28 Nov 2005

Still raining, still dreaming








Weird feelings. Which is why I've made the decision to clean myself out. If I can't stop fucking with my head for a month, I really am an addict. So I'm going to take control.

But I haven't recovered from my head fucking yet so I'm still feeling weird. Still hollow. I know it's not reality, it's the chemicals, making everything I value seem silly and trivial. Robbing life of meaning. It might take a while for me to get my equilibrium back, if that's even possible. I remember an innocent time, a pristine baseline. I don't think I need to be guilty. I don't renounce my experiments, I've learned a lot, maybe more than I should have. But it's good to know when to fold. Know when to follow classic country songs.

My weird feelings flowered in an hour long improv. I actually managed to purge some of the negativity. I played the blues and then I played with the blues. I failed to record it. I never record the best improvs.

I can create, but I don't have the drive I ought to. I'm still stuck staring into the cesspool of Narcissus. I'm hoping I can break these feedback loops I've exacerbated with endless overlapping cycles of serotonin manipulation, dopamine spikes, 5HT receptor games. We can't resist playing with our heads, they're the most powerful of power tools. But even the brightest among us don't really know what we're doing. If anyone ought to have been licensed to operate their brains it would be people like Wilson, Leary, McKenna, Huxley, Crowley - those folks - they lit up their lives with a Mephistophelean glow.

In contrast, I'm a young, confused, weak, scared little fool. I deserve no such license.

What motivated me to write this entry again? I can't remember. Maybe I just wanted to write. See what comes out. This all still feels hollow. It's so hard to articulate what's been building in my head for the last year or more. Some foreign way of thinking. I really don't want to call it "wisdom" or "maturity" because that would mean that I'm comprehending the hideously pointless nature of reality.

Not that the lack of a point is necessarily horrible, but I haven't found a way to love existentialism, at least not on a regular basis. I've known for ages, long before the angst, that we create our own meaning. Sometimes that bothers me, but often I find daoistic peace in the idea. Carl Sagan wrote a book I never read called "The Demon Haunted World - Science as a candle in the dark". He banished God from his world, but he also expelled the demons.

My problem is that despite all the new age self-help optimism I've absorbed from my favourite quantum philosophers, I don't seem to be a particularly potent creator of my own reality. I suppose I could hold out hope of getting there, though, if I keep my mind sharp. Timothy Leary didn't come into his own until middle age.

Tony's got a great new mantra: "God has no mirror". He told me that as we were walking through the snow. I imbibed the snow frosting my favourite forest path in the purple tint of the virgin dawn and saw what he was saying. Brooksy should have been there to snap a pic with his digicam. It was a beautiful morning and T was having a glowing acid trip. I was very glad, it soothed me. That someone in my circle can trip well on acid. I know the drugs aren't evil but there are demons in my brain.

I've actually been thinking about moving to Kansas. I love Nelson but it may be that I'm overdosing on the place. Kansas would be a good place to dry out. I also feel like I need a change of environment. Not just yet, but somewhere down the road. I'd never leave this place for too long though. Whatever crazy shit happens here, whatever drugs flood the marketplace, the land will remain, and the land will be the last thing to lose its meaning.

The land is what I was thinking of when Tony smashed God's mirror.

27 Nov 2005

Original Sin 1.83 - insert for Jamie's early life

Jamie is alone on her morning recess stroll after acing her “special” geography exam. She’s thinking, as she usually does during academic breaks, of the many ways she will put her developing talents to use. Jeff, the downcast kid with the perma-scowl and the dorky-looking dress, a sixth grader, catches her eye as he does often on these school grounds. He’s a loner like her, but not by choice. He’s not content like Jamie. Often he mutters threats, mutilating enemies in his mind. It’s eerie seeing this behavior from the outside. She doesn’t want to think how much it reminds her of her last incarnation.

“No,” she says. “This is the time for clear thinking. I can handle it, even if Tommy couldn’t.” A group of second-graders look at her oddly and start whispering amongst themselves. This happens a lot. Jamie smiles and turns back to Jeff. Jeff allows himself the rare indulgence of level gaze and their eyes meet. He seems to want to approach but can’t commit himself. Jamie commits for him. She’s very decisive these days.

“Hi,” she says. “Your name’s Jeff right?”

“What do you want?” he says with a deepening scowl. “I don’t consort with scum.”

He wanted to talk to me so he could denounce my perceived malevolence, Jamie thinks. A moment of pity. Tommy would have related. But Jamie has written herself out of that loser-script. She refuses to relate, it’s not what God wants and it’s not what she wants. She shouldn’t relate to people like this, they’ll drag her down into their futile sever-lives.

“What did I do to you?” Jamie asks. “I thought you were smart. I’ve seen you around and you seem to be on a higher level than most of the dimwits here. But you know, we’re not all that different – except I’ve learned how to get what I want and not bitterly scorn the joys I’ll never possess. You’re living in your own world and you’ll die there. I know people like you – you’re hopeless. You don’t have the imagination to get out of your prison.”

Jeff gawks at her. Was this a prank or a prepared speech? He’s heard that Jamie’s an odd child and expected a strange response but he didn’t expect an articulate harangue like that from a second-grade girl, subverting his righteous denunciation. This isn’t fair. Anger flares in his eyes.

“Who the hell do you think you are? You don’t understand what it’s like for me. They cast me out. They decided I’m not worthy to live. You’re just like them. Fuck off and leave me alone.”

Them them them…You blame everyone but yourself. You can integrate intelligently or you can show them what a bad-ass you can be. Or you can feel sorry for yourself and look like a douchebag. It’s your choice.”

“Get out of my face or I’ll kick your ass you little shit.”

“Ah, pick on someone your own size, that might toughen you up boy,” Jamie says and walks away, power-euphoria coursing through her brain. She’s never given such a lecture. It feels great. Maybe one day she’ll be a drill sergeant.

The pity returns but the euphoria breaks it down into isolated thoughts of little consequence. He won’t amount to anything, she thinks. Poor bastard’s saddled with a grade Z imagination. He’s a bit ahead of the curve, but he disappointed me with his inane retorts. His loser-mentality will bury him. I got a second chance because I have something to offer. The divine ideals God told me about. Yeah.

She guesses the universe needs Grade A imagination like hers… for engineering euphoria? Hyper euphoria? She remembers something her dad had said to her last month. He was reading one of his science magazines. There was an article about the “hedonic engineering” research going on in labs all over the country. They were actually announcing the creation of a training program for bright children. Somewhere, a group of scientists are going to mold young minds to eventually take over these ambitious experiments. Derrick had suggested she look into the program. Something to think about, definitely. But she really wants to be that concert pianist she meant to be since the days of Tommy.

21 Nov 2005

Original Sin 1.8 - Jamie's Incarnation

On a sunny afternoon, at the foot of a small hill, in a sprawling yard of green ocean-front property, a young girl paces angrily, fifty feet forward and fifty feet back. Her parents eye her nervously from the patio. Joan Lewis takes apathetic sips from a glass of ice-tea every ten seconds. Her husband, Derrick, nurses a glass of white wine.

"Why does she want us to call her Jamie?" Joan asks.

"How should I know?" Derrick says, exasperated, as Joan lets out a sigh. "I just can’t believe she’s up and walking around."

"It’s weird," Joan says, "She didn’t sound like our girl when we were driving home. She sounded like somebody else."

"Well hell, she had a grand mal seizure. Give her some time to recover."

"Of course I will!"

Both parents turn back to the yard where their child is stomping around, clearly lost in some intense inner-world.

"What in the hell is she so angry about?" Derrick murmurs to himself.

"The doctor said her brain was fried," Joan says in a shaky voice.

"He didn’t say that!"

"Well that’s all I could figure from the frigging medical jargon. I barely understood a word. And I don’t think you understood either. You’re a dentist, not a doctor."

Derrick lets out a peeved exhalation, turning away from his wife. "He wasn’t saying her brain was fried, I can tell you that. Her motor control is obviously functioning fine. And she was talking a lot in the car. In fact, she was talking in rather complex sentences if I recall."

"That’s what weirds me out," Joan says.

"Tiffany suffered a major shock to the system. Her brain is probably reorganizing itself. She may never be quite the same as she was. But she will recover." He subverts his surety by swallowing hard.

"Didn’t the CIA use electric shock machines to brainwash people in those experiments in the sixties?" Joan asks.

"No, none of that happened, it’s urban myth. You read too much of that conspiracy junk."

"So she’s going to be okay?"

"We lucked out honey. We’ll have our girl back. And we’re going to buy a lightning rod tomorrow, I promise."

Joan breathes out, then takes a long drink, finally seeming to enjoy it. Tiffany reaches the end of the yard again and stops to drop kick a tree trunk, letting out a high pitched grunt. She connects with the trunk but then stumbles on her other leg and falls, yelling in rage.

"Oh, baby!" Joan says, getting up from her chair in preparation for a run, but Derrick stops her with an arm.

"Leave her alone for now," he says. "Remember what happened last time we tried to talk to her."

Joan scowls but gets back in her chair to apathetically sip ice-tea.

Tiffany is pacing toward the ivy-covered shed through a well-trimmed lawn. She is deep in thought.

So God made me a girl. A FUCKING GIRL! The trickster bastard! Should have read the fine print.

She is a little girl. The hugeness of everything is awe-inspiring. She is apparently old enough to walk. And talk, although she clammed up fully after realizing how much she was creeping out her parents with her thirty-six year old speech patterns. Now they think she’s gone catatonic. How ingenious of God – a lightning bolt to enter this life. The trickster bastard. She storms across the grass, skirting the hill. She’d been kicking a soccer ball up that same hill when the lightning had struck. She’d discerned that from her parents but she has none of this person’s original memories.

God bless you Tiffany for disobeying your daddy and playing out in the storm, she thinks with a smile, not sure if she’s sarcastic or not. You gave me your life.

She doesn’t want to think about what happened to the original mind of this body but she can’t help wondering. Is the original Tiffany dead? Overwritten like a digital document? Ascendant to heaven on angel wings?

No, not heaven. You know the truth about heaven now.

There’s a quiet voice in her head. When she asks questions from an authority-seeking position, the instinctual response sounds a bit like God, but she can’t be sure she isn’t just talking to herself. There’s no gnosis anymore, no certainty, an odd, vacuous feeling – but here she is!

Don’t ask where Tiffany is.

But it’s bugging me.

Well then, know that I am willing to sacrifice one of my innocent children for one guilty Faustian.

Oh Christ. "God" was right, she shouldn’t have asked.

But a new emotion takes the baton from the gritty guilt: reverence of the force that is willing to move mountains for her, move minds out of the way for her, cosmic trickery, all for her. She’s chosen. She is protected and loved.

Well I don’t know about those last two.

She stops pacing as the anger ebbs away. She turns to face her new home, a very tasteful, white-trimmed one-story suburban estate, well landscaped. Her parents look back quizzically. She can hear seagulls on the shore beyond the hill and the engine of a car pulling out of the cul-de-sac behind the house. It’s all perfectly vivid. In fact it’s more real than anything she can remember. The reality of the situation hits her for the first time. She falls back against the hill, cackling on the grass with a jaw-breaking grin. It’s real! A new life! A fresh start! She hollers in joy, easily reaching a lofty pitch and startling her puzzled parents. She doesn’t care how worried they are in this moment of exaltation.

She gets back up, feeling out her new body for the first time. The pelvic smoothness is a strange sensation but she thinks she can get used to the lack of a dick. The biggest shock is the thousand little things she can’t name, the subtleties of another body adding up to a profoundly alien gestalt. Alien but human – a real live OTHER human, what luck to be able to experience the true shattering of the solipsist’s wall! This human seems somehow speedier than Tommy, possessing a quick metabolism which also quickens thought. There is an intriguing difference in the nervous system too: rich tactile sensations within narrower extremes. It seems this body handles pain better than Tommy, sorting it into more manageable categories.

I love you Tiffany!

