I hope you are enjoying my new Selah book. I’ve decided to make it easier to read by placing the new version of Chapter 1 here.
A Prison in the Desert
Selah saw the metal gun, strangely beautiful like silver, glinting in the lamp light of the dingy trailer living room. Her mother backed up against the farthest wall, screaming, looking starkly bright in her red nightgown against the faded yellow wallpaper whose pattern once entwined like flowers.
“Put that away!” she kept repeating, lacing her long, graceful fingers over her eyes like a shield. “Put that away! I was not serious when I said ‘go ahead.’ I didn’t think you really had a gun. Where did you get it? Put it away! Selah is here with us! Winter Solstice is tomorrow. How can you react like this when I—simply—asked if we could go to the party at my mother’s mansion?”
Selah walked toward her father who held the gun up near his head. Dark tresses fell forward on his forehead, and his brown eyes glowed like translucent stones of amber with strange, dead life forms caught within it.
“You’ll be better off without me,” he mumbled. Selah smelled the alcohol on his breath. Did he even know what he was doing?
He saw her step closer and lowered the gun a little. A shadow seemed to pass across his too-bright eyes, like dark wings beating. He reached his free hand toward her but still clutched the gun with his other one.
“Daddy, don’t,” she said, too calmly for a child. She reached out her hand to touch his outstretched fingers.
What happened in that moment to make him withdraw his arm and look away from her?
“Nooooo!” her mother screamed.
Her drawn-out word was lost in the sudden clap of sound more terrible than thunder.
“I don’t want to see it all again,” Selah mumbled, turning her face away from bright red streaks that washed up on the faded wall.
Where is the cold, peaceful dark that can hide me from these images? she wondered.
The midnight poured through closed, barred windows when Selah parted the crimson drapes. Stars swirled inside the darkness like a firefly dance. Selah reached out to catch one in her hand. It glowed between her fingers. She took a step, wishing for a tree. A fir tree appeared, draping its branches around her shoulders like antique lace. It was the perfect place to hide. She opened her fist and placed the firefly star upon the closest branch.
“Oh, cover me,” she cried. “Keep me from the empty dark and memories. Hide me from the loneliness.”
She ached with desolation, like pain shooting from head to toe.
“How can I go on like this?” she asked the distant sky where more stars glistened. “Even my dreams are loss and sorrow. Even my nightmares end with me alone.”
The distant sound of bells broke through the shifting images of dreams. Selah reached out to her bedside table, pressed a button, and silenced the Tech device that woke her.
The sun was not up yet. Faint wisps of pink and orange clouds like feathers drifted above the east. Selah looked up at them between the open wooden window blinds.
“It was just a dream, again,” she whispered to console herself.
Her mobile Tech device blinked red, drawing her eyes to it. She sat up and reached for it, staring at its luminescent blue screen that glowed with particles of light. The red light pulsed through it, telling her that it would not stop until she checked the message that waited for her.
Jessie had texted her in the middle of the night again. Jess preferred the Low-Tech system of contact, avoiding RTVC (Real-Time Video Calls). “Mom, I don’t believe in the Maker because I keep asking Him for a Miracle, and He does not give me one,” the black letters read against the pale blue screen.
Selah replied, though she knew that Jessie had been up late, ingesting chemicals with her friends, and would now be sleeping:
“You don’t see all the miracles around you, Jess. Look for them! Where are you staying now? Can I come see you?”
She sent the message and stared at the Tech for awhile, holding its rectangular cold metal and glass in her hands. It brought her little comfort but much stress. She thought, as she kept staring at the luminescent, slightly pulsing light, If only I had a Mate who could contact me through Tech, I would never lay down this device.
She slipped the Tech inside her red purse and swung her feet down to the cold tile floor. Grabbing her warmest, fleece-lined robe, she stumbled toward the corner table to heat up water in an electric kettle. She opened a glass jar of coffee powder and stared at its enigma.
“Why can’t I figure out the formula for making decent coffee?” she asked aloud as she dropped 2 teaspoons into the boiling water.
