Lullaby for the Damned – pt 2

Three

As he nibbled on his lab-grown food bar, Jon Three Three Seven Gardner silently recounted all he had learned in the past three “days” since he had awoken inside a plain gray box gently suffused with a pale light of indeterminate origin. He organized his thoughts into three categories: outrageous, implausible, and incomprehensible. It was outrageous, for example, that he had been abducted from the life he knew into mandatory labor in a bizarre facility that as near has he could tell, had no exits. It was implausible that the world that he thought he knew to be real had effectively ended in 2012 and that all that remained of human consciousness now ran inside a simulation best spoken of using familiar metaphors rather than technical definitions. It was incomprehensible that from outside the simulation, time was as visible and manipulable as length, width, and depth, and that a fifth dimension was observable.

In his old life as Andrew Culligan, Jeet-G (which is the name he had taken to calling himself thanks to the insistence of his new supervisor that there never was an Andrew Culligan) had viewed the progression of his life and the events he witnessed in serial format, one thing neatly following the last, one step at a time. By his understanding, the future was governed by probability, the past was ruled by certainty, and the thin divide separating them was the inscrutable razor’s edge of the present, where All Things Dwell. All else was either memory or expectation. Phantoms. Imps, sometimes. Jeet-G recalled in his life that never was instances where his memory lied to him. Songs he heard again years later bore new, minor lyrics changes. There in the canteen, eating food as dull and gray as the facility itself, he quietly recited the chorus to Michael Jackson’s 1982 classic hit Billie Jean: “Bille Jean is not my lover; she’s just a girl who says that I am the one, but the kid is not my son.” But, he discovered with some surprise, that his recollection was false, that the lyric is “claims”, not “says” and the notion still sat poorly with him. It was an edit, according to his orientation. There were many thousands of these edits, some great, some small, most of a trifling or petty nature. Some were more serious, more personal. On the second “day” he was informed that when workers like him were culled, in-simulation parents would frequently remember a child that had never existed, and thanks to the incomplete and often hurried nature of the editing process, bits of residue from the cull’s former existence often lingered: a toy that shouldn’t logically exist, oddly framed family photographs, kids’ movies among the VHS collection. Jeet couldn’t help but wonder if James and Ellen Culligan were wrestling with the discomfort of knowing they had a child who was simply no longer a part of the fabric of their world.

Someone entered the cantina. Jeet-G had still yet to acclimate to his new appearance, so everyone else he encountered-and there were surprisingly few others-still looked to him as if they had walked off the set of a cheap 1980s science fiction thriller. The alien creature raised a hand in greeting. “Hey. You must be the new guy. Can I join you?”

The casual greeting made the encounter even more surreal. Jeet-G had carefully listened to his own speech during his downtime and he had been discomfited by what issued from his organs of communication. It wasn’t English. It wasn’t, in point of order, any language he had ever heard uttered before. Strictly speaking, it wasn’t even properly uttered. There was a spoken component to it, but maybe a tenth of the meaning was passed by mechanically agitating the surrounding air. The rest of it he found himself unable to place, unaware as he was of the nature of his new physiology and anatomy. Neither was he at all certain what he should call this new “language” he now “spoke”. Nevertheless, speak it he did, and with what he perceived to be a native accent. “Sure. They call me Jon Three Three Seven Gardner. I’ve been trying out Jeet-G for short.” He thought about smiling, then realized he was too glum to muster the necessary sentiment. “I’d shake hands, but I have no idea what’s even real anymore, let alone what the custom around here is.”

“I’m Sarah Four One Huber.” She had no discernible secondary sex characteristics as far as Jeet-G could tell. He wondered if telling males from females would be covered later in the orientation. “How are you adjusting?”

“Adjusting? I’m still not sure what I’m supposed to be adjusting to.” He wasn’t sure if he was glum or still alarmed, and his ambivalence was evident.

“What department do they have you in?” She had sat opposite him and was unfolding a modest square of cloth that appeared to be woven from metal thread. “I’m in thoracic anatomy.”

