Episode 52: Wednesday – Jax

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Why are my feet so sore? And my legs.

Jax reached under the blankets and rubbed his feet.

His left leg felt like it would spasm at any moment. He stretched and wiggled his body around until he felt his leg relax. His back was sore as well.

Must have had some active dreams…like, running a marathon or something.

It wasn’t long though before recent events washed over the pain in his legs. He’d always been driven by the hope he drew from Ratlas, knowing that if he kept listening to the message and passing it on that someday people would listen and create a world without plastic, a world that he would have helped create by spreading the message. .

But now, there was just emptiness and silence. He sat, staring at his laptop, waiting for Ratlas’ message, but there was nothing. No music from the convergence of all that inhabited the internet, the comings and goings and interactions and postings and comments and emails and articles and videos, every bit and byte from the billions of souls pouring out their happiness, misery, joy, consternation, curiosity, hopes and fears, questions, doubts, findings, worries, every feeling and thought. He stared into the screen, waiting, hearing nothing, feeling nothing.

He was alone—swamped by silence. For the first time in his life, he was afraid. For the first time in his life he felt meaningless, that his life was pointless and that he had no purpose.

He stared at the screen for hours before it occurred to him that he hadn’t checked the blog.

Sure enough, there was a comment. It was from Simon Pierce. Blood rose to his face and made the vessels in his forehead stick out like crimson vines on red brick.

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More than anything in the world, Jax wanted to kill Simon Pierce. He wanted to jump up and down on his chest and feel his rib cage cracking and collapsing under his feet. He wanted to feel Simon Pierce’s organs squashing into mush. He wanted to spit in his face as he pulverized it with a baseball bat. He wanted to hurt Pierce, make him feel pain, humiliation, remorse, fear. He wanted to bare Pierce’s psyche in front of a mirror and show the monster how inconsequential he was.

Blood vessels in his hands bulged with fury. He breathed deeply, slowly, malevolently.

He needed to kill Pierce. It was no longer a matter of being ordered by Ratlas, or plugging the leak of pollution into the world that Pierce was. Now, it was a matter of just wanting him dead. He wanted—needed—Simon Pierce dead and he wanted to be the lucky person to make him dead.

Dead. Dead. Dead.

He rebooted and tried to recreate the sign-in screen that had given him Pierce’s address but he couldn’t do it. He wondered even more about whether or not he’d actually seen that screen. He wondered if he’d just imagined it.

Maybe it was just a dream?

If it were a dream, then it was the only one he’d ever had that he could remember. He knew that he’d dreamed before. In fact, he could sense the variety and intensity of his dreams in his waking state but he could never remember happened in them. The knowledge of them was just…there.

And just how crazy was it to think that the monster lived in the same building as him?

He re-read the comment.

So, Simon Pierce…you won’t meet with me in the field of consequence and own up to the devil that you are. Then, somehow, I’ll have to hunt you down.

He thought about this. He wondered how he was going to hunt down Pierce. Dozens, maybe hundreds, of angry parents and others had tried to locate him, but no one had ever succeeded and the vitriol had continued to pour into the internet. But somehow Jax had to do better. He had to be smarter. He had to be the one to find Simon Pierce and kill him. He was sure that it was the only way that Ratlas would ever contact him again. It was the only way that he could continue to be the messenger.

Being the messenger was the center of his universe and he wasn’t going to let scum like Simon Pierce destroy that center.

***

After hours of cruising the internet and tracking down obscure search tools to use in his search for Simon Pierce, he’d come up with nothing. It was like Pierce didn’t exist, like his books just magically appeared from no physical source..

As far as the internet was concerned, Simon Pierce existed only as a series of books and complaints about the books. There was an email address but it trailed off into a barrage of servers that made it impossible to locate.

And there were the smart-ass comments that he’d made on Ratlas’ blog, defiling the word and its message.

Bastard. How would he know if people are reading my blog or not? And what would he know about hope? Simon Piercethe biggest pit of hopelessness in the world. And why is he thanking me? How could I possibly have helped him write his masterpiece?

It struck him like a thunderbolt.

Masterpiece? He’s written a masterpiece?

The word reverberated in his mind.

Masterpiece.

Simon Pierce had written a masterpiece, a book that would likely cause thousands, millions to give up hope.

He must be stopped. I must find him. I must kill him. I need Ratlas’ help.

He sat in front of the laptop, hands at his sides, opening his mind and feelings, listening for the sounds that only he could hear. He sat for hours. It was nearly the time. He hadn’t eaten all day but he wasn’t hungry. He was tired. He felt drained both physically and mentally.

And then he heard it. It was faint at first, like a far off sound of pigeons cooing. He slowed his breathing, relaxed his body. The sound grew, interlaced now with a something that hinted of waves crashing into cliffs, not loud, but subdued and far off. He heard children laughing, horns honking, icebergs sliding into the sea, buildings crumbling under the impact of exploding shells and then rebuilding, oceans swaying under the weight of plastic and disoriented aquatic life and light from the earth and the sky shining up and down on the plastic and absorbing it into nothingness. And Jax smiled and nearly laughed. Ratlas was back.

It has not forsaken me.

“Jax MacDonald, I am the message that crawls under your skin and swims painfully in the well of your indifference until you accept my message and carry it to the world.”

Carry it to the world.

“You are not to worry, Jax MacDonald.”

I am not to worry.

“The evil that is Simon Pierce will be dealt with.”

Dealt with.

“You are my prophet.”

I am.

“You will be saved. The world will be saved.”

I’m going to be saved. We’re all going to be saved.

“You’re tired. Go and sleep now.

I must sleep.

***

Krista watched as his facial features changed. The changes were subtle and weren’t so much physical as the compilation of a series of physical changes, the tightening of muscles in the left cheek, the lifting of an eyebrow over the right eye, a miniscule relaxation of the jaw. They were barely visible but added together, the face of Jax MacDonald transformed into the face of Jacky Carson.

She mentally went through a checklist of things they’d done the week before and looked at the chair beside the bed to make sure that the clothing was exactly what Jacky had last seen her wearing. Everything was in order.

