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       John Gone, p.30

           Michael Kayatta

  Chapter 23


  It was late September, and Felix was trying to throw an acorn as high as he could before catching it. A powerful, chilled breeze running through the woods behind his new home made the task difficult, blowing the small acorn far left or right of him with each throw. Felix giggled merrily as he chased it from underneath, often missing the catch and finding another acorn from the ground to throw in its place. The sun had begun to set behind the tree; that was the time he was supposed to go home. He didn’t want to.

  Felix threw another acorn high into the air and watched its small form disappear against the backdrop of orange and brown branches and leaves. He watched it as best as he could and started to run to where he thought the wind would sail it. Not watching his feet, Felix slipped on the loose leaves beneath him. Like the acorns he’d thrown, his small body turned in the wind before falling down into the soft bed of leaves below him with a crunch. He laughed heartily at his tumble and rolled round in the pile, just happy to be outdoors.

  The sun, the breeze, and the colorful flora were so different from the big, funny-looking houses he’d been trapped in most of his life. Felix remembered each of them the same way, dimly lit buildings with bad wallpaper patterned across their walls and large rooms with twenty beds stacked upon one another like building bricks. It had been difficult for him and the other children who also stayed there to comprehend why exactly they were in those houses, but most understood enough to know what to expect.

  Felix refused to make friends with other children he shared the bunks with, but also with the people who were periodically allowed to take him to different houses where he’d find himself alone in a room with only one bed. Sometimes the other kids he met at the big houses were fun to play with, but he knew it was only a matter of time before he’d never see them again. It’s why he stayed distant. Within weeks of meeting anyone, either they or Felix would be taken away. The people who took him loved to call themselves Mom and Dad, but were always replaced months later by another pair claiming the same, meaningless titles.

  “Felix,” a woman’s voice called. It carried on the wind from the line of trees closer to the house. Felix buried himself in the leaves he’d fallen into. The woman approached the clearing where Felix lay hidden and pretended not to notice the small lump beneath the leaves, whose large glasses glinted brightly in the sun.

  She walked around behind the lump and slowly leaned down.

  “Boo!” she called, reaching her hands into the pile and tickling the sides of his belly.

  Felix sat up immediately and moved away from her. “Stop it,” he said.

  She walked up behind him and noticed the small acorn grasped tightly in his left hand.

  “What do you have there?” she asked.

  “Nothing,” he answered, closing his grip.

  “It takes a very strong boy to carry a tree in his hand,” she said.

  “Don’t be stupid,” Felix replied. “It’s not a tree.”

  “Yes it is,” she said. “Look.”

  The woman pointed upward at a tall oak towering above them. Curious, Felix walked tentatively to her side and peered up the trunk of the tower, looking for what she was seeing that he wasn’t.

  “It’s a big acorn,” she said. Felix didn’t look convinced. “Here, I’ll show you.”

  The woman leaned down into the damp leaves and twigs by the base of the tree. She chose a small stick and used it to dig into the dirt. Soon, she found a buried acorn and pulled it from the ground.

  “See?” she said. The woman opened her palm and offered the evidence to Felix. He approached her apprehensively and plucked the acorn from her hand to examine it. A small white root was twisting out from beneath its cap.

  “What is it?” he asked.

  “It’s a root,” the woman answered. “That acorn is a seed. With enough time, nutrients, and sunlight, this acorn will grow more than sixty feet. Sometimes, depending on the variety, they can reach over a hundred.”

  Felix looked down at the acorn in his hand.

  “And so, as I was saying, you must be very strong to hold a tree in the palm of your hand.”

  “Actually, now I have two,” Felix said, smiling and showing her the acorn he’d been holding in his other hand.

  “Yes, I can see that,” she said, kneeling down to him. “Quite impressive.”

  “But it’s not a tree now,” Felix said. “It’s just a little acorn.”

  “Those acorns will always be trees. And see that oak? It will always be an acorn. It just depends on when you decide to look at it.”

  Felix looked up at the tree again, then back down at the rooting acorn in his palm.

  “And you,” she continued, “you’ll always be a child. But I also see a very special grown-up, an adult who has accomplished so much for this world with that big, curious brain of his.” She smiled at him warmly. “You have a wife and kids of your own, a whole family of people who love you. You’ll always be that man I see, and you’ll always be this boy, standing in front of me, holding two trees in his hands. It’s just a matter of perspective.”

