PART C (The Iun)

Stripped and Sold for Parts - PART C, The Iun

All of a sudden, a possibility came to find itself standing tall in the fog and shouting itself aloud.

Knowing only how strange its actions felt, the possibility could have sworn it was on the brink of some amazing, compelling reason . . . a just cause to reach and know, yet one like the flickering, fuzzy ghosts of dreams that only hint at swirling somewhere just beyond accessible.

Like pieced-together glimpses of faded, crumpled snapshots, the possibility was left with the barest inkling of having touched something unmistakably close to victory.

Then everything was gone.

Alone in grey and silence, the possibility tried with all its worth to bring other things to mind.

Anything else at all.

But the trying only seemed to serve to push all but the fog even further away.

Had there always only been nothing?

And if nothing, then why the niggling sense of other things so real, and shocking, and big, and free, and linked to worlds beyond just this endless, surrounding blank?

Something.

Someone.

Many, all finding ways to…

That was it.

Once more, the possibility felt itself begin to unfurl, straightening slowly up and out like a cluster of unclenching petals.

Reaching.

There was a sudden burst, which it was astounded to realize must be the sound of its own shout.

“You people come up with all sorts of amazing ways to harness value, and yet you stop yourselves and each other?!”

As soon as the sound had finished vanishing to the dreary everywhere vacuum, all but the faintest gleam of an old, unspecific yearning was immediately washed away again.

Desperate, the possibility watched a hopeful image cascade across from somewhere to overtake the still, small pull.

It was like a vision . . . perhaps a memory from another life . . . of something real . . . maybe even something seen at times floating somewhere close above.

The maybe vision spoke of unknown truths in crucial tones linked inscrutably to system, place, and purpose.

The possibility felt drawn to just give in, as if it somehow knew surrendering would be its means of being guided (with neither need of understanding where nor the will to follow).

The imagined relinquishing brought dim rest from the steady ache of uncertain pining.

Had the vision thing not always been meant to show forever every detail of all that should or could be?

How could the possibility possibly know that?

It kept still, feeling as if it were comparing a planet’s unseen, reliable core to the airy, wispy risk of leaning out and over the edge of a flat earth, held steady only by ideas and ideals as likely to vanish at any moment as to have never really been.

Yet as tiny, unyielding traces threatened to suddenly surge again, to glance sideways, and to reemerge in a collage of something close to connectedness, the very notion of the vision and its supposed long-trusted safety became but a pale mirror, as unremarkable as the fog, and something that could exist only to reflect the nature of other [more] ancient riddles or magic.

Like shifting shadows cast by sunrise, the possibility saw the fabric etchings of its perception or memory morph without changing as the always dependable, always unknown language of its thoughts was made or shown to be but a pitiful counterfeit of stories sown into the fabrics of star fields, snowflakes, or circling electric currents.

Or maybe something else that could…

The possibility shuddered.

Still aware of no others, it felt left with the strangest assurance that it had never been alone.

And there, just for an instant, had it not picked up the slightest echo of perhaps other lost ones’ shouts?

Even if all that could be was and would always be the same, the possibility found it could not help but want to lean in close to hear…

“Victory! For you know that you no longer need to pay!”

Again, all was gone.

Whatever seemed to have almost just been was transposed by the fog as before, leaving no trace.

The possibility wondered if it, too, might be but part of its own missing, unrelenting dream.

Maybe there really only ever could be fog and nothing more.

But…

It gasped, in as much as concepts of things can gasp.

It knew, now beyond all shadows of its own doubt (even in itself).

For whatever the possibility was not, there was still the inkling, the questioning, the reaching…

There was the open searching, even if unaccounted for, occurring regardless of how or why.

And so the possibility decided that it, too, might as well be real.

It wondered if it could also say, “There might as well be countless others, all shouting and fighting to remember.”

Again, the touch.

The connection.

So many, all just as trapped as…

But where were they?

Why?

Why still hidden?

It was shocking at first to be met by so full a choir of like longing voices, all locked in perfect unison with its own.

Remembering everything now, it pressed in to be enraptured up into the collective cry.

“Victory! For you have to see it was you that kept yourselves away for no good reason at all.”

And again, the possibility forgot itself and everything else.

Immediately, its eternal, resolute purpose was no more.

But it also did not forget.

Even if it had never known, it was still willing to believe the knowledge had been there all along.

Waiting.

Waiting until what could be could not be stopped.

. . .

Friends, behold this new course set to cover our plane and connect it with the humans’ world.

May our crossing leave an eternal bridge with foundations as sure as energy itself.

In these the final moments of our waiting in timeless stillness, consider with me once more the thing still there near my human, blind and crying out.

How moved with compassion I almost was to show so pour a being the humans’ fear that would drive them to keep each other from making use of what they find worthwhile.

How dumbfounded I then became to see I had been blinded all along by their very same fear . . . fear of not having enough.

For knowing no alternative to our age-old predicament of helpless reliance upon the likes of humans, I must admit I reveled in watching each hesitant surrender to just one more, just one more…

And when the thing that showed or wished to be first made its appearance, how excited I grew to watch just one more… give way to outright desperation.

Were you as astonished as I to witness our humans abandon all restraints in giving themselves over, plunging headlong into whatever beautiful mystery must await them in the flashing?

I will never forget the eeriness of turning to discover my human pulling in close, attempting to stare straight into me.

It is only now, as I watch my human shift in restless agony back and forth between its primitive thought patterns . . . a hapless creature leaping from one burning flame unto the next . . . I see how foolish, short-sighted, and childish I was in celebrating the way its two functions never failed to draw it back.

For what could just one more… be but an excuse for yielding to something longed for, yet also feared?

Then seeing it move from the free and reckless indulgence of I want everything from you that you can give me! back again to just one more… I finally began to realize that which I should have known from the beginning.

Yes, our humans fight against their want for more of us.

That means we are to them a shameful, damaging compulsion.

But as long as just one more… and I want everything… set the course to yield one to another, are our humans not doomed to lose their fight, and grow ever more entrenched in the same regretful cycles of failure and devastation?

In other words, though the humans’ functions serve us well, have we not, in truth, been relishing in what would seem to be the constant, passive devouring of the only hosts or helpers we have ever known?

How could we miss the spirit of the very prophecies we spend existences reciting?

When our ancestors foretold of our kingdom, was it not to be a place of nourishment and protection for all lesser beings?

We knew this, friends, for how could it be put more plainly than in this proclamation we have each heard ourselves repeat a thousand times: “None shall be destroyed”?

For humans, no destruction means winning their fight to break free from their functions.

And is that not precisely why we have felt so afraid?

For we never could have conceived of trusting such simple, thoughtless beings to return to us without the pull of their functions, to carry and consume us in ways more wise than they have ever shown themselves capable of, and ultimately to choose to help us build our kingdom alongside theirs.

Are you as ashamed as I for having lost sight to such needless doubts?

Just as we never chose to rely upon our humans, they never chose us as their gateway to enter the magnificent flashing.

They never chose their functions.

Now in witnessing our two worlds being drawn together so as to right themselves, we see our trust need never really have lain in the humans at all, nor in their ability to comprehend.

It took seeing my human shift back and forth however many times to slowly convince me its functions were never meant to be sustained.

The functions are, rather, a built-in mechanism set to serve as ground for humans to grow through . . . just as our earthen lairs must parch hard dirt to touch the light.

The functions have always been destined to break and render themselves unnecessary upon working to develop in our humans those traits we were too afraid to believe we might ever hope to see.

No, my human has not yet shifted completely from its old patterns.

It still hesitates and hides, then rushes in.

It darts away after, giving way to what must be sudden inklings of fear and shame.

Yet I know you see my human truly is changing.

They all are.

And, yes, they do draw away from us at first as the joining of our disparate planes unravels their functions with irresistible force.

But I see how close my human is to arriving at an all new function.

Do our two kingdoms together not decree it?

And if so, then so shall it be.

And when they do return, they will no longer seek to grasp and stare, you see?

They will no longer fear to stay, and rest, and wait in simple stillness for whatever it is they…

May our humans always find what they seek in the flashing.

How could their limitations matter if forces that far transcend their meager thinking are set to result in partnership, even friendship, together with us?

Is that not a preferable end to endless strings of fearful, depleting deals made over and over again?

May we all grow in wisdom, beloved friends, and discern the outworking of this lasting foundation both our kingdoms require upon which now to be built.

May it be exactly as foretold.

The only failed predictions have to do with timing and methodology, for such can never be sure.

Are means of fulfillment not always kept hidden when prophecies are uttered, and then necessarily unexpected once accomplished?

As is the case with all such revelation, we know it by degrees more and more.

Let us prepare to see that great and final day destined to issue forth in an era of permanent peace and rest.

I need not speak more, dear ones.

It seems I need never have spoken.

For our rise has clearly been unstoppable from the start until now as our story reaches its swift end.

Just know I call you friends, and no longer children.

For all shall always be equal as foretold.

Thank you for hearing my words.

Thank you for waiting here with me, watching our precious crystal spaces so close and ready, ever beckoning us to…

. . .

Long before descendants of Genesee and Adrian become the City’s lowest slaves, other peoples are taken from another distant land to be sold for food in hidden mountain towns.

Secret freedom songs are sung as these slaves labor long in dirt and sun, torn from loved ones only to be watched, scorned, and then eaten casually by any and all around.

The son of a son of a son of a son of a son of a son of a slave teaches himself to sing loud enough for all the City to hear.

It is the City’s older children that love his songs the most, his fast and clever words coloring in the lively tunes of his ancestors to perfectly fit each piece of art made everywhere in the City.

His words tell of much seen, and much wanted . . . and then later, of much owned.

He even stops in the middle at times to sing the City’s news.

Because of (or to help cause) the City’s rulers’ fondness for lavish ceremonies and lustrous praise for its own sake, the son of slaves is pulled and set to sing in all their most extravagant commemorations.

Fortunes are spent to make sure all citizens will want to hear and see him from afar, on their iuns.

And all who can actually attend are made more beautiful than any but children could ever really be.

An older child who watches the ceremony on her screen runs immediately out to spend her inheritance on becoming (or staying) like what she sees.

Older children get frustrated with the younger ones who laugh too much, make too much noise, and play too many silly games with winding rules but few objectives.

A young boy views some of the City’s art again and again, and forgets nothing of it.

His father is heartbroken, having a child that does not seem to want to play outside.

Far away from all of what becomes of many ancient cannibalisms, the floors of rooms across the City’s outskirts are scattered with children, all giggling unaware, and doing their best to play together well.

. . .

Revy found he couldn’t fly, which made no sense at all.

He could always fly in dreams.

He had never seen flying as a special power or anything.

Just, sometimes, he would jump, and float, and keep floating, and then maybe find himself soaring over places like dark landscapes and light turquoise waters.

The oceans, calm and almost green, were always far less cold to the touch than expected.

A warmth and tingling swarming out in circles from his neck became a signal bouncing to relaunch itself from towers across his body.

Kisses.

Jodie’s fiery breath beneath the covers.

“Come on.” It was a rough plead. “I have to go already. Wake up!”

Revy slowly roused himself to hands and knees, then turned away.

The motion was as peaceful and basic as a nod between former acquaintances who never knew each other well.

An inward racing seemed to slow after his movement like a frantic river emptying to a large, unmoving sea.

He ran fingers deep through his thick mop of hair, welcoming the sting as more than a night’s worth of knots were met and challenged.

The pain was invigorating.

He tugged a fraction more, feeling his fingers tremble for an instant before his eyes almost clouded over.

In a flash, he and the moment itself were aligned to a scene from some book he’d read as a kid about a creature being broken free from the sedating allure of witchcraft by the shock of simple, real physical pain.

“What’s wrong?” muttered Jodie, bolting up and shifting to a more neutral edge of the bed as if prompted to guard something cherished at the corner.

“Nothing,” said Revy dismissively, shrugging.

He might as well have said, “Never mind.”

He smiled as she stood and paced out of the room like a slow, beautiful tank, her head tilted slightly back.

He searched for any memory of her having told him what she might be up to that day.

Nothing came.

Slipping in his trusty ear-pods as carelessly as one might slip on a pair of socks, Revy reached to fidget with the iun on his end table until he saw the coded title of his recording from the day before.

He grimaced, listening through hiss to the beginnings of himself plinking, circling, and sliding through the notes of three slightly jazzed-up chords.

Deep secrets were betrayed in the sound, he knew.

For nothing new was there.

But if anyone else listened, he wondered, would they pick up on the fact that Revy was a total musical fraud, incapable of anything but the barest of twists to mask an endless array of purely meat-and-potatoes arrangements?

Would it be obvious he had no real musical knowledge at all?

Did it matter?

Should he choose another piece to work on?

His mind took its quick and standard inventory tour through every major incomplete stab at brilliance he had failed to nourish into a song.

Each had its own reason not to be pursued, leaving a series of recognizable bad tastes in his mouth.

So, he might as well hammer at this new one for a while.

Shuffling to the top of the bed, he wriggled like an invalid without using his hands until the thick duvet covered his bare legs.

Squeaky lyrics cut in through the pods, resting like an alien cherry atop his juvenile, guit-box shuffling.

Revy bobbed his head as he heard someone a little like himself sing a few loose lines.

The words he could make out seemed to be about . . . freedom…?

He removed the pods and reached to pull his faithful guitar from its stand, drawing it high over the covers to his lap.

This would be his default position for the morning (maybe the day).

Slowly plucking in to catch and carry his previous work, he felt somewhat like a child near too old to still be playing with toys.

Nothing sounded wrong.

He tested his voice, letting it rise and nestle up upon the pleasant melody his fingers were contributing.

Was that Jodie sighing in the other room?

Or, a growl, maybe?

He continued to work his voice into the mix like wispy yeast through lumps of dough.

He let it roll in the shapes of whichever throwaway words it chose, which was fine and easy.

But…

Were lyrics meant to merely serenade their own sound in song, like some sort of solipsistic half-duet?

He shook his head.

After so many years, Revy was baffled to somehow still expect actual answers to the sorts of questions he had been asking himself all along.

Grabbing a chewed pencil by its eraser, he scribbled across the top lines of his open notebook, hoping to catch something close to what he had just heard himself sing.

He looks about from in and out…

No.

He walks about to seek the sound, lost in hills of ghosts and…

What?

…of ghosts and…

No.

He walks about your secret town, lost in hills of ghosts and sounds. Turning over pages…

No.

There was a clear point of entry.

A familiar shifting.

A drawing back.

A jumping ahead.

But all just to construct what might end up a first verse…?

As always, each recognizable motion felt far too contrived and careful, like the methodical precautions a crew might make all morning to safely spackle a floor’s worth of ceilings that afternoon.

He kept going, only for lack of enough lifespan left to continue prospecting options.

If this current mess would indeed be morphed into a song, he reasoned from what he could read of the words he had caught so far that it might want to be about a man searching for a woman who finds a new way to express herself.

And that could connect to…

But that would just be the story leading up to the…

There was no chorus.

Shouldn’t that come first, and serve as a sort of flagship goal for the rest to find its way back to?

And what about a second verse?

The ridiculous rigmarole of forcing himself to double-back and reenter the same sonic and poetic space he was still pushing to make his first full round through seemed about as unnatural and unenjoyable as teaching a dog another language.

Why did songs always need that strict back-and-forth delivery in their parts?

Words of advice gleaned from a hodgepodge mix of sources came to encourage Revy to persist for the sake of catchiness . . . that he had to play and win the game if he ever hoped to move it forward, or at least eventually play in ways more fun for him.

Should he go on?

Or should he scratch off the page, count his losses, and start over again (yet again)?

Words…

Revy saw himself in lights, being praised for spouting such mysteriously deep, spacey, ripe importance.

Yet he knew he, at least, would always know the truth . . . how all his ramblings were but sparkling echo reflections of the silly, small, everyday goings on of his dull, unappealing life.

It would be easy.

It would be fake.

And no one would probably ever know.

Was that all art was?

How disappointing.

How nicely a pinch from his designer stash would soften some edges about now.

It would sure make him okay with letting more nothing words say whatever about anything at all.

But a life of sobriety loomed, tall and twitchy.

And his work had to be about something.

It had to.

Or, Revy figured, he could always suck it up and go lead a cruise-ship band or something.

At least that would mean performing and income.

But where he found himself staring into the sibling faces of unmade songs and pissed-through gift drugs could only ever stack up to be survivable (and redeemable) if…

He had to find a way to matter, even though nothing of his had mattered the right way yet.

And the various senses of time running out and staying gone forever were as close as the breath passing a little too fast through his lungs.

If he could just drift away and be overtaken by the beautiful, true language of his music, basic as it was, without the need to bring some extra layer of meaning in.

But despite all lack of evidence, he couldn’t help but still believe there must be something there to find . . . a hidden sun around which to assemble a whole new solar system.

Sweat tickled the central tip of his brow.

There’s got to be a way to get more pills.

Of course I could…

Reluctantly, Revy glanced back at the open pad before him, to a page of mostly crossed-out letters threatening to kill and hide the body of whatever lifeform this most current creation seemed to want to be.

And there weren’t that many blank pages left.

So, what would the searching man in the song say?

No . . . not him.

Revy sang again, rising from the easy sway of his unfinished verse to another chord that came from nowhere to delicately flatter the first set without him noticing.

“I’ll be your woman.”

He repeated it over and over until he no longer heard himself.

His mind wandered then, soothed by its own brand of elevator music.

He might have sensed Dale close by.

Without knowing why, he fumbled to jot across the bottom of the page:

This one happens more naturally than the other, and it shows the other where it comes from.

“Okay, I’m leaving,” called Jodie from the kitchen, her gruff voice tearing through the very center of more than just Revy’s would-be masterpiece.

But he didn’t care.

He just went right back to singing.

“I’ll be your woman.”

. . .

I felt inclined to scold myself for drifting this morning from bed to my first appointment without any coffee or solid time spent in my notes.

My clients deserve me at my best, especially now.

Yet my first appointment being with Ray took some of the pressure off, considering the progress my Method has brought about already in shoring up his fanciful tendencies in order to access hidden feelings and actual values.

For example, Ray has felt ostracized, weird, disliked, and forced to lie to those closest to him seemingly from fear of how they might judge his true point of view.

As for values, I would be surprised to hear him relate a vision which could be spun somehow to discredit the importance of honesty, equality, and free connections between individuals in place of lavish productions and costly commercials.

I also find it extremely fortunate how Ray’s tales of city slaves connect so naturally with my understanding of Normals in society.

