The Sleep Diet

by Ronald Van Sant

 

Doctor Callenger sat at his desk, watching the online news broadcast while he fondled his father’s World War II forty-five automatic pistol. The world was going to hell. Shit, the world had been going to hell since the fifties. There was no way they could blame it on him. The pile of reports, however, was irrefutable. It was all his fault.

The reporter spoke from behind a wall of riot police in New York. People were killing their fellow humans, just as they had been doing in London for the past five hours. The rioters had killed fifty-eight in New York, hundreds more in London. Both were cities where his diet clinics had large clienteles. Within hours, he expected the same trouble to break out in his city, Dallas, and then finally Los Angeles. He put the freshly loaded clip into the ancient gun.

A rapping on his office door saved him from his dark reverie. At that moment, however, he didn’t want company. “Go away!” The physician ordered, but the pounding grew more insistent. Doctor Callenger placed the pistol into his desk drawer, rose unwillingly to his feet, crossed the office, and unlocked his door.

“It’s you,” he said. “Come in if you must.”

“You’re in a mood.” The night nurse replied. “The patients have received their evening meds. It should have them sleeping soundly soon.”

“OK.” He closed the door, opening it again instantly. “Nancy?”

“Yes?” she asked.

“Tell Dailey I would like to speak with him.”

“Yes, doctor.” She turned and walked down the long hall, lined with doors to the patients’ rooms. It was his clinic, his treatment and he was proud of it. He discovered a way for the overweight to shed pounds harmlessly while they slept. It would have replaced liposuction. Mr. Daily, his research assistant, walked down the hall toward him.

“What’s up?”

“Come into my office please.” The doctor allowed the younger man to pass and then closed the door behind him. “Have you seen the news?”

“Yeah, the world’s gone a bit crazy.” Mr. Dailey had been on the floor, but had caught bits and pieces of news from the clinic’s patients; enough to know there were riots in New York.

“There are people dying, I don’t think ‘a bit crazy’ covers it.” Doctor Callenger moved back to his seat.

“Sorry sir, I was trying to lighten the mood.”

“Well, don’t.” The doctor leaned back in his chair. “I suppose you’ve heard about Rachelle Taylor?”

“The actress? Yes, it’s tragic.” The young research assistant couldn’t have avoided the story. The story broke that morning and was blanketing the news stations. Her pregnancy had been fodder for talk shows. She was a wild woman who partied to excess and no one seriously thought she would be a good mother, but no one could have predicted that she would awaken in the middle of the night and eat her own infant.

“She was your patient.”

“Yes, but you can’t be implying this is our fault. The woman had post-partum depression.” Mr. Daily took the seat before the physician’s desk.

“I discharged her yesterday, after her course of treatment was over.” The doctor said.

“Yes, and if I recall correctly it was a complete success. The patient lost over twenty pounds in five days.”

“Do you recall the side effects of our initial treatments?” The doctor looked at the young man intently.

“Yes, abdominal cramps and intense cravings for meat and particularly fat. Mixing the lipophagic virus treatments with sedatives alleviated those symptoms. Now the patients sleep through the night when the symptoms are the worst.”

“That was a very good idea you had. Losing weight while you sleep is our best selling point.”

“It wasn’t just my idea sir, you were the one to genetically engineer the virus that ate fat cells and passed the byproducts out through the urine. That was the real stroke of brilliance.” The researcher was gratified at such praise, but he felt it was best to show some humility.

“Don’t be so modest; learn to take credit for your accomplishments. That’s how we make a name in this field. I will personally see to it you get full credit for this breakthrough.”

“Thank you, doctor.” Such a credit on his record could make his career. He could just about choose any university in the world for his doctoral studies, any project he wished to pursue.

“Back to the Rachelle Taylor case. We released her from the clinic yesterday at eleven AM and at approximately midnight she ate her child, just tore into him with her teeth. You don’t see a connection?”

“She was diagnosed with depression. Who knows what could have set her off? Nothing to do with us.” The researcher didn’t feel like it was his place to defend the clinic from its head physician. “You don’t think there will be a law suit?”

“It would be difficult to prove. However, there is one point of concern. She was still asleep when she did it.”

“Pardon?”

“She was sleepwalking,” the doctor said. “Her subconscious was in control.”

“Even if that were true, it still couldn’t have been the result of the treatment. The final stage of the treatment was to inject the patient with the antivirus and kill it. I gave her the injection myself the day before we released her. The virus was dead and the sedatives wore off long before we released her.”

“I don’t think so.” The doctor pushed the file toward his young protégée. “Read. There have been similar cases in our London and New York clinics.”

The research assistant opened the file and looked it over. “The virus adapted, mutated. The antiviral serum didn’t kill it?”

“The sedatives put the conscious mind to sleep while the virus ate the fat away; the patients’ bodies craved the lost fat. The subconscious took over—driving the patients to look for what they needed. They sleepwalk. And in Mrs. Taylor’s case the virus drove her to consume the nearest source of meat and fat, her son.”

“That’s not possible.”

“People have driven cars while asleep, and some have even cooked food and eaten while under the influence of sleep medications.” Callenger said. “There have been other incidents. Most cases have been simple assaults. The patient awoke, unaware of their actions.”

“You’re serious.” Daily could feel his newfound career faltering with each word his mentor spoke.

“The mutation went unnoticed and a batch was sent to all the clinics. They started using the new serum today.” The doctor picked up the television remote and turned up the news. The newswoman was reporting that the rioters appeared to be in a murderous trance, attacking and attempting to eat whoever they met.

“Dear god, no.” The researcher felt the enormity of the situation fall on him, he wanted to vomit. “We’ve treated and released over a hundred patients worldwide. What about them? We have to stop the treatments immediately.”

“It’s too late for that.” The doctor said. “The virus’ mutation was more radical than just immunity to the antiviral treatment, it’s gone airborne. Our patients became carriers, spreading the virus to all the general populace. Don’t you think it’s a bit coincidental that all these riots have been breaking out in cities where we have clinics? And that they start in the middle of the night?”

“I didn’t make the connection.”

“I did.” Doctor Callenger raised his hand and took back the file.

“What do we do?”

“Drink lots of coffee to stay awake.” The physician said. “We’re both probably exposed.”

“The antiviral won’t work?”

“No. When we go to sleep tonight there is a chance we’ll go into the same kind of feeding frenzy.”

The researcher thought of the patients in the rooms down the hall. “What about them?”

“Soon the virus will cause the sleeping patients to rise and engage in cannibalistic attacks,” the doctor said.

“Aren’t you going to do something?” the researcher asked.

Doctor Callenger reached into his desk and pulled out the newly loaded gun. “Yes.”

“You can’t mean to kill them.” Part of the young researcher wanted him to do it, before they infected him even further. “They’re your patients for christ’s sake.”

“Killing patients wasn’t my intention.” The doctor stood up as sounds of smashing equipment merged with the terror-filled, and soon silenced, scream of the night nurse echoing down the hall. “It begins.”

“Nancy!” Dailey ran into the hall as Doctor Callenger moved to the door as his assistant pushed the blood-soaked bodies of his sleepwalking patients aside to get to the nurse. Once he cleared them away, the doctor could see blood still gushing from her ripped throat. He shut and locked the door and walked back to his desk.

“They killed her!” Dailey shouted from behind the door. “Let me in!”

