Ron Roth Jr, Copyright © 2022

Chapter 1 - Nibanna

The door creaked open to reveal an old monk wrapped in modest robes within his stark quarters. His expression exuded calm with a twinge of joy under his wispy eyebrows.

“Venerable Tissa," she said, bestowing the title of the highest respect for a Buddhist teacher. She bowed her shaved head and waited to be recognized.

“Many blessings, Naga Zeya," the old monk replied, addressing his pupil to begin the lesson. He took a deep breath, straightened his robes, and sat on the mat in the center next to a well-used oil lamp.

Zeya poured the fresh river water from her clay jar into a pot for tea. She stoked the fire in a tiny wood stove under the ceramic hood in the corner. After carefully preparing the tea, she settled her petite frame opposite her teacher on the mat.

"Tell me your dreams, little sister," the teacher said. 

They quietly sipped and held a conversation in seconds with subtle gestures, expressions, and body movements that could have taken several minutes to speak. The flame from the lamp danced along with their actions.

The Truthspeakers will not succeed, the old monk gestured, placing his hand in the other. Quiet your mind. They have what is necessary for their purpose. It will prepare them for the final path. Fear. Death. Renewal.

But, Thiha, you are arahant, Zeya signed, spinning her finger. You have already escaped this endless cycle of birth, aging, disease, and death. This will be your last.

Thiha raised his hand. You are the All-Seer, he signed. The Seeker was long foretold to usher in the Age of Troubles.

How will we help them find the Seeker? Zeya crossed her index fingers over her mouth. Here we sit in Myanmar, half a world away.

Courage, Zeya. It has already begun. You must find him. Thiha touched his open palm to his heart. Only compassion can restore balance, or our universe will be consumed. Now is the Moment of Decision.

Zeya tensed her arms, visibly relaxed, and hand-recited, I am the All-Seer. I must actualize the dream for those who cannot see. Zeya bowed her head, her eyes never leaving the gaze of her Tissa.

I know, Zeya. Thiha smiled. You long for Nibbana, the final path. Thiha frowned. But this, too, is an attachment to self. And attachment will only be a cause for greater suffering.

But why Thiha? Why must so many suffer and die for this prophecy, and why must I be the one to witness it?

Thiha waited. You came to me from your previous lives with not one but two ending in self-immolation. Your suffering has been great. None before you have known such dedication to universal harmony.

I honor the day you accepted me, Zeya gestured, her eyes watering before she straightened herself.

Insight, Zeya, Thiha waved his hands. If your seeing is for the past, what inhibits all-seeing?

After much hesitation, Zeya signed, Doubt, Venerable Tissa.

All-seeing is now. All-seeing was then. All-seeing will be. Thiha gestured, more like a dance. What he really meant was Goodbye. Then he stood after finishing his tea, wiped tears from his face, laid on the padded bedroll in the corner opposite the stove, and went to sleep for the last time.

Zeya remained in meditation, forming the bhumisparsha, the earth-touching mudra pose of the Buddha when he attained enlightenment.

She was motionless for hours while an endless stream of images, sensations, and emotions passed through her consciousness. They didn't feel like an invasion of her thoughts anymore. They no longer disrupted her concentration, so she descended further into herself.

Thiha awoke to the sound of Zeya chanting. Her aura radiated the signature hues of enlightenment. Zeya sat with her left palm outward and her right hand touching the earth, the posture of the Buddha when he challenged the darkness. The moment had arrived for Thiha to lend his energy to her transformation, a sacrifice to join his gifted naga. He poured lamp oil over himself, struck a match, and ignited his flesh.

By all accounts, Nibbana came all at once, not by degrees. In a flash of blinding inner light, Zeya formed her astral vehicle and descended into the planet's surface. She launched into an impossible trajectory through the planet's core.

While traveling at the speed of light, Zeya watched the flow of time cease. The boundaries of space-time fell away like sheets of insulating bark. Everything happened all at once.

Ages passed as she observed the life cycles of whole solar systems, lighting up for the first time, glowing impossibly bright, and ending as supernovas. They spread their dust, heavy metals, and rare elements as seeds for new systems. The entire history of the universe lay before her.

Her bliss radiated through the beams of light she traveled, hopping from galaxy to galaxy. At length, Zeya planned her return after billions of years in the formless realms of the cosmos. The time of her reincarnation remained hers for the choosing. The Moment of Decision had arrived.

