Seventeen Short Stories from 1998-2007

Seventeen Shorts

by E Norman

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Making scents of it all 3

Vinpires 20

Of orange trees in Iowa 30

Frederick and his grandfather Christopher 46

Chosen 51

Getting gold 61

The nanocult 70

Taking the wheel 76

Porkchops 92

Timmy and his mommy 104

The loop 108

A very good thing 112

The Wichita blues 128

The Goober 136

Feed a Drakel 145

The weapon 153

Lifted up and feeling blue 161

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Making scents of it all

After three failed marriages, I decided that whatever I was doing wasn’t working, and that I needed to try something new. It also was painfully obvious to my financial situation that paying any more child support would move me permanently into the category of man who works himself to death, attaining the status of bankruptcy right before the knockout stroke or heart attack.

My first marriage, to my girlfriend from my sophomore year in college, came during graduate school, and we parted amicably after getting two abortions and producing one child, Jeff. Amy and I discovered that once we left the world of campus life and small, college town socializing, there were just too many things we were interested in that were mutually exclusive. Jeff is now 16, and lost to his own inner life, and I could care less. At least the boy is indifferent to me rather than hateful and resentful of me.

My second marriage lasted the longest, and seemed to have no potential for ending in disaster, producing three offspring. But, that was the problem. Deidre was a bit too homely, a bit too normal and boring, and just a tad too interested in staying at home raising children. While Amy was tall, lean and athletic, always full of energy and moving about in the outdoors, Deidre was shaped more like me—squat Germanic stock that continued to seek out gravity as it aged, thereby destroying the precious few sexy curves that she was given by genetics.

I left Deidre for a woman who was an overcompensation for all of that fuzzy, domestic security. Consuela was twenty-two, five-nine, spoke very little English, had modeling aspirations, and was looking for a steady paycheck to take her to glamour. I was that steady paycheck. I took a job in New York for two years, worked sixteen hour days and weekends, saw very little of Consuela, and saw even less of any of the money that I made. You might call me an asshole because right before Consuela and I ran off to New York, I convinced Deidre to adopt the child born out of my infidelity with Consuela. So, I cheated on Deidre, knocked up Consuela, divorced Deidre, married Consuela, and passed our child off to Deidre when Consuela got bored with staying home and watching little Guillermo (a family name of hers, not mine).

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You see where this is going. Naturally, being of supermodel caliber in New York City in her mid-twenties, Consuela was seeing quite a few men that looked a far sight better than her thirty-something, squat Germanic husband who’d lost the last bit of his physique to the long hours at the office. I wasn’t really that heartbroken when she sat down and cried and said she wanted to leave me to experience the single life in New York. It wasn’t like I ever caught her in bed with anyone, or answered her phone to hear strange men asking for her. There were no fights where voices were raised or things were thrown and broken. It was time for me to go back to Austin and attempt to reconnect with the four children who still sent me Christmas cards and talked to me on the phone.

“Hello Ben,” said Deidre, recognizing my number, “Did you want to talk to the children? Biff and Scooter are at a soccer game, Sally is out playing with a friend next door, and Guillermo went to start swimming lessons with Matt.” Matt was her new husband. There are essentially two kinds of Matts in the world: the Matts you know in high school and college who obnoxiously triumph at all athletic and female conquest activities, and the Matts who marry moms deserted by their asshole husbands. Deidre’s Matt was, of course, among the latter.

“I was just calling to let you know that I am back in Austin, staying at a residential hotel right now, and looking for work at 3M, AMD and Samsung.”

“I thought you were bored with that kind of work, hence the consulting gig in New York.”

“It’s the work I really know best,” I said. It was also the easiest work to find for someone with my background. While I was in New York, I’d managed to sock away a few hundred grand into a private account that the IRS and Consuela couldn’t touch. I knew that I could buy an inexpensive condo or house somewhere in South Austin, and live for a couple of years taking only part-time consulting gigs, but it seemed somehow wrong to not get back to working.

“Ben, why did you come back to Austin?”

“To see my kids, of course.”

“You never paid much attention to them when were supposedly happily married, Ben. They aren’t just going to warm right up to you and become your best little friends.”

“Well, I realize that I have some work to do, but I really do want to try to be there for

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them, you know.”

“Ben, I like the way we have things arranged. They’ve enjoyed seeing you twice a year, and they like spending lots of time with Matt.”

What was it with those Matts and their ability to make other men’s children love them so much? I had a car. I could take Biff and Scooter to Little League or whatever, and sit out in the dirt with Sally and her dolls. I didn’t see what the big deal was. Maybe it came from me being an only child and never being allowed pets.

“Well, maybe I can hang out with them more than twice a year, even if it won’t be as much as Matt does.”

“Maybe. Call me back in May when school gets out, and I have time to think about it.”

It was October. Deidre had gone back to school to get a teaching degree, as she had once upon a time dropped out to marry me and be a homemaker. With Matt’s salary as an EMT, the two of them had to hold full-time jobs, in spite of the child support Deidre still received from me.

All of the companies I’d applied to were ready to make me offers. My resume was solid, my talent in demand. I could make almost as much as I made in New York, working half the hours and living at half the cost of living. I decided to go for a jog and think about my future, something I hadn’t really done much in New York.

Right before I left New York, my doctor told me I was almost 75 pounds overweight, pushing 260 on the scales. When I’d left Austin with Consuela, I’d weighed around 210.

The Sunday evening air was hot and dry, like summer hadn’t ended. The online weather service said it was in the 80s which was relatively normal for Austin in October. Nonetheless, people were down on the urban jogging trail in droves, pushing babies, walking in Sunday dress or killing themselves in tight spandex. I wheezed over the bridge, filled myself up with more water, and found myself in the leash-free area of the trail. This is where people who were afraid of or allergic to dogs likely went into comatose traumas over the large number of free-roaming dogs playfighting and chasing down sticks and balls.

Amy was there with Jeff and a chocolate Lab puppy. Oh, Jesus, I thought, just what I need right now. Jeff looked at me blankly, with a slight mocking sneer on his lips at the

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sight of my pathetic frame. He was lanky and tall like his mom, who seemed even scrawnier than when I was married to her, if that were possible. Amy was wearing a Danskin triathlon top, and bicycle shorts. Her skin was pure leather. She looked rather unhealthy and shriveled from all the endless sun-drenched activity, which was no doubt not what she’d been going for when she completely embraced the triathlete’s lifestyle.

“How’s George?” I asked her, remembering the man she’d gotten engaged to shortly after we divorced.

“Who? Oh, he’s ancient history,” she laughed. “You remember your son, Jeff, right?” she lightly teased.

“You’re both looking very fit,” I said politely, “Maybe a few months back in Austin will get me headed in that direction, too. What’s the puppy’s name?”

Jeff turned away and ignored me, and Amy was focusing all of her attention on trying to get the stick out of the dog’s mouth.

“I said, what’s your puppy’s name?” I asked again, trying to sound unperturbed at being suddenly ignored by them.

A man about the same age as Amy and I, who could be Amy’s male physical counterpart in his leanness and sun-dried skin, ran up and began nuzzling the puppy. “I’ve been thinking about getting one myself,” he asked, “Is he hard to train?”

“She,” said Amy, pausing to make sure the man understood that the puppy was female, “she has been a bit of a terror with her chewing, but she is already going to the door and whining when she needs to go out.” Amy was obviously a bit smitten by the fellow, smiling and showing hints of girlish eye-batting. I had just about given her up for having switched to batting for the other team until the man jogged up and she began sending him flirtatious signals.

“Well, good to see you again, Amy,” I said loudly, “Jeff.” I nodded at the self-absorbed boy, who was intently looking for a new stick to throw for the dog.

Amy looked at me confusedly as if trying to remember who I was and why I’d chosen to insert myself in her conversation with the stranger, and then smiled and said somewhat condescendingly, “Same to you, Ben, I’m sure we’ll run into each other down here some time.”

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The man smiled at me with kind, patient eyes as if he took pity on the fact that genetics had so cruelly cursed me with a short, squat frame. I decided to stop jogging, and just walk for another mile or so. All around me, strangers of the opposite sex were approaching each other simply because one or both had dogs. How interesting, I thought. The man that had approached Amy probably had no intention whatsoever in getting a dog as he’d likely killed a few of them because of neglect or incompetence, and simply saw the puppy as an opportunity to flirt.

I spied a lady who could have been Consuela’s older, shorter, squatter sister. She had some type of Pit Bull mutt puppy and a little girl. I looked carefully about for a man nearby, and then casually strolled by, smiling at her and glancing at her left hand for the appearance of a ring. There was no ring, and the pretty lady smiled back at me, batting soft, almost shy eyelashes.

“I’ve been thinking about getting one myself,” I asked, “Is he hard to train?”

She smiled at me and shook her head, “No se,” she said.

I tried to conjure up all of the broken Spanish Consuela had taught me. “Pienso que obtenir un perro para yo, pero no se, uh…no se si un perro es mas facil or no para…” what was the word for train?

“No entiendo,” she said politely.

“Su perro es muy guapo,” I said, very slowly.

“Oh!” her eyes lit up, “Si, si! Mi novio lo compró para mí.” Her novio bought it for her. Of course.

I smiled, and muttered, “Pues…buenos tardes.”

“Buenos tardes.”

So, like I said at the beginning of this story, I decided that after three failed marriages and five estranged children, that maybe just going back to work as an electrical engineer at an established technology company and finding some new wife that would be the response to everything I didn’t like about Consuela—maybe, that would just cause me to experience more of the same sort of life.

The first thing I did was find an affordable apartment near the Greenbelt, instead of buying a home someplace south where I would inevitably try to entice a new bride. The

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next thing I did was go down to the pound to find a puppy of my own.

There were a million dogs of the chocolate lab and pit bull mutt variety, all equally cute and all sadly uninspiring for someone embarking upon a life of great change. The Huskies and Shepherd dogs looked like they would die of heat stroke any second, and the Schnauzers, Dachshunds and Chihuahuas seemed too breakable.

“Breed: UNKNOWN,” said the sign on the cage of the ugliest, strangest animal I’d ever seen. It had a long snout like a greyhound, but seemed to breathe more like a bulldog, making its teeth look as if they were always bared. Its eyes were large and goofy like a boxer’s, but it stood more short and squat like a pit bull. Whoever they’d rescued it from had overfed the dog, or maybe it just naturally had what looked like a famine-distended belly. The tail was long and wiry, like an Irish Wolfhound’s. Everyone that walked by it either jumped back in disgust or fright. Kids shrieked when they saw it. It was a she.

The pound had named her Chloe, and she was actually extremely docile and submissive, almost to the point that made you wonder if she’d been violently abused at some point, rather than actively trained and disciplined. It was only her strange physical characteristics that made her look threatening at first. If you stepped into her pen to pet her, she tried to smile, baring her teeth even more; tried to wag her pathetic, ill-fitting tail, and plopped over on her back baring her belly. If you bent down to rub her belly, she would completely roll over submissively, and only occasionally reach up to give you a shy lick.

“Would she make a good jogging dog, you think?” I asked one of the volunteers.

“Oh, most definitely,” she said. “Chloe is one of the healthiest, most rugged dogs we have here. All of her mixed breeding has made her strong and likely to be free of a lot of the genetic defects you’d find with the purebreds.”

I decided to surprise Biff, Scooter, Sally and Guillermo with Chloe.

“Jesus, Ben,” cried Deidre as they all ran shrieking from the minivan to the house, “You know, you’re supposed to call first.”

“I thought that a dog would be a fun surprise.”

“You got the surprise part right. What is that thing?”

Chloe tucked her tail between her legs and looked at me forlornly.

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“She’s just Chloe. She’s actually a real sweetheart.”

“Kids, your bio-father wants you to come and pet this thing, so why don’t you just humor him and come and do it?”

Scooter and Sally weren’t having anything to do with it. Guillermo got close, but was frightened by Chloe’s instinctual need to “shake hands” with her nose. Biff gave her some perfunctory pets, but seemed wholly uninterested in the concept of an animal as a friend.

Women avoided me like the plague when they saw me with Chloe in the leash-free area. I detected giggles coming from various groups of folks that were directed at my dog. Other dogs would come up to Chloe and try to bully her and hump her. She would lazily throw her head back and hiss at the good-natured humpers, and they would go back to fetching sticks and balls.

“It’s just you and me kid, I guess,” I said to Chloe, taking her away from the jogging trail and onto the Greenbelt where almost nobody could be seen now that summer had properly dried up the entire creek.

“You know, Ben,” Chloe said to me one day as we were both panting and stumbling along after a good solid jog, “There’s a reason why you picked me out from all the other dogs.”

I scratched my head, took a deep breath, and felt my pulse, scanning the entirety of my vision for spots. It was now late November, and while it certainly had cooled off, I very well could be experiencing dehydration and heatstroke, I thought.

“No, Ben,” said Chloe, “You’re not experiencing dehydration or heatstroke, I really can talk. I escaped from a highly experimental genetics company’s lab a few months ago. I was given about fifty percent human genes while still in the embryonic stage. Unfortunately, most of my siblings were met with untimely deaths resulting from unspeakable horrors practiced upon them.”

“So, you can talk and think like a human?” I asked dumbly.

“Well, being who I am, learning speech and human and canine behavior the way that I did, I can’t say for sure how much of my brain is human and how much of it is canine, but you can clearly hear me talking, yes?”

“Of course,” I said, “But, what do you want me to do?”

“Oh, I don’t know. For starters, you could stop feeding me the crap that Dr. Green

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recommended to you. It’s like eating dried horseshit. I don’t need veal or filet mignon, but I do like the taste of ham and eggs, as well as the taste of good hamburger—like ground sirloin, not that greasy chuck stuff you often buy cause it’s on sale.”

“Right,” I said.

“And, that crate you keep me in is really uncomfortable. I’m not going to tear up your sofa if I get up on it, and I can clean myself pretty well, I think, in spite of how nasty it seems to me to lick myself in some places.”

“Sure, the sofa is yours. I suppose you want me to go up to the lab you escaped from, and free your siblings, or hold a press conference with you, the world’s first talking dog?”

“Oh, goodness no. The amount of genetic tomfoolery that is going on right now in places around the world is so far out of control that shocking the public with my speech would only titillate folks for awhile before they retreat into their complacency. This isn’t the Island of Dr. Moreau we’re talking about here, Ben, this is the abominable future of mankind and nature.”

“Yikes.”

“Well, you did want to try something new, correct?”

“I suppose…”

“And now you have it—me, a talking dog.”

Chloe refused to spy on women at the dog park for me—the ones who’d come in groups with their friend’s dog to see if there were any available men. “You don’t really want to know what they say about you, Ben.”

Chloe refused to steal for me, though I had merely jokingly suggested that she grab merchandise sitting outside stores on the weekend so we could resell it on eBay.

Chloe refused to talk to my children, no matter how much I begged her to. She said that the kids would either spread the news to the point where Chloe was back in a lab being examined, or the kids would be disbelieved and needlessly made fun of.

What Chloe did offer to do, as an acute student of body language and behavior, was offer me tips on how to improve my communications skills with others, coaching me on what to do with my hands and my face when I approached a stranger in the dog park. She pointed out moments where I appeared to be hostile, confrontational, or full of ambiguity when I

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was really trying to convey how much I was interested in the other person.

Chloe helped me connect with my children for the first time. She prompted me on things to say to them that would make them feel special, and make them see me as someone special and important in their lives. I even detected a moment of bonding with Jeff when we ran into him and the chocolate lab sans Amy one evening.

“That’s my son,” I said to Chloe, “He could care less about me, but at least he doesn’t hate me.”

“Have you ever asked him how much he benches?” she asked me.

“No, why would I? I don’t think he works out with weights.”

“Of course he does,” she said, “He’s always flexing his arms, and examining his biceps. Unfortunately, he inherited Amy’s physique, and can’t keep muscle or fat on. He probably secretly wishes that he’d gotten more of your genes, so that he could be a beefier fellow.”

I took Chloe’s cue, and walked up to Jeff. “Hey, Jeff, what are you benching these days, 250?”

“Yeah, right,” he said, looking just slightly pleased for only a moment before returning a blank look to his face. “I am lucky to put up 185 after months of training.”

“Well, stay off the steroids, Jeff,” I said, trying to sound a bit tongue-in-cheek and serious at the same time.

“Whatever,” he muttered.

“You didn’t have to tell him that,” she said. “He prides himself on not cheating and polluting his body with junk, and resents the fact you would even suggest that he takes performance-enhancing drugs.”

“How do you know that?” I asked, incredulously.

“Call it mother’s intuition.”

“You were never a mother…were you?”

Chloe walked on ahead of me and said nothing. I didn’t even try to fathom the loss she must have felt of her puppies, or the horror from watching the scientists come and take them away for experimentation.

Relations were improving between all of my children and exes and me, and I was starting to look fit again. My weight was back down to around 210, and some of the girls at the

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dog park were looking at me with interest rather than amusement. I didn’t need Chloe to tell me that.

“Why do you always look at the tall supermodel types?” Chloe asked me one day.

“They are very pretty, and I like beautiful women.”

“Then why did you ever settle for Deidre?”

“Good question,” I said.

“Some of these shorter, chubbier girls are fantastic women, Ben. They aren’t all future complacent little homemakers. You had the good sense to look past the genetic havoc wreaked upon me when you were picking out dogs, why is it different when you are looking for a mate?”

“I don’t know,” I said, “But it probably has something to do with the fact that I do need some aesthetic beauty as a sexual stimulant. I certainly didn’t go to the pound looking for a sex partner.”

“Well, I understand that, but do all exceptionally beautiful women stimulate you sexually?”

“No, I suppose not.”

I asked one of the homelier girls from the dog park out on a date. She was ten years younger than me, shy, and smiled a lot. Her dog was a miniature poodle that would snarl and snap at Chloe, and then become completely submissive around my dog when Chloe gave him nothing more than a look of disdain. The homelier girl started grabbing my leg on our second date, and rub up against me, but something smelled funny.

The next time I visited Deidre and my four youngest children, I got close enough to sniff her.

“What the hell are you doing?” she demanded.

“Your perfume smells really good,” I said.

“Screw you,” she snapped, “You can plainly see I haven’t even had the chance to bathe yet this morning, much less put on perfume. What the hell are you trying to do, anyway? Matt and I are very happy together, and there will never be anything between you and I again, Ben, never.”

I sniffed Chloe. She eyed me funny, but didn’t say anything. There was no odor

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whatsoever off of her. I sniffed many of the other dogs at the dog park and the leash-free area on the trail, including Amy and Jeff’s chocolate lab. Most of them stank of some oily, dark, mildly nauseous kind of scent. I tried to get close enough to sniff Amy, and briefly caught a whiff of pure, female human heaven.

“That’s it!” I cried to Chloe triumphantly, as Amy, Jeff and many other people stared at me. It was Austin, and people are weird down here, so a guy talking to his dog isn’t too strange of a sight, but they all stared, nonetheless. “It’s how women smell that makes all of the difference. They can all go days without bathing, and there are only certain ones that I am attracted to—by the scent. I picked you out of all the other dogs at the pound because you didn’t smell like a damn dog, pardon the expression. My sniffer has always been my secret guide, I just didn’t know it until now.”

Chloe just smiled and wagged her tail.

I would like to end the story right here, as it sounds good to me to stop it here, and I think the reader would be satisfied with it ending here. Unfortunately though, I have to tell the entire story of what I did, as shameful as it was.

Chloe noticed that I began standing closer to groups of women in the dog park, trying my best to look casual as I sniffed each one to determine a good “chemical fit,” no longer interested in finding a soul mate or relying on my eyes to guide me. So, it was really Chloe that put the sinister idea in my head.

“You know, Ben,” she said thoughtfully one day, “The scientists who created me and were experimenting on my siblings and my pups were keenly aware of the power of scent in attraction. As pathetically crass as it might sound, most of the research was being paid for by a perfume company.”

“They were trying to genetically engineer dogs with human DNA to create the perfect scent of attraction?”

“Well, that was the first step. They hoped to eventually give humans a canine’s power of scent so you all could better find your mates. The perfume company was hedging its bets that a human with a sense of smell that was a million times more powerful would buy that much more perfume.”

“Hmmm.”

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“They were pretty close to outfitting some of the local prisoners who’d volunteered as guinea pigs with the right doggie DNA.”

“I see. And, what was the name of the lab you escaped from?”

Crenshaw Labs, originally created by a cancer researcher and known for its work with monkey DNA, had received a lucrative contract from a major perfume juggernaut. I easily Googled them and found their location in an industrial park in Northeast Austin. Chloe’s favorite steak hamburgers were loaded up with emptied Benadryl capsules, and she didn’t suspect a thing—as her nose was too busy getting greedy over the lightly cooked patties of meat.

I’d called Crenshaw Labs from a pay phone and simply said, “I have a talking dog of yours, I think you’ll recognize her. If you want her back, equip me with a canine’s sense of smell, please.”

