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I'd Rather Be

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They all come here for a reason.

They don't always know it when they get here, but they always figure it out, one way or another - usually around the time when they've figured out what they really want.

***

Pema took a last look in the mirror to see that her makeup was perfect and her wig straight. Satisfied, she carefully arranged her feather covered mask and smiled at her reflection. This mask wasn’t likely to make her sneeze, unlike the last feather mask she’d tried. Pema thought she looked wonderful, and happier than she'd ever looked when she was as young as she now looked. It wasn't that she thought she'd wasted her youth, but she was quite happy with how she was spending her "second youth."

***

She had never meant to love her work. Pema hated the idea of what she was doing, what she was part of. Even more than that, she hated the kinds of people who worked within such a terrible system - so she became one. She got the job so that she could make a difference from the inside the system, while others fought to tear down the system. She passed on helpful information sometimes about the system, nothing that would endanger her job. Really, they didn't tell her much. There were children, and she took care of them, and no one debated the policy of why they existed -- there wasn't time to, with so many kids running around, and how could you hold a happy toddler in your lap and be angry at their existence?

**

There weren't any children here, well, not really. Age is so relative - many people, like herself, came here one age and became something else, but no one came here who was still truly a child - not normally, at least. She had loved taking care of little Nasreen, though, and smiled sadly thinking back on her. Pema knew she had been good with children, that she had been a good foster mother. But she had made her decision to stay, to close the door on that life, and she did not regret it.

***

Sometimes, nothing hurts more than getting what you've always wanted. The years had flown by with Pema hardly noticing, and the world changed in the way she'd dreamed of. Public opinion shifted, free Asmari were given increasing civil rights, and the younger generation of humans was near universally disgusted with the situation. When the high court announced their ruling, they began with quotes from half a dozen old Earth decisions on slavery and the rights of people (no longer just "human" rights). Pema, though, wasn't paying attention to the announcement, because she spent the day with a girl who was running a fever and being kept apart from the other children. Pema, being human, was safe.

That decision was all Pema had spent her youth fighting for, and she wanted it, oh she wanted it, but Jarina had a fever and everything else could wait.

 

***

She hoped there would be some new faces tonight. She was very happy that Alexandria and Kareem had both decided to return home, what with them each having so much to live for, but to lose both of them in such quick succession was hard on her. Oh, she had friends amongst the residents, but she was one of those who was always drawn to those in need of help, especially the younger ones. Who would be surprised by that?

***

Pema had never expected the stigma that would come with her job afterwards. People called her a slaver, a collaborator, a monster. How could she explain a lifetime's devotion to the most vulnerable people on the whole moon? Someone had to take care of them, until society could catch up and fix the system, and that was what she'd done. They’d call it excuses, and she didn't care what they thought. She collected her pension, and lived in the same little apartment she'd lived in for decades… but nothing seemed to really matter anymore. She was in touch with many of the children she'd raised, those that understood why she'd done what she did. While she didn't care what humans who thought it was trendy to harass her believed, she mourned for every one of her children who saw her as part of the system. She understood why, and it was their right, but she loved them and missed them all. She'd had a few offers to go live with some of their and their families, and she'd visited, but she couldn't stay. It wasn't right to ask them to care for her, after all this, and she felt like an intruder, a symbol of a terrible and recent past, something that needed to be explained to the next generation, if she was there. So she'd always go back to her apartment, and made it through another day.

***

There was going to be a full orchestra tonight, such a delight! She’d wanted Fritz to do her hair, but he was busy, which hopefully meant someone new? She put on her best dancing shoes, because she was in the mood to dance, no matter what was playing - but she liked almost every kind of music she'd heard here, and it was always something you could dance to if you knew enough dances. She'd just mastered the cha cha last month!

***

They were going to knock down the cloning center where she'd worked, put up a memorial and a shopping center. Pema decided to say goodbye. It wasn't hard to break in. There wasn't much left inside, at least from the perspective of a thief - anything of real value was gone, nothing left but broken down old desks and other things not worth the effort to move. But Pema was no thief, and she found all she needed - old drawings hidden away in corners maintenance never checked, the (not unpleasant) smell in the east wing that no one had ever been able to identify, the memory of when Charzan had run straight into that wall and broken his nose, poor child. She wandered all the halls, brushing her hands against the memories of a lifetime. She cried twice, but laughed many times more than that. She knew she'd look like an old madwoman if anyone saw her but she didn't care. This was her life, and she was making her goodbyes.

When she was done, she sat on the hill looking down on the complex. She wasn't thinking about anything in particular, just letting it all wash over her. She stood up, and turned towards the mists, and didn't look back. She didn't know where she was going, she was just walking, until she found her new home.

