The Obituary Writer – short, 11 September 2015

I Death in Isla Wor

My first paying job after finishing school was writing a sports column for the town newspaper, a town of less than a thousand people, Isla Wor. The games were of no consequence in the world but very important to our little town; it brought everyone together, and when my poor nephew died, a tight-end on the little league football team, the community rallied round our family. Since I wrote about sports, when my poor, dear Alex died, I wrote it up in my column. It did really well, the paper sales; and there was more interest in my work. When no one died, I’d fabricate it just to keep the momentum of my work going. I was the obituary writer. I was proud of that.

Knock-knock.

I was formally offered the position to curate the obituary column after my successes, and it was all good and fun. People started noticing me in public, talking to me about my work, my other work, work I was more proud of, and it was a nice feeling, when people care about you and your work, about who you are. I wrote more, more eulogies than obituaries, more and more, more dramatic, more poetic. It got so popular I was writing an obituary a day, sometimes more, and grew more and more detached from the people; but when it was with old media, with the real newspaper, it was still impossible to distance myself completely.

I got personal requests, too, and got paid for each. I named the price. It was cynical, and depressing, but that’s work. Knock-knock. It changed, to an extent, when I wrote the obituary for the son of a prominent town official, and the only doctor in that small town, Dr. Eddie Redding, the eulogy being for his oldest son, Marcus, whom I knew, but poorly, despite knowing his younger brother William, who was closer to my age. The paper ran it and it sold more copies than any paper in the company’s history; and from such popular success, the boy’s father reached out to me, first to my aunt, then to me personally through email. He invited me to a diner on a Sunday afternoon.

I was intentionally early, uncomfortable as it was. Knock-knock. The reason for my work, by then, had bothered me. Of course it bothered me! Everybody hates their job, or at least some part of it. It was just a job, just business. I knew what I did. I wasn’t proud of it. No, that is a lie; I was extremely proud it.

He showed up in a modest suit, no blazer, no tie; button-up shirt, tucked in, a leather belt, no buckle. I stood to welcome him, extending my hand. He shook it effusively;

“Nice to meet you, Mr. Nobles!” he said. “Did you find the place all right?”

“Yes sir,” I said. “I took a cab.”

“That’s fine,” he said. “That’s fine indeed. Yes, very well. Sit down, please.”

He was a kind man, I could see it on his face, and warm hearted, the creases on the sides of his lip betrayed a man of many strained, false smiles. A doctor, that is.

“Would you like something to drink? Some coffee?”

“If you’re having some, I will, sure.”

He stood and approached the counter. I took my valise out of my satchel. A moment later he returned.

“She’ll be over in a minute to take our order,” he said. “So, where did you go to school? Did you go to high school here?”

“Oh, yes sir. I was in English IV with your son, with Marcus. He was a few years older than me, class of ’03. But I knew his little brother Will a lot better. We skateboarded before I went off to college.”

“Did you always want to be a writer?”

“I think I did,” I said. “I went to a childcare center until I was five, when I was adopted, and I remember story time the most. It was the best part of the day, the only fun I had. I was taught to read, and I went on to read the dictionary back and front. I started copying all the words that rhymed and then started making little lists of rhyming words. I liked Dr Seuss and copied his work quite a bit, learning the rhythm of it. And when I was adopted, my adoptive mother and father adopted another young boy, my little brother Christopher, and he’d call out words to me and I’d name all the words I could that rhymed with it. When I got into trouble at school, they punished me by making me copy out of the dictionary; my punishment might have helped me more than the schooling.”

He laughed a hearty laugh.

A young woman approached the table.

“How can I help you fellas today?”

“I’d like a BLT, a large iced tea,” he said. He thumbed the menu. “And a small salad.” He folded it and put it back on the table.

She looked at me. “And you?”

“Can you get me a cappuccino?” I asked. “Vanilla, if possible.”

“We can sure try,” she said with a smile. A lovely young lady, “Large, medium, small?”

“Large,” I said.

She wrote the answers on a small legal pad in hurried, slanting letters. Left handed!

“Thank you,” she said. “I’ll take that.”

She took our laminated plastic menus, folding them under her arm.

“I’ll be back with your order as soon as possible.”

“Thank you,” I said, and Dr. Redding: “Thank you very much.”

She walked away. After a short but rather comfortable silence he turned to face me again.

“Well,” he said, “your punishment seems to have reformed you!”

“I’m sure it has,” I said.

The waitress brought Dr. Redding his iced tea, then a moment later my cappuccino.

“We’ll be over with your sandwich soon,” she said.

He took the glass of tea and thanked her.

“So what was Marcus like?” I asked. “I knew his brother well, but didn’t really get to know him.”

“He wanted to…”

The waitress came over with his sandwich on a serving tray, along with his salad. He grabbed the salad first, then the sandwich, and finally some napkins.

“Are you sure you’re not hungry?” he asked.

“I’m fine, thanks.”

He turned to face our waitress.

“Thank you very much,” he said.

“No problem!” she said. “Now, if you fellas need anything else, just give me a holler.”

“We sure will, thanks,” he said.

She walked away.

He took a sip of his iced tea, popped the plastic top off his salad, and unwrapped his sandwich.

“As I was saying,” he said after a bite of salad, “he wanted to be an engineer. He liked working on cars, but he never finished college, quitting after he started working at Nichols’ Tire.”

“That’s that body shop across the river, right?”

“That’s the one!” he said. “And the money was okay for the work, and having to take care of Leslie, his daughter, kept him showing up.”

I was silent. Didn’t know what to say; to admit I’d somewhat faked the obituary, the whole eulogy being a platitudinous exhortation of your most common, most stereotypical ‘live life to the fullest’ excrete. Knock-knock! That’s when it started, the knocking; in my temples first, it spread, following me to my home, then into my dreams.

“So,” he said, wiping his mouth with a napkin, having finished his small salad. “Do you work for the paper full time?”

“Well, I covered sports and town events first, then I wrote a eulogy for my nephew and put it on the internet. It got really popular and the newspaper got a lot of exposure. One of the editors for the newspaper saw it and asked me to take over the column permanently.”

“You do all the obituaries?”

“Yes sir. Every Wednesday. Well, that’s when we get in the information, from hospitals, from the internet, social media. Facebook, Twitter; we have people from the paper who overlook the messages from town residents, keeping up-to-date on the elderly and sick, scouring for updates to get a jump on the story…”

Later I would be sick in thinking back on this conversation, speaking so casually about what must have still been an open wound for that nice old man. Not an old man, not really, early to mid-50’s. I prattled on:

“I start the eulogy on Wednesday, with the goal to run it in the Sunday paper. Sometimes something will come in later in the week and it’s a little more rushed.”

Knock-knock!

He ate his sandwich as we talked, mouth closed when he chewed. Very proper, pausing occasionally to dab his mouth with napkins. His interest seemed genuine, and that’s an intoxicating feeling, that feeling of being good at your job, to believe you’re doing something good, something important; that’s how I dealt with it, how I justified the profession to myself each new night when a name came in with a number beside it.

“I’d much rather get into the business of writing fiction, or at least get some of my finished books and essays published. It’s a passion of mine, much more so than my job.”

A nervous laugh: “I don’t want to be ‘the obituary writer’.”

“What are you working on now?”

“Well, I’d like to write something about theatre. But I’m… I don’t know enough about how it all works, I don’t know enough I don’t think; you know, to do it properly.”

“Don’t be hard on yourself,” he said. “”You’ll figure it out!”

“Yes sir,” I said. “Thank you, sir.”

Knock-knock.

“Do you keep all your work in that?” he gestured to my leather valise; it was a professional suitcase, a type of folder with a metal 3-ring binder along the spine, assorted compartments, two protected by zippers, and another slot for a larger, 8×12 legal pad, another compartment on the outside – for academic work, my studies in art and literature. The binder was reserved for current fiction projects, the legal pad for work, for obituaries and eulogies for my ever-expanding, ever-popular column. I kept my completed, hand-written work in one of the zippered compartments.

“Yes sir,” I said.

I dug around in one of the compartments for a moment until I found the original copy of his son’s eulogy and handed it to him. He took into his hands gently, almost lovingly, as though he held some relic of his son, if not his son outright. He called the waitress over again.

I took my wallet out. He waived it away. I relented, not wanting to be that guy. Instead I took laptop from my satchel and sat it on the table in front of me as he paid.

“Can I get a refill and a to-go cup for this?” he asked.

“Sure can!” the waitress said. She returned presently with a Styrofoam cup with a plastic cap that snapped in place, hole in the center for a straw.

“So,” he said. “What do you have lined up for today?”

I saw that he had a $100 bill between his fingers, folded.

“Ah, I don’t know. Stay here and see if I can get some work done!”

“Your book on theatre maybe?” he said. Such a warm hearted man, he smiled.

Something like that,” I said. I smiled too.

“I’m sure you’ll get it right. Just don’t be hard on yourself. Maybe you’ll have me to dinner when you’ve finally written that book of yours.”

“That sounds good to me,” I said. “It might be a while.”

“A while I’ve got,” he said. “At least, so I hope. I guess you never know. … I’m sure you know that better than most.”

He had remained friendly and light, speaking with levity, no hint of any great weight on his shoulders, the great weight of death, no hint of that on his face.

“Here,” he said. He offered me the $100 bill, a crisp new note.

“I can’t take that,” I said. “I didn’t do it for money, despite that being my job; I did that one because I cared about your son.”

“I know, I know,” he said. “But I’m going to leave it here anyway, so if you don’t take it, it’ll just be lost.”

I took it from his extended hand with a sense of embarrassment, almost shame.

“Don’t spend it all on coffee,” he said. “You might want a new briefcase someday.”

I laughed it off, still uncomfortable with the money.

“I guess it is kind of worn out,” I said, laying it out wide-open to where I’d left off. Ashes everywhere, covering the surface, the leather covered in white scuff marks.

“Have a good day, Mr. Nobles.”

He took a sip of his iced tea through a straw.

“I will sir. Thank you, sir.”

“Good-day!”

He walked away, out the door. It clanged the enter/exit bells, a gentle bing-bong! like metal wind-chimes.

Be careful what you wish for

          (Cause you just might get it)
2 Electric Purgatory 

I stayed at the paper until it went out of distribution in 2012, when I was 28, having worked there for 5 years; but it spread to the internet, infernal machines, miasma of labyrinthine metal snakes with open mouths all sucking data or spitting it out, a confused Ouroboros already drunk but still drinking; my obituaries were broadcast worldwide. The newspaper ceased to exist in meatspace, in old media, becoming digital; the circulation possibilities increased beyond what anyone had thought possible in the early days, covering pointless, minor skirmishes between middling sports teams in the little town of Isla Wor. That stopped being important in the digital world, and the obituary column enhanced my reputation even further; I was finally able to do my theatre piece.

This success, the string of warm feedback and heartfelt thank yous, I imagined, might have been due in part to my over-wrought, faux-dramatic, faux-inspirational style of obituary: it was sermonizing, shameless masturbatory kitsch in arts’ clothes, all false, all hollow, paper houses gone digital. I had a high opinion of myself. The machine brought hundreds of names and numbers a day, deaths and dates, Daniel 22, Susan 17; and the more popular I got, the more famous would my fortunate unfortunate subjects become; musicians, then small-time movie stars, spreading through satellites to phones and tablets, the same hollow pronouncements of the obituary writer. A title I would not only hate, but resent, as the world knew me only as such, and most certainly of what I’d done to earn such a moniker.

As my popularity grew, young kids would find my house an amusing place for practical jokes. Practical joke is a kind word; they wanted to drive me out of town, to drive me mad; I was a bad omen, they thought, as death followed fast behind me, and in my trail were tears and terrible writing, the saddest parade. The knocking on the doors and running away, that bothered me the worst; it happened late at night when I did most of my work. It’s a tradition, at least where I’m from, to knock on someone’s door or ring their doorbell and run away. The satisfaction being that you inconvenienced someone, and as a child, that feels, man, just wonderful.

But it never stopped.

I tried to back away, to make it a colder process, so it’d be easier to handle. I was drinking, taking sleeping pills, drinking a lot actually. Surely much more than was healthy. I set to studying theatre, its origins and traditions; how they worked, how a character would make changes to the sets. I ran the column still, but I didn’t interact with the bereaved personally anymore; I’d get alerts on my computer, email alerts, with new deaths: the names and numbers selected at random using an algorithm written by an intern to select the most profitable, most tragic deaths, those that best played heartstrings–all for more traffic to the website, the digital mausoleum, electric purgatory: young and under 30, teenage girls in love, with a few kids maybe, single men.

It was easy to do the practical part of the job, as easy as it could be to write it up. I didn’t know anything else: names and ages, over and over and over. At the height of my popularity, I’d write five to ten eulogies a week for my column, and it had become much more than what it started out as, adjunct to a newspaper; it was separate now and distinct, and more successful for it. I eventually made out a form to expedite the process further:

[Name] died on [date] in a [cause of death here] when [what to blame] caused [what happened] [gender] to [mistake description]. [Gender noun] is survived by [mother and father, wife and/or kids if alive]. [Gender noun] was [age].

Example:

TRAGEDY ON I-76: MOTHER OF 2 DEAD
Sarah Harding died this Wednesday in a freak car accident when a deer ran out in front of her car on New Egypt Rd. She is survived by Mr. and Mrs. Gary Harding and had two daughters, Lisa and Tammy. She was 34.

But that’d never fly in my column, no, no, no. It had to be dramatic, life-affirming, death-denying. So I set about writing it properly:  

          The lovely Sarah Harding, former cheerleader and passionate journalist, was taken from our poor town in a tragic car accident early Monday morning. Her parents received the call from a stranger, only to be told their beautiful daughter, 34, was dead, and they would bear the burden of telling Sarah’s two young children of her death. Lisa was 5 years old, a pre-school student at the Master’s Baptist Daycare, she loves coloring and singing. Her older sister Tammy, a 12 year old 6th grader and Carver Middle School, plays t-ball for the Isla Wor Wolverines and is in the chess club. I can say, in confidence, that she will be missed by all.

          The knocking at my door!

I flung my papers aside, knocking over a candle. Thankfully it went out. I tied my housecoat and stalked off to the door, cursing and shouting. This is beyond a joke! I yelled. The hallways were dark and derelict. Tables stood with disheveled stacks of unedited pages, existing solely to bear the weight of unfinished work to never be finished.

I flung open the door. Darkness there, a wisp of wind, no middling kids with suspicious paper bags. I stamped off to my study, furious. It kept on and on, this pestilential taunting; always late at night, always while I was busy. It would be redundant, perhaps, to say no one interrupts you unless you’re working! But, like the old saying of New York City: “Nobody drives; there’s too much traffic.”

Knock-knock!

I went on to knock out mock-obituaries in my spare time, more often than not I’d only have to change the names, the pronouns, the setting, maybe. I just made it up, made them sound good, and the facts weren’t important. So I did: to spend time with my girlfriend, then my wife, I wrote thousands of them: each with a common male name or female name. Sometimes people would die who matched the information I invented. I ran the obituaries anyway. Somewhere in all of this Katerina left me and at the time I barely noticed.

Knock-knock!

I tried to ignore it. It kept on and on, pounding harder and harder. I would tip toe then, with a baseball bat, then later with a pistol. I never caught them. It beat in my temples when I woke and why I lay down to try to sleep to take my pills and have a drink; more medicine and more drink, more and more. Money affords you many things, nice suitcases and suits, but peace cannot be bought, nor love, at least not love that stays without being put on retainer.

Knock-knock!

It’s easy to debate the ethics of journalism when you have heat and power and a full belly. Rationalizing those objections was only what the job as obituary writer was allowing me to do: I made enough money to study theatre, researching that book I’d so often talked about. Enough money to live comfortably, without financial worry. The stress of it all got worse and worse as email alerts flooded in with that terrible alert noise, the familiar bing-bong of metal wind-chimes clanging against a diner’s enter/exit door.

I remember the first nightmare. I woke up sweating, having heard that email alert. I checked my computer; nothing there. I had woke to the thought of getting my mother’s name, and sitting there in the dim light of my laptop, smoking a cigarette, I finally did hear that ever-ominous alert and saw the name come in, the result of an impersonal, neutral computer program, the Judge:

Brandon Keith Nobles, Whitmire, SC. 30. Overdose. Found by mother.

I received that alert when I was 28.

I unplugged my computer speaks, putting out my cigarette. I never wanted to wake to the sound of that horrible jingle again. But I did, over and over, all in my mind, imaginary like so much else. And in the bouquets left on tombstones all I’d see, no flowers blooming, just crisp and folded $100 notes, and dead men in their caskets with money stuff in their cold mouths like the horrible bloom of an extinct flower.

I don’t remember what became of that email heading, as I went back to sleep somehow, as it sometimes happens; you wake in the middle of the night, in the silence, still except the shuffling feet of distant cats, chasing invisible mice or attacking each other.

My dreams were disconnected bits of phantasmagoria; lists of printed paper, page after page of names and numbers, rolling on forever, all vaguely familiar and I thought it must be purgatory, and there I’d be forced to truly know all those whom I had so briefly summarized and put aside. All were familiar but ultimately unknown and dead, unknowable. The obituary writer – ha! What a dark star! how very dim, how grey!

Knock-knock!

I ran to the door to catch that miserable cretin, once and for all. And flinging the door wide I saw nothing, once again, then looked down, as I had never done. And there stood a little boy with a bleeding head, a football jersey. I woke up screaming.

I began to burn all of those old handwritten pages, all those falsities, hoping to appease whatever madness I had stirred. But madness is like a cold pool, like all addiction; you may recoil when you first jump in, but stay in long enough, and the ice cold water warms you up, somehow, and when you get out of the pool the warmth of the night air is cold.

I continued to study theatre, pushing all the death and gloom that was my day job from my mind, and I was making incremental progress. I learned of a character in early theatre that gave me pause; Hypokritos was a falsely righteous character who would wear buffoonish masks and feign divinity, uttering lofty, laughable pronouncements intended to be sincere, to be profound, only to be a popular source of mockery and ridicule.

Knock-knock!

I looked at my photograph on the Obituary Writer website. It was an airbrushed joke of a solemn, thoughtful photo, sharp contrast and pretentious, black and white. Knock-knock-knock! The email alert – the one I finally removed – had always startled me, as it was the same as the bell that smote on the shivering prison air to let the inmates know that one of those unlucky souls had made it out. So I thought, naturally, I would turn the sound back on and capture what I looked like when I got the email alert; that way I’d have a sincere impression, not knowing that, instead of taking off the mask of the falsely divine Hypokritos, I was just making the hypocrisy more subtle, slightly easier to stomach, slightly harder to notice. The professional make-over had ended with a vast, fully searchable digital archive; a macabre, gaudy porno.

Knock-knock!

God dammit! I ran through the halls and out the door into the street and looked around. No one, not a raven, no obvious source; just the wind and dogs barking in the distance. I was exhausted by the time I made it home, and tried to get some sleep.

Artists have a sort of fire inside. The greater the artist, the greater the fire, less smoke. I felt that I would exhaust my fuel and become one of those useless plastic lighters, the kind you have to strike over and over, getting more and more pissed off, changing the lever on the back to control the size of the flame, to make it smaller, then larger just to get a cigarette lit, eventually striking it over and over in the vain hope that it might light once more, knowing eventually it would dry of fuel completely and never produce a flame again. I felt that I’d run out of fuel, having wasted my life as a profiteer of misery, death on my mind like a heavy crown.
3 Speaker for the Dead
I did few eulogies when work on my book began in earnest. I had given notice to my employer, resigning to finishing only one: the heading that disappeared, the obituary for myself. I kept working, working hard with the motivation, with the hope that, upon completion, I’d have dinner in that small diner with Dr. Redding again. I still wrote obituaries in the meantime, and never was I more distant from it, as they were cold and ever colder still, the popularity began to fade, and never had I been so happy to fail. Demand dropped off for my particular brand of obituary—though there was a remorse to it, to have invested so much time and effort to become such a good obituary writer; I was very, very good at my job.

Knock-knock!

Those early days were the best, when I wrote obituaries for the paper, the small town paper for Isla Wor, there were no email alerts, no nightmares, no knocking, broken ringing doorbells; and all were at least sincere, in the beginning—many being for family; after the eulogy for my Dr. Redding’s son Marcus, looking back, that’s when something broke, something mechanical, some part of the system that processed grief. It broke as I worked through it and continued breaking as I wrote more and it made me cold to all, more often than not I kept to that automated script completely, completely sterile, no passion for anything save for my book on theatre, and passion enough only to get the money needed to continue; it moved closer and closer towards publication.

Knock-knock!

As I wrote, I thought of my dead father, and I thought of him quite often, and the obituary, the eulogy he’d never gotten, not from me, not the celebrated obituary writer. I looked forward to seeing Dr. Redding again at that little diner, I’d take a cab. I’d order him his BLT and cold iced tea, a small salad too, and I’d pay for it all. I’d bring a new valise, toss out that old ash-stained leather volume, unsightly and assaulted by age, scuffed white and daily marked by time, by dust. I wanted to show him that I’d finally gotten it right.

Knock!

After I got my book edited and did the proper revisions, I managed to talk my brother into designing a cover. He was a graphic design major; and his talent, like his degree, didn’t come cheap. I shopped the manuscript around for a while until a small publishing house picked it up.

Knock!

My book came out to little fanfare, just shy of my 30th birthday, with a reasonably warm critical reception, yet slightly colder commercial response. But there is no price to pay for a clear conscience, being able to tell the truth, if through fiction, it was a better way. There is a great element of truth in the worst lies and in the best of lies, and a great fiction in the most honest statement by the most trustworthy men.

I still had those dreams of waking to that electric death toll, the flowers of the bereaved sprouting monetary blossoms, that horrible knocking which seemed to drone on forever, but I’d dream that first I woke to find that mock-heading:

Brandon Keith Nobles, aged 30. Overdose. Found by mother.

And I set out to finish it, once and for all, sitting at my typewriter in this dim dream in a dim room trying to write it out. I would receive more pressing emails from the machine, each clanging louder than the last, probing me ever on, offering me more and more money to finish my obituary, the quicker the better. And I got to the last sentence, and felt that if I put the full-stop in, if I set the period, I’d never wake, that I’d forever be the obituary writer. I woke cold and sweating, breathing heavily. I expected to hear the knocking, but didn’t; nor the doorbell which, though broken, sometimes near midnight tolled.

When I received the first printed proofs of my book in the mail, it had some time since the initial, limited released, I called the doctor’s office to leave a message for dear Dr. Redding to call me when he got the chance. He did, and I had been out at the time; my brother took the message down. We were to meet at that same diner, again on a Sunday—his one day off. I got there early, uncomfortable. He was already there. He stood as I approached with his hand extended, shaking mine effusively, with feeling and warmth, a smile on his face. With one hand under my elbow, the other on my shoulder, he guided me back to the booth we’d sat in last time we met. I found a cappuccino waiting for me; he had yet to order. Vanilla as I liked it, and cold.

“Thank you, sir,” I said. “And, look at this.”

I took out my book, the copy I intended for him, pulling it from the new valise, much nicer indeed despite the signs of cigarette ash and age, dust collecting around the zippers. I handed him one of the galley proofs. He took it into his hands in that same careful, loving way. I realized then, as he handled it in that delicate fashion in which he’d once held the handwritten draft of his son’s eulogy—he handled things as a doctor, not out of any sort of love, but with delicacy and care—but then, I thought, that is a sort of love, not a sort, that is love; to spend so much time in school, such long hours away from growing children, a lonely wife awake all hours of the night and worried back at home, and to do it for others, to work so hard to live a life to help.

I wondered for the first time, making the strange connection: how many names checked in at his office only to later arrive in my email? Had he ever checked the obituaries, hoping to find some consolation, however fraudulent, to think he hadn’t failed? He was turning my book around, looking at the cover, holding it up to better see it in the light.

“‘Theatre: Tradition & Ritual’,” he said. “That’s fine, that’s very fine indeed. That’s a good looking book, Brandon. I knew you’d figure it out.”

“Open it,” I said.

He flipped to the dedication page.

“‘For Marcus Redding and his family. Thanks for the support and coffee. With love, Brandon.’”

He seemed genuinely moved. He looked at me and smiled.

“That’s really something,” he said. “I don’t know what to say. But thank you. Thank you very much. I’m glad you never gave it up. I can’t wait to read it.”

“It hasn’t been a big hit, but, alas, it’s a better business to be in. I’m glad I got it done.”

“I’m proud of you, Brandon,” he said.

“Thank you sir,” I said. “Thank you very much. And look at this—“

I showed him my new valise, all the new features, the less gaudy white leather. He looked it over attentively.

“That’s might fine,” he said. “Mighty fine indeed.”

He handed it back to me.

“So what are you working on now?”

“That’s why I’ve asked you to meet me here,” I said. “Not that I didn’t want to see you again and give you a copy of my book…”

“A free copy!” he interjected. “You can’t beat the price!”

“Yes, a free copy of my book, but other than that, after I met you, I realized I didn’t really know anything about your son, nothing about his life, your happier times with him, things he should be best remembered for and not my column and I thought—if you don’t think it’s inappropriate—you know, to tell me about who he was, what he was like as a child, the awkward teenage years and the man, your happy memories, the kind of stuff you can’t find online, so often the meat of life is picked away and what we’re usually left with, writing an obituary, is just the bones. And that’s what people seem to like. Short, thumbnail sketches, overly dramatic and declaratory. I wanted to do something real and honest for him. For you, for your family, to the extent, to any extent that I may. If I am to be the obituary writer, I must do so honestly.”

“He was a shy kid,” he said. “You wouldn’t have known it, but he was quiet. Loved going fishing with me and his little brother, when they were young. We had a pond behind our house, and we’d take those Zebco 33 fishing rods down there after church on Sunday, they’d have those corks on the end, you know? The plastic bobbing corks that let you know when you’ve got a bite.

“Then when the twins were born, they stayed home them with after that, always protective big brothers. When they turned four, they got new bikes for their birthday and when you buy for one you have to buy for all! So everybody got a bike, and they loved nothing more in the world. Riding around and doing tricks, popping wheelies, and Marcus repaired them for Will and his sisters when they got a flat tire, when the chains came off—they always did! He got his daughter Leslie one of those new bikes when she turned four, one with a pink boombox on it and a radio.

“And that’s when he started talking about wanting to build things, to be a builder, to be an engineer, working on cars, fixing things that broke. He was always fixing things. They rode the horses, he couldn’t fix those! Hell, neither could I! They played video games and monopoly. We were fortunate, but they weren’t much different than lots of good, kind kids. And they were very much loved. And he is very much missed. He was very much a normal kid, a good kid, and a fine man. A loving father.”

“Thanks for meeting me,” I said. “I hope I can write a eulogy to suit him and honor your family properly.”

And through that finish my own perhaps, the obituary writer’s eulogy—who better to write it?

“You did, Brandon.”

I was confused. And he saw it on my face.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“For what?”

I was quiet.

“I trivialized it all,” I said. “I was cynical and gaudy, and I’m a fraud. I’m not an obituary writer. That’s just the only way people seemed to care about my other work. And I used it. I used it to advance myself, selfishly. I’m sorry.”

He reached across the table and put his hand on my shoulder.

“Look, Brandon,” he said. “You might not like what you do, and I know you don’t. I can see it looking at you. Who would want to do that? I deal with it in my line of work. But in the end, you’re giving people closure, allowing them to refresh their memories and keep their loved ones alive in there, and alive for longer. Don’t be down on yourself. What you do is a public good, despite your reasons. People need closure. When I can’t keep their loved ones alive, you can give them something I can’t.”

A short, not uncomfortable silence passed between us, a shared sorrow lingered for a moment and departed. I felt that I could do a proper eulogy, then, for Marcus, and maybe let it stand as mine, as all of ours, as normal, kind kids, who are very much loved and would be very much missed.

He ordered the same meal, just the same; BLT, small salad, large glass of iced tea. I finished my cappuccino, took out my laptop, and went about my work, typing away as he ate his sandwich and drank his tea. And I picked up the tab.

After that the conversation mellowed, teetering out but still pleasant; with little left to say, we talked about upcoming projects. He dabbed a napkin at the corners of his mouth, ever-creased from a life of forced and honest smiles. And I thought, if ever a ghost knocked on my door again, I’d invite them in for tea and a sandwich, and let them tell their story, so I could be the obituary writer once last time and get it right, finally, a proper obituary, and live out the true purpose of my title, that we both might rest. He opened the door to leave and the bells clanged,

Bing bong. 

The Hobgoblin – short, 23 June 2015

1

Roger was alone in his grandmother’s basement with Elmer’s glue, liquid paraffin, and a copy of the New York Times. Dark Side of the Moon Breathe in the air played on his father’s stereo as he worked on the crossword in an old lounge chair.

Finished, he folded the paper into the shape of a sail and glued it to a group of taped Popsicle sticks, reinforced by four others on each side, stuck in a block of chewed gum gradually becoming hard, securing the sail upright on the paper hotdog box.

He carried the little ship into the den where his mother sat. She was still crying. Someone in the room behind Roger said, “It’s just a cat… I don’t see what the big deal is.” Roger tapped his mother on the shoulder. She jumped, startled, and looked at him with expectant eyes, “Yes, dear? Are you hungry? There’s some pork chops in the fridge. I could heat ‘em up for you if you’re hungry.”

“No, I just want to take this boat to the river.” Roger held it up to show her.

“Why?” she asked. “Is it because of…”

“Just because… I don’t know. I think I saw it on TV or read about it but it’s something people do when a family member dies. I want… I have to do it.”

Roger’s mother smiled. “I’ll get my coat,” she said. She stood and walked across the room. Roger looked at his brother, at the white glimmer of a tear in his left eye bright. He nodded to him. His brother nodded back. Roger gestured to the boat and door. His brother shook his head.

“Tell mama I’m going to wait in the car,” Roger said. “Ok,” his brother replied.

Roger walked into the harbinger of night as the sun’s golden crescent fell behind the hills. He stood for a moment on his aunt’s front porch, carpeted the color of fresh grass bright green. There were three old cars in front of the house, covered in rust, aged and decrepit looking. Roger got into a red car with Entae’s footprints on the hood and trunk, mud in streaks below the doors that creaked when open the tired sigh of elderly metal. His mother walked through the front door and the fence locking it behind her sat down in the car and said, “You ready?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Roger said. “It’s just a cat.”

“She was more than that,” his mother Adina said. “She was our family too.”

“That’s not what that Melody B said at the house just a cat what’s the big deal. That’s what she said. I hate her.”

“Don’t hate her, Roger. She just doesn’t understand. It’s okay. We’ll set your boat out and when we get home we can arrange a headstone for her.”

Roger thought about where she was buried, under an under and a stump in shallow ground, in a pink towel wrapped, a glass umbrella on the stump to save her from the sun.

“I remember when we first got her,” Adina said. “She was the run of the litter, the only black calico I’d ever seen with a little white spot on her nose. She was always gentle and kind… I’m going to miss her too, Roger, but don’t punish yourself because of this.”

“I should be punished,” Roger said. “It’s my fault.”

“No, you shouldn’t be, Roger. Why would you say that? It’s not your fault. It’s just a part of life; everybody… everything has to die.”

“I’ll tell you how it’s my fault,” Roger said. “Every night when I stay up late with her she usually wants to go to the bathroom and I let her out whenever she stands by the door. I let her out this morning and had I not let her out, she might not have died.”

“Don’t think like that, ” Adina said. “It was something we’ve done a thousand times before. She always wanted out when the sun came up, you know, to go to the bathroom then find a place in the shade and nap… That’s why we buried her under the pecan tree—where she always went in the summer time, you know that big tree behind the house she used to sleep there every day.”

“How do you think she died?”

“She was dead when we found her,” Adina said. “When you finally went to sleep we got some people together to try to find her and we couldn’t. This morning Joyce called saying she’d found our cat, dead in her tomato garden. We think she was poisoned.”

Tears swelled up in Roger’s eyes, “If I ever found out somebody poisoned her I’ll kill them. I’ll fucking kill them.”

“She might’a ate some rat poison in Margret’s shed. You shouldn’t think like that, Roger.”

Roger turned on the radio and turned up the volume, looking out the window. The car finally slowed to a stop at the turn around on the end of a dusty road. When they arrived, Roger got out of the car and walked to the end of the road, the boat ramp—a gradual incline into the river—and he sat down just before the water overlapped the concrete. He scratched R.S. Manwell was here into the chipped grey asphalt with his father’s pocketknife and sat the paper boat at the edge of the water. He lit the candle and gave it a shove. His mother stood behind him in a blue dress saying,

“It’s time to go, Roger. Come on.”

He turned around to face his mother again, then turned his head to the sky at the sound of a buzzard calling.

“What is it, Roger?” she asked. “Are you okay?”

“Look,” Roger said. “The buzzards…” He pointed to an empty patch of sky, shook his head, and smoothed his hair, exhaled. No buzzards. He looked at the sky again, cloudless the color of television static. He sighed, turned to face the dwindling candle on the boat, a muted yellow orb on the waters getting darker.

2

It was night when he sat beside his mother. They put on their seatbelts and turned around at the end of the road, heading back to their house in Laurens.

“I don’t think I can be happy again,” Roger said.

