Touched: The Rocca Cycle – Chapter 3

Colby, KS

An olive-skinned man wearing a sharp tailored suit waited patiently in a booth alone at a truck stop diner sipping mediocre tea, just as he had every day for a week. He brushed his black hair out of the way of his piercing blue eyes to read the text message he had just received.

Did you feel that?”

He typed a reply. “I did, and I’ve never felt anything like it. It’s what we’ve been waiting for.”

Oh?”

“I know you’ve never been one to believe, but when the prophecy unfolds even our most ardent adversaries will come to know the truth.”

It’s possible.”

“Join me. There aren’t enough of us, and time grows short. You could do so much more if you were here.”

Maybe another time.”

Prophet hadn’t expect the plea to work, none of his prior one had either, but he wasn’t deterred. He would find the means to persuade his invaluable friend in time. From his pocket he pulled a small leather-bound book embossed with the outline of an angular black hourglass with a red-sand triangle in the bottom half, content to study its text and prepare for the next stage of the prophecy.

~~~

David could hear the two women waiting in line over the shrill, frothy gurgling of steaming milk as he prepared another latte. 

“Brad’s really been pushing for us to get pregnant. He swears he’s ready now, but I’m not so sure. He’s excited, but that’s not the same as being ready. But even if he is, I don’t think I’m ready yet. How are you even supposed to know, I mean for sure, that you’re actually ready anyway? What if I think I’m ready and I’m not, or what if I end up being one of those career mothers who never spends any time with her kids? That can screw up a kid for life.” 

“You’re over-thinking it. You’d be great with kids. Besides, everyone’s a little messed up, so there’s some wiggle room in there.”

They both laughed. 

“I’m just not ready. Things at work are better now than they’ve ever been. I’m in line for a major promotion next year — a raise, a new office with a view, stock options, direct reports, everything I’ve wanted — and there’s no way a kid isn’t going to threaten all of that. It’s literally family or a career, one or the other.”

“You don’t work for some podunk strip-mall store, it’s a huge corporation. Don’t they have maternity leave?”

“They do, and I’ve looked into it, but you don’t understand the precarious situation I’m in there. There’s this whole contingent of old guard who hold all the upper positions, and even the progressive ones are likely to unconsciously dismiss you for not being a guy. I’ve worked hard to present an image to everyone there that’s entirely defined by my skills and achievements, and showing up pregnant will be like holding up a road flare and shouting, ‘I’m a woman, I’m strange and different!’ That’s just not something I can afford to do right now. And let’s not forget that six weeks at work is an eternity.”

“You shouldn’t have kids,” said David as the two woman stepped up to the counter. 

“Excuse me?” said the women.

“I said I agree. You shouldn’t have kids. It’s really obvious you don’t want them. You’ve got a good job and you’re going places. It would be stupid to give that up.” 

The woman was about to reply when her friend cut in. “I’m sorry, who are you and why are you eavesdropping? None of this has anything to do with you. It’s none of your business. And what are you, like, fifteen? You don’t have the first clue about what you’re talking about.” 

“I’m nineteen,” said David. “And these things are black and white when you’re not all mixed up in them emotionally. No kids. It’s simple.”

“I think that’ll be something I decide for myself, thank you,” said the woman.

“Damn right,” her friend added, “now why don’t you run up your little ivory tower of coffee grinds and used filters and get us two large lattes before you find any more little pearls of wisdom hidden in that tragic hipster getup of yours.”

David scowled at the women. He rang them up without further comment and began working on their order. The two women prattled on, but David ignored them. If they were too proud to take good advice, that wasn’t his problem. He finished the drinks and put them on the counter, pointing to the two woman who quickly collected their drinks with scowls of their own and left. 

Once they left, David’s boss, Stephan, walked up and pulled him aside.

“Can you believe those two,” began David before Stephan could speak, “treating well-reasoned advice like some kind of personal insult or something?”

“Yes,” said Stephan slowly, “it was rather unbelievable the way you used my store counter as your personal pulpit again after I specifically asked you several times not to.”