  The woman winked at him and took her acorn back from his open hand. She dropped it back into the dirt where she’d found it. “And like the acorn,” she said, “you need certain things to grow.”

  “Like sunlight?” Felix interrupted.

  She smiled. “Yes, like sunlight. And other things that no one’s given you yet. But we’re going to change that, okay?”

  Felix raised an eyebrow at her from beneath the large lens of his glasses. The woman giggled at his expression.

  “Come on, let’s go home now.”


  A loud thud sounded from the bathroom. Felix opened his eyes.

  He’s here, he thought.

  Felix stood from his workstation and walked cautiously toward the bathroom. Slowly, he opened the door.

  And there he was, just as Felix had so often seen through the small camera in the watch, unconscious and slumped down on a toilet seat.

  Felix looked at the large device on John’s wrist, a device that he’d built as a way out. Now it was back to deliver on the promise he’d designed it to fulfill over thirty years ago.

  He leaned over John’s body and lifted the boy’s head by the chin. He turned it slightly, side-to-side, and peered at his sleeping face. It wasn’t so different than his own had been when he’d entered the lab for the first time so long ago. He’d been so young then, with a world of possibilities laid before him. It was back when the sun’s touch had still shown on his face.

  Felix lifted John’s body from the toilet and carried it out into the lab.

  John opened his eyes to the sight of a tall man in a white coat with his back turned. He felt a cold surface seated uncomfortably between his legs around his ankles. A pole that connected the floor to the ceiling was between his knees. He tried to move his legs back toward him, but immediately found them stuck around the column. As his strength returned, he pulled on them harder and harder until accidentally making enough commotion to attract the attention of the man in the lab coat. Felix turned and faced John for the first time.

  He looked older than he had in the hologram. The slight wrinkles and stress lines common to a man in his early fifties were infinitely more prominent in person than they had been on the small, often blurred, blue hologram John was used to. Felix approached and knelt before him.

  “Am I tied up?” John asked incredulously.

  “For the moment,” Felix answered.

  “Why?” John asked.

  “Because I couldn’t be sure of your actual willingness to remain here. I needed to be sure that I wasn’t going to be fist-fighting a teenager. My body has slightly atrophied, you know.”

  “Let me go.”

  “Don’t worry. The bond holding the straps around your ankles is a simple block of ice. It will melt on its own in about an hour, long after I’m gone.”

  “You have ice down

  “Not as such. But I do still have a few toys that can make it.”

  Felix stood and looked down at John, still tugging on the makeshift cuffs binding him to the rooted column. “Well, they’re your toys now, aren’t they.”

  “It’s going to make it difficult to get the watch off with me stuck on the ground,” John said.

  “You mean this?” Felix answered, revealing the device in the palm of his hand.

  John stared at the watch Felix held. Part of him had thought that he would never have the opportunity to see it off his arm. It looked so small and dead, lying innocently in the doctor’s palm. It was as if it were any other watch, lifeless and safe. Though tied and facing captivity, John felt a wave of relief rush over him. He stopped struggling against the bonds at his feet.

  “How did you get it off?” John asked calmly. “I’d like to see.”

  “Sure,” Felix said. He walked over to the side of the table next to him and lifted a tiny tool from its surface. He held it down in front of John. It was approximately the size and shape of a child’s lollypop, a thin metal cylinder leading to a larger, flat and round circle on one end.

  “Doesn’t look like much,” John said.

  “And honestly,” Felix answered, “it’s not much. Basically, the two sides of the plate are of equal polarity. Imagine two magnets held against one another with their north poles touching. They push against one another, sure, but that’s why these are cased together with titanium. It also needed to be tuned to your specific biometric signature, of course.” Felix placed the tool into his pocket. “Well, never mind all that,” he said, halting an obviously lengthy explanation. “Basically it just slides between the back of the watch and your wrist.”

  “So, like, two kitchen magnets could have gotten it off my arm,” John said.

  “Your grasp of the applied sciences is truly inspirational, Mr. Popielarski,” Felix replied. “Now, if you’ll excuse me for a moment.”

  Felix held his breath and slowly lowered the watch onto his arm and secured its old, leather band around his wrist. He lifted his arm to his face, looked at the device, smiled, and exhaled. “And now, John, I must be leaving. No need to draw things out.” Felix pulled the watch’s knob out fully and began to adjust the hands of its clock.