***

She hadn't been one of those who didn't understand why they'd wound up there, or was terribly torn about her choice. She knew there was nothing for her back on Europa, because her world was gone, and that was good. She has been part of a system she never supported, and she was still overjoyed on a daily basis that her job was gone, but... Pema hadn't thought it would take so long, that by the time what she hated was gone, she’d been too old to start over… at least there.

*********

It was her first night, and Fritz wanted to make her feel special. He didn't want to make her special, because he firmly believed she already was, he just needed to let her feel special. All he officially knew was that her name was Mariposa, but he'd been doing this long enough that she was exceedingly anxious, and it was his job to try and mitigate that. He never approached her from behind, never touched her without making she knew it was going to happen, explained what was going on, everything he could do to make sure she was as comfortable as he could manage.

His attempts to get her to speak met with little success, so Fritz talked while he styled her hair. “Darling, I just love your hair! It is so… accommodating! It reminds me of this one diva once, oh what her name? Angelina? She had the most lovely hair but she was, well, forgive my language, a straight up bitch! She put on such airs, you wouldn’t believe. Acted liked she was too good for absolutely anybody, went on about all the places she’d performed and what a step down this all was for someone of her caliber… but did I let it affect my work? No, of course not! I am,” and here he turned to look her in the eye, “a consumate professional, and I would never do anything but my absolute best on any client, whether a street urchin or the Fuhrer himself,” and with that Fritz stopped working for a moment, stopped breathing for an instant, and then continued with a laugh, “well, let’s say I wouldn’t take some clients to begin with, eh? But you’re being an absolute dear, can I get you water or anything? A snack before we do your lips?”

Fritz sometimes went days now without thinking about how it all ended, focusing on the present, or the good parts of the old days. It hadn’t always been so, when he’d first arrived. What a mess he’d been then! Before he’d arrived, well, he would have been suicidal if he’d had the energy, so instead, he was letting life kill him, and doing a fairly good job of it. He hated New York. He’d heard so many good things about New York, about how many theaters they had, about how respected theater people were there. New York was dirty, and cold, and empty of joy. The buildings were too tall and impersonal, and no one cared if you lived or died. Had it really been better in Berlin, or was it just that he had his people there? Fritz tried not to think about them. He’d been in New York for three months when he finally gave up. The sun set, and he walked out into the city, looking for the worst neighborhoods, hoping the city would just swallow him up. He let himself think about everything he’d been avoiding, because what did it matter if he sobbed now? He thought about his childhood, about his distant father, who died before Fritz ever really knew him, and his warm loving mother. He’d never told her, would never tell her, but he always suspected that she’d known, mostly in which questions she didn’t ask. He loved her and would never do anything to threaten that love. In ‘35 she’d gotten a cold right before Christmas that never went away, and she was gone by spring. He thought of his first job, as a janitor in the theater, such a cliche, naive country boy willing to do whatever it took to get into the theater, to hope for something more. He thought about his first, Karl, with his singing voice that he couldn't help falling into bed for, and how lucky he was to have had such good luck, how kind Karl had been, how well he’d taught him how to hide from those who shouldn’t see. 6 months later he’d been distracted by a pretty actor, and they’d parted amicably, and how Fritz later regretted that pretty but cruel actor when he could have had more Karl. By the time he disentangled himself from the actor, Karl had a new lover, because Karl was beautiful and kind. They were friends, and that was good. Karl was in England, last he heard, having sworn to never return to Germany. At least Karl made it out...

***

"So my darling, would you like light or dark with your makeup? Have you made up your mind between these lovely frocks?" He went to the clothing rack and held up two knee length frilly dresses, in red and purple. "They are similar enough that I am confident in your hair, but if you could select your favorite dress, I think I could a much better job of giving you the perfect makeup to highlight your amazing eyes and those simply divine cheekbones. Not to mention the shape of your lips, I must tell you, it is an honor to paint lips like those!" He finished rehanging the dresses and turned back to find her staring down at her feet, her hands clenched, absolutely not crying in the way of someone who is angry that they are on the verge of tears.

Fritz knelt down in front of her, not too close, and put his hand, palm up, in front of her fist, to see if she would take it. He waited, breathing calmly, making no motion, until she let out a deep sigh, let her head fall loose and slowly unclenched her fist and took his hand. Fritz used his free hand to pull his stool over, sat at eye level with her, and began to speak, in the serious voice he only used in private.

