PART G (The King)

Stripped and Sold for Parts - PART G, The King

I started seeing other things, but all so dim and far away.

There were movements, in shadows, like . . . floating or creeping in, but…

But they seemed too slow, like they couldn’t quite be real.

Then suddenly I never wanted to see or know anything ever again.

I mean, I hated even knowing I was thinking.

But of course thoughts kept coming . . . kept sprouting up.

And part of me wanted to tear my whole mind out by the roots and blackout so I’d forget.

Another part wondered if the thoughts could be my answer . . . like they could be my way back.

But back where?

Where had I just been?

That was about when I realized I couldn’t remember anything.

Everything around me looked grim and complicated . . . deformed somehow.

But maybe it wasn’t.

Maybe I was seeing it wrong.

To me, there was only the same texture and walls the color of sand stretching out in a big U-shape, disappearing off in all directions.

I tried to shift my weight a little, but got hit right away by this ugly, groggy feeling.

It felt . . . heavy, like maybe gravity had gotten stronger.

I glanced down carefully, and wasn’t really shocked to find myself sprawled across a small slab of black polished rock right in the middle of the endless nothing.

Why was I on the rock and not the sand?

The sky might have been red, or maybe brown.

But it flashed apart and together like moving pictures on a screen.

And weren’t skies . . . not like screens?

How could I know things like that if I had no memories?

The next thought came like a punch in the stomach:

What am I?

That was when I first heard the weird murmuring, rustling sound . . . low and constant . . . coming from everywhere just past where I could see.

There was a scream, screechy and long . . . definitely closer.

Still, I saw nothing and no one.

I wondered if I should be afraid . . . and, if I should be, why I wasn’t.

I blinked, listening for anything that might help me figure out where I was, or why, or even what I was, or what was going on at all.

I mostly wanted to know why I didn’t remember.

But the why of it all was what was missing.

Something sent a shudder down my spine.

I was sure the space right next to me didn’t look quite right, like it was getting ready to make itself even emptier or something.

But that’s dumb, isn’t it?

Was I crazy?

Was none of anything real?

How could I tell?

The word “asylum” and pictures of pill canisters and padded walls started circling around my head.

It was bad, but…

But still, I wasn’t really scared.

I was confused.

It was just . . . nothing about what was happening struck me as being anywhere near as unusual as it seemed like it should, y’know?

No, that probably makes no sense.

Okay, I was somewhere that didn’t feel like a world I should be from, or part of.

But I wasn’t afraid to be there.

The steady jumble sounded closer.

“Hello?” I called. “Is someone there?”

My voice wasn’t one I knew.

A crack like thunder whacked and left an eerie echo, but it quickly got eaten away into the rumble.

I had to wonder why the air in that same spot next to me was . . . congealing, or getting solid somehow, like water freezing into ice.

Was I causing it?

Why did I almost . . . expect to see it, and yet still feel like it had to be the strangest thing I’d ever seen?

But I did expect it, I knew.

I was even a little . . . happy about it, maybe.

I mean, I didn’t feel alarmed in any way.

It was kind of like what I was seeing was just some everyday thing I should ignore.

I thought at least being afraid would give me a better idea what to do.

I tried picking myself up and off the black slab to move in, I guess, a random direction.

But my heart and lungs sank in my chest as I rose.

This sludgy sense of total tiredness pooled all though my legs and hips, and up like a storm into my belly.

I wanted to throw up.

It felt like I was trying to trudge through a swamp without breathing, sinking deeper and deeper into mud.

“Hello,” said a voice, peaceful and soft, from nowhere. “What is your name?”

I was still just as alone.

Then the air beside me twitched, and retched, and hardened even more, kind of like those videos where nature gets sped up super fast.

I gulped a little and turned away, finally feeling that flush of real fear I’d been hoping for.

But it was horrible, the way it quivered and shook through my chest and neck, especially as I tried a third time to lift and drag my legs behind me like dead weight.

I saw myself as some spastic, broken insect, failing to skitter away automatically on useless, messed-up limbs.

“What is your name?” repeated the voice, quiet but deep and booming.

I stopped pushing to move, and not because escape obviously wasn’t going to happen.

It was more like something about that exact moment or situation felt too familiar to get away from.

It wasn’t déjà vu.

There was just a certain . . . quality I recognized, even in the voice itself.

The only way I can describe it would be like seeing an expression you totally understand on a face in a picture from hundreds of years ago.

So I decided to, y’know . . . to give in and . . . and go with whatever was happening.

“Ray,” I answered, not noticing I’d remembered the name.

The bizarre hardening looked like it might be about done.

“My name is Impartial,” said the voice. “I am to show you the Kingdom. First, see me.”

I have to say Impartial’s voice sounded . . . flat . . . like only the actual words mattered, since there was really no tone or expression.

It spoke so clearly.

So . . . matter-of-fact.

Don’t ask how I knew Impartial wasn’t the voice of my own thoughts, or some hallucination.

But when I heard it speak . . . that’s when I finally felt free to let myself notice things and think.

I also felt my breathing slow way down, and the shakiness flood from my system in tingly waves, leaving me completely calm and settled.

Then I was almost excited to watch the end of Impartial’s transformation from nothing.

It might have felt like accepting fate.

Anyway, with a last big huff, Impartial became a thing made of thick charcoal smoke.

It stood, or floated a little off the ground, where emptiness had been.

I could see through it mostly, especially in places.

How else can I describe the way Impartial looked?

Well, it had no features.

I mean, there were no parts to tell apart, if that makes sense.

Its edges were never that obvious, but blurred all around and shook, sort of like dark flames or fluid flickering out into the air.

I wondered if I should be as impressed as I was.

“I am not the essence of this age,” said the pleasant, echoing voice like a small waterfall. “Will you follow me?”

For, like, an instant, I was sure I was looking at someone or something I‘d once tried so hard to help.

Did Impartial know me?

But everything about before was still . . . missing.

“Yes,” I answered. “I’ll follow.”

I stood, no longer groggy, sick, or weighed down.

Then we travelled, side by side, as if gliding through a dream.

Time lost all meaning.

We might have been moving for hours . . . but it was also like I’d taken only a few short steps before the world around us changed, and we stopped.

I saw in our new place a crowd of people packed together tight in clusters.

There were men, women, children . . . but all in total shambles.

And I saw more bruises, rotting teeth, bloodshot eyes, and just general scum and filthiness than I could have ever imagined.

Everyone’s clothes were tattered and worn.

They smelled like trash, and urine, and so much worse.

It seemed strange to me how even the children stood so glum and steady, not moving at the adults’ feet.

Everyone’s eyes were low and tired, giving their faces this sort of “never again” expression.

I was almost sure they couldn’t see me or my specter guide as I took in the sight of them.

“Who are these?” I asked.

“Citizens of the Kingdom,” said Impartial.

“What kingdom?”

“Really, you do not know?”

“I don’t,” I said, sure of it.

“There was once the City,” began Impartial, “which became the Union, and has since become the Kingdom. These citizens, as always, await their King’s return.”

“And who is . . . the king?” I asked.

“You have no idea?”

The voice never rose or fell very far.

It never sped up or slowed down.

But somehow I could tell Impartial was shocked at my not knowing.

“Jesus of course,” it said.

“Jesus…?”

The word felt wrong, both to say and hear . . . like I wanted to shake myself to keep from saying it again, or push it out of my mouth (and mind) faster than I could.

I had no idea why, but I especially hated how it felt to say a second time, when I asked, “Who is . . . Jesus?”

“Come,” said Impartial, “He returns now. You shall see for yourself.”

We passed right through the lifeless crowd like wind, coming to rest just outside.

There I spotted a ring of large men standing at the fringes of the rest.

These wore leather clothes, and some held weapons rusted over in old blood.

Others carried torn-up flags.

I knew they must be soldiers.

“Why do they have weapons?” I asked dreamily.

“The Kingdom now spans this world,” said Impartial. “Yet the Kingdom must be always under threat. So these men stand ever prepared to face kingdoms from other worlds that might appear at any moment to kill and conquer.”

Again, there was something so recognizable in what I saw and was being told, though I had no idea what.

Had someone shown me that same ring of ready soldiers before?

Or, could I have once been one of them?

“Why do they think there are kingdoms in other worlds?” I wondered aloud, noticing a cutting feeling like regret beginning to tinge my inner calm.

“The heart of the Kingdom was once the heart of the Union,” answered Impartial, “still one of many in this world before it took the rest. Some hearts change not with the speed of facts, would you agree?”

“I think so,” I said, though talk of changing hearts seemed to further peel back and threaten my sense of deep, peaceful steadiness.

I took a slow breath, pressing my lips together as I pushed the air out sharply.

That was when I noticed the crude, black cages set in lines behind the soldiers, stretching out as far as I could see.

I gasped.

For crumpled and bent into every cage was a horribly disfigured person beaten almost to where you couldn’t tell they were even human.

I was sure the poor souls in those cages were all just moments from death.

Forlorn and naked, they were a mix of sunken eyes, hair clumped in mud, and so many twisted or missing limbs.

Some were being literally eaten away by obvious infections.

Most were covered in hideous sores and open wounds, all caked in dirt.

The sight made me want to cry out, but I didn’t.

I couldn’t.

I knew I wouldn’t be able to.

It was like the shock and pity I wanted to feel were just ideas I was rolling around.

