Day and Night Pass, 1797
"Someday, you’ll follow your own dreams.”
A girl ran through the forest snow, as high as her knees, yet it did not slow her pace. A plop came from behind, and with a pearly smile and red cheeks, she turned to a boy who raised his head from under the snowstorm, shaking his face clear with a smudged grin.
She chuckled and skipped to him as the moonlight danced through branches of pine needles. She brushed his hat off and peered into his hazel eyes, looking like a kid who got caught in the pantry.
“Are you sure we should be outside this late?” she asked.
“Yes! We are almost ten,” he said. “Believe me, your best friend. You’ll want to see this.”
She held out her hand and helped him to his feet. They played through the frigid forest, passing the iced tips of branches and pine cones, the moon’s halo lighting their way. They slowed to a walk as they passed the tree line, where meadows of unharvested wheat stood still, covered in white bliss.
“Aren’t you scared?” she asked.
“Of course, but that can’t stop us.” The boy tightened his scarf, sniffling in the chill.
She looked at him, her toes tingling.
On a normal evening, she would be asleep, stuffed under a thick blanket, dreaming of books. The boy was not one to sneak out, especially in the frost season, but whatever it was must be important, judging by the grin on his face.
“Now, can you tell me?” she asked.
“Not yet. I want to surprise you.”
“And it’s about my dream?”
He glanced at her, his eyes catching the moonlight. “You’ll see.”
The boy grabbed the girl’s hand, and they walked through the thicket and pushed wheat from their path down the rolling hill, the forest wrapping around the field. Ice snapped off the grain, showering the children as flakes danced from the clouds.
At the foot of the valley rested a blue magician’s tent with white stripes, oil lamps illuminating the fabric, and a cobblestone road that led into the countryside.
The girl tugged on his jacket, stumbling in place. “What is this?”
The boy straightened his hat. “Mum and Dad took me to a magic show. The magician, she did a trick with this thing.”
“An invention. The one you’re always talking about.”
“From my book?”
“Yeah, and they said they were leaving tomorrow. I didn’t want you to miss it.”
The girl gasped and wrapped her arms around him. He blushed, and she strutted down the hill without him.
He shook his head, sprinting after her. She slipped, laughing as she picked herself up, the boy at her heels as they rushed to the road.
They patted their feet against the cobblestone, snow falling off their coats. As they walked towards the tent, the girl stopped, yanking the boy back by the collar.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, loosening his scarf around his neck.
“It’s different now that we’re up close. Maybe we shouldn’t be doing this.”
“It’s okay. We’re just looking, right?”
“Like, is this what you want?”
“No, but this is what you do.” The boy looked to the tent.
The wind blew, and the tarp whipped against wooden beams, the fire lighting the tent’s entrance.
A heaviness filled her stomach, and she grabbed the bottom of her jacket with reddened fingertips. Closing her eyes, her hand warmed as the boy clutched hers. She nodded with a smile, and they entered the tent.
Never had she seen something so elegant. The stripes were in line with the velvet chairs, and the carpets lined each row, stretching to the center stage. Silk curtains swooned in the slight breeze from slits in the canvas.
The kids rushed down the aisle with a few dim oil lamps lighting their way, the shadows dancing behind them.
The girl twirled, gaping at stripes that circled above her, like a toy spinner her sister had given her. She slowed to a stop, pulling on her cheeks and giggling, the room still spinning around her.
The boy rubbed his hand along the fresh-cut birch, and the fragrance of rose petals lingered from the stage.
“Look at this,” she said.
The boy turned, and she picked up a hat off the floor. It had a rounded crown and a hardtop, crafted with black felt. She brushed the dust off the brim, the fabric smooth under her fingertips. She set it on her head, posing as it slid over her face. “What do you think?”
The boy gulped and pulled on his scarf. “Wow, it’s beautiful. Won’t someone wonder where it is?”
“It was on the floor. They must have forgotten it.”
