Intimate Relations with Strangers [NOOK Book]

Overview

If September 11, 2001, changed everything for America, then Intimate Relations with Strangers explores the long-term consequences of that change.

Set in a future where the threat of terrorism has seeped into everything, an American soldier finds himself at the vanguard of America's latest war. After a terrorist attack on the White House, America invades an African country in the Sahara. In the desert, the soldier begins to realize that memory...
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Intimate Relations with Strangers

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Overview

If September 11, 2001, changed everything for America, then Intimate Relations with Strangers explores the long-term consequences of that change.

Set in a future where the threat of terrorism has seeped into everything, an American soldier finds himself at the vanguard of America's latest war. After a terrorist attack on the White House, America invades an African country in the Sahara. In the desert, the soldier begins to realize that memory itself can be used as a form of terrorism. There is love within him, but it is love for a woman he is not entirely sure is real. She had appeared miraculously when he was a boy growing up in the suburbs of Long Island, telling him things that turned his world upside-down. She had disappeared just as miraculously, leaving him to question his recollections and his sanity.

Years later, as a soldier in the war, he finds himself yearning for the woman and the impossible paradise she had described. In the Sahara, he sees horrors that seem to be the work of demons. After a year of war, his mind and soul are on the verge of collapse; by the time he sees the woman from his childhood marching through the desert, he has no choice but to surrender to his fantasies. In a world devastated by war and terrorism, only she gives him hope. When she again disappears, he is ready to move heaven and earth to find her. However, it is a quest that seems to have consequences for both his soul and America's.

Intimate Relations with Strangers is at once a twisted puzzle and a brutally honest exploration of the nature of reality, war, and love.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

In this profoundly disturbing debut, Bernard, a native of Grenada who moved to New York City as a child, uses elements of time travel, fantasy and classic mystery to tell a love story set in an age of terrorism. The U.S. is enmeshed in an endless, unwinnable war in Africa, the president has been assassinated and the citizenry deceived. One day, Bernard's African protagonist, known only as "the little boy," witnesses a beaten and bloody young girl seemingly being born from the very bowels of the earth, a horrifying event that will haunt him throughout his life. Sent to war upon graduation from high school, the boy (now "the soldier") is taken prisoner. He eventually escapes, and the government touts him as a hero-which the soldier resists. Meanwhile, the soldier instinctively understands that he has always loved the girl he saw born now that she's grown, that she's somehow connected to him from another life, another world. Readers will remember this powerful, fable-like work of protest long after they've turned the last page. (Sept.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
From the Publisher
"In this profoundly disturbing debut, Bernard...uses elements of time travel, fantasy and classic mystery to tell a love story set in an age of terrorism...Readers will remember this powerful, fable-like work of protest long after they've turned the last page."

Publishers Weekly (starred review)

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781416571902
  • Publisher: Strebor Books
  • Publication date: 9/4/2007
  • Sold by: SIMON & SCHUSTER
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 256
  • File size: 274 KB

Meet the Author

David Valentine Bernard is the author of five novels—including the critically acclaimed Intimate Relations with Strangers. Originally from the Caribbean nation of Grenada, he moved to Brooklyn, New York, when he was nine years old. In 2010, he returned to the Caribbean (Jamaica) to complete a master’s degree in international development. Learn more at DVBernard.com.
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Read an Excerpt


September 11th changed everything for America. That was a phrase the soldier remembered hearing when he was still only a little boy. Terrorists had attacked America, so America had gone out into the world to take revenge. The logic behind it seemed simple enough. Then again, everything seemed simple when you were only eight years old.

He grew up in the middle of Long Island, in a cul-de-sac where most of his neighbors were old couples. The few children were either too old or too young to be his friends and playmates. Yet, even though he usually played by himself, he was never lonely. Beyond his backyard, there was a small wood -- a few hectares of trees, hemmed in by the highway and other people's backyards. This place was his. He claimed it the way lovers claimed their mates -- with authority and the gratitude that so much pleasure could reside in one place. When he allowed his imagination to roam, the wood was easily transformed into anything he pleased. Muddy pits metamorphosed into lakes and oceans; boulders became mountain ranges and skyscrapers. Over the years of his childhood, the wood had been everything from distant planets to steaming jungles. Sometimes, when a cruel streak seized him, he would terrorize the many squirrels with his slingshot, pretending the bushy, darting creatures were monsters to be eradicated. Mercifully, his aim was never true, and the squirrels knew to run when they saw him coming.

In the beginning, his mother would smile and shake her head when she saw him acting out one of his elaborate fantasies. The running joke around the house used to be that if the world were to come to a sudden end, the little boy would go on playing as though nothing had happened. His mother used to say she was happy for his independence and resourcefulness, because they kept him out of her hair. As a fifty-year-old woman who worked full-time in New York City, she often had little time and energy left when she returned home. Many days, she left the house at six in the morning and returned after eight at night. Her husband, likewise, worked in the city, which meant the little boy was often left alone with his older sister, or whatever babysitter the cul-de-sac had to offer. The babysitters liked the little boy, because he would never bother them; and most of the time, when his sister claimed to be babysitting him, she would be locked in her bedroom with her boyfriend.