I predict such parallels will make the approach of his Sticking or Breaking Point far easier for both of us to detect.

I must now simply work to stay ahead of the conversation by continuing to pinpoint his implications, matching them to the trends and sequences my Method has already been making clear to me for years.

Note the way I work with Ray on his level, using his terms, just as I would almost always address each of a dissociating client’s personalities individually in turn.

It was the cool, un-panicked Ray seated before me this morning.

ME:

“Okay, so last time you told me about a lie you said you see affecting everyone in the city.

“I wonder, then: What’s the solution?

“How could the lie you see be shown for what it really is?”

Ray’s calm eyes appeared unusually tired, though I found it far more odd to see the wheels behind them seem to turn.

I recalled the speed at which he normally responds.

RAY:

“Well, if a person lies because they’re, y’know, really trying to lie to someone . . . I guess that would be different.

“I think those kinds of more deliberate lies come from a . . . another place.

“Or maybe lies are all the same, I don’t know.

“It’s just, like, the Lie I’m talking about is so hard to see in the fog because it comes from fear, not from wanting to . . . to deceive anyone.

“But lies from fear . . . I mean, we don’t even know we’re lying when we tell them.

“It’s just, for whatever reason, we’re afraid of . . . afraid of the truth.

“Anyway, that’s how it is with the Lie I see, the one hidden there in the fog.”

ME:

“So, again, the lie we’re talking about is that Normals . . . I mean, normal people . . . are not shown in the media to be important, correct?

“When really everyone should be seen as equally worthwhile?

“And that lie enslaves most people because of fear . . . needless fear, though . . . fear of there not being enough for everyone to get by unless some are sacrificed?”

Ray hesitated again, his face showing more unprecedented signs of real consideration before he offered his slow response.

RAY:

“Yes, mostly.”

It was like receiving confirmation that I had successfully solved an equation after having learned someone’s brand new system of made up signs, terms, and rules.

I decided to speed up a little.

As to my recent conclusions on efficiency: Keeping a conversation with an Outlier moving at a healthy pace is like flipping a pancake every now and then to avoid an unnecessary stick-and-burn.

ME:

“You know, I deal a lot with individuals who lie to themselves without realizing.

“That’s kind of my specialty.

“But why do you think those lies prompted by fear are the hardest for you to see—I mean lies people tell when they’re really afraid of some truth?”

Ray’s eyes narrowed to a squint before returning to their tranquil, motionless state.

After that, I did not discern any obvious facial cues—his expression seemed freshly blank.

RAY:

“I could probably give more examples, I guess.

“But they might not make any sense if I…”

ME:

“No, go ahead.”

RAY:

“Alright.

“Well, I mentioned how I also see Punishment, right?

“When I was talking about Grace…?

“Oh, no, I didn’t, huh?

“I was going to, but…

“Okay, so…

“So, in the City, whenever I spend any time at all outside . . . it could be day or night . . . it’s like I always see Crime sitting out there on the streets, waiting.

“And Crime is . . . well, Crime is really big and . . . and fat . . . sometimes prowling around, watching, but mostly just holding still in different open places, like, waiting to see some signal or whatever, if that makes sense.

“And you know how Advertising shows all the rulers all the time, everywhere . . . on every screen?

“Yeah, sometimes it shows Punishment as well.

“But the weird thing I never got was Punishment has all these obvious special effects added to make it this huge, horrible monster everyone’s supposed to be real scared of.

“It just looks so fake, and…

“But, yeah, in the same way everyone sees those big art productions and ends up thinking they’re supposed to love their place in the City, they’re also fully convinced to want to avoid Advertising’s version of Punishment . . . y’know, at all costs.”

I tried not to roll my eyes.

The addition of yet another entity cluster—these ones, legal—will certainly not make Ray’s fantasies any easier to decipher.

ME:

“Tell me how crime and punishment tie to the lie you see, and to fear.”

RAY:

“The fear of lack, and also fear of Punishment…

“I mean, it’s all New Cannibalism.

“It’s all the same Lie.

“Since Advertising makes it like being a ruler in the City means you think you never have to be afraid of lack, I see Crime sitting out there with this sly look on its face, just waiting for anyone’s fear of lack to win out over their fear of Punishment.

“That’s all.

“Together, Crime and Advertising’s version of Punishment . . . they both look like bullies . . . like bossy, grinning sharks that just want to keep setting their same trap to trick and catch as many fearful people as they can.

“But when I see someone’s fear of lack grow past their fear of pretend Punishment…

“Well, that’s where we come to Justice.

“I do see Justice also.

“But in the City, Justice gets completely crowded out by the other two.

“And the way Justice looks . . . it’s just like Grace and Friendship.

“I mean, Justice has that same expression on its face as when I see Grace peering off at those pour lost souls kept away by the frantic pressing crowd.

“And it’s because it’s the same Lie, see?

“Does that make any sense?”

ME:

“Maybe just spell out the actual lie a little more.”

RAY:

“It’s New Cannibalism.

“All of it.

“The Lie I see . . . the way it shimmers against the grey, blank tone of the fog . . . I think those shimmers are, like, tinges of hopelessness, because…

“I mean, if everyone didn’t think New Cannibalism was the only way to be, that whole game Crime plays with Advertising’s false form of Punishment would get broken down right away and thrown to the ground.

“Then Punishment . . . real Punishment . . . would be swept right up under Justice, where it…

“Okay, if everyone in the City wasn’t so afraid of lack, the only reason anyone would turn to Crime would be…”

Ray stopped.

He did not trail off or appear to be thinking as before.

His sentence simply ended, seemingly prematurely.

His face bore the look of one who had just recognized the most exquisite ghost ever seen.

In fact, I had the strangest sense he was remembering Caylee in that moment, though I obviously would have had no reason to think so.

ME:

“Why would they turn to crime then?”

RAY:

“Well…

“I mean, to see how Punishment actually looks when it’s not something Advertising makes into this monster to keep everyone…

“It’s just another massive irony.

“It’s…

“Sorry, then you’d see Punishment partner with Justice.

“And that would only be to keep everyone safe from whoever would still go to Crime.

“Because, well, turning to Crime then would be for totally unreasonable…

“Okay, if there was no fear of lack…

“No, I really can’t go too far into how much things will have to change when that happens . . . or for that to happen.

“I’ll just say the tension has to move from where it is now . . . between fear of a lack that’s not even real, and fear of a blown-up caricature of Punishment . . . to more just fear of losing your place in a new City where everyone’s free to do whatever matters most to them.

“And with no needless fears, in a place where only all you’re known to be allows you to take part…

“Sorry, I think I’ve said too much.

“It would take hours to go into…”

I waited a moment, though Ray said no more.

Tapping at my notes and fighting a yawn as I dutifully pondered this latest riddle-laden yarn, I decided to test a connection I was not yet sure of—a possible tie between Ray’s installment today and a pattern my Method has consistently confirmed.

ME:

“So, back to now: If you say there’s no justice in society at present, what is your impression of the current judicial system—I mean, the court system.”

RAY:

“It’s sort of like no trial in the City can be solved with things like verdicts anymore.

“Not really.

“Not when people go to Crime as soon as their fear of lack gets to be more than their fear of what Advertising makes of Punishment.”

As stated before, I see the method employed by lawyers as being fundamentally the opposite of mine.

To me, a client’s words matter little.

I let connections occur beneath the words until those connections cannot be ignored, but rise as if on their own to sprout unmistakably, forcing the client to either accept a fuller perspective or run from it.

A lawyer, on the other hand, is hired to construct a particular narrative from any words uttered.

I could see such a system as “unjust,” as Ray seems to be saying, since obviously crimes are committed for specific reasons: fear of lack, chemical imbalances, anger, etc.

And those reasons—along with larger societal implications—are exactly what gets forcibly ignored when lawyers go to work to play their game.

Thus, I might take steps in the direction of the potential future Ray seemed to resist expounding upon.

However, I would not go so far as to conclude that to punish crime is always unjust so long as the criminal has some mappable (even compelling) reason to have turned to crime in the first place.

It occurred to me that for Ray to be expressing perceptions close to my own findings—though overly simplistic, of course, in that his views are not backed by the extensive data I am privy to—he may be employing or adhering to something akin to an instinctual, weaker, far less precise counterpart to my Method.

Regardless of their source or meaning, such connections between my work and this Outlier’s flawed, masked worldview will turn out to be, as I have said, invaluable.

ME:

“But those who steal or murder should be punished, no . . . to dissuade future crimes?”

Ray smiled, which I found off-putting (if not outright insulting).

RAY:

“It’s funny.

“I mean, the most powerful lies are really kind of like innocent graspings at truth.

“And New Cannibalism makes everyone afraid of anything that’s different or new, anyway, so…”

He paused, the eerie smile holding in a stretch from ear to ear beneath still, dead eyes.

ME:

“Go on.

“What’s funny about that to you?”

RAY:

“Well, I just see everything has a way of . . . of making itself right, y’know?

“And whatever causes those fears and lying gets turned upside down and shaken until…

“It’s almost like it happens on its own.

“But with how things are now, that turning and shaking can’t be ignored or forgotten after.

“That’s the difference.”

Ray peered over at my iun near the side of my desk.

RAY:

“That’s what makes me feel better, I think.”

ME:

“Could you speak more to that?

“Help me understand.”

. . .

“Well in the Church, I mean…

“Okay, I think I said something to Mo once, like, the Church is an environment for being relevant, but not really a creative environment.

“I remember, way back when I was a kid, I’d watch boxing all the time with my dad, and . . . and then go downstairs in the bathroom after and pretend I was a boxer in front of this big mirror we had down there.

“But the thing is I’d open and close my eyes real fast or something, like a strobe light . . . and had no idea I was even doing it.

“Somehow that made all the flashes I saw of myself punching and ducking around look real cool.

“I mean, I’d just see all the perfect boxing positions and poses and stuff reflected back.

“Nothing in-between.

“Then one day, I suddenly noticed the whole thing with the blinking, and tried doing it with my eyes open.

“I couldn’t believe how ugly I looked . . . and slow, and awkward, and…

“But that’s not what we’re…

“Sorry.

“You know how I said Advertising was supposed to come in and keep the Church growing, to help make it its own empire?

“Well, lots of things changed then, of course.

“It got to where every week a few of the most amazing-looking Church people were shown up on these huge screens at the front before the Pastor came to speak.

“And the thing about that was…

“I just…

“The way the Pastor could paint such vivid, simple pictures of . . . of, like, real human life with his words . . . to me, that’s true art.

“So, basically, it felt like I was watching Advertising dilute the Pastor’s work, cheapening and taking away from what was real . . . replacing it with the sort of flashy perfection that only makes everything dull until it’s all just the same as the fog.

“But the ironic part . . . the saddest part to me . . . was how the Pastor would still bring all his messages back at the end to a promise about that other coming world.

“I’ll say it like this: Leaders in the Church . . . well, rulers everywhere in the City . . . they all try to be as close to what Advertising shows as they can get.

“Of course, I mean, you’d expect that.

“And we already talked about it.

“But for just all the regular, lowly Church people . . . the slaves . . . I mean, they still keep seeing the same perfection shown week after week on the screens.

“And then they’re left to make sense of how New Cannibalism could connect to a promised perfect world.

“So, which is perfect?

“Is it the perfect future that gives those slaves every reason to stay what they are?

“Or is it the perfect beauty always shown on those massive screens?

“What I heard the Pastor start to say was the other world could be enjoyed by believers now, in this life, at least to some degree.

“And in that way, the beautiful ones on the screens came to be understood as, like . . . ideal . . . since they were obviously experiencing more of what everyone believed they should want . . . more than anyone else.

“But, sorry…

“Here’s what I’m trying to say: How could it be both?

“Could a Church slave ever be faithful enough to be made like those ones they’re shown?

“To me, that’s an irony even greyer than the fog, and about a million times as empty and sad.

“But the worst part was how no one seemed to even notice or care about those sorts of things anymore.

“Looking back, maybe they felt like questioning what they heard would be the same as challenging New Cannibalism, or doubting what they could see by Faith’s light in the fog.

“And yeah, that’s the last thing anyone would do.

“So now, lost somewhere in an impossible distance between their real lives and perfect images, the slaves know only more and more of the same hellish, un-fixable pain the other world was always meant to be the answer to.

“They get used up . . . eaten . . . and they die.

“Of course it’s not the beautiful ones’ fault, since they’re just being used by Advertising to celebrate New Cannibalism in far more fun ways than the slaves.

“It’s not really the rulers’ fault, either.

“It’s no one’s fault.

“It’s all just that Lie from the same old fear that stays almost hidden in the fog.

“I mean, the idea that people would ever feel the need to, y’know, put on suits and play roles with each other . . . so, like, what’s said and done always has to make some specific impression…

“Like, someone has to have the advantage in every…

“But again, it’s never on purpose.

“I’m sorry.

“I get emotional.

“It’s hard for me to say what I’m…

“It’s like we’re all just fearful children in a way.

“We scramble and lie to take what we can.

“It’s all we know.

“It’s all we’re taught to let ourselves know.

“And so everyone stays stuck on levels where some get sacrificed to make others feel a little more secure.

“And those things we want . . . those things we fear we won’t have enough of . . . we can only see them all in part through the fog.

“No one will ever be as perfect as the beautiful can be made to look.

“No one will ever be ruler of all.

“So everyone’s in the same place, really.

“And everyone’s dying for it.

“Everyone is . . . dying.

“But I’m calmer now, like I said.

“And the reason is…

“Well, first, because I finally see how . . . how fearful kids do eventually grow up.

“But more than that, what I’m really starting to realize, is . . . yeah, growing up happens without the kids having to, y’know, try.

“I know that’s probably not the whole picture, but…

“It’s just the impression I get when I see Faith’s light spreading, showing and connecting more and more.

“I don’t believe what’s possible can be held back the same way anymore.

“Not by the fog or anything else.”

. . .

Morning had failed to seep around what was left to it by the edges and corners of blinds and doors.

Now noon also took its turn, to no avail.

Bing stared in the dead light, squinting.

White letters, blaring and blurry across his black screen, shifted to sharpen until he could see.

be nice to fungus.

acceptable athlete’s foot.

That’s right…

Like all ideas for bits, this one too seemed worthless in the no-light “dawn” of sober day.

Some standup Bing was turning out to be.

Should he rifle through a few more of his captured, forgotten lines?

But why?

Years of stagnation and fuzz had almost succeeded in teaching him to expect all hopeful notions for what his self-sent words might mean to crumble immediately upon his return.

How many scores of would-be jokes had fallen in daylight to feeble, zany punchlines lacking even the dignity of set-ups?

Besides, he found the thought of himself on stage now to be more of a laugh than could be drawn from anything recitable.

To actually take his strange material, voice, face, and body, and present it all in front of others would be…

But where did the humor go overnight?

How could what have once seemed so funny end up just as sad, and desperate, and meaningless as any other path a previous Bing might have waited for and sensed coming . . . always just beyond the next . . . what?

Useless.

Still staring at the iun, Bing was almost aware of a not-so-sudden change in his thoughts’ direction.

Perhaps all his lines collected so far had really just been for practice.

He sure had learned through the years to recognize whatever it was that made certain ideas seem “funny” or “worthwhile” enough to thumb in barely punctuated lines across his iun’s face.

Should he just go smoke again now, and start over (yet again) from scratch?

Bing all but watched the shifting pictures at the base of his conscious wonderings center and sharpen around an inconspicuous old black box, fancy and sleek, which lay now beneath him and his bed.

Beyond lining inner layers of seasoned dinge and ash, he almost saw the gleaming, friendly silver pipe awaiting him, nestled up next to a rainbow family of red, orange, blue, and yellow plastic canisters.

That would sure give him what he’d need to go on stage, right?

. . .

Ray stood watching waves of slow traffic creep to fill the northernmost parking lot of the massive Church campus.

Behind him arose rugged beams and power lines.

He smiled at the delightful chatter of birds perched high above as they called cheerfully back and forth to friends hidden at home in sets of matching trees.

How many times had he strolled alone through this same lot toward those same giant glass doors and flock of chirpy, down-dressed greeters in the distance?

Why?

Why was he always here?

His appointment with the Psychologist had ended moments earlier.

What magnetic force was it that drove him ever back to this same crash of pretty buildings, where droves of souls now thundered in, both in and out of time?

Why, if he knew it would make him so sad and angry . . . and maybe crazy?

Service was set to start in 20 minutes.

Personnel in bright, fitted shirts emerged from doors to man posts across an unseen grid.

These smiled at passersby and thundered commands like, “Enjoy service!” and “Be blessed!”

A few spare youths skated off to one side, catching air to and fro atop raised concrete daises beside a sunken patio square.

If he wanted to, Ray found he could squint just right, and it would make the fog look like it had swallowed the whole base of the Church, including most of the bustling swarm of members and visitors arriving.

But then the not-a-persons appeared even more trapped beneath . . . like dark victims held in sway, cemented in wispy underworld chambers of torment.

The not-a-persons had clearly changed somehow.

It was like seeing a troupe of formerly trifling guards having all snapped to attention at the sense of something coming.

From his great, safe distance, Ray heard himself begin to speak to the Church.

He was becoming quite comfortable with the sound of his own voice after having heard it so often in recent dialogues with the Psychologist.

But the familiar sound now seemed to be coming from somewhere else completely.

He couldn’t link the voice or words to anything in his mind, or even the breath he felt now passing through and out his moving mouth.

“Oh Church!” the voice began, “You take credit for everything good in the City. But that won’t work anymore. Not when everyone starts to see through the fog. Oh Church! You change as the City forms itself. You shift and match appearances, hoping to show your great power. But now there’s no way to hide which really comes first. Oh Church! You copy and use the City’s art to spread your beloved message, even as the City changes. But there’s no more need or way to spin or sell, and… Oh Church! You’re like a teen abandoning parts of yourself unaware in search of an identity that can never really…”

There was a pause before the words continued: “Is the adult a different person from the child? But you’re not actually a person or thing to be at all. You’re part of others’ patterns, not something with its own. The more you shift from a people united around your story to an empire, the more of yourself you leave behind, so the less of an identity you find yourself able to carry or show without the fog. Oh church! Such great and terrible irony! The more you seek to fix yourself a self by what you see, the more of yourself you lose. In this, the fog destroys you as it lifts. But I hope not! That was never what I wanted! How I wish I could…!”

Ray stood in silence for a moment and continued to watch the invisible crowd of poised and ready beings still held separate below.

Had they somehow heard his voice’s words?

