“By combining the powers of the Police Department and the Fire Department, I have become the ultimate civil servant!”
“Not so fast, Detective Firefighter.”
“Gasp! EMT Councilman! But you’re too late. Your powers and mine are now equals. We shall fight to a standstill forever!”
“That’s Mayor EMT Councilman to you.”
“Read the sash.”
“But you can’t serve as Mayor and as a Councilman at the same time! That’s a conflict of interest pursuant to ¶902.3(c) of the city charter.”
“Oh, I’m well aware of the charter. But I also know that the Head of the Exploratory Ethics Committee’s daughter has a Little League game tonight. Which means that my hearing has been postponed to Wednesday evening at the earliest. Giving me just enough time to finish… you… off.”
“How clever. I should never have underestimated you; of course you’d be able to resuscitate your own plans. Very well, then. You’ve forced my hand. Behold! The certification test to become… a Postal Carrier!”
“One of the Federal Powers? You wouldn’t dare!”
“And thanks to the Supremacy Clause, I’ll be invincible! Mwa, ha, ha, ha, ha!”
I am sure that all of you, my readers, know the big-box retailer called Best Buy. But have you heard of these failed spinoffs?
A pet store.
A store that tried to bring back the Catholic practice of selling indulgences.
A single-focus plastic surgeon. Best known for the “Lunchtime Lift,” a service that cost only $39.95 plus tax. (Successful, but sued out of existence by Victoria’s Secret.)
A fireworks emporium. Open July 2nd through 5th.
A supermarket that tried to offer the lowest prices by selling food that was about to pass its expiration date.
An insect and rodent exterminator.
North America’s largest purveyor of olive and avocado oils.
The store at the exit on the highway that you just missed. It is the only one that sells your eight-year-old daughter’s favorite brand of juice, and the last one with a bathroom for the next 152 miles.
Here, in fact, is one of the treats that was played during the intermission of the podcast interview.
It is a dramatic recreation of one of the Easily-Distracted Tales tales, and I’m very pleased with how it turned out. (Comedic recreation? Reading with sound effects?)
This was originally created for the Machine of Death Talent Show. Someday, I will have to learn how to animate. The response I received from the organizers of the show (and the book itself) have led to a backupportunity, as well. One I am very excited about.
Additionally, they have publicly announced solicitation of submissions for a second volume of Machine of Death, and details are available for casual or serious perusal. I encourage any of you who are write-oriented to read what they are looking for and consider submitting. There could be a cool $200.00 in it for you, in addition to recognition and an audience. Whichever you consider to be more important, I hope the choice is an easy one.
I have been interviewed by a local podcast. Not for any good reason, mind you, but interviewed nonetheless. Listen in to hear my thoughts on animation, future-shilling of my book, and converting things-that-are-not-movies into things-that-are-movies (specifically, movies).
I felt as though I’d forgotten something important.
I unstuck my face from the Parcheesi board and looked around. Imogen was still asleep. She’d found a blanket from somewhere and wrapped it around herself. Her position was less undignified than mine had been; she was leaning backwards onto the sofa.
She’d gotten that blanket from the closet, hadn’t she?
Oh, well. Can’t hide clutter forever.
I stood and stretched, every joint in my body cracking and popping like an all-percussion symphony. “Crouching Dog” is not my usual sleeping posture. They say how you sleep is based on your personality. I’m not sure I believe that; I just sleep in whatever way allows me to breathe. Breathing is an important part of the sleeping process.
That and water. Water sounded pretty good, actually.
The water in the pitcher was warm from being left out all night, so I walked around to the kitchen and filled a glass from the sink.
I glanced into the living room as I drank, and—
Alan was in there, standing over Imogen.
“So?” he asked. “Was I right? Feel any different, man?”
Alan shook his head.
He looked me directly in the eyes. And my entire…
…came rushing back.
Senses, form, meaning.
I went back into the living room and shook Imogen’s shoulder. Alan knocked my hand away.
“Man, you gotta give it to her now.”
“Give her what?”
He pointed to my hand. The hand that had just been empty. But now it was holding the vial. I didn’t remember taking it out of my pocket.
“She’s conked, man. She won’t even know what hit her.”
I put the vial down on the coffee table and gently shook Imogen again. She only mumbled sleepily.
“I don’t wanna be the mayor… Somebody else check in…”
I shook her a little harder.
She yawned and opened her eyes. And I think she smiled when she saw me.
“Oh. Good morning. Did you talk to my demons?”
“Yes. But, I mean, no. It’s… not what you believed.”
She blinked hard to focus. “What do you mean?”
“I think you should start listening to the voices—not do the opposite of what they say anymore.”
Alan knelt down next to me. He looked directly at Imogen as he spoke.
“I think she should keep it up. Things were going well, so far.”
I braced myself for a lot of questions. Ones that would be difficult to answer.
But Imogen didn’t turn her head. She didn’t acknowledge Alan. She just kept looking at me.
As though he wasn’t there at all.
As though he’d never existed in the first place.
“I don’t understand,” she said to me.
“I mean that it’s the opposite. It’s more like… angelic possession.”
Alan laughed sharply. “Never heard of it! You must be making it all up. Tell her you’re joking. Or maybe you’re the crazy one? Did you ever think of that?”
I helped Imogen to her feet and started guiding her to the door. A little forcefully. She and Alan seemed to be mutually exclusive for now, but I couldn’t count on it staying that way. Also, it felt a little awkward to juggle a conversation between two people who couldn’t interact with each other.
