Book of Common Prayer for the Misfortune of Others

The path to one of the many mage schools is usually found either by trickery or accident. It is rare for a seeker to find for, as history shows, those who consciously seek the knowledge of mages are usually morally broken to begin with. Thus the need for such drastic camouflage. Whatever the path may be: psionic, enchantment, divination or others, the conscious seeker has always sought to control others and obtain security for the self rather than unravel the mysteries of existence.

However careful our guard has been, it seems we have more of these seekers in our midst than we thought. Another possibility is the susceptibility of bribery to our current students. We are speaking of course, of the alarming appearance of the Book of Common Prayer for the Misfortune of Others. Originally appearing in English, still its most widely used form, translations are appearing at an alarming rate. Our efforts at clamping down on its production have been met with moderate success, but rather than clean up the world, we must attempt to stop the problem at its source.

For those of you new to the schools, we hope that the Book is not such a commonality that we may assume knowledge. We explain: The Book of Common Prayer for the Misfortune of Others is a pocket-sized book of spells used to inflict general malaise on those who would get in your way. These spells may be cast by anyone, and most operate at around 15% capacity. 

Some have praised the book, saying that its appearance has kept the amateur seeker contented and prevents them from seeking greater power which would cause greater harm. But we think its harm is great enough, and no amateur seeker before its appearance came close to perpetrating the current harm being done by the Book.

Its first appearance remains a mystery, and thus we fear, may have come from a high echelon indeed. We shall now briefly expound its effects, illustrating with examples.

 

Abjuration: A version of the Prismatic Wall was used recently at a Ruse of Habit concert in Boise. The spell user did not want to stand near the front of the crowd and wait for the band to set up, so instead, downed some shots at the bar. Then when the lights went down he cast the spell. Ruse of Habit are so named because they feel the term ‘drug addiction’ is a way of shaming people who find society dull. They feel that all drug use is recreational and there is no such thing as a habit. Which makes what happened next doubly unfortunate. 

In its full use, the Prismatic Wall is several layers of light, each presenting its own danger to those who try to pass through. In this instance, only the back wall was activated, thus causing blindness and/or inter-dimensional banishment to the audience members it passed over, as well as the singer, Blunted Snortpill. In this dulled-down version of the spell, those who are randomly transported end up in the astral plane, normally a vivd and hallucinatory place, however, for those doomed to undergo never-ending withdrawal, would present a dark fate indeed.

 

Conjuration: Political activists and perverts alike have enjoyed the limited use of Far Step. Both are usually disappointed at the results and consequences. A recent intrusion into a Republican think-thank where the spell-caster had a camera ready did not in fact capture, as promised, ‘clear-cut plans entitled ‘Genocide Upon the Poor’ and ‘On the Enslavement of Women and Minorities’’ but rather, potential drafts of policy recommendations about road resurfacing and law-school interns studying for real-estate licensing. This person gave their spell book to a friend before teleporting and, as far as we know, the book has not made its way into government hands.

Misunderstanding of this spell is common as people tend to forget or overlook the fact that their entire body is transported, rather than just their sight. This is not a spell of astral projection, which Ronald Soderland found out recently when Stepping into a co-ed dorm during a females-only party. At full attention, he was subsequently sprayed with so many different kinds of mace that a new kind of poison gas was synthesized and the building had to be evacuated. He was held under quarantine until death. One cannot help but be a little grateful.

 

Divination: Of the spells so far mentioned, the practitioner has tested it upon themselves first, usually to ill effect. While an admirable personality trait, when complete knowledge is available it is a stupid option, much like trying to build a plane without studying the current literature on aerodynamics. See Invisibility, is the spell most likely to end in madness if self-tested and is responsible for a great deal of the bad publicity of occult practices. While a skilled mage may use it to advantage, in amateur circles it is almost always cast upon an enemy as it brings into focus creatures of the Ethereal Plane which feed upon human energy. Energy most people are ignorant of themselves emanating.

Our current pope was giving his address in Saint Peter’s Square, when he became silent and his eyes widened. This was unnoticed by most at first, given how high up he is on the balcony. He backed up, knocked over one of his Bishops and ran behind the curtain, glancing out from time to time and babbling in his native language about flying monsters growing fat on the wasting spirits of the people. When encouraged by his Bishops to address the crowd with this surely divine revelation the pope instead battened down the hatches, so to speak. He refuses to go out to this day. Already the most ardent supporter of exorcism that the church has had in hundreds of years, the pope has now more than doubled their number which has lead to countless cases of children and adults with perfectly explainable diseases to forego medical care and die at the hands of bumbling priests who are allowed to kill with complete impunity.

 

Enchantment: While many of us have run through our heads a hypothetical ‘what-if’ scenario, those who use the watered-down Enchantment spell get to test their theories in reality. While this spell has usually been used to win family or spousal arguments, lately, some have gotten close enough in physical proximity to politicians to make them change their actual words. The politician says something out of the blue completely contrary to his or her long-held value system, is momentarily confused, then continues on the original tract. They are mocked for a bit and then forgotten about and life goes on as usual. This spell is not as effective in a culture with a short attention span as actual hard work over a long period of time would be.

Transcript from CSPAN: 

Rep. James Burt R-KT: “. . . the breakdown of the African-American family is responsible for the high crime rates observed in that community. Black culture itself celebrates the victories of capitalism and hip-hop is full of messages that hard-work and perseverance pay off. Along with their religious convictions, blacks and conservatives are natural allies. As we all know, a Socialist Democracy with Single-Payer Health Care is the only sustainable source of government that would . . . ahem, excuse me. I have welcomed the board of the Evangelical Association . . .”

and on the other side

Rep. Lonnie Nelson D-OR: “. . . it is time to hold accountable those who always fall in favor with policies that systematically oppress minorities and treat them as targets rather than citizens. After all if millions of illegal immigrants can help our economy, why couldn’t they help theirs? . . . Excuse me (drinks water, coughs) and, oh my, you’d think . . . you’d think that the business-friendly right-wing, with their worship of money, would want to sweep the issue of undocumented workers under the carpet . . .”

 

Evocation: Many of these spells are undoubtably used in traffic, few have the large-scale negative effects of Crusader’s Mantle. With the caster as the center, the spell extends fifteen feet, creating an aura which awakens boldness. With sedan-style cars, enough space to affect each adjacent car of the caster. During traffic jams, this causes explosive road-rage which only serves to increase the problems as fender-benders lead to fistfights, causing the spell-caster to be further stuck. 

When Karl Navarro, 32, was leaving his apartment, late for work one morning, only to be stopped by a school-bus emptying in front of him, he looked for his newly acquired prayer book for advice, and cast Crusader’s Mantle. He assumed it would just be a sort of fast-forward spell for the children to get into school faster, or perhaps encourage the bus drivers to hurry the process along, but in fact, he revved his engine, and sped off like a race car, the children streamed into the street and all jumped, not out of his way, but upon his car, coating it like flies on a carcass. He continued to drive in the direction that he thought his work was on, children hanging onto his hood, each other, pasted over all his windows, waving at passers by. He ran three red lights miraculously before plowing into the back of a UPS truck that was stopped in the side of the lane. The children, none harmed, then streamed into the back of the truck and had an early Christmas as they opened all the packages, many of which were wines from across the country being shipped to current wine-club members. It’s hard to say if the children’s later actions were still the result of the spell or intoxication.

 

Illusion: Very popular in office environments which tend to all have the similar drab atmosphere, Hallucinatory Terrain has become a favorite at meetings, particularly to cast upon a hated project leader, district supervisor, or boss. Even the version in this book has a duration of around three hours. More than enough to wreck a busy executive’s day. He may have the CFO, Regional Manager, or Sales Captain on Skype, boldly step up to the podium, turn on his power-point, and then devolve into an almost primate state when he sees the world around him turn into a jungle complete with spiders the size of ponies and crawling mud devouring him alive.

Another popular use of this spell is in the realm of customer service. Perhaps an employee may find herself being harried by a customer demanding that she honor an expired coupon from a separate establishment. She asked the man if she could look in her manual for a brief moment during which she opened her spell book and recited the incantation. The man promptly found himself alone in a desert. It became clear from the tone of his voice that, although the desert was blistering hot, the sun was setting. He screamed for help, could not believe that no one was around. He dug through (hallucinatory) piles of sand looking for a charger for his phone, and when escorted out by police, assumed they were the freezing winds of the desert’s oncoming night. His children would never properly manage his portfolio, he muttered over and over.

 

Necromancy: In contemporary society, death is an unusual event and quite removed from daily events. However, hospital/mortuary employees, and hunters have found use for the stripped-down version of Animate Dead. One guess as to what the medical profession uses this spell for, and it’s not saving lives. This spell creates undead servants at even the advanced levels. It is not called after all, Raise the Dead, or Endow with Life, but merely, Animate Dead

From that sordid subject let us move on to the rather creative use that hunters and hitchhikers have found. Carcasses already picked clean by predators can be reanimated which can then attract future predators which are in turn caught by the hunter or hitchhiker and eaten. This is one respect where the common man has found a use that our wizards had never considered. This is not an endorsement for the book’s continued circulation in society but rather an encouragement to learn what we can from this tragedy. 

Parents resurrecting dead pets never ends well. Although the pet does not come back homicidal, like in certain fictions, it grosses a child out to have a freshly dead dog or cat follow them around and sleep in their bed. So stop it with the pets.

 

Psionic: While in a class of their own, a psionic spell has found its way into this handbook in the form of the Truevenom Weapon, causing an object in question to be endowed with toxic venom. This is another favorite of the customer service profession. Initially, it caused the shutdowns of many restaurants, but practitioners have been more careful as of late. A waitress, upon hearing a mother implore her daughter to never work in ‘a place like this’, instead of casting the spell on the food or utensils, cast it on the mother’s phone, laying on her lap. Phone attacks are increasingly common when you cannot brandish a weapon and hit someone publicly.

Another common use is people casting it upon open seats next to them in busses or trains. With air travel, this delays the entire flight as the plane must be evacuated so its practice has diminished. Corpses on the bus or train go much longer unnoticed.

 

Transmutation: This is another popular office trick which has bosses on edge. Many of them, after chewing out a disappointing employee, has found themselves unable to control their rate of movement, plummeting into walls and down flights of stairs. They have been the victims of Longstrider. It tends to be less effective in public, making crowds rather more chaotic than easier to maneuver through. In traffic it is deadly. Tailgaters bear the brunt of this spell. Upon being allowed to pass, the victim of the tailgating casts this spell upon the passing car, which then shoots ahead at a much faster rate than before often causing fiery chaos which ensnares the caster as well. This book has been found at many accident sites where the burning hasn’t quite consumed all, often clutched by or melted to the hands of the perpetrator.

Pitch for Soap Opera a la The Book of Leviticus

Synopsis:

Young Levi, approaching high school graduation, is blooming into an Adonis. Growth hit late for him and now he is ready to have some fun. The high school years were not good. Too small to play sports, he tried on different identities and never clicked fully with a group of friends. Father worried that Levi might be gay, and that’s disgusting. 

Interested in the life of his aunt, a hippie who lives in the woods in a camper and visits every year or so. During their last visit, he deplores the fact that he never had a girlfriend. He pretends to not be distressed to his parents. Levi’s aunt invites him for a weekend at her place, a special weekend where other campers gather together. He goes and they get intoxicated and have sex. He barely remembers it, but is pleased at his accomplishments.

He takes the special concoction that his aunt and the other campers enjoyed so much and puts it in his mother’s drink, just to test it. She becomes completely incoherent and they have sex. With condoms of course.

The reason young Levi is able to take such advantage of his mother is because his father is often out having numerous affairs. Being a young kid, Levi is hip to the computers and finds his father’s Tinder profile, then seduces his many mistresses, and their friends as well.

Due to his father’s numerous affairs, an illegitimate daughter has been conceived, close to Levi’s age. They meet and, although Levi knows they are likely related, they have sex anyway. She is the first person even close to his age he has bedded and he is so good in bed at this point that their relationship continues for quite a while.

All of his father’s friends themselves are serial adulterers and Levi works through the ranks of their mistresses. His father remarries a younger woman who agrees to be with him so she can continue having sex with Levi. Similar arrangements are made around the adulting circle.

In a very special crossover episode of the Sci-Fi soap The Time Traveler’s Wives, Levi ends up in the future and is drawn especially to young women who turn out to be his granddaughters. Oh well, too late to take that back. A bit disgusted by himself at this point, he sticks to women his own age, but again ends up with a daughter-in-law instead. How was he to know that his future family would never leave town?

Back to the main narrative where his aunt, with whom he long ago lost interest, comes back revealing she has a family thanks to alternative insemination. She never had a father for her daughter who grew up to be rather promiscuous. Levi insists on his purity and that he has no recollection of the affairs now decades past. He beds her daughter out of contempt.

Reeling with this blast from the past, Levi decides to settle down and get married. It is easy enough to find any woman who would say yes, so he pretty much rolls the dice. To everyone’s surprise, he picks a homely (by TV standards) woman with a terminal disease. She’s also super rich and when she dies he marries her model sister.

Now living in high big-business socialite circles - and a father himself - Levi is expected to participate in family traditions: Easter Egg hunt at the Zoo, Christmas in the Catskills, and sacrificing your first-born to the god Moloch. 

Levi, being confused during this ritual, has sex with another man and the show gets cancelled because that’s disgusting.

Love Potion Number 187 (Part 5)

Brock wondered how long he would have to stay as dumb as he was. Pushing that cart all the way to Olivia’s shop was supposed to be a special delivery, a not often thing. Leave time to rest in between jobs. And he found himself, not two days later - still recovering from the soreness in his arms - pushing an unduly loaded wheelbarrow around the grounds of Summergrove Estate. 

