Episode XLIX – Every conspiracy needs a solid supply of cereal.

Instead of the dulcet repetitive tones of my alarm, I could hear the strident voice of Longhorn just outside the door. This meant that it had to be Sunday. It had to be 12:07 PM on Sunday, because the fire-and-brimstone adjectives of Longhorn had worn a verbal furrow during the weekly seven minute commute he made with his congregation of like minded friends after mass. His weekly sermon vilified my absent person. My usual response was to insulate myself from his intolerance with my comforter and keep sleeping.

But since my slothful body was actually awake prior to the conclusion of his ranting, I decided to respond to his allegations subtly. After all, I had a raging hangover from my Saturday intemperance. I slipped over to my mirror, and teased my naturally unruly hair into to opposing sets of hair-horns. I then threw on some dark, dirty clothes from my hamper, and slunk over to my desk and sat in front of a pile of half-opened books. The verbal castigation ceased. This was the point when the puritans usually pranced into the room and branded scarlet letters on my sheet covered form with righteous eyes.

Instead of the usual quiet room of acquiescence, the group spied me, lit from behind by the devilish glow of mid-afternoon sun. I bared my teeth and waived. If I had a pitchfork, I would have shaken it furiously. The door swung back shut and didn’t re-open, which led me to cackle madly as I heard them run off down the corridor in search of holy water. With my daily objective of roommate annoyance satisfied, I went in search of the “cabal” to see who would be interested in using their remaining weekly meal plan points to buy copious amounts of dry cereal to stockpile for late night snacking. Everyone was gone. Finally, I tracked down Secret at his computer working at an efficient pace.

“What’s going on?” I asked, disregarding all of the idle drunk banter of the previous night.

“This!” He said with a flourish, whipping a sheet off the printer. “Our comrade, the Party Member, and Sweet are out making the requisite copies.”

The paper proclaimed a simple message pertaining to the under-garment situation in the Men’s room.

“Nice. And here I thought you were actually doing schoolwork.” I chuckled.

“No – E-mailing.” He said. “So, what do you know about making fake ID’s?”

“Are you serious?” I asked. “We’re actually going to do this? We’re going to form this – what was it – “junta” – that you talked about – and do stuff?”

“Sure, barbarian.” He said amicably. “We’ve already taken our first club action, and note that you’re now a co-conspirator of our little bunch, as we’ve satisfied whatever conditions you had. But it’s a ‘cabal’, as a ‘junta’ already rules, and we’re more of less trying to subvert power, so ‘cabal’ it is. And also note, that we declined to offer admission to Home School, because he can’t hold his liquor, pees himself when he’s drunk, and it also turned out that he was the owner of the nasty undergarments in the restroom, and The Man and I merely tolerate him here, because he’s good people, but really, we don’t want to hang out with him all the time, now, do we?”

“Alright.” I said sitting down. “This is a lot to tell someone before he gets eight cartons of cereal.”

“Ah, I need to procure some Apple Jacks as well for the coming drunkenness.” He noted. “So I will journey with you to the paragon of price-gouging, the Mart of Bears. When we get back, you and I will take care of the requisite identification card we will need to complete this scheme.”

“Alright.” I said, rising and moving toward the hall. “So who’s in?”

“Everyone! Except Home, as noted earlier.”

“Hmph.” I said eloquently. “Well, at least we’ll all have company in our cells.”

Episode XLVIII – Binding contracts aren’t for minors.

The sober geniuses of the dorm were fast asleep in their matching sheet and bedding sets, dozing contentedly on eggshell foam pads that protected battered and lumpy mattresses. Not an eye was cracked to the constant hum of the fluorescent hall lights. Absently, legs twitched at the thought of an early morning trek to introductory lab classes. All was stone silent on an early Saturday morning. Yet, an angry rumbling whisper of discontent seeped out of the furthest triple from the Resident Floor Gestapo, eluding the broken weather-stripping at the door’s seal. Inside, the room was a chaotic scene, with laundry and men heaped everywhere.

“There’s no alcohol allowed here!” Sweet Cream complained. “It’s outrageous, I tell you.”

“What, you didn’t get enough bargain basement beer at the party?” The Man asked, towering over Sweet. “Because Home-School, here, sure did.” To punctuate his remarks, Home raised his head from his upper bunk, and began to babble again.

“You guys are she greatest. I mean, the greatest. Have I have ever…”

“Yeah, yeah.” The Man said, waiving at Home with sober disgust, “Go back to passing out.”

Everyone lounged in their respective niches of the cramped room, waiting anxiously for Home to fade out again. A half-hour ago, the Man and I had dragged him back from the party, his feet swaying in the fall wind, and all two-hundred and fifty of his pounds being nothing but dead weight on our aching backs.

“No, it’s not that.” Sweet said indignantly from the computer, absently surfing the web for nothing.

“Well, you could be living in the library.” The Party Member noted from his place, sprawled out on the lone patch of shag rug on the linoleum. “A couple of my friends down at the Business School still have to live in those little rooms until they find them housing.”

“Sure, that sucks.” Sweet rebutted. “But that’s why I’m not in the L-School, I’m an engineer...What I’m saying…” Sweet said, re-phrasing his thoughts again. No one was really listening to him, because during the dragging, he had been staggering around, yelling at cars and challenging them to duels like an untamed junkyard dog. “Is that if I have to live in one of the ugliest, oldest, dorms, with the most serpentine corridors, and with moldy-ass underwear, that’s closest to buried toxic waste, then I want to be able to have beer when I want, not just cheap beer, but any kind of drink, you know in our rooms.”

“There is no toxic waste other than that underwear.” I noted lazily.

“Eh, bat-boy, you don’t know that.” The Secret Asian Man noted from the Man’s bunk.

“Fine. Let’s have Sweet look it up on the internet then. Missing nuclear waste – I’m sure there’s some sort of page for that.”

“F-that.” He said. “I want to have beer. All the time.”

“Alright, look.” I said leisurely. “You can’t have beer all the time, because you’re underage. More important than that, we’re supposedly in a substance-free dorm. We can’t have cigarettes, drugs, or alcohol in our rooms. So deal.”

“Well, I didn’t sign up for that.” He stated, sliding off the hard wooden chair. “Did you? I was placed here. Because of the lack of housing.”

I had actually signed up for ‘Substance Free’. I had done so under duress, because my collegiate sponsors, my parents, had made me pledge to do so before I left their watchful eyes. However, I had a number of theories about why the contract was invalid, and once outside of their ring of surveillance, I had no intention of honoring it under any circumstances.

“Besides.” SC continued. “It’s not like we really fit in around here, so we could use a drink on the side, now and then. I mean, look. Other than us, everyone did their homework and went to bed at eight on a Friday night.”

“So, whatcha saying?” The Party Member asked.

“That we should do something about it, you know – maybe form some sort of drinking club, here in the dorm, you know, buy liquor, hang out, like we already do, except do it on our own time too.”

“So, you’re saying you want to form a cabal…interesting…yess…it…could work…” The Secret Agent Man said, in between quick cat naps.

“Sure, if a cabal is what I’m talking about, then let’s do it.” Sweet said. “In the next afternoon, of course. LA – what do you think?”

“I’m in.” I said, stretching. “Only if our first act is to get those nasty underpants out of the bathroom.”

Episode XLVII - Sciurus carolinensis

Unfortunately for me, my skill set and language expertise didn’t extend into speaking or understanding squirrel. What I heard from his toothy mouth was “chitter chitter chitter I’m going to bite your jugular chitter”. Moreover, my brain had now restarted and had absorbed about half a second of extreme visual and auditory stimuli. Adrenaline coursed through each point of my body in an electric fashion. I then did what anyone in that situation would do. Like a mad hatter, I jumped and hopped from one foot to the other, arms waiving akimbo above my head, fingers twitching, neck gyrating, and shoulders swaying while screaming like a small child.

