What’s Behind the Door
The stranger knocked upon the door,
A creaking, wooden throb,
And someone on the other side
Unlatched and turned the knob.
Uncertainty, a soft, "Hello,"
And, "May I use your phone?"
The person on the other side
Appeared to be alone.
An observation taken in,
No pictures on the wall.
He pointed somewhere down the way-
"Go on and make a call."
The thunder boomed; the stranger stalled
As wires were cut instead.
The gentleman began to sense
A subtle hint of dread.
A conversation thus ensued-
"So what has brought you out?
The rain has flooded everything,
And wiped away the drought.
Say, did you walk, or did you drive?
Why don't I take your coat?"
The stranger slowly moved his arms,
A sentimental gloat.
The water from the pouring skies
Enveloped cloth and shoe.
"Say, would you like a place to sleep?
I'll leave it up to you."
The person on the other side
Discarded his mistrust.
The stranger said his tire was flat,
And shed the muddy crust.
"The phone won't work," he also said.
"It could just be the storm.
Perhaps I will stay here tonight,
To keep me safe and warm."
The patron of the house agreed.
He hadn't seen the wire.
The chilly dampness prompted him
To quickly build a fire.
"You have a name? They call me Ed.
My wife was Verna Dean.
She passed away five years ago
And left me here as seen.
I guess it's really not so bad.
We never had a child.
I loved that Verna awful much,"
He said and sadly smiled.
"No property to divvy up.
The bank will get it all.
Say, do you want to try again
To go and make that call?"
The stranger grinned and left the flame
As to the phone he strode.
Within his pocket, knives and twine
In hiding seemed to goad.
A plan was formed- he'd kill the man;
Eviscerate him whole.
The twine would keep him firmly held;
The knife would steal his soul.
A lusty surge erupted hence;
A wicked bit of sin.
The stranger hadn't noticed yet
That someone else came in.
About the time a shadow fell,
He spun to meet a pan.
The room around him faded out
As eyes looked on a man.
A day or two it seemed had passed,
And when he woke all tied,
The stranger gazed upon old Ed
Who simply said, "You lied."
Reversing thoughts, the moment fled
And Ed said in a lean,
"No worries, stranger. None at all.
Hey, look, here's Verna Dean!"
He looked upon a wraith in rage;
It seemed his little lie
Combusted in a burning fit-
He didn't want to die.
So many victims in his life,
Some fifty bodies strewn.
And now he was the victim; now
The pain to him was known.
The stranger fought against the twine,
And noticed by his bed
The knife once in his pocket left
A trail of something red.
A bowl filled full of organs sat
As Verna poured some salt.
She exited with all of them.
"You know, this is your fault.
We demons wait for just the day
The guilty take the bait
And play with matches one last time-
I simply cannot wait
To taste the death within your flesh;
The venom in your gut.
So now you know the way they felt-
Hey, you've got quite a cut!"
The person on the other side
Removed his human skin-
Before his wife came back for more,
He offered with a grin:
"Say, stranger, is there anything
You'd like to say at all?"
I looked at all the blood and said,
"I'd like to make that call ... "
Half of Me is Missing (excerpt)
“Jasmine was such a beautiful baby with her ivory complexion, pretty rosebud mouth, rosy cheeks and stunning green eyes. Her hair was so black and lustrous with soft curls. I couldn’t believe that she was our child!” Ann Stewart’s body seemed to elongate as she sat up straighter in her chair. Obviously, she had once been proud and thrilled by her daughter.
“I noticed that she didn't really seem to bond with me, although I held her and rocked her and tried to do everything I thought I should do to nurture her. This was our first child so I thought that her reaction to us might be normal for a young baby. She never seemed to cry or smile or show any emotion. I became upset, fearing that she didn't like me, but I was so overjoyed at having a kid after so many years of trying that I overlooked her responses. My friends and relatives all cooed at her in admiration of her beauty but she didn’t seem to care. Her pediatrician told me not to worry since she appeared perfectly normal. He advised us both to spend a lot of time with her, holding and touching her. I wondered why she did not smile like other babies did. I began to wonder if it was my fault that she was not developing as I thought she should. Because she was my first child, I had little experience in child development and began to doubt my abilities. I could tell that she was intelligent as she explored her immediate area and watched those around her. She talked very early but her words were not really directed toward anyone. She seemed to be carrying on conversations with herself or with some unseen person. The only time she seemed somewhat happy is when she looked into the mirror on one of her crib toys and babbled at her reflection as if it were actually her own self instead of a reflection.”
I noticed that tears were coursing down Ann’s cheeks as she described her child. I could see that she loved her but was perplexed since she was unable to reach her. She appeared to have almost given up on Jasmine and was now beginning to direct her attention toward her other children who did interact with her.
I turned toward George Stewart and asked him, “How do you feel about your daughter? Do you have anything to add to what your wife has advised? Do you agree with her observations?”
“My wife and I are simple people,” responded George. “We own and operate a mom and pop grocery store here in the outskirts of Portland. I always thought that my daughter, Jasmine, would join us in our business after high school. If it’s good enough for me, it should be good enough for her! But, oh no, she wants no part of our business. She thinks she’s too good to do this type of work and refuses to even discuss it. I admit that she was an excellent student in high school, right at the top of her class. She graduated early when she had just turned 17. I thought she had the brains and ambition to eventually take over as manager of my store.” George pulled strands of hair nervously up from the top of his head as he vented his frustration. His face turned red in frustration as he showed his disappointment.
“I understand how you feel,” I sympathized with George. “But, tell me how Jasmine was as a child to your best recollection.”
“She was such a beautiful baby and I was so proud of her. However, she never seemed to care much about me. I tried to play with her and get her to laugh but I never felt she was on my wave length. My wife and I took her into our shop and put her in a small playpen behind the cash register. Every customer that came in remarked on her loveliness, wanting to hold her and interact with her. We actually did allow some of our long term customers to pick her up to see if she would be stimulated by someone else. We always felt guilty that she did not seem to like us. But she never responded to all the attention she received. I thought maybe she was just shy and would develop later but she never did. When she began to talk early, she would just ask for things that she wanted. She never seemed to give us any reaction no matter how hard we tried. I just hoped that she would become more loving when she became older.” When Jasmine was almost three, we finally were able to have another child, a wonderful little boy we called George, Jr. He was the polar opposite of Jasmine and loved us with all his heart. He often tried to catch Jasmine’s attention as he smiled and cooed, but she couldn’t care less. Jasmine was always looking around, searching for the other half of her body. She insisted, even then, that part of her was missing. I could not understand it! Later, we had two more children whom we adored. Jasmine might have felt left out but she never seemed to resent the lack of attention because of our other children who needed and appreciated our encouragement.”
“Is there anything else that you feel is significant?” I asked George.
“Well,” he reluctantly replied, “I noticed that she seemed to be flirtatious with the younger boys and I felt she was too seductive. My wife said that I was crazy because such a young child would not be doing this. She said that all little children played ‘doctor’ and that it was a normal part of growing up. But one night, both of us went into George’s bedroom to kiss him goodnight, as was our ritual with all the children. We were both absolutely horrified to find Jasmine, naked, rubbing up to little George. We did discuss this with their pediatrician who advised us that we shouldn’t put too much significance on this act because it would just draw attention to something that was probably a temporary thing. He told us to explain to Jasmine that we knew that she was a good little girl but we did not allow this experimentation in our family. George was only three at the time and too young to understand. And, Dr. Engel, can you guess what Jasmine said to me when I reasoned with her?”
