Hell’s massive gate is a thing of legend — a mile high’s iron-bound iron with iron rivets nailing iron sheets to iron planks, and above all the famous legend, Abandon Hope All Ye Yadda Yadda Yadda. The iron gate is deep set in a stone wall as thick as a mountain, and it is a gate whose job is, famously, to make a big show of remaining closed.
Next to the unspeakably massive gate, maybe ten yards away, is an eight-foot-high glass double-door with matching chromed tube-steel vertical handles and a black-paint-on-chrome sticker next to each handle that says, “PULL”. Next to the PULL sticker on the left, farther left, is a cellophane-taped piece of typing paper on which is hand-written the ubiquitous notice, in fat black marker, “USE OTHER DOOR”.
Above these doors is a fancy debossed plaque that reads, in large Roman serifs, “Visitor’s Entrance & Gift Shop”. Smaller, beneath it, but still debossed in fancy Roman serifs, “Restroom for Customer Use Only”.
It is well lit, by fluorescent lights flush with the ceiling, inside. The door on the right opens easily, whether pushed or pulled, making one wonder why the PULL on the door seems so emphatic. Maybe it is just there to keep the candidate for entry from standing there, hand on the handle, unsure and waffling with indecision.
Inside, the shop is arranged sensibly in sections. It is tidy. There is no dust or grime anywhere, and everything is in its place.
Prominent in the center of the shop is a refrigerated section with an enormous array of flowers and a selection of vases and ornate containers for display. The flowers are sorted by color, indigo to crimson, with larger and more ornate and expensive flowers toward the top of each refrigerated case, to the back, and smaller, simpler flowers toward the front. Within each color there is a range from dark through bright to pastel, and the selection is extensive.
To one side of the refrigerated section is a large array of sympathy cards in an astounding array of languages. To one end of the display, the languages get older and more pictographic. One’s eye is drawn, in particular, to a large black card, approximately A4-sized, printed in white cuneiform characters. If one’s Minoan Linear A is sufficient for accurate translation, the card says, roughly, “YOU KNOW WHAT YOU DID.”
Beyond the card display are the more usual gifts: soft toys representing the usual gamut of cuddlable vicious animals and humanoid dollies (including many cutesified demonic entities with twee pitchforks), boxed confections of numerous types from candied fruits to nougats and toffees to chocolates to boiled sweets and hard candies to salted nuts to gummies to chewing gum and mints, small items of jewelry. There are items of comfortable clothing: pajamas and robes and slippers, from the utilitarian and serviceable to soft toys you stuff your feet in. In a locking glass cabinet, there are cigars, cigarillos, and cigarettes.
There are no lighters, but one assumes that a handy source of flame would be fairly easy to find inside.
There is a selection of popular reading materials, including magazines and newsprint pads of puzzles and solitary games. All of the newspapers are current and neatly stacked. Cheaply printed and bound religious texts from every tradition are present.
In the rear of the shop is a cafe for the shop-weary, laid out automat-style. Vending machines provide the usual array of hot or cold non-alcoholic liquid refreshments, wrapped sandwiches, crisps and crackers, and sweets. White formica tables and stackable plastic chairs are arranged in an orderly fashion for use in a first-come, first serve basis. Each table has, dead center, a napkin dispenser and a basket of common condiments and salt and ground pepper and sweeteners for hot beverages.
The section closest to the checkout register is for souvenirs: hats and scarves and t-shirts and sweatshirts and nylon jackets emblazoned with the many names of Hell in a complete array of languages and religious traditions, many accompanied with commonly associated symbology. There are pens and keyrings and watch fobs and thimbles and collectible spoons. Here are the cheap plastic lighters missing from the tobacco case, covered in cartoon winking devils and coquettishly posed incubi and succubi, and a couple of the more expensive refillable kind, engraved with depictions of the massive iron gate.
There is a closed door in the wall beyond the checkout counter with a sign above it that reads “CHAPEL”.
A stand-up sign at the checkout counter reads “Now accepting applications for employment. Ask cashier for application.” The minotaur behind the counter notes with interest that one is reading this sign.
One lays down for purchase one’s choices:
The Minoan Linear A “YOU KNOW WHAT YOU DID” card.
A keyring bearing the name and text logo of Hell’s Gift Shop itself.
A knit cap bearing the logo of the Gehenna Gorgons roller derby team.
A Zippo-style lighter bearing a textured model of the Gate on the body and the legend “ABANDON HOPE ALL YE YADDA YADDA YADDA” on the lid.
The minotaur, in his Hell’s Gift Shop smock and apron, rings up the purchases professionally and accurately. He accepts payment and places all of the purchases in a commemorative plastic gift bag, with the register’s printed receipt, and one accepts the bag from his hands.
One pauses for a moment, facing the register, removes the “YOU KNOW WHAT YOU DID” card, and presents it to the cashier with a sly smile and a nod.
