PART A (The Psychologist) — 18

Mo was a coiled spring hardly touching the rugged post that held his weight.

“No, that’s not the original,” Mo insisted, his voice streaked with indignation like rain cascading down a window.

“We can’t access the original from here,” offered Darren from across the way, nodding, his feet dangling free over the side of his truck bed.

Ray sat slumped between the two on the cold pavement ground, his gaze pinging back and forth above as if to follow a long rally in a tennis match.

Having met both in Bible school many years before, Ray knew he could never hold it against Mo and Darren for erupting into spontaneous preaching and loud debate whenever the three got together.

At least this time they weren’t somewhere crowded.

Optionless, Ray resolved to just keep quiet and listen.

Maybe he could learn something, or see some fresh connection like gleaming gold beneath the rapid river of his old friends’ fervent words.

“We can, like I just did,” pressed Mo, bowing slightly.

“But most people wouldn’t care enough to get that far. Perspicuity of Scripture, et cetera,” countered Darren, smiling, though his eyes seemed somewhat sad and distant.

“No!” Mo almost yelled. “That’s what I’m saying. If it says something, we have to say the same thing.”

Lost, Ray let his mind wander to where he would be now in his old life . . . just about done for the day fielding his secret calls at the office.

He could almost see his own gaze, fixed and resolute, trailing tenderly through penned notes on pesky regulars to pick out that one final, special enquirer whose question itself would make the day worthwhile.

Ray had never failed to finish on a wringer so unique and real that the mere fact of its having been asked could leave him, and the asker, and anyone listening with more than any answer.

A moment passed, and he brought himself back to the confusing crossfire at hand, only to re-conclude he had nothing against his church friends.

Nothing at all.

“We already are,” Darren was saying, his voice even and peaceful, “as much as they can understand.”

“No!” half-shouted Mo, launching himself to a stance apt for battle.

But something was different.

The conversation had begun to echo and fade as if drifting away down a subway tunnel or to a bunker beneath the earth.

“Yes!” and “No!” both spiraled together in a passionate, paling flurry . . . arcing this way and that until the whole dramatic dance wound itself back to begin again and again.

Maybe it had already gone on a thousand times.

A pleasant whoosh like sleep tickled up and down Ray’s spine, and the talking was a soft radio drowned out by softer eternal crashing.


“Once you have some experience teaching,” flickered Darren’s voice like a sagely breath, “I think you’ll get how we have to communicate Truth just one small piece at a time. You will probably get frustrated by that at first, but otherwise they just won’t get it. And they all make assumptions. And…”

“But they will get it,” came Mo’s snarl in hinted pieces. “That is perspicuity of Scripture. That’s what it means. That’s what I’m coming back to.”

“I…” Darren began.

“There was…” interrupted Ray.

But he paused, fascinated.

He then listened intently as he continued: “There was a group who had a symbol.”

Mo and Darren were silent, having been struck perhaps by the unfamiliar pulse of Ray’s quiet voice disrupting their earnest wrangling, breaking their magic momentum spell built from matching one another’s zeal.

“The symbol was called Gred,” said Ray’s voice.

“What are you talking about?” asked Mo.

“What does the symbol mean?” rephrased Darren.

“The symbol was used for a long time,” Ray’s voice replied. “For generations. But then some who left started thinking it was Gree instead of Gred.”

“What?!” smirked Mo.

“When the two groups met up again, y’know, a really long time later, each thought their way to say the symbol was better . . . no . . . that their way was . . . right,” Ray’s voice concluded.

No more radio, there was only the rushing weight of always, more beautiful than…

Somewhere, the sight of a wide cluster of stars made Ray almost sigh.

He was at once transported all the way back to childhood nights spent outdoors on a giant foam mattress at a mountainside campsite, and to endless stories shared with and by someone very special of how those same stars formed the outline of a cosmic doorway exit . . . and mostly of what wonders lay beyond.

But even that beloved, heavens-spanning pattern was now passing ever farther and farther away.

Not knowing if or where he was coming or going to or from, Ray caught a fleeting glimpse of Mo and Darren staring over at him, still speechless.

Their expressions, nearly blank, were spruced by a mild emotion close to bafflement . . . closer to pity.

Of course they feel sorry for me.

They think I’m a lost cause.

They’d never even ask…

It’s just been too long since I was…

But why did I have to say anything?!

Why couldn’t I…?

Such an idiot!

“So, anyway,” Mo piped up again, shifting eagerly back to Darren, “I think I know what I was really trying to say. Remember how hungry you were to know Truth back when you…”

But Ray couldn’t hear the rest.

Neither could he feel the tear that glanced his eyelid’s edge.

He missed the inertia of rising, and first motions of storming away.

Then he found himself suddenly at a full sprint, pumping all four limbs too hard and fast to even breathe, yet knowing he had no destination in mind.

All that seemed to exist was the clapping of his footfalls reflecting off of pavement at every distance like a frantic battle of flat struck drums or guns firing hidden from far and near.

But what was really happening?

Which parts were true?

He saw himself in darkness with his eyes wrenched shut.

Then everything shifted to the Psychologist’s quaint, scattered office, where Ray knew he was ready to answer the most logical next question conceivable with: “Yes, it sounds like silence amplified, or maybe unheard air, or even my own blood flowing somewhere behind my ears.”

And up ahead appeared the Church again, its entire compound set aglow by scores of symmetrical colored lights, all of which came to focus on a single paneled cross at the biggest building’s highest apex.

Ray laughed.


Why always here?

Of all the…

That old pang at the side of his knee might have caused his leg and hip to stiffen some.

But the throbbing was a fire burning far enough away to be more than just endurable.

Tiny drops of moisture were kisses from angels hidden on high.

And there was something else in that busy air as well.

Someone else.

It was someone Ray could almost feel, a person he just about . . . saw . . . right there at the entrance to the Church’s namesake street.

But not completely there.

And how was it also not a person, or at least not like any person Ray had ever seen?

In fact, how was being not a person one of its clearest qualities?

It seemed funny to track a wash of only mild curiosity, which must have tagged in to relieve more frenzied normal fears.

The conversation with the two friends, maybe minutes ago, was less than a distant memory.

He could be convinced it hadn’t happened.

Now the stranger was at least as present as the massive works of architecture lit up strategically all around.

A not-a-person.

Ray heard himself giggle at how odd it should feel to think in such terms.

Perhaps old Ray Golel had finally lost it.

Or maybe he had died.

Either way, he considered the pros and cons of endless pure delusion as an aftermath.

But there was something about the not-a-person that made it more beautiful than any buildings, and more appealing than even that old skyward doorway (now long passed through or fled).

Compared with its surroundings, the not-a-person seemed to shine in regal gold as if on purpose to overpower every ho-hum manmade shade and ersatz surface.

As if instantly, the not-a-person felt more like home to Ray than his job, and Church, and friends, and life, and…

And if he really had just witnessed his last lucid moments, he was glad to have watched them go.

Bring on the descent.

Let me plunge even deeper.

Allowing for such reckless thoughts was certainly new.

He watched himself take a very big step toward the not-a-person.

“Hello?” he called.

Did it turn?

He saw no face or features.

It was all the same foreign texture or substance, like a poltergeist or shimmering liquid silhouette.

It was then that Ray first noticed the fog billowing through all the buildings of the Church and out everywhere as far as he could see.

The fog was sparse and thin, but unmistakably there once seen.

He watched as the not-a-person glitched and gestured suddenly toward him, though it did not move any nearer.

Clearly helpless against the fog, its motion was a mix of chaos and futility, like a fish caught in a bucket slamming its body in last mad gasps for water.

Ray looked from left to right, in awe yet unalarmed at the sight of a massive sea of the not-a-persons, all nearly the same as the first, and all fixed in the wispy fog at points scattered throughout the Church and everywhere else.

It was like seeing a population of barnacles on a wall, twitching and quivering yet held fast in place.

Could they see him?

Were they real?

Was he?

The questions spit like automatic sums collecting out the end of some dusty, archaic calculator from the depths of a long-abandoned closet.

Ray knew he should have been surprised to see himself lunge so fearlessly out into the fog near the entrance to the Church’s main courtyard.

He approached the first not-a-person he had seen, distinguishable from the others only by its alluring golden tint.

But before he could reach it, he was caught by a flash of light so bright it felt like existence itself should never hope to contain the beam’s brilliance within the spindly likes of space and time.

Without having to blink or squint, Ray turned to see that the unworldly light’s source was a torch held aloft by someone he immediately knew to be Faith.

And he saw that Faith’s great light was aimed at another close by, whom Ray recognized right away as Grace.

Grace appeared to be just as trapped in the fog as all the not-a-persons.

And even Faith’s light, brighter than any other, could only pierce the fog in needle beams at a few distinct spots.

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PART A (The Psychologist) — 17

Bing had a misunderstanding.

The community college rested like a sweet little hub, surrounded by a giant horseshoe of rich grass bunched at rigid intervals with green, leafy trees.

Sunlight beamed from across the college courtyard, sparkling off the oil spots of a brood of mallard ducklings as they waddled after their mother in a loony zigzag line like a tiny honking marching band.

Bing took in the scene, smiling as he circled the school on the thin paved path that looped the major parking lots.

If asked, he would have said he was there because of a computer game he had taken to.

In the game, the player’s avatar could go to college, work and get promoted, exercise, and socialize at bars.

Each activity would earn different progress points.

If time was portioned well, the avatar might end up the company CEO, with celebrity looks, who owned the biggest mansion, and was married to the hottest girl at the best bar.

It was an easy game for Bing to beat, but one he played through over and over most afternoons at work.

Perhaps the peaceful surrounding scenery served to help avoid the heartache of having never seen real-life progress move in such straight, measurable lines.

It was his lunch break, and he was high.

Bing never bothered anymore with monotone radio voices that seemed only to buzz unintelligible amongst grating, repetitive sound effects just to fill in time between paid spots.

Even chosen voices speaking now in tinny tones through his tiny iun speakers had become but soothing background noise at best.

His mind raced instead with pretend accusations from his co-workers.

He had never actually been accused.

But Bing’s battle was to both believe and ignore that which he could know best from experience: that no one seemed able to tell whenever he came back high from lunch . . . or cared . . . or even noticed he’d been gone.

Must be almost time.

Old colors whirled and wheeled like ghoulish funhouse mirrors.

Within these came faint glimpses of distorted alien faces, cheerful cartoon animals, complex symbols, and textures upon textures . . . all too dim and rushing away too fast to really focus on.

Or maybe it was nothing but memories of past highs, back when…

Regardless, the words at the forefront (now taking form as [fake] allegations) never seemed to cease.

Always so, so many words.

A too familiar flash, and Bing lurched to grip his iun like a feening robot.

His car swiveled back around to restart the loop behind Lot A, the busiest.

It would be too hard to type.

A few deft sweeps, and his iun’s voice recorder was prepped and blinking red.

He heard himself speak then, as if from far away (still far too close for comfort), saying, “I can’t get high on my lunch break every day like this because I just get all anxious after. I get real worried and paranoid about how everyone sees me. It’s like I can’t pay attention the way I need to or something. I’m off in my own world, but also thinking everyone knows. But if I know I’m wrong about that, could this just be my conscience telling me not to get high this way? Should I stop doing it at lunch, then?”

Another sweep to close the screen, and the iun was re-lowered.

As he began the slow right turn to leave the loop before Lot C, Bing spotted a middle-aged man in unkempt slacks and tweed, probably a professor, jumbling along just behind a group of young, giggly girls.

Bing watched as one from the group turned back to face the would-be educator.