“What did she say,” I asked with curiosity as I was taking my notes.
“She said, ’It wasn’t me that did it. It was my other part that I can’t find. If I
can find her, I will tell her not to do it anymore!’ ” Tears filled George’s eyes as
he related this to me.
Chapter 1 Miles From Nowhere (excerpt)
The clickety-clack of the Trans-Siberia Railway was equally hypnotic and torturous. I woke up half-naked in my compartment, with a throbbing, two-day, drug-induced headache and a note taped inside my briefcase that read, “If I can do this, think of what the FSB and CIA are capable of.” My thoughts ran to self-preservation rather than the mind-numbing sounds.
So much of my odyssey had been a living combination of Monty Python meets Dr. Strangelove that I had almost forgotten I was dealing with superpowers, real people, and telling a secret that would change the world. I entertained the notion that if I could concentrate, the migraine would dissipate.
I reached for my backpack and pulled out my notes. I spread them on the bed and tried to make some sense of what I learned on my journey thus far. After sorting through them aimlessly for a while, I decided there had to be a system: put each prong of the story in one pile rather than trying to make a single, convoluted epic from four diverse groups who had no idea any of what the others were trying to do. The participants sounded like a bad joke. What if the Soviet Union, the US, a small European prince and an angelic African leader were all trying to save their countries at the same time?
The first portion of the story came from the data I had collected about the Russians-Soviets, as they were known at the time. I’d uncovered a lot of information about the inner-circle of the Kremlin. I read it and re-read it, unable to believe what I knew from experience was true. There was no way these megalomaniacal buffoons and paranoid apparatchiks could have run an empire that spanned major parts of three continents.
As was always the case, the worker bees were the competent ones, brave and able to work under pressure. Much of my information had come from former KGB operatives who had been involved all those years ago,
Damn, I kept thinking during the five-thousand-mile journey each way from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok, this can’t be true.
My piles of notes kept shifting with the movement of the train on antiquated tracks. I grumbled and stood, opening the door of my compartment to recapture the ones that slipped under the door.
A beautiful conductor bent over to help pick them up, and her skirt rode up to show spectacular legs. She smiled as she handed me the stack of papers. I struggled to remember my rudimentary Russian, finding her beauty distracting. “Are you writing a book?” she asked me with a brilliant smile.
Oh shit, had she read my notes? I swallowed against the sudden dryness in my throat. “No, I’m helping with some research for a university.”
“How interesting,” her eyes sparkled.
The train shimmied, and she fell into me. I wrapped an arm around her to steady her, or so I told myself. Her smile grew to almost feline proportions. Man, this was more of a test than any other I had thus far. I couldn’t cheat on my girlfriend. More importantly, no matter how cute she was, I couldn’t let this conductor see what I was doing. For all I knew, she could be FSB.
“Th-th-thanks. I need to get back to work,” I said, releasing her and clutching the notes to my chest.
“If I see your papers in the corridor again, I’ll knock on your door,” she smiled and walked away and into the next car.
I closed the door, sat on my small chair, and took a deep breath. Looking in the cabinet for water, I discovered only a bottle of vodka. I drank it straight from the bottle like a true Russian.
Fortified by the liquor, I returned to my review, starting on the next stack of notes: the scant of information referencing the United States. As I read through it, I couldn’t help but laugh. Doonesbury wasn’t a cartoon. It was a documentary.
I gagged on my next slug of cheap vodka. The idiots in charge of the United States were every bit as crazy as the Soviets.
I found that the American team left a land of Victoria’s Secret, Monday Night Football, and shopping malls for Russia, a country of perpetual gray skies, no hot water, and umbrella-wielding babushkas. The KGB was omnipresent, and the Americans could be shipped off to enjoy the Siberian winter if they were caught. Hell, if someone caught them, being sent to Siberia would have been downright lenient. I doubted any of the Americans would have made it to the next street corner. Stealing Soviet national secrets was understandable during the Cold War. But how could anyone have come up with this crazy plan?
I understood why the world’s superpowers were so frustrated and willing to try anything, but their plans weren’t what really ended the Cold War. In the geopolitical world, as in the real world, accidents often create the greatest results. I needed more vodka and sucked down a third of the bottle in one swig.
My notes blurred, and my head spun as I considered the two men central to my journey. The key players in this farce couldn’t be more different. No amount of vodka could possibly make this make any sense, but I had met them and knew all of this was real. Insane, wild, crazy, but real.
Of course, I had to change the names of countries other than America and the USSR. The names of the players had to change, also. For my own safety and the safety of everyone involved.
The next player in this mad story was President Mbangu of Madibu, who has often been considered a living saint. Hell, he’s known as The Great Man throughout the world. During a time when Africa suffered through brutal civil wars, dictatorships, corruption, and economic unrest, his idyllic island nation was poor and happy. He was a much better man than I ever could hope to be. However, his nation’s successes were waning and he had to come up with a way to turn Madibu’s fortunes quickly or chaos could ensue.
Although it was against his better angels, he tricked the U.S. and U.S.S.R., but no one lost, and his people benefitted greatly. How could he ever know that his beaches, hotels, a cargo/cruise ship port, rhesus monkeys and new-found libation production would help end the Cold War?
Mbangu’s friend, and polar opposite, was Prince Claude of Luxenstein. All anyone needed to know about him was his nickname: The Pied Piper of Pussy. As outrageous as it may sound, it was a gross understatement of his life. Casanova was a virgin compared to the Pied Piper, and the Pied Piper was real. He was a one-man good year for casinos around the world. But this time he had gone too far, he only had a short time to fix it or his fairytale nation would be gobbled up as a province of France or Belgium to protect the public from his excesses. His family’s five-century-old principality would be history. He couldn’t hold back. If he had to be dangerous and crazy, so be it. Who would take him seriously anyway? So, he jumped in full force, hoping he would succeed against all the odds.
The last notes I organized before putting them back in my briefcase for the evening were the perfect ending point for the night. They came from Petey, an eighty-five-year-old former pit boss in Vegas, who had seen the Pied Piper in his wildest days.
“You gotta promise me one thing,” Petey had told me.
“If you find out the real story before I die, you gotta tell me.”
A huge smile lit his wrinkled, ancient face, “When you come to tell me, make sure I give you my will first.”
“Because when I hear what he did, I’ll probably laugh my ass into the big one. It’ll be a helluva way to go. Die with a smile on my face. Man, I haven’t been this excited since that hooker in ’83. You’ve made this old man very happy. I’ve got something to look forward to now. Thank the Pied Piper for me.”
“You’ve got it, Petey,” I said with a snicker.
Perfect. I let the vodka and clickety-clack of the train put me to sleep. I smiled to myself with that one last thought.
When your kid asks, “How did the Cold War really end, daddy?” You can tell him, “This is how. Don’t believe what you read in the history books. Sit back and read the real story.”
