Moose mounted Manny with minimal help from the groom. He was getting used to sitting in the saddle, using the horse for his primary transportation. The horse fit in no matter where he traveled, although he was still trying to figure out if he could acquire a more modern mode of transit. Although cars and skimmers could be seen in The City and even The Town, he failed to ever actually see one parked, and he wasn’t quite desperate enough to walk out into the street and demand that one stop so he could question the driver.

“It’s a lovely day for a ride,” Marie said, sitting sidesaddle on what he assumed was one of Anne and Clovis’ horses. “Nurse is going to let the girls nap on the way home, since they’re already half asleep. I thought I’d ride along with you.”

Her face seemed unusually bright. Moose assumed it was from the long talk she’d enjoyed with her old friend. He had no idea what the women had talked about the whole time, but Clovis was very enlightening. There was no real history of The Place, but various people had stories of when their grandparents had mysteriously arrived. Curiously, no one claimed to be anything more than a third generation citizen. Everyone had a story either of their own arrival, their parents, or grandparents.

Clovis’ other, darker anecdote was even more disturbing. “There have been some… not many, you see, but a few, who have been unable to reconcile their fate. They could not let go of their previous life and create a new one here. They… faded. We saw them less and less. We thought of them less and less. Then one day, when we passed what had been their home and realized someone new was living there, no one knew what had happened to them. The next time I realized an arrival was having difficulty, I paid more attention. I had to write notes to myself, because my own mind seemed to defy my wishes. My mind wanted to let them slip away. But I kept a journal, and I continued to visit. I encouraged him, but he simply took the food that his housekeeper prepared for him, then he sat, wondering and wishing, never doing. Towards the end it was a struggle for me to see him. There always seemed to be something else I’d rather do, but I forced myself to go. And in his last days, he seemed to be nothing more than a ghost of himself. To this day I am not sure whether it was a trick of the light, or if it was my feeble imagination, but I swore I could see right through him, as if he was a ghost already. Or perhaps he was a ghost from the moment he arrived, and never learned to live again. I don’t know. But the next day he was gone, the house empty, the housekeeper poofed into thin air like all the magics.”

Apparently, “magics” was the local term for what Moose knew to be artificial intelligence. Majel was one, and there were several others sprinkled here and there. No job went undone, yet no person went without a job.

It was a perfectly functioning society, a Utopia.

The problem with Utopian societies is that they tend to be that way because anyone who disturbs the perfection is dealt with quickly and severely. I wonder if I would start to fade away if I fought against the pull that keeps me close to Marie? If I don’t do what some unknowable force wants me to do, will I disappear?

“…and Anne hopes to be a grandmother soon…” Marie was saying. Without thinking, Moose had nodded and smiled and pretended to listen when he’d really been wrapped up in his own thoughts.

“A grandmother! Well, I think Anne will make a wonderful grandmother. And Clovis will be an admirable grandfather, the kind of man his sons and grandsons can look up to.”

Marie beamed, seemingly pleased with his answer. She continued on with talk of the young bride-to-be, and what the wedding might be like.

Moose realized too late that he hadn’t been nodding enough. Or perhaps Marie had asked a direct question and he’d just “uh-huh’d” like he usually did when one of his female relatives was rambling on. But she was no longer beaming, or talking. When he caught her eye, she produced the dazzling fake smile that proclaimed to the world “Everything is all right.”

There was so much of his grandmother in her. He decided to do exactly with Marie as he’d learned with his grandmother. He apologized.

“I’m very sorry. My mind wandered off. I know I wasn’t paying attention. What was it you were saying?”

Marie seemed to consider him for a long moment. She began to chew her lip, but stopped herself. It was a gesture he’d find sexy and alluring from any other woman…

But not Marie.

“I was just wondering where your mind was. Whether you are of a mind to accept this new life we’ve been given… to stay, with us, or whether you are determined to escape, to find your way back to the moon.”

Moose told her where his mind had been, about what Clovis had said about people who did not accept their new life.

