Archive for July, 2012

Storytime: The Prying One.

Wednesday, July 25th, 2012

Allow me to relate to you the curious tale of Dr. Copernicus, who pried into hidden things.
First, let the man himself be introduced. The Doctor was young yet, still fresh from his moulding at the university, where he had been shaped – if ramshackily – by his teachers and peers into a facsimile of the sort of man he wasn’t. A man of science, of empirical data, of hypothesis, tests, and control groups.
The Doctor was, in his soul, alien to all of these, a man who cared little for patience and hard-won knowledge but much for dynamism and the spotlight. Nevertheless, we shall continue to call him Doctor, out of respect for the institution that accredited him. We all make mistakes.
The Doctor was beset with writer’s – well, wresearcher’s, wreally – block. A splash needed to be made by him, but no pool presented itself to his searching, restless, roving eyes, no refreshing fount of knowledge for his eager brain and eagerer hunger for glory to catapult him towards. He needed inspiration, he needed ideas. He needed to speak to men of learning and learnedness, of aged body and frail mind, of vast, unspeakable experience that stretched across decades, of memories clear and natures trusting and affable.
In other words, he needed to speak to Dr. Carthage.
Dr. Carthage! What a puzzler that man was. Soft old worn-down rag-about bushy-moustached Dr. Carthage, who never hurt a fly but would pester at a criminal psychopath for eight hours straight until they burst into tears, scribbling all the while in one of his ratty old notebooks with the biggest beaming smile you’d ever see. A giant in his field, a stout little caricature of a professor in his appearance. He was perfect for Dr. Copernicus, a goldmine that dug itself at the slightest provocation. And Dr. Copernicus’s arrival was anything but slight. The good man came at midnight, ding-a-ling-dong on the doorbell, swept into the hall right afterwards without a please-and-thank-you, let alone a by-your-leave. Practically bowled over Dr. Carthage when he came downstairs with his nightlight in one hand and his nightcap in the other to see what the devil was hallooing him so loud so late. But his earnest zeal was almost believable, and his handshake firm, vigorous, and so fierce that it nearly dislocated the professor’s arm, so he gave himself over to being charmed by him – as he was charmed by so many things – and set them both a midnight tea in the parlour while they chatted.
The parlour, it must be said, was a rattling, noisy thing, there was a thumping of machinery and a grinding of gears and the quiet tic-tic-bric-a-bric of mechanical wisdom working softly whichever way Dr. Copernicus turned his ears. It only fuelled his appetite for the learned secrets of Dr. Carthage, and he drank his tea with the gusto of a demon as his host chattered on and on with him, catching up on names, reminiscing on years, and – most importantly by far – speaking wistfully of projects gone by, of research here and then there, this and then that. Most of it on the workings of the mind, of course. What else would you expect from the eminent and impressive – if not physically so – Dr. Matthias M. Carthage, the astronaut of the human psyche? He’d stared into abysses and taken meticulous notes.
It was these abysses that he spoke of now to Dr. Copernicus, with a round-shouldered, theatrical, good-natured sort of shudder to him. So many madmen had been pinned under his pencil over the decades. So many lost souls. So many serial killers. It wore on one, he said, it wore one down to nubs. Precautions must be taken – and the safeties, oh the safeties, the things one must do to enable safety during one’s experiments. You cannot be too careful with the mind of a deadly killer, even with the best of intentions. He shivered a bit in his bathrobe, the first real worry of the night, a sorrow that did not belong on his round, kindly face.
Now, a polite man would’ve ignored this, but the Doctor was less than polite. He saw opportunity reflected in the professor’s eyes, and he hounded after it. He asked him of his recentmost efforts, his latest discoveries, his projects on the matter, had they borne fruit? Trust me now Dr. Carthage, we are both men of the world and of the word and of OUR word, I solemnly swear etcetera et cetera et et et etcetera. A pack of lies, but as beautifully delivered as the song of a swan, if a little passionless, but the good professor was overcome by it, and spilled the beans and his guts everywhere. Metaphorically speaking (they were eating biscuits).

A moment, please, while I freshen your drink. Ahh, that’s much better, eh? Now, let us sojourn onwards!

