"Doesn't this random scattering... seem desperately random - like the elaborations of a bad liar?"
Before the ranch was sold off there was a horse very special to my son. It was a domesticated Mustang, sold to us by a wandering mesteñero at a discount because he took a liking to the boy. They were faithful companions until the horse’s leg broke during a ride. We had to put hte horse down and the boy was never the same.
"How are you feeling?" I asked him, if only to break the silence in the car.
Fine. His response was as succinct as it was telling. I wished his mother was with us in the car. She always knew how to coax Jordie from his despondency, a skill I never quite caught the knack of. In that way, I failed him as a father because I might have been able to guide him from some of the mistakes in his life.
The song playing on the radio ended and was followed by a public service announcement. “This is a different world, now. Don’t take any chances with friends or loved ones. Remember: Target A is instant death—”
Jordie snapped off the radio and turned his gaze beyond the window. Sometimes the sadness in his eyes really came down to that horse and nothing else. Gabilan’s demise was significant on every level, even more than all the other garbage he went through because of it.
"Do you think mom is mad at me?" Jordie asked, his voice bearing only the faintest traces of himself.
"No, son." I stole a quick glance at Jordie as we reached the other side of town. "If anything, she probably feels sad."
We arrived at a stand alone structure on the opposite end of the city, a building entirely too out of place among the other dingy, dilapidated buildings. Jordie never said, but I knew he missed the ranch. It was hard enough losing Gabilan, but then to lose the place he and the horse shared was like obliterating an entire chunk of time, an entire memory.
"Do you think I could have one more hit?" A light filled Jordie’s eyes with the question. It broke my heart because nothing else on this earth would flicker that light.
"Sure, son. I don’t see why that would be a problem."
Target A. A stands for Absolute. Addiction. Jordie was a junkie, like so many other wretched people his age or younger, but didn’t look like one. Not like they do with the heroin or cocaine, when they get strung out. He’d been heavily using Target A for five years, or so he said. He still looked like a normal, healthy twenty-two year old.
Except for the eyes, of course.
Watching my son take his last hit, I was amazed by how quick and simple the procedure was. A small glass phial pointed at the end could be administered anywhere on the body, and once the point punctured the skin the fluid rapidly vanished. Supposedly, the high was supposed to be unlike anything imaginable.
"You good?" I asked when he tossed the empty phial out the window.
We had a few minutes before the appointment, so I let him drift. Seeing Jordie in this state reminded me of Gabilan the Mustang—of all horses, in fact—with a broken leg that rendered the creature useless. Maybe that’s why Jordie spilled his secret to me. Indeed, his mother wouldn’t be mad one bit. She would have been mortified for him.
"You ready?" I nudged him on the arm.
He nodded absently and we both got out of the truck. Our walk inside the building was terrifically long, our wait in the holding room even longer. There were others with us, the addicts surprisingly at peace compared to the ones who accompanied them. Before long, the receptionist called Jordie’s name. Then we were in a cramped office and waiting for a doctor.
Tests would be run to determine his toxicity, but none of it mattered. Any trace of Target A spelled addiction right from detection. Just like Philip K. Dick wrote in that book, except there was only one treatment method. No rehabilitation, no recycling addicts to keep the drug going. Its origin and distribution were forever elusive.
"I love you, dad," Jordie said, weakly clutching my shoulder. "And I’m sorry."
"Me, too." A tear spilled down my cheek, my moment of weakness. I told myself I wasn’t going to cry over this. It was for the best, but I didn’t like it.
A knock on the door, followed by the appearance of a doctor whose stony expression said everything I needed to know about Jordie’s fate. He didn’t look up from the chart he was holding until he was done reading it. When he did, I saw a void in his eyes eerily similar to Jordie’s. Not addiction, but rather its opposite. A hatred.
"Have you said your goodbyes?" the doctor asked casually, like we were discussing the weather.
Jordie and I nodded. We hadn’t, not really, but if he was denied that last hit then there wouldn’t have been that moment of peace before we entered the building. That was worth all of the feigned goodbyes I’d have struggled from him otherwise.
