Eschersketch

by Stephen L. Antczak & James C. Bassett

 

“Good morning,” Janey said gaily as she approached Evan’s cubicle holding her NASA coffee mug. She stopped behind Evan’s chair. “How’s the new CAD system?”

Evan resisted the impulse to remind her that Diablo was not a CAD system but a fully integrated PrISM factory.

Instead, he straightened his wire-rimmed glasses and said, “Yesterday’s test was flawless as far as I could tell, but I sent the part to QC just to be sure. I spent all last night reading through the manuals. I kind of doubt it can do everything Roberto thinks it can, but…”

“But you never know,” Janey finished his sentence for him. She did that a lot. He liked it.

“Come by and check it out later,” Evan said with a sudden burst of confidence, which quickly faded. “You know, if you’re not too busy or anything.”

“Maybe after lunch,” she said, then breezed away toward the break room. Evan felt foolish. Janey was a red-headed siren, almost his height, with green fire eyes and the face of a Revlon model. She worked out five days a week before coming into the office, and her body showed it. She carried herself with supreme confidence, and she was a whiz with CQ and CQ++, the top programming languages for qubit processors. Beauty and brains. Evan knew he didn’t have a snowball’s chance with her.

He fought the desire to refill his own coffee. It was bad enough that everyone at Reddex knew he was technically a convicted sex offender—the last thing Evan wanted was to have Janey think he was stalking her. Instead, he finished configuring Diablo.

The software was so complex and specialized that it needed a proprietary computer system to run on, a box bigger than most servers Evan knew of—a box that took up almost a fourth of his cubicle. A few years ago, before quantum computers, it would have been the size of a building, harkening back to the days of ENIAC. The sleek case that housed Diablo’s processors may have looked featureless and dull to most people, but to Evan it was the epitome of “sexy technology”—mainly because of what happened at the other end of the thick fiber-optic cable that ran from the back of the Diablo unit through the wall of the office and into the shop.

The shop was where the real magic happened—and all at Evan’s direction. He couldn’t wait to get it fully configured and learn Diablo’s programming language. Then he would see what this puppy could really do.

He heard Janey’s voice as she greeted other fellow employees on her way back to her cubicle. Before he loaded the CAD specs from one of Reddex’s more complex precision aerospace assemblies into Diablo, Evan decided now was the time for a refill. Because his workstation needed to be as close to the shop as possible to minimize the fiber-optic span, Evan’s cube was at the back of the office, near enough to the coffee maker that he could smell the seductive aroma of fresh-brewed Kona.

That was one good thing about working at Reddex—the coffee wasn’t the vile brew that most companies forced their employees to drink if they didn’t want to spend a small fortune at the local Starbucks. The owner, Roberto Sorricelli, was Italian, with the European appreciation of the finer things in life. He wore tailored suits, drove a brand new Ferrari, and owned a four-acre estate in Buckhead as well as a house on Lake Lanier and a villa in Italy. He had a gorgeous twenty-two-year-old wife, and if that wasn’t enough to make any man jealous he also had a brand new IBM ThinkSmart PDA. He wasn’t unapproachable, but very relaxed and personable. “Call me Roberto,” he reminded any employee who forgot and called him Mr. Sorricelli.

Evan hated and admired the man. He had never become rich like Roberto, but he’d been doing all right for himself and might have been well on the way to his own Ferrari by now if not for the bust. It had all started to seem within reach and he’d allowed himself the fantasy that it would happen. Now that it was gone he decided that he desperately needed to get rich like Roberto. Then he could have the life his boss had, with the ThinkSmart and the hot young trophy wife—maybe even a passionate affair on the side with a woman like Janey. Just like Roberto.

Actually, that was unfair—Evan had no proof other than his own jealousy that there was anything going on between Janey and Roberto. Sure, it always seemed like they were flirting, but Janey was bright, cheerful and outgoing with everyone, even Evan. And as for Roberto—well, he was Italian. So what if he occasionally gave Janey a solid smack on the rear and called her “Janey Bella” all the time.

Sometimes Evan felt guilty about hating Roberto. The man had, after all, hired Evan when no one else would. Who wanted to have a convicted sex offender in the office? Evan had written the back end for a porn website called Sexcard.com, allowing the site to process online transactions as WebAccess LLP. He and his best friend, Clay, had sent out e-mails to all the sex sites they could find, offering eighty-five percent if they would provide memberships to anyone accessing their sites via the Sexcard site. Evan and Clay would get fifteen percent. The response was slow at first, but after a few months the site was automatically processing thousands of credit card transactions each week. Sex sites that they’d never heard of before were signing up via the online form. The great thing about it was that as long as the server was up and running, Evan and Clay didn’t have to do anything except watch their bank accounts grow. As Clay liked to say, it was a “beautiful thing.”

The Feds saw it differently. Some of the sites being accessed via the Sexcard were child porn sites. An FBI sting operation had accessed three dozen child porn sites using Sexcard and then tracked Evan and Clay down via their bank accounts. It was easy because they never tried to hide their tracks. It never occurred to either of them that they were doing something illegal. They weren’t making the porn, nor were they directly selling it. But the Feds seized everything. Evan’s lawyer scared him with tales of a minimum five-year prison sentence if he didn’t make a deal; Evan testified against Clay to keep himself out of prison, and escaped with only five years of probation.

Evan wasn’t allowed to access the Internet at all, and couldn’t use a computer without supervision—which meant no consulting. With no degree, and a felony conviction thrown in for good measure, job offers were scarce. Evan was staring down five years of washing dishes until the job at Reddex.

*****

Janey just didn’t understand Evan at all. He seemed like a nice enough guy. He didn’t seem like a felon, that was for sure. But he was definitely strange, and it was the kind of strange that made people less interested in getting to know him. He rocked back and forth while he sat in front of his computer and had a tendency to mutter to himself.

Evan wasn’t exactly bad looking. With the right clothes and haircut he could turn heads at the mall—of course, he wasn’t allowed to go to the mall. He came off as arrogant, and didn’t seem to understand that because of his past most of the people around him thought they were better than him.

He was isolated at Reddex, working alone on some special project for Roberto. Janey knew that Roberto wouldn’t have given him a chance if Evan wasn’t damn good at what he did. Evan’s cyber-criminal escapades had been chronicled in Wired, where he had come to Roberto’s attention, but without the skills he wouldn’t have lasted long at Reddex.

Janey knew that Evan had a thing for her. She was used to that, especially working with engineers and programmers. Evan’s past made his attraction to her slightly disconcerting, but she trusted Roberto’s judgement, and didn’t think she had anything to worry about with Evan.

*****

As casually as he could, Evan sauntered over to Janey’s cubicle.

“Hi,” he said, trying to keep his nervousness hidden.

“Hey, Evan. What’s up?” she asked, barely glancing up from her monitor.

Janey’s cubicle was overrun with brainteaser puzzle toys. On the fabric walls of her cubicle, she had tacked up prints by M.C. Escher and René Magritte. Evan studied the prints. He got an idea.

“I need to borrow something from you,” he told Janey.

She swivelled in her chair to face him, then followed his gaze to a black and white picture showing a parade of lizards emerging to three-dimensionality from a sketchpad to crawl over a book and other objects on a desk before returning at the other end of the pad to their tessellated two-dimensional world.

Reptiles,” she said. “It’s by Escher. You need it for something?”

“Yeah. It’s perfect.”

Janey pulled out the push pins holding the print in place. “You want me to make a copy of it for you?”

“I’ll do it.”

She handed it to him. “Diablo?” she asked.

Evan nodded. “I want to see what it’s capable of.”

“That should make an interesting test. Keep it as long as you need to.”

“Thanks. I’ll let you know how it turns out,” he told her.

Evan hesitated for a second, hoping for more, but Janey turned back to her work. He walked back to his own cubicle, worried, as always, that he’d come off as a dork—or worse, a stalker.

Diablo was optimized to operate with high-tolerance CAD specifications, but supposedly it could also work with scanned images. Evan put the Escher print on the scanner bed and clicked “Acquire image.” The picture appeared in perfect detail on his 30″ monitor. The computer took a few minutes to compute a materials list. It asked Evan to verify the list and make changes. He clicked “OK” without even looking. The whole point of this test was to see how intelligent Diablo was on its own.

Diablo informed him that it would take ten minutes to process the data and another hour to construct the model. Evan spent the time going through the manual again, learning more of Diablo’s proprietary programming language.

Diablo’s Programmable Intelligent Solid Modeling technology was eminently suited to fabricating Reddex’s jet- and rocket-engine parts—because the nanoelectromechanical systems, or NEMS, created everything atom by atom, Diablo’s products were absolutely pure and perfectly free of materials defects. Roberto also wanted to use it to expand the business into quantum semiconductors. Q-Chips made by Diablo would be faster, cheaper and smaller, use less power, and run cooler than chips produced by standard technologies—if Diablo was up to the task. Putting together a solid hunk of titanium or aluminum or even carbon composite was one thing, but it was an entirely different matter to fabricate something as complex as a microchip, with layer upon atom-thick layer of silicon, boron, phosphorous, copper, dielectrics, and who knew what else. It was Evan’s job to figure out how to make Diablo do this.

A small fanfare startled Evan out of his manuals: the construct was finished. Evan jumped up and ran to the fabrication shop. A green light beside the door indicated that construction was complete and all the NEMS deactivated.

The PrISM hardware—the NEMS storage units and control systems—was relatively small, but the materials banks occupied more than a quarter of the shop, which until a week ago had been a dusty storage warehouse. Sitting on the whitewashed concrete floor of the NEMS workshop was a perfect three-dimensional model of Escher’s Reptiles. The lizards themselves weren’t alive, and Evan was disappointed to see that they, along with the two cactus plants in the small pot on the left of the model, had been made of plain gray plastic. But everything else was true-to-life.

Evan examined the model more closely, and was impressed to find that the book on which the lizards were crawling actually had individual pages, even if they were blank. The lizards themselves, where they emerged from and returned to their sketchpad world, were actually seamlessly melded with the paper.

Diablo had created the interface so perfectly—on an atomic scale—that paper and plastic were effectively one single substance. To model the desktop in the sketch, Diablo had built the whole thing on an 18-by-18-inch slab of mahogany. At first Evan was surprised that Diablo could create organic materials like the wood, but he realized the system would have very few applications if it couldn’t. Its only limitation was that it couldn’t create animal tissue—or anything alive, of course.

He picked up the tableau and carried it out of the shop. He stopped back by his desk to fetch the print from the scanner, then headed for Janey’s cube.

Evan’s heart fell. She was out. He pinned the print back where it belonged and wrote Janey a note asking her to come see him when she got back, then suddenly had a better idea. He folded the note in half and shoved it into his pocket, and simply left the model sitting on Janey’s chair. He retreated to his own cubicle to wait for her.

He wished he could see the look on her face when she saw Reptiles. He knew she’d get a huge kick out of the model; he only hoped some of her enthusiasm would be for him. Evan had never liked a girl as much as he liked Janey, and he’d never had so much trouble talking to one. What woman would want to date a convicted child pornographer? The charges were bogus, but that wasn’t really the point. The label was there, regardless of the truth. Actually, part of him felt like he deserved to suffer a little, if only for what he’d done to Clay.

Evan would never forget the look on Clay’s face when Evan testified against him. When it was over Clay went berserk, lunging at Evan, screaming obscenities, threatening to kill him. Evan felt he had had no choice. He wasn’t about to go to prison for something he hadn’t done. It had all been Clay’s idea in the first place. Evan had gotten involved as a way to hone his skills.

Evan returned his attention to the manuals. He was just starting to get a good solid grasp on the ins and outs of the Diablo language structure when he caught movement out of the corner of his eye and looked up.

Janey stood there, the Reptiles model in her arms. “This is really cool, Evan,” she said. “It turned out great. I guess Diablo works as advertised after all, huh?”

She held the model out to Evan, but he just smiled back at her.

“No, it’s for you,” he said as casually as he could. “That’s yours—you can keep it. I made it for you.”

She seemed somewhat taken aback. “Oh. That’s really sweet, Evan. Thanks. But… Well, you know what a mess my desk is. I really don’t have any place to put it.”

“Maybe, you know, you have a place for it at home?” Suddenly Evan felt like he was about to break into a sweat.

She stood there uncertainly for a few seconds, then said at last, “Well, I really…” She paused briefly, and her eyes darted around the office. “Um, sure. Yeah. Okay, well, I’d better get back over there—I’ve got a lot to finish up today.” She hefted the model and smiled brightly. “Thanks again.”

“No problem,” he said, and then as she walked away he added hurriedly, “I mean, you’re welcome. It was my pleasure.”

As soon as Janey was out of sight, Evan lowered his head and buried his face in his hands. “I am such a dork,” he whispered.

He shouldn’t have pushed so hard. He should have realized when she brought the model back that she really didn’t want it. He should have just taken it and thrown it into Diablo’s materials recycler.

Glumly, Evan sighed, and turned back to Diablo and the real work at hand.

*****

Two days later, Evan returned to his cubicle from lunch to find the metallurgy report from Reddex’s QC lab in his “In” box. The envelope was sealed and marked “Confidential.”

Evan broke the security tape and opened the envelope. The report was twelve pages long, and most of it made no sense to Evan, whose highest level of science education was a year of high school chemistry. But he could understand the half-page summary at the beginning just fine.

The physical dimensions of the part he’d made were so perfect that the computers had not been able to detect any divergence whatsoever from ideal tolerances. The only entry under “Composition” read Titanium (Ti): 99.9999+ %; not a single atom of any other element had been detected. And the results of X-ray crystallography listed zero structural-lattice defects—twice. Apparently the guys in the lab hadn’t believed their findings the first time.

Roberto would be very pleased with this report. Once the PrISM system was running at full capacity, it would increase quality while slashing production costs.

He was halfway across the office on his way to Roberto’s suite when he heard the boss’s big Italian laugh roll down the stairwell. Roberto’s hand-made, patent leather shoes appeared on the stairs, descending, light gleaming off the polish. Beside them was a pair of scuffed red cowboy boots that made Evan stop dead in his tracks.

Accompanying Roberto was Merle King, a man whose mere presence made Evan’s stomach knot up. It wasn’t just that Merle was Evan’s probation officer—and a quintessential good ol’ boy to boot—but the fact that everybody else at Reddex absolutely loved the man. Every month when Merle stopped by he spent ten minutes talking to Evan and half an hour shooting the bull with Evan’s co-workers.

Merle’s relaxed swagger was complemented by Roberto’s equally relaxed European poise. Otherwise, Merle was a stark contrast to Roberto. Where Roberto had the well-tuned body of a long-distance bicycler, Merle had the physique of a marathon beer-drinker. Roberto was always clean-shaven and smelled of subtle cologne. Merle had a bushy mustache surrounded by ever-present five o’clock shadow, and always smelled of sweat and leather. Roberto carried a ThinkSmart in a soft leather case over his shoulder; Merle carried a Smith & Wesson in a worn leather holster on his hip.

Evan swallowed hard and walked up to the two men. If he was about to make his boss very happy, he might as well do it in front of his probation officer.

“There’s the man I’m looking for,” Merle brayed. Evan shook his probation officer’s meaty hand, trying not to wince at the crushing grip.

“Hey,” was all Evan said by way of greeting.

“I hear you’ve been busy this last week, old son,” Merle said.

“Yeah.” Evan turned to Roberto and said, “I have the QC report on the first test piece, sir. I think you’ll be happy with it. It’s perfect, near as I can tell.”

Roberto beamed as he took the report and glanced over the summary. “Excellent, Evan. This is wonderful.” Roberto clapped his free hand around Evan’s shoulder and told Merle, “I am sure I am breaking some law by telling you this, but any money you have you should invest in our little company. What my friend Evan is doing here is going to make us all very rich.”

Merle and Roberto both laughed out loud at this; Evan forced a quiet smile.

“Well, all right, Evan!” Merle bellowed. “Let’s you and me get the show on the road here, so you can get back to it.”

Evan led Merle to his cubicle. As they walked through the office, Merle waved at or said hello to at least a dozen people. Evan gritted his teeth and tried to ignore it all.

“Take a seat, old son,” Merle said as he leaned against Evan’s desk. Evan did as he was told, pushing his chair back to the opposite end of his cubicle while the desk creaked under Merle’s weight.

Right then, Janey walked by.

“Hey there, young lady,” Merle called to her. She stopped.

“Hi, Merle!” she greeted him warmly. “I didn’t know you were here.”

“I want to talk to you when I’m finished with our boy here.”

“All right. You know where to find me.” She continued on her way. She had not even acknowledged Evan’s presence.

“All right, Evan. Have you had any contact with the police since our last meeting?” Merle conducted the interview loudly, and Evan knew everyone in the office could hear.

“No,” he replied as quietly as he could.

“Speak up, son.”

Evan cleared his throat. “No, sir, no contact with the police.”

The sounds of the office seemed to grow louder around his cubicle. He heard Roberto call out Janey’s name. She responded, “Yes, Roberto?” in a voice that sounded playfully seductive.

“Have you taken any illegal substances since our last meeting?” Merle asked.

“No.”

Evan could hear Roberto say something to Janey in Italian.

“Have you had any alcohol since our last meeting?”

Janey giggled and responded in Italian. They both laughed.

“Evan?”

“No. No alcohol.”

Roberto said something else in Italian, the pitch of his voice lower, exaggeratedly rolling the rs.

“Have you operated a computer unsupervised since our last meeting?”

Janey responded in mock anger, “Roberto!”

“No.”

“Have you accessed the Internet since our last meeting?”

Janey called Roberto a “bad boy.”

“No, sir.” Evan’s response to Merle’s question trailed off.

“Are you sure about that, Evan?” Merle had leaned forward and was now in Evan’s face.

Evan nodded. “Yes, I’m sure about that.” He couldn’t keep the sharpness out of his voice. The exchange between Roberto and Janey was distressing. Why couldn’t Janey relate to Evan that way? And Merle getting in his face that way had annoyed him. Worse, though, his response had annoyed Merle.

“Now you listen here, Evan,” Merle said. “You can make this pleasant or unpleasant. It’s all on you. We’ve had this talk before.”

Evan nodded. “I know. I was just… I don’t know. I’ve got a lot on my mind with this project for Roberto.”

“I understand that. Roberto’s a good man and it’s important for you to do the best work you can for him. But this, what we’re doing right here, is the most important thing you do, period. You understand? If you screw this up, what you’re doing for Roberto don’t count for squat.”

“I understand.”

Merle just looked at him for a moment, then leaned back. Evan’s desk creaked even more than before.

“So you got any plans for the Fourth of July weekend?” Merle asked him. “You need a travel permit to visit your folks or anything?”

Evan shook his head.

*****

The interview over, Evan tried to get back to work, but every time he heard Merle laugh or call out to someone, his concentration crumbled. The worst, of course, was when Janey stood talking and laughing with Merle for a good quarter of an hour not twenty feet away from Evan’s cubicle.

When Merle finally left, Janey, coffee mug in hand, made her way toward the break room. She stopped at Evan’s cubicle and said, “Hey, Evan, you look down. Merle give you a hard time?”

Evan shook his head. “No. Just everyone else.”

“What does that mean?”

“Do you guys have to be so nice to him?”

Janey looked genuinely surprised. “Evan, we’re just being friendly.”

“I know, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but it makes me uncomfortable. I guess it just seems kind of uncool to me to have everybody being so chummy with him all the time.”

“I’ll let you in on a little secret,” Janey said. Her tone was icy. “Roberto told us to be nice to your probation officer because he thought it might make him want to go easier on you. What do you think of that?”

“I didn’t know. I wish he would have told me.” Evan did not sound conciliatory.

“Merle never talks about your case, Evan, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

“He’s not allowed to. I just wish he didn’t come to where I work. I really hoped I could just sort of go through my probation anonymously. Now the whole office knows about me, and on top of that they act nicer towards my probation officer than they do towards me.”

“To be honest, Evan, a lot of people feel awkward around you.”

“Do you?”

Janey paused uncomfortably. “A little, yeah.”

“Why?”

“Because of what you did.”

“You don’t know what I did,” Evan blurted, no longer able to contain his frustration. “No one here does.”

“Evan—”

“No, Janey, it’s important to me that you at least understand this. We never posted any pictures on our web site. All we did was provide this online pass to give people access. Where they went with the pass was their business. We didn’t do anything wrong.”

“Then why were you convicted?”

“It was a plea-bargain, and the thing I signed said it was not an admission of guilt.”