“I wasn’t, honestly! It was just a quick, helpful insight, and they snapped my head off for it. But don’t worry, I got them.”

“You got them?” Stephen raised an eyebrow.

“Yeah, I gave them both decaf shots.” David said with a wide smile. “Score one for the baristas, am I right?”

Stephan sighed and rubbed his forehead. “Stop by my office before you leave tonight, alright?” 

“Okay, but can we keep it short? I’m meeting up with some friends tonight and I don’t want to keep them waiting.” 

Stephan just stared at him for a moment, then turned and headed into his small office in the back of the coffee shop. 

The rest of the day passed uneventfully. When David’s shift ended at nine he signed out of the system and handed over the counter to the red-eye shift before making his way into the back where Stephan’s office was. When David opened the office door Stephan met him with a scowl. Stephan was always scowling. David didn’t think anything of it.

“Take a seat, David.” 

David flopped into one of the two chairs in front of the desk. “What’s up?”

“David, you aren’t working out here.” 

“What?” David sat upright in his seat, cold adrenaline static crawling over him. Not again.

“You’re rude and argumentative with customers, and it’s costing us business.”

“But they’re always the ones that are rude with me!”

Stephan held up a hand. “Don’t interrupt. You have a bad attitude about everything, you’re insubordinate, and you don’t get along with any of the other baristas. Frankly, you’re toxic.”

David winced.

“I thought I was getting along fine with everyone, but if it’s really a problem, I can fix it, I promise.” 

“It’s too late for that, David. I’m letting you go. I’ll mail you your last check.”

David got to his feet and held up both hands. “Just… just wait a second. I try really hard, and I’m not trying to piss anyone off. Just give me another chance? Please?”

“You’ve already been replaced. It’s done. Now go home.”

David threw up his arms. “Fine! But this place won’t be the same without me.” 

“I certainly hope not.” 

David crossed his arm, jaw tight and quivering, and stared at Stephan.

“Fuck you!” He gave Stephan the finger, who rolled his eyes, then stormed out of the office. He marched to the front of the store and grabbed his messenger bag from behind the counter. He couldn’t look at anyone. He took a bag of coffee of the shelf, stuffed it in his bag, then was out the door. 

David unchained his bike and pedaled home as fast as he could, wiping the tears out of his eyes as soon as they came. Fifteen minutes later he let his bike fall heavily amongst rusting tools and car parts in uncut grass in front of his parent’s place as he trudged inside. At least he wouldn’t have to stay long. He’d just meet up early with his friends and spend the night. 

The drunk shouts of his parents’ arguing assailed him as soon as he opened the door. His parents turned their inebriated scowls on him from the smoky, poorly lit living-room. 

“You left your fucking bike on the lawn again, didn’t you?” spat his mother.

“I’ll put it away later,” replied David, not making eye-contact. “It’s not like it’s making the yard any more of a shit-hole than it already is.” 

“Don’t you talk to your mother like that. Show some fucking respect,” slurred his father.

“I had a bad day, alright‽” 

“You had a bad day?” said his mother, snuffing out her cigarette in an overflowing ashtray while taking a swig of scotch from a plastic bottle. “What, did you have to clean up some liberal yuppie’s fancy spilled coffee? You’ve never had a hard day in your life. Try twenty years in a slaughter house, then come talk to me about hard days.”

“It wasn’t something stupid like that. I got fired, alright? Stephen always hated me for no—”

“Oh great, just great!” interrupted his mother, “Jesus, give me strength!” She eyed David dangerously as she lit another cigarette, its red glow illuminating her wrinkled, leathery skin. She took a long pull on it before pointing the smoking tip at him. “If you think you’re going to live off us like some dead beat after fucking everything up, you better think again.” 

This wasn’t fair. Why was it always like this? Why did she always have to be so awful and assume the worst of him? It wasn’t even his fault!

 “I’m not a deadbeat! I don’t… I just…I just want to go hang out with my friends, okay? I just want to go.” 

While his mom had been berating him, David’s dad had tossed an empty beer can into a scattered pile with many others like it and pulled a fresh one from a small plastic cooler beside his tattered recliner, cracked it open, and downed at least half the can before setting it down. 