I hugged my son for the last time, before he was led away, never to be seen again. Jordie’s fate was Gabilan’s, except he had a broken soul instead of a broken leg. And like a broken leg, death was the only cure. Hopefully someone discovered a cure soon, so we didn’t have to force greener pastures upon our sons and daughters for such a folly.
Christ, the neighbor’s kid, Lanham, is at it again. His colicky peals drift through the walls every morning, tearing me from sleep.
I feel for the little guy, no matter how tired or disoriented I am. He’s in pain. The world should gather round, fuss over every gurgle and rasp.
Many are here, camped around the tenement. They make it difficult to leave for work in the mornings and a few are unwilling to budge for those of us who live here.
That’s the price we neighbors pay for the child’s celebrity status. Some mornings I don’t even want to go to work, only to be close just in case…
The whole country is a collective sentinel, right from the moment of his birth. It is a bittersweet reminder of what we left behind and what lies ahead.
They always watch. They always guard.
So do I. Always. His cries through the paper-thin walls always catch me by surprise, but my ears listen for any change. Are they better? Worse?
There are times my apartment is still, when little Lanham’s cries are silent, and I wonder if he succumbed. Grief doesn’t always show in horrific cries. Sometimes it is the stifled sobs that can’t be heard.
Then I see the spiked lines constantly reporting Lanham’s vital signs on the monitor. He is alive. No change in his health, electronically speaking.
That chart never goes away, whether a program is on or the monitor is turned off. No one is left without access to little Lanham’s heartbeat.
They need this constant flow of information like a talisman to guard against the despair. It’s the only thing left anymore that keeps this country from tearing itself apart.
Lanham’s heartbeat never tells me anything except that he functions. Likewise, all it ever does for the people is keep the fear at bay.
They’re otherwise too guilty to live.
No one sees that was what got everyone into trouble in the first place. The child’s life has become the crutch for humanity, taking the place of all that was swept away by our infertility.
In Lanham’s case, he’s the first child born in over a decade. A bonafide miracle and perhaps the first hope for humanity.
His chart vanishes from the monitor, my heart skips a beat. My ears prick up for any sign of grief from next door. I hear nothing.
Outside, the gatherers wail and sob, thinking the worst of little Lanham. If it’s true, there will be a special announcement.
What follows is anyone’s guess.
A stiff face fills the monitor, even though it was turned off. Her eyes are moist with tears and I fear the worst. She pauses to collect herself before clearing her throat.
"We’ve just received word that another child—a girl named Thea—was born just moments ago, effectively making her the youngest child in this country. More details to follow."
As quick as that, little Lanham is yesterday’s news. No more vigils for this child any longer. All the attention is now on Thea, who is the next hope for humanity.
The crowd thins outside, but my ears still listen for the child next door. My vigil won’t end with him, even if the world has moved on.
A quick yelp flutters up from next door, followed by a low sobbing, and I press my ear to the wall.
I should have known the signs when they were present, subtle at first with your lightning-strike irritability that gradually shifted into a constantly pleasant demeanor.
We perched atop Poet’s Seat Tower one night, passing a bottle of malt liquor between us, you said you were a rebus principle, a compendium looking-glass letters without anything to reflect them. At the time I thought you were just drunk.
Your mystery deepened with the position of the sun into autumn, some integral part of you like a candlelight slowly winking out of existence. Your lungs expelled more than breath, something ethereal with an opalescent sheen.
A pocket watch. That’s what you gave me when we talked about dowries and how you’d otherwise never be able to afford my hand in marriage. You told me it could not only told time but also controlled time. Then the light went out.
It wasn’t what you said over the phone but how you said it. Your words dripped with a defeatism I couldn’t handle at the time. My thoughts tried to dig themselves out of the murk, stirred by something I couldn’t name.
I fixated on the timepiece as you spoke, only half-hearing your voice as my finger traced the silver casing. A weird token of this change I didn’t much like was something I wanted to tell you. And so much more besides.
Then: “I love you.”
From him they sounded like a dying declaration rather than an amorous proclamation. They were the last words of a provocateur.
I got the idea to visit you at your house with chicken soup and a copy of Re-Animator to cheer you up, only to discover you’d left with no timeframe for return. Sometimes you were so obvious.
I went to Poet’s Seat and found you at our spot, sitting next to a bottle of Maker’s Mark, leaning motionless against the wall. You made the place your tomb.
