On the ground floor, the center of the hospital opened into a small courtyard, an insecure space with too many places for insurgents to hide. I took a quick breath and tensed.
“Wait up, Ralph.”
“It’s okay, Freddie. You’re safe here.”
“Give me a minute. It’s my first time out.”
I surveyed the perimeter. A few benches. A flower garden dominated by hydrangeas, but not like the softball-sized blossoms my mom used to grow. These were small and paler than the Cape Cod variety, which were a blue that could compete with the sky.
At once, I could see my mom, hands buried in the hydrangeas, grooming her flowers—one of the few memories I could bear to recall. Me and my brothers in the driveway shooting hoops. Mom telling us to keep the ball out of her garden. She was happy then, surrounded by her family, her garden, and the ocean.
I looked past the hydrangeas to find purple asters and some lilies too. But no roses. For some reason, I’d been hoping for roses.
Despite the nice day, the courtyard was deserted, except for a woman about my age who sat on a wooden bench, finishing up a brown-bag lunch. Her eyes were closed and her head tipped back to take in the sun, making her appear to be dreaming. Sitting alone on the bench, her face seemed framed by flowers.
When she heard us coming, she sat up, straightened her scrubs, and smiled.
“Hey, Ralph. What do you have there? Another victim for me?”
“Becky,” Ralph said. “What’s up? This is Freddie, Lt. Williams, our newest patient. We’re trying to bring him back from the dead. Freddie, meet Becky Marshall, one of our physical therapists.”
I nodded a greeting to her, not much in the mood for small talk. She tilted her head to one side as if evaluating me. Then she gave me the kind of look that said we’d met before, if not in this world than in another, and that she intended to make a difference in my life.
“Is he ready for me?”
“Soon. If he’s assigned to you.”
My attention was drawn to a soda can on the bench next to her. I’d seen too many IEDs in soda cans.
She caught me fixating on it and grinned.
“Just my diet Pepsi, Freddie. See?”
She chugged what was left and tossed the can into a nearby trash basket. Then she crumpled the bag into a ball and to show off, stepped off exactly five paces and shot the bag into the basket in a perfect arc.
“Nice shot,” I said.
“I make that shot every time.”
She came close enough that our knees were almost touching and hovered over me, sizing me up.
“You’ll be mine,” she said finally. “I can tell. I get all the hard cases.”
As she walked away, light on her feet like a dancer, I fumbled for the wheel of the chair, trying to spin it around so I could watch her go. But Ralph had set the brake.
The white butterfly fluttered before her face. When she saw it, she reached out a hand and at once it landed on the curve of her wrist.
“Now there’s a fine omen for you,” she said. “Light knows we need one these days.” She whispered some words and the butterfly flew off across the courtyard and out over the castle wall.
A fine omen? Perhaps. But I’d learned to be wary. I stepped forward, scuffling my boots to make noise. She ignored my presence. Not until I was a pace away did she turn.
It was hard to say if she was beautiful or even pretty. Soil from the garden had splattered her cheeks and marked her forehead with a splotch that looked like a raven. A muddied apron hid her shape. But I took note of a glint in her gray-green eyes, as if the flowers had conspired to lend their color. And her mouth was a crescent moon upturned on its side.
The corners of the crescent twitched when she saw me but only for an instant. Then she went back to her work as if I were invisible. Her hands cradled each bloom as she sliced off the heads with a small knife.
“Are you spirit or demon?” I demanded.
She made no answer.
I drew my sword, relieved it slipped so easily from its scabbard, and stretched it in her direction. She watched the point from the corner of her eye but kept her head down and continued to work. Finally, I nudged her with the tip.
She let out a yelp. Only then did I realize I’d thrust too hard, and the blade had slit her garment. I backed off at once, ready to apologize, but then recalled my encounter with the assassin. I poked again, more gently this time.
“Why do you keep doing that?” she said.
“To see if you’re real.”
She stood and faced me, feet set wide and planted squarely on the ground.
“Why shouldn’t I be real?”
She was tall for a girl, her head rising above my chin, and had a bearing unlike a servant. When I continued to challenge her, she reached out and eased the point of my sword to one side.
“Would you put that silly thing away?”
I began to back off, then remembered the circumstance and held firm. “Why didn’t you say anything when I first approached you?”
“Because we servants aren’t supposed to talk to you royals.” She lowered her gaze and turned back to the flowers. “I’m sorry . . . Milord.”
“What’s your name?”
“Rebecca. My name is Frederick.”
She paled and then bent in a deep curtsy, her brashness collapsing into two whispered words. “The dauphin.” . . .
I wandered in a circle, hands folded behind my back, and inspected the flowers, unsure of what else to say. Then a thought occurred to me.
“Do you have roses in this garden?”
“No roses, Milord. I have asters and hydrangeas. Some fall crocus. And climbing the wall to the watchtower, sweet autumn clematis. A bit of monkshood underneath and tulips in the spring. But no roses.”
