“We’re running out of time. You gotta help me, Hallie.”
Gary has me cornered in my kitchen, his eyes wild. For the first time since I can remember, Gary isn’t drunk. This concerns me more than anything else at the moment.
“Help you how?” I step backwards so I’m closer to my knife rack. Just in case he gets closer. I don’t like to be touched.
“Everyone expects me to fix the world.” He sits heavily in one of my kitchen chairs, his stupid starred jacket catching on the rattan. “I don’t know what to do!”
I cock my eyebrow and pick up a cleaver as quietly as possible. “But you fulfilled the prophecy’s guidelines.”
We all knew the prophecy, after all: “The world will be led from darkness by the one who splits the stars.”
The words were whispered over each newborn baby during their first swaddle since the eruption, but no one really knew what they meant. How does one split the stars anyway? And how can you split the stars when you can’t even see them since the volcanic ash refuses to settle?
Only a few days ago, Gary was drunk, like he often was, and enjoying a game of his own creation called “Throw the Knife at the Barmaid.” This was his favorite game, and, not surprisingly, Kate the barmaid’s least favorite. She was particularly adroit, though, so Gary never actually won.
Kate stood, back turned to Gary, on this particular occasion, taking the order of one of the regulars. Given the importance of the next event, it surprises me that I can’t quite recall who she was talking to. It doesn’t really matter, I suppose. But Gary grinned his sloppy drunken grin and hurled his knife at her back.
It spun through the air in slow-motion, carved wooden handle over deadly steel, and right before the blade found a home in Kate’s flesh, she turned.
And Gary missed.
The knife hit the wall with a dull thud right in the middle of two painted stars. Noise at the bar hushed instantly, partly because we were pretty sure he’d hit Kate this time. It took us that quiet moment to realize what had happened.
Mayor O’Flannery was the first to address the feat. I’m being generous when I say he walked to the knife in the wall to investigate because it was really more of a wobble brought on by drink and probably gout. But he eyed that knife closely for a solid minute before turning to all of us.
“That totally counts!” he roared, throwing his arms in the air in a weird victory stance.
There were cheers, of course, but mostly there was confusion because of all the people in the world who could possibly be the Chosen One, the prophecy had identified Gary. This did not engender much faith in the will of the gods.
There are many preconceived notions of what a Chosen One should be like. Brave, bold, adventurous, handsome, talented... Gary was none of those things.
And all this led to another major consideration: how does a person go about leading the world from darkness? Especially Gary, who had not recognized his new reality as the Chosen One yet and was already halfway through yet another pint.
I excused myself from the tavern and stepped outside, slipping on a breathing mask. With a tiny ray of hope, I looked up at the sky. Perhaps Gary has already led us from darkness without even trying.
But no. The ash still blotted out the sun and stars and anything that could remind us a whole universe existed beyond this planet. Nothing had grown in years, and so many people were dead or dying now. If nothing changed, everyone would be dead. And the gods gave us Gary.
The following day, Mayor O’Flannery held a parade in Gary’s honor. The cheering of the crowds made Gary grimace, presumably because of his massive hangover. Someone had the bright idea to give him a sword because apparently all Chosen Ones have to be knights or medieval heroes or what have you. I guess they figured he could handle a sword as well as a knife, but you better believe Kate was unimpressed. Gary was wearing a hastily sewn jacket depicting the two stars from the tavern wall. Betsy the seamstress must have been up all night making it.
On second look, maybe she spent about 20 minutes.
The streetlights were all on, a huge waste of electricity if you ask me, just to celebrate, you know, Gary. Maybe I should have been more excited, but I’d known him too long to realistically see him as anything other than a drunken idiot who likes to play with stabbies. Maybe he could stab the volcano to death, I thought bitterly. Maybe he could play “Throw the Knife at the Ash Clouds” and win.
I shake off the memory, and Gary is just inches away from my face, his hand reaching out for mine. I recoil away.
“That prophecy was written by a ten-year-old for a school assignment,” he hisses, new tears streaming down his face and bubbling in his breath.
“I... I didn’t know that.”
“Did you know,” Gary says, licking his lips, “that I’m Chosen One number 16?”
I did not.
“Yeah, Hallie. 16. There have been 15 others before me, and they all failed. All of them. And do you know what happened to them when they failed?”
His eyes narrow dangerously, and Gary doesn’t wait for me to answer. “They were murdered and forgotten! And it’s only a matter of time before that happens to me.”
I put the cleaver down, my stomach queasy with this new information. “What do you want me to do about it?”
Gary stands up and begins to pace. “We need to find a new Chosen One before everyone realizes I can’t clear the skies. I don’t want to die, Hallie.”
“Okay, fine. Then how do we go about finding a new Chosen One?”
“Not sure. Maybe we can set up some circumstance where it happens accidentally, like it did with me.”
“Sounds tough. You could run,” I suggest.
He shakes his head. “No. Mayor O’Flannery knows where I am all the time now.”
“Even here?” I reach to draw back the curtains, and Gary grabs my arm.
And I punch him right in the face. I know, I know, it’s an overreaction, but I don’t like being touched.
“Ow!” Gary screeches and covers his freshly broken nose with his shaking hands. Blood drips onto his jacket, and I know Betsy will be annoyed when she has to make a new one. A Chosen One must have unbloodied clothing, after all.
Mayor O’Flannery bursts into my kitchen, proving Gary’s paranoia true. “Hallie’s attacking the Chosen One!” he cries out, summoning my neighbors and whoever else happens to be nearby.
Gary turns his feral gaze back at me, and I see the spark of something else in his eyes. Before I can identify it, Gary lunges at me.
Now he’s punching at me, and I’m punching at him, and it probably looks very silly from a bystander perspective. But then his hands are around my neck.
And then my hands are at his collar.
And somehow, I start to rip downwards and those stars on his new jacket
Gary immediately retreats with his hands in the air. Several of my neighbors have joined the Mayor in my kitchen to witness our ridiculous brawl, and they’re all gaping silently at me.
And then I realize what I saw in Gary’s eyes. Calculation.
The Mayor inspects Gary’s torn jacket for a moment. “That totally counts!” he roars, again throwing his arms in the air in his weird victory stance.
And now I’m Chosen One 17, and I have no idea how to clear the skies.