Chapter 14: Tick Tok
It is just after six a.m. on August third.
My son and I are in the tank, and he isn’t happy about it. He knows Tok is here right now meeting with the night tankers and it is killing him.
“Can we just go to the Mother’s for a minute? Please? Why does one single minute matter mom? I need to talk to him…”
He was in rare form the whole walk here, and I feel exhausted already. I really want to talk to Tok, too, but I also really want to crawl in a hole and have a few days where nothing at all exciting happens. Ironic, considering half of our time here is spent crawling into a hole. Last night in the cave really shook my son up bad. I think it was seeing Bodhi that way more than the fact that we wiggled through a gap in the earth that sent us back in time. It’s funny how quickly children can adopt a new normal.
I hear a tiny snore coming from the corner of the tank.
“Hey, buddy. Hey. Stay awake with me hon, come over here. Let’s paint in our heads.”
I make my way over to him, gently touching his shoulder.
“Come on hon, let’s sing. We need to stay awake.”
He feels hot to the touch. Sweaty.
“Mom, I don’t feel good. I hate this tank, I want to see Tok.”
He’s crying now, an unmistakable cry that says he’s exhausted and getting sick. I don’t know why I didn’t realize it before. I used to be able to smell sickness coming in him a week away.
I lay beside him, holding him and brushing the sweaty hair off his forehead, and we sleep.
. . .
I am standing at the very edge of a cliff, my eyes fixed on an intimidating congregation of clouds. An awful storm is coming. I hate heights, but I can’t stop glancing down at the bottomless canyon beneath me. The wind is behind me, gently nudging me in the direction of the nothing; I dig the heels of my boots into the rocks to hold my place. Why don’t I just back up? My hands are in the pockets of a black coat I’ve never seen, the arms of which are decorated with swirling neon designs that illuminate my position on the cliff. The wind behind me stays so steady that I’m now leaning on it, trusting it with my life. I relax the tension in my legs and feel the rocks beneath me shift. I am being watched; I hear whispers in the wind behind me.
“Is she going to jump? Is she okay?”
“Leave her be. She’s mourning.”
“Why? She wasn’t even his real mother.”
I snap my head around to look behind me, my face burning. A giant black crow sits on a flat rock less than twenty feet away from me, staring right at me. Its oily black head tilts suddenly, pointing its beak in the direction of the nothing as a voice rises from its depths, slow and broken, echoing as it climbs up the canyon walls to my ears.
. . .
“Mom…MOM! Wake up!”
He is shaking me, crying. I sit up, shaking off the dream and hold him, hot and sweaty and sobbing in my arms.
“I couldn’t find you in my dream, Mom. I was in a big dark hole and I couldn’t find you anywhere. Please can we go? Please can we leave the tank?”
I don’t have long to consider his request before light begins spilling onto the ground with the familiar creak of the tank door, granting his wish. Agni is just a black silhouette against the light, but her posture is one of concern.
“You guys ok down there? Someone is really excited to see you two.”
. . .
I can see the Mother’s porch through the trees, and take a slow, deep breath as I walk toward it. I feel nervous. My son dried his tears and ran out of the tank and through the woods like a rabbit when Agni showed up, and I feel grateful for the walk alone. A flash of light bounces down the steps of the Mother’s porch like a strobe. It’s moving toward me as it blinks, my son’s sparkling eyes appearing behind it when it fades. He’s running, holding something up in the air in his hand, and he’s excited. I can feel his energy hit me from ten yards away, and it wakes up every sore, sleepy cell of my body. The sun is bouncing off the object in his hand as he runs, blinding me.
“Mom! Look what Tok gave me!”
He’s panting, red faced and soaked with sweat as he proudly holds the object out for me to see. His skinny fingers are wrapped around a beautiful, highly polished silver pocket watch, chain dangling around his wrist, twinkling in the sun. The case is engraved with three perfect, capitol letters: T-O-K. It looks very old, and very well taken care of.
“Wow. He gave you that? That’s so beautiful.”
He is positively beaming. We walk to the cabin in silence, side by side. He flips the watch open over and over, running his fingers over the letters and buffing it with the edge of his wrap.
We join the rest of the day tankers in the Mother’s basement for our first meeting with Tok. The beds are gone from her tank, and the Mother is in her room upstairs resting. I know she’s not well, but I’m surprised she didn’t insist on coming to the meeting. Bodhi seems to be back to normal, and it’s nice for a moment for us to all be together. After a brief check-up with the little ones, Tok dismisses them to play in the house with the following words of caution:
Wear your wraps every day without exception.
Never miss your tank time for any reason.
Stay away from the lights.
With the kids gone, Tok tells us that the treatments are going well, and the Burnouts have drastically reduced and are expected to cease completely once everyone is treated. He seems skeptical of the long-term protection of a treatment administered in such a hasty way; he keeps using the phrase “remains to be seen”. Everyone at the Commune is fine, and they’ll all be visiting shortly.