The boy walked to her and rubbed the rim of the hat. “I’ve never seen one like it.”
“Well, you can’t have it. I saw it first.”
“Indeed.” He smiled, admiring the piece.
The girl pulled the hat off and tugged it over his head, over his soft cap. “But you can wear it for now. It’s too big for me.” She brushed it.
The boy shrugged, pushing it high enough to see. “Everyone needs a good hat.”
The girl pointed at him and punched his shoulder. “So, where is this thing you have to show me?”
“Over here.” The boy hopped up, holding out his hand.
She bit her lip. “Aren’t you scared?”
“Yeah, you?” The boy lifted her on stage.
They stepped to the red drape and peeked behind the curtain.
A machine rested center stage, with a heavy blanket over the top.
“You should look,” the boy said.
“Yes. It’s your dream. Mum says it only takes one moment to make a difference. This is yours.”
The girl giggled and stepped towards the cloaked apparatus, the wood creaking under her step. Her stomach tingled, and her hands felt light. Could it be what she always wanted? To see a picture in a book was one thing, but to see what she never thought could be…
“Wait, no.” She stopped.
“Tell me first.”
“Tell you what?”
“What’s your dream? If my dream is to invent and change the future, and this is where it comes true, you can’t follow it anymore. I don’t want you to not have one. You can’t follow my dream forever, you know?”
“I can try.” The boy shrugged and gazed around the stage. He ran his hand across the brim of the hat. “I don’t—”
“There has to be something.” She grabbed his hands, shaking them.
“I… want to have a dream like yours. An idea that will change the world.”
The girl leaned in and kissed him on the cheek. “That’s a start.”
The boy leaned back with an open mouth, blushing.
She turned around. “I want us both to enjoy this.”
He nodded and walked over, grabbing the blanket with her. In one swift pull, they whipped it off, and it fell to the hardwood.
A blue glow glistened in the girl’s eyes, and she lost herself to the machine.
Its essence was peaceful, calmer than anything she had ever experienced. Like wrapping herself in a blanket by the fireplace after a day’s walk in the forest.
She kneeled, and the boy stared, lost in his trance until she touched his hand, and he joined her, never looking away from the blue aura spinning inside the middle of a circular machine.
They sat in silence as the night settled.
“I want to invent,” she said. “To fix the lands from the Black Harvest, to make a machine that will change the world, in every way possible.”
The boy slipped his fingers between hers. “I promise to get you there.”
She rested, her pale blue eyes drifting to him. “Alek…”
He shifted to her, breathing easy and calm.
“Always remember that promise for me, please.” A tear slid down her cheek.
Alek nodded, catching the hat before it slid off his head.
The two turned to the machine, holding hands as the blue aura and hum cascaded over them.
Water surged through pipes of hand-blown glass held together with copper braces and couplings. A machine hummed loudly, stretching across the room where polished couplings fused into a man’s flesh, like tree roots over a rock in the forest.
Raymond thrashed as water rampaged into his stripped body, shaking, shivering as far as the restraints allowed, tightening as the overspray soaked into the leather binding.
A strangled gurgle escaped from his trembling lips, and his eyes, faded and desolate, glistened like hollowed emeralds. Veins bulged out of his skin, and his feet twisted above the floor. He clenched the armrests, his fingernails digging into the wood grain until his body went limp.
The clank of a closed valve echoed in his ears. The roar of the machine grew soft, and a wet musk lingered in the air, the fluid sloshing in waves within the tubes.
Raymond’s tongue was raw as if someone had rubbed a file in his mouth, leaving behind a metallic aftertaste. Water streamed down his cheeks as his vision refocused, his muscles burned, and his head hung back towards the white oak ceiling, unflinching, unable to breathe.
After what felt like an eternity, Raymond breathed in shallow gasps, shivering from either the terror or the chill. He was unsure.
Droplets dripped down his bruised body, battered past his young age, his hands and feet white from the restraints.
