The Strange – Episode 20 – Rubble – Part 1

Delgado had come to call the sharp and cool thing “the silver.”  He had a thought that giving things names might help him get a handle on the present.  That thought had spilled out into the blue and red random leaving only its core and the name.

The sharp memories he slipped through were vivid as real life, but Delgado knew the difference.  Real life was real and memories were not real no matter how realistic.  Besides, there were cases where he knew that his recollections were wrong and yet the memory played back that way.  Realism and reality held clear differences.

Having worked through his contemplation of memory, he once again reached out to feel the here and now.  In doing so, he found another sense.  He knew what time it was.

More to the point, he knew that time was moving very slowly for him.  Milliseconds went by like minutes and he found that to be strangely comforting.  He did not have a good sense of what he was supposed to be doing in the present, that concept had long ago flowed away into the red and blue, but at least he wasn’t wasting any time.

He reached out once again and found he knew exactly where he was.  He was thirty-two thousand feet in the air over the Mississippi Delta.  The sense was precise and, if it were to be trusted, included relative orientation and velocity.

With the concept of orientation, he found he knew how his body was positioned.  He couldn’t move, but he could observe his body as if it were a statue, but one you looked at from inside.

Of course, he couldn’t actually see his body, or even a representation of it.  The blue and red randomness and the silver weren’t actually something he saw either.  He could just sense these things.  And so it was when another sharp probe from the silver came lunging toward his consciousness.

A brilliant shower of color came at the end of this probe accompanied by deafening waves of sound.  These were real color and real sound, he knew.  Time, his internal sense told him, was now plodding along at its usual pace.  He could smell the cool dryness of the air, taste the fact that he forgot to brush his teeth and feel his body stretched over the weird mannequin that told him where his body was.  It was sharp and critical and more real than anything he’d ever experienced.

Blinking a few times, Delgado knew he was back.  He was back in the rear of the microjet with his hand still grasping the silver block.  He knew what it was and once again knew what he was doing, what his mission was.

“Welcome back, kid.  Glad to see you recover.  We’ve had a few people go off into Neverland and never return.”

“You tell me this NOW?”

Belatran smiled.  “We would have a hard time recruiting if that was on the poster.  But really, I had no doubt.  You wouldn’t have gotten sucked in.  You’re wound too tight.”

“You risked my life on that? On…”

“I risked an investment of incalculable value on the fact that everything in your records says you were going to be fine.  We need to make sure we have people who won’t crack or hesitate under pressure.”

“And I’m that guy?”

“Solid as a brick.  You coming back from the upgrade was never really in doubt.  Back when the program started, we didn’t know what the psychological issues were with the upgrades, why some people did well and others … not so much.  We had some poor results in the early mix of candidates.”

“We?” Delgado looked at the back of Belatran’s head and saw the faintest flinch.  “You were there at the beginning?  I thought you said the weathermen were created in response to the Nazis.”

“In response to the great war, that’s right.”

The younger man squinted.  “How the hell old are you, Belatran?”

“One hundred twenty four.”  The older man smiled.  “Sucks that they had to stop me from aging closer to sixty than I would have liked.  My birthday is coming up by the way.  I’d like a card.”

Delgado shook his head.

“The world is not safe, Delgado.  We aren’t going to be able to handle things as normal humans, so we got some upgrades.”

“And they are harmless.”

“For the most part, yeah, as harmless as living.  They degrade after a while… a long while, but until then, nothing else will get you, so relax.  The details will come along in a bit.  Another hour until we land at Hogstown and then we get to start putting the pieces together on this case.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The pieces had yet to come together for Molly. She knew intellectually that her apartment had collapsed, was there when it came down in a shower of dust and debris, but it hadn’t hit home.

Now, as Molly and Joy looked at the sad and fractured mess, it was pain fully clear.  All her stuff was gone.  Or, if not gone, certainly wrecked.

Firemen sprayed water over the wreck, making sure everything was out.  Anything that might have survived being crushed under two stories of building and other people’s stuff would be damp.  By the time anyone could have excavated to the level of Molly’s belongings, the moldy flora of north Florida would have set in, turning it into a stinking green mass.

It had been stuck in her head to tell people that her house was gone.  Her first time at the bong amplified that impulse, but it was as if she was reporting the news.  She felt compelled, but it was only because she didn’t believe it herself and she was waiting for someone to tell her that it hadn’t happened.

“Fuck.”  The word dropped out of Molly without any energy.  Joy just nodded.

A cop came over to them with his back to the wreckage.  “I’m sorry ladies.  Police business.  Can you please move along?”  Though the words were polite, the tone spoke of someone who was used to being a dick.  It made it clear that he would be a dick to them if they didn’t do what he said.

Molly looked up from the wreckage of the home she had moved into not more than a month ago.  As she met the man’s mustachioed face, sparks raged in her eyes.  “My home.  My home is gone.  This was my home.”

“I’m sorry ma’am, but we are keeping this area clear.  Crowd control.”

Joy looked around at the now completely empty street.  Any parked cars had either been moved or towed.  Only a firetruck and a red fire marshal’s SUV remained anywhere near the site.  All of the people who had previously been gawking had left to go on with the rest of their day.

“Yeah, some crowd,” she said quietly.

But Molly would have none of it. “This was my home!” she shouted suddenly, making several of the remaining workers look her way.  “Are you telling me I can’t look at my Home!?  Are you telling me that I can’t try to find even one thing I own in this disaster!  Everything!  I’ve lost Everything!  And you have the balls to tell me to move along!”

She pointed a finger at the portly cop, his unchanging expression adding fuel to her indignation.  “Look porky, I’m damned well not going to just move along!  I’m going to sift through this shit to see if I can find something, anything!”

“It’s an active investigation,” the cop said without flinching.

“I don’t know what you’re investigating!  It’s pretty obvious.  Boom!  Crash!  Done!  Good job Sherlock!  You’ve cracked the case!  Now let me go look for my underpants you …”

A younger plainclothes police man came over and tapped the cop on the shoulder.  “Officer Barney, what are you doing?”

The Cop still didn’t change his expression.  “Crowd control.  Painter told me to keep people from tampering with the crime scene.”

Detective Brace shook his head.  “Fine job.  Now go get a doughnut or something.”  He held up the yellow tape and motioned to Molly and Joy.  “Ladies, if you would?”

“Look, Slick, the boss told me himself that we need to keep everyone out of here, no exceptions.”

As the girls walked up to the edge of the debris field, the Detective calmly stared down the cop.  “Call him, then.  And by the way, it’s Detective Brace.  Detective.  Call him and tell him that there is a distraught eighteen-year-old who has been put out on the street by all this who would like to try to salvage any part of her life.  Until you get back to me that this is an unreasonable contamination of a crime scene, which, by the way, was abandoned by the coroner, the fire department and the forensic people an hour ago, then I will escort these women away personally.  Until then, I will watch them and make sure they don’t abscond with a smoking gun.  OK?”

“It’s on your ass, Slick.  I’m reporting this.”

The Detective smiled, brushed a piece of dust off the officer’s uniform and leaned in.  In a whisper, he said, “Well, while you are at it, report that I think you’re being a dick for no reason other than you want to boss around little girls, you prick.  Run along.  I’m going to go protect and serve our public.”

Pulling back, he noticed a smear of dust on the officer’s shirt.  “Oh, and We’re going to be doing a press conference here in about fifteen minutes.  The cameras will be showing up any minute, so fix your uniform.  Wouldn’t want the press catching you sloppy on the job.”  He walked away over the pile and said behind him, “Straighten up man.”

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Teague lowered his shoulder and laid into the young man holding the large pad.

“Dude, what were you thinking dozing off in Coach Band’s lecture?  You know he’s a dick about stuff like that.”

Teague straightened out and smoothed his hand over his bald head.  “It ain’t like that, Brent.  I was just thinking.”

Brent Bernard, another one of the Hogstown Hackers tight ends crouched behind the pad and readied himself.  “Well you might want to think someplace else in the future.  It was like a good minute and he flat out asked you a question by name and you didn’t even flinch.”

“Yeah, well.  He was boring as fuck, man.  I mean, who doesn’t know why you have a slot run across the middle to clear the zone for an end or back across the middle. I’ve been through route running every single year since pee wee.  Not to mention that they cover the same stuff in basketball camp and soccer.”

They both chuckled.  With the tweet of a whistle Teague lowered his shoulder again and blocked into the man-shaped pad, knocking the young man back three feet.

“Jesus, good hit!”  The Brent said as Teague came over and helped him off the ground.  Brent was pretty cool for a redneck.  Teague appreciated that he didn’t try to talk ‘Black’ to him,  “You played soccer?”

“As a kid.  Quit when they wanted me to be goalie.  Couldn’t stand all the standing around.  Might have been good, but it seems like such a pussy game, you know?  No hitting.”

The young man steadied himself on his feet and put the pad out a little more forcefully this time.  “Yeah, I know what you mean.  Learn anything else?”

“Yeah, that white chicks dig the soccer players.”

The whistle sounded and once more, Teague made to block the pad as if it were a defensive end coming to cut off a running play.  He dipped his shoulder and pushed up into the pad, his knees straightening and his back stiff.  There was a little collar bone thrown in for good measure and to Teague, it felt like nothing but a good solid block.

Where he connected with the pad, it ripped in a long line.  The shockwave carried through to the young man behind the pad.  A wet snap betrayed the breaking of a bone in the man’s forearm as the concussive force of the block threw him three feet into the air and sent him tumbling into players at least a first down away.”

“London!” the O-line coach barked, putting down his whistle.  “What the fuck was that, son?  Huh?  What did he insult your mother or something?”

“No!”  Teague looked at his partner laid out in the midst of the other group of players.  “No.  I have no idea what happened.  I just blocked the guy!”

“Bullshit.  You threw him ten fucking yards!  You God damned hot head!  I should throw you off this fucking team!”

Teague saw Brent trying to move and gasped.  “I don’t know what happened.”  He looked into the coaches face.  “Really, Coach!”  Looking back at his friend.  “Maybe I should get the trainer.”

“Maybe you should.  And when you get back, you, me and the head coach are going to have a word about your aggressive tendencies.  This isn’t the first time!”

“Man, that’s bull.  I’ve changed since then and Brent’s my boy, man!”

The coach looked at the hurt boy.  “He doesn’t look like it now, does he?  Now go get the doc.”

Teague jogged off shaking his head mumbling, “This’s messed, man.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Zamantha walked past the room that was still cordoned off with police tape.  Katie was still inside, being questioned by the police.  She shook her head for her fellow nurse but did not interfere.  Instead she walked two cubes over to where Natasha Riley lay in her bed.

Outside the cube, Dr. Moore continued to talk to the kind eyed husband.  The man was big for an older guy, but now he looked small.  Sweeping aside the curtain, she read the numbers.  Low and erratic.

Again shaking her head, she put on her best smile and said, “Hi Ms. Riley.  I’m here to check your lines, OK?”  The round faced old woman did not stir and she did not continue.

The young nurse saw something she didn’t like out of the line going into the woman’s neck.  With all the fuss she raised earlier, things being out of place wasn’t a surprise.  She leaned over for a look.

A hand grabbed her by her throat and drew her up to Natasha’s face.  Zamantha lost her breath in shock and found herself staring into ice blue eyes.

“My Husband.” Her voice was low, strong and calm. “He is dead?  He killed himself?  Or maybe men came by?”

“What?” Zamantha croaked. “No.  Why?”

Behind the patient, a bell went off.  Heart fibrillations.  The bell was to warn people of an impending shock event, but the two women were locked.

“Why?  Listen carefully.  He is The Bomb.”

“A bomb?”

“Not A bomb.  THE Bomb.  He … It will…”

The defibrillator automatically shocked the woman’s fragile heart, giving both her and Zamantha enough of a jolt to make muscles spasm.  The young nurse fell to the floor while the patient slumped back into her bed.  Scrambling to her feet and out the door, the nurse left Natasha alone with her unconscious thoughts of murder.

