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Mundementia One: The Book of the Matriculation
Feeb, Buddy, Luke and I stand in the shadow of Reginald Holderfield Stadium, shoulders casually braced against the chilly Fall air. From somewhere nearby, probably the field proper, come the soft, coughing shouts of the football team in the middle of an evening practice. The effect of distance mutes them and gives them a vague, peaceful feel that is more-or-less completely inappropriate given their source. But that doesn't matter, at the moment. We four are at peace.
On day _one_.
It feels like I've been doing this for _weeks._
Actually, I _have_ been doing this for weeks, if you count the weeks that the four of us spent with the Mall Rats in their underground domain. But for all our traipsing around and nearly dying, we've still ended up only at the end of day _one_.
"Charles?" Says Feeb.
I look up. "Yes?"
"You in one of your ruts again?"
I shrug. "I guess so."
Then, "You know, it can kind of get sorta _damned annoying_ what with you and Hioshi reading my thoughts all the time. I wish you'd quit fooling with that... thing."
She looks at me. "What, this?" She points at the Indicator, which is glowing peacefully. "Nononono. You don't understand. I wasn't doing research there. I just sort of noticed that you were looking a bit... off."
I shrug again, idly. "What did you expect?"
"I know, Charles. I know." She pauses for a moment.
She takes a breath, then continues. "I know this has been kinda hard on you so far. I... maybe I've contributed to the problem a bit, I guess is what I'm trying to say. I could have done things differently. You know."
I stare unabashedly at Feeb. "You're... apologizing?"
She averts her eyes and traces a pattern in the dust with her foot. "Sorta."
There is silence, for a brief moment.
"Thanks." I say.
She nods, silently.
Then, Luke wanders up and gives me a flower.
"Frink." He says, earnestly, staring into my eyes.
I take it. "Er. Thanks, Luke."
He nods. "Frink, frink wheeooo frink."
"Er. Yeah." I begin looking from side to side, carefully.
Then, there is the noise of quiet crying.
Feeb perks up. "Someone in distress!"
I frown at Feeb. "Wha?"
"Someone in distress!" She says, already beginning to walk off in the direction of the soft noises. "Come! We must help them!"
I follow, my breath steaming in the chilly air. Buddy lumbers behind me, and Luke leems along somewhere to my left. "All right, Feeb. What is it?"
She doesn't even turn around. "What is _what_?"
"This! The whole sudden compassionate shift!" I gesture, searchingly. "You're... being _nice_!" I say, at last. "Everything is feeling _nice_! Peaceful! I thought this world was supposed to be full of horrible things and cartoonish violence and stuff!"
She shrugs. "We're all a bit mercurial." She says.
"Oh." I say. And in the time it takes me to work this last one out, she has located the source of the crying. Huddled under one of the ponderous buttresses of the stadium is a rather sickly and pale-looking young man dressed in a fuzzy suit. I immediately identify the costume: Abbie the Ocelot, official mascot of the Saint Cristobel Ocelots, our football team. The head is lying forlornly nearby, its eyes looking solemn and black. The presence of Abbie the Ocelot _does_ seem to be a detail that SCU and L.U.D.D.D.Amber have in common... but Abbie the Ocelot is _supposed_ to be a rather happy, jolly fellow who hangs around on the sidelines, entertaining the crowds. This kid just looks... well... sad.
Feeb kneels down next to the thin, brown-haired figure. "Hey, kiddo." She says, quietly. "What's your name?"
The kid sobs and sniffles a couple times. "Steve." He croaks out, finally.
"Hey, Steve." She says. "I'm sensing a great deal of pain." She smiles gently, and then her face brightens. "I've got an idea! Why don't you share your pain with me! _That_ would make you feel better!"
This only makes the nondescript kid sob anew, and I move to Feeb's side to gesture her back; it really isn't our place to intervene. But Compassionate Feeb will hear nothing of it. After a few more choking sobs, Steve blurts out, "They... they said..."
He dissolves into coughs again.
After a moment, he pulls out an asthma inhaler and takes a quick suck on it. This seems to calm his nerves a bit, and he steels himself to continue. "They said that... that... I _WASN'T GOOD ENOUGH_ to be on the _TEAM!_" Another sob. "They said... they said... that... all I was capable of doing was being the team's MASCOT!" He begins sobbing again, quietly.
"Aw." She says. And hugs him.
"You gonna be a while here, Feeb?" I ask, my feet itching at the increasing absurdity level in the immediate area. "I mean... I _thought_ we were going to see Mister DeJesus here..."
She stares at me. "We _must_ wait until Compassion Time is over." She says.
