The end of Week 1
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cereal serial version of Octave of Stars! Episodes will release every Monday and Thursday. If you’re finding this story for the first time, be sure to start at Episode 01 for maximum comprehension, or check out The Index for all available Episodes.
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A flock of pigeons took to the wing as the bus let out a pneumatic hiss, slowly rolling away from the curb and into traffic. Ash adjusted the straps on his pack, feeling the extra weight of the books. He could have carried them all easily, but that would have only emboldened her further. The memory of the last time they had done this came back to him, the serious concern in her voice: But if I only get a few at a time, someone else might buy the rest!
The final leg of their journey required them to cross a large paved plaza that spanned the entire block, from the bus stop to the parallel street opposite. Cascadia never thought of it as a requirement, though. Rather than having to cross the plaza, she saw it as getting to cross.
The center of the space was given over to an enormous round fountain, with ornately decorated stone spouts in the shapes of fishes and other sea creatures, the concrete ring wide enough to sit and enjoy the view. Cascadia wanted to do just that, but first she used the outer screen of her dark blue phone to check the time.
"We're on time," she said to Ash, as they walked away from the bus stop. "We'll get a good seat for sure." She turned off the phone's ringtone.
He chuckled while doing the same. "We always get a good seat."
Across from the fountain was the back entrance to the chapel of the parish church that took up the northern part of the block. The exterior of the building was stone, carved with similar aquatic patterns as the fountain, owing to the church's designation as Star of the Sea. The statue of the Virgin Mary stood watchful over the double doorway, her hands outstretched in prayer atop carved ocean waves. Cascadia kept her hand on the stair rail so she could keep her eyes on the statue. She had always felt particularly close to this representation of the Blessed Mother, a calmer of storms and refuge for the troubled.
Ash opened the door that squeaked the least and waited for Cascadia to enter. She pulled her bag around her waist to access the white lace veil she kept there, draping it over her red hair and pinning the corners underneath her braid. Ash made sure the door closed softly to not disturb the peaceful atmosphere inside. He went to the Holy Water font, then stood in silence while she finished preparing.
Cascadia approached the font and dipped her finger in. She was so lost in thought, she obtained not a drop of blessed liquid, but the entire contents of the bowl, attached to her finger in an undulating bubble. "Oops," she whispered, before setting it back inside as gently as she could with an amorphous handful of water. She forced it to settle down again.
The panic swelled within her until she remembered this was daily Mass, not Sunday; the only other people around were the old Filipino ladies who practically lived in the front pews, and a handful of retirees and other folks who had the time to attend the sacrament in the middle of the afternoon. On top of that, almost all of them had their eyes fixed forward; the altar with the tabernacle behind it and the carved wooden crucifix above. Ash had noticed, but he gave her a confident smile and a nod. She nodded back.
They chose a pew in the middle and kneeled side by side. The chapel was small but not simple, with wood paneling on the walls and a large chandelier with a dozen light bulbs fashioned to look like candles.
Ash offered prayers for his parents, his brothers, his cousins, uncles, and aunts. It was quite the list, but there hadn't been any baptisms in a few years, so he had gotten good at reciting the current lineup. He prayed he would find a better job, since that was clearly what he needed to do. He also prayed for Cascadia, that she would do well in school and be successful in her endeavors.
Cascadia prayed for her small family: her parents, and brother, and the aunt she knew had gone into the hospital recently. She prayed for her friends from school and her comrades in her writing group. She asked for continued inspiration in her writing, so she could be a reflection of His will in the world through her words. And of course, she couldn't forget the man beside her, that he would have the wisdom to know God's will and the courage to do it.
The bell beside the altar rang. They stood up as the priest entered, adorned in his green vestments to say the opening prayers. There was no choir, no music, just the priest and the black-haired homeschool mother who presided at the ambo for the readings, her squadron of children in the front pew kept in line by the oldest girls.
The Old Testament reading was one of the prophets foretelling doom, but also the possible reconciliation of God's people if they turned back toward him. Ash always felt a connection with these passages because of his similar journey in life.
After the Gospel, the priest remained at the ambo and gave his homily. He was nearly bald, with round glasses and a rounder face, and always had a contented smile. He told a story about how the ancient translators of the Bible took the Virgin Mary's Hebrew name and translated it into Greek, which in Latin became 'stilla maris', or 'drop of the sea.' An error by a copyist turned it into 'stella maris,' or Star of the Sea.1 His point was, despite these human errors, nothing happens by accident with God. He makes no mistakes; even if His works don't make sense, or appear to be errors to us, they are still part of His plan.
Cascadia resonated with this concept, having frequently wondered what God's design for her truly was. Clearly, she was meant to be an author; she had been honing that talent since she was young. But how did her other talents fit into God's plan? She prayed again she could be useful to Him, when and where she was needed.