The blare of a oncoming sedan horn dragged my brain back from the initial “Animal Threat” setting it had perched on when it had processed the squirrel to the more common and mundane disaster that was approaching me at forty plus miles an hour. In my deluded frenzy, I had jumped into the road, squirrel and all. No self respecting mid-western driver was going to stop for a mere pedestrian, and it was a near-death experience for the rodent and myself to flash back to the relative safety of the cracked sidewalk, where several more minutes of jerking and spasmodic twitching finally induced it to stop running around my back, double-clutching my shirt, and considering whether to poop on me, bite me, or both. Inelegantly, it finally flopped to the ground.

Once at the base of a tree, it fluffed its tail indignantly at me, and presumed to waive an angry front paw pad in my direction dismissively. It put up its back and stared at me with those boring orbs of death, not deigning to even speak squirrel in my presence. It looked at me intently. And, I may not have been able to converse with the savage beast, but I could read its gaze. I knew that gaze. It was the look of “Now you’ve crossed me. And I’m going to get revenge.” I knew that look. It was the look of “All-I-needed-was-a-little- help-and-instead-of-helping-you-nearly-got-us-both-killed-you-inconsiderate-and-ungrateful-bastard”. I didn’t know that look as well, but I could sense it.

Then, once it had made its point, it hurtled back into a convenient tree. It scrabbled up the bark depressions easily. Up in the lower branches, several other furry menaces were motionless. Watching. They had peered past leaves, and were all watching the drama unfold. Then in one large, tail swishing simultaneous motion, they were gone. But the message remained. They would be back. And it would be payback. That was why I hunched instinctively under an entirely different set of leafy boughs. They wanted my sandwich, possibly. They were hungry. Or maybe they wanted something more sinister. They might want me – for revenge – for humiliation – or for worse. I grabbed my bag. I was going inside – where it was safe. And then, I saw him. Trash-can. Two feet distant. Hanging off the rim acrobatically, half-obscured by the metal rim. Motionless. Staring. Reporting. I moved at double time to the nearest door.

Episode XLVI – Turkey paranoia on rye.

The old growth leaves rustled. The branches sagged and swayed. I glanced up and around. There was nothing there. Nervously, I went back to eating my sandwich. Unconsciously, I bunched my shoulders over the stale bread and mystery meat. Above me, the branches moved again. My eyes darted upward to the spade shaped leaves. Again, nothing. I paused and shifted my weight uneasily. Just two more bites of lettuce, mustard, and tomato. In a second, my safe haven of crumbs and I could leave. Even though they remained unseen, I knew they were there. They were watching. No, watching was too benign. They were staring, plotting, conspiring. The wind caressed my shoulder and tickled my neck. Phantom fragments of memory jogged at my mind. I shuddered.

It had been the weight. That was the first clue I had that something was wrong. In between step left and step right, a shift of weight from one hip socket to another, it had hit me. I hadn’t had time to turn back angrily with wrath blazing from my irises at the impact that had surely come from a passing car. The sound waves hadn’t carried the mocking jeers past my ears yet. At least it wasn’t a biologic prank, splattering and oozing over my shoulders. Then the mass shifted. It should have fallen down. Its velocity and momentum should have bounced it off my shoulder-blade.

It should have plummeted like the dense weight that it was. Gravity defied it to stay aloft. But it didn’t drop. As the nerves from my heavily perspired dermis reached out to sketch a mental picture of its shape, it moved. It moved up. My neurons froze. Little half steps of force defying motion caught at the spare threads of fabric on my shirt. Muscles surged in my neck, whipping it about. Black. Dark pools of ebon pureness coldly shone at my eyes. Each and every fleck of my corneas stared back at me from their endless depths. I tore my gaze away from their dispassionate blankness. Row after row of well honed claws pierced my shirt. One coffee colored hair blended with one ancient gray bristle combined with jet black hairs and a multitude of brown shades on a ferociously puffed tail and a well groomed coat of fur.

Two pointy ears twitched and swayed, and then its nose wiggled and its mouth opened, exposing mismatched acorn crushing teeth that badly needed some floss. In calm, measured, squirrel, it spoke to me in a crisp, polished accent.

“Excuse me, my good fellow, I seem to be in a spot of trouble. I was out for my mid-afternoon nut-gathering on my usual tree, when in a dash, I found myself floundering about in a bit of a sticky wicket, headed to the sidewalk, and I saw you out for your daily jog, because I see you from my tree everyday, and I said to myself ‘There’s a chap who wouldn’t mind helping a fellow out in a time of need, especially as he knows my cousin thrice removed over and four times domesticated over, Bob’, so to make this story short, I used my billowing tail as a parachute, eh wot, and made a landing on your broad back, and now, if you’d be so good as to merely place me on the ground, I’d be forever in your debt.”

Episode XLV – Breaking and entering is a good bonding experience.

I began my second day of college alone. After Longhorn rejected my apology, he left abruptly. So at 11:41 A.M., I headed over to the doorframe, and looked out. The smell of mold was omnipresent, but the floor was otherwise supernaturally quiet. Then the footsteps came. It was a loose stride of someone in wet flip-flops. A second later, a tall scruffy guy lurched past me, before nearly falling out of his towel.

“Holy crap!” He said, clutching his heart with one hand and the frayed towel end with the other. “You scared the crap out of me.”

I introduced myself calmly as to not further startle him.

“Call me Sweet Cream – or SC for short…It’s an ice-cream flavor dumbass!” He said at my raised eyebrow. “I like ice cream. But not as much as I like Led Zeppelin.”

“Great introduction.” I said sarcastically. “I bet you have lots of friends.”

“Man, you’re funny.” He said right back. “Almost as funny as your bit yesterday.”

“Shut up.” I barked defensively. “It was the Natural Light.”

“Nasty Natty?” He said with a broad grin. “That’ll definitely mess with those crucial decisions – whether or not to be a moron for a first impression.”

“Alright, alright. So, other than mocking me, how’s everything going for you? How’s your roommate.”

His easy grin vanished into a lint filled diatribe.

“He’s a weirdo. A certifiable weirdo.” He said in a clipped staccato string of words. “Last night, he’s listening to Aboriginal music – the same damn track too.” He held up a hand. “And before you accuse me of being a racist bastard, let me tell you that he’s taller and fatter than me, and whiter too, a real pale fish of a guy from Minnesota. And did we do anything fun, you know, break the ice or whatever? Yeah, right. He doesn’t even like to talk. He just sits there – if you can get that – sits there, rocking out to that music, and then – get this. It’s a quarter to ten. And he tells me he’s going to bed, so I’d better keep it down...so I do – because he has that serial killer look – friendless and with glasses. I’m just unpacking anyways, and I look over, and he’s in bed, fully dressed. And I know what you’re thinking, but it gets better. Way better. He’s not only wearing all of his clothes that he just was, because I see the pant legs sticking out from the sheet, but he’s still wearing his shoes, completely laced up! It’s completely wacko. I’ve got a nut for a roommate. And honestly, I’d swear that he was almost asleep with his eyes open. And then he gets up at seven, if you could believe it. With the music, again. Gotta have that music.”

I shook my head in disbelief, and then told SC my story, to which he nodded his head in sympathetic disbelief.

“Well, come by in a couple minutes, when I’m dressed. Then we’ll go see what trouble we can stir up…crap!”

“What?” I said, turning around.

“He locked me out? I told him to leave the door open, because I was just taking a shower – and he locked me out!”

Intrigued, I came over. Our frantic pounding only bruised our fists.

“How about a little help?” SC asked. “You know how to card into a room?”

“Aw, I see. Now you need help, so you want to apologize about all those nasty things you said earlier.” I said, laughing.

“Well, if you can manage it, I might tell people that you’re not a total waste, but damn, hurry it up, if you do know – do you?”

Actually, yes.” I responded cheerfully. I whipped out my empty wallet with my dented and trusty Blockbuster card. I wedged and wiggled it between the frame and the plate, and tricked out the pins, resulting in the tell-tale click, followed by the door swinging open. It took about five seconds.

“Thanks.” He cracked. “Now I’m going to steal all this crappy stuff. Seriously. I live here. Do you mind going back next door, stalker, so I can change?”