Skin (Chapter 1)
Eyes locked on the girl, Josh struggled to balance the rifle on his shoulder as the slippery neuroskin under his sweatshirt pulled it off-center. I never should’ve sold the skin on my arms, he thought. The girl was propped up against a maple thirty yards out, guzzling a Coke and eating a Poptart, crumbs landing on the crest of her rounded stomach.
I see you Goldie, she thought, yawning. Damn boys are no different than monkeys in Thailand trained to rip wristwatches off tourists for their masters. Except his master wants my skin...
Through the scope, slowly blinking grey-green eyes and sunken cheeks splattered with large spots appeared close enough to touch. The zipper on her windbreaker had burst open revealing irregular shaped spots on her stomach and as he watched, golden leaves spun down onto her red curls. She’s been on the road as long as me, he thought.
I’m exhausted. If it wasn’t for you, my love, I’d let them skin me. Breeding programs like the one that impregnated her had created larger, darker, more leopard-like freckles in the MC1R carrier population, yet the demand was always outpacing the supply.
Josh trained the laser on her forearm. Already tagged. The Trac-B read her bounty at 100,000Q, but the burn rate on Spotties was so high that the baby was worth ten times that. Josh loaded a dart and was easing forward on the trigger when he felt a wire snake around his neck and squeeze.
Sadie sprinted to where the boy was clawing at the slowly constricting garrote. When she tapped thumb to forefinger, the snare ceased tightening. She tossed his rifle then squatted over him.
He’s at the end of his run, she thought, taking inventory. Face crisscrossed with scars. Nose broken multiple times. She fished into his mouth, finding better quality teeth than expected and no wisdom teeth. Seventeen, maybe eighteen. He’d had some success as a tracker too. Nickel-sized bonus stamps crawled up both forearms covered with the revolting liquid plastic skin replacement.
“Look, Trackie,” she whispered, “I’ll be long gone by the time the signal wanes and this necklace…” she flicked the metal rope and his eyes popped an inch wider “drops off. You’ll be dead by then. Do you understand?”
His lips were turning blue, but he quit pulling at the snare and flashed a thumbs up sign.
“Or…I’ll give you 10,000 quid to take me over the Divide unseen.” She gestured to the zoomers above, just visible through the trees. “And my guess is you’ve run these hills before.” She looked at her watch. “You’ve got about thirty seconds left.”
He stared up at her, calculating his options, then nodded. She gave the split signal and the snare dropped off, snaked through the leaves and coiled around her ankle.
“What’s your name, Goldie?”
“Josh.” He sounded hoarse, but not angry.
“Sadie,” she responded. “Let me know when you’ve got your wind.”
He bent over one knee, coughing and lacing up his skimmers. A thick line of bruising cut across his neck and his right eye was blood red. He was twice her height, lanky and unintimidating. Though they were roughly the same age, he seemed younger.
After a few seconds, he circled his forefinger.
“Nope. Call your Wheat first. And make it good.”
“Yeah. Ok.” He coughed again then hit the comm on his Trac-B.
“She’s gone,” Josh said, adding, “Wasn’t a Spottie anyway.”
“Whaddyou mean gone? You lose her or drop her?”
“Markin, she was a Teaser! I dropped her, okay? On my way in.”
“Josh! You lazy piece of shit. Find me something or your old ass is on carving from now on!” Markin disconnected.
Josh looked down at Sadie, one eyebrow raised.
“How long before he comes looking?”
“Won’t probably. He’ll think I’ve been poached, not that you’re a…uh...” Josh trailed off.
“Spottie. You can say it.”
He had the good manners to look down.
She sighed. “Alright, you’re in the lead. Let’s go.”
He kicked off headed north, his long strides quickly outpacing hers. Without his cough, she would never have heard him -- he knew just where to place his feet.
Josh slowed to a trot.
“Sadie, we’ve got a drop coming up.”
Oh, thank God, she thought. She dropped her head, pulling in lungfuls of cool air.
“You’re as loud as a boar,” Josh complained.
“Shut it, Goldie! I’m not paying you to talk.” She gasped between each word, which took the venom out of it.
The break in the forest revealed what used to be an overpass and was now a maw of rusting street cars. Josh straddled a metal girder, legs dangling. Sadie flipped up her hood.
“Where are we?”
He took a swig of water, wiping his mouth on his sleeve. “Pretty sure we’re just east of Advance. Should be signage below.”
Josh suddenly reached over her head, grabbing for the rifle.
She rolled away, reaching under her arm and scrambling to her feet, a curved knife thrust towards his chest.
The rifle raised between his hands, he shouted, “Woah, Sadie, relax! I just need the scope, okay?
Sadie held her ground as he stripped it off, dropping the rifle at her feet with a roll of his eyes. He climbed down as far as he could, then tucked and dropped onto the hood of a wrecked BMW. Scanning under the collapsed bridge, the signage was gone. Must have been attached to the overpass.
A billboard for Harry Winston still stood. A blonde in her thirties, elbows balanced on a white tablecloth, flashed a broad smile. She wore emerald earrings and matching twisted skin bangles. Each an inch wide, the skin was a striped mix of mocha, Spottie and pale. The uneven surface of the bracelets were the only indication that underneath the skin was not wood or plastic, but bone.
“No. But we can’t be that far from Buck Creek and the Sierras are just on the other side.”
He paused to pull long strips of rubber out of his shirt, “Let’s try for the creek by nightfall. You good?”
She nodded and smiled, stifling a sharp pain in her side.
“Where’d you learn how to make these?” she asked.
He sat in the dirt, straddling her bare foot, muttering under his breath.
“Your feet are swollen,” he said, dark eyes squinting up at her.
“If the swelling gets worse...”
“Listen, I didn’t…”
He cut her off. “Yeah, I know. But you’re scaring the game away. I can’t make you quality skimmers, but these will help.”
“Fine.” she said, reddening. “Make it quick.”
“Of course, your highness.” He responded, the corners of his lips curling up.
She didn’t appreciate the gesture until she ran again. He’d jammed cross-sections of rubber into cuts in the soles. It not only made the boots quiet, but also wider and therefore infinitely more comfortable.
They made it to the valley well before mid-day and for once, she didn’t immediately kick her boots off, but walked along the ridge scouting for a smooth rock. He was laying back among the late-blooming wildflowers eating jerky and squinting up at the sun when she plopped down beside him.
“You’re going to choke and go blind,” she said.
He laughed, nearly choking, and re-crossed his long legs at the ankles, snapping off another bite.
She leaned forward as far as she could, coming up shy of her toes. Hello there, my love, she thought. Then she pulled up the back of her shirt and circled the clean side of the rock on her lower back, grunting with pleasure.
“Unh?” she responded, eyes closed.
“Do you know how it happened?”
“The… you know… the skin trade.” He turned towards her, shaggy hair falling over his eyes and tucked his knees into his chest.
Hmm… makes sense I guess, she thought. Wheat take kids as payment for Rock-addicted parents. Goldens are raised like dogs – given food and shelter, taught to track, but not much more.
“Yeah.” She answered finally. “I know some.”