The consecration began, and they kneeled during the silent raising of the host. Ash opened his hands, inviting reception of the upcoming sacrament. He prayed he would have a place at the Supper of the Lamb, to partake in the rich foods of the feast. When the priest raised the chalice, Cascadia imagined the choice wines and the wedding at Cana. An overflow of mercy, refreshment for all.
They filed up for Communion one by one, Cascadia making sure her veil was still in place. Ash was in front, receiving in the hand, recalling the words of Jesus in Luke 12. He came to set the Earth on fire, and Ash was definitely already blazing. As he consumed the sacrament, he accepted Jesus' fire into his own.
Cascadia received the Body on the tongue, then turned to the homeschool mother who held the chalice. She took a sip of the Precious Blood, tasting the sourness and sweetness. She reflected on the dual natures of the wine, in more than one manner. Contradictory natures combined into one thing. Complementary attributes that worked together. Divine sacraments in a tangible object. She watched Ash as they walked back to their pew, musing on how this duality pertained to the two of them as well.
The Communion line was finished by the time they settled back on their kneelers. Father called them to rise for the last prayer and blessing. Once he had recessed back into the sacristy through the same door he had entered from, Ash and Cascadia sat down to finish their prayers.
It wasn't quite four o'clock, according to Ash's watch, so he leaned back and tapped Cascadia on the shoulder, showing her his rosary, a complicated string of knotted paracord. She nodded, then sat herself and procured her own, a delicate one made from blue glass beads and silver wire. They made the Sign of the Cross, then began the Chaplet of Divine Mercy in silent union.
Ash tried to keep his fidgeting to a minimum, bouncing his leg and shifting around when he felt uncomfortable. He closed his eyes to focus, but his attention was inevitably drawn to some sound or another around him. Cascadia didn't have any trouble sitting still, in fact, she enjoyed it. She clasped her hands in her lap and moved her rosary through her fingers with a look of peace on her face.
To keep himself still, Ash reached under his collar and pulled out his scapular, to feel the small square of rough brown wool on his fingers. Tied to the string were other images of saints embroidered on wool squares, like small scapulars themselves. He went through them, asking for intercession from each in turn. The image of the Miraculous Medal, the Divine Mercy, the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Saint Dominic, and Saint Lawrence. Ash recalled the discussion he and Cascadia had years ago about this last holy individual. When choosing his entourage of patron saints, he had initially picked Saint Florian, because of his association with fire, only to learn he was actually the patron of firefighters. Instead, he gave the image to Cascadia, who seemed better suited for it, and picked Saint Lawrence instead.
As with all things, their time in the presence of God came to an end. Ash and Cascadia rose quietly from their seats, then genuflected and left the chapel, nodding to the remaining faithful they recognized. Cascadia took off her veil, grateful she had left the water in the font in its proper place this time.
Outside, the two young adults headed down the steps and toward their homes, which led them past the fountain. Each fish and seahorse emitted a stream of water from their stone mouths. Cascadia approached the edge, peering into the water to see her blue eyes reflected back, and Ash's gray ones as he came up beside her. She enjoyed the scintillating collection of coins that coated the bottom, sunken treasure to be pulled out of the depths, but not in full view of everyone outside. That would be, as she liked to put it, unwise.
It was only a short walk across the rest of the plaza to the place they both called home, a long and wide brick building. They went up the stairway to the front entrance, Ash once again holding the door for her. The decor of the lobby and hallways hadn't been updated in decades, flat green carpet and fake plants along each wall. Charming little paintings hung between the windows that faced the courtyards and let in some of the afternoon sun.
Cascadia stepped up to one door in the third-floor hallway and pulled out a blue enameled key. Ash walked a dozen paces farther to the next door and took out his, a plain metal one.
"Welcome home," Cascadia called, and they each entered their respective spaces.
Ash's apartment was a modest studio, a single room with the only other door leading to the small bathroom. He unloaded his gear at the table in the middle of the room; backpack, jacket and shoes, stacking the books he'd been carrying neatly. The corner by the window served as the kitchen, a refrigerator, stove, and sink lined up with short lengths of countertop between. He closed the blinds before opening the refrigerator and taking inventory. It had been a few hours since he had eaten at the restaurant, but it was still a little early for dinner. It looked like he needed to make more coffee for tomorrow, though.
A cupful of beans went through the hand-cranked grinder, the grounds soaked in a repurposed glass jar full of water and stored in the fridge to brew overnight. This final work done, he dropped onto the fabric loveseat in the middle of the room, one arm over the back and the other flipping open his phone. Framed on the wall above the bed was a picture frame with not a photo, but a piece of calligraphy, writing as art: 'Isaiah 43:2.'
Right on cue, he heard a specific pattern of knocks from the hallway door. "Come in," he called, and Cascadia unlocked the door and did just that, going straight to the table.
