Augustus and the Whisper (II/?)

“A Most Particular Darkness”

Augustus shuffled away from the bar after his rousing discussion of the inefficiencies of nineteenth-century whaling came to an abrupt end.

It truly never even began.

Frankie figured that a drunk jawing on about whales and scrimshaws would drive off the few customers who were left, so he told Augustus it was closing time. 

It was no matter.

Augustus hadn’t contemplated the practicality of whaling enough to form a strong opinion.

Up until a few moments ago, he was set on putting his house up for sale and heading straight to California to dig around for gold. And then he started to think about whaling and its big ideas, and all the golden opportunities it could bring.

But he needed to compress, and slow down a bit. No need to head off to the shores of Nantucket, at least without a clear sense of direction.

So he rose from his bar stool and headed out the front door, finishing off his pint before he stumbled out into the night. 

From outside, he noticed the bar closer resembled a shack than some sort of mediocre example of brick and mortar twenty-first century architecture. It was isolated, off the beaten path, and shoddily built with aluminum siding. 

I’m aware that “off the beaten path” was one of Augustus’ favorite phrases. He didn’t say it too much.

But he liked the phrase whenever he came across it.

*

He heard a voice, not a whisper, but a loud and drunken voice, calling his name from inside the shack.

He turned around and looked back at his watering hole.

A fairly large sign that read “Frankie’s” in illuminated letters hung above his head. The “F” was out and it now read “Rankie’s”. 

“Augustus!” called the voice, again. The door swung open and out stumbled Hal, struggling to put on his jacket.

“Hal?” 

“It’s late—or early, I guess. Too early to be walking alone.”

“You live toward my place?”

“Yes, close by.”

Augustus didn’t know exactly where Hal lived, but figured it couldn’t be too far away, or else Hal would end up being the one walking home alone when he probably shouldn’t.

There’s so many things to worry about these days. It’s not like it had been back when Augustus was a kid, after all.

Now there were gangs and mass murderers and pedophiles, and they were all out there somewhere in the dark. Maybe they weren’t in this particular darkness, but they were out there somewhere. 

And that’s a fact.

Maybe I’m being presumptuous again, but many humans seemed to believe it was better when all anyone had to fear was mutual destruction by angry old white men.  

I try to understand.   

*

But off into the darkness the odd couple marched, with only the occasional automobile headlight lighting their way.

Home wasn’t all too far away and the sidewalk would lead them right to Augustus’ doorstep.  

“Frankie’s a good guy, ain’t he?” spouted Augustus.

His words abruptly broke the serene silence of their drunken trek.

“Oh, yes. I think,” responded Hal. 

“I think, too,” said Augustus. “Doesn’t seem to say much, though.”

“Seems to speak when he wants you gone,” countered Hal.

“The nerve of that guy,” said Augustus, as he shook his head and focused harder on the ground beneath his feet. 

“How much further?”

“Not much. Just around this bend.”

The road took a hard left turn ahead, and Turnabee Place was just beyond. 

*

Aside:

On the night the odd couple left Frankie’s and walked back home, Augustus was indeed correct in calling it Turnabee Place. But later, he will rename his street Whirling Place.

He renamed it because he could.

And it’s undoubtedly more fitting, and I credit Augustus in this particular matter.

But that’s all the jumping ahead I care to do right now.  

*

“Turnabee Place is my street,” said Augustus.

“Ah.” 

“What’s a Turnabee anyways?”

The odd couple continued to stumble onward, while nothing of note occurred, except for Hal’s insistent tying of Augustus’ shoes. 

That was odd even by the odd couple’s standards. 

But they were to the driveway, now, and they pushed their way through the overgrown trees and bushes. He would have to trim the jungle eventually, and his mailbox needed some fresh paint, too.

Might as well start tomorrow.

It’s funny the way things seem to go, if you’re not in on the joke.

*

Hal left Augustus, laces securely knotted, at the front door.

“I believe you can take it from here, my friend,” said Hal.

He’s done it many times before, after all. 

Hal left him almost unnoticeably, until Augustus fumbled his key as he took it from his jacket pocket, and dropped it off the porch. Hal turned to help him look for it, but Augustus waved him on. 

“I got it. I got it. I’ll see you later. Okay?” 

“Yeah—later, Augustus,” said Hal, as he walked away from the house and down the driveway, and back out into the dark.

Again, Augustus hoped he didn’t live too far away, but I’m aware Hal Holloway did not, in fact, live nearby.

Augustus picked the keys out of the bushes below the porch, and turned back toward the front door.

He inserted the key, turned the handle, kicked the bottom of the door twice, smacked the door thirteen inches above the knob with his left fist, making sure that his index finger’s knuckle made contact first, and proceeded to walk inside.

As Hal figured, he had indeed done this before.

*   

The Sweetbriar residence wasn’t much of anything; not now at least. It was his mother’s before she bit the dust on Christmas Eve’s eve. 

Poor thing. 

He had no job, so he had to sell most of the furniture and china in order to pay for all the pale ales, even when they seemed to always come right back up. 

I wish I could’ve given Augustus a tip or two about proper money management, because he never seemed to get his money’s worth.

But it was a three-bedroom, two-floor brick home, unlike the aluminum siding of the bar he frequented too often. Augustus didn’t deserve this much and he knew it—just liked to forget it. 

He eventually undressed and fell on to his bed, falling asleep quickly and soundly, with no voice whispering to him to tell him to go away.

He wouldn’t hear the whisper if it tried.

At times like these, Augustus was at peace, if only momentarily. 

But could he sense the significance of this humdrum peace? I’m not the one to ask, but if I had to guess I’d think he understood.

Somehow, someway.

And I’d think that was good enough for him. I’d think that he loved the way his mind was at ease when he slept, and all his troubles relieved, if only for the night.  

He likely appreciated the short break from the outside world, and all its chaos, and decisions, and responsibility, and madness.

But I could be wrong. 

Augustus and the Whisper (I/?)

“Enter Augustus Sweetbriar”

A remarkably unremarkable whisper asked Augustus Sweetbriar to leave his planet.

It came to him on three separate occasions, each more assertive than the last. While he never had plans to travel to deep space, he’d readily admit it was an intriguing idea.

But when the voice first pleaded, Go, Augustus did his best to shove it away from his normal-sized eardrum resting inside his above-average-sized ear.

And he walled off that entrance, so nothing could reach the moderately-limited processing power of his moderately-sized brain. It’s purely a matter of perspective on what’s big and what’s not.  

At least that’s what he liked to tell himself. 

But he remembered his mother’s incessant yelling and badgering and how he’d always wall off his brain when she’d want him to do the dishes (or anything productive, please!), and when she’d finally break through that damned wall guarding his brain, he’d make sure the noise would go right out the other side. 

The wall would discriminate from time to time—it’s true!  

