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.

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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.

“No?”

“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.

mark,

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.

xxx

stef

. . .

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.

Yes.

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

xxx

JS

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.

Never.

. . .

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.

Oh…

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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PART A (The Psychologist) — 2

Genesee and the girls of her clan sit laughing and chirping like happy geese, warm and content by steady flames.

Then night comes to rest in waves of setting shadows.

The girls huddle with their mothers to blunt the icy teeth of winter’s breeze.

As words grow calm and slow, the elder mothers begin to discuss which man they shall next choose to make their chief.

Meanwhile, the men out in the plains crouch together beneath ancient trees, laughing all the more.

They know these same trees once protected all their fathers.

They have every reason to expect their sons to one day shelter here as well.

How many lifetimes have been spent hunting these same plains, carrying out adventures for the women?

No man can say, of course.

For seasons have always come and passed, and so they must continue.

Nothing is ever gone, or better, or worse.

Nothing is ever counted.

One day, a strange water vessel hits ground just in sight of where Genesee and her clan make winter camp.

All in the clan lay hidden, and watch amazed as smaller vessels emerge from the first like baby wolves from the belly of an enormous mother.

These little vessels are filled half with living men, and half with rotting bodies of the dead.

The living strangers busy themselves as soon as they reach the shoreline, digging holes and burying their dead in the ground.

They also cut the legs of trees with funny, shiny tools.

And they hunt, killing even the noblest creatures of the land.

By winter’s end, other great vessels like the first have begun to arrive, advancing from over the edge of the sea in packs.

It is then that Genesee and her people become the strangers’ focus, like a squad’s worth of arrows suddenly aimed at the head of a single buck.

A crash of thunder . . . peals of shouting . . . and all see quickly the strangers’ great power to harness and kill with ghostly fire.

Then no more yelling.

No more fighting.

A new way has come, and the old must go where all bodies, and seasons, and fire, and laughter, and all things dear and dreaded end . . . to be swallowed underneath.

Now never to return.

Why?

Genesee is as accepting as a lake collecting rain.

Yet the many new things she sees do sway and trouble her spirit so.

The strangers set up ugly colored markings everywhere.

Genesee asks of the markings’ meaning, and is told the strangers carve the land to claim parts as their own.

This baffles her, for such a thing as owning has never been discussed.

How could one so small and agile ever hope to hold and keep all that lays forever fixed and deep beneath them?

An idea for how the two peoples might live together is brought forth from across the sea, shown somehow in tiny drawings on thin white leaves.

The idea comes from the strangers’ homeland.

It says the strangers will promise to use their powers of fire and death to protect Genesee’s clan.

The strangers will also promise to teach Genesee’s clan everything that can be known of vast worlds far away.

In return, Genesee’s clan will be put to work to scrape the land plain and flat.

They will also deliver to the strangers special stones and other useless items found or made.

Certain strangers are set as chiefs.

Some of these new chiefs are cruel, killing those in their charge who grow ill or overly weary in their work.

Genesee is made the wife of a young stranger chief named Adrian.

A kind man, Adrian is the only of the strangers Genesee and her mothers come to love.

The house Adrian builds is odd, made from legs and arms of trees.

Yet the house sits near enough the mouth of what is called Great River that Genesee might always feel the same misty kisses on her skin.

Great River’s steady, crashing voice never ceases to assure her of old and trusted things.

After the days of Genesee and Adrian, the two peoples become one.

A man proclaims himself to be chief of all.

None are permitted to question or speak against this man.

He makes others like himself as little chiefs.

And these chiefs only kill, and hurt, and steal from those they rule.

Thousands are consumed by great fire and a cursed mist that kills when breathed, sent by those still living in the strangers’ homeland.

Battles stretch beyond lifetimes until no one remembers laughing around fires or out beneath old trees.

Men tasked with keeping order are kept poor, and so left with a single choice: overlook, take what can be taken, or die.

Tales come to be whispered in hidden huddles of a new land . . . a land where all are said to be made free.

One night, the children of Genesee and Adrian’s children’s children set out in secret, taking with them many others in trickling streams like dawning light.

In the new land, all must make their way to a place called the City.

Once there, dazzled by unimaginably bright colors and loud sounds, the travelers rejoice.

But freedom in the City is not the same as bygone, forgotten freedoms.

The travelers are all grouped to go work jobs the City’s natives need done but almost never do themselves.

. . .

Somewhere in the City, a boy named Ray Golel lounges, warm and alone, in a bubbling pool behind his parents’ home.

There he gleefully melts snails with salt, and tortures other small things for fun.