The Strange – Episode 21 – Rubble – Part 2

The Strange – Episode 19 – Claws

It was a friendly street and, aside from it being recently paved, one not all that unique in Hogstown.  Spanish moss hung from the power lines in the heat and haze of mid-summer.  The street where Goldberg and Dan lived seemed not to live in any particular time, but just always existed in its current state of maintained, comfortable dilapidation.  Everything seemed to be growing, baking or giving off pollen. Even Goldberg’s apartment seemed to breathe as if alive.

Mr. Aye examined the two story duplex from the passenger’s seat of the Buick, specifically the top floor, where Goldberg lived.  

Carl looked around.  “Here we are, the address I got from the boss.  It’s the upper apartment.  We sure this is the place?”

“Ya. It looks like the kind of place this guy would live in.  Address matches.  It’s right.”  

The man smiled.  “I told you.  Mr. Loveless always comes through.”

“Nobody home, though.  Your man didn’t know that.  Thought this was a snatch job.”

“Well we are here to tell him that and we got a back-up plan.  There is always a plan and you stick to the plan.”  

“Yeah, well, I got a plan too.” Mr. Aye opened the glove compartment and retrieved a handgun and a new, cylindrical silencer.  He screwed the two together and tried to fit it into his shoulder holster. It wouldn’t fit right and rode too far into his armpit.

“Crap!”  He took the silencer off the pistol and shoved it into the holster under his tan jacket.  For now, the black metal tube of a device went into his front pocket instead of on the gun.

“Everything OK over there?”  The driver looked at him.  

“Yeah, fine.”  Mr. Aye gave the man stink eye.  

The air was hot and moist.  He opened the door to step out and It wrapped around him like a lustful squid. The heat was baking the sleep deprivation into Mr. Aye’s brains, leaving him an angry bag of flesh with a mess to clean up.

The security here was beyond bad.  There was a cinder block-enclosed stairwell leading to the porch which created a perfect hiding place for a thief.  Of course, they wouldn’t need a hiding place because the porch was shielded by palm fronds from the road.  Up on the porch, Mr. Aye considered his many entry options and wondered if the people who lived here were retarded.  The door was locked, but the window was propped open by a fan and protected only by a screen.  As it was, the experienced Mr. Aye left his lock picks in his pocket and simply opened the door with an old credit card.

He entered the hot and dirty apartment.  While the place was somewhat orderly, a film of filth and grime covered everything.  The well-used coffee table was still set up as a pot smoking parlor. A water pipe sat on the only clean corner with weed strewn all over what appeared to be the remnants of breakfast. A pile of books and unopened mail buried the kitchen table.  Things were everyday messy, but after the collector’s place, this was spotless.  

The backup plan was crap.  It was just as ill-defined as last night’s disaster.  Go find… something… anything that might have been retrieved from the Collector’s house.  Also, somehow, find a reason why this guy decided to visit the collector that morning.  Mr. Aye frowned at the task as he attempted to undertake it.  He crossed the room to begin his search, yet failed to notice one small, furry detail.  

Junior napped under the table, stoned and stuffed with cream cheese. His tail swished the air.  Unattended by his conscious mind, it landed where it found the least amount of natural resistance… which happened to be right in the path of a steel-toed boot.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

The patchouli-scented waitress came with the check and Goldberg chased it down.  “Seems pretty stupid to go dutch-treat at this point, eh?  Hey, can we get a batch of those fortune cookies you make here?  And not the rude ones, the regular ones.”

“Fortune cookies?” Joy said.

“Well yeah.  They are pretty good. And after this morning’s weirdness, I’ve a new fondness for generated randomness.”

She smirked. “You think a cookie will tell you your fortune?”

Goldberg shrugged. “No, but I didn’t think I’d have some guy give me a dump truck full of cash today either.  So… may as well set up a pitch and swing.”

“Reasonable point, I suppose.  So what are you going to do first?”

“Disappear,” He said quickly, then turned.  “Hey Dan, you feel like toking it up old school?  Woods behind the ‘rock?”

Dan was picking his teeth with a straw and stopped long enough to say, “I like it.  Somehow I’m feeling the swamp.”

“You would,” Joy smirked.  “Well, I’m supposed to meet Sarah and her boyfriend for a late lunch after I’m through with office hours.”

“On a Saturday?”

“Unlike somebody,” She gave Goldberg an accusing look, “I’ve still got to grade papers. Comp on a condensed schedule is pretty crazy.”

“Stats compressed is just as bad, but I make all my stuff due on Mondays.  I always plan on being lazy and useless over the weekend.”  

She rolled her eyes.  “So are you going to meet me for lunch or what, stone boy? You can even bring the slug.”

Dan made a slurping noise that made Molly giggle.  

“Sure thing, but don’t think I’m going to clean up just to meet your family.”

“Ah, it’s just Sarah. And anyway, I wouldn’t worry about the ‘rents, were I you.  The most threatening thing about them is their desire for grandkids.”

Goldberg’s pasty complexion became even whiter as Joy grinned.

“Uh Oh.”  Dan looked towards the door with a mix of horror and anticipation.

“What?”  Joy moved her head to see what he was looking at and her bright mood darkened.  Megan, Goldberg’s ex-girlfriend, descended on the table like depression.  

Though the perky blonde young girl smiled, her presence cast an unwelcome shadow.  “Hi Ryan! I thought it was you over here.  Nice haircut. Um … Can we talk?”

Goldberg remained calm, like someone waiting to have a bone set.  “We’re talking now.  What can I do for you Megan?”

Her smile started to falter.  “Well, I saw you in the paper and I just wanted to say congratulations.”  

“Uh, thanks, Meg.”

An uncomfortable lull came over the table as Megan continued to stand close to the table, looking at Goldberg. Joy frowned as Dan grinned at everyone’s discomfort.  Goldberg ignored Meg.  He ate a fortune cookie and examined the message inside.  He showed it to Dan with a grin.  It said ‘An enemy will come to you with smiling eyes.’

Dan snorted through his nose  

Finally Megan broke the silence.  “Well are you going to introduce me to your new friend?”  Reaching across Goldberg she stuck out her hand at Molly.  “Hi I’m Megan, and you are?”

“Molly.”  They shook hands limply.  Molly still was in a bit of shock and her buzz was starting to wear off, so the conversation died right there.

The Blonde girl straightened up and looked at Joy.  “And Miss. Winter, interesting company you are keeping.  I wasn’t aware that you had met my boyfriend, Ryan.”

Joy’s face flushed, but her anger at the presumptuous girl kept her going forward.  “I’m not surprised.  There are so many things you don’t know.  Goldberg and I met years before you came to the University.  How are your studies going?  Still channeling Dickensonian angst?”

Goldberg said to Dan, “Didn’t she break up with me two months ago? Twice?”  Dan shrugged.

“Honestly man, I turned the station on that soap opera four or five break-ups ago.  Crap writing.  It just got repetitious.”

Megan ignored the two men and defended herself from Joy’s sharp tongue.  “Well, after taking your class, I decided it really wasn’t for me and became a Business Major.  English is such a… soft field of study.”

“I guess it depends on your approach and how serious you take it.”  The older woman’s eyes shot daggers.  “I guess we see that you just aren’t terribly serious and care deeply about money.”

Dan was amused while Goldberg was just confused.  He wanted to leave with a little class.  “Um, look, we were just leaving.  Can we offer you the table?”

“Well,” she puffed herself up and regaining her composure.  “Actually I was wondering if you were busy later.”  Shooting a sideways glance at Joy she said, “I really wanted to, you know…. talk.”

“He’s going to be pretty busy later.”  Joy broke in.

Megan looked only at Goldberg, cocked her head and smiled. “Really?”

“Yeah.”  Goldberg slid out of the booth and stood. “I’ve, uh, got to finalize some things, you know… lottery stuff.”

The blonde girl perked up.  “That’s so cool!  Congrats again.  So tell me, what did you do when you found out?  Were you excited?”

Before anyone else could speak, Joy cut in.  “Actually we went home and fucked like a couple of high school dropouts on Ecstasy.” Every eye shot to the thin, dark-purple haired woman, who shrugged and smirked.

Megan spat, “Eloquently put as always, Miss. Winter.”

Joy began to pull apart her fortune cookie.  “That’s why they have me teaching Comp. to you zygotes.”  She held up the tray.  “Cookie?”

“No thanks,” She said, in full retreat. “I’ve lost my apatite.”

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

“Merow!”  Junior yelled in pain, and surprise.  He reeled around, yanking his abused tail out from under the boot.  Giving the furry, gray tail a good twitch, he found that it hurt, but it wasn’t broken.  The owner of the feet, now back-stepping away from the table, should be so lucky to escape damage.

The shriek hit Mr. Aye’s ears like an ice pick.  Though he still didn’t know what was going on, he instinctively retraced his steps.  Fatigue clouded his mind so that it was only capable of one thought at a time.  Right now, the source of that awful noise pushed out thoughts of his goal.

In his classic low fighting stance, which made his round belly scrape the ground, Junior sized up the man who had dared to step on his tail.  The man wasn’t his daddy or the other guy who gave him food.  And he wasn’t apologizing in cooing tones!  This guy was bad and Junior was pissed.  The human-nip hummed in his ears accentuating his desire for large game.  Emitting a low, rumbling growl, he examined the man, looking for a weakness.  The great hunter had found deserving prey.

Hearing the commotion, Billie startled from her relaxed nap.  Human-nip always put her in the mood for a good cat nap before chasing anything that needed to be chased.  From high on top of her bookshelf, she surveyed the scene.  Junior had called out, but now he seemed to be playing with a new human friend.  

Claw hit ankle as the chunky cat opened his offensive.  The man backed away through the room, mumbling angry human-speak.  The time to strike was now!  He reared up and grabbed the man’s other leg, sinking his claws into the taut tendons behind the knee.  With a savage bite, his fangs dug into the fleshy area just below the man’s knee cap eliciting a bellow of pain.  Junior wondered if it was anywhere near as painful as having your tail stepped on by someone twenty times your size.  

The man’s leg came up off the ground, flailing around.  Junior bit harder and clawed deeper in an effort to hang on as the man’s boot came up between his legs.  The cat thought that this guy was trying to kick him in the balls, take him out of the fight! An ineffective move! Junior was castrated.

Through the haze of human-nip, Billie saw the action and got excited.  Hey!  It’s play time!  She readied herself, wiggling her little butt in the air, and when the time was right, she jumped onto the man’s shoulders. Up here she would receive love and attention, like daddy and the other guy would give when they came home.  

The new guy was terrible at this game, though.  She had to use her front and back claws just to hang on while he tried to pet her.  It almost seemed like he was trying to swat her off of his shoulders.  Weird!

Mr. Aye, now beset by two crazy cats, was totally panicked.  Pain clouded his senses and thoughts of escaping it overtook his blurry mind.  Nothing he did worked.

His head swam with a sudden wave of vertigo from his sleepless night.  Rage, was starting to well up, supported by the fatigue.  If only he could get to his gun!  He’d kill these damned cats!  The briefest flash of what he was doing crossed his mind.  He was here for something and couldn’t just shoot.  He needed to get the silencer!  Damn it!  

Finding new resolve in murderous thoughts, he kicked hard with his leg in one mighty flick. Junior’s claws held, but under the force, mercenary’s tendons gave.  A painful shock ran through him as he realized just how badly the big cat had damaged his right knee.  He groaned in agony.

From her awkward perch on the squat man’s shoulders, Billie had come to the conclusion that this guy was just no fun.  Something else attracted her attention through the screen door.  A bird!  A bird had flown in and sat on their railing, right where she liked to catch her morning sun.  She sized up the small animal as it fluttered its wings, seductively.  Surely it wanted to play!

Grabbing an extra tight hold of the man’s neck, the spry white cat sprang from her no-fun human perch and ran off to play with the bird.  As she often did, she forgot that the screen door actually had a screen in it.  Nose met screen as Billie rebounded off the door and back into the room.  Regaining her equilibrium, she licked her nose and sneezed.  Confused and embarrassed, she watched the bird fly away and looked around for something else to chase.

