Baby Brick

 

PART ONE

Whatever it was in the baby’s eyes that made them look unnatural it had the unanimous effect of putting people off. A baby’s eyes at birth are generally closed, gummed shut with mucous; Brick’s had blinked wide open from the moment she arrived. A baby’s opened eyes tend to be myopic, focused indistinctly; Brick’s took aim at everything she noticed, everything in sight. A baby’s eyes are cute inspiring fondness with their winsome vulnerability; Brick’s were born en garde aware of threats she deigned to counteract herself… or would when muscles built and lent support to her untenable appendages; limbs were late to gain dexterity and accede to her control. How to stand when legs were rag-doll flaccid, arms no less infirm, with a spinal cord as limp as India rubber? Infancy, for Brick, would prove a trial of her extravagant impatience, growth being both a boon that shortened dependency and a long-drawn crashing bore that hampered her agenda, crimped her nascent style, while taxing tolerance tentative at best; Brick’s forebode conceit—engendered by innate, unprecedented acumen. Not that she initially perceived her smarts as rare or extraordinary. Months, indeed, would pass before any inkling dawned. Absent peers for comparison, alone in her crib, the status quo meant “me”…

…‘trying to make connections’ was how Brick might have phrased it had words been forthcoming, had names for things emerged from the crimson sea in which her consciousness evolved, that all-surrounding soup wherein she had floated while Time forged fateful links—Future chained to Past by the never-ending Now—attempting to make sense of her environment once senses emerged: sight, smell, taste, sound, feel concurrently delivered from the aforementioned stew; blurred, clogged, dulled, dampened, and anesthetized as they were in their world within a world, in their womb within a womb—access to the outer by the inner circumscribed until her crude evacuation, a head-first exodus of surprised constituent parts taxed to tell the difference between eviction and liberation, concepts no more graspable than the curious items dangling over Brick’s up-reaching fists. What were these objects suspended in her immediate field of vision, their substance, hue, and aspect remotely recognizable? Why, if she could touch them, did her fingers fail to grip, ignoring her commands like misbehaving urchins? What, pray tell, were urchins? Clues in bafflingly short supply flummoxed Brick no end throughout her soporific babyhood, a phase she would compress by full-blown dint of will.

 James Joyce

Patricia Everson-Truesdale, long ē in Ēverson (pronunciation, to ‘Tricia,’ was bookishly important) earned her PhD in Linguistics at MIT after graduating magna cum laude from NYU with a Masters in English Literature, the operative verb being ‘earned’; both achievements entailed a great deal of work. “Gifted people, contrary to opinions held by average people,” quoth she, “labor long and hard to ensure their stars shine brightly.” “Furthermore, early expectationsfostered by parents and dutiful teachers ofttimes sponsor encouragement that functions as a goad, a cattle prod of sorts keeping little geniuses on their bound-for-glory toes. Excellence becomes internalized; striving for perfection dictates everyday concerns; meaningful activities—centered upon enrichment—trump undirected fun; hence childhood, with its lack of structured pastimes, gets elbowed to the wayside.”

Not so for Briana Kimberley Everson-Truesdale (eventual sobriquet ‘Brick’) whose unmistakable brilliance would illumine a carefree ontogeny, else ‘Professor’ Everson-Truesdale would have herself to blame. A widow (at age 38), a single parent abruptly, Tricia was determined to raise her child sans stress, to shield her from the pressures that prodigies sometimes suffer—at least from those detrimental to a germinating brain; would that Brick’s conformed to preconceptions; unfortunately, it did not; ‘she’ did not conform to any norms, be they special or mundane. Intelligence kin to hers was totally uncanny and, as months stretched into years… effectively annulled?

 Gates of Hell

Peter Truesdale-Everson, Brick’s departed dad (who had traded surnames with Patricia then nobly reversed them when the loving couple wed), likewise earned advanced degrees from prestigious institutions, doing his Masters (in Cognitive Psychology) at UC Berkeley, a second Masters (in Bio-engineering) at MIT, and his PhD (in Neurology) at Stanford where he and Tricia met out front of Rodin’s monumental sculpture “The Gates of Hell”—a happenstance that propagated jests more than fiendish premonitions… until that day, in retrospect, when death did part the pair and Peter’s clandestine life, as through a glass darkly, was glimpsed by his survivor. How could he have kept such conduct hidden in the face of their devotion? For unlike most of their social circle’s unions, theirs had truly jelled—faithfulness having solidified their marriage, providing the catalyst for its hard-wearing glue. Vows exchanged equaled mutual inclinations that connubial bliss enforced. Spoilers like ‘the other woman’ or ‘the extramarital man’ might only have been personified as desire to do one’s work; both ‘Dr.’ Truesdale-Everson and ‘Professor’ Everson-Truesdale valued their careers. But these pursuits, if frequently consuming, had been amicably shared. Specifics, however, in the case of Peter’s exploits, were lamentably withheld. Why, Patricia agonized? Who or what had warped sincere fidelity into DOA betrayal?

 

Mobile

So how describe, let alone identify these ‘hovering’ artifacts without language, without the rudiments of speech? Brick’s internal monologue was a play without a script, a squall when she was angry, an inarticulate burble when her temperament waxed sedate, noting ‘things’ and ‘phenomena’ with avid curiosity yet unable to explain, to differentiate, or by any meaningful method to process such a wealth of novel information. Colors would have been useful terms. Shapes would also have added to her inadequate vocabulary. Brick could feel her neurons spread like loose ends unresolved, seeking to unite, to overcome her disgruntling limitations. Beginning life at zero with respect to what-was-what imposed a handicap gross and increasingly intolerable. Language one could access ought to be programmed from the start, else how relieve one’s dearth of fundamental verbiage? For words, alas, were crucial, words were what made humans tick, the increments of experience, the tools that fashioned progress and clocked unchecked development from nincompoop to sage, designations beyond the range of Brick’s restricted comprehension… while swiping at a mobile poised to entertain an infant doomed to lie flat on her back “while Mommy takes a shower”—whatever those acoustics possibly conveyed.

“Mommy” must be her from whom Brick had made her timely exit, squirmed out in a lump of manifold awareness, ‘wrestled’ out, if truth be told, thus instigating SHRIEKS as clarion calls attesting to a topsy-turvy passage, pulp, like mangled viscera, left oozing in her wake, pulse, which once had housed her in its echo chamber, mute, supplanted by her own invigorated heartbeat, hers in syncopation with its still-connected source until dissevered absolutely when some obstetrician’s blade induced ‘complete detachment’ as a modus operandi. Tied off at the navel Brick’s umbilical, cut, had bled.

 

 Hush

Bristling with resolve, the newborn tried to raise her head, a feat of strength impossible for one so young, so tender, if nonetheless determined to accelerate maturation thus dispense with aggravation at discharging poop and pee, fouling her vicinity in response to measured urges—“Mommy” having returned, shedding fragrant beads of moisture, facial features framed by a shampooed mane rinsed limp, droplets (crystalline baubles in their stop-and-go descent) anointing Brick’s pajamas as with “rain…”

…somewhere, from the mist of her undisciplined perceptions, sprang a noun, a would-be verb replete with definitions: “water from the air, condensed; to rain perchance to fall”—a word, a construct fully-formed, a cut and polished diamond that glistened at the end of each conductive curl, spangled like a prism of refracted light and import, coalescing an image as distinctive as the stain that spread its soggy shadow—“plop”—on Brick’s absorbent flannel, from dribble unto drizzle unto dousing unto deluge as though H2O and the alphabet were in vogue, in sync, in league to flood Brick’s mighty cerebellum with abundant vowels and consonants thus enable freakish eloquence… if and when she erupted “teeth”—another word ‘retrieved’ under Mommy’s smile resplendent, glowing intermittently like a crescent moon bereaved, affection for her child by melancholy clouded… or such was Brick’s impression while possessed of views too green for more than passing idle judgment on any given subject; nourishment taking precedence, food-for-thought by gums imbibed, extracted from her choice of correspondent spheroids, either one conducive to instilling such serenity as to usher Brick’s emotions out of turbulence into calm—reviving, on occasion, neonatal rapture, the state from which each human being is spewed (with its placenta) and the state to which each human being would willingly revert were not Elysium superseded by unfledged Nepenthe… Brick’s, in flux, implying a whimsical account, to wit:

the dent above ones lips is made

when God applies His finger

and admonishes babes to “Hush,”

whence all they know at birth

is virtually forgotten…

until

death’s

ordained

approach,

with God’s

Good Grace,

 reminds them.

Quaint, no matter implausible, this, in truth, pertained to Brick, struggling to ‘recollect’ the while she sucked serenely; assembling bits of knowledge put in place beforehand? Introduced? The means, no clearer than the bytes themselves, eluded total recall yet informed her, much like hints, that erudition loomed to circumvent ‘potential’ with bona fide ‘proficiency,’ to supersede wits unschooled with an intellect well-informed—hers, if she could rally cognizance, tap innate resources, and mine their precious mother lode like the milk her hunger slurped, replenishing her ambition to outgrow mere subsistence and contribute to the wide, wide world of inquiring minds at work where what one learned (albeit self-contained) referred to an Entirety… aspirations choked by a swallow of colostrum that Brick posthaste disgorged after mouth and nipple parted, affording her a peep at the swollen ductile knob, marking its aroma and bruised discoloration, savoring its pulsation with reciprocal delight; both she who nursed and she who nurtured were gratified by congruity, the former burping a clutch of alabaster bubbles as tribute to the latter, evoking rarified air that mother and child once breathed when they were inseparable… when their mutual anatomies were phenomenally linked… when pain inflicted on one afflicted the other and engraved on each its scar… some such lesion having been caused pre-parturition, though neither party balked. Or had their tandem winces connoted joint objections?

Burgeoning with unseasoned grammar (in ‘matter’ both white and gray) a memory swelled the sponge inside Brick’s skull with information treacherous for it testified to tampering, yet remained, perforce, intangible to one so inexperienced whose instincts were untested, whose postulates were untried… postponed for another tug at Tricia’s bulbous feeder, hence lost in a haze of pheromones exuded from its pores, drunk on pure contentment as its wan ambrosia leached and lulled the exceptional neonate into satiated slumber.

 Scraps as a puppy

MR. NICE GUY

What could have possessed him? The pup was half-dead already, with scarcely the strength to raise his floppy-eared head: mangy, flea-bitten, stupid—so dumb he failed to recognize the latter-day Saint Francis. If dogs sport anthropoid expressions, this one’s mug betrayed goofiness, with its mix of incredulity and last-gasp chagrin. As likely to lift its leg at a sanctuary’s stoop as to enter one, ‘Scraps’ (as the stray would soon be named) got carried across the threshold by (student) Peter Truesdaledespairing of his beneficence the while he transported what could not help but stink, what trembled in his arms like an emaciated lamb. Soapsuds shortly thereafter had conspired to relieve the mutt of accumulated grunge. A plate of dished-out tuna fish, at first, went neglected—Scraps too stunned, apparently, by providential cleanliness to counteract starvation, less enthralled by the involuntary bath than by the towel that pat him dry as applied by him whose touch was matter-of-factly gentle and whose welcome ministrations were incidentally kind. What Scraps decided to lick, then, in preference to StarKist sustenance, was the sympathetic hand that held his puppy’s paw. With this pathetic gesture, a lifelong bond was sealed. When Tricia married Peter she adopted Scraps into the bargain. When Peter turned up dead his ‘best friend’ disappeared. Run away? Abducted? Or perished from a broken heart?

 Jack Black age two

JACK BLACK 

At age two Jack Black knew he was a toddler with uncanny aptitude. For starters, he could walk. Okay, he walked clumsily, but Jack’s perambulation was a sight more accomplished than his crumb-snatcher peers’, and his run, if resembling a fast-action waddle, was alarmingly impressive; it gave him an edge when stretching the perimeter of his father’s ‘far enough,’ meaning the distance a parent would allow a child to put between ‘hazardous’ and ‘irretrievable.’ Quite a ways, provided one’s dad went in pursuit as opposed to one’s mom. Jack Black’s mom never went in pursuit. Of late, he wondered why. Not in any tragic sense a la feeling ‘untimely ripped’ from the hothouse of maternity. Only slightly premature at birth, Jack had escaped his mother’s tepid corpse with nary a notion of being orphaned. Subsequently “George” (Jack’s very first word, to his father’s pumped-up pride) had proven to be a genius at filling begetter gaps, ensuring his infant son’s cup registered half full rather than half empty—an optimistic outlook that nudged the budding whiz-kid into expeditious bloom.

He reads?”

“Comic books, for the most part.”

You taught him?”

“I guess. I mean, I’ve always read aloud to Jack. He picks stuff up right quick. Don’t know where he gets it; his mom and me barely finished high school.”

Too true; ‘stellar scholastic propensity’ was neither parents’ forte. Jean had been a ‘looker’ whose Playboy-bunny body made a joke of academia. Why go into debt for a college education when private internet peepshows earned a fucking fortune? Without the risk of contracting—‘What, from the camera?’—any nasty STDs. College was for those with insufficient skills to land decent-paying jobs. Jean had been raking it in (directly deposited) from the day she boasted boobs; a marvelous pair, at that, endowed with an eye-catching oddity that multiplied ‘likes’ and ‘hits’ with gainful regularity. By the time she retired her website, thus closed her cash-cow shop, she owned a condo in Tiburon. By the time she married George (Jack well underway) her investment income peaked. And by the time she got admitted to Marin General Hospital, strapped onto a gurney, she was Dead On Arrival.

[A year and three months later, strapped to that selfsame stretcher, Peter Truesdale-Everson would similarly roll in stiff—without a second heartbeat to animate his abdomen…]

…unlike Jean’s delivered of Jack ex post facto, ergo ‘timely ripped’ from the hothouse of maternity as its clammy climate cooled, George in attendance, psychologically shell-shocked, balanced on a seesaw of pro and con emotions, praying Jack would make it / hoping he would not, the prospect of solo parenthood positively daunting: no helpmate, no main squeeze, no best piece of ass in the sack, bar none, whose charms were weeks, months, YEARS away from ceasing to besot him. George, with Jean, had been voluptuously obsessed since the two ‘clicked’ in cyberspace. All those autoerotic toys she had employed were like extensions of him, him, and him. He could replicate that dildo; outperform it, never mind its unreal size. He could stimulate her clitoris; apply his tongue where she resorted to electrodes. He could substitute his finger for the prong she used to fibrillate her butt. Hell, they had nowhere near exhausted erotic possibilities.

Two years hence, the carnality Jean ignited still inflamed her husband’s groin: nothing worse on earth than a man with the hots for a woman six feet under; nothing more attractive to unwed women than a widower in his prime; nothing as irresistible as a well-hung carpenter blessed with…

“What a darling little boy!”

“Who me?”

Startled by the child’s response when the parent’s was expected, she who addressed both father and son did a classic double take… while they, in ways atypical, acknowledged their admirer: Daddy feigning indifference toward the blonde’s flirtatious ploy; Junior seemingly distracted by her pendulous accoutrementsslung at eyeball level, the cleft between them scooped, glands on either side resembling the letter U.

“Double U,” Jack intoned, transcribing the letter with his thumb, drawing it in the air within an inch of the halter-top’s cohabitants. ‘Or double ewes,’ Jack mused. “Yours look soft as lambies.”

Even George glanced sideways at his offshoot’s rum remark, as she, who goggled dumbstruck, backed off with celerity.

 Mourning Becomes Electra

BRICK VAN WINKLE

Maternity leave, per se, had been an understated joy. “Mourning Becomes Electra” was Tricia’s private catchphrase; the play’s title (its plot misremembered) somehow stood for this interlude of beatific grief that made her savor sorrow in the midst of blissful nurturing. Nothing in her thirty-eight years of life was comparable to motherhood; not accomplishments, laurels, or barriers overcome, not even her love for Peter and the throes that had bred their child—who must have been conceived, cliché though it was, on the randy couple’s wedding night, when Tricia, an ‘old maid schoolmarm,’ surrendered her virginity to him who thought it wondrous that his bedded bride should bleed, hemorrhage, truth be told, as borne out by the sheets which testified more to slaughter than to ardor after a painful crime of passion. Why she had not whispered “You’re my first” or hollered “STOP” when he mistook her ruptured hymen for lustiness unleashed, spoke to Tricia’s embarrassment at being inexperienced. The noises she had uttered, the expressions on her face, the movements of her body, while Peter mouthed and mauled her, imitated those she had only known through films whose screenplays (rated “R”) wrote the script her nuptial antics aped. Peter, as a result (blood notwithstanding) misconstrued her pangs as amorous exhortations, petitioning him for MORE (his own performance never to repeat this fierce initiation).

But something went awry once mother and offspring bonded. The child who had shown vast promise, sadly month-by-month reneged; like phases of the moon, Brick’s glimmer waxed then waned, her intelligence gone from full to a disappointing crescent, a sliver scarcely visible through eyes that slept and slept, their lids disposed to shutting out some woe that Tricia could not fathom.

Listlessness infected Brick like a virulent disease, resistant to every remedy her mother and doctor tried. Neither drugs nor natural stimulants lifted the veil of her interminable torpor—which, unbeknownst to everyone concerned, was a woozy-witted guise; Brick, while ‘appearing’ idle, was steeped in perspicacity.

 Department of Defense

In an age predating genome therapies, what was known versus what was done relied upon opportunity; Peter Truesdale-Everson’s came knocking in two-thousand-eight when recruited by a governmental agency charged with ‘coaxing’ dastardly plots from so-called enemy combatants—a captive population providing the impetus for no-holds-barred research. “Hush-hush,” “mum’s-the-word,” “the secretary will disavow any knowledge of…” and provisos to that effect, buffered those in uniform from civilian interference, from moralistic scrutiny, from conscientious qualms, and from future prosecution should the general public get wind of opprobrious experiments reminiscent of Nazi Germany—not that the U S A would ever stoop to Mengele-Era war crimes; of this much Peter had assured himself, post interview, while awaiting final clearance. He would be deployed “to guarantee the health” of hapless detainees.

 Falsehoods

WHO CHOPPED DOWN THE CHERRY TREE?

“Another conference, dear?”

“Another overture; the natives, they be restless.”

Headhunters had hounded Peter throughout his illustrious career. Lately, when one homed in, he dutifully told his spouse; truth in all things public, private, and professional had been solemnized by their vows. Uncle Sam, however, subscribed to a different ethic. The fact that Peter was married worked in his favor; husbands were more reliable. The fact that Tricia was his confidante worked against him; no one must be told. Duplicity, consequently, lurked on Peter’s horizon. How square patriotic service with conjugal devotion? ‘Deny, deny, deny’ was a tactic to be spurned. Therefore, while he could, Peter refrained from ‘unmitigated’ falsehoods.

Tricia, trusting by nature, at this stage failed to probe—caught off guard by nausea leading her to kneel before their Standard Brands commode as her breakfast formed a vortex the toilet bowl churned then swallowed. Gestation, proving impatient, had commenced by honeymoon’s end; Brick, no bigger than a tadpole, had made her presence known.

Tadpole

“Do you think she might be pregnant, Scraps?”

The pooch was apt to know; pheromones (parts per million) that his dog’s snout could detect put Peter’s schnoz to shame; if Tricia’s scent had changed, even minutely, Scraps would get wind of it… though the mutt could not communicate said perceptiveness; instead he wagged his tail—an answer so ambiguous it functioned as a shrug.

Eliciting Scraps’ reply bore similarities to challenges at work where Peter tried to ‘extract’ actionable intelligence, where breakthroughs were applauded but kept well-concealed; a thickening cloud of secrecy overcast his exploits. Spirited to the Naval Base on Castro’s vilified isle, Peter soon grew adept at disseminating ‘falsehoods,’ not only duping his wife; he deceived himself, as well.

Medieval were the governmental methods for extorting information. “Enhanced interrogation” was military-speak for thumbscrews. And thumbscrews, to a neurologist, Peter argued, were tools of The Inquisition. To cross-examine any 21st century terrorist required the expertise of a scientist, and few had better credentials than Dr. Truesdale-Everson—or so determined the brass when staffing GITMO LAB INCORPORATED, a subterranean compound that “DOES NOT EXIST” (nor would it ever exist; the ICC be damned).

 BlindBoobs.com

BLIND BOOBS

One virtue of early Internet porn was its ‘hygienic anonymity’—in effect, two virtues—multiplied by how ever many oglers at any given time logged on, each of whom used a pseudonym, as did “Blind Boobs” (Jean Graves’ nom de guerre) and each of whom was exposed to nothing more contagious then viral advertising… the payoff being squeaky-clean, incognito licentiousness. Blind Boobs took suggestions from her throng of enthusiasts, many of whom were regulars (George Black included), addicted devotees who paid to watch their fantasies religiously enacted. ‘Rub that here’; ‘insert that there’; ‘broadcast when you’re coming.’ Blind Boobs, like a priestess, would perform submitted rites by faithfully reproducing her congregation’s whims, elevating vulgarity to heights of sensual artistry. The lure, beyond an array of exceedingly lewd devices, was utter fascination aroused by Blind Boobs’ tits, whose nipples, though protuberant, were virtually invisible; their color matched the surrounding flesh like camouflage, creating an illusion of eyes devoid of irises—except (and this proved pivotal) when their centers jointly blushed in rubicund response to charismatic orgasms—none of which, in deference to Aphrodite, did Blind Boobs ever fake.

In deference to Narcissus, Jean Graves pleased herself, selecting from a myriad of wanton provocations only those which suited her, which tickled her naughty fancy or fondled blue desires with devil-may-care audacity. Urges—titillating to primal—might occupy her mind, cajole and/or coerce her into sexy Miss Behavior. It was this mélange of prompts that broadened her appeal and drummed up diverse customers with hits from every continent; she was theirs uncensored, theirs Xclusively; the aura she projected, like a macrocosmic egg, admitted one mate only during ‘solitary’ sessions; the signed-in horde of those competing for attention was comprised of men convinced that they alone had scored.

“Bee-Bee,” she was dubbed for short (few idolaters were comfortable addressing Jean as “Blindy”) had one inviolable rule: NEVER BREAK THE FOURTH WALL, meaning never cross the barrier between performer and audience. Viewers were acknowledged, with respect to accepting input. Compliments were invited, when they took the form of tips. But a date with any patron, be he silver-tongued as Satan, be he tempting as Adonis, was a non-negotiable “nope.” George and Jean did not get together by breaching this restriction; theirs had been a meeting wholly serendipitous.

 Homo Erectus

HOMO ERECTUS

A propeller airplane, a pig with wings, a palm tree, a teapot, a dragonfly, each one similar in scale, none likely to be ingested, all made of parti-colored plastic, bobbed with lithe deceleration following the shock from Brick’s dispirited swipe. Supine, as enforced by her intractable anatomy, naked, due to nearby preparations for a routine change of diaper, cranky, by default, having tried to stand for the umpteenth time and failed, Brick retreated into what was misdiagnosed: “evanescent lassitude”—a “temporary state,” her pediatrician vouchsafed, that soon would be outgrown.

(WHEN?!)

Despite appearances, Brick could name the aforementioned playthings bobbing overhead, the mobile less a stimulant, more a trance-inducing fixture in her crib-framed ‘panorama.’ BOREDOM was the malady such constricted vistas visited upon… an invalid, essentially, with an infantile physique, whose growth rate was retarded—as measured mostly by Brick for whom all physical progress proceeded at a snail’s pace. How engage a brain’s accelerated faculties in a body prone to trudge?

Once again Brick strived to rally limbs that heretofore had let her down, kept her down, confined her aspirations to a virtual prison, its bars affording handles nonetheless, its mattress squashy yet supporting Brick’s two feet, well-spaced, planted with an aim to be foundations for the posture she was itching to achieve should legs and arms comply, for once, by working in conjunction with her purposeful commands, overcoming gravity while sustaining equilibrium to attain AN UPRIGHT STANCE… as Tricia turned from laundry basket to penned-in bassinet and gaped with disbelief! Could this proclaim The End to her daughter’s chronic lethargy?

Like a crippled Evangelical buoyed by faith and faith alone, the triumphant tot collapsed.

(Nice try, Noodle Knees. What did you expect from loosey-goosey joints?)

Stymied by dissatisfaction, Brick resigned herself to monotonous disability, said tedium reinforced by a humdrum liquid diet—mistaken by her mother as a consummate reward for any and every sign that Brick was not a dunce.

Hoisted from her bed (of shame), diaper change on hold, Brick, with Tricia’s bust, was (grudgingly) reunited (meat and mashed potatoes grown evermore remote), colic in the offing thanks to an early ill-timed onset of lactose intolerance.

Hush pretty baby don’t you cry

Momma’s gonna sing you a lullaby

And if my voice can’t make you grin

Momma’s gonna give you a teething ring

And if that teething ring won’t serve

Momma’s gonna buy you a mockingbird

And if that mockingbird flies north

Momma’s gonna play you a tuning fork

And if that tuning fork goes mute

Momma’s gonna knit you a birthday suit

And if that birthday suit gets torn

Momma’s gonna catch you a unicorn

And if that unicorn escapes

Momma’s gonna cook you a rib eye steak

And if that rib eye steak turns cold

Momma’s gonna find you a princely toad

And if that princely toad should croak

Momma’s gonna…

Sleep dispersed nonsensical lines of Tricia’s soothing song, with its not-quite rhymes and off-key notes pursuing diverse tangents, Brick’s imagination left chasing broken kite strings.

 SPC(I)A

SPC(I)A

Of military significance were programmable devices that could interact directly with a human being’s brain. Peter Truesdale-Everson, having engineered a prototype employing pluripotent stem cells to circumvent rejection, was clearly on the path to creating some such gizmo, hence his fast-track clearance as a DoD recruit… who frankly was appalled by practices at Guantanamo, if utterly impressed with its “nonexistent” Lab where money was no object, where ends superseded means, and where getting to and from was like a cloak-and-dagger drama.

“Days, weeks, months, years, what kind of ‘stint’ are we talking about, Peter, and why on such short notice?”

 “‘Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what…’”

“Bullshit. Since when have you been wrapped in the Red-White-&-Blue?”

At issue was transparency; what to confide, what to keep concealed. The (surreptitious) San Jose to Cuba to San Jose shuttle was wearing rather thin, its requisite prevarications challenging credulity; lectures and conventions could only go so far in explaining Peter’s often-protracted absences. With Brick already ‘in the oven’ and Tricia’s belly primed to bloat, her breasts increasingly tender and her nature-nurture hormones vying with career, Daddy’s role was not to be fulfilled by remote control.

“Bad timing, Peter. It’s not like we’re at war and the nation…”

“We are at war.”

“The ‘War on Terror’? Give me a frickin’ break. Dick & Company cooked that up to legitimize imperialism. You’re the UC Radi-CAL graduate; what would your leftist school pals think of pledging blind allegiance?”

Telling lies consistently was a one-way proposition; detours from the truth compounded deviations. Peter’s purported patriotism, at first a convenient ploy, subsequently morphed into something close to genuine, with loyalty, much like Faith, suspending his objectivity. Homeland, Motherland, Fatherland—right or wrong—obliged ones staunch defense. Enemies, once identified, neither warranted any quarter nor merited, in captivity, merciful ‘conventions.’ Working through “the dark side” was how this got expressed, a stratagem that condoned suspect behavior.

‘God is on our side’ Peter nearly remonstrated, the oath his induction mandated still ringing in his ears. Not the Hippocratic Oath (construed as ‘do no harm’) by which he was not bound, in any case, as a clinical psychologist, but rather the Oath of Silence his governmental boss exacted through a pledge endorsed by The Man Upstairs Himself (Church and State inseparable, in America, 1st Amendment notwithstanding).

Revelations about his new employer might constitute a breach, if Peter were so rash at to offer more specifics. Already he felt taxed to disavow his lapse, or at least to minimize its consequences.

“Uncle Sam is a spendthrift, Trish; he’s forgiving half our loans.”

This retort, though plausible (the pair bore heaps of student debt) failed to bridge the gap between spousal and civic duty. What could be so pressing that Uncle could not wait?

“Which three letters hired you, dear; or aren’t you allowed to tell?”

“Letters? Oh; the EPA—whose project is benign. Proprietary, granted; I can’t disclose particulars, but nothing so covert it brings to bear state-secrets. Trust me; I’ll be home well before your due date.”

[Of the many promises made and broken, this one proved irreparable; Peter’s forecast arrival made Godot’s appear ‘postponed’; Tricia would give birth as a hopeless widow.]

Peter, while extant, had problems of his own. Dishonesty aside, the task at hand chafed ethics. Cruelty to combatants was arguably condonable. Cruelty to canines was indisputably vile. In all his years of research he had spurned the use of specimens, unless prospective benefits helped the specimens themselves. Mice, in other words, ought to suffer solely for their comrades, and only, Peter averred, with ‘informed consent,’ which mice, of course, could hardly give considering they were ‘dumb,’ as animals were in general thus none should be abused. From chimpanzees to fruit flies creatures were inviolable, meaning “none should be maltreated for another species’ betterment,” went Peter’s quirky reasoning, putting him at loggerheads with peers and superiors alike. The fact that there were dogs at Gitmomost deployed to guard but some set aside for use as experimental subjectsprecipitated the worst of Peter’s rabid rows. Quixotically, this dispute would somewhat clear his troubled conscience; dogs, henceforth, were spared; detainees were not.

 The Wedge

‘GHOSTAL’ FOG

“Hey, Bud; ready for a spin? Dad is about to go on his foggy-woggy workout.” George, with running shoes in hand, awakened his pintsize Einstein. Jack, cheek flush against his reconfigured crib (its “sissy” bars removed at their inmate’s instigation) eyed his father woozily then nodded with his brows. “Dress; I’ll get The Wedge. Meet, in five, out front.”

The Wedge was a three-wheeled stroller made for joggers blessed with burdens they could push while keeping fit on jaunts through city streets and any of several parks—the Golden Gate, in George’s instance, stretching 50+ blocks Panhandle to Pacific. Round trip took an hour and twenty minutes, weather regardless. “You will not rust; you will not melt,” a fellow runner once had coached when George blamed his fickle regimen on San Francisco’s rainy season. Since then, George, like clockwork, ran three miles every other weekday, and eleven miles on alternating Saturday or Sunday. Since his offspring’s motherless arrival, George recruited Jack as his designated chum.

Strapped in like a NASCAR driver anticipating green, son awaited father to commence their stop-sign-to-stoplight sprint, breezing down their block with abrupt acceleration—rarely ill-advised by early morning traffic, nary a car in sight at 6AM on weekends, this, the Sabbath, also clear of people on streets devoid of vehicles… except for The Wedge, spearing through pea-soup mist en route to a tree-lined pathway that wound round trunks so massive ‘they might have housed Peter Pan’s band,’ imagined Jack, as they sped past eucalyptus, condensation drizzling from the canopy overhead, dappling the leaf-strewn pavement with aromatic shadows, lending the tires adhesion as they picked up spindly twigs, a few of which littered the coverlet inside Jack’s snug compartment, safe and dry and warm against the elements Dad braved heroically, hood retracted to allow a backward glimpse at the engine propelling them, huffing, puffing, pores perspiring profusely in aptly labeled “sweats,” long-sleeved T-shirt with cotton pants to match a murk-pervasive gray, darkened here and there perforce absorbing the exertion he who set their pace maintained as ghosts ahead appeared then disappeared in the haze left behind, which brightened shade by shade from the rising sun’s encroachment, westward ho still dim as the slope toward lands end eased and George’s gait relaxed, settled into an effortless, rhythmical canter by gravity enhanced, by retreating ebb tide lured while the shush of surf grew audible and son with father emerged as from a cloud gone-to-ground now receding in their wake—due East—where dawn advanced to break it into dissipating droplets.

Skirting the giant windmill guarding Queen Wilhelmina’s Garden with Ocean Beach in view, Jack and George approached then angled across the Great Highway to begin their midpoint climb, ending at the Cliff House, or just below it, perched upon a lookout over widespread waves unending… or dropping off at some distant ledge as rendered by cartographers who depicted, in days of yore, fantastic serpents lurking that Jack could almost see when he gazed toward the horizon, squinted at the boundary that divided sky from sea and hid, in its subtle curve, the truth that spoiled the fallacy; earth, both then and now, could boast no frightful edge. A pity, Jack concluded as deduction overruled whimsy and the monster he had conjured sank beneath yon bounding main, bubbles churning the water in its whirlpool-swirling wake, childish dream no match for nuts-and-bolts Reality.

 Vietnam War Helmet

A CONNECTICUT YANKEE

Blind Boobs, once retired, replaced her working-girl persona with that of a would-be housewife in middleclass suburbia… in Tiburon, geographically, on an upscale arm of land extending panoramically into San Francisco Bay—reachable by Golden Gate Bus or Ferry or, for Jean, by Mini Cooper [in lieu of the family Volvo she and George would jointly buy prior to zygote-Jack’s germination and woebegone debut]. To complete her transformation, she dyed her hair pitch black, eyebrows included; though she kept her mons (for nostalgia’s sake) meticulously depilated. [This, plus her ‘purblind’ nipples, would prove to be dead giveaways.]

Gary Archibald Fillmore, like some infamous assassin, went by all three names… except at a certain website where he logged on as “Excalibur”a sword-in-the-stone allusion to chronic impotence he sustained from exposure to Agent Orange while serving in Vietnam. Dumped in huge amounts on crops and commons, on fields and forage to defoliate all it touched from stalks of rice to lowly blades of grass, the chemical called Dioxin left a devastating legacy. Birth defects abounded in areas densely sprayed. Perpetrator and target-population, for decades thenceforth, suffered. Blind Boobs, to Excalibur, became an unsuspecting remedy; if anyone, she could coax his captive weapon from its numb-nuts-anchored sheathe. And to that end, he courted her, showered her with ‘gifts’ (in the form of umpteen ‘likes’), and wooed her with a wealth of clever obfuscations. How else to entice her over dark, uncharted waters? How else to acquaint her with an appetite sunk beneath, prowling through the depths like a solitary predator, hunting for a meal that his psyche could not seize until his body breached the confines of its psychosexual scabbard?

Gary Archibald Fillmore belched and farted blatantly. When he ate he smacked his lips and let the utensils clack against his teeth. After sitting on the pot, he wiped his bottom laxly; all his briefs bore evidence, befouled by umber streaks. Baths he took bi-monthly but not on a rigid schedule. Fungus, between his toes, thrived from gross neglect. Sleeves of his un-pressed dress shirts doubled as ready hankies.

Excalibur, on the contrary, was salubrious to a fault. His online air, if hedonistically earthy, was hygienically genteel, a please-and-thank-you gentleman par excellence.

‘He’s probably older,’ Bee-Bee decided, ‘maybe even elderly, which might explain the quaintness of his requests.’

In private sessions—more lucrative‘The Once and Future King’ (as Jean came to call him) was ‘chivalrously sensual’; his combination of manners and indiscretions aroused her without fail. Of all her site’s outrageous solicitations, those submitted by Excalibur most whetted her libido—the evidence caught on camera when it zoomed in on her lap and focused lust upon lust, onlooker eyes transfixed by voluminous secretions.

In a flashback (while entranced by his PC-accessed ‘damsel’)…

…Gary Archibald Fillmore scanned the DMZ, itching for some gook to stray within his crosshairs, eager to avenge his weeping STD by plugging another stranger—this time with his rifle; he had used his dick, on leave, ramming it to the hilt up a Saigon sweet-tart’s bunghole, reaming what was too petite to accommodate his infuriated prick… incensed by who-could-guess? Certainly not by Ming, who turned to prostitution after a sequence of events found her country overrun by ‘vermin’ misnamed ‘allies’; boys, mostly. Pimples blighted the faces of the soldiers, of the occupiers, of the brothel’s nonstop glut of repulsive clientele. He who bought her currently had skin like a pizza pie, the foreigners’ favorite food, which she had seen but never sampled. If it tasted the way he looked, she would sooner munch on thit cho. Luckily she had been forced onto all fours so he could fuck her from behind; at least she need not watch while he sodomized her fanny, drooled all over her back and pulled her swarthy hair, grabbed her by the throat and squeezed way too hard, hard enough it hurt worse than the wound his thrusts inflicted, hard enough it made her fight for breath; she struggled, kicked, then flailed, until it seemed he wanted to end her miserable existence… when what he truly wanted was ready to occur as Ming’s assaulted sphincter, with a final spasm, seized and consequently nursed the spurt that wrenched the grip that snapped the neck that took the life of an underprivileged whore at the behest of Gary Archibald Fillmore, Private Second-Class, his pending discharge “honorable,” his current discharge base.

Ah, if only he could return to war-torn Vietnam where crimes went un-rebuked and deaths went unreported (Ming’s no more than a shrug in the greater conflict’s scheme, sex and violence paired like ordinary bedfellows) maybe his lost virility, at last, would be restored. This, his fervent wish, was the fuel that fed said plot to seek, discover, and destroy the pay-per-view ‘phenomenon’ who flaunted her tits and pubes, exposed them to naked eyes of any and all ‘tuned in’ with noses mashed against their monitors like specimens under glass, desperate to engage the palpitating falsehoods that broke their promise every time desire, by a flatbed screen, was foiled. How he longed to stab her, to insert his bayonet, to annihilate every orifice, and, by doing so to defy the diagnosis “erectile dysfunction” which labeled him a “eunuch” in the sight of virile men—the only source of opinion worth more than a tinker’s damn to Blind Boobs’ long-range stalker… East Coast presupposing West Coast as the origin of these cockteaser broadcasts… Hartford anticipating Larkspur as the locus for investigations launched… by Gary Archibald Fillmore, tracing the website’s server, its hostess yet unveiled.

Chrysler

However, by the time initiative overcame inertia, dub-dub-dub-dot-blind-boobs-dot-com was nowhere to found—in cyberspace—thus complicating the mission on which Gary Archibald Fillmore embarked when his id contracted abject hatred through exposure to betrayal and the cure he sought got coupled with revenge for Bee-Bee’s terse departure. If fury hath no bounds when stoked by a breach of fervent faith, Blind Boobs’ horny followers were understandably galled, none with more malevolence than him whose disappointment drove him to distraction… then to California in a 1971 Chrysler (bought new when relieved of duty) that barely made the trip, chugging on four of six cylinders into downtown San Anselmo where (after thirty-six years of service) it lurched to a stop and died… close… within striking distance… slender leads pursued… clue by clue reduced to the one he thought least likely… it, too, come-a-cropper as his lack of luck prevailed.

Modesty

Meanwhile Jean Graves, unaware of her nemesis, cultivated modesty. Always a sexy dresser, she toned down her wardrobe. Cleavage, formerly her invitation to oglers, was scrupulously draped. Calves and thighs hid their shapeliness in slacks as opposed to short-shorts. Buttocks, albeit bulbous, betrayed no skimpy panty line. Waist, sans belt to define its hourglass curves, repelled improper glances. All in all, when Jean was standing still, she attracted few admirers. But when Jean was seen in motion, she turned heads left and right—most noteworthy of these was that of an independent contractor she engaged to build a native-redwood sundeck for her swanky condominium.

Surrogate 

Enter George—future father of Jack and husband of Jean (Bee-Bee) Graves—who likewise felt the pinch from Blind Boob’s curt farewell, her sudden absence from the internet a smut-junkie’s downer. Not that George Black needed a sexual surrogate to satisfy offline cravings. Handsome, built like an athlete, tall, and gainfully self-employed, George was considered “a catch” by women he encountered, many of whom made it inescapably clear they were his for the asking…

 Pelican

…None of whom compared, in the widower’s mind, to his inexistent wife, whose child now took her place as George’s scaled-down soul mate, their Sunday morning outing poised for its second leg.

 “Wally?”

Seated on a rock—overlooking the selfsame scene as viewed by jogger and passenger—was a man dressed totally in white, holding a sketchpad, on which he had drawn something hurriedly. Jack, though eager to steal a peek, was restrained by The Wedge’s harness. George, intrigued by the senior citizen’s ‘resurrection,’ shook the proffered hand then tendered a heartfelt hug.

“I thought…”

“I’d kicked the bucket; your expression made that clear.”

Wally, ever observant, appraised with artist’s eyes, their shade of azure mirrored by a break in the overhead fogbank, crow’s-feet at their corners etched as deeply as the laugh lines that creased a face both wizened and “Forever 21,” its nut-brown, indigent’s tan burnished by the great outdoors, where Wally mostly lived, though he rented a small apartment funded by ever-so-humble proceeds from selling his pen-and-inks plus checks from SSI. The outfit he wore daily was a one-piece pantsuit smock of the type intended to protect clothes worn underneath. Wally wore nothing underneath; no boxer shorts, no long johns. What he valued most in apparel was simplicity, and a prevalence of pockets. His were chockfull of pens, the fine-art variety manufactured by Staedtler therefore expensive, the old man’s sole extravagance—excluding his eccentricities which earned him “crazy pay” from the Department of Social Services. What ‘normal’ folk might regard as ‘a trifle odd’ or ‘idiosyncratic,’ Wally would attribute to routine behavior. If the government deigned to bestow a monthly stipend for his upkeep (convinced it cost much less than the psych ward at Napa State Hospital), who was he to look a gift horse in the mouth (?), especially when, to qualify, he need only act naturally i.e. blithely unconcerned whenever eyebrows might be raised or fingers spun counterclockwise to comment on his sanity. George, who had witnessed Wally’s antics up close and from afar, who once shared lunch with ‘the lunatic’ after watching him dance a jig (this near a Sunset District jobsite), judged him not at all and thus enjoyed his offbeat company.

Shifting his gaze toward Jack, Wally showed the lad his sketch.

“Cool,” was Jack’s response to the bird-in-flight rendering.

“Shadows of the pelicans,

Are Gods to the little fishes,”

was the old salt’s sage reply; or an overture made toward someone he could almost swear he recognized.

“You can’t glide just above the sea

Catch a big fish so ea-si-ly

In a beak so unique it could swallow even me

But a peli-can,”

added George playfully to the pen-and-ink’s critique, impressed that so few strokes had captured the essence of a creature on-the-wing, its pinion feathers spread like separated fingers…

…that Jack imagined rippling in a steady offshore breeze, the drawing’s graceful lines, for a magic moment, animated, lifting from the page to soar, to reach a birds-eye peak, then to dive like an avian harpoon executing splashdown… coming up with a bill-full of gills and wiggle-waggle tail of scales that shimmered like iridescent sequins in the newly-risen sunshine.

This reverie, albeit fleeting, was nonetheless discerned; Wally arched a brow at the visionary youngster, who returned the elder’s scrutiny with a perspicacious glint.

“Bight lad,” Wally commented, “must take after his mom.”

George, accepting this jibe in the spirit it was intended, conceded the point with a self-effacing smile.

“Sharp as a tack, is Jack. Lord knows, the credit can’t be mine.”

“How is Jean, by the bye? I’ve seen neither hide nor hair of her since you two got hitched.”

As if the fogbank staged a comeback, George’s aura dimmed, his sunny disposition suddenly grown somber, his joie de vivre eclipsed by an ill-tempered memory… of waiting… in a Waiting Room… designed to numb those waiting… to anesthetize their worry and sedate their desperation… to distract them from anxiety by boring them to tears, suspending their distress while putting life on standby… until he or she, being tended sight unseen, could be snatched from the jaws of death and wheeled from the Emergency to the Recovery Room. Jean, instead, was delivered to the Morgue, her baby to the Nursery… where George (reluctantly) beheld his bawling son horribly out-of-context. To be inside or alongside his mother were the only fitting frameworks for a hale-and-hearty issuewho was meager consolation for the tragedy survived, an insufficient replacement for a wife, exhilarating lover, and true-blue friend combined in one incomparable, irreplaceable package. Women were not interchangeable, George understood, on the eve of his helpmate’s passing, prior to which his bachelorhood had been woefully misinformed. “Any port in a storm,” any portal to induct his purple prick had been the premise in support of erstwhile promiscuity… of which Blind Boobs, in the end, had thoroughly disabused him… converting mild fixation into full-blown obsession, whereby virtual world with real worldBee-Bee with Jean—momentously converged… an unforgettable twinkling among George Black’s epiphanies… recommending his character to the elderly man in white, who patiently interpreted this lengthy, pregnant pause, knowing, before the words, that Jean, alas, had perished.

Wally, placing his palm over George’s nearest shoulder, sensed through physical contact the mortal wound within, drawing conclusions the bereaved had not yet drawn himself. Jean, he surmised, was dead, but not by mere accident; someone had intended for her to die. Furthermore, she expired en route to the hospital wherein Jack alone was rescued. These facts were intuited; others were suppressed when Wally felt a tug at the fabric of his coveralls. Jack, eyes flashing firebrands, was warning him not to tell.

“In childbirth, was it?” Wally asked, attuned to the toddler’s caution (as Jack adjudged it safe to release his furtive grip).

“Yes and no,” George answered, with a back-to-the-present shudder. “Jack was born shortly after Jean was admitted—with injuries from a car crash.”

“She was driving?”

“She was a pedestrian, walking in a crosswalk!” George could not conceal his reservoir of bitterness; the vernacular phrase “shit happens” unluckily applied. Senseless, random, a cruel quirk of fate explained all too inadequately why he was left a widower and his son a motherless child. Death, in the natural order of things, was ‘maybe’ comprehensible. Death because of a fluke, because of a van with faulty brakes, could only be construed as ‘tragically irrational.’ Beyond that, George was ill-prepared to venture, as Jack’s alarm implied. “Mind if we change the subject?” George suggested, feeling odd, suspecting Wally was somehow privy to relevant information, whether by extrasensory perception or by virtue of being nuts, neither instance sufficient grounds for letting the eccentric geezer pry.

“Not at all; my condolences to you and your little boy.”

“We’ll be shoving off, I guess. Glad to see you’re still numbered among the living.”

“Wait. Before you go…” Wally detached his sketch from the spiral binding of its 5-by-7-inch pad. “…Here,” he handed it to Jack. “Think of me whenever your fledgling genius finally gets airborne.”

With that inscrutable sendoff, father and son departed, the former puzzled, the latter fully conscious of Wally’s pending import; Jack had met his Wizard; the Wizard had met his ward; together the two would fashion Generation Next.

ScrapsReturns

THE PRODIGAL POOCH RETURNS 

Goofy expression notwithstanding, Scraps possessed intelligence, bracketed, true, rather tightly by his canine limitations, but smart within those strictures and wholly devoted to Brick… once his snout informed him of all the dog need know, that Briana Kimberly Everson-Truesdale was a Truesdale through and through, a genuine Peter Truesdale, if genetically diluted. Worshipping part of a master was better than worshipping none at all; Scraps ‘increased’ his devotedness, accepting Brick in toto as a sacrosanct composite—much like believers in Jesus accepted the quirk of Trinity. Apt analogy, this, insofar as Brick was a threesome: one part Peter, one part Patricia, and one part anybody’s guess—even Scraps had sniffed and sniffed and sniffed but could not put a face on the enigmatic third, its presence as insubstantial as the Holy Spirit.

Parked beside Brick’s crib (absent its overhanging mobile, demolished by the toddler in a recent fit of pique)—Scraps observed the infant’s dream-inveigled eyes moiling under spindly veins pronounced in either lid, actively engaged, slumber irrespective, in watching something troubling, if Scraps discerned aright, and from which he felt duty-bound to save her but dared not risk rebuke (or worse yet banishment-to-the-basement) by barking an alarm. Instead, he whimpered softly… saddened by trauma he could sense… but could neither ease nor stop by setting upon its agents to tear their throats asunder.

