He watched the car come down the mountain. The autumn trees were full of muted color, and black clouds rolled in the sky, restive monsters bloated with rain. The road unraveled in a series of switchbacks, and the car, black, shiny as a beetle, appeared and disappeared amid the trees.
Gravid raindrops began to fall, exploding on the road in front of him, and the boy closed his eyes and stood motionless. He could raise the temperature of his body by the power of his will, or, more admirably, he could acknowledge the discomfort and endure it. He preferred the latter.
The clothes he wore were designed to shed the rain before it reached his skin, and his hair was shorn so short that there was nothing to muss. He opened his eyes and waited: a proper schoolboy, not of the elite, but of merited parents, no scars, no admonishments scribbled on his face, his hands.
Now that the rain had asserted itself, there was nothing much to see. He hoped the car would not race by him, oblivious.
The car came out of the rain. He saw that it was bigger than the cars he had seen at Ashes Ville, and he suspected it might be powered by the blackoil that had burned the old world up.
The car slowed and rolled to a stop in front of him and the passenger door swung open. A black shaft—a weapon?—emerged, bloomed suddenly with a popping noise, and the boy stepped back, alert. An umbrella. The man beneath it was tall and seemed to vacate the car in stages.
“Stepped out for a bit of wet, did you?” the man said. His face was pale, unlined but ancient-seeming, smooth in the way that a river rock is smooth. Faded ink encircled his neck. He grinned, displaying a row of tiny silver teeth. “Where you bound?”
“George Washington City,” the boy said.
“Well, fancy that! Same as ourselves. Come on. In you go.” The man ushered the boy into the passenger seat, closed the door, then opened the rear door and, folding again, knees and elbows like some intricate device, shut his umbrella with a fierce shake and settled in the backseat.
The boy could sense no danger in the man behind him, no psychic crouch or killer’s caution, which meant: a) that the man was no immediate threat or b) that the man was a grave threat, an assassin who could hide the subtle body language of intention. There was another person in the backseat, behind the driver, and this other was seeking him with a bright, hungry intelligence that the boy perceived as heat on the back of his neck.
He did not turn and stare. He suspected that the scrutiny was meant to be felt, and he did not wish to dignify it with a response. The boy turned his head slightly and regarded the driver. The man was a menial, an Albert or a Jorge, and possibly dangerous but predictable. He wore a grey uniform, and a hat, too small for his head, intentionally comic, demeaning, as was the present fashion in menials.
They drove on in silence, through a blur of colored trees, the world under glass and melting. Sometimes the beauty of the natural world felt like an assault, and his defense was a memory of burning cities, streets littered with rotting bodies, hulking scavenger machines that spoke to each other in bursts of static and feedback howls. The memory was not his own.
The one who studied him spoke, instantly revealing her gender. “You are a Cory,” she said. He turned now and saw a girl with silver-blue eyes and short-cropped red hair, intricate ink scrolls crossing her forehead like a veil.
“My father was Andrew Cory,” the boy said. “My name is Mark.”
“I’ve never met a Mark. I hope you aren’t vicious or sly. Can I trust you?” She offered a quick smile, tilted her head, studied him. She looked a mere girl, her slight body enfolded in shimmer cloth, moth-themed, green wings that seemed to flicker in the dark-blue shadows of the fabric. Her face was pale and perfect and her mouth, lipstick-shaped to mirror moth wings, revealed the giddy fashion sense of a child.
He shrugged. “Why would you need to trust me?”
“I don’t,” she said, frowning. “But I was hoping you’d say a simple ‘Yes’.”
She turned away and glared out the car’s window at the roadside flora. Here the bright orange of maples pushed to the front, easily upstaging the purples and dark greens of the false birches and dog pines. The man behind Mark spoke: “What she’s hopin’ is that you aren’t a bomb.”
“Of course I’m not!” Mark said, turning to look again at the tall man whose eyes glittered with madness or amusement.
“You don’t have to be offended, boy. There’s more than a few of your kin who walked into the thick of crowds, yanked their little peckers and blew themselves and everyone around them all to fuck.”
“You are speaking of an old protocol,” Mark said.
“It puts my mind at ease, hearing you say that. You surely have an honest face.”
The girl spoke: “Solomon, be quiet. He’s not a bomb. I’d know if he was.” She leaned toward Mark and touched his shoulder. “My name is Mary Constant,” she said. “My people fight against Lethe’s Children.”
“We all did,” Mark said. “The LC won.”
“That is what they would have us believe. But imagine a world without them.”
“I thought pirates had no politics,” Mark said.
“Pirates? We are no pirates.”
“The scrollwork on your face is pirate. This is your longman here, with a rope tatt round his neck and the augmented smile. You could be costumed revelers, I guess, but you aren’t.”
“Why not?” asked Mary Constant. She had taken her hand from his shoulder and it lay in her lap with the other. She gazed down at her hands as though chastened.
“I know the smell of pirates,” Mark said. “I bet you stole this vehicle, and I wouldn’t be surprised if its former owners are dead.”
Mary Constant looked up and frowned. “They are dead, but it was none of our doing. And, if we are what you say we are, why shouldn’t we kill you and be done with it?”
Mark said nothing.
The girl said, “We are not any pirates. We are revolutionaries.”
Okay. This isn’t one of those metafiction things. I hate it when an author intrudes, when he tries to ingratiate himself with his readers by pretending to be some sort of regular guy who is just trying to tell a story and hopes you are enjoying it. Here’s what I mean: for years I lived in South Austin (the authentic, slacker heart of the city), and every day, mired in traffic, I would be forced to contemplate a giant billboard advertising life insurance. On the billboard, a smiling man in a suit held a telephone receiver to his ear while above him these words demanded attention: WHY BUY LIFE INSURANCE FROM A STRANGER WHEN YOU CAN BUY IT FROM ME, JOHNNY GARCIA? Johnny looked a little shifty to me, something larcenous in his smile and the black mustache that presided over those paper-white teeth. And, try as I might, I couldn’t remember meeting the guy.