Cats usually land on their paws, but the human nip had messed up Junior’s balance.  Having been flung off of his prey’s leg, he tumbled on the hardwood floor and skidded to a stop.  When the big cat got back to looking for his adversary, he saw Billie bump hard into the screen door.  Junior was incensed that someone else would rough up the little white cat!  That was his job!  The time had come.  All quarter be damned!  This is war!

Momentarily free of cats, Mr. Aye drew his gun from his holster. Fishing into his pocket for the silencer, he did not see Junior.  The large cat barreled into the back of the already weakened right knee, making the mercenary fall to a half kneeling position.  His damaged kneecap smacked the floor with the force of a jackhammer.  It moved in a way that was not natural, tearing at the bitten and clawed tendons.

Shocked and dizzy, Mr. Aye flailed his arms for support.  The pistol flew from his hands, scooting underneath the couch.  The tube-like silencer fell from his pocket and spun on the ground right in front of Billie.  

Nature took over.  Billie pounced on the animated object, smacking and batting it in front of the screen door.  She managed to get the object between her paws.  Biting into one end, it squirted through the flap in the screen the cats used to get out.  She chased her new toy through the hole and out onto the porch.  She liked this toy!  Lots of action!

Mr. Aye’s bitten and clawed knee dug into the hardwood floor, shooting pain up his thigh.  He bit back the pain and assessed.  From just ahead of him, he heard a noise like an engine starting.  Slowly, He raised his head.  

The low growl emanated from the stoned and angry Junior.  The cat eyed him, ears flattened against his head.  From his perch on the overstuffed arm of the chair, he lowered his head and stuck his back up, adjusting his rear paws.  The claws on his hind feet dug into the burlap covering for better traction as he shifted his weight for an optimal strike.  

Mr. Aye was hypnotized by the predator’s eyes, momentarily frozen.

The cat shot through the air like a furry cannonball, closing the distance in a heartbeat.  Muscular arms opened wide in mid-leap.  Sharp claws appeared at the ends of large paws.  Grey fur, flab and bulk pounded into Mr. Aye’s face and chest, knocking him backwards.  He could feel the claws ripping into his neck and chest as front claws tore at his ears.  

The back of his head smacked on the floor producing a shower of stars in his vision.  When his sight cleared, he saw the angry animal, inches from his face.  He could only scream as Junior slowly tilted his head to one side, opened his mouth wide, and chopped down on the bridge of Mr. Aye’s nose.  A sick crunching sound sawed through the man’s skull as his nose broke in the clench of the cat’s jaws.

In a full panic, he threw the cat across the room, sending chunks of flesh from his nose with it.  The pain was enormous and he started to bleed profusely.  His eyes blurred as he tried to get to his feet, thinking of nothing else but getting the hell out of there.

Spitting out the nasty piece of bad-human meat, Junior saw the man trying to flee.  He reared up on his hind legs and pounced, claws ripping through the seat of the man’s pants and making four large tears in each ass cheek.  Mr. Aye shrieked like a schoolgirl as the cat bit forward and chomped his crack, one tooth scoring a direct hit on the rim of his hole.

Mr. Aye crashed through the door in full retreat, startling Billie so much that she abandoned her new toy.  He turned to run down the stairs but stepped on the round silencer.  As the white cat watched, he flew through the air and crashed down the stairwell.  His back hit the wall on the bottom of the landing where the stairs turned back on themselves and he went limp as a bag of sand.  Gravity pulled him down the rest of the wooden stairs and he smacked, head first into the concrete foundation of the house, finally coming to rest among the debris just inside the apartment door.

People were starting to come out of their houses to see what all the yelling and banging was about as Mr. Aye limped, blood gushing from his face, to the car. He threw himself into the back seat, and as he sat, the cat bite on his ass hurt him like a dagger.  “Drive.  Get away.  Go!”

The driver zipped away as Junior looked through the porch railing.  Nobody steps on my tail!

“What happened to you?  Did you get what we needed?” Carl asked from the driver’s seat.

“Shut the fuck up.”  Mr. Aye took a box out of his belt and punched in a number.  He held the phone up and said, “Bee.  Bee, come in.  I need another plan!”

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“What the hell was that!?”  Goldberg stared at Joy’s back as she shoved open the door to the street.  

Joy got as far as the sidewalk before turning on her heel.  “You know what your problem is, Goldberg?” Her finger came up and pointed at his nose.  

“Um… no?”  

“You are way too nice.  And way too willing to go along to get along.  That girl used your heart as an ashtray and you even consider being civil?  Maybe you thought that you could ‘be friends’ or something!… invite her over for a potluck and other such nicey-nice.”

The glasses hid his confused scowl. “You are pissed that I didn’t light into her for no reason?”

“Ash. Tray.  How many times did that trollop cheat on you last semester allone?  Three?”

His voice lowered.  “You knew?”  

Joy’s face flushed slightly and she turned away.  “It’s a small town, when you get right down to it.  She was in my class.  She used to brag to her little slut friends before class, that’s how I knew and I…”

She turned.  Goldberg looked at her over the top rim of his glasses.  The look made his nose look very long and his eyes soft and warm.

“Damn it!” She sighed. “Why didn’t you stand up for yourself?  Don’t you get angry?  Someone craps on you and you are just like all ‘Dude, that’s uncool’ instead of giving them the shit they deserve!”

“And what would that solve?  What would that have changed with Meg?  Huh?”

“It may not have made a difference the first time, but the second time … Maybe.  And the worst part is that she said how much she liked you but would continue to carry on because she could get away with it.  I mean … didn’t you care?  Don’t you care?”

The question hung in the hot sticky air as cars rolled by.  “We’re not talking about her anymore, are we.”

Joy turned away and took a few paces before wheeling around on her heels. “Anyone ever tell you you suck with women?”

“Only every girl I’ve ever dated.”

“Well, since you are dating a woman now, it’s time to change your tune.”  She pointed into his chest. “You getting me?”

The heat caught up with Goldberg and he began to sweat anew in his confused silence. “So, does that mean we’re dating now?”

“Yes!  I mean… aren’t we?”  She sighed and relaxed.  “Look.  Goldberg.  Unlike her and unlike a lot of people that will probably start popping from the woodwork, I really don’t give a crap about your money.  You’ve got to believe that.  I…”  She looked into the rose of his glasses.  “I…  We want the same things.  We understand each other, don’t we?”

His eyes gazed into hers and he felt himself fall in.  Everything was happening so fast. “Joy, I…”

They both stopped  as Dan and Molly burst through the door.  Dan was laughing and Molly looked like a zombie.  “Ah man!  Luxury Automobile is a damned trip!”  

“Who?” Molly said, mostly to herself.

“The guy!  With the guitar.  Ah to hell with it.”  He turned to Goldberg.  “So… that was horrible and uncomfortable.  What are we up to?”

“I need to go home and … I guess … something.”  Molly said.  She raised her head.  “Maybe I can get some of my stuff?”

Joy met Molly’s sad eyes and sighed again.  She gave Goldberg a pat on the chest.  “Look, I’ll go with her and then I have got to do office hours.  You want to get back together on campus?  The Pen, one thirty?  I’ll have to work some after that as well, but I’ll be free after four.  Sound good?”

Goldberg paused, still spinning from Joy’s rant.  “You sure?”  

She stood on her tippy-toes and kissed Goldberg’s nose.  “About lunch?  Yeah. We’ll work on the rest later.”  She lightly squeezed his scrawny upper arm.  “We have later?”

“Yeah, we have later.”  They hugged as much as the heat of the day would allow and then the group parted ways along gender lines.

The Strange – Episode 20 – Rubble – Part 1

The Strange – Episode 18 – Game Plan

Teague sat in the middle of the classroom.  Around the room sat all of Hogstown’s receivers, everyone who participates as a target in the passing game.  There were running backs, wide outs and the hacker’s other four tight ends.  Of those four, only Teague was a serious target, but the others could conceivably catch and definitely had to block.  

“All right everyone.  We’re going over routes.  I expect you not only to know your routes for a particular play but everyone else’s.  There is a reason that we combine routes the way we do, and it’s important for you all to know…”

He thought of how many times he’d heard this and from how many other guys just like this one, the receivers coach.  Little dude with attitude wearing dad-shorts and a moustache.  They had a coach for every damned thing anymore and all of them wanted a piece of your time.  Receivers, O-line, Running Game, Even kick-offs.  Teague participated in all of them which ate huge amounts of time.  Meetings, practice, conditioning.  This was the preseason, but this was a full time job.  Sure, they would slack off once classes started, but then he actually had to do the classes.  No wonder they hooked me up with Sarah as a full time tutor.  

When they were introduced about this time last year, he thought that the coach had him pegged as some stupid street thug like some of the others they brought in on scholarship.  While it was true that he wasn’t nearly as eloquent as some, he’d managed a decent GPA in High school and his SAT’s were better than most on the team, even the walk-ons.

Then the work came and kept on coming.  It was a lot more than high school.  Sarah may have had her wild streak, but she was an excellent time manager.  She kept him on track when things really stacked up.  In Teague’s mind he guessed that this is what secretaries do for CEO’s, tell you what to do and when to do it.  

But most of all, Sarah calmed him.  Inside of all the work there was an opening of mind to new ideas, new ways of being.  Football coaches talked of philosophy, but Sarah introduced him to the real deal, Plato, Sun Tsu, Budah, he dug the Budah.  She helped him realize the large bag of anger he carried around with him and the trouble it got him in on and off the field.  Showed him how it held him back.  Sarah was his mirror.  Through her, he saw himself as how other people saw him; a frightening man, a man who lashed out like an animal when confronted.  An ignorant man, closed to new ideas and the possibility that he could be mistaken and learn from others.  He didn’t like that guy, but he liked Sarah and he appreciated that she didn’t shy away.

It wasn’t totally clear when she crossed over from helper to lover.  Sure he remembered the first time he got her into the sack, but it had been brewing for long enough by then that it was more a formality than a relationship milestone.  And as they laid there on that cool late fall night keeping each other warm, he considered how fantastic she was, together, but cool.  A party package but organized about it.  

And that, more than anything else made this morning’s freak out so odd.  It was a piece out of the normal place for Teague, a piece he relied on, and it frightened him more than he liked to admit.  Sure he’d admit it now.  Now that he was alone in his thoughts.  It was really freaky for her to be that needy, that out of sorts.  She was always together and Teague had come to rely on that more than anything else in this world.  

He looked at his huge hands for a moment and unlaced the fingers.  The palms of his hands seemed to have an odd shine under the fluorescent lighting of the quiet classroom.  The altogether too quiet classroom.

All eyes were on him as he raised his face.  The tough-guy receivers coach tried to look as stern and threatening as he could wearing those shorts.

“Fuck…” Teague croaked out and shook his head.

“I thought so.  Anyone not gathering wool in my class want to fill Mr. London in on the zone clearing philosophy of the bunch 8 formation? Maybe he’ll give it due consideration as he’s running extra laps.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Come in Ms. Bee.” Loveless said over the intercom before she could knock.  The magnetic lock on the door released and she slid into the office.  

She stood relaxed and prepared in her mom costume. “You wanted a report.  Do I need to remind you what not to say on an open phone, even one we’ve been careful about?”

Loveless scoffed.  “No.  And in a real sense, I know far more than you on the subject.  It’s just that with all the communications traffic surrounding the explosion, talking about it openly is less suspicious than talking about nothing.  You military people and your secrets.  If we’ve learned anything today it’s that data finds a way to get free.  No safe is safe.  The best one can hope for is obfuscation, disinformation, and well placed false trails.”

Ms. Bee frowned.  “What are you talking about?”

“I’m talking about my other priority, or more specifically, my original overriding priority.  And do forgive me if I am a bit excited.”

“I’m sorry,” she said with a scolding frown. “There is a cop in the hospital who gave to me valid testimony that he saw Ryan Goldberg, the freaking lottery kid from this morning, looking at a clearly hours dead Collector moments before the bomb went off.”

“Well, he’s not going to be giving that testimony anytime soon.”

