It was early morning when Vigilance Polaski woke. At first, she was uncertain just what it was that had startled her awake. But then, a faint whispering became apparent beyond the bedroom door and down the hallway, in her father’s study she believed. Quietly, she opened the door and slipped in the corridor, painted amber by the light of a fire blazing in the study.
At first, the voices were illegible, impossible to fully understand. But as Vigil crept closer to the open study doorway, she could make out her father’s voice, hushed yet clearly agitated.
“What more do you want?” he spat at his unseen companion. “I’ve established the foundations, I’ve built upon them, and everything’s here. Can’t you just leave me alone now?”
An incoherent reply followed her father’s plea. Though Vigil could not understand the words of the converser, its terrible, androgynous voice nonetheless caused the hairs on her arms to stand on end.
“But why?” demanded Vigil’s father. “You’ve already taken her away from me! Can’t you just leave me this one happiness, this one reminder?” His voice was strangely broken as he said this, in a way that Vigil had never before witnessed. She took a step back from the doorway.
Again, the anonymous voice ensued, and more hushed words were exchanged. “No!” her father finally yelled. Silence followed from thenceforth, and Vigil assumed that the discussion must have been ended. Whoever her father had been speaking with must have hung up, or vice versa, for no more conversation followed.
Quietly, Vigil slipped back down the hallway and into her bed, though it would be many hours before she finally surrendered to sleep.
* * *
Today was November the 15th, and the sky above was grey and overcast, the very earth seeming to weep. There were two days of the year which Vigil’s father always seemed to avoid, and November the 15th was one of them. Every year, he would always lock himself in his room for the duration of the day, coming out only at dinner time to somberly converse about Vigilance’s school day. But never once had Vigil pried about his denial of this particular date.
As always, school was the same that day; the same people with the same blank expressions, the same classes, same food, same everything. She received the same amount of homework, as always, which she completed in the same amount of time. She then proceeded to take the same route home, downtown past the bank and the police department, then to their home. However, today, something strange did occur during her traverse from the school.
It was near the bank that she saw him, an old man shivering outside in the cold. At first, she paid him no credence, but then, she noticed the manner in which he stared at her, as if he were looking at her very soul through a magnifying glass. It unnerved her, so she continued to walk faster, keeping her gaze clipped to the cold ground.
She didn’t lift her eyes again until she was a little ways past the police station, protected by the shelter of the closely-knit buildings. However, she was then startled to find that the old man was there as well, standing still as if he had been there from the start.
<You are frightened.> The voice which penetrated Vigil’s mind was the same terrible, androgynous one which she had heard the night before with her father. Vigil gasped and took a step backwards, ready to run away from the old man.
<Don’t leave,> said the old man, though his lips did not move. Vigil shuddered.
“Who are you?” she demanded, her tone even. She tried to look into the man’s eyes, but found it somehow impossible, as if there were some physical force deflecting her gaze.
<Ah, I see that your father hasn’t told you. Have you ever asked him why he shuns the 15th of November? Why he locks himself in his room all day and will never speak to you of your mother?> Vigil covered her ears, trying to block out the terrible voice as it rang through her head.
“Stop it!” she screamed. “Get out of my head!” With that, she turned away suddenly and began to run, faster and faster down the street until it all became an amorphous blur of brick and rock.
<Have you ever wondered why everything always seems the same, day after day?> The voice persisted, and as Vigil came to a dead end in an alleyway, the old man was there to meet her once more.
“Leave me alone!”
<Is that really what you want, Vigilance?> asked the man. <You’ve always been alone, your entire life… do you really want it to stay that way?>
“What do you want from me?” she whispered, her body shaking as she stared at the stony figure of the elderly man. “Why are you doing this?”
<Next time you’re at school, look at the people around you. Really look at them. And you’ll see that I’m right, that you have always been right; they’re all the same.> And then, he was gone. Shuddering and panicked, Vigil ran the rest of the way home. She didn’t see a single other person on the way.