The most noticeable novelties are those of childhood physique: the almost laughable smallness of the limbs, the low vantage, the oversized head. She runs a hand through her long brown hair admiring the texture. Then a flash of euphoria as she discovers Tiffany’s greatest gift: the total lack of little aches and pains and lethargy and atrophied muscles he’d taken for granted as Tommy. Those things had crept in gradually as he’d aged in the last life forcing him to acclimatize to decline, never consciously noticing the entropy but sinking into dull melancholy because of it – the intangible loss of youth. Now the pure baseline is back all at once. Boy, girl, what does it matter? It’s so fresh and so good!

Her angry pace has become a dizzying sprint. She runs around the yard, whooping, clapping her hands together and jumping for joy. One of her leaps puts her off kilter and she lands on the side of her foot, sending her sprawling. This time both her parents get out of their chairs and jog toward her. As she tumbles, she laughs at the stupidity of Tiffany’s limbs. They lack thirty years of muscle memory but she’ll get it back.

Her parents are catching up to her. They look very concerned. Tiffany rolls to her feet and runs right at them.

"I love you!" she says and slams into her mother, clasping her arms around the woman. Joan gasps, then hugs her back hard.

"Oh baby, I love you too," she says, sniffling. Both parents are smiling. Derrick breaks into relieved laughter, pries her off her mother and hugs her tight.

"How are you darling?" he says. "You were sounding strange in the car yesterday."

"Oh mom," Tiffany says. "Dad. Daddy… I, um… don’t feel like myself. I think something happened to my head after the lightning. I don’t remember too much."

"That’s okay Tiffany, you’re going to be fine," Joan says.

Tiffany smiles back sweetly and says: "I’m Jamie mommy. That’s my name now."

***

She’s looking in her bedroom mirror. There is enough space between Smurf stickers to make out her reflection. She strokes a clump of girly hair. Yep, I’m a Tiffany alright, she thinks. Sweet-faced little cutesy-pie with the outfits to match. But now is the time for her true self to take charge – not Tommy, but the emerging self, the one that is going to kick the ass of this incarnation. "Jamie", a gender-neutral title. It’ll do. Tommy always wanted to be James anyway. Jamie will be a suitable compromise. Jamie Lewis. Sounds nice. Funny that she’s got the same surname as before. She supposes she’ll keep it. Her parents have finally accepted her name change though it still weirds them out. They’re going to have to get used to a little weirdness now and then.

It’s been three weeks since the lightning and two weeks since her rapid recovery. She is settling in. Her parents have been helpful in filling her in on the details her "fried brain" is missing. She is the only child of a dentist and a receptionist in a fairly swanky Long Island home. It’s actually much nicer than his last parents’ leaky, bug-infested house, but it’s on the edge of unending suburban sprawl. There is nothing here like the woods Tommy had access to. But there is the ocean. And that ecstatic fresh feeling is still with her.

It’s a good thing the transition hadn’t gone the other way, Jamie thinks. That would be appalling, gaining Tommy’s whole collection of ailments at once! But the opposite is heavenly – a true fountain of youth!

But God hadn’t given her this as a gratuitous grace. The point was to make use of it.

I will, Jamie thinks, looking at her fresh face, expression hardening. I damn sure will. The responsibility to use the gift right. It’s an honor she won’t waste. And she feels capable this time. This body is an organic expression of capability. Can-do muscles, competent cartilage. She will not let God throw her for a loop, she’ll roll with being a woman. She’ll be a superwoman. A vessel is a vessel. Tommy had never been all that manly anyway.

And forget sex for now, that’s not for a while – sex is just an abstraction given the lack of hormones in this raw, five year old corpus. It’s surprising how powerful an abstraction it remains though, despite being severed from libido. Bringing Tommy’s mind here has also brought with it every intellectual scar and his paranoid conception of gonadal politics.

Jamie is sure the scars will heal quickly with Tiffany’s hyper-metabolism. This is the time for her to develop skills and strategize for the future. Can’t go wrong when you’re thinking three moves ahead. She thinks God must have allowed Tommy’s complex consciousness to inhabit Tiffany’s cranial tissue despite its smaller size, filling it out more fully. People only use ten percent of their brain normally, right? Tiffany’s head seems to be a fine fit. Her thinking is not in any way hindered – if anything it’s been clarified. She might be able to credit the body for that, at least partially. She can feel the purity of the bloodstream with every heartbeat. There’s something about this body that makes everything easy. Except athletic feats, her limbs still seem rather dumb.

"Dinner time!"

Her mom is calling her from the kitchen. Another microwaved meal with mom and dad. She wonders if they’ll be weirded out if she asks for mint tea to wash it down. What was it about the lightning bolt that made you crave mint tea? Derrick, what a question! She snickers and vows to ask anyway. She wants to see the look on their faces.

***

1987 is a strange year for the Lewis family of Long Island. What seems at first to be a senseless tragedy becomes the flowering of a precocious personality. It turns out that Jamie Lewis is indeed a prodigy, wise beyond her years, with an eerily prescient understanding of the world.

After a few days in kindergarten she is whisked away to the special wing of her private school and placed with the "special" kids. Upon attaining this rank, she decides to stop being obviously ahead of the curve and play along with their academic games. She wants to be smart but she doesn’t want to be a freak, and some of the math is actually challenging at this level.

She thinks God kept Tiffany’s brain as it was but reorganized the neurological connections to replicate Tommy’s consciousness. That was the trick and it was the same thing He’d done using His voice in the orchard, except this time it’s to a radical extent, a total transformation. Jamie deduces that the original Tiffany is either dead, or has morphed into the new personality. This smooth method of mental invasion has an added bonus: it allows Jamie to take advantage of the rapid learning Tiffany’s pre-adolescent brain is capable of. She is delighted to discover that the French language is assimilated with ease. She moves on to German in a month.

The novelty of the fresh feeling has worn off and she’s not distracted by it anymore. It simply makes daily life a hundred times more valuable and daily tasks a hundred times easier. She takes the vitality for granted now. She is learning all she can, and staying healthy. She pressures her mother to buy health food. She’s even brushing her teeth three times a day (of course Dr. Lewis will not hear of improper oral hygiene). She tends to avoid her school mates which worries her parents, but they are delighted at the rapport she’s developed with the adults around her. Jamie sometimes injects the expected cuteness into the surreal conversations since she knows they don’t really want to be on equal terms. It’s alright, she can wait. The game of skirting the line between her expected role as child and her potential role as oberfrau is endlessly entertaining.

Jamie has never known such optimism. Even Tommy’s childhood doesn’t compare. All light here is outer but it warms the inner void. God was my friend after all, she thinks. Benevolent and loving. Tough but fair. He steered me toward the good. He’s a voidful bastard but he’s goaded me into living while I can. Because I’m special. Thank God. As she settles into her new life, she thinks less and less about the deal.

***

"I’ve already told you, I’m not going to be studied like some animal in a zoo. Who knows why I changed? Who cares?"

"Alright, alright. I thought since you loved learning so much, you might be willing to contribute to the study of the mind. But if you don’t want to that’s your choice."

"Yes, I know."

This is the third time she’s had to make it explicit to her father that she’s not intent on submitting herself to scientific investigation. Her mother usually takes her side in this matter, but it seems Derrick’s been bringing her around to his idea of the importance of Jamie’s electricity-induced transformation. Jamie is nine years old and is barely trying to act like a child anymore.

"So, are you going to get to your piano practice after dinner?" Joan asks, salting her tofurky.

"Ah, I don’t need to practice today, I played a bunch yesterday. I want to take a walk, maybe pick up some licorice."

"What happened to eating healthy?" Joan asks. "You used to be obsessed with it."

"Hey, I’m into health, I just like licorice once in a while okay? Gimme a break."

"You know, we bought you that piano for Christmas because we expected you to use it," Derrick says.

"I am using it," Jamie says. Derrick’s definition of "using" it apparently doesn’t include improvisation, the philistine. But she’s sick of scales and arpeggios. She wants to do her own thing. Her teacher is technique-obsessed and drives her hard because she’s supposed to be a "prodigy". Mrs. Kaliszewski believes it’s time for her to get to the "next level", whatever that is. Jamie is more interested in art. She didn’t come back here to be a mindless technician. She is going to create masterpieces. Technique will come. But inspiration is right here, right now!

"Okay forget the licorice, I’ll play," she says, getting up from the table.

"Wait, you’re not even finished –"

"I’m inspired," Jamie says, and makes a beeline for the Clavinova in the living room. She’s had a slow, asocial month, the first thing resembling depression in her life as Jamie, but suddenly the optimism is back, along with inspiration’s flame. The shape of the masterpiece is emerging from the amniotic ocean. She hears the melody, brilliantly asymmetrical, in C sharp minor. How about that, the first masterpiece at age nine? Her hands hit the piano, falling on the right keys immediately. She loops the theme, both hands in unison, then both hands in thirds. Then it goes canonic and follows with steadily complexifying counterpoint. It is the sound of optimism, the potential in the prodigy’s path.

The theme intensifies. Jamie’s parents watch as she launches into an ecstasy of stumbling virtuosity, laughing at the wrong notes, the near-successful attempt at audacious sonic density, perhaps not perfect but who’d ever even try such a stunt? She continues upping the ante long after her parents have lapsed into slack-jawed confusion, even after she herself knows what she’s doing. It passes the point of coherency and enters what Jamie thinks of as alien jazz, the channeling of hyper-coherency, a stylistic revolution for future reference. Humanity will need to evolve to appreciate it.

She winds her way back to the theme she started with – Tiffany’s brain supports robust memory. The improvisation comes to a close with a simple restatement of the inspiration theme in C sharp minor and a serene hymnal cadence ending on a major chord. Jamie lets her hands drop, staring at the keys, stunned, almost frightened at what had come out of her. Amazing what a little inspiration and optimism will do for you.

"Hey was I recording?" she asks.

"How should I know?" Derrick answers.

She checks the Clavinova’s display screen.

"Shit! Why didn’t I record?"

"Language!" Joan scolds.

I just failed to record a masterpiece and you’re worried about my LANGUAGE? Well they didn’t get Stravinsky in 1906. Tommy didn’t get Gombe right away. And only the elite will understand hyper-coherency – if she can ever transcribe it. Well she’ll just have to remember it. Write it down! Right now, before it fades!

She’s been struggling with music theory (why the prodigy hasn’t absorbed it all in half a year is a mystery to Mrs. Kaliszewski) but she’s made incredible strides from where Tommy was in the understanding of notation. Her can-do spirit is strong. She rushes towards her room where the staff paper is.

"Wait, it’s your turn to do the dishes," her mother says as Jamie jogs past, feet pounding the hardwood floor. Her bedroom door slams shut seconds later.

***

Vera Kaliszewksi has cleaned up the notation errors in Jamie’s sloppy manuscript – there were many. But the piece is now presentable. Vera has several revisions to suggest but Jamie won’t hear of them. This time an argument is avoided. Vera has learned that it’s better not to butt heads with Jamie’s arrogance, especially since her parents have proven to be overprotective neurotics, easily manipulated by Jamie into telling her to back off. "We’re paying you to teach piano, not composition."

"I hope you’ll listen to me one day my dear," she tells Jamie as she stuffs the seventeen page manuscript into an envelope. "As talented as you are, you could be even better if you had a firmer grip on tradition. You must learn the rules before you break them. Still I must say, this is a fantastic debut. I’ve never heard anything like it from any of my students."

"Opus one," Jamie says with a smile.

The envelope is addressed to Continental Magazine, a glossy, educational, youth-oriented periodical. Jamie’s composition, Inspiration in C sharp minor is being sent to the music division of their annual "Young Achiever’s Contest". The winning entry will be performed at Carnegie Hall by the current critical darling of the classical piano world, Dmitri Scherbakov.

***

"The hell? I don’t believe this!"

Jamie is looking at the faces of the first, second, and third placers in the latest issue of Continental for Kids.

"That little gook won over me?!"