But the unusual and remarkably unremarkable whisper made sure to repeat itself enough to annoy Augustus, to bring him to the very edge of rage and despair, where he’d finally be forced to listen. 

Just for a moment. 

It was rare that anyone cared to bother Augustus Sweetbriar, after all. 

*

Before I delve deeper into his experience with this quasi-mystical entity, I feel obligated to touch on the nature of the whisper itself. It wasn’t demanding, or intriguing, or intellectually persuasive, or even sexually persuasive.

It only seemed to be a whisper—a faint noise. 

It could’ve easily been mistaken for a gust of wind, drifting across the Ohio River to downtown Louisville on a fairly calm morning, whistling through the leaves of a bur oak (they’re common in these parts, or so I’m told!), eventually making its way back across the same river, miles and miles away.

Hmph—how Augustus loved that river! 

It was reliable, and never tried to fool him like all the others. It was a muddy-brown, the same as his post-breakfast shit, and he appreciated its unforgiving mediocrity and its humbleness, never trying to be something that it wasn’t.

And it was a damn river and he was a damn person so why should he be anything more. 

So unremarkable

Yet the whisper, on every occasion, acted as something much more. It surpassed its mediocrity and morphed itself into the unknown and the terrible. Because of its lack of familiarity, and its utter uniqueness, it scared Augustus.

He had never heard a sound like it before, even though in its simplest form, it was just a whisper softly piercing the Kentucky air—a whisper that sounded no different than any other whisper in his life. 

And that’s counting the whispers in church when his mother would sternly scold him to stop picking his nose.

The preacher is watching. 

But the unfamiliarity amplified its normality, to a point where it eventually took on something much more, and he’d finally relent and follow its demand. 

A voice? 

Yes, but it seemed to resonate through him, touching his bones and tissues and nerves, but most of all his heart. 

His aching and all-too-ordinary heart. 

I believe there’s an antiquated saying that has to do about big ears. It must relate to the bigness of his heart, right? 

I don’t know—.

*

When he finally came to accept the voice, he knew it surpassed miraculous. It was real but still so unbelievable, and as beautiful as a child watching the sunset at a baseball game for the first time, during the seventh inning stretch, as it paints the city skyline a blood-red. The sun continues to dip beyond the left-field wall and beyond the bleachers and, further, beyond the city’s bridge.

If it bothered to have one. 

But if it did, its rays would pass through the metal beams and wires until it disappeared and wouldn’t be seen again until the child would rise in the morning and step out the front door and follow that same sun on the early-morning walk to school. 

Even though that sunset may go unnoticed by many, one kid will surely appreciate its beauty and serenity, even at a young age, if only for a short moment. 

And that one kid could’ve very well been Augustus.     

So remarkable.

*

The first time he heard the faint whisper, he was bent over a toilet with a seemingly endless stream of yellow-gunk pouring out his mouth, acknowledging that he brought his death upon himself, while regretting all the alcohol and all other forms of self-destruction he too often practiced.

Just another Wednesday. 

I’m also aware that he never cleaned that toilet. It still remains in its same spot, dirty and forever forgotten: 

247 Turnabee Place

Louisville, Kentucky 40205 

United States of America, Earth, Milky Way

And since he was in a violent struggle against his own demons the faint whisper never stood a chance.

Like many who I’ve come to love and adore, for some reason or another, I cannot help but agonize over their flaws, and Augustus Sweetbriar had many, many flaws. But who could blame him? Or anyone?

He never seemed to hear much. Partly because of the wall he liked to imagine he built, to keep out family and foe alike, but also because he liked to believe he was above following others’ advice and suggestions. I’ve never understood why he would think so, because he never displayed any sort of talent or natural intelligence that should put him apart from the rest of humanity.

Perhaps he thought all humans are the same, so why should one tell the other what to do?

Interesting thought. 

But he loved to talk. He droned on and on, never truly expressing a well-reasoned and logical thought.

The whisper picked the most unresponsive person to reach, so it’d have to knock on Augustus’ eardrum at a more convenient time.

*

The second time he heard the whisper he was at the local watering hole.

Frankie’s to be exact.

Frankie’s owned by Franklin Lewis to be more exact.

Frankie’s owned by Franklin Lewis: a portly, middle-aged, clinically depressed, bald-headed man married to the first woman he ever had the nerve to ask out on a date to be even more exact.

I think this is as exact as I care to get about this man named Franklin.  

Augustus sat at the end of the bar staring at his half-empty pint of an overpriced pale ale, wondering why he came back for another drink when he was on death’s doormat just the morning before.

But the beer looked beautiful.

It was a golden-yellow, reminding him of his mom and her long, golden hair, the same golden hair that he held atop his own head.

He despised his own hair. His eyebrows were a darker shade, close to black, and he was relentlessly made fun of this miss-matching as a kid.

But he loved his mom and her hair until the end. 

*

I’ll do my best to limit my digressions and ramblings, because it’s the story that’s important, after all.

Right?

But I did love his mother. She was an incredibly confident woman, yet she had no faith in Augustus to keep the name Sweetbriar in good standing.

At the time of her death, who’s to blame her? 

If only she knew.  

Augustus owed everything to his mom, and appreciated the smallest details:

He loved the way she made him eat his peas before potatoes; and shouted at Henry, the mailman, the very moment she heard him approach, to make sure he slammed the mailbox shut; and covered him with the warmest of blankets whenever he would sob at the moments in movies that really weren’t all too sad.

Most of all, he loved how her body always seemed to move slower than her mouth even when she wasn’t speaking. There was an unusual, unexplainable grace about her that was forever lost. 

Again, I agonize.    

He dropped out of school in the ninth grade after some of the nastier classmates made fun of his clothes, and the way he talked, and the silly notes his mom left, and his oddly placed mole slightly hidden under the lobule of his right ear.

His mom took up the home-schooling after, but it was heavily skewed towards home.

So he never learned much, even to your own standards. I wouldn’t call him stupid, though. He was educationally ignorant, of course, and a moron.

But he had a natural intelligence.

Again, to your standards. 

He took to entrenching himself on the couch. He would be as close to a literal potato as he could in his formative years, and this potato would grow year round. Ben & Jerry’s was his manure; grape soda was his water; nineteen-eighties action flicks—his Sun. 

Inevitably, he developed socially agreed upon bad habits.

Nowadays, he wasn’t funneling pale ales down his throat every night, but maybe every other. His physical health was far from perfect, and free from toxins, but he’d at least try to trick his body into thinking it was.

That’s how he thought about it, at least.

*

The whisper knew there was a fifty-fifty chance it could catch his attention. 

So it beckoned: Go! Please, go.

But Augustus again didn’t notice it. He was too busy slouching over the bar focusing mightily hard on an exceedingly drunken discussion over the prospect of mining for gold in the continental United States. 