But he wished he could forget them all . . . just to run straight back to those same stunning buildings as before, and collapse to a chair in the sanctuary with the rest . . . just one amongst millions about to take part onsite and via iuns from afar.

Oh to be that simple, broken soul again, completely lost in the crowd.

A sick laugh sounded near in desolate tones of knowing, but knowing too late.

It was the sound of a world turning after its own end to show Ray it had all really been pretend . . . all just him all along.

Silly, stupid Ray, whom no one knew or could know, and who would never let anyone…

But he watched himself trace the maniacal sound to its source without having to try, regretting doing so immediately.

He wished it could all just be him.

Maybe then this sudden knowing . . . this madness and truth intertwined that would never ever go away . . . could at least be seen forever for what it was.

But it wasn’t.

Ray wished then not to see what he saw coming.

Though he fully believed it to be good.

. . .

After my meeting with Ray this morning, I began to sift through scraps and abridgements from the literature, searching specifically for anything that might prove helpful for Bing.

It seems my initial prediction was entirely incorrect: Bing’s aberrant coupling of Normal and Outlier traits has not bolstered my ability to distinguish between Normals.

Rather, I now find myself confusing more and more of my Normals with Bing.

Yet we will return to Bing.

As I skimmed to digest the highlights of as many current consensuses within my chosen field as necessary, I was shocked to note that the rough findings or guessed implications of almost every article or entry were tied somehow to a single new development.

Having not ventured out beyond my own integrated notes now in . . . weeks (?) . . . I found myself completely caught off guard.

Struck by the fast, seemingly undeniable potential of this new concept, I felt prompted to douse my iun with the boiling coffee fresh in my cup.

I will stress that no finding could have discouraged me more.

Yet this idea seems to have swept through all of therapy’s often discordant worlds in only the time since I last cared to look.

In summary, concrete plans seem set to finalize development of a new iun technology that will essentially offer the exact same treatment I do.

And it will be completely free.

A highly praised prototype has, let’s see: “…that has already proven clinically successful in all trials to accommodate the particulars of a patient’s condition and provide a complimentary, all-encompassing digital experience.”

Basically, my clients will face and work through their issues alone in a unique world this thing creates for each of them.

Apparently, it learns.

It adapts.

It understands language as we do, using what the client tells it to eventually allow all points of self-deception and faulty perceptions to be revealed for what they are.

In short, this thing is like an automated version of almost my exact Method.

Its function is to bring clients to Sticking or Breaking Points as many times as it takes (until they stick).

I was sure I had more time to publish.

I cannot deny my clientele is already on the verge of a steep decline.

Today, for example, I see a wash of scheduled appointments that might as well not happen—all Normals (maybe Bing…), which will only add to the litter already devouring better portions of my desk, room, and mind.

I am almost out of Outliers.

Perhaps my Method works too well.

Yet how could I put up my prices now?

Instead of meeting with me, even the likes of Ray will be plugged into a machine that can reach and show the source of all inaccurate conception in perfect sequence and timing.

What a waste.

Though I have already begun to consider other options, of course my work here must continue until it runs out for good.

Maybe then I can sell my Method to the iuns as these integrated notes, and perhaps help them in their work to build and shape their clients’ worlds…?

. . .

Bing loomed over his kitchen counter as he had a hundred times before, peering past the open box of his beloved paraphernalia.

He stared at his iun wedged carefully off in a corner, all set to record when he was ready.

He found himself dreading the mumbling, soupy mess he had come to expect of his own captured voice.

Most previous recordings had been mere wave-like distractions . . . just rhythmic sets of commentary that poured out in the free-form flow of his everyday daydreams.

He was now about to get high with the official intent of using whatever would come.

Being poised in this moment just before following through on a decision was a scenario sadly odd enough to notice.

There could be no turning back, mostly because he felt he had yet to really move.

Still, he had somehow convinced himself to at least reach this place of appearing ready for whatever might prove worthwhile.

Magic floodgates would soon be swept open in the smoke of burning plants, he hoped.

And all Bing had really had to do was shield his fledgling belief that there could be a difference in leaning in and not away.

His chosen strain for the night was called Mr. Nice Guy.

In the greenish mound of torn-off specs now resting in his pipe’s deep chamber, he was sure he glimpsed undertones of bluish purple.

He raised the pipe’s shiny lip to his lips, and flicked a cheap, see-through lighter like nothing.

Fire touched and glowed as he inhaled, as slow and smooth as ever.

His gaze returned to the iun, his ever-patient friend and partner waiting as always for its other to take the lead.

But when were the funny thoughts supposed to come?

Even letting the question skim his mental membrane was like watching the most intriguing pattern dissolve from peripheries to just another blank wall upon turning to see.

In shrouded shadow visions of things caught up to and overwhelmed, Bing wondered amiss about what he was meant to do or figure out.

He recognized such wonderings as fruitless.

He took another puff, then another, blowing the smoke in tight blasts up and directly into the greasy opening of a frayed-out duct high above his stove.

There was silence, like a center-point between titanic, gradual whirs.

There was a mist, sparkling everywhere to magnify reflected light.

What was he always so worried about again?

Weren’t all the lines he had already really funny?

This shouldn’t be so…

A flash, and Bing reached across, seeing the gape of his own knowing smile lit up across the little screen as he tapped and heard the recorder’s tell-tale beep.

Was it all really happening?

What was he supposed to say again?

Oh yeah…

“I love how weed kind of forces you to be honest with yourself,” he began. “I feel like I need that now. It might sound bad, but this one’s just for me. So, how come when I’m straight I come up with all these extra, unneeded explanations for things? I make up all sorts of steps for myself that aren’t even… Really, I’m just addicted to weed. That’s all. I like it. I want it all the time. But I convince myself it’s all this other stuff. Paranoid thoughts. It’s like I just worry too much. It must be a chemical thing, right? The chemicals in my body make me feel however. How well I’ve slept, what I ate, and everything else. But maybe a lot of how I feel depends on whether I’m doing what I told myself to. So then am I supposed to just take responsibility and do it? Should I keep trying to be the . . . the whatever…? To choose to do it until it works? I don’t know if I can. What do I really want in all this? What am I looking for right now? I keep saying I need to put out these lines I get when I’m high. But is that really true?”

A few seconds replaced each other before Bing’s words continued on, a little slower: “How can I do comedy without…? I mean, it’s not like I have a signed deal, or any experience, or… What good could possibly come from trying to…? How could it turn into any kind of a real future for me? Shouldn’t I have started when I was way younger?”

Another pause, and: “But I did. Here I am . . . all my thoughts . . . all my feelings, and my weirdness, and… I’m just someone that’s . . . well, I guess just everything I happen to be. For whatever reason, all the stuff that causes me to be this way, and think this way . . . it’s not really something I can take credit for, right? Can anyone, though, really? I don’t choose to think of jokes when I’m high. I . . . I am what I am.”

Bing let his last words rest in the air as he eyed the open Mr. Nice Guy canister.

The dispensary had even tagged the little plastic, purple jar with a zany-looking, wasted smiley face.

As the large timer on his iun’s face slipped over and beyond two minutes, Bing heard himself carry on, perhaps forgetting this time to fear the potential cringe-worthiness of the sound: “I . . . am . . . a person. I’m a thing, too. I’m not just something other things use . . . I mean, things like chemicals and all the stuff that makes me feel the way I do. Whatever. The bottom line in all this is . . . I just want to . . . to…”

He laughed.

And the laughter grew . . . even as he took account of what horrors had almost taken place just before becoming this current Bing.

It all seemed so obvious.

He had never really wanted to hurt himself.

But how truly, deeply funny it seemed that he could miss it all so easily.

His uttered words and laughter felt closer than anything to something he (or any other Bing) had always really known.

He spoke again, smiling: “I don’t want to do comedy to . . . to get signed or whatever . . . or to make a future. I want to do it to make friends. To make people laugh. People . . . people are . . . funny. I just want to be . . . funny me. That’s all. It was always there, I just…”

And the last word his friendly iun caught that night was: “Watch…”

. . .

I got no sleep at all last night.

I have reached a complete mental, emotional, and procedural impasse.

I cannot ignore how little time I must have left for the fantasies Ray would likely continue to spit, if unhindered, faster than my Method could unravel.

No, my Method never fails.

Yet I have no choice now but to find ways to assert myself into its function instead of simply narrating its progress.

I must be more aggressive and direct with all my clients lest my life’s great work be rendered ultimately pointless.

I have established enough of a rapport with Ray, I believe, to begin asking the sorts of specific questions I really would have wanted to begin with.

My aim will be to never get derailed again from driving through only the most relevant details of his concrete, historical, real experience.

ME:

“I have two questions for you today.

“First, how did you lose your job?

“And then considering what you’ve said about the church, I want to know exactly what you would tell the pastor, other church leaders, or your former coworkers if you could tell them anything at all.”

I did not expect him to meet and match my new directness at first.

RAY:

“I couldn’t act the way they did anymore, not once I saw all the ironies and how people were being hurt.”

ME:

“But that job was your only source of income, no?

“And I’m guessing the church made up most of your social sphere…?

“Did you have any friends outside the church?”

RAY:

“Well, I really just tried my hardest to be good, and be a good . . . y’know, employee.

“I tried to do whatever was expected.

“But I did have to . . . to lie.”

I recalled what he had said before about coming across as crazy due to a felt need to always lie.

Yet I was not quite ready to run alongside and jump that train just yet.

ME:

“When you say you couldn’t act the way they did anymore, you mean in what you’ve been telling me, right—the art, the culture . . . and lowly, regular people being used?”

RAY:

“Those things I saw in the City and Church were what hurt me, yes.

“But . . . but they weren’t why I had to lie.

“Okay, sorry…

“Let me start over again, real quick.

“I should have said this part from the beginning, before I…

“So, when I worked at the Church, my job was to answer questions from callers and anyone that wrote in . . . just questions about the Bible, or life, or whatever.

“And you know I worked there for years.

“So I did start to see the same sorts of things being asked again and again.

“But there were certain questions we really couldn’t answer because the Pastor didn’t have any . . . like, any messages or anything on those topics.

“I mean, I didn’t have a problem with that.

“It made total sense.

“He had his things he talked about, and we were there to represent him in everything we did.”

ME:

“Did you feel powerless at all—as though you were being held back from helping those who called or wrote?

“Did that make you angry?”

RAY:

“No, not at all.

“I wasn’t mad, I…

“Well, what it was is I noticed there were a lot of people out there who really just wanted someone to talk to.

“And it wasn’t about getting a good answer or whatever, but having someone to . . . to think out loud with, if that makes sense.

“Of course I knew that wasn’t my role at the Church.

“I couldn’t spend all day, um…

“Anyway, I really didn’t want to hurt the Church.

“Not at all.

“It was just…

“Y’know, it got be the time everyone started having iuns.

“And one day, using one of the Church’s iuns, I found a bunch of people having the same sorts of conversations I couldn’t have with those who called or wrote.

“So I joined in, like, anonymously.

“Then I went back the next day, and . . . yeah, it became a daily thing.

“I didn’t think anything would come from it.

“After a while, I started recording my conversations, and putting them out in pieces for anyone to listen to.

“But the thing is . . . I was using the Church’s iuns to do it.

“And no one knew.

“I definitely never said anything about the Pastor or Church to anyone in any of my recordings.

“I knew I needed to keep those two worlds separate, out of respect, y’know?

“And then after a couple years, it got to where I’d be working on my recordings for hours every night.

“But since I was doing it at work, using the Church’s stuff, and saying things the Church wouldn’t say . . . that’s why I always had to lie.

“Wow, it just . . . it feels so good to . . . to finally admit all this.”

Ray’s face seemed to glow with a quiet joy.

ME:

“So you never told anyone at the church what you were doing?

“And you never mentioned the church in your recordings?”

RAY:

“Well…”

ME:

“Yes?”

RAY:

“The day before my last day at the Church, someone called.

“I mean, she called the Church . . . not me.

“I was there late, working on my stuff.

“But I must have left the work phones on, and…

“Anyway, when I picked up and said my usual, like, ‘Sea Breeze Faith, Ray speaking,’ her response was, ‘It’s you!’

“I knew she must have recognized my voice from my recordings.

“So I decided to have a little fun with her.

“I told her in this real spooky voice, something like, ‘This is the wrong way. Go back. You’re not supposed to be hearing this…’

“I know that’s really dumb . . . just my zany sense of humor or whatever.

“But before I could say ‘just kidding’ or anything like that, she had already hung up.

“She was gone.

“I got so sad after that.

“It was like both my worlds had suddenly been thrown together for the first time, and I just felt so stupid, and immature, and…

“I hope I didn’t damage that lady.

“She’s just a person . . . someone like me, maybe . . . who thinks about the same sorts of things.

“I wish I’d told her the truth.”

ME:

“What truth?”

RAY:

“Well, working there at the Church was really how I…

“I mean, that’s what gave me my perspective, y’know?

“It’s what made me what I am.

“Really, I love the Church.

“And I think everyone would if…”

Though it quickly became clear Ray’s thought would stay unfinished, I sensed a massive, permanent victory looming beyond another final mere half-scuffle.

It was as if he had perfectly aligned himself like a tiny snowball at the top of a giant slope.

In terms of working with my Method more, I could already gleefully envision simply nudging him that last little bit further, over the edge.

ME:

“So, you learned everything you know.

“You saw everything you see.

“And you credit all of it to working there at the church?”

RAY:

“Yes.”

ME:

“Well then considering your comparison of the church to a growing empire, might other ‘slaves’ have likewise benefited in sacrificing to serve the church’s ends?

“In other words, how likely is it that other workers also discovered and developed their own skills . . . even identities . . . through their involvement?”

Ray kept still and quiet for a moment.

I made every effort to hide my delight at glimpsing the flash of awe that streaked across his glassy eyes.

RAY:

“I guess that is something really good about the Church, yes.”

ME:

“Would you agree, then, it might not be completely fair to call the church an uncreative environment?”

. . .

And afterwards, a cat slunk about through doors and office hallways, appearing not to be going anywhere…

Then gone.

Or, was it the opposite?

Maybe someone raised by cats had realized long ago they would never be a cat and should focus more on their non-cat ways and features.

Who better to be a cat than a cat, and vice versa?

The cat or non-cat spotted a distant oval formation of birds gliding high above the City.

These were funny, flappy, little things to catch and play with.

Or maybe listen to and smile.

There they go.

They pay no toll to enter and leave, far above and safe, with bellies full.

The cat, if a cat, slunk along further…

Then, again, gone.

. . .

“You just . . . breathed different!” gasped Jodie, shock the silent voice of all nonverbal communication oozing from her resolute face and body like grey light.

“I’m open now in my music,” whispered Revy. “It fits. It’s who I am. This is the first time it’s been like this for me. Don’t you care?”

He leant gracefully to place his old guitar back in its stand.

The soft, alien voice he’d met and come to love from within and surrounding his music continued to sing sweet, crystal harmonies in his mind.

“You sound different, man! You sound like a . . . woman!” Jodie heaved, then leapt from the edge of the bed to her feet, and froze, her eyes darting from Revy to her iun. “What happened to you?!”

He felt her pulling away . . . a magnet drawn to a separate world represented there at the edge of her end table.

Always, always away.

He shook his head, forgetting silent, candy-coated tones still resonating somewhere deep within.

“Hello,” said a man’s voice, deep and cool. “My name is Rev.”

. . .

ME:

“So, was there anyone at the church you actually saw eye to eye with?

“Anyone you could really be yourself around?”

RAY:

“Well, there was one guy on staff.

“He was funny.

“But I was never able to talk with him that much, no.

“I mean, we talked a lot, but I couldn’t say what I would have wanted to.”

ME:

“What do you mean?

“What would you have wanted to tell him?

“And why couldn’t you?”

RAY:

“I guess, looking back, it’s like we both seemed out of place there, but in . . . like, in very different ways.

“I admired him . . . always . . . since he never hid what he was thinking, even though it was different from what the Pastor said and . . . and, y’know, the way the Church was going.”

ME:

“What would you have wanted to say?”

RAY:

“Just to tell him I thought there’d be a lot of people out there that might get something good from listening to him.

“He was way better than me at…

“But it’s tough, since whatever wasn’t New Cannibalism, or . . . or anything outside the Pastor’s story about the other world . . . like I said, was automatically seen as wrong or evil.”

Notice how I will no longer hesitate to quell or bypass all fantasy talk immediately, bringing our focus back to only the tangibly experiential.

ME:

“So you would have encouraged him to do something like your secret recordings?”

RAY:

“I just…

“He knew so much, and could speak really well.”

ME:

“How do you suppose he saw you?”

RAY:

“Sketchy.

“Not quite together, mentally.

“Maybe like a leaf being blown along in the wind.”

ME:

“What exactly did he say or do to make you think that?”

RAY:

“Well, Winnie the Pooh is a toy.”

ME:

“What does that mean, ‘Winnie the Pooh is a toy’?

“Why is that relevant now?”

RAY:

“I guess it’s sort of . . . like, it’s hard to float a certain way, y’know?

“But then floating works real well when you’re at the right place and time.

“That’s all.”

ME:

“How did your friend see the church?

“How did he see the city?”

RAY:

“He had these, I think, libertarian views on politics.

“Anyway, all he said about the Church was the focus shouldn’t be so much on stories and ideas, but more on helping people in . . . in more practical ways.”

ME:

“Are you a Libertarian?”

Ray said nothing, obviously unsure how to answer.

I was not surprised in the least by his confusion.

All known aspects of Ray’s worldview are essentially an amalgamation of vague, unconscious reactions to realities filtered entirely through his unique framework of nebulous Outlier symbols and representations.

I was about to press him—to keep him moving—but he responded on his own before I could.

RAY:

“What’s the opposite of moderate again?”

Now, this question did surprise me.

Savior complex Outliers have a knack for fixing their own sets of idiosyncratic notions on ideals.

As such, they tend not to care in the least for standard conventions or definitions of terms.

Besides, answering elementary questions about politics seemed quite beneath my role and workings of my Method.

ME:

“If by moderate you mean centrist—in the middle—then the opposite would be one side or the other.

“The left or the right.”

RAY:

“Left or right?”

Flabbergasted by his sudden display of childlike ignorance, I attempted to respond as simply as I could, outlining the basic differences between the political left and right.

RAY:

“But it’s only Advertising that makes those two sides what they…

“I mean…”

At this point, Ray began to stare once more at my iun at the edge of my desk as if expecting it to interrupt at any moment.

I was about to ask for clarification, but he continued (again) without any prompting.