I don't even question her. "I'll be back in a couple minutes."
I wander off.
* * *
Compassion Time. Feh.
Maybe Feeb was right. Maybe all this _is_ is a story. Maybe all I am is a figment of the imagination of one of these "Uberauter" people. No matter what Reggie says, I don't think that his people are the ones that Feeb is picking up on her omnipresent indicators. They feel... different to me. I can't quite explain it. Almost as though they're even realer than I am.
And then, of course, there are the obvious story-like elements that are flitting all through the collected events of the plot at large. If this _is_ an allegory, then I hope I'm not presuming too much to say that _I'm_ the Hero. That would make Feeb my Spiritual Guide. Unfortunately, that's where I stop being able to analyze this thing. Joseph Campbell's _The Hero With A Thousand Faces_ doesn't even come _close_ to having an entry to describe fuzzy grey monkey-like things that say "frink." And I don't think Campbell even _knew_ about Utahraptors.
I get a little farther if I look at this as some sort of a sick and twisted parody of Baum's _The Wizard of Oz._ Despite my own indignation at being Dorothy, that's who I represent. The Scarecrow, representing the powers of the intellectual mind, would have to be Feeb, again. The hair is another big clue. As for the others... the other two I'm not so sure of... but I'd have to place Buddy as the Tin Woodsman because of his piecemeal construction and his... well... devotion to Feeb. And Luke is the Lion, representing Courage, because, well, they're both from Africa originally, plus it would take a hell of a lot of brass canards to face down a dragon by your lonesomes, when you're just a fuzzy little thing like he is.
I think "canard" means "duck" in French.
"Great." I say to myself. "So where does this _get_ me?"
"It depends on where you choose to _go_ with it." Says a soft, raspy voice from behind me.
I whip around, startled. There was _not_ a figure in that shadow when I first passed it. I'd bet my marbles on it.
There is one now.
Standing darkly in the shadow of one of the gargantuan support beams of the Stadium is a husky Raccoon-stock Delta. He's dressed in a dark overcoat and a similarly dark fedora, with a couple long feathers sticking up from the band.
"Greetings." He says, trodding quietly into the light.
I frown. Tick another mark on the "Disturbing People That I've Met Recently" list. "Who... who _Are_ you?" I say.
He shakes his head. "My name is not important. But you may call me Rico."
"Ah." I say. "Your name's Rico."
"I didn't say that." Says the figure before me.
"But I can call you that." I say, frowning.
"Of course." Says the Raccoon in that husky whisper. "You _can_ call me anything you like. It matters not to me. I was simply giving an example."
"Rrrrright." I say. "Listen, I'd love to sit here and chat with you, but I'm well over my RDA for bullshit today. If you'll excuse me, I have to get back to my friends and see if Compassion Time is over yet." I begin to walk away.
"WAIT!" Hisses You-May-Call-Me-Rico in a dangerous tone. "Stop."
I do so.
He plods up to me. "Few people truly _know_ me. To some, I am a saint. To others... well... I am a _vindicator._ I refuse to confirm or deny any of these notions, of course. What I _will_ tell you is that..." He trails off, seeming to select his words carefully. "I have seen. Perhaps further than others. Sometimes my vision has cost me a great deal. Sometimes..." He breaks eye contact, seeming lost and distant. "Sometimes, I wish I had never Seen at all."
He pauses. I try and catch a glimpse of what Feeb is doing. I hope to _hell_ Compassion Time gets over soon...
Rico steadies himself and continues. "At any rate. I do not pretend to see nor know all. But I _do_ know _some_ things." He breathes deeply. "I will now tell you that it is _vital_ to the course of future events that I now give you... this."
He hands me a water-balloon. It's one of those cylindrical-looped water balloons that they sell at novelty stores. You know the ones. The ones that are specifically designed for the purpose of being difficult to hold on to. This one is yellow, and it has a brownish design of a snake eating its own tail emblazoned along one side.
I take it.
It immediately slides out of my grasp.
I pick it up from the ground.
I stare at him.
He nods. "Let that suffice." He says. And steps back into the shadows.
And is gone.
I shake my head. Go with the flow, Charlie. Go with the flow.
Casually, I wander back over to where Feeb is sharing Steve's pain.
"And then... and then... HE PUSHED ME DOWN THE STAIRS!" Cough-sobs Steve.
"Ssh. There, there." Says Feeb, patting Steve comfortingly on the back.
"We almost done with Compassion Time?" I ask. The damn water-balloon slips out of my grasp again, and I lamely pick it up.
Feeb notices. "Where'd you get that?"
I shrug. "This raccoon gave it to me."