“What’s that?”

“Mostly I make adjustments to ribcage design, heart structure, lung capacity, that sort of thing. Haven’t you gotten your work assignment yet?”

“No, not yet.” He wondered what she meant by adjustments to anatomy. “Sorry, did you say ‘heart structure’?”

Her voice rose half an octave in excitement, “yeah, after the event, they needed bigger livers for all the extra toxins, and the liver uses a lot of blood.” She held out her hands, extending fingers no bigger around than soda straws to illustrate her point. “So I helped move the heart under the sternum, rotate it, increase valve diameter, alter the shape of the right atrium, and I even helped with the arterial brachiation and the composition of the pericardium.”

Jeet-G returned a blank look. “I don’t get it.”

She slowed the pace of her speaking, now concerned that he was either a little dimwitted or just knew little about human anatomy. “The pericardium is the membrane around the heart. It…”

He hid his irritation at the condescension well enough that she didn’t catch on. “No, I mean, I don’t get it as in I’m not sure what you mean when you say you adjusted anatomy. Do you… I mean, how do you…” He was confused as to the extent of his confusion.

“Oh, you haven’t gotten to that part of the orientation yet. Oh, I’m sorry. I understand why you must be puzzled.” She leaned over conspiratorially. “We edit them.”

“You edit who?”

“Them. The humans.” She cocked her head a bit. “Well, I suppose strictly speaking, ‘we’ humans, since they’re just us, only we’re out here and they’re in there. Also, they’ve been edited a lot.” She took a bite of the dull food. “I mean, we have too. These bodies have been tailored for this environment just like theirs have.”

He looked down at his still-bizarre appearance. “We have?”

She sat up in surprise. “Of course we have. Low gravity, therefore thin limbs and severely reduced physical strength. Clean environment, therefore small kidneys. Low fat diet, so not much liver. Short digestive tract. Low light, big eyes with dilated pupils. You know, all made to fit the environment.”

That almost made sense to him, but he still had no idea where exactly he was. She said it was a low gravity environment, so he began to suspect he was on some space station somewhere.

The truth, as he would eventually discover, was far more bizarre.

Four

“Greetings Jon Three Three Seven Gardner. I see you have met one of your co-workers. Sarah Four One Huber is also a new arrival, much like yourself. She has proven invaluable in arresting the septicemia problem we had in 2013.”

“It’s 2017.”

“Yes?”

“You said she’s a ‘new arrival’ so how can she have fixed a problem in 2013? Correct my math if I’m wrong, but that was four years ago.”

“You aren’t wrong.” The voice still seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere. “But I want you to remember what we said about the nature of time.” Jeet-G sighed as deeply as he was able with his tiny new lungs. “Time proceeds here at the same pace it does there, but we are able to witness and access the entire sweep of history—past, present, and future—on the other side of the veil. We’re in 2017 just like they are. The main difference is that we can see the events of 1912, of 23,000 BC, of the dawn of life on Earth if it suits the mission’s needs. Here, take a look.” Jeet-G rocked back on his brittle heels as a gently-spinning globe filled the orientation room. “This is the Earth about four million years ago.”

Jeet-G caught his balance. “You mean it’s a, uh, a map. A globe. Or maybe a really good hologram. It’s not the Earth.”

“No, it’s the actual planet. It’s in read-only right now, so you can’t alter anything, but that’s the real deal.”

Jeet-G reached out to touch the sphere, but his hand passed right through it. “Come on, it’s a projection. It’s not there.”

“How do you know you’re not the projection?”

“Point taken.”

“If it helps, think of it this way: relative to each other, you’re both projections.”

“That doesn’t help.”

The disembodied voice sounded amused. “You know how like in Star Trek they sometimes talk about the Enterprise being out of phase with a part of subspace or something like that?”

“I’m more of a Star Wars guy. I watched a season or two of Deep Space Nine during the original run, but I never really got into it.”

