus on, he resumed his chant.

              “Use my gifts.  Find a world where I can be safe.  Find you again.”

              He repeated the words until they lost all meaning.  He repeated them until he forgot how to say the words, and he kept trying to repeat them even when the syllables he uttered had no resemblance to the original words.  It didn’t matter.  He could repeat the idea.  He took comfort in the fact that these words came from somewhere outside of himself, from something other than the all-encompassing sense of loss and confusion that had become his life.

              He kept up his chant for nearly two decades, as he aimlessly wandered through space and time.  He often couldn’t remember what the words really meant, but they somehow made him feel better.

 

             

Deanna

              It was late February, but the temperature had unexpectedly risen to forty degrees for just one, glorious day.  All of the majestic icicles and dazzling, naturally-formed ice sculptures that had been developing over the long, unusually bitter winter months were starting to melt and drip down to non-existence.  As a result, parts of Main Street in Woodford had become tiny rivers; alleys became tributaries; parking lots served as the lakes into which they all poured.  It was a welcome sight to most of the town’s residents, as it signified the imminent arrival of long awaited spring.  However, the weather reports were all calling for eight inches of snow that night, which caused a lot of moaning throughout the little New Jersey town (and the entire Eastern Seaboard, for that matter) about how it seemed they would never see grass or blooming trees again.

              Despite the grey skies and general dampness in the air, Deanna decided to take advantage of the briefly milder temperature and run some errands, starting with a trip to the laundromat.  She lived right in the heart of downtown Woodford, a bustling little town that had recently developed aspirations toward becoming a cultural destination.  The presence of a train station which could bring residents into New York City had led to the development of new luxury apartment buildings and the influx of various restaurants, shops, and the like.  The powers that be were trying to attract young, urban professionals to move into the town and commute to work in the (comparably overpriced) city.  It was a risky move, and many of the luxury apartments still stood empty.  However, all of the new development made life that much more convenient for Deanna.  The laundromat, like the grocery store and basically any other amenities she may need or want, stood within a few blocks of her apartment.  She grabbed her laundry bag and walked down Main Street, humming while she walked.  For the first time in a long time, she was in a good mood.

              The winter had, indeed, been a long, hard one for Deanna, in more ways than just enduring the sub-freezing temperatures.  She had left her job at the BitterSweet Bistro the previous fall for, as she had explained to people, “personal reasons.” In short, she had had a bit of a breakdown.  There had been external reasons for it – never-ending money problems, the emotional backlash she was experiencing from the latest guy in the long line of bad choices that had been her love life, and so on – but what it boiled down to was, she had a breakdown.  She had been feeling bad about herself and, thanks to anxiety-induced insomnia, not sleeping enough.  She started drinking heavily, which is widely acknowledged as a time honored problem solving strategy which really helps by making everything much, much worse, so the original problems seem small in comparison.  She lashed out at the owner of the BitterSweet, unleashing every negative thought she had ever had about him, his business, and his employees.  She gave her two weeks’ notice, and he told her to take a few days off to think about it.  That made her even angrier, as it felt like he had taken her power away.  She felt like it was her choice to throw away her job and generally freak out, and damn it, she was going to do it.  She never went back.

After leaving the BitterSweet, she floundered from one dissatisfying, temporary restaurant job to another.  She could not find “the right job,” one where she made enough money to pay her bills but could also hold on to whatever shreds of sanity she had.  Corporate chains, with their homogenized scripts and unending rules, made her feel like her soul was sucked out by the time clock on which she punched in; conversely, in privately owned restaurants, she had no recourse to take if employees were being treated unfairly (like the one little café where her boss would regularly hit on her, then give her a small section – therefore reducing her income for the night – when she didn’t respond positively).  Her already-dire financial situation plummeted even further downhill.  She was thirty seven years old, and had had to borrow money from her parents to avoid being evicted from her apartment.  It was humiliating.  Deanna was beginning to think her entire life had been a waste, but she rallied as well as she could.  She filled out job applications every day, and repeated affirmations in the mirror to convince herself that she was worthy of a good job.  She signed up for free webinars that claimed they would help fix her “money mindset” and make her a more successful person.  She meditated daily, focusing on manifesting “the right job.”  Still, nothing changed.