  “It’s not too late,” John said. “You can still let me leave.”

  Felix looked up from the Diaspora at John. He took a quick step closer and leaned down over him.

  “I wish you would drop this constant delusion that I’m ‘doing something’ to you, because I’m not. I’m not imprisoning you here. I’m simply choosing between two people to free. No one can call me evil for choosing myself. I’ve sacrificed enough of my life by choosing this lab, and I’ll not do so again.”

  “You’ve never sacrificed anything for anyone else in your life,” John said.

  Felix grabbed a small tool from a drawer in his workstation and walked quickly to John’s feet. John felt a light, residual heat against his legs as the straps binding him loosened. Soon, his ankles were free.

  “There you go, John,” Felix said. “Do you want to fight me? Do you want me to make this fair? Shall we decide this like the cavemen might have? Go on, if you think you’re more deserving.”

  John stood and looked at Felix, easily twice his size, fists raised and clenched. He read the turmoil in the man’s eyes, and for the first time felt comfortable with the idea that Felix hadn’t made this decision easily. This man in front of him wasn’t just a computer program or hologram. He was a human, something John could see more clearly now without a small button to press that could make him disappear. Maybe Felix was right after all. Maybe there was no bad guy standing in the room; just a bad situation caused by someone John would never meet.

  “I’m sorry,” John said, finally. “And no, I don’t want to fight you.”

  Felix calmed immediately and allowed himself a faint smile. “That’s good, because I would have just jumped out of here anyway.”

  An inaudible chuckle shook John’s chest. “Of course you would have.”

  “I really am sorry, about this. If there’s one person on Earth who understands what you’ll be going through, it’s me,” Felix told him.

  “I know.”

  “How about a quick tour before I leave?” Felix asked.

  “I don’t mind exploring on my own later,” John said. “I’ll have lots of time, after all.”

  “Of course,” Felix answered quietly.

  “I have one question,” John asked. “How did you keep yourself from going crazy down here?”

  “I don’t know,” Felix answered. “Maybe I did go crazy. At this point, I’ve spent more of my life down in this lab than I have outside of it.”

  John nodded.

  “If you’ve any questions, or just need someone to talk to, you can reach me on the watch,” Felix offered.

  “That’s right, I forgot. I’ll have access to the hologram thing.”

  “Yes. The ‘hologram thing’ is right over here, by the way.” Felix pointed John to a small camera on the workstation.

  “Can you make something for Ronika? So that I can speak with her?”

  “I can.”

  “How does it work?”

  “Just press here, and here when you want to transmit. It will only work when the knob is in the correct position, as you discovered, so don’t be surprised if you can’t always reach me.”

  John sat in the chair and followed Felix’s instructions. A small hologram of John appeared on Felix’s wrist.

  “Cool,” John said, looking at himself. “That’s what you looked like.”

  “Yes,” Felix said, rolling his eyes. “I can’t promise I’ll have the Diaspora active all of the time.”

  “I understand.”

  Felix nodded and exhaled a deep breath. “Well, it’s time for me to go.”

  “So go.”

  Felix extended a lengthy arm toward John. He took his hand and shook it.

  “You did well to get down here,” Felix said. “You certainly outperformed my expectations. I hope you outperformed your own as well. When it gets lonely down here, and you’re staring into the paintings on the wall, dreaming of another place and time, just remember, there’s always hope. For better or worse, I won’t forget about you. You did me a great service finding me here.”

  As John released Felix’s hand, a large object leaning against the back wall caught his eye.

  “One more thing,” John said, walking toward a large, hollow, tally-marked shell in the corner. “What’s this?”

  Felix pressed his thumb to the surface of the Diaspora and looked to his least favorite painting on the wall. He smiled at it sadly. “Just one more casualty of this mess,” he said. “Just one more person who won’t be meeting me at the airport. Goodbye, John.”

  A brilliant blue light enveloped the room, and John was surprised to find himself still standing awake, immune to its effect. He watched as Felix raised his hand in a short, still wave. The man’s smile widened as his body slowly faded into the blue, disappearing completely a moment later. The light shrunk to the size of a golf ball, then blinked out of existence.

  John looked around his new cell and walked toward the large painting of an airport that Felix had looked at before leaving. He saw a mother and child running to a man holding a suitcase and wondered what it meant. He shrugged and ambled back to the chair by the workstation where he sat and stared at the ceiling above him.

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