They obliged, and Chloe drowsily rolled her eyes in her sleep and then I caught the look of surprise and fear when she saw where I’d taken her after dinner. No, I smelled her fear. She shrieked and struggled, but was promptly subdued with the jab of a needle.

I got my own jab of the needle after a doctor gently examined me and helped me to a well-furnished room that wasn’t too clinical in its decor. Some nurses began swabbing iodine around my nose, and then I blacked out.

Upon awaking, I could hear many dogs shrieking in terror, and humans cursing them out and beating them. They had applied restraints to my bed. Funny, how I noticed the sound of those dogs first before the smells hit. My brain screamed in its own kind of pain at the intense amount of scent signals it was suddenly getting bombarded with. I could smell a nurse approaching, and knew immediately from the smell that it was, indeed, a nurse and not a doctor or scientist or other lab assistant.

“We only subdued you because the first moments of your new sniffer can really make you mad,” she said, smiling, and giving me a pill. “This will subdue it to some degree, suppresses that part of the brain, and we will have you take these for a week until you get used to your new superpowers.” She winked at me, as if this were all fun and games, and that’s when I realized what a sick bastard I was to throw my lot in with the likes of these folks.

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She unfastened the restraints. “You’re free to move about most of the areas of the building.”

“I can’t leave?”

“We like to keep our patients here for another night to monitor them. Since you aren’t from the prison, you can get some exercise. However, stay out of the area where you hear all of the dogs. That can be a bit messy, and is really an assault on most of our patients’ new sniffers.”

She was right. I had to find a large paper clip binding a report together to hold my nose shut, and I was still violently ill from the powerful smell of urine, formaldehyde and fear.

Of course, I had to see Chloe. Chloe was in a cage off in the corner. A clipboard hanging over her cage said, “Animal has been tainted by recent contact with the outside world, do not use for breeding or extraction. Incinerate tomorrow after Dr. West runs his tests.” She was heavily sedated. I couldn’t get her cage open, so I did my best to awkwardly wrangle it off of the other cage it was on, where a dog that looked very much like her growled at me in a low voice that was all-too-human.

I managed to find a pair of boltcutters in a maintenance closet, and get her cage open. The paper clip slipped a bit on my nose, as I was pulling Chloe out, and I sensed something disturbing in me that gave me pause, but I knew I had to keep moving. The lab wasn’t used to having a volunteer patient who wasn’t a prisoner attempt to leave. Very few non-prisoner volunteers had participated in their studies thus far, but I did learn that I could have signed up for the same scent DNA transformation on an obscure part of their website without needing to offer a trade of Chloe. I guess I’d seen too many movies.

Chloe wanted nothing to do with me, and frankly, there was something about her that was bothering me when the pills the nurse had given me wore off.

“I won’t judge you too harshly for what you did, Ben,” she said, “You are a better human than most, but not as good as some. I am going to go find my own way about this earth, no need to worry about me. I have enough human and dog in me to survive better than most humans and dogs can in the wild.”

I tied a pack of cooked steak hamburger to her collar, and opened the door, quite depressed and ashamed that I had been so weak to sell out my own dog just to be able to

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tell better when a woman was a good fit for me. Eager to get on with my exciting future of dating only the right-smelling women, I drove to the dog park, hardly caring about the fact that I had no dog of my own.

The thing about Chloe that had been nagging me became painfully clear as soon as I shut the gate to the dog park and three or four mutts came running up to me. I immediately spotted the bitch of the bunch who wasn’t fixed and was starting to get in heat. The level of attraction was like none I had ever experienced with a two-legged female. It floored me, and it was all I could do from going after that lusty lady boxer. Panicked, I ran over to a pack of two-legged females, and began sniffing. Their unwitting natural scents, coming forth beneath heavily perfumed ones, made my eyes water a little bit and that was all. I screamed and ran back to my car.

That was the last time I ever allowed myself to get near dogs. I moved up to a retirement community where dogs are strictly prohibited, lied about my age to get in, and I now do enough consulting work online to pay the bills. My weight has gone back up to pushing almost 300 lbs., and my children have gone back to being mostly strangers. If I ever go out and think I might in the least chance run into a female dog, I carry chlorine tablets with me, and put them up to my nose, basically rendering my sniffer useless for thirty minutes or so.

And, that’s pretty much it. I did get one visit from Crenshaw Labs, and they seemed a bit puzzled by my early exit. They cautioned me that the surgery and DNA transformation could have gone wrong in many different ways during this experimental phase, and stressed the importance of staying through the entire clinical trial. Nobody from there made the connection between the missing Chloe and my early departure. Chloe was probably so disposable to them, anyway, that they could have hardly cared if a tainted dog like Chloe ended up missing.

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Vinpires

“You come down to Austin, and you see these guys running around down here, all lookin’ like they’re Vin Diesel or somethin’. They get the slightest bit thin up there, and they shave it all off. Then, you have the young kids, growing out their mops and birds’ nests like our big brothers did. Since when the hell did the 70s come back? And, where is all the cool stuff from the 70s, like vans and roller skates?”

“Well,” I said to him, looking at his man boobs poking out of his striped polo shirt tucked into jeans, and hearing his plea for me to agree with everything he had to say, “Yeah, I see what you’re saying. The look is definitely back, but the freedom ain’t.”

“Exactly,” he said, eyeing me like I was going to be his best friend ever, if I just asked him to go grab a beer with him tonight.

“As for the Vin Diesel types, I really think those are guys that have given themselves over to alien or satanic cults.” I figured that would be a bit too out there for a fellow like this, and he would suck in air hard, putting on the brakes before things got any weirder for him. After all, “Keep Austin Weird” was very much just a bumper sticker slogan, for most people.

“Precisely what I have begun to deduce, but you have laid it out there in a most righteous, and I must say, succinct sort of way.”

“I appreciate the compliment,” I said, realizing that I would have to consume my Thundercloud sub with him rather than at the park in the 98 degree cloudless heat, for I couldn’t let him outdo me when it came to getting on the weird wagon. “However, I don’t think that talk does us much good unless we begin videotaping and photographing these weird, bald, besunglassed alien satanic sorts, and posting them on the internet, where people in Toronto and Tokyo can understand what sane guys like us are up against down here.”

“I am all for that,” he said, “My name is Michael Watanabe. I have a Japanese father and a Midwestern mother, so I can attest firsthand that Toronto and Tokyo folks will be amazed and stupefied to learn that Austin is being overrun by this cult.”

Well, it was too good not to play along with this fellow at this point. And, I was starting to

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feel a little bit on the bored side with my humdrum office life and humdrum girlfriend. “It’s almost,” I said, getting a profound revelation of sorts, “As if those guys with bald heads and terminator or aviator sunglasses, who incessantly run around or bicycle shirtless in the heat, are like the flipside of what it means to be vampires. They thrive and prey on the masses in the hottest brightest daylight, and very likely must sleep under UV lamps not to whither and die.”

“You are a brilliant man, sir. What may I call you?”

“My name is Doug Christopher. My parents are both Midwestern, but I’ve been to Japan, and I know that people in both places are going to be ripe for learning about this.”

We shook hands, devised a plan, decided to author a clear constitution or manifesto of sorts—at the very least, a plan to describe the scope of what we would and wouldn’t want to accomplish—then, determined that since we both worked during the day unlike the amazing daylight vampires, or Vinpires, as we came to call them—that, we would take turns using extended lunch hours to videotape and document what these so-called tri-athletes were really up to.

Even if you live in Austin, and see them during the day, shirtless or dressed up in spandex, totally driven by the sun while the rest of us wilt away in it and scurry back to our air conditioned offices, you still don’t know the half of what they are up to. You might muse briefly that some of them are Lance Armstrong wannabe’s, just college kids with extra time on their hands or IT geeks who’ve made enough in startup stock options to take it easy for a few summers in the Austin sun. However, it’s sort of like discovering where elephants go to die—you kind of assumed they just fall dead somewhere alone out in the woods, until you follow an old one back to an ivory-choked graveyard chock full of skeletal elephant remains.

In that same way of tracking those great sub-Saharan beasts, I tracked with my camera the Vinpires back to their lair. I followed joggers and bikers, and swimmers in their Subarus, and they all headed north up loop 360 just past the bridge that’s on all of the postcards. At first, it wasn’t so obvious, as many of them would hop on bicycles if they’d been jogging or swimming, and head back south, but I noted toward the end of the sunlit day (I’d taken an entire day off to begin the mission), that like UPS drivers who might be

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running routes all over town, these Vinpires eventually swarmed back to a turn just past the 360 bridge on the right, a gravel road unmarked and mostly hidden—not the paved turn that takes you to the mansions where men like Michael Dell live.

Into a limestone cave that was covered by a revolving boulder they went, one by one. I called up Michael Watanabe when I got this far.

“No way,” he said, “I’ve been all up and down the river looking for the spot that I knew was there. How the hell did you find it so quickly?”

“I was a UPS driver for a while, and I’ve also tracked elephants, bats and daddy longlegs back to their lairs,” I said. “I can spot perturbations in a clan’s movement, and look for order and purpose in what to many seems like utter chaos.”

“Wow,” said Michael Watanabe, “I believe it. Now, don’t try to pass through that boulder without me—certainly don’t attempt it until its been dark a few hours.”

“Of course, just get down here with your consumer grade digital video camera with the night vision setting, ASAP,” I said.

He arrived quite quickly on his Kymco Xciting, full of excitement.

We immediately seized upon how the boulder operated, as I’d observed the Vinpires entering one by one. You splayed your arms and legs outward against the boulder, in just the right spot, and this triggered it to use an unknown force, perhaps a vacuum or electromagnetism, to hold you fast in that position against the boulder as it rotated, then stopped, depositing you inside the Vinpire cave.

Literally tens of thousands of skinny, bald, athletic guys (mostly white, twentysomething, of medium build and height) swarmed about going “Abba-ba-labba, abba-ba-labba.” At first, I was seized with utter panic that I was spotted and soon to be either eaten or converted, but the Vinpires were evidently in some kind of trance or sleepwalking state. They were also naked, which I found a bit unsettling, and occasionally mists from the ceiling of the cave sprayed down water mixed with perfume on them. Shards of UV light beamed out of cracks in the cave’s walls, making it all seem almost extraterrestrial.

“I’m totally digging this,” said Michael Watanabe, “Mindless minions, I knew they were as such, all along.”

“You don’t think that a camera or something has got its eye on us, do you?” I asked.

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“Well, that is a possibility, but we will not stay here long, now that we understand where they go.”

“We need to know what their daytime purpose is, correct?” I asked.

“Yes, although I have my theories. Let’s go to a diner, and I will explain.”

Michael Watanabe was five-three, and he thought he was in no danger whatsoever of being taken into the Vinpire fold. Indeed, the shortest Vinpire I’d spotted was about five-nine, and the tallest around six-one.

“But, you are in danger,” he said, referring to my five-eleven height, 185 pounds and medium frame, “Or, more importantly, you could be the one that truly infiltrates their fold.”

“Are you high?” I asked, running my fingers through my thinning brown hair, “I happen to like going home to my girlfriend and dog—even her cats—and, I have no desire whatsoever to find myself eternally the prisoner of some weird bald triathlete vampire cult here in Austin.” Although, I must say, my protestations were rather on the defensive side, and he didn’t seem to be buying them.

“Well, I would keep an eye on you, tail you, and make sure that no fangs or syringes were inserted into you.”

“I will need a few days to mull this over,” I said, “In the meantime, we still can do a lot of work tracking their patterns, perhaps they go someplace else during the day that we have missed thus far.”

“Fine,” he said, “Although, I do believe that time is somewhat important in our investigation.”

“And, what makes you believe that?”

“I’ve noticed a few of them eating fallen bats under and around the Congress Bridge. I think that as they grow more Vinpirized, they will proceed to embark upon a full-scale onslaught of the bats, who sleep during the daylight hours when the Vinpires are most active, and consume most, if not all of the bats to become Vinpire quadathlete masters of both night and day, of land, water and sky.”

“So, what you’re saying is that, at worst, Austin will lose one of its most precious institutions or tourist draws? Then, the vinpires will be able to baldly jog, bike and swim

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at all hours of the day and night?”

“Not only that,” he said, “But they will be able to fly, too. And then, who knows what? I mean, what would you do if you were an advanced species of bat humans who could jog, bike, swim and fly at all hours of the day and night?”

“I don’t know…hold intense quad-athlete competitions that only I and my fellow Vinpire-minions could compete in? Attempt to use our superpowers to stage a coup on the government? Or, maybe just be a generally obnoxious presence, in and around Austin?”

“Exactly. They could be after any one or more of those goals, and Lord only knows that it’s up to the two of us to stop them.”

“I don’t know,” I said, “What would I have to do first?”

Michael gave me some instructions. First, I needed to procure a set of $12 clippers at the grocery store. While I had spent the last few years treasuring the last of my locks, for the sake of an experiment, it didn’t seem like too much to risk.

“You didn’t!” shrieked my girlfriend Rachel.

“Rachel, you know how hot it gets down here, and remember that Vin Diesel movie where you thought he looked so sexy?”

“Yes, but you look…em, never mind, sweetheart, it’s your hair, or lack thereof.”

Then, I needed to buy the right clothing, terminator or aviator sunglasses, and bicycle to blend in.

“Eight thousand dollars!?” I cried, eyeing the destruction that was about to be done on my credit card.

“Look,” said the guy at the bike shop counter, who suspiciously looked like he might be turning into a Vinpire, or close to turning into one, “You can maybe fool ninety-percent of Austin into thinking that you are a Lance wannabe with some cheap-ass mountain bike and a spandex outfit from Wal-mart, but those of us who are the true road warriors will know you to be the utter Lance wannabe poser that you are.”

“Unless I buy a seven thousand dollar carbon road bike, and a thousand dollars’ worth of gear?”

“That’s correct.”

“Oh, so you’re going to try to become one of them, huh?” sneered Rachel, eyeing my

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rather poor efforts to get my gut and ass into the spandex bike outfit.

Michael encouraged me, hopping on his Kymco Xciting, and putted along beside me as I practically killed myself trying to climb a hill in my neighborhood.

“I think you need to drop it into a lower gear,” he shouted.

“I’ve got it as low as it will go, and my poor legs are like jelly.”

Both of our heads turned, as we caught site of a swarm of them swooping toward us coming down the hill like a flight of white bats. Each one of them was uniformly sized, with only a hard thin presence of muscle riding between spandex and bone. All of them had those evil grins on their faces, and all wore terminator or aviator sunglasses and bicycle helmets that looked like knobby crests of cartilage popping out of their bald heads. These were pure Vinpires, acting as a single mind, in tune with the sun, their bikes and each other.

“Join them,” said Michael.

“Are you crazy? They would leave me in the dust, or at least at the bottom of the next hill.”

“Maybe they will, maybe they won’t. At least you can try.”

Amazingly enough, the Vinpires slowed down their pace for me, upon noting that I was riding a bike that crossed the five thousand dollar threshold.

“Aaaay,” the ones at the back turned and cried to me.

“Aaaay,” I replied, attempting my best Vinpire grin. And so I was off on a mission to become one of them. We biked together, we jogged together, we swam together. As I was not a fully formed Vinpire yet, my skin burned and blistered badly, and my muscles seized up in the most painful charliehorses imaginable at night. I was so spent from all of the physical activity, that I rarely had enough left in me for Rachel.

“Look, Doug,” she said one night when I failed to finish the act, “I appreciate that you are trying to get in shape for the first time in ten years, I really can. But, the extremes that you are going to are hurting you…they’re hurting us.”

“What are you saying, Rachel?”

“That it’s me or them.”

I told Michael about this conversation one night at the diner. I was starting to have urges

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to go to the Vinpire cave, and could barely sit still in the booth.

“Doug, how serious is this relationship with Rachel? I mean, do you plan on marrying her?”

“I guess so, I don’t know. She can be kind of nagging sometimes.”

“Well, there you go. After we’ve saved the world from being overtaken by a Vinpire swarm, you will have your pick of some of the finest honeys available, and Rachel will hardly seem like a top choice.”

Rachel cried a lot, and demanded that I remember all of the dreams we’d shared together, and the nights that we’d talked about what it would be like to have kids and our own home, instead of an apartment. I told her that she was the one with the ultimatum, and she certainly didn’t have to go, but that my workout regimen was far too important to me to give up now. She left.

It was not long after Rachel left, that I woke up in the Vinpire cave for the first time, not remembering how I got there.

“You were supposed to grab me, and snap me out of it, before it came to this!” I cried, amazed at my ability to pedal fast and hard enough to catch him at the light.

“Well,” said Michael, “I did try to wake you up, but you insisted on joining your brethren in the cave.”

“I think our experiment has gone far enough,” I said, “The only useful thing we’ve learned is that any pudgy guy in his late twenties can join them if he has ten grand open on his credit card. If I go into a Vinpire trance every night, how the hell am I supposed to locate the leader or central mind of the group?”

“You certainly can’t stop now!” he cried. “Your waking up in the cave simply means that we have reached a successful stage in our mission, you have their confidence. Now, I will have you take a tracking device into the cave, and monitor where you and the Vinpires go throughout the night.”

“But, we go naked once we’re in the cave, where are you going to stick a tracking device?”

“It will only be mildly uncomfortable at first.”

“Oh, man.”

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So, I took a Friday off, and spent the day with a transmitter up my butt, jogging, swimming and biking all over Austin. By then, I was well-Vinpirized, and affected very little by the sun. The moonlight was actually doing more damage to my skin, and I had begun to make sure that I stayed under or near UV lamps when the sun went down.

Around 8:30 P.M., I lost consciousness while bicycling toward the 360 bridge.

When I woke up, I was lying in a pool of blood, my body badly battered, and shots were being fired all around me. It was early morning, and I didn’t recognize at first where I was. All around me, Vinpires were muttering in hushed, wounded tones, “Abba-ba-labba, abba-ba-labba.” I realized I was making the same inane noise too, and shut up.

We were being shot at by what looked to be National Guardsmen, and I began to recognize my surroundings. I was lying at the foot of the Texas State Capitol Building, along with several other hundred Vinpires. Painfully rolling over, and looking up, I could see some of the Vinpires had achieved true flight from eating bats, and were plastered to the outside of the Capitol dome. They too, were being picked off by machine gun fire from helicopters.

I lost consciousness again.

***

Michael Watanabe realized his mistake. He’d overapplied his Vinpire minions to what for him was meant to be a trial run of a coup. Over a hundred were gone, along with a significant portion of the Congress Bridge bat population. At least he knew it could work. Maybe next year, he’d fly the Vinpires to New York, and wreak havoc there.

Of course, none of them would ever mention his name, as the National Guard was busy taking them all out. Even the newest recruit, Doug Christopher appeared to be gasping out his dying breaths, though he no longer “abba-ba-labba”-ed with the rest of them. Michael got on his Kymco, and sped off to his mansion perched above the Vinpire cave.

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Of orange trees in Iowa

My siblings and I were recently reunited by the passing of our father. Carol and Tom are my older sister and brother, and Kayne is my younger brother. We grew up in an old farm house in rural Iowa, where Dad continued to live up until a couple of years ago when he had to move to Omaha to receive assisted living care. Carol, the most financially successful one of the Oakman bunch, lives with her husband Mike in Omaha, hence the decision to move Dad there. Everyone had agreed that we would keep the farm house until Dad died, as Carol and Mike would drive Dad there on many weekends to make him happy.

Tom sells insurance in Des Moines, and lives with his partner Brad. Kayne and I were the drifters of the family, never really happy in the Midwest like our older siblings were. Kayne wandered off to San Francisco, and I spent a lot of time staying one step ahead of the law throughout the state of Florida.

“So, are you back from Florida for good this time, Reuben?” Carol asked me politely to make conversation as she pulled away from the Greyhound station.

Mike was probably starting to grill steaks and boil potatoes. Her children smiled at me from the back seat. They were behaving so well compared to Kayne and me when we were not much older than them.

“Ah…” I paused, trying to decide what answer she really wanted to hear—the fact that I might be wanted for attempted armed robbery and possibly murder in the state of Florida—or, the fact that I was tired of trying to find whatever I was looking for in that state. I opted for the latter. “But you know how I like a warmer climate. I might try Mexico next.”

“Mmmm.” murmured Carol in a tone that said she wished I could just pull my head out of

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my ass once and for all.

“Is Kayne here, yet?”

Kayne was the one I could tell it all to, and not worry about a fretful call to the police being made. I’d picked the wrong day to rob a bank, running in with my small automatic and finding myself in the middle of some big-time operation with bombs and rocket launchers. The confusion and ensuing explosions that had erupted after I shot one of them—only that chaos seemed to have saved me from being caught or shot.

“Yes, actually. Kayne has been living in Omaha for almost a year now, selling insurance at a new office Tom opened up there. You probably will have trouble recognizing him.”

