|Ave Maria -- the story of Fats Mitchell
by Sly Rabbit
© Sly Rabbit -- all rights reserved
Catholic churches have this certain aura surrounding them, I’ve come to realize over the years. The air’s thick without being too heavy; aromatic yet neutral; cathedral marble that echoes just enough sound to fill the cavernous space. Saint Michael’s is one of the best, too; the floors are never too cold, the hymnals are always in good shape, and the stained glass windows are awe-inspiring.
They had carpet, too. I’m really happy for the carpet. Having to roll from place to place made things difficult enough; at least carpet makes it a comfortable ride.
Candles on the walls cast a dim shadow on the abandoned church. It’s for the best that I come at night; there aren’t as many mind-voices that I can overhear, whatwith all the stone to block their signals. Better, they don’t’ have to see my horribly deformed body – or lack thereof. Being a mound of flesh isn’t exactly what I would call “eye-appealing.”
I was never a very religious man, but I had nothing to lose. Before the stained glass beauty I came with one dream. One wish. One hope. Rolling up the aisle I can feel Her eyes enveloping me in their focus, greeting me, trying their best to make me feel welcome in Her Holiest of Houses. Glad someone cares, I think as I try my best to return her gaze between each rotation of my blob of a body, until I find my place under the pew.
For a second I stand dumbly under that stained glass figure’s warm eyes, wondering exactly what to do. Okay, so “stand” is kind of a bad analogy. The closest I can get is this state of being, where my amoeba-like body can rest and relax. I find it somewhere between limbo and death.
She will help, though, if only She can hear my prayers.
On what used to be my knees I push my mangled excuses for hands towards the smiling Virgin Mary, begging that she may excuse my rustiness. “I haven’t done this since preschool,” I admit through my Jello-like mouth, saliva dripping all over the front of my face/body as I spoke. It took a few seconds of planning, and a few more to get over my nerves and reservations, but I manage to remember to close my eyes before I begin:
“Dear Lord, I come to you a humbled and embarrassed man. This disease you have decided for me to take on has almost overcome my soul, and I’m not sure if I can take it anymore. I remember hearing about how no man is ever given too much to handle, and I’m sure that I have to use my experiences to help others in need…”
For a second I swear I hear a choir singing a Latin hymn, but I try to block them out. The more I focus on the prayer, the better chance of it getting answered.
The saliva bubbling from my mouth is flowing like a river, on down the play-doh-esque mass of flesh I have for a body.
“I guess I’m just asking for a sign: a sign that I’m doing okay. Can you at least do that for me? I need to know that everything is going to work out, Lord. I need to know that you did this with a purpose in mind. Can you at least do that for me, Lord? Can you give me hope?”
“I know that I’ve been ignorant in the past, Lord. Right now I need you more than ever. If I’ve burned my bridges, then consider this to be my oath of love and devotion. Just tell me that everything is going to be all right! Please!” Rain patters on the vaulted ceilings. Drenching rain. My mind wanders to the cardboard box I call home, and how the rain is going to ruin it later on tonight.
Her warm eyes stare at me, unblinking, their warm tones almost taking on a sense of pleasure.
“I’m not sure if I can keep going, Lord!” Then, in a dilapidated whisper, “You are my only hope…” The words trail off in my mouth as She continues to stare.
“This won’t work,” I mumble to myself as I prepared to roll back out of that church. The Gods above weren’t going to listen to a mound of flesh, especially one that seemed to be so successful without their guiding hand to help him along the way. They have more important things to worry about.
With a tired sigh I roll back down the church’s aisle, the sound of mind-voices picking up with intensity as I come closer to the exit. By the time I force it open my mind is pulverized with a million different voices, each one as loud as an airhorn and twice as obnoxious. Saturday. There won’t be any sleep tonight…
At least my box will be warm. That’s one thing I can count on, as long as the rain doesn’t melt it into nothing.
“It was worth a try,” I mumble through closed lips as I roll down the oily sidewalk, the pitter-patter of drizzling rain soaking my body to the core. I used to have this habit of talking to myself all the time, but since the change I had to give it up. Rolling from place to place like one giant ball doesn’t give you much chance to say anything, especially when you’re kissing the ground every three seconds.
It’s all I can do to block out all the mind-voices in the air, as it is. Here and there, real and imaginary, fantastic and altogether flat, it all jumbles in my brain like the roar of a crowd. They come from the tall apartment complexes and tiny restaurants surrounding me, zoom by in their little cars and flicker in my ears like a candle.
A little boy wishes he could be a mermaid. His mother worries that little Jimmy is spending too much time with his imaginary friends. Jenny wishes she could learn to love Hector and his flashy Mercedes; Hector wishes he could get in Jenny’s pants and the grandma wants to be young again and the grandpa just wants to find out what his lady’s thinking about…
Against this I struggle to find my own mind, as I trudge on towards home. I feel as if I’m being pecked to death by a million crows, with all the voices assaulting my mind. I pick up all the dreams and wishes from a world most people don’t really want to live in, dreams that they all let fall away from their bodies like holy water from a fountain.
If only they knew where they all ended up, they’d be more careful.
Menacing gargoyle statues mar the alley I turn down, though they do serve to block some of the mind voices. I always set up shop below those limestone behemoths, where I would play fools dry in chess at a dollar a game. They all claimed that I knew what they were going to do before the moved -- I did, of course. Then again, in chess you don’t have to say that. Just keep your mouth shut and play, as I see it.
A man passing down the street waved hello to me, then tried to offer the address of a local homeless shelter. I grunted and turned away before he could protest.
The road grime began to blacken and become more oily as I rolled down my home’s “driveway,” and I could definitely smell the rotten scraps thrown out from a local restaurant. Cooks in the room just adjacent to my home were like a jackhammer on my front door, but I was used to it. At least they didn’t think in English.
Home finally came to view, still in one piece, aluminum foil shining brightly in the dim alley’s light. It may have seemed like a quack’s meager attempt to keep aliens from controlling my mind, but the foil really did help block out a lot of the mind-voices that filled the air. It took almost all my chess money to keep the place covered, but the relief it gave was worth every penny.
I stepped inside, let out a deep breath I had been holding while listening to all those dreams. Ten thousand voices screaming in my ear ceased to exist all at once, and for a moment I felt normal once again.
The Mexican cooks continued to scream away, but compared to the maelstrom outside my home it was just a whisper.
For now, I just sigh and try to revel in the sensation of my skin rippling over my blob of an existence. I shiver and let the folds of grayish-white, flaky covering move like ripples on a pond. My lungs float freely in what used to be my ribcage, tumbling over my heart and other organs like shoes in a washer.
If I were anyone else I’d be dead, but sometimes being a chronomorph has distinct advantages.
Saturday. Why did it have to be Saturday? Any other day I could have relaxed and let myself get lost in sleep. But Saturday… well, some Saturdays I just wanted to run right back out and let the world bury my mind in a million dreams.
Today it was the memories or the chilly rain, and I’m not too partial to cold.
Bad dreams, bad memories. I could dig at them forever trying to find a solution, but nothing will ever come of it. Each layer just brings back more hurt and more remorse, eats at me like a plague, leaves me with only guilt and a aluminum foil bed…
It was a Saturday. I landed with a wet thud on the sidewalk in front of Mao Zehdong’s Chicken Shack: that’s all I remember. I try to go back further than that and I just find this strange, overwhelming sense of nothing, like someone put a few thick coats of paint over my past and called it erased. It’s not a complete amnesia – I get déjà vu at least five times a day – but for the most part I started existing on that very Saturday.
The voices pelted down on me like stones from an angry mob, each one stinging as it hit a fresh, tender, unused part of my mind. I thought for a moment that the world was coming to an end around me, and the screaming voices were the last cries of a million dying souls in the streets. Another look and I saw it was only a bit of rain.
People crowded around me, asked if I was all right. They all looked so tall, in comparison to the pool of flesh I had become. I think they all asked if I was okay, but I couldn’t hear the voices over the barrage of mind-screams – it was the only time I wished I could read lips.
Then again, I didn’t have to. Their minds told me everything I needed to know.
Marcus Johnson, age 21 and recently married to one Janice Johnson, scooped my puddle-like mass into his hands and thought he should do something to clean up the situation. My mind filled with an image of Superman, with Marcus’s face planted squarely on the chest, the hero valiantly saving the entire crowd from impending doom.
I sneered, even though there wasn’t much I could do. Mounds of flesh can’t exactly push away from someone, you see.
