Tudi has her mid-morning break by herself at the back table of the office break room. She doesn’t feel like making small talk this morning. Hell, she doesn’t want to be at work this morning, but she is.
As she sips her vending-machine drip coffee with extra sugars, she decides it’s a good thing she can’t remember all of what happened to her that night. She knows her status in the office has been forever altered. She just hopes there won’t be any legal consequences.
What she does remember, in a hung over haze, is disjointed, a group of moments. She can’t remember what order in which they occurred, or even whether they all really happened or whether she later dreamed some of them.
What’s easy to remember is how it started.
Oh, she’d always known Mitzi and Magda had their cruel streaks about them. She was always hearing them say awful things about their co-workers, family, and “friends;” she’d long suspected they said things just as bad about her when she wasn’t in the room.
So, as the after-work party for her birthday wrapped up, and they suggested keeping the party going at another bar, she hesitated a bit, no a lot, before she said yes.
She knows the three of them went to another bar. At least three other bars; maybe more. That’s where the details and the timelines get jumbled up.
An early memory involves Mitzi and Magda vetoing Tudi’s drink order. She wanted a “celebration” cocktail, something with fancy flavors and happy colors. They yelled at the barmaid to get them all vodka shots, then Bourbon shots, then tequila shots. No, that might not have been the correct sequence, but it was something like that.
She remembers flagging down a waiter at another bar, trying to order food; only for the other two to get that changed into another round of drinks.
Other things she more or less, sort of, remembers:
- A series of toasts: to her, to them, to the company, to the upcoming retirement of a boss Mitzi and Magda particularly detest; to Magda’s ex moving to the other side of the country next month (at last); to the positive cancer diagnosis of Mitzi’s “wicked stepmother, except she’s my real mom”; to guys who meet what Mitzi calls “the highest ratio” of money spent on women vs. sex demanded from women; and probably others.
- Noticing the taste of the drinks less intensely as she has more of them.
- The three of them standing around in a crowded bar with loud oldies music on the PA. The other two chatting up a succession of men, looking for the one who’d be “the right birthday present for our friend here.”
- Similar scenes to the above, in at least two other bars. Either Mitzi and Magda were picky about potential “presents,’ or they were just joshing, or their attention spans were shrinking fast. She herself feeling relieved whenever she got to stop talking to any particular one of these men.
- The three of them crowded in the back seat of a Civic being used as a Lyft car; Mitzi whispering racist “jokes” about the driver.
- Going to the women’s room in one bar after Magda had left it; smelling a hint of vomit by the sinks; not asking about it afterwards.
- Being handed a straight Coca-Cola by a male bartender, who’d assumed she was the designated driver just because she was the only sane one in the trio. Her accepting it without complaint.
- Tudi insisting she won’t get into Magda’s car again; Magda insisting she’s just fine, as she almost trips over her own high heels.
- Coming back from the women’s room, overhearing the two saying brutal things (apparently) about her; the two giggling briefly just before they see her. Tudi feeling grateful that Magda’s wearing (at least some) underwear under her little black dress.
- The last (or was it?) place they were at together. A condo building, less than a block from the last bar they’d been at. Tudi herself saying repeatedly she wants to leave. Magda, still boistrous and laughing, saying no no no not yet. Mitzi starting to ramble, albeit incoherently, like a bitter old woman disgusted by her fate in life and by the whole world. Magda saying she knows just what they all need now. Tudi wondering what that could be. Pot? Pills? Blow? Still more booze? Some combo of the above? Now she really wanted out. So what was stopping her? Only her own rising sense of fatigue. That and a sense of “surrender.” Something she hadn’t felt in a long time, if ever. Surrender to the moment; to the mood.
- Awakening, very briefly, in a strange bed in a strange bedroom, vaguely aware of the sound of someone else’s breathing, re-closing her eyes without investigating.
- Awakening again in her own bed, alone, on top of the sheets, her shoes off but otherwise fully dressed, with a hangover headache, and no idea how she’d gotten home.
- Dreaming (or was it?) about being back in the condo, suddenly seeing a man starting to strip out of a fake pizza-delivery uniform, then strutting toward her. Her turning away as Mitzi, Magda, and perhaps several other women screamed “SUCK IT!” repeatedly at her. Her closing her eyes and the sounds almost immediately going away.
- Dreaming (or was it?) about kissing a male stranger, who may or may not have been the stripper. At one point she looks away and sees Mitzi and Magda gawking at them; at another point she looks away again and sees nobody.
- Fantasizing (or was it?) about bopping Mitzi and Magda on the head with a cast iron skillet.
- Fantasizing (or was it?) about suggesting running off with the stripper, only for him to tell her his husband wouldn’t like it.
As Tudi sips and tries to sort out the images in her head, she sees Magda entering the break room, with one of the other people from her division (and with a head looking un-bopped-on). She turns her back to them, hoping not to be noticed. She pulls out her phone, to have something to bury her face in.
As soon as she turns it on and enters her security code, she hears the familiar “new texts” sound. There are three of them: two from an unknown number, and one from Mitzi.
“Congrats. You passed the initiation. You’re one of us now.”
Tudi turns off her phone and buries her face in her hand.
The Coming Darkness
Hillary and Donald lay side-by-side.
“It’s too much,” she sighed.
She rolls on her front, pulling at the light blue nightie that is riding up her thigh.
“I mean, Bill deserves whatever anyone can dish out, but I thought we weren’t going to let this thing get so out of hand. The whole campaign has gotten too ugly. We’re making people depressed.”
He kisses her temple, and then her neck behind her ear, nudging the nightie back up her leg with his knee.
“I’m serious, Donald. You act like this is all fun and games, but the goal is for me to be president, not for us both to be excommunicated from the country.”
“That’s your goal, my darling. I have to say I’m having the time of my life. I get to use big words, I get to find out all of the shit people have on me – especially the shit that I didn’t make up. I get to take the names of all of those shriveling little republicans who didn’t have the balls to take me out in the first place and now I’ve got my middle finger up their assholes and they’re spinning like circus freaks. It’s delicious, my love. If you can’t take back congress after this…”
“I don’t know. I am THE MOST QUALIFIED candidate ever to run for this office. If this were a spelling bee, I could spell all of the words backwards while standing on my hands and juggling chainsaws with my feet. Instead, I’m struggling to beat you. Maybe I should’ve just run against a normal person. Not the crazy, racist, sexist clown man.”
“My dear, if the electorate weren’t so fucking stupid, that’s what would have happened. I didn’t intend to be debating you – nice touch to withhold the handshake tonight, BTW – I honestly can’t understand how this all happened. This was supposed to be funny, not the campaign from hell.”
Hillary coughs. Donald rolls over and pulls something out of the nightstand drawer.
“Here are these throat drops I got you. Supposed to be magic. That soprano at the Met swears by them.”
“Is that the same soprano they sent you with their last fundraising ask.”
“Yeah, yeah. Her. Baby, you know I don’t care about singers. She gives good advice about cough drops, though, trust me! Plus, I worry about you and all this coughing.”
“It’s nothing, I told you.”
Hillary pops a cough drop into her mouth and sucks for a while, lost in thought. Donald sits up and turns to her.