I, dear reader, am not presuming we are friends. And here’s the best news: you’ll never have to read this. Back in 1973 an innovative teacher named Peter Elbow wrote a thin, brilliant little book entitled Writing Without Teachers. Mr. Elbow discussed the process of writing and suggested that a writer might consider writing a rough draft that contains reflections on the piece being written, random thoughts, a poem, anything that would create momentum. All of this peripheral writing would enliven the writer’s brain and when this chatter was later deleted it would, nonetheless, have imbued the final draft with its intellectual and emotional energy.
I’ve been having some problems with this nascent novel, so these are my mental stretching exercises.
My name is Joel Sherman, and I am typing this in my bedroom/office here in the Paris Apartments in Austin, Texas.
I came to Austin in 2002 when an ex-girlfriend impulsively invited me down here after her marriage fell apart. Elaine and I got along brilliantly for about eight months, and then we didn’t get along at all, and I left the house but not the city.
I moved into a large, ramshackle house in Oak Hill, sharing it with the landlord and an ever-shifting mélange of university students and guys in bands. That’s where I resided until recently.
I logged many years in that house, knocking out my series novels, vaguely aware of the melodrama that surrounded me. These transient young people, filled with hope, horniness, desperation, ambition, sundry drugs and alcohol, were volatile and unpredictable but easy enough to ignore. I assumed my ship would be coming over the horizon any day, and I’d be able to leave (maybe a movie sale, maybe an inexplicable surge in the popularity of private eyes whose eyes are very red) so I felt above the fray.
I considered myself and my landlord, Maxwell, rock-solid. We weren’t close—I would never, for instance, have thought of calling him Max—but we would occasionally share a couple of beers and discuss the collapse of civilization. Maxwell was twelve years older than I, and somewhat morose. He wasn’t one for sharing personal details, his sorrows being couched in elliptical language. He explained the failure of two marriages as “hegemony issues.”
It had taken me a few years to establish this relationship with Maxwell. He rarely spoke to the other tenants unless they were late with the rent. So I should, perhaps, have been the one to investigate when my housemates approached me in a ragged delegation and asked what the racket was all about. One student maintained that the incessant construction noise robbed him of thought. All my sympathy went to any robber who got away with that kid’s thoughts. I told them that our landlord was no doubt embarked on some major home improvements, and it was his house so he was within his rights. I recommended patience—and earplugs.
Two days later the noise ceased. We all moved warily, aware that it could resume at any moment. I think we spoke in whispers, although that may be a storyteller’s embellishment. I remember at breakfast we all shared our observations: of the lumber and machinery delivered to the backyard, of the way it seemed to magically evaporate, and of our own creative relationship to the enigma of its use. What was Maxwell fashioning? Surely he intended to show us. It was not uncommon for days to pass without anyone laying an eye on Maxwell. His living area (which included a kitchen, living room, bedroom and bath) abutted the garage where he parked his aging Mercedes, so he could come and go at will without being seen. An unobtrusive landlord is usually a boon, but we were eager to see the results of his industry.
My bedroom was directly above Maxwell’s, and in the general course of events, I never heard him. His home project altered that for a spell. I would have been justified in approaching him and asking that he curtail his zealous banging and sawing when 10:00 p.m. came round. That wouldn’t have been asking much, but I understood creative passion and how the muse shouldn’t be constrained by clocks. I worked at night myself. So I did not disturb him, and I was pleased when relative silence was regained without my intervention.
It was a little after ten in the morning, and I was sleeping soundly when I was jolted out of sleep by a single loud resounding whump! as though some fairy-tale giant had slammed a castle’s giant-sized door. I had no recollection of a dream, but I felt an inexplicable dread. I lay there for a while and tried to will myself back to sleep. I failed and got up, pulled on a pair of trousers, and walked out into the hall where several young men and a waifish young woman I’d never seen before were milling around. I started down the stairs, and they followed. Being the oldest tenant (oldest both in tenancy and in years-on-the-planet) I led the way.
I knocked on Maxwell’s door, but no one answered. The door wasn’t locked, so I pushed it open, raising my voice to carry his name into the room. The door opened onto his bedroom—I knew this, of course, having been invited over to his living space many times—and the bed was empty and made. I had never seen it unmade. There was a minimalist, military feel to this room, everything in its place. I walked across the room and passed through the open door and into the living room.
I could feel my young roommates crowding up behind me: ragged breathing, a nervous squeak from the girl.
We stopped and stared.
I don’t know what they were experiencing, but, while horror was surely the dominating emotion, they may have felt admiration for the craft involved, the care, the attention to detail. I know I did.
I had never seen such a well-wrought gallows. There is something about a solid-built thing. In the rigor that has fashioned it, there is love. I could smell the sawdust in the air although the room had been swept and everything was neatly put away. If a single detail could sum it up, I suppose that would have to be the banister that rose parallel to the nine steps leading up to the platform. Some would argue that on this very short walk to oblivion a banister was superfluous, but this wasn’t about utility. The banister was there for its simple line: its dignity.
The room was awash in morning sunlight, which spilled from the skylight and the glass doors that led to the patio. Maxwell himself, revolving very slowly, his body half-hidden under the platform where the rope had halted his brief and sudden descent, wore a dark blue suit, a white, hangover-bright dress shirt, and a red-striped tie. He had thoughtfully powdered his face so that his countenance wouldn’t look garishly engorged, and he wore sunglasses with a strap at the back so that they wouldn’t go flying off and reveal eyes that bulged and made one think of trashy horror flicks.