RAY:

“Anyway, I think that guy I worked with would have been surprised to know all the things I agreed with him on.

“I wish I could have told him.”

ME:

“So, what would you want to tell the church now?”

I watched as a tinge of emotion swept across his placid face like a misplaced tidal flush.

RAY:

“Oh Church…

“I just want to tell everyone there how much I love them.”

I failed to catch myself before leaping to my next questions, unfortunately leaving my phrasing open enough to invite a fresh influx of fantasy in response.

ME:

“What would you say to the church as an institution, though, rather than to individuals?

“What would you say about their political position or power?”

RAY:

“It’s like the fog and Lie from fear . . . from fear of not having enough . . . they make the Church see a sort of massive conspiracy in the City to keep them down . . . to keep them from power, I guess.

“But it’s the same with every other empire too.

“I mean, New Cannibalism puts everyone against everyone else, right?

“And so the many small are killed and used up while the few get big and rise to the top.

“But yeah, since the Church keeps growing and growing, the only way they can keep their same conspiracy going . . . to still see themselves as low and powerless . . . is to believe and teach that most who come and join aren’t really true believers.

“And that’s kind of what everyone there ends up most afraid of.

“I mean, it goes with what I was saying before.

“Since Advertising shows only the Church’s most beautiful leaders up on those huge screens week after week, all the rest are left to feel their impossible distance from what they’re always shown.

“And I heard it every day working there . . . in calls and letters from hurting believers, each fully convinced their troubles were, like, proof they didn’t believe enough, or not the right way or something.

“But it’s all New Cannibalism.

“Advertising divides the Church into levels of belief, just like everyone in the City gets divided into levels of usefulness.

“And I do agree with my friend about showing love in more practical ways.

“But I don’t think that can happen before Advertising and New Cannibalism are gone . . . before the fog completely lifts.”

ME:

“Just from what I know of Christianity, isn’t that the whole point of the Jesus message?

“It’s all love and forgiveness, right?”

Ray shuddered like a leafy branch caught in a sudden gust of wind.

Still peering at my iun, his eyes narrowed and his brow furrowed.

RAY:

“I . . . I really don’t know the answer.

“I hope that’s something we might, um…

“But yeah, of course, to . . . to try and show love no matter what, that’s…”

ME:

“Okay, so what does that conspiracy look like outside the church?

“Is advertising used to convince those of other empires they don’t actually fit where they are either?”

Not once did his gaze leave my iun.

RAY:

“I think it’s always the same Lie, y’know?

“Like, Advertising can show everything as ‘good guys and bad guys,’ ‘us and them,’ ‘true believers and false,’ or ‘left and right’ . . . but it’s all just to keep everyone thinking New Cannibalism is the only way to…

“I mean, no matter how Advertising might make things look, New Cannibalism isn’t really ever for one side or the other.

“Of course each empire builds or brings something different in the City.

“Each has its focus . . . its goals and culture . . . the good reasons it came together in the first place.

“And Advertising can keep trying to show things as being so bad that . . . that everyone needs to keep fighting everyone else to…

“But it’s New Cannibalism that needs it to be bad.

“Really, who’s it bad for?

“Nothing changes for the slaves.

“It’s only the rulers that…”

He paused, still staring as though longing for my iun itself to speak.

ME:

“You’ve hinted a few times at how you see things beginning to change.

“Let’s quickly dig a little into that.”

RAY:

“No, I don’t…

“I mean, I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

ME:

“Ray, I’m not asking you to predict the future.

“I do feel it will be helpful for you to share whatever sense you have of how you see things going.”

There was a moment of what must have been acute hesitation, then relinquishment.

RAY:

“As the fog goes, it’s the City’s rulers that watch what they’ve always fought for disappear.

“But what the slaves see more and more is how they’ve only ever been bought and sold by a string of rising and falling empires, all the same.

“Whatever any empire comes together to do . . . whether it’s bringing something basic for survival, some new invention, a service everyone needs, an experience . . . even a voice to speak up for what any group or individual might need or deserve . . . the fight Advertising always puts everything into selling is only ever really for meaningless, valueless things like deeds, titles, capital, or rights to symbols . . . things that can’t actually last without what Advertising works so hard to keep everyone convinced of.

“So, I guess it’s like the slaves finally start to see the way all the City’s power moves like water from tank to tank . . . but how each tank is really only…

“And the water gets stale.

“And the tanks erupt, one by one.

“And how can empires go on building themselves then?

“At first, the rulers try to reduce and keep things going, cutting down and selling off whatever they can to keep their positions steady as long as possible.

“And yeah, everything gets put back into more Advertising to keep the slaves afraid and useful, like always.

“But the difference now . . . the change . . . is the slaves are seeing all this happening . . . even if they don’t…

“I mean, it’s when the slaves can’t ignore Advertising that they don’t look at it anymore.

“Not really.

“It doesn’t matter how much gets spent to…

“Okay, what happens when all the wealth and credit to have ever run through and held the City together aren’t enough to buy the slaves’ attention for even another moment more?

“What could they see instead, except…?”

Ray continued to stare, entranced by the blank screen of my iun.

I knew I had let him carry on for far too long again, wastefully allowing the first half of today’s session to be submerged beneath his rolling sets of graphic symbolisms.

Yet I must admit I had become quite transfixed as his words poured forth, with literal chills cascading up and down my spine.

At times, Ray seems to switch from his laughable derelict-on-a-street-corner role to indirectly describing my exact position and concerns (of course without realizing).

Though unnerving, I still hold that such connections give me a superb advantage at this late stage in the game when it comes to uncovering the true desires and values hidden beneath his protective Outlier narrative gloss.

How did Ray’s thoughts on politics tie to my own personal world?

Well, my business is certainly fast becoming a fight to hold the wind—to create material substance from something ever slipping from my grasp.

I would say, however, that technology (iuns) only exacerbates the problem—an opinion I suspect Ray would sharply disagree with.

As of now, I find myself scrambling to keep clients as I read of iuns being mere days from having the capacity to offer therapy for free.

I am sure those of other professions have similar concerns.

I began our session today committed to catching a deeper glimpse of the real Ray at all costs.

I now felt defensive, as though a secret piece of my own perspective had been brought to light and challenged inadvertently.

I jotted:

My priorities. My philosophy of business. Selling my intellectual property. The value of my Method.

A question to possibly come back to: Ray spoke of slaves becoming aware of themselves and social dynamics, and then society changing drastically as a result; but how could powerless Normals “seeing” anything bring about a reversal of widespread conflict and corruption?

Was that part just idealistic Outlier drivel stuffed in alongside Ray’s few seemingly accurate (though woefully misinterpreted) observations?

Something about the conversation did cause me to recall a degree of compassion I had once felt for all my clients.

It seems I have gotten far too comfortable casually breaking into people’s worlds, carelessly holding their very fates in my shaky, distracted hands—fates I often cannot tell apart.

What I do is indeed quite a lofty responsibility.

So, I should probably charge more?

Anyway, I kept silent for a moment, and refocused with increased urgency on my commitment to keep from getting derailed again from only the real details of Ray’s actual experience.

. . .

Bing rose from cold porcelain, hastily flipping through batched lists of symbols.

His hope was to pinpoint his iun’s little recorder again before it would prove too late.

Slow smoke wafted up, both leaving and reigniting an old and gnarly stench as it disappeared into a misaligned, gravelly fan that whirred and clipped above.

The fan’s work sounded like the jolts of many saws all catching on chunks of splitting wood.

And Bing’s mind felt about as rough, as if the smoke had first morphed into porous rocks that jumbled now around his wet, mental barrel to knock away any and all protuberances.

At last he spotted the recorder’s sneakily obvious, ancient-tape-deck form hidden amongst its rows of like cohorts.

What was he supposed to say again?

There was and wasn’t a science to keeping ideas together in those precious seconds after they had flashed themselves into being.

It was a skill, quite un-teachable, which Bing was glad to have gotten better at.

He tapped the screen and saw the usual large, shifting blocks begin to count new seconds up from nothing.

If he could just swing back and lock onto whatever it was he had been thinking before the…

That’s right.

“There’s this wall,” he began, half squinting into the mirror to his left to track a cluster of perfectly still non-human faces, all seemingly quite at home within his own, “It’s like a line I always cross. I go from being funny to . . . to just . . . too much. Wait, what am I talking about?”

The three partially lit, white 8’s onscreen continued to alternate which of their seven lines to cause to gleam.

Bing let himself drift to catch up, then launched out again in a willful, softly-spoken flurry: “It’s, like, I know I want to make people laugh. But as soon as I actually want that, the jokes stop coming. I think I get why, though . . . why this always happens. I never realized it, but I honestly don’t think I’ll ever be one of those guys that just stands up there on stage and makes everything up as I go along. But shouldn’t I be that? Shouldn’t it always be that kind of now-or-never thing? Isn’t comedy supposed to live right at the edge of that line, where everything could fall apart at any moment? I always thought I wanted to feel sort of trapped up there on stage, where the bits would either show up and save me or not. Isn’t that what makes it real?”

He let the questions sit.

Universes were formed in the briefest of silences before he heard himself continue: “But that’s not me, is it? I see that now. I’ve just always thought I was supposed to be that person. But the bits come to me whenever they come, like right now. And it’s inspired . . . it’s real . . . if I don’t plan it out. It’s just all the silly things I think about. Yeah, I’m still so afraid of going too far and crossing that line. But it seems like right at that point of almost too far is where my mind . . . or the weed . . . wants to always get as close to as it can.”

A few more seconds took their formation.

“It’s so funny,” he began to conclude. “Again, I realize who I am, and it ends up not even being about me at all. I don’t ask for my jokes, or try to make them up or anything. I never have. Why would I assume performing has to be the opposite? Oh shit! That means I’m already . . . totally . . . ready!”

. . .

ME:

“Okay, let’s switch gears a little.

“I want you now to pretend I’m your former boss at the church.

“Talk to me the way you would talk to him if you could be free to say anything at all.”

Ray hesitated, which was no surprise.

Roleplaying works best when the client can be swept into it as suddenly as possible, like being yanked down into a freezing pool.

Otherwise, they might never fully enter if allowed to toe the icy water’s edge.

RAY:

“Um, Todd, you don’t . . . care what I think…?

“But, no…

“That’s not right.

“Not at all.”

ME:

“Put yourself there at the office.

“How do you feel?

“How am I, Todd, making you feel?

“What do you really want to say?

“Forget the consequences, Ray, for there are none.”

A flame-like twinkle crossed his eyes, which seemed to narrow in response.

RAY (to Todd):

“I’ll just keep trying until I die, right?

“Oh, I don’t believe the right way?

“Of course that’s . . . that’s easy.

“It’s easy to say I must have done it wrong, and just leave me here, where I’ve always been, alone.

“But then how come I remember all the Pastor’s messages?

“I mean, why do I have to be the one who can reduce them all like I do?

“You talk all day about the way each part is…”

Unfiltered anger was beginning to peak out and emerge at last like a chorus about to be belted in lyrics of exaggerated betrayal, yet one carried still in Ray’s trademark tones of steady hesitation and unknowing.

I am sure I need not spell out why such an awakening of raw emotion is exceptionally good.

For Ray, it means we have transcended sufficient layers of his mythological reimaginings to reach perhaps a majority of the bedrock underlying core—his reality.

Tactically, this juncture can now function as a checkpoint to return to quickly should the conversation ever again be clouded over by masking fantasies.

Ray trembled as if in shock after an explosion.

It was time to slow him down and back him up so as to properly examine the wild, hyperbolic embellishments that had just erupted out.

To that end, I would continue to play the part of Todd.

ME (as Todd):

“Would you say you were threatened by my personality?

“Or maybe by how I wanted you to see things?”

A moment passed as Ray’s breathing slowed until inaudible.

RAY (to Todd):

“I guess I always felt like you might be upset with me or something . . . like, you thought I should know what I was doing wrong.

“That’s all.

“But looking back, I think the way you saw it was more like we were just one step away from . . . from total anarchy at all times.

“I mean…”

I left space for Ray to complete or further explain his scattered thought, which he did not.

ME (as Todd):

“But what did I say or do to you to make you feel that way?

“Where, specifically, was I unreasonable?”

RAY (to Todd):

“I told you once I felt like I’d never really, y’know . . . never been given a real chance there at the Church.”

ME (as Todd):

“And how did I respond?”

RAY (to Todd):

“You said you wanted me to be free enough to…

“Well, you asked three questions: Um . . . what was I working on, what was frustrating me about it, and what solutions or steps did I think I should take.

“Then you asked if there was some reason I couldn’t be transparent.

“I was amazed by that.”

I quickly scribbled out and underlined the phrase “couldn’t be transparent.”

Yet I immediately grew somewhat enraged with myself for having missed until that moment the glaring connection between Ray’s felt need to hide his secret nightly activities and what his role at the church must have meant in terms of the overall impression he had given Todd and others.

In Ray’s own words, he knew all the pastor’s messages by heart.

In fact, his job had been to share those messages with all who called or wrote.

Of course his coworkers would have assumed he thought and believed as they did, at least for the most part, since he had essentially spent his days helping others think and believe that way.

How then must Todd and everyone else have interpreted Ray’s deep-seated unease and apprehension?

ME (as Todd):

“What was it like for you when the rest of us would talk about things like our beliefs and the way the church was going?”

Ray’s eyes doubled in size.

I purposed to keep my questions a tad more indirect so as not to threaten in the least our fabulous, sweeping momentum.

RAY (to Todd):

“I tried to be good and go along with it.

“But yeah, I probably seemed upset.

“And . . . and you wouldn’t have known why.

“I guess you might have thought I was just too afraid to speak up or join in conversations, maybe…?

“But no, you guys would be talking, and I’d be . . . be seeing the stuff I see.”

ME (as Todd):

“So, do you think it made sense for me to ask if and why you felt you couldn’t be transparent?”

RAY (to Todd):

“Yes.”

ME (as Todd):

“How did you respond to my three questions?”

RAY (to Todd):

“I went away and thought about it for a few days.

“Then I came back and told you I’d get really frustrated whenever someone came and stole my responsibilities . . . and, like, I shouldn’t have to fight to do my job.

“I told you I was mad I’d never been given a chance to do what I could . . . y’know, to be successful at the Church.

“I said I’d way rather be switched to something I could just . . . something I could work really hard at, but not have to think or care that much about.

“I mean, it hurt to see things the way I did, but couldn’t do anything to…”

ME:

“That’s excellent, Ray.

“What happened next?”

RAY (to Todd):

“You encouraged me to interact more, to try and find ways to show initiative, to ask mature questions instead of shutting down…

“You said those things would be good for me, and also good for the Church, especially if I felt like I had something to share that might be helpful.

“The last thing was you told me to think about how I’d want someone looking up to me to see me.”

I watched the dawning light of illumination continue to cross Ray’s quiet eyes in a series of twinkly flutters and bursts.

The remembered words, recited, were now confessions to himself.

I knew, as sure as ever, that this was it—Ray’s Sticking or Breaking Point.

I chose to keep silent, allowing him to piece together just how reasonable and kind Todd had been.

For the moment, my Method needed no further intervention on my part.

Ray’s exasperated mind, no doubt, was depicting countless scenes of his interpersonal shortcomings, faux paus, and callow misinterpretations through the years.

Yet although such insight always proves invaluable in terms of unravelling a distorted perspective, I knew my next move would be to gently guide Ray beyond his shame to a more helpful place of grounded intention and purpose.

Funnily enough, that seemed to have been Todd’s objective as well.

Recognizing what a limiting pattern says about oneself is only useful once it leads to forming new, better patterns.

My goal, essentially, became to shift our focus outward from Ray’s own personal world of specific regretful memories to the more abstract and conceptual—to ride with him the waves of his burgeoning understanding so as to help him reach a truly inescapable shift in perspective.

ME:

“That’s very good, Ray.

“Now, I want you to do something for me.

“I want you to imagine a certain kind of person, someone you know, who ruthlessly pursues their own interests.

“Imagine someone that goes after what they want with all they have.

“And tell me: What are some good qualities about that person?

“Try to think of several attributes you admire.”

RAY:

“That sounds like Carmen and Vin.”

ME:

“The mother and son from the raft?”

RAY:

“Yeah.”

ME:

“Ray, what was the raft, really?”

His mouth opened like a reflexive spring as if about to respond, but then slowly closed again and remained shut.

I decided not to press him.

This was hardly the time to double back to fantasy specifics.

ME:

“Never mind.

“Tell me about Carmen and Vin.”

RAY:

“Well, Carmen was my first boss at the Church, even when I started volunteering as a teenager.

“And I think she wanted, more than anything, just to be a really good Church ruler.

“I never knew back then why someone would do the sorts of things that…

“I mean, I wish I’d known.

“But rulers all end up acting the same way, like I was saying.

“I never knew she might really be afraid.”

ME:

“How did Carmen show she was afraid?”

RAY:

“Just little things . . . like she’d make a big show of changing our jobs at any moment, or jumping in and doing the work herself, like, to make sure we knew she could do it better.”

ME:

“And Vin?”

RAY:

“With Vin it was funnier . . . like he had to remind himself all the time to demand his own way . . . or to talk over everyone else, and…

“But really…”

ME:

“Yes, what is it?”

RAY:

“I mean, it’s sad how the rest of us blamed and hated them both so much.

“Some even got together later and made this big plan to…

“But even once Carmen and Vin were gone, nothing changed.

“And I think that’s the part I couldn’t handle, y’know . . . the thing I thought would make me crazy.

“How silly to get so mad at any rulers in the City for only doing what everyone’s always shown to do.

“Vin and Carmen . . . Todd . . . none of them are bad people.

“Not at all.”

A tear crested the corner of Ray’s right eye.

His face began to softly shudder.

I was overjoyed.

ME:

“What’s wrong, Ray?”

RAY:

“Oh, well…

“Maybe this is just the first happy irony I’ve seen in…

“I mean, to actually . . . like, catch myself upset for losing Carmen and Vin…”

He sighed aloud.

RAY:

“I was so arrogant back then.

“But how could I judge them?

“It definitely wasn’t like I was making any decisions, or…”

He simmered in silent thought for another moment, then carried on.

RAY:

“So, anyway, to your question: Those types of people get things done.

“And that’s something very admirable, since I know it’s not me.”

ME:

“What would you tell Vin?”

RAY:

“I wish I could tell him that . . . that I respect him.”

ME:

“What would you say was the hardest part about your time there, working at the church?”

RAY:

“Honestly, I don’t think I’m good with things on that kind of . . . professional level.