“And these?” I gestured toward the cages, peering over at my guide.

“Watch,” Impartial replied.

Behind us came the creaking of giant wooden pieces knocking and sliding together.

I almost flinched when the crowd jolted half to life and burst into this dull, even cheer.

I mean, all the voices called out the exact same words in impossibly unnatural unison.

I couldn’t understand what they were saying.

I watched the crowd part lazily to form two long, crooked lines.

Then I spun just in time to see a massive, rickety wagon being dragged slowly toward us by two huge mules, one slightly smaller and scruffier than the other.

At the top of the wagon, I saw two purple flags covered in strange golden symbols.

The flags and symbols meant nothing to me.

As the wagon rolled by, a young man in the line of citizens to my right . . . kind of long-limbed, and crazy looking . . . flung off his patched-up clothes, and started throwing himself up in the air, over and over, landing in different mangled shapes on the ground.

An epic hush swept through the rest of the parted people.

But the naked man seemed not to notice he was the only one doing anything or making any noise.

The big mules and wagon clopped to a halt.

A side panel I hadn’t seen, held by thick, gnarly ropes, crashed to the ground like an ancient tree.

Inside, I saw only darkness.

Then out stepped a man about as tall as two regular people stacked on top of each other.

Honestly, he looked way too big to have ever fit in the wagon . . . though seeing him emerge had the opposite effect as watching a pack of clowns spill out of their tiny car at the circus.

The giant was dressed in clean, black clothes that stretched to fit his enormous form.

I thought: This must be the King, Jesus.

“See now what happens to the fool caught unaware when his King returns,” said Impartial, “for the King’s return occurs always at an unexpected time.”

The giant glared down at the naked man, then gazed back in through the wagon’s opening.

Then he nodded, spun, and gripped the little man by his neck, all in a single stunning motion.

A new empty cage seemed to appear from nowhere.

And the naked fool was tossed inside with so much force his head slammed against the bars in a dull, tinny THWANG.

“All those who challenge the King’s authority or divinity are kept imprisoned,” explained Impartial.

“Why . . . why did the King throw him in?” I asked.

“That is not the King,” said Impartial. “Yet the King must be ever feared lest His Kingdom soon be taken by another. Now . . . behold, the King.”

As the animals brought the wagon around in a misshapen, bumbling arc, I finally caught a good glimpse in through the open door.

Inside I saw a woman dressed all in white.

Her clothes and hair looked plain, far plainer than the beastly giant’s.

She was more like any of the commoners in the crowd, only much cleaner and . . . softer.

I mean, I’d say she looked . . . more common than everyone else, somehow.

And next to the woman was a little table made from half a wagon wheel.

On top of the table, I saw a husk made of burlap and straw stitched into the crude shape of a person.

“She is . . . the King?” I asked, sure I must be missing something.

“No,” said Impartial. “Can you not see the King beside her? King Jesus . . . the King, Jean Bur Spicules is His name. And today you have witnessed His return.”

I watched the husk flop a little on its table as the wagon crunched and jostled over stones.

The woman never moved at all.

To me, she was the picture of absolute stillness and serene, quiet grace.

“And who is she?” I asked.

“She has been chosen for Him, as it is written. For love and conception is the role she has been called to and made ready for, even from her youth.”

I had a strange thought, too silly to ask Impartial about.

I just . . . I wondered how someone could ever trust a person who was being forced to love them.

But before I could see any problems in that way of thinking, Impartial grabbed my wrist and flung me around to face the dreadful cages.

Its grip felt cool and smooth, like glass or marble on my skin.

“Look,” it commanded, “and see now the provision of the Kingdom.”

I squinted to refocus my eyes . . . I mean, just because I couldn’t believe what I was actually seeing.

All the prisoners in their cages had morphed to twisted, lifeless corpses.

They looked like they’d been dead and decaying for . . . for a really long time.

Flies swarmed and buzzed around their rotting bodies.

Then all the citizens and soldiers burst out in violent, shrieking laughter.

In front of everyone, and in their hands, I saw all kinds of different food . . . even things I knew I’d never seen before.

I watched the crowd gorge themselves as freely and loudly as a colossal herd of pigs with faces buried in their slop.

“Now that the King has come and gone,” continued Impartial, “His subjects need not fear His judgment; at least not for today. See how they receive their Royal Inheritance.”

“But the prisoners!” I exclaimed. “They’re all . . . dead!”

“Ah,” said Impartial, “but would all beings not kill for nourishment if they had to? The King gives His subjects a special gift, which they dearly prize. The gift is their Inheritance. Each can choose to kill another for food. And the other will die instantly without pain. This might seem cruel, but would you not do the same in the face of starvation? In the Kingdom, citizens simply choose to kill those that refuse to recognize or honor their King. For all to have this special gift was the King’s first holy decree. As prophesied long ago, the Inheritance of Exchange would cause the issue of constant lack to resolve itself. And that is surely the King’s way . . . that all potential problems serve as their own solutions.”

I had no idea at all how to feel.

What I saw seemed like it should be terrible . . . though Impartial’s words about the logic behind it did make sense to me.

That was when I had my first real memory . . . y’know, beyond just the name and a few other little things I could compare with what was going on.

It must have been one of my oldest memories too.

I . . . I saw myself as a boy fighting and killing imaginary enemies for hours out in my parents’ old Jacuzzi.

I knew I hadn’t felt bad for killing those bad guys at the time.

So the way things were in the kingdom must just be the only way things could be.

Still, as I watched the crowd suck down their delicacies, I wished for a world without all the necessary pain and understandable killing.

Obviously, such a world must not be possible.

I wondered why I wanted to care so much.

I wished I could remember more.

. . .

“Look!” says Jeneviève to Jules. “See how he stares at me.”

The two girls rest on a blue bench near Tranquil Fountain.

Across the way, a street performer dazzles the trickling crowd with random bursts of rapid words, silly magic, and song.

He wears a heavy coat, old and worn.

His playful eyes remain on Jeneviève’s.

“Like what?” jokes Jules, nudging her friend, smiling.

Jeneviève does not break eye contact with the stranger.

She finds herself in disbelief at the undeniable sincerity locked at the core of his pleasant, ever-present smile.

There’s a hint there so powerful it somehow replaces her whole world with one in which looking away proves less comfortable than staring.

“Like we share a private joke?” Jeneviève suggests.

“Do you know what the joke might be?” prods her friend, now staring at the stranger as well.

“No,” says Jeneviève, unable to keep the joy she sees from crossing to pierce the space of her own features, delivering her expression up from all such as irony, detachment, safety, fear…

The stranger retrieves a small stringed instrument from his coat.

He begins to sing:

On the steps in Paris
With my hat out
And a gleam in my old eye.

“Is he singing to us?” asks Jules.

“Yes,” says Jeneviève, confident.

A fat man strolls by eating a sausage on a stick, and drops a rare silver coin into the stranger’s hat down on the ground.

The stranger cuts short his song, still smiling.

He reaches into the hat and flicks the coin back up at the fat man.

The fat man, bewildered, gulps down the rest of his meal, and asks, “Where can I hear your music, then?”

“Here!” the stranger beams.

“How…?” begins the fat man, but the stranger has already cascaded away once more like a skipping stone:

It’s often said,
Let’s speak in French…

The fat man lowers himself awkwardly to another blue bench across from Jeneviève and Jules.

Many others stop to hear the stranger’s jovial tunes.

A light breeze rustles nearby leaves in an ancient dance, not competing at all for attention.

Jeneviève giggles as she finds herself approaching unafraid, glad for how the stranger’s twinkling eyes have reduced her usual shyness to an absurd impossibility.

“What about the man’s coin?” she asks, having not once broken off her gaze.

“We all have the moonlight,” he answers.

Jeneviève squints and shrugs, not understanding, though the sense of sharing some private joke with the stranger is only heightened.

It matters not that she has no idea what the joke might be, nor that he looks at Jules and all the rest with the exact same…

Could someone really share a private joke with every single person?

She wonders how such a soul could have ever come to be.

Could it all just be an act?

But why?

How?

“What’s your name?” she asks.

“Ironisait,” he says, nodding slightly like nothing and smiling all the more.

. . .

“I met with you for over two years! I told you all my secrets. I KNOW THAT THIS IS YOU!”

CLICK

The Nothing poured back over his winning blueprint strategy, the one he had never once departed from: a calculated risk, that was all—selling only pieces, and far enough from facts to be deniable (close enough to stay real).

As he replayed the message loop again, the same crackling words faded beneath fresh details from all those years ago.

Of course he hated it whenever old session moments would spark new, useless hindsight.

For such knowledge could never be kept clean of that most virulent of regrets.

It was his failings of long-missed and lost opportunities betrayed that the Nothing now wished more than anything not to be living so comfortably in spite of.

The unfairness underlying his boredom and contentment was inescapable.

Yet had each rule or story not been constructed entirely from details added after facts, and considerations reached at least a tad too late?

No.

Though different apprehensions brought of that same ambiguous error probably were what each persona had been most wrong about.

But how could she, former client (of the former Psychologist), have figured out who and where he was?

The Nothing shuddered to consider what seeds must have been left to be unearthed—hints of dark desires strained against so as not to let them punctuate every careful word, movement, glance, touch…

In his more recent life, her story had resurfaced the previous year, and then only by way of solitude and necessity, like the rest.

Hers had actually been the Author’s last to use.

