The Catalina Express docked alongside the pier. The ride from Long Beach had been choppy as the boat bounced over swells; passengers stumbled on deck and spilled drinks while waves hammered the bow. I’ve traveled the channel every year since I can remember, but this was the first time to the island without my mother.
I lifted the backpack over my shoulder and walked down the ramp.
Six months since she passed. Mom continued to provoke me every day, even in my dreams. The ebb and flow of her sanity centered on me.
I’d come to Catalina to film a tribute for my mother and post it on YouTube. A knot of anxiety and excitement coiled inside me.
I’d always been what others called “strange,” with extremely large eyes, dark with a hint of sclera. Classmates had called me a grey, my hair, Crayola yellow. It couldn’t be dyed: it didn’t absorb peroxide and gave me an edge without wanting one. My skin was a rusted gold, as if I sunbathed on Mercury.
Boys would see me from a distance or from my back—my hair a natural curiosity—then, when they neared, or I turned around, there would be an intake of breath, a fallen expression. It hurt to disappoint.
My oddness went beyond the visual. I felt people’s emotions; if I hugged or touched them the sum of their experience seeped into my being. The weirdest, the most fantastical of all, was that I smelled people’s consciousness. I’d be at the farmers’ market, shoppers intent on picking greens or fresh fruit, the odor pleasant, but when hostile music blasted from a car stopped in traffic, the shoppers’ collective stench of anger filled me with nausea. Fear, the greatest stink, rose to unbearable heights. The world boiled with it.
I found refuge as the groundskeeper at the Self Realization Fellowship in the Pacific Palisades, where the atmosphere was serene, the tranquil lake where swans and mallards glided by, a perfect setting to reflect.
With the world’s religions celebrated at my home, you’d think I’d be religious. I was devoted, joyous, when I dug my fingers into the earth, planted and pruned, fed the ducks and feral cats. My affection for animals and plants taught me to nurture an inner kind of beauty. Mother Earth, my religion.
Mom loved my strangeness. She hated it, too, lashing out, calling me my father’s weirdo child. She was an artist, with a yoyo temperament, creamy-white skin and once in a while an eerie mannequin stare. Men chased her until they stumbled over her pile of baggage. Our home in Long Beach had wall-to-wall signed prints and paintings from Escher to Warhol, including her own work. Her water colors and prints sold in galleries. She was a renowned illustrator.
With her gone, the craving to discover who I am possessed me.
Every night for the past week I’d stir, throw off my covers, waken from a dream of my half-sister, Jemjasee. She too had enormous eyes and hair like mine. Mom called it, “Lichenstein yellow.” In my dreams, Jemjasee stood at the Little Harbor overlook on the Conservancy side of Catalina where my mother took me, a ten-year-old, to meet my father and Jemjasee. I’d awake as if called, the dream, vivid, and I’d be on the precipice overlooking the Pacific, searching the sea just as my mother did when we’d go back every year to the island. She’d wait for my father, pace the cliffs, but he never appeared.
I searched the pier for Carlos.
He stepped from the dark terminal as light skipped across the ceiling slats. The night she passed, I called him; we talked, wept, laughed. Carlos cherished my mother like an older sister, and now that I saw him—his cowboy hat shading his crinkled face—his presence consoled me.
We stood, arms entwined holding each other. It would be vulgar to talk while closeness tallied our grief. I promised myself I would be the one to comfort and not the other way around. He trembled. I held tighter, loving him for loving my mother.
“Man, I thought you’d stay longer, Gwendolyn,” he said, pulling away. His rugged face damp.
“Spend Thanksgiving with us. Stay the week.”
“I’ll let you know.”
“You got the equipment?”
“It’s in my backpack.”
He put his tattooed arm around my shoulder, and we headed toward the terminal.
“Maria and the kids want to see you,” he said, releasing me as we moved through the crowd.
“I have to be here at five.”
“You’ll have plenty time,” he said as we came to his truck. “You have a speech or something?”
I shook my head.
“No notes?” He placed my bag in the bed of his Ford.
“Don’t need them.”
“It would help.”
Carlos had played the role of wise uncle since I was a child.
He opened the passenger door. “Where you wanna go?”
“Upper Terrace first. I can get a great shot of Avalon.”
His truck smelled of refried beans and coffee. It also carried the sweet tang of a man who loved his family and life on the island. But mixed in the smells, I caught whiffs of anxiety, perhaps about his future or Maria. The Ford caked with years of dust, grooved with dirt around the steering wheel. I rested my feet on a tool box and pondered my mother’s story. She had talked in a cacophony of innuendos, ambiguous retorts, and said things to get a reaction so her sincerity was always in question. I wanted to know about my father and Jemjasee. What happened on that day overlooking Little Harbor when my mother ran to my father, threw herself into his arms? I’d never seen her so happy. He kissed my forehead. A gentle being that cooed in a sing-song accent as he stroked my hair, the same effulgence as his own. I watched my parents head down the trail and disappear.