“Go away!” The doctor pulled his briefcase out from below his desk.

“What?” Daily cried. “They’re coming.”

“Then run, you fool.” The doctor pulled out a pile of files and replaced the ones on the desk. You’ll get the credit you deserve. 

“You’re insane,” the assistant pounded on the door.

“No. Thanks to you, however, I’m going to become extremely wealthy.” Doctor Callenger put the new files into the cabinet. “This plague will spread, carried on the wind. The overweight people of the world will lose those pesky inches they’ve long struggled with. Then they will go to sleep and awaken and seek out the only readily available source of human fat available to them, other people. It’ll be horrible, and I’ll have the only cure.”

“No.” The young researcher screamed. “Help me, let me in. They’re coming.” Outside the door, he could hear the growing groans of hunger that emanated from his patients and the wail of pain and terror from his research assistant as they tore his flesh apart with fingernails and teeth.

The doctor retrieved the file and virus samples. In his hands, he held the only samples of the improved retrovirus. The files he left behind meticulously documented the project research. They detailed how the sample was inadvertently corrupted by an overly ambitious research assistant who died, ironically enough, at the hands, or more accurately teeth, of his victims. Yes, he would indeed give the credit for the discovery to his dead protégée while he himself kept the credit for discovering its cure. The scientific community would soon be praising him as the next Curie.

Sleepwalking patients began to bang on the office door, moaning in primal hunger. The doctor put the files into his briefcase and grabbed his pistol. Although he couldn’t see them, he fired several shots through the door until he heard a body drop. That would give the cannibalistic monsters something to snack upon while he made his way out the window.

Old bones creaked as the physician twisted his body and dropped to the grassy lawn. He grabbed his case and moved nonchalantly toward his car in the parking lot a few dozen yards away. His gray Mercedes waited for him under a streetlight. The doctor, intent on making a clean getaway, failed to notice the lumbering, groaning, blood-soaked mob that came around the building until it was too late.

Reaching into his frock pocket, Doctor Callenger pulled out his father’s gun and emptied the pistol into the crowd. The noise from the weapon failed to awaken the sleepers, the virus was too strong. Two fell, but the group continued toward him unimpeded. They continued toward the physician, intent on live flesh. None of the victims were his patients, apparently the virus had spread more rapidly than he could have imagined. He turned and ran toward the clinic. They were on him in seconds.

“No! Stop! I’m a doctor. I can help you…” He screamed as the teeth tore into his arms, legs and finally his neck causing his blood to spray across the clinic entryway. When the sleepers finished eating, they went back toward the main strip to find more animal fat, intent on easing the insatiable cravings.

 

The Last Resort

by J.G. Walker

 

Richard shifted in his chair and surveyed the other people sitting in the waiting area. Not wanting to look anyone in the eye, he looked back down to the pages of the nature magazine he’d been pretending to read. He had the distinct impression that everyone’s eyes were on him, but that wasn’t unusual. Growing up fat had drilled that into his brain.

Over the years, Richard had become more and more aware of his size. His clothes never fit him properly and he was always afraid that, at any moment, he might somehow embarrass himself. He was sure his pants might split if he sat down just the wrong way, or his shirt would rip if he turned too quickly.

A red-haired nurse Richard could easily have mistaken for a man in a dress marched into the waiting room with a clipboard and called his name. He rose from his chair and trudged over to her.

The nurse smiled, revealing two perfectly shaped rows of oversized teeth. “All the way down on the right, hon,” she said with a voice that sounded like it had survived a thousand cigarettes. “Exam room one. The doctor’ll be there in a minute.”

He returned her smile and muttered his thanks, walking down the long, barren hallway. Reaching the end, he turned right and opened the door to the examination room.

He shivered as he walked through the door. He’d always hated anything having to do with doctors or hospitals; the bare, featureless walls of this examination room looked vaguely imposing. But there was some pleasant classical music drifting down from a speaker in the ceiling, and this calmed him a bit.

Richard had tried every diet under the sun during his adult life, but none had ever worked for him. He’d once eaten nothing but grapefruit for eight weeks. He’d taken supplements and consumed shakes that had left him perched upon the toilet many a sleepless night. He’d also taken in more cabbage than he’d ever thought possible, but it only left him gassy and unfulfilled.

He’d taken a shot at everything designed to help him lose weight except hypnotism, and that was why he was in this office. His sister-in-law had recommended this doctor, said she’d heard “good things” about him. But up until now, all the clinic had done was take his blood, give him Vitamin B shots, and send him on his way. He’d lost five pounds in the month he’d been coming, but had yet to talk to the doctor, and still no hypnosis. Today was the day he was supposed to meet the doctor, and for some reason that made him feel nervous.

He sat in one of two chairs, each of which faced its twin across the room. There was no other furniture in the room, and the only decoration, a small painting, hung on the wall directly opposite him.

The door opened and a tall, thin man in a white coat walked in. “Are you Mr. Sims?” he asked.

“I am.” Richard stood, feeling uncomfortable again.

“I’m Doctor Ives.” The doctor reached out to shake Richard’s hand.

“Hi.” Richard leaned in. He noticed the doctor’s long black hair was drawn up into a ponytail, and his hand was very cold.

Ives sat down in the chair across from Richard and crossed his thin legs.

“Yes, now. I know why you’re here, Mr. Sims, but can you just tell me a bit about yourself?”

Richard had been through this hundreds of times with hundreds of people, with everyone from diet counselors to other fat people. He’d bared his soul to countless people—at least all of it he could bare and still retain a bit for himself—and it had never gotten him anywhere. People claimed to understand, but they never did.

Deciding the direct approach was easiest, Richard plunged ahead. He took a deep breath.

“Basically, I’m fat and I want to be thin. I’ve always wanted to be thin, but it has nothing to do with my health. My blood pressure isn’t high, but if it were, I wouldn’t care. I mean, I would care, but that wouldn’t be the reason that I wanted to lose weight.” He shook his head and continued. “I just want to be thin. I want to be able to cross my legs like that.” He pointed to the doctor’s legs, which he immediately uncrossed. “I want to be able to tie my shoes without propping my foot up on a chair. I want to be able to walk by a mirror or a window without avoiding my reflection. I know I’ve got a problem with food, but I can’t do anything about it.” He sighed and sat down in his chair. “That’s it.”

The doctor smiled. “Mr. Sims, I know what you’re thinking. ‘How can this man who looks like he weighs about one hundred pounds understand what I’m going through?’”

“That’s part of it.”

“Part?”

Richard nodded. “The other part is I’ve done this kind of thing a hundred times, at least. I’ve lost a little bit of weight, but it always comes back.”

The doctor blinked. “Do you think this will be any different?”

Richard shrugged. “I don’t know why it would be.”

“What if I promised you it could be different?” the doctor asked. “What if I told you that, on my program, you’d never gain any weight back?”

“I’d say ‘prove it.’” Richard replied. “And then I’d ask you how much it’s going to cost me.”

“Indeed you would.” The doctor stood. “You’re a smart man, Mr. Sims, and I admire your skepticism.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a glass tube, stoppered at the end. “May I?” He pointed at Richard’s arm.

Richard nodded, rolling up his right sleeve. Ives walked over and gently took hold of his elbow.

“You understand this is routine.” The doctor attached the tube to a hypodermic needle. “But I really need this.” He looked Richard in the eye and laughed. “Don’t worry, I’m very good at finding veins.”