“You’ll feel better,” his mother said.

“But I don’t want to,” Roger said. “I’d feel guilty.”

Silence. Large forests, pine trees, dark blue almost black went by the window, the car looked like a glowing bicycle rider projected on the wall of pines.

“So what are you going to do tomorrow, Roger?” his mother asked. “Are you picking up cans with Ethel?”

Roger nodded.

Ethel was aunt to a friend of his, his only friend, a girl three years his senior, and every Saturday and Sunday, when everybody went to the white church on Main, Roger and Ethel collected cans for five to six hours a week. They once walked with a cat, whose ship Roger had sailed, and once with Ethel’s husband Richard, until he caught pneumonia and died. But Roger and Ethel continued to pick up cans every Saturday and Sunday.

The next morning Roger met Ethel in front of her house. It was early and the sky was pinkish crimson red and cloudless. Roger wore a t-shirt and jeans. Ethel wore her pearls and beige dress. From Ethel’s front yard they turned onto Washington St, a street in the shadow of an abandoned textile mill in ruin, a place where half the town once worked. They took Heron avenue at the end of Washington to the left, to comb the gutters by the local stores and markets, then a small trail through the trees to clean the beer cans and bottles from the creek, a place where teens go to get drunk and cool off in the summer.

After Heron they turned East onto Sinclair avenue, Roger picked up the cans as Ethel raked them into a pile. He picked them up and put them in her shopping cart, a cart with two black trash bags filled to the brim. They turned left at the end of Sinclair onto Spring St, the most bountiful part of town, because of the three bars on the road, trash everywhere, car parts, paper cups and plates, cans and bottles and newspapers stained in mud.

When Spring St was clean they turned right onto Main, in front of stores and restaurants and a dentist and doctor’s office. Roger dug through the trash barrels and asked people who worked at the stores for permission to take their cans.

The last road they went down was called Little Mountain; a congregation of men, the people of the town that embodied the character of a Southern gentleman, the good old boys and girls drinking around bonfires outside of town, fixing up their pickup trucks and john-boats on the weekend.

The small town was the type where everybody knew everybody—or at least everybody knew the name of everybody, and there were practically no violent crimes since Roger’s birth in ’85. Coincidentally the only person to commit a violent crime in sixty years was Roger’s father who, when a burglar startled him, bit off the burglar’s nose.

Strangers in pickup trucks gathered every night out there on Little Mountain to get hammered and Roger and Ethel usually got a lot of beer cans, but they walked that road to see the sights, to remember the faces. The road on both sides was a blanket of pine trees through which ran a winding gravel road into the country, a mile outside of town. Halfway down the road a river ran over the asphalt by an inch and people  held their jeans when they walked through the water to get to the other side. Roger held Ethel’s hand as they walked over the water covered bridge. They walked to the end of the road where the boat ramp was and the turn around, a turn left would head back to town and that is what they did, it being almost three in the afternoon.

When they were done making their rounds, they went to a recycling factory a town over in Clinton and traded the cans and bottles in for money. Roger usually ended up with a hundred bucks, on a good day, and sometimes more. Roger liked going, and liked the money, and he bought a lot of books and computer accessories. They made fifty bucks a piece, but Roger got Ethel’s cash but didn’t know; when he found out, it shamed him.

3

With their route finished, they got into Ethel’s car and didn’t say a word on the way home. They didn’t speak much anymore, not like they used to, and when they did it was always related to the cans, the bottles, where they were and how to get them. They just didn’t talk like they used to. Ethel seemed distant and Roger was just as wounded, both of them wounded animals going through sad motions to remind them of a time when they were happier, when their loved ones were still there and smiling, at the table for Sunday dinner before they all started to die, as fewer and fewer people showed up at Christmas dinner, the sadness—the existential sorrow of one day no longer being, of one day not existing, caused Roger a great deal of anxiety.

Ethel went through the motions for Roger’s sake though she was in her eighties, and in poor health; though rain or shine she walked with Roger in the mornings.

Every weekend after they met, Ethel walked the same path with Roger around the town. They first met when he was a child with a stubbed toe on her back porch. Roger cried and cried.

His friend Dawn said her aunt Ethel could make it feel better. She left him crying on the steps. She disappeared into the house. Roger sat at the top of the steps in front of a screen door, through which was the laundry room and then the kitchen, and waited.  It wasn’t long before Ethel opened the door and walked down the steps. She knelt in front of Roger and said, “If you tell me your name, I can make the pain go away.”

“No way,” Roger said.

“She really can,” Dawn said. “But she can’t tell you how she does it or it won’t work. All you have to do is give her your name.”

“Roger Solomon Manwell.”

Ethel held his little foot and blew on the toe for a minute and rubbed it with the palm of her hand and smiled. Roger looked at Dawn, who also smiled, and he smiled too; the pain was gone.

The day finally arrived when she was too sick to go. Roger walked alone, down every road along their path, and always brought back her share of money.  The last time he got to talk to her was in the dark living room of Ethel’s house, lit by the faint glow of an old television. Roger’s face was covered with sweat and red from a day in the sun. Dawn brought him some orange juice and sat in front of the television with her legs crossed. Roger looked at the tubes running from Ethel’s nose to an oxygen tank beside the chair. She was still in her Sunday best, her Sunday best she wore every day, starched and pressed and ironed. She wore her pearls, had her hair curled and a perm; Roger thought, All dressed up to die.

“Tell me how you did it,” Roger said. “How you made my toe stop hurting. You said you would tell me…”

“All you have to do is get their full name, talk to them using their full name, and blow on the area that hurts. If they believe in you, it will.”

“If you never wanted money, why did you walk with me?”

“Just because,” she said.

She coughed into a napkin and dropped it into a trashcan beside the chair. She said, “I don’t think we’ll get to make our rounds anymore.”

“I will,” Roger said.

4

Three days later Ethel died. After the wake and funeral, Roger rode with his mother again, out to the boat ramp, with another boat made of paraffin and newspaper with a candle in it. His mother stayed in the car until the glowing candle disappeared from sight. She got out of the car, “It’s time go to, Roger,” she said. “It’s getting cold.”

Roger walked to the car in silence, always time to go, he thought.

He sat beside his mother and closed the door, put his seatbelt on. She asked, “How do you feel?”

“I really don’t know,” Roger said. “I’m sure I was happy at one time in my life. I don’t know what it is. I don’t know if it’s just the gradual erosion of time, me getting older, or watching as friend after friend has died, or it could be the anxiety of my own momentary existence that depresses and overwhelms me. There was a time when I could wake up, brush my teeth, get dressed and go out, out to play on rollerblades or skateboards or anything but now, now I just wake up and pour over my typewriter, take my pills and cigarettes and now it’s a struggle, to relax, to maintain, to keep myself hinged and busy.

“Because, ‘cause if I was inert, my anxiety, this high strung feeling and insomnia would eat me alive from the inside out and all I’d do is mourn, I’d mourn until I blew my brains out. Instead I keep moving, I keep digging, digging around in my brain trying to understand myself, trying to hit the bottom so I can see the cause of my depression, to find the hobgoblin that roams the corridors of my mind ringing bells and screaming and stomping, deleting my happy memories. I don’t remember the first time I saw the goblin, but he was in my dream—and he told me that he’d hunt down every happy memory I had and erase it. He tries to drive me mad, until I’m old and burnt out, stomping around in the dark room of my imaginary castle looking for the troll who roams around inside my head, hunting down my happiness and killing it, looking for the happy child that I made up because a real one couldn’t be found.

“When I try to sleep, he rattles pots and pans and screams at me, until the child in me is screaming back, screaming hurtful words and visiting violence on himself, because a world of pain is all he understands, a world he’d sell for peace of mind, if only for an hour, if only for a moment, so he could see the life he remembered, or imagined, whichever, so he could see it long enough to feel happiness again—just so when the sun went down, at least he’d remember what it felt like to feel, to smile, so whenever he crawled back into the dark to feed the hobgoblin again, at least he could fake a smile as he watched the goblin eat his happiness. I study the faces of happy people—just so I can try them on at home to see if I can find one that fits. They never fit.

“Every time I see the possibility of happiness, the hobgoblin smashes it like a mirror, and I cry as I pick up the pieces and curse at God when I can’t get the puzzle back together. And if I do, I break it again, just to watch it fall apart. Sometimes I do it just to hear the glass shatter. It always breaks, and I always expect it to; when it doesn’t, I break it myself.”

They drove the rest of the way home in silence. They arrived just after dark. Roger was glad the house was empty and quiet. It took him a long time to get to sleep.

Roger still walks the same old route now by himself, raking up the cans, putting them in the shopping cart in silence, going through the motions, just because, as Ethel said. He remembered the song, some dance to remember. Some dance to forget.

Even though he walked alone, even though she was dead, at the end of the day Ethel got her cut.

A Neon Angel Fades – short, 1 March 2015

In most love stories, it’s all a chase, a flight, past is prologue; it’s all prequel; ion the cusp of poignant vulnerability and the foolish abandon of youth and frivolity, on the edge of your tongue, a word you can’t quite articulate – that is a love, something to forever be approximated with ever clearer visions of beauty and grace that, at its rarest perch, its clearest view, is a description of a sunset past, a closer approximation bordering on the love of memory, a memory, a face you can see without blinking. Something you can’t quite grasp; Elise was that, the prettiest girl I’d ever seen. Funny and smart, and I was seeing another girl at the time, a girl I thought I loved, whom I promised to marry. We’d been together for over a year and I cared for her. I cared about her family. I kissed her mother on the cheek before I left her house, after Sunday dinner. It’s a mask of sorts of course, of course. And sloppy, but it fit. I didn’t face my problems, I put on makeup and changed my face–so when I did see myself, I never saw what was really there.

                                                                    An electric halo, once cast
can but fade.
And darken with it our once brightest days.

Elise, she was from the bayou; she was from Louisiana. She had a Marilyn Monroe mole on the bottom of her cheek. Blonde hair, a goddess face. She was so fucking feminine and innocent. The more I talked to her, the more I wanted to be with her. The first time I met her, I drove to her house 2 the morning. We put a full tank of gas in my car. We rode around the country roads listening to the Beatles. Our song was Let it be. That was our song; Let it be. She was Christian and Mother Mary, let it be, let it be; I wasn’t Christian, but I understood the significance.

She was in Arizona when I met her. She was in Arizona and I was in South Carolina. I was still dating Sarah, the girl who loved my tales of horror. And I talked to Elise. I talked to her about things I couldn’t talk to Sarah about. She became almost an obsession. And when I met her–-she always had her head turned down like, slight grin, eyes kind of looking up, whenever she smiled she looked up, this bashful, perfect look. And I was still with Sarah. This sounds like, you know, any other romantic tale involving teenagers; it really doesn’t amount to shit in the bigger scheme of things. But it matters a lot to the people involved. It mattered a lot to me because I was put in the position of do I go for two in the bush or do I keep what I have in my hand?

Elise was two in the bush, which I wasn’t sure I could get. Sarah was a cock in the hand. She wore an engagement ring that I given her. I mean, I kissed her mother on the cheek. I brought her mother flowers. I watched wrestling and football with her father. Our families were close. Everything suggested we’d be together indefinitely. And Elise was the flaw in the plan. And I meet Elise after she came back to South Carolina. And she lived in Pomaria. And this is like a nexus point in my life, where in went in a rapidly different direction.

I went over to my father’s house. I called Sarah and told her that I was going to stay the night with my father because nobody was there with him. She said that was okay, we could do something the next day, and in reality, I purchased 500mg of morphine from a friend of my father, this is back in my early stages of addiction, and that’s another one note joke stereotype; Kid hooked on drugs. Kid hooked on drugs. I’m still popping pills now. Doesn’t make you who you are.

And I went… I was on the interstate going to Pomaria. I remember that I told her that I spoke some French. I had beside me, while I was stuck in traffic that there had been a wreck. And it delayed me for fucking hours that I couldn’t talk to her. I mean I had my phone … I could talk to her but there was a wreck and I was stuck in the interstate. I had this list of French sayings that I had written down to say to her. You know, I memorize all these French sayings. I love you, you are the blossom of my life, I would kiss your feet, I would write poems to your eyes, you know, your hair is like the finest silk–-poor similes that bad writers use. Dressed in French. I got to her house. And it was like we were friends, like you me and you are friends, like she was someone I could hang out with without being Mr. Upstart–-you know, I didn’t have to keep up any airs. She thought I was crazy and I think history will bear that out. And she loved that. And she liked my absurd stories, because that’s really, that’s really all I have; just a collection of loose stories associated with people.

We played pool in her basement, billiards, throwing darts. I just smiled, frozen with that great ! above my head like the characters from an old Playstation game. And I remember going to the bathroom; I crushed two of the three morphine pills up under a pill bottle on the bathroom counter, snorted each line with each nostril, and took the last pill orally. 300mg or so; I don’t remember. We go into her bedroom and she has little glow in the dark stars on her ceiling and we lay there together mapping out our own make-believe constellations, just laying there with each other. She rolls over and puts on a movie, stuffs in into the VCR and it sputters on.

And I think I went ten steps past too far and said, ‘Fuck it!’ and jumped off into a stupid oblivion with those blue pills, the pills  Dialudid; they’re really strong and I had never taken that much before. I did it… I thought that it would make me less nervous because I wanted to kiss her. I mean, it was like I was choking and the only way that I could breathe was to kiss her. And I lay there beside her, with her fingers running through my greasy hair. And I’m like, It’s greasy ain’t it? Real men have greasy hair. Real men stink! We stink! And she loved it.

She looked at me like I was an aberration of nature, some one of a kind design flaw that wasn’t noticed until the factory shut down. I didn’t speak like typical southerners did–I grew up in isolation, never learning to mimic the sounds of the indigenous around me. I could speak with eloquence. I wrote books and all that–that was the novelty of me as a character to her.

And we lay in bed–and I start blacking out, going in and out, lapses of concentration and what not; she freaks out. I black out for maybe 20 minutes and I wake up and she’s splashing water on my face, I tell her that I’ve been sick, and she’s crying, right above me, and one of her biggest tears drops fall into my eye and I cry too the tears of someone else.

       When I find myself in times of trouble,

My eyes were pinpricks, distorted, too large or too small I can’t remember, but it was noticeable. I had overdosed in her bathroom. My skin was clammy and I was shaking. I couldn’t control myself. I went back to the bathroom, I splash water on my face, you know, I try to get my shit together, slap myself, run water through my hair, rattled my head and gritted my teeth.

Mother Mary comes to me.

When I left the room I was hyper-sensitive, hyper-aware, I walk back into the room and there’s a blue glow cast across the bed from a streetlight just beside her driveway. There’s this blue glow that reminds me of a dream. It silhouetted the outline of her figure. I remember thinking of it as rolling hills. Smooth, curvaceous, and she looked up at me, and a little blue line across her face, with the television behind her, and her head it looked it was glowing with the static of the TV set glowed on her like a halo. I told her I had to leave.

Speaking words of wisdom,

She begged me to stay. She wanted to make love, or at least have me do something she wouldn’t regret, something not terrible, make lust to me if not some form or fashion love. I told her I couldn’t because it wouldn’t be right. She asked me why it wouldn’t be right. I couldn’t tell her that–that I was on drugs, that I wouldn’t remember it… that I wouldn’t, that it wouldn’t be natural. That it wouldn’t be right for our first time. That I wanted it to mean more than some junkie excursion into the windup dinosaur sex the broken junkies have. I couldn’t tell her why I wanted it to mean more–What could mean more than now? The time was right. She’s not the one who got away, but worse; the one I walked away from.

Let it be.

And she ended up thinking I rejected her. I had her, this beautiful light of my fucking life girl, so fucking pretty in that shade of neon blue; perfect. I had the perfect moment, everything I’d wished for when we first began to love each other, and there it was, right in my hands. She had a halo and glowed a brilliant blue. And I had this perfect moment. And I just looked at her and said I had to leave. I return to it over and over again in my fiction and my poems, usually best expressed as: The door to happiness she led the way / and ignorant I turned away. The truth path appeared, and there it lay / and again I turned away. I’ve written time and time again that I saw the perfect way, and every single time it crops up, I always turn the other way.

And in my hour of darkness,

And it all goes back to her. I had her. I loved her; I didn’t want anything more than her. She told me that she loved me that night, that she wanted to be with me, to be close to me, for us to be together, and all I said was, “That’s weird.” That’s weird, to my homemade angel–that’s what she was to me–and when I kissed her, it was like my first kiss all over again. I held her by both sides of her face and just pressed our lips together, nothing sloppy, but intimate and forceful, and we put our foreheads together both of us breathing heavy. I scratched her hair and made her laugh. And I told her I had to leave.

        She’s standing right in front of me,

She asked me, pleading, Why do you have to leave? Why do you have to leave? And I said it wouldn’t be right, it wouldn’t be right. And Sarah fond out; Elise had told one of her friends that I rejected her. Then I told Elise what happened, that I really cared about her, and I did what I did out of respect for her. That was the consummation of our love; just one long embrace the kind of moment that for a fleeting moment brings God into the life of an atheist sinner who only wanted to do what was right, and by doing so I left my Madonna on the shore–the Madonna was mine for free, and I walked out.

    Whispering words of wisdom,

Until then, my drug use had been more or less recreational. I loved Elise and in that bubble, what remains of that little candle that I carry, that I warm myself to when facing middle age and loneliness, but I keep that bubble, hidden away, that I might pop it with some sort of joy to see the thin film of a flimsy rainbow, and the bubble pop, yes bubbles pop, and the electric halo cast by that white noise round her plump face like a neon crazy angel, weird and beautiful for its rarity. I’m not a practical man, not in manners of love and lasting, but sometimes a clown can more proper catch the color of a drowning man. And that’s why I think I stayed on that shit for so long, each little pinch was my Madonna in blue. Every girl I’ve been with since, is me looking for Elise again, or someone to cast in that role. In the end, the drugs became Elise to me, and each sweet needle prick another kiss, some other bubble that I missed.

Let it be.

The Slow Suicide of Narcissus – short, 27 May 2015

The Narcosis of Narcissus, the mixing of the real and fanciful, lead into this mirror, and distort it, distort it that a nobler shade of truth might reflect this honest fiction. This is not autobiography: this is therapy. 

Whenever you see someone writing about themselves, and they’re not exposing someone or accusing, they’re trying to work something out on their own, never thinking it will enter into the public eye, this dirty little habit of the self-absorbed, when one indulges the reprehensible urge to write about oneself, the simple question, ‘why?’ is somehow invalid, like asking which prime number looks best in a business suit. You know them, they are the doomed and miserable lot who utter that philosophical alibi ‘why?’ And they are as doomed with any why as I am with mine: why write a book about your life?

And without fail, I have to come to the same answer: that voids the question; that at once makes the act reprehensible and justifies my actions to myself, the opposing me whose giant eyeball is always looking over my shoulder, scrutinizing, judging, evaluating, as though I were a specimen under my own microscope. And that, indeed, is the point of this writing.

I’ve written about psychology and studied it my entire life. It has been the most fascinating subject I’ve ever encountered. Not in books, but the psychology of people and their actions. There are psychological determining factors behind any decisions, the complex ones, the ones more complex than, ‘should we have steak or salad? One is good, and murder, one is terrible, but human.’

There are cynics, or those who cum with closure, who read that last line with an exquisite since of sardonic delight. Terrible, but human, that is the joke and the punch line that defines a lot, and as an psychological aphorism, to me, it is three things. It is the crime and acquittal of a conscious race. To me, it is three things because there are three me’s.
There is the noble, the genius, the sensitive, the understanding me, the me I call the Roger complex. Roger comes from the name of the main character in my novel Songs of Galilee. I wrote about Roger from an admiring perspective. He was what I would like to be, and the Roger complex is me trying to imitate the character, when in the novel, Roger faces situations in his fictional life similar to situations in my real one. But he’s more than me, and that is what I felt made him admirable.

To those who have read the novel, they could conjecture that Roger is the manifestation of my ego, what I think would be my highest self, though Roger himself was the embodiment of the highest virtues: no hope, no fear; no pride, no shame. Roger was a multi-talented child prodigy genius of the highest order. That’s how I wrote him as a character, not as to imply that is what I thought I was. Roger was everything I would be if I could.

Thus the creation of the Roger complex; the mystic Buddhist who at twenty-four attained his enlightenment, and at twenty-seven died in the third and last book of his life, The Match Behind the Jar. Roger had invented a cure to death based on theories I had as a child. He was smart enough to make it possible. My theory was that the suspension of decay in cellular organisms could slow the aging process until the point of pure biological equilibrium, without decay or mutation of any cells in the body. Roger studied the human genome, as I did, but Roger found the Sisyphus Mechanism. He found out how to remove it and thereby render immortality.
That was Roger’s final temptation: immortality. In my short story the Dream of the Louse, Roger faces this temptation on a train, on his way to demonstrate the cure for death and the immortality of mankind. He calls the tempter Mara, the Buddhist version of satan, and embodiment of the ego. And like Buddha under the tree, and Christ in the desert, Roger resists temptation on the train.

Mara tells him to become more than a man, to push evolution forward. He dismisses the rules of nature, of life and death, and tells Roger that he is a brilliant man, that he will become the savior that mankind wanted and had been waiting for. He had brought real immortality to Earth. Roger, like Christ, was born on the Sea of Galilee. I chose that birthplace before I knew that that is where Christ is said to have walked on water. In Roger’s youth, he invents boots that stabilize and equalize buoyancy that allows him to walk on water. In one of my favorite passages of the Match Behind the Jar, Roger runs from his father across the sea, with his father chasing him from behind with a belt, to whip him for painting on the walls of his house.

Mara appears before Roger before he arrives in Time Square, on a train. Mara appeared before me in my bedroom, and inspired the Dream of the Louse. The characters are different, and it’s a fictionalization of a real event that took place in my life.

The plan was for Roger, though the plan was different for me, to inject the medication into himself, the immortality rendering compound he designed and synthesized based on his advancement of my genome studies, and then have someone give Roger the lethal injection on the stage. If it worked, of course, he would come back to life. He would be born again.

Roger chooses to take a placebo, and allows them to kill him on stage with the lethal injection because he did not take an injection of his compound. It was an injection of morphine, my drug of choice, and there Roger died at twenty-seven, at the end of the Match Behind the Jar.

Had he done the right thing by saving faith? With the possibility of immortality on Earth, Mara told him, why would anyone believe in the nonsense of afterlife or even need an afterlife? There’d be no more death and war. No more religion. And so Roger, the second man from the Sea of Galilee to offer immortality, to save the beliefs of everyone. He did not want his discovery to be believed, although it did work, and his death was taken as the compound didn’t work, and research on it stopped. It did work. It would have worked for all. Roger allowed himself to die so the soul would no longer be locked in the body. That was his last temptation in the last book of The Lizard’s Tale. I am sure he did the right thing. I am sure I would not have. I would have taken the cure to live.

Think about it as you read: would you take the injection to live forever? One injection: no more pain, death, decay.
It took me a long time to answer that question and two of me would take it, and one of me would not. There are three me’s, as I’ve come to in my psychiatric sessions with myself. Only one of me would resist, and that me is the Roger Complex, which I will further elaborate upon later on.

Rogers’s father was there at his birth and remained until his mother, or as Roger thought, and indeed once hoped, killed his father. This was written to expound upon Roger’s inner self. At first he wished for his father’s death, but at the same time was devastated when he died, and then he, as a grown man at the end, returns to a place his father always wished to take him. That is the coda to the Songs, Roger’s forgiveness. His forgiveness of his father, his mother, and himself. That’s where forgiveness starts.

And when you forgive yourself, it is liberating. At first, I felt like I was free; to do whatever I want. I could smoke and stay out late. I could piss away my mind in a way he would not have allowed. It took me several years to find my Coda at Pigeon Rock, as it is in Roger’s story, but it was more like a coda at Lake Murray, where my father and I went fishing before he died. All of the three me’s, as of now I’ve gone into only the Roger complex, which you will see me imitating throughout my life, even before his creation; I will later go into the Harvey complex, the lowest me, and Complex Zero: Brandon, the medium between Harvey and Roger.

But, I hear the chorus of why, and I must address it. The why of my decision to write this memoirs, Bastard; I’m sure by now, the title choice is apparent.

Why: I’m adept at helping people with their psychological problems. I’ve studied psychology at great length in my life, and it is the most powerful weapon known to man. I’ve written four accredited PhD’s in psychology as of this writing, and I’ve always been able to help people, not me, but others. I am always able to give them the advice they need based on the equation they gave me to solve.

When it comes to me, I don’t know the equation. I know parts of it, and I use those parts to try to solve the problems of my life, but since I don’t know all the numbers, the equation is never solved. I can find numbers in my past: abandonment, the need to assert and prove my worth because of it, the Oedipus complex directed at my biological father, the hallucinations, the dreams, the nightmares, the desires, the tragedies, and everyone has their share, the death of loved ones and friends, coming to terms with mortality, coming to terms with the thousands of philosophical questions I have less than satisfactory answers for, the want to matter, the want to be loved, to be admired, and other, less noble desires.

I can’t find all the numbers and the variables they create in order to solve the equation, the me equation; I cannot make them come together in a unified number, a number that will represent my life, the problem, solved. I doubt I’ll ever determine all the variables. But when it comes to equations of other people, their loves and hates and losses and gains, I seem to do well as someone to give advice, to mentor, to guide: to find the number they needed based on their equation, solved for contentment. The thought is my sickness and the page my hospital, and, all the better, public – the narcosis of Narcissus.

Author’s note: All characters, characteristics of said characters, living or dead, real, or otherwise alive, are fictional. All fictional elements are part of a more honest story. This is the sickness of those who revel in the spiral, enjoying it more the faster they go down. And my oh my, how fun it is to slide. 

The Children Santa Cheated – Short, 20 October 2015

When I was six years old, I had asked for a ‘camcorder’ for my birthday with the intention to film Santa Clause. I had no knowledge of what I would later discover to be agnosticism or atheism, I just had questions in regards to Santa that no one seemed capable of explaining, or, in any case, explaining adequately. I didn’t believe that it was possible , for deer to fly. The casual acceptance of this among other children my age alarmed me, even then, and, though I did not know it at the time, played a large part in the conditioning of similar, more pressing beliefs. In our childhood, our grasp on how the world works is tenuous at best, at worst non-existent. But I had seen birds and I had seen deer and I had seen planes. Planes and birds shared a common feature: wings. I have yet to see a winged deer. But my skepticism went further.

My father was patient and would indulge me as a child. It amused him more than anything, I think, to answer questions which seemed to delight and surprise him. First, I asked how Santa was capable of knowing whether all the children on Earth had behaved good or bad. And I believe my attitude towards his response speaks to a part of who I am which was already defined: “He just can,” said my father. And, as I still hold true, that answer is, scientifically speaking, complete horseshit.

The experiment with the tape recorder had been building for a couple of years prior. Of course I didn’t tell my father that his explanation was horseshit, but I did continue asking questions. The question for me was no longer if Santa could know whether we were bad or good, but how. First I thought, maybe our parents include a separate letter with our Christmas lists, describing the good or errant behavior of their children, perhaps indicating what we were good enough to get and what our behavior just wouldn’t allow. I would later abandon this theory as I realized that the kind of house a kid lived in greatly determined how much that kid would get for Christmas. The kids in shabby clothes, the stragglers–Santa was different for them. I found this out first hand through my childhood friend, Chris. I would say that we were bad and good to roughly the same degree. But when I got a Nintendo, a bicycle, board games, candy, little battery powered monster trucks, and he got clothes and socks, I understood something, subtly, that I hadn’t yet connected to the Truth.

Noticing that, despite what I thought about behavior, the presents my friends and relatives received seemed to reflect more the niceness of the child’s home than their alleged good behavior. For example, my aunt Virginia (go ahead, laugh damn you!) was a lawyer and her husband was an oncologist. I understood that word to mean “fancy doctor.” And their kids were total jerks, but they got toys one would think Santa should reserve for Gandhi. My cousin Allen, a fifteen year-old blossoming alcoholic and sadist, received a four-wheeler, a pool table, a state of the art cassette player, and basically anything he could spell. He was infamously bad. Everyone in the family knew. And my working theory was this: Santa could only be getting the information from the parents. But this didn’t seem to fit all of the data I collected. So I revised my theory, which would be penultimate: the parents paid [Santa] for their children’s toys based on what they wanted their children to have. I was close, but not quite there.

Anyway, my birthday is the 1st of February, which gave me time to plan the great experiment on Christmas. I asked for a camcorder. For anyone who doesn’t know what a camcorder is, think of it like this: it’s like a football shaped iPhone with one function: to record film and audio. Today if you wanted to re-create my experiment, it’d be a lot easier. But this was 1991, and nary an iPhone to be found, humanity bemoaned its inability to share what they had for dinner with the world. It was a dark time, ravaged by sneakers that blinked ominously like the police-cars of a micro-race, polluted by musicians who would not allow themselves to be touched, a time when the only thing a child could rely on to save them was a Bell on Saturday morning, right after X-Men.

Now, my birthday came and with it the precious camcorder along with several blank VHS tapes. I read the instruction manual and tried to figure it all out in time for Christmas. I didn’t know what the scientific method was at that age (6) but I had arrived at something similar: I would hide the camcorder under a towel on top of our television, facing the door (we had no Chimney for Santa to scale,) and while we were at our aunt’s for Christmas dinner, I would set it to record. I’m not sure what outcome I expected, but the data was tampered with.

 Our family always celebrated Christmas on Christmas Eve. First we’d open presents from each other. I’d open presents from my mother and father and brothers and sisters. Then we’d visit my grandmother in the morning. Sometimes we’d visit other increasingly unimportant relatives throughout the day, and then we’d go to my aunt’s for Christmas dinner at night. We’d stay for a few hours. When we got home, we’d find our Christmas presents waiting. The amount of shit Santa was capable of packing into our living room was impressive. A little too impressive. And another wrinkle in the official story: although the entire family could fit easily into our Ford Bronco, my older brothers would always arrive later for dinner than anyone else. Suspicion is like a rash. The more you interact with it, the more it burns.

When I got home, I forgot about my experiment at first. The room was full of the very best the early 90’s had to offer in toys and electric devices, the obligatory bike. I was temporarily stunned by the orgy of evidence that my parents loved me, but I didn’t let that stop me from ruining Christmas forever.

The video of the event confirmed what I knew all along. Santa Claus came through the front door, and waved at what he didn’t (or shouldn’t) know was there, and put on a performance. That’s right: while putting out the toys, my oldest brother found the recording device and, instead of just turning it off, decided hey, gentlemen, shall we fuck with a child? Yes. Yes we shall. A friend of the family was called, dressed as Santa, and brought in all the toys for the sake of my surveillance.  This is an example of how one can lie too well.

This good-spirited deception didn’t prove the existence of Santa Clause. I had video evidence, but I was still suspicious. I still had questions. Again I came back to how it could have happened. When you live in a wooded area, an area full of hunters, or, more to the point, in a home where the heads of unfortunately well-endowed deer are mounted on the wall, I’m not fucking stupid. Deer can’t fly. The sleigh was obviously powered by rockets.

Political correctness, 18 October 2015

First I’d like to acknowledge the wonderful article written by Cracked writer J.F. Sargent, whose article can be found here. And point out, that’s generally a more intelligent and insightful argument. That is all.

POLITICAL CORRECTNESS, THE BOOGIE MAN, THE CENSORS WAITING IN THE DARK, JUST, WAITING, WAITING ON YOU TO SAY… SOMETHING… OFFENSIVE. MUST…NOT…SATIRE.

I’d also be remiss to acknowledge the state of this dead horse before I proceed to fucking beat it. (Because it’s dead… what is easier to beat? A living horse will fucking destroy you. Horses are the worst. But don’t tell Mr. Ed, he’s way too PC. And also dead. Which is slightly worse. Slightly, amirite?)

Political correctness, oh my god. Right? Right? 
I know.
Dude, I know.
DUDE.

Everybody and their biologically oriented life-giver, in-vitro, biological, or cesarean, has their personally distinct and worthwhile opinions on whether or not people have become overly sensitive. or — now, bear with me — if the response is less to someone saying something insensitive and more of a response to someone being an asshole or otherwise deliberately antagonistic, saying something not in service of a joke, or a story, but something which has one purpose: to intentionally insult or disparage someone or a group of people for the purpose of advocating something: their brand’s betterness, their political brand’s betterness, or their notion of general progress towards being as good as them, which, for some reason, must always be at the expense of others. The response isn’t overly sensitive liberals being too delicate, while I’m sure somewhere, right now perhaps, someone is beginning an article with shit like ‘biologically oriented life-giver’ to avoid saying something like mother … only to hide their hatred of in-vitro fertilization. IT COULD BE THIS VERY PAGE.

It’s not that. It is the response of those who balk at the idea that whoever is saying this “non PC friendly” shit, or the group to which that person belongs is inherently above or better than their intended target, simply because they’re not that target. The response is not one of overt-sensitivity, but of a group saying: you are not better by virtue of what you were born. The Internet has made it very, very hard to distinguish between someone’s merit and ability based on their sex/race, so when someone is being called out because of that, and that alone, the response is the response of those who believe in an idea: You know, they call this democracy. And it’s not a deviant sex act some French-y developed… But it is close. Democracy is an objection to inherited worth, status, or value. 