Krista laid her head on Jacky’s back, slid her right leg between his and closed her eyes.

 

 

 

 

 

Episode 51: Tuesday – Jackson

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Jackson woke up to a rumbling stomach. He was starved to the point of nausea. He assumed that he must have had some abnormally calorie-burning dream. It seemed strange though—before going to bed, he’d eaten half a pound of chicken wings that he’d picked after his walk in the park.

The park. He played back his walk in the park like a movie unfolding in his mind.

It wasn’t a big park, but once he was in the center, the trees blocked the view of buildings on all four sides. To Jackson, it was like being in the middle of nowhere, cut off from the outside world. There was a square at the center of the park with a fifteen foot high granite sculpture. It looked like a giant donut with spikes. He wondered about its significance. A warning against junk food? You can have your donut, but you can’t eat it too? There was no plaque with an explanation or a name for the piece—just a fifteen foot high granite donut with spikes. He sat on one of the four benches lined up in front of it and stared through the hole in the sculpture at the trees with their faded leaves pasted against a metallic gray sky. He closed his eyes and listened to the sound of joggers and baby carriage wheels. Wind rustled the dry leaves on the grass and in the trees all around him. A man and woman talked quietly as they passed behind. He heard a group of children laughing on one of the paths leading into the square. Someone sat on one of the benches to his right, someone with plastic shopping bags, someone who breathed deep and desperately.One too many cigarettes, I’m guessing.

Someone sat on a bench behind him. He heard the sound of texting and imagined a young man or woman with their head buried in their phone, oblivious of the park. The volume of footsteps and chatter grew slowly until the square resounded with human activity, bustling all around him, roaring with the presence of other people.

But he sat quietly, unperturbed, eyes closed, calm. He felt like he was a part of it all. He savored the aroma of perfumes and aftershaves, dying leaves and autumn flowers, unchanged diapers, food from the bistros and restaurants.

Popcorn. Someone’s eating popco

He’d stayed there till dark, reveling in the presence of people. He’d felt like a cork bouncing around in a sea of humanity, letting himself be carried along by the flesh and bone tide. On the way home, he’d stopped by a restaurant for wings. He’d picked them right down to the bone.

Why am I so hungry?

He decided to have something different for breakfast today, something big and filling—eggs and bacon, toast and coffee, home fried potatoes and baked beans. And he was going to eat it in one of the bistros, in clear view of everyone, as part of the crowd.

***

He was slightly disappointed that he’d been the only customer in the bistro. He’d wanted to be around people, eat breakfast with the buzz of conversations and the clinking and clacking of people eating, and they could have looked at him all they wanted. But the food had been great. He’d let the hugely overweight Lebanese man behind the counter talk him into the “big” breakfast: eggs, home fries, bacon, ham, sausages, toast and coffee. And beans.

For the first time in his life, Jackson was stuffed. He’d never eaten so much. He’d never imagined that he could eat so much…sticking always to balanced, sensible meals. Years before, he’d designed some courses for a retired nutritionist and his diet had propelled from healthy to obscenely healthy. He smiled as he sat down on the bench facing his flat. It felt good to be stuffed. Every time he burped, he tasted the totality of the flavors of his breakfast mingling in his stomach to create a beautiful culinary experience.

I’ve been missing this all these years? What have I been doing, wrapped up in work every day, living indoors, ordering things in, sending things out, hunched over a computer day after day? Afraid to go outside. Afraid to be seen. Afraid to interact with people in the flesh and blood of their real presence. Jackson Gabriel, it’s time for a complete overhaul of your life. And that starts right now.

***

He sat down at this laptop. He had no new courses on the go. Mostly, he was evaluating course outlines, maintaining his e-commerce website and compiling reports. There was nothing he was doing that he couldn’t put on the back burner for a few weeks. He had a new message to send to his clients, one that he liked much better than the first one.

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Yes, much better. More direct and conversational.

He clicked Send and waited. Sure enough. He smiled as he opened the email from Jody.

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Jackson smiled as he wrote back to Jody.

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He read the message over several times, savoring every word, before he clicked Send, smiling wider by the minute.

Take that Jody Blake. Wish I’d done this years ago. Wish I’d taken vacation years ago. Wish I hadn’t spent my whole working life cooped up in this flat. Wish I hadn’t always been such a chicken shit when it came to people. Yeah, Jody Blake, take that.

He laughed out loud and his body shook as he laughed. It occurred to him that he couldn’t remember laughing since he was a kid. This made him laugh even harder. He laughed until his cheeks were sore and his lips twitched. He wasn’t sure how long he laughed but it felt good, like a dam of repression collapsing and flooding through the downstream of his life.

He felt light and free. He didn’t have to deal with Jody anymore. Sure, there would be one last email from him and that email was likely to come soon. But he didn’t have to answer it if he didn’t feel like it. Jody was no longer one of his clients. He was someone else’s problem Jackson was free.

He heard the ding and saw the message. It was from Jody. He opened it.

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Jackson laughed out loud again and decided not to respond to the message.

Time to drive him nuts with a little silence. I wonder if he’ll get in touch with Roy to find out if I’m still working for him. Screw this, time for a walk in the park.

***

The morning light spread a warm buttery glow over the trees and buildings. It was an unusually warm autumn day and most people wore t-shirts and shorts, except the seniors, who hunkered down on benches in heavy fall jackets. Jackson noticed that, where there were two or more seniors on the same bench usually glorifying the past and condemning the present and wondering where it’s all going, they were silent today and sat on their benches just staring at the unfolding of what was shaping up to be a beautiful day.

Jackson sensed an underlying optimistic energy and wondered if that might just be his own feelings overlaid on the park. He wouldn’t have to deal with Jody Blake anymore. Not that Jody had been an unusually bothersome client but there had always been a stilted air in his messaging and it had always irritated some deep-seated part of Jackson’s psyche to see the man dressed in a suit in his kitchen during Skype meetings. Their business relationship had never been friendly, more like detached and impersonal. The feud between Jody and Roy had for the most part been amusing even when it put some additional stress on him.