“That’s okay, I’m used to it,” Richard said, feeling the prick of the needle.

The doctor grunted, apparently satisfied with its placement.

“You know, Mr. Sims, I’ve been around a long time, and I’ve seen many people try to do many things. Do you know what all the successful people had in common?”

Richard looked up at him. “You mean aside from their success?”

“What they had in common was they were willing to pay a price for their success.” He removed the needle from Richard’s arm. “The price was different in each case, of course, and some more dear, but each was willing to pay.”

Ives popped the needle from the syringe, looked at the tube of blood in front of the overhead light, and smiled.

“You’re a healthy man, Mr. Sims. There’s no denying that.”

Richard looked down at where the needle had just pierced his skin and noticed there wasn’t a mark. He rolled down his sleeve.

“About this price, though. How much are we talking?”

The doctor glided over to his chair and sat down, crossing his legs again.

“It’s not really a question of how much it is, Mr. Sims. It’s more a question of what you get for it.” He quickly added: “Don’t let that alarm you. I assure you that I have honorable motives.”

The vague feeling of dread Richard had been experiencing began to gnaw at his stomach.

“I have found that there is only one way to do this sort of thing,” Ives continued, “and that is to just get it out.”

Richard nodded.

“Mr. Sims, I am going to ask you to open your mind a bit, and stretch it beyond its present boundaries. You must understand that what I am about to tell you is quite true. And if you hear me out you won’t be sorry.”

The doctor raised the tube of blood, peered at it once more in the light, and popped the top off. Then, much to Richard’s amazement, Ives turned the tube up and drained its contents into his mouth. Richard sat in silence, not knowing what to say. Finally, he found his voice.

“Why did you do that?” was all he could say.

The doctor wiped his mouth. “I am what you would call a vampire. But that that is not what we call ourselves.” He stared at the painting on the wall for a moment. “But there are not many of us now. When I told you before I had been around a long time, I meant it.”

Richard narrowed his eyes. “How long have you been around?” He didn’t believe what the doctor was telling him, but nevertheless found himself willing to participate in the conversation.

Ives answered. “I’m five hundred and twenty years old. I came from Europe to America in 1823, and have lived here ever since. I was made what I am today by a virus that mutated my genetic structure. I won’t bore you with the mechanics of it, but I am human.”

Richard nodded, thinking of the others in the waiting room and wondering if they’d remember his face when the police came looking for him.

“Through the years,” the doctor continued, “I have done what was necessary for my survival, but it has been difficult.”

“Difficult?”

Ives sighed. “I’ve long refused to take blood from people without their consent. However, it is impossible for someone such as me to commit suicide by self-starvation. It’s simply not in my nature.”

Richard shook his head. “Of course not.”

The doctor leaned forward. “The bottom line is if I don’t take blood, I will eventually become so starved that I’ll be unable to resist the urge. I would be unable to control myself. That could lead to my taking a human life, and that’s something that I could not bear to do.”

Richard sized the doctor up, figuring he outweighed the man by at least two hundred pounds. He had no doubt Ives could outmaneuver him, but knew if he could manage to wedge the thin man against the wall, it would all be over. He congratulated himself on maintaining a calm exterior in the presence of such a lunatic.

The doctor frowned. “Mr. Sims, please don’t take this the wrong way, but I’d appreciate your attention. You’ve come to me for help, and if you listen to me I will explain everything.”

Richard guessed Ives must have seen him drifting. He nodded and mumbled an apology.

“The goal was clear to me,” Ives continued. “But the solution was not readily apparent. I needed to find a way to take blood from people, but needed to make sure they weren’t harmed in the process.”

“Why?” Richard asked.

“I’m out to survive, but I also care about others. Is that so hard for you to believe?”

Richard shook his head. “How did you solve your problem?”

“One of the advantages of my long life—and there have been many—is that I have had many years of learning to use my mind in ways unknown to most humans.”

Richard raised an eyebrow.

“I don’t say this to seem superior,” he said. “It’s merely a fact. As a result, I eventually came across a solution to my problem.”

Richard looked at the clock on the wall behind the doctor, afraid to look down at his own watch. He realized he’d only been in the room with Ives for fifteen minutes and wondered how long it would be before anyone thought to check on him.

“Mr. Sims,” the doctor said, standing up from his chair. “Please tell me what I can do to allay your fears. If you insist on ignoring me, I’ll have to end our meeting and let you go on your way.”

“I was listening,” Richard lied. “Your story is very interesting.”

“Please don’t insult both of us, Mr. Sims. I know exactly what you were thinking. You were wondering if someone might come along to check on you. Am I correct?”

Lucky guess, Richard thought.

“Tell me what I can do to prove I’m telling you the truth,” Ives said. “The obvious way would be for you to actually lose weight on my program, but I can see you’re more impatient.”

Richard shrugged. “What do you usually do to prove to people that you’re a vampire?”

The doctor rubbed his chin and smiled. “Would you like to see me to turn into a bat?” he asked, wiggling his eyebrows.

Despite Richard’s efforts to maintain a stoic exterior, his eyes widened.

The doctor laughed. “Sorry. I always get the same reaction when I mention the bat.”

Richard laughed nervously. “So you can’t turn into a bat?”

“Of course not,” Ives replied. “That’s just a story made up by people with overactive imaginations.”

“Well, what can you do?” Richard thought Ives had no right to criticize anyone else’s imagination.

“Anything. Just ask.”

“Well,” Richard pointed out, “You couldn’t turn into a bat.”

The doctor’s expression grew dark and he breathed in deeply. “I’ll give you a demonstration.” He stood and folded his arms across his chest. “Concentrate on something.”

“On what?”

Ives sighed. “If I told you what to concentrate on it would defeat the purpose of the demonstration. Concentrate on something—anything you want to think about. Something unusual.”

Despite himself, Richard imagined a dog being elected President of the United States.

Ives smiled. “Ah, the Golden Retriever. Such a stately beast.”

Richard concentrated on the most strange things he could think of.

“You really have quite an imagination,” the doctor said. “Sea lions competing in the Olympics and baboons designing a spaceship.”

“Well, I read a lot,” Richard said, dumfounded. “It’s not like I have a life.”

“So you believe me, then?”

Richard shrugged. “I suppose either you’re insane or I’m insane. Or maybe we’re both insane. All I know is I’m fat and I want to be thin and you’re the most interesting person with a solution I’ve come across so far.” He chided himself for humoring Ives, but part of him hoped the doctor wasn’t as crazy as he sounded.

“May I continue?” Ives asked after a few moments.

“Okay.”

“The plan is this, essentially: I’m able, through ingesting a certain amount of your blood occasionally, to help you with your eating problems.”

“Like hypnosis?”

Ives grinned. “Very much like hypnosis, but more effective and much easier.”

“How so?”

“Most people who claim to be hypnotists really aren’t. They know a small part of what it takes to probe into a person’s mind, but it’s mostly trial and error for them.”

“But not for you?”

The doctor shook his head. “I’ve been doing it for five hundred years,” he said. “I’ve had quite a lot of experience.”

“What if I say no?”

“You leave here today and never remember our conversation.” Ives held up the empty blood vial and shook it. “Much like hypnosis.”

Richard nodded, thinking again of all the diets he’d tried over the years and all the clothes hanging in his closet that he couldn’t wear. He imagined being able to see his toes without bending over. He had to swallow twice before he was able to speak.