Selah’s morning routine was quite predictable. She hydrated her face and hands with rose-based lotion, brushed her unruly hair, and pinned it down. She picked out a sensible green work shirt from the closet and buttoned it to just below her chin. She stepped into her black work pants, slipped her cold feet into warm boots, and grabbed her see-through carry bag.
Selah stepped out of the house and braced herself for cold air. Wind blew down from snow-covered mountains that surrounded the High Desert. She wrapped her jacket around her and pulled on her gloves as she balanced 2 bags, a travel coffee mug, and the scarf she had not yet wound around her neck. Her red-gold hair, annoyingly curly, peeked out beneath a black knit cap.
“It might snow today,” she mumbled to no one as she locked the door behind her and approached a white car that was covered with ice. “Funny that they call this a desert when it snows sometimes!”
She unlocked the door and pushed her bags and coffee mug inside—then sat down on the cold driver’s seat, placed the key in the ignition, and started the engine.
“Good car,” she remarked. “You don’t let the cold stall you.” She adjusted her seatbelt, turned up the heater and windshield warmer, and drank a little from the mug.
“I still can’t make a good cup of coffee,” she mused, staring at designs the ice made on the windshield in front of her. It was beginning to melt. She watched dark streaks overtake white crystals. Why am I so fascinated by ice? She wondered, leaning forward a little, taking off one glove, and touching the cold glass.
What’s wrong with me?
She had been asking that question a lot lately. She felt as if something were about to happen, as if she stood on the edge of a cliff and would step off only to discover she could fly.
She glanced at her watch and then at the car’s dashboard. The 2 clocks were in sync. 06:55. Time to go. She put her glove back on and reversed the car, careful to look behind her as she pulled out of the driveway and onto the suburban desert street that was lined with sand and cactus plants, not grass or flowers.
The first part of Selah’s drive to work seemed normal: a four-lane road that wound up a hill, past houses and markets and streetlights. Going down the hill was when things started to change: the black metal bridge across the rock-strewn river; the old part of town with its run-down buildings; the train station with spray-painted railroad wagons and rusty tracks; the truck stops littered with dusty rigs. Then came the giant warehouse complex with its tall tower, blacked-out and broken windows, and strange machines scattered around it.
A group of Forgotten huddled together near an abandoned house, and Selah watched them as she waited at a stoplight: thin, dusty, wearing ragged, mismatched clothes, men and women together with a couple of dogs and old baby strollers piled high with plastic bags and cardboard boxes. Sometimes a child would huddle with them. Of all things abandoned in the desert, the Forgotten spoke most of desolation.
On a planet more crowded with people than ever, in a world with Tech devices that could instantly capture anyone’s image on a glowing screen of sound and pixels, in a place where most looked down but not upward, how could people feel so lonely?
Selah called her world Apocalypse Desert. Its sad mood, as if on the very EDGE of All Things Good—the End of The World as We Know It—mirrored the sorrow in her heart.
“What’s wrong with me?” she asked out loud. “Why do I feel as though my life is over, and all good things that ever came to me are—gone?”
She tried not to cry, but tears welled in her eyes, and she wiped one away with her gloved hand.
In the distance, beneath red hills where nothing grew, strange edifices made of twisted metal glowed with blinking lights, near domed buildings that could be nuclear reactors or Doomsday Bunkers.
If Selah was on time, there was very little traffic. She drove past the vista point and stared across the vast spread of desert dotted by blackish Joshua trees with blue-green razor pikes for leaves. Beneath tall white windmills, the road curved to the left, past the airport and the first of many desert prisons.
Selah watched the curved fence of the federal prison complex, winding up and down beneath two red-checkered water towers. The sky turned gray, sunrise covered by billowing clouds.
Oh Apocalypse Desert, how are you today? she wondered.
She sipped her bitter coffee, careful to place the mug back in its cup holder. She was not eating—again. She knew the Maker understood her reasons. She was praying, fasting. Every moment of the day and even in her dreams at night, as she lay alone on her memory foam bed with its pillows and soft blankets, Selah cried out with her soul and mind (and sometimes her voice), “Oh, Maker, please do not make me live alone here. It feels as if the world is ending! Do not forget me. Send me someone!”