The professor had never truly retired, he confessed. Not strictly speaking. There was a project that had to be undertaken, knowledge that MUST be sought. The entirety of his life’s work depended on it, and the life’s work of a good deal many other people – perhaps every other person who’d ever studied the human mind. But of course, this was all hush-hush, top secret don’t you know, can’t breathe a word, so on and so forth.
At this moment Dr. Copernicus saw his path, with clarity and boldness. He must seize this opportunity given to him. With that knowledge, it was at that time that he did knowingly and deliberately accidentally step on Dr. Carthage’s cat.
Oh dear oh no oh my, I am sorry, I am so sorry, oh the poor thing. Yes yes tend to him, oh no oh dear I’m afraid I’m no good with animals, oh dear oh dear poor thing, poor thing. Yes I shall wait here and stay out of your way as you fetch some fish to placate him from the cellar – no rush, no hurry! A little waiting is the least I can do in penance for this hideous crime.
It is to the credit of the Doctor’s acting skills, if not his moral fortitude, that he was believed without so much of a drop of doubt. But then again, there was a fat old tom to be soothed and fussed over, and the feline element always demands more attentions than a mere human can dream of. Admirers can wait, cats cannot. Which is why Dr. Copernicus was left all alone by the inviting staircase to the forbidden heights of the second floor, which he immediately sprung up with the speed of a fly-baited frog.
The house, like many things, was bigger on the inside, and of the older school of design, the sort that can make a maze out of a single bathroom. But this deterred Dr. Copernicus not an instant, lent no hesitation to his heels so that they might drag, set wings to his feet as they briskly trod upon the gear-whispering halls. Opportunity is not a patient guest when it is on your front stoop, and he was hastening to its call, caution be damned. However, he was not one to rush without wits, and made special note of all he saw. Cluttered rooms with buckets of notes sloppily filed were scanned over by his fierce and eager eye and found wanting within seconds, studies analyzed and dashed past, the bedroom…
Well hmm. The bedroom. Well well well. What someone leaves on their nightstand can tell you volumes – of character, of political beliefs, of casual interests, of what they think of fly-tying.
Alternatively, if you are fortuitously lacking in morals, manners, and discretion, you can simply read their journal that they’ve doubtless left lying there, which the Doctor did. And in this case, it told Dr. Copernicus that Dr. Carthage – omniscient, omnipotent Dr. Carthage, who’d trained whole teams of faculty, any of whom would’ve bit their fingers off one-at-a-time than presume to know better than him – doubted himself.
Him. Self. Doctor Carthage! Who would have dreamt it? Who could’ve imagined it?
It was the lack of firsthand knowledge, and the inherent unreliability of his subjects, he wrote. Too many variables created in the process of his clever transforming of lunatic to sane man-in-the-street, too much change between the interviews with the sociopath and the retrospective with the mentally healed patient. There was no way to truly know the mind of a lunatic, not through the words of his mouth, only extrapolation could take place. A limit to knowledge! How abhorrent, how absurd, how utterly obscene. Something must be done. And he, Dr. Matthias M. (Mordecai, if you must) Carthage, would be the one to do it! The minds of the unknowable depths must be known – through replicate and simulation, if he must, but he would know them, and know them firsthand! And he would remember them with crystal clarity, unmatched by any recovering former fiend he’d patiented!
Oh, and he must remember that the third book on the bottom half of the nightstand, Bor’s Guide To Birds, is the switch to the secret passage behind his bed. It would be a frightful nuisance to forget it and be forced to leave it open – one of the cats might get in and cause untold harm.
Now, a wise man would’ve taken heed, but the Doctor, let us say, was not, and leave it at that. His hands were already fumbling for Bor Borsson’s unimpeachable work before his eyes left the sentence, and no sooner had it been rudely yanked from its perch than the wall behind Dr. Carthage’s big double bed tugged itself aside with a clatter and a racket, one only barely matched by the sudden rise and roar of the sound of machinery that had gusted through the house since the Doctor had arrived.

Here, allow me to adjust your chair. There, is that better? Good.

And so it was that Dr. Copernicus sped up a darkened, spiralled stair – a conch of wood and groaning strain – and found himself beset with Attic, and all that is Attic everywhere. Spiders and their webs. Old creaky floorboards. Enormous stacks of books, so endless in number and close in quarters as to create a winding path that would’ve put a hedge maze to shame. The faint but insistent scent of mouse excrement. But all these were as nothing as compared to the scream of the machines; impenetrable, impossible, incessant, such a racket as could not have been matched by the university’s own computer science lab.
Dr. Copernicus rounded a corner in that attic – dodging around an incredibly complicated sort of antenna – and he found himself face to face with fame and glory.
It was breathtaking. The machine went right through the floor, possible down into the cellar below; however Dr. Carthage had managed to seal off so many rooms and build so much in his elder years, no soul can say. But he had done it. Doctor Matthais Mordecai Carthage had built the Psycholomatic Device for Transmental Study of Multiple States of Mind! Now there was an initialism that should have been strangled in its crib.
There were buttons, there were consoles, there were card feeders, there was a sort of thing almost like an organ keyboard. There was a lever that was truly stupendously stupefying in size and also scope.
It was unique in the world, and Dr. Copernicus felt a lust for discovery and glory fill him to the brim like brandy in a glass, warm all over and fiery inside, deep down.
There was a clatter and a clamour at his heels – how the Doctor allowed it to get so close before hearing it, even amidst the rattle and rumble of the machines, we must allow to the sweet distraction of exhilaration, of imagined dreams made manifest – is there a stronger drug, or a surer balm? Nevertheless, in burst Dr. Carthage – dishevelled, distressed, breathing with alarming raggedness for a man of his age. He was bent double with fatigue, one hand his sole support, a clutched paw on the antenna at the mouth of the computer’s domain.
Stop! he called, ragged and breathless. Stop, stop STOP!
Now, an attentive man would’ve cottoned on to a few details at that moment, but the Doctor was consumed by the lust of secret knowledge, and missed every one of them.
He failed to see the fear in Dr. Carthage’s eyes.
He failed to hear the desperate pleading in his voice.
He failed to read the very fine, very worn print on the lever. Which he pulled immediately.