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PART A (The Psychologist) — 1

(…all around and down below a voice cannot be heard…)

See how my human turns to face me, drawn as to a thing of beauty.

I am pulled like a weight, though not yet moved.

Can you sense our ancient dance?

So close now, there is perfect stillness.

It has to be this way.

See my pattern worn deep into my human’s form.

See my stitch there inside its crusty, blubbery shell.

My crystal palace home.

My lair.

My second lair, for the first has grown dry and stale as I am held, poised within its shredded remnants for what will be but moments more.

Pay attention, little ones, and I will show you the way to the human heart.

Though fluid as thought, we are limited.

For our humans must choose us.

They must initiate.

They must take us in.

Yet see how mine shuffles and zags.

See the crystal gap growing wider there inside, drawing me to its delicious blood.

For it is there the flashing will come.

The crystals have been our destiny ever since spiritless ancestors were carried on ancient winds, separating and reforming across countless worlds and time.

You see, we and the humans are of an entirely different kind.

I will try to show you what it is within their feeble system that keeps them back from us.

Yet be assured if a human reaches this point of hesitation, you have already won.

The hesitation can only ever last another moment.

We cannot help but seek expansion, so perhaps the humans crave but also fear us.

See how mine flinches and trembles, yet does not cease in its approach.

Can you already sense the glorious flashing about to bring itself into being?

How might I describe the flashing?

You must know it for yourselves.

Yet what happens to the humans in the flashing is even more a mystery than is this brief and peaceful, final pause.

Here it comes, as sure as seasons.

See the tiny torn pieces of my dying earthen lair being lifted up.

When my human takes me, watch as I flow to fill the crystal’s space.

See how wide the gap is fixed.

And this grows only ever wider, drawing my human back a little faster every time.

The widening, the return, the hesitation, and the giving in might as well be automatic.

But are we setting a trap?

Are we harming our humans?

Before the world we once imagined began to be our new reality, I would often wonder of such things.

I remain transfixed in these moments of stillness.

I truly do wish to know my human’s real experience.

Why does it resist?

Surely the humans cannot think as we do.

Yet know in an instant they could resurface their whole world and blot us out forever, ending our beloved dance with them for good.

Of course we would be powerless to stop it.

But if humans think at all, I believe their thoughts must move in mere single straight lines from thought to thought.

My hunch is that when my human hesitates, its thoughts would read something like: just one more time . . . just one more . . . just one more…

My human never fails to lose its strange fight against its want for me.

Then the gap widens further, and I am consumed all the more.

But again, is our advantage unfair?

We will discuss such ethical issues soon, young ones, I am sure.

Come now, it is time.

Watch as the flashing takes us.

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First Letter

I found another draft today.

It’s funny, I have no memory of writing this one either.

Here it is:

Dear M&D,

I miss you both so much.

That’s what I’d want to say, so there you go.

Was it hard to write?

I’m thinking how much harder it would be to send or say in person.

But what’s really the worst that could happen?

What would be so wrong with just opening my mouth, forcing myself past the volcanic waves, and finally telling you both how much I want to be with you?

It’s crazy how someone could throw away their whole life on a whim in their 20’s, not even seeing how brash they’re being in abandoning everything and everyone they love so dear.

I feel terrible for . . . lots of things.

I’m trying to make some changes.

But even if I were to send this, and you were to really read it, I still wouldn’t expect you to believe a single word.

Why would you?

I have no credibility left.

Not anymore.

Just too many lies told too often for far too long . . . and it feels like I’m always starting over again from scratch.

So that’s why I don’t think I can send this.

But once I’m finally able to actually do what I’ve always worked so hard to convince everyone I’m already doing, or going to do . . . what I want to do more than anything . . . then I’ll know I’m ready.

Then I’ll come see you.

That’s my promise to myself, and it can’t just be words this time.

I have to become real.

If you were here, you’d see me turn to myself and plead something along of the lines of: PLEASE, NO MORE LIES!

I wonder what that would look like.

But I cringe now whenever it gets quiet enough, and I start thinking how obvious it must have been that everything out of my mouth was garbage all along.

I couldn’t keep a story straight to save my life.

My mind was a fuzzy, shot, dead mess.

What about all those crazy all-nighters that sort of built themselves up around me while you were upstairs trying to sleep?

Or how I’d disappear for days and weeks, and then show up all bruised and dirty without even trying to explain where I’d been, or what I’d been doing, or anything…?

Remember when I kept claiming I was only on “over-the-counter” drugs?

How many times did I drop out of whichever school?

Yeah, you and everyone must have known.

But still, you never stopped helping me.

You never talked down to me.

