He was at the beach.
It was at the time of the year when many flowers around were in blossom. Seagulls were flying by in the cloudy sky, waves flowing and ebbing away, and there was the wet feeling of sand under his feet.
And then he saw her. His mother was standing in the distance holding a starfish.
It was nonsense; she had been dead for a little less than ten years now. He knew full well this must be a dream, but he tried to stay in it nevertheless. He missed her very badly.
She was standing close to the shoreline. Moving her hands to her lips, she blew on the starfish in her palm merrily, and the starfish jumped off her hands to the ground and started spinning vertically like a wheel, running quickly over the surface of the water and into the distant sea. Then she picked up another starfish next to her feet and did it yet again, apparently as a hobby.
His mother looked at him. Smiling kindly, she motioned him to pick up one of the lying starfish and try it himself.
He approached one and crouched. But this starfish might have been fixed to the ground on which it lay. It would not budge an inch, let alone removed from its place.
Suddenly he found himself in the middle of their kitchen. Looking around, he noticed a woman in many shawls moving outside in their yard through the kitchen window. It was old Helen.
She took out a colorful umbrella, and flew up.
“Oh, no . . .” he said, in a tone full of dread, looking at the staircase that led up to his mother’s bedroom.
He started running at it, but his feet were quite heavy. The harder he tried to run toward it the farther it seemed to move away. And then he saw them. Lividly red eyes, coming from the yard, moving quickly and erectly toward him past the kitchen window, getting bigger and bigger.
Kevin woke up.
The doorbell was ringing. He got to his feet and walked drowsily down the stairs, and opened the door in his shorts and messy hair.
He saw through squinted eyes that it was the mailman.
“Yeah,” he said thickly.
Kevin took the brown package into the kitchen without really looking at it, threw it aside, and sat at the kitchen table . . . rubbing his eyes. His ears were buzzing, and he felt as though he was still dreaming. That was the worst day of his life.
Why did he always dream of that day?
Kevin Priced was a fairly tall, nineteen-year-old with dark hair and freckles on his nose, who lived by himself in his grandmother’s house. And at that moment, he had the mature expression of a person who lived much longer than he had had.
He stared at the brown package on the counter.
He already knew it was the book on cooking recipes his friend, Molly, had addressed to his home weeks ago while they were still at college. She had promised at the start of the year she would buy him one and, of course, she did not forget . . . not when it came to her friends. Kevin had no doubt she was home already; she had completed her essays a week before he did and returned. He would see her later on, but . . . he had other pressing matters on his mind at the moment.
He got to his feet and went to the cabinets on the kitchen wall, took out a large photo album, and began scanning through it.
He was looking at a picture of his father, John, who was grinning comically, wearing his construction uniform to work with a hard hat, and carrying a hammer to his shoulder. He disappeared when Kevin was five. . . .
Then he found what he was searching for. It was a picture of his mother, Lucy Priced, in a train station, looking the same as she did in his dream: a breathtaking woman with a small, sharp nose and dark and silky hair, which had been swaying to one side as the train zoomed blurrily behind her. She had been looking at the camera with a kind and mature smile. She died when Kevin was nine. . . .
“What happened, Mom?” he muttered, staying on it for a long time.
And then he was looking at a picture of himself as a little boy, hugging an elderly woman in an armchair, as she had kissed him on his freckled nose. It was his grandmother, his last living relative . . . and she died when he was sixteen. . . .
Feeling exasperated, Kevin closed the album with a snap.
And as he did a little photograph leapt out from the book, falling slowly to the ground.
Picking it up he saw that it was his mother, arm in arm with her severely aged friend in many shawls. It was the other woman Kevin dreamed of earlier, old Helen. He had never been able to put his finger on that woman, but remembered her being strange in a way. The last time he saw her was the day he dreamed of earlier, flying to his mother’s bedroom balcony . . . But that part was not strange; she and his mother had been spending a lot of time together in the last few weeks of his mother’s life, and when Kevin had asked his mother about it, she had always responded with: “Nothing to worry about, honey.”
Then old Helen disappeared. That was the last time he ever saw her . . . the day his mother died. . . .
His mother. . . .
Feeling nostalgic, Kevin sighed deeply and looked out the window for a moment. . . . Then he stood up, washed his face in the sink, put on some clothes in his bedroom and headed out. And as he paused on the doorstep, he stretched leisurely and took in the fresh air of early morning while he stood for a moment just outside the front yard.