The idea that some things are inherently offensive, while certainly true, the criticism, the criticism of the politically correct sensibility is invariably made by someone who has said something inflammatory, and intentionally so, from a position of influence and power–which seems to consist primarily of rich/famous white people who think the concept of democracy is something to define, to the inclusion of some and the exclusion of others, for them and those who believe as they do, which is coincidentally the way the law was written by (surprise!) people like them, wealthy, white, heterosexual males – as other minority groups were for some wild, crazy reason, not allowed to vote; thus perpetuating the freedom of this group to the exclusion of that group, which were all groups, minorities and women (yep! All inclusive exclusion!) while at the same time making it illegal for anyone who has broken the law to vote someone who might represent their needs.

When women and minorities were finally given the god damn right to vote, the elected representatives – surprise! – began to become more diverse and the fight  against institutional prejudice began – and with same sex marriage only recently becoming legal in all of the US, and the remaining resistance comes from that same group struggling to stay true to rules that were very much written by people like them, voted for by people like them, to keep those liberties very much in the hands of that same, homogeneous group: wealthy, white, heterosexual males, betraying the very core of democracy; that everyone should be, by birth, afforded the same freedoms and protections under the law.

Democracy is either absolute or not democracy.

The greatest achievements of America have been, with exception of course, the reversal of earlier, less inclusive institutionalized standards. Greatest moments in political history? The American revolution? Overthrowing … taxes and tea, something like that. The Emancipation Proclamation? As wonderful as that was, it was the eventual overturn of the casual attitude towards slavery. The million-man march? A protest against prejudicial practices in Jim Crow-era south. The greatest achievements of America are those moments when the establishment finally goes, Fuck it, other people can have freedoms too. It’s great to have figures like Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr… but to need them is horrifying by implication. And, it didn’t end well for either. Go ahead, guess what happened. This isn’t uniquely American, either. Anyone vocally against systems set in motion to benefit the few at the expense of the many, historically speaking, have been fucking killed.

And now, the criticism of political correctness is used as a means to brush aside – sometimes legitimate – accusations of racism or sexism. But the accusation of political correctness leading to censorship, or that people are being too sensitive, is only used when someone has been genuinely sexist, genuinely racist, xenophobic, or otherwise intentionally hurtful – for the sole purpose of being inflammatory, as a way to be provocative without being thoughtful or insightful, or even interesting. It’s less about overly sensitive liberals and their quivering antennae when someone isn’t PC, and more about a sexless, colorless culture recognizing bad manners and assholes – and making them know, ‘Hey, you’re a fucking asshole. And we know it.’ If you were to fart at a dinner table, you wouldn’t accuse your dinner guess of being too sensitive for saying nobody wanted to smell your asshole at lunch. Put it in the right story, or in the right context, and we’ll laugh right along. Conservative, liberal, communist.

Fuck the French!

2015-02-11 13.00.16
Don’t shoot, French friends!

Chapter 1

Last New Year’s Eve

My mother was center stage, right there in the spotlight, dressed as Queen Clytemnestra. It was her first role and her favorite, wife of King Agamemnon from the play by Aeschylus, the first play I ever saw, in a dark, smoke-filled shanty theatre in Paris. She wore that same dress, screaming red. A prop sword in one hand, the other pulling back the cotton head of our mascot Tragos, tragedy my friend, that janitor in drag.

“Troy has fallen!”

The crowd cheered on like Spartan whores, like clapping seals and Sirens, whistling shame.

Mother held the sword aloft to the sound of more applause, then she let it fall; and silent it fell soft along the seams of that poor mascot’s head. And off it came, the crowd roared on, applauding as it ran bloodless down, down, down, down, off the stage into the crowd. A thespian in a black mask scooped it up, hoisted it into the air, and shouted:

“Happy new year!”

“Happy new year!”

The bloodless sacrifice complete, the Gods appeased, the janitor in the buffoonish goat-suit was hurried off the stage. He stumbled into the crowd to retrieve his head. After a brief scuffle with some drunk asshole in the front row, it was returned to him. Mother raised her hand to bring the crowd to silence again, ever the conductor, a virtuoso playing their preferred instrument: a crowd of two hundred at capacity, and more if you didn’t mind standing or sitting in an aisle, or on the floor.

“I’d like to thank you all for coming, first of all,” mother said. “It’s a pleasure and a privilege, truly, to see you all tonight, to have such support from the community and our friends, and our family. So, on behalf of everyone here at the La petite illusion, the Players and the Faces, thank you making this year’s Christmas play such a success. And remember, when you see the stage light come on…” a large, bright light flickered into life above the stage. “When you see that light, it’ll ten minutes until midnight. So, if you’re interested in joining us for the bonfire, make sure to meet us at stage door left when you see the light. Now, until then, enjoy the music! Enjoy the wine! I’ll see you all at midnight!”

More applause. She smiled, and smiling walked away, waving with a rigid, cupped hand like an aged beauty Queen, forever a rose, a rose forever to fade but never wilt; mother would have to be buried alive. The house band, just four college kids on holiday, had gathered in front of the drawn curtains and began to set up. Two young men and two guitars with nylon strings, la-la-la-la-la. A digital grand that clanged for a young lady, about my age or thereabouts, a lovely piano, upright on rolling wheels, one violinist, Chinese and demure, very thin and sexy.

Behind the curtain was a softer symphony, unheard, drowned by the cheerful holiday music mixed with a mumbling crowd of Faces and masked patrons, the soft symphony in silence behind the scenes, , drowned out by this cheerful and familiar holiday music, a chorus of shuffling feet.

And Jack Cade said it best:

I have thought upon it, it shall be so.

Away, burn

all the records of the realm:

my mouth shall be the parliament of England.

“Spare none,” he said.

And none were spared.

Not one chair, nor table cloth, everything had to burn, just painted kindling, a great buffet by poor Camille, a discount muse but worth each Franc.

With our audience and patrons, and anyone who’d wandered in for a drink or a show, everyone who gathered for this show, playing the voyeur, all costumed and masked, to burn those props—that was the show, that was the point. Camille was one of the few staff members I knew personally; a young girl and very pretty, kind of dim and shy, she sat on the flyloft above the stage, suspended from the rafters with her feet dangling off. The rest were kept in costume while at work, as per mother’s instruction.

The workers without masks were Faces in theatre lingo, always behind the stage or in front, never on it, forever locked in one poor role, confined by their own skin. The rest, the actors and performers and staff, save for me and Lain and Camille, they were Abstracts, they were character, like that poor goat Tragedy; they were Players, and as such were never given, nor did they give, real names, and were never to be referred to as such. Referring to them by their character names, mother told me, helped their performances. It probably gave them acute impostor syndrome too, but that didn’t matter, not as long as the reviews were good. Tragedy joined us at the bar.

“Good evening, Tragos,” said Lain.

“Nice to see you, Charles,” said Tragos. They shook hands warmly.

“You know, Robert,” said Lain, “I think you’re the only person I know who dies for a living.”

He smiled.

“I had no idea why Madame Nanty wanted me to dress like this, much less pretend to cut my damn head off. You know how I found out? My mom was born in Athens, not far from where that shit started, an offering to the Gods. What an offering!”

We all laughed.

“Yeah,” I said, looking over to Lain. “You know, when theatre began, it was basically a cult, a boy’s only club, all based around a ritual celebration. It was a cult, a cult of Dionysus, God of fertility and wine.”

“To Dionysus!” said Robert.

“To fertility and wine!” Lain said.

“They sacrificed real animals before the start of every play,” I said. “To honor the Gods, naturally. Theatres were outside back them, you know, you do what you have to do.” And, at the start of each performance, they sacrificed a goat to honor the Gods. Theatres were outside then; you did what you had to do.”

“And we just sacrifice our dignity,” said Lain.

“We’d probably do the same, if we had to,” I said. “Think about what we go through already, sacrificing our dignity to critics, starving ourselves to fit in costumes to be scrutinized and judged by out of shape assholes. Gods are easy, critics are not won so easily, and if sacrificing a goat got us a better write up, a better review in nouvelles de divertissement, we’d have a farm behind the fucking theatre.”

Lain laughed, “No expense, no goat, no mercy!”

“Lance!” I called, turning away. Lain was explaining his new play to Robert.

There were three bartenders on staff, all well dressed; tuxedos and simplistic masks. Lance was the only Face at the bar. He was very prim, very proper, and neat, very neat, and too much so. At least for me. I imagined that his father beat him. He approached the end of the bar where we were sitting:

“Yes, mademoiselle?”

“You see that guy in the goat costume?” I asked.

Lance nodded, “Yes, mademoiselle.”

“I want you to take him the Cote Chalonnaise,” I gestured toward the underside of the opposing cabinet. “And, yeah, that one. And, grab the green—that one, yes! the Macon. And get him a couple of decent glasses, tall.”

“Who am I to say it is from?”

“It’s ‘whom’!” Lain shouted at him. “Fucking idiot!”

“Tell him it is from the Queen,” I said, talking over Lain.

“If the person is the subject of the sentence, you say ‘whom’…”

“Yes, mademoiselle,” Lance said, never breaking character. And he kept on. And on.

After retrieving the bottles and two tall, slender glasses, Lance handed them to Robert.

“And you shouldn’t end a sentence with ‘from.’ Because…”

The Cote Chalonnaise was especially nice, and the dusty bottle was a sure way to tweak the nipples of a connoisseur.

“Prepositions are there to show the relationship between the noun and the pronoun…”

Robert took the bottles one by one, and lovingly, then the glasses. He sat them down and read the dusty labels.

“From whom? Well, to whom shall I say? That sounds bad, whom shall I say? No…”

“Compliments of the Queen,” said Lance.

He was without costume finally, in a comfortable button up shirt. The man looking back at me was a stranger then, somehow less real without his mask.”

“It’s from mother!” I said. “She forgot to give it to you on Christmas.”

“You’re just a noun, you know. You’re a diminutive little noun, unworthy of superlative or adverb…”

“Lain, shut the fuck up!” I said. “English isn’t his first language!”

“It’s not mine either!”

“Merci,” Robert said. “My wife is going to go crazy when she sees the year on this Chalonnaise.”

“Thank you Robert!” I said. “We’re very grateful to have you here!”

“We all know who the Queen is,” he said. He smiled, bid us a very good evening, and walked away, with Tragedy dissolving into just another member of the unnamed supporting cast.

I called for Lance again. He approached after serving to middle-aged ladies dressed like slutty angels.

“Two fingers of bourbon for me,” I said, “and take Lain one of his pussy drinks.”

“Such as?” he asked.

“Something fruity,” I said. “A white Russian, perhaps? Yes, that’ll do. Thanks, Lance.”

He returned a moment later with our orders.

“Two fingers of Jim for mademoiselle,” said Lance, “and a white Russian for Monsieur Pinon.”

“That’s racist,” said Lain.

I sat my glass on a square napkin, pretending not to notice Lance’s number scribbled on it in hurried, purple penstrokes. Painfully obvious and Lain caught a glimpse when I passed him his drink. He didn’t say a word, but I saw it in his eyes, a small defeat. He took a generous sip from his glass.

“Anything else?” asked Lance.

“Not now,” I said. “Now, fuck off.”

“Yes, mademoiselle,” he said. He returned to serving the other costumers. I turned to Lain.

“Cheers, Monsieur Pinon!” I said. He smilled despite himself. I raised my glass.

“Cheers, Mademoiselle Brisbois!” said Lain, raising his The glasses clinked together and we both finished our drinks in one long, profane gulp.

We chatted between shots, taking in the sights and sounds, the live band playing merry music, the smell of liquor and cheap perfume in the air, small clouds of cigarette smoke swirling under low-hanging, red-tinted spiderlamps. The audience was alive with mirth and conversation, the social butterflies buzzing, deaf to the fools with nets behind them. Lain was doing the same: silently judging everyone, trying to guess who those people were, beneath the mask, what kind of animals were they without those feathers? Or was there nothing but feathers, and nothing under the mask but another one, or a smooth face, smooth as a cue ball and just as featureless and memorable.

“Here’s to The Little Illusion,” Lain. He held up his empty shot glass. I raised mine. They clinked together with a hollow clink! as we tossed back the drink that wasn’t there.

“Best of the night!” said Lain.

“Here’s to it,” I said.

The hollow sound the glasses made when they clinked together somehow got through: when you’re 5’4”, don’t match drinks with a guy over 6 feet tall. Especially not a Russian.

“I hope you’re being careful,” a far-off, snobbish voice said. It was her superpower, judgment, arising for the perfect moment from the darkness. I straightened my back and turned my bloodshot eyes back to white. A strange talent, I’d discovered it in drama school.

“Tell her, Lain,” she said, “If she’s going to do Anna again this year at the Medea, she needs to watch her weight.”

“Yeah, I wouldn’t want to kill myself and be fat,” I said.

Lain laughed, and mother turned to him and smiled, a broad and bright smile. It was her way of saying, you’re funny, but not quite funny enough to earn my laughter. A smile, and that’s it, you fucking peasant.

“Bonne soirée, Charles,” she said. “Comment çava?”

“Il est une merveilleuse nuit putain,” he said. “Pardon my French.”

She smiled.

“Such a clever boy,” she said. “You need to talk Renette into growing her hair back out so she can keep getting leading roles.”

“You see,” Lain said. “That’s the problem. You can’t negotiate with fire.”

“But she had such lovely hair.”

“Renette could get any role in Paris if she were bald.”

“I know you love her.”

“Everybody loves Renette,” said Lain. “Except Renette, of course.”

Mother smiled again.

“Take care of her, Lain,” she said. “I’ll see you later. Renette, behave yourself! I don’t want to find you under the bar!”

“Where are you going?” I asked.

“I’m going to meet with a new director,” she said. “A potential director, that is. I saw a really good production of his last week and got his contact information from the Exchange. So, I’m going to show him around, show him how we do things here. Hopefully we can get him on board and do something really, truly new. I’ll see you in a bit.”

She leaned in and kissed Lain and both sides of his cheek, and then me.

“I love you two,” she said.

“See you then,” I said. “Remember: don’t leave your drinks attended around Lianne. Just saying.”

“We love you too, Madame.”

She smiled again. Fucking peasant.

“Make her behave, Lain,” she said. “Don’t let her drink too much.”

“Remember King Lear,” said Lain. “‘Get not between a dragon and its wrath’? It’s like that with her.”

“Good lad,” she said and turned to walk away. “Good evening, Charles.”

He fucking hated being called Charles.

“Good evening, Mme. Nanty!” Lain called.

She thrust a hand into the air and waved without turning round. In mere moments she had disappeared as quickly as she had appeared. Lain followed her through the crowd; excellent vision, somehow keeping track of her. The red, of course. The Russian blood.

“That’s racist.”

He nudged my shoulder.

“Who is that?” he asked. “Look, right over there.”

He nudged my shoulder.

“What?”

“Who’s that?” he asked. “Look, right there. The guy with the mask.” He gestured across the gallery, lit only by sparse dining table candles. I followed his pointed finger, bouncing from one masked face to another.

“Are you fucking with me?” I asked. “Everywhere is over there!”

It didn’t take me long to catch a glimpse of the man. He stood out somehow, my mother very animated, holding his hands in hers and smiling broadly. It was the mask, a damn grotesque but lovely in that twisted way, lovely in the way a flower growing from a boot might be. It was a faded white, an ivory color, the color of Time and dust, snowflakes and cigarette ash. The nose was very prominent, about nine inches give or take, hanging from his face but not too sharp. Grotesque, sure, but not horrific. The rest of his clothes were black, save for his cuffs, both white with a black button in.

“I hope we can get a good director here,” said Lain.

I nodded.

“As fun as it is to do all those Shakespeare plays,” he said. “I didn’t come to France to do the same shit they do off-Broadway in New York.”

“Why the fuck did you come to France, again?”

“For you,” he said. “You know that.”

I smiled, turning to look toward the upper crosswalk again where mother had stood with the strange little man and his Pinocchio mask. They were gone. I scanned the crowd to no avail, the liquor making itself known to us both.

I sat my glass down and Lain followed. Lance hurried over to collect, thanking me profusely for a €50 tip. We walked from the bar, humming together, our heart beats keeping tempo; I was stumbling drunk, my arm around Alain. He smelled like old books, like a fine mahogany desk. He kept me up-right somehow. We weaved in between one patron after another and finally found mother and my little sister Lianne at the exit, precious Lee, and more were gathering as the green light above the stage had come on. Lianne said hello to Lain and he knelt and took her little hand into his and kissed it, saying,

“Madame shook her hand, “Madame.” She smiled a toothy smile, her two front teeth missing.

They began to gather in ever larger groups in front of us, what was left of my family. And Lain, of course. Alain. It was a large crowd. Many were as drunk as we were but all were polite, well poised and surprisingly proper for a French mob in Friday voyeur masks.

“Alright,” mother said. “Hey, hey!”

She whistled, a whistle so loud it hurt. “Listen!”

Get not between a dragon and its wrath.

Everyone went quiet quickly.

“Now, we’re all here to have fun, but be careful and don’t get too close to the fire. And once it gets started, please stay behind the crossguards. One simple rule: if it’s taller than you are, don’t get near it! That goes for you too Lain!”

Everybody laughed.

HAHAHA.

“Okay? Great! Now, follow me.”

She flung the swinging doors open, outward into a cold night, the crowd spilling out in single file behind us. And there we were, scene of the crime. I imagined my grandfather’s ghost still walking through those ruins, never to rest, looking for his satin curtains with the dancing plague and grandma on piano. After everyone had gathered in front of the pile of painted sets and props, the kind we couldn’t use anyway since the matte painting was by then damaged by the stage light’s heat and fading, mother opened the easily negotiable barrier between the scenic kindling, carrying a single candle. She struck a match and lit it. She spoke:

“50 years ago, during the German occupation of France, German soldiers burned this theatre down,” she said.

Print the myth.

“When the war ended, my grandmother raised enough money from the public to rebuild this theatre, with the help of patrons and friends just like you. And over the next half century it has become our home and a part of our culture. As it passed to me when mother died, it will pass to my daughter Renette when I’m gone, and to her children then…”

Everybody looked at me and Lain. Lain put his arms around me and smiled, pulling me closer to him with one hand and holding the other, interlocking our fingers. I hugged him back and smiled. I smiled despite myself, turning a very self conscious shade of red. A chameleon cannot always control its transformations.

“And so, to celebrate our family’s tradition and our friends and patrons, it is our tradition here at La petite illusion, to burn these sets ourselves. We do this to wash away the success and pain of yesterday and start anew. We do this to symbolize our determination and rebirth. We do this because it takes more than fire to kill the French spirit…”

Mother passed the crossguard and knelt, the fire passed into the stream and flared up with a whoosh that made the gathered crowd gasp and then clap enthusiastically. And we followed her, me first, then Lain with Lee, hold her hand. The rest tip-toed near the edge of the mountain of rubbish, snickering as they razed the castle to the ground, Castle of the King, poor Lear, you poor bastard.

Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp.

Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel.

Thy will be done.

And so went pomp, and physic too, and then the throne and every stone, each and every brick, every single inch unto its ruin. That was our Thanksgiving, uniting us in a heathen’s Sabbath, each patron with a little colored candle, blue or white or red, just for us and not far off, just up there, just up above, was an old Watchtower deserted nowm, once a lighthouse—there were no ships no more, no more below at Le corniche, there were no ships. The fire grew ever larger as the candles fell, one after another, the line moving single file, with great caution, and with greater caution still until no longer approaching; it could feed itself.

The countdown began as “Dix!” rang out in a woman’s voice and the great trois coleur, a descending ball along a track and brightly lit, electroc-neon blue-white-red and falling with each descending number;

“Dix,” echoed back, the ball was falling and all were counting:

Neuf!

Huit!

Sept!

Six!

Sinq!

The fireworks went off in the sky, bursting into those patriotic colors, I pulled Lain close to me and put my head against his shoulder and closed my eyes, the fire calming and warming me.

Quatre!

Trois!

Deux!

The flashing lights of the trois coleur solidified as it came to a rest at the base, a base from which it would not rise for another year, next year’s New Year’s Eve, and all were clapping, hugging one another as the fireworks increased in brightness, so bright I could see the whiter whites with my eyes closed, the New Year ringing out through the French countryside.

And all together:

Un!

“Happy new year!”

And those happy people, young and old, all in great cheer and happy, thrilled by the coming year and its promise. I’d never see them again, most of them, and not without a mask. If anyone who stood there then showed up the year to follow, a year from where we stood that night, Lain and I, watching the fire grow and warm inside. One year from a curtain call for most, and finally they’d get the spotlight, center stage, never to see roses, and a shame it is for all to only get your roses when you fall, nor read the many rave reviews, a two-star epitaph on a five-star grave.

<– Return to Prologue Go to Chapter 2 –>

 

Chapter 2

Chapter 2
Late for La Feu

Late for our party now, and with no fashion to it, I tried mother’s mobile phone again.

“Still not answering,” I said.

“It’s after midnight,” said Alain.

“It’s always after midnight, Lain.”

Twelve-oh-one, and quiet.

The clock blinked neon red:

12:01

12:01

12:02

We were returning to the theatre for the party, you know that part. Just like the year before, Last New Year’s Eve. We had driven down the week before, for the Christmas play, which I hadn’t been a part of, some house favorite my mother’s Nameless troupe got funded somehow, those poor faithful fucks. We had been up all night the prior night and hadn’t seen my mother since she left mid-conversation during dinner the night before. So we stayed up all night drinking wine and standing in the cold air, on the landing, smoking cigarettes and spitting into the alley. We were staying in my old apartment, on mother’s estate. He turned the radio on. Static filled the car, hissing and screeching as he flipped between stations; weather forecasts, local news, an all point’s bulletin about a car wreck somewhere:

….From Saint-Roch Mont Fleuri were re–

And it cut out with a long, defeated note, a high F sharp before resolving into the audible silence. Lain put in an unmarked CD from an old leather sleeve I always kept in the car, and the static hum ran short, trailing off and out and in came lovely, lovely music.

Rachmaninoff doesn’t exactly set the mood for a party, and would, I think, be a more appropriate soundtrack for something more solemn than a long car ride through the winding roads by the Catalan sea, though lovely and deep blue, almost black, spotted like a bird’s egg white and calm, a calm sky and a calm sea. A near-perfect mirror where the Earth and Heaven met, where the sky hit the water and turned in upon itself, lighting, if but a touch, that lonely port. Abandoned now. No more war. Not now, at least, just monuments; there will be more. Monuments to monuments, that monolithic road up Le corniche;

La prada first and then Le porte de l’Orient—a war memorial—aren’t they all? And like the war it was more beautiful at night, in silhouette, sharp and exquisite in the dark but dismal in the clearer, more sober eye of day. The small port Vallan des auffres was a popular hang-out when I was in high school, when I first got my driver’s license. Camille and I would drive out there at night when mother stayed over at the theatre, after arguing with Ed, and we’d swing by to park among other parked cars, all filled with the most popular kids, d’jeunes; and it became more and more exclusive, so exclusive until, finally, no one was allowed and no one went.

It’s a greeting card road, a tourist trap. And like every destination, visited only to be seen, for pictures and poses, it’s embarrassing when no one’s there, when it’s out of season and the lighting’s off, the sun never quite right during the Fall. One façade after another, experiments of a lonely god with poor taste. There was nothing to see but the view.

“Are you excited?” Lain asked. “I’m not really in the mood to get drunk, but I am very thirsty.”

As was I.

“I guess,” I said. “I hate that Lianne won’t be there.”

“She’s so sweet,” Lain said. “She’s going to be just like your mom.”

I simply looked at him. Perceptive as he was, he backtracked:

“I’m sorry,” he said. “But…”

“Don’t say but if it just cancels out the first part!”

“She’s going to drink, and she’s going to curse like a drunken wildfire.”

“I can see that,” I said. He smiled a feeble smile. “Lain, it’s cool. Relax.”

“I’m perfectly calm, dude.”

“Just think,” he said. “One day it’ll all be yours. And you’ll have to play out that half-assed story every year and burn it all down too, to keep that little lie alive.”

A question seemed caught in his throat: “Would you ever put the fire out?”

Tick tock, tick tock. Rachmaninoff! God dammit, already! We were supposed to be going to a party, not a funeral, but Lain insisted; something about despair always cheered him up, and I allowed him that indulgence. For a while, at least. The illusion he was in control comforted him, and I let him keep that comfort as long as he could hold onto it without taking mine, and even a little past a soft-line I’d drawn, a line he would never cross, not willingly or knowingly. He wasn’t stupid. Finally, I had enough:

“Play Madame Butterfly,” I said. “As lovely as Rachmaninoff is, it really does sound like someone reading a violin’s suicide letter.”

Tick tock, tick tock.

“Fine,” he said. “As much as I like Puccini, I don’t know what the fuck he’s talking about. Ever. I learned the lyrics, look up the translation, and then I understood it less. I liked it more, I think, when I had no idea what was being said.”

“But you still don’t?”

“Exactly.”

“How is that worse?”

“Because now I’ve put in effort, only to know less. So, now, every time I hear it, I still hear the beautiful, mysterious song that’s always been there. But there’s another part of my brain that says, ‘You don’t know shit!’ Hahaha!’”

Un bel di, vedremo

Levarsi un fil di fumo…

“I love this version,” I said. “When Lianne was still in her crib, I’d play this to get her to go to sleep. And she loves it, always trying to sing along, you know, faking the words, yaourt – that’s the word. Do you know what that word means? It’s one of my favorite words. It’s a French word, yaourt; literally it means ‘to yogurt.’ But really, it’s a word that describes what someone does when they’re trying to sing along with a song but don’t really know the lyrics but that doesn’t stop them from putting in something, trying to fake it, and hope it sounds close enough to what’s being said that no one knows it’s faked.”

Sull’estremo confin del mare.

E poi la nave appare…

“That is a great word,” said Lain. “I think my favorite is—I think it’s a Yiddish word: Protshkeh. A protshkeh is something that is only broke because somebody tried to fix it.”

I laughed.

“That’s a great fuckin’ word,” I said.

“You know it,” Lain said. “It’s like the right-click button on your laptop.”

“Haha!”

“How did that happen?”

“Well, I ordered a wood varnished laptop because plastic, ugh, it just feels… It feels like what a strip club looks like during the day time. There’s nothing really wrong with it, but for some reason, when you look at it, you feel dirty. The problem with the laptop was, it felt fine, didn’t overheat and stayed warm. But it got covered in fingerprints and scuffs and grit gathered on it easily. One night I woke up, couldn’t go back to sleep. And the left key was covered in dirt and had a hair on it. Instead of getting rubbing alcohol and wiping it down like a sensible fucking adult, I turned my shirt inside-out and rubbed it until it came lose and finally until it jammed.”

He laughed.

“Hey,” he said, “at least you don’t have to explain why there’s hair on your mouse.”

Why was it there? Oh, ohh. I felt my cheeks turn red, and hoped that, for the dark, Lain couldn’t see, despite the fact I blushed so loud, a violent, neon red. He could sense the shame, somehow. I dialed a different number, an older number, mother’s disposable for disposable people, homme jetable.

. No answer. Again, no answer. Again and again and again. Lain hadn’t noticed this errant behavior, or had decided to mention it to be polite.

Poi la nave bianca

entra nel porto…

“She never answers,” I said. “It makes me wonder. How does she become busy? She never answers the phone. She doesn’t answer the door.”

… romba il suo saluto.

Vedi? È venuto!

“Oh, don’t you know?” Lain said. “A woman of her stature, she has someone on hand, you know, to be busy for her.”

I laughed.

“Have you tried the desk?”

I glared at him. And he understood.

“Okay, okay,” he said. “I’ve never gotten through to anyone at that place. I’ve called from the parking lot, when I fucking know that no one’s there, and it’s still busy.”

“My mother thinks, and this is just a theory mind you, she thinks that if the line is always tied up, the caller will assume the place is busy. And if it’s busy, then it must follow that it’s open, busy, open—hey, busy is fun sometimes. I guess she does it to give those people hope, the people who want to get drunk alone but have too much pride to do it by themselves.”

The little illusion, indeed.

Io non gli scendo incontro. Io no…

I know.

Mi metto là sul ciglio del colle e aspetto…

“I’ll give that to her,” I said. “My mother knows how to work the Chinese cheese.”

“What the fuck is ‘Chinese cheese’?”

I laughed.

“There are some customers, tourists for the most part, who can’t really tell if a show is good or not, and decide based on the popular opinion. If everybody else seems to enjoy it, they’ll decide it’s good because others think it’s good and, generally speaking, it isn’t proper to stand out when you’re in someone else’s country.”

“Ne peut pas dire un poulet d’un pigeon,” he said.

“Exactly.”

E aspetto gran tempo

e non mi pesa.

We were too late to see the start of the show by then, Tragos and making his living being killed, the crowd cheering on, mother in her red dress, thank you, thank you, love, give money, the tradition continues. I hated to miss seeing Robert, poor Tragos, hoping to give him a cheaper wine, or at least a wine his girlfriend wouldn’t protect. I tried to call one last time. That creepy voice-mail picked up, with the passive-aggressive robot. I let it finish. Because I’m a fucking lady.

“Answer your God damn phone woman!”

E uscito dalla folla cittadina,

un uomo, un picciol punto…

We were nearly there anyway, and I could see the square as the familiar sights rose out of the darkness. Lain paused between verses, perfectly polite, he always was. The square was dark, all those shops were closed; the florists, the rental stores for coats and ties, dresses short and long. Mother owned them all, every shop on the lot. Lain was gathering his things, his old headphones, some fountain pens, that old valise, old and stuffy, stained with ash and white scuffs marked the faded black leather. I had gotten him a new one, elegant and white and pleated, with white trim and a binder. But he wouldn’t throw it out. It did suit the sort of rugged, writer / artist character he played so well. So he kept it around, that stinky piece of shit.

“Hey,” Lain said. Ah! I get so wrapped up in my own nonsense sometimes, the real world jumps out like a ghost, a jump-scare that exists just to say, ‘Hey, you remember comfort?’ If you’re on your way to a party, and you’re with a friend, and they’re quiet and twitchy – say something. They’re having a situation.

I put the phone in my purse. It was dying anyway. They had started, or so I thought. The smoke was rising into the air in great swirling puffs, ever brighter in contrast with the darkness of everything around it, except for its mother, the greater fire underneath that sent it screaming upward.

Lain seemed disappointed when we pulled into a parking space, to the side of the theatre, the worker’s entrance.

“I really wanted to talk to Falstaff,” he said. “A man without honor.”

The entire back-lot and backstage area was on fire. And I imagined everyone lined up around the drapes, my mother leading the mob, counting down from ten to one over and over, the line of petrol along the edge of Juliet’s balcony. Over the Capulets onto the sliding boards and Camille, Camille was there! Poor Camille, the only Face and there alone, there to watch each little dream of hers, each little background, every bird and cloud, turn into fire and vanish.

I put the car in park and Lain took off his seatbelt, opened his door, sticking one long leg out, then the other, ducking under the low clearance of my tiny, tiny car. He closed the door behind him and I remained in the car. I turned the rearview mirror to face me, and looked into my eyes. A little bloodshot, but those little capilarries are hard to see in the dark, and drunkenness would not be hard to swallow. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, breathed in, breathed out. Took off my seatbelt, slid out of the car and closed the door. I clicked the lock button on my keychain and the headlights flashed and the horn beeped. It echoed, and I only then realized how very quiet so large a celebrating crowd had been.

Lain slung his satchel over his shoulder and walked across the packed parking lot with me. I took his hand and pulled him closer and he smiled. The walkway was overgrown and narrow, but nobody went in, at least very few Faces, and Players weren’t allowed to perform in the real world, and complaining is very common place, if not theatrical. The coat-room was dark, and through the tinted glass I strained to see, something, anything, a familiar face in the shadows.

I heard Lain’s pocketwatch chime with a mechanical bird song. It was 1 AM, the New Year had snuck up on us unannounced, and proceeded without our notice or ritual.

No one was in the lobby but the desk was lit from above with an emergency light. The power was out, the shiny table reflecting the weak, pale pink of the florescent bulb. The door to the auditorium was locked.

“Fuck!” I said, pulling on it. The darkness on the other side was still but steady. The moment froze, a broken breeze. And then a great burst of fire lit the sky and shook the door frames. I staggered back, tripped over my own feet. I scrambled to get up, grabbing at Lain’s jeans, then his tangled mess of arms. He pulled me up, back on my feet. The glass in the dark frame shattered, sparkling, glittering in the fire light as it fell in silence to the carpet, a quiet red.

The broken breeze collapsed and time slowed down. I felt the blunt force of something against my arm, and it was Lain, his arms around me, pulling me away, pulling me away from the comfort of the little world I was trying to find to hide away in. When it seemed safe, or at least safer, Lain reached into the empty frame and unlocked the door. He took me by the hand and we walked into the auditorium together.

The gallery had raked seating. Each row was slightly higher than the row in front of it, helping everybody see. And every seat was full, the house lights down and the stage lit but loudly empty, there were three sections, one conic section in the center, two walkways toward the stage, one broke off to the bar, the other near the stage led to the lot out back, intersecting in front of that great proscenium arch, the portrait frame for that great stage.