Of what might one so young and inexperienced fabricate a nightmare that caused her features to register, albeit subtly, such terrible distress?

Brick could barely breathe. She heard the rush of running water. She could feel it soaking through fabric from which her face could not escape; her arms and legs were similarly helpless when she struggled to deploy them in defense against whatever force was bent on her sodden suffocation. She could not talk—confess, denounce, dissuade—whoever held her hostage. Every effort to steal a gulp of air was mercilessly doused. And yet she heard a sound beyond her gasping desperation, unleashed in a HOWL cathartic and forlorn, inhuman yet compassionate when compared to her tormentors, from whom her soul was rescued thanks to the racket that jolted her awake.

“What on earth is all this ruckus? Scraps, hush up! Bad dog! Get OUT!”

Tricia, roused from her first good-night’s-sleep in months, ushered Scraps to the basement, then returned to soothe her child—terrorized, evidently, by the stupid mongrel’s bay. How that mutt survived his twelve-month-long desertion (?), abduction (?), hiatus (?)…Scraps’ absence went unexplained…was a wonder. And why she had taken him in rather than straight to the pound was equally inscrutable. He did, however, have a mollifying effect on her daughter’s awful temper tantrums, a newly-surfaced behavior that Tricia hoped the dedicated mutt might tame. Another extenuating factor was rank sentimentality; Scraps’ return was tantamount to Peter’s resurrection, in that something he once loved had come back to life—or such as the poor beast was when he showed up lame, crawling with fleas, and high-heaven funky, a similar state evidently to the one in which Peter first found him, the story often told to prey upon Tricia’s sympathy. Dogs would be alright if they were less unsanitary: their muzzles chronically stuck up bitches’ butts, their legs habitually lifted to piss on likely lampposts, their tails routinely raised to evacuate poop, needing scooped, by hand, into eco-friendly baggies; YUK! Yet that which Peter adored inspired, at least, largesse; Tricia would fend for Scraps; Scraps would appease Briana; a family reduced by two would recoup its loss by one…

…who—relegated to the cellar, a musty place full of tools and vintage wine and assorted cleaning supplies and paperback books and dust plus a runaway turtle that Scraps was tempted to eat but, after a sniff, though better of—brooded all by his lonesome, sequestered, alas, from Brick, suspended from active duty and fearing termination. Peter, Scraps remembered, had been kinder, more attentive, and, shortly before his death, inclined to confide.

“Very strange goings-on down there; the Isle of Fidel is creepy. Everything’s off the record, highly restricted, and under heavy lock and key; it takes me twenty minutes, port to post, before I’ve cleared security. Smuggling anything in—or out—would tax a crackerjack team from Mission Impossible. Unless, of course, you’re exponentially cleverer than the system’s engineers; fooling the uniformed grunts should be relative child’s play.”

Peter pet his pooch’s pate, in conspiratorial mode, the manner he adopted on leave from Guantanamo. Scraps, immune from snitching and/or charges of complicity, played the silent partner, his chops steadfastly sealed.

“Troubling trend is secrecy. Things our government tells us and things that are strictly true are rarely next of kin; hell, they’re scarcely kissing cousins! Especially in the realm of national defense, a catchall clause, of late, that covers pretty much everything from civil disobedience to hunter-killer drones. I’m performing tests, for instance, on so-called enemy combatants—a downgrade of their orthodox status as Prisoners Of War. God knows, they deserve whatever we dish out; assuming they’re all guilty. But that’s the dodgy part; most get sent Directly To Jail without ever passing Go, meaning no one has to be charged, tried, and convicted to be put away indefinitely… making them optimal candidates for experimental purposes.”

Scraps endorsed his master’s ruminations with a steadily wagging tail, content with Peter’s proximity and the mere fact that he was home, lulled by the sound of his voice if slightly disconcerted by its recent change in tone. Since taking these extended trips (to an unfamiliar climate, Scraps noted, when smelling Peter’s luggage) a quaver akin to nervousness affected his master’s speech—‘less confident / more sarcastic,’ Scraps might have remarked, had he possessed the vocabulary. Altered traits he could articulate were conveyed by Peter’s scent which had undergone a radical transformation. Whatever he was doing wherever he was doing it had caused his pores to exude a pungent odor indicative of… fretting; though fretting ‘about precisely what?’ remained undisclosed.

“Barbaric are their sessions of enhanced interrogation. I was shown the worst by way of encouraging ‘expeditious progress toward providing an alternative.’ Whether volunteers or victims, inmates choose to be our guinea pigs by opting either to help us or to undergo the usual. This, in legalese, is ‘advised consent.’ Uncle is very persnickety about the Law; everything we commit is scrupulously legitimized—to stifle litigation, I suspect, if National Security is rejected as a catch-all dodge.”

Resting jowls across Peter’s thigh, Scraps cast him a look devoid of disapproval, imbued with adoration, and unequivocally loyal, a tacit pledge of allegiance in his dewy-eyed expression, a silent affirmation of ‘my master right or wrong.’

“What I hesitate to mention is the project we’ve been working on: chips, implantable chips that can’t be rejected but can be reprogrammed. By neurons, Scraps, by the brain of the chip’s recipient, which then can be debriefed, so to speak, by a simple WI-FI download. Imagine the applications—the implications—for enhancing human intelligence! If we can decode those downloads—a knot we’re close to unraveling—and design a binary interface, or better yet one that mimics the mind’s own connectivity, then Information Technology and people will become one-and-the-same; IT ’Я US.”

Clueless about the crux of Peter’s palpable enthusiasm, Scraps nonetheless discerned its physical effects galvanizing muscles and accelerating the heartbeat of him who waxed prophetic, sitting on his study’s throne, the easy chair of choice where man with his best friend collaborated, where master could divulge what oaths precluded him from sharing, where breakthroughs could be touted, setbacks lamented, and plaudits acknowledged without fear of official reprehension.

Scraps, in exile still, shook himself then scratched, troubled by the impetus of this heavy-handed punishment which somehow failed to jibe with his actual offense, namely barking his anxiety about Brick’s unsettled sleep; many a time he had watched her little features twitch or wince or cringe, the basement’s flickering light bulb likewise making Scraps uneasy, worried lest it quit and plunge him into darkness, of which he was afraid.

As luck would have it, no sooner had he thought-the-thought than the filament fizzled out. Total blackness converted things familiar into horrifying threats. Blindness, instead of heightening his other senses, made them shrink with fear, leaving him defenseless save for his incisors, which might protect him if and when they refrained from lily-livered chattering. How could he pretend, with such a craven disability, to fulfill his role of Brick’s unflinching sentinel? Quailing in this replica of night, nerves unduly fidgety, the disenfranchised pooch remembered something else.

Amniocentesis

Amniocentesis, when performed at home, ad hoc, to screen for birth defects, for gender, and for purposes unspecified, leached a faint aroma that Scraps had detected twice. The first occasion was early-on in Tricia’s trying pregnancy when morning sickness morphed into symptoms more severe, and Peter, fully competent (if uncertified) drew her amniotic fluid for a battery of tests… affording Scraps a whiff of Brick-in-formation. The second time this (un-prescribed) procedure was carried out (with Scraps, alas, marooned outside the expecting-couple’s bedroom) Brick was more conspicuous with regard to her bouquet, which unmistakably changed when the deed (in haste) was done.

It was not long thereafter when everything went awry and Peter’s odd behavior did a tailspin into mania, replete with wild assertions that his work was “all for naught,” that the new administration was “pulling the plug on research,” that documents i.e. whitepapers had been “scheduled to be shredded,” that inmates used in trials were “tagged for liquidation,” and, as if that weren’t enough, the DoD, he alleged, was doubtlessly “on to him.”

Tricia, back at her daughter’s crib-side, fussed with its flannel coverlet. The ‘terrible twos’ had started prematurely. At 18 months of age, Brick behaved, or misbehaved moreover, like someone considerably older. While in other respects she appeared to be stunted, quite possibly retarded. The leap from raising a child of potential genius to a child of dubious potential had left her mother feeling woefully inadequate and ashamed of sundry shortcomings. Nothing Tricia had done to readjust high expectations could counteract disappointment. Guilt, with intermittent bitterness, handicapped her maternity. What had she done wrong, either pre or postpartum, to sabotage Brick’s development? For surely Peter’s genes with hers should have guaranteed a gem… unless, in either ancestry, there was a defect, some hereditary flaw that explained why Brick, despite a few abortive attempts, could not yet walk or talk. Sometimes when Tricia entered unawares the upstairs nursery she had seen her daughter standing. Several times she had overheard what seemed to be a murmur of intelligible speech. But always these encouraging signs proved misleading. At least in her mother’s presence Brick’s growth went un-sustained. Pointedly, Tricia wondered, when doubts and insecurities reached critical mass, and punishment for her failings felt all-the-more deserved, punishment Brick inflicted via SHRIEKS she would emit that could well nigh shatter glass, their earsplitting pitch designed to penetrate walls, disrupt the soundest slumber, and lay unmitigated blame at the feet of those most culpable: Tricia in the moment, Peter in absentia…

…Both must be responsible for UNTOLD TEDIOUS MONTHS of imprisonment in a crib, swaddled in diapers, trapped in a useless body, hopelessly uncoordinated and aggravatingly slow to catch up with wits long-since disengaged from their elementary carapace, practiced if detached from their coochy-coochy shell, focused on the task of establishing connections while checking, now and then, on an undersized physique perchance it might have grown into relative functionality.

Aiming rather than glancing at Tricia’s careworn face, Brick directed a look both startling and incongruous, as she forced her immature vocal chords to utter a request.

“Please don’t make Scraps suffer; he simply tried to help.”

Not ‘Dada,’ ‘Mama,’ or any utterance typical of a baby’s first words; Brick, instead, spoke a sentence, a compound sentence, with clear pronunciation and unmistakable coherence!

Tricia’s nonplussed gape lasted a full fifteen seconds… during which a thorough reassessment of her daughter’s prospects dawned—only to be obscured by another cloud of doubt when Brick, as abruptly, retreated into listless inattention.

“Baby?”

Tricia prodded gently, but Brick was well en route to her soporific sanctuary, afraid to resume her nightmare yet eager to trace its origins—tucked away in the context of her cortex, in the pulp of her pithy brain, like a grain of sand an oyster tries to isolate, to surround with thick concretions, turning alien into constituent, irritant into asset, or such was the ambition of her trifurcated wits, struggling to make whole the factions subdividing her.

Wading toward the deep end of her innermost asylum—the sea in which she floated once, the sanguine submarine fathoms wherein waves surrounded whirlpool-fashion, never making landfall—Brick submerged for yet another sojourn in the realm of troubled sleep…

Hourglass 

…during which she aged… experienced changes in her immature anatomy… length and girth increased by smooth transition as if viewed through time-lapse photography… dull routines of wakefulness skipped while focus held throughout on phases of physiognomy… chubby cheeks and one clenched fist, by the subtly shifting bedclothes, consistently exposed… dimples disappearing, replaced by gaunter angles… sunken knuckles raised in a hand that shed its pudginess… chestnut-brown corona spreading, ebbing, spreading, ebbing as if tugged by lunar tides, lazy curls advancing or retreating over the pillow like a framed animation bordering Brick the baby… Brick the toddler… Brick the preschooler… transitions finally ceasing in the year 2012… wherein Brick reached age 3…

 

 John Muir School

…and her counterpart (coincidentally) turned 5.

Second Grade 

“Jack Black?”

“Present.”

Roll Call - John Muir Elementary School - August –

Mrs. Fong’s Class - Second Grade

Jack, puny by comparison (an intermittent sore point) looked with trepidation at his miscellaneous peers, wondering who among them would launch the first attack, painfully aware that difference spelled hostility, and that his incurred (defense-wise) a serious disadvantage.

“What’s he doing here?” was Buddy Bragg’s first salvo, Buddy being Class Bully and proud of the appellation.

Mrs. Fong’s reply guaranteed Jack’s travail.

“Jack may look like one of your kid brothers and he is a little young, but appearances can be deceiving. Academically, he’s real smart. So make him welcome, everyone. It’s going to be a long, long year.”

This last line, inflected with a tenured sigh, voiced a sentiment Jack would share; the semester seemed unending for a boy declared “real smart.”

Buddy Bragg, with the leer of a famished eaglet, eyed Jack like a rival hatchling.

Radio Flyer 

“He did what?” George asked his son, concerned about sending Jack to public as opposed to private school.

“Not much. Flipped my books, was all. Squirted ketchup in my milk carton. Stuck gum on my locker… Oh, yeah, then he spat from the top floor stairwell and got me on the head.”

“That all happened today?” George waxed incredulous. “What did you do back?”

“Nothing.”

“Nothing?”

“No. He’s a whole lot bigger. And besides he’s emotionally disturbed. Mostly I’m just watching how passivity tends to piss off an aggressor.”

George, having learned that he and Jack reacted differently when confronted by analogous situations, lent an attentive ear.

“What if Buddy-boy escalates his shenanigans and aims to do real harm?”

“Well… I guess I’ll have to figure out how Jesus toughed it out after turning the other cheek. Want me to clear the dishes, Dad?”

The two had finished dinner. Jack enjoyed these ‘debriefings’ is how he characterized his father’s nightly interviews. Neither was inclined to let school come between them. Nor work, on George’s side, about which Jack inquired.

“How’s the porch project coming? Did you settle on a price?”

“They’re dickering. Clients always harp about quality while balking at what it costs. ‘I won’t cut any corners,’ is what I told them, ‘if you weren’t prepared to pay, why take my bid?’ They’ll come around. Or they won’t. I have plenty of work, no matter the recession; knock on wood.”

George had done the cooking; meaning Jack did the cleaning up. Roles would be reversed when the lad grew a little taller. Labor in the household was equitably divided.

“Isn’t that how you met mom; you built her a porch?”

“A deck; a sun porch; yeah, a porch, the kind you lay on to get a tan.”

Privacy had been Jean’s main concern. She had wanted an exclusive view; ‘to see without being seen’ had been spelled out in the specs. Before the structure was finished, she had sought to test its sightlines—during which, unawares, George had glimpsed her in the nude.

How could he not have recognized, after all those sessions, his internet inamorata? True, at first glance she had looked familiar, but the penny failed to drop (like anyone seen out-of-context) until that mesmerizing moment when George beheld her basking, an early morning sun illumining breasts utterly unique with nipples solely indicated by shadows their pert projections cast, stirring George’s groin with so stiff an erection he could scarcely suppress it—while spoiling any chance he might have had of announcing his discovery without seeming crude.

Beating a swift retreat to the condo’s street-side car park, George climbed into the cab of his Dodge Ramcharger truck, yanked his prick from his pants and jerked off then and there—as much to relieve his lust as to clear his head of notions inappropriate. As semen hit the windshield, sanity recouped, and George, with a doleful shudder, understood there was no approach feasible that could turn a one-way online fixation into real-life reciprocity. She who he had known virtually and she who was actually there were no doubt as dissimilar as a pipedream from a smokestack.

Whistling to forewarn his erstwhile heartthrob of her hired hand’s (second) coming, George remounted the steps that led to an unobstructed view of… a deck no longer graced by Jack’s prospective mother.

“It doesn’t help matters much that my voice is a soprano’s,” Jack offered apropos of nothing his father had just revisited—if sensitive to a twinge the reminiscence triggered. Not exactly off limits, references to his dearly-departed mom were sometimes problematic depending upon the chord their casual mention struck; not in Jack but in George, who, on one rare occasion, had broken down and wept.

Shortly after Wally had ‘reappeared,’ as it were, he began to drop by George’s apartment to check on ‘The Prodigy.’ During one such visit, Jean came up in the conversation (overheard by her ‘destined-for-great-things’ son).

“No, she never saw him… I take that back; she did see Jack during an ultrasound scan at the doctor’s office, if that counts.”

Wally had come over early with a thermos full of freshly brewed coffee, expecting to catch George before he left for work (and before Jack got dropped off at Daycare). Whenever Jean was mentioned, Wally noticed, George would twist the wedding band he still wore on his left hand’s ring finger. The motion appeared to be habitual, if subtle—nowhere near as pronounced as a nervous tick, yet conspicuous enough to indicate an area of retroactive trauma, like a once-broken bone during a cold snap will revive an echo-ache. Wally, asking with his eyes, called attention to George’s little quirk.

“Yeah, I keep mine on as a reminder; Jean wears hers in the grave. Cheap; we bought ’em from a street vendor in Berkeley on Telegraph Avenue, then had ’em engraved. Hers reads: ‘Forever dot-dot-dot.’”

A silence arrested George’s voice no sooner had he spoken… which Wally finally interrupted.

“And yours?”

“Huh? Oh. It doesn’t matter; an inside joke. Listen, I’ve gotta boogie, gotta drive Jack to YOU-KNOW-WHERE.” George, intuiting that Jack was somewhere within earshot, cued him to his fate.

“Dad, do I have to? Can’t I hang out with Wally?” was Jack’s artless admission that he, indeed, had been eavesdropping and that YOU-KNOW-WHERE meant the Montessori Preschool with its ‘puerile activities.’

“How’s about I take him there in the wagon? He’ll be late, but the weather’s gorgeous, ideal for a roll ’n stroll.”

Jack emerged from his listening post to accept Wally’s winning offer. A roll ’n stroll meant a ride in the vintage Radio Flyer, which was just as much fun as a spin in the newfangled Wedge. And Wally was prone to making detours any youngster would label irresistible.

“Uncle,” cried George, conceding he was outnumbered and would lose further argument.

Jack got dressed and was out the door before his father’s mind could change. It was after he and Wally departed that George had suffered his lapse… sitting alone in the kitchen… removing the silver ring… holding it at an angle to read the inside inscription: “dot-dot-dot and a day,” acknowledging how that “day” had dragged on interminably and how she who was his soul mate “Forever dot-dot-dot” would nevermore return… whereas Jack did, to get his hat (modeled on Rocky The Flying Squirrel’s) just in time to witness his father, head in hands, crying like a baby.

 San Anselmo Police

Gary Archibald Fillmore thought he had died and gone to Heaven the day he reached California: Northern weather imitating Southern, sunny and warm, no fog, with women dressed in next to nothing everywhere to be seen.

‘Completely clothed, not a stitch one,’…

…was his ogler’s observation from behind the Chrysler’s windshield, this while the vehicle still was serviceable, albeit idling insecurely on the San Anselmo street where every other pedestrian was an eat-your-heart-out centerfold whose flaws Gary’s fancy airbrushed with libidinous enthusiasm, his mind’s-eye rating the features on parade in accordance with their allure.

‘That one; ooh, how I would love to gnaw her snatch; X!

‘That one; Christ, great jugs; I’d suck so hard they’d bleed; R!

‘That one; Holy Shit, she’s got an appetizing tail; triple X! I’d…’

“Move.”

A local cop, having pulled up parallel in her high-tech-loaded squad car…

‘Spotted my out-of-state plates, no doubt; itching to fund her local P.A.L.’

…had issued Gary an order he was primed to disobey, coming as it had…

‘…from a piece-of-ass in uniform, a Piece Officer whose snotty-nosed authority is too much to take, whose boobs must be like marshmallows squashed by that washboard bulletproof vest, and whose cunt I’d like to ream with the barrel of her sidearm.’

“Sorry, Ma’am; just stopped a minute to admire your town’s swell scenery.”

With a counterfeit salute, Gary Archibald Fillmore complied, cognizant of the trouble police could cause if given the least provocation…

‘…or none at all, when they feel like throwing their weight around, or pulling rank, like a certain “superior,” I recall, in a Red Zone outside Saigon. Correction: Ho Chi Minh City, rechristened after America, tail between her legs, abandoned our sacred mission and lost the goddamn “conflict,” let Charlie waltz right in and make a mockery of us who went to war. For what; for that; for the fucking country to reunite and call itself The “Socialist” Republic of Vietnam, then cap it off by naming a major city after that Red commie gook? I sacrificed my balls to achieve an end like that?

‘Well, not exactly my balls, more like their capacity to produce a decent payload, to manufacture a discharge more than a token of my once-profuse ejaculate, semen that could swamp the deepest throat or flood the biggest pussy, jism so goddamn thick it formed an instantaneous clot wherever it got jettisoned. And oh, the heady pleasure of that bountiful release (!) prolonged for seconds at a time when screwing the right receptacle… when Sergeant Aldo Ryerson finally bought it, got stabbed in the ear with a chopstick driven home by an “ally” he was humping, she who was attempting to protect her teenage daughter from a whole platoon of liberators and got shot for the effrontery… by Private Second-Class Fillmore… who proceeded to claim the spoils… promoted from poking Ryerson’s sloppy-seconds to popping the perfect cherry of a nubile Viet Cong whose strangely neutral nipples made a lifelong impression.’

Decades later, Gary Archibald Fillmore (Second-Class Citizen) would zero in on that conquest’s Anglo-incarnation…

Jean At Distance 

…though Blind Boobs’ extra baggage made her difficult to ID, especially at a distance, waddling across the parking lot of a shopping mall in Tiburon where Gary, backing his rental van from a RESERVED FOR HANDICAPPED space, happened to catch a glimpse of his self-appointed cure-all—who triggered nary a hint of rainbow-recognition, her pot of gold overshadowed by a belly-bulge unsightly, her jet hair framing a face devoid of makeup hence divorced from the looker online; had Jean Black passed by nude she might not have escaped the notice of her persevering stalker, but fully clothed and far away she remained anonymous with inadvertent ease… this time. Next time, when arguably much more vulnerable, Jean would be less lucky.

 Toddler Brick

Daycare was a problem yet unsolved. Expelled from a local preschool (her fit of stentorian SHRIEKS having scandalized grown-ups and peers alike), Brick resumed her life of virtual isolation, while Tricia placed an ad for a live-in au pair; it bore imperfect fruit. Prospects meeting Mother-Sticker’s standards met with Daughter-Deviant’s vetoes. The ‘morons’ Brick (perversely) approved could never pass muster with regard to Tricia’s goal of employing someone sharp enough to instruct her “child savant”a new designation to excuse what most perceived as an antisocial howler; if Brick disfavored, mistrusted, or took exception to any person or persons, woe be unto him, her, or them within condemnatory earshot.

Case in point was Brick’s definitive tantrum at Nursery San Jose, an upscale educational play center in Silicon Valley.

·            Day one: Brick plod immediately to a corner and sat like a meditating monk with her face turned toward the wall. Impervious to wheedling or inveigling, there she stayed, until an hour before closing time when Tricia came to fetch her—relieved that an SOS had not summoned her sooner, if dismayed by Ms. Patel’s report of her daughter’s mute recalcitrance.

·            Day two: found Brick with construction paper and crayon solitarily writing (from right to left and from bottom to top) unidentified characters, filling sheet after sheet, ignoring recess, lunch break, nap time, and any interruption whatsoever. When Ms. Patel tried to dislodge this seeming transcription, Brick menacingly growled. “I’ll never forget that sound,” the teacher recounted later, “it was nothing short of feral.”

·            Day three: cut the cord of Hindi forbearance (afforded by pricy tuition) when water, running in the sink, distracted Brick’s attention (from robotically kneading Play-Doh) and drew her like a lemming (one afraid of heights) to a cliff above the sea where, staring at the steady stream that issued from a single faucet and that echoed its dull percussion in the stainless steel basin, Brick erupted with a YOWL that rivaled Scraps’ when locked too long in the basement. All attempts to calm her met with an instant replay; every attempt to hold her met with fisticuffs nonstop. Tricia’s cell was texted with a message labeled “URGENT.”

Thus interviews commenced with candidates for au pair / nanny / nursemaid / governess conducted in the presence of an ultra-picky child whose verdicts, based on intangibles, were no less stringent than her nitpicking mother’s.

Enter (to the rescue) Rosemary Birchtree, great-great granddaughter of the watercolorist Charles.

For anyone unfamiliar with the work of Charles E. Birchtree, think riotous colors, energetic brushstrokes, and joyous scenes of nature, without the mawkish emphasis of a Pachamama poet. ‘Rose,’ as Rosemary Birchtree asked everyone to call her, inherited much of her great-great grandfather’s zeal—none of his talent, alas, but an eye for the atypical. What Charles could see and paint, Rose could see and appreciate. Moreover, she loved to cultivate the unusual and to help exemplars thrive. Her first impression of Brick was that she lacked motivation or an incentivizing reason to exit her cocoon and to show the world how splendid were her undercover attributes. Rose, like Tricia, believed in Brick’s potential, sensed it immediately, and thereby won over mom. Rose, unlike the high-strung, over-achieving, stressed-out single parent, also sensed that Brick already was accomplished; meaning many of her stunning gifts were fully operational, if concealed by a bland façade of deadpan looks, empty-headed trances, and spiritless inertia. The clue to these clandestine capabilities was the child’s outrageous temper, which Rose found quite hysterical—as in humorous—and thereby won over Brick… though not before being vetted by the enigmatic hothead.

 Dragon Doorknocker

Like a hard drive waiting for software to install, Brick’s mind (registering PAUSE) analyzed Rose peripherally, dispassionately, placing the nanny’s presence between trespass and incidental annoyance but neither here nor there so long as the interloper kept a respectful distance. What Brick detested most about toddlerhood was people presuming to encroach on a little person’s person, a la cheek-pinchers, head-patters, rib-ticklers, and torso-huggers, all of whom incurred her silent wrath, or, when particularly egregious, her patented bloodcurdling SHRIEKS—outcries she repeated sufficiently often to be deemed a tragic trademark.

No fool when faced with a budding iconoclast—hers a heritage that numbered three eccentrics including the paradoxical Charles (initially a wallpaper designer)—Rose realized that Brick had established a perimeter into which one ventured cautiously. She therefore set up boundaries of her own (if considerably less impervious), tempting Brick to breach them by ascribing exclusivity to activities within. Those most irresistible were Rose’s pursuits online, from tracking down, bidding upon, and purchasing antique door knockers (her principal hobby) to taking internet courses (for free) at major universities. Lit up like a gargoyle by her monitor, late at night, Rose would sit for hours with the door to her room ajar, open just enough to afford ‘Ms. Snoop’ an uninvited peek… of which she finally availed herself on the seventh eve of Rose’s (probationary) residence—up to which point Brick had ignored the intruder to whom she would not speak.

“STOP,” was Rose’s injunction as Brick crossed the threshold. “OUT,” Rose ordered from the vanity she had converted into a technological suite, her PC, screen, printer, scanner, fax, and speakers surrounding her like an orchestra’s percussion section. “NOW,” Rose almost snarled as an ominous ultimatum.

Brick, a bit nonplussed by the nanny’s strident tone, if pissed off at being ejected from her own ‘goddamn’ house (expletives already peppering Brick’s covert vocabulary), weighed whether the situation warranted VOCAL disapproval… decided, instead, to glower… and then to beat a tentative (if exasperated) retreat.

Rose intended to exact a quid pro quo, namely Brick, if granted access, would be obliged to reciprocate… employing this elementary strategy, perhaps, too soon… though Brick’s abrupt return looked promising… until she dropped her drawers and peed on the arbitrary borderline… an action greeted, much to the culprit’s surprise, by an unaffected laugh, and, more surprising still, by a mum’s-the-word avowal.

“Okay, point well taken; skedaddle. I promise not to snitch.”

 Frisbee

Scraps was a pooch that chased but he would not fetch; it simply wasn’t in him. A ball, a Frisbee, a stick that he’d pursue, with dogged dedication, remained wherever he caught up to it, intercepted it, or hovered above its landing place. This proved rather pragmatic when taking Scraps for walks; a missile thrown ahead marked ground already gained. Scraps would eagerly await Peter to overtake him, and then dash off in the direction of each successive launch, a game the two were playing when Peter disappeared.

Before that fateful evening, however, pausing at a park-side bench, master and mutt sat adjacent one another for an off-the-record chat.

“Little wonder, Scraps, that the best brains steer clear of working for Uncle Sam. ‘Of the people, by the people, and for the people’ ain’t how the people’s government typically behaves. We, the general public, are treated like outsiders, or like nosy parkers if we’re overly concerned—or like subversives if we beg to differ forcefully. PROPERTY OF THE US GOVERNMENT, RESTRICTED AREA, TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED; have you ever noticed that the elected and their electors are in segregated camps, theirs off limits, ours under constant surveillance by any and all means possible?”

Peter glanced, with unfeigned apprehensiveness, at their immediate surroundings.

“Wonder why I’m muttering even here, outdoors, out of earshot, why my lips are hardly moving and my head’s somewhat inclined? THEY, my dear disciple, are prone to listening in. THEY being my employers, whose suspicions I’ve aroused.”

Peter pet Scraps’ snout, saddled by his knee, drool from the canine’s muzzle dampening khaki Dockers.

“How did I accomplish such a self-defeating feat? By daring to suggest that keeping a citizenry informed is perhaps a better method of fostering our democracy—a sentiment shared by none of my patriotic peers. To them the world’s worst sin is to perpetrate a leak. And I, with my high ideals, was ranked a potential sieve-risk. Jesus, Scraps, swallow, can’t you?”

Peter started to shift from under the drooling jowls, but Scraps looked so contented he opted to brook the slobber.

“My dilemma is where do I stash the clone if I manage to smuggle one stateside?”

Scraps peered up into Peter’s ill-at-ease eyes as though he fathomed this interrogative.

“Yup; I can’t let all that work go totally to waste. If what I think we’ve achieved—which is nothing shy of fabulous—can find its way from lockdown to research labs at large, human evolution may take a giant leap forward. Think of it, Scraps…”

The absurdity of talking shop with a salivating mongrel finally put the brakes on Peter’s revelations. Overwork and stress had partnered to his detriment. Concealing things from Tricia had rubbed his conscience raw. To torture, even by proxy, had confused his moral precepts, committing war crimes ‘nobly’ seeming nonetheless inculpatory. How would the world regard him once the War on Terror was won? And who, in his right mind, posited such an unattainable victory?

The War on Terror, the War on Drugs, the War on Poverty, the War on Cancer… America solved its problems, it occurred to Peter, with a militant mindset, or tried to solve them; successes were virtually nonexistent. “EVERYONE WANTS TO SAVE THE WORLD BUT NOBODY WANTS TO CHANGE,” was a slogan he once saw, probably on a bumper sticker. In light of his ongoing work, the axiom rang true. “Don’t mistake our mission in counterintelligence for licensing your benevolence,” a colleague had admonished when Peter mentioned spinoffs, those wonderfully happy accidents whereby what one strives to achieve produces an unintended benefit… worthy of being shared… meaning shared beyond The Bunker wherein breakthroughs were sequestered and motives were paradoxical—if not downright ignominious; Guantanamo’s very existence was a national disgrace. Expedient, yes; a necessary evil, arguably; an honorable institution of which the country could be proud, definitely not. Subsequent generations might hang their heads in shame were full disclosures ever made about Gitmo’s atrocities—his part progressively problematic, much to the condemnation by his martial-minted colleagues whose mix of Jesus and jingoism struck Peter as offsetting penalties, their contradictions laughable were their upshots less lethal.

‘Lighten up,’ had been Peter’s subtext when initially recruited—confronted by spit-and-polish policies, regimental codes, and lantern-jawed personalities to whom any unconventional brightness was almost an affront. But like a white boy schooled in East Palo Alto, Peter, not the prevailing culture, underwent a change, whereby fun succumbed to sobriety, joy to contrition, and brainstorms brewed despair, where detours from ‘our God-commissioned purpose’ were unilaterally discouraged, where ‘tangents’ went unexplored and mining strategic information was the be-all and end-all of everyone’s endeavor…

“Let’s go, Scraps.”

…planting misinformation the opposite side of that single-minded coin.

Detecting uninvited company, Scraps flicked his hind paw madly at a patch of scruffy fur, attempting to evict whatever might have lodged there.

Peter waited patiently for the scratch to cure the itch.

“I guess we’ll have to declare a War on Fleas.”

 Sex Toy

Of the more provocative contraptions Blind Boobs deployed on camera was a dildo-like device sporting an inflatable (refillable) bladder. Loaded with an opaque liquid simulating semen (Jean used half-and-half slightly thickened by stirring in cornstarch) the ‘scrotum’ would swell to billiard ball dimensions while the ‘shaft’ retained average girth, meaning slender juxtaposed to the awe-inspiring reservoir that emptied (from whence it siphoned) like a fountain pen through its nib, but only under pressure supplied by Bee-Bee’s vulva. Easing this monstrosity through a relatively puny aperture took patience, flexibility, and gobs of K-Y jelly, the process part and parcel of an “Xtra Xhibition” (costing those signed in an Xtra Xorbitant fee), while building Xpectations of a most Xplosive climaX. Ingeniously designed to hold its ‘cum’ upon insertion, and stubbornly retaining it while wielded like a plunger, the bulb released its contents only upon Xit, as Bee-Bee’s nether muscles clamped down hard then squeezed… Xtruding, finally, the goop like toothpaste through a tube. This, in turn, was followed by a zoomed Xamination aimed at Bee-Bee’s pornographically dubbed “cream pie.”

Witnessing these Xploits—from gross inoculation unto sybaritic spasms—was a man admittedly Xcited yet equally amused; George Black laughed from where he sat in robe and slippers at his PC by the Bay, chuckling at the absurdity of Blind Boobs’ surplus discharge, wondering when its flood would ultimately ebb, and curious how she managed such Xcessiveness with glamorous aplomb. Rivals, by comparison, were utterly uncouth, whereas “the babe with see-through nipples” had indisputable style. And he, a blue-collar bachelor, had old-fashioned loyalty.

Tall, well-built, reliably employed, and remarkably unmarried; a smoker never; a drinker in moderation; a sports fan seldom rabid; thirty-five and straight midst a colony of queers (San Francisco’s eligibles, from a non-gay female’s viewpoint, in pitifully short supply), George Black spent spare time and hard-earned money on a woman not-quite-real—beyond her online projection in an eighteen-inch environment of make-believe affection and X-rated fantasies… suggesting something might be missing from at least this one admirer.

Missing was the need to cultivate intimacy (for motives outside sex). George did not subscribe to the imperative “go forth and multiply.” Women wanted lovers, true, but what they truly coveted were studs convertible into spouses. The understated object, even of so-called casual dating, was to screen prospective partners for long-term commitments. George was genuinely disinterested in wedlock and subsequent parenthood. Prostitutes were an option, but they, too, formed attachments. Furthermore, whores retired, when circumstances allowed, then cast their nets accordingly. Married women were available, but they forebode duplicity; besides which George thought ill of bedding unfaithful wives. So, if a catch he was considered (by marriage-minded trawlers) un-caught he would stay. Better to swim in cyberspace where the waters were far less treacherous. Better to frequent Blind Boobs dot com for his weekly feminine fix—enamored, as George was, of features unlike his: breasts instead of pecs, a cunt in lieu of a cock, and cheeks reminiscent of peach fuzz not a five o’clock shadow.

Serial masturbation, then, was George’s surest recourse, safest haven, and sexiest stopgap—when aided and abetted by Jean Graves’ alter ego…

Leaked

…who, at the moment, failed to wipe what leaked from her photogenic crotch…

 

Tourniquet

…reminding someone else logged on of bygone prowess (lapsed), his selective memory endorsing the (clearly incredible) spectacle; Gary Archibald Fillmore, prick in hand, revisited his delusion of ‘pumping pints of spunk into a pressure-cooker snatch’ whose pounds-per-inch Xtracted jets of jism like blood above a tourniquet. “Coming, Bee-Bee, coming, coming…,” Gary croaked self-encouragement, the veins of strain pronounced more in his neck than in his lubricated schlong, action of his fist and forearm frantic when juxtaposed to the languid pleasure Bee-Bee coaxed from labia growing slack, ecstatic jolts diminished to a warm electric buzz that sent concentric currents from her satiated pith to tips of tits grown flushed like roseate barometers…

Milk

…George, taking note of this phenomenon whereby nipples grew pronounced and visibly hotter than the global lobes they crowned, yearned (with equal poignancy) to suck and taste them both, indulge in an infant’s need with a grownup’s bashful passion to extract some milk of kindness in lieu of actual sustenance, to nurse at the risk of betraying an ‘unmanly’ urgeor one infrequently scripted in adult film fare. Why, George often pondered, as the sight of Bee-Bee’s bust proved positively mouthwatering...

Savior

“…coming, Bee-Bee, coming; don’t give up on me; I’m there,” was Gary’s hopeful Xhortation as the fiction of his potency with the friction from his palm (for a fleeting instant) meshed, and Gary Archibald Fillmore sensed a smattering of ejaculate rise in humble recognition of his manhood’s chosen Savior.

Feigning not a second of her orgiastic languor, Blind Boobs put an end to the Triple-X Transmission, which faded out to scarlet (as these peepshows typically closed), hundreds (once a thousand plus) devoted patrons gratified—or inflamed beyond endurance.

Vaseline 

George, among the latter, scooped a dab of Vaseline.

Globule

Gary, among the former, ate his meager output (lest stock go un-replenished and his loins revert to starved).

 Lion Doorknocker

Portals, doorways, entrances, stoops, and steps, being points of entry, presuppose some contrivance for alerting those within to those who want admittance. Raps with knuckles might suffice. Buzzers, bells, and chimes would announce with more formality. Knockers, if old-fashioned, could do the job with elegance. Knockers cast in bronze, the alloy most affordable, were deemed by Rose collectable, and filled an entire locker at Safe Place Storage in lower San Jose. On her current wish list were specimens shaped like critters—as fanciful as griffins, as commonplace as goats—an animal’s head usually comprising the prime configuration. Googling brought up images, which, in turn, bred lots of links. EBay was the likeliest source for turning up prospects. Bidding as a pauper, though, was often discouraging. Rose had maxed out one credit card already in her avid pursuit. Paying in arrears meant nullifying bargains (of which there were too few), and indebtedness further diminished her insubstantial income.

Peering past her elbow to watch what Rose called “going on safari,” Brick (without a word) surveyed assorted beasties (her only utterance, to date, having been a less-than-human SQUEAL emitted in the bathroom when Rose had turned on the shower).

Mortified by her ward’s response to a breach of strict procedure—“Always draw Brick a bath, do it outside of her hearing, and keep the water shallow”—Rose regretted deeply her innocent mistake, vowing never to repeat it (if wondering at the panic it manifestly caused).

Trust had suffered a setback; perhaps Brick’s interest in knockers might signal its resurgence—though Rose’s fascination was not exactly shared. What tweaked Brick’s curiosity (and sponsored her forgiveness) was the PC itself, a box that housed a universe, a window onto a world that welcomed all comers and did not make them wait until they got a little older.

“This is how you scroll,” Rose instructed, shifting Brick’s nearest hand—her left—to the cordless mouse, a move that proved definitive; henceforth Brick would manipulate a mouse, any mouse, with her left hand exclusively, defiantly, belligerently, resisting all attempts to make her conform, insisting similarly upon holding a pen by supporting its barrel between her index and middle fingers instead of between her index finger and thumbher right index and middle fingersand to fend off future critics, her calligraphic elegance became worthy of a scribe.

Meanwhile, Rose’s hand, like a shell, taught its willing captive the art of navigation.

“Double click,” Rose directed; Brick’s dexterity, put into practice, connected teacher, subject, and technology by overlapping nervous systems: Rose’s flesh-and-blood circuitry plus the PC’s whirring hard drive with Brick’s anatomy (tutored as by osmosis) lodged in between: learning, sensing, intuiting, comprehending as though mouse and palm under palm could download reams of information, Brick’s internal wiring sending dispatch after dispatch to her interactive brain—something in its midst singularly compatible.

Rose, suspending contact while relinquishing her chair, allowed the rapt matriculant to assume sole control, marveling at the speed with which Brick picked up commands, startled by the ones she apparently deduced, and positively shocked when she launched a search un-coached.

X t r a o r d i n a r y Brick typed without the ‘e,’ hence Google’s helpful prod “Did you mean: extraordinary?” listing multiple sources as if she had, while Rose reacted like someone watching a toddler perform Bach’s Prelude in Cinterrupted by Tricia’s unannounced intrusion.

“What are you two doing at this ungodly hour? It’s 2 AM, young ladies. Briana, bed. Rose, do what you will, but don’t prevent my daughter from getting a good-night’s sleep; she’s hard enough to handle after forty winks.”

Extinguished like a firefly caught and injudiciously jarred, Brick’s candescent smarts reverted to routine dimness, her enlivened eyes gone listless, her mouse-hand rendered slack, her exit made with a solipsistic trudge indicative of surrender, withdrawing from a box that housed a universe to a box devoid of interest (within which she would molt perchance to sprout a stouter pair of wings).

Torn Pants

Buddy Bragg hated braggarts. Jack Black wasn’t a braggart, not directly; people bragged about him; which was bad enough in Buddy Bragg’s book. Buddy didn’t have a book, per se; that was his father’s expression. It meant you kept a record of nice and nasty stuff done to you. Jack Black hadn’t done anything at all to Buddy, but that was beside the point. The point, the sore point, when Buddy thought of Jack, was how he didn’t fit. Other kids belonged in Mrs. Fong’s second grade class; Black was way too young, way too weak, and way too puny. Buddy could push him around; the sissy never pushed back.

If it was mean to test a person “to see what he was made of” (another of Major Bragg’s expressions), Buddy had to admit he treated Black none-too-kindly, especially when he smeared Super Glue all over the milksop’s seat and it tore a gaping hole exposing Jack Black’s undieslike prying off the top of an Oreo cookie. Pissing off Buddy most about this prank was that his classmates failed to laugh—meaning Buddy couldn’t laugh either for fear of self-incrimination. But picture a kid twisting to look at his holey pants in a room half full of girls; it should have been hysterical. Somehow it was not. What did Buddy have to do, he asked himself, to squelch Black’s popularity?

What did Jack have to do, he asked himself, to get Buddy off his back? Distinctiveness, Jack was learning, made human beings uncomfortable. ‘Natural selection’ was the principle at work; Mrs. Fong had introduced Charles Darwin, the other day, and his theory of evolution—to which Buddy loudly objected, claiming God created everything and Darwin, in the opinion of Buddy’s dad, was the “Devil’s Own Disciple.” Jack therefrom deduced that Buddy represented a truth underscoring the lie; namely Mankind (ethically speaking) was not getting any better; Mankind was surviving. Nonsense, and a penchant for silly beliefs, must enhance human survival, or else natural selection would have favored rationality. Buddy was clearly irrational yet his views were widely held. Buddy also was a brute whose brawn most times prevailed. Evolution, therefore, must be amoral. Good or bad meant surviving or going extinct and had nothing whatsoever to do with right or wrong. Evolution, by natural selection, Jack concluded, would never lead to a world wherein Jesus Christ, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Junior where widely emulated. They were the exceptions; Buddy was the rule, rendering evolution cold comfort, indeed. So, barring Nature’s help, how make human beings better? And how, addressing a challenge more immediate, make Buddy Bragg behave?

Monday Night Football

Wally knew, if not the answer, how to ask illuminating questions. In fact, what he asked was often more instructive than offering pat solutions. His queries often helped refine the search; a question, he described once, was a journey. Arriving at an answer was that journey’s destination. Rewards could well be reaped all along the way.

“What do you imagine, Jack, would make us mortals better, and why is that important?”

The Radio Flyer wagon (now five years later) had been replaced by a 10-speed bicycle that Jack had learned to ride (in his father’s words “the hard way,” meaning mount up, get a preliminary shove, then pedal like mad until you crashed) was parked beside Wally’s Schwinn on one of their truant detours, the route to school having been diverted clear across town onto a dirt path ending at an overlook (more like an under-look) affording fog-erratic views of a bridge named “Golden Gate.” Socked in, at the moment, said icon loomed invisibly.

“Maybe, if we acted less like carnivores?” Jack ventured cautiously, troubled still by survival of the fittest and its vexing implications. (Wally heard the doubt in Jack’s response and awaited more conviction.) “I mean… people do amazing things that other creatures can’t, like building bridges, painting pictures, playing instruments, and writing books… except they also lie, cheat, steal, and kill. Sometimes that’s okay, I guess, in life-and-death situations, but people misbehave without being threatened. Buddy Bragg makes a habit of hurting kids who hardly ever earn what he dishes out.”

“To you in particular?” the wizard asked, though aware it was the case. George, in fact, had mentioned Buddy by name as an ongoing irritant, courting Wally’s opinion on enrolling Jack in a course of Taekwondo.

“Yeah, he picks on me. But he’s just as mean to other kids. And he does it more for sport than for any special reason. That’s how people differ, I suppose; animals do what they do for practical reasons; with people… I don’t know; you never can tell.”

Wally and Jack sat side by side, their feet on the seat of a one-piece picnic table, their buttocks sharing its top with a sprinkling of pine needles. Close, yet obscured by a widow’s veil of fog, was the famous rust-red span, its traffic faintly audible, the grumbling of its girders like a disenchanted troll, biding precious time (while awaiting numbered jumpers who typically faced the city on their suicidal leapstwo per month on averageun-dissuaded by the troll, evidently—or by the Prevention Center warning signs).

“What makes people ‘good,’ in your opinion, Jack: empathy, fear of punishment, the promise of reward?”

Jack had pondered this conundrum when exploring his options: appeal to Buddy Bragg’s social conscience? Report him to the principal? Offer him a bribe? Plots of retaliation also had occurred, less in the martial sense of an eye for an eye, more in the diplomatic sense of imposing some form of sanctions. Leverage was the issue; Jack, with respect to means for applying pressure, was hopelessly deficient. Or so he presumed.

Wally, privy to the fledgling’s vast potential, knew his powers were about to soar.

“And while you’re mulling over shades of motivation, let me tax your wits with this: does believing in something devoutly have any effect on whether or not it’s true?”

Odd that Wally would have introduced a sidetrack Jack already was pursuing, as the fog dispersed in a window overhead like a cobalt-blue skylight. “God created everything,” was the phrase that came to mind. Buddy’s borrowed—bias (?), insight (?)—pointed toward a source, like a solar system’s sun, that generated energy (if somewhat shy of infinite) commensurate with the force required for instigating honest-to-goodness change. But morals needed might, it seemed, or they could not be enforced. Traits, on the other hand—passive or aggressive, detrimental or benign—needed only genes and their stiff competition to dictate behavior… measured without ethics in a dog-eat-dog succession of overlapping cycles… once again cold comfort for those who sought advancement.

“No; truth relies on proof,” Jack finally answered. “Beliefs can be unfounded. Unless you have hard evidence for a belief, isn’t one as good as another?”

“And theories?”

“Can be tested, can’t they? That’s why they’re reliable. Darwin’s has been tested for over a hundred years. According to Mrs. Fong, evolution is scientific fact. When Buddy brought up the Bible, Mrs. Fong asked the class why textbooks got revised almost every other semester. Bradley Heinz said ‘so textbook publishing companies could keep making profits.’ That got a pretty big laugh. But Buddy disagreed. ‘The Word of God,’ he almost shouted, ‘can never be revised!’”