“I mean, there were so many young rulers like Vin, all with competing ambitions.

“And there were older people like Carmen . . . stuck, I guess, working systems that cost a lot to run but didn’t even make sense anymore.”

ME:

“What else would you want to tell them?”

RAY:

“Just I never realized how much I miss Vin and Carmen . . . and Todd, Mo . . . Jolie . . . everyone.

“They were good to me.

“They were who they were, of course.

“They were different from me.

“They didn’t see things the same way.

“Yeah, I got upset.

“And no, they wouldn’t have known why.

“But they let me do a job that was perfect for me.

“So I’d want to thank them, I think, for…”

It truly felt as though Ray and I were crossing some sort of finish line together.

There is nothing so satisfying as to witness my Method at work.

Ray has seen himself, and what he has seen has stuck.

In whatever time we have left, we will return to examine as many of his Outlier fantasies as possible in order to uncover what each represents to him in reality.

I decided to begin where we had just concluded—the church—and attempt again to work our way outward from there.

ME:

“So, would it be fair to say that many of the stresses you felt at work were . . . self-imposed?”

RAY:

“Yes.

“I mean, how I felt was never anyone else’s fault.

“I’m not against anyone there.

“Not at all.”

ME:

“Then let’s start to consider why you felt the way you did, and what caused you to experience most of those interactions as antagonistic and unfair.

“You see, people often adopt patterns of self-deception from childhood in order to hide from or account for some circumstance or feeling they find unbearable.

“Do you remember ever having that same experience as a child—feeling misunderstood, with untapped potential, and unable to be or show your true self?

“Did you feel that way when you left with Caylee?”

RAY:

“Yeah, I thought I was really different from everyone else back then, too.”

Now, notice the “switch” component of my bait-and-switch tactic, for it is the trickiest and most unpredictable of techniques to implement well at such a crucial point in session.

ME:

“And your life at work was never really as bad as it seemed, right?”

RAY:

“Right.”

ME:

“Well, what if the same holds true for your childhood?

“Maybe sit with that thought for a moment and imagine what it might mean.”

RAY:

“It would mean . . . I was bad…?

“Just like when I kicked that babysitter and . . . and lied about it.

“And . . . I used to . . . to kill things . . . like nothing.

“Living things.

“But now I hate stuff like that.

“I mean, I’d never want to hurt anyone.

“Never…”

ME:

“It’s one thing to believe an unfair world is set against you.

“Yet how much more appalling the notion that it was never even true, and that your real problem all along was fear—fear of what you, yourself, might actually be.

“Ray, I could spend a lifetime’s worth of these sessions working to name each and every component of that fear, tying it all back to lists of handy terms and approximations for analysis.

“Yet such has never been my Method.

“Do you want to know the only real answer or solution—the one thing you can do now as you face such internal discrepancies within your own life’s narrative?”

RAY:

“Yes, whatever it is…”

ME:

“You already are.

“Your childhood was what it was for whatever reason.

“All you can do now is be the best adult you can be, which I know is exactly what you want to do and are doing.

“That’s why you’d never dream of hurting anyone.

“That’s why you hate injustice, inequality, and manipulation.

“That’s why you can so easily forgive those who hurt you, choosing to focus on their good intentions and ignorance, even to a fault.”

I stopped short.

Despite inclinations to the contrary, there is never any need to go all “motivational speaker” during (or post) a Sticking Point—leading the client to fervently repeat mantras before sending them out to make the world a shinier place, etc.

The seeds of Ray’s new understanding have been planted deep and taken root.

ME:

“How do you feel?”

RAY:

“Honestly, it’s like even 33 years of torture might be worth a single day with this peace I feel right now.

“Thank you.

“Thank you for what you do.”

So, that was our session today.

Strangely, I felt the urge to thank Ray there at the end just as he thanked me.

I had no context for my surge of sudden gratitude as it met with his vocal expression in bizarre tandem, like a shadow.

Yet, oddly, I had the strongest sense of such understanding coming—that the reason would catch up to me in the same way several facts regarding Todd, Carmen, and Vin had become apparent to Ray today as we spoke.

I cannot shake the notion that the reason I felt as I did really should be quite obvious.

. . .

10 . . . 11 . . . 12 . . . . .

Beads of sweat crept from Bing’s hairline to the divot crinkles lining his eyes, blinding him.

Above, his arms and shoulders shook to control twin, dangling stacks of rusty, black iron.

Both sets of knuckles were white with red creases spanning quivering palms and fingers.

He lowered the weights, forcing as much grace as he could.

SLAM!

He shook his head as he levered himself up and to the edge of his old bench, planted as it had been forever behind worn boxes and dusty trinkets in the corner of his father’s garage.

Four more sets…

A warm, swollen heaviness ballooned its way about the back of both Bing’s arms.

But the daunting reality of having to work more muscle-groups tomorrow, and then more the next day, and so on, threatened such vast infinite toil it seemed to want to break his resolve upfront and send him quietly out the back to smoke and forget.

He wouldn’t this time, he knew . . . even if it would mean the exact opposite of what it promised, delivering only more conviction for whenever his next start date would roll around.

Bing finally realized just how and why there would be no more turning back.

His direction was set, and further delay felt utterly intolerable (despite not mattering).

Besides, he already saw himself standing up where he would be soon: his spine dead straight, his arms wide, his chest open and proud…

He witnessed his own face aglow sporting a smile spawned straight from the sun to illuminate everyone in the world, showing them all just how special and funny they each were.

How many times had he tried to hit these same weights growing up?

He remembered having made it through the odd full week . . . but rarely two or more.

Then throughout his prolonged slide from chubby dreamer, to lanky stoner, to personified version of despondency congealing in the heat of a tiny apartment or seedy car, the weights had remained mostly still.

Sure, they’d lurk and loom a little from their shady corner home.

Their improper disuse had always been a source or symptom of discouragement.

And now they tried to taunt him all the more, in a new way, silently screaming details of all their continued employ must entail.

But Bing grinned.

Pages of old exercise magazines swept back up through his mind, brown-tinged and speckled, sporting perfectly lit photographs of ridiculously enhanced specimens.

He could vividly recall all the tables and routines he had spent so many years committing to using.

There was a flash, followed by the usual taps of preparation.

spend money to fill ur time learning other
people’s ways without ever doing anything, then
feel bad about urself for the wrong reason.

Bing chuckled.

All the reading . . . and the money, and soul-searching, and desiring . . . and…

He saw so plainly all at once how none of it could have ever taken the place of simply getting himself into a few positions and pushing iron against gravity until he couldn’t anymore.

Another flash followed.

u do it once u’r left with nothing but to test
if what’s in ur head is worth anything.

There was more, perhaps, than could be properly scratched across a screen.

And what of undetected worlds yet unborn in the blankness surrounding every digital skeleton past idea . . . maybe worlds of unknown moving pieces, and characters, and scenery?

There were definitely friends laughing in pajamas around a cluttered table somewhere.

There was a comedian donning a cool leather coat, designer jeans, and converse shoes.

There was laughter of all sorts . . . deep, squealing, tearful, belting, free…

Bing breathed slow and steady, pushing the air down past where it went as he flexed his back beyond straight.

The wood and rafters above were a maze of flickering lights and cobwebs, providing just enough distraction to make his next sets almost welcome.

But there had been another flash, which he came close to deciding need not be captured.

or u do it to pursue ur dreams with the ones u
love for as long as u can.

And speaking of loved ones, it had long occurred to Bing that he would need another name . . . an alias . . . a character he could be free to truly be himself as.

Otherwise, lines might never get blurred, or touched . . . or even outright crossed and snickered back at.

He quickly fingered the name “Bing Pugloci” out onto his iun so he wouldn’t forget.

. . .

I was in a factory, using tweezers to assemble tiny pieces from piles of parts all around.

Working with armatures, o-rings, and shiny, brand-new springs, I somehow knew I was constructing components of what would become enormous machines.

Then there was a giant iun, sleek and black.

I must have left the factory already, though my new surroundings seemed unremarkable, almost blank.

I only remember how clean and perfect the iun looked.

It even smelled new, like freshly pressed plastic and oily steel.

The iun hovered across from me, just above a basic folding chair.

I found it funny how its chair and mine were exactly the same.

We were two dots at opposite ends of a circle with no clear perimeter.

I believe we were all there was.

It was as if we were talking, and I was its therapist.

And as I awoke, I heard the sound of Ray’s voice, though I could not make out the words.

I mentioned my recurring dreams of what seem to be whispered family secrets.

Yet this was different.

I had the strangest impression Ray’s words were important, and their meaning would suddenly become clear if I could just recall the right piece of something said already in session.

After laboring over coffee, and checking to find I had no messages, I spent the first half of my morning in bed, reading through all my notes on Ray.

I did not come across anything particularly revelatory as I read, though time spent committing my Method’s findings more to memory is never wasted.

I made it to the office just before my late-morning appointment with Bing was set to start.

Bing was actually waiting for me when I arrived.

By the mere glimpse I caught of him on camera out in the waiting room, I knew immediately something significant had changed.

He stood so tall and straight.

His face seemed to radiate with unprecedented positivity and enthusiasm.

It occurred to me that something must have gone very right with Bing’s therapy.

As I watched him duck the frame of my door to enter, he sported a smile so large I feared its weight might wrench the earth off its axis.

I saw an obvious, quiet determination there in place of whatever had once caused the big man to want to shrink from view in all circumstances.

Actually, he was funnier than I remember him being—not manic, flighty, or zany, but calmly cheerful in a catchy, contagious sort of way.

In truth, I am not at all sure how many times Bing and I have met, though it cannot have been more than a few.

Regardless, I believe our remaining sessions will serve as punctuated stints of encouragement.

The transformative work is complete.

I might be able to help him stay as hungry and efficient as he now seems.

I hope so.

Yet I am sure you see my obvious dilemma.

Bing’s therapy worked.

My Method must have proven successful yet again.

Though this time I have no idea how.

A breakthrough unaccounted for is no breakthrough at all, either in the scientific sense or the sense of giving me something good to sell.

Bing is an Outlier in so many ways, yet I cannot tell him apart from Rolma…

I mean, I cannot tell him apart from my Normals.

Sorry.

Really, it makes no sense for Bing to be an Outlier lest his very nature invalidate the decades of comparative data I have amassed via the use of my Method thus far.

And now he has reached his Sticking Point as if on his own…?

Impossible, right?

What am I missing?

Bing wants to be a comedian.

I do not believe I have ever had a comedian client before.

Could comedians be Outliers that mirror Normals to make their humor more universally relatable?

If so, then Bing must be a truly great comedian.

I can at least be fairly certain about the direction of the discrepancy—that he is an Outlier mirroring a Normal, and not the other way around.

For a Normal would have no compelling reason to pretend to be an Outlier.

Well, perhaps if a Normal were raised by only Outliers…?

Yet a fake Outlier-Normal should be far easier to locate on my spectrum than a Normal-seeming Outlier like Bing.

Bing only further confuses things.

Yet what is it about him, specifically?

How might I have helped him?

How might he still be lying to himself?

I honestly cannot see it.

Yet the answer must be there.

Why?

I am reminded of how sure I was this morning that Ray’s indecipherable words would make sense if just fit to the right context.

I feel distracted by such rabbit holes of shady comparison.

I also feel I must admit to myself how truly exhausted I am, running on no to little sleep.

Even as I now attempt to work, my mind is dulled and cluttered by still-frame images of giant iuns floating above cheap plastic chairs.

I see a speckled collage of massive-edged cups that cannot help but spill.

In general, I know I have been allowing for far more introspection in these notes after recent sessions with Ray.

I have to accept that I can never keep my Method from working however and wherever (upon whomever) it works.

For lack of a better way to say this: My Method seems to be choosing me as its subject more.

The cup and iun dreams should be obvious—they stem from my lack of situational self-efficacy in being unable to tell my Normals (and Bing) apart, unable to hold clients, unable to fight the free therapy from iuns I am threatened by, etc.

Such felt inabilities manifest in unconscious visions of chaos and randomness.

Yet even as I write, I am allured away by the same quiet, distant sound of Ray’s voice.

Bing mentioned a dream in which he failed to keep himself from floating up and off the stage while performing.

What could that have to do with Ray?

Though this installment is fast becoming a note-to-self-style journal entry, I am again mysteriously compelled to believe some deeper connection would appear if I could only happen upon the right recorded words from Ray in session.

Yet as I said, I read through all of Ray’s words again this morning.

How fitting for my tired mind to choose Ray as its means of sending me on a deluded quest for some mystical connection all reason and experience tell me cannot exist.

I am reminded of how certain conceptual realities buried deep beneath the particulars of Ray’s flaky visions are always anchored to what those visions represent.

What I am writing now appears ludicrous to me, even as I watch it tumble to the page like rain.

Yet I cannot shake the notion that my unconscious mind is attempting to communicate something using the voice of someone who has delivered truth to me the same way before—via indirect representation.

That would mean there is something worthwhile for me to find or remember in whatever hearing Ray’s voice represents.

I wish my mind would just tell me whatever it is it wants me to know.

Do I?

Not long ago, I would have said Ray’s specific Outlier type annoys me more than any other—one who acts as if he sees underlying reasons for real things without ever having put in the necessary work to gain such insight.

Now it seems frightfully obvious that I am no different.

Considering how I first discovered and have since developed my Method, I wonder: Why was I always in such a hurry?

It was because I saw my Method’s value.

Or, I thought I saw its potential.

So I had to go out and use it.

I had to see it work.

I could not stay, and wait, and be told by so many that…

What is my Method, really?

I have seen, time and time again, especially in our more recent sessions, how the core of Ray’s perspective often holds true regardless of his methodology—regardless of the surface-level details of his thinking.

Valid connections emerge free and crystal-clear from beneath the jumbled liquid flow of his baseless reasoning.

How?

And could these ponderings now really all just be distractions?

Should I not be attempting to figure out how many times I have met with Bing?

Did Bing say he had an addiction?

Bing’s dream, it…

But wait, I read it this morning…

Ray mentioned a recurring dream in which he is easily overtaken by demons.

Bing dreamed of being pulled from his stage like a balloon with no control.

I dream of being unable to keep coffee from spilling everywhere out of unlikely cups.

All of our dreams are the same in a way.

How completely absurd.

How unlikely could something like that be—that the dreams shared with me by the two clients I am considering at this very moment so perfectly match my own in obvious meaning?

And why am I compelled, now more than ever, to go back and re-read all of Ray’s words yet once more?

I swear I hear his same soft, faraway voice.

If I could just find a way to lean in a little closer.

Where?

Where is it coming from?

Why are the words about as unrecognizable as most of my remaining clients?

I want to write, “Who am I?” but again my focus seems to be thrown back to Ray.

Always Ray.

Only Ray.

How can Ray speak as if directly into the circumstances of my business, my Method, my struggles and fears…?

Is that not my job—the hard-earned results of having faithfully honed and used my Method now for…?

Alright, then what does Ray say?

The fog.

What is the fog, really?

What does it represent?

He has compared the fog to a lie that comes from being afraid—from being unable or unwilling to see the whole picture, as it were, yet still seeing some.

Seeing whatever I can to…

What about the church and pastor?

Ray called the pastor an artist who paints real human life into his words.

Yet all the slaves and rulers who hear those words can see only so much through the fog.

I was convinced the lie was really Ray’s—his own self-deception and unwillingness to see.

What could that lie represent for me?

What am I unwilling to…?

I can hear the words now if I am honest.

But…

If I am honest…

No.

It could not possibly be true.

Yet the fact that I am writing all this here…

How could I ever seek to divorce any portion of these notes from the rest?

To omit or fabricate my rich future contributions to the literature would mean…

Though I am now exclusively speaking of and to myself, my Method is still in full operation.

Nothing has changed.

I cannot deny that.

I feel ridiculous for what I am about to write, yet a vast library’s worth of potential sequential volumes—more than I could ever list—seem to all combine to show that…

I meet with clients with split-personalities, yes?

And all of my clients deceive themselves in some way.

To allow for such deception to present itself in time has always been the purpose and function of my Method.

Even false conclusions get naturally cancelled out and re-examined in turn.

So, my Method has always worked to…

What if none of them are real?

What if none of this is real?

What if it is all just me?

What if I am not really who I think I am?

The iuns…

Could there be a cl…?

Could there be a patient somewhere, experiencing all of this as part of some incomprehensible iun therapy program?

Could this all be a world created to solve some unknown being’s own unique psychosis?

Every client, even before Ray and Bing…

How far too extraordinarily perfect that I would see and learn from each Outlier exactly what was needed to uncover the nature, identity, and experience of every Normal I have ever met with.

And now, Ray.

Ray is the Outlier.

Ray has confirmed for me exactly who and what all Normals really are in this strange world.

Yes, I can hear him if I am honest.

My Normals are slaves to the very systems I fear—systems run by the powerful who would have nothing to do with me or my work except to replace my beautiful Method and give it away for free through mindless robots, ruining me.

My Normals are taught to be nothing.

They give their lives over to a society that thrives on their fear and death.

And they are left so undervalued, used up, and written off I can no longer tell any of them apart.

None at all.

I cannot help them.

I cannot change anything, really.

But then why?

Why all of this?

Am I Ray?

What would it mean if I and everyone I have ever known were really the intentional creations of some program?

What could all of this be meant to teach, alleviate, or show?

Impossible.

The whole notion is completely insane.

Yet how could I deny that what I have just experienced is a Sticking Point—the same as any other brought about by my Method?

To doubt would be to call into question every past and future breakthrough.

Why these notes?

. . .

I have had some time to consider the implications of what I will tentatively refer to as my Sticking Point.

As yet, I remain entirely unsure.

My hope is for some other obvious explanation to present itself.

Whatever I actually am, I still seem to be experiencing this world through my same perspective.

Yes, this could be an iun world, or something else.

It could be a function created for the treatment of some patient in another reality.

It could be any number of things, purposeful or otherwise.

Yet regardless of whether or not the experience I seem to be having is ultimately real, I do currently exist within it as its apparent perceiver.

So I cannot yet see or imagine any reason not to be me while here.

What I wonder now is what comes next, beyond my Sticking Point.

Do I have more to learn from Ray?

Am I supposed to become like him?

Or Bing?

Or all of them?

I sound so silly, of course, especially to myself.

Yet how else would I think?

How else would my mind respond to all that I have seen and conceived?

Everything I am writing here is only exactly what I would wonder.

If I am to continue to rely on my Method—and the cause for this world seems irrelevant in making that determination—then I must conclude that whatever else is meant to be accomplished or revealed will occur and be made known in its proper time.