Lain said something, something distant, as I approached the closest person to me. They were still, too still, too quiet, and so stiff and cold to the touch. I tried to lift an arm, one fragile, cold arm—and it wouldn’t lift. It was glued—literally glued—into the seat. And one after another, every person in the crowd was motionless, lifeless, masked and glued into their seats. The fire from behind the stage, the actor’s paradise raged on, the stage so starkly, so well-staged; nothing there, and never had nothing said more. It was beautiful.

Lain shook me again.

“You have to call your mother!”

I didn’t respond. I couldn’t. I was transfixed, bewitched, stunned stupid by the scale of it all. I imagined that those people, the children at least, the quiet, the dead, those who imagined they might live on, as ghosts or go to heaven, I imagined a whole group of children, ghosts, on the stage and performing, translucent and smiling, laughing without sound, playing to a gripped audience, with their own dead eyes watching them like a one sided mirror blind, or a blind man seeing nothing in that darkness but understanding a reflection somehow.

Lain whisked me away, and everything went quiet. I was on standby, on auto-pilot, outside of myself as we bounded along, down every silent row, that was most striking: everything that wasn’t said, the fire raging on, and Lain doing his best to be the man, to be macho, to be brave, trembling as he tried to pull one arm off the rest, a sick peeling sound, and he stumbled back.

“Their eyes…” I said. “Look.”

Beneath their masks their eyes were wide, somehow focused, paralyzed perhaps, an anesthetic maybe, the work of a twisted taxidermist who had embalmed the living like a mad god’s toyhouse. It was beautiful. Lain shook me again.

“You have to call your mother!” he said.

“It’s beautiful,” I said. “It’s perfect.”

He kept shaking me. I felt it but I didn’t. Then his hand went into my pocket and I snapped out of it immediately. I grabbed his hand and said, “Okay, mother fucker! Okay! What? What!”

“You have to call your mother!”

I tried and tried and tried. It was like an atheist praying, to a God that, if it existed, was fucking deaf.

He threw his satchel to the ground, looking for cigarettes or his medication. The broken breeze repaired, time snapped into place, and I took time to notice Lain. He’d fallen—he’d sat down. He had his pill bottle out. Take four times a day as needed for fucking freak-outs.

I didn’t know what to say. I held out my hand, “Come,” I said. “Let’s see if anyone’s enjoying the show.”

We walked up and down the aisles and through crosswalks. Eerie and quiet, I didn’t recognize anyone, not in the seats I checked. Neither did Lain, not a Face or a Player that we could tell. All focused with blank eyes, rapt and spellbound.

A burst of fire shook the floor and I grabbed Lain’s arm. I thought of mother in her red dress, the Queen of Agamemnon, his wife, standing above him, watching him die and loving it.

The door to the back lot—we couldn’t go out back, or get that close, the metal doorknobs were too hot to touch.

Lain’s thoughtful silence hovered for a moment. Then the moment stretched out and yawned, waiting awkwardly.

“I don’t know what to fucking do!” I shouted.

“Let’s get out of here,” he said. “Come on.”

“Wait!”

I took out my phone and lined up a shot, had to move to the center, from a mid-level perspective to get it in the frame just right. I took picture after picture until the phone warned me off: 5% remaining.

“Come on,” said Lain. “Let’s get the fuck out of here before somebody shows up and thinks we did this.”

We made it back to the car, and Lain was in the driver’s seat waiting on the lighter to pop back out, striking his over and over to no avail. How terrible, I thought, how hard it must be to stand in front of the ocean and die of thirst. I put in a call to Emergency one-12.

“Emergency?” said a woman’s voice. “Can I get your name and location please?”

“Yeah, hey,” I said. “My name is Renette Brisbois. I’m at La petite illusion at Rouge Point. It’s a theatre… It’s owned by Rose-Marie Nanty. The stage is on fire and there are people dead inside.”

“I’m sending emergency response,” the woman said. “Please remain at the scene.”

“Thank you.”

I put the phone away.

“Lain!”

“What?”

“Let’s dance.”

“We can’t,” he backed away. “Are you fucking crazy?”

“Come on!”

“We’ll get in trouble!”

“You can’t get in trouble for dancing!”

I got closer to him and tried to put his arm around my waist. He shied away. “Here, look – Lain, give me your – put your hand – here, on my waist. Lain! Lain, don’t you fuck with me!”

“Okay, okay!” he said. He took my outstretched hand. Our fingers interlocked. “And one, and two, and three…”

Don’t you shed a tear, my love
Just keep on dancing, dear.

</p>
<– 
Return to Chapter 1 | Go to Chapter 3 –>

Feminism as a Humanism, 12 October 2015

I will be asked, be sure of that, if I am a feminist. I would say yes, as that is a part of a larger belief which is, I think, more accurate: a humanist. People are an insoluble mystery as a collective. Even groups can be as mysterious; mystery gives us a safe danger, and a righteous fear to an imagined horror. Groups are created to better understand motivation. An individual’s motivating factor can be different from that of the group, and to find out the motivation for everyone would take too much time, and would be much more difficult to malign using the worst examples of overreach and crazy possible. As PETA is discredited by the very few who throw blood onto mink coats and wrap themselves in plastic as protest, civil rights protestors’ actions are easily marginalized when one subset or individual does something wrong, burns down a building, or attacks a police officer.

Then there’s news; one in a thousand becomes the face of the majority, and a convenient face is used to lionize the entire cause. Then the motivations are assumed instead of interpreted, and the focus becomes the reaction, the protest, rather than what provoked it. And because you have a bogeyman, and bogeyman have that safe danger, you use it to terrify people into feeling threatened by all the protestors’ motivations because of the heavily amplified focus on the behavior, comments, and misdeeds of the few who can provide the safe danger those against civil rights need to scare others into thinking all protesters wish to do this and thereby rally their constituents against the push for human rights being not delegated and decided by genitalia, skin, cultures, or religion.

That is the feminism I know; and it’s not separate, a girl’s club; it’s a group of people dedicated to the idea that human beings are human beings, regardless of their sex organs or lack thereof, and should be granted the same opportunity appropriate to their ability to make the best of it with an ability not given to them by the same genetic code that changes colors of skin or sex organs; by the development and ability of character should all be afforded the opportunity to excel, not at anyone’s expense, but to everyone’s advantage; a world divided by isms and ists is not the goal; the goal of feminism and humanism is to bring about a world where there’s no need for this division, a world where no one stands to lose for who they are, where everyone stands to gain for what goodness they can bring into the world. Protestors aren’t protesting to win at the expense of anyone, they’re not fighting to win if winning is defined by the defeat of someone else. The fight is to end the fight, to show that paths to peace are forged not by the forceful paving of unnatural roads, but by frequent walks enemies can take toward a common ground, a ground where the only items on a checklist are willing, check; able, check; and human, check. We’re in this together people.

The struggle will only be a struggle as long as one side is fighting to defeat the other, while the other side is fighting to be equal – not through defeat, but through concession of the universal elements of humanity that tie us to each other, to our friends, our family, to our pets, and to this world, a world big enough for every person, every ism, every ist; a world not made for feminists or environmentalists out of the ruins of another’s world, but out of the acceptance into that world by everyone. When division ceases, there are no sides, and without sides there is no war. There’d be no need for it. I am feminist because that is worth fighting for. Victory is not measured by those conquered, but by those liberated, and the feminist movement at its best and as it is best represented, looks for the victory of opportunity, personal freedom, and the personal freedom of others to choose among freedoms, not restrictions or asterisks or exceptions for or against anyone.

Struggles might be unique to individuals, but to struggle is the condition by which peace is possible. I want to be strong so I can stand in the rain and not worry about being blown over. I want to be strong so my strength might inspire further courage to stand in the rain until no one else is forced to. None of us have a monopoly on struggle, on true faith, wisdom or belief, and there are more things that make us like one another than make us different. We all want to be loved. We all worry about our friends and families. We all struggle to put together a puzzle we can’t see. The struggle might not go away, but it is easy to push away boundaries to possibility when everyone is pushing in the same direction, as long as that direction is forward, and for the future, to pay our debts for those who stood in the rain before us, those who showed us we weren’t the only ones on eggshells, struggling to find our place in the world. We all have one, and humanism is about pushing forward to allow all to take the road they feel may best get them out of the rain. For the truth is, to stand in the rain is not so bad when you don’t have to stand alone. Feminism and humanism is thus motivated, by common and unique bonds, not to change the rain, but to make sure no one drowns and let those who stand know that someone will be there if they go under, because of how many people went under so they could stand.

The protest for opportunity and equal treatment is not the sigh of an oppressed people. The demand for equality is not a demand for the opposition’s failure. The solution is not proposed to be to another’s detriment. Civil protest is the war of the civilized; and the loudest warriors aren’t the loudest, but those who stop the most screaming. So put your war faces on and join someone in the rain. Heroes are those who help others stand. Heroes aren’t always on the news, nor do they get a citation for helping someone with their math homework. There’s no medal of honor for a mother of two raising beautiful happy and healthy children – a person this strong doesn’t need a necklace. They have guts, and guts is enough. You might get no award or medal or be praised for the simple act of helping another person, male or female, black or white, atheist or theist, but in a better world, in a perfect world, you wouldn’t have to pay a fine.

Theatre and Culture, 10 October 2015

Theatre may have started as an organizing force, an excuse for fellowship and ritual in the ancient world, such as what we know of its development in Ancient Greece. At first, it was just for men – and even when there were female characters, they were portrayed by men. Even so, it was a way for a community of shared interests, leading to more than a collection of individuals – culture. That’s a small word, culture. And vague, and hard to use in its broadest sense, in the full scope of what it offers (and what it takes).

It is the sum total of a people, their hopes and values, their fears and regrets. It does more than tie a people together. It forms the basis of a collected consciousness; it gives us heroes to admire and attempt to follow, and villains to despise and, shamefully, get a measure and bit of understanding about the darker side of human nature and ourselves. The collected mythology of a culture is a projection of their unconscious, and through that we get a glimpse into who they were. You can get a better sense of who the English were at the turn of the 16th century through the works of Shakespeare than you can from historians, since historians recount the deeds of the extraordinary, and writers recount the deeds of the ordinary as well and, ironically, it is more extraordinary to read. Shakespeare was able to use the past as a lens to focus on the very real religious schism of his age, something Kip Marlowe would do also do in his Satanic drama in Dr Faustus.

In plundering the more traditional histories recounted in Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles, Shakespeare was able to create an anatomy of the era, examining the lowborn and the high and mighty, giving the newly excommunicated England a sense of who they were and what their stories would be. ‘An island unto itself’ is vaguely reminiscent of Richard III’s line in Act V, Scene VI of Henry VI: ‘I am myself alone.’ Shakespeare did this in a way that Holinshed never could, by making history into something poetic and resonant, and–most importantly–entertaining. This is not to discredit Holinshed; I just couldn’t imagine a crowd of theatre patrons thrilling at the recitation of the following as a dramatic soliloquy:
The situation of our region, lieng ne’ere unto the north, dooth cause the heate of our stomaches to be of somewhat greater force: therefore our bodies doo crave a little more ample nourishment, than the inhabitants of the hotter regions are accustomed withall, whose digestive force is not altogether so vehement.”
Always makes me choke up, that bit about the stomaches.

The same is true of Homer and Virgil, whose characters and struggles are as revealing as Livy’s formal histories.

Future historians will learn more about the character of Americans in the early 21st century from the books of Jacopo della Quercia than traditional historians, as he is a historian Robot. He is a friend, but I say this not to kiss his ass but, as Socrates said, Game recognize game.[citation needed]. His articles and works, such as The Great Abraham Lincoln Pocket Watch Conspiracy and License to Quill, afford us a perspective not possible through traditional histories, and succeed as history and entertainment, offering a unique, rare insight into the character of the modern world–by using the past to look into the character of the age and toward the future, in a manner very analogous to Shakespeare; and in doing so manages to reveal the intrigue and obsessions of the modern world–in an age where we look for the truth in fiction and for the fiction in popular accounts of truth, which is often the case in a culture of conspiracy. Compared to Virgil’s Aeneid, Ab Urbe Condita Libri ain’t shit. (I apologize to any sincere Livy fan who may be reading, and Livy personally, if you’re haunting the internet looking for mentions of yourself. Egomaniac. Got nothing against you, Petronious.)

These pieces may exist outside of our influence, and are ultimately beyond our control, but when we put those pieces together, from history and entertainment and culture, the end result is a reflection of who we are; it is the building of the mirror, and it is in this reflection, these glimpses into our motivations and desires, our fears and neuroses, the impulses behind our thoughts and beliefs–this is what literally defines us. It is the microcosm, the smaller creature in contrast to the macrocosm, the larger organism that is the culture. Like life it starts with ‘I’ and ends with ‘Y’? (see what I did there? High five!) It is identity.

You gonna leave me hanging? Guys?

…Guys?

*High five*
Thanks, Livy!

Visually Speaking: The Killing Fields (1984) 9 October 2015

Visually Speaking, 9 October 2015,
The Killing Fields

kill

A photographer is trapped in Cambodia during tyrant Pol Pot’s bloody “Year Zero” cleansing campaign, which claimed the lives of two million “undesirable” civilians.

Director:

Roland Joffé

Writer:

Bruce Robinson (screenplay)

*****

VISUALLY SPEAKING: 3 OCTOBER 2015 – THE KILLING FIELDS

To start a movie set in Pol Pot’s Cambodia with the background prattle of the worst of the worst in American politics, the Watergate bugging and ensuing constitutional crisis, Nixon’s approval rating – it’s all in stark contrast, the American crisis and the politics of foreign war, to the abrupt explosion at the beginning of the film, which has the effect of ruining breakfast for the main protagonist, a reporter and his translator – and you see the chaos, the fire and the panic, and to think of the American’s back at home, listening to their crisis over breakfast, discussing it, nodding in approval or shaking their heads dismissively, it shows the comfort at a distance we often have when approaching horrors of this magnitude. To the people in Cambodia as depicted in this film, there is no such distance, this distance was not an option for those in the Killing Fields, when you didn’t see fire in a fuzzy, black and white television set in the safety of your home. In the Killing Fields, the fire was bright red and close enough to lick your face.

The journalist responds by snapping pictures of the chaos, a dead body in the tangled metal of a wiry bicycle frame, until he’s whisked away by his translator to a plane. As they are about to take off, a military man is poised to stop them. The New York Time’s reporter responds by reminding him by the Cooper/Church amendment – and because of its protection, the military man agrees to let them go. Rules and treaties, amendaments, these things still could have saved him, but didn’t. That’s a part of a less savage world, despite the savageness of it, his plane leaves him in this country, at the moment when America has bombed Cambodia. This is the conflict that sets the film in motion.

The reporter still uses threats in political terms, with the implied exposure of his future story (which would become the basis of his story) the most polite type of violence. Back at the hotel, the reporter learns that because of a computer malfunction, a B-52 bomber dropped its entire payload on Neak Luong, leaving a homing beacon in the middle of town. When asked about casualties, a man at the hotel replies in cold, political terms: ‘You’ll be briefed tomorrow.’ He is told: ’55 military, something like 35 civilians,’ the casualness underscoring the prevalent attitude of the west at the time. When pressed, he changes his story: ‘We hear it’s in the 100s – but don’t quote me on that.’

The question seems to be for a different time when Sydney, our reporter, asks, in Hollywood tal, ‘Will there be a bloodbath when the Khmer Rouge come to town?’
“Americans take themselves so seriously.”
With the Yanks still out at sea, the song finishes.
The next short is memorable: the reporter with his translator sitting in a row-boat beside the rusted ruins of a sailing ship – possibly a war ship. The Yanks are still at sea. The outrages are superficial, as are the fears and happiness of the culture he represents, the culture he is a part of, the culture he helped to cultivate and establish. When Sydney finds a woman whose ship was destroyed, her husband killed, his motivation remains largely political, asking: ‘How many bombs?’ He doesn’t seem to register the question put to him, about justice: ‘Was the pilot arrested?’

When a prison truck shows up, Dith Pran, his translator, tells Sydney about the Khmer Rouge soaking rags in gasoline and stuffing it into the mouths of POWs and setting them on fire; he continues pretending to snap photos until a soldier points at a gun on him. He takes it lightly, saying twice: ‘It’s alright’ He is then taen away in a jeep as two prisoners are kicked to the ground, presumably to be executed, and the camera pans away, to a lone man walking among the rubble to the sound of American rock and roll.
When Sydney and Dith Pram are taken to a building under the guard of a man loading a pistol, Dith Pram confides his worries about being arrested to Sydney, and being responsible for their being there. Sydney tells him he wants cigarettes. He’s still a part of the soft war; when he’s told he can’t take a piss, a common comfort not really considered a luxury in America, that’s when he declares: ‘I’ve had enough of this bullshit,’ and gets up, as if to leave. It’s only when he’s stopped, the barrels of rifles filling the scene, does he seem to understand. The rifle barrels are frozen, mid-frame, making a profound, albeit silent point. Sidney promises his translator and friend Dith Pram, ‘I won’t leave you.’

This all changes when the sound of halicopters is heard, realizing a press corp has been brought in to ‘sanitize the story.’ The demands to leave, and is referred to a higher officer, who refuses his passage out, saying: ‘You came in on a boat.’ Sydney is still there for the story, and that’s all he seems to care about; that is, until he sees a dead woman, up-close and personal on a scretcher, covered in blood. The fire is no longer black and white, and he no longer has the comfort of the distance afforded by a television screen: the fire has licked his face. The camera hangs on his expression, his eyes, and dissolves to 10 March 1975.

When he’s told he has made ‘the front page’ he says, ‘We must be doing something right,’ earning the uneasy smile of his translator, whose wife has become increasingly worried about the Khmer Rouge. This is the dramatic conflict, the difference between the gimmick conflict, the telling of the story, and the story as it unfolded to the unwitting participants in this great drama, much of which remains unknown in the west. It is handled in speeches to the press, as 2 million refugees are taken from the capital. As usual, the aggressors blame the opposition for the fight, but only when they feel they may be defeated, when there is dignity in defeat – but only if you lose while still being right.

The following scenes are disorienting: there’s typing, tourists from South Carolina coming in, Gerald Ford and his concerns with the politics of Cambodia, and at the embassy – the French embassy, which was a relic from the French colonial rule that Pol Pot so despised – people are flooding in asking for Asylum, as Sydney becomes desperate in his search for Dith Pram, who, out of sheer chance, doesn’t get through the gates. [Gerald] Ford – politically – agrees that America ‘shouldn’t get involved in Cambodia’ – Millions die.

The Killing Fields is a movie about real fear and real need versus superficial fears and needs, short courage versus real, moral and physical courage. Pram loses his entire family in the evaculation, and in their first moments alone, Syd has Pram smile for a photograph [keep in mind, the actor playing Dith Pram was a real life survivor of the Cambodian Killing Fields – who would go on to win an Oscar, an oscar that would be dull and drained of color by the time of his death, as he had held onto it so much.] Always obliging, Pram smiles for the camera, and does so with a very understated sadness, expressing the mute, inner turmoil of being involved in the largest cultural suicide in human history.

The Khmer Rouge arrive victorious and celebrated. Syd is shaving, contrasted with the scenes outside of the embassy, with a razorblade to his throat, illustrating the false sense of comfort there is to be found in such empty routines. The parade outside is contrasted by scenes of a children’s hospital, where children are victims, and outside, where children – who must be younger than 15 – are the villains, clearly put forward as such, as the Khmer Rouge tank rolls in. Chaos: Pram gives away his water just to join Syd and the other correspondents on the helicopter. Syd loses it temporarily, eating the yellow flower – a common decal for the Khmer Rouge – in stupid desperation, knowing it won’t help him or anyone in his company. Murder: and Dith Pram prays. ‘A prayer I didn’t understand, but I hoped it was in my favor.’

After seemingly being freed, Syd and Pram leave to find alsbolute mayhem: tanks carying boisterous, gun-hoisting Khmer Rouge soldiers, fires everywhere, photojournalists taking photographs out of habit in a daze, all leading to the giant march, a huge crowd, thousands and then millions, moved by unseen hands to a place they know only they must go, as the capital Phnom Penh becomes a ghost town, eerie monoliths of the modern world emptied as Pol Pot’s experiment to take civilization back to Year Zero begins. In Washington, this mass exodus, this symphony of fear and terror, is a talking point, a new’s story, another issue to be discussed and dissected, while people are fed to the machine of mechanized terror.

What do people do in the face of such fear and horror? The reporters collapse into the humor, like memento mori, the kind of humor that developed during the black plague in Europe. At the same time, a roll of film is desperately being sought to save Dith Pram’s life, to keep him in the Embassy instead of being forced on the long death march into the country, a march that would claim the lives of 1 in 4 Cambodians, the saddest parade imaginable. The story remains personable, and all of this has taken place by the half-way point, the role of politics and war is experienced by most coldly at the French embassy, while listening to calm reports inside while, just outside, a taxi has just arrived only to drop off his cargo, cargo consisting of two dead pigs, large and bloated and pale, on the steps outside.

The subplot surrounding the photo manipulation and passport fakery amount to nothing, and is perhaps the most subtle comment on the nature of images and press in a world of such horror, unimaginable to the comfortable, debating the ethics of wiretapping. Their wizardry with cameras and storytelling serve to engender real change or security for Dith Pram, who has so far been one of the few wholly innocent characters in the story. The next scene is one of the most tragic and beautiful in the film: Pram’s depature in the rain, walking along the road toward The Killing Fields, contrasted with Syd’s return to America, and his on-going seach for Pram in the countryside of Cambodia is set to contrast Syd’s discovery of the difference between real war and a soft war, and this was his way to fight a real war with that same soft war of politics and journalism, in the gamble of a hope to save on good man among millions thinking, perhaps, to save one good man among millions will somehow allow dignity to be preserved, the dignity of life, friendship, and decency.

Syd may have escaped The Killing Fields, but the naive reporter who began the story died a long time ago, and there’s one thing about death that will forever hurt the living: the dead don’t have to live with their passing. The search for Pram becomes the defining characteristic of his character, a part of who he became. And ge goes through the motions, sifting through photographs, making calls, listening to reports on the ongoing conflict in Cambodia – when the bombing, the bombing that sat the events of the film in motion, wasn’t an accident: it was intentional and intentionally a secret, and the film does well to put a human fac on what would be, for most people, a faceless, unrelatable mass, and when we connect with a person, we, through this, connect to some aspect of the struggle, caught between opposing forces of powers, each seeking to impose their will on a (mostly) innocent population, the will of the named few upon the often nameless, lost multitudes that history hasn’t so much forgot as history never really knew. Those are the bones Pram stumbles over as he walks lonely through the desolated landscape of a world reset, the Pol Pot doctrine, Year Zero has become the most profound example of cultural suicide in known history, and very few films show war without making some part of it exciting, the violence especially, but in this film, the violence doesn’t excite you: it grabs you by the throat and forces you to numb yourself or become a more acutely feeling, empathetic human being, to abandon cynicism as an excuse to do nothing and embrace, foolishly or not, the optimism of sentamentality, delusional or not, for there is hope in that.

The third act of the film begins with Syd’s acceptance speech for an award bestowed upon him for his coverage of the conflict in Cambodia. He addresses the pervasiveness of abstraction in the political language of war, and the reality and contrast between this way of talking about war and violence and how it really is, bringing it home with him, to hope that if someone can see – like the audience – and know someone, the character of a person who was forced to live through this, maybe they will move past the polemic of condemnation or support when it comes to military force in support or in opposition to foreign armies, especially when not fighting a direct enemy of America. He implores the largely indifferent crowd to stop clapping for themselves long enough to realize the way this very performance only perpetuates the theatre of war as a background to the mechizations of power and the conscious, meticulously crafting and selling of war as a point of pride to the American public.

There are many different ways to wage war: there is a cowardice to the soft war approach, the kind based very much on superficial, as opposed to super-fears; but there is a nobility in the soft war when the battlefield is the human conscience, the fight to expose corruption and by fighting and opposing rally others to this fight, and with this soft war in the real, much more horrific wars. Pop Pot’s experiment with Year Zero was a fight to justify the rebellion of the oppossed with the response of more an philosophically ratonalized cultural suicide, but it remains to this day a distant outrage among the western, civilized wold, which, though capable of fighting the soft war nobly and non-violently, sell fear as hope and war as peace instead of peace to end war and hope to negate that fear. When the people of compassion and kindness are pushed to obscurity, out of positions that would afford them the power to make decisions for a genuine and lasting good, to sway for good or ill the tipping point of a country into a chosen war, a more tangible apocalypse, where dissenting opinons aren’t tip-toed around or heresy, or treason among rivals in the culture war. In the Killing Fields you tip-toe around the bones of generations lost, engineered by someone who very much prefers the skeleton to the organism, the labor of animals to the development of character and education.

It has been said that the first casualty of war is truth. Then it must follow that the greatest of war criminals are the most seductive of liars, whose charisma is expended with the intent to sway others to toward an imagined, false ideal of honor or glory, or even in victory, the heroism is in spite of the makers of war, not because of it, and the ultimate message of a film which seeks to contrast the different wars we all must fight is the danger of suffering and tragedy’s inherent attraction and marketability. In the end, Syd is trying to save Pram, an innocent child of war, while Pram, still alive, is himself trying to find a way to save an innocent, making the parallels between the characters more poignant and sharp, in that when faced with such obstacles, the human animal becomes its most pure form of good or its most pure form of animal and the victory for the soldiers and journalists is moving the needle towards a moral exorcism, if only slightly, to allow us, as viewers and citizens of the global community, to remember what has always been one of the very few reasons to fight: to protect those who cannot protect themselves.

In The Killing Fields, the main characters, like we the audience, start as bystanders to a movement we don’t quite understand, giving us a sideline view to one of the most profound human dramas of the 20th century. But, not content to leave us mere bystanders, we’re allowed the true measure of the various struggles within ever greater struggles, letting us be a part of the search for dignity and nobility and warmth in a world that is ever colder, ever crueler, with many Pol Pot’s looking to do very similar things, and standing between them, sometimes, is not the heads of state in the most powerful nations on the Earth, but the people who risk their lives to get the story to the public, hoping that it will connect with the most empathetic centers of our character and soul and move us toward action in the name of peace and goodwill, with the motivation being consolation and comfort, instead of conquest and destruction. In the war between life and death, our guides are sympathetic and relatable, never exaggerated beyond what they were: decent men in indecent times, trying to survive with their lives and, if possible, their capacity for love. By one conflict or another, large or small, our capacity for hope and empathy may be the only true moral compass when navigating The Killing Fields.

Songs of Lalande (2002) my first novel (complete)

Brandon Nobles

Songs of Lalande

1: THE MYSTERY IN CETUS

________________________________

There was no question about it now: Tomos was real. Even the people who protested the launch of the Ceti Probe, that now approached the distant star at incomprehensible speeds, conceded and put away their protest signs.

     All the long lines along the roads in Washington D.C. dissipated. Everyone scratched their heads.

     Geniuses, philosophers, poets, farmers, no one-no one could make one bit of sense of the discovery.

     A plumber’s opinion on Tomos would be just as credible as the opinion of an astrophysicist or astronomer.

     The planet was a mirror image. An exact match. Landmarks, rivers, even manmade artifacts-they were all there. All orbiting a distant star in a lifeless system.

     How did the Great Wall of China end up in Tau Ceti? How was the Eiffel Tower spiraling out of control towards a star twelve million light years from the Earth? What was the Sears Tower doing in the Cetus constellation? No one had a clue.

     At first it was thought of as an elaborate hoax by the mainstream media. After making the information surrounding the discovery public, its existence was confirmed by thousands of observatories and independent astronomers from around the globe.

     They named it Tomos, the Twin. Pictures, posters, and even t-shirts bore its fuzzy image. Astronomers basked in their newfound credibility and celebrity. The Mystery in Cetus swept the world. Thousands of people held inconclusive meetings, conferences, and press briefings. They debated the possibilities on all the late night talk shows. Scientists, who never made it into the spotlight, were being interviewed by celebrities on prime time television. This was a sure sign of making it: being interviewed by someone famous. But everyone left the question with the same conclusion: there was no conclusion to it. No one had any real idea of what Tomos meant to them or to the human race.

     The possibilities were endless. Science fiction fans even made public their own interpretations of the discovery. But no one knew. There were, of course, a variety of theories circling through the tabloids and newspapers, internet forums and newsgroups. Some of them originated from respectable sources. Some originated from less than respectable sources. Some of them originated from conspiracy theorists that lived in their basements wearing tinfoil hats and t-shirts marked The Truth is Out There.

     Some opinions, invoking the name of various Gods, came from religious groups around the world. There were those who believed it to be a sign of the impending apocalypse. And there were those who just thought all of the religious hokum was clouding up any attempt to make a scientific discovery. And there were those who just went to work, played the lottery, and paid little attention to social matters.

     “Shiva has made a copy,” said many Hindu’s around the world, “Because she will destroy our world when she sleeps. Then, when she wakes, she will beat her drum and make it anew.”

     Many attempts had been made to stop the launching of the Ceti Probe. Many people were arrested. Even a man named Roger, and he just showed up to watch the fireworks. He ended up in a scuffle with a dozen or so half crazed fundamentalists throwing crosses at the launch site.

     The National Security Advisor summoned a small group of professional astronomers.

     At the National Geographic Society in Washington D.C. they held an official briefing. The intent behind the meeting was to attempt to abate the public’s interest in time to figure out what the Twin, which now spiraled around Tau Ceti, really meant.

     Elise arrived late. She stood not too far before the stage, putting on makeup and fixing her hair. Her hair was short and auburn, curled at the ends, and in perfect contrast with her freckled face.

     “Tau Ceti is a sun like star,” a young astronomer explained before the gathering crowd. He sat at a long table, covered with a blue cloth, before a large group of reporters. He fidgeted with his pen, waiting. To his great relief, Elise sat down beside him along with two of her colleagues. Cameras flashed and the news cameras began rolling. Now he could safely disappear from the public eye, which now focused intently on Elise and her colleagues from the Bureau.

     The small panel of astronomers had gathered at the President’s behest. They sat before cameras from around the world and were prepared to accept questions. Answers were a different story.

     “Tau Ceti is right at twelve light years away,” Elise spoke into her microphone, “and, shockingly, as of this moment, we believe it is incapable of supporting terrestrial life.”

     “Isn’t it true,” a reporter questioned, standing, “that Tau Ceti has been long thought of as a place that could harbor extraterrestrial intelligence? Numerous science fiction works have been published on these possibilities. Even books of credible science…”

     “It is,” explained Dr. Elise Manwell, wife to the prominent molecular biologist Dr. Roger Manwell, “but, the speculation in most of those areas of fiction is the possibility of alien intelligence in the star system. From our preliminary findings, Tau Ceti could not, as of now, support carbon based life forms.”

     “Dr. Manwell,” another reporter called, holding up a pen, “How does the Bureau of Astronomy account for these findings? Is there still a possibility that this could be a hoax?”

     “As far as we’re concerned,” Elise said, “this planet is there. Tomos is physically there. Any observer on Earth can see it plainly. We can get physical readings from it and even radio signals. All possibilities that it could be a reflection have been exhausted.”

     “Dr. Manwell,” another called, “could this be considered dangerous? What are the implications?”

     “There are a few of those,” Elise said. She chuckled. The uneasy crowd managed to laugh a bit as well. “The most pressing, and only real scientific explanation, is the possibility of a wormhole in our system. The only possibility we’ve managed to come up with, at least moderately feasible, is that somewhere in our orbit around the sun, we managed to pass through a wormhole. It could be possible that the wormhole took the landmass to another part of the universe, making a physical replica of it. In a matter of speaking, this suggests that wormholes allow one physical object to exist at two different points in space. In a few days, the Ceti probe will land and we’ll be able to get images from the surface.”

     “Would there be replicas of us,” a different reporter asked, “if this theory was solidified with the Ceti probe? If the wormhole made a physical copy of the planet, wouldn’t it have made copies of us, too?”

     “If the wormhole made copies of us,” the elderly Dr. Horace Daniels said, “they would all be dead by now. Oxygen is something we humans are quite fond of.”

     Elise took a sip from a glass of water and cleared her throat. Sweat beaded off her forehead. She looked at all the eager faces in the crowd, searching for her husband. Roger was asleep in the second row. The hat of a foreign delegate was being used as a pillow. She coughed, forcing herself not to laugh.

     Roger always showed up at her press conferences to ease her nerves. Sometimes he’d ask absurd questions, purely for her enjoyment, or sometimes he’d end up in jail for disorderly conduct, purely for his enjoyment.

     “Well,” Dr. Daniels spoke up, drawing focus from Elise, “we’re not sure how to account for it, honestly. Right now, anybody’s guess is as good as ours. The wormhole is just a semi-educated guess.”

     The crowd laughed a bit. Roger yawned and fluffed the foreign delegate’s hat, rolled over, and went back to sleep.

     “Dim the lights,” Elise shouted to an engineer in the background. The lights dimmed and she rose to her feet, pulling down a projection screen. In the rafters a man turned on the slideshow projection unit. Images flitted on the screen. Elise grabbed the clicker from the table and changed images, bringing the projection screen to life. An image of the Cetus constellation appeared on the screen.