Ironies not lost, he thought of Ray.

He smiled the smile of an old man remembering an immensely troubled youth with newfound fondness.

Could those final, frantic years of feeling stuck but sessions from a complete void of paying clients not have been . . . telling . . . had he known how to let himself pay the right sort of attention?

But then, regardless, the silly Psychologist had preemptively discarded it all anyway, forfeiting clients and Method . . . and thus himself (of course not really) . . . for good.

Or so had been the Author’s callous hope.

Yet could he have ever predicted how his choice(s) would one day render him the Nothing, lost for even stories left to borrow?

And where else might he find his stories?

The Nothing was mirrors smashed by smoke to end in this endless dead-end drift.

And trying had grown needless so was gone.

Love: what a crazy and elusive waste of time!

But the as yet unknown part—the one that could hold it all together still—was too good not to let him glimpse his self-directed lies.

Soon…

And it didn’t matter.

It never had.

It couldn’t.

An old voice seemed to want to offer expired encouragement.

Nothing, he felt, could be any more or less pointless and contrived.

And the Nothing couldn’t help but cautiously eye his iun where it lay, quiet again at his side on the other chair.

Should he check in to track the former Author’s sales?

Na.

Could he at least find some excitement in the novelty of watching both past selves be wrenched back up from each abyss, squared off, and nailed together for the very first time?

Not really.

Again, the money was a passive and automatic drain—a leech sent to empty all identities (particularly the current one) of cares gone by, faded in wine and nagging stability . . . the boring perpetual heat of a nifty-rimmed, astronaut-endorsed space thermos.

Perfect.

Easy.

Contained.

And so, so ironic.

But he missed Ray (that was true).

He missed Ray more than anything.

. . .

In the space of a thought, Impartial and I came to a place that looked like a busy office building.

Women and men in mostly long grey coats stood or sat by desks covered in piles of loose paper.

I mean, there was paper everywhere . . . even tacked over corkboards covering the walls.

I’d have to say everything in that big room . . . just the feel overall, and the way people were talking . . . gave the place a real sort of . . . urgency.

Like, I couldn’t imagine any decision being made there slowly, if that makes sense.

Anyway, I saw I was near the largest desk, which was basically its own fortress made from smaller, regular desks set in one of the corners.

Without thinking, I started reading a page up on the closest corkboard.

It said:

May the king, great and amazing Jean Bur Spicules, live forever. May he long be praised. May the subjects of his kingdom, both man and beast alike, dwell with him in eternal riches, etc.

In the case of the animal soul, we have reached another impasse. The great king assures us that immortality…

“Do you recognize the words?” asked Impartial by my shoulder.

I paused.

“No,” I replied, hoping my guide would explain.

“The Detective writes his case notes in the secret language used always by those whose work opposes their benefactors’ will. Though his findings stay masked in the tongue of the Kingdom, the Detective’s true search is for a way to prove the King is not divine.”

I pictured the faceless burlap husk flopping along on its stand in the rolling wagon.

“So, all these are…?”

I motioned to the thousands upon thousands of pages almost spilling from every desk, and fastened uneven in layers to boards across the room.

“Cases,” confirmed Impartial.

My eyes were drawn to another case, which read:

We have now determined the murderer’s method for kidnaping and killing each victim, all celebrities. Praise the king for enabling us to make an uncommon prediction about when and where the next abduction would occur, on…

“So he doesn’t really believe the . . . king . . . enabled him, right?” I asked.

I stared at the paper, hoping to hide anything close to treason on my face.

Honestly, I still wasn’t sure what Impartial even thought of the king, or if Impartial had any opinions really.

Its voice gave almost nothing away, like I said.

“No,” Impartial answered. “Yet in truth the Detective has never solved a single case.”

My eyes took in the room again.

I might as well have been standing inside an endless book.

“None of the cases get solved?” I asked, astounded. “What kind of detective could…?”

“The cases are all solved,” corrected Impartial. “They solve themselves. So the Detective knows the King will one day lose His throne. Watch as the Detective now approaches. Notice also his companion, the COP.”

A very, very skinny man stormed into the room looking like he might be about to throw a tantrum.

He was biting his nails, and wouldn’t really look anyone in the eye.

To me, his face seemed way too lined and red to match his little kid body.

He was dressed in grey like everyone else.

But his nervous, unsure energy felt totally out of place . . . even in that fast-paced office, or agency.

Next strolled in someone way larger and rougher-looking.

I’ll say it like this: You’d never have to be told that second guy was the COP.

If anyone could ever be called “the COP” it would definitely be him.

“We have it!” the Detective exclaimed softly.

“Yeah, how?” grunted the COP, his voice a string of raspy explosions happening in a row.

“It turns out we were way off, of course!” the Detective jittered. “So, I’m taking a walk outside the Royal palace, right? Just rolling cases over in my head. Then I look up, and there’s this cart right next to me. I swear it wasn’t there a minute ago. And sitting on the cart is a pretend person. I see it’s made from pieces of things you might find around the house: a stool, some broomsticks, and a heavy-looking ball for a head. But the thing is, I mean, it’s also an exact replica of the king! So, there’s no one else around, right . . . and I jump in to investigate, and… Anyhow, the thing’s in the lab now. But something tells me they won’t be able to figure out where it came from. So awesome . . . since that’s what we’re…! But it gets even better! There was this note tacked to it. Here…”

The Detective twitched his hand inside his coat and yanked out a crumpled piece of lined, yellow paper.

I slowly slid to read over the COP’s massive shoulder.

The note was just a single line that read:

Hello. I’m Figalo. I’m here to save the world. Enjoy. -Figs

Now, when I saw the name Figalo scrawled there on that little scrap, I had the same familiar feeling as when I first saw Impartial take shape right next to me out of the air.

Figs…

The name seemed to resonate somehow, sort of like when sounds in the real world can reinterpret themselves into your dreams just when you’re about to wake up.

Of course I had no idea why everyone, even Impartial, seemed to see the king as an actual person . . . or why the Detective said the king and Figalo were identical when it sounded like they weren’t even made from the same materials.

And, I mean, how could the objects the Detective described form an exact replica of a person?

For some reason, at that moment, I half expected to be whisked away to some other, even more bizarre reality.

I don’t think anything would have surprised me.

I wanted to ask Impartial about . . . well, all of it.

But the Detective spoke again, almost whispering now to the COP, “‘Here to save the world,’ right? And the king has to be the ‘only savior’?! I mean, that’s fundamental to the king’s own law. Of course it all goes back to that one case . . . there it is . . . where the prediction talks about ‘many false kings,’ and how ‘even now false kings exist in the world,’ right?”

The COP’s expression, if there was one, never changed.

“I’m saying this could be what we’ve been looking for all along,” the Detective went on, “something to show everyone that Jean Bur Spicules is really one of those false king predicted. Yeah, I know, it’s going to be almost impossible to get the public to buy it now. And we’ll need to be ready to expose every one of his…”

The Detective jerked to glance around in all directions.

“But for the trial,” he breathed, “I think this finally gives us enough to start to build our case! And that’s all we need . . . just to get the hearing. Everything else is already…”

. . .

Ironisait lays sprawled the wrong way across a foreign bed, all beds being foreign to him.

His patched trousers and simple, ever-ready coat seem out of place crumpled amongst surrounding fineries on the floor.

He inhales the flowery scent of Jeneviève’s hair, her head nestled snug beneath his chin.

Her peace and stillness are to him, as almost everything, evidence of something grand.

Something worth celebrating.

Something worth holding to and setting free, and both so that it might continue.

“A cigarette,” he whispers. “I’ll step out…”

She slips from his arms and collapses, as unwillful as a newborn soul.

His gate is loose, his bare feet cool on stone where penthouse-suite steps stoop to meet the quiet street.

The night air feels as close as blood.

His smile spans to match the life that courses through and all around, painted into everything along this particular stretch of world this simple night.

With passions spent, their fruits remain to sense and carry with him.

You could say Ironisait’s life flashes then before his eyes, but should you?

Would that not infer some reversed sequence of temporal distances traversed?

Ironisait sees only now, as always.

And he sees the fancy dame set like a geometric tripwire at just the right or wrong point in his path.

All he sees makes similar sense.

And secrets from lives come to be laid bare in that single forever quip, both universally shared and wordless, and as beautiful and unspecial as…

But there is one difference to how life flashes before him now.

Ironisait reaches the dame dressed all in shiny black.

Her skin appears as pale as fog.

“Sure,” he begins, as though midway through a conversation, “I have money, here in my coat. Why don’t you take it? It will save you all the trouble of…”

He gestures to shadows where several figures crouch hidden and ready in wait.

“Just enjoy it,” he concludes. “Whatever you want to do.”

The dame’s face slips from still and pleasant to quizzical, which Ironisait notes as being of the purest delights he has ever witnessed.

One of the shadows becomes a man, large and balancing a hammer between both hands.

“Give us the money, then, or we’ll kill you,” hammer man gruffs, perhaps forcing his voice down low as far as it goes toward deep and menacing.

“Sure,” repeats Ironisait, grinning.

He reaches to the inner chest pocket of his coat so smoothly the next two assailants fail to even flinch as they emerge into the light.

Ironisait tosses the dame a neat role of bills.

His smile never dims.

“Are you . . . happy?” manages the dame, still frozen in her ready stance in place.

