The bitter splash of beer across Riyad Shihar’s tongue did little to satisfy anything more than his thirst. He tipped the bottle back, let the last of its contents dribble out of the brown glass, and then chucked it into the trash bin. It chimed against the other empties inside, another drink to the end of the world: may it come later than he feared.
In his customary seat at the head of the kitchen table, Ath’ran sat with his lips curled around the mouth of his own bottle, still dressed in his office attire, though his tie and collar were loose around his neck. No matter how many times Riyad saw his friend dressed that way, it was still otherworldly. He missed the hooded sweatshirts and T-shirts with the collars cut out. Even Ath’ran’s long braid seemed more controlled and carefully pleated than the loosely woven rope from his days with the Protectors of Antiquity.
As alien as the sight was, it was somewhat comforting to see the cool, collected side of life when things felt they were about to unravel at home. The fact that Ath’ran knew the present danger and could still sit patiently was the part that wore on Riyad’s nerves.
“We’re putting ourselves on the line for this and we don’t even know if the danger is real. And if it is, we have no idea what good we can do against it. He just... He walks in, takes it all over, and the best he can do is smile and make vague statements that never answer the questions.” Riyad raked his fingers through his hair, elbows propped on Kimberly’s purple, plastic placemat. “Nyr could to go to jail for this--hell, we could all go to jail. People could die. Caine could be some sort of false prophet. And that’s practically a best case scenario. Worst case is the world ends and it doesn’t matter anymore.”
Ath’ran pulled another bottle of beer from his fridge and popped the top off, passing it over as it foamed. “You always were the one asking why a constant was what it was. How did you ever manage to pass physics?”
“Jennifer Hyde. Great penmanship. Tiny feet. What the hell does that have to do with this?”
“It has to do with trusting that the people who decided on these things long ago knew what they were doing. Whether it’s the Rydberg constant or the Shards, sometimes you have to accept that something just is what it is.”
Riyad wrinkled his nose at the aged wisdom and turned his attention to his bottle. This was one night when he wouldn’t mind getting sloppy drunk and sleeping on the Mukshah couch.
“It’s really hard to put everything into something based on conjecture and stories. Alan says everything happens for a reason, but he can bring people back from the dead. If a person isn’t supposed to be dead, then why did they die in the first place?”
“Granted. But are you willing to say the things you’ve seen and experienced are all just coincidence?” Ath’ran smiled just a little, still nursing his beer and void of the warm, rosy cheeks Riyad sported. “The powers of the Shards are not mythical; you’ve seen them with your own eyes. The danger is most certainly real. Or have you already forgotten that night of darkness?”
He hadn’t. The nightmares were still very real some nights.
Ath’ran leaned back in his chair, elbows spread and hooked over the edges of the high back. “Du’shan was different when he came back to life. Not a lot, but he was more careful--more considerate. Maybe the act of dying and resurrection was important in some way for him to play his part. Could be the same for Rabbit or any other person who has had that experience. Resurrection may not just be the revival of the body, but a revival of the will.”
“You won’t win me over with your sensical nonsense, Ath’ran. I’ve known you too long.” Riyad downed his beer, his forehead pinched with a tight scowl. Life would be so much easier sometimes if Ath’ran simply agreed with him.
The front door opened with a slight squeak as it slid into the wall. Lisa ushered the children inside, shopping bag in one hand and the other holding Paelah’s. The younger Riyad smiled brightly at his father and tore towards the kitchen where he and his ‘uncle’ sat.
“Riyad Shihar! Are you staying the night? Mom said you two would probably be so drunk, she’d have to clean you off the kitchen floor!”
The elder Riyad gave Lisa a look that did very little against her. She hiked the shopping bag up onto the kitchen counter and began to unload the groceries, addressing her elder daughter without acknowledging Riyad Shihar’s expression. “Kimberly, make the couch up for your uncle. There are clean pillow cases in the back of the linen closet.”
“I’m fine to go home, Lisa.”
“Consider it a precaution.” She rolled her eyes, fitting a bag of bread against the toaster and lining up rows of canned vegetables for her son to put away.
Paelah helped herself to Ath’ran’s lap, climbing up with little help and grabbing for a taste of his beer. When it fell bitter on her tongue, she frowned at the bottle and pushed it away. Ath’ran chuckled, one arm wrapped around her. “I’ll get you some juice in a minute.”
“Dad, I was thinking about the story last night and I think you left a part out, because it doesn’t make any sense,” Riyad said with his back to the table, his arms raised high to put cans away into the cupboards.
Ath’ran cocked his head towards him. “What doesn’t make sense?”
“If Gaigulos was destroyed and everyone was dead, how come there are people who remember it?”
Riyad Shihar rested his chin on his palm, unable to keep the smirk off his face. He remembered asking Ridel Mukshah, Ath’ran’s beloved grandmother, the same thing. Memories of sand and sun welled and then whirled away, feeling like a lifetime past.
Ath’ran’s wizened smile mirrored the one he’d elicited on the old woman’s face, as though the question gave permission to divulge his favorite part of the story. His arm tightened around Paelah as he twisted in his seat to face his son.
“That wouldn’t be part of the story of Gaigulos. That would be the story of the storyteller and it is the very nature of the storyteller not to enter into things. His job is to see and report and allow the wisdom of the past to continue on through generations. To speculate on the origin of the storyteller is to belittle the honesty of the story; some things you must accept on faith."
Riyad frowned slightly, the can of peas in his hand topped with another of corn and one of beans to create an unsteady tower. “So the storyteller doesn’t matter?”
“If there were no one to tell the story, then it would die. The storyteller is a very important person, but how he came to know his tale is of lesser importance than the story itself. I learned the stories from my grandmother and you will learn them all from me and when you have children they will learn them from you.”
Riyad stuck out his tongue. “I’m never having kids. Girls are gross.”
Ath’ran chuckled and faced forward in his seat, leaving the boy to finish putting the groceries away.
Riyad Shihar’s mind raced five hundred miles and half a year back in a matter of moments, events playing out in his head, the shadows of his memories thrown up against a screen to pantomime events that hadn’t happened. He watched as Du’shan died and never came back: with one less employee, money never became a problem, a life linked to the unstable Du’shan never caused Ath’ran to second guess his priorities, and there he sat at the table with the others when the demons attacked, leaving a widow and three fatherless children. The stories of the Mukshah family ended and Ath’ran’s children were left with an incomplete inheritance of ill-remembered fairytales they only half-understood.
But Ath’ran hadn’t been with them that night; Du’shan had. And Du’shan had died alone because he’d been chasing the legacy his cousin had been handed.
Like smoke, the shadow puppet memories swirled and dissipated. Seemingly unrelated events clicked into place, all impossibly benign and irritating, all ordered and perfect. All so Ath’ran could tell his children bedtime stories that had been passed on for thousands of years.
If all that had happened for a reason, then Caine and his blind optimism might be just as purposeful.
“Are you alright?”
Riyad Shihar nodded dumbly, sobered by his thoughts. He looked across the table at one of the most important men to ever cross the Divide and smiled faintly. “I’m fine. Great.”