* * *
“Aren’t you hungry?” asked her father as Vigil prodded her macaroni and cheese with her fork. Tiredly, Vigil looked up at him, staring into his icy gaze as her head slid down her right palm, which was haphazardly propping it up.
For a long moment, there was silence as the father and daughter looked deeply into each other’s eyes, a test of will. Finally, Vigilance spoke. “Father,” she began. “Why is it that you always avoid this day, November 15th? What happened today?”
Quietly, she searched his face for any sign of emotion, but found nothing. Instead, an empty void of arctic ice met her, an unfaltering vacuum. And then, her father stood up from the table, still facing her in the same emotionally devoid manner.
“I’m going to bed,” he announced. “Finish up the dishes please, then lights out.”
“What?” Vigil leapt to her feat, knocking back the chair, and threw her hands onto the table. “What?” she repeated, stunned by her father’s cold indifference. Her raven black hair, the same color as his, curtained her face ominously as her green eyes darkened with severity.
“Vigil, I said go to bed.” Her father’s tone was frigid and even.
“No!” she shouted. “I want you to tell me what’s going on! I know that you’re hiding things from me, like those conversations you have in the middle of the night with the old man, and-”
“What?” It was her father’s turn to be shocked. “How do you know about that?” he said icily, his eyes narrowing.
“I’m not stupid!” Vigilance shrieked. “Dad, I’ve kept quiet all of this time, I thought it was just some odd ritual of yours, but you’re always keeping secrets from me!” With that, Vigil stormed out of the room, sobbing, and slammed her bedroom door shut. Through her crying, she could hear her dad yelling at someone from his study, not even attempting to contain his no-longer-secret meetings.
The next day, the two of them arose in their home, acting as if nothing had occurred. However, there was an undeniable tension in the air, a chasm between them now. Neither of them spoke a word.
On her way back from school that afternoon, Vigilance didn’t see the strange old man.
* * *
It had been two days now since Vigil’s fight with her father. The interminable silence remained, and she hardly ever saw him removed from his study, save breakfast and dinner. But there had been no more secret meetings.
Vigilance was in school when she remembered the words of the old man: “Look at the people around you,” he had said. “Really look at them.”
So just then, she did. At first, she noticed nothing at all peculiar. But then, the harder she stared at her classmates, the more apparent their uniformity became. It frightened her, the confirmation of the man’s words. They were indeed the same, each and every one of them possessing an identical face with the same blurred features, the same voices, the same mannerisms. They were all perfect copies of each other, each a grotesque effigy of human life. Terrified, she closed her eyes as tightly as she could, hoping to block it all out…
“Vigilance?” said the teacher. Vigil opened her eyes to find that her instructor was the same as well. She attempted to swallow her panic.
“Yes Mrs. Wood,” she replied.
“Are you all right?” asked the duplicate.
“Um, yes… I’m fine.” Mrs. Wood continued her lesson, but Vigil paid no attention. It was the same lesson as it always was.
* * *
Vigil knocked on the study door. “Dad?” she whispered. At first, the slumped-over figure did not turn around to face her, but instead remained hunched in the office chair towards the wall. But then, after a moment, he began to move so that he was looking at Vigil, his short midnight hair drooping and his eyes devoid of life, it seemed. He said nothing.
“Dad,” she whispered again, just as softly as before. Her voice broke then and mute tears began to roll down her cheeks. “Daddy, please stop acting like this. I didn’t mean to hurt you, I just want everything to go back to the way it was…”
Grimacing with her emotional pain, and the hot tears continuing to streak down her face, she looked to her unresponsive father. And finally, he looked up at her, his own tears flowing quietly.
“Have I ever told you about your mother?” he asked so softly that Vigil wasn’t even certain she’d heard it. “You have her eyes…”
“Oh Daddy…” Vigil rushed up to her father and embraced him. Slowly, he moved his arms so that he was holding her as well, stroking her silky black hair.