"Rico?" She asks. Steve sobs quietly to himself in the background.
"You know him?" I ask.
"What, you mean the Dire Raccoon of Cross-Temporal Fate?"
"Quite possibly. He sort of looked like a Dire Raccoon of Cross-Temporal Fate."
"Huh." Says Feeb. The water-balloon slips out of my grasp again and I again pick it up.
"Well..." Says Steve, sniffling. "You've been a great help to me, Miss Dimmesdale."
Feeb smiles, gently. "Hey. No problemo, kid. Just believe in yourself, like I said, and there's no _telling_ what you can do!" She grins.
Steve sniffles away the last of his tears and picks up the Abbie the Ocelot head lying nearby. Luke hands Steve a flower. "Frink." He says, chucking him on the chin.
"Thanks, little guy." Says Steve, smiling.
"Frink." Says Luke.
With a smile and a wave, Steve begins walking away.
The water balloon slips out of my grasp a fourth time and goes rolling into a crack in the concrete foundation of the Stadium.
"So." I say, crouching down and feeling around for the goddamn water balloon in the crevasse. "Can we go meet Mister DeJesus yet?"
"Pretty soon." Says Feeb. "I'll warn you, Charles, he's a bit of an odd duck. There's a _reason_ why he's here, after all."
"And that would be?" I say, reaching down even further into the crack, groping around in the darkness. Damn this thing, anyway...
"He's quite mad." Says Feeb.
"Oh." I say. "Hey, no problem! I deal with people like that all the time."
Feeb frowns at me. "I'm going to assume that you meant the best by that."
"Of course." I say. My arm is practically all the way down in the crack now. Damn, this thing is _deep_...
"Anyway." Says Feeb. "As I was saying. He's quite mad. It seems that _They_ do not react well to having their consciousnesses split and bifurcated to multiple simultaneous levels of reality. From my previous conversations with him over the course of my research for the Uberauter project, I have concluded that he currently exists as a part of at least two different worlds, probably more. As a result of this, his brain has presumably become short- circuited. Most likely, this wanderer of reality is looked upon as just as much of a loony on his home plane as he is here. But that doesn't make him any less powerful."
"Huh." I say. Finally, my questing grasp lights upon the water balloon. It is lying against what feels like a smooth, light cylindrical object. With vague curiosity, I bring both of them up. The water balloon is just as I remember it; somewhat fed up with its behavior, I resolutely stick it into my holdall.
The _other_ object is an empty soda can-- light, pale, and cleanly rinsed. I idly inspect the label. Feeb notices me doing it.
"Huh!" She says. "Invisible Pepsi."
"What?" I ask.
"Invisible Pepsi." And then, seeing my blank stare, she continues. "A ways back, there was this _weird_ trend in advertising where all of a sudden all these companies started putting out invisible versions of their products. You know. The old 'opacity- equals-impurity' thing." She carefully shrugs one delicate, porcelain shoulder. "For whatever reason, companies just started putting out invisible stuff. Invisible soap, invisible dish detergent, invisible gasoline-- even invisible soda." She gestures at the can. "That's an old can you got there, Charles."
I shrug as well. Regardless of the nostalgic value, I'm not really interested in becoming a collector of strange beverage cans. For a moment, I consider just chucking the thing into a garbage can, but my environmental consciousness fairy literally freaks at the thought, and so I stow it, too, in my holdall, for later recycling.
Somewhere, far in the distance, the diminishing figure of Steve is intercepted by a dark-coated Raccoon in a fedora...
"Anyway." Says Feeb. "The _one_ thing that you must remember about Mister DeJesus is that he is far more than he appears. Here, homeless, he lives in a box in an alley; but on his home plane, he is a creature of immense Power. And he will stop at nothing to gain even more."
And in the distance, the Raccoon points... as if Steve had asked him directions, and he is dutifully showing the way he should go...
"Is he trustworthy?" I ask.
"Hard to say." Says Feeb. "But if anyone in Hoderund knows what's going on with your life other than Queen Voria, it's Mister DeJesus."
"So. When do we meet him?"
Blithely, Steve steps from the curb into the nearby street, following the Raccoon's outstretched arm...
"As I said. Just as soon as--"
There is a noise. A horrible noise. It starts with a low rumble with ambitious aspirations in the area of becoming a full-blown roar. It is the noise of a truck. A very _large_ truck, of the tractor-trailer variety, approaching at unbelievable, ludicrous speed.
The horrible noise continues with the sound of a horn. An anxious, wailing, brash horn. The sort of horn that a driver might use if he were to see a youngish man in a fuzzy mascot costume accidentally step down from the curb directly into his truck's relentless path. It is the sort of horn that a driver might use to convey the message, "there is no way in _Hell_ that I'm going to be able to stop this thing..."
