aro!” she screamed. Her despair shivered into a million different souls. His death was too sudden to spare the others from feeling her hopelessness. She didn’t have time to protect them.
   “Varo!” This time her gut-wrenching call was filled with fear. “Come back, Varo!” she shouted at the grassy fields extending before her. She fell to her knees, her maroon robe pooled on the ground like blood spilling from her.
      “Come back . . . please,” she pleaded, staring into the empty space in front of her. Her connection to Varo’s soul streaked across the universe. Her arms tightly crossed her chest. She rocked while whimpering, “Come back,” the words cracking with grief. The connection between them reached a tautness even she couldn’t prevent from snapping. The profound snap and her wail shook the million other souls connected to her.
     Nothing would ever be the same.
     They came across the field like dark fungus spreading over rotten fruit. Their killing machines scarred the sky and chewed the ground. The steely noise was cold and merciless. The stench brought bile to her throat.
     They kept their distance from her, as if she cast a spell on Darkness itself that they didn’t dare break. Tens of thousands of eyes locked on her, unable to believe what they witnessed. She still sat, weeping, hugging her chest, rocking. The eyes that watched her wept as well. One stepped forward.
     “What have you done, Korrilan?” The voice seemed distant and dark to her, detached, as if it were a recording. She looked at the man standing before her. She knew him as well as she knew all the others of her kind that had severed from her. They were the lost souls.
     “I told you not to return, Gull. You shouldn’t have come back,” she said. Her despair continued to rock her body. Her head fell forward, as if she lacked the strength to hold it up.
     “I don’t understand, Korrilan,” Gull said. “We want to come back. We wish to rejoin you. We beg you to let us come back.”
     “There’s nothing to come back to. You’ve brought corruption. You destroyed Varo.”
     “He stood in our way. There’s no harm done. He’ll return.”
     “He’s lost,” she whispered.
     Gull took a single step away. “Bring him back. You’re the Korrilan. Bring him back.”
     “I can’t . . . he’s gone, severed from me.”
     A man approached Gull and whispered to him. Gull’s eyes widened. He took another step back. “I don’t understand, Korrilan. What have you done?”
     “I told you that you couldn’t return and yet here you are. You’ve corrupted us,” she said. She slowly stood.
     “You’ve killed everyone. Why?” Gull asked.
     “Not everyone, Gull. I must die also.”
     “We beg you, Korrilan. Don’t do this. Take us back. Start new.”
     “What you’ve done can’t be undone. Your corruption can’t be erased.” She looked toward the sun and strengthened her resolve. The sun slowly filled her. The heat intensified. The pain was unbearable, but she endured it, using her anguish and despair to give her strength. She absorbed the sun’s energy until her body could no longer withstand the concentrated force within her. She burst into a billion brilliant fragments of light and heat. The energy swept across the field, destroying the dark machines and every last one of the people standing there. As if the energy was an insatiable beast, it flowed in all directions, destroying everything until finally destroying even the planet.
1 - Hospital
he smell of blood, iodine, peppermint, and ammonia blending with sweat is my first sense of awareness. These are scents I recognize. A dozen other foreign smells seem to be a mix of different elements. If I could concentrate and study the odors, I’m certain I’d be able to break them down into their base elements, but the noise is too distracting. I’m not as good with sound as I am with smell. I can make out several distinct voices and artificial sounds that are probably machines. If I could open my eyes, I’d be able to connect the noises with the smells. I think my eyes are fastened shut.
     Slowly, I begin to explore the body of the host I’m in. I come upon damaged areas that cause intense pain and I quickly retreat from these areas. The body is broken in several places. I sense voices come from those repairing the host body. A name comes to me: Olivia. With effort, I crack open my eyes. Gauzy images of people work on me. A tall man has his hands in Olivia’s body and he speaks softly, as if afraid of startling anyone. I retreat and turn to exploring Olivia’s memories.
     Reliving Olivia’s life from her earliest memory is instinctual for me. I think I’ve existed for a long time. Parasite. I find the word while searching through Olivia’s memories—a parasite is what these people would think of me if they knew what I was. But a parasite by definition lives in or on a host and steals everything, giving nothing in return. I’m not really like that. I entered Olivia shortly after her soul departed. Her body’s not the ideal place for me to be, being only sixteen earth years old and badly broken, but I was drawn to her. What made me choose her? I can’t remember. Typically I acquire a host much younger and definitely less broken—at least, that feels like the thing I’d do.