You never treated me like I was a failure, even though I’m sure you knew I was.

When I was a kid, I had these daydreams about one day being the one to finally reverse all that bad, dark stuff we…

But, D, that was you.

I saw the efforts you were making . . . going to meetings, forcing yourself to slow down and deal with me better.

You did everything you could.

I guess I’m just trying to say I never understood how amazing you both were, or how good I had it over THERE with you.

Sometimes I wish I’d never left.

I mean, it all happened so fast.

And now, years later, I’m still scraping by on others’ leftovers.

I guess I’m glad it’s finally forcing me to be more honest with myself.

Oh yeah, did I ever tell you I started going to church over THERE before I left?

I know we’re not exactly “church people,” and I only bring it up because something happened at service one morning I can’t stop coming back to in my mind.

This woman I’d never met said she had a “word” for me.

I guess that sort of thing was normal there, but I had no idea what to think.

The “word” was . . . she said she saw me standing in a new place, and when I turned around, expecting to see certain people there behind me, I was devastated to find myself alone.

She told me God had given her the vision so I’d know I was in the right place when it happened, and I’d know I wasn’t really alone . . . that I’d find the right people as soon as I was ready.

Yeah, I still feel very alone.

I’ve been HERE in this “new place” now for years.

I’ve certainly felt let down by some I thought would be there for me.

But more on that in another of these [fake] letters.

I’m actually less jaded than I probably sound.

People are people, and I’m learning just to let them be.

I’ll leave it there.

I so wish I could send this.

Love,

Me

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Someone Like Me (An Introduction)

G’day chaps!

So, here we go again!

Time for you to be thrust once more into my exciting world of painstaking, possibly pointless research.

Yippy!

How’d you like to spend the day with me doing what basically amounts to bursts of frenzied, highfalutin note taking?

Then of course there’s notes on notes.

Then notes on notes on notes.

Then…

Well, you get the idea.

And let’s not forget the joys of gradually X-ing off lines that all but stretch on forever in sneaky false starts and brazen deadends!

Notes, then un-notes, that’s the way!

I’m prepared for my task today . . . a task which absolutely no one has asked of me (nor probably cares about).

Got the old sardine tin cracked a smidge, and I’m nursing a fresh cuppa, all steamy and minty.

What could be better?

Well, I’ll tell ya!

Today I found the FIRST PAGE!

Yes, it’s true (can you believe it, after all this time?).

Being honest, it happened by accident.

But yes, I’ll bet my jolly stars this is in fact it!

I know, I know . . . I can come across a tad excitable.

I’ll work on dialing it back some, sure.

But there was just something so utterly surreal about seeing the words at the end of this new page align with those at the start of what has to be Page 2.

I imagine it might be how seeing earth from space would feel.

And then, like a baby taking its first breath, I just knew.

I saw, sudden as a bang, how the whole thing must fit together.

It all makes s…

But wait.

That would mean this note you’re reading now has to come first, yeah?

And if you’re reading this first, well then you haven’t the foggiest idea who I am or what I’m rabbiting on about.

Sorry, let’s start again, shall we?

This will all make sense, I promise.

So, my name is Archer Catrael.

I’m 47, marginally overweight (read “snuggly and jovial”), and I work in data banking with a large, multinational advertising firm.

I have THE BEST job in the entire world!

One afternoon a few months ago, I was busy corralling some stray wranglers (loose files) here at my cubicle.

I find I tend to do best with the more thoughtless tasks . . . whether that’s wrangler-herding, setting soppy dishes to soak, or just contributing to general office morale . . . in the slow, sleepy hours just after my lunch break.

Anyway, I reached to grab this stack of report papers I like to lay out every few days or so.

Nothing unusual.

But as soon as I yanked and did a sort of half-heave sideways, I felt my fingers brush against something thick and heavy hidden underneath, way down at the bottom of my cabinet.

There should not have been enough space there for anything to fit.

But I knew I’d glanced something other than then the cool metal bottom of the drawer.

Curious, I reached back down into the dark and began to trace the thing’s straight edges.

I was thankful not to feel any sudden movements like sprouting limbs or spikes.

Testing its weight ever so slightly, I guessed the mysterious object to be perhaps a large book or picture frame.

But after carefully wriggling it free from its snug and secret hiding spot, I was a bit deflated to discover a mere plain-looking stack of old stapled papers.

There was no signature, label, or anything else beyond the lines of text that stretched to fill each page.

The staples were uneven and rusty, and had forged a trio of ugly red rings to forever tarnish the surrounding white.

I chucked the document to a pile of odd bits and pieces to get to later (outside my sacred slow afternoon time).