She then grinned and began to skip about her friends like a lively faun amongst more stoic elder deer.

Another flash, another sweep, and: “Teachers who sleep with students… Guy becomes a teacher so he can roam the halls, y’know, strolling for strange… Trolling for strange? Shit, I messed up my own joke.”

He made the left onto Holding Ave., chuckling to himself.

Or maybe he was surrounded by a cliché group of friends in some dingy living room somewhere, all laughing together at his mis-told bit over enormous bowls of rainbow cereal.

To his right, Bing watched a tribe of miniature people sweep across the yard of a fenced-off playground.

Some of these came to cluster in open spaces, while others drifted to the tiniest of plastic ladders, slides, and swings.

A young woman in skinny jeans and converse shoes stood with her hands clasped behind her back, inspecting the small humans in their bustling.

Bing smiled again, telling himself the woman’s story: that she had always loved kids, and saw her job as a great and noble opportunity to sow some good into their lives while they were all still receptive enough to…

A partial stab of regret…

But Bing was also still away, playfully one-upping his makeshift friends in that homely, trashy room.

Weed and bongs abounded, of course.

Pounds and pounds and pounds of weed.

Trash bags full of it.

The college and preschool crossed, colliding with smoke and grins.

Then another flash, a swipe, and yet more words: “I don’t want to be the old guy that spends his lunch breaks driving through a school I dropped out of years ago just so I can check out all the chicks’ asses!”

The giggling friends in the living room morphed and expanded to a packed theater’s worth of house-lit faces, all roaring along as Bing contorted his expression to a half-grin, half-snarl in perfect, playful self-mockery.

As he nodded to his own reflection, reveling in his wit, a massive sentry in thick, dark shades swooped its black-and-white chariot in to cling to Bing’s rear.

It held, as inescapable as gravity.

Ugly, angular, and cold, it filled every unoccupied space in the rearview mirror.

Bing was instantly sure the cop had read his reflection’s lips.

The muddling of the two schools went all dreary and terrible like damning courtroom evidence being read in drab tones and televised.

A wave of panic hit Bing’s chest.

And there was an awful flash of further words, this one not to be recorded.

No, officer!

I wasn’t talking about the preschool when I said “asses” just now.

I meant the college, but . . . but I was kidding anyway.

I’m not like that.

See, I was recording these dumb jokes, and…

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PART A (The Psychologist) — 16

Ray. 30’s. OUTLIER!

Ray was referred to me by my long-time associate, Officer Minkrit.

Minkrit called early yesterday to discuss a case for which he requires my particular expertise.

A woman named Caylee has gone missing.

Caylee is not presumed kidnapped or dead.

She has actually vanished like this several times before, though this is her first disappearance in close to a decade.

Minkrit asked if I would meet with Ray because Ray and Caylee once took off together, 17 years ago.

Ray’s recent whereabouts are all accounted for.

He is not a suspect (the case is not a crime).

My task is simply to uncover any useful information about Caylee’s whereabouts or reasons for leaving.

Ray cannot know why we are meeting.

According to Minkrit, Ray underwent some sort of breakdown late last week at work, even threatening his boss.

He was told our sessions together would be to discuss the incident.

It seems he took the bait; our first session just ended five minutes ago.

As always in these new notes, I will begin with more general impressions before combing through the recorded transcript to measure my predictions in detail.

I must say, I greatly enjoyed meeting with Ray today.

Most in my position would likely be irked by his constant second-guessing and sporadic bouts of stutters.

Yet unlike traditional therapists who push solely to pin labels, my Method allows me to step back and appreciate a particular anxiety apparently sparked by pressure to commit to one’s own words—words Ray seems terrified will be identified as representing his true thoughts (and self).

I hold that conventional methods could serve only to exacerbate such a fear, shutting down real communication at the outset.

No, it was not particularly easy to pry information from Ray today, at least not at first.

Yet here we come to a second cause for my enjoyment: I was already looking ahead to these notes and what valuable insight I should surely have to offer on drawing out quieter clients.

A third source of professional whimsy was how Ray’s words, whenever he did manage to string more than a few together, were such a refreshingly wide berth from the safe and templated responses I hear from all my Normals.

Normals seek the simplicity and certainty of the narrowest possible paradigms to set their lives to and forget.

Sure, a Normal might be forced to ask “What if?” at times (only once their natural models show signs of nearly crumbling).

Yet such uncharacteristic ponderings are but single spikes destined to dull and fade out fast into the next overwhelming wash of whatever is most generally understood to be the way things ought to be.

I am no sociologist, though I would venture to guess a largely unquestioning majority could make for more stable, ordered populations.

Outliers cannot help but operate from an almost continuous, compounding “What if?”

And I already see in Ray quite an odd balance of unlikely forces—an unprecedented balance, really—unlike anyone I have ever met.

How is Ray unusual even for an Outlier?

Outliers tend not to care (or be much aware of) how they come across.

Yet Ray seems petrified by just how strange his words might reveal him to be.

Today I witnessed at least two vastly divergent motivations crashing together and repelling beneath each careful, choppy utterance.

I will undoubtedly have my work cut out in digging deep enough for my Method to identify and reveal the true nature of those motivations (to Ray).

Yet that revelation, I am already sure, will be what brings him to his Sticking or Breaking Point.

Yes, I feel excited for the challenge, and for what treasures I shall have to impart here to you as my Method draws Ray’s uncertain polychotomy to the surface like pumping water from a well—somewhat automatically.

Next time, I plan to delve fully into his workplace breakdown.

I suspect far more than a simple case of office politics, or whatever might cause someone to lose their temper at work . . . money-stress, perhaps?

Yet, again, I am getting ahead of myself.

I must endeavor to keep these new notes more linear and sequential, unlike my previous disconnected attempts.

Truly, I apologize.

So, Ray was my first appointment today after lunch.

I remember feeling surprised to check my schedule and see so full an afternoon.

He arrived early, giving me the opportunity to observe him for a few minutes on camera out in the waiting room.

I would describe my first impression of his appearance as being the opposite of anything formidable or charismatic: droopy posture; tacky clothes with no real style; his face, sullen and unremarkable.

Yet I became almost suspicious at how perfectly still he sat, not busying himself in the least with any of my planted magazines or pamphlets.

Nor did he look around the room at all, or pull out his iun.

He just sat there, waiting.

First-time clients tend to be quite nervous and jittery.

They usually do all they can to distract themselves in moments before we meet.

Most expect our sessions to be the Freudian undertakings of TV and movie therapy.

They picture themselves reclining on a couch as I deftly extract their deepest secrets.

Many fear having nothing worthwhile to say, or saying the wrong things and being misanalysed.

I called Ray in on the intercom, still watching as he stood and stepped into my office in one fluid motion like liquid through a release valve.

Once seated across from me, his demeanor changed entirely.

Though his body remained placid, his eyes began to dart everywhere like crazy bats flittering haphazard through a cave.

I began with my usual round of general, ice-breaking questions—name, age, brief reason for visit…

Ray fought for what many would have found agonizing minutes to force his first words out.

He mentioned having worked at a church until last Friday.

Minkrit had not told me where Ray had worked.

Ray’s ties to religion—his breakdown having occurred at a church—piqued my interest, adding colorful dimensions to the clear picture already forming in my mind.

Again though, I had a specific aim for our session today, which I would not deviate from.

I had to find the best and fastest route to broach his experience with Caylee.


“How was your childhood?”


“I guess I was pretty . . . angry . . . as a kid.”


“Tell me about a time you got mad.”

He stumbled through a long, overly complicated story of how he and a friend had once been roughhousing with an older male babysitter when, due to a sudden rage impulse, Ray kicked the babysitter hard in the groin several times.

Upon crumpling to the carpet, the older male had begun screaming threats to take Ray’s life.

Ray recounted having dropped to the floor then as well, sobbing and trembling in fear.

Yet here is where his story gets interesting, and where Ray reveals himself to be a true Outlier.

For as soon as the babysitter had left the room (presumably to confirm he had not just received a free vasectomy) Ray leapt to his feet and boasted to his friend something along the lines of: “I’m a true ninja, see? My greatest skill is my ability to make an opponent think I’m weak. I could have destroyed [babysitter] just now if I’d wanted to.”

I would have appreciated more time to work a smoother transition.

Yet Ray seemed to be opening up enough for my priority to take precedence.


“So were you angry when you left with the girl when you were 15?”


“How did you know?”


“I never heard the full story, just that you and someone might have disappeared from high school for a few days?

“Maybe it caused some worry?”

Notice the way I purposefully left my phrasing so unsure.

My aim was to immediately establish a secure distance between Ray’s actual history and any assumptions on his part about my opinion.

I wanted the raw account, unaffected by fear of judgment.

Most of all, I wanted Ray to feel safe.

As he began to share, I was careful to look for any programmed defenses or signs of deflection.

. . .

“Well, it was because, I mean…

“Okay, something really bad happened before that.

“When I was 14.

“No, you don’t have to write that down.

“I won’t go into it now.

“I just…

“I guess everything with Caylee and me leaving was, like, me trying to make up for . . . something.

“Something bad.

“That’s all.

“But Caylee never said that much at school.

“She was always just . . . there . . . kind of like me . . . except I think she had some pretty good friends.

“So, I was in the hall one day, and I saw her sitting by herself.

“And she had these mixed-up pictures of horses on her bag, all different sizes, and…

“And I usually don’t talk to anyone, but I just said something like, ‘Hey, I saw a horse like that one on Sunday.’

“She told me she loved horses.

“All animals, really.

“But you don’t have to write that.

“It was just, like, right away I could tell we’d be friends, y’know?

“Like, everyone else always had to be into all the important stuff . . . but Caylee and me could just sit and talk for hours about this bunch of horses I saw near the train tracks.

“Oh, that was at this place I started going on weekends.

“It was after the bad thing…

“But that’s not important, um…

“I’m not sure what you’re writing.

“Okay, I . . . I won’t keep saying that.

“I mean, I guess you’d know what to…

“Anyway, I started talking to Caylee all the time.

“One thing: I never got nervous around her, and that was huge for me.

“I usually couldn’t sit next to a girl in school without feeling like my whole body was getting electrocuted or something.


“But Caylee was different.

“She told me I was easy to talk to.

“We started going to the train tracks together, and…

“Okay, I just have to say this: It was like we never even thought about, like . . . sex, or kissing, or going out, or anything like that.

“It just wasn’t like that with her.

“It was more like we were kids together.

“We’d go watch the horses in the long grass, and then sit up over the train tracks with our feet dangling over this big tunnel.

“Then one day, one of the conductors had to show us why that wasn’t such a good idea.

“He screeched his train to a stop, and then yelled up at us to get down.

“And as soon as we were off, he let up this huge puff of black smoke right where we had been.

“We never went up there again.

“But sometimes we’d walk around inside the tunnels and hide in these little openings in the walls along the way, plugging our ears tight whenever roaring trains went by.

“We’d do things like that all day.

“That was kind of all we did.

“I didn’t really have that many other friends.

“And things at the Church were . . . weird.

“No, you don’t have to put that.

“Um, Caylee was just really nice to me.

“That’s all.

“One day, we decided we were going to go hang out under this bridge by the ocean.

“I still remember how careful we had to be, climbing down, so we wouldn’t fall into this, like, swampy riverbed thing underneath.

“We found a place to sit where we could see the riverbed stretching all the way out to end right where waves hit the beach.

“We started singing all these old songs from back then, or . . . or maybe we were making up our own songs, I can’t remember.

“But there was always this constant wind.

“It never stopped.

