After a two week hiatus, Flickering Lights has returned!!!
If you’ve missed any installments, hop over to the Flickering Lights page to get caught up. Otherwise, here is Flickering Lights 6: Kindle.
Marcus shook his head. “I’m not going to a highlight.”
Penelope snorted. “Yeah, Hermes. When was the last time you were in a highlight?”
Marcus and Penelope sat opposite of Hermes in a booth on the second rail bound for Kindle.
“Keaton and I went to a couple highlights back in Chryseis.” Hermes’s eyes were unusually bright as he lounged with a smile.
Penelope raised an eyebrow. “And have you heard about what happens in Kindle?”
“I’ve heard it’s a dark place.”
Penelope snorted again. “Yeah. That’s because it is. It’s the darkest of the three cities.”
“All the more reason to go to at least one of the highlights in Kindle.” Hermes smiled.
Marcus glanced from Hermes to Penelope who was drooping in her seat. Her light faded as one hand curled into a fist and the other ran through her hair.
“Didn’t you say you have relatives in Kindle, Penelope?” Hermes sipped his water, watching Penelope over the rim of his cup.
“Yep.” Penelope pulled her nocturnals off and rubbed her eyes. “Unfortunately, I did.”
“Perfect! We’ll go to their highlight.”
Penelope let out a huff and collapsed on the table. “Someone shoot me now.”
Marcus cocked his head at her. “Do you not like your relatives?”
“It’s not that I don’t like them as much as it is a… mutual distaste sort of thing.”
“Are they beacons?” Hermes toyed with his cup.
Penelope groaned. “Can we not talk about this right now?” She peered out from under her hair at them, over the edge of her nocturnals, and her eyes looked tired.
Hermes set his empty cup on the table and shrugged. “What would you like to talk about?”
“I don’t know.”
“Marcus.” Hermes turned his sights from Penelope to Marcus. “You should come with us to Penelope’s highlight.”
“It is so not my highlight,” Penelope growled from her arms.
Hermes raised his eyebrows but otherwise ignored her.
“I’m not going.” Marcus rubbed his head around the still tender bruising on his skull.
“Because I don’t like highlights.”
Hermes blinked. “Why don’t you like highlights?”
“What are you? Three?” Penelope rested her chin on the table. “Everything is the why behind the why behind the why with you.”
“So I wasn’t the only one feeling like that?” Marcus asked.
“I’m just curious.” Hermes wasn’t even a little sheepish.
Marcus glanced at Penelope and decided he liked it when she was on his side. Poor Hermes. He was just trying to help in his own beacon way. Marcus sighed. “Well, I went to a highlight once, and it was completely underwhelming. Everyone was cold and rude. The guy who did most of the talking was the dimmest one in the place.”
Hermes stroked his chin for a moment and looked out their window. “Why don’t you want to go to a highlight, Penelope?”
She let out a sigh that dragged on for almost half a minute before pushing herself up from the table. “Same reason as Marcus. Most highlights do more damage than they do good. And Kindle is a pit. Like a pit.”
“You’ll see what I mean when we get there, Hermes.” She shoved some of her hair out of her face.
The rest of the trip passed with a growing sense of dread emanating from Penelope and growing peace radiating from Hermes. When a voice called over the coms to prepare to disembark, they gathered their things. Penelope pulled the hat low over her ears and motioned for them to go first.
“Aren’t you going to lead the way?” Marcus asked. “You know the most about Kindle anyway.”
“Nope. I don’t want to go first into a teeming mass of the darkest people on Murk.”
“Penelope. It isn’t us versus them. It can never be us versus them. We have to love them despite their darkness, the same way El Roi loves us.” Hermes had an odd way of sounding like he was scolding and encouraging Penelope at the same time. She didn’t respond but hooked her thumbs in the straps of her backpack.
“I’ll go first.” Marcus held Winston up and followed the people shuffling towards the nearest exit.
Hermes was whispering something to Penelope, but Marcus couldn’t hear what he was saying. When they came to the doors, Marcus paused. It was darker than Chryseis. Sure, darkfish illuminated Kindle as much as darkfish can, but something was missing. The light seemed hollower than normal.
“Keep it moving, Marcus,” Penelope muttered, suddenly right behind him. “We don’t want to get trampled by the masses.”
“I don’t even know where to go, Penelope.”
“Yeah.” She came up beside him. “That would be a problem. I’ll take the lead, and we’ll go to a hotel. At least it’ll make the guiding light happy.”
She made a face before putting her nocturnals on and stepping out of the car. He followed her down, and the icy air of Kindle snaked its way down the back of his jacket. Penelope wound her way through the crowd, stepping lightly between groups of people until suddenly she was gone.
Marcus stopped short, and Hermes collided with him. “I can’t see her.” Marcus’s heart rate sped up. “I lost her.” He stood on his tiptoes, craning his neck.