“But you were convicted of a crime, right?” Janey asked.

“Yes, but it wasn’t like I was tried by a jury or anything.”

“Evan, did you know that people were using your pass to access sites with child pornography?”

Defeated, Evan admitted, “Yes.”

“And you did nothing to stop it. That’s why people don’t like you.”

Without another word Janey turned and strode away to the break room.

That hadn’t gone well at all. He’d imagined that scene over and over, explaining to Janey what had happened, how he’d been railroaded, and it always wound up with Janey empathizing with him and saying maybe she’d come over one Friday night to watch movies and eat pizza. Reality wasn’t behaving.

*****

She tried to understand. Janey wondered if Evan was any different outside of Reddex. Maybe she couldn’t comprehend the stress that he was under, having his probation officer come to work once a month. If he let himself, Evan would see that Merle was really a pretty good guy. He wanted Evan to make it through his probation successfully. To hear Merle talk about some of his other probationers, it was obvious that Evan was no career criminal; it was also apparent that Merle actually liked Evan.

Janey liked Merle a lot. She even invited him once to join her and a couple of the other Reddex employees for their weekly Thursday night gathering down at El Toro for margaritas. He declined, although she could see in his eyes that he had almost said yes. He was no Tom Cruise, and he was carrying around a serious spare tire, but something about him intrigued Janey. She knew that if she got drunk and he made a pass at her, he’d likely get what he wanted. Maybe it was the whole alpha male thing. It was the same with Roberto, although for different reasons. Roberto had that European/Italian charm thing going for him. He’d flirted with Janey many times but had never tried anything serious. There was a moment at an automation trade show in Las Vegas when they were leaning against the bar in their hotel, pleasantly buzzed after manning the Reddex booth all day and Roberto’s hand had accidentally brushed against her left breast. He immediately apologized. She had almost said “any time.”

Evan didn’t realize how lucky he was to have men like Merle and Roberto looking out for him.

*****

Evan kept to himself for the rest of the afternoon and concentrated on his work. When quitting time finally arrived he decided on a sudden impulse to stay late. He stayed in his cubicle and kept working so he wouldn’t overhear everyone else’s plans for the holiday.

No one came to his desk with a friendly reminder to leave already, go home, enjoy the long weekend. Eventually Evan realized that he was alone in the office. He started to shut down his computer, but then canceled the process. Why not stay late? He was getting sick of movies and pizza, which seemed to be all he could come up with for amusement weekend after weekend. He had no computer at home as a condition of his probation. Consequently, what had once been the core of his existence was gone.

In that sense, being at work was preferable to being at home. Besides, he was in the zone—he had just about cracked all of Diablo’s secrets. He stayed for two more hours until he could no longer ignore the rumblings of his empty stomach. On automatic pilot, he picked up a pizza and a couple of videos on his way home, but he found himself paying almost no attention to the first movie.

He turned off the movie and stared at the blank blue television screen. Before he even realized he had made a decision, he was on his feet; he snatched up the pizza box and headed out to his car. He decided to stop at a convenience store on the way back to the office and buy a twelve-pack of beer. He’d already paid his monthly visit to Merle at the probation office that month, and Merle had already come by both Evan’s apartment and Reddex, so he wouldn’t be seeing the good ol’ boy again for at least two weeks. They randomly performed a urinalysis on probationers, but only for signs of marijuana or cocaine usage. The test was not used to detect alcohol in the system because it wasn’t an illegal substance, but since it was part of Evan’s sentence that he couldn’t drink alcohol for three years he was always careful not to drink any at least a couple days before his visit. He never kept alcohol at home, and he always paid for it with cash. Maybe he was being paranoid, but if he was found to have violated the terms of his probation he would wind up in prison.

Evan was allowed to work at the office on weekends. Technically he was working unsupervised on his computer at Reddex, but it wasn’t wired to the Net and Roberto had assured Merle that someone from IT regularly scanned the hard drive for objectionable files.

His ID card let him into the dark and abandoned Reddex building. He left the lights off, and negotiated the path to his cubicle by memory and the dim glow of an exit sign.

With a four-day weekend ahead, no one else would be coming in until Wednesday morning. Evan cracked open a beer.

By midnight he felt he fully understood the PrISM language. Since Diablo’s NEMS constructed their models atom by atom, heterogenous products were no problem at all to build—Reptiles had proved that. Nor would the small size of integrated circuits be an issue; the real trick would not be teaching Diablo how to create such tiny components, but how to layer and interconnect millions of such tiny components within the chip’s plastic package. Then he still had the challenge of optimizing the process in order to make it viable; it would be useless if Diablo took days to complete each chip. The whole point of Roberto’s Diablo experiment was to develop a way to get into the chip market without investing four billion dollars in a state-of-the-art fabrication plant.

When the third empty beer can of the night hit the trash can, Evan decided to stretch his legs. He wandered unsteadily to the men’s room. He shut his eyes hard against the blinding glare of the overhead fluorescent lights, making kaleidoscopes of color bloom in his vision, disorienting him for a moment.

Before going back to his own desk he found himself at Janey’s cube. The Reptiles print was still on the wall, but the model he had made for her was gone. He was almost certain he’d find it in the dumpster out back if he cared to look, and he couldn’t blame her. Sure, it was a cool picture, but not something someone would want as a sculpture. But that wasn’t the point. For a little while he had begun to feel that she, if no one else, might be able to ignore his past and see him as just a co-worker, maybe someone worth getting to know better. It didn’t look like that was the case, though.

Right next to Reptiles was a picture of a structure of columns and arches, where the columns from the front rose to support the arches in the back, and vice versa, interweaving themselves. Better still, there was one where a building rose up in the picture, perspective tilting slightly as though he was straining his neck back to look up to the top—and from the center of the picture where the tiled ceiling of the building lay, the same building rose again, the tiled ceiling also the tiled floor from below, the building rising into itself.

Any of those would have been better than Reptiles. Had Janey actually liked the sculpture from Evan, maybe she wouldn’t have tried to give it back and they wouldn’t have had that whole discussion about his conviction.

Of course, it might not have been possible to build any of the others in three dimensions. Even if it were, the models still wouldn’t be as cool as the prints, most likely. Rendered as models, frozen in solid form, locked into a single reality, they would lose their illusory nature, and the whole appeal of the prints was precisely the fact that they were optical illusions, physical and logical impossibilities.

Except one.

As he stared at one particular print, Evan realized that the building Escher had depicted there would be quite possible to build. Three staircases formed a triangle about the center of the picture—each rising to a different direction “up.” Faceless, featureless figures in the print walked on both sides of each accordion-pleat staircase; on one staircase, a figure walked down toward the left side of the picture while another figure—facing the bottom of the picture—walked down the underside of that same staircase. On one staircase, two figures walked beside one another, both facing to the right—but where one figure walked downstairs, the other walked up, on what the first person would have considered the stairs’ risers.

Evan unpinned the print and held it up, twisting it to catch the faint light so he could read the title.

Relativity,” he said aloud. Up and down were relative in the print—relative to the people in the drawing, rather than to the observer of the print. Gravity was the only physical property Escher had played with here; unlike the other prints, Relativity left spatial geometry unwarped. Diablo would be able to model it perfectly.

Back at his own cubicle, Evan scanned the print and waited for Diablo to process the image. When it prompted him to select the scale Evan moved the slider on the screen to the right, until it was set to build the model at full size. Relativity was a building—it was supposed to be large. The shop was more than big enough; his only worry was material. The house would practically deplete the existing material available to Diablo. He’d have to recycle it right after showing it to Janey.

Diablo computed its list of materials. Evan checked the list very carefully, making a number of adjustments—he wanted to be sure this model was absolutely perfect. The building itself would be marble, and the stair railings brass. Diablo had defaulted to plastic for all of the plants in the gardens that were visible through the building’s archways. Evan couldn’t do much about that, but he spent an hour coloring them all to at least look as realistic as possible.

The only big problem was the fifteen anonymous figures inhabiting the scene. Evan waffled for several minutes before finally deciding to just remove them all. That process took another hour, but at long last he finished and clicked “Build.”

Evan leaned back in his chair, stretching wearily, and rubbed his eyes. He noticed with surprise that the sky was beginning to lighten; it was nearly six in the morning. He suddenly realized how incredibly tired he was.

But he couldn’t sleep yet. Diablo hadn’t started to build the model—the screen displayed several thumbnails of Relativity, each turned at a different angle and with a flashing dotted line running vertically through it; a message box said something about setting a y-axis for the model. Evan was too exhausted to see straight anymore. He’d been awake for almost twenty-four hours, and quite frankly just didn’t give a damn which way up the PrISM system chose for the model. It didn’t matter which way was up in the Escher print. This was another good test, then—let Diablo figure it out on its own. He clicked out of the screen and waited another thirty minutes while Diablo processed. Evan zoned out while he was waiting; his vision blurred and his head nodded forward until he fell asleep. Eventually he jerked awake, realized another hour had gone by, and saw that Diablo had figured out the y-axis problem on its own and was actually constructing Relativity. Despite a surge of excitement, Evan pushed his chair out into the aisle and lay down on the floor of his cubicle. He fell immediately into a deep sleep.

*****

He awoke to gloom. He sat up stiffly and checked the time display on his monitor. It was almost nine p.m. So much for the first day of his vacation.

He made his way to the break room, where he started a pot of coffee and threw a couple slices of pizza in the microwave.

He watched Diablo’s slow progress on his monitor, engrossed by the changing array of figures and charts detailing the PrISM system’s extrapolation of what the print’s three-dimensional configurations were supposed to be. Evan was no architect and had no idea what any of it meant.

*****

When next Evan awoke the sky was bright outside. He made coffee again, then ambled through the office to get his blood flowing. He was anxious to get back to work.

The integrated-chip problem had percolated through his brain while he slept; he seemed now to have the program whole and complete at his fingertips, and it just poured out onto the keyboard. Evan could barely type fast enough to keep up with the flow.

When the coffee was gone, he switched to beer. The one slice of pizza he’d eaten wasn’t nearly enough to curb his hunger, so he bought a candy bar from the break room vending machine.

Shortly after dark, he was done. His program would only create a 555 timer—one of the simplest integrated circuits around—but it would be an adequate test for PrISM and Diablo. If his idea worked, he could easily generalize it into a program that would create any integrated chip from CAD specs.

Evan couldn’t create anything until Diablo finished his Escher building though. He checked its status and was surprised to find that it was almost ninety percent done. Eager to see just how cool the model looked, Evan walked to the door that led into the shop. The indicator light beside the door shone red, but he ignored it. The only danger from entering the shop while a build was in progress was that he would step on and crush some of the NEMS; there was nothing that could possibly happen to him. He opened the door and went in.

It wasn’t what he had expected.

It was just a plain room—four walls, floor, ceiling—drab and empty, featureless except for an arched wooden door opposite him and a single staircase rising along the left-hand wall to a landing and a passage through the wall. Light came through a foot-wide circular hole in the ceiling. At first he thought Diablo had completely screwed up, yet the stairs and railings looked just like the ones from the print. Perhaps the model had been too complex, and Diablo had substituted one of its built-in demos, decorating it with bits and pieces from Relativity.

Evan walked to the staircase and tried his weight. It was sturdy: solid marble. He climbed, cautious in the dim light, until he stood on the landing at the top and could see the other side. The landing opened into another cubic room, with its own staircase paralleling the one Evan had just climbed—but its landing also extended forward and down another staircase into a third room. A door led between the two rooms, and still another staircase rose along the far wall of the third room.

In the second room, an archway in the opposite wall showed a small, dim garden beyond. As Evan descended into the room and walked out to this garden—which, he found, was bounded by its own ten-foot cube of walls, enclosing it in a space much smaller than the rooms, and with a similar ceiling hole to admit light—he understood what had happened.

This was indeed his model of Relativity—but undone in its construction by the very qualities of Diablo that made the system so powerful.

Diablo was designed to be intelligent and abstractive, allowing it to fill in parts of a design that might be hidden by other parts, or to decide which way was “up” for a model. Diablo had figured out that there were many different downs, and so it had asked Evan which one to use. He wished he had been paying more attention when he bypassed that screen. Apparently Diablo was unable to decide on one direction as up and still maintain the integrity of the building in the print, so it had built each relative axis as a different room, all spatially separate but still linked together by the structure’s defining integral features: the staircases.

Evan left the garden and tried the heavy wooden door leading into the third room. That room had another door hidden under the staircase on the right-hand wall, leading into the room beyond the first one. Evan walked through that room and back into the first. With no windows, and so many staircases and doorways leading into rooms that all looked the same, he was surprised to see the door leading back out to the office. This model was almost a funhouse, a labyrinth. The more he looked around, the more he liked it. He was sure Janey would like it.

Evan left the shop and returned to his desk. He knew Janey would like Relativity, but she wouldn’t have time to enjoy it on Wednesday. He would have to dismantle the model in order to free the PrISM shop up for other projects. It would take just as long to take a model apart as it took to build it. Which in this case meant almost two days.

He pulled the company directory from his desk and looked up Janey’s home number. It was ten thirty. Since tomorrow was a holiday, it wasn’t too late to call. Stomach fluttering, Evan dialed her number.

She wasn’t home. When he heard her answering machine click on, Evan’s mouth seemed to seize up. He swallowed awkwardly, and found himself stammering dry-mouthed when her message ended.

“Hey, Janey, this is Evan, from work. I’ve got kind of a surprise for you. Give me a call when you get in. I’ll be up late, so you can call pretty much anytime. Or tomorrow.” He left his cell phone number, then hung up and stared blankly at the wall.

Of course she wasn’t home—not someone as outgoing and pretty as Janey. She was probably out with a big group of friends. Or, Evan realized with a sinking feeling, out on a date. It had never occurred to him that she might have a boyfriend.

He stood up, angrily kicking his chair out of the way, and stomped into the break room. He noticed with annoyance that there were only two more beers left in the fridge.

Sipping the beer, he walked to the Reddex lobby, the semi-circular landing of the main staircase protruding out beyond the front of the building, the half-cylinder of glass-curtain wall providing a panoramic view of Atlanta’s skyline. Janey had a condo downtown. He’d never been there, of course.

He headed up the stairs that led to Roberto’s office. Roberto never locked his door. He was proud of his open-door policy, always telling employees they should feel free to come in anytime.

Roberto’s huge antique cherry desk sat in one corner, two leather couches and a very modern maple and mahogany coffee table were in the opposite corner for balance, and against one wall stood a liquor cabinet that matched the desk. The cabinet was locked. Evan found two paperclips in the desk and bent one tang of each so it was straight. He raked the tip of one across the lock’s tumblers while he stuck the other into the lock and pulled it to the side; that tension sprung the lock when he had jiggled all of the tumbler pins into place. It was a little trick he’d picked up in his early teens, before getting into computers.

Evan opened the cabinet and took out an unopened bottle of Maker’s Mark—if he was going to steal from the boss, he might as well steal the best. Not that he was really stealing; he had plenty of time before Wednesday morning to run out to the liquor store and buy a replacement.

He took his Swiss Army knife out of his pocket and ran the small blade around the red wax covering the neck of the bottle, then twisted the cap off and took a sip. He chased it with some beer, then took another sip of the whiskey. With a beer in one hand and the Maker’s in the other, Evan stalked the corridors of the building’s upper floors. This was Executive territory, unfamiliar to Evan. Every door except Roberto’s was locked.

When he finished the beer, he went down to the break room to get the last one. He wandered around downstairs, through the tech office, document production, reception, even the storage rooms. By the time the last beer was gone, Evan had made a substantial dent in the whiskey. There was no way he could drive home now.

The thought of spending another night on the floor made his back ache, so he slowly weaved his way upstairs to Roberto’s office. He capped the bottle and set it on the coffee table with exaggerated care, then let himself fall toward one of the sofas. He was unconscious before his body touched the leather.

*****

Janey listened to Evan’s message and let out a long sigh. She felt bad about leaving work for the long weekend without so much as a “Have a nice weekend.” He probably thought she did it intentionally.

What kind of surprise did he have for her? After Reptiles, which really was sort of hideous looking, she was almost afraid to find out.

She debated calling him back, but decided it would only encourage him. She knew from experience that trying to be friends with a guy who was romantically interested in her would not work.

*****

Evan woke slowly, painfully. The midday sun glared too brightly even through the heavy tinting on the window glass, making Evan squint. He was badly hungover. He sat up and reached for the bottle. Hair of the hound. That seemed to help his queasiness, but it made his stomach knot up. He realized how little he had eaten yesterday.

As soon as he felt able, he went downstairs. He needed a shower badly, but didn’t feel steady enough to drive just yet. He bought two candy bars from the machine to get something in his stomach besides whiskey.

It was too bright at his desk. He retreated to the break room, but that was just depressing and claustrophobic. He picked up the whiskey bottle and took it with him to the PrISM shop.

The red light was still on, which he thought was strange. Nothing looked at all different from last night. He wondered what the system might still be working on. The stairs seemed too much for him in his current condition, so instead he walked to the door and opened it. That room also looked unchanged since last night.

Something else about last night bothered him, and then he remembered calling Janey. Without really thinking, he unclipped his cell phone from its holster on his belt and tapped the redial button. After three rings, Janey picked up.

“Hello?”

Evan was much too hungover to feel nervous. “Janey?”

“Yes.”

“It’s Evan.”

“I know.” She paused before asking, “What’s up?”

“Nothing much,” he hedged. “What are you up to?”

Again she paused. “I’m kind of busy right now. Was there something you wanted?”

“Yeah. I’ve got something to show you, something I think you’ll really like.”

“Well, I’ll look forward to seeing it on Wednesday. I’ll talk to you then, okay?”

“Wait!” Evan tried to keep from panicking. It was obvious that she was trying to get rid of him. Did she have someone there with her now? Maybe Roberto? “I… I don’t know if I can keep it around that long.”

“I’m just going to have to take that chance. I’ll see you on Wednesday. Goodbye, Evan.”

*****

“Who was that?” Allen, Janey’s date, asked. He had just arrived to pick her up for an Atlanta Symphony concert in Piedmont Park.

“Someone from work,” Janey said. Already she decided she wouldn’t go on another date with Allen. They’d met a couple of weeks ago and he’d been trying to get her to go out with him since then. But now here he was asking who’d called when it was none of his damn business.

“Oh, well, we should get going,” he said, looking at his watch.

Janey started towards the door, then stopped.

“Damn it,” she said.

“What’s wrong?” Allen asked.

“You know what? I just don’t feel like going now. I’m sorry.”

“Oh.” He just looked at her. “So what do you feel like doing?” It was too obvious that he was hoping she’d say something seductive about staying in and getting comfortable.

“Nothing. You just go, okay? Have fun.”

Allen blinked, then shook his head and made an exasperated sigh as he opened the door and left. Janey went to the door, then closed it and locked it. Having to hang up on Evan like that had put a bad taste in her mouth. She was angry at him for putting her in that position.

What the hell was wrong with Evan? What did he want to show her? Despite herself she was curious. She had put the Reptiles model up in her closet where she wouldn’t have to look at it. When she thought about it, she was amazed that Evan had actually made the mental leap from using Diablo for something dry and technical to using it for art—for her. Janey had to admit to herself that whatever Evan was doing was probably pretty interesting. Whatever it was would have to wait until Wednesday, though. Especially now that she had drawn that line.

*****

Evan stared dejectedly at his phone for a while then took a long swallow of whiskey, feeling it burn down his throat and into his stomach. He took another drink, and another. The pure white marble walls seemed almost luminescent. The whole room practically glowed, as if in moonlight.

He walked slowly, around the perimeter of the room, letting his right hand trace a wavy line along the cool, smooth wall. When he came to a staircase, he climbed it and kept his hand in contact with the stone. He descended into the next room and continued to walk along the wall until he came to a door; he went through into the next room, still keeping his hand on the wall.

It became a game, to keep his hand in constant contact with the stone. He kept thinking of Janey with another man, or with Roberto, and kept sipping whiskey. Before long he felt dizzy, and exhausted. He stopped in one of the gardens and lay down on the green plastic grass. The world seemed to rotate beneath him faster and faster. He closed his eyes to make it stop, but it didn’t. He was going to get sick if he couldn’t make it stop. He reached out with his right hand to touch the marble wall, and the spinning stopped. The coolness of the marble seemed to flow into him like an ocean breeze.