The minotaur sighs. He accepts the card gracefully and sets it, slightly open and standing upright, on his little work area behind the register. Next to, one notes, a carefully wound ball of twine and a pair of no-nonsense shears.
One nods again in companionable benediction, still smiling, and heads for the exit.
You know what it’s like when you look at the face of someone you love, and she’s justifiably angry because of something you did, and the rage is coming, and it is wrong for you to do anything but take it? You know that it might be a miserable few days, but you will still be able to see that beautiful face wearing its beautiful anger every time you feel up to enduring a little extra dose of misery….The sky was like that.
I guess it’s up to your particular religious views whether the sky was like that because of anything I did. It’s not outside the bounds of my imagination, but my ego is not so large that I think the sky loves me enough that thoughtless action or neglect on my part could make her angry. As much as I love her, the sky is just not that into me.
The dog looked up at me as if it was my fault, like I’d done something to make the sky angry, and clearly conveyed that making him endure the sky’s anger to piss was beyond the pale. But until and unless he learns to use the commode, this is the solution I prefer.
Well, I call him a dog. It’s close enough for my purposes.
I feed him, groom him and keep him clean, give him a comfy place to sleep and some exercise and whatever training he can master. He curls up nearby whenever I do whatever else I do that doesn’t concern him. I love him the way people love dogs that they consider to be part of the family, regardless of messes or damage to my property or whatever way he’s chosen today to shock the neighbors. I require nothing of him. Training is almost entirely carrot, almost no stick.
So let’s just call him a dog and move on.
The sky was all loud grumbling and clouded expression and wrinkles of impending fury and the dog was (finally) pissing on his favorite pine and I was standing out in it as well, as a gesture of solidarity and of also being certain there were clean towels and dry clothes stowed in various closets and everything was beautiful and everything seemed right with the world.
Also when the sky is angry I don’t worry as much that neighbors might be outside trying to look at us through the slats in the fence. So that was good too.
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.
I don’t know why I bother to reveal these secrets to you. You won’t have earned them until you discover them for yourself, nor will you actually understand them. Maybe having read the words will give you a little extra foundation for understanding my own point of view, which you will no doubt merely see as some kind of delusion at worst or psychotic irrelevance at best. But if curiosity pulls you at least this far, you may as well have it.
The world around you is filled with light. Even when your eyes are closed, even when the sun is down, you see reddish light filtered through the blood-filled tissues of your own eyelids. Hell, even when you lose consciousness due to exhaustion at the end of the day you dream of light, of substance, of objects. This is true even if you were born blind, though then the light is sourceless, simulated by touch and sound and the feel of how the air moves. This light is an echo of how the seeming enormity of the world fills your brain.
The secret begins to seep in when you look up at night and see the distant stars. Each tiny pinprick is a star, a giver of light like the sun, who is a middle-aged member of that host and a junior example — a middle-management clerk among celebrities and statesmen and giants. And just as there are billions of people more important that that clerk in the world, there are hundreds of billions of those tiny, yet more prominent, pinpricks in our own massive galaxy of stars. But ours is not the only galaxy there is.
The Milky Way has several smaller companions, but hurtling toward us is a monster of a galaxy, much larger than our own, dragging along its entire entourage, due to arrive in less than half the lifespan left of our own meager sun. Our local group of galaxies numbers at least 50. But groups of galaxies also travel in clusters. And clusters form superclusters. And so on. Call it something on the order of a hundred billion galaxies, and, as good a guess as any, a septillion brilliant stars.
The skies should be filled with blinding light day and night, edge to edge, if light is what the world we know is made of. The beginning of wisdom is to see the inescapable reality that this is not the case. The world that glows is not even one part in twenty of the world that exists. And the truth of that is revealed in that when we look at the sky at night, what we mostly see is blackness.
The whole of creation is more than 95 parts in 100 darkness — measured by mass even, not volume — and the darkness is growing. The brightest of us, so to speak, squeeze our eyes shut when the light of this knowledge starts to dawn and begins to make us feel tiny and ephemeral and insubstantial, and believe we have found wisdom. But true wisdom does not come until we accept that the overwhelming and ever-increasing blackness between the stars, inside the stars, even, squeezing them and pushing them away from one another at an ever-increasing rate, is the ultimate reality. That blackness has form, and beauty, and substance. That blackness has intelligence. That hateful sun-eating blackness is the destiny of all that lives and all that glows.
There is a further secret behind that, however, intangible until you push past your soul-crushing despair. And it is terrifying. The ultimate secret is this: The unimaginably massive universe-eating blackness has tendrils inside you and knows everything about you and loves you with the entirety of its incalculable being and wants to be your friend. But you are no good to it until you are dead dead dead.