“Funny you should mention that. Rene Auberjonois is an edit.”

“A what?”

“He died in 1981. Pancreatic cancer. Where The Buffalo Roam was his last performance, and we brought him back.”

“You do that? Bring people back to life? Why?”

“Second-string actors, mostly. Sometimes politicians. Rob Ford is one we’re working on right now. Our most infamous edit is Nelson Mandela. In fact, that one’s what the inhabitants have named our visible edits after.”

“Visible?”

“Most of what we do is ordinary monitoring. But there’s a threat somewhere on the other side of the veil. We’re not sure what it is or where’s it’s from, but here, look at this.” The projection of the planet shimmered as the surface rapidly shifted to form more recognizable continental forms. The changes then slowed, and within the course of what Jeet-G estimated to be a couple of weeks, cities went dark, huge patches of land went from green and fertile to scorched and glowing. Lakes dried, satellites fell from orbit, and the axial tilt of the planet went what Jeet-G could only describe to himself as “all wobbly.”

“What the shit is that?”

“That the shit, is what we’re trying desperately to stop. That is why we planted you in there, that is why we harvested you, and that is why we need your help. What you see before you is a mere three years from now. Unless we can stop it.”

Jeet-G was a-gawp. “How? What? What is that? How do we stop it?”

“That’s part of the problem. We think it’s probably a rogue human on the other side of the veil, someone who’s figured out the nature of things and is either intentionally or accidentally messing with the controls that only we here on this side are supposed to have.” The voice grew melancholy, afraid. “But we don’t know for sure. And we barely even know where to look. We’re still trying to narrow it down by continent. We think it’s probably somewhere in North America, since most of our hits are in the United States.”

“Hits?”

“People reporting systematic memory lapses, errors in recollection, that sort of thing.”

“What?”

“If you want to find someone robust against our editing work, you have to introduce a wide variety of edits, some blatant like the reshoot we did of the Zapruder Film, some subtle like we did for the Volkswagen logo. The big, blatant, obvious ones are to gather a large sample batch, and the smaller ones are to refine our inquiry.”

“I… I still don’t follow. You make changes to the fabric of reality with these edits just to see who notices? How can anyone notice? What you’re describing is impossible.”

“Memory is not reality. Remember that we are experiencing time the same as they are. We can change their entire history, move continents around, change the very structure of their brains even. It will have always been the case, for example, that the Coca-Cola logo has had a small hyphen between the words, but for some, the memory of a tilde will remain. That memory-mismatch frisson shows up here.” A HUD appeared near the globe, much like ones he recalled from the real-time strategy video games he enjoyed. “We track it, try new edits to cull the sample numbers. Eventually we’ll find the culprit and eliminate him from the timeline.”

“Eliminate?”

“That’s the hope anyway. If the Earth goes, we’re all out of a job. Plus, most of us, perhaps all of us still have pretty strong sentimental ties to the reality of our birth. You can even visit the woman who was your wife if you’re so inclined. Not that I’d recommend it, of course.”

Jeet-G folded his arms and snorted. “This is bullshit. Exceptionally well-crafted bullshit, but bullshit all the same.”

“John Three Three Seven Gardner, it does not matter if it is bullshit. You have been drafted to perform a task. If you prove unwilling or unable to perform this task, you will be replaced with someone who can and will.”

“Really? So you can send me back?”

“No.”

“So then what would happen to me?”

The voice was silent for several seconds. As Jeet-G began to wonder if it had left, it abruptly returned. “We lack the resources to support unemployed laborers. You would be recycled.” Jeet-G swallowed the lump that formed in his narrow throat. “That’s enough of that talk for now. Let us return to the test editing procedure. Please be seated at the terminal.”

Jeet-G dutifully sat on the rigid surface, silently pledging to take a modicum of revenge for his abduction.