It was nine o’clock. The birds were twittering nearby in the pink-leaved trees. Kevin looked around in his semi-deserted neighborhood. More than half the houses were run-down and empty. . . .
It wasn’t very odd: most places in the world were deserted now . . . Anyone could find empty old houses anywhere; and if they wanted to, they could simply pick a house and move in, renovating and making it a charming place to live. . . .
After a moment he strolled west toward the salty aroma. . . .
The strange fact about this new enchanted world was, according to history books, it had almost the same technology that existed seventy years ago, at the beginning of the millennium.
Rumor had it that innovative people, overall, no longer felt the absolute need to refine technology further — understandably, after the Earthquakes. However, there were still quite a few communities in the world that had not been very eager to embrace the peculiar transformation in their lives — it was a drastic change after the Earthquakes, after all, and people had needed time to adjust. But, eventually, the public slowly began to alter their minds and were taking it in . . . at their own pace. . . .
Another fact was that much fewer people inhabited the world now. Around three billion — one billion boys, and two billion girls — according to statistics (whereas it used to be more than twelve). This made people who were still around tend to stay together more often than they used to.
Mostly, however, the same structure and regulations of the world existed. There were schools. There were governments. There were countries, cities, villages. The only difference was that it had much fewer people in it . . .
It was a lot more peaceful, and slower. . . .
Rumor had it that, at the beginning of time after the Earthquakes, which were well beyond the cognition of the mind, disaster struck. There had been an enormous massacre. But then another unfathomable thing had happened: records and memories of all humans of that point in time or anything linked to it had been erased. No one remembered what happened. Everything had been distorted, and interest about it was rather decreasing on its own as time passed. Newspapers and books now called that point in time “Immemorial History.”
One of the after-effects Immemorial History had caused was that the names of almost all areas around the world had to be changed; no one remembered what they had originally been called. And, at times, the names had become quite unusual. Kevin’s beach hometown, which was one of the last few places that finally started to change, was well-known as Pomegranate’s Top, existing somewhere facing the Pacific Ocean. And Kevin had just come home from Kuarter University for the summer. It wasn’t very far from where he lived, and the local university did not have as many people in it as it should; but it made do. . . .
More than seventy years now had passed since the Three Hundred Earthquakes, which had shaken the alpha and omega of the entire planet and rejuvenated magic to the surface of the world, enabling many things to be no longer under control by natural laws. It took them several months, but eventually everyone worldwide began to realize that, to their utter shock, many of the objects and places around them had been displaying magical behavior. . . .
Kevin arrived at the shore after a few minutes of walking, but no one was there.
There was only the smell of salty air, the sound of waves and seagulls flying high above, and little turtles crawling by next to their mommy on the beach sand. . . .
Kevin breathed in slowly, and closed his eyes to feel the breeze against his body as the sun drifted higher. Then he started walking around.
This was when he saw a one. A starfish.
It was lying there, just a little farther into the sand than normal . . . He walked toward it and picked it up, feeling it in his fingers.
It was . . . a beautiful creature. He remembered the way his mother in his dream was playing with it: Blowing on the starfish softly, and then the starfish would jump excitedly off her hand, rotating hurriedly into the sea. . . . Kevin smiled sadly. He took a half-hearted breath and blew on it the same way. He hadn’t expected anything, except, suddenly, all the power in his body began to fade. His vision became cloudy; and he thought he heard the moan of a whale, briefly in the distance, before he fainted and collapsed. . . .
Several hours passed by as the waves, seagulls, and turtles were not concerned in the least bit about what had just happened.
“Kev, are you okay?” said a female’s hazy voice.
He opened his eyes and saw, upside down, a familiar face with green eyes. The girl leaning over him was wearing a black fatigue hat and her shoulder-length hair was dangling above his head.
“Hey, Mol . . .” he said weakly. “Aah . . . I’ve been better.”
“What happened?” she asked, helping him up and trying to brush down some of the wet sand off him.
He squinted around and tried to clear his fuzzy vision.
“I don’t know . . .” he said, rubbing his temple. “A starfish . . .” he said slowly. “I blew on one and everything went dark.”