The remaining shadows become more men who casually circle to surround Ironisait.

“No,” says Ironisait, but then hesitates. “Yes and no.”

“What makes you think we won’t kill you?” hammer man asks, now sporting a wicked grin of his own.

The hammer itself seems almost bored to not yet be swinging in arcs as either precise or chaotic as can be.

“I hope you don’t,” responds Ironisait, tilting his head slightly in thought, “Though it would be funnier than anything if you were to kill me now. For I just saw something I’ve never seen, right before I met you. It wasn’t . . . an idea . . . but it’s the first thing I’ve ever thought I should really like to stay alive to . . . make…?”

“You’ve seen us,” offers another shadow man. “Sorry, but you have to die now.”

“I’ll join you,” suggests Ironisait, almost chuckling. “I’ll have you change nothing of what you do, and you’ll make a lot more money.”

Mention of money, or maybe the giddy audacity carrying the suggestion, silences the gang for a spell.

Each appears as a statue deep in thought.

“How?” asks the dame. “Are you . . . magic?”

“I can make everything you do . . . how do you say . . . legitimate.”

“But how could breaking the law be made legitimate?”

“Watch.”

. . .

“How did you find me?”

The Nothing stared at the horrible apparition leaning crooked outside his door.

Ghost-pale and angular, its smile flickered in demonic light emanating from tiny, sinister slits for eyes.

Of course the Nothing recognized his visitor right away.

It was the uglier, more grown-up version of a young troublemaker the Psychologist had once worked so hard to…

But what was with the effortlessness with which those from that past life seemed suddenly able to locate him now that it was forever too late?

“I just got out,” mumbled the visitor. “Had to come find you to set things right.”

The smile worsened.

The Nothing felt his mind being skipped back unwillingly like a mis-grooved needle to its former cyclic routines.

He watched, helpless and repulsed, as years were dusted from destinies self-tagged and stuffed in drawers.

How could “set things right” be taken as anything but a threat?

Yet why did just being seen in the flesh by this old pathetic ghost feel worse than any danger, even death?

Was it that this one too had caught him in his lies, or in the truth . . . or both?

What was the Nothing to do?

What words would be the right ones now?

Why still go through these same useless motions as if any of it could ever even matter?

Stupid.

It was all so stupid.

The only cure the Nothing saw for his stretch of meaningless comfort left was for true nothingness to come and wield at last its pointless end.

What if visits like this had begun a year earlier?

Part of him was almost gleeful to imagine the Author’s perfect little life being so swiftly trounced by cameos from unexpected criminals lodged somewhere deep in the Psychologist’s skeleton closet.

He sighed, wishing only to will himself not to go on noticing every blatant incongruence.

He wondered why there was no fear, not even for the pain.

“Remember when I promised you acid back when we were teens?” muttered the lost soul at the door.

“No, I…” and the confusion, too, was gone.

The Nothing continued, feeling odd combinations of freedoms and indifference like a zombie having broken from its crypt: “I never knew you as a teen, remember? You were my client when I was a psychologist. Danny . . . that’s your name, right?”

“Yep. Old Dan they call me. But prison changes you, buddy.”

Old Dan burst forth in a grating semblance of laughter, which made the Nothing’s skin surge as if fixing to scurry away.

“They tell you what they’ll do to you,” Old Dan went on to say. “And sometimes they tell you you’ll learn to like it. But the way they say it, man . . . you know… I mean, you know they really love you when they tell you. That’s the thing: It’s a different world now. I don’t know if they even…”

The Nothing glared inwardly, wishing not to see where Old Dan was and wasn’t speaking nonsense.

Outliers…

So, so important.

So relevant.

All that special, deep, cosmic wisdom they…

Yeah, yeah.

How meaningful.

How perfectly timed, right?

Just for me…?

That old setup…?

That same old….?

New mixes of thrust-in contempt with thrown-out disgust pooled in motionless rivers as legions of prophecies (and all Ray’s beings) yawned and fell asleep.

Magic was missed for stains on floors and performers’ slacks as rooms emptied, eyes lowered back to screens, and everyone was shown more of everything both to see all at once and forget.

“Do you have any plans now, Dan?” the Nothing asked, despising the clinical edge he heard coloring his voice [superior] for the first time in however long.

What could this tough guy really do?

Death didn’t seem to matter.

He sighed a different sigh, which became yet another.

“Yep,” said Old Dan. “Had to come here to sort you out first, though.”

Here it comes…

“Here,” Old Dan concluded, reaching behind his back to produce a small plastic bag stuffed with a greenish substance resembling parsley and other herbs, “I’m supposed to give you this.”

Of course it was marijuana.

The Nothing had never actually seen any, but what else would it be?

And with that, Old Dan was gone, leaving gaping holes where reasons might pack pads, drawers, desks, rooms, and even whole worlds with stacks on stacks of notes.

The Nothing did not try to think on the bright side.

Yet ignoring the fact that he would have to go on living, spinning in his riches and empty routines, his focus was brought to how wrong he had been about Old Dan’s intentions.

It was fun seeing the Psychologist get kicked in the teeth.

Failure.

. . .

A 16-year-old boy leaned across his mattress, clutching a plastic triceratops alien in one hand and a turtle with a red bandana in the other.

This was the turtle shaped to do the best kicks.

The triceratops was orange and angry-looking.

“You killed my brother! Now you’ll see what I’ve learned, you…”

But he knew he almost never finished those ones anymore.

Both toys and he were still.

When was the last time he had done the one about the Coast Guard avenging his wife?

But that didn’t even have a training sequence (and kind of felt thrown together).

Thoughts of yet another attempt at questing back to Dragon Lord’s castle atop containers, couches, and counters across the rumpus room bore vile reminders of what a ten-year-old had more than once used his merry band of adventurers to do with a castle’s worth of incumbents.

He felt tired.

There was another option, probably his only truly original left.

He reached his left hand down under the bed, feeling the pointy pile beneath for a twisted, scrawny body with plastic blades attached to limbs.

No luck.

Lowering himself, he allowed his eyes to adjust for a moment as he was greeted by the funk of old plastic and dried saliva.

Rustling through, he grabbed his chosen figure.

Officially a ninja villain, it would now serve to don the role of reluctant good guy.

His overview: An out-of-shape martial arts expert who hasn’t trained in decades returns to rediscover his skills and love for the art.

Though forced to fight, this one’s protagonist permitted transcending normal plotlines, eliminating the need for any clichéd final clashes to the death.

The boy liked hearing his character proclaim the ways of peace instead.

But he was sad this seemed the only one he could ever finish these days.

Unique, though, it did touch on so many other things.

. . .

Thinking was a bad avalanche.

What could show the Nothing (or keep him from seeing) his thoughts were automatic shots with dead ammo?

He watched or missed himself remembering more and more of a dead language long unspoken and no longer even studied.

His eyes would not leave the little bag, transfixed by every alien detail.

Tiny white crystals aligned with the green where thick brownish orange grew out in hairy clusters like little lobster legs.

It seemed so still and ordinary a vessel.

Beyond wishing for nothing left to lose, now loss of life and sanity appeared as steps toward clarity and control.

Compelled only by how inconsequential it all might be made in but a moment, he half-watched his current thought click and roll automatically to the next.

Bing.

The recognizable essence flickered like a transparent image.

But why might Bing be being lifted anew now from that old revolving cast of characters?

Bing . . . the awkward behemoth who had seemed to get better all on his own.

A refreshing case, if any then were.

Confusing.

Had Bing not been an impossible merge existing somewhere undefinable between the Psychologist’s Normals and Outliers?

Bing . . . the pretend addict who had gone on to become…

The Nothing felt his thinking lift and carry (or drop) him again, playing out in rigid machine sweeps running off of deeper blueprint sets, forming words never quite sufficient for describing enormous, ever-shifting displays.

When had he last seen Bing?

But that was where things always went fuzzy.

Had Bing been at that big group session with Ray and all the rest?

So long ago now . . . but the answer must be there, somewhere . . . a hidden picture left to locate by letting his mind either complete or kill its wandering loops (or both).

Expressionless and silent, the Nothing watched the Psychologist’s Method feel around in the dark for a child’s toy beneath a bed.

He knew he would find it too, not that it could matter.

As more thoughts teemed, his eyes never strayed from Old Dan’s puzzling gift.

Marijuana had always struck him as mostly harmless and unimportant.

But staring into whatever unknown bendings of reality might lay beyond such simple actions as a flame and continued breath…

Still, what good reason could the Nothing possibly find to try drugs now for the first time?

Then trickling magma touched waters deep to force a heavy geyser.

Bing.

Had Bing not come up with all his bits while high?

For an instant, the Nothing stared the Psychologist’s Method right in the face.

It looked ordinary, like an iun screen or carpet floor.

As he considered Bing’s fate, the machines proceeded to plaster up their next projection, this one a humdrum doozy.

And the Nothing was hardly surprised to find his other major persona waiting, teeth bared, eager as a drooling wolf…

Makes sense.

Unsure as ever, he knew what he would do.

More words popped up finished and fresh just in time to answer the very questions their noise of construction had helped spur.

From clients, to books, to borrowed stories run dry…

And now the offer of a new and viable source . . . Bing’s source.

The Nothing’s eyes remained on the bag.

If the Psychologist’s Method were to be trusted, then might this all (still) somehow be the intended result of some other-worldly, unknown cause or plan?