“Tell me?” His earnest face reminded her of Noah. It had been weeks since she thought about her brother. His chubby fists tied down, screaming her name. The skin peeling off his tiny fingertips. And all the blood...
“Um…first there were piercings, where needles would pass through.” Sadie revealed her popped bellybutton and mimed piercing it. “And towards the end, the holes got bigger. My uncle Rami showed me vid of a man in India passing an entire snake through a hole in his ear.”
Josh rolled an earlobe between his fingers, bewildered.
“Then tattooing,” she continued. “No area was sacred. People inked their eyelids and inside their ears. They…”
“Have you seen Malenas?” Josh interrupted, sitting up.
“They run Skittle across the border. Malenas have a tattoo…” Josh pointed to the center of his tongue, “…of a purple eye. I’ve seen the farms...”
“Does anyone still buy farmed skin?”
“Some, yeah. For orange Skittle, they force-feed the kids pumpkin puree. For green, they strap copper plates on. And for XP, they’re kept in the dark for years.”
Sadie shivered. At least I can run…
She continued, “When 3-D tattooing began, my mom was little. They built a pyramid on my grandfather’s back between his shoulder blades. When he fell asleep on the couch watching television, she curled up in its shade. The needle injected ink and GDF5, a cartilage-producing protein. People made horns, tails and of course, parts of their anatomy bigger too.”
Josh laughed. For all the trauma to his face, was good-looking in a goofy, coltish way.
“Some of the old-timers still have them. I once saw a man with an octopus on his head. The blue and grey tentacles climbing down the sides of his face formed aquatic sideburns. The irises were made of jade, sewn into eyes eight inches above his own.”
“3-D removal creates a bloody mess. Grafted skin was the solution…”
“Why not just use the pink?” Josh pointed to the slick arm propping up his head. The shiny plastic resembled the underside of a frisbee.
“Josh, you know why. Neuroskin is nasty. You’ve seen a Pigpen, right?”
People who sold all of their skin -- Pinkies -- were universally hooked on K-rock. Cops called their hangouts “pigpens” from the look of their tangled pink limbs on filthy mattresses, eyes rolled back, telltale white haze hanging in the air.
He changed the subject. “Do you need to cross the Divide?”
“Kaweah Gap is steep. It’s the lowest point in the range, but...”
She winced and nodded.
“What if we go southwest into Three Rivers?”
“How am I walking into town?”
He tugged on her hood. “Your uh…” He struggled for the right word. Freckles. They’re called freckles… “freckles will be tougher, but a clay paste...”
She stood up. “Clay paste? For these?” She pulled her curls back so he got a good look.
“Okay, okay.” He put his palms up. “I’ll skim into Three Rivers, hit an R-X and grab proper coverup and dye.”
“You don’t think I've thought of that?” She struggled to speak calmly. “They scan you, Trackie. You probably have a freeze or two on your tag, right? And they scan you on the way in, so you can’t lift it either.”
“Fine. I’ll claim your tag and walk you in. Put the snare on.”
“Josh! You know what I’m worth, which is nothing compared to the baby. The Wheat will have me on a carving board in under an hour. We’re wasting time. I’m paying you to get me over that.”
She stabbed her finger at the snow-cap behind him marking the Divide, her arm shaking on the way down.
“And you know damn well you can’t make the climb,” he said softly.
I’ll make it, she thought, rubbing her belly, but will you, my love?
The Opening Pages of “Iron Abbie”
A bird landed on the sill and cheeped. It was a pretty thing, mostly brown with a few blue and yellow feathers like scales on a fish. Abigail sat very still and peered over, not wanting to startle it, and noticed that the poor bird had a padlock stuck on its head—the metal hook, like a curled finger, wrapped around its neck. The padlock was small and silver and it gave the bird a noble look, but it was obvious the bird was suffering. Perhaps it had come to her for help?
"Don't move," said Abigail, and she ran about the house, finally returning with a coterie of keys. The bird stood patiently while she applied the metals, but none fit. Not the one to mother's jewelry-box, not the one that looked like a skeletal finger, not the golden one for the shelf beneath the peering glass, not the one to father's desk. Finally, Abigail went down into the foyer and with some hesitation pulled the key to the front door from her father's spare coat. It was shaped like an F and it fit into the padlock. Liberated, the bird flew out the window, soaring over bowler hats and stone heads to the park across the road. From a branch it looked back, then was gone.
Any euphoria Abigail might have felt quickly dwindled as she realized she was alone again. She scooped up the keys and returned them to their places. Her excitement returned when she thought about telling mother, but then what if father found out? She could imagine him now: plopped on the dining chair, black rings under his eyes, his traveling cloak unfurled over the furniture and his necktie hanging like a beaten snake. And that voice, hissing: “What if the bird had flown off with the key, tossing our spare to strangers?” Then he’d look to mother: “She gets this from you, you know.”
Abigail kicked the closet door hiding Dolly, and went back to her sill—
—to find the bird had returned. Then it was gone, zipping to a lamp post, before it came back and cheeped. Abigial was well acquainted with fairy tales and this seemed a particularly obvious invitation. But should she follow? The parents would be home in a few hours and Dolly might tell. Besides, Abigail would have preferred deserts and duels, dust devils and dragons, although one cannot be picky about childhood adventures.
Down below, a golem – painted yellow to indicate a schoolteacher – led a retinue of children along the fence. Each child was licking a lump of candy-fire crackling in their hands, getting sugary ash around their mouths. They must have visited the carnival. Abigail sighed. She was forbidden to go into the yard. By extension, she was forbidden the street and the park across it. Unless she did something, this was going to be another day spent in her bedroom.
“Well,” said Abigail, clenching a fist around the padlock. “It was the key to the front door.”
* * *
It’s not that Abigail Rollins did not like watching golems. They were an interesting lot to spy on from the security of a high window. Regular people walked hunched over with cloaks and coats thrown over them. Hiding identities, purposes. They looked like passing shadows. But amidst their turbulent wake were golems, animated boulders carved into the likeness of men, expressionless but alive. They came in all shapes and sizes, some painted, some intricately carved. While man confined himself to dark materials, his creations abounded.
She had her own golem, a doll with real hair. It was also her sitter. While her parents worked, Dolly kept house. But she wasn’t good with children. Whenever Abigail wanted to play cowboys and warlocks, Dolly would hide in the closet. Dolly didn’t like Abigail that much.
Neither did father. He didn’t care for a daughter who wanted to be a cowboy. For now, she needed tutorship and manners and fashionable clothes like those worn by ladies in the Arcade. Father’s intentions were never hidden. Politics crept even into bedtime stories, where brave princesses raised their families' statuses by marrying corpulent princes. Abigail would catch his eye when she was old enough to be used in the Court. She would be involved.
But for now, Abigail enjoyed some independence in the house. Too old for nurseries, too young for university or betrothal, she would sit and ponder passerby, or if she was really bored, the trees in the park across the road. Or she’d read the pennybacks mother would give her. They were westerns with titles like Lightfroth Mountain Trail and A Fistful of Soulgems. Stories about princesses turned into swans bored her—she preferred daring escapes from lynch mobs and prairie children kidnapped by shapeshifting natives. Father considered these novels so beneath him to the point of not considering them, but maybe he should have, for they were influencing her ambitions. Already she'd decided she'd someday be Iron Abbie, exploring the Unmade Plains with a six-shooter named Rusty and a horse named Steve.