"I know you're hurting, and not because I'm one of those pretentious sorts who think he knows everyone better than they know themselves, but because I've been here a long while now, and I know that everyone who comes here is hurting. That is why people come here, best I can tell. There's no one in charge to give us the rules, we just know who comes here, and generally come to know their stories. There's no one here who hasn't known terrible, deep pain, and I would never seek to minimize what you're going through, to tell you that it will be fine or not to worry. But, I have known pain of my own, I have lost everything and everyone I loved, one way or another, and while you never have to tell me anything you don't want to, I am here to listen, or to be your friend, or your hairdresser, or any combination of those. And even if a party seems like the stupidest possible idea right now, with the pain I know you are feeling, even though I don't know specifics, I can not recommend it strongly enough. Don't worry about if you won't have fun, if you feel like you can't have fun, if you're afraid you'll bring anyone else down, this party is for you, I you don't have to go, but, please do? I would be simply honored if you'd allow me to accompany you, and, no pressure my dear, but I do have two perfect outfits prepared, depending on which of these lovely frocks you choose! And if they are no good, just let me know, and I will tear this place apart to find the perfect frock for you! So, dearest, do you prefer the red or the purple?"

She was quiet, and Fritz feared he'd overshot. He was quiet, just holding her hand, until, without raising her head more than an inch, she firmly said "The purple. I've never liked red." Fritz smiled, gave her hand a quick squeeze, and turned to collect his makeup, letting her compose herself.

***

Fritz knew he should have left sooner, should has accepted what was happening, should have left with Marta and Ernst and Max, instead of climbing to the ridiculous belief that it was all a passing phase and they'd get through it. But Hans wanted to stay, and Fritz couldn't leave Hans: his beautiful, idealistic, charming Hans. Everyone always loved Hans, and Hans took for granted that this meant he could get away with saying more, for standing up for what be believed. Fritz begged him to be careful, to wait it out, but not Hans, Hans wouldn't stand by and let things happen, and of course in the end he those things happened to him. Fritz fell apart completely without him. His mother's sister, dear Aunt Frieda, sent him to New York - he could hardly have managed the any of it on his own. And what had been the point of it, sending him here, and wasting so much of Aunt Frieda's money? So he could die of misery anyway, so far from everyone he had ever loved, away from the graves of his mother, of all his ancestors, so many generations in that little cemetery. Fritz had never been morbid, but he despaired then that he would not spend eternity with his family, no matter how much feared their silent disapproval from beyond the veil. But, even the thought of one day trying to return to Germany to die there was not enough to make Fritz want to live.

So he walked. Fritz made it through the worst neighborhoods tragically unmolested, and stopped paying attention to where he was. He chose randomly at each intersection, silently willing the city to just swallow him whole. The streets were all the same, the buildings all the same, and he hung in head in despair... until he walked into a door. A most unexpected door, a door that certainly did not belong in the middle of a Manhattan street.

Except, this wasn't Manhattan anymore, was it? He looked around and nothing was familiar, not even the generic shape of New York. He stood there for a few minutes, waiting for something to happen. Nothing happened. There's seemed to be only one thing for it, and Fritz lifted the heavy metal ring on the door, and knocked, once. He steeled himself for what might happen, head held high, shoulders back, spine straight. He was not prepared for the door to be opened by a giggling dark skinned woman with bright green hair who was dressed as... a mermaid? A scantily clad mermaid? Her head was turned over her right shoulder, giggling at someone or something Fritz couldn't see. She turned to face him, and she attempted to look solemn, but the corners of her mouth wouldn't stay down. She looked to be twenty at most, but despite her mirth she seemed much older than that.

"Hello, welcome! Please come in. My name is Mandisa, and I'll be your guide tonight." Fritz's mother's manners, deeply ingrained in him all his life, begged him to introduce himself, but his mouth refused to comply. Mandisa continued on, seemingly without noticing. "The party has already started, but it will be going for quite a long time. Let's get you cleaned up, eh? Come in, come in!"

Fritz glanced down at himself and realized how shabby and dirty he looked, and felt shame more deeply than he'd felt anything, besides regret or despair, in months. He quickly wiped his right hand on what seemed to be the least dirty part of his pants, and offered his hand to the remarkable woman in front of her. "I thank you for your welcome and your hospitality, Fraulein. My name is Fritz Gerhard Müeller, and I am most pleased to make your acquaintance. Would you do me the favor of telling me where exactly we are?" Mandisa smiled broadly at his formality and shook his hand firmly.

"Well, I can try, but I can't promise a satisfactory answer, but please, out of the doorway, inside with you! Would you like a hot bath?" She gently placed a hand on his lower back and guided him inside, closing the door behind him. It was a heavy wooden door, and it made a heavy wooden noise when it closed. Though he knew he should have been worried at the door closing behind him, instead he felt like a door was opening in front of him.

 

***

"Who will be at the party?" Fritz asked. He wasn’t nervous, and he wouldn’t say he really cared, but there were a lot of questions that almost demanded to be asked. "Where are we" and "What is this place" and produced giggles, and "Who is in charge" merely a shrug. "Why am I here?" got the most serious answer, which was a lack of giggles, mostly.