“I mean, the wind and waves in the distance were all we could hear while we were there.

“And yeah, our own voices.

“When it was night, we could see all the stars off over the ocean.

“That first night, I remember looking down to see she was holding my hand.

“I already knew I loved her, but…

“But it was the most amazing…

“I never said anything to anyone.

“It just wasn’t the way most people…

“Okay, I’m not sure how you’ll write this part down, but we honestly just forgot to go back.

“That’s all.

“We were looking at the stars and the waves.

“We were singing.

“We were talking about . . . I forget . . . silly things . . . people.

“And she was the only one that knew about the bad thing that happened with me before.

“She was the only one I could ever tell.

“We really didn’t know how long we were gone, or what was happening with the news and everything.

“That probably makes no sense.

“But I think we were down under that bridge near the City for about four days.

“We didn’t eat.

“We had a camping canteen with us, and some water . . . but I don’t remember ever drinking.

“It really just felt like we’d left the world or something . . . like, so far away we forgot all about everything else.

“And when we got back, everything was different.

“Caylee’s parents took her from school, and I never saw her again.

“There was nothing like iun’s back then.

“She was gone.

“You probably think I sound so stupid, or crazy, but it was just a . . . a different kind of situation.

“I mean, I hope you don’t get the wrong idea.

“Like, I don’t remember missing her at all.

“I wasn’t sad.

“It was more like Caylee was always with me.

“And she still is.

“I didn’t cry.


“What are you writing now?”

. . .

Ray seems to respond to prolonged eye-contact as if being sighted by a pistol.

As he spoke, I found I could only meet his unsteady gaze for brief stints, and only whenever he raised it to hover anywhere in my general direction.

I listened to his whole story without interrupting, endeavoring even to move as little as possible so as not to disrupt his flow.

Once finished, he asked again about what I had been writing.

I told him I had made a note to ask if he thought Caylee would describe herself as being the same as him or different, and in what ways.

Something about Caylee was not adding up.

So far, she sounded like a Normal.

Details of young, Normal, female clients had connected in my mind as Ray spoke, all blurring together as usual.

Yet adolescent Normal females do not form close bonds with male Outlier peers.

The social hierarchies of high school seem designed to impede such ties.

Ray never did speak to my question about how he thought Caylee would describe herself.

Do I suspect he was lying at all, or withholding information?

What he shared about their time under the bridge obviously contained elements that cannot be true in reality.

People do not forget their lives.

They do not forget to eat and drink.

Ray mentioned having never had any thoughts of romance with Caylee.

He also mentioned loving her.

And what set of teens would write off sex as unimportant?

If not for the fact that Caylee’s disappearance with Ray had been confirmed as voluntary, my assumption would be he just grossly overestimated their connection.

Such self-deceptive embellishments are not uncommon for Outliers.

Yet Ray, again, seems grimly aware of his particular peculiarities.

We will certainly be returning to the “bad thing that happened” before his time with Caylee.

At present, I am more concerned with measuring the exact weight and essence of his apparent fabrications or misrememberings.


“So you never talked about sex with Caylee?”

There was a long pause.


“I think the love we felt was too…

“But no, I don’t think we ever talked about it.”

In all honesty, I was momentarily translated back to specific instances from the time of my own youth—though I should always endeavor to keep personal experience from affecting my assessments a priori (especially when it comes to what I choose to include in these new notes).

There simply must be more to Ray’s story for me to uncover.

My current conclusion is that his reported relationship with Caylee defies both biology and my extensive knowledge of Normal/Outlier dynamics.

We arranged another appointment.

I have plenty to roll over as I consider how to best dig further next time.

In a way, Ray comes across as unbelievably genuine.

I do not buy his innocent-at-all-costs routine.

Though I would not call it an “act.”

Any embellishments on his part certainly seem unintentional.

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PART A (The Psychologist) — 15

When Revy returned to himself, wiping beads of shiny sweat from moppy hair as he scampered lightly back to his greenroom, he had only one thought:

That was as good as we could possibly be right now!

. . .

The next morning, Revy sat like a stump at the plain wooden table in his kitchen.

Jodie was there, hovering unnaturally somewhere off to the side.

Revy scrolled through review after review in disbelief.

Comments on his performance seemed to all revolve around a few reshuffled phrases, like:

“…full of himself . . . sophomoric lyrics . . . stupid songs . . . thoughtless . . . fake . . . pretentious . . . would have been good ten years ago . . . yet another example of the failure of a generation to make anything new or worthwhile…”

And there were others.

“I thought you guys were . . . good…? Uh, yeah,” offered Jodie.

“I . . . I don’t get it,” whispered Revy. “The crowd seemed to love it. I mean, everyone was cheering and everything. They wanted more. I don’t…”

Jodie’s eyes raised only slightly from the iun in her hands as Revy interrupted his own words by leaping to his feet and slowly meandering out of the room like a sudden zombie with no goal.

Still glued to his own iun, Revy waded through to comments by actual concert-goers and fans, hoping for a more positive response than that of “The Media.”

After all, if his music really meant anything, he shouldn’t expect those corporate industry bigwig reps who wrote professional reviews to really get it, right?

But the unofficial response was worse:

“…trying too hard . . . out of touch . . . okay, but from another time . . . weirdo front man . . . ugly . . . goofy . . . hard to take serious . . . songs all sucked . . . hoping for more…”

As automatic and reflexive as the band’s performance had been, Revy lurched for his bag of designer pills, the ones made just for him.

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PART A (The Psychologist) — 14

One of Johnston’s Business professors was a wiry fellow named Spek.

Spek’s lazy style, creepy wink, and wizardly appearance were to Johnston hallmark trappings of pure, irreversible failure.

Spek seemed most proud to revel in never having conducted any business of his own.

Now Spek’s apathy for actual instruction was costing Johnston his night.

Occupying two big tables at the library’s farthest edge, Johnston macheted eyes and fingers across several laid-out pages to triple-check his work.

Waves of confusion fell like gunfire behind twin twitching eyelids, interfering in their drawn-out war against droning, heavy fatigue.

The formulas were easy.

So why were they not working?

Had he not just re-reread the chapter?

Yet somewhere along the way, solving practice problems had become attempts at cleaning running engine parts that would dirty themselves six times faster than their edges could be wiped.

A moment’s empty silence almost brought to mind several realities remaining: the older brother and noises down the hall, a transcendent carpet multiverse, and even that same disgusting scrub brush . . . supposedly all springboards to catapult Johnston onward and upward.

But not yet.

Not now.

Not really.

The thought of Spek’s smug face made Johnston snap a pencil, the waste immediately providing his rage a clearer target than injustice.

Wasted thoughts.

Wasted time.

Wasted money.

Wasted lead.

He was startled to notice a girl a few tables over, young and all alone.

How could he have missed her?

Had she seen him break the pencil?

It felt odd not to bounce his eyes back from her at once to resume their doomed undertakings across the desks.

He could not be more aware of his choice to allow her image to hover at the corner of his vision.

So soft.

So bright and pretty.

So defenseless.

He could approach her easily, of course, and comment on the fact that they alone seemed studious enough to brave the college library this late on a Friday.

He could ask about her major, and dazzle her with the sheer vastness of his superior knowledge and ambition.

Johnston was, after all, what every girl wanted: a good-looking go-getter with a future so bright he might just burn all others to nothing with it (starting, of course, with Spek and every other useless teacher).

If powers that be could just set Johnston free, and let him go, and watch…

There she sat, a finger circling the clear little clip that held her sandy hair.

“What a big brain you have!” she would exclaim as he wowed her with his wit.

Yet should he not return his attention to more unsolvable problems at hand?

Business Statistics was a silly class, though important (like the rest).

Spek’s favorite line jostled to mind, the one repeated most often: “Business assignments are the easiest of all to fudge; and they usually turn out better when you do.”

It had to be a test.

What teacher would encourage students to not do their absolute best?

There she sat, staring into a subject-less volume opened to a colorless page.

So warm and happy.

So carefree.

He could hear her now, spouting pleasantries as he revealed the utter depths to which one would plummet to then rise and win the world.

She would see him matter amongst the matter-less as he crushed the sorry likes of Spek with inarguable value, carrying what forefathers and heroes had once been known to cede their very lives, lands, and freedoms to—the drive to grasp at facile existence and bend it fast to human whims.

And if they, why not he?

There she sat, a breathing bag of indentations and curvatures, pretending not to notice him.

Who would dress like that to go study?


Johnston shook himself from the thought, relieved to no longer be shaking himself from every lapse of calling slumber . . . but both shakings being really just ways of recoiling from different shames and troubles adjoined to getting caught.

There she sat.

What could he give her?

What might he do?

Would he pretend for her?

If asked, would he find and offer his brother’s nasty drugs?

Would he really act the lowly, stupid fool?

He pulled a fresh pencil stiff from its case, and wrote somewhere:

Will you do anything for *? LYA?LM?TI?LYA? THANK YOU!

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PART A (The Psychologist) — 13

Revy peeked into his greenroom just in time to see Mack erupt in a long cascade of vomit, covering clothes and drums.

Their eyes met, and Revy giggled dazedly to himself as Mack began to mumble and spaz around.

After all their countless little gigs thus far, everyone in and near the band knew to allow for Mack’s nerves to make things unpredictable at every last moment.

At least it was only the tiny practice kit that got trashed, and not the studio’s expensive set now waiting out on stage.

“You good?” called Revy.

“No!” came the muffled reply.

Revy chuckled again, pleased to be aware of a general haze taking form.

It was just a soft sense of sweetness and warmth, which he hoped would allow for this, the third worst moment in his life, to at least be cut and spliced with smiles.

“See you out there, buddy,” Revy bellowed, leaving before the smell could cause a chain reaction.

He sped by Crew and Angel’s greenroom on shaky feet, hoping to see neither.

Just get through tonight, and it will all be over.

Or it will be . . . starting.

That’s right.

Revy’s induced comfort made it no less difficult to ignore whatever underlying tensions might cause half a band to insist on separate greenrooms before and after their first big headlining gig.

He also had to fight to reel away from such sharp realities as all the money, jobs, and other moving units now wrapped up in delivering a perfect performance.

Five minutes.

His mind jumped to disjointed shards of a confusing conversation with Crew an hour earlier . . . something about key changes and vocal exercises.

Hadn’t some important decision been made?

He only remembered Crew barging in and going off at him about . . . which song was it?

Oh no!

Three minutes.

Revy’s oldest, strangest lyrics began to tumble in and out of his mind as they had been in intervals all afternoon.

He couldn’t help but grin at old-reel flickers of him and Dale getting so excited whenever a second verse would somehow lead back into the same chorus as the first.

What were the lyrics to Second Nation again?

He strained to imagine the intro.

But the whole song seemed so fake and meaningless now . . . a time-filler really, which he had tried way too hard to make say something important.

Did they have to play it?

It did usually get a good response.

One minute.

He peeked around heavy black felt to see a wavy sea of blank faces brightly lit by the bloated stadium’s house lights.

Who are all these people?

Why are they here?

What is music, anyway?

There was an awareness of movement, some cheers, flashing lights…

He dimly heard the last of Mack’s count-off clicks.

And then it was all just sort of happening.

Feelings, and politics, and hopes, and sketchiness disappeared into a sonic wall built in real time upon an ever-steady grid of perfect clockwork.

Even Mack seemed relaxed and mechanical.

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PART A (The Psychologist) — 12

Fluorescent lights pried into Ray’s skull as if to scare a story out of him.

Nothing unusual.

Children’s latest artistic efforts tacked amongst faded zippy wall-poster slogans all sank into an over-lit backdrop.