He scanned around at their feet and found another starfish close by. He walked to it, staggering as he did so, and picked it up. Suddenly Kevin remembered something.
“Hey, you . . . you didn’t by any chance see a . . . a blue whale, did you?” he added very doubtfully, looking at the misty sea as he tossed the starfish back.
“No . . .” she said, “why?”
He was massaging his neck and shoulders. “I think I heard one while I was passed out here.”
“Yeah . . .” said Molly, plainly thinking he was hallucinating. “We’d better get you out of here,” she pointed at the cloud-encompassed sky. “It looks like it might rain.”
“Yeah, I think we’d better . . . and . . . I’ve got sand in my shoes . . .” he said, looking down at his damp clothes. “How did I get so wet? Come to think of it, I didn’t even go near the water!”
“Maybe there was a high tide at the time,” she suggested.
He blinked and looked at the shore. “Maybe . . .” he said. “What time is it?”
He stopped. “Wow . . . maybe I should go to the hospital . . .” He was genuinely concerned; he had never fainted in his life, let alone for five hours at a time . . .
Molly, who was beginning to look troubled, moved a little closer and said, “Let me see your eyes.”
She spread one eye with her fingers and looked closely. “It’s . . . a little red. . . . Don’t you still have that little box of vitamins in your house?”
“Take one; it should give you some vitality — you big baby!” Molly said as she pushed him away, laughing. “You’re not even twenty years old yet!”
Kevin laughed too and pushed her back. They set off toward their neighborhood and he said, “When’d you get here?”
“Last week. I thought you knew that?”
“Never mind me, I almost died this last month from those stupid essays!”
“When did you get here?” she said.
“Just last night. I didn’t think it was the best time to drop by on you guys,” said Kevin.
“It’s okay,” said Molly.
“By the way, I got that book you ordered — this morning, but didn’t get a chance to read it yet.”
Molly nodded, but didn’t say anything. As he now had a better look at her, she seemed slightly thinner than the last time he saw her . . . He wondered how long she had been on a diet.
“Ah, man, we’re finally back in circulation,” he said, grinning. “It seemed like years getting ready for those exams! How’d you do?”
“Oh . . . okay, I guess,” she said, unconcerned. “But listen, Nanna made lunch — you wanna come?”
He smiled. Ms. Housemeri, Molly’s grandmother, had been close friends with his grandmother for a very long time, and she had been looking after him ever since his grandmother died, treating him as one of her own.
“Thank you, I’m starving,” he groaned.
Neither of them noticed the distant splash of water behind them, shooting up like a tiny fountain on the horizon . . . from what looked like a blow-hole in the middle of the misty sea.
They agreed to meet at Ms. Housemeri’s. Kevin went home to change from his damp clothes and muddy shoes, and within ten minutes he was knocking on a front door.
It was a simple house in sky-blue color with white stripes. There was a balcony that hovered over the front door which, Kevin knew, belonged to Ms. Housemeri’s bedroom. Ever since Flying Umbrellas were invented, people had grown used to the balcony design at the front of the house; since now friends, family, even dwellers of the same house, did not bother much to enter through the ground floor and walk up the stairs to their bedrooms — they simply took out their Flying Umbrellas, opened them, and flew up . . . descending on the balcony.
And now Kevin remembered the Flying Umbrella part of his nasty dream earlier — but thankfully, the front door opened.
“Kevin!” said an elderly woman heartily, who appeared to be in her early seventies: Short, slightly disproportionate, and hunch-backed, with grayish blond hair and a good-natured smile. She gave him a long hug. “It’s so good to see you, dear! Come in, come in, how many times do I have to tell you —? You don’t have to knock!”
“Hello, Ms. Housemeri,” he said with a laugh as she steered him inside next to an open window. “Sorry I didn’t drop by earlier —”
“Yes, yes, Molly told me, you returned late last night. How are you, how was school? Did you get good grades?” she said, examining his appearance with her hands. “You might be an inch taller than the last time I saw you.”
“I dunno, maybe . . .” he said, looking at his own body. “We wouldn’t get our test results until —” he held her hands gently and removed them from his face “— I’m fine, Ms. Housemeri, everything’s great! I think I did well on my essays.”
“Wonderful. Now have you eaten anything since you woke up?”
“N-no, actually, I haven’t . . .”
A voice came from nearby. “Well, come on then, lunch is ready.”