Marcus started talking in his best hero voice: “Folks, it’s all right. This thing is just like us, only SCABS has ruined his body.” No one listened, no one cared, and Marcus was a little deflated at the sight. He turned his attention to me – with an air of disgust, I might add – and put on a fake smile. “Hey, little guy, let’s get you into a shelter. They’ll know what to do with you there.”
Though I probably owed him more, I just grunted and let him take me as he would. My mind was already shattered from thousands of incoming transmissions pounding at my skull; I didn’t need to do anything more than what was absolutely needed of me, at that time.
The people in Mao Zehdong’s Chicken Shack stared at my hideous body as I was carried away. One customer was envious, believe it or not.
On and on Marcus went, carrying me over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes, his mind still playing out this Walter Mitty-esque fantasy of saving the world from evil and terror. I tried my best to tune it out, but as he kept walking the visions only grew stronger in my head. Soon he was flying around his hometown, punching out his boss, winning a beautiful blonde along with the key to the city…
Right then and there I knew life had taken a turn for the worse, no matter where I had taken that turn from.
It’s strange, to suddenly just exist. As he daydreamed, I learned to probe my “hero’s” memory for any idea of what happened – all I got was a vision of a bearded man melting into a congealed mass of flesh. He didn’t look at my face before I changed!
I could have killed him for it, if I had the ability.
A flash of bright light, the sound of screeching brakes, a resounding horn, the smell of burning rubber. Mind-voices screamed out to poor Marcus, told him to watch where he’s going – but it was too late. His mind was in another world.
Marcus’s last thought: “Why are they screaming?”
The car bent the young man over its hood; when he hit I felt his grip loosen and my body fly into the air. Skin flaps caught the wind and slowed my descent, until I landed with a flop, completely unharmed.
Marcus, on the other hand, wasn’t so lucky.
Funny, I didn’t feel like anything was wrong. Mind-voices screamed in anguish as they saw his broken and bleeding body convulsing on the pavement, but I just didn’t have it in me to worry. It was kind of like I disconnected myself from the gruesome scene that everyone made it out to be. Marcus Johnson was dead; I wouldn’t have to listen to his stupid hero dream anymore.
With a deep breath I reshaped my body into a semi-decent ball and rolled on down the street, where the West Side Shelter waited for my arrival.
They were expecting to hear from me; I could hear the thoughts from a block away. A co-worker had seen Marcus’s “heroic act,” and kind of assumed that I’d be dropping by soon enough. The “innocent bystanders” sprinting to see the damage done to Marcus paid no heed to me; their shoes pounded on my body as I rolled along, giving me a tingling sensation as my organs tumbled around like socks in a washing machine. Their thoughts were about as impure as they could be: “let’s go see some gore!” they all screamed.
No sweat off my back. The footfalls weren’t killing me, so the people weren’t my problem.
The shelter doors were wide open, naturally. A secretary hid her wince and started typing data into the computer; I could hear that she didn’t want to talk to me, so I just rolled on. I had what I needed from her mind, anyway.
Second door on the left was the soup kitchen, a real hell-hole of a place with boozers and bums to boot. They were all half-conscious on the table benches, leaned over hot soup, mangled fingers gripping grimy forks through fingerless gloves. A few looked up at me with haggard eyes, shrugged, and bent back over the meal.
At least their minds were quiet – oh, the joys of alcohol!
Mind voices still screamed over Marcus’s dead body; I tried to pick out a few to see what kind of ruckus was going on, and ended up with a pickpocketer. Why? His mind-voice was laughing. It was as easy as Candy Land for him to rip everyone off…
Not my problem. Right then I was more concerned with unwinding this tangled mess of voices and try to find my own head. It’s funny, how losing a few cubic centimeters of real estate can leave you so burned. I thought that my brain would always be there, but that was before I turned into a living radio tuner for the mind.
“I have no idea what to do with this one.” The voice rang in my head, clear as a bell, as if my subconscious decided that it was worth listening. “He’s… strange. Doesn’t talk. And that body…” he shivered. “I guess we’ll just give him ‘the usual.’”
Great; I had existed for about five minutes and I was already hopeless.
One of the kitchen workers came over and lifted me onto a bench. She put a cup of soup at my place, held the fork as if she was trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube, and finally decided to just set it by the bowl. I nodded my thanks, and when she walked away I pushed the cup to one side.
“You may want that later,” a voice boomed from behind me, “it’s not good, to pass up a free meal.”
“I’m not terribly hungry right now.” I wanted to say, but Doctor Mendelson’s mind would have just passed over it. Power trips were his M. O. Instead I just turned to face him – well, “facing” just involved letting my facial features flow to the other side of my blob-like body, but you get the idea.
“I guess that your mind is still in a state of shock,” he said, trying his best to sound optimistic. Bullshit; I knew better. “You may not be able to talk, or maybe you can’t remember your past: SCABS is known to do that from time to time.” He pulled a pen out of his pocket and made some scribbles on his clipboard – _gotta look important_, he thought.
“You’re welcome to stay at the Shelter for as long as you need to, until your body adapts. When you’re ready we can help you find a job----“ _in your dreams_ “----and from there we can play it by ear. How’s the soup?”
Since ignoring this guy wasn’t going to get him off his high horse, I took a lick from the bowl and nodded my approval.
“Good. I’ll leave you to it, then. Oh, and if you need it I will be around to answer any questions you have. Just feel free to flag me down anytime.” An awkward silence followed as he looked at my pseudopods-for-hands. He didn’t try to fix it; with a quick look at his clipboard he turned and made a quick escape.
I had no idea where I came from, no idea what I was doing in this city, no idea why I’m hearing the dreams of everyone within shouting distance, and no idea what it was all going to come to.
No, this doctor wouldn’t have _any_ of my answers.
I rolled around the shelter for a while, just to pass the time. The West Side Shelter was actually a converted motel, so the complex sprawled out over a dozen tiny rooms. In most, a pair of bunk beds with basic linens comforted the homeless. Bathrooms were few and far between, and the ones I saw showed more rust than an old farm tractor. At the foot of the beds: a trunk containing Salvation Army throwaways and basic toiletries.
Beggars can't be choosers, I thought with a grin.
Other rooms were set aside as mock classrooms, where hobos learned the basics of job interviews from a councilor in slacks and a polo shirt. When I saw the first classroom, open to anyone and everyone who wanted to come, a small voice in my head suddenly screamed out a memory. "Social work is a bitch!"
When I went to track it down, the thought was gone.
The bland overtone of "ho-hum, so is life" and depressing living conditions began to grind on me after the first ten rooms – so much, in fact, that I wanted the world's screaming mind-voices again. Back through the halls I went, down the carpeted corridors, through hallways that smelled of booze and depression, until I came back to the entrance/cafeteria...
That's when I saw him.
I wouldn't have noticed it if he weren't sitting alone in the corner – the silence coming from his mind screamed out when nothing could overpower it. Gravitating towards the silence like a desert traveler to an oasis, I rolled over and found his empty stare piercing me. A few mind voices made mention that he hadn't moved for four hours, and that was when a worker came over to ladle soup into his mouth.
Nothing. His mind said nothing.
"Oh, so you met Pete." Doctor Mendelson's voice would have made me jump, if I had legs to jump with. "Well, at least we call him Pete. We don't really know anything about him. It's a pity. We think SCABS got to his brain—there's no money to do the testing. Whatever it was, it pureed his conscious mind. We've let him stay here for the duration, since we don't really know where he came from or who he belongs to." He looked to the ceiling and sighed. "Boy, what I wouldn't pay to be a fly on the inside of his brain...
"Doing okay? Just remember that I can answer any questions you may have." And with that he was gone, leaving me alone to ponder Pete's empty stare.
"Um..." I started, but Pete only stared at that same white wall. From his chin hung a trickle of saliva that looked absolutely stagnant. My body rippled with puzzlement as I tried to put it all together. It was a simple question: where did this guy come from? I was so used to just picking information from people's minds!
I had only existed for a few hours, and already I was frustrated with my limitations.
A flash of a past life's memory flickered past; when I looked again it was gone.
I imagined my mind drifting into the space between us, floating through the air and towards Pete's saliva-stained skull. My mind met his with a click, and suddenly the world went quiet. Silence! An overwhelming feeling of relief flushed through my body as I took the first free breath of my existence. I wanted to jump, scream, shout, let my body frolic in rapture! If only I weren't this useless blob of flesh...