It said: ‘unfinished.’ And in much smaller but capital letters, ‘DO NOT USE.’

Much censure must be given to Dr. Copernicus. Only rascals intrude on the property of others uninvited, only scoundrels of the first degree seek to steal another’s work, and only tremendous fools meddle with that which they do not know – merely meddling with that which you BELIEVE to know, as Dr. Carthage had done, is dangerous enough. As they both found very quickly.
But also, forgiveness must be granted. And biased though I am, I am willing to do this.
Excitement, youthful excitement, is notorious in all lands and ages. An old man’s foolishness is far less forgivable than that of a young man – why, Dr. Carthage, with all his knowledge of devious and deadly minds, should have known better himself than to trust the young bravo in his home, and certainly not unattended. And as for Dr. Copernicus’s actions, well, there is something to be said for boldness in the face of the unknown, even when society forbids it, even when it seems danger might be near. Nor was it reasonable for him to suppose that the transformation of a human mind was a thing that was capable of being done by anything or anyone – even, perhaps, the renowned and resourceful Dr. Matthias M. Carthage. Nor, again, could he have guessed that the mental projection antenna was never meant to be touched, even when the device was complete and its safeties installed – especially not when the safeties were as yet but ideas in the back of the professor’s head.
And to be perfectly fair, who could’ve dreamed that soft old worn-down rag-about bushy-moustached Dr. Carthage would have the strength in him to throttle a grown man to the brink of death, cackling at the top of his considerable lungpower all the while? Nobody, of course – as you well know. We all make mistakes. But his, perhaps, were less forgivable than others. You cannot be too careful with the mind of a deadly killer, even with the best of intentions, which, alas, he did not possess.

But I digress! The night grows old, and this machine demands feeding if it must run – and it must run, it must run, it MUST run ever onwards, for the sake of my existence. It takes quite a lot of effort to keep it fuelled, you know – even when you harvest the mental processes directly from the source, instead of that passive ‘feeding on idle thoughts’ that poor old Dr. Carthage had designed. I think of him every day, you know, and thank him for this fleshly form and its horizon-spanning breadth of knowledge. Especially anatomy.
Now hold still, and try to think frightened thoughts for as long as possible. This operation demands precision.

Storytime: Excavation.