The year was 2007 AD.  

“I don’t think they found it all. The gold I mean,” slurred Augustus. 

The sound of his voice always hovered between formal and informal, between intelligent and idiotic.

It was as if his vocal chords were playing a constant game of copycat with itself. He directed his comment toward anybody that would listen.

Hal Holloway picked up the torch, however badly lit that torch might be. He was also a drunk, but leaned more toward the intelligent side, although in a place like Frankie’s the data set was undoubtedly biased.

Yet Hal took pride in his locally agreed upon wit. 

“What’re you crying about?” asked Hal. 

“Gold.” 

“I know, but what about it?” 

“I don’t think they got it all. Out west and such.”

Augustus was referring to the Great California Gold Rush in the mid-nineteenth century. It was a hopeful and desperate time. Perhaps Augustus could relate? 

But who am I to judge? As someone in an important book during Augustus’ time once said: 

“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”

I see no benefit in speculating on Augustus’ psyche and its relation to American history. 

*

Hal had grown accustomed to Augustus’ antics, but now he was flabbergasted.

The only drunk in Frankie’s that would complain about the lack of gold the miners dug up in the Great California Gold Rush would be Augustus. Most people think they did a pretty good job picking it out of the ground.

But, instead of arguing, Hal still decided to play along. 

“So what you goin’ to do about it?” asked Hal. 

“Well—well I’m going to get it…and whatnot,” replied Augustus.

“It’s a long way to California.”

“Is that where they left it?”

“Yes.”

“That is a long way.”

“You think there’s enough gold out there to make up for your troubles?” asked Hal. He thought this would get Augustus going again, but oddly it didn’t. 

Something entirely different did. 

Augustus finally heard the remarkably unremarkable whisper. It had to repeat itself a few times to break through his mental wall fortified by miners, pickaxes, and gold. 

But it got through.

“Now I’m not going to sit here and be made fun of for sport!” shouted Augustus in a flash of drunken anger. 

Everybody in the bar stopped gulping down their cocktails and lagers and turned to look at Augustus.

A few chairs said, in rude unison, “Creeeeaaak.”  

“Nobody’s trying to make a sport out of you, Augustus. Why would you get that in your head?” asked Hal, attempting to soothe his drunken acquaintance. 

“You told me to Go—you told me to please go,” he spat.

Some foam from the pale ale dripped down his chin. 

“No I didn’t.”

“I think you did, and while I appreciate the ‘please’, I don’t feel too much like leaving this here seat. I pay for drinks and food just the same as all of you! I tip a fair amount, generous even, and that’s speaking objectively! Objectively, Hal! That’s all you ask for, right Frankie? Objectivity?”

Frankie shook his head, as if giving up, and walked back to the kitchen. 

“I swear on my mother’s life, Augustus,” said Hal. 

“I swear on my mother’s life against the swear on your mother’s life,” retorted Augustus.

I understand Augustus is considered fairly mature and adult, and has just over thirty Earth years of experience, but sometimes it’s hard to believe he’s not eleven. 

Sometimes. 

“Your mother’s passed, Augustus.”

“Well—I know, but I still swear it.” 

“Augustus! I was asking you about the gold.”

“That he did,” chimed in an old man behind them. 

The old man was petting his chin hair that resembled cat whiskers, enthralled by the entire conversation. He was the kind of old man whose only remaining pleasure was to chime in, most often when nobody even asked for his thoughts.

“Oh,” said Augustus. 

He now remembered about the gold and how there just might not be enough of it left in California to make up for his trip out there and everything that came with it. The thought was almost as bad as someone ordering him to leave, which he wasn’t feeling up to doing at the moment. 

He motioned to Frankie for more mind-numbing liquid.  

“I don’t really know how much gold there might be. Just know they left some out there.”

“That’s an awful big risk to take. California’s pretty far away. Costs more to live there, too,” replied Hal. 

“Well—well I wouldn’t live out there too long. Just long enough to get the gold.”

“Do you got a car?”

“No.”

Hal shook his head.

Messing with Augustus wasn’t going great.

It’s like fooling a kid. Sooner or later the Big Man in the sky is going to look down through the clouds and ask: What’s your deal, pal?

“I think you should just drop this whole gold thing, Augustus.” 

Frankie set the pale ale down in front of Augustus. Frankie never liked to get into the quibbles of his customers, even the regulars. They won’t remember what he’d say anyways.

In truth, nobody cared what Frankie had to say at all. They just thought he ran a slightly above mediocre bar. 

Augustus picked up the pint and chugged away, foam dripping down his chin. 

“You’re probably right,” conceded Augustus. 

“Yes,” said Hal.  

Augustus took another gulp of the pale ale and slammed it on the counter, and looked Hal dead in the eyes.

“What about whaling?” he asked.

On Water Falling

If he stuck to the bank he could’ve taken the river to its end, all the way to where the water falls. It was a wide river, but he was a fairly inexperienced sea man. 

That’s what he called himself—a sea man. 

Alas, the salt was still far and few between, other than the copious amount of sweat that spilled into the river on all-too-sunny days. 

Days like today.

But Theodore George didn’t mind the sweat too much. It was better than all the inconveniences of before, and the pitfalls of his fellow Homo sapiens, and their possessive and all-too-short-sighted ways. 

A species of self-gratifying nincompoops.  

And this was back when Theodore went by “Theo”. Not because he preferred it, but because he still had a loving family that was collectively convinced that “Theo” was inherently superior to his God-given “Theodore”. 

But now he could set things right—many, many, things. 

He was sailing down the river because he shunned his fellow Homo sapiens, and all their insane ideas, and even though their end had not yet come, he knew it had to be soon. 

*

There wasn’t any one reason Theodore George had to stick to the bank of the river (a river whose name he didn’t know, and never would bother to learn). 

Instead, there were many reasons he preferred to stay close to shore. 

He was lucky to score a twenty-sixty on an eye exam, so it was awfully dangerous for him to wander too far away, especially when he figured the river was currently miles wide.

So he would use the trees to guide his ancient, rickety fishing boat along. 

And he was woefully aware of his inexperience as a sea man, so he trusted his ignorance, and was afraid to get caught too far off shore. If he drifted towards the middle, he might never make it to where the water falls.

The currents would wind him north and south, east and west, in the dark of night, and even though this isn’t the void of space, it was still a kind of void, and Theodore just couldn’t take that chance. 

Directionality was fairly important to a partially blind man. 

But the trees were there to guide him, and keep him company, as they’ve guided many other Homo sapiens in the far past. He had undiagnosed attention-deficit disorder, after all, and needed to focus on something other than the monotony of the still, murky water. 

The trees helped him pass the time away, and he thanked those trees. 

He would say things like, “Thank you, Mr. Umber,” and, “Thank you, Mrs. Penny,” and on and on until he thanked all the trees he thought were worth thanking. 