“Is one of them your girlfriend?” asked his dad, eyes straining to focus on him.

David, arms crossed tight, scowled. “No. They’re just friends.”

What was so important about having a girlfriend, anyway?

“If you can’t pay rent, you’re out,” said his mother. “And don’t think you can steal food from the fridge either. This is how the real world works, kiddo.” 

“What happened to your last girlfriend?” asked his father. 

“He’s never had a girlfriend,” jeered his mother.  “You’d know that if you were ever around.” 

“I’m around plenty. Too much, if you ask me.” He turned back to David. “Not a fruitloop are you?”

“No,” said David through clenched teeth, shaking slightly as he started to edge away.

“Well, with all your weird clothes and no girlfriend everyone’ll assume you are. Get out there and crush some puss. Give your old man something to be proud of for once.” 

David wished the house would ignite and burn down around him. He imagined the screams as searing hot flames consumed everything he hated, himself included.

“If he’s out chasing after little boys it’d be because there’s never been a real man in this house,” jeer his mom to his dad. “A real man wouldn’t be drunk and drugged up every night, unable to support his family.”

“So then it’s a woman’s job to sit on her fat ass all day smoking and pounding scotch, or is it just the ugly ones no one wants?”

With his parent’s stream of vitriol turned on each other instead of him, David slipped away to his room. He shut the door behind him and leaned against it, unable to stop the tears any longer. How was he going to move out now? He had been saving every penny to get a place with some friends, but now there was no telling when he’d be able to move out. Maybe they would be willing to let him pay a little bit less, just until he could get another job. The thought of asking them scared him, but what else could he do? Maybe he could ask them sometime tonight. 

David’s phone vibrated as he wiped his eyes on his sleeve. When he unlocked it and read the message, his heart sank. His friends had all gotten invited to a party thrown by a guy from high school who had never liked him. They were going without him and hoped he’d understand. 

Why wouldn’t the flames come and take away the pain? Fuck everyone. He’d had enough.

David went to his closet,  pulled out his backpack, and started stuffing it with everything he would need. Clothes, toiletries, notebooks, the stolen coffee, his pour-over coffee setup, and his three favorite books: Catcher in the Rye, The Stranger, and Fight Club. His laptop had been broken for months so he left it. Once the backpack held everything he needed, he snuck into his parents room, making sure they were still arguing before he did. He opened the top drawer and found the little shoe box behind all the socks at the back. He pulled all the cash out from under the bottles of oxycontin and needles and stuffed the bills in his pocket. He carefully replaced the box and closed the drawer, then made way back to the living-room where his parents were now shouting at each other. He moved quickly, never looking up, trying leave before they noticed, but he didn’t make it to the door before his mother saw and turned her tirade on him. 

“If you think you’re not grounded for talking back to me, you’re dead wrong.”

“I’m nineteen, mom, you can’t ground me anymore.”

“The hell I can’t! While you’re living under our roof you’ll sure as shit do what you’re told. But just keep talking back and see what happens. Just see!”

David stood there, squeezing the straps of his backpack as hard as he could, then bolted out the door without looking back. He picked his bike up from off the law, his mother’s drunken shouts followed him from the doorway. 

“Get back here right now or we’re locking you out for the night!”

They had locked him out before, but they would probably be too drunk by the end of the night to even remember the fight. Either way, it didn’t matter. He wasn’t coming back, and he hoped he’d never see them again. 

“Go ahead then, leave your family, the only ones who love you! 

David kept walking his bike to the curb.

“Just like your sister!”

His gut lurched at that, and he hesitated. He wished Ester was here. She would have told him to be brave and he would have felt so. All he felt was pain, no courage, but wanted to get away from that pain was enough to help him pushed the bike tire over the edge of the curb. He peddled hard down the street until the belligerent screeches of his mother died out. 