I must have looked disappointed. She came closer and reached out, but not enough to touch me.
“It must be lonely, Milord, a terrible burden. Every morning as I walk from my village to the gardens, I see the darkening clouds and wonder where my strength will come from. Then I remember. The dauphin will protect us. Save Him Oh Goddess, I pray. If only I could do something to help.”
I mumbled a thank you and turned to go, but stopped when I saw her examining her damaged apron.
“Are you here every day?”
“No, Milord, I have other gardens as well.”
“Come tomorrow, and I’ll bring you a new apron to replace the one I tore.”
She curtsied more deeply this time.
“I’d be so grateful, Milord, but I have nothing to give in return.”
“Ah, wait.” She took her small knife and clipped off a bulging blossom at the stem and handed it to me. “Now place it in water the first chance you get.”
I accepted the gift and admired her through its petals.
“Thank you,” I said. “Tomorrow at noon.”
As I walked away, I glanced over my shoulder to get one last look at the gardener. She was back at her work, resuming her song and snipping away, so light of hand and foot. As she blew away a curl that had drifted across her face, the summer dress rustled against her skin. I inhaled the scent of the flower and thought I caught the sun peeking through the clouds over Golgoreth.
And for the first time since my father died, goddesses seemed possible.
“Is this what you want me to do, Orah, run like a coward?”
“Not to run, but to be careful, especially with the vicar so near.”
“Only one in three are taken.”
“It’s not worth the risk, Nathaniel. Or have you forgotten the look of those who have been taught? The far off stare, the dreams seemingly ripped away.”
Dreams ripped away. What good were dreams if they stayed unfulfilled? Since coming of age the month before, Nathaniel had brooded on one thought — life was passing him by.
Thomas stared out, trying to see to the opposite wall. It had to be close, because he could feel his boots pressing against it. But try as he would, he couldn’t penetrate the darkness. There was no glimmer to help, only the darkest dark he’d ever known. No moon, no stars, no hint of light. A dark to haunt one’s dreams.
Sometimes, he’d startle to the grating of the ceiling cover being removed. Light would pour into the room, flooding him with exhilaration…He’d stand, stretch his stiff limbs and look into the plump faces of the vicars surrounding him, seniors all with their decorated hats. They, in turn, would look down on him sympathetically before beginning a litany of the horrors of the darkness…
Nathaniel had forgotten his dilemma. The idea of the keep had awakened something in him he thought he’d lost forever.
“But who’ll solve the puzzle?”
“The founders of the keep believed a new generation would arise that would seek the truth at all costs, even at the risk of their lives. Some few from that generation would take the lead. These would be called seekers, and their task would be to solve the puzzle and rediscover the keep.”
“But what’s in the keep?”
“The chain started so long ago, Nathaniel. Even the keepers don’t know any more. The keep may not even exist.”
“More. Something the Temple fears. Something that might change the world.”
Nathaniel’s hands were shaking. I’d be a seeker if I could.
INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR
1. Along the Watchtower is a powerful blend of contemporary fiction and fantasy that demands the reader’s attention from start to finish. What was your inspiration for writing this work, and for combining World of Warcraft with a casualty of war and a dream world?
I’ve always been fascinated by how we perceive reality. Think of the film Rashomon, the classic exploration of multiple realities, where several witnesses to a crime describe events completely differently, each bringing their own life experience and biases into play. But it’s when we’re ripped from our normal life and placed in extreme circumstances that our reality becomes totally fragmented. Such is the case with hospitals and war.
At the same time, I’d become engrossed in playing the online fantasy game, World of Warcraft, with my son, an avid player. With me on the east coast and him on the west, he suggested we meet weekly in the fantasy world of Azeroth—an invitation I could hardly resist. For several months, we had a Wednesday evening appointment, where our avatars would meet in this virtual world and go on quests together. I was struck by how totally immersed I could get in the game, how quickly time passed, and the surreal mood of wandering around in castles and crypts, solving riddles and following quests.
The fantasy gaming experience has a dream-like quality to it. And I began to wonder: how would this experience affect the dreams of someone whose reality has been fragmented by war, PTSD, and traumatic brain injury.
These concepts—war, hospitals, and the fantasy world of online gaming—came together in Along the Watchtower.
2.Without giving away too much, can you introduce us to the main character Lieutenant Freddie, and tell us how he’s similar and different in both worlds he inhabits?
When Freddie comes out of his medically-induced coma in the VA hospital, he’s nearly given up hope. Everything he had to live for was gone, and he was racked with bad memories and guilt, in addition to his physical injuries.
Prince Frederick doesn’t have the luxury of giving up. If he yields to despair, the kingdom that depends on him will fall into darkness. Because of this, he’s more willing to struggle through his trials. It’s through the prince in the fantasy world that Freddie is finally able to confront and overcome his personal demons in the real world.