He could understand how Jody’s wife would have left him for Roy. But it was a beautiful day and Jackson didn’t have to deal with Jody Blake anymore.

He wondered if he would see the girl he’d talked to the last time he was here. That had been later in the day and she was probably in school now. He wondered where Roy was going to go on his vacation. Probably someplace warm with palm trees and green ocean water. He wondered about Mrs. Gilbert’s apparent miraculous recovery from her heart attack. He wondered why he hadn’t visited her in the hospital, why it hadn’t even occurred to him. Visiting her would have been the right thing to do. She’d always been good to him. She was one of only a few people with whom he’d ever had regular in-person contact. Visiting her would have been the normal thing to do.

But he hadn’t.

Why was that? Why didn’t I visit her?

He stopped suddenly. He’d been thinking so hard and for so long that he hadn’t even noticed where he was going. And now he faced something he’d never seen before: the other side of the park. He’d walked right through the entire park. He looked at a row of buildings similar to the ones on his own street, most of them three story brown and red brick buildings but most of these buildings were both commercial and residential with galleries, coffee shops and craft stores at street level and rentals above.

He made his way slowly to a crosswalk, continuously looking from the sidewalk to the buildings and to the sidewalk and to the buildings. He felt a deep excitement, a thrill of discovery and a sense of freedom. He wasn’t bothered by the people he passed, even the ones who looked straight into his eyes, their faces expressionless or amused. He knew that he wasn’t acting normal, that his excitement was showing but he didn’t care. He was beyond that now. That was a habit he’d outgrown. He was the new Jackson Gabriel, fearless stroller of sidewalks and insatiable bistro customer. As he crossed the street, sensing the cars stopping on either side, he felt a sense of power he’d never felt before. He was in charge here and his legs were guided by his mind to glide him over the crosswalk and onto the sidewalk on the other side of the street. As he stepped from the pavement to the concrete, he felt a sense of elation and empowerment. How many times had he looked out his window at the park and seen the tops of the buildings that towered over him at this moment? How many times had he seen the tops of these buildings and never consciously wondered about them? For years, these buildings had been right in his face but if someone had asked him a few hours ago what was on the other side of the park he probably would have said, “Sky.”

He went into a coffee shop and ordered an expresso and a ham and cheese bagel. He sat by the window so that he could watch people walking by. He was amazed at the people. He’d never really looked at people before and never really thought about them. But not anymore. He stared right into the eyes of pedestrians and he was sure that he made more than one of them feel uncomfortable.

Back on the sidewalk, he decided to take the long way home. Instead of going through the park, he would take the sidewalk. He’d always seen the park as a busy place throughout the day and into the evening but he’d never noticed the human traffic on the sidewalks on the other side of the street from the park. He would have had to look straight down from his window to see that…and the movement of people around the benches, bushes and trees in the park had always been a magnet for his eyes.

It was early afternoon and the sun was high in the sky. People were taking off their jackets and slinging them over their shoulders. Those who were fresh outside wore shorts and t-shirts. Street traffic, as usual, was light with more motorcycles and bicycles than cars and trucks. The only vehicles that appeared with frequency were buses that were almost always practically empty. He noticed pigeons perched on eves and ledges. They seemed to melt into the architecture and give it sound with their soft cooing. There was a sense of life and vitality all around him, a closeness of humanity that was assuring and comfortable. He didn’t know any of these people but he felt an affinity to them. He wondered why he’d never felt this before, why he’d always felt like an outsider.

But then, wasn’t that what his mother had taught him? Wasn’t that what he’d felt so many times when things had happened that he couldn’t explain, most recently, the bump on his head. How did that happen? It should drive him nuts, not knowing. But it didn’t. It never had. He’d always just shrugged it off and gotten on with things. His mother’s words: “Let it go and just get on with things. There are things that don’t need explanation in the life of someone as special as you, Jackson. You’re different and your experience of the world will always be different than the people around you.”

And maybe that’s why he always felt so nervous around other people. They were different. And he was different.

But not today. Today, he was right here in the midst of them, sharing their sidewalk, their park, their air. Nobody was looking at him as though he were weird. Nobody stared. Mostly, when they met his eyes, they smiled. He felt like he belonged here on the sidewalk with them. A middle aged woman in a blue sundress smiled at him as their eyes met and he said, “Beautiful day today.”

“It certainly is,” she said as she walked past him, still smiling.

If Jackson had had wings at that moment, he would have spent the rest of the afternoon soaring in the sky over the park.

***

After supper, he stood in the window looking down at the park. He saw everything differently now. He felt like he was looking at something that was a part of himself, something familiar but at the same time surrounded by an aura of newness and adventure. He decided he was going to start questioning things more often. It was too late to do anything about the bump. He wouldn’t even know where to start. But there was a difference with the bump. Before now, he would have forgotten about it. But not this time. This time he was going to write these things down, keep a log and maybe over time figure out what was happening when bumps mysteriously appeared on his head.

And he decided to put the travel plans on hold for a while. He had a whole new world to explore right here in the neighborhood that had been virtually a mystery to him for over a decade.

For the first time in ages, Jackson was excited to the core.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Episode 50: Monday – Jack

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Episode 50

Jack woke up feeling good. He remembered his date with Valerie. A coffee shop. The Tinker. The second time he’d stood her up. He tried to remember what had happened to spook him that time but the memory was long gone.

Traumatic enough to have caused amnesia? But what about the cuts, bruises, scrapes? A lifetime of trauma? I don’t think so.

His thoughts turned back to Valerie and he smiled to himself. 

I’m going to be with her again. I’m going to spend time with her in real life. I’m not running anymore.

He’d broken down a barrier. He wasn’t sure exactly what that barrier was but he understood now that he’d always been looking for an excuse to run—searching the location, the people, anything that would trigger the alarm and send him into the street in panic. 

He wondered about that. He wondered why it was that he’d always felt threatened. Why he was so sure that some agency or organization was out to get him. He’d never done anything to warrant being seen as an enemy of the state, or an enemy to anything or anyone. The evil organization in his comic strip was fictitious, something straight out of his imagination. The chances of his having hit on something that actually existed in the real world were non-existent. And if he had, he very likely would have been “eliminated” years ago. 