And the horrible noise finishes with a scream, depicted for all eternity in a long, long series of capital letters.
And then, the noise is done.
Feeb clears her throat.
"Just as soon as..." I say.
"Compassion Time is over." She finishes.
I nod to her.
"Let's go." She says.
And we do.
* * *
The tall black man of nigh-Herculean proportion sits quietly on the bleachers down near the fifty-yard line, surveying the football team as they lazily scrimmage as though they possess all the time in the world. His dress is remarkably shabby, what I can see of it. Army surplus, perhaps. A long, threadbare, trenchcoat hides most of it and, indeed, most of him as well, so it's a pretty big trenchcoat, because as noted, Mister DeJesus is _huge_. His chocolate-hued face is rendered even further into shadow by a shabby, brimmed hat which is pulled low over his brow.
"That's him?" I ask Feeb.
"Looks kind of... ordinary, actually." I say. "I mean, yes, he's tall and such... but I expected... you know..."
"Bells and whistles?" Inquires Feeb.
"Well, yes." I say. "But I guess that was a pretty stupid assumption. I mean, who's to say that he _can't_ just be a normal-looking guy? It was kind of an unfair assumption of me to make that he'd be something more than human. Perhaps it's just one of those prejudices that I'm going to have to work through in my own way."
Feeb smirks. "Actually, you were probably right in making that assumption in the first place. I've never _seen_ him, true-shape-wise, you understand, but I think it's a logical conclusion to arrive at that what you're seeing is a sort of... subtle guise that he chooses to wear as he wanders through our society."
I stand for a moment admiring the Samsonic figure, clearly visible as such even beneath the ragged garments.
"That's subtle?" I ask.
"Subtle for one of the Uberauters." Says Feeb. "Compared to what he _really_ looks like, yes."
I frown and stare. Feeb is _implying_ that his appearance is an illusion... a disguise... maybe if I really looked _hard_ at hi--
There is an ear-splitting screech, which may or may not be the sound of my brain folding neatly in half.
DeJesus is _different._ Or he never was. One of the two.
Seated calmly on the fifty-yard bench is a radiant figure in exotic Oriental armor and a Swallowtail coat. There is something _more_ about him... his features, while still Negroid, have taken on a half-Asian half-Caucasian bent. There is the suggestion of rabbit's ears somewhere about his head, and a lion's tail flicks passively in the breezes of spent crackling energy that surround him as he glows, burning and brazen and--
Then... everything is as it was. Correction. Everything is as it was as it relates to _him._ _I'm_ reeling. Buddy leaps behind me, steadying me as I stand there clutching my temples. Feeb rushes over.
"Charles?" She asks, concernedly.
"I _saw_ him." I say, groggily, the blood pulsing in my eyes and swelling the vessels therein to bursting. "I _saw_ him."
Feeb frowns. "You _saw_ one of the UA's? Mister DeJesus? In his true form?"
I nod, still reeling. That much I am certain of. I _know._
Feeb frowns even more deeply and assumes a worried tone in her voice. "That's not possible, Charles... it's really not possible..." She whips out her clipboard and begins calculating to herself, ticking off points with her pencil. "It goes against everything I've ever theorized about them. Even DeJesus, embedded far more deeply in our reality than is natural, still shouldn't be _visible..._"
"Fuck the calculations..." I say, hoarsely...
And just then, DeJesus notices us.
He smiles, broadly, showing dazzling teeth.
"Hey girly-girl!" He says, in a rough-but-pleasant voice. Feeb shoots me one more concerned glance and then goes over to DeJesus, sitting before him in a casual kneel-crouch.
"Hello, Mister DeJesus." Says Feeb, with congenial nod. "We brought you something." Quickly, Feeb whips the thermal bag out from her holdall and removes the flimsy cardboard box containing the cinnamon roll. She offers it, meekly, to the god-on-earth. DeJesus's face simply lights up when he sees it.
"You shouldn'ta." He says, still smiling. Regardless of whether we shouldn'ta or not, he quickly takes it and begins neatly and efficiently consuming the pastry.
As he eats, Luke and Buddy help me ease my exhausted frame onto one of the bleachers. I am aware of DeJesus sizing me up as I sit, but I still can't meet his gaze.
DeJesus eats and thinks and watches me. And engages in various combinations thereof. Finally, he asks, "Miss Dimmesdale, who's your friend?"