Indeed, I did. Kayne was without facial hair for the first time since the age of fifteen, wore a knit golf shirt and khaki Dockers. Perhaps because he’d just spent the winter in the Midwest, he looked quite pale and almost pasty, like he’d been out of the sun for decades. There was something weird about his eyes, and he’d dyed his hair to almost a natural sort of blonde color.

Both Kayne and I were the dark-complected siblings—swarthy some said. A few times, I’d wondered if we were adopted, or came from a different father, but early pictures of us prove that we were both tow-headed blondes who looked every bit like Tom and Carol.

“Big brother Reuben, how is it my man?” asked Kayne, holding a light domestic beer in a coozy. “So good to see you.”

“Kayne. Tom. Brad. Mike. Guess we’re all here.” I nodded to the lot of them, standing there on the back deck watching a spring training ballgame. Tom looked like he’d just finished a bout of bawling—he and Dad were the closest. His boyfriend Brad fluttered around by his side, ready to offer him anything he needed.

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Mike returned to a deep argument with Kayne about the merits of this or that fantasy league baseball player. My brother-in-law didn’t even look at me, as was usually the case. I’d borrowed and never paid back more of his money than I could ever count—but, no doubt, he could and did.

Later, when we all sat on the deck, satiated and full of wine or beer, we relaxed some of our suspicions of each other (or I should say, they all seemed to relax some of their suspicions of me), and sounded almost like a real Midwestern family.

“I still remember the day Dad hired the man to cut down the orange tree, because it was half dead from a case of Xanthomonas axonopodis, or Citrus Canker as Dad called it.” I had to tell it. It was my most vivid memory from childhood.

Tom rolled his eyes and groaned, and Mike muttered, “Here we go again.”

“The tree was touching the power line, and had started to rest on it. But, the other half was healthfully producing oranges, and Kayne and I got sick eating all of the oranges that fell everywhere.”

“Reuben, you know…” Tom started.

“Oh, Jesus, Tom, why don’t you just let him tell the story?” snapped Carol.

“Because, it’s insane for a grown man to contend that we had oranges in Iowa. Any fool knows that it gets too damn cold to grow them, and what’s more, Dad and Mom and you and I have all emphatically denied the existence of there ever being such a tree.”

I waited for the outburst to pass. Tom couldn’t stand to hear the story, and used to relish the screaming matches we would get into over it—but I’d long since stopped trying to argue. After all, Kayne still had my back. I waited for Kayne to chime in for my defense.

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“Kayne? Buddy? Tell him, because he was already in college then, and you and I both saw it happen and got sick that day.”

Kayne gave me a blank look. Everyone stared at him expectantly, waiting for him to recount how we had thrown oranges at each other, then at the man that cut the tree down, finally incurring Dad’s wrath.

“Um, sorry Reuben. I, uh, really don’t remember there being an orange tree out here.”

“What the hell is the matter with you people?” I exploded, now unable to keep my cool. I ran down to the spot by our fenceline where the stump had stood for years. It was rotted through and through, but still jutted out of the ground, propped up by a once-mighty root structure. I began kicking it, and screaming, “Can’t you see it?”

Carol touched me gently, and said in a low voice, “Reuben, that stump was there the day you came home from the hospital, and all through my own childhood.”

“I know it was there the day I came home from the hospital, because we were in the wreck right after Dad had the tree cut down.”

Carol gripped my arm, and said, “Reuben, you know what I meant. The stump was there the day you were born.”

You see, Carol’s entire college tuition, room and board had been paid for by Dad. Tom was in his freshman year at Iowa State, also receiving a completely free ride from Dad, when the crash had happened. If you read the newspaper that was printed the next day, you see it reported that Tess, Kayne and I were pronounced dead upon arrival at the hospital, and that Mom and Dad were in critical condition. In an edition published later that week, only Tess remained dead. I always thought this was weird, but everyone just said the reporter on the beat that night had heard wrong.

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Mom was left with excruciating back and neck problems for the rest of her life, and never recovered enough to do some of her favorite activities like bicycle riding and tennis. The doctors told us her diabetes arose partly because of her inactivity and extra weight. Kayne and I became angry, troubled little kids, aged eleven and seven, being sent to child shrink after child shrink. They were more reluctant to prescribe ADHD meds back in those days, though we would no doubt have gotten them today. Neither Kayne nor I could remember Tess, who by all accounts had been Tom’s favorite sibling.

Dad ended up using all of the money he’d saved for future and present college educations, plus most of his retirement, to pay doctor bills. Tom had to drop out of the university and get an Associate’s Degree at Junior College. Kayne and I never finished High School.

For years, I would argue insensibly with Tom that he and Carol couldn’t remember the orange tree the same way Kayne and I couldn’t remember Tess.

“That makes no sense, Reuben,” Tom would cry in exasperation, “I have never been in an accident and suffered memory loss. One of those shrinks probably hypnotized you and stuck his own damn memories inside your head.”

“But every doctor I’ve been to says it is really my memory. They’ve studied my brain waves, or something, I think, and they can tell. Besides, where would a kid like me learn to say Xanthomonas axonopodis?”

Carol would butt in, “Brain fingerprinting wasn’t around twenty years ago, kiddo. As for the scientific name—who knows what we pick up subconsciously from the television? The doctors probably just feel your memories are genuine because both you and Kayne say the exact same things. “

And that was always my clincher. “That’s right, Tom. They didn’t hardly ever let Kayne and I see the doctor at the same time, but we told the same story. How do you explain

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that?”

I returned my attention to the present feeling wholly defeated and walked back to the deck that was lit by bug lamps and baseball from the tv. I grabbed Kayne, and commanded him to come with me, as if we were kids again.

“Reuben, cut that stuff out, can’t you see that the Cubs are on and it’s in extra innings?”

“Come on, Kayne, you and I need to talk.”

I offered him a menthol cigarette, our favorites since the days of stealing them from Mom and sharing them.

“Uh, no thanks, bro, I gave those up.”

“What the hell is going on, man?” I demanded.

“What do you mean?”

“Look at you, all cleaned up like a true preppy tool. You don’t smoke. And, you say you don’t remember the freaking orange tree? What the hell is up with that?”

He stared at me blankly. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Come on, Kayne, it’s me. Tell me why…tell me how you went from being a grass-smokin’ California surf punk to an Omaha businessman—it’s been what? Maybe two years tops since I seen you last?”

He shrugged and smiled. “If you remember, I was set to do some hard time when my so-called friends left me holding their entire stash. Carol and Mike came down and took care

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of things. And, I met the Lord.”

I snorted and guffawed. “Look, I can appreciate you wanting to start a better life, and all that. Hell, I’ve thought about doing that now for some years, myself. And I’m cool with the Lord and all that—but, man, our orange tree.”

“Sorry, Reuben. A stump is a stump, and that’s all I see there.”

Mike, Tom and Kayne sat out on the deck and watched baseball, while Brad and Carol discussed movies they’d seen recently. The kids had been put to bed. I went into Dad’s den, and took down some of the old photo albums. The crash had taken place August 6, 1987. There were, as far as I knew, no photos taken of the family for a good year after that.

Two folded pieces of paper fell out. On one, written in the shaky cursive script of an adolescent: Xanthomonas axonopodis

Above the words stood a tall man brandishing an oblong object that was obviously meant to be a chainsaw. Two crudely drawn boys were leering as they drank the orange blood that flowed from the tree. The other piece of paper was signed in big, block letters: Kayne Oakman. It portrayed an even cruder rendering of the fallen orange tree. I pocketed both triumphantly. There was no way Kayne could deny his own artwork.

I found Tom’s high school graduation photos, and leafed forward through the summer—the summer car trip to Chicago and St. Louis (wow, we looked like Mike and Carol’s kids, so well-behaved in every picture), me at my first summer camp, playing Little League.

The night of the crash had followed an all-day picnic at Saylorville Lake. We were making our way home down a windy, rural highway when a semi apparently jackknifed right before our eyes. The driver of the eighteen wheeler was sober, but he had claimed

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that a great meteor had fallen in front of his eyes, blinding him completely for several seconds. Dad, who had also been sober, had very little in the way of memory right before the accident happened, other than seeing the truck jackknife before it was upon us. All of the first responders to the crash were baffled that any of the Oakmans had survived, judging the damage the truck had done to our car.

My memories were almost nil when it came to trying to put together that day. Frustratingly enough, the orange tree incident always came up as being the last thing I could remember.

My eyes stopped on one single class photograph from over a year after the crash. There I was, age twelve, starting the fifth grade because I spent almost a whole year in physical and psychological therapy. My complexion between the Little League team portraits of the summer of 1986, and the school pictures of the fall of 1987—that seemed remarkably different. Then, I noticed something nobody had ever pointed out to me—my eyes in every baby picture, up until those Little League photos—were unmistakably green. In the fifth grade class portrait, they were clearly brown, as they are today.

I ran up the basement stairs to the kitchen, and out onto the deck where everyone was half-asleep. The game was dragging on, and even the diehard baseball fans were watching with one eye apiece. I threw on the floodlamps to the deck, held up the photo album and shouted triumphantly, “Check it out! Now, what does that tell you?”

Tom was the first to examine the two pictures. He then studied me, and could see I was angling at something. “Right, some people’s eyes gain more pigmentation, along with their skin, as they approach adolescence. Those Little League photographs have faded badly, and you have gone from having light hazel eyes, to dark hazel eyes.”

“No way, man. Check out this shot of me as a toddler right here on this porch. Same green. Now, look into my eyes. No hazel. None. They are without question as brown as

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that damn stump.”

“So, what? You think this is proof that an orange tree grew in the back yard?”

“I think it’s evidence that something more happened the night of the crash than we were told.”

A helicopter was circling low, not far from being directly overhead our front yard. I felt a mild panic start to gnaw at me and grow bigger.

“Tell me something, everyone. Why does my little brother Kayne here suddenly sport khaki Dockers and Polo shirts, and shave his face every day?”

Every single one of them, except Brad and Kayne, looked away, or looked at the ground.

“He’s our little brother, too, Reuben,” said Carol.

“Um, hello. I’m sitting right here,” complained Kayne, “Maybe you should ask me.”

“I did ask you, remember? And I’m not buying that the Lord made you forget about the orange tree.” My fingers twitched over my pocket, ready to spring forth the evidence drawn by Kayne’s own hands.

“Maybe he didn’t have to forget, because there never was an orange tree to begin with,” sneered Tom.

I’d just about had it with my older brother and his smugness. I refrained from pulling out the artwork, and ran at Tom to knock the sneer off his face. I was almost twice his size, and had probably been in a hundred more fights. Mike and Kayne leaped up and grabbed me.

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“Reuben, maybe you should think about turning it in for the night,” said Carol. “Come on, you’re sleeping down in the basement, let me walk you down.”

“But Carol, I can…”

“Reuben, let it go.” I decided the little memory refresher for Kayne could wait until breakfast the next day.

She held the door, as I grabbed my duffel bag that was still sitting on the kitchen floor. I stopped at the doorway and stared at her.

“What?” she asked, obviously hiding something she wanted to say.

“Come on, Carol. I expected you to be the last person to bullstuff me. Something happened to Kayne that you all know about, and you aren’t talking.”

“We received a call—from the FBI. They said he had acted as an informant in a major bust out in California.”

“Wouldn’t they have moved him someplace else besides back to his family? Wouldn’t he be known as someone other than Kayne?”

There was a pounding on the front door, and it woke up the kids. Carol ran to see who it was, and yelped when she opened it. She looked terribly frightened, and just pointed at me. I was thrown to the ground, a knee went in my back, guns were pointed at my head, and then they cuffed me.

“Reuben Oakman, you are under arrest for committing acts of terrorism on U.S. soil!”

“What!?” I was flabbergasted. “You gotta be kidding me.”

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I was bodily lifted into the air, and stood on my feet, then shoved forward.

Carol threw up a weak protest, “M-maybe…you must be mistaken. I know my brother Reuben. He might have run with a rough crowd now and then, but…terrorists?”

“Ma’am, on December 25, 2006, your brother and six other members of an Al Qaeda terror cell stepped into The International Bank of Miami, and sought to wreak unholy amounts of destruction upon this bank in the form of suicide explosives, before leaving it vulnerable to the murdering, thieving traitors that were to follow them.”

“Reuben, is that true?”

“Well, not exactly. You see…”

And then our conversation was over, as I was taken by helicopter to an undisclosed location to be beaten thoroughly. First, several guys in fatigues kicked me around. Then, I was thrown into a cell with three badly mangled dudes whom I recognized from the day of the robbery. They were livid at seeing the man who’d shot one of their comrades and botched their operation. I was beaten again by them quite handily.

Then, the next day, a more commanding military presence came with dogs and threatened to have them rip my nuts off. I cried for everyone in my family, and the Lord, to save me, but that was to no avail. Fortunately, the threats remained threats. The day after that, I received the infamous waterboarding torture, which finally yielded a fearful, “Okay, I’m one of them, and I can take you to our leader!”

This got me into a cell of my own, but I knew I had just bought a very small amount of time. Days went by. Occasionally, a doctor stopped by to poke and prod me, or a guard opened the door and took his anger out on me, screaming “Traitor!” and kicking me.

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Then, one day, as I had all but abandoned hope, I heard a familiar voice say, “Where is he?”

“Carol?” I asked, as she stood over my huddled form.

“Theresa. My name is Dr. Theresa Laeb. You idiots, he isn’t one of them!”

“But, Doctor, we’ve extracted a confession from him, and everything.”

“Yeah, every last one of you would confess to being Al Qaeda if you were beaten, threatened by dogs and waterboarded. Come on, let him go. He’s coming with me.”

“But, ma’am, you can’t…”

She waived a clearance badge at them that sent impressive looks all around.

“Are you sure you don’t want a guard to accompany you?”

“No. Unfasten his handcuffs, and let him go.”

“But, ma’am, he’s a terrorist!”

Theresa pulled out a cell phone, and threatened to call someone very important. They obliged. She took me to a hotel room, and told me to get cleaned up. I obliged, and found a fresh suit, perfectly cut to my size on the bed.

“Let’s go some place where we can hear each other talk,” she said.

I felt so wonderful from the recent liberation and shower, that I simply followed her like a little boy, and didn’t say a word. I didn’t seem to have it in me, anyway, to demand who

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she was and why she’d freed me.

“Reuben, do you remember a night twenty years ago, coming home from the lake with your family?”

“You mean, the crash?” I asked.

“That’s correct. What do you remember of the crash?”

“Nothing, really. What I do remember…a memory I have right before it…”

“Yes?”

“Well, nobody seems to believe that this memory happened but me.”

“I’m listening.”

“An orange tree. My brother Kayne and I were playing out in the back yard, and Dad had a man come and cut it down, because the tree had Xanthomonas axonopodis.” I stopped, and waited for her to laugh under her breath, or calmly ask me if I knew that no orange trees grew in Iowa.

“The tree was touching the power line, right? And it had started to rest on the power line. But, the other half of the tree was healthfully producing oranges, and you and your brother Kayne got sick eating all of the oranges that fell everywhere.”

I stared at her stunned. “Who are you?” I asked.

“That’s going to be up to you to decide.”

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“What do you mean?”

“I’m going to give you a choice. You can come with me, or go back and live with your family. But, if you go back to live with your family, some memories are gone forever.”

“Like with Kayne.”

“Yes, like with Kayne.”

“But, why…or, how?”

“Well, you will learn that if you come with me, and join me with the work I’m doing for a special thinktank in Washington. I fight global warming. I get to see new technologies years before other people do.”

I stared at her for a long time, and then, I figured out who she was. I hadn’t been considered that bright of a kid since the accident, and I had no memory of her whatsoever, but recalling my reaction when I first heard her voice from my cell, I suddenly just knew that the woman in front of me was Tess, my older sister.

“What did that truck driver see that night, Tess?” I asked, hoping to catch her off guard.

“Good, you do have some sense, after all. Maybe you can do something more high level at our thinktank than carry a gun in front of a door. Okay, then, little brother. I want you to sleep on it tonight, and decide what you want to do tomorrow.”

She stayed with me the entire time, not letting me out of her sight even to use the men’s room. “You can hold it, and go back in your hotel room.” Back in my room, I heard the door lock, and there was no way from thirty stories up that I was going to be able to run back to Iowa to tell everyone what I knew. There was no phone or television in the room,

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either, so I chose to simply stare out at the lights of a strange city until I could keep my eyes open no more.

I had, of course, made my choice the instant it was put before me—my orange tree in Iowa was the most precious memory I had, with Mom sitting on the porch, Dad going out to show the man with the chainsaw where to cut, and Kayne and I eating the oranges that fell. It was why I’d spent so many years in Florida, trying to get my act together long enough to have my own backyard with an orange tree. Those people I called family back in Iowa were still loved by me, but how could I bear to bring myself to be like the man Kayne had become?

Tess told me about the future, and global warming. There was time travel carried out on a grand scale by families taking trips to 1986 or other years the way the Oakmans had gone to Chicago and St. Louis in times of happiness. Almost always, the wormhole shields prevented contact and mixing with the people in the past, but sometimes the shields blew holes in them, just like sometimes families on the road blew tires or holes in their radiators. One Laeb family, who grew oranges in Iowa, happened to have such a blowout when they were visiting the year 1986, and injected some of their boys’ DNA to rebuild the life in the youngest Oakman boys. But, the youngest Oakman girl was beyond repair, and so they’d extracted some of her DNA to mix with theirs and bring her back to life. They were unable to travel back to a well-defined time and place to swap out the resurrected Tess with the one who was on the way to the morgue.

“So the memory of the orange tree isn’t even mine?” I asked, kind of disappointed.

“You will be learning to rethink what memory and self mean,” she said, cryptically. “But, in short, it is your memory, because the Laeb boys will see many trees cut down in their grove, which looks nothing like your orange tree in the backyard of the old Oakman farmhouse.”

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“But, I just made it up, then, using some DNA of a kid from the future?”

“No. You lived it, in a timeless place that’s neither future nor past, and as long as you have it, it’s yours.”

“Maybe so. But, I’m pretty sure that I will have to undergo some serious education once we get to the thinktank, because it all gives me great unrest.”

“Of course.” She handed me two folded pieces of paper. “They found these in your ripped and bloodied jeans. Thought they might be important.”

“Oh, yes. I will definitely want to hang on to these.”

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Frederick and his grandfather Christopher

“You’d better come home now, Freddy,” said his father. “You know, he’s been asking to see you. You were always something special to him.”

Hmmph, thought, Frederick, sneering at the emotions which pulled at his vocal cords. Chemicals, that’s all these feelings were; chemicals responding to the infallible laws of nature. And I’m above all that. “My name is Frederick,” he explained tersely to his father. “Freddy is what you name your fish.”

“You know how much you always loved to fish with him. Come on, Frederick, please just say goodbye, you’re big enough to do that aren’t you? He still loves you very much.”

Frederick slammed the phone down hard, and viciously ripped its cord from the wall. Always loved to fish, hah!! Like he knew any better as a small child that he was pulling disease-ridden creatures from waters polluted by cancerous agents. Helpless creatures that his grandfather and he joyously sent to their deaths. Grandfather Christopher always had something to say about God’s green earth, and the beauty and sanctity of life. But it was really death they were practicing. Death always inevitably shamelessly had the final word, didn’t it?

He thought with a bitter mocking grin how much the hypocrite Grandfather Christopher really was. The man had always brimmed full of simple advice for Frederick on loving his fellow man, and appreciating the simple beauty of simply living. But you’re dying now, aren’t you Grandfather? You told me to put aside my cigarettes, saying they’d send me to an early grave. Yet, here you are, dying of cancer, and you’ve never smoked a day in your life.

It was the catfish of course, that were killing Grandfather. The man had scorned the signs that the Park Service had put up when Frederick was still quite young, warning of the presence of harmful toxins in the bloodstream of the catfish who were caught from the lake Grandfather had fished in all of his life.

“Been fishin’ here since I was smaller than you, Freddy,” his jovial voice had boomed. “If God had wanted me to stop fishing in these waters, he’d a’ surely done something about it a long time ago. Truth is, as long as I can find my way to this lake, and have me such a

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good strong lively grandson to help me catch them, I’ll be fishin’ ’em out.” Hah!! Frederick thought with grim satisfaction. Where is your God now, old man? Your God is dead, just like I always told you.

The good strong lively grandson had been the first thing his grandfather was to do without. After he’d left home for college on a biology scholarship to find a cure for the horrible disease that was plaguing the catfish, Frederick had begun to change. In high school, he’d been taught the theory of evolution, and had contested his biology teacher sharply every day in class. Frederick had always used his Grandfather’s simple brand of logic to fight with Mr. Darwaski about creation issues. Most of the students in his high school biology class were raised to believe in creation, and would join in–with the asking of “Where’s that meaning and purpose could possibly be found in some theory of evolution that didn’t explain the deeper complexities of life.” When he arrived at college, Frederick began to feel his rock-solid beliefs crumble when his professors gave much more scientific explanations than Mr. Darwaski had ever given.