Before September 11th, the mother had never really considered the consequences of these things. However, the terrorist attacks had highlighted a quality in her son she had never allowed herself to see. On the morning of September 11th, she had emerged from the subway station at Wall Street just as the first plane hit. She had walked the three or four blocks to the World Trade Center complex, where her firm was located, and stared up at the scene in shock. In the immediate aftermath, people had thought it was an accident; many of the workers had stood around, thinking they would be allowed to go to work after the flames were put out. But then, the second plane had hit, and everyone had known it was no accident. The mother had been there to see people jumping out of eightieth-story windows, choosing death by sudden impact to death by flames and toxic fumes. The mother had been there when the first tower came crumbling down. At the horrific sight, she had run with a terror she had never thought possible, screaming as the cloud of rubble engulfed her. Because the subway stopped running, she had had to walk over the Brooklyn Bridge: herself and hundreds of thousands of other war refugees. They had walked in a silent procession, speechless and terrified. Once she was across the bridge, it had occurred to her the Long Island Railroad would probably not be running either, so she had hailed a cab. Some passersby, who had had the same idea, had asked if they could share the cab. Thus, four of them had set off for Long Island. They had tried to talk about what had happened, but one woman had started to sob uncontrollably, so they had driven in relative silence.

On the day that everything changed for America, her husband had been in the city as well. He was a doctor at a hospital in midtown Manhattan. A triage center had been set up at his hospital. They had made provisions for thousands of wounded people, but few had come; and as an urologist, the father's expertise had not been needed anyway. He had stood around in a state of simmering helplessness; on the hospital television, he had seen all the horrible scenes, but there had been nothing for him to do. Seeing the towers collapse, he had had terrible thoughts about his wife -- who worked on the ninetieth floor. The wife had been one of those people who refused to get a cellular phone -- who had thought it all a trendy fad. She had called the hospital from a pay phone; but in the chaos, the woman at the reception desk had forgotten to convey the message, and so the husband had spent the day thinking the worst. Around midday, when his fears had finally gotten the best of him, he had driven back to Long Island like a maniac. He had called home before leaving, but there had been no response, and the horrible thoughts had left him feeling hollowed out.

On the road, he had found himself looking at the other drivers. Their pained expressions had been those of people marooned in a wasteland. They had all rushed ahead desperately, secretly wondering if their homes and loved ones would still be there when they arrived at their destinations. He had passed people crying -- people yelling into cellular phones; once, at a red light, he had seen a couple groping, her breasts exposed, their faces contorted with what was supposed to be passion, but which had struck the husband as the inner panic of those who thought the world was coming to an end. He had turned away, ashamed, as he recognized the same sense of panic within himself.

When he got home and saw the building was still standing, he had felt an almost insane sense of relief. The sight of his daughter sitting in front of the television had brought tears to his eyes. They had hugged one another, both of them crying as they tried to make sense of their fears.

As for the little boy's sister, she had known nothing about the attack until the little boy's elementary school called. She had been about to head to a class at the local college when the panicky woman from the elementary school called. The woman had been calling all the parents, so they could come and pick up their children. The sister had panicked as well, almost crashing her car twice as she sped to the school to pick up the little boy. She had cried on the drive home. Every few minutes, she had asked him if he was okay; but instead of waiting for an answer, she had only launched into another explanation of how terrified she was. In the beginning, the little boy had nodded his head when she asked him if he was okay; but by the end, he had only stared out of the windshield in silence as his sister worked herself into a nervous frenzy. As soon as the car stopped in front of their home, he had gone straight for the wood, and the sister had gone straight for the television.

The father had found her in front of the television when he came home; and half an hour later, when the mother came home, she had found them in the same position. On the screen, there had been the chilling scenes -- which, by now, had been replayed hundreds of times. They had all hugged one another, and cried, trying to reassure one another things would be okay. As if on cue, the little boy's older brother had called from Albany, where he was working as a state senator's aide. The brother had cried as well, and kept repeating how unbelievable it was -- as if the repetition would make it all believable.

The little boy had come in from the wood while the mother was crying on the phone with her first son. The sister had been sniffling on the couch, while the father held her around the shoulders and tried to keep back his own tears. At the sight of the crying adults, the little boy had stood frozen. Seeing the television was the source of everything, he had stared at the screen for a while, as if hoping to discover a secret. However, the scenes of planes crashing into towers, and skyscrapers crumbling, had reminded him of the time he found his brother's porn stash. It had been under a loose plank in his brother's closet -- some old Playboy magazines and a videotape porno that looked like it had passed through many hands. He had put on the porno, initially intrigued by the extent of the human imagination; but instead of arousing him, those scenes of staged sexuality had only left him melancholy. All his life, he had been different. While others his age had been shocked and scandalized by the things they learned about the adult world, nothing had ever been able to surprise him. The fake shouts of ecstasy on the videotape had been a mockery of something he sensed within him. It was as if he had experienced something pure and good -- something beyond all the mundane things people had come to call pleasure. He had sensed it within himself, in an untapped region of his psyche. He had searched his memories, trying to reenter the paradise he sensed within; but as always, nothing had come. Indeed, as he watched the videotape, the only concrete thing he had come away with was the realization none of it was real. He had wished then that he had never found the videotape -- not because of his ruined innocence or anything that stupid, but because it had left him with a feeling of emptiness he could not understand. He had turned off the VCR, and fled into his wood, and spent the rest of the day trying to forget...

Likewise, when he entered the living room that day and saw the adults staring at the TV screen, the same queasy feeling had come over him. Somehow, the death and sorrow he saw on the screen had been a mockery of something he felt inside, so he had turned away from the television after about twenty seconds, and returned outside, to the wood.