I headed back smiling, relaxed for the second time at college. In a matter of minutes, SC was back over, now clothed, and still making outlandish statements. As we headed out to get some chow, he casually remarked about the inequity of us not rooming together when we were clearly of a like mind.

“Funny you should mention that.” I said. “I think some changes could be made…”

Episode XLIV – Insensitive fits me like a shirt.

I closed the vents on my head, and let the hot air of fame float me up the stairs to my abode on the second floor. In my hypoxic state, I realized that life was now happening at a much quicker pace. I would have to be constantly adaptable to new situations, much like the punch drunk small fry that were moving disjointedly in my new roommate’s aquarium. The fish looked decidedly unhappy about their forced relocation. I wasn’t quite sure why he’d brought them. Captive fish aren’t really travel animals. They don’t like walks.

To my brash self, it seemed easier to buy new fish upon reaching the dorm. That way, when they weren’t fed, were fed to drunks, or made their sentimental journey down the porcelain expressway, there would be no great loss. After all, I had traveled with a minimum of my personal possessions in an oversized green army duffel. My roommate, whoever he was, had used a flatbed truck to relocate his former room. An initial and unobtrusive survey of his belongings failed to turn up of any of the tell-tale signs that he might be planning to murder me in my sleep. Most importantly, he had missed my zany antics at the Circle of Death.

As I reveled in this bit of good fortune, the door opened, and he walked in, followed by his parental units. He was lanky and rangy, and he had a drawling accent that dragged along the floor. Displaying remarkable self-restraint, I acted like a normal, common, person and spoke in a regular voice at a calming level, and mentioned only my name with an appeasing smile as I shook his hand. Immediately, I saw smiles wash over their trio with drastic relief. I exchanged small talk for a couple minutes, and then gracefully excused myself from the room.

Much later, when we met back up, absent parental accompaniment, and exhausted from the gauntlet of grueling introductory messages, we began to chat. It turned out to be actually unnerving how much the Longhorn and I had in common. He had played soccer. So had I. Both of us liked to free climb. Even more remarkable, we were both freshman in an out-of-state-university and knew no people whatsoever. So we talked. We sat for a long spell and shared pleasantries, and were already awake when the fire alarm was pulled at three in the morning by our soon-to-be-rival dorm, and had a head start on planning revenge when we returned to our room. It was at this point where the conversation became serious.

“Well, I’ve only known you for a couple hours now, but I already feel that we’re going to be the best of friends.” He spun out leisurely from his bed. I wasn’t sure about the latter, but I didn’t want to disturb the status quo. “Anyhow, there’s something that I have to tell you that I haven’t told anyone.”

I kept quiet with my plethora of theories. He continued.

“So, I’m a real devout Catholic. But there’s my girl, you know, from home. Anyhow – she’s pregnant. Three weeks. I don’t want the kid, and I don’t want to leave it up for adoption – what do you think I should do?”

All things considered, it wasn’t the worst thing I could have heard, I thought. I answered quickly and accurately from my heart.

“Well, I think if that’s the case…” I paused, allowing myself an inch of political room, “You should probably consider an abortion.”

Every iota of camaraderie sublimated off from the room in a millisecond. His casual drawling tone vanished, replaced by a sullen, angry rasp.

“I’m a Catholic. We don’t do that.”

I considered telling him that if he was that devout, he probably shouldn’t have been doing the horizontal lambada in the first place. Then I realized where such a comment would leave me: sleeping with one eye open or challenged to an early morning duel. Since I had left my pistols at home and had no seconds, I shut my mouth firmly, and passed out to his affronted tossing and turning. At the crack of eleven, I woke, and in the spirit of early morning friendship, extended an apology about my advice.

Since I usually never apologized for my beliefs, I viewed it as a great concession in the interests of inter-room harmony. It didn’t matter. He had gone Cold War on me. From that point on, we never exchanged more than outside pleasantries at best. He even taped off his half of the room at one point. I then proceeded to marginally move the tape closer to his bed when he was absent just to mess with him. He once abused my liberal ears with vile epithets about my advice. But I ignored the low level strife heroically, because in three months he and his surviving fish were gone. In the meantime, I marveled at how my evolving persona had accrued two strikes in one day by acting and not acting like myself.

Episode XLIII-The ring of embarrassment.

When I arrived at my college dorm in the Midwest, I was nervous. My safety net of familiar faces had been cut. I had also been told frequently that I was only one of two Californians in my dorm. It was also possible that it wasn’t nerves. It could have been the slight tipsiness I possessed from drinking a couple of quality, well aged cans of Natural Light with some people I never saw again. In any case, when the circle of introductions came around to me, I did something totally out of character. I acted. I adopted the worst Californian surfer accent possible, and threw in all of the generic surf terms I could think of. Words like “gnarly”, “dude”, “wicked”, “tubing”, “thrashing”, came out of my mouth in an ugly, heinous manner. The result was disastrous.

I received a token laugh. To call it a token laugh was charitable. It was really a sympathy laugh to get me to shut my mouth as fast as possible. What people really thought was: “That guy’s a total jackass”. I could tell they were thinking that because the rust flakes in the Natural Light had given me psychic powers. Placing my supernatural beer-boosted abilities aside, it was later confirmed that my theory was true. Several individuals told me explicitly in no kind terms that their first impression of me in that “Circle of Death” was vastly unfavorable.

Fortunately, these same individuals also told me that their first impression wasn’t entirely accurate, because I did have some redeeming qualities. However, I didn’t have the opportunity to ingratiate myself with everyone I had repulsed, which led to the misperception holding fast in people’s minds for at least a week, and in some cases, all four years of college. There was also one crucial problem about the impersonation that had escaped from my mouth. It wasn’t an impersonation.

I had been listening to myself talk for quite some time. In fact, one thing everyone could agree on was that I liked the sound of my voice. However, my constant talking had led to selective deafness to my verbal flaws. I was unaware that my dialect wasn’t quite normal English. The same individuals who befriended me also revealed to me later that I spoke Californian English all the time – such as, “he was all”, “we were all”, “all were all”. It was a dialect that they found amusing, but would make a grammarian wince. The point was simple. Since I obviously latently talked like a Californian, it made no sense to impersonate myself. In addition to being very stupid, it made me look somewhat odd, and made people seriously ponder if I had a mental disorder.

It was classic small fish syndrome. When I had graduated High School, some of my friends had gang tackled me the moment I left the stage. My super-ego liked thinking that I was a big deal. The reality was that I was no deal or a miniscule deal at best. I was basically a pup-fish, swimming around a small pool in a barren wasteland. I didn’t know anyone, and I didn’t know how to act. It was like the first day of kindergarten, but with bigger stakes that couldn’t be resolved by cookies and a nap. After the Circle of Death incident, I was crushed, and lagged behind everyone. I decided that once in the dorm, I was going to go straight to my room, and live out four years quietly, and hope everyone forgot about me by graduation.

Then it came at me unexpectedly.

“Hey – Last – right? I saw you on TV!” Heads turned. It was some big, burly guy. I had no idea who he was. “It was you, right?”

“Yeah…I was on TV.” I answered hesitantly. It was true. I had been on TV several times back in San Diego, as part of the local access channel which broadcast our college bowl matches.

“Nice job!” He said enthusiastically. Heads looked at me with new respect as they headed up, reassessing me, now smiling. I was now a king-sized pup-fish that had made it to the ocean by some magical confluence. The part of the conversation that my floor didn’t hear was that by a freak coincidence, the burly guy was the only other Californian, and by some oddity, had lived in my county, and even stranger, had actually watched the show that I had been on. It didn’t matter. The worries about how to act had slipped off in the current, and the dream of a scholarly existence had been replaced by a vocal and sillier thought: I was going to be popular. I was going to be the biggest pup-fish ever.

Episode XLII - Swamp thing lives.

