To save myself some effort of concentration, I slave my puppet’s walking to Tom’s motions, offset by a second or two so it doesn’t look like they are marching in lockstep, intervening only to avoid obstacles on the sparsely populated sidewalks. He has been rambling, conversation-wise, for an hour or so, calming his nerves. We compare notes on academic experiences and he tells me some about what things were like growing up.
There is another reason, too, I suspect. Human predators are weak monsters at best, and work themselves up to kill more easily if they can think of their human prey as objects, things, cowering animals. Tom thinks that if I know him and see him undeniably as a person, his chances for survival, of convincing me to change my mind about taking his life, are greater.
But all I am killing right now is time. I have to stay embedded where I am, traveling linearly timewise, for a short while. There is an event Tom wished to witness this evening of the day of our meeting. A speaker at a small gathering at a chapel, socked away in a storefront in a seaside strip mall — the kind of place that always smells of burned coffee and smokers from the time it spends as a venue for Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. He also thinks I won’t kill him in front of a number of witnesses, and that if I actually allow him to attend, it will extend his life by at least the length of the meeting — or possibly allow for some distraction which will permit him to escape.
I have marked Tom, however. I will be able to follow him forward in time from the moment of our meeting to wherever I shall decide that his linear thread will end.
We are among the first to arrive and take two seats at the end of the rear row of metal folding chairs. The few other people present are a couple of college-aged kids, possibly involved in the menial aspects of setting up, a middle-aged woman, comfortably dressed, who is possibly their supervisor, and a drifter or two, at least one of whom probably thinks this is an AA meeting and will likely stay out of curiosity.
More people arrive, hard to pin down from a visual gloss. A cluster of three young professional men, ties discarded and suit jackets slung casually over arms or shoulders. A bored housewife type in yoga pants with brown hair caught carelessly in a pony tail. A group of four young people who look as much like a garage band on the verge of breakup, here for group counseling, as anything else. I lose track of the next few by pulling in my awareness tightly and sinking the bulk of what no longer fits into the space of my puppet through the concrete slab of the floor beneath the cheap carpet and into the chilling earth. It’s like sitting in a brightly lit room peeping between the fingers of my hands over my face. The evening has turned a bit chill and my puppet is sparsely dressed, so I pose it in a more closed position, hunched over, face cast downward. Tom rubbernecks, performing his own evaluation of the session’s attendants.
The drifter a couple of seats over from Tom pipes up. “I sense a dark presence,” he intones. His voice is a solid baritone, with an invisible smile built in. Long graying hair obscures the side of his face nearest Tom.
“Woooo…,” laughs one of the professionals, a man on the outside edge of his row, tan jacket over the back of his chair.
The drifter stands and edges across empty seats to the aisle at the side, the same side as the professional, and walks to the front of the room at an easy pace, patting the professional companionably on the shoulder on the way. The seated man doesn’t flinch or shy away from the contact, reacting with a grin that cannot be seen from Tom’s angle.
At the front of the room, the drifter turns to face his audience. He’s a little shorter than average, perhaps, a bit hunched, dressed in jeans, disintegrating loafers, a faded red t-shirt, and a sweatshirt of some kind with a hood pushed back onto his shoulders. His features put him into his forties or fifties. He looks and sounds like he could be a newscaster if he got a salon haircut and a conservative suit.
“Over on the table by the empty coffee urn,” he begins, “I’d like to direct your attention to the donations basket.” He laughs. “Seems like it comes with the room.” A handful of groans come from the sparse audience. He continues, laughing, “Now I’d like you to ignore it. I have all the money I need, and I’m not selling anything. Just figured I needed to get that out of the way.”
At this point he grabs an empty chair out of the completely empty front row and spins it around to face the attendees. He takes a seat. “I don’t feel the need to stand up and be seen. Just speak out if you can’t hear me. Provided you actually give a damn about what I’m saying and aren’t here just to escape the oppressive jolly weather and refreshing sea breezes of the Southern California coast.”
He makes himself comfortable in his chair. “And now a few words about myself. I don’t have a name. Or a phone. Or a website. Much less any impressive credentials to try to lend phantom weight to what I have to say. And that’s enough about me.