Theodore was of the opinion that not all trees were worth thanking. 

Only the trees that went above and beyond (or at least above-er and beyond-er) than a not-worth-thanking tree happened to go.

Oh, Theodore!

*

But he didn’t just stick to the bank because of his poor eyesight and undiagnosed attention-deficit disorder.

He also was convinced a German U-Boat was on his tail. 

*

How an early twentieth-century German U-Boat could be in slow pursuit of a middle-aged man named Theodore George is beyond comprehension for any reasonable Homo sapien.  

“But they’re all unreasonable,” explained Theodore to Mr. Umber the Third as he slowly drifted toward him. “And you, sir, can understand me. Your father and grandfather sure enough did. Trees are willing to be reasoned with. They’ve been around a lot longer than all these Homo sapiens, so they’ve seen a few more things.” 

Theodore didn’t believe humanity deserved the formal title of “wise”. 

“Let me tell you why the Germans are after me, Mr. Umber the Third. May I call you ‘Tre’? I had a cousin who was a third, and he let me call him ‘Tre’,” said Theodore. 

Mr. Umber the Third said nothing, because he was a tree, and always would be. 

“Tre, the Germans weren’t always in high pursuit of me and my own. I believe it’s happenstance, actually, as I noticed a large wake miles back—days back even. And this was after I crashed into something that seemed large and metal. And I would’ve thought it was a sunken ship, long forgotten, as most would’ve thought. 

“But I saw the periscope, and some would’ve thought that perhaps it was a muffler, from a sunken truck, also long forgotten. But I saw the light bend off the glass lens, and a dark, brown eye stare right back at me as I did all I could not to fall out of this rickety boat. The sailor was looking right at me, right into my eyes. Then, the periscope submerged, and I bobbed up and down until I regained my sense of balance and direction, until the waves quieted, and everything was still again.

“They didn’t just leave me, though. They’ve been following along, as their periscope gives them away. Maybe I’m a liability? Or maybe they’re interested to see if I can take this to the very end.

“You can ask your grandfather about all of the ordeal, Tre, if you don’t believe me. Go ahead and ask him about the German eye-ball, because he witnessed it just the same,” said Theodore. 

In fact, Mr. Umber the Third didn’t know his “grandfather” at all.

Theodore was being presumptuous, and didn’t properly understand trees. He was no more related to his grandfather than Theodore was related to the Roosevelts. 

But what can you do about a partially-blind man drifting down a river? 

Hope for the best, thought the trees. 

*

Mr. Umber the Third was long gone, now. 

Theodore believed he had just passed Mr. Umber the Nineteenth, but he honestly forgot, and there was no way to double check himself. While Theodore had the proper imagination to enjoy an enthralling conversation with trees, he was unable to come up with original names. 

Blame it on his upbringing, as most often did.  

He kept an accurate count of the fake-muffler sightings, however. He was up to eight separate occasions since his talk with Tre, and he was almost to the point where the water falls. 

Did the Germans want to see if he had the kahunas to go off the edge? 

“Why else would they be following me? Surely they have a map, and know it’s ahead,” said Theodore, talking in the direction of any tree that cared to listen. 

But the trees refused to respond.

“Kids these days,” said Theodore, shaking his head. “I remember your father’s father’s father. He would have given a lonely man some company—a man with nowhere to go. When the world had crumbled, or surely would sooner or later, I chose to be a little different. 

“I chose to be preemptive. Yes—your father’s father’s father would’ve given me his ear, because there’s not much else you trees can do for me. But you can listen, and he certainly would have. 

“No doubt about it.”

*

But now, the distant roar of the falling water pierced the silence. The noise grew louder and louder until it was all that Theodore could hear, and all that he could stand to hear. Just a few short moments ago he found solace in the sound of the wind rustling the Autumn leaves. 

But those days were gone. 

He had kahunas, he knew, but he wasn’t sure how large they actually were. But there was no turning back—not anymore. Because as he turned his head and glanced over his shoulder, he watched the fake-muffler surface. 

His rickety fishing boat turned over from the incoming waves, and Theodore held on to the edge as he was slammed half-way into the river. He held on with an iron grip, if only to finally see the water fall. 

Just to join the water. 

But the waves receded and the river momentarily calmed, and Theodore pulled himself back inside the boat. He was soaked, but couldn’t care less. 

All he cared about was the monstrous German U-Boat towering over him, and the man who climbed out of the hatch and stood looking down at him.

The man said, as Theodore stared up at him in wonder, “How goes it young Theodore? Hope we didn’t give you too much of a spill.”

“How do you know my name?” he asked. 

“How could we not know your name? You’re the riverboat captain, the tree-man, and most importantly, you’re the man to soon be kaput if you don’t come aboard. The falling water is finally upon us.”

“But how do you know all this?”

“Come aboard and find out. But hurry!” said the strange man, as he pointed down river. Theodore turned his head around once more and saw the water falling off the edge. 

It seemed to Theodore that the Earth came to a complete end up ahead, and to fall off that edge with the water would be to fall into nothing—into the deep void of beyond.

And, in that moment, he didn’t think he had big enough kahunas anymore.  

So he carefully pulled himself out of the rickety fishing boat, took the strange man’s hand, and delved down into the German U-Boat.

The trees were happy they were alone once again.

*

“I’m glad you chose this path, Theodore,” whispered the strange man as they stood in the dark corridor below the hatch.      

A single light bulb hung on the metal wall. It flickered softly, illuminating the man’s rough, worn face.

Theodore couldn’t look past the man’s nostrils, opening and closing in an almost cartoonish way as he pronounced each word.

“I don’t see what other path I could’ve chosen, and what is your name anyways? You seem to know me and mine an awful lot,” responded Theodore, nervously grasping at the cold ladder below the hatch. 

“You’re speaking to Captain Archibald, my friend,” the Captain said, nostrils opening and closing word-by-word. 

“And Captain Archibald was afraid you’d choose the other path—the path you were wishing to take ever since you secretly set off,” said a voice from behind the captain. 

A figure stepped out of the shadows, and into the light the bulb so poorly produced.  

Theodore wasn’t one for the finer things of life, but he preferred his light bulbs completely operational. He had to admit that Homo sapiens’ improvement of artificial light over the last half of the twentieth-century was one thing they might have been good for.  

“Hello, Mr. Umber,” said the Captain. 

“Mr. Umber?” asked Theodore in complete bewilderment. 

“The very same, Theo. We were afraid you’d actually make it to where the water falls. Nobody wanted you to fall along with all them gallons of water. Not in something barely better than a glorified raft, at least,” said Mr. Umber.

“But you’re a tree,” said Theodore. 

Mr. Umber frowned, and the Captain patter him on the shoulder.

“I’ll let you take it from here,” said the Captain. “I’ll be down below.” 