     As I’m learning about Olivia, her culture, and the society in which she lives, it sparks the knowledge that I don’t remember where I came from. I know I’m not human, and I know what I need to do to exist in Olivia, but why I’m here eludes me. With that comes the idea that my kind only moves to a different world as a last resort, so I figure something terrible must have happened not only to me—or actually my former host—but the world from which I came.
     Once I’m done learning Olivia’s history, I open my eyes. The room I’m in now is dark. A hum catches my attention and I turn to see three small machines with tubes attached. The tubes from each machine lead to another box, which then has a tube connecting to my hand. Medicine. Antibiotics. I get the names from Olivia’s limited medical knowledge.
     A nurse enters the room and, though I’ve seen images of humans from Olivia’s memory, seeing one for the first time startles me. I immediately think it’s odd that I’m startled. My kind doesn’t ‘startle’ or get surprised—I don’t think, anyway. The female doesn’t appear to notice me watching her while she enters data on a computer. When she leans to check the machines, I smell the chemicals smeared on her face and lips—makeup—and the pungent detergent on her clothing. Her skin is darker than people I’ve seen in Olivia’s memory.
     The nurse flinches when she sees me staring at her. “Hello,” she says melodically. I like the sound of her voice. It’s like music rather than the high-pitched, whirring language of the place I came from. Huh. The place I come from . . . that’s something. I’m comforted by the thought that my own memories might return.
    “You’ve been sleeping for a while,” she whispers while bending toward me. My eyes focus on her red lipstick and the way her mouth and tongue move.
     I open my mouth to ask how many days I’ve slept, but all that comes out is a series of unintelligible garbled noises. I know the language she speaks, but the mechanics of it is going to take some practice. I keep my attention on her mouth, hoping to figure out how she makes the sounds.
     “Don’t worry, that happens. I’ll get you some water,” the nurse says and leaves the room.
     With effort, I lift Olivia’s—my arm and touch the blankets, my hair and skin, my tongue, and the bed frame, getting a feel for them, as well as how Olivia’s body works. The nurse returns with a small plastic cup of ice cubes. She holds it out to me and I stare at the cup, not sure of her intent. She sets the cup on the nightstand, uses a device to reposition the bed so I’m nearly sitting up, and then slides a small table over my thighs. She sets the cup on the small table. “It’ll be light out pretty soon. Once the doctor checks on you, we’ll see what you can eat and drink. Meantime, you can suck on these if you’d like.” She opens the curtains, letting dim light into the room, and leaves.
     I stare at the ice cubes in the cup. I can smell the plastic, and the chlorine coming off the ice. I jerk my fingers away from the cold cubes. I smile at my naïveté then hurry to trace the smile with my fingers. I put a cube in my mouth and suck on it. The cool wetness feels heavenly on my throat. When I swallow the melted ice, it hurts my empty stomach for a minute. I study the room and all the items within. I use Olivia’s memory to put words to the items, such as the chair, which is used for people to sit in, and the television, knowing instinctively what it’s used for as soon as I think the name.
     I watch the sky beyond the window lighten. The sun rising above the horizon steals my breath. How long has it been since I’ve seen daylight? I close my eyes and concentrate, trying to remember where I came from. The only images that come to my mind are of a blazing inferno. Suddenly I know the place is called Razari and it’s on fire. This doesn’t give me much so I keep concentrating. All I see is fire, and the harder I concentrate the more I feel the environment. The remembered heat is roasting me alive. My scream pulls me from the vision. A man and two women stand over me.
     “Is it a fever, doctor?” the man asks, concern filling his eyes.
     “Temperature is back to normal,” the nurse says, pulling a device from near my forehead.
     “How do you feel?” the female doctor asks while studying my eyes.
     I want to tell them I feel fine, but know I’ll butcher the words, so I just shrug. I have the dreadful feeling I’ve done something to these people—that my vision somehow extended to them. None of them show signs of anything strange happening other than the nurse inspecting the temperature probe for a malfunction.
    “Do you remember what happened? About the accident?” the doctor asks gently.