We got across the living room, and Imogen stopped me.
“Wait. I trust you. You’ve helped me, even when I opened myself up to you and risked sounding… crazy. And now you say that I’m not crazy, but I have to leave? If I’m not supposed to do the opposite anymore, then… It doesn’t answer the question. Why do the voices, the demons, the angels, whatever they are—Why do they want me to stay away from you?”
Alan started shouting for me to tell her to stay, but I was trying to ignore him.
She asked again, more emphatically.
“Why am I supposed to stay away from you?”
I glanced back at Alan, then sighed.
“I guess you’re just… way out of my league.”
It was a dodge, and we both knew it. She looked sad, and the floor held her fascination once again.
She started to say something, but I interrupted her.
“Go on. There’s something here I need to take care of.”
Slowly, reluctantly, she stepped outside.
Was this goodbye? Was that the last thing I wanted to say to her?
“Hey. I’ll be fine. More importantly, you’ll be fine.”
Her eyes sparkled with restrained tears.
After a moment of silence, she nodded once. Then she started walking down the stairs.
I closed the door.
Alan laid a hand on my shoulder.
“Hey, one out of two ain’t bad. Look at it this way, man: You kept the older friend. Not the one you met… oh, yesterday.”
As he spoke, I crossed back to the coffee table. I picked up the vial and shoved it in his face.
“This isn’t what I thought it was, is it?”
“That depends on what you thought it was, doesn’t it, man? But, nah, you probably had no idea. Would’ve made her just like anyone else.”
I pried the top off the vial and drank it in a single gulp.
Alan’s eyes blazed infernally for a split second—no longer than it takes to blink—but then he settled back to his usual self. He must have known, by then, that I knew.
“Wow. Uh, almost anyone else, then. All it’ll do for you is stave off death by dehydration. Slightly.”
“Well, it was worth a shot.”
I threw the vial into the kitchen, and it smashed against the far wall.
“So, what’s next?” I asked. “Why is she important? Important to you, I mean.”
“What makes you think I’d know? I might be in the Light Brigade, man. Mine not to reason why.”
“Yours but to do and die, huh? Except I’m pretty sure that you can’t die. So that just leaves do.”
Alan screwed up his face in thought. Then he settled onto the sofa and put his feet up on the coffee table.
“All right. Well, she’s gonna get a little bit famous. With that cello of hers, y’know? Get some acclaim. She’ll start spreading a message of peace, and love, and tolerance… All that crap. And then, one day, she’s going to get on a plane for a concert. There are a lot of rogue nuclear states out there, did you know that? And a lot of people think it’s a good idea to keep them from getting angry at one another. Otherwise, well…”
He chuckled before continuing.
“And that plane is going to crash. In a gigantic fireball. And it won’t be terrorism. Mechanical fault, wind shear, just one of those things. Still, everyone on board will die. The wreckage and the carnage will be… beyond what you can imagine. But because she was on board, and because she inspired so many, diplomats from other, more level-headed nations will step in and keep a lid on things. And a lotta good’ll be done in her name for decades to come, blah, blah, blah. It just didn’t seem like our kind of outcome.”
He paused, seeming to wait for a reply.
But what could I say in response to that?
“You could have stopped it, man. You could have saved her life by being more selfish, but not taking the long view. By acting how humans are supposed to act. There’s irony for you.”
“Is that it?”
“I’d say it’s quite a lot! Enough for one lifetime, at least. What, you want her to stop two wars? Requiscat in pace, man.”
“No, I mean… Is that how you’re doing it? You’re trying to get me to run out after her—to change my mind about what the right thing to do here is. You really haven’t been paying attention to who I am. That or you don’t care. But either one is a big mistake. You tipped your hand too far. Hell, to stop a nuclear war? I’d run downstairs and stab her myself.”
I thought for a moment about what I’d just said.
“But don’t get any ideas,” I added hastily. “And don’t think that she means nothing to me. When the day comes that I hear about her, I’m sure I’ll be sad. Even if I can’t tell anyone else exactly why. But I’m not about to let my id run roughshod over my superego like that.”
Alan held up a single finger.
“I could have been lying.”
“Could have. But given what you think of me, you’d have tried to appeal to me personally, not to humanity as a whole.” I pointed to my head. “These chemicals are good for some things, you know.”
“Not for much.”
Then a strange moment passed. For the first time, I felt as though I had the upper hand in our relationship. But friendship shouldn’t be a competition; it’s meant to be a cooperation.
Was he even my friend, really?
It was hard to tell anymore.
“Am I done? Now that this has passed, now that she’s gone?”
“Not a chance. No one’s ever gone until they’re gone. You can say no a thousand times, but say yes once, and you’re mine forever, man.”
“Then I’ll just have to say no forever, demon.”
I’d been dancing around addressing the issue directly—for fear of a dangerous reaction—but Alan took it in stride.
“Forever’s a long time. And no is hard.”
With the last remaining problem confronted, I sat on the sofa next to him and relaxed. Taking deep breaths for the first time in what felt like a very long time.
“You know, someone once told me that solutions are hard. And then, not long after that, someone else did, too. And those people were very different from one another. Almost as different as can be. But since they agreed on that, I choose to believe that it’s true.”
“You can’t just choose what to believe.”