Until then, she watched, sitting up whenever she saw someone in leathers or grime-brown wools, or wearing a zandy hat with a pinched front, to wonder if they were visitors from the West. Once she saw a golem in a white duster, carrying four pistols with pearl grips. He rode a horse ponderously, looking back and forth at the houses. Mostly the streets were a swish of dark coats, silk dresses, parasols, and golems with plates as colorful as stained glass. The West only peered into the city. Like her, it did not belong.
But today, she would explore.
Abigail made her fists into guns. “Show yourself!” she called from the stairs. “I know you’re down there, Dangerous Doll McGrew.”
“Abigail, I’m busy,” a voice replied, followed by quick steps and the shutting of a door.
Abigail listened to the silence, then went down into the foyer.
* * *
From her window, there was order to the street currents, but down here the wrapped gentry and carriages whisked and rattled and tromped, delivering a panache of smells – garbage, factory smoke, fungus, mint, and salt. A moment’s hesitation, a lost footing, and she’d be shipped to the docks or clattered against cobblestones.
The bird flew across the road. Abigail wondered – no, reckoned, that was a better word for a cowboy – if it was leading her to the park.
“Out of my way!” she shouted, barreling into the crowd. She slipped ahead of pewter cherubs carrying chalices lined with red stones, and in front of chatting and laughing women, their eyes sliding over her quickly. A driver shouted at her when he had to pull his stone spider to an abrupt halt, the cart almost shattering against spinnerets, and distracted, Abigail smacked into a golem.
“Sorry, Jack!” she said, getting up. The golem glanced up and down the street, then picked her up gently and put her down by the park.
“Thank you, Jack,” she said, but it was gone.
The park fence was comprised of iron-blue bars choked by twisting yellow vines. Trees tall as smokestacks and just as dirty loomed overhead. Not seeing a gate, Abigail slipped through the fence and tread down a footpath. She'd been here many times with mother and wasn't afraid of being lost, but she did not want to lose sight of the bird, even if she had some doubts about whether it was truly summoning her. Perhaps all of this adventure was the fault of her imagination – that faculty her father called a ruinous power.
The trees ended and she entered a field of dead grass. The bird hopped onto a bough nearby and looked about, as if unsure of where to go. Ahead, on a small hill, was a sleeping giant – a plainstone golem sitting against a blue boulder.
"Is this where you meant to bring me?" asked Abigail. The bird looked at her. She was sure that if birds could shrug, this one's wings would pop off. "Well, I'm investigating anyway."
Iron Abbie approached the golem, finger pistols drawn. The golem had its head down as if it were sleeping, a bright yellow star painted on its chest. Nearby, a sack’s stomach had exploded, spilling a collection of empty liquor bottles.
A light flickered in the golem’s eye for a moment, before going out.
“Hands to the sky!” Abbie shouted when she was near enough. The golem sat up, sputtering.
“What were you doing?” said Abbie, sticking Rusty right into its painted chest.
“Taking a nap,” said the golem. Its two eyes, lit like candles, pointed directly toward her. The golem slowly put its hands up in mock surrender.
“But golems can’t sleep.”
“Well, I didn’t know that.”
Abbie put Rusty down. “Seriously, what’s your deal, Jack?”
“The name’s not Jack.”
“But every golem’s name is Jack. There's cityjacks, housejacks, warjacks... Or are you a doll?"
“The name’s Loon,” it said.
“That’s a stupid name,” Abigail thought aloud.
“I agree,” said the golem. “It’s loony.”
“Oh, you’re like a person!" said Abigail. She was liking the personality of this one far more than her timid housekeeper or the faceless guards that protected father. It was clever, and funny, like how she imagined an older brother would be. "Can I keep you?”
The golem rubbed the back of its neck, suddenly uncomfortable. “I wouldn’t make a very good pet,” he said delicately.
“Why not?” asked Abigail.
“I’m not house trained.”
Abigail laughed again. "You are well-named, Jack." Then she had had an idea. “Play oracles and outlaws with me! Or summoners and scoundrels.”
“Gunslingers and goblins?” suggested the golem.
“I dub thee Deputy Starchest,” said Abbie. “I’m a Marshall, see? Been hunting a dragon rider who’s been breathing trains from here to Lincoln, New Mexico.”
“Deputy Starchest,” said Loon. “The slowest gun in the west.” He sluggishly held up his hand, fingers pointing like a gun, and after a long, dramatic pause, said, “Pew.”
“Whoa, partner,” said Abbie. “Easy with that pistol."
"Good thing my bullets take an hour to leave their barrel.”
And that’s how they played while the sun rolled gently down the sky. Just as it was blurring into pinks and oranges, a woman stood on top of the boulder – a woman with fizzy brown hair like a bottle opened too quickly, and brown skin, and black eyes, and black rings under those eyes. She had – Abigail noticed excitedly – a blue bandanna and a trim frock coat.
The golem stopped, his hands dropping to his sides. “What is it?”
“What do you think?” said the woman. “I need booze. Something aged in a barrel. My head feels like it’s been punched through by artillery.”
“You ever think a little less alcohol might help with that?”
She gave him a look. “You know why I need it.” She nodded at Abigail and leaped off the rock, disappearing from view.
“Who was that?” asked Abigail excitedly. “Was that a warlock?”
“You should go home,” said the golem. He stared in the direction where his companion had gone, then turned back to Abigail. “You should not come back.”
“Will you be here tomorrow?” asked Abigail.
“Y-yes,” the golem admitted.
“Then I’ll be back.”
“At least do one thing for me.” The golem’s tone was serious, and Abigail quieted down. “Cael and I are not exactly on good terms with the people in this city. Keep us a secret, and you and I can play... for now. But tell anybody, even your parents, and we won’t be around anymore.” The golem’s glowing eyes peered into hers, and she nodded, affecting as mature a face as she could muster.
“I swear by the lonesome gods,” she said. “Your secret is safe.” Abigail didn't feel that was enough, that it sounded too much like the characters they'd been playing, so she added: "I promise."
By and Bye
She showers me from above with falling spades,
having then gift-wrapped the stems with little hearts...
a full public service which she's housed in shades
of now red and black poison injected darts.
You'll find her masked as a queen, holding multiple aces,
bluffing a community, under multiple faces.
Diamonds of wisdom she pretends to display,
when diamonds to cut is the truth of her play.
Stacking the deck against me, she continues to game,
a system that she's rigged, with absolutely no shame.
Since all she believes is no feign then no gain,
I must question then at what cost and whose pain?
Club members pleased as she slanders, applaud -
the clubbing of a young man's heart, oh God - -
please help guide my hand to fold instead of fight,
instead of gambling my virtue out of spite,
against a sick and sinister soul's sad plight.
Force me not to poke-her with your spades of light,
win or lose...flip my dream turned nightmare tonight.
