Here is Chapter Eighteen…
Chapter Word Count: 3158
Monthly Word Count: 30,173
“The last time I was here, I got separated from my unit and I didn’t know how I was going to get home.” Simon was stoking the fire and the golden light from it reflected off his curly hair. “Camel dung.” Petros said it so simply that the rest of the group laughed at him. Father Garcia asked him, “What do you mean?” Petros was clear. “I said ‘camel dung.’ The last time you were here was about two months ago when we were heading to Wadjet. Now, we’re going back home.”
Simon laughed and the group laughed with him. “You’re right, Petros. The very last time I was here was a couple of months ago, but before that, I was lost and scared to death.” He looked into the fire and the team waited for him to continue. He was quiet for so long that Ambigo assumed Simon was finished with his story. Father Garcia gently prodded him. “Is that all you’re going to tell us, my boy?”
Simon looked at the priest. “I’m sorry. I just… got a little distracted.” Petros asked him, “What is a unit? I thought the word meant a measurement…” Simon shook his head. “I got separated from my military troop. I wasn’t on a mission by myself. I was lost.” Philip looked at his sandals, poking at the leather. “You are a soldier that never talks about the battles he has fought. Even now, you only tell us what you do reluctantly. That makes me feel as if… you have seen atrocities.” Petros added, “…or performed them.”
The phrase hung over the group like an accusation. Simon just sat there, staring into the fire. He nodded acknowledging Petros’ thoughts that were finally said, but had been sitting there between them, all along. “I guess I’m supposed to tell you everything now… Now that you have accused me, I either need to confess or defend myself.” He continued looking into the fire and blew out a puff of air in a huff. “Well, I choose neither.”
The fireside, which had been a happy spot of sharing just minutes earlier, had become uncomfortable. It burned hotly and Ambigo backed away from it, amazed at how his front could be too hot and his back could be too cold. “This is a really good fire, Simon.” The team nodded in agreement and the discomfort rose at his silence. Father Garcia calmly reiterated Simon’s words, “So, not the last time you were here, but the time before, you were lost…” His voice trailed off, sounding like a question.
Simon breathed deeply. “Yeah. I was pretty scared because I… I wasn’t supposed to be here and if I had been found… they probably would have just killed me…” He chuckled to himself. “At least that’s what I worried about.” Madi asked, “What country are we in?” Simon removed his eyes from the fire to look at her, “We’re in Egypt.” Ambigo cocked his head to the side, “The Egyptian government would have just killed you if they found you?” Simon shook his head. He lapsed into English. “No. It’s not the government.” He poked the fire, aggressively. “It’s never the government. It’s the wackos out in the desert. They’ll just shoot ya because you’re a stranger. Never even ask a fuckin’ question just shoot ya in the head because they don’t know who you are.”
Petros, Andrew and Philip were confused. “What is he saying?” Ambigo translated for Simon, “He says that the local people were not friendly at the time and would kill anyone they didn’t recognize.” Simon shook his head. “Sorry. Sometimes I forget which language I’m speaking.” The team nodded. Jaime spoke, “I’ve started dreaming in Aramaic.” The rest of the team laughed gently.
“Are you a German?” The question came from Petros. Simon was genuinely surprised. “No. Do I look like a German to you?” Petros shrugged. “I’ve seen dark Germans as often as the white-headed ones.” Father Garcia asked, “Why do you think Simon is a German, Petros?” Petros looked to Andrew and Philip. “Your language sounds like the Praetorian Guards. They are from the Germanic kingdoms, are they not?”
Father Garcia smiled gently. He scanned the group with merriment, his eyes resting on Ambigo. “You knew they thought this?” Ambigo was surprised at Father Garcia’s perceptiveness. “Petros has difficulty trusting… and he is…well… traveled…” He didn’t want to let them know that he had been eavesdropping on the newest members of the team. Father Garcia happily answered Petros, “Yes, our language is related to the Germanic languages. It also has a bit of Latin. It’s a very mixed up language. Do you understand any of our words?”
Petros lied, “No.” It was such an obvious lie, but he did his best to hide it, so the group pretended to believe him. The falsehood fizzled and popped in the fire, infecting the entire group with the scent of it. Ambigo frantically searched for a funny quip or joke to lighten the air, but his humor failed him. The longer the silence continued the more frenzied the search became and the more frenzied, the less he was able to think. In the end, he gave up trying to think of something funny and tried to think of anything at all. He realized his mind had totally abandoned him and he allowed all coherent thought to leave him. When he gave up trying to think at all, a small glimmer of a comment finally came to him.
“This is a REALLY good fire, Simon.” The team laughed and joined in. “This is the best fire I’ve ever sat in front of.” “Yes, I’m very toasty. Excellent fire.” Simon started laughing with them and they continued. “It’s so fragrant. I just love the smell of this fire.” “The colors. I don’t think I’ve seen a more beautiful fire.” Simon thanked them, but they kept complimenting the fire. “Just listen to the wood snap and pop! It is a very pleasing fire!” “Such warmth! I feel warm, yet not too warm. What a wonderful fire!” Simon nodded and held up his hands in response. “Now it just sounds like you’re making fun of my fire.” They laughed again and Petros’ lie dissipated among them in the frivolity of it all.