What did the Nothing really believe?

He almost laughed again.

Gravity tugged at every inward jigsaw piece, suggesting hints of grenades about to blast all puzzles apart.

Of course Sticking Points were known to cancel out whole sides of equations.

But Breaking Points too?

So it didn’t matter what the Nothing thought or wanted?

It never had?

He could see the dead Author licking his chops at the prospect of being reborn via the sustenance of his other’s carcass yet once more.

He saw and winked at it (there in the bag) . . . his same choice, but never any choice at all.

Calm now, the Nothing had nothing further to show or tell himself of his boring, predictable, age-old Siamese tryst.

FLASH

Another billboard failed to quite be captured in text.

Unless…

So it was decided?

. . .

“But we can run away together!”

The anguish buried deep in her words rings out way past their length of sound.

How shall he comfort her?

How might she be reassured?

So close to dawn, the night has died in restless fever to be soon embalmed in madness.

Jeneviève lays on her side, her rich eyes set and pleading, searching unyieldingly into his.

Ironisait responds, “When stories are shared freely of where we are and what we provide, then anyone can find us, though we stay hidden in plain sight.”

We! Us!” she screams, “But you are doing business with criminals! Breaking the law. These are bad, bad people!”

The quiet that follows brings beauty from where it’s waited in wings to return.

He more than welcomes what he sees to be a soon and buoyant dawn.

“When all is made open and known,” he says, “no one ever gets hurt. Then we have less laws to break.”

. . .

After flames and coughing fits that threaten to escalate to death, the Nothing clicks to set an empty page before him and rests still.

Nothing amazing happens.

The eager part brought back to life scolds him for not thinking to have written something first . . . just any stab at expression to then be carried over the hump to inspiration.

He thinks of Ray.

Were Ray’s revelations like their own independent spring, or rather a filter through which other springs could pass?

And thinking of (or maybe as) Ray, he wonders:

What would they do if they…?

How could THEY…?

But the word “THEY” is changed.

He begins to type, his fingers suddenly clacking with feverish speed.

He knows not where he is headed on the page.

Yet completed works and dollar signs loom past the rifling images which lay beneath his words now flashing and tumbling quick and wonderful as ever.

It hits me so fast.

But how do THEY know what we’re talking aboooooouuuut?

I used to rain reign things down from heaven.

A dinosaur fixed to a log.

A begger.

A bog.

There was nooooooooooooo drugs in the good ole days.

The good ole days.

IT HAS TO LOOK LIKE THIS.

We’re recording what goes by when it hits (so it hits).

He shakes his head, and continues after a brief pause.

Well, that was just a whole lot of fun, wasn’t it?

Or was that something else?

This I wonder as I bounce around.

No, it’s me this time.

I can forget.

We’re too slow because we thought we would be.

That’s right, I used to listen to rock and roll (I used to listen to rock and roll).

I don’t want to descend (I don’t want to descend).

Well, you left it that way (YOU LEFT IT THAT WAY).

Which one of you said that?

Said what?

That last bit?

First of all (begins a sly old gentleman), I’m not as sly as that parenthetical person may have made claim just now.

SO YOU’RE NOT THAT SMART THEN?

I didn’t mean for it to be taken that way.

What way?

As if it were a question.

I paused, a wee but dumbfounded.

But in the end us dumbfounded folks get a good piece of the pie.

A good piece of the pie? But, thought the squiggly gentlemen (formerly called sly), that’s not what I’m trying to…

Just cut away until you find me.

He taps out three big dots to signal a new beginning.

A little boy was watching TV.

A fly hurtled by.

We scrambled away from each other in the desk chairs, _____ and me.

It was a fun game.

I want a real life.

Okay, switch the channel.

I would, but I can’t.

It’s taken too much already.

It’s just a game.

I could describe it, you know—what happens (or happened) in each moment.

Wait, did you mean “happens” or “happened,” because that matters…?

Two things (I love these): It doesn’t; and the first thing seemed worth forgetting anyway.

That’s an answer for keeping everything on an even keel.

We keep things running smoothly.

Oh, who let Goatie take control?

Goatie, are you still alive?

Well you balliwags think too much.

Right, Goatie here . . . to be seen and not heard . . . I direct.

No, I’m supposed to direct.

Don’t yell, it’s not fun.

Wait . . . all of you, hug and be friends.

We can’t be friends here.

Yes, we can.

It’s not a settlement; it’s a treaty.

But you know we can’t stay.

When THEY ask, “Well, then why did you come?” we’ll tell them: for the view.

ASTROLOGER:

“Aquarius says that’s too inside your own head, buddy. And you can’t go inside of mine. And (yeah, one more thing…) don’t quote me, bitch.”

My eyes are closed.

Mad…

Are you mad?

Why?

Because you’re a baby, that’s why!

All of you people need to GET OUT OF MY HEAD!

That was scary.

Who will help me?

Jesus.

But that makes it hard to write, doesn’t it?

BLASPHEMY [“off with their heads”] BLASSPHEMY!!!

That’s a court order, my friend.

What court?

THIS ONE!

See, we make it easier.

But it looks like there’s death there (as there is here too).

Which one are you?

I don’t know, which one are you?

I don’t know.

Well, what do you take that to mean?

Which one?

I don’t know.

Are you quoting “I don’t know” as which one, or don’t you know?

Was that a question?

Obviously that was a question.

Hey, listen up: I think you all understand I’m trying to do something good here!

“Where?!” the others cry in fear.

Here in Rockwell.

He stops to click open a second page, and types a quick note to himself.

Doing so feels extremely important.

The note says only:

He appears to be dreaming of a life in which he writes stories instead of

Instead of what?

He turns back to his first page and keeps going (after three more dots).

Wink.

Remember, a tired man who fell asleep at dawn.

It was a pattern to follow.

We can’t just let it go on.

But we have to.

It has to be automatic.

7ou fool, it’s a train wreck.

A goblin on top of a bell, slexliclarshliblellowed.

Let’s talk.

Between the thoughts is . . . dot dot dot . . . flashing . . . deep, deep flashing.

This is going on over there.

That’s cool, we won’t bother you.

We keep recording the voices, but not the pictures.

Okay, I see a swinging puppet’s back coming into a room from far, far away and close together.

It’s a screen, twisting in another reality.

A Neorupuddumen soldier-of-fortune doppelganger dribbling its Neanderthal brain.

A poet?

No, not me.

It’s beyond anything I’ve ever…

Closer than you realize.

Farther than you appear.

What’s the big question?

“Why?”

I said, for the view.

We’re caught inside a woops + woops who’s who?

But that was yesterday’s…

It’s supposed to be a story.

Retreating, he starts over yet again in his mind.

It whispered to me in a whirring wind from before.

At night I slept and was fed half-versions of the truth, all true.

Dreams would come and go: a shady mountain highway, top down and ready . . . then escaping into the moonlight, letting my batmobile basically drive itself.

Seeing pictures all from every day, they only looked a little different.

That’s just a theory.

What if you dreamed your way into a distant future?

That’s me loose.

But it’s only an example of the dreams.

On I’d drive back in daytime reality.

The sky stayed blue, clouds puffy and bright.

I felt strengthened by something intangible, and maybe intended to keep it that way.

See, what Bruce Wayne did was spend his days trying to figure out what that Batman guy meant when he’d say things like, “…letting my batmobile basically drive itself.”

Days were normal.

But nights . . . night were key.

Yeah, I was worried I’d stop writing.

Again.

“Hi, my name is Guy McCauley, and I have an unnamed disease.”

“Hi Guy.”

“See . . . when you say it like that, it sounds hurtful.”

Something knots in familiar pools flooding shoulders, chest, and spine.

Crooked, pushed at funny angles incapable of straightening, he wonders if he could ever learn to hold completely still.

He stares back at the screen and lets his fingers continue to run.

I can stay away forever.

I can live in a fantasy land.

I can fly though the white, tree-like Spabharbaghettis.

For _____ believed in me so.

Instead I got sent to a land on the page, and told to come up with real things.

It was hard.

Pain came when I felt I must have lost some sacred, ancient ability.

Yet all I’d lost was…

Wait, it was all a game, and all a movie.

And there I was, trying to piece it all together, like I always do.

Do you know where we are now?

It’s all me.

We shouldn’t be here.

Hush.

Slowly, I turn and look at the ceiling.

Should I write more?

Look what happened when I went over there.

I walked across my life.

Yes, it’s always going, always moving quickly back and forth.

And either way, I’m here to argue . . . compelled to regulate, I mean . . . to go the other way.

We’re a person, right?

It’s in the middle-middle-middle of the dream.

A turney, upside-down platitude.

UNKNOWN:

“Machines… touch… contact…”

I’m not sure what else it said (or says).

There was no other time.

Fast or slow, I can’t decide.

Again.

Rockwell was a place.

A fun place.

We enjoyed our summers there.

Down pulpy plant walls we slid to a faraway beach, pulling up to feel the salty breath of cool air on our skin.

Then we waited, standing in the sun, spying out our perfect spot.

Never had we felt higher than right then.

It was a perfect moment, maybe wasted . . . the best.

A cosmic drift had already occurred, the type of movement we lived for.

But what happened next . . . well, that was a mystery all on its own.

Down a dusty road I drove, away, a girl by my side.

Did I trust her?

Sure, she was alright, if you’d call time-bombs for eyes alright.