Wally noted the missionary inflection of Jack’s telling quote, and further recognized attributes folks were loath to leave behind, their Faith sustaining resistance to the chance for human progress that Jack, and others like him, would come to represent. Inquisitional zeal had seldom been more rampant, Wally observed, with Islam on the rise competing with its precursors: Muslims vying with Christians vying with Hindus vying with Jews for the epithet MOST COGNITIVELY CHALLENGED. This trend Wally knew less as a Seer than as an artist who paid attention, much in the manner he identified Jack as an ADEPT, one of a population so tiny its influence was negligible, a gene pool so dispersed its propagation was unlikely, a spark so questionably survivable evolution would no doubt snuff it out.

“You realize, Jack, your life will be a tightrope walk over Mankind’s moral chasm. Good and Evil are, but only as we define them. Cultures manufacture myths to visualize their extremes: angels, devils, witches white and black, avatars and goblins, holy ghosts and specters; these depict the symptoms of Humankind’s dichotomy. Would you want that sword to be blunted on one side only, to be sharp on the edge of benevolence, dull on the edge of power where malice lurks to corrode the noblest mettle? Think, Jack; ask yourself what alteration would ensure our species’ betterment, and why is that essential to the likes of you and me?”

Wally spoke as to the fog, his breath commingling with its molecules of moisture, gray into gray, impartial elocution by a neutral air mass swallowed, the ears of his apprentice perked like those of a startled hare.

Jack, contending with childhood and its paucity of experience while equipped with a grown-up word stock he readily exercised, struggled to interpret or to put into practical terms the issue Wally posited.

“You mean, if people somehow tempered their aggression, it maybe could spell the end of Monday Night Football?” Jack hazarded as prospect forecast gloom, his favorite telecast spoiled by a theoretical construct.

Bursting into laughter, Wally literally spanked his knees, gleeful at the happenstance of making Jack’s acquaintance, and honored to exert a modicum of guidance.

“That, dear lad, is putting an old man’s blather into a perspicacious nutshell!”

Stress Position 

To explain Scraps’ agitation in felicitous detail required a language better stocked than English with words akin to smell; aroma, odor, fragrance, perfume, reek, stink, stench, and bouquet come fairly close to exhausting the vocabulary of scent. Scraps, however, owned an organ that could sneer at such a dearth of terminology, capable, as his was, of detecting the finest nuance—if inept when it came to analyzing the essences he sniffed. Apropos was Scraps’ impression that strangers were afoot in the Everson-Truesdale household. Though faint—parts per million of whatever he perceived were far too few to warrant any first-degree alarm—pheromones were in evidence and Scraps had duly tracked them, having followed infinitesimal traces from downstairs to up—intersected by Rose’s door, on the other side of which (betrayed by a draft beneath) intruders were conspicuous… two… unmistakably male… their dual emissions similar, their vestigial sweat unique… neither overpowering, both inclined to wane… then to wax as if emerging from… a closet or some such hiding place… renewing Scraps’ concern for Brick’s imperiled safety—Brick shut in with her nanny, Scraps (thanks to Tricia) shut out—freed too late from doing penance in the creepy-crawly basement.

And what was Scraps’ offense this time? Damned if he could tell. All he had done was roll about on the lawn rubbing off some soapsuds. Humans had no concept of their cleaning products’ fetor. In general, it took DAYS to overcome a bath. Tricia’s emphasis on hygiene was Scraps’ once-weekly hardship. “Bad dog,” “dirty dog,” “filthy goddamn mongrel” were prefaces used to herald either a scrub or a subterranean stint (in the present instance both), consigning him to the cellar and its horrifying spiders.

Finally back at his post—or near enough to rake front paws on the intercepting doorjamb until grudgingly admitted—Scraps was reunited with his ‘PC-centric’ charge.

But where, in Rose’s claustrophobic chamber, were those uninvited guests?

Nowhere, Scraps determined with his non-olfactory senses… yet his nose was drawn instinctively under the nanny’s skimpy skirt, from which emanated clues (fore and aft) of alien aromas, of fluids housed within and seeping in reverse to their wham-bam infusions.

Brick, oblivious to Rose’s cloying residue of dual insemination, as well as to the pooch’s investigatory zeal, concentrated solely on a cavalcade of images that documented graphically abuses at Abu Ghraib, Bagram Airbase, and Guantanamo Bay prisons respectively: hooded figures, naked figures, figures wired with electrodes, bruises inside and out mapping routes of calculated pain, torture warping limbs like twigs scorched by blowtorches.

Rose, a bit distracted by her muzzle-nuzzled privates, tried to sidestep Scraps—who sniffed her front and rear, then shifted his attention (with palpable distress) from the nanny’s coital warmth to her ward’s stark gelidity, goose bumps symptomatic of a sudden drop in temperature that beset Brick’s whole anatomy, as if she, like those on screen, had been stripped, bound, and tormented.

“What on earth… Stop looking at those!” Rose rebuked with harsh concern, disinclined to censor Brick’s pursuits yet frowning upon this one. Rose had a brother in the National Guard whose unit had been sent to Iraq, whose emails were full of patriotic pride in the job he and his were doing there—efforts ‘wrongly’ undermined by ‘over-publicized photos of a few bad apples.’ Sure, young people in uniform, on occasion, misbehaved. But soldiers, for the most part, Rose affirmed, conducted themselves commendably when engaging their country’s enemies on and off the battlefield, waging war in neighborhoods, necessarily, while trying to avert, wherever possible, damages dubbed collateral. Inflicting unintentional death was surely not the same as targeting unarmed civilians, her kid-brother argued, damning suicide bombers while exonerating drones; IEDs were immoral, according to him; shock-and-awe was justified. Rose, if somewhat dubious of ethics applied to combat, nonetheless supported her brother, the troops, and America in general, believing God, invariably, sided with the righteous—if marginally aware of God as a homegrown myth.

Brick, benumbed by (unbelievable) flashbacks, her visceral reaction (impossibly) reminiscent, her frigid body trembling with (inexplicable) aches, as though bones were subject to stress positions in an erstwhile incarnation wherein cold was used to stab at joints with icicles, to refrigerate flesh unto frostbite then to thaw withal and inflict such searing stings as to evoke an arctic Hades.

Scraps barked. Rose flinched, wrested from her personal reflections on the infamous portrayals while aghast at their effect on her trepidatious ward, whose shudders brought to mind a petite mal seizure, whose emotions seemed transfixed like the calm before a storm.

“Oh my God, what’s wrong, Briana? Wow, you’re cold as ice! Come. Leave that alone. You can look at pictures later. What’s important now is getting you warmed up.”

Rose had to pry the mouse from Brick’s clenched fingers before lifting her by the armpits, transporting her to a futon, and wrapping them both in a comforter like peas in a pod.

Scraps, at a loss for how he might be useful, sat in a crouch nearby, ready to pounce at whatever, his muscles intently stiff, upset at Rose’s extraneous odors and the child they now enveloped, whose welfare Scraps would sacrifice his life in order to defend, whose smell, commingling with the nanny’s extra pair, was almost indistinguishable, except… Scraps detected an indescribable hint of another emanation, foreign yet indigenous, separate yet combined, natural yet concocted… not that Scraps could articulate its character; all he knew was that Brick had gone stone-cold, that Rose had come to her rescue, that ‘snug as a bug in a rug’ the toddler had revived, only to squirm from her nanny’s sheltering grip and flee the room posthaste… with Scraps in hot pursuit… the bedroom door ajar.

Rose shrugged once, nonplussed, then shut down her computer.

 United Flight 1033

“This is the final call for United flight ten thirty-three, Miami to San Jose.”

Peter had made the plane. Peter always made the plane, arriving one hour or three hours early for Domestic and/or International departures. This flight, routed through Miami via Mexico City, had been an exception, less because of Peter’s tardiness (he had narrowly boarded his connection), more because the added distance to Florida was totally superfluous. Furthermore, he had indicated to Tricia he was lecturing in Denver.

‘If she shows up at the airport yet another yarn will have to be crocheted. “Never believe anything until it has been officially denied” is an aphorism voiced by none other than Strom Gorsky, that bleeding-heart, pedagogic, anti-American lefty who pretends to offer classes at my old alma mater, when what he really offers amounts to sedition, to spreading traitorous rumors about our country nationwide, not to mention overseas, promulgating the adage that power necessarily corrupts and that absolute power—Uncle Sam’s variety—corrupts absolutely. If that were true, Professor Gorsky, you’d be rooming at Guantanamo, an enemy combatant if ever there was one, a terrorist of the tongue, your only saving grace a soporific voice that puts to sleep your listeners before they’re bamboozled.’

“Flight attendants, please assume your positions in preparation for takeoff.”

‘Ah, Guantanamo… where the guards are prone to heavy-handedness when flexing their authority; but they are strictly monitored. Even the interrogators exercise restraint; the discomfort they dispense is governed by detailed guidelines and stringent regulations rigorously enforceddespite the OLC’s determining that Conventions signed in Geneva NEED NOT APPLY.’

“Our captain has turned off the seatbelt sign. You may move about the cabin. When staying in your seat it is recommended that you keep your seatbelt fastened.”

‘We scientists at Gitmo Lab Inc. are largely self-regulated, conforming to ethical standards endemic to our professions—though leeway granted by the DoD is implicit; results are the number one priority of our rulers from on high… or were until “The Jig” swept into office, our new Commander-in-Chief defamed by the Generals who mistrust him. Paramount ever since has been the Doctrine of Deniability, to which everyone on The Hill conveniently subscribes; so much for politics. My pronounced complaint is the attitude toward research—which ought to considered as an end in itself. To the DoD, contrarily, research is a means to a very specific end, so specific as to censor all digressions no matter how ennobling, no matter how significant for science in general, and no matter how momentous for the human race itself!’

Peter knew how neurons encoded information. Peter knew how chips created from stem cells could merge with a subject’s brain and function as an interface, sending and receiving transcribed bits of data. Peter possessed such a pluripotent chip, suspended in solution and carried in his luggage, disguised as a butane lighter, the lower half of its cartridge housing so precious a cargo it verily…

“…would be wasted on those morons at the Pentagon, defending us from intelligence with intelligence, i.e. from enlightenment with chicanery. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, I’d rather kiss a carp than lend so trenchant a discovery to that primate clique of warriors. That’s what I should have told them prior to absconding with the fruit of my labor. Not since Adam’s apple has Mankind possessed such a knowledge-laden yield; swiped it, I did, right from under their noses, in hopes it might be transplantable. I’ll have to wait and see. I’ll have to get it home and safely stowed, or, better yet, infused, stashed where they’ll never think to look, where it may even do some good beyond picking the cerebral cortex of their high-value operative to foil some dastardly plot in Hey-Who-Cares Afghanistan.”

“Sir? If you’re using a cellphone would you please turn it off?”

Peter looked askance at the attendant. Of course he wasn’t using his cell; he knew the drill. Were his lips moving that much? Surely no one overheard his denigration of the faultless DoD, the brass who never made mistakes and, when they did, redaction blacked out every trace of them…

“…FOIA requests notwithstanding, most as heavily censored as Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”; curious how the world’s most celebrated democracy has inaugurated policies consistent with a Seig-Heil dictatorship from extraordinary renditions to enhanced interrogations, from extrajudicial assassinations to preemptive drone strikes while dismissing inadvertent casualties as collateral damage. How else keep us safe? And don’t you dare accuse me of renegade disloyalty. I’m a proven patriot; when my country called I served! Terrorism is real; Dick Chaney didn’t concoct it, as my wife would have us believe. Al Qaida must be quashed and ours is the only populace with balls enough to do it.  Attackers of America beware; be ye Nipponese over Pearl Harbor or Arabs over Manhattan vengeance is ours, saith the Lord God America; in the U.S.A. we trust. Granted there are fanatics inside our borders, but they do not diminish the outside threats. Does anyone deny we are endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights, among which are the domination of nations and the pursuit of free-market happiness? Capitalism is President, reelected every four years!”

So saying, Peter stood, or attempted to stand; his seatbelt restrained him—as would the crew upon responding to Peter’s commotion had he not simmered down. Aware he had spoken aloud, in fact raised his voice above the seven-eighty-seven’s din, Peter Truesdale-Everson self-consciously grew calm, embarrassed by his outburst as might be expected of a man fleetingly irrational, suffering from a daydream or an overload of angst which spurred behavior disruptive, unseemly, yet lacking sufficient seriousness to warrant castigation… beyond an entry made in the Flight Attendants’ Log: PASSENGER IN F2 RAVING (MOSTLY TO HIMSELF); MAINTAIN SURVEILLANCE. Peter, hoping to smooth things over, ordered a gin and tonic.

‘Christ, you’d think I’d hollered HIJACK, the way those steward-people stared. You can’t call airline personnel anything indicative of their equal-opportunity gender, which applies across the board. The Post-person Always Rings Twice? Hm; win some, lose some; life is awash with tradeoffs, drowning in an ocean of political correctness. Of which I approve! Sports, for instance, ought to be desegregated. If Suzie wants to play linebacker, let her try out for the Packers. If Jill can outshoot Kobe, sign her with the Lakers. Female teams and male teams are fundamentally sexist. LET THE PLAYING FIELDS BE LEVELED!’

Peter managed not to shout this proclamation though he mouthed the words overtly, an affectation noticed by a business-person (?) seated across the aisle who was evidently ruffled by the loudmouth’s histrionics.

‘EQUAL PAY FOR EQUAL WORK. SALUTE.’

Peter raised his glass, the newly-delivered gin and tonic sloshing from a sudden patch of turbulence; the business-person nodded (swallowing his disgruntlement?) as Peter gulped the drink and was grateful for its near-immediate effect on his empty-stomach jitters, worried, as he was, about the detour to Miami and its possible implications.

“This is your Captain speakin’. Sorry ‘bout the bumps. Please return to your seats and fasten your belts. We’ll iron things out in a jiffy.”

The man Peter pegged as a ‘business-person’ paged through a magazine, aware of his Row F neighbor with more acuity than nonchalance bespoke, the mild annoyance he evinced perhaps disingenuous; a pretense masking vigilance? Had every move of the Gitmo inductee been stealthily recorded? Had every signal that Truesdale-Everson broadcast helped substantiate suspicions of those whose task it was to defend against leaks, to minimize ill effects of those already sprung, and to stanch, with terminal deterrence, whosoever had been their source? Armed with nothing ostensibly lethal the business-person seemed benign. If trained to kill with commonplace objects, however, beware his ballpoint pen—utilized, at the moment, to draw on a sheet of unlined paper tucked inside the publication; START and END were designated on a doodle (?) begun when the business-person first boarded—in Miami—under orders to intercept? Authorized to prevent any covert effort on Peter’s part to make a drop, or to initiate an exchange? Licensed to eliminate any and all obstructers—meaning anyone who might call into question Uncle Sam’s practices, blow the whistle, become a fifth columnist who renounced his solemn oath and sold out his country?

‘Not in a million years would I betray America by conspiring with her enemies, few of whom, if put in our top-gun position, would act much differently. We are the superpower; others are mere contenders, with motives equally self-serving, equally aggressive, none more honorable and none less vile, so why choose them over US?’

“I shan’t. I haven’t. What I’ve chosen to do is to celebrate American ingenuity by advancing civilization—and by thinking outside the Pentagon’s pinheaded pillbox!”

Again the words that Peter spoke internally found audible expression. Again the business-person shot a vexatious glance—which was promptly reinterpreted.

‘There; did you see that look? Dollars to doughnuts he’s a cop; the kind who wears a suit; the kind whose governmental branch has a three-letter monogram—business-person turned busybody turned snoop. I knew this plane was routed through the Sunshine State to rain on my parade, to ruin my last best chance for passing on knowledge to future generations. How elude prosecution in this airborne, escape-proof tank?’

Peter raised his glass at a passing attendant to request another drink, tapping the plastic with his index finger while mouthing the directive ‘same.’

Meanwhile, the misidentified snoop was plotting byways throughout some convoluted diagram, its overall theme a clock face with second, minute, and hour-hands pointing toward possible routes between outset—START—and terminus—END—in a complicated jumble of intersections, detours, and roughly parallel lines.

Second gin in hand, Peter’s nerves unwound, every sip conducive to easing his anxiety about being scrutinized… accused… pursued and apprehended… his fears by the alcohol tamed… then abruptly made much worse.

‘I could disappear, be rendered to Morocco! Laws have been rewritten. Anyone, anyone at all can be suspected of being a terrorist, an enemy combatant, and then be locked up on that suspicion, indefinitely, with no formal charge or legal recourse, no lawyer, no judge, no jury; guilty because they say so. Who are they? Military Intelligence, that’s who—that well-known oxymoron at work to protect us? Christ! How did we come to grant ultimate authority to a fraternity of gunslingers? How did I come to join their exalted ranks as a red-blooded American? I am a red-blooded American. I’ve pledged allegiance to our flag from kindergarten through grad school through DoD induction. I believe in my country’s promise of liberty and justice for all. My faith is such that I trust we are, indeed, one nation under God. So how to reconcile that with what goes on in the bowels of Guantanamo, in its subterranean tract, where nothing approaching due process is afforded to those…’

Turbulence this time sent a terrific jolt through the populated fuselage. The remains of Peter’s gin anointed his shirt and trousers as did beverages fore and aft; passengers clutched their chair arms, tightened their seatbelts, and murmured joint alarm. Static prefaced another timely announcement from the reassuring pilot.

“This is your Captain again. We’ve encountered a major storm, with no way over, under, or around it, so do keep your seatbelts fastened. Not to worry, everyone; we’ll get y’all where you’re goin’ safe and sound.”

The drawl and colloquial lilt in the Captain’s voice, instead of inciting Peter’s bias (Southerners, generally speaking, made him think of yokels) instilled a soothing confidence that the plane was in capable hands. As for his capsized gin and tonic, the steward-person replaced it without Peter having asked, while he across the aisle who took notes (?), prepared an entry for some dossier (?), plotted an abduction of the secret-stealing traitor (?) erased whatever got marred when the plane had dropped precipitously, the pen not a pen per se but rather a pencil elegantly housed, the paper covered with an intricate web of channels that comprised a stopwatch or a timepiece—tipped obligingly, by its drafter, in Peter’s direction to give him a better look.

“A maze?” Peter asked, intrigued by the clever design, contrite about construing it as something diabolical.

“Hobby of mine,” the business-person-turned-busybody-turned-snoop-turned-talented nice-guy responded, offering Peter his mechanical pencil. “Care to give it a whirl?”

“May I?” Peter responded, suggesting he shift position, gesturing toward an empty seat on the aisle’s opposing side.

“Be my guest. I’m Tim. Tim Roberts.”

“Peter.”

The two shook hands; Peter polished off his drink and settled into the vacancy adjacent Mr. Roberts—who appeared genuinely eager to have his latest creation tested.

“The trick is to craft a single path without it being too obvious. That means making alternatives, each one a dead end. You can go ahead and mark that up; I have to scan it anyway. I do the final versions at home on my computer. Drawing prototypes, as you see, can be accomplished on the fly.”

“I feel like Charly racing the little white mouse.”

“In Flowers for Algernon; loved it; LOVED it! It’s one of the very few books that the movie didn’t spoil.”

Peter studied the maze but made no false starts. Instead, once sure of the solution, he connected START to END with a nonstop single line.

Tim, surprised—and a little disappointed—gave credit due.

“Ouch; I thought that was harder than you just made it look. Are you an engineer, an architect, or maybe a chess whiz?”

Peter handed back the pencil.

“No, but I do have experience recognizing patterns. This one, and the intellect that conceived it, I would classify as artistic.”

“As opposed to autistic?”

“Well, same penchant for fantasy; I do admire your clock. Artistic in the sense of less predictable than efforts by, let’s say, an accountant. You’re surely not a governmental agent, as I initially surmised.”

“Whereas I thought you, initially, were a spastic schizophrenic; I guess we’re even.”

“Spastic schizophrenia and governmental service being…”

“Roughly equivalent.”

“I take it your esteem for the Stars and Stripes may outshine mine. But tell me, Tim, honestly, has my behavior been that bizarre?”

“Aside from talking to yourself out loud, weird-eying every passerby, pulverizing your ice cubes, scowling at the flight crew, and seldom sitting still for more than five seconds? Nah, normal as normal can be. Maybe a trifle fidgety, but, hey, we are aboard an airbus piloted by Bronco Billy.”

Tim retrieved his maze and the magazine supporting it from their roost on Peter’s lap. Peter pondered the image conjured by Tim’s droll description, jarred by its forthrightness and irrefutable accuracy.

“Stress, I guess. Thanks for the observation; I truly hadn’t realized.”

‘If he asks me to elaborate, he must be one of them. Mazes are networks of entrapment; if they want my confession, they had better resort to stocks; in a war of wits, Mr. Roberts, I guarantee I’ll win.’

“Seems you’ve hit upon a cure for whatever ails you, Peter. Gin and tonic, was it? If you’d like another, I’m buying, and I’d be more than glad to join you.”

‘Alcohol won’t loosen my tongue, if that’s what you’re conniving. Sober or falling-down drunk I can navigate a labyrinth. The cunning of a Minotaur is no match for mine.’

Confident in his liquor-holding capacity, Peter acquiesced. Tim, two drinks behind, made no effort to close the gap. Turbulence (twice severe) ceased to be a factor.

WhiteCourtesyPhone

Upon arrival at San Jose International Airport, while answering a white-courtesy-telephone, Mr. Timothy Roberts was officially detained.

 Rape of the Sabone Women

Pregnant women rarely boiled the brew in Gary Archibald Fillmore’s emasculated testicles—responsive only meagerly even when aroused, a thimble-full, at best, of stagnant spunk produced—which bloated breasts and bellies would likely leave untapped. Sure, he had accessed sites catering to such a fetish, watched as moms were mounted, typically from the rear, snickered at the swag of their overloaded ‘udders,’ scoffed at their grunts and groans dismissing most as faked. Blind Boobs—grossly inflated—left Gary feeling flat… and angry… moreover murderous, much like the King of Beasts who, when taking over a pride, kills those cubs His rivals might have sired, asserting His dominion, ensuring genes passed on are His and His alone. Not that he could have sired the babe in Bee-Bee’s bulge; his sperm had long-since shriveled into misanthropic shapes. What rankled was the fact that a competitor had apparently prevailed, despoiling the illusion of his ladylove’s chastity.

Did Gary really believe none other had possessed the online ‘phenom’? Were Bee-Bee’s charms exclusive, despite being up for sale? How could serial monogamy be misconstrued as one-on-one fidelity?

No.

Obviously not.

It couldn’t.

Still, when the Sabine women were raped, any found pregnant were stabbed by swords in lieu of schlongs; conquerors counted conquests by the progeny they perpetuated. Gary Archibald Fillmore fancied himself a conqueror, and hated any reminder of impotent defeat, hated, therefore, Blind Boobs when he finally caught up with her, confronted her to verify his almost sure ID, and risked arrest for sexual harassment (?) assault and battery (?) involuntary manslaughter (?) murder in the first degree (?); all depended on his ‘Savior’s’ caught-off-guard reaction.

“Don’t deny it’s you, Bee-Bee, or that maternity top you’re wearing will be down around your ankles,” Gary threatened, of a sudden keenly curious whether nipples due to lactate underwent any change... in hue, size, shape, smell, flavor, and overall resilience; Blind Boobs in the flesh reminded him of flesh he had always longed to chew.

Before she saw any sign of a lethal weapon—and before the man who concealed one had committed to its use—Jean Graves sensed exactly what it was, where it was hidden, and how it would be deployed; like a pinhead worries a balloon, the ice pick warned her abdomen, signaled an intent to function as a skewer on which an unborn child would be mercilessly spitted. Unless… REWIND- REWIND-REWIND. What event or antecedent circumstance could alter this reality? Surely there was something that might have happened differently, anything great or small, obvious or subtle to change the evil outcome immediately confronting her, if only she could will a decisive interruption, stop the world for an instant, long enough to think… to recall… to retrace then to redirect her tragic steps:

That morning, for instance, when her hand had knocked the alarm clock from its perch on their nightstand, “hanging Time by the neck,” George had joked, as the digital display dangled, its lit-up numerals doing their countdown sideways while the BEEP/ BEEP / BEEP persisted and “refused to give up the ghost,” George had added jovially, evidently amused by what his wife thought utterly annoying, her acrobatic effort to retrieve the shrill appliance another source of mirth. What if the moments saved by erasing that minor mishap could avert major catastrophe? What if her finger had found the alarm’s appointed off-switch?

“Don’t deny it’s you, Bee-Bee, or that maternity top you’re wearing will be down around your ankles,” Gary threatened…

No? Well, what if she had driven George’s truck and let him take the Volvo? The latter needed servicing; mechanics charged men less. She could have driven him to work after they dropped off the car together; instead she had taken it in herself, gotten a written estimate, and while the job was being done had gone off shopping. Would she have gone off shopping anyway if driving the Dodge?

“Don’t deny it’s you, Bee-Bee…”

Or parked in a different spot? All she needed was a minute’s deviation from this predetermined script. The child! The toddler who was gnawing at an ice cream when its single scoop did a nosedive and splattered onto the sidewalk; his mom would not replace it. Jean did, Jean the Good Samaritan, much to the lad’s delight and to his mom’s reluctant smile. What if…?

“Don’t deny it’s you…”

‘I won’t; I’ll admit it. Whatever it takes to save my baby, I swear to God I’ll do!’

“…will be down around your ankles,” the large man menaced, (his nom de guerre exhumed, Excalibur armed with an heirloom, a 50s-era ice pick in lieu of his magic broadsword) as he blocked Jean’s path in the parking-garage’s stairwell like a blowfish in a gullet—two blowfishes, counting Jean’s unwieldy bulkwith no escape route (none) to avoid the inevitable.

“You and I have met, I’ll wager, when I was much less… puffy,” Jean enunciated, teeth trapping then freeing her sexy lower lip, diverting hostile eyes (leveled at her bust) to a mouth morphed into an organ of succulent seduction.

“You got that right, Sweetheart,” Gary Archibald Fillmore emphatically confirmed, looking up from a two-steps-lower perspective at the answer to his erstwhile prayers (distended now like a watermelon purloined and ineffectually stashed) disgusted by the protuberance (if grudgingly impressed by Bee-Bee’s ballsy poise) weighing whether to toy with her plump proportions or to stick her like a pig and be done with it.

“Maybe, if you can overlook my temporary condition, we could find some suitable spot for a little reminiscence? A command performance might entertain us both; gals in the family way don’t get enough, if you understand my meaning.”

Oozing sensuality like a sugar maple tapped, Jean did her level best to entice perchance to distract her would-be assailant—who pretended to reconsider.

“One last virtual romp in cyberspace hay?” Excalibur crooned, matching ‘Bee-Bee’s’ flirtatiousness with his own online persona—‘a please-and-thank-you gentleman par excellence’—his transformation signaling a reprieve or a postponed demise? The Once and Future King offered Blind Boobs his arm with chivalrous duplicity.

 Ferdinand The Bull

How to put the kibosh on Buddy Bragg, who, as George Black had hypothesized, escalated his shenanigans to inflict real harm? Not on Jack directly, who had discovered he could neutralize his nemesis by means of telepathy; rather on Oscar Spark, whose disabilities, mental and physical, made him easier prey. Jack had learned that people, unlike dogs for instance, could be stared at with impunity, provided veiled intentions were subliminally projected. What dogs might regard as challenging, humans found disarming—or at least disconcerting—when their self-possession could be punctured by a penetrating look. Jack had perfected such a look after lots of trial and error; Buddy (in ‘Pit-bull’ mode) harassed him almost daily. When Jack caught Buddy’s eye, Buddy’s ‘I’ turned instantly self-conscious, like a sneak thief foiled by having made way too much noise while embarked on a would-be crime. Don’t you dare, was the understated message of Jack’s unspoken check, an unspecific caution that warded off maliciousness—but did not reform it, hence Buddy’s ready recourse to persecuting Oscar:

·            who was large, antisocial, awkward, and uncouth

·            who was prone, when perplexed, to drooling

·            who seldom spoke to anyone unsolicited

·            and who played weird games alone

converting his gum eraser, for example, into a hockey puck or some such object that he batted back and forth across his desktop with palms in opposition, pitted against themselves, offense alternating with defense as each hand tried to score while the player’s lips betrayed a mute (if enthused) color commentary.

“Oscar!” Mrs. Fong exhorted, bent on wresting focus from his… nonsense…to the lesson she was teaching.

Another shot on goal was blocked.

“Oscar Ferdinand Spark, pay attention!” was the prod that halted play, jolted Oscar from an interlude of fun into the dull routine of failure, his simpleton’s noesis out of place and ill-equipped to cope with regular-classroom curricula, while reference to his middle name evoked his schoolmates’ teasing as they likening him to an unassertive bull—especially during recess when he:

  • roamed toward the playground’s unsupervised perimeter

  • seemingly okay with self-imposed exile

  • content to sniff at flowers (had any poked through the asphalt)

  • and braced for trouble on Buddy Bragg’s approach.

“Hey, Fer-di-nand,” taunted Buddy, dragging out the ridicule of Oscar’s storied moniker, simulating horns with fingers raised to temples, snorting, pawing the pavement while accomplices—Ralph and Jeff—smirked at the cringing ‘retard’… as Oscar peeked up warily from beneath his jutting brow as if it might protect him from antagonists small but mean. “Look what we found, Ferdinand.”

(Jack, from afar, saw something catch the light like a semi-see-through kite tail.)

“Burns like napalm,” Buddy boasted while holding up a string of knotted plastic bags, one end looped around his wrist, the other dangling to the blacktop. “Makes a real cool sound, too, when it melts and starts to drip,” Buddy testified, eager to demonstrate. He stooped, struck a match and set the lower end ablaze, then stood while extending his arm, allowing a trio of segments to be consumed—as Oscar watched hypnotically, fascinated by the bluish fire as it crept from knot to knot… until Buddy’s shoe extinguished it. “Your turn,” Buddy offered, slipping off the loop and cinching it onto Oscar’s outstretched wrist—the string appreciably shorter; Buddy reignited it as Oscar aped the Third Reich salute that Buddy had adopted, concentrating solely on the molten globules’ plummet, ignoring the steady progress of an upward-creeping flame that reached / singed / scorched / blistered / charred / and near incinerated Oscar’s captive flesh—savaged before extinguished by Jack Black’s sacrificed sweater!

The prank earned Buddy Bragg a three day suspension. Oscar’s first-degree burns took a longer spell to heal. Jack’s impromptu rescue cost more than a ruined pullover; plagued by the malice of forethought that indicted such misbehavior, he pondered long and hard before confiding…

 Bowling Pins

…in Wally, on boy’s-night-out.

“Malevolence all too common,” was the wizard’s terse assessment upon hearing the grisly tale, an opinion George thought harsh; he hastened to amend.

 “I’ll grant you, people misbehave, and harrying the handicapped is really unforgivable, but most of us, at heart, are partial to doing good. Human beings are born good; evil creeps in later. Think of music, science, architecture; think of the Olympics!”

“‘Harrying the handicapped’? What have you been reading? Alliterative turn of phrase for an ordinary carpenter,” Wally chided.

“Jesus was a carpenter,” Jack was quick to counter.

“Touché”; Wally admired the young lad’s protectiveness. “But is your father correct; are babies born benevolent?”

iTunes played on the sound system were generally inaudible. The restaurant, even half full, throbbed with a low key din, conversations blending with a hustle-and-bustle ambiance. Sipping, chewing, and swallowing seemed incidental to the patrons’ buzzing discourse. Jack enjoyed the place for its being so adult.

Well aware of Wally’s disdain for ‘the great bewildered herd,’ Jack was disinclined to share the guru’s opinion. Oscar, post attack, had sought no retribution; Oscar’s parents may have, on their injured child’s behalf, but he who suffered worse had taken no revenge. Why? If genius was the antidote for what most ailed humanity, as Wally’s highbrow tutelage invariably suggested, how could a lesser intellect exemplify such virtue? This had been the question Oscar’s hapless plight had raised, a question Jack was determined to answer unequivocally.

“Neutral,” Jack replied at last, “morality is learned… taught by parents, teachers, and preachers, judging by my classmates, who are Christians, mostly, who’d be Muslims if they were raised in Saudi Arabia.”

“I’d keep that observation to myself if I were you, son; them thar’s fightin’ words,” George admonished lightheartedly, once more steering his prodigy into areas not so solemn, wondering where went childhood in Jack’s advanced maturity, while scrambling to keep pace with faculties so quick they left his own in a cloud of disadvantaged dust.

Apropos of nothing, Jack touched his father’s hand (as a gesture of reassurance, camaraderie, or affection?) reminding George of Jean who used to do the same for reasons never spoken. Jack had finished eating. Wally nursed an espresso. George sat choking on a lump of poignant memories he disguised with a pseudo cough… then an artificial urge to visit the restroom.

“Excuse me, fellas. Order some dessert. Sticky rice and mango here is yummy.”

George made an exit too abrupt for conveying nonchalance.

“What brought that on?” Wally asked sotto voce, tracking George’s beeline to the unisex head—where he had to wait, alas, the facility being occupied.

“What do you think; he’s mad.”

“At what? At who?”

“At you and me. He senses we’re excluding him whenever we discuss stuff.”

“Hogwash,” Wally grumbled. “Listen, Jack, I like your dad. As chumps go, he’s okay. But you… I know you’re his—his flesh and blood—but in far more important ways you’re practically unrelated.”

“Why; because I’m smart? Big deal. Being smart didn’t rescue Oscar. I knew those kids were gonna do something really rotten and there was nothing I could do or say to stop them.”

Jack, not George, was angry, Wally realized; he readjusted tone.

“They did nothing rotten to you, though. How’d you pull that off?”

Jack had failed to mention his telepathic trick, his don’t-you-dare discovery that buffered him from Buddy, perhaps because he judged the tactic dubious?

·            True, Buddy’s animosity, of late, had been redirected.

·            True, whenever Buddy posed a threat, Jack had managed to deflect it.

·            But how to prove the negative? Prevented acts might never have occurred; events that were discouraged might never have taken place. And ‘superhuman powers’ were the stuff of Marvel Comics.

Wally waited impatiently. Jack declined to answer.

“Let me guess.” But Wally’s primed conjecture suffered a delay.

“Someone must be showering in the sink,” was George’s conclusion, returned (and recomposed) from the un-relinquished head. “Let’s pay up and maybe grab a sweet en route to Yerba Buena lanes.”

Bowling was the evening’s culminating activity—chosen by George; Jack and Wally had feigned exuberant assent.

Homeland Security

“Mr. Timothy Roberts?”

“Yes, sir?”

“Let me put your mind at ease; you are not the subject of our investigation. We would, however, appreciate your assistance. The man with whom you spoke—aboard the plane you just flew in on—is a person of concern to Homeland Security. I trust we can rely on your full cooperation.”

Chewed Tennis Ball

Scraps could hardly wait for the front door to open; Peter, instincts informed, was walking up the drive… from a car at curbside driven by a stranger who often dined on curry… Peter hauling a suitcase—wheels clacked on measured cracks—its alien scent familiar; Scraps had sniffed its likes before… sweat in his master’s armpits atypically acrid as a key was turned in the lock and a whoosh of evening air escorted unsettling data about a man who stank none-too-subtly of panic-stricken dread.

Homeland Security

“As I said, the guy was visibly agitated and talking to himself aloud. I thought you fellas could eavesdrop. Why not bug his seat?”

“His conversation with you is the blank we need filled in. Did he ever allude to his work?”

Chewed Tennis Ball

Tasting Peter confirmed it; Scraps, with every lick of welcome, grew evermore anxious; whatever was amiss had a fatalistic flavor… whatever was at stake fueled a desperado’s rush… Peter scarcely said hello before ascending, three steps at a time, the stairs to his and Tricia’s bedroom… from which Scraps was deliberately, woefully left behind… despite his pleas, which took the form of whimpers, as he loitered on the threshold.

Homeland Security

“No, he didn’t elaborate. ‘Experience in recognizing patterns’ was the only thing he mentioned.”

Chewed Tennis Ball

Inside the couple’s bedroom, inside a butane lighter, inside a long syringe, inside an obtuse belly, inside a thick placenta and the embryo housed therein, a microscopic chip meandered toward its locus, programmed to commune with integrated circuitry, primed to interact with a host of kindred cells whose protean disposition bode well and ill conversely, whose chromosomes and genes might prove a mismatch made in Hell, whose halves derived from him in desperate straits, from her in pending childbirth, inscrutably combined, retaining attributes of each, to form a whole replete with native/foreign properties destined to divert, for generations hence, the normal course of progeny… provided that the baby—Brick—survived.

Homeland Security

“Thank you for your help. Sorry for the inconvenience.”

Chewed Tennis Ball

Scraps, alert for Peter’s equally hasty exit, almost tripped his master, who hurried down the hall, pursued in hopes of forestalling this unexplained getaway; whatever happened with Tricia seemed incidental; the suitcase left below was not to be unpacked but rather to accompany him who bounded down the stairs, snatched a clutch of car keys, opened and closed behind him the foyer’s heavy door, and left with nary a pat on his best friend’s head.

 Amniocentesis

Had Patricia Everson-Truesdale been less trusting, more responsible as a woman whose priority was the health of her unborn child, had she balked at his and her offspring’s speculative enhancement, challenged the veracity of her gifted husband’s claims, questioned his assurances (pitched in a hypertensive state from which his subsequent deliverance was a bewildering fatality), would Briana be so drastically abnormal, so socially maladjusted, so prone to dark emotions stoked by forces sight unseen? For as the depth of her child’s immersion in the worldwide web increased (her interests as diverse as her motives were inscrutable), Tricia’s motherly lapse looked more and more perverse. Had pregnancy caught her so unawares as to stymie better-judgment, motherhood too abstract when Peter interceded? Had sex been such a novelty that its unintended consequence (regretted and resented) caused qualms to be delayed? Or was there no excuse for such rash acquiescence? True, she had been woozy when he burst into their room, having dosed herself with (several) injudicious cocktails—the means by which she coped with her husband’s lengthy absences. Okay, she was drunk when he had begged for her complicity, when he loaded that syringe with his wondrous innovation; “contraband of wunderkind” he had called it, once administered, swiped from “lesser minds” under “autocratic noses.” Or had she been unconscious when he eased the needle in—devious and proficient as her husband’s skill set was, eminently recruit-able by the agency he concealed from her who played the role of an undiscerning housewife? “EPA,” indeed; did he take her for an idiot? Did he think she could be hoodwinked into serving as his hostess for “a breakthrough to top all breakthroughs”? Whether witting or deluded, whether wooed or commandeered, Tricia’s womb had brooked a reckless intervention, whose upshot put at odds parental pride and guilt.

 

 

 

 

 

Cookoo Clock

PART TWO

A clock ticks, attempts to measure increments of Time lost or gained, interprets Now as a sequence of backward or forward moments linked like chain weights underneath a cuckoo as it sings its bold refrain, heralding every hour with mechanistic gusto.

Cuckoo… Cuckoo… Cuckoo calls the tiny wooden carving from its perch above a pair of hands that point at numbers framed, encircled by ornate and quaintly antique craftsmanship.

 Horse Doorknocker

KNOCK… KNOCK… KNOCK the bronze resounds upon its plate, announcing someone’s presence and/or petition for admission, indicating ‘sturdy’ with respect to planks supporting such anachronistic hardware—though mounted on a wall the signal loses resonance.

 Roof Fix

Wally, cast as tinker, glues a roof atop its gable where it broke above the shuttered roost of a bird whose two-tone chirp is sorely missed within the home from which it was surrendered, entrusted by its owner to the recluse turned repairman who has aged since boy’s-night-out (some eight years prior), whose fingers often cramp when engaged in detailed work, whose sketches sometimes suffer when limbs commence to quake; their tremors beyond control he can only wait and watch them.

 Gremlins Doorknocker

Rose, forsaking her storage locker after quitting the Everson-Truesdale’s—her room-and-board revoked by Brick’s demand for privacy—transferred her collection to an ultra-spacious flat, leased to her as partial compensation for the job of Resident Manager, one whole room devoted to her long-established hobby wherein plentiful painted-on doors form backdrops for her ornamental knockers, scores of which are mounted from floorboards to ceiling; were all to bang at once their din would be tumultuous.

 Chipped Cuckoo

The cuckoo clock, an heirloom fixed as a favor for his neighbor, represents, to Wally, a bygone era missed, when holes got darned, fences mended, flat tires patched, and shoes resoled, when durability mattered, when hand-me-downs were cherished, and when the least acceptable option was to throw a thing away—whatever it might be from keepsake to bric-a-brac. Whereas damaged goods, in 2020, get replaced, recycled, or discarded; their obsolescence is planned; their novelty is short-lived; their successors are far more desirable.

‘People, too,’ rues Wally, ‘are increasingly irreparable. Not with regard to installing various parts; implants trump originals. Rather due to recalcitrance in idolizing faults. Mention radical correction and folks revert to Gods—none of whom endorse mere mortals’ tampering with Omnipotent Design.’

“Oh, your beak’s been chipped. How did you manage that?”

Holding a stylized replica of the real Black Forest bird, magnifying its features with an eye-distorting glass, Wally lifts both brows in admiration of European workmanship.

‘German, no doubt; strange, how certain artisans, from certain cultures, are possessed of certain knacks that outperform all others. Would that we could pool the worldwide range of talents; would that we could purge the worldwide range of faults… at least those most egregious… the ones that blacken hearts.’

 Lingam Doorknocker

Rose steps back from her latest acquisition, a lingam whose tapered shaft forms an elongated striker, hinged at pubic curls above and hung to a plate in the shape of bifurcated testicles—whereupon a teardrop suggests excreted semen.

 ‘Sexy,’ Rose observes; if not aloud, her praise is tacit; facets of her countenance betray overt delight in anything erotic or grotesque. Penises qualify in both categories—though Rose collects the real McCoy less often since her hormones have simmered down, since cocks (in double doses) have ceased to tweak her fancy. Twenty-seven back-then means thirty-four now and counting—thirty-five in a week, her midlife birthday pending… unless she lives past seventy. Neither parent did. And virtual immortality remains a sci-fi long shot (nanobots notwithstanding). Furthermore, who even wants to represent ancient in a world where youth is King; Queen; Royalty, in any case, privileged by the fact of economic dominance?

‘Brick can live forever, if her breed is so inclined; hers,’ Rose muses mutely, ‘is Generation Infinite, whereas mine subscribes to the words of Patrick Henry: “Give me liberty or give me death.”’

Reaching for the ‘glans,’ Rose thumps another KNOCK.

 Friendly Finch

Wally, garage door open, feels a sudden draft… contemplates the attributes of wind… wonders at its roar when met with stiff resistance… marvels at its power to rip, uproot, and shape… laughs at its caprice when sweeping leaves or chasing litter… inhales to appreciate its subtleties of scent carried oh-so-far from who-knows-whence to stir the film of sawdust settled on his workbench, to bend the clique of cobwebs gathered in every corner, and to usher in a finch abruptly blown off course.

“What brings you here to my humble home and workshop, eh? Are you young or are you old; perhaps your wings are a trifle weary, your stamina somewhat lacking when pitched against earth’s breath?”

As Wally speaks to the bird it ventures two hops forward, tilting its head to fix him with a circumspect look, apprehensive and fidgety, in keeping with its nature, ill-at-ease under eaves, more so under roofs.

Cramped again, Wally’s left hand assumes the aspect of a claw.

“Can’t control it; isn’t that a pity? For eighty years reliable; suddenly it’s mutinous. Feels like rigor mortis trying to jump the gun.”

Wally’s paralyzed appendage serves as a perch, of a sudden, for the oddly trusting bird… which brings to the elder’s eyes (his azure eyes) a matching pair of tears.

 Hand Doorknocker

Rose, Rose, nobody knows

Meat nor drink nor money have we none

Aye, marry, that I will

And I love thee

Lonesomeness, like a muffler cinched too tightly, garrotes Rose’s prospects for finding Mister Right. ‘Why does someone’s need produce such a powerful repellent,’ she asks? ‘Does thirty-five and single spell condemned to playing solitaire?’

‘Hi, I’m Rose. Say you’ll be Prince Charming or I’ll take these pinking shears and mutilate my wrists,’ her subtext mumbles… under a superficial smile… and fluttering mascara. Even nerds—legion in Silicon Valley—ricochet off Rose like adolescent pin balls, their maturity kept on hold until some latter, younger model attracts them less despairingly

“Fuck ‘em,” Rose declaims, ensconced at her vanity, having left the Room of Knockers to confront her plain-Jane looks, in a mirror not a monitor; her former console is much reduced in size if otherwise inflated; her lovelorn search for solace, in cyberspace, is vast.

Dismissing her lack of romance fails to hush the tuneful ditty, whose lyrics Rose is sure she misremembers, its Elizabethan era her avocation’s touchstone.

‘Past lives are a fable, a self-deluding myth.’

Rose is not some vaunted historical figure reborn as a modern nobody, nor some reincarnated diva or new-age Aphrodite. Vain are all such boasts, therefore not among her vices—though she does not scoff entirely at notions of rebirth. Were people disabused of such fantastic explanations, Rose’s ilk might never have been identified… Rose’s ilk and Brick’s; they share a common denominator, if parts that it divides distinguish diverse gifts. Rose saw Brick’s at once and dutifully reported, fulfilling her obligation as Briana Kimberly Everson-Truesdale’s MINDER.

 Wally's Hand

Wally’s handheld finch, with a humming flutter, takes its airborne leave, darting through the Roll-O-Matic doorway as swiftly as it entered.

“That’s what wings are for, I’m solemnly reminded, I who was assigned to MIND, stand guard, and counsel him whose confidence I squandered, owing to a tether I carelessly applied, counting on a lure I waved without success, most of my transgressions sadly irredeemable. Old folks oft’ are fools in worldly-wise disguise.”

Wally’s handheld finch, with a humming flutter, takes its airborne leave, darting through the Roll-O-Matic doorway as swiftly as it entered.

“That’s what wings are for, I’m solemnly reminded, I who was assigned to WATCH, stand guard, and counsel him whose confidence I squandered, owing to a tether I carelessly applied, counting on a lure I waved without success, most of my transgressions sadly irredeemable. Old folks oft’ are fools in worldly-wise disguise.”

 UC Berkeley

Jack Black, age 13, is scarcely recognizable. Stripped of his prostheses he still appears transformed—though rarely is he seen without his Techmasque and assorted accessories. Like most cryptonic teens, Jack is amply wired. Like few cryptonic teens, Jack is half-through grad school, cloud communications a budding scholar’s boon. Stanford made an offer. Stony Brook sent an agent. Florida would have hired him, had George not objected and pleaded with his son to stay at UC Berkeley. Jack deferred to dad; UC Berkeley won. And despite his tender years and puppyish disposition, Jack is viewed as an academic star—though prone of late, alas, to voluptuous distractions.

What could distract a boy genius embarked on a path to a PhD before his beard has even sprouted? Sex, of course, with her—Amanda Sørenson—about whom Jack thinks night-and-day nonstop.

“Can’t you find a girl, a really smart one, closer to your age,” his father recently asked?

“‘Smart’; who cares about ‘smart’?” Jack answered honestly. “I’m too much in love with how she’s built!”

Choirboy 

“The trouble is she’s twenty; I just turned thirteen,” Jack confides to a schoolmate, whose image fills an ARC installed mid-wall in the adolescent’s bedroom. “Legally, I’m jailbait.”

“Hm, I see the problem. Otherwise she’s okay with fucking a choirboy?”

“Thanks, Frank; not exactly.”

“Oh, you haven’t…” Frank completes his sentence with a pornographic gesture.