“I could drop out of the race.”
“Don’t be silly, Donald. That would leave poor Mike Pence, and voters are in such a crazed state now, he might actually get elected. He’d have to jump off a building or something. What would he do?”
“I know. I knew he was a poor choice from the beginning. But the logo thing with our initials was just too fun to pass up and I couldn’t find any other running mates with P names. Okay, if I’m not going to drop out of the race, why don’t we just go for broke.”
“What do you mean ‘go for broke’?”
“We could leak a sex tape of you and me.”
HIllary laughs and then almost chokes on her cough drop.
“I’m pretty sure no one wants to see either of us naked, but I like where you’re going with this.”
Hillary climbs on top of Donald and he grins. He grabs her ass.
“It would be incredible, right? Put the rest of this show to shame. I keep trying to figure out how I can up the ante, but it hadn’t occurred to me how hilarious it would be to become totally transparent.”
“Well, not the sister/brother thing. I would probably draw the line there.”
A ROSE AT PEARL MANOR
By K. Uffelman
Ned’s chin dropped to his chest and the sudden movement woke him with a start.
“Bored by the lunch? Yeah, the food’s not so good.”
Ned turned his head. Who is that guy? He must be new, thought Ned, although he looked strangely familiar.
“I’ve had worse,” Ned mumbled, trying to focus on the plate in front of him. Was it really that the food was so bad it was putting him to sleep? Looked like some kind of chicken and something else. Maybe hashbrowns? That couldn’t be right. Who serves hashbrowns with chicken?
“Feel like a game of cards after they clear away this mess?” asked the familiar stranger.
Ned directed his attention back to the speaker. Nobody talked this much at Pearl Manor. Ned shrugged. He tried to roll back from the table, he didn’t want to play cards. But someone had set the parking break on his wheelchair and he couldn’t remember where the release lever was. He was so sleepy.
When he next opened his eyes he was sitting in front of a large window with a blanket thrown over his lap. The sod of the suburban backyard was curiously green and he could make out the details of the sprinkler heads, poking up every so often in the grass. His cataract surgery had been a great success; his eyesight was better than it had been in years and he was still getting used to the crystal-clear picture he saw when he woke in the morning. It was the same now. He could see imperfections in the sheetrock and how the laminate flooring didn’t really look like wood at all. Pearl Manor had seemed so much nicer before they fixed his eyes.
“Hey, buddy, I think your girlfriend might make an appearance.”
Ned turned his head to see who was talking. It was his neighbor from lunch. Who was he? Ned couldn’t remember a name, or how long this man had been a resident, but his knowledge of Ned’s lovelife was disturbing.
“Hi Luba! How’s mom doing today?”
Ned could see Rose’s daughter-in-law walking down the hall, carrying some potted flowers. What was her name? Jen? Gina? Something like that.
“She slept through lunch. We didn’t wake her.” Luba stuck a bobby pin in the braid she had coiled at the base of her neck. Ned noticed she fussed with her hair a lot. Jen/Gina looked deflated.
“Was she up for breakfast? Has she been up today?”
Luba smiled apologetically.
“We gave Rose her morning medication with some toast, but then she wanted to lie down. I’m sure she’ll be so happy to see you!”
Jen/Gina looked around. Ned tried to see what she saw. A handful of ancient men napping in wheelchairs. And then the familiar stranger who looked a little too fit to be here. Or maybe fit was the wrong term. He was sporting a significant pot belly and wearing slippers, but he was energetic in a way that was out of place here. He made Ned feel nervous.
“Hi miss!” shrilled the familiar stranger, “How are you doing today? You look lovely as always!”
Jen/Gina actively ignored him, but brightened a little when she noticed Ned.
Ned nodded in her direction and tried to give her what he hoped was a smile.
“Your grandkids coming today?” She asked. Ned shrugged. He had no idea. He was worried about Jen/Gina holding that heavy pot of flowers. It looked heavy. He wished he could carry it for her, but all he could manage was a nod toward Rose’s room.
“Nice to see you, Ned.”
She was a good daughter-in-law, thought Ned. Cheerful. Ned would like a daugher-in-law like that.
“Do you want some help waking her, Jamie?” Luba asked.
Jamie. He must remember. Her name is Jamie.
Luba pushed open Rose’s door and said, too loudly in Ned’s opinion, “Rose, your daughter-in-law Jamie is here with some beautiful flowers! Wake up, Rose. Time to wake up!”
“Hi mom,” Jamie whispered.
Jamie hesitated for a moment, but then walked into Rose’s room. Luba clicked off down the hall, wearing heels instead of her usual nursing shoes. Was it Sunday? Was she dressed up for church, Ned wondered?
He noticed the familiar stranger was staring at Rose’s door. He didn’t like the intensity of the gaze or the agitated drumming of the stranger’s fingers on the arm of the sofa. He started to say something, but his eyelids slipped down, down and his head rolled back against the thick collar of his sweater.
When he next woke, it was to Rose laboring through a Bach minuet. He loved to hear her play, even when she struggled, and he secretly prayed through each piece that she wouldn’t give up mid-melody. He was disappointed that in his long, long life he had never made the effort to learn to play a musical instrument. It was so magical, that human hands could deliver such beautiful sound.
“Here mom, let’s play one of these. They’re simple duets…you can coach me.”
Jamie and Rose picked slowly through some Schubert. Ned rolled his wheelchair to the front sitting room to be closer to the music. Jamie and Rose were seated side by side at the piano in front of the window, and Ned rolled as close as he thought he could without disturbing them. Jamie managed the simple arrangement well enough, and the sound of the piano was a welcome relief to the news program blaring from the television in the other room. But it was the view of Rose’s back that really enchanted Ned. Her normally slumping shoulders straightened in the loveliest way. Although he couldn’t see from behind, he imagined her breast bone lifted and her lungs inflating fully as her arms and hands moved in tempo. He closed his eyes, but instead of giving in to drowsiness, it was to better conjure the pressure of Rose’s fingers, on the keys of the piano or maybe on the small of his back or the nape of his neck.
“Don’t fall asleep while your girlfriend’s playing, old man!” The stranger’s fingers replaced the thought of Rose’s, shaking Ned in a way that near choked him.
“I’m awake!” gasped Ned.
“Sure you are, sure you are.”
Jamie turned around and glared at the stranger. He smiled back at her in a way that Ned was sure she didn’t welcome.
“Beautiful playing,” Ned whispered.
Rose turned her head slightly and he caught her eye. At moments like these, he was sure she understood his admiration. She rarely looked his direction, and sometimes he was sure she didn’t remember who he was. Often, in fact. But right now, she knew.
“I think I need to lie down now, dear.”
“One more?” Ned asked, his whisper hanging in the air.
“Yeah, how about one more tune for the old boy!” the stranger’s voice hurt Ned’s ears, too close and too loud.
“I’m just so tired,” Rose said, to no one in particular. And then Jamie helped her to her feet, and they walked slowly back to her room.
Rose passed close by Ned’s wheelchair and her fingers brushed his forearm. He didn’t catch her eye a second time, but he had felt the faint warmth of her skin and that was enough. Ned’s arm tingled for a moment, but then his eyelids started to feel heavy again.