Tok had predicted at the start that once the threat of Burnout was under control, the Center wouldn’t be anxious to spend any more money on the issue, including on hunting down those who avoided it. The expense of the treatment, he said, would be something our country would have to fight to recover from for a long time. I feel relieved to hear him repeat this thought in our meeting…maybe it means we can go home before long without worrying about being caught.
The recent overwhelming desire to go home is making me feel guilty in this room with the people I spent so much time daydreaming with about living here forever. I am starting to get the impression that the others are dealing with the scary things in the woods much better than I am, and wonder if I am overreacting. I spend the remainder of the meeting swinging between opinions on the matter. One moment I am scolding myself for giving in to the anxiety that I’m surely passing on to my son, and the next I think all these people are crazy for not freaking out just a little more.
I snap out of my thoughts in time to hear Tok’s final comments on Bodhi’s experience with the lights. We’ve always known these woods to be much different than any others, and until we learn a little more about them we’d better just not assume those differences are always safe. He assured us that he is working hard with the Mother to investigate, and this seems to be enough for everyone. As they get up to leave, I shoot Tok a desperate look.
Frustration is creeping up my body like an itch, and I feel suddenly trapped in this tank. I feel like I’m going to scream. I sit and breathe with my eyes closed in an attempt to calm myself down and avoid conversations while the others file out of the basement. When I open them, I’m relieved to find only Tok sitting right in front of me. I relax my shoulders a little.
He opens his mouth to speak, and I surprise myself when I interrupt him, my voice coming out loud and shaky.
“Please. Please let me talk first.”
He nods politely.
“What the hell is going on, Tok? I’m scared to death. The Mother is dying. A wolf has been following us for days, and the lights? We’d better just not assume they’re safe? We came here for safety. I came here to keep my son safe, not to turn him into wolf food. What are we doing here?”
My words are coming out frantic now, and I can’t stop them despite the look on Tok’s face that is telling me I need to pause. He’s starting to squirm uncomfortably.
“My son is having terrifying visions in the tanks. I am, too. Hell, half the time they’re exactly the same. I’m hearing things everywhere.”
I pause a moment; just long enough to start doubting myself.
Maybe I’m the only one hearing things. Maybe I need to stop talking. No, Bodhi got really sick and everyone saw it.
“And we TRAVELED BACK IN TIME, Tok. We went through a portal in the woods and saw Bodhi from the night before, and they couldn’t see us. What are we doing here? It honestly sounds better at home. Even if my son is hallucinating conversations with your dead daughter there.”
This is not how I envisioned bringing any of this up. I am shaking and can’t hold back the tears anymore. Tok hugs me, waiting patiently for me to calm down. At first the familiarity of him is comforting, and I start to relax a little. I breathe deep, my head on his shoulder, and am overcome with a sudden, eerie feeling that this is not Tok. I raise my head, careful not to look alarmed, and back up a little, studying his face for a moment. He pushes a dark curl from his forehead and looks back at me, a troubled, worried expression on his face. I can’t identify what I see that makes me know that he’s lying, but I know it. I even wait a moment, expecting the doubt to come, expecting to wrestle with the thought, but I don’t. I feel my eyes narrow.
“What aren’t you telling us?”
He fidgets nervously, eyes darting around the room as if looking for an escape. I jump toward him, holding his wrap in my tense fist, inches from his face. I can smell his fear.
“WHY ARE YOU LYING TO ME?”
The volume of my voice startles me, and I slowly release his wrap and sit back down, embarrassed. I am stitching the words of my apology in my head. Tok smooths his wrap and sits up straight, clearing his throat. I’m sure he is about to leave, but as I open my mouth to say I’m sorry he begins talking. He speaks slowly and quietly, his voice and body shaking as he glances up the tank stairs nervously.
“Rupa isn’t dead. There was never a plane crash. They were never on a plane at all. Her mother kidnapped her. They’re both alive.”
His gaze shifts from me to the floor as his eyes well with tears. I’ve never felt so dumbfounded in my life. I have to remind myself to breathe.
“The lights are happening like that in the cities, too. People are selling them on the street like drugs…they call it Qualia. It’s like the uploads are leaking out of the cloud and just going everywhere. You eat it and kind of become someone else…you experience their memories…”
Tears are rolling down his cheeks now, and I feel utterly confused.
“Tok…why would your wife kidnap Rupa?”
“Because she never wanted to move here in the first place. I needed to stay, and she has wanted to go home since the day we arrived.”
“Where is home?” I asked him, feeling my own tears burn down my cheeks for him.
Tok paused a moment, taking a slow breath before speaking. He raised his eyes to meet mine.