She focused her attention on one event, a mother giving birth, and let the other images slip away. The birth unfolded like the cards of flipbook animation. Each one revealed the decisions the child would make, which would affect his karma. With sharper focus, the decisions on the cards began to flip.

In the first karmic decision point, a boy lifted a crayoned family portrait to his mother. Flip. He exited a convenience store concealing a comic book under his shirt. Flip. He told a sobbing teenage girl that he couldn't see her anymore. Flip. He pulled a bloodied stranger and her broken bicycle from a busy intersection. Flip. He averted his gaze from an emaciated man holding a cardboard sign. Flip. He signed the papers that would dissolve his marriage. Flip. He told the mother of his patient that he'd done all he could. Zeya felt the paths of energy through each karmic decision point and traced them through time.

When she traced them backward, the paths were definite and solid. Forwards, the images on the cards became fluid. They shifted more turbulently the further she progressed because he could seekhis own paths. She had found him, the Seeker. With each karmic decision point, the paths multiplied, and Zeya began to lose them. 

Thiha had described this moment, but that didn't prepare her for what she found. Each path streamed with energy that bent and twisted into new karmic decisions. Again and again, the paths turned back on themselves to be repeated. She counted them, mapped their probabilities, and charted their circular patterns. The Seeker had locked himself in an intentionally closed loop, a prison of his own making, which he re-lived repeatedly.

Zeya focused her energy in contemplation for countless millennia and only returned with unanswered questions. She asked aloud, "Venerable Thiha, whose flame burns within me. Why would he trap himself? Why this life? This time? What did he find? What is he hiding? Who is he really?"

She closed her eyes and let herself slip back into spacetime to become the Seeker, to live his life, and to be dreambound once again.

Chapter 2: Home

A toddler in a diaper crouched over a giant ant hill while worker ants carried grains of sand over the top of the pile. The boy poked at them with a twig until the mound collapsed. His eyes grew wide with fascination when out poured dozens of ants. So transfixed, he didn’t notice the burly soldier ants crawling up his feet and ankles. Together, they bit with their jagged mandibles and released their formic acid. His surprise mixed with pain and anger in a flurry of stomping, slapping, and yelping. The clumsy, teary-eyed youth lumbered back toward the safety of home. The ants busied themselves with clearing and repairing tunnels.

Home was a small trailer in an RV park outside Tulsa, Oklahoma. Its beige and white corrugated siding had lost most of its paint and rusted halfway up. A concrete block propped up the hitch, and the trailer rested on flat tires beyond repair. Occupants nearby fared just as well.

The boy cried to his mother, who hauled him up the steps by one arm and brushed off the ants. “I turn my back for one damn minute, Ethan, you stumble inna mess ah ay'unts.” 

She set him down, continuing to brush away ants, and took a long drag from the Lucky brand menthol cigarette held between the thumb and index finger of her bony hand. She launched into a heavy half-minute coughing fit that ended in waves of wheezy, phlegm-laden breaths. Her yellow tie-dyed tank top stretched lower on one side with coffee stains spilling down the front where her breasts hung without a bra. 

Ethan continued whimpering and stomping, even after the ants were gone. For a moment, he stopped crying to look up at his mother with tears making trails in the dirt on his cheeks and a curious expression across his face. 

She looked down into his eyes and spat, “Don’ look it me, boy. Yudda one ’at dunnit. Maybe nex’time you look where ya walkin’.” Ethan’s expression remained. “Well, better git you some clothes on. Them church folks don’ like it you don’ wears ah clothes ’ey gave us at duh shelter.”

She scratched at the sides of her swollen belly where the new stretch marks itched, and she took another drag from her cigarette. Trails of smoke swirled through the hot afternoon sunlight from the back window. “Better go git to supper 'fore duh meat’s gone. You gonna have a baby brother soon.” She coughed again until her eyes bulged.

Ethan closed the car door and met the lady with kind eyes in front of the house, dragging a younger boy behind him. Their breath made wispy trails in the wintery air while they pantomimed, blowing smoke from cigarettes.

"Ethan? Stewart? Are you ready to meet your new parents?" The nice lady stood behind them and held their shoulders, her hair pulled tight in a bun. She wore a navy blue full-length skirt, a cream blouse with pearl buttons, and a blue-gray scarf with white crocheted trim. Her left hand held a large portfolio. "Please, please make your best effort this time, boys. You won't find better parents than the Robbins. I promise you."

The door swung open, startling the three of them. A smiling couple with shining white teeth held out a basket of candy and an armful of wrapped presents. Ethan and Stewart looked at each other with confusion and unease. 