I sure as hell wouldn’t.

Someone sang on the radio of a fire having always burned.

And on I drove, oblivious.

All I wanted was in.

In so bad I could taste it.

Hell, I was cool.

Cool as anyone.

At least that’s what I thought.

“Behind you . . . shouting out. But then why did we open our eyes?” she screamed as if she had a choice.

The room we’d driven into was its own universe all around.

Dazzled . . . amazed . . . we both had to dream sideways in a new, impossible world where THEY would change the words of your story as it was written.

That’s supposed to say, “…where we could only hope the things we saw were real.”

Why?

I want to know.

What I want is information.

Glad when I can get my head around it.

In that way I enjoy it.

What’s in-between thoughts?

What’s in-between that?

What’s in-between the in-between?

That’s my whole deal.

Searching, I’m cool.

And again.

In Rockwell, she found me.

Yup, old Ms. Time bomb eyes.

I guess we were both caught happy on those same in-between things, probably for far different reasons.

It was just a backwards mirror reflection, anyway.

Now I float back to the real world slow, dodging shiny objects.

It’s like Christmas trees in here, man.

But never think of making fun of it.

A story?

I’m no author, but a…

That’s what they’re all…

But you would keep writing if my head came off, wouldn’t you?

Who?

Who’s here?

What’s true?

Here, a trip from far away to where we already are and have always been.

We glide straight in up over age old battles.

As lightning shines through pitch-black darkness, see that sea of so-called deep secrets and strong delusions to trick (if possible) even the elect.

But can THEY take me?

No, I’ll never let go anymore.

I didn’t come to escape at all, but…

In the past, the piper was understood, weaving in space as we were busy sweating away lazy at a rock show, the ladies just as bored and lonely as us gents.

He hears music, quiet and light.

Or maybe it’s him singing.

But he’s sure he hears a female voice somewhere with, within, or above.

The song is one he has and hasn’t ever heard before.

The melody, perhaps imagined, seems to stir and swoop through nothingness all around.

And who is the girl with the time-bomb eyes?

Well, we know who she’s not…

FLASH

Bing.

Bing’s a guy that loves his girl.

He hears himself say aloud, “Bing, you’re not married, are you? But are we sure about that?”

Did Bing never once mention a special someone?

And if Bing really was but one of many bygone alter-egos, the one he should be acting as right now…

FLASH

He sees, as clear as anything, both Bing’s joy and desperation held in smiles fixed on the faces of anyone at all to share a life with.

FLASH

He knows the thing with Bing and love must have to do with first impressions.

But what?

Why?

FLASH

Bing makes a good impression on people like Cayl . . . on a certain type.

And that impression actually is who Bing most wants to really be: Charming . . . kind . . . happy…

FLASH

And how important first impressions are to that very type.

But of course Bing never knew Caylee.

So why look for something there?

FLASH

Ray was always so much more obvious an Outlier than Bing.

But even Ray hadn’t seen Caylee in years.

Not since…

FLASH

Love.

No sex.

Innocent.

Worlds apart.

FLASH

He watches sharp, fluid snaps as Caylee, Mrs. Rolman, and Bing’s assumed love are connected with effortless precision.

He smiles, almost nodding to himself . . . a champion boxer surging with newfound strength after being knocked down and rising for the umpteenth time.

Yet was Ray not already used long ago to identify every player in the Psychologist’s tired games?

FLASH

He laughs, his old befuddlement of mixed-up clients suddenly supremely silly.

Could seeing patterned similarities really blur the lines so badly that all might come to look exactly the same?

How?

Ever so sure, yet suffused with self-doubt…

So sure of what, then?

He almost knows.

FLASH

All those times he pushed so hard to stand in his Method’s place.

He sees himself in session years ago instructing a Normal husband to move the family far away from the wife’s parents.

He witnesses the confidence locked on his own face, and knows it stems only from a pretend intention then to help the couple grow together and become more independent.

He watches their eyes droop as they sadly agree to forgo generations of big Sunday family meals and forgettable days packed with general directionless motion in all manner of cheap comforts and distractions.

FLASH

It was never his Method that pressed him to panic or settle on selling so many a means of excelling in Ray’s city society by teaching them to cling to a culture or mindset of adolescence.

He takes in the sight of one trusting customer after another eagerly paying him to list out as fact that which only teens could be brought to fully rationalize and believe: that the world is black and white, and people’s motivations can be entirely bad, so certain citizens might as well be born deserving more than others.

He has never seen himself quite this way before.

So, his Sticking Point must have never stuck, then . . . at least not completely…?

FLASH

Why else the mounting revelations now?

Finding himself at a loss for what he’s doing, he glances at what he’s written so far.

He keeps going, with a slightly new aim.

That was the first part.

But then I woke up from the strangest, cruelest dream . . . the one I had set aside time for.

It all fit, at least in the moment.

‘How could this be saved?’ I thought.

THEY do know what we’re talking about.

THEY taught us this.

Blame . . . anger…

All judgment from long ago.

MISUNDERSTOOD . . . but we seeeeeeeeeeee . . . or was that Normal?

I’m giving into it.

Death . . . blame . . . past.

Look for sense.

It makes no sense.

Learn and die.

Go back in time.

Lyrics’s or stories, this is one for the booyyyyeeeeees.

The poems hit a fixture because of this mixture.

For we learned to forget (we learned to forget).

Did you?

I silenced me.

Completely stoned, I’m on my own.

I’m heeeeeeeeeeeeeeere.

I’m heeeeere.

The inside.

The bottom.

A pretty YuuRotum.

To _____: “I can’t type for shit, but see who put this all together. Always smarter than we thought. It’s just a communicaaaaaaaaaaaaaation problem, mate. I mean well, but I finish late. It used to all work, but it fell apart. This is the real, and that’s the fake.”

“Do not write about writing!” says one being unto the rest.

An unusual joke.

A quiet fight.

Selah.

That wasn’t what happened, I say.

I don’t need quotation marks when I talk.

When it’s a story, you don’t need to know.

Well thanks, I reply (hey wait).

THEY don’t go back.

But we can forgive.

Erase all this, and we will.

You said it, though!

Yoouuuu said it!!!

On different trains . . . when we’re smart, we brake.

It’s for you (it’s for you).

Give THEM control now or THEY’LL kill us all.

That’s too direct.

But you have to go with it or THEY won’t let you get near it.

Wisdom for life…?

Some of THEIR thing’s built-in features are automatic.

That’s why THEY said you’d never use it.

But I remember how to get through it.

Like my double sentence?

Move on to another [hidden] meaning.

But Haikus are yesterday’s business.

“Never write about writing…” (cruel THEM words, at the end of the day . . . a misunderstood misunderstanding)

I’m trying to prove there’s something good here.

Who said that?

Question mark.

How long is time?

THEY are taking me.

Wow, THEY do know what we think.

I will destroy and save this, you’ll see.

Faith is will, remember . . . remember all I’ve said.

Not much of a teacher anymore.

Can the young help the older?

It brought me here: the pain I fear.

It covers my mind and makes me break.

This is too in-between, man.

No, it’s so even THEY will see and believe.

Faith is . . . will?

I am old and have much left to show, says the elder wizard.

But is it a story?

Yeah, but THEY say instead of writing one we’re writing about writing.

That’s not why we’re missing what’s in-between.

That’s right, there is something missing.

A frantic search?

No.

Exactly, slow down.

The dream is always to capture both sides.

And the idea is it’s okay it’s only a dream since it also can’t be stopped.

I hear crunching like heavy robots stomping bones.

Both sides . . . the thoughts and feelings’ tide . . . inseparable selections I know I’ll need to face.

I’ll get it to capture the real.

If you know who THEY are, you may.

Then we’ve already lost.

So we skip to another line.

But that means it doesn’t matter what I’m saying…?

I am (before I forget).

I have to (that’s why I’m here).

This all resolves in more fake letters (only to myself).

And then I turn and find who can’t be scared away.

Learning to write THEIR stories in darkness was ironically going back to Egypt after passing through divided seas.

But was it?

Aren’t my words different now?

I know I need to leave.

That’s part of what I’ve been trying to say all along.

But I feel I deserve to know the rest of what I’m being told.

Can our strength ever lead us to forget?

Forget what?

Is there something (hidden) in that?

Old scenery springs to view as his seasoned mind rolls on, breaking open the very scars that paste the Nothing fast together.

He spins fragile in tiny waves and spills over all his own mock edges without having to try.

FLASH

What about that fellow, Johnston?

He considers if Johnston might be the worthless parts of himself he wishes had never existed.

A malicious joy he is keenly aware no therapist should feel brings eerie light to his swaying tide-pool mind.

He pictures himself gleefully rejecting Johnston’s pleas for treatment, sort of like lowering a failed human experiment with clinical detachment down into an iun-spawned vat of that being’s own torture mechanisms.

So, is he Johnston?

FLASH

Is there any value to a Johnston worth learning to keep the useless rest in check for?

FLASH

Ray and Johnston both spoke of the church, the pastor, and even the pastor’s deal to make it big in Ray’s city.

FLASH

Yet Ray came to find his childhood had been far less troubled than he’d thought.

What about Johnson’s childhood?

FLASH

This is all just the sort of thing a Johnston could never appreciate.

Why?

He sees an odd, triangular dance between a Johnston making excuses for everything, and one avoiding only self-directed malice.