~~~

Desperate for solitude, David sped his way to the Beulah Cemetery a short ride away. Soon he was through the open gates and weaving in-between gravestones until he arrived at his sister’s. Letting his bike drop, he flopped down heavily onto the ground beside the simple stone slab. Holding his head in his hand, David did his best to focus only on his breathing as he tried to steady himself. His whole body shook with the rage he felt, but when his burning fuze reached it’s end, instead of an explosion he just deflated. He was defeated and empty.  

After a stretch of laying between the graves and desperately hoping to sink into his own, he pulled himself upright, got out his phone, switched it to video, forced a smile, and began recording.

“Hey guys, this is Cold Brew and True. I’m David, and…and, well…today really, really sucked. I lost my job, parents kicked me out of the house, all my friends ditched me…” David wiped his eyes, “Now I don’t know where I’m going to go or what I’m going to do.”

David tilted the camera to show the small gravestone beside him.

“What should I do, sis? You always seemed to know.”

He let the camera idle on the grave, letting himself escape for a moment in memories of when he and Ester would wander the cemetery together, making up stories about all the forgotten people. 

He turned the camera back on himself.

“I was going to do another instructional video this week, but since my asshole boss took two stuck-up feminazis’ side over another barista’s,  that’s not gonna happen. I’ll try and come up with something different for next time. Look, I know I don’t have anything for you guys this week, but with all that’s happened, if any of you can help me out I’d really appreciate it. Links to my KoFi and Patreon will be at the bottom. Thanks guys, love ya!”

David added the links to the video then uploaded it to YouTube. His vlog was just starting to get a serious following — almost five hundred subscribers — and now he didn’t have an espresso machine or any other equipment to use. Steven had royally screwed him. 

He looked back at his sister’s grave, not realizing until just then why he had come here.

“I gotta get out of this shithole town before it kills me too, sis. I won’t forget you.”

