Episode 9: “Colors”

Created and written by Marrton Dormish

Powers: The Serial is a fictional series based on true stories. With the exception of recognized personalities, locations and institutions from the past and present, all characters and places depicted in this series are fictional.

Tap, tap, tap, tap. Avery Cohen-Tate’s slender fingers flew over the letter keys of her smart phone. “Class starts in 5. Any breaking news to share with my students?” She pressed the green “Send” button, then set her phone down to made sure her iPad was hooked up properly to the classroom projection unit. The projector hummed quietly, it’s bright eye revealing a multitude of dust mites before illuminating the classroom’s built-in white screen with the first Powerpoint slide of Avery’s class presentation. Staring out from the slide was an angry-looking yellow bird.

Avery savored the few quiet moments before her students arrived, envisioning light bulbs going off in the bright, yet malleable minds of the young men and women she was just getting to know. This fall semester marked the fifth time she had taught “Development Practice” at Denver College. Despite the fact that her classes kept growing numerically, she still managed to find ways to help her students engage with the very complex subject of development. Today’s lesson plan made her smile, “From angry birds to angry people: A model of the real world.” All she needed were three volunteers to illustrate a point about the unequal playing field of people in different parts of the world. She was going to let her students play the popular iPad game, Angry Birds, but with a catch. The first student would get the normal number of chances to pass an early stage of the game. The next student was going to have to play blindfolded. The last student was going to get blindfolded and only have one chance to pass the stage.

Avery almost rubbed her hands together in glee. She wondered if the last student would give up before even trying. If so, all for the better.

Her phone buzzed. “Message from Nathan,” the screen said. Nathan, as in Nathan Patrick, world-famous reporter, survivor of Libyan battlefields and Mexican cartels. Her boyfriend. She opened the message and laughed. It read, “It’s hot in Kenya.” She pressed “Reply” as her students started to trickle into the vaulted classroom. “Hi, guys!” Avery said brightly, glancing up from and back to her message. She tapped, “LOL, that’s Pulitzer material right there. Gotta go. K4Y.”

Avery turned off her phone, and cracked her knuckles loudly, to a smattering of laughter. “You guys are going to like our discussion today. Well, some of you are and a few of you aren’t.”

More students arrived. “Just texting your new flame in Kenya, Dr. A?” asked a floppy-haired junior.

“That, Will, is none of your business,” Avery said in mock seriousness, but her smile answered, ‘yes.’ A few confused stragglers dashed into their seats as the rest of the class serenaded her with whistles, oohs and aahs. Tommy, the ringleader, said, “Now that’s development practice!”

“Ha, ha, ha,” Avery said, putting up her hands for relative silence. “Okay, guys, I need three volunteers.” Hands shot up. “Lily, Boone and Will, in that order,” she said. “Welcome to ‘It’s hot in Kenya day!’” Her students hooted. “I mean, welcome to the real world of Angry Birds. First volunteer up to the podium!”

For the dozenth time in an hour, Courtney Adams eased her baby blue Lexus into the only roundabout in Nederland, Colo. This time she coasted west toward her favorite mountain coffee shop. One of the perks of her job at Archer, Gregg and Purnell was the flexible hours. Of course, she hadn’t taken advantage of them until recently when she had started working 12 hours a day instead of 14 or 15, but Monday, Sept. 26, was a special day for her family, and she left work early to celebrate in the only way she knew how.

A Jeep roared up and started tailgating her, but she didn’t care. She scanned each tiny side street, hoping for a glimpse of the reason she had started frequenting the little bookstore/ice cream/coffee shop earlier in the summer.

She was in Nederland looking for her little brother. On his 27th birthday.

She was looking for Tommy, the happy-go-lucky yet self-assured kid who captained the Wright County Eagles to a Missouri state football championship his senior year of high school.

Tommy, who had joined the Marines and gone to war in Iraq and Afghanistan and come home shattered.

It had been three years since he returned from Afghanistan. The partners at AGP had been glad to give her time off to fly to St. Louis and welcome her hero brother home. In fact, she thought Tommy had actually scored some points for her in the partners’ eyes.

But just eight months later her mother called her in tears, saying Tommy had “just up and left and your daddy gave him the money.” She and her mother had done everything they could to find Tommy, even quietly paying several thousand dollars for a private investigator to try to track him down. Once, Courtney had flown to Seattle on a tip from the P.I., but Tommy disappeared before she got there. She couldn’t imagine what could have happened to Tommy to make him choose to live homeless. She told herself all she cared about was knowing he was alive, but she knew that wasn’t true. She wanted him off the streets so he could get help and eventually go home to Wright County or anywhere really where he could build a life and be happy.