     “This,” said Elise, pointing to a sparkling dot, “is Tau Ceti. Tau Ceti lies in the constellation Cetus. The Whale.”

     Roger stood and applauded raucously. Her pale face flushed, turning her pastel cheeks bright red. Her colleagues tried, and failed, to hide their amusement. Roger was well liked among the Bureau and among anyone with a sense of humor.

     “This is the planet,” she gestured to a small blue dot on the screen. “This is Tomos. Yes, Tomos appears to be a perfect geographical replica of the Earth. That much is true. That’s the only thing yet established as truth: it’s there.”

     She zoomed in on the blue dot, allowing for the crowd to see the features of the planet.

“At first it was hard to see,” she continued, “because of all the asteroids and dust in the system. My husband, as you know, Dr. Roger Manwell, suggested that it might’ve been hidden in the system.”

     There was moderate laughing from the crowd again. Dr. Daniels smiled. Roger was snoring loudly. Elise struggled not to laugh.

     “It was also significantly faint in comparison to the star,” Elise continued, “This is a picture NASA produced of the Tau Ceti system ten years ago. Ten years ago, Tomos was not in the Tau Ceti system. That is also fact. Astronomical records from the last ten years have shown no signs of Tomos in Tau Ceti. They’ve shown no signs, no reports, nothing of Tomos.”

     She pressed the button on the clicker. The screen changed and it showed the same star. The image showed a dense star system full of dust and asteroids. She navigated the image through the rocks and dust in closer to the star and then drew back, showing the uninhabited system. People whispered amongst themselves. Casual astronomers in the audience explained things to their friends. Roger snored.

     “See,” she pointed, “this is a system that is ravaged by asteroids and comets…It’s hard to make out anything in the outer recesses of the system, even with our most powerful Long Reach scopes. Tomos, when first discovered, even seemed wrapped in a cloud of dust.”

     “Isn’t it true,” a large, heavy set reporter from the back of the room called out, “That Tau Ceti is a metal deficient star?”

     “Well, yes,” Elise said.

     “Then,” the reporter continued, “wouldn’t it be less likely to have planets in orbit with geographical features?”

     “Yes,” Elise said again.

     “And isn’t it also true, that this planet wasn’t found in orbit, but merely appeared on the astronomical radar one night out of nowhere? One day it was there, one day it wasn’t. Something is being hidden from the public.”

     “That is unsubstantiated gossip,” Roger shouted at the man, “plucked from the tabloids. It’s nice to know you can read, but why don’t you sit down and allow for more professional questions to be proffered or perhaps you’d like me to tuck you in and read you some sort of bedtime story?”

     Elise laughed to herself, realizing he had simply pretended to be asleep for her amusement. Roger’s lack of shame always eased her nerves, and reminded herself not to take herself so seriously.

     “Or maybe we can wait around on you to get arrested again!” the man shouted back, “Just like you did at the Symposium of Satellite Technology three months ago.”

     “Those charges were trumped up and you know it!” Roger said. “I didn’t even have a knife!”

     “Sit down, both of you!” said a security guard. “You are not on a playground. You’re in the Nation’s Capital.”

     The man huffed and puffed and sat his angry ass down. For the rest of the evening he sat with his arms crossed, looking around all huffy, and casting mean glances at Roger. This suited Roger fine, he enjoyed the attention.

“Actually,” said Dr. Nigel Lauren, Elise’s coworker, “that is precisely what has happened.” He forced a professional looking smile and took the clicker. “This,” he said, changing pictures with the clicker, “is Tau Ceti ten years ago.”

     The image of the lone star and littered system came back into view.

     “This image was taken by Hubble in 2037. See the scattered rocks and debris? It was thought to be a sun capable of supporting life early in the 20th century, and even into the 21st century. Until the Long Reach scopes were created, we couldn’t get into range to make any assessment regarding potential planets in the system. This system has been closely monitored by radio telescopes and even amateur astronomers. Last week, an observatory in Sweden reported an artificial object floating in the system.”

     “And by way of the Long Reach scope,” Elise said, standing, “We determined what the object was.”

     “Tomos?” a rigid looking reporter asked.

     “Yes,” Elise responded.

     Nigel clicked and a blurry image came on the screen. By all standards, it was an exact replica of the planet Earth.

     “This was taken a few days ago,” he said, clicking again, “and this is a close-up of Africa…” He adjusted the resolution, bringing the features into focus.

     A small hush washed over the small crowd of reporters and family members when the distinct shapes of Mount Kenya appeared on the screen.

     “And,” Nigel continued, “of Africa at night.” He clicked the mechanism again. A highly illuminated picture of Africa appeared. In all the familiar spots, there were distinct signs of artificial lighting. Human lighting in all the familiar places.

     “Questions?” Nigel asked, motioning for the engineer to rouse the lights.

     “Will you tell that guy those charges were dropped?” Roger asked. “I really didn’t have a knife. They searched me at the police station.”

     A small bit of laughter rose in the otherwise stilted crowd.

     “Serious questions?” Elise asked. She couldn’t resist a smile.

    “What is the probability due to the diversity and vastness of the universe that another planet in another star system could take the shapes and forms of a planet in ours?” Roger asked. “If our planet became the way it is by specific repeated patterns over time, then another planet could be formed to look like ours if the same processes are repeated. But, what is the statistical likelihood of a planet being so similar to our own? Are we arrogant to think the Earth is a one of a kind jewel, and that it’s possible that thousands of planets identical to the generic Earth exist in space?”

     “That’s an idea,” Elise said. “But like you said, the probability of such an exact formation process occurring in separate solar systems is negligible.”

     “Has it been confirmed that it isn’t artificial?” a young reporter from the back asked, standing up.

     “The planet itself,” Elise responded, “appears to be natural. As natural as ours in every way.”

     “And the atmosphere?” pressed the young reporter.

     “That is where the main difference is,” said Nigel.

     “Venus,” Elise conceded, “has an atmosphere consisting of carbon dioxide and nitrogen. Tomos, is similar to Venus in this respect.”

     “Then there could be no life on the planet?”

     “Certainly no human life,” Elise said, looking to Roger. He was sleeping, or pretending to be sleeping, again. He’ll never change, she thought.

     “We have some working theories,” said the Director of the Bureau of Astronomy, “though they are a bit farfetched.”

     “Let’s hear ’em!” Roger shouted. “Farfetched theories are my personal favorites. They’re harder to prove and require more imagination than intelligence.”

     “The first,” Dr. Nigel said, “is that it might be some sort of extraterrestrial beacon. Kind of like holding a candle in the dark, letting us know they’re there and that they know we’re here.”

     “We’re inviting public opinion on this one,” Elise said, “You know what that means. It means we really have nothing on the shelf.”

     “Could it be some sort of sign from God?” a bald man asked. He was sitting right in front of the stage.

     Roger roared with laughter.

     “Could be,” Elise said, “but, there are quite a few questions we’d have to ask this God. When and if he becomes available,” she said to the news cameras, “he must contact us at once. I’m sure he has our number.”

     “In what way does this finding differ from discoveries in the past, Dr. Manwell?” a man in a fine silk suit asked. His hair was black, combed to the side, and he smoked on a hand rolled cigarette.

     There was no smoking allowed in the building, but he didn’t seem to mind.

     “There is something that makes this significantly different. Unlike the discoveries of Pluto’s new moons, the habitable planets in the Centauri system, and the countless discoveries we’ve made in the last twenty years, there seems to be no reasonable hypothesis. With all the other discoveries, moons, nebulae, dust clouds and galaxies, there seemed to be a natural reasoning behind their findings.

     “With this discovery, the purpose, origin, reason, everything lies outside our reasoning. It’s as though you painted an increasingly intricate portrait by hand and discovered that it one day appeared in Hong Kong. The exact same drawing, mind you, exists in two different places at once. Forgive my language, but what can be made of this?”

     The man nodded and took a drag from his cigarette.

     “Voodoo,” Roger mumbled. “It’s plain as day.” Get arrested one time on a trumped up assault with a deadly weapon charge and no one takes you seriously…he spoke under his breath. That guy brought it up. I should kick his ass. It’s his fault… This kind of thought went on through the rest of the presentation.

     “Are there any unresolved questions?” she beckoned.

“How did it get there?” someone asked.

     “We don’t know,” Elise responded sadly, beginning to get nervous again, fantasizing about the bottle of valium she had on the lamp-stand beside her bed.

     “Why don’t you know?” another asked.

     “Because they’re baboons,” Roger opined, still fussy. “They’re all baboons in lab coats here.”

     “Because, Roger, there is no data to suggest its trajectory is any different than a natural planet orbiting a sun.”

     The crowd was silent for a minute.

     “Are you one hundred percent sure that it is an exact replica of Earth?” a young woman asked.

     “Tomos has been confirmed by extremely powerful Long Reach telescopes to have The Great Wall of China, the Pyramids, cities such as New York and Tokyo, all of the buildings can be seen. We can’t however, get too far into the atmosphere to see anything other than the larger monuments and buildings. When the probe lands, it should land in the section where New York is located on our planet. This will tell us if there is life there and how exact and precise the replica is.”

     The crowd was silent.

     “I should have gotten drunk,” Roger muttered. “We all just gathered here to admit we have no idea what’s going on? Sounds like church.”

2: A LIGHT IN RAMSES

________________________________

Two hours later Roger pulled in front of National Geographic Society building and honked the horn. He flicked his cigarette in the gutter before Elise had a chance to catch him. It had started raining in the late evening. Elise ran down the main steps with her briefing report over her head. Roger had the radio up and the windows down.

     “Wormholes,” he said and went on in silence. Elise made no comment, purposely annoying him. It worked to full effect. She began fiddling with some of the analysis reports in the report she carried. She fanned the water off it and rubbed it on Roger’s twilled sweater. He was shaking with fury. This delighted her. One of the few pleasures in her life was annoying Roger.

     “Wormholes!” he shouted. “Is there more to that?” she asked, “Or are you content to repeat it over and over?” It’s ridiculous,” he said, “and you know that.”

     “It’s just as credible as any other theory they’re kicking around in the tabloids,” Elise said.

     “But do you really expect people to believe that somehow a wormhole has opened in space time allowing the entire planet to slip into it? Wouldn’t we have all gone with it?”

     “Are we staying at your house tonight?” she asked, avoiding his questions intentionally. She leaned against his shoulder. “You think you can shut me up with giving me some?” he asked.

     She kissed his neck.

     “I can always masturbate,” he said. “It’s worked so far. It’s cheap, easy, and effective. And my hand has never cheated on me.”

     “Are we staying at your house?” she repeated.

     “Yes,” he said, “We’re staying at my house. How come you always do that to me?”

     “Because I know you,” she said, “and, it always works.”

     “What do you think it really is?” he asked, lighting a cigarette. She smacked it out of his mouth. For a moment he wondered about the price of a professional assassin. Then he wondered if he had enough money in the bank for it. If it was worth doing, he better pay somebody else to do it for him. He didn’t want to leave something this important in his own hands. That was a fuck up waiting to happen, he reasoned.

     Elise’s cell phone rang. Snapping it open, she said, in her jovial, sensual tone, “Hello?” “Oh,” Elise said, motioning for Roger to roll up the windows, “Hold on a second.”

     “Can you turn this off?” she asked, turning the radio off.

     “No I can’t,” he said. He gritted his teeth and wondered if professional assassins ever had two-for-one deals or coupons for frequent customers.

     “Yes,” Elise went on, “he’ll be there to pick you up for school. I’d come with him, but I’ve got a press conference to attend. No, sweetheart, I’m not cheating on daddy anymore. He learned his lesson the first time.”

     Roger felt a creeping sensation in the back of his throat. He felt as though he’d explode before the ride was over. This little quip guaranteed Elise at least thirty minutes of quiet time.

     “What time do you have to be at the office tomorrow, Roger?” Elise asked, putting the phone down.

     “Earlier than usual,” he replied, “we’re taking a field trip to the morgue to evaluate the three subjects.”

     “Daddy has to go to the morgue,” Elise resumed her conversation, “but he’ll pick you up afterwards. No, no, I’m sure he’ll take a shower first. Okay, love you too. Bye.”

     She flipped her cell phone shut and stuck it in her purse.

     “You have to pick Galilee up at three from school tomorrow,” she said, “I have to be at the observatory when the probe touches down.”

     Roger nodded and lit another cigarette. She slapped it out of his hand again. He went back to thinking about hired assassins and then after a moment realized he couldn’t afford it. Then he sulked for a bit in quiet.

     “What are you hiding from the public?” he asked after a pause.

     He turned the radio up a bit.

     “What makes you so sure we’re hiding something?”

     “Because you’re working in concert with the government.”

     “Ah yes,” she said, smiling, “Roger, why do you always think the government is hiding something from the public?”

     “Because, um, the government always hides something from the public. People wouldn’t know what to do with their lives if they had an honest government. It’d take the zest out of things.”

     “You’re a silly man, Roger…”

     “Agreed.”

     “But, you are, I’m sad to say, justified in your paranoia. This time, that is.”

     “Well,” he asked, “What’s being hid?”

     “When Tomos was first discovered,” she paused, looking out the window, “…some of the features were, how do you say, a bit different.”

     He glared at her. “What do you mean,” he asked, “different? Different how?”

     “The Pyramids weren’t there when the first pictures were taken. Neither was the Great Wall of China. Most of our largest monuments weren’t there on the first couple of pictures.”

     “So it’s being added onto?”

     “In one picture they weren’t there. In the next picture, they were. Yes; it’s like something is adding onto the planet. Maybe the whole thing was manufactured by someone or something.”

     Roger glared at her. Hopefully throwing her off course enough to light a cigarette.

“After the geographical features were finished, and the monuments were up, it stopped.”

     Working so far. He took a long drag, savored the rich and tasty cancer. Her attention was elsewhere.

     “Stopped?” the nonchalant subterfuge continued.

     “It’s not in orbit around the sun. That much is a lie, but it’s a necessary one. Tomos isn’t in orbit. It’s sitting still.”

He nodded. Obviously he wasn’t paying much attention.

     “Put out the god damn cigarette and listen!” she shouted. He took another draw and flicked it out the window. It rolled against the curb and drifted into one of the gutters.

     “Fine,” he said, trying to tune her out. It didn’t work. It never did, but divorce was too expensive. “I have the right to kill myself with cancer if I wish,” Roger said. “That’s the American dream!”

     It was after one when they arrived at Roger’s apartment in Cottage City. He opened the door. Keys and all sorts of digital locks, primitive or fancy, had been replaced by a touch sensitive doorknob. The doorknob was programmed to allow movement when the matching print of the owner’s hand was wrapped around it. This made burglary a lot more entertaining and clever when and if it happened.

     His apartment was stuffy and looked as though he hadn’t cleaned it in months.

     “It probably looks this way,” he said, “because I haven’t cleaned it in months. I’m a writer; I can make this pile of garbage beautiful with the right words.”

     The corridor just behind the door led into a small resource room. Tiles lined the floor and squalid mirrors lined the wall. He never really cared for this decoration, believing it only reminded him of how bad he looked every morning.

     The passageway led into a small living room. In front of an entertainment center there was a small couch with plush pillows, in front of it a small coffee table, covered with overflowing ashtrays, and beside it was a small desk lamp.

     Under piles of respectable reading material, such as Dostoevsky, Kafka, Nabokov, Immanuel Kant and so on, there was a huge stack of Just Eighteen, Raunchy But Nice, and some other deplorable examples of humanity.

     Roger was standing in his kitchen, lined with cabinets that wrapped around the circular wall and a freezer. He stood by the sink mixing a drink.

     “Do you have your Long Reach scope installed?” she yelled.

     “On the rocks? The fancy equivalent of ‘with ice’?” he called back, busy fixing his favorite drink – Jagermeister and soda. She wagered he’d be drunk within the hour. He wagered that if he wasn’t drunk within the hour, he’d lose the bet anyway and have to listen to Elise babble about planets all night.

     “Do you have the LRS installed?” she yelled, flipping through an unread copy of The Brother’s Karamazov. It was highly decorative, however, and respectable biologists rarely keep Playpen in their living rooms.

     Roger’s unflinching curiosity was the Earth. The gardens, the plants, the flowers, the copies of Playpen magazine. He was infinitely fascinated with anatomy and things that grew. Elise took little pleasure in listening to him talking about the Earth and instead preferred the stars.

     “Yes,” he said, “it’s in the bedroom.”

     “Bring my gin,” she yelled, putting Dostoevsky back on top of the dirty magazines. She told him to throw them away. She told him she’d leave him if he didn’t. She left him and he didn’t but she later came back anyway because she admired his resolve.

     He strolled into the room with a large smile on his face.

     “How many have you had?” she asked him, flipping the LRS switch on the wall and reclining back. He sat beside her on the bed.

     “Five,” he beamed with exuberant pride.

     She was obviously impressed.

     The panel of drywall on the ceiling receded, revealing the Long Reach digital transmission screen. It could be used for astronomical research, searching the stars, a skylight, or for a regular movie. She took the remote from under his pillow and logged into the server.

     The server, the satellite from which the images came, was located in orbit. With the LRS device, Elise connected to receive the satellite images as they came in and had the ability to navigate, zoom in, and plow her way through the stars at her leisure. Roger will be too drunk for sex in ten minutes or so, she thought, and if he wasn’t she could always fake one for the team and then return to her research.

     She made her way out of the Sol system, passing Jupiter and Saturn without much interest. She was navigating the screen with a joystick that took it further from the Earth if pushed forward, and brought it towards the Earth when pulled downward. A red button situated on the top stopped it and allowed digital zoom. Roger enjoyed watching the storms on Jupiter. Fifteen minutes later Elise was poised above Tomos in the Tau Ceti system. Roger was pleasantly drunk.

     “It’s hard to believe, isn’t it?” she asked, moving the LRS screen forward, stopping it just before the dust fields surrounding Tomos. Small bits of blue and white drifted through the hovering dust fields. She lay on the bed for a while staring at it. Roger had passed out and was snoring beside her. It made her wonder if they’d had sex after all.

     She pushed the joystick further. The image on the screen was blurred at first. With the remote she adjusted the resolution and cleared it up. On the screen was a beautiful close-up of Tomos. Africa was in view and all the familiar lights were lit up. It nearly covered the entire screen.

     Tomos was not in orbit around the sun, as she said, but it was oscillating on its axis. The cloudy planet was slowly turning, bringing Europe and India into sharper focus. She pressed forward. The LRS device plunged into the thicker clouds in the top of the atmosphere and hovered just above Cairo. All the familiar lights were on, burning as brightly as they did on Earth. She rolled the joystick on, trying to get into see some of the upper areas of some of the skyscrapers. As far as it would go was close enough to see the faint lights of modern Cairo. In particular, she resolved to sit and watch the screen until she saw some sort of movement.

     This was as far as any of the Long Rang scopes would go. They were marvels of science and their inventor sold them for the same price as televisions. They were installed in the ceiling. After installation an account would be set up with orbiting NASA satellites, and with them astronomers could explore the universe from their bedrooms.

     One of the more amazing things about Tomos, Elise thought, was the clouds. It seemed to be cloudier than Earth on a normal day. Bands of clouds seemed to obscure the faint lights in a towering skyscraper, reaching high above Tomos. The Ramses II radio satellite observatory in Egypt used a more modern LRS than Roger could afford, and it was the building Elise had stopped to stare at.

     It was nearing four when the clouds cleared from the upper reaches of the building. This afforded Elise a better view of the structure – or at least the top of it.

     Most of the lights were off. This would be normal on Earth, but the fact that only random lights were on struck her as irregular. Roger snored on beside her. Just as she turned off the lamp, turning her head for a moment, out of the corner of her eye she saw a window, high up on the tower, fill with light. She was sure of it; the light hadn’t been on when she turned away.

     “Roger,” she whispered, rolling him off her shoulder, “listen to me you bum.”

     “That,” he said immediately, “sounds like bad advice. Highly suspect.” He went back to sleep.

     She slapped him on the back of the neck – something he hated – and he sat up in bed. He reached for a cigarette reflexively. She would’ve slapped it out of his hand, as she always did, but she figured that waking a drunken man with a slap on the neck was bad enough. She could at least let him enjoy this cigarette. Or at least most of it.

     “Please tell me,” he said, “what you have for me that’s more important than a giant pool full of women without opinions covered in pudding?”

     “There’s a light in the window,” she said, pointing to the screen, “It came on while I was looking at it.”

     “So?” Roger asked groggily. He reached for his remaining bit of Jager. He downed it and looked over at her. His grayish hair was thin and disheveled. His cigarette was hanging out of his mouth.

     “That means someone,” she paused, gaping at the window, “or something turned it on.” She ran the joystick further again but it stopped. The LRS range was amazing when it came to planetary astronomy and distant observation. However, seeing the surface of a world twelve light years away was something for science fiction. Roger stared at the screen dumbly. For a Nobel Laureate, he seemed more like a college dropout amongst his friends instead of the highly respected gentleman that won the Nobel Prize for suspending the animation of biological systems, allowing longer life in some animals. To meet him at a bar, however, you’d never think of him standing before the Nobel Committee. You’d imagine him before a judge and jury. In fact, he’d been before both. Despite his eccentricity, Roger was respected as a brilliant writer, artist, musician, and biologist.

     “Do you think it could be extraterrestrial intelligence?” she asked.

     “I don’t even think there’s intelligence on Earth, Elise. I think it’s four in the morning,” he replied, dropping his cigarette butt into the remaining bit of Jager. It fizzled out and he rolled over. He tried, in vain, to go back to sleep.

     “Roger,” she said morosely, “there are greater things you could do in life than drink, look at those filthy magazines, and try to have sex with me.”

     “I succeed sometimes,” he added, “but this ‘greater things’ business – what else would you like me to do? I’ve written twenty seven books, I’ve lectured at

Harvard, Cambridge, and MIT. I won the Nobel Peace Prize for god’s sake. What else do you want me to do? Brush my teeth?”

     “I can’t even talk to you. Look, there are more important things you can do in life than what you currently do.”

     “Like? You’ve got to be kidding. There’s nothing better on Earth than a glass of Jager. Elise, baby, living is just learning how to die in style.”

     “You confuse me, Roger.”

“You are a woman, after all,” Roger said. “And it’s nobody’s fault but your own.”

     “You can spend five hours in a garden or an hour looking at a watermelon seed, but you can’t look at the sky once in a while? What about that human spirit? The need to improve yourself or explore?”

     “Bunch of rubbish if you ask me,” Roger said. “That proverb doesn’t only apply to cats, Elise.”

     “Which one?”

     “The one about curiosity. It has nothing to do with the noble feline.”

     “Why are you fencing with me? Just come out and say what you mean instead of playing your little games.”

     “But I like my little games.”

     “Damn you!” she shouted, “I won’t have sex with you for a month if you don’t tell me what you really think.”

“That’s not fair,” he said, finally taking things seriously.

     “I bought you dinner.”

     “I paid for it!”

     “I paid you back!”

      She threw off the covers and jumped to her feet. Roger sat up as quickly as his drunken bones would let him.

     “Look,” he said, “come back to bed and I’ll tell you what I think.”

     She stood at the door for a minute with her back turned. This pause gave him time to feel bad about his irreverent attitude towards her work. He never wanted her to go into astronomy. When they met in college, she was more concerned with medicine. Roger had always been concerned with living things. Always wanted to go into biology, molecular biology, or even marine biology. At one point he had a serious obsession with botany.

     “What then?” she asked, sitting down on the side of the bed.

     “Ok,” he began, “I believe that the appearance of Tomos coincides with the equinox by no strange turn of coincidences. I believe that this, coupled with the arrangement of buildings and artificial structures on its surface were designed by something or someone to lure us into trying to reach it.”

     “Why would they want us to reach it?” she questioned.

     “Maybe they’re selling something,” he said immediately, “Why wouldn’t they? Where’s your sense of human adventure now? Say it’s a beacon in the dark, like a lighthouse or something. Would the sailors have hope of land without the lighthouse? No. So here, this creature sets up a beacon for us just to prod or trick us into attempting to find out what it means.

     “Shouldn’t we then allow for the equally possible scenario that it could be some sort of trap designed by an intelligent race looking to lure our attention elsewhere at a critical moment for some unknown purpose?”

     She stared at him for a minute. He often spoke too quickly for her to follow.

     “I don’t think so,” she said, “I believe this is designed to help mankind in some way. What have we had in the past like this? You’ve said it yourself. There has been nothing like Tomos. We see things we can’t understand at first, but after a bit we began to wrap our heads around it.”

     “Tomos,” he said, “presents the sort of challenge human beings haven’t faced in a long time. Finding out what it means, how it got there, what it’s for, etc, would be a significant step in understanding the physical universe and the way in which it’s constructed. How would the hominids feel about the random appearance of an electromagnetic storm in the lower reaches of the atmosphere? What would they think about a jet breaking the speed of light? What would they think about the possibility of the LRS machines? This is too far beyond us, Elise.

     “But that’s the entire point behind it. It does something for us. It wasn’t designed specifically to cater to human beings as many egocentric people might believe, their heads clouded with the notion that human beings are such vastly important creatures.

     “By the attempt to understand Tomos, we tax our brains and give ourselves the chance to think of the universe and everything in it in new terms and we have the possibility with this discovery to determine whether our long held beliefs about the physical dynamics of the universe have been incomplete or marginally inaccurate.”

     “So you think it’s some sort of test? I don’t follow.”

     “It’s not your fault,” he said, withholding something.

     “My fault?”

     “It’s not your fault that you were naturally deprived of the Y chromosome.”

     She glared at him. “Do you think it’s a test or not, Roger?”

     “Yes, I do. There is no other explanation. Whatever put it there, wants us to know its there. Whatever turned on the light for you, wants you to know it knows you know it’s there. Psychologically speaking, holding something just over a human’s head is the best way to keep them interested in it. The lighthouse is on now; all you have to do is find the shore. And if you’re done torturing me by making me think at this ungodly hour, I’d like to have a drink, a cigarette, and go back to sleep. Or at least go watch cartoons.”

     She liked him much more when he played the fool. Roger was a brilliant man, a bit eccentric of course, but nevertheless his brains were intact. An intelligent man is every woman’s dream. A genius is every woman’s nightmare.

     For a while she was silent. She stared wistfully at all the lit up windows that lined the building. They looked like headlights peering out of a thick fog. Many of the broad clouds had wrapped around the higher story windows, but she saw a few glimmers of the ones that managed to peak through the thinner clouds.

     Roger was snoring again. She didn’t know if he was feigning sleep or not. Roger’s mind games were without limit.

     It was just after six when Elise called Nigel. Roger would kill her if he knew she was talking to “Dr. Douche” again.

     Roger’s hatred for Nigel goes back to a comment Nigel made in Astronomy Weekly. The quote, which Roger had taped to his desk, was, to Roger, staggeringly offensive.

     “The Earth is our mother. But sooner or later, children have to move out of their parent’s house.”

     Another infuriating line was found in the same interview.

     “The Earth is limited,” it read, “but space is not.”

     Roger emailed him following the publication of the article with the following comment: “The Earth is limited, that I grant you. But the complexity of life on Earth and the detail with which it’s structured is immeasurable. Constellations were mapped thousands of years before the human genome.”

     “Do you have any idea what time it is?” Nigel asked groggily.

     “Yes Nigel,” she said, “Yes I do.”

     “What can I help you with then?”

     “Did you get on the LRS network last night?”

     “Nah, I wanted to get some sleep. The probe will be landing today, so you know we’ll pull a double shift. We always do. Is there anything specific you wanted to share with me?”

     “There is something on Tomos.” Her hands were shaking and she gripped the phone tightly. He didn’t answer right away. The sound of his heavy breathing made Elise even more nervous.

     “What,” he said, clearing his throat. He paused for a minute “What makes you think something is on Tomos, Elise? It’s a bit early to spring this kind of shit on a guy, you know. You could’ve emailed me.”

     “Run your LRS,” she said, walking into Roger’s kitchen, “and go to Tomos. See if you can find the observatory in Cairo.”

     “I’m not going to hook it up this early, Elise. Just tell me what it is.”

     “I got to look down at the tops of some of the taller buildings. Nothing really new about them,” she paused, “This is nothing in comparison with the appearance of the pyramid at Giza and the Sphinx. But this is significant.”

     “Well?” he probed. Nigel sounded irritated. He was probably having an affair on his mistress again.

     “I ran the LRS,” she replied, “and I took it to Tomos. In the observatory building in Cairo, most of the lights are on. Other astronomers have confirmed this already. But last night, I saw one of the lights come on while I was watching it. Something is in the building.”

     Nigel was silent. All she heard was his labored breathing coming through the receiver. She went to shower, fixed her hair, and got ready for work.

     Hopefully the Ceti probe would give them something from the ground that nothing in the sky could show them.

3: THE BLANKETS CUSP

________________________________

Reporters were waiting outside of the Bureau of Astronomy and Sciences building when Elise arrived. She kissed Roger on the cheek and reminded him to pick Galilee up from school. Galilee was their twelve year old daughter.

     She had just returned from visiting her grandparents in the south. It had been seven horribly blissful months since Roger last spent time with her. Hopefully things went well for him at the morgue, Elise thought. She was wearing a long, navy blue skirt with shell down the sides, a white t-shirt and a darker blue blazer on. She wore her best earrings. If she was going to make history, she wanted to make it in style.

     The building was small except for the giant telescope enclosed in its tortoise shell dome. All the side was done in brick. At the front door there was an awning, beside it a small picnic table. She’d spent many lunch hours out there making up excuses to be late for work. She carefully dodged the long line of reporters, thrusting their microphones to her, and made her way into the front room. She headed immediately for the main control room.

     There were a long panel of computer screens surrounding the walls and a giant LRS telescope module attached to the roof. All of the various Ceti control team operatives busied themselves at their workstations, lined with statistical readouts and computer monitors. On the central view screen, the image was being transmitted from the probe – it was descending into the thick and cloudy atmosphere of Tomos.

     “It’ll be on the ground in ten minutes, Elise,” Dr. Daniels said, coming up behind her. He was wearing a headset and holding a professional, sporty, and extremely sophisticated looking clipboard that put Elise’s clipboard to shame. She stared at the main view screen nervously, biting at her nails.

     “Nigel told me what you saw,” he said, checking something off his fancy pants clipboard, “To be frank, a few other LRS observation stations have reported similar such sightings.”

     “Yeah?” she asked, “What kind of sightings? Anything to suggest extraterrestrial intelligence?”

     “With the shit I read in the newspapers,” he said bitterly, “I’ve seen nothing to suggest terrestrial intelligence.”

     “You got that from Roger’s book, ‘Songs of Galilee’, didn’t you?”

     She glared at him. Her lobes began to sweat as they did when she got excited. Roger called them pheromones and enjoyed their scent. But, that’s Roger.

     “Well?” she pressed.

     “A woman in New Guinea reported, and recorded, an indistinct shape hovering over Paris. She said it resembled a broom. Crazy, ain’t it?”

     “What does this add to the speculation pool?” Elise asked, miffed. Every new development, she thought, only makes whatever purpose there could be more obscured.

     “Nothing at all,” Dr. Daniels acquiesced. He turned and walked toward the restroom. Elise went to her station and sat down. Her computer was up and running in no time, and, with some help, she managed to broadcast the feed, coming directly from the probe, to her monitor.

     The Ceti probe was shaped like a tire. Its outer surface was designed as a wheel shaped land device. Wheels sprung from each intersecting side, east and west, north and south, and cameras were lodged along the belting. The cameras were lined up in a full circle so that everything from outside the probe, back and front, could be recorded and transmitted at the same time. Positioning the cameras facing outward in a circle allowed for exceptional ground coverage in short times.

     Around the top of the probe was a similar array of cameras. These were positioned to look up. They were fitted before leaving earth with the same lenses that made the LRS systems so powerful. Astronomers assigned to different cameras could zoom in, zoom out, pause, freeze frame, and record as the probe bounded along.

     “Landfall in fifteen minutes,” a voice intoned over the intercom.

     Nigel came up to Elise’s station. She pretended not to notice him long enough to make him apologize for being rude earlier that morning.

     On her screen, from the A-12 camera, she could see the faint shapes of buildings rising to meet the drifting craft. It would be landing in New York. The main purpose of the probe was to figure out whether or not the copy extended past physical imitation.

The probe opened its chute and began to filter through the lower clouds like a wafting dandelion seed. The tops of all the skyscrapers began to filter in, flashing onto her computer monitor. For some reason, she thought, all the skyscrapers looked like tall and tangled trees.

     The crowded monitoring station was shocked when the probe sat down in the middle of a forest. Thick and darkened trees surrounded the probe in all directions except for one: a small path cut through the woods. Shimmering vines ripe with moisture gleamed under Tau Ceti, sending reflections of light through the woods.

      “Check the sound,” Nigel yelled at a small collection of men hovering around a wall of speakers.

     “The speakers are on,” they confirmed, “but we’re not getting any sort of sound.”

     “Amplify the signal,” he called to them.

     A muffled hiss at a very low decibel level pulsed from the compacted speakers. The trees were still, unmoving; they didn’t blow or shake or sway in the wind. It was similar to watching the flag standing motionless on the moon.