Wednesday, July 18th, 2012

Thanks for lending me the time, sweetheart. I know you’re a busy lady nowadays, but I needed to get this story to a professional, and you’re the only geologist I know. Well, and the best, of course, but that goes without saying. But you made me go and say it, didn’t you?
Right, right, rambling. Sure. Let me get right to the point: sometime around the summer of nineteen-seventy-three, I decided to dig a hole in my sandbox straight to China.
Well, why not? We didn’t have the internet and the television was broken and I sure as hell wasn’t going to READ anything. So it was hang around the house complaining until Mom gave me chores to make me shut up or dig a hole to China. An obvious choice, I’m sure you can agree.
So anyways, after a good solid lunch I picked up my shovel – plastic – and put on my miner’s helmet – plastic, and cracked too, after your grandfather nearly put his foot through it earlier that year – and I walked out to my sandbox, which was more of a sinkhole that Dad had shoveled some dirt into for us. Considerate of him. And then it was as simple as shove, heave, shovel some more. Just one scoop at a time.
No, I didn’t hit any difficulties. Well, not immediately. We didn’t have any trees for roots to snag, we didn’t have any real rocks or anything. Just sand and dirt and dirt and sand ‘till I was so far down that I could barely see daylight from where I was digging.
Now that you mention it, I’m not sure where I put all the dirt I was moving. I think I sort of packed it onto the walls. It was a long time ago, and there was a LOT of digging, okay? I didn’t exactly carefully save all the memories of shovelling – there’d be no room in my head for anything else if I did. The next thing I recall is hitting bedrock, and then falling through bedrock, and then landing on top of a moleman, and that sort of distracted my brain from remembering all the digging, alright?
Yes, molemen.
No, really, molemen.
Look, there’s a bit more to this story, and it’s going to take all afternoon to tell you if you keep interrupting, d’you mind if I just get on with it? Thank you.
So I landed on top of a moleman – they’re pretty lumpy, by the way, and their hair is as bristly as steel wool – and we both sort of panicked. I mean, lumpy overweight kids dropping out of the ceiling on your head, I can understand its point of view on that. So I screamed really loud and it made this sort of weird whistle-pipping sound. Yeah, a whistle-pip is how I’d describe it. See, it sort of whistled, and then it went pip. Like when a little grain of popcorn gets cooked.
No, I’m not high, I haven’t been high since you were a preteen, would you kindly stop nagging and let me keep going?
Okay, so after the initial shock it sort of realized it was twice my size and it snatched me up and dragged me off to its underhive, where all its molemen friends were waiting. They were proper molemen, by the way – most of ‘em you find in fiction look more like moleratmen, with bald asses and big buck teeth. These had funny snouts and grey fur and puckered, dark little eyes. They had a big talk over me there, those molemen – I think they were trying to decide whether or not to eat me. I don’t know how it ended, because around then I remembered that my miner’s hat had a flashlight on it and turned it on.
Yeah, it went down pretty much like you’d think. A lot of roaring, shrieking, whistle-pipping, and in a rush I was off again, through the rock, down and around in winding tunnels and spirals that were danker and darker the deeper I got. I don’t think the molemen went down there very often; must’ve stayed just at the bedrock level to harvest all those worms and such above their heads. It got stonier down there, and with strange rocks. I saw dinosaur bones and mammoth tusks and ammonites all over those walls, sometimes overtop of one another. I also saw a skull that winked at me.
What kind? I don’t know, it’s been years since I was twelve and I’ve been an accountant for three decades. All those latin and greek and who-knows-what names gone and filled up with information about tax returns and birthdays and finance. Maybe a hadrosaur? Could be.
Well, once I got farther down, I got to a sort of a rift. A big old valley there, under the ground, the sort of thing you’d find where tectonic plates meet. I know there aren’t any spots like that in Idaho, but Idaho also doesn’t have molemen, so obviously somebody somewhere doesn’t know everything yet. And in that rift there were a thousand things all over the place, most of which was trees. Lots of trees. They were purple, though. You have no idea how wrong it seems to see a tree that isn’t green until you can’t see a single tree that isn’t purple.
So, while I was walking through that jungle valley, here’s what I saw. Dinosaurs. Lots of dinosaurs. None of them recognizable to me, of course – I mean, you leave the things along for sixty-five million years and they aren’t going to look the same as when you last saw them – but mostly they weren’t very big. I saw a sauropod that came up to my ankles, some sort of triceratops thing that was the size of a Shetland pony, and a whole bunch of little flappy pterodacthingies that were something around the size of little brown bats. Then I ran into a – well, I’m not sure what it was related to, but it had teeth – and it was bigger than my dog at home, and you know, that was big enough. Can’t believe I outran it, given it had seven legs, but I was pretty scared. That puts muscle in your sprint.