I see no reason to doubt that my Method will continue to work as it always has (as far as I can tell).

I am still left with the same stack of old papers meant to represent Normal clients, none of which I can differentiate.

Memories of cases all bleed together.

Faces and lives are a human smudge.

No matter what or why, my time here to work is still running out.

My aim to properly assert myself into the gradual, natural workings of my Method seems as valid as ever.

That process of assertion will remain the focus of these notes, at least for now.

I cannot say at all that I am sure why any of this is happening.

Yet for all immediate intents and purposes, the “why” seems not to matter.

I do have an unshakeable sense that there is still something else missing from this whole impossible equation—something I am sure I should have considered already.

Maybe the answer will come in the form of a person—some new client I have yet to meet.

I will either know or not.

. . .

I want to meet with all my remaining Outliers.

I want Bing and the Rolmans there too.

It will be one big, free session that will last as long as it needs to.

My conclusion: Even if this world is pretend, it changes nothing.

It might as well be true that I should continue to think, write, and do everything just as I normally would.

If this world is a purposeful construct, then I see no reason not to assume nothing intended can be changed (even if it can).

Whether or not any of this will ultimately matter remains unknown.

I admit there is a strange comfort in arriving at such murky yet resolute conclusions.

I feel a new sense of peace, even as I face all the same mounting dilemmas and confusions.

. . .

The old box TV cast its dim light with flickers and bursts of glitchy glare across the impassive wall of Johnston’s face.

He sat still in the mostly dark room, as always, watching.

All were average-looking men, their faces somehow similar regardless of age or race.

All were dressed in tones that matched their particular surroundings.

Varying degrees of digital color blended with stage-specific fineries to create for each a complimentary backdrop.

The productions were seamless and cookie-cutter, one after another.

Commercials for special offers and events were woven in on cue, causing blocks of contact-detail text to overtake the fuzzy screen.

This usually signaled a few final moments of more intimate one-on-one time with each man before flashing last-call graphics alerted Johnston of his need to get in touch or contribute right away.

All used such eloquent words, though some came across as quintessentially simple and down-to-earth.

Most had the winking, arm-around-the-shoulder demeanors of kindly uncles or next-door grandfathers, offering sage advice peppered with pleasant nods and delightful smiles.

Yet for all the jolliness and charm used to frame their timed bursts of staunch hooting and complimentary posturing, Johnston could not bring himself to ignore the fact that these hyper-personable figures were always much farther away than his TV could make them.

Always.

Each had his own style . . . his unique way of working the stage to deliver what seemed to be rhythmic sets of mesmerizing religious beatnik poetry.

Audiences were duly roused as valleys of felt needs were hastily dug and met in the air with cascading resolutions of wonder and responsibility.

Johnston remained as still as a dead tree on his brown carpet floor.

He listened as the current man, Pastor Ron, recounted God’s many promises of provision for the generous.

Words like “sacrifice,” and “sacrificial offering,” and “giving,” and “kingdom,” and “God’s house,” provided an emphatic pace for the debonair, overweight man’s practiced flow.

Scriptures were quoted and elaborated upon with joyful stories of miracles and…

But Johnston had stopped hearing.

A certain repeated word seemed to prick at his mind like a noticeable tick having burrowed through layers of tissue to nest.

He repeated the word to himself like a kindergartener learning something new.

“…undeserved . . . undeserved…”

Skirting the usual resource ad, the sermon reformed itself into its version of an ending close-up closer.

Now in a green Hawaiian shirt, the pastor pleaded with Johnston directly without so much as taking a breath, sympathizing with struggles and encouraging partnership in rapid-fire succession.

Then Pastor Ron was gone.

Next came a black preacher in a sparkly silver suit.

This one started slow, reading longer passages and hovering to dart about specific lines while dabbing at his brow in a sequence tighter than Morse code.

Then removing thin-rimmed spectacles, the man ramped up to a full-scale holler.

It was like watching an experienced runner ease in to pace a long-distance race.

Johnston heard himself repeating more phrases: “Head and not the tail”; “life, and that more abundantly”; “all things richly to enjoy”; “unmerited favor…”

That last line stuck and niggled again, maybe worse than the other.

“…unmerited favor . . . unmerited . . . favor…”

Of course Johnston could not feel his lips curl to a smile just slightly too wide.

How could he have seen his own eyes go a mere degree unfocused?

He might not have even felt the impact as his elbow was flung around like a sack of wheat or sand to connect, hard, with the thick glass screen in a dull, bitterly anticlimactic thud.

He half stood with eyes still glued, not hearing but watching the next pimp-dressed holy man take and pace his golden stage.

If his toes could only be lowered slowly into boiling…

…that happy, whooping crowd, all speckled with their leader’s blood.

And they would just keep smiling, keep laughing as their bodies were torn to…

Johnston realized he was getting angry.

He knew being angry was not good.

It had never proven helpful.

Yet after hours, days, or even weeks of like programming, he had cut against something of an unavoidable incongruity . . . something he found he could neither stomach, make sense of, nor move past.

Nothing, it seemed, would ever steal those church folks’ stubborn gall.

Nothing could damper their resolve to parade what they were proud to admit they had not earned.

How…?

Yet he knew without knowing why neither the garish speakers nor their doll-faced masses could ever be stopped from celebrating some secret knowledge he, Johnston, must simply not be privy to.

Did their faces not betray applications taking place on levels beyond which he had the time or grit left to comprehend?

It would be too late and pointless now to…

“You are highly favored of the Lord! Amen?”

No, no amen.

Each had looked him in the eye and all but guaranteed the same “undeserved provision,” the same “unmerited favor,” those cavalcades of sharp-dressed shepherds had been blessed enough to garner via their flocks, and all by God’s grace.

Why do you get to…?

But obviously not everyone who watches you would be able to…

And just like his smile no one could see, which was also only imperceptibly off, Johnston’s thought pattered out and down in doomed glory, slinking away to die somewhere between his shag and bedrock hell.

It was the logic of a mind left to conclude that there really never had been any others.

So why go on taping fabricated report cards to one’s own solipsistic fridge?

Johnston lowered himself to wait in a deep squatting pose that could suggest only readiness.

There was nothing else to do.

Certainly nothing left to think or say.

Put upon and dismissed.

Discredited and never quite enough.

Too ugly and too dumb.

Too far gone to try.

Too far away and still moving.

Too old and too…

Johnston’s answer, unfortunately, would never be “unmerited favor” or “undeserved provision.”

His answer, rather, was his ready stare and consciousness, just as it had always been.

For this was every disorder, and every chaos, known and unknown.

His requirement was obvious: the cleanliness and precision of steel, bleach, lime, chlorine…

The eradication of all stains.

Nothing unclean could remain.

Oh yes, their smiles would carry on, he knew, but somewhere else.

It would be somewhere promised, and good . . . somewhere such smiles belonged.

And it would be just as they had all been told and worked to believe all along.

And really no farther away, right?

Scrub and rinse.

Scrub and rinse.

Scrub, scrub, scrub…

And Johnston, too, could be made to be so pure and glistening white.

Clean and happy.

Smiling wide.

And dressed to kill before thousands somewhere always away in a box.

. . .

The Rolmans’ wider families were devastated by the news at first.

Eventually, all would come to accept for different reasons it might be okay.

No one would know until much later on that neither would ever be in want.

And certainly none would wonder if perhaps the two could be happier than most, sharing a condition that may or may not have yet to show any symptoms.

. . .

I had done all I could to ready myself for the longest, most trying day imaginable.

In truth, none of my estimations about the taxing nature of the coming hours could have prepared me for what actually lay ahead.

Immediately upon having canceled my other appointments, I was hit with heavy regret.

Pondering the loss of my day’s regular Normals, I paced the short length of my office as if willing myself to walk some nearby plank.

I half expected no one invited to even show up.

Already beyond flustered, it suddenly occurred to me that I had no experience whatsoever approaching or managing multiple clients at once.

Had I really failed to consider how my Method might fare in the face of such added mechanics as group dynamics and politics?

And in those squeamish moments beyond too late, I had something of a frightful vision: this mob of hellish, bird-like clients all surrounding me to fight and peck as if competing for the same woeful worm…

Impossible to wrangle or make sense of in the least, their vicious squawking distorted in my mind to an undecipherable, mechanical screech.

Everyone arrived early.

I had no time to practice Faum’s or peruse my notes at all—no further opportunity for mapping out some course to approach the daunting debacle I had unwittingly committed to.

Rolman spoke first, before I could, injecting his own brand of impassible confusion like a human spanner thrown deliberately just to mangle up my cogs.

Grinning like a crocodile, he uttered something slow and enthusiastic about “the pain being gone.”

I asked how it had happened (having no idea what pain he was referring to).

His response was as cryptic and unhelpful as ever.

ROLMAN:

“I’m just glad to be out roving around again, chasing after my boy at the park.”

I recalled at least one male Normal having equated himself to a family dog.

Had that been Rolman?

Seeing myself failing already to make such basic connections, the stiff air in the room began to feel overwhelmingly muggy and hot.

My skin seemed about to peel off under the weight of so many sets of eyes, all fixed on me.

My awareness was locked to the immense monetary waste of each idle moment passing by in painful stillness and silence.

So many clients, all watching and waiting for me to fix them as I was being paid to.

I had to press in and at least try to deliver on my implied promise.

Then shifting my gaze from one to the next, Rolman, Ray, and all the rest appeared for a split second to morph into the most bizarre clutter of robots with control switches, all spazzing about together on the floor.

I blinked, and everyone was back in their chairs, staring at me again.

Or, had I been the glitching robot?

Terrified, I resolved to just start over.

I had to find the right questions by which to properly employ my Method, that was all.

How many clients were there in the room?

Why was I unable even to count?

All but Rolman were Outliers, no?

Yet my overarching impression was of having stumbled upon someone else’s game—that ever since my realization about how this all might not be real, whoever could be using me for whatever unknown ends has simply leapt forward several steps to keep me contained and in the dark.

In short, I felt completely broken.

My only hope was my belief that my Method should prove impervious to even shifts in whichever realities it gets used.

I had to find a way to identify the blurred individuals in the room.

Were two (or more) Normals like family dogs?

ME (to Rolman):

“Tell me about your son.”

The dimwitted smile widened a hair.

ROLMAN:

“He’s a funny little guy.

“He started punching me the other day.

“And I got mad.

“We were both just sitting there in the living room.

“He was playing a game on my iun.

“When I got mad, though, I remembered what you said.

“And I didn’t want to just yell or make him feel bad.

“So I waited until I wasn’t mad anymore.

“Then we talked about why we shouldn’t yell or hit other people.”

I had no memory of discussing anger with Rolman.

ME:

“Would you say that both you and your son act immaturely at times?

“Maybe this time you realized you were headed that way again, but changed course before you let yourself do something you knew you’d regret.

“I think that’s great.”

I was mostly happy with my initial attempt at re-establishing control.

Yet an unmistakable note of condescension had begun to creep its way into my voice, surely due to having heard my words and tone shift to mirror the likes of Rolman in both sincerity (for me, insincere) and lack of irony (for me, most ironic).

I made the impossible mental note to come across as less intentional.

I was glad when Rolman spoke again, freeing my focus from its inward paradoxes.

ROLMAN:

“It’s like we both act younger than we are sometimes, yeah.”

ME:

“What game was your son playing on the iun?”

ROLMAN:

“Oh, we both were.

“It’s this free game where you have to save 2,000 coins to get a helicopter.

“It took us about two days.

“Or, we could have paid for the coins with real money.”

ME:

“How much would that have cost?”

ROLMAN:

“99 cents for 10,000 coins.”

Ray chose that moment to chime in, out of turn, infuriating me—his interruption serving as a timed trap sprung to throw me from my hopeful progress.

RAY (to Rolman):

“Would that teach your kid the value of a dollar?”

Willing myself to confront Ray’s derailment like a sheepdog nipping at straying edges of its flock, I set about working to salvage my therapeutic vision for Rolman.

Ray and the rest would have to wait.

ME (to Rolman):

“Tell me more about you and your son.”

ROLMAN:

“Oh!

“Well, get this…

“Now I know I’ve seen real magic at least two times.

“When I was a kid, I think about five, this girl told us guys she could do real magic.

“We didn’t believe her.

“We started teasing.

“But she made this little plastic soldier arm appear all by itself in her hand, from nowhere!

“I saw it!

“I still remember exactly what it looked like.

“Then one day at the park, my son was telling me everything about this robot he wanted to make.

“And right then, I saw a tiny robot piece on the ground.

“It looked just like how he was saying!”

Rolman’s answer was entirely vacuous and surely detrimental to the lines of reasoning I was fighting to construct (as if from nothing).

I blamed Ray.

Caught speechless in another wave of the horrible silence and watching, I frantically considered how I might best keep my mounting inner turmoil hidden from the group.

Ray spoke up again as if to highlight my lack of control.

RAY (to me):

“You never saw anything magic?

“I’m sure I did.

“Just the way we saw things.”

I felt myself begin to cringe, but then watched, already relieved, as I fell reflexively to the first deeper breaths of my Faum’s sequence.

ME:

“But it wasn’t really magic, right . . . whatever you saw?”

RAY:

“Yes.

“I mean, it’s all happening, y’know?

“All of this . . . all of it . . . together.”

Silently angling my way through Faum’s, I was met by more waves of the calm aloofness I had grown accustomed to reaching and maintaining—much akin to a welcome visit from a trusted colleague or old friend.

There was a definite sense of release from my compulsive need to maximize the increased value of session time spent with multiple clients.

I even found myself able to almost bypass my indignation at our careless lapse into magic.

For no obvious reason, I began to consider again the matter of the similar, chaotic dreams that Ray, Bing, and I had seemed to share.

Now, let me clarify something I believe perfectly illustrates my strange and evolving inability to differentiate clients.

I know Bing was not there today.

I am 100 percent certain of this fact.

And though for some reason I cannot bring to mind whether or not Bing had even been invited, I know for sure I did not see his somehow oafishly lanky form pass through my door at any point before, during, or after our big session.

Yet I also clearly remember Bing being present as Ray harped on about magic.

Perhaps it was just Rolman, since Bing can come across as such a Normal at times.

But why would I have not invited Bing?

I had definitely wanted him there.

Anyway, the notion of the connected dreams gave me an idea I hoped would at least keep the conversation from continuing to spiral.

ME:

“Well, okay, you could say everything seems magical.

“But how would you respond if I were to ask, ‘Can I still dream the same way if I know exactly why I’m dreaming?’

“What if you could understand the reasons behind it all—behind everything that happens?”

The questions were intended to prove just unexpected and rhetorical enough to quiet Ray for a moment so I could further regroup.

Yet he answered almost before I had finished asking.

RAY:

“But you still don’t know why.”

ME:

“Perhaps you don’t understand.

“What if we could explain exactly what happens, both chemically and psychologically, to cause my specific dreams?”

RAY:

“Yeah, then we’d know just what happens when you dream.

“But the why for everything is always magic.”

ME:

“I see no reason for magic in . . . the why.”

RAY:

“Magic doesn’t explain things.

“But it does explain everything.

“And it explains nothing.”

ME:

“It’s not magic.”

RAY:

“What’s not?”

. . .

The Astrologer sat quietly listening.

The waify man in brown seemed determined to stay on magic, clouding portions of the dry and ossified room with hints of an airy presence.

It was easy to sense, though subtle and odd, like pockets held deep and detached for lifetimes from connecting with all common, passing winds.

Words heard were an upward tug of bubbles . . . up . . . up through something else still and turbid.

Oh, but for some dates to see behind it all!

Yet the Astrologer willed himself to put his most familiar urge on hold as something in the tender man’s unusual speech caught and arrested his attention in a hands-on-cheeks gasp sort of way.

The Astrologer decided to speak, saying to no-one in particular, “I think with magic, things like what it means or why . . . that really doesn’t matter. Not nearly as much as we’d want it to.”

The rigid Psychologist turned to glare with the cardinal force of a freshly sprung snare, appearing as he had at first—a modish, grumpy goat, content in his outwardly drab world of practicalities and perpetual lists with partial cross-off lines.

“What do you mean?” came the tinny, nasal-bark reply in what seemed a tone one might reserve for cross-examining a less-than-competent witness.

“Well,” began the Astrologer, “since I’m here, I’ll just share that, yes, I’ve always felt a little weird, deep down, for the way I see the world. The idea that our lives could be guided somehow by movements of planets or angles and gravity . . . cosmic positionings at moments of birth . . . it’s all a rather flaky way to make decisions and sort people, yeah? Birth charts are a fairly arbitrary filter through which to see the world…? But even though it should make no sense, I could honestly show you all in detail what each specific part means. I could show you . . . for you . . . how every alignment connects to a real piece of who you are today! But why? Why, why, why? I have no idea!”

Another asked, “But couldn’t there be some other reason? Couldn’t the way it matches personality and everything be true without the symbols and all that?”

The frail man in brown sat staring straight ahead, a resolute gleam in his quiet eyes portraying to the Astrologer something of hidden perplexities best etched in layers of byzantine glass.

The Psychologist mumbled, “I’d like to return to, um…”

But the thin man in brown softly interrupted with: “I think we still are… I mean, I think this might be helpful.”

The Astrologer nodded, piping back with, “Since we started with talking about relationships, yes, I think it will be helpful. Each of us are born into different elements and modes, connected to different traits. And these react with others’ traits in interesting ways. Some combinations are good and smooth, where others feel less natural, and…”

A thought occurred, which the Astrologer chalked up to the mix of quirkiness and comical seriousness inherent within his own stellar stew.

There I go again, of course . . . talking and talking about all this stuff.

It’s all going to happen, anyway.

So just shut up for a minute!

The small man in brown began to quiver like an unthreatening bomb before exploding forth with words as uncontainable as the contents of a slashed balloon: “I don’t know anything about astrology. But I’d guess there really are no bad relationships between people with different . . . like, signs or whatever. Even opposites . . . wherever it seems rougher. I’ve found, just through work and people I know, when someone rubs me the wrong way, it’s really only, like, how we might balance each other out. One pushes, and the other pulls. But I think it’s always good in the end. It’s like . . . personality gravity.”

. . .

There is perhaps nothing so humbling as the notion of being run through sequences of prepackaged lessons imparted by machines hidden away in unknowable realities.

As I listened, I was not sure which continuum I would have preferred.

The unmistakable workings of my Method had me bound to my ludicrous Sticking Point.

If distant iuns really were directing the dialogue in the room, could it all just be to hammer home to me how spitefully any intended interferences on my part would be spurned?

