Sea Of Black

Everything about the scene contained every cliche Thomas hated. A fourth- or fifth-rate singer from a local theatre troupe was wailing slow crooner anthems beside the lectern. Discordant legions of weeping mourners who didn't have the common decency to pick a single note and sob along. A sea of black umbrellas. If he had his druthers, Thomas Carlisle would have had absolutely nothing to do with the scene, macabre and corny at the same time.

But he could only bury his father once.

He tried, genuinely, to find emotion in this performance, and failed. He had a sorrow beyond words and explanation within him, but the agreed-upon rituals of expressing that sorrow, that mourning, did nothing whatsoever for him. Other than putting him in the awkward position of trying not to laugh at a funeral.

I mean, everyone was taking it so seriously. Thomas Carlisle II had been found "dead" four days prior. And all Thomas Carlisle III could think, there at the funeral, was that Thomas Carlisle II could no more die than fly to Mars by flapping his arms. Thomas Carlisle II was not the sort of man who died. It was not in the set of things that could happen.

Thomas knew how unhealthy this inner monologue was, which was why he kept declining to participate in it, distracting himself with more amusement. The generic WASPy pastor mumbling generic WASPy homilies over the atheist's grave. The astroturfed surface keeping the wet muck of the actual gravesite off of the expensive imported shoes of the performative mourners. And just off to the distance, the only individuals here with honest intentions: four Mexican day-laborers smoking and mumbling undoubtedly filthy jokes to one another, waiting out the wealthy crowd, waiting to bury the only man Thomas wanted to talk to that day.

The ceremony slouched towards its end. Thomas had attended so few funerals that he had no idea whether the anticlimactic "amen" and the prerecorded bagpipes were normal or something. He decided very firmly that this was the last funeral he would be attending. And he was only at this one because —

"…care, we want that money back! Do you understand me! We will not…"

— there it was. Deirdre Carlisle's voice had begun to shrill under stress. As Thomas looked to his right at his mother, her eyes darted furtively back and forth to see if anyone had looked at her, then grew quiet and determined.

"This family has been through too much to let something like 'escrow' stand in our way. I am the executor of Thomas's estate, and we do not want one million of our dollars invested in some silly crusade! Our lawyers will be in contact, Mr. Humphreys. Don't think your club is safe from us."

Deirdre's expensive French-tipped index finger broke on the screen of her cell phone as she clawed at the "end" button. She gasped, cursed, and then immediately noticed someone looking at her.

"What are you — oh, it's you," Deirdre said, recognizing him. "Hey. Sorry. I thought you were Sarah Eppstein, nosing around. Oh, darling, come here," she said, pulling Thomas in for an embrace. "This is such a horror. I know there's so much your father would have wanted to say to you, so much you wanted to say to him. Oh god, but this isn't the time. How are you doing?"

Thomas didn't have time to begin parsing all of the content of that statement, so he addressed the end bit.

"I'll be fine, Mother," he said, stiffly. "What was the phone call? Who are you threatening? At Dad's funeral?"

A familiar cloud darkened Deirdre's face. "Judgment is a bit untoward, isn't it? You're certainly not in a position to…" She rethought, recomposed herself, brought a neutral, bland, frankly inappropriate half-smile to her face. "Forget about it. It's a hard day for all of us. I'll talk to you later." She turned to walk away.

"Mom. Seriously?" Thomas barely moved his head.

Deirdre slowed, pushed a stiff breath out of her nostrils, and pivoted her body on just her feet to face Thomas. The look in her eyes startled him.

"I just buried my husband of thirty-six years. Not six months ago, I buried my youngest child. Between six months ago and today, I watched the love of my life degrade to a husk of a man before my eyes. I have lived a hell I cannot describe and that I do not expect you to understand."

She walked towards her child, tenderness in her eyes, and raised her hand to his cheek. "You wanted your father to teach you how to be a man, right?"

Thomas recoiled from her mother's touch, physically stepping backward. He couldn't make eye contact. She stayed where she was.

"And he didn't do that," she said. "I know that. In my heart of hearts, I can't be angry at you for hating him. Any other day, any time, I can listen to what you have to say about him. And you don't just say it with your words. Your eyes have this… this contempt for him when you say his name. And you have…" A single sob punched through. "And you have his eyes. Everything about you hurts me right now, and I can't stand it."

She turned and took another step away, then paused. "So, I'll talk to you later." She walked away.

Thomas was just left standing there, face red, feeling the eyes of everyone there on him.

Martin, Tennessee, is a "city." The city has several "neighborhoods", several thousand "residents", and some few other thousands attending the "university" in the "city's" "downtown area".

The South is filled with technicalities, exceptions, parentheticals. The South is the place where Mississippian execution sites became Chickasaw villages became American national parks. River ports became political third-rails became dilapidated slums. And in unremarkable Weakley County, a crossing point between two railroads became a hub for commerce, which became a minor economic center, and when the legislature needed to expand its land-grant university system out into the forgotten western wilderness, it looked at Martin, shrugged, reached forth with the awesome and incontrovertible power of its populist authority, and said, "Sure. Yeah. Yeah, that's good enough."

