Marching Orders

Because I forgot. Love, Bill

9Charlie was dreaming of hyenas, again. He had dreamt of little else for days. They were not always run of the mill hyenas, however. In his dreams, hyenas were everywhere: in school administering mid-term exams, patrolling the grocery store, even standing at the pulpit in church. While others in his dreams seemed not to notice Charlie, the hyenas always did. Whether he chose to run or fight, the hyenas reacted the same way–ferociously.

This night, however, Charlie was not the prey. He had taken the form of a lion, sitting with his back to the sun at the peak of a sand dune on the Kalahari, in Africa. He was massive, six feet tall at the shoulders, and covered head-to-toe with black fur, except for curly flaxen hair that framed his face at the base of his mane. He stood, panting, watching a family of hyenas that was tormenting a zebra herd. Charlie sat silently, waiting, as the sun settled low on the horizon. As darkness enveloped the Kalahari, he crept toward the hyena clan. His footfalls were silent in the warm sand and soon his pace quickened into a loping gait. Swiftly gathering speed on his descent, he launched himself – airborne, he was, powerful wings unfolding from alongside his back.

photoshopped+black+lionToo late, the hyena clan saw him.

The battle was swift, bloodless, and decidedly one-sided. When it was done, there were zero living hyenas, one winged lion, the zebra herd …

Who’s the Native American dude in the silly hat?

Charlie turned to the intruder and roared a warning. “Who are you?”

“Some call me Kwih-doh,” answered the man. “But my friends  call me Gabe.” The man smiled and pushed the hat from his head, leaving it to dangle on his back from a string tied around his neck. He looked around at the plains – eyebrows raised – and wiped his brow.

Charlie squinted. He had never seen the man before, but knew him immediately. “Gabriel,” he said.

Gabriel was studying the scene before him, hyena bodies strewn about. The zebra herd kept a nervous distance. “Truly a fantasy, young warrior,” Gabriel said.

“What do you mean?”

“In war, there is always blood. There are always stains to be endured.”

“Yeah, well I’m sick of blood,” Charlie said, sullenly.

Gabriel gestured toward the zebra. “Your herd is more nervous than before,” he said.

Charlie watched them stamp and bray. “Yeah, well, they’re just too dumb to know they’re safe.”

“Perhaps they are not safe.”

“What do you mean? I killed all the hyenas and those were the only predators.”

Gabriel walked over to Charlie, and patted him on his muscular back. “There is still one, I fear, and he has proven to be more formidable even than the hyenas.”

“You mean me? Why would they be afraid of me?” Charlie asked.

Gabriel’s gaze lingered on the dead hyenas. “If you were a zebra, would you not be? You have killed all the hyenas, without remorse. Yet, you do not appear to be hungry.”

“Yeah, well lions kill hyenas all the time.”

“True. But only to protect their territory and their families.” Charlie threw his head back and roared. His deep bellows reverberated across the plains. The zebra herd scattered, leaving him alone with Gabriel, who smiled and sat cross-legged on the ground. “So, now you have killed the hyenas, but have caused chaos among your herd. If you become like the beast you wish to defeat, you have yourself been defeated.”

“Yeah, so, supposed to do what, was I, Yoda?” Charlie growled, his muzzle wrinkling into a snarl. “What you are supposed to do has never changed, Charlie. Do that which is right.”

“I’m sick of always trying to do the right thing, especially when no one can tell me what that is.” Charlie roared again, his low grunts of “Oowoof, oowoof,” reverberating across the plains. His wings beat the night air, dirt rising in a fury behind him. Charlie paced back and forth as though he were caged, his eyes never leaving Gabriel.

Gabriel sat, smiling.

“What’s so funny?” Charlie snarled again, his three-inch teeth showing.

“I’m beginning to see why those girls like you so much,” Gabriel said, his voice softening. “You are quite the lion when you’re angry.”

Charlie ceased pacing and flopped on the ground. He lay opposite the man, who continued to smile at him. “Dude, you’re making me a little uncomfortable,” Charlie said, breaking the eye contact.