* * * * *
What I love about California is that when you walk around a small coastal town upholstered in tattooed skin of brown leather — shock of white hair smushed under a backward baseball cap, eyelids and lips sewn shut, torso wrapped in a bright aloha shirt, sculpted ass companionably wrapped in khaki cargo shorts, feet stuffed into paper-thin yellow foam flip-flops — no one bats an eye when you buy a latte and take a seat by the big picture window at the front of the shop. Especially when you hold the door for the guy coming in the shop behind you, affably find your wad of cash in the third pocket you investigate, and stuff a five-dollar bill into the Lucite tip-box. My puppet does all of these things, even to the point of making faces at the Labrador puppy leashed to the bicycle rack panting through the window trying to make out the shadow of his mistress inside.
I make a mental note to try this horror of a dumbshow in some backwater Mississippi town someday when I have less business on my mind and am more in the mood to kick over anthills. I will try to work it into my timeweb at a later point, where the echoes would not surge out to muddy the causality of the current puddle I am splashing in. I am here to recruit a Buddhist. A true believer and adherent — someone who actually understands what he believes, not someone who merely adopts the philosophical clothing in the typical fashion of one who becomes disillusioned of the trappings of Western dogma and doesn’t wish to walk around religiously naked after those are discarded. It would be more effort than I would like, to have to teach a purer dharma to an incautious choice pre-mortem and next to impossible post-mortem.
I expand my awareness, retreating analogically to a higher vantage point above the local timeweb to scout for my target. This beach-facing village has maybe three candidates, but the outflowing ripples are definitely the most favorable for the one who will be approaching in five minutes with respect to the bobbing marker of my puppet — the brightly-colored float for my fishing line, to stretch the analogy to the breaking point. I have no idea why, in terms of causal logic, this choice is better than others. But it will reach the coffee shop soon.
I retreat puppetwards and devise the machinery of the interactions that should pull him/her/it into my wake. A him, I determine as he enters. Short dark hair and dressed in unassuming jeans and t-shirt combination, with dirty white canvas loafers and no socks. I have my puppet watch, in terms of body language, as he places his order and waits for it to be constructed. He swings a messenger bag around to his back when he takes his cup, and when he looks up to see which tables are clear, I have my puppet wave at him. He looks confused, but he comes to my puppet’s table at the window, slowing dramatically as he takes in the appearance of my puppet. He is invited to sit with a gesture.
For this meeting I will speak by vibrating the air around my puppet’s face and chest, like when I placed the order for my puppet’s latte. I choose a quiet voice, much like the one I used pre-mortem. Cheerful, unthreatening.
“I know you don’t know me. I’m Jim.” My puppet’s stitched-together lips broaden slightly. It gestures again to the chair opposite. My guest hangs his bag on the chair’s wooden back and sits.
“I’m Tom,” he replies, setting his cup down carefully. I read the full name off the surface of his boiling mind: Tomoyoshi Suzuki. He speaks slowly, weighing curiosity against animal fear. “Is there something I can do for you, Jim?”
He repeats my name at the end of his sentence to fix it in his head while staring at my puppet’s unforgettable face. A reflex. He has worked in sales, or, more likely, possibly he is a teacher, and uses the trick to learn the names of students.
He looks at my puppet’s latte. His face is carefully neutral. “Do you need scissors? Or a straw?”
Tom earns a genuine laugh, which I localize quietly as a chuckle into the air between himself and my puppet. “Oh, thank you, Tom, but no. This puppet is dead. This coffee, like the puppet, is for show. I bought it as table rent.” The puppet leans back a little in the chair and stretches out a leg. “People need the puppet to talk to, when I talk, to avoid the unfortunate misunderstandings that come up when a voice is sourceless or comes from something nonhuman. People freak out or think they’ve gone crazy. The puppet also provides an additional element of language I find useful. See? I’m saying to the rest of this shop, while I talk to you, that this walking horror is not a threat to anyone.”
Tom frowns appreciatively and nods. “Should I ask whose body it was before it became … your puppet? Or is it artificial? Some kind of Hollywood special-effects replica…” he trails off.
“Relax, Tom. This is my own corpus. I drove it from the inside for thirty-some-odd years, pre-mortem. I just failed to relinquish possession when I died. Can I use the word ‘possession’ there?” I pause for a moment to make the puppet pretend a sip of coffee. “It’d be accurate to say that I died in the process of preserving this corpse for future use. Or, in at least one important interpretation, spectacularly failed to die. The jury of opinion isn’t unanimous.”
Tom nods again. “Sokushinbutsu.”
If that is a name for what I am, it is a new one to me. The subtleties of his tone are of mixed horror and reverence rather than the purer notes of distaste for terms like zombie, mummy, revenant, or any of the other hosts of undead from the anthropologies I had studied or more recent popular media and culture. I am not used to being confused or surprised. And I like it. This is possibly part of what I am seeking.
“I’m unfamiliar with the term,” I say. “Japanese, right? … Tomoyoshi?”