The room was suddenly empty.
What was wrong with him?
Mirage by Dalmatia Flemming
Dana was prepared this time. No more driving in concentric circles looking for a parking space only to find spaces big enough for a Smart Car, like what happened the last time she tried to park on Friday night. She went to the city’s department of transportation website and found the official parking map. It was difficult to read; the legend showed six parking categories, each a different color, six different sign types … more colors, three patterns for am/pm restrictions and another color for spaces temporarily out of commission.
Dana determined she would head straight for the peripheral area, park and then walk; should be no more than ten blocks. So that was the plan; so much better to drive straight there, park and walk instead of her previous infuriating Friday night parking experience. The goal was to meet Ellen for Happy Hour before the movie. She performed the math calculation to ensure she left on time.
But … wait … could it be?! A parking spot on the coveted single block of “Unrestricted” parking?! This single street in the heart of all the action becomes available for free parking at 6 pm. Daily, cars begin to jockey for position at 5:55, circling the block until 6 pm. It was now 6:30 pm. How could this space still be available?! Was this a mirage?
Dana snagged the spot. She relaxed back into her seat and feeling very self-satisfied, let out a gentle exhale and smiled.
So now she would be early!
Dana decided the additional vest layer she had decided to wear under her coat was excessive. Even though she was a pro at completely undressing in stages at stop signs without ever exposing herself while changing into her exercise clothes, for some unknown reason she decided to get out of the car to remove her coat and then the vest.
Standing close to the car so as not to get hit by traffic, Dana started to remove her coat. Exactly what happened next will never be known … did the site of oncoming traffic trigger a self-preservation instinct in her so that she closed the car door to move in closer and get away from traffic? Did parking on a slight incline cause the door to be overcome by the force of gravity, consequently closing it? All of a sudden Dana became aware that the car door was closed and her purse, phone and keys were inside. “No … no!” Dana dashed around the car checking each door. “Shit!”
The miracle parking experience was a miracle no more.
OK, now what. Dana decided this called for a Happy Hour prior to the arranged Happy Hour / movie. She walked into the nearest tavern, a mere 20 feet away, and sat down at the one available bar seat between a man and a woman.
Dana looked around. The woman sitting next to her was texting. “Excuse me” Dana said to the woman. “I don’t have my phone with me, could I make a quick call on your phone?”
“Sure, no problem … just let me finish this.” The woman handed Dana her phone.
Dana proceeded to call AAA. The man sitting next to her glanced her direction and was clearly listening in. Dana thanked the woman for the use of her phone.
“I can break in to your car for you” said the man sitting next to Dana.
“Thanks, but I just called AAA. Someone will be here within the hour … but …” Dana glanced around the bar looking for a clock on a wall … “I’ll probably be late to meet my friend.”
“Where are you parked?”
“Practically right outside the door.”
“Come on” the man said, while standing up and placing cash on the bar.
“Well, what about AAA? And how can you be so sure you can break into my car anyway?”
“Let’s just say I’ve had a lot of practice.”
“You used to work for AAA?”
“Would you like your car door to be open 5 minutes from right now?”
“Come on then” the man said as he headed for the door.”
“You have a Slim Jim in your pocket or something” Dana said as she scurried along behind him, not quite sure that this was a good idea.
The man looked at her car. “Piece of cake.”
The man pulled from his pocket something that was used as a Slim Jim is used, but it was clearly a make-shift tool. He proceeded to work on the door. Twenty seconds later, Dana’s car door was open.
“Wow” Dana said, trying to restrain herself from jumping up and down. She was ecstatic but also suspicious …. Oh, what the Hell. She gave the man a childlike bear hug, encircling his arms with hers so that he could barely move. “Thank you, thank you!”
“Uh … you’re welcome.”
Dana quickly let go of the man, stepped back and started blushing. “Thank you, thank you.”
“You can stop saying thank you now.”
“So, what about this appointment with your friend?”
“Oh, we’re meeting for Happy Hour and a movie … want to join us?” What on Earth have I just done thought Dana? I don’t even know this guy’s name and he might be a serial car thief! But he was cute … or was that just because he got her out of a jam. But then, he could be her Knight in Shining Armor.
“Mike”, he held out his hand.
Dana shook it. “Pleased to meet you Mike.”
Dana and Mike headed towards the arranged Happy Hour spot.
Forty five minutes later the AAA guy showed up.
EVANESCENCE – DAPHNE BELLFLOWER
Part 5 – Snapshot
The house was finally quiet. Charlotte, never fond of forced socializing unless it was related to work and therefore paid, was officially sick of people. Her cheeks hurt from baring her teeth and smiling. She had run out of banal chit chat and the patience to listen to the grief aphorisms offered by friends and family and neighbors and everyone else in town who wanted to participate in someone else’s death drama.
For first time in two weeks that Charlotte didn’t have to take care of anybody but herself. She foolishly thought her caregiving duties would officially terminate when her mom died. She didn’t realize that death as a concept didn’t end with the actual death. It just dragged on and on, until every detail was exhausted, the funeral arrangements made, phone calls, emails, and texts answered, every casserole and pie eaten, and every wilted flower thrown out.
“She was so lucky to have you here with her up to end,” they all said, one after another on an endless loop. “You’re such a good daughter. She didn’t have to die alone.” It took a couple of times before Charlotte learned to temper her response to this line of reasoning.
“She didn’t even know who I was,” she snapped the first time few times she heard it. “It wouldn’t have mattered if it were me or some random stranger.” After several shocked looks, Charlotte learned to look down, clasp her hands together, and quietly murmur “Thank you.” It also helped to dig her fingernails deep into her palms. Charlotte was glad the social phase of death was over, and she could go back to saying what she actually thought.
Charlotte looked at the clock. It was 4:10 in the afternoon, technically too early for a drink. It was finally cooling down a bit. She had opened every window in the house to clear out the stale air. The family home was almost empty now, and she was getting it ready to be sold. Charlotte tried to summon some sort of feelings up about this. Should she be sad? Nostalgic? Was is normal not to feel anything at all?
Charlotte, her sisters and brother had worked for a week to pack up and empty the house. They each took a few things, sentimental items, easily packed or stored in the trunk of a car. She and her siblings were too far entrenched in their own adulthood to need anything essential. Each of them had houses with silverware, blankets, pots and pans, furniture; all the accoutrements of adult life. There was nothing of real value in the house, not even on a kitsch level. Her parents were solidly middle-class with four kids and not a lot of extra money. Charlotte decided it would be best to donate everything from the house to charity.
The remaining chore was the hardest. Charlotte sat on the floor trying to decide what to do with the remaining stacks of old pictures and assorted mementos from her family’s shared past. A few years ago, her brother John had consolidated all the family photos into individual thumb drives and gave them to everyone for Christmas. It was a great present; everyone loved it. But the hard copies, the original pictures, lost their significance. Reproduced and always available, somehow made them less compelling.
She piled everything into a big box; photos of the family from the 1950s through the 1990s, travel souvenirs, old report cards, letters from her dad to her mom when he was stationed at Fort Dix during basic training. The photos had a brittle shiny look that digital couldn’t convey. Some were wrinkled, stained, missing a corner. Most of them had the date and the event commemorated on the back in her mom’s perfect cursive. Pre-Facebook status updates without the option to “Like.”