Jack responds with a scowl and sadly shakes his head.

“You have, at least, gone out with her?... No?... You’ve asked?... No?... Have you spoken?”

“Sure, we’ve spoken… in passing.”

“‘In passing.’ As in ‘Hi,’ or a conversation? Is this girl even aware you’ve caught her scent?”

“Funny you should use that phrase; her fragrance is like catnip. All it takes is a whiff and I’m clawing at her sheets.”

“Assuming you reach her bed; I gather that’s remote.”

“When the heart is smitten, passion finds a way.”

“Jesus Fucking Christ, you’re an infantile romantic! I suppose you’re penning sonnets and composing serenades. Have you ever been with a woman, Jack, done the down-and-dirty?”

Thankfully Jack is tall; no disadvantage there. He is also boyishly handsome, if designated “cute.” Furthermore he could cheat to win Amanda’s favor, using skills refined since Buddy Bragg’s ‘deflection’—defenses mustered then are fully polished now and can function in reverse should the lovesick lad so choose. To woo, however, telepathically, strikes Jack as unethical.

 ‘Yielding to temptation,’ Wally had taught him, ‘often breeds regret.’ ‘Powers flexed irresponsibly are powers misemployed; yours are meant to illuminate not to be squandered on trivial self-interests,’ the Wizard had further counseled, before he fell from grace…

“Yoo-hoo, Jack; hey, Whiz Kid, are you with me?”

Frank projects his facial features—drastically enlarged—to reestablish contact; Jack’s attention lingers on his mentor’s disaffection…

…when high school ceased to be an option and George, with ambivalent pride, had enrolled his son at UC Berkeley (its San Francisco Extension plus coursework done online), still a public institution, in 2020, but charging a stiff tuition, which Jack got waived, eventually, once proving his competence. Wally, at this time, had made himself a fixture in the George & Jack Black household.

“You don’t put blinkers on a thoroughbred until he’s in the race,” George protested.

“Whatever that’s supposed to mean; Jack can see alternatives. I’m suggesting Science as his major simply to help him focus. Children need direction or they feel adults don’t care.”

As usual this discussion was taking place at the kitchen table. As usual Jack was occupied elsewhere but not beyond earshot. And as usual Wally tucked a note of condescension into his argument with George.

“All I’m saying is a college education should expand kids, not just get ’em ready for a job. Besides which, Bioengineers are a pretty scary lot.”

“What would you know, George, about a college education?”

At which point Jack, his ears already pricked, felt anger force them back. George had struggled mightily to keep astride his son’s unprecedented progress, nightly studying the dictionary, brushing up on grammar, rejuvenating math skills. He even bought a globe, the kind that doubles as a lamp, so he and Jack could practice aspects of geography, taking turns to discover a place then looking up particulars, mostly at Wikipedia. Wally, on the other hand, had been taking classes forever at San Francisco City College, amassing sufficient units, had he cared about getting credit, to have earned an advanced degree, several advanced degrees judging by his impressive breadth of knowledge. Wally, true, was crazy, which obscured, at times, his brains; it also made him ornery and predictably argumentative.

Jack, en route from the living room, came to his dad’s defense.

“Books are meager substitutes for firsthand experience; you can’t really understand stuff from scholarship alone.”

Wally, keenly aware of the two-to-one odds against him, bridled at his challengers’ solidarity.

“Okay, choose stupidity,” he snapped, slamming the tabletop with his fist then storming into the night, leaving in his wake an insult un-retracted.

Disregarded too long, Frank curtails the Skype. Jack, unfazed by the sensor’s disconnection, gazes at its screensaver:

at Amanda, naked as a jay, her posture that of an odalisque on a glossy plane reclining, her attributes reflected where they stretch from head to foot, compounding their allure, blond as only blond can be when genes are Scandinavian, cheeks and belly dimpled, hair as fair as silkworm silk with a wispy tuft where thigh meets thigh to match. Who else but a siren could appear so irresistible? Who else but a sorceress could remain so out of reach? Who else but a femme fatale could torture so exquisitely as to twist his lolling tongue and make him utter backwards?

 Amanda in Oslo

“Spectacular are you, eyes my in; you for young too am I, eyes your in,” Jack recites with utmost sincerity.

Taken aback, Amanda finally looks at her whelp-ish admirer, at him who, heretofore, she has callously ignored.

“Come again?”

“Indefinitely come maybe could I, yours like charms in, arms in wrapped.”

Still nonplussed by Jack’s bizarre approach, Amanda eyes him warily.

“Huh?”

“You know to get to just, anything, coffee morning for, lunch for, dinner for out you take me let, you beg humbly I, please?”

These sentences, nonsensical at first, are delivered so wholeheartedly they stir comprehension.

“Are you…? You’re talking backwards, aren’t you?”

“Up end’s which tell can’t I, struck star so I’m, presence your in, it help can’t I, sorry.”

Amanda struggles to do the transposition… as piece of campus scuttlebutt springs to mind.

“Hey, you’re that ‘Juvie Genius’ featured in The Daily Californian; Jim Blue, or something.”

“Jack Black. Pleased to make your acquaintance, Ms. Sørenson. I’ve been following your career since early last semester.”

“My academic career?”

“That, too. Your major is Poli-Sci.”

“With a minor in Evasion.”

“‘Evasion’?”

“The Art of Dodging studs—though you’re a bit pubescent to fall into that category.” Amanda’s scrutiny intensifies as she reassesses Jack. “Aren’t you tall for a cub scout?”

“Aren’t you gorgeous for a bookworm?”

Jack refers to the bosom-full of texts Amanda hugs snuggly.

“You referred to my ‘career.’ You meant my modeling? Have you been drooling over Oslo?”

“Guilty. Sorry. But gee, you’re really stunning in that autumn issue.”

“I thought as much. Goodbye, Jack Black.”

Their tête-à-tête aborts.

 Tricia's Bra 

Briana Kimberly Everson-Truesdale putters, putting on and taking off ensembles from a cache of vintage clothing she has discovered in Tricia’s wardrobe… most of which fails to fit; though grown in mind, Brick in body remains diminutive, a factor she has turned to great advantage when manipulating others, men in particular, from Galahads to geezers.

Off with mom’s challis, on with her brassiere—off with that, its cups like empty coffee filters—on with rayon camisole; atop she slips a bodice, its neckline scooped—revealing once again her undeveloped chest—while coddling it with Varanasi luxury—silk once called Benares if research serves her right—though Brick has removed her headgear to prevent its constant snagging on garments donned and shed… donned and shed… off with a velvet waistcoat; on with a herringbone blazer—pleats and tucks and darts form-fittingly tailored for a full-figured girl thus draping Brick’s physique like clothing on a hanger—as angular and edgy as her self-effacing candor while she calculates the gap between proportions immature and wiles fully-fledged; Pintsize Femme Fatale is one of her favorite personas, alongside ADD Dimwit and Misanthropic Smartass. To watch Brick try on attire is to witness quick-change personalities; every outfit worn inspires a character to match, each assuming a role for calculative purposes.

Coonskin Cap

The full-length mirror reflecting Brick’s several costume changes, bounces back a shorter, less charismatic image; stationary, four-legged, and adorned in a coonskin cap, Scraps observes his mistress with due diligence and unremitting loyalty—despite her having dressed him like a canine Davey Crockett. Older, somewhat dimmer in his lamebrain doggy dotage, gravity tugging gravely at his flaccid mug and hide, the pooch that once was lost, was found, was lost, and was found again, seems poised to shift from guardian to guardian angel, hovering in Brick’s vicinity, diminished in bark and bite, if constant in attentiveness and absolute devotion, still afraid of spiders; ditto of the dark.

“Is it me, or is it I, and will you trust my divination?”

Brick, dressed in a sari, assumes a soothsayer’s air, alizarin (lipstick) dot on her forehead, hair in a sequined scarf, a scarab necklace dangling as she sways and lifts both elbows, her wrists adorned with bracelets bearing arcane charms.

Roused from a rheumy trance, Scraps wags his tail, its impact on a chair leg thumping rote approval, happy to be acknowledged (if sad about the cap).

Brick adjusts her flowing skirts then kneels on an oval throw rug, whereupon Scraps, in turn, resettles, nestling his muzzle in the groove (that parts her adjacent thighs), gazing up devoutly while endeavoring not to slobber.

Brick removes Scraps’ coonskin and strokes his bony head.

“Tides will turn, my crony; I see them rising; rising everywhere. Twenty-twenty outlooks will focus on calamity. Ours, meaning yours and mine, is shaping up as the Glub-Glub Generation, scuttled by corporate greed and governments gone awry, sunk in public entropy and oceans of dilute brine. A pity is all this imminent soggy suffering, hopes and dreams submerged, survivors predetermined by a clique of slimy landlubbers. Man, for lack of gills, is destined to be drowned, all his bright ideas, by slow tsunami, inundated, every light extinguished like fireflies in a downpour. Hm, a cheerful prophesy; eh? We shall net what we deserve, while fish, with fins in frenzied apposition, thunder their ovation.”

Brick, at the ‘ripe’ age of ten (verging on eleven) is going through a phase—fueled by antisocial attitude, if nonetheless discerning. She plants a heartfelt smooch on her best pal’s snout.

“Doggy do or Doggy don’t

Dare to dicker with the vicar

Deign to diddle with the drunk

Or did my Doggy do his duty

On the doorstep

Down and dirty

Duck the duke

Elude pursuit

And drizzle on his dump?”

Brick quotes or creates extempore, seldom sure if verses are original or phantom recitations from a tripolar consciousness. Implants, she has come to call these passages, fragments, hybrids; like puzzle pieces (forced) they befit a mind unsettled: “One; do not say three” a hallmark of the foreigner, though overall her approach to life is strictly irreligious; solo God and/or Trinity seem equally implausible, if analogous to her sense of self as a hypothetic threesomewith Mother, Father, and Other comprising Brick’s triumvirate.

Scraps can detect these differences (vivid early on, less distinctive currently); yet how extract intelligence from a beast considered dumb?

“Aren’t you, Scraps; not exactly doltish, more incommunicado; knowing things I don’t, for example, about my long-gone begetter.” Brick takes Scraps by the muzzle, this time abruptly, and lifts his saggy jowls. “Don’t you,” she asserts, her aspect almost menacing, her search of the mutt’s left eye (as she leans closer) like peeping through a keyhole.

Scraps emits a whimper which Brick (intent) ignores, reading every nuance of the oscillating iris, peering at its pupil with investigatory zeal, searching for specifics as in a murky crystal ball…

…wherein she spies deep shadows of strangely coded secrets, all Scraps knew and knows pervading the dimness… like inkblots on carbon, encryptions so obscure as to be indecipherable—or would be, were Scraps alone the palimpsest on which such are incised; Brick, however, perceives a parallel cryptography, reflected in the retina of her own inscrutable eye, into which she casts as with an un-baited hook. Not since she was born has access seemed so viable. Not since she was altered has evidence swum so near, rising toward the surface, outlines vague but visible—shaped by tacit nightmares, decried by toxic tears, and mourned by her on whom a rash experiment was amorally conducted.

 “Briana, are you home?” her mother calls loudly, as she snaps off the surveillance system, activates remote, and checks reception levels household-wide for Cloud connectivity on equipment newly installed thanks to her daughter’s little prank.

“You hacked into WHAT!?” Tricia had asked with genuine alarm, Brick so pleased with herself she had allowed the targeted agency’s emblem to linger across her Z-Screen like Lewis Carroll’s cat, shield-and-eagle hovering then dissolving like an enigmatic smile. (Tracers, fast and furious, had been launched to pinpoint the intrusion. Had Brick been less adroit, her bedroom stronghold surely would have been compromised, leading to who-knew-what; minors charged with felonies could stand trial as adults.)

Brick, with Scraps in tow, skedaddles from the wardrobe to her command post down the hall, streaking past the point where Tricia might catch sight of her should she proceed upstairs; instead mom stays below, listening for and detecting paws-with-claws on the hardwood floor above, as Scraps betrays his whereabouts—an action totally missed by the second story scan-cams (which Brick, of course, disabled lest her trespass be recorded).

Though years have passed since Peter’s tragic death, his wife maintains vigilance; circumstantial evidence come to light indicates foul play. Tricia’s faith in the government, never all that strong, has steadily devolved into grievous mistrust as America’s War on Terror continues to be waged, the country’s tilt toward tyranny grown ever steeper with civil liberties suspended “until further notice” by Homeland Security.

Brick, though apolitical, takes delight in radical shenanigans. Her trait of studied innocence is a source of concern; Tricia worries keenly about her daughter’s inexperience. To be technologically savvy while ways-of-the-world naive i.e. intellectually gifted while emotionally unstable, is to flirt with unnamed disaster—as well as to flourish in a realm where safeguards are minimal and supervision vain; Brick’s navigation through cyberspace is both accomplished and progressively ungovernable.

“Uh-oh, where’s my Lynx—have you seen it, Scraps—my headgear? I must’ve… shit! Go get it, boy. Fetch; fetch; NOW!”

The likelihood of Scraps actually retrieving the left-behind contraband, on a scale of one to ten is one minus one. What Brick is hoping to achieve—once her demand is duly processed by a brain that knows the terms and that something is expected of him and that he ought to get a move on—is to blame her missing Lynx on the unsuspecting pooch, who is prone to taking an object, trotting off with it, dropping it at some distance, then waiting for…whoever…to play his favorite game:

as Scraps recalls he was playing on the evening Peter vanished, having used the backdoor dog flap on an urgent end-around to intercept his master before he sped away (forever), almost running Scraps over when backing down the drive, slamming on the brakes, exiting the vehicle, verifying the animal had escaped any harm, hugging Scraps with more than usual fondness while giving his head (at last) a farewell pat, then commandeering an uncollected newspaper and hurling it… none too far. Scraps had gone in pursuit then dutifully waited… as Peter rummaged the glove compartment, found a chewed-up tennis ball, climbed from behind the wheel and held up the chartreuse prize, throwing it… way off yonder… where it bounced… bounced… bounced… got hit by a truck… rolled on even further… and by the time Scraps overtook it Peter plus car were both out of sight… remaining out of sight all night, Scraps could affirm; he did not leave that ball until an hour after sunrise.

“Briana, what is this—as if I didn’t know—and how did it find its way into my off-limits bedroom?” Tricia barks, her bite much worse than Scraps’ when doling out persecution; three whole weeks without her Lynx (meaning without any tech support whatsoever save for household appliances) surely constituted punishment ‘cruel and unusual’; three whole days would have been more just; but to make her go cold-turkey (not even an ePhone to mitigate desperation, let alone BOREDOM) then to slap on padlock passwords (which Brick, pdq, had cracked) conspired to spoil the triumph of Brick’s latest escapade: interception of a CHP Drone by Return-To-Sender signals, a stunt that generated shockwaves through Air Defense Command—where they reconfigured their system but never caught the culprit.

Mom knew none of the details; Brick had been ultra clever, covering her tracks by using the Outernet exclusively (the so-called Hacker’s Haven where cyber thieves, politicos, and “terrorists” rove secure in their random insecurity, anarchists anonymous, most of whom left Tags thus flaunted their transgressions before retreating into CHAOS).

Tricia had gotten wind of her daughter’s criminality from an independent source. At Stanford (where she still taught) there was a contingent of cyber-centric geeks, one of whom admired the infamous DRONE OP, and thought to credit its author:

“PROFESSOR EVERSON-TRUESDALE,” the text message read. “BRILLIANT OP; MY COMPLIMENTS! I GATHER YOU AREBrickAvatar?” to which was added a postscript “SS” (meaning Secret Safe, the protocol high-end hackers used to indemnify their own).

Yours admiringly,BlueCrowAvatar

At home, upstairs in Briana’s Inner Sanctum (the room that once housed Rose now Mission Control) affixed to its primary Touch-Screen’s mercurial perimeter, Tricia found a solitary icon: magnetic, three-dimensional, smaller than a thumb, and identical to the one acknowledged by BLUE CROW (an avatar no less notorious, evidently, than hers he/she had deduced… almost… too close for comfort… indicative of some trapdoor, backdoor vulnerability far more worrisome than parental displeasure).

“What op?” “Whose op?” “How many ops, to date?”

Tricia’s questions had been thrusts that Brick, for the most part, parried; while infractions to which she confessed were deliberately inexplicit…

…if nonetheless sufficient for incurring the 3-week punishment that Brick, by using her headgear, has carelessly defied.

“I won’t bother to ask, young lady, how you managed to pick the locks. Suffice it to say, you have added another week to your over-lenient penalty, after which you will be on strict probation for another 30 days.”

 Drone

“You would think her degree was in Law, Scraps, not in English Literature. Instead of Charlotte Bronte, I got a parole officer for a mother. Another week of this torture might constitute war crimes. Not that anyone cares about torture and war crimes since dad’s ilk ruled the roost. Yes, Scraps, I hacked it; your former master’s file. Do you have any idea how I learned Arabic in a week or how I managed to download—telepathically—gigs of information? Doctor Peter Truesdale-Everson, that’s how; he’s how; thanks to him—and his clique of GITMO gangsters—I have ‘specialized’ powers, not to mention ‘waterlogged’ nightmares.”

If Scraps assimilates these revelations, his mug fails to show it. Mucous-eyed, he gapes at her who more and more resembles his forever-absent lord. Imbued with adoration, the old dog licks Brick’s toe and tastes the clear-cut link that validates his devotion. Faintly but assuredly daughter derives from father, their common traits expressed in uncanny markers… hers perplexingly enhanced. What did Peter do to up Brick’s ante? How was it achieved? Could it be replicated? Or was it a short-lived fluke like some cul-de-sac mutation incapable of being passed to subsequent generations, or, if inheritable, doomed to sustain abuse by people rated normal, those for whom diversity equals perversity, Mother Nature equals God, and woe be unto any who challenge the sanctity of status-quo Creation? None of this does Scraps have pause to contemplatedetermined, as he is, to repress a pending sneeze.

Side View Mirror 

Jack Black suffers from puppy love and from pornographic flashbacks. Perhaps the onset of puberty explains both phenomena. Hormones surge through his system like madcap avengers, seeking retribution for acts he would commit if given half the chance: touching, tasting, sniffing, ogling, listening to Amanda’s heartbeat as seductions, he imagines, coax a symphony of sighs… occupy, preoccupy, and otherwise overrun his adolescent sensestainted by prurient reveries, depicting exploits better named ‘sexploits’ not of his design, ranging from hungrily excessive to cravenly obscene. Masturbation helps, but only as a stopgap. The activity Jack most craves (from dawn to dusk and dusk to dawn) is doing unto Amanda what he would have Amanda do unto him: engage, that is, in a mucilaginous orgy of reciprocal delights—warped by cruder passions (recollections?) that strike him as depraved, that corrupt infatuation with outtakes from a skin flick where mismatched sex and violence dissolutely overlap in scenes that Jack intuits but in which he plays no role except to bear mute witness and guilt by association.

Déjà vu comes closest to describing these vivid reminiscences, each impression lingering (like a face without a name or a place viewed out-of-context), defying total recall; ordinarily Jack remembers everything that has ever happened to him; to him, which begs the question: How remember Jean? Most of what he knows about his mother stems from research done online—where websites come and go with a harlequin’s caprice, vintage websites leaving nary a trace in the reconfigured CLOUD. News clips, obituaries, archives, and high school yearbooks have primarily informed him. Were Jack to have discovered the slightest reference to Blind Boobs dot com, his mental image of Jean (and her assailant) might shed substantial light. Instead, whenever he thinks about breasts (Amanda’s in particular) an image comes to mind of sucking them so longingly he drains their tips of color (which somehow triggers a host of connotations that he classifies as DARK).

Cross-questioning aimed at George (who seldom speaks of Jean) does little to illuminate.

“No, son; you never had a wetnurse,” George avows.

“Mm,” Jack reconsiders, dismissing Theory A and positing Theory B which ventures into territory heretofore out-of-bounds. “Was mom—you know, before I was born—planning to breastfeed?” a query that pokes at any number of bruises on the widower’s wounded heart, George’s intimate knowledge about his spouse kept strictly confidential. Who was Jean to Jack anyway, beyond an incubator? Whereas who Jean was to George filled vacancies so utterly no one since has tried; or whenever attempts were made, George curtly rebuffed them.

“What’s all this about boobs; are you having sex, Jack—other than by your lonesome?”

The blush that overtakes his cheek betrays Jack’s impropriety. He might as well admit Amanda is a wet dream, inspiring the emissions he often helps along. Hairy palm regardless, he presses his hypotheses.

“No such luck, Dad; getting back to Mom. No videos, discs, or even snapshots? It’s like she never was.”

“Not from where I sit; to me she always IS and always will be. Where you see empty spaces I see love forlorn but never love forgotten; mine for her is endless.”

“Gee, Dad, lovely sentiment! Mind if it gets borrowed?”

“You are involved with someone.”

“Don’t I wish; no, so far she sees through me. Sorry to be a snoop, but lately—Jean, I guess I should call Mom—has been paying me visits. Stuff I couldn’t possibly know just pops into my head, and she, or someone I envision looking like Jean, gives me glimpses into settings, timeframes, even events that predate my existence, which is why I’m pestering you, asking for confirmation. Did Mom have some… anomaly, for example—did Jean, I mean—that made her unusual?”

“Jean was one of a kind; that much I’ll grant; beyond that, can we drop it? Raking up the past does no one any good.”

Though raking up the past already has begun:

·            for George, by way of this reminder,

·            for Jack, by means of—visitations, he has dubbed them—which he strives to comprehend.

George

still angry at the senselessness, the unfairness of his wife’s untimely death, calls to mind the grizzly aspects: the shattering of her skull on impact with a windshield…

Jack

pictures Jean struck by a van’s extended side-mirror that clipped her in the face as the vehicle swerved to avoid her…

George

sees her features so smashed that hope made it impossible to ID the corpse, hope that it was not Jean; it looked so unlike her…

Jack

deduces that his mother never knew what hit her, was struck the instant she had turned; a look cast over her shoulder blinding her to the oncoming traffic…

George

recalls Jean, below the neck, was practically unscathed. The driver went un-cited—beyond an order to repair faulty brakes. Witnesses said that Jean had run into the crosswalk. Why would a woman heavy-with-child be running in the first place?

Jack

believes she was being chased, which he cannot confirm, chased by a man whose image tattooed both retinas of his panic-stricken prey: a large man armed with a spike of sorts that Jean had managed to elude when she broke free and bolted…

George

rues not a soul—neither witnesses nor police—offered any explanation for the pregnant lady’s rush, though he has ceased to agonize about where to place the blame…

Jack

seems less dismissive once convinced Jean’s death was caused and that the cause was less benign than a tragic midday accident. But how rely on clues so mysteriously perceived?

George’s sketchy facts combined with Jack’s hallucinations form an incomplete account…

Ice Pick

…that he, by whom Jean also is survived, rounds out retrospectively.

Gary Archibald Fillmore

knows the bitch was in his grasp; he had her dead-to-rights, should have stuck her first then humped her while she hemorrhaged; it might have made her juicy. It might have made her tight. It might have braced the bone in his momentary hard-on. But Bee-Bee lied—she lied, like all whores lie to dupe their needy clients—hinted she was starved for lack of penetration; knocked-up girls got less, she claimed, the more their bellies swelled because their cunts went slack in order to spew their figure-spoiling contents. Hell, he could’ve raped them both, if only he’d held on, secured that hank of hair when she knelt, undid his belt, and wrestled down his britches—when his wallet tumbled out and he squatted to retrieve it then lost his fucking balance as she hauled off and slugged him, damn near broke his nose, along with his grip, before she pulled a flat-out sprint. BAM! Caught it in the kisser. Bought it on the spot; the sound alone was lethallike an egg goes SPLAT when thrown against a wall. Nasty. Served her right; even had she lived, she would have lived deformed, given the awful impact. Good thing folks watched her instead of some half-nude vagrant pissing beside his U-Haul; brilliant stroke, repelling all would-be snitches by taking a public leak. By the time he buttoned up, approaching sirens were audible. By the time he joined the gawkers, cops were on the scene. And by the time an ambulance delivered the remains, he was eating a double cheeseburger at a joint up the street.

Umbilical Cord 

Jack refrains from burdening his father with troubling information, especially insofar as it comes from a suspect source. Fear cannot be passed from mother to child umbilically. Even if it could, how explain the graphics? Jack can actually see who-what-and-where while having his flashbacks. None can be attributed to his personal experience; like a toddler playing Mozart having never seen the score, Jack has certain talents remarkably well developed… for which Wally, Jack recalls, advanced an explanation.

WALLY

“Suppose that, for the sake of argument, prodigies are remembering.”

JACK

“Past lives?”

WALLY

“No. Or not what that old-wives’-tale typically suggests. Suppose our DNA encodes more than we imagine, beyond the basic blueprint that seems to start from scratch, but, in truth, is a composite of two separate entities. Moms and dads are usually quite mature when they start to reproduce. If life experiences contribute to our genetics, are we not, in a comprehensive sense, our parents and our parents’ parents and their parents’ parents ad infinitum? Think of how our lives would be transformed were we to embody those generations, their knowledge, skills, philosophies, and cumulative expertise.”

JACK

“Their superstitions, prejudices, and bloodthirsty grudges?”

WALLY

“Jack, lad, wherefore such cynicism? Okay, let’s say vices, too, are transmittable. The idea I’m advancing is that we are—or some of us are—what might be called summations; those of us who retain our age-old heritage.”

JACK

“Like heirlooms in the attic?”

WALLY

“Like knacks or special gifts.”

JACK

“My beating you at chess, for instance, without fail?”

WALLY

“Well, that I’d have to number among your vices, but, yes. The fact that you were reading way before you could even crawl I’d number among your virtues. You, Jack, are an ADEPT. It takes one to know one.”

But Jack did not subscribe to the Wizard’s weird contention; not then, not now. For all Wally’s erudition, he failed to make the case, and his ward declined to join the clique, club, or cult—whatever—much to the chagrin of its designated others, who somehow kept in touch, according to his nibs, Jack’s mentor-in-absentia. Where is Wally presently? Should Jack reestablish contact? Or should he let the impasse sustain their separation?

 Gladiolus

“I don’t care if he’s smarter than Albert Einstein, he looks like my kid brother,” Amanda counters, shocked by the mere suggestion that Jack is a suitable date.

“Why not fuck him and be done with it? Maybe he’ll surprise you. We all should be so unlucky to be sent an armful of flowers.”

“Glads, Beth; he sent me gladioli. They’re only seen at funerals.”

“I thought he wrote on the card, ‘I’m dying to know you.’”

“So?”

“So there; funereal gladiolas? Dying to know you? He’s being clever.”

“Obnoxious is more like it; ‘Boy-Genius’ will not quit. Yesterday I found a poem he’d written on masking tape stuck on the sidewalk outside our dorm for the whole world to see. There are laws, you know, against majors messing with minors; I could be arrested for yielding to temptation. ‘Temptation?!’ what am I saying? The boy’s still a tadpole.”

“But think of his enthusiasm. I’ll bet you’ll be his first.”

“I’ll bet I’m no such thing, and that decision’s final.”

“I don’t care if he’s smarter than Albert Einstein, he looks like my kid brother,” Amanda counters, shocked by the mere suggestion that Jack is a suitable date.

“Why not fuck him and be done with it? Maybe he’ll surprise you. We all should be so unlucky to be sent an armful of flowers.”

“Glads, Dot; he sent me gladioli. They’re only seen at funerals.”

“I thought he wrote on the card, ‘I’m dying to know you.’”

“So?”

“So there; funereal gladiolas, dying to know you; he’s being clever.”

“Obnoxious is more like it. The ‘Boy-Genius’ will not quit. Yesterday I found a poem he’d written on masking tape stuck on the sidewalk outside our dorm for the whole world to see. There are laws, you know, against majors messing with minors; I could be arrested for yielding to temptation. ‘Temptation?!’ what am I saying? The boy’s still a tadpole.”

“But think of his enthusiasm. I’ll bet you’ll be his first.”

“I’ll bet I’m no such thing, and that decision is final.”

LoveFool

Rain anoints the poem where it is fixed to a darkening patch of pavement. The tape on which it is penned begins to lose its grip. The ink proves not so durable it can stave off bashful bleeding, its sentiments going soggy under the steady downpour (unnoticed or ignored by her to whom they plead), their author risking ridicule to woo perchance to win a heart that is unlikely to throb on his account.

‘The problem is: not so much my tender years as my rigid motivation, made all the more conspicuous by a near-constant hard-on. Funny how the body rules the mind and drives it nuts, steers it, without brakes, to the brink of lovers’ leap. “All is fair in love and war,” as if the two were linked, calling into question the very urge itself. The urge to do what, exactly; to mate; to reproduce? Not on my agenda. Fellow classmates never mention progeny when they rave about intercourse. Cause and effect, evidently, are poles apart. Why, I wonder… whenever rationality gives my bothered balls a break?’

Standing in the rain-washed quad, Jack, without an umbrella, regards his waterlogged work… tries to hatch some other ingenious ploy for courting his beloved… worries she already regards him as a pest.

‘Amanda’s showing signs of irritation… which I, of course, could neutralize, but that would be unfair… vain, too; my self-interests and hers are sadly incompatible… chronologically speaking.’

Soaked to the skin, Jack fails to budge. Passersby avoid him or fail to take any notice of his squishy inertia. One exception approaches (if anything, Jack is approachable), peeks beneath the hood that shelters his boyish face (though tall, Jack really looks young, even for his age), and reaches out to touch one saturated shoulder.

“You okay?”

His reverie breaks.

“Why, was I woolgathering?”

“If that means were you standing in this deluge like a zombie, yeah.”

Jack checks his immediate surroundings: grass, trees, sidewalk, steps ahead that lead to the entrance of a dorm.

“Do you think I ought to go home, take a hot shower, and put on some dry clothes?”

The Good Samaritan grins.

“All of the above, in exactly that order.”

“Thanks; that’s good advice,” Jack affirms sincerely.

Like someone heading in the opposite direction from the one he was pursuing, Jack reverses course and plods off through the puddles.

Saddleshoes

Out and about with her faithful on-a-leash pal, Brick accompanies Scraps for his morning constitutional, feeling very much led by the mutt’s headstrong tug as tree trunks, lampposts, fire hydrants, and trashcans magnetize his muzzle, educate his guesses as to who among his canine peers has peed on each before, how long ago, of which gender, and whether or not (if female) neutral or in heat—of academic interest only; as a stud, or even as an incidental rival, Scraps has retired.

Seated on a park bench, his Pug turned loose to romp around the designated Pet Zone, a man (in his forties, Brick estimates), on-the-make (she deduces), runs a rapacious leer over sundry ‘possibilities’; Brick, overlooked among them, sashays into action.

“Hi,” she greets the predatory stranger, her inflexion slightly awkward and her body language bold. “Do you gots a dollar in your wallet; I don’t want one. Is anybody sittin’ here, Mister?”

Her second question garners a lukewarm invitation.

“Be my guest,” offers the man, gesturing with an open palm toward the vacancy beside him.

“Can’t; I’m not ’uppose’ to talk ta strangers on-accounta they could harm me,” Brick asserts, reciting as if by rote some cardinal prohibition.

(‘Retard,’ is the stranger’s mute evaluation; he looks for Brick’s attendant, assumes she must have someone watching over her, but only sees the pooch.)

“You are already.”

“I ‘are already’ what?” Brick wants to know, demands to know, her posture, of a sudden, dramatically defensive.

“Talking to a stranger; but we can fix that. My name is Joel.”

Brick drops her jaw, lets her tongue loll, shuts one eye and with the other studies this stranger-no-longer-a-stranger because he claims his name is Joel.

“Okay, I’ll sit down but you gots to promise not ta touch me.”

So saying, Brick settles beside him. Her legs, too short for reaching the ground, dangle, as from hinges, while she flexes dimpled knees, exposed between her bobby socks and the hiked-up hem of her skirt, its parochial plaid indicative of a private school uniform.

“What makes you think I, your newest acquaintance, would want to lay a hand on you?”

Brick intensifies her scowl while apparently struggling to formulate a suitable reply.

“I don’t gots on undies; that’s why,” she affirms with deadpan candor, examining Joel’s reaction for the faintest hint of lechery—her mentally disabled, sexually precocious, duplicitous masquerade achieving its effect; Joel, despite a wave of self-reproach, feels a bulge in his Dockers’ khaki crotch. Again he glances around, wary of some sting, some FBI-style entrapment meant to waylay park-side pedophiles.

“And why would that, pray tell, be of any interest to me, if you don’t mind my asking?”

(‘Hooked,’ Brick’s subtext whispers; she need only reel him in.)

“Do you gots a hundred dollar bill inside your wallet?” She neglects to add the previous ‘I don’t want one.’

(‘Maybe not so handicapped as she acts,’ Joel decides, too late; Brick’s proximity, almost in his lap, has been noted by nearby dog-walkers; every move, henceforward, will be witnessed and critiqued.)

Joel—like a practiced snake charmer confident in his agility should this nubile viper strike—opts to play along, the hazard irrespective.

“That’s a lot of money to be carrying, don’t you think?”

Brick extends her lips in a consternated pout.

“Never mind; goodbye.” She scooches off the bench, her trailing skirt affording a peek-a-boo glimpse at her naked derriere.

Joel’s crotch bulges a trifle larger with contemplation of acts he won’t commit. He surely wants no jailbait—be she cretinous or precocious—to jeopardize his liberty. He surely has no history of molesting wayward youths—this little minx no older than twelve, he estimates, possibly younger. And he surely won’t part easily with a hundred dollar bill—even though he has one. Brick’s precipitate departure, on the other hand, strikes him as piquant.

“What’s your hurry, kiddo, and why do you need the cash?”

Brick stops short and pivots, inflates her rosy cheeks, blows the bangs from her forehead, and stands with arms akimbo… poised, thereby, to deliver a preplanned speech.

“I gots a George and a Abe and a Alexander and a Andrew and a Ulysses but I don’t gots a Benjamin,” she elucidates, expecting quick comprehension of her banknote collection.

Joel mistakes her ploy for empty-headed babble.

“That’s a pretty big family. Are they why you want money?”

(Brick breaks character briefly as if to say: ‘You’ve labeled me a dimwit when you’re dumb-as-

dirt?’)

Disregarding Joel’s thickness, she tacks on a clue.

“I’ll swap ya two George Washingtons, if you want ’em, for one Ben Franklin.”

Finally, Joel comprehends the youngster’s (guileless?) aim, deciding she is unaware or unconcerned about relative face-values.

“Two for one, eh? Do you have those singles on you?”

“Show me yours, I’ll show you mine,” Brick states without a smirk, while Joel’s expression registers the double entendre. Thrice his groin forewarns him; he is flirting with disaster.

Reaching inside his sport coat, he takes out a billfold. Keeping it close to his chest, he slowly pries it open, exposing, in its cleft, a hundred dollar bill. Before he can clap it closed, Brick helps herself.

“Hey!” Joel tries to snatch back the bill but captures empty air.

Brick retreats a step and holds her prize aloft.

Scraps, quiescent to this point, lifts his nose and “WOOFS.”

All eyes in the park now pivot to investigate the bench where a little girl is clutching what appears to be legal tender, the bill’s denomination open to speculation, as is the reason it is offered, lent, or paid; interpretations vary… until they coalesce once bearing witness to the act that next transpires, when the child pulls up her skirt, exposes her naked privates, then skips away down the footpath with her scruffy dog in tow.

 Nun

Later that same day, underwear restored, plaid skirt worn full-length, not even a sliver of upper thigh apparent, retro saddle shoes polished like a pair of shiny squad cars, pageboy bangs abutting eyebrows unembellished by cosmetics plied demurely, lipstick faint, complexion oh-so-slightly speckled like the surface of a sparrow’s egg, Brick sits midst a sorority of classmates, few as recherché (Dermadorn is prohibitive), fewer still as congenitally rebellious, none as bright or brave or apt to chide the nuns about their “ludicrous religion.”

“Hay-Soos was immaculately conceived? He had no corporeal connection to His mom, the Virgin Mary?” Brick asks, pronouncing Jesus as if he were Hispanic.

“Essentially, that’s correct,” Sister Sheffus reiterates.

“So he was born without a navel?”

“Are you being snide, Miss Everson-Truesdale, or is your question genuine?”

“Snide and genuine both; I’m taxed by the ecumenical rift between faith and gynecology. Was Mary a postpartum virgin or did childbirth pop her cherry?”

“That will be enough of your irreverence; we do not tolerate blasphemy.”

“Nor use of rational argument to refute moronic claims. Tut-tut; not to worry; I won’t rock your ark. Hay-Soos had a bellybutton, Mary retained her hymen, and Joseph wasn’t a cuckold—sloppy seconds notwithstanding.”

“Office!” Sister Sheffus points to the 10th grade classroom’s door, a gesture she makes often when coping with Briana, relegating discipline to the Directress whose patience far exceeds that of the teaching staff, most of whom have objected, lo these many years, to the problem-child’s enrollment.

Brick unplugs her Connect Set and casually complies, confident Angelina Collingwood will neither suspend nor expel her; California Law and Sweet Reasonableness stand en garde—not to mention Trisha who pays double for the dissident’s tuition.

 Sans Bellybutton

“Why must you antagonize your instructors, dear Briana, when you know they’re duty-bound to defend our Christian Faith?” Angelina asks, admonishing Brick more for style than for substance.

Your Christian faith,” Brick corrects. “Mine transcends such nonsense and is nondenominational.”

“Oh?” Angelina looks surprised. “Might you care to elaborate on your creed; I was unaware you had one?”

Brick does not, has not, until now put forth any given doctrine, but recent inexplicable input has resurrected doubts, raised them from the archive of her father’s classified work and exhumed a host of riddles alongside his legacy—which the DoD expunged from all save a single record, the report that Brick has pilfered (to date, undetected) and committed to memory. Using a Southern drawl, she articulates her position.

“I’ll gladly expound on our Lord God n’ Massah, Creator of all things in-the-Black, Destroyer of all things in-the-Red, Omnipotent to a fault and Supreme among every tribe and nation, your best friend and mine provided we pay our taxes—worship replaced by tribute in our nation’s coin-of-the-realm, Mammon’s pile of gold and Shylock’s pound of flesh paling by comparison to Lord Sam’s GNP; in Him we trust implicitly; it says so on our money.”

Angelina gapes at Briana’s transmutation from reprimanded smartass to Dixieland orator, replete with Alabama accent, grandiose gestures, and genteel turns of phrase. Proteus, next to Brick, would seem a shape-shifting amateur.

“I’m not sure the US government and Almighty God are in the same league. Since when have you linked Deity with the ways and means of governance; and why this affectation in your manner of speech? Honestly, Briana, you sometimes crack me up.”

Brick almost guffaws but that would be discourteous; her character is polite; political, yes; sarcastic, through and through; yet Brick’s projection of Godhead is born of recent insight. What the DoD, in particular, put into place was like Heaven-and-Hell on Earth; whoever reaped reward and/or suffered punishment was determined at the Top, without recourse to dissent, each life-and-death decision handed down by three-lettered authorities. If that had been going on then, could worse be happening now? Was Peter’s persecution child’s-play with respect to present practices? Had his breakthrough been acknowledged and further developed, or had it died with him… or would have died with Peter Truesdale-Everson had Briana Everson-Truesdale not received her father’s gift, an endowment for which Brick is ambivalently grateful? In a sense, he made her extraordinary; in a sense, he fucked her up; deciding which prevails will occupy Brick for years, a process launched in earnest now that she is privy to contents of THE FILE:

ITEM: surveillance tapes show suspect engaged in unauthorized activity

ITEM: colleagues note a change in suspect’s interactions

ITEM: attitude toward enhanced interrogation progressively censorious

ITEM: indiscreet behavior reportedly on the rise

ITEM: tangents taken discovered and reprimanded roundly

ITEM: suspect’s commitment and effectiveness called into question

ITEM: new Administration warrants program’s hiatus

ITEM: data ordered erased, Operation Singsong aborted

ITEM: suspect exhibiting serious signs of stress, oath of office jeopardized

ITEM: Risk Assessment: hazardous; request termination

ITEM: Termination granted; archetype: accidental

ITEM: suspect decommissioned; Status: neutralized; Repercussions: nil               

ITEM: Next of kin investigated

ITEM: Next of kin absolved

Curious term “absolved” in the Annals of Autocracy, Brick reflects, her appearance before Ms. Collingwood having ended without penalty—aside from a concession to refrain from undue sacrilege. “Absolved” suggests forgiveness. But who, forsooth, had sinned? Peter for depositing in his daughter an experimental chip, or Tricia for allowing the covert alteration, or Scraps for failing to protect his master’s unborn child?

“I guess the buck stops here,” Brick pats Scraps’ knobby noggin. The two lie side-by-side in Trisha’s Stanford office where Brick has just performed an exculpatory search, nothing all that incriminating having bubbled to the surface—other than her mom’s subscribing to an online dating service; that raised Brick’s vermilion-tinted eyebrows, arched over mood-reflector irises, their hue having turned from hazel to a disapproving puce (weekend war paint free from codes enforced by weekday parochialism).  Scraps resettles his jowls onto Brick’s bare midriff, her drum-tight skin supporting his doggy-doily looseness, youth plus a regimen of sit-ups, push-ups, and pull-ups toning Brick’s petite physique, age plus a daily dose of protein-boosted puppy chow keeping Scraps’ extant infirmly. The pair, except when impractical, are seldom seen apart.

“It’s not that I expected Mom to be harboring memorabilia in a cache detached from what she stores at home—none of which is adequately locked hence effortlessly picked. Security measures here are a tad more elaborate, but really, Scraps, their encryption would scarcely stump a dolt.”

Sedated by the cadence of Brick’s steady breathing, Scraps absorbs these comments as resonant vibrations; the abdomen below his jaw sonorously hums.

“Maybe too much time has passed for Mom to care about Peter. Certainly subsequent upgrades have made his memory fade; there’s not a single reference on any of these computers, the ones still functioning. That relic in the corner might be worth a snoop. But floppy discs? How read them, without resurrecting Zeus?”

Swipe-cards filched from Tricia’s purse then 3D copied stealthily, have granted Brick and her canine accomplice campus-wide access. Next stop on their reconnaissance is the school’s pneumatic library, its limitless collection and interactive peer-ports a hacker’s wildest dream. With pockets full of hundred gig extractors, Brick leads Scraps toward a treasure trove of intelligence waiting to be pirated.

 No Dogs Allowed

“Sorry, Miss. Dogs are not allowed. And aren’t you a wee bit young to have a Faculty Passkey?”

“You’ve heard of premature aging?” Brick asks the Admissions Guard. “I suffer from its reverse; the older I get, the younger I appear. In truth, I’m forty-seven.”

“In truth, you’re full of shit; but you do have a Swiper. Park the pooch out front then come back in, empty your pockets here; the airlock entry’s there.”

Foreseeing these restrictions, Brick has come prepared. After tying Scraps outside to a Segway hub she reenters, divests herself of gum (a dozen 5-packs, each containing an extractor artfully concealed), and steps through the x-ray airlock to retrieve…

“What’s with all the Wrigley’s?”

“I buy in bulk; it’s cheaper.”

“Stick it anywhere after chewing it, you’ll under house arrest.”

“How’s about I stick it up your ass?” Brick counters saucily, estimating correctly that the Guard lacks real authorityhis uniform alone sufficient to tweak her contumacy.

“Beat it, small fry. Try to mind your manners.”

Brick considers mooning him, but deems the sentry unworthy of a peek at her posterior; instead she swishes off like a bawdy Lilliputian.

Meanwhile Scraps feels tethered (because he is tethered). He also feels lonely (he often feels lonely when Brick is out of sight). The hub, to which he is tied, is devoid of information beyond the faintest scent of a spilled cappuccino (with nary a café whiff-able so the coffee must have been transported). Passersby tell tales with their aromas but Scraps is disinterested (not much stirs his enthusiasm lately; lately seems prolonged; death is like a shadow cast in front of him with the setting sun behind). Birds are curious creatures, Scraps notes idly, as one of their species roosts, shares the metal frame to which vehicles are likewise shackled, their restraints of sturdier stuff than the leather confining him whose collar Peter bought and tasked the pooch to wear whenever out gallivanting. Does Scraps recall his former master? Does a dog forget a chum? Does a decade plus a year plus several months erase a memory of waiting next to a tennis ball for him who threw it to appear while twilight turned into night then into dawn and there was still no sign of the man who, of course, Scraps remembers in minute detail—inarticulate as impressions of the distant past remain. Though who is to say that occasional whines and whimpers the pooch emits—without provocation—are other than spoken reminiscences in the only voice he owns?

Ganglionic Code

NEUROSCIENTIST CRACKS THE GANGLIONIC CODE

Though coincidental research can expedite achievements—many minds from a multitude of disciplines approaching common tasks and goals—to credit who-contributes-what can be a research-tracker’s migraine. Brick, in combing through studies specific and peripheral has zeroed in on Stanford’s most celebrated scholar. Whose current work derives from inquiries made before? Did the eminent professor build upon a scaffold that was less than widely known, so much less that his access must have entailed governmental clearance? Brick, with grim determination and a hacker’s hi-tech skill, has left no stone unturned in excavating the answer.

Techno-talk she comprehends; Academ-Speak seems inscrutable, not so much for its content, rather for its opaque style. Little is stated simply, Brick laments, rationales are circuitous and findings frequently buried in a plethora of bosh. Why, oh, why are science majors exempt from courses in Basic English?

“Gobbledygook,” Brick mutters, as keystrokes yield results, reams of facts and figures flickering through her terminal, passwords-safeguards-firewalls breezily brushed aside, paths to the nitty-gritty self-evident and direct, leading her to data suggestive but… inconclusive. Was he or was he not privy to experiments at Guantanamo? And, if indeed he was, then what would he make of Brick; what would he do were she to lend herself to his far-famed erudition?

 Last Remains

If only Scraps had followed, raced after Peter’s car instead of a lime-green distraction, paid proper attention to his master rather than to chasing an energetic ball that had bounced off a bumper and ended up far further than a typical toss would have taken it, leaving man from his best friend forever disunited; whatever befell the former could be said to have stained the latter with indelible ink or dye or some such pigment as colored Scraps despondent from that day to this. For he never has recovered from that indefensible lapse of canine obligation: standing guard by an object instead of a subject while the latter… met his end, Scraps reckoned, from circumstantial evidence:

·            Trisha’s bouts of weeping

·            Pollen from solemn flowers

·            Visits paid by relatives, neighbors, and acquaintances

·            Clothing drained of hue

·            Numerous somber phone calls

·            Chitchat lacking levity

·            Faces at a loss to tender hopeful smiles

These and more Scraps processed post Peter’s disappearance; would that ‘disappearance’ meant absence less forlorn.

 Wrigley's

“Leaving, small fry? Find what you were after; notes on how to cope with losing your two front baby teeth?”

The Guard stands up at his station as if to dwarf the diminutive Brick. When he turns to admit an arriving patron the departing one pointedly spits; an enormous wad of chewing gum lands on his vacated chair seat… which subsequently glues policeman-blue slacks to imitation leather—detected a wee bit late to apprehend the imp.

Scraps' Tongue 

“Hey, old boy, did you miss me?” Brick greets Scraps, allows his loving licks to lubricate her kisser, hastily unties his leash and leads him toward a kiosk that displays an interactive map of Stanford’s sprawling campus… whereupon she locates their final destination.