“I’ve known people who faded like that. Not literally, of course, but… people who simply gave up on living.” She paused as the horses trotted over a pretty bridge on the outskirts of The Town. “I believe you. I believe Clovis. But it seems unreal, that such a thing could happen.”

“There is a lot here that is unreal…”

“And there is a lot that is very real indeed.” Marie insisted. Moose knew she was talking about Sophie. Sophie was both an anchor and a kite for Marie… the little girl kept her mother grounded, and set her free to fly. Sophie was Marie’s reason for living.

They rode on in silence for a few minutes, but Moose kept part of his attention on Marie. He didn’t want to make her feel that he was ignoring her, but something else had caught his eye. Smiling at her, giving her the reassurance that he wasn’t drifting off into his own thoughts, he waited until her gaze naturally fell to the side at some pretty bit of scenery. Casually, he glanced behind them, spotting the rider in The Woods who was not doing a very good job of hiding himself.

Well, I guess I’ll get a full report on how well I did in the saddle when we get home tonight. Apparently my teacher is watching.

It wasn’t unusual for Galen to appear in the background. He let Moose see him, but by agreement they never let Marie know she was being watched. She seemed to feel safe with Moose as her escort and guardian. She didn’t need to know that Galen was her true knight, the one who moved in secret and kept watch from afar. Moose felt more like a security blanket, like one of those men from… well, Marie’s time who was required to escort the women in his life everywhere they wanted to go.

“Moose…”

He looked up, meeting her gaze. She had begun with his name, and obviously wanted to make sure she had his full attention for whatever it was she was about to say. “I want to thank you for all you have done for me. I know that it is… not entirely your own will that binds you to me, but I am grateful for your presence, both the protection and the company.” She smiled a bit more brightly than necessary, a quirk he recognized as nervousness. “I think very highly of you.”

Oh… she… is she…?

Moose forced himself to breathe calmly, listening carefully to every word, making sure he wasn’t misinterpreting her, but looking for a place where he could interject some ice water on the conversation without causing her embarrassment or hurt. “…I know that you might find a way to leave us. Although I hope you don’t, I want you to know that… that you should not hesitate to form… attachments… with us…”

Damn it, she’s used to men falling all over her feet! The only flirting she’s ever had to do was with her own husband, and that probably left her even more insecure than… well, any woman I’ve ever met.

“I’ve mourned my husband. I miss Louis, but I think his grave is here because I need to move on.”

It was not a natural break in conversation, but Moose dove in. “I wish I knew what happened to my family. I wonder if they all think I’m dead? I wonder if they had a funeral and everything.” There was no natural segue, but he plowed through with his ace in the hole. “Did I ever tell you about my family’s legend about ancient France? I mean, not ancient to you, but about your time?”

Marie was politely listening. He purposely only paused on a direct question so that she would not interrupt, as well-trained as she was in conversational politeness. “When you told me that you had faked your sons’ deaths and sent them into hiding, I couldn’t believe it, because my grandmother had always said the same thing! Actually, we’re supposed to be descended from one of them. Imagine that! You could be my very-great-grandmother.” Moose made sure his tone matched precisely the “Isn’t that interesting?” modulation he was attempting.

Marie, whose face had been entirely bright red and flushed with what he now knew was amorous intent, had gone white as a ghost. At first, she just stared at him, her jaw agape. But she recovered quickly, and her royal mask was instantly in place. “How fascinating! I wonder if there’s any way we could know for certain?”

Marie continued to chatter the rest of the way home. Moose made sure to not only nod and smile, but give actual words as answers. It was hard work, pretending no awkwardness existed.

It was a very long ride home.

What Would Have Been

What Would Have Been is a short story (or novella… who knows?) that I am publishing one chapter at a time… as I write it. It’s a fun exercise for me, and hopefully a bit of entertaining reading for you! (Hi Sarah!)

This story is dedicated to the Janes. The real ones and the fictional, the ones who survived, and the ones who didn’t. For all of you.

The shortlink for this post is http://wp.me/p1rMYd-jM