I am struggling with this motion to check: live or expire,
as a resolution that is urgent and morbidly dire-
'twas just on the table, then on the pan, now off to The Friar,
as His second is needed, to go all-in this, trial by fire.
Father, let it be in my cards, to do what is just...
and help me to cremate, this invoice, for poison lust.
Lord, make me not risk laying to waste,
this old bully from a schoolyard fight;
bless me with luck and heavenly might,
for a tournament noble and chaste.
Consider the nights I’ve spent digging her ditch,
please honor the time that I've lost to this witch,
whose rage’s raised from an emotional glitch,
of jealousy folded in a single stitch.
I’m hereby knocking to check on slaying this snitch,
calling Azrael to push the dumbwaiter switch.
Although a 50/50 chance is blindly set by your crown,
I pray that her pair of elevator arrows, both, Show-Down!
Nay, help make me the hero and this order delay…
cancel making me victim to becoming one's prey,
just protect me from evil as I kneel and I pray:
“our horsemen, who art in Heaven, now summoned and nigh--
And now four suited stallions, flush with black hearts,
neigh loudly but voiceless, in front of their carts.
Marking her players who all vote as one,
to majority counts of four to one.
I am still human at the end of this day,
so I ask you, Yahweh, to end this decay.
I wish not to cash-out on her last sigh,
no reins or noose, to soon hold up and tie.
I’ve good left in me and I wish to try
asking your horsemen for a pass to buy - -
from this burned passerby.
I'll pay her ante across the River Styx,
chips sprung from her eye sockets with reaper sticks,
fortune stuffed in her pockets with fire picks.
Proclaiming the odds at even they cry:
‘all bets are final to live or help die’!
Swords at the ready and ready to fly,
riders are shuffling to deal upon high,
sickles now flopping like hail from the sky,
turning her tombstone with acid and lye,
the river’s mouth’s showing halva and rye –
goodnight fine horsemen,
hello and goodbye.
Kindly pardon one last thing,
just as a postscript, my King…
pairing Hell and high purpose within this fog of straight sight,
I present to your horsemen, this final kicker tonight - -
pass her by /
pass her, bye.
Copyright © 1986-2017
All Rights Reserved
George and The Magic Library - Chapter 4
‘We need you to get some Leprechaun gold George,’ Molly stated, as a matter of fact.
George sat there open mouthed.
‘Some what?’ he replied.
‘Leprechaun gold – that’s why you have the Myths and Legends survival guide,’ said Molly.
‘But why? Do you think we’ll need some kind of ransom for my parents?’
George was now finding it hard to take all this in.
‘No,’ said Molly, shaking her head. ‘Let me explain. When you go back to see the Captain and Lady Jane they won’t know who you are, right’
‘Yes, you explained that, but where does the Leprechaun gold come into it?’
‘I was coming to that,’ Molly protested.
‘Oh, sorry,’ said George.
‘Well, the first owner of Arrington hall, the man who had the house built and hid the scroll, realised the potential of the library, in being able to come back in time and visit past ancestors, like him for instance.’
‘Okay.’ George wasn’t convinced.
Molly rolled her eyes into the back of her head.
‘He also realised the importance of the three scrolls and that one day it was bound to happen, but he couldn’t risk just anybody hearing about it and then turning up and claiming to be a long lost relative or a future one for that matter. He figured he would have to come up with a secret code or something so they could be sure who it was.’
‘So when I go back into their history,’ he said, hurriedly, ‘they will know who I am and help me if I give them some of the Leprechaun gold.’
‘Yes, by George, he’s got it, if you’ll pardon the expression.’ She exclaimed. ‘A simple piece of normal gold was not enough. He had to make it something rare and very hard to get hold of.’
‘I don’t like the sound of that,’ George said, nervously.
‘Don’t worry,’ said Molly, ‘the survival guide you have there was compiled by the same man, after extensive research. It’s the only one to have ever been published. Your parents must have taken it from the library to hide it in your trunk.’
‘But wouldn’t you have noticed them doing this?’ George asked.
‘Look, just because I’m a member of the undead, it doesn’t mean I don’t like to have a rest or a snooze now and again,’ She protested. ‘ It can get boring in here sometimes, especially when no-one visits for years on end, and as for that lot, well, they never stop sleeping – and snoring, loudly,’ she added, with consternation, glancing at the old paintings on the wall, with the ink figures fidgeting restlessly within their frames..
‘It all sounds a bit long winded,’ George moaned, ‘Couldn’t he have just invented a secret handshake or something?’
‘No, that would have been too easily tortured out of someone. This way was safer.’
‘Can I ask you a question?’ he said. ‘If it’s so hard to do, why isn’t Uncle Felix doing it, instead of me?’
Molly could see the point George was making, but she also understood what his Uncle’s reasoning might have been.
‘Maybe your Uncle thought it was time for you to know about the family’s legacy,’ she suggested, ‘or that you had come of age, what with everything that’s happened recently in your life.’
Molly hesitated for a moment, and then decided that George needed to know the full story.
‘Also,’ she said, ‘your uncle hasn’t been in the library since before you were born.’
George was taken aback. His Uncle had been only too eager to point him in the direction of the library that morning. What could have possibly happened to make him not want to go back in? George shrugged his shoulders. Maybe instead of explaining everything to him, and have George believe he was a mad old fool, his Uncle had reckoned it would be better for him to discover the library for himself.
‘So why won’t he come back in here then?’ George said.
‘Well,’ Molly hesitated, ’it’s because of something that happened in a book he was visiting.
She sat, or rather hovered, into the chair opposite George and bowed her head.
‘He fell in love,’ she murmured.
‘Really,’ George shouted, smiling. ‘Good for him – but I don’t understand, why is that such a bad thing?’
‘Because it could never last, it was doomed from the start,’ Molly cried. 'The story cannot continue beyond a certain point and characters cannot be taken out of the books, only the odd prop that is not central to the main storyline, like some of the things you see in this house, or the silver keys for example.’
‘Oh,’ George said, simply.
It was obvious from the forlorn look on everyone’s faces, and of Molly’s especially, that this had been a very upsetting time when it had happened, all those years ago. His Uncle had obviously been much loved and was now severely missed.
‘So….what happened,’ he stammered, ‘I mean what book did it happen in?’
Molly looked up, her ghostly eyes red around the edges.
‘Have you heard of a book called 1001 Arabian nights,’ she said.
’Well, basically, the story is based around the tale of a princess who is due to be executed the following day by her husband the King, but each night she tells him a story, leaving it at a crucial moment to be continued the following evening.
‘Eager to know how the story continues he gives her a stay of execution, so that he can find out what happened next. Well she managed to continue this for 1001 nights.’
George listened intently, while Molly continued.
‘Well, your Uncle Felix went into the book and fell in love with the princess. Believing that her time was running out and that she really would be executed he came up with a daring plan to rescue her. But, it all went wrong I’m afraid…he headed back to the portal hand in hand with the princess, chased by axe wielding guards. Except the only problem was’, Molly sobbed, ‘is that upon reaching this side he was on his own, she couldn’t come through. It was only a fictional book so it also meant he couldn’t go back into it either.’
‘Blimey, he must’ve been devastated,’ George said.