Or was it really a Beginning? Selah was not sure. Her whole life felt tilted on the edge of something terrible or wonderful, like the planet she called “home” tilted on its axil, on the edge of solar system, galaxy, universe—on the edge of time itself, not straight like a line, but round as circles inside circles.
I am too sad to eat. I feel too overwhelmed. She knew the Maker heard her. And it is almost Winter Solstice. The office staff will be giving out cookies and chocolate . . .
At the last stoplight, Selah bent down the car mirror to check her reflection. Her blue-green eyes looked bright enough, her cheeks a little red. She did not pause to ask herself why she cared about her figure. There was no man in her life to criticize or compliment her—no mother, either, nor father, uncle, brother, sister, aunt . . . Only her daughter Jessie seemed to notice if Selah were alive or dead, and Jessie was busy living her life near the Golden City and making mistakes as Selah had done.
Oh, Jessie, if only I could protect you, Selah thought. All I seem able to do is send you messages you don’t reply to, and I worry, and pray to the Maker for you.
Selah pulled into the parking lot, grabbed her clear vinyl bag, and got out of the car. She adjusted her jacket, clipped on her ID badge, and attached the metal keychain to her belt. She looked back inside her car for a moment, wishing she could just sit there, safely—the windows rolled up, the doors locked, her feet propped up a little by the brake peddle. Her car was the only thing of value that she owned (or sort of owned, as she was still making big payments every month to the bank).
“I’ll be back here for lunch,” she said as if the car could still hear her. “Same as every day.” The prison was so far away from any restaurant or market, that most of the people who worked there spent their lunch breaks in the prison parking lots, tucked into their vehicles.
Selah locked the car door and turned toward the prison. It rose above the desert sand, tall walls of metal fence and curled barbed wire adorned with razors. Sometimes little birds flew in to check the mesquite plants along the walkway. They would look for nectar, flitting around in spirals as if dancing. Selah paused to watch two brown birds with greenish feathers. They looked back at her, perching on the fence before flying away, bringing hope to all who saw them.
“Silly little birds!” she called. She glanced at her watch and hurried toward the first of 9 gates she must pass through before entering the last classroom off the main corridor, the classroom on the left, by the big, white, barred gate that led to the prison yard.
Inside the waiting room, she clocked in and surrendered her see-through bag for inspection by the Correctional Officer (CO) on duty. She emptied her pockets and walked quickly through the metal detector, signed her name in the book, and skirted past The Bubble (where later a receptionist would sit, encased in bullet-proof plastic). Selah entered the Admin doors and walked down the long hallway with its cheerful yellow walls and shiny linoleum floors, through the big white gate with heavy bars, past Central Checkpoint with its dark glass outside and its many inside Tech monitors, officers watching almost every corner of the prison, in and out. She never saw her classroom on a monitor. She had heard that the camera inside it was disabled, just hanging in the ceiling’s corner to make people feel nervous with the possibility they may be watched. What did it matter, anyway? Selah had nothing to hide.
As she walked down the main corridor, past the other teachers’ classrooms, the sun suddenly shone in from outside the blue Yard Door that was left open. She paused before unlocking her gray door with the big silver key on her keychain. Sunlight spread around her as if alive, like a bird lifting its wings to fly.
What—what’s happening? she wondered. There was no answer she could hear. She blinked her eyes, hesitated a moment longer, then stepped inside the classroom and got it ready for the day. As usual, several students were already there. She barely noticed the one who sat nearest to her desk as she unlocked the back cupboard so that her clerk could take out the big plastic box full of folders and the sign-in sheet. She walked past the silent student as she unlocked the file cabinet and took out a box of pencils, some pink erasers, a few pens, and a stapler. After arranging notebooks, she pulled the telephone out of the top drawer and connected it to its cable.