The mother had watched all this while she held the phone to her ear. Her first thought had been that the little boy was too young to understand what was going on. She figured that maybe, in his naiveté, he had been unable to grasp what had happened. She had nodded her head, thinking that that had to be it. Accordingly, by the time he came in for his evening snack an hour later, she had had her speech ready. She had told him how bad men had attacked America, and how it was okay to be afraid. However, when she began to sob again, he had taken her hand and pressed it, so that she would look down at him. When they made eye contact, he had said:

"Don't be afraid, Mom, you're home now." He had smiled at her faintly -- almost pityingly, she thought -- before returning outside, to the wood. She had been too numb to speak. In the brutal aftermath of the words, she had been unable to make up her mind if what he had said was a good thing or a bad thing. She had walked back to the living room in a daze; and since then, an internal shudder had gone through her every time she considered the little boy. There had been something in his eyes when he said those words to her -- either a precocious awareness of the world's inner dynamics, or a sociopathic coldness toward the weaknesses of his fellow human beings. The words had made her feel small and petty. They had been beyond her comprehension; and she had feared them, the way she feared all unknowable things.

In her darker moments, the mother traced everything to one cause: she had had the little boy too late in life (forty-two), by which time the zeal of motherhood had passed from her. With her first two children, she had been the self-sacrificing, hovering mother. Her first child -- the little boy's older brother -- had grown up craving her acknowledgement and approval in all things. Similarly, her daughter had been doted upon and spoiled -- especially by the husband -- and the girl had gloried in the attention, like a princess. However, the little boy had never needed her to explain a mystery of life to him; he had never needed to be calmed and reassured by the comforts that parents had to offer. Either he was some kind of emotional prodigy, or he was something horrible. It was either one or the other, and she trembled before both possibilities.

It was now nine months since September 11th. The little boy had spent those months trying to come to grips with the strange preoccupations of the adult world. Grownups had begun to grumble and whisper about unseen dangers; news reports had seemed like video games, with flashing graphics; everywhere, there had been images from faraway lands, of the spectacular bombings and assassinations that would ensure America's continued existence. Overnight, every house in the cul-de-sac had sprouted at least one American flag. Flags had been on cars and buses and trains and clothing; anthems and pledges of allegiance had become mandatory. All around him, the adults had seemed suddenly desperate to remember they were Americans -- as if remembering were the key to maintaining the stability of the world. And yet, in their acts of remembrance, there had been something off-putting, so the little boy had left the adults to their games, and found solace within his own.

On the day of the incident, he was playing by a huge muddy pit in his wood. It had rained a great deal that week; and as he had developed a strange affinity for the feeling of warm mud between his toes, he had taken off his sneakers. Being filthy was one of the joys of childhood. Many an afternoon, his mother would have the hose ready when she called him in for the night. She would throw a bucket of suds on him, then hose him down like a dog. Of course, she could not always head him off, so several times a week, he would leave a trail of muddy footprints through the house; which meant that several times a week, his mother would go into a fit of madness and threaten to do him bodily harm.

Presently, it was late afternoon, and he was content because another day of imaginative play had gone well. In the muddy pit, the male frogs were fighting one another for supremacy. He knew it had something to do with sex -- or at least the frog equivalent, which involved excreting a lot of slimy substances. He found the entire thing wondrously disgusting. Also, watching frogs fight was like watching a soap opera. By now, he had given names to all the players in the drama. He had decided which ones were villains and which were heroes. Sometimes, he sniggered when a frog he had come to hate lost out to a rival. Every once in a while, when a battle was not going the way he liked, he would poke the victor with a stick -- so that he became the ultimate arbiter of frog justice: a kind of hovering frog deity.

That afternoon, as he crouched by the pit, the wind suddenly began to blow. On the trees, the leaves shook violently. The wind was so strong he almost lost his balance as he crouched there. His hand went down into the muck, but he managed to right himself. He stood up and looked around warily: the wind was warm, but as it blew against his skin, it made him shudder. Stranger still, the world seemed suddenly dark. The sun, which had been shining brightly only seconds ago, was gone now. When he looked up, the sky was a twilight gray, and seemed to be darkening by the second. He knew every tree and shrub in the wood, but everything seemed different now -- as if something sinister had taken over. He became aware he was trembling; he wrapped his arms around his front, like someone freezing to death. And then, as the world passed a threshold of darkness, the wind suddenly stopped. More than that, everything stopped, as if God had put His index finger to His lips and shushed the world.

The little boy ran. He turned on his heels, almost slipping in the mud, and ran for his life. He ran toward his home. He had never been terrified before -- not like this. He had experienced the insecurities and uncertainties of all human beings, but the terror he felt now was beyond all those things. As he ran, he feared not only for his life, but for what he had come to think of as his soul.

He darted around tree trunks and splashed through puddles. He could see the edge of his backyard now. His house rose up like an oasis. He ran faster -- more desperately. He grunted and grimaced when he stubbed his toes on a root, but he did not scream, or stop, fearing the thing stalking him would be able to gauge his position.