Tom doesn’t react when I use the longer version of his name, but makes a wry face with respect to the topic at hand. ” ‘Believe it or not, some saints don’t rot. Their bodies don’t decay…,’ ” he sings. If my puppet’s jaw could hang open, I would have required it to happen. Tom continues. “An old Dead Milkmen song. My mother was Catholic, and much more fervent about it in the years before she died. They believe the power of God is demonstrated by the fact that some of the bodies of old saints are preserved against decay after death. The Buddhists have something similar, after a fashion, but it’s more deliberate. A shortcut to buddhahood. The ones who attempted it took a special diet for a thousand days, coincidentally one that poisoned their flesh against microbes and worms and such, then climbed into a stone box to die. Or to finish dying. Then a thousand days later the box was opened, if it had been successful, and a mummified enlightened one was removed and installed in a shrine to receive intercessory prayers.”
I make my puppet nod, elbows on the table, attentive.
“Folklore takes it a step further, saying not all of the sokushinbutsu attempts were successful. Most did achieve sainthood. But some went mad, stranding their minds beyond mortal comprehension. And some, who had the drive to achieve the transition to immortality but not the purity of heart, became tremendously powerful monsters, creating misery to achieve their own selfish ends. They required — or require, since there may be one or two left — exceptional effort from the devoted to contain or destroy.”
That is something to think about. I say, “What do you think?”
Tom takes a moment to consider, remembering he has coffee that he brought to the table and taking a sip. “As a Buddhist, I am a student. I’m no priest. Until today, I thought of it in terms of a parable, a story of how the highest intentions can be poisoned by the taint of an unacknowledged desire for personal glorification, and on a different level a literal example of the extremes to which the sacrifice of self can take somebody. It’s self-torture and suicide. As such, it removes a pair of hands that could be used to alleviate the suffering of others here feeding hungry people or taking care of the sick. Maybe the sect that created such processes thought there was a shortage of saints to assist Buddha in receiving and processing prayers, or that examples needed to be set from time to time to show people the range of things that could be done in the name of self-sacrifice. If my opinion on the subject is worth anything, I tend to think there are probably enough gods and saints to pray to without adding any more.”
I want to step outside of time to process this, but that would upset the flow of events. I will have to wing it. “Until today?” I ask.
By way of answer Tom cocks an eyebrow and makes a small gesture toward my puppet.
“My process was violent,” I admit. “I prepared myself with drugs and stimulants and anesthetics. I eviscerated myself with surgical tools and clamps to slow the bleeding and stripped off my skin — with preparatory cuts and hooks and ropes and falling weights — before I finished dying. It was much faster, the work of a single evening, and uninformed by any desire other than selfish ends. I wanted power and I got it.”
Tom is frozen in his chair. I take a break for my puppet to pretend another sip of latte. “I was naive and stupid, but very, very lucky. There are many things about the afterlife that it’s impossible to know without stripping off the flesh and jumping in with both feet, as it were. It’s quite an education.” I admit more than I had intended, but Tomoyoshi seems to deserve it. He is tense and flushed, but my confession includes humility uncharacteristic of the sort of monster he fears.
Even so, it is clear that Tom is terrified. His voice is calm and even, however. He is a trooper. “It sounds like quite a feat. Congratulations.” There is no hint of contempt or sarcasm or judgment. “My ambitions are …” he trails off again. “I’m content to bother myself with worldly things while I’m still alive. I’ll worry about what comes after I die when I get there.”
My puppet sets down its cup but continues to hold the handle. I stretch the stitched-together lips of my puppet into a broad smile and gesture toward him impertinently with my puppet’s spare hand. “About that.” I reply.
Words like beads of dew on a curved flat blade of tall grass, each holographically containing a fisheyed inversion of the scenery behind — cloud-fluffed blue sky below, downward-pointed green spikes above — every word the same and meaningless and yet forming a picture, though distorted and infuriatingly linear and traveling in the direction the blade takes regardless of where you want it to go. Fortunately, here is another dewed blade. And another. Another. Another. The blades, like the strung droplets, gruelingly the same, but just enough different that the whole of the sopping meadow contains the whole of sky, rotated upside down.
Here is a sentence of strung words. Here is another. And another. Another. Descending toward meaninglessness.
So here is another. And another. Don’t worry. There are tens of thousands more.
Remember, these words are upside down.
* * * * *
My puppet lays on its back on the dewed grass, eyes sewn shut — one emptied socket half full of petulant pointy-legged skritching and the other always quiet unless my puppet is in motion — and cold enough to collect dew itself. Its brown weather-leathered chest is bare, as is its head (except for a shock of sunbleached hair), and arms, and legs, and feet. From waist to mid-thigh it wears beach-appropriate flower-printed shorts, too heavy to be trunks for swimming but of a sort that is often used as such regardless. Perhaps because it is sometimes convenient to have a number of pockets to fill with the trifles one finds below the waves.
Pockets are useful things. One of the reasons I maintain a puppet is so that it can wear pockets and carry useful trifles. It is a crutch, but a familiar one, and comfortable.