It was her only link to security if she needed help, except for a panic button on the wall that she had never tested. One of two COs who walked up and down the main corridor may or may not be outside her classroom in time of need. They had radios and handcuffs, but no weapons. The DCR (Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation) officers, however, carried batons, pepper spray, non-lethal, and lethal guns on their utility belts. They dressed in green, combat-style uniforms. The Company COs wore tan pants and shirts, and some inmates teased that they were just security guards.
But Selah respected them. Once she had seen a CO walk a half-naked, barefoot prisoner down the main corridor, calling out, “Stand back against the wall!” He pushed the handcuffed inmate toward “R & R” to face special punishment inside a single cell. The captive’s long black hair hung wildly down his back like a lion’s mane, and his face was bleeding from the fight he had started. The CO, unsmiling, barely glanced toward Selah as she leaned against the wall. Across from Selah, a new convict sat down, almost crying as he watched the spectacle. Fear etched across his pale young face. He was, maybe, 18 years old but seemed like a lost child. His face looked as if he had just awoken from sleep to discover where he was, as if he was asking in his very soul,
“How did my life come to THIS?”
“Oh, Maker, help him,” Selah prayed. “Help all who are lost here!”
Selah had worked in the prison only 8 months. She had no other experience with law enforcement. She took the job because she couldn’t find one at a university, though she was educated. Sometimes inmates would give Selah trouble by refusing to do an assignment. They hardly ever yelled at her or made her feel unsafe. This was a good, private prison with clean rooms and tasty food, made by inmates in the well-organized kitchen. Selah sometimes took a free hot lunch tray because she was tired of munching on fruit and health bars in her car.
She had learned that the worst thing about prison was boredom—the long, long hours inmates face each day. They repeat a set schedule of sleeping, waking, eating, being watched and watching, waiting, sitting on a bunk while all personal items are searched and some things confiscated, dreaming, writing, drawing . . . Even she was captured by the institutional boredom in slow afternoons when she did not teach. She waited with her inmate tutors for students who needed extra help. Days behind bars stretched into weeks for them—and months and years and decades and sometimes an entire life. Prisoners could not leave in search of change. They could not find love or family or dancing or shopping or driving a car or using a Tech device or drinking coffee in a nice cafe.
Selah knew that the deepest sorrow in prison was the lack of love. In this she shared the prisoners’ fate. Though she could drive home at the end of each day, she did not feel free. She was broken, as they were . . .
She stopped staring at the phone atop the file cabinet, turned, and said,
“Good morning, students.” Her voice sounded like music, like the meaning of her name.
“Good morning,” some of them replied. They wore blue jeans and light blue t-shirts with “DCR Prisoner” written across in yellow letters.
Selah wrote the date on the whiteboard and then sat down at her big, brown wood desk. She unzipped her clear bag and took out reading glasses and pens. While her students got out their books and papers, she signed the last of the Winter Solstice cards she had given to all the staff members, though she had received very few cards in return.
Why am I even here? she wondered. Of all the places to be stuck in, why a High Desert Prison? Why not the Golden City or the ocean’s edge?
“It’s time to turn in the essays you wrote,” she announced, smiling bravely even when she did not feel like smiling. She stood up and held out her hand. The student at the end of the first row, closest to her, lifted his head and smiled back at her. He held out a batch of papers. Selah opened her eyes wider and slanted up her elvish eyebrows. She had not noticed how chocolate brown his eyes were beneath his black hair. His bright white teeth were shaped a little crooked (like her own), and his dark beard and mustache were neatly trimmed. She took the papers from him and glanced at the penciled letters along the top:
A feeling Selah had not felt for a long time slipped through her. She sat down suddenly in her chair and placed the papers on her desk. The general confusion of more students arriving and getting out their homework hid the look in Selah’s eyes as she opened a Winter Solstice greeting card that was hidden between 2 pieces of lined writing paper.
The greeting card was old-fashioned, a man and woman bundled up in a horse-drawn sleigh. They leaned together, smiling, as the horse pulled them down a snowy country lane framed by evergreens. In red, printed letters it said:
“Each Christmas with you, dear, is better than the ones before, and I love you more and more.”