Mr. Umber nodded as Captain Archibald disappeared down the corridor, and into the dark and all that lay beyond. 

“Do you not remember who I truly am, Theo? Do you not remember Mr. Umber, the first of his name, as you used to so often say?” 

*

“I’m not sure,” admitted Theodore. 

“I bet you’ve been naming them trees. You’ve been naming these damn trees for so long, you’ve forgotten the original. You’ve forgotten me! How could you have forgotten me, Theo?”

Theodore’s big Homo sapien brain was working awfully hard now, attempting to remember Mr. Umber, the first of his name.

He remembered his conversation with Tre, and Tre’s complete indifference for his grandfather. He remembered Mr. Umber, the first of his name, was the first to see the fake-muffler. 

“You aren’t a tree,” said Theodore. 

His big brain was on to something. 

“No, I’m not a tree, and I never was,” said Mr. Umber. “Theo, I am your father. And you left us months ago. You thought all that we planned to do was insane, and that causing the end of humanity was something we should avoid. But remember, humans are short-sighted and inherently self-gratifying! That’s what you thought! 

“We should all be like the trees, living together in balance and harmony. Living together in silent satisfaction, in communal acceptance of fellow man, and the capability to live and die peacefully. We were going to wait out the undoing of it all together. You and me, and the Captain, and your sister, Penny, and all the others in our little community who felt the same way. 

“You used to be so reasonable, Theo. Ever since we jacked this German U-Boat and set off down this damn river,” said Umber George as he took his son and held him tight against his chest.

*

Theodore’s tears fell and fell because of the sudden rush of regret and guilt. 

Only minutes ago, he was so close to the edge of his world. He was so close to falling along with the water, and becoming one, and leaving all that he had done wrong behind. 

He blamed most on his upbringing, even the parts about not doing enough to save all the other Homo sapiens. Because even though he might be annoyed by them from time to time, he knew in his heart they were better than trees. 

Or at least he was fairly certain.  

He wished he had twenty-twenty vision, because maybe he could’ve seen things a little more clearly. 

But his father whispered into his ear, “You abandoned ship, but you’re finally back where you belong.”

And the German U-Boat fell off the water’s edge and lifted off into the void.

Fly on the Wall

On the completely made-up world formerly known as Xender 9, a strange child met a not-so-strange child and became best friends for life. 

Opposites attract, I’m told, although I’ve only ever been attracted to myself.

So maybe don’t trust all you read—.

(Maybe…) 

However, the completely made-up world formerly known as Xender 9 was completely made-up by the colorful imagination of a pure-blood Homo sapien on Earth, so descriptors are ultimately relative. On Xender 9, it’s normal for fellow humans to treat each other favorably in public, or forego monetary gain in order to live humbly and ethically, or even to keep everything clean. 

So for Earthlings—such as myself—Kyp would be quite normal, while Jade would be quite abnormal. Please look past any biases you might have for abnormal Homo sapiens, because most Xenderians would prove to be abnormal Homo sapiens. 

It will make the proceeding story all the more enjoyable—. 

(Trust me, because I’m like you…)

*

I am a pure-blood Homo sapien and I’m proud of it. But how could I be so sure of my pure-blood? How could anyone not be sure! Life is what you make it, and that’s what makes Homo sapiens adorable collections of tissues and bones.  

I might have came into existence the moment I was born—.

(Or maybe I was always there…) 

Kyp and Jade came into existence the moment they were born, and they were born the moment I thought of them. Because that’s how this works.

When the rules are gone we can have so much more fun. 

Don’t claim that’s nihilism because I’m not Nietsche and this isn’t the Big Lebowski and I’m not German—only formerly. This is quite the meaningful story, actually, and I’m trying to be quite pleasant, but sometimes it’s difficult to understand what I’m saying without hearing me say it. 

But back on Xender 9, it was a remarkably beautiful day and everyone was off from work, because at the end of the Xenderian work-week it’s technically illegal to do any sort of work—and that includes any and all physical, emotional, or mental labor.  

Wouldn’t you want to live there?

I would, because right now I’m stuck in Wild Oaks Sanitarium—.

(Ho-hum…)

*

(But let me explain—please…)

Kyp and Jade were of age to work. They both worked at an automobile factory, and loved to take their lunch break at the same time. Xenderian lunch breaks were required to be an hour long. 

No more, no less.

Xenderian automobiles were not called “automobiles”, but closely resembled Earthling automobiles. So that’s what I’ll call them. They didn’t have any windows, because various sensors did all the work. 

But I’m no engineer so I can’t explain it much further without lying—.

(I’m trying my best not to lie anymore…)

And I was able to listen to their lunch-break conversation, acting as a fly on the wall of sorts, even though I lack the appropriate number of eyes. I’m actually lacking eyes for Homo sapien standards, as I only have the one. 

I don’t wear a silly eye-patch.

But Kyp asked, “Did you hear what Petrid said to Lovana?”

“No,” said Jade, chewing her food carefully. “What did he say?” 

“He claimed that there’s a way out—a way out of all of this,” said Kyp, waving his arms as if to encompass the room, and the world that lay beyond. “He told her, before he was sent home for the day, that we’re all stuck, and that the factory was just a facade. Petrid said that there’s better things that most Xenderians know nothing about.”

Jade put down her food that closely resembled an Earthling sandwich and wiped her mouth. 

“Petrid told Lovana all of this?” asked Jade. 

“Yes.”

“I can’t remember the last time anyone was ever sent home.”

“Neither can I, Jade. And nobody’s seen him since. He’s not at his home. I tried calling him! Over and over and over—”

“—you can’t be my Petrid, Kyp. Not now, not after we’ve gotten so far so fast.”

Actually, they’ve climbed up the Xenderian ladder no faster than any other Xenderian. Ambition, ambition, ambition. Without it, how could one possibly survive on the completely made-up world formerly known as Xender 9? Not me—. 

(Or…) 

But Kyp looked in her hazel eyes and took her hand, and held it lightly, yet with confidence.  

“We’re best friends for life, Jade. And we’ll be more than best friends soon.”

But since I was a fly on the wall I was able to see a passing glance. Jade couldn’t notice it, because she wasn’t a fly on the wall like me and she was primed to recognize all that was good in him. But I saw his glance—his hesitation. A slight doubt that maybe even Kyp himself couldn’t recognize. Opposites attract, and Kyp and Jade were best friends for life, and destined for more, but this fly saw trouble coming from yards away—.

(A fly with only one eye can still see a lot…)

*

I toss and turn in my cot at this wonderful resort, because I can’t get Kyp and Jade out of my big brain. All Homo sapiens have big brains, after all. 

We share this wonderful feature with one another—.

(I’m not wont to share…)

But Kyp and Jade occupy an unreasonably large section of my big brain. They are bigger than Xender 9 themselves, if you’re willing to believe it. I’m fascinated by their choices, and the consequences, and all they were desperately hoping to build together. 