The University of Tennessee at Martin was born. It wasn't called that at first. It was a "junior college", then a "branch" of the "real" University of Tennessee, the one in Knoxville. But in 1967, it became a "co-equal" part of the "University of Tennessee system."

Parentheticals. Exceptions. Technicalities.

By comparison to the very public, very documented origins of the University, the Wayward Society's origins were as secretive as they were probably apocryphal. How did the Society begin? Perhaps the first Warder was the first Homo sapiens to eat the first psychedelic mushroom and see/feel/taste something beyond her understanding in the campfire that night.

How was the Society led? Perhaps the first Great Circle was the first group of soldiers who actually spoke to one another, the night before some great battle, when all their emotions and fears and feelings were laid bare, and told one another about the things they had seen that their families back home would never understand.

This is what we do know: On February 11th, 1967, there was a meeting between an individual whose job title contained the word "Chancellor", an individual whose (less formal) job title contained the phrase "Regional Director", and an individual whose last name was Carlisle. And at the end of the meeting, the University had itself a shiny new library named after some donor who couldn't afford the whole thing by itself, and a shiny new ROTC training and teaching headquarters named after… nobody.

Because if there's one thing the Carlisle name prided itself on being known for, it's nothing at all. Angel investors and silent partners. Quiet string-pullers. The Carlisles preferred their reputation to be guided by the philosophy espoused later by the American warrior-poet Terrence Thornton: "If you know, you know."

The ROTC department never moved into its headquarters, because it was never meant to. The Carlisle-funded Outfit known as the Skyhawk Battalion set up shop there instead. Gun range, armory, telecommunications once that was a thing. The Carlisle Foundation kept the Battalion well-supplied, and Northwest Tennessee (and Southwest Kentucky, the one Kentuckian traditionally in the outfit would inevitably pipe up) was protected from the menace of aberrant threats for forty years.

Then 2008 came, and everything dried up. The scholarships and the funding. The support from the Regional Directors. The shiny new DCC an hour north in Paducah was opened, but never properly finished. There just wasn't enough to go around, and nobody cared about the rural South, to the extent they ever had.

Not to worry, the general consensus among the Great Circle and its advisers went. The market will fill in the gap. Some outfit will come around to take over.

Alphabet Unlimited went public in 2010.

Thomas parked his car illegally streetside on Moody Avenue an hour after he left the funeral. Campus cops didn't ticket him since the Spectre haunting the traffic cone storage courtyard "found its way to move on" back in 2015, so he hadn't paid for a parking sticker since then. Not that he ever paid for one before that. Tickets were cheaper.

The door to the ROTC building that served as Skyhawk Battalion's headquarters stuck when Thomas opened it. He added that to a mental list of things that needed to be fixed around the place. Don was sitting in a wooden chair, bouncing a tennis ball against the wall in front of him, feet on the nearby table.

"'Sup, bossman," Don said, not making eye contact. This was his way of acknowledging the awkwardness of the situation.

"Hey, what's going on," Thomas replied, looking at the floor. This was his way of thanking Don for acknowledging the awkwardness of the situation.

Don took a deep breath and let it out with a "You back from the, uh…" and some indeterminate hand gestures. This was his way of confirming that Thomas had already gone through the worst part of his day, and while he was almost certainly in an emotionally fragile and exhausted state, the rest of his afternoon should go much better.

"Yeah," Thomas replied, looking more generally in the direction of Don's face. This was his way of ending this conversation as quickly as possible by any means necessary.

"Cool. Yeah, cool." This was Don's way of agreeing with that sentiment.

Thomas walked through the antechamber to the sound of Don continuing to bounce his ball. He walked up the two flights of stairs to the upstairs offices. He heard music coming from the meeting room at the end of the hall. As he passed the closed doors of the other offices, largely used for document storage, the music grew louder.

…live one day at a time
Only drive one hot rod at a time
Only say one word at a time
And only think one thought at a time…

It was being spoken in a soft Southern accent over a quiet breakdown in the middle of a faster song Thomas was quite familiar with. Thomas pushed the cracked door open to see a young, pale, and remarkably naked woman, standing on one foot with her other leg outstretched above her head, pirouetting slowly on one foot.

…and every soul is alone when the day becomes night…

Shelby Bendarvis's head orbited her center of gravity opposite her outstretched foot, like binary stars around their barycenter, as Thomas's face began to flush red.

…and there in the dark if you can try to see the light…

"Hello, Thomas," she said with what could be parsed as an innocent, friendly smile if you could recognize a face virtually upside-down. With the flexibility of a gymnast, her outstretched foot arched around her head as she rolled into a cartwheel, slowly controlling that foot down until her toe came perfectly to rest on the "pause" button on the screen of her phone. Seth Avett stopped singing, and Shelby, accordion-like, brought her foot down to the ground and folded into an upright standing position.

