Hamrick called a meeting in the back room of the office, used alternately for storage, counting ballots, and announcements like the one he gave today: the county treasurer, after thirty-nine years of holding her office, had resigned.
“Which means a special election,” Hamrick frowned, “in just a few months. We got a lot of work, but most of us have done this at least once before. I know all of you are more than capable.”
Erlon closed his eyes, suppressing a groan. As clerk he processed new registrations, most of which came from the DMV. A simple county treasurer would not inspired great turnout, meaning not much extra work for him. His day to day would likely not change much.
That didn’t mean this wouldn’t affect him. His coworkers’ activity would increase on such occasions, especially Hamrick’s, and Erlon often felt a rise in expectation of his own efforts, though it was never spoken aloud. That was part of the problem: the tension between such energy and his boss’ lack of direct orders agitated Erlon. He didn’t have the time nor mood for guessing games. There was also the chance, on the opposite end of the spectrum, that Hamrick would directly ask him to take on extra work. Which was worse? Erlon shook his head.
He had gotten by in his decade and a half at the commission by putting in his time, keeping his head down and mouth shut. It was neither his desire to climb any ladders nor get ahead in his career. To draw a check at the end of the week was as much as he needed or wanted from work, and that meant saving energy and doing very little very well, unlike most of the younger folk who busted their asses to impress the boss. Even in his own youth he had looked at that sort of ambition with a dry bewilderment.
Erlon sipped his coffee. The meeting dispersed and the others filed back out to their desks, murmuring amongst themselves. Standing at the door as they left, Hamrick turned back in towards Erlon, still sitting and studying his steaming mug.
“Everything all right, Mr. E?” he asked.
“Yeah, yeah,” he rose, head shaking a little as he carried the coffee out of the room.
“I heard from IT that they added your new photo this morning,” Hamrick said.
“Oh, all right. Thanks.” Erlon glanced away, faking a smile.
At his desk, he didn’t bother pulling up the website to look. He knew what he would find. The empty grain, the missing pixel in his likeness—he had forgotten all about it, even the dream. Why did Hamrick have to remind him?
He glared at the harsh light of his monitor as it booted up. It was going to be a long day.
* * *
By the time evening and the end of his shift came, Erlon was sorely irritated. He sniffed, walking outdoors to his car, bracing against the film of yellow pollen he knew would cover his windshield. Somehow he got in and sank into the seat without sneezing or his dry eyes watering.
He stared at his hands on the steering wheel, unable to bring himself to start the car. I can’t go home yet, he thought. Not in this mood.
He shut his eyes. All right. I’ll just drive a while. Maybe pop in and see Lamar.
That thought cheered him. They’d never been close, but Erlon loved his son, and despite the long time between seeing him he felt they could always pick up, in his fashion, right where they’d left off. Lamar was a good kid, didn’t make things too complicated.
Driving, though, his thoughts soured. Something rose in his stomach and churned there. His foot eased off the gas. No, not Lamar. He couldn’t see him now… It was shame, he realized, the thing he felt. But why?
The missing pixel, a voice inside him answered.
Erlon groaned. On an impulse he turned right instead of left, veering away from his own home and Lamar’s apartment. He wasn’t sure quite where he was headed till he turned onto his elder brother’s street and slid into the driveway.
Oscar was inside, cooking. Surprised at Erlon’s knock, he didn’t say anything, only stepped aside to wave his brother through the door. Erlon could smell onions and peppers sautéing, could hear their crackle drifting from the kitchen. A Sonny Stitt record was playing a slow melody, warm yet sad.
“You want a drink?” Oscar offered. Erlon shook his head. He knew his brother would make something mixed and fancy, rather than hand him a simple beer. Besides, he still had to drive home. He would not stay long.
As he followed Oscar into the kitchen, his eyes cut abruptly away from the living room where a black and white photo of an teenage girl hung just above the couch. He didn’t have to think: it was a reflex to him, avoiding sight of that picture whenever he was in Oscar’s house.
“How you be?” Oscar asked, his hoarse voice barely louder than the sizzling pan he held.
“I be fine,” answered Erlon, barely louder, but flatter in tone.
“Anette all right? Lamar?”
“They good.” He looked around the room, wondering what had brought him here. The jazz music took a sudden upbeat turn, and he met his brother’s eyes again. “You still play?” he asked.
Oscar smiled. He shook his head as if the question itself were ridiculous. “You know I do. Ain’t much money in it, but they never has been.”
“Do you miss it?” Erlon turned to him, surprised at the earnestness in his voice. “Chicago, I mean? You ever wish you had stayed?”