What happened to make me so damned paranoid?

He couldn’t think of anything. Probably something that had happened in his early childhood and he’d long since forgotten about it. Like he’d forgotten so many things in his life.

Why do I forget?

He thought it might be related to something his mother had said to him. She’d said so many things about accepting things, about moving past “details you can never understand.”

What details? What can’t I understand? Why can’t I understand them?

The bump. 

Why can I never understand that? I know it was there. Why can’t I remember? Why can’t I understand? What’s going to happen if I start understanding these things?

Jack’s entire body froze. He felt a cold slice of energy slashing down through his spine and into the backs of his legs.

What’s going to happen? What’s going to happen if I remember? 

He knew this was the key. If he started to remember things, something was going to happen. He knew it. He wasn’t sure if it would be good or bad but he tended more toward something bad because he’d tried so hard all his life to not allow it to happen.

But the feeling that there were others close by and unseen was something that had always been there. Sometimes it had been strong, sometimes weak. Lately, it had been a bit stronger than usual but it hadn’t affected him as much as it normally would because, suddenly, there was something new in his life: Valerie Vine. For the first time, there was a woman in his life.

A woman. This was something he’d never thought would happen. He’d never invited it, never gone to bars or events to meet women. He couldn’t even remember being in a situation where he would meet women. It just didn’t occur to him. It was like the instinct to mate had always been somehow subdued. His mother had never said anything about it. It just wasn’t there. Until Valerie Vine had come into his life and even then he’d put off anything from happening for so long. But not anymore. He’d finally broken through the paranoia and stayed for the date. And tonight, he had another date with her. Time now, though, to put everything else on hold and get to work on his strip.

***

It was strange. He hadn’t worked on the strip for a while. He wasn’t sure how long—it had been longer than any other time he could remember but it didn’t take much to get back into it. It was like the script had been writing itself in the back of his head.

Bobcat’s eyes were wide and fearful as she said, “The Fourth Prerogative!” The lettering spilled into the next panel where she thrust her cell phone in front of her as text appeared showing the rest of the group repeating her words and thrusting their cell phones so that they all touched in a circle as they repeated, “THE FOURTH PREROGATIVE!” In the next panel, a dazzling light emerged from the connected cell phones. Cougar and Bobcat’s faces appeared almost maniacal as they stared at the light. The next panel showed the outside of the tree house with light spilling through the windows and through cracks in wood slats of the walls and roof. A beam of blue light smashed through the roof of the tree house, shattering bits of wood and metal, and the beam blazed into the night sky in a panel showing the massive tree and the house, and miles to the right of the tree, the Tryanny motorcade, its lights shining ominously along the road.

The beam struck the bottom of a cloud with a splash of iridescent blue light that rained down on the Tyranny motorcade. As their dark cars were soaked by the rain they transformed into a dull pulsing blue and the SUVs began to beat like blue hearts faster and faster and the dull blue turned bright blue, brighter and brighter. The motorcade ground to a half in the middle of the road and the car doors flew open. Men in dark clothing staggered out and fell to the road, gyrating and screaming. After a few minutes, they went still and then stood up shakily and stared at the scenery around them. They looked at each other with confusion, as though they were strangers. Some walked uncertainly from the road and into the wheat fields on the other side of the ditches, snagging their clothing on fencing, too disoriented to cry out in pain, just moving into the fields and disappearing. Others followed the road like newborn zombies. Two of them just fell to the pavement and sobbed.

And that was what the Fourth Prerogative did. 

Bobcat’s eyes filled the frame, the scene on the road reflected in them, with the caption:

It makes them forget!

Jack’s hand froze over the paper the second he finished the exclamation mark.  

It makes them forget! 

I need to talk to Valerie.

***

Time had been a kick in the ass for the Tinker Coffee Shop and Bistro. The walls were cracked and yellowed, the tables and chairs covered with peeling veneer, and whenever he or Valerie put their hands on the table it sloped enough to spill coffee from the coarse grey mugs.

But he was with Valerie in the second place he’d run away from her and this time he hadn’t run. He’d told her about the ending for his latest Unseen episode, which he hadn’t published yet. He wasn’t sure how to broach the history of forgetfulness in his life. He was sure she would think he was crazy. She told him she loved the ending.

“And it fits so well with their philosophy of not actually harming anyone,” she said. “The bad guys just forget who and what they are. They can start new lives. Maybe good, maybe bad. They still have free choice. Brilliant, Jack, brilliant!” She pushed her coffee mug across the table top closer to his. “But you don’t seem too happy about it. You seem tense. You don’t still think that I’m with them, even though I am, but that I’m going to shoot you or anything, do you?”

 It took a few seconds for her words to sink in before they both laughed. 

“No, I don’t think you’re going to shoot me. If you were, you would have done it long ago, probably for standing you up so many times.”

Her smile widened as she pushed her mug closer. 

“There’s something about the ending that kind of relates to my own life.” He took a deep breath. “And I’m not sure how to explain it. I’m not even sure if you’ll think I’m sane after I try to explain it.” He squeezed his hands around his coffee mug. The tips of his fingers turned white. 

“Jack, you’re an illustration artist who thinks a secret organization has been watching you all your life and wants to eliminate you for some unknown reason and this has caused you to stand me up on date after date until now.” She leaned in closer over the table. “Jack, I already know that you’re insane.” She smiled. “Now, tell me what’s going on in your head, crazy guy.”

He smiled as blood ran to his head and he felt it flushing his cheeks and forehead. “All my life, I’ve been forgetting things.”

“We all do that, Jack.”

“No. I mean seriously forgetting things, things that I shouldn’t forget. I had a bump almost the size of an egg recently, and a cut that must’ve bled a lot. It’s almost healed now, but I don’t remember how I got it. I mean, there’s no way I could’ve forgotten something that must have been excruciatingly painful and bloody. I should have a clear memory of the incident. It should be painfully etched in my memory. It should be something I’d love to forget, but can’t.”