‘Yes he was. You see even though she was only a made up character George,’ Molly added, ’to him it was all very real. He swore never to come back into the library, and since that day, he never has.’
George stood, staring at the closed up doorway, in anticipation. The patterned paper on the wall started to come together and swirl around into a whirlpool of colours, like a dancing rainbow. It was as if the library knew what George’s intentions were. The colours then began to stretch out into the distance and it was almost as if he could see what was on the other side, but rippled, like looking into a pool of water, gently wafted by the wind. He felt every nerve ending in his body jangling within him, and on the tips of his fingers, as he gripped the Myths and Legends book tightly in his right hand. He had never felt so nervous in all of his life. He had also never felt so alive.
‘So you know what to do,’ Molly repeated.
‘Yes, Molly,’ he shouted back, ‘you’ve told me enough times and I’ve got the book as well if I need to check anything.’
He took several deep breaths and counted to three in his head before declaring;
‘Okay, here goes,’ he yelled.
He ran as hard and fast as he could across the room and, with a loud whumph, disappeared into the portal.
I can be obsessive but I’m not one to easily become infatuated. Despite that fact, Adrian Loose’s gorgeous hazels leave a searing impression. It’s been over an hour since the thirty-year-old rocker and I first locked eyes yet there he remains in my mind. Forever embedded as waves of mesmerizing gold, green and auburn paradise. The colors weave through my sparking imagination and send a deep buzz through my whole body. Worst timing ever.
All I want is a successful show. To make that reality, focus is the only lover I need. Besides, Adrian is dating a diamond studded movie star, lucky her, lucky him.
I turn to check the digital clock on the back wall. Showtime was in less than ten minutes. I breathe in deeply and take a glimpse back at my fellow Victoria Secret angels. Dark waves, blonde curls, high cheekbones, slender bodies, toned muscles, none a day over thirty. Some sway their hips to an imaginary beat, others pop out their legs, toss their manes and snap streams of endless selfies. Plastic. As much as I want to ignore the fact, that’s exactly what we are. A parade of contrived perfection, the earthly definition of an angel, the closest to flawless mankind can attain. Women envy us, men lust after us. Millions look to us as though we are heaven come to earth, yet our stories are not fairy tales. Perching on a flat, cold, hard pedestal can hurt. Yes, we hurt. We sacrifice and pay dearly and yep, we bleed. I know this for a fact. My right toe is gushing as we speak. I bend down to conceal it and stop the bleeding. Monica Snow, fellow angel and drama queen of the century, gasps a lot louder than necessary.
“Kare, what happened to your toe? Ow!”
“It’s nothing. I probably just bumped it.”
“It needs to be wrapped!” I start to protest, it has been a climb to the top and I don’t want to cause trouble. The only piece of advice my mother, an ex-supermodel, gave me was to never leave a producer with a reason to give me the boot. Much to my mother’s chagrin, my actor father was a lot more open about the ins of showbiz. He told me to be kind, sweet, compliant and do what the director of the show wanted. Always. Well, so far so good. But that perfect image was about to be ruined by a bikini clad string bean. Monica waved her bedazzled arm in the air.
“Monica, please. I don’t…”
She ignores me, her eyes wide as she strains to get someone’s attention. “First aid! First aid! Good, oh good! Here comes someone.”
I plant my hands on my hips and glare. “My God, Monica, I’m fine. Please!”
Her blue eyes turned icy as she backed into a circle of other girls. “Woah, sorry.” I turn away from the eyes watching me and face the stage. I want to apologize. That came out so wrong, no matter how hard I tried to fit the perfect mold, it never worked. Mom was right, I should have stayed out. Even though I finally looked like I belonged, the industry wasn’t made for me.
A woman with a blinking blue headpiece rushes in to inspect my foot. Her name tag reads “Patricia”. A loud, voice hollers from somewhere backstage, “alright ladies, five minutes before show time! This is it! Five minutes!” Patricia’s sharp eyes dart from my foot to my face.
“What the hell happened?”
“Not sure.” Yeah, that was a lie. I knew. The super high heels they forced me to wear at the five-hour rehearsal had rubbed my flesh chicken skin raw. When they handed me today’s pair of crème-du-la-torture I didn’t dare protest. I slipped them on and “boom” the scab popped off. The woman’s tinted lips pull back, her eyebrows lift but not too far. Botox. Plastic.
She pats down her silky pockets. “I’ll try to find a see-through bandage.”
The voice hollers again. “Ladies who need help with wardrobe, just let Patricia know, she’s back!”
“Dammit Clark.” Patricia shoved a chunk of choppy blond hair behind her ear and took off in a whirlwind of expensive fabric. The smell of exotic flowers and dark notes of vanilla tangle with the scent of hairspray and heated hair. I glanced at the line of Victoria Secret models standing a couple paces behind me.
Most keep their eyes closed. Their wings flutter as they draw their breaths in slowly, calming themselves. Was it true that the immortal could be nerve-wracked? Did goddesses work hard to earn respect and work to keep it? Apparently. We had sacrificed freedom, bared our bodies, strut for men three times our age and here we all are. Chosen by the prestigious, lauded individuals who deemed us worthy enough to walk the God ordained show of fashion. It was our time to shine, to show the world how beautiful, perfect and valuable we are. To make normal women feel like they don’t measure up like they aren’t worth a man’s attention. Ironically, I feel the furthest thing from an unshakeable goddess. I despise the person I have become, beautiful on the outside but inwardly so unsatisfied. Apparently, plastic wings can’t hoist me above and away from the hideous imperfection dwelling within. My mouth is dry. My stomach is twisting into thick knots. Nausea sweeps over me in waves. I can’t help but wonder what the point of all of this really is. The voice screams again. So shrill.
Patricia books it towards me, almost knocking over two crew members in the process. “Take the shoe off!” She hollers from a distance. I hesitate. Rude. She stands in front of me and looks up at me, her face beat red.
“I’m sorry. But please hurry. Hurry!” I step out of my stringy shoe and wait as she administers the bandage. The lights above us dim slowly. Waves of anticipating screams rise from the audience. Millions would be watching at home, their eyes glued to computer and television screens. Nausea. I can hear my heart in my ears. A loud thumping sound washes over the stadium, all falls silent. I hold my breath. Thump. Thump. Thump.
“Ladies and gentlemen, Adrian Loose!”
Adrian’s smooth voice trills as it booms through the speakers. “Just shoot for my heart if it feels right… one life baby it’s yours better do it right.” A suited man stands beside me, black earpiece tightly wrapped around the outer lobe. His beefy hands press into the ear piece. My foot aches as Patricia finishes stretching the bandage over the wounded area. The suited man speaks.
“Karis Burdett, you’re on. In three, two, one.” I launch myself away from Patricia and towards the runway. Nope. My ankle dips to the right. I quickly snap it back. The cameras probably caught that. I beam despite the pain and give the audience one less thing to criticize later. Opening the show was a huge deal that many would kill for. I needed to pull my performance together with the cards I have left.