“No.  I gave him a long-lasting psychotic.  He’ll be talking nonsense for weeks.”

“Well yeah, if they find him.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean shortly after you called me, he disappeared.”

“That’s… He couldn’t have.  The man I talked to wasn’t going to walk for weeks.”

“Well, when the cops came back, he was gone.  Needles dripping, casts left with no one in them, even the catheter was there, no Officer Small.”  Loveless looked up with a slight grin.  “Not walked off… disappeared.  How’d you get in anyway?”

“I used my charming smile.” Ms. Bee clicked at her teeth and the bright sheen dimmed.  “Aerosol truth serum with a psychoactive component. responds to the ultraviolet coloration of these falsies.” She picked the caps from her four front teeth.  “Perfume gets them, the teeth makes them mine for a couple of seconds.  Used a much larger dose on our mark.”

“Cool trick.”

“But there was nothing in that cocktail that would give the guy the presence of mind – or the ability – to get up, much less evade anyone.”  She looked at the small caps before tucking them into her pocket.  “Mr. Loveless, what is going on?  You do not seem surprised.”

“Oh, I’m surprised.  Well, not surprised by the fact that things are happening that are unexplainable and strange, but that these things are hitting quite so close to home.”  Loveless sat back in his chair and looked down at the edge of his desk, not fully seeing it.  Ms. Bee slowly sat in the chair opposite.  

“Would you care to elaborate?”  She asked, studying Loveless’s face.

Looking up from his desk, Loveless caught her eye.  He waved as if to dispel a fog.  “Oh knock it off with the interrogation nonsense.  I’ll tell you what I feel like telling you and don’t think for a second that YOU are gifted enough to pump me.”  He waved again and poked at his computer desktop. “I’ve been tracking an anomaly.  People mentioning that they can do weird and, frankly, reality breaking things.  All at once.  Just started happening in the last few days.”

“Maybe it’s some weird meme.”

“That would be nice, but nope.  Seems to be age independent, though the town skews young on a count of the school.  There is no cultural boundary to the mentions.”

“Well, so what?  People are being weird on the internet.  That’s not exactly news.”

Loveless grabbed a dice and examined it, avoiding Bee’s eyes.  “What if it’s true?”

“What, that people are starting to get some kind of fictional super power or something?”

“Or something.  Most of it is hardly useful, but a few…”

Ms. Bee gave him a side eye.  “This isn’t some kind of test.  I thought we were well beyond that.”

“No.  And believe me, I do appreciate the hesitation here.  I didn’t believe it either.  Seems like bullshit.  However, it came from absolutely nothing.”  He put the dice back in the bowl.  “And that defies … everything.  Reality.  People simply don’t work that way.”

Ms. Bee’s face held no emotion but her voice was displeased.  “This is all very interesting but I hardly…”

“Reality.  Bee.  Reality.  Rules.  Something as simple as being able to cook tea in your hands with no kettle breaks the rules.   My life’s work has been and continues to be to find and exploit those rules and patterns and automatic choices to gain advantage, Bee.”  He was animated but not angry.  Loud but not shouting.  “Do you have any idea how many supposed decisions people actually MAKE in a day?  Not many.  Hardly any at all.  The fact is that ninety percent of all human activity is neatly described by patterns and tendencies UNLESS they are disturbed.  This is not just getting milk on the way home this applies to everything a person does, what their moods are like.  What color they choose for a car and whether or not they are going to look both ways crossing the street or get married to their girlfriend.  People never noticed, they still don’t notice.  But it’s real and definable.  I know because I’ve defined it.”

Ms. Bee shook her head.  “That’s nice but …”

“You aren’t convinced.  You are a being of free will.  That’s true.  But, if you were not the paranoid person you are and didn’t have the training you do, you too would fall into trackable patterns.”

“Well, sure.  You can put together a surveillance package for a person.  Find their quirks…”

“Think bigger.  And think about what happens if someone is on to that.  I have a model that encompasses hundreds of miles and hundreds of thousands of people.  Every one of them is a sprite in my model.  I’ve tuned it to scan for vectors, data-points coming off of them.  Every hour of every day the model is updated, reinforced, self-tuned.  Its imperfections are self-correcting.  Nothing is perfect and people choose vanilla instead of chocolate sometimes which means that interactions need to be associated with chance and permutations which, of course, makes the model way more complicated but it is still there and has been shown time and again to be positively predictive.  You are looking at the fruits of that labor.   There isn’t a crime that is committed within my sphere which I am not able to taste.  I don’t take all of it, because the cops have got to catch someone, but I take a lot.  I knocked off anyone in my path pretty handily because crime is a social interaction and that is especially true of organized crime.  And I can keep this going indefinitely … as long as some fuck in a dorm can’t warm a Cup ‘o Noodles in his hands.”

Ms. Bee let her brow knit.  “Why?  Why do you care about the kid and his soup?”

“Because it changes reality.  People zig instead of zag.  Past performance no longer predicts future trends.  And more important and germane to this conversation, borderline cripples can shake off drugs and disappear.”

Crossing her arms, Ms Bee said, “That’s a leap.”

“Yes.  And you have no idea how badly the idea shakes my core.  However, it explains things.  Your cop is gone, for one.  A dumbass randomly hacks my unhackable system in such a way that it was almost undetected and he left a literal mountain of evidence.  And no one should have gotten into and out of that house, even with your team bolting from the scene like they did.  The time windows were simply too short.  The time of day and the day of the week severely winnowed down the potential population.  The need for anyone to go into the house was absent.  And yet, two different people zigged when they should have zagged.”  Loveless looked Ms. Bee dead in the eye.  “I want to know why.  This goes beyond needing to know if he can implicate me … I mean, I need that too, but…  this goes to the core of my model.  I need to know why this guy zagged.”

Ms. Bee stoically asked, “What would you like me to do?”

“I want Mr. Aye to go and get him.  You said something about the Lottery?”

“Yeah.  Kid’s face is on the front page of the paper.”  She found the newspaper by the empty cups of coffee and held it out to Loveless.  “And why is the morning newspaper the only paper in this entire office?”

“Crossword.”  Loveless began typing and immediately had all of the surveillance pictures Mr. Aye had taken up on the monitor behind his desk.  Windows opened to do face scans.  I did recognition on everyone and got no matches.  Thought they were all freshman or something.  “Letting that go again specifically looking for him.  Now to find his ass.”  He typed a few times and said, “Hm.  His phone’s last known location was near the house.  I’d guess that means that he either lost it or he’s in the rubble pile.”

“Do you think we’re that lucky?”

“No such thing as luck, only knowledge others don’t have.  No.  And here’s what I mean.”  The screen behind his desk showed a picture of a young man, no glasses and with singed and matted hair.  “There he is, walking away.”

Ms. Bee looked at the photo.  “No glasses, different hair.  You sure?”

“99% match now that we know who we’re looking for.  And since he’s employed by the school… Got it.”  Goldberg’s address on Fourth Avenue popped up on the screen.  “Please have Mr. Aye investigate this and if possible, retrieve Mr. Goldberg for me.”

“I don’t know.  Aye has been up since last night.”

“When he botched and got us into this mess.  No.  He goes.  He fixes this.” Loveless swiveled in his chair to face the big screen and Goldberg’s dopey picture from his university ID.  “Your Mr. Aye is a monster.  He can muscle through this.  Anything else would cut the man down.  We all need him built up.”  Loveless looked up at Ms. Bee. “He’s going in.”

The Strange – Episode 19 – Claws

Help Wanted

Help Wanted:

Young, burgeoning universe seeks omniscient creator. No prior experience necessary or even possible, for that matter.

You must love all creatures great and small, watch them grow, prosper and bloom. Guide them through life’s trials and tribulations.

And then kill them.

Other duties include:

Listen to the whining and bitching of entire planets full of beings and return to them endless love.

Plan down to the finest detail every single element of everyone and everything’s every day and have a plan for it all and give every action, no matter how insignificant a true and poetic meaning.

Occasionally visit wrath resulting in the deaths of entire civilizations, just to keep things novel. Lesser, more personal smitings are also performed for much the same reason.

Watch without interfering as beings create ever more effective ways to kill each other in your name.

Perks include receiving “Props” from rap artists and athletes, worship in various forms and the occasional human barbeque. Telework available. Flexible dress code.

Anyone with the skill set to prosper in this job already knows how to contact us. Please bring resume and two forms of ID.

Idle Hands – Episode 2 – Temporary Assignment

As Jay plopped down on the couch for lunch, a twinge of guilt hit him. On the coffee table, that morning’s want ads and internet searches sat, unmarked and unread. After three weeks out of the job, the joy of quitting and the adventure of looking for new work had become an anxiety-filled grind.

Lifting the remote, he turned up his TV’s surround sound. Anxiety festered and grew, unattended, in the back of Jay’s mind as poorly dubbed anime filled the messy living room.

An unexpected knock invaded Jay’s sanctuary, followed by another and another. Finally annoyed into action, Jay left the couch and the unread papers and answered the door.

The heat and light from the blinding and hot south Texas day rushed into the air-conditioned townhouse. While Jay started to sweat in his shorts, the man on his doorstep seemed perfectly comfortable in a deep red suit.

“Can I help you?”

With the door open, the man confidently walked into Jay’s townhouse. Turning, he said, “No, but I can help you.” The man looked around the disheveled house, stroking his goatee. “Nice place.”

“Uh, thanks.” Closing the door, Jay became less incensed by the man’s forwardness, and more intrigued, though he couldn’t put a finger on why. “Just who the hell are you?”

The odd man smiled. “Ah. Well chosen words. But really, Jay, I’m here to help you out. My card.”

He extended his hand and red smoke coalesced into a business card. Jay took the card and saw that it was from ‘Idle Hands, Inc.’

A horrible realization washed over the young man and he blurted, “Wait a second! Are you the…”

“Ah ah!” The strange man suddenly raised his finger and shook it at Jay. “No, I’m not the Big D, who prefers not to have his bell rung too many times, lest he have to appear, you know.” He put his hand to his chest and bowed. “I am merely a humble servant. And right now, I’m part of our outreach program. The head of it, actually.”

“Excuse me? Outreach program?” Jay’s scruffy blonde hair tussled as he scratched his head. This guy had an easy and disarming way about him and though intimidated, he found himself drawn in by the man’s words.

“Yes, outreach program. You see, people of your generation don’t feel like doing much of anything anymore. Forget sin, you all aren’t even engaged enough to be tempted. So, the Big man said, ‘Let’s get these people moving again. Get them off their hinnies.’”

“Somehow I can’t see the big D saying the word ‘hinnies.’”

He flashed a smile at Jay. “It’s the PG version. You want to hear this or not?”

“It’s not every day I get visitors from Hell. So please, continue.”

“Thanks.” He waved his arms in the air, mocking his evil master. “‘Get them off their couches and into an exercise program or something. We need to get the wheels of fate spinning again. More than that; get these people jobs!’ So out of concern, he’s allowed me to set up a little concern to give some of those Idle Hands something to do.”

Jay rolled his eyes. “You’re kidding me. You’re a head hunter?”

“We prefer to be called Employment Placement Specialists. After all, Political Correctness came from our Department of Insidious and Ill-conceived Double Speak. But yes, I’m here to help you find a gig. You did send me your resume, after all. Remember?”

“I’ve sent out a lot of resumes.” Jay stared at the man blank faced for a second, then burst out laughing. “HA! Here, I thought you were some harbinger of doom and you’re a… a… ‘Job Getter’ or whatever the hell you called it. I really thought I was in trouble there for a second.”

“You see! That’s what I’m talking about. We get this unfounded bad rap! Those inbred evangelicals have been kicking us around for a while and we need to be able to reach out to people like you. Let you know that there is a choice.”

“Well… You know, I always thought there really wasn’t a choice. It was either, ‘be good and try not to suck’, or you wind up … Uh.”

“Yes. You wind up with us poor suckers.” He waved his hand in the air, as if conjuring up images. “Drowning in a lake of burning sulfur for all eternity. Little men in red jumpsuits with built in tails, constantly skewering you with pitchforks.” Again, he looked over his glasses and mocked, “Really, Jay, does that sound like any way to run things?