"Janet. I mean, Ms. Fenwick," Mrs. Robbins corrected herself. "We're so glad to see you. Are you hungry? Do you boys want something to eat? I'm Brenda and this is my husband, Fred. We're the Robbinses." Her dark hair with strands of gray lay softly over her shoulders. The wrinkles in the corners of her eyes and around her mouth squeezed tighter as she spoke. She pushed the basket forward and offered the candy inside. "We got your favorite—Butterfingers and Reese's. Now which one of you loves Reese's? Stewart, am I right? I knew it. It must be."

Stewart reached out his hand. Ethan grabbed it and lowered it back to Stewart's side. 

"He doesn't want the candy, Brenda," Fred said through pursed lips. "They're scared out of their minds. I told you not to overdo it, but you never listen." Fred wore a dinner jacket and a matching brown tie. His hair, slicked back with product, made him look plastic. He knelt down to eye level with Stewart and Ethan and said, "Hey, boys. You see that pile of wood over there?" He pointed to the side of the house, and their eyes followed. "I bet if you each grab an armful of those, we could get a good fire going inside. What do you say?"

The boys looked at each other and raced to the wood pile. Both tried to show they could carry the most and dropped more along the way than made it inside. Janet followed behind Brenda into the dining room and opened her portfolio. The women were deep into their conversation by the time Fred and the boys got the fire started. 

"Fred and I have been trying for so long, we'd just about given up," Brenda said, pouring Janet a glass of water from a pitcher decorated with a scene of cows grazing in a green pasture below a golden sun. Blue and yellow wallpaper adorned the walls of her tidy home, along with shelves full of knick-knacks and tiny antique collectibles. "We don't have any options left but to adopt."

"You have a lovely home, Mrs. Robbins," Janet said.

"Oh, call me Brenda, please," she interrupted. "But what's a home without children?" Brenda adjusted her hair and fussed with her blouse.

"Yes, um, Brenda. A home for Ethan and Stewart. That's what we all want." Janet looked down at the paperwork and closed the portfolio. She folded her hands on the table in front of her. "Brenda, you must understand. These boys have been through a lot. They lost their mother to the cancer, and neither of them knew their father. Boys like these two need a lot of patience. We've already placed them with two foster families, and, well, let's just say they were temporary. We need to be sure of your commitment to the health and safety of these boys."

Brenda pulled at the corner of her eyelid with the knuckle of her index finger. Then she waved her hands over her eyes to fight back the tears, adjusted her hair, and straightened her blouse again. "Well, Janet. All, all I've ever wanted was children," she said, composing herself. "Stewart and Ethan, well, they need a mother and father to love them and care for them. And after what they've been through." Brenda started to cry again but pulled herself back together. "I just know the Good Lord put us here just for this purpose. It's like we were waiting for them to come along." Brenda wrapped her arms around herself and gave a squeeze.

"I'm glad to hear you say that, Brenda," Janet said, writing in her portfolio. "These boys can't take another disappointment, and you have to be strong. I'm not going to mince words. They're a handful and they will try to break you. You have to be the ones to hold it together, give these boys some tough love, but always love, ya hear?"

"Oh, I know how boys should be raised, Janet. My father was tough with my brothers, may he rest in peace, but he always gave them things to do. He always told them to respect their mother and be kind to the weaker sex. He raised them right." Brenda smiled and nodded like her father was standing in the room. "Yes, my brothers have families of their own now. Some of their kids are starting families. I was the baby, you see."

Janet pushed some papers across the table and offered Brenda a pen. "Everything is arranged. I'll get the boys' things from the car and they can stay here tonight. I'll be back in a week to check up on you."

They signed the papers and welcomed the boys into their home. Brenda finally had the family home and the children she always wanted, and with that came much more than Fred and Brenda ever imagined. Their first shock came only two days after the adoption was final.

Chapter 3: Trouble

Everywhere that Ethan went, Stewart had to go. "Inseparable they are," said Brenda to her friend. "And, Sherry, let me tell you. That boy, Ethan," she pointed to the boy outside the window, pushing his brother, Stewart, across the backyard grass on a trash can lid. "He loves his little brother. We bought them bunk beds, but they sleep in the same bed anyway. It's so cute. They call each other Eafey and Stewey."

"Bill and I are just so thrilled for you, Brenda. You always said you wanted kids, even if you had to adopt, and now you have the family of your dreams." Sherry got up from her chair at the dining room table and didn't make it two steps. 