He’d done plenty of jobs around here before which is why he picked the contract. He had not foreseen the other problem though. Being a hard worker meant that other people left you all the hard work. And to perform it while the slackers who made as much as you get to do nothing but complain how above-it they all are. What was the alternative though? Become one of them? Morally unacceptable. 

As he weeded he pondered the pouches Olivia gave him. Given his luck as of late, it was too much to hope that they would cure aching muscles. The concoctions were at best, experimental. One’s relationship with Olivia was part of a grander scheme than anyone could know by themselves. Meeting people like her and falling in with them was a surefire sign that the powers that govern things have different plans than you. So Brock kept the pouches in his work locker, just in case some possible use suggested itself.

He didn’t really know what went on at Summergrove Estate. Whether it was someone’s actual home or just some kind of country club. He worked off-the-books as a simple tradesman/laborer - mostly for rich people he would never know the names of - but isn’t that the bulk of everyone’s career? 

In cities with connections that ran through wires there were laws concerning who could work for whom and when, but Brock didn’t give that much credence. He found it hard to imagine that in a large metropolis there wouldn’t be a job for every type of person.

At the local office he was able to pick through the contracts and chose ones that fit his schedule. There was never any lack of variety or opportunity. His involvement with Olivia had been a slightly different matter as the one who drew up the contract lived in the same village as Brock. He had never seen his village on a map, but maps he had been shown were so confusing anyways. He also heard that no one (in the cities!) used maps anymore, so there was that. Maybe people had learned the lay of the land and were passing it down the generations.

Anyways, a school-teacher from the village who kept up with her favorite pupils had learned that Olivia (shock!) was joining the others in the city. She was going to have her own store in a dingy crowded street and sell things that none of them had heard of. And where had Olivia gotten this knowledge of city commerce? No one knew. 

Brock brought her first deliveries to her. Although knowing the way to the city, he was surprised when the dirt path he had always taken somehow ended him in the back of an alley, then a parking lot which smelled of smoke. No one gave him a second glance and Olivia had let him in still dressed as she would be in the village. James was in the front, setting up shelves. He hurriedly introduced himself, then went back to work. Methodically color-scheming. What Brock was bringing Olivia looked very different than what James was stocking. Powders and liquids, oils and extracts and such. But James didn’t seem to notice when he came downstairs to collect the mixtures. He spoke to both of them with a familiarity that implied lifetime acquaintance.

After unpacking and mixing a few things, Olivia asked Brock if he would continue to work with her. She knew he was contract only and could refuse if he wanted, but she offered to be flexible as to his scheduling needs. He agreed, having learned the route and he knew, as she did, that very few others in his line of work would take a city route and it would be a pain if everyone delivering to her was doing so for the first time. This wasn’t the village, where everyone learned how everything else worked. 

Due to his association with Olivia, the Summergrove Estate contracts were made available. It didn’t really qualify as city or . . . whatever was outside, and Brock saw both kinds of people there. This seemed to be a special place for those like him who could cross over between the two modes of being.

 

The night before, he had gone out with Julie. Not on a date, but she had a friend who interested him, and no one hit on them when Brock was there. Before her friend showed up however, he and Julie speculated over what the potions might be. He had tried to get into Julie’s personal life a bit, but aside from her condition, he didn’t know much. They shared a fondness for Irish Americana which had a weekly showcase at a local music club. They tried to make it there at least once a month.

Julie could get through a crowd like a river snake and repulse anyone who came near if she wanted to. A few foolhardy men tried to hit on her each night and the moment she was tired of it she could stare into them. They would stop speaking and walk off muttering, “bitch . . . bitch.” Brock did not know what they saw in her eyes, but it was venomous.

She hadn’t seemed herself that night, and Brock talked to her friend. They got along nicely, but after awhile he realized that Julie wasn’t being merely polite. She was distracted by something. The friend had gone to the bathroom and Brock asked Julie if she was on the potions or anything.

“There are certain things I can get away from,” she had replied, “but not this.”

Brock realized then how impossible it would be to escape Olivia’s tangles. If they were even Olivia’s to begin with. “Are you . . . involved with what she . . . at all?”

“Follow your own advice Brock,” said Julie. “No one knows anything about the betrayal she’s referring to. It’s probably some kind of magical test, you know. Weed out people with a guilty conscience.”

“How about the professor?” asked Brock.

“No one knows . . . wait, how do you know what he does?”

“He just looks like one. Weren’t people calling him professor, or did I just imagine that?”

Julie’s friend returned. “I know a guy named Dr. Oboe. That’s actually not his name. But we teased him in high school about his college aspirations. Getting advanced academic degrees in specific instruments. He’s a woodwinds whizz. Anyways, he said he plays for a band which opens regularly in clubs around the city. We should see him sometime.”

They ended the night with Julie telling Brock that she had every intention of losing her stash. Although with Olivia’s wicked insight into intention on a nearly universal scale, Julie didn’t know how successful she could be.

“Everything you try and keep track of, the most vital things in your life, cell phone, wallet, keys, you lose all the time,” Julie said. “But the shit you want to get rid is the shit you somehow trip over in every single room. What kind of magic bullshit is that?”

 

Holy Books - IV: The Plumber's Parables

1 “Even universes live and die,” explained the plumber who had arrived late, stayed later, and still not fixed the problem.

 

2 This put ecology professor Mr. Nielson in a tough spot. But so did jet-setting around the world to conferences so he could have his photo taken with local anarchists.

 

3 He would say to his students: “Here I am with Anella Kaeo, she was accused of bombing the conference of hoteliers and property managers in the capital of Fliegsum. Of course not . . . heh heh, the hotel I stayed at for our own conference. Her book has been refused sales by every online retailer, although you can still get the Unabomber’s Manifesto (think I’ll make that required reading next semester) so I got a signed copy. Let’s just flip to a random page. Ahem, ‘to compensate for his rage at not being female, the man must get his gun off, i.e. go to war.’ Strong stuff. She’s been accused of transphobia due to her focus on maleness, but declares that the ecologic problems currently outweigh the gender-outlaw discussion in her life. Some have put her in the camp of those claiming that diversity in the workplace is less of a problem than the growing gap between rich and poor and is merely the Corporate State’s attempts to divert us while they rob our wallets. Is she a left-wing revolutionary, or a right-wing hate-monger? I leave it to you to make up your own minds . . .”

 

4 The plumber pushed a shop-vac past Mr. Nielson then paused. “I’d wear boots if I were you,” he gestured to the sea of shit climbing past the Professor’s ankles.

 

5 “My life is a hollow lie,” said the professor, sitting down.

 

6 The plumber patted him on the shoulder. “There there. You a teacher? You study symbolism much? I’d go see a shrink because your life is playing out like an analyst’s wet dream.”

 

7 “Do you need a house?” Mr. Neilson asked. “You can have this one. You’ve put more work into it than I have.”

 

8 Now wasn’t that generous of the professor, children? To just give away his house like that? Mr. Nielson went to his room, changed his clothes, then checked into a hotel and showered and felt terribly guilty about being alive for the rest of his days. Shouldn’t we all follow his example? Wouldn’t the world be a nicer place if we did?

 

10 Another parable from the plumber about space aliens:

 

11 “Yep, they took me aboard,” said the plumber to the 4th-graders. “But not to stick something up my rear end, rather, they wanted me to put pipes on their uh . . . equipment,” he said, nervously eyeing the teacher, who seemed to be asleep, or on the phone, or a substitute.

 

12 The plumber glanced around the students. “Is my son even in here? No matter. This message is for all.” He picked up his bag and placed in on a desk in the front row. “Mind if I use this, little Timmy?”

 

13 “My name’s Corbdyn,” said the child.

 

14 “Whew times have changed.” The plumber took out vials of fluid and a stack of schematics. “When I was your age, all little boys were named Timmy, and all little girls were named Susie. At some point your name changes when you get a little older, after all, you never see a kid named Bob, right?”

 

15 The first vial he presented held an orange fluid that looked like Kool-Aid, however, he tipped the vial sideways, took out the cork and spilled the liquid into the air where it floated and maintained a cylindrical shape. He had the student’s full attention. 

 

16 “Shoulda brought my 67-Turbo-XZ engine to demonstrate. This right here, will lift anything and you can push it around smooth, like an air cushion. Tried to tell the Smithsonian about it, but I guess they get letters like that all the time and they just ignore it. Whatever. Made my mechanical hobbies a lot easier. How about a volunteer?”

 

17 He picked a girl he called Susie from the hands that shot up. He pulled the fluid to the ground and told her to just set her foot a little above it until she felt resistance.

 

18 “Kinda feels like a trampoline,” Susie (Ivy) said.

 

19 “There you go,” said the plumber, “now put your other foot, just like that.” He put his hands to the edges of the fluid and lifted her into the air. Susie squealed with delight. “Now don’t go too far,” said the plumber, “but you do have a little bit of moving room.”

 

20 She tested the edges of her air cushion and bounced up and down a little. The plumber helped her back to the ground before putting the fluid back. The kids groaned.

 

21 “I got other things to show ya, don’t worry.” He explained that that fluid, once put in pipes and diluted with another chemical, allowed faster-than-light travel while negating the effects of time dilation.

 

22 He showed another vial of what looked like dirty motor oil. “I have taken a tablespoon full of this every morning as recommended by their surgeon general and I am now 267 years young.” He patted his belly. “Should probably work out a bit more though, huh?”

 

23 All while the teacher slept up until the lunch bell the plumber took the kids through demonstrations of telepathy, teleportation, psychokinesis, raising the dead, and the barbarous names of evocation.

 

24 “I’ve had such a great time today,” the plumber said, “you kids have been so wonderful that I’m gonna give five of you a sampler pack. Just remember to share among friends. We’re gonna do this raffle-style. Each of you write your name on a piece of paper and I’ll mix ‘em together and the first five gets’em.”

 

25 He found several dusty containers in a long-unused cabinet for science demonstrations and made up the sampler packs. In the raffle, the first two names picked were ‘Timmy’ and ‘Susie.’

 

26 “Guess I shot myself in the foot a little there,” said the plumber with a twinkle in his eye. “Looks like everybody gets one! Enjoy your recess.”

 

27 The class cheered, grabbed their sampler packs and went outside to play.

A Summer at Shiloh Grove (Part 4)

“What’s in the cages?” asked Brother V.

“Ah, terrariums,” replied Dr. Brum. “You’ve got a curious mind. Your pattern comprehension showed that though. The answer to your question is: reptiles. Like most terrariums. I can show you some before we get started. After the . . . I don’t want to say blood-letting, that sounds so barbaric, and collection sounds too bureaucratic, but at any rate, after our procedure you may feel a bit disoriented so now’s the time.”

He lead Brother V to the nearest box, about the length of a desk and slowly lifted the black blanket. There was a large log in the center, surrounded by bits of tree branch with varying foliage. Its chief resident was a snake, or what Brother V at first took to be a snake. This long scaly green thing with brown stripes draped itself among the branches. Yet it had tiny clawed ‘hands’ running along its body at roughy two-inch intervals. Its head as well did not seem to be an extension and end-point like the head of a snake but rather jutted upward like a human head. It had a neck and the head came to a point in the front like a snake’s would, but its cranium became oblongly spherical near the top. Its snout was vaguely wolf-like and Brother V felt an inherent nervousness about looking closer at its face, although this nervousness fought viscously against his sense of curiosity.

“This is Raina,” explained Dr. Brum. “She came from western Belarus. A naturalist friend of mine knows where the colony is, but doesn’t tell. Belaurus is quite conservative with its nature. She is weak because unfortunately, we have to test her. Also, you won’t find her in any books yet. Maybe my friend wants to name them after himself, although he thinks there is much more to them than just a reptile. Maybe they do not live there all the time. Maybe they live much deeper in the Earth and have outlets at various places. Allow me to demonstrate.”

He placed the curtain down over Raina and led Brother V to a terrarium across the room. This one was smaller, but Brother V detected the faint sounds of activity within. Dr. Brum lifted the blanket, revealing a similar landscape to Raina’s only this one had sand sculpted into precarious structures. Skinny hills that seemed they should collapse. Brother V’s eyes hurt looking at the structures and he couldn’t figure out why.

“If you look to the side, away from the cage,” said Dr. Brum, “maybe you see them.”

Brother V did just that and immediately was treated to a series of darting shapes, like nervous fish, moving around on top of the sand.

“Breathe slowly,” instructed Dr. Brum. “Stop concentrating so hard. Focus on your heart instead.”

As Brother V did so, bringing his attention into his chest, following these yoga-like directions, he noticed a pen on a nearby table and let his eyes rest on that while in the corner, he saw shadowy humanoid shapes maintaining these towers. It seemed like a sped-up film.

Dr. Brum moved behind him, speaking to himself said, “quickly now,” he counted down and pressed a button on the wire leading to the light which turned the light a dark red, like a bathroom heat lamp. He slid aside the top and pulled something out and walked over to Brother V. “Look.”

In his hand was one of the creatures. At first glance, like a kind of garden lizard, but with longer and more muscular arms. Their heads as well, like Raina’s had distinct necks and formed into the spherical smoothness at the top, like an egg. Upon closer inspection, their faces were not reptilian but more leonine. Strong mouth and jaw.

“I must put it back now,” said Dr. Brum. “These were found in Southern Nigeria. A striking resemblance. Archeological digs tend to uproot these in desert areas. Perhaps you’ve never seen these famous photographs which also accompany the reptiles.”