If there were any grandchildren, Charlotte would pass the box on to them and let them figure out what to do with it. She was exhausted by the cleaning, packing, and yardwork it took to get the house in good enough shape to sell. Her tolerance for these duties was at its end. Maybe she’d just throw everything away.
Charlotte picked up a photo of her family next to a Christmas tree with piles of presents beneath it. Her long dead grandparents were in the photo too. Everyone was smiling except for her grandfather. She flipped it over. “Christmas, 1973.” Charlotte stared at her grandmother. She had forgotten how much her mom looked like her when she got old. She tossed the photo back into the box on top of the pile. There were probably 300 photos.
Charlotte suddenly recalled an afternoon shopping with a girlfriend on Abbott-Kinney after a tipsy lunch in Venice. There were so many retail stores in the neighborhood that a window display had to be significantly outré to lure customers inside. Charlotte was staring a collection of corn husk dolls spray-painted silver when her friend grabbed her arm and dragged her to the next window.
“Charlotte, you’ve got to look at this,” she said. “It’s crazy. Who are all these people? Or the real question, who were all these people?”
In the store window, artfully scattered on a black velvet fabric, were dozens of old snapshots of the dead in open caskets. Men in suits with white hair and rouged cheeks, women dressed up like they were going out to a fancy dinner. A little boy in a small white coffin, his head resting on a blue tufted satin pillow. Everybody’s eyes were closed, their mouths set in neutral positions. Charlotte was incredulous.
“This window wins,” Charlotte said, laughing. “This is really fucked up. Who throws out family photos, and better yet, who collects them?”
Charlotte stared at the box of her family photos. She wished she hadn’t remembered that store window. Now she couldn’t throw any of this stuff away. She’d drop it off at John’s house before she left to Mexico, then pick it back up and store it alongside her boxes of things she couldn’t throw away back at her house in Los Angeles. Everything that made up a life, everything a person was could be packed away into a box and stored the basement. It was depressing.
There was a knock at the front door. Charlotte decided not to answer it. The knock became more insistent. Charlotte continued to ignore it. Whoever was at her front door was now actually pounding on it. This made Charlotte so angry that she jumped up and ran to the front door.
“This had better be an emergency,” she said, jerking the door open. It was Jenny.
Charlotte stared at her without saying a word. Jenny crossed her arms and narrowed her eyes. Charlotte looked at her garishly tattooed arms and her long hair, dyed a hard, bright red. She was dressed like her teenaged daughters, in jeans deliberately torn at the knees and a tight tee shirt with the slogan “What Happens In Vegas Stays In Vegas,” written in glitter across the front.
“I’m not doing this with you,” said Charlotte. “Go home. I’m leaving next week.”
“Good for you,” Jenny said. “I’m not going to miss you. We aren’t exactly friends. In fact, I can’t stand you, never could. Can I come in? I don’t want the neighbors to see us.”
“Hell no,” Charlotte said. “I’m not kidding. I don’t want to talk about it. Anyway, it’s over. You have nothing to worry about.”
“Do you think I’m worried about you taking Danny from me?” Jenny laughed. “You still think you’re hottest thing around, don’t you? Haven’t you grown up yet? Oh, right, you haven’t. You aren’t married. You don’t even have any kids. You’re the same as you were in high school. But now everyone else is an adult.”
“Just because I didn’t have a litter of kids doesn’t mean I’m not an adult,” Charlotte snapped. “It just means I’m better at birth control. Seriously, go away. I have things I need to do before I leave. I don’t want to talk about anything with you. Move on. I have.”
“Well, here’s the thing,” Jenny said. “Danny’s going with you.”
“No,” Charlotte said. “He isn’t. You guys have four kids and you don’t work. You need him. If I were you, I’d just pretend it never happened. I don’t love him. It was just a thing.” She turned around to go back inside, but Jenny grabbed her arm. Charlotte looked around to see if any of the neighbors were watching. They probably were. Thank god she was getting out of here soon.
“Listen Charlotte,” Jenny said. “Danny’s going with you. I don’t care where the fuck you go, but get the hell out of here. Did you think I didn’t know what was happening between you and Danny? Do you think I’m that stupid? Everyone in town knows. I’m glad you two found each other again. I’ve been wanting a divorce for years.”
Charlotte clenched her fists and dug her fingernails into her palms. “Look Jenny,” she said. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what I was thinking or what I was doing. This whole thing with Mom was freaking me out. I’m really sorry. I told Danny it was over after my Mom died.” She blinked back tears. Charlotte covered her face with her hands as tears ran down her cheeks. She was appalled that she was crying in front of Jenny, but she couldn’t stop.
“By the way, I’m sorry about your mom,” Jenny said.
Fire Sign by Dalmatia Flemming
Marty simultaneously ironed his professional looking white shirt while carefully eating his English muffin covered with peanut butter and raisins. Tricky, but he was good at it. The shirt was part of his work “uniform”. But this had not always been his uniform. At one time his uniform was a Firefighter’s suit.
Yes, Marty used to be a Firefighter. It was his dream ever since age 2. And he actually achieved it. It was no easy task to become a Firefighter. Marty was building up to this for years. He worked as an Emergency Medical Technician for a while. After this experience, he was able to become a Paramedic. He also took courses in fire technology and volunteered his time at a burn camp for children. Everything Marty did was to prepare him to get that job, the Firefighter job.
He was so excited when he got the job offer and his parents were very proud of him. It was everything he thought it would be. The job was great for about five years. Then he felt his performance diminishing. And his supervisor noticed as well.
Marty hung up his freshly ironed shirt, put his plate in the sink and headed for the shower. The water was hot, as hot as his skin could stand. The bathroom filled with steamy air. Marty took deep breaths … slowly … in … and … out…. The heat, that’s what he liked best.
Marty thought back to when he was a child. In the days before neighborhood recycling, it was his chore to take the paper garbage to the downstairs rec-room fireplace and burn it. Marty loved this chore. It was his weekly ritual; pick up the large box of stick matches, slide the box open, select a match, close the box, then strike the match. That smell … oh how he loved that smell. We would watch the flame consume and work its way down the match stick. Then at the very last minute, before he burned his fingers, he would place the match in just the right spot. Although Marty had easily mastered the one-match-fire while on camping trips with his family, he would light a few more matches, repeating the process. Marty would watch the fire, mesmerized, until it went out. He never tried to put the fire out early, he always let it burn itself out. That was the most satisfying feeling.
Marty emerged from the shower and proceeded to get ready for work.
He liked his new life, not being a Firefighter. His new work still incorporated his favorite things. He was already in good physical shape from being a Firefighter, so when he decided to take an “Intro to Circus Arts” class, he got a job offer before the class was even over. But he turned that offer down. Because that class was just a prerequisite for the “Fire Arts” class.
Marty did some part-time gig work as a Circus Fire Artist. He found that he liked performing, something that he never realized about himself. It was very satisfying. But not as satisfying as his “day” job.