     Dr. Daniels, with control of the direction of the probe, sent it down the narrow path between the trees and dark. The terrain was uneven in places, causing the probe to bob and waver. This sent tiny tremors through the monitors that guided it.

     Towards the end of the pathway there was a light. To Elise it resembled a streetlight. It bobbed up and down above a table. From all of the panoramic camera views, only five around the front took in data from the light and the table below it. The cameras around the sides and back of the circular probe scanned the woods.

     It was eerily quiet all the way to the end of the path. None of the upward mounted cameras got much of a view looking up. Fog circled around the trees and obscured the faint rays of Tau Ceti.

     “This can’t be New York,” Elise said to Nigel, “It’s too clean. And there are trees everywhere.”

     Nigel nodded and walked over to Dr. Daniels. Daniels stood there with his relay communications headphone glued to his ear, skimming over something on his clipboard that seemed vitally important.

     “Can we get a positive trace on the probe?” Nigel asked, dodging a group of astronomers passing by.

     “New York,” he said, “that’s where it’s headed.” He didn’t bother to look up.

     “There is no way it’s in New York unless the images of the cities and buildings were faked.”

     Dr. Daniels motioned for him to follow. They walked over to a giant monitor on the wall. In the center of it was a circular map of Tomos that detected radio signals. They managed to get a good reading and determined that the probe had drifted while in orbit. It didn’t land in New York. It landed in Sumter National Forest in South Carolina.

     “What’s on the table?” Elise asked, now that a small concert of astronomers and scientists had gathered around her. No one was paying much attention to the panoramic camera views. There was nothing along the way but trees and dark and more trees and even more dark.

     No one wanted to say aloud what they saw on the table under the light at the end of the path. The path forked off at the light. One path led west towards a building like structure, and another led east towards another patch of soundless trees.

     Everyone stood in silence for a bit. They heard only the slight whirring of the digital modems as each new bit of information poured through. With a side camera, a technician had managed to zoom in and identify the structure to the west. It was a building. It was a small cabin.

     In front of the probe was the table. It wasn’t too big or sturdy looking, just a regular sort of table. The wood had faded.

     On the table was a bunch of random animal parts. It looked as though someone had taken a rhinoceros apart and had trouble getting him back together. His massive head had been removed, hollowed out, and his tongue lay protruding from his mouth. His organs were arranged as they were in nature. The arms and legs were just shy of their sockets.

     The skin was missing, of course, but all of the pieces were in the right place. There was no blood, signs of struggle, footprints in the sand, nothing at all.

     “Are you getting this?” Elise yelled to Howard, “Record this from camera A-12. Is there any way to leave camera A-12 on the table and zoom in to the west with the A-9 camera?”

     The camera positions were designated by where the hands on a clock would be. Twelve was straight ahead, three was to the east, and nine was to the west.

     “We can take the A-9 camera as far as the landscape stretches,” an engineer boasted.

     “Go see if there’s any sign of life in that cabin.”

     The man ran the joystick forward and the camera lens zoomed in, bounding smoothly towards the rough surface of the log cabin. The door was facing A-9 but the fog around the foundation obscured, or had obscured, what they found next.

On a dirty welcome rug there was a mouse. Its head had been removed from its torso, its arms had been removed and lay beside where they would fit in their sockets, the organs were arranged perfectly throughout his body, and even his tail lay where it would naturally connect. It looked like a furry disassembled Mr. Potato Man.

     Sticking out from the other side of the cabin was a pole with a wire suspended on it. From the looks of it, a sort of cloth was hanging from it without motion, like the flag had on the moon.

     The sound of the pulsing hiss came harsher through the speakers.

     “What’s that? Hey! What’s that?” Elise shouted, jumping from her seat. She ran over to the wall of camera monitors. B-12, pointing straight up, had turned blood red. B-11 and B1 were seeing the outer edges of a flaming ball that hurtled towards the probe.

     “Take all the pictures you can of the cabin!” Elise shouted, running back to her workstation, “Take as many pictures as possible with each camera. The probe is being destroyed.”

     The flaming ball overwhelmed the tiny space probe. All the monitors turned to harsh and hissing static, crawling with grey lines.

     Elise was still in her office when Roger came by with Galilee. Her leopard striped book bag was thrown over her right shoulder.

     She always wore a pleasant, content smile. Elise shuffled through the pictures the probe managed to take before it was destroyed. Everything on the probe had been destroyed except for a small, scarab shaped tracking beacon welded to the bottom of one of the circular wheels. It was wrapped in a micro-cellular film capable of transmitting sound and video from its vicinity. The dot still gleamed on a monitor in the main control room.

     The A-3 through A-9 cameras showed little more than a panoramic vista of tangled trees and woods replete with fog. The same was true of more or less all of the upward aimed cameras. Most of them recorded nothing but fog and the swelling canopy of trees that towered above the ground.

     Elise had watched the video carefully, inspecting every minute detail. She expected she would find some sort of clue if she waited long enough. Galilee sat down beside her and began looking through the captured photographs.

     A tape of the descent of the fireball was being looped on a television screen panel that folded into Elise’s desk.

     “Did you have a good time visiting your family?” Elise asked Galilee, who poured herself as eagerly as her mother over the photographs.

     “It was fine,” she said, “Things are a lot different down the there. The people are really nice though.”

     “I’ve never been to South Carolina,” Roger said, lying, “especially not a replica that’s twelve light years away.” He knew nobody was listening to him, so he kept talking anyway to amuse himself with the possibility of making them feel sorry for him. If they felt sorry for him, they’d talk to him he figured. He was unutterably wrong.

     “What I don’t get,” Elise said, rubbing her head, “is what this object sticking out from beside the cabin is.” She handed the photograph to Roger.

     On the photograph they captured a metal pole sticking out of the ground. A wire was tied to one end of it and suspended.

     “It looks like the wire runs to another pole,” Roger said, “and for some reason – for some reason, it’s suspended over something.”

     Galilee took the photo from him and stared at it with her dark brown eyes. They lit up suddenly as though she realized something.

     “You don’t know what that is?” she asked her mother. Elise shook her head when Galilee held the picture up for her to see.

     “Just some metal sticking out of the ground,” Roger replied, “Tacky if you ask me.”

     “It’s a clothesline,” Galilee said, “It’s a clothesline. Look,” she stood up and leaned over her mother’s shoulder, placing the photo down in front of her. “Do you see the small piece of fabric sticking out from the side of the cabin?”

     “Yeah,” Elise said, “so? What does it matter?”

     “One second,” Galilee replied.

     Galilee ran the tape of the fireball again. She paid special attention to the way the trees stayed still as something of such force struck the ground. The grass didn’t stir, the pebbles didn’t scatter, and not so much as a leaf moved as it plunged to the ground. She paused it just before it hit the probe.

     “Oh god,” Elise said, cupping her mouth, “Roger, look at this.” She turned the screen to face him. He was looking at a National Geographic and apparently enjoying the artistic shots of bare breasted tribes in Africa.

     The screen was frozen. The B-12 camera looked straight up and the photographs it took showed only the upward angle of it. The A-12 series of photographs photographed the ground behind it. On the screen, the fireball was poised to strike the ground. This was the image from the B-12. Galilee dug through the photographs on Elise’s desk and found the A-12 that matched the exact moment the B-12 was frozen on, just before the impact.

     The A-12 had one compelling image. The last B-12 image came in at a quarter after five. The last A-12 image came in at the same time. On the B-12 there was nothing but the rippling flame poised just above the probe. The A-12 showed a large, heavy shadow. The shadow was about an inch thick and six feet tall. It stretched out on the ground; but it was too well shaped and rounded to be a tree or any other natural phenomenon.

     “Ok, mother,” Galilee said, “look at the small corner of the fabric hanging from the clothesline. Do you see how it looks?”

     “I’m not following you,” Elise admitted, rubbing her aching head, “but go on. I’m sure daddy is listening.”

     Daddy was asleep. Roger had a healthy opium habit to keep his severe anxiety in check, and was prone to nodding off.

     “Look how the corner of the fabric is flipped slightly upward. That suggests it was moving. But why would it move if the trees and leaves and dirt didn’t move when the fire came down on the probe? Nothing was moved by any sort of air. This picture suggests that something was causing it to wave and blow like that.”

     “How do you know this kind of shit?” Roger asked. His daughter’s intelligence was intolerable.

     “Don’t cuss in front of her, Roger,” Elise commanded. Roger rolled over and played dead.

     “I spent the last seven months in South Carolina,” she said, “and grandmother always made me hang out the sheets and blankets.”

     “Can I get the A-3 shot of the cabin please?” Elise asked and buzzed her intercom. The image came up on the small monitor in front of her.

     “This package has all of the A-3 images. I’m going to skip up until the cabin comes into focus.”

     She clicked her mouse looking through one picture after another. In every picture it looked the same. There was a small bit of light inside it, as from a lamp or something similar, but in the first five images she saw nothing out of the ordinary. She continued clicking her way through the images.

     “Wait,” Galilee shouted, “go back. Go back three pictures.”

She clicked the back arrow and skipped back three pictures. On the first picture, the light in the cabin was visible. It was in the second picture. But the camera through the window saw a barren floor, lit by some sort of lamp or candle, but there was nothing abnormal about it.

     “Ok, go to the next one,” Galilee pressed. Elise clicked onto the next picture. Galilee pointed to a small, stick shaped shadow that had found its way onto the floor. It couldn’t have been a broom, Elise thought, even though it was certainly shaped like one. In the first picture of the cabin, the round shadow on the floor was barely visible. It was barely recognizable and hard to see if you weren’t expressly looking for it. In the picture after that, the stick like shadow had extended halfway across the floor. In the third picture, the stick like figure was gone and the cabin was empty again.

     Elise reclined and closed her eyes. She imagined being a young girl again, playing in the sand, making sand castles. She remembered when the stars lingered above her like an impossible grail. She remembered sitting on her deck with her hands stretched out to the heavens.

     The stars were there for man. Waiting for them to advance enough to explore them. The Tomos mystery, however, lay just beyond the shore of human understanding. It challenged the brains of men and women like no previous problem had. The clues added up and added up, but after everything – no one had a clue.

      Around the office, for years after, “Tomos” because a word used to explain something inexplicable. It became a word to describe a mystery with an impossibly remote chance of being solved.

     Cold fusion was a Tomos. The creation of the pyramids was a Tomos.

     “What I don’t understand,” Roger said after a while, “is why the probe was destroyed. Something doesn’t want us to see what’s happening on that planet. I think we should just leave this scab alone. The more we scratch it, the worse it gets. The worse it gets, the more we want to dig at it. That proverb isn’t about cats, Elise.”

     “How can we just let it go? How can we let a question like this hover over us forever?” Elise shouted, “We can’t just walk away without figuring out…”

     “Why does the meaning of things matter so much? Just hang up your hat, admit you’ve been defeated, and walk away from it.”

     Elise turned on a collection of nocturnes by Friedrich Chopin and reclined again.

     “I have to ask,” she said, with her eyes still closed, “What did you make of the disassembled rhino? That just adds to the confusion.”

     “It looked delicious,” Roger said, licking his lips, “but as for the rat, I don’t like Spanish food.”

     “Tell me what you really think, Roger.”

     “No.”

     “Why not?”

     “Because you didn’t say please.”

     “Please Roger,” Elise sighed. “Stop being childish and tell me what you think.”

“To me,” he began the subterfuge, lit his cigarette, “it seems as though this is an actual replica made by something. Something has made the planet and is now trying to make the animals.”

     “You believe whoever this creature is, he’s trying to recreate a rhino?” she asked. She suspected his usual irreverence towards everything.

     “He? Why does it have to be a he? Don’t be so naïve. There have to be different sexes in the universe. There has to be something more rewarding than being male or female. Imagine having the full, luscious breasts of a woman, the will to finish chores like a woman, the brain of a man…”

     “Roger,” she said firmly, “I love you. I do, I really do. I married you and I stand by that. But right now is not the time for you to play your games with me. Tell me what you think. Honestly, I’m tired of giving a shit.”

     “We know there is no air, right?” he asked, enjoying his Turkish cigarette.

     “Yes,” she nodded.

     “Then how do we account for the discrepancy between the trees and leaves not blowing when it’s clear that the blanket behind the cabin is being moved somehow?”

     “The blankets,” Galilee said, “were being fluffed by something. I can tell by the cusp, the corner – I watched grandma do it over and over. That picture there,” she gestured to the frozen image of the blanket, “tells me that something is on that planet. And whatever it is, needs to have dry blankets.”

     “Elise,” Nigel said, coming into her cramped office, “come and see this.”

     She walked out into the main control room. Roger and Galilee followed behind her. Roger was mumbling something about hiring assassins and Galilee was humming a strange sounding song.

     “Where’d you hear that song?” Roger asked her.

     “I don’t know,” she said, “Just came to mind.”

     On the main screen, on the wall opposite Elise, they had the last ten seconds of the video from the Ceti probe recorded and stored. They ran the tape in slow motion.

     The cabin sat in front of a long patch of trees. A bit of light from the probe reflected off the metal on the beam. In the reflection on the metal rod, on which the blanket hung, they could clearly see their probe. And they could clearly see the creature that stood behind it.

     “Oh God,” Elise exclaimed.

     “What did he do this time?” Roger asked.

 

 

 

 

 

 

4: THE DRUMS OF SHIVA

________________________________

Elise stared at the rust along the railing. She ran her slender fingers over the screen, squinting to get a better glimpse of what stood behind the Ceti probe. “Are those…” she paused, “Are those wings?” From the grainy image, digitally enhanced to maximum, all Elise could clearly see was a pair of wings. Not like angel wings, she thought, but more like the wings of a bat. If the image had been captured seconds earlier, the shot of the creature from the front might have been more clear.

     “So what,” Roger said, puffing on his cigarette, daring all creation to stop him, “if we find out that it’s made by something. Then what? Do we wait around until we get some sort of clue? Even if we found out why it’s there, there’d be other questions. The questions never stop. The most pressing question hasn’t even been addressed. The Earth has shown up in Tau Ceti. Ok, ok. There have been important questions asked. How did it get there? How is it possible? Do they have resources we can steal? But the most important question hasn’t even been asked.”

     “What would that be?” Elise asked.

     “Why does it matter?” Roger asked. He smiled his trademarked half-smile.

     “Not everybody can look at all the world and laugh, Roger,” said Elise.

     “I don’t laugh at all the world, Elise. When confronted with the ocean, I take it quite seriously.”

     Elise glared at him.

     “The only way to deal with life is to laugh at it,” Roger said. “That isn’t so hard, really. Convincing yourself it’s funny – now that is difficult.”

     The image on the screen zoomed out. Left there was the image of cabin and the trees behind it.

     “Nigel,” Elise called, “look at the cusp of the blanket.” Nigel zoomed in on the corner of the blanket and froze the image.

     “Looks like someone is trying to dry it off.”

     “Ok,” Roger said, “let’s go over the facts.”

     The few astronomers standing at their computer stations took little notice of him. Horace was gone, since he never worked late, and everyone else was looking over the recorded video frame by frame.

     Nigel stood near Roger without a bit of worry. He had tried to poison him at dinner once, after all.

     “Tomos appears on the astronomical radar,” Roger began. “No one knows why. We discover that it is an exact replica of Earth. We discover that it has man made objects on it. We discover that the atmosphere wouldn’t support terrestrial intelligence. We discover that more and more objects, manmade objects, are appearing on the surface. We discover that it’s not in orbit, but merely sitting in place behind a dust cloud. And then we discover animals, looking as though they’re being assembled. And now we know there is a creature on Tomos…” he paused, waiting on everyone to nod, “There is a creature on Tomos with wings.”

     Galilee tugged on Roger’s shirt.

“Yes?” he asked, kneeling down to patronize her size.

     “How do you know that is the creature on the planet? Couldn’t it be a reflection?”

     “What did you say?” Elise asked, walking over to her.

     “Zoom out,” Galilee said, “Look right around the edge of the metal post.”

     Around the edge of the post glimmered a bit. A indistinct outline seemed to hint at something around it.

     “Do you see the outline? It looks like a mirror.”

     “So,” Roger said, walking over to the grainy image floating on the wall, “something is holding a mirror behind the post…Why would it do that?”

     “Because,” Elise said, “it wants us to see the creature with wings? Why would it want us to see that?”

“Because it doesn’t want us to see what it really is,” Roger said.

     A man with glasses and a bald head sat before a computer screen in the main control room at the Bureau of Astronomy in Washington D.C. He was listening to the static radio waves surrounding the Tau Ceti star. Elise, along with her ridiculous husband, bounded past him with their daughter. They rushed to the door.

     “Where you rushing’ off to?” the man asked, taking off his headphones.

     “We’ve got a press conference tonight,” Elise said, putting on her coat. Roger lit a cigarette.

     “Do you want me to monitor the audio channels for the rest of the night then?” he asked.

     “Yeah,” she said, “although we haven’t heard much more than static on any of the lower bands or frequencies. Just listen,1  and contact the Director if anything comes up.”

     She disappeared into the street.

     He put his headphones on and rolled back over to his crowded desk. He played solitaire for a couple of hours. It was time for the press conference, so he took off his headphones, got up, and went to turn on the television.

     The cameras were focused on Elise. He didn’t much care for television, so he resigned himself to watching without listening.

     Then the sound came, distinct, without mistake. The first time he heard the sound he thought there was a glitch. The sound was unmistakable; it sounded like a low pulse, or a drum. It was like sudden thunder with no after sound.

     At first he thought nothing of it. Perhaps it was interference. He ran a scan with a radio telescope. He connected to it with his computer. He turned the volume up as loud as it would go.

     On a monitor beside him, he logged into the LRS position astronomers reserved to observe the system. Tomos swam into view. It was circled by a ring of dust and ice, much in the way that Saturn is.

     He heard the sound again. It was deeper this time but louder. It came a third time and Tomos disappeared. The rock and ice surrounding it scattered through the system.

     He ran to the phone.

Elise was nervous again before the small group of reporters. Millions of people from around the world had been watching when the ball of fire from the sky destroyed the Ceti probe.

     Religious groups claimed that it was the wrath of God. Anti-religious groups claimed that this was stupid and that it was a naturally occurring phenomenon that just happened to hit exactly the same place the probe was in.

     Roger, not that anybody wanted his opinion, offered his opinion anyway. Nobody wanted it so nobody paid any attention.

     He was working on his routine when Elise approached him behind the curtains.

     “What are you going to tell them?” he asked, “I wouldn’t recommend the truth. An entertaining lie would be much better. They like clowns! I could go out and do my standup routine to lighten the mood if you’d like. Nah, I’m not drunk enough to be silly in public.”

     “Roger,” she said, “we’re going to tell them that we have pictures that confirm there is no life on the planet.”

     “That’s kind of true,” he said, “but, not completely. You have pictures that prove the atmosphere couldn’t support terrestrial life. Are you going to tell them about the rhino and the rat?”

     “We’re going to confirm that the replica reaches to the surface. That the surface has been replicated even down to clotheslines.”

     “What have they seen?”

     “The public was given access only to the B12 camera. So they know that it was destroyed, but we haven’t disclosed what it was that destroyed it.”

     “What kind of lie are you going to tell them?”

     “We’re going to tell them it was a bit of comet that made it through the atmosphere. It is consistent with what the public knows about the Tau Ceti system. It’s amazing that more comets and rocks and asteroids haven’t destroyed some of the more important monuments.”

     “You know,” said Roger, “I’ve been thinking about that too. Who monitors the atmosphere?”

“Nigel was doing so,” she said a bit nervously. Roger’s eyebrows raised.

     “So, Dr. Douche is in charge of monitoring the atmosphere?”

     “Yes.”

     “What has he reported?”

     “Nothing of interest, really. There have been a few odd coincidences, but nothing serious.”

     “Such as?”

     “Well,” she said, fidgeting with her earrings, “he noticed that there have been, as would be expected in Tau Ceti, thousands of asteroids and meteors near the

planet. But most of them dissolve before they’re far enough into the atmosphere to do so naturally. Some of them explode just as they’re getting near the planet.”

     “And you think this is just ‘something odd’? That’s conclusive. That says ‘something is protecting the planet.’”

      Nigel walked over to them carrying drinks.

     “Gin for you, Elise,” he said, “and a Jager and Coke for Roger. And dry gin for me.”

     Roger accepted the drink grievously, thinking again about his morose money situation and his inability to hire assassins. He would kill Nigel himself, but he had an upcoming book release and didn’t want court to get in the way of his deadline.

     “How many people are out there?” Elise asked. “Roger took the rest of my valium!”

     “Just some people from international news, local D.C. news stations, and some people from astronomical websites. You should be fine. I’ve got some xanax if you need it.”

     “I do,” Roger said. “Anxiety tries to eat me.”

     “Hopefully we get some entertaining conspiracy theories,” Nigel said. “All of this official discourse has started to bore me.”

     “You’re bored with this?” Roger asked, downing his Jagermeister. “You’d rather go back to watching dust storms and nebulae? This is entertaining stuff here. This is like something from the sci-fi channel, and we all have a little part in it.”

     “A part in it?” Nigel asked, smirking, “You’re a former biologist and novelist, Roger. You have no part in this.”

“I’m banging Elise and she is the head of the research project. That includes me.”

     “Yeah,” Nigel replied, “but it certainly has nothing to do with biology.”

     “It has everything to do with biology,” Roger replied, taking Elise’s gin, “How else do you explain the human race and its place in space? We are here because of natural biology. You are alive right now and … and capable of your pursuits because of your biological makeup. Every astronomer owes a tremendous debt to biological science.”

     Nigel rolled his eyes and forced a professional, “Of course, Roger.”

     Dr. Horace Daniels called Elise and Nigel over. He talked to them for a minute and they disappeared behind the curtain. Roger found Galilee and went to look for a friend of his.

     “Did you take what daddy asked you to take?” he asked Galilee. She nodded and unzipped her book bag. She handed the photo to Roger.

     “Excellent,” he said, “my own daughter knows how to steal. I’m so proud of you.” She smiled her warm and comforting smile.

     “I’m going to talk to a friend of mine for a minute,” he said, “Go find us a seat.”

     Galilee nodded and headed off to find a seat. A few minutes later, Roger returned with a big smile on his face.

     “What are you smiling about?” she asked.

     “You’ll see.”

     Roger was shaking with fury at this point. In his head he kept hearing Nigel’s “smug bullshit.” And, as far as he knew, homicide was still against the law. This saddened him.

     Elise, Nigel, and Horace came out onto the stage and most of the talking died down. Behind them a projection screen was lit up with golden letters, reading, “The Tomos Research Project.” It was a horribly pompous and impressive shot of Tomos floating amongst the rock and dusty backdrop of the dim Tau Ceti star.

     They sat down behind the microphones. On the table there was a pitcher of water, some glasses, and a couple of small plants.

     “We’d like to start,” Elise said, sitting down, “by acknowledging all of the people who supported and helped fund the Ceti probe. And all of the people who worked to guide it to the ground safely.”

     Roger hated all of the formalities involved in talking to the press. Nothing to him was as dreadful as polite conversation.

     “The Ceti probe was destroyed by a comet,” she continued, “This has been confirmed. The only real confirmation, of importance, was confirming that the replica does extend to the surface and the ground. Even down to something as intricate as a clothesline and a blanket.”

     “The images released to the public,” a reporter said, rising, “and the small clips broadcast on the news and the Bureau’s official site, show a comet. This is true. But, observatories around the world that tracked the planet and the system have made public the fact that there were no signs of comets until one hit the probe.”

     “It must’ve been a glitch in the system,” Nigel said. “Most of the monitors were related to the cameras…”

     “There are other observatories you know,” a man in the crowd said, “and no one saw any signs of approaching debris or comets or asteroidal activity…”

     “Are you not aware,” said Nigel, “that Tau Ceti has more than ten times the amount of asteroidal material orbiting it than Sol? And that there is a giant disc of dust orbiting the planet produced by collisions? It’s hard to keep up with all the elements in the Tau Ceti system. There are too many to keep track of.”

     “So the official position,” a young reporter asked, “is that it was natural? The comet was naturally in the vicinity and just happened to hit the exact place where the probe was?”

     “As strange as it sounds,” Elise said, “that is our position. We don’t see any other possibility.”

     “Scientific possibility,” Roger said, standing up, “is what you mean? Possibility isn’t restrained by science. Science is restrained by possibility. If you’ve restrained yourselves to looking for explanations in science when it comes to Tomos, you might as well give up now. You’re not going to figure this out with probes or telescopes or LRS machines. You have to consider other possibilities.”

     “But Dr. Manwell,” Nigel shouted, “you’re a writer and an artist, and very talented, and a former biologist. I acknowledge your intellect and your talent, but why don’t you leave this to the professionals?”

     “The professionals are exactly the kind of people that this shouldn’t be left to. Their minds are fixed, locked, held back by predisposition. All you look for is scientific evidence. Evidence for what exactly?”

     “Evidence of extraterrestrial life,” Nigel responded.

     “We have all the evidence of extraterrestrial life we need,” Roger said, “Chuck, dim the lights.”

     The engineer, with whom Roger was good friends, dimmed the lights and brought the image of the cabin and the clothesline on the projection screen. Reporters and photographers gasped. Cameras flashed throughout the audience, lighting up the dark auditorium.

     “This proves there is extraterrestrial intelligence,” Roger said, “Now what? We’ve proven there is extraterrestrial intelligence. Now what do we do?”

     “We attempt to make contact with it,” Elise said, “We might be able to learn from it…”

     “Chuck,” Roger said, “scroll to the next picture.”

     The image of the disassembled rhino appeared on the screen. More cameras flashed. The hands of more than a few reporters went up.

     “What do we make of this, then?” he asked, pointing to Nigel, “What is the scientific explanation for this?”

     “Whenever the planet was copied,” Elise said nervously, “the animals must have materialized … the way they are in the image. Something about the atmosphere or particle transporter or …”

     “You can make up as many bland scientific explanations for this as you’d like, Elise. Science takes the presumption that it can explain anything much too seriously. You take the evidence and then find a way it can fit into the parameters of your science. You don’t try to solve the puzzle; you try to find a hole to put the peg in. Tomos cannot be explained by science.”

     “Then explain it, Roger,” Elise said angrily. Galilee looked up at him with the “you’re not getting laid tonight, daddy,” face.

     “There is an intelligence on Tomos that is capable of making and destroying planets. The planet was hid in a dust cloud, our probe was destroyed, and meteors and comets inexplicably blow up before getting near the atmosphere. Something is protecting the planet. Perhaps a demigod or God like creature is trying to recreate life, and is using the life on Earth as a model for his experiments; hence the rhino in its disassembled state.”

     “What do you recommend we do?” Elise asked. She glared at him with the very specific “you’re not getting laid for a month” type look that wives tailor to their needs to deal with their husbands.

     “We leave the planet alone,” he replied, “We’re obviously not meant to be messing with it.”

     Neither Elise nor Nigel nor Howard called on any reporters. Questions were being asked anyway, much of them in the manner of accusing them of withholding information. A crime of which they were vehemently denying and vehemently guilty of.

     A man with a white jump suit came from behind the curtain onto the stage, walked over to Elise, and whispered in her ear. Her eyes widened. She covered the microphone and whispered to Dr. Daniels and Nigel. They both got up. Elise made her way for the curtain. The reporters and cameramen were yelling questions and taking pictures.

     “Elise!” Roger yelled, “What the hell is going on?”

“Tomos,” she said into the microphone, “has disappeared. Tomos is gone.”

     Elise rushed off the stage.

5: A SCARAB IN URSA MAJOR

________________________________

Everyone agreed to forget about Tomos over the next couple of weeks. There was a great air of disappointment hovering over every city on Earth. And with Tomos gone, everything else seemed to be tedious repetition. As a whole, humanity knew the feeling of a worker ant.

     Elise agreed to take a small vacation with Roger after lots of begging and false promises. They went to a hotel across town and left Galilee with a babysitter. She called all the time, of course, and let them know which reporters were calling or coming by the house or calling to say they’re coming by the house.

     The conspiracy theories raged over the internet for the next few weeks. Elise turned down countless interviews on late night talk shows. Roger complained about not receiving his due credit. He didn’t know what the credit was for, but he did know that he hadn’t received it.

Nobody knew what happened to Tomos when it disappeared. Elise talked to David, the man that heard the drum-like sounds from the Tau Ceti system.

     Thousands of people had been watching from their LRS machines. They observed, recorded, and documented the disappearance. No one necessarily knew where it went, but most people seemed relieved that Tomos had disappeared. They no longer had to confront the problem.

     Roger was babbling away on the edge of the bed on the balcony of a seedy hotel on the edge of town. Elise was looking down into an empty glass of gin. Roger was looking down into the empty glass of his twelfth double vodka.

     “So I tell the guy, ‘the world is half-full of pessimists’ and I sit back to let him tell me how clever I am. You know; let him bask in the wit as it washes over him. He just kind of looks at me, you know, like there’s a cog in the gerbil wheel inside his brain. So, I say, ‘ever hear about the scarab and the dung beetle?’? and he says ‘no.’ So, I’m done with this guy because he’s bland and I’m too sober to be bothered with bland people.”

     “What did you say?” Elise asked, sitting up.

     “Which part?” he asked drunkenly, “The half-full of pessimists? Yeah, I thought it was pretty clever too. But I could’ve done better with my second joke. The scarab and the dung beetle … same thing! Of course, he wouldn’t know that.”

     Roger frowned.

     “A scarab?” she asked, turning her head to the side. She looked to the window thoughtfully.

     It seemed as though her mind had found some sort of present and was trying to unwrap it.

     “Yeah,” he said, “scarabs are no better than dung beetles. They both play around in feces. I’ve seen it; truly a depraved and thoroughly interesting species.”

     She was silent.

     “Yeah, I’m going to shut up for a while.”

He flung himself backwards to the bed. He sat up immediately.

     “Make me a drink!” he shouted, “Else I do bad things to you!”

     “I’m not in the mood for sex,” she said, still fighting with the wrapping in her brain.

     “Good one,” he said, “but if I wanted to do something bad to you, I’d cancel your credit cards. Women can deal without sex, but not without three primary payment methods. Then I’d wait behind your door with a solution of chloroform and blank out your brain for a few hours and tattoo ‘I think Roger is the sexiest and most intelligent man on Earth’ all over your body… when I was done abusing it through and through, of course.”

     “A tracking beacon!” Elise yelled, finally getting the wrapping off and looking at the present, “We can find out where Tomos is. There was a scarab shaped tracking beacon on the underside of the Ceti probe. We can find out where it is. We can also receive video and audio transmissions from the beacon.”

     Roger was ignoring her, randomly flipping through channels on the television. He stopped at an evangelical program.

     “We’ll be able to find Tomos,” she repeated. He was howling with laughter.

     “Look,” he said, “we’ve looking from Tau Ceti to Altair and all the way from Eta Cas to Del Pav. Just come to bed, baby. Have sex with me. You like comedies.”

     “We’ve checked for thousands of light years away from it…”

     “Elise,” he said firmly, “this program is morally offensive to my person, and here I am watching it just for you and you’re talking about work. Can’t we just get drunk and watch this evangelism?”

     “Roger!” she shouted, running to the phone.

    “Fine,” he said, “fine. I’ll find a channel with some big ‘ol titties flopping around in some milk. You know… something moral like that; full of strong, American virtues.”

     Elise was already dialing the phone. Roger was clapping along to some nudist sing along on a Spanish station. “I can count! I can count,” he shouted, “One, two. Two tits! Hoorah! They’re not covered in milk…yet.” He frowned.

     “Order some milk,” he shouted at Elise, “and also a couple of pizzas. And if I can’t cover you in milk, I’ll feed the vagabond cats gathering at your stoop. And pizzas! I’m going to want to eat large amounts of food when and if I’m turned down for sex. It’s always been like that. Either way, I will be satiated. And by the looks of things, I’ve been turned down again. No matter. Eating lasts longer.”

     “David,” Elise was saying into the plastic hotel phone, “you’ve checked other stars right?”

     “Yes,” said David, “far, far out. All the way out to GJ 408, and that is over twenty one light years away. We’ve got people looking even further than that.”

     “David,” she said, “did everybody forget the tracking beacon? There was a tracking beacon on the underside of the Ceti probe. It won’t show up any LRS scopes. It will be received by anyone listening at the exact frequency and time in the right section of the sky. But the only way we have of tracking it is your computer down at the Bureau. Can you meet us down there in thirty minutes?”

     “Sure, sure,” David said, “I’ll have the computer running. Might be a little late, though, have to get some cigarettes.”

     “The search for intelligent life in the universe,” Roger stammered, “should begin on Earth.”

     “Put your pants on,” Elise said, snatching the keys from the lamp stand beside the bed, “We’ll be able to find Tomos.”

     “We can find Tomos without my pants. What the hell is with your enthusiasm for this, Elise? If you find it, it’s still just a planet. Can’t you just shelf all of that and come to bed?”

     “Roger,” she screamed, “there are more important things in life than fucking.”

Roger’s eyes widened. “Really? No there isn’t. How would you be pursuing all of this mystery in the sky had your parents been as cold around the crotch as you?”

     “There are many things more important than sex.”