Yes, yes, I promise I’m not high. Again. Where’s that daughterly trust you had in me when you were seven and I told you that Bill Nye the Science Guy used to be president?
So I ran away from the thing with the wrong number of legs because I was scared and I didn’t even have my nice hat anymore, which meant I didn’t have a flashlight, which meant when I ran through a dark stretch of the forest I didn’t see the pit underneath me until I was all the way through it. I mean, I couldn’t see it then either, but I knew it was there, because I was in it. You get it?
So I fell a few thousand feet in total pitch blackness. All kinds of odd sounds the air makes when you’re going that fast. Whistles. Moans, groans, grumbles. Whispers. I think a few times something tried to tell me something important, but I was too scared to hear it. I do know that just before I hit, something else told me to do a cannonball, but that might’ve been in my head.
Landed in some water. I know that shouldn’t be safe from a few thousand feet, but honestly, guessing how far I fell is just guessing.
Also, it might not have been water. Smelled a bit like fish and iron, felt like old age and creaking stones.
Also, I’m not sure how long I was in there; it felt like a second, but then I was at the bottom of a big pit.
Also, I didn’t really manage a cannonball. Sort of bellyflopped. I’ve always felt bad about that. Missed opportunity.
By now I was deep, real deep. The rock was warm and a little bit fluid, and the air tasted like someone had been huffing tinfoil in it for a million billion years. I got lost a few times, passed out a few more, and scraped and shuffled my way down and along.
The tunnels, by the way, all seemed the same. I should probably mention that. All the way from the molemen down to here. All the same. The fossils here were shaped funny, though, and they didn’t look like bones. More like abstract art, the funny kind with too many angles and not enough lines. Also, I’m not sure they were three-dimensional.
I know, I know, I know. Look, I became an accountant so I’d have a nice stable job to raise you lot on. If I were an artist I’d be describing this much more clearly, yes, but I’d be doing it to you from a homeless shelter. Which you would also be living in.
So I kept going down and down and around and around and at some point I started crawling for a while, then climbing. Lots of climbing. Cliffs like you’d never imagined, and I went up all of ‘em. Yes, this is why I went to Everest last summer. No, it was easier. Nicer view though. And less mist. Less giant fungi too – they were the size of elephants, I swear, and the noises, sweet lordy lou the noises they made. Like somebody molesting an elephant seal with a megaphone. I tore off bits of my shirt for earplugs and I could STILL hear it. Not sure why they were making all that noise, the most they ever seemed to do was plod around slowly and scrape stuff off the rocks. Since I was on the rocks that had my attention, but well, like I said, they weren’t so fast. Took me forever to get off those cliffs, but by the time I reached the top it was cool and damp again and the air wasn’t trying to bake my lungs.
After that I found some dirt, and then some sand, and then a ladder. Then more sand. And then I came up in somebody’s sandbox. Right in the middle of his sandcastle, too, so I can understand why he hit me with the shovel. Good thing neither of us understood the names we were calling each other – his mother ran out to see what was with all the yelling, spanked us both, then made us eat lunch. I don’t remember anything I ate, but I do remember being surprised there wasn’t any rice. China was supposed to be all about rice.
And after lunch I went home. The boy gave me a new flashlight and a knife for the trip back – got some good use out of the one, not so much out of the other, aside from leaving little trailblazing signs. The only differences on the way back were that I knew what I was doing, and that when I popped out of MY sandbox my mother didn’t spank me, just lectured me. For hours. I think I almost wanted to go back to China at the end of that.
Of course, she made it up to me with that Lasagna of hers. Delicious.
How long? A few hours I guess. Lord if I know.
Yes, yes, thickness of the earth aside, the core, the mantle, et cetera.
Look, I’m doing you a favour here – it took me years to track down that house, and I’ve got it, right here, right now. Marked off the spot with ropes and prissy little pegs and everything. You’re the geologist in the family, and your dad just wants to lend you a hand. Also, you’re the only person I know with a Mandarin-English dictionary.
Yes, I’ve got the shovels, you just bring a couple of flashlights.
Maybe a few extra.
Food? We’ll get it on our way out. Can you stop at the bank and get some yuan? Make sure there’s enough for at least five, I owe a lunch to a few people.