"Jamie! Where did you learn a word like that?" says Derrick.

"Sorry, I meant to say that little fuck!"

"Jamie Lewis, that is enough!" Joan says. "Go to your room!"

"How could I not even place? Goddamn judges. They’re probably all Yakuza."

She storms off to her bedroom and slams the door. She doesn’t know where the racial anger is coming from. She’s surprised and disgusted at its presence but it flows out of her. No, it’s not racial anger exactly. Just the stereotype of the smiling over-achieving Japanese boy. So bland and predictable. But her composition was supposed to subvert the predictable. It should have steamrolled over the mediocre crap that usually rises to the top of these stupid competitions.

She did get an honorable mention (as Tiffany Lewis) and an invitation for an interview in the magazine’s next issue. But no, she won’t appear in their shitty rag to answer condescending questions. That’s beneath her. She must maintain her dignity, that’s been part of the plan since the beginning. So what if it sours this minor celebrity? Honorable mention? That’s not honorable enough for her masterpiece. Let Scherbakov play Michael Wong’s Mozartian rip-off. She climbs out of her bedroom window and heads down the cul-de-sac. In these endless suburbs she must walk four miles to get to the nearest convenience store. But she could really go for some licorice right now.

***

"I was told you wrote a nasty letter to Continental," Vera says.

"Yeah well, they angered me," Jamie says. "I had to let them know. I don’t take any crap any more. I have an image to maintain."

"Ironic that your image has been permanently tarnished as a result of your trying to do whatever it took to keep it clean."

"Permanently tarnished? Think what you like. I don’t need your lessons anymore. I’ll be fine on my own. I quit."

It starts with the one deviation deemed justifiable. Then it snowballs. Things are going awry but it’s okay. Jamie is remembering the comforts of laziness and video games. There is no Nintendo in this universe, nor Sega, nor Sony, but Acusoft has got a nice game box on the market with cutting edge technology roughly equivalent to the Super Nintendo of Tommy’s adolescence, perhaps slightly better. She’s still developing academic skills but she needn’t be a workaholic. What good are skills with no leisure time? She can strike a balance.

And she’s discovered Chadwick’s licorice, a gourmet product, $9.99 for a bag of six curled sticks. She has to cross the burbs to get it and it’s costing all her allowance money but it’s so tasty. It was a strange taste at first, strange and compelling. Every bite since has been a deeper probe into the licorice world. It’s like all licorice before Chadwick’s was the planetary crust. Chadwick’s takes her to the core, radiant with the energy of buried alien artifacts. Sometimes she suspects the licorice itself is a subtle expression of dormant alien intelligence – hyper-coherency in licorice form. Nothing tastes remotely like it. And it’s inspiring – in the licorice reverie she can imagine the things she will become, manifestations of alien jazz. She will get to them. Later. She will strike a balance. There is room for licorice. What would life be without licorice?

***

"Hey licorice-head… what’s with all the candy? Are you hiding drugs in there?"

The taunter’s voice rings in her head all the way home from high school. She would distract herself with the beautiful black bite of Chadwick’s sticks but she’s all out and the nearest den is on the other side of town. When did school get so shitty, she wonders. Ah yes, it was the moment she decided it was time to be social and interact with her biological contemporaries. Bad idea. What a crappy day. And now she has to tell her parents she’s failing math and science. Whoopee.

"Hey, are you addicted to that shit? Is it your substitute for sex? Maybe your skin would look better if you didn’t eat so much of it, haha."

It’s guys like this that keep Jamie’s budding heterosexual instincts safely contained. She declares herself to be a lesbian but her "friends" think she’s creepy, even the surprisingly common dykes and bisexuals. Her features have hardened and her face has grown pallid. She shaved off Tiffany’s beautiful hair years ago and maintains the buzz cut. Tiffany’s dead as a doornail and life doesn’t seem to be working out so well in Jamie’s body anymore.

She thought it’d be easier being a member of the opposite sex. She thought she’d get a free ride but she’s hitting a wall. More and more her gender seems a joke that God played on her, a living mockery.

She walks through suburban wasteland eventually reaching the cul-de-sac that marks her home. This scene is starting to bore her. She hasn’t seen woods since… well since Tommy. Is there any forest in this part of the world or has it all been paved over? She enters the house through the back door hoping to avoid the parents but Derrick is in the kitchen on the phone. He puts it down and says: "I was just talking to the school. Seems you’re falling behind in your studies."

"Leave me alone dad, I’ve had a hard day."

"Tell me what’s happening in school," Derrick says in German. Jamie stares blankly.

"You’re getting rusty. You used to understand me most of the time. Are you forgetting your languages?"

"So what if I am?" Jamie says, "I’ve got better things to learn."

"You’re playing video games all day. What’s happened to you? You used to get perfect grades – in the special program! It’s like you’re not even trying anymore. I know you have the brains but you have to put in the work. How are you going to get into a good school if you don’t put in the work?"

"Maybe I don’t want an academic career did you ever think of that?"

"You think you’re going to get anywhere in life without college?"

"I’m a musician."

"It’s very nice that you play a little piano now and again, but really, we’re talking about a career here. You think I’m going to pay your bills for you when you’re an unemployed dropout?"

Jamie pauses. "No, I guess not," she says and leaves for her bedroom. Her old parents would have. She misses them. They were better than these wispy waspy people. They didn’t push their religion or their scholastic standards on her. Too bad Tommy had to flip out at school and leave them behind.

***

God doesn’t feel like a friend anymore. Jamie remembers the forest and the wood sprite, vaguely. The time before the forest is even vaguer. She can recall Candie’s laugh better than she remembers Tommy’s home where he once packed sod beside the garden. Lord how she misses Candie. What she wouldn’t give to hear her play one tune on her pipe. Sometimes she plays the Princess theme on the Clavinova but it’s not the same. She dreams about the orchard and the mansion. The Help Wanted sign. Maybe she could have helped someone there. She’s bloody useless here. She’s got a bit of respect but no one really likes her music and nobody thinks she’s good enough. She was a prodigy but now what? Now she’s a failure.

She’s taken to snapping her fingers again when she imagines fanciful ways of bringing

her lost world into the new one, but it’s a sad ritual. She knows she’s betrayed whatever spirit arose from the fingersnapping regime. She thinks maybe if she’d kept the faith those fingersnapping wishes might have come true one day, but the deals she’s made with the sprites and the Clowngod… She’s sold her spirit and drained her magic. She’s running on empty. Maybe she should have stayed at home with Scuffy, toughed out school, then gone on to a humble life of fingersnapping. At least she’d be anticipating heaven.

She’d set Scuffy aflame, sometimes that hurts more than anything. She wishes she could see Poetic Injustice again. It seems perfect for these times. If no one cares about her art she could at least get back to its fuck-off righteous roots. She tried to reproduce the manifesto once but failed. She spun off track like the Princess after being nailed with a turtle shell on Chocolate Island 2.

***

Jamie thinks it must be hard to break the parental love bond but she’s managed to do it. She’s worn them down. In the end, she was too Tommy for them.

No, it wasn’t Tommy that wore them down, Jamie thinks. It was that "new personality" God tried to cultivate. The optimist. She coasted for a while but when the going got rough she got to be a bit of a bitch.

Jamie leaves home in a drab outfit utterly lacking fashion sense. She carries her only possessions: three bags of Chadwick’s licorice, five hundred dollars, and a decent Timex watch, the last birthday present she’d gotten from her parents. She can’t bring herself to throw it away. She’ll keep it as a memento, tribute to the twelve years Joan and Derrick had raised her.

Sorry I stole your real daughter, she thinks, but this specific incarnation wasn’t my idea. Take it up with God, that trickster bastard.

Jamie takes a good look at the Long Island shore on a sunny summer evening. It’s a pleasant little place but it’s worn out its welcome. She probably won’t be back. She’s waiting for a bus to New York City. She’ll try again there. If she can make it there… well, who even cares? The only thing she’s basing her hopes on is Candie’s prophecy. The words seeped into her head last night, finally motivating her leave the house in which she was no longer wanted:

"The fairies will help you. If you seek it you will find it. I know because you have the manna."

Jamie has no idea what this means but it’s her only hope of survival in the urban jungle she’s about to enter. God’s gone. He’s left her to her own devices with a guaranteed void at the end of it all. But she’ll see what can still be squeezed out of this farcical second chance. Might as well pin her hopes on a fairy even if it seems she’s burned up all her magic.

Scuffy had been a good bargaining chip. She thinks she has another one: a baggie half full of orange powder she’d bought shortly before dropping out of school. She would never take drugs but she knows there are people for whom certain powders are worth plenty of money, maybe even licorice. She was told it was a "synthetic tryptamine", whatever that means.

***

"Thank you so much for the 4HO dahling, we haven’t been able to find any in months."

"No problem," Jamie tells her philanthropic benefactor, navigating carefully through the party-ravaged halls of the Jackson Tower’s forty-fifth floor ("the gayest number in New York" as it was known to the 72nd street crowd).

"Hey stick around, we’s just gettin’ warmed up," says a large husky black fairy. "We gonna rail this bag." His wings brush against Jamie’s back.

"Ah, leave me alone," she says. "I’m tired, I’ve got to sleep. I’m just glad I don’t have to work anymore."

"Work? You was workin’? Looked to me like you was standin’ round the lobby countin’ taxis. What kinda work that be?"

"Important secret government work I’m not at liberty to disclose."

The husky fairy laughs and says: "You a trip. Man, I betchoo’d be trippin balls if you took somma that 4HO."

"Nah, I’ve got a cold, I don’t feel so good. And I don’t take drugs. Except for this cold-remedy I’m on."

"Maybe you sick cause you eat nothin’ but that licorice. I knew a dude that was into that chatwick’s shit – he was messed up."

"Licorice has nothing to do with it."

"Ah Jamie," lisps a tall blond fairy, "so sorry to tell you but if you want to stay here you must party with us, at least occasionally. You’re becoming a bit of a drip."

"I don’t drink. I’ve never drank."

"Oh well, I guess it’s back out on the street with you. Bum’s rush." Several fairies turn their heads.

"Jesus, fine. Give me a drink."

What kind of life is this? Jamie asks herself. Well… an interesting one, whatever else it might be.

***

Jamie’s hand is bleeding but she doesn’t feel anything. She is yelling something though.

"I’M GOD, YOU FUCKING FAGGOTS! THIS IS MY TOWER! YOU ARE MY GUESTS! SO SHOW ME SOME…" She pauses to belch loudly, then finishes: "RESPECT!"

The blood seems to be connected to shards of glass from a shattered drink that now drips from the wall. There is a nondescript moment of human contact, a dull thump she barely feels and then she is tumbling down some stairs or something – luckily not too many and she’s back on her feet, barely.

"I AM THE SHERIFF OF MANHATTAN!" she screams. "I AM THE BUFFER AGAINST THE BLANK! YOU’RE ALL DEAD DON’T YOU KNOW THAT?" She’s not sure if the words are coming out right but she’s trying valiantly to make them understand. It seems important.

"YOU ARE MY CHILDREN AND YOU MUST LIVE YOUR LIVES FULLY FROM HERE ON OUT! I COMMAND YOU! IT’S ALL YOU’VE GOT!" She’s crying but she’s not sure why.

"We are living our lives fully you sad little shit!" someone yells from down the hall. Someone else mutters: "The bitch is creeping me out." Then there are hands on her. She’s being carried away to the elevator. She has nothing left to struggle with. She has nothing left to think with. So ends the short experiment in being the Sheriff of Manhattan.

***

A cold wet morning. A virgin hangover and no licorice. Jamie is lying in the gutter, three blocks from the Jackson Tower, head cradled in a pool of vomit. She gags and sits up. God! Surely not her vomit, she doesn’t puke!

What happened last night? She doesn’t know but she’s out of the fairy facilities. Somehow she knows she’s out for good. She remembers taking a drink and choking it down. She remembers taking a second. After that… no clue.