Then when she and Michael took a drive into the mountains west of Boulder on Labor Day—to discuss the secret government investigation of AGP that she had prompted—Courtney suddenly thought she caught a glimpse of a homeless man walking down an alley with Tommy’s very familiar gait. She shrieked, “Oh my God!,” and nearly crashed her Lexus trying to turn around and find a place to pull over. She and a very confused Michael found no trace of Tommy on their subsequent search of Nederland’s streets and alleyways. Michael wondered out loud if she had imaged seeing her brother, but she knew. She knew she’d seen Tommy.

So here she was, driving slowly through Nederland on Tommy’s birthday, afraid to call and tell her parents what she had seen, and simultaneously hopeful and anxious of seeing her brother after three years of nearly complete silence and worry.

She saw no sign of Tommy, but somehow she knew he was nearby. She had known the chances were slim of her seeing Tommy, anyway. He wasn’t likely to be walking around Nederland on his birthday. In fact, Courtney had come to Nederland with something far more suited to her training in mind. She thought of it like the “discovery” phase of a trial, but in this case, she needed to find out if anyone in Nederland had seen or talked to Tommy in the last few months. She was prepared to interview every last resident, shopkeeper and tourist who had been in Nederland during that time.

When Courtney finally pulled into the coffee shop’s dirt parking lot, the Jeep roared by her, but she was so focused she hardly noticed. Time for a cappuccino, she thought, mentally preparing her list of questions for the shop’s employees. She pulled a scrunchie out of the ashtray and put her shoulder length hair into a ponytail. Then she removed her suit jacket, kicked off her office pumps and donned a pair of sleek hiking shoes. There, she thought, that’s better. Beige blouse, navy slacks, brown hiking shoes. I don’t stand out quite as much. She glanced at her watch, calculating. Hour and a half drive back to Denver, so that leaves me an hour to ask around before I have to head back to Denver for a late dinner with Michael.

She walked inside the shop, browsed for a minute past the bookshelves, then followed her nose to the coffee stand. She smiled at customers and employees, alike. One of you has seen my brother, I know it, she thought, and you’re going to help me find him.

Erika Jones sat up in her bed, squinting in the sudden half-light of her bedroom. “Howie! What do you think you’re doing?”

“I’m taking you on a trip,” said her husband as he stepped away from the curtains he had just opened.

She stared dully at her husband. “What?”

Howie pulled a folded sheet of paper from the right pocket of his formerly grey shorts. The shorts, his favorites since college, were so streaked with green, brown and black stains that they looked like an abstract painting. From the looks of a few fresh stains, he’d just finished mowing the lawn and changing the oil in their cars.

He held up the paper, “I already bought the plane tickets, booked the bed and breakfasts and rented a car. We leave on Friday.”

“What are you talking about? And why did you just barge in here and wake me up? It’s Sunday!” Erika pulled their master bed’s cream-colored sheets up to her chin and glared.

“I’m tired of tip-toeing around here all the time.”

“Thank you so much for your consideration.”

“We need to get away for a while,” Howie said, more forcefully than he felt.

“I don’t want to go anywhere with you, Howie.”

“Not even to Vermont? To see the colors change?”

She was momentarily speechless. Anywhere else and she would have scoffed. “You’re kidding, right?”

“Nope, you’ve been talking about it for years.”

Erika wanted to be angry with Howie for waking her up, for making plans and spending money without consulting her, and especially for not caring enough to answer her calls and get to the hospital when she miscarried their son. She was angry, there was no disputing it. It had been her bread and water for the last six months. But for some reason she couldn’t call up her anger right then. Something was masking it.

“What about work?” she asked, deflated that her question didn’t come off more accusingly.

“Already got the time off.”

“You asked for time off? To go on a trip with me?” No way. Something doesn’t add up, Erika thought.

Howie sat on the edge of their bed, said nonchalantly, “Well, yeah, more or less.”

Erika felt a twinge of intuition. “Oh, I get it. It was your ‘saint’ of a boss who suggested it. Whatever would we do without His Hero-ship?”

Howie bristled. “I haven’t heard you complaining about our house or cars or those fancy suits you buy for your counseling practice. From which you’ve been on—what did you call it? A sabbatical?”

“I buy those with my money.” Erika pulled the covers up higher so that only her nose and eyes were visible.

“Which you’re able to use to buy whatever you want because everything else is paid for and then some.”

“Oh, I know. How could I possibly have a realistic opinion of Sam Cronus, III, Superhero, in this house?”