    I nod. Olivia and her parents were in the city, Missoula, to see a show. Olivia rode in the backseat of the car. Her mother and father were in front. Another car collided with theirs. Olivia, her mother, and her father were all killed.
    “Your aunt is waiting outside. I’m going to send her in.”
     From Olivia’s memory, I find she has one aunt—her father’s sister. Olivia has two uncles on her mother’s side, but the family is “dysfunctional” so I doubt I’ll see either of them.
The man leaves and brings back Aunt Verla. She has a warm smile and her blue eyes shine with sorrow. She wears a shirt with many bright colors in multiple small, patterned circles. She takes my hand in hers and kisses it. I can only stare at her.
     “Do you remember who this is, Olivia?” the doctor asks and I nod. “Can you speak?”
      I shrug and the nurse says, “She tried to speak earlier, but she didn’t make any sense.”
     The doctor nods, I assume because she’s pleased that I can at least make noise. “That’s a good knock on the head you’ve had, Olivia,” the doctor says. “It may take some time for things to come back.”
     As if the doctor’s words bring it on, a throbbing pain on my forehead makes itself known. I nod and the doctor leaves, followed by the two nurses.
     “How do you feel?” Verla asks. Her eyes are red and puffy. I can tell she’s been crying. An aboriginal looking hair band holds her loosely gathered, light brown hair in place. Her face is the same oval shape as my host’s that I recall from her memory, with the same high cheekbones. Her build is thick and seems to suit her perfectly.
     Once again I shrug in response. I touch the bandage wrapped around the top of my head near the source of the pain.
     “Do you want a mirror?”
     I nod and she leaves to find a mirror. I continue to poke my face. It seems everything is sensitive to
touch. There’s a bandage on my chest and I look beneath my gown to inspect it.
     “You have broken ribs, dear,” Verla says as she sits beside the bed. “The doctor said one punctured your lung. We didn’t think you’d make it.” Her voice cracks a little on her last two words as she hands me a small mirror.
     I’m drawn to the tears trickling down her cheeks, fascinated by what might trigger crying. Verla is probably crying for many things. I would guess mostly from a combination of sadness at losing her family and relief for Olivia’s survival. I stare at my reflection in the mirror, studying the new face that’ll be my host. I’m not quite sure what to make of the look yet. It doesn’t look much like Olivia’s memory of it. From what I now know, she’s perceived as pretty, but the swollen face, bandages, and dark rings around her—my eyes make it hard see any beauty.
     Verla stays with me through the day. She spends some time sketching, and helping me make sounds. Her sketch of me is really good and I study the image done in colored pencil. I hadn’t noticed until looking at the drawing that my new hair is the color of white corn and yet my eyebrows are dark brown. I spend many hours watching my tongue and mouth movement in the mirror. Some of my attempts at making certain sounds are terrible and Verla coaches me through them. She sobs about the deaths of Olivia’s mother and father, making sure that I understand. She tells me that I’ve been in a coma for a week now.
     I reach over and touch her leg. “What hap-pens . . . now?” I ask, managing to speak in monotone syllables.
     Verla sets down her pad and pencil. “You’ll live with me. If that’s okay with you.”
     I close my eyes and recall Olivia’s memory of her small farm several miles from the town of Crescent. “Thank . . . you.”
     I don’t remember falling asleep, but when I wake it’s dark out and Verla’s gone. The smell of urine is nauseating. I stare at the door for a while, hoping the nurse notices me shortly. I hear monitoring bleeps at the nurse’s station, but can’t see it from my bed. I press the button to call the nurse, but nobody comes, although a continuous beep drones at the station. I decide this is a good time to test my ability to walk with only two legs. I don’t remember ever having only two legs—I think this might be another clue to who I am. I use the controls to raise my bed as the nurse did, and then toss my sheet and blanket aside. A catheter tube runs into a bag attached to the side of the bed. I struggle to sit up and swing my legs over the side of the bed. By the way my arm muscles quiver, I change my mind about trying to stand, deciding it’ll be disastrous.
     I sit for five minutes until a nurse finally comes. The older woman doesn’t look happy that I’m sitting up in bed. She is shorter and more round than any others I’ve seen.