"Oh, all sorts, from all over!"

Fritz paused for a moment. "What do you mean all sorts? From where? New Yorkers?"

"I'm sure there must be some New Yorkers, yes, but from much more than that, from places you've never heard of. But I wouldn't worry about that now, where anyone is from doesn't really define them here. I think you'll understand better when you meet more people.”

 

***

Mariposa looked over at a young man, medium height, short sandy hair. He was dressed up like everyone else, with a small wire mask that you could mostly see through, but still seemed to keep him at a distance from everyone. He smiled, sometimes, and he drank his… champagne? Champagne wasn’t normally that color, but perhaps here…. Regardless, he drank it, and he was so sad and so distant it made her forget everything else. She turned to Fritz, who was watching her.

He spoke first “Oh, darling, he is quite attractive that one, good eye on you! If only he’d smiiiile, he has such a pretty face. Dour young Thomas. He’s really not opening up, but it’s only his third night.” He looked her up and down, “Well, darling, perhaps you would have better luck with him than me?” His smile would have been lecherous on someone else, but Fritz was just too good natured.

*****

Tommy always felt like he'd been born at the wrong time. If he'd been born a few years earlier, he could have known his mother for so much longer, before the cancer took her. If he'd been born earlier, he would have run off to San Francisco, and maybe he should have. He was convinced that if he'd come of age in the mid 60’s everything would have been different. He looked on the 70’s with nothing but dread. It already seemed like everything he'd wanted when he was thirteen was gone forever. But if he'd been born later, then maybe he would have missed the draft, because everyone says it can't go on much longer. Nixon promised, but Nixon lied. If he'd been born later, though, he wouldn't have known his mother hardly at all, but would that be better? To not have this specific ache in his heart for her? To instead just miss the idea of a mother? But he'd never give up the memory of his mother.

His father, Henry, hadn't taken her death well at all - not that Tommy had, but Tommy was a kid, and his father was supposed to be an adult, and as he grew older Tommy really resented that his father had chosen his own grief over taking care of his son. His dad's sister, Lois, was the only reason that he kept seeing his pediatrician and got new clothes and had anyone at his hockey games. Henry (Tommy had stopped calling his Dad was he was eleven and Henry never said anything about it) was happy to pay for the clothes and all if Aunt Lois asked, but he'd never do any of it on his own. Tommy heard her yelling at him sometimes, telling him to take care of his son, but if his father ever said anything back, Tommy never heard it.

***

She worked her way through the crowd, smiling, nodding, moving vaguely in time to the music. The way you move across a party without making it look like you’re on a mission. This, she knew how to do. She wound up about five feet from him, took a canape from a passing tray, and relaxed. She people-watched, she bounced her head along to some of the music, she looked like she was quite alone but not unhappy. After several minutes, she glanced over at him, to find him looking in her direction. She gave him a little half wave, waited a beat, then started to turn back to the crowd, but he waved back just in time. She smiled, and crossed half the distance between them and stopped. Just before the silence got awkward, she said, “Hello.”

“Uh, hi.”

“My name’s Mariposa. Nice music, don’t you think?”

“Uh, yeah, I guess so. Yeah.”

“That’s a nice mask! I could have worn one, but I didn’t want to cover up Fritz’s wonderful work. He’s really good!”

“Yeah, you look really pretty. I mean, he did good work. On your face. Not that you’re not pretty without it. I mean…” He looked down at his hands.

“Why thank you, you look quite good yourself! Your outfit works so well with the, uh, theme? decor? I’m not quite sure how to talk about it all.”

“Yeah, night before last night it was Romans and togas, which was pretty cool, and last night, I’m not really sure, it was really dark and there were bright flashing lights in different colors and most people were glowing in the dark? Lots more dancing than talking.” It was the longest he spoken, and he seems to suddenly be aware of that fact, and went silent. Mariposa carried on like she hadn’t noticed.

“Well this seems to be a mix between both! So which would you rather do?”

“What?”

“Would you rather talk, or dance? I’m up for either.”

***

Henry fought in World War II, and Henry loved World War II. Listening to him tell it, you'd hardly know that millions of people had died. He had some medals but on the wall, but Tommy didn't care what they were. It all seemed like bullshit. Henry was at the VFW more than he was home, off drinking with his buddies. Tommy didn't know why his father had even gotten married and had a kid when he clearly wished he'd never left the war.