He gathered some strength to lift his gaze long enough to stare at the blur before him, holding the lever.
A masked man stood with an empty stare and perfect posture. The mask narrowed like a slender face, designed with blue-and-silver beads, resembling rain on a window at night, and ripples like waves under the moonlight.
The man walked with precise steps, his chest out, a dark jacket snug to his body, opening down to a vest with thin gold lacing, watching in silence.
Raymond leaned forward, his heart throbbing against his rib cage. “Please… stop. I’ve done nothing.”
The masked man glared, unmoving in an unsettling still.
Raymond could sense the emptiness, the void behind the mask. It unnerved him, made him want to bite his lip or rub his hands, but the fatigue and restraints held him. He wanted peace.
Memories flooded his thoughts, ones of happiness and comfort, anything to ease the suffering he endured.
Raymond convulsed, coughing, his lungs pounding, the pain returning as blood and water dripped onto his chest.
“Why?” he gasped, trying to catch his breath. “You can have the research. Just stop. Please!” Raymond sobbed, but it was hard to tell where the water ended and his tears began.
The masked man glanced over his shoulder, a gasp muffled behind the mask. “This moment was inevitable. We can guide the world, but you have misled it.”
The masked man paused in a chilling silence, turning to the table with a pencil and paper. He jotted several notes and stepped to the far side of the room. With a firm pull on a hidden lever, sections of paneling dropped into the floor.
Raymond opened his eyes, looking to blocks of ice with frosted corners. Shadows of objects rested within, some human and others mechanical. Raymond swallowed hard, peering to his torturer.
“Do you know who you were meant to be?” The man tapped on the ice. “It’s something most, if not all, struggle to understand. The need for belonging in a world that sees us as nothing more than a leaf in the wind. Each leaf has a purpose, and on occasion, those leaves fall before the harvest, shaken from the branch.”
The masked man walked to the desk’s edge, looking at Raymond.
“They do not deserve to fall onto the forest floor so soon before the world can see them on the old oak. You are someone who would have shaken not leaves but branches from the tree.”
The masked man strode over, picked up a chair, and carried it with the utmost posture, ensuring not to scuff the carpet. He set it across from Raymond with elegance. He grabbed a handkerchief and wiped away a tear, maybe just water, off Raymond’s cheek.
Raymond sat there, staring into the empty slits of the mask, unable to see the man’s eyes or hear any breathing.
Raymond’s head grew heavy, his breath fading thin.
“I apologize. I thought I gave you a quick death.” The masked man rose. “I won’t make that mistake again.”
The man’s words were elegant and serene, but a distortion rested within, sounding as if he was something more than human.
Raymond’s eyes widened, and he tensed his neck, the leather strap clenching his skin. “There’s no need to do this. I don’t—”
“It’s okay. It’s not your fault or my fault. It’ll be over soon, and you will find yourself floating, like a leaf in the harvest wind.”
Raymond’s eyes, once green, were gray, and his face sagged with bruises. His jaw shivered as hope fled his thoughts. He tried to speak, but no words came, his body broken and soul crushed.
“I wish there had been a different choice.” The masked man reached for the water valve and waited. “But they must know the dark side of nature.”
Raymond found the strength to glance once more, his head fatigued.
Raymond sobbed in silence, shaking.
The masked man yanked the valve, clanging it against the metal.
Icy water erupted in the pipes and surged into Raymond’s body, battering within. Water spouted from the corners of his eyes, and his hands thrashed, the restraints cutting deep into his wrists, blood dripping down the chair.
After a moment of agony, the masked man shut off the valve and paused, holding his hand high. Raymond sat lifeless in his chair. No sobs, no breath.
He walked forward, pulling the cloth from his pocket, lifting Raymond’s head from the backrest, and wiping his cheeks dry of tears and water.
The masked man stared at the floor, pausing while a tear dropped from below the mask.