“I do, however, sense a dark presence. Not any kind of ancient foreboding evil. A brand spanking new one. A darkness of a sort not typically detected this far outside the L.A. city limits.” He smiles and is answered by a light chuckle from the audience. “A darkness that drinks souls, which don’t actually exist in the way everybody thinks about them, so saying it that way is more than half a lie, but it’s the best way I can think to say it while in the grips of this crippling whiskey deficiency.” One of the men in suits, at this point, cheerfully waves a metal pocket-flask of something in the speaker’s direction, but the speaker just grins and motions for the man to put it away.
He continues. “A brand spanking new foreboding evil, and one of you present has brought it with you. Kind of a dick move, if you ask me, but I’m sure you have your reasons.”
My awareness subtly focuses on Tom, who is of course saturated with fear, but Tom’s fear is still centered on his impending mortality. At no point does the speaker give any attention at all to my puppet — at least no more than the casual glances he has given most of the rest of the people present. Is the speaker referring to me? It would make all the sense in the world if he was, but talking about it like this makes me think he’s not certain and is trying to flush something out into the open.
The flask-wielder heckles from his chair. “So the whiskey I brought is only aged seven years. That doesn’t make it evil!” Everybody laughs, including Tom and the speaker.
The drifter engages him directly with a smirking glare. “Actually it kinda does.” And everybody laughs again.
“Anyway,” he says, “I’m sure you’re not all here for my sparkling sit-down stand-up routine. “And fuck all this dark presence nonsense. If you people realized for thirty seconds in a row how saturated the world is with darkness, you’d use the last five seconds of that to slit your own throats. Thank To Whom It May Concern you’re all blind as bats with earplugs. Pretty birds in pretty cages sing pretty songs for the rest of us. An honest man is listening. Who has a question?”
A browned young man in jeans, sandals, and some kind of zip-up jacket with stripes down the sleeves speaks up. “When will I ever be truly happy?”
The speaker doesn’t allow even a brief pause. “You’ll be happy the moment you realize you’ve gone three whole weeks without asking yourself that question. Then it will go away again. Then half an hour later you’ll realize you’ve been being an idiot, and then you’ll be happy enough not to worry about it much ever again. That’s all assuming you live through the night, of course. Or the next night. Or the next night. And so on.”
The young man follows up more hesitantly. “Is not living through the night something I should be worrying about?” There is nervous laughter from around the room.
The speaker smiles. “You have as good a chance at a long and healthy life as most anybody else here. I was pointing out, or trying to, that you have a choice about what’s going to worry you. I guarantee you, giving yourself ten minutes to think about all the horrible things going on in the world that you don’t have to worry about will make any worry you have now seem like the waste of time that it is. Who’s next?”
The woman with the ponytail asks, “Does God exist?”
The speaker sighs. “You are an ant. The bug, not the relative. You look up and there’s this big face in the sky. His coming and going knocks the boulders out of the ceilings of your little tunnels, sometimes even smothering and crushing the newly hatched larvae in the nursery. Sometimes he even deliberately kicks the top of the nest away and stomps around killing hundreds. And sometimes he leaves an apple core right in the path of your scouts and you all eat like kings for a week. Is that the God you’re talking about? If so, based on His actions toward you and the hive, does He love you or hate you? What are His motives? How does He spend his spare time? What does He do when He’s not stomping around killing folk or dropping food? Does He love some of you ants more than others? Maybe, if He loves you enough, He’ll whisk you away to His own private ant farm and keep you on a desk in His office? Or if He decides He’s done with you all, He’ll pour gasoline down the nest and light it? Is that the God you’re asking about?
“That’s the best understanding any living human being will ever have of any god. You don’t even want a god like that. You want a super-ant, someone who understands ant interests and ant needs and can help you build to defend yourselves from God’s Boot, someone who can steal fresh apples for you right out of God’s orchard without Him noticing and coming after you for revenge. And no human being will have that understanding, of what a god is and how to deal with one, with only a human’s point of view.