“What about the cost?” he said.

“Ah, the cost.” Ives folded his arms across his chest. “Twenty-nine dollars and ninety-five cents a month. Does that fit within your budget?”

“That’s it?” Richard asked, amazed.

“That’s it.” The doctor’s eyes narrowed as he watched Richard closely. “Did you think I’d ask for your soul?”

Richard stared at the doctor for a moment, not knowing how to respond. After a moment, he smiled nervously.

Then Ives grinned and the two men burst into laughter.

* * * * *

Richard shifted in his chair and looked around at the other people sitting in the waiting area of the doctor’s office, catching the eye of a pretty blonde woman across the room. She smiled at him and he returned the favor, feeling his face flush. He looked back down at the nature magazine that he’d been reading, but his thoughts remained for a moment on the woman.

Richard’s sister-in-law had recommended this doctor, saying she’d heard good things, but all the clinic had done in the past three months was take blood samples, give him Vitamin B shots, and send him home. He’d lost fifty pounds, but hadn’t yet met the doctor. And still no hypnosis.

But today was the day that he was supposed to finally meet Doctor Ives, and that made Richard feel like things might actually work out.

 

Fat Busters, Inc.

by Louis E. Catron

Good golly, Saint Molly, what we have here is a
Munchkin! That’s something you don’t see every day,
she thought. A Munchkin in a rock star’s outfit. 

She thought she heard a strange voice whispering her name as she bustled to work, panting a bit because she had to walk a whole block from the bus stop. “Luccee. Luccee. Here!” Lucy Thompson looked around but there wasn’t anyone near. Well, now, that’s weird, she thought.

As she looked to see who was calling her, she saw the fresh sign painted on the shop window—“Fat” in a big red circle with a red slash over it like a traffic sign saying no left turn or no through trucks. Elaborate gold letters announced “Fat Busters, Inc. INSTANT RESULTS!”

Funny way for a sign to hang, she thought. It was just sort of—well, as if it were floating, not touching the glass. Must’ve been amateurs who didn’t know how to hang a sign. Sure hard to get good workers these days. She had time to pause to check out the window before she had to get to work at the Pre-Loved Clothing Shoppe, Clothing Hollywood Stars Wore And Now You Can Dress Like A Star, Too, because it opened later on Wednesdays.

This city, she half smiled. Nothing stays the same. The most consistent thing is change. For weeks this has been an old, dusty, empty store. Now look. I wonder how these new people made such major renovations overnight.

Weird name, “Fat Busters, Inc.” A peculiar floating sign, too, that didn’t seem to be attached to anything so it looked like it could fall or drift away in a breeze. Sure didn’t say this was a stable outfit.

The sign was nicely painted, even attractive, she’d give them that. But “fat busters”? Oh, puhlease. That’s so… so… so undignified.

Lucy didn’t know why the sign grabbed her attention. There were many things she needed, but not to bust fat, whatever bust meant. She wasn’t fat. Oh, maybe a teensy puff here, a miniscule bulge there, a wispy sag or two sneaking loose. But not fat. Comfortable, that’s what she was. Although almost two decades had passed, she was proud she still had that lithe and smooth body of Lucy at seventeen Well, almost anyhow. Give or take a little here or there, and that’s the way life is, Mabel.

If you want to talk fat, now, there’s Mrs. Albrecht, upstairs, the universe’s big bang theory in human form, who has to get new outfits twice a year to accommodate her ever- expanding self. Fat is Mrs. Ronson, who seemed to be getting her hair done, her hocks firmly wedged in the shampoo chair, every time Lucy went to Dainty Dee’s Affair D’Hair to have her blonde highlights renewed. Dainty Dee herself, come to that, is no delicate wisp, lord knows, with arm jello that flaps as she briskly rubs scalps. And fat is both Mr. and Ms. Welles, who own the Pre-Loved Shoppe and who look more and more like Mr. and Ms. Pillsbury Doughboy on an eating binge every time they come wheezing into the shop with armloads of more Clothing Hollywood Stars Wore, piling the suits and jackets and dresses on Lucy to organize on the racks.

Lucy knew the difference between fat, which is what those folk were, and comfortable, which is what she was.

“Fat Busters”? Silly, she thought as she walked away. Some people start businesses without thinking if there will be customers. Pre-Loved Hollywood Star Clothing, now, that’s smart. But this…?

* * * * *

That evening as she went home the window had more gold lettering, sort of shimmering as the sign floated about. “GUARANTEED RESULTS.”

Oh, sure, guaranteed. Like those folks who phoned her at night with special offers, always guaranteed. “May I speak to Mr. or Miz Thompson?” That was the dead give away that a phony offer was coming. There was no Mr. Thompson, hadn’t been for eight years since Harold had gone vaguely off to who knows where, talking about siren songs and desert islands and nubile maidens bringing him iced drinks with little teeny paper umbrellas. “But why, Harold?” He threw clothing into his suitcase and yelled at her, “I have dreams! I’ve got to go find them! You’re a lead weight on my rainbow!” That hurt. “Yeah? You wouldn’t know what to do with a maiden, nubile or reptile or otherwise,” she had shouted after him as he went thumping down the stairs. Good riddance,she told herself. Now we can have some peace and quiet, just Aloysius and me. She repeated it so she’d believe it.

* * * * *

Each night was exactly the same. She’d fix dinner for Aloysius and nuke a hefty frozen meal for herself. Later she’d settle down to watch Jay or David, eat her box of chocolate covered cherries, and drowse off there on the yellow sofa wrapped in her Granny’s blue and green afghan. Aloysius would curl on her stomach, prodding her soft flesh with his paws like fluffing a pillow, and purr to sleep. Ahh. Peace and quiet.

Comfortable, that’s what she was, the way she looked, the way she lived, although once in a while she felt lost and hungry for something else… No. We’ll have none of that, she said to herself firmly. I will not fall into that trap of whimpering. Life is what it is. I’m comfortable.

Routine, she assured herself. That’s the secret of a comfortable life. Each Monday and Tuesday after work she’d go to the Crup Shelter for the homeless and forlorn. As she served food to the folks, she’d get their lives in order with brisk instructions to each about showers and laundry and haircuts and being sure to sing out the hymns to make a joyful noise unto the Lord. Reverend Martin hovered around, praising her. “Madam Cruise Director”—that was his name for her, which he thought was worth a smile but she didn’t know why—“You have the heart of an angel and the managerial skill of the CEO at General Electric.” She’d nod at him and wonder how she could catch the attention of the GE folks. Each Friday she’d play bridge with The Girls, and they’d get the gossip—well, no, not that; “The Local Newscast”—straightened out while letting Sally Lyndon know they were watching her so she wouldn’t cheat when she dealt. Saturday was grocery and drugstore shopping for Mrs. Martinio, who couldn’t get around well, poor thing. Sunday was Clean The Place day. She was amazed how much cleaning was necessary in a single woman’s home. How come, she’d wonder, Aloysius isn’t bald as Jean-Luc Picard, all the hair he keeps losing?

Comfortable. Routine. She sighed deeply.

* * * * *

Thursday morning she heard the whisper again. “Luccee. Luccee.” Must be some trick of the wind blowing across a loose piece of metal. But then she noticed there wasn’t even a little breeze.