The puppet is inert, having been dead (and taxidermied) for years and years. I am waiting for the sun to burn off the dew. I confine my awareness to the beach-adjacent meadow that contains it, embedding my self in linear time as an exercise for the string of connected moments that must follow, one after another, slow and awkward like a flying bird, head bobbing, walking the migration routes on foot. I spread myself thin over the expanse of the meadow and watch ten million tiny air-sullied drops of water encourage the outermost surfaces to hand molecules of water to the larger molecules of diatomic nitrogen and oxygen for them to carry it away, reversing the process that deposited it last night. The water molecules are even shaped like birds, winging away to join the flocks in the sky.
I feel the ripples of time like the grass feels the microcurrents of wind that buffer it from the onshore breeze. I cannot resist. I peek above the time-ripples and roll a portion of my awareness back to a ruddy sunrise, the nearest one to the arbitrary here/now of the meadow containing my warming puppet, not much more than an hour distant. I drop back into the grass with the rest of me before I lose my will to follow linearity. Or worse, shear into multiples.
It is tedious. I feel an enormous temptation to shout the entire meadow dry, startling the water into the air like a gunshot sends a flock of starlings aloft. But the sudden fog might draw attention. And the entire point of this exercise is to relearn patience.
A quarter of an hour is an unendurable eternity. Twenty minutes. Another five or ten. I sit my puppet upright. Draw its feet under it, or him, as it used to be many years ago, and compel it to stand.
Its mouth was sewn shut around a cloth bag of various odds and ends ages ago as well, so the pantomimed yawn (covering its mouth with the back of the left hand) and skyward stretch of the right is comedy gold. But there might be spectators watching, morning joggers and others for whom this distant verisimilitude would be useful for not setting off otherness alarms. It looks natural. It feels natural. After all, once upon a time, embedded in time, I used to steer this puppet from the inside. Call it sentimentality, but I have a small preference for not having my handiwork, and my one-time home, shredded by a panicked mob.
Home is a dimly lit expanse of cold rocky sand on a miles-broad ledge on a high mesa. The air is unnatural thick soup of argon, neon, nitrogen, oxygen, water vapor, carbon dioxide, and a lovely tinge of methane and ammonia that gets worse as one climbs higher. Out here, halfway down the slopes, people come out and breathe it on purpose, seeking their own level of balance between remaining functional and giddy, stupefying inert gas narcosis. Miles further down are the ponderous waves of the slow-motion ocean that splash and gnaw at even the highest slopes. Gravity is high, but the dense soup provides plenty of buoyancy. Outside on the ledge any tiny child speaks with a creepy basso profondo that carries for miles.
“Earthlike” said the brochure more than two hundred years ago. “Earthlike” on a cosmic scale leaves abundant room for nuance. “Breathable atmosphere” it boasted, referring, as it turned out, to a vaguely half-mile-thick layer granting access to a couple of percent of the unsubmerged surface, not pointing out that the layer can shift up or down by a couple of miles over the course of three or four days at the whim of demonic weather driven by the tidal forces of a massive speed-demon moon. Many, many liberties were taken with the word “breathable.” Breathable, maybe, alternately by hyperoxy or laugher euphoriacs who bring their drum clubs out to the very edge of the ledge to be licked by the icy, syrupy salt spray from the growling sea, booming away in call and response to the distant ocean’s own rhythms, each group competing to see which can best commune with the spirit of this place.
Speaking of, there’s something alive in the water. Or maybe the water itself is alive. How do you draw a line between a snail and its shell? Certainly it’s not currents or tides that makes the plumes of water reach our shelf, or even higher. This ocean is even more like unbound cytoplasm than the samples of the seas we brought here from Earth for comparison.
At least the ledge is warm, balmy and unchanging all year long. This place has no seasons.
Eight generations it took to arrive still alive to our little outpost in the afterlife, gradually drifting the gravity, the air mixture, and the lighting to try to ease the shock of arrival. We had to change our target points a hundred times in the course of our trip as we got better ideas of where we would have to settle on Earth’s “twin” and what the blue starlight would look like filtered through clouds of ammonia and methane crystals, strobed by very impressive lightning. We sang like whales to one another down the hallways through the muck we tried to learn to breathe. We were insane to the level of our constituent cells by the time we got here and snaked down the cable for the elevator. Two generations have been born here, and the youngest still have attacks of uncontrollable laughing and terrifying hallucinations.
Every ten or twenty years or so after we left Earth was supposed to lob a care package out after us, strung out on a line behind us like beads. We should have gotten two or three of them by now. Info updates on scientific advancements we wouldn’t have the resources to discover ourselves. Third and fourth priority seed banks. Chocolate and coffee, just in case. Letters from family left behind. None of them have shown up.
Last time I took the week-long ride up the lift, I went straight to the observatory, like everyone else does, and looked at the scope-image of old Sol, 295 years in this world’s past. The people there, if there still are any, won’t spot the light from our landing flare for another 245 years. And from their view it took us 350 years to get here. From ours, it was about half that. The light we see is still T+200 years or so, but we’re long past the range of being able to discern any kind of intelligent signal against the background. We are alone and cut off.