He’d thought of everything. There was a piece of typing paper affixed to the lapel of his suit. It didn’t look like anyone else could be relied upon for clear-headed action, so I carefully ascended the steps to the platform—without using the banister so that the inevitable police investigation could not accuse me of contaminating the scene (I’ve seen my share of television). I leaned forward and peered at a single line of 12 point Times Roman. He had signed his name, Maxwell Armour under the line of type.
This is what he left behind: “To my friends: My work is done. Why wait?”
None of us could think of what work Maxwell referred to. Someone suggested the gallows itself—which was imposing—but that was too reductive to make sense.
I learned later that his words were not his own. They were the words of the famous founder of Eastman Kodak, George Eastman. Maxwell had stolen Eastman’s last words, which plagiarism rendered them, I thought, more poignant.
We all of us went to the funeral, where, surprisingly, a large contingent of relatives awaited us. They sobbed in an inconsolable fashion, and a beautiful young woman in a grey business suit became hysterical. I learned that she was Maxwell’s daughter by his first wife. Who would have guessed that Maxwell could inspire such powerful emotion? I talked to the beautiful daughter and shared my thoughts on the craftsmanship of her father’s final project, but she was too agitated to take any comfort in my words, and, indeed, glared at me as though I had said something reprehensible.
The house was put up for sale, and we were all obliged to move out. I guess I wasn’t aware, when I moved to the Paris Apartments, that most of the residents here are old folks, many of them retired. Thanks to this older demographic, the management schedules activities such as daytrips to the restaurants in neighboring towns, bridge games, visits from a podiatrist, group exercise and lectures on nutrition. I don’t attend any of these events. I am of the opinion that the less contact you have with your neighbors the better. I don’t have time for their stories. I’ve got my own, after all.
My first novel, Fat Lip, was written when I lived in Fairfax, Virginia, and it was a minor success (by which I mean that it continued to generate royalties after the paltry advance paid out). My hero was a private detective named Hoyt who was allergic to lies. I was thirty-one when I sold that novel, and I’ve written eight more novels (sequels, because my agent says that most bestsellers are sequels although not all sequels are bestsellers), and a couple of dozen short stories. If you have read anything I’ve written you may have spent some time in a psych ward. That observation is based on the fan mail I receive, and I feel privileged to have such resilient readers.
Now, at forty-two, I live on the second floor in the central court of this two-story apartment complex. In order to reach my apartment door, I have to walk up the outdoor stairs and past my neighbor’s door. In the long summer my neighbor, Vernon, will be sitting in a sturdy wrought-iron chair, one of two that preside over an infirm iron table, small and round, that someone has painted white with a brush (Vernon?). Vernon will sit there reading the newspaper, smoking a cigarette, and/or spooning something food-like into his mouth from the pot it was cooked in. He never deviates from his dress code, which consists of blue flip-flops and tiny cut-off jeans. His immense belly eclipses his vestigial shorts, and I can’t be the only person who assumed on first encountering Vernon that I was in the presence of an extremely sweaty nudist practicing the tenets of his sun-worshipping religion.
Vernon’s primary activity is surveillance. He studies the courtyard below, with its mimosa trees, its sidewalks, and its rectangles and circles of grass, which, despite the sprinkler system, have turned a mottled yellow and brown as the result of a record drought. He searches the courtyard for signs of life, generally people although I have seen him address a lone cat or dog with considerable animation. He is always talking, which is an edge he has if you are hoping to dart past him. When a resident or maintenance person or postal worker comes within range, Vernon can easily address that person (already having, as it were, a running start).
In the history of humankind, those members of the tribe who could not utter an interesting sentence developed other ways of stopping and holding their fellows. Vernon has all the inherited moves of this evolutionary byway. He can speak at great length without pausing to breathe. He can fix you with his eye, he can call upon your sympathies as a fellow human being, he can ask questions that require a response. If the recipient of his discourse attempts to flee, Vernon can raise his voice, instinctively gauging the exact number of decibels required to compensate for the increased distance, which suggests to the reluctant listener that flight is futile. And, of course, Vernon has the gift of obliviousness, the belief (shared by academics and members of 12-step groups) that his thoughts are inherently interesting.
I have come to terms with Vernon. I have learned to race by, to feign talking on a cell phone, or—if time is not an issue—to peer from between my mini-blind slats, waiting until he makes one of his brief but frequent retreats into his apartment.
I don’t want to hurt his feelings. And I don’t want to enrage him, to antagonize him in any way. I’m not sure what he is capable of, really.
Now where did that come from? I wasn’t expecting that sentence. Maybe this free-writing stuff is like fooling with a Ouija board. Time to get back to the real story.
The rain stopped and the last watery light departed with the clouds and left a residue of stars. The car rolled on and Mark slept, not wholly lost to his physical self but maintaining a shadow sentry, a psychic construction similar to the created self he could summon under interrogation. He was aware of the driver, the girl and her longman as gray shapes on the other side of his dream. Well. Not his dream.
It was a bequeathed dream, one of his father’s memories, filled with such love and rage that it left no room for private dreaming.
In the dream he was kissing her, his fingers lost in her black and bloody hair: this rough and terrible kiss, with its need to hurt, to invoke a scream.
But the dead are mute.
He lifted his head, blinking up into the cold light that came from the tunnel’s painted walls, a varnish of glowing life, part of the outlawed orgtech that the rebels took for their own. He turned his gaze back to the pale face cradled in his hands and panicked. Her left cheekbone was oddly sunken, her bruised eye a red and angry slit beneath a purple lid, her other eye beautiful and terrible and abandoned. “Mother,” he whispered, and in that word was also lover, wife, warrior, comrade.
A strong-fingered hand clutched his shoulder, and the longman’s voice, eroded by the narcobugs that slept in pirates’ lungs, croaked in his ear: “Easy. Don’t spook! What generation are you anyway? Could be you’ve been copied one too many times.”