Jemjasee took my hand, and we walked the bluffs. She asked me questions, “What did I like to do, could I swim, did I have many friends?” She spoke as an equal, even though she had to be a lot older. We danced, laughed and skipped, did cartwheels and played hand-clap games. I had so much fun with my sister that I forgot about my parents.
My mother returned sobbing. Jemjasee kissed me good-bye, and I’m not sure what happened next, but my father and sister vanished.
“Where did they go?” I had asked. “Why are you crying?”
My mother howled. It hurt my ears.
“I’m afraid to leave!” She screamed and pounded her fists on the side of her head until I grabbed her, not letting go until her wails turned to whimpers.
Through the years I’d bring up that day, and she’d snap, “Don’t live in the past.” Then five years ago, on my twenty-fifth birthday, I told her my wish was to know about my father and Jemjasee.
“They come from far away.”
“Luke Skywalker far?” I said with sarcasm.
Tears welled in her eyes. She stared into her wineglass, then played a Joni Mitchell album. I regretted my ridicule. She hurt easily and never spoke of them again.
Carlos drove up the hill and parked along the turn-out.
“This is perfect,” I said, pulling out the camera.
“I’ll do it,” Carlos said.
“Thanks, but I got it.” I videoed everything in sight, including Carlos, the Art Deco Casino Ballroom, moored sailboats, The Express docked at the pier, the Glass Bottom Boat, past the harbor condos built into the mountain like a honeycomb. I aimed the camera at homes stacked above their view of Avalon Bay, and two tourists who drove by in a golf cart.
“Drop me off at Little Harbor overlook, will you?”
“Hey man, I thought I was gonna help you.”
“It’s something I need to do by myself. Give me three hours.”
Carlos took off his cowboy hat, his rugged face brown as the hills. He smoothed back his dark graying hair.
“Two,” he said. “Make time for Maria before your boat leaves.”
“I planned on it.”
I put the camera inside my bag in the back of the truck.
“Why Little Harbor?”
“Mom liked it.”
“She never said anything to me about it. Man, she could be loopy.” He laughed. “When she was at our house—before smart phones, you were a kid—she’d leave messages to herself on her answering machine. A diary type thing.” He sniffed. “I never knew if she was for real or not.”
“She talked in riddles.”
“Man, she was a trip. Kindest person I ever knew.” He opened the door and hopped into the driver’s seat.
We drove up Divide Road, past the Wrigley residence, turned on Old Stage Road and headed into the interior.
We passed bison, their ancestors left in the olden days when they made cowboy movies. Carlos stepped on the gas. He drove up and over the drought ridden hills.
In minutes, we were at Airport-In-The-Sky. The three towers, Spanish tile, and wagon wheels with plants tangled through the spokes. Small, isolated, just like its name—in the sky.
Mom never shed her hippie beads and anklets, walking barefoot, doing yoga, and vegan diet. She told me she burned her bras in the seventies, slept with Jim Morrison, dropped acid and tried to be a lesbian. She also read movie magazines, had facials, manicures and wore make-up. She was a glamorous hippie. Until the day she passed, she burned incense, though the doctors told her not to, and played Carole King and Aretha Franklin albums.
She had me at the age of thirty-seven, said it was the best thing that ever happened to her.
Mom’s last words were, “Gwendolyn, don’t worry about the Earth. As soon as man destroys himself, the Earth will replenish.”
Carlos drove along the dirt road beside the pine and eucalyptus trees.
Nothing had changed since that day twenty years ago—the pyramid-like cliffs, brown fields of brush and cacti, blue and white everywhere, the sky, the sea, wisps of clouds, and ribbons of breakers crashing against the rocks.
Carlos went off-road and parked at the overlook.
“Two hours.” I opened the door, went to the flatbed, unzipped my backpack, pulled out the tripod and camera and dropped the bag on the ground.
Carlos slammed the door. “Need help?”
“I got it.”
He looked at the mountains. “Man, we could sure use some rain.” He sighed. “Be back at three, then we go see Maria.”
The truck wheels kicked up dirt. He made a sharp turn and drove off.
I adjusted the tripod, clamped on the camera, highlighted the settings.