*****

He woke feeling hungry. The light in the garden remained unchanged, stealing any sense of time. It had to be at least late afternoon. He wanted to go home and go to bed. He walked up a staircase and down into the next room. It wasn’t the one with the door to the shop, so he continued on into the next room on the left.

That room didn’t hold the way out, either—but it did have two staircases on opposite walls, and a door in a third wall. Evan scowled; he thought there were only four rooms, arranged in a square. But if that were the case, it would be impossible to have staircases in opposite walls—there couldn’t be rooms on either side.

Unless Diablo had built more since his first look around. That would explain why the red indicator light had still been on. He climbed up the far stairs and entered the next room.

That room had only one door, to the left of the stairs. Evan didn’t recognize this room; he assumed it was a new one. He walked through the door—into a room with four doors and three staircases. Were there nine rooms now? He sighed wearily. He was really getting bored with this game. He was tired and hungry. He just wanted to go home and sleep in his own bed. He also needed to buy a new bottle of whiskey for Roberto’s liquor cabinet, he reminded himself.

He hurried through the door on the right, into a room with a staircase to either side, but no door directly ahead. The staircase on the left led into another room that didn’t lead out.

He started to worry. There had only been four rooms to start with, so Diablo was apparently still building. The PrISM controller was supposed to have built-in safeguards but what if something had gone wrong and it had built a wall in front of the door?

Evan forced himself to calm down. Panicking wouldn’t help; besides, he still hadn’t checked every room. He returned to the central room, wishing he had a pen and paper so he could draw a map. Maybe he could keep track with a mental map.

He went to one door, opened it, and looked through; the room beyond did not hold the way out. Evan left that door open and went to the next, then to the third, leaving them all wide open. Just to be absolutely sure, he opened the door he’d entered the room through, but the shop door wasn’t in any of the four rooms he could now see into. Which meant it had to be in one of the corner rooms.

Evan walked through the first door he had opened and turned to his left. The wall he faced had a staircase and a door, so he opened the door and looked into the next room. That wasn’t the way out, so he climbed the staircase on the opposite wall and looked across the landing into the other room. That was no good, either.

Evan retreated to the central room and went through the next door, looking into the rooms adjoining that room. Then he tried the third door, and, just to be sure, the fourth. He didn’t find the shop door anywhere.

He went back once again to the four-doored room and sat down in the middle of the floor. He had some whiskey to calm himself and thought about his predicament. The marble walls were obviously too hard to break through and too smooth to climb. So the only way out would be to have Diablo disassemble the whole model. He couldn’t do that unless he was already out. Somebody else could do it for him, though.

Evan unclipped his phone and pressed the redial button.

“Hello?”

“Janey, it’s Evan.”

“Evan? What—”

“Listen, Janey I’m sorry to bother you, but I need a big favor. I need your help.”

“Uh, I’m kind of busy, Evan.” He could hear the caution in her voice.

“Please, Janey. I’m trapped at work, and I need someone to come get me out.”

The caution changed to surprise. “Trapped? How? What are you doing at work?”

“Look, it’s a long story, but I had Diablo make a building, and I came inside before it was finished, and while I’ve been in here it built over the door, and now I can’t get out. I need someone to come here and tell Diablo to disassemble the model.”

“Have you been drinking?”

“What?”

“You sound like you’ve been drinking.”

“I had a few beers, but I’m not drunk.”

“You’re not supposed to drink, are you?” Janey asked.

“No, but—”

“Look, Evan, I’m not sure what’s going on. You’re not supposed to drink, and I know you’re not supposed to be at work alone. I don’t want to get involved in whatever it is you’re doing right now. If you need help, you should call Roberto.”

Janey hung up. Evan swore, and took another long pull on the bottle. At the very least he’d thought she was a decent enough human being that she’d help him. It was interesting that she immediately suggested he call Roberto.

*****

Janey debated calling Roberto, but she wanted to give Evan a chance to get himself out of whatever fix he was in himself. He was definitely not supposed to be drinking. If he got caught it would probably mean prison. She didn’t want to be even remotely responsible for that.

Three phone calls in one weekend. Not good. Maybe that little heart-to-heart with him at work had been a bad idea. Was he getting all crazy about her? Why did men do that? Earlier there had been a message from Allen, also drunk, calling her a bitch and hanging up. So Evan was just another guy. Janey found that disappointing.

*****

Evan decided he was now truly screwed. Janey had been his only hope. Even if he had access to the company directory, nobody else at Reddex would help, since they all hated him. He couldn’t call Roberto. If Merle found out, Evan would wind up in jail for violating probation. He had to get out before Wednesday morning, and he had to figure it out on his own.

In desperation, he ran through every room again, hoping he had somehow missed a room. The faint light that managed to squeeze into each room through the ceiling portholes was barely enough to see by; that, combined with the confusing similarity of the rooms got Evan all turned around and mixed-up so he wasn’t sure if he’d already been in a particular room or not. He tried to keep track, but counted first eight rooms and then ten. He tried to make a mental map, but there were too many passages between too many rooms.

Not only was Evan emotionally desperate to get out of the model, but he was physically desperate. The pressure on his bladder was intense. He set the whiskey bottle down and hurried into the nearest garden to relieve himself on the plastic bushes. The acrid, ammoniac smell disgusted him. He could just imagine leading Janey through the model, her nose wrinkling up at the smell of stale urine. No more drinking.

The thought of the liquor gave him an idea. He left the bottle on the floor just inside one of the room’s two doorways and went into the adjoining room. He climbed the staircase on the wall straight ahead and stopped on the landing to make sure he could still see the bottle. Satisfied that his landmark was sufficiently visible, he walked down the stairs into the next room. There was a garden to his left and a door and a staircase to his right. Evan started toward the doorway, but stopped dead.

Just inside the next room, a whiskey bottle glinted in the thin, pale light.

Evan stared at it, dumbstruck. When he recovered his wits, he ran back up the stairs; from atop the landing he stared across the second room and through the doorway into the first. His bottle stood right where he had left it. He quickly turned and tried to look down through the third room into the fourth, but the angle was wrong and he couldn’t see into that room. He descended slowly, step by step, craning his neck and straining his eyes, but by the time he could see the bottle inside the fourth room, the wall blocked his view back into the second.

He went down and picked up the bottle in the fourth room. It looked like his, and it had the same amount of whiskey left in it. The pattern of the hand-dipped wax on the neck of the bottle looked the same. It couldn’t be the same bottle, though. Had Diablo somehow duplicated it? That didn’t seem possible, since it wasn’t part of the original picture he had scanned. Even if Diablo had somehow started copying new things within the model, it couldn’t have done it so quickly.

Evan uncapped the bottle and took a cautious sip. There was no mistaking that taste, and Evan decided this had to be his bottle. Holding it in his right hand Evan climbed up and down, back into the second room. As he descended the stairs, he could already see that his bottle was no longer where he had left it. He expected as much, although he didn’t know why.

There was something else that didn’t seem right. He wandered around the room, but didn’t figure it out until he walked past the scentless garden. There was no smell of urine. It was almost as though this wasn’t the right room after all, which would explain the absence of the whiskey bottle. But they were three rooms in a straight line. How could he have gotten lost in that?

Shaking his head in confusion, he wandered through the doorway once more, and found himself somehow in the wrong room. Straight ahead was a door; a staircase rose along the wall to his left.

Evan backtracked through the other door out of the first room. The new room he entered did indeed have a staircase on the opposite wall and a door to the right, but there were no distinguishing characteristics to prove that this was in fact the second room. Without really thinking about it he raised the whiskey bottle to his lips and drank some. It calmed him. He’d tried to think his way out of the model and couldn’t. He wondered if it might be easier to just wander around and maybe stumble across the exit.

He walked through the rooms at random, sipping whiskey. He couldn’t stop thinking about his predicament, though. Why couldn’t he get out? The twilight darkness and the alcohol could not alone explain his confusion; he had a bit more confidence in his mental abilities than that. There had to be something else behind it.

Escher’s drawing, Relativity, showed a building that was perfectly plausible, if unlikely; a building Diablo should have built exactly as depicted.

It was the specific reality of Relativity—the relativity of its gravity, with down twisting about, recursing, folding over itself, that could not exist in the real world. Yet it was this aspect that Diablo in its artificial intelligence had extrapolated and attempted to construct: the logical Relativity instead of the physical. In attempting to recreate that looping recursive three-plane relativity in a single plane, Diablo’s PrISM system must have created a logical prism—had somehow refracted the building in such a way that, just as the staircases in the Escher print led in different logical directions depending on which side a figure walked upon, here in the model the physical arrangement of the rooms seemed to change depending on which sequence of stairways and doors one traveled through. Evan wasn’t really sure how that could be possible.

He set the whiskey bottle down in the middle of the floor and ran out of the room. He wanted to see how many different paths there were back to this place. He ran through three rooms before he found himself back with his whiskey. He took a drink and tried again. He ran through five rooms, four, seven, and each time he found the bottle he took another drink as his reward for finding it again.

He didn’t see the exit anywhere.

Eventually, he gave up. Out of breath, he collapsed on the cool cement floor and lay spread-eagled on his back.

Upside-down the room looked entirely different—looked more, in fact, like the Relativity print. Evan rolled his head as far back as he could, arching his neck, and stared at a wall with a door just under what was now the ceiling. He scooted around on his back until he could look at another wall this way, a wall with the underside of a staircase leading up to a dead-end at the ceiling.

He scooted around to look at the next wall and immediately sat up. In the darkness beyond that doorway, just for a moment, something had moved.

“Hello?” Evan called out.

He scrambled to his feet and into the next room, but it was empty.

“Hello?” Evan continued to call out as he rushed from room to room. “Hello? Janey? Hey!”

There again, in the next room, a ghostly flash of something whipped across the corner of Evan’s sight. He ran in just in time to catch sight of someone disappearing into another room.

“Hey!” Evan shouted.

He ran up the stairs after the person, still yelling, but whoever it was didn’t stop. From atop the landing, Evan saw him walk through a doorway. Instead of running after him, this time Evan turned around and ran back down the stairs and across the room, hoping to cut this other person off.

He reached the next room as this visitor was walking out through the far door, but caught a good enough look at the man that a chill engulfed him, and he stopped cold. Dressed in brown corduroy pants and a short-sleeve yellow madras shirt, with brown hair, glasses, and a cell phone clipped to his belt, this other person was, impossibly, Evan himself.

Cautiously, Evan followed after his doppelganger. The next room was empty. Evan walked to its center, peering carefully through all the doorways, at the same time hoping to see something and to see nothing.

As he turned slowly, he once again saw movement out of the corner of his eye. His head snapped quickly around, and he saw the figure—saw himself—disappearing out of this room across a stairway landing.

As he started up the stairs, motion out of the corner of his eye made him turn. In the room he had just left, there he was again.

This could not be possible. Diablo could not create human tissue—and even if it could, the machine could never imbue such a golem with life. Evan felt a sudden overwhelming need for the whiskey he had left behind. But he also felt a growing terror of moving into a new room, of going through any doorway behind which someone might be lurking—behind which he himself might be lurking. Could he trust himself? Would he, Evan, hurt another Evan? If he was afraid, he might. And if the other Evan was afraid…

Trying frantically to keep watch on the two doors and three stairways in the room, Evan grabbed his phone and called Janey. He waited six long rings before she finally picked up.

“Janey!” he shouted into the phone. “Janey, it’s Evan. You’ve got to help me! Please!”

“Evan?” Janey’s voice was thick with sleep.

“I’m still stuck in the PrISM shop—”

“Evan, it’s almost two in the morning.”

“Janey, I think Diablo made copies of me. I don’t know what’s going on, but you’ve got to get me out of here. Please, Janey!”

“What the hell are you talking about, Evan?”

“Diablo made copies of me! I’ve seen them—there’s at least two of them walking around in here. Two of me!”

Janey’s voice took on a hard edge. “Okay, Evan, I’ve had enough of this. It’s late, and I’m trying to sleep. Please stop calling me.”

She hung up. Evan immediately hit redial.

“I told you to stop calling.”

“Janey, please, I just want you to let me out. I’m trapped, and Diablo is copying me! Why won’t you help me?”

“You’re getting really scary, Evan. If you call here again, I’m going to tell Roberto.”

The adrenaline from Evan’s fear fueled a sudden surge of rage. “Is he there? Is that why you won’t help me?”

Evan heard a click as Janey hung up. He screamed into the phone. An answering yell echoed from an adjoining room. Evan turned and ran with blinding terror, but the scream echoed from every room and there was nowhere to go to escape it.

*****

Janey put on her bathrobe and walked out to the phone table in the living room. She looked up Roberto’s home number in the company directory she kept there and dialed.

Roberto’s wife answered on the first ring, sounding harried and frantic. “Hello?”

“Mrs. Sorricelli? This is Janey Alvarez. I’m a programmer at Reddex. I’m sorry to call so late, but I think there might be a problem at the office. Can I speak to your husband, please?”

Mrs. Sorricelli made a strange noise, but didn’t reply. Janey heard her talking to someone in the background, and then an unfamiliar male voice, deep and resonant with authority, came on the line and asked, “Who is this?”

“This is Janey Alvarez. Who’s this?”

“This is Merle King, Janey. What is this about trouble at Reddex?”

Janey frowned. She almost didn’t recognize Merle’s voice—he sounded much more authoritative and threatening than when she saw him at Reddex. For a moment she thought that this must be how Evan saw him. “Merle? What’s going on? Is everything okay?”

“Please, Janey, just tell me about Reddex.”

“Um, Evan has been calling me all weekend. He says he’s trapped in the office, and his calls keep getting weirder and weirder. He’s starting to scare me, so I wanted—”

“When did he last call you?” Merle asked. He did not sound like the friendly Merle who made her laugh whenever he stopped by the office. He sounded far more menacing. She could more easily understand Evan’s feelings towards him. “When did he last call you, Janey?” Merle repeated the question, more forcefully this time.

“Just now—just before I called.”

“What about the time before that?”

“Right around dark, I guess. What’s going on?”

“Thank you, Janey. Now you just stay put until someone calls you, you hear?”

He didn’t wait for a response. The phone clicked and Janey stood there listening to the dial tone for a few seconds. She decided to act.

As she was backing her car out of the parking spot she caught a glimpse of someone disappearing around the corner of her building. A man. For a moment she thought she had just seen Evan, but it couldn’t be. He was trapped at the office. Unless he’d been lying to her. Either way, she felt she’d be better off where the police were, and Merle.

*****

When Janey pulled into the Reddex parking lot four police cars already sat there, their flashing emergency lights reflecting off the building’s glass-curtain walls and flaring across the night like fireworks. Evan’s car was there, too. Merle walked intently toward her car before she was out. He wore gray slacks and a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up, with a badge pinned to his shirt pocket.

“You’re a sheriff’s deputy?’ she asked when he was close to the car.

“Yes, I am. Certain offenders get a sheriff’s deputy for their probation officer. Janey, what are you doing here?” he asked.

“Would you please tell me what’s happening? Is Evan in trouble?” She hated the idea that he might be in trouble because of her. She felt she’d overreacted. Trouble for him meant prison. If they sent him to prison because of her, she’d have to quit Reddex. Walking by Evan’s old cubicle every day would only feed her guilt and make her miserable.

“Roberto was murdered at his home early this morning. Before he died he identified Evan as his attacker. He was stabbed repeatedly in the chest with a small knife when he went out to get the morning paper.”

Janey slumped back against her car. “Roberto’s dead?”

“Why did Evan call you?”

“Evan told me he was trapped. He wanted me to get him out. He sounded really… scared.”

“Trapped? I don’t understand.”

“Have you gotten into the office, yet?” she asked.

“Not yet,” Harris said. “Mrs. Sorricelli gave us the key but she must have forgotten there’s also an access code. We’re waiting for the security company to come out and deactivate it.”

“I can let you into the building,” Janey said. “And I can show you exactly where Evan said he was trapped, too.”

Merle considered this. “All right,” he said at last. “You let us in and show us where you think he is. But you stay with me, and you do exactly as I say. I don’t want him going after you, too.”

*****

Ten minutes later, Janey was leading the police towards Evan’s cubicle. There were two officers in front of her, two behind, and Merle was at her side.

“He’s in there.” She pointed to the PrISM shop door.

The two officers in front put their hands on their guns. One of them turned the knob and pushed the door open.

Merle nodded at Janey. She swallowed hard, her heart thudding rapidly in her chest, and called out, “Evan? Evan, it’s Janey. I’ve come to let you out.”

There was no response. An officer turned on his flashlight and edged into the room, checking quickly behind the door. He nodded, and Merle ushered Janey into the room.

*****

“Evan? Are you in here?”

Evan lifted his head. He’d been hiding behind a tree in one of the gardens when he heard Janey calling to him.

“Evan, it’s Janey.”

“Janey?” Evan stood up and moved cautiously toward the archway. “Janey, is that you?”

“Evan? Where are you?”

“I’m here! Be careful, Janey—they’re still walking around out there. I’ve heard them walking around.”

“It’s okay.” He could hear her voice coming from the next room, and he could see the beams of several flashlights playing about the darkness there. “I don’t see anyone, Evan—I think they’re gone.”

A light appeared in the doorway. Evan was about to reveal his location when a figure stepped into the room. It wasn’t Janey.

It was himself.

Evan screamed and retreated into the garden. Footsteps and flashlights drew closer. He heard his own voice say, “He’s in there.”

“Evan?” Janey called. “It’s okay. Come on out.”

Evan looked up from where he was cowering. Janey stood in the archway, looking in at him with a strange expression; with her were Merle King and four Evans dressed as cops.

“Janey!” he shouted. “Get away from them!”

“Evan—”

“They’re not me, Janey! I’m Evan, I swear! They look like me, but they’re not me! Somehow they found a way out and they’re keeping me trapped in here!”

Two of the police-Evans advanced on him. He backed up against the wall. One of them reached out menacingly. Evan tried to rush past them, but they grabbed him and wrestled him to the ground.

“Janey, help me!” Evan struggled to free himself, but one of his captors put a knee in his back and handcuffed his arms behind him.

“Calm down, Evan,” Merle said.

“Janey!”

They hauled him to his feet.

“Janey!” Evan shrieked wildly as his doubles led him away into the darkness. “Janey, help me! Don’t let them take me, Janey!”

*****

Janey could hear Evan’s mad screams all the way out, his voice growing ever fainter with distance until at last there was nothing but silence.

“Are you all right, Janey?” Merle asked. It was only then that she realized she was trembling violently.

“Yeah, I think so.” She sank down onto a step and took several deep breaths to calm herself.

Merle shook his head sadly. “I knew that boy was high-strung, but I didn’t think it was that bad.” He paused, then asked her, “You ready to get out of here?”

“Can you give me a couple minutes?”

“Of course. I’ll be waiting out front, all right? You take this. It’s dark in here.”

Merle handed her his flashlight, then left her alone.

Janey thought about what had happened and tried to make some sense out of it. She couldn’t. She stood, and started to look around. There was almost no light, but in the sweep of the flashlight Janey thought the room looked oddly familiar. She remembered Evan’s first phone call earlier that weekend, when he said he had a surprise for her, and it suddenly occurred to her that he might have scanned in another of her Escher prints.

Relativity,” Janey said aloud, realizing what it was. She wondered why Evan had built it as several normal rooms rather than as a single topsy-turvy one.

She climbed the stairs until she was looking into the next room. The walls felt cool and smooth and solid like real marble. She marveled at the size of the model. She walked down the stairs into the next room, looking all around; she walked through an open doorway into another room that looked almost the same. It really was amazing what the PrISM technology could do. And Evan had done it for her.

Janey had always thought him relatively harmless. Now, the memory of him looking at her with puppy-dog eagerness chilled her. He’d seemed so normal on Friday, just three days ago, aside from the outburst about his plea bargain.

Could he really have snapped so quickly, or was it a long, slow burn that no one had noticed? Had he programmed Diablo to make this model because of his madness? Or had the model somehow caused him to lose his grip on reality?

Had he really gotten trapped in here? It seemed possible. The rooms were similar and it was dark inside even with the police flashlight. She supposed Evan could easily have gotten turned around and confused, especially if he’d been drinking. Janey looked around as she considered this, and suddenly realized that she herself had somehow lost her way. She had been walking for quite a long time without coming back around to the way out.

She turned the flashlight back through the doorway she had just come through. Its powerful beam shone through a seemingly endless series of rooms until the light faded away into an overwhelming darkness. Janey realized with a sinking feeling that it was going to be a long, long way back.

She heard something move behind her, and turned to see a figure.