A welcome sound could be heard far off: fresh coffee percolating in the new machine’s pot.

Ray sat silent, desperate to ignore Jolie’s end of a phone conversation emanating like irregular bomb blasts from two desks ahead of his.

“Hello? Yes, I called yesterday and left a message with Parker… Parker… Oh, he said his name was… Yeah… No, I never heard back. Well, I… No… My name’s Jolie… Pwell… From Sea Breeze. It’s a church… Yeah, now I have three glass L-desks we need to… No, we need to get them out of here today, so… Well, Parker said today would work… What’s your name?”

Ray glanced over at old desk pieces piled in ruble at the center of the large, open room.

The space was a ghost town of crumbling boxes, scuffed phone systems, large and small cabinets, plug-in calculators with rolls of tape, and trays strewn with dusty remnants from former employees’ drawers.

A broken plastic Christmas tree leaned propped against a little table surrounded by four white cartons marked CHRISTMAS STUFF.

To the rear of the central wasteland stood a perfect wall of unopened boxes Ray had signed for when delivered a week before.

From beside Todd’s big door, far across the way, Ray caught the eagle-like stare of Mottamis, whom everyone called Mo.

Mo seemed to be honing in on Ray, glaring not quite pensively.

As soon as their eyes met, Mo blinked as if in defense, then stepped purposefully forward.

Ray’s attention was caught away by another abrupt burst from Jolie . . . still pressing for some sort of confirmation from whomever she had on the line.

Mo came to a halt at just the right distance to almost loom over Ray.

“Hey, I have a quick question,” blurted Mo, his tone suggesting more.

“Okay,” replied Ray, glancing from left to right.

Mo’s questions were never quick.

“What would you do in a situation where you have unlimited freedom to create or experience anything you want? And it’s forever. And I mean anything at all!”

“What do you mean?” asked Ray, peppering out more shaky, sideways glances.

There was no telling what sort of office-wide tension such conversations could snowball into.

This one felt like a trap.

“I mean,” said Mo, “you can make anything happen. Anything you want. Just by imagining it.”

“Um,” Ray sputtered, immediately aware of a stack of unanswered correspondence on his desk, “…and it’s forever?”

“Yes. You will always be able to make or do absolutely anything you can think of.”

“I guess,” ventured Ray, “I’d want to know what flying feels like. Um, why? What would you do?”

“Okay,” snapped Mo, “So say you fly for as long as you want. You would eventually get bored of just flying though, right? So what then?”

“I don’t know,” said Ray.

“Come on! Unlimited freedom! What would you do?” Mo’s words had the cadence of a counterpunch.

“I guess I’d do just what it says . . . like, imagine different things, and different people and stuff. Different situations. Um…” Ray’s eyes returned to rest over upon Todd’s giant door.

“But you see the limits, right?” roared Mo, his smile resembling that of a baby shark about to feed.

Beads of sweat began to dot and itch Ray’s neck and back.

He did not see the point Mo seemed to be so confidently driving toward.

Knowing Mo, it probably had something to do with God.

But then, instantly, none of it mattered.

Mo and the conversation slipped from Ray’s focus, along with everything else.

It’s happening again.

Ray watched as words he might have sought to say fell from sequence to meaningless scribbles and jumbled, clanging noise.

He smiled, aware of only drifting toward an old, familiar place.

He had watched himself slip like this before, losing track of where (and even sometimes who) he was.

But he had never quite made it all the way back to his special place since…

And there it was . . . that same beloved sound, unmistakable.

As if suspended in the emptiness of the calmest, darkest of caverns, Ray heard a rush like limitless oceans crashing eternally all around.

He did not think to marvel at how nothing had changed.

Instead, he remembered Mo.

But the dialogue and nonverbal cues had been cracked apart like an egg, its soft yolk running raw in pure colors of intention.

“I guess,” Ray heard a voice like his own utter with disarming peace, “I’d rather have something totally unknown happen . . . not anything I’d choose or expect at all. More just whatever could happen. Or maybe whatever couldn’t.”

“But you would still have forever!” Mo’s faint voice insisted. “That’s a long time. Do you really think you would enjoy just whatever imaginable random events forever?”

Ray’s distant response came smooth and quick: “If it were just infinite worlds and things I could imagine, then no, you’re right. But why does everything have to be imaginable?”

“What do you mean? That makes no sense: ‘…why does everything have to be imaginable?’”

“Well,” Ray’s tranquil voice went on, “why do things have to be the way we experience, y’know, with our senses? Why do things have to happen in time? Yeah, I’d get bored with just different worlds of strange creatures and things. But I think if I could see what stretches out, like, as far as possible away from my imagination, then I might never get bored.”

Mo’s voice fired back: “You’re talking about a world not bound by matter and space, or even logical absolutes?! That would be a world where things could be what they aren’t. You get that, right? And what could happen in this non-material, non-rational world of yours?”

“Anything. Whatever…” Ray uttered, his tone morphing down to a hopeful, raspy whisper. “I’d spend forever seeing whatever could be.”

The words felt like the final squeeze of a sponge.

A tremendous shaking hit Ray’s chest as he was washed back from his faraway place until it became again a fuzzy, beloved memory.

The office air felt icy cold and dry like death.

All eyes were locked on him, each set filled with varying degrees of pity and disdain.

Nothing unusual.


Even Jolie was silent, obviously listening.

How bizarre Ray must have sounded, spouting such nonsense about unimaginable worlds.

They all know!

Mo stood perfectly still, his face a model picture of deep thought.

“Go on,” said Mo gravely. “That was pretty good. See what working in a creative environment like God’s house can do for you?”

“This isn’t…”

But Ray caught himself in time, stuffing the words back like clothing into an already packed case.

“This isn’t . . . what?” pressed Mo.

Ray sighed, shaking his head, his face surely betraying in twisted contortions the overwhelming shame he felt as he fought to glue his gaze to the floor.

“You know,” continued Mo, “it’s unfair to think we’re not creative. I mean, consider that you have actually met Jaylen Uay! He got his start here, doing praise for youth. And it was those same songs he created in free worship that have made him one of the most successful Christian artists ever. Are you saying he’s not creative? Are you saying I’m not creative?”

“No,” gulped Ray, the rapid river of never-to-be-said phrases held unsteadily at bay.

I could save this place, you know!

But no one listens.

Why did you all write me off?

Why do you think I’m CRAZY!

A beep, and a click, and Todd flew into the office like a hearty comet.

Ray felt the frigid air begin to thaw.

Todd must have felt something too, for he halted mid-strut, pivoted past the desolate part pile, and strode straight up to Ray.

“How are you?” Todd thundered, showing the warmest of smiles.

But Ray knew better, of course.

The smile had to be just a cover for enormous suspicion and contempt.


“You…” Ray began as if at the press of a button . . . his mechanical soul threatening to spring and drain floodbanks held fast by only human lips.


“You have to see it all, all at once, or . . . or you’ll die.”

A massive, sick grin arced hard across Ray’s face as all the blood flushed out.

He heard no responses and saw no reactions.

Yet as glaring lights above went dim, he felt the creepiness he had unleashed permeate the stale air like sludge, acquiescing to every face, possessing every heart and mind…

This would be Ray’s last day working at the Church.

Though he would always keep close by.

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PART A (The Psychologist) — 11

Most of what had gone on in the year or so since Bing bought his prescription is another story.

But he could sure remember life before his reality of legal weed.

It had been a life spent mostly racing through TV channels alone in his plain box apartment . . . a life given daily in frantic pursuit of fresh cures to a disease called indecision with its grungy symptoms born of boredom crossed with slipping time.

Perhaps the sickness had hidden somewhere behind that old Bing’s sinuses.

For he would rub his crusty eyes so hard and often that the fine lines seen drawn beneath might as well have been canyons cut by friction.

Food heated would all grow cold.

Poured beer had always gone flat.

Eventually that Bing would have to settle upon some lesser of many evils, causing time to fly so the whole ordeal could end and begin again.

Yes, steady weed had changed much at first.

For whatever magic lay within those small torn shreds of plant had seemed to slow Bing’s mind down just enough to vibrate almost in tune with whichever burst(s) of silliness he might end up given over to.

But what’s funny about things like curses is they almost seem to love being outrun.

Catching up might be where they have their fun.

Tired sparks of a feeble buzz brought hints of old lights and fuzzy motions.

But devoid of zaniness or bliss, it begged Bing in drab tones to be filled with something else to be run through.

He lay in bed, his mind bouncing between potential old albums or videos to relocate on his iun.

He knew somewhere there had to be some worthy specimen to offer.

But all imagined options were but played-out, dreary trash.

Whatever had made for any previous Bings’ enjoyment seemed utterly incapable of rousing the current one.

And lately nothing new could be trusted.

A few far-off stars shone through in tiny pinstripes at the edges of Bing’s blinds.

He didn’t feel his hands quivering to clasp at clumps of bedding.

A familiar flash of connection was the jolt of colliding worlds.

He reached across to scoop up his iun, slid open the screen, and silently tapped out a message.

old people who only ever listened to music to be
cool keep doing it even though they hate it and
it’s not cool anymore.

He could already see himself later wondering why the words had seemed worthy to save.

A sheen of sweat began to tickle at points across the inner legs of his pajama pants.

He swept the covers off with a gruff sigh.

Almost immediately, he started to shiver.

Fighting not to recognize the many mounting signs of yet another sleepless night, he replaced the blankets carefully, half on and half off.

He braced himself for further flashes of useless inspiration, which always came perpetually in waves.

Could more weed help?

What’s this strain called again?

He lifted the iun still in his hands, and typed:

don’t use blue diesel at night.

He waited.

Sure, he could go smoke more.

But besides the Blue Diesel, he had only a little left of a strain called Green Crack.

He chuckled, weathered another internal flash, and quickly keyed:

how dumb would u have to be to try to use a weed
strain called greencrack to fall asleep?

The light from his iun’s face pierced through to hurt behind his eyes.

If I fall asleep now, I’ll get four hours…

And nothing had ever proven capable of keeping that same thought from repeating throughout such nights with adjusted figures.

He sighed once more as if resigning to accept the bittersweet resolution to a long and bloody battle.

Some part of him must want to just go ahead and capture every wild, frantic, flashing thought.


Maybe getting them all down and digital would clear his mind enough to rest…?

Might as well, right?

If I’m not going to sleep anyway…

So what was that about Green Crack again?

He squinted at the iun.

Green Crack . . . Green Crack…


He slowly tapped out a reply to his last message, keeping the two together.

well, gc once made u try to kill urself, so
sleep…? no!

And something was deeply, deeply wrong . . . as if the universe itself had paused to focus all its sets of secret eyes on him.

The words he saw onscreen weren’t funny.

They weren’t smart.

They weren’t any kind of reminder.

He saw only sheer failure immediately upon having decided to actually, consciously try.

Some covert line had been crossed somewhere.

Bing blinked.

His hope might as well have been swept out like a match.

Perhaps attempting to play with, use, or otherwise enjoy a curse only gives it more fuel to burn through once it can catch up and re-establish itself in new, ripe territory.

The old sinus sickness drew more clenched hands, chills, and sweating.

And Bing was in the bathroom, sparking away at his last clumps of Green Crack, drawing its piney smoke through an old, repurposed aerosol can.

He was asleep within minutes.

. . .

No, Bing didn’t bother reading his night’s recorded flashes.

It wasn’t that he forgot.

<Previous | Continue>

PART A (The Psychologist) — 10

As usual, God was being way too nice to Mr. Rolman.