Looking into the lens, I said, “I’m the daughter of Megan Jones, an artist, who grew up in the 1960s. You’ve probably seen her work, especially if you read romance novels. But her landscape water colors also—.” Flashes appeared in the lens. “Ah, what now?” Was I out of focus? My settings off? It had a six-hour battery life. In the lens, I saw a starburst break above me, a shower of fallen rays. I spun around. Beams of light pranced above the ocean. They skipped, danced. I moved to the precipice. Riveted by the lights, I watched as particles rearranged themselves, silver, glittered. I stepped to the rim of the bluff, laughing, as if the spectacle were for me. The lights disappeared.
Dejected, I waited, stared out to sea, searched the sky, no airplanes or helicopters. What was it? Mystified, I turned to the camera.
There it was!
Molecules rearranged themselves, several hundred feet across the field. The mirage shimmied without form. I aimed the camera when a portal of light appeared. The person in the arch I knew to be Jemjasee.
I ran, gulping air. Tears, laughter, questions and sorrows erased. I felt my mother beside me. Was it her voice or my imagination? “Yes, Gwendolyn, part of you does come from far away.”
Jemjasee floated down a ramp that extended before each step, elegant in a kaleidoscopic jumpsuit, her lithe figure youthful, yellow hair, golden bronze skin.
I slumped into her arms. Her love radiated on everything, the purple blooming cacti, the brown chaparral turned brilliant with color, her consciousness a fragrance of a thousand bouquets.
She shook her head and took a necklace with a pendant that hung around her neck.
“He made it for you, should I ever see you again.”
“What is it?”
“A red diamond with Catalina quartz that he excavated a long time ago. The diamond is from my home, Seren.”
“It’s gorgeous. Thank you,” I said, putting it over my head. “I dreamt of you.”
“And you came.”
“Why couldn’t we have been a family?”
“On Seren, anyone with the V-Gene is forbidden to immigrate. Father wanted to settle somewhere else, but your mother was afraid of leaving here.”
I’m afraid to leave. Now her ravings made sense.
“What’s the V-gene?”
“The gene of violence.”
“Why couldn’t we all live here?”
Jemjasee shook her head. “It would be like drowning, for Father and me, if we lived on Dual.”
“That’s what we call Earth. Everything here is either good or bad, rich or poor, win or lose. The pendulum swings, happy one moment sad the next. That’s why we call Earthlings ‘Dualities.’” She touched my face, a breeze against my cheek. “On Seren, we don’t live in the outer so much as the inner world.”
“All the time? Don’t you get bored?”
Jemjasee laughed. “Bliss is never boring.”
She took deep breaths. Her bare toes scrunched dirt, twigs and rocks. I watched, magnetized by the woman whose strangeness reflected my own, but she was confident, as if only good could come her way.
I turned back to where I first saw her. “How come I can’t see your ship?”
“It reflects the terrain it enters. Would you like a tour before I leave?”
The thought of her leaving made me despair. “Later.”
She gazed at the vista.
“Dual used to be a popular vacation spot for aliens. They came from different universes, took home souvenirs, gems, cocoa.” She glanced at me. “Now, few come. It’s hard to enter this dimension with the mounting density of fear. If we fail to navigate through it, we crash.”
We watched a flock of birds head south, and I thought about how animals and plants taught me patience and integrity. They weren’t afraid of me.
“Can Seren help us?”
“We don’t interfere with other civilizations.”
We headed toward the cliffs.
“Your mother set up her easel, right there, when Father crossed her path. Over the campfire at Little Harbor, they fell in love.”
I imagined my mother, how she must have been then. Her passions great, so consuming they robbed her peace of mind.
“Let’s head back. I have work to do, and I must leave soon.”
“You just got here,” I argued. “What kind of work?”
“I people young planets. Like Paxos, a twin of Dual.”
People planets? Earth has a twin? “How do you do that?”
“It can take a day or years to establish a contact. The decision to leave home is always their own.”
“Where do the people come from?”
“Many came from here. Now I recruit from other universes. Intergalaticals with humanoid DNA, who through countless incarnations learned and apply the nature of peace.” She reached for my hand. “I must go.”
“Are you intergalatical?”
“No. Both Father and my mother were Serenians. We share the same forefathers as all humanoids, but without the V-gene.”
The mention of my father demanded an answer to my question, and I wouldn’t let her go. “What was Father like?”
“He was an artist, like your mother. He designed Seren’s Mothership and was known as a great navigator.” Tenderness gleamed from her being. “He loved you and your mother.”
She put her arm around me, and my sadness seeped away.
“How far away is Paxos?” I said without moving.
“Seven-hundred-thousand light years. In my neighborhood, close-by to Seren.”