 

Storms

by Michail Velichansky

 

During a thunderstorm and a heavy downpour of rain, a young woman went out into her yard to take the dog inside. It was a large yard, and empty except for the plastic toys. Within seconds, she was soaked. Her clothes stuck to her body. The dog wasn’t outside.

She wiped at her eyes. Lightning flashed in the distance, then closer, and closer. She felt the hairs on her hands stand up, and on the back of her neck; the breath caught in her lungs, wet and humid. Lightning flashed in the distance.

“Hound! Where are you, boy?”

The sky flickered. Thunder rolled. And she smelled ozone. The shock ran up her spine and in her head. She felt it behind her eyes and deep in her chest.

She remembered how in monsoon country, people drown in the rain. This worried her a little bit, because it was really pouring down. Where had the dog got off to? She hoped that the thunder wouldn’t scare her little brother and sister too badly, she could feel it about to break. So it did: crashing against the ground and the buildings and the trees, beating against her with rain and wind.

Then she was back in the house, standing in the doorway, breathing heavily and dripping on the floor.

“The Hound’s not out there,” she said, shivering. She sneezed. Leaving coat, shoes, and socks on the floor, she went upstairs, and in the bathroom stripped off the rest of her clothes and dried herself.

The little ones were asleep; she found Hound wrapped up in the three-year-old’s sheets, only his nose sticking out. He looked warm, and she was jealous. Her parents watched television in the living room, while her brother played on the computer. It was supposed to be off during the storm.

In bed, the thunder wasn’t so bad, and the drum of rain on the roof relaxed her. But she was bothered by the wind, because it didn’t stop. After a while she fell asleep, and dreamed of blue light.

*****

From then on, she only dreamed blue light—a neon sliver flickering in the darkness when she closed her eyes. Other things changed, too: she had trouble remembering things. She would find herself standing around, staring, and when someone asked her what she was thinking she couldn’t remember. Her schoolwork suffered, and she found that she couldn’t bring herself to care.

She went to all the college meetings that her mother took her to, but it all felt empty. When they talked, she just stared away, and thought of her dreams.

College, you know. A year away. Forever and eternity. Time enough for storms.

*****

Her little brother David said, “It’s your turn,” and she found that she couldn’t remember what it was they were playing. Scrabble, the board said. Verb; to scratch or scrape, as with the claws or hands. To grapple or struggle with or as if with the claws or hands.

That didn’t make any sense.

“Come on, it’s your turn, I got triple word score.”

“Mh-hmm—”

“You gonna go?”

She didn’t have any claws, and that made her sad. She wandered to the kitchen and stared at the fridge.

“You’re no fun anymore,” David said, pouting.

“I’m sorry,” she said, fumbling with a box of crackers. She took out a few and set them on the counter. Then she walked away, leaving the crackers behind.

David was still pouting, spelling out dirty words on the board.

“That’s you,” he said, and stuck his tongue out. “Triple word score again, that’s how big a that you are.”

“Okay,” she said.

She went outside, and stood in the yard with her eyes closed, waiting for the blue light. It seemed so far away, yet it flickered less now.

*****

“It’s getting dark,” her mother said.

“Is it?” It was hard to tell.

“How long have you been standing out here?”

“Have I been standing out here?”

“Stop being a smart-ass.”

She wondered what it would be like to be a smart ass. Not too much fun, she decided; after all, they only carry things and pull things. The smart ass would know what it was missing. She felt sorry for them, the smart asses.

“Well?” her mother asked. The young woman said nothing, but tried to smile reassuringly, because her mother looked so tired.

“Did you put the little ones to bed like I asked you to?”

“Really? Were you here this morning?”

“Just get inside,” her mother said, sighing.

So she went inside. She tried to remember if her mother had been there that morning, but really, it seemed to her that she had only come about that evening, to tell her it was getting dark. As she brushed her teeth, very slowly, a tiny voice told her that made no sense, that of course her mother had been there that morning, and every morning before. She was her mother! But it was a tiny voice, and sleepy.

She went to sleep, and tried to name the shades of blue. She started from the beginning, using words that had no meaning:

Aardvark

Abacus

Abalone

Abandon

*****

Her parents decided to talk to her, in her room upstairs in the attic.

“You haven’t been yourself lately,” her father said.

“It’s drugs, isn’t it?” her mother said.

“We just want to know what’s wrong…”

“If it’s drugs, you better tell us now. They’ve got those new tests out now, if it’s drugs, we’ll find out.”

“Your teacher called… you don’t pay attention anymore…”

“It’s drugs. All the kids these days, they’re all taking drugs.”

It went on like that. Her mother got angrier, and looked even more tired, while her father looked like a piece of paper flapping in the wind.

She didn’t say much. She felt kind of sorry for them. “I think it’s going to rain,” she said, and stared out the window.

After a while, they got tired of yelling and pleading and threatening her, so they did it to each other for a while. Then they got tired of that, too, and went downstairs.

*****

It did rain, later, and she almost went out into the rain. But the little voice in her head, desperately rubbing the crust out of its eyes, told her to stay inside. It was quite insistent, in its own way, so she patted it on the head and humored it. The thunder was warm, the wind quiet and soothing. Blue light burned on her closed lids.

She was sick the next day. Everything spun about, and she felt nauseous. She couldn’t remember ever being sick like that, regardless of what the little voice told her. It was more awake now. She decided that once she felt better she would feel happy for it.

Remember, the little voice urged.

So she lay in her bed and stared up at the ceiling. In a vague way, she knew that her life had become different somehow. The little voice insisted that they had. But what could you do? Once your life changed, it changed; there was no going back. If the little voice kept on trying to live that way, it would be a very unhappy little voice, she thought. When she closed her eyes, it was aardvark blue she saw. It probably wasn’t going to rain for a little while still.

The little voice was happy with this, in a desperate sort of way. The blue light wasn’t—in its huge and patient, building-up and rumbling sort of way. She wished they’d make up and be friends. She didn’t like being sick.

*****

The days went by, slow and soporific. Almost summer days, now. Until one day the young woman woke up and saw—with a bit of difficulty, because the sun was in her eyes—a young man.

“Um,” the young man said. “Are you all right?”

She had sprawled out in the front lawn, and didn’t remember how she’d gotten there, and wearing her jacket, of all things.

“I’m all right,” she said, blinking. The little voice told her she was hot and uncomfortable. She hoped the little voice could find some shade.

“But… why are you lying out in the dirt? With your coat on?”

“I think I’m supposed to be dead,” she said.

“Um. You look alive to me.”

“Oh. Well. Maybe I was dreaming, then?” He was an odd-looking young man, not really attractive at all.

“Dreaming about what?” he asked.

For once she really thought about it, and realized that what she’d been dreaming about was the time she walked out into the storm and felt lightning running up her spine. And the blue light, of course, that was in her dream too, even though she was certain she hadn’t seen anything like that at the time.

“Nothing much,” is what she told the odd-looking young man. He had smiled at her. “Just about, you know, not being dead.”

“Ah.” He fidgeted for a moment, then asked, “What’s your name?”

“Alice,” she said, giving the first name that came to her. He smiled at her again, and the young woman who had named herself Alice smiled back. Then she sat up and took off the coat, because it really was quite hot.

“I’m Crawford.”

“That sounds like a last name, not a first name.”

The young man named Crawford shrugged.

“Crawford…” she said, tasting the name and the odd-looking young man with the sun-lit smile it was attached to. “Crawford… Cawford… It’s like the sound crows make when you write it out—caw! caw!” She giggled. “Do you mind if I call you Caw?”

“I guess not. I’ll just call you Alice, though, okay?”

And that was fine, because Alice was a nice name, right out of one of the books that sat untouched in her room. She decided she would try to remember it. Keep talking, the little voice said. Hormones. The power of hormones!

The blue light, which had made itself rather abalone, said, Wait.

“Come on,” the young woman who had named herself Alice said. “It’s a nice day, and we should go for a walk.” She even believed that, a little. It tingled, believing.

Caw shrugged, and smiled again, and they went for a walk.

*****

They had so little to say, yet she remembered the conversation, later—especially the parts where Crawford got nervous and fumbled his words, and then kind of laughed in a half-embarrassed way. She liked that laugh. It was a nice laugh.

Really, not only was he not especially attractive, but there wasn’t anything interesting about him. His family had two cats. Sometimes his mother took too many sleeping pills. His father was over-educated, a college drop-out, and a construction worker. He’d read a book about the Japanese tea ceremony once, and thought it was pretty neat. But he didn’t like tea.

Not interesting at all, she thought, and her chest tingled as though she might laugh. It felt nice, but it made her feel sick, too. She told herself it was probably okay, but wasn’t so sure now.

“I’ll, um, see you later. I guess.”

“Sure,” she said.

Then they stood around for a second too long, staring at the spaces around shoes and sky.

“Um. Bye.”

“Bye now.”

Then they did go off, he down the street, she into her house. Had she been in that house before? Everything felt new, so neat and dirty and sparkling-wonderful; the way something familiar looks new and delicious when you see it again after a long time. It’s fantastic, thought the little voice inside her head.

The blue light was still abalone, but that didn’t make any sense, because an abalone was a kind of mollusk, and she couldn’t see any blue light. Only she thought it must be everywhere around her, too. She felt sick again, and this time it was worse. Still, she went around the house, exploring, trying to ignore the dizzyness. She played with the Hound of the Baskervilles, who had been laying half-asleep under the couch. Happy, he growled at her and tried to tear her shirt. She growled back, then gave him a treat. He could never resist a treat, so he let go of her shirt.

Then she read a story to Clare, who was only three, but it was never too early to get them hooked. So she kept her up late reading the Grimms.

She played a game of Scrabble with David, and lost.

She played video games with Gary, who asked her what kind of drugs she’d been on. He got mad when she wouldn’t tell him, then remembered that he was too cool to care.

Then she went up to go to bed, and stopped to tell her parents, “Good night.”

She loved them all, she thought, and so did the little voice. Lying in bed, happiness fought the spinning sadness in her skull.

*****

Burned on her lids, the blue light was the color of abandon. She was out in the rain, looking for the black hellhound howling in the distance, the Hound of the Baskervilles. The full moon burned through the clouds with its terrible light. The wind beat against her.

The Hound—he howled for her, lamenting.

The odd-looking young man flew down and smiled, and his smile was calm breeze and sunlight as he took a walk with a young woman named Alice.

And Alice decided she didn’t like the rain, and the thunder, and the blue light. She stared at Crawford and imagined a beach, with pretty blue waters and a palm tree. She imagined laughing and running and playing on the beach, beneath their palm tree beside the pretty blue water.

In her head, the little voice laughed, and it wasn’t little anymore. The way it filled her head, she hardly heard it at all.

The blue light said nothing, but she felt it waiting.

Abandon.

*****

Another storm. She could smell it in the air, could feel it on the hairs along her arm. Blue filled the sky, but the wind blew hard, and clouds rolled towards her in the distance. Not a proper wind, smelling of the sea, but a local one smelling of smog, and ozone.

The trees swayed ominously, as trees tend to do. The Hound was inside sleeping in the manner of safe dogs on a nasty day. So were her brothers, sprawled on the couch and on the floor. Her parents were at work. Outside, clouds covered the sun, and the world darkened.

The phone rang, a sharp sound in the gray silence that had fallen.

“It’s Crawford.” He breathed heavily.

“Hi,” Alice said, trying to remember when she’d given him her number.

“You want to get together and hang out maybe? It was fun, yesterday.”

Yeah. It had been kind of fun.

You should go, the little voice said. The storm won’t hit for a while yet—if you get in when you hear thunder or it starts to drizzle, you’ll be fine.

And the blue light said: It doesn’t matter.

It didn’t. She could feel the storms coming, and all the storms after it, pushing down on her. She could just sit, and the water would run down her hair and face and neck, and she’d melt away. Abandon: the blue light no longer flickering, but steady and deep and very old.

But it had been fun. It had. Alice said, “Sure! Meet me in front of my house?”

“Okay.”

Abandon. The storm was coming, and storms, and storms upon storms. For now, though, Alice ran upstairs to put on something that matched and forced her hair into a pony tail so it wouldn’t get in her eyes.

*****

They went out again, laughing into the wind, laughing at the gray sky. Giggly laughs set off by small things, followed by long silences.

Small things:

Two-headed bunnies in the clouds.

The mailbox held up by a huge purple dolphin.

The time when he was six, and they went to Vienna, and he fell into a fountain.

The time she skipped class in third grade and spent the whole time crouched in a toilet stall, and vowed never to skip class again.

They were all funny, in that tingly way things had when Caw was around. And it was kind of fun.

Then it began to rain, and they laughed at that too as they ran for a tree. They were soaked and giddy, her hair out of the ponytail and stuck to her face, his own hair thin and ropy, hanging down the side of his head like noodles. The rain fell so thick it seemed a wall in front of them. They gasped for air in the humid air, and sometimes they would start to laugh again.

She thought there was something she had to do. Something about storms. She remembered being outside, and calling for the Hound. The sky lit up, and thunder struck, rolling over them both, echoing inside her head and heart. What had been there dropped out, and she was left with terror.

“I gotta get back home!” Alice called with the little voice, struggling to be heard above the storm.

“All right!” the young man cried. “We’ll run for it” He smiled and waved a rain-soaked hand as though commanding troops into battle. “Forward!” So Alice and Crawford ran. Thunder boomed behind them, only a few mississippis away. It seemed to her that they ran for a very long time, water beating at their faces, the houses sailing by, uneven and old. Trees swaying in the wind, bowing to the storm. Cold water ran down her face and neck, soaking into the collar of her shirt.

They should have held hands, as they ran. But they only touched with sidelong glances.

“Thanks,” Alice said when they reached her house.

“No problem, love getting soaked… I’ll, see you again, yeah?”

“Yeah.”

Caw’s hand twisted his shirt as he said, “See you then.”

Whatever that was, she felt it too, but she just waved and said, “Bye…”

He smiled again, then stuck his hands into his pockets and ran home. Watching him, she felt herself come down from the place she had been. She felt the storm above.

Stay now, the blue light said. It burned deeper, past blue and into something else. Ancient blue, present at the start of days. Old blue. Storm blue. The blue of lightning searing purple sky, fire in the woods and the wrath of gods.

Then there was only the beating of her heart in her ears, loud and frightened.

As though tearing herself from her place in a great painting, pieces of paint and canvas trailing behind her, Alice ran inside.

*****

Her parents looked up at her from the living room couch, then turned back to the flickering television.

It was David who asked, “Where’ve you been?”

She looked down at him in her big-sister way. “Out with a friend,” she said, little hot-and-cold starbursts exploding in her chest.

“Uh huh. Friend. I saw you kissing by the tree and he’s funny looking.” He stuck out his tongue at her. The moment hung in the air, and then with a jerk David made a break for it. She chased him up the stairs, into his room.

Light flashed through the windows. She stopped, and the world swam around her. She stared at the floor, trying to figure out how her hands could hold on to it the way it spun…

“He’s so thin I bet the wind could knock him down. Or maybe it can’t even touch him he’s so thin!”

…within seconds, she was soaked. Her clothes stuck to her body. The dog wasn’t outside…

Her brother looked at her from the doorway into his room, ready to run. “Hey, are you all right?”

“Sure…” she said. “Just fine.” Very slowly, very carefully, pushing against the spin of the room and the weight of the storm outside, she crawled to the second staircase and up to her room in the attic. The little voice screamed in her skull like a swarm of bees.

*****

“Are you all right?” her father asked.

“I’m fine. Just need to sleep.”

They walked out, and it was her mother who glanced back, blinking rapidly. Outside her window, the storm raged.

She was out on the lawn again, looking for the dog howling somewhere in the distance. The rain fell hard, but it didn’t touch her anymore. She stared up at the black and gray sky, waiting for the blue light to come through her feet and take her into the sky.

Abandon, said the blue light, pulsing like a heartbeat. Come.

Meanings fell away. She was losing herself in the storm, hardly aware of what herself was being lost.

Then she saw a yellow light flicker in the attic window. She could see through it: Alice lay there on the bed, twisting and turning in fever.

“Stay,” Alice moaned with a little voice inside her head. “Don’t leave me.”

She couldn’t leave Alice. She wouldn’t. She reached through the glass and hung on. The wind picked up. Thunder rolled over the land and didn’t stop. The blue light brightened until she couldn’t see.

In the hallway, the Hound of the Baskervilles growled. She scratched him behind his ears. He whined and nudged her with his head, red eyes glowing.

Wind and lightning swirled about her, but she held on to Alice, held on to the young man that Alice thought of so often, to her older brother who wasn’t nice to her, to David, to Clare, to Mom and Dad.

It was pouring down rain, and she was outside, looking for her dog, eternally lost. Around her the lightning rose up to the sky like pillars. They pulsed, gentle and terrible like the ocean. All around the houses fell, and she could see storms stretching out in all directions. The slow pulse of the lightning held up the sky, just as the storms hands caressed the ground.

Storms are forever, the blue lights said. But still she held on.

Alice woke up with the Hound curled up in her lap. He looked up at her, and she could feel the tenseness leave his muscles. He closed his eyes and went to sleep. Alice looked around, and saw that she had passed out past the second bathroom. She lay against her parent’s door. She could hear them through the door.

“I just don’t know what to do,” her mother said. “I know I’m not helping any, I’m not getting through, I… I just don’t know.”

She didn’t want to leave them. None of them. As quietly as she could, Alice started to cry. In her head, the little voice spoke in her own voice, had always been her own voice. Then it disappeared, leaving only Alice—and she didn’t want to leave.

*****

There were crows outside her window, screeching: caw! caw! Alice wondered where they’d come from. She tried to sit up, but as soon as she moved, the world did somersaults. So she could only lie in her bed, trying to keep her eyes open so that she wouldn’t fall asleep.

Outside her window, a clear, epic blue spanned across the sky. The trees seemed to glow, green and satisfied. Bits of water sparkled on the window sill. But there was another storm coming. There was always another storm coming.

The blue light glowed in her head. The mark of the storm.

She turned away from the window and vomited over the side of her bed. She heaved for a long time, even when there was nothing left. Then she lay, sucking in air, unable to stop the room from spinning, unable to bring things into focus. She felt so tired, and she couldn’t stop shaking. As though she was a wet towel that had been wrung out again and again—Alice was stretched thin, fraying at the edges.

At some point, her parents came in and told her they were sorry they’d thought it was drugs, sorry they took the test. She couldn’t remember them taking any test. Night had fallen outside, and her sheets had been changed. A bucket stood next to her bed. The thermometer in her mouth beeped, and the sound floated around the room, at first sharp, then breaking into quiet waves. Then the thermometer beeped again.

“You’ve got a bad fever,” her mother said. Something cool and wet touched her lips, and she drank weakly. Her brain noticed the pill only as an afterthought. Her heart beat erratically, fast one minute and slow the next. Yet the blue light beat steady in the darkness when she closed her eyes.

Days passed, or hours stretched out on a rack. Time felt long and thin. She kept down half a bowl of plain white rice. She drank tea with lemon and honey. Night became day and day became night.

More than anything, Alice wanted to feel better. There wasn’t much time. Not much time at all—she could feel another storm coming.

*****

“Some guy came by here asking for an ‘Alice’,” her mother said. “He seemed to know you though, described you and everything. He said his name was Crawford. Davy says you know him.”

“He’s nice.”

“Why does he call you Alice?”

“It’s a game,” Alice said. “Tell him I’ll be all right in a few days… I will be, right?”

“Well, your fever’s gone down, and you’re talking again… Doctor Sherman thinks it was the summer flu that’s been going around.”

“Mmhmm…”

“So… so I’ll tell that boy you’ll probably be able to talk to him again in a little while.” Her mother smiled, and kissed her very gently on her forehead—still too warm, still pale and covered with sweat.

*****

She played Scrabble with David, the board sitting on a stack of books next to her bed. She placed each piece very slowly to make sure her shaking hands didn’t knock over the board. She looked carefully at each word, and each possible word, and somehow, knowing they meant something made her feel better.

David stared at the board, then built “better” off a horizontal “feel”. He smiled at her: “Triple word score.”

Later, when she could walk, she sat on the couch and watched Gary play his games. He looked at her for a second, then turned back to his flashing lights without a word. Then, as he stared and pressed the buttons, intent on his task, he started to talk; he explained what the games were about, what the stories were, what he was doing. He spoke slowly, stopping often as though nervous. Alice sat and listened to every word.