That's when I noticed the blob sitting across from me. I couldn't believe my eyes; when I looked down, I was looking at a body. Pete's body. And I was looking at it through Pete's eyes.
I rubbed my eyes with my hands – Pete's hands – and tried not to faint.
A strange feeling of duality came over me, and as my other body's sensory perceptions poured in. This wasn't a body switch; I was controlling Pete's body with my thoughts. I was like a kid with a new RC car, when I figured it all out. For a moment I just played with the arms, stood him up, made him walk a few steps on his weak legs...
Jealousy ate at my subconscious, nagging yet not really there at all. I wanted a body, not this horrible mound of flesh I called my own. I wanted something that could shake a man's hand, walk around proudly----
----not be privy to the dreams of everyone----
----I wanted to be a human being again. Pete was my ticket, I realized then and there; his body could be my refuge, a vessel I could make my own.
After all, Pete wasn't going to use it for a while. What harm could I do?
Smiling in both bodies, I had Pete grab the mound of flesh standing across from him and cradle it under one arm. From there we stood and walked towards the entrance, amidst blank stares and dropping jaws. The secretary herself couldn’t even believe her eyes; when we walked up she could only stutter and point.
Leave it up to Dr. Mendelson to take a power trip on that note, though; when the commotion started he came storming to the front door, hands on his hips, eyes demanding to know what was going on. "What in the world is going---" he began, but he stopped cold when his eyes fell upon Pete. "But... it's impossible! You're awake!"
I laughed in my own body, and I made sure Pete wore a smug grin. It was time to see what kind of voice this guy had. "Yes, and my good friend here helped me through." Not bad, I thought; it had a raspy quality, but not enough to grate on the nerves—a priest's voice, I noted.
"You mean... the blob?" I frowned, and the young doctor suddenly looked like he had just eaten a sour lemon. "I mean... the man who came in just today?"
"Whatever. My friend and I are going out for a steak dinner; don't expect us back any time soon."
It was time for the doctor to put his foot down – I could tell from his tone of voice. "You have no idea what life is like out there! Why, if you go out in the condition you're in right now, you'll be eaten alive. First, you have no idea what modern society is like, and on top of that you have no money----"
"I'm a fast learner, and I'll get the money somehow." I made Pete wave. "Good day to you, sir." And with that I stepped out of the West Side Shelter and into the big world, with nothing to lose and everything to gain.
That was the first time I played the guess a thought game. It was a simple set-up: with a little board and a borrowed sharpie I had Pete write “One quarter; guess what’s on your mind.” Then I sat Pete down on a street corner with the sign in one hand, and my hollowed-out body in the other. A passerby dropped their quarter on me, and Pete spat out their thoughts.
Everyone was amazed that it was accurate; I had a small crowd by dusk, and their mind-voices were putting my brain through a cheese grater.
“First kiss,” Pete shot out to the next customer, and the crowd roared in applause. I didn’t really want to step out of Pete’s head – it was damned loud in the real world, with all the voices in the air. Also, with a real body for refrence, I found that I got a headache from all the noise.
Money is money, though, and as far as the two of us were concerned we had nothing.
I felt as if I were spinning my wheels. My life was quickly becoming a runaway train, the actions coming three steps before I figured out what they did. Pete’s body ferried me to wherever I was going, but the “where” was still a mystery. Pete’s body gave me a chance to get what I wanted, but I still didn’t know the “what.” And the why… well, I still had no idea where I had come from, and wasn’t getting any closer.
At least I was getting somewhere, wherever that somewhere was.
“Do it again!” A small group of giggly teenage girls swarmed Pete’s body and waved twenties in front of his face. “Tell me about Cassie’s dream date---“ they pointed to the redhead in the back “---she won’t tell us!”
“Tall, dark, heavy Latino accent.” The details started to turn sinful, so I cut it off right there. No reason to scare away the customers; this was going to be a family show, since I didn't really know how to run a dirty.
Hell, I didn't know much of anything at that point.
“Oooh! You’re amazing!" The twenty fell into my bodily excuse for a cup, and I had Pete pocket the cash. It tickled a pleasure center that felt familiar yet altogether new; making money was fun, I suddenly remembered from past experiences. A dollar was a dollar, doubly nice when it was honest.
Some passerbys eyed the group with disdain; in my head I could hear their haughty calls of "foul play" and "cheap hustler tricks." They resolved to never let me dip into their bankrolls. For a moment I thought about picking their account information right from their memory, but held back.
A man walked slowly from the center of the crowd, head down, a somber gaze in his eyes, hair greasy with neglect. He looked as if he hadn't seen a good meal in days, and his clothes had seen too many rainstorms. With a half-grin he pulled a quarter from his pocket and put it onto my body, treating it with the care of a prized possession.
"You must tell me," he began in a raspy voice, but a hacking cough bit into the words. "I need to know one thing. One thing is all I ask from this world." Silence. I took a peek into this man's mind and felt a thousand maces beating on his head, guilt eating at him like a school of piranhas.
Unlike Marcus, I kind of felt sorry for him. There was probably some reason for this, I knew.
"I need to know where I came from." The pain grew to an apex. "Your sign says 'read your thoughts,' I know, but maybe you can pick the information from the back of my head."
I sat in a stunned silence for what felt like an eternity.
"See, my parents abandoned me on the street, and I had to learn how to survive on my own. I don't remember those early years – life's been rough. If I knew where I came from, had some sense of purpose in my life... I don't know. May help ease the pain a little."
A past. All he wanted was a past, and a future to look forward to.
Suddenly I felt very empty.
"Sir, you're the only one I have left! I've never been one for miracles, but at this point I'll take anything. Please!"
The mind-voices pounded at my skull; I was too disoriented to sort them out. "I... don't know."
For a moment I tried to focus -- really hard, mind you – but nothing would come through. It felt as if someone had blown my mind to shreds, and left me to clean up the mess on my own. That one question turned my mind into a vast desert, where there should have been lush forests and thriving towns.
This man wasn't the only one with something missing, I realized.
With a sigh I had Pete give the man his quarter back. "Can't help you," Pete said with his powerful voice, "I'm still working on that one myself." The mystery of my own mind was the only thing I couldn't look at, something I had to hunt down.
And, by God, I was going to hunt it to the ends of the Earth.
"Party's over," Pete mumbled before breaking the sign in two. The crowd sighed in tandem before breaking apart, going about their daily business like a mind-reader hadn't just amazed them with a little bit of street magic. A few stragglers begged for one last reading, but I Pete pushed them away…
…without my word. Pete had done something on his own! I didn’t know exactly what to think of it at first – this man was my one ticket to humanity, and suddenly he was taking off without my word – but I knew I had to get things back under control. Pete was a _vegetable_; the doctor had told me so, and I’d be damned if I let a comatose man get out from under me.
No problem, I thought. Just get back into his mind and take back the reins.
When I retreated back into his head I found myself washed up in a sea of anguish, drowning in its festering black foam. My mind thrashed against the water and gasped for air. I was dying! Dying a cold death, a death made of hatred and loss. Down, down, down I went, deeper into the sea, the pressure building, building, crushing my mind with a scary efficiency…
Snap. The world around stopped spinning, and suddenly the bustling streets felt awfully tranquil. A few of the stragglers helped Pete to his feet, and I had him nod in thanks before stumbling around a corner.
No problem; it was just a little vertigo. Maybe body switches had that problem at times; I’m sure it’s like people getting carsick, or just not feeling like themselves. It was just a passing bit of sickness, something I would get used to.
For a moment I shook the cobwebs from Pete’s brain, and convinced myself that things were fine. We started towards Mao Zedong’s Chicken Shack -- I didn’t know exactly where to go, but minds are quite open with that information. We made just before closing time; since the place was a family establishment, they never stayed open past six. The regulars thought it was a shame; in the city that never sleeps, a lot of people wanted good Chinese at odd hours. The poor family missed out on a lot of easy money…
Not my problem.
Annoying bells on the door chimed as Pete threw it open. Fried fish and egg drop soup filled Pete’s nostrils, along with the sound of Chinese men talking with their dainty, bouncy language. Streaks formed in the wallpaper where greasy air wasn’t given a fair chance to vent. Each table setting had a cheap fork and a cheaper Zodiac placemat – the tables themselves are better left unmentioned.
No matter, I thought, I’d only be in for a few minutes anyway. Sure enough, a squat Thai man came out of the kitchen at the sound, rubbed his greasy hands on the soiled apron he wore, and spat out what little English he knew: “We closed. Come back tomorrow for lunch special----“
“I need to know if you picked up any of this man’s garments this morning,” Pete interrupted, “he lost them by this store.”