He stopped over at his desk and shoved a clipboard with papers in Brother V’s direction. “Also, I’ll need you to sign these. Nothing special, just saying that you voluntarily gave blood as condition for employment. It’s also saying we’re not giving your blood to someone else and that we’ll notify you should any unexpected genetic diseases show themselves, stuff like that.”

Beneath the bureaucracy, Dr. Brum opened a file cabinet and pulled out a folder. “We keep hard copies of these because if our systems should get hacked, heaven forbid. At any rate, I like to show people what I’m up to as well down here. Rumors are always worse than the truth. Unfortunately,” he handed the stack of photos to Brother V, “being present in these pictures means being . . . relocated, at the conclusion of the project, like a witness protection thing.”

Brother V scanned through the stack. In various climes, jungle, desert, forest, coastline, it showed excavated holes in the ground revealing giant humanoid skeletons. Giant in scale to the humans standing around them.

“We need scale,” explained Dr. Brum, “otherwise people would assume they are fakes, or just normal skeletons. These photos are global and span decades. Same with the discovery of these alien-like creatures. The reason you find them inherently off-putting is that even the chemical components of their genetic material, or what we’re calling their genetic material, is completely unique to anything we’ve seen before.”

Brother V had had enough. “Why are you showing me these?”

Dr. Brum smiled. “Because of the secrecy of this position. Every official who comes here knows of these and they’ve all agreed to keep it under wraps until we know more. Kind of inspiring, no? Despite philosophical, political and religious differences, discoveries like these are what it takes to unite world leaders. And needless to say, although I’m required to say it, the consequences for violating this confidence are dire for you and . . . everyone around you so just . . . don’t. It’s been kept secret for decades and not always through pleasant means.”

Writers Writing About Writers

It’s about time I came clean with who I am. That guest at the dinner party two chapters ago? Earl Hartman? Well that’s me. I’m not crazy about writing about myself, but after all, I was there. So that’s who I am. A novelist telling a story. Only this time, it really happened. How fortunate I was to be involved, even peripherally, since I have the ability to cogently record things. It all began while I was at work on my previous novel, where Guy Quinn stumbles upon a group of contraband seed-traders who genetically engineer plants for extra-terrestrial communication:

 

 - With autumn-fire hair in waterfall curls beside her winter face, wearing a green vest of clouds and floral patterns, Maleia rolled her aquamarine eyes and slammed down her empty shot glass. She had seen Guy Quinn from across the bar, even over the sea of heads. Neither of them belonged here, in this land, and both of their attempts to blend in only made them stand out more to each other.

Guy hitched his fingers in his belt-loop and scanned every part of the bar that didn’t have her in  it, as if looking for the shortest line. She came to him.

“I don’t want any trouble when your man gets out of the pisser,” said Guy.

“I’m here alone,” Maleia replied. “Reminds me of someone.” 

Feigning an arrow through the heart, Guy backed up and leaned against the wall, purposefully letting her corner him. “Hurts, but you can’t get to me that easy. Traveling people tend to unwind in spaces reckoned safe for travelers. It’s not too much of a stretch to think we’d run into each other.”

“You’re just like you were in school,” said Maleia. “Never the usual social cues. No ‘how-are-you?’ or ‘what-have-you-been-up-to?’ Always something new.”

“It’s a gesture of respect. To let the other person say things to make themselves feel comfortable. I’m far more interested in why no one’s messing with you here,” said Guy.

Maleia cast her gaze around the bar and heads seemed to turn away from her, like she had an anti-magnetic gaze. “When I realized I might have to stay here awhile, I decided that certain behaviors where not to be tolerated.” She gestured to the bar. “But money spends everywhere, and I think best when I can pull from other people’s thoughts. Just most other people don’t like that.”

Guy waved to the other patrons, none of whom were looking at him. “It’s okay, I know her,” he said. “Don’t worry about me.”

“Okay, you win,” said Maleia. “What have you been up to?”

“I’m an adventure novelist,” said Guy. “Got a series about a guy named Carlos Parks. Done okay for myself. Good reviews, steady sales.”

“What has that got to do with any other aspect of your life?” asked Maleia.

“It just pays the bills and I don’t have to think about it,” said Guy. “Come on, I’ll buy you a copy and sign it.” -

 

: His goggles broke through the salty meniscus and Carlos tore the air-pipe out of his mouth. The boat was already speeding. With one hand on the ladder, the wake kicking his body up and down, Carlos undid the straps on his air-pipes with the other hand, the pipes he knew now had been replaced with XF-42, the deadly hallucinogenic poison used on the Sultan of Egria to get him in a paranoid delusion so he would launch a chemical attack on the humanitarian Navy fleet docked in the Bay of Opleyya.

Fresh air felt amazing, and despite his current danger, Parks felt his mind bring his body up to speed on the situation. Once he cast his breathing tubes into the turbulent wake, he climbed effortlessly onto the main deck. He wouldn’t have to contend with much, as most of the crew had been airlifted, still blindfolded, upon completion of their duties. They were not allowed to know the coordinates of their location. Only the captain remained at the helm and now Carlos understood why. Because Carlos was supposed to be dead.

The shipwreck they sent him to was planted, and poorly. But he’d been hallucinating. Luckily, he’d recognized the Sultan’s symptoms when they happened and never questioned his judgement when he began seeing them in himself.

Carlos zipped off the suit and took a look around. The ship was quite deserted, as he thought it would be. Hopefully Ioakim was still prisoner on board and hadn’t been executed. That would have to wait until after the captain.

He remembered where the helm was due to the champagne breakfast they’d had this morning. A spectacular view. As Carlos suspected, the captain, being alone, had to focus all his attention on the ship. He had a portable radio on a TV dinner stand by the controls and was fully occupied with weather, currents, and communicating events and future instructions. Carlos was able to tiptoe nearly right behind him before speaking.

“The way I see it -” Carlos began.

The captain shrieked and turned around, no relief on his eyes upon seeing Carlos.

“Once the ship comes to a full stop, we’ve got a few hours before your fastest men can get here, but I’ll have the Navy here in half that.”

The Captain briefly glanced around him and was obviously unarmed and unprepared for combat. His breathing became more regular and he tried plan A of every supervillian: denial.

“Were you never able to go out for the dive, Mr. Parks? I must have a word with my -”

“Can it Ahab,” said Carlos. “You know what you did. Or maybe you don’t. How can you be totally sure that you prepared the XF-42 correctly? Colorless, odorless. It could have leaked out, even a little when you filled the air pipes with it. First time it’s ever been done. Would have been more amazing if you hadn’t made a mistake. Taken a bit too much to the head.”

Stepping back from the controls, the Captain felt his pulse, then looked at his hands and back at Carlos Parks. “You - you’re dead. This isn’t real.” He started laughing. “This isn’t real!”

“How do you know you’re alone on this ship?” asked Carlos. “If this isn’t real, whose to say that any of your memories are?”

“But I - uh, have we even left the dock?” the Captain wondered to himself, staring out the window. “Are we even on a boat? Is the moon in June a spoon humming a tune?” He flung his cap against the wall and pulled out a tuft of hair in each hand. He ran a finger along his lips. “bublbublbublub . . .” he turned and ran out the door and jumped over the side, the wake tossing him quickly behind the boat like a seal playing with a ball.

Carlos quickly went to the controls. First he pulled an emergency stop which he hoped wouldn’t destroy the ship. Luckily, the button did what it said and he heard the hum of the engines raise in tone as their rotations slowed and the ship came to a stop. He didn’t know his location but he could find the Navy frequency on the radio. Luckily, the Captain’s radio was not a civilian one, but an illegal listening device. Criminals always became their own undoing. Before he called the Navy though . . .

Climbing down the port to the lower level, the ship revealed its true character. Only the very top was reserved for the smuggler elite. The rest was two levels of cells, then the engine room and storage. The halls were narrow, the floor, a steel grate and the walls gray but the lights were red. Designed for maximum discomfort.

The singing rang through the halls long before he could find the cell that Iokim was in. Iokim often sang to himself. Nonsensical joyous songs from his homeland. Nonsensical at least, to Carlos. The constant joyousness was also a mystery, but it had helped them through numerous scrapes, Iokim being somewhat impervious to the notion of mortal danger.

Carlos got to what he thought was the right door and knocked. “Room service,” he said.

Iokim’s song stopped and there was the the sound of him jumping to his feet. “Oh Mr. Carlos. You’ve come. I thought they forgot to get me along with everybody else. I just sing until I die.”

Fiddling with the latch, Carlos eventually heard the satisfying click and the heavy steel door practically pushed itself open. Iokem ran out and gave Carlos a giant hug.

“You save me once again,” he said.

“Yeah, no problem. Buy me a drink sometime,” Carlos replied.

Iokem couldn’t believe the luxury of the upper decks. “Next time, I definitely reserve a cabin up here,” he said.

Carlos got on the radio and called the Navy. Less than an hour ETA. He let Iokem’s infallible sense of food lead them to the kitchen where they made sandwiches and found some beer. Then they set up chairs on the upper deck and awaited their rescue. There was not a cloud in sight.

“I think I see China,” said Iokem.

“You know that naked-eye visibility out here is only about three miles?” said Carlos. “I barely believe it myself.”

Iokem asked how Carlos dealt with the Captain.

“I just got him to believe that his memories weren’t real and he decided to . . . change that.”

“You mean you just talked him into giving up?” asked Iokem.

“Something like that,” said Carlos. “I write novels for a living. My character is a professor of philosophy. Nick Jansen. So I have to do research sometimes. I believe it was Descartes who first pointed out that everything we know about life is based on an unprovable and fallible premise.”

Iokem asked the question by raising his eyebrows.

“That we can actually know anything to be true,” said Carlos. “Kurt Godel later mathematically showed it.”

“You a writer?” asked Iokem. “I never knew that. How does that affect the rest of your life?”

“Not at all,“ said Carlos. “It just pays the bills.” :

 

{ Nick Jansen summarized for his class his final confrontation with the Terror Management Terrorist. The lab of the TMT of course appeared to be a house like any other, white picket fence included. But Jansen knew to be on his guard. The foot-soldiers of the TMT had had their fear of death so systematically removed that they bordered on invisible. He recalled with embarrassment how badly he had underestimated the TMT’s infiltration of campus. A few manifestos placed strategically that when read, lead to the immediate removal of the fear of death followed by a moral shift of such seismic profundity that psychologists had yet to even name the type of person it produced.

Luckily, the students who were converted by the manifesto all left school and Jansen thought he had seen the last of that strange phenomenon. Mass hysterias, seemingly inexplicable, have happened throughout history.

And then the murders began. Disgraced professor Becker Emerson volunteered his interpretation for a news program during which he revealed himself to be the Terror Management Terrorist and that, as predicted, the world would pay dearly for ignoring his research.

No one knew how he did it, but he claimed he could drain our surplus consciousness - all the distractions of culture and identity - to create fearless people capable of extraordinary evolutionary leaps.

Now, in is lab, Nick Jansen was about to find out how the TMT did it. Out of the corner of his eye, a person appeared. Well, not appeared, the person had always been there, but just decided to act now. Jansen grabbed a huge book from the shelf and caught the butcher knife, which for a moment, the killer tried to wedge out of the book. Jansen took this moment to knee the killer in the groin. Still susceptible to physiological distress, it turns out.

Jansen tossed the book aside and pinned the killer on the ground, preparing to ask the location of his leader. The killer’s look of pain ceased and was replaced by the vacant malevolence that was the trademark of Emerson’s foot-soldiers. Jansen had been tricked. With a few barely discernible moves - an expert combination of several martial arts - Jansen was caught in the killer’s grip. An agony spread from his limbs, crawled up his neck and threatened to black him out when he heard Emerson say ‘enough.’

The killer let go and a relief so total immersed Jansen like a warm bath. He giggled a bit, almost forgot where he was, so good it felt not to be in that grip anymore. A gentle hand took his, and Emerson helped Jansen to his feet and led him to the couch.

Phantoms surrounded Jansen on all sides. The room had been teeming with people and he had not seen a single one. They all watched the duo on the couch as their leader prepared for his greatest challenge of all.

“I see you’ve counteracted the manifestos,” said Emerson. “Very cleaver, using religious arguments when you yourself are not a religious man, Dr. Jansen.”

“If it works, it works,” Jansen replied. “What was it that movie detective said? ‘You can never have too many saviors.’”

“Does not the fact that it works test your un-faith?” asked Emerson.

“Ideas are more powerful than the words that describe them,” Jansen replied. “This may seen fine to you,” he gestured to the student who held Emerson’s tea for him, “but it’s out of your control.”

Emerson had the student hold his teacup to his lips and serve him. The hand of the student was bright red, and no one wanted to look at what the skin behind the cup looked like. “Is that all you want to know?” asked Emerson. “Where does it end? It ended, Professor, with my first success. With a total adoption of my manifesto, centuries upon centuries of war and injustice will be brought to an end. Everything stems from the ignorance of our impermanence. The willful ignorance. Wars establish countries designed to outlive people, political and religious ideas. Even silly little fictions are designed to live forever. Taking away the folly of pretending is like coming up for air after those moments of panic. Your entire life has been a panic over things that don’t matter, imposed by the fear of the one thing that does. Remove that, and you’re free. Aside from certain physiological limitations, but as you’ve seen, even a good many of those can be overcome. Our bodies and minds are capable of miracles that make religious literature seem like a quarter behind the ear. What do you have to lose? Your social games? Romantic ills? War? Poverty? Injustice? Everything that causes anxiety and misery? I beg you - do you want me to share something? - your resistance against me is more powerful than I ever dreamed, and so I beg you - for the good of humanity, allow my message to spread.”