Hermes scooted around Marcus and shoved his hood back. White light spilled out. “Do you think she did this on purpose?”
Marcus shook his head. “No.” Not when she finds the “guiding light” so appealing. “She wouldn’t leave us.”
“Who left who, snails?” Penelope was back, elbowing her way between them. “You two need to keep up.”
“Where did you go?” Marcus relaxed.
Penelope cocked her head and lines appeared in the corners of her nocturnals, as if her eyes were narrowed. “I was heading to a hotel, and you two twerps fell way behind.”
Hermes shrugged. “We’ll keep up this time.”
The lines by Penelope’s eyes deepened. “Hold on to the back of my jacket, Marcus. Hermes, hold on to the Marcus’s jacket.” Marcus gripped the hem of her jacket, and Hermes shrugged again before taking hold of Marcus’s jacket. Penelope glanced back at them before starting off again. “It’s like we’re children,” she muttered.
She dragged them through the streets of Kindle. It looked like Chryseis. The jagged skyline cutting through the air, the streets full of people jostling to get somewhere. But here the people huddled in groups, chatting about the latest news. Unlike Chryseis, Kindle was a social place. Ah, people. Marcus’s nose wrinkled. He tightened his grip on Winston’s aqua-lantern as Penelope pulled them through another knot of people and into a hustle street.
In the buildings that lined the hustle street, men and women posed provocatively for the people passing by. Some people went into the buildings, rolling up the sleeves of their coats to expose their wrists, ready to pay. Others stared and made crude remarks.
Hermes cleared his throat. Marcus looked back at him, and the first time, he saw the beacon’s light dull. Hermes’s eyes darted around, flitting from window to window, as panic overtook his features.
Marcus jerked Penelope. “Penelope!”
“What?” Penelope glanced back and paled.
“I have to get out of here.” Hermes stared at Marcus. “Penelope, take us another way to the hotel.”
“What’s going on?” Marcus looked from one beacon to the other.
“We’ll explain later!” Penelope adjusted her nocturnals. “I can’t go another way, Hermes!”
Hermes blinked. “Chryseis has only a few hustle streets. We can, we need, to go another way.”
“Hermes. This is Kindle. These streets are everywhere, believe me, I know.” Penelope shifted on her feet.
Hermes’s eyes narrowed, and his gaze moved from Marcus’s face to Penelope’s.
“Oh, darkwater, no!” She threw up her hands. “Not that I’ve bought or sold anything on a hustle street! I can practically see the little concerned gears turning in your head, Hermes! I know because my dad went to hustle streets all the time, and it was my job to go find him when he went missing for hours on end.” Her hands fisted.
Oh. Marcus shuffled back a step in case she went violent.
“I’m sorry, Penelope.” Hermes stared at his boots.
Then she sagged and rubbed her face. “Me too. Um. I don’t know what to do.”
“I need to get away from here.” Hermes’s voice was ragged.
“Right.” Penelope ripped the hat off her head and yanked it onto Hermes’s. She pulled it so low that it covered his eyes. “Hopefully, that helps.” She glanced around again and took Hermes’s hand. “I’ll lead you out, okay?”
Penelope turned to Marcus. “Keep close, Marcus.” She started leading Hermes by the hand.
Marcus sighed and followed. He had stumbled into a Chryseis hustle street by accident once, and while he wasn’t one to pay for the favors that hustle streets offered, he hadn’t freaked out like Hermes had. “Beacons can be so weird,” he whispered to Winston as he followed Penelope.
“Watch your step, Hermes.” Penelope skirted a puddle.
Hermes stumbled after her. She moved fast, and Marcus was out of breath as he tried to keep up with her. The minutes slogged by until they came to the end of the street and rounded a corner. Penelope gave one last backward glance before dropping Hermes’s hand. “You’re good now. I think that’s the only one we’ll have to go through to get to the hotel.”
Hermes peeled the hat off and handed it back to Penelope. He still stared at the ground.
“Hey.” Penelope shoved her hands in her pockets. “You okay?”
“Yep!” Hermes looked up, rocking back on his feet. “I’m fine.”
Penelope raised an eyebrow. “Well, let’s go. We’re almost there.”
Marcus rasped and he held up a hand. “Just a sec. I have to get some oxygen. Anybody else want some?”
Hermes nodded, and Penelope shrugged.
Marcus pulled the oxygen tank out of his pack and took three breaths before handing it to Hermes. After Hermes gulped down some oxygen, he held the tank out to Penelope. She took it and eyed them. “You guys don’t have any kinds of diseases, do you?”
“What?” Marcus blinked. “Even if we did, that didn’t bother you back in the murklands.”
“Yeah, well. I was suffering from hysteria.” She sniffed and popped the respirator into her mouth. She inhaled once and handed the tank back to Marcus. “Okay, let’s go.”