“If you want to know for yourself for sure if God exists, you just look for His bootprint. Next?”
“Wait,” the woman replies. “Do really think it’s that grim?”
“Think about it,” the speaker says. “If God cares anything at all about you, it’s because He finds you beautiful or fascinating or useful or because He eats you. How much of His attention are you willing to risk? Do you really think you’ll make a good pet? Next?”
There is silence in the room now. People shift uncomfortably in their chairs. There is a question I would like to ask, but I do not wish to draw attention directly. Any intervention I might make other than moving my puppet would attract the notice of any entity with perceptions like my own, and this man and the things he has been saying have convinced me that he has had, or has currently, contact with something outside the normal human scope.
I have my puppet nudge Tomoyoshi with an elbow and when he looks over I make my puppet make a writing gesture, one hand over the other’s open palm. Tom pulls a notebook out of his bag, a ballpoint pen stuffed into the spiral binding. My puppet opens it to a blank page and writes, “Ask: ‘Whose hand is up your ass?’ ”
Tom looks at this and blinks. He looks at my puppet’s face, his mouth open, features full of wonder and realization and apprehension. My puppet nods gently.
“ASK,” my puppet writes again, and hands the notebook back. Tom puts it away.
Tom clears his throat to shove his nervousness and fear aside. “How does an honest man answer this question: Whose hand is up your ass?”
There are one or two gasps, and someone somewhere titters.
The speaker is no longer smiling. “Well done,” he responds. “You have served your purpose, ant. But I must answer the question. God’s own hand is up my ass. To prove it, here comes His boot.”
The woman with the ponytail lurches to her feet in obvious distress, and turns sideways to face the bulk of the attendees. Her chest and belly explodes, distributing miscellaneous gore and intestines over four or fives rows of seats. A gout of flame envelopes the man who had brought the flask, and he falls into the laps of his companions, igniting them as well. I yank my awareness fully into the area in time to feel an additional presence billowing into the space, waiting to feed on the dying. I feel an otherworldly tug in the direction of Tom’s body, so I encapsulate him as well as I can, including my puppet in the multidimensional clathrate. Near to panic, I isolate several timelines anchored to our future selves in an attempt to guarantee an escape.
The other is hugely powerful and extends in many directions far beyond this locale. My paths forward include ferociously aggressive maneuvers, though it is clear that I would fail a direct confrontation. And then I understand.
Billowing out from my clathrate, I reach for the escaping essences of two of the dying professionals. I am strongly slapped away, but I do not retreat in the expected direction. Instead, I pounce and devour wholly the essence of the pony-tailed woman, who retreats into my extended self almost willingly to avoid the destruction promised by the other presence.
The other responds with fury. The air in the meeting-place is incandescent with brilliance, and the facade facing the parking lot explodes away. In this instant, I gather all of my essence into the shell around my puppet and Tomoyoshi’s body and torque a portion of the blast to propel us out of the building, but also around forty minutes into the future, where the bubble we are in bounces a couple of times and deforms, flattening viscously, while our physical packages slide to a halt shy of the sidewalk.
Tom is unconscious, but returning. His hair is singed, as is his jacket and his bag. My puppet is covered in dew and condensation. I leave it inert on the pavement for a moment.
There are two fire trucks blocking Tom’s view of the continuing conflagration as much of the strip mall burns, now involving at least four shops in addition to the exploded meeting-space in the center of the devastation. The other presence has fed on the dead and left, forced to choose between leaving a meal and pursuing me to a point in time where its food would have spoiled and dissolved into the background fields of dark matter. Nor has it returned or lain in wait for my reappearance, which leaves me a little confused.
And now it occurs to me that perhaps it just doesn’t care. Maybe I am only a pest to be bothered with when I appear at a picnic. I am not game. I am not a threat. I am not even a serious annoyance.
I realize I am offended.
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This One Time, 42
This one time I was repacking my meager bag under a bridge over some west-bound Interstate highway or other. Maybe. The problem was that I hadn’t seen a sign in a long while and had slept away a few hours before being dropped here. I was still half deaf from sleeping in the back of […]
- This One Time, 42
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