A new sign was in the window, just hovering there like a helicopter, except it didn’t have those whirly blade things. “LET US HELP YOU BE MORE ATTRACTIVE SO YOU’LL NEVER BE LONELY!” There was a painting of a slender man and slender woman sitting at a table with fancy silver and one slender rose in a crystal vase, looking lovingly in each other’s eyes, holding slender hands, with a night sky and a big yellow-orange moon behind them reflecting off blue water and backlighting a slender palm tree on the sand. Lucy stared at the picture, feeling hungry somewhere in her mind.

Hmmpfh. Who said I was lonely?

She wondered if Harold had found his nubile maidens.

If Harold can look for nubile, she’d think about virile. She thought what it would be like if she went off to a desert island where a handsome male brought her icy drinks with umbrellas. She would sit slenderly on a chaise lounge under a blue and white umbrella, her slender fingers trailing in the sand, and the male would smile, and he would and she would and they would and… She made a face at herself. Don’t go getting silly!

“Free!” the sign announced. “Free! Free! Free!” Oh, sure. Free like the aluminum siding estimate, free like the telephone switcher.

“Fat Busters, Inc.” sat forlornly alone. She never saw anyone going in or out of the place. With a name like that, what else could they expect?

* * * * *

Friday the Pre-Loved Clothing Shoppe was hectic. She had never seen so many people in the shop, demanding her help to find this or that Star’s dress or pants or suit so they could emerge from the dressing rooms to see their new Star Self in the mirror. The customers posed for each other, laughing, the Hollywood Stars’ Pre-Loved Clothing shaping softly to their trim bodies, Julia Roberts’ dresses flowing lovingly over gentle curves, Tom Hanks’ suits tucked into slim waists, Meg Ryan’s petites all cute and girly, Britney’s skimpies hugging on desperately for fear they’d fall to the ground. The people smiled happily, bought armloads of stars’ clothing, asked her to help lug their booty to their shining cars with never a concern about the miles she was putting on her feet.

Her last customer was a man. He smiled at her, touched this or that Star Wear, smiled more at her, asked polite questions. He liked Mel Gibson’s leather jacket, as well he should. He smiled again at her. And again. Oh! Interested, are you?He liked her. She could tell. Well, why, yes, perhaps—just perhaps—I might have dinner with you tonight. But you have to ask just right. She thought he’d pass that test.

Then a woman breezed in. Willowy, trim, neat. The kind whose blonde hair simply wouldn’t dare frizz, whose feet would be slim and painless, who knew about cruises and islands. Hmppfh. Lucy decided not to help her look for a Star Outfit. The woman went to the Star Gown section and selected slim Charlize Theron’s red ball gown and slender Nicole Kidman’s green dress, then stood in front of the mirror, putting first one and then the other in front of her. She asked the man a question. Lucy watched as the man replied, pointing at Charlize’s outfit. She watched them talk, confer about the clothes, smiling, heads close together. She watched them leave together slender arm in slender arm, their laughter making soft echoes that lingered long after they were gone.

Lucy sighed. I suppose they’re going to have dinner where there’s bright silver and a vase with one slender rose.

She locked the door behind them and looked at the stars’ dresses no one had wanted. Which would she select for the weekend, Camryn Manheim’s black suit or Kirstie Alley’s flowery caftan? She didn’t like The Practice as much as Fat Actress, and anyway she thought Camryn was silly to write that book bragging about her fat, so she changed into Kirstie’s floral. Ahh. She admired herself in the mirror. Those yellows look good on me and the blues bring out the azure color of my eyes. She liked that word, azure. Sometimes she’d say they were indigo eyes. Or cerulean. Dumb ol’ Harold couldn’t handle that: “So what’s wrong with the good, clear, American word ‘blue’?” Those nubiles would find out Harold just didn’t have taste.

This time, as she shuffled home on tired feet past the new shop, she heard gentle music like a warm breeze touching with palm leaves, a wistful soprano singing unintelligible words. The music slipped into her mind, touched her so she felt goose bumps, held her with harps and strings and a primitive tom-tom, made her see cruise ships and candles and white linen and silver settings and silken sheets.

Her eyes went to the window. The painter had been busy again. There was another golden sign that hung on an invisible hook. “SPECIAL OFFER TO NEW CUSTOMERS!! SOME LUCKY CUSTOMERS WILL BE PAID!”

That kind of advertising, she thought disapprovingly. The owner surely must be one of the foreigns. Americans know better than to give products away for free.

Something flickered by the sign, seemed to circle it, blinking too rapidly for her to be sure. Did… did I see my name? She shook her head. Gotta get more rest. Maybe I better not watch Dave tonight.

Again voices whispered, “Here, Luccee! Here!”

What…? No one was close enough to whisper.

Then she saw a three-panel mirror. Where did that come from? It was fixed so Lucy could see herself front, back, and profile.

And a TV camera that broadcast all of Lucy on a screen.

All of her.

She blinked. A—well, there was no other word—a chunky Lucy looked back at her, broad and expansive. What she had thought was a little bitty puff here and a teensy bulge there was… was… yuckers! Kirstie Alley’s flowers swept up and down Lucy hillsides. Not just small little slopes but big hills that rolled and bubbled with more round mounds than valleys.

That isn’t me, she thought. It must be some trick of the evening light. Or—yeah, that’s it—it’s one of those sideshow funny house mirrors. Well, that sure as hell isn’t a nice thing to do to a lady.

Then she noticed a new sign. How could she have missed that? “TONIGHT ONLY: anyone with the initials L.T. will be paid for a FAT BUSTER session!”

L.T.? Paid?

The sign changed. “GIVE IT A TRY, LUCY!”

Amazing, these modern computers—I wonder how they can figure out so much.

She didn’t much like signs talking to her, but you had to expect machines to be on a first-name basis in a world where automated phone voices try to get you to buy timeshares in North Alaska.

The glass and wood door swung open, although there wasn’t anyone there.

She looked around, but no one was paying any attention. People were rushing that direction, running the other, all of them so eager to get home to get ready for weekend dates that they ignored her. She had nothing to rush to get ready for.

She hesitated a moment, then shrugged. A few minutes, why not? They’ll have a chair and I can sit and soothe my poor feet. Maybe they’ll have some tasty munchies, this being their grand opening. And I bet I can get off some great punch lines when they talk about free and guarantees.

She stepped in. Yeow. What kind of place is this? Candles. Flowing purple drapes over the walls, thick carpet like a putting green. A rich smell like… like… oh, sure, like those little things Sally Rodriquez burned in a saucer when she was Madame Arkcodia telling fortunes. In the corner was a lurking metal sculpture of—what? an eagle, maybe?—something vaguely horrible with big wings and a sharp beak or two, and sticking up out of its head was what might be a bad feather day or maybe horns. On the ceiling was a painting—or something—of stars and moons that moved and spun and made her feel dizzy. A desk seemed to float above the floor.

Must be foreigns from one of those oil countries because they’ve sure got money. But they ought to get a better interior decorator so the place would look more like a business than a French whorehouse. Whatever one of those places would look like.

“Welcome, Luccee,” a small voice whispered. “Pleasssee entry in.”

Who…? She looked down. Oh. There you are. Good golly, Saint Molly, what we have here is a Munchkin!