“Dad, watch me skate!” called the boy, pure glee twinkling in his little eyes.

Mrs. Rolman thundered, “Get out!”

As Mr. Rolman slid the screen and glass doors shut behind him, he glanced up to see his son’s steady smile still beaming from beneath the tiny quilt and larger blanket shared each night by the three.

The lights inside suddenly went dark, leaving only that joyous, baby-toothed grin etched in Mr. Rolman’s mind like a neon sign.

Again, God was being way too nice.

Mr. Rolman stood in the garage, eyeing his drugs for the night.

He knew that Mrs. Rolman knew, of course.

So words came to mind he could use.

I’m just trying to relax.

Don’t you care?

Though the words weren’t quite a trap, they also weren’t completely his.

The next night, he’d be watching their son alone.

That would mean several trips like this to the garage, leaving the boy inside to play games on the iun or TV.

But wouldn’t Mr. Rolman need the iun with him?

He shook his head, certainly not proud.

He pictured the two porcelain faces on the other side of the wall, their eyes slowly closing . . . one so much a part of him, yet both somehow the same.

The drugs had gone down easy.

He forgot all about his special words to use.

He wondered why he couldn’t calm down.

Nothing about the moment felt right.

It was all so good, yet so undeserved.

How kind of Mrs. Rolman to always put their son to sleep.

I hope she’s okay.

I hope she’s feeling better.

I hope she’s having a good time.

I hope she’s not mad.

A sharp chirping meant a message on the iun.

Mr. Rolman made his way gradually back around and in.

“You don’t like me?” whispered Mrs. Rolman at the door, her face overwhelmingly beautiful.

Mr. Rolman was confused, and said nothing.

As he lowered himself to the floor and under blankets, his swollen knee knocked against the boy’s warm, curled back.

“Daddy!” cried the boy just above a breath, with tiny fingers rubbing still-twinkling eyes, then reaching for his father.

Mrs. Rolman shook her head and fell to the couch in a huff.

She had the tight-crossed arms and scowl of a cartoon elephant mid-harrumph.

A tear inched down Mr. Rolman’s cheek as he felt his son’s breathing slow to a deep and even tide.

He returned the boy to the floor as carefully as he could.

The reason Mr. Rolman thought Mrs. Rolman might be mad is really too silly to say.

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PART A (The Psychologist) — 9

Ray approached the deep green bed of carpet grass that circled all the edges of his office park like a mote.

He saw tiny cracks in the cement ridge lining above where flakes and paper specks mingled with old oil stains and glimmers of fading white from a painted-over grid.

Stepping up, over the ridge, he felt the squelchy give of padded earth beneath his feet.

He passed an old tree with gnarled bark patterns resembling bunches of faces with too many eyes.

The plot at the base of the tree was a perfect soil circle where the slender trunk disappeared to welcomed roots beneath.

His dress shoes clacked as he skipped diagonally down to pavement beyond the grassy mound.

There would be no traffic here, he knew.

This quiet, tree-lined street was where he always began his walks after working all day for the Church and then his self-appointed job.

Looking west, he smiled as the sun’s last rays kissed his neck and face.

He turned and started walking the other way.

All in view was lit a peaceful gold and amber red, while stretching shadows crossed the glow like skeleton silhouettes.

The shadows’ placement meant he was getting a later start today than usual.

He blamed Jolie.

Yet his focus drifted from the day’s quota of work and tense misunderstandings to a strange, small trickling sound . . . a tiny river gushing from a burst pipe up ahead.

A young woman, dressed smart in slacks and blouse, stepped to the road just beyond the flow of water.

She spun and hurtled toward Ray like an asteroid.

He almost froze, but caught himself in time to will his feet to keep him moving.

As the woman rifled past, Ray felt caught up by her current like fresh debris in a tornado.

He might have seen the beginnings of a smile touch her face, though it could have just been daylight’s final glimmers filtered through the blurry edges of his vision.

She appeared to beam with strength and life.

Yeah, I’ve started a business . . . sort of.

Something tells me you’d be great for what I’m planning.

I know this must seem so weird, me asking if you’d be interested.

I mean, I don’t know you, but I just have this sense about you.

He saw in a flash the two working side by side, deftly tag-teaming all manner of decisions via power meetings in boardrooms at crunch times.

She would keep him moving, and help him organize his work in ways he had never known possible.

As Ray neared the end of his quaint asphalt sanctuary, roars of crossing motors from the busy street ahead slowly morphed to angry growls of vicious animals.

These, he knew, were sent each night to weary his focus and kill all sense of the peace he had hoped these walks would bring.

Did unseen drivers care at all that their blarings were now ripping Ray from his dreams of partnership with the regal woman who had passed?

Of course not.

No one cared.

The sun was gone.

Skipping ungracefully to the sidewalk, Ray turned and came to a thrift shop called Happy Hearts.

It was odd seeing all the lights out.

A little farther, and the dim outline of the Church began to loom thick in the distance.

Hazy blue and purple twilight painted five enormous structures tunneled by walkways and strategic garden groupings, all surrounded by acres of the Church’s own parking lots, streets, and signals.

Ray came to a halt and stood in place, imagining himself as some lone warrior gazing over from above and far away at a foreign palace planted firm and safe at the center of its kingdom.

Thoughts like unwelcome ticker tape struck in familiar time, resurrecting a garble of old arguments Ray had long failed to lay fully to rest.

These indignant ghosts all crowded and cried, vying for his attention as he continued to gaze across at the majestic buildings and landscape.

Refuting the arguments, he knew, would be like swatting at a swarm of incoming bees.

Yet the alternative, he also knew, would be far worse.

Just to pull in extra . . . the ones who don’t even really…

Why should you have to…?

How could you be okay with…?!

The ticker tape wound down and crunched apart where it always did.

He reminded himself he was being unfair and too judgmental.

He remembered some of the Pastor’s recent words.

To stew this way, he knew more than anything, would prove unlivable for long.

He forced himself to continue walking, feeling a light breeze cool the nape of his neck from behind.

Gradually, the programmed squabbles began to fade, along with their dark accompanying still-frame shots and warlike sounds.

Poison drained from bottles.

Ray took a deep, deep breath.

It’s not your fault.

It’s no one’s fault but mine.

I should have tried harder.

If I’d just told you . . . or just been able to say it better!

Had his whole life really been reduced to a single lie?

Had playing innocent all these years convinced him he was actually some sort of martyr?

More like a coward, and not very smart.

He sure felt far from Jesus.

His mind spun like a cobra from its mirror trap, stretching out flat until he could no longer understand or believe he was this particular person walking this street in this City in this world . . . this fool ever fighting to hide himself, always smiling wide while teaming with revolving clusters of the evilest little plans.


The call came from deep enough within to snap Ray back to the here-and-now like a thunderclap.

But how could this be his life?

And how could he prove to himself for good it was no one else’s fault?

Tired, his focus collapsed away from ledges far too shaky to rest his weary soul.

But I should have tried harder!

I should have told you…

He glared now at the approaching Church, feeling the heat of his own blood as his fists clenched firm against his will.

It’s broken, and you’ll never fix it that way.

You keep trying to sync up all your dead pieces to make something alive!

He sighed.

But that’s all you’re used to.

That’s all you know.

Suddenly, a man appeared as if from nowhere, inches from Ray’s face.

“Hey!” sounded a chipper, adolescent voice.

Ray’s inner play again was shattered.

He squinted, failing to quite decipher the stranger’s face.

“Hi,” he heard his own voice say.

The stranger seemed to be creeping even closer in the near darkness.

Years of experience playing both roles in such scenarios had taught Ray there were but a handful of reasons one might be stopped like this in the street (and almost all akin to sales).

“Hey, I’m from the, uh, church over there,” ventured the stranger. “We just got out of service. You ever been?”


Inside, the awful riot crashed itself back to life.

I work for them!

But you would never…

They make me do things that…

Trust me, it’s…

Oh, but then if I don’t explain, you’ll accuse me of witchcraft.

You’ll say I’m trying to make you suspicious, which is the same as putting a curse on you to deceive you, right?

Let me guess: You’ll call what I’m doing “of the devil . . . earthly, sensual, demonic.”

But Ray was alone, facing a silence far more vicious than any loud, careless engines.

A young man had passed by moments earlier and surprised him.

That was all.

Neither had spoken.

Starlight shown above in patches wherever City lights allowed, as evenly spaced as graph paper.

As Ray came to the private street leading down to the Church’s main entrance, he felt a familiar twinge erupt near the side of his right knee.

He chided himself for having forgotten his running shoes for one too many walks.

A blue car, shiny and new, putted up from the Church’s parking lot to meet him at the intersection.

He leaned in to press the button to cross.

The smiling, middle-aged woman behind the wheel waved him on.

As he gingerly stepped out in front of the car, the light across from it turned green.

He swore silently, and scrambled to get out of the way, wincing at every step as his flat, hard dress shoes drummed fast along the concrete.

It’s not her fault!

She doesn’t know!

She’s trying to be considerate.

Perhaps to escape the throbbing now strobing up and down his outer leg, Ray’s mind blasted away to imagine a group of formless future aliens unearthing a particular fictional movie the Church had just put out.

He considered how odd an impression the film would leave.

For though rather violent at points, its angrier dialogue had been stripped of all edge and curse words, prompting those distant lifeforms to perhaps scratch their possible heads at such phrases as: “What the heck, Jones!” “Ah, fill your belly!” “I don’t give a fig!”

It’s not so bad.

People like it.

It’s making so much money.

Who am I to criticize?

Turning the final corner to end his suddenly agonizing stroll, Ray entered again the peaceful street behind his office park.

Though the same little river continued to trickle, he saw no sign of the amazing woman from before.

How positively serendipitous it would have been to find her there awaiting his return.

But Ray was alone, talking to ghosts of those who had passed him by.

<Previous | Continue>

PART A (The Psychologist) — 8

Female client. Unknown name. Age unimportant (20’s-30’s). Talkative.

Who was the man with her?

I will sometimes have clients bring in their long-term partners, which is usually quite effective.

Whoever the man was, he came for a single purpose: to be introduced to the others.

I soon gathered that I had met with the client at least a dozen times before.

Though I had no recollection of her, I could clearly remember and identify each of the others.

The one called Sandy spoke first today.

Sandy has described herself as snaggle-toothed, potato-shaped, and rather homely or common.

She seems bent on coming across as extremely likeable and easygoing.

I eyed the man in Sandy’s presence, keen to catch his initial reaction.

He shot me back a typical look—one of many I have come to expect from those in his position.

His was the desperate, silent plea of one who would give anything to know the secret behind some impossible trick just witnessed.

I felt no pity for him.

Sandy shared for a few minutes about working at a mall in a cheap jewelry store.

She described some of the tacky ornaments and trinkets preferred by her regular customers.

Next came Reggie.

Reggie tends to present himself as the most male of the others.

He has said he is tall and overweight, with a thick, bushy mustache.

Today Reggie recounted to me and the man how much of an ordeal it had been to make the switch from cop to fireman.

Or was it fireman to cop?

Anyway, Gel was last, always an interesting one.

Gel’s voice is shrill and will bend asymptotically toward various comical accents.

Today Gel told a tale I remembered having heard before about working on the set of a game show until being struck blind by lightning.

I would like to meet with Gel more.

I find liars (or actors) intriguing.

Once Gel was gone, I turned to the petrified man, then back to whatshername, the client.

Such pivotal moments go best if left to simmer in their own dramatic juices.

The trick is to only set and frame, and then wait and watch, and not intervene at all until just before the whole scene boils over.

Yet this time the man beat me to it, which has never happened before.