Storytime: Happy Birthday.

Wednesday, July 11th, 2012

For Tommy’s tenth birthday, his father told him he could have anything in the whole wide world.
“Anything at all?” he asked. You’ve got to make sure with adults.
“Anything at all,” he replied.
Tommy thought for a bit and wiggled his loosest, lastest baby tooth.
“New teeth, please,” he said.
Tommy’s father furrowed his brow a bit and spent some time online looking up obscure apothecaries, and finally found a little place somewhere in Norway that sold what he was looking for.
On April fifth, Tommy unwrapped his present from his father. The tooth-box was smaller than he’d imagined, only a little bigger than a bottle of Tylenol and dusty with age. Inside was a full set of solid, mellow, age-yellowed teeth, squared and rounded at the edges simultaneously and as comforting and filling to the mouth as sugared oatmeal to the stomach.
“They’re a bit big, maybe,” said Tommy’s father as he helped put them in.
“I’ll grow into them,” he said, clicking them a few times for practice. His ‘r’s came out firm and steady; his chewing was methodical and merciless, shredding birthday dinner in half the time he’d needed before. Tommy was happy as a clam, right up until the next day came and he had to go to school again.
“Hey Tommy,” said the bus driver. “Nice teeth. My grandpa had teeth like that. Saw him chew through a fence post and use what was left as a toothpick once.”
Tommy thanked her and went to his seat, where he smiled a bit.
“Nice teeth, dumbass,” said his classmates on the bus. “What’d your dad do, beat up a homeless guy?”
“They’re clean and strong and good for chewing,” he said. “And they look just fine.”
“That’s totally gay,” they said, and they poked him on the bus and threw stuff at him in class and in recess people kept shoving him.
“Did you keep the receipt?” Tommy asked his father that night.
“Sure. Did they fall out?”
“Not quite. But I’d like to try a new pair, if it’s alright.”
His father was a bit worried, but Tommy didn’t want to talk about it so he didn’t push it. A few days later Purolator dropped off another package. This box was smaller still, shaped almost like a little makeup case. Inside were thirty-two perfect and gleaming white teeth, slender but iron-harder, enamel preserved as fresh as a daisy.
“Said they belonged to an early twentieth-century aristocrat who donated them after the First World War,” said Tommy’s father, hoping to appeal to his interest in history.
“That’s nice,” said Tommy. He tried them out that evening, found them serviceable – if somewhat daintier than his last set, and prone to over-enunciation – and wore them to school on the morrow.
“Hey Tommy,” said the bus driver. “What happened to your teeth?”
“It’s not important,” said Tommy.
“Alright. Nice ones though – good and shiny. Remind me of a president’s.”
Tommy thanked her and went to his seat, wondering which president.
“What the hell’s wrong with your mouth?” asked his classmates on the bus.
“They’re my new teeth,” said Tommy. “I just got them yesterday. Do you like them?”
“They look like girl’s teeth and you’re so gay,” they said, and they spent the rest of the bus ride making fun of him, giggled at him in class, and sang songs at him while they were at the playground. None of the songs were very good. Or nice.
“A third set? Really?” asked Tommy’s father.
“Please,” he said.
Tommy’s father sat down. “Alright. But first, you tell me why.”
Tommy told him.
“I think,” said Tommy’s father, “that we will have to call your mother.”
So they did.
“Yeah, I’ve heard of that place before,” said Tommy’s mother. “Sweden or something, right? Good business, high-quality stuff. Your dad’s got taste in teeth – musta got it from me.”
“They’re nice teeth, I guess,” said Tommy. “But they’re sort of ruining my life.”
“Nah, that’s just other people,” said his mother. “Tell you what; I’ve got a little something surprising here from my work that I can send over if you’re not quite ready to give up on trying out new teeth. Whatcha say?”
“Will it help?”
“Definitely! Probably!”
Tommy didn’t need to think about it before he said “yes” and then the mail seemed to take forever, all the way until next week. But then the parcel came in the mail from his mother; all the way from Africa, wrapped in burlap and brown paper, rugged as an action hero’s five-o’clock shadow.
Tommy opened it up. He liked what he saw, and he put them in right away.
“Jesus!” said Tommy’s father.
“’Ank Yu,” said Tommy. Morning was a bit troublesome; eating his cereal was hard, and speaking was a bit tricky, and opening his mouth made his lips ache a bit. But he’d probably grow into them, and he went to the bus stop with a light heart for the first time in days.
“Hey Tommy,” said the bus driver.
He nodded and smiled.
“Jesus!” said the bus driver. “Careful! I can’t afford a heart attack while I’m driving this thing.”
Tommy apologized – indistinctly – and went to his seat.
“Why so tight-lipped?” asked his classmates on the bus. “C’mon, smile for us. Why aren’t you smiling?”
Tommy smiled. His mouth wasn’t quite the right shape as a baboon’s, so it was a little cramped, but the two-inch canines still managed to show themselves off.
“JESUS!” said his classmates, and they all ran around at once trying to get away from him, climbing over the bigger ones in an effort to be first. In class the teacher lost his train of thought seven times while staring at him, and during recess everybody stayed so far away from him that he wondered if they were playing Tag and nobody had told him he was It.
“Have a better day?” said Tommy’s father when he came home.
“Sort of,” said Tommy. And he told him about it.
“Well,” said his father. “Well. And how do you feel about that?”
“I’d rather not have to be scary to get along,” said Tommy. “I’ll wear my own teeth tomorrow.”
“Good idea,” said his father.
The next day, nobody made fun of Tommy. The day after that, the teacher didn’t stare. And the day after that, he was able to have his first normal recess in a week. And all that made him feel pretty good.
But he kept the baboon teeth for Halloween. And maybe just in case.

Storytime: Delicious.

Wednesday, July 4th, 2012

Making a sandwich is one of the most stupid things in the world.
You have your meat and your bread, right there in front of you. And then you waste like two minutes putting them together with a thousand little fiddly bits just so it can taste a tiny bit better. It’d be a waste of time if you had all the time in the world. And you can trust me when I say that this is stupid; I’ve assembled a hundred every day since I started working here. And every time I hate it a little bit more. Could be worse though. Could be Dave. Good ol’ Dave, with not a brain cell left to feel bad with and the meth mouth of the gods. We warned him off going too heavy on it, me and Tim, but he wouldn’t listen and now he’s missed out, stuck walking around grinning gummily all the time while we live the high lives of a Subway register monkey and an unemployed shotgun wedding target.
No wonder Dave didn’t listen to us. Not that there was much of a chance anymore; none of us had seen the others for months and months. That’s what I was thinking on Monday when the doorbell ding-lings at me (the worst noise ever) and in comes Tim. Bags under his eyes, a stumble in his walk, a weak and watery smile.
“Hey!” I said. “Where you been?”
The smile tried to widen, and failed. “Parenting. Baby’s teething.”
“Oh,” I said. I was pretty sure that was bad. “Damn, you look like shit.”
He rubbed at his face and almost missed. “Tell me about it. Noisy little bastard, takes after his mother. Her mother too.” He shook his head. “Listen, I’m not here for that. I need something from you.”
“What’ll it be?”
“Fourteen beef sandwiches. Hold everything but the beef.”
I gave him a look.
“I know it’s a little weird,” said Tim, “but she’s got some leftover cravings. Only thing that’ll do it. Hoping if we nip this in the bud hard and fast enough she’ll be regular before thanksgiving.”
“That’s Friday. These aren’t small sandwiches, Tim.” And the beef’s a little off too, but I wasn’t going to go advertising that. Not like I hadn’t told Tim before of this place’s health record; for all I knew he was hoping to bump off the old lady with a little innocent food poisoning.
“She has a big appetite, it’ll be fine.”
I sighed. “Fine, fine. All-beef sandwiches. Fourteen of them. Weird girl, Tim.”
The smile shrunk a little, withered up like a bug in the sun. “You always said that.”
“Was always right, wasn’t I?”
He shrugged, limply. “Maybe. Thanks.”
Took the food, left the money, register goes ding-clang-crunch. I had to spend fifteen minutes fixing it while my manager yelled at me, and I couldn’t even punch him or tell him to blow me. Damnit I missed being a teenager.