The biology pond was next to the biology garden. The only scientific benefit of these parcels was that they had truly reverted to a state of nature. A colony of weeds had overrun all partitions and borders in the garden. They had moved freely past barriers into now abandoned and dusty pots. Under the watchful eye of the sun, the weeds had prospered and soared into four foot giants of old growth, hiding the cracked brown soil underneath. As the weeds were at their zenith and now protected as an endangered species, any future organized cultivation of trimming, pruning, or actual gardening had been postponed permanently. The pond was worse. At one point, it had been designed to have running water circulating through it, perhaps providing a clean environment for small fish, possibly tadpoles, or other water-dwelling creatures.

But then the pump broke. Public school funding being what it was, the pump was never replaced. The water stopped flowing. This wouldn’t have been so bad in itself, if the pool had been drained and cleaned regularly. This wasn’t the case. At some point early on, someone had decided that they really wanted no part of cleaning a four foot deep stagnant pool. So it festered. Algae began to grow on the surface. It probably started slowly. A thin layer of scum that gently and gingerly clung to the walls. Eventually, unopposed, it thickened into a green sludge of a carpet of inches deep, seeping and oozing over every exposed section of moisture. Then people began to throw things in it. A cigarette butt or two. Half eaten sandwiches, which caught on the algae and began to rot. Half consumed cans of juice, soda and Gatorade. And not to mention whatever else fell or became trapped in its decaying mass. The only thing biological about the pond now was whatever new entities were breeding in its festering mass.

It was therefore shocking when the Doctor turned the slow day into a very busy day with the proclamation that he would go into the pond himself, as a bet, for compensation. Our looks of incredulity were stripped away quickly by a bidding war. Everyone quickly dumped their bags on the hard science tables and began sorting through what change and ugly bills they possessed. The auction enthusiasm for bidding up the amount from $12.13 to $12.54 was shushed only once by the cranky comments of Bismarck who was still resolutely working alone and wanted silence. The collection rolled on, and finally, the grand amount of $50.00 was proffered to the Doctor up front, because, really, with the conditions we were about to impose, it was questionable whether he would emerge from the liquid in question.

With more fortitude and courage than I would have demonstrated in facing such a task, he cheekily stated that he would accept our offer and the conditions. He would get into the pond, and stay under the surface of water – the very water that sustained the three feet of algae - for ten seconds. With much fanfare – somehow, word had spread down the science corridor that someone was going to get into the pond, we trooped out to find a small semi-circle already expecting the Doctor, some with cameras. I thought about offering advice on navigating septic patches of liquid, but he had already handed off the valuable assets he possessed – his shoes, wallet, and car keys, and waded into the morass.

The seconds ticked by in true alligator fashion, each letter possessing a perverse and long segment of time. With a great stride, the Doctor emerged from the pond – if you could call the creature that came out of that submerged state a person. All of the algae draped his body, crawling and slithering down his hair, face, and clothes, which had turned compost brown. But what caused us to draw back from the Doctor was not his now grotesque appearance. It was the aroma.

There is a rare plant that exudes a smell of death, sweet and saturating the air with a tantalizing musk of plant and rot. That smell is alone to make some of light disposition weak at the knees and vomit. And then there is the smell of actual death. And it is nothing small or mild. The Doctor was walking death. From the moment he emerged, the radius of putrefaction spread from his every movement. It was the stench of weeks old liquefied flesh. It was corpse, pure and simple. Like extras in a bad zombie movie, we fled from the Doctor and his constant aromatic disaster. Eventually, he made it to his car, and drove home, and after many days and many washings later, was back to his normal bouquet. His car was never the same, and neither was the pond. And the legacy of our graduating class was a sign that was installed the next day beside the pond – “No wading”.

Episode XLI – It is a set law that force laziness outweighs force productivity.

After Chicago, life moved with the speed of a mad quickstep at a drunken waltz. Days and weeks disappeared in a meaningless and hazy blur. It could have been that looming fear and uncertainty that something grandiose might happen or not happen at the end of High School. Or it could have been the massive amounts of legal drugs that I was injesting to kill off the three varieties of infection that were breeding in my respiratory system and in other areas of my body.

In any event, lots of crazy stuff happened that someone other than me could probably relate in a better manner. I went to Prom and actually double dated with Inteligente, meaning that I drove us and our dates. Prior to Prom actually starting, Inteligente lost his tickets, gave me bad driving directions, and lost his tickets again. Fortunately, Inteligente had me along to draw attention away from his inane mistakes. All I had to do was act like myself. With such an unspoken challenge, I managed to bore all thirty-two members of our group at dinner by telling a series of self-inflated egomaniacal stories. As a follow up, I danced even more badly than most people, and at the after-party, wrestled Bismarck to a draw on a trampoline. I also managed to effectively embarrass and annoy my date. Impressively, I was able to accomplish all of this without touching a single drop of liquor of any sort. Anyhow, some other stuff happened too around that time, but it couldn’t have been that important because I don’t really remember it that well.

In any case, one of my first days of lucidity after weeks of drug loopiness came in advanced physics. It was your classic blow off class to everyone except Bismarck. We had all had physics before, none of us were going to be physicists, and the teacher more or less left us to our own devices, because he was a really intelligent but mild-mannered fellow. The best part about the period was the socializing, occasionally interrupted by Bismarck complaining that we were disrupting his studies. It was a great experience because the whole cast of the characters was there with even more periphery players.

One day, we weren’t doing our 007 equations, as usual. We weren’t doing them, because the professor had already reiterated that in the problems, Bond could never die, so if our answer allowed Bond to die, we had done it incorrectly. While a good motivating tool, and quite humorous, the absolute law of an undying Bond was a detriment to productivity. If we knew Bond would always live, there was no need to really calculate his exact momentum out of his Aston-Martin past three goats, through a farmhouse and off a cliff. We also weren’t making ice cream out of dry ice either, so there was really no reason not to socialize. We were therefore sitting around playing the boring game of mafia, all except the Doctor, who was eying the biology pond, which for some reason, was placed next to the physics wing.

Episode XL – Just Freeze.

Tiny water droplets hung in a partially congealed limbo on dead branches. The branches were festering with rot and gorged with a winter of excess fluid. Gangrenous leaves were plastered on the black bark in a mockery of growth. The upper reaches of the tree were indecipherable to the eye because of the thick coat of fog that obscured everything above ten feet in height. The thick grey blanket hovered at that midpoint in the air, and threatened to fall to the ground, squashing everything underneath. Its diaphanous substance had to settle for absorbing all sounds that came from vocal cords. Every last syllable disappeared in puffs of vaporous futility in the ephemeral mass.

Relentlessly, torrentially, and inexorably, water poured from the invisible watering can that rested just above the clouds and trees. Each square inch of purported unoccupied space was filled by an endless train of precipitation, each drop shoving and nudging the one before it toward the ground faster than gravity wished to operate. The elemental commute was further complicated by a fell wind blustering. The gale screeched from unknown quarters, prying and yanking at the tired hydrogen-oxygen bonds with evil fury.

Sparkles of diamond chains of lost molecules cascaded in last minute throes before impacting on the sodden mud of the ground where grass had once set forth roots. Minute fractions of topsoil reeled in mid-air and contorted in agony in perfect rings above transitory circles that disappeared as the barrage of droplets continued unabated.

One step from the door, and I was a sodden mass. Two steps from the door and I had forgotten the eyes of the majority of the team who watched the four of us heading out to the empty area. Three steps from the door, the ambient temperature yanked at the heat of my core with long talons that had already stripped off warmth from my extremities. Four steps from the door and my heart’s clockwork beat was racing against the demons that hid in the elements like it was Armageddon. Five steps from the door my chest rattled and hummed with fluid that had been forced into my lungs. Six steps from the door I stopped.

I didn’t look left. I didn’t look right. I didn’t want to imagine that I was alone and foolish. I cautiously moved forward. Seven steps. My mind had already admitted the futility of shivering, and my muscles shook not at all. At eight steps, I could literally feel my red blood cells refusing to journey into my fingers, and stopping at my wrists. Nine steps. The rain pounded at the anvil of my skull in quick staccato hammer beats.