“I have something to show you,” he whispered after a while, still engaged in the embrace. Finally, he pulled away from her. “Come with me,” he said gently, taking Vigil by the arm and leading her back into their small library.
Quietly, her father wove his way through the many boxes barraging the opening to the library, Vigil remaining stationary at the entranceway. Then, with one fluid motion, he removed a leather-bound novel from its perch upon one of the many shelves and offered it to Vigilance. “Jeanette Turner,” read the cover, which was empty aside from the name. Vigil looked up to her dad.
“Your mother wrote this,” he uttered softly. “She wrote all of these books.” Vigil opened to the first page to find it void of any letters, and upon flipping through the rest of the pages, discovered that those were blank as well.
“It’s empty,” she said, looking back up to him quizzically. “There are no words in it.”
“There used to be words,” he said. “But every day I forget her more and more, and thus with each rising of the sun, more of her is lost.”
“What do you mean?” asked Vigil, now concerned for her father’s sanity. Her father sighed.
“Vigilance, there’s something you must understand if you want to know me fully. There are many things, in fact, which I have been keeping from you. But first you must make a decision: leave everything be, and we can return to life as it was before. Or let me show you everything at the risk of you hating me forever.” Silence fell upon the household for what seemed an eternity. But finally, Vigil spoke.
“I want the truth,” she said, her speech nearly inaudible. And suddenly, the two of them were no longer in their home, but a large forest, dead with the coming winter.
“I know this place,” she breathed, gazing up to the claw-like branches piercing the frozen sky. She looked back to her father. “This is the forest just outside of town.” Her father made no effort to reply. Instead, she found that he was looking through the labyrinth of tree trunks towards another man.
The other man, Vigil was startled to find, was her father.
“Daddy, what’s going on?” Vigil began to breathe heavily as her dad made a motion for her to keep quiet, fear bubbling up inside of her until it was unbearable. “Daddy, please, I’m scared!” Silently, her father reached out to her and took her hand. It was ice cold.
Without another word, he led her closer to the other man, also her father, though he seemed completely unaware of the two of them. Instead, he seemed to be listening for something, waiting…
A twig snapped somewhere close by, the sound it made reminiscent of bones cracking. Her other father, the copy, swung around suddenly in the direction of the noise, drawing a gun. Vigil screamed and jumped backwards as the barrel of the weapon pointed directly at her.
“It’s okay, it’s okay!” prompted her father, taking hold of her once more. Her breathing remained ragged, and her eyes refused to draw away from the gun, but she remained where she was. The copy’s eyes searched the space where the father and the daughter were standing, but he didn’t appear to see them. “He can’t see us,” whispered her father, her real father, confirming her suspicions.
That’s when Vigil became aware of yet another man, a different man off in the distance. She could not make out much of him, except for a dirty t-shirt and shorts. The clothes, she observed with horror, were crusted with freshly dried blood. She drew closer to her father, her breath captivated.
There was a click as the safety trigger was pulled on the gun of the other man. Her father’s duplicate whirled around, quickly taking notice of the haggard man, his eyes wide with fear. “No!” screamed Vigilance, breaking away from her father and trying to shove his copy out of the way. But it was too late. The shot had been fired.
Vigilance dropped down to her knees in front of the bleeding man, thick red globs of blood rising up from the wound in his chest. “No!” she continued to yell in a repeated chant as she bent over him. “No, no, no!”
“Jeanette…,” gasped the man, something sparking in his eyes as he at last seemed to see her. And then they drifted past her once more, and with one final exhaled breath, he was dead.
“No, no, no, no…” whimpered Vigilance. “Don’t die Caleb, don’t die!” she threw herself upon his corpse then, stroking his black hair and feeling the hot sticky blood on her hands. And then, she suddenly realized what had happened and jumped away from the body, which had begun to fade away with the rest of the forest, blowing past them like tiny specks of sand, into oblivion.
“Daddy!” she yelled, turning around and rushing over to her real father. “Daddy, what’s happening to me?” she sobbed, collapsing onto the ground, which had now washed away into an infinite white room. “What’s happening?” she whispered to the floor.