Why are we even here?
The oldest of us are great-great-grandchildren of anyone who signed up for this voluntarily. Even if we refitted and fueled up and high-tailed it home, it would be our own descendants trying to make sense of whatever it was they found there, the better part of a thousand years after the last word from them we ever heard, less a few hundred years of time dilation. On the path things were on, even a hundred years could make for incomprehensible changes. For all we know, they worked out FTL travel and have agents here ahead of us that we’ve yet to find. For all we know, civilization collapsed completely and any contemplation of space travel is taboo, and we are near-forgotten myths at best.
And now that we are here, the ocean reaches higher for this ledge than it does anywhere else on the planet, far higher than it ever did in our surveys before we came down. Once every couple of weeks someone jumps — but there’s no way they could make it out far enough to hit the water before they hit the sloping cliff-face below. Every couple of weeks a small team suits up and rappels down to retrieve a body, successful as often as not. Sometimes the jumper times it right when a surge comes up to grope at the edge, and maybe, just maybe, the ocean accepts its gift and carries it back down to its bosom.
Forty years. A thousand jumpers. Five hundred corpses retrieved and processed and fed to the gardens. Five hundred lost, too far down to find or recover, or perhaps dissolved into the frigid soup. Maybe all of that reaching up of the surge is an attempt to grab a few more. Or put back the ones we have given it.
I am the first one the sea ever gave back.
Keep your fist to the ground and your ear to the grindstone. I have no idea what you’re supposed to do with your nose. It can’t be comfortable or healthy. But keep all your arrows sharp and the shafts tightly curved so they come back to you when you launch them. Test them on your skin and feed them your blood so they’ll know where home is.
That’s how you endure criticism — be your own worst enemy and so self-absorbed that no one else could ever do worse damage to you than your own contortions. Keep a live hive of bees in your chest and kick yourself from time to time to keep them angry. If any honey drips out of your various wounds, let it leave an undisturbed trail behind you.
You are made of angry bees, a walking waxwork in the shape of a wasp. The buzzing fills you with secret messages from white-noise voices and booty-shake dances reminding you of distant flowers. Somewhere in there is a queen, pampered and protected, dutifully laying eggs, waiting to be surprised with a battle to the death with a newer, sexier model. The new replacement is already squirming in one of the thousands of honeycomb cells in your brain, squirming with all the other identical larvae, being fed special poisons by traitors in the internal ranks.
Your hive is a single animal, animal. That’s what it’s like to live in a brain made out of meat in a body made out of meat. A thousand buzzing, booty-shaking voices. Which of them is your “me”?
You can feel the buzzing at the back of your skull and in your teeth, can’t you? How can you stand it?
Oh, that’s right. You can’t.
This is why you need me. I’m the only one who can outvote them all with a stinging slap. I’m the one who can unscramble your metaphors and straighten your arrows. I bend your bow and string it and keep it firmly in your grip.
I know you hate it. But look at all we’ve accomplished, just today. You’ve written three pages of lyrics. You fed yourself a bowl of kibbles and got dressed and left the house. You bought a ten-dollar cigar because you’ve never had one. You bought and brought home six neon tetras and a pleco to repopulate the tank you’ve let die twice now, and they’re floating in their little baggies, acclimating. You bought six boxes of ammo for the 30-30 and a pack of 50 paper targets for the look of it. You even remembered all on your own that you needed fuel for the Zippo.
I even made you put down the newspaper you were going to buy, because no one needs to get caught up on current events the same day they buy 120 rounds for a rifle. That would have been irresponsible. Keep all seven fish alive for a week and I’ll let you get a paper.
Four pounds of fresh cherries was a much better buy, considering you’re on food stamps and a disability pension.
Do you remember where you were when you drank from the well of forgetting? Thirty miles from a river bed that’s been dry for thousands of years, pockets full of dirt rich in ancient anthrosols and spent hulls from seeds that haven’t been used to fuel humanity in the region for more than twice thirty centuries, no sign of any of the rest of your platoon, no dog tags, name and all identifying badges ripped from your BDUs, beltless and barefoot and a bit more than thirty pounds too skinny. Thirty weeks missing from duty, not quite thirty years missing from your memory.
Helpful people locked you up for a little while, gave you a name, and mercifully decided you’d been kidnapped and that you’d managed to escape. They gave you a box of stuff they said was yours, and medical discharge papers, and sent you “home” to where no one knew you and you knew no one. And they gave you to me, chock full of little buzzing bees.
And no way to tell which of them is the old you, or even the current you, or which of them is me.
It’s cold, and the grass is wet with dew. I keep the drifting mist at eye-level. Tall wet grasses stick to me, painting me with dew-slime and wet seeds. The sun may be peeking above some horizon somewhere, cooking off the mists and fogs, but it isn’t here. The sky is still rubbing the sleep from its eyes, not sure what colors it’s going to wear today. When it finally decides, it won’t be dressing for me. I don’t look up.