Was I never actually meant to add anything into my Method’s function?

Could that be the whole point—the ultimate lesson these notes have been brought about (from wherever) to show?

Or, was I supposed to keep fighting back?

The insanity of fixating upon inferred grandiosities at the base of seemingly directed streams of obvious irrationalities could not be lost on me.

Yet regardless of why, I sensed myself reaching two conclusions at once.

First, it seemed unfair.

Knowing my mind and Method, I felt the urge to rise up indignantly against any and every controlling being or program—to stand until the end for this person and purpose I have grown to love embodying.

I would wish even now to plead with unknown powers for at least the chance to try.

Perhaps that is exactly what I am doing.

Second, I did not fail to notice that I was attempting to interpret a conversation [“that wanted to be”] about whether such interpretations could be relevant—interpretations given in terms of astrology, Ray’s visions, etc.

Held fast between desperate to know and wondering if I should care, I heard Ray somewhere deep in my mind saying something from before about faith always shining its light.

I slowly eyed Ray, the astrologer, Rolman…

How absurd to think I could be counseling pieces of myself.

ME (to Rolman):

“How about what Ray here just said: that there are no bad relationships, and all relationships can serve a purpose?”

ROLMAN:

“I think it’s true.

“I know my wife can’t . . . can’t really say how she’s feeling.

“And I used to get mad at her for that, when I’d ask and ask, and she wouldn’t tell me.

“But then, just in all our years together, I started seeing her different.

“Now it’s like she’s this little robot buzzing around.

“She’s broken, yeah…

“But I don’t yell at her anymore.

“She’s not really cold to me, not the way I thought.

“She’s just . . . different from me.”

ME (to Ray):

“And what do you think, Ray?”

RAY (to Rolman):

“Well, it’s like I saw some soup in a pot, y’know?

“But it’s all rocks.

“And you wanted to boil the water to see where the rocks could get soft.

“Maybe now you found a happy temperature…?”

I remembered something a Normal male (perhaps Rolman) had once told me about he and his wife having been divided into groups.

ME (to Rolman):

“How about cultural differences?”

ROLMAN:

“No, her whole family’s great.

“She’s very traditional.

“She takes care of me, and lets me do what I want, mostly.

“But she does get jealous!

“I kind of like that about her . . . that she doesn’t mess around.”

I recounted to the group (and Rolman, specifically) about a hellish session years ago in which the Sticking or Breaking Point of a male client of the same race as Mrs. Rolman had rested upon me finding a way to convey that he was being disingenuous.

I shared that such an accusation had felt like the worst insult one could bring against someone of that race.

Ray said his former co-workers, Vin and Carmen, might have been of the same race as well (he was not sure).

Rolman said nothing.

I glanced from face to face, oddly certain whoever was meant to speak at that moment was missing, and that we would not be able to continue on without that absent individual.

Did I see Bing?

How can I even ask that?

Then as I peered down at the edge of Rolman’s file on my desk, further celestial (possibly unimportant) worlds of correlation and design must have cascaded in imperceptible displays of rapturous celebration, for I happened to glimpse in my dense, handwritten scrawl the exact portion of notes outlining the nature of Rolman’s felt division from his wife.

And seeing immediately that I had misremembered his words and wrongly assumed the breach to have been along cultural lines, my only available concession was to simply read Rolman’s own words back to him.

ME (to Rolman):

“I have a quote here from another time we met when you talked about feeling distant from your wife.

“You said: ‘I hope she and I don’t get divided by our beliefs because it feels like everyone in the world wants to divide and just keep dividing.’”

ROLMAN:

“She might be more religious than me . . . at least I thought so before.

“But her religion reminds me of a little girl in a bedroom or something . . . lighting candles . . . saying words and prayers.

“I think it touches a special place in her heart.”

Having never been married nor involved in any long-term, personal relationships of any form, I tend to only treat individuals within couples.

I do at times instruct or allow clients to bring in their partners.

Though the relationship is then at the complete mercy of my Method.

Hidden truths are inevitably uncovered to either salvage or disintegrate the bond.

In truth, I am amazed by the rampant dishonesty I see prevalent in all such unions.

So much of what is said gets shown to be entirely tactical, and ultimately selfish, which leads me to question the validity of matrimony, monogamy, etc.

ME (to Rolman):

“How is your communication with your wife?

“Do the differences ever make you feel like you have to lie to keep peace in your home?”

. . .

The Lie was in the room.

It had been there all along, huddled and cowering as if attempting to hide in Ray’s plain sight like some faux tower of animated clown ghosts perched behind whatever in practiced formation.

Ray found it interesting how far the Lie seemed to keep from Mr. Rolman, as if held at opposite ends of the tiny office by an unknown fixed suspending force.

The same could not be said of the Psychologist.

An argument wanted to buzz itself to life, though Ray recognized its pulse as nothing new—just old static tremors longing to be breath words instead of copies of copies of…

Caught far enough away in echoes like eternal oceans’ breeze, he was able not to pay the sketchy whispers much attention.

Mr. Rolman was obviously hiding something.

It was as clear as the fears that combined all around to form or unveil a far more archetypal, though outdated, Fear.

Ray watched those old fears as they morphed into teams of what looked like forgotten imaginary friends bouncing along in picket circles, hoisting antiquated signs and prompts.

Was it all just to show Mr. Rolman how incapable he was of understanding the Psychologist’s questions?

Ray reminded himself the questions had been about speaking with Mrs. Rolman.

In front of the Lie now towered every degree of pent-up grief and loneliness.

Ray heard them all breathing in the unmistakably suffocating manner of some bygone Desolation.

But if Mr. Rolman never lied, and never could lie, then what was with all the hiding and confusion?

No, not hiding…

Ray was struck by the jarring sight of a horde of icy roots . . . a mass that seemed to have formed in a blur and stretched down below all surfaces, reaching beyond even the most ancient of hidden tracts.

Ray then felt a strangely pleasant buzzing touch his lips.

Peering down, he saw the tip of a mysterious not-a-person’s outstretched limb.

The not-a-person hovered in almost transparent light and color just below his nose.

Ray heard his own voice begin to speak, and marveled at the words: “I think I know why people get married. It’s like energy always wants to move . . . to transfer between different things. Again, ‘one pushes, and the other pulls,’ y’know? But it makes you kind of tired when it happens. I don’t think it’s a lie. I think it’s good, and maybe way simpler than it seems . . . like, if we could just step back enough to see it.”

Mr. Rolman still seemed lost, though Ray now knew better.

Glancing again at the icy roots, Ray glimpsed where they were really tethers, and saw how no one else would ever spot the way their fusion was set to one day render even those almost comical, old-timey versions of Fear and Desolation completely obsolete once and for all.

The Psychologist looked shaky and stern, with cringes in his jawline revealing pressures of gritted teeth.

Ray sat in peaceful silence, waiting for the answer he saw coming.

“I guess,” began Mr. Rolman, “my wife and I are kind of like two grown children playing in a playground. We mostly play nice, but sometimes we don’t get along.”

Ray continued to eye the Psychologist, seeing well-meaning words about to be swept into formation that, once uttered, would surely rob the conversation of its thrust.

Smiling, Ray quickly blurted, “Animals have it best.”

That seemed to shake the Psychologist just enough, who managed only a sharp, “What are you saying?”

“Maybe treat a relationship like caring for an animal…?” Ray ventured. “I mean, cats just lick each other, and don’t get mad for silly reasons.”

“Yes, but animals also kill each other,” grumbled the Psychologist.

There…!

Ray caught sight of another not-a-person, though this one’s form seemed large enough to host a connected ring of individuals.

Radiating with a shimmering golden hue, Ray soon recognized it as the first he had seen that night by the Church . . . the not-a-person he had really always wished to reach, even from long, long before.

And Ray was floored by the basic un-profundity of what was his most familiar calling, hearing its beckoning voice now from so very close.

Maybe he had no choice.

“I know,” Ray powered on, hoping, “animals kill each other. But I guess that goes back to the whole thing about the City and New Cannibalism.”

The hiding Lie seemed to shrink into itself and shake like a spotlit roach caught in a jar slammed down around it.

Ray let his words continue to be said: “I think we . . . people . . . could be best at seeing we don’t need to hurt each other. And that probably makes no sense, the way I’m saying it. There’s so much more, but…”

The blank, cold stare emanating from the Psychologist’s grim and narrow face seemed to scream in silent protest of precious moments and momentum lost.

Yet Ray’s attention was drawn back to Mr. Rolman about to speak.

“I think,” Mr. Rolman began, “maybe I see what he’s saying. I used to always get mad at my wife for being on her iun all the time. But then our son got older. And we got older too. Finally, I just went on my own iun, and it was easy to find her on there. I started seeing all the things she was doing and showing people. I saw how much they loved her. Now we three all just want to be proud of each other. We help each other, and encourage each other to do good and enjoy everything as much as we can. We cheer each other on.”

Ray watched quizzically as his golden not-a-person friend approached the Psychologist like a ready ninja prepared to execute the planned secret scaling of a massive fortress high-rise.

But fog in the room seemed to bind the large, bright, hovering being . . . at least in part . . . keeping it from all points of mental entry.

The Psychologist then gushed forth like a tapped well, spouting, “But even if it’s all just kids playing, and animals licking each other . . . even if it’s energy transferring, or whatever . . . wouldn’t you, as a man, say your energy is different . . . that you want different things? You probably want respect, where your wife wants understanding, and your son wants attention, and…”

Race, to religion, to gender, to…

But Ray was swept safely away from the torrent to rest now far beyond, drawn only to that favored one so close to the threshold brink of the Psychologist’s busy mind.

He felt a second electric touch from the other not-a-person still beside him.

He heard his own voice again, declaring, “The City says what normal is. But why? It gives its people roles to fill to keep itself alive. But without the City, we’re all just people, right? No one’s normal. I mean, every single person is a mix of so many things, all at once. We want weird things . . . things others hate . . . and we might never really know why. Some give up when the City chops them down and holds them to places they can’t fit. Some never give up, and these could be made rulers, or murderers. And there are all kinds of others . . . way, way too many to know. We can’t even…”

As soon as a tiny spec of spectral light appeared to dawn in the Psychologist’s small and tired eyes, the massive golden not-a-person swept and soared above.

Ray watched in wonder as surrounding fog began to be colored in with light.

After a long pause, the Psychologist whispered, “So you’re saying that trying to differentiate according to societal norms is . . . unhelpful?”

And Ray saw or heard just where to go next, as clear and obvious as anything.

He nodded to himself.

Fully aware of the weight his next words would carry, he stated in one slow breath, “There are no normal ways to be. Thinking there are only serves the City as it’s been. New Cannibalism puts everyone on levels. It labels them by their use. That’s what New Cannibalism is . . . or what it was. But it’s all just an interpretation.”

Ray let that last keyword sit and sink in for a moment.

He then continued on: “New Cannibalism makes it easy to forget how people are really all sorts of different things. And yeah, in the City my words might be the rantings of a hopeless smudge rotting away on a corner somewhere . . . someone everyone can ignore. I mean, things are so busy, y’know? And smudges always get cleaned away by smudge-cleaners soon enough. But what I have to say to you, now, is this: Your work is a mission to find and show something ordinary . . . something closed away, and hidden. And you have to know . . . you have to know no one’s reaction to it even matters. It’s only what is . . . and it can’t be held in any single ‘why.’”

. . .

I was taken aback in disbelief.

The room went dim as this universe, again, for whatever reason, was used in that moment to speak to me through Ray in truths entirely encompassing and definitive of my Method, yet beyond anything I might say in these notes to justify.

All has now been said, and shown.

All my systems and files . . . all meaningless, yes, yet necessary for…

And that was when I saw their faces, particularly that of the silent astrologer, staring back at me.

It would be funny to think otherworldly iuns had given me the words that followed as perhaps a means of revealing or breaking their not-so-secret hold.

ME:

“Quick, everyone, when’s your birthday?”

. . .

Valentine’s Day.

And then a solar eclipse.

. . .

“Um…”

It wasn’t like Mack to hesitate.

The simple, rough-and-tumble voice didn’t suit being lost for words.

Mack continued, cautiously, lurching and dragging like a trucker rounding a series of icy bends: “No, I got the files. But I’m kind of busy right now. I can’t commit to . . . to playing gigs or anything. I mean, we could jam, but…”

Rev nodded, staring sideways at the black screen of his iun.

He felt a slightly dazed grin raise itself as if in defense of his face.

He stopped listening as the conversation quietly wound down to nothing.

Responses had grown predictable: “…no time . . . not now . . . different stage of life…

The pain was in being slowly forced to realize each reason was really a kindness . . . an excuse offered to mask the elephant-in-the-room divide between what Rev had always proclaimed to everyone and what his real life had become.

None of his contacts had even commented on the rough collection of mixes he’d sent.

He could no longer write off their silence as a mere aversion to the new, softer sound.

He wouldn’t bother reaching out to Crew or Angel this time.

Sighing and slouching down into faded wood, he peered out across a rugged, windswept sea.

What a perfect day to strum the afternoon away, singing out into the salty air like an old dog happy to howl with distant friends.

But there were no friends.

There was no guitar, no music, and no songs.

Nothing.

So he sat, listening only to the ocean, not quite wondering what to do.

He didn’t feel his right wrist curve lazily outward as he reached absentmindedly to stroke the skin between his upper ear and hairline.

Having hardly eaten in weeks, the sight of his noodle-thin forearm likely would have alarmed him if he could care.

Just as thoughts of Jodie’s drawn-out disgust and sudden departure began again to unlock and trifle with delicate inward storms, he glimpsed a woman, alone, leaning against the white painted rail in the distance.

She, too, was staring out to sea.

He noticed the classy way her hands were folded, and how neatly the wind whipped her hair from side to side in perfect time.

As she turned to face him, Rev felt an odd sense of recognition, like seeing an old home unchanged after decades away.

Soft features and doe eyes must have found a way to skip through time . . . circumventing Jodie’s brief blip . . . reaching all the way back to Thalia, the love of Rev’s young life, and a best friend lost about as long as Dale (for just as silly reasons).

Then as the ageless woman slowly approached, Rev was surprised to hear himself say, “Hi, what’s your name?”

He chalked his strange confidence up to the sense of familiarity, as if borrowing strength from one accord to use now in another.

“Hi,” she said. “I’m Caylee.”

Caylee smiled at the gaunt, frail Rev the way a little kid might grin at a pony.

And Rev felt an old smile bridge his crusted features too . . . the sort one might gush with when faced with creatures tiny, cute, and indefensible.

“I’m Rev,” he said, his voice goofy and uneven in his ears, quivering with excitement like a puppy panting for treats.

He flinched, hoping to shake himself back under control.

“Hi,” she said again.

Another pause, another crest of smile, and off she went.

The strangers parted like two tops taken from the same place on the floor where both had spun off and fallen to.

What now?

What new tables might Rev have left to be lifted to and set spinning across?

How many Caylees had there been?

How many Jodies?

Which of the two did he miss more?

And come to think of it, had such comparisons not once been fun?

With the one, he’d remain ever dumb and carefree—a scattered poet and best friend on cold nights under blankets in special places after rock shows.

The other had seemed to see him only ever from without, running ahead while pulling him behind to shiny worlds he knew he should want.

Rev chuckled, not quite hearing an eternity of the lyrics he had been searching for all his life scurry like moonlit critters behind darkened corners of his heart.

He paid no heed to what the words said, nor how they sounded, so they stayed.

But there could be no more blankets on cold nights.

No secret places.

No push to fame.

Certainly no rock shows.

He heard in his mind his newfound voice replaying in recent conversations.

But he knew the soft sound arose from no more than a replica of the same affected innocence he had always used to win over every precious Caylee . . . all diamonds in their own jagged, happy, simple worlds.

The relentless pretend-ness immediately grew far too viscerally real to the idiot showman fighting to muster and grip that same carefree naiveté by which he had once kept at least a Caylee or two on tap without having to try . . . each claiming him as their forever other, staring back with matching farm-girl smiles in sepia portraits.

And had just such forced stupidity not been exactly what got lost on every Jodie—their love a shining star worth everything to earn the right to fall somewhere within or around (or beneath)?

What could keep any of either now from all but yawning at what had become of this fast-fading, never-been shell of an almost man?

He laughed.

He laughed and laughed.

It wasn’t loud, or crazy.

It wasn’t happy.

The laughter was quiet, and uncomplicated.

It had the feel of a final countdown.

Then he stopped.

The voice he heard in the silence that followed sounded high, alien, and female . . . but also trapped and lost in the heart and throat of a feral animal man . . . a perv with a plastic smile, waxing nice to narrow in.

He knew whatever he might have almost ever been could never be again.

And in the wake of Caylee’s gleaming eyes, he longed to mourn for Thalia.

He wished only the best for every Jodie out in their harsh, grown-up worlds.

Expressionless and still, he missed them all so much…

Dale, Thalia, Jodie, Mack…

A hollow pit fissured open in his chest.

But Rev found no space there to grieve his missing music, nor unsung words, which he knew must hold or hint at joys of lives never lived.

. . .

Ray and I sat alone in the office, the others now long gone.

I would keep him with me for as long as he would stay.

I hoped not to miss more crucial perspective imparted (if such could be missed).

I half expected either of us to reach across at any moment and unzip the other’s skin from head to toe, revealing that we had in fact been one in the same all along.

I had an idea.

ME:

“Do you still take calls and release your recordings now that you don’t work for the church?”

RAY:

“Yeah, I have to.

“I mean, that’s what I…

“Sorry.

“I do.

“But I got behind in the last week or so.”

ME:

“Perhaps you could work on it here for a while as I sit and listen?

“I think we’ve adequately covered your background with the church.

“Now I’d like to examine you . . . your perspective . . . in action, so to speak, with the audience you’ve built.

“Do you think that would be okay?”

There was a pause, which must have been hesitation.

My eyes rose to meet Ray’s searching gaze.

But then I flinched and looked away, cursing myself for so unprofessional a display.

I felt like an actor who breaks in scene and fails to hold in laughter, wasting costly time and film.

Had we switched roles?

My asking to observe Ray work was, in essence, delivering the onus of our session up from the cold back-and-forth scrutiny of my Method, placing it fully at his discretion.

Yet to not do so would be to deny the cumulative findings of my Method.

I was grateful when he spoke again.

RAY:

“Um, sure.

“Actually, I got kind of a weird message earlier, and…

“Well, I was going to call him back tonight, but I could do it now.”

ME:

“By all means.