The man stared at us like a couple of aliens, brow furrowed, mind wondering what in the world Pete had just said. Without thinking about it he fired off his usual response: “Hold on, I get manager.” With that he turned to back to the kitchen window and barked a few sentences in Chinese.
The lady that came out looked both old and young, with an classy silk kimono that was a little too nice for such a dirty little hole-in-the-wall. You could tell she was either new to the job or really excited about her work; when she saw me she bowed courteously and offered another foreign greeting.
Her lips didn’t move when she talked, I noticed. It was like watching a marionette. “Hello sir. I saw you earler today – you order General Tso Chicken – and when you left you changed.”
“Changed?” Pete asked for me.
“What do you call it? S-C-A-“ she paused.
She – Kimi, as I picked from her mind -- was walking over to the cash register as we talked. “Yes, yes! You just fall out of your clothes! Very strange. I watch from window. You change quick; I went out to try and help----”
“Fine and good, but what about my clothes? Did you pick up my clothes?”
“Yes!” Kimi grinned a wide Asian grin. “I go out and get them as soon as that man carry you off. I keep them under register. You want?”
“Please.” She disappeared under the tiny counter for a moment, rummaged around, and returned with a small plastic sack. Pete grabbed it from her hands, plopped it down onto a table, and started ripping clothing from the bag. Navy blue tux. Rose corsage. Freshly-polished shoes. Crisp, snappy fedora. Small pistol on a shoulder strap----
“I take out the bullets,” Kimi interjected, “Dangerous.”
I shrugged and started rooting through the pockets. For a moment I smiled at what a snazzy dresser my past self was; the clothes were definitely high quality. Then, when I checked the breast pocket…
Thaddeus: nice job, take a week off. Good peep shows in New York; see a few on me. Call sometime: 545-324. You know the last four.
Interesting, I thought. The word Thaddeus rang a bell in my mind, along with Big Jule. By the end of it I was even chuckling; there were some jokes in between the lines that my subconscious decided to get. And the number…
Four digits popped into my head, and I immediately begged a pen off Kimi. Before they could disappear again I had a phone number to call, hopefully one that could give me some information…
A screech pierced my thoughts. I could only writhe in agony as my mind dodged daggers of pure pain, trying desperately to hold off the maelstrom for a moment longer, survive without being scratched—
The world went dark.
An ear-piercing scream, taste of adrenaline on the tongue.
Overwhelming thoughts of "not again."
I was running at full tilt suddenly. The house was on the horizon. I was running toward the house. The scream echoed from that little place.
Vile, evil smells filled the air. The door felt like ice in my fingers. Mud from my shoes made my steps gritty. The polished wood floor was slick all the way to the living room.
A priceless vase fell from its pedestal and shattered into a million pieces, kicked to the ground by a flailing foot. A flailing foot attached to a slender leg. A slender leg attached to a beautiful body. A beautiful body attached to my beautiful wife...
A beautiful wife hanging from a length of barbed wire, blood dripping in a congealed pool like a leaky faucet.
All I could do was cry.
"I love you, Peter" Cristina said to me. It felt very nice to hear the words. We kissed. People cheered in the pews. Rice pelted my face. A champagne cork popped into the air – a celebration of marital bondage.
Yes, it felt very nice indeed.
"We'll be all right, you'll see." I hugged my beautiful wife and turned her away from the note hanging from a knife on the wall.
"I don't want to go on my walk," she said, voice quivering.
"It's Saturday; you always go on your walk!"
"Pete, I don't want to go. Not with things like that popping up at our house."
"Here, I'll walk with you. We'll do it together."
Brother Jadus stared at me, then at the bloody cow's head on my car. "I'm telling you, the war on gangs just isn't worth it. Kids will make their mistakes; we are only people of God's word, and those that chose to listen can be saved. But to go out and challenge the Mafia...?"
"I have to," I said. It made me proud, so I said it proudly. "There are children out there, on those streets. You can't just let something like that go."
"I'll have to take that chance."
"You can't save them."
"I'll have to try."
Cristina sits in her favorite La-Z-Boy. She is reading a book; I can't see the title.
"Nice night," she says. Her eyes are glued to the pages, face hiding behind the cover.
"Saturdays are always nice," I say. I'm making her fried rice. She jokes that I'm a terrible cook. I don't care.
The grandfather clock in the hall ticks away second after second.
"Nice night," she repeats. It's like listening to a broken record.
Tick tock, the clock adds.
"You said that already."
Silence. She keeps reading.
"Come on, dinner's ready." I'm scooping rice onto her favorite plate, just to be nice.
"You killed me." The voice is like cold steel.
"It wasn't my fault."
"Sure it was. You got into it, and they came for me."
"I didn't mean to get you involved."
"Too late." She keeps reading. Her face hasn't moved once. I start walking over.
The book drops. Razor wire shoots from her neck and into my cheeks. Fresh blood feels wet on my cheeks.
If I can avenge her...
I screamed. Loud. Kimi came over with a cool rag, and put it on my horribly disfigured body. Pete was sprawled out on a row of restaurant chairs, a dumbfounded stare on his sweating face. A chef was ladling egg drop soup into his mouth. Outside I heard faint sirens approaching fast. Emergency crews, I realized; Kimi had called 911 after Pete hit the floor.
The mind-voices around me were subdued and calm; this wasn't a very popular side of town, thankfully. I wasn't exactly sure about my capacity to deal with that shock right then.
"You fainted," she said in a calm voice, "very scary. Ambulance is coming to help..."
"I'm fine," I blurted, then reached out for Pete's mind. We locked up, and I had him pick my blob of a body from the floor.
"We'll just be on our way," Pete said while picking up my things, "Thank you for the assistance, but I think we'll be fine from here."
And, as soon as that hole-in-the-wall was out of sight, my mind broke into a hundred thousand pieces.
I had Pete walk into a hotel lobby, while I tried to pull the pieces of my destroyed mind back together again. There was a lot of information hidden in those memories; as I kept hunting between the lines a migraine split into my skull. Pete had broken down my doors and pumped the stuff in with a fire hose, and all I could do was sit back and watch.
Still, I had no idea what he was getting at, if he was doing anything at all. Maybe it was just stress. Yeah, it had to be stress. Hearing the mind-voices of every human being within earshot was just grinding on me.
Yeah, that’s it.
One thing was for sure; being in Pete’s silent mind was no comfort. It was just too dangerous, suddenly.
Marvelous Manhattan had some wonderful hotels, that’s for sure. Places like the Mariott waited on their guests’ hand over foot, giving them anything they wanted. This wasn’t one of those places. The concierge watched “Cops” on a portable TV, signal fuzzy from rabbit ears, the glow bright against the half-dead lamp bulbs and buzzing cam lights above.
In the fat, aging concierge’s mind: “I sure do wish I could be a TV star. Maybe I should take a shower tonight; the missus won’t be likkered up tonight.”
“Whaddaya want?” the man said around a mouthful of potato chips. He turned on his chair and over to the barred window.
“We’d like to use your phone,” I had Pete say.
“You a payin’ customer?”
Pete pulled a few dollars from his pocket and put them on the greasy counter. “We are now.” He grunted, and I knew to go for the kill. “It’ll be enough to buy the missus a forty, I say. Unless, of course, you want her to know about Mindy…”
His fat little face took on this look of absolute horror, and he pointed down the hall. “Dial nine first, then whatever you want. On the house.”
“Thank you,” Pete smiled, and walked towards the phone. Funny, the more that I stayed with Pete the less I noticed people looking at me. Hell, the more I was controlling Pete’s body the more I stopped thinking of myself as the fat little blob at his side. It was like we were… well… intertwined.
There was probably something to learn from Pete’s mind, I kept thinking, but it just wasn’t in the cards. It scared me.
With a strained silence I had Pete pull out the number and start dialing. From there he put the ear to the receiver and cleared his throat – I was getting used to Pete being my spokesman, anyway. He was my crutch, a body for a bodiless man, a last chance to discover a past I knew existed just beyond my reach.
The phone rang once, twice, three times. A man picked up on the other end and opened the conversation with a hacking cough. Charming, I thought to myself, and then I heard his gritty voice: “Yeah, it’s Jule.”
Pete’s voice was suddenly weak; for the life of me I couldn’t get him to speak up. “Jule?” he squeaked, and he nearly dropped the phone to the floor.