Selah could not help but smile. How strange and unexpected! It was the kind of card a man would give his wife of many years, but somehow it did not feel out of place in her hands. It felt oddly comforting in the bare and lonely world she tried, unwillingly, to live in.
Selah opened it to read the handwritten note inside:
“Do not be sad, beautiful woman. Do not feel unloved. The Maker loves you, and so do I.”
She looked up sideways. The student at the end was still watching her. Their eyes locked together—for a moment—in that most unlikely place.
“You can be walking down the same long hallway you have trod for years. Then, one day, you turn the corner—and everything changes.”
The words of another Selah story filled Selah’s mind. She kept her well-marked Selah of the Summit book at home on her bedside table. Many times she had read it, late at night when she could not sleep, her finger turning each page made of soft paper, bending down corners in favorite parts, wishing she could live such a travel adventure, love story, quest for freedom from desert to the tops of mountains.
She kept looking at the student. She could not even remember his name. He was new to her class. He looked back at her, unflinching. The pupils and corneas of their eyes locked together again (brown with greenish-blue). Somehow they imprinted on each other, like baby birds follow what they first see when they break free of eggshells, like wolves who cry to the moon together and mate for life. The teacher and the student smiled. Sunlight from the hallway crept under the heavy classroom door and through the barred prison windows.
Selah never thought to return her student’s gift. Company policy dictated that she must. The Company rule was “Don’t get personally involved.” She did not think about the rules; she just accepted the Solstice Card like one accepts a Calling from the Maker. When she looked away from the student’s gaze, she read his name at the bottom of his note. DeLeon, Diego DeLeon. Selah traced the penciled letters with her finger—as if they made a treasure map. She blinked, not sure if she was imagining everything around her, and slipped the card inside her notebook. Then she stood up and began the writing class.
“The hardest part of any story is the beginning,” she said. There were 12 male students in her morning class, ranging in age from 18 to 60, 4 at each long table. At least 6 college student inmates worked at the back-wall tech monitors. Selah looked at all of them as she stood in front of the first table, her back to the whiteboard and filing cabinet. “Even the beginning of a beautiful love story is difficult,” she continued. “The beginning must lead to a change, and change is never easy. I’m going to show you a video about this, to go with what you read in the book.”
“A movie, yeah!” one student yelled.
“Can we watch it now?” another asked.
Diego DeLeon had never given Selah any trouble. He was quiet, always early to class, and happy to help the student sitting next to him. The only time she remembered talking to him was about the Maker, informally, during break one morning. She had smiled with him then, happy in the conversation, feeling somehow comfortable, as if they had both just walked into their living room, took off their shoes, and sat together on a couch with a cup of warm cocoa in their hands.
“Our video comes from a book about a woman who misjudged a man. She thought he was proud, but he was merely shy. She thought she would never talk to him, but she fell in love with him, too proud to admit it to herself until the end of the story. They could not sleep one night after they finally talked to each other. They wandered in the early morning mist, near a river and trees, on an island country far away from here, in a time long since past.”
Selah could not stop looking at DeLeon. He smiled at her again, and she did the same.
“The man and woman met in that misty morning, and they realized they had both misjudged each other, and they embraced and . . .” —she hesitated— “kissed each other. And they knew that they would become a family and make a home together.”
Had DeLeon come into her grayish life like the hero in a romantic novel? Micah saved Selah from a kind of desert prison—in the famous old story treasured in the worn, beloved book that Selah kept by her bed. Her mother named her after that Selah, whom she called Selah 1. Long ago, in a desert keep where Selah was a slave to Regan, Micah had appeared to give her a snowflake at a banquet where she served the wine. Later that night, he led her out the prison wall and to the distant mountains. That was Selah of The Summit, not the Desert. Was Selah’s story repeating now, a thousand years later, similar but different? Could she be Selah 2?
Selah did not know how her story would weave together with the prisoner called DeLeon. It would take many surprising starts and stops and turns, toward places they had never dreamed of, to the vast edges of the Apocalypse.
If you like my 2nd Selah story (“Selah of the Desert”), read the 1st one (“Selah of the Summit”) here.