“Oh, sure I can! For example, I choose to believe that you’re the same person—well, ‘person’—I’ve always thought you were. Terrible, impulsive, immoral… but saveable.”
“I bet I can if I try. What were you? I mean, before. One of the seraphim, cherubim, thrones…?”
“Thrones? Is that really your word for it? Geez, show me some respect; I was one of the ophanim.”
His proud tone made me smile. It was a side of my friend that I’d never seen before.
If that was waking up, then I’d never truly woken up before… or have since.
There is a time in everyone’s life when they think that they are about to die. And it is true that your life flashes before your eyes. Your unconscious mind is frantically, desperately trying to match anything in your past experience to this one moment. Hoping that whatever matches will allow you to escape. To live.
If the unconscious mind is an engine, then it’s like reaching over and suddenly throwing the gearshift into neutral. It’s working as hard as it possibly can, but the wheels aren’t spinning, so it’s not going anywhere.
That’s only the unconscious mind, though.
The conscious mind is fixated on exactly one thing. The danger. The threat. It’s a fear so all-consuming that nothing else is left.
A pinpoint focus on a single thought.
A thought that becomes an indelible memory.
I remember the fire.
I remember thinking that it was watching me.
A demonfire burning brighter that I ever thought possible. Yet somehow I was not burned. Nor were any of the shapes that passed through it. I couldn’t identify any of them; there was a strange disconnect between my body and my brain. They only pulsed through levels of familiarity before fading off into infinity.
My senses didn’t seem trustworthy. It was as though no photons were hitting my retinas, but I could still see the patterns. It was as though I was perfectly still, but the universe was tumbling around me. I felt simultaneously hot and cold, wet and dry… alive and dead.
I tried to speak.
I did. I did try. I really did try. I tried to speak this: “So you’re the demons.” But I couldn’t make the thought become words. Even in my own mind, they weren’t sound. It was only a formless abstraction.
But that seemed to be enough there. Or, for them. The fire wavered into a lumpy solid and slowly turned itself inside out.
“Do you always believe that everything you see is true?”
At least, the idea of those words entered my mind.
It was a fair point, either way.
“All right. Then tell me, where am I?”
“You are on the fourth side of a triangle.”
“Anything is possible. Even the impossible things.”
“And that’s nonsense. Do you think all humans are stupid, or have you singled me out?”
“Intelligence has nothing to do with it. Even the smartest human is still thinking with electrical impulses across a liquid inside a lump of meat.”
“I’m rather fond of my head meat.”
By that point, I even missed it.
“Where do you think you are right now?”
“If you’re here, then I must be inside Imogen’s head. I like how you’ve decorated. Very abstract.”
“Oh, you are inside the other one’s head? How did such a thing occur? Were you shrunk down, and now swim along with electrical impulses inside liquid?”
“Have you carved her skull open, only to find this and us where you expected meat?”
“Then please do explain it.”
“I mean… I mean that we’re inside her mind. Someplace where you can communicate with her, as you seem to do.”
“And where is her mind?”
Having only moments to answer a question that humanity had not solved for its entire existence, I fell back onto a standard response.
“It’s nowhere. It’s an abstraction.”
“Which would explain why you perceive your surroundings to be so, as you say, abstract. In which case, where you are is an invalid question. You would be nowhere, as well.”
“It sounds as if you’re saying that I’ve become an abstraction.”
“The concept simply cannot be explained using your reference model of ‘objects in space.’”
“OK, fine, I get it. I am sufficiently cowed, O Mighty Demon.”
“Our purpose is not to denigrate. Only to prepare you for the fact that we’re not just going to explain things to you.”
“How can I learn if you won’t tell me?”
The fire burned blue, and it formed itself into a thousand spires, some of which I would have sworn went right through me. The thoughts came more emphatically.
“How do you learn anything? Shall we believe that your mind is immutable, and thus incapable of incorporating new information? If that is so, then we are disappointed by the futility of your existence. We had understood it to be otherwise.”
“One way that I learn is by not constantly adopting a position of blunt superiority.”
“Bluntly, we are superior.”
Yes, by not doing that. Excellent example.
“How do you learn anything?” they asked again.
“Through observations. Seeing, feeling, smelling, tasting… Sensory input from the outside world.”
“But you are not in the outside world.”
“And the things that I am seeing and feeling are contradictory. I don’t understand them. I have no way of knowing what’s true, especially if I’m on some fourth side of some triangle.”
“You are seeing things? And feeling them?”
“Yes. What, you don’t? Are demons as devoid of physical feeling as they are meant to be of emotional feeling?”
“With what are you seeing or feeling?”
The questions were starting to become nonsensical. I wondered if I was wasting my time. Despite interacting with Imogen so often and trying to guide her actions, her demons seemed to have no familiarity with such a simple concept as eyes.
There was nothing here to see but the demonfire and the incomprehensible shapes, anyway. I couldn’t not see them. Even when I closed—
I could still see them.
There was nothing to close. I had no eyes with which to see; I only thought I was seeing. I had no lungs with which to breathe; I only thought I was breathing. But I was thinking. So I still had my mind. Even if I only thought I was thinking, that’s still thinking.
There was only myself and the demon. And our thoughts. Which were going directly from mind to mind, and which I was interpreting as words, as concepts, as communication.