She read fairy tales to Clare, then she helped Clare write one herself—with lots of blood and violence and a happy ending. The last line was: They lived together forever and ever and ever and read to each other and were very happy.

Then she called Crawford and told him that she could see him.

“Finally better?” he asked.

She answered, “I’ll see you soon.” Then she hung up, and stared at the off-white plastic of her phone and the LED display gone dark.

*****

“Hey,” he said as she closed the door. She walked quickly, and he sprinted to catch up with her. “I’m glad you’re feeling better.”

“Come on,” she said, glancing at him.

“Where do you want to go?”

“I don’t know yet. I want to be going until I do.”

“Sure,” he said, smiling.

So they walked in silence, and sometimes in laughter, until they got to the little park at the end of town: a few trees, and a tiny puddle of a lake too close to the highway. Alice kept walking, off the path and into the woods.

“Here,” Alice said. “This is nice.” She sat down facing the water, her back against a tree.

“All right,” Caw said. He sat down opposite her, cross-legged.

Alice stared at the water in silence.

“What’s up?” he said.

She could see the words in her mind, but had to fight to get her tongue to say them: “I’m… I’m going away. Soon.”

“Well, that’s all right, we can—”

“For good, Caw. Forever.”

Tiny emotions played on the muscles of his face like dust devils. “What?”

“I’m sick, Caw. It’s bad, and I can’t fight anymore. There’s a… there’s… It’s not going to go away, Caw. Not ever.”

“I like you,” he said. He tried to smile.

“I like you too.”

In the silence Alice could hear the cars whooshing down the highway.

“Is it something contagious?” he asked in a dead voice. And then he kissed her. An eager, nervous kiss. A desperate kiss. She put her arms around him, she could feel his heart pounding against hers. It was a world of darkness and hot breath, full of life and warmth.

He moved closer, and his body rubbed against hers. He kissed her again. He put a shaking hand on her chest, ran it down to her leg. For a second they moved closer, their bodies fitting together, clothes getting in the way. Then Alice pulled away. Heavy breath touched only air. His hand fell down to the moist earth. She wrapped her arms about herself as though to stay warm.

Crawford moved as though to touch her again, but stopped and slumped back. He stared at the ground, glancing up at her occasionally. His ragged breathing slowed.

“I just thought we could… I’m going to miss you… I thought…” He started to cry. He seemed now more like a boy than a young man. Alice put her arms around him, and he held her tight.

“I’ll miss you too,” she whispered.

They sat in silence, and after a while he stopped sniffling, and her own meager tears dried up.

“I have to go,” she said.

Alice thought she would have fucked him, eventually. When her parents were away, or his, or maybe hiding in the forest, laughing nervously. She held on to the thought, because she could feel it in her body, even as everything began to fall apart around her. Because it still had meaning, simple and old, while other meanings fluttered on the breeze and flew away.

In the end, there was no way to say goodbye.

*****

She stood outside as the clouds gathered. As the rain began to fall. As the distant sky lit up, and the ancient thunder rolled to greet her. Rainwater ran into her eyes. The sky frothed above her. The house slept, and the Hound of the Baskervilles whined and scratched at the screen door.

Crawford watched her across the street, drenched and shivering.

Alice waved. Goodbye, said her little voice.

She looked up at the sky, and waited for the blue light to take her away.

 

Martin

by Bud Webster

 

Martin Palaver turned on his left side. In a last, desperate act he brought his fist down again and again against every part of his left side he could reach. “You bastard!” he cried, tears of frustration and fury wetting the pillow on which his head rested.

It had come to him, finally, as he lay on his deathbed. After a long, long struggle, the realization had come.

Over the years, his suspicions had grown: his childhood, full of bruises and scrapes; his adolescence, and the shoulder injuries he had sustained playing sandlot football; the astigmatism of his college years; the heart and lung diseases from which he now lay dying.

There were the incidents that should have warned him—his left hand jerking the steering wheel of his automobile, nearly sending him into a bridge abutment or telephone pole; his left middle finger, stiffly erect and pointing at a crowd of street-corner hiphoppers; the tendency of his left foot to fly out from under him on icy pavement.

All of this on his left side. Oh, his right side suffered its share of the inherent slings and arrows, but only that much and no more. From his earliest memories, his left side was scarred and scabbed beyond normality.

Eventually, those suspicions become certainties; the pains, cramps, shortness of breath and arrhythmia were all part of a plot against him, a plot hatched and implemented by one-half of his physical, mental, and emotional being.

More than once he had dismissed the thought of a bi-polar plot, telling himself that it was crazy to think that his left side could want to cause its own destruction, but the sheer breadth of this conspiracy was overwhelming. Since the day of his birth—possibly since his conception—one side of him had schemed and planned against the day it would, at last, kill the rest of him.

In its final betrayal, it had destroyed, bit by bit, his body’s ability to heal itself until, wracked with infections and rotting from within, he lay withered and panting at death’s door.

Well, the pain and injury he would repay as best he could in the few moments left to him, although in his current state there was little actual damage he could do; he hadn’t accepted the terrible reality until far too late, and now he was too frail. He could hear its sinister laughter as he struggled, helplessly and hopelessly, to hold his own.

In desperation, he grasped his left wrist and stuffed it into his mouth, biting down as hard as he could, tearing skin and sinew with incisor and grinding bone and gristle with molar in an insane attempt to ravage what had consumed him for these long years. Frantically swallowing over and over, almost choking on himself, he thought for a moment that he might win after all.

Then, with horror, he felt the slashed and bleeding fingers of his left hand close around those of his good right and drag them, inexorably, to the left side of his mouth where those traitorous teeth renewed their furious chewing until both wrists were jammed tightly into his gaping mouth. The left side of his throat worked and worked, trying to force up what he had forced down.

Suddenly, he felt one of his lacerated fingers—one of the left ones, he knew without a doubt—plunge down his throat.

It was too much. His strength gone, his life draining away, he knew it was over; he had lost. As consciousness slipped away for the last time, he threw up his hands in defeat.

 

The Monster of Sheltonville

A Challenge of the Unknown Story
by John L. French and C.J. Henderson

 

It started with a photograph. Not the usual bunk one found on the Internet, but a real, sharp-edged, glossy, hold-it-in-your-hand photograph. The black and white print was somewhat faded, blurry to the point where its subject might have been a snake, or perhaps a fallen tree. The far more easily identified writing on the back of the photo said that the image was of a monster. A lake monster, to be exact. Some creature called “Wally.”

Someone from Wallowa Lake, Oregon, had sent the old glossy to Marvin Richards, the anchorman and executive producer of the fledgling weekly program, Challenge of the Unknown, the world’s first network television news show devoted entirely to reporting on information of the occult, the preternatural, and the just plain weird. The sender’s idea was that the program might want to do a feature on the “creature of Wallowa Lake.”

For a moment, Richards thought doing so might not be a bad idea. Then he turned to his computer to do some research. When he saw how much coverage “Wally” had already received he sighed quietly and then returned the photo to its envelope. Dropping it into the “If I Get Desperate” file in the lower right-hand drawer of his desk, the producer muttered;

“Worry, Wallowa, but that’s not what Challenge is all about. We don’t cover old stories, we break new ones.”

“And… do we have a new one?”

The question came from the doorway, offered to Richards by an attractive young woman named Lora Dean, the producer’s newly hired assistant. Not bothering to turn his head in her direction, Richards replied;

“Not yet, Ms. Dean, but I’m working on them.”

“I know I’m new here, sir, and pardon me for saying so, but you might want to work fast. Mr. Gerber just called to say that the network liked the first three specials. Perhaps too much. Now—”

“Now,” interrupted the producer, “they want more and they want them soon. Close?”

“Yes, sir. Mr. Gerber said there’s a series slot opening up in the spring that Challenge has been earmarked for—if, that is, you have the product ready.”

“Thank you, Ms. Dean. Call Maxie back and tell him to put us on the schedule, that we’ve got sufficient shows in the can and that even now we’re preparing to go out to shoot new episodes.”

“In other words—lie.”

“No, Ms. Dean,” answered Richards, finally looking up. Fixing the young woman with his gaze, he told her, “if you use my exact words, you will not be lying. Lying is bad. Didn’t they teach you that in Sunday school?”

“Yes,” answered Dean, “but after I told my mother I got a job in television, she said I would probably be excommunicated, or whatever it is they do to Lutherans.”

“Well, that’s show biz.”

Something, the producer thought, we won’t be in much longer if we don’t come up with some ideas quick.

After Dean left to make her return call, Richards reviewed all the ideas he had for further episodes. What he had did not thrill him. There was the double murder in Fall River, Massachusetts, the “new” double murder he corrected himself. He rolled his eyes at that one, reviewing its spin which suggested that perhaps the ghost of Lizzie Borden was responsible. The leaps in logic he had used to tie the deaths into Cleveland’s legendary Butcher of Kingsbury Run slayings made him wince.

Witches in Salem were always popular, one side of his mind whispered, the other hissing that this Salem was in Virginia and that even an American audience might groan at the suggestion that evil had somehow migrated south.

He also had a sleep-deprived little village in North Carolina that had a train run through it every night at 2:15 a.m., its shrill whistle waking everyone. The place showed promise considering that no train tracks could be found anywhere near the town.

But that’s it, thought the producer. True, he had not yet gotten in touch with either of the supernatural investigators he had heard of in New York City who were supposed to have fought demons. Or the policewoman from Baltimore. And while there was the guy who claimed to have seen fairies, or leprechauns, or something, arrangements still had to be made with him. That could take time. Time Marvin Richards did not have.

Looking down at his bottom right-hand drawer, the producer wondered what Oregon might be like at this time of year.

“No,” he said loud enough to cause Dean to run back into the room. Looking up at her from his desk, he said, “If we’re going to hunt sea monsters, we need a new one. We need one of our own.”

“I thought you might feel that way, boss.” Approaching Richards’ desk, the young woman typed a web address into his browser. As a new site opened, she said, “So I did some research. Will this do?”

“Well I’ll be dam… Miss Dean, you just earned every bit of the paltry sum I pay you. Get the Leakin’ Lena out of dry dock; we’re hunting sea serpents.”

“Right away, Uncle Captain, sir.”

Richards smiled. Anyone that got a reference that ancient knew their television. And people that knew their television were the kind he was going to need if he was going to make such a crazy idea work.

*****

Six months ago Shelton had been just another small town along the banks of the Chesapeake Bay. Before the Bay Bridge was built, it had hosted a ferry crossing. Tourists wanting to cross over to the Eastern Shore would stop and have a bite and maybe do some shopping before boarding the ferry on their way to Ocean City. Coming back from vacation, Shelton made a nice break in their journey back to Baltimore.

But that was decades earlier, before the Bay Bridge had propelled the area into the modern age, leaving Shelton to die a death of slow decay. Talk of reviving ferry service across the bay was heard constantly. But that was all it was—just talk. No one stopped in Shelton unless they lived there. Or knew someone who did. Or were lost and found their way there by mistake.

Until, that is, the sightings.

The website Richards was scanning told the tale. First, someone there in Shelton saw what they thought was a sea monster. No one paid much attention to them, however. At least, not until the thing was seen again. And then again. Still, the entire affair would have been dismissed as a local legend but for the pictures posted on the Internet. Suddenly, people once again had a reason to visit the small town—namely, Shelton’s Mystery Monster.

And, seven months, twelve days, and some fifteen hours after the creature which had come to be known as “Shelly” was first spotted, two more people who did not live in Shelton, knew no one who did, or who found their way there by mistake arrived in the town. They were Marvin Richards and Lora Dean, and they were determined that by the time they left, Shelton’s monster would no longer be a mystery.

*****

“Tell me again why we’re a day early,” Dean asked as Richards pulled his rental onto the parking lot of the Shelton Roadside Motel. “Without the rest of the crew?”

Any other female assistant to a show business producer might have been suspicious, but not Dean. In truth, she was very new to the business. But, there was something about her boss that made her want to trust him. Besides, she had made their reservations, and knew they consisted of separate rooms with no connecting door.

“They’re coming tomorrow,” the producer replied. “I thought we’d scout ahead, get the feel of the place. Walk around town, see what we can see. People tend to act different when they’re being filmed. They freeze up, or worse, start getting creative with the truth to keep the camera on them. Let’s catch them being themselves before they start acting out the rolls they think we want to see.”

After checking in and getting settled, the pair drove to the town proper. Behind the wheel, Richards asked;

“Tell me what you noticed at the motel.”

“Besides the fact that you need new luggage?”

“Yes. Besides that.” Dean thought for a moment, then said;

“The parking lot’s been relined, there’s the new sign, the room I’m in still smells slightly of fresh paint…”

“So does mine. What’s all that tell you?”

“They’re suddenly expecting visitors—hopefully lots of them.”

“Correct-a-mundo, and on your first try. Keep your eyes open once we’re in town. Let’s see what other clues they have to offer.”

Dean did not have to pay much attention. Things throughout Shelton screamed “Welcome Tourists!” Besides an overall cleanliness the young woman had not seen since her last visit to the Magic Kingdom, a not-so-subtle sea monster theme had taken over every aspect of the town.

Of the two bars they passed, one had been renamed “Shelly’s Tavern.” The other, “The Serpent Inn.” Restaurants offered “Monster Burgers” with “Serpent Fries” while newly opened stores sold souvenirs of Maryland, the Chesapeake Bay, the town of Shelton and of course, the star attraction—Shelly the Sea Serpent.

“Want a tee?” Richards asked his assistant while they were in Shelly’s Oldde Gift Shoppe. He held up a shirt with an artist’s conception of the town’s monster winding its way front to back.

“No thanks, but they do have some nice sea creature bracelets.”
It took the pair nearly two hours to make their first pass through Shelton, seeing what could be seen, now and then stopping to pose touristy questions to the townsfolk like: “Is there a sea monster tour?” or “Where’s the monster been seen most often?” and “Where’s the best place to catch sight of Chessie?”

The last question earned Richards a five-minute explanation of how Shelton’s “Shelly” differed from the fabled denizen of the Chesapeake.

“Ours is real,” the woman lecturing Richards explained vehemently. “She’s been seen by most everyone.”

“Have you seen her,” Dean asked innocently. The woman paused between truth and lie, finally saving herself a trip to confession by admitting;

“Not yet, but I hope to soon.”

“All in all, a bit much,” Richards’ assistant commented on their way back to the motel.

“Maybe,” mused the producer, “Maybe not enough. They’ve got a draw, something to make people stop over on their way to someplace else. Old Shelly’s going to bring in more money than that town’s seen since its ferry days. She might even be enough of a draw to reopen the ferry crossing.”

Richards’ voice had begun to slip into the dream-like state Dean had already learned indicated that her boss was thinking of a new story, or a new twist to an old one.

“Yes, sir… that’s what I’d do… how I’d sell it.”

Glad she was doing the driving back to their motel, Dean took a quick glance over at the producer’s eyes, nodding unconsciously as she noted that they were indeed focused on something only he could see.

“A day spent in pleasant, neighborly Shelton, followed by a peaceful nighttime ferry ride to the Eastern Shore. And, who knows? You might even see… the monster. But, if you don’t, you can always try again on the way back. Catch the evening ferry, go sea serpent watching, followed by a superb seafood dinner and a night’s lodging in one of Shelton finest motels.”

A laugh told Dean the producer’s reverie had ended. “Yeah, that’s what I’d do; I’d milk that sea cow ’til she ran dry. I bet the other towns wish they’d thought of it.”

“Thought of what, boss?”

“Why, of creating their very own sea serpent, of course.”

“So, you don’t think that….” Dean paused, made sure none of the other patrons there at the Shelton Diner were listening, “that Shelly’s for real?”

“It would be nice,” answered Richards as he gave her a non-committal shrug. “Hell, it would be great if she were real and the divers I’ve got coming tomorrow with the crew could find a trace, even a hint that she is. Our ratings would be so high we could coast on them for the rest of the season.” The producer gave her a second shrug, then asked;

“But really, I mean, how long have the Scots been looking for Nessie? And is there any proof that this Chessie I asked about is real, or Wally from Oregon?” Richards took a turn, scanning the room to make certain they were not being overheard, then added;

“But do I think Shelly’s real? About as real as pixies and Orson’s men from Mars. However, we’re here to do a story. Which means we’ll talk to the right people, take some great footage of the bay at night, splice in some stuff about other lake and sea creatures and end it with a great big ‘There is, of course, no proof we can offer, but in the end, who can say for sure?’

*****

The next day the trailers rolled in, the Challenge of the Unknown production team taking over almost all of the Shelton Roadside Motel.

“We’ll shoot the locations first,” Richards explained to Dean, “the town, the bay, scenes of the divers going into the water, them coming out again empty-handed.”

“What if they do find something? Don’t we have underwater cameras?”

“On our budget?” Richards shook his head. “Besides, the water here is too murky, couldn’t get a good shot. On the off chance they do bring something up, we’ll fake it back in the studio. The stuff computers can do, it’s a wonder we even go on location anymore.”

Forty-five minutes later, Dean reported to her boss that all was ready for taping. Nodding, he answered;

“All right people, time to spread the word that there’s a big-time TV show in town so we can start our interviews this evening.”

“Why not start this afternoon?”

“Because, Ms. Dean, I want the Chesapeake Bay at night in the background.”

“What was that you said about computers?”

Richards thought for a moment.

“You’re right. This afternoon it is. Now, who’s number one on our list?”

*****

Greg Sikora’s local claim to fame was as the first person to see Shelly.

“I was walking on the beach late one night, guess it was about five, six months ago, when this great big snake thing come up out of the water, at least, its head and neck, anyway. Must have been ten feet or so.”

“What did you do when you saw it?”

“Tell you the truth, Mr. Richards, at first I wasn’t sure I did see it. You see, I’d had me one or two beers, maybe a few more, kinda—you know.” Richards nodded that “yes, he did know” and motioned for Sikora to go on.

“But Natty Boh had never affected me like that before so after the surprise wore off, I figured it wasn’t the brews. Probably the brews that kept me from runnin’, ’cause next I just stared at it, just watched it as it looked around. Then, after a while, I don’t know how long, really, it just dove back under. I waited a good bit for it to come back, but it never did.”

“So, what did you do then?”

“Oh, just kinda went home and went to sleep.”

“And when did you report the sighting?”

“Next day. First thing I went straight into town and told Sheriff Chambers.”

*****

“And did you believe him, Sheriff?”

“What do you think, Mr. Richards? Greg’s a good kid. I know he’s twenty-two but, that’s still a kid to someone my age. Like I said, though, he’s a good enough kid and all, but when he told me his story I didn’t believe no part of it. Not about him seeing a monster or about his being alone. I did believe him when he said he’d been drinking.”

“And do you believe him now, Sheriff? Do you believe in Shelly?”

“I’m a law man, and as such I’m trained to go by the evidence. Someone tells me a fish story, I take it for what it is—a story. More than one person tells the same story, then maybe there’s some truth in it.”

“Maybe.”

“It’s like I was taught at the State Police Academy, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. So I’m inclined to believe there’s something, some thing, out there. But don’t take my word for it. You want a reliable witness, one that wasn’t drinkin’, anyway… ask the preacher. He saw it.”

*****

The Glassen family had been living in the area since long before there was a Shelton. They had a nice house on the water with a deck overlooking the bay. Which is where the Reverend Clarence Glassen was the evening in question.

“There is no doubt about it, Mr. Richards. That night as I was reading my Bible and preparing my Sunday sermon, it rose from the deep, clearly outlined in the moonlight, a veritable Leviathan as described in Job and the Psalms.”

“And how did you survive, Reverend?”

“What do you mean, Mr. Richards?”

“Doesn’t Job say of the Leviathan, ‘shall not one be cast down even at the sight of him?’”

“Why, you know your Bible.”

Richards nodded, his face filled with a humility calculated to keep Glassen from realizing the producer had memorized appropriate Biblical references in preparation for their meeting.

“But then, ‘even the Devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.’” Having made his little joke, the Reverend added, “As to how I survived, I do not believe the great beast was sent here to harm me or anyone, but to bring prosperity to this town in its time of need.”

“So, Reverend, you believe there’s a sea serpent out there in the bay?”

“I believe in the evidence of my own eyes, Mr. Richards, eyes that the Good Lord gave me to use.”

*****

Others interviewed recited their own version of the same story. Alone or with loved ones, they were walking the beach or out on the bay at night when something large and serpentine rose out of the water. Not all were townsfolk. A couple from Pennsylvania claimed to have seen Shelly as they travelled over the Bay Bridge on their way to visit relatives.