Just recently, Deanna had decided she needed to get out of the restaurant industry. She felt like her current situation might be the universe’s way of telling her it was time for a change.  Though she’d been serving and bartending for years, the unpredictable nature of the business was getting to her.  Her income was based solely on tips, and it was almost impossible to accurately predict how much she would make in any given week.  Her attempts to work out a budget for herself never seemed to work out, as she seemed unable to estimate her baseline income and often overestimated what it would be.  She needed something more stable, more dependable.  Leaving the industry was not something that she had even thought of for over a decade; working in restaurants was just what she did.  The decision to change careers had felt like an epiphany.

She wasn’t sure what she was going to do – she wasn’t sure what else she
could
do, because she had been in the industry for so long – but even making the decision felt good.  It just felt right
.
  She hoped, as she had hoped so many times before, that this might be the decision that would lead to her finally getting her life together.

She had been working on a new resume for a couple of days, and finally got it finished just that morning.  She had even sent a few copies out to receptionist jobs she saw advertised online.  She was feeling unusually good about herself, and the relatively nice weather only improved her mood. 

“No matter how long, dark, and cold winter is, spring will eventually come,”
she thought.

As she walked toward the laundromat, she hummed along to the music that played from hidden speakers on the lampposts that lined Main Street – at the moment, it was Bob Marley’s song “Three Little Birds” - and she truly hoped that every little thing was gonna be alright.

Woodford’s Main Street was fairly crowded with people from all walks of life, enjoying the momentary respite from the harsh winter.  Mothers pushed babies in carriages; lawyers and their clients, wearing suits, strolled from the court house to their favorite eateries while intently discussing their cases; joggers weaved around all of them, determined not to let the leisurely pace of pedestrians slow down their heart rate.  Here and there, the homeless people of Woodford sat on benches or leaned against storefronts, watching everyone go by.

Although it was a small, rather quaint town, Woodford had more than a few homeless people and “interesting” characters.  It was the county seat, after all, and therefore home to the county welfare office, jail, and various other institutions that attracted what some called “the undesirable element.”  Deanna never minded them.  She had always believed in treating everyone, no matter what their station in life, with kindness and respect.  It may have been her Irish Catholic upbringing, or it may have been all of the fairy tales she read as a child in which old beggar women turned into witches or fairies and repaid kindness with treasure, or punished rudeness with hexes.  Whatever the reason, it was simply Deanna’s nature to be nice to everyone.

Because of that innate sense of politeness, she paused and smiled when she turned into the walkway leading off Main Street and a robed man boomed, “Good day, my queen!”  Many people would not have done so.  The man was about six and a half feet tall, with dark skin and dreadlocks that fell to just below his shoulders.  He appeared to be wearing brightly colored, flowing robes; upon closer inspection, Deanna realized they were made from old bedsheets.  Though the day was the warmest it had been in a while, it was still far too chilly for him to be wearing the sandals that he wore.  He held, in his left hand, some kind of a staff made from a fallen tree branch, which he pounded on the ground for emphasis when he greeted her. 

“And to you,” she responded politely, with a smile and nod.

“You honor me,” the man bellowed, his voice echoing.  The walkway was a lovely little spot, with brick underfoot and wooden trellises overhead, between two brick buildings.  It provided the perfect acoustics for his rich, deep voice, making his words seem even more theatrical than they were.

They were alone in the walkway, and he was standing directly in her path, so she said, “If you’ll pardon me, sir, I need to get to the laundromat.”

“I would not dare to block you from your chosen path, my lady,” he said as he stood to the side with a sweeping gesture, bidding her to pass.

“Thank you,” she said, a bit awkwardly.  “Have a wonderful day.”

“You as well, my lady!  May it be filled with love and light!  Be gentle with yourself!”

Deanna, carrying her laundry bag over her shoulder, turned to smile at him, and saw that he was gazing at her with a fond look on his face.  “What an odd character,”
she thought; nevertheless, something about his totally irrational and inexplicably worshipful attitude toward her made her feel good about herself, somehow.