She makes a wobbly ascent with a groan and begins a meditation on whether there’s anything left to live for. Well, she was prudent enough to make a backup plan before taking up residence in the fairy condos. The plan involves using the doubled identkey her fairy hacker roommate had given her before she’d gotten kicked out. She can use it to draw from the Washington welfare spring. She can’t take much or it’ll trip alarms. But she’ll have enough to get by. But how will she pay for licorice?

Oh well, she’ll deal with that later. Right now she needs a place to lie down that isn’t the street. Would a room be asking too much? She sets off in search of a hotel, wiping as much of the crusting puke off her hair as she can manage in one motion. It needs cutting again, it’s starting to look like a perverse tangled version of Tiffany’s pretty mane.

The streets are filling up as rush hour approaches. Too many people. Urbanity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. The woods worked as long as there were sprites. She fantasizes about going way back into the past. Not twenty years but two hundred. Maybe four hundred. New York four centuries ago, unspoiled land. The blank bastard, opining as it does more often these days, especially in the absence of licorice, tells her: The first trip didn’t work out, why should the next? Don’t get your hopes up.

Chadwick’s will shut you up, she tells it. Yes, a bit of licorice and she can dream of a pastoral New York, all for her. Sheriff Jamie of Pastoral New York, in the year of our lord, 1592. In C sharp minor. She laughs. God never told her to dream. That is her rebellion. She went back to her pathetic slacker ways. She hadn’t become the winner she’d resolved to be. But she’s become a new person, she thinks. Older, wiser, maybe even cynical. World-weary for sure. Has she fought her way this far to attain apathy-cool? It’s the best she can hope for. Fuck Tommy, fuck Tiffany, and fuck God. She’ll live on her own terms, not God’s fraudulent contract.

She remembers that before she can get a room she’ll have to find a ‘net café in which to use the hacker’s identkey and score some funds. No shortage of those places in Manhattan. There’s one right across the street. But just before she crosses, a poster on a postbox catches her eye:

Mung Williams
Carnegie Hall Debut
April 14, 2005, 8:30 pm

Chopin
Scriabin
Gombe
Williams

and featuring selections from
Continental’s "Young Achiever" Composer’s Contest ™ :

Jeremy Wynn
Nicole Vance
Sarah Grandberry
Tiffany Lewis

Jamie does a double take. Is her name really on there? Yes it is. But how? Then she feels the déjà-thread of the chronofluid tugging on her in strange ways. Not that damned liquid time again! Not when she’s somehow got her name on a poster for Carnegie Hall! Ah but where is this liquid time taking her? It’s taking her back to a place where she’s lined up outside…

***

"Oh Jesus am I back now?" Jamie gasps. "Please let me be back now."

"Uh, what?" says the muscular, ballcap-wearing dude.

Yes, she is back among the full-throated carnivores, waiting in line to see Mung Williams at Carnegie Hall with her old masterpiece inexplicably on the program. She’s finally caught up to the present, a jolt after so long in the ether of awkward memory.

Christ, I was only trying to take my mind off the blank! she thinks. I wasn’t trying to re-live my whole damn life! Once through that shit was enough. Twice was overdoing it. I’m sure as fuck not flashing back again!

Jamie checks her Timex. It says 8:53, but she remembers it’s running late. The line is barely moving. It’s going to be a packed house. She prays it won’t be sold out before she gets in. She doesn’t see any scalpers around.

"Isn’t it Mung X now?" someone says. Jamie catches fragments of conversation further up the line.

"Yeah that’s what I heard. He read brother Malcolm’s autobiography. It’s one of the few modern books that really resonates with him."

"Brother Malcolm?" An utterance of disgust. "Ya whigger. If you said that in their presence they’d bust a cap in yo ass, foo’."

"Like you know anything about black culture."

"Never said I did, fuckstick."

Jamie wishes for the end of their inane chatter but it continues with someone else piping in: "Hmmm… Mung X. Doesn’t really roll off the tongue so good, does it? Not a good ring to it."

"No it’s awkward, I agree."

"And unoriginal. Couldn’t he have come up with a less hackneyed political statement than changing his last name to X?"

"Give him a break, he's just learning our customs. I think it's pretty damn amazing that he at least understands the concept of a political statement."

God, shut up you morons, Jamie seethes. I just want to hear him play my piece and then… then I guess it’s time to meet the void God promised me.

Predictably the blank tells her that her suicide is a fantasy just like everything else she’s failed to accomplish. The blank will keep her life above it as a block. And without that block, there’d be nothing to mock, the blank’s favourite pass-time.

Shut up blank. I’m going to see Mung Williams play my masterpiece. That was no fantasy. It’s on paper. It’s the unholy fusion of optimism and loser philosophy that disgusted God. But I did it anyway, so fuck everyone. It’s good enough for Mung Williams. Carnegie will ring with my righteousness.

Jamie discovers that while she was lost in thought, the line had moved considerably. She now stands two heads from the box office. The propped-open glass door of the lobby is visible. Taped to it is a larger, fancier version of the poster that had drawn her here. This poster is not advertising the event as "Continental’s Young Achiever Composer’s Contest", but rather: The Scherbakov Young Composer’s Competition. Scherbakov, the great Russian pianist who had ended up playing Michael Wong’s piece of crap back when she was a striving prodigy. This new and improved poster advertises the Young Composer’s portion of the program as being the cream of 2005’s crop – so what the hell is her rejected fourteen-year-old piece doing on the list? Oh well, better late than never.

"Just one?" asks the woman in the ticket booth. Jamie has arrived! There may be a God and He may be a bastard but she is getting into Carnegie Hall tonight!

"Yes indeed," she says and lays all her licorice money onto the counter. She snaps up a ticket for a balcony seat. The woman in the box office then leans her head out of the window and yells: "Sorry folks, that was the last seat. We’re sold out!"

A collective moan rises to a crescendo among the considerable crowd that has entered the line behind Jamie. Angry voices punctuate the moan, some uttering threats. Nervously, the ticket lady slams the window shut. Some of the crowd is now turning their anger on Jamie. She curls her ticket into her fist and squeezes it tight.

"Hey, don’t hate me just cause I’m lucky!" she shouts to the frothing end of the line. Jamie sets off for the entrance as the more unhinged members begin to gibber with rage. Jamie turns around to flip them off, then makes a run for the lobby.

Inside is calm and civility. There is an air of excitement, but it’s tempered with aristocratic restraint. Light jazz wafts out of the ceiling sound system. Jamie shows her ticket to an usher and is directed to the staircase that allows access to the upper level. A perma-grin takes hold on her face. For the first time in years, licorice is a million miles from her mind. There is only sweet sweet anticipation.

***

9:00 on the digital face of the out-of-sync Timex and the curtains open. Jamie has settled into her balcony seat and is leaning over the rail, heart pounding. She has tuned out the assinine chatter of the adjacent concert-goers and is waiting for her savior. She is waiting for the one who will recapture her long-lost moment of optimism, a hammer-pattern of glory for piano strings, her fleeting triumph before washing up fully, a second failure in an expensive second life, before she turned to licorice to keep her dreams afloat. Those twelve years with the dentist and the receptionist, lavished with upper-middle class care and private education… maybe the waste will have been worth it for those ten minutes of inspiration… in C sharp minor. If her savior can do it justice – and why not – it is a night for miracles. Ungodly miracles. She feels it.

Mung Williams, unmistakable, the short figure with the strange gait emerges from the curtains. He is greeted with a chorus of murmers, gasps, even low tittering which slices into Jamie’s brain like nails on a chalkboard. A wave of excitement breaks through the hall and the cheers begin. Jamie is breathless.

Ah you’ve come, she thinks. Just like the poster said you would. He will start with Chopin according to the program. Kick some Chopin ass, an entrée, give me a taste of how you will deal with my masterpiece – are you up to the challenge Mung? Somehow I think you are.

Mung shuffles over to the nine-foot Steinway grand in the center of the stage. He is dressed in a black tuxedo, trying to maintain his dignity. Some would say he is struggling, being a chimpanzee.

***

They announced me as Mung Williams, he thinks as he approaches the piano bench. I told them several times, it’s Mung X now. Morons. Are they so incompetent they can’t get the program changed three weeks in advance, or do they enjoy upsetting me? No, focus, this is your Carnegie debut. These New Yorkers put a lot of stock in that. They’re waiting to see how you’ll deal with Chopin, they put a lot of stock in him too.

Mung pulls out the bench. Luckily, it’s been properly adjusted and when he sits down, his feet reach those silly three pedals. He should have been an organist, his dexterous feet get bored with nothing much to do but sustain and clear. Yes, he’ll sustain and clear like a good little Chopin recitalist. Give the people what they want. But when he gets to the new repertoire, the obscuranta he chose to round out the program – that "Inspiration" piece. Yes, he’ll give them what they didn’t know they wanted. It will be a test. He’ll see who passes. He’ll cultivate his own clique from those worthy. Tiffany Lewis… he’d like to meet the composer. She’d be all grown up now though and who knows where she is?

He lays his leathery fingers over the keys.

16 Nov 2005

Original Sin 1.7 - Tommy and God

The Clown is smiling but His eyes are deadly serious. There are red streaks painted above them. God is a pudgy Italian opera clown. Tommy sees this and knows it to be true. Appalling knowledge but there is no other way God could be. He’d figured it out before, a long time ago. He realizes that the delicate structure of his mind from the recovery onward has been a series of psychological defense mechanisms – protection from comprehending the truth, the knowledge of God, the Clown. That is the only thing that explains his mind, his post-hoc fallacy. He could never completely erase the knowledge.

Crazy that he thinks of Jim now and how he knew so many years ago in the English Room that words were futile, that the reality of God was not something that could be argued in debate class but would come around again to gob smack his flickering faith. He can now admit the faith flickered. He thinks of how he would like to drag Jim out to this orchard for cosmic education but the vindication would be hollow for the horror of its meaning. Then he remembers how the shock of Jim’s teenaged strength had disheveled him in semantic blitzkrieg to the point of shunting off "God" and pinning his allegiance firmly on "heaven", the inner-light. He’d never even thought of God since then, what a ridiculous detour!

"Jesus I didn’t think you were real!" Tommy says. "I just thought…"

His dad’s voice echoes: Giant automated machine.

"YOU BELIEVED IN THE CATALOG GOD," God says, searing words into the surrounding darkness. "TO FILE AWAY YOUR FINGERSNAPPING WISHES – HARDLY EVEN A MOLECULE OF THE TRUE DIVINITY. OH YE OF LITTLE FAITH."

"Oh God, you are God!" Tommy wails.

The Godclown looks back with a smile that is a grimace. Tommy can see that God feels totality and is stoically smug in the emotional aggregate – thus He must grimace. Tommy feels like he’s looking at himself sick from syrup, saturated with synthetic chemicals that unravel the mind at high doses and shatter the solid psyche which reforms as the theological basis of the Holy Duality, himself and the Clown, God and the man. No, the boy. He could only be a boy, a trembling little boy before God, because the Clown confirms God’s reality by being the only image that could shake him to his soul, the ultimate power of that one specific sight, holy hell!

Holiness is Sickness beyond death, eternal illness, the unfinished organic project, a half-breath hell. And how did he escape again? Or did he? No, he knows now, his life has been bricks between the blanks, as meaningless as Tetris blocks in the game with no victory, only high scores. God’s face-paint informs him that he’s scored a pathetic 6000, below even OTASAN on level five. The blank is all that’s real, all that’s left when the game’s over.

God contains the blank. It’s sickening, but in horrible necessity for all he knows and desires, God is a guardian against it. God knows the blank intimately and is the only buffer from its chilling proximity – only He can save Tommy from it. But Tommy sees in God’s paint-rimmed eyes that the buffer is temporary. He knew this in the cough syrup coma as a provisional gnostic flailing through a million years of temporary. He forgot that time could be dilated only so far… that the price of returning to his fresh four-year-old Tommy body was to enter life’s final chapter: the prelude to finality. God’s funny face says all of this in the language of verboten medicine he’d nearly purged from his memory. Nearly’s never good enough, the boomerang returns with its razor edge. There was no Santa Clause and there seems no room for heaven in the Holy Duality but there is always God the Clown, the face on the bottle, the face of destiny.