 ApplesAndOranges

A puny child, with a good-sized dog by her side, enters—uninvited—Professor Houston’s class. Admission is exclusive; only graduate level elite are entitled to participate. Enrolled are sixteen candidates, all pursuing doctorates in sympathetic disciplines, none with a Grade Point Average that is under four-point-O. Mutt and miss are noticed, then summarily ignored.

The lecture takes its cue, evidently, from “achondroplasia,” a disorder exemplifying a large genetic mutation acquired in one fell swoop, the term and its definition obligingly transcribed on the teacher’s Touch-Tone Monitor.

“Implications, anyone?”

Houston scans the hands raised instantaneously and nods to his left.

“A trait regarded as desirable might similarly develop and be disseminated in record time.”

“Meaning?”

“Short, brief, within a single lifespan.”

“Possibly. So how does one ascertain whether a given trait is ‘desirable’?”

Fewer hands are raised; Houston nods to his right.

“Intelligence; the higher the better. Ask any parent what he or she would choose if offered the chance to up or to lower their offspring’s IQ.”

“Problem,” shouts a student from her back-row seat. “How one measures intelligence can be compromised by biases toward gender, race, ethnicity; each is like a lens that can distort ones point-of-view.”

“Vision, then,” the challenged student retorts. “Twenty-twenty or bust, genetically guaranteed, maybe throw in a wider spectrum of colors that enhanced eyes can discern.”

Houston waits for this to be contested… No one takes a stab.

“Any other suggestions?”

A solitary hand is raised. In order better to be seen, the suggestion-maker stands.

“How about an interface, human to digital, whereby each can learn from the other and have the upshot retained, meaning passed along in toto to subsequent generations?”

Brows are lifted, Houston’s included, toward the interloping waif, who does not flinch under scrutiny; instead Brick strikes a pose of self-assured defiance… the hush that follows breaks with a class-dismissing bell.

Houston gathers his notes as the chamber empties quickly. He beckons toward a straggler; she approaches with her dog.

“How did you get in here, young lady, and who okayed the hound?”

Scraps gives Houston a sniff, much to the prof’s disgruntlement.

“This ‘hound’ is my protector against self-important snobs,” Brick answers archly, patently unimpressed by the exalted PhD, by him who regards her pluck with withering impatience (and a twinge of fascination).

Brick knows more about Houston and his numerous detractors than he has reason to suspect.

Houston knows next to nothing about the pipsqueak confronting him.

Scraps converts his snuffle into a chance to catch some winks.

“And I walked in,” Brick continues, “on my own two feet. Why? Are you off limits because you won a Nobel Prize?”

‘Curiouser and curiouser’ reads the neuroscientist’s subtext as he promptly reassesses, wonders who this sassy scamp might be, why she acts so poised if saucily intractable, where her parents are and how she slipped their leash. “I take it you have an interest in neurobiology; and judging by your comment, I gather you’re semi-literate. Unusual for someone who’s all of ten? Eleven? Twelve?” Brick lets Houston count; Houston stops short of flattering her. “In any case, the interface you describe is strictly science fictional. Brains don’t function digitally; human minds and computers are not analogous; to share and retain information, in the manner you suggest, is practically impossible.”

At least the venerable professor curbs further condescension; talking down to Brick can be a dire mistake.

[Once, in Retard Mode, she was the butt of rash disparagement—compounded by the offender’s penchant for poking, pinching, and punching. Brick had made short work of correcting Jay Jay’s misbehavior by loosening the wheel lugs of his brand-new, 12-speed bike, its swerve and resultant crash inflicting a painful lesson learned. In Eastwood Mode (another of Brick’s personas), she had told him why she did it, and cautioned him “never, ever” to badger the disabled.]

Houston’s assay has conveyed to Brick, in effect, that she is “practically impossible”—a pronouncement she resents.

“Supposing neurons could interact with an implant, for example, in such a way as to alter its original design?”

“‘Implant’ as in…?”

“Micro-processing chip. Stem cell based to guard against rejection. Instantly integrative.”

“Apples and oranges, deary; the two don’t compute.”

“Says who?”

“Says the preponderance of scientific literature on the subject, if you won’t accept my analysis—though why disrupt this class if not to tap my expertise? Now, if you’ll excuse me?”

Houston has business more pressing than bandying theories with a cheeky Lilliputian.

Brick is pensive, dissatisfied with the scholar’s curt replies.

Scraps, relaxed at floor level, prolongs his dreamy snooze (a prelude to the sleep from which he shall not awaken when span from life is lopped and whatever dogs become, once deceased, unfurls its earthly shroud to cover senses lost in the quicksand of nonentity).

As Houston walks toward the exit he activates his earphone to contact Security.

“A child has wandered into Lecture Hall six; collect her, please, immediately and notify her parents.”

 Jack'sCall

“Well I’ll be damned; Jack, lad, where have you been hiding!”

Wally, shocked to hear Jack’s voice when the youngster finally calls, its lower register unstable thus signifying changes…


LowerLower

…changes more pronounced upon meeting him face to face, Jack an imprint of George as modified by Jean with barely a harbinger of stubble on his choirboy cheeks; whereas Wally is further wizened, his wrinkles sunken into grooves, his features framed by a shock of hair disheveled like a massive chalk-white thistle, eyebrows similarly unkempt, their hoary bushiness comical were it not for the azure orbs beneath them: fearsome as a raptor’s, focused telescopically, noting every nuance in the adjacent budding teen—whose boyishness still shines brightly through skin unmarred by acne, whose youth has taken pains to grow qualities more than height; gangling limbs show promise of one day being graceful. But most conspicuous of all, to the Wizard’s keen surprise, is the weight of his apprentice—measured not by kilos but rather by stalwart presence and the unmistakable advent of paranormal power; Jack’s, as an ADEPT, verges on consummation… if jeopardized by a tangent (female in nature) leading him astray.

Wally thinks it unfortunate that Jack has lost his bearings, fallen head-over-heels, he surmises, for some photogenic coed.

Jack resents the censure he detects in Wally’s piercing look—which is anything but mute; in fact it speaks so stridently that café customers surely must overhear (what neither he nor Wally has spoken aloud since the latter’s salutation). Both sip Earl Grey tea in a force field thick with silences.

[Who’s the lucky lady?]

Wally’s lighter-half inquires, hell-bent on sustaining this ‘reconciliation’—or ‘tentative appeal,’ as interpreted by Jack, in need of sound advice from someone less subjective, someone more inclined to offer good counsel without the unconditional fondness of an optimistic father who wants his lanky son to prolong a boyhood Jack outgrew so fast his hormones lagged lamentably and only now are catching up, wreaking havoc with the onset of puberty… from which the sidelined mentor eagerly takes his cue:

[Sex, being procreative, is tantamount to life. Life perpetuates life and thus is the engine that invigorates our planet, holds it on its axis, and keeps inhabitants spinning. Sex makes creatures dizzy, Jack; you look downright punch-drunk.]

[Maybe from its scarcity, not from any glut; Amanda Heartbreaker Sørenson won’t give me a date. Last time I proposed—to share a coffee, was all—my voice cracked.]

Wally’s crow’s-feet deepen, amused but also concerned about the tyro’s flushed libido. Skills like Jack’s misused could reinforce choices an ADEPT should never make; yet how to prevent an extraordinary intellect from being governed by his gonads?

[Have you tried to influence your beloved?]

Jack breaks into normal speech:

“Absolutely not!”

 “‘Methinks thou dost protest too loudly,’” Wally quotes.

“I’ve been tempted, I’ll admit”

“Like those nudniks in the Garden? Adam knew not Eve until the Serpent hissed discreetly.”

“If Satan were available I might ask him for help. Everything I’ve contrived has fallen on stone-deaf ears.”

“Because she has another fella?”

“Because she’s eight years older and I’m some snot-nosed kid; at least I am to her.”

“Oh.”

“Not to mention being statutorily illegal.”

“Time to toss in the towel,” Wally suggests, knowing full-well Jack is far-too-gone for signaling defeat. What he clearly needs is ‘demystification.’ Once he recognizes women as mere catalytic agentswithout whom, granted, reproduction loses its alluresex can be indulged for recreation not procreation; the latter ought to be intentional, in Wally’s estimation; chromosomes mixed at random perpetuate mankind’s rut. Genes exchanged in the throes of mindless nooky preserve the status quo. Offspring fashioned by a frog-froth spate of fluids will evolve, advance, and/or improve not one iota, whereas Mankind Reengineered is the aim of those assigned to nurture the likes of Jack (and the likes of Brick), by the likes of Wally (and the likes of Rose):

[virtually undetected by the many are the few who represent alternatives to breeding-by-the-numbers, who acknowledge human virtues are constrained by human vices, who recognize benevolence and malevolence are coequals, and who understand accomplishments can be sabotaged by failings. If one trait might be tweaked to tilt that problematic balance—either tempered or reshaped or possibly excised—what would make the most of the least alteration? Do people have the right to correct inherent flaws? Who defines what is good in a context rife with evil? Are we created in God’s image; or is God’s a mirror for ours? Those who pose these questions form the matrix of a clique: clandestine, loosely connected, nonhierarchical, and organized in cellshidden from society while plotting its Reformation.]

“Why is this so strong that it’s almost overwhelming?” Jack asks in earnest, feeling like Odysseus lashed to the mast, unable to resist, without voluminous restraints, the terribly lovely tune of a siren’s song.

Birds do it; bees do it Wally wryly croons, pressing palms to his heart in a mock-romantic gesture. “Mating rules the roost, dear lad, or at least compels the rooster, who mounts assorted hens, provided they’re receptive and partial to the charm of his cock-a-doodle-do. You appear to be chasing a fowl emphatically tone-deaf.”

Jack, despite his anguish, manages to grin. All he knows about sex has been gathered secondhand; a poor substitute for experience. Every instinct goads him; reason is unavailing. Reason tastes like oatmeal; he craves ambrosia. Reason smells like deodorant; he wants pungent sweat. Reason feels like burlap; he seeks skin so silky soft that rubbing up against it erects every follicle, enlivens every pore, engenders every touch with fingertip perceptiveness the better to caress Amanda’s mounds and curves, the better to impress her with his manual dexterity, the better to achieve their interactive transport!

[‘Lower, Jack,’ he dreams, he gropes, he fumbles where he dearly wants to fondle, where wetness leaches secrets, where secretions lure his lips, where wisps of fleece like fine-spun gold surround the fringes of his pucker and quiver in the manner of dainty mustachios—‘Lick, Jack, lick’—afraid to hurt or to disappoint so inexperienced is his ardor even make-believe encounters put a damper on his zeal, afraid she’ll taunt him for presuming to incite a woman’s passion, one whose body is uncharted, whose emotions lie concealed, and whose anticipation scolds his schoolboy insecurity for foisting unripe yens and hapless hopes and puerile appetites at the risk of gross incompetenceFool!enthusiastic, yes, but how to satisfy needs deemed hers when his are grossly inarticulate, tantamount to an imbecile’s first attempt at poetry: garbled, trite, his craven clumsiness betrayed by every kiss bestowed, tickles spoiling titillation, laughter undermining moans, uncertain where to stroke, how gently or how roughly, confused by mute instructions, when to pause perchance to tease and when to plunge without compunction—‘Come inside of me, Jack’—bewildered, stymied by a labyrinth of adolescent longing wherein lust is lost to sabotage by a phallus turned blunt instrument… not what Jack would feign inflict on his Scandinavian bride, whose heart of seeming ice he yearns to thaw then win.]

Lick

As good as it was to meet again the (opinionated) Wizard, his counsel, Jack decides, is dubiously helpful. Like George, Wally disapproves of Ms. Sørenson, if for a very different reason; Amanda, according to Wally, is not only “robbing the cradle” she personifies “chalcopyrite” (“fool’s gold,” Jack discovers upon looking up the term; as with much of Wally’s cynosure comprehension lags).

For now some surefire stratagem needs must be devised to catapult Jack into the arms of his disinclined beloved.

As good as it was to meet again the Wizard Jack decides his counsel is not much help. Like George, Wally disapproves of Ms Sørenson, if for a very different reason; Amanda, according to Wally, is not only “robbing the cradle” she is “corporeal chalcopyrite” (“fool’s gold,” Jack discovers upon looking up the epithet; as with much of Wally’s cynosure, reactions get delayed).

For now some surefire stratagem needs be devised to catapult Jack into the arms of his beauteous beloved.

 

THE GRAND SCHEME

STEP ONE: send a single orchid to Amanda at her dormitory. Include a handwritten note sealed in an envelope. Leave the note unsigned.

Single Orchid

STEP TWO: book a room in A. Sørenson’s name at the Claremont Hotel. Pay in advance, in cash, mid-afternoon, and arrange for another identical orchid to be placed on a king-size bed’s counterpane—ideally in the pucker between its matching pair of pillows.

Orchid and Pillows

STEP THREE: buy a parti-colored ski mask with the eyes and mouth cut out; ensure that it looks cheerful and not the least bit threatening.

Ski Mask

STEP FOUR: distribute all over campus—on walls, doors, monuments, trees, bulletin boards, etc.—photocopies of a poster reading:

Wanted Poster

 

“I think it’s ridiculous.”

“Do you really? I think it’s charming; a bit peculiar, maybe, but quaint. Someone has an unorthodox admirer. You don’t suppose it’s…?”

“I sure as Hell hope not! What’s-his-name was told—quite recently in fact—to knock it off or else.”

“‘Or else’ what?”

“Or else I’d get a Restraining Order and have the pollywog served.”

“Ah, well; we should all be so unlucky to be sought after with such chivalry.”

“Chivalry does not dress like a suicide bomber.”

“Pastels notwithstanding?”

“Besides; a pollywog, in disguise, is still a baby frog.”

“Who might become a Prince were the right lips to smooch him.”

You can flirt with the ‘Molestation of a Minor’; I prefer school to prison.”

Amanda, no less adamant than when Jack last accosted her (grinning ear-to-ear, covered head-to-foot with permutations of his inamorata’s name, rolling up his sleeves and pant legs to display how comprehensive was his Magic-Marker lettering—which like as not continued under clothes he left in place—his cherubic cheeks as scribbled as the length of his extremities).

 Magic Marker

{That was dumb; I have to admit. The original idea was to doodle on each other; I’d do her; she’d do me; we’d color-in the spaces by way of getting acquainted… nude, of course, our bare skin used like papyrus for intimate hieroglyphics. But I got carried away while trying out the concept. Mostly by pretending it was she who autographed me. Everywhere; or everywhere I could reach. Judging by her reaction, she wasn’t all that flattered.}

Handcuffs 

This latest stunt, if his, will put the skids on any further overtures; Amanda is in earnest about calling the authorities—though the charge she intends to level: “Sexual Harassment,” could boomerang, countercharging her with: “Corrupting the Morals of a Minor”; stranger things have happened.

Few stranger, apropos, than the handwritten note that accompanies a single cattleya propped against Amanda’s door (the courier too impatient, evidently, to await confirmation while Amanda, doing her nails, refused to be disturbed until vermillion polish dried).

Detaching a mini-envelope from the orchid’s floral water tube, she opens and reads—another poem?—with mounting aggravation.

we don’t really know one another;
in effect, we have scarcely met,
except to swap impressions,
mine favorable,
yours a little less so,
mine skin-shallow, mesmerized by your loveliness,

yours dismissive, put off by my youth,

both of us deprived by ironclad identities

encasing our aloofness,

safe within ourselves,

our shells,

our armor-plated egos and distance-keeping vanity.

Please, Amanda, accept my invitation:

a room for you has been booked

this Friday night at the Claremont Hotel.

I will knock at midnight

admit me

or do not

the latter shall ensure my wooing you

ends forever

CrumpledLetter

“Do it.”

“Are you nuts? It’s probably a sting.”

“Amanda, this boy isn’t out to trap you. Where’s the harm? At least take advantage of the Claremont; he spent some bucks; I hear it’s pretty swanky.”

“I am not about to be bought for a one-night-stand by a child with a big allowance. At issue is whether he’ll keep his promise even if I’m a no-show.”

“Don’t you think that’s cruel?”

“‘Cruel’ would be to accept the pricy room and let him languish in the hallway.”

Beth concedes the point with a noncommittal shrug. If she were in Amanda’s shoes she’d fuck this kid’s socks off; so what if he’s underage age; he’s nonetheless tall, the penultimate virtue, in Beth’s estimation; tall expresses dominance, dominance equals masculine, masculine is the trait that guarantees her wetness. “If it’s wet, it’s right,” is the elemental rubric that has always served Beth well. Sørenson’s primary problem is that she looks before she leaps. Life is safer that way but it tends to spoil the fun, and fun might rival height as Beth’s top priority.

“What you need is a good stiff drink… or two… or three. I’m buying.”

Shoulders jostle, right with left, as the roommate’s compete for their bathroom’s foggy mirror. Showers back-to-back have upped the humidity to a level approaching tropical. Reflections clear from the bottom, each coed stooping to apply elaborate makeup: Amanda’s brushed on artistically, Beth’s lavished artfully. Bras of identical cup-size either cover or reveal: Amanda’s opaque silk hides all but a blush of her roseate nipples while Beth’s stand out (and up) in provocative contrast to an insubstantial mesh. Lobes of effervescent flesh, belonging to both, jiggle correspondingly.

“Why don’t you go, Beth? I’ll lend you my credit card; use it for ID. Check in. Visit the spa. Luxuriate in a mud bath. If lover boy does show up—at the stroke of midnight—let him in or let him weep; I don’t give a damn as long as that’s the end of it.”

 Crooked Elbow

Jack repeatedly kisses the naked crook of his elevated elbow, doing his best to imagine its puckered juncture is a pair of luscious lips, practicing chaste and not-so-chaste techniques of juicy osculation… impressing her with his cushy-mouthed sincerity, seducing her with his lingual infiltrations, encouraging her to reciprocate, to gratify well past balking at his youth and lack of carnal knowledge, to instruct him in the ways and means of pleasure—his first priority hers,  her first priority his, mutual satisfaction their steadfast objective, to give and to receive equally desirable, to touch and to be touched as integral as respiration, inhale / exhale, one requiring the other to achieve full effect, Jack to play the aggressive partner, Amanda the compliant one, with each prepared to surrender, to entertain roles reversed, avoiding thereby the risk of swaying arbitrarily, of exerting certain powers that could convert volition into violation and corrupt the gift of love by trying to coerce (albeit subtly); the nearer midnight looms the higher climbs Jack’s fervor, every instinct stiffening, rigidly alert; as primal as a predator’s is the irrepressible craving that propels him toward the Claremont like a carnivore starved for meat. Footsteps feel like paw prints on the path his prowl has taken… closing ground through a stand of eucalyptus… crossing a dim-lit parking lot… entering from the rear a passage used by trades people… walking down a corridor at an overanxious clip... then countermanding his haste with pseudo nonchalance… Jack, disguised as a waiter (white shirt, black shoes, slacks, vest and tie) belongs among the late-night staff dispersed throughout the hotel’s infrastructure… proceeding through a populated lobby unnoticed and unchallenged… stepping into an elevator… selecting the fateful floor… ascending much too slowly for his nerves to lose their edge… anticipating welcome and rejection interchangeably as he navigates the gangplank or red-carpet corridor… ending at the threshold whereon all his hopes are pinned… blowing into cupped palms to check his breath for odor… donning his motley ski mask… aligning its mouth and eyeholes… referring to his wristwatch… ascertaining the time precisely… waiting for the second, minute, and hour hands to align at number twelve… clenching his fist and knocking—or attempting to knock—at a plane that evades his reach as someone predicts his perfect punctuality and poses in the open threshold, Jack a bit off kilter, shocked by the girl’s physique, her thickly ladled makeup, and commonplace attractiveness… at which he goggles dumbstruck, crestfallen, and bitterly disappointed, a Knight in shining armor tarnished by betrayal.

Beth in Doorway 

“He almost wept, Amanda. I think it’s the saddest sight I’ve ever seen. There I was, practically nude in the doorway, ready to give your reject the time of his teenage life, when tears welled up in his eyes, made even more pathetic by that cockamamie ski mask.”

To Amanda Sørenson’s credit, Beth’s recap wounds somewhat her heart; wings it, anyway; no significant blood loss suggests undue anguish, yet a pang of empathy warms her to the castoff’s wretched plight.

She, too, once felt the nettles of rebuff when James threw her over—meaning replaced her with a rival—leaving her abandoned and emotionally at sea. It took her weeks to recover from that stud’s insensitivity; “Turn women upside-down, they all look alike,” she heard him remark once; jokingly, of course. His new squeeze, evidently, waxed her vanilla privates; Amanda’s Golden Fleece had been forsaken for a depilated cooch. Men, what could be done with them? For all their macho attributes they remained forever boys, either lovesick swains like Jack, scoundrels like James, or middle-aged adulterers like Amanda’s faithless father, poking every bitch who ever wagged her tail at him. Beth could have fallen hard for Amanda’s whore-hound dad; Beth likes lovers loose, provided they are generous. Loyalty means, to her, picking up the tab; so long as a partner pays, Beth will keep him company; shirk the financial burden and “toodle-oo,” she’s off to find a bankroll as thick as stallion’s cock…

…sidebars immaterial to the devastated whizz kid who indeed keeps his word; poems to Amanda cease, serenades desist, and all attempts to woo her henceforth stop.

Liquid Center

For the Wizard, Jack’s broken heart creates a salt-and-flour map of fissures, cracks, and fault lines—features wrought by failure no less telling than those success inscribes. His access reinstated, Wally proceeds to read, study, and plot a course that will steer his ward well clear of love’s murky waters. Romance agitates confusion, foments disruption, and clouds better-judgment. Jack can ill afford such counterproductive vagaries. His must be an itinerary which neither veers nor tarries lest time run short and compromise his direction with haphazard detours. Or is this Wally’s pitfall, perched as he is on Death’s precipitous brink, facing the abyss, intrepid as a paratrooper yet knowing his chute won’t open when making that final leap? Is to leave no trace or legacy to live one’s life in vain? Childless, deprived of the usual consolations, Wally wants to contribute something, anything that indicates he was more significant than an incidental smudge. Mentoring might suffice; whoever guides Jack Black to reach fruition might be rescued from posthumous anonymity. Not that Wally seeks credit for Jack’s forthcoming accomplishments, imminent on the bold lad’s horizon—once getting past the stage of chronic masturbation.

Wally’s own touch of genius had gotten warped during puberty when people took advantage of his perspicacious youth, bending it to their avaricious purposes, seducing him with sweets, truffles, at first, of Belgium chocolate that somehow morphed into chocolate-colored ladies blessed with liquid-center charms. Oh, the extravagances lavished upon his adolescence, slathered upon his innocence as recompense for fiscal divinations whereby day’s-end stock quotes came to Wallace Wesley Windsor before the futures market closed. What humankind would not do for want of gain became the measure of “bottom-line virtue”; Wally, mauled in the process of reaching this conclusion, found his gift rendered unreliable, his predictions off the mark, thus launching him into orbit at a distance he preserved…

…until his path with Jack’s converged and brought him back to Earth… only to waste the opportunity by waxing irascible, criticizing a father in front of his steadfast son, George and Jack like isotopes bonded by mutual calamity, wife and mother lost from their nuclear constellation… tragically, Wally intuits, envisions so authentically he might well have been on hand when someone stalking Jean managed to overtake her. Events he next reconstructed, Wally has yet to share.

 The Peaceable Kingdom

“You knew?”

“I had a glimpse. It used to be my knack; foresight, hindsight, second sight; the common thread was pictorial; I could see an occurrence whether I was there or not. Clairvoyance is the term customarily applied. When George first told me Jean had died… Do you remember, Jack, way back when?”

“You gave me a sketch.”

“That’s right.”

“Of a pelican.”

“At Ocean Beach. Your dad turned somber when telling that sorry tale, how your mom was struck and killed while stepping into a crosswalk. What he failed to mention was that Jean was being tailed… harassed… mortally threatened.”

Wally stumbles slightly; Jack catches him, holds him by the elbow, and steadies him as they stroll. Stow Lake, reminiscent of Edward Hicks’ “The Peaceable Kingdom” wherein creatures great and small coexist in harmonious tranquility, serenades their steps with waterfowl and birdsong, the former splish-splash-skittering in seeming games of tag, the latter filling treetops with squabbles over nighttime roosts. Promenaders and joggers share the winding path politely; aluminum walkers and baby strollers signify range-of-age; daylight savings lends the dusk longevity.

“Why bring this up now?” Jack asks, though knowing the Wizard’s chats are never initiated randomly.

“No particular reason; elderly nostalgia; hankering for times my selective memory associates with providential youth; yours, of course, not mine; I’ve been ancient for decades.”

Wally has become crooked, Jack notes, bent like an old-world vine, knots and gnarls and whorls distorting his upright stature, still rugged as a woodcut and handsome in his dotage, if grace can defy decrepitude. Jack, on the other hand, glows with pink-cheeked virility. Tall and straight and lean he has to curb his frisky stride in order to accommodate the elder’s sluggish shuffle. In making mutual adjustments, the two grow empathetic.

“Do you feel that energy, Jack—yours to me and mine to yours—passing through our arms, our flesh and bones conducting who we are and what we feel and maybe how we cogitate? Imagine that is more than sentimental twaddle. Imagine all we gather during a lifetime of experience—our knowledge, our epiphanies, our expertise and skills—could jumpstart those who follow on evolution’s footbridge.”

The twosome halts as squirrels approach in search of twilit handouts, finding Wally’s almonds an appetizing treat. Fearless, two rogues plunder left and right panels of the old man’s wooly cardigan. Jack, amazed at their boldness, smiles at Wally’s complaisance.

“Friends of yours?”

“Acquaintances. That one’s Guts; the other I’ve nicknamed Greedy. Together they have learned how to play the role of cutpurse.” Jack looks unfamiliar with the largely British term. Wally clarifies. “Pickpocket. Coins of the realm were once concealed in tiny leather satchels; thieves would sever the drawstrings to relieve their marks of wealth. You might know that word, and countless others, if humans stored their heritage like PCs do in hard drives. But humans, for the most part, are born with sketchy software.”

“’Threatened’ by whom?”

“I’ll get to that; be patient, lad; indulge me. Fancy I’m the tortoise, you’re the fleeter-footed hare, and what I shall impart is our finish line in common.”

Chastised in the manner he recalls is Wally’s forte, Jack allows the sage his terrapin’s meander. Meanwhile, Greedy & Guts take their amply-nourished leave.

Most humans that is; not all; not you, Jack; you inherited more than mere tendencies and traits.” (Jack suppresses his objection to this reoccurring theme; harping upon his “genius” makes him feel uncomfortable; what he truly covets is a sense of fitting in.) “How you acquired, or retained a set of full-fledged attributes is what you should be studying at UC Berkeley, instead of… What’s you major?”

“Cultural Anthropology.”

“Sidetrack; all you’ll learn from that is how we repeat mistakes. Humans, as a species, reiterate fatal flaws.”

A flock of motley pigeons stirs the air with a frantic flutter. Something must have spooked them; they flap and rise as one… resettling not far off in a feather-ruffled confab.

“Jean, your mater mort, was pursued by an admirer whose humanity, worse than flawed, was heinously defective; or such was the depiction I perceived from your father’s terse account. How I saw what he ostensibly missed you can credit or refute, but why I mention it now is to underscore my premise.”

Wally takes a seat on an isolated bench facing an Asiatic structure hardly visible midst the fog-escorted gloom that ushers out serenity and sets the stage for night.

“The twist that took your mother’s life is a torque that turns humanity into inhumanity, always, from time immemorial. Natural Selection will never be a remedy. Survival of the Fittest means that dog-eat-dog prevails. Existence and aggression, alas, are inseparable. You, and people like you, Jack, are Mankind’s last best hope. You, as an ADEPT, are Mankind’s next step upward—if, and only if, the masses don’t drag you down. Once they feel endangered, you can rest assured they’ll try.”

The moon can find no gap through which this augury might be brightened; with dimness over grimness, sky and somber forecast merge, incorporating shades in an ecosphere of shadows, darkness like a cape enveloping chilly air and earth, its solo color black, none the number spared.

Belinda 

Elsewhere, further south where fog relents and moonlight glimmers—the way to San Jose from San Francisco clear—Rose responds to lunar pressure trapped in various lobes and channels, captive to an inner tide whose influence is impulsive. Lust, like a raunchy wet dream, floods her flesh and tugs her psyche; to and fro her spirit shifts as inhibitions yield; fools are made by lesser whims awakened and aroused. Hers insist she wade into fathoms yet unsounded to seek a mate complementary by resemblance not divergence, by affinity not virility, by simpatico not its foil, for males have proven disappointing when engaged in amorous adventures, leaving certain thirsts unquenched, certain hungers under-satisfiedthrough trysts and quickies, rendezvous and orgies, dates and one-night-stands. An equal opportunity port-of-call, itinerant nymph, and sybaritic playgirl, Rose has been a mouth, an ass, a vagina for men folk who applied. Now perhaps this trend will take a gender-bending detour… if the signs she is receiving mean sex is in the offing; a slumber party for two is the dancer’s intimation.

‘Beau-ti-ful,’ Rose lip-syncs as she views a rippling abdomen, beads of sweat surrounding its tantalizing navel, an almond-shaped depression like the socket of an eye whose pupil lurks chimerically while watching watchers watching. Rose is seated ringside at a table set for one; patrons at Club Dice invariably enter stag, most in hopes of exiting with assurances for company, assurances countermanded by order of City Hall; prostitution, during or after hours, is officially verboten.

Rose, nonetheless, is met with yet another statutory wink. She who writhes and gambols casts a mesmerizing spell with glances best described as looks of liquid longing—matched if less exotically by the plain-Jane parked offstage whose shoulders shift to square with Belinda’s widespread squat, her panty-panel skimpy as a contour-clinging cobweb.

Awkward juxtaposed to what she normally views dispassionately, Rose regards the cunt, the twat, the snatch, the palpitating pussy (an organ named by men for men to adore and/or disparage) with interest and revulsion, with empathy and disdain; yeast infections come to mind; cream pies trigger reveries. That which holds and that which squeezes likewise weeps and vents. No wonder most ADEPTS abstain from conjugal relations often mindless in their raw persistence, careless of their consequence, and ill-conceived to propagate nobler aspects of the human race writ large.

A hole, a breach, a fissure, a split, a slit, a crack that pulsates, Belinda’s orifice undulates before a chiefly macho crowd—Rose’s presence an oddity which has not gone unnoticed; prowlers, hard-core stoked, are bent on making moves. Drinks Rose has not ordered have begun to form a queue, as the dancer’s spine, like an odalisque by Ingres, dominates perspectives, lasers bouncing off a mirror ball suddenly eclipsed as Belinda makes no bones about playing favorites; bending over backwards she arcs in front of Rose, flexing like a longbow armed with Cupid’s arrow, features flush with the stage hence leveled at her target.

Envy might infect one faced by such a lovely countenance; Rose, compared to Belinda, is a far cry from ravishing. Figure-wise they measure up; the dancer’s curves are opulent; Rose’s are well-proportioned. Lesbian opposite hedonist the two appraise physiques, each unsure if attributes will clash or, via sisterhood, entwine, Rose’s hetero-hesitation by alcohol diluted, Belinda’s bold flirtatiousness discernibly unreserved as she straightens into a handstand… executes a cartwheel… then resumes her torrid dance, antics growing wilder as the booming soundtrack wails, as her tummy muscles tense, as her breathing mimics panting—catcalls from the virile throng forewarning Rose of hazards her predicament entails: drunk, in the lair of a mob that might take umbrage with their idol should she entertainwith someone elsean offsite assignation.

 Though not before the show proceeds to its captivating climax as Belinda drops to all fours; palms and knees support contortions that compel her chin to lower and her meaty rump to lift the while her bare breasts smack and slap and spank the elevated floorboards; rhythmic are the throes that ape some savage molestation by a phalanx of assailants who invade her front and rear as if her body has been skewered or from maw to anus spitted; tilting forward frees up hands to wrestle off her thong, carelessly discarded with a flick of the wrist; she bends, assumes a copulatory posture with her thighs pried wide apart, their naked juncture splayed, their glabrous cleft distended… then overcome by a cavalcade of quivers (VibraNode incited)… erupting with a gush of copious ejaculate… spewed and perfectly timed with the music’s culmination!

Rose sees this in profile, somewhat stunned by the effect; Belinda, face averted, slides her torso lengthwise, a slick of perspiration serving to grease her prostrate sprawl until extended legs are straight and almost chaste in their intimate proximity, concealing both erogenous device and the discharge it provoked.  Composure slowly reconvened, she turns her curly head and blinks into sideways focus nigh pie-eyed admirer… moving lips perpendicular to the horizontal stage… their slant a plump facsimile of slightly parted labia.

‘Meet me after two,’ Belinda mouths to Rose distinctly, her pucker like a sphincter that excites, ignites, constricts, and seals her soundless words with a promissory smooch.

6:22am

“Briana, dear; lunch?”

Presuming no one but Rose would have the nerve to call on a weekend at such an ungodly hour, Brick has condescended to answer her cell phone’s cadent clamor, if unenthusiastically. Contact with her former nanny has been hit-or-miss, of late, their friendship more a pretext than an ongoing intimacy, Rose’s keeping tabs on Brick the underlying impetus—to what end (?) they seldom have discussed let alone defined. With Brick indifferent—sometimes hostile—to what she calls “surveillance,” and Rose by nature reticent, none-too-clear about her ultimate objective, both are at a loss to explain their bond’s longevity.

“It’s too damn early to think about breakfast, let alone Sunday brunch.”

“It’s Saturday.”

Brick consults her bedside table’s display panel: six twenty-two a.m., Saturday the ninth, weather forecast sunny. Two whole days instead of one before school’s resumption cannot be other than a blessing, sufficient to lift Brick’s spirits, if not her sleepy head.

“What time?”

“Noon-ish?”

“Where?”

“Blue Mango?”

“Sure. Bye.”

Rose accepts Brick’s curt reply with an easy-going grace. Fondness for her erstwhile charge has undergone a boost on this propitious, gorgeous, satiated morning-after morning. Buoyed like a child’s balloon whisked aloft on a zephyr, Rose feels weightless, carefree, unrestrictedexcept by the slenderest thread, a filament oh so tenuous yet conductive as a live wire; she, with her Belinda, shares a titillating link, a quivering connection that is eager to repeat the exigencies of more: more stroking, fondling, cuddling, teasing, tonguing… Sweet impatience, like a female form of cock ring, is prolonging Rose’s joy, suspending manifold pleasures aching to resume.

Brick views adding another five-plus hours as comprising a good-night’s-sleep. Post reconnaissance at Stanford, she was up late dodging Trojans, intercepting Viruses, and circumventing Worms, most of which were launched by run-of-the-mill delinquents, some by disaffected hackers, and three by well-trained cyberspikers—governmental, judging from their attempted points of entry, and diabolically crippling were her shields not up to par. Who would dispatch such a virulent infiltration if not Houston (?), Brick impugns groggily; something in his manner, his conceited self-assurance, put her off and on her guard. Stupid was the notion he would want to make her acquaintance once deducing she was the product of parents married to cutting-edge biotechnology as much as to each other, more devoted to innovation than to protecting their unborn child, reckless, negligent, criminally irresponsible! Were Brick to blackmail her mother with the upshot of intelligence gleaned from breaching that DoD file, her every-wish would be Tricia’s guilt-fueled command. Imagine subjecting a helpless fetus to some hush-hush experiment; the accusation itself breeds retroactive censure… which simmers in a brain beset by reinstated slumber… Brick’s subconscious reconvened to bend the rules of logic… to follow rails of thought as twisted as 3D pretzels.

So tell me, Scraps, how goes it? Are you happy in your poochdom? Is a dog’s life dull, exciting, or neutrally Limbo-esque?

The plain is flat. A mere suggestion marks the horizon as with a hem of churned-up lint; sky and ground abut without a clear delineation. Space is moot. It could be vast; it could be shrunken to a disk of mellow light that tends to isolate the chair on which Scraps sits attentively, facing his companion and faithful interlocutor.

Limbo-esque, the mutt replies, if what you mean is stuck between a coma and the vagaries of cognizance.

Brick contorts; a shift in shape accompanies discourse enigmatical.

Scraps confronts, in the opposite chair, a child-size, piebald raven, her achromatic plumage like an avian Dalmatian.

Piebald Raven

Caws from Brick and barks from Scraps transmute into human speech, though neither beak nor muzzle suffers alteration. Phrases sing like wind through a branch of rustling birch leaves.

As I thought. Regarding thresholds, whose enjoys the fullest measure of vivacity?

Scraps postpones responding, distracted by a midge. He sniffs it into a nostril / evicts it with a sneeze. Composure reestablished, he hastens to conjecture.

Analyses suffer drawbacks; if you are because you think, you may neglect the moment; nothing rivals presence.

Brick again shifts shape, from raven into ermine.

Ermine

Scraps dislikes the scent.

Brick admires her winter coat; she grooms it via gnawing; it gleams like a tusk of ivory bleached by arctic sunshine.

How does knowing not compare to simply knowing, in the empire of sententiousness?

Scraps regards the weasel with an introspective humph. Making moral judgments is beyond his canine’s purview. Tacit in Brick’s query is a humanoid’s conceit.

Were rights given heads and wrongs given tails they would chase, overtake, and couple.

Brick becomes a snake rearing upright, cobra-fashion, sleek of skin, envenomed, capable of striking.

Cobra

Scraps bares not his teeth lest it be misconstrued a smile.

An earthquake, of a sudden, sets all eight chair legs trembling; a fissure opens and separates dog from viper with a jagged-edged divide.

Tell me, Canis Familiaris, what’s the point of living if the living miss the point?

An aspirated hiss adds emphasis to the serpent’s breathy query.

Scraps forgives Brick’s choice of incarnations; he reacts with equanimity.

Gauge the plus of intellect by the terror of its demise. Those attuned to cycles are spared exit angst.

Brick resumes the shape of a prepubescent girl.

Prepubescent

Scraps retains the aspect of a soothsaying hound.

The rift between them heals like a wound that leaves no suture.

RING! With a cell phone's rude encroachment, the eerie scene dissolves.

“What now?”

“You’re late; it’s half-past twelve,” Rose complains.

Brick makes amends.

“Sorry. Give me fifteen minutes; I’ll be there. Make that twenty.”

“Twenty minutes it is. I’m ordering a salad.”

Blue Mango Restaurant 

When Brick arrives at the Blue Mango restaurant Rose scarcely recognizes her. Crowned by an elaborate headgear and a livid red-violet coif, wearing sulfurous-yellow lip gloss and silver neck rings like a graduated slinky, a blouse of provocative polka dots (each plastic spot a dime-sized window), a skirt so small and sheer it wraps around her hips like surgical gauze, plus zebra-striped tights, alligator pumps, and a Jolly Roger handbag; the eleven-year-old could pass for sixteen maybe twenty were she not so Pigmy-short. Yet almost more conspicuous (and apparently much less welcome) is the beast she has in tow; Scraps, reluctant to enter premises that bar his very genus (never mind his dubious pedigree), labors on the leash that tugs him defiantly into humans-only territory. Waiters (two), one waitress, and a hostess who Brick ignores, descend upon the fidgety, four-legged health-hazard.

“Miss? Oh, Miss? Your dog; she isn’t allowed here.”

Brick adjusts her goggles from outdoor to indoor, turns off her buds, fixes each of her accosters with a bellicose glare, and hands Scraps’ leash to the hostess, delegating her to usher the pooch outside. So dismissive is this gesture, so effete and cavalier, that the concierge complies; Scraps is led posthaste through the upscale establishment as Brick locates her luncheon date and takes the seat opposite.

“Impersonating a diva this afternoon, Ms Everson-Truesdale?” Rose tartly chides.

“Bitch can’t tell a boy from a bitch,” Brick answers obliquely, “referred to Scraps as ‘she,’” while shedding most of her accoutrements and stowing them in a satchel.

“You look… different.”

“Euphemism for bizarre?”

“Let’s just say eccentric.”

“I’m traveling incognito.”

“Oh? Been hacking the Pentagon again, caught some bureaucratic flak?”

“Keep your voice down; worse.” Brick whispers “I’m State-Secrets privy,” her lips barely move.

“Oh, oh; shame-shame, girl. Is Scraps in disguise, as well?”

Brick decides to brief Rose indirectly on the op involving Stanford; trust is not at issue; Rose merits Brick’s full trust; relating stuff in public, however (when stuff connotes illegal) is clearly ill-advised. For the bulk of their exchange, the pair speaks in code.

“Remember when I found out that noodle soup has more ingredients than are listed on the label?”

Rose, with a signal from her eyebrows, communicates her collusion.

“Well, how that feat was accomplished, by whom, and under what cloak-and-dagger circumstances fill a dossier kept at Campbell’s, buried in their archives, and grudgingly accessible to J Q Public.”

Tofu burgers are served; a garlic buttered artichoke constitutes an appetizer that Rose, in lieu of a salad, has partially consumed. As she defoliates the veggie, Brick devours the soy… fleshing out her narrative in between bites.

“If I could find those details, someone else might, don’t you think; someone wanting to scoop the Powers of Soup and corner the marketplace?”

Rose reacts emphatically; not to Brick; to someone else! Against the furthermost wall sits a solitary diner. Brick tracks Rose’s eyes and is similarly intrigued, though nothing all that special secerns the man’s appearance. He is dressed in natural fibers, possibly linen, or a high-grade weave of hemp. Grey at the temples, clean-shaven, mid-forties, he sips a glass of wine; replenished by a deferential server, attentive to a fault, who likewise seems to notice something out of the ordinary as he hovers like a hummingbird, darts away, darts back, takes the patron’s order then flies off in a hurry, evidently enthralled by an uncertain something. Brick and Rose, however, are sure what that trait is; both are instantly aware that the man is one of them.

Brick speaks first.

“He’s what you once mentioned, isn’t he?”

Rose, struck dumb, just gapes.

Finally, drawn by the intensity cast in his direction, the man acknowledges Rose, briefly, then Brick, at length… studying her with interest… cocking his head at an angle…  thinking inscrutable thoughts… his handsome face a mask of deadpan ambiguity.

Brick returns his gaze with obstinate self-confidence—blocked by the spellbound waiter who returns to ladle gazpacho.

“Where was I?” Brick resumes.

Rose looks back at her lunch mate.

“Regaling me with soup.”

“Quite right. So…”

“Briana,” Rose interrupts, “he may be here for you.”

Brick ingests this enigmatic statement with another bite of burger. Here for her in what capacity, she is keen to ascertain?

 

 

 

 

 

Global Warming

PART THREE

Successive pandemics have finally put a stop to overpopulation. Every continent, save Antarctica, is shrinking in both human habitation and landmass. Water wars continue but desalination has confined them to inland areas. Coastal regions, though drastically reconfigured, are once more thriving. Geopolitical forces keep mapmakers busy. Conflicts, nuclear and worse, have taken their toll on every living species, even those whose genealogy stems from bioengineering. Socially, same-old, same-old ensures ideologies remain at each other’s throats. Religions maintain their monopoly on institutional intolerance. Governments persist in protecting and furthering the interests of wealthy constituents. Science, essentially immune to ethical restraint, goosesteps right along.

Jack Black, just turned twenty-one, has three PhDs and appears to have found his calling. Briana Kimberly Everson-Truesdale, age eighteen, no longer is incarcerated. Divergent paths which the two have thus far traveled will soon intersect. Wally, veritably ancient, resides at a group home for assisted living. Rose, in an early midlife crisis, is contemplating suicide and/or having a child on her own. Other characters, upon reintroduction, will initiate updates; new ones, when encountered, will elucidate themselves. Scraps, alas, is dead; his old bones decompose in a shallow backyard grave.

ScrapsRIP 

POSTMORTEM

Brick was cradling her pooch when he gave up the ghost, singing him a song she had learned entitled “Mister Bojangles”; where, she could not recall, but why it came to mind became poignantly clear:

His dog up and died

He up and died

After twenty years

He still grieves

Scraps stopped listening at that verse, stopped breathing, content, perhaps, with its eulogy. Brick continued to sing, just in case… until she lost her voice. Funny how an animal can seem more important than a human being when passing, leaving Brick with a lump in her throat so huge she thought she would never swallow it. Dogs are differently mourned; they leave no hard feelings that have to be forgotten or forgiven. They never say harsh things or lie or cheat or betray. They seldom misbehave. Mostly they lay memories in your lap that you can pet and cherish always.

Robin Hood 

BRIEF

By the time Brick finally ran afoul of the authorities, her defenses’ impenetrability, ironically, gave her away. The fact that she could not be found, that her raid on the banks could not be traced, alerted FDIC (and affiliated agencies) to cyber-sophistication rarely encountered outside that of enemy states, corporate behemoths, and various IT enclaves. Looking in the public sector for someone who could divert a billionaire-Chancellor’s assets (offshore and on) into the checking accounts of every student enrolled at said Chancellor’s university was like searching for an exhibitionist in a nudist colony. It had to have been a prank, some fraternity or sorority challenge for newbie pledges—or such was the hypothesis when investigations ensued. But none of the likely suspects proved sufficiently nerdy to have committed such a crime. And Brick, the actual culprit, was attending college elsewhere… on a full scholarship… with a handsome stipend… studying Epidemiology, as opposed to Computer Science, her sobriquet [BRICK] designated “INACTIVE” on Law Enforcement watch lists.

Truth be told, she had done it on a lark, then sent an E-vite to the Chancellor addressed “Dear Sheriff of Nottingham,” wherein she thanked him for footing the bill at an off-campus pub called “Sherwood Inn,” site of a beer blast booked under the nom de guerre “Maid Marion.” Brick had not attended but her merry beneficiaries had—much to the displeasure of Mister Billionaire, who allowed the festivities to take place (per recommendation and under close surveillance by the FBI).

Undoing what Brick had accomplished in a fortnight had taken months to sort; during the interlude dragnets had been cast, drawn methodically, and finally snagged the demi-desperado. Arrested at age fifteen, Brick was tried as a juvenile (due to her mother’s stentorian efforts to reverse the State’s disposition) and sentenced to a radicalizing year (that had festered into three) at a California Detention Center… where the inmate did not warm to curbs upon her freedom.

Petables Inc.

PETABLES INC.

“Close, but no cigar,” was Wally’s opinion of Jack’s occupation. As an avocation it was fine, but Jack’s gifts were being squandered on such a frivolous enterprise, designing ‘Creature Comforts,’ as they were promoted, for a genetic engineering firm whose specialty was to originate and then to customize a docile breed of pet. True, the concept set a precedent for scientists who created novel life forms, “playing God,” as it were, without incurring the wrath of outspoken Sabbath-keepers—most of whom had been wooed by the early cloning industry’s ploy of replicating “Fritz,” “Spot,” and/or “Tweety”; Replace-A-Pet had lain the sentimental foundation for Petables Incorporated by preparing the maudlin public for next-generation husbandry. One small step for Man, one giant leap for Mankind-in-Mourning, Replace-A-Pet meant those who had lost winged or four-legged loved ones were ready, willing, and able to accept their pseudo-resurrection in the form of kitten, puppy, or chick, provided each was the spitting image of their dearly departed darling. Enter ‘Bowwowers’ and ‘Meowers,’ futuristic dogs and cats. Jack had tailored the former into a worldwide bestseller.