They laughed among themselves, continuing the compliments to the fire. Father Garcia rubbed his eyes. Ambigo noticed Madi looking at Father Garcia, rubbing his eyes. She looked like a starving man watching a feast he couldn’t eat. It went one step further when she nudged Jaime. The two of them watched Father Garcia rub his eyes sleepily. They appeared to be paralyzed and mesmerized by his actions. Ambigo scooted closer to Madi, whispering, “Do your eyes feel tired, sister?” She sighed with ecstasy, “Yes, Dr. Thomas. Tired for a lifetime.” Ambigo worried. “Do you need an adjustment?” She sighed. “No, but if an adjustment would make me feel like that,” she indicated Father Garcia rubbing his eyes, “…then I would gladly endure it… There’s something so… pleasurable… about rubbing my eyes… I never knew I’d miss it…”
“How did you finally get home?” Andrew was earnestly trying to coax the story out of Simon. The group was still chuckling at the compliments to the fire. Ambigo felt as if a flood of the story would some day burst from Simon, but doubted that they would hear it that evening. To his surprise, Simon was revived by the joking and laughter. “I actually…” He laughed a bit more, wiping tears from his eyes. “…ended up walking all the way back to Judea. Sound familiar?” He held up his hands, indicating their present situation and laughed to himself. “The land is so different now, though. Only the mountains are the same.” He quieted and scanned the landscape.
When he spoke again, he used an almost whisper that commanded the attention of the entire team. “I was alone and lost in this desert for almost six weeks. My MREs…” He hesitated, thinking of the proper words. “…My food supplies ran out pretty quickly. Going that long without food can make you… see strange things…” His gaze returned to the fire. He chuckled at it. “Excellent fire,” he repeated to himself, laughing. “I can’t look at the fire without laughing now.”
He faced them again, avoiding the fire. “I had never had…” He searched for the word. “…waking dreams before… We have a word for it in our language. It’s ‘hallucinations.’ When it happened, I thought it was the real thing…” He looked around at the group with an embarrassed look. Ambigo feared the rest of the story. He had spent the last few days explaining evolution and its foundation in research. His three students had been eager learners, but it was obvious to him that they felt more comfortable with the legends of Jesus than the intricacies of the scientific method.
The group had quieted with Simon’s voice, so when he stopped talking, they were left with the silence and the crackling fire. It took seconds for Jaime to laugh. “Excellent fire, Simon.” The group laughed and Jaime pretended to be confused. He responded, feigning ignorance, “What? I thought ‘excellent fire, Simon’ meant please talk more so we aren’t bored. Isn’t that true?” He looked at the team, holding back a smile and then sighed as if he had just realized that he had it wrong. “Explain it to me again.” Tad laughed. “No, no. Jaime, you had it right. So, excellent fire, Simon.” The team giggled and looked to Simon expectantly.
Simon looked from face to face and paused on Ambigo. “Have you ever had a hallucination, Dr. Thomas?” He inserted the English word into the Aramaic seamlessly. Ambigo looked back at him. Ambigo shook his head. “I was too busy studying for my future to experiment with the kinds of drugs that produce those effects. I’ve never been pushed beyond myself physically…” He suddenly hesitated. There was that moment after the big earthquake hit Los Angeles. He had flown to the city and gotten very little sleep on the plane. Then he had been faced with a wall of injured. They were burned and crushed and mangled and bleeding. After thirty-eight hours, a nurse had put him to bed. Before that, however, he had not been at his peak.
“…Actually. There was one time when I had worked too hard. I was treating patients. They say that I was hearing answers that weren’t there…” He remembered the answers vividly. He had been working with the patients, asking them whether they were in pain and where the pain was. From his perspective, the patients were replying coherently. They had been able to tell him the exact problems with clear responses and articulate answers. “The nurses’ aides said that the patients were unconscious or were screaming in agony, but I… I was able to understand them… I guess… I just…” He didn’t know how to explain it.
After he had gotten sleep and a good meal, he returned to those patients. The few that were able to talk to him acted as if he were some strange miracle worker. Some said that they had been unable to talk, yet he could understand them. Some said that they hovered over their bodies and that he had been out of his body as well, talking to them in the ethereal world of ghosts and spirits. Some said things that scared Ambigo so much that he made excuses for the events. “I just… needed to sleep. I had worked far too hard and I was tired.” He fidgeted uncomfortably. His back was cold, but he was sweating from the heat of the fire. “You know, sometimes… when you work really hard… you get into the zone.” He inserted the English word in with the Aramaic. “You just can do your job better than you would be able to do otherwise… I think… I was just… in the… zone.”
Simon stared at him with surprise. “They talk about stuff like that in war situations. I’ve never really dealt with injured soldiers in combat…” Ambigo shook his head. “This wasn’t combat. It was an earthquake. Mother Nature can deal a greater blow than all the armament man could muster.” They were quiet again and Ambigo giggled to himself. “Excellent fire, Simon.” Simon rolled his eyes and the team laughed together merrily. Philip asked, “So what did you see in the desert?”