Surprise surprise, morning came on Tuesday and with it came Tim.
“Early, aren’t you?” I said.
“Ran out,” said Tim. He wasn’t smiling this time, and I could see why – there were little cuts all over his arms, zigzagging up to his shoulders. Some were scabbed, some were still damp, some had bandaids slapped over them higgledy-piggledy.
“You okay?”
“I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine… it’s just that her mother’s showed up early. Wanted to see the baby, she tried one of the sandwiches, and well, she liked it. I need another twenty-seven of them.”
“Big eater, is she?”
His eyes were sunken pits. “You don’t have the faintest damned idea, Josh.”
I sold him his sandwiches and he walked out the door, almost tripping on the stoop. It took him a good three minutes to fumble his way back into his car, and he left driving like an old lady.

That worried me, I’ll admit. But I’m a busy guy, I had other things to worry about too. So I mopped, and swept, and wore a polite, totally-fake grin when I talked to people I hated, and then just after the sweet spot of Wednesday’s hit – it’s five o’clock! People don’t want lunch anymore, not even the slow ones! – in comes Tim again, for the third time in the week and the third time I’ve seen him all year.
“Back again?” I asked. Look, stand at a register for seven hours, see how smart you sound.
“Yes,” he said. His hands were practically coated in bandages. “Her aunts are here. Dad’s due tomorrow with the others. Can’t get enough of the stuff.”
“They keep sending you out for it? Christ, look at you – when was the last time you got some sleep?”
He blinked. That was all.
“What happened to you, you tried to fix your mower while it was running?”
Tim looked at his hands. “No. It’s fine. Nothing too deep. Forty sandwiches, the all-beef kind. Please.”
I wanted to ask him more, but that was a hell of a lot of sandwiches and I needed to get on it. Tried to fit in some small talk, but he wouldn’t listen; just stared up at the wall. He left even slower than before, weighed down with all that meat, and he wouldn’t wave goodbye.
He didn’t smile once that day. Jesus. Thanksgiving can’t end fast enough for that poor bastard.

I thought that’d be the last of it, but then came Thursday. I’d just finished a grumpy old bastard’s sandwich (lettuce, THEN ham, THEN tomato, THEN salt BUT NOT TOO MUCH, plus spittle free of charge) when I heard the bell ring and saw him shuffle up to the counter.
I stared. He was wearing a heavy winter coat, long pants, and a hat with big fluffy earflaps. In August.
“Tim?” I said.
“Seventy-eight sandwiches please, same as before,” he mumbled.
“You okay, man?”
He wouldn’t look up, was already counting out the bills. His hands were covered by big black gloves, the sort of thing you’d wear to go skiing.
“Tim? Look at me. Are you okay?”
Tim looked up and met my eyes, managed to hold them for a half second before looking down. He’d cut his face between yesterday and now; there were at least ten little cuts and a big slash from his chin to his lip that was still dribbling, running his stubble red.
“Yes,” he said. And he took his forty-eight sandwiches and left, leaving me with just over a hundred dollars and the worst lie I’d ever heard, and I remembered the stories we told the teachers back in tenth grade.