“We’d read about it on the Internet, right, so as we went across I told the wife to keep a lookout. Sure enough, halfway across she shouted for me to look to my left and there she was, just like in those pictures. Damn near wrecked the car but, hell, even if I had it would’ve been worth it.”

*****

“Lots of interviews,” Dean said after two days. “Do we believe any of them?”

“It’s not our job to believe them, my dear, it’s our job to make our audience believe them. Did the dive team come up with anything yet?”

“Two old cars on the west side of the bay, one more on the east side. The usual number of refrigerators, bald tires and all the other junk people throw into the water. They thought they had a body but it turned out to be a headless mannequin.”

“Shame, still, we’ll make a show of bringing it up with my voice-over wondering, ‘is this the monster’s first victim?’ Good for a little suspense.”

“Very little.”

“Hey, better than Capone’s vault. Anything else, though? Anything we can use?”

“Just the sheriff’s absence of evidence. What’s on for tonight?”

“Tonight, Ms. Dean, I’m taking you to a bar.”

The bar turned out to be Sean Caper’s Tavern, where the usual crowd was well represented.

“And no,” Caper insisted, “I’m not renaming this place just because the Mayor wants me to.” He then introduced Richards and his crew around.

“This here’s Fred Huntsman. And this here’s the guy who took the pictures. Mr. Richards, say hello to Tom Odom.”

“Hi, Tom, tell us about that night.”

“Well, Mr. Richards, I had gone night fishing, not in hopes of catching anything but with a house full of women—a wife and three daughters—I sometimes need a little quiet time. Just a few hours peace and quiet, now and then, you know what I mean. And yes, I’ll admit to having a Bud or three.” Tom paused, trying to decide if he liked the expression he had chosen for the camera. Deciding it was too late to worry about at that point, he continued, lowering his voice for effect as he said;

“It was quiet. The water was calm and you could see forever. Then, for no reason I could imagine then, the waves come up and my boat started rocking.”

“I can think of a reason,” Fred Huntsman cried out from the back of the room. “How many of those beers did ya have, Tom?”

“Not as many as I needed later, let me tell you. Like I said, both the waves and my boat were rocking back and forth, like a big ship was passing nearby or sumthin’. But it wasn’t no ship that come out of the water. It was something like you see down at the Smithsonian. Had a neck that went on forever comin’ up outta a small, round body. It looked right at me with greenish eyes and I thought, oh crap, this is it. I’m done. I’m gonna be a sea monster snack for sure.”

“And…?”

“And then, ummm, it just turned and swam away.”

“So, you’re saying that you might have seen Shelly?”

“No, Mr. Richard, I’m saying that I did see Shelly. And as you know, I did more than see her.” Taking out his phone, Tom proudly passed it to the producer. As the producer accepted it, there was no question about its contents for there, on the display screen of Odom’s cell, just as he had seen on the Internet, was a clear photograph of a sea monster.

“This is the original file?” Richards asked, handing the phone back.

“Sure is, transferred it to the minicard so I wouldn’t accidentally delete it.”

“Would you mind sending it to my phone?” Richards gave Tom the number. “Just so there’s no question that we used the original on the show—you’ll receive a check, of course.”

“No problem, Mr. Richards.” Tom punched in the numbers. “There you go.”

“Thank you, very much.”

*****

“So,” asked Dean as she stood over her boss in his motel room, “I guess all that’s left is a night voyage on the Chesapeake Bay where we don’t see Shelly the Sea Serpent and then back to the studio to put it all together?” Richards did not bother to look up from his laptop.

“You guess wrong, my child.” As the producer continued to study the picture Tom Odom had taken of the creature, he added, “I believe our work has just begun.” Turning the cell screen so the young woman could see it clearly, he asked;

“What do you think?”

Dean studied the image—a head that looked something like a brontosaurus below which was the requisite long neck attached to a seal-like body. Her brow slightly furrowed, she asked;

“What’s wrong with it?”

“What makes you ask that?”

“Because if you thought it was genuine you’d look a lot happier than you do.”

“Very astute. And to answer your question, I don’t know what’s wrong with it. If it’s been ’shopped it’s a good job.” Richards pulled up some other photos on his laptop’s screen, pictures of Bigfoot, Wallowa Lake’s Wally, Nessie, the Russian woolly mammoth, and the Jersey Devil. Holding the cell phone’s image next to them, he asked;

“So what do all of these others have in common?” Not giving Dean a chance to answer, he said, “All of the so-called genuine photographs are poorly exposed, out of focus, and could be pictures of damn near anything. Yet somehow, someone with no photographic experience who admittedly had more than a few beers somehow takes the best sea monster shot ever, with—no less—a crappy, low-res cell phone camera. How do you explain that?”

“Someone had to get lucky sometime?”

“True, possible… but… damnit, we’re in television, Ms. Dean. It’s our job to entertain, to divert people from their dull and miserable lives by spinning hay into gold, by taking lies and fancies and turning them into all manner of believable dreams and possibilities. It is not, however, good policy to allow ourselves to be lied to.”

“Why not?” At first Richards thought his assistant was joking. When he realized she had posed her question in all sincerity, he asked;

“What do you mean?”

“Boss, the way I see it, it’s not like we ever believed in the sea monster in the first place. For us it was a story, a way of filling an hour by, what did you say, turning lies and fancies into possibilities. So they lie to us, we pretend to believe them and pass on the story to our viewers. Where’s the harm?”

“The harm, Ms. Dean, is to our credibility and ethics. Don’t smirk, just because you can’t see them doesn’t mean I don’t have them. It’s one thing to take a legend, even a new one like Shelly, and ask ‘what if?’ But to suspect the truth and ignore it, that’s against everything we stand for as reporters.” The producer let that much sink in, then added;

“That’s the noble side of the coin. On the other there’s the possibility that if someone else follows up on our story and finds out we’d been fooled, then—bamm—there goes your reputation.”

My reputation?”

Richards smiled, “Of course. Didn’t you know that taking the blame is all part of an assistant’s job?” Dean smiled back, hoping that her boss was joking, then added;

“So, what do we do now?”

“What every good journalist does to discover the truth. We lie through our teeth. Now here’s what I want you to tell the crew.”

*****

That night, a few members of the Challenge crew hit Caper’s tavern. Taking over a booth, they loudly celebrated the news that they would soon be going home. After seemingly having a few too many, one of them let slip that their boss had found proof that the whole monster thing was just a load of crap.

Similar utterances by other crew members were heard in Shelly’s Tavern and The Serpent Inn. The next morning, Richards’ well-planted lies had become truth.

“The new guy reported in, boss.”

“Which ‘new guy,’ Ms. Dean? Except for me, you’re all more or less new.”

“Thorner, the newest new guy. He said that he and the rest who didn’t go to the bar saw some cars heading out of town and followed them to a storage place across the Bay Bridge. They got close enough to take pictures.” The young woman plugged a photo card into Richards’ laptop.

“I told Maxie that night vision camera would pay for itself,” the producer said as he viewed the pics. “Let’s see—there’s the inflatable they used to fool the preacher. And that’s the mock-up and background that let Odom take such great shots. Yeah,” he said sadly, shaking his head unconsciously, “I thought he was in on it. Ms. Dean, call the mayor. Ask her, no… tell her we need to talk.”

*****

The episode entitled “The Monster of Sheltonville” aired as the third segment of the Challenge of the Unknown summer series.

“The town’s name is Shelton, boss,” Dean had said when she first saw the title cards.

“I know, but ‘The Monster of Shelton’ didn’t have quite the same pizzazz.”

It started with Greg Sikora being interviewed, his face slowly dissolving to a shot of the bay where he first saw the creature. As Richards’ assistant watched the episode yet again, her mind went back to the last interview they had conducted in Shelton.

“I have to admit, Mayor Lambeth, you almost had me.” Winnie Lambeth sighed as she looked over the pictures taken at the storage facility. Feeling every bit of her sixty-some years, she shook her head and asked;

“What gave it away?”

Richards shrugged. “Does it matter?” His shrug was returned when he asked her;

“Why’d you do it?” After her own “Does it matter?” he replied;

“It might, but I think I know.” In answer to her raised eyebrows he went on. “Shelton’s your hometown, you grew up here and I’m willing to bet your parents and at least one set of grandparents did as well.” He waited for her nod, then continued.

“There were hard times after the ferry stopped running, but Shelton, like a lot of small towns these days, survived, just barely maybe, but it survived. Then the economy went completely to hell and you saw the end as clearly as the Reverend Glassen thought he saw Shelly. How am I doing so far?”

“It’s your story, Mr. Richards.”

“Actually, Mayor, I’m not certain whose story it is yet. Let’s find out.” As Lambeth gave the producer a puzzled stare, he told her;

“When Sikora reported seeing a sea serpent you saw a way to help the town, to bring in just enough tourists to get things back in the black, or at least a faded red. You gathered a few local subjects, got together everything you needed—and set out to make a monster.”

“And how would we do that?”

“Please, ma’am, you can buy anything on the Internet these days. I got a shrunken head for my office the other day, and search to sale it only took me eight minutes. Now, about your monster—”

“Yes, our Shelley. She almost saved Shelton,” Mayor Lambeth said wistfully. “But now, instead of being known as her home, we shall instead be exposed as frauds. You’re going to kill this town, Mr. Richards.”

Dean remembered the mayor’s voice—cold and even, containing no blame—just a string of words stating a simple fact.

The interview with the preacher was next. Thanks to the show’s director and his staff, the Reverend Glassen came across as the archetypical small-town Man of God, one whose word was not to be doubted. When he spoke of the Leviathan, with just the right lighting, and the perfect three bars of music underscoring the scene, America believed such a creature could exist.

Next came the teasing use of the mannequin’s discovery, just enough to generate some suspense before the attempts to sell cars, electronic tablets, allergy relief medication, sugar-filled drinks, two upcoming movies, and hair-coloring products. The orgy of consumerism was followed by the universal disappointment delivered to the home viewers with the news that they would not be treated to the mutilated remains of a human being after all.

Richards saved the moment, however, by first sympathizing with the audience’s frustration, then reeling them back in with a recreation of what the couple from Pennsylvania thought they had seen. A well-produced montage which covered every other available lake and river monster followed, and then the Odom photographs were announced as “coming up next” just before the next wave of commercials were flung outward at the weary public.

*****

“One would think,” Richards said as the seemingly endless string of commercials finally faded, “that the photos Tom Odom claimed to have taken would have been more than enough proof for the world that Shelly, and by extension, other creatures like her did indeed exist. And they might have, if we here at Challenge had not taken a closer look at them.”

An on-air comparison of various photos of Nessie, Wally, the Jersey Devil, Bigfoot, and those of Shelly was made.

“Odom’s shots,” intoned Richards, “if one considered what has served as proof of the strange in the past, were almost too good to be true. And sadly, as we discovered, that indeed was the case.”

As photos of the items found in the storage facility were shown, the anchorman’s voice told the audience;

“When confronted with this obvious fraud, Shelton’s mayor had this to say.” Information which caused the scene to shifted to Mayor Lambeth’s office, as she said;

“Without Shelly, or something like her, Mr. Richards, this town would have died. We did what we had to do.” Which brought the anchorman back into the homes of America, wearing his most sincere expression.

“A sad story, but one too common in this day and age where lies and deceit too often take the place of honest effort and hard work. Or so we at Challenge thought. Then came our last night.

“We were filming location shots of the beautiful Chesapeake Bay. Out on the water, one could easily understand why some call this ‘The Land of Pleasant Living.’ Yet despite the beauty and peace of the area, we could not avoid the heavy air of sadness there. Even knowing what it would do to the town, we also knew it was our duty to expose the lies and deception surrounding this so-called monster. And then, well, let the following footage speak for itself—”

The shot then shifted to a night view of the Chesapeake, the Bay Bridge just barely visible in the background. As the jaded television viewing public found its collective interest stirring, the boat began rocking, gently at first, then harder and harder. Off camera, the voice of the pilot urged everyone to stay calm. Despite this reasonable advise, the Challenge crew could be heard beginning to panic. Suddenly the muted comments of those on camera were shouted down by one panicked voice screaming—

“What the (expletive deleted)! What the goddamned bloody (expletive deleted) is that?!”

A pointing hand blocked the shot for a moment, and then was cleared so all could see a watermelon of a head rising from the water, one followed by a neck—first five feet, then ten, fifteen and more feet in length. A mouth opened in the horrible head, exposing a terrible double row of jagged teeth.

“Oh my god, oh my god, oh crap ohcrapcrapcrap!”

A roar followed even as the cameraman managed to zoom in on the creature’s head, showing the world eyes that were old when mammals first crawled upon the earth. Then, having issued its challenge, the great beast slipped back under the water, leaving those in the boat to dissolve in terror.

“Did you see that?”

“Thought it was supposed to be a fake.”

“That weren’t no fake.”

“I think I (expletive deleted) myself.”

I think,” came Richards’ easily recognized baritone, “the mayor and I need to have another chat.”

The scene shifted at that point back to the mayor’s office.

“You’re a good journalist, Mr. Richards. You don’t think that we really expected you to be fooled by those pictures Tom Odom showed you?” With no reply from the producer, Mayor Lambeth continued. “We also led your people right to the storage shed. Hell, our men had to drive slow so yours wouldn’t lose them.”

“So why the double deception?”

“When we, the town that is, started promoting Shelly as a tourist attraction, we didn’t think things through. It was only after you contacted us and told us about the story you were going to do that we realized what it all meant. It meant that there would be people looking for her, hunting her, maybe trying to capture her. And we couldn’t have that. We thought that if we could convince you that she wasn’t real, Shelly would be safe. So we decided to let you ‘discover’ the ‘truth’ about her.”

“Even if it meant hard times for your town?”

“Shelton is not equipped to handle hundreds of thousands of the curious. Trampling our river banks, camping in our parks and on people’s lawns once our few accommodations are rented. We were thinking only of a temporary boom, letting a little news out about Shelly. We didn’t… I mean… we don’t want her hunted. Dragged away, murdered for science—”

As the mayor’s haunting eyes, filled with fear and self-reproach, were shifted to the upper left-hand corner of the screen, Richards’ filled the right-hand side. Again with his back to the bay, he said;

“That sighting by our brave Challenge crew out on the water was the last anyone has seen of The Sheltonville Sea Monster. Is Shelly real, as this startling footage seems to prove, hiding somewhere below the waters of the Chesapeake as she might have for centuries? Or was her final appearance just another cynical attempt to convince us of her existence? That is a mystery that will take far more research before it can be unraveled conclusively.” The anchorman paused, as if overwhelmed by the drama of the moment. Then, stoically pulling himself together, he said;

“For now, it is a question each of us must decide on their own. As for this reporter, I was there. I know what I saw, and I know what I believe. As always, this is your host, Marvin Richards saying, the strange is out there, waiting to become the familiar. To be here when that happens, please join us again next week for another—Challenge of the Unknown.”

*****

“So, what was all that happy gas you sold me about ethics, boss,” Dean had asked when she first saw the finished production.

“Well, as Kahlil Gibran said, ‘He who defines his conduct by ethics confines his songbird in a cage.’”

“Don’t get cute. We lied on camera, just to keep that town from going under. We’re as guilty as they are.”

“We did help them create a better monster, I’ll grant you that. But as for lying, you replay the tape and if you can show me where I said that Shelly was real I’ll triple your salary.”

Dean could not. Richards had chosen his words too well. Instead of bothering with something she knew was useless, she asked;

“But why? You had them cold on the fraud. That would have made a great story.”

“It would have made a good story,” the producer corrected. “One that should have aired on Sunday night after a ticking stopwatch.”

“Not our kind of story?”

“Not at all. But, your real question was ‘why.’ So I’ll tell you.” Richards took a moment, the look on his face making his assistant wonder if he had not actually thought about why he had done what he did until that very moment. His eyes suddenly filling with certainty, he told her;

“Because I liked the town and I like its people. And because, like any good American, I appreciate a good scam. I’m in television, Dean, there’s more than a bit of P.T. Barnum in me.”

“And so, this is going to be our way of doing business from now on?”

“No, I doubt it. One good deed a season for me. From here on in, it’s real monsters, or ghosts, or UFOs or whatever, or nothing at all. Unless,” added Richards, his eyes twinkling in a manner Dean could not interpret;

“We run up against a killer deadline, or we need to tie in the show to a particular sponsor’s product, or we get some great… if questionable… footage—”

“Will that be all… sir?”

“Oh, and sweeps week, can’t forget sweeps. And then—”

Lora Dean left the producer’s office hoping she had not been utterly corrupted during her first week in television. With a sigh, she offered up a small prayer that the fellow with the story about leprechauns might actually be legitimate, then decided to check and see if there was a church close enough to the office that she might be able to go to confession on her lunch hour.

 

Let’s All Go To The Snack Bar

by C.J. Henderson

 

“To eat is human, to digest, divine.”
–Charles Copeland

“You maniac, get that fire under control!”

In every family, in every land, there is at least one member who has… the talent. Oh, to be certain, it is not a singular ability—they are not, so to speak, the lone gray hair on an otherwise coal black pate. Many within each tribe, no matter how large or small, share to some extent in this most common, yet essential, of gifts.

“We need steam, chief—now!”

But, no matter how remarkably any number within a given group might wield this aptitude, there is always, ultimately one—and only one—who is recognized by all their fellows as the ultimate talent. The top dog. The big cheese. The grand high exalted poobah before which all others poobahs must bow.

“No, goddamnit—too much steam and it’s gonna crash—”

Their work is the best. And everyone knows it. And everyone knows why. It is because ultimately, in the end, they simply love what they are doing.

“But, chief—”

In the Pelgimbly Institute for the Advanced Sciences–home to not only time travel, but inter-dimensional gallivanting as well—there were many in competition for that slot within their particular field of endeavor.

“And for Christ’s sake, Buffalo, how many times do I have to tell you…”

Certainly young Wendel Q. Wezleski was acknowledged by many to be a genius without peer.

“Don’t call me ‘chief’!”

However, like any group, from the Praetorian Guard to your local high school’s marching band, while there might be any number of competent members ready to accept that top honor—

“My name…”

There is always that unsung hero with more talent than all his fellows combined, holding together the inner works of every army, family, or traveling circus through the simple power of their culinary genius.

“Is Cookie.”

“Yeah, okay,” answered Buffalo, his voice anything but contrite. “But the morning rush of the gang from the superconductor will be in here any second. 8:30—they want their frappuccinos, and their steamed milk, ready and waiting and you goddamned well know it.”

“Not today.”

From the tone in the voice of the Center’s head chef, it was obvious Cookie knew something his first did not. Such was not an unusual occurrence. Buffalo was a fine set of hands to have around a kitchen, but beyond his pastry ovens, his instincts did not extend much beyond the maintenance of grill temperature and a regimented routine so set in its ways as to make the workings of a four-thousand-year-old Buddhist temple appear flagrantly chaotic.

“Explain yourself, chi—er, Cookie?”

“Professor Trillingham sent a notice—the morning crew is being held on stand-by. Something about needing everyone on hand for when they change out the Josephson junction circuits in the superconducting computer. I had Drake run their frappuccinos, and their steamed milk, over to them.”

“I’ll send some muffins.”

And that, thought Cookie, was why he needed Buffalo. The two had rambled from one end of the food service industry to the other, perfecting their partnership over their eighteen years together. Meeting in the Marine Corp, the two served food in fourteen different combat situations around the world. After the awarding of their field commendations for original thinking during the little publicized Battle of Peru, where they jury-rigged their Gibson & Barnacle pressure cookers to stand in as mortars, not only turning the tide of the conflict, but also discovering a way to shave nearly fifteen minutes off their record for delivering battlefront meals, the vast and unusual world of international food service was theirs.

With the military behind them, the pair moved across the globe, bringing joy and efficiency wherever they set up camp—in the kitchen at Rue Chanel of Paris, the Mixologist Lounge in Baton Rouge, New York City’s Cobalt Club, the Olive Garden of Easter Island, Bim Shal’a’Bim’s Turkish Go-Go Bazaar, Bejing’s 10-Minute Duck House, the One-&-Only Spicy Meatball Hut of Rio de Janeiro—and a score of other exotic, outlandish, and ultimately questionable eateries in which the pair plied their trade over the years. At each venue they learned a bit more, mastering not simply the preparatory skills needed to turn out great meals, but the know-how that told a truly great restauranteur not only how to cook, but what to cook and when to do so.