“Hey, you called me.” I paused while Pete looked down at the card; yep, the name was written down right there…
“This is Thaddeus.”
“Thaddeus?” he whistled. “Boy, you sound sicker than a dog! What’d those whores give to you, anyway?”
My mind reeled for a moment. “What girls—oh, those girls! I think one of ‘em had a cold.”
“Too bad... Hey, I remember one time when I complained to a hooker about that one time. I told her, ‘Hey, you gave me crabs!” What did she say? ‘What’d you expect, lobster?’ “ A wheezing chuckle came from the end; I tried to get Pete to join in, but he was cinched up tight.
" 's a joke, Thaddeus! C'mon! You're supposed to be having fun up in New York."
"I won't hear it. You go out and have some fun. You deserve it; you did a great job last week. Not sure if I could do better myself, and that's saying a lot."
"Thank you, sir." Pete replied weakly.
"It's the truth!" he paused. "Where are you right now?"
"I don't know----" Pete looked around frantically, until his glaze caught a little postcard stuck behind the phone. "Times Square, outside the Virgin store."
"Good. Go two blocks over; there's a great peep show there. I know you like that kind of shit."
Pete shivered, and no matter how much I tried I couldn't get him to stop. "Thanks for the tip, but I have something to tell you."
"Tell me after you've had your fun," Big Jule insisted, "But until then don't call. Take a rest!"
It was hopeless, I realized, so I just had Pete say my goodbyes and hang up. Big Jule wasn't going to help me out any, so I was back up the creek without a paddle. Here I was, knowing everything but what I want to know, using a puppet to get from place to place, and all Big Jule wanted me to do was go to a peep show.
I was tired. There was too much in my world right now, and too little of it to actually use. All I wanted to do was sleep.
After shaking the cobwebs out of my gelatinous mind, I had Pete walk back up to the front desk. "Got cable TV?" Pete asked the fat little man behind the barred counter.
The fat man grinned. "Yep. With HBO."
"I need a room," Pete said, and slipped a twenty through the bars. A key flew out the window, and we were pointed down the dirty little hallway to the last door on the right. Sewage smell, rude service... I didn't really care. As long as I could watch a movie and get some sleep I was happy.
Well, not happy. Sated, I guess, but not happy. I had too much on my mind for that.
Dreaming. I am dreaming. I must be dreaming.
He's Joey. Joey is a small boy, born and raised in the country, oblivious to everything around him. Never steps foot out of Haggarton, no matter what. Joey is in love with money -- an awkward time for a boy. Lots of wants, too few rescources.
We're fishing together. He talks about bait while I listen. Our lines get crossed, and the big one gets away. We laugh and keep right on fishing.
"Pete," he says suddenly, "Why are you helping me?"
"I don't want you to get hurt," I reply.
"I'm not going to hurt myself."
"They will. Those people will tear you limb from limb, if you let them."
"They pay for my toys."
"When will they ask to be paid back?"
"They never do."
The dream flips, starts going backwards.
"That's the church's phone; you're not supposed to use it. Who are you talking to, Joey?"
"Oh, just Nicky. He's going to get me a new bicycle."
"Why's he doing that for you?"
"I ran some boxes across town for him."
I sigh heavily.
"It's honest work! I take the boxes to a little warehouse outside of town, and they pay me. Simple."
"I'm gonna go pick up my bike!" he says, and then he's gone.
I redial the number. "You can't use children for this stuff. Leave them out of this."
"Why should I listen to you?" the voice on the other end whines. It's the voice of a subordinate, a guy who hides under the head honcho's legs when he needs to.
"Because you're putting kids into danger on these crack runs."
"The cops don't ask kids."
"Maybe they should start, then."
"We'll see about that." I hang up.
"You know He is always there for you." I reel in a bluegill as we talk. "No matter what wrong you may have done, He will always forgive you."
"I didn't mean to hurt anyone," Joey shoots back, "it was just a favor. If I would have known that it got this deep..."
"Hush, boy. He will forgive your mistake if you just learn from it. Don't do any more favors for Nicky: simple as that."
"What about the money?"
"There are ways to earn what you need, my boy. I'm sure you're smart enough to figure things out on your own."
"I..." he lights up. "I could run a lemonade stand!"
"That's the ticket!" And we keep right on fishing.
Joey doesn't show up for dinner at my house. Saturdays are always our night; for him not to show up is almost sac religious. Cristina looks at the clock on the wall with the most worried look I have ever seen her wear; I stare out of the kitchen's bay window and hope.
Hope. That's what got me into this mess, I realize.
"Something happened," my wife says.
"Honey, I think we better call the police."
Cristina stares at the clock some more, sighs.
"Joey is never this late," I say. My breath fogs the window slightly.
"Something's wrong, I'm telling you!"
"Honey, this is Haggartown. We may have a drug trafficking problem, but we just don't _have_ cases like that. He probably got caught up at the arcade in the mall, or just decided to sleep the night away..."
"I answered five hang-up calls today," she interrupts, "something is wrong."
"Not with him."
"Oh?" I turn to face her, eyes burning with fervor. "What could possibly be worse?"
"How about this Nikki character? I think he has connections, Pete. Something's just not right here. What if he starts getting testy...?"
I stop her with an outstretched hand. "You know I can't back out now. These kids need me; without me they have no hope. Without hope, there is no life. Simple."
"I know, honey, but..."
A brick shattered the bay window, missing my head only by a few inches. Written on the side: "Too late."
I throw the car into park so hard that I think I might break the shifter. A few warehouse workers look up from the loads they carry, but the foreman barks out an order to get back to work. The car door nearly comes off its hinges as I throw it open. I growl without realizing it, even when Nicky comes out looking all suave.
"I trust you've had a nice night at home?" he asks innocently.
"Cut it. I want to know what you did with Joey."
"Me? I run a simple business. Joey is at work, now."
"He's off on Sunday."
"Not anymore," Nicky counters, smiling. "He has certain... cash advances to work off. I'm afraid he'll be working quite a bit for the next few weeks." He looks off into the distance. "Yes, Joey's one of our best ferrymen----"
"He doesn't know what he's doing!"
"None of my concern." Nicky looks terribly bored, talking to me. He flips a coin in one hand, the other in his pocket. It seems to me that he just wants to turn around and go back to work, and act like this raving priest at his door never existed...
"You can't have these kids ferry drugs like this!" I scream, "It's not right! Their lives will be ruined if someone finds out!"
"That's the beauty of it."
"You're a monster."
"I'm a businessman." For a second I can't help fuming, and my fists ball up. He suddenly looks as if Heaven above put a thought in his mind. "Oh! You're the crazy guy we keep hearing about. A lot of the new kids say you try to push them away from my shop----"
"I'm going to take you down."
Nicky snickered and laid a hand on my shoulder. "Now, now, my dear Pete. We don't need those harsh threats here. We're all just out to make an honest buck, after all; gotta feed our families one way or another. It's all self-preservation, you see."
"Now, if you wish to be a purveyor of self-preservation, you'll keep this little incident locked up tight. I run a fair business here, and the world needs to know no differently. Forget about Joey; go back to the kids you know, and let him be. He's made his decision."
"He doesn't know!"
"And he will continue to not know, along with the rest of the world. Otherwise..."
"I'll have to take care of you." He sighs deeply. "Look, I'm not usually this gracious to people I don't know, so you better leave before I get testy."
What could I do? Grunting, I left the scene.
"Hello, Haggarton Police Department? I'd like to report a drug front..."
My mind snapped back into reality; I found myself sitting in a puddle of my own drool amongst ruffled bedspreads. Pete was still sitting in front of the TV, its eerie glow reflecting off his featureless face. Saliva also dripped from his chin, the strand capturing light from that television's awkward glow.
The cheery man on the television screen ranted and raved about his Sup-o-ginsu Cutting System. I would have killed to see what was going on in his head.
Haggarton. Why did it sound familiar to me? It could be my past, right, but Pete was throwing information down my throat whenever I closed my eyes...
Sighing, I ordered Pete to turn off the infomercial and pick me up. It was time to take a little road trip.
I bet the man at the Rent-a-Car shop that I could tell him the names of all his children if he would give me a free car. Stupid sap fell for it hook, line, and sinker.
With the car we traveled to a library, where I had Pete pull up directions to Haggarton on a computer. It wasn't terribly far: 90 miles, and most of that on freeways. With directions in Pete's hand we headed out of New York and off into the wild blue yonder, with the suns at our backs and nothing but open road in front of us.