Oscar took a drink of something that looked lemony from a lowball glass. He seemed to consider his reply, and from the way his eyes changed in a short span of moments he had several ways of answering. Maybe too many.
“I hadn’t left, I wouldn’t have met Fiona,” he only said.
Erlon nodded. He pictured his brother’s late wife, her round face and well-coiffed hair. Lord, could she sing…and when the two had played together at the bars downtown, her on piano and him on his sax…he’d never told Oscar, but it always moved him. A silence rose for a while as both of them remembered.
He didn’t know why he said it. It wasn’t like Erlon to provoke his brother, nor to stir up drama at all. But something he didn’t understand was twisting in his stomach.
“As many famous bands you played with,” he heard the bitterness in his own voice, “you could have had any girl you wanted up there. Probably did, too.”
Oscar’s eyes met his, sweeping across Erlon’s gaze with a cutting edge. “Man, what you come around here for? Just to needle me? You in some kind of trouble?” He shook his head slow. “No, you ain’t. You always kept your head down—too much. But there’s something, isn’t there?”
Erlon’s heart beat. “Maybe,” he said after a long time.
Oscar looked him over, curiosity mingling with disdain. There was a flash of sympathy in his watery eyes, too. Erlon could see it. He recoiled, but half hoped his brother would tell him something wise, something to untangle the knot he couldn’t even find the edges of.
But Oscar only said, “Yeah, well…you know He only gives us as much as He knows we can handle.”
Erlon blinked. “Huh. Doesn’t sound like you. You really believe that kind of thing?”
“I don’t. She did.”
At first he didn’t understand, thinking Oscar meant Fiona. Then he looked away, hid the wince that stole over his face. He gazed at Oscar’s clock, at the table, the onions and the unmarked jars of spice on the counter—anywhere but at Oscar.
“I—I gotta go,” he said, breathless.
He thought Oscar might protest, but his brother only shook his head in silence, watching Erlon back out the front door. The evening was closing overhead, the sky pink with sun. Only when he reached his car did Erlon remember Indian with Anette tonight, and he could breathe again.
* * *
Sunlight glinted in his eye. It was some time later, days maybe—Erlon couldn’t remember. Something felt wrong. He was standing, or rather squatting with his arms wrapped around his knees, almost in a fetal position. When he stood the light flashed through the trees, paining his eyes with its bright glare.
It was the place again. He was dreaming. Erlon had come here, or been brought here in his sleep, for what reason he couldn’t begin to guess. But there were the same three trees again. The round lake, the butterflies, the chanterelles growing at the edge of the white crescent of sand he stood on. Everything around him teemed with energy. Life crawled on the surface of every leaf, the undersurface of every flower petal. Some form of living thing, seen or unseen, lingered in every bit of space this place offered. Even the motes of dust seemed alive, as if regarding him with detached curiosity.
YOU HAVE COME AGAIN, the deep voice spoke. It was like and unlike his memory of the first dream. Erlon gaped, realizing it was the second tree—not the pine, but a narrow cypress—that spoke this time.
DO YOU NOT WANT OUR HELP? the cypress asked.
Erlon wiped sweat from his brow, frowning, until he remembered: the first tree had known about the missing pixel.
“H—how do I fill it again? This piece that I lost of myself?”
NO ONE CAN TELL YOU THAT. YOU WILL HAVE TO FIND IT ON YOUR OWN.
“Well,” Erlon stepped nearer, suddenly irritated. “Then how the hell are you going to help me?”
The tree did not respond for a while. He looked around, wondering if he’d spoken too harshly, had offended it. He was about to turn and walk away when it finally answered.
WE CAN NOT TELL YOU HOW TO FIND IT. BUT WE CAN TELL YOU WHERE TO LOOK.
“Where do I look?”
IN THE PLACE WHERE FIRE AND WATER ARE ONE. IN THE PLACE WHERE WATERS BURN.
Erlon waited, but it did not speak again. At the far side of the round lake a wind began to whip up waves, the ripples of which traveled slowly toward him. He began to worry. Was he supposed to ask what it meant, this riddle the tree offered?
The hell with that, he thought. I didn’t come here—did I?—I was brought. I don’t want any of this. I’m not going to play these stupid games.
Instead he said, “Is this a dream? Or a real place?”
A moment passed before the answer came. IT IS A DREAM, the voice replied. IT IS A REAL PLACE.
Another riddle. He fumed with unwonted wrath and stepped forward again.
“Look here now,” he began, but the instant his foot tread into the water he was cast out, and woke in his bed with an unearthly yell, drenched in cold sweat.