Then there were many, many, steps, breaking my slow resting motion, comprising ten, eleven, twelve, and more all in a quick succession that frozen neurons could never hope to comprehend. The blank black asphalt fell away as my feet sped over its flooded flawed surface. I leapt and soared. For a fleet second, I was just another particle being cast about randomly on the X and Y planes of time. That illusion vanished in the blink of an eye.

Massive momentum threw me forward, forcing every atom aside. My chest smashed the mud out in all directions. The ground fought back, battering and bruising my ribs. My flight had been short; the arc of my jump too narrow and low. My velocity caused the fetid weeks-old top level over-saturated groundwater to scratch at my tightly sealed mouth with covetous envy. Tendrils of dirt caught in the crevasses of my nose, ears, and eyes, and wiggled like feverish newly hatched maggots. Assorted twigs, trash, and other rotten materials latched onto my arms from the depths of their disturbed graves. Slimy, slippery things penetrated into the gap between my hair and scalp and sucked fast with leech-like efficiency. Hordes of bacteria rapidly infested the layers of dermis opened by bits of branches.

And then it was over. The only motion was the rotation of the planet, whisking my body along through the stars. Behind me, my meteoric swath of disaster cut through the twenty odd feet of swamp I had disturbed. My feet slipped out from under me as I stood. Somewhere, the bog had taken my shoe. Forty-two steps, I estimated. The contamination of infection coursed through every major system of my body. The unsustainable fire of fever was catching ablaze. There was nothing to do for it, but to take several more steps, and slide and slide again, scorching the water logged earth with the folly of myself and my teammates that I could now see all about me, experiencing the same moment.

Episode XXXIX –The brain recognizes cabin fever easily.

Chicago was a vibrant city, full of exotic nightlife, interesting culture, and many other hidden mysteries. We, however, were under lockdown, gulag style, confined in our flat cinderblock rooms as the competition dragged on. If we had lost, we could at least roam the city at day. But no. We were an academic juggernaut. We pushed lesser minds around the room, laughing at their claims of intellectual superiority. Even I, the trouble-maker had been in on some of the action, answering questions like they were mere multiple choice for five-year old children

And thus, we were sealed in at Lake Forest College during portions of the day. It was enough to make me attempt to throw one of our matches, if only I could find someone dishonest enough to bribe me. Even the game of mafia had grown boring and stale, like the day old oatmeal we were provided each breakfast. Our only sources of entertainment were picking on fellow contestants, watching Clean get genuinely exploited by having his sneakers cleaned for seven dollars, and idly speculating on strange topics.

I had suggested that we break out, commando style, in the dead of the night, under cover of darkness, and sneak from tree to tree, avoiding puddles and mud, to the L Station next to the college and journey downtown to see the real Chicago. The Chicago we were seeing was nothing but a flat suburban enclave that could have been inserted anywhere in the world. My ideas however, fell on inflexible and deaf ears. Ms. Savant would rather commit seppuku than dishonor herself, the team, the school, and anything else that could possibly be dishonored. The others were like scared Holstein cows; immobile and resistant to any type of change.

The days dragged on in a meaningless blur of rote facts, simple equations, ugly meals, and an omnipresent grey. The weather over this period – indeed, over the whole period had been horrid. The sun had not winked forth once, and a constant drizzle fogged the air between trees. The chill even seeped through the poorly mortared bricks of our cinderblock rooms, and roughly assaulted the feeble radiators. It was under these grim conditions that an impromptu council of war was being held by the team in our room.

“I can’t take it anymore!” The Egyptian muttered as he paced between notes and dirty laundry in the rear of the room while the rest of us watched him in silence. “This trip is more like a punishment than anything. I’ve got to do something.”

“There’s nothing to do.” Aristotle the Fro responded listlessly. “We’ve been through this before. And besides. It’s starting to rain again, and not just that spit.”

This stymied him for a second until he heard Ms. Savant coughing again.

“What did you say you had when we left? TB?”

“No.” She responded indignantly, tossing her hair past her copy of Dante’s Inferno. “It’s pneumonia.”

“Doesn’t matter. I bet we’re getting it.” He said bleakly. “I would know. I feel like crap.”

“I’m on antibiotics.” She said indignantly, again with the hair flip.

“But you’re not getting better.” He said slowly, “And we spend all day with you, every day. It’s only logical. I would know. My Dad’s a Doctor.”

“I might be.”

“No, he’s right.” Hush noted which made everyone stare in his direction evilly, which he responded to by putting up his hands in self-defense. “Alright, alright. I’m just saying.”

“Well, if I’m going to be sick; or even if I’m not, I’m going to have some goddam fun for once at this stupid competition.” The Egyptian ranted. “I’m going outside.”

“What are you going to do outside?” Aristotle and Inteligente asked, almost simultaneously. “It’s raining. It’s wet. It’s cold. And it’s dark.”

His round face suddenly lit up into a genuine smile.

“I’m going mudsliding. Anyone in?”

Above the torrential babble of words that followed this proclamation, I clearly echoed my assent. Immediately, I began to rummage through my duffle for my most despised T-shirt, and other clothes that I could cast easily aside once the action had ceased.

Episode XXXIV-No time for that complimentary phone call.

From the lowest vestige of my body, blood flowed and churned up toward my brain. Every extraneous and extra cell flooded into each capillary and vein headed to the central processing core to provide extra oxygen to power the deliberations. My neurons flashed and roared, lighting up the grey matter like a major city on New Year’s Eve. My face fell slack and I outwardly paused from the flurry of activity.

It seemed clear that the offer was a trick. It was exactly the type of trick that I had run into before. I was too canny for that now. I was older and wiser. I wasn’t going to say anything. I’d take my chances with the record. My silence couldn’t hurt the facts. There were witnesses; drunk witnesses, but even they would have to recall the cage match that had been the last act on the card. In that last dark alley and recess, however, there was a smidgen of doubt and temptation. I had to acknowledge that I was being bitter and cynical.

There was the distinct possibility that I was letting my past write my present, and by default, my future as well. If that was the case, I would trap myself in a continuous loop of failure. In this situation, I would have learned nothing at all, and in an ugly twist, deserved to be jailed for my stupidity. If I could walk out of this situation, with nothing other than the scars of the memories, it would be the best twist of fate ever. It just seemed like such a fickle and ephemeral offer, sure to collapse once I placed all of my hopes in its hands.

“Well?” The first cop asked again. In that last second, all analysis fled with the blood as it cycled through my heart.

“It was self-defense.” I blurted out suddenly, rolling the dice.

“How so?” The first one leaned in. I then took a deep breath, and laid out the story as it had transpired. There was a pause at the end, as they both looked at each other, while I tried not to think twice about my choice.

“Alright.” The second one said. “Let’s breathalyze you, and hopefully, you can be on your way.”

I blew a perfect zero. Then, for the first time, I was treated with a little deference, and asked formally if I wanted to press charges. That moment passed quickly. It was then strongly suggested that pressing charges would not be in my perceived best interests. Not surprisingly, I elected not to press charges. Then, with severe admonitions not to be in such a situation or any other illegal situation ever again, my meager possessions were returned. I was then told to “get the hell out”, which I did quickly. On the street outside the jail, the air had never felt as pure as it flowed in and out of my lungs, as my body shook with relief.

Minutes later, I realized that my wallet was completely empty of anything useful other than a driver’s license. I had no assets. I was stuck downtown in the odd hours of the morning, in a pre-cell phone era. I had to find a payphone to make a collect call. I called Mysterious first. He was at his house. He was very apologetic. He assured me that he would come get me, and take me where I needed to go. I needed to go to the hospital, where I required an even dozen stitches to close the flesh wound, and would later pay out of pocket for the visit because I didn’t want my parents to find out about the altercation.

Mysterious then lent me a new shirt, and we then journeyed to Denny’s, where we watched the sun crest the Eastern hills, eating pancakes quietly. It was an awkward affair. I wanted to wring his neck. I couldn’t believe he hadn’t backed me up in the brawl. I was additionally in shock that he had completely failed to mention that the police had arrived, and had left me there to be arrested. As the plates were being cleared, I felt that I could talk to him without venting hot frustration in a bellowing tone.