How well fingersnapping had served him when it was sustainable – to fill the cracks.

But now there is only God’s eyes burning with the power of being the buffer to the blank, seeing and being all that could be accomplished given the full comprehension of mortality and the desperation that would age to perfection like vintage wine. God is a living martyr to life itself. Tommy hates this hideous Clowngod but loves Him more because he knows that if those eyes stopped burning he would be FACE TO FACE with the blank and that would be the end of everything. Love for the Buffer is the most painful and true love he’s ever felt, eclipsing his love for the inner-light. This is the outer light. The only light. The final light.

Wait, he thinks. There’s a more benign feeling that seems to blank out the blank: the power of Scuffy! But he’d lost that protection from the Clown-container-of-the blank for accepting sprite aid – the help that had brought him here! No, the void of Scuffy is a blank that’s been etched deep into his life and the brick above it was a violation of the rules of this Tetris level, a talismanic traitor to reality. He knows Scuffy would ward off this encounter but that could never be allowed to happen, it would be ungodly. He must deal with God.

God stares and Tommy stares and the Clown disappears in semantic dissolve, there is only God, God with makeup that is no longer makeup but His Skin, frizzy hair that is nothing but God Hair, no hair, just Godhead, the omega, the gestalt, indivisible except for the crack that is him, the disgusting split in that beautiful life-affirming Buffer, the waste-of-life, the

"ASS-CRACK," finishes God. "YOU HAIRY ASS-CRACK. THAT’S ALL YOU ARE, HIDING YOUR PIMPLY FACE IN YOUR LICEY BANGS. GET THAT HAIR OUT OF YOUR EYES AND LOOK AT ME."

Tommy brushes his hair away with a shaking hand.

"YOU SHOULD BE ON CRACK FOR ALL THE GOOD YOU’VE DONE."

"I d- I didn’t think you would ever want me to do drugs," Tommy stammers, choking on air, nearly retching, feeling as if the words are pulled out of him.

"NO, YOU HAD BETTER THINGS TO DO, BUT YOU DIDN’T DO THEM SO WHAT DOES IT MATTER?"

What a question for God to ask, Tommy thinks. Is it rhetorical? It must be, it’s fucking God!

Then God laughs madly, tittering like a metabolic function. It sounds like the dry cackle of millenarian laughter, an unstoppable nitrous high after which nothing exists but the vocal end of the belly spasm, meaning laughed out. God goes on to speak while continuing to laugh. Between the laughs are well-defined meaning, bloody points speared into Tommy’s consciousness. The Clowngod can make anything mean everything.

"WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?"

"You called me down– "

"NO, IN THIS ORCHARD. SO FAR AWAY FROM HOME."

God’s tone, between the clownish punctuation, has become that of a sad and disappointed patriarch – a father who doesn’t ask questions to gain information.

"Um, well, I think maybe this is my home now," Tommy says.

The cowering boy’s meek reply stokes God’s burning eyes into a violent flare though Tommy can only see this peripherally. God has condensed into an angry light and he knows that to look directly into it will bring unimaginable pain. But how can light be angry? It’s not the sum and yet it is, the sum of an angry God. The Clown is a mask, a maddening teflon mask, impossible to peel off any place. He will have to accept the sight of the Clown, and of course it’s divinely perfect because the light of the Buffer is too blindingly beautiful to stand. The Clown diffuses the light as only that conjunction of baggy clothes and painted skin could.

"YOU SHOULD BE BACK AT YOUR REAL HOME. PRACTICING YOUR BEETHOVEN."

Tommy gasps. The most shocking thing about this statement is that he knows it’s not meant to be taken literally. It’s THE symbol, the one thing that could instantly and totally cue him in to the intended theme, the theme that’s been with him his whole life, the one he’s most successfully avoided facing: the theme of failure. God is brutally efficient in activating specific memory patterns with an economy of words. He pulls previously unknown files from Tommy’s brain with verbal triggers. It’s like God is in fact the real owner of the brain and "Tommy" is a cluster of cells in an obscure lobe somewhere. This sorcery is like Candie’s pipe times a million, with sadistic intent and no magic, just the raw power of omniscience.

Tommy’s abandonment of the Moonlight Sonata at age thirteen is now filling the space around God in hyper-reality and that wonderful day of yardwork is spoiled, fingersnapping nostalgia to become branded blasphemy. God allows him to see it extrapolated to infinity, what he should have done forever out of grasp behind the curtains of his bedroom window, lost opportunity, sod and sunlight and failure, sod and sunlight and failure, sod and sunlight and failure for centuries, millennia, just another ill-thought-out eternity, cruelly composed of fond memories.

"STOP IT! STOP IT!" Tommy says, breaking into tears. "YOU SON OF A BITCH, STOP IT!"

God snatches away this small slice of hell, returning the surroundings to merciful blackness. Tommy is appalled to discover how quickly God can make him wish for the end. But just as quickly the end expands back into its full stature, no longer a merciful interruption but a voidful demon, with God’s burning eyes being the Buffer, the source of all light and power, the hideously vital ally. No, he no longer wishes for the end.

Tommy stares back at God, the silent burning buffer, avoiding the eyes. God says nothing but Tommy feels His gaze. Prompting him, compelling him to speak. He opens his mouth and says the first thing that comes:

"Hey listen, I know I abandoned the music. I wish I hadn’t. But you know my life’s alright now. I’m happy – ever since I ran away. It’s been good. Nobody’s calling me names or disrespecting me. I have what I need and I don’t need video games or even licorice. I made a friend although she’s gone, back in the forest. But I was thinking, maybe I could get a job here at the mansion. This orchard, I’ve got a good feeling about the place. It seems to be where I belong. Like it could be a new life for me."

"A NEW LIFE." God says. Tommy feels a wave of sickness rip through him like his blood is bracing for a wallop. "A NEW LIFE. JERKING OFF TO SPRITE PORN? HOW LOW CAN YOU GO TOMMY? NOT EVEN HUMAN PORN!"

Another flash of previously unimaginable emotional pain for Tommy as God performs His monstrous trick of turning heaven into hell. Through tears, he whimpers back: "Sprites are better than humans."

"SPRITES ARE MYTHIC CREATURES. HUMANS ARE FULLY REALIZED. HUMANS ARE A CHALLENGE. THE CONQUEST OF A HUMAN IS A THRILL YOU HAVE NO CONCEPTION OF YOU LARVAL FAILURE. HUMANS ARE FOR MEN. SPRITES ARE FOR BOYS. GIRLY BOYS."

"Candy was no mythic creature," Tommy sobs. "She wasn’t out of any goddamn storybook!" God remains strategically silent, seeming confident that Tommy is choking on his own delusions. After half a minute of him ripping himself to shreds, God continues:

"YOU’RE A DISGRACE. HOW CAN YOU BE CONTENT WITH YOUR LIFE? HAVE YOU FORGOTTEN WHAT THEY DID TO YOU? HAVE YOU FORGOTTEN YOUR PLACE IN THE PYRAMID? IF I HAD ALL THAT "DEVIL-WORSHIPPING" MALARKY PINNED ON ME I WOULDN’T ACCEPT IT. I’D REQUIRE SATISFACTION."

Tommy feels like he’s being gored. The life he’d managed to sever instantly after flipping out and escaping into the woods is no longer a phantom limb but bloody guts spilling out of him. How can he live when he loathes his insides? Tommy groans and turns away. The darkness is chilling but it’s the only consolation.

"PATHETIC. THEY SPREAD ALL MANNER OF NASTY RUMOURS ABOUT YOU ON A DAILY BASIS. THEY PARODIED YOU, USED YOU FOR THEIR AMUSEMENT."

Tommy is remembering, remembering the cartoons they used to draw about him, tape to the walls of the hall, each one outdoing the last, culminating in story arcs about hiring the terminator to travel into the past, whack his parents, and retroactively abort him. It was one of the few things he’d managed to block out before the woods. Why must he remember?

"GIRLYBOY, ALL THE SATANIC SLANDER. AND YOU’RE JUST GOING TO FORGET IT AND MOVE ON? WHAT ABOUT THE PACT YOU MADE IN GRADE TEN? YOU SWORE TO TAKE REVENGE ON THEM."

Ah yes, the pact with himself, a unity of being, true focused selfhood, the man against the void. For a few minutes he’d felt immense power, a new kind of power, something stronger than even the inner light: the power of total conviction and pure will, knowing he would get his revenge whatever the cost. But something had broken the spell. It was the memory of a character from a childhood cartoon – no specific character, just an amalgam of several – some facsimile of a Saturday morning baddie, gibbering mad and screaming: "I’ll get you – if it’s the last thing I ever do!" And then he’d laughed helplessly cutting the power to ribbons. He’d laughed for a solid two minutes. But when the laughter stopped there’d been nothing left.

Tommy can’t bear to look at the void anymore, he turns back to God and discovers there is anger rising in him. The fear is still there but God seems skilled at egging him on. Surely God must intend to provoke.

"What did you want me to do, shoot up the school on graduation day, then blow my head off? Is that martyrdom?"

"NO, IF I WANTED YOU TO DO THAT, I’D BE SATAN, AND I’D HAVE ANSWERED THE FAUSTIAN PLEA YOU MADE IN GRADE NINE AFTER GETTING BEAT UP BY MARK CAUTHON IN THE BATHROOM."

Tommy might as well have been pummeled again, against the void, by God’s burning recapitulating voice. It was another memory that had been entirely blocked until now. Details flood in – the tiles. His blood on the tiles. The low-pitched laugh, Mark motherfucking Cauthon laughing – worse than the cartoon memory. Now he knows why he can’t enter a public washroom without getting violently ill.

"I WANTED YOU TO GET REVENGE BY LIVING BETTER. BY BECOMING A SUCCESS, THE MAN YOU COULD BE IF YOU BOTHERED TO PUT IN THE EFFORT. I WANTED YOU TO BECOME THAT SUCCESS AND THEN SHOVE IT IN THEIR FACES. YOUR REVENGE WAS TO TORMENT THEM WITH THAT LATER IN LIFE WHEN THEY’RE PUMPING GAS AND FLIPPING BURGERS FOR A LIVING."

Oh yes. That was part of the power. God is kaleidoscopically reorganizing his neurons but his true self still stands aside from the repatterning, sick and horrified. He remembers the idea that had occurred to him during the tenth grade pact – the beautiful simple revenge of living better and making his abusers aware of this moral victory in subtle, intelligent ways. But the laughter overpowered. The laughter still overpowers and there’s no humour in it anymore. Tommy laughs humourlessly, thinking of Jim again.

"You know for a deity you’re pretty naïve. Maybe in a perfect world, a world of karmic justice, they’d be ‘pumping gas for a living’, but in reality they’re successful. If there’s one thing I learned at that fucking school it’s the assholes always win and the nice guys finish last."

"IF YOU REACHED YOUR POTENTIAL, YOUR RELATIVE SUCCESS WOULD MAKE THEM LOOK LIKE SQUEEGIE-WEILDING STREET BEGGARS EVEN IF IT WASN’T THE CASE. AND SINCE WHEN ARE YOU A ‘NICE GUY’?"

Another surge of sickness. The futility of arguing with God. God is going to body check him against the void again.

"YOU’RE JUST AS MEAN AS THEM. JUST NOT AGGRESSIVE ENOUGH TO GET WHAT YOU WANT. YOU SENSED THE POSSIBILITIES OF SUCH AGGRESSION BUT YOU COULDN’T FOCUS JUST LIKE YOU COULDN’T FOCUS ON YOUR MUSIC. YOU SAT IN YOUR ROOM AND FANTASIZED ABOUT REVENGE. YOU PLAYED MARIO KART, IMAGINING YOUR VIDEO OPPONENTS WERE YOUR REAL ENEMIES. BECAUSE YOU HAD NO WILL. YOU CHOSE TO BE POWERLESS. BUT IF YOU HAD THE POWER YOU’D HAVE USED IT. YOU STILL WOULD. I KNOW YOU."

