By John Thomas Tuft

And the Story Guide told them a story to the point that they ought always to be attuned to atonement by saying: An astrophysicist, a wounded soldier and a beggar walk into a dive bar. After the bartender, Fat Eddie, poured a couple of rounds they each told their stories. Ichabod Andromeda waved his arms around a lot, and spoke in short bursts of energy, with a voice like static from a SETI radio antenna on a starless night. “There are billions and billions of stars out there.” He waved his arms wide, seeking to encompass the universe in the smoky confines of the small room where human creatures bowed over short glasses of fire water, beseeching the angels of mercy to not abandon them to their own dregs. “I have seen thousands of stars and planets lightyears distant, awe inspiring nebula and nebulous notions of what is out there, and still I do not know. This creation is unfathomable, and I must use the greatest reaches of math and the stories of numbers, symbols and theory to describe it all. We are nothing compared to its forlorn majesty.” He put a rock from a meteor on the table and took a drink.

Fat Eddie wiped his hands on a grimy apron and said, “So science is the story of how things work, if I’m hearing you right. Is the human imagination limitless, right?” Ichabod nodded. Then Fat Eddie asked, “What’s the worst thing you have ever done?” Ichabod looked like the wind was knocked out of him in a burst of hot gasses. “Uh,” he looked around nervously, “um, I don’t want to say in front of everybody.” Pain filled his eyes. “It still bothers me. It hurts and I don’t know how to heal.”

Bobbie Ray, the soldier went next. “I enlisted the day after 9/11, went to Afghanistan, then to Iraq. Because how dare they? It’s God and country and when we’re hit, we hit back harder. Show them filthy heathens…” his voice shook with emotion. Those seated around became quiet, and the small room filled with the fumes of reverence. “I was there in Fallujah, watching my buddies die. I’ve seen a hundred tanks streaming across the sand, putting righteous fear into everybody in their path. I’ve watched the fearsome might of air power, walking bombs through the mountains in Kandahar. I served and I served proudly,” he patted the prosthetic strapped to his left thigh and with his eyes dared anyone to tell him differently. “Nobody knows until they’ve been there,” he said as he placed a round from an M14 on the table and took a drink.

Fat Eddie took the bar rag and wiped at the sweat from the glasses. “Patriotism is the story of what we’ll die for, if I’m hearing you right. I pledge allegiance to an idea, a story, the imagination of a country, right?” Bobbie Ray nodded. Then Fat Eddie asked, “What’s the worst thing you have ever done?” Bobbie looked down, his voice growing quiet. “It has to do with my dad,” he chewed on his lip, “but I don’t want to talk about it. It bothers me all the time and I don’t know how to heal.”

Salena, the beggar, picked at the threads hanging from the great coat she pulled tight around her thin body.  “I cannot pay for any of this,” she began, in a voice so small the others had to stop and lean in close to hear. “I’m broke, and I’m broken. The stars just stare at me and others treat me like I’m a nuisance, if they even know that I exist. My story is all about the worst thing I have ever done. It is with me all the time and I don’t know how to heal.”

She dug deep into a pocket and pulled out a child’s bracelet. Dangling from it was a shiny trinket, the jagged edge of a broken heart charm. “I gave this to my daughter,” she whispered. “Right before she was killed…” Her voice broke as she pulled up her sleeve, revealing a matching bracelet with the other half of the broken heart charm catching the light and reflecting it into her tear-filled eyes. And angry red scars like a flame of pain across each wrist. “I can’t even tell my story,” she gasped as the silence of the ages settled on the room.

Fat Eddie picked up the space rock. “Life is the story of how we are willing to love.” He picked up the bullet. “Love is the story of how we decide to live.” He tenderly removed the bracelet from Salena’s wrist and picked up the other half of the broken heart. He took them all between his hands and squeezed them tightly together. He held them fast, tighter and tighter until his own flesh was pierced and blood trickled from between his fingers. Finally, he slowly opened them up again and the gifts were transformed into….

And the Story Guide looked at them and said, “Where do you hurt?”

Words are magic and writers are wizards.