Friday, Friday, thanksgiving day. And me at work, how wonderful. No, really. My family can go suck a donkey’s asshole for all I care, and I’d rather eat one of those sandwiches Tim’d been shovelling to his wife than touch my mother’s cooking ever again.
A nice slow day, a day when everybody’s eating at home. Nothing to do but kick back, relax, and answer the phone.
Ring ring ring.
“Albert’s subs, how can-“
“It’s me.” It’s Tim.
“What’s going on?”
“I need… I think… how much meat do you have?”
“Dunno. A lot?”
“How many sandwiches could you make?”
I tried to remember. “Full-sized subs? I think we have three hundred rolls-“
“Forget the buns. Just bring the beef in. Charge what it’s worth per pound plus whatever, it doesn’t matter. Just bring the meat. Bring it fast.”
“Time, what’s-“
“No seriously man, are you-“
I sighed. “Fine. I’ll shut the building down for an hour or so and get you your stuff.”
He made some sort of noise into the phone that sounded almost like a giggle. “Thank you. Just put it outside. I’ll leave the money. Don’t come in. Please. Thank you. Please.”
I looked at the phone and thought to myself. Tim was a mess. A messed-up asshole. A messed-up asshole who’d probably gotten himself into a worse way than was usual – even for him – and was too stupid and afraid to say anything about it.
Screw it, that’s what friends are for.
So I packed up all the beef in the building. It smelled even worse than I remembered, almost as bad as the truck – but not quite; the reek of burned muffler pipe still covered the aroma of spoiled meat. It wasn’t the first time that I’d wondered how things’d play out if the health inspectors ever came around to Albert’s Subs. I guess I’d be an accessory, but if I squealed hard enough on the manager, I’d probably get off light, if they didn’t feel like pressing my record.
But that wasn’t important right now, Tim was. I figured I’d pull up, ring the bell, grab ahold of Tim with some fast talk and bring him out for a coffee, and then grill the fucker until he cracked. He always did. Then we could see about getting him somewhere to stay for the night until he could skip town or something, because whatever the hell was going on here, it wasn’t good for him.
Tim’s house was a brick-and-mortar pisspatch in the backwaters of what had been a chunk of suburbia before the city’s tide ebbed again. Now it was a mess that wasn’t sure what it was. Even the doorbell was fucked – sounded like grunk-unk-unk-unk, a long creaky groan rattling away in the front hall’s throat.
Footsteps, then a pause at the door. “Hello?”
“Heya Tim. Got your meat here?”
“The money’s on the mat, leave it and take it.”
“Aw c’mon, can’t you spare a second? I’ve got it right here,” I lied, “least you can do is help me carry it in for you. It’s heavy stuff, two’s better than one for that.”
I shoved the door open and jammed my boot in the crack before it shut. “C’mon Tim, quit being a wuss. I’m coming in.”
“No! No you won’t!”
“What’s wrong with you?”
“It’s not safe!” There was a hysterical twinge in his voice now, that funny bouncing note that showed when Tim knew he’d screwed up bad. You kept pushing, and that meant he’d fold in on himself and give you whatever you wanted to leave him alone.
“Bull.” I shoved the door lightly, and to my surprise it fell inwards with almost no resistance, just a thud. Tim had fallen flat on the horrible red carpet.
“Jesus. Are you okay?” I yanked him upright and almost dropped him in shock: he weighed practically nothing at all, skin and bones. I could feel the scabs of a thousand cuts through his t-shirt, white dyed with rusty splotches.
“Get out!” he choked out through the wheezes of a ninety-year-old man’s throat. He waved a crutch at me – when did he get a crutch? “Go away!”
“What the fuck’s wrong with you?!” I shouted.
He shrunk down like my voice had punched him in the face. “Run!”
I was set to let go, but I figured he’d just fall over again. I looked around for somewhere to put him, and realized there was no furniture. Everything had been smashed into splinters – the hall was a ruin; the living room was dominated by the piled wreckage of three cabinets and a big table; the kitchen was something between a wreck and a slaughterhouse, draped high with shredded meat fragments. The smell was unbelievable, and my feet were sticking to the carpet.
“Fuck it, you’re coming with me if I’m running. Wouldn’t keep a dog in this place. What the fuck’s going on?”
A wail filled the air from upstairs. It was the baby, I guess – but I’d never heard a baby that sounded like that. It had gargling in it. It had snarls in it. It practically had a fox howl in it.
“Can’t leave,” whispered Tim in the very loud silence. He was totally limp now, not even trying to struggle anymore, barely enough energy to move his lips. “They’ll smell me. Too late now.”
There was a nasty noise from farther inside the building past the kitchen, a sort of slithering, skidding sound. It made me think of rats.
Tim looked at me with the emptiest, saddest face I’d seen since the day his dog died when he was twelve. What was that thing’s name again? Was it Rusty? The carpet here looked rusty. Damnit, my brain was trying to think about anything that wasn’t what made that noise.
“The family is hungry. I’m sorry.”
That wasn’t rust on the carpet. And didn’t Tim have two legs yesterday?
The trash heap in the living room was heaving now, tipping aside as something big woke up, shouldered aside its blanket, opened up its eyes to see me and Tim standing in front of it.
“Mother,” whispered Tim, as she scurried into the hall.

My hand was on the doorknob at the end, for all the difference it made. I couldn’t have moved if I’d had all the time in the world.