Mark said nothing, feigning stupor.
“Let’s stretch our legs,” the longman said, stepping out of the car. Mark followed, prepared for an assault, perhaps even welcoming such, for he had been reduced to confusion and disquiet by the dream, and a fight’s present tense would be bracing. How often in the course of his training had he been awakened by some physical confrontation? As the teachers were fond of saying, “Sleep deep and you may sleep forever.”
The car had stopped in a pool of moonlight beyond which pine trees presented a monochromatic wall. The rain was elsewhere, only recently departed and leaving in its wake an echo of its passing, the patter of raindrops still ticking amid the trees.
The man called Solomon walked away from the car, down the side of the road in the direction they had come, not looking back, and Mark ran to catch up. They walked until the car was out of sight. The wind pressed at their backs, a cold ghost, its breath sour and importunate. Above them the pale moon floated like something that had recently drowned and owed its buoyancy to the gases of decomposition.
“You are leaving that girl in the car,” Mark said. “Isn’t that unwise? The LC could be nearby.”
Solomon stopped. He turned and smiled his moon-sparkled smile. “They could be. Life’s no picnic anymore, unless you live in a rich fief where all the cooterments of civilization make for a nice dream. On the road, it’s dangerous, although the LC don’t have the patience for an ambush. I’m not over-worried about Mary. If something comes along, she’ll waken and deal with it. Don’t underestimate that girl, boy. You’d be no match for her in a mix-up.”
“Is that what you wished to say to me beyond her hearing?” Mark said.
“No. I wished to show you something.” He was still holding the folded umbrella in his right hand and with a flourish revealed its role as a flashlight. The wide beam illuminated a tangled wall of dwarf oak and thorn-laden jacketbush.
“Here we go.” The pirate took a long stride into the trees, and Mark followed. A path had been machine-burned, leaving a flat wall of vegetation on either side, truncated branches, everything split and blown away by brute force, and leaving an odor Mark knew—“blood-and-razors” his brothers whispered. His heart sped up on the insistence of some dead soldier’s encounter with this same stink. An LC trail, but old enough to allow the surrounding woods some tentative regrouping, a toadstool here, a burst of yellow-green ferns leaning out and looking both ways, some small reckless purple flowers raggedly running across the path toward the safety of the other side.
Mark hesitated, and the longman turned and said, “Let’s not be coy. It’s what you came for.”
Mark shook his head. “No. I sought a ride to George Washington City. That is all.”
“My friend, I don’t wish to call you a liar, but the alternative is to call you a fool, and I don’t think you are short on brains. We are all rolling along on the tracks our masters fashioned. Let’s make the best of it. I suspect you were sent here to see this.”
Mark thought this might very well be true. He could not see the whole design. No one could.
“All right,” Mark said, “Show me what I am destined to see.”
Solomon laughed. “That’s the spirit!” He turned and set out again, Mark following.
So Lethe’s Children are vicious little child-like creatures with a single day’s worth of memory and very mutable swarm behavior. What the reader doesn’t know is how closely Mark is related to these goblin-like children. These creatures were created to repair a damaged earth, to terraform it, and their common father is Andrew Cory. Mark Cory doesn’t know that these creatures are kin.
And Mary Constant is my wife—or rather the ghost of my wife and this is not something the reader needs to know. It is something I need to remember.
Just thinking out loud. It has been a few days since I last wrote anything. What have I been up to? I don’t know how it is with other writers, but writing often feels like the only time I have a self that can answer that question.
Growing up in Virginia, I had a friend, Artie Modine, whose father was considerably older than the parents of my other friends. Artie’s dad always wore a suit—that’s how I remember him, in any event—and was losing his mind in spectacular ways. “He got hit with Al’s Hammer!” Artie would say and laugh. Artie and his dad weren’t close. One time, Artie told me, he and his sister and his mom were waked in the middle of the night by a racket (glass breaking, metal screaming, a big hollow booming).What the fuck?! they all wondered (or maybe just Artie), and they followed the noise to the basement and there was Artie’s dad, squatting in his underwear and watching the dryer spin. He’d stuffed it full of soda cans and bottles and coat hangers and trash and turned it on, and he was grinning like he’d won the lottery.
Not long after that, Artie’s dad went into a nursing home.
Artie said that after his dad lost his mind, his dad was always punching buttons, flipping switches, working the remote on the tv without any plan. “Like he just wanted to make the electricity do something, anything.” Artie had a theory about this: his dad had lost control and maybe thought he’d punched a wrong button somewhere, like when you accidentally change the television channel and can’t get cable anymore so he was trying to push a button that would set everything right again.
That’s sort of what writers do, isn’t it? They try to restore order via narrative.
If you happen to say, “I try to restore order via narrative,” in front of a bunch of people (say, during a book signing) you will immediately be identified as a pompous asshole. Just assume your book isn’t great literature. It’s going to be hard to avoid puffing up, and I suppose you could forgive yourself because you are, after all, only human—although, is that a good excuse? Hitler was only human. Charles Manson was only human. Every day humans are doing really awful things to other humans. So “only human”: not a good excuse.
I’ve been thinking about this because my latest novel, Heat Rash, is now in stores, and BookPeople, a large independent bookstore that has always been welcoming (one of the staff even feigning knowledge of my series) arranged a signing. There were maybe twenty people in attendance; I recognized some of them from a writing group I sporadically attended.
I am proud to say that I did not talk in an exalted way about this humble comic crime novel. Heat Rash takes place in the midwest in the whacky world of little girl beauty contests. A tiny Madonna-pretender is murdered by an equally petite Lady Gaga imitator, or so it would seem. But the whole setup rubs my sleuth, Hoyt, the wrong way, and since he is already in the midwest (see: Wasted in Waterloo) why not take the money that the diminutive Lady Gaga’s wealthy parents press upon him?
