Maybe True, Mostly Metaphor Part XX
Reader, do you ever find yourself working towards one goal, only to realize–after you’re nearly done–that the work was in vain?
It can be hard to accept at first. So hard, in fact, that some people will fight and argue and look for other ways to justify their work–to stay relevant. They can’t bear the thought that their investment in time, effort, and passion served no true purpose. Can you really blame them, though? If there’s anything we all have in common, it’s the need for purpose. To know we’re doing something worth doing. After all, time isn’t something we can get back. Once it’s spent on a task, it’s gone.
A purpose is like a horizon line. When you can see it, your perspective shifts around it and everything falls into place, even if you don’t consciously notice it. Up is up and down is down. You look at a painting or a photograph and your mind adjusts your frame of reference to fit what you see. The picture makes sense.
Now, a picture without a horizon, without a clear perspective, leaves you feeling lost and unsure of what’s happening. Things feel disjointed. Even worse is when a perspective shifts while you look. You know the artwork I’m talking about, reader. Where you see things one way until suddenly…you don’t. You tilt your head or look a little closer and realize your perspective was off. You start off feeling confused or betrayed but your mind re-adjusts to the new reality. Maybe you even learn to see that artwork from both perspectives simultaneously.
If only new perspectives were so easy to acquire in one’s life as they are when looking at a picture.
“Well, they weren’t there in the building if that’s what you’re wondering,” Laurents’ voice cut clearly through the light breeze that pushed us southward in the Candlewind, away from Cambodia.
“Come to think of it, we haven’t found anyone in any of the buildings we’ve been in so far,” Elise hugged herself against the breeze despite the warm weather.
We were discussing what I found in the papers that spilled from Elise’s bag as we sped away from Phnom Penh. Photos of Moog and Sondra in Seattle.
“We were going to tell you,” Laurents added, “but we didn’t want you finding out by looking at the recordings we were taking. So when we found the documents, we paused and gathered up what we could and were going to tell you after we got away.”
“Sure, that’s fine,” the fact that they hadn’t immediately told me wasn’t what was bothering me, “but what does it mean? Do they have Moog and Sondra? They don’t have anything to do with this. We were all just-” my throat choked on the word, “friends.”
“It doesn’t matter what you were. These guys thought you were a mole, so they must have assumed your friends were, too.” he concluded. “We’ll keep an eye out for more information about them from here on out, but there’s something we need to think about first-” He paused as the burner of our home in the sky came to life, spitting violent yellow fire to keep us aloft. We’d been traveling like this for some time now, but it never ceased to startle us.
It cut out as abruptly as it came, and the temperature in the basket dropped a few degrees, adding weight to what Laurents said next, “What should we do if we actually find them in one of the sites we sneak into?” He looked to me and, finding the blank and confused face that had become my default since looking back, turned to Elise. She was silent as well, though, seemingly lost in thought and looking at neither of us.
He continued, “We’ve gone back and forth on this several times now. First,” he held out a finger, “the plan was to break into each of these places and shut them down for good. But then,” another finger “we changed our minds after Wuxi, deciding to play it safe and just gather evidence until we have enough to take to the authorities.”
“Or until we find Alice,” Elise added, coming back to us for a moment.
“We need to talk about her in this too, actually, because we never settled on what to do once we found her.” He counted a third finger, “Do we continue to play it safe and add it to our pile of evidence? Or do we get more aggresi-“
“We’re not leaving her if we find her,” Elise shook her head.
“Okay,” there was caution in Laurents’ voice, but he continued, “do we follow that same rule with,” he looked at me, “what did you say their names were? Moog and Sondra?”
Before I could respond, Elise came fully back from whatever inner mental gears were turning in her head. “It actually doesn’t matter what we decide. We won’t find them, or anyone, at the list of places Alice sent us. We’ll only find them if we go all the way back to the source.”
Laurents still had his three fingers out, too shocked by what Elise said to move, “What do you mean?”
“I think they’re on to us,” her voice fell half and octave, “and I think they’re feeding us useless information at each of these places we’re going.”
“Like a wild goose chase?” I asked.
“I’m not sure the reason. Maybe they’re trying to keep us away from something else. Maybe they’re buying time or hoping we run out of leads and give up.”
“Okay,” Laurents paused a beat to take a breath, “What makes you think that, Pia?”
She looked past us towards the thin horizon, flat surface of the ocean perfectly mirroring the cloudless sky. Collecting her thoughts, she refocused on Laurents’ with laser focus.
“They know we escaped from Wuxi with the Candlewind. I’m sure they guessed that our next step would be to sneak out of China, which we did. Alice sent us a list of cities, so our next logical step would be go to each city find out what’s happening at each place. If they were looking for us, it wouldn’t be hard to find us. They only have so many facilities and they know were using the Candlewind to travel. There’s only so many places we could go. They should have been ready and waiting for us.
“Instead, what do we find? One or two people at each place and barely any activity. We find buildings full of documents, but hardly anything else. Have you had any time to look at the stuff we’re collecting, Laurents?”
He shrugged, “Not deeply, we’ve been moving around too quickly.”
“I’m betting that it won’t amount to much. I think they’re purposely leaving us with low hanging fruit to keep us occupied. Plus, there’s the fact that we haven’t found anyone at all. This is a human trafficking ring, right? Where are all the people?”