"Sherry," Brenda scolded, "sit yourself right back down. What can I get you?" 

"Oh, just a fresh cup of coffee is all-"

"You stay right there, I'll be right back." Brenda went to the kitchen in a blur of fuss. Her apron flared as she left the room.

Sherry looked out the back window to the yard, as the boys played catch. Ethan walked away and came back with a big stick. Stewart threw a rock to Ethan, who swung hard with the stick and smacked it, so it flew clear across the yard, only it didn't make a loud cracking sound. She stared as the rock started to move, a little at first, and then it jumped a few times. Stewart ran after it.

"There you go, honey." Brenda returned with the coffee, stealing Sherry's attention, "Now. Tell me about Bill's new job. I heard he got prom-"

"Brenda?" Sherry interrupted. "What is that the boys are tossing about there in the yard?" She pointed out the window with concern in her voice.

Brenda turned to look, "Well, I don't rightly know." She walked to the door and yelled to the boys. "Ethan? Stewart? Come here, please, boys." Ethan was stomping on the ground and grinding his heel into a spot in the grass.

The boys stopped what they were doing and ran to the back door. In his right hand, Stewart held a bloated, angry toad with a milky-white liquid dripping from behind its eyes. "Stewart, dear. Put that disgusting thing down. Get in the house and wash those hands. Don't you know those things are poisonous? You'll get yourself sick."

"I'm sorry, Brenda. We were only playin'," Stewart said with all the innocence he could manage. He dropped the toad and ran to the kitchen sink.

"Oh, honey. It's alright. And you can call me Mama if you want," Brenda cooed in a sing-song voice. "Ethan, dear, come take a bath and get ready for dinner." The boys had been taking baths together, as Ms Fenwick had told her they would. Off they went up the stairs to their bedroom.

"Brenda, sweetie. I'll call you later," Sherry said, as she stood up and held Brenda's hands. "I've got to get dinner started for Bill. We'll talk. Stay strong. You can do this." She placed her hand on Brenda's shoulder for reassurance and went out the front.

By the time Fred came home from work, the boys had been in the bath for almost an hour.

"Fred, darling, before I call the boys down, I wanted to show you something," Brenda walked to the back door and led Fred to several spots on the backyard lawn. At each spot was a bloodied toad that had been beaten and stomped with a child's shoe. Brenda looked at Fred with helplessness in her eyes. "What on earth do we do with this?"

"Like this, Freddy? You did this?" Brenda's voice raised to a yell, as tears spilled down her cheeks.

Fred grabbed her shoulders and hugged her. "Darling, it's okay. We'll talk to the boys. Why don't you go inside and I'll clean this up." Brenda left, as Fred walked towards the shed in the back corner of the yard. 

He gathered all of the toad carcasses in a trash bag and deposited them in the can beside the house. When he walked inside, he immediately stopped short and called out, "Brenda. Brenda, darling." 

She came quickly and gasped, as she too was stopped by the fast growing puddle of water forming at the bottom of the stairs. The pair sloshed up the saturated carpeted steps to the second floor, where an inch of soapy water had pooled outside the bathroom.

Fred banged on the bathroom door several times before it opened to reveal the source of the deluge. Two towel-wrapped boys stood over the sink trying to unlodge the basin of the softened yellow soap they had rammed into the drain. Fred soon discovered the tub was similarly rigged with water spilling over the side onto the tile.

"Oh, Dear Lord. What have you done with my carved soap ducklings?" Brenda cried in a full panic and slipped on the floor to land in a splash.

Fred lifted the boys together and carried them into their bedroom. "Aww, hell and damnation," he exclaimed when he caught sight of the apocalyptic scene unfolding across the floor. Ms Fenwick had told the couple to give the boys space and let them claim their bedroom for a few nights before entering. They had been busy.

Every present Brenda had wrapped and given the boys on their first night was spread across the bedroom broken into pieces, melted, burned, crushed, ground into the carpet, and arranged into a diorama of Lovecraftian horror.

Ms Fenwick had warned the Robbinses that the boys had been through a lot, that they would try to challenge their new parents, and told them she'd be back in a week. In two days, Eafey and Stewey had turned their bright American Dream into a dark and twisted nightmare. While Brenda sobbed on the commode Fred sat himself on the bottom bunk bed holding his head. His backside felt cold. He reached behind to feel an area of dampness in a circle where he sat. When he brought the hand to his face an overwhelming odor of urine filled his nostrils. "Aww, hell," he said.