If there was no physical space there, then there was no reason why the shapes were “there” and I was “here.” And no reason why they would be shapes at all. I expected the demons to have a physical presence, so there they were. I expected them to try to communicate with me, so I interpreted those thoughts as communication. I didn’t expect anything else.
The shapes were just my mind trying to make sense of the extra mental input. Trying to match them to my reference frame of objects in space.
They weren’t objects, they were thoughts.
They carried meaning, not form.
I stopped trying to see them. I stopped trying to see anything. I simply let the thoughts be thoughts. I wasn’t constrained by physical limitations. There was nothing physical, so there was no limit.
And they were all the same thought.
Over and over again.
A chant I never would have expected from demons. I would have expected it from…
“If I recall my Madeline L’Engel books, you should have a few more wings. You shouldn’t look like… this.”
“Do you always believe that everything you see is true?”
“I guess I’ve started to believe that things I can’t see are true, as well.”
“It is the things that you cannot see, or feel, or smell, or taste that are the most true. You are constantly hobbled by perception.”
I got the feeling that they weren’t speaking of me in particular.
“We aren’t normally here, or like this. There’s no way into the mind without going through the gateway of the body’s senses.”
It felt surprisingly casual to speak as the representative of all humanity. I think everyone should try it at least once.
“And it is that body that creates the perceptions. You can only gesture vaguely at the shapes of what is real, but that you cannot directly interact with. You only know of things like justice, worth, or value by the edges of the hole in what you can perceive. Inside, you cannot see or feel what is there. You create these ideas of tangibility and concreteness to compensate for it. But then you all seem to decide that everything that you haven’t labeled thus is not actual. Is not real. Or, at the very least, is mutable based on perspective.”
“Some things must be based on perspective, though? Right?”
“Less than you think. This strange, unstable state that causes so much human behavior… We find it incomprehensible. You are made of the same material as a rock or a tree, yet there is some part of you that is very much as we are. The two are perpetually at odds with one another. It is confounding and infuriating.”
It’s worse from the inside. There’s no way of knowing whether the things we experience are real, or just shadows projected onto a cave wall. So we choose the option that lets us do things, instead of choosing to drown ourselves in solipsism.
If it’s sophistry, then at least it’s useful sophistry.
“And through your relationship with Imogen, you must have been able to experience that infuriation almost directly.”
“It is exactly so.”
“Why not directly, though? I can’t believe that you don’t have the ability to control her thoughts and actions more directly.”
“We find the suggestion offensive. Not only is forcing our will upon her personally distasteful, but there are rules in place. Some behavioral limitations are imposed upon us. Ones that we follow because they are right, not because we have no choice. To do otherwise would make us… other than what we are.”
“That’s a role I’m familiar with. It’s difficult to keep playing fair when you know that the other side isn’t.”
Especially when the other side is only bending the rules to their limits, not actually breaking them. Which is still fair play, but only in the “fairest” of ways. Behavior like that would get the rules of a game revised pretty quickly, but there are no do-overs in life.
How disgustingly inspirational.
“We do have wide discretion when others overstep their bounds. Rules are meaningless if there are no consequences behind them. This acts as a check on those with fewer limitations than we have. Fortunately, our primary role is reactionary. This affords us an advantage over a more active position. We take no action unless provoked.”
“So you wouldn’t even be here unless someone else…”
Thrown into neutral. The wheels weren’t spinning, so the thought didn’t go anywhere.
“…unless someone else…”
Even before it was finished, implications came pouring in. After all, the question Imogen and I meant to answer wasn’t “Why her?” it was “Why me?” Self-deprecating answers weren’t complete—even though they were emotionally satisfying to a part of my mind I’d come to despise.
I managed to clean the apartment to my satisfaction before Imogen arrived. As long as she didn’t get the urge to look in any closets, I’d at least give the appearance of an organized person.
Her knock was bewildering. Three soft, then three loud.
I opened the door anyway, and she burst past me into my living room.
“Wow. This place is pretty nice, for a college apartment. You must have a sweet part-time job. What do you—I’m sorry, I didn’t wait to be invited in.”
“Are you a vampire now? It’s getting difficult to keep track of your supernatural afflictions.”
“And I didn’t even say hello, either. Oh, man, I’m doing this all backwards.”
I waved to her, as though I’d just opened the door again.
“Hello, Imogen. Would you like to come in?”
“I would, thank you. My, what a lovely apartment.”
Somehow, the abridged versions are never as satisfying.
The way she casually dropped onto the sofa, one would think that we were in her apartment, not mine. But she sniffed at the air questioningly.
“Is that… incense?”
I sat next to her. Not too close.
Just close enough.
“It’s easier than convincing the neighbors to quit smoking.”
“Well, solutions are hard.”
“As a chemistry major, I find that particularly amusing.”
Why does that sound familiar?
“Actually, you know, my friend Alan said the same thing earlier today.”
“Is he also a Chemistry student?”
“Sort of. If it’s considered applied chemistry…”
“I find your tone of voice troublingly evasive.”
Witchcraft! Are those mind-reading demons in your head, or do you just have crazy-person psychic powers?
“Uh, he is what you would call a drug dealer.”
“I see. Is that the sort of person you’re usually friends with?”
“Well, no. I mean, yes, because I’m still—”
I stopped and cleared my throat, stalling for time.
“He wasn’t always.”
A weak justification. But she seemed to accept it, and laughed.
“One does hear about very few infants being arrested for Intent to Distribute.”