I read the part where Hoyt wonders about kid beauty contests and how such events might attract pedophiles, and he gets a brutal beating for thinking this out loud in a local bar. Hoyt gets beaten up at least once in every one of the books, and some insight always arises in the aftermath of a beating.
I signed six books, which isn’t bad, although one of the books I signed wasn’t written by me. I didn’t have the heart to tell the woman that I wasn’t Lawrence Block. I signed it “God Bless you, Larry Block.”
I wound up getting cornered by an older gentleman who said he was writing a memoir and didn’t read any fiction because life was short. Not short enough, I was thinking by the time I escaped the harangue.
Now that I had signed all the books—BookPeople buys a bunch, and if you sign them all they can’t send them back—I wandered around the book store. I can’t go into a book store without looking around—and buying a book. I suppose if I were one of the devout I wouldn’t be able to go into St. Paul’s without genuflecting.
In the philosophy section I saw a book that had been dropped on the floor. I picked it up and recognized the title: A Savage God. The book was written by A. Alvarez, and I remembered reading it in college. Its subject was suicide (Sylvia Plath being a sort of template for that) and, as I recalled, it discussed suicide as a legitimate choice as opposed to most modern thinking in which depression, a result of unfortunate brain chemistry, is the engine that drives suicides.
Since I had found the book on the floor, I felt obliged to honor its in-my-path significance. I bought it. In college the paperback had probably cost me a couple of dollars at a used bookstore; the reprinted trade paperback cost $13.95 and, as was often the case, I suspected it would wind up on a shelf without being read again.
I didn’t feel like going back to my apartment, so I drove north on Lamar, then over to Guadalupe and The Drag. Every university town has something equivalent to The Drag, a four- or five-block ecosystem for young people of the college persuasion. I like the energy, all these kids heading somewhere with backpacks, iPods, tattoos, exclamatory hair, smartphones and bottles of purified water (including smartwater®, recommended, perhaps, by their smartphones).
I ogled the co-eds and may have been guilty of a thought crime since some of these kids were no doubt underage (although a skilled thought-policeman would surely be able to read the nature of my thoughts and see their essential innocence).
I was thinking about what a world with thought-police would be like when a cluster of homeless people caught my eye. The last of the day’s light was being consumed by street lights and neon signs, but these folks were illuminated by the light from a sign advertising vinyl records (the latest thing: like big, two-sided cds). There were plenty of cars on The Drag so I was moving at about five miles an hour, and I had ample time to ascertain that my mind wasn’t taking some vague likeness and photoshopping it into someone I knew.
A skinny guy with a guitar hanging from his neck by a rope was leaning forward, eyes squinted to improve his concentration, a sort of fierce hunger manifest in every angular bone of his weedy body. Two ragged teenagers, a girl and a guy (both with exploding hair, geysers of hair) were sitting on the concrete with their legs pulled up, chins resting on their knees, backs against a wall covered with faded posters advertising defunct bands. Their mouths gaped open as though they had just witnessed a spectacular fireworks display.
I saw an ancient man whom I had seen all around Austin (sleeping on a bus stop bench, moving with a steady gait across some armageddon of a construction site, shouting with his head thrown back under a sky the color of a dead catfish), a man with a long brown beard and a wrinkled overcoat and the high seriousness of a prophet born at a time too narrow and petty to contain his truth. He too was entranced, his eyes wider than I’d ever seen them.
What was it that held their attention? What mesmerizing event was this? Who was so riveting?
Yes. My neighbor Vernon was speaking to them. He wasn’t wearing his stay-at-home outfit. He wore khaki overalls and a long-sleeve grey garment that might have been the top half of winter long johns. It was 95 degrees, starting to cool down, but he was still over-dressed. Aside from his disorienting attire, he was the Vernon I knew. He stood still, his arms at his sides, somehow robbed of all vitality, while his mouth shaped words and loosed them into…well apparently into the enraptured minds of his indigent audience. When I listened to Vernon, did I have some equally entranced expression? It seemed unlikely.
I drove home thinking, “What the hell?”
Mark consulted the semi-Q that vibrated in his temple and learned that he had traveled for fifty-two minutes, an unpleasant trek whose destination remained obscure. He had no reason to trust this pirate, but if Solomon intended any harm, it would be a waste of time. Mark knew he was worth very little in terms of information, a link in an encoded chain, and his death, even his dissection, would instruct no one.
In any event, he didn’t think the pirate was scheming against him. He wasn’t sure what—
In front of him, Solomon suddenly crouched. Without looking over his shoulder, Solomon patted the ground next to him, and Mark came forward and they both looked down at the valley below.
The crowd within Mark noisily urged flight, but he quelled their voices with a warning. “I can be rid of you for good,” he thought, and the voices settled into a fluttering of moth wings. He added, “And you’re no help if you hide.”
Every nest differed, because Lethe’s Children were not inclined to do the same thing twice. They were busy as bees but not as consistent. And not much smarter, according to some of the scientists who studied them. What the LC was was flexible.
They had swarmed this old NewMeriCo fortress, and they’d left some of the company’s biggest weapons intact because Lethe’s Children just didn’t seem to care about these killing machines. They had no fear. Although they screamed when hurt, they didn’t avoid pain. Good soldiers! Mark thought. Mindless idiots: good soldiers.
These soldiers looked like children—from a distance. Up close, they looked creepy and terrifying. Unless you were observing a dead one or one strapped on a board—and alone they didn’t last long—you wouldn’t know just exactly what they looked like because they were very, very fast. The way their alien-attributes entered your consciousness was subtle: a moan that rose to a scream. Better to see a monster at once, a full-blown horror, than have it enter your mind as a guest, something familiar, and transform into a goblin.