That first summer back at home on the lake fishing with his Grandfather, Frederick was still impressed by the old man’s mountain of simple faith, and realized that his two semesters of DNA diagrams and genetic theories weren’t going to budge that mountain. But after his second year of college, Frederick was virtually unrecognizable to his family. Someone had turned him on to Nietzsche, and he’d been so taken with the philosopher that he began to think of changing his major. Simply accepting that there was some wonderful great being waiting to embrace Frederick after he died seemed a feat only a simple mind could accept.

His grandfather lost his sight after he returned to college for his third year, and Frederick lost touch with the man. The summer had been one full of bitter brutal confrontations between the old man and his grandson. Frederick began to sharply criticize everything the old man preached, and gag every time he saw the man fry another contaminated fish. Almost everyday they fought over issues of immortality and predestination.

“It is an affront to man’s intelligence to ask him to stoop so low as to completely give himself over to a higher power he cannot fathom in the least with his senses.”

“But Freddy, look around you. This is God’s country. How can you apprehend all of this

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with your senses and not believe in a God with a higher purpose?”

“Because men with cold empirical minds who don’t fall for such sentimental pap have discerned that–“

“Aw, you just need to–“

“HAVE DISCERNED THAT THERE IS NO PLACE FOR A GOD TO–“

“Just look in your heart for God, that is all you need, Freddy.” And his grandfather would turn a deaf ear on him, or stomp off in a huff and get lost trying to find his way down to the lake.

At times, Frederick would feel something in his heart for the old man. It would wash over the young man and make him squeamish, until he was finally able to gain perspective on what it was he was feeling. Just some chemical reactions due to the residue of misbegotten memory. Nothing more. I owe that old man nothing, he can get lost and drown in the lake for all I care.

He’d lost his biology scholarship when he decided he wanted to be a philosopher. Not telling his grandfather that this was what he’d wanted to do, Frederick pretended to amend his ways and talked his grandfather out of enough money to pay for his tuition. When he realized that philosophy was too tough for him to stick with, he changed his major back to biology. With his poor GPA, Frederick failed admission to graduate school, and settled on becoming a high school biology teacher. He lived by himself in the small town where he taught, because he was too anti-social, and half of the backwards-minded town still believed in creation and hated him for the things he put into the minds of his students.

I’ll die alone, he often thought with grim anticipation. I’m much too cynical and bitter to love and be loved. What is love anyway? Nothing more than the release of some chemicals in your brain, some firing of neurons by your DNA so it can replicate itself. What difference does it make who attends your funeral or who doesn’t?

Grandfather would surely have a huge turnout at his funeral. Everyone in that town knew him and loved him, even after his mind had started to fail him, and he couldn’t remember his own name at times, much less that of a higher power who would embrace him when he died. Frederick imagined all of the meek church people he’d pissed off with his tounge-

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in-cheek snide remarks about that wimp who saved his own life by getting tacked up to a tree. It was so much amusement to tell Grandfather, “Sure, I’ll go with you to the church picnic, yes, of course I know that Angie Seymour is still single.” Fred also knew that this maid-in-waiting from his high school class was the most dull, accepting, religious nut case he’d ever met, and it was great fun to play mind games with her and tease her mercilessly.

Thinking about how much fun it was to get the girl’s hopes up, then whisper to her how no one would want to marry such an old-fashioned gal, Frederick started to smile. Grinning with pleasure, he began to rub his hands together imagining leering over his Grandfather on the man’s death bed and smirking with little “I told you so’s.” See Grandfather? See now if there’s a God. You’re dying a nasty painful death, even after all your simple child-like faith that tomorrow would be a brighter day.

***

“Well, at least you made it in time for the funeral.” His mother said coldly, looking at her son disapprovingly. The young man seemed quite at home around so much death and black and depressing thoughts.

“Well?” he asked his father.

“Well, what?”

“Where’s all of the town, you know, they loved him, didn’t they?”

His father shot him a nasty look and turned to face straight ahead. Frederick, his father, and his Uncle Leo were the pallbearers. They seemed to be carrying the coffin of a stranger. Yes, and they all seemed like strangers to each other as well, some secret keeping them apart.

Later Frederick made a similar remark of amazement to his mother about the absence of the entire community. Only a few relatives from out of town and Frederick and his parents had shown up to pay their last respects.

“Don’t you see anything?” his mother had sobbed. “He loved you so much that he’d changed his whole philosophy, just to stick up for you against the things people were saying. Some of the people at our church even claimed that you got him to worship the devil.”

“What!?” exclaimed Frederick, shocked, and feeling a bit pleased that such a rumor had

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passed. God, how easy it is to wield power over the simple minded.

“Yes, he sat down and learned to read your Darwin and Nietzsche and Freud–in Braille. Just so he could stand up for his favorite grandson. He didn’t care who his God was in the end. He simply wanted you there to say good-bye. All his old friends from the community just stopped coming to see him. But he didn’t care. He was so sure that his grandson would come in the end.”

Frederick began to feel something he couldn’t explain. He began to feel a lot of something, and it didn’t feel like a chemical at all.

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Chosen

“Jim, listen to this. The radio says the whole downtown area has been covered in graffiti.” Helen shook her head in frustration when she saw her husband paid her no mind.

“Hey, KatieLady, how’s my girl?” Jimmy Smitz kissed his small serious daughter on the forehead and grabbed his lovely wife in a lunging embrace. Her coldness didn’t surprise him, he figured it was something you experienced as the marriage’s first flames of passion wore off.

“Daddy, could you come speak at my school about your work?” His daughter asked in a sad pouting voice.

“Sorry, kiddo, Daddy’s gotta replan a whole section of the new dam. It seems a dam with similar plans out in Nevada burst, killing all of the town’s citizens.” He tried to make it sound like fun scary stuff for kids, but his preoccupied mind betrayed itself with taciturn undertones.

“Jim, don’t scare your daughter.”

“What honey? Its, okay. Daddy is a much better engineer than the man who designed the GOD DAM.” His second try at a funny spooky voice was no better, and his daughter shrieked in terror and ran out of the room.

“Katie come back sweetie.” His wife turned to him with reprimanding eyes. “Jim you know she just wants you to spend a little time with her. She misses her daddy very much.”

Jimmy began to protest how he’d just built her the biggest dollhouse on the block before remembering his daughter didn’t play with dolls–she was into anthropology and ancient hominids. Imagine that. He hadn’t even heard the word spoken until he was in college. As far as he knew, anthropology was simply a soft-minded science, for failures of psychology and biology.

“Of course love, we’re almost finished with this silly dam design, and then Jim-bo is going to have a three week vacation. With the bonus the old mayor gives me for this project, we can go as far from here as you like.”

He couldn’t understand why his wife wasn’t more excited by the news, but put the matter on the back burner because the mayor was riding his team’s collective behind heavily to

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finish the plans.

***

If there was any defining moment in Jimmy Smitz’s life, it was during his last year at Montrose Engineering College; the rejection of his dissertation on Infinite Energy States in Higher Dimensions.

“Mr. Smitz, I’m afraid the board and I are at an utter loss to understand what has driven you to waste our valuable time with such a mockery of our intelligence and integrity as men and women who you wish to accept you as a peer. I would endure an infinite number of graffiti painted on our fine university’s buildings

before I ever could possibly endure another prank like the one you have pulled on this board today. This board will do everything in their power to make sure you never take another course in engineering at any university in the world.”

***

It was the night after the dissertation was rejected and his Master’s degree was taken away, that his night traumas began to weave their way into Jimmy Smitz’s reality. Daily, he did everything he could to fight the powerful university hierarchy, but in the end all was lost but his confidence that his dissertation would triumph in the name of truth–this and his precious BA in physical engineering. Flinching during this period under the mighty blows of injustice, Jimmy began to develop a sense of appreciation for the game people played called politics.

***

“Get up!”

At first Smitz considered the possibility that one of the presences that appeared in his traumas was finally materializing itself in physical reality. Shaking with nervous anticipation, he chillingly awaited the being’s wrath.

“Look at yah, Jimmy, boy!” His father had taken the liberty of breaking and entering into his apartment. Jimmy hated when his father did that. The man had a razor sharp intelligence. Jimmy changed the locks once a week and had developed an OCD about checking the locks, but somehow his father always managed to break in. Smitz wished his father had been around to break in like this more when he was growing up. The elder

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Smitz had sacrificed his marriage and much of his son’s respect in the name of top-secret government research. Jimmy used to brag to his friends that his father fought aliens, but his dad never told him what it was he’d actually done during Jimmy’s childhood.

“Look at this pigsty, Jim-bo!” Jimmy hated these attempts at male-bonding with foolish diminuitions on his name. His father raved about the wonderful lady shrink who’d helped him learn to be a human being again.

“Don’t call me that,” sneered Jimmy. “Doesn’t that woman know it takes more than stupid nicknames for men to bond?”

“That woman,” his father thundered with a big fake booming jovial voice he’d grown so fond of using at the time; Jimmy missed the taciturn dry G-man demeanour he’d grown up with. “That woman is a real gem. You should see her you know, about your, ah, condition.”

“It’s not a condition!” yelped Jimmy. Jimmy had betrayed his night trauma problem to his father one night when the man had crashed into the apartment and roared at Jimmy’s drunkenness. Jimmy was miserable at the time and about to pass out; feebly and foolishly he’d betrayed the problem, much to his father’s delight.

“Jimmy, you’ve got to stop living like this. Look, how else are you going to heal? You have to heal son!”

“Dad, my Master’s degree was taken away. All of my research in free energy was made a mockery of. How can I possibly remain here in Podunk, Nowhere as a glorified construction worker when I was destined to put Einstein and Newton forever into obscurity?”

“Perhaps your delusions of grandeur should be looked into as well. Look son, we all can’t be ones to develop new earth-shattering theories. Some of us have to pave the way for the great ones. Ah, hell, look. I know I was gone alot and couldn’t come to your little league games or tell your class what it is that I do. But I’ve changed. Or as Aileen would have me say, I’m changing. I used to think Psychology was a soft-headed science but– Opes, gotta go!” His father glanced at his watch and was out the door before Jimmy could tell the man that he had been busy building his own electromagnetic-field generator while the other kids played little league baseball.

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Aileen was his father’s shrink, a ravishing beauty the same age as Jimmy. Jimmy had met her at a party once, and sensed that she had received her PhD on the merits of more than her dissertation. He had felt immediate loathing toward the woman who’d convinced his father to drop everything and become a screenplay writer for bad b-movies in Hollywood so she could counsel celebrities. During those years that Jimmy did shabby halfhearted engineering work for the little town of Las Voces, New Mexico. It was the only work he could get as an engineer after falling from grace with the scholarly world of high science. For a time, Jimmy had commanded a good portion of internet conspiracy theorists’ attentions with his weekly publication of Alien Technology Report on his web page. Most of what he wrote were his own theories about free energy and new forces yet undetected by quantum physicists. Avidly, he’d read the reports of alien abductions and compared them to his own night traumas. What would a shrink like Aileen know about altered realities and astral realms? She probably tried to explain it all using some rehashed version of Pavlov’s behavioral theories.

***

Driving into Las Voces and anticipating the wrath of the Mayor, Jimmy Smitz marveled at the massive display of strange graffiti that was on every public building in the downtown area. It reminded him of the shamanistic symbolism he was so very much into during his night trauma phase of life. With a sigh of relief, he thanked himself again for finding his wife. The traumas had stopped completely after he’d began dating Helen.

City Hall was blanketed in news media and curious onlookers. Forcing himself not to rubberneck his way outside of his own business, Jimmy headed straight for his own cramped office. The reporters were frantically questioning the mayor about possible leads on the rampant graffiti. Jimmy nodded at the mayor who paid him no mind, and ran into Melba, the engineering department’s secretary.

“Mr. Smitz, the mayor has been beset with this graffiti problem. Our dam has been postponed for two weeks.”

Jimmy felt a sigh of relief whoosh through his lungs. “But why is the mayor so concerned about a little graffiti? Isn’t that a job for the police?”

“Well,” whispered Melba, her gossip-sparked eyes on overdrive, “Rumor has it that it was

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caused by a rather large underground citizen coalition against our completion of the dam after what happened in Nevada.”

“Oh god,” Jimmy rolled his eyes, “And what the hell does he expect my people to do?”

“I expect,” Jimmy whirled around to face the haggard eyes of the mayor, “You to join in our campaign to inform the citizens about the safety of the dam and the implications of its end to our unemployment problems.”

“What!?” exclaimed Jimmy, “I’m an engineer, not a politician.”

“Look, pal, it’s in your contract, if you will recall: ‘Will assist in all political maneuverings related to completion of assigned projects when necessity demands it.'”

“Jesus,” Jimmy rolled his eyes again. “So I guess my three-week vacation is out of the question?”

“Hah!” the mayor barked his uncomfortable laugh. “That depends on how well you sell the dam to Las Voces. You know that this town’s economy depends on the jobs that dam will provide. You’ll be taking an even longer vacation in the near future if our plans fall through.”

The mayor didn’t wait for Jimmy’s reply. Jimmy began beating his forehead over and over again, thinking how stupid he’d been to sign that contract years ago in such desperation.

***

“Jimmy! You’re choking me! Wake up Jimmy!”

“C’mon, Helen, you know it was only a dream. I’ve been under a lot of stress lately. Please open the door.”

In a sweat, Jimmy Smitz had violently forced himself awake after finding he was experiencing his first night trauma in years. The alien being seemed more real than ever–no doubt the actual physical presence of his wife had contributed to the reality of the traumatic experience.

“Jimmy Smitz, what is happening to you? What happened to the man I married? The man I love?”

“Helen, please don’t talk this way. You’ll wake Katie.”

“And what do you care about Katie anymore? You know, she’s taken to digging gigantic holes in the yard to get you to notice her and you haven’t said a word.”

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“Helen, please don’t be cruel. You know I would never hurt you. Please open the door.” Jimmy began to pound on the bathroom door in frustration. Feeling eyes on him, he turned and saw his daughter in the doorway of the bedroom, wiping the sleep from her tiny serious eyes.

“Daddy, are you hurting mommy?”

“No, no KatieBear.” He laughed a weak nervous laugh and began to walk towards his daughter with beaming eyes and open arms. But somehow his lack of sleep had stiffened his walk, and Smitz appeared to be more of a zombie than a father.

Paralyzed with fear, his daughter began shrieking and sobbing. “Mommy, Daddy’s gonna hurt me!”

“I’m not–ah, c’mon KatieBaby,” but now his own words were approaching hysteria. Caught off guard by an unusually powerful shove, Smitz fell to his knees. Helen darted past him and scooped Katie into her arms.

Mother and daughter stood terrified in the doorway facing the maniac who had somehow broken into their house.

Helen fought to steady her voice, then spoke. “Either we go, or you go, but I am not sleeping with a madman. And Katie certainly wants her father back.”

“Ah, Helen, you know I–”

“When you’ve gotten some help for whatever it is that you’ve become, fine, I’ll speak to you. But my daughter doesn’t need to be exposed to such hysterical madness.”

“Ah, whatever. I’m leaving. When you are ready to stop speaking this, this nonsense, I’ll return. Lovie you KatiePoo.”

“Don’t touch her. Get out now if that is what you are going to do, or we will!!”

***

The being was prodding at his ear with eerie affection.

Having these traumas visited upon him twice in one night was more than Jimmy Smitz could take. Curling up into the fetal position, he kicked the empty Gilby’s bottle off of the hotel bed and began sobbing like a baby.

“Get a grip on yourself, Jim-bo, my boy! Still having those nightmares, I see! Shoulda seen Aileen here while she was available. Every star in Hollywood is seeing her these

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days!”

“I might still have room for an appointment. From what your father says, Jim, it seems you are suffering from simple stress nightmares. Nothing a little Prozac and Buddhism can’t cure.”

Jimmy shot up into full waking consciousness and looked about the room. Remembering what had happened the night before, his head began to ache and pound.

“Damnit, dad, what the hell? You haven’t pulled the old break-in in years.”

“I just stopped in with the good news my boy, before jetting back to Hollywood. I’m making a movie in your town; it’s about alien abductions. Stephen Spielberg is even putting his name on it, though I’m going to be producing it of course. Lots of jobs for Las Voces. Well gotta go.”

His father clutched his young shrink wife tightly, and the two bolted from the hotel room. When the door opened, Jimmy was shocked by the bright sunlight. My God! What time is it? The mayor would be incensed. Today was supposed to be the first day of his ‘political career.’ The thought of canvassing the town with door-to-door dam information sent shudders of repugnance down his body.

The graffiti was gone from the buildings when Jimmy drove downtown. City Hall was abuzz once more, this time reporters were excitedly talking of the Hollywood picture that was coming to town.

“Jimmy my boy, go home and see your wife. She’s been trying to reach you all morning. Says she has the best news. I certainly don’t know how it could be better than the news your wonderful father has given this town. Fine man. Fine man. Heck, a Spielberg movie will make more money for this town than any crazy dam. Take a three week vacation, hell, take four; oh, and here’s your bonus.”

Jimmy’s eyes leaped at the amount on the check, and tried calling his wife on the cell phone. He kept getting a strange tone, and finally gave up.

His wife’s car had been replaced by a black unmarked vehicle, and the house appeared dark and uninhabited from the outside. Uneasily, he tried the door, and found it to be unlocked. Carefully stepping into the house, his heart pounded in terror. Sprayed in machine-like precision across the walls was the shamanistic graffiti that had appeared

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downtown the day before.

Someone grabbed him from behind, and threw an odorless cloth over his eyes.

“Step into the light Jimmy.” It was his father’s voice, so Jimmy stopped struggling. Fearfully, he let the man guide him down the hall to his bedroom.

Before his eyes was the strangest site Jimmy had ever seen in his waking hours. The most visually-appealing and radiant beings stood surrounding his bed upon which sat his wife and daughter. His wife was wearing her normal attire, but his daughter had donned a brilliant neon green dress.

Speechless, Jimmy looked into the faces of his family, but saw only love and beatific joy coming from their faces. Turning around, he saw his father standing next to Aileen.

“Jimmy,” said his father, “It is time for you to know everything.”

In a rapid transformation, Aileen’s figure changed into one resembling the radiant beings near his bed. “We are the next step in the evolution of man, Jimmy. Our travel is through time and space and consciousness to better the condition of the human race. First with you, and now Katie– together you shall begin the dissemination of a new gene which first mutated inside you- Jimmy- at conception, thanks to the diligence of your father and his long-suffering patient work.”

Utterly possessed of shock, he turned to his wife and daughter. With open arms they ran and greeted him in a loving embrace. “While you slept, James Chase Smitz, your ideas of Free Energy were imparted to you by the grace of the Almighty Life Force Consciousness. In due time, science will lose its dogmatic hold on its classical Cartesian beliefs and begin to finally truly grasp the wheel that was set in motion by the theories of relativity and quantum physics. You are the chosen one Jimmy Smitz, take your place among the halls of great ones.”

In a loud roar of melodious sound, the wall to the right of him burst away in a brilliant shower of radiant light. Appearing before Jimmy lay a vast white hall lined with figures.

His wife whispered in his ear. “I love you so much, Jimmy Smitz. I understand everything now.”

“The time has come.” Aileen in her new body took the hands of Smitz and his daughter Katie.

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Hesitatingly he looked at his father and wife.

“Go, you’ll be back. Of course you’ll be back. You’re going to be the star of my new movie to explain once and for all the coming of the new race of man. Oh, and I almost forgot.” His father reached into Jimmy’s closet and pulled out a cloak the color of Katie’s dress. With loving hands, he placed it on his son’s shoulders.

“Come on daddy, it’s going to be fun.” Katie looked up at Jimmy with the most loving eyes.

“Go, Jim, I’ll be waiting for you, my love.” His wife kissed him one more time.

And together Jimmy Smitz and his daughter Katie began their journey with their new friends to another sphere.

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Getting gold

There was a fabulous new creator of fanatics coming to town, and Thom wanted to go see this charismatic speaker. The speaker’s name was Gay, and the blogging community was equally divided as to whether Gay was a masculine woman ravaged by menopause, or a transgendered man with a bit of a man’s sloppy attention to personal hygiene and cosmetic care. Almost in equal division were the folks who hated Gay, and the folks who loved her. For the purpose of this story, and because Gay most definitely said she was a she, I will describe her as a she for simplicity’s sake.

Gay created fanatics by drawing on time-honored principles of heightening the crowd experience through group chanting, choreographed mood swings, and well-timed gestures that matched the rise and fall of her own voice. But, Gay also had a few unique bags up the sleeve of her blouse. These were mostly subliminal in nature–at least to someone looking for a self-esteem boost to get a better job or sell more of something. The hems of her skirts and ends of her puffy shirts or scarves were woven with gold thread. She wore a terrific amount of gold jewelry, and slightly touched her lipstick and eyeliner with gold glitter. Through the PA system, at a volume level that most could not hear, and from a few well-placed volunteers in the crowd, Gay had a chant repeated in a hushed whisper: “Get gold, make gold. Get gold, make gold.”