"I'll be right back," she said, "I just want to put these with their friends, so they don't get lonely."
At dinnertime, he had company over. Cascadia had spread out books across the table, some printed and some waiting to receive print. Ash assembled the supplies for his own kind of artwork on the countertop. He tied the strings of his apron, the red one she had bought for him with a cartoon of a barbecue grill with flames issuing forth from the top. He placed the oiled wok on the stove, then reached below it. With one hand, he turned on the gas, and with the other he snapped his fingers, the burner flaring to life.2
Cascadia glanced up from her readings. "Are you ever going to get that fixed?"
He shrugged. "I'll tell them when I move out. Anyway, this cooking has begun."
"Thirty minutes remaining," she intoned.
"Good thing I only have one dish to prepare."
She put her elbow on the table and propped her head in her hand, the pen still in her fingers. "So what's on the menu tonight, chef?"
"I thought I'd do a simple stir-fry, rice noodles with a little bit of oil," he added ingredients to the wok as he spoke, "with broccoli, carrots and onion, and pressed, frozen tofu for our vegetarian judge. I'll add chicken with chili sauce for the chef later."
Cascadia put on a high falsetto voice. "Oh, that sounds wonderful, I've never had anything like it."
He smiled, but kept his focus. "Now we'll hit it with some powdered garlic, to let it really infuse the oil. That's gonna add a lot of flavor."
She left him to his work, intending to finish at least part of her own by tonight. She had been struggling all afternoon, trying to figure out what sort of themes and meanings she could glean from the assigned readings. Instead of archetypes and connections, her notes were mostly full of ideas for her next story.
Once fifteen minutes had elapsed, she sighed. "I wonder if my 'A' in creative writing would help to cancel out a 'D' in English literature."
Ash stirred the contents of the wok with large chopsticks. "Do you have a 'D'?"
"Well no, but I will when I give up on this assignment."
He opened the burner. "That sounds like a… what did you call it? A fatalistic world view?"
"Maybe you're right. I should at least try, even though I am doomed to failure."
"Hey, what happened to the celebration earlier today?" He turned away from the stove for a moment, leveling the chopsticks at her. "You sold a story, that's hardly 'doomed to failure'."
"You're right, I did do that." She closed the largest book, before realizing she hadn't marked her place, and frowned. She got up and stretched, pushing her pale red braid over her shoulder. "That smells amazing, is there anything I can do to help?"
Ash added one more dash of chili sauce to the chicken searing away in the smaller cast-iron pan. "Nope, almost done. You could set the table if you're done too."
"Absolutely," she went to the single narrow cabinet, the top half of shelves holding dry goods and the bottom, tableware. She was to his right, with the open door between them, so she couldn't see whatever caused him to let out an exclamation.
Ash had spilled a bit too much oil out of the pan and it landed on the burner, flaring up with an impressive force. He expertly set down the food and killed the gas, but instead of reaching for a pot lid or the baking soda, he put his hand above the flame and pushed down slowly. The raging flames shivered and shrank, until he reached an agreement with them and slapped his hand directly down on the still-hot burner, the fire completely out.
Cascadia peeked around the protective door, a small bubble of water between her fingertips. "Need some help?"
"That wouldn't stop a grease fire…" He made sure the other burners were off while wiping up the excess oil. "I think this challenge is over, though."
She dropped the bubble in the sink, then picked up two plates decorated with blue and white flowers. "I'm glad you haven't had to do that at work yet."
Ash gave her a smirk. "No, not yet. Right now the worst I can do is forget to burn myself."
Cascadia cleared and set the table, while Ash cleaned up the stove. Next up was tasting and scoring, but she was going to eat the whole thing and would have given it a perfect score if asked.
After dinner, it was time for Ash to return the favor and pay his neighbor a visit. Cascadia's apartment was a mirror image of Ash's. Her kitchen was to the left of the front door, although about the only action one could take there was boiling water in the teakettle; nearly every other piece of kitchen equipment had been contributed to Ash's cooking studio. The two-person table was nearby, perfect for early morning coffee and tea while gazing out the window. If one could find a place to set their mug between the stacks of books and papers.
The corner of the studio was shared territory: Ash's television sat on a low table, dusted and neat, beside Cascadia's computer desk, strewn with pens and assignments. The rest was all hers; the bookshelf packed to capacity, the bed piled high with pillows and quilts, the sections of floor containing the perpetual overflow of the bookcase.
Ash stretched out on the floral print couch for his evening vigil of the cooking channel. Hotdog Wars was about to finish, and he sat up to check the channel guide booklet and what to expect next.
"Ugh, not Cupcake Fancier, I hate that show. Italian Destinations isn't on until later."