Okay, so we got stuck in traffic jam after traffic jam. After a while I wasn't sure what was worse; trying to stomach the terrible radio stations Pete was listening to or fighting off a billion mind-voices at once. I kept going between the two uneasily, until traffic cleared up enough to go faster than five miles an hour.
I always liked road trips, my mind suddenly remembered. Something about being behind the wheel gave me a sort of excitement: my hands on the wheel, eyes scanning the road for traffic, mind always focused on the next available exit...
Pete screamed into my mind, but this time he kept the crazy dreams at home. He hadn't eaten for three days. Sue me; I didn't remember that humans even _ate_; let alone got hungry. Must be a side effect of becoming a blob of flesh, I thought, smiling.
I had him pull off at the next exit, and pulled in to the rattiest country café I had ever seen. In reality I probably never would have gone inside; if Pete's need wasn't so great, we could have skipped to the next exit and to a more substantial establishment. As it stood it was the only show in town, so "The Dutch Oven" would have to do.
One thing was for sure: we weren't living the high life. "The Dutch Oven" was the kind of place you'd rather spit on than look at, let alone eat in. From the outside it looked as if eviction was just around the corner; shingles and pieces of siding rotted away in the cold, wet New York winters of past years, and the grass grew wild, mocking and intimidating every lawnmower in a ten mile radius. As Pete traversed the gravel parking lot and sun-dried wood deck I could hear thousands of flies buzzing around what I assumed to be the cozy Oven's table scraps. On the inside the place looked a bit better, though it was incredibly small and gaudily decorated. I remembered bigger family dining rooms in friend's houses, and my memory is terrible! A large, defunct stove stood as the centerpiece of the restaurant, doubling as a dessert tray and trashy craft magnet. The tables themselves looked as if they had seen better days; the paneling was falling off, revealing the cheap particleboard base within. Paper placemats and flimsy silverware completed the look.
It was no wonder that the host's most prominent mind-voice screamed "Get me out of this hell-hole." Hell-hole or no, though, they were open and serving food. Pete was too hungry to care -- like he ever did.
Said host didn't really take notice of Pete and I as we walked into the door; she pointed to a seat with a free hand and kept her eyes glued to the trashy romance novel she was reading. "Pick a spot," she said, eyes glued to the words on the page. I didn't step further into her mind, as the book was starting to get a bit sultry...
I had Pete sit me down on top of one of the smaller, less dilapidated tables before he took his seat. For a moment I felt terrible for picking out what Pete would eat; I had come to control his entire life, after all. A human being didn't deserve that kind of disservice. The least I could do was ask politely for some information from his mind...
Nothing. Too bad; it was going to be my choice. I hope he didn't mind liver and onions...
The waitress, a greasy old woman in frilly lace who stank of cigarette smoke and liquor, came over and took Pete's order with the same intensity that our host sat us with. She didn't even bat an eye towards me; I didn't really mind at all. No one needed to know where the brains of this operation really were; if they thought I was just a pillow with a face, more power to them...
"No!" the sound pierced the small, quiet little shack, making Pete jump involuntarily. "That's _not_ what he said. Can't you tell he tried to make a T?" The other party screamed back, and before I could put my finger on what the argument was about they broke into a shouting match of monstrous proportions.
I couldn't help myself; Pete grabbed a hold of my body and we walked out into the second room of the place, where a small group stood gesticulating towards a wizened, disabled man and a sheet of paper on the table. The two men screaming were squaring off presently, and looked to be ready to fight over the little piece of paper. The grandpa looked off into space and moaned while a caretaker wiped saliva from the side of his mouth.
The men continued to glare, and one growled, "I'm telling you, the estate is mine. Grandpa wants it that way."
"Over my dead body." Their fists clinched, pulled back, muscles tensed in biceps hardened from years of work...
"Stop," Pete's voice boomed. I couldn't let this go on: not in a public place. They could fight all they wanted someplace else, for all I cared, but as long as they had a public meeting it was out of the question. "What seems to be the problem?
The midwife/caretaker sighed. "Oh, I told you we shouldn't have come here. Sure, it was Papaw's favorite spot, but no one ever liked it. I _knew_ these two would get in a fight----"
"Hush, Marcie" the larger of the two men snapped. He turned his attention to Pete and sneered. "It's none of your business what happens here. Go back to your table."
"I think I can help you."
"Go back to your table."
"Can I at least try?"
It was the midwife's turn to snap. "Come now, Obidiah! Where are your manners?" The man backed down, though begrudgingly. "Now, young man, we need your help on settling a controversy. See, Papaw here is trying to write out a will, and we're settling on the estate. Problem is that we can't make out if it goes to the Tavorn's or the Duffy's. His voice is too weak to tell..." she glared at the two men, "And these boys are doing no bit of good."
No problem, I thought. I'll just take a peek into Gramps's mind and figure things out...
I had to make Pete sit down before I lost total control. When I stepped inside I felt a dying force banging against the walls, frustrated beyond all measure. In one instant I learned everything about Patrick Tavorn and Obidiah Duffy, from their snobby childhood lives to the blood-sucking, suck-up-to-the-old-man middle age, right up to the bitter conversations they had over a dying man's hospital bed. His decision on the matter? The whole estate was to go to charity. Plain and simple.
This was going to be fun, I thought.
"I stepped inside his mind," I had Pete say with a flat tone, devoid of emotion. "He told me everything about you, Patrick and Obidiah." Their jaws flapped; I couldn't help smiling.
"Oh! That's... incredible!" the midwife looked over to the old man, who was beaming with understanding. "So, what did he say?"
"Give the whole thing to a nice orphanage," Pete continued in the same voice, "Zero of the cut goes to any of his living family." Then, on the side, "This is for not calling, Pat and Oby, it was a long, long twenty years." Once it was all out I had a really rough time keeping from laughing; I knew that any hint of a grin would give them reason for doubt, but it was just so _funny_ to see their greedy eyes drop to the floor!
"Uh... thank you very much," said the midwife. Grandpa was smiling and -- dare I say it -- laughing. The two men cursed me under their breath.
"Glad to be of service," Pete said with a bow before turning back to the table. A steaming plate of liver and onions waited for him there, and I could feel saliva forming in the back of his throat.
"Waitress?" I had Pete say, "We need a doggie bag; it's time that we get back on the road." Under his breath I could swear Pete himself said "Our work here is done," but when I started to pay attention I only saw the slavering, brainless body I was always used to.
The road went on and on.
Pete finished his liver and onions with all the enthusiasm of a robot in a car factory. Forkful after forkful of carelessly shoveled food went to his mouth, where it was chewed with the exact same stroke every time, lower jaw moving only slightly. He'd swallow, and prep another spoonful.
It wasn't like Pete really _cared_ what it tasted like; as long as he chewed and swallowed his body would do all the hard work. That, and I still needed his other hand to drive the car. See my dilemma?
Streetlights cast a dim luminance inside the rental car, just enough to see my reflection in the rearview mirror. "The Dutch Oven" felt like a dream to me, something I hadn't really experienced at all. I had helped that old man with his final wishes. If it weren't for me, those bloodthirsty ruffians would have his estate for lunch. Me! I was a blessing to that poor midwife, a sparkle in the eyes of a dying man. It felt... well...
It felt good. Yes, good. And to think that I didn't have to really do anything----
"I'll get him. If I have to chase that bastard to the ends of the Earth I'll do it!" I almost swerved off the road, the words were so sudden. Out of nowhere I felt myself being pulled away from the task at hand, into a strange mix of flashback and dreamland.
No! I thrashed around inside Pete's mind, trying to get out before he could take a hold of me again. I couldn't black out while I was driving! My brain wriggled through the cracks and crevices of his brain, hoping to find a way out...
No dice. At least I was far enough out that I wouldn't black out totally. My vision blurred a bit, but I could still see the road ahead. I knew that I was in for a ride, of course, but at least I wouldn't die because of it. Very comforting, until I realized that I had already been in one lethal accident without getting anything more than a little asphalt burn.
Keep your ryes on the road, I told myself. Just ride it out.
"God help me, I'll kill him. What right did he have to come and shatter my life? I wanted to live the peaceful life of a minister -- that's all! Why did I let myself get tied up in all this 'saving the children' business to begin with?
"No, it's his fault. _He_ was trying to stop me. _He_ knows that I'm willing to do whatever it takes to save these kids. _He's_ the one that killed Christina!"