He kissed his fingers and pressed them to the cold stone, then picked up his bike and left.

~~~

Since David couldn’t go to the coffee shop, he headed to the only other place in town that had coffee this late. It was after dusk when he reached the edge of town. Darkened buildings lined empty streets all around him, most of them abandoned. A sickly orange sodium glow from the buzzing street lights illuminated their boarded-up windows and crumbling, heavily tagged exteriors. Beside the highway entrance stood a dilapidated Flying J truck-stop. A neon 24-hour sign flickered through the diner’s grimy front window. David chained his bike to a bent rack atop a sea of broken glass and cigarette butts then made his way inside. A small bell above the door rang, leaving the sound of passing cars behind as the smell of sizzling grease mixed with cigarette smoke greeted him. Not seeing anyone around to seat him, he helped himself to a worn booth, tossing his backpack and messenger bag in before sliding in alongside them.

David let out a shuddering breath, trying to quell the growing panic in his chest. What was he going to do? Anything except going back to his parents’ place, but with no job, no friends, no home, and nowhere to go. He didn’t know what to do. Even the money he’d taken wouldn’t last him long, and his parents were probably throwing his stuff away right now. Actually, they’d probably wait until the morning and sell it for cheap booze and cigarettes instead. Let them, none of it mattered. Nothing mattered.

David’s phone buzzed. He pulled it out and checked the notifications. What little hope which had bloomed at the vibration wilted and died. Far from receiving donations or messages from his friends, a number of his subscribers had left angry comments on his video, saying they’d unsubscribed after hearing him use such sexist language. He was shaking again, half furious and half painfully distraught. It wasn’t his fault those women treated him that way, or that he had been fired, or that his parents had kicked him out, or that his friends had abandoned him. Couldn’t they understand that? Couldn’t they understand how unfair all of this was to him? How could they do this to him?

“Sorry about the wait,” said a waitress who he hadn’t seen come over.  “Jenny was supposed to be here but called in sick, again, so I’m the only server here for another hour.”

David slumped back in his seat and shrugged without looking up. “I didn’t even notice, and I’ve got nowhere to be.” 

“Thanks for being patient. I already had this one woman yell at me tonight. It’s so embarrassing and aggravating.” 

“I know exactly what that’s like. I work at Rise and Grind downtown and the same thing happened to me today. Well, I did work there. I got fired today.” 

“Oh, I’m so sorry!” the waitress looked genuinely pitying. 

“Thanks,” said David, mustering a fleeting smile as he read her name-tag. 

Elli’s pity turned into a warm smile and she gave his shoulder a reassuring squeeze. “I don’t know why, but I feel like you’re going to be okay.

David blushed despite himself and shifted nervously as he muttered his thanks.

“Now what can I get you to drink?” 

David’s eyes dropped as he picked idly at an ancient imperfection in the tabletop. “Um, I don’t know, coffee? I don’t think I feel like eating anything right now.” 

“Coming right up.” 

David caught her parting smile and it made him smile a little too. 

With a sigh, he pulled out his phone and briefly considered making an apology video, but then thought if they were going to shit on him when he’s down, fuck ‘em. Instead he started messaging everyone on his contacts list, trying to figure out who he might be able to crash with for a few days. Even in the short time it took Elli to drop off his coffee he had made it through all of them and now all he could do was wait. He cringed after the first sip. The coffee was thin and burned, not that it mattered a whole lot, he hadn’t actually wanted anything anyway. 

David looked over when he heard the bell above the door ring. The two white guys who walked in wore matching white tucked-in polos and khakis. One had greased blond hair combed to the right, the other wore a red cap. Elli returned, giving him another apologetic look. “Give me just a moment to get these two situated and I’ll come back and take your order. I’m the only one here for another hour, I’m really sorry about this.” 

“You said that already, and it’s no problem, really. I’ll be fine.”

“Sorry, and thanks again.”

“Hey, Stacy.” David and Elli looked over at the guy in the red cap who had spoken. “Are you going to seat us or what?” 

Greasy chuckled. 

“Sorry, one second.” Elli said loudly to the room while turning back to let David see her obvious annoyance. David grinned back, she gave his shoulder another squeeze before moving to seat the two guys.  

When Elli reached them, Red-cap spoke up again. 

“Maybe next time try doing your job instead of slutting it up for tips.”

David was as shocked as Elli looked. 

“Excuse me?” she said, clearly furious.

“I’d give her my tip,” said Greasy with a laugh.

“Spare us your snowflake sensitivity and just seat us so we can eat.”

“Hey!” shouted David at the two guys. “Don’t talk to her like that!”

Red-cap and Greasy turned excited and predatory eyes on him. Damn it. Why did he have to go and open his mouth? And now they were coming over here. The day just kept getting better and better. 

“What’d you say, cuck?” said Red-cap, looming over him. Greasy chucked. 

Scowling with arms crossed, he averted his gaze despite himself as his heart raced. “Just leave her alone.”

Red-cap turned to Greasy. “This is what happens when beta cuck soy-boys see an alpha at work, it gets their politically-correct panties in a wad.”

“I’m not a soy-boy,” David said forcibly, unable to meet their eyes.

“Are you going to cry about it, soy-boy? Do you need your girlfriend to hold you?” 

Greasy laughed.