War Solutions, Inc., one of the bigger weapons manufactures, created drones that could track them despite their speed. There were a hundred ways to kill the LC. They were, in truth, flimsy creatures. But they existed in vast multitudes and the killing machines grew mired in pale goblin bodies and then the LC decided to shift behavioral gears and bring some new horror forward. And most of the human world, barred from the fortresses, the shielded cities of the elite, crouched in small villages preparing for an attack, practicing with their weapons, while Lethe’s Children were playing elsewhere. Later, on a whim, the LC would come and kill the tiny, irrelevantly brave humans.
Mark watched Lethe’s Children closely, hardly breathing, looking for some pattern, some weakness, as though they had not already been under the world’s scrutiny for years. Mark had never seen them firsthand; all his memories were hand-me-downs, and, beneath his revulsion and fear, there was still some satisfaction to be had in acquiring a memory born of his own experience. He just needed to live to keep it.
Lethe’s Children scrambled up and down the altered shell of NewMeriCo. Scientists had discovered that each creature had between three and ten instructions that governed its behavior. As with the social insects, fairly sophisticated swarm behavior could be created with a set of limited protocols. What was unsettling was the constant reprogramming that occurred, apparently somewhere deep in the hive, as though some greater intelligence existed and could make administrative decisions. No such central intelligence existed in an ant colony, and ants were already the most successful insects on the planet. What if the LC were something more?
They move so fast! Mark thought. They were excavating a hill next to the fortress, running as though some project deadline were rapidly approaching. When they encountered each other they would kiss or slap each other, the slapping behavior being elaborate like a vid his teachers showed him of long-ago humor for long-ago television… slapstick someone said…yes, the stooges, three of them: Curly and Mo and another one.
A hand clutched Mark’s wrist, and he almost screamed. It was Solomon, and the pirate handed him digi-wraps, which Mark slipped over his eyes to look where the pirate directed.
There was some beast, a black, bulky thing—a gorilla? No there were no gorillas here, this was a shambling, shabby thing a—yes!—a bear. Not a grizzly, a smaller bear, but bigger than Mark.
Lethe’s Children were tormenting the bear, prodding it with sticks, throwing stones at it, rushing in to bite a leg, a buttock, genitals. Another LC, smaller than the general lot, jumped on the animal’s shaggy back and bit it on the shoulder. The bear was not defenseless, and with a roar it flung the creature off and swiped at it with a massive paw. Something rolled beyond the frenzied circle, and Mark turned to let the digi-wraps call it into focus. It was a head, still animate, mouth open and making an ululation which rendered the brothers within Mark crazy and incoherent.
Now the LC were on the bear, and the animal collapsed under their numbers and grunted and coughed and something dark—blood—seeped out beneath the awful writhing of these small, idiot monsters.
Mark thought he might be sick despite his high marks in self-mastery. A hand fell on his shoulder and he heard the pirate’s voice: “I think they wanted our eyes on the show,” he said. “And it’s too late now.”
Mark turned, pushing the digi-wraps aside, and beheld the grinning faces, and noted a detail no one residing in his mind seemed to have logged: the creatures had three thin tongues that slipped like a black tide between their blood-red teeth.
Strange times. I’ll cut to the chase here. Yesterday, I came out of my neighborhood grocery store at about one in the morning. I like to do my shopping when most citizens are sleeping. There is a downside to that, but there’s a downside to almost everything. In the case of late-night grocery shopping, the problem is this: now that the crowds have thinned out, the shelf-stocking begins in earnest. There are boxes and giant pallets all over the place. You can’t push a cart down most of the aisles, and you are forced to dart in and out of narrow spaces like some marginal scavenger in the end times. In this predawn state, when few humans are around to enrich the ambience, the lights cast a grey-green pall that wouldn’t be out of place in the world’s worst zombie crack house, and the electricity is more apt to snap at your hands (despite the cart’s rope-like wire that skids along the store’s floor to prevent just this from happening). If you decide to tell your cashier (average age: 14) that you are getting electric shocks, he will look at you with new wariness and say “Whoa,” or something equally unhelpful.
So I came out of the store and watched a nightjar swoop after bugs drawn by the parking lot’s many lamps. This was not a bat, it was a nightjar. You might think that I don’t know what I’m talking about, but in this instance, I do. Consider that a preemptive strike against your incredulity.
I unlocked my car with my remote. I was six feet from my car when, out of the shadows, a large shapeless person appeared. His silhouette and lurching gait suggested a man who was sleeping outdoors, and when he came under the street light I recognized him. He was the ancient bearded prophet who I’d seen listening to Vernon on The Drag.
“Hey,” I said. He had the reek of someone marinated in cheap wine and boiled under a bad year’s vicious sun. He was shabby and sick and wore unsnapped rubber boots that wouldn’t be seeing any rain any time soon. He wore one glove, and that gloved-hand clutched half a scissors, which glittered ominously as though recently sharpened.
“What do you want?” I asked.
He frowned, possibly interpreting this question as a trick. He said, “Don’t want nothing. Don’t fear nothing. Don’t—“
He staggered forward and tripped, his clumsiness resulting in a swift lunge that neither of us had been expecting. I dropped the plastic bag—a jar of pickles burst, releasing a sweet and sour smell—and I staggered back, banging against my car. My attacker lay on the ground, muttering. I opened the car door, ducked my head, and turned in the driver’s seat. I slammed the door and drove away.
When I got back to the Paris Apartments parking lot, I noticed that I still had the half-scissors. My stomach had claimed it, and it was sticking out of my tee-shirt. My heart sped up when I realized the blade was firmly embedded in my stomach. Beyond a certain muted discomfort, I felt okay, but I knew that didn’t signify anything. Maybe I was in shock. I was pretty sure it should hurt a lot. I parked my car, and thought, “I should probably drive to the ER,” but I didn’t. Moving carefully, I slowly marched up the stairs to my apartment. Vernon was not in sight, and since he would engage me in some inane conversation even if I told him I had just been stabbed, I was glad he wasn’t around. He was a night owl, too, and so it was just luck that I dodged him.