Jansen shook his head. “You’re not afraid of me. You could have killed me ten times over the second I set foot through the door. What are you really doing?” As if in answer, he beheld the blank TV on the wall, mirroring their movements. “Turn that on!”

Chuckling, Emerson asked, “wouldn’t you rather discuss philosophy with me?”

Jansen looked around him.

“There’s nowhere to run. You’re too late. But since you insist.” A student switched on to the news. The town was in shambles. The National Guard would fire their weapons upon invisible foes. Civilians got mowed down in the process. Burning cars littered the streets. Emerson tutted. “They never listen.” He turned to Jansen. “Do you really prefer this to what could be? Is this really the easier route to go, rather than opposing my ideas?”

More gunfire was heard and the news camera dropped. An anchor looked on, then was torn to pieces herself. A few sets of feet ran by, then the camera was picked up. A student showed herself. It was Maya Fertillo.

“Professor Jansen,” said Emerson, “does your heart still long for your forbidden fruit? I can take that ache away.”

Maya spoke. “If anyone is still watching this, we’re continuing our meetings.” She moved her hands and twisted her face before dropping the camera and running.

“Hell of a time for her Huntington’s to start acting up,” said Emerson. He turned back to Jansen. “Why are you always so interested in what you can’t have?”

Nick Jansen’s face remained vacant.

Emerson swiped his hand back and forth in front of it. “Is that all it takes? First the death of your wife, the abandonment of your child, and now this? Your nubile lady-love taken by random genetics? I recognize that stare.”

A shudder shook the walls, and a window broke. Emerson looked toward it. He gave a signal to his students who appeared to vanish into thin air, one by one. Before his own disappearance, Emerson said to Jansen, “if there’s anyone still there, you’re welcome at any time.”

Jansen heard the tanks running through the streets. He would be captured if the Guard decided to invade homes. But he didn’t think they would if no one went outside. The TV had died, along with the power. But what he hadn’t told Emerson was that Maya’s spasming was not her Huntington’s acting up. It was a body-language code, developed by some particularly gifted students. They wanted to see if they could hold conversations across classrooms without Professors noticing and only Jansen had caught on. He hadn’t been able to crack the code himself and had gone - in humiliation it must be said - to Maya Fertillo and begged for the cypher. 

On the news, she had told the students who understood the code where to meet. Emerson’s foot-soldiers who evolved beyond social cues would never understand.

Jansen leaned back on the makeshift desk. An old summer camp was their new village. Students were routinely sent out to recruit others, and the population was growing fast. Either Emerson’s soldiers stopped caring enough to do nothing, or they were planning another war. At any rate, the new society began now.

Jansen had always been told, even in the old world that he should write his adventures down.

“I’ll let you in a little secret,” he said to the class. “I’d been working on a novel and never really cracked it until things went to shit. In this day and age it’d be totally unbelievable, but I think that’s why it’s working now.”

Jansen was also often told that it was important to document what had happened and how to combat the decay of society for future generations but he just couldn’t bring himself to make it work. Somewhere among the group, was someone who would be perfect for that task, but it wasn’t him.

“I always liked the literary sad-sack,” he said. “Kind of self-indulgent, but endearing. Of course, nothing like my own life, which is why I never got around to it. But I’ve got a lot more spare time nowadays. The character’s name is Earl Hartman. I know, a total loser name, and he’s a published but non-successful writer who works for an ad-firm, but not even on the creative side of things. His wife finds great pleasure in their children’s accomplishments but he just can’t get over his ego-centrism and learn to look at the world around him. Failure after failure accompanies this.”

The students just stared at Nick Jansen, chuckling to himself. “It sounds bleak now that I say it out loud, but I’ve found it funny and charming. Anyways, screw you. I can have fun. It has nothing to do with my real life and that’s what’s important.” }

Love Potion Number 187 (Part 4)

Those who live to tell what death is like never do. The experience makes intuitive sense the way a dream does. Describe it for someone else, and you may as well be making up words. There are some who forget they have ever died and go on with their lives still fearing the supposed inevitable end. Which begs the question, how many times can one survive death and forget about it? There is no known limit to this.

Julie was alone in her black SUV, a kind of portable night. Outside the temperature was nearing the triple digits, and an excavation along the bridge slowed traffic to a standstill. Her first thought was an invitation to rage, mercifully short-circuited by a prospect of relief. She had nowhere to be. Her official plan was to stop at her health club on the way home after today’s staff-training seminar, but the only thing she looked forward to at the health club was the spa. Although she had eaten junk food in the reception area and wanted to work it off, she felt so gross in the crowded hotel conference room which got staler by the minute that the thought of sweating, even in an air-conditioned gym, revolting. This construction gave her an excuse to go straight home and have a bath. She and Jeff had no plans for this evening since she didn’t know how long the seminar was going to last. Also, there was an audio book she wanted to listen to but never had the time. Whenever she thought of it she was on the freeway, hardly a safe place for messing with her bluetooth. 

Now at a dead stop, even grateful, stealing glances with satisfied smugness at the misery around her she started the program. A series of introductory lectures on the history of Eastern Europe. Her ancestry went back to that area pretty quickly, but she wasn’t interested in anything post-AD. The idea that 99% of human history was unwritten had always fascinated her, but it was not something she was willing to risk a financial future by getting a degree in, so her elective interests had always steered toward that. Reading a book in the evening put her to sleep so she decided to try the audio versions. She could study it on the web if supplementary material was required and when she better understood things there were a few museums in the surrounding cities that she had her eye on learning about and maybe even, gasp, volunteering in.

A dull thud from the side of the road shook the car and she grabbed the steering wheel even though she was in park. Heads turned in the direction of the sound. Several giant tractors were on the side of the bridge, all at various angles digging into the hill. The sound must have come from one of them.

“And that should be enough to give any thinking person pause,” said the professor on her program. Annoyed that she had been distracted, Julie backtracked and was once again absorbed into life in the Caucus Mountain range.

What she didn’t notice was: on each side of the bridge, sleek black cars with minimal red and blue lights at the top of the windows lined the highway. Uniformed personnel with heads down scuttled out. Apparent bursts of steam shot up in between cars, and if she’d been in the helicopter overhead, she would have seen a crawling black river, edging from one side of the road to the other. The men from the black cars ran in between the stopped traffic with small tools, pushing back whatever it was. Combustive steam or smoke forcing their heads back. Drivers tried to lower their windows and look out but they were quickly ordered to not move and told that there was no danger. Just some runoff they didn’t want getting to the other side of the bridge. The uniformed men were quick. This was not a river they were trying to stop, but refugees of a sort.

Julie’s back passenger door opened, jolting her out of ancient times. The smell of char accompanied the person who lunged into her back seat. He whispered screams with what little breath he had. His skin was burnt and black nearly all over. She yelled at him to get the fuck out, but he continued to look through her as she fumbled with her own door.  Slammed shut the moment she opened it. She stared into the sunglasses of one of the government men. He was not going to let her out.

She never felt the hands on her shoulders or the teeth on her throat. For Julie, death was like waking from a dream. She was alone in the car. The car lurched like with a hiccup, and then floated gently upward. A moment ago she had been parked, but she couldn’t remember where. Intuitively, she knew that cars didn’t float and understood that she was dying. She looked around for someone to tell, just to inform them for practical reasons, but there was no one. As the car rose higher, the blue sky turned whitish, like with cloud cover. Like when she lay in bed on a weekend morning, not wanting to wake, but unavoidably knowing that the sun was up. She knew she would forget everything, an unavoidable reality that had no point in being argued with. Just time for the next breath. She did allow herself a few moments of luxury to bathe in the cloud-white blank before rejoining the world.

Evil Twin Prison

This wing of the ward is full of evil twins. That’s their story and they’re sticking to it. Simon Kelson, 36 was sitting in the back of a co-worker’s car while they drove to a conference across town. During their brief foray on the freeway, he decided to test an hypothesis. Cramped in the middle seat, he relaxed all his groin muscles, then unzipped his pants and sprayed urine back and forth. The initial fountain hit the ceiling, but then waved onto the driver, passenger, and those sat on either side of him, with the lion’s share running down his arm. There was much yelling, but his hypothesis was proven correct as the driver stayed calm enough to pull the car over without incident.

His co-workers were not amused, had him arrested for sexual harassment, but he claimed innocence of the entire matter. It didn’t help that the district manager who ran the conference took their tardiness as a snub and didn’t buy the story either. Simon invoked the evil-twin clause because hey, he always assumed he worked solely with evil twins.

Loreen Meusburger, 42 in the women’s ward has a long and prosperous resume in customer service and marketing for department stores. She was found arguing, with great eloquence and public support, for attempting to walk out of a distant store wearing five coats and six hats, three pairs of shoes, and four pairs of gloves, all with the price tags still on them. She knew it was against policy to directly accuse a customer of stealing. She showed up to her trial with a shaved head claiming to be her evil twin, doing the first good deed of her career, standing in place for Mrs. Meusburger. She couldn’t believe that people would mistake the woman in the store for her, despite the matching fingerprints and DNA signature. 

A third curious case is Julian Barlow. Facing company layoffs, he offered to reduce his own position and salary to part-time so that they wouldn’t have to fire any of the younger employees who had promised longevity with the company. He remained modest in the face of such praise and decided to pursue cooking classes in his spare time. Upon completion of the introductory safety material regarding cleaning agents, he somehow procured a can of compressed sulfur dioxide, along with some scrubbing bubbles.

A silence fell over the class as he set up his station. A quizzical expression formed on the face of the instructor as Julian’s eyes widened along with a buck-toothed grin.

“Uh, Mr. . .?” was all the instructor had time for.

Julian rushed over to the boxes of produce to be distributed among the class and sprayed the gas and bubbles along them proclaiming, “tee-wee-wee-wee!”

Standing in shock, no one was moved to action until he ran out into the actual store. The trail of sulfur made people gag. He made it to the produce section and halfway round the bakery parading his demented laugh behind him like a flag. He was knocked on the floor by a rolling pin and the can of compressed sulfur dioxide fell against a rack, puncturing its side and sending it across the store like a missile. It arced above several aisles and initially no one could see it land in the deli where it ricocheted among the slicers and ovens, breaking a glass door and igniting in a ball of volcanic flame.

Julian Barlow continued to spray scrubbing bubbles into the face of anyone who tried to stop him and he ran out the front door right into the arms of the first arriving policemen. Assault of an officer nearly quadrupled his sentence.

He at first claimed to be the Tee-Wee twin, a specter that had accosted Julian since childhood, but the real Julian has yet to appear back at work and is no longer welcome in any cooking class.

- - - 

They play a game on the evil-twin ward called ‘Devil’s Advocate’. How therapeutic is it? Hard to say. A few sharper psychiatrists caught onto it and even got an inmate to admit that there was method to the madness. It takes the form of ‘mock-readjustment.’ 

 

DOCTOR: And what first went through your mind, when your wife brought up divorce?

 

INMATE #1: I felt it coming a long time and there was, I suppose, an inward sigh of relief, so I said ‘I understand. I wish things had been different, but if this is what you want, I pledge to make it as easy as possible on us.’

 

The doctor examines some notes.

 

DOCTOR: So I uh, have it here that maybe the first part of that is correct. There was a period of respectful silence, but during this period, your were uh, defecating in your pants, and you ground it into the carpet, then proceeded to act like a baby, refusing to do any task for yourself until you had to be hospitalized for dehydration, where you continued to ‘act’ like a baby, but in private, stole prescription drugs for your children to sell at school and they bought themselves . . .

 

INMATE #1: You meant back then? I’m sorry, I was under the impression that you wanted my first impression in this moment, rather than reliving something old hat. I thought I was here to learn new patterns. Once I get out, me and my good-twin will be such an unstoppable force of benevolence that you’ll be fired for keeping me here so long. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be cross with you just then.

 

Another example . . .

 

INMATE #2: Starting a garden, and then teaching the basics of growing flowers. At first, just pretty things, and then adding vegetables, things you can use, is the doorway to the most basic understanding of how the universe works. I’d love to see that enstated here.

 

DOCTOR: May we stick to the exorcism you performed on your neighbor’s party?

 

INMATE #2: We do have a wildfire problem, but it’s only a problem because people live there. Wildfires are good for the forests, good for the soil.

 

DOCTOR: It started with a burned mattress imprinted with a human shape upon it in their yard.

 

INMATE #2: A terribly distressed individual, that you have yet to catch, might I add.

 

DOCTOR: The next weekend, during their ‘usual row’ as you put it, you stood outside in a sheet and anointed the house with -

 

INMATE #2: Holy water -

 

DOCTOR: Gasoline, at which point, you had already barricaded their front door -

 

INMATE #2: It is sad, how little people notice the natural wonders around them when occupied in their own drama.

 

DOCTOR: - nineteen people died that night.

 

INMATE #2: So many trees were planted. I’m sorry, what were we talking about? I understand there’s tragedy in the world, doctor, and that you see a good deal of it. But have you ever considered spending time with me in my garden?

 

DOCTOR: It is a rather nice day -

 

INMATE #2: Let’s talk outside.

 

DOCTOR: I don’t really see the harm . . .

 

Joline Gaddis had always claimed that her evil twin was still out there, but she would use this opportunity to do good in the institution. On the day in question, she was found hoeing dirt in the back yard, saying that Dr. Carl Long, her assigned psychiatrist, had given her permission. He has yet to be found. The prison system credits Ms. Gaddis for not escaping through the open back door upon which hung Dr. Long’s lab coat.

