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Afternoon sun bathed Jessica Riley’s face and left arm as she took the slow hairpin curves of California’s coastal highway. She kept both hands on the wheel though she desperately wanted to keep one hand on her stomach, on the baby she shouldn’t be having and likely wouldn’t be having if things went as they had before.

She sighed at the rising panic she felt, and forced her breathing to slow. It started at her shoulders, then moved down her back and chest, finally settling into her stomach.

The unexpected pregnancy at thirty-eight, given her history, was reason for panic enough. But this particular journey—flying to a strange city, driving a strange car along a strange and treacherous highway—was filled with opportunities for anxiety. And the reason for her journey even more so, because it bordered on the crazy.

Jessica had come here from halfway across the country, looking for the Oracle of V’Canto in a desperate bid to know her future.

No, she thought. Her baby’s future. Though Jessica was reasonably certain that the baby—the fetus, she reminded herself—had no future.

She felt the anxiety stirring in her stomach like a snake and put her attention back onto the road and to breathing.

Highway 1 north of San Francisco was like nothing she’d ever driven. She’d averaged thirty miles per hour for the better part of three hours, leaving San Francisco around seven on a cool March morning. She’d eaten breakfast at Mel’s Drive In, next to the hotel she’d stayed at. Then, she’d gotten on the road.

It was a perfect day. Nothing like Chicago, where it was still dropping into the teens with a windchill that took the cold bone deep. Here, blue sky canopied a landscape that took her breath away, beneath a sun that heralded an early spring for the west. She drove with her window down, inhaling the salt and eucalyptus scented air of Marin County. She took the corners and climbed the hills, and the forest and pastures gave way to coastal towns and steep cliffs. She was glad she was driving north, nestled against the cliff-side in her Kia rental. Even with the south-bound lane between her and the drop-off, she was white-knuckled, eyes fixed on the road, aware that terrifying beauty of the ocean far below might tempt her eyes—and her car—off the narrow highway.

Jessica saw a pullout for a vista ahead and turned into it. She parked and sat for a minute, her hands both resting on her stomach. It was too early for her to show but she still felt it growing there. The flutter of tiny butterfly wings in the deep places of her that manufactured life. She closed her eyes and sat with her baby. With him, she realized, though she knew it was ridiculous to assign gender.

My son.

Another car pulled in and parked on the other side of the small lot. It was a red convertible; a man with long white hair and tan skin climbed out. He wore loose shorts and a windbreaker, and she noticed him checking her out over the top of his shades. He flashed a smile and then turned to the view.

She followed his gaze and took in the sheer rocks and below, the Pacific stretching out to a blurry, blue horizon. Under different circumstances, she’d have documented it with her phone, maybe even posted it for her friends and family. But the instructions had been clear when she decided to seek the Oracle. No one knew anything beyond the automated payroll software conference she was attending. The car was on her boss’s card along with the hotel in San Francisco, but everything else was cash. Her phone was off, and its battery removed. Bizarre rules, but she was the one looking to meet a medium.

The man was smoking a cigarette now, and the smell of it flooded her with nostalgia. She took a deeper breath and sighed.

“Ex-smoker?” he said from across the way, smiling at her again.

She nodded. “I am. Just a week now.”

He chuckled. “Good for you.” He took another deep drag and despite the distance, she saw the paper go orange and shrivel into ash, heard the slow crackle of it as it burned. She watched him take in the smoke and push it out in one final blue haze that tickled her nostrils. Then, she sighed as he field-stripped the cigarette, stomping the cherry with a sandaled foot. “Don’t want to be an unnecessary temptation.”

She returned the smile. “You’re not.”

He walked toward the battery of trash and recycling bins between them, near the restrooms. “I’m glad,” he said. “And I’m glad you quit smoking. Not good for babies.”

Her mouth opened but she had no words. She met his eyes for a moment, then watched him check his cigarette butt before dropping it into the trash. Finally, she found her voice. “How can you tell?”

He shrugged. “You just quit smoking. You’re touching your stomach. You look worried.”

Jessica blushed but along with the blush, she felt something else rising within her. Something like fear, she thought. She moved for the car and he was walking toward her now. “I have to go,” she said.

He stopped and held his hands up. “I’m sorry. I just wanted to shake your hand and congratulate you.” He backed up.

Jessica took a breath. “No,” she said. “I’m sorry. I’m . . . not myself.” She took a step forward and extended her hand. He lowered his hands and took her hand in his. “Thank you.”

“No,” he said. “Thank you. What you’re doing is . . . well, it is amazing.” He still held her hand now, and he squeezed it gently. Then, he winked. “It will all work out.”

She noticed the ring as he released her hand. It was silver with small black stone set into it. Very tasteful.

He was walking away now, moving back to his car. “Drive safe,” he said over his shoulder. “She’ll be waiting for you in Fort Bragg.”

The panic was back now as he climbed in and fired the engine to life. She stood with it, feeling it make the slow crawl from her head through her heart and into her stomach as the man pulled back out onto the highway, smiling at her one last time before he was gone.

She’d seen the ring before. Just last week.

It took her back to why exactly she was here, and when she settled back into the Kia and nosed it onto the road, she found she couldn’t keep the memories at bay.