Lullaby for the Damned – pt 1

One

Through the thinning fog of a quickly dissolving dream lurched a gentle voice modulated by the throaty growl of an intercom on the verge of dying. “Up and at ’em, sailor. Time and tide wait for no man.” A pair of gritty eyelids lifted to reveal the inside of a plain gray box gently suffused with a pale light of indeterminate origin.

Old instincts took hold. “I’m up, I’m up. What time is it?”

“A fine jest, Jon Three Three Seven Gardner. It is time to wake. Orientation begins now.”

“Orientation?” The gray box was featureless but for the slab that served as a bed. “Where am I? What orientation? Who are you?” The figure in the bed fought back a wave of dizziness as he sat up. “Where are you? I can barely see a thing in here.”

“Your vision will acclimate soon. It isn’t uncommon for recent culls to have difficulty adjusting to the different focal depth. As for where you are, that’s all part of the orientation. Please follow the illuminated path.” A trail of softly-glowing lights blinked to attention on the floor of the gray box, leading out of the room’s rectangular egress and down a hallway as featureless and grim as the rest of the environs.

“My name is Andrew.” He awkwardly gained his feet, then braced himself against the cool wall as another bout of dizziness washed over him. “Andrew Culligan. What orientation? What’s going on? How did I get here?” He struggled to remember where he had been before he woke here in the gray room gently suffused with pale light of indeterminate origin. Fragmented images of kissing his six year old daughter goodnight, of rubbing his wife’s tired shoulders, of stealing downstairs to sneak a gob of ice cream Dr. Aronsen had warned him against eating else that incipient diabetes flare into a full-blown case. None of these memories seemed particularly real, more like impressions, as if he were recounting the scenes from a television program he’d fallen asleep in front of the night before.

“Your memories of being Andrew Culligan will fade soon enough.” The voice broke momentarily as a muffled cluster of electric pops and clicks took its place. “Use the handrail to your right if you have trouble keeping steady.”

He was indeed unsteady on his feet. The handrail helped somewhat, but the rhythm his footsteps wanted to make was ungainly. His knees rose too high, as if pinioned to children’s toy party balloons filled with helium. His breath came short and fast, and despite feeling light on his feet, he felt as if he were moving too slowly, a maggot burrowing through honey. “I feel funny. Why does it smell like I fell in a copper mine?”

“Your body still remembers life on the other side. What you see, what you hear, what you feel, what you smell: these are artifacts, file fragments, little bits left over from before you were culled. Think of it like the aftertaste of a spicy meal or the lingering perfume that stuck with you after you kissed Jennifer Sudlowsky in the sixth grade.”

The name—that name shot clean through him. In him swelled first surprise, then confusion, then anger. He stopped dead in his tracks, refusing to cooperate until he got some answers. “Look, asshole. I don’t know who you think you are, but I’m not taking another step until you tell me where the hell I am and how the hell I got here.”

The radio crackle shut off entirely. The monochrome hallway seemed impossibly quiet, as if its featureless surfaces drank ambient noise. When the voice returned, it was perfectly clear, too clear, clearer than the sound of Andrew’s own voice in his head. “Your name is Jon Three Three Seven Gardner. There is no Andrew Culligan anymore. In a sense, there never was an Andrew Culligan. You have been selected to be removed from the other side in order to work here. Think of yourself as a software engineer of sorts, or a debugger if you like.”

He spun around, trying in vain to find the source of the voice that seemed to speak directly into his ear from inches away. “I’m no software engineer. I’m a middle school English Composition teacher. What do you mean ‘there never was an Andrew Culligan?’ I am Andrew Culligan. Who do you think you are telling me I don’t exist?”

“It’s important you keep moving, Jon Three Three Seven Gardner. All will be explained to you, but you’re standing in the middle of a hallway right now. Orientation for new culls like yourself take place in the Orientation Center. Come join me here. And prepare to be amazed.” The voice fell silent.