Really, I let him.

Of course I did.

I was curious.

The man turned to whatshername and blurted out words with exaggerated zeal.


“You know it’s all you, right?

“None of those other people are real!”

Should it concern me how superior to the man I felt in that moment?

I was almost enthralled by how much more of his lover I knew than he did.

His baffled innocence, and the way his voice cut and trembled as he spoke, reduced him to a poor child clutching at reason one last time before breaking down in near tearful despair at a cold world’s sheer unfairness.

I reminded myself that I am a professional.

Of course I would know her better.

That is my job.

I watched the client’s face intently.

We had reached what I refer to as a Sticking or Breaking Point.

Things would now start to go one of two ways: Whatshername would either register with reality, or push to escape it further.

Yet either outcome today would ultimately prove inconsequential.


Let me back up and start at the beginning.

I want you to grasp how simple this all really is.

My goal in these notes is to show my Method in action for purposes of training and future reference.

Most of my clients are not cases of dissociative identity disorders (split or multiple personalities).

Yet using my most important cases as examples, I intend to demonstrate the effectiveness of my Method at treating any number of conditions.

Cases of multiple personalities do, however, serve as great illustrations.


Because those with such tendencies are not actually being dishonest.

Whatshername was never attempting to hide anything from herself when dissociating.

Quite the opposite.

Her other personalities were the parts of her that she most wished to see (or be) for whatever reason.

In every case, my Method is a process that allows unconscious awarenesses and drives to be made increasingly obvious until a Sticking or Breaking Point is reached.

Then the truth is either accepted consciously (it sticks) or avoided.

Whatshername accepted her reality today.

She is now cognizant of all her personalities.

She might even remember being each of them.

Future sessions (if we continue to meet) will center around helping her discover which parts of her identity each manifestation was a representation of as she learns to manage them all at once.

So, who is whatshername?

I realize how strange it must sound for me to say I cannot remember having met with her before.

You see, I have this particular irregularity, which most would assume to be problematic.

Though I work as a psychologist—I meet with individuals (and some couples) throughout each day for therapy—I honestly cannot tell the vast majority of my clients or anyone else apart.

To me, whatshername is but one of a multitude of faces that all appear the same.

Although the idea of a counselor being unaware of who he is even counseling might seem hopelessly irresponsible (perhaps unethical), I believe my irregularity to be the reason I was able to discover and develop my Method in the first place.

I do not see who a person is, but what they are.

What do I mean by that?

Well, I refer to most as Normals.

You probably need no expertise in sociology or statistics to grasp why.

The more of a Normal someone is, the more difficult he or she is for me to identify.

I call non-Normals Outliers.

Not only can I tell Outliers apart, but it is only by working back from my Outlier clients that I can begin to distinguish my Normals.

Outliers serve as magnetic poles to help me find direction in terms of recognizable features.

I have never spoken of my irregularity before.

I bring it up only to contextualize my Method’s initial founding and function.

Much of what you will read would probably make little sense at first without at least a basic understanding of how I see my clients.

Yet I must stress that my Method works exactly the same—just as effectively—in treating both Normals and Outliers.

And you do not have to share my irregularity to use my Method.

If a colleague ever notices my inability to differentiate clients, I usually claim some sort of accident has botched up my files.

This is not a total lie, for my previous case notes are an absolute shambles.

It pains me whenever I stop to think of how many rushed sets of notes I must have scribbled and flung together so flippantly through the years.

In truth, my notes have been so disorganized because they were never necessary.

My Method works without those jotted generalities of interchangeable clients’ progress.

Yet these new instructive notes will be different.

I must say it feels rather cathartic and surreal to see my irregularity expressed on paper for the first time—quite relieving actually, as if a weight has been partly lifted.

I might as well continue to open up this way and share my real experience.

I can always later redact any redundancies.

So, I met with whatshername this afternoon.

What happened before that?

I remember feeling troubled during my first two earlier sessions.

Even when I awoke this morning, my mind felt locked to piddly remnants of what had been a strange and irritating dream.

The dream was…

I only recall seeing coffee . . . my coffee cup . . . but it was big, like a shield or something on my arm.

And there was just the daunting feeling of having no idea how to go about drinking from such a wide brim.

What could it mean?

For months now, I have been coming to grips with the undeniable certainty that therapy is fast becoming an excess luxury for my target demographic.

Obviously the truly wealthy would never grace my office door to have their deepest secrets recorded for analysis.

Those with means understand the ease with which such systems can be compromised.

The fear that their hidden lives might be sold and brought to light is actually quite logical.

No, it is the middle classes I have watched disappear from my appointment books like water drying in the sun.

They simply cannot see what I do as enough of a priority now to be worth what I must charge.

My fear of running out of clients weighed on me this morning because my first appointment was with Mr. and Mrs. Rolman.

I often wonder how the Rolmans are able to afford my services week by week.

Yet how sure am I that it was in fact the Rolmans seated across from me today?

Could it not have been another Normal couple?

Again, so many faces all the same.

Though the lines seem to be blurring exponentially faster.


Well, with less and less clients left to see, I have little left by which to tell my few remaining apart.

I will admit on some level my drive is to compile and publish these new notes before my irregularity gets exposed (and misinterpreted), like a squirrel desperately seeking nuts to store in the face of a long, cold coming winter.

I will certainly have to remove much of what I have written here already.

Such textual adjustments cannot be considered dishonest.

For not only are my personal fears irrelevant, but my primary motivation truly is education and beneficence as stated—not self-preservation.

Besides, I have every reason to trust my Method to continue to work despite however extreme my irregularity gets.

How funny I mentioned my coffee dream this morning.

For I often have another dream related to how I see my clients.

In that other, recurring dream, I can almost make out the words of some whispered conversation always happening far away.

Then I awake each time with only an eerie sense that the undeciphered words were really dark family secrets.

I never had a family.

I do not know my family.

You would think a therapist with no relationships would be at quite a disadvantage, no?

Yet what my Method has proven time and time again is that if human experiences can be aligned and reflected back just right, then the solutions to human problems are always exactly the same.

Such consistent evidence becomes my bedrock core of hope whenever fear prompts me to dig and stall in doubt.

I love my Method because it allows all needless individual details to slip away as entrenched dynamics and patterns essentially present themselves.

Rather than a face or personality, my Method shows a client’s life.

Then I can help them see beyond and beneath all their working sets of conscious commentaries.

Still, it would probably be good if I could find a few more Outliers soon.

<Previous | Continue>

PART A (The Psychologist) — 7

“Thank you for calling Sea Breeze Faith. This is Ray. How can I help?”


. . .

Ray Golel hoped he was smiling.

He was sure trying to hold a smile.

But keeping the corners of his lips upturned while fighting to find some sort of natural rhythm to his stints of eye contact with Jolie was like working to solve two very different puzzles at once, both time-sensitive.

And paying attention to her actual words became attempts at spinning one too many plates.

He was making her uncomfortable too.

He had to be.

For almost whenever his eyes would dart carefully away, hers would likewise spring from his on cue.

His smile would loosen . . . her expression would shift.

He would bring the smile back at just the right time . . . but then his gaze would linger a tad too long, feeding tension like air into a balloon until it popped.

It happened over and over.

Ashamed, he sensed he was ever but seconds from hearing her cry something close to, “Don’t!”

And the fact that nothing was said of their shared pressure or agitation was what gave it most of its power over him.

For all he knew, it was all in his mind.

What’s she talking about again?

“So, why are you here so late?” Jolie asked.

Why are you?!

But all Ray could manage out loud was: “I usually . . . just . . . wait here until . . . later.”

He felt his face flush, probably with red.

Why would I say that?

Couldn’t I just tell her I’m working on something personal?

No, then she might get suspicious.

He realized she was still talking, so bent his attention back like a bar to the prattling stream of her words.

“So, anyway,” the words were saying, “I was going to go back for my master’s, but it’s not really a good time right now. I don’t know. I was supposed to get married…” She paused to laugh (an escalating series of detached little bursts). “I know that doesn’t make much sense. Wow, you’re, like, the only guy I could ever say that to and not have it go all weird.”

Her laugh seemed to want to start up again, only to be cut short by more words: “Anyway, wow, we’ve been here talking for almost two hours!”

Ray looked at his watch, instantly reminded he was the only person he knew without an iun.

Two hours!

But there were no other options.

He had to stay still and just keep fighting to reinforce that rudderless, shaky smile . . . throwing up sandbags of pure resolve until his wild, tired eyes would simply fail to skip about with hers any further.

She can’t know!

As if in answer to his hopes, Jolie trilled conclusively, “Well, I’d better be going. Thanks for listening to all my crap. Have fun, whatever it is you’re doing.”

Each tiny explosion of laughter that followed grew more boisterous and unsettling than the last.

“Have a good night,” responded Ray, fostering an eye-twinkle into his last model smile like an artificial cherry on a store-bought cake.

She made her way out, bouncing through the office like a pinball to do things like forward phones, close blinds, straighten papers, lock drawers, and then finally let the big self-bolting double doors in front shut and clamp behind her.

There was silence.

That was too close!

She must . . . they must all know.

How long has it been?

Wait, almost three years…?!

One more month!

I have to be out by then or I’m sure they’ll…

But Ray found himself lost in something like a vision, foreboding and stunningly clear.

The scene was of Jolie and all the rest seated in a sharp circle to surround him.

He then saw evidence being brought forth, each single piece in turn . . . and every crime fit to its rightful place in metanarrative sequence.

All deliberate choices were made duly impossible to escape or spin until every chance was lost at last for Ray to force with all his worth his own unique brand of utter sincerity.

Besides, his was a naiveté even his slightly greying hair and crinkled eyes must have betrayed as abundantly willful by now.

They know!

They all have to know!

The vision wound and swept away on its own.

He saw only himself and Jolie now, sitting as they had been . . . she, calling forth each remaining secret through her mere silent stare . . . and he, straining with all his worth to only stay still, and wait, and…

He watched his own face unravel as he failed to force himself normal again like a bee denying unto death its inability to launch itself from water.

The vision concluded with Ray as a crumbling statue . . . a hand held to its ear . . . and then his statue self hearing only “Don’t!” after a final hellish moment of eye contact misaligned and held too long.


. . .

The phones rang again, a grating digital sound.

He must have forgotten to set them to Night Mode.

“Sea Breeze Faith. This is Ray. How can I help?”

“It . . . it’s you!”

<Previous | Continue>

PART A (The Psychologist) — 6

The Rolmans were given a winning lottery ticket.

Or maybe the money was willed to them by some rich relative.

It really doesn’t matter how.

Basically, the Rolmans were given huge amounts of cash.

They had no idea how much.

It might as well have been billions (or trillions) of dollars.

The money was one of the few things Mr. Rolman never mentioned to the Psychologist.

He just never thought to bring it up in their sessions.

But Mr. Rolman did have plans for the money.

He stuffed it in the innermost pockets of his oldest coats, which hung in the living room closet below stacks of board games, umbrellas, flashlights, and other ordinary knickknacks.

Mr. and Mrs. Rolman took money from the pockets whenever they needed it.

Mrs. Rolman bought a hairbrush, and a birthday cake for their son.

Mr. Rolman bought the boy a scooter.

One day, Mr. Rolman began to feel a dull pain just below and to the side of his right knee.

From then on, the pain seemed to flare up whenever he would run to keep up with the boy at the park near their home.

The pain grew worse week by week until eventually it remained a steady, sharp tinge that made him cringe each time he panted and pumped his arms to go faster.