Henry never checked the mail, so Henry didn't know about the draft card, and Tommy sure as hell didn't want to talk about him. He could hear the conversation they'd had clearly enough, easily enough, thanks to all the times his father had gone on, buzzed after a night at the VFW, about kids these days and how they had no respect, no patriotism, no idea of the importance of standing up for your country and fighting those evil reds blah blah. Tommy didn't fight with him. Tommy could have fought with him, endlessly, talked about communism vs. fascism, talked about how nobody bombed the US this time, about how there was no Holocaust, about how this was a stupid way to effect political change, but he didn't, because Tommy didn’t fucking care about what his father thought. If his father has taught him one thing, it was how to be stoic, and Tommy did his best stoic Henry impression while listening to his ex-soldier father.

***

Fritz was so intent on watching Mariposa and Tommy, he almost didn’t notice Pema next to him. Almost.

“Couldn’t have the pretty boy for yourself, so you gave him to the new girl? That’s downright gallant of you, Fritz!”

He chuckled. “Now now, darling, you know that I can’t give anyone to anyone else, free will and all that. I may have tragically given up on lusting after another straight boy, yes, but that’s a tragedy I suffer both regularly and willingly it seems. I just hope she can get him to say something.”

Pema put her hand to her chest in mock shock. “My poor heartbroken boy! Well, if your dance card is so uncharacteristically empty, might I perhaps impose upon you for a whirl around the ballroom?”

Fritz bowed low. “For you, my lady, anything.” She giggled as he lead her onto the dance floor, leaving Mariposa and Tommy to talk a bit more privately.

 

***
Tommy didn't tell anyone, not Aunt Lois, not any of the guys from the hockey team, not brilliant Sarah who had been his first but who was going to Vassar. He had until the middle of August, and he had no idea what he was going to do. One thing was for sure: if he did go off to Vietnam, he was going to sneak out in the middle of the night without saying goodbye to his father. He wanted to deny him the satisfaction of getting to send his only child off to war, and Tommy didn't care if that was messed up. He wondered if Henry would be happier if he died in war. He'd probably put up pictures of him all over, with whatever medal they give you for dying -- do you get a medal just for dying? Whatever. It would probably be a major boost for his popularity at the VFW, having his old son die in 'Nam? He'd probably win an election or something dumb.

The other option was Canada. Canada was such an easy option, less than a hundred miles away, pretty damn welcoming to draft dodger, and his mother was Canadian! If he did that, he'd go find his Canadian grandmother. Tommy hadn't seen her in six years, but she sent cards with money several times a year. He was pretty sure she'd bake a pie or something charming like that, and she'd tell him stories of his mother, and he'd send his father a postcard. He thought sometimes, lying in bed, about what that postcard would say. "Goodbye, Your Draft Dodging Son" or "Canada or Bust" or perhaps even "Gone Home". Aunt Lois would get a phone call after Henry had gotten the postcard, because she deserved that. She'd always seemed quiet and sad about the war, so he hoped she would forgive him, or even not think there was anything to forgive.

 

***
An hour later, Tommy and Mariposa were sitting out in a courtyard, just outside the light that came through the ornate windows. He wasn’t really sure exactly what they’d been talking about, just… stuff? But it was nice, and she hadn’t asked any pointed or leading questions, which he appreciated. It was nice to just talk to someone without it being a big deal, though…
it really was having the strangest conversation of his life, because he strongly suspected that Mariposa was not from 1970. 50 years forward? 100? It seemed oddly rude to ask, so he didn’t.

There was a brief lull in conversation, and he decided to change the topic. “So I guess you’ve been here awhile then, huh?”

Mariposa smiled. “Oh, no, me? This is my first night.”

Tommy was genuinely surprised. “But, you… don’t you have… something to do for yourself? Isn’t that what people are supposed to do when they get here?”

“Who says I’m not?”

***

The boating trip had been planned since the past winter, one last hurrah for the hockey seniors. At the time, it has sounded perfect, just him and the guys, and a ton of beer, up in the border waters. Now nothing seemed perfect, or even good, or even okay. He was going to go, he had the time off from Ed's Garage, and if he didn't people would ask questions. So he went... but he brought his passport and all the money had saved, an address book, his guitar, and some small effects of his mother that he had hidden away. He didn't actually have a plan to go to Canada, but he was ready to. He awkwardly made sure no one would be counting on him for a ride back afterwards.

Three days into the trip and Tommy was miserable. His friends had noticed but he made excuses and wouldn't talk about it. He wished he could, and he didn't know why he couldn't - they were all the same age, they all lived under the fear of the draft, maybe one of them had also gotten a draft card but didn't want to say anything. Maybe he could talk to them and figure out what to do. But he couldn't talk, and it was probably his father's fault that he couldn't get the words out, no matter how much he wanted to. So he drank his beers and tried to laugh at jokes and watched the stars.