"Did you enjoy burying your father?" she said, reaching for a robe as goosebumps began erupting along her shoulders and down her back, highlighting a network of nearly-invisible scars. She wrapped the robe around herself un-self-consciously, like someone who recognized hot and cold but not proper dress etiquette, and covered the scars.

"Ah. No, not particularly," Thomas replied.

"Unfortunate social necessity?" Shelby said, crossing the room to sip from a mug of now-cold tea.

"Very much so." The redness of Thomas's face was beginning to dissipate. He knew Shelby's… eccentricities required a certain nuanced touch. "You, uh, finding your center?"

"Not particularly," Shelby said, continuing to fiddle around with knickknacks in the room to avoid making eye contact with Thomas, because Thomas had managed to be in charge of the one Outfit in the Wayward Society where apparently nobody was able to relate to another human being at an opportune moment.

"Something bothering you?"

"My friend, the one I told you about last week?" Shelby's forced casual saunter around the room was picking up pace, which indicated to Thomas that she was anxious about something. "We were in touch. We were talking about her new job, over at…that other Outfit. You know the one."

"You can say 'Alphabet Unlimited.' It's not Voldemort. They won't see you if you say their name."

Probably, Thomas thought to himself. They probably can't do that. Not yet.

Shelby's eyes kept darting from whatever she was holding to whatever else she could hold once she put that thing down. Thomas could hear her breathing picking up.

"Olivia was onto something big, Tom," she said. "She was onto something big, and now she's not responding. She's not responding, Tom. They've got her."

Pacing. Fiddling. Pacing.

"I know they've got her, Tom. Oh God, Olivia's gone."

When she brought her hand to her chest and started tapping, Thomas knew it was going too far. The tapping would turn into beating, which would turn into clawing, tearing at her skin.


Tapping. Insistent, determined tapping.

"You know nobody comes back from there if they don't want them to, Tom."

"Shelby. Look at me."

Her eyes darted in his direction, but the tapping continued.

"It's worse than death, Tom. She told me some of the rumors. It's unthinkable."

"Shelby. My eyes. Put your eyes on my eyes. Look at me, Shelby."

Thomas would never walk up and lay his hands on Shelby, both out of respect for her… whatever her undiscussed anxiety condition was, as well as out of respect for his hands being attached to his wrists. But Shelby responded to his body language, and his eyes. She raised her head as the tapping slowed, and as her eyes flickered to contact with his, it slowed down to a stop. Her breathing was still a little rushed, but under control.

"Tom. We've got to fix this, Tom. We have to save her."

"We'll take care of it." Thomas used the most prominent feature he inherited from his father, the intense stare, the intense presence, that made Shelby feel like the entire universe was reduced only to the attention he was paying to her. "Shelby. We're going to take care of it."

The color began returning to Shelby's face. She wasn't okay, but she was coming down. She broke eye contact and looked at her phone, then tapped the "play" symbol on the screen.

…In the most pitch black shape of the loneliest shadow
Well then you ought to sleep well
'Cause there's hope for sure…

Without saying a word, she pulled at the knot holding the robe in place and let it fall to the ground. Naked, her foot rose back into the air and her torso dipped in the opposite direction, and she began to spin again.

Thomas settled in his office, in the chair in his office, and what he did not do is cry.

God, he felt the need for it. Merciful fucking God, did he ever feel it. He wanted to cry and drink and take all the drugs he'd ever heard of at the same time and he wanted to sleep, to sleep, and he wanted this day to be over, and he wanted to be dead, and he wanted everyone he knew to be dead so that nobody would ever need him for anything, not ever, not ever again. He wanted nothing, ever again. He wanted to be nothing, ever again. He wanted to never want, ever again.

He wanted. And he chased the want in his head around like a rabbit, wearing it down. He broke down everything he wanted line by line, and then ran through the lines again until it was a blur of loss and sadness and pain, and he didn't cry.

Somewhere inside him, there was a ledger of losses and wants and needs unfulfilled, and even if it hurt, he was going to swallow this day and add it onto that ledger, and he wasn't going to cry.

He didn't know why it was so important. Nobody had ever told him it was. But right next to the part of his brain that knew he needed release was some part of his brain that knew that it would be the end of the world if he did.

Counting his breaths, focusing himself, finding his center, he was too distracted to notice when the door to his office swung open.

Mikayla Panniston stood there in the doorway for two full minutes, watching Thomas breathe and concentrate, concentrate and breathe.


Thomas had realized someone was nearby a moment before she spoke, which kept him from jumping out of his skin.

"Yeah." He didn't turn around. He knew Mickey knew what she was seeing. He didn't bother speaking, either. He knew Mickey knew what he was feeling, or something close to that. So the scene was a 23-year-old woman in a camouflage tank top and cornrows, smiling wryly at a 32-year-old man in what remained of a black-and-white suit, staring blankly ahead at a desk, mouth hanging open, nearly about to drool on himself with exhaustion and horror and misery.

Mickey walked across the room, leaned down, and wrapped her arms around Tom from behind. No words.

Tom just kept breathing, listening to the sound of Mickey's own breathing through her nose, until he fell asleep where he sat.


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