Kyp was strange, and was able to think a little different, and see something that couldn’t be seen by others, even his most significant other. And Jade was a perfect complement, because of her doubt, and her desire for simplicity. They offset each other in a way that seemed to push them further, to take a leap forward without them ever thinking they were risking anything at all.

If Kyp and Jade didn’t live on the completely made-up world formerly known as Xender 9, I think we could all be friends—. 

(I can be difficult, I’ve been told…)

But it wakes me up in the middle of the night, and the nurse often hears me, and he’ll barge into my room and strap me to the bed and if I’m disorderly he’ll inject something into my ass that makes its way to my big brain and causes me to stop thinking and—.

(I sleep, but it never stops…) 

Because I’m a Xenderian, too, if only I could prove it. 

*

Kyp still wasn’t satisfied. Petrid had not shown up for work after being sent home, and it had been over a week. 

On the completely made-up world formerly known as Xender 9, if a worker failed to show up for his shift for a week straight, a psychoanalytical investigation would be ordered and performed by representatives from the Xenderian government. The worker would undoubtedly be in some sort of trouble, as no one ever missed a week of work without stating a reason a month in advance. 

It was the government’s responsibility to provide a service to assess and nurture the troubled worker back into the natural system of work and reward. 

Kyp decided to bring the issue to the attention of his shift leader, Sheila.

One of his shift members would be undergoing a psychoanalytical investigation, after all, which always seemed more legend than reality. Sheila was stern and fair, everything a shift leader should be. She would provide a satisfying answer—.

(Satisfaction, I’ll take a double scoop…) 

As Kyp entered her office that overlooked the factory floor, he remembered to remove his slightly-dirty cap, and to lightly slap the upper portion of the doorframe as he entered. He respected his superiors, after all, like every Xenderian. His blood and tissues and Xenderian brain virtually required him to flaunt his respect every moment it was applicable. 

The only time I get respect at Wild Oaks is when they let me put my pants on before my shirt—.

(Let a man have some dignity, please…) 

But on Xender 9, superiors were always made aware they were superior—it was easier that way. 

“Sheila,” said Kyp, “I was wondering if I could ask you a couple questions?”

“Kyp, welcome. Sit down, please,” answered Sheila, and Kyp took a seat in front of her perfectly organized desk. 

Kyp noticed she had her picture frames turned at a near-perfect forty-five degree angle. Inside those picture frames, were near-perfect smiles of her near-perfect family. They loved to vacation to the southern regions of the near-perfect, yet completely made-up, world formerly known as Xender 9.

“It’s about Petrid. Is there really going to be a psychoanalytical investigation?”

“I can’t particularly speak on these matters, Kyp.” 

“So there will be an investigation? Has there ever been an investigation before? I can’t remember anyone from my line ever missing a week straight.”

“Well, you’ve only been here for a little over a year. It’s truly not as rare as you’re making it out to be. As a matter of fact, I believe the reason you were able to get on my line was the result of a psychoanalytical investigation. We were in need of someone fresh after that. Someone who wanted to prove themselves.”

Kyp was not aware he had been a replacement. He always thought he go the job because of merit, not necessity. He climbed the ladder fast, after all. 

“I never knew this, pal,” said Kyp.

“Pal” was a common title of seniority on the completely made-up world formerly known as Xender 9. If Kyp and Sheila were Earthlings, they would’ve never called each other pals. 

In fact, Kyp’s opinion of Sheila was declining and declining—.

(Along with my bladder…) 

“There’s a lot of things you don’t know, Kyp. You’re still young, and you have a promising career ahead of you if you stick to work. Let Petrid deal with his own problems. They’re his problems. Not yours,” said Sheila rising from her seat to leave. 

“Yes, pal. I will,” responded Kyp. 

But I knew he would not, because Kyp is strange—. 

(Remember…) 

“Now, I have a meeting to catch. Are we done here?”

Kyp nodded and walked out of her office, but this one-eyed fly could tell he wasn’t satisfied. He still wanted answers. So he would go to Petrid’s home to search for those answers, never anticipating what would befall him. 

And, as Sheila’s office door slowly closed, I saw him look back over his shoulder, taking one last look at his shift leader. 

“We’re done here, pal,” he mumbled to himself. 

The door shut completely, and Sheila swatted this one-eyed fly off the wall. 

*

For some reason the nurses are showing me the same late-twentieth century American film over and over. It’s called The Big Lebowski—. 

(Remember…)

But I don’t remember. A long time ago, perhaps in a galaxy far, far away, I remembered most everything. Back when I had two eyes!

But then, on that fateful night, a night that would send me right off on a one way trip to Wild Oaks Sanatorium, I forgot a lot of things I remembered and must’ve replaced it with memories I had forgotten.

Crazy! 

I didn’t even have a chance to pack a change of underwear. The sanatorium would provide underwear for me, they said, but I told them I never trust underwear that I hadn’t inspected first on account of the particular shape and size and thread count because if it’s not perfect I’ll know and if I know I won’t be comfortable and if…

And that’s when the tranquilizer entered my ass and everything went black—and not for the last time. No one seems to care what I got to say anymore. 

But they should care, because I know what really ties the room together. 

*

As Kyp walked underneath the doorframe leading into Petrid’s one-bedroom apartment, he forgot to slightly slap the upper portion. He forgot because he was entirely fixated on the nothing that lay beyond. The room was empty—completely and eerily empty. 

And even though I was still that same tiny fly, perched against the off-white wall, I suddenly realized I was utterly naked. I should’ve known—. 

(Relativity and arrogance don’t mix…)

But I basked in my abilities back then, too much so, as Kyp readily proved. 

I had gone too far. 

Without any other object to draw Kyp’s gaze, other than the thin strands of tan carpet at his feet, he began to slowly shuffle toward me. And my arrogance, my goddamn arrogance, convinced me that he wasn’t staring directly into one of my numerous eyes. 

No, no, no—he had to have been shocked about the emptiness, of a room recently cluttered, and had to be walking aimlessly, attempting to gather his thoughts, because his Xenderian brain was working harder than it ever had before! 

But he came to a rest in front of me, and I didn’t dare fly away in case he would notice my only flaw. Kyp called my bluff, though. That damn kid and his damn curiosity. 

I don’t blame him—.

(Not anymore, at least…) 

He picked this little fly up off the wall, holding me between his thumb and index finger. He then ripped my small head off my small body, as he watched the smaller wires and circuits fall softly to the carpet—resting atop the thin, tan strands.    

*

I believe I have nothing else to live for anymore. 

At least that’s the way I remember it. I lost my favorite fly that day, along with much, much more. I lost my memories—or so I suppose. 