It was probably 3 am and everyone was asleep except Tommy. He walked around, he looked at the stars, and then without really thinking it through he grabbed his bag and got in a boat and left. What was he going to do, abandon his car and and just paddle to Canada? No. That was stupid. He couldn't sleep and he liked the water and he was going out. Eventually he just drifted, leaning back on his duffel and watching the stars. What was he going to do? What was the right thing to do? Who was he, anyway? Why couldn't he talk about anything? What had the boat just bumped up against? He sat up, and had no idea where he was.

***

Sometime in the middle of the party, Tommy had run back inside and nabbed two bottles of champagne and a some dark liquid he couldn’t place. Not that anyone would try to stop him, everything was free in this place, but it still felt exciting. Most people were passed out or gone when he stumbled back in to raid whatever was left at the bad.

They were on to drinks that he suspected weren’t even from Earth when he decided to take a risk.

"So, uh, you got some issues with your dad, too, huh?"

Mariposa, or Mari as she’d told him to call her, took a deep breath. "What you have to understand is, I loved my father, I still do love my father, as much as any daughter has loved any father. Ever.” She was suddenly very intense in a way Tommy found fascinating. “What I did, I did for the sake of my country, for my people, and really, for him. People thought I did it to take power for myself, but I would never do that, I would never want to do that. I didn't have the stomach for it. I could read people, I could predict them, I could make them agree to deals over cocktails or in places less respectable, but I could never stand before the crowd and make them love me, or demand their respect, or strike fear in their hearts. My father, he was amazing at that… and, of course, that isn't good for anyone, our saviors sacrificed on the altars of public service…. but that's also why I shouldn't be in public, because I say things like that when I get worked up.” She sighed and composed herself for a minute before continuing. “My little sisters didn’t understand it, but I did. I knew what he had been like before, when he believed in change, for a brighter future for our people. But there are so many compromises to be made, and they tear a person apart, bit by bit, as they trade some of their soul for what they think is good, but half the time it doesn’t even do what they want… and he changed. He sent me abroad for college, to give me perspective to help him and his regime when I came back… but I got more than I realized, and when I came home, I didn’t see my father anymore, and I wanted my father back. The only way to do that was to take down the man standing there with my father’s face and my father’s name, and hope that my papa was still in there. And I knew he might not be, and I knew that he might hate me, but even if he did, my people deserved better than what he had become. So I found some stupid brilliant beautiful upstanding veteran, and I made him into what I thought a president should be, and… I made it happen. The details don’t matter. My papa went into exile, and there was a new regime, and it wasn’t for me, it wasn’t for me, it was for everyone except me….”

Tommy waited for her to continue, but she was quiet. Finally he asked, “And then what happened?”

She laughed bitterly, in a way that made Tommy wince. “Oh, it’s all ruined. Free and fair elections, right? Well we made them as free and fair as we could and they voted him out, and it was 6 months until the military had seized full control. Again. Nothing I did actually matters, you see. There’s a million reasons why, I know, I read all the reports, but all that matters is that I failed.”

“What about your father?”

Mariposa looked away. “I don’t know. They tell me he is healthy. That he is well enough. That he reads every day.”

“You haven’t talked to him?”

She laughed again, still not a nice laugh. “Why would he want to talk to me? I destroyed everything he had, only to almost immediately lose what I replaced it with. My father does not suffer incompetence lightly.”
******

That was my home. That was my father, those were my friends, some of them, and they haven't aged. I used to live there. Father took me there, when he was lost, when mother was gone, when we didn't know where to go. And everyone understood why he was there, and they didn't understand why I was there, but they loved me anyway, and went to so many parties but they only ever let me stay an hour or two, and they'd say "when you're older...' and I'd pout. And there were no real children there, not like me, but there were people who looked like children, and acted like children, but they were much older than me, but I didn't really care most of the time, we played, and it was fine, and sometimes they'd grow up and sometimes they'd start out older than me and wind up younger than me and it was okay, everything was okay. And people taught me, and people loved me, and my Daddy stopped being so sad in his eyes, and it was good. I learned so much from people's life stories, about good things and also bad things, because it's important to know about both. But then I grew up and... everything changed. I guess that always happened. But I wanted to see places, outside our home and gardens and the little woods I was allowed to play in. I wanted to see lions and panda bears and the ocean and New York and Tokyo. And I couldn't do that there, and no one knew what to do. Some of my friends had been there a very very long time and they still didn't know what to do. And this went on for a long time until one day, Mama [name] said "Nasreen, you should go. See the world. We've all lived, good or bad, and we can't keep you from living. And you're aging like a normal girl and I don't understand it. I love you, we all love you, but you should go, and I believe if you ever need us, you'll come back." So I turned to my father and I just said "Daddy?" and he hugged me, then he stepped back and put his hand on my cheek and said, "All I want is for you to be happy, my love." So I cried, and I kissed him on the cheek, and went to say more, but then I was gone.