Their efforts had been appreciated wherever they set up shop. Indeed, the walls of Cookie’s office were littered with citations and honors bestowed upon him by mayors and presidents, kings, emperors, tong lords, the heads of several library committees, numerous CEOs, eight amusement parks, two popes, one alligator farm, a half-dozen venerable charities, the confederation of riverboat captains, and one extremely grateful mariachi band whose members would have sworn on their mother’s mantillas it was absolutely impossible to find decent enchiladas in Smelterville, Idaho.

But, it was not until their only-whispered-about exploits in a small town in New England, where with nothing more than onions, mushrooms, flour, one red pepper, three cloves of garlic and a quart of beef pan drippings they stopped an invasion of the Northeastern American coastline by some manner of hideous sea creatures, the true nature of which has yet to be revealed, did they finally come into their own. Of course, the details of that event were documented in the independent film, “A Gravy Over Innsmouth,” starring Sir Lionel Briston, Dame Geraldine Clements, Soupy Sales, Larry Storch and Jules Munchin, with book and lyrics by Comden and Green, but the moviemakers interpretation of the known facts have always rung a tad suspicious, and should probably be ignored.

The long and short of it was, ultimately, that Cookie and Buffalo made a great team. Yes, Cookie was the master chef and organizer, the two-fisted businessman and the shrewdest judge of produce suppliers west of the Great Magellanic Star Cluster, but he lacked the one thing his partner brought to the table.

As impossible as it might seem, it was six foot three, two-hundred-and-eighty pound, scarred and tattooed Buffalo who remembered, in essence, the little things. He was the one who knew the names of each of the Institute’s fifteen mousers, which ones liked canned food and which preferred dried, where they liked to be fed, and how often he should sprinkle the hallways with the catnip he raised especially for them. He was the one who made certain that when Director Aikana’s niece visited that her ice cream cone received a generous dashing of jimmies, or who would think to supply the cafeteria with twisty straws on Right-Angle Extension Thursdays.

“Buffalo, have they started crisping the bacon for the inter-departmental BLT luncheon today?”

“Got everything lined up,” answered the world’s largest, hairiest pastry chef. Knowing that if the three-time winner of the Duncan Hines Peyote-Brownie Bake-Off said a thing was so, that if it was indeed not so, it was only a hairline from being there, Cookie moved on to the day’s shake-up list, announcing;

“Okay, we maybe got Trillingham covered, but we also got three more cracks in the armor of today’s routine that need welding. First, we’re gonna have to move up the liquid nitrogen ice cream social to noon—”

“Check…”

“Second, the director has moved the hosting of her ‘First Ladies Through Time’ garden social from next month to today—”

“Well, my goodness, how wonderfully challengin’ of her…”

“Er, yeah,” the head chef rolled his eyeballs slightly, allowing himself a chuckle before he began again, saying, “and third, somehow, our football team won another game—”

“Oh, don’t tell me, the Dodos are in the play-offs?”

Buffalo’s joy over the Pelgimbly Institute for the Advanced Sciences High School Annex’s varsity team’s unexpected triumph annoyed Cookie slightly—the head chef was much more a booster of their spirited rivals, Miskatonic’s Fighting Cephalopods. Still, not wanting to waste time, he merely nodded, explained that they would have to prepare two busloads of away game lunches by thirteen hundred hours, then said;

“Oh, and while you’re handling those little nightmares, see if you can figure out what’s eating Albert.”

Buffalo nodded back, his mind already certain how to handle both “first” and “third,” shuffling “second” to the that-one-we’re-gonna-have-to-play-by-ear category. As he moved forward to where he might be able to actually dispense with some of his duties, he also managed to steal a peek at the Albert in question.

Now, the Pelgimbly cafeteria staff actually had three Alberts, a coincidental sprinkling which had simply shattered the preconceived notions of both the Statistics and the Probabilities departments. Indeed, with only thirty-two full-time employees, to have three of them named Albert (and, oddly enough one of those a female), the Alberts-versus-every-other-possible-name ratio had sent several of each department’s leading people into early retirement. Still, Buffalo knew which of the Als Cookie had meant.

Albert Hotchbinkle had been in a funk of recent which had not been helpful to her or anyone around her. Albert, actually Alberta, named for Albert Einstein by her parents, was a lovely, if shy young woman. She was, of course, a scholar, as would be expected of any off-spring of a Nobel Prize winner and her astronaut/Olympic gold-medal-winning/rabbi husband. Like many a budding film director willing to take a job in the mail room of a major studio, much of the Pelgimbly cafeteria staff was made up of potential Majorana Prize and Harry C. Bigglestone Award winners.

As he headed for her section, however, Buffalo could not think of a single thing that could be bothering his favorite pinch hitter. Still, he had been tasked with uncovering the problem, and so, as he neared her station, working hard to approach some level of subtlety, he called out;

“Hey Al, how you feelin’ today, kiddo?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” answered the distracted brunette, nearly cutting off the tips of three of her fingers while evening the corners of a loaf of Andes Egg Bread. “All right, I guess.”

Somehow, Buffalo did not believe her. Deciding his first priority was to get her away from any assignment involving heat, electricity or sharp objects, he detailed her to handle the Dodo lunch assignment, both taking care of her immediate safety and checking off the #3 on his to-do list. After that, Buffalo did something he rarely had time for—something that bothered him greatly, taxed him mightily, and which throughout his years on the planet he had decided he might not have any particular aptitude.

He sat down to think.

What, he asked himself, was bothering Al?

For the life of him, he could not think of a thing. Yes, of course, Al was painfully shy. Which, oddly enough, was one of the things Buffalo found overwhelmingly endearing about her. But outside of that, he could not think of a thing over which she could be depressed.

Although somewhat reticent and—he was willing to admit, far smarter than the pastry chef—she was also friendly, wonderfully kind, and on those occasions when she remembered to put down a book and wash her hair more frequently than every three days, not bad looking at all. Sure, she was older than the usual kitchen help, but that often happened when one of the super-brains just kept racking up degrees without finally moving off into one field or the other. As far as Buffalo knew she did not have anything going on in the romance department, but again, often times the academic types never got around to such normal everyday pursuits. She certainly could not have been failing any of her classes—she was just too smart.

After that the pastry chef’s mind started rambling toward wilder and far more ridiculous scenarios. Drugs? Preposterous. Gambling debts? Oh, insane. Knowledge that the world was about to come to an end and not certain how to tell anyone?

“Oh, for god’s sake,” Buffalo growled at himself. Every other week one Pelgimblian or another created some sort of quantum accident that threatened all life as anyone knew it. The Institute had more protocols in place for delaying Ragnarök than politicians had excuses for infidelity. Like anyone there, she could just fill out a basic Armageddon Approaching slip and be done with it.

“This,” the big man sighed to himself, “is gettin’ me nowhere.”

Coincidentally enough, Alberta came up to Buffalo at that moment, looking for another task. The chef was amazed at her speed with preparing so many bagged meals, but she informed him that it had been a simple matter of grabbing a couple of fellows she knew were late with their supplemental proofs for their probability papers.

By allowing them to deal the ingredients for the necessary sandwiches like playing cards, the entire two busloads of sandwiches for the Dodos (“we’re not extinct!”), their cheerleaders (“two, four, six, eight, what kinda matter can we annihilate”) and the marching band (the only mobile orchestra in the world to incorporate not only bongos, zithers and air harps, but harmonic generators, symphoniums and the occasional bazooka), the pair had proved their theories on manual manipulation of spacial proximity and bagged all one hundred and eighteen point five (the tuba player was a midget) necessary lunches in a third of the time it had ever taken in the past. While Buffalo marveled at the newly set record, Alberta informed him;

“Oh, and I heard you had to reschedule the liquid nitrogen ice cream social to noon, so I got a few of the boys from transport to get the extra CO2 cylinders they needed up to the biogenics ballroom, as well as the right number of clean pillowcases.”

“Wha—CO2, pillowcases… huh?”

“Yeah, we would have never been able to get all the proper festival equipment moved in time, but really, if you just discharge a ten pound CO2 into a pillowcase for about ten seconds, you get a good couple pounds of totally fine powdered dry ice.”

“Really?”

“Sure. After that, just pour it into a bowl of ice cream ingredients—which yeah, I totally had sent up—stir until frozen, and voilà… you’re eating ice cream.”

Buffalo did not bother to question as to whether she had sent both half-&-half and heavy cream, eggs, sugar, vanilla and the assorted necessary flavors, cherries, chocolate sauce, sprinkles, butterscotch nibs, et cetera. With the woman before him, there simply was no need. Instead, all the chef said was;

“Al, you’re just amazin’.”

“Oh, go on, you big lug,” she responded, obviously embarrassed and yet still beaming with pride. Not wasting time with further flattery, Buffalo made an executive decision and threw his last remaining problem handed off from Cookie to Alberta as well. The First Ladies Through Time garden social was always a headache of massive proportions. Not only did he have complete faith in her ability to manage getting a menu spanning the taste buds of two-plus-centuries together in less than three hours (let alone juggling the seating arrangements (just try putting Jane Pierce and Hannah Hoes Van Buren at the same table—just try it), but giving her this job would allow him the time he needed to perhaps solve his last Gordian chore of the morning—

Figuring out what was depressing Al.

*****

“Yes, and you are…?”

“Uh, hi, Mrs. Hotchbinkle… my name’s Buffalo. I’m one of your daughter’s bosses down at the cafeteria.”

The eye-rolling response the chef received did not inspire him to think that perhaps he had made a good decision. Knowing that making any kind of intelligent deduction as to what might be ailing Alberta on his own was most likely a hopeless task, he had decided that since her mother worked in Pelgimbly’s own Disparate Mechanics Department, dropping in on her for a few minutes worth of conversation might help him along his way.

Hoping that he might be able to break through her obvious disdain for either himself or the idea of the cafeteria, Buffalo pulled the pack of Turkish Panamalerios from his back pocket. They were the most banned cigarettes in the country due to their overwhelming nicotine content and suspected variety pack of hallucinogens, but Al had mentioned her mother’s weakness for them, and thus the chef had hoped they might make a sufficient icebreaker. When her eyes riveted to the pack’s distinctive logo of a winged, skeletal iguana crossing blades with a comically drawn former surgeon general C. Everett Koop, her heart melted as she asked;

“Panamalerios… how ever did you know?”

“Al, er, Alberta told me you shared my passion for them. Since they can be a trifle hard to get—”

“Hard,” resounded Mrs. Hotchbinkle, already into the pack and exhaling her blessedly self-destructive second lungful of carcinogens and other related abominations, “they’re impossible. You bought yourself ten minutes, Mr. Buffalo. What can I do to earn the rest of the pack?”

“Oh, they’re a gift, ma’am. Your daughter, who told me about our shared love of these little devils, she’s why I’m here.”

“Alberta? What—” suddenly the woman’s tone went coldly serious, her scanning of the pastry chef a thing of microscopic inspection. Her eyes narrowing to slits, her third exhale steamed out of her then, flaring nostrils, she ordered;

“Speak.”

Knowing a command when he heard it, Buffalo told her;

“Well, I’m not sayin’ it’s serious, it’s just that we’re kinda worried. I mean… Al’s been sorta depressed and we don’t know what to do about it.”

“Why would you expect to do anything about such a thing? Are you her father, her guru, her therapist?”

“Jeez-it, lady—no… I’m just her friend.”

Mrs. Hotchbinkle’s eyes narrowed further, making them look like a cross somewhere between a particularly well-polished set of lynch pins and the out-lights marking the direct route to the underworld. Buffalo swallowed inadvertently, not certain exactly into what he had gotten himself. Determined to at least attempt to accomplish what he had come for, however, he kept himself as unblinking as Mrs. Hotchbinkle, until finally she conceded;

“All right, I believe you. So, ‘friend’… what next?”

“I was just hopin’ you could, like, give me some idea what the problem is so we could, you know, help her out.”

The woman lit her second Panamalerio, the look in her suddenly re-opened eyes letting the chef know she knew something he did not. And finally, after a moment, she revealed some of that knowledge.

*****

“Holy jumping cats,” yelled Cookie. “It’s going to be a blood-bath!”

Buffalo had returned to the cafeteria proper just in time to see the First Ladies Through Time garden social begin its predictable first step downward into madness. Why the institute’s Director Aikana insisted on making it an annual event, especially considering most of the presidential wives did not really seem to appreciate being jostled across the ages, neither of the cafeteria’s main chefs was able to fathom. Yes, there had been a certain publicity value to the whole thing during its first few years—

“At least,” sneered Abigail Adams to Jacqueline Kennedy, “my husband was content with what he had at home.”

But any such benefits seemed to be currently outweighed by the sheer damage to the Institute’s garden dining facility.

“Goddamnit it all,” screeched Dolley Madison, “I was concerned with a woman’s right to forge her own destiny, not the density of pound cakes!”

Buffalo ducked the flower arrangement thrown by the fourth First Lady, sad that its trajectory ended up with it taking out the generally congenial Ida McKinley, but he sighed sagely, “better her than me.”

“Lord, I always hated my time in Washington,” growled a semi-tipsy Margaret Taylor, “but being in New Jersey is certainly no improvement.”

“Buffalo!” Cookie’s scream of obvious joy at finding his second-in-command was instantly negated by his following order to—

“Goddamn do something!”

“I swear, Edith Wilson,” snapped Edith Roosevelt, “one more nasty word about Teddy, and I’ll cut you. And that goes double for you, Ellen.”

In every direction, Buffalo saw nothing but trouble. Every time, he thought, every damn time. The more all of the various first ladies found out about each other, the more their resentments grew. Bad enough every trip to the future—even the very-near future for the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt or Lady Bird Johnson—revealed more and more to them of how their ages had cheated what had once been known as the fairer sex. Each trip also condemned them to returning to those homes with no way of enacting any change—of making any difference.

And then, with that inspired observation, the big chef thought he might have an idea. Tossing caution, common sense, and any idea of maintaining a decent deductible on his insurance premiums, he dashed into the middle of the ever-escalating frenzy, threw up his arms and shouted;

“Ladies, please—if I could have your attention for just a moment.” Some inner sense causing him to step to the right just as a silk and leather pump sailed from Mary Todd Lincoln’s hand past his left ear, Buffalo pleaded;

“Ladies, please… I know just how you feel.” At the challenge of this over-sized menial, daring to infer that he might not only understand how a woman felt, but one of the small, elite handful of women that had been privileged to shield the presidents of the United States from the vulgar insanities of the not-so-free world, and the free world as well, a tenuous—if suspicious—calm came over the combatants as they waited to see what was coming next. Knowing the moment of slackened tensions was a fragile thing at best, the chef gave his audience a grateful nod, then said;

“I know what it’s like to not feel appreciated.” As several of the ladies took their seats, and—an even more positive indicator to Buffalo—several others uncurled their fists, he continued, saying;

“It’s a crappy world, pardon my French, and it always has been. Sure, some things have gotten better, but it always takes time. And, it takes somethin’ else.” Crossing his fingers, the pastry chef allowed himself one small gulp, and then said;

“It takes people willing to do the hard jobs. I mean, yeah, I could let one of the vegetable crew scrub my baking pans, but I’d be takin’ the chance on them scratchin’ a corner in a way that could never be repaired. I don’t use those crummy silicone liners—cheats for amateurs, that’s all they are, the… oh, well there I go again, gettin’ all passionate about my work when I’m tryin’ to make a point—”

With the tension dropping from the unbearable to simply the oh-my-god-what-next level, Buffalo pushed forward.

“What I’m sayin’ is, I clean my own pans so I know what to expect. I use parchment paper to line them because I know what works. And I’m the best damn pastry chef, well… in the room, anyway—”

“Young man,” called out Bess Truman, her voice a firm thing of hard iron, “are you the one, last time we were ‘invited’ here, who made those rum tarts with the sugar frosting and the chopped cherries?”

“Ah… yes, ma’am,” admitted Buffalo, “the Holiday-in-the-Bahamas Treats… yeah… th-that was me.”

“If you made those,” she said, a smile cracking her face, “then you’re the best damn pastry chef in the country. And I’ll wager there’s not a one of us that would disagree—not if they had one of your divine Bahamas.”

As more of the first ladies took their seats, Buffalo could see Cookie signaling the wait staff to start clearing the aisles of debris and to prepare to serve the first course. As he did, Buffalo did his best to wrap things up in a manner that would allow the luncheon to begin without further incident, saying;

“Well, thank you, ma’am. And look, ladies, all I wanted to say is, sure, it’s hard to deal sometimes when everyone expects everything out of you and yet someone else is gettin’ all the glory, but you know… sometimes, hey… that’s just the job. You all, when you get back home, you’ve got the most important job in the world. You’re the protectors of the free world. It’s like your hands are shapin’ the fate of the future of mankind.”

As eyes that had seen so much of the shaping Buffalo was only imagining began to rivet themselves to him, he plunged further, saying;

“No man could have ever been president without someone like you behind him. Yeah, I know Jimmy Buchanan was a bachelor, but he had to bring you in Ms. Lane, had to have family there to make sure he didn’t screw up. And Chester Arthur, yeah, he was a widower, but Ellen, you only died a year before he got elected, and I dare anyone here to tell me he could’ve been elected if he hadn’t had a wife turnin’ him into a decent human being all those years previous.”

There was no applause, but the crisis definitely seemed to be over. That was, until a sternly somber Martha Washington rose silently, waiting for the attention which was her due—which was, of course, every available bit of it—to be focused upon her. As one by one the other first ladies sat back, the waiters ceased their fumbling and removed themselves from the gathering’s line of sight—or line of fire, depending on how you were assessing the moment—and Cookie began holding the longest breath possible, the woman who had set all the rules in stone for holding one’s own against the greatness of another said;

“Your words are clever, my good baker, and as predictable, but I do believe honestly felt as they were, I would also offer that the person who runs this establishment of the sciences, your Dr. Aikana, a woman, has misused us, her fellow females, as much as any male.” Knowing in the face of such opposition, truth was his only shield, Buffalo admitted;

“She can be a bit, um… dedicated… when it comes to makin’ things happen for the institute, ah yeah.”

As a barely audible, but good natured titter buzzed through the room, the first of all first ladies bowed her head with the discretion of a woman who knew how to handle herself in the midst of kings, emperors and Baptists, then said;

“And do you feel she is right to do so?”

“Ummm, well… did you feel George was cool when he put down the Whiskey Rebellion?” Without missing a beat, Martha answered;

“More or less.”

“Yeah,” agree Buffalo, “I guess that’d be my answer, too.”

Sensing the rest of the assemblage was becoming more interested in what was about to be served than further violence, knowing an orderly retreat was in order, the one woman out of all those ever born who could go to bed each and every night knowing that humanity had made it to a point where it might leap past both serfdom and slavery because of her efforts to keep a happy home, said;

“I think it might well be time to surrender the floor in favor of seeing our first course served.” Noticing that despite her words, Mrs. Washington did not take her seat, all waited, not surprised when she continued.

“However, before I do so, I would like to pose one question to you, good sir.”

“Yes, ma’am…?”

“Do you think it possible we might finish today’s luncheon with some of those prize-winning… what were they… oh, yes… Duncan Hines brownies of yours?”

“Martha,” answered a dangerously familiar Buffalo, his smile spreading from ear to ear, “it would be my distinct privilege to make such a thing happen.”

And, that as they say, was that.

Within seconds the first course of cabbage/ham/turkey soup was being ladled at every table, Cookie was in his office trying to find a way to convince Dr. Aikana that the garden restaurant’s main chandelier having been brought down—again—was indeed her fault and coming out of her budget, and Buffalo was headed for the spices cupboard to make certain he had enough peyote to make good on his award-winning dessert promise when suddenly he spotted a dejected Al sitting in the corner, her eyes red and shoulders sagging. Recognizing a good time to use his new-found information, he crossed the room to her, calling out;

“Hey, why so glum? No time for sittin’ around, we got first ladies to get fed.”

“Oh, Buffalo,” she moaned dejectedly, “I let you down.”

“Awwww, no you didn’t,” he answered honestly, “this clambake is always a horror. Actually, the fact no one’s goin’ home with a scar might be a first.”

“Don’t try to be nice,” she countered, tears threatening to burst forth from both eyes, “they’d be going home with death certificates if you hadn’t gotten back in time.”

“Ah, now, don’t you go gettin’ all upset about it. Listen—actually, you shouldn’t be upset about anything any more.”