Kyp would scoop that fly up off the carpet and carefully put it in his pocket. He would save that fly, in a small wooden box beneath his floorboard. He never told a soul about it.

Not even to his best friend, and soon to be much more, Jade. 

But that day supplanted his undying skepticism once and for all. He would live a long, reasonably content life, now. He knew the completely made-up world formerly known as Xender 9 was not as it seemed, and that made him happy. 

He was strange, after all. 

*

And I live on in the box underneath the floorboard. 

Xender 9 might be in a galaxy far, far away, but I am not. I am here and there, both large and small. Because I have to be, in order to get myself through the long, all-too-sunny day. Losing a job on Xender 9 was a social death-sentence, especially when the job was as important as mine: surveillance and security for high-risk individuals for the Xenderian Intelligence Agency. 

I got into drugs, both soft and hard. When I got more into the hard ones, I remembered it could be useful if I had a job. And when you’re zooted out of your mind, as many Earthlings can relate, there’s no telling where you could end up.

I failed to ever appeal that social death-sentence—.

(Court’s in session…) 

 But Wild Oaks Sanitarium is what you make it. 

They say. 

*

Maybe…

Trust me, because I’m like you,

Or maybe I was always there.

Ho-hum…

But let me explain—please, 

I’m trying my best not to lie anymore, 

Or…

A fly with one eye can still see a lot. 

I’m not wont to share, 

It can be difficult, I’ve been told, 

I sleep, but it never stops.

Satisfaction, I’ll take a double scoop, 

Let a man have some dignity, please, 

Along with my bladder.

Remember… 

Remember… 

Relativity and arrogance don’t mix, 

Not anymore at least. 

Court’s in session. 

The Death-Moment (Part One)

All I ever wanted was the comfort and simplicity I rightly deserved. I’d grown accustomed to my habits and personal preferences, and I wanted everything to stay the same. Perhaps my placid satisfaction was my undoing.   

Perhaps not. 

Nevertheless, I was kept out of the loop of my future endeavors. And it was quite a big loop, most would agree, even all the kids who played everyday on their Hot Wheels track. 

After I would settle down for bed, after I stopped watching re-runs of Ancient Aliens, and closed my eyes to sleep, I would dream of aging. I know, it’d be easy to label me unusual for dreaming of coming closer to death. 

But most people dream of death in their own way. 

I wanted to be an ornery man complaining about the latest generation’s gall to be a little different. I wanted to give customer service an unreasonably hard time. 

I’ve done my time, and all I wanted was a little respect. 

Yet, as I answered my front door on the morning of Christmas Eve’s eve, I was greeted by an animatronic Jeffrey Dahmer. And as I stared into the cold, empty eyes of the electronically resurrected killer, I crossed my fingers and toes, desperately hoping I would fare alright. I was a middle-aged man and middle-aged men usually weren’t killed serially. 

They often inclined on doing the serial killing themselves. 

I won’t bore you with all the numerous, minute details about the surreal encounter, because it’s actually not important how I died. At least, in regard to the gruesome details and such. I’d rather forget them myself.  

What’s more important is what happened after.

But I can give you a little more:

The animatronic Jeffrey Dahmer, who showed up on my doorstep in Louisville, Kentucky, was part of Bud’s Famous Killers. Bud Gibbly was the owner of an extravagant collection of the world’s most famous serial killers, which traveled from town to town during the summer months. Bud was actually an extremely, insignificant man, and he might’ve known it, too.  

It’s not far-fetched to say that creating a gang of robotic serial killers was the only noteworthy act Bud ever did. 

But that single, noteworthy act was a doozy.

So, the animatronic Jeffrey Dahmer escaped from Bud’s gang, and, after wandering Frankfurt Avenue and Bardstown Road for hours and possibly attaining some slight sense of consciousness and freedom, found his way to my home. 

We peered into each other’s eyes. 

And then he killed me. 

And then he ate me. 

Officially, Leland Lewis was declared deceased at 9:34 AM, dead under unusual circumstances. All the police found were a couple organs that didn’t interest the killer, a few of my ugliest fingers, and half an ear in the flowerless pot next to the front door. The killer was probably a little upset, or as upset as a robot can get, that he wasn’t able to keep two intact ears.

My ears, I’ve been told, were the best feature about me. 

But the pieces of me that remained at the scene of the crime were enough to confirm my death, since it’s pretty difficult to live without a brain—no matter if it’s right or left. 

There are some things we all tend to agree upon, after all.       

And since he was an animatronic Jeffrey Dahmer, it’s possible that my bits and pieces could still be around, jangling around inside of his metallic shell, wherever the killer robot might happen to be. 

Because no one knows. 

So, if what’s left of my family wants to have a proper burial, and honor the man they both despised and loathed, they might want to hire an investigator. Or at least watch a lot of Forensic Files and give it a go themselves.

But that’s a lot of effort.

They’ll settle on cremating what they retrieved at the scene of the crime, instead of risking getting eaten alive, too. And I don’t blame them. 

Jeffrey Dahmer is, once again, at large.

*

Leland died but wasn’t gone for long. He took a moment to cool down (he got quite sweaty in his death-moment), and was carried out of the sleeping den and into the office of Dr. Wise-Man with relative ease. 

Sometimes the sacks twist and turn when you touch them for the first time. It’s always an inconvenience to the endlessly busy schedules of the Reckoners, as they’re informally called, and all too often an unruly sack is sent back indefinitely if it’s too unruly. 

But Leland didn’t have a bit of unimportance on his flesh anymore, and an ordinary Reckoner would overlook a bit of his unruliness, all because of the odd animatronic Jeffrey Dahmer incident.

The odds of another Jeffrey Dahmer attack after he had his death-moment decades before, were incalculable.  

Anomalies, like in Leland’s case, require an incident report. Usually the reports are bland and stale, but every once in a while there’s a fresh, wide-eyed Reckoner that likes to spice them up a bit—shoot for creative non-fiction and such. 

Leland’s incident report was summarized by Helen Sleep-No-More:

The deceased, Leland Lewis, came to a tragic, and unusual, end on the morning of December 23rd, 2018. Jeffrey Dahmer showed up on his doorstep. Yes, the same Jeffrey Dahmer that tested the people years and years ago. But this Jeffrey Dahmer was an even colder, calculated killer.

And I write this not in evaluation of the ethical deterioration of a twisted man’s soul! Our old Jeffrey indeed was a little warmer and had a few less 0’s and 1’s than the one that visited Leland. He was animatronic, and for some odd reason my fellow Reckoners and I are unable to find out how he found his way to Leland’s doorstep, or why he was around at all! 

Something odd is afoot. 

—Helen Sleep-No-More, Reckoner 3621 

Helen’s father was a historian and mother was a cartoonist. 