Marty put on his white shirt and left for “the office”. Actually, the white shirt was just part of his uniform. He only had to wear it in the office area. It was a formal and solemn place and everyone was expected to look and behave in a respectful manner. Marty primarily worked downstairs.
After greeting his fellow co-workers, Marty headed downstairs. He took off his freshly ironed white shirt, carefully hung it up and changed into his overalls.
There was the large furnace. Gazing upon it, Marty was overcome with a sense of calm. Marty went over to the staging area where he found this work orders for the day. “Three women, maybe I’ll get out early today” Marty thought.
The first one had a pace-maker. Marty cut into her chest and removed it. He placed her body in the thin wood container, opened the furnace door and slid her body inside. Marty turned on the furnace. He sat and watched though the viewing window, mesmerized.
“I really don’t do too well this time of the year, do I?” Lollie said to herself. She went into the kitchen, grabbed the bottle of half-finished ten-dollar Pinot Gregio and poured herself a glass right to the top. She looked at the clock. It read 5:27. She stood over by the big kitchen window which looked out over Lake Washington and watched the dismal grey day fade into black.
Lollie always felt this way at Halloween. She thought it might be a rupture into a past life as a druid or some follower of the Cult of Persephone. Each October she physically felt as if she was being dragged down into the depths of Hades, where she was doomed to live for part of the year, in her black stone castle surrounded by those hideous black Popular trees.
“Oh shit, here I go again sinking into a depression. It’s especially bad since Mack died.” Lollie drank a goodly portion of the chilled wine. “I wish I could shake this feeling. I wish I could talk to someone about this, someone like Mack.” She stood lost in thought for a few seconds and thought that the Pinot would have to be her boon companion.
Because of the remote location of the house, almost like the black house of Hades, Trick or Treaters rarely made it down the driveway. She settled down and opened a bag of Halloween Milky Way miniatures. She thought back to that terrible day when Mack came home from an unscheduled doctor’s appointment.
“What’d he say Mack?”
“Well baby, the news is not good. You’d better sit down. It’s cancer.”
Lollie felt as she had been slammed in the stomach. Their lives up to this point had been easy with no major setbacks no problems really. “Oh dear, this isn’t just a…a…”
“I’m sorry Lollie. I didn’t want this to happen to us.”
“I know, but it’s not a death sentence. You can get cured. After all, this is the twenty-first century.”
“Doc Baldwin thinks it is very treatable. But there is no magic bullet.”
“Well, I’m going to hope for the best.” And hope they did. Mack went in for all the standard treatments and in a longish while he improved and their hope was full filled.
It was a year and a half ago when Mack had a small accident. It was nothing really. He tripped and fell going down the front stairs. At first it seemed that he had only twisted his ankle. Lollie made him ice bags, elevated his leg and wrapped it just like it said to do on the WebMD Internet page for a simple sprain.
Mack fussed about all the fussing Lollie was doing insisting that she was over reacting to a stupid accident. But the ankle got worse, more swollen and inflamed. He could barely use his leg. He would scream aloud from the pain whenever he had to put any weight on it.
They both decided to go back to the doctor. His doctor insisted on admitting him into the hospital immediately. The efficient nurse installed an IV and pumped him full of morphine. Lollie installed herself in the bedside chair and awaited the arrival of Doc Baldwin who both Mack and Lollie called Baldy behind his back.
“One year ago, almost to the hour.” Lollie said aloud. The TV was busy talking to itself on the cooking channel with the sound on mute. Bright tattooed choreographed hopefuls were fussing with cupcake frosting that looked like uneatable pseudo monsters while skinny mean mugging models tasted a morsel of cake balanced on one tine of a fork.
Lollie turned the channel and drank some more wine. Just because she could she put a fake log into the fireplace and lit the paper until it flared up. “Ah, that’s better even though it’s just the start of the darkness.” Sitting back watching the flames she continued the path into her bittersweet past. “Oh Mack, how I miss you so much now that you are gone for good.”
Baldy’s diagnosis was bleak this time hopeless really. In the past cancer treatment Mack had already been radiated until he just about glowed in the dark. No amount of medical Marijuana or as it is now referred to as medical Cannabis helped him through the devastating effects of chemotherapy. Lollie always thought of Chernobyl when Mack had to go in for treatment. “Here we go to Chernobyl,” she would tell him trying to make him laugh.
Baldy was straight forward, “I could promise you a miraculous cure Mack. I could keep you both hopeful that if you took this, drank that, tried the same treatment that Jimmy Carter did, and he is still alive mind you. But with this invading species I would be prolonging the inevitable. What I want you two to do is agree on the future and how you want your lives to be.”
The next six months were a special gift for the two of them. They existed on an extraordinary plateau and unlike others they had some precious time to reflect. It was a space for Mack between life and death and Lollie was his special guest. They became closer than they had ever been and even closer in intuition. She could read his thoughts like she was reading written words. When he passed she was the specially chosen handmaiden ushering him into the great beyond.
“Has it been a whole year?” Lollie sighed. “What was it he told me?”
“Lollie, I don’t have much time but I need to tell you something.” He never got around to telling her. The days darkened and Mack died on October 31st.
Lollie finished the Pinot Grige turned the TV off and turned herself into bed. As usual, absolutely no Trick or Treaters this year so the bags of candy stayed intact except for the three, miniature Milky Way wrappers dropped by her feet. The fire embers were controlling their burning as they were programmed to do.
Lollie stumbled into slumber. Just before the late dawn of the Day of The Dead, Lollie was awakened from a dream. Mack’s voice loud and clear said, “You’ve got to make easy hard and hard easy.”
Lollie realized that this message was what Mack wanted to tell her so long ago. She didn’t know what it all meant but was so happy to know that he was still with her and she wouldn’t be alone anymore.
“Come on Corny. I just want some company. I’ll make sure it’s worth your time.” He could not decide whether to characterize her hushed cajoling as cooing or purring.
“I don’t know Lulu. I had an appointment to pick up some stuff. It could take a while.”
“What – some Dr. Green?”
“Maybe. I’ve been trying to arrange this meeting for five days. He doesn’t have voicemail, never calls me back, doesn’t show. You know how it goes. I am hopeful he will show tonight.”
“Aww, Corny, I’ll get you high . . . and more.” Definitely cooing. Lulu’s cooing to me. Two weeks, two phone calls. What is it she needs? Am I dreaming? She needs me for something. Again.
“Corny, honey, I need some fun, need some company.”
“That’s what you said last week. And then . . . “
Last week she had woken him from a deep slumber, the slumber that follows days of work, sleeping at the office, endless caffeine and pep pills. His head still hurt. She had told him she wanted to have some fun, lured him over saying she had a couple of friends coming and maybe they could all party, could get down. She actually said that, certainly in a provocative way. He did not think he had misinterpreted that..
Well, the lure of Lulu and some friends of hers getting down had most definitely awakened his imagination. It had set it on fire. Exhausted as he was he found instant energy. Visions of a scandalously gorgeous and delectable evening to come, a fantasy come to life, Lulu and some of her friends, lady friends he had presumed. He was so excited it was hard to stop at the series of red lights he encountered on the way to her place.