“I’m not some social-justice warrior,” said David, “I tell it like it is, you just shouldn’t talk to her like that.”

Red-cap and Greasy just laughed at him.

“You can sit down or you can leave,” said Elli, staring angrily at the pair.

“Oh man, if I was such a soyflake that I needed some Stacy to protect my feelings, I’d kill myself.” Red-cap tapped Greasy on the shoulder. “Let’s eat before he cries for her to change his diaper.”

The pair walked away as Elli stiffly followed them. David shook with rage as his cheeks flushed with embarrassment. His incoherent internal self-flagellation remained uninterrupted until Elli returned. 

“I’m really sorry about that, but I wish you hadn’t got involved. I can handle assholes. I’ve had to deal with them my whole life.” 

He couldn’t do anything right. He screwed up everything. David folded into himself further, not looking up. “Sorry.” 

Elli sighed. “I didn’t mean it like that. Look, I appreciate you standing up for me, just…let me handle it next time, okay?” 

David nodded.

Elli stood silently, one finger tapping against the table.

“We serve beer. You want one? It’s on me.”

“I don’t drink.” 

“They’ve got some better stuff than what you’re drinking in back that they keep for the staff. I’ll brew you a fresh pot, no charge, alright?” 

David shrugged. “Okay.”

Elli rested her hand on his shoulder. “Hey, smile for me. Life’s too short to let assholes like them or some crappy job get to you.” 

David gave a light snort in reply, but Elli didn’t move her hand from his shoulder. 

“I’m not going to let him off the hook that easy. Come on, just one small smile for me? Please?”

David glanced up at Elli. The smile she was giving him was so warm he couldn’t help but smile a little too.

“There ya go.” She patted his shoulder. “It’s all uphill from here.” 

As Elli walked away a wave of shame washed over David for being so weak that he needed her help, just like they had said. Self-loathing was cut with wanting to watch those two oily assholes drown in their own blood, choking on broken glass he shoved down their throats. 

His downward spiraling was interrupted by the sight of the two guys heading back to his table. David tensed, and though his heart was racing again he harnessed his anger enough to glare at them this time as they stood over him with mocking smiles.

“Are you pouting because the bathroom was out of tampons?”

“Fuck off. That doesn’t even make sense.”

They both laughed.

“I came over here to do you a favor,” said Red-cap. “No cuck soyflake like you is ever going to get Stacy pussy like that, but if you’re really nice I’ll let you suck my dick after I’m done with her.”

“What’s wrong with you!?” David’s fists clenched. “Leave me alone!”

Greasy erupted in laugher, and Red-cap had already launched into his retort when they were interrupted.

“He told you to leave, and you should.”

All three of them turned to see an average sized man in his late thirties sitting leisurely in the booth across from them. He wore a sharp, tailored suit and had an olive complexion. His bright emerald eyes were striking, and they were staring coldly at the pair from beneath straight black hair while maintaining an air of calm bordering on boredom.

“Soyflake’s first, so you’ll have to get in line if you wanna it suck too.”

The peculiar man gave a dry chuckle as he stood slowly, straitening his tie and jacket before facing the two guys with an amused expression.

“Hate can fill an empty heart, and though you may feel a fleeting fullness from the power inflicting pain gives you, your soul will be left no less empty. Now,” he gestured politely with one hand at the door, “please leave.”

“You’ll leave if you know what’s good for you,” said Greasy.

Reaching into his suit jacket with single smooth motion, the strange man pulled his hand back out and pointed it at the pair, holding it in the shape of gun. For a brief moment they were too surprised to react, then doubled over with laughter. 

Great, just what this day needed, a nutter mixed in. At least he was deflecting some of the vitriol. 

David watched Emerald-Eyes feign cocking the gun and couldn’t figure out why the pair had suddenly gone dead silent. Their whole bodies tensed as they slowly stood up straight and raised their hands. The finger gun, less menacing than an empty squirt gun, slowly moved from one of them to the other, and both followed it with their eyes. 

“Hey, this guy’s got a gun!” shouted Red-cap shakily to the sparsely populated room. The few patrons looked over and presumably saw the same thing David saw. The annoyed patrons all returned to their meals. 

“You Antifa wall-jumpers will do anything to silence freedom of speech.”

Why were they scared?

“It’s time for you both to go,” said Bright-eyes with an edge, “unless you want this to be where your story ends.”

“We’ll go, we’ll go!” said Greasy, pulling Red-cap towards the door. Emerald-eyes followed the pair with his hand until they made it out the door and broke into a run. Seconds later David could hear the sound of an engine firing up and the squeal of tires as Bright-eyes resumed a professional air and turned to him. What the hell just happened?

 “Thanks for, uh…whatever you did,” he said. “What did you do?” 

Emerald-eyes smiled and gave a slight shrug. “Simple tricks for simple minds.”

He reached out a hand to David. “These days I go by Prophet. And you’re David?”

David hesitated, confused, but shook Prophet’s hand anyway. “Do I know you?”

“No more than I know you.”

“Then how do you know my name?” 

Prophet gestured to David’s booth. “Mind if I sit?”

David nodded as Prophet took a seat opposite him. 

Elli appeared and set down a plastic carafe of coffee in front of David. “Good news for both of us,” she said. “It looks like dumb and dumber found somewhere else to goose-step. Oh, I didn’t know you had a friend coming. See? Everything’s on the up and up.” She turned to Prophet. “Would you like some coffee as well?” 