“First off, where are we going to get enough sulfur for an endlessly burning lake? You know how much that costs? Do I look like someone who has nothing better to do than poke people? We just want to help you and outline the alternatives.”

“I don’t understand. You keep mentioning choices. What does this have to do with Hell?”

The strange man looked around the unkempt apartment and slid into a well-rehearsed pitch. “Well, free will is where we get our people from. The ones that exercise it are our constituency.

“You see, the man upstairs could have just made everything run like clockwork here on earth so everyone got into heaven, but he didn’t care to. He wanted you all to have free will to be tempted and misbehave. Kind of a rotten deal, if you ask me, and I should know.

“As a result, he gave us all the people who liked to bend the rules. Really early on we got around the whole ‘suffer for all eternity’ thing that was in our charter, so now it’s a regular party down there. Sure, we have to have SOME torture, but really, it’s just a formality.”

Jay’s brow creased. “Even if I was buying this, what does this have to do with getting a job?”

“Everything,” the odd man said. “Choices come from action, and there are always jobs that need doing. We have all kinds of opportunities here. Want to take a look?”

Three weeks worth of frustration at looking in vain for a job broke through and Jay found himself saying, “Ok, sure. I’ll bite.”

“Again, nice choice of words. You, my friend, have a way about you that I like.” The red of the man’s suit seemed to radiate a thick smoke. The wall of Jay’s apartment dissolved and a red and black office appeared. The walls had framed works of ‘Good Girl’ pinup art and a stuffed devil doll sat happily in the black high back desk chair.

Jay was mystified but impressed. “Nice doll. Nice office.”

“Thanks! The doll was a gift from a client.” He grinned, as he moved the stuffed toy and took his seat. “Ok, Jay, let’s get started. If you could do anything, what would it be?”

Taking a seat, Jay said, “Well, I guess I’d like to help people. I want to use…”

The strange man waved his hands in surrender, making Jay stop. “Hold on.” He sighed. “Don’t try to bullshit a bullshitter, Jay. I work for the Lord of Lies, remember? I’m not some chick you are trying to pick up at a bar.”

He sat back in his chair and laced his fingers. “Let’s try this again. What do you really want to do, Jay?”

The red vinyl seat stuck to the backs of Jay’s legs where his shorts quit. He looked at the desk and squirmed. “Well, I don’t want to work very hard. I want to have authority over people, but I don’t want to make any hard decisions or manage anyone. And I don’t really care how people live as long as it doesn’t affect me. I like money, that’s a given. It would be nice to help people because I want to be perceived as being a good guy. And I don’t want to do anything truly evil.” Jay swatted at the air. “That’s where I draw the line. And no contracts in blood or anything. I get to keep my soul.”

The man waved his hand in the air, batting away Jay’s concerns. “We stopped doing the contract thing a long time ago. People got hip to it and we couldn’t close them anymore. But, so I know what kind of job to look for, are you afraid to be evil, Jay?”

“Well, sure. It’s rather extreme, isn’t it? I mean… we’re messing with people’s lives here.”

The man kicked back in his chair. “But you want to be in authority. How do you reconcile that?”

“Well, that’s different. I just want to be in control of the situation, especially at work. I’m sick of people bossing me around. Every job I’ve had, someone telling me what to do. I want to be in control for once.”

“And you don’t want to work hard.” The man scribbled notes on a red notepad.

Jay shrank a little bit as if he had asked for too much. “Well, no.” He leaned forward. “That’s not a problem is it?”

“Oh, hell no! Just let me work here.” The man held out his hand and deep red smoke coalesced into a small red book. “Ok, I’ve got plenty of openings in our larceny department. Very lucrative for short term work.”

Jay shook his head. “I don’t think so. Just the thought of prison scares me.”

He flipped the book’s pages. “Here you go, how about a politician. They hardly ever go to jail! There is a lifetime commitment though.”

“I thought you didn’t do ‘sell your soul’ type contracts anymore”

“For those guys, we make exceptions. They’re mostly lawyers and sneaky little bastards to boot so we gotta nail them down. Here’s one that doesn’t require a commitment. Political Pundit!”

The young man chuckled. “Wow, I can’t think of anything more evil!”

The man smiled. “You and me both, but I thought I’d give it a shot.” He muttered under his breath, “That one has been a bitch to fill.”

Leaning forward to try to read the book Jay said, “You’re sure you’ve got something for me?”

“Yeah. I’m not finished yet.” He flipped through his book with calm determination. “My people are very thorough. We’ll get you something. Here we go. I got a position at a local hospital as a patient intake clerk. There’s some interface with the public and some light filing. Not perfect, but how does that one sound? The pay is good, double your last gig.”

“That doesn’t sound half bad. You sure there’s no catch? Nothing to sign in blood or anything?”

“Nope,” the man smiled. “You just have to sign your time card. And we prefer black pen to blood.” Holding up a stack of time slips he said, “It faxes better.”

Jay looked at this strange man. The job seemed fine and he could use the money. Sure, the circumstances of the placement are a little odd, but the job itself was not about being evil, it was about filing paperwork. How bad could it be? “When do I start?”

“There is a shift tonight.”

Jay put up his hands. “Whoa, I don’t know. That’s kind of sudden. I was planning on doing stuff tonight. Plus, I don’t know squat about hospitals.”

“Come on Jay. You were watching cartoons. And we at Idle Hands, Inc. have an intensive training program.”

The man created a puff of smoke in his hand and slapped it into Jay’s forehead. Jay was stunned for a moment, and then said, “That’s amazing! I know all this wonky stuff about insurance and paperwork and stuff.”

The man grinned a sharp grin. “We aim to please. Don’t forget your timecards.”

***

The hospital’s corridors were bright and the linoleum floors made everyone’s shoes squeak. Jay sat alone in a row of three desks. People sat opposite him and filled out forms for his files. If everything was in order, he called the nurse over to guide them into the waiting room. Not that there were many people to help on this shift. Everything was going flawlessly until Bobby Rojas showed up at half past twelve.

The sweating Hispanic man pleaded in halting English. “Please sir, can I see a doctor now? My wife is delivering our baby.”

“Please, Mr. Rojas. Have a seat. I need you to fill out some paperwork.”

The man grabbed the chair and half sat down. “Ok, but she’s in the car and seems to be really uncomfortable. Can we just get her to…”

“I’m sorry, but the rules are pretty strict here. The hospital doesn’t have an emergency room so everyone has to have a file. Now, do you have your insurance card on you?”

“I’m sorry sir, we don’t have insurance. Smart-Mart, where I work, doesn’t offer it to low timers. But we have some cash!”

Jay looked at the man and his heart sank. “Look, I’m going to be honest with you. This is a for-profit hospital. If something really bad happens here it is going to cost you a lot of money. You are a working guy with no insurance. If it comes to it, they will ruin your life trying to get you to pay your bill and won’t take no for an answer. I know. I’m that guy making the calls.”

“But, my wife!”

“Yes, and your baby. Do you want that kind of thing hanging over your family? No, I don’t think so.” He looked at the man and tried to do the best thing he could for him. ” I’m going to give you a better option. Here, check out this map. We are here. St. Mary’s is here.”

“But that’s across town.” Mr. Rojas’s eyes went wide and his face went white.

“Yes, but there is a freeway and it’s the middle of the night. There will be no traffic. You can probably get there in, what, five minutes? They will take you in for free. Just, God, don’t mention your name or give them anything that can track you. They will think you are an illegal immigrant and all the bills will be chalked up as a bad debt.”

“You are turning me away? You want me to lie to the nuns at Saint Mary’s?”

“I’m not turning you away, but I’m telling you something for your own good. I don’t want to be responsible for the ruin of your family by letting you sign up for more debt than you can possibly pay back. This… Healthcare is a commodity like anything else. This place is like a Ferrai. You can only really afford a Ford. Please. Really, I can’t force you. I can take your information and admit your wife, but you really should go across town to St. M’s.”

The man’s face turned bleak and panicked but his voice was calm. “I understand sir.” Taking the map, he slowly turned around. “I hope, that this turns out as you say.”

“I’m sure it will, Mr. Rojas. Be careful and good luck.”

After the man departed, the nurse talked to him from her station. “It took a lot of patience to do that. It’s hard. These people just don’t realize how the system works.”

“Yea. I don’t know. The system seems to be kind of horrible at times. I hope they’re ok. He looked pretty spooked going out the door.”

“They’ll be ok. Like you said, the best place for them is just five minutes away.”

At that point, the doctor on call strolled by. “Anything new? What happened to the guy that was just here?”

The nurse said, “Another beaner. No insurance.”

He nodded to Jay and said, “How’d the new guy handle it?”

“Like a pro. The guy has a real touch.”

***

The gleaming front hall of the hospital shined with emptiness as Jay leaned in his chair. He nodded to the nurse. “Is it always this big a party on this shift?”

The nurse smiled. “You must be used to those public hospitals where things start jumping after last call. Here, the doctors usually start showing up around four and the patients show up at five for the first round of six o’clock procedures.” She unwrapped a candy from its foil shell and popped it into her mouth. “The whole place runs like clockwork.”

“Yea, but,” he hesitated, “I can’t help but think what happened to that guy earlier. He seemed a bit freaked. I hope he got to St. M’s ok.” He stared off into the distance. “Think I should call them to check?”

“I think that’s the last thing you should do.” She pushed away from her desk and brushed the last of the chocolate from her hands. “If you do that, they will know that the guy was here first and the hospital will get in trouble. You did the best thing. People have babies all the time. It’s not like it was a heart attack or something. What’s five minutes?”

“I see your point. Still, I can’t help but wonder.”

“Wonder all you like, just don’t call.”

He looked at the desk in front of him. It was perfect. The glossy finish reflected the banks of florescent lights in the lobby ceiling.

‘I gotta wiz,’ Jay thought. “I’ll be back. You need any coffee?”

“Get me some Twinkies,” the overweight nurse responded. “Just don’t make any dumb phone calls, ok?”

“Nope. Just stretching my legs.”

“Ok,” she smirked. “If no one told you, the men’s stretching post is up the hall to your left.”

He grinned. “Thanks, I’m not used to all this coffee.”

The squeaking sound of Jay’s shoes echoed in the main hall. The nurse picked up the romance novel from her desk and continued to read. While she sat entranced in the ridiculously contrived bodice ripper, the wall behind her began to show the faint outline of her shadow. Moment by moment it became more pronounced. She looked up at the last possible second before the inconceivable happened.

Smash! Screech! Crash! An old pickup truck smashed through the glass double doors separating the lobby from the parking lot. As soon as the headlights hit the second of the two double doors they were completely smashed and the terrified nurse could see inside the cab.

In the passenger’s seat sat a woman, clearly dead. Her pale face was streaked with blood. The driver was Bobby Rojas, eyes wide with an unearthly rage. He wandered out of the car, carrying a pistol and a machete. “Where’s the prick?”

The nurse was aghast. “Oh my God! Oh my God, you can’t. You can’t just… Oh my God!”

“Never mind.” He lifted the pistol and said, “I’ll find him myself.” He fired. The round caught the woman square in her fat chest and knocked her back into her chair. Bobby threw the woman his keys. “Here, the hospital is only five minutes away, if you don’t get a FLAT TIRE AND RUN INTO A GUARD RAIL! SHE WAS ALREADY UNCOMFORTABLE WHEN I GOT HER HERE, BUT YOU DIDN’T WANT TO SEE HER! MY WIFE AND BABY DIED BECAUSE OF YOU PEOPLE!”

Filled with rage, Bobby walked down the hall. The glass continued to fall from the remains of the hospital’s front doors. The nurse struggled in vain to remove the bullet that had torn a hole in her heart. She couldn’t move anything but her left arm. The shock had frozen her face where it was when the bullet hit and as she slowly lost consciousness, she was powerless to move her eyes off the horribly blank face of Mrs. Rojas.

