Fiction Friday: More Truth Beyond Paradox

Truth Beyond Paradox
Truth Beyond Paradox

A look at “A Secret Palace” by J. F. High, from Truth Beyond Paradox, a Mage: The Ascension 20th Anniversary Edition anthology, available in ebook and print from DriveThruFiction.

“We just can’t bear to lose our secrets,” said Sam. “We don’t care how ugly they are. They’re our secrets.”

Blue sat on her own folded legs, chin cupped in one palm, rocking back and forth in time with the clack-clack, clack-clack of the train on its tracks. Sam held her other hand across the linoleum table.

They had not bothered with their assigned seats. Sam led Blue, their fingers entwined, directly to the observation car when they boarded. The car was lined with sticky booths and unobstructed windows: a great tourist greenhouse. Neither of them looked at the other. They watched the back doors of the back doors of the city rushing behind them; forgotten junkyards over?owing with rotten, rusted piles of once-proud Sunday-drive family cars, parking lots soaked in layers of crusted graffiti; Casper’s parking lot, no, Dead Juan’s parking lot, no, Killer’s parking lot, no, this parking lot belongs to Sinner and his boys, put your faith in Jesus, praise God!

Blue’s eyes lit up with every passing garbage bag. She read every piece of stilted tag. Sam stole glances at her when he thought she wasn’t looking.

“There are no secrets,” she murmured, but loud enough for Sam to hear.

“What does that mean?” asked Sam. He slid his fingertips gently over her knuckles, reading them like cast runes. “We all have secrets. Every house has its dirty, shameful mess. We’ve all got our basements full of our dead grandfather’s dust-ridden train sets and model airplanes. We’ve all got our attics full of mirrors covered in sheets, and photos full of black-and-white family members. No one would remember their names if not for the cursive scrawled on the back.” Sam laughed. “Even cursive is a dead language now.”

Blue’s gaze drifted along deserted, crumbling lumber yards and dingy back alleys.

“Everyone… everything is screaming to be heard,” said Blue, disentangling her hand from his. “Everyone is singing a song. Everything wants its attention, its due diligence. There aren’t any secrets, baby. Everyone wants to be heard. Everyone wants to be special.”

• • •

The day Sam had met Blue, she was dancing naked in the children’s fountain in the park. Blue gyred around a concrete totem pole, twin fish with tails high and mouths pointed toward the earth, sharing a single eye. Sam watched her, bundled up in seven thousand coats and scarves and hats, envious and awed by her naked body. In the distance, someone shouted and lights ?ashed once. A threatening burst of red and blue lit up Salmon’s blocky, divine eye. Water sprayed down from his tail fins. Blue’s feet spun her heavenward. She tiptoed on water droplets and pirouetted toward the stars. Sam ran to her, yelling a warning and reaching for her feet. Blue screamed and laughed and fell, throwing her arms around Sam. In that instant, Sam gave Blue his heart alongside one of his coats from amongst the legions. Sam stole her into the trails behind the park, Blue laughing like a madwoman, Sam laughing, infected.

Blue, Sam learned, loved the water. She danced in fountains, bathed in rivers, and dove into lakes whenever the opportunity arose. Sam’s favorite trackside secret was a stretch of coastline south of the city interspersed here and there with crab-shacks and fishing piers. The coast was dotted with little parks where young families brought their fat strollers, where older couples married, and remarried, and remarried again, brought their dogs to shit. Blue had jumped at Sam’s invitation to visit this place.

• • •

“That’s true,” Sam began. He thought carefully about what Blue said. Sometimes her words just happened to ?ow like poetry. Sometimes they were riddles and puzzles and Sam felt like he was standing before a locked door and being tested before he might be allowed inside.

“But I don’t know if that changes what I’m saying. Look,” Sam gestured out the window. The train slithered past crumbling one-way streets. “Every city has its forgotten trash and secrets; its filth-strewn underground. There are streets. We could drive there. They’re all piled up and packed with the sentimental garbage and essential ugliness that we can’t part with. But there’s no paved road that’s going to guide you to the secret heart of it all.”

Blue’s fingers toyed with her lips, and her eyes appeared smoky. “Who talks like this?” she said, laughing quietly.

Sam was not offended, he repeated in his head. He was not offended.

“Look there,” Sam said. Starbucks headquarters – resplendent in red brick, artificially aged –appeared from behind an unfinished bridge project. Atop the central tower, their green mermaid sneaked a peek over the ledge, a mischievous glint in her eyes. “Behind the beauty of every tower-filled skyline are the railroad tracks. We’re making our way through the sewage pit, but if we lift our eyes everything is beautiful. The city is ashamed of this, but the fear of loss is more painful than the sting of shame.”

The train dove beneath a bridge, its piercing squeals reverberating off of the concrete above. Sam sat up in his seat, excited, and gestured out the window. He said, “Underneath the bridges, with concrete latticework for a roof, we can hide from the perilous sunshine. Where else are we going to put our gravel pits and our parking lots? Where else will we hide from the cops, get drunk and fuck our brains out? Where else do we abandon old, tumbling wooden buildings with remnants of glass in the windows still left to throw rocks through?” Sam looked back to Blue, his eyes spirited, hers alert. “We aren’t just full of our secrets. We don’t just love our secrets. We are our secrets. We are composed of our secrets. Our secrets are our true stories – not the ones we made up and dressed in neon lights and plate-glass towers to string along Main Street. Not the ones we so casually plaster in view of foreigners and tourists so that they might marvel in our beauty. Our unforgettable skylines, our arenas named after the richest companies willing to sink their money into them, our yacht clubs and bank towers and sushi restaurants are not real!” Sam slammed his fist onto the table.

Blue jumped and gasped in her seat. His words tugged her close.

Sam said:“They are the mask we wear to the masquerade. But we’re still real from beneath and behind. We’re still real from the train’s-eye view.”

Blue leaned forward in her seat, her lips slack, her eyes stormy. The city was beginning to fade into tree-filled neighborhoods broken by wandering streams.

“You should write these things down,” Blue urged him. “Because then you could look carefully at what you’re saying.”

Sam had thought it was going to be a compliment, but he knew what Blue meant. He freed his hand from hers and wiped the dampness on his thigh. “I’m going to get something to drink.”

Blue dropped back into her seat, watching him as he walked away.

Continue Sam and Blue’s story in Truth Beyond Paradox, available in ebook and print from DriveThruFiction.

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