A tiny man. Or perhaps a woman? Over its head and ears it wore one of those turban cloth helmets like a Prince, or maybe a Princess, of Araby. The poor thing had been in the desert sun too much and gotten the color of toast. Big—really huge—black eyes in saucers of white. Great clothes, though. She studied the tiny thing’s outfit with a practiced eye. Gold threads running through dark blue fabric that shimmered, long robe cascading to the floor, batwing sleeves flowing down over the fingertips, a shawl collar climbing up in back almost to the top of the turban. That’s something you don’t see every day, she thought. A Munchkin in a rock star’s outfit. That gown would be a socko hit at the Pre-Loved Clothing Shoppe, except only a kid could wear it.

“I am Glacksohn and to meeet you isss pleasssuring meee.” He or she bowed deeply, the robe spreading wide around its feet like a puddle of blue gold. The way it talked sounded like a snake with peanut butter stuck to the roof of its mouth.

“I’m Ms. Thompson. Lucy Thompson. I was just passing by…”

“Yesss. Aware of that knowledge, I’m know name of you.”

These foreigns. Why didn’t they learn to speak proper Americanese before they across the ocean come?

“I was just passing by,” she repeated firmly, the way you had to do with foreigns. “And I saw your signs. I thought I would find out what you do here. About fat. Not for me, you understand, because I don’t need any busting or whatever it is you do, but for a friend of mine who is, um, you know, horizontally advantaged.”

“Friendsss, yesss, yesss.” It nodded its head.

“So tell me, Mr.? Miz? Glackshon…” She paused hopefully.

“Yesss.” It bobbed its head enthusiastically. “Glackshon.”

Just one name? Oh. Well, sure, okay. Madonna and Britney got a lot of miles outta that gimmick.

“So tell me, Glackshon, what you do here?”

“Pleassseee Luccee followsss me to our exhamining rooomm by preceding first.”

He or she had a voice that sounded like the flute her mother had tried to make her learn to play. Pretty sound, really, soft and lilting. If you liked someone singing when they talked.

Glacksohn pointed to the back. Lucy saw a shimmering brass door, looking like it was framed in metal with heavy bolts on the sides. Huh. Curious, she hadn’t seen the door earlier when she had looked around.

A pretty woman never can be too careful around foreigns in this city. For all I know, this could be a white slave outfit, with those Araby folks looking to carry off a handsome woman like moi. “I can’t stay long. My Al, he knows I came in your shop. I’m not home soon, ol’ Big Al will be here looking here for me.” She grinned secretly to herself. Not as good as her best punch lines, but clever anyhow, even if she had to say so herself.

“It takesss time of ssshort ssstay,” Glacksohn said. “Pleasssee to sssee accommingdationsss for you.”

The examining room didn’t have that hospital white glare. Instead it was all soft brown and blue velvet drapes. Lucy looked around, awed. In one corner were a series of shiny empty glass jars topped with cork stoppers that had rubber tubing running off to a black machine with dials and flashing buttons. From the machine plastic hoses ran to a luxurious recliner. In another corner was a box made of something like stainless steel except there seemed to be light coming through the metal. Everything seemed to float above the floor. There was a persistent hum like heavy machinery working somewhere, vibrating like the motor on the ferry.

“Luceee, sssitsss down yourssself on this sssitter, pleassseee me,” he or she said, pointing to the recliner. “Beee comfort table and relax at eeeassse.”

Well, her feet were sore and the “sitter” looked comfortable despite its weird shape like some giant’s hand. She settled into it and felt it buzz as it moved and shifted to adjust to her.

“Look, Glacksohn, I want to ask…”

The sitter opened, leaned back, wrapped around her, cuddled her, began to vibrate soft fingers against her neck, her back, her butt, her thighs. Oh? Oh! Yes!

From somewhere a soft pad slipped across her forehead, warm, comforting, lightly rubbing right above her eyes where she got headaches. Ahh.

The sitter’s footrest raised and another piece pushed up against her feet. It began to ripple. Oh, my. She kicked off her shoes and the ripples rubbed, caressed, stroked. Don’t stop! Heaven!

A nozzle came out from the head of the sitter and squirted a little spray toward her nose. It smelled like the way her sheets smelled, years ago, after her mother had hung them to dry in the sun. Mmmmmm.

“Oh,” she said. She yawned. “Oh! Glacksohn, what’s…?” The squirter did its thing again, reminding her of summer and fresh cut grass. She yawned again, more deeply. Her eyelids felt heavy.

“Shhhhhh,” Glacksohn said. “Ressst you. Deeply breathing breathsss, yess. In the breath. Out the breath. In. Out. Peaccce now. Sssshhhhhhh. Eyesss closéd now. Everything isss lovely, lovely.”

Yes, Lucy thought, closing her eyes while the sitter vibrated and the footrest rippled and the squirter bathed her nostrils with summer sun. Rest me. Is lovely. Yes. Deeply breathing breaths. Yes. Peace now.

“Peaccce.” Its voice sang lovely. What a lovely, lovely voice. What a lovely, lovely smell. What a… Ahhh.

Maybe something very cold rubbed for a moment against her arm.

Maybe the cold touched briefly her belly, her hips, her thighs.

Maybe she felt a sort of… of a… pulling sensation all over her body. A taking. Inside of her.

Maybe she heard a machine making soft slurping sounds.

She didn’t know because she was…

…running and leaping in slow motion like a gazelle through a hill full of flowers, lovely, lovely flowers,

…and she was in a white ballet skirt, dancing light-footed along a sandy beach next to the blue, blue ocean, lovely blue ocean, and the rising yellow moon grew larger and larger behind a tall slender palm,

…and she was riding a golden horse through a field of yellow, lovely yellow wheat bowing in the wind, and her hair was streaming behind her,

…and she was at a dinner table and there was a rose, lovely, lovely red rose,

…and across from her He was sitting, smiling, lovely, lovely smile at her,

…and they held hands and a violinist stood next to the table, playing,

…and everything disappeared, table and silver and rose and violinist,

…and they were alone,

…and her clothes drifted away and hung themselves on invisible hooks in front of the window that opened to the sea,

…and He and she were on soft blue cushions, lovely, lovely cushions, floating in the sky and fluffy white clouds wrapped around them and the stars made arcing red and purple and white and green and yellow streaks across the night sky,

…and

Oh!

Oh oh oh OH!

* * * * *

A chucking noise made her open her eyes, blinking. I must’ve dozed for a moment. I dreamt. She thought of the dream. Yeow! She wanted to hit the instant replay button.

The chuck-a-chunk noise caught her attention and she looked around the room. The Munchkin was holding up two quart bottles in elongated fingers that looked like, well, like the legs of a tarantula. The poor thing probably has some form of arthritis that distorts its fingers. He, or maybe she, looked carefully at the swirling cloudy stuff in the bottles. “Yesss, yesss,” it said, bobbing its turbaned head up and down. It made the chuck-chunk-a-chuck noise again. That’s a weird laugh, Lucy thought. But, hey, ol’ Harold’s laugh sounded like a chain saw missing some gears.

Lucy watched as the Munchkin took the bottles to the stainless steel box and gently put them in, then moved those funny spider fingers over a yellow light on top of the box. The light flashed green and the bottles shimmered, grew brighter, then faded out of sight. It chucked-a-chunked and did a strange dance. She thought of the Mayor of Munchkin Land doing a jig but without exactly touching the ground.

The Munchkin sighed, slumping his? her? shoulders. Tired, huh? Well, you try selling Hollywood Star clothes all day. Then you’ll know tired.