And then I was Nasreen Smytheson and I was at a boarding school and I didn't have parents but I had a lot of money and I lived my life as a normal girl, or a normal rich orphan girl, but I had memories of a boring childhood in England that was nothing at all like an eternal party outside of time and space... but I had strange dreams every night of another strange world, and I wrote them down in my dream journal every morning, and i filled volumes of books, and that's where I've always been able to be truest, to best express myself, which is why I'm writing now. I went to university, and it was good! I had fun, I had friends, I took a lot of history classes trying to make sense of all the things in my dreams. I graduated, I got a career and a boyfriend and I was happy enough, and he wanted to marry me and I told him that I needed to figure out who I was and left and I knew I had to find my father, even if I wasn't entirely sure what that meant, but I knew he wasn't dead, though I knew my mother was, and so I went places that I knew I was supposed to go to if I wanted this path. I just... followed the path, to London, Paris, to Venice, and... I found him. I saw him and everything started rushing back, my whole childhood, and it was so much to take in... And I walked in and there everything was, there everyone was, and so many new faces, but that was right, and there was my father at the piano. I felt... drunk, I felt high, I felt like I might float away, and I just took it all in and it was amazing and I didn't know what to say, and I closed my eyes and I thought "Is this even real?" and when I opened my eyes it was gone... but I knew it was real, it was right, and I had to go back and talk to my father. So that's what I'm going to do. I'm going to keep following this path for as long as I need to, and I'm going to go home, and talk to my father, and get to make my choice, because I've seen the world and lived life and now I can choose and no one can stop me. And I don't know what I will choose, but it's my choice.

Nasreen put down the pen and put her notebook in her purse. She didn't need anyone else to ever see what she wrote, it was for her, not for other people.

*****

He was lost, and nothing mattered, except his little girl. He'd believed, he'd gone off to do good, and it had all fallen apart. He'd lost his men, and he'd lost his soul, it felt like. His wife was gone, he didn't believe in... anything, anymore, and all he had was his daughter. He had to take care of her, to make sure she'd have a good life, and then he could finally rest. She was at home in England... she was in England, he couldn't really call it home anymore, and she was... fine, but the nanny couldn't be her parent, couldn't raise her. Everyone was very wary of him, and he didn't blame them. He visited what was left of his family, but they didn't feel like family anymore. Everything they believed made him sick, and he couldn't imagine letting them raise his daughter, when they might try to turn him into... what he used to be. The thought made him sick.

He left England, and set out to find his wife's family. She has always adored her sister Azita, but he hadn't seen her in years. He found her, but he didn't find what he wanted. He hardly recognized her, she'd lost so much weight. She couldn't stand on her own anymore, they said, and rarely left her bed even with help. Cancer, they said. She said she was glad to see Nasreen before she died, to have see her niece one last time. He told her that he'd brought Nasreen so she could take care of her, because he wasn't fit to be a father. Azita laughed, which made her cough.

When the coughing subsided, she smiled at him. "Sorry dear, but as you can see, I can't help you. You're her father, and no one will love her like family will. Get your shit together and raise you daughter."

He tried to protest, but waved him away, and her nurse came to escort him out.

As they left, she called out "Goodbye Nasreen, my darling. I love you, and be good to your father, you need each other." Nasreen looked at her, nodded, and trundled out the door. As he left he could just barely hear her say, "I'll give your love to your mother, dearest".

There were some distant relatives, second cousins, but no one he knew, no one he could trust to raise his daughter right. She clung to him now - when he had first arrived back in England, she had hardly recognized him and been afraid. Now, taking her on such a trip, he'd become her only constant... and she his. They walked through the open air market, and he stopped to look at booths, but nothing really interested him. He was merely killing time as he tried to think of what to do next. It was approaching midday, so they returned to the hotel to get out of the sun. She sat on the hotel room floor and played with the toys her nanny had packed. He didn't really know what any of them were, because he didn't know his daughter, not the way the nanny did. He couldn't raise her, he couldn't teach her right from wrong, because he didn't know the difference anymore. He couldn't give her a warm and loving home, because he didn't know how to love. He didn't know anything anymore, except that he had to do right by Nasreen, and he didn't know how.

It had been a long trip, and they were tired. They napped through the hottest part of the day, and then they went out, because he didn't know what else to do. Sometimes he thought people were about to approach them, to interact with the child in the way of friendly strangers, but they always pulled back when they saw him. Did he look as much like a monster as he felt?