It was a struggle to keep my eyes open; the pain and anguish just made me want to shrivel into a tiny point and disappear. It was like I was walking on jagged glass.
"Was a family too much to ask? I just wanted a little home, a wife, two kids, a little nephew to come and visit. It's not like I was out for blood or anything...
"Why didn't he come after _me_? Why did he have to go and drag my wife into the mix? _I_ was the problem, and yet he shamelessly took my wife's life. Damned coward!"
I winced, feeling suddenly as if I should be vomiting. My body didn't have anything to bring up.
"I'm going to kill him. God help me, I'll kill him if it's the last thing I do! I'll make him pay for Christina's life. That'll teach those drugrunners to think they can control _my_ plans..."
More nausea. The road grew darker and darker, and still Pete's mind assaulted me. A small stream of froth formed at the corner of his lip, and his breathing grew erratic.
"It's _his_ fault I'm becoming a cold-blooded killer. Damn it, if I go through with it they still win! I'm still being controlled... but it matters not. I'm going to kill the man behind my wife's death.
"Did he have to hang her by razor wire? I can never quite get the stain of blood out of..." A wave of unspeakable guilt and mourning swept through my mind, almost knocking me out. The undertow kept me under, threw me against the broken glass bottom, swirled particles of sludge and sand into my mouth...
Before I could figure out what was happening I was sitting across from Pete, calmly controlling the car subconsciously. Cold sweat was drying on my seat. Pete's mouth was still frothing, but at least his breathing was normal. All around us was a powerful silence, broken by the occasional bump in the road or bridge crossing. We sat, unmoving, myself in a state of disbelief, Pete still staring straight ahead.
He was trying to tell me something, I knew. That mind refused to quit, no matter the odds!
And the road went on and on.
I would have missed Haggarton if I wasn't looking for it; main street was a bank and drugstore, with a little pizza place right on the city limits. A few kids loitered around in the drugstore's parking lot, riding bikes in the dim streetlight's glow. It's not like they were terribly bad, either; I knew that the store had been a place to congregate for years, back when I was just a kid...
The thought backhanded me as we drove past that little place. A memory! I let it sift through my mind like sand inside an hourglass, reveled in how it felt. Oh, how I missed feeling memories coursing through my brain! As I kept traveling down the dusty paths I found more of my life, uncovering it like an archeologist would a fossil.
Memories! My past! It was all coming back to me now!
I always called Haggarton my home, back then; bouncing around made home hard to come by, but this place was as good as any. Mom and Dad split early, and left me to fend for myself. Alone.
Nicky was a nice guy, though. He made sure I didn't go hungry. Of course, I had to _work_ for my keep, but he always had something for me to do. Times may have been tough, but Nicky always made sure I came through. He even put in the good word when it was time for me to move up in the company!
What company? I was still trying to uncover it.
Those times, those memories... I couldn't help smiling. There were so many good favors done here, and so many that I owed to friends. True friends. People who really cared about me.
I was home.
My heart fluttered in my throat. It was all here! Memories, experiences, everything I once knew... all came back like dawn over a vast sea. There was Mrs. Macwilliams's house, and behind that the school, and to its right the old ice cream shop, and on down that road...
The old baptist church.
A pang of guilt ate at my gut, but I surpressed it as well as I could. Pete's mind was gone, plain and simple. I owned his body now. The visions, well, they were only spasms of a dying brainstem. Yeah, that was it. Nothing to worry about. Might as well kick back and enjoy the ride while it lasts, I thought.
A long sigh escaped both our lungs as we pulled up to the drugstore's lone gas pump. The lonely clerk inside watched us with a little curiosity, with one eye always trained on the kids just in case they decided to make any trouble. They didn't. I listened to those kids' minds as I watched Pete pump gas. Nothing surprising: boys' minds are always filled with adventure, trouble, imaginary monsters, legends of the lunch table... just like my youth, I thought with a smile. The strange pair would surely join the ranks of legends by the time things were all said and done.
A cold drizzle sent the kids pedaling their bikes towards shelter. I rolled back into the car and watched from afar as Pete finished pumping, eyes never blinking, body not moving save the occasional breath. Prickles of nerves surged through my body, but I tried my best to ignore it. Probably Pete's spasming mind trying to reach into my mind again.
The pump clicked, and I had Pete force the it to an even twenty dollars.
Frosty Foods's door bells sent a wave of nostalgia through my body; the smell of hot dogs and cigarette smoke felt downright homely. The cashier, a worn-down excuse for a man, looked at me cross-eyed for only a moment. In his mind: "There goes the neighborhood."
Not that I cared about what he thought. I was home!
Pete was getting hungry again, so I had him pick up one of those roasting weenies from the cooker. "Nice car," mumbled the cashier as he approached the counter. In his gaze was a strong sense of "What the hell you doing here," but I made sure Pete didn't see it at all. The clerk punched some buttons on his cash register, and the things replied with the ka-chink-ca-chink of a receipt printing.
"It's a rental."
The old man nodded to Pete, told him what he owed, and waited while I had the pastor present the money. Me, well, I was looking at the announcement board. It was filled with simple little calls for work: odd jobs, lemonade stands, garage sales, kids looking for lawns to mow. Oh, how I remembered those days...
A scowling countenance challenged me from one of the posters, sending chills down my spine. Those evil eyes stared straight through me, chilled me to the bone, made me want to shrivel up and die. His scarred face looked as if it had seen more than its fair share of battles. And the uncaring, unmoving lips...
I read the line at the bottom of the poster: "Wanted for the murder of Christina Brown, dead or alive. Contact Pete Brown or the Haggarton police department with any information you may have on Thaddeus Martin."
If I had a heart, it would have stopped. The realization hit me like acid rain, like turning a floodlight onto a gruesome murder scene and trying to take it in all at once. Me. I was Pete's killer. I was the one who took on Big Jule's favor. He wanted it messy – just to teach a lesson – and I was all too happy to oblige.
It was a Saturday. Saturday! What a terrible, terrible day!
All this searching, the days of hunting down a memory that was only a glimmer in my eye, and I ended up finding a killer. In a way I deserved it; curiosity killed the cat, as they say. Someone meant for me to lose my body, after all, and maybe I should have taken the hint.
Thaddeus... It was too proud a name. That was the very moment I became Fats.
Beside this shifty man stood a missing person poster, with a lively face pasted on the front. It was the face of a man untroubled by the world around him, eyes gleaming with an infectious sort of hope, a hope that things would eventually get better for everyone he knew.
Pete. Pete's face was on the damn poster! "Missing," it went on, "Reward for any information regarding his whereabouts. He is sorely missed by us all." A hundred signatures from the Baptist Church followed.
I felt like a heel. First I go and kill Pete's wife, then steal his body when it went offline, and then I had the nerve to ride him like a pony...?
"Sir?" The clerk put a hand on Pete's shoulder, shook him a bit. "Sir, you want a receipt with that?"
"Thank you," I had Pete mumble, and with that I tried my best to grasp the receipt from the clerk's hands. Pete's fingers wouldn't work. I tried my hardest to close his fingers around that slip of paper, but I just couldn't!
A murder, I told myself. I didn't deserve to live, let alone control this man's body.
"Are you okay?"
My eyes shot to the bold "LOST" flyer on the bulletin board.
"I've done enough harm," I said through my own mouth, only to turn and walk out of the store.
The gravels under our car popped like popcorn, with an occasional ping when a pebble hit the underbody. Ahead, the simple church stood, intimidating yet passive, chaotic yet tranquil, hated yet loved by my feeble mind. Pete's empty stare seemed a bit less dumbfounded and a bit more interested. Me... Well, I still felt like puking up the guts my body no longer had. Me, the murderer, heading towards the church with no idea as to what I'm there for.
Full circle we go, from one church to another. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, as they say.
I didn't know exactly what I was going to do: Pete just drove. Something kept pulling me towards that simple brick building; something that I hoped would appear when I walked through those holy doors. My mind worked that way at times; Pete may have been messing with my emotions, but to this day I can't be sure of it. All I could do was let him drive.
The road drew to a close.
Pete pulled off the thin drive and parked on the lawn. I rolled into his arms before I let him open the door.
Each step Pete took made my heart pound. There was something I had to do here, but I didn't know what! Once upon a Saturday I had ruined this church's most prized pastor, and yet I had some duty towards it. Me, the man who turned a kind-hearted man into a cold, empty shell of a person.
What in the hell was I doing?