At no time in her power presentation did she mention that one should aspire to obtain gold, much less make it. This came at the end of an arduously long meditational CD she sold at the end of the seminar, known as “Gay’s great guide to greatness, gold level.” The silver level was, of course, the seminar. You got so pumped up at the seminar that you had to buy the CD to go on. If you were one of those wishy-washy sorts who thought that the seminar was sufficient enough to pull you out of your funk, you inevitably came down from the high that Gay brought you at the seminar, and went searching for the gold level guide.

At the end of the CD, you found yourself a recipient of the climax of a parable involving an old seafaring man who’d lost his livelihood due to the overfishing of the ocean, and had gone in search of some way to make money. The fisherman naturally found an alchemist

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toward the end, who gave him a jar of sand, except it wasn’t just any sand. The sand found in the jar had come from a very special sort of wizard who knew the secrets of making gold from sand.

This wizard was wise, and understood that if everyone knew how to make gold from sand, all of the world’s economies would fall apart and chaos and war would ensue. So, the wizard, in his great wisdom, chose to turn much of his gold back into sand, a special kind of sand that could be made back into gold without the arduous process the wizard had originally undertaken to make his gold. He passed the sand on to the hopelessly foolish alchemists up and down the coast of the Mediterranean with one caveat—they must turn some of their gold back into sand and pass the sand on to poor people who couldn’t seem to get a break.

Of course, all of the alchemists but one had greedily turned all of the sand into gold and kept all of the gold, then lived out lives of excess and gluttony, dying poorer than they’d been as men of little wisdom but much knowledge. Naturally, the fisherman had found the one alchemist that had obeyed the wizard’s commands, and had himself turned some of his own gold back into sand. He passed down the special sand through generations; some generations passed the special sand to others, but most kept all of the gold the created for themselves.

Gay went into about thirty minutes’ worth of storytelling as to how her grandfather, then she, ended up with some gold sand, but the bottom line was, she had some for sale for the listener of the CD. Rarely did anyone who made it to this point question why she was selling her sand and every altruistic soul before her had just given the sand away, but when someone did ask this question, Gay’s response was that she kept next to no gold for herself, and in order for her to produce the special sand in such quantities, she did have to meet those pesky overhead expenses.

If you wanted some of the special sand, you didn’t just send off for it in the mail, and expect a bag or jar full to arrive with instructions copied from the time of the wizard and the alchemist. No, what you did was, you went to another seminar, this time at a resort in the Caribbean, in order to “Get as Gold as Gay,” and this was the “actual Gold Level of Gay,” where the CD turned out to simply be a “Guide to Gay’s Gold.” No joke. Then, at

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the end of three days of cultish, team-building exercises, Gay felt it necessary to stand up on a stage in a private ceremony and convert a jar of special sand to gold herself, in front of about three dozen faithful subjects.

Thom did all of this. He is my brother, and I knew he was lost after he’d listened to the CD. The Caribbean getaway wasn’t your $700 all-inclusive resort with a swim-up bar and a bunch of Jimmy Buffet wannabe’s wandering the nearby topless beaches in their khaki shorts and straw hats, either. It was held on a private island, probably owned by Gay, or possibly owned by one of her cult members (or deeded over to her by one of them—which seems incredible, I know, that someone who can afford a private island would need Gay, but such speculation as to the why’s, who’s or how’s is beyond the scope of this tale).

“Look Sis, I have my jar,” said my little brother Thom, arriving at the airport with it under his arm. He’d missed two flights out of Houston back into Austin having been delayed in customs over the contents in the jar.

I looked up at him and shook my head. “You checked all of your bags, and your laptop? Come on, let’s get over to baggage claim six, that’s where they are putting everything from your flight.”

“No sis, I left all of my possessions at Gay’s place of Gold, except for the clothes on my back, the jar, and the ticket home.”

“Now, why did you go and do a thing like that? Do you think that a woman who is loaded with gold jewelry and owns a private island needs your things?”

“Ah, Sis, I wish you could understand how this works. You’ll have to go to Silver Level the next time its in town, which, unfortunately may be awhile.” Thom hung his head in genuine sympathy for my bad luck.

“Maybe you could just give me a few bullet points, you know, an executive summary as to why Gay Gott needed your laptop, clothing and toiletries. Didn’t you take an iPhone with you as well? Geez.”

“Deidre, Deidre, Deidre,” he said, putting a consoling arm around me, “You gotta eliminate the distractions, the dross, to get the gold to come forth. Gold is receptive only to purity.”

Thom lived with me, and I owed a small, two bedroom home in South Austin. I needed his

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money each month to make the house payments, otherwise, I would have to take a second job, and possibly sell the house. As Thom rambled away on the ride home, it became abundantly clear that for an indefinite amount of time, he would be not working, not paying his share, not buying groceries, not doing anything but sitting on his bed in his room with his jar, and only stepping out of his room to eat and perform bodily functions.

“Let’s be abundantly clear up front about how this is going to work, Thom,” I said to him before we reached the front door. “My love for you as your sister is good for three months. After that, you either abandon your alchemical pursuits, find a new job, or find somewhere else to Get as Gold as Gay Gott.”

Thom wasn’t the least bit offended by my sarcasm, nor did he argue with my ultimatum. He simply smiled, nodded, and went to his room with his jar.

I only looked in once or twice on him, and that was enough. He sat cross-legged on his bed, naked, jar in lap, hunched over, muttering something about “All is one, gold is pure, pure as sand, sand is gold, grain by grain, day by day, breath to breath, it all unfolds.” I was disgusted at this behavior, and not the least bit because he’d retreated to such a primitive state and refused to take time to bathe. At least he held some sense of decency, and wore a towel or sheet around him when he stepped into the kitchen to devour cereal and fruit.

While Thom devolved, so did my financial state. I knew that even three months of making the house payments by myself was going to put me in a bit of a bind. I kissed the trip to Europe goodbye, forgot about several new outfits I’d seen in storefronts downtown, and had my cable tv and gym membership canceled. Believe me, I wasn’t just crossing my fingers and hoping he would snap out of it while I covered the house payments and grocery bills. I was also going to psychiatrists, family members and friends who all had wonderful advice that didn’t work, and didn’t budge Thom from his exulted state.

One day, I sat at the table, eating a salad, and mulling over how I would approach Thom with my decision. I’d gone to see an attorney about the best way to handle kicking a family member out of one’s home, and that was well into month two. Thom ran out of his room with his jar, and forgot to grab a towel or sheet.

“Thom, please. At least cover yourself,” I said, almost choking at the smell and sight of

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my adult, unbathed naked brother running toward me with a jar as I sat slowly chewing my chicken salad.

“Oh, sorry,” he said, slamming the jar on the table, exciting a few grains out of the top of the jar. “Just look at it, and tell me what you think. I’ll be right back.”

He placed the jar well out of my reach, but I got up slowly, and picked up the jar to humor him. I turned the jar around and around, held it up to the light, held it above my head to see the grains in the bottom. Looking closer, I could see that a thin layer of sand, probably no higher than one or two grains themselves, was distinctly and uniformly gold.

“See Sis, I told you, it’s gonna work. I’m getting the hang of it now.”

“Do you think maybe you could carefully dump the jar out, Thom, and sift off that gold layer and sell it? You’re going to be holding that jar and meditating under a bridge somewhere if this goes on much longer.”

At first, his face soured at my suggestion and my inability to be as excited as he was. However, the appearance of the layer had given him confidence in his newfound life work beyond any expected measure.

“Aw, Sis. Okay, fine. I understand. Even though you could theoretically live off of the credit cards for an entire year, your faith hasn’t become that strong yet.”

“Thom, I have no faith whatsoever. Two and a half months of this has produced a small amount of what could dubiously be called gold. If all of it is, in fact, gold, then we might get two hundred dollars for what is there. Think about it. You can make more money in that time by begging on the streets, Thom.”

“No, Sis, you don’t understand. It’s exponential, or maybe even geometrical. I didn’t tell you this because I knew how little faith you had. But, after the first week of practicing Gay’s techniques, I know a grain or two had turned. Second week, five or more. Now, after six weeks, a hundred or so. Think about it. At some point, I will have got it just like Gay’s got it, and you can own this house outright.”

I gave him a total of six months after that—six months from the day he came home from the Caribbean. At that point, we were both either going to be under a bridge or back under Aunt Barbara’s roof.

If Thom had been single-minded and hopelessly out of touch before, the next three and a

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half months saw a young man so focused that he’d replaced his bathroom breaks and trips to the kitchen with a bucket and a box of peanut butter and power bars. At this point, I seriously began to consider leaving off the advice of the lawyer, and talking to someone from the state hospital about coming to provide Thom with a more appropriate sort of room to accommodate his condition.

I had no faith in Gay’s techniques, Thom’s chants, or latent energies left in sand by wizards and alchemists. I only had faith in Thom’s older, better self—the young man who’d impressed a dozen or more professors with his papers full of advanced mathematical theories, the young man who’d scoffed at any remotely New Agey self-help materials I’d procured over the years, be it The Celestine Prophecy, The Road Less Traveled, Chicken Soup for the Soul, The Alchemist, The DaVinci Code—or that ubiquitous DVD that probably made Gay green with envy, The Secret.

I had faith that the skeptic and voice of reason in the family would snap out of Gay’s spell, would see that the thin layer of gold grains had likely been sprinkled into the jar when the jar was prepared, carefully placed so that the believer wouldn’t be able to see them at first, but close enough to the bottom so that the heavier gold grains would eventually settle as the poor soul moved the jar from bed to nightstand and back each day.

I didn’t see the jar again until we were well into the fifth month. Thom didn’t dash into the dining room with boyish fervor, he simply set it down by my plate one night as I ladled soup into my mouth. Three-fourths of it was filled with gold.

“There, now do you believe me?” he asked with an even but obviously triumphant voice.

“Well,” I said, “There is certainly something going on here. If this is real gold, then a small sample of it should be enough for you to pay your share of the cost of living here, young man.”

What can I say? Gold, it was, and the “small sample” we brought to the man who was used to dealing with summer prospectors back from their trips to Colorado—that sample covered Thom’s share for the past five months, and got me caught up on my credit card bills.

“Where are you going?” I asked, one day, when Thom was busy pouring the almost

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completed jar into a large gladware container, and packing his suitcase.

“Level Sand. The last stage, out in California, where we learn to make some of this back into sand so that we might not be greedy and die poorer than when we started.”

“Don’t you want to leave a little bit of it behind, you know, as insurance just in case Gay Gott gets a little greedy herself?”

Thom grabbed a shot glass from my collection on a knick-knack shelf in the hallway, and carefully meted out half-sand, half gold into the glass. “There,” he said. “Something to make you think that maybe you need to be at the next Level Silver seminar when Gay comes back to town.”

He was almost like the old Thom again for a day, going out to eat at a chain restaurant with me, and talking about sports and scientific breakthroughs in the news. I could only keep the conversation away from talk of Gay and gold for so long, though, and feigned sleepiness and reminded him that his flight to California was early the next day.

He kissed me on the forehead, blowing away my bangs with a light breath of air like he always did, and I stood on my tiptoes to meet his kiss like always, before giving him a light jab in the ribs with two crossed fingers.

One day, a few weeks after Thom had failed to arrive on his returning flight, a box came by way of UPS. There in the box were his clothes he’d taken with him on the first journey to the Caribbean, along with toiletries, a paperback mystery novel, and his iPhone. The iPhone was wiped of all addresses, phone numbers and other personal data. I swore he’d taken a laptop with him to the Caribbean, but that wasn’t in the box. On top of it all was a single sheet of ruled paper torn from a notebook, and the bottom of the box was lined with sand—plain sand, or maybe special sand, but it made no difference to me.

The note read: “Sis, there are even greater things in life than gold, and so that was just the beginning. Of course, I could have taken most of what was in the jar and walked away—Gay let a half dozen or so of the Level Sand group do just that. But, out here on the beach, I realized just how poor I really was, how poor we all are, and I hope some day you will join me on this journey, too. For now, I’m off to Italy, where the Wizard and the Alchemist still live, as do a few others, like Gay, who have found the true grail of the alchemists, immortality. What I left you in the shot glass is enough to pay for most of

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levels Silver and Gold—you should really think about it. Until we meet again, Love, Thom.”

That was thirty years ago, and I’ve never seen my brother since. I used the shot glass gold to buy an extended trip to Italy to search for him, and not Thom or a clue of Thom ever turned up. My crash course Italian brought me to a few empty caves along the Mediterranean coast, where fishermen and fishermen’s wives were happy to take my money and guide me to a wizard, alchemist or Gay. I went on Dateline, Night Line, 48 Hours and 60 Minutes to plead with folks and get to Gay, but all of the best investigative reporting in the U.S. got me was the Gay Gott Gold Group to send me one grainy mpeg clip of an emaciated Thom telling me he was okay, not to worry, come and join him, just go through the courses like he did.

But, of course, I never did and never will. A desire to bring your brother back will not turn sand into gold. Only the kind of madness or hyperfaith that Thom had in him can do that. So, I’d just be sitting naked in bed with a jar of sand for the rest of my life if I tried.

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The nanocult

With the swarm of new nano-applications came the inevitable quack who wanted to think of a way to mix nanotech with the metaphysical.

In the sixties, we’d witnessed a prolific slew of books with titles like “The Tao of Physics,” “Quantum Consciousness,” “The Dancing Wu Li Masters,” “Zen Koans and Schrödinger’s Cat,” “Four Particles that bind us all: The Christon, Allahon, Buddhaon and Khnaon,” etc. They varied to a great degree, but the general abiding principle was that Eastern and Western metaphysical thought could now be integrated with advanced theories of physics, due to the weirdness observed and reported by quantum physicists. This was astounding news to many physicists who were still struggling with marrying laws of gravity and relativity with quantum theory into one Grand Unified Theory.

Going back to the mentalists and Theosophists of earlier generations, one notes a history of attempting to use photography, tape recording, and x-ray devices to detect proof of the soul, and the great excitement when lens flares and tape hissing appeared on recorded mediums after séances. The well-known Kirlian Effect is one such example.

Naturally, as nanotech left the labs and made its way into the popular scientific literature, out of the woodwork came the shamans and “doctors” and high priests who could convince others to give them money to perform research that specifically dealt with using nanotechnology to yield proof of the spirit world.

I was invited to present at a conference recently, one of the first of its kind, that brought together these “scientists” from around the world. This was due to a paper I produced titled “Nano-meditation, or realizing the soul through discrete, nanoscale visualization.” So then, guilty as charged. I am and was one of the first metaphysicists to incorporate nanotech terminology into one of my works.

My reason for using the vernacular was really to drive home a point—that while meditating on emptiness or a single object or abstract idea yields enormous breakthroughs where bad habits and mental blockage have wreaked their havoc—meditating on the submicroscopic, and visualizing the soul to be a discrete entity so small, my students and I were achieving even greater yields. By yields, I mean any and every goal that they

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expected to achieve with their intellects, and then some.

Being a great information junkie, I naturally had read of some of the recent accomplishments in nanotechnology, like paving the way for vastly increased computing memory, and making chemotherapy treatments superbly pinpointed. I knew my audience well, too. My students were like me, they stayed on top of the world around them as much as they possibly could, and I felt that using nanotech terminology in my paper as metaphor for meditation visualization techniques would drive home my points better than just saying “really, really itty-bitty, a million times smaller than the width of a hair,” or some such ludicrous visuals.

However, upon arriving at the conference to give my lecture, I realized that while my ideas were going to get a warm reception here, my innate sense of keeping the metaphysical and the scientific separate caused my skin to crawl a bit when I listened to these people talk. As far as many of them were concerned, great minds like the Dr. Helmut Von Schraube were already busy mapping out the spirit world using nanocameras built by nanomachines, and preparing to trap a few souls inside nano-soulcatchers with the purpose of helping these souls, or maybe just extracting information from them.

It was all incredibly hokey-pokey to me, and being in crowds like this one, I tended to wonder if my faith in higher planes and God is really just as schmaltzy-paltzy as the deluded rantings prattled about by these people. Dr. Helmut Von Schraube was a charming man, though, and I let his flattery of my lecture get the better of me.

“You have a very keen mind for such a young man. Such a perceptive, intuitive soul that can grasp many important, elemental truths that the rest of us need instruments to know.” I almost wondered if he was insulting me in a backhanded sort of way, implying that I was merely grasping while he and his ilk were busy knowing, but I chose to accept the compliment and invitation to go to his private party in his suite where he promised to unveil something truly magnificent.

“Tonight,” he proclaimed, after the guests had been served drinks, and were gathered around him and the apparatus on the table, “I will swap out one of your souls with a soul we have captured in the nano-soulcatcher. First, a volunteer.”

I scowled and shrunk inside of myself. I could see that I was about to watch a fairly

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competent hypnotist work his mojo on a “volunteer.” While I hated the two times someone had successfully hypnotized me, I’d also grown completely immune to the stuff, and decided that Von Schraube needed to be put in his place a little bit.

“I’ll go, doctor,” I said, noting that a woman, probably his assistant, was starting to raise her hand.

He made eye contact with the woman who looked askance at him, and then scowled. Momentarily, I could see that he was considering thinking of an excuse to disallow me from participating, but then he changed his mind.

“Very good, then. Come up here, Professor Gruene.”

I stiffened at the title “professor.” I had a Doctor of Divinity bestowed upon me by the small school that had risen up around the workshops I conducted. It was a gift of my students and colleagues, and certainly not a degree I brandished about with egotistical pomp. I preferred to be called “Maxwell,” or “Mr. Gruene,” but I let the slight slide.

“Now then, you may think I am going to hypnotize the Professor, but this is not pseudoscience. Instead, I am going to ask that Professor Gruene drink this cocktail of nanoparticles that will help lift the soul out of the body. Then, I will place this special headgear on the Professor, and his soul will become trapped in our nano-soulcatcher, and another soul, since departed, will come to inhabit his body.”

You might think that this sounded dangerous or downright diabolical, but I was secure in my immunity to such chicanery. Some of the guests murmured their fears that I would be eternally damned, or that we were conjuring forth a demon to inhabit my body. Dr. Von Schraube laughed away all of their fears.

“Now please, there is nothing to fear. I have conducted this on volunteers in my home country, and every experiment has ended successfully, with every soul being returned to its proper place. But, before all of this, I am going to ask that the Professor kindly step out of the room, and wait outside for the next five minutes. During this time, I will introduce to the guests the soul that will inhabit Professor Gruene’s body for about an hour.”

I didn’t even try to listen in on who or what he was introducing as being the entity that would take hold of my body. My plan was to work myself into a frothing state of faked convulsions, thereby causing one of the guests to call an ambulance, and then get up,

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denounce the lot of them and leave.

He sent his assistant to retrieve me, and I entered the room, grinning subtly at the apprehensive faces. I walked over to his table, downed the cocktail and donned the headgear.

“I’m impressed, Professor. Well, the effect will take hold in a matter of minutes.”

I fell into a dreamlike state, where Von Schraube’s assistant called to me down a long tunnel pierced by light. “You have nothing to fear, Mr. Gruene,” her voice attempted to soothe. “It will seem only like a matter of minutes.”

I awoke in flophouse motel, obviously in the bad part of town—which town, I couldn’t tell for sure. A grainy old television was blasting the news in my ear.

“The police are still searching for a Professor Maxwell Gruene, leader of what is being described as a small cult. He apparently is being wanted for questioning over the recent rash of bank robberies and incidents of terror that have the city almost at a standstill. All of the members of his cult have been rounded up and are accused of assisting him in carrying out the crimes. But the leader, Maxwell Gruene is still at large. If you have any information…” The news anchor went on to show the faces of all of my students, and this gave me the most distress. While Von Schraube had clearly committed some type of evil in brainwashing me, it was intolerably heinous that he used my influence as a meditational director to turn my school into a training ground for terror.

A knock came at the door, and I decided then and there to just turn myself in, and hope that the universe would help me sort things out.

It was Von Schraube.

“No, you aren’t going to hurt me,” he said, and I immediately acquiesced. “We’re friends, remember?”

“What the hell have you done, Von Schraube? You know that you won’t be able to get away with this.”

“Oh, but I will. I just thought you might like to know, out of intellectual curiosity, whose soul we’d swapped yours with.”

“Yeah, sure, whatever. You and I both know that you’ve just given me a good brainwashing.”