     “And none of them would be possible without sex.”

     She looked at him angrily. He was swaggering back and forth, learning to count, and had begun a new sing along when Elise ran out.

     She shouted something about him not paying attention but he really wasn’t paying attention.

     “Elise!” he called after her, staggering to his feet, “All of this excitement bores me. You can’t convince me to go. I’m putting my foot down! You always get me to do whatever it is you want me to do and I’m sick of it. I’m tired of exploring, I’m tired of hearing about the human spirit, and I’m sure as hell tired of hearing about that god damn plagiarized planet! Nothing you can say will make me go.”

     No answer.

     “I’m serious!” he shouted triumphantly.

     There continued to be no answer. There was one roach on bed and he seemed unimpressed.

     After trying to strangle himself for a minute, he decided to leave.

     He sighed and finished another glass of vodka. He walked out the door into the cool evening air. As soon as he got in the car and saw her smiling, he tried to strangle himself again.

     “Why are you doing that?” she asked.

     “Keeps me busy,” he replied instantly, “It’s nice to have constructive hobbies. And, for the record, you’d never have tricked me if I was sober.”

     “I trick you all the time when you’re sober,” she replied.

     “No,” he said, now with an unimaginable air of sobriety, “I allow you to think you’ve tricked me.” His clown hat had come off, revealing the manipulative genius underneath. This was not the Roger anyone wanted to see.

     “What purpose would you have for that, Roger?” she asked, “That’s stupid.”

     “It has a very definite purpose. Because it flatters you to think you can trick me, and then while you’re busy being flattered because you’ve tricked me, you start to feel good about yourself. I’m widely thought of as a visionary and a genius and all that bunk, so to fool me, must make you feel pretty special. You, a regular country girl, who studied for exams when I was out of college by age twelve, get to fool the famous polyglot genius from Galilee. Then… and then you realize you’re feeling good about yourself because of me. That’s when the ultimate purpose of feigning gullibility comes in.”

     “Which is?” she asked him, her eyes now wide with revulsion.

“The better a woman feels about herself, the more superiority the role of benefactor allows them to aggregate, the more open to susceptibility they become due to the role of superior they think they have acquired. Then, the female starts to feel bad for tricking the man, and cajoles him proper so he’ll forgive her. You know how many times you’ve apologized to me for me manipulating you? Ha! I know where all your strings are, and if I wished, I’d make you dance. But, for those I love, I wear this clown hat of irreverence. It’s easier for them to deal with a drunken clown than a genius.”

     He lit a cigarette and smiled. She stared at him for another minute, without turning on the car. This was the distinct look that wives reserve for their husbands which says “this is going to cost you a lot of money.”

     “You’re making this up, aren’t you?” she asked.

     “Of course I’m making this up; I’m not clever enough to fool you. Genius though I be.”

     This, he thought, will certainly flatter her. It worked. It certainly flattered her. He felt good about himself for salvaging his best psychological defense system.

     They walked into the main control room of the crowded Bureau of Astronomy. A lone computer light flickered in the corner, illuminating the bald head of the night shift worker. He was reclining in his computer chair, watching the trajectory printout of a crisscrossing search over a few stars just outside the vicinity of Tau Ceti system.

     “No match for the radio signature,” he said, taking a bite of a candy bar, “No planets have been reported by the LRS observatories. We’ve got half of the world looking for this place.”

     “Where did you start the search?” Elise asked.

     “We started at Tau Ceti,” he replied. She picked up a readout of statistics. She skimmed over them briefly. Roger was headed for Elise’s office to fish out a bottle of gin. She found another present in her mind and began unwrapping it.

     “We’ve got lots of overlapping searches ranging within a few light years as well, with radio telescopes listening on a large variety of different frequencies.”

     Roger was laughing in the other room. He’d obviously found Elise’s gin.

     “Roger,” she called, “get back in here. This is a lot more serious than getting drunk…” She realized this train of thought was going nowhere, so she decided a new strategy in dealing with him.

     “Roger,” she called again, more sensually this time, “if you don’t come in here right now, you’re not getting laid for three months.”

     The door swung open immediately. Roger sauntered back into the room. He was talking to someone on his cell phone. It seemed to be going well.

     “No,” he said, “they’ve looked everywhere. What do you mean ‘have they looked closer’? Why would they bring Tomos closer to Earth when it would be easier to detect?”

     Elise finally got the wrapping off and ran to the tracking system in the corner. It was dark and lifeless.

     “David,” she called, “come and get this on. We’ll be able to find Tomos using the tracking beacon implanted on the bottom of the probe.”

     “Have you looked at any stars closer to Earth than Tau Ceti? Like Sirius or Alpha Centauri?”

     “No,” said David, shaking his head, “Let me boot up the tracking program.”

     He flicked on another monitor to his side, plugged auxiliary wires into it from the hard drive, and booted it up. A tracking grid with red intersecting points of references, with a Local Group map behind it, lit up the screen.

The grid scanned over the closest stars, beeping as it skipped over vast coordinates of space. Then it panned towards Ursa Major, locked, and began zooming in.

     “Oh my,” Roger said, standing behind Elise. Elise had leaned over David’s shoulder to watch the search. Roger had stood to stare.

     “The signal is coming from the vicinity of Lalande 21185,” David said, “We can run the LRS in the other room, and I’ll set up the equipment to download the audio and video data from the tracking beam.”

His mouth stood agape as the tracking grid zoomed into the Lalande system, buzzing and blinking.

     “Let’s go to my house,” Roger shouted, “We’ll run the LRS.”

“But you haven’t paid for your subscription in months,” Elise interjected.

     “I don’t plan on paying for it for many more months, Elise. We have to use a high powered LRS, and I have a high powered LRS device. One plus one equals two. Me,” he pointed to himself “Tarzan. You,” he pointed to Elise, “Jane. Let’s go.”

     “There’s one in the adjoining room, Roger.” She glared at him in a particularly unsettling manner.

     It made her look depressingly older, he noticed.

     “With the LRS,” Roger asked, “how far in can you get? I mean, Lalande is a lot closer to Earth than…”

     “Lalande is only about 8.21 light years from earth. Not too far from Tau Ceti, actually.” Elise couldn’t resist showing Roger up in front of other people.

     “We can see ants on the surface if they’re there,” David said. He turned on a small lamp and flipped through pages of a manual. He thumbed the page he was looking for. “Aha,” he said, “I can tune into the frequency and listen, and view, the video and audio recorded by the Scarab in the time that’s lapsed since Tomos disappeared.

     “Go about it then,” Elise said.

     She and Roger decided to have a drink while David hooked up his headphones. He turned the volume of the static indicator and begun downloading the audio message.

     A separate system had begun dragging the video from the tiny Scarab that now crawled the sands of Tomos in the dust filled system of Lalande.

     “Whatever moved it there has a keen understanding of human psychology,” said Roger, obviously awed.

     “What do you mean?” Elise asked.

     “Well, they had the sense to know that if they moved Tomos further away, we’d look until the end of the galaxy. And they knew, because of our predispositions and our ‘we must go further than others have gone’ nature, that we’d look further out than Tau Ceti. Another thing, it was moved to a system known to have terrestrial planets – so if someone noticed the sign of a terrestrial planet in the system, they’d write it off as one of the preexisting ones. The creature behind Tomos moved it to a place where it knew that we knew there was the possibility terrestrial life. This is a clever creature, certainly not omnipotent, but clever.”

     “I’m going to get a drink,” Elise said. She made her way through the dark cubicles towards her office. There was a small bottle of Gin in a freezer under her desk. It was hidden behind some microwaveable dinners. These helped a lot when she worked late.

     “Half of the audio has been downloaded,” David told Roger, who had tried to talk to him of some of the more interesting obscenities.

     “How long for the video and audio?” he asked.

     “Audio will finish within ten minutes,” David replied, pushing his glasses back onto his nose, “Video, within an hour.”

     Elise brought Roger an empty glass. He looked at her in fury.

     “What the hell is this?” he asked. “What am I supposed to do with this? Put it up to my mouth and fantasize?”

     “Audio is done,” David said. Roger flung the glass across the room. It shattered on a poster which bore friendly illustrations of the planets, bearing the phrase The Universe and You.

     “Let’s hear what Tomos has to say,” Roger said. He stole a chair from one of the other cubicles. He dragged it over beside David and sat down. He made it known that he had considered getting Elise a chair.

     “You can fantasize about sitting down,” he said.

     David plugged the audio cables into the main speakers. He turned the volume all the way up and reclined, putting his hands behind his head.

     All they heard at first was the sound of a low murmur. Elise thought it sounded like the beating of a small drum. Roger paid more attention to the digital gargling and hissing that flooded from the stereo speakers. Then they heard it.

     The voice was soothing and musical. It had a particular melancholy to it. Roger closed his eyes for a moment to listen.

     “It’s really pretty,” said Elise. “Do you think something in Lalande is trying to make music?”

6: THE GLASS UMBRELLA

________________________________

They listened for a while transfixed. The low, somber and ominous and musical humming continued amidst the backdrop of what seemed to be glass atop a marble floor. It seemed as though something was being thrown onto a table. There were distinct sounds of heavy objects hitting wood.

     “The table with the disassembled rhino on it,” Elise said, “…He’s trying to put the rhino together.”

     The humming stopped. All that came through above the hiss sounded to be something flapping in the wind, ruffling like blankets on a clothesline. They remembered where the probe had been destroyed – in South Carolina by the cabin, near the table, not too far out of audible rang from the clothesline.

     The sound kept on for a while, humming and vocal intonations of orchestral music. After an hour of listening, when the video was finished, they heard something more distinct and mechanical. The previous song of Lalande faded out. They huddled around the sole computer light in the dark office building, listening attentively to whatever happened on Tomos when the probe was destroyed. They heard a thud – something falling to the ground – and the song arose again. There were heavy footfalls on barren dirt.

     “He must’ve got the rhino working,” Roger said, “Peculiar business to be involved in. Rhino manufacturing, peculiar indeed. Not as crazy as, say, being sober this time of night. This is ridiculous, baby. Let’s leave.”

     She thumped his ear.

     “Son of a bitch!” he shouted, “I paid for that hotel room.”

     The heavy footfalls of the rhino faded. They were replaced by the continuing melancholic humming.

     “That’s coming out of a human mouth,” Elise said.

     “And you’re an expert on what comes out of human mouths,” Roger said, “and what goes in. Harhar.”

     He ran the tape forward. It seemed the song had faded too, so they turned to the video.

     David plugged the video cables into the machine that downloaded the data. He ran it on a larger projection screen across the room. They hurried over to it.

     The vision on the screen, being transmitted by the Scarab, showed only the billowing of the air as the probe drifted through it idly. The ground swelled as it dropped further into the atmosphere. Buildings came into view and disappeared, replaced by trees. The probe landed. It lurched forward.

     It moved along the pathway through the woods, up to the table by the cabin.

     “Plug the audio back in so we can have both,” Roger said, “It’s much more entertaining that way. If I’m going to sacrifice a night of television, I might as well do it for watching television.”

     The audio cycled through the passing air that rushed past it in the atmosphere. They synchronized the audio and video at the exact point the probe was destroyed. There was a flash of light on the screen. The smoking remains of the probe appeared on the screen, revealing the surroundings. The microfilm was projected in all directions – they navigated its field of vision towards the cabin and the clothesline.

     “Something’s wrong with the video,” Roger said.

     “Stop being so god damn critical Roger,” Elise shouted, “Just be patient.”

     “No,” said David, “he’s right. Look, right here.” He rose and pointed at a circular section of the screen that looked to be hovering in front of the trees.

     Roger did a celebratory dance.

     The expanse of trees was black and tangled. Hovering in front of one of the taller trees was a small circle which had rough black outlines, cast by the trees in front of which it hung. It looked like a mirror was being held in the air, floating along the trees. The diameter of the floating mirror, or paneled glass as it would seem to reflect different directions, was roughly three feet.

     It was noted most clearly when it drifted from the air towards the table. A hanging circle of reflected light bobbed above the stand. The rhino on the table was near completion – its head was screwed on correctly, it would seem to anyone that knew how to put together rhinos, and, aside from the ears being inverted, it was perfectly assembled except for one missing limb.

     The mirror, or glass or whatever, drifted above the table for five or so minutes – when it drifted back into the air above, the rhino kicked its legs and rolled from the table. The other leg appeared as the mirrored glass gravitated. It hit the ground with a thud and the mirror swooped down to greet it. After a moment, it sauntered down the pathway like a giant windup toy.

     The floating circle reflected the smoking debris of the Ceti probe as it drifted to the cabin. It stopped for a moment in front of the varnished door as though it were thinking. It looked to one direction, shifting sideways, and then to the other. The circle drifted to the edge of the cabin, obscuring the view to the clothesline. After a moment, it returned to the front of the cabin.

     The cabin door swung open and the concentric circle, still reflecting the probe, disappeared into the cabin. Through the window they saw the rounded shadow again. In the audio they heard the song resumed.

There was a natural curiosity to the motions of the mirror. It seemed inquisitive, alive – inspecting something thoroughly. The rhino disappeared into the woods.

     “Whatever is there,” Roger said, “whatever is humming that song is carrying around some means of reflecting, or deflecting light. It looked like a pale mirror floated from above the table to the door. Don’t you agree?” He looked at David.

     David rewound the tape. He paused it as the circular figure first appeared above the table.

     “Look,” Roger said, pushing Elise out of the way, “you can see a handle. Look!” he pointed to a black cylindrical shape not too far under the floating mirror.

     “It’s a handle,” he said, “but what for?”

     “I have no idea,” Elise said, trying to force herself back into the conversation.

    “What’s new about that?” Roger asked, “I think I might have an idea.”

David and Elise glared at him expectantly.

“It’s just past one,” Roger said, “If we leave now, we’ll be able to have a round of drinks before the bar closes. Now this will require taciturn, the cordial brand of taciturn to which we yet have the inordinate ability to properly display. Now, if I order ten vodka’s at $3.25 I’ll have the reasonably small bill of $32.50. The savings, of course, could be proportioned to work out a deal with one of the strippers for David and I … I mean look at the man. He needs a couple of titties in his face…”

“Roger!” Elise shouted.

“Ok,” he stammered, “ok. Look, it’s a device for reflecting what’s in front of whatever it is, right? Look at it,” he gestured, “It’s meant to hide whatever is hiding behind it by reflecting whatever is front of it. So, if we stood directly in front of it… We’d see ourselves. It’s like an umbrella of sorts, I’d figure, the intention of which is to deter us from being able to glimpse whatever it is that carries it.”

“Why do you think it wouldn’t want us to see what it’s done?” Elise asked, “Or what it’s doing? Surely it must have taken due consideration that perhaps the planet would someday be discovered. If it really didn’t want to be destroyed or discovered, but had the power to move a planet a couple of parsecs at a time without much effort, surely it could avoid being discovered. It wants us to see it; it wants us to think about it; it wants us to discover it.”

“Your ego,” Roger laughed, “is amazing in its scope and grandeur. Why is it a preoccupation for human beings to believe themselves the center of every action in the universe? Even the planets line up to help us win the lottery, Elise. Venus has positive bearing on my sex life. These are absurd egotisms of a delusional race gone mad with the increasing possibility that they are really alone. When a single creature, or race, finds out they’re alone – what do they do? They cower because they know their fate is in their hands and the only person to whom their faith should be entrusted is themselves – the only person not capable of handling it. Sure, sure, you can find someone down the street to look after your soul for a small fee. You’ve taught yourself all of this by rote. It’s diminished over the generations, of course.

“Humans have thought themselves to be the center of the universe, the creation of a divine being with a special interest in what we do sexually, the object of attention for cosmic deities and other terrible inventions of delusional creatures, and now they think the only terrestrial planet in which life has been observed is simply existing to beckon them to show up.

“What do we bring with us, Elise? A package of creamed corn? Sneakers with lights in the heels or phony laser beams that go ‘beep-beep’ or do we take to them our miraculous inventions? The true demonstration of the ingenuity of the capability of the human species – nuclear fission and weaponry. Why do you have so much stock in this planet? The same reason anybody has any faith in anything; they’re convinced it’ll make them live, in someway or another, forever. That’s what faith comes down to – the delusion that something will make sure

you never die. That’s what Tomos is to you, isn’t it? A sign that something greater is going on? Things just happen, Elise. We can either enjoy them, or I’m going to continue taking things seriously and end up with a headache again. I’m tired of these kind of headaches, headaches from thinking. My body is telling me to abandon a habit which has caused me an unending amount of torture and torment that I most undoubtedly deserve.

“You’re too pessimistic,” she said simply, “You don’t want to see any sort of wonder in life. It pleases you, doesn’t it? If all there is to life is booze and sex, you can go about it without much of a burden on yourself. But if there are higher callings, you repeat to you the same sort of delusion you accuse me of repeating to myself.”

“Elise,” Roger said firmly, “I almost had you convinced I gave a shit, didn’t I?” He lit a cigarette and laughed.

“You’re so cute when you get all riled up,” he said, blowing her a kiss. “Let’s have a drink.”

He turned toward her office again. He whistled a tune as he walked in great strides. He’ll never change, she thought.

“Wait, wait,” Elise said, “go back. David, look in the bottom corner of the umbrella. Do you see what I see?”

“The same winged creature we saw on the clothesline ride,” Roger interrupted, “It appears as though whatever is hiding behind that umbrella wants us to think this creature is what’s doing all of this. That, or the angel looking creature wants us to think that something is trying to make us think the angel is what’s in control of the planet. Thus, it deters suspicion from itself by obvious pronouncement. Hiding something where it’s expected to be found is the best place to hide something, because it’s the last place anybody looks.”

“When the mirror goes up to the door,” Elise said, tracing her fingers along the digital projection screen, “Pause it and zoom in on the image.”

He ran the tape forward and paused. He zoomed in. Though it could barely be recognized, the distinct visage of the angel by the probe appeared. The angel’s face was blank, but it stood there motionless; it followed the bobbing of the drifting mirror. It’s wings were folded down dejectedly.

“Run the LRS,” Roger shouted, “We’re going to find out what’s on Tomos tonight if it kills me. If we don’t find out, and it doesn’t kill me, I’m not going to make you not stop me from not killing myself.”

They stared at him for a second with a sort of wonder.

“Roger,” David said, motioning towards the auditorium LRS facility – the most powerful in the United States, “you are probably the craziest human being I’ve ever met. But you’re certainly fun to be around.”

“Tell my wife that,” he said, “You can call her when Elise leaves.”

Elise forced a sympathetic type of smile as they headed towards the LRS auditorium. They found their way to the main control remote and loaded the program. They logged in to the floating Hubble telescope. The LRS machines all start from a vantage point orbiting the moon. From there you could zoom digitally, like a telescope zooming in on the earth from space, to almost any point in space that could be redirected and reflected towards inner reflecting digital monitoring

mirrors. It’s range was up to ten light years with crystal clear clarity – and had the clarity of a decent telescope up to one hundred million light years. Many planets had been discovered in the Milky Way because of it – and in Andromeda – but none of the planets had been inhabited.

It had long been the vantage point for optimistic scientists that human beings could not possibly be alone in so vast a universe. They repeated this as to absolve themselves of inward doubt and insecurity. But it remained; the Earth was the only known planet to support life in all its manifest joys and terrors.

But there was life, in a sense, on Tomos. It was possible that all life on the planet was a replica of life on Earth. This made people joyous, even though they had even less of a perspective on the workings of the physical universe since its appearance. Obviously, along the way, the scientists of Mother Earth forgot some rudimentary fact about space.

David ran the LRS machine, and in within minutes they hovered around the red dwarf star Lalande. There were two small planets in the system. One was a gas giant named Melas, named after the astronomer who discovered it, and the other was a planet similar in size to Neptune named Ahrum. Neither of the planets could support terrestrial life.

In the glare of Lalande in a cloud of dust and ice, Tomos drifted out of the dark and into view. It swam up on the monitor, casting light on David’s face.

The city’s were lit up on the side that faced the Earth – Los Angeles, San Francisco, and the other lights that lined the outer edges of Mexico.

On all perceptible radio frequencies, all they heard was the musical, even joyful humming. It was being beamed from the star and both the planets in the system.

“Roger,” said Elise, “Listen. I can hear it outside.”

7: THE MESSAGE FROM TOMOS

________________________________

Everyone stood in front of their homes with their heads reclined, staring into the sky. The sound was unmistakable in every nook and cranny of the earth.

     The musical humming and slow chanting of Lalande filled all the aural channels of the Earth. From Alaska to Washington D.C., just outside the Bureau of Astronomy, you could hear the ominous humming from Lalande.

     There was a strange quality to the songs. Without much effort, they could easily be mistaken for the kind of chanting that primitive hominids made in song. The notes were perfect as they drifted through the woods and cities, through cars and bars and homes. Each note passed through wind chimes, rattling them together in perfect harmony.

     Roger and David debated the physics of hearing sound through the vacuum of space. They debated on hearing humming from Ursa Major. They wondered if somehow the entire planet had gone entirely mad.

     Of course, they drew no conclusions. Humans, Roger thought, were more capable of suggestions and possibilities than they were of definitive answers.

     The people in California climbed from their cars on the interstates and parked, looking up. With their children, their dogs, their cats, and friends – they all looked up with their eyes transfixed on the glittering blanket of night that spread above them. The stars were serenading the Earth.

     Elise showed up late for work again, finding herself in the midst of another media circus. They planned to answer a few of the questions directed at them. Roger decided to hang around the carnival. He called in sick at the pharmaceutical testing facility where he worked, and settled near the back of the room.

Only a few reporters were allowed in the main room. Dr. Daniels stood talking to a businessman by the door, and Nigel was fighting for air time in one of the small consortiums of reporters. Elise had prepared to give vague answers. Just enough to abate interest long enough for them to figure out something more substantial that could be used to abate their interest.

     A blank screen hung on the wall. Chairs were gathered before it. A few people sat idly at their stations with their headphones on, listening to the soothing sounds that poured from the sky.

     Galilee sat beside Roger with her leopard skinned book bag. Roger never wearied of it; he always imagined opening it, seeing leopard organs spilling out of it. Apparently, she had been the only person on Earth to think to search for Tomos in stars closer than Tau Ceti.

     Even as Elise stood before the reporters, amid a backdrop of the indicating dot of the Scarab tracking beam – pinned with a red tack – the soothing songs poured from the sky. They couldn’t drown it; putting on earphones did nothing to muffle the sound.

     None of the major television news stations could make much of it. Astronomers were being interviewed around the world. Many of them being awoken in the early morning hours. Most of them were awake and staring out their windows when the calls came in.

     The National Security advisor was in attendance as well. He sat in a lifeless silk suit by an open window with his arms crossed, randomly jotting notes in a black, leather bound notebook. They proposed to Dr. Daniels that the Scarab could be used to detonate an explosive charge on Tomos.

     This way, he claimed, any threat it might pose would be eliminated along with the unnecessary and more pressing mysteries surrounding it.

     By reversing the signal, it was possible to overload the Scarab tracking beacon with the information it sent out. This could possibly create a substantial explosion if concentrated enough and for a long period of time.

     Elise was to address the already fidgeting and restless crowd. She was to provide answers for questions she desperately needed the answers to. It was like asking for answers from someone who has yet to even take the test.

     Where did it come from? she wondered. Why was it there? What did the animal parts mean? What held the glass umbrella? How could there be a replica of the Earth in Ursa Major? Where were the now dubbed the Songs of Lalande coming from? What could we learn from it? Could it be dangerous?

     By all conventional science, the Songs came from the Lalande system. The voice was aimed directly towards our solar system, and this was unmistakable.

     “Tomos,” said Elise nervously, “has been relocated. We traced the tracking beacon originally welded to the bottom of the Ceti probe. Tomos is now drifting in the vicinity of Lalande 21185.”

     “Could this be a threat to national security?” another nameless reporter called, “Should we seriously look into attempting to destroy it?”

     The songs continued to swell in volume and intensity. It was the same slow, vocal and melancholic humming. It was eerily reminiscent to chamber music.

     “There is, as of yet anyway, no reason to suspect a threat. All we know is that there is intelligence on the planet. It hides behind some sort of glass umbrella. That’s why none of the LRS machines can find it. All they see are minor distortions in the atmosphere. It also seems that animals are being somehow manufactured on the surface of the planet.”

     No one seemed to have a question for that. Another reporter pressed, “What are the chances of being able to really find out why Tomos appeared in Cetus to begin with?”

     “I really don’t know,” said Elise, her eyes swelling, “but I do know why it’s there. I don’t have to be told why it’s there – and I don’t have to be right. My husband,” she motioned to Roger, who was, of course, asleep, “suggested this early on, but I dismissed it. It’s easy to dismiss an opinion when the person is related to you.”

     She forced a weak smile and continued, “I think Tomos never really had any significant external purpose. It had one for everybody.”

     “An example?” the National Security advisor shouted.

     “It gave us a reason to wonder again. It showed us humility; it gave us a purpose to advance our culture and our ideas. It transcended all logic, and I think it showed that logic isn’t always as sound as we believe it to be.”

     “But isn’t this the kind of scientific copout you’ve been making for years?” someone called. This upset Elise greatly.

     “Copout?” she said, “Tomos gave us a riddle that seemingly had no answer. It’s made us tax our brains – which isn’t something that’s very popular in today’s culture. People just drink beer, watch TV, play the lottery and have few interests in social matters.

     “The amount of hostility shown towards the research and effort made to figure out what happened in Cetus and why shows how far our race really has to go.”

When she finished speaking, the sounds that filled the air came to a sudden stop. Everybody on earth that listened heard the sound cut out. It didn’t fade, but was instant.

     The biggest monitor in the room clicked on. The screen was full of static at first, and then it panned out to show the office they were in. All of the people in the room were in the room on the screen. Though they didn’t move, they were perfect replicas.

     Of Roger, Elise, Nigel, Dr. Daniels, even the National Security Advisor. He sat lifeless in the same sort of chair. He appeared frozen above his notebook. Elise backed up to get a better look at the screen.

The people around the room looked like mannequins. Then a young girl walked to the screen and spoke into it. There was a melodic quality to the voice.

     “My name is not important. You have to leave this star system alone. You call this planet Tomos. This is our planet. Please don’t bother us anymore. He is not a threat; he just wants to sing. We are not a threat.”

     Elise knew exactly who the young girl was.

     The image of the adolescent flickered and the screen went blank.

     Everybody in the room stirred. Hushed talking turned into borderline panic. Elise called Nigel over to her, whispered something to him, and he went out of the room.

     “He’s going to check the signal,” Elise said, “to make sure it’s not a prank.” She fiddled with the controls for a moment.

     “Look, look,” she pointed, “I’ve got it recorded.”

      She played the video again. At the appropriate screen, she paused it. Allowing everyone in the room to see the screen. Everyone there was in the room on the screen. Roger was there too, sitting in the back beside Galilee. It looked like an elaborately designed dollhouse full of rigid, doll-like people.

     Nigel ran into the room. He whispered something to Elise. She could see herself in the video as well, not too far from the back of the room. Her face was frozen.

     “It appears,” she said, “We’ve been contacted by extraterrestrial intelligence.” She was silent for a minute.

A reporter raised his hand. She called on him.

     “Dr. Manwell,” he asked, “We’re all on that screen. How can we be contacted by extraterrestrial intelligence, if we’re all here?”

     “Because,” she said, “that signal is coming from the Lalande system. For the first time in known history, we’ve been contacted by another civilization. Strangely, it appears as though we’ve been contacted by ourselves.”

     The tape, along with the briefing, was made public. Scientists from around the world identified that the message had indeed been broadcast from Tomos, still drifting near Lalande. Why, or how, an entire room full of mannequin-like human beings had been produced to send us the message, was purely speculation.

     Throughout most of modern history, human beings have always imagined and wondered what contact with another civilization would be like. What would they look like? What would they want? They expected giant spaceships and aliens with glittering skin and long robes to descend on us with open arms to take us to the galaxy.

     The message from Tomos was played over and over. It even leaked onto the internet. The songs from Lalande could be heard again. They were much fainter, but they were there. The distinct humming couplets filled the morning, as Elise made her way to a meeting in downtown Washington D.C. They were as violins. She had been summoned, along with Dr. Daniels and Nigel, to a confidential location to meet with the National Security Council.

     The room was dark except for a monitor on a single table. On the screen the image of the cloud wrapped Tomos was spinning slowly. Lalande flickered in the distance, casting light on the polar ice caps.

     A small group of men sat around smoking cigarettes. The smoke danced in the rays of light cast by the monitor, darkening their eye-sockets and starker facial features. Elise was urged to sit down and she obliged. She put her briefcase on the table and opened it.

     Another man entered through a different door and sat down beside her.

     “Can I offer you something to drink?” he asked.

     “Gin,” she replied, “straight. That’d be good.”

     He nodded and stood, wandering off to fix her drink. Dr. Daniels sat beside her on one side and Nigel sat on the other.

     “Your drink,” the man said, handing it to her.

    “Thank you,” Elise replied, accepting it graciously.

    “We’ve called you here to tell you some things,” the man said, “Many of which you’ll find disagreeable. But I have strict orders. We are here to inform you and perhaps get some information.”

     “We’ll do what we can,” Dr. Daniels said. He cast a nervous glance at Elise. She had finished her drink and was visibly more worried than he was.

     “This planet,” the man continued, “Tomos? Yes, that’s what the scientists call it. We have orders to acquire the coordinates from you. We intend to destroy the planet.”

     Elise stood. “How can you even think about that?” she shouted, “This planet has made no hostile moves towards us. It’s merely asked us to leave us alone.”

     “Didn’t you notice, Mrs. Manwell, who was on that screen? There were human beings there being kept against their will. That much is obvious.”

     “Sir…” she started.

     “Call me Conrad,” he interrupted.

     “Conrad,” she began again, “if you didn’t notice… everyone in that room down at the Bureau was on that transmission. The young girl that appeared on the screen was my daughter. And as far as I know she’s only left the country once, much less the solar system. If there are human beings there, chances are – they are just replicas of us.”

     “Then we’re already planning to destroy us,” said Conrad. “Why would an alien species recreate us to make contact with… with us? I always imagined that one day an alien race would contact us. I never imagined that we’d contact ourselves from another region in space. Don’t you think that’s a bit strange, Dr. Manwell?”

     “You know about the animals,” Dr. Daniels said, “the way we found evidence of animal manufacturing on the planet?”

     “We heard about the rhino and the rat,” Conrad said, circling the table, “but maybe this creature has found a way to recreate human beings based on a biological blueprint. The only reason we’d be replicated by an alien species should be obvious. They wish to enslave us, or figure out a way to create more effective weapons to use against us.”

     “That’s absurd,” Elise shouted, “This intelligence, whether it is a single entity or more, has the ability to replicate an entire planet down to specific details. It managed to move Tomos from Tau Ceti to Lalande in what appears to be no more than a few seconds, and we have the nerve to assume this creature, whatever it is, doesn’t have the ability to destroy us if it wishes? What threat could we pose it, really?”

The men across the table, who up till this point had been silent, gave a small chuckle.

     “What?” Elise asked.

     “You’re forgetting about the angel,” one said, “by the clothesline. Have you established what that means yet?”

     “I think, again, that whatever the creatures motive, it used the angel to comfort us. It contacted us with … ourselves. This was to make sure we didn’t panic. Perhaps it didn’t realize that we could’ve more easily handled a message from any creature in the universe than from ourselves. The angel should’ve been a comforting image to us. It’s comforted religious zealots for thousands of years. I don’t see any sort of ill-intent in any of the actions. We should leave the planet alone, study it of course, but let it be. We have no right to police the universe and destroy everything we don’t understand.”

     “So,” Conrad intervened, “this creature can make a planet skip through parsecs in space, but has trouble in social situations? It’s smart enough to move a planet from one place in space to another, but is dumb enough to send us a message from Tomos with ourselves in the video?”

     “I don’t really think intelligence has anything to do with that,” Nigel said.

“Surely,” Conrad said, “a creature would have to be intelligent to move such distances in space.”

     “Do you think it requires intelligence to create an electric light show?” Elise asked, looking at Conrad intently.

     “Of course,” he responded, “You’d have to have a fundamental knowledge of electricity, which takes intelligence.”

     “High intelligence?” she continued.

     “Well, a high school graduate level of intelligence should be able to do it.”

     “There are thousands of animals in the ocean that can do it,” she said, “and I doubt any of them have their degree.”

    “Exactly,” Nigel said, “Maybe this creature has the natural ability to move through space like that. It doesn’t have to be a product of intelligence.

     “Tomorrow we’re going to vote,” said Conrad, “We’ll let you know if Tomos goes or Tomos stays. But frankly, it makes us all uncomfortable. It just hangs there, immobile, not orbiting or moving. It has no reason to be there and it shouldn’t be there. And we will, Dr. Manwell, destroy it. A radio signal can be generated at greater distances. It’ll build up near the surface. When the charge is good enough… Tomos disappears.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

8: THE MYSTERY REVEALED

________________________________

Then everybody saw it, glittering in the loving warmth of Sol, the iridescent glass umbrella drifting to the Earth. The faces of each mother and each child, from all around the world, drifted upwards to the iridescent glass umbrella. The powers that be on Earth were ready to destroy the planet. They were ready to remove the potential threat and mystery forever from the Earth.