“Oh,” Gabriel said, changing into pale a teenage girl with jet-black hair. “Is this better?”

“Not really,” Charlie said, mumbling to himself. To Gabrielle, he said, “Why are you here, exactly?” Looking around, he added, “Where is here, anyway?”

The quiet of the Kalahari had changed into an endless savannah, with the wind blowing the tall grasses in waves. The grassland was sunlit, although there was no sun apparent in the black sky. Charlie and Gabrielle sat atop a small rise on which stood an ancient baobab tree, the only visible landmark.

“We are in the place where all things meet,” Gabrielle answered. “Time, space, life, and that which precedes and follows it.”

Charlie looked around, a feeling of breathlessness growing within him. “Why does it look like Africa?”

“It merely reflects what you bring to it,” Gabrielle replied. “A lion such as yourself needs territory such as this. “

“Oh, I forgot I was still a lion,” responded Charlie, his leonine form morphing into that of the teenage boy. He wore all black, his clothing matching Gabrielle’s Goth attire. They sat there for a time, leaning against the old tree, in silence. Finally, his tension easing, Charlie turned to his companion. “Why are we sitting here?”

“Many wars have been waged in the name of peace. Inner peace, however, can never be won through war.”

Charlie rubbed his forehead and frowned. “Does that mean I need to learn to chill?”

Gabrielle laughed. “You are a wise young man, Charlie.”

“Why the tree?” Charlie indicated the baobab. He knew from experience that with the angel, little was left to chance.

“Some believe trees to be quite spiritual, especially desert dwellers.”

“Like Robin.”

Gabrielle twisted her neck, staring at the tree for a long time. “Is she not beautiful? She is majestic, proud, and yet can be sacrificed at a moment’s notice. I suspect if she were cut down in her prime, Robin would mourn her loss.”

“We’re talking about Reyna, now, aren’t we?”

Gabrielle remained silent.

Charlie looked at the tree and spoke. “Even if you cut it down, the roots remain. You’d think that would make you remember the tree, but it only seems to make it impossible for anything else to grow in its place.”

“That is often the case.”

“So if the tree is gone, what am I supposed to do?”

“Move from the shadows of the former tree, and plant a new one.” She looked at Charlie, and years began to roll off her. At first fifteen, then ten, and eight, the raven-haired girl was now a toddler of four years old. “Am I the same girl I was a moment ago?”

Charlie thought before answering. After a time, he replied, “No, you look the same, but we are all made different by what happens to us. We change as we grow.”

Gabrielle stood and sat in Charlie’s lap. Her voice was four, but her diction remained as before. “That is correct, love. Each act changes us, for better, or worse.”

“Is that why you showed up? Because of what we did to the Leukrokotai? You think all the killing has turned me into a monster.”

“No, love, that is not why I’m here. And, it is you who fear you are becoming a monster.”

Charlie confessed that both he and Robin had been surprised by how easily they had exterminated an entire planet of beings. They had dragged them all off to die without a whisper of remorse. “According to the law, that makes us spree killers, or something. Maybe I’m turning into a sociopath.”

“There is always the danger of losing one’s way, love,” Gabrielle said. “However, those beasts you ‘killed’ were an abomination. They were created from a distorted mind. You did not kill them, but their source.”

“Their source was Siri. She’s not dead. I can feel her.”

“As can she, you,” Gabrielle said. “No, you did not kill her. You killed the part of her brain from which the beasts emanated. It is an emptiness she will take to her grave.”

“So those things weren’t real?” Charlie asked.

“They were as real as you or I, that I can assure you. And, you have killed them with the same lack of remorse with which they killed. However, we cannot judge you for their deaths, for they were not meant to be. And, were that not true, we would still not judge, because love requires not judgment.”

“You don’t judge. Yeah, I forgot. I guess I’m not good with all that Bible stuff.”

“The All is not book. Look instead to truth.”