 

A Summer at Shiloh Grove (Part 3)

Brother V opened his beer and stared out the window which may as well have been a painting of pure blackness. “Dr. Brum is a great man,” he said. “Do you keep up with his work?”

Upon shaking my head he continued to explain. Dr. Brum is a popular guest on news, television and podcasts. He gives talks all around the world and conducts research in conjunction with various universities. He’s published quite a few papers which are beginning to look like foundational materials for a new book on his method. Individual Optimization. When working with prisoners or addicts or the mentally disabled, he had to focus on finding one thing for them to do and be good at. At this, he was exemplary. But people aren’t only good at just one thing. They’re not meant to be robots performing a single task over and over. Depending upon their age and experience, their abilities likewise shift, along with their interests. He was developing a calculus of human competency.

None of that had anything to do with Brother V’s story, but he wanted to illustrate how incredible Dr. Brum was, and still is, despite this sidetrack.

 

Brother V would be working with (i.e. serving) the most powerful and influential people on the planet, and it was necessary that he understand the speed with which they function and the large numbers they are constantly contemplating. Dr. Brum issued a battery of tests, most of which were quite boring. It was a sight, Brother V  explained, to see Dr. Brum not as this media personality, but as an actual scientist who laboriously churned piles of numbers for a living in search of replicable patterns.

“I’m just learning who you are,” Dr. Brum explained. “This is not a pass/fail, or smart vs. dumb. These tests will determine how we work together.”

Brother V was given a tour of the area accompanied by silent men in black suits. The bulge of weaponry could be seen in their sides and wires led to nearly invisible ear-pieces like exposed nerves.

Why was Brother V not introduced or being trained by the other FOH staff? Where were the cooks? Even during this off-time, prep had to be done. Fridges and freezers cleaned. 

Dr. Brum explained it like a game. “Think of a chess board. Or any game board really. A simple arrangement of colored shapes. A child could come up with it. But on top of this lies a game which has ensnared humanity for thousands of years. Maybe longer. You are seeing the base of operations. The foundation upon which all this functions. And a kitchen is more complicated than a game because it involves people with egos. And out there,” he pointed to the dining room, “are the egos that rule the world. And their game is even more complicated. But it still all rests on this simple geometric arrangement.”

Brother V said, “and then he turned my head. We were standing in between the kitchen and the dining room. A guard leaned against the door, holding it open. Dr. Brum tilted my head ever so slightly to the side, made a single adjustment to my chin and said, ‘there.’ And everything changed. It was like I was looking at a grid, but from above. I’m not saying it was an out-of-body experience or anything, but I could see half of the kitchen and half of the dining room, and the way they worked together, their lines and spaces, and the implicit shapes in between them, suggested the rest of the layout, and I saw immediately who would stand where in the kitchen, where their boundaries were. The patterns in which the service staff would move. The counter-pattern of the bus-staff. At this point I almost fell over and Dr. Brum was behind me. He put his hand on my shoulder.”

Brum chuckled and explained to Brother V that he hadn’t expected him to see the pattern so soon, but all the better. Brum whispered conspiratorially that he worked with an architect to renovate this space so that it suited its current dimensions. The old hotel board however, had declined to keep Brum as part of the hiring process after that, to which Brum had offered a bet. They could hire whomever they want, and he would predict with a 100% success rate who would stay and who would go. Even further, he would predict when an employee would leave to the exact day. If Brum’s predictions were correct for a year, they’d make him in charge of the hiring. Given a 100% success rate, they gave it to him after four months.

He took Brother V to a series of bungalows in a joint property behind the hotel and restaurant. It seemed odd that the hotel would have live-in staff. Such things were usually reserved for the olden days of massive factories employing entire towns.

These buildings were, in fact, a series of medical offices, chemistry labs and storage. The hotel performed its R&D right on the spot. The restaurant had its recipe development building, and the laundry and recreational services were constantly perfecting cleaners and sterilizers, water purification. And the doctor’s offices were there for the staff. Anything from a headache to a heart-attack could be serviced here. Of course, there were first-aid kits all around the hotel for burns and cuts and what-have-you. 

At this point, one of the guards put a blindfold over Brother V’s eyes.

“I’m going to take you somewhere that I can’t show you,” said Dr. Brum. “It’s not far.” A guard cleared his throat to indicate that even this was too much information.

Brother V could have figured out on his own that they weren’t going far as they were lead into a building, through some hallways and down some stairs, then into an elevator. Even if they walked through the same hallways twice, he never got in a vehicle, so he knew they were still on the hotel grounds.

From the side of his ears he heard skittering noises, like small mice running around. The light peeking in from the edges of the blindfold turned from fluorescent white to sterile-lab blue. He felt fingers removing the blindfold and it was revealed that he was in a science lab of some kind. Black cloths were draped around large boxes with bright lights inside. It smelled of sawdust.

“Gentlemen,” said Doctor Brum to the guards. They stared at each other and after a moment the guards turned and left the room, seeming to have lost a battle. Their entire job was to go places where others were not allowed, and here was this newbie, getting to play with all the lab toys alone with the doctor.

“I need to take a little blood from you,” said Doctor Brum. “Nothing more than what you’d give at the Red Cross. I don’t know if you’re jumpy around needles. I wouldn’t guess so based on your tests, but phobias tend to be irrational. It is a requirement for the job, so if you have any reservations, now is the time to voice them.”

Brother V had none. This was a high-profile job and they were likely going to test him for any hard-to-find drugs or maybe genetic conditions and predispositions to illness which could become problematic later. No one wanted a Typhoid Mary walking among the world elite.

Meeting the Creator

We went on a ride. The paddleboat reminded me of something like the Tunnel of Love that you see in movies but I don’t think ever existed. Why we were taking this ride together I don’t know because we normally don’t like things like this. It’s easy enough beforehand to tell yourself that nothing can harm you. That you’ll keep your eyes open for the scary parts because all you’re doing is sitting in a place that someone intended to be comfortable.

The boat stared slow and we bumped against the sides a few time. We entered a dark tunnel, and everything stayed black. Occasionally we’d look behind us to see the fading gray of the sky as the last pinhole of light vanished.

A dull roar like some large concealed motor grew in volume. We couldn’t tell when it started. The walls around us came to life. A tunnel of woven flesh. Something squealed and then there was a person. Or rather, a human figure with some kind of lizard head walking in front of us. Slightly to the side, clearly on the screen. The creature’s head fell backward, effectively ripping out of its chest and it felt the bloody muscle walls and became absorbed by them, squealing all the while.

We held hands. My hand was on top and something touched me. I didn’t dare move. The slimy claw rubbed back and forth around my knuckles before retreating into the water beside us. After its retreat, human hands grew out of the fleshy walls, writhing like creatures just birthed, a thin film breaking between their fingers. It’s a gimmick I’m sure everyone’s seen in haunted house movies and I started to think this ride was getting derivative already.

The hands would occasionally part to show us passing by rooms with more monsters in them. Human creatures with animal/alien heads, torturing themselves. A spinning saw through a lizard tongue, and slicing the head in half. Crossed arms being pulled in separate directions by chains, hanging the body over a pile of glowing ants who crawled ever upward. Then we came to the weird part.

All the walls around us went black but I didn’t notice when it happened. Too busy contemplating the torture of monsters. The boat didn’t feel like it was moving. In front of us, panels of a comic strip flashed like advertisements at a movie.

The dialogue was hard to read and the panels stayed too briefly to take everything in, but it told the story of a mouse with a gambling problem. The story took place along a dark and old-timey wharf. After each panel, the background lighting became more and more red, which implied to me that the mouse came to a bad end after continually pleading for mercy from a series of shadowy gangsters, species indeterminate. Eventually, the red covered up everything, and a short animation was shown.

It took place in the same location, but this portrayed a donkey standing up and masturbating. As he furiously climaxed making sounds like a trampled bicycle horn, he ejaculated a pair of rabbit ears which swam around his body before slithering onto his head and the donkey was now a rabbit. It was followed by a few shorter ones of animals metamorphosing. A frog turned into a sloth, and a zebra became an ape, but retained its stripes.

Once the cartoons ended, darkness returned along with that dull roar and the boat continued through the darkness. At this point, I didn’t want to see much more so I closed my eyes, then felt foolish, like somehow the ride operators could see me and are laughing and I opened them again and things seemed brighter.

We moved through a projected tunnel of flame which slowly ripped itself apart. Behind it was the vacuum of space. The stars and nebulae became more prominent, informing me that this is what really lies behind everything. The backdrop to all our earthly achievements is this unknowable darkness.

As my gaze lost itself among the stars, the boat thumped to a stop and I realized that the stars were actually reflections of disco-style studio lights. The front of the boat gave way. We were in a TV studio and there were lots of us. Other people on the ride, I assume.

The lights came up and the announcer at the front, a young lady with a team of others beside her, recited the rules and prizes for the upcoming dance competition. Then they announced the winner which was me, but she talked so fast and I didn’t want to be singled out in this way that I pretended not to hear it and at first succeed in convincing myself that she must have said something else. The logistics of this are impossible, I told myself. How could this ride be arranged that everyone gets their own unique ending? It’s nonsense. 

The lights got brighter and I was terrified for a moment that a spotlight was going to land on me but it didn’t, thus easing my fears. Of course, we all had to dance so that isn’t great either. Music started, and I looked at everyone dancing and it seemed that what they were doing wasn’t so hard and I fell into the pattern pretty easily. I didn’t even feel that stupid.

One of the producers came up to me and told me to come to the front of the stage because they called my name earlier and my heart sank. I took my partner’s hand and we headed down and the producers explained something to me but I wasn’t listening because all I understood is that I’ll never see my loved ones again. Even my partner didn’t get this despite my emphasis in explanations and I said goodbye like I meant it but it didn’t register.

The producers ushered me into a circular glass tube. It closed and another frosty layer slid on top of it, obliterating the transparency. Everything outside turned blue. I’m not claustrophobic but I worried that I might become so if left in here long enough. What they’re doing is kind of fucked up and in my anger I pushed on the glass, even knowing that I was supposed to wait.

It lifted over me quite easily and I was in the same TV studio but now empty. Daylight came in through some upper windows. I heard sounds of typing and other office activity coming from two doors in back of the soundstage. I looked the closer one and its floor was covered in fans nested in tangles of cords. Each fan had a few streamers of gray confetti on its grill. Maybe cooling off motors. I felt like behind-the-scenes somewhat. Somewhere I shouldn’t be. I  couldn’t enter this room because of the fans everywhere so I went to the other one.

Rows of desks with people in medical smocks working at them. Some of them wore masks. No one paid attention to me and I looked through some cabinets, feeling somewhat like a video game character exploring and no one will acknowledge me until completing a certain assignment. 

I walked down the lane between desks to the back of the room where the man who designed the ride sat. I’ve seen him on TV before. In interviews he thanks the various teams of actors, designers and psychologists he worked with to create this experience.

Love Potion Number 187 (Part 3)

After the rush of customers, James had to decide what to do with the cart. He didn’t like it in the hallway, nor could he leave it out back because if anything wasn’t nailed down, some band of bored and roaming adolescents would throw it off a building. 

Olivia told him to shove it in between the dumpsters. He hated the dumpster area and there were always hidden squirrels who seemed to go out of their way to chase him. Everyone found  this funny and when it became clear that he would not budge, Brock offered to put the cart away so that he could use it as an excuse to smoke as well.

He went upstairs and heard James talking to someone. It was Ruby, possibly another reason James didn’t want to take out the trash. But Brock and Ruby had been childhood friends growing up and he knew her better than most. He showed himself and then asked her to come out back with him. James glared.

Ruby asked what Brock was smoking, had tried it before, and declined. She asked him whose dumpster was whose, then begged him not to tell her. After narrowly avoiding a squirrel-in-the-face, she tore open a trash-bag and pieced together the journey of the refuse.

“This apple was brought by someone who never brings their lunch but is resolving to eat healthier. The fact that it’s barely nibbled on means that it sat in their house for so long it started to rot. 

“An Amazon box, now there’s a challenge but since this is a business trash . . . if I can just . . . there, it’s not a business address which means that the object is being used for business but the person doesn’t want to report it. For tax reasons,” she snapped her fingers, “got it. It’s a keystroke analyzer/collector that the person installed to get rid of certain computer activity. They just started doing something which they’re going to do regularly and which would cost them loads on taxes or regulations. And judging from the dumpster this came from, I’d say they’re buying underground helium.”

“Wouldn’t all helium come from underground?” asked Brock.

“It’s an endangered gas,” replied Ruby. “It’s getting super-expensive so balloon-shops are having to resort to the explosive hydrogen.”

“You’d think there’d be some no-smoking signs around here if that were true,” said Brock. “Which it isn’t. You can do better.”

“You see this paper plate?” Ruby pointed out. “It was used twice, then cleaned then used again all for the sake of proving a point. One of the employees next door really wants to be a comedian and his only line is ‘you seem like the type of person who would re-use a paper plate.’ He’s said it to every employee, totally out of context and never gets a laugh. So one day, they hid his lunch, then presented it to him on a paper plate. Fair enough, but then they emptied all the trash (hence these nearly empty garbage bags) and all the cans so that he couldn’t throw anything away, and they took all the break-room utensils out so that the next day he was forced to use the same paper plate and people took pictures from an actual camera,” she lifted up the disposable camera, “an entire roll, got them developed and posted them on the bulletin board.”

James poked his head out the back door and yelled, “Hey! The shopkeeper says hop to it!”

 

Alone with the professor, Olivia asked for his help with the dirt.