High on the list of a Bowwower’s many virtues was its total lack of waste. To eliminate the need for picking up poop in plastic baggies was to win wholehearted support from several pooch-loving factions. Another plus was the detail that none of the models shed; nor did they harbor pests in their diverse pelts. Bowwower chow was pricier than its correlates, but not prohibitively. Bowwowers could not breed; their genome was patented, but this had an upside, too; with mating instincts suppressed, behaviors were nonaggressive. Bowwowers never bit, neither their masters nor others of their kind. They were, however, vulnerable to assault by conventional furry friends, and therein lay the crux of a monumental downside.

Pet Park

CASE IN POINT 

From a distance, the park and those who used its grassy knoll to exercise a host of tail-wagging canines, looked as wholesomely peaceful as its neighboring playground—wherein toddlers, accompanied by mothers, sitters, and nannies, enjoyed the urban setting. Frisbees, tennis balls, and other chase-able projectiles sent miscellaneous paws prancing in every direction. Slides conducted bottoms, swings swung knees and ankles airborne, a jungle gym made fists of little hands that climbed and clung to it, while a seesaw alternately lifted and lowered feet in tiny shoes that great-great grandparents once had bronzed.

Suddenly heads were turned, at first only the pooches’, then their quizzical owners’ who were puzzled by a strange solidarity rippling through the ranks, as pressed-back ears, narrowed eyes, stiffened spines, and widening nostrils drew attention to a slightly shaggy newcomer. Let off its leash, the stranger frolicked solo while its suppositional peers deliberately peered; not a move was made to greet or to repulse the congenial-seeming interloper; not a muscle twitched in the stationary pack… until the many acted as one and mounted an offensive. Throttled by a pit-bull, hamstrung by a German shepherd, a schnauzer snatching its ear, a cocker spaniel harrying its hindquarters, the Bowwower yelped pathetically and was severally disemboweled. Onlookers, stunned into horrified inaction, witnessed this atrocity with utter consternation (and/or retrospective triumph, when some averred that the alien “got what it deserved”).

Demolition Dykes 

SANCTUARY

Tattoos mapped out territory, signaled sexual orientation, designated class, and heralded allegiance. Tattoos boasted colors like a hoisted flag, warning or inviting by declaring affiliations. Tattoos indicated status, distinction, rebelliousness, even tolerance for pain. Therefore Brick, for the duration of her ‘rehabilitation,’ resolved to stay unmarked. Emblems of her confinement were etched in scarsfrom wounds both physical and psychological administered, alas, routinely. Vengeance proved a promise made by the future to be kept when she got out…

Tattoos mapped out territory, signaled orientation, designated class, and heralded allegiance. Tattoos boasted colors like a hoisted flag, warning or inviting by declaring affiliations. Tattoos indicated status, distinction, rebelliousness, even tolerance for pain. Therefore Brick, for the duration of her ‘rehabilitation,’ insisted upon remaining determinedly unmarked. Emblems of her confinement were etched, alas, in scars; wounds both physical and psychical administered routinely. Vengeance proved a promise made by the future to be kept when she got out…

Uncle Sam

…at which time, for starters, she replaced her (confiscated) PC system and bought (using cash from Trisha’s “Guilt Fund”) state-of-the-art equipment (in blatant violation of stringent parole terms). How could mom refuse, given it was she who, after borrowing Brick’s computer, had inadvertently compromised its failsafe encryption and thereby opened the chink that led to her child’s arrest, trial, conviction, and (callous) sentencing? “Guilt Fund” scarcely expressed the depth of motherly remorse when appeals were all denied; Trisha would have done anything to tender restitution.

Secondly, Brick assumed a suitably bland disguise, seeking to avoid official scrutiny, adorning herself with ultra-modest garb while ducking The State, adopting a new identity; exit Everson-Truesdale, enter Straustakovich—passport, birth certificate, and academic credentials convincingly forged.

My, oh my, how the cyberscape had changed! Virulent, treacherous, exploitative, and pricey, the Cloud, since Brick’s ‘sabbatical,’ had morphed into a Nebula whose murky mass of capitalistic greed made every search an obstacle course through self-serving hype. Were it not for the Outer Web, with its independent ports and renegade servers, Brick’s IT reintroduction might have been disastrous. Law Enforcement alone was an ever-present menace with its gathering and mining information from a multitude of sources then sharing it (interagency-wise) on a comprehensive grid, local in its access, global in its outreach, every cop in every country in every local jurisdiction could run a background check on any given citizen, and know, in a matter of seconds, whether to question, detain, arrest, or commence to open fire—extrajudicial executions, in a world rife with “terrorists,” being an everyday occurrence. Fraught with comparable peril was the oligarchic realm of Finance wherein misbehavior by customers reaped instantly frozen assets. Credit could be suspended merely for want of paying a parking ticket. More serious infractions could jeopardize whole accounts, with banks taking charge of an individual’s funds whenever in arrears. Many a deadbeat debtor paid recompense from jail.

How, in this environment, strike a blow at California Corrections—a profit-making enterprise arbitrarily outsourced? And should Brick target the System as a whole or miscreants within it… specifically those who had done her grievous harm… presumably with impunity… thus forfeiting her forgiveness… mercy pleas denied?

And once that score was settled, what lay ahead for Doctor Straustakovich? Brick had requisitioned a confirmable PhD, earned by the real Straustakovich whose untimely death had been dutifully recorded (and surreptitiously expunged; henceforth any and all enquiries were redirected to photos, stats, and a resume substituting Brick for a woman ten years older, five inches taller, and nowhere near as smart, especially six feet under in a boneyard outside Boston).

Where on earth to relocate was conveniently decided by San Jose’s proximity to a world-within-apart, an exile’s haven socially and politically right-round the Bay, as removed ideologically from America as DC was from Amsterdam, where Left put Center far Right, Green was a given, Races were thoroughly mixed, and court injunctions about habitat could be blithely disregarded. Brick, as a resident of Berkeley, could be anyone she invented: famous or obscure, invisible in plain sight.

Anonymous 

ADEPTS ANONYMOUS 

What once had begun to coalesce as an association of people with phenomenal talents and extraordinary intellects had suffered dissipation in demoralizing ways. The gifted few, by the mediocre many, were often labeled “freaks.” Freaks might be amusing, insightful, even prophetic, but they were not to be trusted. Freaks might point the way, but their directives were eschewed. Freaks might represent an optimistic beacon, but their lights were cynically snuffed. Rose’s got snuffed. Wally’s got discredited. Neither won much trust among people they intimidated. Rose caused alarm with her ungovernable libido. Wally put folks off with his cranky eccentricity. Both grew disillusioned as the century progressed, or regressed with regard to its potential. Prognoses for the future looked similarly grim with Jack Black generating pets and Brick ‘Straustakovich’ hole-up as a fugitive. How were they to usher Humankind from its existential treadmill? And who, from among their ilk, could put them back on course? Rose, for one, and Wally, for another, would give it one last try.

Babies

Babies, babies, babies were the fundamental issue. Propagating ADEPTS was a losing proposition. Sex drives got diverted among those of Rose’s stamp; her licentious appetite was the exception not the rule. Furthermore, cultivating changes, once appearing in a genome, demanded reproduction on a mass production scale. Even then ‘improvements’ would accumulate much too slowly, provided any survived the status quo’s rancor.

Motherhood, nevertheless, held Rose’s high hopes hostage. She (if not her on-the-lam former ward) was keen to procreate. But how best to ensure her future child’s preeminence sans screening potential fathers for desirable DNA? Despite her predilection for direct-deposit mating, Rose chose to forego the down-and-dirty option; recourse to a sperm bank offered better prospectsby checking off little boxes to specify first-rate traits. Guarantees were sparse, however (outnumbered by disclaimers), with candidates even sparser, given Rose’s specs. Pending a broader search, insemination would have to wait. Meanwhile, Brick (whereabouts unknown) would take some tracking down if Rose were to reengage her and persuade the ex-offender to advance their stymied Cause.

Sunrise Sunset

SUNRISE TO SUNSET

“Assisted Living”; the concept itself made Wally cringe. It seemed as though he had abdicated control over his existence and relinquished the details to a cloying staff of morons. Breathing he could do unaided. Eating might require a modicum of help; whenever something needed cutting (other than his wrists) he had to ask a ‘minder.’ Elimination, however, was his number one dependency; scratch that; his number two; peeing he could accomplish (in dribs and drabs); pooping, on the other hand, meant someone had to lend one; more often a pair; not only to ease him onto the pot but also to wipe what little remained of his emaciated butt. Curious, how men lost their behinds with age while women beefed theirs up. When Wally sat, it felt like his pelvis had dropped its saggy drawers and left bare bone to cope with whatever formed the seat. Anything firmer than foam spurred an automatic grimace. Sometimes even his doughnut (the inflatable variety) made his rear end ache. But pain, be it next to intolerable, bowed to humiliation as the champion of torment. No one really wanted to swab the waste from a withered wizard’s arse; the job was scarcely worthy of anyone save a halfwit. Several must have applied at Sunrise To Sunset Residential, the Home (in lieu of Home Sweet Home) to which Wally had been consigned when the State of California declared him “unfit”: unfit to house, to fill and empty, to cleanse, to fend, in effect, for himself. Pride was a young man’s luxury, the old man concluded, when surrendering to the social worker—an act which greased the skid of Wally’s steep decline. Since then, waiting for relief recalled a play by Samuel Beckett; it rarely cheered him up… except in droller moments when pending extinction told an off-color joke and occasioned him to chuckle, usually to and at himself—the guttural sound like that of loose change in a pocket.

A sense of purpose was wanting; mere subsistence was a trial without a verdict; or a sentence without a noose. Bitter ends, when unavoidable, were better to facilitate / sadistic to postpone. Why stay execution; it merely dragged out the agony? Why commute relief when oblivion was pending? Wally rued the minutes, let alone the days, weeks, and months of his protracted infirmity… interrupted briefly by an unannounced visitor.

“Jack Black! Sore eyes couldn’t be more soothed by a sprightly apparition. Sit, lad, sit. Pull up a chair beside my deathbed while I wriggle from its shroud. Are you here to pay your last respects or to offer me an oar for crossing the River Styx?”

Tact suggesting candor would appeal to Wally most, Jack expressed his shock at the Wizard’s wan complexion.

“Gee, you look cadaverous.”

“Right you are. And today I’m feeling good. Yesterday, truth be told, the Farm was almost paid for.”

Wally flashed a smile like a burnt-out light bulb, teeth gone gray, gums anemic, lips ashen, their pallor matched by jowls as sear as shriveled scrota.

Jack, by comparison, glowed with primetime vitality. No longer the gangling, goofy-looking adolescent, Dr/Dr/Dr. Black had filled out superbly, was muscled like an athlete, was tall, strong, handsome as his father, sexy as his mother, modest in his manner, temperate in his speech, by all accounts the finest figure of a man Homo sapiens could engender; clone him, Wally thought, let him go forth and multiply.

“How’s the food?” Jack asked to be polite, reluctant to zero in on his rationale for coming, the reason only recently prompting this reunion with a man whose mark had faded, yet not become so faint as to lose influence totally.

“Tasty, when it’s catered. When they cook it here…” Wally pulled a face that finished his sentence viscerally.

“That bad?”

“Salt and pepper on paste, if added to the menu, would be everybody’s favorite. Okay, that will do for pleasantries; what’s on your mind?”

Wally blinked his eyes into keener focus; with despondency put on hold their azure glint revived. Jack, nearly taken aback, proceeded circumspectly.

“Do you recall our talk when you mentioned ‘evolution’s footbridge’? (Finally, Wally celebrated, the branch is bearing fruit.) And how we humans suffer from a fundamental flaw? (Go on, Jack; yes.) And how a few of us—‘ADEPTS’ was the term you used—are Mankind’s next best hope? (Glad you paid attention.) Well, I’ve been engineering… (Pets; I know; fake pooches. Rather ignominious, considering your potential.) …critters we’ve named Bowwowers, trying to make them cuddly… (And selling them like hotcakes, as the dog park wars attest. K9 versus B9; you’ve started a revolution.) …discovering, in the process, a remarkable adaptation, a gene that nullifies violence and can pass that trait along (Now you’re regressing into ancient history circa Monday Night Football.). Well, people could be fitted, vernacularly speaking, with a variant of that gene. It bonds. It virtually merges (You mean ‘virtuously’?) with a recipient’s DNA and appears to work an instant transformation, most likely irreversible. (If introduced how?) That’s the problem I’m trying to solve. (While having second thoughts, I gather?) Yes.”

Wally’s thoughts grown audible only to Jack made their discourse sound one-sided. Listening-in was a member of the cleaning staff whose mop had ceased to sanitize the while she stood transfixed… in the hallway… thrilled to be within earshot of an honest-to-goodness celebrity.

“MARTHA,” Wally called, sensing the eavesdropper, inviting her to enter with a crook of his index finger when she poked her head inside, her fear of “Codger Windsor” eclipsed by wide-eyed fascination with the man who had created her beloved Plutokins. “Martha, meet Jack Black.”

Jack extended his hand.

Before she dared to shake it, Martha wiped hers clean.

“I seen you on the UniVisor; you was getting interviewed.”

“I hope I sounded reasonably prepared.”

“Oh, yes; you made everything crystal clear: how you got the idea and how you built it up and how you asked for people’s help to choose the nicest features. I got one of my own; I bought him just last January!”

“Martha, you never told me. What’s your Bowwow’s name?” Wally asked, without his usual condescension when addressing a so-called ‘minder.’

“Bowwow-er,” Martha corrected. “I call him Plutokins.”

“After the celestial body?” Wally posited.

Martha paused to decipher this unfamiliar reference… then judged it incorrect.

“After Mickey Mouse’s dog.”

Pluto

“Of course; I was a Mouseketeer myself.”

This allusion, reaching back to the days of yore, predated any of Martha’s vaguest associationsas her blank look confessed. Wally, harkening to a cobweb of nostalgia, broke into song.

M, I, C, see you real soon. K, E, Y, Why? Because we like you. M, O, U, S, Eeeeee.

Martha looked to Jack with a roll of her eyes, as if to question Codger Windsor’s sanity; notoriously cranky, he was likewise known as “daft.”

Jack, amused by them both, wrapped an arm around Martha’s shoulders and gave her a bracing squeeze.

“Don’t mind Mister Wizard; there’s method to his madness.”

Perceiving Jack as an ally, Martha was duly flattered. Furthermore, she relaxed, feeling much less star-struck, more confident that Dr. Black, at least, was apt to treat her kindly.

“What do you like most about your Plutokins?” Jack asked sincerely, hoping Martha’s perspective might clarify his dilemma.

“Loyalty; that’s number one; he loves me the mostest,” Martha almost blurted, eager to share her thoughts with Plutokin’s creator, tickled pink, in truth, to sing her precious pet’s praises. “He acts real sweet to others—that’s important, too—but he’s my best buddy.”

“Would you say that he protects you?” Wally asked, playing devil’s advocate.

“Well, he don’t ever growl or snarl or bite; not like a watchdog. Watchdogs make me nervous; you never can trust ’em, unless, of course, they’re yours. But… yes, he does protect me in a way; he safeguards my heart.”

Touched by this affirmation, Jack reviewed his quandary. Tradeoffs were inevitable. Which ones were acceptable? Which ones were offensive? And who had any right to make such fateful choices?

CapsulesDoberman

COMEUPPANCES

Brick, ensconced now in Berkeley, plotted retaliation. Had they locked her up for a single year she might have waived revenge, but three; they had taken three, one-sixth of her entire life yanked out roots and all, a pair of extra twelvemonths like her two front teeth extracted, leaving ugly cavities that marred her avenger’s grin and made it look as ignorantly uncouth as the mugs of her tormentors. How sweet, nonetheless, it would be to execute tables turned! Unlike those who pretended to grant forgiveness absent stiff alternatives, Brick had ways and means aplenty to punish those at fault.

First and foremost on her hit-list was the warden and her gang-of-three: members of the Review Board who voted to extend her internment—based upon false accounts by Brick’s secondary targets: the Demolition Dykes—whose ranks she had refused to join despite their insults, threats, assaults, and fraudulent accusations.

“Miss Everson-Truesdale, rise, please.” Brick ignored the Board’s command; its decision being foregone, why further the farce of ‘unprejudiced’ formalities. Testimony taken had been a douche bag full of lies—from notorious liars, at that; from Dartboard-Tits Diane and her sorority of sadists whose routine rape of rivals went officially ignored, in exchange for law and order which the bestial bunch enforced. Cute, was their complicity in doubling Brick’s confinement… twice.

Instance One

With minimum security came maximum drug abuse; narcotics were easily imported (by trustees, no less) to the prison’s infirmary, therein customized and administered by the aforementioned clique—to girls either voluntarily or more often coerced in which case a pentad, one Dyke per limb, would hold an inmate spread-eagle while the fifth rammed home a capsule (vaginally); Matilda the sad recipient Brick had tried to save… without a prayer of stopping the initiation and at risk of being ‘next,’ meaning once Matilda’s vulva, racked by dope-induced convulsions, unleashed its undue discharge, dousing brutes and brutalized alike, Brick would bear the brunt of rape via pharmaceuticals, then latter (framed as pusher, procurer, and perpetrator when hers was the mattress searched and found to conceal the orgiastic compound) doomed to take the rap for those who went scot-free.

Instance Two

Guard dogs prowled the Female Youth in Detention Center by night, its perimeter by day, trained to bark at, seize, and anchor anyone unauthorized. Those lacking ID Sniff-Tags were hunted down like prey. Brick was known by scent to the whole K-9 Corps due to her customary rambling; viewed from afar “the estate,” as it once was, looked downright bucolic. Even seen up close it betrayed few prison-like characteristics: no gates, bars, lookout towers, or strategically mounted searchlights were anywhere on the premises. GPS devices worn by the convicts made escape attempts unlikely. “Hellhounds,” as the kennel dwellers were dubbed, mostly got deployed to keep people out, which was not to say they mingled with the population in. Contact was forbidden: DO NOT TOUCH THE DOBERMANS was clearly posted everywhere. DO NOT TOUCH THE INMATES might also have been instructive had “Brutus” been taught to read; instead, one day, he approached Brick from behind, where she sat with her back to a chain-link fence, and nosed her sympathetically before giving her neck a lick. Fast friends ever after, they met at that spot frequently, until Dartboard-Tits Diane ordered the pinscher killed. Why? Brick would not put out so they would put-to-death her pooch, poison the hapless animal—again planting incriminating evidence on the heartbroken dog-lover.

Superman

IN LIEU OF LEGIONS

Rose (no less than Harold) was an adamant reformer. People were a mess, a noble-wicked mess whose countervailing dichotomy was ruining the planet. Exploring distant habitats would merely spread the problem. If life on Mother Earth (and elsewhere) was not to be aborted, legions of ADEPTS must supersede Humanity—whose measure of success, in geologic terms, was transitory unto fleeting; eras, epochs, and ages, not millennia, were the increments of success. A lasting species ought to survive for the duration of a sponge…

“And then some,” Bloomsmythe added.

“Whereas Homo sapiens have flashed their fickle lights for a nugatory twinkling,” Rose declaimed, reluctant to get on with their (reciprocal) debriefing.

 “She’s not one of us in the purest sense, Ms. Birchtree; we’ve asked you, nonetheless, to keep her in your sights,” (this from him who Rose once warned Briana “he may be here for you.”)

“How ‘not one of us’?” Rose asked. “I’ve never, ever met a smarter little person.”

Harold’s left hand, spanning veiny temples, palmed the center of his scalp where the hair grew thinner than it had when he first espied Rose with Brick years earlier; it was duller, a less distinguished shade of gray, its color mirrored inauspiciously by the stricken man’s complexion (cancer poised to exterminate what remained of his dwindling vitality).

“She’s been altered, somehow,” Harold remarked, convinced of this since Brick had returned his cryptic stare at the Blue Mango restaurant. In fact, he had known it well before, from the DNA sample Rose had dutifully collected and sent per his instructions—when the Federation still functioned. Today (like the malignancy decimating his lymph nodes) hostile elements undermined cohesion, compromised immunity, and threatened the body politic with premature demise. Disorganized, disaffected, disassembled, and viewed with disdain, those who might have led the Federation were subject to persecution, their comrades similarly hounded by antagonistic mindsets. In some States, some entire countries, ADEPTS were barred from gathering; in others barely tolerated; in all too few appreciated albeit obscurely and misunderstood.

“’Altered’ in a good way; in a bad way; is it inheritable?”

“Tests have shown her anomaly might get passed along genetically. As for good or bad there’s no predicting. Whoever spliced or grafted or fused foreign info-bits into… What does she call herself these days?”

“Brick.”

“…into Brick that rendered her unique, he or she was way out front of our 21st century capabilities; even current technology would be taxed to replicate your ward. How she has gone undetected—what’s more unconfined by those who might have exploited her—is a tribute to your tutelage.”

“Humph; I can hardly take any credit for shielding a missing person. You are aware of Ms. Everson-Truesdale’s disappearance?”

Harold’s crestfallen frown suggested he was not.

“Oh?”

“And that she recently spent three years at a female detention center for committing perjury, grand larceny, and several counts of fraud?”

These facts likewise eluded Harold… and attested incidentally to the Federation’s lapse.

“What an abominable waste of powers and abilities…”

“‘Far beyond those of mortal men,’” quoted Rose. “I agree. So you see I don’t deserve your gracious commendation. For all I know, the Pentagon may have dispatched her like they did her dear ol’ dad.”

Brick, having confided this privileged information after Rose had been ‘retired,’ also had more than hinted at some harebrained alterationdeduced upon gaining access to a classified State Secrets file, which could have, should have, and would have placed her squarely in the government’s lethal crosshairs had any trace whatsoever been left to betray the breach…

 Brain

  …Lo, these eight years later, when Professor Houston labored to connect the exculpatory dots that time and outlawed research had repressed but that had recently emerged with Tricia Everson-Truesdale (still on campus, still a member of Stanford’s faculty) confirming she, indeed, was the wife of Dr. Peter Truesdale-Everson whose work had finally surfaced in a published (laundered) treatise (divorced from the infamous context wherein it was conceived) and had resurrected Houston’s sketchy memory of a lecture being crashed by an insolent little imp (attended by her mongrel) belaboring him with some nonsense about brains being programmable, and passing along their data to subsequent generations…

 Kiwi Orange

…a concept seemingly preposterous in 2020 now eminently plausible since genetically modified everything had spawned a revolution, piling patent upon patent upon patent upon patent (predictably counteracted by rampant patent piracy)…

 Museum Of New And Old Art

 “One entrenched exception, though, is to modify you or me; sacrosanct are creatures alleged to have been creations in the image of their Creator—with several gods taking credit for that estimable feat, their worshippers, as our century sprints along, unaccountably multitudinous. It would seem the more we human beings explain ourselves to ourselves the fiercer grows our penchant for anything inexplicable. For instance: faith represents believing in assertions highly doubtful; devout represents endorsing the demonstrably untrue; and science represents contradicting the religiously irrational. Thus, dear students, behold the mountain-made-from-a-molehill that your scholarship must ascend.”

Screens worldwide sustained, through a culminating fadeout, Professor Houston’s visage, broadcast out of Stanford where the lecturer restacked his notes (anachronistically scribbled on 3 by 5 index cards) and stowed them in the pocket of his corduroy blazer.

Museum of Old and New Art,’ the Professor reflected, switching off the console that had beamed his lesson globally, its content quaintly organized on the blue-ruled cards, calling to mind that subterranean gem (in Hobart, Tasmania, of all places) where works from antiquity were displayed side-by-side with works up-to-date, a provocative juxtaposition posing the question: Whence comes everlastingness?

Utility, for one; the old was not replaced until the new proved superior, Houston mused, having clacked out his dissertation, way-back-when, on an Underwood typewriter. Who, if given the choice, would willingly revert to ink ribbons and white-out? The 3 by 5 card, however (even when scanned) retained a degree of utility, postponing obsolescence. Or was he simply clinging, for comfort’s sake, to a relic of the past? And did he really subscribe to the premise he had promulgated, that faith in any given deity applied the brakes to scientific progress? Did human predicate supreme in some hierarchy of being? Could one play God without acknowledging a priori belief in the Divine? Would soul ever be verifiable or remain for all eternity a superstitious myth?

These and other quandaries kept the good Professor company on his plod across campus. Bitter was the admission that breakthroughs of his youth were largely behind him… dogging his steps, however, like a wake of waning shadows. Pity to have one’s best work fading into memory… while confronted by the future—perpetually sophomoric, interminably young, and bent on relegating elders to remnant stores and pawnshops.

Why had he not listened to that child, not recognized her overture might have held significance? What had made him blind to so sterling an opportunity? How could he have dismissed as “practically impossible” the notion that a brain could reconfigure an implantable stem-cell-cultured chip when such an outcome was feasible a mere eight years thereafter; not so far ahead for a laureate to foresee? Maybe, if he could find her, it might not be too late.

Headgear

CONTACT-INTERRUPTUS

Little looked familiar to Jack, even in his old San Francisco neighborhood; names of shops had changed, buildings had been razed and a host of new ones constructed, areas closed to vehicular traffic were converted into gardens while meters, present everywhere, generated grief and revenue. George had bought the building wherein Jack and he once rented, renovated their flat but evicted not one tenant. This was a compassionate gesture; two couples were elderly; the only other occupant was a middle-aged widow. With Jack away at grad schools #2 and #3—Stony Brook then Johns Hopkins—George had plenty of space. Too much, in fact; Jack’s room remained Jack’s room. Whenever he came home he was welcome to stay… “For as long as you want, son.”

Berkeley, however, appeared to have been fixed in some time-warp utopia, its steady influx of students lending the community a forever-young veneer, under which a radical core of misfits gave the place its rebel stamp. The UC campus, during Jack’s nostalgic walk-through, wakened many a joy and sorrow, from academic triumph to lonely-hearts-club dolor—the latter of lasting impact, compliments Amanda… who lingered like some pitiless STD contracted without ever having had intercourse thus mocking the afflicted with a dread, drawn-out dis-ease. Jack, age twenty-one, was still a virgin; he considered this a handicap, albeit prospects (always paling by comparison to Ms. Sørenson) had been faithfully abjured. Jack lived monkishly, constrained by an oath of celibacy engraved upon his heart; love unrequited had ensured, like most romantic memories, that she became enshrined—which helped to weather the worst of his hyperactive hormones; nonstop study followed by nonstop overtime employment clamped a cap on the remainder.

None of this discouraged a stream of eligibles eager to catch the monastic bachelor’s eye, women who warmed to men who warmed to women without reverting to rigors-of-the-rut. Passive males, with otherwise “manly” traits, formed a group in short supply, which mesmerized a larger group of females willing to sacrifice machismo for genuine sensitivity. Jack, if anything was sensitive. He was also heartthrob handsome—as a clique of coeds, camped at Café Claude, transparently concurred… witnessed by a peer (with respect to gender only).

Will you look at those three bimbos gone agog, falling all over themselves to lure the likes of… granted, a good-looking specimen, who may even own half a brain compared to that pompom triumvirate primping and preening, licking their LustLustre lips to wet calculated smiles. How I loathe the ignominious practice of pheromonal mating!

Brick, ensconced at her favorite neck-of-the-woods bistro, sipped a Napa Valley wine: hint of apricot, aged in oak, a very velvety finish in so young a chardonnay. Early for an aperitif (her WristWand read 10:40, not quite brunch-time) it was hot already in Berkeley, which recommended the chill of her alcoholic drink—dispensed by a waiter who recognized Brick as a regular thus spared her getting carded; at age eighteen (going on nineteen), she could have been mistaken for an underage juvenile; height and weight-wise (disregarding demeanor) she could have passed for twelve. Presently, in modesty mode, her run-of-the-mill appearance earned nary a second look… except from him, The Hunk, who not only looked but positively gaped—much to the chagrin of cheerleaders A, B, and C whose tactical flirtations had garnered not a glance. ‘What could she possess of any interest to Adonis?’ their green-eyed glares conveyed.

Brick, too, was surprised; she bristled under the scrutiny, none too pleased by anyone’s attention, much less… then it dawned on her; he, like people she had seen on rare but memorable occasions, must be one of THEM.

Within moments, Brick had run a features scan on the over-inquisitive ogler, her WristWand generating stats in atypical abundance:

JACK BLACK, it appeared, was a person of some repute, degrees from prestigious universities, several awards and distinguished commendations, a partnership in the celebrated start-up PETABLES INCORPORATED, etcetera, etcetera, all considerably impressive, none more so than an incidental tidbit; a detail of nativity arrested Brick’s attention: MOTHER DIED BEFORE SHE WAS DELIVERED OF HER C-SECTION BABY BOY.

Brick’s reaction to this outré intelligence was an empathetic twinge—more poignant than painful, less traumatic than dramatic, like riding side by side in a pair of rapid-transit trains while noticing someone parallel noticing you, your matching speeds suspending animation for several interlaced seconds… severed as the monorails resumed their single-minded ways.

When Jack ran Brick through a similar device (his attached to headgear with its micro-cam amalgamated) nothing was produced; all data modules were BLANK.

No one, in the current day and age, registered UNDOCUMENTED.

Jack double-checked the image; it had somehow been erased. He again tapped his temple-plate; Brick’s picture—blip—was taken, though partially occluded by one of the trio (whose advance was fueled by a bet she just had placed with her ingratiatory chums). When next Jack searched for the snapshot, it—along with its subject—had disappeared.

Death

THE GREAT LEVELER

Redundant, in British usage, was a term that meant retirement. Redundant, in American usage, meant unnecessary repetition. In Wallace Wesley Windsor’s usage, the definitions merged; retirement meant withdrawn, secluded, no longer occupied with one’s vocation and doomed to needlessly repeating the dullest routines of life. Experiences accumulated, reference points accrued, insights gathered, skills acquired, and talents mastered amounted to so much soil shoveled atop one’s coffin lid, its drumming fainter and fainter as the sunken gravesite filled, a roof like any other patted down then leveled… under which the measure of a person was bit by bit reduced to little more than loam perchance to feed a daisy. How could Mankind tolerate such a crude, recurrent waste?

Wally viewed the steady drip, drip, drip of saline solution snaking toward his forearm—intravenous nourishment the only form ingestible: liquefied rack of lamb, garlic asparagus, fingerling potatoes, and strawberry shortcake diluted, dispossessed of flavor, and hung in a plastic sack… like a goldfish bowl to go.

Midas had been packaged thusly when purchased for a lad not so many years previous, a wink of decades blinked by eyelids thin as gossamer, Wally’s chalky white and delicately veined, through which he saw the ghost of his first domestic pet, its graceful fins and tail, its palpitating gills, kisses it would blow once transferred from cellophane to glass, grateful for its perch atop the youngster’s bedroom dresser, adapting to its bubble (still a sphere but no more vast) a habitat twice removed from the realm of thaws and freezes.

Drip, drip, drip… narcotics, too, were delivered through the serpentine contraption; they coiled around his pain like a merciful constrictor, squeezes turning into hugs until the fiercest pangs relaxed and coupled sweet relief with phantasmagoria… wherein Wally’s body lifted; a delusional levitation made the smock he wore conform to torso, loins, and thighs suspended two whole meters above his bedsore-blotting mattress; IV tube and flaps of flannel dangled from his elevated sides; air below his flaccid butt alleviated burdens both fleshly and metaphysical; air above him shimmered as it fogged an opaque ceiling, then wiped the residue clean like steam from a hothouse skylight, beyond which Wally gazed with wide-eyed, childlike wonder… at diamonds sprinkled over velvet—black as a widow’s veil—in constellations tellingly arranged for a necromancer’s augur, myths with obituaries mixed to predict each mortal’s plight, clasped to the bosom of Death for its terminal embrace.

Dartboard Tits Diane

DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS

Dartboard-Tits Diane was named for the targets on her chest, dark concentric circles tattooed on either lobe, bull’s eye nipples focusing attention on injection-mold perfection, gravity unavailing on gibbosities round and firm, softball size and surgically implanted with a double dose of silicone. Pride in these mammalian reconstructions led Diane to certain doom when responding to a want ad for “Illustrated Bosoms” placed ostensibly by a porn production outfit registered as QuimQuirks. Free at last from detention (if constrained by the terms of her probation), Diane (and her accomplices, most released concurrently) found unemployment rampant among those “rehabilitated”; debts owed to society, evidently, were never paid in full.

MODELS SELECTED FOR A SCREEN TEST stated the notice, MUST SIGN A WAIVER.

DAY’S END COMPENSATION it further stipulated, IS PAYABLE IN CASH.

Weird was the location specified by an E-vite. Weirder still were particulars posted beside a door with heavy metal hinges—like a portal to some dungeon, the stone and mortar edifice itself a renovated armory.

ALL THOSE HERE TO AUDITION,

PLEASE BARE YOUR BREASTS ON CAMERA,

TAKE AN APPLICATION

AND PROCEED DOWNSTAIRS.

Aside from what one might expect from a bona fide employer, the clipboard-mounted document contained a curious disclaimer exempting QuimQuirks Inc. from civil liability should injury be sustained by anyone screened or cast—this precaution soon made credible by the sound stage, props, and set awaiting candidates willing to expose themselves by way of gaining entry.

Aroused more than offended by the singular prerequisite, Diane, without compunction, flashed her dartboard tits.

Presto; locks unlocked; a red alert light twinkled green; an escalator descended to a mockup Chamber of Horrors.

Anchored to its hardwood floor with bolts and extended leather straps—the latter ending in cuffs for securing wrists and ankles (or so showed a numbered diagram with step by step instructions)—an elaborate apparatus greeted her who faltered, flinched, then sneered at the absence of a crew and the prevalence of surveillance cameras (which monitored every move the ex-con made).

Surveilance                                            Surveilance 

[Safely stowed offsite, thrilled to have lured her nemesis into jeopardy, Brick was manifestly keen to spring the elaborate trap, confident weeks of planning were about to settle scores for the poisoned pooch, the compulsory narcotics, and the acid rain of insults showered on those who had stood their ground—for as long as that was possible when hopelessly outnumbered. Brick had held out longest against the gangsters’ smutty onslaught; hers become the pussy Diane most desired to tame, meaning most desired to corrupt and permanently disable.]

Porn Movie

Meanwhile, she who played to a host of pre-adjusted apertures, took her initial cue from an outsized script (projected on a slab of ordinary drywall), its first directive STRIP followed by a synopsis that described specific scenes in the sequence to be shot:

A woman with magnificent breasts enters nude, stage left, enthralled and frightened equally by a complicated contrivance, into which she over-cautiously climbs WITHOUT ATTACHING THE RESTRAINTS, shy of trusting completely whomever she is to placate (foreshadowed, sight unseen, by a looming DOMINATRIX.)

Persuaded she maintained control of the novel situation, Diane performed her part precisely as it was written, fitting her naked buttocks into a cast-iron tractor seat, knees astraddle what looked to be a piston angled toward her privates, its business end a dildo with a life-size hollow tip (suggesting it was equipped to dispense some sort of payload).

Wary, the woman hesitates, stands in the stirrups, glances at a switch. She flips it, watching intently as the piston springs into action, extending, retracting, extending, and retracting at a slow-motion clip. Around this switch is a dial; the woman turns it; the dildo gains momentum. In and out and in and out it plunges—or would, were the woman to resume her seat. But first she flips off the switch to examine the tool’s particulars… equipped, she discovers, with a tube. To conduct just what, her arch expression asks? She traces it from the piston… to the motor… to a bottle underneath—requiring her to lean, bending over sideways. She gives the bottle a squeeze; a liquid squirts from the dildo’s tip; she collects a finger full to sample for a reassuring taste test. Satisfied it is harmless, she settles in the saddle while evaluating the risk of rendering limbs immobile… deciding to cuff both ankles—CLICK—but just a single wrist; her right hand must stay free, she concludes, if only to adjust the dial. But this is countermanded by an offstage command (sensed not heard) that strikes unmitigated terror in the duly humbled SLAVE—CLICK—letting the fourth cuff clasp her sole means of escape.

Regretting this immediately, Diane endured a SNAP that occasioned all four limbs to lurch into position, arms and legs stretched tautly, hips thrust forward, crotch abruptly skewered by the imitation phallus, while the sack of viscous fluid was robotically replaced by another substance—sinister in its implications, caustic in its properties, and poised to be injected once the ramrod action peaked…

Caustic Fluid 

[…and Brick, from afar, instructed the apparatus to flood the captive’s vulva with enough sulfuric spunk to corrode it from within…]

Apparatus 

 …and shrieks erupted in a drawn-out decrescendo…

Porn Movie End

[…resounding at Brick’s Command Post from whence they had been scored].

DROOG 

UPGRADE

Jack could not shake Brick from his agitated consciousness. Seldom had he encountered so kindred an intellect, never had he met a genuine savant; the girl with no identity might qualify on both counts, he… intuited? Evidence, other than her incognito status, was scarcely conclusive. Nothing about her physically was out of the ordinary: puny, bordering on boyish with her lack of distaff curves, conventional coif, no make-up, and commonplace attire—barring her pricy WristWand, which may have been a DROOG. But even a state-of-the-art DROOG was incapable of rendering someone anonymous. Again and again Jack had tested his gear for possible malfunction. It consistently informed him all was working well. Thus the inexplicable teased like an unsolved chess problem. An alternate explanation was that this mystery girl fit the newly-coined rubric GMOmanoid, an anomaly on the rise with Genome Adaptation—a process and its product stringently frowned upon. Practitioners and their guinea pigs, when caught, could be sentenced to death… wherever capital punishment had not yet been abolished. America still saw fit to execute its malefactors, a primitive practice granted but righteously in forceand a personal nightmare for Jack insofar as he faced an ethical dilemma; should he or should he not pursue an experiment punishable by lethal injection?

Wally, alas, was not in any shape to be consulted, whereas George was predictably supportive of whatever his son disclosed. Who, then, could be tapped for helping Jack decide? Or was the matter moot, with dispersal still unfeasible? Certainly his discovery must be packaged as a benefit for it to muster public favor; people were averse to any and all ‘detractions.’ Better to call ‘nonviolence’ a ‘penchant for peaceableness,’ for example. Better to ‘bolster forbearance’ than to ‘eradicate aggressiveness’which could, indeed, be purged… in bowwowers, at least. And the trait got passed along; or it did during trials in mice. How might humans fare were they to entertain a shift in their fundamental nature? How might those unaffected react to those ‘revised’? And how might such ‘revisions’ alter life in general were they to persevere, proliferate, and ultimately prevail?

Rock of Sisyphus 

“Those on top, with respect to ruling society, do not willingly relinquish, for any reason, their advantage or their control, while those on the bottom, albeit tempted by the notion their oppressors could be cured of oppressive inclinations, never cease to hope that roles will be reversed. Upshot? Humankind sustains its unkind status quo.”

Professor Houston smirked at the scandalized expressions he imagined overtaking his online student audience. Sometimes he lamented giving lectures in absentia. Normally, he performed live for locals and remotes. Expedience and the after-hours indulgence of making a prerecording, induced him, in the present instance, to forego first-person perks, and to cast his pearls before faceless, undergraduate (ergo most unworthy) swine.

Teaching had grown wearisome. It was he who proposed the switch from post grad courses exclusively to offering freshmen a series of Introductions. For a while (too short a while), the regression had done him good. But teens knew next to nothing with regard to scholarship (with regard to life), and instructing them soon felt like Sisyphus shoving his rock uphill. Whether those he taught retained or forgot whatever he imparted, those who signed up next began without a clue, thus the rock of ignorance descended to square one.

Research was the remedy. Houston’s had been laudable. Early on, the bounty of his brainstorms had fallen like hallowed hail, anointing him with prestige, munificent budgets, and a coveted Nobel Prize. Since then, he had coasted, rested upon his laurels, allowed his reputation to swell like an overblown piñata worrisome lest its lancing disclose empty air. ‘Why had he not listened,’ ‘it might not be too late,’ and ‘practically impossible’ were phrases come to haunt him as Houston packed his suitcase, prepared to go on leave, to take an overdue sabbatical, not for rest or relaxation, rather for embarking on a path to his crowning contribution… once belatedly tracking down its inspiration’s source…

Sprinkler 

…on whom Rose was closing in with preternatural accuracy. Guided by an inkling founded upon an exposé in the press that reported a bizarre (if justifiable?) homicide, the erstwhile nanny guessed, adroitly and correctly, that Brick must be the culprit—but did not guess from whence her reprisal had been launched. Dartboard-Tits Diane, referred to in the article as “Diane Rosalind Bryce,” had died by an infusion of “cyanide mixed with dog urine,” vouchsafed the coroner, who also had determined date and time of death—despite an incendiary bomb having torched the bulk of evidence. Ms. Bryce, whose breasts resembled “bumblebee bottoms,” quoth the correspondent, escaped the ensuing blaze remarkably intact; a sprinkler system triggered in the ceiling had doused cadaver and “device” alike, the latter described sensationally in minute detail. Ms. Bryce, “a former felon,” the lurid two-column spread revealed, had recently been released from California’s Female Youth in Detention Center… Brick’s alma mater—the link that forged the chain that tugged the pertinent recollection of crimes against her ward recounted while still in custody; vengeance hath no fury like a wronged and feisty genius…

Anonymous Package

…whose mother thought she knew where her daughter was in hiding—intelligence unconfirmed for fear of tipping off police, though theirs was a lackluster effort to haul in teen parole-violators, Brick’s new status as murderess (or avenger as she perceived herself) unknown to the authorities, neither to those investigating the homicide nor to those blasé toward truants, furthermore unsuspected by the crime victim’s cohorts; six remained on Brick’s vindictive list, each of whom had received, via post, an intimidating package, contents striking chords of retroactive terror. Sufficient to slake the bloodlust of their vengeance-seeking sender? Possibly; each bore a tacit death threat should any recipient squeal, meaning point a finger at her who plotted similar retribution against the warden’s gang-of-three. Review Board members, apropos, suffered joint amnesia when summoned to an inquest, none recalling specifically the unfortunate ‘detainee’ whose court-ordered punishment had been extended well beyond any penitence due someone innocent-as-charged, framed by the Demolition Dykes whose testimony had been swallowed hook, line, and sinker by the Board’s complicit Chairwoman whose fall would be the domino toppling her confederates; that particular machination was likewise in-the-works, the Feds having gotten wind of a private-sector slush fund to the tune of six million dollars, taxpayer dollars, hence the government’s interest in prosecuting parties responsible, parties unaware of the gifts their graft bestowed, shocked at their own benevolence when friends and family thanked them for proceeds bound to precipitate a quartet of indictments—thus Brick’s foresworn vendetta would be fiscally accomplished.

Canadian Stamp 

Tricia was worried sick about her AWOL enfant terrible, and hoped, by briefing Rose, she had not betrayed Brick’s confidence. Canada was the haven mom felt sure her child had sought. “Vancouver,” she told Rose, had been franked on a recent letter (mailed, on Brick’s behalf, no doubt, by a subject of Her Majesty), a clue too patently transparent to put Ms. Birchtree off the track, knowing her ward’s MO to be infinitely more ingenious, more devious, truth be told, since doing time in jailthough ‘jail’ was too crude a term for Brick’s prolonged “Retreat”—Tricia’s choice of euphemism to depict her daughter’s whereabouts while serving a sentence “totally unjust” and “excessively severe.”

“A prank was all it was, a silly stunt that drew attention to the much more serious crime of making predatory loans to students…”

“You’re preaching to the choir, Tricia.”

“…while chancellors, from on high, lead lives of shameless luxury. Rose, have you any idea what Stanford’s president nets?”

“A bundle?”

“A bundle atop an Everest of privileges and perks! Briana should have been praised instead of imprisoned for civil disobedience.”

“Is that what it was?”

Tricia took exception to Rose’s hint of sarcasm.

Of course that’s what it was. Briana didn’t benefit; she played Robin Hood.”

“‘Maid Marion,’ I believe, was how she signed the E-vite.”

“Same intention. To characterize Briana’s selfless act as ‘malicious’ or even ‘criminal’ missed the point entirely; she’s a heroine not a villain. And that’s not motherly love excusing a child’s offense. She maybe deserved a reprimand but hardly three whole years… wasted… irretrievable… subjected to who knows what!”

Plenty, Rose had gleaned from Brick’s encrypted messages—all correspondence having been censored while in custody, whether transmitted or received, occasioning codes to be employed by the intermittent confidants. Abuses had been committed, many trivial, some egregious; Brick too often had been the scapegoat or the sacrificial lamb. Brains deferred to brawn, evidently, among persons in captivity; Brick had been able to press no clear-cut advantage. Instead she withdrew her weapons like a cat retracts its claws, biding time until reprisals could be devised and mercilessly unleashed… from an undisclosed location.

BRICK(clear)

“Sentencing someone to death, though, wow, then to carry it out yourself? I don’t know, Briana.”

“Call me Brick.”

“That’s radical. Wow. I mean, that’s harsh. Even if you don’t get caught you’ve… killed… another human being. You don’t have any… qualms about that? No guilt? No repentance? No regrets? Wow.”

“If you say ‘wow’ just one more time you can turn around and leave. I get it that you’re shocked about my vigilante justice, but everyone on my list has just-deserts past due.”

“‘Everyone’; you have a ‘list’? You’re on a killing spree? Brick, this isn’t a screenplay for some blood ‘n’ guts who-done-it. You’re not an avenging angel who can circumvent the law. People who murder people get arrested, go to jail; real jail not that holiday resort you had the luxury to suffer. Granted, you were treated a bit unfairly; you got roughed up some; your feelings may have gotten hurt. But face it, you fucked up. You pulled a stupid, senseless caper, and then lucked out when your mom convinced the Court to try you as a juvenile. Let ‘vengeance be the Lord’s’ or they’ll lock you up for good.”

“Is that what you came all this way to tell me?”

“Well, it’s only seventy-five kilometers from San Jose.”

“Piss off.”

“As opposed to dropping my drawers and pissing on your carpet?”

This allusion finally bridged the gap between former nanny and former ward, Brick recalling, too, when she had piddled her displeasure. Rose’s laughter then was as winning as it was now.

“Cyanide and pooch pee, Brick?”

“Poetic, yes?”

“Rhapsodical. Done remotely from here, I take it?”

“Done remotely from elsewhere, which begs the question: How?”

“How what?”

“How did you trace me here?”

“Not by any trail you may have left connecting Bakersfield to Berkeley. You did dispatch Diane in that Central Valley pit?”

“That’s from whence she slithered, alongside her sister vipers, so to Bakersfield she and they returned, remanded by the terms of their probation thus rendered easy targets.”

“At which you will refrain, henceforth, from taking aim, I steadfastly recommend… unless you’ve already sent some RoboCop-ish sniper?”

Moi?” Brick disavowed with hands across her chest, her abnegation tentative, verging on sincere; Rose, perhaps, was right; better look ahead.