“Listen, Erika.” Howie stood up, shoved his hands and the receipt for their reservations deep into the pockets of his shorts. “Let’s just get away for a while. It’s only five days. Seeing the colors, like we’ve wanted to for years, but…” He looked at her, helplessly. “We never could afford it…and then when we could afford it, we had LJ…and then we never did have time after that.” He paused, corrected himself. “We never made time after that.”

Erika looked down at the outline of her legs under the sheets. Howie rarely got sentimental. Somewhere deep inside, Erika felt a prick. But she didn’t want Howie to know that.

“Fine,” Erika said, abruptly. “Now please close the curtains and shut the door on your way out.” She cocooned herself under the sheets until she heard the door click shut.

Nairobi, Kenya, had now become one of Nathan Patrick’s least favorite places on earth. Not because of its congested streets and massive slums, but because being there signaled defeat, and Nate didn’t like losing.

He had successfully bribed his way onto a U.N. flight into Somalia in order to cover the famine there. He had successfully managed to spend a week in the Somali countryside recording the plight of starving families arriving at feeding centers. He had successfully documented through his sources that approximately 29,000 Somali children under five years of age had already died from the famine. He had successfully substantiated the hijacking of tons of humanitarian aid for reselling in local markets. Then before he felt he had really squeezed all the juice out of the Somali famine story, he had a run in with a very angry Somali warlord, who snapped his fingers and had him surrounded before he could slip away. The warriors forced him at gunpoint to leave a local market full of bags marked “WFP” and “USAID,” and escorted him in stony silence to the Mogadishu airport. “You return, we see you, we kill you,” were the immortal parting words of the warriors, as they pointed Nathan onto the next outbound flight. The flight happened to be making the relatively short trip to Nairobi.

So, here Nathan was, forced to switch gears to documenting the overall effect of the famine on the region, including eastern Kenya, and while there was plenty to report from Nairobi—like a natural gas pipeline explosion that killed 80 and displaced hundreds—he literally felt jilted. He was in Nairobi while “the real action” was taking place somewhere else.

Normally, his editor George would have had him on a plane to somewhere else by now, but it appeared there wasn’t anyplace anywhere in the world that needed his particular brand of junkie journalism at the moment. This made Nathan nervous. When Nathan got nervous, he needed female companionship, something for which there was no shortage in Nairobi. So he started hanging out around the headquarters, hotels and cafés frequented by Nairobi’s substantial population of aid workers. You never knew when you would hear a bit of information that could help you scoop the networks, and it never hurt when the particular purveyor of that information looked like Ingrid, a particularly shapely and accommodating mid-level logistics specialist for the World Food Programme. She caught his eye at his favorite java café, he bought her a coffee and they had left together three hours later.

Meanwhile, Avery had taken to texting Nathan several times a day. He patted himself on the back for faithfully texting her back even though in his mind, they had never really committed to being “exclusive.” How could we when we’re so far apart? Nathan asked himself. Avery had been in the field. She knew how it worked. There was only one way to survive living this close to the abject needs of hurting people. And this was it.

Nathan wasn’t sure what time it was when he woke up in the middle of the night. His iPhone told him 1:32. I need a drink, he thought. He slid quietly out of his hotel bed, careful not to disturb Ingrid. She might want to go with him and he didn’t want company just then. He pulled on a pair of jeans, grabbed his wallet and hotel key, and slipped quietly out of the room.

“Numero tres,” sighed Sister Rosa Avana Paredes in satisfaction. She stared at the crumpled brown envelope in her hand—it was the third letter she had received from Mother Sofia and the orphans in Ciudad Juarez since arriving in Ethiopia.

Rosa looked forward to one thing above any other—receiving word in the mail from Juarez. She wasn’t allowed access to e-mail. In light of the events set in motion by Rico’s desperate emails to her, it was a restriction she appreciated. No, she looked forward to what the American visitors to the orphanage called “snail mail.” She loved the different colored stamps and notations in different hands on the envelope so much that she spent nearly as much time poring over the envelope as reading and re-reading the letter it contained. Rosa liked to imagine the stories of the people who had handled it, stamped it, sorted it and delivered it on its journey across an ocean and a continent to the Horn of Africa.

Before she joined the order of the Sisters of Charity and Mercy, Rosa had considered herself a reasonably sophisticated Mexican teenager, but not in terms of her knowledge and use of technology. To this day, no one in her family’s depressed corner of Mazatlán had Internet access at home. She had never had a cell phone, because all the pesos she had earned from helping her mother sell tamales and empanadas to tourists at a makeshift food stand went to help her family scrape by.

What had technology, or email, specifically, ever done for her, except lead to the death of her friend, Sister Abigail, and to her exile in Ethiopia?