So Jessica Riley drove in the cold sweat of fear and pondered the twisting road that carried her.


It should have never happened. She kept telling herself this, hoping the repetition would somehow help.

It didn’t.

She’d decided at the last minute to attend her twentieth reunion, thinking it would be good to see how everyone had turned out. She hadn’t expected Steve Tanner at all, figuring that all of that water had gone under a hundred bridges in the years since they graduated. They’d had spark as far back as their sophomore year at Hoffman Estates High, and twenty-two years later, fresh from her divorce, that spark—in a night of drinking and reminiscing—had turned into a forest fire that a long night in his hotel room couldn’t put out. So they’d burned in the heat of it until close to check-out time the next day.

And then, he’d told her over breakfast that he was married. Not happily, but there it was. She’d turned her head at the last second to dodge his kiss goodbye there in the IHOP parking lot and she went home one part angry and two parts sad, though more angry and sad with herself despite knowing that his lack of honesty deserved a generous helping of her unhappiness. Still, she’d always struggled with making herself responsible for other people’s bad behavior.

Just a few weeks later, she missed her period but chalked it up to stress. When she missed a second, and felt that butterfly in her belly trying to take flight, she found herself suddenly both frightened and elated as she drove down to Rite-Aid to buy a test.

Because it shouldn’t have been able to happen.

She’d opted for a tubal ligation after her eighth miscarriage and Steve had been her first outing since the marriage with Tom had crumbled. And the last five years of that marriage had been sexless so she’d never really test driven the procedure, but had assumed, like most would, that it had worked.

One EPT in the Rite Aid public restroom . . . followed by four others just to be sure . . . had confirmed her deepest hope and her worst fear. After, she sat on the hood of her car, smoking one last guilty Newport while all of the feelings worked her over. She had her phone out, ready to dial but uncertain who to call. Her doctor, her ex-husband, her mother, and even Steve came to mind, though she wasn’t sure what she would say to any of them at this point.

So she sat and smoked and cried.

A woman saw her crying and approached. “Hey there,” she said. She was young—maybe in her mid-twenties—her arms covered in tattoos and her ears heavy with piercings and a diamond stud in her left nostril. “Are you okay?”

She felt heat rising to her cheeks. “I’m . . . I’m fine.”

There was something in the woman’s face, in her eyes, that spoke calm and compassion to Jessica’s inner storm. “You don’t look fine.”

Jessica shrugged and crushed out her cigarette. She looked at the pack at the top of her open purse. Another wouldn’t matter, she knew, not if nature followed the path it had taken with her eight times before. Eight times that she knew of, she reminded herself. What was the statistic? Something like a third of all pregnancies terminated naturally before a woman even knew she was pregnant? So her actual scorecard was likely much higher. Still, one more cigarette couldn’t hurt and she reached into her purse.

“Better to quit now,” the woman said. “And maybe it’s time to try something different. You remember what Einstein said about insanity?”

Jessica found the woman’s sense of calm and compassion fighting with her fear and despair, feeding the hope. “What do you mean?”

“You’ve been here before, Jessica,” the woman said. “Think about it. Try something new.” Then, she gave her a small piece of paper.

Their hands touched as Jessica took the paper and she noticed a single ring on the woman’s hand. It was silver and set with a small black stone. Jessica looked up. “How do you know my name?”

“It’s . . . complicated.” The woman looked around. “If you decide you want to try something different—really want to—call this number.” Their eyes met. “But call it first,” she said. “Don’t call anyone else before you do or you’ll be doing the same thing again, hoping for different results . . . more insanity. We can’t help you at that point.” Then, she stepped forward and lifted the pack of cigarettes out of Jessica’s purse. “And I shouldn’t do this—it absolutely violates FOC protocol—but I don’t think you’ll be wanting these this time around.”

Then the woman hugged her and despite Jessica’s body stiffening with fear, she squeezed her tightly. “It is so good to meet you,” she whispered in her ear. “And congratulations.”

The woman smiled at her one last time and then moved off across the parking lot, tucking the pack of Newports into her shoulder-slung backpack as she did.

Jessica went home, confused but carrying some of the woman’s calm with her now. She sat in the tub and soaked for an hour, her phone nearby with the paper laying beside it. She’d finally decided that she wouldn’t be calling Steve at all. Tom was still a maybe because she’d gone through this with him so many times before. Her mom nearly won out. But the odd encounter with the girl kept her thinking of Einstein and the insanity of eight previous attempts at bringing life into the world. Finally, she picked up the phone and dialed the number on the scrap of paper.

She thought the girl would answer, but it was a man. “Jessica Riley,” the voice said. “I’m glad you called.”

She leaned forward in the tub, closing her eyes. “Who is this?”

“I’m not important,” he said. “You, on the other hand, are more important than you realize.” There was a pause. “Have you told anyone else?”

She shook her head even though no one was there to see it. “No.”

“Good. If you choose this path, you will need to keep it that way.” Another pause. “So do you?”

“Do I what?”

“Do you choose something different?”

Now it was Jessica’s turn to pause. She wanted to ask him how he knew her, how the woman knew her, and why—a thousand why’s, even—they were so interested in something they had no business knowing anything else about. But in the end, she was too tired. And maybe, if she admitted it to herself, too tired of a trail so worn into her soul that she could remember every turn, every twist, along the way.