***

From the bathroom, Jay heard the thunderous return of Bobby Rojas. He heard the shot that killed the nurse. He heard Bobby Rojas scream his story. Now he could hear the sound of shoes squeaking in the hall getting closer. Adrenaline kicked in. He looked for another way out of the bathroom but found none. The only thing he could do was lock the door and hide in a stall.

From outside he could hear the doctor yell, “Hey! The police will be here any minute. Put the…” A meaty thudding sound echoed in the tile bathroom. “AAAAAAahhhhhh! My arm!” A shot rang out just outside the bathroom door. The doctor’s screams were replaced by a tense silence.

Perched on a toilet, Jay could almost hear himself sweat. He listened intently for this man who was thirsty for revenge and intent on killing him. ‘Maybe he will pass by,’ he thought. ‘Maybe the cops would come to the rescue. None of this is my fault! I only gave him the choice! He didn’t say that his wife was bleeding. If anything, it’s his fault for not telling me.’ Jay held his breath and cursed this man for dragging him into his wife’s medical problems.

Squeak. Squeak. Squeak. Bump. The man outside tried to open the bathroom door.

Jay heard the squeak of shoes retreat down the hall, then silence. In spite of himself, he sighed in relief. He was safe, cowering in a corner.

Smash! The sound of a machete hitting the wood door split the silence and echoed off the tiles of the bathroom. Jay kept from screaming as he heard the man repeatedly throw his body against the now-yielding door. He still had the crazy notion that the man didn’t know that he was there.

‘This can’t be happening,’ he thought. ‘What did I do to deserve this?’

The door gave way with a terrific smashing noise and Bobby Rojas looked around the bathroom. “Oh, Mr. Prick man!” he said in a singing voice, taunting him. “I’ve got my paperwork!”

Jay’s thoughts were filled with horror. ‘Oh my god! He’s crazy. He’s going to kill me!’

The sounds of the man in the bathroom filled Jay’s ears as he tried in vain to pretend that he wasn’t there. Bobby was not fooled. “Since I’ve got you here, I’m going to tell you about complications in child birth. Complications are what you don’t want when your wife is giving birth by the side of the road and your car won’t move.”

Prayers flew from Jay’s mind. There was only fear.

Bobby continued. “Now if there is a Doctor there,” Bang! A deafening shot rang through the bathroom. He felt the bullet whiz past his kneecaps. Fragments of wood from the side of the toilet stall hit his hands. “He would tell the woman to stop pushing and do something else, something that would save her. But if the only person there by the side of the road is her stupid janitor of a husband,” Bang! Another shot made Jay jump. “Her husband would tell her to push, and push until the baby ripped her apart.”

Jay heard sobbing sounds from outside the stall. He thought maybe he would be saved if this man gave into his grief and collapsed under his personal pain. It was a pathetic thing to wish for. Jay felt horrible for what had happened. But it wasn’t his fault!

The door to the stall smashed open and Bobby Rojas stood with a machete in one hand and a gun in the other. “Hello Mr. Prick. Ready to meet the Devil?”

Suddenly red smoke came from nowhere and enveloped Jay. Before he could react, he was sitting in the office of his Employment Placement Counselor, the odd man in the red suit.

Shaken, disheveled but none the worse for wear, Jay stammered, “What happened?”

“Well, you see,” the man said, stroking his goatee, “We have a very strict policy about hostile work environments here at Idle Hands. I would say that your current position was about to get as hostile as they come, wouldn’t you?”

“Uh, uh.”

“Of course you would. Now I understand if you don’t want to go back…” Behind the desk, a display showed the words “Current Assignment.” Under “Them” was the number one and a half. The man looked at the display and as the number under “Us” went from two to three he added, “…even though the cops just got there and took care of it. Once you start to feel unhappy at work, the place just isn’t the same anymore.”

“Yeah. Not safe.”

He leaned forward with an understanding look and said, “Would you like some Tequila, Jay?”

“Yeah. Please”

The man produced two shot glasses emblazoned with the “Idle Hands” logo and filled them with Cuervo. “So, what did you think of that assignment? Too much filing?”

“Too much shooting!” Jay drank his shot and made a face.

He jotted down a note. “Yeah, next time, less shooting, that’s a given, but aside from that. Have a lemon.” He pointed to a plate of sliced lemons that appeared in front of Jay.

“I mean, what the hell happened? I didn’t do anything bad to anybody!”

“No, Jay, you didn’t.” He belted down his shot.

“I mean… I know how the system works. I told the guy that he really didn’t want to be at that hospital without insurance. He needed to be at St. M’s! He understood and left.”

“But, he came back.”

“Yes! Apparently, he didn’t make it and his wife and baby died.” The young man looked at his shoes. “But that’s not my fault! I gave him the choice and he took it! I mean, I feel bad for the guy, but he left of his own free will. And then blamed me for his choice! I’m not evil. I didn’t set up the system. I just laid out a choice for him!”

“Now, you see? That’s what I’m talking about! It’s a choice.” He sat back at his desk and pulled out an envelope. “Of course it’s not your fault. You were just helping him work through the system. It’s not your fault it didn’t work out for him.

“Tell you what. I understand that today has been a real shock for you but I think you did a great job. I couldn’t be more pleased. Here’s your first paycheck. We put a bonus in there, kind of our way of saying ‘Sorry. Here’s your hazard pay.'”

Jay took the envelope and opened it. “Ten thousand? Is this right?”

“We pay our people well here, Jay. Helps with retention, especially after an assignment like that.” He leaned back and smiled again. “Don’t worry about today, Jay. You relax and give me a call when you are ready to work again.” He smiled a grin that was bright and sharp. “We have plenty of work for people like you.”

Fixing a Whole

Bobby couldn’t sleep.  Two nights running, thoughts crept into his head and set up camp.  His mind buzzed with ideas, thoughts, plans, problems and anxieties screaming for attention.  It was like trying to sleep in the middle of a carnival.

His new wife was no help.  He could hear Barbra’s soft, even breaths over the hum of the HEPA air filter.  Jealousy is an ugly thing in a marriage, especially when you are only a couple of months in.  ‘She can sleep anywhere, anytime,’ he thought.  ‘I’d love to do that.  I’m in my own house and can’t sleep and she could doze off at a bus stop with sirens blaring.  Sleep? Hell,’ he turned. ‘I go to visit her folks and I can’t even crap much less sleep.’

The clock read one forty five in angry red numbers.  He was starting to get desperate.

Somewhere else, three figures dressed in black lurked, keeping watch over the train wreck of Bobby’s mind.

One spoke with perfect diction.  “Perhaps we should implant the suggestion?  The one we had discussed?”

“Yeah, Yeah!  Maybe this time!  Let’s do it.  Can I do it?” another chimed in.

The third one tilted his head in thought.  “Sure, go ahead.  Let it loose.”

In Bobby’s mind, a new thought drifted in and soared above the chaos.  His best friend, Ernesto, had suggested that he try meditating.  Ernesto bought into all that new age crap that Bobby considered himself far too enlightened to fall for.  Yet, for all the seeming ridiculousness, Ernesto always looked rested.

Tossing and turning, he tried hard to drift off to sleep, but the harder he tried the more frustrated he became.  If ever there was a time to try Ernesto’s crazy idea, this was it.

‘No more crazy than sitting here awake for the third night in a row,’ he thought.  ‘I can’t go on like this.  Today was brutal.  Need SLEEP!’

He rocked back over onto his back and stretched out with his legs straight and his arms relaxed.  The rhythmic sound of his wife’s breathing filled his ears as he dismissed any thought that came to him.  Work problems inundated him and were dismissed.  Life plans were put on hold for the time being.  The financial books in his mind closed and background music faded away.  Unpaid bills and parking tickets, random facts about breweries and bands found themselves directed to the land of dead thoughts.  All of the nagging thoughts of things left uncompleted were ignored and silenced.

The whole of Bobby’s mind began to unwind.  It stretched out into an open plane of dreams as his body gave into the fatigue of sleepless days.  Tense muscles relaxed and he felt like he was retreating into himself.  He let go of his thoughts and finally went with the flow.

Soon he was flying across the quiet landscape of his mind.  He noticed things that occupied his normal waking life as he passed by their representations, but he did not focus on them – the branching machine that was the computer program he worked on, the cartoon like structure of a game, the tables and racks of probabilities that made up the rules of cribbage. He passed them all by and idly floated within his consciousness, feeling better than he had in days.

Up ahead, in this veritable forest of thoughts, skills and knowledge, floated a dark void.  He headed for it, hoping it was an even deeper level of sleep.

As he went closer to this place that wasn’t, free of all cares, he found himself being drawn into it.  Drunk on the novel whimsy of throwing away all his worries, he now wondered if going into this blackness was a good idea.  Too late, he realized that it wasn’t.

In his bedroom, Bobby’s body tensed.  His unseeing eyes bolted open.  His conscious self was sucked down into the blackened abyss.

And three figures smiled in triumph.

# # #

Bobby sat in a white leather recliner.  His white button-down shirt was undone at the collar with sleeves rolled up, as usual.  Across a white room that appeared to have no walls and no end, stood three men who all looked a bit like him.

One of them was unkempt, in black shorts and a tee shirt.  Waving his hand, he said, “Hi Bob!  Ooo!  I just heard ‘Hi Bob!’  Like the game ‘Hi Bob!’  Gota drink!”  A shot of Tequila appeared in his hand and he drank it down.

“Sorry to bring you down here, Bobby, but things have gotten out of balance,” another said.  Bobby thought he was looking at a mirror when he saw this one, except his clothes were black and not white.

The third one dressed in an all black suit and tie and said, “We’ve come to help you set things right.”

A moment passed as the three looked at him.

“Yeah,” Bobby droned out while thinking.  “OK, well… this is all very weird.”

“Perhaps introductions are in order.”  Bobby’s twin stepped forward.  “You see, I’m Ego.”

The man in the shorts said “Id!” while pulling apart a pizza that appeared out of nowhere.

The man in the suit gave a stiff bow. “I am Super Ego, otherwise known as your better self.  We’ve noticed your recent trouble with control in the consciousness and feel compelled to… lend a hand.”

“What do you mean? ‘Trouble controlling the consciousness?’  I’ve just been… a little out of sorts… and not sleeping well”  As Bobby got up from his recliner, it disappeared like an unneeded thought.

Putting down his pizza, Id said. “Dude, you aren’t out of sorts, you are letting your demons run you.  It’s getting crazy out there!  Now, I might like crazy, but I also like sleep.”

Ego stepped in.  “I’m afraid Id is right, Bobby.  You have a problem with balance.  Not getting enough sleep is just a symptom of the issue.   The fact is things are just stacking up and not being addressed.”

Bobby got worried, and then started to smile. “Hey! This is one of those crazy dreams.  I bet if I wanted, I could do the flying thing or make like I’m having sex with Britney Spears or something.”

Id perked up.  “Dude, forget that.  There are much better looking chicks than her.  What about that English teacher you had in tenth grade.  Mrs. Wortz.  Damn, she made my balls hurt!”

Super Ego slid over to where Id was materializing a bucket of fried chicken. “Good god. Must you be so foul?”

Around a face full of drumstick Id smiled and said, “It’s my job, man, and I do it well!”

“We’re still not getting to the point here, and please don’t encourage … It.” Ego waved his hands in the direction of Id who had regressed to wearing a black thong. “The fact is, Bobby, if you don’t get your head in order here, you aren’t going to live a normal life again.  Is that what you want?”

“What I want is some sleep,” Bobby replied without a second thought. “You’re saying I need to psychoanalyze myself in order to get it?  Fine.  Let’s get to it.”

Super Ego said, “Yes, Let’s,” and turned to a screen rising from the floor.

As the lights dimmed in the white, wall-less room, Ego looked at Bobby and smiled.  “I’m glad you are taking this so well.  We’re only here to help.”

“Since you are me, I would hope so.  By the way, exactly which one of you is me?”

At the same time all three of them said “I am.”

“Well that clears it right up.”

Ego walked over to the screen hovering in the air and said, “You don’t sound totally convinced.  Since we are you, we anticipated that.”  He tapped on the screen and a blob with a squiggly line drawn through the top came up.