 

***

It took Nasreen a week to get back again, this time in Athens. She found the spot, turned the corner and walked into… a speakeasy? 1920s for sure. She smiled. It was much less overwhelming this time, just a party… well, not just a party, but a very familiar kind of party. She paid such close attention this time, to the walls, to the windows, to all the things that didn’t change every night… and to her father. When she felt she could recreate the empty room in her mind, she walked over to her father.

“I’m afraid if I talk this will all disappear,” she said, just barely above a whisper.

“You have to believe you’re here. I love you, Nasreen.”

“Daddy I’m sorry I didn’t come back… I didn’t know how… I suppose I didn’t need to? I wasn’t sad enough? I’m sorry Daddy.” Nasreen began to cry.

Her father pulls her into an embrace. “Sweetheart, don’t even apologize for being happy. It is all I’ve wanted for you. And I think you can find your way back again… if you can dream it.”

And then she was suddenly awake on the floor of an old temple in Athens, and she knew what she needed to do.

***

They found dinner, and he thought of his wife. She was always talking, and Nasreen was so quiet. Was she always quiet? Was it his fault? Was she afraid of him? What was he going to do? They'd always wanted children, they'd talked about having an unrealistic number of children, of growing old surrounded by children and grandchildren, and all that was left of all of that was Nasreen.

He looked over at her, and said, "How are you doing?"

She looked up at him with wide eyes. "I'm good, Daddy. I'm happy you came back. Are we going home soon? I'm tired."

He hated himself... for a lot of reasons. For not wanting to raise her, for not being good enough for her, for leaving, for trusting his commanding officers and not his own instincts about a mission like that, for everything.

"Well let's get you to bed then, shall we?" She fell asleep against his shoulder as he carried her. He focused on her breathing, trying to etch the sound of her breathing into his memory. He managed not to break down because he didn't want to wake her. He lost track of where he was walking, lost in thought, until he found himself in front of a quite unexpected building. Where was he? He turned back, and saw nothing but desert behind him. He couldn't possibly have wandered out of the city and into the desert without noticing, that was absurd. He stood there, scanning the darkening horizon for any signs of life. It was literally impossible that he could have walked completely out of sight of the city this quickly. He was running through possibilities in his mind when he heard a noise behind him - the door opening. He whirled around and dropped into a fighting stance, quickly trying to decide if he should put Nasreen down or keep her close. There was a small elderly man, perhaps Indian, standing half outside the doorway, looking quite shocked. He cleared his throat.

"Uh, why, yes, hello there, would you like to come in? I promise no one means you harm here and you are free to leave, but I do suggest you come inside, it's going to get quite cold soon, eh?"

 

*******

The night was over, but they weren't done, and it was clear no one was sleeping until they got through this.

Mariposa broke a long silence fairly aggressively. “So what about your father, Tommy? You going to go talk to him?”

“What? Why should I do that?”

Tommy rolled over so he could see her more clearly.

“Well you tell me that I should talk to mine! I think…” Mariposa was slurring her words now, “I think, honestly, that you’re a coward for not talking to him, for staying here, and not making a decision. Going to Canada doesn’t make you a coward, but staying here does, and I think you're going to take the easy way out.”

Tommy stood up, and almost fell over. “What! Well what about you? You’re going to stay here and avoid your father? I saw mine last week, when did you see yours? You can still make a difference, you’re just caught up in your dreams of your father!" "That's different! You're a child, you don't understand!" Mariposa stood and also didn't fall over. "Yes I do! I can see who you are. You're afraid of your father. Be yourself! Fight! Go back! Talk to your father, and I'll talk to mine!”

“Fine! I will if you will!”

“Fine!”

They stood there, almost growling, panting, and then slowly they stopped. They laughed, and hugged. She gave him a kiss on the cheek, they both said, "Thank you", and they both disappeared back to their lives.

*******

 

I think this will be my final journal entry. I’ve have a good run of it, but my fingers ache when I write, my feet ache when I walk, my knees ache when I sit, my back aches when I sleep, and I think it’s time to stop. I wonder what you will think of this, anyone who reads my life! You may think me insane, or overly imaginative, but I don’t care. I know myself and my life, and I have had the best of both worlds, haven’t I? Not much rest, living in the dream of my father’s world whenever I slept, and gallivanting around the globe by day. I know that no one will like the answer of “She spent her nights with people from across time” to explain all my straight insights and archeological finds, but that’s all I have to give! So sorry, dear reader. I’ve put off my choice for decades, I’ve flouted the rules… well, what we suppose the rules to be, but certainly the tradition of my strange home, and now it’s time to choose once and for all, and I choose my father and my wild and wonderful friends waiting for me, and anyone I can help when they are so lost they find a party at the end of their path. I sincerely hope you never need to find us.

-- Nasreen