“I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean,” Irving Adwell said.

She handed him a potion and had him pour some into a handful of dirt and mix it together. She had him repeat a few phrases, unintelligible to him and which he had trouble pronouncing. As he did this, the dirt crumped in his hands onto the table. “Keep going,” she told him.

Brock and Ruby came back in and together moved the crate of dirt to the corner. The professor continued his mantra. Olivia went upstairs and told James to lock the door and put up the closed sign. He protested all the way down stairs and she assured him that yes this was the only time everyone could be together for this and yes it was serious.

“When did Julie get here?” asked James.

The professor dropped his dirt on the table. Julie noticed him staring and backed away to be by Ruby. 

“A moment ago,” said Olivia. “Pay attention.”

“Does everyone here know each other?” asked Professor Adwell.

“I don’t really know James all that well,” Brock volunteered.

“And no one knows who you are,” said Julie.

The Professor explained how he read something which told him to come here and he wasn’t sure why.

“The point is,” said Olivia, “one or more of you is breaking our pact. And I brought you all here to feel uncomfortable about it. I don’t know who it is . . .”

“What pact?” asked the professor, “surely you can’t expect me to know . . .”

“No one knows what she’s talking about,” said Brock. “Happens all the time. She knows something that we don’t, ourselves, consciously know.”

“That’s enough,” said Olivia. One by one she placed her new potions and pouches on the table while she continued speaking. “These are the next steps in our Equalization Studies. Your assignment. You’ll know what to do when the time comes. As for the betrayer . . .” she lowered her head so that anyone looking at her would just see her eyes, focused on nothing.

James opened the door to the stairs and ushered everyone out the back. He reopened the shop. Olivia remained downstairs for the rest of the working hours.

'Negligent Homicide in the Morning' Day

Twas the morn’ o’ th’ runeday when many gathered at th’ chapel in the morn’ for the worship of Rodite, the Rat Goddess. T’would be a long service and this brought the thinkin’ into the heads of the spouses left at home that twas a great morn’ to get drunken. Even though the pious spouses had seen this coming. They hid the booze in places only their cats knew about, they poured it into the houseplants, but lo, the spouses who stayed home all called each other and warned the rest of them of the hidin’ tricks. People tore out the plumbing to guzzle that hooch. Not their finest hour to be sure, but someone who’d break through the floor, dig up a pipe and suck down that sewage slurry because that is what sounds like fun when alone . . . their finest hour twas likely ages ago and they don’t plan-on bein’ in that way any time again soon. People downed handfuls of whiskey-oozing dirt and called their compatriots to thank them heartily, pulling a worm out o’ their teeth.

Durin’ the Rodite service, atonement is the game. Offer their children, standin’ front o’ the alter. A giant yellow tooth in between squid-black eyes. They offer the littleuns and say ‘have I sinned against thee in any way, I offer me only love to thee, to join the twenty-thousand tails’. For legend has it, Rodite sits upon a throne ‘a Swiss, but th’ holes’re’ll clogged with rat-tails, sentient tails possessed by misbehavin’ younguns doomed, doomed to live within the cheese and na’er take a single bite.

But why? - ye ask - do the parents offer the kids, if they’re the ones who’ve sinned? But that’s the genius o’ da ’ting! It’s kids who drive the parents to sinnin’. It’s how they’re raised. Parents were young once. They sees all these shoddy families. Think they can do better. So they do the dirty thing. Original sin stains them fore’er.

What’re they supposed to do? - ye ask. Die out? We’ll na’er know I’m sure. But come the future prophet’ll show us the way outta ‘riginol sin. So’s the books say anyways.

A’course nona’ the kids’s ever taken in the church. It’s a symbolic atonement thing. But they do hafta stand for a wee while, and they get tired, as the parents pray and offer sacrificial penance in the forma nibblin’ on their own arms. Not enough to draw blood mind ye, but enough to leave a mark.

Meanwhile, the neighbors dish it out in the street. They sit like at the salon, and riff ‘bout how boring their lives’er. The more brainy ones realized it all happened through a series of invisible compromises, while the rest’o’em blame the world and the wife. No matter their gender, it’s the idea of ‘the wife’ can fit any. We’re all the nagging hag.

This particular morn’ however, the tradition started, and none knew it yet. Ol’ Orr succumbed to the mania from drinkin’ outta the lead pipe first. Figgur he was just off’is rocker, the way he kept lickin’ the inner pipe. “Blo-bla-blo,” ‘e said in between spits. 

Next came Terry Hyulr, some plant found the contentsa’ ‘is colon quite pleasin’. He’d been a dirt-eater. Tradition really. Took a monster shite in the street. But as-it happened - this’s really gross but no-one could stop lookin’ - a few seeds half-sprouted fell out. Then ‘e shat a leaf. Followed by some leaves on a stick. By this time the screamin’ was a bit much as a small Bonzai burst through’is cheeks and he fell for’ard, dead. The tree nowadays’s’a pilgrimage but its just legend really. If anyone who claims they found it have, they woulda’ found the village too. At least brought a part ‘o it back for proof, ya know?

At this point Ol’ Orr felt hisself to be seein’ snakes in the wood on people’s porches. He banged his pipe on the ground to drive’em up, then banged on the decks to kill’em.

Course, twere no rats in the village. All the cats got’em all. Around this time, the cats all took their midmorning nap. While some slept through anything. Today’s proceedings was a bit noisy, so they stayed on the sidelines and watched with a wee interest, until something else caught their eye.

Margot Kref smelled like a sac’o’old apples after drinkin’ anything red which she figgurd ‘ad to be wine. Abyy Ghislnek took pity on’er and shared some fermented pickle vodka. After three monstrous gulps, Margot stumbled to the porch where all the bangin’ was afoot. At said point she let fourth such a roaring belch did she, that right afore Orr died a’fright, Abyy swears she saw the black mold double their property on the wooden beams. Such a festrous belch it was, that ‘er own stomach jumped out ‘swell. Her organ stuck to the mold on the wooden beam and she fell, slightly danglin’ from some intestine or oter.

Meanwhiles, at the church, parents and grans’s was getting through with the self-prostration and such. The kids was standin’ many of em fit to piss to burst. But they’d caused enough trouble so far by bein’ born. Ah, the rituals of childhood. We lose sight a’ them so quickly.

A ‘course, Rodite did notin’. ‘Er yellow tooth was kept that way by a secret society a’ cleaners. Why you need to clean a tooth to keep it rotten, we’ll never know. Course it wasn’t a real tooth neither. Size of a St. Bernard. Maybe they shoulda seen through that.

Barry Thelnumm was headed to the churchyard to give ‘is ‘ol wife the one-two, as he put it. No one knew what he meant. ‘Whatever,’ the townspeople thought. ‘He’ll just get in trouble up there, we’ll continue our party down here.’ Other townspeople thought, ‘we’d better get rid of this mold, or else our spouses’ll think we’re slobs.’

Out came de axes. A choppin’ at the pillars which held the roof of whoever’s house twas that Ol ‘Orr fancied was cursed with serpents. A’course, that’s what woudda happened had folk been seein’ straight. Quite a pile of limbs accrued afore the pillars came down along with the roof, splashing in the pool of blood.

So much blood in fact, that the piller itself: mold, Margot’s stomach + addendumbs, barreled its way down the hill, carving a stream and floating on it sametimewise. And just as the church service ended, the parishioners beheld the river of blood carrying signs of the town they’d left behind.

And leave behind it they did. But they also left us with tradition, as ancient folk often do. Its why, in any sane society, we should adopt the holiday of Negligent Homicide in the Morning. A special morning when we ‘forget’ to put out the preventative measures that keep all these people who seem so intent on dyin’ in embarrassing ways e’ry second from doing so. And thanks to ye lawmakers for hearin’ this plea.

A Summer at Shiloh Grove (Pt. 2)

Brother V got the job, went through the program and vanished from my life completely. When next I saw him, several years had passed. I had moved twice and started a family. On this particular night, I visited a hospital where a friend of mine was staying after a bad car wreck. His hip was shattered and the duration of his stay was uncertain. I returned from a business trip rather late due to weather problems and had picked up a set of books that he really wanted to read but had never had the time to. It was my motive to give them to him earlier that day but my late flight destroyed that notion, or so I thought. He texted that he was constantly up all night in pain and that I should bring the books whenever it suited me. Nights are calm on his section, he assured me. He had always been quite a Type-A personality, good at getting what he wanted, and he didn’t hesitate to make trouble for people should they get in his way. I had always known him as a decent man and dedicated father with an immature humor which endeared him to children but he would never show a shadow of it in the board room. I couldn’t help thinking that he may have been an unruly customer once who contributed to Brother V’s unease with existence. Strange, for me to think of Brother V at that moment.

 

At any rate, I went to the hospital and although I was informed that it was not visiting hours, when I mentioned the name of my friend the nurse’s faces dawned in comprehension (unflattering of course) and they let me see him. I kept my stay courteously short for the nurse’s sake although it was clear that my friend was quite lonely and bored. He understood that I was not used to being up at this time of night and would be jet-lagged for the next couple of days. He thanked me for the series of weighty tomes (his interest in early marine and sub-marine exploration was totally new to me) and I went on my way. Did you know there was a submarine in the Civil War? Imagine that!

 

Not knowing what would be in the fridge for a late-night snack, I decided to stop at an old supermarket I used to frequent during my twenties and early thirties. I had inhabited several apartments in this area of town and enjoyed the nostalgia kick. I grabbed the makings of sandwiches that we may or may not have had in the home and some dessert when I saw him.

 

He wore a dark-brown trench coat (although probably not as dramatic as the one you’re picturing) and his thick black hair had grown long and seemed to want to cover his face. The face itself had red patches and looked swollen as if perpetually scratched. We recognized each other instantly and made the awkward eye-contact that sent the social signals through my veins. You know the kind. It would be impossible to ignore this person after this energy has just passed between us. I walked up to him and he made an attempt to straighten his posture, but it didn’t really work. I waved and said hello. Brother V nodded and mumbled a ‘how are you’. I dove into an awkward tale about my delayed flight and midway through caught his gaze and realized what I sounded like. A middle-aged dad with nothing interesting to say except the weather, talking to someone clearly in the grips of hard times. I quickly dropped my story, paid for his groceries and asked if he needed a ride or if he drove. He gladly accepted a ride back to his apartment. He invited me up and then quickly apologized after seeing the quick look of disgust which crossed over my face. When did I become so judgmental? I used to sit on the steps of places like this. Eat food straight out of the wrapper. Flick cigarettes on the ground next to the trash can. His building was dark and I caught myself thinking that it would be more relieving should there be at least a few other people still awake.

 

Brother V’s room was a studio with a mattress by the window, a couch in the corner, and a small dining room table. A handful of books lay piled beside the mattress. These appeared to be his only possessions as I did not look in the closet. He did however, have two chairs for the table. They came in a set, he told me. It was hard, he said, to find the motivation to get a frame for the bed, since it clearly wasn’t needed, and he didn’t have much motivation anymore.

Why did he invite me up? He had nothing to offer except one of the beers I had just bought for him, but I partook. He seemed to be exercising muscles of social interaction which had long since gone dormant. Maybe it was the fact that my biological clock was so off-kilter at this point that I engaged in such up-front honesty.

“Brother V,” I said, “I remember you getting a job at the restaurant, being accepted to study? train? with Dr. Brum, and then you vanished to what I presumed to be a happy and successful life. What happened?”

Holy Books - III: Chapter YTQK

1 [Being a page from an ancient Sushypheran textbook with notes from our Holy Prophet AN

moments before his death]

 

 

CHAPTER YTQK: Inciting the Being-Function

 

2 If, for any value of Being we substitute (<>) we get a statement which immediately satisfies itself and thus has no need to ever be written. Striking all such statements from our systems of equations thus far, produces a simple and concise function of Been which, upon further examination, since it is only valuable in the past tense, we may also strike from the record.

 

3 (There is a warning inherent in this unholy pattern. Students are discouraged to compare notes because not everyone gets the same results and no one knows why. If symmetrical, the student is ‘graduated’ to the House of Circles - advertised as an initiation into the Meditations of the Deeply Sub-Particle having Holy Realizations Upon the Bubble-Borders of Pan-Dimensional Travel. In fact, the majority of them will spend the rest of their time digging caverns for the hoarded and stolen treasures of the Royal Sphere. A bubble-brain if there ever was one. This ‘Digging Meditation’ {one could almost say it with a hippie accent} is merely slavery under a religious guise.

 

4 Having kept a careful list of our struck equations with the substitution (<>), we have a list of seemingly obvious and unnecessary statements. However, their relation to each other, when graphed, shows a pattern worth further study. At this point, you must show your results to your instructor who will point you to the proper input program, should you have completed the above steps satisfactorily.

 

 5 If non-symmetrical, the student is ‘graduated’ to the Particle Plain - advertised as initiation into the Practical Applications of Interconnected Vacancies, and Their Cure. It’s a desert where the majority of them will become sand farmers. An exercise in futility aimed at eliminating the number of people (and their genes) who are so easily tricked. Of course, the people who run this system would be members of such a caste as well, making the entire system as self-defeating as all the struck equations listed above.)

 

6 There is no sense in working ahead unless given adequate persuasion by the instructor as the material will rely too much on information gleaned from the input program.

 

 7 Should such go-ahead have been received, the student is urged to continue in the vein of the problems listed below.

 

1. Describe the Being-Function with relation to the shape of Time.

 

8 (Yet another rote exercise, already performed several times throughout this book, in order to lull the student into a sense of security, and also to activate the sunk-costs fallacy. This is, the student has put so much time into this that they may as well throw in the rest of their lives to boot because . . . what else are they good at?)