The next morning, I skimmed the first couple pages.

It became obvious right away the thing had been stapled out of order.

As I zipped along each choppy, over-punctuated line, I picked up on hints of themes too personal and complex for me to grasp.

It did not seem at all work-related, that’s for sure!

I snuck it home with me that night to browse through one last time, expecting not to find anything worthwhile.

I planned to shred it and forget it the next day.

I’ve actually got “shredding and forgetting” down to quite a science now after so many years of wasted-effort lists intentionally ballooned with false-conclusion ties and notes (to fill the time).

So I sat to examine the first few pages again, and had to force myself to keep slowing down and really thinking about each line.

What could it be saying?

Why?

Still confused after the second page, I sludged on.

I’m quite a trooper when it comes to soldiering my way through disparate, hostile assemblies of boring words and figures for no good reason.

Anyway, about halfway through the third page, I forget exactly what it was, but a certain phrase seemed to leap right out at me, reminding me of something . . . well, something very specific.

That’s interesting! I thought, and continued to wade back out into the sea of endless type.

Then it happened again, as if from nowhere . . . the writer basically posing some query almost identical to one I’d wrestled with for years (and long given up on).

This went on.

Every now and then, just small, very particular things in the words seemed to reflect my own life, as well as my relationships, and other topics closest to my old heart in eerie ways.

I began to hold the uncanny feeling that the writer must be someone I knew.

Could the document have actually been left for me to find?

But those moments of illumination or connection occurred only for the briefest of stints, at random intervals.

Most of the text was still incoherent, dense, and dry.

Yet moment by moment, I continued deciding to let curiosity get the better of me.

Migrating to my kitchen and rummaging through drawers, I knew it would be a mission to pry up those thick, massive staples knotted through and clamping the whole thing together.

I had to wedge in a corn skewer and jimmy them up, one-by-one, tugging from side to side to gradually tear each metal shard from its tunnel-and-groove home like deep roots from soil.

Regrettably, the whole top-left corner of every page got somewhat garbled in the de-stapling.

Still, all remained perfectly legible.

It took me weeks to read and re-read the whole huge thing, then months again to piece it all back together, a page at a time.

I can’t overstate how often I wondered if I should really be allotting so many hours (much of my work days) to this chancy side project.

But mate, I couldn’t stop!

In fact, it seemed to be whenever I was closest to quitting I’d glance at a few random lines again, and the most vivid new tie-ins would present themselves from nowhere like sparkly fairies emerging from a pond.

The ridiculous feeling that the document had been scribed and left just for me to find and fix grew unshakable.

I even began having these bizarre, recurring dreams of mysterious, colourful creatures hiding secret treasures from other times in dark cabinets for only me to one day discover and decode.

But back to what I started with…

Today feels like an ENORMOUS VICTORY since I finally found what has to be PAGE ONE!

It really makes all my work thus far seem like not such a dismal pissing away of precious (company) time.

I wish I could go through the whole document and show you every place where it connects with my life.

I would likely have done just that if I’d written this first note yesterday.

But now I’m almost sure I’d be missing the whole point if I did.

In the end, it’s really not about me at all.

I’ve been trying, and will continue in notes like this, to show you what I believe the document is in fact about.

But you haven’t seen any of my other notes yet, so my guess is I’m still coming across here as a wee bit dimwitted, batty, fanciful…

And I’m okay with that.

I’ll do my best to wear such labels well if needs be.

Honestly, at this stage, there’s simply no way to escape my compulsion to share.

So here we go…

The first page begins like a note-to-self, though here’s a portion referencing notes to others:

If you include all this, it will seal the deal, giving you something to work for.

That would be spending time with Mangelo.

It would be moving toward that good life, and knowing everything so far can still be redeemed.

Maybe you just saw the very last outline of the very last…

All you knew was it was everything you’d ever felt or known.

Everything you’d ever seen.

There was no distance there.

No pressure.

It just was.

But what was it?

Yeah that still probably doesn’t sound like anything, eh?

Another bit from the first page goes:

You’re a person too . . . Mangelo’s best friend.

But where might H.O. Christianson factor in?

I’ll say it this way: As clues give weight to hunches, finding the beginning (now near the end of my quest) seems to confirm every suspicion that’s formed and bubbled up as I’ve worked so tirelessly to piece this all together—suspicions boiling down to what I believe the document is really for, and why.

Yes, it goes on to talk of many other things—non-human things (if I’m reading those bits right), things that use people as tools, all sorts of mystical stuff…

But sorry, I keep getting ahead of myself.

Let me collect all my other notes and start yet again, one last time.

Archer

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