“No, no. He just… sort of snapped, or fell, or something. And he expected me to come with him.”
“Clearly you didn’t, though.”
But not for his lack of trying.
“It’s not really my idea of a good time, so to speak. Thing is, I expected him to come up with me. To college, to high-paying jobs…”
“But he got the second one, it sounds like. Without the first.”
“I don’t ask for details.”
“Did any of your other friends abandon you?”
That’s a a strong word.
“He was my only real friend. I think I was his, too. I never saw him talking to anyone else, at least. And he still tries to drag me down to his level. If he had a posse, he’d probably be hanging out with them instead of finding me.”
“Shame. Is there any hope left for him?”
“Well, if you ask him, he’s doing fine.”
“I’m not asking him. I’m asking you. What do you think?”
It took me a while to answer.
That Alan was how he was had just become a part of life. Like a lamp in a room that you never turn on. I’d made efforts, earlier. But Alan assured me that he knew what he was getting into. It would be all right. He only needed enough for a car, anyway. And I could use a car, too, huh? A bicycle’s no good for pickin’ up the ladies, man.
His mind was set, and my time was limited. College called.
Did that make it my fault? I’d always decided that it didn’t.
“I don’t think he’s beyond saving. But I think saving him is beyond me.”
She shook her head slowly. And her eyes flashed with, I think, disappointment.
“I bet you can if you try.”
“Maybe,” I said, trying to salvage her respect for me. “I have counterfaith in him though. He’s always going to steer me wrong, so I always know the right thing to do.”
“Hm. A familiar situation.”
“Er, right. Yes. Sorry to go on like that. You’re here to talk about your demons, not mine.”
“Except mine are more literal.”
“Or less literal, if it turns out that you’re crazy.”
Her face fell.
“You’re still going on about that, huh?”
“It is still a possibility. But you are, at the worst, only mildly crazy. Does that help?”
“A little. A glass of water would help more, if I’m about to carry the talking burden. Where are the glasses?”
“Oh, I’ll do it. I’m thirsty, too.”
In the kitchen, I grabbed a pair of glasses from the cabinet and headed for the refrigerator. I could see Imogen through the pass-through. She was sitting up straight, which I’d never seen her do in a class. And she looked around the room as though she owned everything in it. What made that confidence come and go?
As I picked up a pitcher of water, the glasses clinked against my shirt pocket.
Right. The vial.
With whatever was inside.
Does it have to go in alcohol, or would it work in water, too? If it’s flunitrazepam, then no, that’s not water soluble. Biological half-life of 20 hours, though. GHB would dissolve properly in either. Maybe juice would mask the taste. On the other hand, I think I still have a bottle of gin here, somewhere. I could change the subject and…
What are you thinking?
What the hell, hero?!
You have a girl over to your apartment, and the first chance you get, you think about drugging her?
Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it.
“Is everything OK in there?”
Imogen was staring at me.
“You were kicking the floor.”
No lie that I ran through my head sounded believable.
“Yes. I was. No big deal, right?”
I placed the glasses and the pitcher on the pass-through, gesturing that they were no longer my responsibility. By the time I reached the living room, she’d filled both glasses.
“So, demons,” I said while sitting down again. Best to get back on topic.
“What are they telling you to do right now?”
Her answer came quickly and definitively.
“Just to leave?”
“To leave now. Immediately. Quickly.”
“And you’re not.”
She took a deep breath, in and out, before speaking.
“The more strenuously I’m told to leave, the more strongly I decide to stay. That is my counterfaith. It’s like you said earlier. I have a source that I know will always lead me down the wrong path, so I always know to do something else.”
“That sounds terrible.”
“No, not at all. It’s very freeing. People wonder all the time if what they’re doing is the right thing, but I don’t have to wonder. I know. It’s practically a comfort by now. So much that I was doing, I shouldn’t have been. I had the best of intentions, I’m sure. But having this… this south-pointing moral compass gives me the confidence to go through life without fretting the consequences. As soon as I started knocking on your door, I heard those familiar voices that tell me when I’m doing the right thing… by telling me that I’m doing the wrong thing. Um, which is why I kind of just barged in. Sorry.”
“I don’t think I could let an outside source rule my life like that.”
Aside from outside sources like media, advertising, the weather, and the behavior of other people, of course. Those are all different.
“That’s not letting the demons rule my life. That’s the opposite. Because I do the opposite.”
“But the opposite is still the same thing. You lack the choice to take your own actions; they’re predetermined by whatever the ‘demons’ tell you to do.”
“I don’t appreciate those quotation marks. And I don’t see it that way at all. Like, think of a lottery.”
“A tax on people who are bad at math?”
“No editorializing while I’m pontificating, thank you.”
I held up my hands in mock apology, and she continued.
“If you’ve pledged to write down any number but whichever number is drawn—let’s say it’s 47—you still have an infinity of numbers to choose from. You didn’t choose 47 beforehand. The lottery wasn’t predetermined. You’re still making a choice.”
“But what if 47 is the number you want to write down?”
“Wanting has almost nothing to do with it. When you make a decision, you have to follow through. That’s being an adult. That’s responsibility.”
On its face, it was difficult to argue with. But an adult’s decisions shouldn’t be arbitrary.
“What are some of the numbers you couldn’t write down? Some of the things that you shouldn’t have been doing?”
“Oh, I played a mean cello.”