Cascadia sat in front of her computer, an enormous desktop model that whirred almost as loudly as the television. The rhythmic clack of the keyboard ceased. Leaning back in her chair, she glanced at the top of the desk, where the framed words 'Isaiah 43:2' stood in their frame. "You know, I just got an awesome book series. As compensation for helping me carry them, I'll let you read them if you want."
"That's generous of you," he replied while flipping through the local channels. "Here's the news, I wanna see if we need to pack umbrellas tomorrow. I heard it was going to rain in the next week."
"I can see the weather online," she said, clicking toward the information as she spoke.
"Yeah, but you're supposed to be studying. Why are you even talking to me right now?"
She looked at the larger of the two clocks on her wall, a fancy model with a decorated face and scrollwork hands. "Good point."
Ash restored the sound and watched a report on firefighters rescuing a family of ducklings from a storm drain, then the predictions for the next university football game. It wasn't until after this that something caught Cascadia's attention.
"…Earlier today, energy conglomerate Frost Enterprises called a press conference to reveal an important new announcement…"
"Oh, I have got to see this," she said, turning around in her chair.
"Didn't you do a report on them for your environment class?"
"Yup. Oil drilling, hydro fracturing, coal mining, they're about as bad as it gets."
The news segment changed to a podium emblazoned with a stylized blue and black 'F', which appeared more like a stone tower than a letter. Standing behind the podium was an elderly gentleman, wearing an immaculate black suit, the same color as his combed-back dark hair, and sporting a gray beard and moustache. Standing behind him were two equally well-dressed fellows, a slim man of East Asian descent with a permanent smirk, and an imposing African-American. The gentleman spoke, his British accent unmistakable.
"We have a commitment as stewards of this planet. Whatever philosophy you ascribe to, this world was not made by our hands, and we cannot treat it as some expendable plaything. With that, we are announcing a new initiative at Frost Enterprises. While we have made some forays into cleaner energy, I am committing, as of this moment forward, that we will cease all development of new projects involving coal and petroleum, and manoeuvre toward investing totally in solar, wind, and other types of energies."
The applause of the assembled reporters was preempted by the news anchor. "Over the past six months, company stocks had taken a downturn following reports of sabotage at key facilities by so-called vigilante eco-terrorists. Official statements by the company denied this, citing infrastructure failures instead. Regardless, analysts are predicting today's announcement will result in a positive effect on stocks…"
Cascadia's mood enjoyed no positive effects. "Something is fishy here," she said at last, her brow furrowed. "Eighty-seven percent of their revenue comes from oil and gas, why would they just give that up?" She waved a hand in irritation. "Also, what does 'other types of energy' mean? Why don't they just come out and say it?"
"Maybe he doesn't know," Ash pointed out. "Maybe no one has told him yet."
"This whole thing is ridiculous." She perched on the edge of her chair like a bird of prey, her arms and legs crossed. "They can't just undo all the damage they've already done with a bunch of solar panels and windmills."
"Well, at least they're trying, right? They know what they're doing isn't working and want to try to fix it?"
Cascadia's indignation rose inside her. It was just another feature of her unpredictable heart, one moment she was a placid sea, the next was anything but. "Are you defending them? A company that's destroyed thousands of square miles of animal habitats and dumped who knows what into the oceans?"
Ash stood his ground, the challenge sparking the embers of his own heart, even though his competitor was her. "No, I'm just coming at it from the other side. No one is truly bad, right? Everyone deserves a chance to do right, even if they're 'as bad as it gets'?"
She visibly relaxed, her shoulders loosening despite her rolling eyes. "Okay, you're right." Her inner waves were calming. "I don't know why I'm yelling about this anyway, I already turned in that paper last semester." She shook her head to clear it, then checked the clocks again. The smaller one, hung lower, was set six hours ahead of the local time. "Ugh, I've got to finish this by tonight. No more distractions!" She whirled around again.
Ash grinned at the back of her head while the weather report came on. Indeed, it was supposed to rain by the weekend.
The television chef wrapped up their culinary lesson just as Cascadia closed her book and switched off the computer monitor. "That's all for tonight, thank goodness." She stretched, coming back to the current space and time. "Wait, did we already pray the Rosary, in the chapel?"
Ash turned off the television. "No, we prayed the Chaplet. We should do it before I head home, though."
"Good idea," Cascadia said, pulling her wire and glass rosary out of her skirt pocket. "It's such a long journey, you need to be fortified spiritually before undertaking it."
Ash moved over to the corner of the couch and she occupied the other, as they completed their devotions, and the day.
Octave of Stars is currently airing on Substack for free, with two of the 45 total posts per week. It’ll be fully released at the end of April 2024. If you don’t want to wait that long, you can get the entire story right now, in either Ebook or paperback. Every purchase supports the ZMT Books mission of family-friendly entertainment.
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