"No!" Tommy yells but God knows him to frightful precision. But he’d navigated into the woods on his own. He’d willed himself to do that much. The woods was a place for the dissolution of vengeance. He would strangle Mark Cauthon to death with his bare hands – not before force-feeding the bastard his own pureed testicles. But that is because he’s not in the woods anymore. He’s in the hall-of-mirrors with God.

"YOU WERE A FAILURE IN THE PAST AND YOU’RE A FAILURE IN THE PRESENT. WHERE IS YOUR MUSIC? WHERE ARE YOUR IDEAS? YOU HAVE NOTHING TO SHOW FOR YOURSELF. AND YOU CAN NO LONGER HIDE FROM YOURSELF."

Tommy’s anger flares again, rivaling the fear and pain. God spoiled the party, soiled the purity, the newly-won happiness. God yanked it away like a cheater’s ill-gotten trophy.

"I had a dream," he says, stony, defiant. "Before you fucked into my life. It kind of went nightmare but I was at peace with myself… for a while. I think I can be again. I’d much rather try here than pick up the pieces of that shitty life I left behind."

"YOU’RE MISSING THE POINT! I GIFTED YOU WITH A SHITTY LIFE SO THAT YOU COULD OVERCOME IT. YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND THE BENEVOLENCE OF THAT ACT. YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND THE REWARDS THAT WOULD HAVE COME FROM TRIUMPHING OVER THE ADVERSITY OF YOUR SITUATION, THE BEST OF ALL POSSIBLE WORLDS! NO, INSTEAD YOU ADAPTED TO IT. YOU LEARNED TO LICK IT UP."

The metaphor is as apt as can be. The neuronic repatterning doesn’t seem quite like manipulation. It’s more like the natural dissolution of years of filters, cleaning the plaque out of his synapses. But the plaque, filthy as it was, was a pillow, a comfort. The bare neuronic charges in stark electrical interface are nearly unbearable.

"YOU LAPPED IT UP, YOU THRIVED AS A LARVAL LOSER. THAT DISGUSTS AND INFURIATES ME! YOU WERE MEANT FOR SO MUCH MORE! YOU WERE SPECIAL! YOU WERE DESTINED FOR GREATNESS, EVER SINCE THE COUGH SYRUP!"

The syrup. The words tumble out of God’s paint-rimmed mouth as he knew they would eventually and Tommy shudders, shrinking back into meek mode.

"My parents told me you saved my life when I overdosed," he whispers.

"WISE PARENTS YOU HAVE. BUT I’M BEGINNING TO WONDER WHAT I SAVED YOUR SORRY ASS FOR. WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO DESERVE YOUR SALVATION?"

"Some benevolent, loving, father-figure deity you are," Tommy sulks.

"WHO SAID I WAS BENEVOLENT AND LOVING?"

"Well how about Jesus for starters?"

"JESUS? DON’T GET ME STARTED ON THAT FALSE PROPHET."

"If he was a false prophet why did you let him live?"

"ARE YOU KIDDING? I HAD HIM CRUCIFIED IN HIS THIRTY-THIRD YEAR! IT WAS A BRUTAL DEATH BUT NOT EVERYONE TOOK THE LESSON. IT STARTED A SILLY HUMAN TREND CALLED ‘MARTYRDOM’. ENTERTAINING FOR A WHILE BUT THERE ARE ONLY SO MANY WAYS TO TORTURE A DELUDED ZEALOT TO DEATH."

"And is that what you have in mind for me then?"

"TOMMY TOMMY TOMMY… YOU WERE A PROMISING CHILD. BUT SOMEWHERE ALONG THE WAY YOU MADE THE DECISION TO SQUANDER THE REST OF YOUR LIFE."

"Hold on a fucking second. That’s bullshit! I never made a decision. I didn’t wake up one day and write a formal proposal to ‘squander my life’. It just… It just kind of happened. Okay? What’s it to you anyway?"

Tommy can’t meet God’s eyes but he sees the buffer flare in peripheral, the wrath of God. He tends to gets wrathful when Tommy asks questions he knows the answer to. But Tommy wants to hear it in words and God obliges.

"YOU FOOL! YOU ARE MY CHILD. YOU ARE MORE SPECIAL THAN YOU KNOW. THAT IS WHY IT PAINS ME SO MUCH TO SEE YOU WASTE AWAY. YOU KNOW WHO I AM. YOU KNOW I FEEL EVERYTHING. YOU ARE HURTING ME BY CLINGING TO YOUR MEDIOCRITY."

Now sharp tendrils of guilt are cutting into the neuronic kaleidoscope revealed by the edge of God’s surgically probing voice. Tommy considers snarking something along the lines of: "don’t you have better things to do", or "shouldn’t you be saving some poor Malaysian villagers from a tsunami", but he knows how petty and stupid such comments would be in the face of God, and stops himself.

"So what, did you just come here to tell me how much I suck?" Tommy asks. "Is this punishment?"

"NO. THIS IS NOT PUNISHMENT." Something changes in God’s eyes but Tommy won’t dare look at them. The voice softens. "LIKE EVERY BAD TURN IN YOUR LIFE, THIS IS AN OPPORTUNITY. BUT THIS IS ONE FOR WHICH I’VE TAKEN THE TROUBLE OF BEING PERSONALLY PRESENT SINCE IT APPEARS YOU NEED THE PUSH. PATHETIC, BUT I STILL DEEM YOUR LIFE SALVAGEABLE. WELL… NOT THIS LIFE. I HAVE A PROPOSITION FOR YOU."

A chill rips through Tommy but the fire is warm. The buffer is almost bearable. Almost. But the chill comes again, along with a vague feeling of déjà vu. And another surge of sickness but there is a slight ecstatic tingle to it.

"I’M OFFERING YOU A DEAL," God says. "AND IT’S GOING TO BE A GAMBLE. YOU MUST TAKE A RISK AT LONG LAST. IT WILL BE THE FIRST STEP IN FORGING YOUR NEW PERSONALITY. I WILL CONFRONT YOU WITH THE CHOICES YOU REFUSE TO ACKNOWLEDGE."

"My new personality?"

"LISTEN CAREFULLY TOMMY. THE DEAL IS THIS: I AM OFFERING YOU A SECOND CHANCE. A NEW LIFE. LITERALLY. I WILL REINCARNATE YOU. YOU WILL START AGAIN AS A CHILD BUT HERE’S THE HOOK: YOU WILL MAINTAIN CONSCIOUS CONTINUITY. THERE WILL BE NO BREAK IN YOUR THOUGHT PATTERN. YOU WILL BRING YOUR TRUE SELF WITH YOU – ALL YOUR KNOWLEDGE, UNDERSTANDING, EMOTION, AND YES, RIGHTEOUSNESS, THE LITTLE YOU HAVE LEFT. YOUR MIND WILL NOT BE ALTERED IN ANY WAY. YOUR BRAIN WILL BE INHABITING A NEW BODY. A FRESH BODY. AND NOT ONLY WILL YOU BE GETTING A FRESH START, YOU WILL BE GETTING A HEAD START. DECADES OF EXPERIENCE AND REFINEMENT OF PERSONALITY FOR AN INFANT VESSEL. HOW DOES THAT STRIKE YOU?"

Tommy is struck dumb. Finally he manages to whisper: "You can do that?"

"OF COURSE."

"Holy shit. Holy motherfucking shit. You’d do that? For me?"

"I MOST CERTAINTY WOULD. YOU ARE MY CHILD. I WILL DO THIS FOR YOU BECAUSE I WANT TO SEE YOU FLOWER INTO THE MAN YOU CAN BE: A STRONG MAN. A WISE MAN. WITH DIGNITY AND RESPECT. I AM RE-OFFERING THE GIFT YOU THREW AWAY SO LONG AGO BECAUSE I AM MERCIFUL THAT WAY. REMEMBER WHEN YOUR MOTHER TOLD YOU THAT YOU WERE A PRODIGY? REMEMBER PLANNING OUT YOUR PRODIGIOUS PATH, YOUR CAREER? I AM PUTTING YOU BACK ON TRACK, THE FAST-TRACK. IT WILL BE LIKE THE LAST TWENTY YEARS NEVER HAPPENED EXCEPT THAT YOU WILL COME INTO YOUR NEW LIFE ARMED WITH ALL YOU HAVE ACQUIRED THAT MAY BE OF USE… AND ALL THAT MAY BE A HINDRANCE. THAT IS YOUR CHALLENGE. IT’S NOT A SILVER PLATTER. YOU COULD SCREW IT UP AGAIN. BUT IT WILL BE UP TO YOU."

Tommy’s head is swimming. It’s a nauseas carnival ecstasy with the added weight of the power he’d felt in that moment of sworn vengeance. The possibilities flood in, pumping excitement into every corner of his cortex. Being himself, twenty-something year old Tommy, in a child’s body – having that jump on society! It would be devilishly fun, and what a second chance! No card for that in Monopoly! The closest thing would be landing on Boardwalk with a bank full of cash. No, it would be more like taking a wad full of cash back to the early stages of the game and buying up the best property before the other players.

Then he notices that the void isn’t so black anymore. In fact it’s not a void anymore. It’s the dirt of the clearing, barely visible, barely brown, but visibly textured. God is still in front of him, internally luminescent in his frilly clown clothes, a massive distraction. But around him, Tommy finally sees a hint of purple and mountainous forms on the horizon. The sun is rising. The orchard is becoming real again. The orchard. What about the orchard? He can’t leave the mansion unexplored. He’s come so far. He must know what kind of help is wanted! The sly, fractional sunlight brings with it the billowing lure of the mystery. In his head, he hears the pipe of Candie. Tears come to his eyes. But God is still there. And the deal is still on the table.

"Aw fuck, that’s… that’s very tempting," Tommy says. Tempting? I’d be a fucking idiot not to accept! Who gets an opportunity like this?

"NOT MANY ARE CHOSEN," God answers. Damn thought-reader, Tommy thinks. It seems an uncouth thing to do. But he guesses if he were God he wouldn’t bother being polite either. "ONLY THOSE WHO ARE WORTHY. YOU REMAIN WORTHY BUT ONLY BY A HAIR – BECAUSE OF YOUR POTENTIAL, NOT BECAUSE OF WHAT YOU’VE DONE WITH YOURSELF THUS FAR. YOU WON’T GET A THIRD CHANCE, I ASSURE YOU."

Tommy is seized with violent shivers of excitement as he anticipates this new life. Mischievously, he imagines shocking his kindergarten teacher by engaging in complex philosophical discourse with her. Fast-track to the academy. Laying his hands on every piano in sight, getting back on the punishing arpeggio regime, this time with focus and prodigious talent to smooth his stardom trajectory. God’s answer echoes: Not many are chosen. Maybe some of those extraordinary historical figures, the visionaries seeing three moves ahead, the impossibly talented or wise beyond their years… maybe they’ve been "chosen" by God in such a way too. Maybe he’s about to become one of them! Mozart incarnate?!

But the sun is rising. The purple horizon is now pink and the clouds above the mountains glow red in the crack of light. The ground is solidly brown and the trees are green. The light is starting to rival God’s luminescence. The scene is gorgeous. Tommy hasn’t seen a sunrise outside the forest since the journey began so long ago. How can he leave at a time like this?

"IT’S YOUR CHOICE. YOU CAN STAY HERE IN THE ORCHARD AND EKE OUT A HUMBLE LIFE, OVER THE HILL AND PAST YOUR PRIME. ANSWER THE HELP WANTED AD, GET SOME MENIAL JOB, SUPPLICATE TO WHOEVER LIVES HERE. BE A SERF, NEVER TOUCH A PIANO AGAIN, NEVER TOUCH A WOMAN, NEVER PLAY YOUR HARDCORE REPERTOIRE. NEVER BE THE MAN YOU ALWAYS THOUGHT YOU COULD BE. SELF-MEDICATE WITH WEAK SPIRITUALITY AND SPEND YOUR NIGHTS DREAMING OF SPRITES…"

Tommy frowns. This isn’t a fair summation. Is it?