Charlie lowered his head, his hair covering his eyes.  Gabrielle, small in his lap, lifted her eyes to his face, leaning against his chest and peeking beneath his curls. After several motionless moments, he spoke. “In other words, we killed them all, but we get a ‘get out of jail free’ card because they shouldn’t have been alive to begin with, and anyway, God doesn’t judge. Sounds kind of shady to me.”

“As it should, young warrior,” Gabrielle said. “There are no righteous killings, only forgiven ones.”

“So if I do fight killers, and win, I risk becoming one myself. If I fight and lose, the world becomes chaos.” Charlie leaned back in the grass and sighed. Gabrielle did not move from his lap. “If you came here to cheer me up, you are failing, miserably,” he said.

“That is not why I’ve come,” she replied. “I’ve come to bring you a message.”

Charlie knew what was coming, but played along anyway. “Okay, what’s the message?” he asked, smiling.

Gabrielle and Charlie answered simultaneously. “Quit whining and get to work.”

Gabrielle giggled with the bubbly enthusiasm of a four-year-old girl. “You are smarter than you look,” she said. Before Charlie could reply, she stood, and once again became the Kwih-doh. Charlie knew that was Gabriel’s signal that the lesson had begun in earnest.

“If you choose to begin this battle, and lose, chaos ensues, because evil is always equal to good. They are reflections of each other, and tied here, in this place, where chaos and order are the same thing.”

“Why are they equal, if God … if the All is all-powerful?”

“Because humans have created evil from their fears. Only humans can defeat it. So long as you fear evil exists, it shall. Do you understand, young warrior?”

“I think so. Evil is as powerful as love because we’re afraid to believe it isn’t.”

“As it has always been. Why believe a quiet truth when a loud lie has the sweeter song?”

“You angel types always speak in poetry. It gives me a headache.” Charlie paused and propped himself on his elbows. “Wait, you said, ‘If’ we choose to battle. Since when do we have a choice?”

“It is in losing that chaos begins, not in fighting. It is your fight that will allow the other side to intrude into your world. There is a door, and it is already open, but only a crack.”

“So Robin and I caused the chaos she keeps seeing?”

Gabriel nodded. “In a way, yes. Your fight will cause the enemy to use all of its force against you. Should you lose that battle, there will be no stopping chaos from intruding into your world. If, that is, you lose.”

Charlie felt like he would throw up at any minute. “Jeez, what would Robin do if she knew this could be all our fault?”

“She already knows,” Gabriel said.

“What? If she knows, then why didn’t she tell me?”

“That, you must find out from her.”

Charlie huffed. “I don’t have to, the answer is simple. If fighting causes chaos, then we don’t fight.”

Gabriel placed a firm hand on Charlie’s shoulder. “Like most things, it is not that simple. Think of an open door, beyond which lies outer space.”

Charlie considered that for a moment. “You mean how everything gets blown toward the crack in the door.”

“Yes. However, this door is worse. It is more like a crack in a door that separates two black holes. All things on both sides will be drawn to the door, which will collapse in on itself. Things will … cease to be. All that you know, in the ‘real’ world, in the Stream, the worlds before life and after death, they are all reflections of each other, distortions tied together as if by string. And now, the gateway that separates them is open, and the strings wish to meet. Ignoring the problem is not an option.”

Charlie’s exhaled, and pulled himself erect. “So if we fight and fail, the universe and everything come through the … the gate, and poof, chaos.”

“Yes, but the gate remains intact, though the keeper of the gate will allow free entry.”

“If we don’t try, the gate ceases to be, and instead of parts passing from one side to the next whenever they want, everything is pulled together, like it was on strings attached at a single point.”

“Again correct.”

“And if the strings collide?”

“Well, that would be bad,” Gabriel said.

“What’s ‘bad’ mean?”

“The end of everything. “

“Crap.”

“The gateway allows passage between the planes, but it also protects them from each other. Without the gateway, not only your world, but all worlds would be destroyed.”

Charlie clenched his eyes, hoping to clear out the cobwebs in his brain. “I still don’t get it. If the dream world can come into our world with no problem, why would all the ‘planes’ merging mean destruction? Shouldn’t it just be chaos?”