Valerie stared into his eyes. She didn’t say anything and her expression was completely non-committal. He wondered if he’d said too much…if she was sure now that he was, in fact, insane. He felt insane. After a few minutes of silence that seemed to emanate throughout the room, she spoke.

“It was your head, Jack. Maybe the jolt to your head caused a sort of amnesia and you forgot the accident. That wouldn’t be unusual and it wouldn’t make you crazy.”

“But it’s been all my life. Ever since I was a child things have happened that anyone else would remember. Valerie, I don’t remember losing any of my baby teeth. Not one. I’ve had cuts and scratches, bruises and pulled muscles that were just there and I couldn’t remember what happened to me to get them. I’ve waked up sick as hell with the flu or a cold without any of the symptoms first, just full-blown into it. But I’ve always just shrugged it off. My mother taught me to do that, said I was different and that I’d just have to accept certain things and forget them but I’m not sure if I can do it anymore. You say I might have some kind of amnesia from the bump on my head but it’s just happened too often. It’s something else, and I have no idea what that can possibly be.”

Valerie slid her hands over the tabletop and cupped them around Jack’s hands. “I’m sure there’s some rational explanation for this. In what way did your mother say you were different?”

Jack thought for a moment. “She said that I would perceive things differently than other people, that I had a brain condition that made my brain function differently than others but that it wasn’t dangerous or debilitating or anything…it just meant that things would happen that seemed to have no explanation or didn’t jibe with the experiences of other people and all I had to do was just accept it and get on with things. But…” He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “…it’s getting harder and harder to do that. I want to know what’s wrong with me. I want to know if there’s a cure or some kind of therapy or program I can get into. I want to know what caused the bump on my head. I want to remember that.” He pulled his hands away from Valerie’s grip on them, put his elbows on the table and propped his chin on his fists. “You said there was some kind of discrepancy about my birthday and that’s why I was flagged for investigation. What was the discrepancy?”

Valerie’s eyes squinted slightly as her posture stiffened. She knew that she had to be careful. Whatever was going on in Jack’s mind could jeopardize him and the six other personalities. She needed to talk to Natalie soon. It looked to her like things were heading toward some kind of flash point with Jack and she wondered if the other personalities were experiencing the same thing. “It was nothing really. Just different birth dates from the hospital. We see that all the time. It’s just some administrative foul-up. The hospital records are messed up and sometimes different dates get sent out to different government departments. Like I said, it’s pretty common and I can’t see how it can have anything to do with you forgetting things.”

“I need to know what’s going on, Valerie. I can’t keep ignoring it. I need to know.”

Valerie motioned with her finger for Jack to come closer. They leaned toward each other and she kissed him lightly on the lips. Jack’s eyebrows rose. 

Valerie smiled and ran her right hand over the side of his face. “I’ll check at work tomorrow and see if we have anything unusual on file but I doubt there will be anything.”

Jack barely heard a word she said. It was the first time a woman, other than his mother, had kissed him. 

***

It was almost the time and for the first time ever Jack didn’t feel the least bit tired. He could still feel Valerie’s lips, the closeness of her face and her hand passing over his cheek. It was something he hadn’t expected and something he’d never given thought to. He’d lived his life in fear of something that didn’t exist, an unnamed threat that, after all these years, he realized never existed. All these years, the real threat had been himself, his unreasonable fear. No one was after him. No one was trying to trap him. No one was watching him through nanobots in his socks. No one was tailing him on those rare occasions when he ventured outside, like to run away from a date with Valerie. 

It was all just in his mind and he had to do something about that.

At exactly midnight he fell asleep still feeling the kiss on his lips, her hand on his face.

***

Her face glowed red from the stop light hanging in the center of the intersection, highlighting the light wrinkling of her forehead, the heaviness of her eyes. 

Something’s happening to him. Natalie’s training isn’t working. He’s starting to think for himself, to question things. Need to talk to her…soon.

 

 

 

Episode 49: Sunday – Jackie

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Episode 49

Jackie was just finishing washing her breakfast dishes when she heard the familiar knock. She hadn’t expected it so soon and immediately felt a rush of guilt for not visiting Mrs. Gilbert in the hospital. She strode to the door and opened it.

“I’m so sorry, Mrs.…” The guilt vanished immediately, replaced by amazement. “You did recently have a heart attack, didn’t you?”

Natalie laughed heartily. “Yes, I did Jackie. But, it turned out to be more of a warning signal than a threat. Mind you, I will have to make some diet changes and take some medication, but all in all, I’m feeling very good.” She crossed her arms. “Just thought I’d drop by and see if there’s anything you need.”

***

Jackie smiled as she closed the door. It was as though nothing had happened to Mrs. Gilbert. She was as vibrant as always and not the slightest dimming of the sparkle in her eyes. She still felt bad about not visiting her in the hospital but she knew that Mrs. Gilbert understood. 

That’s one tough woman. But you really should have gone to the hospital to visit her. Why didn’t you? Why didn’t you go to the hospital to visit her?

Jackie knew there was a reason, a very exact reason for her not visiting Mrs. Gilbert but she couldn’t define it. It was there, lurking somewhere just under the surface of all the excuses she might try to make up like “I wasn’t feeling well.” “I was trying to deal with a crazy lady.” “I’m kind of preoccupied with getting my sex changed.” There was something else, something familiar even. 

What is that? Why didn’t I visit her?

She sat down at her laptop and stared at the blank monitor for a few minutes. She didn’t feel like researching sex changes today. She didn’t feel like writing. She let out a long dissatisfied sigh, stood up slowly and walked to the window. It was overcast with that amount of gray that could go either way, rain or just more cloud. For some reason, she started to think about the weather forecast. It appeared on her custom tool bar, the temperature and the condition—whether it was rain, sun, cloud, or snow. She seemed to recall it forecasting clouds for today. She wondered about the usefulness of a forecast when all she had to do was look out the window and there it was, the weather: sunny with clouds, heavy rain and high winds, light snow. 

What’s the use of a weather forecast? 

