Raven descended the stairs to the large dining room on the first floor. Everyone was gathered there for the buffet-style platters that lined the counters. Raven knew the food at her father’s trainings were usually hit and miss because the cooks were volunteers who had agreed to help run his trainings for a smaller fee. Volunteer cooks ran the spectrum between skilled gourmet chefs to college students who only knew how to boil lentils and burn quinoa. From the savory smells that wafted up the staircase, it seemed that they had lucked out by getting the former this time. Raven joined the line as it curved around the plates of tabouli, pumpkin curry, cucumber yogurt, fresh-baked naan, and vegetables marinated in tikka masala sauce.
She picked up a chipped plate from the stack of mismatched dishes and quietly joined the line circling the buffet. Ahead of her was a man wearing pressed slacks and a button-down shirt. He did not look like the kind of man accustomed to taking his shoes off inside. His feet looked strangely naked and vulnerable in their silk business socks. From the way the man looked around, assessing his audience as he glooped pumpkin curry onto his plate, it looked like he was about to begin networking.
“I saw Claire leaving with her hand over her mouth, so I was feeling dubious about this dinner tonight,” he said. “But this looks like a good spread.”
Joy Viveros leaned forward, “Claire is a breatharian.”
“What are those?” asked the man with the executive socks.
“Breatharians have evolved to a higher plane of existence where they don’t need to eat. They get their energy from the sunshine and the air they breathe.”
“You mean they photosynthesize?”
“That’s not what I heard,” said a man across from Raven. His long dark hair was tied in two braids, and he wore a leather vest with some Native American beadwork around the collar. Raven and her mom used to call white guys like him Cherahonkies. “A buddy of mine was a caretaker at a breatharian compound. He said their trashcans were filled with Haagen-Dazs rum raisin ice-cream.”
The executive laughed. “Well in any case, this food looks pretty good. All it needs is a little salt.”
At this point, Alexander Fizzard leaned into the conversation: “You know, a new study came out that says salt is very bad for the body. I never eat salt.”
“Oh yeah?” the Cherahonkie said, scooping basmati rice flavored with cloves onto his plate. Around them, other New Agers were leaning in, hoping to gleam the latest folksy, dietary science.
Alexander Fizzard drew himself up to his full height as the group shuffled forward in line. “Salt is deadly,” he said. “I read in Lotus magazine that scientists have proven that table salt is seventy percent sodium chloride.”
Raven opened her mouth. Anyone who had taken high school chemistry knew that salt was sodium chloride: that was its chemical composition. But then she shut her mouth again. She shook her head and moved forward in line. Better not to engage.
Alexander continued, “Sodium chloride is a toxic substance that destroys the kidneys and the liver. That is why I only drink wine. It clears out the kidneys and purifies the liver.”
“Wine,” said the Cherahonkie, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “You don’t say.”
Raven kept her head down and smiled to herself. At least someone around here had a sense of humor.
“Warren, you’d be surprised at the many health benefits of wine,” Alexander said.
Executive Socks cut in: “I don’t buy it. I mean, hasn’t salt been a valuable trading commodity for centuries? People used to treat it like gold because they needed it to survive. I don’t know much about nutrition but I know our bodies need salt.”
“It’s the potassium our bodies need, not the sodium chloride Monsanto has been poisoning us with,” Alexander said, with absolute authority. “I’m telling you, sodium chloride kills. Wine is the only antidote.”
From behind them, Joy grasped the saltshaker affectionately to her chest. “But if I love it enough, it won’t hurt me. My love can change its chemical composition so that it won’t affect my DNA.”
The Cherahonkie grinned and nudged Alexander in the ribs. “Pass the salt, please.”
At this point, Raven peeled away from the line, looking for an empty spot to sit that was away from everyone else. It wasn’t like she inherently distrusted her father’s followers, it’s just that she distrusted these ones. Sure, some of them were normal people who would take what her father had to offer, integrate it into their lives, and then move on. The short-timers weren’t so bad—it was the people who worshiped him like he was some kind of God that Raven really worried about.
Unfortunately, it was hard to tell who was who, so it was safest to avoid everyone.
She spotted an empty table in the corner of the next room and began weaving her way past the metal folding chairs and card tables. As she walked, she heard snippets of conversation. To her left, a dreadlocked man wearing a Michael Franti “Power to the Peaceful” t-shirt was rapping to his table:
People ask, “John, what do you do all day?”
I Wight Breath people and smoke weed every day.
Federal Reserve, fuck that shit.
I got my Love money, my Buddha Bucks, my Babaji dollars.