The main stage tonight far outshines how it had looked at rehearsal. Awash with blue, purple and green, the colors of the sea and decorated with large, glass pillars. Utopian, Atlantis. A place with no wars or fighting, no disease or disputed presidencies. Only the best of the best rule here, the stuff of legend, the immortal. At least that’s what the tabloids, star news, and fashion lines scream. Too bad the average person couldn’t plunge beyond the aquamarine mascaraed and into the ocean filled with plastic, plastic, plastic. This deep-sea world is so different from what I imagined. Yet the ambiance is still just as enthralling as the day I started. So confusing.
The handsome pop-star stands at the back of the stage, his gaze washes over me as I strut forward. He locks eyes with me again. I can’t help but be taken aback. The heated buzz I felt an hour ago, returns. It amplifies as he walks towards me and reaches for my hand. I take it. The crowd roars. Rumors will be buzzing tomorrow but who cares? This is show business. This is what the media wants. Publicity is how we make the money.
Adrian’s voice dips dangerously low then soars to new heights. “Girl, I found you. Finally, you’re here… shooting to those stars, why don’t we disappear into the night, together.” As we walk together, I notice his hands are warm and soft. Security. Something I hadn’t had since dad left. But Adrian has a girlfriend! How dare I hold his hand! He releases me as I near the end of the runway. I pause at the end, toss my glittery dress, twist my hips right then left, seek approval from the crowd. Am I good enough? Am I good enough? Cameras snap continuously. My eyes wander over the packed seats, gauging expressions. My attention settles on a young girl with a long ponytail. Her eyes wide.
She reminds me so much of me at that age. Innocent, young, unsuspecting and unaware of the dangers of the stage. I flash a smile in her direction, wave like a queen then strut back down the walk. The crowd erupts with applause. I feel the warmth of million of eyes as they scan me up and down. Adrian winks. I flash a bright grin. The buzzing continues. I disappear behind the curtain, enshrouded by the lie of perfection. If only I could disappear from myself.
No More Pencils, No More Books...
There’s got to be a better way to do this. I tried again, “Though they might, at first glance, seem multifaceted and layers-deep, human motives tend to draw from a mere handful of needs…” A stadium-seated, stone sea of glassy, sleep-deprived eyes stared back at me. Many of the students dropped pencils and slouched in their chairs, obviously hungover, while others were still too drunk to be hungover for a few hours yet. Some, it seemed, were already beginning the work of tomorrow’s hangover, still in its infancy. I wonder if I should talk to the school board about making AA meetings a mandatory credit.
“Human motivators! You’re humans, what motivates you? What’s motivating you to be here right now? Let’s take a look. Well, obviously getting an A in this course, which will fulfill your credits to get a degree, which will allow you to get a job to provide for a family… so that when you near the end of your journey you will feel as though you’ve left a legacy behind to continue the fruitless march of procreation that rolls on without end or meaning…” I trailed off staring at all the blank faces twisted in expressions of mental constipation. Come on Henry, they’re just kids you cynical prick. I closed my eyes and took a breath.
“Okay…who went out last night?” Not a hand. “C’mon, it’s…8:32 a.m. on a Friday, raise your hand if you went to a bar, or a party, or a friend’s house anytime last night.” Every single hand stood erect. “Good! Okay, now keep your hand up if you had at least one drink while you were out – the alcoholic sort that is. Don’t worry, you’re secret’s safe with me.” Every hand went down. Shit. “Let’s try this again.” I pulled a flask of Glenlivet out of my breast pocket, raised it to the class, “Salude!” and draught long from the tin. The 400-seated stadium classroom was packed with 19 and 20-year-olds looking on in shock as their professor gulped 18-year old scotch right at the podium. “Okay, now you’ve got dirt on me. I won’t tell if you won’t. So, raise your hand if you’ve had at least one drink in the past twelve hours.”
Every hand shot up with a roar of giggles and taunts of “lightweight, you know you can’t handle a beer!” and “Last twelve hours? Try last twelve minutes!"
I smiled. At least I’ve got their attention.
“Why’d you drink, you think?” Hands dropped. “Relax, this isn’t an after school special, I’m just trying to show you something. Raise your hand if you can tell me why you had your first drink last night.”
A powerfully-built Alpha male in the back row wearing a PKE tank top and neon Wayfarers shouted, “Cause it lubricates every…” he paused to flex his biceps at the sorority girls a few rows away “…and I mean every, situation.” He smirked the same way he’d probably practiced in the mirror every day since he was ten. The girls cracked up laughing along with much of the packed house.
“Thanks, Jessie! Our brave volunteer is correct. Many people drink to better their chances of passing on their genetic code. Legacy. Ensuring our genes live on after we do could be one reason to ‘lubricate’ your social comfort level, though few have the courage to admit it.” I winked at the muscled meathead. Jessie transformed from feeling shocked that I knew his name to a lamb in his seat, as the hidden essence of his comment began to sink in. The laughter came slow, but was contagious. “What else we got?”
A sad-eyed girl in a torn hoodie muttered, “I drink ‘cause ‘fuck you,’ that’s why.”
I did a little dance of excitement, “Good Rebecca! A state of pure rebellion for its own sake is little more than a boundary test for the newly-fledged adult. By testing the limits of our independence we learn the safe from the unsafe as well as our own capabilities. The essence of this motivator is fear and survival.” The girl bristled, hating me. I tried not to smile. Let’s see the Board try to make me teach Gen. Ed. credit hours again after all the complaints they’ll get today. “What other brave souls have an offering of insight for the class?”
A girl some rows back said, “I only drink socially, like with my friends and stuff.”
“Ah yes, Natalie, your need is complex indeed, by fitting in with your friends and they with you, your clique not only gains the security of safety in numbers, but shows prospective partners that you follow the agreed upon rules of the social normative, making you more attractive to the sort of male you desire to couple with. Your motivator is acceptance, and not unlike Jessie in the back, ultimately reproduction. You two might endeavor to save some time and meet up for lunch after class.”
Chants of “Ohhhh!” and “Damn!” resounded from the horny students.
Natalie sank in her seat and whispered, “pompous ass.” I had to smile a little. The conversations in the room grew out of hand like kudzu vines.
“Is this guy serious right now?”
“Found my new favorite teacher!”
“He does have a point or two.”
“I can’t believe I signed up for a class taught by a psycho.”
“My buddy hooked up with Natalie. He’s right, chick’s baby-crazy!”
Then, a voice unlike the others sounded out, “Drinking is for cowards who lack conviction, eh Henry?”
I stopped smiling. Something in the voice from the crowd set off alarms – dusty alarms in my head that hadn’t rung out since my post-doctoral research on severe mental disorders back at the asylum. The voice was placid and sounded older than any of my kids’ should’ve. It had gravel in it and its low octave shoved its way through the young crowd like a monster truck on a go-cart track, but the origin of it was less distinctive. The budding chaos from shouting sorority sisters burst into loud arguments all over the class and a scuffle broke out between two boys on the right wing of the room. The students stood with camera phones drawn, jumping and clawing over seats to get a good view of the fight. I watched from my little soap box as a gaunt man in a dark coat stood and silently climbed the stadium stairs towards the exit. The root of why people flock to watch a fight: self-preservation and threat assessment. The more we know of the dangerous members of our society, the safer we can operate around them…
May 18, 2067
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