The reek of pickles entered my apartment with me, and I realized that the cuff of my right pants’ leg was soaked in pickle juice. I sat on my sofa and studied the scissors. Should I call an ambulance? Probably I should, but— I gripped the scissors’ handle and slowly pulled the blade out. It came out as clean as it had gone in. No blood? I was expecting a great dark patch to bloom on my shirt, a malignant Rorschach test whose interpretation was easy. But nothing happened, and when I lifted my shirt up, my stomach, though larger than I would have wished it to be, was unsullied by any wound.
I don’t know how someone else would have dealt with this anomaly, but I was exhausted. I lay down on the sofa and immediately fell asleep.
All my life, I’ve felt that some reckoning awaits me. For the longest time, I assumed that everyone felt that way, but they don’t. Say the phrase “existential dread” to most folks and they’ll draw a blank. Some folks will say, “I studied that in college. Camus, Sartre, those guys, right?”
I was always a morbid kid, I guess, although I only know that in retrospect. I can remember when I was maybe seven or eight, me and Artie and Susan Randall and her kid brother Pie and a gawky kid named Hoot who lived in a haunted house, we found a dead cat by the side of the road. I told everyone that we could all be like that in less time than it took to spit, just as dead, because we were made of the same stuff! I told them I’d seen a television show about the human body, and it wasn’t good news, we were built out of jelly-stuff and baloney-like valves that opened and closed but couldn’t do that forever and a heart that beat like a moth against a screen door and germs that swam in all the juices inside us and a brain that looked like a lot of grubs stuck together or maybe one of those popcorn balls people make at Christmas and everything depended on everything else, which was supposed to be wonderful according to the television scientist but wasn’t when you thought of all the things that could go wrong, and if you took your eyeball out and put it on the curb in the sun, it would dry up right away like a grape on a hot skillet because: we were not any different than that dead cat.
Susan Randall hit me with her lunch pail, and I still have a tiny pale scar on my chin. I went to her funeral in high school; she’d jumped off the Skyway Bridge that stretches across Tampa Bay. She was on vacation with her folks, and they found a note. Her boyfriend had dumped her for a girl named Lily Fields who was cute in a way that I knew was going to go bad and it did. I saw Lily at a ten-year high school reunion and she was already looking puffy and clownish against her will. Her boyfriend wasn’t there, but they had both shown up for Susan’s funeral, clutching each other in an erotic fit of bereavement.
In college, I was friends with Leslie Heckenberg—and we were just friends, no sexual entanglement. She was pretty, but I wasn’t attracted to her for whatever reason (pheromone mismatch maybe). She was the funniest, smartest person I knew.
She could talk for hours about life’s various hideous aspects. She had some hilarious rants. There were other days, however, when irony deserted her and in a harrowing monotone she would talk about the utter failure of her existence. She began going into hospitals for depression. She got some electro-shock treatments and cheered up for a while but then plummeted into some dark hallucinatory hell and took a lot of pills and left a message on her landlady’s answering machine—it was a Friday and the landlady wouldn’t be back until Monday—saying: “By the time you get this I will be dead.” And she was.
A friend of mine said, “Well, she’s been talking about killing herself for years, so maybe congratulations are in order. She followed through. You’ve got to admire that.” And he added: “I’m sure you helped her along; you’ve always been sort of…I don’t know…pro-death?”
Of course I thought about killing myself. To some extent, it was peer pressure—one time I made a list of friends and acquaintances who had offed themselves, and it came to fourteen names—but I also fancied myself an intellectual, so I had to reflect on Camus’s famous utterance: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.”
My father and older brother were hunters, and on my sixteenth birthday I was given a shotgun. I had decided, years earlier, that I was never going to shoot at anything that couldn’t shoot back, so my father and brother continued to hunt without me, but I did, on occasion, go off into the wilderness with my weapon and contemplate blowing my brains out. However, I had never liked Hamlet’s overwrought vacillating, and when I saw the same behavior in myself, I stopped entertaining thoughts of self-destruction. I figured I’d know if I were ready to end it all. Hamlet never figured it out. He was killed when Laertes stabbed him with a poisoned sword, and consequently never had to answer Camus’s ultimate question: why proceed?
I dreamed that Vernon was in my apartment last night. I woke to the sound of a match being struck. I was instantly alert and upright, peering into the dark to where a cigarette’s red ember hovered.
“Who’s there?” I said.
“Oh, good, you’re up.” a voice said, someone sitting in the big, multi-colored armchair I’d gotten for free when a couple I knew grew rich and needed more sedate decor. The lamp on the end table clicked on, and I saw Vernon. He was wearing a suit, which may have been his usual visiting attire for all I knew. He held a small black derby, balanced on his knee, while he held his cigarette with his other hand.
“No smoking in here,” I said, the sort of thing anyone might say in a dream when more pressing issues are at hand.
“Nothing to worry about. I have disabled the smoke alarm.” He gestured toward the ceiling, and, sure enough, the smoke alarm was dangling there, clearly deprived of its 9-volt battery.
Vernon leaned forward and said, “I want to apologize for Truthman’s behavior.”
“Truthman.” Vernon chuckled. “He says an angel on fire gave him that name, and it burned away his memories of his parents and whatever name they might have pinned on him.”
“Well he stabbed me with a scissors,” I said.
“I did not encourage that at all.”
I remembered. “I saw you talking to him. You put him up to that, didn’t you?”
“I did not. I was just discussing the nature of free will with Truthman and some of his cohorts. He is not a sophisticated man, and he came to the conclusion that he should kill you.”
“What for?” I asked.
“To prevent your doing more harm in the world.”