“What happened back there?” I said, trying to keep my voice level, a real feat.

“What?” He began, and then segued off awkwardly, giving me a pseudo-apology, “..besides, don’t be so upset. You probably would have done the same.”

What?!?” I hissed, before I stopped evenly. “No. I wouldn’t have done that.”

There wasn’t anything else to say after that. We parted oddly in the parking lot. I talked to him once again, but it was the last time I saw him and his crooked grin.

Episode XXXIII – This fantastic limited time offer is available now for…

“I say this because your situation, perhaps your case would appear to be unique as compared to the other wretches we picked up…”

I scrutinized the table intently. I wondered how the lines had scored the steel. I pictured a wiry man scrabbling at the smooth surface refusing to be dragged back to his cell, while stolid officers yanked mercilessly at his flailing legs.

“I hope you’re listening to me, because one of the interesting things about your case is this:”

He dropped the blood encrusted folding knife onto the table. My essence stained its fake wood stock and chrome ends. Bits of dried me had already clotted and collected at the corners of the firmly sealed evidence bag that the knife now resided in.

“And there’s that.” He continued, gesturing at my side. “And then there’s the few odd stories we’ve heard about you – at least we think it’s you – being attacked by this random guy. What do you think about that?”

I shifted my gaze to the floor. Again, there were all sorts of interesting pits and depressions that could catch a person’s fancy.

“You see, and then there’s the manner of your arrest. The arresting officer stated that you were ‘beating the hell out of some guy’.” He paused. “Now, let’s look at it this way. If you were attacked by a knife-wielding maniac, without provocation, that’s self-defense. That’s not a crime. In fact, assuming you can pass a breathalyzer test, you’d be free to go.” He paused again. “Or, say that’s not the case. You could have been beating that guy for another reason; you know; assault, aggravated assault, battery, possibly, even robbery. Now those are crimes. Serious, life-changing crimes.”

I stared hard at the floor, stone faced as he leaned forward.

“So let’s say we are skeptical, and we charge you with a crime, because you refuse to tell us what happened, in your own words. Then, at trial, you plead self-defense, and it turns out that it was. That’s a big hassle for everyone. Costs, public record, humiliation, and all that crap. Plus, maybe the judge thinks that you were excessive in your defense. Maybe the judge thinks that you exceeded the bounds of self-defense and became the aggressor. They like to call that escalation. And maybe he doesn’t like you, or whatever - you might get convicted anyways.”

I tried not to shake.

“But let’s say there’s a one-time alternative. We’re busy, like we said, and we’re inclined to believe that it was straight self-defense. In that case, all we’d have to do is hear it from you, right now, without a lawyer, without all of that record stuff, and we could let you go if you pass that breathalyzer. No record, no fuss. You’d be free to go. You could stay, if you wanted to press charges, but all things considered, I don’t think you’d want to go down that road, after what happened. So – are you listening?”

I looked up.

“It’s simple. Either you tell us right now, that it was self-defense, we test to see if you’ve been drinking, and if you’re not, we let you go, no record, no questions asked, or you do it the hard way, by the book. You’ll make your one call, get an attorney, make your record, and we take it from there. But the catch is, you have to decide now. Because if you don’t say anything, and we leave, we’re going to assume – that either you’re dumb – or you want things the hard way. So, you’ve got thirty seconds.”

Episode XXXII – It’s hard to find a cop when you need one.

“You’re a real tough guy, huh?” The lanky blue uniform grunted as he ratcheted down the silver bracelets to a discomfort factor of six. He spun me around, and his eyes lingered coldly on my face, reflecting a blank hatred without a scintilla of sympathy. “Beating up drunks? You have the right…”

I tuned out the rest of the Miranda warnings like they were invisible sound. I knew them already. I was in big trouble. Forlornly, I hung my head as I was lead out in a parade of pathetic individuals. I was trapped between drunks, the slow of foot, and those that were missing part of their mind for the next three hours. As I took my seat in the wagon, I gnashed my teeth about Mysterious. He had fled without a single qualm, disappearing easily rather than supporting me, or shouting a warning.

The ride down to the central jail was painstakingly endless. Out in the dark of night, stars flickered and died before the behemoth that incarcerated us rolled a half-mile. Not a word was uttered. Some people cried. Others were so absent of mind that they were no doubt musing about when the party bus was going to make it to TJ. I was calm. I was in my peaceful place. I was one with the universe, the world, and the smallest grain of sand. I was a focused mind in a larger consciousness. It was all utter crap. I was in a state of absolute terror.

My panic continuously ran rampant through my brain, persisting through my admission and processing into the jail. My side had clotted, mostly. It only seeped at every other third second. It grumbled and rumbled with intense disquiet, and desired to be in a position that was normal – not stretched apart in a backward hug. The admitting officer dispassionately passed it off as a mere flesh wound that would be attended to later. At this, my panic fled, quailing at the rage that surged through my veins; a mix of pure frustration and regret that simply wanted medical attention. I held my tongue, and collapsed into the holding cell, hunching over against the bars, clearing a plethora of cement space from the shambling masses already present. No one really wanted to deal with a guy who tended to ooze blood and exude its coppery smell. My appearance granted me the ultimate prison luxury: personal space and silence from my co-habitants.

In my extra-sumptuous concrete semi-circle, my eyes unfocused into the five mile blank stare of despair. I had turned eighteen three weeks prior. Throughout that day I had celebrated the court approved sealing of my inane rap sheet. From that point forward, in the eyes of the world, I was a regular, clean, average person. No one had anything on me. I was no longer a marked miscreant. I was respectable. My former life had been sealed into a vault that had been dropped into the deepest oceanic trench. All of my earthly sins had been washed away, and I was going to live my adult life in the promised land.

I had ruined the opportunity over something trivial. In three weeks. Three weeks! I had been cast out of the garden. I tried to justify my actions based upon the circumstances. The facts were hollow nourishment for my mourning mind. I was going to be branded as a criminal now, for the rest of my life. As I sat and stagnated in the cement and steel cage of my despair, the door of the holding cell swung open. Two officers walked in.

“Get up.” One gestured at me. There was nothing to do but obey. I shuffled out as they led me to an empty room. I had seen this room before. I had seen the prototype of this room on every television show about cops before. It was that typical room, with the blank walls, double sided glass, table, four chairs and a door. The cops plopped me unceremoniously in a chair and left.

A moment later, two other cops walked in. I then heard a new rendition of Miranda. It wasn’t really new; all the cops read from a little card they whipped out of their pocket. This one was dog eared and brown around the edges. It was unnecessary. After the balloon incident, my Miranda rights danced in front of my eyes every time I even spied a police officer. Because of that incident, I was certain of one thing. I wasn’t going to say one single word; not one syllable without representation, even though I was screwed.

“Busy night.” The second cop remarked, “You know, we arrested about fifty of you and your friends at that bash that was going on. That’s not even to discuss our normal intake of weekend friends.”

I stared at the table.

“Obviously, it’s going to be a lot of work for us to deal with all of you. Plus, it’s a lot of paperwork, babysitting, and whatnot, since most of you little bastards are quite annoying.”

The table was quite fascinating. It had little rivets carved into its steel surface.

“So maybe you’d like to make our job a little easier.” He proposed.

Episode XXXI – This wondrous invention does everything! It slices! It dices!

The back of the blade blurred as its edge burned and perforated my side. My instincts roared like ancient primal beasts. He actually was trying to kill me. Hot fresh life poured down my side. Millions of cells struggled in the changed atmosphere and cascaded with gravity to splash and fleck the floor. Behind the backdrop of my memories, the remaining audience encircled us silently as sound fled on the wings of violence. In the gap of heartbeats, the maniac steadied his aim, and moved to place my body on the stained floor still and silent, essence flowing out to cover the earlier holes in his design.