Blood

YOU’RE NOT FROM THERE, YOU DON’T GO THERE

Shards of glass embedded in his cheek, a fractured jaw—how?—kicked; no, punched while he was standing; only kicked after he was down—where?—in the face, twice, so it could have been the sneaker or the shoe that broke his mandible—who?—at that point, difficult to tell; they came from his blindside; five of them; there could have been six; the first blow landed from behind, a sweeping open-handed cuff that grazed his head, made him duck so did its job by knocking him off balance, catching him unawares—when?—noon, broad daylight; not a busy street but someplace there were witnesses; he heard voices; he saw legs pass by beyond the ankles of his assailants who were silent, for the most part, though one did call him “bitch”—what?—another mumbled “whitey”; there were units rather than apartments lining both sides of a walkway through a public housing project in obvious disrepair; cardboard fixed with duct tape replaced several ground-floor windows; bars protected those further up—why?—sport, hatred, money; there was gusto in the beating, teamwork, turns were taken, very coordinated; there was enmity, satisfaction with the serious injuries caused; and they had robbed him, frisked and emptied his pockets, plundered cash and credit cards then tossed aside his wallet, come to rest on its spine (he noted before blacking out), bill compartment splayed like crippled wings.

Emergency 

Déjà vu, George feared, en route to San Francisco General. Late again, a loved one gravely hurt—not dead, not dead, please!—him left useless and clueless, the call having come forty-eight hours—and counting—after the fact, after his son’s admittance, emergency surgery, post-op recovery, and night in Intensive Care… sparing George the wait, the interminable anguish of fretful inactivity, but visiting guilt, no matter how unfounded, upon his widower’s conscience.

Could there ever be a spouse or a parent who did not feel responsible for a mishap that befell either partner or child? George, for one, thought not, as he hovered above Jack’s bed, surveying wounds through a film of infuriated tears, wishing to himself—aloud—the sentiment in his heart.

“Son, if I could take your pain, I would.”

I know, Dad, Jack replied soundlessly, though his words would have been inaudible, trapped behind wired-shut teeth, hidden by lips distended like a pair of bloated inner tubes, choked, in any case, by a lump-in-the-throat he shared with his empathetic father.

Broken Jaw 

Unlucky, was Jack’s passed verdict on his brutal misadventure: wrong place, wrong time, hooligans out for blood, his meditative stroll intercepted disastrously, sending him to the hospital and sentencing him to a six-week liquid diet sucking meals through a plastic straw while resembling a banged-up boxer whenever facing any mirror. Of more concern than his injuries, though, was why he had acquired them (beyond the fact that urban youth had a bent for acts of malice, especially in The Hood where he had strayed carelessly) the posttraumatic replay raising troubling issues:

·            Jack, in self-defense, had thrown not one punch,

·            had absorbed the raining blows with absolute neutrality,

·            was distressed by what was happening yet was helpless to prevent it,

·            and helpless, moreover, to stop it

a worrisome development that suggested his newly altered genome had nullified former capabilities. Previously he could mollify threats by inducing a psychic force field, deflecting would-be hostility, sometimes defusing it. Since injecting Vector Pink, however, he seemed to have lost the knack.

Had he wandered into harm’s way on purpose, he wondered introspectively? Or had his ‘alteration,’ in some strange manner, numbed him to the danger?

Reclining at a therapeutic angle in his semi-private room (once George departed), Jack had ample leisure to critique his daring trial—though braver souls than he had used themselves as guinea pigs. Was his current state clear proof that the antigen had worked? Could it have drawn his cruel attackers; or simply made their onslaught un-repel-able? Jack had not struck back because the impulse failed to occur; neither at the time nor later; no craving to retaliate ever clenched his fists. Had he become a genuine, unequivocal pacifist? Or was that term, in the absence of volition, no more to be applied? Must a pacifist choose nonviolence in order to be exemplary? If Jack were incapable of striking back was his self-restraint less noble for having nothing to restrain? What had he surrendered by taking Vector Pink; what had he attained? And did he really feel so differently; had he even noticed that Jack Black with and Jack Black without an aptitude for aggression was fundamentally changed, alien unto himself? How begin to quantify the untold implications?

California Poppies

DO NOT RESUSCITATE

Death was not at all what Wally had expected; the end of expectation. Nothingness was the fate, the everlasting state, of life forms expired. Sentient beings, no longer sentient, ought to be insensate. Conscious beings no longer conscious kissed their thoughts goodbye. Wherefore was he thinking, and feeling an itch between his fourth and little toe? Not that he could scratch it. Limbs ignored his brain’s commands. Body parts, since dawn, were unanimously inert. Cockcrows, aka breakfast chimes, were the last sounds Wally heard… postdating respiration’s by a few fleeting seconds as he no doubt gasped his last with a long-drawn, desiccated wheeze like wind through tumbleweed trapped against a fencepost was the final metaphor his timed-out wit conceived. What, pray tell, explained nonexistence when it lingered incomplete, when it obstinately loitered, when remains commenced to stink? Had Lazarus decomposed any, while awaiting resurrection? If asked, would he have welcomed his Reaper-robbed reprieve? Wally, sure as Hell, would stiff-arm any effort to restore his withered carcass—as spelled out unequivocally in the notarized instruction: DO NOT RESUSCITATE, which ruled out life-support systems sustaining this… auto-obituary? Unless the staff disregarded his Advanced Directives, or they misinterpreted clauses intended to be facetious. For instance: “Burn me at your peril; I never was ashes or dust; in other words, DO NOT INCINERATE else my ghost may make ye sneeze.” Why he chose to be “planted” instead of cremated spoke to Wally’s credo: “Fertile minds, once cadaverous, should fertilize native soil.” Born and bred in California, in California he would stay: “a flowerbed boosting poppies would suit my gravesite nicely, sparing me the bromide: pushing up daisies.” Also among his wishes were phrases to be carved into “a modest wooden marker,” to wit: “HERE LIES WALLACE WESLEY WINDSOR, COME-OF-AGE IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, OF OLD AGE IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY DIED, REASONABLY SELF-SATISFIED WITH A FULL IF QUIRKY LIFE THAT ASKED IMPORTANT QUESTIONS AND GARNERED DAMN FEW ANSWERS. LET HIM BE REMEMBERED AS A MAN WHO FAILED BUT TRIED.” If neither rhyme nor reason marked a rational mind’s demise, as Wally, in his lucid moments, claimed, to eulogize with a couplet made seeming sense of nonsense—befitting one who died with an un-scratched itch… though Wally, in a coma, was not yet courting earthworms.

Salk Tech Pharmaceuticals

PLUSH DIGS 

“So, how are you earning a living?”

“I teach.”

“You? What?”

“Molecular Biology.”

Brick could have said Nuclear Physics, Gastroenterology, or Renaissance Art; Rose would not have blinked. Surprising was the teaching part, the presumable interaction, which Rose would have guessed was beyond her protégé’s scope.

“Where?”

“A number of places, but primarily at Salk-Tech.”

“The pharmaceutical?”

“The philanthropic pharmaceutical. They have a lab.”

“How did you get credentialed as a graduate from the Female Youth in Detention Center?”

“You’re asking a lot of questions, Rose; what’s up? Why’d you come in the first place? My mother didn’t send you, I hope.”

She thinks you’re in Canada; as you, no doubt, intended.”

“As you will soon confirm when you report, or this reunion of ours will be…” Brick consulted a wall-projected Dot-Clock. “…over as of right… ‘aboot’ …now.”

“I promise, I promise, I promise; you’re alive and well and breeding baby cowpokes on a dude ranch near Vancouver!”

“Curious choice of words,” Brick remarked while taking a closer look at her unannounced visitor. “Are you pregnant, by any chance?”

Flummoxed by this stroke of near-miss clairvoyance, Rose dropped her guard.

“No. But I want to be.”

This unforced admission prompted Brick to reconsider.

“Make yourself at home, Rose. While we chit a little chat, let’s have some tea.”

Though Spartan in the extreme, Brick’s apartment did possess a lamp, a davenport, and a coffee table isolated like islands midst the living room’s hardwood sea, a vast amount of floor space that must have cost a fortune. As Brick disappeared—assumedly into the kitchen—Rose ensconced herself in the couch’s Spanish leather, snug as a fastball buried in the pocket of a massive catcher’s mitt. Inordinately comfy, she slipped off her footwear.

When Brick at last emerged carrying an elaborate antique silver service Rose again was struck by her ward’s apparent affluence.

“Darjeeling suit you?”

“Perfectly.”

Brick set down the tray and joined her guest with a ‘whoosh’ as her weight compressed the cushions, sinking not so deeply yet just as comfortably while warming to the challenge of turning Rose’s purpose (whatever it might be) to personal advantage.

“Who’s the lucky fella; or is that to be determined?”

Rose, reminded poignantly of Brick’s perspicacity, shifted into a more cerebral gear—if wanting less to compete than yearning to confide.

“I’ve submitted stipulations for a donor; while the search goes on, I wait.”

“You’re choosing pedigree over puppy love? How recherché! Would that parents worldwide shared your foresightedness.”

Whether Brick was joking or speaking in earnest Rose could not assess; her former ward had changed—beyond mercurial moods and ever-shifting costumes; presently dressed in silk pajamas, ostensibly unwired (though one sleeve was programmable); Brick affected an air of standoffish decadence.

“You’ve never considered marriage, Briana; Brick, I mean?”

“As in mating?”

“Starting a family?”

“Going into estrus?”

“Or maybe raising a child all by yourself?”

“One pup or a litter, the process is unappealing. What’s come over you, Rose, is what I’d like to know. Aren’t ADEPTS disinterested in fertility, selective or otherwise?”

Rose made a gesture toward the covered pot of tea; Brick’s countermanding gesture suggested let it steep.

“Too true. Which reminds me; remember Harold Bloomsmythe?”

“No, I don’t. You’ve changed the subject.”

“Well, Harold is someone you saw once, way back when, but didn’t actually meet—and, no, I haven’t changed the subject—whose grand aspiration for ‘us,’ meaning sister and fellow ADEPTS, has suffered disillusionment. He didn’t admit as much when we spoke recently but he and the Federation are clearly in decline. The whole idea of improving the human race is similarly disintegrating. So I’ve been thinking ‘act locally,’ since acting globally is unrealistic.”

“By cultivating roses, Rose? A bunch or a single stem?”

“I thought I’d start with a daughter, conceive her in vitro, then play it by ear.”

“Hoping that your hybrid will survive among the weeds, prepared to go it alone, Eve without her Adam?”

“That, or slit my wrists. Life, of late, seems meaningless without an avocation.”

“And plotting single parenthood is an enterprise worthwhile? What’s more suicidal than adding to our surplus population? Been there; done that; look what it did for the planet. Fewer equals better, in my opinion, when it comes to human beings, be they randomly produced or explicitly handcrafted. But what do I know? Breed if you must, Rose. Bear one, bear a dozen. All things living reproduce. But don’t interpret that as tantamount to meaningful.”

Brick poured tea for Rose and herself, the act like punctuation to her antisocial outlook: adopted in detention? Nurtured since release? Apt to grow (or to mutate) into full-fledged misanthropy?

“Doesn’t life begetting life celebrate life itself?”

Brick delayed first slurp for a double take at Rose, who heretofore had seldom shown an aptitude for rigorous philosophizing.

“Maternity, or its threat, appears to have turned your head.”

“Away from contemplating options far less positive; that much I’ll concede. Your negativity toward childbirth, on the other hand, strikes me as unnatural.”

“Right you are; it is. Natural childbirth perpetuates Homo sapiens warts and all, our meritorious virtues and our devastating vices, passed along in a circle not a spiral so we stay the way we are.”

“As it should; the earth is round.”

“Naturally; that’s my point. For humanity to progress, nature must be…”

“Violated?”

“Let’s say enhanced.”

“Why not redirected?”

“Duh; because you have to change the code! Humankind, by nature, is both constructive and destructive. We can quibble about proportions but, at base, we’re all dichotomies. You’re applying to a sperm bank; I don’t suppose you’ve specified ‘brutal,’ ‘stupid,’ ‘insensitive’ and ‘short.’” (Rose protests with a scowl; Brick ignores her). “But even if they find some spunk from a stud who meets your specs, chances are it will also pass along traits you’d consider dubious; which is precisely our conundrum. What you might regard as charming, I might deem obnoxious, and vice versa. What you consider ‘noble,’ I might label ‘vile.’ Humans judging humans, to be impartial, would have to recuse themselves.”

Rose found this analysis conducive to a migraine.

Limbo

LIMBO 

On earth wherever land is predominantly level, twenty-nine kilometers marks the limit of ordinary vision, beyond which curvature makes the surface disappear, represented by a line between sky and terra firma, arced, albeit subtly, to suggest the world is round. How could humans have overlooked this manifest evidence for so many centuries? Sailors surely must have noticed during doldrums. People of the prairie saw widespread spaces bend. Why did simple observation fail to convince folks that their planet was not flat, Wally wondered, confronted by an oddity, mesmerized by a plane that did not flex where ground and thin air met… off yonder… though far told fibs to near about which was really closer, hence reaching toward the distance brought his hand into sudden contact as he felt the demarcation like a hem… or a seam… or a stitch… where atmosphere and crust were indistinctly joined… if indeed he stood on a plot of solid soil and all else constituted never-ending ether in the universe above, below, and surrounding him—irrespective Wally’s sense of center ebbing, phase by fading phase; lunar in his isolation, lonesome in his orbit, he who left no footprints from whence he had traversed (might he have flown?) could verify neither time nor place nor circumstance nor perimeter… ‘Must be Limbo,’ he conjectured, with a disembodied groan, there being nothing to sustain sensations physically, his fondling the horizon doubtless an illusion, thumb and fingers numb, acutely unaware… until enclosed by similar appendages from without, their touch obscure yet different from the flesh and bone embraced.

“How long has he been this way?” Jack asked through tight-clenched jaws, his ability to enunciate handicapped by oral surgery’s hardware, wire cutters in his pocket a ready recourse against fatal aspiration should he choke on a liquid meal or be overcome by nausea—none of this explained to Wally’s listless attendant (her wits dimmed down in accordance with the mindless task at hand).

“Say what?”

Mabel either had not heard or wanted to determine why the handsome man was… angry? Disabled? Attempting to hide bad teeth?

“Broken mandible,” Jack uttered, curling back his lips to reveal the metal lacing, grateful his impairment was impermanent and his bite would be restored; imminently, almost six weeks had elapsed. Had George not waited to tell him about Wally’ plight, Jack would have come much sooner.

“Ouch; I’ll bet that hurt.”

Jack, of a sudden, was the object of Mabel’s rapt compassion as if he provided her an outlet for emotions Wally corked—not through any fault of his cranky character; due, instead, to his condition, likened to that of a turnip or some such vegetable. Jack repeated his inquiry in abbreviated form.

“How long?”

“Oh, it’s been a month, now. More. All he does is lay there. Mostly with his eyes shut. Not that it makes much difference. Even when they’re open, he don’t see a thing. Stares, is all; won’t blink; looks kinda creepy.”

Jack renewed the pressure he was applying to Wally’s listless hand.

“Can he feel anything?”

What are you talking about; I’m squeezing with all my might! Jack, lad! Can’t you hear me? I hear you; though I do wish you’d speak up; your mouth sounds full of marbles. Who’s that lamebrain hogging the conversation? Tell her please to scoot.

Lids, like moth wings failing so much as to flutter, cloaked eyes Jack remembered for their azure-tinted brilliance. It was sad to think them muddled by a long-drawn quasi-sleep, unable to awaken or to wink Oblivion’s Wink for a dignified departure.

Must be Hell, instead! I want to shout; I have no voice. I want to stand and hug the lad; my limbs are no more spry than a hapless quadriplegic’s. I want to weep for joy he’s come; my eyes can’t shed a tear.

Parchment-like, the skin on Wally’s palm was deeply scored and crosshatched, imprints of a lifetime pressed with fortuneteller claritythat Jack, so young, so comparatively inexperienced, could scarcely hope to read, though his, by something like osmosis, was readily comprehensible.

Lad, what have you done? Is that remorsefulness I’m sensing? You seem different, not yourself, as though your joie de vivre has fled and you’re uncertain if you’ve lost more than you’ve gained.

Did he approve or disapprove, Jack hankered to know? Foiled by the old man’s torpor, present yet so removed he might as well interrogate Wally’s corpse, Jack was inclined to ask his questions anyway. But with the deed already done, what would be the point?

Could I be in the presence of Generation Next? Something feels remarkable. Something feels fortuitous, like a solemn promise kept. Jack, are you Jack Black Today or Jack Black Tomorrow?

Still no sign of sentience imbued the elder’s listless hand; Jack released it; Wally slightly stirred but the movement seemed involuntary… though it did expose one foot from underneath the coverlet. Jack, in parting, gave the foot a scratch between its fourth and little toe.

Bless you, Lad.

That night, without regaining consciousness, Wallace Wesley Windsor up and died.

Bowwower 

A POOCH BY ANY OTHER NAME 

Missing from her former charge’s life, Rose decided, was the loving true-blue camaraderie of man’s best friend. To remedy this, and to foster Brick’s genuine rehabilitation, Rose bought…

the gift that keeps on giving

“What is it?”

the pal that is yours for life

“Take it back.”

the chummiest of companions

“I won’t have that thing near me.”

the perfect pet, bar none

“Out!”

the epitome of devotion…

“I mean it.”

…your very own Bowwower.

“Even the name is ridiculous: ‘BowWOWer’? I, for one, am unimpressed.”

Brick clapped closed the lid on her would-be lifelong “cuddle-buddy”—the catchwords used to promote said creature as cute as the beast itself, with its puppy-like expression, its fluffy fur and tail, its lapdog-size dimensions (which could be tailored to personal tastes and romp room), plus the noises it produced from “soothingly winsome whimpers” to “bowwow signature woofs.”

Rose, upon Brick’s rejection, was crestfallen.

“But Brick, you have to give the pooch a chance. It prints; it’s totally programmable by its owner’s expectations.”

“This…” Brick held out the carrying case and contents, “…must NOT be called a ‘pooch.’ Pooches sometimes stink, resist being house trained, chew up leather shoes, leave scratches on the woodwork, gnaw at fleas, sneeze, pant, and drool; they lift their legs to pee on other people’s property. Furthermore—wherever the urge overtakes them—they hunker down and poop. That’s a pooch. This…” She hands back the container. “…is a Hallmark-card monstrosity.”

Rose, invited to stay for a fortnight, had hoped to repay Brick’s hospitality by ordering her “a surprise,” its Special Delivery arrival occasioning great excitement; Rose’s, at any rate. As she rummaged for the receipt to authorize RETURN, Brick interrupted her.

“Wait. I’ve had a change of heart. It might be quite instructive to discover what makes it tick.”

Vivisection 

Vivisection produced spectacular results! Brick’s opinion of Rubbish (the name she had given her short-lived Petable) went from singularly indifferent to positively awestruck. Whoever had created this marvel of bioengineering ought to have been awarded a Nobel Prize.

“Namely Jack Black, instead of that plagiarist at Stanford,” Brick rued aloud, the eminent professor having popped up unexpectedly… shortly after Rose had led the waydespite her staunch denial, peevish protestation, and counter-accusation that Brick had been the reckless one.

You probably tipped him off yourself, with all your lucre-logged shenanigans; teachers can’t afford WristWands, Crystal Display Screens, and Ether-Touch Technologies. Your supplemental income is… Well, let’s just say suspicious. Remember, Brick, you got caught when cyber-surveillance was minimal; nowadays it’s maximal. Nobody skims off Stock Trades, for instance, and goes undetected. If I could find you, and the Professor has found you, the Law is close behind. You will be apprehended; mark my words.”

The “shenanigans,” to which Rose referred, funded Brick’s deceptively humble lifestyle: modest from the outside, lavish from within, her apartment alone, like some Saudi Arabian compound, housed state-of-the-art appointments worthy of a sheik.

“Shirk the blame if you must, Rose; the fact remains he’s onto us.”

“‘Us’? Onto ‘us’? I am merely your houseguest, not your accomplice. Whatever Houston wants, it involves only you. And believe me, he’s the least of the hornets your kicks may unnest.”

“I met him, by the way.”

“Houston? Where; when? I thought he simply left a note.”

“Jack Black.”

“You lie!”

“Here in Berkeley; a month or so ago. He wanted to chat me up at a local Bistro.”

“Jack Black wanted to chat you up.”

“That’s right.”

“You met at a local Bistro.”

“Do you intend to repeat every word I say? We actually didn’t meet.”

“I knew it!”

“We visually communed. He was being waylaid by a gaggle of randy coeds. Here; I snapped a Cop-Cam to Q-search his Rap sheet.”

Brick cued up a jpeg labeled JACK BLACK AT CAFÉ CLAUDE. Rose eyed the WristWand image with unmitigated envy.

“God, he’s gorgeous!”

Brick pulled a sourpuss face, disappointed in Rose’s trite assessment.

“Other than his being hunky, is there anything else you observe?”

Rose retracted her lust to consider more dispassionately.

“No… Can’t say that I do… What should I be looking for?”

“Duh; he’s one of you. Jack Black is an ADEPT; I’m shocked it escaped your notice, you who are always on the lookout for members of your tribe.”

“We’re not a ‘tribe.’”

“Your club, then.”

“Not that, either. We’re a loose-knit Federation—to which you belong, as well.”

I belong to nothing,” Brick corrected. “Besides which, I’ve been altered. You and yours exclude the likes of anyone not a purebred brainiac. Him, for instance; Black should be your Federation’s mascot, poster boy, and all-purpose standard-bearer.”

Rose had no idea how Brick was privy to Federation biases. But ‘how’ was much less consequential than the resultant indignation, which Rose endeavored to assuage, or would have, had Brick not cut her off.

“Tut-tut; not to worry. ADEPTS, their pedigree irrespective, are unlikely to prevail; you’d have to reproduce in such unprecedented numbers, stage orgies on so grandiose a scale, that charges of moral turpitude would land you all to in the hoosegow. What you need is a vector—a Contagion of Adeptness—that infects and then transforms. Anything short of Involuntary Man-alter won’t advance the species.”

Phrased so matter-of-factly, the proposition chilled; Rose resisted the logic of Brick’s terse analysis… though it did fit the case… if carried to extremes… measures never contemplated… upshots unimaginable… stratagems amoral.

Stanford University

Dear Ms. “Straustakovich,”

It would appear you have gone to considerable lengths in concealing your tainted identity; far be it from me to jeopardize, in any manner, your newfound prestigious one. I have no intention of exposing you by disclosing your criminal record or by reporting your appropriated diplomas to employers or to police. The former, incidentally, have vouched for your competence; the latter have nary an inkling about the real Ms. Straustakovich’s west coast ‘resurrection.’ That said—or more accurately written (I felt this note would be less confrontational, thus likelier to produce a favorable result)—I hasten to propose a unique collaboration. It is my understanding that you were the involuntary subject of a radical experiment. You ‘hinted’ as much several years ago when we met in a lecture hall at Stanford. I, unforgivably, dismissed your valorous overture and gave you short shrift. For this I apologize, and I regret, with deep humility, having to beg your pardon belatedly. My career is nearing its conclusion; yours has just begun. The science, by which you were enhanced, was ahead of its time. Even today, genome engineering—of humans—is tenuously funded and fraught with moral objections dating from The Flood. You and I need not be constrained by financial or antediluvian limitations. I enjoy carte blanche at the university, though your activities at Salk-Tech are somewhat restricted, I presume. Or do I presume too much? Perhaps your earlier interest in Peter Truesdale-Everson’s work has diminished, whereas anatomizing a Petable (for whatever reason) strikes you as more worthwhile. Trust me, Brick… (May I use your sobriquet cum avatar?)…‘our’ endeavor will elude inquisitor drones and outside interference. ‘We’ can be secure about our exploits going public when, and only when, we want them to be celebrated. Otherwise, what we do, and how we do it, will suffer no surveillance.

Should you choose to consider my proposition in detail, I suggest we meet tomorrow, for lunch, at noon. A table at Chez Panisse, in both our names, has been reserved.

Yours sincerely,

M. Houston

Houston, despite unearthing a distressful amount of incriminating information, appeared to have missed intelligence about Brick’s vindictive undertakings, else making thinly veiled threats might have given the pedagogue pause…

BRICK(plastic)

…whereas Brick, divided in her response to the handwritten missive, was alternately outraged and intrigued; she deliberated long and hard before arriving at a scheme…

Rose 

…recruiting Rose, on a need-to-know basis; informing the erstwhile nanny of specified tactics in well-thought-out installments. The first of these was to effectuate face-to-face contact with the far-famed Jack Black.

T-bone Steak 

Like his teeth were made of wood whenever they “clacked” together; that was Jack’s sensation after six long weeks of jaws imprisoned by a latticework of 26 gauge wire. Hopes of gnawing a T-bone steak (free to chomp at last!) crashed with the dismal realization that atrophy meant he could masticate nothing firmer than an overripe banana… initially… when his gums still suffered the sting from being torn during their bloody liberation… and when the sound his bite produced registered like a gloved hand knocking. Other than these incidental sensations (and the pain-memory stamped upon each broken bone sustained), Jack felt fully recovered… no different… neither vengeful nor forgiving toward his assailants (not a one had been arrested)… heartened and perplexed by his nonviolent response (could he have acted differently?)… convinced his DNA had been minutely yet significantly modified (confirmed by stringent sequencing)… if no less undecided about what next to do. Patent his prescription for passivity? That seemed mercenary. Find another ‘volunteer’ (or several) to conduct further trials? The more who knew, the greater was his risk of incurring spiteful censure. Jack was no fool; pacifists wrought selectively could end up as dupes—abused by those disposed to ruthless domination. Like every human innovation, Vector Pink could be applied for good and ill. Would curing Man of aggressiveness ensure commendable behavior or simply amend one aspect of humanity’s age-old dichotomy?

A more pressing dilemma, however, was discovering why someone had penned (on strips of masking tape stuck to the sidewalk in front of his and his father’s home) an enigmatic limerick:

Crush-Crazy

Not by any stretch of the imagination did Rose resemble Amanda; not physically, not psychologically, not intellectually, a triumvirate of nots—or knots into which Rose tied Jack’s genome-altered nature in the service of cross-purposes, hers and Brick’s seemingly at oddsat least from their target’s standpoint; Jack was in twofold custody before he sensed the rusebut to Rose, stationed in front of Queen Wilhelmina’s Garden, and to Brick, seated out-of-sight on a wooden bench nearby, short-term goals, over the long run, would prove to be harmonious.

“You must be…”

“Rose Birchtree…” Rose shook Jack’s proffered hand, “…whereas you need no introduction; I just purchased one of your creations,” she volunteered, then regretted it; Brick’s dismantling ‘Rubbish’ was hardly a fitting ice breaker. Truth be told, despite exhaustive rehearsal, Rose was a nervous Nelly—hers the role least likely to succeed, seclusion notwithstanding. Golden Gate Park, at its far western edge, was relatively deserted, a curious choice, the duo agreed… unless Jack had interpreted “Rose” as Amanda Sørenson’s pen name and that she had authored the poem to initiate some amorous reunion, allowing Jack to select a suitable spot. With sunset causing distant clouds to blush above the panoramic Pacific and twilight muting tulips, planted in profusion, all but underfoot, rendezvous preempted meeting in the setting’s fond potential. Fog would soon creep in and caption the tableau “intimate.” All of which helped Rose to charm, and to sensuously enchant, a man whose nostalgic expectations were averse to being dashed.

“How did… I mean, why write words on… Do you know…?”

“Amanda Sørenson? By reputation only—hers overshadowed by yours, as reported in The Daily Californian; where, I must confess, I also learned about your unavailing courtship. Please forgive me, Mr. Black, for luring you here under shamefully false pretenses.”

This admission was in accordance with the script as Rose and Brick contrived it. Next came the tricky part when Rose would have to improvise and rely on Jack’s susceptibility. The mood was right, the locale was right, the timing was right (Rose was ovulating), the clothes were right (she need only lift her skirt to grant him naked access); wrong, however, was the situation’s semblance to a memory marked ‘betrayal.’

But just as Rose was not at all like Amanda, she was equally not at all like Amanda’s stand-in Beth. In turn, neither Beth nor Amanda was anything at all like Rose: an ADEPT (Jack straightaway noted), whose hair smelled faintly of jasmine (unless that flower bloomed among the hedges isolating and protecting their windmill-guarded tryst), whose skin emitted traces of vanilla (subtler than déjà vu), whose lips (when they brushed his ear to whisper three shocking words) were moist as morning dew, their taste (the while they engulfed his mouth with an exhilarating suction) confirming his impression she had recently sipped some chai that lingered on her breath and steeped her juicy tongue (enticing his to yield, then to follow suit and reach as deeply into her as hers, into him, had provocatively reached), their kiss a lengthy prologue to Rose’s impregnation as she begged for (asked or commanded; Jack was taxed to determine which) the first of three infusions her ready egg would coax before relinquishing the organ whose discharge craved release, swelled Jack’s crotch past capacity until dislodged by Rose’s fumbling fingers—trousers dropped around ankles, hoisted skirt denuding knees, as Rose pulled Jack atop her—guiding him toward the niche into which he dipped… sank… plunged… and soon thereafter spewed (!), Rose, at this stage, supine, her nether muscles guzzling that which Jack would soon find replenished when aided and abetted by an unseen silent partner who approached the coupled couple where they sprawled on dusk-dampened sod, who grinned at Rose’s conquest and at Jack’s ballooning buttocks, who groped beneath their gently pulsing juncture to caress the sack that fed what continued to throb, exult, and seep—a phenomenon Jack mistook for copulation’s difference from routine masturbation, unfamiliar as he was with amorous delights and the powerful peristalsis prolonging his pleasure’s peak… well nigh unbearably—while Brick massaged his gonads to restore the precious sap that Rose sought once more to extract by realigning genitalia, shifting into a crouched position, her weight distributed evenly as she waited upon all-fours to be mounted from behind, reentered from the rear, and filled to overflowing—Jack well aware of being fondled by a female co-conspirator whose touch, instead of alarming him, added vim to his ambushed vigor, and urged his vented testes to produce a second bounty, jettisoned into Rose with the same strange effect: euphoria sustained for an unaccustomed interval… mutual, given the spastic quivers electrifying her whose throes kept pace with his… hers eventually extruding his seemingly spent appendage which Jack had never known to rally in so short a timeframe, with so profuse a load, attributing this, again, to the mysteries of intercourse… though Brick’s resumed attention to his dissipated groin triumphantly reinstated so rigid an erection that Rose, once squatting astride it, greedily impaled her gaping sex for a third and final dose—every ounce as copious as its two ecstatic predecessors.

In a satiated heap, the pair (plus one) collapsed (Brick’s contentment vicarious, but by no means ineffectual) Rose, beyond her wildest dreams, thoroughly inseminated, Jack, accosted on two coordinated fronts, happy to have obliged.

Mimosa

Outmaneuvered was the over-ambitious scholar seated at Chez Panisse, having waited well past noon before a message was conveyed; orally, apologetically, and expressed with a disclaimer.

“Excuse me… Professor Houston?”

“Pronounced ‘How-stun.’ Yes?”

“We just received a call from that person you were expecting; she asked us to recite—we’re sorry for the language—these words verbatim: ‘Check your laptop, Prof. Touché. Fuck off.’ Again, sir, we apologize for the…”

“No need, no need. Spirited little lady is my ‘cancelled’ luncheon date. Would you be so kind as to bring me my briefcase; and another one of these?”

Houston drained the last of an aperitif then set the glass aside before surrendering his claim chit; lunch was put on hold until this ‘snub’ could be addressed. What gave ‘Straustakovich’ the unmitigated gall to reject his generosity, insult his magnanimity, and embarrass him in public!

Splendor in the grass

Call it youthful exhilaration. Call it carnal infatuation. Call it raw capitulation to enticements of the flesh. Call it smitten, head over heels, debauched, enamored, or beguiled. Call it female worldly wiles corrupting male naiveté, an older woman’s charms with a younger man’s exuberance fused to feed a hunger preoccupying both, as Rose recalled the blades of grass that pressed a crisscrossed pattern on her bum, her cheek, her knees, throughout successive intromissions that had left her vulva leaking for hours thereafter, in time-released remembrance of MATING WITH JACK BLACK who likewise reveled in the residue of crystallized secretions that frosted his public hair the while he walked, weaved, veritably staggering his way back home… once relieved of duty… dismissed with a smooched farewell… from each assertive half of the combo that seduced him, one the femme fatale, the other her confederate, flexing joint dominion in a manner un-resisted; Jack had been outflanked, outranked, and…

Briefcase

“Management thought you might prefer to log on in private, sir,” suggested the hostess, holding up Houston’s attaché. He yielded to decorum; one dined at Chez Panisse and did so sans distractions; tech-tools, worn or carried, were relinquished at the door. “Come this way, if you will, please.”

He was led to the restaurant’s foyer, then into a conference room of sorts where Cloud ports were available, calls could be placed or received, and Personal Devices could be accessed under reasonable security. Houston took a seat. The hostess withdrew. He slid has A-2-ZED from its leather-bound receptacle, activated its power cell, opened its thumbprint lock, and winced at a hologram outrageously usurping the screen of his hacked P-PC.

Helpless 

…glad to have been coerced? Had Jack been willingly led astray or had he been bullied, pressured to perform, compelled into copulation, i.e. ravished under a windmill by a pair of “pretty-little-Dutch-girls,” one of whom he recognized as a possible GMOmanoid? He could only guess at the duo’s motivation yet why his own behavior had been so docile troubled him deeply; in essence, he had been raped, outnumbered and overpowered. True, instead of pain as inflicted by his previous attackers, these aroused such pleasure as to mitigate indignation… except when he considered they had taken his virginity, about which he felt… how? Exuberant or exploited; vindicated or violated? His sexual orientation, at least, no longer was in doubt (misgivings having arisen the while he maintained celibacy); Jack nonetheless was upset by the element of compulsion, by strangersunsolicitedconniving to have their way with him, and by his lack of opposition…

Kiddy Porn 

The graphic, pornographic, prosecutable 3D image that shuttered Houston’s eyes and knitted his brows apoplectically, forewarned there must be others (tucked in caches) throughout his hard, soft, and sheer drives, a viral infestation that might take hours, even days to purge (in fact, assorted stealth cells all but guaranteed deletion would prove impossible). Throttled by a felon who was obviously unstable, damaged by whatever arcane processes her father had implanted, and downright diabolical in her craven non-acceptance of his honorable proposal, Houston viewed Straustakovich in an antipathetic light. Should he heed her ultimatum or risk ignominious ruin to teach the ‘Bitch-ling’ a lesson? Slamming shut his Unit, he left the room and then the premises bitterly undecided.

Rat

…due to Vector Pink (?) which might explain his stamina while performing coital acts but failed to offset qualms about his overall defenselessness… and subsequent trepidation. The park after dark transformed from amatory playground into unnerving wilderness. Jack, familiar with its length and breadth since childhood, was atypically ill-at-ease, jeopardized not by its human population (most were harmless homeless); he was frightened by its fauna, sensed its creeping, stalking menace. There were foxes, skunks, raccoons, and coyotes scattered through the underbrush, all sufficiently formidable, yet Jack was spooked by squirrels… or thought he was, in the present instance, awash with pungent pheromones, coated with emissions so profuse he knew he must have reeked; he could smell himself while wending through the fog-bedraggled shrubbery. How much more conspicuous must he be to them, the man-eating rodents, squirrels giving way to rats in Jack’s imagination. His stroll became a jog became a run became a sprint… his wake become a ghost of first-fuck euphoria.

Sperm and Egg

Whereas Rose, in a swoon of aftermath-satisfaction, basked, rejoiced, and gloried in her surefire fecundity, confident spermatozoa (in the tens of millions) were wriggling her ovum’s way, each and every one of them a Jack Black progenitor. Never had she felt so thoroughly inseminated (orgies no exception), seldom had she hankered to siphon every drop (condom foresworn), and rarely had she climaxed in sync with whomever was above, behind, and/or below her; Jack, in all three positions, had managed to make her come.

“And, boy, that boy’s a fountain of youth; he spouted like a geyser!”

“Because he was a virgin?” Brick ventured dispassionately.

“Do you think? I’ll bet he was! I mean, he didn’t take control, the way most men would have done. And yet he did do just about everything I wanted.”

“As in everything he was told? I thought I saw you whisper something.”

“Maybe, maybe not.”

“Instructions?”

Rose, at the risk of seeming selfish, withheld this information; to ‘improvise’ meant to invent; it did not mean kiss ‘n’ tell. Brick had witnessed enough, saw everything close at hand, moreover she had lent one. Could it be she envied Rose’s triumph, or was she curious out of courtesy? Despite having fondled Jack Black’s scrotum and spanked his naked bottom, Brick had stayed aloof, had merely reinforced the two-pronged campaign. Hers, though, was an agenda yet to be fulfilled.

King of Kiddie-Porn 

RETREAT

If discretion is indeed the better part of valor, Professor Michael Houston valorously went back home… but not before he answered a series of sophisticated questions put to him by the ‘Bitch-ling,’ who showed no qualms whatsoever about pressing her advantage. So complex were Brick’s several inquiries, each so precise and tellingly detailed, that Houston’s wish to collaborate was veritably realized—without, however, the narrowest possibility of receiving any credit (Brick’s contaminating the “King of Kiddy-Porn’s” system proved pervasive and indelible, with a failsafe mechanism to alert law enforcement should booby-traps be tripped). Receiving any blame was likewise ruled out, and this backhanded benefit spread an umbrella of deniability over the esteemed professor’s head, which might become invaluable if the venture Brick was germinating ever bore fruit. Sufficiently intrigued to offer “ongoing consultation,” while ethically appalled by future implications, Houston let it be known he was a voluntary resource, in hopes that Brick would relent and allow him to dismantle her viral form of blackmail while equally optimistic about her keeping him informed. Less disturbed by would it be done when could it be done was still at issue, Houston soothed his conscience with a timeworn exculpation: the pursuit of knowledge takes precedence over subsequent applications.

Plaid Pajamas 

How was Jack to contact these secretive sirens? Panic having washed off during his post-encounter shower, STD anxiety laid to rest with a male morning-after pill, sperm count back to normal (if the ineluctable pressure building in his testicles was an accurate barometer), interest re-aroused in both enigmatic women, in Rose for a possible replay, and in… Who? An apparition? A figment of his inflamed imagination? Jack recalled the first time he caught sight of Little Miss Anonymous; undocumented, non-photogenic, she had vanished no less elusively from Café Claude. Now, as Jack brewed coffee for himself and his not-yet-arisen father, he reconstructed the previous night’s drama with a mind to gather clues… interrupted by George, dressed in plaid pajamas, unshaven and aiming to stay that way for the holiday’s duration.

“Jack, what’s gotten you up bright and early on this…” George peeked out the window. “…fog-bogged 4th of July morning? Coffee; you’ve made coffee!” He patted Jack’s shoulder in passing. “Are we strolling down memory lane to indulge in a heart-to-heart?”

Frankly, Jack had thought to exclude his parent from recent events and escapades. Years, it seemed, had elapsed since talks at the kitchen table were commonplace… Wally often in attendance… Jean an ever-present absence. Poised at a critical juncture, however, taxed with a dire decision—compounded by the peculiar, coincidental loss of his protracted virginity—Jack craved trustworthy counsel; and whose was more reliable than dear-ol’-dad’s?

When George joined Jack at the table, coffee mug in hand, he did a double take.

Jack felt a wave of self-consciousness swell, crest, and break, leaving a residue of shame clinging to his conscience: who was he to amend his genetic inheritance, to presume he could improve upon his parents’ joint endowment, to denounce their very species on the grounds of what; its pugnacity? George was not a violent man. Jean, by all accounts, had been a tenderhearted woman. Jack, their only child, epitomized congeniality. Or did he? Had he? What would he have done, for instance, to prevent Jean’s ‘accidental’ slaughter when she ran to escape her tormentor? Would Jack not have killed to save his mother’s life, to save, in effect, his own? In defense of a pregnant woman, was homicide justifiable? Details George knew not Jack somehow intuited, like reading a psychic diary converted into Braille, his fingertips brushing Jean’s memory as if his fate, hers, and George’s were cumulatively prerecorded, his / hers / his impressions converging, overlapping, and coming to him in glimpses… adding to the quirks that made Jack feel exceptional… but never had his father joined the throng that viewed him as a freak… not until…

“You look different, son. You’ve been with a woman; I can see it; whew, I can smell it. Have you bathed this morning?”

Jack had showered. But he had also put back on the shirt worn while Rose undid its buttons, bared his chest, and slathered him, collarbone to waist, with juices oozed profusely.

Crimson though his cheeks now blushed, Jack was reassured! Yes, of course he looked different (irrespective Vector Pink). George’s observation was sufficient onto itself; Jack need not elaborate. Making one admission might promulgate another—whose revelation he elected to delay, or to couch in terms hypothetical lest George condemn the prospective deed by damning the deed past-done.

“‘A Rose by any other name…’”

“Meaning your sweetheart, or your lingering aroma?” George asked then took a swig of coffee, visibly savoring its robust, full-bodied taste. Only Jean brewed coffee rivaling her offspring’s, George reminisced; hers was… sexy, came closest to describing its tantalizing flavor—as sexy as the scent pervading Jack’s much-wrinkled shirt, the grass stain on its shoulder like a tiny epaulet.

“Rose is her name, Dad”

“And where did you two meet, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“We three met last night, in a bed of tulips,” Jack likewise took a swig. “They crept off with the fog, leaving me their casualty.”

 “No calling cards exchanged? Ships passing in the night?”

“Something of the sort, Dad, if not quite so random. Whoever these girls were, they sure knew enough about me.”

“‘Enough’?”

“Enough to get my attention, enough to hold it, and enough to leave lingering impressions. I was putty in their hands, to borrow a hackneyed phrase.”

Jack was getting distracted by the very recollection. How to steer their conversation back to his immediate concern? Or were they related? He could not help but connect his principal quandary to the women’s sultry snare. Rose, with designs on his fertilizing seed had fertilized him, as well; whereas Rose’s silent partner, with designs on who-knew-what, had fed his ardor differently. With which of the pair did Jack want most to engage for a pithy reencounter?

“Sounds like you resent this rite of passage. Was it worse than you expected?”

“Better; are you kidding? I mean, sensually, who could grouse? The only thing that bothers me is how I… caved in.”

“That’s an odd description.”

“I know, but it fits; I surrendered. They could have been beating me half to death; I couldn’t have fought them off. They were the aggressors; I was… ineffectual.”

Again George cast his son a discriminating look, narrowing his eyes as if, by limiting their scope, he could better zero in on what had wrought this change… deciding loss of confidence (since the mugging) preempted loss of virginity (since the ‘molesting’) in undermining Jack’s disposition, his inborn self-assuredness replaced by newfound timidity—temporarily, of course.

“Son, we haven’t talked much about the damage done by those hoodlums. Trauma takes a while for a man to overcome. If these gals took advantage of your passing vulnerability, the crime is theirs not yours; you’ll bounce back soon enough.”

Except I’m permanently vulnerable, Jack reflected but was loathe to state. Choosing to be passive differed from having to be passive. With fight no longer thinkable, was flight his only option? Evidently not; from none of the assailants had he ultimately fled, not from Rose and her accomplice, not from half a dozen thugs… though rolling with the punches was the best that could be said about his handling both situations… or about them handling him. Whether woman-handled or manhandled, Jack felt exploited; humanity in general would no doubt concur. Even George wished nothing less for his son than a full recovery.

“When you think about human beings, Dad, what’s your overall opinion?”

George preceded his answer with another slurp of coffee, hoping its caffeine would bolster his sounding sage (wishing Wally were there to help him out).

“People, for the most part, are really pretty decent. For all our faults, our virtues usually win the day. We love, we work, we play, we build, we cooperate, we create, and we get along remarkably well for creatures born competitive. Compared to the Natural World, ours is compassionate. We care for the disabled; we protect the disadvantaged. We feel each other’s pain; we share one another’s laughter. I know you’re down on people, Jack; you’ve met a few bad apples. I’m not suggesting we’re perfect, but we are a noble breed—when we’re at our best, that is; when we’re at our absolute worst, we usually say we’re sorry.”

Nebula

To watch Brick work the Nebula was to watch a great conductor draw excellence from a world-class philharmonic; ‘hacking’ was too crude a term for her genuine virtuosity.

“What, exactly, are you doing with all these gizmos?” Rose imprudently asked; the more she knew about Brick’s ‘supplemental income’ the less she could condone, the more informed she was the less she could deny. For Brick’s covertly-lavish lifestyle was funded by chicanery, by infinitesimal increments skimmed off numberless stock trades, fractions of pennies gone missing, the lump sum immense; Grand Larceny barely did justice to the charge Brick would face should monies be traced to their terminus, dubbed: “Mission Control.”

“Those, you are not to touch. These, you must ask permission. This is yours for however long you stay as my guest and right-hand-man.” Brick was giving Rose a comprehensive tour of the high-tech premises, most of the so-called gizmos either voice or thumbprint activated—each responsive exclusively to Brick until Rose could be programmed. Even the bathroom door bore an Access-Code and Link-Lock. Considering Brick’s auxiliary occupation (“Stockbreaker,” she defined it), too many safeguards (considering cyber-surveillance) were probably not enough.

“I should have thought three whole years in detention would have taught you that crime…”

“Doesn’t pay? Look around you, Rose. There’s nothing in this flat that isn’t the latest, the finest quality, and the very most expensive. Crime, I admit, is paying for it, but the criminals are they not me. In practice, I’m actually reducing ill-gotten gains by swindling the swindlers; they cheat schnooks and schmoes of unconscionable sums; I extract mere pittances from the wealthy whose profits reek of greed.”

Disinterested in refuting Brick’s justification, Rose nonetheless took issue with the plot to recruit Jack Black. Having gone along thus far because it suited her pregnant purpose (an over-the-counter test kit had confirmed already that Rose was with child), the erstwhile nanny questioned motives as yet unshared.

“What makes you so sure he’ll turn up here, let alone do your bidding?”

Brick took a moment to appreciate that Rose had changed the subject.

“You underestimate yourself and overestimate men—who are as gullible as retards. I should know; I was mistaken for a retard throughout my misbegotten youth. Dunces are to scoundrels what booboos are to sharks. Had I been truly dim, I would have been devoured.”

Rose, on occasion, wondered whether incarceration had left long-lasting consequences. Brick, after her release, had proven not only vengeful, her bristly outlook on life had accumulated spikes. If Rose was the duo’s blossom, Brick was its stem of thorns… with Jack Black, drunk on nectar, their infatuated hummingbird.

“Meaning what; my radiant looks are going to lure him to this fortress?”

“Not so much your looks, Rose, as your prepossessing pussy.”

“Gee, thanks a lot!”

“Flattery bows to anatomy; yours has Black enthralled. All we have to do is lay down a scent trail.”

“Yeah, and then what?”

“Negotiate.”

Tulip

Tulips

Three people

Four arms of a windmill fixed

the sky’s yolk over-easy

en route to sunken treasure

Gilded, its reflection made commitments to the waves

Swollen, it took pride in its relative enormity

Doused, it sizzled under the surface

with a sea serpent’s hiss

Dusk then powdered the chess-piece players respectively

a Queen, a Rook, a Pawn

positioned on a jade-green carpet

groomed by grass-blade fairies

whose shadows cast a residuum of passion

in the form of viscose dew

She moved, She moved, He moved out of order;

taking turns would obey the Rules

whereas theirs was not a match

that concerned itself with fairness

for mating was its object

he who won would surely lose

unbeknownst and all too unbecomingly,

self-esteem ruined.