“Yes,” she said. “I choose it.”

She heard something snap into place into the man’s voice—she couldn’t tell if it was enthusiasm or not, but it was something close to it. “Excellent,” he said.

And then he told her about the Oracle of V’Canto and started laying out the instructions for her journey carefully, step by step.


Jessica let the towel fall and stretched out on the bed, the spongy mattress pulling her road-weary body into itself. Her hair was wet against her shoulders and neck, her body chilled by the air after twenty minutes of hot, hard water to wash the highway from her mind.

Even now, in bed with her hands folded onto her stomach, she felt the room swaying as her queen-sized bed took the hairpins and switchbacks of the coastal highway.

It was exactly the wrong route for someone afraid of heights and water.

She laid there, eyes closed, and willed the bed to stop. Still, it took the corners, slow as a rocking ship. She wasn’t normally prone to motion sickness, but even at fifteen miles per hour, those corners happened with such frequency that she was remembering childhood days at the Cook County Fair. And even now, it held on. When her stomach growled, she found herself wondering how food would play with her body’s memory of that drive.

Jessica lay in the quiet and focused on the butterfly wings. Are you there?

Yes, she imagined him saying. And I’m staying this time.

“Good,” she whispered. I have so much to show you.

She thought about the drive, the dramatic drop to a blue ocean beneath a blue sky, the fields and rocks and forests. And then, she thought about the Cook County Fair and those rigged, impossible games that inevitably sent you home with a goldfish in a bag after more than ten dollars of dimes and nickels were tossed. And then she thought of Paris, and the smell of coffee on a cool spring morning near the Seine. And of the time she and Tom went to Thailand and saw the temples and jungles, ate lobster barbecued on the beach.

This time, she said it aloud. “So much to show you.”

I want to see everything, Mother.

Jessica forced herself to sit up, then stood. She was hungrier than she had realized, and she felt a headache coming on from it. She dressed and dried her hair quickly, and then went to the small desk and started looking at the local restaurants. She would start there, she figured, and begin asking discreetly. Of course, the phone book made it easier. The page was even marked and the restaurant had taken out a small ad in the corner: V’Canto. She scribbled the address onto the small pad of paper provided by the hotel.

It can’t be this easy.

Jessica slipped on her shoes, grabbed her sweater and her wallet, and let herself out into the late afternoon.

A wind from the west moved over her as she made her way south on Main Street. She resisted the urge to pull the sweater on, savoring the sun on her arms. Instead, she walked faster.

She passed the Northwest Brewing Company and saw the people crowded at tables and at the bar through its windows, and felt an odd detachment from the people laughing and drinking inside. It was Saturday night and in early March, it was warm and felt like spring, at least when the wind was down.

Jessica walked briskly to Laurel Street and turned left, watching the signs and stopping when she saw the right building, though the way it dominated this small downtown street gave it away before she saw the sign.

V’Canto took up an entire building—three storefronts—with apartments above tucked behind mini-blinded windows on the second floor. An Italian flag hung in the main restaurant window alongside a phone number and a sign that proclaimed lunch to go. There were also menus and flyers featuring their musical line-up.

Jessica pulled the door open and entered the quiet bar. Beyond the bar, she saw a dining room with a scattering of customers, but overall the place was quiet. An older man with olive skin and graying hair sat at the bar. A tall, wiry man with white hair stood behind, polishing a glass.

Both men looked up as she walked in. “Welcome to V’Canto,” the old man said. “You chose wisely.”

She blinked, suddenly on edge again. “You know?”

He smiled. “I know you chose wisely if you chose V’Canto for dinner tonight.” And the warmth of it put her instantly at ease.

“I’m here to meet someone,” she said.

The man’s smile widened. “Of course you are. A beautiful woman like you, I’m not surprised at all.”

Jessica blushed, noting his accent. “You are V’Canto, aren’t you?”

He bowed. “I am.”

She leaned forward. “I’m here to see the Oracle.”

She watched the slightest change overtake his face. As if a door quietly closed and another opened. His eyes took on an appraising gleam. “Of course you are,” he said again, practicing a different smile now. “This explains why you’re glowing.”

It was surprising her less and less and this time, she looked to his hand. Sure enough, he wore the ring.

But when he saw her noticing it, his brow furrowed. He twisted it off his finger and dropped it into his shirt pocket, then touched her elbow. “She won’t be here for another hour,” he said. “Come. Sit with me and eat.”

He nodded to a corner table and she let him guide her there. As they sat, the man behind the bar came around and brought V’Canto’s glass of red wine and an ice water for her, along with a menu. “May I recommend some of my favorites to you?”

She nodded and then listened as he described two very different meals. Jessica settled on the rock cod Arabiatto and a glass of iced tea.

As he sipped his wine and she her tea, they made small talk. He asked her questions about where she came from and she asked him questions about life in Fort Bragg and what he’d done before, though the questions she wanted to ask pressed at the inside of her skull like children at a window on a rainy day. Still, she held them back and stayed with lighter topics.

He was an impressive man—he’d spent several years as a chef in France and eventually had settled into the Bay Area only to relocate to the secluded hidden coast and start his own place up. “It is a good place to raise a family,” he said.