Molly was standing next to a door, looking slightly amused as she watched her grandmother examine Kevin’s face.
They ate in the dining room with lots of clinking and chattering, as Kevin, with a little help from Molly, told Ms. Housemeri some of the stories of what happened on their first year in college; but, for some reason, she did not seem to be in good spirits all through lunch. And nor did Molly, as Kevin came to finally notice. They did not seem able to smile, and the air around them was rather dark. . . .
“All right, you two,” he said after washing up in the kitchen and returning to the table, “what’s going on? It feels like something’s happening, what is it?”
The other two looked at each other ominously, and Kevin knew he touched a nerve. Molly lowered her gaze back to her plate full of spaghetti . . . she hardly ate anything . . .
“Right then —” said Ms. Housemeri quickly “— Molly, honey, go and wash your hands and I’ll clear up the table, and Kevin, dear, why don’t you sit on that couch there. There’s something I would like to talk to you about.”
Molly gave him a weak smile but shook her head, and left for the kitchen. Kevin watched Ms. Housemeri as she took off the plates from the table with tinkling noises and left too. . . . Shrugging, he went to the couch.
Molly came back within a few seconds and threw herself on the velvet cushions by his side.
“What’s going on?” he whispered, but Ms. Housemeri came striding in before Molly could say anything. She pulled one of the dining chairs and sat facing him.
“I’m going to ask you to do something for me, Kevin . . . but, before I tell you what it’s for, I need to ask you a question first,” said Ms. Housemeri.
“All right,” Kevin said hesitantly.
“What do you know about venturexia?” she said.
He stared at her . . .
Venturexia was an illness that emerged as the world had been changing along with magic. It always infected someone who had a subconscious desire to go into the other side of the world, the side which fully embraced magic, and have an unimaginable adventure there but never managed to do so. . . . Ever since the earth had had magic embedded in it, it was discovered that almost any wishful thinking of the subconscious had been coming true. Sometimes in an unpleasant way, turning the desire into an illness, generally called a “spell-disease” — according to what they had been taught at school: The spell-disease acts as the manifestation of one’s deepest desires, forcing the person to fulfill them now or suffer a heavy price.
“Oh . . .” said Kevin, “uhm . . . just that it’s a spell-disease, and the people who have it go on this long trip to be healed or . . . something . . .”
Ms. Housemeri took a deep breath and sighed. Molly, for some reason, was as quiet as stone. He was beginning to feel stupid, as though he was being tested on something everybody knew — apart from him.
“You’re not wrong, but there’s more to it than that —”
“Ms. Housemeri, what’s going on? You’re scaring me . . .” he said, looking at her and Molly again.
“Please let me finish, dear,” she said gently. “Like I said, there’s more to it than that. That spell-disease is terminal if not acted on soon. . . . From the moment you get it, you have a little over a year . . . or you will die. They go on this trip — or adventure, as they call it — not only to be healed, but to survive . . .”
He looked inquiringly at her. “Okay . . .”
“I’m telling you this because Molly has venturexia . . .”
Everything slowed down. There was a moment’s silence as he felt as though his ears were muffled, and the whole world started to spin around him. Ms. Housemeri had dropped it so swiftly that he felt as though he had been smashed over the head. . . . He turned slowly to look at Molly, horrorstruck, as Ms. Housemeri continued.
“Her days are numbered, dear. . . . She will pass away soon if she did not go on this trip.”
“What?” he said sharply. To his surprise, his voice barely came out of him. Molly, at his side, seemed unable to meet his eyes.
As his brain went numb, Ms. Housemeri seemed oblivious to his state and immediately began explaining to him the symptoms of venturexia — having clearly studied them. Kevin was barely keeping up as his body was still absorbing the shock . . . but he tried to pull himself together. . . .
It started, he thought she had said, with a general sense of weakness and nausea, which would then develop into dizziness, vomiting, and loss of weight.
Sweating, trembling of the hands, and sensitivity to bright lights were also expected.
But then . . . it would quickly deteriorate into a rapid heart rate, fever, and extreme fatigue.
And Ms. Housemeri had paused, apparently taking a break before the worst, to reveal that it would eventually reach a phase of paralysis and respiratory failure.
Kevin was not distinctly familiar with medical terms. He knew that “paralysis” meant being paralyzed . . . imagining Molly that way sent aches all over his body. . . . But . . .