It turned and saw her watching. “Luceee, she feelsss fine?”

Well, yes, as a matter of fact. I feel wonderful!

“Look, Glacksohn, can we talk?”

The sitter had stopped doing its thing. She reluctantly got up and started to walk to Glacksohn, but she almost tripped over the hem of Kirstie’s flower dress. It was slipping down off her body. “Whoops,” she said, grabbing the shoulders and pulling it back up. “It must’ve stretched or something.”

As she adjusted the dress, she ran her hands over her body. There was, she discovered, less Lucy. The little puffs and bulges… Well, now, that’s interesting, she thought. Something’s changed. Or gone.

“Wait, Glacksohn,” she said. “I’ll be right back.”

Grasping Kirstie’s dress so it stayed up, she went outside the Fat Buster shop and stood in front of the mirrors and TV camera. A svelte, shapely, lovely Lucy looked back at her. Wow! And look—cheekbones, like a model! She turned, preened, pulled handfuls of the excess dress material tight around her body. Kirstie Alley’s flowers were a neat, well-tended, garden with only the bumps that ought be bumpy. And now they were firm bumps. She could toss out her Wonder Bras and her support hose and those form shaping panties. She turned to admire the rear view, pulling Kirstie’s flowers snug over her butt. Yes! I haven’t looked like this since I was seventeen. Hell, when I was seventeen I didn’t look this good!

A man walking by stopped, turned, and came back to her. “Excuse me,” he said. “I don’t want to be rude and I certainly don’t want you to think I do this all the time when I see a strange woman—I really never have done this before—but I just have to say that I wonder if you’d permit me to ask you out to dinner? If not tonight, tomorrow? Or the next night? Or the next? We could go to my club, or any place you’d prefer. And some weekend, we could take my jet to a marvelous island I know.”

Oh! It’s Him! The slender man in the painting in the window, the one who was on the pillows and we… She felt her cheeks warming. Blushing? Me?

“I, um, ah, oh,” she said.

He was elegant, graceful, tall, broad-shouldered. His suit looked like the one Clark had worn when he swept Scarlet up the stairs, and his hair had that hyper Brad Pitt look. His voice warmed the inside of her ears and rolled all the way down to her stomach.

He reached into his jacket. “I know. I’m rude. Please pardon me. But would you kindly take this”—he opened his wallet and pulled out a white card—“and perhaps you might call me after you’ve had time to think about it? Please?”

She took the card, feeling the engraved letters. “Um, er, I, ah,” she said.

She looked up into his eyes. They were warm. Little smile crinkles at the sides. His black hair was lush and thick and she thought of wrapping her fingers in the curls. The center of his chin had an indentation that her finger could just fit into.

“Please?” His lips were magnets.

“Ah, um, I, oh,” she said.

He bowed. “I am sorry if I intruded.” He turned to leave.

Her mouth caught up with her mind. “No! Wait!”

“Yes?” His smile was lovely, lovely, and her knees were feeling like marshmallows.

Momma always said that if you act eager, men lose respect. She struggled to get control. “One might,” she said aloofly. “Perhaps one might consider it. Sometime. One has, however, prior arrangements this evening.”

“Of course a beautiful woman like you would have plans. I’ll wait, hoping. Anytime.”

She watched him leave. She fingered the card. Yikes!

“Glacksohn!” She rushed back into the shop.

The Munchkin retreated in fear. “Nooo hurt I’m,” it said.

She sat down on the floor so they’d be eye to eye. “We gotta talk. You and me, we gotta make some plans here. Listen. You need a receptionist. No, not a receptionist. A manager. A partner. We’re gonna be so busy that you won’t have time to handle all the business. And, pal, this idea of giving it away free? Forget it. No one trusts the word ‘free.’ We’ll charge. A lot. Got that, Glacky? That way the people will know it is worth a lot. I’ll make appointments and collect the money and handle the advertising and deal with the zoning laws and pay the rent and keep us in supplies. While you take people to that sitter and do whatever it is you do. Yeah, partner, we’re gonna be very busy!”

“Bizzzee no goot. Mental work overstresss,” it said softly, pointing at its belly. “Wearing out I’m mental mind.”

It thinks its mental mind is in its stomach? Well, hey, Dainty Dee thinks with her stomach. “That’s okay. You’ll get used to it. And we’ll need to expand. Six more rooms with sitters.”

“Sssix more? Ssso many!”

“No, six won’t do it,” she said thoughtfully. “For a start, twelve more.”

“Twelf?” It moaned, shook its head, and pointed again to its belly. “Mental tired and achesss.”

“I’ll schedule you carefully.” She looked around the room. “I need a phone.”

“Phone?”

“I’ll call Mrs. Albrecht and Mrs. Sweeney and Mr. and Mrs. Welles. And Dee. Especially Dee. Once you’ve had her in the sitter, she’ll tell all of her ladies, and that will bring in dozens more. And each will tell her friends and…”

He or she was shaking its head.

“What? You have a problem with this, Glacksohn?”

“Am sssupriséd. Wasss warned peoplesss here were hossstile to usss,” it said. “Wasss warned your peoplesss would object to usss collecting their fat extrasss for usss to ussse to fuel our transpormagorator.”

“Say what?”

“Transpormagorator move home into new orbitersss. You peoplesss call it touristsss.”

“Yeah, well, whatever.” These days, geeks liked strange terms. “You’ll find that we Americans are friendly folks, so don’t worry about what those foreigns told you. Just leave everything to me. Okay?”

She looked at the desk. “I’ll want a sign there with my name on it. It’ll read… not Lucy, not Thompson, that’s too common…” She snapped her fingers. “‘Marguerite Morningstar. Co-Executive Partner.’ You got that?”

Glacksohn suddenly had a little gray box. The spider fingers played on the buttons and on the desk appeared a silver sign:

MARGUERITE MORNINGSTAR
Co-Executive Partner
Fat Busters, Inc.

Lucy looked at it, her head tilted to one side. She spoke softly. “Today Fat Busters, tomorrow GE, and next week…”

“Sssign meetsss your pleasssednesss?”

“It’s great.” She laughed, danced a small pirouette. “Great! Partner, you’re gonna have to tell me how those tricks work.”

Glackshon showed her the box. “Isss a kowtskizty. Jussst think what you need and touch here…”

“You can teach me later. Let’s nail down the finances here. I take fifty percent of income. Right?”

“What iss incomme?”

Lucy smiled gently at him. Or her. Lovely child. “Never mind. I’ll handle the books. And each week, regular, you’ll put me in that sitter. Right?”

It nodded slowly, blinking its large eyes.

She looked around the shop. “I’ve got some ideas about re-decorating. We need a new look, Glackey. Those purple drapes have to go. And that stuff you’re burning—bad idea ’cause we don’t want the narcs coming here. We gotta make a friendly atmosphere. Over here we’ll put an aquarium with angelfish. Big plants by the door. That bird thing, too, we’ll toss it in the junk ’cause it is just too hostile. Like fearsome, pal.”

Glacksohn looked mournfully at the purple drapes and the sculpture that looked vaguely like an eagle. “Ohhhh,” it said sadly. “Ohhhh. They make I’m feel home.”

“And maybe we can find you a good speech therapist you can visit.”

“Not like go odder peopless,” it said shyly. “Bessst ssstay here.”