And it was as if that were the transition in their conversation, timed perfectly for when her food arrived. The bartender—Robert, she learned—brought them bread and V’Canto broke it, handing her half of the small loaf. “Eat,” he said.

The more she talked with the man, the more she trusted him, though Jessica wasn’t sure exactly why. He felt right. She lifted her fork, poked at the cod there on its bed of pasta and peppers. Then, she put it down. “Can you tell me what’s going on?” She nodded to his pocket. “What’s with the ring? And why did you take it off?”

His eyes glinted again and she saw something intelligent and calculating there. “I could tell you some of it,” he said, “but it is not my place. And I choose not to go beyond my place, though it’s not because I don’t want you to know. You’ll know soon enough.” He paused. “Choice is very important. You were asked to choose this, correct?”

“Yes,” she said.

He nodded soberly. “Yes. And you’ve come this far.” Their eyes met and she saw something else there that she was uncertain of. Compassion, certainly, but maybe also curiosity. They softened and he smiled. “Why not let it unfold as it is? Try the cod.”

She pushed the fork into the cod, beyond it into the noodles below, then raised it to her mouth. The blend of flavors made her mouth water, and she felt the butterfly flapping as she felt the spices warm her face. “It’s good,” she said.

He smiled. “Choice, as I said, is important. And you will be making a lot of them in a short amount of time. I chose to take my ring off to tell you something. In this moment, I am yours. Not anyone else’s. And I choose that so that I can say this to you.” He leaned forward. “I wanted to tell you that you can always find more things to choose than what choices are offered.”

Then, he slipped the ring from his pocket, put it back onto his finger, and for a moment, his smile became sad and knowing. “Do you understand, Jessica?”

“No,” she said. “I really don’t understand anything yet.”

V’Canto nodded. “You will soon.”

Then, as hard as it was for her to shift those gears, they were talking about Fort Bragg and Chicago and anything except the one thing she wanted most to talk about.

When she finished, he stood and took her plate personally. “I hope it goes well for you, Jessica,” he told her.

She wasn’t exactly sure how to respond. “Thank you.”

He bowed to her from the waist, then vanished behind a curtain. Meanwhile, as the spiciness of the cod settled into her stomach, her butterfly was making himself known. And she was suddenly aware that her hands had gone there of their own volition.

The music started up next door in the main part of the restaurant. She heard a single guitar, its strings bent into a warbling blues riff suddenly joined by a harmonica. From her seat, she couldn’t see the stage but the music, like the spicy seafood, was setting him off and she suspected these were happy tremors, though she knew it was impossible to feel anything at all this early in.

I want to feel it because I want it to be true, she thought.

It is true, Mother, he whispered to her in her imagination.

She head the door open and close and looked up. There, framed in the doorway, was an old woman. Her pantsuit was a vibrant yellow polyester beneath an orange raincoat that hung open. Her sunglasses were oversized and the frames looked like stems that ended in sunflower rims, something a child might wear or maybe some time-refugee from the seventies. Her hat was made of straw and a plastic rose was tucked into a purple band. She clutched a newspaper in a gloved hand and looked around the bar.

The woman saw Jessica and sized her up quickly, then approached. “There you are,” she said. “Aren’t you?”

She didn’t wait for her to answer; she pulled out the chair V’Canto had vacated and sat down. This time, Jessica looked to the hands first. But the white gloves hid any ring she might’ve worn.

The woman chuckled. “You’re looking for the ring.”

“Everyone else seems to be wearing it,” Jessica said, feeling the heat rise to her cheeks.

“I choose not to take sides,” the woman said. “Now.” She tugged at her gloves, revealing liver spotted hands. Close up, the woman was older than she first appeared, and Jessica saw now that it was the amount of make-up she wore. She stretched those hands out across the table.

Jessica flinched by instinct, feeling herself pulling back. Then, she forced her hands forward over the wood surface between them. The woman’s were dry and cool and bony, but strong. “Are you the oracle?”

“Yes,” she said. “Now close your eyes.”

She closed her eyes and felt the woman’s hands squeezing hers, felt the flutter in her stomach. “You can tell me if I will keep this baby?”

“Yes,” she said, “I can tell you. But quiet now. Breathe.”

She breathed and waited. Finally, she opened her eyes and the woman was staring at her, smiling.

“Do you feel better?” she asked.

Jessica nodded. “Yes. What did you see?”

The woman laughed. “Oh, I didn’t see anything. You just looked anxious. I wanted to help you relax.” She released her hands. “Are you ready to go?”

Jessica blinked. “Go where?”

The Oracle of V’Canto stood. “Off to see your future. That’s what you came for?”

She nodded though there was hesitation in her voice as she answered. “Yes.” She paused and touched her stomach again. “My baby’s future.”

“Yes of course,” the old woman said. “Let’s go.”


Sunset cast the sky in shades of pink and red. The high clouds on the horizon became the color of bruises as the light faded, and Jessica drove north out of Fort Bragg.

Beside her, the old woman sat quietly in the passenger seat, and Jessica found herself once more uncertain of this different choice of hers. Learning that she had yet more driving to do, now with this so-called oracle seated beside her, had done little to help the anxiety she worked so hard to keep in check. And the idea of taking more twists and turns on this highway in the dark, after a long day of white-knuckles on the wheel, did little to help.