“Some of the planes cannot exist together. I could explain, but the science to explain it has not been invented yet.

Charlie corrected him. “You mean the science has not been discovered.”

“No, science is only invented when there is a need for understanding. Suffice it to say, certain universes cannot harmoniously occupy the same space. The Gatekeeper is wise enough to keep them separate. Mix them, and …” Gabriel gestured with his hands. “Boom,” he said. In between his hands, a small explosion boomed, accompanied by blinding light and a mushroom cloud.

Charlie jumped, startled by the demonstration. “Jeez-o-flip, Gabe. You trying to give me a heart attack?” Gabriel looked puzzled and shook his head no. “So, no ‘boom’ if we fight and lose, but ‘boom’ if we don’t fight at all? That makes no sense.”

“It doesn’t except for the one thing you’re forgetting. Siri.”

Charlie had been watching the mushroom cloud disperse, but now turned his eyes back to Gabriel. “What about Siri?”

“If you choose not to fight, Siri will assume control of the Stream, and …”

“Don’t tell me. She’ll kill the Gatekeeper.”

Gabriel nodded. “Without the One as a threat, she would remove the one remaining being she perceives as a threat – the Gatekeeper. However, she does not have the power to maintain the gate. That power belongs only with the Tome.”

“And only the Gatekeeper can control the Tome.”

“Or the One,” Gabriel nodded.

“Okay, say this is all true. I fight, no boom happens. But if we lose, the entire known universe is destroyed,” Charlie started.

“And several others you don’t know,” Gabriel interrupted.

“Gabe, you’re not helping. If this is true, why isn’t God doing anything?”

Gabriel gave Charlie a puzzled look. “The All is doing something.”

Charlie sighed in relief. “Great. What exactly?”

“Telling you to get to work. This problem won’t fix itself, Charlie.”

“What? Are you freaking serious? I’m sixteen and you think I’m supposed to save the entire stupid universe … universes all by myself?” Charlie’s voice had risen, and he was pacing back and forth.

Gabriel was serene, leaning against a staff, watching Charlie as if he were a tennis match. When Charlie stopped walking for a moment, Gabriel answered. “No, of course not. That would be impossible.”

Charlie started to smile in relief, but stopped. He had seen this movie before. “You’re gonna tell me that Robin will help me, aren’t you?”

“Why yes, of course.”

“Oh my freaking God. ‘Charlie and Robin Save the Universe,’” Charlie said, his palms pressed to his head. “Nobody is going to see that movie, Gabriel, because you guys are freaking nuts.”

“Calm, my love. Remember, you are not here to save your world, but to oppose evil. It is the fight that matters, not the victory. If you fight, the Gatekeeper will remain vigilant. Even if you lose, he will protect the gate.”

“Victory kind of matters to me, Gabe. I like my world with no demons. And by the way, if this is so important, how come Robin isn’t here?”

“There is no need to teach that which is already known.”

That stopped Charlie’s rant cold. “You mean you guys have already taught her.”

Gabriel smiled and shook his head. “We have not needed to.” Gabriel took one step toward Charlie, standing almost nose-to-nose with him. Charlie found the proximity disconcerting. “She is more than she shows you, my love,” Gabriel said.

“That’s pretty obvious,” Charlie said, the beginnings of anger seeping in. “How am I supposed to be ‘The One’ with her, when I don’t even know who she is half the time? I’m beating my head against the wall trying to figure what’s going on, and now you tell me she has all the answers.”

Gabriel’s voice was soothing. “You have two close friends, do you not?”

Charlie didn’t get the point, but answered. “Yeah, Robin and Jannet.”

“Yes,” Gabriel answered. “You see one smart one and one sweet one. In so doing, you have seen only half of each.” Gabriel placed his hand over Charlie’s heart. “Are you the tough, logical Charlie or the gentle, caring one? The lion or the lamb?”

Charlie opened his mouth to object; he closed it without a word.