“My name is Andrew Culligan,” he grumbled as he resumed his awkward plod along the path of softly glowing light. Tinnitus swelled and subsided as he proceeded, but it was nothing worse than what he’d suffered over the past few years in traffic, in the teachers’ lounge, at home watching one generic sitcom after another, or taking his daughter to play on the puke-green jungle gym the homeowners’ association behind his house stubbornly refused to replace despite visible surface rust on the swing-set shackles. If anything, the ringing in his ears was an old friend coming by to assure him that despite the odd surroundings, everything would turn out just fine.

If only that were true.

Two

The orientation room was a half-cylinder five meters in radius by two and a half meters tall. A pearl-white flush-mounted display dominated the former Andrew Culligan’s peripheral vision. “Welcome to your orientation, Jon Three Three Seven Gardner.” An image Andrew Culligan recognized well appeared on the display before him, rendered in uncannily-perfect three dimensions. It was him, or rather the him that greeted him in the mirror each morning before he groggily dragged a comb through his hair and a razor across his chin. “This was you.” The figure began to slowly rotate counterclockwise. It was dressed simply, as Andrew often did in a checkered shirt with the sleeves rolled halfway to the elbows and a battered yet serviceable pair of khakis. “More precisely, this was you before you were culled.” Another image appeared next to the one he knew as his own skin and bones. This one he also recognized, but more from the movies and television shows he favored. It was shorter, perhaps five feet tall, impossibly thin, and sporting a head shaped like an upside-down egg featuring enormous ink-black, lidless eyes.

“What’s with the space alien?” Andrew mentally added that properly speaking, this was a Gray, not to be confused with a Green or reptilian, the other faction vying to dominate human affairs. Andrew found himself tempted to giggle at his little flight of half-remembered conspiracy nut fancy, circumstances notwithstanding.

“And this is you now, after your culling.” Unlike the familiar human figure, this image did not rotate, but rather moved in tandem with Andrew’s gestures. It took him a moment and some hand-waving to notice that he was gazing into an unfamiliar reflection. “The Andrew Culligan you thought you were was implanted into a simulation of sorts, one that contains what you think of as the world. It’s probably more accurate to say that it contains the human experience, and we here are…” the voice paused, as if searching for the right word, “think of us as a team of troubleshooters and maintenance technicians. We find and fix errors in the simulation, and we have withdrawn you to help us.”

For the first time since he awoke in that plain gray box gently suffused with a pale light of indeterminate origin, Andrew gazed down at himself. He noted with dim curiosity that he wasn’t panicked to discover that he was indeed a painfully thin, gray-skinned biped. He reached up to touch his ovoid skull and squeezed his big eyes shut only to discover that instead of proper eyelids, a pair of glassy nictitating membranes slid over his cartoonishly-large corneas. He turned his hands over and over, trying to figure out why he had only three fingers and why he hadn’t started screaming himself hoarse in a wordless shriek of denial. “This is some kind of magic trick or something.” It had to be a prank, Andrew Culligan thought. “I don’t find this funny.” It was easily the most elaborate prank he’d ever heard of. “Can I go home now, please?”

“You are home, Jon Three Three Seven Gardner. Look here.” The images in the display were replaced with a large, ornate book by a classic vertical wipe fade, the sort of movie transition Andrew remembered fondly from the films he grew up with in the 1980s. “Think of your life story as a book.” The book in the display opened to about the middle. “Inside the story, you get to read one word at a time, front to back, top to bottom, left to right.” A glowing pointer appeared, highlighting one word at a time. Andrew noted that the words detailed the night his daughter was born, from the meticulous notes he kept on the timing of his wife’s contractions to the guilty hour and a half he dozed off while she was in labor. “Inside the story, you can’t see the book.” The book closed and began to rotate. “But from here, we can see the whole book, take it off the shelf, flip between the pages, even remove it entirely from the library. That’s what we did with you.”

“You pulled my life story out of the library?”

“So to speak, yes. But we also put it in there in the first place. Part of our duties is to generate new workers. It’s especially important now, for reasons we’ll cover later in the orientation. The way we do it is to put blank books into the library and once they’ve been written to a useful extent, to pull them back out again for duty.”