“What does ‘respiratory’ mean?” he said in a very low voice, deadly serious.
“It’s the breath,” answered Ms. Housemeri. “Or the lungs. . . . It means ‘lung failure.’ ”
Kevin grasped her words for a moment.
“What phase are you in now?” he said quietly, turning to Molly.
“The first one, I think,” said Molly, trying to sound light. “The worst didn’t happen yet . . . I do feel weakness from time to time, but I’m almost always nauseated now. I don’t feel like eating anything, not even ice cream.”
“And you’re saying that your days . . . are numbered . . .” he said, lowering his voice to a whisper, “do you mean literally?”
“Yes, Kevin,” said Ms. Housemeri, “it will be over by the end of September.”
He was speechless for a moment, then blurted out, “What are you talking about —? How do you know?”
He could not believe it to be possible; it simply did not make any sense —
“This illness is a seed,” Ms. Housemeri explained. “It appears in the body and cannot be seen by the naked eye, and its symptoms trigger between three to eleven times from the moment it appears to the time it ends. With each one the symptoms would get worse. And, it completes its job in approximately thirteen months. And by the end of those thirteen months, the person will either be dead or forever cured.”
She paused as to give him time to absorb this.
“Wait —” he said after a moment, turning to Molly, but Ms. Housemeri cut across him.
“But, Kevin, unlike most normal diseases, recovery from a spell-disease is extremely sudden. Symptoms do not fade, but they get worse with every time they appear — regardless of the healing process: Meaning whether she was getting better or not, the symptoms would still get worse nevertheless. And when they stop, they stop suddenly and forever.”
“Okay . . .” he said anxiously. “But you said thirteen months — and now it’s three months to September! Why didn’t you deal with this sooner?”
“Because,” said Molly finally, “I didn’t know . . . in the early months it’s barely noticeable. It comes in very light effects and the distance between them are months at a time. While the closer they get to the Deadline, the more aggressive they become, and happening more frequently. So at the earliest, people would find out they have venturexia five or six months before to their ending . . . if they’re lucky —”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” said Kevin angrily.
They were in the same college. They saw each other almost every day. Admittedly, she did seem distant in the last few weeks and did not look concerned by their final exams — but he never would have thought . . .
“I found out about the same time the final exams started, and you were so busy studying —”
“Don’t be angry with her, dear, she did not want to worry you —”
“Nanna, please let me talk!”
Kevin wanted to burst out with an angry retort too, but resisted the temptation. He would never get angry with Molly, but he was upset for being left out.
“So what are you going to do now?” he said.
“I have asked around and found a train — it’s called Myriad,” said Ms. Housemeri. “You could do a research and then get a cab to those enchanted places, or go by plane; but Myriad Train is infinitely easier. It takes you to all the main points with extreme comfort, over a period of twelve weeks. Will you go with her?” she added suddenly. “You know she’s the one person who has been through the mill almost as much as you have . . .”
Kevin, once again, felt lost for words. “Ms. Housemeri, of course I will go with her! How could you even ask me that?” He looked at Molly and held her hand. “Mol, are you okay?”
“Yeah . . .” she said calmly. “It was shocking at the beginning, but Nanna convinced me that it’s going to be all right —”
“Of course it’s gonna be all right!” he said forcefully. “No way you’re not getting through this.”
Molly smiled and her eyes became watery. “Thanks.”
Ms. Housemeri then, without warning, burst into tears . . . and it took them more than fifteen minutes to stop her flooding eyes.
“I don’t understand,” he said finally. “Ms. Housemeri, why did you think you would have to convince me to go with Molly?”
“Oh, never mind me, dear, I think old age is starting to get the best of me,” she said in a strangled voice, her arms being rubbed by Molly. “I do trust you above all others to take care of her — and I’m too old to come —”
“Don’t worry. I’ll take care of her,” he said, looking resolutely at Molly as they exchanged looks. Molly moved closer and hugged him.
Ms. Housemeri then explained to him the train would leave on the twenty-third of June, four days from that day, and it would be three months to Molly’s Deadline — emphasis on the word ‘dead’ — which, Kevin understood, meant they had until the twenty-third of September.
Afterwards . . . he and Molly left Ms. Housemeri alone in the house, and went out for a walk in their neighborhood.