I staggered back and dodged his thrust, trailing fluids unevenly, painting the floor in my desperation. I gained some separation. I checked my wound. It was nasty; three inches long; but just a bleeder. The idiot had slashed me first. If he had stabbed, I would have had two inches of cold steel embedded fast in my ribcage draining my identity into the endless marble void of the universe. All things considered, I was well off, even though I was bleeding. My opponent caught his balance and wheeled back toward me with his altered glare of mindless determination.

Red overwhelming rage displaced the shock instantaneously. He had tried to kill me. It was no longer bad party amusing. It was not a laughing matter. Large sections of my brain switched off their twentieth century conventions and mores. My body crouched. My muscles tightened. He stumbled back across the ring, knife extended. He slashed wildly. I swept left and pinned his weapon wielding arm again my body with my right arm. My left backhanded his face savagely. Dimly, I felt his right arm go slack and drop the knife as he staggered back, stunned. I straightened up and delivered a crushing right hook to his unprotected face.

Strangely, he chose to keep standing and backpedaling, eyes wide with shock. Normally, I would have let the matter drop at this point. He was so high and dazed from the first two blows that he didn’t know where he was, or even how to defend himself. But this wasn’t normal. He had stabbed me, and my side was an aching, blood soaked mass. He had tried to kill me. I was going to make the frozen tableaux of the room watch as I shaped him like uncut marble. I was going to obliterate his mind, his very concept of leaving my body resting as a crimson still life on the floor. Left. Right. Left. I then delivered a thunderous punch with my right, and saw his feet go out, his face pulped.

I was about to step forward and although I didn’t know what exactly, I was going to do something because I was still enraged. A hand quickly slammed and clamped down on my back, and uttered the phrase:

“Police! Freeze! Put your hands in the air!”

My jaw dropped. I slowly turned, and the volume reappeared with a crash of reality. The booming base was gone. In its place were shouted commands and occasional screams, accompanied by the pounding of feet, sirens, and silence. Distantly, I remembered processing the sirens eons before, but I had been so focused on revenge that I had blocked everything out. I slowly raised my hands, and felt the inexorable and implacable pressure pushing me up against the nearest wall.

Episode XXX – Negotiations break down over who will lead the group hug.

The impromptu committee meeting that Mysterious had convened with me to talk about nothing did have one positive point. It brought a fresh, vibrant and repetitive series of insults from the stocky fellow in the doorframe. They cascaded over his confused lips, pouring out in an unfortunate series of jumbled verbs and mispronounced adjectives, coherent only by their ferocity and inevitable cyclical nature. As I again turned to leave, I heard the letters and loosely strung words finally breaking loose from the damn of incapacitation.

“I hate you so goddam much that I’m going to kill you! You hear me? I – am – going – to – kill – you!” The last part wasn’t dragged out for effect. The cow dung that he had placed in his body was proving to be a serious disruption to his breathing, not to mention the structure of his sentences, the grammar of his sentences, and even rudimentary sentence formation.

“Hey man.” Mysterious said, quickly deciding that his role was that of a professional negotiator who was going to broker a détente to the crisis. “My friend’s sorry. I’m sorry. Let’s get you a beer, and he’s going to apologize…apologize!” He hissed at me, “And we’re going to leave, and it’s all a big misunderstanding, and it’s all cool, so, let’s all relax…and everything’s going to be cool, ok?”

“Yeah, I’m really sorry.” I shouted again, but I really felt like adding, “For my face!” to be malicious. I did remember, as the latter words wet the tip of my tongue that I just wanted to be through with the idiot. So, I kept quiet and tried to look sincere. This might have been hard because of my face; after all, maybe it just couldn’t look sincere.

Things were quiet for about a minute. It looked like the apology was accepted and the peace accord had been signed by quiet assent. We shrugged our acceptance toward Mr. Short, each other, and then began to push towards the front door again. Two steps away from the invisible table, we heard the roar of insane rage and the inevitable stomping of feet in a rhythmic shuffling motion of personal affront. He scuffled along because running was simply too coordinated for someone that high. He could have crafted a new phrase for our backs, but he instead elected to go with the classic phrase that suited his rhetorical style.


By this point, the words had definitely and decidedly lost all meaning. I didn’t even turn around to look at him. I just wanted to be out of there. I wanted to be somewhere else. Preferably somewhere with an all-night kitchen, and that was incrementally cleaner. In that second before absolute departure, my ears abruptly nabbed a phrase that chilled my blood.

“He’s got a knife!”

It was uttered in that bad, horror movie teenage girl’s voice, and I wasn’t going to even give it credence but for the fact that everyone else in front of us suddenly began to move for the door double-time. As the exit was now stampeded shut, I decided to glance back just to check.

There was Mr. Short, empty doorframe, and now, empty wall behind me, slightly two feet off, and mid-center in the foyer. From his hand some sort of two inch folding knife protruded, blade extended and dangling. The situation was critical. Even I, who had been acting on idiotic instincts, was not dumb enough to again turn my back and walk away for the third time. All of this was ample fodder for my brain was to argue with my instincts about the next step. Instinctually, it was easy; fight or flight. As flight was blocked, it was fight. And yet, my brain insisted that it was unlikely that a total strung-out stranger would really try to kill me. It just wasn’t civilized.

“Hey.” I said, smiling graciously, and spreading my arms in what I assumed was a calming manner. “Let’s put the knife down, and just relax. I’m really, really sorry about what happened. But let’s let it go – let it pass this time, because, it’s not really worth this kind of trouble, you know?”

Episode XXIX – A common side effect of random insults is spectator slowing.

Mysterious grimaced at the post-apocalyptic levels of filth in the foyer while passing the loitering parties that supported the walls. I followed him into the darkened dining room. The grand table designed for entertaining was buckling under the weight of empty bottles and one prone person. My worn shoes crunched and ground broken fine china into the flooring like desiccated bones. We pushed through into the next room, finding it similarly ransacked and gloomy. Midway through, Mysterious turned and with all of his might screamed in my ear.

“This sucks. Let’s go.”

I nodded my head in easy assent. If we were lucky, we could make it to the gate before the Police arrived, and if nothing else, go to Denny’s, because they were open twenty-four hours a day. We turned and started shoving parties out of our path of travel. Midway, I paused to rest my arms, and to remove the impish claw of half of a tea saucer from my sole. Mysterious took the opportunity to shoot ahead of me into the relative light of the foyer. As I passed through the doorway, I heard a voice behind me start speaking loudly and distinctly.

“I really hate your goddam face.” It said. I turned, surprised at the interruption, and looked for a spectacle worthy of the dialogue caught in my ear. I peered around. There was no elephant, no rhinoceros, and no rumble between fogged parties. There was a stocky male. He was holding the doorframe for support. I had never seen him before. His short, scowling visage spoke again: “Did you hear me? I hate your goddam face.”

I actually wasn’t sure if I had heard him correctly. It was quite loud. It was possible that the words were coming from somewhere else – the aether, or somebody – anybody else. I saw his lips moving, but it just didn’t seem possible that he was speaking to me. It was so unreasonable that he would choose to vent his vitriol at me, a total stranger. I considered just ignoring him and continuing out. But since the whole evening had been one folly after another, my curiosity overrode my common sense.

“Excuse me?” I mouthed at him.

“I fucking hate your face!” He roared. “And I hate every inch of your body, and what you stand for.”

That was pretty clear. It was very certain what he meant. What was less obvious was why he was speaking to me, or what I would state in my reply. As I searched for the perfect words, I watched him sway and sweat in the cool night air. I also watched his eyes writhe in their red-rimmed ovals like caged renegade marbles. I then easily decided that he was high on some bad, bad ju-ju, smoked banana peels or drugs. Regardless of his choice of personality obliterator, I didn’t want any part of it.

I just wasn’t sure which response to use from my plethora of choices. I could say nothing, which seemed wise. Silence, however, did sometimes get smashed people upset like a goat. With this in mind, I attempted to be diplomatic. I apologized for having my face, but mentioned, that as it was the only one I had, I was stuck with it permanently. I then turned to get the hell out the front door.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the individual bellowed some more choice words about my apology and myself along the same vein. I had forgotten that altered people sometimes also don’t respond well to apologies either. At this point, Mysterious had caught wind of the situation. He stopped me to whisper in my ear and suggest that we make ourselves scarce. I responded snappily that I had been attempting to do that when he had stopped our progress.