Simon smiled, “Well, of course, at first all I could think about was food. Everything looked like food. I’d see rocks in the distance, and I’d think that they looked like bread. By the time I got close to them, they would turn back into rocks. I swear. I walked for several days, just chasing bread rolls.” He ran his hand along his hair. What once had been a short cropped crew cut was now a mess of curls clinging to his face and neck. “Madi, I need a haircut.” She huffed with an insulted air. “Why are you telling me? Just because I’m the only woman, you think I need to cut your hair?” Simon laughed and lied, “No, no. It’s because…” he hesitated, looking for an answer, “… it’s because you’re the only one I trust with a knife.” They laughed together.
Petros kept them on subject. “So, you saw bread where there were rocks. Is this your story of being lost in the desert? The way you hesitate and pause, I thought there must be more than that.” The group was snapped out of the joking and happiness and brought back to the story of Simon, starving in the desert. Jaime reprimanded him, “Jeez, Petros. Mellow out a bit, buddy.” Simon looked at Jaime, “Did you call me Jesus?” Jaime was surprised, “No, I… it’s… I… I said ‘Jeez’… I guess that’s kind of like saying Jesus. It’s…” Ambigo interrupted, “Yes, Petros. He DID call you Jesus.” Ambigo faced Jaime with a stern face. “He was taking the Lord’s name in vain. It is commonplace where we come from. Maybe you should apologize, Jaime.”
The realization of his words came over him and Jaime faced Petros. “I’m sorry, Petros. You know, Dr. Thomas is right. It’s kind of like a minor swear word where we come from.” He looked around at the team. “I guess I should watch myself a little closer.” Jaime ran his hand over his shaggy hair. “Simon’s right. We ALL need haircuts.” He was uncomfortable at his mistake. Ambigo felt his own hair, which had grown out exponentially, reaching almost afro size. It would only take one month more before his hair would finally fall and hang like he always thought his hair should. He looked into the fire, feeling guilty for being so stern with Jaime. “So, um… excellent fire, Simon.”
“The next person that says that phrase has to make the fire tomorrow.” Simon said it so seriously that the group was overcome with laughter and giggles. Laughing himself, Simon cried above the noise, “I’m not joking!” They laughed and they knew he WAS joking. They knew that from that point onward, “Excellent fire,” meant “Entertain me, I’m bored.”
“You’re right, Petros. My story has more than bread that looks like rocks. It… it was just kind of scary for me. By the time they found me, I was a wreck.” He ran his hand through his hair again, pulling at the curls. “I got to the point where I was imagining things… and it seemed so real that to this day, I can imagine what I saw based on where I was.” He breathed deeply. Andrew asked him, “We’re almost home. What did you imagine here?” Simon looked at Andrew and smiled a bit. “By the time I got here, it wasn’t imagining. The hallucinations were so strong that they took on a form of their own.”
He turned toward Madi. “Once you said that you knew that evil lurks among us. When you said it, my bones froze. Evil DOES walk among us. It is within us. It surrounds us. I saw it take solid form when I was starving in the desert.” He returned his sight to the fire, but he didn’t see it. “At first it was just a voice. It would say things to me like, ‘I would do anything for some food.’ But it didn’t take long until I was thinking of all the horrible things I would do for food.” He lapsed into English, “By the time I got to this area, I was willing to nuke the entire planet for a Twinkie.”
Andrew, Petros and Philip looked to Ambigo for translation. “He said that by the time he got to this area, he was willing to… annihilate everyone in the world for a… small sweet treat.” The three of them turned toward Simon, but Petros voiced the questions, “Did you have it in your power to do such a thing?” Simon thought about it for a moment. “Actually, the demon that was speaking to me showed me how I could do it. How I could sneak into the secret areas that weren’t so secret for a soldier like me. He showed me how I could set the world to destroy itself.”
“Did you agree to this deal?” Andrew asked him. Simon drew in a large breath. “No. No. I didn’t. The demon kind of evaporated when I stood up to him. I just took a deep breath, shook my head and kept on walking.” Simon rolled his head around and massaged his shoulders. “Funny thing is… the first food that was offered to me was a Twinkie… one of those small sweet treats.” He smiled and chuckled to himself. “It’s not like they had Twinkies here in… Judea. They were food that I had only seen in our homeland. It was really weird that the little girl had one. She just held it up to me like a small goddess. You should have seen me jump away from it. Haven’t eaten one to this day. Funny, huh?” The team pretended to laugh. The fire crackled and they were quiet.
“Actually, a Twinkie sounds really good right now.” Jaime said it jokingly and the team genuinely laughed. Petros brought them back to the story. “How long did you say you went without food?” Simon sighed and looked to the heavens. “It was almost six weeks… I think about forty days or so.” Philip breathed heavily, “Forty days and nights in the desert, starving and tempted by devils. When you finally got home, you were taken care of by angels.” Father Garcia drew in a large breath and Ambigo noticed a brief glimpse of panic. He shared the panic with Tad for a moment, but his face quickly calmed. He added, “That is quite a story, Simon.”