Cornelius remembered thinking the early fall night was uncommonly beautiful. Warm September night, all still, perfect. He was young, soon to be rich (if his options and the eventual IPO were to be believed), and going to make it with a most unusual and cool woman and some of her friends. Yes, he had said to himself “make it.” He managed to avoid a speeding ticket as he headed south on Aurora.
Then, when he get over there, he finds Lulu hanging out with two guys. Boys really, looked like maybe they had never shaved. Real pale clear skin. The two of them were dressed all in blue denim. I was understandably surprised to find out they were the friends Lulu had mentioned.
“A misunderstanding baby. I thought you would enjoy playing with those boys and me.”
“When you said we could get down, me and your friends, I took you to mean women and not guys, boys. You got me over there on false pretences, and ones that kind of shook me up. You really think that’s my kind of scene?”
“Girls or boys. Whatever Corny, fun is fun. I thought you were more open minded. I’m sure you would have sparkled. Perhaps some performance anxiety?”
“Oh please Lulu.”
Their names were Peter and Paul for fuck’s sake. He liked to think of himself as open, but this was beyond bounds. He had a hard time thinking about sex for days. Am I uptight? It is not like I threw a fit. He hung around for some exceedingly uncomfortable portions of an hour. Then she kissed him, and he looked up at the boys and their denim and their dilated eyes, blank stares – even when they looked at Lulu, and everything in him just shriveled up. Definitely turned off.
“Aw Corny. I’ll make it up to you. I promise. Just me over here tonight. I want to have some fun. Something a little more hushed. Plus, I have something to show you.”
“Corny, dear. No one else is here. I promise. No surprises, or, well, none involving gorgeous skinny young men. Just you and me.”
He sighed. “I’ll be right over.” He put the phone on the hook, grabbed his keys and headed out the door.
Lulu sighed in disappointment.
“It wasn’t you dear. I had just been hoping for something, bigger.” She looked at him out of the corner of her eye. “Not that you aren’t big enough, she patted him on the knee. But I was hoping for something out of this world, transcendent, wider, explosive.”
He had gathered that from the arrangement of green stones on the floor of her studio. They had performed their tableau in the center of it all. An inverted pentagram would not have slowed him down once he got there and determined that Lulu was indeed without further male accompaniment. The arrangement on the floor amounted to a convoluted circle, candles to the outside for lighting.
“We’ll have to try again, soon. Maybe a different arrangement, or outside, or just more directly on the ground. I don’t know.”
“It didn’t work with Peter and Paul?”
“Oh Corny, they had something, materially, you don’t have. And I traded with them some things both far greater in value and of much less import to you.
He found, not too surprisingly, that he was quite content, even if she was disappointed. It had been a great night. He had not let her down. If she wanted to try again, soon, well, he’d definitely be down for giving it a try.
“Maybe we need to do it in the road?” He looked at her, smiled, reached for her.
“Sorry honey. Our research for this cycle is complete. Let’s go – I’ll buy you a juice, or some coffee, or something. I’m thirsty.”
Meanwhile, about 150 miles as a crow might fly – if a crow flew in a straight line over the Cascade crest from Seattle to Winthrop, or about 240 miles as a road wanders, Lucille and Fred and Lage were driving east into Winthrop looking for a cop or a phone.
After getting out of the rain and deciding to head to Mazama or Winthrop to get help for their hypothermic hitch-hiker they had been accosted by two large women driving Fred’s truck so shamelessly that the the alarm was still going, even after the truck had chased, then eventually forced, their car to the side of the road.
One of the truck’s passengers casually hopped out, all dressed in camouflage hunting gear, a head topped with a big mop of curly hair that was barely contained by her orange ball cap.
“Sorry to bother you folks – and yes, sir, this is your truck. We have no issue with you, no issues at all. We are looking for that fellow you have sitting there in the back seat. Paul honey, is that you? Time for us to take you home.”
Fred started to say something. The woman shushed him. Then thought better of it: “can you turn off this alarm? All this noise is really starting to ruin the taste of my donuts.”
Fred turned to Lucille, with a look of great disbelief, anger, and fear, then walked to his truck and disarmed the alarm. The shrill beeping came to a halt.
All stood still for a moment, the slushy rain snow mix falling silently, a breeze finally stirred them.
It was Paul who spoke first, “where’s Pete?”
“He’s back in town. We’ll take you to meet him. Get you some dry clothes. You look so thin, especially naked and all. I bet that blanket is kind of scratchy.”
Fred, recovering some of his bearing, started to speak, but the other creature – the driver of his truck, appeared next to him.
“Don’t worry at all,” Doreen said, “here – have a donut. We know you are both from Seattle, at least if the registrations you have in your vehicles are up to date. We will return the truck to you tomorrow with a full tank of gas and a repaired steering column.”
Now it was Lucille’s turn to try and speak, and to be hushed, and to quietly accept a rapidly cooling and wilting apple fritter.
“Yes ma’am, that is right. We looked through both cars. There’s no way Doreen and I would fit in your car. Plus, all that thing has is a shitty little lawn mower engine. It would have been much harder to track Paulie here down in that contraption.”
“Yeah,” Doreen added, “plus there’s a hole in the floor. How does anyone stay dry or warm in that thing?”
“Anyway,” said Millicent, chunkily through the morass of coffee and donut in her still very full mouth, “c’mon Paulie, we need to go.”
“And no, Fred, we will not be offering any more of an explanation. And yes, you will have to take our word for the return of the truck. We have your extra key, your home address, the weed you had hidden in with the spare. Sorry this has been difficult, but all we really want is Paulie, and you will only make things worse by foolishly attempting to slow us down.”
“So,” said Millicent, “have we got a deal?”
Even the dog, Lage, seemed awestruck by the strangeness of the scene, the assumed authority of these two big donut chewing women. Only Paul seemed unfazed by what he was hearing. And the words he had spoken to the two women from the truck were the only ones he had said since they found him.
“Paul, where are your clothes?” asked Doreen, the acquiescence of the others assumed.
Paul went and fished them out of Lucille’s subaru. He turned and nodded at Lucille and Fred, handed the blanket to Lucille and turned, naked and immodest, barefoot in the cold and wet, walked over and climbed into the truck.
“Don’t waste your time trying to follow us. That shitty little Subaru will never keep up with the truck. And, let’s just say we will not be nearly as courteous if we happen to run into each other again.”
“Plus, what would you do if you caught us?” said Millicent.
Doreen and Millicent laughed heartily at this. Doreen almost choked on her donut, Millicent pounded her on the back as they turned and walked to the truck.
With that, they hopped into Fred’s truck and drove off. By now Lucille and Fred and the dog were colder, wetter, and even more tired, and in some kind of shock.
“Is this really happening?” Lucille asked.
An hour later they pulled into Winthrop. While Fred called the police from the gas station, and they waited, Lucille climbed in the car and looked in the back seat where Paul had been sitting. Nothing obvious. She pulled up the seat, thinking the last thing she needed was the guy – Paul – dumping some kind of stash he was trying to keep from his pursuers (Millicent? really?) and then having to explain it to the cops if they decided to hassle her and Fred.