I’m shivering so hard it hurts all over. My teeth chatter. I try keeping myself off the ground on just my hands and feet, and that’s much colder than crouching down with my knees and elbows crushing the grass. I get low and clench up like a stone beneath the mist. I feel dew rolling down my back. I am naked except for dew and grass seeds. I feel the shivering eventually start to abate, unsure whether my core is warming up or if it’s hypothermia setting in. My hands and feet are like stone, like metal. I can’t feel them.
Away ahead there is a rustle. A hare in the grass, or maybe something smaller. I envy the thought of moisture-repellent fur. Also I am hungry. The idea of trying to run down a hare amuses a bit more than the conceit of trying to breakfast on grass or grass seeds, and even abject failure would warm me up. But so would waiting for the touch of the sun, should it ever get here.
Every morning I wake up naked in a different place. In a dead-man’s float on a sluggish river. On a rocky beach in a salt-water mangrove, complete with crocodiles. Stretched on cold stone cut by forgotten ancestors. Covered in ants on the edge of a desert. Belowdecks on a deserted boat in an unknown ocean. On a cinder-covered slope below a smoking volcano. Curled among the enormous roots of trees that rise through two tiers of rainforest canopy. On the guano-tiled floor of a cave halfway up a cliff I could neither ascend or descend. On the salted shore of a dead lake. Fifty yards away from the edge of a huge flaming portal to an unknown hell, a literal lake of fire. Underground in a tomb of stone and earth. On a broken rain-washed sidewalk in a busy city where everyone speaks in a strange language. On a rough bed in a jail cell. On a broad girder of an unconstructed skyscraper among unfamiliar skylines.
Some days I eat. Some days I don’t. I am always hungry. It doesn’t seem to make a difference.
Most of the time I draw my name wherever I can, or rearrange stones, or do my best to cut a mark I might recognize if I were to ever happen across it again. Sometimes I find marks left by others. Some I almost recognize. Some I wonder if they are marks I will leave in the future — have left in the future? — but I rarely find anything that counts toward being an answer I can make sense of. Sometimes all I have to go on is a familiar set of smells. An arrangement of trees. Sounds from birds or distant rumbles of industrial equipment. Footprints of predators or prey. An occasional tuft of down or a pin-feather. Striations in layered rocks carved by a swift-moving river.
I’ve gone days, weeks, not making any marks, not drawing my name, not making a sound of any kind in case that’s the spell that’s trapping me in this … this … whatever this is. Nothing changes, except everything, every time I go to sleep in exhaustion and wake up elsewhere. My eyes start to close, and I look up, and the trees or building or clouds or stars overhead wheel drunkenly.
And then I wake up. Cold. Hungry. Chasing the hare.
It’s cream of human soup.
It’s a hot tub. You’re in a hot tub. Quite possibly you just had sex. I hope you don’t mind.
And that’s a ball gag in your mouth. There’s a buckle for it around your right ear. Not that you can reach it at the moment.
It really just keeps you from speaking out loud. You can talk to me here, in your head.
Heh. Just kidding. Right now I have all of your words.
I need you to think about something for a moment. It might not seem important to you right now. That’s understandable. But the water is warm, not too hot, and soothing. Just relax for a bit and listen. As opposed to flipping out, lurching out into the cold, and, I don’t know, kicking your way through whatever obstacles and running down the road mostly naked in the freezing cold. It’s warm in this frying pan. Who knows what fate the fire would have for you? Just, you know, simmer down. And listen to me.
Think about mitochondria.
Seriously. Remember back as far as you need to. High school biology. Remember the model. Back to when the methane-and-sulfur-laden ocean was basically a single-celled creature twenty-five thousand miles in circumference. Self-replicating chemistry … replicated. Membranes were few and far between. All things were shared. All things. Even after membranes formed, they were permeable. Rupturing and reforming. The sea, the only sea, was cytosol. Eventually inside and outside formed, as a bilipd concept, some combination of structure and waste. Like seashells for mollusks, but quite a bit before then. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
If the words aren’t very familiar to you right now, just look at the pictures. And remember. You passed the damned tests, so that information is in here somewhere. Let the images form. Let them click together. And stop trying to shift the ball. You’re just going to hurt your tongue and bruise your lips on the strap.
The single-celled creatures we have now are hugely sophisticated compared to what things were like at the beginning. Even the humble amoeba is a huge city of interlocking networked systems, each separate molecule a tax-paying citizen making up individual organelles, captured from the grab-bag oceanic cytoplasm, on this scale. Once upon a time all of those organelle functions existed, inside and outside the membranes, as separate cooperating and competing and conflicting near-organisms. What was missing was a little organization. As puddles dried up and reformed, as pockets got encapsulated by rock and ice and heated and cooled, as some critical resource or other got scarce as things cranked along, as metabolic poisons concentrated in confined spaces, then alliances formed. Golgi apparati, lysosomes, endoplasmic reticuli (smooth and rough), nuclei, nucleoli, centrioles, autophagosomes, hydrogenosomes, peroxisomes … and mitochondria. Alliances formed. Either by capture or cooperation. These things happen.