“With people like me? Mixed?”
I couldn’t fathom the distance, nor could I grasp that Earth had a twin where everyone lived in peace. “Can that happen here?”
“If everyone is like-minded.”
It didn’t seem possible.
Jemjasee walked on as I lingered behind.
“I won’t see you again, will I?”
She turned with tears in her eyes.
Why risk her life to come back here? I felt the sting of defeat, a personal failure for myself and my planet. I continued on, missing her before she was gone.
Without command, a ramp and arch appeared.
“How did it do that?”
“The vessel’s malleable, chipped to my thoughts.”
We went through the dome.
When I walked into the chamber, I thought I was still outside. The structure was invisible, but there was a panel—about twenty feet long with keyboards and buttons, switches, knobs and screens inlaid like mosaics into a control board. The floor too was clear, which gave me the spooky sensation of hovering inches above the ground. A spiral escalator several feet away appeared suspended.
“How tall is it? How wide?”
“It can be limited to design. I prefer space.”
In an instant, the ship had an hourglass structure, three tiers and large enough to hold twenty people. “It’s more like a rocket than a spaceship.”
I stood in the ship turned on its side.
She touched a switch on the console, and a multidimensional planet appeared.
“Paxos,” Jemjasee said.
She brought the planet to me. Dwarfed by pillars of granite rock, the smell of pine filtered through a canopy of trees where I glimpsed a purple and orange sunset.
“It looks like Yosemite,” I said gazing at several waterfalls.
She placed me in a city where every brightly colored building was oblong or round. Atop a hill, an arrow of lighting flashed by, “The transit system,” Jemjasee said. She swooped in close. I stood beside people who looked like me, some different, all humanoids.
Then I found myself on a dirt road beside farmlands and fields of wildflowers. A young man came running over. His attire: a kilt or a skirt with patterns of exotic animals that moved as he ran, his skin a marble wash of lavender and green.
“Hi, I’m Deke.” He took in my jeans and denim jacket. “You from Dual?”
“Yes. My name’s Gwendolyn. Where are you from, originally?”
“How long have you been here?”
“Do like it?”
“Sure, don’t you?” he asked.
“I’m just visiting.”
“Oh.” He sounded disheartened.
“What kind of animals are here?” I asked.
“Like those on Dual. But they’re all vegan, like we are. Everyone has a garden on Paxos. Many, like me are farmers. I grow food for all the animals.”
“Vegan lions and wolves?”
He nodded. “We have a common goal, that every breath increases our chances to detach from the V-Gene.”
I wanted to touch him to see if his skin was cool or warm like his eyes. “Do you have a family?”
“No, but I want one.”
I was back inside the ship, wishing I could have stayed and talked to Deke.
“Peace everywhere?” I asked. “Even the animals?”
“If someone’s actions cause harm,” Jemjasee said. “They’re taken off-planet. Everything, thought or deed, is for the greatest good of all.”
I thought about Deke, his skin a watercolor of heavens, reminding me of my mother’s paintings.
“Am I eligible?”
“And I’d see you, often?”
Could I leave—The Self-Realization Center, Carlos, Maria and the kids?
I went to the arch and looked out at the cliffs. I’d be leaving mom’s artwork behind and the emerald ring and earrings she gave me for my sixteenth birthday. Would she be hurt if I took nothing but her memory?
A wistful feeling of all that had been swept over me.
I took a step forward. The ramp rolled onto the ground. I took off my shoes. Sprigs and rocks scuffed my heels. A breeze fluttered strands of hair across my face.
I’d be accepted on Paxos. I never considered a husband or child, but now?
I saw Carlos’s truck. His tires spewed billows of dust as he headed toward the overlook.
I gazed across the field to my camera and backpack.
Fear had destroyed Mom’s life. I mustn’t let that happen to me. Perhaps that would be her tribute.
Go Gwendolyn, my mother whispered on the wind. Go.
The story first appeared in Lunch Ticket Issue 9: Summer/Fall 2016.
Edited by Steve Hovland
D.C. Diamondopolous is an award-winning short story, and flash fiction writer with over 300 stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals, and anthologies. Her stories have appeared in: Penmen Review, Progenitor, 34th Parallel, So It Goes: The Literary Journal of the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library, Lunch Ticket, and others. She was nominated for the Pushcart Prize twice in 2020 and also for Best of the Net Anthology in 2020 and 2017. Her short story collection Stepping Up is published by Impspired. She lives on the California central coast with her wife and animals. Her new book Captured UP Close: 20th Century Short Stories, is coming out in June, 2022. Find out more at DCDiamondopolous.com.