She paused to catch her breath, “I think they knew were were coming and moved out, leaving just enough material to keep us from realizing they knew it. Heck, maybe they even know what Alice has been sending you,” she looked at me. “If we were able to figure out the messages, maybe they’ve seen and deciphered them as well. In fact, all we’ve received is text messages…maybe they weren’t coming from Alice at all. Maybe they picked up on what she was doing from the very get go and took advantage of it.”
“These are a lot of assumptions, Pia.”
“It’s all we have to go on, Laurents. This isn’t some thriller novel where we can turn to the next chapter and read things from the bad guys’ perspective. Something’s off,” she looked at me, “And now we conveniently find pictures of your friends? That’s too easy. They overplayed their hand. I think they’re drawing us in, they want us to keep going to all these cities. Adding Moog and Sondra to the problem is just them trying to pull you in, give you emotionally driven tunnel-vision until you can’t concentrate on the bigger picture.”
“Fair points.” Laurents gave a barely audible sigh, “If we follow your theory, then what’s our next move?” Laurents’ cold patience is legendary, reader. He and Elise always seemed to be at odds with each other, but he never became irritated. Not once. He was like a professor, calmly guiding students through their unfiltered thoughts until they came to the epiphany he was waiting for all along. Whenever we disagreed with him, he’d just revert to professor mode. What a strange, detached, robot he was.
For me, though, Elise’s revelations left me feeling lost. Not because her explanation was complicated, but because I couldn’t grasp the new reality of what we’d been doing this whole time since leaving China. It felt like the earth was coming out from under me and I had nothing to make sense of.
True to form, Laurents waited patiently for Elise to work out her conclusion, “I say we skip to the end of the list. They’re pulling us along for a reason, let’s cut the games and find out why.”
Laurents pulled out the notebook where he’d written down all of Alice’s messages and, careful not to let the pages blow away in the breeze, he found the one where he deciphered her list of cities:
“La Paz.” Elise gave a confident smile.
“La Paz.” Laurents’ ever neutral tone was less confident.
“La Paz.” I said, pretending to know where that even was.
We spent the next few hours planning out our new route. La Paz–which is in Bolivia, by the way–was obviously not a direct flight. If we went westward, there would be more land, more places where we could stop to rest, but the flight would be long. Incredibly long. East was faster, but would involve nothing but open ocean for nearly all of it, and despite the fact that we had been traveling via the Candlewind for several weeks now, none of us were overly confident in our piloting skills. In fact, I was the most familiar with how she flew since I made it from Seattle to China on my own. But that’s not so much a testament to my skill as an insult to how little Elise and Laurents knew about how to fly.
None of us felt we had the endurance to cross the Pacific, so we settled on going west. I had vague memories of the book Sondra had told me to read when we first met. That felt so long ago.
Two thirds of the way through the night, Elise woke me up. Such had been our schedule since we started traveling together. We broke up the night into thirds and took turns keeping watch while the other two slept on the floor. In Elise’s case, she was small enough to fit inside one of the hidden compartments built into the large basket. Laurents and I were too big so we always slept in the open air. That was when the nature of the Candlewind truly dawned on me. There were three compartments like the one Elise slept in, too small for an adult male, but just big enough for a young woman or smaller. I tried not to think about it.
Tonight, I had the third shift. It wasn’t hard for her to wake me up. I hardly slept since realizing Moog and Sondra were in danger on account of me. I left Seattle thinking I made a change for the better, that I took control over the impact of my actions. In reality, it was Omaha all over again.
Elise huddled down to sleep while I sulked and took in our surroundings. It was a cloudless night and the balloon drifted noiselessly. A small wind-vane attached high up on the frame pointed out the wind direction. I compared it to our compass to make sure we were going the right way.
The wind-vane was an addition Moog made when we repaired everything way back when. It wasn’t much, just an arrow big enough to catch the breeze and pivot. On the front, right on the arrowhead, was a crudely painted red smear with a thin black line spiraling behind. A lost balloon. The original purpose for this whole misguided adventure. I hadn’t thought about it in a while. I idly wondered where it might be now, if it would still be out there waiting for me once all this mess with Alice and Laurents and criminal darkness was over. What about Elise? What would we all do when this was done? The end felt so far away that I never considered there might be an “after”. I was sure she had better plans for her life after this than following me around the world looking for a lost childhood…toy? How do you even classify a balloon?
The roar of the Candlewind‘s burner brought me back to reality. I don’t know how any of us managed to sleep with it kicking to life like that. Some nights we were just too tired to care, I guess.
I looked out ahead of us, halfheartedly searching for my balloon like I did those nights when my trip first started by motorcycle. As I gazed at the emptiness ahead, the flame cut out and my eyes began adjusting to the returning darkness. One by one, stars began popping into my view. First the Big Dipper, then Orion, then dozens more. Then the Milky Way, brighter than I’d ever seen it from land, faded into clear focus right before my eyes.
And then below me, not stars–at least not at first–but ships dotting the ocean with their beacons. Then, fainter, the reflection of the actual stars off the water. All around me was a perfect sphere full of glittering lights. Finally, the ocean itself seemed to come alive, glowing with the soft reflection of a galaxy stretching directly overhead and across the entire sky, touching the water at both ends as though I were passing under a celestial rainbow. The lights were so perfectly scattered in every direction that I soon couldn’t tell where the water ended and the sky began.
And then the horizon vanished.
Check back in two more weeks (give or take a week…) for more!