The corners of her mouth curled into a wan smile. When she spoke again, it was softer than usual.
“Well, a meaningful cello. People told me I was good, and their tear-streaked cheeks told me that their words weren’t hollow. I could sing, too. Usually there’s only call for one of those at a time, though. But now that I have confidence I could use for performances, I can’t perform at all. It’s not for me. It took me seventeen years to find that out; I wish it had come sooner.”
“And you just stopped?”
“I sold my cello once I figured out what was going on. It was a gift from my grandfather before he died, so… it was hard. But I didn’t sell one of my bows. I keep it under my pillow. Sometimes I think I can still smell the rosin.”
She paused, then:
“I’ve been drawing 47 a lot.”
If this girl was truly possessed by demons, then that was the saddest thing I’d ever heard. If she was just crazy, well…
It probably still was.
“What do you do instead? Say, when you want to play the cello, but you hear that you shouldn’t.”
“Just… other things. Homework, cooking. Sometimes I light fires.”
“Twenty second timeout.”
She clapped her hands over her mouth.
“I mean, for cooking! I light the fires on the stove, of course. Not other fires, no. That would be cra—Oh, geez.”
“They were small fires!”
“I’m not helping my case, am I?”
“I would consider that minor evidence, rather than major evidence.”
After all, she was talking to a chemist. I think most of us are flameheads, to some extent.
She yawned, which made me yawn.
“Excuse me, my goodness. That incense is strong.”
“Ah, you’ve stumbled onto part of my master plan.”
“I love master plans. Go on.”
“I’m going to use the soporific powers of the incense to induce a sort of rêve à deux state, and hold an oneiric conversation with your possessor.”
Her hands waved wildly.
“You lost me halfway through that. You’re way out of my league again.”
Whoops. Slipped into geek-speak.
“Uh… The incense is going to put us to sleep. If you actually are possessed, then I’m going to talk to your demons in my dream. I figure that if they really want us to stay apart, they’ll try to convince me, too. If you’re just… not possessed, then a normal, fun evening will be good enough evidence for me that this is worth pursuing.”
“So, you’re going to drug me, then sleep with me?”
My heart stopped, just for a moment. She was joking. Of course she was joking.
“Is that the worst way to phrase it, or can we make me seem more like a criminal?”
We both laughed.
Good. Laughing is good.
“So, what do we do until then? Just keep talking?”
I’d taken just one step away when a voice struck me.
“So, are you gonna bang her?”
It was only as I turned that I recognized the voice as Alan’s. He stood with his arms crossed, and a broad smile painted his face.
But his stare was as blank as always.
“How much of that did you see?” I demanded.
“You should, man. I would. But I’ve been gettin’ more than my share of tail lately, so I’ll leave this one to you. Slick way of gettin’ her to your place, too.”
Words tinged with admiration. Then, puzzlement.
“Don’t you want to bang her?”
“No, of course not.”
“You can’t lie to me, man. Your face is still red from when she took your notebook.”
He’d seen as much as I feared.
Despite my still considering Alan a friend, we’d grown apart as we matured.
As I matured.
Then again, he would say the same thing.
Friendships always begin with the potential for antagonism built into them. After all, you can’t play Cops and Robbers without someone to be the cop and someone to be the robber. And in adulthood, those games often evolve into intellectual sparring.
“Well, OK, fine. Yes. But not in some mad, carnal rush. Eventually. After proper steps have been taken in proper order.”
“‘Eventually’ doesn’t cut it, man. How many humans are there in the world?”
“About seven billion, I think.”
“Wrong. I mean, the number’s right. Probably.”
Math was not his area of expertise.
“The correct answer is ‘not enough.’ That’s what your DNA is sayin’, man, that’s what it’s shoutin’. It’s the selfish gene! The whole purpose of humans is to make more humans.”
Sounds like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Sex is on the lowest level, along with water, shelter and sleep. But it’s not the nurturing, child-creating kind.
There’s the mad, carnal rush.
Right there at the bottom of the pyramid.
But it says nothing about purpose. You can’t read purpose into genetics; it can’t see the future.
“So then, where does it end?”
“Hell, I don’t know. Overpopulation, global starvation, pestilence… -ation. Solutions are hard, man. But it was a sweet ride while it lasted, right?”
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard you take the long view on anything.”
“I don’t think I ever will, man.” He thumped his chest with a hand. “‘Instant Gratification’ is my middle name.”
“Well, then ‘Eventual Gratification, Maybe’ is mine. I’ve gotten very good at doing without. It just feels weird receiving things I haven’t earned.”
Which always did make for awkward Christmases.
“It’s not real, man,” he said.
“Earnin’, I mean. It’s just a construct, it’s perception. So many things that you think are real just come down to chemicals in your head.”
“I’m rather fond of my head chemicals.”
“Speakin’ of chemicals, man… You need any? Uppers, downers, in-betweeners? You finally gonna take advantage of my friendship discount?”
But friendships stay close only if there’s mutual respect. And neither of us respected the other’s worldview, not really.
Our shared interest in all things chemical had taken us down two very different roads. If I were in a charitable mood, I could describe it as simply the difference between theory and practice. A more accurate description would have to go back to our late high school years.
I was constantly buried in books and beakers. SAT practice exams occupied my weeknights, and community service filled my weekends. Every cord that accompanied my cap and gown would be worth thousands of dollars when it came time to apply for scholarships. But, Alan… first he got the money, then he got the power, then—if his outlandish stories were to be believed—he got the women.