 

 

9 - 2. In complex systems of Government, illustrate how the Being-Function is expressed, and then manipulated through large populations. (A labelled graph with a description of the shape of the function will suffice to demonstrate understanding.)

 

10 (This is the question which gets at the heart of everything. I shall be killed shortly thereafter writing these words. Most any student who understands this concept will become a leader. There are a few of us who survived with our morality intact to resist the tug of power which mastery of this problem presents us with. The euphoria is overwhelming along with a sense of security not felt since suckling infancy. Entire planetary systems have been slaughtered to maintain this feeling of innocence.)

 

11 - 3. Describe and demonstrate three ways the Being-Function may be tampered with and still maintain its integrity. (This will require extra time asked of your instructor. Advanced students should have no trouble asking for such exceptions at this point.)

 

12 GUARD Z*FS wuz here - (1-496-56)

so wuz I - GUARD (K*TO)

I got’em first

 

I gotcho’ back

 

Love Potion Number 187 (Pt. 2)

Up at the front, James Kaur eyed a befuddled old man who came in. Stooped and bookish, he was the last person one might expect in this establishment unless . . .

“Can I help you find anything, sir?” James asked.

There were several other clusters of young ladies in the shop. They did not notice the old man. A further testament to his uniqueness. 

“Hello there,” he replied, still staring at walls of merchandise. “I read somewhere about a specific product that might interest me but, now that I’m here, I wonder if there was a mistake.”

Taking a box of perfume from a rack - its case: a picture of a young woman, barely visible in black and white lighting, pressed against the wall while a distinctly masculine hand held a gun to her head, its logo “the red spray of excitement”. James asked the old man what he saw.

“I’m not sure what’s in it honestly,” said the man, “but there’s a picture of a turtle.”

James put the case back. “Right this way please,” he said, summoning the old man to follow him down the hall.

“You’ll forgive me,” the old man said, “if I appear hesitant to descend these dimly lit stairs to what appears to be a dungeon.”

James was about to gently goad the old man with some reassurances but then Brock’s large form clomped up the first few steps and rounded the corner. He stopped at the sight of the two of them blocking the door.

“Thought I heard something,” said Brock. “Who’s he?”

James gestured. This is?

“Oh, uh, Irving Adwell, is my name. I read something. Not really sure how to describe it. It sounds silly actually . . .”

“A bit of charred paper,” said Brock. “Left beside a tree?”

Irving came to life. “Yes that’s it! It’s the tree in my front yard. I thought it had been left by pranksters so I waited a few days, but it was appealing . . .”

“You’re right on time,” said Brock. “Come on down.”

A line at the front counter needed James attention but Brock called back up, “You see anything about the Green Lady?”

Clenching his teeth and putting on his best patience voice, James asked, “Which one?”

“Not one of your customer recommendations,” said Brock. “The bl-, I mean, she has a braid. You know. White braid?”

“Julie is not usually about at this time of day,” said James, “now I’ve got to help these people.”

Professor Adwell was entranced at the sight of the basement. Every medievalist’s dream. Potions in beakers, wooden walls (however did they get underground?) Old books with handwritten ledgers and recipes. Complete with the witch in the cape and her oafish friend. Not really oafish, the professor scolded himself, just, if one were to think of a dwarf and then make that dwarf an average grown man size, that’s what he looked like.

The witch turned to him and introduced herself. “So you’ve never met Julie?” she asked. “She was the one who left the paper at your tree. Long braid? Green eyes?”

“Doesn’t ring a bell I’m afraid,” said Adwell. “I’ve always been an early-to-bed, early-to-rise type.”

Most of the boxes were emptied and the professor helped with the few that were left. Some had bottles like the ones he’d seen on the shelf, others had piles of what seemed like thin strips of leathered animal skin along with bonelike pens. Also, tiny bags of aromatic powders. Olivia lamented the packing of these small bags, all jammed together. Hopefully the packer had made sure all the sacs were pulled tight. Spilled merchandise is worthless. “This must be Julie’s,” she said when there was only one box left.

Brock pried it open. The smell of dirt pervaded. Professor Adwell then noticed the absence of dirt on the floor. They were standing on smooth stone.

“That’s hers all right,” said Brock. He set the box in a corner. 

 

 

Night. Suburbia. An entire neighborhood of English majors reading 60s pamphlets in an overstuffed chairs by warm lamplight. The only thing missing is a pipe. Some even put on a beret. Their reading hat. Oh, what their students would think of them now. Stuffy professor by day, ideological anarchist by night. For the sake of their own children they should have moved to a gated community by a private school when prices were low. They told themselves they couldn’t affrord it then but they could’ve. Certainly not now. Ah the luxury of past mistakes and the ability to look down on others who didn’t make them as privileged.

The green mist is indistinguishable from the treetops. She moves through them, a feathered serpent. The vibrant interior life of leaves warming her as she passes, carrying a message to her forbidden. She does not recognize him at night. He would hide what he reads from his wife. Not because she’s afraid of his old counterculture ways influencing their children who had never seen it and moved out long ago, but because she wouldn’t care and she indulges his regretful reminiscing as a consequence of someone getting older. The mist-girl knows better. His mask is stone, but not immobile.

A Summer at Shiloh Grove (Pt. 1)

We have noted, in times past, that saying you are one thing, doesn’t necessarily make you that thing. In the olden days, when someone professed a deep religiosity, or an avocation in the priesthood, it was generally assumed that that person had morals above the station of ordinary citizens. Today, we know that is not true. Enough atrocities undertaken by the religious have assured us that, despite the good intentions, a person of faith is just as capable of being an embodiment of evil as anyone else, and some would argue more so, as their assumption of unquestioned personal virtue becomes a set of moral blinders.

For some reason, we seem unable to extend this pattern to people of the current day who now gran themselves virtue by nature of their political affiliation, psychological bent, or philosophical proclivity.

 

I will admit to being just as shaken as most, when the granting of virtue backfires and I must relate this story as happened to a friend of mine. Let’s call him Brother V.  Brother V had, for most of the time I’d known him, been prone to bouts of solitude and philosophical speculation. So much so that it would render him to the point of paralysis. Every moment presenting so many different moral conundrums with far-reaching short and long-term consequences that he would often languish for an entire day, head in hand in a state of utter despair.

 

I cannot take credit for his recovery, but must, reluctantly, give the credit to his disposition. His tirelessly whirring brain took him often to new websites, bloggers, YouTube ‘opinioners’ (I don’t want to call them ‘commenters’ because that is a totally different type of beast, but you know what I mean). At any rate, he began to change. He offered favors, for one, if someone was in a bit of jam. Simple things, that he could accomplish that very day that would make another’s life that much easier. He also started asking personal questions of others. Nothing probing or inappropriate. People who had not known of his previous habitual dreariness assumed he had always been polite and courteous, but I knew something was up. I brought it up one day as off-handedly as I could, and his face palled with the knowledge that this day would come. Backing off, I vehemently explained that I had not meant insult or complaint and that I was thrilled that he seemed to be less morose and taking an interest in the world.

 

Once he calmed down a bit, we went out for coffee and he showed me a blog, one prone to few entries but each one was long and in-depth, and a few YouTube channels that he had been watching due to this blog that made him rethink his former philosophies, or at least, his behavior in the world. He said that behavioral change was what made him snap out of it. He always thought that nice and kind people were naturally that way, and even enjoyed it. But lately he had entertained the suggestion that the qualities one admired in others could be worked upon in oneself and that it would take time. Having a naturally wandering philosophical mind, he decided to give it a go. The object is not to change your beliefs in order to conform with some Pollyana-ish notion of bribing your way into heaven, but to behave in a way that makes others lives easier without surrendering your own well-being in the process. Much of the resistance to new ideas comes from the human instinct to set itself in patterns and keep itself there. In other words, when challenged, we immediately take the arguments of our opponents and abstract them to the most absurd conclusion we can, and then imprint that opinion onto our opponent, rather than grant our opponent a shred of human common sense.

 

The next step in Brother V’s evolution was to work harder at his current vocation. His plight, like many, was that his vocation was not what he felt his true calling to be. He dreamed of completing a book of philosophy, but didn’t quite know what that was. He had plenty of ideas and material but had yet to find the thread that would bring it all together to make an engaging and enlightening read. He was, thankfully, familiar with the tedious bore that many philosophy books (popular and academic) end up as, and he didn’t want to rehash those old mistakes. He bore not bitterness to those already published and knew that he was just lacking the final cement and that, with time and effort, it would come. So his day job landed him in food service where he was a waiter. One of his new changes was referring to himself as a server. His job was to serve people what they wanted, and he got paid for it. Simple enough on paper, but we have such a tendency to take customer dissatisfaction at a personal level, and his next project for himself was to be less hassled by this inevitability of the service industry.

 

A spiteful customer can return as a memory years later, which is an insane amount of resentment to spend on someone who you’ll never see again. It’s very likely that this person does not remember you, and even if they do, it means they have negative spite problems of their own which you have no power to control or correct. Brother V wanted to be less concerned over things that were not under his control. The world is unfair and full of suffering and malevolence. This is not under his control, but he can help alleviate the effects of this state of being. 

 

This simple change of attitude and behavior quickly made it apparent that he could do more than serve at these low-end hipstery joints. Brother V procured a job interview at the coveted Shiloh Grove. An extraordinarily high-paying position, even not counting the tips. Government officials and politicians from around the world regularly held meetings in the conference rooms and even ate there casually while vacationing in the vicinity. It was adjacent to a luxury hotel and almost served as an extension of the hotel’s kitchen, although it was an unspoken rule that casual stayers at the hotel did not eat at the Shiloh Grove. 

 

Although politicians can be picky, they generally have things on their mind and it was their aides and assistants who had the reputation as being the hellcat customers. The ‘do-you-know-who-I-work-for?’ types. The answer being, ‘yes, but does the person you work for even know your name?’ was a common enough fantasized response to that question.

 

In order to even get the interview at the Shiloh Grove, Brother V had to pass a psychological and physical examination. In this, he was lucky enough (at the time) to be assigned to . . . we will call him Doctor Brun. Brun was world-renowned in the field of mental health and philanthropy. His videos on personal responsibility were always highlights on the news and the web, as well as his work with those with severe psychological problems and re-adapting them to society. Severe schizophrenics who became doctors themselves, violent criminals becoming fitness instructors or meditation counsellors. His ability to see a gem of good in what society deemed a totally spoiled individual and then polish it to near sainthood was legendary. When was his book coming out? - was a common question. He, like Brother V, was on the lookout for the glue to make his method into something empirically useable. Society, he declared, was very bad at figuring out what people are good at and letting them do that. The best he could explain was that he would let the person be themselves, and give them opportunities that their previous lifestyle or condition had denied them. His main regret was that those who went though his programs versus those who still needed to, made his ‘Brun Effect’ less likely than even winning the lottery. He claimed to be plagued by guilt for not having a book out but he could not, in all honesty release something which was lacking and incomplete.

CLOWNFISH

 

a play without words

(Deep blue background lighting. A continuous pile of rocks, five feet tall - a dark coral reef - extends from one end of the stage to the other. Along this reef are brightly colored aquatic plants. Both sides of the stage are bordered by wide and crumbling pillars.)

(Three DIVERS are present. #1 and #2 are close together center stage. #1 holds a whiteboard with a geometric diagram on it. There is a metal chest between them about the size of a microwave. #3 is stage left, behind the reef, revealing only the top of him. #3 performs his actions simultaneous with #1 and #2's exchange.

DIVER #1

(points out two locations on the whiteboard, then points to his own eyes)

DIVER #2

(looks to stage right and points, then looks behind him, toward Diver #3, and points in that direction)

DIVER #3

(produces two moss-covered jugs and sets them in front of the reef)

DIVER #1

(Nods and gives a thumbs up.)

DIVER #2

(takes out a flashlight and blinks it three times in the direction of Diver #3)

DIVER #3

(holds up a hand in stop motion and disappears behind the rocks)

DIVER #1

(opens the chest in front of him and produces some dynamite. Two sets of three sticks, wicks tied together. He hands a set to #2)

DIVER #3

(produces what looks like an old wind instrument with a deflated sack on the end of it.)

DIVER #2

(points again to the board and again behind him, but doesn't look this time.)

(From behind the stage-left pillar, a white-gloved hand grabs Diver #3 by the mask and pulls him out of sight)

DIVER #1

(nods affirmatively at Diver #2)

(Diver #2 pushes himself along the rocks stage-left and places the dynamite. Diver #1 does the same, only toward stage right. As this is happening, a pair of white-gloved hands emerge from the far side of the left pillar holding a chest similar to the dynamite chest, only this one is garishly colored red and yellow. The hands set the chest down with audible force. Hands quickly retreat. Both Divers stop what they are doing and behold the chest.)

(A diving flipper shows itself for a moment above the rocks, and then the rest of Diver #3's body comes into sight, resting on top of the reef. His suit has been shredded and is very bloody. His diving mask is covered with white paint and streaks of red and a clown wig has been clumsily strapped around his chin.)

(Both Divers push themselves away from the body as two pairs of white gloved hands emerge from the reef and grab each of them. Beneath the colorful plants, clowns emerge, rising from cracks in the rocks. The plants we saw were actually their wigs. Four clowns in total. Two holding the two divers, and two clowns on either end of them. The Divers struggle helplessly but are careful to protect their air supply. The clowns on each end of the reef - the ones not holding the divers - take a set of dynamite, and set them on the Diver's heads, like birthday caps. Then, the clown closest to the jugs picks them up and passes them along, each clown taking a swig. The clowns sway back and forth, as in an ocean current.)