Still, the woman had insisted that it needed to be this way. At least the drive north had far fewer of the treacherous cliffs she’d faced on her way to Fort Bragg. And after about an hour, the road slanted to the northeast, cutting away from the coast and deeper into the forests.

So Jessica drove on, hope and fear both whispering to her in the silence of the car. It felt like much more time had passed, but just a week ago the girl had suggested Jessica choose something different. Choice seemed very important to whoever these people were and she’d surprised herself at how easily she’d made these choices—coming to California, driving up into the middle of nowhere to find this unusual oracle, and then driving farther into the middle of nowhere to have her future told. Still, she asked herself, was it worth it?

Yes, she thought. If she tells me I will keep this baby.

The old woman startled her when she finally spoke. “There’s a road ahead to the right. Take it.”

Jessica slowed and saw it as she rounded the curve and took the right. It was unmarked, and narrow, the wheel ruts worn deep though it looked largely forgotten. She stopped just as the car left the highway and glanced at the woman. “Here?”

In the dim light of the dashboard lights, the oracle’s face was calm but sober. “Yes. Here.”

Jessica eased the car farther down the road, stopping finally at a rusted metal gate. A sign on the gate warned off trespassers.

“We walk from here,” the old woman said. “It’s not far at all now.”

They climbed from the car and Jessica stood for a moment, hearing nothing but the ticking of the engine as it cooled. She blinked into the dark as her eyes adjusted to it. When the old woman started walking, her stride long and her gait confident, Jessica followed.

The gate was easily circumnavigated on foot; she stayed behind the oracle as she led them deeper into a forest that changed as they walked.

The trees were getting bigger. The trunks were now massive, stretching upward forever, with small pockets of stars sparkling in the gaps of the ceiling their branches formed. They walked for ten minutes until the woman stopped and raised a finger to point left of the road. “Straight on just a bit,” she said. “There’s a stone in a clearing. Lay your hand upon it and ponder a bit.”

Jessica squinted, thinking she could just make out a brighter patch not far from the road. “Ponder a bit?” She heard how dubious she sounded but was past caring.

The oracle nodded. “I’ll wait here.”

She left the road, her feet tentative on the soft loam as she moved into the trees. She felt the fluttering start up again and slowed, resting her hands on her stomach, as she approached a lighter patch of dark.

The small clearing was flat and grassy with a mound at the center that, as she drew closer, proved to be a half-buried stone that stood as high as her waist. Jessica stretched out her hand, and then paused and looked around.

The trees rose up above her like sentinels. The stars cast dirty light that washed the clearing in charcoal. The silence was complete. As she lowered her hand onto the stone, she wondered what to expect.

The black surface was smooth and familiar. She wondered if the stones from the rings she’d seen had been chipped from this source or one like it. Either way, something deep and instinctive in her whispered that this stone was rare. Perhaps something so rare that it did not belong here at all.

But nothing else. No flash of future water breaking or a break-neck race to the hospital, already breathing into her labor. No supernatural sense of calm assurance.

She looked up, her hand solid upon the rock, and realized that suddenly here, beneath these trees, beneath these stars, she didn’t matter anymore. The trees were towering here before she was born and would tower beyond her death. The stars had shone before—some of them gone already before their light reached her eyes—and would shine on after.

She whispered the words, her hand upon the stone. “I don’t matter anymore.”

You matter to me, Mother.

Jessica felt the sob take her shoulders and she stifled a cry, the tears suddenly coursing her cheeks.

Then, she took her hand off the stone, turned around, and walked back into the forest. The old woman stood waiting for her on the road.

“What did you see?” the oracle asked her.

Jessica wiped her eyes. “I saw how small I am.”

“Yes. That is what I thought you might see.”

She looked at the old woman. “I don’t understand what that has to do with my baby.”

She thought she saw the whisper of a smile on the oracle’s face though her eyes held sadness in them. “I know. But you’ll understand very soon. If you choose it.”

If I choose it. “What do you mean?”

“If I told you that your baby would survive—would even do great and amazing things—but that in order for it to happen you would have to give up your life as you know it, would you make that sacrifice?” Jessica opened her mouth to answer but the woman went on. “Would you abandon your friends, your family, everything, to start over in a place set apart and safe, until your boy reached his majority?”

She didn’t give it a second thought. “Of course I would.”

“Say that you would choose it.”

“Yes,” Jessica said. “Yes, I choose it.”

“Then your son will be fine,” the oracle said.

My son. Her hands went to her stomach again. “You can see that?”

The woman chuckled. “Of a sort. But it’s not magic, my dear, at least not my part in it. They’ll explain.”

She opened her mouth to ask who exactly would explain it but then she closed it as the sound of soft footfalls reached her ears. Five cloaked figures approached from farther down the road. Two of them, she noted, held what looked like assault rifles. One walked ahead of the others.

The leader stepped forward, and when he spoke, she recognized his voice from their telephone conversation last week. “Hello Jessica. I’m so glad you made the journey.” He smiled. “How are you feeling?”

She wasn’t sure how to answer. She’d driven to the middle of nowhere with a fortune teller and now stood with a group of armed men dressed as wizards. “I feel . . . small.”

The man smiled. “And yet history will remember you being among the greatest of our species. But the others said the same thing.”