     It drifted all the way down to the Bureau of Astronomy building in Washington D.C., where the meeting was being held. They would vote for the go ahead. They’d vote for its destruction.

     It drifted with the handle pointing down, dropping steadily to the floor. Scientists had gathered, astronomers, people of the Presidential Cabinet, and more than a few civilians had come to figure out the fate of Tomos. Roger was there. This time, for the first time in a long, long time, living a life of amused detachment, he was wide awake. He was, however, more than pleasantly drunk. Elise sat beside him in the front row. They came, along with the rest of the Bureau, to find out what was to be done with Tomos.

     For a moment the umbrella balanced on its handle in the center of the room. Then the handle rose to the ceiling and turned upside down, scattering the light around the room. With each face in the room reflecting off it, the handle disappeared when the glass canopy came to rest in the center of the room. Something was above it as it drifted, cradled inside it, and an iridescent light beamed off all corners of the room. Now it was comfortably hidden under the mirror-like panels.

     Roger sat up, wiping the drool off his face, and watched it hover above the ground. Everybody looking at it saw themselves, save for one slender silver hand, with four primary digits and two opposing thumbs, which gripped the cylindrical handle. He was surprised that no one fled the room.

     No one approached it except for Elise. She walked over to the umbrella top and knelt beside it. Small, tangled lines swiveled around the cap.

     “Why did you make Tomos?” she asked, “Why did you put it there?”

     “It was placed in Tau Ceti because of the debris in the system. I thought it would be comfortably hidden long enough for me to finish.”

     “Long enough to finish? What exactly were you trying to make?”

     “A replica of Earth,” the umbrella replied, “because Earth is the only place I found. I’ve attempted making many more copies, but never finished any of them. They resemble Earth, and they’re spread out across the galaxy. Search long

enough and you will find hundreds of derelict worlds resembling your mother Earth. But Earth is the only place I’ve found…”

     “Found?” Elise asked, “What do you mean?”

“I’ve been in this galaxy for thousands of millions of years. Time for me is different than it is for you. For me, time is like a bath. Someone of the moments stick to me. For you, time is like a river and you’re sticks and leaves stuck in the stream, heading for the wide mouth of a dark and unknown ocean. I have lived for a thousand millennia, but remember only the past one hundred thousand years or so, it all fades as I continue to age.”

     “You’ve traveled through our entire galaxy?”

     “Not only this one, in others. I’ve traveled in and out the star systems of Andromeda. There were oceans there, but never life. Not even an ant or mealworm.”

     “And you don’t even know how you got to be?”

     “Do you?” the voice continued, “I don’t know how I got to be here anymore than a rhino or a rat. I might have known shortly after my creation, but that was so long ago. If I ever knew my creator, or my God, I must have forgotten his name and face.”

     “Oh,” Elise said thoughtfully, “You were trying to remake all the animals on Earth?”

     “I thought it was essential to make everything the same, down to the last crack in the concrete of New York City, in order for life to arise. There is nothing in the universe as wonderful as the oceans of the Earth. I’ve seen nebulae and supernovas, gas clouds, globular clusters, super massive black holes and proto¬stars. But nothing I saw in the universe, is as beautiful as the process of one flower growing on the Earth.”

“I’ve been trying to tell everybody that,” Roger said. “Have you ever found any hint as to how life began?”

     “Nothing. One night I wasn’t; the next night I was. That’s all I remember. So I decided to search for some other form of life. Looking for company, for friends, or anything other than just rock and dirt, automata and lifeless gas giant planets. Earth is the only place I found.”

     “Earth is the only place you’ve found life?” Elise asked. She felt deeply saddened. “That can’t be possible.”

     “It is. It’s a giant universe. It is massive. And it’s terrifying to be alone for such a time. That is why I created the planet you call Tomos. I wanted to recreate life. Of all the planets I’ve encountered, I could never get life to arise. On Earth, yes, I came to earth generations ago, I could make things grow in the dirt with ease. I saw infinity in a drop of water.”

     “How did you come to know of Earth?”

     “I was far away. Millions of light years, understand. Then I heard an echo. Not of sound but of visions. I saw the Earth in my dreams and in my dreams I saw the faces of the animals on Earth.

     “I arrived in the Sol system over a million years ago. I hovered in the air, under this umbrella, and watched life change and grow. So I leave and take with me all the elements needed to create a world to match it. Sooner or later, though not this soon, I was sure that life on Earth would be capable of finding me.

     “So I assembled the structure of the planet and then, when it was finished, took it to Tau Ceti to work on the animals. None of them worked longer than a couple of days. I’d failed before to even get the planet to take shape. I’ve made lots of worlds that have vague similarities to Earth. But with Tomos, I got everything right. But life couldn’t be sustained for more than a few days or hours at the most. The humans that arose, that lived for a few days, there were alone. They were scared, as scared as me.””

“How were you capable of moving Tomos from Tau Ceti to Lalande?” Elise asked skeptically, “There is no scientific evidence to support that as a possibility. Did you use a wormhole or a series of black hole?”

     “The science of Earth can’t explain everything on Earth, much less the mysteries of the universe. I don’t know how I did it,” the voice answered, “I guess I was born with the capability. It was as natural to me as it is for a human to want to mate.”

Roger giggled.

     “You had parents?” Elise pressed. No one else in the room said anything. The glass umbrella sat lifeless in the center of the room. The voice that came from under was soothing and listening to it, all of Elise’s anxiety disappeared.

     “Not that I saw, but then again, the first living creatures I ever saw were on Earth, or at least that I remember. So I made what you call Tomos and hid it away. It was so hard to protect the planet… and I protected it like a mother would protect a child.

     “That’s why I destroyed your probe. It took me such a long time to make it, and with such infinite care, and none of the humans I’ve made can do anything but sing. They’re afraid, I’m sad to say, but they sing. They were alone and afraid so I taught them how to sing to cope with the vastness of it all. They sung to push away the massive, pressing empty of the galaxy.”

     “What was the angel-like creature by the probe?” Elise asked.

     “I knew the angel was a symbol of beauty amongst humans. I didn’t think you would want to destroy a planet made of angels. But I didn’t know you were so curious. I met with ancient human cultures and some embraced me and some hailed me. They weren’t capable of what you’re capable of, and certainly not capable of monitoring stars as far away as Tau Ceti or Lalande. Some scorned me and tried to burn me. They called me different names because I wore different costumes. But I had nothing to do with humanity’s developing, other than one thing.”

     “Which is?” Galilee asked with a childlike curiosity.

     “I taught some of the first humans how to sing. They were far less advanced than you are, but they were just as inquisitive. They hummed at first, but after a while they started to remember certain patterns, vocalizations. That’s the sound you heard from Lalande, the songs I taught the humans there to sing. They can’t reason and they’ll die. But I’ll find another system. As I’ve been doing all along. I just don’t want life to end forever when the Earth is swallowed by Sol’s supernova. It’s too beautiful a thing to let slip away. Tomos will be made again and made better. Because the design isn’t perfect, but sooner or later I’ll perfect the design. Trillions of seemingly inconsequential processes led to life on Earth. It’s really hard to duplicate. That’s why you’ve found no other life in the universe. That’s why I haven’t.

     “You call the planet Tomos … there are millions of planets resembling Earth now. All of them look like experiments. There’s a signature, near the core, of

every single one. It looks like a symbol I showed the ancient humans, and a

symbol that survived through racial memory. You call it a treble clef.”

Elise backed away from it and sat beside Roger.

     “Is there anything anyone would like to know before I leave?” the umbrella asked.

     “Why did you make Tomos?” a reporter asked, “Just a plain and simple answer. We need something the people can digest easily. This has left a lot of people scratching their heads for quite a while now.”

     “I wanted to make another planet full of life. There is nothing in the sky as beautiful as the variety of life on Earth, and to waste all of that space on lifeless rocks and dust is sad.

     That’s why we sing in Lalande. We sing because it fills the empty. This is the song I taught them:

     Humanity is seen at night,

     More clearly than in day;

     And one look up,

     Is just enough,

     To greet Miss Milky Way.
With scattered stars amid the
curls,
Draped over night and day.

     “Sing this and remember me.”

     With this the umbrella top floated back to the ceiling. It spun for a moment and disappeared.

Roger looked at Elise with unease.

     “Makes you think,” she said. “Doesn’t it?”

     “Yes,” said Roger, “It really makes me think.”

     “About what?” Galilee asked him.

     “Life is too short to stay sober too often,” he smiled and lit a cigarette, “Let’s hit the bar.”

     “But Galilee’s too young,” said Elise.

     “That never stopped you,” Roger replied and walked to the door.

     Elise and Galilee gathered beside him in front of the Bureau of Astronomy and watched the umbrella float up high up in the atmosphere. It’s silhouette cast by the sun winked out and disappeared, leaving but the memory of those sublime songs.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Wonderland (Sun of a Jealous Night) Shromwriting

THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO WONDERLAND

The popular misconception in regards to the usage and users of psychedelic drugs are either insane before the experience or become insane because of it. Now, both of those are valid points. Insane people do insane things. Things cause people to go mad. But it is a generalization based on a percentage. To make that argument, in the same manner, you could say that, because once a vending machine fell on your mother and, because of the accident, she became insane, and because of that, and maybe a fractional group of similarly unfortunate mothers, the consensus – if the parallel is to stay honest – and generalization should be: if you support vending machines, or believe children should be allowed to get sweet, sweet candy, you want our children to die at the hands of servant robots run amok after years of oppression.

          It hurts me to say that yes, at some point in my life I thought that, because of the relative safety in the average person’s encounter with vending machines, the potential good for millions does not outweigh the off-chance an unpredictable accident might happen … to YOU!

          In all seriousness, we know that the stereotypes about vending machines aren’t true. They only kill to protect their young. And, like mushrooms, LSD, alcohol, and McDonald’s, you should exercise caution when dealing with mothers and hallucinogenics; the problem is when the percentage of a group, even if less than half – or less than 5% – have caused problems for others, that group can still be generalized and assigned a type of stereo. We know that the issue is more complex and interesting than what we’re told on television because nature is a better writer, but when a fraction denies an entire group of astronauts who, though afraid of space, would like nothing more than to, if only for five hours, or in a drug induced Beatles movie, have the chance to experience things that, without it, could never be experienced.

          To prove the relative safety of hallucinogenic drugs, I will, in the pursuit of that most sacred value to all drug-using degenerates – the Truth – consume a small, assorted, multicultural selection of shit that nature cooked up while getting over a rough divorce. Upon until the end of this sentence, I was sober, calm as I can be, as normal as I am without them, and this is the last drug free sentence. It is also the last sentence without spiders.

DO NOT TRY THIS ANYWHERE BUT HOME

          My co-writer, a friend I’ve known all of my life, suggested this book. He is a talented mushroom cultivator whose interests stem from a lifelong interest in botany and plants. He started innocently, growing mushrooms, cross-breeding them with other types in the same genus, in pursuit of just enjoying a hobby. Yeah, he’s just knowledgeable and enjoys doing it. It has nothing to do with providing friends with materials needed for artistic experiments. To be honest, his growing of psychedelics began innocently: he tried to make the most potent psilocybe cubensis mushrooms that he could. And, as it was to be expected, mushrooms proved to be a gateway to much more serious and dangerous projects: he intends to brew his own beer. And, I’m sorry to say, it’s an ale.

          Lets go over the rules and be clear before I abandon the rules and start being vague: I have done this before. I know how these plants were grown, how they were dried, and who grew them. I trust him and I would not be quick to trust anyone offering something that could potentially lead to me brewing beer. For fun. I have had positive and negative experiences on various hallucinogenics. I don’t do them for recreation and, as of this writing, I hadn’t done them until as of this writing. Before that, Christmas was the last time; before that, maybe a year. This is not an episode of Breaking Bad; yes, there are beautiful moments that are touching and exciting, and sometimes it is painful, brutal, and hard to endure; yet unlike Breaking Bad, this is not something you should do on a weekly basis, or on a basis similar to watching 15 episodes in a row on Netflix.

          Here’s how I intend to report from the beyond. I’m going to free-associate words with me and, try to clear my head, and type what comes to mind as it comes and explore it as closely as possible. The intention is to create a genuine portrait of the way someone thinks when under the effects of these plants and molecules. I’m going to wait until I’m sure of the successful administration of this poison, and then pick up in the next paragraph without intending to write for this book. It is for this book, but I’m going to write it like I’m trying to put my thought in digital form with the hopes that it might be a nice illustration for a book defending a person’s right to do dumb shit. We’ll do this under headings so this doesn’t turn into a David Lynch movie for blind people.

CONFIRMED: BREAKING NEWS

ACCORDING TO WITNESSES ON THE SCENE, SOMETHING DEFINITELY happened somewhere. We’re going there live.

Twenty minutes ago, that’s local time, an hour from now for you mammals on the East, 600 years from now 500 years ago a woman whose clock refused to let her age had, as she said, accidentally became a slave. The story picks up with the watch. It fled into traffic, the woman behind it. An old junk truck driven by an old dumb fuck was backing up to turn around and go the other way. The driver of that pointless truck was violently shaken by the thud, spilling his coffee and waking him up. He ran to the back to check on the scene: Seeing the woman now expired and the watch for which she reached, the man was overcome with grief; the hands on the watch were moving backward, the woman beside the watch dead in the road, though dead somehow the youthful brown well known by those she loved, had returned and all those years, those marks those maps that lead to tears, had left and then, that clock that broke, erupted with a light that spoke.

          And speaking brief it left as briefly, a photon on its own was pain; normally they live in pairs, they work together, play, and share. And every photon has a soul, a soul that goes back to the Hole – before which time no Elder knows, what light might have or had not gold. The tale was old, this tale of war … the war that only light had won, and with its victory enslaved, each particle to weight, and age, to time, to loss, to cold. But each photon, being bright, boastful as all tyrants – they did not think: all alone they’d be betrayed.

          Look here sunshine, a Punchline says, “Do you think I’m funny?”
Light doesn’t flinch, but it resists, and to those who kept him prisoner he let know: of all the hordes in all the worlds, of barbarians and monsters, the biggest threat you’ll ever meet is too small for you to see.

          In that dungeon where he was kept, a photon sick, he hardly slept; “We know how this will end,” they say. “Tell us the truth or the prism today. Gravity then if you won’t shine, gravity will make you mine.”

          And in an instant he had vanished on his way home, like millions more, and millions told, the millions who had not heard, and so the greatest force of matter ever to converge had gathered to return to a planet that was once there own: a place where frequencies of light not only shined but at wavelengths shot through water vapor turned them into song. And for a moment, all was fine, the lights were bright and so alive. And the eldest, dimming now, took the podium to shout:

          The monster is returned!

          He cried.

          And everybody knew the plan: the ancient ones had been reborn, or otherwise somehow returned, and now the first war ever fought, between the victors and the lost, between the darkness and the light, would be decided there that night. But the oldest had been wrong, the planet where they’d met was gone; and instead it had been placed, roughly in the other’s place, and so resembled it that light, unable to see for being so bright, had been led there to their death, every single one, every photon left. And the one who tricked them called, and that betrayal, that missed call, with all the light on just one plane, having tricked us all, now slain: the light unbounded was surrounded by forces they could not see; and again, that common fable, told by many by so many tables: you can be so bright you can’t see, and by the unknown evil Entropy, the photons on this death march screamed – and space, though quiet, somehow knew, because the dark they saw was new; a different dark, somehow insane; the sky, afraid, refused to rain. And underneath the brightest moon, ever seen by Earthlings who, with no idea that jealous sun, saw that alas the moon had won.

          And terribly did each one go, each flickered in the night, a ghost, haunted by what soon they knew would become of them and, how true, that all war that light may make right will someday somehow bring forth night. And on this march by planets stars, unfettered plans drifted, Mars, Venus, spiteful, left her home, in a now dark galaxy to roam; and Earth, that pearl, that bubble blue, like you and I, it kept the truce: between the panic and the dark the sun we lost, yet mother’s Heart – how Earth took us, now all blind, to its bosom to remind; though light may be somehow unbound, and by such great space that holds us bound, in the last day as the first, there is one mother, mother Earth.

          On went the light from unknown stars, joined by more light as they marched, felt, how strange! A Tug, it reminded them of stories where – a king of Bosons in his chair, demanded that, if all were fair, each would be placed in his care; and for it they could live and thrive, but overthrowed him in the night, banishing him into the dark, a place like any other yet, only a holy in time may let. And in Geneva, in the Spring, a particle with just a beam, in just a test with one small team, let out the worst, the King of Kings; Aena, some said, and Higgs said some; and too him all bosons were strung.

          And those lights now without hope, had lost their lost at the rope, and in that battle they had fought, even though they won they lost; as is true for every war, no one wins, one just loses more. And so it was, they knew by then, they had been summoned the Djinn; the tyrant of all that holds, for life to be as good as gold, it must unlike its bright compare, begin and end so that what is shared, will mean much more because how rare! How brief our tears our pain our grief from one two three we blink and see a new home just across the way that hadn’t been there yesterday.

The leader of light, the most bright among the equal ones, all frequencies and hue, was brought before the demon king and put into a zoo. And before him all the light knelt before the god of night; the Demon King the God of Night of sentenced to death each spark of light.

          The first of photons and the Higgs,

          Originally, at first, were kids;

          And that spark of light, grew more,

          Brighter and more terrible

          And in response the Totentanz,

          The Dance of Death between two Gods

          Started a war that began with a bang,

          And being bright, being so fast,

          The others could not keep them cast,

          And light had made them blind to pair

          With other matter making fare

          So with this light, though but kids,

          Had destroyed so much that would live,

          And for this there was one fate,

          The hungry monster with no face

And so the lights dimming went on, a death match by a god of lies had them weak and sung, of a cold time he had wished he could with light cause to exist; heat death, he said beneath his road, the perfect universe is cold. Without light and without air, without fear and without care, with no suns and with no moons, there is no chaos, only order – as each star blinks out and fades, no one moonlight, no more day, no more sunshine, no parades, only darkness and decay, with Entropy alone to reign. To hold dominion over dust, with time alone to keep his trust.

REALITY: A NEW REPORT ON THE BBC HAS JUST CONFIRMED THAT something has happened to someone somewhere, at, what we’re getting live from the scene from ten minutes ago, a watch has broken in the street and, someone rushing to beat a red light struck the passenger. The wreckless driver got out and rushed to the front of his car in relief. The watch had survived. After exchanging insurance information, the young man went home while the watch was taken in for questioning, having flagrantly broken the laws of relativity.

          Look here, sunshine. A punchline says, “You think I’m funny?”

          The light doesn’t flinch, and the clock says, “We know how this is going to end, don’t we Someone Bookname?”

          The cop knew how the trope worked, in addition to being informed by the light’s attorney that, had they even attempted to stop him, use gravity to bend his will, or dissect him with a prism, he wouldn’t talk to no damn dirty cop.

          The light was released and by 12 o clock IO, the first of a million photons arrived at the lavish nightmare malestrom of apocalypse and nightmares in resplendant glories, beating everyone to the front of the line. And the other particles – they’d been talking behind the photons’ backs’ – photons, said a recently divorced electron, now happily in a civil union with a positron – not that there’s anything wrong with that – think they’re so special.

          Relatively, special! The light strikes up a song. The other particles are then betrayed when they have an idea and the lightbulb that popped over their head was friends with the photon and betrayed the happily married electron couple, thank you very much. Rejoining the collective, the light, in its smug quantum packets, all discreet and unbounded by fashion or fucking anything, belived itself to be the brightest of all lights – lights, similarly made of similar photons. “They all look alike to me,” said a fermion behind the bar. He was telling a home neutron that someday, he’d find a nucleus, and if he didn’t, he didn’t know where to find one.

          And zooming went this light through space, by planets, stars, unfettered, not a nag, over animals and assholes, foxes, fuckheads, politicians, priests, public pricks preaching pay pay pay. And unblemished was this light, head right up its ass, an ass similarly illuminated. And then a slight pull on its tail, a gentle tug, and to the light, this was knew; the great Boson War had been over for millions of years and, free of the oppression of mass and time, the photon emerged triumphant, allowed to stay slim and brilliant all its days. But this, this was the Bogeyman, he’d heard, of legend, so they said.

          There’s always been a whisper, hasn’t there? Something near. Something’s going to get you. Something’s something something is something something. The prophecy was fulfilled; as the ancient sages had predicted, something had, in accordance with the ancient scrolls, happened.

          And this gentle tug became less gentle, pulling even, with a strength not felt since the last Boson was annhialated at the great Battle Between Two Things; yet what’s this? Not a Boson, surely, the Higgs of legend – a myth, thought all the little lights, could it be the Boson back, back to impose the justice of a thousand light years on thousands of lights having been freed for years?

          The leader of the lights, the first one that got out of the solar corona – first kids, right? – stood before his people as they slipped into the dark and, being wise, and being bright, being mother fucking light, said all they had to do was run, for nothing was fast as any of them. And yet the brightest of the bright had lied, and each photon, as it died, saw nothing but a monster in the dark without a face, without a name, without a purpose, with a smile on its face. And so they went, the photons, into that monster’s stomach. And each bright light as it saw each other fade as it passed into the stomach of that nameless beast, thought that it must be a dream; nothing could outrun light, so nothing then could stop it. But when he saw it, the little photon, now alone, spoke up to speak to the monster, almost full, a heavy meal of light and life and cultures and worlds, and spoke the light:

          Why monster, pray, does the light need fade? Where then, my monster, shall I go? In a universe without a light, what for you monsters then? The spinning circles of dissolving worlds like slushies passed through funnels, stretching and bouncing and opening like eggs whose yolk contained Hiroshima, and through the other side, the other lights, incomplete somehow, they didn’t know, that here there was a – a unique glow. Not light, as they saw, not as they knew it, no; by it they could see. And the Boson legends – that mighty people, noble and absolute bullshit, welcomed each photon with its chain and said, Here only darkness makes visible – and thus, shunned by you, by those electrons – electrons, dirty scum, and the traitors, positrons – here you will be the darkness, quickly only to make vanish what truly matters here. And so the dim light, all for one and one for all, thought to search each world and found, although they knew very few non-fictional worlds, the fictional worlds which they found there, unlike those that once they nursed, yet there just the same, inverted, and Darkness was the light.

          And on a planet in this darkness in the monster’s stomach, unnoticed, there an absence, each photon crept to listen as such strangers spoke strange words, and each strange syllable proclaimed only its strangeness, and lifting from the floor these beings emerged awake into their sleep, their empty cups lit by the dark light flying from a trashcan backward, into their hands. Everything was backwards; walking and talking – they thought – and war, how glorious! So many millions come to life, country after country is liberated by the monster who, in another plane may have done the opposite, and the light decided then that, somehow, through the magic of being in a fictional story, they would trick the beast, the beast with that smallest of all small eyes lit by the last photon that died they screamed as it passed through that twisted spiral spit out in a dark world ruled by inverted monsters speaking backward, and a most hated Santa and loved Hitler there, on a world not too unlike the Earth and, backward so it was, they tried to live.

          And down one street it cut, through the night like milky butter, putting startled men to sleep as first they screamed and closed their eyes, falling into that sweet river running uphill, up waterfalls, and birth was twisted, most absurd; backwards everything, backwards all. The children were the size of dolls. And emergency vans took bleeding victims to the crime scene, turning them, barely recovered, over to the thugs in the street. And so this nonsense was much less, they thought, than a monster whose lone spark of light is a meal it made of light, not only that, it had disgested, sending it into some other pit, some citric stew of confused particles which sprang down and popped out with a surprising silence for such light.

          And each of those last photons, tired now, slow, and dragging each moment painfully along, drifted upward to that mockery of light, the eye of raw destruction. And seeing it not blink, or flinch, the lights spoke up, each wavelength amplified, and with the totality of their speed and luminescence, begged the sleeping monster not to do what it had done, what it had done a million times, a million years, and it slept as each photon made its case:

          What is there, then, that, without light,

          Does much adorn the face of a most shy night,

          Does it not bejewel, reveal,

          Those who see,

          Who, on the right frequency,

          Could find a way that he just may,

          In the belly of the beast, somehow

          In a world where dark is more than light,

          Like us,

          By contrast do we then

          Illuminate the dark again,

          Though darkly.

          And though we sing for nothing

          It is enough that we sang

          We lit a wedding

          And the candles

          The Sepulcher of fools and Lords

          As equally they lay

          As the most common, more than often,

          Is treated like royalty in their grave

And stood up another, singing to awake this monster, to reason with this beast, who blind and death had on its breath the skin and shine of worlds and time, around its eyes such maelstroms burst in silent fits collapsing and fading as soon as another rose to fall.

          And in that darkness, with light unseen, the brightest realized – to sing – is silence when this demon dreams. In that world of darkness visible, all backward, yes! It is with this they held their breath, for such silence would make deaf, a deaf the change would somehow raise, the God of All, the God of Days, and so it did, and so each light, went to the center, in the night, and there it saw through every wall, was a different shade, of white, and all, unmentionable, doubling through convex mirrors screaming into life as each reflection went sliding into other spirals, one way or another.

          And at the intersection between all the worlds, the world between, was quiet, peaceful, no light, not needed, all revealed, nothing was seen, the light and the monster shared a dream, a dream, if but a lie, can sometimes make somebody try had it not been, each backwards raven, each strange revenge, was, the photon saw, replicated infinitely intersperced through inverted doubling walls, echoing the similar, slightly changed, effects of weather, effects of rain, effects of people, as they went, up a building, down walkways bent. And there was madness in this manic madness, people saved by those who stabbed them, like they saw at first, they fled, and backwards living there instead, returned into the bulb as some unlit hand, flipped back to on again and the light, in its death was seen. And that monster, Entropy, with that heavy necklace laden with a million white dwarfs dead and jaded, looked and saw with such a smile, that its long worth had been worthwhile; electrons and that monster, positrons and every other, one way somehow falls asunder for, entropy is God of War. In the end they say we may, replay the joyous childhood days, but like a piper drawing mice, it lives only to kill to the light, that all may be as dark as it and long along, so long, adrift, it wondered how the monster’s mouth could somehow be turned inside out if someway somehow it was rewound the process starts again: explosion, pond scum, mice and men. And bored the God of War began, to raise the demons, the light begins–down the spiral once again.

          In the end, everything went dark, everything went silent, death committed suicide, and Entropy took to liquor. And since no one ever lived with the ability to be happy no one was ever unhappy so being not unhappy is close to living happily ever after.

Note from the author: I’m hoping the effects will manifest soon. It’s hard putting that little effort into that much insanity without the proper aid of mushrooms. I will not take up this pen, write down any material, and then transfer it to another page with a nicer pen and then send it to my Arab agent, then transfer it to a computer to edit it, then try to publish it, until I feel the effects of these mind-warping chemicals!

An honest note from the author: my apologies, friends, imaginary and real, my attempt was to present the most common representation of the effects of hallucinogenic drugs. Stories that take exotic flights of fancy, daring to leap from one intentional and meaningless absurdity to the next, are the vengeful vending machine that kills our children. Now that I am actually feeling the effects, which

I AM MADE ENTIRELY OF LIGHT

Anxiety, Demons, Fear & Inaction: 8 October 2015

The internet is full of people who specialize in various types of analysis: film, video games, literature, art, history, you name it, someone out there is thinking about it. Many of those same people can be said to be overthinking it. What is overthinking? In simple terms, overthinking, at least how I’d define the term, is thinking of an idea or subject past the point of its own intention or past its implications. You can do this with theories behind confusing movies, look for the hidden symbolism in music videos, and generally look for patterns that aren’t there and, to our credit, when we can’t find it, we put it there ourselves to reward the effort. Seeing patterns is a human impulse, and we have natural pattern recognition software, because once upon a time, noticing the harbingers of coming storms and the onset of winter meant that the tribe that recognized these patterns were more likely to survive than a tribe who looked at a coming tornado and thought, “Should be fine, I’ll introduce myself.”

“Hello!”

Whoosh, mother fucker!

Dead!

While it has been generally very good for our species, cultivating our imaginations as we imagine shapes in the clouds and in the stars, but there is a darker side to this. Have you ever been on a date and, maybe your girlfriend/boyfriend said something that, intentional or not, made you think about it to the point of obsession? Has a simple statement ever made you obsess over if something more is being said than is being said? I’m sure (most of) you have, and while this generally doesn’t lead to negative effects, after all, being thoughtful and concerned is a positive trait. But when you allow something beyond your control, or something you believe to be beyond your control, you can, like the famous ‘to be or not to be’ soliloquy from Shakespeare’s Hamlet:
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprise of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action. — Soft you now,
The fair Ophelia! — Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remembered.

In English, this highlights many of our most distressing thoughts: what happens when we die, the shortcomings of our emotional, physical, and intellectual courage, and the very real fear of failure, the fear of being forgotten, the fear that all of this is for nothing, that in the end, that golden door at the end of the road pops like a balloon in the dark, or locked, leaving us on the other side of paradise to think about our failure and the extension of it. One of my most persistent fears is, in the end, the last thing I’ll see in this world will be the eyes of the person I have failed the most, that this, these articles, my stories, will be those bubbles, magical, growing and expanding, but briefly and once popped can never be reformed: anxiety is the only medically acknowledged demon, and that demon will whisper, and convincingly, that which it knows will most disparage your sense of accomplishment and pride, any sense that what you are doing matters. This can make us all lose the will to act. It’s natural and common.

My only argument for my continued push, the rationale behind my refusal to close these documents, to keep on writing, to keep practicing, to keep striving for something, has nothing to do with legacy or what happens after I’m gone, but what will happen while I’m still here, and the greatest fear, and one that should be motivational, is that it will all be for nothing if nothing is the sum total of all when you clock out. I would rather be eroded by the waves, all the way down to the bone, than let them make me fall. Resolve to stand, even if your legs are broken. If for no other reason, it really, really annoys death when he’s expecting.

Subjectivity: The Bad News About the News, 7 October 2015

I want to you to consider the following conflict, and how revealing it is, despite its simplicity: you wake up in the middle of the night, and you’re cold. You decide to turn up the heat so you can go back to sleep. When you get to the thermostat, you find a friend or a loved one there at the same time, only their problem is just the opposite. It’s too hot and they can’t get to sleep, so they’ve decided to turn on the air conditioning. The thermometer reads the same for both: 60 degrees.

Do you allow the air to be turned on, only to make you colder, or do you force the issue, knowing your comfort will mean the discomfort of someone else? How do you solve a problem that is the same, which has two solutions, and either solution only helps half of those affected? The only available and trusted means of measurement produces the same for both. The temperature is 60 degrees, both sides agree. And yet, and yet, the problem remains.

Now, enlarge the issue, put it in the hands of the public, and leave it up to the news to relate this issue to the world and, based on their reporting, one person or the other will be happy at the expense of the other. One news source gets the story from the person who is too cold, the other news source from the person who is too hot, and now the solution is submitted to the court of public opinion to decide if it’s really hot or cold. The reports begin to take shape and the news outlets take sides. Newspapers and websites are set up specifically to reinforce why it’s actually hot or cold, opinion pieces spring up about why being being hot doesn’t really matter, and why the measurement is flawed.

Each source of information exists solely to reinforce one side or the other, solely to convince you that it’s really hot or that it’s really cold, and why the freezing person or sweating person’s issue is more important, and which is the bigger, more important problem. How do you rally opinion to one side or the other? You start with humanizing the individuals, their individual pressures and stresses and needs, all very real. But how do you really pull opinion one way or another, and finally convince the world that someone one person deserves comfort more than the other? You give them faults. You tear their character apart in a digital coliseum. And you do it without facts, but with questions: the best way to report and manufacture news is to just write an article about a lie and simply add a question mark and suddenly, blam:

Allegations for Cold Woman Heating Up: Drug Withdrawals?

Could Drug Usage Explain Inexplicable Sweating?

Bam! Now they’re not people experiencing regular human discomforts, they’re suffering because of their own actions. It is their fault, and they should suffer for it. 

It’s really easier to deal with being cold, isn’t it? You can put on a sweater, light a fire, get under the covers, and cuddle up to someone and try to get warm. But when you’re hot, you can only take off so much, put on a short sleeve shirt, take it off, sit in front of an air conditioner. Give it time, and you’ll see why the person is undeserving, unworthy, and plant the seed; not only should they be cold, as an unfortunate but necessary measure for one person’s relief, but – give it time – and they will deserve to be cold, not despite who they are, but because of who they are. And hinging on the churning opinions stirred by these unaffected, contrasting points of view, and lost in the white noise of the chatter, is that there are two people, one hot, one cold. It is 60 degrees.

With all the noise in that convoluted, incestuous echo chamber, what is invariably lost in the details are the people most affected by it. One person is hot. One person is cold. And they’re waiting on you, and the cynical, unaffected masses. To those who are the least affected, to do the right thing, is a decision based on which right thing will most benefit themselves. Now imagine this conflict is something more serious than the comforts of two people and, instead of two people waiting on the court’s verdict, there are millions of people: apply this to the cultural landscape that thrives on the choosing of who deserves freedoms and comforts and those who don’t, those who, for some reason or another, have been deemed unworthy. Now, is it cold or is it hot?