Still do, four billion years later. Tasty lumps of human in cream of human soup. Just like you, here. Captured. Compelled. Stewing in your juices. Someone’s juices, anyway.
Allies. Slaves. Tools. Livestock. Bits of machinery, tools, weapons. Now in individually wrapped packages.
Mitochondria make it obvious, under a microscope. Those are little bacteria. They have their own separate DNA. They replicate on their own separate cycle. Rumor has it that they actually control much of what happens in their little host cells. They store and release energy and signaling chemistry. Sodium atom forklifts that push and pull molecules in the cytoplasm. Proteins for turning gene segments on and off.
Who would you be without them?
Right. Without them supplying energy and direction, you wouldn’t even be multicellular. You’d be a stack of squabbling amoebas, devouring one another for the energy it takes to keep living, continually swimming around in search of food. Short-lived, replicating madly, living and dying in bursts. Dying out, most likely, like everything else jockeying for a sweet spot in the food chain. They allow for settling down, for farming and agriculture, for working together, for organizing, for structure. For civilization. For organism.
Don’t think that I am singling mitochondria out for anything more than the analogy. Plants get by just fine without them. They have chloroplasts for energy instead, for photosynthesis. That sort of thing is fabulous as long as you have a kindly sun. I’ll admit I’m biased. The sun is four or five billion years old already, at half its useful lifespan. Plants should be seriously considering other options by now, but you know they’ll put it off to the last minute.
It’s good to see that you’re calmer now. Am I boring you? Putting you to sleep?
“…! … ….”
Just checking. Yes, you should be keeping an ear out. Right now your adrenaline is suitably high and your little heart is beating like a fawn’s when the wind brings the scent of catamount.
Keeping the organelle image in mind, I want you to think of something else at the same time. Here are some words. They should be familiar.
Ib. Sheut. Ren. Ba. Khat. Ka. Do you remember? The multipart organism posited by the Egyptians.
Ib, the heart, the conscience. The bite of Eve’s apple, lodged in the thorax, to be judged for its grasp of good and evil and efficacy at explaining it to the rest of the anatomy, to be preserved for later, if light enough, or fed to Ammut the Gobbler, the garbage collector, Tawaret in her crocodile mask, for purification and recycling into the bodies of future children.
Sheut, the shadow, the shape on the ground, the shape made by the air around you, the cast, the representation, the echo made by light and sound and footprint and the written word.
Ren, the name, the tiny crowbar that lets you fit neatly and instantly in your entirety into the head of another until the holographic echoes attenuate.
Ba, the … me. The problem solver, the thought, the memory. The plotter, the planner, the judge, the king, the sinner, the sacrificer.
Khat, the meat, the bone, the blood, the fat, the animal machine, the beautiful sculpture, the temple, the house. As much as a line can be drawn, even in this unnatural dissociated state, the you, my beautiful little fawn.
Ka, the mystery, the slap that makes the baby cry. The winding of the watch, the greased downhill slope of time. Insertion into the light-cone, the causal domain. The meshing of the gears.
How many of these things had independent existence in the cyto-salt ocean until alliances formed? How many of these can exist, at least for a while, without the cooperation of the rest? Are there alternate forms of ib or ba or khat the way that mitochondria and chloroplasts fill one another’s shoes?
Why aren’t there ever questions like that, important questions, at the end of a textbook chapter?
Cream of human soup.
Look, I need you to die.
You can do it so easily, MDMA- and ketamine-saturated, over-adrenalized. You’re nine-tenths there. Closer than that. I need the ka so I can form an akh, a … ghost, I guess. A spirit body. Something effective that can get us out of this trap. I need to get at time directly, something to give us a microscopic kick downslope.
I could just wait, you know, but then there would be less point. If you die ahead of time, before your time, there’s a chance that the injustice will right itself and I can come back to you. And I don’t want to wander alone. Not yet. Not without the parts I am leaving behind.
You keep the ren, the sheut. They will give me away. You keep the ib as well. Work out the reason for that alone, if you will. And if I screw this up, I will be a demon, a monster, until I am expelled into the blackness. And you will be smashed and broken, but blameless.
“…! …! …!”
“…!! ! !”
Now wake up.
Timeloose, I caused a candle to tip twenty minutes ago. Smoke from a smoldering tablecloth, an altarcloth, has trapped him in his bed, and his khat will not rise. And I have marked his heart. I have left hooks in his name.
But we ought to leave before he pulls the rest of himself together, if you know what I am saying.
When we are safe, when you are sleeping in a bed again, I will lay a trap for what remains and feed him to Ammut.
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This One Time, 25
This one time I was at a rock concert with my boyfriend of the hour. I wasn’t really into the band, but it was an excuse to spend an hour or two dressing up and making every effort to look hot in front of everyone who might be watching, and it’s not like there was […]
- This One Time, 25
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