Pete opened the church's screen door, silent as a mouse. Inside, a group of followers prayed to the tune of the organist's hymnals. Some cried. Some hid their faces. No matter the method, no one wanted to look at the projection standing up front.
A face. Pete's face.
I made Pete duck into a side hall.
The smallish pastor, a man who seemed to carry a heavy weight squarely between the shoulders, sighed and took the podium. "Oh Lord, one of our flock has gone astray. Our good, kind 'Pastor Pete' departed in a sea of vengeance. Please forgive him for this sin, for he has done no wrong. You have given him a heavy load to bear, and as time passes he will learn to carry it well. Lord, we ask that you forgive him of his sins and guide him back to our fellowship, so that he may be with his family once again. We know Pete's heart is good, even if clouded with the unfortunate passing of his own wife..." those words were hard to swallow. "We only ask forgiveness for him." A pause, and then the prayer broke in His name.
I breathed, froze, breathed again.
I tried vomiting, but nothing came up.
The pastor cleared his throat and let the small whimper of voices die away before he went on. "I have word that Pete may have headed towards New York. Can anyone elaborate?"
"So it is. We can pray that he may have a safe return, but with things being as they are today's collection plate will go towards hiring a Private Eye to track him down." He gulped. "Living or dead, we need to know the truth."
The congregation's mind-voices were so sorrowful and wanting. Warm memories and reminiscences floated amongst the derbis of a shattered feeling of safety. Inside they only wanted their 'Pastor Pete,' a model citizen, a man with few enemies and fewer reasons to be hated. God, they _loved_ this guy!
I wanted to shrivel away into nothing, but when I tried I only found purpose.
"Brothers and sisters, we must not despair. Pete would not want it that way. Instead, we will open the floor for discussion of Pete's great accomplishments. Does anyone have a good story to tell, or a funny joke he knew? How about the things he did for charity----?"
The crowd gasped. In the aisle Pete stumbled towards the front podium, eyes glazed over. People rushed to his aid, but I had him push them all away. Pete was far too strong for that, I knew, and it was the way he wanted it.
"It's a miracle..." the pastor managed. In that silence I planted Pete's memories and my take on his situation into Brother Milius's head. Attached to that thought: "Take it, and take him in. I've done enough damage." With that I just wanted to roll away, off into the sunset without as much as a smile or nod...
Brother Milius wouldn't have it. "Thank you, kind sir! You cannot know how much it means to have our Pete back, in any condition. There's so little kindness left in the world; the simple fact that you took it upon yourself to bring this man back in one piece is amazing. And all the way from New York!" The congregation gasped, but he calmed them with an outstretched hand.
"We thought he may be dead, but we could never give up hope. People like you provide us with exactly that."
"Tell me, what is your name?"
Silence. A few of the congregation members started whispering.
"Please tell me your name. If Pete ever comes to I'm sure he would appreciate knowing who saved him. If it is fear that we may pester you further, I swear that we will never try to contact you..."
One member of the church had seen enough. "C'mon!" the old lady screamed, "It's not like he's asking for your life story. Give him a damn name!"
"Thaddeus," I sighed, "Thaddeus Martin. Look him up." And with that I rolled off into the noontime sun, my form just as amorphous as my purpose. Finally I had a grip on my past, and I could only roll on.
So I rolled on.
Back to reality, or what little of it I can still call my own. At times I wish I could just stay in that reminiscence forever, but before I can do good on it the cold shackles of the world around grow a little tighter.
Nowhere: there's where I've been, and there's where I'm going. I sought the truth, dug for enlightenment, and all I have to show for it is this aluminum-wrapped cardboard box.
A police siren wails by. Each time I hear its shrill cry I hope that they may find me holed up here, recognize my face, find the warrant for my arrest, and take me in for the duration. Murder One carries the death penalty; it would be interesting to see if they could succeed where I've failed. A mercy killing sounds like heaven right now...
Oh well; they don't have time to hunt a washed-up man like Thaddeus Martin. He isn't doing anything now, and his alter ego Fats ain't sitting too pretty, either. Those lawmen have real fish to fry: rapists, robbers, serial killers with a taste for saran wrap. Real problems for real people. Problems that are far too important to put on hold for a hopeless mound of flesh that simply exists from moment to moment.
I wish I needed to eat; at least then I could feel hunger. Hell, feeling anything would be nice right now, as long as it came from my own head. Time passes, and I start to forget how that feels.
At least Pete is okay. I check in on him from time to time, roll in to town through the back roads and pick gossip from churchgoers. From what I hear he's starting to come to, and last I checked he was saying simple words. I wonder what he'll say about being saved by his wife's killer, if he ever hears of it...
Not my problem. I did my duty.
One of the Mexican cooks steps out the back door and shovels scraps into a dumpster. I try to ignore him and stay in this void of nothing, where the pain subsides ever-so-slightly. It's the only place a killer with everlasting life can feel even slightly comfortable.
The box starts to feel cramped, so I brave the trip back out onto the street. Mind-voices pound on my temples as I roll out into the dull, hazy smog of a city night, where the hum of halogen lamps tries mserably to emulate chirping crickets and whispering country wind. It's a place where the ground is either too hot or too cold, the buildings always too tall, the people never friendly enough, and the grass always too sparse. I hate it, but at least it feels right. I deserved such a life, anyway.
Tonight is a freezing sidewalk night; rain always stays around, making every object clammy and wet. The street lamp's glow catches the refraction of a dull haze: part fog, part, drizzle, all dreary. The smell of sulfur and exhaust fills the industrial air, and when I look up I see that the local factory is well into the night shift, belching coal-black smoke into the air like a chain smoker. This smoggy, drizzle-ridden air blots out what's left of a city skyline, leaving me alone on my street corner with a few blocks on each side of me to keep me company. Beyond that, I see nothing. No moon. No stars. No life. No hope.
I have visions on nights like this. Okay, so "vision" is more fitting, as it keeps coming back, night after night. In the vision I'm good ol' Thaddeus Martin, big and bulky, mean and nasty, drabbing a length of razor wire in my tracks. I'm running from something – always running, never stopping. The road ahead never bends or turns, the scenery never changes from the driest farmland I have ever seen, and the road is always spongy with the quasi-reality of a dream. In the distance I can hear Pete screaming, see his wife swinging from a lamp in the green sky, the razor wire trailing down to me, dripping and warm from blood...
He's looking for me. When I sleep I know he draws nearer, and in this one dream I beat feet to get as far away from him as possible. "I'll get him," he always says, "I'll kill him if it's the last thing I do!"
Then I wake up, sweating.
One of these days he'll find me, then he'll crush me. I deserve ever bit of the punishment, but I don't want it to happen.
The sirens wail by again. The wind they kick up stirs up dead leaflets, and empty cans.
I can't do this. Day to day I find myself losing touch with reality, thrasing in a sea of everyone else's dreams, a place where I become almost invisible. There has to be a way to fight back! I try to tell myself, but it never comes.
A thump on the pavement snaps me out of my blank stare; across the street a taxi driver is pulling a sad-looking body out of the back seat. The body –- a fox, I notice – looks as if it hasn't seen a decent meal in days. From the look of the taxi driver, it seemed that the guy hadn't seen much in the money department either. The furry body rocks with a heavy sigh, and with a great effort it pulls itself to its feet. The clothse it wears nearly fall off when it stands up, it's so thin. In its head I see a muddy puddle of memory and purpose, and in the middle I see a tiny child struggling to stay afloat...
I start to roll towards him. Pete's dream may chase me down, but I'm not giving up without a fight. The fox shakes his head to clear out the last martini he drank, but the action brings a pounding headache. I picked his brain and "told" him to sit down before he fell, and he did so without complaint.
Smiling, I roll up beside him. "Rough night?"
"Like you wouldn't believe."
"You look as if you could use a good meal," I continue, "maybe you would care to have a bite with me...?" Sure, I couldn't eat, but I could at least sit with him until the headache cleared. Then I could start fixing all the terrible, gaping holes in his troubled mind.
A tingle ran up and down my spherical body, but I tried my best to keep it under control.
"I don't have any money," he said calmly, "I don't have anything, anymore."
I could only smile. "I know about it all; trust me. Just let me treat you to a meal, okay? We can worry about settling up later." It was time to lay down the trump card. "Jack, I know you could use it, especially after the transformation you just went through..." His jaw dropped, and I couldn't help beaming. "Come on." With that Jack fell in behind me.
And, at that very moment, I knew everything would be all right.
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