Saturday, December 31, 2011

251/365 --Playlist Story-- inspired by "The Game Has Changed" by Daft Punk from the TRON: Legacy soundtrack

It was Nemontemi, the last week of the year, the unlucky days, and Naylay washed the corpse of an old man with a rag and a bowl of water by the light of the evening fire.

"You should not be working," said Chimalma, Naylay's grandmother.

"The body will not wait for the new year," said Naylay. She stroked the man's forehead with her long, workworn fingers.

"Mmmn," said Chimalma, pulling her blanket more snugly about her. "This is true, but don't let the priest catch you."

"This man lived a long life," said Naylay. She examined the wrinkles on his face. "I wonder what his life was like. Was he a good man? Was he just? We know he had children since they brought him to us, but was he loved?"

"We do not get paid to speculate. That is just a body. His spirit is on a journey with Xolotl to Mictlan now. How he lived his life is not our concern."

Naylay sat down on the floor next to the body and became silent.

"You are bothered," said Chimalma. "Your visions--"

"No," said Naylay.

Chimalma rose and poked a stick into the fire to stir it up.

"Don't said Naylay, turning away.

"You must face your fears, child," said Chimalma. "Come, turn to the fire. Gaze into it. Tell me again of the future."

"Grandmother, it is not right. I am not trained, I have not gone to the Telpochcalli...and I do not want that life." It all came out in a fast monotone, like she had rehearsed it in her head a thousand times.

Chimalma shuffled to her granddaughter and put her arm around her. She smiled.

"I know, you have doubts. You reject the Gods, you pine for the visions you have seen. I do not judge you for this, but you and I both know it must be kept a secret."

"Then why do you press me to have more?" Naylay's voice cracked and she looked forlorn.

"Because I have my doubts too. Why should a thousand slaves die to appease one God on one day? Why must we let out blood during the festivals? The priests tell us that rebirth can only come at the cost of death, and that the plants will stop growing, that babies will not be born, if there are no sacrifices. And yet in your dreams of the future, there is no sacrifice like that. You spoke of vast cities with many millions of souls, in strange clothes, with light their slave, living in the underworld on the other side of the Earth, and beyond even the upper worlds. And there are no Gods among them."

Naylay put her hand on her grandmother's and squeezed. She lay her cheek against the rough fabric of Chimalma's tunic and breathed in her scent.

"You believe my visions more than me," she said quietly.

"I am not quite there," said Chimalma. "I want to believe. I want to know there is another way, even if your visions aren't real."

"But there is nothing we can do to change anything," said Naylay. "It is pointless."

"It is hope, and maybe that is enough," said Chimalma. She stroked Naylay's hair. "Gaze into the fire Naylay, and tell me what you see."

Naylay closed her eyes, trying to push away the decision, but she opened them and looked directly into the fire. She watched the wavering flames, and noted how they moved like a fine fabric in the breeze, then mind began to burn. Her sight turned to black.

"It's...started," she intoned breathily. Her extremities became numb, and the sounds around her became muted, like she had slipped quietly into a cold, still lake. She began to see colors. Then faces. They each looked at her as if they were looking into a mirror, and Naylay knew she was in each of them, seeing what they say. There were thousands, and Naylay riffled through them like a handful of dried leaves. "When..." she whispered.

"A hundred years from now," said Chimalma, her voice distorted.

Naylay sought out a suitable face. It was a man with yellow hair. Naylay paused to take in the scene he was experiencing, before describing it to her grandmother.

"He is a priest," she said. "Not like ours. This is a new kind. He bears carved wood and wears a long skirt. He attends to the diseased and dying. He pities them, but he also thinks they are shameful. They are people like us."

"Five hundred years," said Chimalma.

Naylay drew back from the man with yellow hair, and searched through the leaves to find another face, a girl child.

"It is cold," said Naylay, "desperately cold, and it's happened in a matter of hours. This one will die, I can tell. She was with other children, away from her family. She was sent home because of the cold, and walks alone across a desolate plain. She is terribly frightened. She hopes to see is a black shape that roars and conveys people like a horse. She is hoping to see that so that she can get out of the cold."

"One thousand years," said Chimalma.

Naylay searched again. The number of faces available increased, and it took her longer to reach the faces from a thousand years hence, but she finally settled on a young woman of her age.

"Oh," she said, her eyes widening. "She is not on Earth."

"Beyond the upper worlds?" asked Chimalma.

"I do not know. She sees the stars. She is making a map of the stars, but the map moves. She is finding a path. Each of the stars pulls, and she wants to find the safest path through the stars. I don't understand, but the map folds--no, no the map. I can see it in her head, but I don't know what it means. There are others with her. There is some urgency. There is a war. They convey supplies."

"Look further," said Chimalma.

"How far?" asked Naylay.

Chimalma did not immediately respond, and Naylay continued to watch from inside the young woman's face.

"All the way to the end," said Chimalma.

Naylay snapped out of the young woman and into the dark again. She felt her own face tingle with fear.

"I do not know when that is," she said.

"Search," said Chimalma. "Find the end."

"Is that wise? Should we know that?"

"I want to know how it ends," said Chimalma. "How does the story end?"

Naylay felt angry, but her own curiosity was strong. Knowing she would not be alone with the knowledge of the end pushed her into a decision. She pulled back towards the colors and they resolved into faces again.

"There are so many people," she said as she moved through them. "Millions, and I know I only see a fraction of all those who live. I wish I could see those in the past as well."

"You would have to see inside Mictlan for that," said Chimalma.

"But what if there is no Mictlan?" said Naylay, feeling herself slow down with the distraction.

"Keep going. When are you now?"

"Forty centuries, I think. There are so, so many. Oh no, oh."


"There was a massive war. So many deaths. So much despair. Even whole stars were casualties. But the numbers are rising again. Yes. There are many wars now. They stretch on, in strange places."

"Keep going," said Chimalma.

"There are more and more, there are...loops. Strange loops. And there are people who travel them. The faces are changing. There are many different kinds now. Different colors, writing. Some have scales like reptiles. The faces stretch...through time now. They live lives longer than the trees. They carry their wisdom beside them now, in jars. Very small jars, but they are so wise. The wars are diminishing. The enemy is gone. Ignorance is gone. There are such multitudes spread out across the sky, to every corner."

"When are you?"

"Millions of years now," said Naylay, her voice slurring. "It's harder. They look at me. The faces look at me. They know I am here. They all know I am here," she became frantic and spoke quickly, "they see me, they see into me--they...they're..."

"What are they doing Naylay?"

"They're using me," said Naylay flatly. "I am their instrument."

"For what?" asked Chimalma.

"To see the past. I am Mictlan," she sat quietly and calmly. Chimalma watched her intensely. "The Gods reside in the future, and they are our descendants." Naylay smiled. "They tell me not to think of them as Gods. They tell me to not be afraid. Should I go further?"

"Yes," said Chimalma, licking her lips.

"The faces are still many but they are fading. They have changed from us so much. They are like points of light now. They speak and chatter...the's like birds in a roosting tree in the forest. So many voices in each of them. They talk of preparing something, of remaking the world. No! Oh no. There is only one now, and it is long. No, it is alright. This was planned. A consolidation. I am being pulled along. It contains the whole history. Everything that will and has happened. It is like a box, storage. When it is opened, the world will be new. I am being asked to reach out. I will be the one. I am trying...the box is fading. I cannot...I am not fast enough--"

"Reach!" screamed Chimalma.

"I-I...I have touched it! It is opening, unfolding...oh! I--"

Naylay stood up with a start, her eyes wide. She stumbled towards the door and vomited outside. She panted and tried to calm her breath.

"What did you see?" asked Chimalma.

"It was no something to be seen," said Naylay.

"Then it was a terrible thing," said Chimalma gravely.

"No," said Naylay. She stepped back into the room and sat down again next to Chimalma. "It was a beautiful thing. I just meant it was not something that I saw. It was something I...experienced. I don't think I will be able to have visions again."

"It has taken away your gift?"

"No. It has taken away my doubts." Naylay smiled.

Chimalma smiled back.

"It is just as well. We have committed heresy," she said. "But very interesting heresy." They both laughed.

Naylay turned and looked at the body of the man they were preparing.

"He was loved," said Naylay, looking at him fondly. "He was loved."

Friday, December 30, 2011

250/365 --Playlist Story-- inspired by "The Grid" by Daft Punk from the TRON: Legacy soundtrack

Footsteps echoed across the metal grating of the catwalk. The guard, Haytham strode imperiously over the plexiglass-topped cells. His uniform was white, armored and shining, with blue striping. There was a helmet he could choose to carry under his arm or wear. He chose the latter because the helmet's visor obscured his eyes from the prisoners and prevented them from reading his mood. Each morning he spent an hour polishing the uniform and dressing. He took pride in his appearance even though the only people who would see him all day didn't care about such things. He lived his role and refused to be shabby about it. He carried no weapons but the suit itself was powered and it gave him the strength of ten men. No prisoner would dare risk Haytham's gloved fists.

The prison bank was half a kilometer long, and ten meters wide. The cells were three deep on either side of the catwalk, packed together in a honeycomb. Each cell was equipped with water inlet and outlets, electricity, and an information terminal. They slotted together but could be moved apart. When moving only the water supply was disconnected. Each cell could be raised up to the level of the catwalk in order to extract or insert a prisoner. Food was delivered once a day through a hatch in the ceiling by an automated robot. It was capable of dispensing various foods and food substitutes to accomodate dietary or religious differences. The walls were opaque and no prisoner could see another, but they could speak to each other or tap out messages on their walls in the night.

As Haytham walked he clicked his joints, maximizing each movement without exaggerating it. It produced a sense of order and strength. The prisoners lay in their cells below. Some read or typed at their terminals. Others bathed or sat on the toilet. Some prayed on mats. Some clutched their legs and rocked back and forth. He passed a cluster of cells where each prisoner lay in the center of their cell in the fetal position.

Haytham stopped. He turned back and looked at the cells. There were eight cells with prisoners in the fetal position, all facing to the right. No one moved. The eight cells surrounded a ninth, which contained a man who looked up at Haytham and waved. He ordered up one of the eight cells. The cell wheezed up and slid towards his position. Haytham lifted his visor and presented his eye to the retina scanner. The door unlocked and he slid the door open cautiously.