“The others?”

He nodded. “Yes. You’ve come this far. If you can come just a bit farther, you’ll meet them. And get answers to your questions. They’re waiting. And the rest are coming.”

She took another deep breath. She had come this far. Jessica eyed the rifles again. The men who held them were watching the forest around them, not her, and she suspected they were along for their protection. Everything offered so far had been based solely upon her consent. “But it’s my choice? I can leave any time?”

He smiled again. “Of course.”

Jessica swallowed her fear. “Okay.”

Then, as they turned and moved back down the road, she followed them as the forest deepened and darkened around her and carried her deeper into itself.


Jessica sat in the chair and looked at the photographs and open files on the large round mahogany table, disbelief and anger dueling for her attention as she sat across from the man.

He’d identified himself simply as Brother Edmund and in the light of his spacious office, she saw a trim man in his late fifties, his hair short and white, his eyes a penetrating blue. The only jewelry he wore was his ring—this one with a stone slightly larger and a band slightly thicker than the others she’d seen.

They’d walked to the compound and the size of the place had astonished her. It lay within a large walled enclosure, a scattering of enough houses and buildings to make up a smallish town. She’d read a few signs by the light of flickering street lamps—a store, a library, a medical facility. They’d guided her to the center of the compound, a large manor, and then she and Brother Edmund had slipped into his office.

It was a comfortable room with a fireplace crackling in the corner and a few scattered bookcases filled mostly with antique volumes. The desk was large and meticulously tidy, but he’d guided her to a table where a file box awaited.

After she’d sat, he started pulling files from the box and laying them before her.

“Do you recognize this man?” he had asked her.

She’d blinked at the first picture, recognizing him instantly. “That’s Dr. Kasmirsky,” she said. He’d been her doctor since high school.

“Yes,” he’d said. Then, he’d laid another file open and her ex-husband, Tom, had smiled up at her. “And this one?”

“Yes.” She’d felt the fear growing in her again and as more files and more pictures appeared, that fear started twisting into anger. People in her life—friends, co-workers, acquaintances.

When they were all laid open in front of her, Brother Edmund sat back. “I know this will be difficult for you, Jessica, but none of these people have been honest with you about their role in your life.”

Their role in my life. She forced her eyes up from the photographs and the pages of handwritten and typed notes. “And what was that exactly? Their role in my life?”

His words were gentle and she saw sadness in his eyes. “To prevent you from carrying your child to term.”

“I don’t understand.”

Brother Edmund stood. “I know it’s difficult to accept.” He walked to the window. Near it sat two armchairs on either side of a small table, and on the table was a chess set. He picked up two of the pieces and looked at them in his hands. “Your baby is actually very important, Jessica,” he said. “So important that there are organizations and agencies that exist solely to prevent your child—and the others like him—from ever drawing breath.” He walked back to the table where she sat and placed the pieces at the center of it. One piece was white, the other black. His finger lingered over the black piece. “And until now, they’ve been successful. But my group intends to change that.” His eyes met hers again. “We long to change it, Jessica, and the entire world longs for it, too, though they do not know it.”

She’d hoped coming here would bring answers, but each answer added a hundred questions and she wasn’t sure where to start. She saw Tom’s face again there in his file and felt the first twist of betrayal in her heart. “Why would they do this?” The question became more specific. “Why Tom of all people? It was his baby, too.”

Brother Edmund sat. “It was and it wasn’t. But the shortest answer is that once they knew you were a Bearer, they planted appropriate people in your life to maintain control over the situation. Agent Ratchke was assigned to you as a control measure. And I’m sure he discouraged you from future attempts even after the first miscarriage?”

She nodded. They’d fought about it, even. And after the third, he’d encouraged the tubal ligation though she’d resisted it for years after. “He wasn’t very excited about children in the first place,” she said.

“No,” Brother Edmund said. “Particularly this child.”

Something he said earlier struck her. “Once they knew I was a Bearer?”

He smiled. “Yes. Your son is very special.”

Her eyebrows furrowed. “How do you know it’s a boy?”

Brother Edmund shrugged. “How do you know? Because you do, if you’re honest. You’ve known each time.”

Yes. “It just feels right,” she said.

“If you stay, you’ll see for yourself. We have a fully staffed medical clinic. You’re due for a checkup, though I can assure you that without interference, this baby will be born strong and healthy, ready for his work in the world.”

“What work is that?”

Brother Edmund reached out, knocked over the white piece. “Making things right,” he said. He leaned forward, his eyes suddenly glinting with something old and buried in them. “We’ve had lots of time to make them right ourselves, but we are short-sighted primates governed by behaviors once favored by our evolution. The same behaviors are now ushering in our eventual extinction. We increase in our ingenuity, creating bigger and bigger problems to solve. We move through life, all our tangled dreams in disarray, at war with one another and with our very future. It’s time for a different path.”

Jessica felt the flutter again, this time tentative. “What path is that?”

“The one you help pave with your son,” Brother Edmund said. “The Advent of the Thirteen.” He closed his eyes now. “Blessed are the Thirteen to come, and blessed are their Bearers,” he said and she suspected by his tone that he was quoting something sacred to him.