Almost as soon as the thought came into her mind she was distracted by the milling crowds of people in the park. Nothing ever stopped the park people from going to the park and doing their park thing. The runners would run in hurricanes if they had to. The bench warmers would bring plastic and umbrellas if they had to. The baby walkers would walk their babies because they had to, or go nuts. A thought suddenly popped into her mind. 

She’d never gone for a walk in that park. She’d never sat on one of those benches. The park had always been like an enclosed glass container that, when you shook it, the inside would fill with weather and people would do things in that weather. It was never something that she felt was a part of her, other than something she observed every day and, over the years, had seen the same people coming and going and doing their park thing. She wondered why she’d never given them names and it occurred to her that she’d never even wondered about any of them, what they did when they weren’t in the park, where they lived, what kind of buildings they lived in, where they worked, what their families were like. And she was a writer.

Shouldn’t I be looking at people and asking myself those questions? Shouldn’t I be curious? I’m a writer for god’s sake. I should be down there mingling with those people, observing them closely, listening in on conversations, taking notes, getting to know a few people and asking them about the others. 

She knew the seniors who spent their days on the benches eager to talk to anyone who would listen would have much to say about the area and likely most of the people who were regulars at the park. She could learn so much from them.

And what about just lying in the grass and looking up at the cloud formations through the branches of the trees with their fiery boughs of fall colors that were just starting to fade. What about strolling along the sidewalk and stopping to admire the wilting flowers in the gardens scattered throughout the park? 

All these years and I’ve never done any of those things. Well, time to change that.

She strode into the bedroom and changed into jeans and a sweater, put on her jacket from the coat rack by the door and went outside. 

***

Sitting on the steps outside her building, she stared across the street at the rich source of experience and conversation that was hers for the taking once she started to mingle and become part of the movement and rhythm of the park. She thought about listening to the seniors talking about their working lives and how happy they were to finally be away from the grind, or how much they missed having a place to go from nine till five other than a park bench. She pictured herself standing next to a large maple tree, looking out over a dying garden and listening to the conversation of couples and groups as they passed. She looked at a clearing in the park and imagined herself lying on her back staring into the sky with nothing particular on her mind. 

She sat on the step throughout the afternoon and evening until it was the time and went upstairs. She went to the washroom and then went directly to bed without eating. 

 

 

Episode 48: Saturday – Jac

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Episode 48

For the first time since he could remember, Jac waked from a dreamless sleep. His bed was dry, his mind and body were calm. He smiled.

***

What is this guy’s fixation on plastic? Jac chuckled as he read the blog. He wants to meet me on the field of honor and consequence? For a duel?

Jac re-read the post. He noticed that his address wasn’t used this time. He wondered about that. Maybe the crazy guy had made some kind of wild guess that wasn’t paying off? Maybe he knew but couldn’t do anything or didn’t know what to do or how to do it?

He hasn’t done anything yet except talk and taunt. If he were going to do anything, he would have done it by now.

It still nagged him that the blog had mentioned his physical address, twice. But since he was likely the only person on earth to read the blog, it didn’t matter how many times the crazy guy mentioned his address. No one except himself was ever going to see it.

Looks like the internet has gotten so big that you can hide on it just like you could hide in some remote godforsaken place on planet Earth at one time. Well, crazy guy, I guess I should meet your challenge and raise you. Whatever.

He wrote for exactly sixty seconds and laughed as he clicked the Post button.

This one’s gotta hurt. Let’s see how the little arsehole responds.

There was a knock at the door. Jac immediately recognized it: Mrs. Gilbert. He walked to the door and opened it, and there she was, smiling, twinkle-eyed and looking like she hadn’t seen the inside of a hospital in about, oh, a hundred or so years.

“Mrs. Gilbert. It’s so good to see you. And looking so healthy.”

“Well, Jac, it’s good to be out of the hospital and back home. I’ve always said, hospitals are for sick people and I’m not sick.” The words seemed to roll through the valleys of wrinkles around her mouth.

“I would never guess that you’d had a heart attack, ever. I meant to come…”

She raised a hand to pass it off. “No matter, Jac. I needed to stay focused on one thing in there, getting better. Visitors would have just been a distraction. I just wanted to check in with you to see if there’s anything you need.”

“I’m fine, Mrs. Gilbert. It’s good to see that you’re back and doing well.”

***

It wasn’t a long novel, more like a novella, but Jac was certain that Circus of No Hope was going to be one of the pivotal works of literature in the Twenty-First Century if for no other reason than the outrage it would cause. He wasn’t going to make any friends with this book and those who already hated him would hate him more and there would be many more A. Fans.

He felt good about this, that he would make enemies, that people would hate him. It constructed a wall around him that kept him safe from attaching himself to anything that might bring him all those things destined to end in tragedy and sorrow. Things like love, joy, happiness, euphoria, bliss, affection, pleasure…his pleasure was the avoidance of pleasure, the knowledge that nothing could be taken away from him because he had nothing that could be taken away.

He’d felt the horror and pain of every one of his characters in the story. He’d felt their confusion and defeat, their resignation and acceptance that it was time to die because they’d gone to the circus expecting wonders even though each of them knew at the pit of their beings that every laugh and smile, every moment of wonder and glee, was a promise to be broken in the countdown to the horror.

It would take a while to edit the book. That was always the way. He spent more time revising and re-writing than he spent writing.

If you’re going to offend, shock and piss off your readers, then best to do with grammatical correctness and a well-honed sentence.

He read through the story, making comments and highlighting passages that would need editing when he did his third pass. The first pass was a quick read to identify the big problems. He enjoyed the editing process. For him, the first draft was like digging into the ground to extract a dull and cloudy piece of stone and the successive drafts were like cutting and polishing the stone. The whole process was a revelation of chaos rendered into order and symmetry.

He had a sudden thought.

My god, I’m enjoying this.

He felt a chill.

I’m enjoying this.

It settled into his mind like ash raining from the sky, burying his mind in a smothering thought: There was something that could be taken away from him. His writing. His words. His carefully constructed sentences and paragraphs. They were all a source of joy, accomplishment, something dangerously close to rapture.