"OR YOU COULD TAKE MY OFFER AND ACCEPT THE CHALLENGE OF A NEW LIFE."

He looks past God to the radiant mountain peaks. Yes the scene is beautiful. But it’s just a sunset. Not a new life. There’ll be sunsets in his new life, presumably. He’s enjoyed the forest, communed with nature in a way that may inspire glorious symphonies one day. He’ll take that experience and use it. There will be other beauties post reincarnation. Beauties of the flesh, beauties he’d scorned. Already feeling the optimism that will fuel the triumph of the next incarnation, he’s about to take the plunge and accept the offer. He’s on the threshold of flipping the switch. But God, with perfect timing, reveals the final devilish detail of the deal:

"THERE IS ONE, WHAT YOU MIGHT CALL, CAVEAT."

"What is that?" Tommy asks, feeling like the air’s being sucked out of him.

"IF YOU ACCEPT MY OFFER AND CHOOSE YOUR NEW LIFE, IT COMES WITH A GUARANTEE."

"A guarantee?"

"THE GUARANTEE OF DEATH."

That feeling again, the medicine taste, the spacious alien geometry of the cough syrup coma. The ness of sick. "What does that mean?"

"IF YOU TAKE THE DEAL, YOU ARE ACCEPTING REALITY. AND YOU ARE ACCEPTING ALL THAT COMES WITH IT. THE MIRACULOUS OPPORTUNITY I OFFER TO THOSE FEW WHO ARE CAPABLE OF GREATNESS BUT HAVE SPOILED THEIR CORPOREAL VESSEL HAS AN EXPIRATION DATE. TOMMY, WHEN YOU’RE DEAD, YOU’RE DEAD. THE GUARANTEE IS OBLIVION. LIVE PROUD, LIVE STRONG, LIVE AS LONG AS YOU CAN. BUT WHEN YOU FALL, THAT WILL BE ALL."

It’s finally out. Tommy sensed it coming but it’s still a cruel blow, especially coming from God.

"No heaven? No afterlife? Nothing? What about the light? The shaft?"

"THE SHAFT IS IN YOUR MIND AND NOWHERE ELSE. YOU’VE SEEN WHAT I AM. YOU KNOW I AM THE BUFFER, THAT I KNOW THE VOID. I AM GIVING YOU THE GIFT OF HONESTY THAT GOES WITH THE OPPORTUNITY. NOT MANY ARE CHOSEN TO FACE THIS TRUTH. YOU SEE WHAT POWER COMES WITH THE GNOSIS OF THE BUFFER. THE POWER TO FLOWER. IT’S THE ONLY THING THERE REALLY IS IN LIFE AND IT PAINS ME WHEN IT’S NOT USED BY THE FEW ARE WORTHY. THAT IS WHY I GIVE THEM A SECOND CHANCE."

He feels like he should be flattered here but the emotion welling in him is a vast sick sadness like his negative emotions are pooling in an oceanic flood. The fingersnapping! The inner light! All his righteousness melting into a lake of tears, freezing under the vacuous chill. So cold.

"But what if I stay here? Does the guarantee still apply?"

"IF YOU STAY HERE YOU ARE ON YOUR OWN. YOU ARE TAKING YOUR CHANCES IN A GODLESS WORLD. YOU WILL HAVE NO GUARANTEE ONE WAY OR THE OTHER. YOU WILL HAVE TO BASE YOUR DECISIONS ON THE PATTERNING OF YOUR OWN FEEBLE BRAIN. AND HOW WELL IT’S SERVED YOU SO FAR." God chortles. "SO YOU SEE WHAT A STAGGERING WASTE OF AN OPPORTUNITY IT WOULD BE. BUT IT’S YOUR CHOICE. AND YOU KNOW…" The fire flickers into a subtle change of hue: "IT’S ALSO YOUR CHOICE WHETHER I’M RIGHT OR NOT. MAYBE I’M WRONG."

"What? How can you say that?"

"OH, I’M JUST MAKING SURE YOU’RE EQUIPPED WITH ALL COGNITIVE OPTIONS. FREE WILL IS THE GAME I’M IN. I MADE YOU A GUARANTEE AND I STAND BY IT. BUT YOU MUST DECIDE WHAT YOU BELIEVE. THIS IS A TEST OF FAITH."

"Faith in the void?" Tommy whispers. The buffer burns with approval.

"IF YOU STAY HERE YOU WILL NEVER SEE ME AGAIN. YOU WILL HAVE REJECTED MY OFFER AND MYSELF. YOU WILL DIE AS A PEASANT SERF HOPING DESPERATELY THERE IS SOMEHOW SUBSTANCE TO YOUR CHILDISH AFTERLIFE FANTASY RIFE WITH CATALOGED FINGERSNAPPING WISHES."

God repeats the phrase fingersnapping with such naked contempt, Tommy wants to cry. But his tears remain frozen – the vacuum present in God’s guarantee is chilling him to the bone.

"BUT I AM STILL ALLOWING YOU THE OPTION OF CLINGING TO YOUR DELUSIONS."

Tommy scowls. He’s not signing on to this gnosis yet. The forest was enchanted and his "delusions" brought him there. Maybe he will stay in the life God declares to be mediocre. But he didn’t like God’s use of the word "supplicate" in describing his orchard destiny. And if he only has one life to use...

"DO YOU KNOW HOW OLD YOU ARE TOMMY?"

"Twenty-one, twenty-two. It’s gotta be around there."

"YOU ARE THIRTY-SIX. LOST TRACK OF SOME TIME THERE, DIDN’T YOU?"

A sledgehammer to the gut. Vertiginous sickness.

"How can I be thirty-six? It can’t have been that long goddamnit!"

"TIME FLIES… WHEN YOU’RE FUCKING AROUND WITH SPRITES IN THE WOODS."

"Fuck… I’m thirty-six already?"

"YOU WASTED YOUR PRIME WANDERING IN THE FOREST WITH NO DESTINATION. YOUR BUDDING TALENTS HAVE ATROPHIED. NOW YOU CAN’T PLAY A C MAJOR SCALE TO SAVE YOUR LIFE. YOU’LL HAVE NO PRODIGIOUS CAREER. YOU’RE PAST YOUR PEAK IN EVERY WAY, PHYSICALLY, INTELLECTUALLY, SEXUALLY. THERE’LL BE NO YOUNG GIRLS FOR YOU DIRTY OLD MAN, I KNOW HOW MUCH YOU LIKE THEM. YOU’VE GOT TO GET THEM WHILE YOU’RE FRESH. YOU’RE BECOMING DECREPIT, YOUR BODY’S FAILING. IT’S ALL DOWNHILL FROM HERE MY POOR BOY. YOU’RE NOT HEALTHY. YOU THINK THOSE MUSHROOMS WERE LIFE ELIXIR?"

Each word daubs him with decrepitness like death’s paintbrush. It’s the physical version of his brain’s filter dissolution. He’s seeing his body as it really is, just as his naked brain had been revealed in God’s repatterning verbal triggers. He feels horribly unhealthy. He feels the organic entropy of reality. He sees himself, scrawny, ragged, with thinning hair – a walking corpse. Thirty-six!

"REMEMBER THE DEAL. WITH CARE FROM THE BEGINNING YOU CAN CARRY YOUR BODY THROUGH YOUR NEW LIFE FOR FIFTY, EVEN SIXTY YEARS AS A TEMPLE, A TEMPLE REFLECTING THE DIVINITY OF YOUR SOUL. AND BY THEN, IF YOU REALIZE YOUR POTENTIAL, YOU’LL HAVE SKILLS, RESPECT, AND RICHES BEYOND YOUR IMAGINATION. NOT BEYOND THE PALE FACTS OF THE IMAGINATION – IT’S THE TEXTURE I WANT YOU TO EXPERIENCE, THE DETAILS, WHAT YOU’D NEVER THINK TO FANTASIZE, WHAT YOUR STUPID FINGERS WOULD NEVER MAKE REAL. YOU DON’T THINK YOU LIKE THE TASTE OF PUSSY DO YOU?"

"What?"

"YOU’VE NEVER TASTED CANDACE COLVIN’S."

Tommy is appalled at God’s coarseness but an involuntary bolt of lust strikes through him with a vertical endorphin rush. The last name. God was right on it. He’d never even imagined her pussy – her gorgeous blond hair had been the main attraction. Well that and her tits. They went well together.

"YOU ARE NOT SPECIAL BECAUSE OF YOUR DAMNFOOL IDEA OF SNAPPING YOUR FINGERS BUT BECAUSE YOUR IDEALS ARE DIVINE, MORE THAN YOU KNOW – AND THE UNIVERSE IS PLAGUED WITH SHODDY IDEALS. BUT THEY ARE NOTHING WITHOUT TEXTURE. IF YOU ACCEPT MY OFFER YOU’LL KNOW WHAT I MEAN. IF YOU DON’T, YOU NEVER WILL. WHAT A MONUMENTAL WASTE."

God falls silent for a long stretch of time. Tommy takes in several deep shuddering breaths. The mention of Candace has got him charged up. The mention of the voidal guarantee is still chilling him to the bone. This counterpoint is a grating cognitive dissonance.

"I’VE GIVEN YOU ENOUGH TIME TO PONDER. THE DEADLINE FOR DECISION IS… SIXTY SECONDS."

"What?!" Tommy wails.

God extends an arm from a frilly sleeve, wrist out. An oversized digital watch in the shape of a daisy with a green-glowing LCD counts down from 60.

"IF THIS WATCH REACHES ZERO, I’LL BE GONE AND YOUR CHANCE WILL BE OVER."

Oh the cruel bastard, Tommy moans. The buffer burns beautifully, a microcosm of God’s abysmal guarantee, the grim reality of death. His opportunity is ticking down to its end and he watches this like a deer caught in headlights. Deadlights. Deadline. But he can still accept! There’s still time! If he takes the deal he can inflate the microcosm into a macrocosm, a new life, a final lunge for greatness! With – with – oh God, oblivion, can he even comprehend that? Panic, nervous system haywire and God is fading. The clown becomes transparent in the clearing, revealing the mudspotted grass field behind. But he can still see the buffer, the final point of light, as God fades. After having seen the terrible beauty of the buffer could he live with its passing?

30 SECONDS.

A part of him dwelling in some stinky basement of the brain, a reptilian creature that is so intimately connected with his true self he can’t name or personalize it, has slithered into his foremind. It doesn’t want to believe God or the guarantee and will fight God’s gnosis with its last drop of strength. The reptile is more powerful then anything he keeps in his regular roster of selves and more base than even that which allowed him to drive a nail through Jayson’s hand. It fights its way into his consciousness, easily overcoming the God-fearing tremulents. Tommy knows that God intended this struggle all along.

15 SECONDS.

His brain explodes in confusion and chaos, fight-or-flight fugue state, contrapuntal dissonance. Gnosis erodes and it comes down to a trembling roll of the dice. God continues to fade revealing the orchard scene. But isn’t it just a little too… unreal? Too… fairy tale? The gingerbread house – too saccharine idyllic like the dream that had awakened him to God’s reality? Wouldn’t he really like to storm that high rise, conquer, bang Samantha and Candace together? Oh God, two girls, better than the void…

10 SECONDS.

God is nearly invisible. The gnosis is gone. He has his ordinary mind back and only his gut to go on. And God is making him gamble for the highest stakes imaginable. Memories are hazy in his rickety analog hard drive. Can he believe God? Can he accept the chilling reality of the void? The end? But not yet! Not yet! The buffer! He finally allows his eyes to look directly into the buffer – THE OMEGA OF BEAUTY! HE SEES! THE CLEAREST SIGHT HE’S EVER SEEN AND GOD IS FADING BACK IN ANTICIPATION –

"I accept! I accept goddamnit!" Tommy screams and God is back, grinning ear to ear, face paint cracking. Tommy collapses on the ground, wracked with violent sobs. The tears are flowing again. He feels like he must have died. His heart exploded. God is mortal. GOD IS MORTALITY. His power comes from facing death’s reality. Now Tommy will become an instrument of God.