The prisoner on the floor was in the same position, undisturbed. Haytham walked in and kicked the man in the back. There was no movement. He pulled off a glove and checked for a pulse. There was none and the body was at the ambient temperature. There were no signs of trauma, wounding, or struggle. The prisoner was simply dead. Haytham checked the prisoner's background. He had been an accused data smuggler, but was still awaiting trial after eighteen years.

He stepped out of the cell, locked it, and sent it back down to it's slot. He ordered up the other seven in turn, and found that all the deaths were identical, but the prisoners themselves covered a random slice of crime: pedophilia, bank fraud, assault, the writing of anti-government tracts, murder, animal cruelty, and censor hacking--nothing particularly unusual. He reported the deaths and ordered an extraction and cleaning team. Then he focused on the middle ninth cell.

Haytham ordered the cell up. He checked the prisoner's background, but this generated an error. He dialed up the strength in his suit, then unlocked the door. Inside sat a man with his legs folded.

"Hello," said the man.

"Do you know why I'm here?" asked Haytham.

"No," said the prisoner sarcastically. "I have absolutely no idea."

"The prisoners in the adjacent cells are all dead," said Haytham.

"That's unfortunate," said the prisoner. "I bet some of them hadn't reached trial yet."

"This isn't a joke, and I can report you for complaining."

"What do I care? I have a life sentence and everybody is already in solitary confinement."

"Your terminal access will be cut off."

"Have you seen this thing?" asked the prisoner pointing over his shoulder to his terminal. "I think the last prisoner used it as a novelty toilet. Seriously, there's nothing you can take away from me. You're legally obligated to feeding me once a day so there's not even that."

Haytham flexed his fist. The prisoner rolled his eyes.

"What do these deaths have to do with you?" said Haytham.

"Nothing," said the prisoner, "but don't you want to know my name?"

"What role did you have in these deaths?"

"I don't even know if anybody actually died, or if this is some sort of mind game you're trying to play with me. Doesn't it bother you to not know my name? Or what my crimes are? Or why I'm here?"

"How did these prisoners die?"

"I wasn't in their cells with them, how could I be? How could I know how they died?"

Haytham walked into the cell and grabbed the prisoner by the front of his tunic and dragged him out to the catwalk. He pressed his knee into the prisoner's chest and pinned his hands down to the grating with his own. He spoke again, with no trace of malice or discrimination.

"How did you kill them?"

"We went from dying to killing already?" said the prisoner. "Just like this government."

"That's a heresy. I'm going to report you."

"How can you when you don't know my name or my prisoner number? Don't you want to know how I got here?"

"Fine," said Haytham, maintaining his icy composure.

The prisoner laughed.

"I broke in," he said.

Haytham pressed his knee into the prisoner's solar plexus and the prisoner moaned in pain.

"That's impossible."

"Nothing is," said the prisoner. "All things are possible. Someday, this government will fall, and it will be at the hands of people like me."

"Like who?"


"What do you mean by that?"

"Do you know what the ironic thing is?" asked the prisoner. "It's that even though I'm a prisoner here, physically, it's you that's the real prisoner. Your mind is not free, as long as you work here."

Haytham stood up and pulled the prisoner by the shoulders, across the grating of the catwalk until the prisoner screamed.

"Brutality will be met with brutality," whispered the prisoner. "But I'll be nice and give you a choice."

The catwalk vibrated with the footfalls of the approaching cleaning crew and their extraction equipment.

"Tell me, how did you kill the other prisoners?"

"I didn't. I said they were volunteers."

"Unlikely," said Haytham.

"I have no information for you," said the prisoner. "I only have a choice for you. Would you like to hear it? I can see by your expression that you don't care, so I'm going to tell you anyway. Walk away from your job. Right now. Walk away. I'll give you twenty seconds."

"Why did you kill the other prisoners?"

"The other choice is that you will lose your job, involuntarily."

The cleaning crew was almost there, made up of six prison employees.

"What do you choose?" asked the prisoner.

Haytham blinked and examined the prisoner's face. Then he stood, his back stiff. He left the prisoner on the catwalk and passed the cleaning crew. He snapped down the visor of his helmet. Behind him there was an explosion. Haytham was knocked off his feet and fell to the grid of the catwalk and lay there unconscious as the other prisoners cheered.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

249/365 --Playlist Story-- inspired by "I'm Sticking With You" by The Velvet Underground

Carl was never alone, and tended to press himself against walls, sidling along them to travel between rooms, and once at his destination, kept close to the floor. He was terrified of playing outside, especially in the early mornings and evenings when his shadow was long. He spent nights weeping into his quilt, immersed completely in shadow, until he fell asleep, exhausted. His only relief, which was mild, were cloudy days. Carl was afraid of his shadow.

"You're shadow isn't alive, Carl," said the psychiatrist that his mother took him to.

"It is," said Carl meekly. He looked at the doctor and smelled stale coffee on his breath.

"Now now, Carl. A shadow is just a relative lack of light. Do you understand that?"

"Yours is. Mine's alive."

The doctor stiffened his spine slightly at this.

"Why do you say that?"

"It talks to me," said Carl, with a glimmer of hope that someone was finally listening to him.

They psychiatrist smiled slightly, his mind happy at finally being able to peg Carl's diagnosis. He asked several more questions, set up a followup appointment, and prescribed medications.

Carl's mother made him take the medicine, but it made him feel hazy and did nothing to invalidate the vital status of his shadow.

"I'm not going anywhere," his shadowed assured him, as Carl was laying on his bed looking at the ceiling, his limbs heavy and lazy.

"I know," said Carl after a few minutes. After that, Carl pretended to swallow the pills then stuffed them in an increasing glutinous pile in his sock drawer.

As he grew out of boyhood his shadow frightened him less and less.

"We make a great team," whispered his shadow once while Carl was walking home from high school.

"I guess," said Carl with a sigh. "I seem to be doing all the work though."

"I can do things," replied his shadow indignantly.

"Sure. I'd like to see that someday. You kind of just hang off me."

"You'll see," hissed his shadow menacingly.

A few years later Carl found himself in a helicopter with no doors flying over the shores of the Mekong. The humidity and heat were oppressive, the smell of sulphur was in the air, and he fought to keep his nausea contained. He watched the grass on the ground swirl and bow with the downdraft of blades. Then an RPG tore through the cockpit. The other soldiers screamed out, shouting invective. Carl scrambled to free himself from the falling metal. He jumped out the door, immediately regretting it as the blades buzzed near before the vehicle keeled over in the opposite direction. Carl landed a second later in the crown of a tree. He crashed down the branches, tearing his flesh, and came to rest in the V of the trunk. He started to cry as the helicopter exploded in the background. Blood flowed freely from a gash to his femoral artery.

He felt light-headed and the pain became remote. His shadow seeped up the tree, following the trail of blood.

"I'll do anything for you," said his shadow.

"No," said Carl weakly.

"Yes," said his shadow. It compressed and entered his leg, sliding in like an eel. When the last of it was inside, it pulled the wound closed.

Carl breathed raggedly and began to feel cool, like he was laying in a mountain stream. The sound of gunfire became muted, but the sun seemed to get brighter, pouring strength into him. He stayed in the tree, his broken bones preventing him from moving, and was assumed by the active combantants on the field to be dead. Five hours later he was retrieved and med-evac'd. The surgeons were perplexed by the wound that just held itself closed, but Carl recovered, and his shadow never bothered him again.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

248/365 --Playlist Story-- inspired by "The Season" by The Dodos

The ice moaned hauntingly, the ghost of a whale song, as the capsule ascended carrying two fully suited people. Jeong's eyes lingered on his companion. She looked past his shoulder at the wall of the capsule. He activated his radio.

"I'm sorry Malka," he said. She glanced at him briefly with disdain then looked at the ceiling.

After three more painful minutes of not speaking they reached the surface. Water shot up against the sides of the capsule and froze almost immediately. The heating element around the outside of the capsule door burned brightly and and water steamed up into space. Malka spun the wheel on the doorlock then the door popped open, expelling all it's air almost at once. The pair stepped out onto Europa's surface, under the meager shelter of an inflatable roof that had the sole function of identifying the portal from a distance. They walked across new slick ice towards the more weathered and relatively old surface.

The sun was out, unblocked by the omnipresent hulk of Jupiter which remained permanently halfset in the sky. Jeong and Malka stopped and looked at it for a few minutes, draining precious oxygen from their reserves. It was not a waste but a necessity and all the people who were ever stationed on the icy moon could not help themselves at the sight, as if the gravity of the planet pulled at their souls, half the sky a caramel jewel, milk poured into coffee, offering languid clouds larger than Earth. It was difficult to behold, and tasked the inadequate human minds that dared to cling to the frozen droplet of ocean that orbited it.

Finally they moved out, guided by red flags that were drilled into the ice every ten meters, towards the array of antennae that connected the colony with the rest of humanity.

"It's fine," said Malka as they walked.

Jeong stopped and looked at her.


"I'll chalk it up to cabin fever," said Malka.

"Ocean fever," said Jeong smiling. Malka didn't return his smile, but only looked tired. "You're still upset."

"I'm just disappointed."

The walked in silence for another minute.

"Is it me, or is it being here?" asked Jeong.

"It took so long to get here, so much work, so much effort, and I wanted this, I wanted to be here, but I never thought about what it would be like to actually live this life. Look at this!" she sweeped her arms in the direction of Jupiter, "This is extraordinary, and yet..."

Jeong stopped and put his hand on her arm to stop her as well.

"I've settled. I don't know how, but I've settled," said Malka. "How does that happen here?"

"I'd hug you if I could, but these suits..." said Jeong chuckling. Malka tapped her gloved hand against his shoulder. They started walking again, instinctively aware of their oxygen use after so much practice underwater. Jeong's expression turned serious. "I shouldn't have told you to make the best of it--"

"No, it's fine, it's fine. I overreacted. You're absolutely right and I didn't want to admit that to myself."

They reached the edge of the communications installation and started their diagnostics, walking between the various antennae and visually inspecting for damage.

"This is weird," said Malka after a few minutes.