Once your body was taken away, I tested the timepiece to see if your imagination got the best of me. It was a desperate hope, yet I knew it wasn’t so far-fetched not to try.
Winding the pocket watch bent the world out of true until I was at exactly at the moment your season changed. It was familiar like the arresting detail of an intimate lover, impossible to forget.
There was something I forever wanted to tell you, but I was too focused on the watch to remember precisely what it was. I was all about that watch, what it absently represented.
Time isn’t linear, which makes traveling through it a bit funny. It’s riding a ripple backwards, and in the process unknowing everything that brought you to that point before going back. I always unremember that part, but it’s coming together slowly with each return.
What I know—I’ve traveled back at least a hundred times and I’ve never been successful. I keep going back just the same, knowing I’ll never give up even if I arrive at the same place to write these words all over again.
I keep going back, knowing someday I won’t have to write them.
Foster looked in the mirror fully that morning. What he saw was exactly the same person facing him as the last time, aged not one single day.
There was more stubble than before, but in spite of the long hours of work and even longer hours of painting at night, his face was more vibrant than ever.
Had it really been six years since the last time he beheld himself? He thought so, and also that the body was supposed to undergo some kind of noticeable change within seven years. But seeing his unblemished face, he didn’t think any change occurred at all.
At work, he asked Pete, his table mate during lunch, what he thought. The two had known each other for a decade and that made him the expert-by-default in this determination.
"Nah, I don’t really notice a difference," Pete said as he munched with his mouth open. "But I don’t remember when Perry got old, either."
Perry was their department manager and literally aged into a withering old man in the time since the two were hired, too fast for a man fifty-three years young.
"But I look older, right?" Foster frowned. "Not like a kid who’s just into college?"
Pete chuckled. “Actually, yeah. You do still look twenty-fresh.”
"What’s the problem?" Pete, who was forty and plump and balding, arched an eyebrow at Foster’s remark. "Everyone wants to look younger, and here you are in your upper thirties, looking younger than some of these kids that come through. You want to be rugged and wise all of a sudden?"
The cafeteria doors burst open abruptly and the bent old man named Perry hobbled up to Foster with a file folder in his hands. Really, for fifty-three he looked closer to eighty.
"When you’re done with lunch, I need you to get this report back to me by two o’clock."
Other work had to be done, like meeting the fiscal deadline for orders. He had a thousand of them on his desk alone, but with his maximum output at 200 and with only three days left to the week, he really didn’t need this wrinkle.
"Sure," he said, wiping his mouth with a napkin and accepting the folder. "I’ll have it to you in a couple hours."
When old Perry was gone, Pete looked at Foster with disbelief. “Why did you agree to that? You know they aren’t going to give us overtime for our regular stuff.”
Foster shrugged. “Maybe he’ll threaten my job if I don’t? I wouldn’t put it past him, that sick bastard.”
"How are we going to get all our work done?" Pete sat back with a hopeless look on his face.
Foster didn’t know, but, as always, he was ready for the challenge. This just the latest on a long history of such jams, but a reward lay at the end as always, however meager it was.
That night on the drive home, he fumed that he didn’t say something to Perry. That report cost him precious time on his orders, and now required triple the efficiency in order to get it done.
But that was the way it had been forever, and Perry was the man he’d become in the way he never said a word while passing everything off. Then, before he knew it, he’d be old and never once spoke up.
Foster didn’t have a voice, and he knew what the problem was. When he got home, he went straight to the bathroom, glanced fully into the mirror, and kissed his youth goodbye forever.
Starting tomorrow, he was going to shout from the rooftops with the time he had left.
My earliest memory was of something being taken from me. Whatever the item and whatever the circumstances weren’t relevant so much as the event, which was a sort of history lesson. Someone called me a bastard child, and from that moment it became my second name. Bastard-child this, bastard-child that.
Two pieces of the puzzle came together when one of my aunts told me about how mom was a left-handed wife before she was an actual wife. It took several months, but the fact sank in that my dad was an adulterer and I couldn’t help but make the connection to my left-handedness.