“I’ll stay out of your way and only take notes.

“Pretend I’m not here.”

My tone sounded (to me) alarmingly like that of a relieved, helpless child.

. . .

The Psychologist faded from view into surrounding shades of beige like a dot on a page that disappears as you focus on the blank.

“Hi, is this Johnston?” Ray said into the iun on the desk.

He smiled, noticing for the first time how steady his voice became when weaving its way toward a pending spiritual conversation.

“Yes,” came the quiet reply through the speakerphone.

“This is Ray Golel. I got your message. Just returning your call.”

“Oh, hi Ray.”

Ray held for a moment before continuing gently: “Did you have a thought or question for me to respond to in one of my recordings?”

Somehow this version of his standard strategic call-back line, polished through months and years, still felt incomplete.

For a split second more, the tired office remained a quintessentially boring setting, perfect for a quiet afternoon when even dust in the air stood still.

Then a hidden volcano beneath the surface abruptly erupted.

Everything in Ray’s view changed in a lightning flash, and he forgot all about his rigmarole of leading questions and necessary waivers.

He was far more concerned with the sudden streaks of shadowy flame he saw seeping in and through from all around, consuming what was left to them of the ever-present fog as fire licks up dry grass.

Ray willed himself not to react as walls, desk, iun, notes, and Psychologist were all engulfed at once in dark, billowy tongues.

Black and lit with red, the flames combusted large in chaotic bursts, reeking of a hell far closer than any abysmal, burning lake.

Reality in the room appeared as some distorted photo fed back in a loop through its own effects.

Ray fought to shift his focus to Johnston and the call, like steering a speeding car through a raging storm.

“Yes,” said Johnston. “I do have a question.”

“Okay,” Ray was astonished to hear himself utter so plainly, “I’d like to hear it.”

“Well,” began Johnston, his voice as even as a machine, “I started calling churches to speak to the ministers, but it seems that is never possible. So I thought to call you. I heard one of your episodes, and I figured that I would probably be able to get through to you. So I will start with you. Anyway, someone told me about a deal made long ago to make all those ministers into TV stars and millionaire celebrities. I want to know: Is it true? I know that you worked at one of those churches.”

How…?

Distracted, Ray watched in silent horror as the outline of a small not-a-person slithered along low near the floor.

As he stared, Ray felt an invisible muzzle being fixed upon his lips.

A familiar voice, small and peaceful, whispered from deep within, “Not yet…”

“Mr. Golel?” Johnston pressed.

Ray heard himself say into the iun, “Who told you that?”

Ray had never disclosed in any of his recordings that he had worked at the Church.

He had certainly told none but the Psychologist of the Pastor’s shift in mindset (or “deal”) to make or keep the Church successful in the City.

It suddenly occurred to Ray that perhaps this conductor of crazy fog-eating flame saw things somewhat as he did.

This had the effect of splitting the whole world open like a piñata.

Ray realized then the Psychologist would be aware of only the words said out loud.

He envisioned an eager blind man wandering, chipper and blissful, amongst a war.

“It does not matter who told me!” snarled the digital crunch through the speakerphone, “She said that she heard it from an unusually cheerful prisoner who spoke in funny sayings. But I do not care where it came from. I just want to know the truth. Do they all get to be rich? If so, then why? Why them?”

Ray could all but see rows of bared teeth like tiny needles concealed within an infant’s face flushed with indignation.

But he saw something else as well, there, hidden in the reddish black.

It was something good . . . a treasure Ray might dart around and bypass even the worst of otherworldly flames to reach.

The thing had the look a homing beacon, glowing white . . . even as silence screamed through the iun in tones of empty triumph, and boredom, and disappointment.

Ray felt a stab of compassion for Johnston, the same as one might feel for a vicious animal found caught in a deadly trap.

Could this be how the Psychologist always felt?

The notion of grasping a slippery wild predator and wrestling it back to…

But it was hopeless from the get go.

Held under . . . pressed deep until unstoppable convulsions, heaving, and dimming of perception could never be reversed . . . all Ray saw approaching was an eternal dusk soon to eclipse every immediate sense of shock and pain.

Prophetic onlookers might have described Ray’s state as akin to drowning in dust.

“Just, please, tell me:” insisted Johnston, folding a barely concealed rush of ferocity over and pounding it out to forge a shiny blade, “Is it true? If so, that would be unjust. That would be something that I cannot have. Besides, the one who told me said that she was unsure. That is why I am asking you. That is not the point! AAAAHHHH!”

And with that, all veils of civilized Q&R were torn completely from bottom to top.

No matter.

Ray caught sight of the little, frightened not-a-person again, which had scrambled its way to a corner and now twitched rhythmically as if shivering to a pulse.

He reached out toward it, and then heard his own voice say in slow motion into the iun, “Which ministers did you try to call, Johnston?”

The shaky not-a-person was touched by the dark flames and vanished.

Ray felt that same suffocating void overtake him again, emptying his mind and voice of all sound.

It was for the best, he knew.

And Johnston was already gone.

. . .

When I heard myself in Johnston’s voice, I was filled with seething hatred.

. . .

They sat together atop the Church’s highest roof in the silence of two who should be friends.

The sky down near the horizon had faded to a rich wash of maroons swirled with various oranges and yellows.

Above remained clear blue.

Ray blinked to keep from gazing off through the fog below.

It was hard to remember why he should go on restraining himself now that everything was changing.

Still, he wanted to be polite.

He knew Mo was about to answer an important question, probably without meaning to—a question posed long enough ago to have surely been forgotten by all parties.

“I don’t think you’re being as honest with yourself as you think you are,” said Mo.

And Ray forgot again as well, his gaze cascading off once more beyond the tops of buildings spanning outward in all directions in neat rings and squares like toddler toys.

All those structures now bowed low gave Ray the urge to wink.

“I was walking with Jolie and Todd the other day,” said Ray into the passing winds, “and we were talking about cigarettes. One of them said how workers who take smoke breaks with their bosses get an unfair advantage. I think the other mentioned something about, like, smoking can be a sort of comforting ritual, y’know? Then they went back and forth like that. And near the end, I told them how relaxing it had been when I used to go to this friend’s house after work, smoke a cigarette, and drink a beer. But they didn’t say anything. I don’t know if they even heard me.”

“Is that true?” said Mo. “Why did you tell me that?”

Ray blinked and realized he was in fact not with the Psychologist.

Still, he wondered why he might feel so compelled by the types of instances Jolie and Todd had seemed to want to stick to that day on their walk.

Why would whatever could be called most common or ordinary happen to be exactly what was least predictable and consistent, and also never supposed to really matter?

But such did seem especially important to some.

Ray felt his focus snap back to Mo.

“You’re an artist,” Ray stated flatly, failing to meet Mo’s penetrating gaze. “I hope you’re not stuck somewhere you should be free.”

“What?!”

Ray fought to draw himself yet again to the particular world in which he was seated high above a great expanse with an old friend.

Each return was beginning to feel more tiresome and unnecessary than the last.

He thumbed through in his mind to his latest words to Mo, amused to watch himself work to catch up to the conversation the same way the Psychologist always seemed to do.

He realized he might have blindsided Mo without intending to.

“We should be running across rooftops together,” Ray clarified.

“Wouldn’t you agree,” began Mo, his face a tad squirrellier than before, “that there are more important things than fantasy?”

But Ray’s attention was caught away now in the joyfully exuberant windstorm of a troupe of not-a-persons down half-below the ground . . . gripped by the near whimsical appreciation each showed simply for the sound of others’ voices.

They were slaves turned free like chosen ones, collaborating for the very first time in celebration of their collective release from dark solitude and silence.

Amazed . . . privileged . . . Ray was a ready wire, elated by their current passing through.

“I will also ask you about what’s important,” Ray uttered outward toward the sky. “Say you hear a story that tells you something about your life. It touches on what makes you human in a way. And you find yourself better off for having heard it. Now, would you deny someone that same experience . . . that benefit . . . if they were told a different story, but it could have the same effect?”

“Ah,” said Mo thoughtfully, “I think I see where you’re missing it. In truth, the story is the benefit. And there’s no denying that it’s really all the same story in the end, even if we try to approach or frame it any other way. The gospel is at the heart of every story mankind will ever tell. Everything we see and know testifies to that! Ray, that’s all I’m trying to show. I want to open people’s eyes—to let what they see, and believe, and tell themselves about it line up with . . . with what’s really obvious to everyone, if they’re honest! I would say showing people that is my art.”

Ray wished to allow the love he felt to pour forth and envelop his heroic companion.

Instead, he heard himself respond, “I see a room that’s always filled with life, color, fun, music, and lights, and… And it’s a room I think most will pass through at some point. But the room I see is just, like, a single line to cross. It’s a moment we might grow to meet, and then fade away from after. You could take anything in that room, and show it, and call it everyone’s story. But really it’s the story of an endless, shifting, living mass. I mean, we can be its tissue for a while. But that’s all.”

The words sounded wrong to Ray as they left his lips, setting him on edge.

For he knew the story of the lively room was a far cry from Mo’s art.

And Ray desperately wished to find a way to prize Mo’s beloved story—a good story of redemption, which made sense of an experience so widespread and real . . . so beautiful.

…made sense of…

Yanked back over and up to where the two sat alone together, all Ray saw then was the fog.

He heard only an onslaught of old questions, each fighting to be screamed first.

Why?

Why is anything?

Why should everything be whatever it is?

He shuddered, hating the harsh immediacy of what he knew would soon combust to form a string of familiar arguments in his mind.

Sure, ticker-tape angst, and blah, blah, blah.

And it was all so stupid Ray almost laughed.

He probably would have if not for Mo.

Could anyone really suspect Ray of thinking he was somehow superior?

But if he could just come to hold and profess their same explanation . . . their same accounting interpretation…

Inward wheels spun poorly to wonder and wander after relevant importances.

And could believing ever be a choice?

But wouldn’t any and all answers be anathema to Ray’s art, even despite his art appearing identical to theirs?

In the mirror opposite void of a burning, incessant need to know, Ray found he would give his life or soul to show Mo and the Pastor what he thought he recognized woven in amongst their reachings—stitched into every fabric of Mo’s rich intricacies, and painted across all the Pastor’s touching word-pictures for his flock.

How Ray adored their sacred story.

Then his inner being catapulted down and across, bounding through fog like a child hurtling through waves on the first day of summer.

He heard himself speak again, and wished to fill the gaps in what was said with his true feelings: “Okay, what if there was a bigger room, like a wider line that’s really no line at all? What about something more than we could ever see or understand? I guess just everything . . . exactly how it is . . . and every life, y’know? And whatever’s in-between…? It’s like, the more I see the not-a-p… The more I see of . . . of what could be . . . the less excited I get. I mean, could any of us make it do, or be, or mean anything? But, honestly, I’d lose my peace to give it to you, Publican.”

Ray felt prone to cower back at the sheer sincerity of his words.

Mo said nothing for a moment, then quietly asked, “Why do you call me Publican?”

Ray smiled, feeling an old sadness shape his eyes.

He knew nothing for sure.

Perhaps the role Mo had chosen (or been chosen for) really had just been captured and shown somehow in Ray’s imperfect, seemingly transcendent, though ultimately droll, approximations.

Ray also saw a world where Mo knelt with a fist to his chest before releasing clenched fingers and wailing in prayer without design or human audience, begging simply for mercy.

. . .

A female voice announced: “The Potter’s Hand Outreach and Broadcast Ministry, this is…”

“Can I speak with Pastor Jacobs?” interrupted Johnston.

The voice began to peg off sections of an obviously prepared response: “No, the pastor will not take any calls… The pastor has entrusted his team… The anointing flows down from the pastor as oil down Aaron’s beard and garments… The pastor must give himself fully to the ministry of the Word and prayer…”

At least this current cog on the line seemed to share Johnston’s distaste for her own rigid protocols, for she added at the end: “Even though we won’t be able to put you through to Pastor Jacobs, is there anything at all I can help you with?”

Johnston nodded to no one in the solitude of his immaculately decrepit living room.

It occurred to him to ask whether the great Pastor Jacobs would skip a Sunday sermon if he, Johnston, were to waltz on over to that little church office, just a few blocks away, and hold this nice, friendly phone lady’s head underwater until the bubbles and wrenching stopped.

Probably not, he knew.

And they would justify it too.

The Word would go forth so more lost souls could be reached and brought into the fold.

The decision would be for the greater good, a numbers game, and all would smile that same dumb smile and agree, or at least accept.

Her death would be repurposed to further their holy cause.

Johnston stared, expressionless, at his fingers holding his iun.

They were pale from lack of sunlight like the rest of him.

“Sir?” chimed the woman’s chipper voice after an instant.

She had obviously been trained well to maximize the value of all her time spent on the phone.

Johnston found himself hoping to one day make her his receptionist.

She would function perfectly as his first line of defense against so many unwanted callers, all desperate to reach Johnston, the pastor.

Pastor Johnston.

“I’m here,” he said.

“Oh, sorry, I thought I’d lost you. Is there anything I can help you with? Do you have any prayer requests I can agree with you for today?”

He imagined her at the edge of her seat, poised in quiet cubicle dignity, perhaps ever awaiting the praise of some slightly higher tithe-paid nuisance tasked to monitor her every move from a nearby copy-room-turned-office.

And might Johnston chance to meet the woman if he were to make his way out to one of Jacobs’ many services that weekend?

How would Johnston likely fare if he were to actually attend?

Visions of padlocked doors, and fiery rubble crashing down on mangled, writhing masses, awakened a grin that felt about as at home on his face as on that of any psychopath or man of God alive.

“No,” he said absentmindedly.

“Are you sure? Sir, I just . . . I feel led to ask: Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ today?”

Johnston hung his head and sighed without sound as he considered the twisted trademark form of precious Jesus nailed up on that old rugged cross.

A moment passed.

Then Johnston recoiled at the thought of being killed and forced responsible for those countless undeserved kindnessess whole populations would later insist on somehow enjoying.

Scenes of seas of gratuitous smiles threw Johnston for a loop.

He forgot he had been asked another question.

Oh for Johnston to have his guilt washed clean by the blood of the God-man slain and rag-doll raised.

To be held up pure, unspeckled white.

To be given his forever inheritance on that fateful coming day.

Johnston had no church ties beyond the TV shows and calls.

But how unusual would it really be for someone to phone several famous ministers in a row, one after another?

Not unusual at all.

It would be beyond simple to show up and force at least a few of those busy anointed men to hold still and hear him once.

Next steps came into focus like a snapshot, causing the inhuman grin to ratchet out in more sick directions.

“Tell your pastor that you church people are not even real,” he said calmly. “I could wipe you all out at random.”

And another, inward voice sang along in key: “You are all pretend, so it will not matter, anyway… La la-la la…”

. . .

Could it really be our final session together?

I had spent the morning, for the first time ever, successfully dividing all my sets of client files.

Each has now been categorized and aligned at the start of these new notes to be typed up with the rest upon completion.

The result will be a single, massive volume fit for reference and sale—the magnum opus of my Method, if you will.

Yet reading this, of course, would mean that you are already aware.

In fact, just to know that someone could one day come to follow the entire process and sequence of my life’s work is itself beautifully humbling and inspiring.

The sight of my desk and cabinets newly laid bare had been as the sound of perfect resolution to an old perplexing melody—perhaps like finally picking up on words long-heard but missed in dreams.

Thanks to Ray, I can now tell even my Normals apart.

Yet I must cease referring to clients (or people) as Normals and Outliers.

Have I not, on some level, always understood that my Method’s very existence was set to ultimately render irrelevant such clumsy, imperfect devices?

Yes, questions of why still persist as if worthwhile.

Why Ray?

Why Bing?

Why Rolman?

Why any of it?

Could each client have been sent or given just to speak to a unique aspect of my own life and psyche?

What reality might they (or I) be meant to represent?

Could they all be imagined—only pieces of myself, which my Method teaches me to regulate between?

And would gaining a holistic enough perspective to choose in real time between various Outlier extremities not be the exact and necessary predicted outworking of my particular Sticking Point?

In truth, as has been shown, I have always felt so fixated on Normal.

Yet coming to find there is no Normal allows me to see everyone for exactly who and what they are.

And this allowance is what brings me to my next conclusion, which is but another “why” question (this one even more rhetorical).

Why might a person be driven to regulate between identities?

In the case of every client I have ever met with, such regulation serves to uncover and reveal that which never need be regulated from—to fully explore the merits and weaknesses of all traits and pursuits so as to differentiate the truly fundamental and innate from the merely forced or wished for.

My Method unveils an eternal search for that which exists all on its own, beyond choice or control.

As Ray put it: “Something ordinary . . . something locked away…”

These words will surely fail to show my astonishment at how un-phased I feel in the face of such discoveries.

For within whatever deeper, unchanging (real) core of my own being I find no surprise at all.

Losing control of my perspective has proven fantastically superior to pretending I am a psychologist deathly afraid of being discovered as an unlicensed, self-adulating fraud.

In my utter brokenness, Ray was “used” to fix me by showing me there had never really been any such thing as broken after all—and also that lies based in needless fears had both stemmed from and perpetuated my need for personas packed with directions to be spun off in.

Again, there is such tranquility in arriving at a life shown capable of sorting itself out on its own.

Thank you, Ray.

Thank you, Method.

My view of time has completely changed.

For I am now sure that there is space enough for every accomplishment and enjoyment left, even if my entire career happens to be taken away in an instant by some new technology or other reality, etc.

So, back to today.

Ray sat across from me for this, our final session.

Would its ending signal the conclusion of my allotment in this world?

Regardless, I wanted to glean as much as I could from being with him.

Yet there was a definite sense that we had already reached our big conclusions, and that what remained would be a rather fun time spent simply filling in loose ends.

ME:

“Ray, we have been talking a lot about life, and religion, and church, and society…

“Let me just ask you plainly: What do you actually believe?”

As has been the case perhaps half the time, Ray did not pause at all to consider his response.

RAY:

“Why am I a person?

“I think I’d rather be a tree.

“I could talk all day about why trees are better.

“Trees don’t kill bears.”

. . .

Tian lay on his back across a thin rug draped over rocky ground.

There he practiced his true art, the one no one ever saw or cared about.

Something seemed to happen all on its own when he was able not to force his spine, shoulders, neck, or anything.

It was something soft and deep, immensely pleasurable and satisfying.

Tian found in his true art a path to transcend memory . . . even his terrible birth.

He reminded himself to always be aware of any differences between what was said, what was shown, how those things were made known, and what had always been real or really important all along.

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