"Yeah," agreed Jeong. "I was expecting some sort of small body impact or micro meteoroids but there's--"

"--nothing," said Malka.

They continued their inspection, their faces ashen behind their reflective sun visors.

"There's nothing wrong with the array," concluded Malka.

"It must be Earth."

"Or a booster relay is out."

"It'd have to be all of them. And besides, we'd still get some weak signals," said Jeong.

Malka looked towards the sun, searching for where she thought home might be, the dot of dust in the great black.

"Oh Earth," she whispered, "what have you done?"

Jeong looked at her, and even though she was masked by the sun visor, her saw her face. It was etched in his mind, a permanent fixture now, the subject and the glue of all his dreams. He reached for her hand and took it in his. She squeezed back. They walked towards the capsule, together, to their home in the depths.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

247/365 --Playlist Story-- inspired by "Stranger" by Dr. Dog

Every afternoon he pulled on a pair of snakeskin boots. He swung his guitar over his shoulder, and left his small apartment for the streetlamp below. He set out a cup and began to strum. At the beginning he would get glances from passersby and some would stop and smile and nod along to the music. His fingers grew callused and the soles of his boots wore down with the way that he tapped his feet in time to the beat. A hundred thousand strangers walked by. He winked at the children and pretty women. He thanked the people who stopped and paid him. He turned his face to the sun when it was out and turned up his coat collar and hunched over his guitar when the weather was bad. Mostly he enjoyed the feeling of the sound traveling up his fingers as he plucked and strummed.

Two decades on, with the same two decade old songs, hardly anyone noticed him. He was just part of the sidewalk and the street. He was forgotten ambience but it didn't bother him.

And then one day there was a powerful earthquake. Buildings crumbled, people screamed and ran on wobbly legs, and groundwater leached up to the surface. When it was over the wounded walked despondently down the middle of the street. They wailed and dug through the rubble. Their faces were hollowed out of emotion, drained of their strength.

He came back as always, with his snakeskin boots, and stood next to the streetlamp, now on it's side and dead, and he sang his songs. The other people on the street stopped and listened. He voice was happy and clear, carrying well, no longer filtered by human chatter or the noise of cars or the sounds of clicking glasses and forks that came from the nearby restaurants. Trouble faded away, pushed out by notes and words, the busker's smile, and his old snakeskin boots tapping in the dust.

Monday, December 26, 2011

246/365 --Playlist Story-- inspired by "Heard Them Stirring" by Fleet Foxes

A heart in a resting adult body beats seventy times a minute. Cordell's beat twice that, at one hundred and forty, as the other boys beat him with sticks and fists. He was sprawled out of his wheelchair, and face down on the sidewalk, his arms crumpled under him, and the withered legs he could not control exposed completely to the assault.

Minutes before, Cordell was happy and thinking of home. The evening air was filled with lazily floating insects and golden light. The path that Cordell took was a paved shortcut through the subdivision between the park and his street. It was closed in on both sides with fences covered in climbing morning glories and intrepid colonizing grasses. The path was trafficked most frequently by children and the odd jogger, but even then, it didn't carry many passersby. Cordell was easily cornered and cut off, and before it started, before the taunts, he hoped they would let him pass. He'd had trouble from them before, but they always pulled their bluff.

But this time their words turned into a feedback loop of action as it soaked into them how defenseless Cordell was. They circled in like wolves. Cordell screamed, briefly, before they wrapped their hands around his neck. They laughed, joyful, reveling in the athleticism of the moment. Their muscles pumped as they swung. Their stances were wide and strong. They began to sweat and their faces glistened. Their expressions blended together in a blur, one was another was another and no one paused, no one thought until Cordell was motionless.

They left him on the ground and he as undiscovered for another three hours. A rich pool of blood had collected from his mouth and had dried enough to be sticky. He was found shivering in it, his legs pulverized, his face scraped and bruised. Three ribs were broken. As he was lifted onto a stabilization board and then onto a gurney by gentle hands, he asked, "Why?" in a quiet voice. No one had an answer.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

245/365 --Playlist Story-- inspired by "The Balcony" by The Rumour Said Fire

There she was sprawled on the sofa, draped really, reading a book, laughing.

"What's so funny?" I asked.

I remember sitting on the floor across the room from her, with a calculator, but I don't know what I was doing with it, my body and actions judged to be irrelevant by my memories. I just remember her, that day, vividly. She was carefree, barefoot, dressed in summer clothes though it wasn't yet quite warm enough for them, but we were indoors and had the furnace running in order to make our own personal summer in the apartment we had shared for two years. I remember her slender fingers wrapped around the worn book she held, and how she flexed the spine of the book each time she turned a page, as if she was making sure each unruly page knew it was being read and the book itself was being disciplined. She took the same ethic with the rest of her life--every action was determined and deliberate.

"It's just a funny bit," she said, distracted and with mild irritation. Her mouth became expressionless and she read silently, her face blank, blocking me out.

And I had a feeling. Like I was falling from a height, high enough to reach terminal velocity. I knew. I didn't want to acknowledge it, but I knew that our moment together was gone, and maybe had been dissolving for awhile. We were at our end.

We were together for several more months, but it was apparent she had made her decision and just had yet to act on it. And when she left it was without tears, on both our parts.

Love is a tragedy because no matter how hard you try, you can never truly be with anyone; you can't know their honest thoughts, you can't feel exactly what they feel, and in this way, you can't ever really know anyone else, and no one can ever really know you. All the kisses that feel like they're filled with sunshine, the sex, no matter how intimate, all the touches of fingertips in the darkness, can never chip away at that truth.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

244/365 --Playlist Story-- inspired by "At or With Me" by Jack Johnson

The town of Sanderson had a population of five hundred. It had always had a population of five hundred since it's founding and never wavered. It had a post office that nobody used, a dancehall no one danced in, a picture house with one screen, a general store that carried unbranded merchandise stocked on Sunday mornings, a barber shop next to a beauty parlor that reeked of ammonia, and a gas station with unlabeled pumps. All the windows in all the buildings were covered in perpetual sheen of dust, and it rarely rained. The elderly shuffled along the sidewalks, the adults busied themselves with leisurely errands, and the teenagers smoked in the backs of buildings and gave each other smoldering looks. There were no children in Sanderson.

One of the teenagers, Maisy, wore pegged jeans and worked at the gas station. She was usually covered in thick black grease and worked on the same black Studebaker every afternoon. At night she sat in the front seat with her best friend Calvin (owner of a transistor radio, a raging case of acne, and handy himself with a screwdriver), where they smoked and discussed the Beat movement and other things happening far outside there town. A particularly lengthy silence followed a discussion of Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus, and both friends watched smoke languidly curl and disperse.

"There's something wrong with this town," said Maisy.

"You think," said Calvin, his voice the growl of a just-fed wolf. He leaned back in his seat and shoved his feet onto the dashboard.

"I don't know what it is exactly," said Maisy. "We do the same things everyday and I can't remember it being anything else."

"Someday we'll get out of this hellhole."

"That's just it. It's like nothing else really exists. Outside of here."

Calvin laughed.

"I know it seems that way--" he started.

"No, not seem. Is," said Maisy. She shook her head. Calvin smiled at her and tentatively put a hand on her shoulder.

"You'll get this car fixed up proper one day, and then we can go and drive to San Francisco where everything's happening."

Maisy wriggled away from his hand and leaned out the driver's side window, and looked off across the barren landscape, away from town. Calvin shifted back to his side and lit up a fresh cigarette.

"I've never not been working on this car," said Maisy. "I'm certain of it. And another thing. The books in my room. I remember them getting dog-eared and worn, and then one day, they were all suddenly fresh and new. It's like we're trapped in a loop, and not a metaphorical one, where we just do the same thing everyday, forever."

Calvin pondered this as he puffed.

"That's not necessarily a bad thing," he finally said.

"What?" asked Maisy, frowning.

"I get to do exactly what I want, what I feel I should do, everyday. Well, not quite, but near enough to be happy," said Calvin, the tips of his ears turning slightly pink under the cover of thanked-for darkness.

Maisy turned to look at him, analyzing, calculating.

"I'm sorry," she said.

"About what?"

"I know what you mean, and as much as I like your company...and want to keep it, sitting here isn't the penultimate experience I expect from life."

"Everyone has to live a life they don't want. I'm just one of those people that realizes it. I know to make the most of it."

"Yeah," said Maisy, turning to look back out the window, "you are one of those people."

Calvin felt the sting. He opened the creaky door and got out. He stretched and thought about sauntering over to the picture house. Maisy got out of her door.

"I didn't mean it like that," said Maisy. "Forgive me, will ya?"

He turned to look at her across the rusty roof of the Studebaker. He flashed her a crooked smile.

"Sure," he said. "Come on." He walked around to her side and grabbed her hand, pulling her off towards the main road in the direction of darkness.


"Let's find out what's out there. If we can't use the car, we'll walk. We'll hitch. We'll get to San Francisco one way or another."

Maisy took him up on his offer, and ran ahead, pulling him along playfully. They walked for a half hour, until the lights of the town were nearly swallowed up by the night. They looked up at the stars in the sky and found Andromeda. Not a single car passed them on the road. They laughed and howled and skipped and ran, holding hands. Then they saw a light in the distance. They jogged toward it. They saw the outlines of buildings.

"Another town," said Calvin.

"I didn't think there was anything this close," said Maisy. "How could we live in Sanderson so long and not know this place?"

Calvin stopped short.

"Oh," he said. Maisy stopped next to him, but he continued on, jogging first, then breaking into a flat-out run. Maisy followed. He stopped again a few hundred yards from the nearest building. Maisy stopped too, and saw what he saw.

"It's Sanderson," she said. "How is it Sanderson?"

"Maybe the road is a circle," said Calvin.

"I'm pretty sure we walked in a straight line," said Maisy, beginning to involuntarily shiver.

"We were mistaken then," said Calvin.

"You're rationalizing. This is distinctly, very irrational," said Maisy.

She walked forward slowly. The town was quiet except from the occasional indistinct noise from the picture house.

"The truck for the general store comes every week. The gas truck comes to fill the tanks under the pumps. We're not isolated. We can't be."