But the boy never stopped blasting forward and away on his shiny yellow scooter, circling and whooping, playing all sorts of little games Mr. Rolman never quite understood.

Sometimes Mr. Rolman’s attention would be drawn away to seeds, or nuts, or rocks, or lizards, or whatever else he might come across on the ground as the boy carried on.

The Psychologist had told Mr. Rolman it was okay to be a little absent-minded, that the important thing was how much time he was always spending with his son, and that it was great he was encouraging the boy’s individuality and confidence.

Much of what the Psychologist told the Rolmans would eventually be shown to be somewhat incomplete, like games with missing pieces or wrong instruction cards.

<Previous | Continue>

PART A (The Psychologist) — 5

There was a man who would one day change his name to Bing.

So let’s call him Bing now.

Bing made plans to tell his boss and co-workers about something he would dub his “Yearly Medical Day.”

He intended the request and necessary conversations to include dapper explanations of how he would bust through all sorts of appointments with various specialists in a single day, getting it all out of the way at once.

It would be a lie, of course, and just as well…

For even after Bing had paced his office hallway like a pent-up swarm of bees to work up the nerve, all he could actually manage with his supervisor was: “Um, I gotta take Friday off for . . . doctors…?”

And with that, his real plan was underway.

Two anxious nights, a hundred-dollar bill unclipped from a wad, and a hurried dialogue later, and Bing had his prescription.

It was stamped, signed, folded four times, and tucked safely away in his wallet like a tool in Batman’s belt.

Driving to his next and final stop, he took a deep, slow breath.

He reached to press the volume button, causing his car radio to cough to life.

Chattering, distinguished voices cut through loose, gravelly speakers.

But he wasn’t listening.

Almost there.

Gingerly thumbing sleep from both eyes, Bing glanced down and across at his iun* resting open on the littered passenger seat. (*device)

The address was up, along with a little map, though he had memorized it all late the night before.

Reviewers of the place he was headed for had made a point of describing the way Suite F only appeared to face the street (“between a crappy head shop and nail salon”), but that the real entrance lay around back.

Nearly all the potential places Bing had come across in his almost-all-night search had been described in similarly off-putting ways: “up the second flight of stairs . . . watch for the guard to the left of the building . . . if you hit Dearhurst, you’ve gone too far.”

Apparently medical marijuana dispensaries weren’t the easiest places to reach.

A flush of tired nerves jolted Bing to life as he made his way around a quiet row of shops.

There at the back, he saw a makeshift metal guard shack next to a big door with a large F painted crude in green.

It was time.

This was the moment he had been both longing for and dreading for the past six months, ever since a work colleague had shown him how legal weed could be a real possibility.

Of course it was the details that made him nervous, like always . . . like reviewers of some dispensaries who described being given strains to sample right at the counter, “taking tokes” with their “budtenders.”

An offer like that would put Bing in an awkward spot for sure.

He couldn’t turn it down for fear of seeming rude or shy.

But the idea of being high around others, especially someone as experienced as a budtender…

Also, the listed pricing charts all seemed so confusing.

He hoped, more than anything, to avoid any sort of attention or drawn-out conversations in the unfamiliar environment he was about to be thrust into.

But there was no turning back.

His prescription had been paid for.

He was locked into his plan.

As midday heat beat down through grubby windows, Bing shoved his iun under the seat, withdrew his wallet, clasped his ID and prescription together in one hand, and slowly popped open his door as though easing into a freezing pool.

“Hey man,” spouted a skinny guard from the shack across the way. “Y’all got yo papers ready?”

“Yes,” stated Bing.

The guard bowed slightly, reaching to open the heavy door behind him.

Even before stepping through, Bing was overwhelmed by the smell that wafted out to greet him like an old friend.

It was that same familiar scent of pine, and skunk, and herbs, and something else all its own.

He found it to be both calming and alluring right away.

His rigid gate eased a notch.

He smiled.

Maybe these people would be cool.

Maybe they could be his friends.

“First time or returning?” asked a mechanical female voice from a box to Bing’s left.

He turned to glimpse two of the most alarmingly attractive young women he had ever seen seated behind a thick acrylic-glass window.

The one with darker skin and slightly more tattoos gave him a friendly smile and repeated into a microphone attached to her desk: “First time patient? Or returning?”

“I’m . . . first time,” said Bing.

“Got your rec and ID?”

Bing noticed the slot at the base of the window.

Without saying anything, he slid his license and prescription through.

“Thank you,” said the other girl. “Please sign in and fill out one of these…”

She slid a clipboard with a stack of stapled forms back through the slot.

Bing took the clipboard and lowered himself to a metal chair.

After signing and initialing a few dozen times, he glanced around to take in the waiting area.

It was quite bare except for a small wooden coffee table at the center.

On the table lay neat stacks of magazines with pictures of plants and paraphernalia.

The smell, and what that smell meant was waiting just beyond the next big door to his left, remained pleasantly bewildering.

He could hear faint fragments of talking taking place behind the door.

He took a deep breath, hoping again for a quick and smooth exchange.

His name was called like at a doctor’s office.

He rose, slipped the clipboard through to the smiling receptionists, pocketed his ID and rec, and pushed through as the handle buzzed to unlock.

The smell so intensified as he entered that innermost chamber (its source) it hit Bing hard like a massive wave.

It was the steam from cartoon pies that causes characters to lose their senses and float off the ground toward it, all drooling and fuzzy-headed.

He couldn’t decide which was more appealing as he inched across that pungent room . . . the rows upon rows of giant mason jars, all filled with more marijuana than he’d ever thought he’d see, or the team of tiny beauties behind the counter, all grinning at him.

But the idea of sampling a smoke with an unfamiliar hot girl seemed to Bing about as uncomfortable as being a eunuch at a peep show.

He imagined himself guffawing like Goofy, and felt his pulse quicken in his neck.

He sauntered instead to a small Asian man who stood almost unnoticeable amongst the rest behind the counter.

“Hi, Mr. Pugloci?” welcomed the young man in a quiet voice.

“Hi,” said Bing, his gaze lost in waves of green and other forest colors.

“Your first time here?”

“Y. . . yes. I just got my prescription today,” said Bing, immediately feeling a remarkably strong sense of calm and focus as he brought his eyes up to meet those of his first budtender.

“Wow!” said the peaceful voice. “That’s great. Well, I can walk you through everything you’ll need to know. My name is Ten, by the way.”

The two shook hands.

“Bing,” said Bing.

“Well, Bing, basically how the dispensary works is you have your top-shelf strains…” Ten motioned to the jars Bing had just been ogling.

Each jar had a hand-written label with names like Moody OG, Kryptonite, Purple Princess…

“Then there are your medium and low-shelf,” continued Ten, pointing toward jars that sat, conveniently, on the two shelves below the top.

“Oh cool,” said Bing, eyeing jars through the glass.

“If you don’t mind me asking,” said Ten, “what’s your medical need? That way I can help you find the right strains for you. The ones you are looking at now would be good for things like insomnia, loss of appetite, anxiety… Over here,” Ten continued, gliding in an arc around the counter’s sharp central corner, “we have strains known to get you up and moving. These are more energetic, and are said to help with creativity and mental stimulation, kind of like an energy drink. You might find them helpful for problems like depression or mood disorders.”

“I guess…” began Bing, trailing off.

“It’s okay,” assured Ten, “I know it can all be quite overwhelming at first. Trust me, in six months you’ll know all the different types of strains inside and out.”

Ten laughed, pronouncing each “ha” as though learned from a textbook.

“Here,” he breathed, arcing again at speed around and out from behind the counter, “these are edibles.”

Ten reached to open a refrigerator door just behind where Bing was standing.

Bing turned to see that the little fridge was packed full of chocolate bars, brownies, cookies, and bottles of lemonade and soda.

Some of the goodies had professional-looking labels.

Others were unmarked, in re-sealable zipper bags.

“Wow!” said Bing. “I’ve never had edibles before.”

“The key with these is moderation,” cautioned Ten, smiling humbly. “I mean, you only want to eat a little, and then wait about an hour or so. If you’re used to smoking, you might just keep eating and eating, and then…”

Ten let the consequences of his unfinished thought hang in Bing’s imagination like barbed wire.

“I smoke a little bit,” said Bing. “That’s why I wanted the prescription . . . so it could be legal or whatever. But yeah, I’ve been doing it off-and-on since high school.”

“Cool,” said Ten, his expression blank and tranquil. “You have probably just been smoking whatever you get, right . . . not really paying attention to different strains?”

“Right,” Bing confirmed.

“Well, now you can really keep track of how the different types affect you. Oh yeah, one more thing…” remembered Ten, navigating his way back behind the counter with the finesse of a predatory animal. “These are called concentrates…”

Looking to the small section where Ten was gesturing, Bing saw rows of tiny vials and tubes half-filled with oily liquids, as well as bottled pastes that looked like brown or yellow globs of dough.

“With these,” Ten said, “you only need a little bit to get the same effect.”

“Oh, so I should just get those then?” asked Bing, noticing the prices listed were about the same as the regular, non-concentrated marijuana in jars.

“Well, no,” said Ten, pausing, a slightly focused tinge to his expression suggesting the arrangement of his thoughts. “I see a lot of people will start medicating with mid- and top-shelf strains. Then they build up a tolerance and start using concentrates until those don’t even work anymore. You really don’t want to get to that point, right? I mean, it seems better to just ease off a little if you start to build up that kind of tolerance. That’s just my opinion, anyway. You want to make sure it keeps helping you medically. Again, just what I think.”

“Oh, okay,” said Bing. “Well, my main symptoms are anxiety, so…”

He trailed off again into silence, hoping not to have to continue.

“Okay,” beamed Ten at just the right time. “Then you’ll want to go with the first group of strains I showed you. They’re called Indicas. Great for anxiety.”

Ten was already lifting three of the mason jars to the countertop and unscrewing their steel lids in one fluid motion.

“Go ahead and take a closer look,” Ten suggested. “You can smell the flowers and get a sense of how each will taste. See the thick red hairs on this one?”

Bing lowered his face toward the jar labeled Abusive OG.

The dense clumps inside were so large the entire jar was made up of only about four massive buds, dark green, almost brown, and covered in a dense jungle of red.

“Is this one that you use?” Bing asked as he took in the musty smell, picking up a somehow pleasant hint of skunk.

“Me?” said Ten. “I haven’t medicated in about six months. And we just got this strain in last week. So, no.”

“Wow, six months?”

“Don’t tell him that!” called the squeaky voice of a female budtender waiting to work nearby.

Ten smiled politely, his eyes ever fixed in their impervious gaze.

“Yes,” Ten assured. “Like I was talking about, I had built up too much of a tolerance, so I decided not to medicate for a while.”

“You must be . . . desperate for it by now?” chuckled Bing, hoping to triangulate his way into a conversation with the nubile girl who had spoken.

Ten, or the place itself, had certainly seemed to set Bing more at ease.

“No,” said Ten simply.


“It helps me in . . . certain ways,” Ten began, then paused. “When I want to, I’ll use it again. That might sound cryptic, I know.”

Bing nodded, thinking, and replied, “Actually, it reminds me of what the doctor I just met with was saying, right before I came here. I went to him because he writes these articles about weed and how the experience can be sort of . . . spiritual, in a way. Is that kind of what you’re talking about?”

“I think that’s something private for each person,” responded Ten. “Right?”

“I don’t know,” answered Bing, slightly disappointed, but still smiling wider than he had in longer than he could remember.

. . .

Bing completed his first medical marijuana purchase, exiting with a rich sample of strains and edibles to try.

As he left, he thanked Ten, the two receptionists, and the laidback guard outside, even treating each to a silly grin and wave.