He was running across the lawn now. He was almost there. In his haste, he practically ripped off the screen door. Within seconds, he was within the kitchen. Unfortunately, with all the mud and filth on the soles of his feet, he slid across the white tiles, before colliding with the table like a bowling ball. His mother had placed a pitcher of iced tea on the table a few minutes ago. It was toppled, along with the table. At the sound of the commotion, she returned from the living room, where she had been watching the news, and stared at the kitchen scene as if her head were on the verge exploding. She could not speak for about three or four seconds. At first, she did not even see the little boy (as he was still under the kitchen table). All she saw was the skid mark of mud from the door to the table. Eventually, she heard him gasping for air; and when she bent down and saw him, an insane gleam came into her eyes. In one brutal motion, she reached down, grabbed him by his collar, and wrenched him up. Soon, he was standing before her, his legs still wobbly.

"What the f...!" She almost cursed, but managed to catch herself. Her hands were still on his shoulders; she realized they had been inching toward his neck, to throttle him. She forced herself to let go of him. She took a deep breath and took a step back. He was staring up at her wide-eyed. She looked again at the muddy skid mark and her toppled pitcher. The iced tea was now dribbling across the floor. The rage was overcoming her again. That was when she glanced down and noticed his feet were bare. The little boy had a bad habit of leaving his shoes out in the wood; the mother had had to buy him a new pair of sneakers last week, because he had left the old pair in the wood overnight, and a raccoon, or some such creature, had ripped it to shreds to get to the salt. Seeing his bare feet, the mother's words got caught in her throat, as if they were choking her:

"Boy, where are your shoes?" She was trembling with rage; he opened his mouth, but the words would not come. She took a step toward him; he retreated a step. "Boy, tell me you didn't leave your shoes outside again!" She sprang at him, and grabbed him by the collar again --

"But Mama -- !" He tried to explain about the suddenly darkening world and the thing stalking him in the wood, but the words again eluded him. This enraged the mother even more, so that her hands shook and her eyes bulged.

"Boy, get your shoes before I strangle you!"

The little boy ran again. He slipped against the tiles once more, but managed to regain his balance before he burst through the screen door. Even then, he left a huge, muddy palm print by the door, so that the mother screamed and seemed on the verge of chasing after him.

The little boy burst out of the house, but once he was on the lawn again, his pace slowed. The world was still dark and menacing and hushed. Before he knew it, he was crying. He was trapped: if he went into the wood, the thing would get him; if he went back into the kitchen without his shoes, his mother would beat him within an inch of his life. He was doomed. He stood on the periphery of the wood for about two or three minutes, sniffling and pondering his fate. Eventually, the mother spied him from the kitchen window and screamed out again. When he glanced back and saw her glaring at him from the kitchen window, he ran. He ran for his life, knowing his mother would come out and strangle him if he stood there any longer. Once in the wood, he did not allow himself to stop or to think. He ran like he had never run before. His plan was to grab the shoes and run back out before the thing in the wood got him. He did not allow his mind to think of anything else. All there was, was running.

At last, the muddy pit, and his sneakers, came into view. Yet, as he neared his prize, the old terror came over him again, and he slowed to a walk. He approached the shoes tentatively, as if they were the cheese in a mousetrap. He searched the surrounding trees and shrubs then, looking for the thing he could sense closing in on him. It occurred to him he could not hear the frogs croaking anymore. He frowned. When he reached the pit, he picked up his shoes, but he stood staring down at the pit. The frogs were gone. He bent lower, and stared. The pit seemed impossibly black. There was no reflection, so that he wondered if there was even water there anymore. In a strange sense, it was as if the infinite darkness took possession of him. He felt compelled to bend lower -- to touch the darkness. He forgot about being stalked by a hidden monster; he forgot about his mother. For those few moments, all there was, was the darkness. He took both of his shoes in his left hand, and stretched out his right hand, to touch the darkness. His hand, he saw, was trembling. In fact, his entire body was trembling, but he still felt compelled to touch the darkness.

A bubble formed on the surface of the pit, as if something were churning below. He made out the bubble because it was a lighter hue than the surrounding darkness. The bubble formed, and then popped with an unexpected sound that reminded him of a belch. The air from the bubble was vile, and his face soured. He realized he was still stretching out his hand to touch the darkness, and pulled it back quickly, just as another bubble formed. Somehow, he was still crouched by the pit, mesmerized by the forming bubble. It grew bigger and bigger, until, to his amazement, it was about half a meter in diameter. A voice of prudence told him to step back. He stood up and retreated a few steps, but he was still mesmerized by the bubble. This time, the bubble did not so much pop as it imploded. It was sucked back into the darkness, and then ripples appeared on the surface. His eyes followed the concentric circles, as if he were being hypnotized. Eventually, his eyes focused on something stirring in the center of the ripples. He leaned in closer, his eyes straining. He was still leaning in closer when the thing suddenly broke the surface of the darkness. It was not a bubble this time, but something with substance. He jumped when he realized he was looking at fingers. They were emerging from the darkness. And then, there came a full hand, and then the arm. He could not breathe. The surface of the pit bubbled. Vile-smelling froth formed on the surface. The little boy tried to step back. He may have moved, and taken a wobbly step, but it was not the frantic flight his body cried out for. The muddy pit was giving birth. He had never seen something being born before, but he saw it now. Within seconds, a nude body was expelled from the darkness, and then the afterbirth came out -- chunks of clotted blood and unspeakable filth. The expelled body was coated with it.