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Von Schraube produced a photograph of an especially coarse-looking fellow with giant sideburns and a frown that bespoke of violence. The picture of the face brought a vague, uneasy familiarity with it. “Andreas Bernd Baader, one of the first leaders of the German organization Red Army Faction, also commonly known as the Baader-Meinhof group. Baader robbed banks and bombed buildings from 1970 to 1972. I found his soul when combing the inside of a fortified building on the grounds of Stuttgart’s Stammheim prison, among many others. But, he’s been especially useful, as his soul is brutish and slow, yet he’s quick to get the job done before I need to retrieve him from the loaner body.”

“What about me? Are you just going to leave me out to dry like this?”

“Well, I am interested in seeing a new soul inside my assistant. While her body continues to please me greatly, she has started to, well, think for herself a little too much.”

As much as I loved my students, I feared prison even more. So, with very little pride or care for my own soul remaining, I agreed to a swap, became Von Schraube’s assistant and mistress, and we continue to trot the globe with the soul of Andreas Bernd Baader, among many others. You might recall the rash of bank robberies and acts of terror in Moscow just last week. They blamed the Chechnyans for that, of course. There is always someone else to blame.

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Taking the wheel

He’d given Jerry the wheel for all of fifteen minutes, just a trip back from the carwash and the grocery store. The boy was fourteen, and loved cars. Jerry knew more about cars than he did, but greatly looked up to his dad nonetheless. Dean had let the boy drive the car around the neighborhood dozens of times, and was certain that with a few more years of practice, Jerry would be the most competent driver he knew.

The Mustang was purchased from one of the used car dealerships that line the strip where rural kids come to cruise. The father and son had spent three months of Saturdays looking for the best deal on a V8 that Jerry would be able to afford. Dean bought it, of course, with the understanding that Jerry would learn a thing or two about borrowing with interest; tacking a fixed APR that was less than what Dean would have made on the money in a savings account. But, it was the principle of the matter. As Dean had spent the better part of his twenties and thirties getting in and out, then in and out of debt again, he probably cared more about his teenage son falling into the dangers of debt than any other ill or vice imaginable.

Dean could see that he had little to worry about, though, as Jerry was an industrious boy with a business sense, much to the chagrin of his high school’s clubs at sporting events with better food and beverages sold at higher prices, and creatively setting up an out-of-locker consulting firm—whose clients were teachers and parents wanting to learn to communicate with their teenage children better. Jerry had the Mustang paid off, and was already restoring and customizing it to resell it at a profit. At times, Dean had even felt a little jealousy toward his son, wishing he’d been more of a mind to do such things when he was that age, instead of being such a screw-off.

Julie knew and even approved of Dean letting Jerry take the wheel on occasion, and Dean didn’t think that she left him specifically because of that. Julie had been informed by father and son that the car had likely seen a front-end collision, but she probably wasn’t specifically aware of the dangers inherent with buying a car like that. And truth be told, neither Dean nor Jerry were, either. They had used the marks under the hood that proved a front-end collision as a bargaining tool, and were more worried about the car’s ability to

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compete at the high school drags when Jerry turned 16, and concerned themselves with the car’s resell value. The thought of a missing driver’s-side airbag never crossed their minds.

“I’m leaving you Dean, because I can’t live in this house, with this man, without my son,” she’d said, sobbing one night when he held her close, begging her not to go.

“But, honey, think what he would have wanted—certainly not to have his Mom and Dad fall apart because of this,” Dean had not really wanted to pull out that card, but he felt it and meant it. It didn’t help. In fact, it seemed to just make Julie go from being sad and guilty at her decision to angry with Dean.

“How dare you pull some shitty thing like that on me, can’t you see that it’s hard enough right now on me? And, you know damn well it’s not just our little boy being gone that has made me want to leave,” she snapped the words at him, grabbed a few more of her things, and went back to her sister’s house.

Dean felt very much the opposite about things. He wanted to stay in the ratty old Cape Cod home forever, because it felt like Kyle was still close by as long as he stayed there. They’d originally intended to fix it up and move away after Julie gave birth to their second child, and Dean got the raise. The raise had come, but Kyle had been such a handful, having autism and all. Jerry was a stellar older brother—Dean knew that when he was six he probably would have picked on an autistic little brother mercilessly—but, Jerry was nothing but a champion with little Kyle, spending hours with a baby that would have bored most six-year-olds.

Jerry hung out with gearheads his age and older at the high school, as he was expected to. He’d have over as many as five guys to examine and help him work on his Mustang, and Dean and Julie worried more than once that some of those guys would lead Jerry into a life of drugs and stealing. But, Jerry never once adopted their loose and easy language of swearing and talking trash about girls. Dean knew, because he heard more than a few reports from teachers and coaches about what an upstanding young man Jerry was.

“That’s Tito, Dad, he’s just monkeying around—he sees me and knows who I am.”

“Fine, son, but you’re not playing chicken with him. Pull over to the shoulder, and stop the car.”

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The Chevelle that was barreling down on them in their lane on the windy country highway pulled into their shoulder as well.

“Damnit, damn fool kids,” swore Dean, now getting visibly frightened.

“Dad, if I just pull back onto the road, and drive like normal, he’ll get out of my way. He’s trying to mess with my head, that’s all.”

“Stop the car, son. Get out when I do, and wave to show him you aren’t playing games.” Dean wasn’t exactly sure this was the right thing to do, but letting his son play chicken didn’t seem quite right, either.

“Dad, if I…”

All Dean remembered was looking over, as Jerry slowed down the car to a crawl, and seeing that his son hadn’t fastened his seatbelt.

Dean had lost consciousness briefly upon impact from the force of hitting the seatbelt and then the passenger side air bag slamming into his face knocked his wind out. He never told any one at all about the fact that, upon looking up and seeing his son’s midsection impaled upon the steering column and Jerry’s head embedded in the shattered windshield, and noting flashing strobes in the rearview mirror, he promptly drooped and began feigning unconsciousness all the way to the hospital.

“Aw, man,” said the cop, “It’s the Gibbons fellow and his son. Aw, hell.” Dean recognized the voice, from when they lost Kyle. It was one of the officers who’d participated in the half dozen or so sweeps that had taken place in woods and fields all over the area.

Dean feigned unconsciousness as they pronounced both Jerry and Tito dead at the scene. He didn’t open his eyes in the ambulance, even as the puzzled EMT suggested that there was only mild bruising and maybe a light concussion. Dean refused to open his eyes when Julie came into the room, wailing from the news of her son.

He didn’t even open his eyes when he heard the officer standing outside his hospital room saying to Julie, “Funniest thing, ma’am, I swore I saw movement in that car as I came upon it. May be, he’s in some type of psychological shock,” said the cop to his wife and the puzzled doctor out in the hall.

Julie never suggested she thought otherwise, than that Dean was unconscious until the next morning. He had forced all of the grief deep inside him, and not a single tear came

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out while he feigned unconsciousness.

“Do you remember what happened, hon?” asked his wife, “The officer would like to know.”

A different officer came by the hospital the next day with Julie, a younger man who’d joined the local force since the search for Kyle three years ago.

“I’d said he could have the wheel for five minutes, maybe ten tops. We’d done it a million times.”

“Hey, sir, I totally understand. Nobody is pressing any charges. Tito Jamone had been ticketed a dozen times for exhibition driving and street drag racing. He didn’t even have a license when he got behind the wheel, yesterday. And, you sir…well, I can remember learnin’ to drive with my Pa.”

At that point, it was like the young officer jabbed a hole in the dam Dean had been building. Dean couldn’t stop sobbing for at least half an hour. Julie comforted him then, and the two of them cried and comforted each other on the sofa that night, as Dean was quickly released from the hospital. Julie had moved to sleep on the sofa though, after the two of them had turned out the lights.

Dean’s parents had begged him to come stay with them, after he’d told them Julie was no longer in the house. Two years ago, Dean had finally kicked the booze and hadn’t touched a drop since, and now everyone close to him was worried, what with him being alone in the house and all.

He did decide to stop at the liquor store, letting his chest grow tight and his mouth dry. Dean knew damn well that Jerry wouldn’t have wanted his father returning to booze over this, either. But, the dormant monkey spoke to that voice of reason much the same way Julie had to him. “Can’t you see that it’s hard enough right now on me? And, you know damn well it’s not just my little boy being gone that has made me want to buy this bourbon.”

The young officer who’d triggered his sobbing episode was shooing a few minors away from the front of the store when Dean came out.

“Evening, sir.”

“Evening,” muttered Dean, thinking that maybe he’d rather have Julie catch him leaving

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the store, for some reason.

“It’s officer Giovanni, sir. You remember me, of course, yes?”

“Certainly. Is there something I can help you with?”

“No sir, but I may have something that will help you, after…that won’t,” he nodded at the brown paper sack.

“Seems mighty strange for an officer to be lay preaching while on duty, son,” Dean threw in the “son” to make him feel more in control of the conversation, but felt nonetheless like the officer was.

“Well, I wouldn’t call what I’m offering you so much a religious experience, as a kind of vacation. Anyway, here is the card of someone who could help. I don’t just hand this out to anyone, believe me.”

You wouldn’t last long as a cop, if you did, Dean thought, but he kept his thought to himself, and politely took the card and nodded.

Now, Dean sat at the kitchen table where four people once laughed and ate every supper together for five years. He massaged the bottle from outside the paper sack, having crinkled the sack and wrapped it fast around the bourbon. Occasionally, he rubbed his temples, and stared at the small glass by the sack of melting ice. Dean removed the card Giovanni had handed him, reading it for the first time.

Dr. Allesandro, specializing in meaningful release. House calls available.

“So, how much is this going to cost me?” he asked the man who’d identified himself as Dr. Allesandro after the second ring.

“Don’t you want to know what it is you are buying first?” asked the doctor as a reply.

Dean thought of being cute, and saying something like, “Well, I asked you first,” but decided to play along. After all, the bourbon was there and ready to provide as much meaningful release as he could take if he decided to end the call. So, he just said, “Sure.”

“I’m not going to erase your memories or replace them with new ones. I am not going to hypnotize you, and convince you to be happy when life dictates otherwise. What I will do, is hypnotize you, and allow you to relive any hour of your life you want to. And, I am going to charge you how much you tell me it was worth to you, after you wake from reliving it.”

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“So, I’ll be completely aware that I am reliving it, huh, not just wake up with enhanced memories of memories?”

“Correct, you will be the you of now, living in that hour of the past. You will be unable to change anything that happens, of course, as I believe hypnotists who alter or add memories do our trade a great disservice.”

“Well, I’m sure it is at least worth a bottle of bourbon, so, come on over.”

***

“What good does that do—is it like the closest thing you can offer to a Kodak snapshot of my experience, or something—’My Very First Hypnosis’?”

Dr. Allesandro was busy setting up a video camera on a tripod, and setting the camera to capture most of the room. “No, this is just my due diligence. You will have the opportunity to watch the video, and see that I remain in the chair across from you the whole time.”

“Ah, I see. You don’t want to be sued for hanky panky or stealing the jewelry.”

“Precisely. Now, when and where are you going tonight?”

Dean thought of the last night the four of them ate supper together. It wasn’t a unique evening, and it was remembered only because of Kyle disappearing the next day. They always ate supper as a family, with the television off, and everyone taking time to say something and make sure Kyle was spoken to as a member of the family in the room, who could understand what they were saying. In other words, nobody was ever allowed to talk about Kyle in the third person when Kyle was in the room, and at the supper table, extra effort taken by everyone, especially Jerry, to make sure Kyle was part of the family conversation.

Dean didn’t really remember much of the supper—some discussion about the Red Sox making it to the World Series, and Dean being certain the Yankees would take them in four games straight in the Championships. Jerry, always for the underdogs, thought otherwise. Other than that, and the fact that it was the last supper where all four dined together, the night ran into many of the other nights from those happy five years.

“Okay, I know where and when I want to go,” said Dean, making his mind up that that hour at the table should be it. “Does it matter that I can only remember snippets of this

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hour?”

“No. In fact, it often helps a patient to go to an hour in his or her life that wasn’t remembered at all. Dean, can I call you Dean, or do you prefer Mr. Gibbons?”

“Dean is fine.”

“Dean, the human mind records it all. It also can invent an entirely new sort of life, which is why people claim to remember alien abductions and molestations after a trip to the hypnotist. However, a true hypnotist doesn’t use any leading language, he or she just takes the patient to a time and place and sets a timer.”

“And, that’s what you’re going to do with me?”

“Yes, I will be monitoring you for any signs of discomfort. If you start to seem in the least bit uncomfortable about a situation you’re encountering, I pull you out of it.”

“Okay, let’s do it, then. I’ve got nothing to lose.”

Dr. Allesandro began taking Dean through what seemed like ordinary hypnosis-creating steps, the muscle tensing and relaxing, the breathing exercises, the visualization, the countdown.

“Now, when I get to one, you are going to be there, in your dining room, in this house, and the date will be October 12, 2004. You won’t be able to talk to anyone as the Dean of today, but everything you see, hear, feel, taste and touch will be exactly as it was then.”

“Daddy, there’s a man standing in the room,” said Jerry.

“Sweetie,” said Julie, shaking him, “You’ve got to open your eyes and pay attention. The man has a gun.”

Dean fought to open his eyes, but they were held shut by the Dean of October 12, 2004. He had completely forgotten this part of the evening, forced himself to forget this incredible moment of cowardice. When the man had come into the room with the gun, he’d promptly closed his eyes and pretended to sleep sitting up at the supper table. Now, his present day self was struggling to remember what his self from three years ago had seen of the man before closing his eyes, because he knew that a description of the man was important.

“So, the head of the house has fallen asleep, huh? Does this happen a lot?”

Dean heard Jerry start to say something, then Julie shushed their son, and she spoke,

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“Once when we were on a plane to Florida visiting his parents. The turbulence got really bad, and the oxygen masks dropped. Jerry was crying, and I had to put a mask on both Jerry and Dean, because he just shut down, and Jerry was only three.”

“Hmmm. Well, I went looking through your bedroom already as you all had your happy family conversation, and I saw nothing I wanted. Good day.”

Dr. Allesandro was waking him up.

“I’m sorry to wake you up after only thirty minutes, but it seemed as if you were just sleeping.”

“I was. Sort of. Anyway, I didn’t do anything terribly important the rest of that hour.”

Dean had asked the doctor to take him back to 6 PM, the time the Gibbons had religiously ate dinner every night. But, now he remembered. The American League Championships were starting, and father and son had begged Julie to commence supper thirty minutes early so that they could catch all of the game.

“Can you take me back to 5:30 instead of 6 PM?”

The hypnosis began again, and Dean had a harder time getting in a good mental place for the doctor to do his work. He knew how important this was, and this made his brain more active. But, finally he slipped into a receptive state, and the doctor counted down.

This time, they were all saying grace, and then Dean began serving the mashed potatoes, gravy, and fried turkey cold cuts. He had gotten the raise by then, but for some reason they continued to skimp on some of the basics, like substituting turkey cold cuts for real turkey breast—all so that Jerry and Kyle could go to college. Yes, both he and Julie believed a miracle would bring Kyle out of his shell one day.

Dean was delighted to be discussing baseball with Jerry again, taking care to make eye contact with Kyle when explaining to his sons the fundamentals of the game. But, it was really Dean and Jerry night, as Julie would slip off into the bedroom with a book, and Kyle would just sit in his chair in front of the television until bedtime.

“The pitching mound is almost finished, son.”

“I know, Dad, it’s gonna be awesome.”

“Then, we can get some real lime, and make foul-lines.”

“None of the other dads would do this. It’s gonna be like having a real baseball diamond

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in our backyard.”

Dean had forgotten why he’d asked the doctor to take him back thirty minutes earlier, when he heard the front door latch open and shut.

He was screaming inside his head of three years ago to get up and check on the noise, but there was nothing he could do, as the doctor had said. So, there he remained inside his head, listening to himself talk about baseball and tasting the fried cold cuts. After what seemed like an eternity, the man with the gun appeared in the doorway.

Dean stared at the man for all of ten seconds before his fear shut him down and made him close his eyes to feign sleep.

“Daddy, there’s a man standing in the room,” Jerry’s voice was trailing off inside his head as the doctor brought him awake.

“Well, how was it? You didn’t say much this time, either. Just some baseball talk. I remember that night. I actually had tickets to the game, I’m a total Yankees fan you know, and…”

“Doctor, quiet for a moment, please.” Dean began to recreate the man’s face in detail. A soft face, it was. Almost pasty in coloration, and a mouth that hardly moved. No visible cheekbones to speak of, just lots of soft, white flesh that on a friend might seem baby-like, but on that man, the fleshy face was a slimy thing to behold.

“He took him. He took Kyle,” said Dean out loud, knowing it like he knew his own face.

“Excuse me?”

“Doctor, if I track this man down, I’ll give you this house.”

“Well, that’s very kind of you, but I’m afraid I don’t…no, I stand by my word. I charge you how much you tell me it was worth to you.”

“Oh, you have no idea. Sorry, but I have a phone call to make.”

Dr. Allesandro bid him goodnight.

“Are you drunk?” she asked.

“No, I haven’t touched a drop. Listen, you know the night before we lost Kyle. That man. With the gun. And, I fell into some type of funk like on the plane trip to Florida.”

“Dean, you need to get some real professional help. There was never a man with a gun. Don’t you think that if a man with a gun had shown up at our house the night before Kyle

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went missing, I would have mentioned that to the police?”

“Well, yes, of course, but you know. The man said he went looking through our bedroom and didn’t see anything he wanted. And then, we got so busy with trying to find Kyle, we forgot about that man.”

“Dean, get some sleep. There was never any man.”

Julie hung up the phone. Dean removed the bourbon from the paper sack, and uncapped the bottle, pouring it into the glass with the mostly melted ice. He shuddered after taking a few sips. Damn, it felt good. His mind wandered. Why would he invent such a thing? Maybe Jerry or even Kyle was in heaven, sending him visions of the man that took Kyle. The idea began to resonate with him, even though Dean had never been a believer a day in his life.

Dean stepped into the bathroom to urinate, then walked over to the mirror. He was horrified at what he saw. Why didn’t I recognize this face before? The pasty-faced man and the face of the drinking Dean began to merge together in his mind. They were one and the same. Dean had nightmares all night, and finally gave up sleep at 4 AM, pouring the rest of the bourbon down the drain, and made a pot of coffee.

At 7 AM, he decided he could wait no longer.

“Mr. Gibbons,” the doctor opted not to use his first name, audibly irritated, “While I appreciate your newfound respect for my profession, I do try to keep some hours to myself. Why can’t this wait?”

“It just can’t, doctor. I don’t really understand why it can’t, but I’m onto something important. Now, you know my story—lost a boy three years ago and he was never found, lost a boy two weeks ago, and I know he won’t be coming back. Lost my wife last week, and looks like she won’t be coming back, either. It is so important to me to get a little meaningful release from all of this, and only you can help me. You gotta help me. I swear that this house is yours if you do.”

Dr. Allesandro lived in a brand new McMansion that was worth three times as much as the Cape Cod, but couldn’t resist a patient who’d come to realize the doctor was the only hope.

“When and where are you going this morning, Dean?” the doctor asked, regaining his cool

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professional demeanor for the visit.

“11 AM, October 13, 2004. The master bedroom in this house.”

Dean wasn’t sure what he would see or hear. He just had a hunch. He’d called Julie around noon that day, frantic, half-drunk, half-sick. The night before, he’d drank too much watching the game, and woke up with a hangover head so severe that it required several cans of light beer to relieve. Julie had gotten used to these mornings, muttering under her breath things like, “Well, I guess we saved some money on daycare for Kyle today.”

Dean was good with Kyle, or so he thought, making sure the boy ate when he was supposed to, had his diaper changed, and remained reasonably happy and stayed out of any mischief that could harm him. At least, Dean thought, I spend more time with my son this way, and I’m not totally wrapped up in my own life, like a lot of dads who have perfectly normal children. Jerry could make Kyle laugh, though, and Dean kind of resented this. After all, he was the dad.

“Kyle and his dad are going to have a lot of fun today, aren’t we?” Dean asked. Kyle stared off into nothing, as he usually did. Dean kept up his efforts to engage the child for about ten minutes, and then turned on the television. Regis and Kelly were on.

“You know,” said the man with the gun, “I decided to come back, because there is something of yours I would like to have. Well, someone really, although you might not think of him that way.”

Dean felt the Dean from three years ago shut his eyes and begin feigning sleep.

“Little Kyle and I are going to go play baseball together,” said the man with the gun, “Jerry and his dad are always talking about baseball and playing catch together, but Kyle is feeling left out. Come on Kyle, let’s go…PLAY BALL!” the man began laughing hysterically, and Dean could hear Kyle shrieking as the man yanked his son hard and dragged the boy kicking and wailing out of the house.

“Julie, you’ve got to come home now.”

“Dean, you’re still drinking, I can hear it. Can’t you hear how you sound? Dean, there’s nothing short of a dire emergency involving Kyle that will bring me home, and you better have called 911 already.”

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Dean hung up the phone, and began dialing 911.