“When you know who Charlie is and what is in his heart, then, perhaps, you will know who Robin is. There must be One, Charlie,” Gabriel added. “The key to the gate that separates the worlds demands it. One plus one is One. Add one more and you get neither One, nor two. Subtract one, and you get zero. The key will not work, except with the One.”

Charlie thought about that for a painful ten seconds. “Meaning, I have to be Robin’s boyfriend, or none of this will work.”

“No, Charlie,” Gabriel said. “the All is not your matchmaker. Whatever your relationship with Robin, it must be unbreakable. It must be genuine. The two of you must decide, and soon, what path you follow, and never waiver from it. That is unfortunate, but unavoidable. Any gaps between the two of you will be exploited by the dark ones. A single crack will quickly become an abyss.”

Charlie objected. “But I’m not doing anything wrong. Why would there be a crack?”

“She is your best friend, and yet you say you do not know her. The crack exists.”

Charlie brushed the hair from his eyes. He attempted to match the calm in Gabriel’s voice, without success. “Are you telling me that her acting like my sister one minute and kissing me the next is my fault?”

“No, Charlie. I am telling you that the zebra will fear you unless they know you kill their enemies out of love.”

“Say which?” Charlie placed his fists against his forehead. “I’m sorry, I have no idea what we’re talking about.”

“What we always talk about, Charlie,” Gabrielle said. “We are talking about love.”

“Since when are we …” Charlie stopped in mid-sentence. “Oh, yeah. I guess that’s true. Except for the ‘quit whining’ parts,” he said.

Gabriel smiled. “That, especially, is love. You must undertake this journey only if your heart is in it. Your choice must be unconditional.”

“Okay, but what does this have to do with zebras and Robin?”

“As a lion, the zebra feared you because your intentions were not clear. You must know whether you are the predator or the protector before the zebra can know how to respond.”

“We’re not really talking about zebras, are we?” Charlie asked.

Gabrielle answered with another smile.

Charlie’s expression was nowhere near a smile. “Why me? I mean, I’m not ready all for this. And would you please stop changing sex? It’s confusing.”

“As you wish,” Gabrielle said, changing for a final time to the Kwih-doh. “You have chosen us because you love us. You have been chosen to lead this battle because you are loved in return, despite the fact that you will almost certainly lose.” Gabriel’s tone was earnest, though calm.

“Great, thanks. When your angel gig is up, maybe you can get a job as a motivational speaker.”

“I am telling you that you cannot lead an army into battle if you are afraid to lose. A warrior must understand there are no guaranteed victories. A leader must always lead, even when his troops are not prepared to follow.”

“I’m not a leader,” Charlie said.

Gabriel turned and began walking. “Then, all is already lost.”

Charlie called after him, but instead, awoke in a pool of sweat in his bed. He sat up, preparing to throw off the covers and … do something. Charlie sat on the bed and sighed. He looked at his clock. Three-fifteen in the morning. He wanted to talk to Robin, but it was too early to text, and the last place he wanted to be was another dream. Frustrated, he spoke into the empty darkness of his bedroom.

“Gabriel, get down here,” he ordered. When there was no reply, he tried again, once more, twice more. On the third try, he said, “I know you can hear me. You want me to lead? Then come help me learn how.” He was standing in the center of his room, speaking, essentially, to the ceiling. He knew Gabriel would not come, but raging against him soothed his anger. From behind, his bed squeaked. Charlie turned.

Gabriel, dressed in black sweats and hoodie, and in the guise of a Chinese teenage boy, lay on Charlie’s bed. “Actually, it’s Tiān Shī, but you can call me Tian.” Tian blew him a kiss.

“Tian,” Charlie started. He shook his head. “Gabriel, stop playing games.”

“No games, Charlie, I assure you.” Gabriel smiled. “I see you have learned the space between worlds is smaller than you thought. How did you know I would come?”

“I didn’t. I only realized that you could.”

“Excellent.” Gabriel was smiling. “Then, perhaps it is time to finish our lesson.”

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