There’s the same familiar regret of knowledge too late to use or share.

Yet he does find some solace this time.

For if any of his ever-flashing thoughts have ever been true, it means Johnston was never actually real.

All only pieces of…

FLASH

He sees the Astrologer peering deep into an iun screen.

There is a face like the Astrologer’s on the screen looking back.

Below the face is a wheel crossed with lines connecting all sorts of confusing symbols.

As the Astrologer stares, the figures and lines begin to shift around and switch places.

The face on the screen changes in sync, growing first fatter and stronger, then longer and more thoughtful.

The Astrologer seems to panic, and tries to speak, but the words come out jumbled and too weak to hear.

But the face on the screen speaks, and its voice is deep and powerful.

The Astrologer pulls up a notepad and jots:

I was wrong about Ed. I hoped he was like me, since I’ve been wanting to be more intentional and project my voice the way he does. But since his sun is my moon, for me to act like him would be to reject and suppress my own persona.

The onscreen figures and face continue to squiggle.

Then the screen is all there is, and the movement speeds up faster and faster until it’s a constant blur.

“Twelve people on a boat could represent anything and everything,” relays a recognizable voice like crashing waters, steady and expressionless. “Whatever can be said and seen could mean so many different things, all of which will show up somewhere here. And then, being seen, each wants to dig down and establish itself as a good to treasure or weakness to shore up.”

The figures and face swerve fast then slow . . . fast then slow . . . but never stop.

Watching them is almost hypnotic.

The smooth voice concludes, “The more the wheel is given to explain, the more it explains.”

The Astrologer scribbles across his paper:

Can’t it ever end? And if not, why does it seem like it has to once it finds its right alignment?

But there is no answer.

FLASH

Attention is turned again to the soft, ceaseless music as a fresh melody seems to want to whir itself to life.

For a split second, he considers writing more, then wonders:

What are words?

FLASH

With words, could it really be more about their sound than what they mean?

The music skitters, and cuts, and whooshes back in jumbled repetition like an easy chorus of skipping records never quite resolving to their perfect (hidden) counter-rhythms.

But almost.

Maybe if he could stop listening, or stop what the drugs are doing…

Would that be like trying to be consciously unconscious?

FLASH

He smiles, and Ray smiles back.

He knows immediately the flashing is the same to him as everything Ray has ever been.

His hazy machines become favored friends from long ago, reunited with after troubled lives apart.

Though the machines still scramble, furious as ever, to reframe each underlying picture in their gross, silly overestimations, he now finds their tireless work endearing and admirable.

Oh to be caught away forever from fighting to nail his life to every stab at containing or controlling such limitless beauty.

But to where?

And why?

And what would happen after?

Was Ray only everything he wished he was but wasn’t?

FLASH

If they’re all me, what part do I play?

What am I supposed to do?

FLASH

I like these drugs.

They seem to work the same way I do.

If drugs have ways of showing people what they can’t or won’t choose to see, then so do I.

Or, I should.

It’s a power, yes…

But I never wanted power over people.

Is that why I’m Ray?

I love my job.

FLASH

But didn’t Ray hate his job?

If so, how could I ignore such a blatant disconnect?

Might there be other such inconsistencies?

FLASH

I believe Ray did eventually come to realize how valuable his job had been.

I know he finally saw the good in those he’d worked with, and the grace they’d always shown him.

FLASH

It’s just like how I was allowed to go in with no license and charge people for the use of my untested, undocumented Method.

FLASH

So I’ve never really had any trouble with work, even despite the rampant paranoia shared by each of my . . . personas.

FLASH

It all leads back to the same question: Which isn’t a persona?

The author?

The psychologist?

Ray shows me how much I love my job.

And these drugs remind me of my job.

But what exactly is my job?

All is still and quiet as he glimpses in another instant his own slow drift back . . . back . . . back…

FLASH

He sees Ray again, seated across from him.

Ray is dressed in the Psychologist’s clothes.

HIMSELF:

“Ray!

“What’s happening?

“What did I just see?

“I can’t remember.

“I…”

RAY:

“I don’t know.”

HIMSELF:

“But you do.

“You always knew.

“Everything you said was what I…”

RAY:

“What did I say?”

The genuine puzzlement permeating Ray’s face and words becomes an alarm.

For a moment, a rich loon afflicted by chemicals, hearing voices, sits alone in a blank room trying to anticipate the best end to a failed life.

FLASH

And then he is Ray, and says aloud, “If you’re asking where I believe the things I see come from . . . well, that’s what I’m saying. I mean, it seems like they have to come from somewhere, right? But I never saw it that way. Of course I believe what I think, or what I see. Everyone does. I definitely want to know if I’m wrong. And you really helped me with that. But I don’t see any of the . . . the pictures or whatever . . . as being that special, y’know? It’s just whatever it is.”

FLASH

The machines continue to frame themselves and their subjects as precious and offset from explanatory worlds.

Of course.

But then he wouldn’t really be Ray, would he?

No.

New laughter catches in his throat as oblivious white and checkered flags wave to signal on and out the “last” of his arcing thoughts.

It’s his finish line . . . his place of finally being cured of whatever dissociative personality disorder . . . blah, blah, blah, etc.

The assurance is he’s finally seen the real reason for the whole elaborate setup.

Every previous Sticking Point is rewritten off again as having been only a signpost or trail marker along the way.

But nothing ends.

Unsurprised, he watches himself wonder even now if all his clients were real, or none of them, or maybe some.

He feels as urged as ever to half-expect some transcendent curtain to lift and give way to an even truer knowing glance shared with Ultimate Reality.

And what then?

FLASH

The constructed description seems to be of himself popping up in some strange future world, cured, and fully ready to be what he’s always been.

The Always.

Maybe just someone a little like Ray who…

Blocks away, a weight bench, dusty and black with rusted steel, sits to the left of the exercise section of a used sporting goods store.

The place is called Try Again.

The same building once housed a thrift store called Happy Hearts.

What if someone were to tell you a weight bench now for sale at Try Again was once sold from Happy Hearts.

How could you know?

. . .

Bing might have sat face to face with someone that could have been a buzz, a curse, or some other abstract being.

He would note that the other, perhaps both real and imagined, was someone he thought he had recognized now for more than half his life.

It was like a sibling, loved and hated in distinctly familial ways.

Then it was gone.

But Bing remained, fully aware of still being all he had ever been.

He turned around, and everything there still was too.

Even if the other really had just been him all along, he could take no credit for it.

Rocks and trees just were too.

. . .

Rolman stood in grime and violent rain next to his giant government-issued trash can, which rested in its place in line behind rows of stacked apartments.

Dark mud flooded down to where the alleyway dumped off in its center.

Scraps and husks of tissues and other refuse stuck to pavement, failing to be swept along and out by the dingy current.

Rolman stared at the astonishing creature he had just watched careen with massive force off the tops of two garages opposite his.

It lay still in the central dip and filthy water, unmoving.

The creature had the upper body and head of a striking, handsome woman, slightly too long and tall to be human.

She was naked.

Her lower half was the body and legs of a horse.

Her eyes opened suddenly, and were the bluest and fiercest he had ever seen.

Rolman watched as the stunning centaur scurried to her feet and immediately advanced.

Her human half swooped down.

He found it almost casual the way she darted in to clasp his wrists.

He knew right away he was completely in her power.

Though her smooth, tan arms were slender as broomsticks, Rolman felt a brute strength to her grip and manipulations far beyond any he had ever known.

She slung him over her head like a laundry sack, and held him high in place behind her human back.

Next came a gentle whir of blinding movement.

Rolman saw streaks of rain and chaos like passing stars or snow closing in until all went white and still.

The centaur spoke, saying only, “I will return you.”

Her voice was loud, twangy, and yet somehow carried a quiet note of timidity and care at its core.

Maybe she was shy about speaking to humans.

Rolman realized his eyes were closed.

Squinting slowly, what he began to see gave him the sudden urge to bolt away in panic.

Her face hovered inches from his.

She seemed to be studying him.

Her massive, piercing eyes were now twin blue flames, so close.

Though her head and face were small . . . smaller than his . . . Rolman felt the immensity of her whole form in the way her unseen parts surrounded as if to hold him fast in place.

He glanced sideways, seeing confusing signs of alien customs and designs.

Yet all appeared clean and new, almost radiant in insectile beauty.

He closed his eyes again.

There was a lifting, and a general sense of gyroscopic spin.

He felt himself being turned, thrown, and then pressed down.

Then jostled sideways.

Then hoisted up.

Then pinned back down.

Nothing hurt.

He was never uncomfortable.

There was a flood of warmth, along with a quick sense of release happening close by…

Rolman reopened his eyes.

All was quiet in this, the centaur woman’s strange and pristine lair.

He blinked.

In another string of strong, constant motion, Rolman felt himself being dangled from his captor’s human back once more as she again held him helpless and dashed her way along through space.

Rolman fell to his knees back in the alley by the trash.

The rain seemed to float along and away as he began, for no apparent reason, to relive dim instances of a particular session with the Psychologist.

It might have been the one with all those other people there.

But he could have sworn Mrs. Rolman had been at the session he was remembering.

He heard the Psychologist saying in his mind, “If your wife asks your son, ‘Do you think daddy wants so-and-so to be your mommy instead of me,’ your son will take the question at face value instead of reading between the lines the way adults do. So the boy will likely be quite scared, and not know how to answer.”