As the little boy looked on in shock, the thing's head sprung up; it coughed, then vomited up some discolored fluid. The little boy went to run at last. He turned quickly on his heels, but almost decapitated himself when he ran headlong into a low-hanging branch. He did a near somersault, landing on his shoulder. The joint gave immediately, feeling like a knife slicing into shoulder. Either his clavicle snapped or he strained some neck tendons. His chin, which had taken the brunt of the blow with the branch, was split. For a moment, his visual cortex translated the onslaught of pain as flashes of light. Yet, even then, his first and only thought was to flee. With all the commotion, the creature's eyes darted in his direction. In the darkness, the eyes seemed like an abyss, drawing him in --

He screamed, and clamped his eyes shut, and screamed again, balling himself into the fetal position...

Either minutes passed or seconds passed -- it all seemed the same to him now. His mother came running, followed by some of his elderly neighbors. Even then, he could not stop screaming. His mother grabbed him. The blood from his chin had spurted all over his face by then. The sight of his bloody face and lopsided shoulders must have been horrific to her, because she began to cry, even while she tried to calm him. Soon, however, some of the old neighbors noticed the creature -- or whatever it was. It was still lying by the mouth of the pit. It was not moving anymore: it had not moved since he started screaming, as if the sound had stripped it of its strength. Some of the old neighbors went to the body and tried to rouse it. Someone yelled for an ambulance, and an old man shuffled back toward his home to make the call.

The little boy huddled into his mother's arms. It was the first time he had done that since he was a toddler. This terror was a new thing, opening him up to states of existence he had never thought possible. His mother was rocking him now; she kept repeating that everything would be okay. The old people were still congregating around the body by the pit. Maybe three or four minutes passed before one of the old women used a kerchief to wipe away some of the filth from the thing's face. That was when they discovered it was a girl. The filth had cloaked her and matted her hair to her head. However, once her face was cleared, they saw the girl was beautiful. The little boy got a glimpse of her through the old people's legs. Once he did, the previous terror died away entirely, and he felt only shock. In that instant, he was convinced he knew her. More than that, it was as if a connection existed between him and the girl that trumped even the one that existed between him and his family: between him and everything he had ever known. It was as if all those other things were irrelevant, and the girl was a conduit back to everything that mattered. She was lying there with her eyes closed, and the little boy was happy for it, because he had a sudden fear that the girl's eyes would be his undoing.

Some of the adults moved in closer to get a look at the girl, obscuring the little boy's view. The adults were talking wildly now, speculating about the filth -- the chunks of clotted blood -- and where the girl had come from. They wondered about the nudity, thinking maybe the girl had been abused and dumped here (since the highway was right next to the wood). The little boy listened to these things without fully understanding them. Now, they were conjecturing that a man must have dropped the girl there, then beat up the little boy when he came upon them. They asked the little boy if they were right, but by then he was too dazed to understand them. The pain now had him wrapped up and incapacitated, like a straightjacket.

More adults came. One of the old men took off his shirt to cover the girl. About two minutes later, the little boy's father came running up. Some old people had flagged him down as soon as he drove into the cul-de-sac. The father immediately began checking the little boy for wounds. He grew annoyed with the others, because they could not give him any definite answers on what had happened. The father tried to question his son directly, but the little boy had become bored with all the adults by then. The girl was the only thing on his mind -- the only thing he could bring himself to consider. He wished everyone would move away, so he could stare at her again.

Then, within minutes, the police and ambulance were there. By now, the father had decided his son's injuries were not life-threatening, and had started checking the girl. The old man who had run back to summon the ambulance must have made it seem like a massacre, because six police officers and three ambulances arrived. They parked in the cul-de-sac and ran through the wood to get to the supposed crime scene. Most were middle-aged men with huge guts, so they were panting when they arrived. With the authorities there, all the adults seemed to be screaming now. The old people began telling the police and paramedics their various theories of what had happened. The little boy's father explained he was a doctor, and gave his assessments to the paramedics. For the little boy, everything passed in a blur. The girl was put on a gurney; some paramedics came and placed the little boy on another gurney. By now, the onslaught of pain had evolved into a dull ache. Of course, his body had gone into shock.

Next, there was the trip back to the cul-de-sac. It was impossible to wheel the gurney over the uneven, muddy earth, so the gurney had to be lifted. One of the paramedics lost his balance and tripped over a shrub. The little boy was almost sent flying, but the father, who had been jogging by his side, managed to grab the gurney. At present, half the adults were running back toward the cul-de-sac. The other half stayed with a contingent of police officers, who were cordoning off the crime scene. The girl and her paramedics reached the street first. She was put in the back of an ambulance; within seconds, she was off to the hospital. The little boy and his contingent reached the street as the girl's ambulance was taking off. The little boy was placed in the back of another ambulance. His mother got in with him, while the father yelled he would drive the car behind the ambulance. With all the sirens in the air, everyone had to yell to talk. The little boy was barely conscious by then.

The little boy had started to doze by the time they arrived at the hospital. In a strange way, the siren had lulled him to sleep. He had already begun to dream; and even then, his dreams had been of the girl. Both ambulances arrived at about the same time. Two medical teams were waiting outside the emergency room when they pulled in front of the hospital. One fastened itself onto the girl, and whisked her into the hospital. The other came for the little boy. The mother went with the little boy and the medical team. The father was about to follow, but some guards warned him to move his car if he did not want it to be towed.

They wheeled the little boy down the labyrinthine hospital corridors. His mind did not bother to digest what was going on. Soon, he was in the pediatric wing. There was a central ward with about a dozen rooms on either side. There were cartoon figures painted on the walls of the ward. Some wretched-looking kids were milling about in the central area, mostly with broken arms, and bald heads from chemotherapy, and that sort of thing.