"You see them when there here, but do you ever see where they come from or where they go? Do you ever remember that?"

"No..." admitted Calvin.

They walked silently all the way through the town and back to the Studebaker. It still reeked of smoke. Maisy opened her door and climbed in. She draped her hands over the steering wheel and pressed her forehead to the top of it. Calvin remained outside.

"What are we?" moaned Maisy.

"What do you mean?" asked Calvin.

"Are we even human? What are we here for?"

"I don't know," said Calvin. He got into the passenger side and closed his door as quietly has he could. "To live. To be. To ask questions that can't be answered." He smiled to himself for a moment, then his expression turned serious. "Is it worse to know what's out there? Now that you know?"

"It makes me want to get out even more, but I'm not sure there's anything actually out there, beyond. It's better to know the boundaries, but worse in that odds have changed."

"Well, I get to look forward to more of this. At least." He lit up two cigarettes this time, watching the flame on his match burn blue then white, then eat it's way down to his fingertips. He handed one of the cigarettes to Maisy. She took it and fiddled with it in her fingers. She leaned out her window, away from Calvin, and cried silently.

Friday, December 23, 2011

243/365 --Playlist Story-- inspired by "Sympathique" by Pink Martini

No one knew quite what was wrong with Claire. As a child she was taken to see several psychologists and other assorted doctors. She would sit in a chair, on the edge of the cushion, her feet dangling, clutching her stuffed toy cat (black with blue plastic eyes and the tail ripped out, permanently lost), or on a examination table, naked underneath a gown, her socks slumped around her heels, and her back unnaturally stiff, staring blankly ahead. Her face was always far from blank however. She smiled constantly, even in her sleep, and the smiles only stopped when she grinned so big that her eyes wrinkled up and closed completely just before she dissolved into a fit of giggles that could last an hour.

The doctors poked and prodded her, and tried to ask her questions, but she never responded because she never ever spoke. Finally her parents gave up on a diagnosis and just let her be, in her room at the top of the house, looking out at the street below and the goings-on of all the neighbors. She spent hours there, with the window thrown open when the weather was warm and sunny, and behind nose-printed glass when the weather was cold and wet.

She was a good child and learned to eat politely and to tie her shoes, and how to sweep the floor (though she often left the broom in the middle of a room in a pile of dust if a sound from the street carried into the house and attracted her to her window), but never spoke and never showed interest in going outside or interacting with people face-to-face.

As she grew, her teeth twisted in her crowded mouth.

"Why get it fixed? She'll never date anyone," said her father, dismissing the expense of a cosmetic dental procedure.

"Date? She'll never know the difference if she looked in the mirror," countered her mother, upset at her husband's last-century perspective, but in agreement with his conclusion.

Her dark hair grew long and unmanageable, and she never bothered to comb it herself.

"It's a shame," said the neighbor, beating out a rug in the backyard shared with Claire's family. "That girl could be such a looker if she would only take some pride in herself. That hair! Oh that hair that shines like onyx!"

"There's more to life than long hair," said her mother. The next day she took the kitchen scissors to Claire's hair, chopping it off until she was left with a boyish bob. Her mother ruffled her fingers ruefully across her daughter's head. "Much better," she said with some regret.

As the years passed, Claire's parents took to spending the evenings in her room, with her father reading and her mother painting with oils, both soothed by Claire's periodic fits of giggling. They never knew if she was lonely or not.

One evening, when her mother was putting the finishing touches on a reasonable facsimile of Van Gogh's Skull with Burning Cigarette, and her father was three quarters of the way through a reread of Doctor Zhivago, Claire climbed out the window. She was standing completely on the sill, her hands clutching the curtains for balance, before her parents noticed.

"Claire!" screamed her mother. They rushed towards her, and her father's fingers brushed against the fabric of her clothes just as she jumped.

Instead of falling, she glided effortless up into the air, giggling. Her mother clamped her hands over her mouth. Her father stared out with dull, uncomprehending eyes. Claire performed a barrel roll then burst into a peal of laughter. She dove and touched the pavement of the street with her toes, then zoomed up until she was a dot in the sky, then she swooped back down and circled the neighborhood.

"Come back!" yelled her father. Claire only laughed.

Her mother thrust the top of her torso through the window.

"The window will always be open!" she shouted. Claire quieted down, and stared back at her parents. Then she swirled around and flew out of sight.

Whether day or night, the window to her room was left wide open. Her parents still spent the evenings there, chatting and working at their hobbies, and very occasionally they pondered aloud what part of the Earth Claire might be visiting right then.

This is Skull with Burning Cigarette, the awesomest thing Van Gogh ever painted.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

242/365 --Playlist Story-- inspired by "Little Lion Man" by Mumford & Sons

In the distant sky a murder of crows squawked and cried as they fought a valiant aerial battle with a troop of flying monkeys. The sky was turning purple as the once perpetual day threatened to turn to night, and the air was dotted with the blood-red petals of the poppies now gone to seed in an euphoric haze.

"I can't believe she's gone," said the Cowardly Lion, scratching at the sores under his fur.

He slumped to the surface of the road in a rumple of yellow hair that conveniently matched the road's bricks. Beside him lay the corpse of the Straw Man, eviscerated from stem to stern, with his stuffing pushed here and there in snatches across the road with the help of the breeze. There was still bits of straw stuck under the Cowardly Lion's claws.

At the edge of the road lay the Tin Man prostrate. The Wizard kneeled over him, deep in concentration, green-tinted glasses thrust down to the very tip of his nose, examining the metal man.

"She made her choice," said the Wizard without looking up. "I believe he's had a heart attack. Your outburst was too much for him, too soon. He will not recover."

The Wizard sighed and stood up. He looked blankly at the somehow small figure of the Cowardly Lion, then his face contorted with anger.

"We all loved her!" shouted the Wizard. The Cowardly Lion put his head under his paws and whimpered. "You did this," continued the Wizard in a more contained tone. He stepped over the Tin Man and crossed half the distance to the Cowardly Lion before he stopped, refusing to go further, both to restrain himself and to not provoke his friend. He watched straw meander with the wind, becoming increasingly diffuse. The Straw Man was thankfully face down, but the Wizard keenly felt the indignity of that sudden death. "We were going to do so much, the four of us," he said quietly. "Oz was at our feet, and we squandered it. I thought she just gave us a start, but that's where it ended. All our dreams and aspirations, back in the Emerald City, just...gone."

"I know," said the Cowardly Lion, large tears rolling down his cheeks. "But it was the poppies I tell you! The poppies! I-I can't get enough!" He scrambled on his knees over to the Wizard and began kissing his green shoes. "Please," he said several times between kisses, "forgive me!"

The Wizard extracted his feet and looked coldly down at the figure crumple before him.

"We've lost everything we ever gained, and I can go no further with you."

The Cowardly Lion shook silently, his grief overtaking him. The Wizard scooped up the empty shell of the Straw Man, cradling it for a moment in his arms, then picked up the left arm of the Tin Man. He pulled, grunting as he dragged the Tin Man towards the west, igniting bright sparks as metal scraped against metal.

"Don't follow me," said the Wizard without looking back.

The Lion Man trembled as he watched him depart into the sunset. When he was no longer even a dot on the horizon, he let out a piercing wail. Then he crawled towards the stalks of the dead poppies to get what he could from an ever-decreasing fix.


Okay, so when I was writing this I realized L. Frank Baum must have been a feminist, since the female characters in the story have all the power and totally drive the action, and lo and behold he was! (Then I read his views on Native Americans and was utterly gobsmacked. I had not a clue. Holy crap on a cracker.)

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

240/365 --Playlist Story-- inspired by "La Iguana" by The Chieftains

David woke to the sun on his smiling face. He yawned and stretched, then got up, showered, dressed in a thousand dollar suit and left his house via the three car garage he shared with his wife and teenage daughter in his slick black sedan that was all shined up by their maid Rosita. He drove not to the legislature where he worked as a congressman but to a radio station north of the center of town. He was greeted by a curvy secretary in a pencil skirt who handed him a latte with extra foam, with a rather forced smile on her face. He was handed off to an intern with a clipboard, an exhausted looking man in his early twenties and a crooked tie.

"This your first time?" asked the intern.

"Yes, on this show," said David beaming.

"Okay, well he's a little loud but just go with it. You know. Be yourself...and all that."

"Sure thing!" said David.

"Mmm. Yeah. So, he's gonna ask you about--"

"Oh yes, we talked about it over email. I'm perfectly fine with it. It's not a sensitive subject to me."

"Yeah, that's great. He might get a bit personal though."

"I've nothing to hide, and even if I did, I still have three years to recover from it!" David burst out into a laugh so hearty in might have belonged to a hippopotamus.

The intern politely smiled. David slapped him on the back, tearing up. There was a *ding* behind them.

"That's it, we've gone to a brief commercial break. Just head in this door--"

As the intern opened the door, a large man barrelled out. David grinned and held out his hand.

"Oh I'm such a fan--" said David.

"Gotta take a piss," bellowed the man, pushing past. David's grin faded.

"Yeah, it's only thirty seconds for the break. Don't worry about it," said the intern. "Just have a seat over there and let me know if I can get you anything."

David walked into the sound-proofed booth. There was a large executive chair with a lumbar support and a smaller leather chair on the opposite side of a table that held a control panel, laptop, microphones, and a massive mug of coffee that read 'My other ride is my mistress'. David wondered why it was written on a mug and not a bumper sticker. He sat down in the small chair and it swivelled easily. He sat up straight and folded his hands on the table. He bobbed his head slightly to tune that was playing inside his head. Finally the large man burst back into the booth. He sat down heavily on the chair and sighed deeply. He rested his meaty arms across a belly that gurgled audibly.

"Mexican food last night," confessed the large man. "I swear, they're preparing us for an invasion, luring us in with tasty food that incapacitates us!"


The large man flicked a switch on the control panel and spoke into his mic.

"And we're back! I have with me as my guest, one David Renholm, a congressman from the fifth district, who's been hard at work--you have, haven't you?"

"Uh, yes," said David, leaning forward into a mic, but the large man pulled it a few inches back and shot him a dirty look.