A few more city blocks, and they arrived at the hotel. It was several stories tall with darkfish lighting the ground floor. Marcus followed Hermes who seemed to know what to do at a hotel.
“Two adjoining rooms, please,” Hermes told the receptionist. “And please set the atmospheric levels of both rooms to 12% oxygen.” Marcus raised an eyebrow and glanced at Penelope who shrugged. 12% oxygen was pretty high. Marcus usually kept his pod at about 6%.
Hermes swiped his wrist across a pad and then led the way to their rooms. There was no spring in his step. There was no chatter. There was no teasing as they took the lift up a few levels. It was as if his life and joy had been consumed the way a flame devours oxygen.
Finally, they arrived at their rooms. Hermes and Marcus shared a pod while Penelope had one all to herself. Hermes paused in the hall outside their room. “I’m heading to bed now.”
Marcus nodded. “Okay, I’ll be there in a bit.”
Hermes gave a tired smile and slipped into their room. Marcus turned to find Penelope creeping away to her room. “Hey!” He grabbed her arm. “What in the deeps was that?”
She sighed. “It’s complicated, Marcus.”
“Then make it simple so that I understand because I won’t let you rest until you tell me what in the deeps happened back on that hustle street.”
She sighed again. “When a beacon does something that El Roi has said is wrong, their light dims.”
“But Hermes didn’t do anything!”
Penelope jerked her arm out of his grasp. “It’s more complicated than that. So, uh, why do you think a beacon’s light dims?”
“You just told me why a beacon’s light dims!”
“Yeah!” Penelope ran a hand through her hair. “But give me specifics.”
“I don’t know. I guess when beacons are rude. Or maybe when they cheat on reports. Or maybe when they lie—I don’t know!”
“You’re on the right track. El Roi, well, He’s laid out ground rules, He’s given commands to us beacons. Our light dims when we’re rude because He’s commanded us to be kind. Our light dims when we cheat on something or lie because He has said that we’re to be honest and that truth is precious.”
She let out a whoosh of air and pulled her nocturnals off. “See, we’re supposed to reflect Him. When we disobey His commands, we not only give the world the wrong impression of Him, but we also betray Him.”
“You’re not making much sense.”
She let out a squeal of frustration. “I’m really a terrible person to be explaining this to you! I’ve got my own slew of issues!” She closed her eyes and took a breath. “Okay, so that hustle street back there. El Roi has certain parameters for… that–what they sell there.” It was hard to tell, but it looked like she blushed. “Anything besides what He has commanded about that is lust, and from what I understand, lust is wanting something that El Roi has forbidden.”
Marcus squinted and pulled his own nocturnals off. “I still don’t get it.”
She drooped. “Okay. So, um, let me think for a sec.”
Marcus waited. She ran her fingers through her hair again and started mangling the hat. After several seconds of silence, she started up again. “Part of what makes being a bright beacon so hard is that what’s inside our heads and our hearts influences our light. It’s not just the things we do. It’s the things that we think and feel. Does that make sense?”
Marcus thought for a minute. “Kind of…?”
“You don’t seem convinced.”
“It just doesn’t seem all that solid to me. Like how is your light supposed to know if you’re following El Roi’s orders?”
“No, no. The light is El Roi. The more we’re like Him, the more our light shines. The less we’re like Him, the dimmer our light is. And El Roi sees everything. Everything. He’s sees not only what you do but why you do it. He sees your heart. He sees your pain.” Penelope leaned against the wall. “He sees the darkest parts of me that even I don’t like. He sees what makes me happy. He sees what tears me down. He sees and understands me on such an intimate level that it is like nothing I have ever experienced.”
She smiled and then sighed. “Being a beacon is a pain. You have to be really serious about it, about El Roi, to be anywhere close to as bright as Hermes is… Please tell me that you understand what I mean.”
Marcus shifted on his feet. “Yeah, I think so.”
“Just talk to Hermes about it.” She seemed tired. “He can probably explain it better than I can. Now, I just want to go to bed.” She patted his shoulder before disappearing into her room. Marcus slipped into the room he shared with Hermes. He hung Winston on a peg and closed the blinds on the aqua-lantern. “At least you’re not difficult to understand, Winston.” He kept his boots on as he laid down.
El Roi. Things didn’t sit right about Him. He could not possibly be everything Hermes, and now Penelope, made Him out to be. Marcus’s questions roiled within him like lightning getting ready to strike. Where to even begin?
One thing he knew for certain: Hermes was not going to drag him to a highlight.
You can read the next installment, Flickering Lights 7: A Stone and a Hurricane, here.
What do you think of Kindle? Personally, I prefer Chryseis….
And who’s your favorite character at this point? — Marcus, Penelope, Hermes, or Winston?
Which character is most intriguing to you? Mysterious Hermes? Biting-but-kind-of-endearing Penelope? Marcus with his suicidal siblings? Typical Winston?