As months passed like this, I found myself resenting him more and more. Not because of the criminality of what he was doing, but just because I felt it was… unfair.
That he was cheating.
That he was taking shortcuts.
Ones that were denied to me only because I was unwilling to take the risk.
But, despite that, we were still the same people. Inside. And much of what had made us friends earlier in life still applied.
“Didn’t we just finish talking about taking the long view? I don’t want that. I’m high on life, ‘man.’”
“Oh, you’re somethin’. But it ain’t high. And you’re missin’ out on so much, I’m not even sure it’s life, either.”
“Saying no a thousand times doesn’t count?”
“You can say no a thousand times, but say yes once, and you’re mine forever, man.”
The last honest businessman.
“You’re a bad influence. I should go.”
“Yeah, but I’m so good at bein’ a bad influence.”
I turned to leave.
“Hey, wait up,” he said. “Before you go, take this.”
As I turned back, Alan tried to put something into my hand.
“I told you, I don’t want—”
But he slithered up and slipped it into my shirt pocket.
“It’s not for you, man, it’s for her. See how you feel about ‘proper steps’ when you wake up next to her tomorrow morning!”
Two finger-gunshots, a double-thumbs up, a wink, and he was gone. The ability to disappear quickly must be an asset to a man with his profession.
I reached into my pocket and pulled out a small vial.
After dropping it to the floor, I smashed it under my—
People would find it. People would have questions. Ones that would be difficult to answer.
And I’d already gotten my fingerprints all over it.
I held the vial up to the light. Glass, with a black, rubber stopper. All very ordinary. All very standard. I handled thousands like it every week in labs across campus. What made this one different was the contents.
Just a clear liquid. I couldn’t identify it from just that.
A perverse part of my brain wanted to open the stopper and smell it. By wafting, of course. Every chemistry student has heard the usual horror stories of burned-out sinuses and perforated septa from overeager sniffing.
An even more perverse part of my brain wanted to use it.
It wasn’t a part of my brain that I liked.
I couldn’t just pour it down a drain, either. I’d have to think of some safe way to dispose of it later. Safe for wherever it ended up… but mostly safe for me.
Why do you put me in these situations?
But he was right about one thing.
I still had goose bumps from the last time her fingers touched mine.
She was the sort of girl whose path I didn’t cross often. She majored in some softer discipline like English or Theater, and they mostly kept to their own social circles. There was nothing extraordinary about her that I knew of. She was pretty, but some were prettier. She was smart, but some were smarter. She was quiet, but some were quieter. Though not many.
Whether it was by conscious effort or natural talent, she could fade into the background of a room. We shared only a few classes (math, history), and I’d never heard her ask a question. I’d never seen her be called upon. It was amusing to imagine a TA’s surprise when he had one more test to grade than expected.
But, this. This is the sort of event that one only expects to happen on television or in a movie. The shy, quiet girl somehow finds the courage to say how she feels. She expresses her innermost emotions in some compact way. All is neatly wrapped up into very few sentences. She removes her glasses and lets down her hair, and the entire audience falls in love with her at the same time as the male lead. Because, in the end, all the corrective lenses and bobby pins in the world can’t hide the fact that she happens to look just like a movie star.
Movie stars are easy people to fall in love with.
And maybe that’s the reason that no one ever thinks of what is, to me, the obvious question.
“Why?” I asked.
She let out a shaky breath and averted her gaze.
“Because the voices in my head tell me not to.”
A particular pattern of scuff marks on the tile floor held her fascination for several seconds.
She spoke again.
“I feel like you should be more surprised.”
“Well, you’re definitely the prettiest crazy person I’ve ever interacted with.”
“Oh, I’m not crazy—”
“Which is what crazy people say.”
Her courage appeared to falter, as though saying something three times made it true.
“It’s demonic possession.”
A bold assertion. But the kind that a crazy person would, in fact, make.
“I didn’t know demonic possession was real.”
If it isn’t, then the world is still simple. I’m talking to a person who thinks she is possessed by a demon. The course of action is clear. Get help for her, and get distance from her. Clear, but opposing, to an extent. Details to be worked out as the situation develops.
But a simple world is a boring world. Everyone has, at some point, wished that there was more complication to the world than the steadfast laws of physics allow. That a pair of glasses can separate man from superman. That the mind can interact more directly with physical matter. That our decisions have impact beyond the monkeysphere we inhabit. Wouldn’t a world like that just be more interesting?
I took a leap of faith. “So, a demon wants to date me.”
“It’s not that kind of possession. I still have free will.” A pause. “Or so I choose to think.”
I stopped myself from pointing out the contradiction.
“I don’t know what kind of demon it is, though,” she added.
“Well, demons come in all kinds. If we restrict ourselves to Christianity, they’re typically fallen members from the classifications of angels.”
“I thought angels were just angels.”
“You’ve heard of them, even if you didn’t know they were the same thing. Seraphim, for example. And there’s cherubim, ophanim—”
I was interrupted by laughter.
“Whoa, whoa.” Her hands waved wildly. “You’re way out of my league. ‘Offenim’?”
“They’re usually called thrones. I just like the parallel construction. Other mythological systems have other demons. For example, the Greek have the succubus.”
She let that response hang like a silent exclamation point before continuing.