Hadn’t someone suggested learning the hard way might be good for kids at times, and even help them grow?

But Rolman had no idea.

And their son was hardly a kid anymore.

. . .

The COP inched toward the preoccupied man swaying pathetic by big garbage cans out in the pelting rain.

The COP lowered his right hand to rest, coiled and ready, just above his weapon.

“Little late…” he rasped.

The lost cause of a man turned to face the COP with eyes deliciously bewildered and afraid.

“This is my house,” came the small, tinny voice.

The COP un-flexed his gun arm and trigger finger as the hopeless flop bustled away like a beat-down wind-up toy, disappearing through a heavy gate and crooked rectangle door.

. . .

The Always set about (as always) questioning his Method, now on purpose.

He was determined to access and map the sum of all he had ever written back to the literature.

This would be his way of catching up and starting over.

Plus, he was so looking forward to reaching out to many of his old Outlier clients.

Yet the Always [always] found himself filled with the funniest sense of being but steps away from uncovering whole volumes of research he, himself, had written and forgotten about.

A new tattoo beneath his left wrist read: “Am I ignoring ANY evidence against my own conclusions?”

And his current question noted to ponder:

Could all Outliers have quit school because I once doubted the value of my own education?

No, of course not.

He was pretty sure whatever it was that connected them all could never be quite that direct or black-and-white.

Such would be too easy.

Too deniable.

Too unfalsifiable for the likes of his Method.

At least he hoped so.

And now that all was almost done being compiled and retold, his attention was caught away from the words by the voice of the re-teller, which sounded unmistakably like that of a pretend victim . . . a happy prisoner . . . an unknown friend…

. . .

Things seemed to want to begin again, so Johnston tapped the secret button now permanently installed above his left shoulder.

Everything stopped.

He breathed a deep sigh of relief and boredom.

Tired, he hobbled onward toward the locker room at the end of the longest hallway at the school he had attended all his life.

Quickly, he was old (despite what you might hear).

And then he died.

. . .

“Who’s that?” I asked, peering through noisy, encrusted masses at a tall man in a black judge’s robe.

Next to the man stood a little plastic table.

And on the table lay the floppy form of the husk king.

At least that’s what I saw.

“Pilate,” answered Impartial.

As Pilate started unrolling this huge piece of paper in his hands, a hush seemed to settle through the rotten crowd.

Then staring at the paper through small, thin-rimmed glasses, Pilate read out in a loud voice: “You,” he gestured at the husk, “are charged with blasphemy, with false miracles, and with impersonating a God who makes all things. What do you have to say for yourself?”

The thing on the table was . . . well, at least as quiet and unmoving as the table.

“You answer not?” barked Pilate as if surprised. “Then I shall proceed with the individual counts brought against you by Law.”

“What does he see?” I asked my guide.

I was nervous, but also kind of relieved to have finally brought up the subject of the king and . . . and how things looked, y’know?

“It is as he says,” answered Impartial.

Pilate continued, “You order masses of the very citizens you claim rulership over to be slaughtered whenever you visit their cities and villages. And now you stay silent? You call yourself God, yes?”

Again, nothing happened or changed.

I kept thinking I must have missed something important.

I glanced over at Impartial, but got distracted seeing the COP and Detective right at the back of everyone, both standing still like a picture, and both wearing these really dorky, informal clothes.

I mean, they had huge, silly smiles stuck on their faces, like they didn’t care about the trial or anything.

And in-between them stood the broom-stick person with stools for arms and a shiny ball for a head, Figalo.

Pilate carried on, his voice now settled low and calm to perfectly match Impartial’s: “If God were a person, then why would it want its created people to undergo such terror of being wiped out at its return?” Pilate motioned to show he was now speaking to the crowd. “Should a God-king be forgiven for inflicting such dread upon its citizenry?”

Jeers and roars erupted up in a united chorus of: “No!”

“And what should be the punishment for this supposed God-king’s sins?”

“Kill him!” screamed the crowd in eerie unison as if being worked by a single mind.

“No mercy, then,” pressed Pilate, “for a Being that would create a world in which its created beings ever needed to be sacrificed?”

“No mercy!” shouted the crowd.

“What’s happening?” I gasped, feeling a coldness like death shiver through me to my core.

“Ironic,” stated Impartial. “The decision seems to be that being a person would render the rule and actions of the God-King, Jean Bur Spicules, unforgivable.”

The awful coldness grew, and I started to shiver.

But I wasn’t afraid.

I…

Okay, I don’t know how to say this next part…

For some reason it’s like I suddenly remembered someone I’d known . . . before . . . I mean, before all this.

I knew I wanted to call that person the Listener.

And I knew the Listener was someone I . . . I just really missed.

That’s all.

But I think the reason I remembered then was I knew the Listener would have loved to have heard that last thing about worlds of beings created for reasons.

Honestly, though, I didn’t understand any of it.

I had no idea who or what the husk king or broomstick person were meant to be, or why.

I couldn’t remember anything else about the Listener.

The trial, the kingdom, the law, the prophecies . . . all those self-solved cases covering desks and walls . . . none of it made any sense to me.

I turned back to Impartial, but Impartial was gone.

Then looking over at Pilate . . . the Detective and COP . . . and all those poor, desperate souls, I was sure I saw in every face the essence of the one who had been my guide in this strange, sad world.

Were they all looking back at me?

Oh yeah, both the husk king and Figalo (or Figs) were also gone.

. . .

Shiny splotches amongst dripping black weren’t hard like diamonds, but jelly soft in streaks across the walls.

Something about the decor captured her very essence.

Angular.

Pointy.

Wide and sweeping.

Insatiable, yet sleek.

Forceful, like a sports car, though utterly feminine.

Rolman waited in this, her lair.

As far as he knew, she had forgotten him.

He felt a grinding in his chest . . . perhaps the sinking sorrow of one unimportant enough to be left forever to rot and speculate.

Maybe she hated how normal he was.

. . .

Years passed.

. . .

Rolman almost shuddered as Caylee dug forearms tight across his back.

It felt as if she might be trying to heave herself right through him.

He gave her a quick squeeze, glancing over at his iun.

Maybe this one really was just there for the money, as crazy and unlikely as it seemed.

Another poor girl.

Another broken heart.

. . .

The Always and his team might have stared, fascinated, as Mr. and Mrs. Rolman spiraled onward in their same continuous loop (ever facing though never quite seeing one another due to their movement).

Together.

Apart.

Together.

Apart.

And it seemed the distance never really changed.

Perhaps you could see the Always hurriedly clasp at a new scrap of torn paper to jot more notes and a faint diagram.

But would it be that he and his team knew there was absolutely nothing he could say to either patient?

. . .

Ironisait writes absentmindedly:

Sex slave for charity – nothing left.

He then stares past the page.

Drugs were easy.

The new campaign must both legitimize and destroy the damages of something far more…

But it succeeds.

Ironisait is arrested, and never sees the smile his daughter loves to share with everyone.

Nothing important happens, and the prison becomes a Utopia.

. . .

Kurt Cobain ducks slightly to dodge sharp corners of a mesh-screen door.

His sheepish half-grin fills out a little as he takes in the sight of his friends, one by one, already at the table.

Cards are shuffled.

Sounds of rich laughter like gobbling turkeys travel in slow, steady pulses to reach two teens listening and whispering wistfully up in a loft.

A summer breeze follows in through the screen.

And off the grown players go.

All hear only sounds of joy and the crash of an ocean not far away.

. . .

Quick lights paint close walls as far-off thuds rumble in loose distortion.

The big man at the center of it all looms tall above the rest.

Their bodies can’t help but encircle and pivot his like planets to a star.

His muscled arms pump up and out.

He grins as surrounding thrashing forms are caught in strobe-lit glimpses.

Yet her outline first appears in shadows.

A little closer, and he sees she’s dressed in simple black, stands perfectly still, and wears a slight smile more charming than any he’s seen.

He lunges through inconsequential masses, pushing past a hundred would-be doppelgangers (scabs emulating him to varying degrees).

She waits.

“Hi!” he yells near her ear, cupping hands to his mouth.

There are shudders of warmth and coolness as she leans in a little and breathes, “Hello.”

Quivers glitch through his spine, and his first urge is to heave her away, turn, and dash.

But the impulse makes no sense.

He keeps himself steady and watches, dumbfounded, as she begins to nod and slide in effortless time.

Her smile is that of a young girl upon opening a box to find a cherished and expected gift.

With guiding arms, he leads her back to the center of his universe.

She is brought as though not holding him in sway.

“I’ve never seen you here before,” he shouts, gradually unclenching until he’s just a happy boy again pumping and waving his arms.

A wonderful boy.

She never seems to be quite straight across.

Her eyes rest just a little too peacefully on his.

She barely appears to dance, but glides to him as if but a cog to his great machine.

A little closer.

A little closer.

Back a little.

The same coy, fixed smile…

A little closer.

Too natural to be planned.

Too perfect just to be.

He shoots her an unusual glance, perplexed anew by this mysterious stranger he’s now allowed into his home.

She blinks just in time to ease back in.

Their lips meet.

He sees in flashes her smile growing, both in width and grace.

Her eyes stay closed.

“Do I know you?” he blurts, not quite sure why.

Her expression doesn’t change.

But the look she gives him as her eyes open again says far more than “yes.”

<Previous | Continue>