His words connected to earlier words, out on the road in the dark, when he’d told her there were others. “Thirteen?” She looked at the files on the table. “There are twelve others like me?” She waved at the folders. “Just like this?”

“Not just like, but certainly similar. It took us a while to find you all.” He nodded to the white piece. “They found you sooner and did their best to keep you hidden. But they always move first on the board and they don’t play by as many rules.”

The words she’d heard repeatedly over the last week came to mind. Do you choose it? She looked at the folders again, then at the white piece he’d tipped over on the table. “They didn’t offer me any choices.”

“No,” he said. “We have a clear Freedom of Choice Protocol that we operate within.”

“Which means I can still leave?”

“Yes,” he said. “Absolutely. Though it would break my heart, and thousands of others, if you chose that after coming so far and learning all of this.” His face became sober, his eyes hard. “And if you choose that, once you’ve left the protection of this place, they will likely find you. And now that they know not even a tubal ligation can prevent what’s coming, I’m not sure exactly what they would do. They wouldn’t kill you, I know that much. That would start things over again and they’d have to do the work—just like us—of figuring out who the next Bearer might be.”

Jessica glanced at Tom’s smiling face again there in the folder. No, she thought. Agent Radke. “If they have these kinds of resources, I don’t see how you can possibly protect me with a few rifles and a wall.”

“It’s the place that protects you,” he said. “Though we’ll certainly help. But our . . . opponents . . . do not like the old places.” He paused and studied her. “If you choose to stay here, your son will have everything he needs. You will too. And when he reaches his majority, with the others, you’ll watch him change the world and save our species from itself.”

Another question pried at her and it slipped out before she could stop it. “But what if our species doesn’t choose to be saved?”

“The Thirteen will choose for us when they come into their own. Our time for choosing will have run out.” Brother Edmund stood. “But enough of this. You can talk more with me later. Would you like to meet one of the others?”

She nodded and stood, too. “I would.”

He inclined his head. “Then follow me.”


He ushered her into a sitting room where a young woman sat waiting. She was maybe eighteen, her long blond hair tied back into a ponytail. Her pink flannel pajamas and slippers made her look even younger. The girl smiled up at her as they walked in. “Jessica, this is Lisa. She’s been here for about a week now.” He waited until they’d shaken hands and then went back to the door. “I’ll leave you for a bit. I’m just outside if you need me.”

Lisa patted the couch beside her and Jessica sat. The girl’s face glowed. “I’m Ansa’s Bearer,” she said. “We just found out yesterday.”


Lisa touched her stomach and now, Jessica saw the slight bulge there. “My daughter. Seventh of Thirteen.”

“You’ve already named her?”

Lisa laughed. “Oh no. They already have names. We just have to learn which ones are which.”

“How many are here already?”

“Nine not counting you. But the others are on their way. Edna will bring them out to the stone.”


Lisa leaned over. “Sorry. The oracle.” She wrinkled her nose. “Though she’s not really an oracle. She’s a retired actress—and a member of the Thirteen’s L.A. temple—that they brought in to help. She’ll bring the last two later this week and then this Advent will be sealed.” She paused. “As long as they all choose it, too.” Her smile grew. “It’s been over eight thousand years since their last Advent.” She reached over and patted Jessica’s leg. “But you’ll learn all about that in orientation.”

She imagined a comfortable sun room with comfortable chairs and ten women sitting in a circle, sipping tea with Brother Edmund, wearing name tags that read “Hello My Name is ___________, Bearer of ______________” with the names scribbled in with Sharpie pens of multiple colors. The thought of it made her smile and the girl smiled back. “So where are you from, Lisa?”

“Minnesota,” she said. “I’m the youngest. Brother Edmund says they were lucky they found me. Ansa’s last Bearer was killed; she was actually from Scotland.” The look on Jessica’s face must have clued the girl in on just how lost she felt. “It’s a lot to take in,” Lisa said. “But after a few weeks of class, it’ll all make sense to you.” She leaned forward. “But really, at the end of it all, making sense isn’t really all that necessary. At the end of it all, we don’t matter.” The girl touched her stomach. “They do.”

They talked for a bit longer, Jessica asking questions and Lisa answering, until it was clear that the answers continued to multiply more and more questions.

“Another one for orientation,” Jessica finally said after yet another answer that only made sense in a vague and ominous context she could not quite grasp.

Lisa nodded. “But I’m so glad you’re here. I can’t wait to find out which one you bear. One of the boys, I’m told.”

Yes. And despite how crazy, how twisted, it all sounded, something deep in her—down at the very source of that fluttering—assured her that what she heard here in this place was true. A small town had been built for her son and the twelve others who made up this Thirteen, and though she did not understand what they were, they’d been around for a long time and had visited before. The exact details awaited her in orientation, but somehow, they’d been repressed these last eight millennia and the world was now ripe for their return.

“Things need to be made right,” Lisa said. “Badly.”

When Brother Edmund finally returned, Jessica stood and the girl did as well. This time, she and Lisa hugged and the girl repeated herself. “I’m so glad you’re here.”

Then, she left.

Brother Edmund smiled. “I hope you had a good visit. A chance to get some questions answered.”

“I did.”

“You can meet the others in the morning if you’d let me show you to a room.”

My choice again. She looked at the man. “And I can say no?”