As Raven left the kitchen and wandered into the dining room, she saw Alexander sit next to a husky woman with platinum blonde hair and skin the texture of smoked jerky, “So Arianna,” he said, “I hear you communicate with dolphins.”
“Yes I do,” she said. Her eyes were the pale blue color of a tropical lagoon. “Did you know that dolphins are actually extraterrestrials?”
“Are they?” Alexander said, with wonder.
“The dolphins speak to me by showing me acoustic images of their spaceships filled with water. They came from the planet system around the star Sirius, you know.”
“Like in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy?”
“Oh yes, very much like that. Douglas Adams was such an enlightened man.” The woman leaned forward and whispered. “The dolphins, they’ve even taken me into the future.”
Alexander raised his eyebrows and scooted his chair closer. “You know, I’ve been thinking about writing a book about Sasquatch. Maybe you could give me some tips on inter-species communication?”
Raven kept her eyes in front and continued to weave through the tables. It was at times like these that she didn’t feel that guilty about her dad fleecing these people with promises of immortality and enlightenment. If they were gullible enough to believe the things that came out of their own mouths, then they deserved what they got. Stupid should hurt. And it should be financial hurt, too.
Raven found an empty spot at the far end of the room, so that if anyone approached she could bolt out the door. She kept her eyes down on her plate. The faster she ate, the faster she could leave. At the next table over, she heard a woman mention California.
“No, my people hail from Des Moines, why?” said the man she was talking to.
The women, her hair tied in silver braids, leaned forward. “I just read that a scientist at Stanford says an asteroid is going to hit the Pacific Ocean. He says the tsunamis will be higher than the Golden Gate Bridge and that the entire Central Valley is going to flood. It’s going to kill more people than Katrina.”
Inadvertently, Raven looked up, then she caught herself and pulled her eyes back down to her plate. Her mother was in Berkeley.
“When is it?” the man asked. And Raven’s heart began to race as she imagined a ball of fire punching into the Earth, then the sea rising, a tower of water rushing to crush the entire Bay Area, and her mother along with it. The skin on her arms constricted; a slow drop of sweat ran down her ribs. It was too close to those predictions of doom and destruction that terrorized her childhood. The Earth Changes, her father used to call it, back when they would stay up late watching Nostradamus documentaries on the History Channel.
“Sometime this week,” the woman said. “I read it on an online forum. He’s been trying to get the major news networks to warn everyone, but no one is listening. Apparently he’s a really reputable scientist. He’s staking his entire reputation on this.”
The man snorted. “So much for the free media. I tell you, the first amendment went down the toilet when the newspapers went public. Wall Street killed freedom of speech. People care more about share prices than truth these days. I should know; I used to be a journalist.”
“Anyway, a group of us are going to get together tonight to focus our energy on shifting the asteroid’s path,” the woman said.
Raven set down her fork and raised a hand to feel her throat. She felt the pulsing veins under her fingertips. Her rib cage felt too small, too constrictive for her hammering heart.
Just when you think you’re out… she thought, ironically. As a child, she had grown up thinking the apocalypse was just around the corner. Her father used to say that the collective consciousness of the human race was so bent on self-destruction that before the millennium was done, the seas would rise, all the volcanoes in the world would go off at once, and there would be a mass extinction rivaling the death of the dinosaurs. The whole reason they’d left California was because her father thought it was going to sink into the sea. As a kid, she believed she wouldn’t live long enough to see adulthood.
But now here she was. Eighteen. A high school graduate about to start college. The millennium had come and gone. And the world had not ended. None of the things her father had told her were true.
She lowered her shaky hand back down to the table and felt the cool plastic press against her palm. She took two deep breaths and felt her thighs rest against her chair, the ground supporting her feet. There was no reason to get excited about some rumor she’d overheard at an ashram. If there really was an asteroid, more people would know about it than some wing-nut on the Internet. Nothing to lose her equilibrium over.
Raven picked up her fork. Resumed eating. Around her, the voices of many tables cascaded over her, like the rushing of distant waves.
As a journalist, E. S. O. Martin has written for the Chico News & Review and The Orion, among other publications. Her 2007 CN&R cover story “Invisible Victims” was selected as a finalist for feature writing in the Hearst Journalism Awards Program. As a fiction writer, E. S. O. Martin works in multiple genres, including science fiction and fantasy, horror, literary mainstream, and non-fiction. Her flash fiction has been published in Every Day Fiction and Flaunt Magazine. She blogs at www.esomartin.com. She holds a BA in journalism from California State University, Chico and an MFA in creative writing from San Francisco State University.