3. Your first novel, There Comes a Prophet, explores the roots of the dystopian fiction category while also reinventing it for a younger generation of readers. This genre boasts many great classics including Slaughterhouse V, 1984, and Brave New World to name a few. What are your favorite classic books?
Dystopia literally means dysfunctional utopia, not necessarily an evil, power-hungry regime oppressing its people, but a well-intentioned system that has lost its way, resulting in a world gone awry. My favorite such dystopian is Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and the Stars. In this near perfect world, there’s no disease, hunger or poverty, and people are effectively immortal. But all are afraid to venture outside the walls of their city or even look beyond them. The thought of the open expanse of stars in the night sky terrifies them. All of this had been put in place to protect them from some past too horrible to mention. Yet the unfulfilled aspirations of a single individual drive him to discover the lost truth and let humanity move forward again.
Lois Lowry’s The Giver is another great example. In a simple but beautiful writing style, she tells the story of a seemingly perfect world where bad memories have been abolished, except for one person, the keeper of memories. But the people are left unable to feel anything much—good or bad.
4. People read books for many different reasons. Of all the different reasons you’ve seen in reviews, can you relate one story that really stood out for you about a reader’s experience?
One reviewer read Along the Watchtower and it brought back memories of being a young college student, witnessing the twin towers fall on 9/11. The book touched him deeply, because it reminded him that, as a result of that tragic event, we’ve been at war his entire adult life. The shock he felt on 9/11 all came back to him in reading the struggles of the recovering Lt. Freddie Williams.
Interestingly enough, that same reviewer had a powerful reaction to the dystopian world of There Comes a Prophet. In that book, a ruling power limits learning and growth. This reviewer associated my story with the courageous young Malala Yousafzai, the Pakastani girl who the Taliban tried to kill for advocating education for women.
5. Along the Watchtower features a veteran’s healing process on the physical, emotional, and intellectual levels. What role do you think fantasy role-playing games and dreaming can play in a healing process?
When we’re confronted with trauma too terrible to comprehend, our mind sometimes shuts the experience out to let us heal. But the memory still lingers in our subconscious. Sometimes it’s easier to confront those feelings through fantasy, like dreams or video games, rather than facing them head on in the cruel light of reality. Then once confronted, we’re better able to move on.
6. Symbolism and description play a huge role in the opening chapters of Along the Watchtower. As the lines between reality and fantasy become more and more blurry, did you find it difficult to remember which ‘character’ you were talking as?
Freddie and Prince Frederick were undergoing the same trials at an emotional level, even though their circumstances differed. The hardest part in writing the two was to maintain a distinct voice for each—for Freddie the gritty language of the VA hospital and for Prince Frederick, more of a high fantasy tone. This difference was important to make each world believable. But since the book was written in a first person point of view, it was also critical to quickly alert the reader whenever there was a switch in worlds.
7. Ocean imagery features prominently in your book Along the Watchtower. What’s your favorite place to visit, and what scenery do you find most inspiring as an author?
I almost hate to mention this because it’s such a well-kept secret. But my favorite spot is a place called The Knob in my home town of Falmouth. It’s a raised spit of land rising up dramatically into the harbor onto a domed rock, reachable only after a half-mile walk through the woods. I’ve actually used it as a setting in my upcoming novel, The Daughter of the Sea and the Sky.
8. You run a very active blog and website, though the demands of marketing yourself can be overwhelming for many authors. How do you find balance in your life, and time to enjoy your surroundings in a highly technical world? Coming from a software background, I’m sure you might have unique insights on balancing the ‘real’ world with the technical one.
I’ve spent most of my adult life in front of a computer, first as a software engineer and now as an author. The key is to take advantage of non-computer time to get out and enjoy yourself. But all writers want to be read, so you have to spend time reaching out to readers. The software equivalent was that I used to enjoy taking a break from developing software to visit customers and see how they were using what I’d developed.
9. You’ve published two books, Along the Watchtower and There Comes a Prophet. Is there anything you’d like to share with readers and your future writing plans?
I’m in late stage edits with an alternate world story called The Daughter of the Sea and the Sky. It’s about a world divided between the Blessed Lands, a place of the spirit, and the Republic, whose people worship at the altar of reason. A mysterious nine-year-old girl from the Blessed Lands sails into the lives of a troubled couple in the Republic and seems to heal everyone she meets. She reveals nothing about herself, other than to say she’s the daughter of the sea and the sky. But she harbors a secret wound she herself cannot heal.
I’m also currently planning what will be a sequel to There Comes a Prophet. I’ve always wondered what happened to Orah and Nathaniel after their world changing heroics and what became of the contemporaries of the keepmasters who had crossed the ocean. Stay tuned.
10. What do you like to do to unwind? You know, in those rare moments when you’re not writing!
Since writing and social networking are indoor activities, I try to get outside as often as possible. I go for long walks on the seashore, play some golf, bicycle, and generally try to stay active. I’m fortunate to be able to split my time between Cape Cod and Florida, both beautiful places in their respective nice seasons.
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