Wasted Fish: Chapter 3
Beth sat and stared at the wall in silence, pondering life and death. No one had wished her a happy birthday in the previous day, but that barely bothered her. She had gone far out of her way to make sure that important dates in her life were wiped from any and all records. Her adoptive father had helped her so that she practically didn’t exist at all. Of course, if anyone had looked into her they would have seen the gaps, but no one did.
The walls started to crawl with loneliness as silence filled the room with fog. She wasn’t completely detached from the world, and she did have friends. Only one of them actually knew her. It was just easier to shut the world out rather than let it in and sift through the lies. It was just better to blanket herself with self-made lies than be smothered with reality. The reality was, Beth was just another person with a darkened past. She cared about the children she recruited each year, and even checked in on them when no one was watching. She dreamed of the sunshine and roses. Her greatest weakness was chocolate but she hated bacon. Beth even had a crush on a guy. Of course, she would never let him know. The lies she told herself were what made her a cold mountain of bitterness and despair. Only the stars could reach her.
A knock on the door slowly pulled Beth’s heavy limbs from the heart of her dark mind and into the pale flickering light of her office. She glanced around, and waited. Beth was never quite sure why she waited after someone knocked on her door. Sometimes she thought it was because she wanted the person to go away. Other times she thought that maybe, just maybe, she wanted assurance that they needed her. Like an answered prayer, the second knock was both expected and surprising. It refreshed her soul and made feel less alone in the universe. In response and gratitude she stood and went towards its source to welcome it inside.
Jethram Athanasios stood outside her office, looking unsure of himself in his surroundings. She beckoned him inside with a nod of her head, and then moved to the hard and sturdy chair behind her desk. The other furniture in the room was exactly the same- hard and cold, but strong and independent. Jethram took a seat in front of her desk and sat in silence while he waited for instructions. This pleased Beth greatly, but she had almost expected him to start speaking immediately.
There was a heartbeat, just a heartbeat, when Beth considered telling him what she thought. What did she think? Part of her wanted to say she knew exactly what this boy was, but the other part of her was convinced she was wrong. How could she be right? To Beth, there was little in the world that was actually right.
What if he knew? Beth wondered if he knew. If he knew, then why wouldn’t he say anything? Did it mean he thought she knew? Did it mean he really didn’t know? Did it mean he didn’t care?
Beth just needed to get away from her own mind for a while, but her mind was tied to the tunnels and curves of the Manticore’s teeth. There was nothing holding her inside but herself, as she clung to pieces of left-over meat and wasted fish between the creature’s canines. Outside there was open air and freedom- but there was also the endless eternity of the heavens and the mocking stars which dwelt there.
Someone had once told Beth that no story was complete without a dragon. Beth was her own dragon, and she knew it, but contrary to common understanding that didn’t make her a better person. She still locked herself away and sought to hide from her own flames instead of putting them out. This boy was young and innocent- she didn’t want him to be caught in the fire- so she chose to continue lying to him. At least for that moment.
“So, what is it that I’m expected to do?” Jethram’s confidence and ingenuity from earlier seemed to have drifted away.
“You could start by getting me a cup of coffee.”
“Where is the coffee?”
“Down the stairs, turn immediately to your left, and walk exactly fifteen steps.”
He left and was back in a moment with a cup of steaming hot coffee. Beth drank it black, but she was internally screaming at herself for not specifying her preferences. She hated black coffee, but she loved coffee and she wanted to avoid as much conversation as possible. The bitter liquid burnt her tongue, but she sucked it down quickly and made sure no weakness showed on her face.
“Well, aren’t the classes about to start? Shouldn’t I be there?”
“They won’t start until I get there, and I can get there when I want.”
“Excuse me ma’am, but I don’t think that’s fair.”
“And why’s that?”
“Well, you expect us all to be there on time but you don’t hold yourself to that same expectation.”
“Get this straight kid- I am not concerned with your opinions. There are too many opinions around here as it is. From now on you will shut up unless I tell you otherwise.”
He stood in silence, either out of defiance or acceptance, and looked at her. She looked back and tried to pinpoint what made her so… uncomfortable around him. He was so ordinary it hurt, but there was also something extraordinary about him. Jethram was not unusually tall or short for his age, and he was thinner than average. He didn’t look unhealthy but his pale skin and freckles created a haunted look under the shadow of his black hair. The boy’s deep black eyes accented the ghostly look and made him almost merge into the shadows. It was Jethram’s mouth and ears which placed him in the Johnsons family- they were both large and thick which gave them a look as if they were prepared for constant use. What made him so unlikely for the world of the Core was his hands which looked as if they had barely seen a day of work. Perhaps this was good, but it also meant Beth had a lot of work to do.
“So, kid- shut up and follow.”
Standing again and walking out of the room, Beth led Jethram through the twisting tunnels of the Core. They passed through too many hallways to count, but the lack of decoration made it all seem exactly the same so that they felt like they were walking in place for eternity. This gave both of them time to think, but neither of them took advantage of it. Only when they came to a large and mostly empty room did they rest their legs and sit down.
The others were already there, sitting in hard seats facing different sides of the room. On each wall was a screen which displayed the crest of each of their individual families with variations for branches. Andy Smith’s crest was the first that caught her eye, because it was not what it should have been. As he was a direct descendent of the first Smith in Manticore, his crest should have been a chain with three links held together by leaves which looked as if they fluttered in the wind. Each branch had their variation of this, though most simply added or removed a link. Andy Smith’s crest featured three links and the leaves which were meant to hold them together. However, his links were broken and separated and the leaves which were meant to connect them were braided in the center of the ring which they created. When Andy had chosen a path of his own, the Smiths had cast him off and disowned him. It seemed he had taken this to heart and created a crest of his own.
Amelia Hill’s crest was that of the third branch of Hills, indicating she was near the top of her social hill but would never reach the peak. This was represented by fluid lines intersecting and cutting off a flawless semi-circle arching upwards towards the open air. Beneath it and unconnected from every other element was a quarter-sized circle which gave a nod towards her financial benefits- hers was the richest branch of the Hill family and they did not mind flaunting it.
John Bergin’s crest was just as ordinary, and almost boring. The original crest was a ring encompassing three smaller rings which were each touched by one edge of a triangle. Each separate branch had their own variation of this, but usually they simply rotated the triangle by a precise degree. John Bergin’s crest began with the outer ring and inner rings, but the triangle had changed into an arrow which dangled from the bottom of the outer ring. It had been rotated precisely 32.6° clockwise around the circle as indicated by a small etching around the outer rim of the outer ring.
Jethram Athanasios, as he did not belong to any of the families, was required to form his own crest for the sake of identification. If he wished and was accepted, he could choose to create a variation of a family crest which indicated his chosen path. Either Jethram had not chosen or he had not been accepted. On Jethram’s screen was projected a single knife etched with markings impossible to make out in the projection. Behind the knife was a single ring which resembled the wheel of a van- one that Beth recognized. Perhaps it was just her imagination, but the crest seemed to flicker in front of her eyes and taunt her. That was when she finally made out the designs on the knife itself. They were stars and constellations.