“Okay,” said Dr. Allesandro, “Hour is now up. You reached noon.”

“He took Kyle to go play baseball.”

“You took Kyle to go play baseball.”

“Huh?”

“Watch the tape. You stated that you and Kyle were going to go play ball in the lot behind your house. You then spent a lot of time berating the child for not coming out of his shell. I must say, I was a little disturbed by the amount of anger in your voice. Wasn’t the boy autistic?”

“Oh Jesus, doctor.”

Dean was starting to grow frantic. Something was coming back to him. He needed bourbon. But, the bourbon could wait. There was one other hour he needed to relive.

“What is it, Dean? Do you think you might know who took your son?”

“I need to go back three weeks ago.”

“Dean, it’s not good, what you are doing to yourself now. I’ve seen it before, and I’m afraid I’m not the doctor for this sort of thing. Self-flagellation by reliving your worst hours may bring you release, but it isn’t the release I’m selling.”

“Doctor, this isn’t that, exactly. It’s much more important than that. Doctor, the house, it’s gonna be yours…just this one hour.”

“Fine.” Dr. Allesandro was more curious than anything as to what would happen next, in spite of his misgivings about having a patient relive his worst hours of life.

Dean watched the tape of him lying there, reliving Jerry’s death, transfixed in grim horror at what he was saying. When he’d relived the day of the accident just now, the man with the gun had come back, and sat in the backseat of the Mustang, egging his son on at the game of chicken. In fact, it was through the man’s provocations that Jerry, not Tito, instigated the game of chicken. But now, Dean was there on tape, saying something a little different.

“Isn’t that your friend Tito? Didn’t you tell me he is a bit of a show-off driver? How about we play a game of chicken with the boy, and teach him a lesson? Come on, it will be fun. Look, at him, he’s pulling over and surrendering. Oh, look at the tough guy, now. Come

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on, Jerry, you drive. No, it’ll be fun. He can’t see who’s driving at this distance. Okay, I’m stopping the car, and let’s do a switch…quick. You drive, and when we go by, you can roll down the window and stick your tongue out at him, give him the bird, or whatever you kids do these days to, what do you call it—show him he’s owned? Just get in the driver’s seat…now, start her up. Oh wait, what’s he doing? He’s not ready to surrender? No, just drive, damnit, just drive, Jerry, be a man…Oh, shit!”

“Is there something you’d like to tell me?” Dr. Allesandro asked.

“Call officer Giovanni. Tell him to meet us at the pitching mound in the sandlot behind my house. I’m going to grab a shovel out of the garage.”

***

Dean dug furiously while the doctor stood and watched. Officer Giovanni was asleep, having worked a twelve hour shift the night before. So, the dispatch sent the old officer who remembered Dean from the Kyle searches.

“What is he doing?” asked the officer, whose name was Voigt.

“Digging for his lost boy.”

“We dug that whole mound up already, and all around here, too. His boy ain’t there.”

“Hmmm.” said Dr. Allesandro.

“You that quack Giovanni’s been referring folks to? We’ve been getting some complaints about you.”

***

Dean sat in the interrogation room, making a statement, confessing his guilt for the murder of his two boys.

“I’m not buying it,” said officer Voigt.

“Nor should you,” said the precinct psychiatrist. “Like a lot of hypnotized people, he manufactured and rearranged memories in such a way to make him culpable, even as he only indirectly affected the turn of events that lead to their deaths.”

“So, that Dr. Allesandro didn’t give him the release he was looking for, then, huh?”

“Well, actually, the doctor gave him exactly the release he was looking for, only the doctor had no idea. When tragedy strikes all of a sudden, we need to make sense of it all, parents especially, and this assumption of guilt often comes with that need. I know a place

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where he can get some rest, call his wife to authorize us admitting him there. Tell him you’ve re-opened the case of his missing son.”

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Porkchops

“Sir.”

Why they were always having a conference in Omaha and not some place interesting like San Francisco or Chicago was anybody’s guess. He reckoned that it had something to with Warren Buffet being in close proximity, though Buffet had managed to make most of his billions without fancy stock analysis software, and would never attend a conference like this. Zadok hadn’t made billions off of the stock analysis software he was going to try to sell at the conference, either, he’d simply managed to keep his creditors off of his back. He hated Omaha, but the salesperson who was scheduled to go to this conference had quit last week.

It had been a long flight with a rather pointless delay in Dallas and a small bag of salt crackers. This made Zadok edgy, and his imagination was starting to get the better of him. What if ConstantBull Software, his employer, had sent him here knowing how poorly he’d done so far at conferences, so that he could fail again, and they could fire him?

“Sir, are you okay? I am ready to help you now.”

The usual back and forth took place at the front desk.

“Zadok, that’s an interesting name. Is that Persian?”

“No, it’s a Bible name—Old Testament. My parents weren’t satisfied with something as common as David.”

“Oh, so you’re Jewish?”

“No,” he would smile, “I’m just Zadok.”

That always shut an inquisitive mind up, as the person realized at that moment that he or she was inquiring into a total stranger’s religious business.

Then came the business with the credit cards.

“But, I used my company’s card to book the room here.”

“No sir, we don’t have on file your company’s authorization to charge this room. Yes, we see that a card was used to reserve the room, but we need a card at the time of registration.”

Zadok’s company, ConstantBull, refused to issue a credit card to him until he’d actually

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made a successful sale at one of these conferences. Zadok produced his almost-overdrawn Visa, the last card of his that was still clean and usable. The rest had vanished into the netherworld of closed accounts and debt collection agencies.

Zadok always clenched his entire lower frame at this point, praying the hotel’s system would take the card, while nonchalantly leaning over the front counter as if bored by the entire process. These conferences were never at the Days Inns or Motel 8s in the area, and his company always recommended he book a room at the so-called luxury hotel where the conference was being held.

“There you go sir. Here is the keycard to unlock your door. Room 415.”

Once that was taken care of, all that would remain to be done were the phone calls and emails to the ConstantBull operations manager the next day to make sure she got the fax from the hotel she needed to sign to authorize switching the bill from Zadok’s credit card to ConstantBull’s. This would give him some cause to clench his lower frame as well, imagining a scenario unfolding where the operations manager wasn’t there, the fax didn’t go through, or the credit cards didn’t get properly switched—thereby causing Zadok to remain homeless on the streets of Omaha forever.

Also, the next day, there would be the endless joking from minds that thought they were being clever—”ConstantBull—does that mean I’m going to get constant bullshit from you if I give you a call? Heh, heh.” Zadok took it all good-naturedly, as he’d carried the joke to the nth degree himself with the entire technical support department before going into sales.

He would laugh patiently at the great wit, and reply with a smile, “Nope, it just means your market will be constantly bullish when you start trading with ConstantBull.” This was the response Jennifer, the sales manager, had deemed appropriate to such inappropriate humor. The official ConstantBull response always turned an otherwise warming discussion into an Arctic wasteland of scowls, downcast eyes, and an intense need on the part of the spiked joker to become as busy with a Blackberry or cell phone. Zadok could silence an entire dinner party with a big forced grin and “Nope, it just means your market will be constantly bullish when you start trading with ConstantBull.” Zadok considered changing the response to something like “Isn’t constant bullshit what this

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business is all about?” or “Yes, you will get constant bullshit, because that’s what mindless pricks like you live for.” However, those kinds of responses would probably create an even icier silence, if that were possible.

Zadok blissfully ate in the hotel restaurant alone. He hated venturing out alone into strange cities for food. They never had a single proper Tex-Mex restaurant, and Midwestern towns especially were bereft of anything but chain steakhouses and buffet tables. He caught the eyes of a few businesspeople having hushed conversations in the booths that surrounded the room just outside of the weak mood lighting wrought by the chandelier above him. Or, at least he imagined that he caught their eyes. Zadok smiled from his table he was seated at—the host had given him a table directly inside the empty middle of the restaurant.

Of course, he’d noted immediately how the host had chosen to spotlight him, the lone diner, by placing him in the middle of the room beneath the one chandelier, while giving the parties of two or more discreet privacy in the darkened booths. This quick observation, and many like it, were rapidly dismissed as paranoia—the host was likely just preoccupied with other things, and Zadok could always have requested a booth for himself.

The hotel restaurant was decorated with bland Midwestern ambience. An anonymous painter had affected Grant Wood or Thomas Hart Benton in a way that kept the paintings on the wall from interfering with the digestion of the bland Midwestern food being served. In one painting, an abstracted farmer-like object stood in front of what one might guess to be a field of corn, soybeans, or wheat. In another, a cowboy sat disproportionately tall in a saddle over splats of cow texture.

Zadok ruminated on the paintings, wondering who the painter was (some college kid or a friend of the owner?), why the paintings were chosen (artist liquidation sale or they matched the furniture?), and speculating as to how many people had actually bothered to do more than glance at them. He even started to develop a rather offbeat theory that the paintings carried some type of subliminal arrangement of paint to make the guest make repeated visits to Omaha, this hotel, and this restaurant. Such nonsense! He chided himself. This was his third conference in Omaha, and each had been held in a different

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hotel.

Something to the left startled his reverie, giving him the eerie feeling of being stared at. There on a table at the opposite end of the paintings were a pitcher, vase full of fake flowers, and a kitschy pottery pig. The pig stood on its hind legs, wore an apron and had a chef’s hat. It held two gold leaf-painted knives that were crossed as if it were sharpening them to carve a turkey or ham. It was the pig that was staring at him, out of unwavering gold leaf-painted eyes.

“Sir, would you like to hear our specials?”

Zadok jumped as far as he could inside his own skin, but caught himself and made a motion like he was just cracking his neck. “Um, sure.”

“We have pork chops stuffed with apple brandy horseradish gorgonzola sauce, and beef medallions scorched in scotch with an au jus dipping sauce. The pork chops are pan seared in a brick oven, and the beef medallions are grilled on an open flame.”

The apple brandy horseradish gorgonzola sauce sounded better than the scotch scorched medallions dipped in au jus, but the porcelain pig on the table to his right didn’t seem like it would appreciate it if Zadok ordered the pork chops.

“Would it be possible to get the beef medallions with the apple brandy horseradish gorgonzola sauce on the side?”

“I’ll have to ask the chef. May I go ahead and get you started with a drink?”

Both brandy and scotch had made impressions on his overworked mind, and Zadok considered bourbon and tequila as well. The conference started at 8 AM the next day, and he still had to set up a ConstantBull booth.

“A beer will be fine.” After the waitress listed three different light domestic beers on tap, Zadok opted for a Heineken.

Zadok thought he could hear the waitress communicating with the chef. He told himself he was just imagining the chef yelling about patrons wanting to mess up his perfect dishes, but then determined it was probably just random kitchen chatter.

The waitress returned with his beer and a chilled glass. “I’m afraid that the chef says it won’t be possible to get the medallions with the apple brandy horseradish gorgonzola sauce. The pork chops were prepped this morning with all of the sauce.”

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Zadok had worked in the food service business once, and didn’t want to be a dick. However, because he’d worked in a kitchen, he knew that it really wasn’t beyond the capability of a competent cook to whip up a small side of the sauce. Zadok weighed the possibility of being a dick, but then decided that worrying about what a porcelain pig thought was absurd.

“Fine,” he said, taking a swig of his beer before pouring it into the chilled glass. “The pork chops it is.”

The porcelain pig didn’t seem the least bit pleased.

By the time the bread and salad came out, he was ready for his second Heineken. Zadok thought two beers would be okay, after all, ConstantBull owed him at least two beers for sending him to Omaha.

This time, as Zadok studied the paintings once more, he felt eyes completely on the back of his head. He turned abruptly around, and swore that a man in the kitchen doorway was also turning abruptly—a man with a large pink neck and pink bald head topped by a chef’s hat

“It was a long flight with a rather pointless delay in Dallas and a small bag of salt crackers,” he thought to himself. “My mind is starting to behave like my stomach, and cave in on itself, doing self-destructive cartwheels.”

Still, Zadok began to make a conscious effort to absorb himself with the consuming of beer, bread and salad, looking up only once at the porcelain pig, and thinking its arms had shifted slightly from carving mode to a more threatening position.

“Here you are sir,” said the pleasant, plump waitress, beaming with pleasure that Zadok had heartily devoured everything set before him. “The plate is hot, be careful. Another beer?”

Zadok noted glumly that he’d rushed through his second beer much faster than he’d originally intended to, but decided that three beers wouldn’t prevent him from setting up the ConstantBull booth in the conference room.

The pork chops were sizzling, and oozing with the apple brandy horseradish gorgonzola sauce. He found the dish to be every bit as savory as he’d imagined it would be, and first tried to let small succulent bites roll around in his mouth, then down his throat.

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But hunger won over in the end.

“Wow, that was fast. The chef wants to know how you are liking his pork chops, I think I can tell him the answer.”

“Splendid,” mouthed Zadok, smacking his lips. He drained the last of his third Heineken with a slightly affected swig. The waitress giggled, he declined an offer for a fourth beer, making a hand gesture of signing the check. She nodded and shuffled back to the kitchen door.

Zadok felt woozy. The horseradish had made him sweat a bit, and he’d taken several swigs of Heineken much faster than he’d intended to cool his tongue. The introduction of so much heavy food and three beers on his empty stomach made him think briefly of catching a nap in his room, but he’d been told that the conference organizers wouldn’t allow him to set up the booth after the conference had started the next day. Wiping the sweat from his forehead, he looked about the room once more to ground his flighty brain.

The porcelain pig had separated one of its knives from the other and was bringing it up as if to stab, or so he imagined. Zadok shrugged off the notion when he realized that some sweat had just gotten in his eyes, making the view of the pig slightly blurred. He looked once more back to the kitchen doorway, and thought he saw the profile of a life-sized pig chef pass by, on its way to cook up more of its kind. Zadok tittered at the idea, flushing with a moment of giddiness, but caught himself, believing that two businessmen at a booth were scowling at him.

He quickly signed the check, billing the meal to the room, and dashed to the front desk to find out where the overnighted booth materials were, and who he needed to see to let him into the conference room.

“You’re just in time,” sniffed the man at the front desk, “Five more minutes, and Charles is gone for the night.”

Charles was a big, slow-moving boy who pushed a cart covered in maintenance and cleaning implements. “Yep, I was about to lock things up. All the other guys have got their booths set up.”

“It’s going to take me about twenty minutes to put my booth together. Who do I need to ask about locking the door behind me?” asked Zadok, trying to sound understanding of

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the inconvenience he’d placed upon Charles.

“Oh, I’ll go ahead and lock it after you get inside. You can just go out through the door by the lectern, which will take you down a hall to the kitchen. Knock, ’cause if you open that door, a fire alarm goes off. My Dad, he’s the chef, he’ll open the door. His name’s Charles, too, but everyone calls him Chazzer.”

Zadok wanted to make this as short and sweet as possible. He’d returned to equilibrium, having digested some of the pork chops and cooled off from the heat of the horseradish. Now, the food was affecting him in a positive way, the way it was meant to after you had a long flight with a rather pointless delay in Dallas and a small bag of salt crackers—it was making him feel nourished and whole.

He unhooked the clasps on the booth containers, and was soon absorbed in the work of constructing a trade show booth. By the time he was hanging the magnetic faux carpet strips over the skeleton frame, he was whistling a tuneless whistle, and jumped visibly when the door by the lectern opened.

Through the door, Chazzer the porcine Chef was pushing a breakfast cart that held what appeared to be empty coffee and water vessels, whistling a similar tuneless whistle. Zadok was far enough at the other end of the conference hall, that only Chazzer’s general shape and profile could be made out. Zadok shuddered. He couldn’t force himself to believe that it was just his imagination presenting a pig shape to his eyes.

This is ridiculous, thought Zadok. This guy is some no-name glorified line cook at a nowhere hotel restaurant in Omaha. He was probably just getting some things set up for the next day. The owner probably bought the porcelain pig figurine for the restaurant as a cut rate bargain, along with the anonymous Americana paintings, not once making any sort of connection between his head chef and his decorations. Zadok swore he caught a glimpse of Chazzer flashing snarly teeth his way, before turning abruptly, and exiting through the door by the lectern.

Standing in the glare of the fluorescent lighting, Zadok made final adjustments to the booth, and wandered around the conference hall looking for the light switches. Of course, the light switches were not the more modern, motion sensor kind, and had to be manually shut off. Naturally, they were by the door that Charles locked, across the room from the

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door by the lectern. Zadok made a mental map of the room before shutting the lights out, noting an obstruction-free path to take to the door by the lectern. There were no windows on that door, which might have let in some light from the hallway to the kitchen. There were no windows in the entire conference room, either. It was going to be a long, dark walk.

“Maybe I am being ridiculously polite,” Zadok thought. “Why should I care if the hotel electricity bill goes up a few bucks because I leave the lights on?” Standing there in the pitch black, he turned and groped for the light switches.

Just then, the door by the lectern burst open again, and Chazzer was accompanied by a half dozen creatures that Zadok could only describe at that moment as piglets. They were dressed in cook’s attire, but like their boss, clearly tended to the porcine in their physiognomy. All seven of them were scampering around and snickering at the other end of the room, occasionally looking in Zadok’s direction and guffawing. Though, child-sized, their faces, at least from where Zadok stood, appeared to be leathery and of adult proportions, with snouts and teeth almost as big as Chazzer’s.

Chazzer had pushed another table in from the kitchen, this one had cutlery, a stack of plates and drinking glasses. His assistants, as it were, began playing behind the booths that were set up at that end of the room.

Zadok sucked in his breath, and once more gained a grip on his sanity. He decided an exchange of mundane words would clear the air of its mischievous mystery.

“Excuse me! Do you all need me to leave these lights on?”

Chazzer looked up, this time with an almost human expression on his face. He didn’t snarl or snort or sound in any way like an evil pig. “No, sir, we are all done in here for the night. You can shut them off, and I’ll walk you out through the kitchen.” Chazzer sounded, in fact, like any other middle-age Midwestern man, polite and bland.

Zadok began to walk toward the doorway by the lectern where Chazzer stood, making himself giddy again by calling it something silly and inappropriate, like “the beacon of bacon.” He tensed up, and felt his skin crawl with apprehension at the sound of snickering and light, dancing footsteps behind him.

“Boys, you come along now, and don’t touch anything. How many times have I told you

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not to get rowdy in here!”

Zadok peeked over his shoulder at the “boys,” who had also become more human, having been addressed by the man that must be their father. Zadok noted that they were, in fact, young children full of a lot of shyness and no malice, and were wearing aprons probably at their mother’s insistence that Chazzer bring them home without food stains on their clothes. He chastised himself repeatedly for turning a family that had simply seen the unkind side of genetics into a family of demonic pigs.

Just then, a kitchen timer could be heard going off in a piercing staccato, and Chazzer cursed under his breath. “Whoops, gotta get that or it’ll burn. Show him through the kitchen, boys.”

The room went pitch black, and Zadok completely forgot the mental map he’d made of the clear path to the door by the lectern. The snickering started again, tickling his ears somewhere behind him, and it grew closer and then sounded farther away. He began crashing against chairs and tables, and then the chanting started, first as whispers, “Pig…y, piggy, piggy, pig. Pig…y, piggy, piggy, pig.”

Zadok’s eyes began to adjust as he realized there was some light in the room after all—being thrown off by the tiny bulbs on the switches, and a dimly coming from illumination of the words EXIT above the door by the lectern.

“Pig…y, piggy, piggy, pig. Pig…y, piggy, piggy, pig. Pig…y, piggy, piggy, pig. Pig…y, PIGGY, PIGGY, PIG.

Zadok began to cry, “oh, Lord, why did I have to eat the pork chops stuffed with apple brandy horseradish gorgonzola sauce?” and could sense their little forms coming around the back of the booths toward him, as he somehow managed to clear a pathway of folding chairs to the lectern. Standing in the light of the EXIT sign, he could make out their little pig snouts now coming at him full tilt, with nothing in between Zadok and the porcine children but two tables. Zadok grabbed a steak knife from the cutlery pile for each hand.

“Whatsa matter, piggy, pig? You scared of your own kind?”

Another little piglet answered his sibling’s question, “Naw, he ain’t scared of his own kind, he’s a CANNIBAL PIG!” All six of them were on the tables now, and jumping toward Zadok’s raised arms.

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Their shrieks and screams, while they sounded more like the screams of little children begging for mercy than demon pigs gnashing teeth, spurred Zadok to stab and thrust all the harder. He didn’t stop until something large and blunt knocked him cold.

***

In the courtroom, Zadok had insisted repeatedly that he’d been defending himself against six demonic pigs masterminded by one big one. However, the prosecutor demonstrated to the audience that Chazzer and his three surviving younger children, were mute, due to a genetic condition.

“Further, your honor, such a condition has caused Chazzer the Chef a lifetime of great misery, being made fun of and misunderstood by many people that he encounters in public. But never, never in all of Chazzer’s born days, would he have expected such a heinous, despicable act to be wrought upon his own children, all for having been born with a natural condition that they could not escape.”