It became an obsession, learning more about the left hand. Sinister cropped up first, a word with the dual definition of something evil and something related to the left side. Being evil was something I wanted so bad I could taste it. Evil instead came in the punches and kicks to my gut behind the handball court after school. It came in the terrible names that slithered all around me, just out of sight.
The hope of finding a good connotation of my… condition… faded quickly. I fell in the twelve percent of the world’s population of lefties, a dismal number compared to the eighty-nine percent of righties, but with words like crippled, crooked, defective, maimed, questionable—why my parents hadn’t already destroyed me was a baffling mystery.
Deeper and deeper the rabbit hole went. Research articles indicated left-handers were more likely to become alcoholics, schizophrenic, delinquent and dyslexic; more likely to develop Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis or mental disabilities. Hell, it was even documented left-handed people died as many as nine years sooner than right-handed people. Our only saving grace, it seemed, was the high survival rate through most of the maladies, but only because we were statistically more successful in combat.
Religion had it out for left-handed people, too. Many religions believed lefties to be sorcerers of a sort, or at the very least cursed. Jewish and Christian traditions strongly favored righties, as priests and kohen alike performed their duties with the right hand. Christ, nearly all artistic interpretations showed the devil as left-handed.
Even relationships were difficult. All of the women I ever dated left me because puberty hit me a little later in life, and maybe that accounted for all the blood spilled over my being a girly-man, all the blood spilled because no one could believe my youthful appearance so late into my twenties.
In the end, after thirty years of solid research, I did the right thing. My left-handedness brought me nothing but trouble my whole life. Being called a nasty habit, a devil, a rebel, a criminal and a homosexual—it was more of a wonder I didn’t seek out surgery to make myself ambidextrous sooner.
At least I’d have both fists at my disposal when words about my handedness started flying.
There are people who think I’m beautiful? What do I do? What do I do? Anything involving chains is a mortal enemy of mine, just so you know, but I hate to be rude and NOT send something back, or tag other beautiful people. So, I’m gonna post this, stick my head in the sand, and let everything sort itself out. I realize this only can be seen by those who follow me, so if anyone is inclined, reblog, so my bullhorn-broadcast reaches the farthest ends of Tumblr. Let’s let EVERYONE know how beautiful they are.
Any given area in the country has its own dialect, a way of determining whether you’re one of the locals, subtle enough you’d never know they were listening in on your highs and lows, your lopes and twangs. Hell, maybe they didn’t know they consciously did it, when all they asked was “what?” every time you said something. They’re the kinds of places where the listeners with ears for outsiders let you know, and where my faulty dialect clearly indicated I’d find home in a place where my words rang clearer.
Your first words to me weren’t a question but a statement, your speech quite different than the kind I heard from the others, something I didn’t register until much later. Your dialect was as telling as mine, and after so many years I wondered if mine was as telling as yours, then. Neither of us was homegrown, having found each other through fate or chance, bought together from different corners of the earth when our hearts were open and willful and free, and the true language of ourselves lay in our eyes.
The difference between us was not in the directness of your gaze but how it contrasted with the indirectness of mine. Many times you asked if I even saw you standing in front of me, and many times I answered that I tried to see into you. Perhaps that was the division, or the first sign of it, because while our voices were steeped in the same local flavor, neither of us really understood our words after a time. It was as if we saw the better natures in each other upon meeting, only to grow into something we couldn’t recognize after a collection of years.
It was not just our voices that changed with time but our personal languages. That certain inner light shown only through our eyes dimmed with the disappointments over the years, as we realized by degrees neither of us was going to be the person we first saw in each other on that day. Each exchange became nothing more than answering our questions of “what?” over and over again. Somewhere along the way, we became foreign to each other and we didn’t know it happened.
But what’s in a dialect, anyway? They’re merely accrued inflections and found words across an expanse of time, having little to do with where a person is but simply where a person belongs. It was only right that home never felt so far away in each others’ arms, in the place we created for ourselves all those years ago. We knew we’d never leave this broken palace, otherwise we’d have to pick up altogether different speech patterns and build new temples from the start.