"Yes, David's been hard at work orchestrating--let me repeat that, orchestrating the resistance to HR9615, since the other side, can't stop--now this just makes me...angry. The other side, can't stop whining about this issue. They just...will...not...stop, and I'm sick, sick of it. Aren't you too, my intrepid listeners? Haven't we heard enough from them? They just keep taking, and taking, and taking. They want money, for every little, foolish thing, and they will not stop until this state is completely broke--"

The large man continued his monolog, caressing his microphone, and speaking in tones that were alternately dulcet and histrionic, and David felt increasingly serious and important and he found himself nodding to every emphatic point. Finally the large man turned and looked David directly in the eyes, and David felt electricity spike down his spine.

"--now let's hear from the man, holding down the fort so to speak. Bowie at the Alamo, if you will, though I hold out hope it's not that bad. Let's hope representative Renholm is...victorious in this vicious, vicious battle. So what do you say, Congressman, on this issue?"

David opened his mouth, about to speak, his face slightly read and his neck tense...

"Hoo!" he exclaimed. Both he and the large man flinched. He smiled briefly and shook his head. "HooHoo!" He clapped his hands across his mouth, his eyes wide.

"Hoo!" said the large man in his large voice. He cleared his throat and tried again. "HooHooHoo!"

"HooHoo!" said David. He stood, flinging back his chair. "HooHooHOOHOOO!" he screeched with increasing alarm.

"HOOOHOOOHOOOHOOO!" screamed the large man.

Just then the intern burst through the door and flailed himself onto the control panel, flicking a switch to turn on the commercials.

"What the hell?!" he exclaimed.

"HOOOHOOOHOOOHOOO!" screamed the large man, his face beet red. He pounded his fists on the table.

"HooHOO!" said David, shaking his head and beginning to cry.

"What are you doing?" yelled the intern. "You two sound like hooting monkeys!"

"HOOHOOHOO!" bellowed the large man indignantly.

"Stop it now!" said the intern. "Or we'll have to hoo--" He stopped short and looked wide-eyed. "Hoo--hoo! HOOHOOHOO!"

The intern held his hands against his cheeks, the look of horror in his eyes. He turned and ran out of the booth, David and the large man following. They passed the shocked looking secretary.

"Hoo?" she enquired, then dropped a stack of papers on her feet. "HOOHOOHOOHOO!" she screamed at the top of her lungs.

David found his cell phone in his pocket and dialed his wife.

"Hoo?" she answered, crying.

"HooHooHoo..." wailed David. He dropped to his knees and looked up at the ceiling. "Hooooooooo..." he cried plaintively.

All subsequent legislation was debated very politely via email.

Monday, December 19, 2011

239/365 --Playlist Story-- inspired by "A Shot to the Stars" by Whitley

Arthur typed by the light of his laptop screen--his office was otherwise dark and it was deeply night outside, with rain pattering the windows in gusts of wind. He looked up periodically, at nothing in particular, rushing to complete his work and drive home to his apartment and it's comforting blackout curtains. He had a fear of daylight, phengophobia, a rare affliction, but one that suited and did not hinder him. He often spoke of sunlight with dread and disgust; for him it was less something to fear than something to hate, an arch-nemesis rather than a tormentor. By his keyboard lay a tattered, grubby notebook, the latest in a long line of books and paper pads scribbled up with equations and long diatribes in scratchy, blobby penmanship. The average stranger might take this artifact as a sign of mental illness, and maybe it was, under shifted circumstances, but Arthur had found his place in society, nestled comfortably and productively in the physics department of a middlingly prestigious university in the northeast. Occasionally, as he typed, he referred to the notebook, flipping pages, licking his fingers for better purchase on the leaves, tapping at a specific symbol or number, or writing down something new, creating emphatic furrows on paper, seeded with ink as a particular series of ideas came to fruition.

He was not the only person in the room. There were three graduate students there to assist him, two men and a women, though they were hard for Arthur to tell apart individually, not that he cared to do so, or even found the need necessary. They had their own laptops, over which they slumped, typing, surfing, and chatting silently to one another to relieve their boredom, in a state of existence where a night-time stupor was held at bay by chain-drinking espresso shots not covered in the budget for the research grant that made the entire scene possible.

The three sat shoulder to shoulder with each other behind a cramped table that at some point in it's long past was scored with hydrochloric acid in a pattern that looked like a cherry blossom. The leftmost of the three ran his fingers across the scar's indentations. This was not an absentminded action, even though it was made look like such, but it was discovered some weeks ago that the movement annoyed Arthur on a subconscious level, given that it happened in his peripheral vision and in low light. It would jar him out of his focused trances of thought and work. Sometimes he would blurt out some angry frustration relating to the current problem he was mulling (giving the three some insight into what they should be doing since Arthur was notoriously bad at giving clear instructions and got upset if anyone asked him to elucidate), although it usually resulted in him getting up and leaving silently to use the restroom or to scrounge for food in one of the shared faculty refrigerators (he rarely purchased his own food, since the process irritated him, and subsisted on half-eaten yogurt cups and plastic containers of other people's homemade pasta).

Stroking the cherry blossom this time wasn't having any effect, and the three sent each other a flurry of key taps discussing it, and after a few minutes they concluded unanimously that he was just simply more engrossed than usual. The middle of the three expressed an urgent need to relieve herself, and suggested they interrupt him vocally to plead for a break. They deliberated again, but then the middle rose in her seat, scraping back her seat, and lunged for the door, her running footfalls in the hall subsequently heard. Arthur took no note. The leftmost and the rightmost looked at each other, shrugged, and then both quietly got up and left the room themselves.

When they were gone, Arthur stopped typing. He looked at the door and sighed, relieved. He had come to an epiphany half an hour earlier and he fought to maintain his composure. He felt a deep, rare emotion: fear, joy, anger, and enlightenment combined. He knew he was a man who knew something no one else knew, and he fought within himself about whether to tell anyone else, or to keep it a secret. There was no option to forget, and the temptation to tell someone else would be with him for the rest of his life.

He stood and closed his laptop, then listened to the rain in the darkness. He walked out of the room and into the hallway. At one end were the double doors that led out to the parking lot, and in the other direction he could see the column of light thrown onto the floor from the faculty break room and heard the chatter of the three, released from their seats of silence. They would be the first to tell, if he told. He grimaced, then turned and looked again at the double doors. He walked towards them, then stood in front of them, looking out into the black, and the wet sheen of their lonely cars under sodium lamps. The asphalt expanse was comfortingly peopleless. He could leave now and never speak a word. Other people might work out what he just finished, but the discovery would never be attributed to him. The human race could go on and exploit it, spreading themselves so effortlessly to the stars with it, contaminating other planets with their DNA, suspect taste in art and literature, their bad ideas, and their egocentrism, and he would never be blamed for it. He might even help out with verification, but he would not be the originator, and would never go down in the history books, or more likely, never have an extensive Wikipedia page.

He rested his hands on the bar handle to the door, but felt unable to press down. A round of light laughter echoed down the hallway, and he hoped, briefly, that maybe he was wrong. Maybe forgot to carry a digit, or didn't take into account some necessary constant. Perhaps if he told the three they would help him find an overlooked flaw that invalidated all the math, and that would be a relief. But there was also the risk that if he told them, they might find his work to be completely correct. They would obligate him to tell the department head, emails would go out to the community, and he would have to publish. It would be largely out of his hands after that. Verification, yes, but then experiments would be conducted. Vast sums of money would be spent to warp tiny regions of spacetime inside specially built machines, then if that was managed, the experiments would be externalized. The public would undoubtably be galvanized with a sudden direction and purpose for the future. Great, vast ships would be built to blaze against the enormous black, or rather through it, as slick vacuoles of hominid mediocrity.

The thoughts filled him with dread and he felt sick. He wondered if he was overreacting. Maybe it wouldn't be easy, maybe the science didn't scale that way. Maybe humans wouldn't be so outward looking after all (which was even more reason to deny them the technology), or maybe they didn't feel like parting with that much of their tax dollars. He cycled through wishing for a stroke or a heart attack or at least a panic attack so severe it would induce selective amnesia, but nothing happened. He tightened his hands around the metal of the bar, which was now warming from his touch. He twisted his palms, feeling the skin catch and stretch. He pressed closer to the door and saw his breath condense on the window. The wind shifted outside and raindrops percussed against the glass, blurring the view of the parking lot, twisting the orange cast objects into indistinct blobs--

The light flicked off behind him. He breathed in sharply. A few footsteps, then the three stopped.

"Professor?" inquired the rightmost.

Arthur stood frozen, his face filling with a rush of blood that was simultaneously draining from his hands.

"Professor?" asked the leftmost in measured syllables.

Arthur turned slowly. His dry lips parted, the skin sticking. The three stood looking at him, several meters away, their faces cast in shadow. He could see only the outline of their forms in the light from the exit sign above his own head. In the darkness, with the light out, they were as generic and blank as people could be, almost mannequins. They had no apparent emotions or motives of their own. Just standing there like that they were primordial blobs--matter with potential and no remarked history. It was both disconcerting and comforting, and it eased him to a decision.

"I have something to tell you," he said. "Something wonderful."

Sunday, December 18, 2011

238/365 --Playlist Story-- inspired by "Fire with Fire" by Scissor Sisters

The outside of the building was non-descript, perhaps built in the 1920s but no later, of cement and granite and glass. Juno stood in the rain at it's front facade, under a white umbrella with a broken rib, her bright eyes examining the stone surfaces. She was a shoulder length away from the a police detective--a man in his late fifties, short, stout, a full head of hair, and fogged glasses. A ballpoint pen cap jutted out from his mouth and he chewed on it thoughtfully. His name was Phil.

"What do you think?" asked Phil, removing the cap with stubby fingers.

"There are charcoal smears," said Juno flatly. "There and there." She indicated the spots with a sweep of her right hand.

"Is that what that is?" asked Phil, squinting. "Do you think it matters?"

"I don't know. It might be a mark for acolytes. This cult has a thing for fire."

"Can I ask you something?"

"You already have," said Juno.

"Yeah, okay. How long have you been studying these people?"

"Five years. I wrote my thesis on them. But you already know that. Tell me, how is it they've violated any actual law? Why are the police involved? They may be a cult, but as far as I know they don't break the law."