I was starting to get angry.
“Who are you? This isn’t the Vernon I know. That Vernon is…well…a boring idiot…a monologist…a nuisance…but I can’t imagine him breaking into my apartment in the middle of the night.”
Vernon nodded. “Yes. That Vernon utters ‘polite, meaningless words’ as the poet Yeats would say. I have been in a disguise, and you have told me much about yourself.”
I knew I had told him nothing.
He read my expression and answered it. “But you have. It is what Yeats said, again, ‘Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart.’”
“What sacrifice are you referring to?”
Vernon sighed, put his cigarette out by scrubbing it against the bottom of his shiny black shoe, and stood up. “Your compassion. We’ve had this conversation many times before, but you don’t remember. You were hell bent on not listening. You used to be what we call a karmic facilitator, for want of a better name in this sad fleeting world, but you are retired now. I should have retired years ago, myself.
“We are night people, you and I. We are more comfortable in the dark, and the dark has entered our blood. The indelible dark. Ring a bell? It should, you’re the one who coined the phrase. Well, you are my last case, and I can’t say a lot, so you’ll have to listen as hard as you can. You are not responsible for the people you killed, but you killed them all the same.”
“How come I don’t remember this entire secret karma-agent thing?” I asked.
Vernon shrugged. “When you retire, you get a choice. You can remember, or not.”
“And I, of course, chose to forget.”
“Well, most people do. It’s what I’m choosing. And, anyway, on some level, you didn’t forget, did you?” Vernon looked around the room as though he might be forgetting something.
He said, “You might decide that you need to leave this world, that your staying in it endangers others. There is a young woman you spoke to several months ago at her father’s funeral. Earlier tonight she was lying in her bathtub. The water was warm, and she held a razor in her right hand and she knew that the surest cut was lengthwise and she had been drinking, wine, quite a lot, and she was confident she could do this thing that would separate her from her pain, but, reaching out for the wine glass, she knocked it to the floor, and it shattered, and she got out of the tub and cleaned the mess up—fastidious woman—and the water went tepid and the impulse toward oblivion was lost. She went to bed, wrapping herself in blankets, crying until the alcohol pulled her into sleep. Tomorrow is another day, and she can kill herself then.”
Vernon paused, but it was clear he had more to say. How could this be the same man who had never, as far as I knew, uttered a single word worth marking? I was breathless now, waiting for him to speak.
“You may discover—I suspect you already have… Did Truthman’s scissors make you bleed? No. I thought so. You have been given a kind of protection for your service. But there are ways for you to forsake this life, and though I can’t direct you, I can urge you to reflect. Think of that young lady, your late-landlord’s daughter… Our world has a fondness for the circular. That is karma, after all. Meditate on karma, my friend. The dark gets on us, and it’s indelible and we pass it along. You carry the suicide virus in your heart, and any chance encounter can infect others.”
He lifted his hat, positioned it over his head with both hands, then tapped it smartly with the fingers of his right hand and disappeared (confirming his dream status should I have had doubts in the morning).
I can’t meditate. I can’t think. I’ve been walking around the room in an agitated state. A minute ago I spied a copy of The Savage God on a bookshelf next to The Bell Jar. This is the old, battered copy of Savagethat I purchased long ago. I guess I wasted $13.95 on the new copy I bought on impulse. Maybe BookPeople will give me my money back.
I was thumbing through this old copy, and I came upon something Mary (not the child of my sf novel, which is, I think, going to be a short story, not a novel)...no, Mary my wife, something she wrote, something Mary whose eyes were silver-blue, whose hair was red, who thought she might save me but knew nothing of the indelible dark wrote in one of her goofy editorial moments. She had a fondness for these brief annotations. I don’t remember seeing this one before.
This is what she wrote: “Oh Joel! Coals to Newcastle, I guess! Love forever, Mary.”
What can a writer do? Well, I can finish this damned story. Although other things are more pressing now.
Here’s a synopsis to make quick work of it:
Mary arrives to save Mark and Solomon from Lethe’s Children. They do not attack Mary. She is a god to them. They lead her to a vast computer, the ancient machine that alters the child-goblins’ primitive instructions.
Being a god in a science fiction story is often bad news, and since this story is more Edgar Rice Burroughs than Kim Stanley Robinson, Mary is in grave danger. She is the new genetic material that the monstrous machine requires to write new diversity into its hapless children. Mary has already suspected this, and she is willing to make the sacrifice in the interests of a better world, but—
In the shadows of the underworld, Mark watched the door slide open and Mary, accompanied by half a dozen of the LC entered. The door began to slide closed again, and Mark realized that it was a vast steel wall thatrevolved. This was no simple door that might be broken by brute force; this was a slow-turning wheel that might roll round again in a hundred, a thousand years.
Maybe this will be a novel. Against all odds, promising vengeance if Mary’s salvation proves a lost cause, Mark and Solomon battle their way over the wall and through jungles and treacherous cities. Solomon is wounded several times, and a cybersyncOrgbot whom Mark has befriended keeps creating artificial bits for Solomon, bits that will come in handy later.
Maybe it would end like this:
Mark wasn’t too late. He hadn’t raged at her and stalked off and stayed at a friend’s house and returned late the next night, still drunk, to find her dead, the bath water red, her face like porcelain, her lips the faintest blue.
O Mary. I should have been your champion. And I failed you when I thought I was only failing myself.
I think I know what Vernon was getting at. I think I know how to remove the curse that lies on that young woman’s heart. I’m going to drive out to Oak Hill, fingers crossed, my equivalent of a prayer. I still have my key to the house. I think Maxwell’s masterpiece will still be there. Wouldn’t anyone hesitate to destroy something built with such rigor, such care?
I will use the banister to steady me, running my hand along its smooth, lovingly-sanded surface—and though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, no one need accompany me.