(From behind the stage-left pillar, the Head Clown emerges, wearing giant red clown flippers. He shuffles slowly toward the colorful chest. He sets it in front of the Divers as the clowns on each end of the reef begin to silently slow clap. The Head Clown opens the chest and produces a bloody human heart with a single lit birthday candle in it. The clowns all make fish-faces, opening and closing their lips. The Head Clown kneels beside the Divers, and in the instant he blows the candle out, the lights turn up as bright as possible and cut to black.)

THE END

Love Potion Number 187 (Part 1)

The wheel of the cart caught on a root which Brock Hanson saw but assumed he was traveling fast enough to plow over. He let out a yelp of pain, more of embarrassment. Wooden boxes toppled into the dirt.

Brock got himself up. Although the town was in sight he was still too far away for anyone to hear his cries. He satisfied himself by rattling off every curse he knew and combining them in ways that even school children would find immature. After gathering up the fallen contents his stupid brain muttered to him ‘there, it’s like it didn’t even happen.’

Olivia’s shop smelled of smoke turned to powder. Most of her customers came in for their knick-knacks and left, not knowing the full potential of the existence of such a store in their community. They never noticed Olivia’s cape. That’s how one could tell whether the purchaser was serious or frivolous. Most customers saw a perfume store, or vintage clothing, or knock-off memorabilia, because Olivia traded in the underbelly of the psyche.

The employee parking lot behind her shop and the two adjacent lots had an elevated loading dock for small trucks which Brock never remembered as having a ramp, but he secretly hoped, hoped that he was remembering wrong. No such luck. Being far too nice a person to bother her for some help, he sat the cart by the side of the stairs, lifted its contents one by one to her door, then carried the cart up and reloaded it. ‘There,’ said his brain once more, ‘it’s like it didn’t even happen.’

James Kaur opened the door, young and bald. The two immediate impressions. He was the academically gifted son of her neighbors who helped Olivia mostly during the summer, but frequently during the busy school year too. Olivia’s voice rang through the back hall, “is that Brock?”

James yelled back that it was.

“Be right there, watch the counter!” she yelled, two conflicting directions at once.

Perfectly fine with James who guided the cart through the hall and to the doorway which led to Olivia’s tiny root-cellar-ish storage space downstairs. 

A moment later, Olivia arrived, black cape trailing like the wings of a ray. Sometimes, her eyes were the only part of her that could be remembered. She was not someone whose eyes drifted along people’s foreheads or chins while they spoke. Only a moment needed to a cast a line through the pupils into the back of your brain, the rigid wire telling her everything she needed to know in a second, before she decided what to do with you.

That was the price of seeing her shop for what it was. Those who saw her as an ordinary employee would not remember her and probably thought that her shop had a huge turnover. The upside to her gaze was that you never had to guess where you stood in her schema. She had a lifetime relationship with you in an instant. This skill also had to do with Brock’s cargo.

Olivia brushed a clump of dirt off the side of one of the boxes, then seemed to decide that it didn’t matter. Brock breathed an inner sigh of relief. The last thing he wanted was to have broken her stuff.

“You came just in time,” she told him. “Valentine’s Day is coming up and people are already losing their minds. Men coming in here and staring between pink and purple things. Never looking at the green until I suggest it. Because I know what they’re going to say.” She gazed at Brock like she does.

“Being of the male persuasion myself,” he said, stroking his beard like a stereotypical psychiatrist, “and you being however they see you, I’d assume it’s some sort of humble brag about their sex life.”

“‘Experimental’ is the word that comes up a lot,” she said. “Although it’s always followed by a question mark, like they think I’ll find it alluring or something. Then I ask if she uses the word ‘gender’ often and in ways that he doesn’t understand. There’s a pause, followed by a longer ‘yes’ with a more audible question mark. Then I tell him to go for the green, because most people like nature. And nature doesn’t tend toward light reds. Except in rare cases of sunset when the cloud tapestry is just right. That’s what pink is for. The tender side of an explosive display that you depend on for life.”

As she spoke, she opened the door to the basement and propped it with the front of the cart. “Unfortunately we’re going to have to haul these down one by one, but that’s probably how you got them up the back stairs, right?”

Brock followed her down the stairs with a box. Her cellar seemed something from hundreds of years ago - as would her shop to a discerning eye. All the modern products she sold took on an air of antiquity on these uneven wooden shelves. A space was cleared on her work-table and they set the boxes there. “I got time to help you unpack if you need,” offered Brock.

“That would be wonderful. Others are coming as well, for a little experiment. Nothing gross and sticky, I assure you.”

Brock coughed laughter into the crock of his elbow while setting the box down. As a laborer, he himself was mostly gross and sticky. However, the crudeness of some of his co-workers sometimes embarrassed him. Particularly the made-up things they bragged about. Not all of it was made up, probably, but none of it was brag worthy. Infidelity, young girls taken advantage of at parties. Cruising schools and supplying drugs in their off-time. Who is proud of such activities?

Holy Books - II: Nodegikelamsomeusoqrestfomcult

1 How impossible it is to explain the holy significance contained in the one word: Nodegikelamsomeusoqrestfomcult! 

2 It is said that stories from long ago have been polished over time - with so many retellings - that only the pure wisdom remains. Thus every sentence and every action, even if unintelligible, is symbolic of some deep human truth. 

3 Although further evidence suggests that embellishments and changes added by cultures with differing norms can change the story quite substantially. 

4 So, in essence, the one word ‘Nodegikelamsomeusoqrestfomcult’ is packed with meaning, and completely unintelligible. No known etymology reveals anything. Graphing the numerical relationships on a set of axis, even looking at the spaces between the relationships, quickly becomes a game of spot-the-shape-in-the-clouds.

5 Everyone knows the word, and the word contains everyone. Trace elements of its storied past can be discerned from folklore.

6 When exactly, did the civilization of the glass planet Lamestroisis, home to the Sacred Mountain Library of Maur, form the extra syllables in the word? It seems to be the most recent addition.

7 Once upon a time, King Frowm awoke, earlier than usual and even before many of the morning villagers, with a sense of unease. The light was all wrong. Reflections jagged and moving along the ground, like tiny schools of fish. Dancing along the pavement he saw outside his window. It was the wrong season for that, and many others would soon be awake and frightened. 

8 He summoned his servants and scientists. All were equally baffled. His only hope was the library. He held a public address and bade the village get on with business. He himself would give bi-hourly updates and comb the libraries along with the scientists.

9 Meanwhile, the proprietor of a local tavern asked the village drunk what he thought of everything. His name was Plothe and he was old, unemployed, and lived off charity mostly, along with a meager savings. His addictions had cost him everything and he was slowly trying to run out of life before he ran out of money or goodwill. He looked wretched but was known as friendly if you struck up a conversation with him. He would be expecting money out of it though, so he was avoided by most. 

10 Plothe mentioned something to the bartender about an astronomy teacher he once had in the far away land where he grew up. Plothe was an educated dropout of multiple subjects. His addictions making him unable to complete any task that may take longer than half a year. But he still had the textbook. 

11 This teacher had been trying to get the book published but refused to make any changes the publisher wanted, so he made copies for each of his classes and taught out of those. He mentioned the days when the glass streets would swim.

12 After many hours, Plothe showed his textbook to the king, the king showed it to his scientists who all agreed that it was an entry-level astronomy textbook. Pragmatic, but not revolutionary. They told the king that Plothe was taking them for a ride. Having many other things on his mind, the king did not formally banish Plothe, but sent him and his book back to the tavern with a small stipend. He thought Plothe had genuinely been trying to help.

13 Plothe reviewed his book, some notes of his in the back, and wrote a dedication to the owner of the tavern, who kept the book as a gift and stored it downstairs, in his lowest basements for premiere aging.

14 It was from these notes, discovered after the ruination of the glass planet, that the first complete mention of that most holy of utterances ‘Nodegikelamsomeusoqrestfomcult’ was to be found. The planet Lamestroisis had no contact with other civilizations, and thus, no way to have the partial word, much less a revolutionary addition. But its completeness cannot be denied. And its study remains a perplexingly life-consuming task, like a biologist becoming enamored with the folds of a protein, discovering limitless wonders within each perforation.

Wooden People

He began typing. His therapist, an overworked VA professional told him it would be a good idea. Any sort of expression can be therapeutic. Write in third person, then in first. If writing doesn’t work, try painting. Try coloring in those books for grownups. 

He would have felt like some living cold-case in an old folks home if he even considered looking at a coloring book. It was true that expressing his experiences worried him.

He tried first person: We ran across the field. Lieutenant Sinclair and myself. The enemy convoy had spotted us no doubt. But we took refuge in the side of a hill. Sinclair pointed across the open field to two other hills. ‘If we run,’ he said, ‘they won’t know which one to go to.’

I protested. ‘They’ll search them both sooner or later.’

Sinclair. ‘We’ll figure it out when we get there.’

He led the way and I followed. I had only been in the field for two weeks. Our base got bombed and we were under orders to proceed to the next one, since the first base was no longer salvageable.

It didn’t occur to me that this field may be a trap. Three similar sized hills in a perfect triangle. I felt the ground move under my feet like a giant snake. Sinclair flew above me and behind me. Despite the dryness of the day I felt droplets spatter across my face. My hands came away red. In the settling dust Sinclair was trying to push himself to his feet. One of his legs was missing from the thigh down. He held himself up diagonally with the other one. Red strands hung from his open leg like puppet strings. He hopped toward me.

‘We can make it,’ he said. ‘That’s the only one I saw. I activated it so those slowpokes’ll take even more time. What’s wrong?’

I gaped with horror at his missing limb. The skin hung around whatever bone was left like a loose tent.

Sinclair put his hand on my shoulder. ‘I’ll lead the way, we got time. My bones are made of wood.’ And with that, he lead us to the other hill where we had to stay very quiet. I wrapped his leg up with my jacket, more for my sake than anything else. But when a convoy of ours came by, he explained about wooden people. It’s where the term ‘stick figure’ comes from, if you can believe it. A skeleton of wood must be assembled just so, then buried in a place of death, preferably a battlefield. Some place not often visited, with a lot of corpse to pull from. The wood has this special pull and, no one knows really how long it takes, but a person grows around it and the skin hermetically seals itself so all the blood can stay inside. The blood lubricates the muscles in this case and keeps things moving. There’s no heart or lungs or other organs to speak of. The air they breathe just goes in and out. The food they eat decays in between the blood and muscle and becomes nutrients. Not like they really need them, but its nice to keep up appearances.

If the typing man ever showed this to his therapist, he would be sectioned for sure. Or at least blacklisted for not taking therapy seriously. To be honest though, this is where his problems began. When they got to base, Sinclair went to see the medics and he never saw Sinclair again. It’s quite possible that Sinclair was moved to another unit, but he may have been reburied also. The military is not fond of wooden people. It seems odd at first, due to their ability to keep moving when wounded, but war only matters if lives are at stake. And wooden people are enchanted sticks. Do they take on characteristics of people from the past? He never found out. It’s the present that’s worrying.

The typing man stays temporarily in the guest room above his brother’s garage. His brother does something for a giant bank. Works in an office in a giant building, one of many giant buildings that bear the logo of this bank. His sister-in-law works for a book distributer. The children come home on a school bus and he waits for them at the end of the road. They have an eight-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter. The school is private so the bus is small and the driver knows each child like the teachers do.

One day, I was fixing them an afternoon snack and heard a snap like a carrot. The boy pulled his index finger all the way to the back of his hand. I lost my breath and flattened myself against the wall. Looking at his finger like he would a puzzle, the boy went to the end table by the front door, opened a drawer and took out a pair of scissors. They were almost too big for him and I was feeling dizzy. I could not move to help him or I would collapse onto the floor. He let his broken finger dangle and sawed through the edge of his knuckle. The finger fell to the floor. A jagged piece of wood, the color of exterior bark, jutted out and blood poured from his hand. The skin around the area sunk in like a deflated raft. I pushed myself along the kitchen counter toward him but he just looked at his hand a little longer, then turned to me and held his wound up for my inspection.

‘It was really itchy,’ he said and in the stump of wood I could make out little white shapes crawling in and out of holes they had eaten through his wooden bones. At this point, I heard a sound like static in my ears and the world around me grew dark. When I came to, I was at the VA hospital, hooked up to a hydration IV. A nurse told me that my brother didn’t want to take any chances with my health. I asked about his little boy, the nurse didn’t know what I was talking about, but I wouldn’t really expect her to I guess.

The therapist asks about flashbacks. None, I tell her. I just have memories, like anyone else. I did lie to her about the cause of my fainting. I know what the cause was and that you’re not supposed to lie to therapists. Many of my fellow soldiers turned to alcohol and pills upon their discharge, but their doctors cannot help them if they lie about their intake, even though all the tests and their own bodies show signs of abuse.

My brother thinks I’m too unstable to stay with him. He won’t say that out loud, but I can tell. The kids are fine, he assures me. Nate is besting all the other boys in sports, and Molly is writing perfectly with both hands and drawing at a fifth grade level. He got me a job sorting mail at his office building. That’s nice of him.

In the mail room, we have to sort certain types of paper. A few types of mulch were never meant to be used as stationary so we have to send it back. There are bundles missing every week. Is this happening in offices across the world?

My therapist warns me against idle speculation. Some of these bankers are here before I show up and after I leave. Even on days when the mail schedule changes, they’re always there. They never eat, they never sleep, they will never die.