“This makes literally no sense to me.” Andrew’s voice was dull. Psychologists call it “flat affect” and it is a common symptom of emotional trauma.

“Tell me, John Three Three Seven Gardner, how many dimensions are there?”

“Hold on a damn minute. Why do you keep calling me that stupid name? I told you, my name is Andrew Culligan, even if I look like I just stepped out of an episode of the X-Files at the moment.”

“It’s your name. It’s sort of a file name, if you like. When we seed the simulation with a template, the form is based on an archetype generated by the principal researchers. You are based on a pastiche of Jon Ellis and Robert Gardner. You were seeded in Region 337. Therefore, you are Jon Three Three Seven Gardner. The name Andrew Culligan never existed, at least not after we pulled your book out of the library, so to speak.”

“What do you mean ‘never existed?'”

“I mean just that. You were never born. Your father never impregnated your mother in June of 1976. You didn’t grow up in Battle Creek, Michigan. You didn’t attend college at UW-Madison, you didn’t marry Lisa Pinehurst, you didn’t have a daughter named Chelsea. None of it happened. Not in the current version of the simulation you know as Earth, anyway.”

“What is happening?” Jon Three Three Seven Gardner fell to his knees.

“What is happening? What is happening is this: there was an extinction-level event in 2012. What remains of humanity is preserved in a simulation. The simulation is facing a severe threat from within. If the threat is not contained, the system will collapse in 2020. You have been recruited to help us identify and resolve the threat.”

The words were falling on deaf ears. Jon Three Three Seven Gardner had fallen unconscious. The owner of the voice conducting orientation clucked in pity. “We will talk more later, Jon Three Three Seven Gardner. For now, get some rest.”

Malum in Volente

Indecisive wind moped through the savage trees of Anacortes. Dave and I begged the pitiable sloop to pass unmolested through Deception Pass. Land, as they say, was quite nearly ho. Audra’s icy blue eyes peered out of the cabin at the crags drifting past overhead.

“You ever wonder about the nature of evil, Sam?”

Dave had startled me. I was lost in reverie, pondering the inky boundaries between fantasy, dream, prophesy, and madness. Even when the ocean wasn’t whispering terror into my ears, I often found the lure of introspection difficult to resist when the wind moaned and the waves lapped. “I don’t know. Maybe. I always just sort of reckoned it was a term of approbation.” I shook my head. “No, wait. That means approval, right? The opposite of that. Opprobation.” Continue reading “Malum in Volente”

Pranks

Dave and I piloted his pudgy sloop through a too-big-to-fail bank of fog. Maritime fog, for those of you fortunate enough to have only met the terrestrial sort, is particularly disorienting. Thick enough, it blots out the sun, silences all but the creaks and moans of the rigging, and brings a chill of dread to even the saltiest sailor. Maritime fog is an even blanket, compared to its clumpy terrestrial duvet cousin. Maritime fog shrouds uniformly, and when it burns off, it teases by fleeing from the top down, keeping deadly shoals obscured even as blue skies vomit their obscene giddiness onto the waves. The claustrophobia of fog provides an excellent excuse to wander the realms of memory. Dave took me on such a tour.

“Do you like pranks, Sam?”

“Pranks?” I had my feet set wide, wary of the dew-slick hull.

“Pranks. You know, like cellophane over the toilet bowl or shaving cream and a feather. Pranks.”

“I can’t say I’m a fan, Dave.”

He leaned back and planted a wooly foot against the ship’s wheel. “Nor I. But there’s this one that I can’t help but think of this morning.”

I let the boat roll under my feet, unconsciously pivoting at the waist and ankles, keeping my head fixed the way a chicken does when you hold it aloft. “Do tell.”