Looking for a seat in front of the screen, Bobby said, “What’s that? It looks like a blob, or a map of Barbados.”

“It’s an ice berg, for illustration.”

Bob scrunched up his face trying to make out the ice berg in the picture.  He hadn’t recalled sitting but suddenly realized that he was sitting on a white leather couch between Id and Super Ego.  He’d thought that the screen was missing a couch big enough for all of them to sit on, and here he was, as if by magic.  Or maybe it was all in his head.  He looked up and focused on the task at hand.

Id was suddenly interested and hopped up to sit on the back of the couch. “Ego!  You cut out  Rum?  How could you, man?”

Super Ego slid over to Bobby and said, “I wanted to do this with snazzy graphics, but Ego said it was a frivolous use of the visual cortex.”

Putting his hands up, Ego said, “This doesn’t have anything to do with Rum, computer graphics are frivolous and you…”  He pointed at Bobby.  “I’m you.  You suck at drawing.  This is an iceberg!”

Bobby crossed his arms.  “Fine.”

Mimicking Bobby’s mannerisms, Ego combed back his hair with his fingers.  “So the iceberg is your total mind.  You are the conscious mind or the part controlling the day to day, represented by the part above the water.  Below the water, is where Id and Super Ego duke it out over topics of the day.  Sometimes Super Ego wins out and you are more conscientious and civic minded, moral and upstanding.  But, when the Id wins, you eat fried food and watch porn.”

Bobby took a quick, evil look over his shoulder at Id who was still eating fried skin from the bucket of chicken.  Id just shrugged his shoulders.

Turning back to the screen, Bobby asked, “So what do you do?”

“Ah, I’m the messenger and the arbitrator.  I’m all over.  Id and Super Ego give me constant feedback and what comes to you as the consciousness is the most persuasive argument at the time.  So really, your job is to translate my direction into actions.  I coordinate between the bickering factions of the subconscious and relay them to you as the voice in your head.”

Pointing his finger, Bobby leaned forward.  “So you are the bastard responsible for getting songs stuck in my ear!  You are a sadistic fucker, you know that?”

“Actually, that’s mostly Id, with the music.”

From around a piece of food, Id said, “What can I say?  I like show tunes.”

Turning once again to Ego, Bobby said, “So wait.  Isn’t this a dream?”

“I’m afraid not.”

Id continued to eat and said, “You are in here with us until this gets resolved.”

Super Ego stepped up to explain.  “You see, you fell, rather unceremoniously I might add, into the hole in your life.  Climbing out and sealing it up is not an option.  And the reason that the hole is there, is that balance has been lost.”

“Cutting to the chase,” Id broke in, “one of us has to go!”

“What?”  Bobby’s head whipped around in surprise.

“I’m afraid so,” Ego said.  “One of us has gotten too powerful and no longer listens to the others.  Now things are out of balance and the cracks are starting to show.  Not being able to sleep is just an outward sign.  So are the recent arguments with Barbra.  The uptick in drinking…”

Bobby stood up from the couch, which faded like the screen once it outlived its use.  “Now wait a second.  If one of you go, wouldn’t things get out of balance in the opposite direction?”

Super Ego, who was sitting on the couch with Bobby and now sat in a high-backed chair, laced his fingers together.  “Actually, no.  At least not in the long run.  The troublesome aspect would reestablish itself fairly quickly, but in the meantime, the remaining aspects will strengthen themselves so that a more appropriate balance is restored.”

“It’s like a lizard.”  Id came forward and wiped the crumbs off of his black tee shirt. “You cut off the tail, but it knows that it needs a tail, so it grows back”  He looked off into the distance and mumbled, “Damn, lizards are so cool.”

“So,” Bobby clapped his hands together. “It’s a mystery!  Someone is out of balance.  Well, I’m anxious to get started so I can get some rest, so I’ll start by interviewing you individually.  Together you all bicker too much.”

“That is our function, but I do fear that it’s made worse by the imbalance.”  Ego put out his arms and seemed to draw in the other two.

“Yes, OK, all fine and good, but if I’m to get to the bottom of this, I’ll need to talk to Id and Super Ego myself.  I’ve already realized that you aren’t the one out of whack, so I’ll talk to you last.”

The three looked at one another, somewhat astonished, and then Ego turned back to Bobby.  “Feel free to take all the time you want.  I’ll consult with you at the end.”  He smiled and added, “Then we will get some sleep.”

Bobby clapped his hands together.  “Sounds great!  So who’s first?”

Id jumped in front of Bobby and wheeled him around to a desk forming out of the mist.  “I hate waiting.  Let’s get this party started.”

# # #

Bobby went around to the business side of the desk and took the plush white office chair.  Id sat in the not quite so plush guest chair on the other side.  Pens and paper found their way to the desk as soon as they were looked for, as did a picture of Bobby’s wife.  Feeling at home, he checked the roll on his white shirt sleeves and laced his fingers.  “Okay, so what do you do?”

“What do I do?  Yer kiddin’ right?”

Bobby was once again impressed with how much the Id looked like him, though much more animated and sloppy.

“I’m the one who made you stick at it until you got into Mary O’Conner’s pants all through college!  I’m the guy who persuaded you to throw that killer party for Halloween two years ago!  That’s who I am.”

“Mary O’Conner.”  Bobby leaned back in the chair and let the name dredge up fond memories.  “You are a good man with that one, but what have you done recently?”

Id thought for a second, stroking his temples. His fingers snapped and he exclaimed, “I got you to buy season tickets for hockey!”

“But that was for ‘bonding time’ with Barbra!” Bobby protested.

“You think?”  Id leaned back and smiled.  “Ego is really good at spinning stuff.”

Bobby picked up the picture of his wife, and she started to look kind of pissed.  “So what else?”

“Other things, big and small.  To be quite honest, you ain’t been listening too much lately.”

“What can I say?  I’ve been busy trying to build a life, now that I’m married.”  He put the picture down.  “I can’t exactly just do whatever I want any more.”

Waving his hands to emphasize points, Id said, “Do you really think that’s all I do?  I’m some kind of animal?”

“Yeah.  You are my impulses and baser desires, right?”

Bobby’s sloppy twin kicked back in his chair, but kept a cautious eye on the man in white.  “You’ve got me cold.  But it’s not all fun and games.  I let you be comfortable.  What do you think about that new couch you got a few months ago?”

“I love that couch.”

“You see, that’s me working.  Without me, you wouldn’t enjoy stuff.  I’m the thing that lets you laugh and make jokes, especially the crude ones.  I invite you to have a beer after a hard day and unwind with a good action move.  I drive you to cuddle and *ahem* other things with Barbra.”

Straightening up in his chair, Bobby waved his finger.  “Careful, this is my wife you are talking about here.  I love Barbra!”

“Hey! I’m in charge of that too.  Heard about being ‘madly in love?’  Just call me cupid”

Bobby looked at his desk and found the notes he would have taken about the conversation, had he taken notes. “So without you, I wouldn’t be motivated by emotions and sensations?”

“Exactly.”  Id smiled wide.  “I gotta say, though, things have been pretty tough out there lately.  Imbalance and all that.  Cupid isn’t exactly able to get though all the stress and brewers droop.  You gotta throw us all a bone and let up.”

“I don’t get it,” Bobby said.

“Don’t I know it.  You’re trying too hard.  Even trying too hard to have fun, which takes all the fun out of it.  That couch is awesome, you need to decide to turn your crap off and sog into it more often.”

“I can’t.  I’ve got things to do!” Bobby protested.

“Then do ’em.  Or not.  Ether way quit stressing out about it, man.  You’re not acting as much as you are acting out and on anxious idle.  Shit like that keeps you up all night!”

“OK.”  He reached out his hand and Id shook it gleefully.  “I’m all done here.  Can you get Super Ego for me?”

“Sure thing dude!  Nice knowing you!”

# # #

Super Ego came to the door of the dream office and walked into the room.

“Hi, Super Ego.  Have a seat.”

The stiff version of himself laid down a three page resume on the desk.  “I come prepared.”

Bobby read over the resume until he came to a line. “Hm.  You were the one that kept me from marrying Mary O’Conner right out of college.  Good man.  She was a nightmare.”

Super Ego sat there, looking pleased.

“Is there anything else, or is it all here?”

“Well, I’m much more about keeping you from doing detrimental things. I’d like to point out that anything that takes more than a day or so to plan is controlled by me as well.”

With a kidding grin, Bobby said, “Well, my ability to focus is crap, so thanks a lot”

“Certainly no fault of mine.  You treat your body like a garbage dump.”

“Well, aren’t you also the part of me that drives me to the gym?”

“To be honest, that’s one of the points where the Id and I agree, though for differing reasons.  I propose that you need to take better care of yourself, lose weight and tone up your cardiovascular system.  The Id just likes the runner’s high and the fact that it improves your sexual performance.  And, he tends to like places where women walk around in tight clothing.”

“And you aren’t in on that?”

“I’m ambivalent.  It’s not my job.  My job is to keep you from trying to start anything with those tramps at the gym.  I keep you doing your job, until it’s time to go.  I get you up in the morning and make you go to bed at a decent hour.  I keep you from breaking laws and your word.  In other words, I am your higher self and steer you toward noble goals.”  He folded his hands in his lap and stood straight and still in the chair.

Bobby was impressed with this guy, but he had to find out if he had taken too much power away from the other two.  “So, lately, what is a major accomplishment that you can point to as being mostly your own.”

The stiff twin shifted in his chair and looked Bobby straight in the eye.  “That question shows a lack of understanding of the predicament in which we find ourselves.  Nothing gets accomplished without the input of the other aspects.  Everything is tempered, run through justifications and finally filtered through the personality, you, to actualize in the physical world.  So, I can rightly claim nothing to be my accomplishment.”

Silence greeted this answer, as Bobby considered it.  “Okay, let me rephrase.  What timely action, taken by all of us, was most driven by you?  There must be something that you initiated.  I’m sure you weren’t the initiator of the Hockey tickets.”

“Oh the Hockey tickets.”  He rolled his eyes.  “I spent a long time at the insistence of the Ego coming up with justifications for that.  Truthfully, ever since you got married, it’s been harder and harder to get anything done around here.  I get you checking your check book and going to work, but even that is a struggle.”

“Is that because of the imbalance?”

“Yes.”  His eyes grew wide in alarm and he seemed to somehow grow while staying the same size.  “The imbalance makes it difficult to properly align with expected norms of behavior.  What results is only minimally acceptable, triggering coping mechanisms.  Your lack of sleep, for instance, is every undone thing shouting at you, both the required and the desired.  These things don’t just go away if you ignore them.”

“Well I really haven’t been able to focus on any of that stuff.”  Bobby waved a hand as he replied. “I’ve been busy, you know…”

“NO!”  Super Ego insisted.  His fist came down on the white table top of the desk, momentarily turning it black.

“Excuse me?”

Behind SuperEgo, the white room darkened.  The figure in the chair became more clearly defined, somehow more there than he had been before.  His face froze into a hard, lecturing stare.  “You do not get to give yourself a pass on this one.  The way you are acting, taking on every problem and resolving none, taking up every distraction and vice without care or enjoyment, you are acting as a barbaric fool.  No wonder Barbra argues with you. You drink, you eat like crap, you avoid her, you avoid your job, you avoid the gym.  Your logic wants to think that behaving like an animal will make you happier, but still you can’t let go enough to enjoy your antisocial behavior.”

“Hey!” Bobby squeaked in protest, “Quit stepping on my dick, jackass.”

“I would like to, but you keep presenting it to be trod upon and keeping you on the straight and narrow is my job.  As part of that job, I have to tell you that you, as you are now are a loathsome creature.  And to top it all off, you don’t even have the common decency to be ashamed of yourself.  You must… put an end to the imbalance… or we are all lost.”

“You done?” Bobby crossed his arms and rocked back in the white office chair.  “You done, or would you like to sit there and shit talk me… us… a little more?”