Something invaded me and has begun to replace my cells, a parasitoid to alleviate the curse of consciousness. Hypokinesia. Dysarthria. Dystonia. All big, fancy words that mean I haven’t had control for years. Biological behavior modification for which there is no cure, and in any case this is the best medicine for me since I’m no good on my own. Brain fever. Loss of autonomy. Singular focus. In so many ways, all the symptoms of sickness and death. In so many ways, all the symptoms of passion and love. Whatever the case, doesn’t ophiocordyceps unilateralis look like a beacon sprouting from the head, broadcasting signals to the world like “Hey, look at me—I’m a zombie!” No doubt my crowning achievement in life, and it wasn’t all my own. While it took some time getting to the point, one might say love is a parasite, feeding and feeding from host organisms all the chemical receptors that make us go forth and multiply. Fruiting bodies cylindrical, branched or complex, driving us to actions in which we wouldn’t otherwise typically engage. So without that parasitic blossom, I wouldn’t have met and loved (real love, not just propagation) half the women in my life. Eventually, I’ll be dead and hanging by the death grip underneath a leaf on my part of the family tree, a growth sprouted from my head in the shape of a dumbbell, a last propagation to make my tree a forest.
In the spare bedroom on the second floor was a closet, a special closet with one dedicated purpose, where he collected things ever since childhood, beginning with stamps, comics and gold coins. But their value was always determined by others, by demand.
He couldn’t remember when, but his interests turned from papers and metals to flesh and bone. He started with hair, but it had no return value. Next was stalking, but fear was a thing he couldn’t possess. When that failed (damn the police), he simply collected people.
They were in such high demand, real collector’s items, and over the years he amassed quite a collection. He prepared and arranged the lifeless bodies in his special closet, where he could admire them, their value to the living—even after they stopped looking.
No one even had an inkling he was a collector of such priceless memorabilia. It was surprisingly easy to conduct himself as the world around him was mad with panic and fright. What would their loved ones pay for a return? Did the value decrease with their deaths? Probably, but closure is a valuable commodity, too.
Sometimes, on his darkest days, he visited the closet and spoke to his collection. Thankfully the pieces never answered back (that would be as silly as comics reading themselves aloud), but there was comfort to be had in their presences, like coming home to a waiting pet.
And the space was running out, finally, after his twenty-fifth addition. She was special, and if she was the final piece in this motley assortment (unlikely) he could be content to visit her and only her to alleviate his woes. He even considered getting rid of the rest of his collection just to have her.
Sarah was her name, which he read from her license. It also said she had brown hair, though burgundy or chestnut was more accurate. She had sparkling emerald eyes, before rigor set in and turned them milky. Now they were closed forever. Her narrow face was already withering, but she was still lovely.
Weeks passed as his tending turned into obsession, had developed into a fervor to behold her lips (no longer quite as ruby) and perfectly manicured nails (despite chips on some edges). She was the daughter of a prominent real estate mogul, and the media never missed an opportunity to remind everyone.
Her return value flew into the stratosphere when weeks turned to months, fueled in part by her father’s relentless ad campaign which promised a reward of up to $1,000,000. The money was tempting, but not nearly enough to give up his Sarah.
When the months edged on a full year, she lost her beauty, just as all the others, but he admired her no less. In that time, he found greater comfort in keeping the closet door closed to make the room a closed circuit, nowhere to go but further into this fantasy.
On occasion she answered a question or offered an opinion on what he should do with his collection (even with her), when the police somehow caught his name in a cross-reference more than once. He wasn’t nervous, but they surrounded him ever so subtly to the point he feared they might actually discover what occupied his special closet.
But… oh, but how he hoped the police wouldn’t discover him! Better to destroy the collection all than be separated from it for the rest of his life—especially Sarah. Each step they drew closer narrowed his space to the point of claustrophobia. If it came down to it, he couldn’t leave his collection for anyone to find.
People started staring at him like they knew something he didn’t. They didn’t know, not really, but it was hard for them not to stare when he hadn’t been to his job in over a week and developed a sickly odor that lingered long after his departure.
One ordinary fall morning the police were at his door in full spectacle with the SWAT tanks and hostage negotiators. They knew he was inside, but they held off storming through the door. While they waited for the nation’s undivided attention, he decided to burn the place down—starting with the closet and he along with it.