The girl had arrived ahead of him. She was taken into one room while the little boy was brought into the one next to it. Now, he was being undressed. A female doctor asked him some questions while he was stripped. Actually, they cut off his clothes. The doctor said his shoulder was dislocated. She used a stethoscope on him. It was cold against his skin, and he shuddered. The interminable minutes passed. He had a sudden desire to bite the doctor's hand when she wrenched his jaw open to look inside. He was poked and prodded and ordered about. They were going to give him an X-ray to see if there was any other damage. So, shortly after the perfunctory examination was complete, he was rushed to the radiology department. By now, he only wished they would leave him alone.

They had given him some pain drugs, which made him feel giddy. His shoulder was snapped back in place. They gave him a couple stitches for his chin... Through all this, his mother had either stood to the side, or held his hand. Her eyes were red from tears. The father joined them after he found parking. By that time, the little boy was back in the pediatric ward. It was true that doctors made the worst patients (and parents of patients) because the father was a nervous wreck.

The little boy allowed his mind to roam. While everything was going on, he had flashes of the girl emerging from the pit. It was strange that the sight no longer terrified him. Instead, there was a yearning within him now: a need to see the girl again, and be around her. Somehow, he had the sense everything would be revealed if he looked into her eyes.

While the pediatrician was putting him in a shoulder restraint, a middleaged woman came in with a folder in one hand and a huge plastic cup of coffee in the other. It was more like a jug than a cup, and she smiled in a jittery way after she took a sloppy swig. In fact, she dribbled on her cotton blouse (which already had coffee stains on it). Everyone stopped what he or she was doing and looked up at her, as if to ask her what she wanted. She gave a preamble, the gist of which was that she was a police detective and had been assigned this case. The pediatrician said she was finished, giving tacit approval for the interrogation to begin. The doctor left the room then, saying she would return later to check on the little boy. The doctor opened the door just as the wretched-looking children in the ward were laughing at a joke or some other form of childish merriment. The sound was unexpected in the otherwise grim silence, and they all looked toward the doorway.

The detective asked the parents if she could ask the little boy some questions. Once she had their approval, she went over to the little boy's bed. She first placed her cup/jug on the nightstand to free her hand, then she proffered her hand to the little boy, for him to slap her five.

"How are you doing, homie?" she said, trying to be cool, but it was ridiculous coming from a middle-aged white woman. Her voice was so loud it startled him. As for her extended hand, his arm on that side was in the restraint, and he did not feel like stretching his other arm over just to touch her, so he only stared at her.

"I'm fine," he said simply. She pulled her hand back, and tried to mask the awkwardness of the situation by shuffling through her folder. Of course, the folder only had a handful of sheets of paper in it, most of which were blank for taking notes.

"I hear you're a brave little boy," she began again, hoping to work on his ego.

The little boy wanted to go to sleep. He looked at his parents, as if begging them to drive the woman away, but they had proud smiles on their faces.

When the little boy's gaze returned to the detective, she continued: "They told me how you saw that bad man hurting the girl, and cried out for help when he attacked you. You're a hero, you know that!" she said, nodding enthusiastically. "You scared him away!"

The little boy was still staring up at her in the same confused way, but then he remembered the old people speculating in the wood. The detective must have gone to the cul-de-sac and gotten their reports. He could not believe how wrong they were. At the same time, he knew he would never be able to explain the scene that had been flashing in his mind: the girl emerging from the muck. The detective still had a hopeful smile on her face, as if trying to coax him into believing their concocted story. When he looked, he realized his parents had the same expression on their faces. As he watched them, it occurred to him the adult world was probably not worthy of the truth.

The detective seemed to be waiting for a response, so he made a noncommittal grunting sound to placate her. That was not what she had been hoping for, and her beaming smile faded away.

"Can you give me the details of how it happened?" she pressed him now.

The little boy saw no other course but to lie. He shook his head -- or at least, he tried to. His neck was sore. She continued:

"Do you think you could identify the bad man if you saw him again?"

"No," he said this time.

"You don't have to be afraid," she said, taking his reticence for fear.

"We're here to protect you," she went on. "He'll never hurt you again -- especially once we have him in custody."

"Okay," he said eventually, seeing she was waiting for an acknowledgment.

Mercifully, the detective seemed to conclude she was not going to get any more information from him tonight, so she turned to the mother:

"They said you were one of the first people on the scene. Did you see anyone running away?"

"No, I didn't even see the girl at first. I guess my attention was on my son. I ran toward the screams."

The detective sighed, then fetched her jug from the nightstand, taking another sloppy swig of her coffee. It seemed to rejuvenate her spirits, because she gave them another jittery smile once she was finished. After assuring the parents they should be proud of the little boy (and that the police would catch the bad man soon) she made her exit.

His parents were determined to stick around and "keep him company" once the detective left, but he wanted to sleep. When his parents began discussing how all this could have happened in their "wonderful little community," he closed his eyes and pretended to be asleep. They eventually took the hint, kissed him on the forehead, and left. Outside, in the ward, all sounds of childish merrymaking were gone. The children had probably been forced to go to bed.