Although Woodford had its share of homelessness, most of the usual cast of characters was well known around town.  There was, for example, “The Piano Man,” who never spoke to or even looked at anyone, but would occasionally stop in the middle of the sidewalk, eyes closed, and wiggle his fingers in the air, looking for all the world as if he were playing a grand piano that no one else could see.  There were times Deanna imagined she could almost hear the music.

Then there was “The Friendly Gargoyle,” a poor soul with bug eyes and a distorted smile who would squat on benches, waving and smiling at anyone who passed by. He bore more than a passing resemblance to one of the gargoyle statues that sat atop one of the town’s churches, but his seemingly eternal state of good cheer made him a welcome sight for most of the town.  Thus, he earned his nickname.

Then, of course, there was the inimitable “Rasta Man,” though Deanna hadn’t seen him in months; she hoped his absence meant he had found someplace warm to shelter his frail form during the harsh winter.  He had been an unforgettable character, with a single, waist length black dreadlock shot through with grey streaks, and dark, haunted eyes that looked as if he had come from the depths of hell.  He walked around town, talking to himself loudly in strange, unintelligible syllables, as if he had forgotten how to use language but still had a lot to say.  He had earned the name “The Rasta Man” only because of the dreadlock; his other features were too off-putting to be used as a nickname.

There were many others, too, who had hung around Woodford for years and were recognizable to all.  The robed man, though, was someone Deanna had never seen before.  She definitely would have remembered even a passing encounter; he was not someone you could easily forget.

As she reached the laundromat and loaded her clothes into the washer, Deanna vaguely wondered if the Rasta Man and the robed man knew each other.  They both had dreads, after all. She smiled to herself, remembering her last attempt at conversation with the Rasta Man, the previous August.

He had been a fixture around town that summer, when she was still working at the BitterSweet Bistro.  Sometimes, he would see her smoking a cigarette while she walked to work, and through a series of incomprehensible syllables and frantic gestures, he would ask her to give him a cigarette.  She always gave him one.

Though he was a small, malnourished-looking man, the Rasta Man was a little scary.  It was his eyes.  There was an otherworldly, haunted expression in his eyes that made him look like some kind of an alien, a refugee from another dimension where life had not treated him well.  The fact that no one could understand what he said, and his habit of talking to himself, did not help matters.  Most everyone gave the Rasta Man a wide berth when they saw him coming, including Deanna, at first.  After he bummed a cigarette off her once or twice, though, she decided he was harmless, though his eyes always made her feel a little uncomfortable.  She mostly just felt bad for him, despite being slightly afraid of him.

A few times, he drifted in the front door of the BitterSweet Bistro like a leaf on the wind, and just stood there looking around at the walls like he didn’t know where he was.  Usually, this happened early in the day while she was opening the bar, before customers came in.  She would hold out a cigarette, knowing that’s what he was looking for, and he would take it from her and leave again without a word. 

The last time the Rasta Man came in, she heard him before she saw him.  They were closed for a private party that day, and she and her coworkers were bustling around, moving tables and bringing out the chafing dishes for the buffet.  She heard her coworker Drew talking by the front door, telling someone they couldn’t come in because the restaurant was closed.  Then the unmistakable voice of the Rasta Man sounded, shouting something that sounded like, “Lack hanna leeb nice ladyyy, jab!”

She had gone to the front, pushing the irate-but-intimidated Drew to the side gently and holding up a cigarette.  The Rasta Man took it and inclined his head toward the door slightly, as if inviting her outside, so she followed him.  It was so rare that any of his attempts at communication made sense, she didn’t see how she could turn down the subtle invitation.             

While they were outside, smoking cigarettes together, he talked more than she had ever heard him talk before.  Most of it was obscure gibberish that she couldn’t understand.  Even those words that she could actually decipher made no sense, like when he said, “Had a new motorcycle, brand new, dunno where I left it.  Maybe Ohio?”
Despite her lack of comprehension, she smiled and nodded as if chatting with an old friend; she felt like he needed someone to talk to.  Finally Rasta Man looked her dead in the eye, with those sad, scared, haunted, crazy eyes of his, and said, as clearly as he could, “Is it safe to be here, Lady?”

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