Episode XXVIII - Wide open doors makes crashing a party something something.

France exports cheese. Bolivia exports tin. Mysterious’ ex-girlfriend told me that he was reckless. All of these items were old news at best to me, and therefore, non-essential filler statements. The issue was that I didn’t want to deal with his shenanigans and harebrained schemes that night. That night was my union-mandated time off, a perfect time for me to work on my killer impression of a sloth. Unfortunately, as Mysterious knew me, he played me like a violin, stirring me from my torpor. After I picked him up, we drove to the street that the party was on and passed a long line of parked cars.

Inwardly, I cursed. This was not the small, intimate soiree that would merely annoy the neighbors. It was sure to be the “Absent parent block/neighborhood wild debauched drunk fest” type of party. As we swung by the house; or should I say; mansion, complete with manicured lawns, open gate, and pillars, I noticed a small mob of people strewn over the grounds. Immediately, I cursed again. This was the exact type of party that the police wanted an invitation to, and were sure to crash without one. It was loud, obnoxious, full of under-age drinking, drug use, and much more.

I then suggested that we head back home. Mysterious then chose to play his second card in his deck of tricks. The first had been the friendship card. He might need someone to drive him home because he wanted to drink. The implication was that a true friend wouldn’t let him drive drunk. It was a devilish card to play. Like a sap, I had fallen for it. The second card was the quickness card. He assured me that we’d only stay a few minutes, because it really did look too big, and we really would leave before the police arrived. Since my brain had taken leave of my corporeal body, it was once again easy to agree with this assessment as well.

We found parking easily, since we were about two miles from the party. There was no danger of us not finding the party again, because all we had to do was follow the line of cars like bread crumbs. Once we passed the gate, and had a good view of the proceedings, I think Mysterious himself even had a moment of misgiving. Empty beer kegs lay upended with circles of prone people around them like gorged hogs by a feeding tray. The din of music emanating from the mansion threatened to split ear-drums by us taking but one step forward, and assorted planters and the driveway were strewn with enough trash to make a new landfill. It was obvious that because of the walk, the commute, and the phone call, we were very fashionably late, or the revelers had started the party very early.

Mysterious was one to never admit a mistake, so he plunged forward into the odd crowd of revelers, up the steps, and into the foyer. The foyer was grand, with a double staircase behind the open expanse of marble, above which a large monstrous crystal chandelier hung. The foyer was awesome, however, not for its intended effect, but for the surreal scene that was moving in and out of it.

The marble was coated in places with odd liquids – most likely liquor, but in some cases with what I was sure was vomit. The neat order of the stairs was disturbed by people strewn crumpled on the sides, in various stages of repose, mingled with assorted debris. On top of the stairwell, couples loitered foolishly close to the railing, co-mingling, with heads lolling easily in all directions. The lights were low and flickering, obscured by a slight haze, and the walls were streaked in places, while vibrating to the thrum of the base from the massive stereo that seemed to be the heart of the building.

Episode XXVII - Tomorrow is transitory.

At some point, I heard that if I was to place myself in mortal peril, I would experience a near-death experience. I had thought that many of my previous experiences to this point were dangerous, perhaps death dangerous. I was told at this juncture that I was wrong. I was wrong, my source told me, because if I was in mortal peril, my life would flash before my eyes. I don’t remember who my source was; someone I knew, or some popular culture movie masquerading as art. I was, however, convinced that the source, whatever, or whoever they were, was wrong. If dangling on a manky strand of rope behind a killer Cadillac wasn’t near death, I wasn’t sure what was.

And during that moment – and many others, I had seen nothing. With this a priori logic in my belt, I was smugly satisfied of my righteousness. As far as I was concerned, the void was all that waited in that moment, a quick flip of a switch, just like turning off a household light. There would be no personal highlight reel; no top ten moments; there would be nothing. It was cold; but that was life without the metaphysics.

Then I learned that I was wrong. To say that I was wrong would be to grossly understate the gravity of my error. I was incorrect; I was off base; I was so lost and foolish that looking back on my previous statements of ignorance made me cringe with revulsion. I learned that a near-death experience was a hard and simple thing to describe; words could approach the moment, outline the seconds, and yet obscure the moment like a shadow.

It began simply. My eyes blinked at the tableaux of strange people in front of me, including my antagonist. They opened, and I watched the sheen of the world disappear from my vision, stripped away in a torrent of memories and images. I could taste an old-fashioned donut from a summer holiday eight years ago. I could hear my first words jumbled up with a dozen other odd phrases. I could smell a flower from my old house’s summer garden. I felt everything; every minute emotion that I had ever possessed rushed across my bones and up my spine. Overlaid across the present, the cacophony of my visual life rushed nonstop.

All of it overwhelmed my senses as the point of the thirsty knife skittered and sliced across my ribs smoothly. It had all began four hours earlier. I had been at home on Saturday night pondering my extensive options. The sad truth was that I had none. Then the phone rang. It was Mysterious. The dialogue was quick. He had heard of a big party. He had heard of it because he had been invited to it. He wanted me to come along with him because his other friends were otherwise occupied. I didn’t feel slighted that I was his backup. After all, he and I did go to different schools. To be further fair, I hadn’t really spoken to him, nor had we seen each other more than a handful of times in the two years since the Dead Souls had broken up.

Episode XXVI – An egg in hand is easily dropped.

The cello strings of the Hydra vibrated as my grasping fingers attempted to tune in a note of total safety. The instantaneous moment of my decision had been met by the fantastical rush of adrenaline coursing through my body in a commanding chord. Each muscle, ligament, bone, organ, cell, each tiny bit of mitochondria had rustled to their assigned places in the orchestra of my life and turned their instructions and liner notes to the special, impromptu, wonder-performance of the day, Concerto of Mast-Scaling. The virtuoso, one splendid and over-hyped Consciousness had arrived distracted, even abstracted, unaware of the fluid opening movement, a soft hum of rocking scales, evoked by the frenetic waiving of the conductor, the eminent and well respected Brain, the veritable central processing repository of the body.

To a casual observer, it would have appeared that the first movement was completed in a calm, minimalist automaton fashion. This did not dissuade all manner of patrons from scurrying to odd places on the theater of the deck to view the spectacle. Such luminaries including philosophical Chefs, carnivorously grinning Captains, and Egg-Headed bothers were spied as the ensemble followed the scale of loosely strung ropes and ascended and progressed to the quick-stepped second movement.

As the spotlight of the sun blinded my eyes, I stopped and rested before the second movement, pausing to eliminate the superfluous and ridiculous third person internal running narrative that had chattered away inside of me as a melodic counterpoint since I had grabbed the eggs and stood on the first shaky land legs of the voyage. The blue ocean writhed and swam below defying the notion that a planetary surface should be still. Clouds streamed across the baby blue sky, rippling past the billowing sails. The midpoint of the rigging was no time for stage-fright, especially since I had already made my rash decision.

It was therefore a step from frayed end to new neatly strung strand. An upward grab. One quick grip to a slow hold. The detachment of the first movement had fled, exchanged for the almost erratic, sometimes fluid chain of successive solo actions. My eyes momentarily flicked upward. There it was. The elusive beginning of the third movement. The wooden crow’s nest of a platform that marked the top.

My feet touched solid planking that seemed to be of the rarest wood, a soft billowing expanse upon which I rested as the boat bore me along across the blue reaches of the world. My hands grasped fast the smooth upper worn reaches of the mast. The roar of blood in my head punctuated the energetic finale, crashing with a wild crescendo. I had but a few beats left to end the performance in triumph. Deftly, I braced myself and released the eggs, which fell swiftly and sweetly to their designated spot, ending the performance simply in a splatter finer than any fusillade from a battery of cannon. As the cheers and admonitions rose swiftly, I stood quietly like any good diva, basking in my moment of moxie, content that the effects had sprung from a sound cause.