Letters, on the other hand, real letters, had been her lifeline. For the last week, she had kept her latest letter inside her habit, unopened. She took it out only during stolen moments alone, which were few and far between, but it was always with her, reminding her of home. She liked feeling it crinkle against her body while she performed her daily duties. She used it to prompt her daily prayers in the convent chapel, picturing the little hands that had added their scribbles under Mother Sofia’s elegant remarks.

Rosa liked imagining what the letter said as much as, and probably more than, reading the letter itself. She knew the moment she opened the letter and read its contents, there would be no mystery left. Or at least less mystery—Mother Sofia often said much and said nothing at the same time. Rosa liked the suspense of carrying the unopened letter with her. For a while, anyway. If I ever get pregnant, I don’t want to know the sex of the child until it’s born, she mused, but..that is, of course, an unlikely prospect since I hate men and since I renewed my vows with Mother Agnes this summer.

Every day for the last week, Rosa had stolen away before vespers into the small enclosed courtyard of the convent’s chapel to finger her letter from Juarez. This time, she knew she only had ten minutes or so, but she tried anyway to let the stress from her day slide off of her. It had been an exhausting day, from caring for the two-dozen kids in the infirmary to taking snapshots of the five newest arrivals to the orphanage to her two typical hours of language studies.

After three months in Ethiopia, she was getting the hang of the language. Sister Semira was a fully professed nun who made learning Amharic so much fun that Rosa knew Semira would be the perfect person to teach the kids at the orphanage if they ever got enough resources to do more than care for the most basic needs of their children. Rosa both loved and hated their sessions, because Semira reminded her so much of Sister Abigail. On several occasions, she had thought to ask Mother Agnes if there were any others who could teach her Amharic, but she suspected the answer would be ‘no’ in any event, so she kept quiet.

Mother Agnes herself tutored Rosa in her English studies. At first, they stumbled along, Agnes in broken Spanish, and Rosa in broken English. Mother Agnes taught through conversation instead of exercises, like Sister Semira, and that proved to be just what Rosa needed to brush up on and improve her English skills. “You came from Mexico to Ethiopia to learn English from an Irishwoman,” Agnes laughed to Rosa, one day. “Lass, your accent is going to be wojus, but you will be able to talk up a storm with our visitors…No, no, don’t worry about what “wojus” means. You’ll not be using that word, yourself.”

Rosa understood far more than she could communicate herself, in both Amharic and English, but she was learning both languages so well that Mother Sofia had started calling her Sister Rosa the Linguist. Rosa knew it was wrong to feel prideful at her success, but there was a part of her that latched onto Mother Sofia’s affirmation and wouldn’t let go. This scared Rosa, because she wanted only to be a good nun. When Mother Agnes offered her a special exemption to be excused to an early bedtime after vespers, in order to have the energy to maintain her duties at the orphanage, as well as her language studies, Rosa thought of declining. But she was so very tired at the end of each day that her tongue somehow would not let her form the words.

Mostly Rosa longed for Juarez, for Abigail, for Mother Sofia and for what should have been.

Rosa still held the letter in her hand, knew she had only a minute or two now before evening prayers. She tried to concentrate on the letter. She traced the now familiar handwriting of Mother Sofia, and thought of Nacho and the other children she had left behind. But their faces kept fading out of her mind’s eye. She saw instead the four Ethiopian children who had died since she arrived in Addis: two from measles, one from diarrhea, and one from severe malnourishment. They simply hadn’t arrived at the orphanage in time to get the help they needed. For their last few days in this life, Mother Agnes, had ordered them to be taken to a special room where they received as close to round the clock attention and care as the nuns and their volunteers could manage. She thought of little Amare, her clear favorite among the now 150 children under the care of the Sisters of Charity and Mercy. He had still yet to smile, let alone speak, in the three months she had known him, although he had started eating regularly to the great relief and delight of the nuns and Ethiopian nannies, alike.

The chapel bell tolled vespers. Rosa tucked her still unopened letter back under her habit and rose to join her sisters as they slowly gathered in the courtyard. They greeted each other quietly, wearily, and when all had arrived, they filed across the tiny courtyard toward their tiny chapel.

To: RicoSolo6 From: El Jefe. Subject: Convent.

Things have gone well here in Veracruz. Will return soon. I see you put the “warning packages” we sent you to good use. I especially like the pic of the kid you paid delivering a package to that loud-mouthed Mother Superior in Juarez. Loved her face when she opened the basket and saw the bloody head of that pathetic sheriff who refused to cooperate with us.

BUT she is still making speeches. Hurt her. Not directly. I want you to have a talk with that kid Nacho. I hear they send him out of the orphanage to buy things.

El Jefe
Sent from my iPhone

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