But, as Leland slouched in the cushioned chair in front of the desk of Dr. Wise-Man, he twitched and moaned, as most of the fresh sacks do after their death-moment. He opened his eyes slowly, and then suddenly, after a wad of the morning newspaper thudded against his brow in an attempt by Dr. Wise-Man to accelerate the process. 

Leland never noticed the article describing his death-moment on the front page of the wad of newspaper. The public was quite interested in an otherwise uninteresting process. 

*

“Leland,” a voice said. It was faint, as if far, far away. “Leland, I am Dr. Wise-Man. Wake up, son.”

I opened my eyes and gazed at the man sitting across from me. He was clean-shaven, and wore a black suit. Obviously he wasn’t God—or a god—he was too boring. Or maybe he wasn’t boring enough?

He wasn’t old, either. He couldn’t even have his AARP card yet. 

And everyone knows God is an old man and has a big beard, and He definitely doesn’t work in an office. Maybe from home, but never in a bland office building.  

Hmph. 

And as I was about to open my mouth to respond to this strange man claiming to be some sort of doctor, he held up his finger, and said, “Before you ask me, ‘Where am I?’, or, ‘Wasn’t I killed by an animatronic Jeffrey Dahmer?’, let me speak for a moment, please.” 

His speech bordered on the monotone, with brief interruptions of pitch fluctuations, as if purposely breaking his unstrained speech in conscience recognition of its monotony. 

“You’re sitting in an office on the 177th floor, Leland,” he said, pointing to the window. “Do you not want to hear what a man, who occupies a floor as high off the ground as this, would have to say?”

I nodded. 

“You’re obviously confused. Your last moment on Earth, your death-moment as we call it, you found yourself being stabbed and eaten—alive, at first—by a robot killer. It was quite painful, I know. We hope that the pain is at least partially forgotten. Not everyone is unlucky enough to go through that, so we’re especially sorry about it. But we, sadly, can’t take all the pain away. Memories are easy to tinker with, but exceptionally strong emotions prove more difficult. But we do our best.”

He wasn’t making much sense. I wondered who he meant by “we”, and I was getting progressively sweatier the more confused I got. 

But he went on as if he read my thoughts. 

We are the Reckoners. We take the fresh sacks, like yourself, and acclimate them to society. It’s odd and frightening for a while, but in time they get used to it. We all have to get used to it,” he said. “Go ahead, speak, ask me your question.”

“But where am I?” I asked. 

I was proud of myself for even getting those four measly words out. 

“Well, Leland,” Dr. Wise-Man responded, “you’re on Earth. Not the one you’re used to, but the real one. You’re finally out of our simulation.”

And that’s when I fainted. 

*

Perhaps Dr. Wise-Man was too blunt when he dropped the simulated bomb on Leland, but fainting was common for fresh sacks, and almost expected with those that had undergone a death-moment as unusual and startling as Leland’s. 

So, as the black curtain closed over Leland’s eyes, Dr. Wise-Man buzzed for the receptionist to come retrieve him and take him to the cooling-off zone a hundred floors down. It was all procedure, and Leland wouldn’t be of much use in explaining his death-moment anomaly, anyhow.

That was the doctor’s job. At least it was up to him to relegate the work to his underlings. 

He had read Helen Sleep-No-More’s brief report, but since his first meeting with Leland had ended so abruptly, he’d need her for a more substantial discussion. And no doubt Helen had been continuously at work, determined to discover the cause of the abnormal death-moment. 

She was top of her class, after all. Her life, before she died and woke again, was that of a workaholic, always pursuing a career that would lead her nowhere. But she always maintained an everlasting passion for her tedious work.  

Helen was an auditor, and a good one, too. 

“Dr. Wise-Man,” said Deborah. 

“Ah, Deborah, I was about to tell you to call Helen for me. I need to speak to her.”

“Actually, doctor,” Deborah said, “that’s why I called. Helen’s out here waiting for you. She said you need to come with her. She has something to show you.”

“Well, alright,” answered Dr. Wise-Man. 

He rose out of his seat to meet Helen in the lobby. Usually, his underlings came to him, and he would decide if he were to leave his office on the 177th floor or not. But he appreciated Helen’s initiative, so long as it brings about results and doesn’t waste valuable time. That’s what the first life was for. 

The second life is for getting things done. 

“Ah, Helen,” he said, shaking her hand, “have you gotten any closer to solving this little riddle?”

“Actually, I have, sir,” said Helen. 

“So what’s the problem?” 

“It might be easier if I just show you. All my work is down in the Maintenance Room.” 

Dr. Wise-Man was particularly frustrated he had to leave his office. Again, he was on the 177th floor. But he agreed to accompany Helen down to the Maintenance Room in order to see what she’d discovered about Leland’s mysterious incident. 

He turned to Deborah, and said, “Make sure Leland gets to cooling safely. He’ll likely be out for awhile.” 

Deborah smile and nodded, and Dr. Wise-Man followed Helen to the Maintenance Room, eagerly awaiting her results. 

*

I opened my eyes and saw a lot of people who looked as messed up as myself. We were all laying in chambers, and, as far as I could tell, I was the only one conscience.

The room was large, and we faced each other in the form of a circle, with some sort of elaborate console in the middle. 

I remembered the look on the doctor’s face as he said “simulation”, and I remembered the loss of blood to my head, and I remembered the darkness. 

Apparently I wasn’t in Heaven, or Hell, or a dream. Apparently I was finally in the real world. And I knew it had to be true, and couldn’t be a ridiculous dream, because all I ever dreamed about was getting older. 

Now I’m wondering if that will ever happen. 

But then I heard a door swing open, and listened quietly as the footsteps came closer. I remained still and closed my eyes, and the footsteps ceased. 

I heard someone fumbling with buttons on the elaborate console, and then I started to move.

The chamber I was restrained in lifted completely out of the ground and glided towards the middle of the room, towards the mysterious figure operating the controls. 

And then I opened my eyes to see a woman undoing the straps that restrained my arms and legs. She jumped, obviously not expecting my quick recovery. 

“You’re awake,” she said, still undoing my straps. 

“Too awake,” I said, still drowsy. 

“You’ll get used to it. But you have to come with me now.”

“Why the hurry?”

“Because they’ll be after you,” she said. “And they’ll be after me.”

“All I did was die,” I said, as she finished undoing the straps.

I tried to stand, but my legs collapsed, and she caught me before I fell. 

“You did much more than that, Leland,” she responded. 

“Who are you?”

“Helen Sleep-No-More. Reckoner 3621,” said Helen. She held out her hand and I shook it. “Now we better get out of here before the doctor wakes up.”

“Doctor Wise-Man?” I asked. 

“The same—are you coming?” 

“Yes.” 

She held out her hand, and I took it, and we ran out the door. We ran far away from the Cooling-Off Zone, and the Maintenance Room, and the 177th floor, and all the fresh sacks, and Doctor Wise-Man. 

For now.