"Ah," said Phil. "They have now. Come on, I'll show you."

Phil guided Juno into the building. She shook out her umbrella and closed it. The fluorescent lights, old and degraded, were flickering. Juno looked down, afraid the lights would trigger a seizure.

"Can we move faster?" she asked.

"I ain't no spring chicken," said Phil. "I used to jog, then I got shot in the leg by a guy who thought he was a purple eagle."


"Nevermind. It was the eighties."

They went through a set of double doors and descended a staircase. The only light was dim and filtered through a large semi-circular window set at ground level. Juno leaned over the railing and looked up then down. There were several stories above, and two below.

"Where are we?" she asked.

"It's an abandoned office building. The last tenants left in the middle of the recession and the owner never bothered to hire any security force. Maybe the cost didn't justify it."

"So they're squatting? That's the extent of their illegal activity?"

Phil stood on two different steps, staring at her.

"You sympathize with them, don't you?" he asked. She looked out over the abyss between the railings. "Like Stockholm Syndrome or something--"

"--No, it's not like--"

"You've been studying them for so long, so intensely that you've become emotionally attached," said Phil, his eyes gleeful. Juno grimaced.

"It's just that when a group of people get labeled a cult, people dismiss them. They think they're automatically lunatics."

"There's a long history of that being true. Like Jonestown or Waco or--"

"What everyone forgets is that the cult members are still real people, with identities, histories, families, individual motivations, and civil rights. You can't ever really understand a cult without understand that."

Phil was silent, contemplative. He turned and started walking down again, Juno following him, then he spoke again.

"What made you study them? What got you into it?"

"People baffle me sometimes," said Juno. They both chuckled. "No, seriously. That's why I got into anthropology. I didn't intend to study cults at first, and then not one in particular--I had intended to study cults comparatively--but the host...I don't know," she trailed off.

"Humn," said Phil. "Why are they called 'the host'?"

Two policemen in paper jumpsuits passed them on the staircase carrying covered cardboard file boxes.

"What's in there?" asked Juno. "Are they removing something? What are they removing? Is this a crime scene?"

"That's what you're here to determine, doctor."

"Okay. Oh--they're called themselves the host because they consider their bodies to be vessels contain souls."

"Aren't we all?" asked Phil.

"It's a common religious tenet, but you can't prove souls exist scientifically. Anyway, that's not the point. What makes this belief different is that they consider their bodies temporary and the souls immortal--and yes, I know what you're going to say about that, but they don't believe in a non-physical afterlife."

"Then how is the soul immortal?"



The arrived at the bottom of the staircase. There was another set of double doors with a length of crime scene tape across it. Phil looked slightly exasperated, but Juno wore an expression of delight born by her intense interest in the subject.

"They're a future cult," said Juno.  She smiled broadly and waved her hands open.

"What does that mean?"

"They worship the future and all the potential it provides. They desire immortality in order to watch human history evolve. They're actually quite passive in how they interact with the outside--they value observation over influence so that they can be left alone."

"Kind of like the Amish."

"Yes! A lot like that actually--well except being interested in the future instead of the past. Anyway."

"So how do they think they can achieve immortality?"

"They don't know. There's a longevity movement that goes beyond them, it's actually sort of mainstream, and so there's a lot of research being done on how to extend human life, both the physical body and the conscious mind separated from it, but it's mostly theoretical or in the very early stages. It's the sort of think that's mostly fuelled by eccentric billionaires with too much time on their hands."

"Hmn," muttered Phil. He walked to the doors and pulled up the tape, then opened the doors into the hallway beyond. "Follow me."

They walked a short distance down the hallway. The lights worked better here and the area was much brighter. They came to a single metal door. Phil pressed down on the handle and opened it. The room inside was surprising large. Cables snaked across the floor; some of them were electrical, but some looked like they were salvaged from old electrical and computer equipment. The cables knotted were knotted in five places, and in the nexus of each knot lay a person.  Several police officers worked the scene, bending over the people, photographing them, and taking forensic evidence.

"Are they dead?" asked Juno quietly.

"Yes," said Phil. "But what are they?"


Phil pointed to the far end of the room. Twenty or so naked adults stood clustered together, completely hairless and shivering. The cables flowed across the floor towards them.

"Oh my God," exclaimed Juno.

"They don't speak," said Phil. "And they won't let us come near them. We told them we want to help them, but they just shuffle away as a group. And they've got those cables in them. Surgically implanted in their spines. We were afraid if we chased them around or tried to sedate them they'd injure themselves. I was hoping you could tell me what they are. I mean, are they some special caste in the cult? Why would anyone do that to their bodies?"

"Oh, wow," said Juno. She walked slowly towards the group. They all turned to look at her.

"Oh wow what?" asked Phil.

Juno stopped midway in the room.

"They're the numen grex."


"I think. It means 'potential herd'. I think they're clones, somehow, but I can't understand how they're adults. Either that or they've undergone some process to entirely wipe their active consciousness and personalities." Juno marvelled at the group.

"What do you mean, 'potential herd'? What does that mean?"

"It originated in one of the host's discussion groups online. The numen grex was proposed as digital storage though. Avatars in the cloud that could hold human consciousness, but there was concern about whether it would be a facsimile or the real thing. The thread died out about three years ago and I haven't heard anything since."

"I really don't know what you're going on about--"

"These!" exclaimed Juno, pointing emphatically towards the naked group. "They're open bodies. Vessels. Physical avatars instead of digital. Look at these cables--" Juno gestured towards them, following them back to the clothed bodies lying on the floor. "--They attempted to upload their minds to these bodies--they are meant to carry the soul along, from body to body to body. As each ages, there is a new transfer. Hypothetically."

"Doesn't look like it worked," said Phil.

"No," agreed Juno. "But why so many numen grex?"

"Is that what I have to call them?" Phil wrinkled his forehead. "How about just victims?"

"They might not be, if they participated willingly. If they're not clones and they did sacrifice themselves for the good of the group."

"Semantics, doctor. They have cables shoved up into their spines. No one in their right mind volunteers for that."

"Right mind is relative. Remember this is a different culture than what you consider normal."

"This is not normal in any culture!" Phil was red-faced. Juno looked at him sternly.

"It was once a common practice in Australia and Polynesia for men to split their penises down the urethra as a rite of passage into manhood. Their cultures didn't think it was abnormal until they had contact with the west."

Phil's eyes went wide.

"I could give you dozens of other examples, but that one got your attention," said Juno. "I'm not here to get into an argument with you though, am I?"

The other police officers in the room all stood and watched the pair, concerned.

"No," said Phil. "But it's my job to investigate any violation of the law. And in the culture that made the laws of this land, whatever's going on here is not normal, and probably not legal. People are dead. I just don't know if it's murder or suicide, and I sure as hell don't know what to do about them!" He pointed towards the people at the other end of the room.

"They need to be assessed by psychologists and medical doctors. The transfer probably didn't work at all, or maybe it was partial. I don't know. I don't have the background for that. It's possible they'll develop over time, like a polaroid. The progenitor personality might emerge in a few hours or days, or maybe they get their own if properly stimulated."

"You sound like you're spitballing."

"I am, but to you have anything else to go on?" Juno looked at him, her eyes sad. "It would be a shame if they just spent the rest of their lives empty. If they didn't recover from this state. What I can't figure out though is why there are more numen grex than progenitors. It's like a four to one ratio."

"Maybe they weren't sure it would work. Maybe some were for practice," said Phil, looking disgusted at the bodies lying on the floor.

"But they died. Whatever it was they did, they died, but the numen grex didn't."

"Could you stop saying that?"

"No." Juno walked towards the nearest dead body and knelt over it. It was a man in dark jeans and a t-shirt. His socks and shoes were missing. He was face up, his eyelids still open. A metallic net was pulled over his head. "This seems primitive, the construction of this equipment, but I'm not an expert in that." She followed the cables from his head along the floor. She teased them apart with her fingers, counting. "There's four sets of identical cables...oh. Oh!"




"The host members that were actively discussing digital avatar transfer got hung up on the issue of facsimiles. I just said this to you a few minutes ago. They were worried they'd kill the original in order to create a copy rather than a transfer. Maybe by purposely killing the original they wouldn't have to address that problem. It was a knowing sacrifice either way."

"What does that have to do with four cables?"

"They were trying to make four copies. They embraced the idea of copies and ran with it. I mean, why not. Haven't you ever wanted to have more of you around? More income, better chore distribution, someone to talk to that knows exactly how you think."

"Not really."

"Oh. Anyway, I think that's why there are so many. Not an obnoxious number of copies, but enough to be useful."

"It's kind of creepy," said Phil. "Like it's the beginning of some sort of hive society where everyone's the same."

Juno smiled at him.

"That's an intriguing hypothesis," she said. "Would you like to co-author a paper?"

"Ugh, no. I'm on the path to retirement. I don't need to be picking up a second career."

Juno's pocket buzzed.

"Sorry, that's my alarm." She reached into her pocket and retrieved her phone. She turned off the alarm. "I've got a class to teach. Do you mind if I go?"

"No, of course," said Phil. He motioned towards the door.

"Let me know if you've got any more questions about the host. I'd love to stay on top of this."

"Yes, I'm sure I'll be bothering you in the future, especially of any of those poor guys wake up." He looked sadly at the numen grex.

Juno waved goodbye and left the room, smiling to herself.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

237/365 --Playlist Story-- inspired by "Kingdom of Doom" by The Good, The Bad & The Queen

The bird, a raven, stood atop the woman's bloated, sunburnt body, staring at the boy, Randall, five at the time, as he weakly reached towards his mother. The raven opened its beak, head following the boy's fingers; it tilted its wings forward, and ruffled itself up. Randall went limp, defeated. The raven squawked, then looked up, in the direction of a distant noise.

Blades cut the humid, rank air, pressing the floodwater below the roofline of Randall's house into concentric circles. The raven took flight. The boy was only vaguely aware of the approaching helicopter and rested his cheek against the sun scorched asphalt shingles. A rope curled down, landing at the crestline, then a man in a drab green suit and harness descended. Randall looked at the face of his dead mother, her eyes bulging out of puffy lids, her lips cracked and pressed against her crooked teeth, and he could not remember the way she looked before the storm arrived six days ago. Then strong hands scooped him upright, and he was in the lap of a stranger who smelled of sweat and metal and fuel, staring at the sun, dangling over brown stormwater.