He wondered why he’d never noticed this before. He’d been so careful to keep anything that he could value out of his life, to not attach himself to anything or let anything attach to him. But all this time he’d been attached to his writing. He’d derived pleasure from it. And he’d enjoyed, almost loved, the criticism and the threats. He’d been everything he was writing against.

And the dreams. Every night. The dreams that haunted his sleep. Always the same. The circus. The families. The children. All dying. And his mother dying. Alex going away, and knowing that there was something strange about that, something that had nagged at him for years. He’d always suspected that he had something to do with Alex not coming over anymore. Bits of overheard phone conversations. The way Alex’s mother looked at him when she dropped him off.

There was a pointlessness to everything, an expiration date on the continuance of all things. There would always be a time of loss. For everything. Owning anything was futile. It would only bring pain and sorrow. No ownership was safe. No feeling of joy was safe. No sense of security was safe. And there was absolutely no value in telling this to the world. He was, in a sense, trying to own something. What was it?

What am I trying to own?

And it came to him. He was trying to own the message. He was trying to pass on a warning to the rest of the world. He was trying to stop everyone from feeling the things that had brought him so much grief and pain. He was trying to shove his own disillusionment down everyone else’s throat. He was just as bad as the crazy guy.

He sat in front of his laptop without thinking much about anything. His mind was in a space without definition. There were no thoughts in his head, at least none that were real enough to draw his attention. He was in this blank space when he felt the time coming on. It snapped him back into the real world of a thousand thoughts occurring simultaneously and one thought emerging through the depth of numbers. He smiled as his finger pressed down on the delete button. He smiled as he opened his Trash and deleted everything in the folder. His masterpiece was gone. But so was the dream.

What now?

 

 

Episode 47: Friday – Jacques

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Episode 47

Jacques loved his new see-through black bodice, his sheer black nylons and straps. They’d arrived first thing that morning. He felt sexy and powerful. He felt young and rejuvenated. His entire body tingled. He felt light and carefree and daring. He had the hardest erection he’d had in years.

Jasmine Jackson was dead. Long live the Insufferable Bitch.

He’d already set up a new website, using his Photoshop skills to make composites of royalty free images to create a den of pure sexual suffering. He used the couch with the ecstatic compressed men as inspiration, creating images of erotic horror with men tied to walls and posts, metal chairs and slabs of granite…chained men hanging upside down, their faces bloated with pleasure as women wearing only nylons and straps, and carrying whips, patrolled the landscape of beatific trapped men.

He had a Home page, a Contact page, an About page and a link to the Insufferable Bitch’s blog. He also had a tab leading to the Books page.

All he had to do now was write a book, and he already had a good start on that.

She kept him in a box. And he loved that she kept him in a box.

She said, “I know you want this as much as I do.”

And he did. He wanted her to keep him in the box. He loved her. He was her art. She could do anything she wanted to him and that made him love her more. And he loved her for what she was doing to him. Escape was impossible. He loved her too much to even think of escape. His freedom was his choice to let her put him in the box day after day.

She was an artist.

He hadn’t eaten in months. He hadn’t had water or any other liquid in months. He survived on his love for her. He lived for her art. He lived for her purpose. He was never without an erection. His cock throbbed continuously. She wouldn’t let him wear clothing. She said that it amused her to see his erection, especially when she put him in the box.

And when he watched her with any of her dozens of lovers. She tied him to a chair by the side of the bed, using ribbons instead of rope, ribbons made stronger than steel by his love for her and his need to be her art.

That was all she ever let him out of the box to do, watch her with her lovers, and he loved to watch her. She was perfect and her lovers were perfect. He lived for the ecstatic convolutions of their perfect bodies and the otherworldly music of their moans and shrieks of joy. Sometimes, it went on for days of non-stop orgasms and ejaculations, and when they were done, her lover would leave and she would put him back into the box, smiling confidently at his twitching erection.

“It will be soon,” she said.

“I know,” he said.

“My art demands it,” she said.

“I know,” he said.

“You must want it as much as I do,” she said.

“I do,” he said.

“There can be no turning back,” she said.

“I will never turn back,” he said.

And knowing the fate she had in store for him, he let her gently push his head down into the box as his erection throbbed madly with his love for her.

He re-read the opening to the Insufferable Bitch’s first book and was happy.

Not bad for first draft material. Have to go into a little more detail on the sex scene and get into this guy’s head a little more, but not bad for first draft.

He wrote for another hour before packing the Insufferable Bitch into the closet and becoming Jacques Manning again. He liked this coexistence of two people of the opposite sex, and thought it was kind of cool to have what he saw as two different personalities living in one body.

Now, as Jacques, he would read his mail while figuring out a way to close down Jasmine Jackson for good. Maybe Jasmine would have a heart attack or die a protracted death that would carry on for months and possibly spur sales of her books. He had time to figure all of that out.

In the meantime, he would start building on the Bitch’s blog. He would use the same imagery as in the website and make up stories of the author’s sadistic sex life. This was going to be fun.

He heard a familiar knock at the door.

Sounds like Mrs. Gilbert is out of the hospital.

He walked to the door and opened it. There was Mrs. Gilbert, eyes sparkling in a framework of wrinkles and looking more like she’d just returned from a cruise in the Caribbean than from the hospital.

***

Looking at Jacques in his blue housecoat, Natalie couldn’t help but wonder what he looked like in his new bodice and nylons.

“Mrs. Gilbert.” He looked genuinely concerned. “It’s so good to see you again. Manzer told me about your heart attack. I didn’t expect you to be out so soon. I wanted to come and see you at the hospital but I’ve had some affairs that have kept me much too busy. But, look at you. You’re the picture of health.”

“Thank you, Jacques.” She crossed her arms over her chest and smiled. “I’ve never liked hospitals and I believe people recover faster when they’re not cooped up in a building full of sick people.”

“That’s a wonderful philosophy and it looks like it works. I would never dream that you’d just had heart problems. And if there’s anything I can do for you, please, Mrs. Gilbert, let me know.”