He tried to sleep, but thoughts of the girl would not leave him. His mind kept going over the impossibility of what he had seen that afternoon...and the possibility of what the girl might be. In fact, when he thought of her, he wondered what she was, not who she was. He did not care what her name was, or where she had lived before this afternoon. Names, he knew, where what lazy people used to distract themselves from the true realities of life. Somehow, the girl was like the sun: her coming and going could affect the rhythms of life and death; regardless of what she was called, it did not change what she was, and the power she had over their fragile lives. In the few glimpses he had gotten of her, he had felt himself changing. In fact, it was impossible to go back to what he was. He was a different person from the kid who had entered the wood that afternoon.

He sat up in bed now, knowing he had to see her again. His parents had turned off the light. He now turned on the lamp on the nightstand. He felt a sense of excitement taking hold of him. He got out of bed, but his body still felt otherworldly from the anesthesia. His legs felt light: as if he would go bounding through the ceiling if he inadvertently took too strong a step. As such, his first steps were tentative. He hoped there were no guards outside to keep him from the girl. He only wanted to stare at her: he did not care if she was still unconscious. The sight of her would soothe him for the night. When he awoke in the morning, he would probably need another fix, and then another... Now that he had met the girl, he would only be able to exist from moment to moment --

The door burst open. He had been about to take another tentative step toward the exit, but he froze now, unable to believe his eyes. It was the girl! She was actually there, panting and wide-eyed. She was in a hospital gown now, just like him, and she was clean and beautiful. She took a step toward him, and he took a step. Her eyes were frantic. She scanned the rest of the room, as if searching for something; right before the door burst open again, she darted behind it. Now, an orderly was standing in the doorway. He, too, was panting and wide-eyed:

"Did a girl run in here?" the orderly yelled.

It took all the little boy's will to not look over at the girl. He shook his head -- despite the pain. The orderly went to leave, but then turned back: "You need to be in bed," he said. There was a warning somewhere in there, and the little boy grunted to say he understood.

Within seconds, the door was closed, and the little boy and the girl stared at one another again. She seemed calmer now -- grateful to him, perhaps. He wanted to talk to her, but he could not translate his thoughts into a cogent sentence. He could not even begin the flow of words, so he only stood there, staring. It was she who walked toward him. His insides quaked with every step she took. On her face, there was an inscrutable expression: a mixture of terror and relief.

Within moments, she was hugging him. Her bony little arms were clenched around his neck; he cringed from the pain, but he was so stunned he only stood there with his free arm dangling limply at his side. Within the ward, the guards could be heard running back and forth. The girl looked toward the door anxiously. Thinking quickly, the little boy took her to the attached bathroom. He turned on the light and closed the door, so that soon they were standing face-to-face in the cramped quarters. She was quivering, still with a terrified expression on her face. He held her upper arm, and spoke for the first time, saying:

"The guards won't hurt you."

However, seeming to come to her senses, she blurted out, "We have to get out of here." In the cramped quarters, her voice had a disturbing resonance.

He frowned. "What are you afraid of?"

She thought about it for a moment, but realized she had no idea. She detached from him -- he had still been holding her arm -- and scratched her head, as if it would trigger her memory.

"Are you okay?" he asked again.

She looked up at him momentarily, but then went back to scratching her head. "...I don't know," she whispered at last.

He ventured: "I saw you when you came out of the mud." By her expression, he saw she had no idea what he was talking about. He lowered his voice then, saying, "What's the last thing you remember?"

"...Running," she whispered. She looked past him for the first time and caught her reflection in the mirror. She frowned, and stepped closer, brushing past him. "How did we get so young?"

"What?"

"We're kids," she said in bewilderment.

He chuckled, as if to ask what else they were supposed to be.

She talked to him via the mirror; her face remained grave: "We shouldn't be so young. This is all wrong."

His smile faded. He touched her shoulder, so that she turned and faced him again. "How old do you think you are?"

The same confused expression was on her face. "I don't know," she said at last. She was about to go back to scratching her head, but he grabbed her hand. "This is all wrong," she said in bewilderment. "You and I are grown. ...Married."

"Married?" he almost screamed. The word echoed in the bathroom. And then, "I'm only eight."

"You're not eight," she said as if annoyed with him. "...Don't you recognize me?"

His mind returned to the strange feeling he had had the moment he saw her face; he remembered the feeling he had always had, that there was something else beyond all this -- something that made this life seem like a pale imitation of living.

The expression on his face made her feel vindicated. "You know me," she said decisively. "We were together. All of this" -- she looked about warily -- "...it's not real."

"What is it then?" he started cautiously.

She thought about it, but when her mind could not offer anything definitive, she only began to cry again. She took a step toward him, and he hugged her, wrapping his free arm around her. He did not know if he believed her or not. He did not even know if he understood what she had said. He only knew he did not like to see her cry. She returned his hug, then she kissed him -- not in the quaint, adorable way of little children, but with wild abandon. He felt her tongue in his mouth. She pulled him to her, so that he winced again from the pain. They were both in the hospital gowns, naked under the thin fabric; as the kiss continued, his free hand, following its own volition, caressed her back. Her gown was unfastened in the rear, and he felt her skin -- the warm, smooth flesh at the bottom of her back. His hands moved lower, brushing against her small, boyish buttock --

Sensations were being stirred within him -- a feeling of bliss that left him feeling dazed and drunk. He had to pull away from her before he lost himself completely. He was panting when they detached. His eyes were wide.

"...We were making love," she blurted out when they detached.

"What?"

"That's the last thing I remember. We were grown and married, and we were making love before you went to work...and then I was running down the street...and then I was here." The description seemed vague even to her, and she began to cry again.