Super Ego straightened and feigned distraction by inspecting his sleeve for lint.  “I believe I’ve said my peace, Bobby.  I’d apologize for the unfiltered nature of my comments if I didn’t believe that they were one hundred percent justified.  I fear that even with this admonition, you will continue on your current course.  And as usual, I will have your best interest at heart and will attempt to guide you down a path of piety.”

“Uh, thanks, I guess…”

A pencil eraser tapped nervously in Bobby’s hand, rapping against a notepad.  He looked at the notes that appeared on the pad as he thought them up then addressed Super Ego.  “OK. I need to think about this.  If you can let the others know that I’ll be out in a bit.”

The stiff entity stood up and left the office, leaving Bobby to ponder his subconscious.

# # #

“How did the interviews go?”  Ego was so exactly like Bobby that he was a touch stunned at seeing him again.  It was as if the mirror suddenly started talking.

“Fine. Just don’t tell me that you really are Mary O’Conner.”

“No.  Actually, I’ve got some regrets about that girl.  She was quite the troubled soul.”

“Yeah, she was.  Hot though…”  Bobby nodded at the ground for a moment then raised an eyebrow at his twin.  “I’m having a hard time.  Both Super Ego and Id have elements that seem over the top and out of control.  But I’m thinking that the Id has grown too crazy.  His appetite for fun and games seems to be a problem.”

Ego shook his head. “I was afraid you’d say that.”  The man in the black placed a hand on bobby’s shoulder.  “You see, Bobby, It’s you, the personality, the consciousness.  You are the problem.”

“Me?”

“Yes.”

“How can I be the problem?  I’m the one who is actually Bobby!”

“Not without us, you’re not, and that’s the problem.  You have suppressed your subconscious to the point where your waking mind must do all the analysis and make all the decisions.  You haven’t done what you wanted to do, because you thought it would be indulgent.  You haven’t done what you should do because you resent always having to be responsible.  In the end, the tools that are given to your conscious mind are overtaxed and running out of control, causing you stress and sleeplessness.  The waking mind can’t sleep because you have given it so much work to do that it needs to run well into the night to catch up.”

Bobby stuck his hand up and turned away from Ego. “That’s a bunch of crap.  All I’m doing here is talking to myself.  This is just another weird dream, though I guess I should be thankful.  At least it means I’m sleeping.”

“See?  You aren’t paying attention.  This is no dream.” Ego charged at Bobby with his finger in the air.

“But I’m keeping myself together as best I can for my wife, my job and my future!”

“Your wife and your job would be better served if you let your whole self address the issues in front of you.  She fell in love with you as a whole person and the problems that come up between you two are partly because you changed.  As for your future?  Well, you can’t keep your current state up very long.  Eventually your conscious decision making process will crack and you will start screwing up or going mad.  You already can’t sleep, so who’s to say you won’t have a costly nervous breakdown.”

The Personality of Bobby clenched his fists.  “I won’t let myself have a nervous breakdown!”

“Now there, you are more right than you know.”  Id and Super Ego flanked Ego and all three were looking at him.  “You, Bobby’s personality and waking mind, you are the one who has to go.”

“Whoa, wait a second!  Then what was all that interviewing and such about?  You said one of you all must go.”

“I said one of ‘Us’ must go.  Knowing that you were the one of ‘Us’ that was on the way out, none of the rest of us thought that there was any harm in letting you have your fun.  Besides, you might have learned something and made this unnecessary.  As it is, further self reflection will have to be handled by your successor.  Good bye.”

“Wait!  Hold on! What are you…”  Bobby’s personality slowly disappeared into the vague whiteness of the room’s boundaries, as if it had been a piece of forgotten furniture.

Out in the real world, Bobby’s whole body sighed and the cleansing chaos of dreams flooded his mind.  It swirled and danced with the pieces of computer program, making them play cribbage to thirty one.  Worlds unfolded and evaporated to give rise to strange beings as gravity bubbled up and explored the ceiling.  All of the trouble in life mixed with this chaos and new connections were tried with the crazy logic of dreams.  The magic work of the subconscious raced through the sleeping mind.

At the center of the storm, in the endless white room, Id, Ego and Super Ego looked at an image of the sleeping Bobby on a screen flaked by the dream images.  A separate screen showed the progress of Bobby’s brain and body descending into a deep sleep.

Super Ego leaned in to talk to Ego.  “Are you sure that was wise?”

“No.” Ego turned and faced the straight laced, subconscious personification. “But it was necessary.  He’ll sleep past his alarm in the morning, giving us ample time to create a new personality from his memories and experiences, his thoughts and dreams.  It will be him – us – but without all that willful control nonsense that was causing so much trouble and angst.”  Ego looked once again at Bobby finally at peace, healing and resting.  “When Bobby wakes up, he’ll feel like a whole new man.”

A Small Sample

The sky was yellow and dotted with stars that did not twinkle.  Across the pink and dusty surface of this hostile world, Dr. Leonard Spence noiselessly crunched toward a rocky cave.

“So remind me again why I’m not in my nice safe lab watching one of you guys do this?”

In his ears, he could hear a soft pop followed by Carol’s friendly voice. “You’re the Exo-biologist, Lenny.  If we got critters, they are yours.  Aren’t you curious?”

“Sure, but I only need a small sample.  I can make observations from your suit’s cam just fine.”

“But you know there’s nothing like the real thing, baby.”  Lenny didn’t appreciate Burt’s attitude even though the brash astronaut meant no harm.  “Besides, it’s well past your turn.”

“Fine,” he said in a tone that made it clear that it was anything but.  “I just hate space suits.”  Lenny trudged along in the bulky but flexible suit and looked at the pale, alien sky. “Not too fond of space in general, really.”

Over the radio, Carol said, “Then you really picked the wrong profession, Lenny.”

Burt added, “And it’s a little late to bitch about it.  Just get your sample so we can stop listening to you whine.”

Wishing he could wipe his brow, Lenny started into the cave.  “I wasn’t whining.  I was complaining.”  He straightened up as if to regain some dignity and turned on his suit lamps.  “Trained scientists don’t whine.”

“Whatever, Lenny.  We’re getting a video feed.  Looks good.”

Now that the cave was lit, the hesitant spaceman could see what had taken him out of his cozy, properly pressurized lab.  Half way up an obsidian pillar common to these caves, a blob of green gunk slowly crept along.  Its body glistened under the lamp as if it were wet or oily.  It appeared not to notice Lenny even as he closed to within an arm’s length.

“Let’s see, it’s green, which may mean chloroplasts, and looks like a blob.  Might be an extremophile plant or a colony of single celled organisms.  I wonder what it eats?”  Fascination overtook fear as Lenny recited field notes.  “It appears to be surrounded by a membrane of mucus.  In its natural environment… it seems to be rippling.  This may be a reaction to the intense light.”

Over the com link, Burt droned, “Again, whatever.  I don’t want you out there long enough to freak out.  Grab your snot and get back.”

Though condescending, Lenny recognized good advice.  He took a scoop-like sampling tool off of his tool belt and extended the handle.

“Going in now, Burt.”  He looked for a good place to sample.  “Now, Mr. Blob, I’m only going to take a small sample.  You may feel a bit of a pinch, but I promise there is a lollypop in it for you.”

The instrument shook at the end of the foot-long handle as he brought it up to the blob.  As soon as he touched it, a faint pop filled his ears and all the lights in his suit went dark.

He was plunged into the total blackness of the cave.

“Oh crap!  Burt? Carol?”  Nothing came over the com link, not even static.

He could feel his fingers getting num.  The heaters had gone off too.  “I’m starting to get cold.  Hello! Do you hear me?  Come in.”

The only response was black silence.

“…hello?” he squeaked.

Lenny’s primal fears prevented him from moving.  This was why he hated space, he thought.  It was because of stuff just like this.  Being out of control and at the mercy of the unknown.

From outside the self-contained fishbowl of his helmet, he thought he could sense something moving.  He wasn’t sure if he was seeing it or hearing it, but something stirred in the dark.  Fear kept his breath weak and shallow, so his ears could pick up any sound from the outside world.  All he could hear was how scared his breath sounded.  Lenny swallowed hard.  This was a long way from the lab, for sure.

“Come on, man.  Get a grip.”  His own voice made him jump. “It’s just a power failure.”

He thought about the suit.  “A power failure in multiple, triple-redundant devices.”  He heard the ragged breath return to his fishbowl.  “I’m sure it happens all the time…” His voice lost all confidence. “…in some parallel universe where the nature of probability is completely different.”

His chest tightened.  “I’ve got to get out of here.”

The fear let go of his legs enough to take a step back.  He followed it with another and got a shock that made him hop.

The lights turned back on.

“Eeep!”

Over the com link, static gave way to an amused voice.  “Excuse me, Lenny, I don’t think I copied that.  Did you just yelp like a little schoolgirl?”

It was Burt back in the control room.  “Crap, Burt, everything went black here, didn’t you notice?”

“Sorry.  We thought we just lost your telemetry for a second.  Sunspots, you know.”

“Sunspots nothing!  I think it can screw up electronics.  I mean, everything went dark and cold here.”  With the light back on, Lenny got his mind back on his task and got a second shock.

“The specimen is gone!”  The spot where the glistening green blob was perched now just had a spot of goo, turning solid in the freezing space cave.

“Lenny?  This is Carol, are you OK out there?  Your suit is reporting a drop in pressure.”

“I’ll take a look for… OH, MY GOD!”  He looked at his gloved hand in disbelief.

Static ravaged his ears, now painfully sensitive, after one shock too many.  “What?”

“My pinky is gone!”  The glove on his right hand had four perfect fingers and one stump on the end.  The stump was covered on its clean, flat top with the same glistening goo that coated the green blob he had come all this way to study.

“How can that be?” Carol asked over the intercom.  “You aren’t losing any more air.  A hole in the suit that size would have killed you.”

The cold, the fear, and the claustrophobia all came in as the shock of being so casually dismembered dawned on the uptight scientist.  Lenny lost it.  “I don’t know, it looks like there is some kind of glop plugging up the… My finger! I’ve been maimed!”

“Dude,” Burt’s voice said over the intercom, “It’s just your pinky.  Pull it together.  Forget the sample and get out of there.  Abort.  The snot isn’t worth your life.”

Out of the corner of the helmet’s view portal, Lenny thought he saw movement.  Whipping his body around for a better view, he saw the green, lumpy blob undulate over the rocks on the cave floor.  In the middle of it, still sheathed in the heavy glove’s digit, was Lenny’s severed pinky.  He watched as it retreated from view on the blob’s back.

“My finger!  Give me back my finger!”

With thoughts of remaining maimed for the rest of his life guiding his actions, Lenny bolted after the creature.  It was heading for a small crack in the cave wall, so Lenny dove for his severed body part, knowing it was now or never.  As he touched the alien, all of the systems in his suit shut down, including the lights.

Once again, he was plunged into darkness, but he had the vague feel of the slimy green goo in his cold, numb and incomplete hands.  He was determined to get his finger back and wrestled with the mass until it finally slipped away from him.

But it had been worth it.  He could feel it in his hand.  Yes.  It was a struggle, but his pinky was his once more.

As the creature retreated through the small hole in the cave wall, Lenny’s suit mounted lights illuminated the cave.  He pulled his hands into the light to examine the cylindrical object he snatched back from the blob.  He found only the empty pinky finger of the space suit’s glove.

“NOOOOOOooooooooo!”

***

The green blob seeped through the membrane that kept the toxic environment of the outside from the more hospitable world inside the planet’s rocks.  Its electrostatic sonar imaged a home of polished, spherical rooms with curved and edgeless connecting tunnels, populated by many fine-looking blobs.

As it shucked the slimy life-support membrane they used to survive outside, the blob thought about the strange, solid, electrically-charged life forms that had been invading the cave.  It was a good thing he was able to grow an organelle to deal with such a life form.

And what a life form!  It undulated with excitement over the prize it carried.  A piece of a real alien!  It couldn’t wait to get back to the lab.

Sliding through the passages, alien tissue in its possession, the blob wondered why the creature had kicked up such a fuss.  After all, it had only taken a small sample.