“Well… okay, keep that accent, then. Hey, look what an accent did for Arnold whatshisname and Henry Kissinger. We’ll tell people you’re from Germany, like that Doctor Fraud.”

Lucy Marguerite looked meditatively at the window. “We need a bigger sill. That’ll make the perfect place for Aloysius. He likes to keep up with what’s going on in the outside world.”

“Why…?”

“He’ll make the place look homey, friendly. Relax the patients.”

“What iss theee Allyoitisss?”

“He’s my big ol’ special cat.”

Glockshon’s face lost several shades of toast color. “K-k-kat? Indoctrination film ssshowed I’m k-k-kat thingsss like tigersss and lionsss. Too big. Much too big. Clawesss and toothesss!”

“Oh, don’t worry. You’ll like him, Glackey.”

“Worry he’ll like I’m! For food!”

“Don’t be a goose. There’s not enough of you to make a good snack.”

Glacksohn looked around as if wondering where to find a place to hide.

She thought a moment. “Glackey, that little box? The cowtsie thingie? Can it track down somebody, like maybe someone named Harold Thompson, and can it make him have really big juicy zits and give him fleas and put sand in his skivvies and give him a big bald spot?”

“Needsss programingsss that is difficulter hard, but yesss.”

She laughed. “Lovely. Just lovely. We’ll talk.”

She patted him or her on the shoulder, then stopped when sharp protrusions like cow horns hurt her hand. “There’s something you need to tell me, Glacky. I hope you don’t mind a personal question, but partners gotta be open with each other.”

The Munchkin backed up several steps, its eyes darting left and right, like it wondered how it could escape. “Actually innocent I’m. Falssse witnessess at the trial. Truthfully I tell you the honest.”

“What?”

“But they sssaid guilty I’m anyhow and sssent I’m here.”

“That’s not what I was going to ask, Glacky.”

It sort of shrunk. “Yesss?”

“What I need to know will help us get on a firm footing here. Tell me straight out. Are you a male or female?”

Glackshon lowered its head shyly. “This month, am fertilizer, what you sssay male. Next month will change to bearer.”

“Really?” She looked at him skeptically. “Glacky, you’re not from Los Angeles, are you?”

“From Klanock Q7o3z I’m. Isss Angelesss in orbit?”

“Yeah,” she said, nodding. “It’s pretty far out there. Never mind. So now you’re a he. Fine. Just keep me posted what you are, pal. Okay?”

She fumbled in her purse and found the keys to the Pre-Loved Clothing Shoppe. “Now. You get things ready, use that cowski thingie to get us new sitters and all that stuff, while I run down to the other store. I’ll be back in a flash and we’ll get to work. First, though, I’ve got to get rid of Kirstie’s flowers and find something that fits. There was that really smooth Britney Spears outfit that’ll look great on me…”

Lucy Marguerite Thompson Morningstar blew Glacksohn a kiss as she ran out the door, tripping on Kirstie’s extra flowers. Her giggle pushed against the purple drapes.

Alone, Glacksohn fumbled with the little black box. A chair materialized, floating above the floor, and he sank down. He pulled out a golden-thread cloth and wiped his brow with shaking spider fingers, and looked forlornly around the room.

A cloudy shape fuzzily wandered around the room and bumped against the walls, grunting “ow!” before settling in front of him. A face appeared, like Glackshon’s but it didn’t have the turban. One large pointed rabbity ear stuck up sideways and the other one flopped down almost over the face’s eyes.

“This is Klanock Q7,” it said brusquely. It pushed the ear out of its eyes. “We received your transmission of the shipment. We tested it. The substance was of the highest quality. Excellent. We will quadruple our drive and therefore we shall expect frequent shipments from you.”

“Isss hard difficulter…” Glacksohn tried to say.

“Frequent shipments,” it repeated sternly. It wiggled its nose. “More. Much more.”

“Oh.” Glacksohn shook his head.

“Staff congratulates you for subduing the natives and turning them into our slaves without having to put the martonquekz substance in their consumables.”

“But… but… but,” Glackshon moaned.

“You’ll remain on station for seventeen of those earth time zones the humans call years.”

“Ssseventeen?” There was something like a sob in his voice. “Here? Not here, pleassse! Much would prefer even Iccce Planet ZRt8+X. Life form here dangerousss I’m.”

The face shook its head. The ears flopped and it pushed both of them from its eyes. “Where you are is the penalty that staff decided was appropriate in your case. Out.” The face started fading away. The cloud bumped against the walls. “Ow!”

Glacksohn could hear Lucy Marguerite laughing happily as she skipped back to him from the Pre-Loved Clothing Shoppe. There was a hubbub of other voices, too.

“No, no, no,” Glacksohn whimpered. “Wait! No leave I’m here!”

The cloud disappeared. From somewhere there was a crash and a loud “Owwwch!”

Lucy was excited. “Come on, you guys! Follow me! I’m the Pied Piper of Fat Busters, Inc.! You’ll love it! Ms. Welles, Mr. Welles, come on! Dee, I’m so glad we happened to run into each other! Come on! And—I’m sorry, the rest of you, I forgot your names, but come on in and I’ll make appointments for you. All of you. Now, while we still have our special introductory rate of $495.95, cash or plastic. And it is guaranteed! Come on in and let me introduce you to our Special Consultant, Professor Glacksohn from Germany. It takesss time of only ssshort ssstay!”

The door swung open and the crowd poured buzzing with excitement into the shop, following Lucy Marguerite who strutted like a drum majorette in her low-slung tight pants with rhinestones and her short-short tight-tight t-shirt accenting firm boobs above her trim bare stomach. Something shiny glittered in her belly button.

“Okay, Professor Glacksohn,” she bubbled. “To the sitters!”

Glacksohn made a sound that if he was a human might be a whimper.

Lucy Marguerite looked back at the crowd. “A minute, please, you guys. The professor and I have to have a short conference.”

The people turned and milled about the room, chattering good-naturedly, looking at the eagle-thing in awe.

Lucy squatted next to Glackshohn. “Oof,” she said, pulling at the crotch of her pants. “That hurts. Well, that’s something I just learned. I don’t know how Britney could even bend in this outfit. How about giving me a little chair, Glacky.”

“Chair, yesss.”

He manipulated the box with spider fingers and a chair floated under her.

“Much better. Now listen, partner. I’m not going to chew you out for not getting us the aquarium and skylights and all that. Tomorrow will be fine. Now. I’ll send these people in to you. We’ll make an assembly line.”

“Ssso many,” Glacksohn moaned. “Tired I’m even before ssstart.”

“Off with you, pal. The boss tells you: to work, to work.”

Glacksohn sighed. “Yesss, Bosss. Work I’m.” He turned and stood in the brass doorway, waiting for the first person to enter.

“All right,” Lucy said briskly, smiling at the throng of faces. “Fat Busters is in business!”

She sat at the desk that floated above the floor, adjusted the silver sign, and took out a pad of paper and pencil. “I am ready to make the schedule,” she said aloofly. “Remember, now: our work has a lifetime guarantee! Who wishes to be first?”

Glacksohn moaned softly and went, head bowed, tarantula fingers tenderly rubbing his belly, into the examining room to wait for the people.

The crowd surged forward to the desk, chattering, buzzing, checks and credit cards extended. Lucy laughed gaily. “Oh, yeah,” she said. “We’re gonna have us a fat-bustin’ blast!”