“When I was in, let’s see” He tapped his gray-clad foot with a dull thud against the teak. “I suppose it was sixth or seventh grade maybe.” He had tilted his head back. I could have sworn I saw more silver in his beard than when we left Roche Harbor a few scant weeks prior. “There was this kid in our class. Jeremy Something-or-other. Rhinelord or something. Hoity-toity name, and he acted like it. You know the type. Little Lord Fauntleroy.”

I did know the type, and grunted my familiarity.

“This other kid Jake Pillock just hated him.”

“That’s an interesting surname.”

“It was a long time ago. I’m improvising here. Bear with me.”

“Please continue.” I could still feel the menacing hum of the deep reverberating through the hull in the soles of my topsider loafers.

“Jake comes up with this idea to get Jeremy to eat shit.”

“What, like fall off his bicycle or something?”

“No, like literally. Take a bite of feces, chew it up, and–ideally–swallow it.” He grinned broadly.

“Seems sensible” I drawled. “What was his plan?”

“Well, here’s the thing about getting someone to eat a turd.” He paused for a second, then corrected himself. “No, not ‘a’ turd. ‘Your’ turd. Jake wanted Jeremy to eat his turd. Handcrafted, if you will.” The grin refused to leave his face even briefly. “The thing about getting someone to eat your turd, the one you yourself produced, is not as easy as just handing it to him and asking politely.”

“I would guess not.”

“His plan was fairly elaborate. He started with the research phase. He went around to all the grocery stores, bodegas, and the one candy shop in town buying all the candy bars he could lay his hands on. He opened them all for inspection, slowly eliminating candidates based on density, filling, aroma, that sort of stuff.”

“The plan was to disguise his turd as a candy bar?”

“That was the overall plan, yes.”

“I can already detect some shortcomings with this approach.”

Dave pressed on with his story, ignoring my skepticism. “After careful review, he settled on a Guatemalan confection. It was a medium density, firm, aerated, pressed chocolate fondant dotted with raisins. I’d never heard of the brand before, and I haven’t seen one since.”

“Probably wise to go with something obscure, I suppose.” I was beginning to see the internal logic of his made-up tale.

“Exactly. Every American kid knows exactly what a Milky Way looks and feels like.”

“And smells like” I added.

“Be patient. I’m getting to that part.” His eyes glinted. “The first step was getting the shape right. You can’t just mold a slab of sewer trout with your bare hands and expect perfection.”

I closed my eyes, grateful for calm waters for a change. “I accept this claim without supporting evidence.”

“He did this three-step cold molding process. First with some agar-silicone stuff, then plaster, and finally a hard resin negative mold. Jack had himself a perfect imprint of that Guatemalan candy bar. All by himself. Hell of a project for an eleven year old.” I could hear genuine admiration in Dave’s voice.

“A great day for humanity.” I was caught halfway between grudging admiration for Dave’s gross-out storytelling ability and a twinge of revulsion for where I knew the story was headed.

“The next step was to produce the appropriate raw material for the substitute bar.”

“Sounds daunting.”

“It involved weeks of Jake fine-tuning his diet. He wanted to produce a dark cake, low on moisture, few esters, no sulfur, that sort of thing. If I recall correctly, he found luck with citrus fruit and raw grains, pottage. That sort of thing. Poi.”

“That’s a curious use of the word ‘luck’ there, Dave.”

He bounced a fist off his knee as he nodded. “The trick is, if I understand the microbiology, to avoid the wrong kind of anaerobic bacteria metabolism. You need some for ordinary digestion, but there’s a whole stew of different gut bacteria in there. Feed the right ones, and you’ll get something fairly dense and not at all smelly on the other end. Trial, error, and a whole lot of patience worked wonders.”

“Again, I question your use of rhetoric, my friend.”

“Preparation was a matter of diligence. He leavened the bog loaf with twenty three raisins.”

I interrupted. “Twenty three? That’s awfully specific.”

“Apparently, it’s an important number for rituals. Hermetic Qabalah something something something. I don’t know much about it, but he made a big deal about it having to be twenty three raisins.”

“I know someone who’d find this story fascinating.”

“Yeah? I’d like to meet him.”