Brother Edmund took a deep breath. She could see something in his eyes that looked like fear for just a split second. Then it was gone. “Yes. Of course.” She could tell he wanted to say more but was resisting the urge. Finally, he found words that didn’t compromise him. “But I hope desperately that you choose to stay. If you leave, I’m certain you will lose your son.”

As much as she didn’t want to accept all of this, she suspected he was correct. Still, something about it felt out of sync. Something about Lisa’s youthful enthusiasm frightened her as much as the idea of losing her son did.

And the web of conspiracy and deceit her life had been tangled in, around this deepest and simplest dream of motherhood she’d had for as long as she could remember, enraged her.

“I need to think about it.”

His eyes were hopeful. “We’d be happy to host you while you think. You can meet the others. Maybe attend class with them tomorrow?”

Now I test my freedom to choose. “I’d be more comfortable thinking in my motel room.”

She watched Brother Edmund bank the hope in his eyes and nod curtly. “As you wish. I’ll have my men escort you back to your car.”

Jessica Riley extended her hand, and after the slightest hesitation, he shook it. “Thank you for keeping your promise, Brother Edmund.”


They moved along the overgrown road in silence, the two cloaked men with their assault rifles held loosely as they moved ahead of her. Red-tinted flashlights helped her navigate in the dark, and when they reached the place where the oracle—Edna—had sent her off the road to find the stone, Jessica felt a stronger flutter than she’d felt before.

She stopped and the others stopped, too.

She tried to take a step forward and the fluttering increased. It settled when she turned toward the direction of the distant clearing. She turned back to the men. “I need to visit the stone again.”

They nodded and she slipped off the road, slowly understanding just what—who, actually—compelled her forward.

She reached the clearing and its stone, and stood at the edge of it. She’d made this trip to see the future, and after a fashion she’d seen two—one where she stayed in this place with her son and one where she left this place, and left that dream behind. Either way, she was a piece in an ancient game that went back and forth between sides she still didn’t fully comprehend, though one side desperately yearned for her to bear this son and the other would do nearly anything to prevent it.

Staying made all the sense in the world. She suspected that was why the others had chosen it. And the two remaining, she thought, would choose it, too.

But something about it felt wrong to her.

What happened when humanity’s time to choose ran out and the Thirteen were choosing on their behalf? It’s a murky future at best, she thought.

Not so murky at all, her son whispered. I can show you, Mother.

She felt him move again and let her feet carry her the rest of the way. She stood before the stone and laid one hand upon it while placing the other on her stomach.

Show me.

The stone was electric now, sending a shudder through her that rocked Jessica on her feet even as she gasped. She saw him then, tiny and brand new in her waiting arms. His dark skin was slick with her blood and his brown eyes were wide but he did not cry.

I am called Tamyr, those eyes told her and then suddenly he was older—maybe six—running across a soccer field chased by other boys and girls in matching team uniforms as he kicked the ball.

Next, he was older—maybe thirteen—and fighting with some kind of heavy stick. There were four men, fully grown and armed with blades, who had him surrounded and she watched him disarm them all, one by one.

The images flashed before her eyes and she felt herself swelling with pride at all that her son—Tamyr—was capable of.

They have their own future to prepare me for. Now she saw all thirteen of them, standing together, all wearing dark uniforms, and watched them lift up into the air together to scatter and fly their separate directions.

She saw them sent out into the world and from that sending, she saw rivers of blood that filled an ocean. She saw cities burning and highways abandoned along with the cars that once roamed them freely. She saw the flags of a hundred nations burned while their leaders—elected or not—were forced to watch before their execution. She saw the same happen with the scriptures of a hundred faiths, their clerics also forced to watch, faces streaked with ash as they wept before being tossed upon the fires themselves.

She saw the Thirteen subdue humanity beneath their booted feet. And after that, she saw peace on Earth, imposed by their will. And an Earth that, because of their Advent, slowly healed itself from the parasite her species had become.

“Blessed be the Thirteen,” she heard Brother Edmund’s voice whisper. “And blessed be the Bearers.”

She took her hand off the stone, her stomach aching from what she’d seen. She closed her eyes against the vertigo that seized her. “You can be more than this, Tamyr.”

How can be I more than what I am made for, Mother?

She opened her eyes. Overhead, the stars seemed brighter than they’d been earlier, their light softening the darkness around her. You could choose it, she willed. We could choose it. Though she didn’t know how. And she didn’t know where.

What had V’Canto said? I can always find more things to choose than the choices presented to me. Perhaps that kindly old man with the familiar smile was the true oracle.

She looked around herself at the ancient redwoods. This old place, Edmund had said, offered her protection by the strange rules of their game. Surely there were other old places where she could hide. She had her boss’s credit card still. A phone call home with a made-up emergency would get her access to its PIN and the cash she’d need for the first leg of her journey.

She’d figure out the rest as she went. And try to raise her son outside their cruel and brutal rules. It was not a choice she had expected—or a life she’d ever imagined. But it would be hers. And her son’s.

What had Brother Edmund said about humanity’s failings?

All our tangled dreams in disarray.

This particular dream, Jessica Riley thought as she walked back to the road and to the car that awaited her, was one that she would spend herself utterly to untangle.

It was, she realized, an easy choice to make.

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