Feeb glances at me. "_He_, sir, is the reason that we've come here today. You see--"
"Z'enough." Says DeJesus, casually. "Jus' making sure that was what you were coming to me for. 'V read the story. You're _funny_, miss Pheobe, you know that." I can't help but noticing that he fails to properly punctuate the end of his sentence.
"Phoebe." Corrects Feeb, gently, noting the mis- spelling in her name.
He nods, solemnly. "Sorry, girly-girl."
A few more moments of silence pass with no noise save the scrimmaging of the football team and the sound of DeJesus chewing. I muster enough energy to sit more-or-less upright with help from Luke and Buddy. Luke is looking at me concernedly, but my eyes are drawn to DeJesus. It's almost a sick fascination. I can't even look away. Like worrying a scab or probing a sore spot...
DeJesus finishes the hard-won cinnamon roll with little fanfare. He looks straight at me, his admittedly watery brown eyes nonetheless drilling into me, dragging me in... eyes like fishhooks...
"Here." He says, quietly to me.
I nod, and, taking a deep breath, I stand without help from my faithful wingmen. I walk over to DeJesus, passing the crouching Feeb as I go.
And soon, I am standing before him. He smells strongly of peppermint and liquid carmine, and though his garments are ragged, they are unmistakably _clean._
"Sit." He says.
I do so.
He gazes at me with his watery eyes for an excruciatingly long moment.
Then, he nods.
"I know you too." He says.
I swallow hard and nod back in affirmation.
"I can't helpya." He says.
I nod. There is no sense of betrayal or anger in my bearing. At this point, who cares if all our preparations to come here have been for naught. I am nothing more than the here and now.
"I can't helpya," He says again, "Because _you_ can't even help _yourself_. Sheesh, boy. _YOU_ don't even know who you are..."
I sigh, helplessly, grimacing. "Mister DeJesus. You're the _second_ person to tell me that, and in all honesty, I didn't even understand it the first time..."
"You don' understand, because you don' _listen_ to yourself, neither. You listen to your girly-girl. An' that's fine, 'cause she's _smart_. But what you gotta remember is that it's _you_, Charlie. It's all _you._ In the end."
I shake my head and avert my eyes. "I'm... sorry. Mister DeJesus. I'm sorry. I'm just not _getting_ this. _Any_ of it."
He nods, slowly, to himself.
"What did you want when you came here?"
I gesture at Feeb. "_She_ thought it'd be a good--"
DeJesus cuts me off with a succinct gesture.
"What did you want when you came here?" He repeats, in precisely the same tone as before.
I hang my head helplessly. "I... dunno, Mister D. I guess I was hoping for some advice... something _concrete_..."
"You wan' con_crete_, eh."
I shrug. I don't even know what I'm doing anymore. Part of me wants to run and hide, get as far away from here as humanly possible. Part of me never wants to leave. DeJesus? _Mad_? I _really_ think that Feeb has misjudged this man in a very serious and fundamental way... I don't know how or why, but he's somehow clearer and more coherent than anyone I've yet met... which is strange, because he's not really saying anything either...
"You wan' con_crete_, eh." There is no change in the intonation. But it transforms itself effortlessly from question to statement regardless.
I don't even respond. He knows.
DeJesus looks at me glassily, wiping cream-cheese frosting from one corner of his mouth with the complimentary napkin. Then, as if coming to a decision, he reaches down into the neck of the drab Army Surplus sweater and withdraws a small, shining key, whose lanyard rests easily around his massively-thewed neck. He removes the key, lanyard and all, and presses it into my palm. His flesh makes me shudder at its touch.
"You wan' con_crete_, you _Got_ con_crete._" He says. "In the morning you get yourself to the Swedish Fund Trust Savings Bank an' you ask for box seventeen, you hear me. An' you give 'em this key. And you'll getcho' con_crete._"
I nod, my hand closing tightly around the shining key from this Phobos Anomaly of a man.
And then, he smiles once, brightly, and settles back into watching the football practice. As his eyes leave me, I get the strangest feeling that I suddenly cease to exist...
The vertiginous feelings swim in the fluid around my brain like tiny black eels, and I feel myself falling again...
The eyes fix on me again. "G'luck, Herr La Guardya." Says Mister DeJesus.
And then, Buddy drags me backwards. Or perhaps he just follows the course of my momentary faint. Whichever. All I know is that when I regain my consciousness, DeJesus is nothing more than a homeless black man sitting watching a football scrimmage. And I have nothing to show for any of this save a silver key and a splitting headache.
Feeb remains silent for a moment longer, and then, as always, suddenly brightens.
"So." Says Feeb. "It's almost night. Where does everybody want to go now?"
"I," I declare, "need a drink."
"Good." She says. "I know just the place."