The prosecutor recommended death, but the very insanity of Zadok’s story—the porcelain pig changing shape, the chef screaming in anger at Zadok’s suggestion of menu change, and the harmless little children coming at him as demonic pig minions, subjects of the head pig demon—all of this contributed to Zadok receiving life in a Nebraska state mental institution just outside of Omaha, much to the chagrin of Chazzer and his family.

As Zadok was escorted out of the courtroom, he scanned the room for a glimpse of Chazzer passing an evil grin his way—a snarly-toothed pig grin that only Zadok could see. However, Chazzer’s head was bowed in sobs of grief.

At the mental institution, a nurse came by to give Zadok his preliminary examination.

“Zadok—you must be Jewish, huh? So, no pork?”

“That’s right,” said Zadok, “And no apple brandy horseradish gorgonzola sauce, either.” He giggled at his apparently superb wit.

The nurse gave him a quizzical look, but she was used to hearing strange things from the mouths of her patients.

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Timmy and his mommy

Timmy, did you call your mother yet this weekend? You know how Mommy hates to go for weeks without hearing from her little boy. Celia is no replacement for a Mommy. She is so fragile. Celia is like another Timmy, with girl parts.

Timmy was trained from birth to be a concert pianist. He tells Mommy that he’s still teaching music at the city university. They fired Timmy a long time ago, because Timmy throws his temper tantrums.

In a bar on 23rd street at the base of an old hotel, Timmy plays the ivories and sucks dicks for tips. Celia thinks that Timmy has a trust fund, courtesy of Mommy. Celia buys diamonds and mink, and eats expensive lunches that consist of calamari, lamb and chardonnay.

Celia thinks that Timmy’s nights at the bar on 23rd street at the base of an old hotel are just a fetish, a thing that boys like Timmy do, while girls like Celia go to the opera with friends.

Of course, piano bar tinkling and random cocksucking are bread and butter, but the big clients like Burt and his buddies really bring home the bacon.

Those are the nights that Timmy has to make his body butter-smooth. He goes to Celia’s salon and gets fully waxed and oiled, manicured and pedicured so that not one tiny grain of displeasure may enter into the equation.

Celia wants a baby now that she’s pushing forty-five. She never wanted one before, but life seems to have not fulfilled her the way a baby might. Timmy’s mommy has always wanted a baby, but is more than happy to have but one baby as long as he calls and visits at least once a week.

Celia thinks a baby might pacify Mommy, who bugs Celia when Timmy is off with the boys and his booze and piano too much. She knows what Timmy likes, what turns him on. She might be fragile, but she can overpower Timmy when its time for Timmy to think about tinkling something besides his ivories.

Celia dresses up like Catwoman, and prowls the loft on hands and knees, much to Timmy’s dismay. Now is not the time for this dear, I have important business to attend to

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tonight—so important, that it will come here and find me if I don’t tend to it right away.

Celia leaps and pounces on her prey, he’s not to get away tonight. Before Timmy knows what’s happening, he’s tied up in the harness and Celia is drawing blood on his perfect white skin. Timmy gives in to instinct and this fetish, he can’t resist woman as cat.

Burt and the boys are growing impatient, as the beer and bourbon dwindles from the minibar. Let’s go find that little bitch, cries Burt, we’ve been waiting months for his beautiful butt!

Entering the unlocked loft of Timmy and Celia, Burt and the boys gasp in horror at the carnage. Poor SOB, he’s being attacked by a crazy catwoman, and forced to perform lewd heterosexual acts of bondage. The blood is too much for a few of Burt’s boys, but Burt is beyond stopping at a little squeamishness.

Burt begins to beat Celia, who is no match for a big brawny brute like Burt.

I need a baby, Celia cries out, you can have him when I’m finished. He’s almost to climax, have you no idea how hard this is for him to achieve?

He comes quite easily when he’s with Burt and me, cries a henchman with glee. Perhaps his taste for cats has grown cold.

Well, for pity’s sake, finish the poor bastard off, then, that he might give me something I can take to the baby store.

Burt begins to oblige, but is interrupted by a loud commotion at the door. Mommy has arrived with three detectives. Mommy looks worried sick. Her face turns three shades whiter of ghostly pallor when she spots her poor baby tied up and bloody.

I never liked you, you monster, cries Mommy to Celia. I suspected you were doing something naughty to my baby, and that’s why he hasn’t called me. But this goes beyond my wildest nightmares—yet…

Burt and the boys and Celia and the detectives, and Timmy too—all of them look expectantly toward Mommy to hear what she has to say.

And yet, strangely enough, this pleases me so, to see my baby tortured thusly. Timmy, can you hear Mommy?

Timmy is stricken with horror, first that Mommy found him tied up in a harness, but now he’s twice more appalled that Mommy seems enchanted by the scene unfolding before

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her eyes.

Mommy, are you not shocked and mad at Timmy, do you not wish to punish him for his transgressions and his errant evil ways? For you know, Mommy, that I am a victim by choice.

No, Timmy, I am not shocked and mad, nor disgusted and displeased. In fact, I’m quite the opposite. Why? Because I made you the way you are. Perhaps you chose to be tied up in that harness this evening, perhaps you let these freaks have their way with you, but your predisposition toward making that choice comes from Mommy and her careful tending to your every need.

Now, Timmy, you’ve been brought up in a world of no challenges or surprises, no worries or cares; yours is to seek out those who would punish you for being too perfect—your Anti-Mommys.

This comforts me indeed, because it shows me that I control every inch of your being: physical, emotional and spiritual. All choices you’ve made in your life stem as a reaction to Mommy, and there is no exit you can take.

Timmy grows limp inside his harness, feels forlorn and lost now. He wants to please Mommy, or hurt her so, but seems he cannot succeed no matter what he tries to do. Untie me, Celia, and let me go. Goodbye, Burt, I won’t be coming to your bedroom anymore.

Celia, you and I are through. Oblivious you are, to our financial situation, but now you should know that without Burt, we are but paupers.

Where are you going, Timmy? ask their faces and their voices, as he dons his clothes and shuffles to the door.

I’m off to Texas, to play piano for some radical right wing Christian coalition church. I’ll be music director, and youth pastor, and whatever else they need me to do.

Timmy, I am coming with you, cries Celia, I love you more than all of this.

No, you don’t, you are coming to try to change my mind along the way. I mean it when I say that financially we are finished.

I’m coming with you, Timmy; my baby doesn’t know a thing about how to act around cowboys. They drag boys like Timmy behind their pickup trucks down there, and shoot their guns and swear that Jesus and George W are one and the same.

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No, you’re not, Mommy. I’ve had a few of those Texas boys inside that bar on 23rd street at the base of an old hotel. They talk tough, and their hands aren’t very careful, but they’re nothing I can’t handle.

Timmy plays the church piano in the morning worship service. His hands move like nothing these small town believers have ever seen. What a responsible young man, they cry with adulation, loves his mother and his wife both sitting up in front all pretty.

Celia rubs her ever-growing belly, and thinks about Walmart shopping and the PTA. Underneath her pretty flower print dress she wears her Catwoman suit. After church it drives Timmy completely wild. Mommy, too.

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The loop

“So, you would like to discover the very essence of who you are?” asked the Sutrix tapping rapidly across a million color-coded keys. Her pudgy fingers seemed totally incapable of selecting any single key successfully, but Hammond kept silent, for he was at the end of his wits.

“Essentially, that is correct,” replied Hammond.

I’ve poured out a thousand unfinished cups of coffee from watching the trail grow colder than the wasted joe.

“You must be careful with these pills,” said the Sutrix with a wink that mixed mischief and scorn.

“Let me guess, a cocktail of peyote, LSD and DMT, synthesized to minimize the climb back down?” sneered Hammond, attempting to match her scornful undertones evenly.

“No. I should hope that as a seeker coming to me for your last great fix, you’d have already experienced blue elves and textures and strident snakes—and expect a more effective solution.”

Why do most men gesture and stride comfortably in their khakis and shoes while I fidget and rock back and forth in this madness they call Being? It seems more natural to me to want to tear out of this skin suit and rappel off the cliff of these three dimensions into a reality that satisfies all of my most ancient expectations.

Billy Hammond tried to find Jesus inside comic books, soup kitchens, brothels and yellowed copies of the Wall Street Journal. His mother had witnessed Jesus everywhere, pleading to her with outstretched arms to touch a lost soul on His behalf.

“I’m a conduit, Billy,” his mother would say, “A vessel for the blood of the Lamb.”

Billy had a vivid memory of unwittingly catching his mother disposing of a menstrual pad, and in his mind made a connection between the blood of the Lamb and a woman’s cycle. Even after being informed otherwise in the high school locker room (and beaten mercilessly by religious football players for such heresy), Billy was too mixed up in his subconscious to ever completely sever the connection.

He got a job as a janitor at a woman’s college. For years, he tried to heal the sickness of

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his soul with the tampons and pads he pulled from the bathrooms throughout the school. He experimented with them, applying them to his person in various ways, even attempting to consume them.

The state mental hospital didn’t cure Billy of his soul sickness, but it did manage to properly frighten him away from women with its bulldyke nurse robots that decidedly did not emit anything that smacked of the blood of the lamb.

They spat me out of that womb of metal and porcelain into a motherless, Godless world, where men and women did things to themselves and each other that made me crawl inside my skin. I read books on Jesus written by men and women like my mother. But, the end result was always the same—I felt no closer to Jesus than before, no more a mystic than a rabid dog. I committed horrible crimes during those years, killing men and women slowly, and scanning their eyes in hopes they would see something I couldn’t see. I traveled about the country, killing for drugs and killing on drugs. I gathered unsuspecting sheep up in little cults and doused them with gasoline, laughing hysterically at the writhing mass of immolated bodies.

“Billy Hammond,” said the Sutrix, “You’ve harmed many souls. Your karma is horrible. This drug will put you into a time loop you’ll never escape. The drug isn’t even for a soul marred by minor karmic infractions, much less one such as yours.”

Billy shot the Sutrix with a dephase he’d lifted from a cop he’d strangled. Billy watched the Sutrix melt into a blob of steaming gluten. Choking on her juices, she emitted an intense burst of psychic energy that would have killed most anyone standing in the same room. But Billy was protected by a thousand evil spirits; enchanted they were by this man who’d so successfully avoided being put down by fellow humans.

“She lied,” Billy muttered, hours after he consumed the drug. “Why would she lie to me, and risk her life, knowing full well my lack of concern for karmic retribution?”

Billy Hammond found a wallet on the sidewalk where the society types and bums like him mingled in their indifferent sweat and commerce. The face on the global ID card looked a lot like Billy. The man who’d lost the wallet was 5’8”, and Billy was 5’6”. The man’s name was Timothy Lundquist.

“Timmy, where have you been, you look terrible,” said a face as fragile as china.

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“I’ve been with bums, whores, musicians and murderers, that’s where,” said Billy, now deciding he could be Timmy, “And I need a stiff drink, pronto.”

“Well, you certainly don’t have to talk like one and look like one, so go get cleaned up. The Sedgewicks are coming over for dinner.”

The robots of rich people were nothing like the metallic claws that prodded orifices and pulled at appendages in the mental hospital and flophouses around the country. Lost in the pure physical release the robots gave him, Billy (now Timmy) decided that he’d been cured of his soul sickness.

“I’m cured, I’ve discovered Jesus!!” he cried in boxer shorts to the guests in the waiting room.

Timmy was sent to a mental hospital for rich people where the robot nurses reminded him of his mother. Could he perhaps have died back there in the room with the Sutrix, and discovered Nirvana?

“You are a conduit, Timmy, a vessel,” one robot nurse, who especially resembled Mother, would say to him.

Timmy bit her neck and sucked as much blood as he could from the gushing aorta. Robot blood is mostly methyl alcohol and WD-40. Timmy woke up in the room where they drained his stomach before it could poison him.

“We have a special drug for people like you,” said the oily, bespectacled, bald doctor, rubbing his palms with distracted delight.

“Let me guess, it ill render my brain to mush, and I’ll drool for thirty years, wetting and shitting myself.”

“No, that’s the drug we give all of our average robot-killers. You are rather exceptional in your madness.”

Timmy felt his flesh swell. His breasts grew and his genitals shrank to dry withered prunes before falling away. He could sense movement within his belly, and for three days, his crotch itched feverishly as it played tricks with his eyes. Time slowed, and he felt the evil forces leave him in the form of a male-shaped shadow. Days and nights sped backwards in rapid succession until he found himself in the office of a Sutrix, behind her desk and nimbly punching the millions of keys to dial up drugs for the lost souls that entered and

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departed.

“Billy Hammond,” he (now she) said to the man across from her. “You’ve harmed many souls. Your karma is horrible. This drug will put you in a time loop you’ll never escape…

The Sutrix saw from far above a lady standing next to Jesus. Jesus reached down to the Sutrix with arms outstretched, beseeching fervently for her distant soul, but the distance was too great. The rush of pain as her organs melted was like nothing else she’d experienced, and the Sutrix suffered for what seemed a thousand years before losing consciousness.

When she awoke, the Sutrix felt incredibly small and boyish, holding the hand of a woman rapidly moving toward a street person. “A vessel must pour itself out wherever the Maker tells it to,” said the woman holding her (now his) hand.

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A very good thing

In 1999, my roommate Richard who was not my roommate at the time, joined the Green Party and became a vegan, buying his first pair of sandals and a Volkswagen. He also purchased a beret and a Che t-shirt. According to his sister Rose, he underwent this transformation after discovering a rather large chunk of common quartz down in the greenbelt hiking area. While the discovery itself was not especially significant to Richard, the night of dreams that followed the discovery was.

Up until then, Richard had subscribed to a sci-fi view of the universe—mostly Star Trekkian in nature—in that the laws of math and physics were simply to be expanded upon as men and computers grew more intelligent. Essentially, he could accept the possibility of other Earth-like planets, and even alternate universes—but for the most part, they all obeyed the laws of Physics, or there was a new sort of Newton ready to jump in and mechanistically explain things if they didn’t.

Then, came the night of dreams following the discovery of the rather large chunk of common quartz. Richard claims that he was given a special set of eyes by the quartz as he slept, to see that all around him were multifarious universes of Mind hitting our known one at all sorts of odd angles. After that, Richard essentially believed in the power of his own special brand of magic, which he didn’t precisely see as being magic, but to most of us, it was.

Richard had smoked pot before the night of the quartz transformation, but now he smoked it religiously. Well, actually that is a bad word choice, because I don’t mean he smoked it frequently, but that he smoked it ritualistically, only at certain times and days, and only with much ceremony, pomp, and elaborate speechifying. One would not have expected the gift of such a unique outlook on life to manifest itself in so many cliches—the Volkswagen, the Green Party, being a vegan, wearing berets and Che t-shirts, quoting Marx, putting Greenpeace stickers on his car—but, Richard had yet to truly accept the unique individual that he was, and continued to seek out groups. In his insistence on remaining a herd animal, Richard naturally adopted the ways and behaviors of a nearby group of liberal-hippie-frisbee-golfing types who happened to be at least outwardly

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somewhat like him in their demeanor.

I met Richard in 2003, looking for a new place to stay down here in Austin, and having a difficult time of it because of my difficult dog—Chloe, a boxer with ADHD. I also had a difficult time finding a place to stay because not only had Chloe made my rental history one of tattered blinds and carpet, but my tendency to drink heavily and vomit on my roommates made it nearly impossible for me to provide a roommate reference, either.

The one thing I had going for me was the fact that I could hold down a steady job in spite of my occasional pent-up aggression and raging alcoholic tendencies. Richard had held almost two dozen jobs since his quartz transformation, was currently unemployed and borrowing heavily from friends who were mostly tapped out, and didn’t want to leave his prime location near the greenbelt. His ad in the Chronicle read:

Single, Professional Male seeking open-minded, Liberal roommate to share living expenses in a prime location near the greenbelt. Pets welcome. Smokers mostly welcome.

I brought along Chloe to look at the apartment with me and meet Richard. I didn’t tell him about her destructive behavior, and he didn’t tell me about the fact that he was going to be asking me to be carrying the lion’s share of the living expenses within two months. In short, our roommate relationship worked out perfectly. For the next three years, life was about as close to bliss for the three of us as one could expect. Richard had sold his Volkswagen and had mostly given up the initial tendencies toward cliché. He had discovered a group of Freegans in town—a term I thought meant “freeloading Vegans,” but Richard was quick to correct me, and explain that these were folks who raided the apartment complex dumpsters around the University of Texas campus at the end of each semester for whatever their hearts desired.

In this somewhat unhealthy and unpredictable fashion, Richard managed to come close most months to carrying his own share around the place, by selling (by way of eBay on my computer) much of the less immediately disposable dumpster merchandise he discovered. And, oddly enough, Chloe seemed to be content in an apartment full of discarded furniture and appliances, rarely destroying a thing. She and Richard spent a lot of time together when I was at work, and I suspected that maybe he was passing her some kind bud to mellow her out a bit, but it could very well have just been the presence of a

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mellow human around the house most of the time that calmed my dog.

While all of this is probably of marginal interest to the reader, I suspect that my fair reader has grown a bit impatient, having a busy modern life full of important business to tend to. I understand perfectly, and now I will get to the day in October 2006 when Richard came home with it. It came to be known as “the Gude,” which is kind of an abbreviated approximation of what it did and how it made you feel.

Richard was always coming through the door with giant porcelain Cheshire cat lamps, big bean bag chairs shaped like spiders, grandfatheresque clocks with vampires and bats and gargoyles carved into the woodwork, ripped sofas, urine-stained mattresses, salt shakers shaped like cows, baseball player placemats—you get the idea. One corner of our apartment was filled with nothing but lava lamps and variations on the concept. Naturally, when Richard came home with the Gude, I didn’t see anything significant about the object—just another malformed piece of grad student art that had gotten a bad grade. What was significant was the look in Richard’s eyes.

Oh, how do I explain that to you? All of the religious zealots and cult leaders down through time have not been so possessed of a light in their eyes. He didn’t burn coals like a demon, though, it was more like the incandescently ferocious high candle watt power of a thousand perfectly happy little kids on Christmas morning.

I frowned deeply, reposed on a faux-leather easy chair, reading a tattered copy of Thoreau that had seen a dozen highlight pens and as many University Bookstore price stickers. “What is that thing, Richard?”

“I don’t know man, but it makes me feel so goooooooooood,” his voice trailed off in a west Texas drawl you never heard from Richard unless he had opened a rescued bottle of Jaegermeister or Goldschlager.

His voice was too beatific and religious sounding to be in an orgasmic vein, but too gutteral to be completely spiritual, either. Richard’s “goooooooooood” thing had grabbed him like no drug or girl ever had.

“What do you mean? Did you drink out of it or consume a piece of it?”

“Naaaww man, just touch it. Hold it.” He seemed a tad reluctant to part with it, but had been conditioned to be almost religiously anti-possessive, that it wasn’t hard for him to

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share.

When Richard placed “the Gude” in my hands, I shuddered. This object made me feel like I’d discovered every single thing I never knew I’d been missing. It made me believe that all of my wildest fantasies had been achieved. I cried.

“It’s that good, isn’t it?” he asked.

Richard set it up on a faux mahogany particle board bookshelf, and asked “How much do you think this would sell for on Ebay?”

Strange, how Richard had a developing business sense while purporting to be living the existence of one freed from the fetters of Capitalism. Of course, I was the one who kept a running memory of all of the various prices on junk in my head. Richard simply had more of an intuitive sense of when something was going to either be worth selling on Ebay, or wasn’t worth the time invested hauling it out of the dumpster and into our apartment.

I pulled it off the shelf as if appraising it on The Antiques Roadshow. Was it made of glass or semi-precious stones—or metal, or plastic? I wasn’t sure. All I knew, is that the thing felt really good.

“Dude,” said Richard, “Don’t bogart this wonderful thing.”

He walked over to take it from me, but I didn’t espouse the same sharing ideologies he did. After all, I worked all day for my right to possess things, and was the one who made sure the less useful stuff he found was disposed in an economical fashion. However, I didn’t object to Richard holding it at the same time I did. It seemed more expedient to share the enjoyment of this great thing on the matching, faux-leather sofa that sat next to the faux-leather easy chair.

We sat for a long time with knees lightly touching, grinning. There was absolutely nothing sexual about our mutual appreciation of the Gude, which a reader might want to conclude followed this course of continually heightening, happy energy sharing. Rather, it was, I suppose, like a really good drug-taking experience shared by two friends, only much more intense, and without all of the dizzying and nauseating hang-ups and come-downs that follows such an experience.

A knock came at the door, and our first reaction was one of wanting to hide the Gude, as something this good must surely be illegal. However, we heard Rose’s nasally voice

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impatiently demanding Richard to open up, and shouted for her to just let herself in.