“Thank you, Jacques. I really appreciate that, but I think I’ll be good for now. I just wanted to drop by to let you know that I’m out of the hospital and everything’s fine.”

***

As Natalie walked back to her flat she wondered about Jacques. Of the seven of them, he was the one who gave her the least amount of problems. He was always the least demanding, the least questioning and the one who most easily accepted the disparities that came with sharing one body with six other people. But then, he was living dual lives on his own. A female romance writer in the mornings and sometimes into the afternoon and evening, depending on how much of a writer’s roll Jasmine was on, and the rest of the time, he was a man who often hung around laundromats.

***

Jacques spent most of the rest of the day sending out messages and writing blogging about Jasmine had becoming seriously ill, a likely outcome of having had her computer hacked.

Arial 70

He patted himself on the back. He re-read the post and patted himself again. He would give them a wonderful drama with posts following posts right up to Jasmine’s death. It would be even more mesmerizing for Jasmine’s fans, because it would be real life drama.

Or so they would think.

And now it was time for some beer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Episode 46: Thursday – Jacky

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Episode 46

It felt good, waking up feeling Krista’s rump pressed against his. He thought she was asleep until he felt her press closer, harder, and he realized that she had deliberately waked him up. 

Now this is how you start the day 

He turned and snuggled into her back, his erection sliding between her legs. She squeezed it with her thighs. 

“Someone woke up feeling frisky,” she said.

“Someone woke me up feeling frisky.”

She turned her head and kissed him and turned her body, laying on her back. As he rolled his body on top of hers, he saw her jeans and blue sweater on the chair by his bed. He seemed to remember her wearing a brown blouse and skirt. She pulled him down onto her and wrapped her legs around him. He forgot about the chair and everything on it.

***

They walked to a restaurant for blueberry pancakes and coffee. Jacky brought his camera and had taken half a dozen shots before reaching the restaurant.

He watched as Krista dug enthusiastically into her pancakes. 

“Hungry?” he said.

“Starved,” she said through a mouthful of pancakes, trying to smile as she chewed. “She sipped some coffee and swallowed. “You kept me awake pretty late last night, Jacky.”

He smiled and then looked confused. Krista noticed. 

“What is it? You look suddenly very thoughtful.”

“Um…nothing really.” He stirred his coffee with the spoon “It’s just that…well…it seems like I remember you wearing a brown blouse and skirt last night but you’re dressed differently today.”

Shit, thought Krista. A week’s difference for me, one night for him. Have to start being careful what I wear. Time to change the subject. 

“Oh…that’s…” she said. “Oh…look!” She pointed out the window.

Jacky looked in the direction she pointed but didn’t see anything unusual. “What are you looking at? I don’t see anything.”

“The brick building. See the green vines all on one side? Do they count as plants taking back the city?”

Jacky laughed and took a big gulp of coffee. “Never really thought about that. Guess I’ve never thought of that type of vine as a wild plant. I mean, we plant them so that they’ll grow on the building. They’re sort of ornamental.” He lifted a forkful of pancake smothered in syrup to his mouth and held it at the tip of his lips. “So…you have the whole day off?” He stuffed the pancake into his mouth.

“Yep,” said Krista. “I don’t have anything really pressing at the moment and just wanted to spend the day with you.”

Almost as soon as the words left her mouth, it hit her. She would have to be careful about the times she would see him. Being self-employed, she could make her own hours, but she would have to miss the occasional Thursday to make it convincing. 

“And how is being self-employed working for you so far?”

“I was just thinking about that. I love it. I pretty much get to set my own hours. If a client wants to meet at a certain time and I don’t want to, then I can just say that I’m already scheduled for that time. I love it.”

“So, did you have to reschedule for me?”

She reached over and put one finger on his arm. “Just dropped everything to spend the day with you.”

“Glad to hear that.” Another gulp of coffee. “Do you like your clients?”

“Haven’t worked with them long enough yet to really know them well, and I only have three clients so far but they seem nice. So, yes. So far, yes.”

God, she’s so beautiful. It’s going to work this time. It’s going to work.

He reached over the table and held both her hands in his. “Krista, have you ever done any modeling?”

She laughed and blushed. “No. Never, Jacky. I get nervous and very self-conscious in front of a camera.”

“You just need more camera time.”

“Jacky, I…”

“I don’t feel like going to the mall today. I think it’s time to take a break. You took today off to spend with me and now I want to take the day off to spend with you. Let’s just walk around and I’ll take pictures of you…”

Krista giggled. “I told you, Jacky, I’m not good in front of a…”

“You won’t even know I’m taking your picture. All you have to do is the kind of stuff you would normally do: smell flowers, look in store windows, walk down the street. Totally unposed. You just being you. And I’ll delete any pictures you don’t like. C’mon, let’s do it. I can tell from your smile that you’re interested. C’mon…it’ll be fun.”

She looked at him sternly, closing one eye. “And you’ll delete any shots I don’t like? You really will?”

Jacky crossed his heart. “Promise.”

“OK. But I’m not posing.”

“Right. Not posing.”

***

She posed. 

And Jacky had found a new favorite model other than flowers and plants breaking through bricks and concrete. She posed with flowers growing through the cracks of asphalt and lush green leaves sprouting out of sidewalks and the whole time she posed she laughed and he fell in love with her laugh. He could see the excitement in her eyes and the reluctance in her voice as she said, “Jacky, I’ll just make the plants look bad.” She was modest about her looks and so down to earth and Jacky knew that he wanted this woman in his life forever.

But, as she lay pressed against him after an evening of love-making, there was something at the  back of his mind, something just under the surface of everything that had passed during the day that he couldn’t bring into focus. He was no stranger to this feeling. It had been there in every failed relationship in his life, as though he knew from the start that it was going no further, that something would happen to bring it to an end. It always did.

But not this time. This time, he would make it last. This time, he would find a way to keep Krista with him. They would lead a normal life together. They would get married, live together, have babies. 

But as he thought these thoughts, that deep simmering doubt nagged at the peripheries of his mind, unseen and undefined as he sank into a dreamless sleep.