Whimpering, she felt her father’s arms around her back. “November 15th is the day that I died,” he murmured, his voice nearly nonexistent.
Slowly, Vigilance tilted her head to the side, still plastered to the floor, tears streaking down her face. From that sideways angle, she looked to her father, the world seeming to tilt upon its axis. She said nothing, her raven hair splayed out on the ground like hungry roots and her tears collecting into a small lake.
“Your mother’s name was Jeanette Turner,” he began, rising from the floor. “She was a very lovely woman, and a talented writer. She was my best friend…” After staring off into the infinite distance for a moment, his snowy gaze returned to her. “Your mother never existed.” Vigil’s lips parted, brushing the floor ever-so-slightly as she did so. But her voice remained under the siege of her father’s icy eyes.
“She surrendered her very existence in order to save the Universe,” he continued. “It is because of her that this world now stands, because of her sacrifice. I told myself that I’d never forget her, that I’d always remember…” Her father turned away from her now.
“Every day it gets harder…,” he murmured. “Every day more words disappear and the image of her fades from my memory.” Now he pivoted to face her once more. “The people around you, Vigilance; the Other was right. They’re all the same blurred face, my sad attempt to remember her.” He smiled now, a sad smile. “You have her eyes. Her eyes are all that’s left.” He paused for a moment, and then seemed to reconsider his statement. “You are all that’s left of her,” he finally said.
“No,” whispered Vigilance. “This is all a dream. The world I know is real. It’s real!” She leapt to her feet now and lunged at her father, but the already eternal room seemed to elongate, carrying her father away from her grasp. “It’s real!” she screamed hysterically. “I’m not just a memory! I’m real!”
“You aren’t a memory.” Her father’s voice seemed to echo all about her, filling the entirety of the infinite space just as the voice of the mysterious old man had. Then, something in the distance seemed to crack, to separate itself from the rest of the blank canvas. All about her the walls began to fall apart, revealing a new sort of nothingness. She had no physical presence now, nothing did; only her mind remained.
“You were always so much more than a memory…” Her father’s voice retained its integrity, but even that seemed to falter, to change. It then hit Vigilance with a terrible momentum that her father’s voice had merged with that of the androgynous elder.
“No,” she continued to chant, wanting to cover her ears, but having no physical manifestation anymore, finding this impossible. “No, no, no, no, no…”
<Vigilance…> came the voice. <Do not be afraid.>
<What’s happening…?> she whispered faintly, feeling as if she too were fading away.
<The world was an illusion, Vigil. It always has been, and it always will be…>
<Who…are…you?> she demanded, struggling to remember her own identity.
<I am the same person that I have always been,> came the reply. <Caleb Polaski, your father, the old man, the Architect…>
<And who am I?> she replied faintly.
<You are Vigilance Polaski. But you are also Jeanette Turner, and you are also me. You are my daughter.>
<But why?> asked Vigilance. <Why does the world have to be this way?>
Suddenly, the world reassembled itself, protons clustering and electrons orbiting, atoms intertwining with one another, and the tapestry of the Universe was rewoven. They were back in the library now, the two of them, staring at each other once more.
“It doesn’t have to be,” said her father, Caleb, quietly, the terrible androgyny expelled once more. Fresh tears began to well in Vigilance’s eyes. Silently, she acquiesced to her father’s embrace. He stroked her hair and held her quietly.
“It’s all right,” he whispered. “It will be all right.” Finally, they pulled away from each other and gazed deep into the eyes opposite them, one set an icy blue, and the other a deep green.
“What now?” asked Vigilance finally. “We can’t just go back, there’s no going back…” Her eyes began to water again.
“You’re right,” replied Caleb. “But that’s all right.” He smiled sadly. “We can go forward now.” And then he reached out his arm and took his daughter’s hand. She smiled sadly back at him.
"Vigilance" is (c) copyright Hannah Smart, 2013