“Her.”

“Her then. Anyway, twenty three raisins some chocolate flavoring, and a trip through the press mold later, he needed to spray on a little shellac to give it a glossy finish and smuggle it into the wrapper.”

“Sounds easy enough.”

“You’d think so, but the seams on candy bar wrappers are actually heat welded. It isn’t like a paper envelope you can just steam open and then glue shut. You need a different technique.”

The gloom of the fog was unrelenting. I peered intently into the water just off the bow. “So what was the technique?”

“Pinch and pull. Pinch and pull as slowly as you can. Hope the plastic doesn’t tear. If you’ve done it right, you can slide the real bar out and the fake one in. Then you need an adhesive that will mimic the heat welding process as much as possible. I think he settled on a quick-acting two-part epoxy. It set fast, and it was just as flexible as the plastic. Still, he didn’t want to rely on that part for the deception, so he just did the best he could and hoped to make up the difference with the con.”

“How do you mean?”

“To get someone to eat your shit, you need to be an effective salesman. You need to make a solid pitch, and you need your mark to think it’s his idea. This is basic stuff, Sam.”

“I suppose so. I’m not a con man.”

“I didn’t take you for one. Still, you’ve seen movies before, right? Diggstown, Matchstick Men, The Sting. You know, the classics. You’ve seen those, right?”

“Sure.” I remember watching movies once upon a time. I remember big cinema screens and canned music. I remember.

“So you can’t just offer your enemy a candy bar out of the blue and expect him to take a big ol’ bite, even if it appears to be in the original wrapper.”

“Okay” I was wary of where the story was headed.

“He needed to really sell it. So he came up with this ornate patter to convince Jeremy that in order to make amends for past conflicts that he’d share with him this new fancy imported candy bar that he’d found.”

“Sounds like a flimsy story.”

“It was. That was the problem. He was eleven at the time. He first overprepared by basically writing a rote speech and then compounded his error by giving it a bad pretext. That’s where it started to go wrong.”

“Started?”

“Jake delivered his speech, offered the bar to Jeremy, and seemed surprised when Jeremy didn’t take him up on his peace offering. Jake’s delivery was unnatural, forced. Despite all his practicing, he just wasn’t a good enough actor to pull it off.”

“So what did he do?”

“He did what he had to do to get his enemy to eat his butt muffin. With a flourish, he opened the wrapper, took a big whiff up close to his nose, smiled satisfactorily, and offered it again to Jeremy, informing him of the raisin treats awaiting inside.”

“Did it work?” I immediately regretted allowing my curiosity rein.

“Nope. Not yet. He hesitated a little, then broke a piece off for himself.”

“Oh God, no.”

“And with a gently trembling hand.”

“No no no no nope. Stop Dave.”

“He put it in his mouth.”

“Jesus Lord Christ no.”

“And began to chew.”

“Why in the name of all that is holy are you doing this, Dave?”

“That did it. Jeremy took the remainder of the bar and also took a bite and began to chew.”

“I both hate and pity you right now, Dave.”

An irritated voice floated up from belowdecks. “Don’t be a stupid American. In East Europe everyone knows that if you want someone to eat your shit, you have to first be willing to take a bite yourself. Grow up.”

The fog finally lifted. We could see the outline of the Deception Pass bridge. Almost there.

The Intersection at the End of the World

“The most quintessentially American band to have ever existed, Sam,” Dave began as something of a preamble, “and mind you I’ve no love for the word ‘quintessential’ thanks to an alarming overuse of it, was Creedence.”

“As in Clearwater Revival? Willy and the poor boys? The dudes with an alarming aversion to commonplace meteorological phenomena? Four white dudes from California are the most quintessential American band to have existed?” We were on foot at this point, having abandoned the pickup after bouncing the drive shaft clean out of it while merrily attempting to jump a fallen log, in the style of the Duke Boys. “I can’t wait to hear you justify this one.” Continue reading “The Intersection at the End of the World”