The white paper bag folded neatly under his arm carried a hint of the captivating smell like a beacon back to its lair.

Shielding his eyes from the blinding sun as he strutted back to his car, Bing felt about as loose and relaxed as Ten had seemed.

He considered Ten’s comment about spiritual experiences.

Though Bing would never see Ten again, the small man’s calm words and demeanor would never be too far from his mind.

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PART A (The Psychologist) — 4

A classmate pulled ahead, followed close by Johnston.

The two shot around L-shaped corners, zigging past waves of empty cork boards and brightly colored, crisply cut election posters taped to walls.

The classmate pumped sweatered arms, never quite looking back.

Johnston pressed, but heard his shoes begin to screech against the scummy linoleum floor.

Too loud to go this fast, he thought.

Too much trouble.

Not the right way to behave.

He stopped and caught his breath, alone now in a random stretch of hall.

As he considered heading home, a neatly folded square of lined paper caught his eye from beneath the rear of a bin marked “REFUSE.”

Glancing left then right, he glided in and stooped to clasp the mysterious page by its exposed corner.

He noticed a blue heart drawn in pen with extra curves and spirals.

As he turned the note over to yank its careful folds apart, a gaggle of gleeful females swarmed into the hall, all giggling and honking like the working components of some enormous cartoon machine.

Johnston froze, feeling their judgmental stares as they laughed and bobbed in his general direction.

He glanced halfway up, not quite meeting pairs of menacing eyes . . . then quickly down again.

His point of view was the sliding piece of the Strongman carnival game once its lever has been whacked with a mallet and the slider finds its apex.

He shuddered as he took in partial outlines of further curves and spirals.

An old warmth began to pool in his chest like a shaky jolt, and Johnston bolted, fleeing first straight at the gaggle, then around . . . an uncoordinated asteroid knocked into and out of orbit.

A door marked “MEN” lay just beyond.

Then safe in the usual dank and sterile mix of smells . . . hidden with his feet up in a stall . . . Johnston finished unraveling the paper, fighting to contain a wicked grin.


im stefani. im gabbys freind. u met me at gabbys house when derek had that party. i long brown hair and big tits. haha. anyway, i wrote this letter because ive been thinking about u. i like the way u talk and ur voice and i just though u were cool so gabby says u would probably go out with me. i want to go out with u. ur hot. haha. i think u liked me 2 because u were looking at me and laughing when i said that about mr hensler. i was so nervous about u but i hope u will think about this. i been thinking about u. a lot. haha. anyway. bfn.



. . .

It was dark.

The kitchen air had fallen still and musty, probably with age.

Johnston cursed as quietly as possible, almost a whisper and quite matter-of-fact.

His scrubber’s bristles, loose and dull, were matted through with tiny fragments.

Slime from old scorched beans and days’ worth of a crusty film held fast.

He gritted his teeth and scraped all the more beneath pale, lukewarm water.

The chore had to be done, so he let his mind wander in the particular way it had trained itself to, having now well over a decade’s practice.

Stef . . . Stefani…

Perhaps it was just her fun, cute way of spelling Stephanie.

Or maybe Stephany.

Yes, he could picture her now.

And Gabby.

And others, all clustered in a tight circle on the floor of Stefani’s pink and Easter-blue, pony-themed princess room.

He envisioned the troop of pajama-pantsed beauties all laughing and egging each other on as together they penned Mark’s note.

Johnston now knew the note by heart.

He had read and reread it over 50 times, letting his mind run to fill in every missing detail.

Had she given the note to Mark?

Had Mark tried to throw it away and missed?

Did that mean poor Stefani might be alone somewhere even now, perhaps softly crying into her teddy’s side for having been so slighted?

How could Mark have committed such treason?

Johnston would never spurn so exquisite a creature as Stefani.

Of course not.

And he could just see Mark, too . . . the pretty-boy idiot, self-obsessed, immature, carefree and careless.

The dishwater seemed to stink more than usual as Johnston continued to scrape with all his worth, tearing at a few final filthy remnants until at last he saw no traces.

With a smile, he set about drying and putting away.

The odd football yell or hyena shriek from down the hall was nothing new.

Barely even noticeable.

His smile grew as the complete blueprint for a plan seemed to leap all at once to his mind, ordered already in sequential steps.

He would write Stef a note, and leave it near the same place, though more visible out in the hallway.

And what if his note were to actually reach her?

How romantic would their against-all-odds story one day be?

He could just see himself with Stefani reciting their unlikely tale for the nth time to half-ring rows of beloved grandchildren.

But first Johnston would scrimp and save, running that decrepit scrub brush through more sets before retirement.

That way he could take her to the movies and buy her popcorn.

He would treat her the way she needed to be treated . . . the way she deserved . . . like royalty.

She just needs someone to show her how special she is.

Someone to love her.

The noises from Johnston’s older brother’s room became less human and more frequent.

Johnston remained completely still, unaffected.

The dishes were done.


Floors were clean.

He lowered himself to brown shag-carpet beside an old cherry-wood desk his father might have used.

He had been told this was the very spot his father’s body was discovered.

It had since become Johnston’s spot, right at the center of the house.

He stared into a blank white page that lay diagonal on the floor before him, and waited for careful designs to become correct words.

Then his gaze shifted, and he stared way past the page (and every fluffy shade beneath) until all blurred to sweet meaningless oblivion.

The expected words came, and he wrote.

Hi Stefani,

How are you? Ok, try not to be mad, but I found your letter to Mark. I thought it was great! I loved what you said and the way you wrote it. My name is Johnston, by the way. Johnston Sayen.

I know this is going to sound strange, but can I meet you? I just mean that, if Mark did not appreciate your letter, maybe you would like to know someone that did?

Maybe your letter never got to him. If that is the case, forget about what I said. You can try to get another letter to him. Or whatever you want to do.

Well, I will leave it at that. Since I found your letter, I have been thinking about you. A lot. Haha. ; ) bfn



He was happy with his draft, though knew it would undergo scores of tiny tweaks throughout the night.

But first Johnston let himself get lost again, staring far deeper than carpet could go in total stillness and silence.

Time slipped away as it always did, and he became that boy again . . . the one whose older-brother guardian was always off somewhere subdued in distant rooms by all the worst subductions.

He was once more that quiet boy who taught himself to clean from magazines, and who learned to find his own way to each school . . . that boy who met all violence and chaos head-on with the sheer force of a simple belief in a single ideal: that Johnston could be, and do, and become anything he chose if he were just to complete each necessary step.

It was more than a belief, really.

It would always be his way out . . . his line to reach for and return to no matter what.

Johnston certainly wasn’t violent.


. . .

In morning’s light, Johnston set about perfecting his letter again.

Did he know, deep down, he would never really leave it for Stefani to find?

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PART A (The Psychologist) — 3

Revy peered at the full-length mirror hanging tall within his open closet door across the room.

Light seemed to outline his reflection as he watched himself strum and pluck his old guitar, the first gift he remembered ever receiving from his father.

He looked pretty cool, his lean and angular profile bobbing gently as he jumbled along the rougher edges of a piece.

He listened as his voice began to stretch its way up in search of a good entry point.

The rise felt familiar, though somehow weirdly wrong.

And he knew the lyrics he was about to sing were trash.

Why had he wanted to call the song Fantastic?

But it was hardly an idea for a song.

He huffed and shook his head, recognizing at once his most familiar trap to avoid.

Memories of days and weeks spent fiddling around like this at the edge of his bed . . . just noodling through the same old sets of chords over and over . . . rang out like a warning bell in his mind.

In lieu of missing parts he somehow never failed to expect would magically present themselves to tie his work together, he shifted his gaze ahead, peeled his left shirt sleeve up over his watch, and dug the tip of his thumb into a tiny button on the side.

A telltale chirp meant the watch’s timer had been sprung into motion, set to sound four hours later.

Immediately all Revy could hear were noises he never would have noticed if it hadn’t just become his official practice time: the build and fade of cars nearby, bursts of whistling birds, a few hoots from children far away…

He also heard Jodie’s voice booming through the wall.

She must be pretending to interview some celebrity or something again.

He could all but see her hands swooping to catch up with the bubbly, unrelenting words.

Two words in particular jumped out from all her lines, yanking his attention back each time: “And, uh…”

He smiled, picturing the sudden redness and scowl that would overtake her stern face like a storm if he were to ever point out anything about her speaking skills or style.

Yet she seemed to have more than just freedom to question and chide any choices he made in his art.

And there went three minutes.

After brushing fingers hard through his hair, Revy slipped up his sleeve again and dug deep into two buttons to restart the timer.

He reached to grab a spiral notebook from an open shoebox just under the edge of his bed.

PRACTISE was scrawled uneven across the book’s cover in thick green ink.

Inside, he bypassed pages of instructions to himself . . . mostly advice gleaned from rock star heroes in interviews.

It was actually from something said in one such interview that he had decided on his “4-for-4” plan in the first place . . . to practice four hours a day for four years.

Aware of the timer still snapping out fresh seconds, he rifled to a section marked SCALES.

Letters and symbols for notes in each key littered the pages he landed at like a preschooler’s homework.

Labeling the notes had been an awkward notion.

But he’d known this would be an important language to internalize if he ever hoped to play well with more educated musicians and not feel like an idiot ever struggling to catch up by ear alone.

He found the first note, C, and slowly climbed his way up the scale, not quite muttering letters to himself in hopes of memorizing each note’s name.

C, D, E . . . F . . . G . . .

No wait, that’s a G?

That doesn’t sound right.


After a few minutes spent clumsily mapping the same tones to different spots on his instrument’s neck, he slid absentmindedly back to strumming out one of his old, comfortable, unproductive pieces again.

But the seconds still ticking silently away on his arm began to scream at him like a drill sergeant.

Then he huffed a couple more times, ground more fingers through his hair, and returned to jerking his way up and down the fretboard like a sloppy robot.

He cursed Jodie as she continued to spout her “And, uh…” banter from next-door.

She too was practicing her instrument, he knew.

Though she seemed to be making far more headway.

Doesn’t she know I have to do this?

I guess she doesn’t care.

He glanced sideways to glimpse his profile again in the mirror.

At least he could pull off the look of a passionately aloof rock god . . . perhaps prepping to amaze some intimate VIP crowd at a secret venue with a light acoustic set.

As Revy stared, whatever scale he’d been tinkering with went right out the window just beyond the mirror.

His fingers fell to perhaps their most common, easiest place, strumming the chorus to one of the first songs he’d ever written with…

His eyes darted away from the mirror, the window, and every other distance.

His mind reeled back from far, far away.

And for a split second, seated in the swivel chair by his never-used desk, he saw Dale.

For that was where Dale had always sat whenever the two would spend hours messing around on their guitars in Revy’s room.

The chair was empty, of course.

A bitter sting of tears touched just beneath and behind Revy’s eyes.

He slammed the fingers of his left hand hard against strings to cut short the folksy sound.

He couldn’t bear to hear what might have rung out like a beacon back to simpler times.

The temporal space left on his watch continued to shrink in its precise and unheard ticks.

With shaky hands, Revy fingered through his notebook to a place marked COVERS.

This is where he would spend the remainder of his appointed time, trying to figure out the secret marriage of music and melody as mastered by others.

But every now and then, he wouldn’t quite notice himself slipping back into Fantastic or another unfinished number.

Then more fingers would machete through hair, and he’d glumly wrench his attention back to scaling the walls of others’ art until at last he was relieved by artificial bleeps emanating from near the end of his arm.

Jodie, too, was silent.

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