Why would women waylay

when their aims were bound to please?

Who would share a lover

with another

where there was no clear advantage?

Could the pair have grasped

their appointed foe’s unwittingness?

were questions put to the fog

before it filled a double vacancy

and left him whom you vanquished

to bunk among the flowers.

How Jack managed to deliver this epistle, having inexplicit pointers to Brick’s Berkeley residence before she and Rose got the chance to “lay down a scent trail,” worried one recipient and galvanized the other.

“It would appear our door has become a bulletin board, of sorts, for itinerant professors and lovesick poets. How do you suppose, Rose, we got into everyone’s address book?” Brick perused the poem her houseguest had retrieved, less enthralled by its author’s offbeat prose than troubled by his resourcefulness. If this was a game of tag, the women now were IT, or, if a game of chess, as Jack alluded; who were the designated pieces? In either case, the next move must be theirs.

Buddha 

Meanwhile, Jack, impatient to unravel what seemed unaccountably tangled in his brain and overanxious groin, sat across the street from Ms. Straustakovich’s domicile… in plain view of its second story windows… visibly undeterred by heavy curtains drawn… summoning skills diminished or displaced since injecting Vector Pink… willing either resident to take a peek outside.

Guess Who

“Don’t look now, but guess who’s sitting under a tree down there like the Buddha… glancing up… smiling… now waving at…”

“Down where?” Brick sidled next to Rose and saw who she was signaling. “What are you doing?!”

“Inviting him up, of course.”

“Rose, have you gone nuts; we’re totally unprepared!”

“Maybe you’re not ready; I’m itching for an encore.”

Jack, acknowledging Rose’s come-hither gesture, unfolded his legs, stood up on the sidewalk, checked for traffic, and re-crossed the street.

Moments later he was welcomed into the home of his elusive molesters, one of whom was brazenly flirtatious, the other one on her guard.

“Well, the bard in person; we were just formulating our critique, wondering who’s who: who you consider the Rook and who…”

“Pay no attention to Brick, Mr. Black; we were doing no such thing. Come in, please. We promise not to assault you or to criticize your poetry.”

Brick, a bit put off by Rose preempting the role of Hostess, seized the opportunity to readjust her scheme; while Rose gushed hospitality, Brick reconnoitered, scrutinizing Jack as from a neutral corner...

…whence a shudder of fellow-feeling shook her to the core, perceiving Jack, like she, was the victim / beneficiary of elemental tampering (hers prenatal, his au courant) linking them more intimately than Rose’s heady hormones; the enterprise Brick envisioned was hastily revised…

…the bulge in Jack Black’s slacks began perforce to shrink, usurped by an urge to bind minds unconcerned with intertwining bodies, minds whose intercourse might well spawn a whole new race as opposed to one exemplar…

…Rose, upset by Jack’s distraction and Brick’s intangible allure, misconstrued its pull as a rejection of functions natural, hers the fertilized future, theirs an artificial pipe dream, hers the flesh and blood reality, theirs a pie in the sky ideal…

…all of which was expressed in a daedal dance performed when Jack faced Brick and looked past Rose in order to read Brick’s subtext, when Rose then stepped between the gaze-locked couple and felt as if transparent, when Brick moved to her left and Jack, to circumvent Rose, moved right, when Rose, to reengage Jack, maneuvered behind him, bracketed either shoulder, and compelled him to turn, while Brick remained stock-still and Rose ran fondling fingers down Jack’s compliant torso, finding below his waist the pull-tab of his bulging britches’ zipper, its top-stops parting slowly as she who tugged it knelt, aligned her mouth, and tried to liberate that which Jack proved helpless to constrain until Brick advanced, reached around Jack’s waist, and cupped his loins with her overlapping palms like a double-decker codpiece.

 “Rose, he can’t resist; he’s genetically incapable of fending off desire—or any other form of physical aggression.”

How Brick knew this, Rose could only guess, but accepting it was hard. If true, it meant her recent conquest had been tantamount to rape, which meant, in turn, her child had been forcibly conceived, which meant she knew not what, only that it pained her and doused her current ardor with a cloudburst of contrition. Brick removed her hands. Jack looked undecided; had he been delivered or left in libido’s lurch? Thus the ménage à trios established checks and balances.

 

 

 

 

DNA Sequence

PART FOUR

Houston wants so badly to participate he almost calls Brick’s bluff. Three things stop him: one, the trip he took to Thailand; two, the nature of public opinion; and three, in light of all he has learned since his banishment from Berkeley the Bitch-ling does not bluff. Weeks have passed and still every inquiry received is preceded by a pornographic popup (triggered from afar but pulled up from within his system, from caches he has quarantined but dares not to delete) each an invariably vile depiction of corrupting some minor, as often as not in an Asiatic setting captioned “Sins Among The Stupas” or some such outrage. When asked whether an honorable reputation built over the course of a lifetime could be toppled by a transitory smear, Houston’s resounding “YES” was a sad yet fitting indictment of the madding crowd’s mendacity. Telling lies and believing them are society’s favorite pastimes, he despairingly believes; each tugs at his short hairs with every contact made, the bane and boon of his exiled expertise bent to a stealthy purpose—itself a dire dichotomy, if Houston extrapolates correctly and questions posed betray an ominous potential for research insupportable; ethically speaking. Innovatively speaking, Straustakovich & Company is on to something big, as in radically monumental; hence Houston’s overheated interest in contributing to (or in sabotaging) that which holds him hostage.

Non and Violence 

Lately, Brick’s occasions to canvass Houston are far and few between. Input from the scholar, of value initially, depreciates next to Jack’s (Stanford’s methodology much too stodgy compared to that of Petables Inc.), risk the byword epitomizing probes recently undertaken; by Brick, primarily. Jack, having isolated and altered the pivotal sequence, exemplifies how it works, embodies its effects and demonstrates (daily) unexpected consequences. Brick’s appointed task is to discover how best to spread the word, to disseminate Vector Pink throughout the general population without inciting panic or widespread resistance; a tall order for a somewhat stubby practitioner with an even shorter temper. Brick’s idea of teamwork verges on Napoleonic, which Jack finds rather puzzling (though not intolerable), and which Rose abides in stride (familiar with her former ward’s eccentricities). Harmony, tuned by dissonance, conducts the prevailing mood.

When Jack does not sleep over (a choice he seldom makes), Rose abducts his nightshirt and takes ‘it’ to bed, an act of will prohibited if imposed upon its owner; house rules state: nobody uses force or exerts undue influence over him who has been modified. Irrevocably? For the better? Neither Rose nor Brick can say; neither Rose nor Brick knew Jack before his transition / contamination; Vector Pink is viral; it infects to affect its change, which in turn omits an attribute of typical human behavior: our propensity toward violence goes instantly AWOL. The result is a work-in-progress at “Mission Control” (Brick’s plush Command Post) wherein three co-conspirators assemble tools required.

Pregnant 

Rose-plus-one is beginning to show; her tummy, gone convex, resembles a dimpled dumpling—a pillow for Jack Black’s head post reassurance that coercion is (and was) practically unnecessary; sex with her, for him, makes life all-the-more worth living, the variety exhilarating, the frequency such that Brick describes her cohorts as “my resident bonobos.” Jack’s recuperative powers (including replenished seminal fluid), his erections’ formidable tumescence and his attenuated climaxes, raise the issue of origin; are these hereditary quirks or the fruits of Vector Pink? Rose, disposed to take credit for her lover’s indefatigable enthusiasm—claiming acrobatic positions, rapacious orifices, and unconventional whims inspire her partner’s prowess—finally has to admit (privately to Brick) that Jack is abnormal; excessively abnormal, which is hardly a complaint, is rather an observation to document complications. Does Vector Pink, as a side-effect, act as an aphrodisiac? For men alone, or would women, too, have their sex drives enhanced? And, if so, would this side-effect tend to promote an otherwise hard sell? Jack THE LIBERATED VIRGIN sobriquet Jack THE INCREDIBLE STUD cannot know for sure from whence his powers spring; all he knows is that intercourse excites, delights, and obsesses him.

The fact that it also accounts for his current cushion and the heartbeat he can hear as he turns aside his cheek… stubble prickling the glabrous flesh above, now below an almond-shaped depression that tilts with his shifting weight to follow his lap-ward progress like the eye of a naughty Cyclops, winking, Jack imagines, in anticipation of his outstretched tongue’s massage of Rose’s perky clitoris perchance to reignite their morning-long relations that almost has the pair prepared to shrug off Brick’s request for immediate assistance with yet another trial, their sexploits disinclined to suffer interruptions, both intent on lingering in a puddle of post-orgasmic languor…

Microscope 

“That’s how most of humanity gets its kick start,” Brick opines, “sex feels too damn good! The younger the hotter the dumber is the usual declension for what should be more responsible behavior, certainly more deliberate than babies by default. Don’t second guess me at this stage, you two; we’re very nearly there,” Brick exhorts her flat-mates, moved-in for the duration, mustered side-by-side, Jack still wearing his nightshirt (damp, stale, and wrinkled), Rose in pajama top only (donned in haste and buttoned askew); neither has bothered to shower; both have brushed their teeth.

“All I said was the old way has its virtues. Accidents can be happy ones; mistakes aren’t always tragic. We’re not Aryans out to homogenize the whole Human Race.”

Rose discovers the source of her top’s misalignment.

Jack self-consciously rubs his three-day beard.

“True, but we are about to edit it. After which, I suppose, selective breeding will be moot. In any case, why I’ve sounded reveille is to request you earn your keep, after which you can resume your Karma Sutra studies.”

Brick, though tolerant of her colleagues’ randy antics, deems them a diversion. More important matters press, lately with urgency due to a nonspecific threat; something or someone is jeopardizing their endeavor.

“Jack, if you’ll stand here, please.” Brick leads him to an airtight chamber wherein a sample has been placed under the lens of an electron microscope, its eyepiece jutting through the glass that walls-in all six sides. “And Rose, if you’ll sit there,” Brick indicates the chair positioned at a terminal, its control panel blinking lights like a hyperactive modem. “When I say ‘Go,’ throw this switch.” Brick points; Rose nods. “Jack, you watch the helix and note if the nucleotides rearrange.” He nods as well. Brick returns to the 3D Digital Display that surrounds her mainframe’s console. “Go.” Rose activates an atomizer; its pressurized, simulated sneeze spreads ‘vaporized’ Vector Pink throughout the sealed enclosure. “Anything, Jack?” He watches… as the misty chamber clears… but the polymer pair retains its normal shape.

“Nada,” Jack reports.

“SCHEIßE!” is Brick’s rejoinder.

Rose approaches Jack, displaces him at the eyepiece, and takes a peek herself.

“Whose is this, pray tell?”

“It’s mine, if you must know,” Brick confesses as she likewise views the specimen. “He would know how to solve this,” she muses obscurely.

 “‘He’ who?” Rose asks needlessly; already she has guessed. If Brick would only relax and allow her consciousness to be guided, Rose is fairly confident that access could be gained. Jack, for example, remembers Jean with ever-increasing clarity; heretofore, his mind was blocked, “clogged with backed-up semen,” she had joked, though in some sense that pertained; with Jack’s ejaculations came relief, came equanimity, came paranormal recall of memories passed by genes through sundry bits of “extraneous” RNA which most ADEPTS were able to decode and process to advantage, thus benefiting from previous generations in efficacious ways. Past lives? Not exactly; more like talents, traits, and tendencies readily absorbed without their being learned.

“Peter Truesdale-Everson,” Brick answers solemnly.

“Who?” Jack likewise asks as if the name is familiar.

“Brick’s departed father,” Rose hastens to divulge. “Straustakovich is an alias.”

“HUSH!” Brick is not in the mood for belated revelations. Jack, with respect to privileged information, has yet to prove trustworthy. And Brick’s assumed identity is none of the whiz kid’s business.

“Gee, I know that name; Dr. Peter Truesdale-Everson was a pioneer. Work he did back-in-the-day has only recently come to light. Gee.”

“Will you stop saying ‘gee’?! He was bright—so what?—a genius, who let himself be used by the US Government during its finest hour, its post 9-11 torture trip. Rose, if you’re going to blab, I’d rather…”

You brought up his name.”

“Did I say we were related?”

“Brick, it’s Jack; he’s one of us. Do you really think he’ll snitch? Besides, if you’d forgive and forget I’m positive you’d remember.”

“Right; through your retro hocus pocus?”

“How did you learn Arabicnot to mention Farsi? Why does running water always make you panic? Who taught you to hack; did you ever study computer programming? You may not remember what you choose not to remember but I’ve know you for years and I can recall what you won’t recollect. Not the early stuff, of course, or the stuff that predates that. But the bulk of it, believe me, is lodged inside your noodle, and the expertise you seek your dad might well relate.”

“Bullshit.”

“Suit yourself. Don’t say we didn’t try. Come, Jack, let’s leave Little Miss Amnesia to her hanky-less a-choos.”

Golf 

Equipment ordered by Jack, advised by Brick, installed by Rose begins to take up space, the flat’s ample footage notwithstanding. Much essential apparatus cannot be accommodated. Labs at Salk-Tech and Petables Inc are therefore requisitioned, but each is problematic, one limited, the other unsuitably geared, both with pervasive surveillance tending to thwart covertness. Already Brick’s extracurricular activities are causing aims to be questioned, clearances to be checked, and Department Heads to turn; chief among these is a golf aficionado whose foursome, every other Sunday, includes a Stanford confrere.

“No, please don’t intercede, Al; simply keep an eye out. The feed, you’ve kindly provided, is recording her pursuits.”

“She’s doing nothing illegal, I trust. We don’t want any scandal. Are you two collaborating?”

“No, no; nothing of the sort; her work is quite tangential; amateurish, really. But she is a very resourceful young lady and something she might stumble upon could very well spark an interest.”

“Yours, you mean?”

Al adjusts his tee. The back nine looms before them. “A good walk ruined,” as Mark Twain quipped, describes the scholars’ quest. Phelps, Brown, Drake, and Houston proceed to miss the par three green. None plays well, each plays hard, all four play to win.

Goat Doorknocker 

When Rose proposes to Jack that he should come and see her knockers, as if they represent a sight unseen (felt, kissed, nuzzled, suckled, and sometimes inseminated) Brick casts her a look as if to say be careful, as if to suggest that childrearing might need a stronger bond than formed by fervent concupiscence, as if to remind Rose that she resolved to become a mother sans anybody’s help, prizing independence above some compromising partnership sanctioned by a society that mocks its very premise, that celebrates infidelity as eminently sexier than keeping marital vows, that blames an abandoned wife for her husband’s lack of loyalty and shrugs when he repeats improprieties typically with a woman half his age… all expressed by the arch and critical angle of Brick’s reflexive brow. No one, unless that person is designated “special,” gets to see Rose’s collection; she, like anyone who hoards, takes pride first and foremost in possession; the covetousness of ‘mine’ is her prime motivation. To share—specifically with Jack—is to grant him ‘inside access’…

…a perilous decision, from Brick’s point of view…

…a mysterious expedition, from Jack’s beguiled perspective when he accompanies Rose to San Jose as her passenger / weekend caller, breezing down the toll way in an automated vehicle, hands free, mouths free, genitalia humming with the high horsepower engine reaching speeds reserved for self-propulsion lanes, the distance covered in no time, transported in a jiffy, bucket seats left glistening with secretions once their occupants disembark.

Lovebirds 

Solitude restored thanks to the weekend-long hiatus, Brick breathes a pent-up sigh of utmost relief; despite their being invited, the lodgers (inadvertently) have grated on nerves as taut as strings on a warped ukulele.

Maybe, by rearranging a genome’s targeted sequence, Vector Pink supplants decisive elements in a Find what: / Replace with: procedure that functions instantaneously; Jack transformed immediately after injection, he reported, or within the time it took to re-sequence his DNA. What could work so quickly, so comprehensively? Humans aren’t computers; polymers aren’t like phrases one locates with a click and with another click revises. Yet polymers and/or nucleotides doubtless are the keys; they reprogrammed Jack, once given their instructions; they were the enablers, cued by Vector Pink—which has to be administered other than intravenously if the masses are to ‘benefit’…

…by which Brick means ‘improve’; the human race, to date, leaving much to be desired, in her ‘unbiased’ opinion…

Stupid, for the most part, uncouth and superstitious, people act with hubris, hatred, deceit, and rampant greed, ever ready to achieve their selfish ends by means reprehensible…

Pacing her apartment, prowling its perimeter, marking every feature as if to reclaim her territory, Brick resolves to evict her lovey-dovey houseguests soon after they return…

Even Rose and Jack are not immune to banal preoccupations, afloat in their dreamy bubble of humdrum domesticity, squandering wondrous gifts while aspiring to be normalas if that weren’t a medal awarded for mediocrity.

Investigating the guestroom (her boarders’ inner sanctum, scene of so much coitus it consummately reeks), Brick cracks open a window to air the cloying atmosphere…

Once the two are back, notice shall be served. Deadlines can be useful for expediting finish lines.

Milkweed Pod 

Seldom venturing out, of late, Jack is apprehensive. People look at him differently, men especially, casting looks that imply he owes them an apology. For what? No gaffes or obvious offenses does he commit. Yet facial features harden, glances dart, brows knit, mouths scowl (subtly; Rose sees none of this) as Jack reads animosity into each expression passed… en route to the RESIDENT MANAGER—Rose’s job title and the apartment her Berkeley sojourn could have jeopardized had not Harold Bloomsmythe—INTERIM RESIDENT MANAGER—needed a place to stay.

“Oh, I almost forgot, Jack, you’ll be meeting my none-too-healthy house sitter,” Rose announces as she rummages her purse for keys to Sky Dome West, swipes their way into the foyer then into a lift; she presses 10 and up they glide, Rose, before they exit, stealing a kiss; they then traverse a corridor—replete with fleur-de-lis carpet and mauve colored walls. “Harold’s dying from cancer; try not to notice,” she adds at the threshold where a bronze goat head with a ring through its nostrils is the hallway’s solitary doorknocker; strange, beyond incongruity, it conjures up Picasso.

“Gee, this piece alone is worth the trip,” Jack comments admiringly, as Rose again takes a keycard and swipes their way inside.

“Harold! Yoo-hoo! Dress, if you’re indecent; I’ve brought home a friend, someone of renown,” she calls through the emptiness of her foreign-feeling digs; somebody else’s energy (apparently out) is rendering Rose a trespasser… her proprietorship only restored upon entering one sequestered room wherein Jack is overawed by the fabulous collection.

A dramatically lit menagerie gapes, stares, and leers from every wall. Tiers of eye-catching features share space with those more macabre, the wild outnumbering the tame, the overall ambiance unsettling.

KNOCKER SHOCKERS.net jogs Jack’s prenatal memory, the name of a rival website to his mother’s BLINDBOOBS.com, though few, if any, of the icons on display have sexual connotations. Or do they? Rose is fondling one of her favorites, evidently: the muzzle of a steer whose nose-ring knocker dangles hefty balls like a pair of displaced testicles, a bullock whose castration Jack imagines for an ultra-graphic instant, occasioning him to flinch, to shield his own genitalia from squeezes Rose applies to pewter left undamaged by her white-knuckled pressure. Sometimes she is frightening, flattering in her passion, but overaggressive. Brick would disapprove were she informed of Rose’s verve, the hammerlocks she employs, the pseudo strangulations, the garroting of Jack’s scrotum to delay ejaculation whilst she bounces atop his cock like a bronco busting cowgirl, forcing him, in effect, to support her masturbation, using him as a prop the while she flails and flails away, indifferent to or aroused by his slavish vulnerability… evocations of Jean encouraging her all-the-more when Rose discovers how hot was her lover’s mother’s website, going so far as to buy originals or replicas of assorted toys it featured—which Jack described (under Rose’s retro-tutor influence) with uncanny accuracy.

Seduction rather than ravishment appears to be in store, as Rose undoes her pantsuit, divided front to rear by one continuous zipper, requiring aid to complete the separation; she can reach behind just part way up her back, far enough to reveal she is naked underneath, her widespread stance and upturned buttocks splitting the tawny-tinted coverall…

…resembling a ruptured milkweed pod, Jack muses, poised to free its seedlings, airborne parachutes chased and caught in hopes of childhood wishes granted, the cleft which they inhabit luring him compulsively, mesmerizing with its fleshy-lipped pulsation and palpitating pucker, glistening with the wettest warmest welcome an erection could enjoy—the only nether pocket ever entered by Jack’s unseasoned organ—now vacuumed into the pith of an elevated pout…

…as Rose, with a gasp and wriggle, takes possession of her latest acquisition, the one, from among them all, she considers her most prized.

Unheralded, Harold’s homecoming is exceedingly inopportune, timed as it is to the couple’s synchronous climax… a grunt-and-groan duet… bestial… coarsely befitting the gargoyle-studded context… if tactless, given its doubling as Jack Black’s howdy-do.

“Ah-hem,” Harold clears his throat, having entered the room past retreating; to leave would be as rude as to stay; to stay should at least prove entertaining. Jack has yet to withdraw from the orifice he is injecting. Rose, still facing the wall, has yet to finish quivering, and is disinclined to let anyone interfere with her post-coital rapture; never so thoroughly inseminated, she repeats to herself with each and every influx of Jack’s abundant semen… apt to gush, the moment he departs, hence Rose retains her grip.

“Harold, this is Jack; Jack meet Harold,” Rose finally suffers to acknowledge, having lost her hold on that which quits her crotch with an all-too-audible SLURP. “Harold, would you PLEASE!”

He stands transfixed, impressed by Jack’s extremity as its drool unites anatomies with an e l o n g a t i n g fibril.

“Glad to meet you, Jack. I trust you’ll stay for tea? Pardon me while I go put on the kettle.”

At long last, Harold leaves. Rose, chin dropped to her breastbone over its blushing bare-skin V, shakes her head abjectly as Jack assists with the zipper, reconnecting halves of her fecundated whole.

Together, they repair to the room next-door.

Tennis Ball

Brick needs out, out from the stifling confines of her understaffed apartment. The absence of her helpmates is proving less alleviating than exacerbating with regard to a mental block obstructing her from the answer, the no-doubt-simple solution to complexities swarming before her eyes like a multitude of gnats. Clarity, she craves clarity, or, at the very least, fresh air… in pursuit of which she goes on a ruminative ramble, her tautological problem locked in the ‘lab’ behind.

Berkeley flaunts diversity like a diva does her wardrobe. Every house is different, on pedestrian-friendly streets:

·         speed bumps warning vehicles that people on foot take precedence,

·         turnabouts, dead ends, signs for ONE WAY and NO THROUGH TRAFFIC confounding those pressed for time,

·         flora beautifying gardens, balconies, and lawns with plants from every continent.

Brick is happy to have chosen such a setting for her new persona, which the State would deem “out-of-bounds” (were the State to know her whereabouts) and “identity theft” (were the State to discover her switch with the deceased Straustakovich); either instance constitutes a breach of her one-year-long parole punishable by another stint in custody, in a penitentiary this time, Brick having reached adulthood thus meriting severe punishment—as if detention had been lenient; decidedly, it had not; her scourging various tormentors, though pitiless, has been proportionate… and dished out incompletely due to this detour, this breakthrough-eluding enterprise. Or has Brick found through Jack, assisted by Rose, a worthier avocation, a calling, as it were (other than Avenger), a mission (albeit secular) bent on Mankind’s salvation? Well, bent on something of the sort; Brick is unconvinced that the species can be ‘salvaged’; ‘adjusted,’ possibly, and therein lies the challenge… coupled with something in the genesis of Brick’s genesis that compels her to proceed…

…as she stops to watch a doubles match in progress, Twosome A versus Twosome B whacking a chartreuse tennis ball back and forth across the net, then lobbed up, up, up over the court and out, bouncing beyond the fence to a stretch of sloping sidewalk, picking up pace on the pavement as it bounds toward a busy intersection where a bus bumper sends it caroming in an altogether new direction, rolling, rolling, rolling eventually coming to rest at a spot so far afield its retrieval seems unlikely—Brick having tracked its ultra errant journey with a sense of déjà vu…

…events her past retains, once-removed; or is it by proxy she visits this vintage excerpt? Scraps, of course, is the recognizable character she envisions giving chase to a ball once thrown by a man known only from photographs, unfamiliarly familiar, seen as from above climbing into a vehicle and making haste to… escape, is Brick’s sixth sense of it (instructed by what Rose, of late, has been advocating), following, like some drone from an aerial perspective, him who drives, maneuvers onto a highway, his destination north; as determined how? A compass… other instrumentation… radar… an altimeter... all monitor every move, analyze every action, await an opportune moment to trigger some calamity as the car approaches a rust-red bridge, on a fog-beleaguered night, crosses the sweeping span, leaves massive towers behind to negotiate an off ramp, progress angling westward, scaling a windy road, curves met with incaution, one dead ahead ideal for the signal to be sent that causes brakes to fail, suspension to malfunction, automobile and driver to swerve, bounce off a guardrail, and plummet from a cliff, the driver tossed from his somersaulting vehicle…

 

…and sometime later rescued i.e. rushed to Marin General Hospital to be pronounced Dead On Arrival, Peter Truesdale-Everson (and his threat to National Security) there and then reclassified Null and Void.

Harold's Ascot 

Harold, wearing an ascot to conceal his carcinoma, greets both Rose and her rather dashing beau with old world aplomb. It is they who feel self-conscious, fresh from their stand-up performance, cheeks identically flushed, avoiding the gentleman’s pointed gaze hence missing his affable wink—implicit with approval and tacit recognition that Rose has met her match (and then some) in him whose ADEPT-ness all-three share (though something troubles Harold about the young man’s comportment).

“‘Jack,’ is it?”

“Jack Black, yes, sir.”

Harold pauses, mid-pour, to reappraise.

The Jack Black: inventor, entrepreneur, and grown-up boy genius? Rose, you should have told me our guest is world-renown.”

“When, Harold; while you watched like a paparazzo while we were going at it?”

Harold finishes pouring, then serves the couple tea, handing each a cup on mismatched saucers (Rose’s make-do service a poor relation to Brick’s exquisite silver).

“Tut-tut; don’t bear grudges. How… the hell… was I… to know? Harold sings this last line, eccentrically, in a voice his tumor modifies from tenor to contralto. “Besides, it did my swan song good to witness life’s inception. Brackets—cradle to crypt—help assess the span between. Yours, Jack, veritably abounds with contributions; and at such a tender age! To think, when you reach mine, what you’ll have accomplished, is to comprehend the scope, the unlimited potential of full-bloom humanity whose blossoms owe their bounty to the past, their beauty to the present, and their burgeoning endowment to the future of our dreams.”

“Pretty speech, Harold. So, how have you been faring; any restless residents?”

“No, our fellow tenants have been splendidly content. We do have one new vacancy; I’ll be showing it tomorrow. Otherwise, mine has been a holiday.” Harold lifts his cup by way of a salute. “Rent free; I’m much obliged.” He turns toward Jack. “Ms. Birchtree is a generous soul, I’m certain you’ll agree. May I presume you’re the father of her infant-in-the-making?”

“Harold!” Rose objects. “You may not even ‘presume’ that I’m with child.”

“‘With child’; how sweet, how quaint. But do give me some credit, Rose, for noticing the obvious. Your figure, since I saw you last, has undergone a… shift, and Jack, here, is enthralled by its every bulge and dimple.” Harold turns again to regard the mum celebrity. “Of a less conspicuous aspect is the change in Mr. Black, which—now that I look more closely—is a source for some concern. Might I ask how you’ve managed to amend what needed no improvement?”

Bull’s-eye; Harold’s guess (tantamount to a deduction) feels, to Jack, like a thumb applying pressure to an aggravated bruise. Have second thoughts compounded insecurities since injecting Vector Pink? Can eyes assigned to their own examination ever see themselves? Have doubts eroded the core of his original conviction?

“A doctor who treats himself has a fool for a patient?” Jack extrapolates, with no attempt to confirm or to deny.

Rose, reacting to the semblance if not the substance of Harold’s observation, hastens to defend her (tacit) fiancé.

“Jack, with our mutual friend Brick, and I have embarked on a bold experiment that may very well transform the whole human race, and the man who sits beside you, Mr. Bloomsmythe, is the first of this new breed.”

Rose, surprised by the pride she takes in Jack’s acute self-sacrifice, is equally proud of the role their nascent child will play.

“Perpetuated, I take it, by Baby One’s debut?”

Exponentially perpetuated; we’re culturing a virus.”

“YOU MUST NOT!” Harold squawks emphatically, his voice once more expressed in its fragile upper register. “Let me tell you a story, a too true story that may help change your minds.”

Double Espresso 

Brick, like Scraps before her, does not fetch the come-to-rest ball; she idly sits nearby on a coffeehouse bench awaiting Peter’s memory to revisit her unsettled consciousness and carry it into the realm reserved for… seers, mystics, cranks, ADEPTS? Brick is unpersuaded that ‘recreated’ events are other than fabrications, mere bits and pieces about her father (as related by her mother or learned by dint of research) then spun subsequently into an almost plausible yarn about a sinister USA drone, a Marin Headlands hilltop, and an extrajudicial execution… all neither here nor there; Brick is much less interested in who killed her father than in the data he collected, collated, and bioengineered into a pluripotent chip; not the chip off his block, rather the chip off someone tortured who has haunted the recipient’s psyche from birth to the present day, instilled her fear of water, her awareness of Islam, her mastery of Arabic, while undermining innocence with innocence betrayed, outraged by the manifest hypocrisy of the world’s vainglorious superpower, transferring anger, hatred, and frustration (genetically conveyed?) to the cortex of a context unprepared for grownup villainy. What could they, her parents, have hoped to achieve from such an ill-considered action! What could Brick extract from her parents’ rash behavior—Tricia no less guilty than her injudicious husband, females no less culpable than the males their natures nurture, both legitimate candidates for the antidote Vector Pink, if only its contagion could be spread undetected, if only its effect could be instantaneous: presto-change-o the King of Beasts declawed; the Queen of Beasts, as well; Brick has no illusions about either gender’s militance; for every soldier’s father there is a jingoistic mother; arms a nation bears are fired with coed collusion; savagery knows no bounds when either sex is vexed… none more brutal than Dartboard Tits Diane and her Demolition Dykes, Brick recalls as she reiterates her conviction that Peter Truesdale-Everson holds their undertaking’s key, that he, like Jack, injected some untried 'elixir'… Brick rewinds events: reverses the tennis ball’s recollective bounces, retraces its chaser’s path, reconstructs the scene wherein Peter hurls the decoy, backtracks up the driveway, the sidewalk, the front porch steps, reenters the threshold hastily, backpedals through the foyer, ascends the marble staircase, repairs to the master bedroom wherein fluid is drawn from an unresisting belly with an overlong syringe, refills the base of a butane lighter, restores it to a pocket… A horn honks; Brick is startled and mentally shaken from her esoteric reverie.

“Ready to order, ma’am?”

A barista hovers over Brick. It takes her a disoriented moment to fathom what he wants.

“Yes, a cappuccino would be… Scratch that,” she amends, “Bring me, if you would, a double espresso.”

Nasturtiums 

“A long, long time ago, beyond anybody’s memory—except for a rare few of us who can tap prehistoric roots—there lived a species similar to ours, an authentic Missing Link: no fossil record, no pictographs, no primitive weapons or tools, vanished without a trace; leastwise, to date, not a vestige has been found; but no less real than Neanderthal, Java Man, Cro-Magnon, or any other hominid duly documented; alas, nameless, yet in their anonymity lay a measure of success—to elude the anthropologists is to dodge their vain postmortems. ‘Monkmen,’ I shall call them for convenience, roamed through distant regions they hoped were uninhabited by anyone like themselves who walked erect, for fear such fellow folk would do them grievous harm.

“Hunter-gatherers they were not; they neither killed nor hoarded sustenance. Instead they browsed as herbivores, their memories keen as elephants’, recalling where, when, and how to dig, to climb, to harvest nuts, fruits, tubers, fungi, flowers, assorted bark and foliage, munching each with molars meant for mulch more than for meat, teeth designed to chew rather than to seize and throttle flesh, tongues evolved to savor sundry mouthfuls with a plethora of taste buds. Lest this sound idyllic, consider countless hardships caused by inclement weather, hazardous terrain, and perils of the night.”

Harold pauses to sip some tea and to ease his achy throat. Either too much phlegm or not quite enough inhibits his ravaged vocal chords, their singsong nevertheless soothing. Rose and Jack, slouching at opposite couch ends, resettle in the middle, leaning one against the other like children at bedtime—though the hour is half-past noon. The drive, their amorous exertions in the Knocker Room, and Harold’s lyric narrative, lull them into a mood of drowsy receptivity.

“Sparse in number, a tribe no larger than a troop, incestuous necessarily thus prone to certain birth defects, Monkmen eyed their progeny with unprecedented vigilance, ever on the lookout for problematic traits, resolutely merciless when any were detected; their recourse was infanticide. Mothers were required to eradicate mistakes. The ritual this precipitated was devoid of lamentation. Praise, instead, was bestowed upon each selfless sacrificer for sparing the group from flaws identified with THEM, meaning those the tribe had learned to avoid, to spurn, and to dread—having been treated by these UPRIGHTS, when unluckily encountered, as hapless, toothsome prey.”

Rose projects the vegans on her veiny inner eyelids, while Jack projects the carnivores where they crouch, sniff the downwind air, and proceed to stalk their quarry through a dank primeval marsh, their hirsute ankles spattered with feral mud and beads of murky brine.

“Nasturtiums, in their most primordial form, were the Monkmen’s favorite food. Whenever they found pastures full of this posy their proclivity was to binge. Devoured in copious amounts over the course of one whole season, the petal’s nectar, pollen, and fragrance tended to steep each Monkman’s tissues, converting his and hers, inadvertently, into a delicacy. A band of UPRIGHTS, one fine, breezy day after dawn, caught this tantalizing scent.”

As slumber dovetails with allegory, Jack and Rose nod off…

Uprights

…for how long neither knows but Harold is gone when both awaken; perhaps he took offense. The daydreams he inspired—played out individually—also cause uncertainty; why he told the tale and how it might have ended are mysteries left unsolved.

Dove 

By the end of Brick’s reflective turn, inklings of her father’s research surface, details come to light, and findings published posthumously start to coalesce. Skeptical, Brick is hardly in a hurry to devise a battery of tests, especially based on vagaries like pre-partum recall—a theoretical construct to which she resists subscribing. Unless, that is, the formula sprung to mind amounts to more than gibberish… a prospect so elating it advocates she make haste before her ‘resident bonobos’ return from holiday. Thirty-six hours remain for total concentration—no distractions, interruptions, or needless delays—ample time for rendering Vector Pink communicable, undetectable, and irreversible once spreading its effect from a single release point. Any crossroads or cosmopolitan hub should suffice, even Berkeley, given its international populace. But Brick is getting ahead of herself;

·            first, make the agent work

·            second, verify its virulence

·            and third, conduct a trial

Then, and only then, can the contagion be unleashed… or shared might be a preferable term for a worldwide transformation whereby people lead their lives essentially disarmed.

Wedding Bands

“Son, I haven’t so much as met this person you’re… engaged to? A woman you’ve… impregnated? Someone you’ve been… shacked up with over in the East Bay? I don’t know what to say. You’re twenty-one; she’s forty-something?”

“Forty-two.”

“You’re only half her age!”

“I can count, dad.”

“Well, you can’t count on your father to bestow his blessing; not on a May-December match; not sight unseen, you can’t. When did you think you might get around to introducing her; at the wedding? At the christening? Which comes first?”

George, unused to being completely ignored and un-consulted, is taking Jack to task over this late-date announcement. Smitten past redemption, possibly bewitched and flirting with disaster, his son, although regretful, seems stalwart in his lunacy: ‘this is how it is, dad; like it or lump it,’ reads Jack’s stance. George is sorely tempted… to do what? Ground him for a week? Take away his laptop? Cut off his allowance? Use tactics that rarely worked way-back-when and haven’t been utilized since? Powerless to prevent his only child’s calamity, George can only make it worse; this much he concedes by way stifling his frustration. Yet how to make Jack see reason and consider reconsidering?

“We plan on marrying tomorrow in Las Vegas. The baby isn’t due until spring.”

Jack feels like a heavyweight landing body blows to his sparring partner. Every revelation exacts a painful grimace, an almost audible groan as George absorbs the punishment.

However, a daughter-in-law and a grandchild—though delivered at one fell swoop—do strike George as possibly representing a boon that annuls a bane… depending.

“If that’s your timeline, where the hell is she?”

“Outside in the drive.”

“Waiting for a pre-paved welcome or a tire-squealing getaway?”

“Something like that, yes.”

“Okay…” George breathes a sigh of capitulation, “…bring your ladylove in; let’s have a look at her.”

Jack’s about-face, done with military precision, expedites his exit and the couple’s arm-in-arm return. Rose, no longer in her pantsuit, wears a beige culotte, somewhat less provocative in that buttons, rather than a zipper unites detachable halves. Not what George, within his blink of allotted time, was or is expecting, Rose’s physical plainness makes an impression first. Compared to supermodel Amanda (as depicted in a centerfold suitably framed and mounted in the jilted juvenile’s bedroom)…

“Dad, this is Rosemary Birchtree.”

…Jack’s intended is homely as a moose. Moreover, she is old. Correction: older. Forty-two is hardly ancient. Forty-two appeals to George, in fact, or would, had he any interest in fair-game dating. Trim despite her abdomen’s subtle swell (the culotte and matching blouse are uniformly sheer), Rose’s figure is youthful; her physiognomy betrays few seasoned lines; but her eyes, once meeting George’s, leave no doubt about her worldly-wise maturity, and puts to shame Jack’s inexperience. What, George wonders, is the catalyst for their pending nuptial’s glue? Surrounding Rose like pollen the answer is self-evident…

…reminding George of being similarly enraptured by pheromones Jean released, reason playing no role in regulating primal urges, better-judgment yielding to matters of the flesh. Furthermore, Jack had been well-underway inside Jean (as is the child inside Ms. Birchtree) before any vows were exchanged. “Like father, like son”? For George to reprimand Jack would surely be hypocritical.

Rose-ma-ry like the song?” George intones as he extends his calloused hand and is pleasantly surprised when Rose clasps it firmly, with coinciding pressure.

“Parsley, Sage, and Thyme were runners-up,” Rose knowingly responds.

Jack, oblivious to the golden oldie referenced, fidgets like some schoolboy at a parent-teacher conference.

“Jack tells me you’re pregnant. Congratulations.”

This surprises everyone: including him who spoke; George had meant to sound less gracious, intending to charge this overage seductress with age-old entrapment.

Rose accepts the warm felicitation as heartily as the handshake.

Jack takes note of his father’s magnanimity and feels all the more contrite for plotting to exclude him…

…thus Jack, assisted by Rose, revisiting memoirs bred of Jean, serves to draw George closer to the amatory couple, closer to his son than he has felt in many years and closer to Jack’s beloved. Perhaps the subtle swell inflating Rose’s lithesome torso fosters intimate recollections… tucked into old-clothes pockets like a cache of precious jewels, priceless, private, and intimate therefore puzzling as to what is provoking them; neither Jack nor Rose knew Jean in any tangible sense. How explain this wave of reminiscence suddenly indulged that seems to build, to crest, and to break over him-her-him, all three, Jack-Rose-George invoking Jean as one collective memory, shimmering with translucence, idyllic as a dream, fragile in its beauty, hostage to retentiveness, and floating out of reach on a countermanding tide?

God, I loved that woman! George exclaims, albeit mutely… and apropos of nothing anyone has said.

“Jack, I gather, never met his mom,” Rose offers intuitively, certain it is Jean who fills the silent lapse. “You must be real proud of raising a child without his mother, and doing such a first rate job on her behalf.”

Genuine or designing; understanding or insincere? George cannot decide if Rose deserves his progeny. What would Jean advise were she confronted by this spinster, twice the bridegroom’s age and pregnant into the bargain, endowed with few advantages apparent to the naked eye, and possibly (worse-case scenario) a California gold-digger?

“Yes, I’m proud of Jack; he’s turned out pretty well; and yes, you’re right; I did my level best to honor his mother. Parenting takes a team, though, to do it properly. Did you choose Jack, Ms. Birchtree, or did Jack choose you?”

This, too, catches everyone off guard; George is seldom confrontational. Moved by something different about his son, a change that might be due to extreme infatuation, George suspects a truth could be supported by an undermining lie.

“That’s an egg and chicken question,” Jack objects, hoping to distract his father from another, deeper paradox. Since meeting Rose (and Brick) Jack’s involvement has been witting or coerced? With Vector Pink already in his system, had he been incapable of resisting or fending off advances he would have repelled ordinarily? Did he choose Rose or did Rose choose him, indeed? The answer—pivotal in retrospect—speaks to Vector Pink and its effect upon Free Will, Jack’s by Jack no longer analyzable. How he might have acted is now a tainted speculation. Only others’ impartiality can evaluate his past and present behavior, his before and after reactions to similar situations… George more qualified than Rose, in this regard, though each betrays a bias. Moreover, by making himself an experiment, he abdicates objectivity. When Jack confronts a mirror does it not reflect an alien? A stranger unto himself, Jack is that altered stranger; and far be it from him to comment reliably on whomever he once was.

Rose preempts her betrothed with a candid revelation.

“To be honest, Mr. Black, I was hot to have Jack’s genes. A friend of mine named Brick was eager to make your son’s acquaintance. Hers was a scientific interest; mine was procreative. Together we arranged a rendezvous—more accurately a trap—into which we lured your unsuspecting son. In Queen Wilhelmina’s Garden under a windmill we stole his virginity.”

At the mention of Golden Gate Park, George feels all the more disgruntled. To learn that his son has been maneuvered into parenthood (and God-knows-what-else by this fem fatale’s accomplice) on turf he views as singular to his and Jack’s relationship is to want these wedding plans definitively squelched!

“I can see from your expression, Mr. Black, you’re none-too-pleased by my account. Let me assure you, I agree; it was a sneaky thing to do. But since then lots has happened, most of which I think you’d approve.”

Even Jack is moderately miffed at the way he was bamboozled, but subsequent benefits outweigh any thought of reversing his direction.

George, conversely, has yet to hear an argument for endorsing the couple’s plans.

Rose explains further.

“What started as a plot became a flirtation and then an affair; now I’d call what Jack and I share an imperishable bond. I’ve begged him to forgive me; I’m begging you, as well. All I thought I wanted was a baby, just for me. Now I want our baby, just for us, forever and a day. Please give us your blessing, sir. I promise to make Jack happy.”

Jackas stunned as George by Rose’s undiluted frankness and her transforming their elopement into a plea for parental approval—awaits his father’s verdict with hopeful anxiety.

DNA

Brick solves it! The formula meets the need the way a scratch allays an itch, satisfying every complexity with elegant straightforwardness, a chain reaction linked to the very link gone missing, an absence forging a presence no less distinctive, perhaps even strengthening that which appears to be a reconfigured helix but is, in actuality, a conversion of one decisive string which might have happened selectively via mutation (over time), might have evolved and flourished (surviving the competition), but probably never would have developed (all by itself) in full-fledged form. Yet there it is, below Brick’s high-powered eyepiece, ‘pluripotently’ able (with a little assistance) to facilitate Man’s next leap, transporting the species further, in a single bound, than would eons of evolution, ushering in an irrepressible epoch of conflict resolutionif Jack Black is the paradigm for Vector Pink’s effect and a shift in genome guarantees a shift in human behavior. Without a set of broad-base tests, however, results are merely promising, and ‘promising’ is not good enough; especially insofar as the Pandemic Agent will like as not move rapidly, faster than any disease heretofore on record, with nary a blatant symptom to trumpet its effect. Brick's Antidote for Animus is ready for a trial—scheduled to commence…

Vestibule 

…before the newlyweds’ return—delayed by an unplanned honeymoon (compliments of George upon endorsing the ‘shotgun wedding’ without benefit of gunpoint). Jack and Rose awaken in a king-size sleeping bag, lain inside a pup tent, pitched amid sand dunes swept by wind in the middle of nowhere several miles off-road and out of sight from their Nevada Rec-V-Rental, its defective GPS device indicating “Downtown Pittsburg” hence far afield from anything in the couple’s bleak environs, barren to the point of being monochromatically scenic—blond on blond on blond—the sun not high enough to toast multitudinous granules under eiderdown, under nylon, and finally underfoot as his and hers emerge like breach-birth twins’ from their candy-striped enclosure, its red-and-white bands incongruous midst the buff on buff on buff—naked human and naked human on sand more bleached than tan—cool between the toes at dawn, destined to cause blisters by mid-afternoon when even lizards search for shade to duck heat so ferocious it keeps turkey vultures aloft and nesting birdlife panting at the risk of singeing lungs, drying up saliva, mucous membranes likewise subject to desiccation, Rose’s drooling remnants of their nuptial night’s amour, glistening as she tries to scale the nearest, steepest incline, losing ground and gaining it with grudging progress crest-ward, Jack in hot pursuit, eyes glued to the gooey vestibule doubling as conduit-and-cocoon for passion-and-placenta, the latter crowding internal organs while inflating (day-by-day) dimensions Rubenesque and cushiony, receptive from behind thus encouraging Jack to overtake his mate, mid-slope, and ardently remount her, sink inside with one impetuous thrust then hold stock-still lest grains of grit abrade what feels like gummy resin, amber in the making, suspending his erection yet sustaining stimulation through contractions rhythmically taut and hungrily peristaltic, nursing him unto climax, Rose’s coinciding.

Capital Punishment

Terrorists, Wraiths, Enemy Combatants, Jeopardites, and Cyber Saboteurs are felons whose offences warn all law-abiding citizens that crimes against the State will not be tolerated. Suspicion, investigation, and methodical apprehension unto torturous debriefing, signed confession, and summary execution plot the course for anyone convicted of a Level One Infraction. Woe be onto him or her condemned by Military Tribunal where evidence is compiled by ones accusers solely and records are redacted in the interests of National Security. And woe be unto those suspected of complicity, hence Houston’s mounting panic with respect to Vector Pink, its research and development, its fruition and imminent release, indicting him with them, should he fail to disassociate, should he fail to do his duty and report the malefactors.

“Viral?”

“Think Ebola, Al, then multiply the Rate of Transmission by a Factor-Six Accelerant and you’ll share my foreboding.”

“But what’s it supposed to do? You said it was benign.”

“I said I wasn’t sure; I’ve surmised its effect is harmless. The means of its dispersal are anything but.”

“Pandemic?”

“Pandemic Plus; pandemic on metabolic steroids; fomites galore! Touch it, you’re infected. Breathe it, eat it, drink it, fuck it; you can catch this thing so easily and spread it so unwittingly it’s positively spooky. And what it does on contact is utterly phenomenal.”

“You claim she did this here, at our facility, under our goddamn noses?”

Some of it she did there; some at Petables Inc; most of her research the Bitch-ling does at home.”

“The who?”

“‘Doctor Straustakovich.’ Don’t you vet your faculty?”

“Yes we do; extensively. And Professor Straustakovich…”

“Has been dead since twenty-twelve.”

Silence fills the gap in Houston’s mayday to his colleague… during which Albert Phelps envisions scandal, scurrilous publicity, loss of vital funding, and tendering his resignation to appease a Board incensed by their Director’s abominable negligence.