“Really,” asked Al, her eyes narrowing much like her mother’s, “why not?”

“Because I know what’s been eatin’ you.”

“You–you… do?”

“Yeah, sure, your mom told me. And I’m goin’ to take care of it.” As the young woman’s eyes went suddenly wide, the pastry chef smiled at her, saying;

“Look, I know now you got a thing for one of the guys here, so… like all you got to do is tell me who it is, and I’ll talk to them, and, well, you know… voilà!”

As Alberta face turned a shade of vermillion so intense there was thought that during that moment she might not have retained any blood below the knees, Buffalo stumbled his way forward, asking;

“So, you know… who is it?”

Embarrassment quickly swinging over into flabbergasted rage, Al snapped;

“Try looking in the mirror, you big galoot!”

“Why,” asked the pastry chef in honest confusion, “is he behind me?”

And then, Alberta Hotchbinkle, Ph.D twice over, merely sighed and decided that as in nuclear proliferation, the direct approach was probably best, leaned forward and whispered into Buffalo’s ear, explaining which member of the Pelgimbly cafeteria staff had captured her heart. Perfectly willing to be surprised, but not foolish enough to reject a premise which delighted him to no end, the world’s hairiest pastry chef did allow himself one last handful of seconds of freedom as he asked;

“Who, me?”

And then surrendered himself utterly and completely to whatever possibilities his Alberta might have for them both. Looking into her eyes, seeing the light there he had witnessed a thousand times before—always envying some other man he had never imagined might be him when he saw it—Buffalo shook his head slightly, conceding that he must be, indeed, the luckiest boy in the world.

And then, as Al reached for him, he reached for her, and their lips met in a passion formed equally of disbelief and rapture, even as two score feminine voices chanted in the background—

“Brownies, brownies… brownies, brownies… browniesbrowniesbrownies—”

And the A.I. controlled ovens of the Pelgimbly Institute for the Advanced Sciences turned themselves on in glorious anticipation.

 

Helen’s Journey

by James R. Stratton

 

Helen slammed open the front door, dropped her purse and shoes on the floor, and wiggled her toes in thick carpet soft as a kitten’s fur. Today, she felt its touch like a sensuous caress. A surprise! They’d waited so long! She glanced around the room grinning.

“Sam! Sam, where are you?” A paint-spattered young man walked up the hall opposite her with a wet brush in his hand. Helen smiled. “Guess what?”

Sam just smiled back and shook his head.

“I just come from Dr. Bloomberg’s. We’re gonna have a baby!”

She laughed as Sam’s mouth dropped open, and her joy broke free. Shouting, she skipped across the room, grabbed his neck and scissored her legs around his waist. Sam whirled her around and around. He was warm and moist from working, so she snuggled close and licked a bit of saltiness from his neck.

“My god, that’s wonderful!” Sam whispered. “I can’t believe we are finally going to be parents. Is it going to be a boy or a girl?”

Helen released her grip and slid away. “I wouldn’t sign for any of them tests.”

She tensed but wouldn’t meet his gaze. He’d have just confused her if she argued and her mind was made up.

“Honey, you know he’ll have to make a report to the State. We don’t want that kind of trouble. Besides, the doctors can help if there’s a problem.”

“Not always!” she said, louder than she intended. “You know my momma lost three babies before she had me. And my sister had one taken by the State before the third month just last year. It’s taken me eight years to get pregnant. What if they want to take this one? No way! We’re gonna have this baby no matter what!”

She glared at him until he looked away and felt bad at once. He just wanted her happy. Stepping closer, she clasped his hand. “Come on, this’ll be a good thing. You’ll see. And don’t worry about Dr. Bloomberg. He’s an old fashion doc who never liked all them rules. He promised not to say a thing.” Sam just grunted and turned away.

She frowned at his back, then grinned. The muscles in his butt bunched and shifted under his thin shorts. She loved the look of his behind, the feel of it in her hands when they made love. She tiptoed up behind him and slid both hands into his shorts. “Guess what I’m in the mood for?”

“Hey, come on!” Sam laughed and rose on his toes. “I’m all covered with paint.”

“So? You better get it while you can. I may not be in the mood much once I’m big and fat.”

*****

“Mrs. Borland? Are you awake?”

She opened her eyes to find a tall, red-haired woman in a blue blazer standing by her bed.

“I’m Susan Smith-Johnson, a social worker with the Division of Child Protective Services. Has the doctor talked to you about your son’s problems?”

Helen nodded and squeezed her eyes against the tears. This was going to be the happiest moment of her life. She’d dreamed of this day. Just moments ago she was lying motionless in the bed, drinking in the feel of her son—wet and warm, squirming on her breast—and inhaling his sweet-sour baby smell.

But the bright joy had chopped off when Dr. Bloomberg and the nurses crowded around. “Jesus, he’s defective,” one whispered. Dr. Bloomberg seized Josh and ran from the room. A numbness had whispered through her, dulling her senses and clouding her thoughts.

Helen opened her eyes and stared at the social worker. She rubbed at the tightness in her belly. Nothing was going as she’d dreamed and now it was turning into a nightmare.

“Mrs. Borland, the Division was contacted because of the unusual circumstances of your son’s birth. Children being born with handicaps are very rare these days. Children with multiple handicaps like Joshua are unheard of. This is an issue of grave concern to the State.”

Needle-pricks whispered across her chest. “Where’s my husband? I want Sam here before I talk.”

“He’s speaking with my assistant, Mr. Philip.” Ms. Smith-Johnson held up a thick folder. “I’ve reviewed your medical file. You refused all prenatal testing during your pregnancy against your doctor’s advice. Is that correct?”

She thought of denying everything, playing dumb. Anger at this woman snooping into her records bubbled nearby. No matter, the lady already knew. Helen’s head barely moved when she nodded. “What’s that got to do with you?”

Ms. Smith-Johnson glanced over the paper in her hand. “The Division is charged by statute with the duty of investigating whenever a parent doesn’t provide adequate care for a child. In Joshua’s case, that would include any necessary medical care.”

Helen thrust herself up. “It’s none of the State’s damn business. Sam and I will see to Joshua’s needs, handicapped or not.”

The social worker shook her head. “It’s too late for that. You’ve already deprived him of certain critical care.”

“What are you talking about?” Helen asked. “Josh was just born.”

Ms. Smith-Johnson stared before speaking. “Surely you know the law? Legally, Joshua was a separate individual since the end of the first trimester of your pregnancy. He was a life-in-being with all the rights guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution. When you refused the normal prenatal tests, you acted contrary to Joshua’s interests.”

Helen lay back and stared at the woman. “It’s my body. I have the right to say no if I want.”

“Perhaps.”

Helen could see that concession came reluctantly.

“Your doctor should have reported your refusal months ago when we could have done something for Joshua.” Ms. Johnson-Smith smiled briefly. “I’ll be filing a formal complaint against Dr. Bloomberg with the state medical board.”

Helen shivered. Damn! Dr. Bloomberg was in trouble because of her? “What good would the tests have done, anyway? Maybe they could have done something about the heart valve thing, but they can’t cure Down’s Syndrome. They’d have to take the baby. I won’t allow it.”

“Allow it! That’s exactly the problem here.” Ms. Smith-Johnson stared. “Joshua is not your personal property to be done with as you see fit. The Supreme Court ruled years ago in the Kevorkian Society cases that everybody has a fundamental right to self-determination of life. That includes pre-born citizens like Joshua. He should have had a guardian ad litem appointed to act for him and a decision made on his behalf on his future. You’ve robbed him of that choice.”

Helen hid a small smile behind her hand. You didn’t know and now it’s too late. Josh is mine! She turned away and stared at the opposite wall.

“So what do you and your husband plan to do? Joshua is going to have a lot of special needs.”

Helen shook her head without looking back. “I don’t know. Sam and I haven’t had a chance to talk. I suppose there are programs for kids like Josh.” Helen glanced back when Ms. Smith-Johnson laughed.

“There were programs like that back when you were born. But that was when there were tens of thousands of handicapped children born each year. Last year there were 121 children born in the United States with a classified handicap. Funding for those kinds of programs ended ten years ago. There just isn’t a need. Federal and State money today goes to prenatal testing and in utero treatment.”

“So? Sam and I don’t have a lot of money. We can’t give him stuff we can’t afford.” Helen felt the cold pricks of fear again.

Ms. Smith-Johnson stepped closer to the side of the bed. “The State still operates a residential facility at Woodburn for special needs citizens like Joshua. It’s staffed with specialists in the medical and mental health fields. All of Joshua’s needs could be met there. Of course, you and your husband would have to surrender custody to the State.”

“What!” Helen gasped. “My baby isn’t a day old and you want to take him? So you can send him to an orphanage? Are you crazy or just stupid? If he needs any help, you can give it to him in my home.”

Ms. Smith-Johnson shook her head. “There are only ten clients at Woodburn, all with severe handicaps like Joshua’s. The cost of operating a program like that with our clients scattered across the State would be prohibitive. Joshua will get the best care available in the State there. And you and your husband would be entitled to liberal visitation.”

Helen shook her head violently. “No! I won’t give him up. I’m his momma, for Christ’s sake. Now go away. Sam and I can take care of Josh without your help, if needs be.”

Ms. Smith-Johnson slid a business card onto the nightstand, then walked to the door. “As the parents, you and your husband have the right to custody of Joshua so long as you provide for his needs. But the Division will be opening a case and a worker will be visiting regularly. I think you’ll want to reconsider once you understand what’s involved in caring for a child like Joshua. My number is on the card.”

The social worker pushed through the swinging door to the room. Helen glared at the door. The State can stick it! Josh was her baby. They had no right.

*****

Helen jerked awake when Joshua patted her arm. She gazed around the living room to get her bearings. Across the room the television murmured softly. Her eyes began to water from the bright sunlight slanting through the living room blinds.

After a minute, Joshua began to whine and tug at her arm. “Easy, Josh. Mommy will get breakfast in a minute. She doesn’t feel well.” Helen glanced down at her son. Softly, he began to chant, “Da-da-da-da-da.”

“No, honey. You don’t go to see Daddy until Friday.” Josh just chanted louder.

Sam, you bastard. You couldn’t even stick it out six months.

But it had been worse for him than her. She had to endure the stares and whispers from the playground moms when she took Josh out. God, they were witches! They’d treated Josh like he had a disease, and asked her right to her face why she’d let Josh be born this way. But that was okay. Josh was a joy, so being alone wasn’t so bad.

But Sam had come home from work day after day angry and sad. His co-workers had asked over and over how he could allow it, why he hadn’t done something. And then he’d come home one day seething. The promotion Sam had been counting on had gone to another guy, the fellow Sam had trained. His boss had told him privately he wasn’t likely to ever get another promotion. There was too much talk about him and his freak baby.

“I don’t have a life anymore! I work two jobs but I can’t make ends meet. We spend everything on doctors for Josh. The neighbors won’t talk to us and the people at work think we’re sick. I can’t live like this! I can’t go on with nothing to look forward to but this day after day. Maybe we should talk to that social worker about the home, at least for a while.”

She snatched Josh up and backed away. “No! Never! How will we get him back if they get him? We can’t afford the fancy treatments they have. They’d keep him forever.”

Sam clutched the air in front of her as his face twisted. “Honey, please. We’ve got to do something. We don’t have a life anymore, you and I. And I’m wrung out.”

She’d screamed and pleaded and Sam had backed away. But two weeks later he packed his bags and moved out. The divorce papers had arrived months later.

Helen sat on the sofa as tears burned in her eyes. “You shouldn’t have given up. This is our boy, we would have gotten through it somehow.” Helen welcomed the phone’s chirp, something to distract her.

“Did I have an appointment yesterday?… I know Josh needs to see his heart doctor regular… Look, I’m sorry, I thought it was next week!… Well, when can we reschedule?… What do you mean it doesn’t matter?… Hello? Hello?”

She was calling the doctor’s office back when someone hammered on the door. Josh jerked and squealed as Helen padded to the door. Glancing in the mirror at the entrance she shook her head. “Be quiet, Josh. Maybe they’ll go away. We aren’t ready for company this morning.”

The door shuddered under another series of blows and Josh squealed. A deep voice called out, “Mrs. Borland, this is Officer Frankel speaking. We can hear you moving around in there. Open the door. I have a court order I have to serve on you.”

Her heart pounded as the man’s words sank in. Setting Josh on the floor, she opened the door a crack and peered out at the people waiting in the dark hall. None of the lights on the landing worked so she could only make out shadowy forms.

A tall policeman stepped into the light from the door holding up a piece of paper. She glanced at it. “Okay, I see it. What’s this about?”

“This is an order from the Family Court directing us to take custody of your son, Joshua. Open the door and step back.”

“You can go to hell!” she shouted and slammed the door. Before she could turn the lock the door surged back, throwing her against the wall.

She felt time slow. Pinned against the wall by the door, she stared at the policeman as he was striding toward her. His lips were pulled back from his teeth in a feral grin. Behind him stood a beefy policewoman pulling at the nightstick on her belt. Just at the edge of the light from the door stood another person, Susan Smith-Johnson from the Division of Child Protective Services.

The two officers grabbed Helen and slammed her down on the floor, writhing and screaming as they knelt on her back. Ms. Smith-Johnson stepped over her and gathered up Josh. As the woman disappeared into the darkness of the hallway, Joshua shrieked in her arms. Helen only heard some of the things the officer read from the paper.

“By order of the Family Court of the State of Delaware… based on the petition for emergency custody filed by the Division of Child… allegations of willful neglect of the minor child, Joshua, including but not limited to failure to provided essential medical care… gives this Court sufficient reason to believe that the health and safety of this child is at risk. Ex parte emergency custody is hereby awarded to the Division until further hearings can be held.”

The officer laid the paper on the floor and backed away.

*****

Ms. Smith-Johnson sat rigid at her desk with her phone pressed to her ear. “Officer, this is an emergency! A child has been kidnaped and is in terrible danger… No, the kidnaper is his mother, Helen Borland. Joshua is in State custody. His mother had visitation at Woodburn today. They left the grounds several hours ago without the staff realizing it… Yes, we’re sure she’s gone. I sent a social worker to her apartment. It’s empty. Clothing, furniture, everything is gone… No, I don’t think she’ll harm him intentionally. But Joshua has very serious health problems. He just started drug therapy for a mental handicap. Stopping the medication suddenly could be dangerous. Thank you. I’ll fax you a photo of Joshua immediately… Yes, I’ll hold the line.”

*****

Helen clutched the edge of the mahogany table, the defendant’s table in the courtroom. She glanced at the tall woman seated next to her. Her court-appointed attorney had met briefly with her to discuss the case.

“I recommend you consent to the order and avoid a trial. You really don’t understand how serious this is. You have a lot to lose here beyond Josh. Hell, the prosecutor is talking about a felony charge for kidnaping.”

Helen just shook her head. If she opened her mouth she would just start yelling. She couldn’t lose it now. The doctors the State had sent her to had given her pills to help stay calm. Helen smiled, then shook her head. No way I’m going to give him up. He’s my boy.

The bailiff walked past Helen to a door next to the bench. He rapped twice and opened the door a crack. After nodding to someone inside, he stepped forward and shouted, “Hear ye, Hear ye! The Family Court of the State of Delaware in and for Kent County is now in session, this fourteenth day of June 2027. The Honorable Susan B. Attmore is presiding.”

Behind the bailiff, a short, heavy-set black woman strode through the door, mounted the steps to the bench and sat. Judge Attmore examined Helen and her attorney then glanced at the other table where the prosecutor and Ms. Smith-Johnson sat. “Counselor, do you want to tell me what this case is about?”

The prosecutor stood. “Certainly, your honor. We are here on the petition of the Division of Child Protective Services to terminate the parental rights of the defendant, Helen Borland, to the minor child, Joshua Borland. I note that the father of Joshua, Samuel Borland, has signed a waiver and consent, and has filed the appropriate medical certificate. He will not be appearing today.”

The judge nodded and scribbled briefly. “The social report filed with the petition doesn’t mention any plan for Joshua to be adopted. What is the Division’s goal in this case?”

“Adoption is not an option for this child,” the lawyer replied. “Joshua was born with severe multiple handicaps. He is not a good candidate for adoptive placement. The Division’s plan for Joshua is long-term foster care at the State-run facility at Woodburn.”

Turning to stare at Helen, the prosecutor added, “I recognize it’s unusual to seek termination when there’s no plans for an adoption, but the Division feels compelled by the ongoing, willful neglect Josh suffered while in his mother’s care. In fact, we will prove that this abuse predates the child’s birth and caused him to be born with his handicaps. This petition is being filed to prevent any further abuse to this child, not to free him for adoption. For this reason, the Division also is seeking an order from this Court for Mrs. Borland’s involuntary sterilization.”

The judge looked up. “This is a procreation rights case? I didn’t see that in the petition.”

The prosecutor leafed through a file in front of him. “You’ll find that on page seven.”

The judge frowned as she riffled papers in front of her, then nodded. “I have it. Proceed.”

“The Division is prepared to prove that Helen Borland willfully failed to provide proper care for her son, Joshua. This intentional neglect even predates the child’s birth on March 15, 2023. The evidence will show that Mrs. Borland knowingly rejected certain medical tests that would have permitted Joshua, through a guardian ad litem appointed by this Court, to make a decision on his life. When she refused these medical procedures, she deprived her son of his fundamental right to make choices on the nature of his existence.”

The lawyer’s voice became a vague droning in Helen’s ears as her gaze slid down the front of the bench to the rug. God in heaven. They were really going to do it.

*****

“Mrs. Borland? Mrs. Borland!”

Helen glanced up to find the judge staring at her from the bench.

“Mrs. Borland, I would advise you to pay attention.”

Helen nodded, then dropped her gaze down to the floor.

“After the testimony offered by the Division’s witnesses, this Court has no choice but to grant the Division’s petition here. The evidence of willful abuse is overwhelming. You refused all prenatal screening for Joshua, depriving him of his right of self-determination. The Court is especially disturbed by the evidence that you conspired with a Doctor Bloomberg to prevent timely notification to the State. You then refused all assistance from the State through its inpatient facility at Woodburn, while failing to obtain the services yourself. When the State took emergency custody, your son was not receiving treatment for his heart defect and was not in therapy for his mental handicap. Worse, you absconded with Joshua from his treatment facility. You placed Joshua at imminent risk of harm solely for selfish reasons.” Helen looked away and closed her eyes.

The judge paused until Helen looked back. “I will say this once, although I doubt you’ll accept it. Your son has certain basic rights. He is entitled by law to a decent home, adequate care for his needs, and a right of self-determination. You’ve deprived him of those rights even prior to his birth and have sabotaged all the efforts made by the State for Josh. You brought this child into the world under circumstances where you could not take care of him and would not allow the State to do so. There is no excuse for that.”

The judge paused at stared into Helen’s eyes. “Josh is not your property. He’s a free citizen with the same rights as you. And if you won’t care for him, you have no right to his care and custody.

“Your actions convince this Court that you are unfit to parent this child or any other. The Division’s petition as to Joshua will be granted. For the same reason, I will see to it that this never happens again. The Division’s request for an order of involuntary sterilization will be granted as well.”

Helen jerked when she heard someone moving behind her. She turned to find the bailiff and a policewoman standing beside her chair. The policewoman grasped her shoulder.

“I note for the record that Mr. Borland earlier signed a consent to this order and has filed the necessary medical certificate proving his sterilization. No further action against him is ordered.”

Helen felt the screams bubbling up again from deep within. She pushed it down with raw force. She’d gotten good at that. The doctors had given her pills to take care of the panic and fear, but Helen had hid them instead. They’ll put me someplace quiet tonight. I just need a few minutes to swallow all of them and this’ll all be over. She breathed deep to settle herself and relaxed.

“This is so ordered, this 27th day of June, 2027.”

 

The Tragic Downward Spiral of Addiction

by Chris Matz

 

The Tragic Downward Spiral of Addiction was immediately accepted when it was submitted. I was looking forward to seeing where the creator was planning on taking what started off as a pretty dark strip. Sadly, this turned out to be a one-shot. It ran in Nth Degree #8.

 

Reality Glitch

by Zeb Spade

 

Reality Glitch was Zeb Spade’s first comic that ran in the zine, the second being Poli-Tekno. Where Reality Glitch was a joke-driven comic, Poli-Tekno followed a cast of characters. Reality Glitch ran in Nth Degree from Issue #8 to Issue #11; combined, the two comics ran from Issue #8 to Issue #14.