“I would, thank you.” He pulled out a black leather wallet and withdrew two hundred dollar bills, offering them to the waitress as he nodded toward David. “Bring him anything he wants; keep the rest for your kindness.” 

David and Elli both stared at the large bills. Elli looked Prophet over before smiling and pocketing the hundreds. “That’s so generous; thank you.” She turned back to David. “I like your friend. You two should come in more often. Now what can I get you?” 

David was about to protest, but the void in his stomach interrupted, and then the light weight of his wallet had the final say. Besides, if Elli didn’t have an issue with it, why should he? He ordered everything he wanted, and maybe a bit more.

“Coming right up, hun. Don’t hesitate if either of you need anything at all.” 

David smiled as Elli walked away, then turned back to Prophet. Prophet was more or less his height, but something in the way he held himself, even while just sitting there, combined with those piercing emerald eyes, made him feel so imposing.

“I can’t tell you everything,” began Prophet, “not yet, and I apologize for that, but I promise I will in time. I know who you are because we’re related, though distantly, and I spared no expense to find you and learn everything about you.”

“We’re related?” asked David.

“Distantly. Have you ever heard of Daria, the Seeker?”

David shook his head.

“She was our common ancestor, and for a brief period in the eighteen hundreds she was honored and revered as a prophet, a direct messenger of God.”

“Okay…” David thought having someone famous in the family was actually pretty exciting.

“Wait, you said your name is Prophet. Does that mean you’re supposed to be a messenger of God too?”

Prophet gave a small smile. “Answers to your all your questions will come in time, but the person who’s most important at this table isn’t me, David, it’s you. You haven’t asked me, but I’m sure you want to know, why did I come to find you.”

“Well, yeah, why?” He couldn’t think of anything important enough about himself to warrant anyone trying to track him down, unless he was here to argue about one of his coffee videos.

“You’re part of a struggle as old as time. A struggle that is coming to a end. A struggle we’re losing.”

“What struggle?”

“For the salvation of humanity. Even if you haven’t recognize it, you’ve see this struggle going on every day, and you’ve seen how the tide has turned against us. You know those two men were lost to us, and you know countless others are too. There’s something that’s corrupted them. Do you know what it is? Do you know it’s name?”

He thought for a moment. “Hate?”

“Hate is its manifestation. It lives deeper, hidden behind their eyes and silently in their hearts.”

Prophet had an insufferable smug calmness about him, and David was getting fed up with the questions. He was about to say so when its name came to him. “They’re empty inside. It’s Emptiness.”

It hurt to say it out loud, and he had to fight back tears again, because he could feel an emptiness in himself.

You’re toxic. 

What if that emptiness was in him, and had been? Had Stephen been right about him? 

Prophet nodded solemnly. “Yes, The Emptiness. Anger is innate to us, and has its place, but it can’t heal us when we hurt. It can numb us, for a time, but like an opiate we need more of it the longer we go without facing our pain, without healing. Pain numbed by anger festers into hate, and the more anger we use the faster it happens. That hate erodes the soul, leaving The Emptiness behind, and when we teach others hate, or use it to hurt, that is The Emptiness trying to spread.”

“How do you get rid of emptiness?”

His cheeks burned as Prophet consider him. He hadn’t been able to keep the shakiness out of his voice anymore than he had been able to hide his desperation for an answer.

“While the soul still lives there is hope. The Emptiness feels wrong, it hurts, and so people try to fill the void with anything that can numb it — drink, drugs, and other self-destructive behavior, but none of it works for long. Does this sound familiar?”

He nodded slowly. It all made so much sense.

“Your parents.”

He nodded again, then stopped. “How do you know my parents?”

“I’m thorough,” said Prophet with a small smile that didn’t reach his eyes, then continued, “A soul can only endure so long before it’s consumed entirely, and permanently. What’s left is a Husk, a person who’s only purpose is to spread The Emptiness. 

“Your home was hospice for your parent’s souls, and now I believe it’s too late to save them, but it’s not too late for you, for others, for humanity. Our shared ancestor Daria believed we could conquer The Emptiness, and so do I.”

He hated his parents, but for some reason hearing they were lost to The Emptiness still hurt. He felt completely overwhelmed. This was so much to take in, and he felt so helpless.

“What could I even do?” 

 “Success in any endeavor comes from the intersection of skill, preparation, and opportunity. This is your opportunity, and every descendant of Daria possess the skill whether you’ve realized yours yet or not. Come with me and I will prepare you.”

“I just…” 

He hadn’t really thought about what it would mean to leave town, even though he wanted to desperately, and now that the chance was right in front of him he was scared. He rarely left town, and had never been outside of the state, and this guy wanted him to help saved the world? It was all just too much. He wished he had just kept his damn mouth shut, instead of throwing away his whole life. 

“…I don’t know if I can leave. I don’t know if I can do any of this.”

“I think you can.” Prophet’s smile returned as he pulled an envelope from his suit coat that strained with its contents, placed it on the table, and slid it across to him.

“What is this?” he asked.

“A little encouragement. There will be another one just like it every week you’re with me. Open it.” 

He did, and his eyes bulged. “How much is this?”

“Ten thousand dollars.”