He still could not stand to see her cry. Somehow, her desperation became his desperation -- as if they were one entity. He held her again: it seemed right. And the closeness of her body left him feeling complete -- content. All his life, he had been hollow: she filled him up, and satisfied him. At that moment, he knew he loved her -- that he had always loved her. He did not try to make sense of it. They were kissing now. As before, it was not the kiss of two children, but something else entirely. He pulled her to him, despite his dislocated shoulder. Indeed, with thoughts of love within him, he felt no pain. The kiss seemed to go on for minutes. He closed his eyes and allowed himself to be pulled into it. He felt almost giddy -- carefree and light. ...He was drifting now. At first, he thought the love had made him high, but when he opened his eyes, he gasped. The hospital bathroom was gone; as he looked around, he saw they were drifting through a dimension of light. There was no up and down: all there was, was the light. His first thought was that it was a dream -- that he had fallen asleep after his parents left, and this was all a fantasy. Either way, he knew he did not want to lose the girl. He held her tighter, suddenly terrified of losing her within the infinite possibilities of this place. Then, as he stared over her shoulder, into the light, he realized there were scenes taking place all around him. He saw one from a village in the primordial heart of Africa -- something that seemed from the beginning of time. Inexplicably, years passed as he stared into the scene. Children turned into adults; adults became old or died. The same was true for the hundreds of other scenes. As he looked from one to another, hundreds of years of history played themselves out before his eyes. He saw tribal wars, and slave ships. He was there to see America take its formative steps. He saw all the contradictions and hypocrisies of history: declarations of independence being made at the same time that slavery became entrenched; he saw the expansion of wealth and hope at the same time that others were damned to nightmarish servitude. There were revolutions in industrialism -- hulking factories that brought wealth and pollution and social disruptions. He saw the systematic butchery of the Civil War, and the barbaric westward surge of Americans who believed God had given this land to the white man. In fact, he was there for all the wars -- all the excuses men of power made for their greed and bigotry. He saw the despair wrought by the course of human history; he saw all its advancements and dead ends and regressions.

That was when he realized he was impossibly old. It was a rational conclusion to be drawn, because the hundreds of scenes in the dimension of light all had a person who looked exactly like him. For hundreds of years, he had been struggling and suffering. He did not know how it was possible, but he knew it was so. The girl had been in all those scenes as well, sharing in his suffering and bewilderment and joy --

He suddenly realized he was not holding her anymore! He panicked and looked around, but the girl was gone. In fact, as he drifted through the light, he felt as though he, too, were fading away. Ties that had bound him to the world were loosened; new ties came into being, washing away all that had been there before. For a moment, he was certain he did not exist. For a moment, he forgot about the cul-de-sac and his parents and his wood. It was as if all the remnants of his old life were being cleared away, so that a new host could take over his body --

A sickening sensation came over him -- as if he were in an elevator whose cables had snapped. He was falling. His stomach felt like it was moving up his throat. He wanted to scream, but he was afraid his guts would come out of his mouth. As he began to flail his arms and legs, he realized he was no longer in the shoulder restraint. His dislocated shoulder not only seemed healed, but as if it had never been injured. He instinctively touched his chin, seeing there was no wound there either.

That was when the sensation of falling stopped, and he found himself standing on solid ground. At the speed he had been traveling, he had expected his body to splatter, but there was only a feeling of disorientation as the world started to form around him. Within seconds, he realized he was back in the wood, standing next to the muddy pit. Somehow, it was again Friday evening -- he knew it instantly. He looked down at the pit, but there was nothing supernatural about it anymore. The frogs were croaking and fighting in the muck as usual. He looked around, at all the familiar sights, but he knew this was all wrong. He suddenly remembered his parents and the cul-de-sac; a lifetime's worth of memories came flooding back. The hundreds of years of history he had seen while drifting through the light were effaced from his memory. A remnant of that vast history did stay with him, like the aftertaste of bitter medicine; otherwise, it all left him. He remembered the girl. He scanned the wood for any sign of her, but she was gone. Without her, nothing seemed right. It was like waking up to find his heart or lungs had been taken out. The sensation was disturbing -- brutal. When his body could no longer take the strain, the world went black and he fell to the ground....

An unknown period of time passed. His mother, who was about to call him in for the night, saw him from the kitchen window, stumbling out of the wood with blood smeared over his clothes, face and hands. She screamed and ran out to meet him. ...His skin was cold and clammy; his eyes were blank and unresponsive. For those first few moments, he merely stared into space with a kind of slack-jawed dementia. His father was home by then, and ran out to help. Seeing no wounds, they bathed him and put him to bed. But even as the little boy began to regain consciousness, his first realization was that they had forgotten about the girl. In fact, it was as if that entire afternoon had been edited out of existence. All trace of the girl was gone from their eyes; and when he tried to talk to his father about the muddy pit and a trip to the hospital, the man only shook his head and looked at his wife with concern, convinced his son was still delirious.

Over the next few days, his parents tried to pretend nothing had happened. They told themselves the little boy had not been covered in blood. They convinced one another it had been one of his childish games. In time, the little boy fell in line with their world of make-believe; but when he was alone, he would find himself thinking that none of this was real, and that it was only a matter of time before he again held the girl in his arms. Intimate Relations with Strangers © 2007 by David Valentine Bernard

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 29, 2013

    Struggle

    I struggle to read this book. In the middle it started to make some sense I guess. Very confusing.

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