“As if I’m not busy enough,” she grumbles, “next I’ll be trying to get you off the floor.” She scoops my legs up and spins me back into the bed. “You’re too weak right now, honey. Later we’ll start you moving around.”
     “Her-she,” I croak.
     She scrutinizes me with a slight shake of her head. “You can’t have chocolate.”
     “Thirs-ty,” I manage.
     She quickly fills a small cup and hands it to me. After drinking it, I ask, “Where is . . . ev-ry-one?” I sound each syllable separately.
     “Don’t you worry, we’ll get you taken care of.” She leaves and joins another nurse at the station. I hear their hushed words.
     The arriving nurse asks, “What happened? Why did I get called in?”
     “You didn’t hear?” my nurse asks. “Dr. Phillips, Denise, and Martin are all dead.”
     “Oh, no! What happened?”
     I squeeze my eyes closed. Those are the doctor and two nurses that tended me. I killed them. 

2 - Marginally Exceed

t first the cool morning air rakes my throat and lungs, but a tenth-mile into my run I’m used to it. I find the chill refreshing, but wear a knit cap, sweat pants, and long sleeve shirt anyway. The morning’s still dark other than the faint glow of the approaching sun. My feet are nearly silent on the curving road. A brook turned seasonal river rushes to my right. At each crest in the road, I glance to the east, looking for the sun to peek above the horizon. No cars travel down the road this early. Other than the occasional breeze rustling the trees, my breath, steps, and the river are the only sounds.
     One of the only times I’ve seen a car while running this early was when Luke Limbrik ran his car off the side, drunk. He was lucky he ran off the road in the only non-woody, non-hilly stretch of road. When I came upon him, I turned off his car and just let him sleep it off. That was two years ago. As I run past the flat stretch, I smile, remembering Luke. I imprinted him with a vision—a wreck with twisted bodies—of what he could’ve done. Imprinting or pushing a vision on others is something I rarely do, but I’ve made exceptions. Luke was probably eighteen at the time and I doubt he’s had a drink since.
     The horizon glows a deep orange this morning, making the run worth every breath. Once the sun rises above the horizon, I turn around and run back toward home, increasing my pace and pushing my body hard—not to the limits of what the human body is capable, but what people might consider extraordinary. This is the only time I can safely stop thinking about normal human capabilities and just let myself go. There’s something spiritual about pushing myself this hard. I slow down to a normal pace when a truck rumbles up behind me. The red truck slows, matching my pace and belching out a plume of black exhaust that totally ruins my run.
     “Hey, Jacobi,” Vince says, leaning out the truck window. “Hop in, bro. I’ll take you home.”
     Vince being up this early is especially odd. He’s rarely up before seven. I slow and let Vince pull in front of me, then jog to the other side and get in. “I could’ve made it back on my own.”
     Vince gives me his fake ‘bah-ha-ha’ laugh. “Dude, you’re a real nut job. You’ve got to be like three miles from your house.” Vince is the alpha male at school. He’s the guy the rest of us want to be like and the one the girls want to be with. He captains the sports teams we manage to put together—usually only basketball—and has Hollywood looks to fit the stereotype. I quit wondering long ago why he befriended me.
     “What are you doing out this early?” I ask. “This is very un-Vince like.” Usually I’m the one beating on his bedroom door, trying to get him up. Even his blondish-brown hair is combed.
     “Yeah, I know. Right? Hey, Liv is coming home today. I want you to go to Missoula with me. Keep me company on the drive.” He fingers the goatee fuzz he recently let grow on his chin. I personally think it looks ridiculous.
     “No way, man. You guys need some alone time. You just want me to drive so you can be all over her.” Vince gives me a large grin. “C’mon. That just makes me the creepy friend.”
     Vince laughs. “No, that’s not it. Nice try, though.” He calms down and loses his smile. “I just don’t know how she’s going to be. She’s different, bro. I think she’s scared of me. If you’re with me, maybe she’ll relax.”
     “You’re on your own, dude. Plus, Olivia hates me. If anything, she’ll be mad at you for dragging me along.”
     “She doesn’t hate you,” Vince says, pulling into my driveway. He stops the truck. “You just intimidate her. You intimidate a lot of people. Maybe if you tried being nicer or something. Anyway, I think you’re still afraid of leaving Crescent.”