"AND YOU WILL FORGET GOD. YOU MUST. IT IS A MERCY, I ASSURE YOU. YOUR DESTINY IS DIVINE ATHEISM."

"Oh God," Tommy groans. "What have I done?"

"YOU HAVE MADE THE RIGHT CHOICE. YOU HAVE PROVEN YOUR FAITH IN THE VOID. YOU TRULY ARE A CHILD OF GOD."

Tommy’s body shivers with inhuman oscillation. So the test is complete. Tommy believes in the blank. The blank bastard. To forsake all fingersnapping. Funny that he’d based his spirituality around the afterlife without God only to eventually accept the opposite.

"CONGRATULATIONS. SO YOU’LL PLEDGE TO DO IT RIGHT THIS TIME, I TRUST."

Tommy nods.

"I DON’T WANT YOUR PLEDGE. I JUST WANT YOU TO DO IT."

"I will," Tommy says and swallows hard. He feels some grievous psychic injury: the chill of the void splintered deep into him – but also relief at having made the decision. And a power is slowly welling in him, swelling his capillaries with potential. He can feel his brain changing – opinions are now morphing alchemically. When he closes his eyes he can see the paradigm shifting in kaleidoscopic abstraction. He is mesmerized.

"THERE IS ONE SHORT ORDER OF BUSINESS BEFORE YOU LEAVE THIS LIFE."

"What is that?" But Tommy can sense the shape of it. It’s being slowly defined by the kaleidoscope. Themes start to emerge. Sinews of a social consciousness. The visuals become the scaffolding of words. Quotations from Kapital.

"YOU HAVE SOME BAGGAGE THAT CANNOT BE BROUGHT THROUGH."

Baggage… Something from the past is coalescing in the kaleidoscope. A cartoon cover of a manifesto. His manifesto. His avatar, rendered in smudged graphite: a scarred body with a fuck-off face, a ragged gray jacket with a Soviet star on the lapel, and a veiny hand with a firm grip on the punishing stick. His other hand is snapping its fingers. His downtrodden self stands proud in poetic isolation, eternal injustice. It was his most prized drawing, the perfect self-portrait. He kept it in a special box in the closet of his bedroom. And under the cover the pages flip inside his head: the words – wonderful words of loss, of being stripped away to graphite by reality’s cruelty, right down to the avatar, the picture of the inner light. He remembers his manifesto.

And below the words in that kickass stack of text, the music! The music to counterpoint the text, a media-melding summation of indignation, perhaps eventually to be an opera. A rocking comic opera with sarcastic Shostakovich-like orchestration, absolutely righteous rage against the injustice of life. POETIC INJUSTICE! That was what it was called!

He hasn’t thought of it in ages. It was what had kept him alive in those awful days of social-scholastic torture. In the absence of effective revenge it had been something to live for. It was going to be his alternative artistic statement – deliberately going against the grain, every aesthetic principle. It was a masterpiece of grotesquerie – not classically disciplined and virtuosically perfect. No, it employed another order using every failure. It was brilliant!

Tommy imagines taking this work back with him to his new life – he could never reproduce it but he could expand on it with the technique he will hone to perfection in reincarnation. Yes! Surely God can reproduce it.

"YES I CAN REPRODUCE IT. IN FACT, I HAVE."

God is pointing straight at Tommy like he’s supposed to turn around. He does and sees his special box, ten paces in front of him. He runs toward it, pops open the handle, and finds his manifesto, exactly as he remembers it. Grinning deliriously, he flips through it. The brilliance is back! And under the manifesto is a copy of Scuffy the Tugboat.

"YOU WERE GLORIFYING YOUR MEDIOCRITY."

"What?" God has jerked him out of his nostalgia. He turns back.

"IT WAS A WRECK. A WHINE. IT DISGUSTS ME."

"Fuck you!" Tommy hollers.

"IT WAS NO GOOD TOMMY. IT WAS NOT FOR OTHERS. IT WAS INDULGENT AND PRETENTIOUS. IT WAS NOT BRILLIANT. IT WAS BABBLE."

Oh you cruel bastard, Tommy thinks again. He should know better than to cling to an old scrap of heaven while God’s hanging around. God has the tendency to subvert those.

"It wasn’t babble!" he protests. "It was my statement! I could make everyone understand what it was like for me – especially if I honed my techniques."

"IT’S CONTRADICTORY TO YOUR NEW PARADIGM. IT WOULD BE UNHOLY TO FUSE YOUR OLD FEEBLE PHILOSOPHY WITH THE STRENGTH OF YOUR SOON-TO-BE CULTIVATED SKILLS. I WANT YOU TO DESTROY IT."

"What? But I loved Poetic Injustice! I still love it! I want to bring it back with me!"

"I WON’T ALLOW THAT. IT OFFENDS ME. IT’S PHILOSOPHICALLY INCORRECT. IT’S GODLESS COMMUNISM."

"Oh, my work is communist is it?" Tommy says with a snort.

"YES. AT LEAST HAVE THE STONES TO ADMIT WHERE YOU STAND PHILOSOPHICALLY. OWN UP TO YOUR IDEOLOGY."

"Okay, maybe it is communist. What of it?"

"IT’S A SUMMATION OF YOUR FAILINGS. IT’S WRONG ON SO MANY LEVELS. THIS ISN’T THE PATH I’VE SET YOU ON – TO REPEAT YOUR MISTAKES."

"Jesus fucking Christ." Tommy scowls and kicks the dirt. God says nothing. Tommy paces. Stares back at the box. Takes a good look at his graphite avatar, scrawny, Soviet. The empire that died with a whimper. The switch. He flips. The raging kaleidoscope finally gives way to transparency. No more bullshit. He turns on himself, his former self.

"Fuck the art," he says. "That’s Tommy’s art. Tommy’s dead."

God beams a clownish smile at him. "PERHAPS YOU WOULD LIKE TO MAKE IT OFFICAL. SYMBOLIC ACTS CAN BE REWARDING."

God has produced a can of gasoline and a book of matches from nowhere. They are set in front of him. Tommy picks up the can and douses the box, lid open, soaking his manifesto. Then he lights a match and throws it in. A ball of flame billows up and the paper instantly blackens. Tommy stares into the fire, feeling euphoria blossom inside him.

"Die you loser FUCK!" he screams. "I don’t need you anymore!" He starts chuckling, then laughing wildly. He likes the sound of his laugh. It sounds like a different person, a cauterized person. Sparks and glowing ashes swirl into the air. The box fades and vanishes.

***

"NOW IT’S TIME TO GO," says God.

"So soon," Tommy whispers. He looks around the orchard. A brilliant sliver of sun can be seen poking above a mountain peak. Light streams into the valley, emphasizing the fresh chlorophyll of the cherry trees’ highest leaves.

"Is there any chance I’ll encounter my younger self in the new life?"

“I WILL SEND YOU INTO ANOTHER QUANTUM FRAGMENT – A DIFFERENT BRANCH ON THE TREE OF FRACTAL POSSIBILITY. A CLOSE ONE BUT THERE WILL BE SOME DIFFERENCES. YOU WON’T BE ABLE TO PREDICT THE FUTURE AND MOST OF THE PEOPLE YOU KNOW FROM THIS LIFE WILL NOT BE PRESENT. BUT IT WILL BE A FITTING PLACE FOR YOUR TRIUMPH, I ASSURE YOU.”

"So you’re really going to reincarnate me?"

"YES. IT’S TIME."

"Will it hurt?

"THAT’S THE KIND OF QUESTION TOMMY WOULD ASK. ARE YOU STILL TOMMY?"

"Fuck no. Bring it on."

God beams his red-rimmed smile. Tommy’s heart races with terror and opportunity. God’s words bubble up in his brain. Respect. Power. Triumph.

I thought I was trapped in an Ayn Rand novel before, he thinks. Now I’m deliberately venturing into one. No, fuck that. This is a Tom Lewis novel. I’ll do it my way.

Tommy waits for God to transport him – he has no idea what to expect. But as he waits he begins to feel an imperative, an itch in a muscle he can’t locate. Something compels him to feel the blank, use the blank, explore its cracks to see where they lead. Is this the method? He is getting swept up in some kind of process as the déjà-thread unspools, settles around him like black-ops paratroopers. He can’t tell where his will ends and God’s begins.

Now a liquid sensation – he feels like he’s swimming. The world is blurring in a mindblowing way, the orchard scene bubbling and stretching and warping hyperdimensionally. He realizes that it’s not space but time that is liquefying, causing a visual cross-section of its unbounded space to twist and smear in tandem with the dance of his chronologically shearing mind. And somehow he’s experienced this before! Not in the cough syrup coma. "Before" that, but time is not linear anymore so it’s not really before.

Then the most chilling sensation he’s ever felt as the warping world twists into nothingness. All is black and he is face to face with the void. Shake off the blank, he thinks. SHAKE off the BLANK! He is flailing, not navigating, and God is nowhere to be felt. Is this death? Was God’s deal a sham?

Blind agony beyond physicality blooms in the void. Where is the inner light? If God’s deal is a sham, surely at least the light is real! This is the black field he dreamed of under the chestnut tree back when he was an apprentice visualizer, but where is the shaft of heaven? Ah heaven, how could it not be here? Forget heaven, he would settle for the orchard, he would settle for the school, he would settle for a speck of light! The desire to snap his fingers – but fingersnapping is heresy in the new paradigm of divine atheism! If he could snap his fingers he thinks maybe he could get those dreams back. Maybe all he needs is one final snap of the fingers to cement his life’s catalog – NOW – when it counts the most, if his younger self will forgive his betrayal.

A feeling of flesh, a fingertip, the tiniest accumulation of tactile data detectable – the only thing in the void. He presses down on it. A sound, A SNAP! A split. A violent tearing in two, of what he doesn’t know. A part of him is gone, snapped right off. But something else is felt. A warm spot in the ether, the spot that feels strangely feminine, a dollop of estrogen. She can reach it. Just a little further – to light and substance and –

***

CRACK!

It seems like lightning, bright beyond light, loud beyond sound, pain beyond feeling. She is on the ground. Her arms and legs are twitching violently, out of control. She’s biting into her tongue. Blood and saliva are flowing down her chin. Vision is a gray blur. Her eyes have rolled back.

When they roll forward again things come into view: a field of grass sloping downward, thick rain pounding the ground, and suburban sprawl at the foot of the hill. A flash in the sky and the burn sears into her whole body, her brain. She tastes burning, smells burning, hears burning and a scream from the houses below. There is a soccer ball tumbling down the hill.

What is this? she thinks. What is this world? How can I live here?

The burn crisps out her consciousness. She is reunited with the blank.

***

"I told her not to play outside in the storm! I TOLD HER!"

"It’s your fault we didn’t get the lightning rod!"

Shrill bickering voices, unhinged, and a bright light. The hospital again. Déjà vu. Has it really been a whole life since those eight ounces of Nyquil? Her eyes open. She is hooked up to machines. Again. Just like coming out of the cough syrup coma. The past life… It’s still there, accessible in memory! It worked! It really worked! God came through! And so did… she?

Yes, she feels like a she somehow. She doesn’t know how she knows but she does. And a two-torsoed beast is standing in front of her bed, the grim woman clutching a teary-eyed man. Who are these idiots? Not her parents damnit! But they are. External paternal maternal love radiates out of them and bounces off her burnt body.

"Tiffany!" the father wails, arms outstretched. He is restrained by a nurse.

Tiffany? Tiffany? Jesus God. It’ll have to go.