The blades returned, but this time Randall was a man in a tan uniform and a helmet. He threw a rope down over the side of the helicopter, attached himself to it, secured his gun, and descended with three other soldiers into a tiny village in Afghanistan. They arrived on the ground in a cloud of dust. The villagers peeked from windows and stood in doorways, not wanting to run, but not knowing the occasion of the raid. Randall let go of the rope and swung his gun around. There was a loud bang, then the helicopter groaned, then a deafening blast. He looked up into a blossoming sunsetty ball. The blades tilted away from the tail, metal screeched. Randall ran forward into the street. The explosion bled out drops of hot metal, a white rain of fire to brand the mudbrick and wood rooftops. The helicopter thudded down; people screamed from within a house that was dismembered, though they could not be heard after the the initial concussion. Then a bullet ripped through Randall's chest, his forward momentum arrested, he stood still, wondering at the new feeling, unsure, the pain not yet registering.

He fell. There were more bullets. The other soldiers died in the ambush, but Randall was dragged to a house with two rooms separated by a blue curtain. A woman peeked out from behind the edge, and he met her gaze. She disappeared, the curtain left to sway gently.

"You're the interpreter?" asked a man in Arabic. He loomed over Randall, with a close-cropped beard, sweating profusely. He pressed his hand against the wound, but blood continued to seep up around his palm.

"Yes," Randall replied, in the same language.

"Why did you come here?" asked the man.

"I can't give you that information," said Randall. The man narrowed his eyes.

"That's a soldier's response," said the man, "but you don't strike me as a soldier."

"Then what am I, sir?" asked Randall blankly.

"You're a man who has already died," said the man.

"How do you know?"

The man smiled briefly, then rubbed his chin with his free hand.

"You will not survive this wound. Not out here. I did some training to become a doctor in Kabul, but my family needed me here."

"To be a foot soldier for--"

"No. That I am not. I don't have guns, not even for my own protection. Not for my sister's. I was not the one that shot you. It is my duty to save you, but that can't happen. You will die."

"I think I figured that out."

"Why did you come here?"

"I said I can't tell you."

"Tell him, brother, tell him," said the woman behind the curtain. Randall saw the shadow of her hand against it. He looked at the man, who then looked sad.

"We've had a drought for twenty years. Our wells are dry now," said the man.

"So?" asked Randall.

"There was a...prophecy," the man wrinkled his forehead in discomfort at saying the words, "that the water was taken from us."

"By a bird," said the sister. The man rolled his eyes.

"The women," he said, "they think everything is a fairytale."

"It was a bird the color of the night," said the sister, "and it landed and drank up all the water from the ground, then flew up and drank the water from the clouds, and it took it away to another land, away from us, to prolong our suffering for having bent so easily to the Soviet soldiers. And the prophecy is that the bird will return with the water when our village has completed our penance."


"I can see in your face that you think us to be uneducated. Rural fools. But like I said, this is the sort of  tale of passed between the lips of women," said the man. "I am myself a man of science...but..."

"The helicopter?" offered Randall. He coughed, and air bubbles surged up and frothed out of the wound.

"It is symbolic of a bird, yes, but there is more. The story goes that we would know our penance was over the day we met a man who had died."

"I'm not dead yet," said Randall, swallowing blood that was welling up in his throat.

"As I said, you have already died. Not here, but sometime in the past. You are dead in the eyes, I can see it. I have never seen a man with such eyes."

"That's not scientific."

"No, that is not." The man slowly lifted his hand from the wound. He frowned, his eyes heavy with water. "I cannot save you. But maybe you've come to save us."

Randall wheezed and choked, struggling for oxygen. He slapped the floor with his hands, and looked around the room, the mud walls decorated with loosely pinned up fabric, a table with a metal tea set, dusty pillows arranged as seating, and then he saw the curtain. The shadow of the sister's hand, cast across the folds looked like the head and beak and wings of a bird. Randall stopped breathing, his heart followed, but his brain held onto the image.

The man with the beard leaned over Randall, to listen to his chest. He sat up, then pressed two fingers against Randall's lids, pulling them down and covering the eyes. Then the chest swelled up--the man stood, shocked. Blood spilled out over the wound again, then it ran pink, then clear.

"Water!" said the man. "It's water!" His sister threw back the curtain and ran to embrace her brother.

The water bubbled up unabated out of Randall's chest, mouth, and nose. It inched across the floor, soaking into carpet and pillows. It touched the feet of the siblings, filling their shoes with coolness, then the day became noticeably darker. They went to the doorway and looked out. There were men in the street picking at the wreckage of the helicopter, but the sky was gray and threatening. Large raindrops began to fall, and over the next several months, it rained regularly, and the drought ended.

Friday, December 16, 2011

236/365 --Playlist Story-- inspired by "Hang On" by Dr. Dog

In December 1962, Donny and his little brother David ran through a train car running along an elevated track in Chicago. Businessmen traveling in from the suburbs to their office jobs looked at them with disdain. Donny chased David and they were both laughing, their cheeks and noses blushed red from the cold. They skittered to a stop in front of the door to the next car.

"Go on, open it," said Donny.

"No," said David, his smile fading.

"Chicken," said Donny. He reached over his brother's head for the handle to the door and pulled, sliding it open. A blast of wintry air assaulted their faces and bare fingers and they squinted. The track whizzed dizzily by below them. "Chicken, chicken, chicken--"

David leapt for the next car but missed the handle; he slid and fell onto the hitch, screamed, flailed, fell again, and disappeared under the train. Donny screamed then fell backwards into the car, pumping his legs out, crawling towards the other passengers, who were shocked, but not quick to comfort him.

Seven years later, Donny stood at the edge of a swimming pool holding an empty beer bottle. A naked woman standing next to him offered him a lit joint but he waved her off. He concentrated, judging the depth of the water, then he dove in, arcing his back quickly, his belly scraping against the rough bottom of the pool. He emerged, wiping his long hair from his eyes, and pulled himself up onto the pool edge to sit back and revel in the warmth of the sun.

There was a loud splash as the naked woman dove in.

"No!" Donny pushed himself into the water. Blood blossomed in the water. The woman floated up, still. Donny swam towards her, and cradled her broken head. "Why?"

Three years later, in the jungle, lying in a foxhole with mud caked all over his uniform, Donny listened to thick raindrops hitting the broad leaves of the surrounding foliage and the somnolent breathing of the other members of the platoon--his friends, his brothers. He felt his bowel becoming restless and so got up and crawled into the underbrush several yards away to relieve himself. As he squatted, a mortar landed in the middle of the platoon, spraying up legs and arms and visceral internal meat. Donny was thrown back, knocked out with the concussion, but was found alive and returned home with a medal in a box.

Five years later, while studying mathematics, he drove home from class, at noon, at as he turned a corner his back axel broke. The car swerved and he fought for control, pumping the brakes, but the car veered into a bus stop with twelve people. The car came to rest in a field, with three bodies wrapped up in the wheels and under the chassis. His face bleeding from an impact with the steering wheel, he got out shakily, and kneeled down to look underneath. He stared at the mess of meat, his face impassive. Others tried to pull him away, but he clung to the car door and the grass, forcing himself to look and absorb the scene.

A decade later, his temples graying, he stood at a chalkboard and wrote numbers. He enjoyed the way particles of chalk fell as he wrote, and accumulated in the shelf for the felt erasers. Occasionally he would graze the slate with his fingertips to feel its calming coolness.

"I can't take it anymore, professor."

Donny turned around and saw one of his students, the one he only remembered as the one with the thick glasses, standing a few feet away, and holding a gun in his hand.

"What are you doing?" asked Donny.

"I can't take the stress," said the student. Tears rolled down his face. He jerked up his hand and put the gun under his chin, pointed up and backward.

"Hang on," said Donny. The student shook his head and sobbed, then pulled the trigger. His body fell backward, and crumpled onto the first row of seats in the classroom. The sound of the shot reverberated through the large room and died out as the body slid further to the floor.

Donny shuffled forward two steps, his shoulders soft and drooped under his cardigan. His hands hung limply by his sides.

"I'm done asking why," he said firmly, then turned his back and completed the irrational equation on the chalkboard.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

235/365 --Playlist Story-- inspired by "Ça plane pour moi" by Plastic Bertrand

The mansion was painted a painful shade of Swedish flag blue, including the windows. Cleo, an arts blogger from Miami drove up the meandering driveway in her black Ford Galaxie Skyliner, a classic car bequeathed to her on her sixteenth birthday by her grandfather. The mileage was hideous but it had style that suited her--dark and gleaming and irreverent. Cleo wore dark sunglasses, copious sunscreen, and a sheen of white powder makeup that intensified the effect of her bottle red hair. Lounging unseatbelted on the passenger side was her boyfriend of eight years, Aureliano. His hair was longish and ruffled and he wore the same pair of black jeans he'd worn all week, along with a fresh gray t-shirt with the image of a stabbed and prostrate teddybear on the front drawn in white.

Cleo finally reached the end of the driveway, and parked next to several other cars.

"Didn't this use to be a nice neighborhood?" asked Cleo in a deadpan monotone.

"I don't think any neighborhood in Orlando could be called nice, exactly," Aureliano snickered. He cleared his throat and inserted an unlit cigarette between his lips. The gesture was purely an affectation--he'd never smoked in his life; he just liked to have a cigarette in his mouth whenever he went someplace where smoking was frowned up or illegal, just to see the sour looks on people's faces.

"Hush dear," said Cleo. "I grew up a few miles from here."

"I'm very sorry."

"Now," said Cleo, turning to her boyfriend with mock seriousness, "be on your best behavior. Mummy has to work."

Aureliano rolled his eyes.

"Unpaid blogging is not working, honey."

"Don't be tedious. I still support you."

"I'm not ungrateful for your family's money. Shall we?"