“What I do know is that demons are evil. So I pretty consistently do the opposite of what mine tell me. And they tell me to stay away from you.”
“Very strongly telling you not to date me… They seem to know me well.”
“Even though I don’t.”
Doing crazy things is always a risk. Because one day you might run into someone who’s even crazier than you are.
She pushed back a strand of hair.
“I have pretty strong faith.”
“Yeah, but not in me.”
“In myself, of course.”
The way she said it made it easy to believe. But…
“I don’t think that’s quite it. Not in this case.”
“You have faith in… in doing the opposite of what your demons want. It’s not a lack of faith, it’s faith in a lack. It’s the opposite. It’s counterfaith.”
Which would make faith its own opposite. If it were a particle, it would be light. There’s something pleasing about that.
I dug into my messenger bag, pulling out a chemistry notebook and a pen.
“All right, let’s take a leap of counterfaith. Come to my apartment tonight, and we’ll see if we can’t find out more about whatever is inside your head.”
I tore out the page on which I had written my name, address, and phone number.
As I handed it to her, our fingers brushed.
She peered at my scratchy handwriting.
“Andrew. Well, nice to meet you, Andrew. But I have you at a disadvantage.”
She took the notebook and pen from me.
As she did, our fingers brushed again.
Her face scrunched up while she wrote. It made her look a little like a squirrel, and the quick scratches of the pen did nothing to soften the impression. But squirrels can be cute.
She handed the notebook back. Above her phone number, she had written Imogen. But in capital letters. If her name weren’t a giveaway to her gender, her loopy script would be.
“It’s nice to meet you, too, Imogen.”
“Then I have accomplished my primary goal for this conversation.”
Being nice to meet is an admirable goal.
“So I guess I’ll see you around eight o’clock,” I said.
“Great. Then it’s a date.”
She turned, and walked away. I could read nothing from her body language. It was as though the quiet girl who’d disappeared only a few lines into our conversation had returned even more quickly than that. And the girl with so much confidence in herself was just… gone.
The oppressive rule of snow continues here in New England.
Like the T-virus, however, it has changed its form for no reason other than to advance the plot. Great puddles of water now often block me on my trudge to work in the mornings. This appears to be furthering the snow’s original plan of getting my feet wet, but without the precision that made that plan so elegant.
The puddles remain for my evening trudges, but their threat is reduced. If my feet are uncomfortably wet when I get home, I can just change my socks. (This is an advantage of having a home, which is something I recommend to anyone who has the means.) If I have wet feet when I arrive at work, I am screwed. Given my profession, I think I’d still be within the 50th percentile if I were to remove my socks to let them dry… But I still can’t make myself do it.
This is probably for the best.
I am in no way under the impression that the worst is behind us, though. Even the traditional exhortations of Punxsutawney Phil are not enough to convince me that warmer days are ahead. It’s going to get worse before it gets better.
While I admit to a certain pessimism, I will simultaneously insist that this belief is born of experience. This is not my first rodeo. (Side note: Winter rodeo, excellent idea?) What joy I can derive from this season mostly comes from not having to shovel anything. Sidewalks, porches, driveways, none of them. And that is a perversely high amount of joy, frankly.
But I recognize that there are people who suffer more from this weather than I do. I see them every morning while trudging. Armed with shopping carts and party cups, Boston’s homeless line the sidewalks, quietly asking for spare change while scanning the gutter for discarded cigarette butts. Their constant presence and near-constant muttering remind me of gargoyles and grotesques from more fantastic cities, such as Ankh-Morpork. But these are real people with real problems who feel real cold after the sun sets.
It is an easy fact to forget as I rush past them.
Never was this more obvious than after the recent large snowstorm. In Boston, I infer that there is a limit to how strenuously the beggars are allowed to ply their trade. I have never definitely heard more than a blueshifted “Change, sir?” and a redshifted “Thank you, God bless.” (I have indefinitely heard mumblings that I cannot prove the content of.) Recently, however, I heard a truly ingenious way of circumventing these restrictions.
It’s important to set the scene before I begin. The curtain rises on the city of Boston, known far and wide as the Hub of the Universe. It has just suffered a blizzard, and the people needed all their Yankee ingenuity to band together and get through it without freezing or strangling each other. The piled snow has shut down many local facilities: schools, gyms, art galleries, and…
…the local soup kitchen.
Enter our players. Not knowing the actual names of these homeless men, I will give them fanciful sobriquets in order to reinforce my theatre metaphor.
On the left side of the street: Martimaeus F. Chesterfield, spurned heir to the Chesterfield fortune. His grief has manifested itself in a large yogurt stain on his “New England Patriots XXL” sweatshirt.
On the right side of the street: Carlton Somerville IV, descendant of the founder of the local city of Somerville. His shopping cart is filled with enough aluminum riches to keep him in rolled tobacco for a month.
All lines are to be delivered at shouting volume.
MFC: The soup kitchen’s closed!
MFC: I said, the soup kitchen’s closed!
CS4: What’s closed?
MFC: The soup kitchen!
CS4: What about it?
MFC: It’s closed!
CS4: We can’t get any food at the soup kitchen?
MFC: Yeah, because it’s closed!
CS4: The soup kitchen’s closed!
The lines repeat with speakers switched. The play ends when people give you enough money to buy a rolled breakfast taco from the 7-Eleven around the corner.
Aside from the previous disclaimer, this story is minimally embellished.