Nothing much there, except some shiny green rocks. Nothing dazzling. They might have been there prior to all of this madness. Nevertheless, she picked them up and put them in her pocket, returned to the front seat idly rolling them over in her hand as she sat there, rejoined by Fred and Lage, and waited for the State Patrol.
It seems like we’ve been driving forever, but it’s only been an hour and 45 minutes on the minivan’s dash clock. I’m still weezy from whatever knockout drug the girl had slipped me. Would she like it if some guy did that to her? (Maybe, with what little she’s told me about her own life, some guy had. She sure seems to have had a rough life in any event.)
And what’s her interest in keeping me in the custody of these people anyway? And what do they want with me to begin with? She’s been silent about that in the back seat of this minivan during this drive.
In the front seat, the woman the girl calls “Pseudo Mom” is at the wheel. The man the girl calls Pseudo Mom’s business partner is riding shotgun. Pseudo Mom is also mostly silent, except when she occasionally feels the need to stop the man beside her from starting or resuming grumbling arguments with the man in the middle seat. He’s the man I’d originally delivered the other car to, a little over 24 hours ago that seems like a million years. He’s wearing a different slightly oversized suit jacket with matching slacks, and a different loose fitting shirt. He’s got about as little beard stubble as I’ve got; but the chin and cheekbones it’s on look, in profile, narrow, even slightly dainty. He and the man in the front seat sure seem to have a lot of past history with each other. Off and on all along this drive, they’ve been grumbling to each other about past events and present character flaws. The man in the middle seat says at one point that becoming who he is (whatever that means) had nothing directly to do with getting away from the man in the front seat; it’s just that he’d really needed to do both.
At least two or three times this trip, the woman beside this man in the middle seat (the same woman who’d been with him when I first met him) nudged him with her right elbow. On one of those occasions, she quietly but sternly reprimanded him for his attitude. She “reminded” him that theirs was supposed to be a spiritual journey, one of unity and positivity. He simply grumbled some inarticulate-to-me cuss words.
I’d long since given up any hope or illusion that these people would get me home, or in the direction of home, or that they even wanted to. They seem to have an agenda for me. Even if they won’t tell me what it is, beyond code words about “the induction” and “the great ascending.”
Even now that we’ve gotten here. Wherever “here” is.
The minivan didn’t have its GPS unit on, if it had one. We’d stayed away from any freeways, going down a succession of wide and narrow county roads. The window on my side kept getting steamed up, no matter how many times I tried to wipe it off with my hands and sleeves. Even when I could see outside, from that window or from the front, I didn’t see much that would say where we were at. An endless stream of roads, trees, wheat and corn fields, houses, gas stations, mini marts, ugly modern grade schools, roadside burger joints and wine bars, main streets of small towns I’d never heard of with signs promoting the local Rotary Club, rustic old churches that reminded me of my church back home, signs for a corn maze and U-pick pumpkins, few other cars, fewer other people.
The minivan’s audio system played a CD of New Age instrumentals that were, I guess, supposed to be “chill out” material. When that ended, Pseudo Mom stuck in some generic drum n’ bass, which the girl beside me visibly preferred. She boogied in her seat belt the rest of the way to here.
“Here” is a large, more or less circular, clearing with trees on all sides, at the end of another gravel road. Other vehicles had been parked here before we arrived, and more have arrived since.
The driving machines here include generic late-model sedans and pickups; one beater VW bus with a “burning man” logo decal; a couple of luxury cars with rainbow-flag bumper stickers; an old beater Volvo; a few Priuses (“Pri-i”?); and one short, converted, and repainted former school bus.
The people from some of these vehicles have built “tailgate party”-like food and drink setups. Some of them are relatively elaborate, with gas BBQ grills cooking chicken and hot dogs (some of them “veggie dogs”) under awnings on tent poles in case of rain (which has been off and on all day), with camper coolers full of beer and soft drink cans on ice. Others simply serve coffee from big cardboard dispenser boxes and bags of Doritos from the backs of station wagons. I’ve taken advantage of these people’s hospitality, drinking a lot of coffee (with a lot of sugar) and eating just about anything I can. (My mother always said I was a typical teenage boy with “a bottomless stomach.” I devoured big dinner portions, while she was on one fad diet after another and my big sister was on one “socially conscious” eating regimen after another.)
Around some of the other vehicles people seem to be having shots of liquor or pre-mixed cocktails, popping who knows what kinds of pills, smoking cannabis joints, doing simple exercises and yoga poses, greeting one another with hugs and kisses and (in a couple of cases) serious making out.
There are about 40 or 50 people here now. They look like a cross section of everyone my former pastor said would be going to Hell, and then some. There are 70-year-old hippies with long gray hair. Middle aged punks and “burners.” Young ravers and (white and Asian) hip hoppers. Gays, lesbians, and who-knows-whats. A few “normal looking” people, who seem to be the biggest joint smokers. Very few children, mostly under-fives. There’s even one Black couple here, looking way overdressed. I think I see some of the people I’d seen in that alley the second night of this misadventure. But since it was so dark there back then, I’m not sure.
One to four at a time, they’re closing down whatever they’ve been doing at their own or other people’s vehicles. They walk up another gravel road at the back end of this clearing. This particular place seems to be just a parking lot for whatever’s back there, hidden by the trees and the late-afternoon fog.
Soon enough, the two women from the minivan announce it’s time for us to head in and get ready (for what?). The two men follow them. The girl does likewise, physically pushing me from the back to walk off with them.
I don’t have to walk far before we turn a curve in the path and I see where we’re going. It’s a large tent, like the ones my old pastor used to hold revival meetings in. Some people are carrying benches and outdoor propane heaters into it.
Beside the front of the tent, a woman in a multi-colored robe (a “coat of many colors”, as it were) waves to our group. She looks familiar somehow.
Wait: I know.
No. It can’t be.
No. It is.
What is SHE doing here? And for that matter, what am I doing here?—Clark Humphrey
Outside the tent, the sky’s changing quickly from overcast to just dark.
Here inside the tent, what light we’ve been getting from the outside is fading, leaving candles and generator-powered lamps.
This is all going way too quickly, too intensely.
It’s amazingly loud in here.
Even more amazingly, what had been a cacophony of disparate noises is meshing in my brain into a single, somehow harmonious, blend, like some avant garde symphony.
It gets more intense every minute.
At its base line, there’s a sampled track of “chillout” electronic music, with a steady thumping beat, coming from a portable sound system.
In the aisles, women in clothing ranging from flowing white robes to almost nothing are rolling and writhing, screaming and moaning.
In the back of the tent, various people are dancing, swaying, and kissing. Some of them might even be having sex back there, but I can’t see that far in the increasing dark.
On the benches, people are standing or lying down. Almost nobody’s sitting except some of the 70-year-old hippies. They’re howling and chanting and “om”-ing.
I’m trying my hardest to stay attentive, alert, sane, untaken by this. Almost everything my church upbringing taught me to hate is here before my unbelieving eyes.
Just in front of me, at the front of the little stage platform, the leader of this “induction service” shouts and sings her “sermon” points.