He emptied the contents of one three-gallon gas can all over the room and beheld his beautiful Sarah—beautiful, dead and withered Sarah—one last time before he readied a match. He sighed painfully and kissed her eyes, then seated himself in front of her. Just before he struck the flame, Sarah’s eyes snapped open and she reached out to him as the light went dark.
The police stormed the house moments later and quickly swept through the place. They did not find the bodies as expected, not even the collector—not one clue that the place they broke into was the right one. When they got to the special closet, they were baffled by an empty space filled with the scent of gasoline and decay.
No one ever found the collector or his precious souvenirs.
Something happened outside and everyone was quickly forced into whatever building was closest. To be left in the open meant sure death, but none of us knew what caused it. Just get indoors. I herded with a small group of other people into a hotel or an office with an elevator as the centerpiece of every floor. We settled somewhere high up, probably in the middle, all of us in agreement this was the safest place for us to be. Along the perimeter I looked beyond the windows and I saw nothing but a world discarded in empty cars and billowing debris. Before long, a thunderous banging rose up through this and all the plushly carpeted floors below us in complete defiance of logic, resonant with our impending doom. Somehow I was nominated with a girl I didn’t know (who shared my surprise) to venture down and discover the source. Neither of us objected. Our descent to each floor brought us closer to the bang! bang! bang! No rhythm, just feral. By process of deduction, the terrible noise came from the ground level, and, as the girl and I realized upon nearing the spot, came from one of the side doors. We came within feet. The banging stopped. The metal was warped and dented all around, but resisted the urge to give in. A corner was bent out of true, exposing the daylight in a single, hazy beam. No sunlight but through clouds. I didn’t want to open the door and neither did she. Moments later we were joined by the others, all of who no longer heard the awful noise. A committee was formed to nominate two people for survey duty. Maybe the threat was gone. Two of the fittest men volunteered without question. I didn’t know why, but I felt guilty. When they ventured out and the door was wedged shut did I pace and curse my cowardice. Some time passed, whether minutes or hours, before two more of our own ripped the door open and vanished into the daylight beyond. No one spoke. All eyes were leveled at something beyond the door. What happened? The two volunteers were dragged across the threshold by their feet. Oh, God, their burns still hissed. They looked the way corrosive acid eats through flesh. They had no hair. They smoldered. Only one screamed in pain and terror. “It was the piss! It was the goddamned piss!” It didn’t make sense even when I said it aloud. Then the smell of urine flooded my nostrils. More potent than anything I smelled before. The last one alive gurgled his last breath. Each of us decided to make our own way. Whatever gnarled the door knew we were there and it was only a matter of time before the threat came back. Each of us knew the horrible truth: we stood a better chance of survival if the threat was preoccupied with someone else. We scattered. I was on my own, sprinting into the heart of town on the main road until I came to a crumbling divot. The way it smoked and hissed reminded me of the two bodies dragged into the hotel. Had the thing pissed here? There were more divots, spread haphazardly on the ground all around. A car approached on my right. A limo or taxi. The driver slowed enough to let me get in, but when I reached the handle he sped up. He did it a second time. I didn’t try a third and he sped off, giving me the middle finger and a hell of a cruel smile. I was starting to feel exposed out in the open, especially after that incident with the car. My legs carried me across a lawn to the front door of a house where people (the owners?) crawled the walkway to the road. They’d seen the car and wanted out. They saw me and got going in a hurry. Behind me, the car was back. On the ground in front of me were handguns and uzis and rifles all left behind. All out of ammo. No good. My head drifted to the left and I saw the threat for the first time, skulking beyond a treeline but imposing in size and shape. Its skin was the color of sand, scaly with no fur. Its elongated limbs were so familiar, as was the long tail curling up behind it. The snout gave it away. No doubt the creature was a mutant monkey or monster monkey or space monkey. It howled when it saw the car. I blinked and it was gone. Time to make my move. Urgency overtook me as I stumbled to the first front door I found. Without hesitation, I entered. All I wanted to do was get out of sight. Just as I settled between the wall and door, a face appeared through the glass. It was searching. This was how the creature collected its victims, by posing as a human and then… No, too horrible to think about. He didn’t see me, but entered through the door just the same, slowly swiveled his head and found me. Our eyes met. I wouldn’t survive this—