     I take a deep breath and shrug. “Sorry. I can’t.”
     “I want you there because . . . I see the same fear in her eyes that I see in yours when anyone talks about leaving. At some point you’re gonna have to get out of this place.”
     I don’t need to ask what he’s talking about. Something I don’t understand pins me to this place. I don’t know why everybody at school feels the need to get out of Crescent. The place is incredibly beautiful and the people are more genuine than many places. A lot will leave, but nearly all will come back. “Thanks for the concern, and you’re right about the leaving thing. I just can’t right now,” I say and hop from the truck.
     “Later, bro,” Vince says with an exasperated sigh and backs out of the long driveway.
     I walk into the house. Dad is rummaging through the sink of dirty dishes for a coffee mug. He’s in his white boxers and no t-shirt despite the chill. His thick, brown hair resembles a pile of mulched leaves. “Jeez, Jacobi. You need to tell Vince not to come over so early. That truck can wake the dead,” he says. He rubs his hand down his rounded belly.
     “Case in point,” I say, smiling and waving my hand at him.
     “Yeah, yeah. Make yourself useful and start the coffee.” He busies himself by picking the morning goo from the corner of his eyes.
     I pull the coffee maker out and toss yesterday’s filter and grounds into the garbage can. I grab a new filter and scoop some coffee into it. “Move out of the way, Dad. I’ll take care of the dishes before I shower.”
     He steps aside as if too tired to argue, walks into the living room, and plops down on his recliner. I wash the dishes—all two plates, two sets of utensils, and a few glasses. I set his coffee mug where the carafe goes. Once it fills, I exchange it for the carafe and go into the living room, handing him the mug.
     “Ahhh,” he says after taking a drink. “Now that’s a much better wake up. Thanks. What did Vince want anyway?”
     “For me to go into Missoula with him.”
     Dad’s laugh turns into hacking up phlegm. “Good luck with that.”
     I shoot my father a frown and shake my head. “I’m gonna get ready for school.”
     “I thought you were done with school.”
     “Well, yes and no. Finished with classes. This is finals week.”
     “You managing to stay average?”
     I head for my bedroom at the back of the ranch-style house. “No more, no less, Dad.”
     “Just like your old man,” he yells back at me.
     I pull off my beanie and rub my sweaty hair. “I don’t know what I’d do without you. Who would’ve thought it’d be harder to get mediocre grades than excellent grades,” I mutter. The subject of school grades is one of the things we like to joke about. I actually needed to know the material they taught before I could dumb down my grades, and I needed my father’s help to do this. Without ‘grade dumbing’, so to speak, I’d stand out from the others—I learn faster and retain much more than anyone else. Standing out from others is something I can’t afford to do. My father saw the problem before I did and we spent a fair amount of time learning to be average.
     After I shower and dress, I head out to the living room. Dad’s fallen back asleep in his recliner. I kick the chair. “You got work in an hour, Dad.” He’s worked for the electric company for twenty years.
     “Yeah, yeah. I hate Mondays.” He gets up, yawns, and stretches. “You must get your morning energy from your mom.”
     “I’m sure of it. See you later.”
     “Oh, who you taking to the prom? Is it that Sydney girl?”
     “Ha-haaa.” I stretch out the mock laugh. “Keep up the jokes, Dad, but don’t quit your day job just yet.” Sydney stopped by on Saturday to hang out. I sat with her and ate lunch. She seems to be able to tolerate me, despite the negative vibes I purposely push to people. It doesn’t happen often, but on occasion someone, such as Sydney, has a high tolerance for my ‘keep away’ vibes.
     “Grab the garbage on your way out, son.”
     I snatch up the paper bag and head for the burn barrel. A gust catches the newspaper resting on top and sends it blowing across the ground. I toss the bag in the barrel and chase down the loose newspaper. While stuffing the paper in the barrel, I catch the headline: “Doctor, Nurses Die Mysteriously.” I snatch the smoking paper out and smack it against the ground to stop the burning. I read the report about how each of the hospital workers were found dead in their homes. It appeared they burned to death, but there was no indication of fire, including from the clothes they wore which weren’t damaged. It was as if they’d gone to bed and their bodies simply turned into charred heaps.
     I read the article three times.
     They’re here.

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