"Why yes," said Cleo. They emerged from the Skyliner in practiced synchrony, two graceful figures exuding silky, refined confidence. The doors slammed in unison and they strode up the rest of the driveway with a quick, measured swagger. They were greeted at the entrance to blue mansion by a pair of women dressed in shiny green leotards who pirouetted towards them and offered them frosty glasses of lemonade. Aureliano looked at them with disdain. Cleo waved them away with her hand. A man in a green leotard, who looked visibly put out by the getup, emerged from the door.

"Your invitations?" he asked with a sigh.

Cleo pulled a shiny green invitation from her pocket. It was embossed with her name and the address of the mansion. She passed it to the man in green.

"This is my plus one," said Cleo, nodding towards Aureliano. The man took the invitation and nodded to both of them.

"There's no smoking inside," said the man in green. Aureliano smiled. The man sighed again and showed them inside. "Please wander the exhibition space freely. The artist is in the courtyard, which is just through that way."

"What is his name exactly?" asked Cleo.

"I really have no idea. He told me to say he's just known as 'the artist'." The man employed air quotes.

"Tell me," said Cleo, sidling a little closer to the man, "what do you think of his work?"



"Fucking bonkers. But he must sell stuff, I guess. Some people will buy anything, won't they?"

"That's true," said Cleo, laughing lightly. "And do you know where he's actually from?"

"I really have no idea, lady. I just got hired for a few days."

"Oh of course." Cleo smiled warmly. "Thanks for your time."

She patted him on the arm then she and Aureliano walked into the foyer of the mansion. It had clearly recently been a gaudy neo-Georgian affair, but was transformed with matte blue paint into a dark, oppressive cave. A large neon yellow jellyfish suspended from the ceiling dominated the foyer. The walls were lined with plaster sculptures of people in clown costumes, all painted the same uniform shade of blue.

"Please don't make me stay more than an hour," said Aureliano, "or my eyes might start bleeding."

"Hush now. We don't know what his artistic statement is yet."

"Artistic statement? I can tell you what his artistic statement is; it's the under-the-sea themed nightmare of a mentally troubled five-year-old."

Cleo half-suppressed a chuckle.

"Nothing in art is wrong," said Cleo, "and frankly I've seen far worse."

"Clowns are wrong," said Aureliano under his breath.

They passed through the foyer and into another room with an intermittent strobe light that left them in long snatches of darkness. They progressed through the room slowly, moving only when the light allowed them to see their path. There were hip high columns, a foot wide and a foot long, each topped with a glass pitcher filled what looked blood. Broadly smiling women dressed in pink leotards gamely navigated the columns with wide plates of appetizers. Aureliano took a selection and bit in, then quickly spit it out into his hand.

"Plasticene! That's plasticene! Eughhhhya!" He deposited the lump on a nearby column and brushed his hands.

"Ew," said Cleo. "Clearly he wants to make the guests feel uncomfortable."

"Can we just go?" asked Aureliano.

"I think the courtyard is this way," said Cleo, steering Aureliano to the left. "I have to talk to him."

"No you don't."

"Aren't you a little intrigued?"

"This guy is probably passing off bleach as champagne, so no. Not really."

"Fine. As soon as we talk to him, we'll go."

They made it through the forest of columns without incident and emerged into a rather standard Floridian garden, complete with a kidney-shaped swimming pool circa 1973. It was filled with pink-dyed water. The artist was holding court on the other side of the pool, surrounded by a small throng of socialites, upper-seaboard art world luminaries, and the blonde aspirant housewives of local real estate barons, day traders, and perhaps even crime bosses. As Cleo and Aureliano approached, there was a wave of nervous laughing, and the crowd parted to reveal a clear view of the artist.

He was tall and skinny, and something about the length of his arms was off--the elbows were an inch or so lower than his waist. His fingers were long and bony, the skin a papery white, and he used his hands to expressively accompany his speech. His face in contrast was too fleshy for the rest of his frame--like an older Truman Capote stuffed into a turtleneck three sizes too small. His hair was long and bleach blond. It was puffed up in the front into a grand pompadour, then slicked back into a dagger shape that descended halfway down his back. He wore a plain black suit, a black dress shirt, with a wide baby blue silk tie. He also wore black wayfarer shades.

"Have we found the vampire known as Andy Warhol?" whispered Aureliano. Cleo glanced at him with a raised eyebrow.

"Manners dear," said Cleo with her mouth twitching. "Let's get closer."

They pressed into the crowd, making token apologies for bumping into the various siliconed women and dazzled bon vivants.

"Isn't art just, nnnnnnn, groovy," said the artist. He nasally slurred the last syllable, then chuckled for a few seconds. The crowd mirrored his laughter. Cleo started to laugh, then covered her mouth.

"Wow," said Aureliano, "I don't know why but that just seemed--"

"--hilarious?" asked Cleo. "That's so odd."

"Oh, a writer," said the artist, slurring again, and holding a long arm out towards Cleo. He turned his head to face her a half-second after speaking. "I do like writers," spittle collected at the slides of his thin lips. "One needs such good press." The crowd laughed.

Cleo held her hand out to shake his, but he retracted it, scratching at his fingers with his other hand. She dropped her hand gracefully.

"It's a pleasure to finally meet you," said Cleo, turning on the charm. "Could I borrow you for a few minutes for an interview?"

"Mmmmmm," slurred the artist. "Yes. Nnnnnn. Why not."

The crowd parted and together they walked to a patio set with a glass tabletop and two cushioned chairs. The artist sat with his legs crossed and his long fingers steepled. Cleo slid into the other chair and pressing her palms down on the tabletop, she leaned forward slightly. At this distance she noticed a sweet, slightly alkaline smell emanating from the artist. His skin on closer inspection looked like rice paper--slightly transparent. A weird spread of tiny veins spidered his face and neck, in splotches radiating from several distinct and non-symmetrical points. This was masked slightly with a powdery dusting of makeup.

"Thanks for taking the time to talk to me," said Cleo.

"Mmmmm. Of course."

"Can you tell me, what's the purpose of this party?"

"It's not a party, it's an exhibition," said the artist. "And the purpose is to sell art."

"It seems to be more of an installation, rather than distinct pieces."

"What, the rooms in the mansion? Nnnnnnn."

"Well, yes. Isn't that what you're exhibiting?"

The artist let out a choked and raspy chortle.

"Nnnn-nnnn. Mere decoration," he said, leaning back. "In the ocean, in the deep ocean, there are fish. And these fish have an organ that glows," he gestured with his hands, looping them down from his forehead. "And the is glow, while pretty, draws in little fish. Nnnnnnnn." He returned his hands to a steepled position and sat very still.

Cleo sat up with her back rigid. Her skin prickled and she furrowed her brow.

"Is that--I mean--that's a little cryptic," she said finally.

"Nnnnn. Mmm."

"Uh, well what are you trying to say with this exhibition? What ties all of it together?"

The artist shifted in his chair and looked at the throng of people. Cleo looked too, and noticed Aureliano watching her back, nodding robotically in response to a woman in a shiny dress, someone who had obviously made too many visits to the offices of a plastic surgeon, trying valiantly to engage him in conversation.

"Look at them. Nnnnn. Tell me what you see."

Cleo shifted focus to the other people in the crowd.

"I don't know. The usual suspects at these sorts of things. People with too much time on their hands maybe. A little insular. Judging status by the acquisition of objects. Jockeying amongst their perceived peers. Caring about their status."

"You wouldn't describe them as buyers? Nmmmm."

Cleo turned to look at the artist. The wrinkles around his eyes showed that he was smiling, but there was no smile across his lips.

"Oddly, no. They're not here to buy. They're here to be seen."

"Mmmmm. Then where are the buyers?"

"I...uh," Cleo pulled her arms towards her body, and folded her hands into her lap, pressing her knuckles nervously into her thighs. "Who are you?" she whispered.

The artist let a smile spread from his mouth. He tipped his chin downward, letting his wayfarers slip down his nose. His eyes were penetrating, with dark gray irises that spiraled instead of radiated from the pupil. In an instant, a nictating membrane slid across his left eye, wetting it, then slid back. He did not blink with his eyelids. Cleo felt suddenly cold, but broke out into a sweat.

"You're not..."

"Nnnnn." The artist flicked his sunglasses back up the bridge of his nose and leaned back in his chair. Cleo looked back at the throng, a sick pit forming in her stomach.

"They're the artwork, aren't they," she said. The artist didn't respond, but he started swaying his crossed-over foot.

"I'm not...please tell me I'm not for sale."

"You grew up in wealth, nnnnn."

"How do you know that?" asked Cleo, her voice tremulous.

"You grew up in wealth and yet you ignore its trappings, for the most part. Nnnn. You look at them with pity."

"I, uh..." she glanced again at Aureliano, who started to walk towards them.

"Nnnnnn. Don't pity them for who they are," said the artist. "They don't even know they're art."

"B-but who...who are the buyers?" asked Cleo.

The artist smiled and tilted his face to the sky. Then he laughed lightly, got up, and walked back to the crowd, passing Aureliano.

"Are you okay?" asked Aureliano.

"Let's go," said Cleo. She stood shakily, bumping the table so that it scraped against the cement. Aureliano took her arm and steadied her.

"What did he say?"

"He's nuts. He's just nuts. Pulling a prank."

They quickly walked towards the door back into the mansion, but Cleo stopped, pressing her fingers into Aureliano's arms, then kneading them.


"Sorry. I...I have to say something to them. Just in case."

Cleo swung around. The artist was in the center of the crowd again, making small talk, somehow drawing the people in, but he was watching her.

"Caveat fucking emptor!" she screamed in a deep voice. All the faces turned towards her and the crowd went silent. "Don't you ever, ever, think we're unaware!" She let go of Aureliano's arm, blood welling up in her face in a warm, fortifying rush. "You don't have any idea what you're inviting. Every person, every human, has the capacity to understand just what you are, and just what you're selling. It is primal within us! And we will not tolerate it. So I suggest you leave before you have anything to regret."

The crowd looked at her blankly. The artist chuckled, but no one else joined in. Instead the crowd broke apart slowly, dispersing, making awkward little blurts of subdued conversation.

"What...was that?" asked Aureliano, grinning.

"I just panned his work," said Cleo. "And maybe saved the human race. Come on." The strode through the mansion, and back out to the Skyliner.