She talks about “the great contradiction that isn’t really a contradiction. We heighten the sensory feelings in our bodies, so we can escape this bodily realm. To some, that would seem wrong. Many people have been programmed to believe the body is the evil opposite of the spirit and of the mind. But really, the more we use our bodies to resonate, to vibrate, at the higher frequencies of pure ecstasy, the closer we get to the next level of reality, where we depart this dying world, these frail bodies. Becoming beings of pure vibration, pure sensation. That’s how the Mayans, the Toltecs, the Atlantians, and so many other past civilizations rose from this realm of existence. They re-tuned themselves to a higher frequency. Like them, we will shed this world of oppression and disease.
“Oh, the remaining inhabitants of the Earth will look for us. But all they’ll find are our discarded clothes, our wigs, our false teeth, our pacemakers, our artificial knees, our breast implants, and our jewelry. Our bodies will be gone, to another frequency of existence, where they will be perfected.
“Some of the remaining inhabitants of the Earth will ask why we ‘were taken’ instead of them. They’d been obedient rote followers of an authoritarian religion, an authoritarian politics. They’d repressed themselves and oppressed others. They’d enslaved themselves to the almighty dollar, while they ruined the planet, the source of all material wealth. Their reward will be to inhabit this world as it becomes ever more uninhabitable.
But we—the freaks, the queers, the woke, the enlightened, the sensuous, the untamed women, the caring men, the non-binaries, the true artists, the lovers, the righteous rebels, the people who give a shit about one another—we are, all of us, whether we all know it yet or not, taking a journey to the next level.
“And that journey, my beloveds, starts tonight.”
The DJ running the electronic-music feed presses a key on his keyboard, and a sound of a dozen bells pealing comes out of the sound system. Some of the people in the tent raise their voices to cheer; others keep doing the different things they’re doing with an extra burst of passion.
I get a sense that a few of these people are looking at me. I’m seated on a bench at the back of the stage. I’ve been dressed in a bright flowing robe that’s tied up in the back. Even weirder, the girl who’s come here with me is dressed the same. I still haven’t been told what I’m expected to do.
The woman at the front of the stage starts talking again.
“To achieve the final jump, we need to add more people resonating the new frequencies from out of different old frequencies, different patterns. More nationalities. More races. More subcultures.More genders. More sexualities. As different and disparate as Humanity herself!” More pre-recorded bells. More cheers.
“Within this quest, I offer to you: our new inductee. Someone who may be different from any of you. A person of youth, of limited experience in life. A straight, cis, white male; but not a co-conspirator in the culture of oppression. A person of empathy and compassion. A person of curiosity, of moral purity, if a little timid.”
My growing suspicions are confirmed when this woman walks back to take my hand and lead me forward. She reaches in back of me, makes a slight adjustment to the back of my robe, and lets it fall to the stage floor. I hurriedly cover myself with my hands. The people at the benches, women and men alike, cheer and applaud.
I’m so self conscious, it takes almost a minute before I notice the girl is now standing beside me, now also undressed. I try not to look at her body, which (except for one strange looking tattoo below one breast) is extremely attractive. I also try not to look at her face, which is rapt in some (drug induced?) daze; she’s got a glassy-eyed stare and a dangerous looking smile.
The strangely harmonious blend of noises fades into the background of my mind, affecting me subliminally in some way.
My self-consciousness soon changes to other feelings. I try to think of anything but where I am now. I try to think of stupid, nonsensical, obsessive things to stop the weird emotions and sensations that are taking me over.
Was I drugged again, when I ate from the tailgate picnics outside here? Maybe in the “sugar” I’d put into my coffee?
If I was, It’s pretty obvious what one of the drugs was. My hands can no longer hide its effect. I turn my back to the other participants.
But as I do this, the girl catches my eye.
I find I can’t look away from her.
My mind becomes a distant spectator, as my body acts on its own.
It reaches a hand out to the girl. It embraces her, then caresses, then gropes her all over. It then fondles her breasts with one hand and her lower spot with the other.
My powerless mind wonders: So now I know why I’ve been brought here, why I’ve been put through everything that’s happened in these short few days. But for what purpose? Is my public mating with the girl really supposed to bring about some sort of alternative Rapture? But that can’t possibly happen. But if I believe, or at least used to believe, in the regular Evangelical notion of the Rapture, what’s really so different about this version?
But do I want to help bring the end of the world? No, I don’t. But what can I do about it? I can’t even control my own body now.
She’s fondling and groping me now. Her left hand caresses my lower back, while her right hand caresses my lower front.
My eyes stare into hers, relentlessly.
So relentlessly, I believe I briefly see her slipping me a secret wink.
Suddenly, she pulls her hands away from my lower body and grabs my right hand.
She pulls me behind her as she runs out of the tent.
The people in the tent don’t seem to be paying any attention as we flee, both of us still undressed.
She leads me down a curving trail in back of the tent, toward another clearing in these woods.
I see rustic but permanent wood buildings. Long, one-story cabins. A chapel. Another parking lot, with a couple of yellow buses parked.
We run past a carved, painted wood sign, like the ones in national forests.
I’ve arrived at the place my mom thinks I’ve already been at.
“Fifteen, do I hear 15 … this is your LAST CHANCE to have YOUR pet on the February calendar for the 2017 Animal Society Foundation’s calendar. All other months have been sold … this is your LAST CHANCE … 15 going once … 15 going twice … SOLD for $1,400.00 to number 270!
Hannah could not believe she could be so impulsive.
The auctioneer approached Hannah and shoved a mic in her face, “And who is the lucky pet” he ask.”
“Alex, the tuxedo cat.”
“Well, congratulations Alex!”
The big photo shoot day had arrived. The day before, Hannah gave Alex a good brushing. He was looking good, but then Alex always looked good.
The photo shoot was a breeze. Alex was his usual charming and easy-going self. The photographer got some great photos of him: Alex in front of the bookcases – he seemed to instinctively know how to look like a Professor, some against a greenish-yellow wall – he rolled around like he was high on cat nip and a member of Andy Warhol’s factory, and some by the window with a city view behind him – now looking like Alex the World Traveler. The photographer said she had never worked with a pet as mutable as Alex and thought he had real star quality. Hannah ordered calendars for everyone she knew as a Holiday present.
Ellen’s raucous party was winding down. Jeff, her co-worker brought his girlfriend Sienna who was now three-quarters smashed. Struggling to put on her coat while coincidentally standing face to face with the calendar on the wall, she said “look at this cat, who is he!? … Oh wait … it’s a calendar … like you’re going to know who the cat is.”
“Well, actually I do. It’s my friend’s cat.”
“I’ll email you on Monday. You know, I’m a Specialty Modeling Agent. I think I have work for this cat.”
“Ok, I’ll look for it.” Like that’s ever going to happen, Ellen silently mused. She’s too drunk to remember.
Sure enough, on Monday morning, Ellen sees and email from Sienna. And it’s quite intelligible. Ellen forwards it to her friend Hannah.
Hannah reads the email and thinks back to what the photographer had said the day of the photo shoot, that Alex had real star quality. She remembered how fun that day was …wouldn’t it be a hoot to retire and act as Alex’s agent? Hannah fired off an email to Sienna as Alex lounged in the window, unaware of what might lie ahead ….